It wasn’t really a basement, even though Will called it that. Whereas my basement was actually underground, the basement of Will’s mom’s house was actually just the ground floor of a four-story townhouse. It had a small tiled foyer with a coat rack and a cubby where we were always immediately instructed to leave our coats and our shoes or boots, especially if it was snowy out. The foyer curved along the side of the carpeted stairs back to the cold metal door that led to the garage, where Mrs. Grafft kept both of her BMW’s – one a silver convertible and one a black SUV. The front door faced the stairs and opened into the foyer after a loose storm door that creaked and swung open on windy nights, slamming back shut against the doorframe when the gust passed through. I didn’t like to sleep in the basement because every time the storm door swung open and slammed back shut, I thought a robber was trying to get into the house and would, seconds later, smash through the large window that looked into the square living room that Will’s mom called the “den.” 

The den was a dark room no matter what time of day; translucent drapes covered the large window that looked back out the short sidewalk of the townhouse complex. The room – and the entire townhouse, for that matter – had an overarching hue of deep sea navy that rested thickly over mostly gray furniture. Will and his mom kept most of the lights off throughout the house. Mrs. Grafft believed that enough natural light came through the windows for them to not have to turn on any of the lights. Each end of the townhouse – which had no windows along the sides because of the neighboring town homes – had large sets of windows. On the second floor, the living room had three massive windows that dripped light over the L-shaped black leather couch, over the glass dining room table, and through the kitchen, where there was another wall of sliding door windows onto a small balcony overlooking the alley. Those windows stayed locked by a key that Will’s mom kept on a string around her neck. The bedrooms and bathrooms on the third floor had skylights and windows onto either the courtyard or the alley. Light flooded the third floor hallway from the door at the top of the stairs to the roof deck, which we were forbidden from, the key to which Will’s mom kept on the string with the other key. Though the house had natural light, each window was partially draped with the same translucent curtains that covered the windows of the den. Once, when I was over after school and watching Will play video games on his TV, I flipped the light on in the kitchen and Will immediately tossed from the other room, “Turn the light off!” I quickly jumped back to the switch and flipped it back down, and felt the sudden overwhelming twist in my stomach that I recognized from times that I had asked for too many snacks at someone else’s house or ventured into a parent’s bedroom out of curiosity and was caught; I had been a bad guest.

“Sorry about that,” I chuckled out, trying to cover my guilt.

“My mom likes to conserve energy,” Will said. “Plus the lighting is really good for playing video games during the day.”

Even though the house was shaded by day, at night, I always noticed that we never needed to turn any of the lights on. Street lamps from the courtyard and the alley strangely lit the house through the front and back windows with a cool yellow light. The translucent drapes cast ghost-like shadows on the walls and floors and, though I was afraid, I was always able to see. After Mrs. Grafft would fall asleep, Will and I would sneak downstairs from his room for cookies or goldfish, or some other wondrous snack that we never had at my house, like Ritz crackers. We would creep through the half-light, our footsteps padded by the carpeted stairs and our matching white socks – mine from Shopko and his from Target. Because of this, the interior of Will’s mom’s house existed in a sort of perpetual twilight, its body clock paused, unsure of the time of day around it, and I always felt a cozy sense of unease whenever I was in the house.

I was most uneasy in the den, though. Sure, a robber could break in through the window and bring us to a second location where our families would never find us. But the darkness of the den was unique to the dimness of the rest of the house. The den retained a certain darkness because of what happened in that room at Will’s birthday sleepovers. Though I was familiar with the house from year-round after school playdates, the den was like a Halloween costume: it was only used once a year and it always gave me a feeling that something awful was going to happen that night. The den was the only room with enough carpet and couch space to comfortably house all nine boys in our grade for a night. The room had a large gray L-shaped couch and a massive black La-Z-Boy that faced a massive flat-screen TV, which Will told us that they only used for his birthday sleepovers. I believed him. Other times I would visit his house throughout the school year, we never even entered the den; both of the french doors would stay closed with just a crack enough to see into the gray-navy room, which we would then leave after dropping our cold-weather outfittings in the foyer to bound up the carpeted stairs on all fours to the kitchen for coveted snacks. 

Sometimes, when Will was playing video games, I would sneak off to explore the rest of the house on my own. I had an obsession with other people’s houses. I drew extensive floor plans with approximate measurements including furniture and room for doors to open. I did this for each of my friends’ houses and hid them securely under my bed. Part of me was embarrassed by these drawings; I didn’t want anyone to think that I was obsessed with them or their houses. But I took great pride in my then expert use of graph paper. I was able to map out each house I had been in so accurately from memory, always starting in pencil in case I needed to adjust a wall or a staircase once the furniture was drawn in. Then, once I was sure the measurements were as close as I could get them, I took dad’s UniBall gel pen that I stole from his briefcase and meticulously filled in each line, careful not to smudge the ink with my skin. I even did floor plans of the interiors of houses that fascinated me on drives around the city. Those excited me even more because I got to choose where walls and furniture went. I could make the couch as big or as small as I wanted, and I could put the kitchen in an unusual place for a family home. I could put in sunken living rooms with a fountain in the center. Better yet, hidden spiral staircases leading to secret patios, or trap doors with slides down to basement ball pits. Aquariums in the bathrooms, king beds in the bedrooms. Movie screen projectors in the kitchen and towering jungle plants in every corner. But, best of all, I could put elevators in these houses. Open air elevators were my favorites to draw into these homes whose skeletons I barely knew. Of course I drew in pencil in case I wanted to add an extra fish tank somewhere, then carefully lined the drawings with dad’s UniBall gel pen, holding them next to my open window to dry. 

When I ventured around Will’s house, I would usually go upstairs first. Will’s mom worked from home most days, so she had a home office/home gym combo set up in the front bedroom. I snuck quietly up the stairs so as not to disturb her work. If she was on a call with the door closed, all the better. I snuck into her bedroom, which looked like most parent bedrooms: white carpet, dark wood bed frame with high bedposts, a comforter fluffy enough to swim in, and a TV across from the bed. She even had sliding doors out to her own patio, which was unfurnished. Every couple seconds, I made sure to listen for her voice in the other room so I wouldn’t be caught. She worked with headphones in, so when she stopped talking I was never sure if her conference call was over. Just to be safe, I would venture back downstairs.

Once, though, she had told us she was doing a presentation, so I was able to comfortably venture far enough into her room to see what was under the bed. My stomach wrenched the whole time; I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help my curiosity. Under the bed were mostly Container Store tubs full of high heels and dress suits and underwear. But I found a cardboard filing box like the ones in the back room of my basement where we keep my birth certificate, and I couldn’t resist. I opened my ears to make sure Will’s mom was still presenting; she was. I pulled the box out along the carpet and sat it between my legs. It was heavy, so it left a trail of darker carpet behind it to the indent where it had been sitting. I lifted off the lid and read a number of tabs, each with a number of papers between them. One read, “Divorce,” another read, “Will School.” Another read, “Mom and Dad Taxes.” But the one that caught my eye was “Robert Funeral.” I wondered who Robert was, and then I saw the sliding door on the other side of her bed open just a crack, and I remembered that Will told me about how when he was a baby, he had an older brother who he never met because he died before Will could remember. I didn’t ask how his older brother died because when I asked my mom how her dad died she told me, but said never to ask anyone that question because it’s rude. So after Will told me that story, I said, “I’m so sorry,” and then went home and asked mom, and she said she wasn’t allowed to tell me. So I asked Ryan, my best friend, and he said that his mom Gerry told him that Will’s older brother Robert fell off a balcony in their old house and died. I pushed the lid of the file box back on and shoved it back under the bed, briskly walking out of the room. Not one second before I left Will’s mom’s room did she open the door of her office, stopping me dead in my tracks.

“Oh, hi Jackie,” she exclaimed. “What are you doing up here?”

“Oh, uh, Will asked me to grab something for him from his room. A lego.”

Will’s mom nodded, but she stopped and looked over the top of my head.

“Did you open that?” she asked me as she brushed past me and continued down the hallway into her room. Afraid I had hallucinated putting back the cardboard file cabinet, I lost feeling in my legs and crumpled to the carpet. But Will’s mom didn’t notice that I had collapsed; she hurried to the sliding door and slammed it shut, turning the lock down and resting against the glass, breathing heavily.

“No,” I said, quickly recovering strength in my legs. “I would never go in a grownup’s room without permission.”

Will’s mom didn’t seem to hear. She clutched the keys on the string around her neck, taking a deep breath. I felt icky, so I turned around and slumped down the stairs.

I ventured into every other room in the house; it was a relatively small house, so this was not hard to do. But one room was left unturned by the aspiring architect. There was a door under the stairs across from the den on the ground floor. That door stayed locked like the sliding doors and the door to the roof deck. Will always joked that Harry Potter lived behind that door, and I laughed along, but I secretly feared that someone was actually trapped in there, and that the sound of the storm door slamming shut with the wind masked his banging on the other side of the door for us to let him out. So I was both terrified and terribly interested in the door, bringing moms old business cards and paper clips to after-school playdates at Will’s mom’s house to try to do what they did in spy movies: pick the lock. I never got lucky, so I would quit before seeming suspicious and tiptoe back upstairs to watch Will play his video games, passing by the room that awaited me and the rest of the boys in our grade with Will’s yearly sleepover.

When Will had his birthday party in late November, the boys of our grade at Immaculate Conception School would litter the thick carpet with our sleeping bags and go to town restoring the room to its full potential. Will would step inside his sleeping bag and perch on the La-Z-Boy, ordering the rest of us to clean up different layers of dust that had accumulated from the previous November. Most of the boys would violently slap the couch to expel dust clouds from the surface of the cushions. While the couch coughed up its yearly gatherings in chorus with the boys of my grade, I usually ran my finger along the TV screen, drawing flowers and smiley faces with braces in the film of a year’s worth of cleaning neglect. I never needed to worry about getting all the dust off the screen, though. Before Will’s mom went to sleep, we would watch superhero movies at full volume, so whatever dust I didn’t trace off with my finger would lift off in clouds with each crash, boom, or even word said in the movie. After Will’s mom went to sleep, we would turn the volume down and watch the shows that only Will and Ryan were allowed to watch at home: these were the shows of Adultswim. The characters of South Park, Robot Chicken, and Family Guy (Will’s favorite) hurled obscenities and racist jokes, whirling the remaining dust particles out of the speakers and into our lungs for the chosen few to repeat at the lunch table or at recess behind Miss Caprini’s car.

I was convinced that Will Grafft was a vampire. To me, he felt significantly beyond his years, the first sign. He walked home from school by himself because he got the very first iPhone ever released on the first day you could buy it. He also knew much more about the adult world because he was allowed to watch Adultswim. He was also physically vampire-esque. He was unbelievably pale and had black hair, black eyebrows, and brown eyes so dark that they too were basically black. He spent so much time in the dark playing video games that he was undeniably avoiding the sun. Besides the explicitly vampirish qualities, Will was lanky and tall, and always walked a little on his tiptoes. When he sat or stood, he rocked back and forth. He held his pen in a twisted way, unlike the way they taught us in handwriting in third grade. And no matter what time of day, he wore a massive army-grade digital watch around his wrist which was clearly bought for him to grow into. It beeped on the hour, and every couple minutes, he would rotate his wrist back and forth in the air to shake the watch. Being a person that does not enjoy wearing watches, I assume it was to unstick the wristband from his skin. 

Will had every toy imaginable, so naturally his birthday sleepovers were highly anticipated throughout the year. He had an Xbox, Playstation, Wii, Nintendo DS, and Gameboy. He had stacks of containers of legos and lincoln logs. He had thirty Webkinz and an entire city’s worth of igloos on Club Penguin. But best, and most coveted, of all, he had fifteen Nerf guns and a Container Store tub full of Nerf ammunition. The reveal of the newest Nerf release was the main event of every year’s sleepover; he made sure to get that present before the sleepover so that he could show it off, every new feature, so that he could use it during the annual house-wide Nerf battle. Plastic firearms littered his floor; handguns, rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers, automatic magazines, crossbows, and even machetes, neon orange, yellow, green and blue in all their glory. 

The Nerf battle came before dinner, always, to avoid exercise cramps. This year, Will’s tenth birthday, as every year, we went according to tradition; Will used his newest gift and then chose the next person to choose their weapon. They needed to justify their choice for everyone before selecting the next boy to choose their weapon, and so on: a faux-murderous schoolyard pick. The first person Will chose was usually Ryan, my best friend away from these sleepover birthdays; whenever Will or Thomas were around, Ryan left me for them to talk video games or basketball, respectively. This year was no exception; standing between Will and Thomas, Ryan chose last year’s new gun.

“The recent updates in automatic cycling of the ammunition are still superior,” he said,  “and the magazine still makes it more efficient than a reloading gun.” Every boy nodded and agreed, knowing that they would probably not get to use that gun in a birthday battle until they were at least 13 or 14. 

Ryan picked Thomas, who would pick the gun from two years prior, this year, again, being no exception to tradition. Every year I hoped Ryan would see past Thomas’s social climbing and pick his real friend – me – so that I could have a shot at one of the big guns. But tradition follows tradition. Thomas picked the rocket launcher. This gun was taller than most of the boys in the grade, but only reached Thomas’s chest; being the tallest boy in the grade sure had its perks. He rested his elbow on the yellow muzzle, which matched his fair blonde hair, and he smirked. “I could take any of you out from the other end of the house with this beauty.” 

After Thomas, the order was a grab bag. This year, he picked Carlisle, the shortest and quietest boy of our grade. Carlisle picked an automatic the length of his arm. “It’s the next best gun,” he murmured insecurely.

 Carlisle picked Andrew Nierowski, skinny with concerningly terrible posture for a ten-year-old, who ran every morning with his triathlete dad. Andrew picked a battle axe. “I’m not gonna fight from afar like you pussies. I’m getting up close and personal because I’m not afraid to fight dirty.” He slammed the battle axe down on the rest of the guns, causing a clatter. Everyone looked to Will, who shrugged and said, “Those are the old ones anyway.”

Andrew picked Christian, the triplet with two sisters who were both taller than him. He chose the sword, saying, “What Andrew said. I’m not a pussy.” 

Christian picked Tyler Aprati, his neighbor, who had almost been orphaned in first grade after his parents were diagnosed with cancer on the same day. That was the year that St. Joseph’s dedicated every Sunday Mass to the Aprati family. Tyler was already bitter that every gun was gone, so he chose the brother gun to Carlisle’s automatic. “It’s what we got.”

Tyler chose Evan Radomski, who had severe eczema and an unbelievably nasally voice. Evan picked the one-shot rifle that had to be reloaded after every fire. He had the same gun last year, so he mustered out, “Hey, at least it can shoot kinda far?” The room fell silent.

Tyler’s choice of Evan left me last again. My firearm choice was between four of the same pistols. I chose two – one for each hand – so I could have multi-directional coverage, but the other boys had already started to load up and spread throughout the house. I loaded my two pistols, and ventured into the fray, where foam bullets were scattering the wind and the boys were thundering down the hallway. I went down the stairs and hid out at the top. Andrew and Carlisle peeked up from behind the couch. Carlisle began to shoot at me and I shot one of my bullets back. The bullet didn’t reach half the distance before sinking to the ground. The two boys laughed, and so did I. Carlisle continued to shoot as I inched down the stairs, bullets flying over my head. Then Andrew let out a hideous battle cry and I stood up to see that he was coming at me with the battle axe. I quickly deflected the axe with my left pistol and shot him in the chest with my right. He stumbled back, fake screaming and fell on the floor. The three of us burst into laughter, as Carlisle continued to shoot at me while clutching his stomach, missing pathetically. Andrew mentioned that he saw Evan and Tyler go downstairs, and motioned for us to follow him. I needed to reload, so I went upstairs to Will’s room to grab more ammunition for later. 

I leaped up the stairs two at a time and noticed that it had become eerily quiet up there. Before I could stop to survey the carpeted landscape for potential threats, a piece of hard plastic hit my nose and I tripped underneath myself, falling on my back. Before I could clutch my face with my armed hands, Thomas’s socked foot landed on my shoulder. He aimed the barrel of the rocket launcher directly down my eye. I weakly tried to break free but he pressed his foot deeper into my shoulder.

“Ow, Thomas, stop!” I yelped.

“Shut up, pussy,” he spat back at me.

Making eye contact with the barrel of the rocket launcher paralyzed me. Getting shot at by Carlisle Smith from 20 feet away was one thing. The bullets from the rocket launcher were big, and I wanted to keep my eyesight. Just as I was about to make another attempt at breaking free, I heard snickers distant muffled laughter. I looked over to see Will and Ryan peeking out of the laundry room door at me under Thomas’s foot. I was so angry that I pushed away both the gun and Thomas’s foot on my shoulder. He collapsed over me, the body of the gun hitting my head on the way down along with Thomas’s knee.

“Why would you do that?!” I yelled at him.

“Jesus, don’t be so sensitive.” Thomas chuckled and motioned with his head for Will and Ryan to join him in the battle downstairs. Will followed first, stepping over me with an, “excuse me!” Then Ryan, who said I’m sorry with his eyes. I used my eyes, now welling to ask him why he let this happen. His eyes said nothing in return. His eye apology was nothing short of an insult, but I never let him know. His eyes were deep brown like his mom’s, but they were the only eyes I could accurately describe as beady. While Will’s eyes were dark and empty, Ryan’s eyes were dark and full of ferocity and intelligence. He held galaxies in his eyes, with deep sorrow that was shared with no one but me in moments like these, where he apologized for his betrayal and the hurtful actions of those around him. I quietly moved out of his way as he stepped to follow Will, turning back again with his beady eyes. Moments where we shared eye contact around other people were terrifying because it was the only time outside our time alone together that we shared any sort of intimacy. When we were alone, we played wizards and dressup and pro wrestled along to WWE and fed our beta fish and listened to Sean Kingston through my iPod Nano and danced down the sidewalk. We compared the way each other’s houses smelled, his like maple syrup and fresh laundry and mine like basil and cardboard. We stood side by side in the bathroom mirror with the door closed and pointed out where on our faces we had the same freckles so as to convince strangers at the grocery store that we were twins. We took turns pressing our fingers into the other’s arms to reveal white fingerprints vanishing into pink skin. We only shared these moments with each other in the privacy of our time alone; if it ever left the house, it stayed trapped in eye contact. 

He followed Will down the stairs, planning the next attack. I stayed on the floor for a while, swallowing my tears for a while.

Following the Nerf battle was pizza and cake, presents, then a superhero movie in the den. After the superhero movie, Will’s mom would go to sleep, which was usually followed by volume-down Adultswim. However, Christian broke tradition by suggesting that we play a game where we go around in the circle and say which girl in our grade we wanna fuck. I felt a pang in my stomach when he said that. I knew this was the worst word, but I still didn’t know what it meant. Christian told us that his older boy cousins taught him this game and said that we were bound to learn it someday so he figured he’d tell us now. I stayed quiet, hoping someone else would ask what fuck really meant. Luckily, and ironically, Carlisle piped up, quiet but cool as always.

“So, when you say fuck, you mean like, fourth base, right?”

“What else would I mean, shithead?” Christian laughed back, everyone joining. I laughed like I knew.

Fourth base. No one had clarified this for me either, but I deducted from the way everyone in the room was laughing uncomfortably that it was something I didn’t want to do with any of the girls in our grade. I was friends with all of them, and I had never thought about any of them like that. Did all the other boys think about the girls in our class like that? We hadn’t even done Family Life in school yet. Jack McIlvain from 6th grade said that it was coming up and it was intense but it was really worth it to learn. Mom had already told me everything I needed to know in terms of science, but I still didn’t understand how fucking played into any of it.

Christian said, “I’ll go first. I wanna fuck Lilly because she already has boobs.” All the boys nodded in agreement.

I imagined myself kissing and rolling around on the ground with Lilly. I tried to shake off the image but it stuck to my skin like fly paper. Lilly had moved to Chicago from Seattle in third grade. Her parents weren’t married, and she had tried alcohol before. On free dress days, Lilly wore ripped jeans and hoop earrings. Lilly seemed years older than the rest of us because she went to punk concerts with her mom.

Then Will went next. “I totally agree,” he said. “Lilly.”

Then Ryan followed suit. “Lilly, who else?”

Christian jutted in, “Yeah, but obviously you would say that because you and Lilly have a thing.”

All the boys ood and aahh’d. A thing. Why didn’t Ryan tell me that? What did that even mean? I glanced at him, but he was pretending to be embarrassed across the circle. 

As the boys pestered Ryan with questions, I realized that I had to come up with someone quick. I didn’t want to say Lilly because that would be ingenuine and disrespectful. I didn’t want to say any of the girls. It bounced to Andrew, who said Lilly. I felt hot in my cheeks. Carlisle said Lilly, then Evan, then it was my turn. I choked.

“I don’t know.” 

“Come on,” Christian said. “It has to be someone.”

“I don’t wanna…do that with any of the girls in our grade. I know a girl from my sleepaway camp…”

Christian cut me off. “Nope, nuh uh. Gotta be a girl from our class. Those are the rules.”

“Jack, just say someone,” Ryan tossed from across the circle. He looked down when he said it so as to avoid eye contact. I was getting nervous. Maybe part of me just wanted to say something different and not be like the rest. I knew I wasn’t like the rest of them, and I knew that wasn’t something I wanted to do with Lilly. It wasn’t something I wanted to do with Claire either. 

“I know why he’s taking so long,” Christian said.

“Um, I’m right here,” I retorted.

“He doesn’t wanna fuck any of the girls,” Christian paused, all the other boys leaning in. I knew what he was going to accuse me of, and I had to think fast. I needed to come up with a girl that wouldn’t hate me if any of the boys told them I said them. I didn’t wanna say any of them and I didn’t want to play this game and I-

“Cuz he’s gay.”

“OHHHH,” everyone went, laughing and leaning away from me. 

“Fine! Fine!” I said. The boys stopped and leaned in. “It’s Claire!”

The boys erupted in a chorus of “EWWW!” and “GROSS!” and “COME ON!” Christian blasted through the cacophony, “That’s my sister, you shithead!!”

“Well, I know her the best, so I pick her.”

Tyler, next to me said, “Okay, well, gross. I pick Lilly, like a normal person.”

And the game finished.

Christian then suggested that we go around the circle and say every curse word we know from least to worst. He shot a look at me; he knew, along with everyone in the grade, that I did not like to curse. We started with “damn.” Then we moved to “ass,” then “Asshole.” Then “dick,” then “pussy.” I complied with the game, wincing more with each word. The next word was “shit.” It bounced between each boy and when it got to me, I whispered it as softly as I could possibly say it.

Christian yelled, “Say it louder, shithead. We can’t hear you.”

I said it again, a louder whisper. I sunk deeper into myself.

Christian introduced the next word as the mother of all swear words: fuck. Each boy took his time with this word, quieting themselves down before saying it more dramatic than the boy before. Each “fuck” uttered was song itself, but a song that shot at me again and again. I had never said this word, and I didn’t plan on doing it tonight. So when Evan sang “fuck” in a squeaky operetta, the room fell silent on me.

“I’m not gonna say it,” I muttered.

“You got a second chance on saying ‘shit,’” Christian said. “Now you have to say it.”

“I don’t want to say it, so I’m not gonna say it.”

“You’re gonna ruin the game,” Christian taunted.

“You can ask me as many times as you want, I’m not gonna say it.”

Ryan tossed from across the circle, “Just say it, Jack,” not looking at me.

“Whatever, guys,” Will huffed. “Let’s go upstairs. Clearly he’s too gay to say one simple word.”

I said nothing as everyone followed the birthday boy upstairs, chastising me for ruining the game. Tyler, who came after me, yelled fuck over and over again to make the point that he didn’t get a chance to say it in front of everyone. I stood my ground, but once they all left, I toppled over face down onto my sleeping bag and just breathed in the polyester in the quiet. The storm door swung open and I prepared for the accompanying slam, but, as if the gust of wind decided to just let it go, the storm door laid itself back on the door frame. I started to cry. Why couldn’t I go to the girls’ sleepover and braid hair and paint nails and watch 13 Going On 30 like I did with my cousins? I played with them at recess. I went over to their houses after school. I even talked about Justin Bieber with them in PE and they never called me gay for it. Why were sleepovers any different? 

Just as my tears started to fall, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. I quickly coughed and wiped away the tears, shoving my face back down into my sleeping back. If it was Will’s mom, I had to be prepared to will every part of myself not to ask her to call Mom and Dad to pick me up. Maggie had done that enough times for me to know how much inconvenience it caused them. If it was Christian or Will coming to apologize, I would accept their apology and apologize myself for being a bummer at the party. If it was anyone else, I would just play it cool and say I needed some space for a second, and they would probably understand.

But the person who came down the stairs placed a soft hand on my back and rubbed it back and forth, bringing with them the smell of maple syrup and fresh laundry. Startled, I turned over to see Ryan kneeling next to me. His beady eyes pierced through the twilight of the den with his hand outstretched, now laying on my arm. I started to cry again.

“What do you want?”

Ryan didn’t say anything.

“If you want to apologize, I won’t accept it.” I felt strong saying this, like I could press my fingers so deeply into Ryan’s skin that they would puncture right through his muscle to the bones of his forearms.

“No,” he said, looking into my eyes. “They want you to say it.”

I saw a lifetime of regret in his eyes, and I had the feeling that I was going to vomit, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed his wrists and pulled him so close that our faces were an inch apart, and spat the word as quietly as I could. I stared deep into his eyes, and he held my gaze, unafraid. For a second, I thought that we were going to kiss, and I was confused and afraid that he was going to tell the rest of the boys, so I pushed him away before he could do the same.

“There. Happy?”

He cowered back, and said, “No.” He looked at me with his beady eyes, but I pulled away and cried into the sleeping bag as he trotted back up the stairs.

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