I shouldn’t be doing this.
The steady glow of Caden’s phone is the brightest thing in his bedroom, brilliant blue against the dusky midnight gray. He can’t tear his eyes from the screen.
I shouldn’t be doing this. I shouldn’t be doing this.
His finger hovers over the call button. He wrenches it away.
Shouldn’t be, shouldn’t be, shouldn’t be, his brain sings triumphantly.
He shouldn’t be staring at Harper’s profile picture in his phone for the twentieth time, even though he’s already memorized the curve of his jaw, the sweet crescent of his grin. The way his hair hangs deliberately over his dark eyes like somebody’s yanked it down, triggering the infectious grin on his face, the music of his laughter in that afternoon sun.
Caden’s hand tenses, searching for another to hold.
He flops backward into the comforting warmth of his bed. The blankets curl around him like a nest. On the ceiling of his bedroom, glow-in-the-dark star stickers shine faintly, remnants of the days when his parents spent time with him and he wanted them to. He stares up at them for a moment, feeling unwanted memories flood over him like a tsunami, then turns on the lamp.
Its warm light blots out the stars’ glow easily, instead illuminating the dark blue walls, the books and sweaters scattered all over the carpet, a desk sagging under the weight of his homework and several piano trophies. It’s quiet here. Almost peaceful.
The clock on his nightstand reads 12:09 AM. Caden turns it off. He’s tired of this insomnia wracking his brain, tired of the shadows that dwell in the hollows beneath his eyes.
And all of a sudden, desire comes crashing over him again, a thunderous ocean wave that he can’t help but drown in. To talk to someone, to have a hand grasp his like a lifeline. To love someone, to be loved, to feel love echoing through the empty chambers inside his head until he can’t see anything except golden afternoons and bangs falling over kind brown eyes.
He reaches for his phone again, hears the mantra increase tenfold in volume. I shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t be doing this, doing this, doing this—
Caden hits the call button and prays to some god he’s never met. The deity of completely impulsive moves, or late-night phone calls to your exes, maybe. He’s not even sure what he’s praying for.
With each unanswered ring, relief and disappointment clash more painfully in his chest. It’s midnight. Of course Harper isn’t picking up.
It’s been a year. Of course Harper won’t pick up.
The phone beeps, then lapses into the self-assured, lilting voice of a person who talks a lot and smiles even more. “Hey, you’ve reached Harper Bell. I’m probably busy right now, obviously, since I didn’t pick up, but you can leave me a message or text and—”
Caden hangs up and tosses his phone to the side. What had he been expecting? A heartfelt talk, whispered sweet nothings in the dark? He should know better by now. Now all he can do is hope that Harper doesn’t notice the missed call and they can both move on with their lives, forget this momentary lapse in judgement.
Deeper down, he knows that’s ridiculous. He remembers everything about Harper, and Harper remembers everything. When Caden had failed his second math test of the semester last year, Harper had driven him to the city, turning corners confidently in his little green Honda, then tugged him into a bookstore he’d mentioned in passing six months previously. You remembered? Caden had asked in awe, and Harper just nodded and leaned in—
No. He can’t think about that.
He attempts to beat back the memories, but it’s like trying to hold up the weight of the sky. It leaves him drained and dizzy, hungover from a wild night that felt like it’d never end. Until it did. Until it did and left him swimming through regret and an overwhelming sense of idiocy. For falling, for letting go, for falling in the first place.
His phone rings. He scoops it into his hands at lightning speed. When he sees who’s calling, his heart drops to the center of the earth.
He bolts out of bed and smoothes his hair, unsure why he’s trying to make himself look better for a person he can’t even see. His throat has dried into a desert. He picks up.
The voice that comes through is blurry with sleep and soft at the edges, just the way he remembers it, and it’s painfully silly but Caden feels tears well up in his eyes, painting his own vision like a frosted-over window, and he grips the phone that much tighter.
“Harper,” he manages, and then he starts to sob.
“Whoa, hey.” The rustling of blankets, as if Harper is sitting up in his bed and flicking on the light. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
Pathetic, something in his head shouts at him, and he flinches, swipes away the tears. “I’m sorry, I know it’s late, I’ll hang up if you want me to.”
“Don’t,” Harper answers instantly, his tone gravelly. “I can’t sleep either, and to be honest, I’ve been thinking about you lately.”
Everything inside Caden grinds to a halt.
“Um, I just mean that—” Even over the scratchy phone call, Harper sounds like he’s struggling to backtrack. Caden imagines him sitting up in his cot, college dorm a mess with freshman year work. “Just wondering how you’re doing with the lockdown and everything. Ha.” His laugh is dry. “This virus, huh?”
Caden can’t deny the disappointment that hangs heavy inside him, but he tries to push it aside. He thinks of the normal clatters and hubbub of school, delegated to a tiny screen instead. The long days spent with his camera on, pinned to his chair like a dead butterfly on a paper. Stolen glances in the library, the sun-warmed weave of the school benches, sprinting from class to class with backpacks overflowing.
“I’m really sorry you’re losing your senior year to this,” Harper says into the silence that’s descended upon them, a heavy cloak of fog thirty miles across.
“Yeah.” And Caden can’t summon any more words.
Something softer enters Harper’s voice. “I know how important it was to you.”
He swallows hard, wills the lump in his throat to evaporate. “It’s okay,” he says weakly. Even before it leaves his lips, it feels like a lie. He still remembers dreaming about leaving this stifling town when he was half this height.
And soon they’ll be off to the future and the life he’s planned every detail of will finally begin. It just wasn’t supposed to feel like this. Rushed, cut short, a story missing its last twenty pages.
He tries to mask the heaviness of his heart with cocksure words. “Listening to the valedictorian lag out over Google Meet just won’t be the same, you know.”
“No person,” says Harper seriously, “has ever loved school as much as you.”
Caden lets out a broken laugh, then claps his hand over his mouth, not even daring to imagine waking his parents up.
“It just feels so… normal,” he says. “And planned, and safe. It makes me feel normal.”
He hears Harper curse under his breath. “Cade, whatever your parents are telling you, it’s not true,” he says urgently. “Don’t listen to them, you’re amazing and everyone knows it.”
“It’s easy for you,” Caden snaps, feeling an uncharacteristic torrent of words ripple in his stomach. “When you came out, everybody smiled and hugged you and went on with their lives. But when I told my parents, they—”
His breath catches. “Go on,” Harper murmurs. Stupid Harper, knowing him so well. It’s all so stupid.
“They act like it’s a phase,” Caden spits. He’s acutely aware of his parents’ sleeping presences in the next room, and suddenly he wants to shake them awake and roar into their faces, how dare you, how dare you break the bond that was never supposed to be broken. “And on most days they treat me normally, but every time I bring it up, they look at me like their lives are a question and I’m the wrong damn answer, Harper, like I’m a failure.”
Even as his chest heaves in great heaving gasps, the long pent-up anger is already beginning to subside. “I’m their son, Harper,” he forces out. “They’re supposed to love me.”
A pause, restraining all the things unsaid.
“You don’t deserve this, Cade.”
Caden breathes in deeply, holds, breathes out. His mother had taught him, years ago, while dabbing at his skinned knee with some unfamiliar chemical. It’s okay, she’d reassured, even as he whimpered at the stinging sensation. Deep breaths, sweetie. You’re gonna be okay.
“I’m not usually this angry,” says Caden.
“Yeah.” He imagines Harper again, gazing out the window. “I remember that about you.”
Caden hears Harper’s breaths by his ear, slow and measured, like the metronome of a piano. It’s as if the older boy is lying right next to him, trying to trace the constellations on his ceiling like they used to do. That’s a bear, and that’s a hunter, Harper had once said, would have said. And that’s… what the hell is that? Were you drunk while putting these up?
They laughed. They would have laughed. And he would have felt complete.
Caden grips the phone so tightly his knuckles turn into pale stars. “We could have made it, Harper,” he whispers. “Why didn’t we try?”
Harper blows out a sigh. “You know your dreams and I know mine,” he says after a long moment. “We’d never be able to make it work two hundred miles apart. Our lives won’t be right for each other.”
“What if we’re right for each other?” Caden’s heart races, fragile as a hummingbird’s wings. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be all about the future—”
“The city,” interrupts Harper, and almost instinctively, Caden falls silent. That’s the way their speech patterns work together, a push and a pull, the ocean and its moon. He finds a little bit of solace in knowing that, at least, one part of their puzzles fit together.
Harper hesitates. “The city,” he repeats. “You want an apartment there. And one cat, a gray one, fluffy so you can cuddle it on rainy days. The windows face west so the sun doesn’t wake you up in the mornings, but you can still watch it set. And you’ll have a keyboard, so you can play your music. And a bike to ride to the job that keeps you afloat in the day, and to whichever bar you’re performing at in the night.”
Caden doesn’t remember telling Harper any of this. He must have dropped the details in their conversations from time to time, not thinking much of it, and Harper had picked them up and put them all together like someone piecing a broken plate into one coherent whole.
“That’s your future, Cade,” Harper says. “It’s your dream. I know how much you’ve thought about it, how badly you want to get out of this town. Away from your parents. But all I want is to stay in this city, work at this college. God knows they need it.” He laughs. Caden doesn’t.
Quickly, Harper seems to extinguish his amusement. “I’m sorry, but we’re just too different,” he says, voice so close. “You want to get out of here. I can’t even dream of leaving.”
“I still love you,” Caden blurts out. “Harper, I’m still in love with you and I think about you every day. Like, are you in class, or alone in your dorm? And can I call you and talk to you and ask you if you’re okay? Has anyone gotten the virus near you? Are you scared? Are you happy? I—”
Harper is silent. It’s as if he’s disappeared. Faded into the midnight darkness.
“Please. I miss you. We can try again.” He searches for more words, and he finds a million, but none of them come out.
The quiet stretches on, almost agonizing, until Harper breaks it. “You know, falling out of love just really, really sucks.”
Caden hates the implications of that, the meaning behind the words that he refuses to register. He doesn’t want to think about the way his boyfriend had grown distant before Harper’s graduation, slowly and then suddenly, until he was a mere dot on the horizon when he’d been a mile closer just yesterday. “Please.” And again, he doesn’t know what he’s asking for.
“Good night, Cade. I hope you get your city.”
A click, and then an absence of silence, as if even the idea of Harper is gone.
Caden stares into his lonely room, feeling blank, an unfinished story.
His parents had loved him before he was born. Never mind what happened after that. They’d named him Caden, a word that means ‘friend.’ But he doesn’t care about the literal meaning as much as what it sounds like: ‘cadence,’ a chord progression that creates a sense of finality in a piece of music. A resolution, if you will. An ending.
How badly he’s always wanted that finality. To know he is where he needs to be. To be sure he’s going to go where he needs to go.
Falling out of love sucks, Harper had said, but Caden thinks that there is something far, far worse: falling in love. The plunging, the reaching, the slow realization that the wings you’ve been grooming won’t serve you here. Most of all, the surety that you might not know where you’re going, but you’re going to hit the ground. Hard.
You’re gonna be okay. The words echo through Caden’s head, but they feel empty, meaningless. This world is one of untold possibilities. How many of them end like this, right where he began? Lost, alone in the night, searching desperately for a semblance of control over his own life?
Caden closes his eyes, glow-in-the-dark stars burning brightly against the blackness, and thinks of the future. There’s a blooming, stagnant ache inside his rib cage, like dice suspended in midair. The hope in his chest is beginning to waver.
But the passage of time is an impossible thing, and all he can do is wait to fall.