Twenty-One

Julian was up with the sun for perhaps the first time in weeks. Even with his attention to deadlines and busy schedule, he was naturally a night owl and loved to sleep in. But today, he wanted to watch the sun rise. Preferably, he wanted to watch the sunrise with Teddy.

He made his way over to the other’s room and knocked on the door. Nothing. He’d already snooped in the room the night before, so he saw no problem opening the door now. “Teddy?” he called into the dark room, but there was no answer.

Jules flipped on the light and saw that the bed was still made, which meant Teddy had never come home. He frowned, feeling a tug of worry in the pit of his stomach. His one request had been that Teddy stay safe. Had that been so much to ask?

Julian backed out of the room and closed the door softly behind him. His phone was still on the coffee table where he’d left it the night before so he made his way over to it and picked it up. Two missed calls—from Teddy no less, and one from Grey. At least that meant they were safe, he supposed.

He called Grey back first, since it had supposedly been her situation that required Teddy’s help. A part of him wanted to try and catch them out in the lie, but the other part of him didn’t want to spend his last couple of days outside of the hospital fighting with his best friends over their lying habits. He could waste energy on that later. For now, he just wanted to know where they were and how long it would be until they were back and able to spend time with him.

As he waited for Grey to answer, his phone pressed to his ear by his shoulder, Julian started making himself a breakfast bagel, coating it generously in cream cheese. He doubted he’d get to eat anything tasty at the hospital—yet another thing he was going to miss over his recovery process—so he figured now was the time to indulge. He stuck the bagel into his mouth and resituated the phone—it was still ringing—so that he could grab a throw off the back of the couch and wrap it around his shoulders.

The apartment had a screened in porch, which admittedly saw very little use most of the time. Teddy and Julian spent a lot of time on their hair and hated to sweat, so that was a double no between the stifling heat and humidity. But there was little uglier than cancer, so Jules didn’t see any reason not to go out there now so that he could enjoy his breakfast and sunrise all at once. He flopped down in a patio chair they had bought back when they first got to the apartment and thought they would use it for entertaining visitors, bringing his knees up to his chest and tucking the blanket around them too. Grey still hadn’t answered.

Julian was about to give up entirely when suddenly there was a click on the other line and a husky exhausted-sounding voice crackled into existence. “Hello?”

Jules nearly choked on his bagel, quickly removing it from his mouth and dropping it onto the latticed table—so much for that breakfast—before wiping his mouth. “Sorry, who is this?” he managed when he’d swallowed his one bite.

The voice had not belonged to Grey; it hadn’t even been female. And it certainly wasn’t Teddy’s voice, either. Teddy had a special lilt to the way he spoke that Julian could never quite explain. This voice was altogether different and didn’t belong to anybody Julian had met before. “You’re Julian, right?”

Jules was getting real tired of people knowing him before he knew who the hell they were. It didn’t seem right that these people were kept a secret from him, but he was apparently well-known to them.

Almost as if picking up on Julian’s slight annoyance, the other hurried to explain. “It was on the caller ID.”

Julian immediately felt foolish. Of course his name was on the caller ID. “Right, but I asked who you were, not who I was,” Julian returned. The sass was a little unnecessary, but he really hated being excluded from basically everything.

“Right—sorry—I’m Alex.”

Julian relaxed a little. “Math tutor,” he said, some realization seeping into his voice. “The one Grey’s positively mooning over. Why are you answering her phone? Where’s Grey?”

“She’s kind of asleep on my lap right now,” Alex said, sounding a little embarrassed and a lot proud all at once. “Long night.”

“Tell me about it,” Julian said, meaning it both literally and figuratively, but he suspected he wouldn’t get a real answer so he went for another question. “Where are you guys?”

“Hospital,” Alex answered. “We—uh—had a little accident.”

Every worry Julian had suppressed came rushing back. “Is everyone okay?”

“Everyone’s fine. A little beat up, but none the worse for wear. Teddy should be getting home soon; he’ll tell you all about it, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, sure,” Julian said, the bitterness surfacing again. He was sure Teddy would tell him something, but he doubted it would be the truth. None of that was Alex the Math Tutor’s fault though. “I’ll let you go. Take care of Grey for me, okay? She’s one of the best people in the world.”

“I’ll do my best,” Alex said fondly.

Julian wanted to add something cool like, ‘if you hurt her, I’ll hurt you,’ but he couldn’t hurt a fly and he knew it. Especially now. And anything less would just sound pathetic, so he just hung up.

The sunrise was more anticlimactic than he would have liked. People always talked about it like it was the most incredible thing, a reminder that the day always came after the darkness and all that. But it just looked like the day went from dark to not and it was cloudy besides, so there wasn’t anything really spectacular to see.

Still, it was quite peaceful out there on the screened porch. A few cars drove by sluggishly as people went to their jobs or classes; he watched people in the other buildings as they came out to deposit trash in bins or have breakfast on their patios; that was more interesting than the sunrise had been, for sure. Julian liked to people-watch. When he was a child, he used to make up stories about their lives based on what he observed. When he’d gotten older, he didn’t have much time to watch people let alone make up stories. He was too busy rushing around, going from one thing to the next. He didn’t regret all that he had done, but he had to admit that slowing down sometimes was a good thing. It felt right to take a moment, breathe it in, and feel that everything was okay at least for the moment.

Julian didn’t know how long he sat out on the patio, but he was roused from his spot when he heard a commotion inside which announced the arrival of his roommate and best friend. He quickly hurried inside and rushed at Teddy, giving him a hug. “You’re okay!” he said, relieved. Alex had said Teddy was on his way home, but Julian hadn’t realized how little he’d believed it until he finally saw the tall figure in their entryway.

“Whoa, now, easy,” Teddy said, giving a pained sort of chuckle as he returned Julian’s hug.

“Oh god, I’m sorry. Alex said you had an accident. What happened? Where are you hurt?” Julian asked, stepping back as if burned and looking his friend over for signs of injury.

“It’s fine, you didn’t hurt me,” Teddy quickly assured him. “Just a little banged up, but I’m fine, I promise. What about you? How do you feel today?”

“Same as yesterday,” Julian said. “Do you need to sit down? Get some sleep?”

“I’m too wired to sleep,” Teddy said. “Besides, I told you I’d spend time with you today. What did you have planned?”

Julian had intended to demand that Teddy take him to the tattoo shop, meet the bearded guy in those photos. But it seemed particularly wrong to spring that on him now when he was hurting—where or how badly, Julian couldn’t tell, but Teddy’s unusual stiffness and waxy sheen to his face hadn’t gone unnoticed—so he bit his lip. “Maybe…” Julian began, glancing subtly at Teddy’s door then back at Teddy. “Let’s just sit and relax for a bit. Watch some television. Grey’s coming later, right?”

“She’ll be here,” Teddy promised.

“Great. I was thinking…I don’t want to go through losing my hair bit by bit. You know—watching it all fall out and get all patchy and awful. And I don’t want to go to a stylist and have someone who doesn’t know me, who doesn’t understand how I feel about my hair, cut it all off. So maybe you and Grey could help me shave it?”

Teddy looked stricken, as if he hadn’t fully realized the extent of what having cancer had entailed, or as if he’d been doing his best to forget. “Y-yes, of course,” Teddy said. “But…are you sure?”

Julian nodded. “I can’t think of any better way to do it than with my best friends. Give it a proper send-off, you know?”

“We’ll throw a proper party—just the three of us—and we’ll even have ourselves a hair-wake. But you know…you’re going to get it back, okay? You’ll come out of this and it’ll grow back even thicker and prettier than ever before,” Teddy said.

Julian smiled at the ridiculous optimism of his best friend. “Of course,” Julian said. “But I dunno—maybe the bald look will be my new thing. All the boys will swoon at the shine of my head.”

Teddy laughed, throwing an arm around Julian’s shoulder and pulling him towards the couch. “Boys will swoon over you no matter what. And if anyone can pull off the bald thing, it’d be you.”

“What can I say, it’s a gift.”

The two of them plopped down on the sofa in a tangle of comfortable limbs and Teddy took up the remote. “Let’s Netflix-and-Chill.”

Julian laughed, a blush coming to his cheeks despite himself. “I don’t think you know what that even means, but yeah, let’s.”

Tomorrow, Julian would have Teddy take him to the tattoo parlor. He would find out what he could from the tattoo guy and use it to put together all the stray pieces of the mystery that his best friend had become. But for now, he relaxed into the sofa with his best friend, happy for another break from reality no matter how temporary.

 

 

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