Cyrus knocked on the doorframe of the bedroom just to alert Hayden that he was there. Hayden turned around from the basket of clothes he was haphazardly folding and nodded, “Hey.”
“Hey, Hayden?” Cyrus asked as he approached. “Can I, um, talk to you for a second?”
“Anytime, man,” Hayden replied. “You know that.”
“Yeah.” He came in and sat on the corner of his own bed. His palms were sweating and his stomach had felt like lead since his mother's call that morning. Now in the middle of February, she was getting anxious about college, and had finally convinced Princeton to give Cyrus an interview on campus. Cyrus was dreading the visit for so many reasons, and hearing the date only made it a dozen times worse. “I have some bad news.”
Hayden stopped folding, giving Cyrus his full attention. “Okay. Let’s hear it.”
“I can’t come on spring break with you anymore,” Cyrus admitted. The image of Hayden’s face falling in momentary disappointment cut Cyrus like a knife. It was gone in a second, covered back up with a reassuring mask.
“Oh?” he replied in a valiant effort not to sound too crestfallen.
“I’m sorry,” Cyrus hurried to add. “My mother set up a Princeton interview that weekend, and I figured I could just come down late, but she said she wants me to come up and visit her for once in my life. I think she just wants to scold me some more and force me to fill out college stuff.”
Hayden nodded, a slight frown pulling at his lips. “And… did you tell her that you already bought a plane ticket?”
“Of course. She didn’t care. We got in a big fight and… Well, I wouldn’t be here telling you about it if I’d won, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Cyrus chewed on the inside of his lip. “I’m really sorry, Hayden.”
“It’s not your fault,” Hayden assured him.
“I’d much rather be going with you,” he added. He didn’t specify just how much.
Hayden clapped him on the shoulder, managing a smile. “It’s alright. Go to Princeton. Show them what a great find you are. Knock their socks off for me.”
“Okay.” Cyrus tried to put his apology in his smile. “Tell your brother I said hi.”
Hayden rolled his eyes with forced lightness. “It’s not for another month yet,” he said, “but I will. Come on, let’s go get some dinner.”
Still feeling terrible, Cyrus trailed after him as they left the dorm and headed across campus. There had been a brief warm spell that promised not to last, but it was enough to melt the snow off of the trees and leave the ground in a perpetual state of slush.
After they reached the dining hall and loaded their trays with food, Cyrus and Hayden glanced around for a table. It used to be so easy; they sat at the same table every day. Now, they were forced to scour the cafeteria for one, and since most people had their regular spots, it was sometimes difficult to find a place.
Cyrus used his body to shield Hayden from the pitying and condescending looks of their former friends as they walked past their old table to an empty one in the corner. Crumbs were strewn across its surface, so Cyrus wiped them away with his sleeve. Hayden sat down, falling into the sullen silence that had become the norm for mealtimes, at least until Cyrus could draw him out again.
A few minutes into their meal, Lee showed up late to dinner, as usual. He spied them in the corner with an empty seat and headed that way. “Hey, guys,” he said, setting his tray down.
Hayden brightened a bit. “Hey, Lee.”
“Lee!” a chorus of voices called from the other table of boys at the same time.
“Come sit with us!” Parker called. Tim sat next to him, looking apologetic. Cyrus scowled in his direction, but it was clear that he had made his choice. Cyrus and Hayden were only left with one other friend, but that was alright. Of all the boys at Sharpe’s, Cyrus would have picked Lee to be their solitary friend anyway. He was glad it had worked out that way, although it could have been better.
Lee glanced back at them, then at Hayden, indecision in his eyes. He had stuck with Hayden for the most part, but where Cyrus had all but abandoned his other friends, Lee had tried to balance both groups.
Hayden could sense the conflict and spoke up, “Go ahead. You don’t have to stay.”
Lee looked at him, his brows furrowed, but didn’t protest. “I’ll sit with you guys tomorrow, okay? I promise.”
“It’s fine, Lee. Go.” Hayden smiled, and it sounded like he meant it. The moment Lee was out of earshot, Hayden exhaled. He gave Cyrus a sideways glance. “You leaving too?”
“What?” Cyrus asked in genuine disbelief. He forced his tone to go lighter. “Of course not. Who in their right mind would leave you unsupervised in a room with unlimited food?”
Hayden managed a light laugh at the attempted joke, but his eyes made clear the gratitude he felt that Cyrus would choose to stay.
“Yep,” Cyrus added, “You’re stuck with me.”
The contemplative look on Hayden’s face said without question that there were worse things.
“Come on, tell me it’s not all bad,” Hayden begged.
“It’s…not all bad?”
“That wasn’t very encouraging.”
“Neither is this,” Cyrus said with a frown.
Hayden groaned. “If I get any less than a seven out of ten on this, I’ll be failing the class.”
Cyrus rolled his eyes, sliding his own book away and pulling Hayden’s over. “Really, you would be the one to fail the easiest class we have.”
“Easy for you,” Hayden said. “This stuff is harder than calculus.”
Giving him a blank stare, Cyrus said, “Hayden, your job was simply to draw a lamp. You can do half of that with a ruler!”
Hayden looked down at his paper, which held a figure that might have resembled a lamp. If you squinted. “If it’s so easy, then why does mine look like a homeless octopus?”
Cyrus blinked at him. “A what?”
“Look,” he said, pointing first to what was supposed to be the square lampshade. “That’s the cardboard box it lives in, and this is just some random tentacle coming out…” His finger trailed down towards the base
“It’s not my fault you decided to sketch the freaking leg lamp from A Christmas Story,” Cyrus grumbled. “There is literally a lamp right in front of you with a square base and shaft. It would have taken you all of ten minutes. Draw it.”
“So, you’re saying this can’t be salvaged?”
“I’m saying there’s nothing there to salvage,” Cyrus said. “If you, the artist, think it’s a hobo cephalopod, then there’s obviously no hope.”
Hayden looked down at his paper in mock sadness. “I like my hobo cephalopod.” He took his pencil and added little round dots to what was supposed to be the calf of the leg. “There, now it has suckers.” He turned the paper upside down and scrawled across the lampshade, Jeff’s box - knock before entering.
Cyrus watched him, trying to hold back a laugh. He reached across with his pencil and added two more flaps to the box, making it look more three dimensional. “So it’s named Jeff now, is it? Even though it evolved from a female leg?”
“Jeff is feeling a bit feminine today, lay off him,” Hayden said, scowling. His lip twitched, threatening to turn into a smile.
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but feminine or not, Jeff isn’t going to get you a seven on your sketch.”
Hayden considered the picture before ripping it out of his book. “Hm… well, no. But he will liven up your wall a bit. Seriously, man, we need to get you a poster or two.” He crossed the room, snagging a piece of masking tape from his dresser and using it to attach the drawing to Cyrus’s wall, just above his bed. “There. Gorgeous, if I do say so myself.”
“You’re the only one who’s saying it,” Cyrus teased.
Hayden threw a pillow at him. “Ugh, and now I need to start over,” he groaned.
“I’ll help you, if you want.”
“That’d be great.” Clapping his hands together, Hayden perked up. “I’m going to need coffee for this. Want anything?”
“I’m good, thanks,” Cyrus replied, shading in his own drawing.
“Suit yourself. Be back in a minute,” Hayden said, heading out the door.
Cyrus finished his drawing about fifteen minutes later, then wandered to the bathroom. On his way back, he heard hushed voices coming from the empty lounge area. From his vantage point, Cyrus could see the edge of a familiar mop of disheveled blonde hair, but nothing else. The corner prevented him from glimpsing whomever Hayden was talking to, and Cyrus didn’t dare shift his position and risk being seen. As it was, he strained to hear what they were saying, knowing all the while that he shouldn’t be eavesdropping.
“No,” Hayden growled, his voice low.
“I wasn’t aware I was giving you a choice,” another voice hissed back. Cyrus didn’t recognize it, but he could hear the cold, iciness dripping from his words.
There was a tense silence. “Fine,” Hayden ground out. “But don’t you dare say a word, do you hear me? In fact, just stay away from him. You tell him, and I’ll kill you.”
The voice chimed in again, confident and sarcastic, “Please. I know you inside and out. That’s your scared face.” Cyrus inched back towards the door to his room, trying not to make a sound as he twisted the knob. “See you around, Hayden.” The name was said with such a loathing that Cyrus was shocked. He didn’t dwell on it then, however, for he had to get inside before Hayden came back.
Cyrus darted into the room, closing the door behind him before hurrying to the bedroom. He had just picked up his sketchbook when the door opened and Hayden came in.
“Took a little longer than I thought,” Hayden said, his tone casual as he set his coffee on the windowsill. A pensive look crossed his face for a second as he stared out at the snow. Then, he turned and continued as if nothing was wrong. “I miss anything?”
“Nope,” Cyrus said. Did I? he wanted to ask. Instead, what came out of his mouth was, “We should get going on that sketch.”
“Yeah, we should. You think it’ll take long?” Hayden asked, smoothing his hand across a fresh page in his book. “I’ve got a paper I need to write.”
“A paper?” Cyrus repeated. “For what class?”
“History,” Hayden said, twirling his pencil in his fingers.
“I thought you finished that yesterday.”
Hayden gave him a quizzical look. “No?” He grinned. “Seriously, when have you known me to do things ahead of time?”
That was true. The paper was due the following day, meaning the night before was, as always, Hayden’s designated time to get it done. Even so, Cyrus could’ve sworn that had been Hayden’s reason for “deserving” a movie-break the night before.
Cyrus let it go. He must have been mistaken. “Okay, so the lamp,” he said.
“The lamp,” Hayden agreed. “Let’s do this.”
Cyrus crossed the room, sitting next to Hayden on his bed. He turned the lamp so that it would be at the easiest angle from which to draw, and passed Hayden a ruler. In only a few minutes, they had the basic outline of the object, bare, without any shading.
“So now all you have to do is add in the dark spots where you see them, then blend into light. It’s not too hard. Try it,” Cyrus encouraged.
Hayden's hand was stiff as he gripped his pencil, scratching it against the page. Cyrus put his hand over Hayden’s to stop him. “Not like that. The strokes should be soft and even. You have to blend, remember.”
“How do you do that?” Hayden demanded, getting impatient.
“You’ve been in this class for how long? Here,” Cyrus said. He repositioned the pencil in Hayden's hand, then used his own to put pressure on it. So maybe he let his hand linger a little longer than needed, and maybe he did a little more shading demonstration than was justifiable, but so what? Cyrus couldn’t bring himself to feel guilty about it. If anything, he was just happy that even such a small amount of contact could distract him from what he overheard in the hallway. Whatever that conversation was about, Cyrus knew it was only bad news, as if they hadn't had enough of that already.