Seth sat in his biology class, eyes trained on the clock. There were five minutes left to the end of the period. Any class that was scheduled for last period did nothing but make everyone anxious about going home for the day. But it always had a spectacular way of dragging on and on.
Honestly, though, Seth liked biology. He liked school really, mostly because he was just good at it. Plus, it was something to distract him from everything else in his life.
Mrs. Westin started to hand back the tests from last class. It was on the cardiovascular system and Seth found himself answering the questions with ease. His best and probably only real friend, Ben Hancock, groaned as he got his test back, turning to Seth. “Failed another one.” He crumbled the papers in his fist and shoved them into the depths of his near empty backpack. “Oh well.”
She put Seth’s test face down on his desk but lingered for a moment. “Great job, Seth.” Mrs. Westin whispered so lowly only he could hear. Once she strode away from him, he peeled up the corner from his desk. A fat 98 circled in red ink stared back up at him. He tried to stop his smile and he quickly stuffed it in his backpack, trying not to think about it.
The next class, they were starting dissection. Mrs. Westin instructed the class on the proper way to cut into the cat that was pinned to the dissecting pan. Ben stared at it with his shirt over his nose and mouth and what Seth could see of his face screwed up.
“I’m not touching that thing.”
“It’s dead, Ben.” Seth reasoned.
He rolled his eyes and lifted the scalpel, slicing through the skin to make a Y incision. He teased the skin back and exposed the organs underneath. Seth carefully elevated the correct muscles that they were told to identify and pushed aside organs to view the deeper ones. All the while, Ben groaned in disgust.
“I don’t know how you’re doing that.”
Seth shrugged. “It’s just a cat.”
“Yeah, a fucking dead cat!”
Toward the end of the period, Mrs. Westin came by their group to inspect their work. “Go ahead and label them for me.” She instructed.
Seth, using the probe, pointed out the various organs and muscles, identifying even the ones they didn’t have to know. Mrs. Westin smiled broadly at him. “Very nice work, Seth.” Then, furrowing her brows. “Have you thought about medical school in the future?”
Looking back down at the cat, Seth set aside the implements. Ben and the others, anxious to get away from the smell of death and formaldehyde, began to clean up. “I’m not going to college.” He told her. Mrs. Westin appeared as though he had slapped her.
“What do you mean?”
He swallowed. “I can’t go.”
“And why not?” Mrs. Westin asked, shocked.
“Can’t afford it.”
“What will you do instead?”
Seth shrugged and passed off the scalpel, probe, scissors and pins to Bed to clean. “I’m gonna work for my dad, I guess.”
She nodded, folding her arms over her chest and looking him up and down for a few moments. The bell rang and Seth made to leave. “Seth,” she said, hand on his shoulder. “Just send a couple of applications in. There’s scholarships out there for—”
“I appreciate it, Mrs. Westin.” He said. “But I really can’t even afford the application fee. And I don’t even think my dad would let me go.” He slung his backpack over his shoulder and made to leave. “Thanks. See you tomorrow.”
Seth should’ve seen it coming, but he didn’t. That Friday, on his desk in Biology, sat pamphlets about how to apply for loans and how to get scholarships. Sighing, he sat down and looked at the smiling kids sitting on grassy lawns with books open in front of them. He stared at the vast brick buildings in the background and somehow knew that he was supposed to be there, but that it was unattainable. Why taunt him with things he wanted so desperately if he couldn’t have it?
Underneath the pamphlets was a note with only two words in Mrs. Westin’s handwriting: Please try.
He couldn’t let her down like that. In fact, he couldn’t let himself down like that.
Once at home, he paced in his bedroom for a good ten minutes, avoiding the blank application sitting on his desk. It would be easy. Just fill it out and send it, wait for a reply. That’d be the agonizing part, but he could do it.
But what if he didn’t get in? Then he wasted what little money his dad paid him for the work he did around the farm. Then, his hopes and dreams were gone forever. Why bother even doing it if there was a possibility of not succeeding?
On the flip side of the same coin was the other upsetting possibility. What if he did get in? Would his dad even let him go, would he be able to afford it? Danielle would miss him probably. And the course load. It could easily be too much for him to handle. And then what?
After breaking into the jar of cash he kept under his bed, he realized he had just enough for one application; one shot.
He picked the University of Virginia.
A month chugged by steadily. Each day, Seth checked the mailbox, and each day he felt his heart sink lower in his chest. Maybe he should just give up, quit while he’s ahead and just succumb to the fact that he won’t go anywhere. He was destined to stay on that farm for the rest of his life.
Then, on one snowy Thursday in February, it came. Danielle riffled through the mail, having gotten there before Seth after school. “Hey, Seth.” She said. “Someone sent you—”
Before she could finish, Seth snatched the envelope out of her hands and sprinted faster than he ever thought he could into the stables. If he went into the house, she’d follow and pester him with questions, maybe let it slip to their father. He couldn’t have that.
He sat on the door to Lace’s pen staring at the large, thick envelope in his hands, too scared to open it. The horse chewed on hay behind him, unaware of what her owner was going through. Seth was just thankful that he wasn’t doing it alone.
With shaking hands, he ripped it open and scanned the top letter of the packet.
Seth read and reread the letter in shock, unable to believe what he was reading. He stared at it and read through it enough to have it memorized. Then, he quickly stuffed everything back inside, twisting around to the horse.
“I got in, Lace.” He told her quietly.
She tossed her mane and snorted. Seth took that to mean, “congratulations.”
A week later was when the scholarship letter arrived. Full ride. All expenses paid. Qualification for the honors program. Hope. Seth knew he had to talk to his father now. But there seemed to be no good time to do it. He was constantly busy with work, and tired and slightly irritated by the end of the night.
Seth sat at the kitchen table working on Calculus homework as his dad made coffee. He tapped his pencil on his notebook, not paying any attention to the clusters of numbers before him. “Dad, I have to talk to you about something.” He said suddenly, not looking at him.
He heard his father set down the ceramic coffee mug. “Alright, then.”
But it took a long moment before Seth could find the words. He turned to his dad but avoided his eyes. “I got into UVA. Full ride.” He murmured.
There was a pause that stretched between them. “I know.” His dad said finally.
Seth looked up in surprise.
“I saw the letter in your room.” He explained.
“When were you going to tell me?” Seth asked.
Joey Grafton smiled. “I was waiting for you to tell me.” Seth looked intently at the ground. “Do you want this, Seth?”
He nodded slowly.
“What’ll you study?”
Seth swallowed, bit the inside of his cheek. “Medicine.”
Joey stood staring at him, nodding thoughtfully. It was then that Seth noticed the tears clouding the man’s eyes. He stood abruptly, chair legs scraping across the kitchen floor. Before Seth knew anything else, his father pulled him into a tight embrace; the first physical contact they had had in years.
“I’m so proud of you.”
Chris stepped into their bedroom where Seth sat on their once-upon-a-time bed, reading. He raised his hands in defeat. “Just getting some pain reliever.” He said once Seth glanced up. With one hand rubbing the small of his back, he padded into the bathroom, popped the lid of Advil and took two.
“Your back?” Seth asked him once he was back out.
“The couch isn’t necessarily user friendly.” He admitted.
After a pause, Seth sat up and put his book down. “Come here.”
Tentatively, Chris sat, his back to Seth, and felt his hands move down his spine, pressing in certain places. He didn’t want to think about how much he had missed Seth’s hands, how much he had missed even being in their room together, on their bed together. It was just painful.
“You’ve got some tension here.” Seth told him, pressing on the very center of his spine.
“Yeah, I can feel it.” He groaned. Seth pushed harder, causing a small pop, then instant relief flooded Chris. “Jesus Christ.”
“Better?” Seth asked when Chris turned around. He nodded, but didn’t make to leave. For a long moment, they both just looked at each other. Then, Seth moved his eyes back down to his hands. “Were things really so bad with us?” he asked softly.
The words were loaded and Chris didn’t know how to answer. He swallowed hard. “I just…I needed…more.”
Seth shook his head, looking away from Chris. “I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.”
“You were gone all the time. I felt like we were…lacking. You know, everything. I was in a marriage all by myself. And I couldn’t take it anymore.” Chris murmured. Seth furrowed his brows, still not looking at him. “It’s just…you think I did it because I didn’t want you, but that’s not it. I did it because I wanted you so badly and I just felt so…ignored. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“You could’ve talked to me.” Seth said bitterly.
Chris exhaled pain slowly. “I tried.” He whispered. “I tried everything. Because I wanted to make us work but you just didn’t have the time for me.” He paused to regain himself then slowly moved his hand to hold Seth’s. He didn’t move away, so Chris continued. “I’m not blaming you; this is entirely my fault and I accept that. I just felt like I owed you an explanation.”
He stood but didn’t end up going anywhere. Seth had gripped his wrist and pulled him down to his level. Before he knew what was happening, there was the familiar sensation of Seth’s lips on his own and he was suddenly melting.
This was what he so desperately wanted, so desperately needed. Something that Seth just never picked up on and that was disheartening. Did it take Chris cheating to open his eyes, or was the affection and desire really there all along, and Chris was just looking in all the wrong places?
Chris couldn’t move. Not because Seth was pinning him, but because his heart forgot that this was not supposed to be happening. In fact, because of that, Chris wasn’t exactly sure what had happened in the fifteen minutes it took to end up without clothes underneath of him.
He splayed his hand over Seth’s chest, right over his heart. It beat into his palm steadily, warmly, alive. They stopped for a few moments, just to make sure the other was who they thought they were, as Chris felt Seth’s heart so wildly underneath his own hand. With the other, he brushed back Seth’s dark hair.
“Tell me that you love me,” he murmured quietly. “Even if you don’t mean it,” he added quickly at Seth’s rapid blinking. “I just want to hear you say it.”
There was a three second hesitation. That was enough to send Chris on the fine razor edge of panic. Then, finally, “I love you.”
Chris exhaled a breath he didn’t know he was holding and shut his eyes just before Seth pushed against him, everything between them fading with the heat of their bodies uniting.
Chris was laying beneath the thick blanket of stars that shone almost too brightly. Out by Seth’s house, there weren’t any city lights like where Chris lived. There was nothing to overpower the stars brightness, nothing to block them from view.
He had escaped about half an hour ago from the barn where Seth was hosting a party. Everyone was drunk, including him, and it had grown too hot to be comfortable anymore. Plus, it was too loud to carry on a conversation with anyone and Chris had begun to get a headache from it.
“Here you are,” Seth said before flopping down in the grass next to him. He smelled of horses and beer. “Didn’t like the party?”
“It’s great,” he sighed, hands behind his head. “I just needed a little fresh air.”
Seth was quiet for a few moments. “Do you want another drink?” he asked, tipping his beer bottle towards him.
Chris grinned and shook his head. “I’ve had too much.”
He laid down next to him and they both stared in silence for what felt like a long time. The music and laughing from the barn was still audible, but easy to block out. “My dad and I used to come out here a lot when I was a kid. We’d talk for hours. He used to point out constellations to me. He was always into that.”
Chris turned to look at him. Seth was profile to him, still handsome. He blinked up at the stars and bit his lower lip softly. Then, Chris felt Seth’s warm hand close over his. Slowly, his arm was lifted, index finger stretched out beneath Seth’s. He pointed to a spot in the sky and their joined fingers traced an outline. “Orion.” Seth said, as their hands touched the grass again.
Chris suddenly felt a pull and sat up, turning towards Seth and fighting off the dizziness that gripped him tightly. He found Seth’s lips and melted against him. At twenty, drunk for the first time in his life and laying underneath a blanket of stars, Chris realized there was no other place he’d rather be.