It’s their last night in the country with August’s family. It’s a bittersweet feeling—in the time they’ve been here, all of them has found something they love about it: Damian loves the fireworks, Emery and Tay love the lightning bugs, August of course has always loved the blackberries, Donny likes the heat, Jem enjoys the lemonade and polite people, and Tobi for some ungodly reason has fallen in love with country music—which, incidentally, is the only kind of music you can get here.
Right now, Tobi’s in the backseat, singing along to Kenny Chesney at the top of his lungs because someone—August—had managed to get him some moonshine and Damian wants nothing more than to pull over and kick some sense into the both of them if only to earn himself a respite from the caterwauling. He envies the kids, who are in the bed of the truck rather than the cab and therefore away from this particular brand of misery, but alas, he has to drive because Donny’s had a few drinks as well and August lost his license the month previous due to a DUI charge. Really, the only thing that’s helping him to keep his cool right now is Donny sitting next to him, hand placed lightly on his thigh in a gesture that would be far too intimate in the light of day.
Driving in the country at night is nerve wracking enough. It’s far too unfamiliar, far too dark; no lights from the city to help guide him, no data so he can’t use the GPS, not even many places to stop for directions. This place in particular seems desolate. They’re on a dirt road, nothing but trees on either side for what seems like miles. They passed a streetlight about a mile ago, but right now the only lamination is coming from the headlights. He feels like he’s driving too slow, squinting out into the night, but it’s getting harder and harder to do that the more Tobi sings and Damian just really wants to be at their destination already.
He’s in the middle of thinking all of this when something breaks through the trees…and dashes right in front of the car.
Damian curses virulently and he feels Donny’s hand clench on his thigh as he slams on the brakes. The truck shrieks, dirt spraying up, and he hears the kids all shouting in the back, their bodies thudding into the side of the truck. He prays that none of them falls, knows that he’ll never forgive himself if they get hurt. Tobi isn’t singing now; August is holding him to his chest protectively, the other’s long limbs wrapped around the slightly older boy and breathing coming in quick gasps.
The truck finally comes to a stop and the deer—he can see them clearly now—scamper across unharmed. Damian drags a shaky hand through his hair and Donny is out of the truck before he can say a word, going to check on the kids. “Everyone okay?” Damian asks of the two in the back, voice tense in the dark cab.
“Y-yeah,” Tobi stutters, slowly disentangling himself from August.
“The kids are fine, too,” Donny says, appearing at the door he’d left hanging open. “Jem was asleep and had a bit of a rude awakening, but otherwise it’s all good back there.”
Silence descends as they all gather themselves, then August begins laughing.
Damian glares at him, wondering if he’s lost his mind, but the boy holds up a hand and shakes his head. “Sorry, it’s just—I didn’t know you had that in you. You’ve got mad reflexes.”
Damian stares at him a moment longer before finally cracking a smile and shaking his head, letting out a laugh. “That was the scariest moment of my life,” he admits.
There’s a pause, then August says, “Wanna do it again?”
The next thing Damian knows, they’ve managed to pull off to a big sandy lot with tracks all through it—a “muddin’ track,” as August explained—and they’re all taking turns behind the wheel, even the kids. They drive in big circles, making donuts and figure eights around the track, trying to stop at random intervals to spray up dirt, mud, and gravel. At one point, Donny and Tay stand in the middle while Emery hangs out of a window, reaching to touch their hands as August goes around them, their laughs echoing in the night.
When they decide enough is enough, they explore the area a little and find a bunch of tin cans which they set up for an impromptu game of Tin Can, using a balled up old grease rag as a projectile to try and knock the stack down. Emery proves exceptionally good at this game—as he always does; really, there’s nothing the kid can’t do—and the whole group grows bored of losing to him before long.
It’s growing late. Damian glances at his phone and sees that it’s a quarter after one in the morning. He knows they have to get up early tomorrow to catch their flight back to the city, but as he glances up at the group of boys walking ahead of him, he doesn’t have the heart to tell them it’s time to head back.
Eventually, they end up finding an old junkyard. The only person on duty is an old man with a beard and sun-weathered features, but his eyes are electric blue behind grizzled eyebrows. He tells them they can use whatever junk they want to set up a camp of sorts as long as they promise to put out the fire before they leave; in thanks, they listen to him tell a few of his war stories as they lounge around on furniture scavenged from the yard—a mustard colored couch, the bench seat of an old Cadillac, a couple fold out lawn chairs, and a big bucket—and build a small fire more for ambiance than actual warmth.
When the man eventually leaves, bidding them a good night, silence descends briefly upon them. August is sitting on the end of the mustard couch, flipping his lighter on and off and staring into it distantly. Emery lays his head comfortably in his lap, long legs bent close to his chest so that they fit onto the small couch better. On August’s other side, sitting on the bucket, is Tobi. He’s looking at the fire with a soft smile playing on his lips, looking more relaxed than Damian has seen him in a long time as he breaks a couple sticks and tosses them into the fire with a loud snap.
Jem and Tay are on the Cadillac bench and Jem looks like he’s already halfway asleep, his head resting lightly on Tay’s shoulder and a plaid blanket they’d brought from the truck over his lap. He seems especially young in the dim firelight, and Damian can’t help the surge of affection he feels for all of them.
He and Donny are sitting in the lawn chairs. Donny has Emery’s camera in his hands, flipping through all the photos the young boy had taken throughout their day and occasionally showing his favorites to Damian.
“I wish we could stay like this forever,” Tobi says suddenly, bringing all of their attention to him. He blushes briefly. “It’s just…I don’t feel so anxious here. I almost feel like…like I could dump all my anxiety pills in this fire and I’d still be fine.”
“I know what you mean,” Jem says, quietly. “I feel…better. I don’t know if it’s because I’m here with all of you, or something about this place and being away from all the stuff I’m used to, but I feel better than I have in a while.”
“How has your appetite been?” Damian asks carefully.
Jem smiles lightly, understanding his need to ask. “It’s better too. I ate almost an entire pizza earlier today. Tell them, Donny.”
“It’s true,” Donny says proudly. “Picture evidence, even.” He waves the camera for emphasis.
Damian nods, feeling pleased by this.
A comforting silence descends on them, broken only by the sound of the fire crackling and August flipping his lighter on and off again. It’s a nervous gesture, one Damian has noticed August does only when he’s thinking too much about something. He’s been trying not to bother him about it, knowing that August usually comes to him when he’s ready and only then. But the more he flips the lighter, the more worrisome it becomes and Damian knows he needs to break the silence.
“Everything okay?” Damian asks him.
August doesn’t seem to realize that Damian is speaking to him at first, but when nobody else says anything, he glances up. For a long moment, Damian is sure he’s not going to say anything. That is, until he does.
“I’m afraid of the future,” August says.
This takes Damian aback for a moment. “What do you mean?”
“I got offered an internship,” August says. “To work at an up and coming record label. I’ll be working with real producers, you know, real artists. Before long, I’m told I’ll be getting my own production credits and writing music for real.”
“But that’s great news,” Donny says, delighted. “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?”
“Because it’s all the way in fucking California,” he says, and the words sound bitter. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted, except it’s on the other side of the goddamn country and I don’t know if I can go.”
I don’t know if I can leave all of you.
August doesn’t say this out loud, but Damian picks up on the meaning loud and clear and it plants an uncomfortable block of ice in his stomach. The younger boy glances away from all of them, continuing to fiddle with his lighter, and Damian wants to help him. He wants to tell him that none of them want to hold him back from his dreams, that of course he has to take this opportunity because it’s a once in a lifetime thing. But the words die in his throat.
Emery moves then, lifting his head and supporting his weight on his elbow so he can lean up and blow the lighter flame out. August glances at him in surprise, and the boy only smiles at him. “The future is the future,” he says. “And there’s no sense in fearing it. You don’t have to make a decision right now so just…live in the moment, yeah?”
August stares a moment longer, letting the words sink in before he nods, briefly, and tucks the lighter back in his pocket. Emery settles back down on his lap with a contented sigh, closing his eyes and clearly indicating that he’s ready to sleep.
Damian stares at his group, fondness filling his chest and making him feel warmer than the crackling fire and the humid southern air combined. Damian knows that one day, August is going to have to decide; he’ll either live out his dreams, pursuing them all the way to California, or he’ll stay and build a new dream. But the day to make that decision is not today; today, they’re together, and that’s really all that should matter.