The smell of old books was heavy in the air, blanketing Cyrus with its familiarity. The library had long been one of Cyrus’s favorite places, a little sanctuary where he could lose himself in the books - both literally and figuratively. One thing that all libraries had in common, Cyrus found, was their abundance of hiding places and little cubbies where one could escape to be alone. It was glorious.
Cyrus particularly liked this library. The gray, cracked stone made him feel like he had just stepped out of one of the novels that he loved reading so much, maybe out of a fantasy about castles and knights. On one particular day in late November, Cyrus sat in his favorite spot, a wide stone ledge on front of a Norman window, reading one of his favorite books. It was quiet, private, and wonderful.
“What’cha reading?” a familiar voice asked brightly from behind him. Cyrus twisted, giving Hayden a look of annoyance mixed with surprise.
“A Separate Peace,” Cyrus answered with a frown. “How’d you find me?”
Hayden flopped down in a leather armchair against the wall, draping his legs over one arm. He tugged at the collar of his shirt, loosening his tie. “Saw you in the window.”
“So you thought you’d come bother me?”
“I thought I’d come to see if you wanted to watch a movie or something," Hayden corrected. "I'm bored."
Cyrus grumbled, “And God forbid you be alone for two hours.”
Hayden grinned. “I’ll let you pick,” he offered, his tone light.
That was a rare offer, and, as much as he complained, Cyrus actually enjoyed watching Hayden’s movies. They were helping him to better understand his friend, and he had to admit that most of them were pretty good. Cyrus thought it over; he could always pick The Labyrinth with David Bowie - what Hayden claimed to be the worst movie in existence - just to spite him. That sounded fun. “Okay, fine. What time is it anyway?”
“Almost seven,” Hayden replied. “How long have you been up here?”
“No idea,” Cyrus said, hopping down from his ledge and heading through the rows of books. He navigated them with ease, Hayden tagging along behind him.
“So, what movie are we watching, then?” asked Hayden as the walked.
“The Labyrinth,” Cyrus responded, sly smile tugging at his lips.
Hayden let out an audible groan. “Ugh, really? You jerk.” Cyrus just grinned at him. “Besides, you’ll be torturing yourself just as much as me.”
“I'm willing to bet it'll be worth it.” Cyrus shrugged, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Seriously, how bad could it be?”
Hayden’s subsequent scowl should have given him some indication.
“I can’t take this anymore,” Cyrus admitted, pausing the movie. “What….what even is this?”
“I told you,” Hayden said in exasperation. “I gave you fair warning. I mean, I love David Bowie and all, but… this was a low point.”
“When the Goblin King started teleporting around the room with the baby, I think I started to believe you,” Cyrus replied.
Hayden stared at him, incredulous. “It took all the way up to the Goblin King for you to realize that? Not the whole Bog of Eternal Stench thing? Or, hell, the first five minutes of the movie?”
Cyrus laughed. He made a face, then mimicked one of the goblins, saying, “‘Your mother is a fraggin’ aardvark!’”
There was no choice but for Hayden to join in, pulling a serious face and quoting in a high pitched voice, “‘I can bear it no longer! Goblin King! Goblin King! Where ever you may be,’” he said, leaping off the couch and sweeping an arm out dramatically, “‘take this child far away from me!’”
Cyrus lost it, and it took only a few seconds for Hayden’s serious mask to waver then fall apart completely. He collapsed onto the couch, crying with laughter and pinning Cyrus’s arm behind him, not that either of them seemed to care.
As they slowly regained composure, Hayden wiped his eyes and said, “Well, happy birthday, Cy.” All Cyrus could do was blink at him and watch as Hayden’s face fell in uncertainty. “It… it is your birthday, right? November twenty third, isn’t that what you said?”
“Yeah- no, yeah!” Cyrus stammered quickly. “Yeah, it’s my birthday. It’s just, no one’s ever said anything about it before, not since I was little.”
Hayden’s brow furrowed. “Well, it’s high time we change that, huh? Come on, I got you something.” He stood and headed for the bedroom, looking back at Cyrus who was frozen in surprise. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?” Hayden demanded.
“I…You didn’t have to get me anything,” Cyrus said, getting up to follow Hayden.
“I wasn’t about to ignore the fact that it’s my best friend’s eighteenth birthday,” Hayden replied with a smile. “I just hope you like it.”
“I’m sure I will,” Cyrus replied, a warm feeling spreading through his chest. My best friend. Hayden walked over to his dresser and rooted around in the top drawer. He pulled out a package wrapped in brown paper and handed it to Cyrus.
“Happy birthday, man,” Hayden said, clapping Cyrus on the arm.
Cyrus looked away, not wanting Hayden to see that his eyes were glistening slightly. He swallowed the lump in his throat and pulled away the paper to find two records and a small rectangular case. “Drawing pencils,” Cyrus said in surprise. “And records. Thank you,” he said with genuine sincerity.
“I hope you like the records,” Hayden said. “I tried to stick with more of the softer stuff for now, at least until you get used to rock; I mean, if you like rock at all, that is-“
Cyrus cut him off, tossing the records on the bed and wrapping Hayden in a spontaneous hug. He breathed in his roommate’s familiar scent, then pulled away in a hurry, looking down. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I just… thank you.”
Apart from the brief flicker of surprise on Hayden’s face, he didn’t seem too weirded out. Thankfully. Cyrus didn’t know what had possessed him to do that; he wasn’t the hugging type. Something about that moment, though, just seemed…right. Natural. “Anytime.”
To relieve the sudden awkward tension in the air, Cyrus picked the records back up again. “Crystal Ball by Styx and Wildflowers by Tom Petty,” he read aloud. “Naturally, I haven’t heard of either. Which should we play first?”
“Well, Crystal Ball is literally begging to be put on,” Hayden said with a grin. Taking in Cyrus’s blank stare, his smile faded, and he gestured to the turntable. “Put it on and you’ll get it.”
Still a little confused, Cyrus obeyed, setting the needle in the vinyl grooves.
Put me on, I’m your brand new record album. Cyrus chuckled. Side one, cut one, listen to the songs.
Hayden raised his hands in a gesture that clearly said, See? They lounged on their respective beds, and spent the rest of the night listening to the new records and talking. Just talking. It wasn’t anything special; there wasn’t even cake, but it was the best birthday that Cyrus had ever had.
“I… I can’t do this,” Cyrus breathed, tugging at his dark, disheveled hair. “This doesn’t make any sense.” He squinted at his history textbook. There were names, so many names. Thermypole, Themistocles, Leonidas, Artemistium, Xerxes… Cyrus couldn’t keep them straight. He closed his eyes.
“What are you studying?” Hayden asked from the opposite side of the library table.
Cyrus blinked, remembering with a start that he wasn’t alone. “Huh?”
Hayden pulled the textbook over. “History? Oh, that’s not so bad.”
“Not so bad? I got-“ Cyrus cut himself off, shaking his head. He lowered his voice, casting a glance around. “I got a C on the last test,” he admitted.
“…And?” Hayden said. Cyrus shot him a look; they both knew full well what a big deal this was for someone who had gotten used to straight As. “Alright, alright,” Hayden acquiesced. “So, you’re studying for the test tomorrow, right? Let me help.”
“How are you going to help?” Cyrus asked despondently. “This is just stuff I have to memorize. Stuff I have to figure out.”
“Cy, this isn’t like Calculus. You can’t know the theory behind things and then just apply it.” Cyrus frowned, so Hayden continued, “And you also can’t think of history as names and dates to memorize. It tells a story. You know the story, and you know history. Got it?”
Hayden snapped his fingers. “Right. Let me show you. Battle of Thermypole, huh?” Cyrus nodded. “Okay, so basically there were these two guys, one was named Leonidas and the other was named Xerxes. Leonidas was the leader of a bunch of Greek city-states who thought they’d band together to fight off the Persians, led by Xerxes. Xerxes was unimpressed by their antics, right, so he invaded Greece, only to be defeated.
“Well, like a petulant child, he went home to stew in his own juices for something like ten years. Then he couldn’t take it anymore and was like, ‘Let’s invade them again.’ And all his advisors were like, ‘Yeah, Xerxes, ‘cause that really went so well last time.’ But he was all, ‘This time we’ll attack by land and sea at the same time and we’ll actually win. I promise.’
“So the Persians attacked again. Their navy met up with the Greek navy, led by Themistocles, at Straits of Artemistium. At the same time, they sent armies over land. The Greeks sent an army to meet them, at this pass called Thermypole, but it was obvious that they were super outnumbered. So they were like, 'Shit, now what?'
“So, Leonidus - who you should picture as Russell Crowe - the guy leading the Greek land army, was like, ‘Go home, save yourselves,’ and most of his army left and went to warn Athens. But three hundred stayed back to defend the pass, and to them he was like, ‘This is where we hold them! This is where we fight! This is where THEY DIE!’ The Persians came, and these three hundred fought until they died. And they did all die, but whatever. It bought Athens enough time to evacuate, so all wasn’t lost,” Hayden finished, looking satisfied with himself.
“Wow,” Cyrus said. “That… actually makes sense. How’d you get all that from the book? It doesn’t put stuff together like that.”
“I didn’t get it from the book,” Hayden said. “I got it from the movie 300. See? Being cultured can help you study.”
Cyrus had to give him that. “Why do I get the feeling that that’s going to be the next movie that we watch?”
“Because it definitely is,” Hayden said with a grin. “The test’s tomorrow; chalk it up to studying.”
“I don’t have time!” Cyrus protested. “I have homework, and-“
Hayden stood, linking his arm with Cyrus’s and tugging him out of his chair. Cyrus resisted. “Come on,” Hayden insisted. People were staring at them now, for they weren’t exactly obeying the library’s rule of silence.
“Fine,” Cyrus gave in, sweeping his book up and tucking it under his arm as he allowed Hayden to drag him out of the library.
They passed a string of tables, most unoccupied. The last one in the row, however, held a redhead who was becoming increasingly familiar, even though Cyrus had never heard him say a word. Clay’s eyes zeroed in on where Hayden was still holding onto Cyrus, and something in his gaze was unnerving. Without thinking, Cyrus pulled his arm out of Hayden’s grip. When he looked back up, the other boy’s attention had already returned to his work. Cyrus frowned as he followed Hayden outside; he was beginning to understand what it meant to "raise eyebrows."