Cyrus clenched and unclenched his fists, taking a deep breath. It didn’t help.
“Calm down, man,” Hayden said, ever supportive as they stood on the front walk leading up to the house. “They’re seriously nice people. They won’t eat you or anything.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Cyrus muttered in response to that unhelpful comment.
Hayden asked, “Then what are you worried about?”
“I don’t even know.”
Shaking his head, he pulled Cyrus down the cement pathway. “Come on.”
“Wait, do they know about us?” Cyrus asked.
Hayden stopped. “Uh, no. They just think you’re my friend.”
“Do you want-“
“No, it’s okay,” Cyrus said, brushing him off. “This’ll be awkward enough as it is.”
With Cyrus trailing behind him, Hayden led the way up to the house. “I just don’t get why you’re nervous. It’s just dinner. I’ll be beside you the whole time, and Will’s obviously going to be there too.”
“I guess it’s just been a really long time since I’ve had a normal dinner with normal adults,” Cyrus said. He pulled on his tie. “Okay. Okay, I’m ready. Ring the doorbell.”
Hayden complied, pressing the little button. A few seconds later, the sound of heels on the other door prefaced it opening. A woman in a casual purple dress opened the door and smiled at them, slight wrinkles around her eyes crinkling. Cyrus guessed that she was about forty or so. “Hayden! And this must be Cyrus?”
Cyrus nodded, offering his hand. “Nice to meet you, Mrs…?” Cyrus faltered, his face reddening when he realized that he had never gotten Will’s last name.
“Mrs. Harmon,” she filled in without pause. “But you can call me Julie. Come in, come in.”
Cyrus and Hayden stepped into the front room as Julie closed the door behind them. She then gestured for them to follow her into the living room where Will waved to them from the couch. “This is my husband Greg,” Julie said, introducing Cyrus to the tall man sitting in the leather armchair across from the TV. He stood up and crossed the room to shake Cyrus’s hand.
“I’m Cyrus,” Cyrus said, not at all surprised at the firmness of the handshake or Greg’s calloused, dry hands. Judging by his lined, worn face, it seemed to suit him.
“Ah, so this is the Cyrus we’ve been hearing about all week,” Greg said with a smile. “It’s good to finally put a face to the name.”
“Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes,” Julie said, heading into the kitchen. “Will, will you come set the table?”
“Sure, mom,” Will said, jumping up and following her to the other room.
Greg sat back down in his armchair, and Cyrus perched awkwardly on the edge of the couch next to Hayden. He had the terrible feeling that this was the time when the small talk would start. The feeling got even worse when he was right.
“So, Cyrus, where are you looking to go to college?” Greg began. “Rumor has it, that’s all graduating seniors have on their minds these days.”
Not all, Cyrus wanted to correct. “Princeton, I guess,” he said. Every time he thought about the New Jersey school, a little more of his enthusiasm for the idea seemed to slip away.
“Princeton?” Greg let out a low whistle. “Setting your sights high?”
Cyrus shrugged. He thought he remembered Hayden mentioning that Greg was a contractor, and he couldn’t remember what Julie did. Regardless, he wasn’t surprised by Greg’s reaction to such a big name school.
“He’ll get in. He’s like a teenage genius,” Hayden added, a hint of the same pride in his voice that had appeared at Will’s soccer game. Cyrus had to force down a blush.
“Is that so,” Greg said, his gaze thoughtful as he reappraised Cyrus. “Well, I hope you get in, kid.”
I don’t, Cyrus thought. “Thanks,” he said aloud.
“Boys!” Julie called from the dining room. “Dinner’s ready!”
The Harmons had a nice, thoroughly middle class home, and though the dining room was small, it was plenty big enough for the five of them. Cyrus sat next to Hayden, with Will on his other side. The table was circular, so he was facing Greg.
Julie came in from the kitchen carrying a beautiful golden brown rotisserie chicken. She set it on the table and Greg immediately picked up a knife and started to carve it onto a plate. While he was doing so, Julie started passing around a basket of rolls and a bowl of mashed potatoes, then finally the chicken. Everything was so smooth and efficient that Cyrus was stunned. Was this what a family dinner was supposed to be like? Warmth and good food and everyone working together? It was a far cry from the last meal he could remember eating at home with his mother.
“So, Cyrus, tell us a bit about yourself,” Julie said with a pleasant smile. “Of course, we feel like we know you already - Hayden and Will won’t shut up about you - but do you have any hobbies? Interests?”
Cyrus could feel his palms sweating against his legs. “Um…” What should he say? Should he make up something that made him look interesting? “Drawing?”
“Oh, that’s good,” she responded with a smile. Cyrus breathed out. Apparently that was an okay response. “Do you want to be an artist?”
“No- I mean, I’m not going for art,” Cyrus stammered.
“What are you going for?” Greg asked. “I forgot to ask earlier.”
“Pre-med,” Cyrus answered. Finally, a cut and dry question.
Greg nodded, shooting a glance at his wife. “He’s trying for Princeton.”
“Ooh, Princeton?” Julie cooed. “Shooting for the top, huh?”
Cyrus felt like he was on fire. He was sure he was sweating, and was glad that he’d chosen to wear a blazer. Why was this so difficult? Maybe he just wasn’t used to adults looking at him, and asking questions, and judging him, and it was all just too much. He wanted to leave.
Hayden must have known what Cyrus was thinking, for his hand found Cyrus’s under the table. Cyrus was embarrassed at how sweaty his palm was, but Hayden squeezed it anyway. “Yes,” Cyrus managed to choke out, about a minute too late. The awkward silence had already set in, so he used his free hand to take a bite of some of his food. It was good, but it would have been better if his stomach would settle down.
Unfortunately, the only way anyone seemed to think to break the silence was to ask Cyrus more questions. “Where are you from, Cyrus?”
“Uh…” He had to stop trailing off like that. Cyrus tried to think of where he had last said he was from, but he couldn’t remember. It was all over, really, but the last time he’d lived in an actual house was Ohio, so he went with that. “Ohio. But my mother lives in Canada now.”
“Canada?” Greg asked in surprise. “But you go to boarding school with Hayden in Pennsylvania, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Cyrus said. He didn’t elaborate.
“And what does your mother do up in Canada?” Julie asked, dabbing at her red-tinted lips with a napkin.
“She owns a shipping company,” Cyrus said. “They… ship stuff.” He winced internally. Way to sound intelligent. No way, a shipping company that ships stuff? Genius move, dumbass. Cyrus knew his cheeks were bright red, and he hoped and prayed that some anomaly in the universe would open up a black hole under his feet and just swallow him whole. No such luck.
“That’s good,” Julie said, ignoring his ineloquent comment. “That’s very good.”
And another awkward silence. It seemed like an eternity before Hayden finally saved them. “So, Julie,” he said, for he was obviously on a first name basis with them, “any fun stories from the hair salon?”
Julie perked up, smiling. “Oh, well, Justine told me her dog swallowed a mouse whole. She went on for a whole twenty minutes about it today, and I have to say, I don’t believe her.”
He couldn’t remember it earlier, but it now seemed to make sense that Julie worked at a hair salon. Cyrus hadn’t noticed at first, but her chestnut brown hair fell over her shoulder in perfect little ringlets, and it did look professionally done. Cyrus only knew that because it reminded him quite a bit of Marissa’s after she came out of the salon; which was a disturbingly regular occurrence that Cyrus had all too often been coerced into paying for.
“I don’t know,” Hayden said, “You’d be surprised at how big dogs’ mouths actually are. I saw a German Shepherd eat an entire orange once. Luckily, it was peeled, but still.” He helped himself to another serving of potatoes.
“Oh, I remember that!” Will spoke up. “I’m pretty sure that was a tangerine, though.”
Hayden frowned at him. “What’s the difference?”
Will was about to answer when Julie started talking again. “Well, a German Shepherd I could see, but Justine’s dog is a five pound Yorkie.”
“God, the dog would be more likely to run away from the mouse,” Greg muttered. “Are dogs that small even considered dogs at all?”
“What else would they be?” Julie replied.
Cyrus finally allowed himself to relax as it was clear that the conversation had steered away from him. He let go of Hayden’s hand and sent him a grateful smile. Hayden returned it, seeming glad to see Cyrus finally relaxing.
The talk at the table stayed clear of Cyrus, his family, and his future, and he was definitely okay with that. Eventually, dinner wrapped up, and Will helped clear the table as Julie brought in a pie for dessert. It wasn’t long before that, too, was cleared away, and everyone headed to the living room.
“Do you mind if I go for a quick walk?” Hayden asked, polite in asking for permission. “I could use a little fresh air, and it’s such a nice night.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” Cyrus chimed in, immediately keen on the idea.
“Of course,” Julie said. “Fresh air always does the body good.”
Cyrus and Hayden headed to the door as Will added, “Wait! Can I go too?”
“Sure,” Hayden replied. Will looked to his parents.
“Did you finish your homework?” Will’s mom asked, arching a brow.
“Yes,” Will answered.
Julie conceded, “Alright.”
The three of them left, walking off along the sidewalk in the little suburban neighborhood. Cyrus drew in a deep breath of cool night air, and didn’t even mind that he was a little chilled. It was just so good to be out of that stifling house. “Thanks,” Cyrus said to Hayden, not even needing to specify what for.
“No problem,” Hayden said. “You looked like you need a break.”
“Is that what all families are like?” Cyrus asked, frowning. “So normal and… doting?” He glanced at Will. “No offense.”
Will just shrugged. “I guess so. I’m used to it by now, but yeah, it can get annoying sometimes. But I’m okay with it, you know? It doesn’t really bother me.”
“Maybe it’s all in what you’re used to,” Hayden suggested. He looked at Cyrus. “Maybe we’re just used to being on our own, not having to explain anything to anybody, and that’s just what we’re comfortable with.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Cyrus said. “They do seem like perfectly nice people, though.” Possibly too nice, Cyrus thought. If he had to live with them, he might just go insane. Perhaps that was why Will was such a good fit; he was incessantly cheery too.
“They are,” Will said, beaming. “They really are.”
Cyrus smiled at Hayden’s little brother. “Well, as long as you’re happy.”
Will looked up at the stars as they walked along. “I am. I’d only be happier if you guys lived around here too,” he said to them both. “I’m gonna miss you.”
No wonder Hayden was so determined to come back here, even if it meant not going to college. Just listening to the kid made Cyrus’s heart melt, and that was without looking into his large, earnest eyes. Hayden reached out with an arm and pulled Will close to his side. “Next time I come,” he promised, “I’ll be here to stay.”
Cyrus felt his heart twist. He knew that Hayden meant it. He also knew that he hadn’t said it to hurt Cyrus, even though it did. What if Hayden was here while Cyrus went to New Jersey? It was all too clear where Hayden’s priorities fell. Will was all the family he had left, and Cyrus? Cyrus was his boyfriend of less than a week. If forced to choose, Cyrus knew without a doubt that he’d pick Will. He knew, and, still, he didn’t blame him. As much as it pained him, he understood. If only Cyrus could find a way where Hayden wouldn’t be forced to choose… He sighed. A rejection letter from Princeton had never sounded better.