Through the dirty gas station window Cade Wilcott watched the light turn red, then green, then red again while not a single vehicle passed through the intersection. The faded redlight swung in the breeze. Cade wondered how many more times the old fixture would have to swing to and fro before it fell to the ground, shattering the bulbs, sparks flying. What would uphold law and order in Redham if not the only traffic light for 30 miles?
The bell chimed as the door swung open. Without moving his head, Cade pushed his cap up to get a look at whoever had walked in. But the man—dressed in all beige, like some kind of asylum patient—turned and met his eyes right away. Cade flashed his eyes down and tapped his phone screen, his face warm.
Two texts. The first he'd already read without opening, his mother letting him know she was on the way, now ten minutes ago. The second, one minute ago, Hey, from Jackie Martin. He unlocked the phone, tapped out a quick whats up, pressed send, and stuffed his phone in his pocket. His heart thumped in his chest.
From his table by the windows, Cade sneaked a peak at the man in beige. The man walked down the farthest aisle, stopping to consider every item, smiling all the while. His dark hair was up in a loose bun, and his tan face was dusted with stubble. He looked up and made eye contact with Cade again. Cade held it for a moment, felt goosebumps spread over his body like wind through grass. He broke away, looked back out the window, and shot up as his mother pulled up in the blue last-century Lexus.
Cade buckled his seatbelt and looked up to find the man standing inside, by the window, staring toward the intersection, the hint of a smile still on his face. Cade's phone buzzed in his pocket, but he couldn't pull his focus away from this strange man. His stomach churned and his chest felt tight.
"You won't find a mosque here," muttered Mandy, his mother, as she peered at the man, severity wrinkling her forehead. She sipped at her mug of coffee.
Cade pulled his phone back out, grateful that the man couldn't hear Mom speak that way.
Wondering when I'll see you again, read Jackie's reply. He tilted the phone away from Mom, replying, off tonight. gotta sleep, ttyl.
"How was yer night?" asked Mom. They rolled out onto the highway.
"Fine," said Cade, pulling off the stained red polo that was his work uniform. "Didn't get shot." He tossed the shirt in the back seat.
"That's not funny." She shook her head. She'd initially objected to him working at the station, saying he might get held up by 'some thug.' As if she didn't know every family in town, white and black. "You need to wash that."
"I'm sure you can manage it." He smirked. Phone buzzed.
Mom turned the radio up. "...and we know that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. All people may sin, but we must not knowingly pursue a lifestyle of sin, lest we find ourselves without a place in the Kingdom of Heaven..."
Hearing the words, Cade resigned once again to gazing out the window. Less to see what was outside than to hide the red staining his face. Familiar hurt budded in his chest like a rose, with thorns of fear and hopelessness that pricked at his veins until he ran empty. It was the emptiness that drew his eyes closed and pulled his head against the warm glass; Cade drifted to sleep, lulled by the warmth and the stirring words of the radio pastor.
He woke in his bed to a flood of blood orange through the slanted blinds. Like a magnet his hand went to his phone. One hundred and twenty-two messages from the group chat. The phone buzzed—one hundred and twenty-three. He cleared the notification. And one message, seventeen minutes ago, from Jackie, You awake? What you wanna do tonight? Cade smiled. Jackie had been pretty patient. Cade'd slept for ten hours. bonfire, he sent in reply.
At nine o'clock Cade pulled up in the Lexus to the pipeline way in the back of Jackie's property, a strip of land surrounded by pine woods. He shut off the engine and took a moment to look down the hill. Jackie already had the fire going strong. Two big ol' camping chairs with an ice chest between them. The fire was made at the base of two hills, curtains of darkness hiding their little oasis of dancing light. And Jackie was there, back to Cade, stoking the wood.
Cade grabbed the flashlight from the glovebox, shining it on his face, and opened his selfie camera. Messy dirty blond hair plotted its escape from beneath his old high school ball cap. He checked his teeth one last time, all white and clean but a couple kind of crooked. His father's green eyes that he hated looking at. He tossed his phone in the passenger seat and got out, shining the flashlight ahead of him as he made his way down the gnarly hill.
When he got to the bottom, Jackie turned around. Cade's heart raced. The light of flame played against Jackie's dark skin, kissing his muscle-thick arms and the soft pockets of fat that adulthood had bestowed. His expression was an easy smile, framed by a shower of twists from atop his head. The sight sent warmth blazing all over Cade's body before he had even reached the fire.
Cade walked up and Jackie pulled him into an awkward embrace; Cade wasn't used to the touch and Jackie probably wasn't either. But then they kissed anyway, as best as they could. Cade bit back the urgent feelings rising up from a deeper part of him and pulled back. Keep it cool. They separated.
"Hey," Jackie mumbled, rubbing the back of his head. Cade laughed and Jackie joined him.
"What's up," Cade managed, trying not to sound like such a redneck. The accent was practically sewed to his tongue.
"Want a beer?" This was there fifth or sixth time together, and Jackie knew how to pull them out of that weird initial greeting thing they did. The first time they met up, they'd stood there for a good ten minutes making small talk and barely tolerating punctuations of heavy silence.
They sat down, and Jackie cracked open a couple Blue Moons and handed one over. For a little while they just drank and watched the fire. Cade couldn't beat his smile. A log tumbled. A plume of glowing ash shot high into the air, intermingling with the shocks of stars painted across the black sky. Cade was in another world.
"What'd you do while I was sleeping?" he asked Jackie. His heart was in his throat.
Jackie's voice was soft. "Well, I went to work, then I came home and helped Mama in the garden, and before long I was out here buildin' a fire at your request." Air rushed out of Cade's nose in a giggle.
"It's a good fire."
A branch cracked at the edge of the trees. They both jerked their heads left. The silhouette of a man appeared from between the thin pine trunks; Cade nearly jumped out of his chair.
"You lost, bro?" Jackie called, standing up. The man continued his approach and gave no answer. "Hey, you need get off my property man."
The man entered the light of the fire. Cade gasped. It was the strange guy from that morning. Strands of his hair had fallen out of his bun and drifted around his face. He was wearing the same beige get-up, but it was dirty now, stained with mud and decorated with bits of pine straw. Jackie flicked open a hunting knife.
"Jackie, wait," Cade whispered. Jackie glanced back at him. "I think he's like a mental patient or somethin'." Cade stood up and turned to the man. "Hey, you were at the gas station this morning. You lost?"
The man smiled. "I am no more lost than you are, brother."
Cade wondered whether the guy must be on drugs; he looked sort of gaunt. "Do you need to borrow a phone?"
"Cade," declared the man, smiling bigger.
A chill crawled up Cade's spine. "How do you—"
"I am not looking for a mosque. Your mother is wrong about this, and about many things."
Different words danced on Cade's tongue, but he couldn't get a single one out.
"Alright man, I'm calling the police," Jackie said, his voice stern and deep. "Cade, get in your car."
"Jackie," the man spoke, smiling at him now. "Your grandfather does not blame you for what happened." Jackie's phone hit the ground. His hands were shaking.
"Who the hell are you?" Jackie yelled. Cade tugged at Jackie's arm, pulling him back.
"A visitor. Soon I will take my leave. Sleep now, and take comfort."
Jackie tensed, then leaned back until he toppled onto to Cade, bringing them both to the ground, inches away from the fire. Cade looked up. The heat made his eyes water. The light of the fire flickered across the man's face. He was no longer smiling. Really he looked sad, his brown eyes half-closed.
"Please..." Cade groaned under Jackie's weight.
"You too, Cade."
Cade's eyes shut.
Then he woke. Voices all around. His eyes snapped open. Jackie's head rested on his chest, still out cold. A police officer was bent over, studying Cade's eyes. He recognized the face—a guy he'd went to high school with. He could feel the blood pumping through his entire body, like his skin was about to burst.
"I always heard you could handle your booze, Wilcott. Guess that's not the only thing I had wrong about you." The officer smirked, his eyes on Jackie.
Jackie's parents stood a little farther back, taking in the whole scene, their faces grim. His mom's voice sounded nearby, shrill. She was yelling at another cop. "No my son is not gay. I don't know what he's doing like that."
Miraculously, Cade's heart calmed. He took comfort. His mother was wrong about many things.