This title is part of the Transportation universe.
Ethan Domani had planned the perfect graduation trip before tragedy put his life on hold. Smothered by survivor’s guilt and his close-knit family, he makes a break for the open road. He doesn't know what he's looking for, but he's got the whole summer to figure out who he misses more: his boyfriend, or the person he thought he was. It’s just him and his memories . . . until he almost runs over a hitchhiker.
Nick Hamilton made some mistakes after his younger brother died. His violent ex-boyfriend was the most dangerous, and the one that got him shipped off to Camp Cornerstone’s pray-the-gay-away boot camp. His eighteenth birthday brings escape, and a close call with an idiot in a station wagon. Stranger danger aside, Nick’s homeless, broke, and alone. A ride with Ethan is the best option he’s got.
The creepy corners of roadside America have nothing on the darkness haunting Ethan and Nick. Every interstate brings them closer to uncharted emotional territory. When Nick’s past shows up in their rearview mirror, the detour might take them off the map altogether.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Ethan dropped the duffel bag full of food into the trunk and slammed it shut.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving me here with the babies all summer.” Suze’s face crumpled. “I hope you pick up a hobo and they dismember you and leave your body in a cave.”
“Suzanna Marie Domani! What a terrible thing to say.” His mom put an arm around Suze’s neck and noogied the top of her head. “Your brother is much smarter than that.” She caught Ethan’s gaze, eyebrows raised meaningfully. “Aren’t you?”
Ethan grinned at both of them. “Of course. I won’t drive near any caves if I pick up a vagrant.”
Suze glanced between Ethan and their mom, pale eyebrows lifting in kind. “Right. So, can I have his room?”
“No. What we want your brother to take away from this is that he shouldn’t pick up any strangers. It’s dangerous.”
He managed to get both his mom and Suze in a hug at the same time. “I promise I’ll be careful. No picking up hitchhikers, no sleeping in rest areas, and I’ll check in every other night.”
He yelped at the poke and gave his mom an accusing stare.
“Every night, thank you very much.”
Ethan opened his mouth to protest, then stopped. The fear in her eyes hurt, but there was no denying the twinge of resentment it caused. He nodded, deliberately softening his voice. “Yeah, okay. Every night.”
It helped that he’d said goodbye to everyone else already. Dad hadn’t been any better at hiding his worry, and dealing with both paranoid parents would’ve frozen him in place. He’d already spent enough time frozen for two lifetimes.
“Love you, kiddo. Love you, Mom.” He gave them both another hug each, then pulled himself away before home could suck him back in.
Ethan settled himself into the familiar seat of his inherited Subaru Outback, unable to stop the reflexive glance toward his passenger seat. He ducked down, popping open the glove compartment to check for the third time that he’d remembered to put Scott’s little wooden box in there with the taco sauce and hand sanitizer.
He backed out of their driveway into the narrow, tree-lined street he’d grown up on, navigating around Mrs. Kim’s minivan and the street hockey net someone (probably his brother David) had left sitting too far out from the curb. One last look in the rearview mirror and he was free.
* * * * * * *
Ethan and Scott had been planning their after-graduation road trip since sophomore year, the very second Scott had burst into Ethan’s bedroom waving his newly minted driver’s license. Taking the trip alone hadn’t been part of the equation, but Ethan had learned a lot about adjusting his expectations in the past year.
He flipped on the radio as he crossed into Fairfax County on I-66, taking his first deep breath away from the well-meaning confines of his family. The road stretched out in front of him, four lanes of freedom and experience beckoning him away from home. From the past eighteen years, twelve of them with Scott. From the past year without him.
Ethan sailed down the interstate, music he wasn’t listening to cranked to cover the noise in his head. He didn’t want to think about anything but the drive.
He was doing sixty-five when the car in front of him slammed on the brakes, and everyone around it followed suit. Ethan cut his speed in time to avoid hitting anyone, though he was pretty sure he heard the crunch of buckling metal a few cars back.
Once he’d stopped freaking out about how close he was to starting off his epic road trip with an accident less than ten miles from his house, he punched the radio over to the traffic and weather station.
“—heavy thunderstorms may have been a contributing factor. Three drivers are being medevaced to Fairfax Hospital. The two tractor trailers are blocking all westbound lanes of I-66 in Manassas, with backups already extending to the Beltway. Hazardous material cleanup crews are en route, but drivers should expect delays of up to an hour—”
And then it started to rain.
* * * * * * *
Six hours deep into his month-long road trip, Ethan was lost. Not lost-lost, but there was no way he could find his way back to anything approximating a highway. It didn’t help that what had started as a mere thunderstorm had become a full-force monsoon. He didn’t remember turning on the “avoid any road with more than one lane” setting on his GPS, but he hadn’t seen another car in the past ten minutes. He squinted, trying to make out where the shoulder ended and the ditch next to it began, and bit back a startled gasp when his headlights panned over someone walking down the side of the road.
He was on the person too fast, and Ethan stomped on the brake pedal with all his weight. The car fishtailed, the rear end sliding sickeningly close to the ditch, before he got control again. By that point, he was a good hundred feet past the dark figure. Ethan smacked the button for his emergency flashers and pulled as far to the side of the road as he dared while his heart tried to resume a normal rhythm. There’d been no tell-tale thump, and the car hadn’t rolled over anything large. If luck was on his side, he hadn’t just killed someone in the dark backwoods of West Virginia.
No matter how hard he squinted at the mirrors, he couldn’t make out anything more than a few feet behind the car. Sighing heavily, Ethan reached for the door handle, then paused. Too many horror movies started this way.
A flash of lightning illuminated the dark road for a few seconds—long enough for him to catch sight of the pale face outside the driver’s-side window. And scream.
Like a goddamn adult.
His fingers clenched involuntarily, including the ones still on the handle, and the door caught a gust of wind and blew open.
This time the scream wasn’t his. Scream or shout of pain, it was hard to tell over the drumming rain. There was no denying the hunched-over person in the middle of the road, though, or the steady stream of obscenities that were audible over the monsoon.
“Are you okay? I’m so sorry!” Ethan scrambled out of his car, the water rushing over the pavement soaking into the hems of his jeans. Adrenaline spiked again when he didn’t get an answer, and he reached for the person hunched over next to him, catching their shoulder. “Are you crazy? You’re going to get run over out here!”
As if to prove Ethan’s point, the first car he’d seen in fifteen minutes drove past in a flurry of honking, flashing high beams, and standing water that crested over them like a wave. Thunder rolled in its wake, drowning out Ethan’s angry shout.
“Fucking asshole,” Ethan muttered, wiping muddy water out of his eyes. The person next to him turned their—her?—his head to watch the car drive off. The same dirty water dripped down his face, rivulets running under his chin from his crew cut.
“Yeah, jeez, he could’ve at least stopped after almost running us over,” the boy said. His smile was replaced almost instantly by a somewhat blank look.
“It’s the polite thing to do,” Ethan said staunchly. “We should probably get out of the road.” Driver’s Ed had taught him he should keep the car between himself and the road. Given that his car was sitting dangerously close to the slope leading down to the ditch, passenger-side tires riding the edge, that probably wasn’t the best idea. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then sighed. In for a penny, in for a pound, his gram had always told him. “Why don’t we get in the car? At least we’ll be out of the rain.”
“Pretty sure I remember hearing something about not getting in cars with strangers.”
Ethan snickered as he opened the door. “I heard that this morning, but here I am picking up a stranger. If I promise I’m not a mass murderer, does that help?”
Ethan’s damp friend didn’t say anything else, but he moved toward the passenger side, edging carefully along the muddy embankment as Ethan slid into the driver’s seat and yanked the door shut.
Ethan was soaked to the skin, and the air-conditioning hit him like an unwelcome slap on the ass. Turning on the heat seemed a little excessive but, since his passenger was shivering hard enough to shake the whole car, maybe not a bad idea.
“Are you heading anywhere in particular?” Ethan finished fiddling with the temperature controls and looked up in time to catch a fleeting expression of fear.
“That way.” He nodded toward the road in front of them. “Or anywhere, really. Somewhere that isn’t here.”
Laughing, Ethan turned off his flashers and started rolling forward, letting his old Subaru find its footing before he tried to gain speed. “I can manage that. My GPS says there’s a town about ten miles from here, and I think I’m done for the night. Almost killing someone will really do a number on your nerves.”
Ethan did his best to keep his eyes on the road in front of him, only sneaking glances a few times before he licked his lips and tried to entice more conversation. “I’m Ethan, by the way.” The guy jumped at the sound of his voice, and Ethan cringed.
“Oh. Um. Nick. Thanks for the ride.”
“Pretty much the least I could do after almost running you over. I didn’t see you at all.” Because you were standing there in the dark, in the road. But he kept that last bit in his head. Nobody would’ve been out in this weather by choice, and Nick looked miserable enough already.
Nick shifted in the seat, holding his hands in front of the warm air blasting out of the vent. “Yeah, I appreciate that too. The not-running-over-me part, I mean.”
“So, I gotta ask. What were you doing out in the middle of this?” Ethan had to raise his voice to be heard above the rain and the heater. “It’s fucking horrible out.”
There was a long pause in place of an answer, and Nick seemed at a loss for words. He coughed into the sodden sleeve of his hoodie, pulling the cuffs over the tips of his fingers and not looking in Ethan’s direction at all. “Pissed off some carnies.” Nick shrugged, water dripping off his head. “They hold a grudge. You win one too many goldfish at that ping-pong ball toss, suddenly you’re walking the lonely roads in a hurricane.” He shrugged again. “You know how it is.”
It was such a blatant lie that Ethan couldn’t help laughing to let Nick off the hook. Obviously Nick didn’t want to talk about it. They’d known each other for about five minutes, so Ethan wasn’t sure what the social conventions were when it came to prying. His mom’s voice niggled in the back of his head anyway, and he ventured one more question to shut it off. “Just promise me you’re not going to kill me and hide my body in a cave, okay?”
Nick swung his gaze away from the window, staring at Ethan for a beat before he laughed. It sounded rusty, jagged, like it almost hurt. “I promise I won’t murder you and hide your body in a cave or harm you in any other oddly specific way you might come up with.”
“That one I can blame on a paranoid younger sibling. She was certain I was going to be dismembered by a hobo and dumped in a cave.”
That earned Ethan a raised eyebrow. “Like I said, oddly specific.”
Things were quiet for a few moments, except for the thunder, the engine, the vents blowing, and his windshield wipers trying to beat themselves to death holding back the rain. Ethan jumped when Nick spoke up again.
“I can’t be where I was anymore. I’m not fleeing a crime scene or anything.”
The Outback’s headlights swept over a road sign ahead of them, the giant white letters reflecting faintly as they got closer. Ethan giggled nervously, lifting a hand to point at the sign.
STATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY AHEAD. DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS.
Nick’s tired laugh sounded less painful this time. “Well, see? You picked me up a good five miles back, so we’re golden.”
“Geography saves the day.” Ethan shivered as a drop of water rolled down his spine. The storm blew them down the road, farther from places neither of them could stand to be anymore.
* * * * * * *
Downtown Beaver, West Virginia, was so dark Ethan wondered if they’d lost power. Pitch-black hardware store, pitch-black diner, pitch-black something that looked like a liquor store. No streetlights, and the one stoplight was flashing yellow.
“I guess they roll up the sidewalks at five around here.” Ethan slowed down at the stoplight, peering out between the windshield wipers. “I was really hoping for a place to stay and something to eat.”
“There’s a motel over there.” Nick pointed down one of the cross streets.
Ethan pulled cautiously through the main intersection, heading toward the lighted sign he could barely make out through the rain. The lobby entrance was protected by a huge stucco overhang, and apparently it was the only place in town willing to waste money on excessive lighting. He felt like he was driving into an operating theater. The rest of the two-story motel stretched out on either side of the central lobby, doors facing into the parking lot. As only options went, it didn’t seem too skeevy.
Nick reached for the door handle before the car had even stopped rolling. “Thanks for the ride. I really appreciate it.” His other hand was curled around the strap of the backpack he’d tucked under his feet, and he looked ready to bolt.
“No problem. Really. Sorry I’m not going farther.” Ethan put the car in park, letting it idle in the loading zone directly in front of the automatic glass doors to the lobby. “Um . . . Do you have somewhere to go tonight? I mean, somewhere to stay in town here? It’s not any of my business. Just. Anyway. Do you?” Ethan examined the floor of his car, hoping a previously unnoticed black hole had opened and was ready to swallow him.
Nick hadn’t been particularly forthcoming before, but now his face closed off entirely, expression going blank. “I’ll be fine.”
“Right. Okay.” Where the hell was that black hole? “Good luck, then.” Great. If Ethan got any more awkward, he wouldn’t be able to walk without tripping over his own feet.
Nick opened the door the rest of the way and slipped out. “Thanks again.” He shouldered his backpack, closed the car door, and disappeared into the darkness beyond the awning before Ethan had time to react.
“Yeah, no problem.” Ethan shook his head, turned the car off, and pocketed the keys as he walked into the lobby.
The older man hunched over a newspaper, elbows on the desk, didn’t bother looking up as the doors swished open. Ethan cleared his throat and finally got an annoyed glance.
“Kinda late to be getting a room.”
Caught by surprise, Ethan bit his lip. “Yeah, I was supposed to be in Bristol tonight, but with the traffic and the storm . . .”
“Couple months late for the race, kid.” At least the guy seemed vaguely amused now.
“I’m going to see the recording studios and stuff. It sounded like a cool place to stop.” Ethan pulled his wallet out, flipping through to the shiny new airline-points card he’d gotten for the trip. “I’d like whatever your cheapest room is tonight, if you’ve got one free.”
As far as Ethan could tell, all the rooms looked free, but pretending the guy was doing him a favor couldn’t hurt. A few grunted questions and a swipe of his card later, he headed back out to his car and moved it a few spaces down to park in front of room 107.
His room was right next to the stairs up to the second level, and he could make out the bulk of an ice maker and a couple of vending machines in the wide pan of his headlights.
“Dinner is served,” he muttered, killing the engine.
The rain marched a drumline over his head as he popped the hatch and reached into the back of the car for his bag. He dashed from the parking lot to the narrow concrete sidewalk, bag clutched protectively to his stomach while he hunched over to keep the worst of the damp off it. The limited protection of the second floor walkway above his door wasn’t much against the gusting wind that seemed intent on pouring water down his neck. It was a relief to let himself into the cold, musty motel room.
The room itself was nothing to write home about. It held two double beds covered by scratchy polyester bedspreads, a counter-slash-table-slash-dresser on the opposite wall, and a TV older than Suze. There was a small closet next to the sink, and a door he hoped like hell was hiding a toilet and somewhere he could shower long enough to get warm. Something about sitting in damp clothes had gotten under his skin despite the warmth of late June.
With horror stories about bedbugs dancing in his head, Ethan hung his backpack on one of the weird nonremovable hotel hangers before going to investigate the shower. It looked clean, and there was free shampoo. Considering the state of the bathroom he shared with his younger brother and sisters at home, he wasn’t going to complain. He left his wet clothing in the sink and stepped into the tub. A few seconds of fiddling with the taps managed to adjust the temperature to his liking, but there was no saving the pressure, which alternated between a half-hearted splash and a pulsing, needlelike spray. After he’d scrubbed enough to rid himself of the clammy feeling, he gave up and turned the shower off.
Once he’d accomplished warm and dry, his stomach pushed itself to the forefront. He couldn’t even remember lunch, it had been so long ago. He skipped socks and shoved his feet into his tennis shoes, grabbed his wallet, then headed toward what was sure to be a delectable dinner of off-brand Doritos and stale cheez crackers. Sure, he had half a Trader Joe’s in his trunk, but it was his first night out in the world as a semiadult. He didn’t want to eat snacks his mommy had packed for him, no matter how plentiful.
The wind whipped the door out of his hand when he opened it, pushing him back into the motel. Head down, Ethan fought his way out into the cement wind tunnel. His room offered decent soundproofing, since he hadn’t been able to tell it was still raining, much less that the wind and thunder had gotten worse. He’d stopped just in time, then. He tried not to imagine that the weather was telling him to go home.
As he fed a few slightly damp dollar bills into the vending machine, he silently thanked his older brother for giving him the roll of cash as a graduation present. Who knew there were still places that didn’t take cards? Robert had probably meant for him to use the bills on lap dances by cute go-go boys, but oh well. Loaded down with dill pickle potato chips, Ho Hos, and strawberry licorice (because fruit!), he turned to walk back to his room and caught sight of a person huddled in the shelter provided by the partially enclosed staircase leading to the upper walkway. Between the ratty backpack and the purple hoodie, dark with rain, it didn’t take a genius to figure out where “fine” had gotten Nick.
“Hey!” Ethan had to yell to be heard over the wind roaring through the breezeway. Nick either didn’t hear him or hoped he’d go away. Dinner tucked in the crook of one arm, he climbed the stairs. Nick’s shoulders shook, but that was about all the indication Ethan had that he wasn’t dead.
“Nick?” Ethan touched Nick’s shoulder lightly. “Are you okay?”
The kid who looked up from the depths of Nick’s hood was missing all the anger and bravado that had marked his earlier departure. Nick’s dark-blue eyes were bloodshot and ringed in the kind of purple bruises that only a lack of sleep or a heavy crying jag could cause. Ethan had seen his own in the mirror after more than a few sleepless, unhappy nights. Nick’s knees were pulled up under his chin, and it seemed like only the bricks he was leaning against were keeping him upright. The startled, unseeing quality to Nick’s expression made Ethan wonder if he even recognized him.
“Nick? Do you need help?”
Nick’s throat worked, Adam’s apple bobbing as his mouth opened, but no sound came for a moment. He finally seemed to look at Ethan, rather than through him.
“It’s . . . It’s my fucking birthday.”
Ethan held his hand out, sympathy clawing through the cracks in his chest. “Come with me, okay? You can get warm inside, and we can celebrate.”
Ethan thought Nick would refuse, was afraid he would, but he finally reached up. Hand wrapped around Nick’s icy fingers, Ethan pulled him upright, tripping backward a step when Nick stumbled.
“Sorry,” Nick muttered, voice barely audible over the drumming rain.
Ethan didn’t let go, not with the way Nick was swaying. “Think you can make it down the hall?” He kept his voice deliberately light. “Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on the spectacular accommodations here.” One careful step, then another, watching to make sure Nick wasn’t going to collapse on him.
When they finally arrived at his door, Ethan dropped Nick’s hand long enough to fumble the key card out of his pocket. This time, the door flying open worked in his favor as he herded Nick through, then slammed it closed behind him.
The sudden silence felt like cotton in his ears, and he shook his head, groaning at the rain droplets that went flying. “I don’t know about you, but I’m done with this weather.”
Nick didn’t answer him. The air conditioner was silent, and the only sound, aside from Nick’s sodden clothes dripping on the floor, was the ragged breathing of someone trying desperately to remember how air worked.
Ethan dropped his food on the bed, maintaining a careful distance. Not too close, in case Nick was afraid of him—or people in general—but not too far away, in case . . . in case. He kept his voice calm and friendly, like all the voices he’d hated hearing but wouldn’t have known what to do without. “I think maybe you’re in shock. If I promise that you’re safe here, would you feel comfortable taking a shower to warm up and putting on some dry clothes?” He flashed a smile at Nick, hoping it hid how freaked out he was. “If you want a reference, I can call my mom. She’ll tell you about my merit badge in bugling and how many orphaned baby squirrels I tried to save when I was a kid.”
His poor attempt at a joke earned a poor attempt at a smile, cut short by another aching breath and a sharp nod. “Okay. But I’m not a squirrel.”
Ethan rubbed the tips of his fingers together, trying to keep himself calm. They couldn’t both lose their shit. “That’s true. Spiky hair, slightly upturned nose—you’re clearly a hedgehog.”
Nick’s shudder started at the top of his head and rolled through him like an earthquake, but it seemed to leave him a little more grounded in its wake. “Been called a little prick before, but that’s new.” He edged around the bed, closer to the bathroom. “I’m . . . I’m going to lock the door.”
It wasn’t quite a question, despite the hesitation, but Ethan chose to treat it as one. “Yeah, of course. I mean, not that I would bust in to grab my toothbrush or anything. I’ll leave you some clothes on the counter so you can put them on when you’re done.” He stayed in place, barely daring to breathe as Nick took the last few steps to the bathroom. He got another nod before Nick closed the door, followed by the unmistakable sound of the lock clicking into place.
Knees suddenly giving way, Ethan dropped onto the bed. This road trip was never going to be what he’d planned a million years ago, but this level of weirdness was a little more than he was prepared to deal with. Suddenly, calling his mom didn’t seem like the worst idea.
Except it was. She’d make some reasonable argument about helping Nick by taking him to an ER or something, and Ethan would acquiesce to keep her from worrying. And sure, that would probably help future-Nick, but Ethan couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving present-Nick somewhere to deal with whatever else fate wanted to hand out. The Nick showering in his bathroom had hollow eyes and that same need Ethan did—to get away, as far and as fast as he could. Ethan wasn’t going to dump him somewhere, any more than he’d have left him on the side of the road. There was doing the smart thing, and then there was betrayal.
In the end, it was a sudden noise from the bathroom that unfroze him. He’d made that noise before, that choking drag of sound as fear and grief and nothingness scraped him hollow from the inside out. It didn’t matter if he was fleeing or giving Nick some privacy. Either one got him out of the room, away from remembering how that sound felt. He barely remembered to toss a pair of sweats and a T-shirt on the counter next to the sink before he left.
He found himself standing in front of the vending machine again, feeding it bills and picking things that looked comforting or filling. A package of oatmeal cookies, a bag of nuts, and two Snickers bars. The drink machine supplied a couple of bottles of Coke. Ethan glanced up the now-empty stairs, biting his lip as he juggled the food around and fished another dollar out of his pocket. He added the package of chocolate cupcakes to the top of his pile and headed back to the room. Birthdays meant cake. It was the universal constant.
Or was that was gravity? Whatever.
Interlude: Ethan Domani’s Phone
Conversation with Scott Raines
Ethan: I did it. I left home without you.
Ethan: I found this guy
Ethan: Which sounds weird, but I actually found him
Ethan: Like in the middle of the road during a torrential rainstorm
Ethan: I think he needs help
Ethan: You know how good I am at being there when someone needs me
Ethan: I miss you
Ethan: I don’t know how to do this without you
Ethan: But I guess that’s the point of trying
Nick stood under the inconsistent shower spray and tried to silence the countdown in his head. He got two minutes to shower. Two minutes under icy-cold water trying to leech away all the warmth in his body while he scrubbed his skin raw with powdered soap. Nobody bothered anybody in the showers—probably because it was nearly impossible to find your own dick when it had crawled back into your body to avoid frostbite.
All the scalding water in the world pouring down over him couldn’t unclench his jaw as he shivered. Not until the countdown ticked through, and he could maybe convince himself that he wasn’t there anymore. Ten seconds, nine, and the water would cut off. Tyler would drag him across the slick tile if he didn’t move fast enough. Five seconds before he had to stake himself out in the locker room. End of the bench in the back row, on the aisle so he was in plain sight, but facing the back corner to make sure nobody was messing with the younger boys.
Tyler had reminded him of that on the way out. “Who’s going to keep them safe now? Your behavior is disappointing.”
With perfect hindsight, Nick thought, Isn’t that your job? but for now there was hot water hitting his skin, and he was a second past the cutoff, and back to reality.
Reality, where he had nowhere to go and nobody who cared anyway.
Nick ducked his head under the water, leaning into the cold comfort of the tiled wall and burying his mouth against the crook of his arm. He wasn’t sure the sound he made was even human, and he swallowed it as fast as he could. He knew better than to hand his weakness to anyone.
The shower felt safe, at least. He’d locked the door between the bathroom and his rescuer, and he still had his clothes. He’d be okay if he changed his mind and decided to make a run for it.
Nick let the water run over him for so long he couldn’t tell if he’d zoned out or not. Eventually, he fumbled the little bar of soap open, scrubbing the institutional funk away and watching it swirl down the drain, gray and thin. The faucet spat out a few last, resentful drops of water as he turned it off and reached for the scratchy white towel that smelled overwhelmingly of bleach. At least that meant it was clean.
After shuffling across the tile floor using another towel as a bathmat, he knocked on the inside of the door. Sure, he could have put his cold, wet clothes back on, but now that he was warm, it really wasn’t an enticing option. When no one answered, Nick cautiously unlocked it and stuck his head out, ready to slam it in Ethan’s face if he was waiting to jump him. This was the danger zone: post-showers, pre-clothes. Maybe not here, but there, it was a vulnerability. And maybe here too. Nick didn’t know anything about Ethan except he was too nervous to drive in a thunderstorm and his arm felt like a comforting anchor. So nothing, really—except that he didn’t want to find out Ethan was after something he wasn’t offering.
Ethan wasn’t in the room when he looked out. There was a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt waiting for him on the counter next to the door. Nick grabbed the clothes and ducked back into the bathroom to put them on behind a locked door.
The heat in the bathroom dissipated rapidly, and he was shivering by the time he pulled the shirt over his head. Unlike the towel, it smelled clean without burning his nose—fabric softener and detergent that hadn’t come out of a fifty-gallon barrel.
A quick knock jarred him out of his laundry-induced fugue state. “Nick? Are you okay?”
“Fine,” he said, twisting the doorknob. “Thanks for the clothes.”
Ethan stepped back as the door opened, his hand dropping to his side as he smiled. “Awesome. You look like you feel a little better. Want something to eat?”
Nick’s stomach lurched at the thought of food. It felt like months since he’d known the difference between hunger and nausea. Breakfast had been plain oatmeal forever ago, and lunch had been Tyler and Reverend Hill screaming in his face that he was wasting the lessons the program had taught him. Wasting his parents’ money. Wasting the space he took up. Both had gone down about the same.
Ethan stood safely out of Nick’s space, watching Nick with concern blooming on his face. “Hey,” he said, so quiet it was almost a whisper. “I don’t know what’s going on for you, but whatever you need . . .” He trailed off, head tipping. “A lift somewhere? I’m not— I don’t really have plans. So if you need to get home or something, I can help.”
Nick’s answering laugh felt less like it was crawling out of his throat this time. “I don’t. I mean, I’ve got nowhere to be. I . . . Food sounds good.” Maybe eating something would hold down the overwhelming panic. He could focus on the moment until he figured out if he had a future to worry about.
“Nowhere to be but here right now, since I’ve got a virtual cornucopia of deliciousness.” Still keeping a safe distance, Ethan waved his hand toward the plethora of bright wrappers and two soda cans on the bed closest to the bathroom. “Take your pick.”
Nick grabbed one of the sodas and a candy bar, then edged past Ethan to sit on the end of the other bed. He hadn’t had any candy in months, soda in even longer. It didn’t matter how oversweet they were. They were contraband, and they tasted all the better for it. He’d finished half the candy bar and a few greedy gulps of the soda before he even glanced up again. Ethan was holding a chocolate cupcake out to him with a single lit match shoved into the frosting.
It sounded more like a question, the words turning the food already in his mouth to a lump of sawdust as he tried to swallow. Nick took another drink, then met Ethan’s smile with one of his own. “Wow. I mean . . . Wow. Thank you.” His perch on the mattress was suddenly precarious, the floor tilting when he tried to stand up.
Ethan met him halfway, crossing the short space between them and setting the cupcake in his hand. Nick blew the match out with a shaky breath, squeezing his eyes shut as he tried to remember what wishing felt like. “Fuck,” he whispered, dropping his head to stare at the floor so Ethan wouldn’t see him cry. Ethan took the soda from his limp fingers before he could drop it, and set it on the weird, flowery carpet near his feet. Nick stared at the cupcake, his eyes blurring. “Fuck.”
He was too lost not to accept the hesitant touch of Ethan’s hand curving around the back of his neck. Ethan’s fingers ruffling through the short fuzz of his hair was the first kindness he’d felt in months, the first touch he’d wanted since before his parents had sent him away. He gulped air as greedily as he had the soda, and Ethan didn’t ask him for anything else, stroking his head in accepting silence.
Eventually it became too much, got too close to the place inside him that wanted nothing more than to beg for any scrap of care he could get. Nick twisted his head away, holding the cupcake aloft between them with a smile that probably looked as forced as it felt. “There’s usually two of these, right? We should share my birthday cake.”
If Ethan was hurt by Nick pulling away, he hid it well. “Are you sure? I don’t want to deprive you of any of the prepackaged artificially flavored goodness.”
“I think I’ll survive it.” He took a tentative bite, chewing slowly. No sense admitting how good that prepackaged artificially flavored birthday cake was, and that was without the emotional wrapping. Nick watched Ethan pick up the other cupcake.
“I love these things,” Ethan said around a mouthful of stale cake and cracked frosting. “It’s like being six years old again or something.”
“From all the crumbs, I take it being six was good.”
Ethan brushed at the front of his T-shirt, face flushing a little. “I’m trying to stay young.”
Nick grinned despite himself. “Here’s to staying young forever.” He might have been lost in his own head, but it was impossible to miss the way Ethan’s open, cautiously happy expression clouded up for a second.
“It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be.” Ethan glanced away for a second before shaking his head. “But I guess youth has some perks.”
Nick had his doubts, but he had no problem keeping them to himself.
He finished his cupcake, swallowing around the thick lump in his throat. The cream filling left an oil slick on his tongue, and the unfamiliar grease felt cloying after going so long without. His stomach ached already, but his instincts warred with reality—if he didn’t eat more now, he had no idea what might be available later. Digging through the pile of snacks, he chose a baggie of nuts. The plastic seam gave way when he tugged it open, peanuts spilling into his hands and serving as a convenient distraction while he tried to get himself together.
“I’m not crazy. I mean, I probably am, but not like this. Usually.” Nick focused on splitting all the whole nuts into halves, chasing them around the palm of his hand so he wouldn’t have to look at Ethan. “I think you’re probably the only good thing that’s happened to me today. Thanks.” The speech left him almost too exhausted to chew, but at least Ethan didn’t seem inclined toward more conversation, if the stunned look was any indication.
“I . . . Thank you?” Ethan smiled weakly. “Glad I could help?”
They both jumped as the room blazed bright and another clap of thunder rattled the glass in the windows. The lamp between the beds flickered dangerously as the thunder faded away, and Nick pointedly put his feet back on the floor, uncurling from his involuntary flinch.
“So, why were you driving through the middle of Nowhere, West Virginia, during this freak land hurricane?”
Ethan looked a little spooked, running a hand through his straw-blond hair. “Post-graduation, pre-college road trip. I was supposed to be in Bristol tonight, but traffic sucked so bad I decided to try back roads. Then it started to rain, and then I almost sideswiped a hitchhiker.” Laughing ruefully, he shook his head. “If you add to that waiting six whole hours before breaking my solemn vow not to pick up any vagrants, I’m pretty sure it’s the setup to a really terrible gross-out comedy.”
“Or a really bad horror movie,” Nick said without thinking. Trying to catch himself, he nodded toward his backpack. “Good thing I can’t fit a chainsaw in there.”
“Maybe not, but there’s plenty of room for a meat hook and a couple of switchblades.” Ethan lifted the bed skirt with his foot. “And plenty of room to store a body. I’ve read those urban legends. Unless you’re planning on taking a kidney instead?”
His next rusty laugh came with the realization that it had been a while—sixteen months, five days, and eight hours a while—since he’d felt like laughing. “Was the ice machine working? I’d leave you in a tub of ice water. I’m not a monster, you know.”
“That’s so sweet.” Waving a hand at the surfeit of snacks, Ethan did an impression of innocence. “I totally promise none of that candy was poisoned.”
Nick shook a salt-covered finger at Ethan, his broken-down sense of humor kicking over in a feeble attempt at life. “High-fructose corn syrup is nothing to joke about. That stuff’ll—”
Then the lights went out, a flare of blinding white searing through the room, burning everything into ghostly afterimages that danced across his vision in the dark, and whatever he’d been about to say turned into a stifled squawk of surprise. Terror, really, but it was his birthday, so he was going to be generous with his self-assessments.
“So I guess we’re not watching Colbert.” Ethan’s voice floated out of the blackness somewhere to his right.
His own voice sounded thin and shaky to his ears when he replied. “Damn. I haven’t seen that in . . . uh, a long time.”
Ethan sounded cautious, but Nick only had his tone to go on in the pitch-black room. “It’s not the same with him on network TV. I miss all the old Comedy Central stuff.”
As disappointments went, it didn’t even rank in Nick’s top ten, but it still felt like another anchor had come unmoored. It wasn’t the shows. It wasn’t even that he hadn’t watched TV or seen a movie for over a year. Mostly, he didn’t know what he was going to tell people when they clued in to all his missing time. “Oh, I, uh, stay a couple of seasons behind on shows. Just a habit I got into when it seemed like everything I liked got canceled.”
“I can actually see that. Maybe I should start doing that to save myself some grief.”
Nick pictured Ethan nodding, the small line between his eyes already familiar enough to imagine. His own eyes had begun to adjust to the lingering darkness, but not enough to make out details. The block of dim ambient light on the far wall had to be the window, which was at least an upgrade from the dark rooms he was used to spending time in.
The sound of someone banging on the door was incongruous enough to stand out over the noise of the storm outside. The beam of a flashlight swung past the window, and the sudden rustle of fabric made Nick almost certain they had both jumped.
“Management! Power’s out!”
“No fucking shit,” Nick muttered.
Ethan giggled, the sound cutting off abruptly, like he’d covered his mouth.
“I’ve got a flashlight for you, if you want one.”
Ethan moved past Nick, pausing before he got to the door. “You probably shouldn’t be in here? Maybe?”
“Bathroom.” Nick got to his feet, trying not to step on anything he’d want to eat later. The bathroom was pitch-black, even with the door cracked. He passed the time with his eyes closed, counting the seconds in silence by tapping his tongue against the back of his teeth.
The manager’s voice was muffled, Ethan’s slightly clearer, especially when he called, “Thanks, I’ll get this back to you in the morning.” The door closed with a solid thunk, followed by the sound of the chain lock sliding into place. “It’s cool to come out now.”
Nick stepped out into the blinding glare of a flashlight beam in his eyes.
The light dropped down to the floor, illuminating a pack of cookies. Nick bent to pick it up, then held it out to Ethan. “If I give you these, will you promise not to blind me?”
“I think I can manage that. I’m really sorry.” Ethan turned the light toward the wall. “I can do some shadow puppets to make it up to you.”
Maybe it was the darkness, or the clarity of hiding in the bathroom. Nick shook his head, even though Ethan probably couldn’t see it. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the shower and the food, man. You’re right though—I’m not supposed to be in here. You shouldn’t start off your epic road trip by getting kicked out of a motel, so I’m gonna go.”
“Nick.” Ethan’s disappointment and concern combined into a kind of sincerity Nick hadn’t been faced with in years. Ethan had mom-voice down pat. “I wish you’d stay.”
He’d been calm enough for the past few minutes, but panic didn’t seem far off suddenly, and he scrambled for his backpack. “You don’t want—”
“I wasn’t supposed to be doing this alone.” The shadows cast by the flashlight hollowed out Ethan’s cheeks and turned his hair to ash, the raw note to his words sounding a little desperate. “My . . . Scott was supposed to come with me. I’ve got six siblings. I don’t even know how to spend a day by myself, much less a month. Don’t tell me what I want, okay? I want to know you’re sleeping someplace warm and dry tonight. That’s it.”
Nick swallowed, his fingers tight around the nylon straps of his bag. “Why’d Scott ditch your trip? It sounds like fun.”
Ethan looked away from him, the flashlight beam swaying across the floor as his shoulders slumped. “He died.”
The sun came through the opened curtains, hitting Ethan dead in the face, and he groaned and pulled a pillow over his head. He must’ve dropped off to sleep at some point during the night, hours after lying stiffly in bed, staring at the ceiling with dry, burning eyes. He suspected Nick had been awake every bit as late—he’d shared a bedroom enough in the past to know what someone’s breathing sounded like when they were asleep.
It was quiet now, though. No breathing, no rustling. Ethan rolled over in a sudden panic. The other bed was empty. His feet hit the floor with a solid thump before he even realized he was moving. Two steps toward the door and he got tangled in the straps of Nick’s backpack, and stumbled into the corner of the dresser. His knee connected with a crack, and for a second or two he couldn’t catch his breath through the pain. He was still hobbling around between the beds, clutching his knee and cursing, when the door eased open and Nick slipped back into the room.
“Uh . . . food?” Nick held out a grease-stained fast-food sack like Ethan might bite off his hand. The smell of coffee wafting from the tray balanced against his hip made Ethan’s mouth water.
“Food is good, but coffee is best.” Ethan took the bag and set it down on the end of his bed, wiggling his fingers in the universal “gimme” gesture at the cups Nick was withholding.
“Oh. Oh!” Nick offered Ethan the tray and a smile that seemed bashful, before he ducked his head to stare at the floor. “Sorry, I didn’t know if you’d want cream and sugar, so it’s in the bag.”
Ethan figured it was better to let Nick get over whatever was making him feel awkward, and he spent a good little while fixing his coffee. Truth be told, he wasn’t at his best with eye goobers and a case of morning breath, and while coffee wouldn’t fix either of those, it would at least give him something to do with his hands. “Thanks for getting breakfast. I mean, you could have woken me up. You didn’t have to carry it back for me.”
Nick shrugged from his cross-legged seat on his bed where he was picking open a sandwich wrapper and looking faintly guilty about it. “It’s okay. I’m used to being awake really early, and I didn’t want to wake you before the sun was up. Didn’t seem like a good idea, the way you were snoring.” He looked up long enough to grin. “I went for a walk and found food while I was out. I thought you’d probably be hungry after dinner from the vend-o-rama.”
“So you’re really not an escaped convict?” Ethan gulped down a mouthful of surprisingly warm coffee, waving his hand in small circles while he swallowed. “If you’re showing your face on the security feed at Hardee’s, I mean.”
“I told you—carnies on my tail. I’m safe as long as I don’t try to win anyone a stuffed animal.”
“That’s too bad.” Ethan sighed, shaking his head. “I really had my eye on a giant pink unicorn. Guess I’ll have to take a chance on my own skills.”
The sandwich in front of Nick was untouched, though Nick kept fussing with the wrapper. Ethan tried to figure out what could be causing his reluctance, eventually coming down to the single cup of coffee. That he was drinking, instead of Nick. “Did I take your coffee? Dude, I’m sorry. You should have said.”
Nick’s head snapped up. “What? No, I’m not allowed to have coffee. It’s fine. I bought it for you. I got orange juice too, if you want that.”
“‘Not allowed’? Are you Mormon?” He knew before he was even done asking the question that his eyebrows were squinching together in an expression that Robert said made him look like a constipated golden retriever. “I mean, that’s cool.”
“Uh, no.” Nick didn’t elaborate, but there was no mistaking his puzzled expression.
The other option sent off warning bells in Ethan’s head. He was notoriously bad at judging age . . . He’d once insulted Robert’s girlfriend-of-the-day by thinking she was his mom’s friend. It would be his luck that Nick was an underage runaway from some controlling backwoods militant family that would end up coming after him with a shotgun.
Nick gave him one of those half smiles. “Just because I’m not going to drink it doesn’t mean you can’t.”
“Right, yeah. More caffeine for me.” Ethan took a sip to appease Nick, then gestured at Nick’s rapidly cooling breakfast with the cup. “You’re allowed to eat though, right?”
“I . . . Yeah. Yeah, I am.” Nick finally took his first bite, and the look of blissful concentration on his face was uncomfortably interesting. Ethan did his best not to imagine how that kind of focus would translate to things that weren’t dripping with cheese.
However reticent to eat it, Nick definitely hadn’t held back when he’d ordered breakfast. Ethan helped himself to a sandwich and some hash browns, eating them slowly while Nick polished off another sandwich, two breakfast burritos, and something that looked like a mutant cinnamon roll.
There had definitely been sausage in the two burritos, so that knocked out a strict orthodox Jewish sect. Not Mormon, not Jewish . . . and guessing Nick’s background had somehow become a game. Maybe one Ethan could keep playing, because he couldn’t imagine what Nick was going to do here in Beaver. He waited until Nick swallowed his last bite before saying anything.
“Ever been to Bristol? Which, now that I say it out loud, sounds like the worst pickup line ever.” Ethan shook his head, running his hands over the scratchy motel quilt. “How about it, though?”
Nick tilted his head, watching Ethan for a beat before he answered. “Sir, are you asking me to straddle state lines with you? We’ve only just met.”
“No, no! Of course not. No straddling on a first date. I was thinking about using the HOV lanes, and I left my blow-up doll at home.”
“I don’t need to know about your kinky sex habits. At least not on that first date.”
So far, so good. Nick was joking, but not outright refusing Ethan’s offer. Ethan wasn’t sure why he cared so much, but he did. It wouldn’t be right abandoning Nick; there was something entirely too vulnerable about him. Walking away wasn’t an option.
Nick rubbed his head, looking hesitant but hopeful. “That would be awesome. You’re sure you don’t mind me tagging along?”
“If you want, you can think of it as balancing the car.” Ethan concentrated on cleaning all the ketchup out from under his fingernails. “Maybe it’ll stop me from turning around and going home because I’m too chickenshit to make it by myself.”
Nick crumpled his wrappers and got to his feet to retrieve the empty paper bag. On his way to the trash can, he patted Ethan’s shoulder gently. “You rescued a stranger in the middle of a hurricane. Twice in one night, even. That’s something, but it’s not chicken. I’ll go check if my clothes are dry, then I’m good for whatever.”
The words warmed Ethan, and he stared after Nick with a big stupid grin on his face. He was pleased enough that he kept cracking a smile without warning while he got ready, dripping foamy white toothpaste into the sink and splashing soapy water into his mouth accidentally. He’d recovered by the time Nick came back, dressed in his own clothes and looking a little worse for wear.
Nick brushed ineffectively at the wrinkles in his shirt. “Turns out this fine establishment doesn’t provide an iron.”
Ethan pursed his lips, giving Nick a critical once-over. “Are you okay riding in the back seat? Or maybe the trunk? With a blanket over your head to hide your shame, of course.”
Hefting his backpack, Nick shrugged. “Sure. I mean, you’ve got to have standards.”
“At least one of us does.” Ethan unhooked the chain on the door, swinging it open and standing aside for Nick to go out first. “Shit, wait.” He darted back inside and grabbed the loaned flashlight off the nightstand. He brandished it at Nick as he stepped outside. “Don’t want to get charged for this or anything, since I’m guessing I could buy a dozen at Home Depot for the markup.”
Last night’s storm had blown itself out, leaving sunshine and cooler temperatures. Ethan shivered a little in his T-shirt as he unlocked the car door. “I might have to take that blanket back.”
“Wait, you don’t have heated seats? I’m rethinking this friendship already.”
Ethan opened the back door on the driver’s side and tossed his bag onto the seat. Nick was surveying the parking lot, one hand over his eyes to shield them from the morning sun. His dark buzz looked wet where the light hit it, and his shoulders were thrown back as he stared up at the sky.
Ethan followed his gaze. “If you’re watching for incoming helicopters hunting you down, can you let me know now? I’d like advance warning so I can hide.” He was kidding. Kind of.
“The carnies don’t have that kind of budget. But the Quaker mafia . . . that’s a different story. That oatmeal is big business.”
It had to be his job not to laugh. If they were going to do this, he needed to treat the absurd like a friend. Pursing his lips to keep from breaking into a smile, Ethan made a noise of agreement. “I thought all that fiber would keep things on an even keel, but I guess not. I have to go check us out.” He paused, one hand resting on the top of the car while he tried to keep his voice light. “Don’t get kidnapped by the Amish or whoever while I’m gone, okay?”