Air thick with dust, the dry heat oppressive in the early evening sun. Pale tarmac roads that stretch on forever between twin towns on opposite horizons. They call it Blood Gulch county because the red desert stretches into the distance every way you look, trapping its inhabitants better than any canyon could.
At the middle of the road, splitting in half the ten-mile stretch of blacktop from the small towns of Redding and Fort Blue, Simmons drags his shoes in the dirt and waits for the bus. School behind him, the pinpricks sun-stained monoliths in the distant haze ahead, he draws formulae with his foot over and over.
Heat peels off the pavement, seeming to turn tarmac into shimmering puddles before his eyes. He shuffles further along the bus stop bench, back into the shade. He’s already burnt enough from going down to the river last weekend and baking in the sun all day.
It's five-fifteen and the wrong bus has already pulled up and pulled out of the stop twice. There's another one coming, the wrong one again. If Simmons squints, he can see it three miles down the road to Fort Blue. He hates this god damned desert.
The crunch of tyres in the car park behind him; he starts. Jerks around to see whose car–
“Hey, nerd,” Grif calls over to him, raising his voice over the engine, “need a lift?”
Simmons tries to ignore the way his stomach flips, tries to stifle his smile, hides it as a grimace at the sun in his eyes as Grif drives around to the bus stop and pulls up right next to him. Simmons can feel the sweat on his own brow, his back, but Grif never seems affected by the heat.
“How come you're here so late?” Simmons can't help but ask. “Don’t tell me you stayed in to do work.” It’s never happened before, but Simmons has always been a strong believer in personal growth.
But Grif looks half scandalised at the notion, his fringe falling in his eyes with the tilt of his head. “You really think I'd be here this late to work?” he asks, incredulous. The sunset light catches his white shirt and turns it orange, turns his brown skin into gold. He says, “dude, I was here for detention. Are you getting in or not?”
Simmons sighs, tries to throw some conviction into it, can’t. He’s almost given up hope for Grif. When he looks over to Grif in class, he’s always doodling – in his margins or on Simmons’ arm, he’s never been particularly picky, and Simmons has come out of lessons more than once without noticing the fresh sleeve of newly-drawn patterns spidering across his skin – or staring out the window at the long roads that pan the desert floor.
“Detention? Again? Why?” he asks, almost resigned, grabbing the warm metal of the car door and clambering into the passenger seat, already half knowing what the answer will be. Grif starts the car and pulls away, heading down the ramrod straight to Redding.
Grif shrugs. “I didn't do my homework and told the teacher I didn't respect him.”
“Grif!” Simmons admonishes, failing to keep the laugh out of his voice.
“So what? I don’t,” Grif replies. In the corner of his eye Simmons see Grif glance over to him, his smile like sunshine. Simmons' breath catches in his throat. “Actually, I respect him even less now he gave me a detention.”
“You’re going to fail your class,” Simmons warns.
"So are you," Grif counters, and Simmons feels his cheeks heat up so much he feels like a beacon of embarrassment. He's getting straight A's in all classwork, but he's going to fail his exams. Something about the pressure of tests kills any talent he might have. He wishes he flourished under pressure like Grif does.
"Maybe, but still," Simmons says limply.
Grif laughs and nudges him in the side with his elbow. When Simmons looks at him, and sees his sunshine smile in the fading light, something in his chest shifts and curls, something that's been there for years, something that only moves when Simmons looks at Grif. And for the life of him, Simmons can't look away.
"You should at least try. You could get way better grades than you do now," Simmons says.
"I don’t,” Grif says, “I don't... care.”
Simmons wants to say he's an idiot. He wants to make Grif understand that exams are important, that school is important. God, he wants to shake him by the shoulders and make him understand. And he would. He would do it, if it weren't for that star in Grif’s eye, the one that only comes out on evenings like this, with miles of road and forever out in front of him. When his face becomes the night's sky and all he wants to do is drive.
So Simmons doesn't lecture him. He doesn't try to make him understand.
He says, “where are we going?”
And Grif says, “anywhere you want.”
So Simmons replies, “just drive.”
Grif grins, lights a cigarette, and just drives.
He veers off the tarmac and onto the hard earth. They leave a dust trail in their wake, like bright crimson smoke in the orange light. Grif's foot on the gas, speed rising steady: fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty. Ninety, and Simmons isn't sure if he's glad Grif's car is open-top or not. One hundred, and the landscape soars by like Simmons' dreams, hot and blazing and screaming of the sun.
They're going so fast the steering wheel shakes under Grif's hands. When the tyres slip, he turns fishtails into drifts, eases into lazy turns, loops around between scattered rocks, and Simmons knows that this is way too dangerous and he should be yelling for help, not happiness; gripping on to the car for dear life, not excitement. But there's wind in his hair, on his face, and the world's spread out in front of him and, if only for just this moment, he can’t bring himself to care either.
And as the car roars up to a racketing one-thirty miles an hour, Simmons looks over to Grif, expecting him to be looking out ahead, concentrated, not leaning back in his seat with one hand on the wheel, the other arm resting on the car door, glancing at Simmons when he thinks he's not looking. When Simmons catches Grif's eye, he grins and shouts, and tries to ignore how his heart beats faster when he realises Grif's looking at him like he's an open road.
Night falls sudden in the desert. It draws in quick, they're driving in the dark long before either of them notice. At some point they rejoin the road, pull into the gas station on the far edge of Redding. Simmons uses the payphone to tell his mom he'll be late home. Grif buys chips and soda, the harsh electric light picking out the red dust on his shirt, his bright eyes.
Grif takes the car around to the back of the lot, and they sit in the dirt, backs against the bumper, staring out into the open sky.
“No one in this town drives,” Grif says to the night.
Simmons frowns. “Almost everyone drives.”
“Yeah,” Grif counters, “but no one drives.”
They fall into a slow silence, and Simmons looks up at the stars, how they domino the black. Beside him, he hears Grif strike a match, the quiet hiss as he lights another cigarette. Simmons remembers the first time they did this, three years ago, when the thing in Simmons' chest had first stirred. Grif had climbed up to his window in the middle of the night and squeezed in, vibrating with energy and telling Simmons that he’d stolen his dad’s car. Simmons should have yelled at him, should have convinced him to give it back before anyone noticed, but. But. He’d been tempted. Tempted by the idea of once, just once, doing something wrong.
Back then Grif had barely known how to operate a car; his knuckles white on the stick shift, shuddering through hesitant gears as he took them up to third. They hadn’t gone faster than thirty miles an hour, but it had felt like a thousand as they drove past the town limits, drove for miles up to the cliffs of the gorge on the edge of the county. High on adrenaline and breathless, they'd sat on the edge of the cliff and stared into the abyss below, the only lights for miles around those of the car’s headlights.
“I know what I want to do,” Grif had said, swinging his legs, heels bumping against the rock, sending tiny cascades of pebbles rattling down the facade. “When I grow up, I know what I want to do.”
“What?” Simmons had asked, eyes wide, captivated by Grif’s certainty.
Grif had just grinned at him, and said, “I want to drive.”
And they were fifteen and stupid and, for the first time, completely reckless, but Simmons had known even then that Grif had fallen in love with the road.
Now, he watches as the embers of Grif’s cigarette fall to the ground, hates that he doesn’t care he’ll go home smelling like smoke.
He starts talking, just to fill the space, about school, about his mom, about anything. “You know,” he tells Grif, “your sister came to Biology Club this week.”
Grif blinks. “Shit, really?”
“Yeah,” Simmons says, and huffs a laugh. “She came in, sat there for about half an hour, and then left. I asked her about it the next day, and she told me she’d thought ‘biology’ was a codeword for sex ed.”
“Wait, what?” Grif sits there a second, turning it over in his head, and then bursts out into peals of laughter. He doubles over and Simmons sees the cigarette fall from between his fingers, onto the dirt.
“That’s… what... happens,” Grif gasps between laughs, bright and happy, “when a Grif... doesn't have a Simmons.” He starts to laugh again, and Simmons can't help but grin along with him. “I swear,” Grif continues, when his laughs die down, “you are ninety percent of the reason I'm not that stupid.”
“She’s not stupid, she's just a little…” Simmons starts, but he trails off. He doesn't really have the words to describe Kaikaina Grif.
“Yeah,” Grif chuckles, “she is.”
They dip back into an easy quiet again, and suddenly Simmons is all too aware of Grif pressed into his side, of the chill night air, of the warm grille at their backs. How the thing in his chest is settled soft in his solar plexus. How he doesn’t want to ever leave this spot.
And then there’s a tightness in his throat, because he can’t stay here forever, this won’t last forever, this is going to be one of the last times they ever do this and Grif doesn’t even–
Grif starts to turn and face him, starts to say “Simm–“
“I’m leaving,” Simmons cuts him off. His voice sounds too loud. “I’m leaving Redding.”
Grif stops. Stares. “What?” he breathes, his eyes fixed on Simmons and, God, Simmons wishes he would stop looking at him like that.
"I'm leaving," Simmons says, quiet. "As soon as school finishes this summer, I'm leaving town." The words hang, big and precarious in the still air. The cold beginning to bloom in the night sends shivers through Simmons' thin frame.
"Leaving?" Grif echoes, his voice stark. It sounds sharper than normal. Simmons can't let himself imagine why.
"Yeah," Simmons says, and pulls his knees closer to his chest, wrapping his arms around them tight. "Leaving. This town. This desert. As soon as I can.”
He feels Grif shift next to him, hears his mellow laugh. "Thank God!" Grif says, and Simmons looks over to see a smile tugging at his lips. Simmons feels his heart tear.
"You're... happy?" he asks slowly, unsure, lost.
"Happy?" Grif repeats, “Simmons, I’m fucking ecstatic! You're leaving!"
Simmons shallows. "I didn't, I didn't realise how much you hated having me around," he says.
“Dude, what’re you talking about? Of course I’m glad you're leaving." Grif grins, punches him in the arm. “There’s no way I was staying in this shitty desert for the rest of my life.”
"You're leaving too?" Simmons says faintly. "Where are you going?”
And Grif says, "anywhere you want."
And Simmons says, "what do you mean?"
Grif blinks. "I'm not staying here. Not if you're not." He sighs. "You're like this bag, a bag I can't unpack, full of all the shit I've said. I've said some goddamn shitty things to you, Simmons, things I said that I wish I could have taken back." And he puts a warm hand on Simmons' shoulder; contact Simmons is all too aware of, contact he forces himself not to lean into. “But it’s also… all the good stuff. Passing notes in class. Sitting together at lunch. Weekends when we go down to the river, or just fuck around in our bedrooms. These kinds of nights. All of it. I don’t think I could have survived this place without it.” He hesitates a second. “Simmons, I’d follow you anywhere.”
And Simmons looks at this boy, this boy he's shared half his life with, this boy he's done a thousand idiotic things with. This stupid, lazy, reckless, incredible boy, this boy who he'd go to the ends of the earth with. This boy he can't help but love.
Grif's eyes are wide, full of something that Simmons' heart tells him is hope. And the thing in Simmons' chest roars, dazzling and red, and he can't stand it any longer so he leans into Grif's space and kisses him. Their lips press together for a moment, still, but then Grif's part and there's nothing else in the universe that Simmons cares about.
Simmons' breaths staccato. The blood under his skin feels like gasoline, catching alight where Grif's fingertips brush against the small of his back. Simmons kisses him and kisses him and kisses him until they're both bright and breathless and grinning in the darkness.
Simmons draws back and sees Grif smile light sunlight, brilliant enough to stave off the night. Feels the smile on his own lips.
"Hey," Simmons says, sees his breath start to cloud in the cooling air when he speaks. There's only inches between the two of them now and Simmons' heart is a bird inside him, sweeping its wings with every moment Grif keeps looking at him.
"D–do you," Simmons stutters, "do you ever wonder why we're here?"
And Grif's lips curl into a small smile. "No," he says, looking back out to the endless desert, back to the roads that pan its floor. "Not when I'm with you."