• Ray Christian-Dickens

Sample of "Crown of Blooms"

Updated: Apr 4

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TW for this section: Homophobia

TWs for the entire book


Chapter 1


The church gym smelled of fresh, hot body odor and even more profusely of cheap cologne. The youth game room had been abandoned by the boys in favor of a pickup basketball game before their parents arrived to take them home. Kayden sat on the bleachers that creaked with every twitch, imagining the girls upstairs having much more fun with the foosball table and the worn UNO deck, and waiting for someone to tire out and pull him into the bracket. He sucked the noxious smell in deep in an attempt to distract himself from how the late afternoon sun was interacting with the sweat on Manny’s skin; Manny was dark and when the light hit that smooth black skin it glowed, reflecting in stark patches on the ripples in his bare stomach and, most prominently, his chest.

Manny sunk one and celebrated with a cry and a few pops of his pecs. Kayden looked away. The smell wasn’t helping. He’d have to pray hard tonight.

“Boys,” Pastor Zane’s scolding voice echoed through the room as he marched back through the doors, boxy frame straining against his too tight polo, holding his hands out in frustration. The game screeched to a halt, no explanation as to their wrongdoing necessary. Manny and the three other shirtless boys bowed their heads and jogged over to the bench to retrieve their shirts and make themselves modest before the girls returned.

Manny leapt onto the bleachers, making the old wood moan and shake, a foot or so away from Kayden. Hot fresh fumes emanated from him and into Kayden’s nose. The boy collapsed down a step above Kayden pulling his shirt over his head.

“You stink,” Kayden mumbled, staring at his tennis shoes.

“You would too if you played more than once,” Manny scoffed, tossed his head back and squirted his water bottle into his mouth.

“No, Manny, he wouldn’t.”

Kayden looked over to his other side where Alex had appeared next to him, resting his shiny face in his hand. His pale face was flushed red, light blonde hair stuck to his forehead, chest heaving with labored breaths, but his smile was light, his presence natural, like he'd been there all along and not for little more than a week.

“Your stink is exceptionally terrible,” Alex said with a smirk. “It’s… unique. Unmatched. It’s-”

Manny rolled his eyes. “Shut up,” he cried and Kayden shook with laughter at the older boy’s whiny voice.

Alex snicked, turning his attention to drying his face with the shoulder of his T-shirt. “I hear you’re turning fifteen tomorrow?”

Kayden nodded. “Yeah. My sister and - oh.” Kayden jumped, fingers shooting up to his mouth to lodge the nails in his teeth. “I- I’m sorry. I thought I-”

Alex’s cheeks pressed up into his eyes as he struggled to hold back a smile. He held up a hand. “I wasn’t trying to invite myself. Sorry.”

Kayden shook his head. “I was going to b- but I forgot and - I didn’t have y-your number or…” His stammering trickled off as he gazed at Alex’s warm, apologetic smile. “It’s tomorrow at one at my house if you wanna come.”

Alex grinned, a huge, bright-white, boyish expression. “I’ll be there.” He held out his hand. “Give me your phone, I’ll give you my number so you can send me the address.”

“U-uh sure.” Kayden fished into his pocket, taking three tries to unlock his iPhone and handed it to Alex. “Yeah my house is only a few minute away from-”

“Kayden!” A smooth, demanding voice carried from the other side of the gym. Flanked by the rest of the youth group girls, Delilah floated into the gym, wolfish eyes tuned on Kayden, nose held high, filled with the strange ethereal, haughty energy that she seemed to absorb from particularly powerful church events. She was petite and light skinned, her beauty a regular topic of conversation for the church ladies and, at times, the youth boys when they wanted to mess with Kayden. She was easily the more attractive, more popular, generally better twin and Kayden had long since made peace with that. While the other girls spread out to grab their brothers or sit near enough to the boys to tease their scent, Delilah hovered over to Kayden.

“Hi,” Kayden said as she approached.

“Let’s go. I’m tired,” she said.

Kayden nodded, leaning forward to stand up when an arm crashed over his shoulders, pulling him flush against the side of Manny’s body.

“Ah come on. Kayden’s only played, like twice.” Manny said. His eyes sharpened on Delilah. “You don’t wanna watch me play?”

Delilah’s expression hardened, though Kayden could see the flickering of consideration behind her eyes. She was wearing a floor length pink skirt and Afro puffs and yet, with just a hand on her hip, she made the color fall from Manny’s face. She spared the boy just a momentary glance before turning her attention back to her brother, doing little more than lifting her eyebrow.

Avoiding the desire to violently tear himself away, Kayden stood up, letting Manny finally pull his arm away. He stepped into his place at his sister’s side, offering a small wave to Manny who only rolled his eyes, pouting less than inconspicuously.

“Bye guys,” Kayden said. “See ya-”

Alex jumped up, grabbing Kayden’s wrist and depositing his phone back into his hand. Kayden’s face flushed hot. He smiled and nodded.

“At your birthday party,” Alex said, releasing Kayden’s hand and stepping back, that grin still on his face.

Suddenly eager to leave, Kayden turned on a dime, waving over his shoulder as he beelined to the gym doors in step with Delilah, tossing her own polite goodbyes over her shoulder. They walked in comfortable silence for a few minutes before Delilah bumped her shoulder against his.

“What’d you talk about in youth?” she asked.

“We uh… we talked about…” Kayden gnawed at his lip, struggling to find a word he could say out loud. “Purity.”

“Yeah, we talked about the same thing,” Delilah said. “Sexual sin and staying sexually pure, stuff like that.” The words flowed off her tongue with ease, abstract, guiltless. “We had to go around the circle and confess to each other and God and-”

“Isn’t that a private thing for the group?” Kayden forced out, voice nervously breaking, skin prickling with hot humiliation. “I mean y- you can’t j- j- just tell people’s business.”

Delilah tossed her head back, letting out a boisterous snorting laugh at her twin’s pubescence that didn’t waver even as Kayden shoved her, sending her stumbling off the sidewalk. She shuffled back into step with him, making a show of suppressing her laughter to continue.

“I wasn’t gonna tell anyone’s business. I was saying I didn’t have anything really to confess and Ms. Gibson went on and on about Mom and Dad and raising us right and respecting myself and all that.” There was no boast in her voice, just flat, matter-of-factness.

“Lucky you,” Kayden breathed, and Delilah gave him little more than a thoughtful grunt. “We did the same thing. I hate these kinda meetings.” Kayden crossed his arms over his chest.

“I kinda like it.”

“Well you're kinda weird.”

Delilah humphed and rolled her eyes with impressive drama, eliciting a reluctant snort from Kayden. “What’d you say?” She asked once she'd gotten over the slight. It was nothing short of a demand but it was within her right, the kind of information that was promised between them.

“I said lust. Pastor Zane asked if I wanted to elaborate.” Kayden ran his thumb knuckle across his bottom teeth, toying with what would be a brutal hangnail, eyes focused on their house as they approached the front yard.

“Was there?” Delilah asked.

“I said no,” Kayden said as they climbed up the porch steps.

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Well that's the answer you're getting.”

Kayden opened the door, closing the conversation. As soon as the door closed, their mother rounded the corner from the kitchen into the living room. She was fully dressed in a loose-fitting blue and gray dress, face made up with golden eyeshadow and maroon lips, but she still wore an old, well-loved plush robe, somehow always cold.

“Hey babies,” she cooed as she met them. She placed a hand on Delilah’s cheek, giving the other a light kiss. She turned to Kayden to do the same, nose wrinkling and hand jerking away as she leaned in.

“You need to go take a shower,” she demanded, snickering under her breath.

“Ok Mama,” Kayden said and headed up the stairs, eager to wash the stink of the day off of his body and mind. With each step, his fatigue became more prominent and all he hoped there would-be time for a short pre-dinner nap.

“Kayden.”

The call from his father’s office as he passed was relatively quiet. Still, Kayden’s body momentarily seized, a tiny yelp escaping his mouth. Shaking the shock off of him, Kayden stopped in front of his father’s office door, slowly pressed it open and stepped into the dark room, illuminated only by the dim, bluish computer light. The room was small, a claustrophobic dark hole filled with stuffed bookshelves, loose papers, old handwritten sermons and saturated with a cold, prickly smell that Kayden could only identify as ‘Dad’.

“Yes Dad?” Kayden asked.

William Moses didn’t look up from his computer, most of his head obscured behind it, fingers typing rapidly. He was a solid wall of a man, dark and stoic with lines running across his forehead and at the corners of his eyes. It was summer now so he was clean shaven and had the same tight shave he forced his son to get. While Kayden didn’t consider his father an ugly man, he hated being told how much they looked alike. “I talked to Pastor Zane about his purity lesson plan. Told him that my kids feel comfortable with him, with the group, and that if anything came up that seemed like a problem, he needed to tell me immediately.”

Kayden held his breath, afraid to let go and risk openly hyperventilating. Was his answer too vague? Not vague enough? Was even something so general enough to warrant punishment for a Pastor’s son?

“Seems we learned a lesson. Glad I didn't have to deal with a phone call.”

“Oh…” Kayden whispered. “No-no problem.”

Without looking up, Dad grunted, dismissing the boy who all but ran out of the office, shaking hand pulling the door to just an inch from closed. There was relief in him, yes, but now there were equal parts anxiety. Maybe he should be grateful for the reminder of the eyes always on him, a reminder not to let his guard down. Kayden trudged into his room to grab clean clothes and stared at his bed that, despite his lingering exhaustion, no longer looked so alluring.



Chapter 2


“Why you laughing? You owe me five hundred.”

“What are you talking about? That’s not how this - whatever you’re a bazillion away from even tying with me.”

“Cheater.”

“What?.”

Kayden winced, watching as Manny and Bo leaned over the Monopoly board, Manny snarling and Bo bearing his braces with a manic, teasing smile, almond eyes stretched wide. They were all sat around the coffee table in the middle of the empty living room, surrounded by paper plates with chip crumbs and icing and empty two liters.

“Oh my God.” Nick groaned from Kayden’s left, pressing his face into his small, pudgy hands.

Kayden turned in response to a nudge at his shoulder, looking over at Alex. His eyes were narrow, nose scrunched, and lips curled. The blonde leaned forward, closer and closer, further into Kayden’s bubble, face sidling past his own so Alex’s lips lingered just centimeters from Kayden’s ear. Through the sudden thrumming of blood in his ears, Kayden could barely make out Alex’s words.

“Flip the board.”

Kayden shivered and shook his head, leaning away, though his eyes stayed locked on Alex’s. They were such a light blue, appearing kind of silvery in that particular light.

“What?” Kayden whispered.

“Flip. The. Board,” Alex mouthed. The giddy, mischievous spark in those eyes electrocuted Kayden and, without a second thought, he brought his hand up to strike the side of the board hanging off the coffee table, sending it, the pieces, the cards and a hail of money flying. Manny’s mouth fell open, staring in disbelief at his hard work crumbling while Bo and Nick erupted into relieved laughter.

“Now no one loses,” Alex cried and Kayden couldn’t contain the bubbling of laughter that poured out of him.

“Not how that works,” Manny mumbled, swatting at a bill that landed on his shoulders. He heaved a heavy sigh and stood up in one fluid motion. “Where are the girls? Wanna wish your sister a happy birthday.”

Kayden’s laughter died in his throat as he looked up at Manny and then at Bo and Nick, both snickering. “They’re in the backyard,” he answered.

Manny nodded. “I’m gonna go talk to her.”

“W- wait.” Kayden said as Manny turned to walk away. “My mom’s out there. She’ll send you right back.”

“Your parents are so strict,” Bo said, fiddling with the thimble.

“My dad is a pastor.” Kayden spat in response.

“And I’m a good Christian boy,” Manny said, lip curling into something that was almost a smile, but communicated no joy to Kayden.

“She doesn’t like you anyway,” Alex spoke up, using Kayden’s shoulder as a support to stand. He turned his focus back to Kayden. “Let’s go chill in your room, Kayden.”

Kayden’s face rushed with blood. Let’s go chill in your room, Kayden. Those particular words, in that particular order from Alex’s particular lips…

“Yeah, sounds good,” Bo said. “That way…” He motioned to the opened glass back door where their father sat on the porch, a Bible and a highlighter in his hand.

Kayden knew what being alone with the boys meant. Occasional cursing and discussions of a more lascivious nature, the kind of things they couldn’t publicly discuss but somehow always seemed eager to when the opportunity presented itself. Did his father not suspect? Or did he just not care? He was never much of a chaperone for Kayden, not like he was with Delilah and never when it was just the boys.

“I’m gonna work my magic,” Manny proclaimed, straightening his shirt. He turned on a dime and strutted to the back door.

“Have fun with the rejections,” Alex said, donning a dramatic sad expression for a moment before the grin burst through and gave birth to laughter.

Kayden stared up at the boy, his head thrown back, exposing the pale skin of his neck, thin blue veins obscured by an endless pattern of freckles. He blinked hard, forcing himself out of the trance and noticing Alex’s hand extended towards him. Kayden averted his eyes and took the hand, despite it providing very little help for him as he stood. He turned and motioned for the boys to follow him to his room.

Kayden wanted to say something like ‘thanks for making Manny feel dumb’, but then how could he explain his gratitude if he couldn’t explain why it was so satisfying, what exact feeling it was that Manny forced into him. Maybe he could show Alex. He could wrap his arm around the other boy’s waist and pull him flush against his side. He could put his hands on either side of Alex’s round face, tilt his head down and press a kiss to his forehead like his mother did when he did chores without being asked and maybe as he did so, he could brush aside a loose strand of rich orangey hair.

It was an absurd thought but nothing Kayden could bring himself to laugh at, probably a product of his being too feminine, of taking after his mother in a bad way Dad was always talking to him about.

As they filed into the room, Alex settled into the big round chair Kayden never used and released a heavy sigh as he relaxed into it, looking comically small. Nick plopped on the bed and Kayden sat on the floor with his back against the dresser. Bo closed the door behind them and flipped around, eyes wide.

“So, I got to second base with Tanya,” he said, eyes darting around to each boy in the room, hungry for reactions.

“You’re a liar,” Nick groaned.

“Nah no way.” Bo bounced from foot to foot and waved his arms around as he spoke. “See, she needed a ride from that worship night thing last week and - “

“God is gonna smite you.” Alex laughed and Kayden bit back his own snicker.

“You’re jealous. You’re all just jealous cuz Tanya’s perfect,” Bo said, sweeping the room with an accusatory finger.

Alex’s grin fell and his expression shifted into something softer, distant, his eyes flickering off to stare at nothing. “Not my type,” he mumbled.

“She’s pretty,” Nick started with a snort. “But she’s also a whore. Used goods. Why would you want that?” His already naturally harsh expression stiffened.

“If you lightened up your stance on sloppy seconds you wouldn’t be alone.” Bo chuckled, kneeling down on the side of the bed, eyeing Nick. They held gazed for a long while before Nick cocked his fist back, sending Bo spasming backwards in a fit of self-preservation. He shamefully sat back up with his arms crossed while Nick guffawed.

“Kayden, you found anyone yet?”

Kayen jumped. “H-huh?” Finally, an invitation to join the conversation and he had nothing to offer. “Oh no, no not-no…” These boys wouldn’t applaud his denial of temptation though it was, supposedly, a good thing. He’d never so much as kissed a girl, never felt the sort of innate desire to possess when he looked at a woman he’d heard so much about. Maybe it was a testament to his righteousness and self-control.

“Didn’t I see you talking all alone, all close and personal on Sunday with… uh… short? Curly blonde hair? Braces?” Alex asked.

“Destiny?” Kayden reeled back, eyes wide. “N- no, no, no. She was really upset and she had some stuff going on. We just talked for a little. She’s nice.”

“Just talked?” Bo drawled, crawling over to Kayden with a near sadistic smile.

“Well, we talked,” Kayden grumbled, shoving Bo’s shoulder, sending the boy dramatically to the floor. “.. and she was sad so I was rubbing her shoulder and-”

“Oooh. Sexy,” Alex singsonged.

That word and Alex’s accompanying shimmy made Kayden’s rebuttal momentarily catch in his throat. “A- and… and I got a lecture from Pastor Zane about inappropriate contact and sin and temptation and he told my dad and-” His mouth snapped closed, killing the thought. “It was stupid.”

A creaking drew all of their attention to Kayden’s door where Manny was attempting to sneak into the room, face twitching as he struggled to settle on an appropriately vague expression.

“Someone got rejected,” Alex cheered.

“Shut up.” Manny shut the door behind him, leaning against it with his arms crossed. “Kayden, your mom’s a cockblock.”

“That’s her job,” Kayden spat, scowling up at the boy. He didn’t like Manny, he decided, could barely stand the way everything the boy did made something in him twist and crawl and shutter. Too bad he was all but stuck with him.

Their conversations drifted to moms, to church, to sports and Kayden sat, quiet and content to absorb all the details of his friend’s foreign passions, only interjecting to agree or cut Manny off. Nick was the first to go at 4 o’clock sharp, then Manny but not without first offering to drive everyone in the room to the mall, to eat or just around before leaving with just Bo, the only one excited by his license anymore, leaving Kayden and Alex in an oppressively silent room.

“I should’ve warned you my mom’s late for everything always,” Alex chuckled apologetically. “Sorry if I end up hanging around too long.”

Kayden vehemently shook his head. “No. It-it’s fine. I-I like… you’re… you’re fine.” Kayden stammered, pressing his lips tightly together to hold back anymore verbal vomit.

Alex nodded, offering a small but genuine little smile that Kayden returned. Alex was seemingly always smiling, forming little crinkles around the corners of his eyes that would probably become permanently carved in his skin one day. Kayden’s smile faded. He was staring. He looked down, clearing his throat and picking at invisible lint on the carpet, crushed suddenly by the weight of a pregnant pause. Alex was far more interesting to look at than the carpet, but Kayden couldn’t possibly let himself look up.

After an eternity of quiet, Alex let out a high pitched, dramatic sigh. Kayden looked up reflexively to see Alex had somehow managed to maneuver himself almost completely upside down in the chair, one arm hanging down limply, the other draped across his forehead.

“I’m booooored.”

Kayden’s own laugh caught him by surprise, causing a loud and graceless snort and sending spittle flying from his lips. He cupped his hand over his mouth to catch it but then Alex joined in with a chorus of hiccupped chortles, face growing even redder and Kayden had no choice but to give in, doubling over and shaking his head. As Alex trembled with laughter and tried to right himself, something tumbled from his pocket onto the floor with a soft thud. Still snickering, Kayden moved for it to return the thing, expecting it to be a phone, surprised when his hand landed upon soft leather. He tilted his head to the side, sitting back as he lifted up a small leather-bound notebook labeled in simple block letters ‘Sketches/ Inspo Property Of Alex Taylor’.

“Th-that’s-”

Kayden looked up at a bewildered Alex. He leaned over the edge of the chair, his hand hovering just above the notebook, fingers itching with the desire to snatch it.

“Sorry.” Kayden squeaked at an embarrassingly high pitch, thrusting the book back into Alex’s hands. He pulled his hand to his mouth, biting at the nub of a nail and staring wide eyed, awaiting retribution. He’d just met Alex and now he’d offended him.

Alex looked first at the notebook, then at Kayden. He sighed and the edges of his mouth turned upward. “It’s ok. Really.” His voice was soft, cool and tingly. Kayden’s hand fell from his mouth. He opened his mouth only to quickly shut it again, but Alex had already caught onto his question. “It’s a sketchbook,” Alex said, dropping his head slightly, eyes staring at nothing. “When I get ideas or whatever… just helps to get it out of my head right away so I carry it around.” He brought the book to his chest and his eyes flickered up to Kayden’s.

“That’s cool,” Kayden breathed.

Alex’s round eyes widened and he beamed only for a moment, condensing the grin into a twitching, friendly smile. “Do you want to see?”

Kayden nodded and the two scurried towards each other. Alex melted to the floor cross legged and Kayden crawled over to his side, peeking over his shoulder, watching Alex undo the leather band around the notebook and pry it open. The first image was of a flower, its stem twisted into spirals, its petals extended upwards, reaching hungrily towards the sun, all communicated in wild, kinetic lines.

“I’m not really that good at drawing,” Alex said, continuing to flip through the notebook to images of faces, imaginary creatures, abstract moving bodies. “I’m a painter at heart.”

“You’re really good,” Kayden sighed. He leaned in to get a closer look, skin bristling when his chin brushed against Alex’s warm shoulder. He took a sharp breath in. Alex didn’t smell like soap or cologne, but the smell was as pleasant as it was overwhelming.

Alex looked over his shoulder, their faces just far enough apart to not go cross eyed, his free hand tucking hair behind his ear. “You’re sweet.”

All of the air was knocked out of Kayden’s lungs, all thought in his mind turning off while his body burned like it was struck by lightning. He'd never heard a boy say that word, he was pretty sure. Not like that. If Alex noticed the attack, he didn't react. He closed the notebook and set it by his side while Kayden sat back on his haunches and tried to control his dizziness.

“I… uh… I have a studio,” Alex started, glancing around and pressing his cheeks into his shoulders, looking shy for perhaps the first time. “You… you maybe wanna come over, look at some of my actually good work, hang out? I’m not amazing or anything but-”

“Yeah,” Kayden said, voice breaking and head bobbing like an excited puppy. “Yeah, I’d love to.”

Alex, surprisingly, matched his excitement, grinning and pressing his hands into his thighs as he leaned forward. “I’m free all day tomorrow.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Noo?.”

“Ok, sure.”

“Great.”

Alex sucked his bottom lip between his teeth, nodding at nothing until a buzz caught both of their attention. Alex groaned and fished his phone out of his pocket, mumbling under his breath as he checked his notifications. His eyes widened.

“Damnit,” he groaned and jumped to his feet. “My mom’s been texting me for five minutes. She’s outside. I gotta go.”

Kayden jumped to his feet. “I’ll walk you to the door.”

They made the twenty second trek silently, stopping to face each other when they reached the threshold.

“I had fun and we’ll have more fun tomorrow, right?” Alex said as he opened the door and stepped out onto the porch.

“Right,” Kayden responded and like that Alex took off, trotting down the walkway to the grey SUV waiting for him right outside.

Kayden stood motionless, watching as Alex got inside the car and was driven away. The buzzing energy inside of him had died, now sitting cold and empty in the pit of his stomach. Kayden’s face screwed up in discomfort. It itched but there was no way to scratch it. Noon tomorrow was forever away.

Kayden shut the door and turned away, jumping up into the air and yelping at the unexpected sight of two girls directly behind him.

“Hi Kayden,” Annabelle giggled and stepped behind Delilah, eyes flickering between him and the floor. He'd forgotten she was even here, and now as she hid behind a curtain of red curls, a tinge of cold regret came over him. He'd been wanting to pick her brain about her parent’s dog breeding business yet could never get her alone.

“What is the matter with you?” Delilah snickered.

“You snuck up on me,” Kayden whined, stepping out of the way of the door.

Delilah rolled her eyes and went to open the door. “I’m gonna walk Annabelle home.” She turned her gaze from Kayden to Annabelle, motioning for her to follow. Annabelle scurried forward, taking Delilah’s hand in her own, letting her head loll back as Delilah led her out the door.

“B-bye Kayden. Happy birthday,” she chirped.

As they continued down the steps, out onto the sidewalk, she kept peeking back at Kayden watching in the doorway while Kayden stared back, unable to tear his eyes away from the two girls’ clasped hands.



Chapter 3


The pile of inadequate, rejected shirts was growing steadily on Kayden’s bedroom floor. Why did it take him until now to realize most of his wardrobe was ill fitting and childish? With a huff, Kayden added a baby blue polo to the pile and stared with disdain at his shirtless body. A thin, muscle-less, awkward frame with stubborn deposits of baby fat clinging to his belly and sides, all wrapped in hairless skin, a deep hue that somehow his sister was lucky enough to miss out on. Maybe if he started wearing sunscreen all day every day, he could get closer to that pretty caramel.

Kayden turned away from the offending mirror and dug into his shirt drawer. He pulled out a plain gray long sleeved t-shirt that was too thick for the heat but would cover his body from the sun and any prying eyes.

His phone buzzed in his pocket, sending him jumping up in the air. He fished it out and his mouth went dry instantly at the name on the screen.

‘I’m outside ready to sweep you away.’

Kayden took a running start to the pair of sneakers sitting by his door, jumping into them and trying to get his heels all the way inside as he threw open the door and hobbled down the hall. He stopped at the top of the stair to make his final adjustments before jumping to the bottom, grabbing the wall to swing himself around towards the door and slamming directly into his father’s chest.

“Boy,” his dad exclaimed.

Kayden stumbled back, looked up at his father’s scowl and took another step back for good measure, mumbling, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

“What do you think you’re doing?” his voice rumbled.

Kayden lifted a shaking hand to point to the door. “M-my friend Alex? H-h-he… we’re gonna h-hang out at his house?”

His dad lifted his head and crossed his arms. His nostrils flared. “Oh...Now who told you could do that?”

Kayden looked down at his feet, crossing his arms in front of him. “I asked Mom last night. She said I could.” His heart ached. Such a simple, avoidable mistake and now someone, either him or his mother, would have to deal with it.

“Hmm…” his dad said nothing for an agonizingly long time and Kayden struggled to keep from looking at the door. Would Alex leave if he took too long?

Finally his father sighed and stepped out from between Kayden and the door. “Get out of here,” he grumbled and began a slow march up the stairs. With his dad’s back turned, Kayden bolted to the door, his excitement near to burst tempered only by a tinge of guilt and worry for his mother. But there was plenty of time to be guilty later, so he pushed it to the back and threw the door open.

Alex leaned heavy against the bannister with his cheek pressed into the palm of his hand. He looked up from his phone and grinned. “Hey. Ready to go?”

He was wearing a tank top with the Captain America logo on it and shorts, shorts Kayden knew he’d seen on other boys but never on anyone he was close to, shorts that he’d couldn’t imagine being allowed to wear even with the lax rules of modesty that came with being a boy. Even with Alex’s relatively short legs, miles of bright white, freckled thighs were exposed, enough that Kayden could clearly see subtle defining shadows between the quads and hamstrings. Kayden’s skin prickled and his blood stirred, and he looked away, forcing his eyes to lock onto Alex’s.

“Yeah,” he said with a crack in his voice.

Alex didn’t acknowledge it, motioning for Kayden to follow and turning to walk down the steps. The shorts weren’t just short. They were tight, allowing Kayden access to every detail of Alex’s…He clenched one fist at his sides and the other on his troubled stomach, trotting after Alex and taking his place beside him.

“What’s with the long sleeves?” Alex asked.

Kayden cleared his throat and shrugged, trying to pretend he couldn’t feel the bead of sweat already forming on his forehead. “I… just trying to… stay, like… out of the sun?” Kayden mumbled. He could feel moisture forming under his arms and his heart skipped a beat at the thought of pit stains.

Alex snorted. “If I could actually tan in the sun and didn’t have to wear fourteen layers of sunscreen I would walk around ass naked all day in the summer.”

Kayden chuckled, warm with embarrassment but not unbearably scalding. The laughter had barely faded before Alex pulled his phone out of his pocket.

“Before the awkward walking silence kicks in…” After a few taps, music began pouring out of his phone. “Tell me if you hate it,” Alex said, splotches of red popping up on his neck.

Kayden’s brow furrowed as he tuned into the music. It was different to what he was used to, though that was not saying much. It was all the same Christian stations and gospel CDs in their house. This was alien. He couldn’t identify the instruments, the odd and yet soothing melody soon accompanied by a quiet voice that Kayden assumed was male but couldn’t tell entirely. As soon as the singing started, Kayden was hooked to the words, talk of winter, snowy sidewalks and winds, a beautiful girl. It was a melancholic story Kayden had never heard before.

When the second chorus began, Kayden turned his head towards Alex with a question on his tongue that died when he saw Alex staring back at him, wide eyed, lip between his teeth. Alex’s mouth dropped open momentarily and he turned away, clearing his throat and flushing pink.

“What?” Kayden asked.

Alex shrugged, face twitching as he struggled to pull it into something casual. “Just wanted to see if you like it.”

There were a million questions Kayden wanted to ask, none of them an appropriate response to Alex’s suddenly vulnerable expression, eyes darting around, hands twitching like Kayden’s answer meant the world to him.

“Yeah. It’s nice.”

Alex looked over at him and flashed a blinding grin as tension fell from his shoulders. “I just found out about this band. It’s a weird mix of electronic and kind of ska but it works, you know? It's melancholy but it's fun and the lyricism. Uh. They're called Pelican Nights and they…”


***


Walking into Alex's home was an immediate overwhelming of the senses. The walls, while themselves were light beige, were covered in paintings, signs and photos of the family. The whole place smelled of an odd mix of flowers and smoke, the source of which Kayden traced to two burning sticks of incense sitting on the top of a messy, overflowing bookshelf. It was messy, just bordering on unreasonable, with stray boxes, an exercise machine with coats hanging on it, several trash bags, lamps and more objects that registered only as visual noise.

“Mom? Mooom!” Alex shouted as he closed the door behind them.

“I am right here, Alex,” an irritated voice responded just a few feet away. Alex rolled his eyes, turning the corner with Kayden trailing close behind him.

The kitchen was all chrome and red, all of the pieces well matched but similarly messy. The sink was halfway full and the stove was spattered with the mess of last night's dinner. Alex's mother sat at the breakfast nook, barefoot in jeans and T-shirt from some convention, a book hanging in one hand. She was a soft, round woman that reminded him of his mother, but Kayden was instantly uncomfortable in her presence, her casual smile strange and naked.

“Hi Kayden,” she said, dropping the book into her lap. Kayden’s eye caught the cover of what looked to be a romance novel but he tore his gaze away from it to politely nod back at the woman.

“Hi Mrs. Taylor,” Kayden said.

“We're gonna chill in the basement,” Alex said, inching back towards the closed door on the far side of the kitchen. “Just knock super loud if you need us.” Alex looked to Kayden and with a flick of his brow and Kayden came scurrying up next to him, still facing Mrs. Taylor with a shaky smile, head aching with the effort it took not to stare at her book cover and make out the provocative image. She sighed and nodded with a sideways grin, an uncanny resemblance between her and her son appearing and disappearing just as quickly.

“I'm leaving in fifteen minutes babe so if you-”

“I can feed myself Mom,” Alex said, opening the door and backing into it.

Mrs. Taylor let out a snorting laugh and nodded. Alex waved for Kayden to follow. Kayden ran through the door and down the first few carpeted steps, looking back up at Alex as he shut the door with a dramatic sigh.

“My mom’s a...mom. Just hope she doesn't bother us,” he mumbles.

As he passed Kayden on the steps, Kayden could see his face twitching to find a neutral expression, lip pressed between his teeth. He followed behind the boy swinging himself around the bannister to face the open room.

“Welcome to my hole in the ground.”

The basement in question was a wide-open space, furnished with a computer desk and a TV sporting several bean bags as seating. There were a few bookshelves but otherwise, the space was uncluttered, the bluish grey carpet sporting fresh vacuum lines and the walls strangely bare. There were two doors, one of which was wide open revealing Alex's bedroom, furnished in blue tones and impressively neat. The other was closed with a slate of old painted wood hanging from the doorknob, marked in blue and gold calligraphy ‘Alex’s Studio No Entry’.

“This is all yours?” Kayden breathed, not sure if he was more shocked by the open space or the privacy of living under the house. Kayden swung around, seeing Alex pressed against the wall, looking around at nothing, face flushed pink.

“Yeah, well… my parents really liked the location even if they didn't need all the space. Guess they thought it was best to just give me enough space to keep all my weirdness to myself.” He chuckled and ran his hand through his hair, immediately swooping it back the other direction to smooth out the cow tails. He walked past Kayden and towards the bean bags, kicking his shoes off. Kayden followed suit and the two boys collapsed side-by-side in the bean bags. Alex splayed out with a groan and threw his head back. Kayden pulled his legs up to his chest. The room was so big and Alex was so small and yet it seemed he’d left barely any space for the two to not be touching.

“You wanna watch a movie?” Alex asked, groaning as he stretched his foot out to reach the remote, tongue sticking out as he maneuvered it back towards him.

“Um… I’m not really…” Kayden swallowed. His whole body was suddenly hot, and his stomach ached with sudden nausea. His voice abandoned him, and he turned, tucking his chin into his chest.

“What’s that?” Alex said and bumped Kayden’s knee with his own.

Kayden slowly exhaled. “I-I … I’m not al-l-llowed to… to watch stuff… my p-parents…”

That was just how good Christian families functioned but why now did it bring up such unbearable shame? His parent’s intense strictness, was it formulated just as a way to torture him even when he was outside of their view? Alex would turn him away. Alex would talk about him behind his back. Alex would-

“Oh. Sorry,” Alex said through his teeth. Kayden glanced up, peeking at the awkward, sideways smile Alex wore. “Do you think I’d tell?”

Kayden shook his head, still staring at the floor. “N-no. No, I just… I-I-I’d feel bad and I m-mess up a-a-all the time and I can’t...” Without the breath to complete his thought, Kayden deflated, letting the ensuing silence crush him. He needed to leave before he made things worse, claim he was sick or fake a phone call.

“Hey. Kayden. Hey.”

Kayden looked up at the sound of Alex’s relaxed voice and shuddered when he found the boy kneeling in front of him. Alex smiled. This close, Kayden could count every freckle, could see the light bags under his eyes and thin red hairs on his upper lip that made him appear closer to sixteen. He reached forward, placing a burning hand on Kayden’s shoulder.

“You’re embarrassed. Don’t be.”

Kayden stared back, mouth agape, thinking and feeling either nothing or everything at once. But his body gave into the command, getting rid of the nausea and the fight or flight that surged in his legs and beckoned him to run but leaving him no less dizzy.

“You do what you think is right. I’m not gonna bully you,” Alex said. He stood up and offered Kayden his hand. “I just think you should make your own decision.”

That tinge of alien discomfort wasn’t going anywhere. Kayden took the hand, letting Alex pretend to help him to his feet.

“Wanna look at the studio?”

Kayden nodded and Alex all but floated over to the studio door, pressing his back against it, one hand wrapped around the doorknob, eyeing Kayden as he approached. Kayden walked over to Alex, intrigued by his posture, the way his back was arched, chest pressed forward, shoulders relaxed. He was steps away and yet Alex was silent, motionless. Kayden took another step forward. A scene from a movie he’d been severely punished for watching came to mind. Romantic music, an inappropriately dressed lead woman pressed up against the wall, drawing the man in by the tie. The TV was cut off before it could happen but eight-year-old Kayden was sure a kiss was imminent, even if he couldn't understand or imagine it. Kayden took another step forward. Alex’s pupils were blown wide. He had to crane his neck slightly to keep eye contact with Kayden and yet, his presence seemed huge, engulfing and Kayden felt an unusual sort of small. Warmth was pooling low in his belly. It wasn’t entirely new but…

“Alright! Studio Tour time!” Alex screamed in Kayden’s face and twisted the door knob, stumbling back with the swinging door. Kayden reeled back, blinking and dizzy from the feeling of his blood rushing back to his extremities. His mouth was dry and his heart hammering. However, when he looked up, the studio grabbed his attention and yanked him into the room in awe, leaving some of the stress outside so Kayden could rid himself of the rest of it with a shake of his head.

The room was an overwhelming mosaic of colors, images, textures and tools Kayden barely recognized. Canvases of varying sizes were stacked along the walls of the tiny room and the walls themselves were covered in finished pieces. Small black and white drawings of trees and flowers, abstract explosions of neon colors with human faces buried within them and sitting on a large easel, a canvas with a border of sketched flowers, only halfway filled with pink and purple paint like it had been poured in from the top.

“Watch your step. It’s pretty messy,” Alex said from behind him.

Kayden spared a quick glance at the floor, covered in cups of water and brushes and bowls of paint, stepping gingerly around them to climb deeper into the magic.

“Uh… a lot of the stuff on the walls is old,” Alex said after a long silence. “I’m still learning and stuff. Haven’t had formal training or anything so it’s not really-”

“This is amazing,” Kayden breathed.

He stayed in silent, serene awe for a moment before filling with heat and twirling around to look at Alex, having not meant to interrupt him. He had an apology ready that quickly died when he saw Alex. The boy had collected one of the canvases and was clutching it to his chest, looking at the floor, face flushed scarlet.

“Are you embarrassed?” Kayden asked incredulously.

Alex turned his head to the side, lips pressed together in a dramatic pout, just barely holding back nervous giggles. “Sh-shut up.”

“It really is great,” Kayden chirped, relaxing just enough to smile.

“Shut uuuup.”

For a moment, the boys were caught up in giggles, unable to hold eye contact while Alex struggled to compose himself. With a deep breath he stepped forward. “This is one I just finished. Would you like to-”

“Yeah,” Kayden chirped, tiptoeing through the cluttered floor to meet Alex.

As Kayden stepped by his side, Alex held the canvas out in front of him. Kayden recognized it immediately as a self-portrait, despite the surrealness of the image. The hair floated upwards like he was underwater. The eyes were abnormally large, glittering and glowing. Where his chest would’ve been, the painting melted into a blackness decorated with symbols that Kayden didn’t understand. He didn’t understand all that was available to understand but that was not a new feeling.

“It’s a cathartic piece,” Alex said and Kayden nodded despite not understanding what that meant.

“Technically speaking, it's a mess.” Alex’s voice changed, tight and distant. “I ran out of oils halfway through the face detailing and switched to acrylics and I for some reason just threw in some sparkly puff paint. It’s a mess.”

“I think it's great,” Kayden said. Alex sucked in a harsh breath and Kayden turned to him, shaking his head as he frantically back peddled.

“I-I mean… I don’t know a-anything about art l-l-like you but… I just… like it?”

“I have a bunch of books on art if you ever want to borrow them.” Alex pointed to what was once a stack but now was a pile of books of varying thicknesses. “Some are more historical; some are more art theory but if you’re interested I’m sure you could get something out of it.”

Kayden nodded and bit down on his lip. Even as endlessly cool and forgiving as Alex was, admitting that any book he borrowed would be subject to his father’s review was far less appealing than just being silent in the face of generosity.

Alex set the canvas against the wall, replacing it with a beaten leather notebook, holding it out to Kayden with a grin and a quirked brow. “Wanna see some of my older stuff?”

Alex made his way through everything in the room, producing canvases, notebooks and sketch paper, each piece with an accompanying history, meaning, story and importance that grew less and less apologetic. Kayden happily sank into the depths he hadn’t even known existed, thoughtlessly asking questions that pulled him even deeper. The stream of compliments never stopped flowing from him, embarrassing but a good way to focus on the positive of the situation and not the fact that if Alex expected a similar journey from him, he would be disappointed.

The two boys found themselves kneeling over a long, thin landscape painting, having wriggled all the way from one side to the other, Alex pointing out every small detail and Kayden following behind.

“And you see, I kinda left it white at the end, like a border. I think it closes it off, makes that fantasy element a little stronger, like it’s a contained work in its own world.”

Alex sat back on his haunches once his spiel was done and Kayden stayed sitting up, trying to contextualize the painting as a whole.

“I think that’s it,” Alex said and let out a heavy sigh. “You’ve seen all there is to me.” He tilted his head to the side and giggled. His lips closed slowly over his teeth and his eyes were just the slightest bit hazy with thought.

Kayden sat back, looking at his hands as they folded in his lap. That wasn’t true. There was a notebook duct taped to a folder that Alex had skimmed over but his intrigue was silly at best and unfair at worst. He nodded and his chest grew cold and heavy. They’d done what they had arranged to do and Kayden didn’t want to leave. Not yet. Not when there was still so much of his day that otherwise would be spent trapped at home. But surely Alex had better things to do. He swallowed, preparing himself to make the ‘You should go now’ as easy as possible.

Alex let out a dramatic sigh, dropping his head back. “What do you wanna do now that we’ve explored the depths of my tortured psyche?” Alex huffed, flipping his hair as he did. He turned back to the other boy and Kayden jumped at the expectant look in his eye.

“Uuhhh…” Kayden droned.

What did people do when they hung out together? Suddenly every social interaction he’d ever had was unavailable for reference. He furrowed his brow and searched his brain, recalling the most recent suggestion. He bit down on his lips before he let it slip out. It wasn’t right… but of all the wrong Kayden had done, it wasn’t even close to the worst. Besides, Alex wouldn’t tell.

“We could watch a movie?”

***


The boys settled into the beanbags with a bowl of popcorn between them, Alex with a blanket wrapped around him, because he was ‘always freezing’. The film they decided on was one that had been sitting in Alex’s Netflix que for months, a drama about two adult siblings and their dysfunctional family and… nothing else. Kayden was wide eyed and intrigued. The film moved slowly without stops for reflection, without a clear moral guide or message to be learned. There was a reference to church but not God himself. The sister character lived with and slept in the same bed with a boyfriend, something that was not even offhandedly critiqued by any of the other characters. It was what his Dad would call a ‘frenzy of sin’ and yet while they all acted so alien, Kayden’s heartstrings were hooked, though not without tangles. Every time he caught himself fearful for the sister’s relationship, angry at the religious grandparents, tickled by the brother’s cathartic cursing, guilt surged up immediately behind and stayed there.

“Did you like it?” Alex asked once the credits began to roll to the tune of a heavy ballad.

“Yeah...kinda…” Kayden responded and it wasn’t a satisfactory explanation but the best he could do.

Alex nodded and pulled his phone out from inside his blanket cocoon. Kayden watched him type out a message to someone, suddenly remembering that there were people other than him that Alex had to spend time with.

“It’s a little after four now,” Alex said as he finished up his message. “Want me to walk you home?”

Kayden nodded, climbed to his feet and stretched his back with a series of pops. Kayden watched as Alex did the same, watched his spine elongate like a cat, mouth open into a perfect circle with a dramatic groan, back arch into a deep curve. He looked up and scanned the room, beelining for his shoes.

“Are you hanging out with someone else?” The question came out faster than Kayden could think about it and he clenched his shoelaces in his hands to keep from clapping them over his mouth.

“Nah,” Alex responded, shoving his feet into a pair of sandals. “I got chores and stuff. Plus, I’ve already taken up a lot of your day. You ready to go?” Alex passed him, stepping onto the first step.

Kayden’s mouth opened, first to rebut Alex’s statement. He killed that thought though, nodding and following Alex upstairs and out the front door.

“The actor that played the brother in that movie,” Alex started once they got going down the sidewalk. “He’s one of my favorites. He disappears in every role. There’s this one short film he made with just him and his husband and it's-”

“Husband?”

“Huh?” Alex turned to Kayden, his quizzical furrowed brow lifting almost immediately. “Oh yeah. Yeah, he’s gay.” Alex glanced at his feet for a moment then back at Kayden. “Would your parents let you watch something if the actor was gay but, like, not the character?” He looked down at Kayden through his nose, eyes slightly lidded, smiling but with something missing.

Kayden cleared his throat, looking down at his hands clasped in front of him. “N-no… no probably not. That’s not… no.”

“They think it’s, like… wrong and evil…” Alex mused, head lolling about as he failed to lock his gaze in any particular direction. “What do you believe?”

Alex was trying to kill him. Kayden’s throat felt like it was completely swollen shut and his heart was threatening to burst.

“It’s just how things are,” Kayden said in a thin voice followed by a desperate gulp of air. His hands dropped to his sides, clenching into fists.

“That’s not what I asked,” Alex continued, the edge in his voice growing sharper. “Come on, really. What do you-”

“Why do you care?” When Kayden looked up to deliver the angry remark, he saw his house right behind Alex. He could just run in now, leave the human embodiment of anxiety out on the sidewalk. Instead, he stopped, pursed his lips and turned his head away, sneaking glances at Alex’s cracking calm facade.

Alex’s lips curled into a sneer and he shrugged. “I just think you should have your own opinions. You're just parroting stuff your parents say without getting it.”

The burning anger that had been festering inside him took a sharp turn and a lump formed in his throat and his eyes burned and he wanted to scream ‘Why do you want to make things hard?’. His gaze flickered once more to his house and this time, Alex followed his gaze, turning around and releasing a heavy sigh.

“Looks like it’s your stop. I’ll see ya,” Alex said all in one breath and was gone, headed back down the sidewalk, back tall, arms swinging at his side, leaving Kayden a quivering little boy. He sniffed hard, pinched the bridge of his nose and tilted his head back, trying to reabsorb all of the tears that were waiting to fall and shuffled up the driveway and inside to where it was cool and quiet.


***


“... and it’s rated PG. Kendall took her little sisters and loved it. Here, you can read the description.” Delilah leaned across the table, thrusting her phone towards their father, who rolled his eyes and made no move to take it.

“I don’t care what the rating is. If it’s not meant to glorify god, then it’s not a ‘good movie’. You find something else to do with those girls or you stay your behind at home.” Dad scowled, and took an angry bite of mashed potatoes.

Delilah’s eyes were wide, her mouth opening and closing with unspoken responses. She deflated, pulling her phone back into her lap and staring at her plate, plummeting the table back into silence.

“So a movie has to be about God to be good?” Kayden said at his plate, sure his bravery would collapse if he made contact with the three pairs of eyes staring him down.

“It’s all about God, honey,” Mom said. “Ain’t nothing without God so what’s the point in trying to exclude him from the story.” Dad grunted in response.

“But what if…” Kayden traced his fork in circles around his half-eaten food. “What if it’s just about people? Then it’s like… if God made people, it’s still about God.” He nodded to himself, happy to have finally gelled the storm in his head into a complete thought.

“You trying to be smart boy?”

Kayden’s head snapped up and he leaned back, away from the head of the table. “N-no. N-no sir, I-”

“Then shut your mouth and stop talking back.” Dad pointed at him with his fork then went back to eating. The vein on his forehead receded.

Kayden bit hard into his lip. Was his parents’ goal really to change his thoughts or just for him to keep the bad ones strictly locked away, because that was all that was being accomplished. The food on his plate looked entirely unappetizing. He wanted to go to bed, to be away from these people who didn’t care anything about him but of course, if he asked to be excused now, he’d be accused of having an attitude. So he waited until everyone else was done and Delilah was conscripted into the kitchen to do dishes to bolt off to his room.

As soon as the door was closed, Kayden threw himself onto his bed, buried his head in the pillow and growled into it, fists pounding into the mattress. Was he just too stupid to ask questions? If secular movies were so evil, why did it make him feel that new, electric way? Why did so many people like them? Why did Alex go to church and watch them? Why did he want to see more? Was he evil? Was Alex evil? If everyone was so mad at him for being wrong, why couldn’t he ask questions?

Kayden rolled onto his back, squeezing his aching temples. Repentance, the act of changing one's mind. That’s what he was instructed to do in times like these, when unchristian thoughts were stuck in his head. But the thought of kneeling to pray now, like his father wanted, made him prickle and burn, leaving him only with the option to let it stay there...

Frantic and angry and desperate to hold onto that thoughtless state, Kayden snatched his phone out of his back pocket and penned a text to Alex.

‘I’m sorry for being mean to you I’m just too stupid to have my own ideas and I didn’t want to talk about it cuz it made me feel dumb.’

As soon as he hit send, his stomach twisted with what an inarticulate, pathetic mess he’d made himself out to be. But the message was already sent and Kayden threw an arm over his face. Exhausted sighs turned to pants, which turned to quiet tears rolling down his cheeks and pooling in his ears.

His phone buzzed and he groaned. Better to rip the Band-Aid off quick. With his eyes closed he fished for his phone, held it out in front of his face and counted to three before opening his eyes.

‘You’re not dumb.Taking my frustration out on you isn’t cool.’

A moment later, another text appeared.

‘So are we gonna just be cordial or can we be friends?’

Kayden’s heart leapt into his chest and rebellion made his head dizzy.

‘Friends. I want u to show me more movies. ‘

‘And music.’




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