Ethan Domani had planned the perfect graduation trip before tragedy put his life on hold. Smothered by survivor’s guilt and his close-knit family, he makes a break for the open road. He doesn't know what he's looking for, but he's got the whole summer to figure out who he misses more: his boyfriend, or the person he thought he was. It’s just him and his memories . . . until he almost runs over a hitchhiker.
Nick Hamilton made some mistakes after his younger brother died. His violent ex-boyfriend was the most dangerous, and the one that got him shipped off to Camp Cornerstone’s pray-the-gay-away boot camp. His eighteenth birthday brings escape, and a close call with an idiot in a station wagon. Stranger danger aside, Nick’s homeless, broke, and alone. A ride with Ethan is the best option he’s got.
The creepy corners of roadside America have nothing on the darkness haunting Ethan and Nick. Every interstate brings them closer to uncharted emotional territory. When Nick’s past shows up in their rearview mirror, the detour might take them off the map altogether.
2018 Lambda Literary Finalist - GAY ROMANCE
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
dubious consent, emotional abuse
mass shooting (mentioned)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, abuse, age gap, angst, antihero / bad boy, anxiety, atonement, child abuse / neglect, coming of age, death / the afterlife, domestic violence, family, first love, first time, ghosts, grief, homelessness, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, interracial/multicultural, jocks / athletes, legends, mental illness, mentor / mentee, power imbalance, protection, PTSD, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, stalking / harassment, trust issues, vacation romance
Settings: America, Arkansas, Arlington, Astoria, Austin, beach, Beaver, Bristol, California, coffee shop, country, desert, hotel / motel, Los Angeles, museum, Nashville, on the road, Oregon, restaurant, small town, state park / national park, store, suburbs, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, woods / forest
Ethan dropped the duffel bag full of food into the trunk and slammed it shut.
"I can't believe you're leaving me here with the babies all summer." Suze's face crumpled. "I hope you pick up a hobo and they dismember you and leave your body in a cave."
"Suzanna Marie Domani! What a terrible thing to say." His mom put an arm around Suze's neck and noogied the top of her head. "Your brother is much smarter than that." She caught Ethan's gaze, eyebrows raised meaningfully. "Aren't you?"
Ethan grinned at both of them. "Of course. I won't drive near any caves if I pick up a vagrant."
Suze glanced between Ethan and their mom, pale eyebrows lifting in kind. "Right. So, can I have his room?"
"No. What we want your brother to take away from this is that he shouldn't pick up any strangers. It's dangerous."
He managed to get both his mom and Suze in a hug at the same time. "I promise I'll be careful. No picking up hitchhikers, no sleeping in rest areas, and I'll check in every other night."
He yelped at the poke and gave his mom an accusing stare.
"Every night, thank you very much."
Ethan opened his mouth to protest, then stopped. The fear in her eyes hurt, but there was no denying the twinge of resentment it caused. He nodded, deliberately softening his voice. "Yeah, okay. Every night."
It helped that he'd said goodbye to everyone else already. Dad hadn't been any better at hiding his worry, and dealing with both paranoid parents would've frozen him in place. He'd already spent enough time frozen for two lifetimes.
"Love you, kiddo. Love you, Mom." He gave them both another hug each, then pulled himself away before home could suck him back in.
Ethan settled himself into the familiar seat of his inherited Subaru Outback, unable to stop the reflexive glance toward his passenger seat. He ducked down, popping open the glove compartment to check for the third time that he'd remembered to put Scott's little wooden box in there with the taco sauce and hand sanitizer.
He backed out of their driveway into the narrow, tree-lined street he'd grown up on, navigating around Mrs. Kim's minivan and the street hockey net someone (probably his brother David) had left sitting too far out from the curb. One last look in the rearview mirror and he was free.
* * * * * * *
Ethan and Scott had been planning their after-graduation road trip since sophomore year, the very second Scott had burst into Ethan's bedroom waving his newly minted driver's license. Taking the trip alone hadn't been part of the equation, but Ethan had learned a lot about adjusting his expectations in the past year.
He flipped on the radio as he crossed into Fairfax County on I-66, taking his first deep breath away from the well-meaning confines of his family. The road stretched out in front of him, four lanes of freedom and experience beckoning him away from home. From the past eighteen years, twelve of them with Scott. From the past year without him.
Ethan sailed down the interstate, music he wasn't listening to cranked to cover the noise in his head. He didn't want to think about anything but the drive.
He was doing sixty-five when the car in front of him slammed on the brakes, and everyone around it followed suit. Ethan cut his speed in time to avoid hitting anyone, though he was pretty sure he heard the crunch of buckling metal a few cars back.
Once he'd stopped freaking out about how close he was to starting off his epic road trip with an accident less than ten miles from his house, he punched the radio over to the traffic and weather station.
"— heavy thunderstorms may have been a contributing factor. Three drivers are being medevaced to Fairfax Hospital. The two tractor trailers are blocking all westbound lanes of I-66 in Manassas, with backups already extending to the Beltway. Hazardous material cleanup crews are en route, but drivers should expect delays of up to an hour —"
And then it started to rain.
* * * * * * *
Six hours deep into his month-long road trip, Ethan was lost. Not lost-lost, but there was no way he could find his way back to anything approximating a highway. It didn't help that what had started as a mere thunderstorm had become a full-force monsoon. He didn't remember turning on the "avoid any road with more than one lane" setting on his GPS, but he hadn't seen another car in the past ten minutes. He squinted, trying to make out where the shoulder ended and the ditch next to it began, and bit back a startled gasp when his headlights panned over someone walking down the side of the road.
He was on the person too fast, and Ethan stomped on the brake pedal with all his weight. The car fishtailed, the rear end sliding sickeningly close to the ditch, before he got control again. By that point, he was a good hundred feet past the dark figure. Ethan smacked the button for his emergency flashers and pulled as far to the side of the road as he dared while his heart tried to resume a normal rhythm. There'd been no tell-tale thump, and the car hadn't rolled over anything large. If luck was on his side, he hadn't just killed someone in the dark backwoods of West Virginia.
No matter how hard he squinted at the mirrors, he couldn't make out anything more than a few feet behind the car. Sighing heavily, Ethan reached for the door handle, then paused. Too many horror movies started this way.
A flash of lightning illuminated the dark road for a few seconds — long enough for him to catch sight of the pale face outside the driver's-side window. And scream.
Like a goddamn adult.
His fingers clenched involuntarily, including the ones still on the handle, and the door caught a gust of wind and blew open.
This time the scream wasn't his. Scream or shout of pain, it was hard to tell over the drumming rain. There was no denying the hunched-over person in the middle of the road, though, or the steady stream of obscenities that were audible over the monsoon.
"Are you okay? I'm so sorry!" Ethan scrambled out of his car, the water rushing over the pavement soaking into the hems of his jeans. Adrenaline spiked again when he didn't get an answer, and he reached for the person hunched over next to him, catching their shoulder. "Are you crazy? You're going to get run over out here!"
As if to prove Ethan's point, the first car he'd seen in fifteen minutes drove past in a flurry of honking, flashing high beams, and standing water that crested over them like a wave. Thunder rolled in its wake, drowning out Ethan's angry shout.
"Fucking asshole," Ethan muttered, wiping muddy water out of his eyes. The person next to him turned their — her? — his head to watch the car drive off. The same dirty water dripped down his face, rivulets running under his chin from his crew cut.
"Yeah, jeez, he could've at least stopped after almost running us over," the boy said. His smile was replaced almost instantly by a somewhat blank look.
"It's the polite thing to do," Ethan said staunchly. "We should probably get out of the road." Driver's Ed had taught him he should keep the car between himself and the road. Given that his car was sitting dangerously close to the slope leading down to the ditch, passenger-side tires riding the edge, that probably wasn't the best idea. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then sighed. In for a penny, in for a pound, his gram had always told him. "Why don't we get in the car? At least we'll be out of the rain."
"Pretty sure I remember hearing something about not getting in cars with strangers."
Ethan snickered as he opened the door. "I heard that this morning, but here I am picking up a stranger. If I promise I'm not a mass murderer, does that help?"
Ethan's damp friend didn't say anything else, but he moved toward the passenger side, edging carefully along the muddy embankment as Ethan slid into the driver's seat and yanked the door shut.
Ethan was soaked to the skin, and the air-conditioning hit him like an unwelcome slap on the ass. Turning on the heat seemed a little excessive but, since his passenger was shivering hard enough to shake the whole car, maybe not a bad idea.
"Are you heading anywhere in particular?" Ethan finished fiddling with the temperature controls and looked up in time to catch a fleeting expression of fear.
"That way." He nodded toward the road in front of them. "Or anywhere, really. Somewhere that isn't here."
Laughing, Ethan turned off his flashers and started rolling forward, letting his old Subaru find its footing before he tried to gain speed. "I can manage that. My GPS says there's a town about ten miles from here, and I think I'm done for the night. Almost killing someone will really do a number on your nerves."
Ethan did his best to keep his eyes on the road in front of him, only sneaking glances a few times before he licked his lips and tried to entice more conversation. "I'm Ethan, by the way." The guy jumped at the sound of his voice, and Ethan cringed.
"Oh. Um. Nick. Thanks for the ride."
"Pretty much the least I could do after almost running you over. I didn't see you at all." Because you were standing there in the dark, in the road. But he kept that last bit in his head. Nobody would've been out in this weather by choice, and Nick looked miserable enough already.
Nick shifted in the seat, holding his hands in front of the warm air blasting out of the vent. "Yeah, I appreciate that too. The not-running-over-me part, I mean."
"So, I gotta ask. What were you doing out in the middle of this?" Ethan had to raise his voice to be heard above the rain and the heater. "It's fucking horrible out."
There was a long pause in place of an answer, and Nick seemed at a loss for words. He coughed into the sodden sleeve of his hoodie, pulling the cuffs over the tips of his fingers and not looking in Ethan's direction at all. "Pissed off some carnies." Nick shrugged, water dripping off his head. "They hold a grudge. You win one too many goldfish at that ping-pong ball toss, suddenly you're walking the lonely roads in a hurricane." He shrugged again. "You know how it is."
It was such a blatant lie that Ethan couldn't help laughing to let Nick off the hook. Obviously Nick didn't want to talk about it. They'd known each other for about five minutes, so Ethan wasn't sure what the social conventions were when it came to prying. His mom's voice niggled in the back of his head anyway, and he ventured one more question to shut it off. "Just promise me you're not going to kill me and hide my body in a cave, okay?"
Nick swung his gaze away from the window, staring at Ethan for a beat before he laughed. It sounded rusty, jagged, like it almost hurt. "I promise I won't murder you and hide your body in a cave or harm you in any other oddly specific way you might come up with."
"That one I can blame on a paranoid younger sibling. She was certain I was going to be dismembered by a hobo and dumped in a cave."
That earned Ethan a raised eyebrow. "Like I said, oddly specific."
Things were quiet for a few moments, except for the thunder, the engine, the vents blowing, and his windshield wipers trying to beat themselves to death holding back the rain. Ethan jumped when Nick spoke up again.
"I can't be where I was anymore. I'm not fleeing a crime scene or anything."
The Outback's headlights swept over a road sign ahead of them, the giant white letters reflecting faintly as they got closer. Ethan giggled nervously, lifting a hand to point at the sign.
STATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY AHEAD. DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS.
Nick's tired laugh sounded less painful this time. "Well, see? You picked me up a good five miles back, so we're golden."
"Geography saves the day." Ethan shivered as a drop of water rolled down his spine. The storm blew them down the road, farther from places neither of them could stand to be anymore.
* * * * * * *
Downtown Beaver, West Virginia, was so dark Ethan wondered if they'd lost power. Pitch-black hardware store, pitch-black diner, pitch-black something that looked like a liquor store. No streetlights, and the one stoplight was flashing yellow.
"I guess they roll up the sidewalks at five around here." Ethan slowed down at the stoplight, peering out between the windshield wipers. "I was really hoping for a place to stay and something to eat."
"There's a motel over there." Nick pointed down one of the cross streets.
Ethan pulled cautiously through the main intersection, heading toward the lighted sign he could barely make out through the rain. The lobby entrance was protected by a huge stucco overhang, and apparently it was the only place in town willing to waste money on excessive lighting. He felt like he was driving into an operating theater. The rest of the two-story motel stretched out on either side of the central lobby, doors facing into the parking lot. As only options went, it didn't seem too skeevy.
Nick reached for the door handle before the car had even stopped rolling. "Thanks for the ride. I really appreciate it." His other hand was curled around the strap of the backpack he'd tucked under his feet, and he looked ready to bolt.
"No problem. Really. Sorry I'm not going farther." Ethan put the car in park, letting it idle in the loading zone directly in front of the automatic glass doors to the lobby. "Um…. Do you have somewhere to go tonight? I mean, somewhere to stay in town here? It's not any of my business. Just. Anyway. Do you?" Ethan examined the floor of his car, hoping a previously unnoticed black hole had opened and was ready to swallow him.
Nick hadn't been particularly forthcoming before, but now his face closed off entirely, expression going blank. "I'll be fine."
"Right. Okay." Where the hell was that black hole? "Good luck, then." Great. If Ethan got any more awkward, he wouldn't be able to walk without tripping over his own feet.
Nick opened the door the rest of the way and slipped out. "Thanks again." He shouldered his backpack, closed the car door, and disappeared into the darkness beyond the awning before Ethan had time to react.
"Yeah, no problem." Ethan shook his head, turned the car off, and pocketed the keys as he walked into the lobby.
The older man hunched over a newspaper, elbows on the desk, didn't bother looking up as the doors swished open. Ethan cleared his throat and finally got an annoyed glance.
"Kinda late to be getting a room."
Caught by surprise, Ethan bit his lip. "Yeah, I was supposed to be in Bristol tonight, but with the traffic and the storm…."
"Couple months late for the race, kid." At least the guy seemed vaguely amused now.
"I'm going to see the recording studios and stuff. It sounded like a cool place to stop." Ethan pulled his wallet out, flipping through to the shiny new airline-points card he'd gotten for the trip. "I'd like whatever your cheapest room is tonight, if you've got one free."
As far as Ethan could tell, all the rooms looked free, but pretending the guy was doing him a favor couldn't hurt. A few grunted questions and a swipe of his card later, he headed back out to his car and moved it a few spaces down to park in front of room 107.
His room was right next to the stairs up to the second level, and he could make out the bulk of an ice maker and a couple of vending machines in the wide pan of his headlights.
"Dinner is served," he muttered, killing the engine.
The rain marched a drumline over his head as he popped the hatch and reached into the back of the car for his bag. He dashed from the parking lot to the narrow concrete sidewalk, bag clutched protectively to his stomach while he hunched over to keep the worst of the damp off it. The limited protection of the second floor walkway above his door wasn't much against the gusting wind that seemed intent on pouring water down his neck. It was a relief to let himself into the cold, musty motel room.
The room itself was nothing to write home about. It held two double beds covered by scratchy polyester bedspreads, a counter-slash-table-slash-dresser on the opposite wall, and a TV older than Suze. There was a small closet next to the sink, and a door he hoped like hell was hiding a toilet and somewhere he could shower long enough to get warm. Something about sitting in damp clothes had gotten under his skin despite the warmth of late June.
With horror stories about bedbugs dancing in his head, Ethan hung his backpack on one of the weird nonremovable hotel hangers before going to investigate the shower. It looked clean, and there was free shampoo. Considering the state of the bathroom he shared with his younger brother and sisters at home, he wasn't going to complain. He left his wet clothing in the sink and stepped into the tub. A few seconds of fiddling with the taps managed to adjust the temperature to his liking, but there was no saving the pressure, which alternated between a half-hearted splash and a pulsing, needlelike spray. After he'd scrubbed enough to rid himself of the clammy feeling, he gave up and turned the shower off.
Once he'd accomplished warm and dry, his stomach pushed itself to the forefront. He couldn't even remember lunch, it had been so long ago. He skipped socks and shoved his feet into his tennis shoes, grabbed his wallet, then headed toward what was sure to be a delectable dinner of off-brand Doritos and stale cheez crackers. Sure, he had half a Trader Joe's in his trunk, but it was his first night out in the world as a semiadult. He didn't want to eat snacks his mommy had packed for him, no matter how plentiful.
The wind whipped the door out of his hand when he opened it, pushing him back into the motel. Head down, Ethan fought his way out into the cement wind tunnel. His room offered decent soundproofing, since he hadn't been able to tell it was still raining, much less that the wind and thunder had gotten worse. He'd stopped just in time, then. He tried not to imagine that the weather was telling him to go home.
As he fed a few slightly damp dollar bills into the vending machine, he silently thanked his older brother for giving him the roll of cash as a graduation present. Who knew there were still places that didn't take cards? Robert had probably meant for him to use the bills on lap dances by cute go-go boys, but oh well. Loaded down with dill pickle potato chips, Ho Hos, and strawberry licorice (because fruit!), he turned to walk back to his room and caught sight of a person huddled in the shelter provided by the partially enclosed staircase leading to the upper walkway. Between the ratty backpack and the purple hoodie, dark with rain, it didn't take a genius to figure out where "fine" had gotten Nick.
"Hey!" Ethan had to yell to be heard over the wind roaring through the breezeway. Nick either didn't hear him or hoped he'd go away. Dinner tucked in the crook of one arm, he climbed the stairs. Nick's shoulders shook, but that was about all the indication Ethan had that he wasn't dead.
"Nick?" Ethan touched Nick's shoulder lightly. "Are you okay?"
The kid who looked up from the depths of Nick's hood was missing all the anger and bravado that had marked his earlier departure. Nick's dark-blue eyes were bloodshot and ringed in the kind of purple bruises that only a lack of sleep or a heavy crying jag could cause. Ethan had seen his own in the mirror after more than a few sleepless, unhappy nights. Nick's knees were pulled up under his chin, and it seemed like only the bricks he was leaning against were keeping him upright. The startled, unseeing quality to Nick's expression made Ethan wonder if he even recognized him.
"Nick? Do you need help?"
Nick's throat worked, Adam's apple bobbing as his mouth opened, but no sound came for a moment. He finally seemed to look at Ethan, rather than through him.
"It's…. It's my fucking birthday."
Ethan held his hand out, sympathy clawing through the cracks in his chest. "Come with me, okay? You can get warm inside, and we can celebrate."
Ethan thought Nick would refuse, was afraid he would, but he finally reached up. Hand wrapped around Nick's icy fingers, Ethan pulled him upright, tripping backward a step when Nick stumbled.
"Sorry," Nick muttered, voice barely audible over the drumming rain.
Ethan didn't let go, not with the way Nick was swaying. "Think you can make it down the hall?" He kept his voice deliberately light. "Trust me, you don't want to miss out on the spectacular accommodations here." One careful step, then another, watching to make sure Nick wasn't going to collapse on him.
When they finally arrived at his door, Ethan dropped Nick's hand long enough to fumble the key card out of his pocket. This time, the door flying open worked in his favor as he herded Nick through, then slammed it closed behind him.
The sudden silence felt like cotton in his ears, and he shook his head, groaning at the rain droplets that went flying. "I don't know about you, but I'm done with this weather."
Nick didn't answer him. The air conditioner was silent, and the only sound, aside from Nick's sodden clothes dripping on the floor, was the ragged breathing of someone trying desperately to remember how air worked.
Ethan dropped his food on the bed, maintaining a careful distance. Not too close, in case Nick was afraid of him — or people in general — but not too far away, in case…in case. He kept his voice calm and friendly, like all the voices he'd hated hearing but wouldn't have known what to do without. "I think maybe you're in shock. If I promise that you're safe here, would you feel comfortable taking a shower to warm up and putting on some dry clothes?" He flashed a smile at Nick, hoping it hid how freaked out he was. "If you want a reference, I can call my mom. She'll tell you about my merit badge in bugling and how many orphaned baby squirrels I tried to save when I was a kid."
His poor attempt at a joke earned a poor attempt at a smile, cut short by another aching breath and a sharp nod. "Okay. But I'm not a squirrel."
Ethan rubbed the tips of his fingers together, trying to keep himself calm. They couldn't both lose their shit. "That's true. Spiky hair, slightly upturned nose — you're clearly a hedgehog."
Nick's shudder started at the top of his head and rolled through him like an earthquake, but it seemed to leave him a little more grounded in its wake. "Been called a little prick before, but that's new." He edged around the bed, closer to the bathroom. "I'm…. I'm going to lock the door."
It wasn't quite a question, despite the hesitation, but Ethan chose to treat it as one. "Yeah, of course. I mean, not that I would bust in to grab my toothbrush or anything. I'll leave you some clothes on the counter so you can put them on when you're done." He stayed in place, barely daring to breathe as Nick took the last few steps to the bathroom. He got another nod before Nick closed the door, followed by the unmistakable sound of the lock clicking into place.
Knees suddenly giving way, Ethan dropped onto the bed. This road trip was never going to be what he'd planned a million years ago, but this level of weirdness was a little more than he was prepared to deal with. Suddenly, calling his mom didn't seem like the worst idea.
Except it was. She'd make some reasonable argument about helping Nick by taking him to an ER or something, and Ethan would acquiesce to keep her from worrying. And sure, that would probably help future-Nick, but Ethan couldn't stomach the idea of leaving present-Nick somewhere to deal with whatever else fate wanted to hand out. The Nick showering in his bathroom had hollow eyes and that same need Ethan did — to get away, as far and as fast as he could. Ethan wasn't going to dump him somewhere, any more than he'd have left him on the side of the road. There was doing the smart thing, and then there was betrayal.
In the end, it was a sudden noise from the bathroom that unfroze him. He'd made that noise before, that choking drag of sound as fear and grief and nothingness scraped him hollow from the inside out. It didn't matter if he was fleeing or giving Nick some privacy. Either one got him out of the room, away from remembering how that sound felt. He barely remembered to toss a pair of sweats and a T-shirt on the counter next to the sink before he left.
He found himself standing in front of the vending machine again, feeding it bills and picking things that looked comforting or filling. A package of oatmeal cookies, a bag of nuts, and two Snickers bars. The drink machine supplied a couple of bottles of Coke. Ethan glanced up the now-empty stairs, biting his lip as he juggled the food around and fished another dollar out of his pocket. He added the package of chocolate cupcakes to the top of his pile and headed back to the room. Birthdays meant cake. It was the universal constant.
Or was that was gravity? Whatever.