He walked down the path to your porch, his feet kicking up an orange cloud of dust that blurred his shins.
“They said there was a boy who plays guitar living up here,” he said when he was close enough for you to hear his voice. “They said he plays good. Guess they were right.”
“My parents told me not to talk to strangers,” you said, your arms curling around the guitar in your lap instinctively, protectively.
“You just did.” His smile was crooked. You liked the way he wore confidence. Some people tried too hard, their blank smiles obvious masks; his was an invisible blanket over his shoulders, draped in loose, casual folds.
“It’s play well, for the record,” you said, shifting on the rough wooden step. “And I’m just okay at it.”
“Yeah? I’ll believe it when I hear it.” He came over and sat down next to you, knocking his bare shoulder into yours. Through the thin fabric of your shirt, you could feel the sunbaked heat of his skin. “Go on, play me a song.”
“And what do I get in return?”
He tilted his head to the side, smiled again. “Depends. Ask, and we’ll see.”
“Then…” You strummed on your guitar thoughtfully. “Can I have your name?”
His smile melted into a grin, warm and genuine, and that was when you learned the difference between charm and authenticity. It struck you, how marked the difference was.
“Pedro,” he said. “Call me Pedro.”
Pedro invited you over to his place the next day. “Some friends’ll be there, and my brother,” he said. “It’ll be fun.”
You walked down the road to the house he was staying in for the summer, past stretches of green, empty fields and the occasional farmhouse, a kind path for your thin-soled shoes. The sky was cloudless and infinite. Your guitar was strapped to your back, a familiar weight, like an old friend.
A tall, dark-haired boy, perhaps a few years younger than you, answered the door. “Pedro, your friend,” he called behind his shoulder as he ushered you in. That took you by surprise. You’d never heard anyone refer to you as someone’s friend so readily.
Pedro ran in from another room inside the house, greeting you with a smile. “My brother, John,” he said, pointing to the other boy, who gave a shy half-wave. “The other two are in here.”
You met a girl around your and Pedro’s age who introduced herself as “Beatrice” with a challenge in her gaze, and a girl with blonde hair young enough to be Beatrice’s sister, but who labeled herself as “Hero, her cousin” instead. They were staying next door, Pedro told you, but their families came up together, which made sense. The way they talked to each other, jokes and insults slipping out on the same breath, told you Pedro and John had known them for years.
“You didn’t tell me your place had a pool,” you said during a lull in the conversation, your eyes on the glass doors that led from the living room out into the backyard. “Might’ve brought my swimming trunks.”
“Next time,” Pedro said. It felt strange to you, how easy a promise like that could come to him, when you barely knew each other at all. Strange, and yet pleasing, all at once.
The conversation soon broke in half, Pedro and Beatrice going on about some movie they’d seen the week before – “I still think it’s absolute garbage that they got together, as if she ever needed him in the first place” – and John and Hero speaking to each other in familiar whispers. It seemed inevitable. You’d only just met a group of friends who’d known each other probably their whole lives, after all.
Some minutes passed, and you noticed Hero and John periodically shooting you glances. Once, you met Hero’s eyes and raised your eyebrows inquiringly; she looked away and hid a giggle behind her hand.
Finally, a few more unexplained looks later, she stood up and walked up to you bravely. “Can I touch your guitar?” she said, hope in her words.
You blinked up at her with surprise. No one had ever asked you that before.
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” you said, snapping out of it with an enthusiastic nod. You pulled the instrument into your lap, a motion you’d practiced for years, and waved her closer. She ran her hands over the body silently, wide-eyed.
“You, uh, you want to play it a bit?” You held it out at an angle, and she plucked at the strings with nimble fingers. You found yourself unable to fight back a smile when she let out a soft noise of delight.
“You play, now,” she said.
“I, uh – “
“Please?” she begged, and how could you resist a pout like that?
“Um, what do you want me to play?”
She shrugged. “Anything.”
You gave it some thought and finally settled on a song that reminded you of summer and love. The chords were a familiar ache in your fingertips. When you started playing, the room fell into a hush. You could feel eyes on you, but it wasn’t enough to make you stumble. You knew the song too well to stumble.
Hero tugged on your sleeve. “Can you sing some?” she whispered, her tone almost conspiratorial.
Without breaking the song, you obliged. The words felt rusty on your tongue, but the melody was fresh enough in your head that you didn’t feel too embarrassed at the performance. You were too focused on your music, anyway, to actually pay attention to your small audience’s reactions.
At the end of it, you looked up from your hands and, accidentally, at Pedro. He was sprawled on the couch, his gaze on you. His mouth was open, slightly, his eyes wide. You looked away first.
You stayed for lunch, and then you watched a movie or three – for the most part Beatrice and Peter dominated the decision-making, but you were able to successfully push for a Studio Ghibli film at one point – and then you stayed for dinner. After Beatrice and Hero left, and John had gone to bed, Pedro offered to walk you home. “It’s dark,” he said when you tried to protest, and after that you figured arguing with him was sort of pointless.
Though night had fallen, the heat was oppressive, and it only took a few minutes for your shirt to stick to your skin with your own sweat. Nameless insects flew around your head in a dizzying whirl. You leaned your head back and thought about how big the sky was, and how small you felt standing under it.
“How long have you been playing?”
You straightened your head, turned it to look at him. “Guitar? Music?”
He shrugged. “Both. Either.”
“I’ve been playing this old thing – “ you reached behind you to pat your guitar “ – since I was eight. So maybe seven years? I was on piano before then, but, uh, honestly, I couldn’t tell you when I started. Dad always says I came out of the womb singing.”
He laughed softly at that. “Clever.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
He sighed, sticking his hands in his pockets.
“What’re you sighing for?”
“Nothing.” The corner of his mouth lifted up. “Did you like them? My friends?”
“Yeah,” you said without hesitation, though you briefly wondered why your approval actually meant anything.
He turned his head to look at you, his smile widening. It was another one of those, as you’d already started referring to as in your head. Despite yourself, you could feel your pulse jump a beat or two. You tried to swallow it down, the sudden warmth in your throat, and couldn’t figure out if you’d succeeded or not.
The rest of the walk went by in silence. Before you knew it, you were at the top of your driveway. You gave him a little wave, your hand already groping around in your pocket for your key.
You stopped in your tracks, turned around. “Hm?”
“Do you think we could… hang out again? Maybe at your place, this time?” Pedro said, gesturing with one hand. “I know we just met, but you’re a cool kid. And I bet you’ve just been sitting on your ass this whole summer. Be good to get out more, yeah?”
You turned the thought over in your mind, pretending to yourself that you were weighing the pros and cons when, really, you’d known what your answer would be as soon as he’d asked.
“Yeah,” you answered finally. “Yeah, sure.”
“Yeah,” he said, half-smiling. “Night.”
This time, he was the one who paused. “Yeah?”
You chewed your lip, flooded with sudden embarrassment at what you wanted to say on an impulse. His imploring gaze was too much for you to resist, though; you gave in.
“Who’s going to walk you home in the dark?” you said, helplessly.
Pedro stared at you with startled surprise, and then with fondness, and then with something else entirely you couldn’t identify. Wordlessly, he pointed up to the sky, and you looked up at the moon, low and round, legions of stars surrounding it in abstract swirls of light.
That was when you learned how friendly the night can be, and how lonely.
He spun on his heel then, looking back at you with the light of the stars in his eyes one last time, and you watched as he disappeared into the darkness at the end of the road.
The air conditioning was out in your house.
“I know I said we should hang out here today…” Pedro began, lying on the floor of your bedroom. A fly buzzed around his head lazily.
You shook your head, dislodging droplets of sweat that trickled down your cheekbone. “Hell no. Let’s go back to your place.”
With effort, he pushed himself off the floor. His hair was plastered to his forehead. “I mean, I was just going to suggest we go stick our faces in the freezer and hope for a swift death, but that works too.”
The walk to his house felt longer than usual. Probably had something to do with how dry your throat was. How the heat beat into your head so insistently you could barely form a coherent thought. Sometimes it felt like it should be impossible to remember how to put one foot in front of the other.
When you finally arrived, you had just enough energy to propel yourself to the living room and fling yourself onto one of his couches. Even the fabric was a relief against the skin of your face, which you were half-convinced had actually been scorched by the sun.
There was some noise from the kitchen. You turned your head toward the rest of the room just in time for Pedro to walk in, two water bottles in hand. The sight was enough to prompt you into a sitting position.
“Straight from the fridge,” he said, tossing one of them at you. It fell against your stomach, the coolness a mild shock against your skin. You held it in your hands, letting the coldness of it seep into the cracks of your palms, and then against your face, long enough for your cheek to start feeling numb. You cracked it open, let a precious trickle of water into your mouth, eyes fluttering closed as it dripped down your throat.
Pedro opened his bottle and raised it above his head.
“You’re standing on carpet, man,” you said with mild alarm.
He glanced at you, walked over to the door that led out to the backyard, and slid it open in one fluid movement. As he stepped out onto the pavement, he upended the bottle of water over his head. It felt like a moment that should have occurred in slow motion, the gush of liquid colliding spectacularly with the top of his head, his shoulders tensing up instinctively at the sudden cold. He leaned his head back, opened his mouth to the cascade of water.
Your mouth felt dry as a desert. You couldn’t even feel your heartbeat; it felt frozen somewhere in your chest.
He tipped the bottle back upright, only a few inches of water left at the bottom, and placed it on the ground. Slowly, deliberately, he gripped the hem of his shirt – now completely drenched – and pulled it over his head. Rivulets of water slid down the skin of his naked back, thinning into beads that littered his skin. There was something artful, you thought hazily, in the gentle slope of his shoulders and the smoothness of his pale skin. Something that belonged in a museum.
He turned back, shirt crumpled in his hand, and smiled at you through the glass, unhurried and mischievous.
That was when you learned he’d done it on purpose.
Something tapped lightly and insistently against your window.
Rubbing at your eyes, you pulled yourself up from under the covers and walked over to the glass. It never occurred to you to be concerned. No one ever came around these parts, no one you had to worry about, anyway.
When you got to the window, you stopped, startled.
“Pedro?” you said incredulously to the face looking up at you.
He rapped his knuckles against the pane again, gesturing wildly.
A few moments later, you met him outside, fully clothed though still confused.
“What are you doing here? It’s past midnight.” It was hard to keep the irritability out of your voice. Sleep had felt so close to you only moments before.
“Couldn’t sleep. Went out for a walk.” Even in the dark, you could see the glint of his teeth as he grinned. “Found something really, really cool. Wanted to show you. Thus, here we are.”
“And it couldn’t have waited until morning?” you said pointedly, though the more exposure you had to his seemingly never-ending energy, the less inclined to be annoyed you found yourself.
He shook his head vigorously and stuck out his hand, looking at you expectantly. After a heartbeat’s hesitation, you took it.
You ran through the dark.
He pulled you into the thick tall grass of a field, impatiently batting the stalks away. You were moving so quickly that the shadows blurred the world around you, and you had no choice but to depend on him to lead the way. He held onto your hand tightly, so tightly; despite yourself, you felt safe.
“Here,” he whispered, and when you emerged into empty space again, your world became full of light.
Specks of golden light dusted the air, floated around in lazy patterns. There had to be dozens of them, maybe even upwards of a hundred. There was enough of them to see the vague outline of a small pond, the water gleaming dully with dim light, and the tall grass that surrounded it.
“Fireflies?” you said, your voice hushed, your breath stuck in your lungs.
“Fireflies,” he said back, squeezing your hand.
He pulled you under the fireflies, taking ahold of your other hand, laughing the whole way. You swayed in time to the flickering light that illuminated his smiling face, your sweaty palms lining up together in the dark, and that was when you learned how to dance to light instead of music. His fingers slid into the spaces between yours easily, as if they’d been pulled together by magnets, and for a second the world almost seemed frozen in light and shadows, a perfect slice of a moment to enjoy for an eternity.
Then he pulled you a little too roughly to the side, and you stumbled over your feet and fell to the ground, and the feeling was gone. But he fell with you, and you laid there under the inky black sky and the fireflies, helpless with your own laughter, and how good it felt to have your arms tangled with another’s.
“Is this what you do all day? Sit on your porch and play guitar?”
You looked up at Pedro, standing at the bottom of the porch steps, blinking with mild surprise. You’d been so engrossed in what you were doing that he had totally caught you unawares.
You leaned back on your elbows, letting your guitar fall gently against your abdomen. “Pretty much,” you say. “It’s nice out, right? Plus my parents don’t like it when I play inside. What are you doing here?”
He nodded once. “Bea and Hero are out with their parents at the beach. So, of course, here I am, sitting on my couch rewatching old cartoons like a loser, until I realize, wait, I have other friends around here, don’t I?” His face brightened. “And I thought, well, I haven’t really explored these parts all that much, but who better to guide me than someone who’s lived here forever?”
You rolled your eyes. “I haven’t lived here forever.”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised. What do you say?”
Before he’d finished the question, you were already on your feet, shifting the strap so that your guitar rested on your back.
You walked alongside him on an anonymous dirt path. Truth be told, you didn’t usually do much walking around these parts yourself, but you could certainly make an exception every now and then. The time passed by in silence, and before you knew it the sun was high over your heads, beating down mercilessly on the back of your neck. There were no clouds, and there was no wind.
“We should head back soon,” you said to him, your tongue feeling too large for your mouth. “Didn’t bring water. Didn’t know how hot it’d be.”
“Wait.” He pointed to somewhere behind you. You turned your head and saw a thicket of strawberry plants.
“Uh, I’m not terribly sure this is the best of ideas.”
“Having a nice, juicy snack in the middle of a blazingly hot day? What could possibly be better?”
“They’re not ours, first of all,” you pointed out. “And do you want me to place a bet on how much dirt you’d be eating?”
“Oh, come on, don’t be like that, it’ll be fun,” he said, waving his arm in an encouraging motion as he stepped closer to the plants. Did you really have a choice, in the end?
The strawberries looked more inviting the closer you approached, you had to admit, blood red among emerald leaves. Pedro bent down and began to pick them off their stems, snapping them off with a deft twist of his hand and popping them into his mouth.
“Here,” he said, sticking his arm out toward you. Two strawberries sat in his hand like jewels. They rolled around slightly, the motion barely visible.
“Not hungry.” Your mouth felt dry. They’d be moist, probably, those strawberries. You could almost feel their sweet juices bursting across your tongue.
“Come on. You don’t need to be hungry to eat strawberries.”
“No one’s going to care.”
“I care,” you said, but you accepted his offering anyway, feeling the weight of them in your palm. He seemed to like to eat them all at once, tossing the leaves behind him when he was finished, but you always preferred savoring good food for as long as you could, each second sliding around in your mouth. You held one between your thumb and forefinger, appraising it in the bright sun before you placed it between your teeth and chewed it down slowly. Your eyes closed almost of their own accord; you reveled in the taste. That was when you learned how much sweeter strawberries are when they belong to someone else.
“Shall we go back, then?” he said when you’d finally finished eating, his head tilted to the side, the corner of his mouth curled into a half-smile.
You nodded, the tang of the strawberries still sharp against your tongue. The two of you turned around and started back the way you came. He hooked his fingers through yours, casual as an accident. A move like that might have made you nervous, once upon a time, but surely the mere fact that you didn’t try to let him go meant that it didn’t anymore. And you knew his palm was as sticky as yours, and you knew you only had to hold onto each other until the end of the road. It surprised you, how comforting you found the thought.
“This was a terrible idea,” you said.
“No, shut up, it was brilliant.”
“You can’t even see any of the stars.”
It was true. The two of you were laying in the middle of an empty field – opposite directions, heads next to each other – for the express purpose of going stargazing, and the moon was so bright it drowned out the light of the stars.
“But it’s still nice, though, isn’t it?” he said, turning his head to look at you.
“Yeah,” you admitted, a smile sneaking onto your face before you could stop it. “It’s still nice.”
That was true, too. You didn’t need stars when you had the smell of the cool night air in your nostrils, and the promise that you weren’t alone.
The silence you settled into after that was familiar. It should have been strange that it felt that way with someone you’d only met a few weeks before. It wasn’t, though, which was even stranger.
“You want to know something weird?”
You didn’t answer for a bit. The illusion of quiet was something you liked to hold onto.
“What is it?”
“Pedro isn’t my real name.”
You turned your head toward him, at that. He stared resolutely at the sky.
“You know,” you said, carefully, to the side of his face, “you could have said that from the beginning.”
Silence. In the dim light of the moon, you watched as his jaw clenched once, twice.
“It’s fine, it’s just… I told you from the start, you know? So why would you lie about something like that?”
His breath whistled through his teeth angrily. “I didn’t – I didn’t lie! I’d never. Not to you.”
“I’ve been asking people to call me Pedro for a long time. It just – felt easier to introduce myself to you that way. Simpler.”
Was it really more simple, you wondered, not to show someone all of who you were?
“So what’s it stand for?”
“Peter.” He shrugged. “Pedro sounds cooler. And…”
Finally, he turned and met your gaze, and that was when you learned what vulnerability looked like. It caught you off guard; you almost stopped breathing at the sight of his moon-filled stare so wide and so unreadable.
“And,” he said, “Peter sounds like the kind of person I don’t want to be.”
The words sent a thrill down your spine. And yet you understood. You understood, probably, more than he could know.
But surely he knew that no matter what he did, Peter would always be a part of him. It was, after all, something you’d had to find out for yourself.
“So you’ve lived your whole life here, then?”
You glanced over at Pedro, one leg dipped into the turquoise pool, his eyes on you. You looked back toward the sky, wisps of clouds drifting lazily across the pale sun. The pavement burned against your naked shoulder blades.
“As long as I can remember,” you said carefully, holding the words in your mouth like marbles. “What about you? Where do you come from?”
“The city,” he said, leaning back on his hands. “I guess I’ve lived there as long as I can remember too. I remember Bea before I remember anything.”
“Nothing.” You didn't bother shaking your head. It would hurt more than it was worth, your skull rolling around on the hard ground. “How long are you staying ‘round here?”
You hummed tunelessly. “How mysterious.”
He laughed, admonishing himself. “End of summer, at least.”
An involuntary jolt went through your heart at the words before you could stop it. You fought it down. “Is it really?”
“Is it really what? Be more specific, you ass.” He dipped his hand into the pool and flung cool droplets of water at you. You did not flinch when they hit the skin of your bare chest, beaded and rolled down your sides to the ground. They were a reprieve. But you would never admit that about something he’d meant to punish you with, as joking as it was supposed to be.
He was silent for a few moments, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around his legs. It was the most serious you’d ever seen him. That was when you learned you didn’t want the summer to end, even though you knew it would.
You closed your eyes and waited for an answer.
“No,” he said softly, so quiet you thought you might have dreamt the words. “I suppose it isn’t.”
The day Pedro invited you to stay at his house overnight, you walked down the dusty road with a pillow under an arm and a backpack slung over your shoulders. A blanket, you’d decided, would have been too cumbersome to haul over, and anyway it was warm enough during the nights that you wouldn’t mind sleeping completely uncovered.
As it turned out, you needn’t have worried. Pedro’s bed was big enough for two, and he had more pillows than the two of you ever needed. You ate pizza in front of the TV, Pedro making sure you saved the largest pieces for John, and after dinner Beatrice and Hero came over.
“So we’re watching The Breakfast Club, right?” Beatrice said as she burst into the room.
“Wait, but didn’t we watch that last week?” Hero piped up from behind her.
Pedro pointed at Hero. “Yes, excellent point. We ought to change it up this time around, keep it spicy. Anyway, Ferris Bueller is by far the superior 80’s flick.”
Beatrice gaped at him. “You did not just blaspheme in my presence.”
“I speak only truths,” Pedro said with a defiant tilt of his head. “Matthew Broderick is magnificent, and Judd Nelson cannot compare.”
After about five minutes of intense discussion regarding the finer nuances of John Hughes movies – “his face is just so much better though!” – Pedro and Beatrice demanded that it be put to a vote, and you and Hero teamed up to choose The Little Mermaid.
“But that’s not even an 80’s flick!” Pedro complained.
“It was made in the 80’s,” Hero pointed out.
“But that’s not the same!” Pedro looked at you, betrayal in his eyes. “Come on. What do you really want to watch? You can be honest with me.”
“Cartoons,” you supplied helpfully.
As Hero put in the movie and Beatrice went into the kitchen to make popcorn, Pedro came over to sit next to you. Carefully, casually, he swung his legs on top of yours, bringing his arms behind his head. You were almost afraid to look at him, and when you did, he smiled back to you, calmly and lazily.
Everyone settled down to watch the movie. It was the most entertaining watch-through of the Little Mermaid you’d ever participated in, with Hero quoting almost every line perfectly and Pedro singing the wrong lyrics to the songs loudly.
Somewhere in the middle of it, popcorn bowl balanced on Hero’s lap and Beatrice making small exclamations of excitement or indignation at emotionally intense scenes, John joining after the movie was over for a few rounds of blackjack, it struck you suddenly, how close you felt to these people. To Pedro, who kept his legs balanced on yours for the whole movie and even throughout most of the game. But it was ridiculous for you to feel that way. Could you even name his favorite color?
When you crawled into bed, tugging the covers over your head so you could talk without the world listening in, it was the first thing you asked him.
“That’s easy,” he half-whispered. Even if there was no one else in the room, it felt like a quiet night, so you couldn’t blame him.
“So tell me,” you urged.
“Blue,” he said, corner of his mouth tugged upward. “Like your eyes.”
You weren’t sure what shot through you when he said that. Thrill, maybe, or longing. Something. You even thought you could feel your pulse pick up a few beats.
“Here, I’ll ask you a tough one,” he said, leaning his head closer to yours conspiratorially.
“What secret are you most scared about people finding out about you?”
“That’s not fair, mine was so easy!”
“All’s fair, friend,” he said with a breathy laugh and a wink.
You chewed your lip.
“That I’ve never left this place,” you whispered.
He stared at you. “Really? Not even to the city?”
You looked away.
“It’s okay,” he said, awkwardly. “You’re not missing out on much.”
“Pedro,” you said. “That’s not helpful.”
He winced. “Sorry. But why are you scared of people finding that out? It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I don’t know. I just…“ God, it was so hard to say it out loud. “The world out there is so big. There’s so much. And this is all I’ve ever known. I want to know more. But I don’t know if I ever will.”
“You will.” Pedro nodded his head with conviction. “I know you will.”
You shook your head. It wasn’t something you wanted to talk about, or needed to. “Never mind. My turn. Do you have a crush?”
He blinked at you. “But – “
“Answer the question.”
He sighed through his nose, pursing his lips. He took a rather long time to answer, sometimes looking at you, sometimes not.
“Yes,” he said, finally.
You raised your eyebrows. “Anyone I know?”
He clicked his tongue between his teeth. “One question at a time, sir.”
You sighed in reluctant acquiescence.
“Okay, um, let’s see.” His face scrunched up in thought. “Oh. Out of everyone in the living room tonight, who would you want to kiss the most?”
There was no mistaking it that time. Your heartbeat definitely sped up.
“Out of everyone?”
Silently, he nodded.
“Do I need to say it out loud?” you said softly.
This time, there was a measure of hesitation. He was judging you with his eyes, you knew, just as you were judging him with yours. You were searching for something, something to show that the two of you were on the same page, that you knew what was happening without having to say a word.
A nudge against your hand, a sudden shift in the air you were breathing. You twisted your hand, your fingers curling into his, and looked into his eyes, and he was looking right back at you.
It’s hard to remember who leaned forward first. Maybe it was you, so nervous you could feel your heartbeat in your fingertips. Maybe it was him, stars in his eyes. Maybe it was the both of you. Maybe it didn’t matter.
It was clumsy, at first, his lips against yours. You’d done this before, you’d kissed boys before; you weren’t sure if he had. But you were persistent, and you didn’t let him go. He tried to pull away toward the start, after your teeth clacked softly together, and you chased him with your mouth, tightening your hand over his. He stayed after that, stayed long enough for the beats of your breaths to line up, long enough for you to pretend your pulses did the same.
You broke away briefly, foreheads brushing each other. Your eyes fluttered open, and he was looking at you, still looking at you with the moon and stars and world in his gaze.
“Balthazar,” he said against your mouth, and that was when you learned what your name tastes like on another person’s lips.
“We’ll be back next summer. I’m sure of it.”
“You have a phone, right? We could call?”
“Pedro, I don’t think – “
“And if you just made the extra effort to walk down to the library or something, we could do emails, too.”
“We could write letters.”
You sighed, crouching down, and placed your palms on his shoulders. Immediately, he brought a hand up to cover one of yours.
“Pedro,” you said, quietly, “it’s okay.”
He looked up at you then, and his face didn’t crumple, but it folded in on itself in some way, like a paper bag.
“No, it’s not,” he said back, just as quietly, and that was when you learned that a blanket that covers your entire body is still something you wear, something you can shed as easily as a mask, and not something that is part of who you are.
You smiled, and it was a smile you couldn’t feel, because you never thought a sentence like that could hurt you as much as it did. And you didn’t answer, but you took your hands away from his shoulders so that you could embrace him. He hugged you back, long and desperate, fingers tangling in the base of your hair like he never wanted to let you go, even though he knew he had to, if not today, then most likely the next.
His father offered to drive you to the beach with him in the last few days before they left for their home. You supposed it wasn’t an offer to be turned down.
The ride was short, maybe twenty minutes. He insisted on sitting in the front so he could control the radio, but you were fine sitting with John in the back, pointing out all the interesting things along the side of the road.
As soon as the car slowed to a stop in the near-empty parking lot, Pedro burst out of his seat and ran out onto the sand, toward the ocean. You turned to his father, intending to ask if he needed your help bringing anything out, but he dismissed you with a wave of his hand, and so you went after Pedro, slowly, at your own pace.
By the time you caught up to him, he was already at the edge, his feet implanted deep into the sand. He turned his head, extended his arm toward you. You took his hand gratefully.
For a while you stood next to him, the water pleasantly cool against your skin. You’d gotten to the beach rather late in the day, and you didn’t fancy a walk in the dark, so your time was marked. You couldn’t find it in yourself to mind, though. The number of seconds you spent with him didn’t matter as much as how good they made you feel, and right then you felt good enough to fly.
“You’ll remember me,” he said as the cold water swirled around your toes, retreated.
“I’m sure of it,” you replied. You looked over at him, and his face was oddly open. It seemed like you caught him like that more and more, these days. Did he realize he didn’t need blankets around you? Or was it just too hard to keep on wearing them?
“I don’t know if I want you to remember me as Pedro,” he said. His gaze flickered over to you, caught on yours, stayed.
“So what do you want me to remember you as?” you said, heart in your throat.
He tilted his head, his eyes still on you. You’d seen that movement before, could probably visualize every part of it in your sleep, but it had always been a movement that had made him seem sure about himself. Now, though, it looked less like surety and more like a question.
“Peter,” he said, and he didn’t look away or pull his hand away from yours. Instead, he smiled, and it wasn’t crooked, and it wasn’t a small one, and it wasn’t half of one, either; it was one of those, bright and beautiful and real, the smile that sometimes made you feel as if the rest of the world didn’t exist or matter. But if there was one thing you'd learned, it was that the world had to exist, because if it didn’t, Peter’s smile wouldn’t, either.
You turned toward the sun, steadily falling toward the horizon, and you didn’t feel scared of the darkness that would come after it set. The day had been too beautiful for you to be afraid.