Wills leaves for his freshman year at UGA tomorrow. He and his twin Henry have packed their cars. His parents have packed their mother’s car. Of course Wills’s very best friend could stay over for his last night in Savannah. He’s practically family. Everyone agrees Wills and Henry would miss him so much. After their celebratory family dinner, all the Cullivers around the table and Wills and Henry’s favorite pulled pork barbecue, Crispin shows up around nine. He and Henry and Wills slouch around the big TV in the informal living room and watch stupid movies. Wills’s mother cuffs him on her way up to bed. “Don’t y’all stay up too late. We’re leaving early.”
“We won’t, Ma.”
“Don’t you ‘Ma’ me, boy.” She cuffs him again, on the head this time.
“Ow. That hurt.”
“It was supposed to.” She laughs. Wills hears her climb the big, creaky staircase.
Henry looks at them. “I guess I should hang out awhile so it’s less obvious.”
“You wanna raid the bar?” Wills tilts his head in the direction of the dining room. He wants alcohol tonight. He’s going to need it.
“Fuck it. Imma leave y’all to it.” Henry stands, sort of hits Wills on the shoulder, nods at Crispin, and climbs up after his mother. He’s sleeping in the guest room. They’ll all wake at 4 am and switch — really, Henry will get up at 4 am and stumble across the hall. Wills doesn’t suppose he and Crispin will sleep.
“What d’you want?” Wills fucks up already fucked-up hair. He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, Henry doubled, but brows drawn together, dark eyes narrowed: their worried face.
“Jim Beam if you got it.” Crispin whispers, probably out of habit more than anything.
“Think we do. I’ll go look.”
Wills sneaks into the dining room, rummages through the cabinet, and comes back with a bottle of bourbon. Fuck it, they don’t have Jim Beam and they don’t need two bottles anyway. “I thought we could just share.” He doesn’t look at Crispin. “And I didn’t think we’d be needing glasses.”
Crispin shakes his head. “You’re gonna be hungover as all hell in the morning, Wills.”
“Don’t give a fuck.” Wills takes a big drink and passes the bottle. Crispin chugs some. “You wanna go out to the barn?”
“It’s always the fucking barn.” Wills hears both layers, the teasing and the bitterness.
“I’m sorry. You know we can’t —”
“I know we can’t.”
“I mean, if you’d rather not —”
“I want to.” Crispin stands. “Come on.”
They slip out the kitchen into the August dark, to the smothering steam of a Georgia night stitched with the screech of cicadas, the rise and fall of tree frogs calling. Wills swallows and catches Crispin’s hand as they walk over the path from the house he can tread with his eyes closed.
They don’t turn on the lights. The barn fans whir and drone; hay sticks prickly to their sweat when they sit close on one of the bales. The horses are turned out in the fields, and the barn has a strange, emptied feeling, turned to a lair of cats and night things. Wills rests his head on Crispin’s shoulder. Crispin hits the bourbon like a baby bottle.
Wills takes it from him and drinks more. He needs it like mother’s milk.
“You can come.” He can’t stop himself. “You can transfer. It’s not too late.” He’s said it a thousand times.
And like every time before, Crispin says: “No. You know I wanna be a carpenter like my dad. You know I wanna get the company, same’s you want your dad’s. Except your dad’s a lawyer, Wills, and mine does architectural restoration.” He drinks deep. “They don’t teach that shit at UGA. I told you that when we were five and I’ve been telling you that ever since.”
Wills remembers. He sees Crispin’s small face, the flyaway spiraling curls, white-blond then, the big blue eyes. He had stood in front of their first grade classroom. “And when I grow up Imma be a carpenter and work with my daddy,” he’d said. He’d looked so serious.
Their teacher had smiled indulgently. “You don’t want to be a doctor or an astronaut, Crispin?”
“No, ma’am. Imma fix houses.”
“Boys who go to Thurston don’t grow up to fix houses.” She had laughed.
“I do. Daddy says I’ll go to Savannah Tech and then go work for someone else for a while and then come home and the whole whole business, it’ll be mine.”
“You can sit down, Crispin.”
Crispin had furrowed his brows and sat back down next to Wills. “What’d I say bad?”
Wills had shrugged and drawn Crispin a picture of him with a hammer to make him feel better. Crispin swears he still has it somewhere. When you’ve known someone since you were five, these things happen: the memories rise in your mind, and you can’t stop them; you turn around too fast and expect to see the ones you love small, expect to find yourself the same.
Wills feels small in the face of this. He wishes desperately for the simplicity of first grade: they could hold hands on the way to recess. If he reaches far enough, in this night-time place of owls and bats and prowling things, he can find the feel of Crispin’s pudgy hand in his.
“But I’m in love with you.” Wills finally blurts in a fit of alcohol and desperation.
“‘M in love with you.” Crispin looks at the ground. “You know that. We said it. When we — the first time —”
They had. They haven’t said it since. Wills has been too frightened and maybe Crispin didn’t think Wills needed to hear it. Maybe he thought that one time, in the middle of everything, holding each other, that was enough.
“How can we be in love with each other from so far away?” Wills whispers this part. “How can that happen?”
Crispin drinks hard. “Don’t know.”
“You’ve always been there. What the fuck happens when you’re not?”
“I don’t fucking know. We deal.”
Wills drops his head in his hands. His palms sweat against his forehead. “I can’t. I can’t do this from so far away. It hurts too bad and I can’t.”
Crispin stops mid-drink. Even in the dark, Wills sees his eyes widen. “What d’you mean?” He asks it carefully. Crispin likes things laid out neatly.
“I said I can’t. I can still be in love with you but I can’t say we’re together.”
Crispin — Wills can’t make a word for it. Sags, maybe, or deflates. He looks away and Crispin’s probably crying and doesn’t want him to see. “If that’s what you need.” Of course he says that, because he’s Crispin and he will give Wills anything and that makes everything so much worse.
If Crispin fought, if Crispin argued, if Crispin pled or yelled, Wills would crack. Wills would say: okay Crispin. You’re right. We’ll make this work somehow. But Crispin only turns his face away, and fear coils in Wills’s stomach: maybe Crispin doesn’t love him the same. Maybe he doesn’t want to fight for it.
“We could say no guys at all. We could say no girlfriends. Can we say that at least?” Wills begs now.
“Yeah.” Crispin still doesn’t look. “We can say that.” He laughs suddenly. “Here I thought I was coming out to get laid, and I get broken up with. Christ, William. Learn to warn a man.”
“I still want to. I mean, if you do. I get it if you don’t.” One of the big tom cats emerges from the dark, a strange and slinky apparition, to rub on Wills’s legs; he picks it up and holds it against his chest. The cat purrs on him, a warm thrum in the black.
“‘Course I want to.” Crispin talks to the ground. “‘Course I want to, Wills. I always want to. No matter what — I still feel — I mean —”
“I know. Me too.” Wills sets down the cat and wraps his arms around Crispin. “I know.” He buries his head in Crispin’s neck. “I know.”
“D’you remember the first time?”
“I meant it. What I said, I mean.”
Wills nods again.
“I still mean it.”
“Me too.” Wills’s voice comes out rusty.
They drag some of the old horse blankets up to the hayloft. They’ve done it enough times now: get the right ones, the softer ones, the ones they can ball up and use as a pillow and the one they can use underneath. Wills had been so scared the first time. His hands shake again but for a different reason.
He’d brought what they need with them, the lube and condoms. They climb the old wooden ladder and push open the trapdoor. The loft opens to the outside on one end, so the air isn’t close or stifled, but bats fly in and out; an owl swoops on silent wings. Wills touches Crispin’s arm and they watch in silence as it dips and lifts, then flaps once and disappears through the wide doors on the far side, big enough to admit two pickups side-by-side.
Moving the bales, still silent, they make a deep hole where they can lie down without being seen. Hay sticks to their sweaty arms, good alfalfa whose green smell rises around them: now the scent of hot summer nights at the end of everything.
They lay the blankets at the bottom, like a nest, roll up some as pillows, and climb in. The barest bit of moonlight plays over Crispin’s face.
“What d’you wanna do?” Wills finally asks as they look at each other for a long, long time, not touching, not talking. Hay tickles his nose.
“Stay here with you.”
“Do you wanna …” Wills trails off.
“Yeah. Sorta. I don’t know if I can.”
Wills’s throat starts to close and he can’t swallow. His chest hurts. He turns on his back. “D’you wanna try?”
Crispin doesn’t talk for a long time. “Don’t know.” He sort of laughs. “You just broke up with me.”
“I didn’t break up. I just can’t — it hurts, Crispin. I can’t be away from you and call it that when it isn’t because you’re not there. I don’t care about you less.”
“I want to, I think. Even if it’s the last time and it never happens again. I think I wanna.”
“You wanna do it, or you want me to …”
“You do it.” Wills wants held. “And I did it first so if it’s the worst thing and this is the last time, then I did it first and you did it last and I think I’d want it that way, y’know?”
“Can we say it won’t be the last?”
“Yeah.” Wills takes a deep breath. “Yeah. It won’t be the last.”
He and Crispin cuddle together. Wills buries his head in Crispin’s shoulder and wraps his arms around his neck. He isn’t hard. Neither is Crispin. They lie still for a long time, listening to the high squeak of bats, the soft call of the barn owls.
“I don’t think I can.” Wills whispers it.
“Can we just do this instead? Can you set your alarm, and we can just do this? I mean it’s not a bed or anything —”
Crispin kisses his forehead. “It’s ours more than anywhere else.”
Wills smiles a little. “Guess so. No one else lost their virginity in this goddamn hayloft, did they?”
Crispin sets his phone alarm. They curl together in the dark. Crispin’s warm, perfect scent cuts through the hay. They sneak back to the house before sunrise.
In the morning, they hug goodbye, slapping each other’s backs, promising to text and message and whatever. Wills is breaking and he can’t show it. “Why the hell do you have hay in your hair?” his mother asks.
“Oh. We went out to say g’bye to the horses last night.”
Crispin takes a left out of the drive. Wills takes a right up to the interstate. He turns up R.E.M. as loud as it’ll go and chugs coffee. In between gulps, he cries.
Chapter 1: It’s Enough (excerpt)
Wills nods at him. “Take off your own goddamn tux. It’s bad enough to get one off myself, let alone someone else.” Crispin strips with the same shamelessness he’s always stripped in front of Wills: they’ve seen each other naked hundreds of times in gym and football and Scouts. But they could never, ever look, at least not below the waist. This time Crispin lets himself stare. Wills is the same: cut like the football captain he was, all bulked muscle and kinetic energy.
“Carpentry school is good to you.” Wills crosses the gap between them. Crispin’s too afraid anymore. He touches Crispin’s biceps. “I’ve been looking at your ass all night. And you let your hair grow.” Wills twirls one of Crispin’s blond curls around a finger. Suddenly, he pushes Crispin down on the bottom bunk. “I want you. I wanted you when I saw you walk in the Umber Club.”
Then he’s on top, his mouth crushing down on Crispin’s, the familiar taste of Wills after a party: bourbon and something sweeter Crispin can never pin down. His tongue pushes into Crispin’s mouth. There’s that familiar push-pull of making out with no finesse, like high schoolers: rough, hard, sucking. Crispin rubs his cock against Wills’s, and ohgod, Wills bucks back.
“You want me to fuck you?” Wills sounds a little breathless. “Or you wanna fuck me?”
“Then you fuck me after.”
“Won’t feel as good for you.”
“Then I’ll suck you off.”
Wills produces some lube — he must have planned this, it’s in his side table, and Crispin’s chest tightens. Wills planned for them to fuck each other in an empty house tonight. Wills motions for Crispin to get on all fours. But instead of cool lube on his ass, a hot tongue touches him. Crispin jumps.
“Not okay?” Wills’s voice rises.
“No, you just surprised me.”
That wet tongue returns to his ass, hot, probing, licking his entrance, teasing inside it. Crispin can’t help but moan, especially when it works into him, when it licks and licks like Wills is trying to open him up with it. Then the wet, cold lube replaces it; a long finger starts sliding into him, a little at a time. They’ve been very careful with each other since the beginning, probably too careful, but Crispin doesn’t want to hurt Wills. Wills’s gentleness, that one slow finger, tells Crispin he worries about the same thing.