At night, when Sebastian lies awake, he stares up at his blank white ceiling and feels like there is a hole slowly burning through his torso. It always starts right beneath his breastbone and then expands downward, black and curling, like a match held to cellophane.
The first night he thought it was indigestion.
The second night he knew it wasn’t.
He dreaded it the third night, but by the fourth he went to bed early, anticipating the way it started with a tiny poke and then grew into a piercing burn that spread, roiling and salty, into his gut. Oddly, it happens just after that first moment of contact between his head and his pillow, which used to trigger a swarm of images of Tanner: his smile and his laugh, the curve of his ear, and the lean set of his shoulders, the way his eyes would narrow just before his humor turned biting, chased by the immediate remorseful dilation of his pupils. Now, instead, the moment Sebastian lays his head on his pillow, he remembers that Tanner isn’t his anymore, and then after that he feels nothing but the ache.
He doesn’t like to be melodramatic, but the ache is better than guilt; it is better than fear, it is better than regret, and it is better than loneliness.
When he wakes, the ache is gone, but the smell of breakfast is there, and that triggers its own routine: Get up. Pray. Eat. Read. Pray. Run. Shower. Write. Pray. Eat. Write. Pray. Eat. Read. Pray. Ache. Sleep.
Final grades are due in two days, and in a fit of desperation, Fujita gave Sebastian three of the books to read and grade. Apparently, it was a prolific term: Every student turned in more than sixty thousand words. Turns out, nearly a million words is too much for one person to get through in five days.
But he wasn’t given Tanner’s book, and although it occurred to Sebastian a thousand times to request it, in the end, he put it out of his head. He read Asher’s indecipherable manifesto, Burrito Dave’s ham-fisted mystery, and Clive’s exceptionally well-plotted CIA thriller. He wrote summaries of the strengths and weaknesses of each work. He suggested grades.
He turns it all in two days early, giving Fujita time to go through them himself if he needs to before turning in final grades. And he returns home, ready to catch his routine at the next meal, only to find Autumn standing on his doorstep.
She’s wearing a Ravenclaw sweatshirt, jeans, and flip-flops.
She’s also wearing an uncertain smile and holds something in her cupped hands.
Her smile grows more uncertain. “I’m sorry to just . . . show up.”
He can’t help but grin back at her. Has she so quickly forgotten that people just show up all the time?
But seeing her is also a little painful because she gets to see him whenever she feels like it.
“Should we go inside?”
He shakes his head. “It’s probably better to talk out here.” The house feels like the inside of a giant, fuzzy microphone. It’s too hot in there, too tense and silent. In his rare flashes of free time, Sebastian goes online and searches for spacious, unfurnished apartments in Atlanta, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles.
“Okay, well, first,” Autumn begins quietly, “I want to apologize. I know Tanner told you what happened between us. I hope you know what a mess he was. I took advantage, and I’m sorry.”
A muscle clenches in Sebastian’s jaw. The reminder of what happened between Tanner and Autumn isn’t great, but at least it answers one question he had: Are they together now? “I appreciate that, but it’s not necessary. Nobody owes me an explanation.”
She studies him for a few breaths. He doesn’t even have to wonder what he looks like from the outside. Of course, Autumn has seen grief before, and now Sebastian knows too, how it can take up residence in the tiny spaces on a face where muscles can’t force a smile. Beneath Sebastian’s eyes there are blue smudges. His skin isn’t pale exactly, but it has a sallow tint, like he’s not getting much sunlight.
“Okay, well, I wanted to say it anyway.” Autumn opens her hand, exposing a small pink USB drive. The flush of betrayal climbs up her neck. “And I wanted to give you the book.”
“Didn’t you turn it in to Fujita?” The due date was days ago; Autumn knows this.
She looks at him, confused. “This isn’t my book.”
Sebastian has never felt the ache in daylight before, but there it is. Out in the sun, it spreads faster, fed like wildfire whipped to a frenzy in the wind. It takes him a moment to remember how to speak. “Where did you get that?”
“From his laptop.”
His heart does a weird fist-clench in his chest, and then begins pounding against his breastbone. “I’m guessing he doesn’t know you took it.”
“You would be correct.”
“Autumn, you have to take it back. This is a violation of his privacy.”
“Tanner told Mr. Fujita he didn’t have anything to turn in. You and I both know that’s not true. Fujita knows it’s not true.”
Heat drains from Sebastian’s face and his words come out as a whisper. “You want me to turn it in for him?”
“No. I would never ask you do to that. I want you to read it. Maybe you can talk to Fujita, ask if you can grade it. I heard you’re grading a few others. He knows Tanner didn’t feel comfortable turning it in but will probably be happy to hear that you’ve read it. I don’t have the clout to do that. But you do.”
Sebastian nods, staring at the drive in his hand. His desire to read what’s there is nearly blinding. “It’s a bit of a conflict for me. . . .”
Autumn laughs at this. “Uh, yeah. But I don’t know what else to do—if he turns it in, you’re outed to a teacher without your consent. If he doesn’t turn it in, he fails the assignment that makes up most of his grade and jeopardizes his standing at UCLA. You and I both know there’s no easy way to just swap names here.”
“Personally, I don’t know what he was thinking.” Autumn looks up at him. “He knew he’d have to turn something in eventually. But that’s Tanner for you. He feels before he thinks.”
Sebastian sits on the front step, his eyes on the sidewalk. “He said he was writing something new.”
“Did you honestly believe that, or did it make it easier? He couldn’t think about anything else.”
Sebastian is filled with this clawing sense of irritation; he wants her to leave. Autumn’s presence is like a thumb pressed to a bruise.
Autumn sits next to him on the step. “You don’t have to answer because it’s probably none of my business. . . .” She laughs and then hesitates. Sebastian focuses on trying to find the ache again. “Do they know about Tanner?”
His gaze darts to her face and quickly away.
Do they know about him?
It’s such an enormous question, and the answer is an obvious no. If they knew about him—truly knew about his capacity for tenderness, for humor, for quiet and for conversation—he would be with Tanner right now. He genuinely believes that.
“They know that I was interested in someone and that it was him. I didn’t tell them everything, but it didn’t matter. They lost it anyway. . . . That’s why . . .”
Why he sent the note.
“We used to have all these inspirational quotes and photos around my house,” she says. “I remember one that said ‘Family is a gift that lasts forever.’ ”
“I’m sure we have that one somewhere.”
“There was no asterisk though, saying, ‘But only under these specific conditions.’ ” She picks a piece of invisible lint from her jeans and looks up him. “My mom got rid of most of it. I think she kept the one of them on their wedding day in front of the Temple, but I’m not sure. She was pretty angry; it could have gone in the trash with everything else.”
Sebastian looks at her. “Tanner told me a little about your dad. I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t understand Mom’s reaction at the time, but it makes sense now. I know those sayings are supposed to be inspirational, but they mostly feel like someone standing over your shoulder, passive aggressively reminding you where you fall short or why your tragedy is for the greater good, all in God’s plan. Mom had no use for any of it.”
He blinks, eyes trained on his feet. “Understandable.”
She bumps his shoulder with hers. “I’m gonna wager a guess that things aren’t great right now.”
He leans forward, wanting to get away a little, and rests his elbows on his knees. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to be touched; it’s that he wants it so intensely it nearly burns. “They’re barely speaking to me.”
Autumn growls. “Sixty years ago they would have been just as unhappy if you’d brought home a black girl. She’d have had the right things inside but the wrong skin color. Do you see how ridiculous that is? That’s not independent thinking; that’s deciding how to love your child based on some outdated teaching.” She pauses. “Don’t stop fighting.”
Sebastian stands and brushes the dirt from his pants. “Marriage is eternal, is between a man and a woman, and leads to an exalted, eternal family. Homosexuality denies that plan.” He sounds completely detached, like he’s reading from a script.
Autumn stands slowly, giving him an unreadable smile. “What a great bishop you’ll make.”
“I should. I’ve heard it enough.”
“They’re upset, but at some point they’ll figure out you can be right, or you can be loved. Only a handful get both at the same time.”
He runs a finger along the thumb drive. “So it’s on here?”
“I haven’t read it all, but what I have . . .”
He waits, one, two, three beats of silence between them, before he finally breathes.
Sebastian’s not used to avoiding his family. He’s the son who helps his mother clean so she has time to relax before dinner, who goes to church early for some extra time with his dad. But lately he’s treated more like a tolerated houseguest. As Autumn’s car backs out of the driveway and disappears down the street, he wishes he didn’t have to go back inside at all.
Things have been strained since he asked his parents—hypothetically—what they would do if one of their children were gay. Apparently, his lack of blatant heterosexuality had been noticed already, and discussed. He dropped a match straight into a pool of gasoline.
That was a couple weeks ago. His mom is talking to him again, but just barely. His dad is never home because it seems he always needs to be somewhere else, helping some other family in crisis. His grandparents haven’t stopped by in weeks. Aaron is mostly oblivious; Faith knows something is wrong but not what. Only Lizzy understands the specifics and—to his desperate heartbreak—is giving him a wide berth as if he’s Patient Zero, infectious.
What’s terrible is that Sebastian isn’t even sure he deserves to be heartbroken. Heartbroken implies that he’s innocent in this, the victim in some tragic romance and not largely responsible for his own pain. He’s the one who went behind his parents’ backs in the first place. He’s the one who fell in love with and then broke up with Tanner.
Seeing Autumn shook something loose in him, and he can’t go inside and pretend that everything’s fine, that hearing what Tanner did to protect him didn’t just turn his world upside down.
He’s always been good at pretending, but he doesn’t know if he can do it anymore.
- • •
When the curtains have opened and closed for the third time, Sebastian finally goes back in. His mom doesn’t waste any time, and as soon as the door shuts behind him, she’s on his heels.
He wanted to go straight back to his room, but she’s blocking the staircase. He walks into the kitchen instead, grabbing a glass from the cupboard and filling it with water. The USB drive burns a hole in his pocket. Sebastian’s hands are practically shaking.
He drains the glass in a few seconds and places it in the sink. “Yes,” he says. “She left.”
His mom circles the kitchen island to turn on the mixer, and the scents of butter and chocolate fill the air. She’s making cupcakes. Yesterday it was cookies. The day before it was biscotti. Her routine hasn’t shifted at all. Their family isn’t falling apart. Nothing is different.
“I wasn’t aware you two were friends.”
He doesn’t want to answer questions about Autumn, but knows it will only bring more if he doesn’t. “I was only a mentor to her in class.”
There’s a heavy silence. In theory he was only a mentor to Tanner, too, so that answer doesn’t hold much reassurance. But his mom doesn’t press; he and his parents don’t converse anymore—they exchange pleasantries like please pass the potatoes, or I need you to mow the lawn—and Sebastian feels like they’re losing that muscle. He always expected his relationship with them to shift over time as he had more experiences, was able to relate to them as adults in ways he never understood before. But he didn’t expect to see his parents’ sharp edges and limitations so soon, and so quickly. Like discovering the world really is flat; suddenly there is no other side of wonder and adventure to explore. Instead, you disappear over the edge.
With the mixer off, she watches him from across the counter. “I’ve never heard you mention her before.”
Does she not realize he’s never really talked about any girl before, not even Manda? “She dropped off something for Fujita.”
Sebastian watches as she connects the dots. Her suspicion rises like a dark sun across her face. “Autumn knows him, doesn’t she?”
“So she wasn’t coming by about this?”
There’s only one reviled “him,” just as there is only one unmentionable “this.”
Irritation flares in his chest that they won’t even use his name. “His name is Tanner.” Saying it makes his heart itch in his chest, and he wants to reach in, claw at it roughly.
“You think I don’t know his name? Is that a joke?”
Suddenly her face is red from her hairline to her collar; her eyes are glassy and bright. Sebastian has never seen his mom so angry. “I don’t even know how we got here, Sebastian. This? What you’re going through?” She stabs the air with savagely curled finger quotes around the words “going through.” “This is your own doing. Heavenly Father is not responsible for your decisions. It is your free will alone that deprives you of happiness.” She picks up the wooden spoon, shoving it into the batter. “And if you think I’m being harsh, talk to your dad about it. You have no idea how much you’ve wounded him.”
But he can’t talk to his dad, because Dan Brother is never home. Since that fated dinner, he stays at the church after work, or makes house call after house call, coming home only after everyone is in bed. Dinners used to be full of chatter. Now it’s the scraping of silverware and the occasional homework discussion, with an empty chair at the end of the table.
“I’m sorry,” he tells her, ever the repentant son. Without question, he knows her anger comes from the intensity of her love. Imagine, he thinks, worrying that your family would be separated from you for eternity. Imagine truly believing that God loves all of His Children, except when they love each other the wrong way.
To think God loves the trees, his brain paraphrases from a book he read once, but condemns that blossoming thing they do in spring.
Sebastian circles the center island, moving closer. “She really was bringing something for the class.”
“I thought you were done with that.”
“I need to critique one of the manuscripts Mr. Fujita hasn’t read yet.” None of this is an outright lie.
“But you’re not seeing him again? Or talking to him?”
“I haven’t talked to him in weeks.” This part is also true. Sebastian has stayed away from the school, away from any place they went together. He hasn’t hiked. He wants to tutor but knows the temptation would be too strong; it’d be too easy to stop by his house again, wait for him outside of class.
He doesn’t even have any old voice messages left. He deleted them only minutes before his father confiscated his phone.
“Good,” she says, visibly calmer. She unplugs the mixer and begins to scrape the side of the bowl, scooping batter into waiting baking cups. “You owe Mr. Fujita for everything he’s done, so you can read those books for him, if you have time. You have your meeting with Brother Young and the last of your interview requests to complete.” His mom is happiest when she has a list of things she can check off, delegate, and organize, and Sebastian lets her, even if it’s the only way she’ll talk to him. “Finish your obligations, and then, please, let’s move on.”
- • •
Together, Brother Young and Sebastian kneel on the floor and pray that Sebastian can be strong, that he can become an example again as he goes out into the world, that he can still make some good out of all of this.
He can tell Brother Young feels better when they stand, because he has that look of a man who has done something meaningful with his day. He embraces Sebastian, offers his ear anytime, tells him he’s proud of him. He says it with the wizened clarity of a much older man, but he’s only twenty-two.
If anything, once the elder leaves, Sebastian feels worse. Praying is a reflex, a ritual, a part of him—but it doesn’t hold the same promise of relief it used to. Dinner is called, but Sebastian isn’t hungry. Lately, he eats because depriving his body seems like one more sin, and the cart is nearly toppling with them as it is.
In his room, the laptop hums quietly on his bed. He powered it up as soon as he was alone—nearly an hour ago—and has slowly watched the battery die down. The pattern is becoming a calming ritual: The screen dims with sleep, and Sebastian smooths a finger across the trackpad to wake it up again.
There’s a new folder on the desktop labeled AUTOBOYOGRAPHY, and it contains the only file he’s interested in reading, but he can’t manage to do it. In part, it’s the anticipatory ache he knows will only get sharper as soon as he starts reading. But also, there’s something fascinating about how organized and clean Tanner’s Seminar notes are. The folder holds a number of versions of the document, all clearly labeled, with dates. He had photos of Sebastian too, labeled
SEBASTIAN SOCCER 2014
SEBASTIAN SOCCER 2014.A
SEBASTIAN SALT LAKE TRIB
SEBASTIAN PUB WEEKLY 2016
SEBASTIAN DESERET NEWS 2017
So there’s the catch. This book is the key to get inside Tanner’s head. The vain side of Sebastian wants to get into that space more than he’s ever wanted anything, to see every overanalytical detail. The rational side of Sebastian realizes it’s no closer to the real Tanner than he is now, or ever will be again. Is the torture worth it? Wouldn’t it be better to delete the folder, thank Autumn, and have her pass along a verbal message to Tanner? Something genuine and final, that can’t be printed and passed to him silently across the dinner table—like his father did with all of his texts and e-mails?
Without his noticing, the room has grown dark again. Sebastian slides his fingers across the trackpad and squints into the brightness. His hands shake as he clicks on the icon, and the screen fills with words.
It opens with a boy and a girl, a dare, and crumbs on a bed.
But where it really begins is with a double take and the words “His smile ruins me.”
- • •
Sebastian reads through most of the night. His cheeks, at some points, are wet with tears. Other times, he laughs—honestly, he’s never had so much fun as he did falling in love with Tanner. He follows them up the mountain, remembers that first kiss. He sees the way Tanner’s parents worry—Jenna’s early warnings now seem nearly prophetic.
He watches Tanner evade the truth, keep Autumn in the dark. His pulse pounds in his ears as he reads about the noises they make, of fingers and lips and hands that skim lower.
He falls in love under a sky full of stars.
The sun starts to break, and Sebastian stares at the screen, eyes blurry. Other than standing to plug in the laptop, he hasn’t moved in hours.
He sucks in a breath, feeling hollow but jittery, unmistakably elated. Terrified. His family will be up soon, so if he’s going to do something, he needs to go before anyone sees him leave. He could simply call Fujita, explain the personal nature, suggest a grade.
His muscles protest as he gets to his feet and disconnects the cord, reaches for the laptop, and slips out the door.