Hold on, I still want you,
Come back, I still need you,
Let me take your hand, I’ll make it right,
I swear to love you all my life,
Hold on, I still need you.
-Hold On, Chord Overstreet.
It’s a chilly day, but it’s familiar. Leaves are scattered on the ground; the vibrant colours cover up the gravel underneath. The clouds are dark grey and they seem to buzz with energy. The sky is moody today. Something is wrong; God must be angry.
John stands outside his friend’s house, hands shoved inside his pockets as he waits. A moment later, the dark-skinned teenager strides out of the house.
Elijah is as confident as John remembers. A head of tight black curls, a crooked grin, and a strong jaw. His legs are long and well-muscled, evidence of his athleticism. Though he wears baggy jeans, an oversized hoodie, and sneakers, he still manages to be as magnetic as ever.
This time...something is different.
Maybe it’s because it’s hidden so well that nobody has yet noticed, but there’s a desperation in his eyes. A tinge of despondence.
John frowns and feels uneasy. A sense of dread curls in his stomach and makes him feel sick. He glances up at the sky where the clouds seem to be looking down on him. A warning. What are you trying to tell me, God? He thinks to himself, but as usual, there’s no response.
They exchange greetings and begin walking down the street. The soles of their sneakers slap against the floor, scattering the vibrant layer of leaves and revealing the dull grey beneath.
Elijah’s humming and the soft music fills the air between them. He has an alluring voice. Maybe it’s less about his voice that attracts John, and more about who he is.
Elijah has always been forgiving and sweet. He approaches people with a gentle understanding, a helping hand, and a crooked smile. John can vividly remember each time that perfectly crooked smile has been directed toward him. He feels drunk on its power. Like an addict who needs a daily fix.
Today is Sunday. There’s a sense of peace because of that. This is the day they all get together to thank their God and strengthen their faith.
“You said you needed to talk,” John says. Elijah had sounded shaky and broken up on the phone. Those weren’t traits he normally associated with the boy.
Elijah is quiet for a couple of minutes. They turn the corner and sit on the curb. Finally, with no one in view, he says emptily, “I’m going to Hell, Jo. Mom said so, too. And so did Pastor Carl. They tried to fix me, but they can’t. Now dad...he hits me. He thinks I can just change. I tried to change, Jo!”
Hell? John thinks. The other boy sounds terrified.
“It’s gonna be okay,” John whispers softly, resting his head on the taller boy’s shoulder. “You can tell me.”
“If you hate me, too, I’ll kill myself,” Elijah blurts out, sudden and paranoid. It’s laced with wild desperation. He’s trembling now, as fragile as the leaves they crunched under their shoes as they walked. “I swear to God, I’ll kill myself. I’m going to hell!”
“Don’t say that. I could never hate you,” John says, shuddering. He’s horrified at the vulgar words spilling from the same lips that would be better used to form a crooked smile. He turns his head so that his nose skims the boy’s neck and sighs deeply. Elijah exhales softly and tilts his head to give John access.
“You will hate me, Jo,” he whispers. He’s a bit quieter now, perhaps reassured by John’s touch and his careful tone.
“No,” John responds. He clutches at the taller boy’s shirt as if to convince him. ”Never, I promise.”
The clouds are darkening and slowly but surely, drops of rain spill onto the ground. John cranes his neck and a droplet splashes his nose. He loves the smell of the rain, fresh and forgiving. Maybe God isn’t mad.
John gets to his feet and pulls the other boy up with him. Elijah stumbles a bit but regains his footing. He quirks a thick brow. John feels laughter bubble up his throat and he hides his face in Elijah’s shoulder. “Gonna get wet...ah, I just got this shirt!”
A smile tugs at Eli’s mouth and he glances up at the sky. He closes his eyes, murmurs something under his breath, then his gaze meets John’s.
John can hear Elijah’s heart thumping in his chest. It’s unbelievably loud and erratic, like a malfunctioning drum set. John feels like something big is about to happen, so out of both confusion and apprehension, he backs away from Eli. John pokes at the wet spots on his shirt. So much for that. Still, he’s not upset. There’s a raw joy that’s lifting him up and making him feel buzzed but oddly sated.
He splashes in the puddles, uncaring that his jeans are going to be soaking and will probably cling to his skin uncomfortably. John’s giddy; nothing can stop him now.
Elijah is standing in one spot, staring at the ground, chest heaving. John frowns and nudges him. Eli looks up, and then the magnetic boy is leaning down and down and down...
And his lips, fleeting and yearning, connect with John’s.
John is so stunned that he doesn’t even back away. The kiss is so short and gentle that for a second, he almost believes he imagined it. Eli’s face is conflicted; hope and horror twisting and turning, trying to come up on top.
“You...you kissed me,” John says, breathless. A few seconds of deafening solemnity pass. Then again, voice thick with disbelief and horrified awe, ”you kissed me, Eli."
“I did,” Eli responds shakily. His footing is unsure as he takes hesitant steps back. There’s vulnerability painted across his face and he no longer looks like the strong boy John knows. Now he looks like a boy offering his heart, asking for it to be protected.
John is panicking. He shivers from the memory of feeling those lips pressed to his. Slightly chapped, but gentle, and perfect...as perfect as that crooked smile he adores so much. A chill runs up his spine at the frightening thought that he enjoyed it, and most of all, wanted Eli to kiss him again.
He blinks, throat closing up as he chokes on words that will never leave his tongue. The buzz he felt earlier rushes to his head, overwhelming him in a way that makes him think he might pass out. He’s dizzy.
The rain is falling harder now, slamming unceremoniously against the gravel. The clouds are darkening and now they seem accusing. God is angry. It’s a harsh reminder that this love is a sin. John takes a step back, to escape God’s wrath or his own shame, he isn’t sure.
“Elijah,” John says roughly. He’s trembling from the cold that’s seeping through his skin and chilling his bones; it courses through his veins and steadily curves around his heart, paralyzing him.
Elijah knows. He can undoubtedly see the unflinching rigidness on the other boy’s face. He shakes his head slowly and John watches as Eli turns away. The boy is trying to hide the tears that are running down his face and landing in the puddles below, mingling with the misery of the rain.
John’s heart aches and he isn’t sure if it’s because of anger or pain. He’s suddenly angry at himself for making Eli cry, and he’s angry at Eli for kissing him, and he’s angry at God for making him love the kiss but not giving him permission to indulge in the love.
“I can’t believe you did that,” John says, voice low but firm; laced with bitterness he doesn’t know he possesses.
“Don’t blame yourself,” Eli says quietly. There’s a heaviness to the words. “I know you love me. I love you, too.”
Elijah’s dark eyes are glowing with tears. There’s no anger in them. Instead, they’re burdened with resignation and speak of years of self-hatred.
John closes his eyes and doesn’t answer. He turns his back to the boy and walks down the street back to his house. He’s not tripping over his feet, but trying to navigate his thoughts is like an unsolvable maze.
John feels like running to the boy and hugging him, reassuring him, promising him that he’ll never let him go. He wants to wipe away those tears and wants to cherish those lips until they curve upward into a crooked smile. He wants to love him and whisk him away from this place, from this world—and he wants to take him home. Somewhere safe and somewhere where love isn’t a matter of shame, but simply the way it should be.
His stomach is churning and his heart is thumping. He can barely hear himself think over the rushing of blood in his ears. The leaves under his feet don’t crunch anymore, they’re already mushy piles of brown from the torrents of rain.
John glances up at the sky. The clouds don’t seem so angry anymore, now they simply look sorrowful.
He turns the corner, and he is suddenly aware that it is too late to turn back. The damage is done and he can’t fix it. He feels like he’s too small for this vast world. He’s drowning in guilt and shame. His heart tugs him desperately toward Eli. It doesn’t matter, though. His mind is too muddled and God has given his brain the power to control the rest of his body for a reason, so he keeps walking,
He doesn’t look back at Elijah, partly because he might kiss the hell out of him, but he also knows he might break down right then and there. His eyes are already burning with tears. He feels so utterly stuck.
He waits until he’s in the comfort of his own house to start sobbing. His parents ask him what’s wrong, but he doesn’t tell him. He cries harder. He cries because he has no idea what to do and because he fails like he’s failed himself, Eli, and God.
The next morning is even worse than the day before. The sky is still cloudy. Grieving. God is grieving.
John stumbles out of bed. The sun hasn’t risen yet and there’s an eerie calm outside that scares him. He makes his way to Eli’s house, uncoordinated and exhausted. He hadn’t gotten a second of sleep. He spent all night arguing with God...trying to justify his thoughts. In the end, he felt broken and pathetic.
Resentment drags at his heart, poisoning his thoughts, making his hands shake. He decides that love can’t be wrong. It just couldn’t be. If being gay meant you were a sinner, then God would have to reserve two spots downstairs because John was going to love Eli so fiercely that there would be Hell to pay.
John climbs up into the boy’s window with ease. Years of practice have served him well. Years of sneaking into Eli’s bedroom to watch dumb reality TV in the soft glow of the sunset. Years of sneaking Eli out of his bedroom to take him places he would never forget. Years of singing along quietly to rock music their parents would definitely disapprove of. This was the same place they had promised they would get away from this town, leave it in their dust.
His heart aches at those memories. Years of loving John and he threw it all away. If there’s anything God should hold him accountable for, it would be that. How stupid we are to think God hates us for loving.
Eli’s lying in his bed, but he isn’t snoring. That’s the first thing that makes John pause. The room is wrong without the obnoxious snoring of the boy. The second is the pungent scent of blood staining the room like the signature of a soul who has given up.
John’s heart leaps to his throat, silencing his voice as if to punish him for his careless words. This is what you get, it seems to brag. You’re too late.
With blurred vision, John pulls back the covers and hears a strangled choking sound escape his lips at the sight of Eli, once so precious, beautiful, and alive, lying there like a mangled doll. Another one of God’s mistakes.
“Elijah,” John says, breath hitching. It seems even his heart pities him enough to allow him to speak. He stands there, too stunned and bewildered to cry. He leans forward, and as his head comes in contact with Eli’s chest, he wrenches himself back with a pained wail.
The boy’s heart doesn’t thump as it used to. It doesn’t speed up when John rests his head on his chest. It doesn’t beat hard when John caresses him gently. It’s...simply an organ. An organ that doesn’t even serve its purpose.
“Don’t blame yourself. I know you love me. I love you, too.”
"Fuck,” he whispers softly, throat twisted in horror. ”I love you, you idiot!" He screams, tears blurring his vision. There’s a foul taste in his mouth and bile is climbing up his throat. He shakes Eli as if that would make the life return to his eyes. “Wake up, Eli. You promised we would leave this place!”
He’s still whispering his love to Eli when the sun rises, slow and steady. He’s still whispering his love when Eli’s parents burst into his room and scream terribly. He’s still whispering his love when the paramedics forcefully take Eli away.
He’s still whispering his love nearly three decades later, and the words are still tinged with regret.