Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 20

A cross stands watch over this town. It actually looks kind of majestic up there on that flat rock if you don’t think too much about the undertones. A lot of people have tried to have it taken down over the years. I get it. Better to represent none than only one, and all that. But here’s the thing: You get up there and look at it really close, and what you see is a pathetic old metal structure, all rusty and beaten-in. And the side that faces the city is made of these narrow plastic panels that the light shines through, turned yellow and brittle by the sun. You’d think they would have bothered to bury a cable underground to power it, but instead a thin, droopy wire runs over from a nearby utility pole. The whole thing lights up okay at night, but there’s always a stubborn fluorescent bulb flickering and buzzing more than the rest.

Not everything holds up to close inspection, is what I’m trying to say. I bet that’s true of most towering monuments to faith in this world—just to be fair to the old cross. I haven’t seen any of the others yet, so I can’t be too sure, but I do have plans to travel the world sometime. Maybe one day, I’ll come back and let you know whether I was right or wrong.

Table Rock is the name of the place where the cross was put up. You can see the whole city from up there. You can stick around and watch the sun go down. It’s a popular destination for locals and visitors alike, but still a fairly chill place for Thomas to take me on that last night. Anyway, that’s what he does. Without telling me where we’re going, he drives us up through all those old foothills neighborhoods. Neither one of us is saying much. Even when I catch on as to where we’re going, I stay quiet, because the silence just feels like part of the moment, and I don’t want to mess it up.

He does look over at me quite a bit. He takes my hand for a few seconds at one point, then lets go. He’s my best friend in the whole world. No matter what happens to us this fall, I don’t think that will ever change.

We get up there and he parks the car. We walk over the edge and sit with our legs dangling fifty feet over a sea of brush. The sun is low, but it’s still hot as hell.

Thomas is laughing quietly to himself.

I look over at him. “What?”

“I don’t know, man,” he says, “I was just thinking.” He takes in a long breath, lets it out. “I guess it’s not such a dumb town after all.”

“No,” I say. “Not really.”

We’re both laughing now.

We sit there for a long time before he speaks up again. He stumbles at first, clears his throat. “I was thinking about what you used to tell me about my mom, after she died. How I’d see her again one day.”

Immediately, I know what he’s referring to. Let me make one thing clear right now: I don’t have too many thoughts on the afterlife. Thomas’s mom is the only person close to me who has ever passed away. At the time, I entered this sort of self-preservation mode where I just kept telling myself I would see her again, somewhere in the vast reaches of space and time. It was all I could seem to do in order to keep moving from one moment to the next. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Anyway, in the months after her death, when Thomas cried every night and reported feeling a pain worse than being ripped apart, I promised him the same thing. “You’ll see her again,” I kept hearing myself say. “I don’t know how, or where it’s going to be, but I promise you it’ll happen.” It was a belief I took on hastily, out of necessity, but in the years since, I’ve never bothered to replace it with something more logical. So I guess, if you want to get right down to the heart of the matter, it’s still the way I feel.

“I remember that,” I tell him.

He looks at me. “Is it weird that I sort of think of you and me the same way?”

I look back at him. I laugh a little. “Kind of.”

“I just mean it like, no matter what happens, we’ll see each other again.”

“Hopefully before we’re both dead,” I say.

He punches me in the shoulder. “Stop acting like you don’t get it.”

“Fine, I get it,” I say.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Thomas and I will see each other again in this world—I mean, we’re legally obligated to, according to the contract he wrote. But still, I’m having to place an awful lot of trust in something I don’t quite understand in order to feel okay about everything. Separately, we’ll meet new people, do brand new things, lead completely new lives. Little by little, we’ll begin to forget parts of who we are now. We’ll take separate, sometimes divergent paths—that seems inevitable—as small aspects of where we come from cleave away, replaced with strange new appendages we can’t even dream up now. I’m haunted by the possibility that one day I’ll come back to this dumb town, the place that nurtured us back when we grew in parallel, and it’ll hardly feel like home anymore.

We leave sometime after dark. He drops me off at home. He says he’ll be back in the morning to take me to the airport. We sleep in our own beds on that last night.

In the morning, I make kind of a big deal of moving all my stuff over by the front door, then throw it wide open, casting the whole living room in the harsh light of day. I’m a little worried that if I don’t call attention to the whole situation of me leaving, my mom might actually pretend it isn’t happening. I can just picture her offering me some stifled sendoff, the same as if I were getting groceries and coming back in an hour. I’m trying to let her know that this moment calls for something better than that.

To my surprise, she obliges. She comes over to me, pulls me into a hug and immediately starts crying. “You know I’d take you to the airport myself if I could, if I felt better,” she says. “I’m just not feeling that well.”

“I know you’re not,” I say. “And I know you would.”

She hugs me harder. “I’ll never understand how you’ve managed to build this life for yourself,” she says. “But don’t stop. Keep going.”

I don’t let her see it, but the words hit me hard. She’s got all the hope in the world for me—that much is clear just from the look on her face. Somewhere deep inside, I’ve accepted that this thing about me, this secret I spent years keeping from myself as much as from anyone else—it’s never going away. And one day, she will need to know. I hear Thomas’s horn go off down below. Her face becomes smaller and smaller as she backs away from me, her hands held out, still embracing the invisible version of me who stayed behind. Today is not the day for her to know.

It’s crazy to think this entire summer—maybe my whole life—has culminated to a twenty-minute car ride. The sun pours in as Thomas smiles to himself in a way that fills me with enough hope for us both. Let me tell you, he just tears down the freeway onramp. He’s got that wild look in his eyes. We’re doing over a hundred miles an hour by the time he backs off.

A strange thing happens after we exit the freeway and begin our final approach. I look at him and his eyes bore into mine for a second or two. And then he says, “Holy shit. I hope I didn’t fuck this one up.”

The words catch me off guard, for sure. I spend a while thinking about them, but I never ask him what they mean.

Look, I didn’t want to end things with me walking through the automatic doors, taking that bold first step towards a new chapter in my life and all that bullshit. It’s just so overdone, I could throw up. But there’s this little moment right after I do so, where I stop and look around the vast space housing all the ticketing agents, then glance back through the glass. His car hasn’t moved at inch. He’s giving me a quick wave. Suddenly, I can’t think of anything else besides that memory of him and me in front of the mirror, just looking at each other’s faces. I couldn’t have given two shits the other night when he brought it up, but now I see: I’m the one waving from the car. He’s the one standing inside, equipped with a year’s worth of luggage. I grip the old leather steering wheel and pull away. I’m driving down the lane now, just picturing him waiting in line, dragging those two swollen bags up to the counter, being greeted by a thin man in a blue suit. The man looks over his ticket and confirms his name: Thomas Chu.

Or at least, that’s the way I would write it. We all know who’s name is really on the ticket. What I’m trying to say, and maybe what I’ve been getting at all this time, is that there’s no limit to how close you can get to another person, if you’re brave enough. Thomas and I have ventured closer to each other than most people ever will. It says a lot about the place we’re coming from, and reveals almost nothing about where we’re going. That second part really sucks.

It’s a scary thing, constantly crossing into the unknown. But if you’ve learned anything about me at all, I hope it’s that I follow through on what I set out to do. And when it comes time to step on that plane, I won’t hesitate for a second.


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