We sit in silence, looking up at the sky. The bed of the truck feels cold on my back. Small sobs escape his lips sporadically, and though he tries, he fail to subdue them. My heart shatters for him, as I can tell his has, too, a long time ago. I think back to what got me here, the call from two hours ago.
“Hello?” I'd been surprised to see his name pop up on my phone, and not just because it was one in the morning. It had been months since we last spoke.
“Hey, it’s Monte,” his voice was shaking as he spoke. “Listen, I know it’s been a while, but is there any way we could meet up like old times.” I remember what “old times” is code for. The two of us driving up the hill into the middle of the woods so he can get drunk and I can drive him home when he can no longer stand. It usually involved him being upset over something. “Please, Cassie. I need you.” There they were. The three words that used to always make me say yes to him, whatever he asked. And, you know what? They still work.
I find myself saying, “Okay,” without even thinking.
“Really?” I don’t know why he’s even trying to fake surprisal, we both know I can’t say no to him. “Thank you, Cassie.” That sounds sincere, for real, and it’s all I need to not regret my decision. “I’ll come pick you up right now.”
That’s what brought us here. The back of his truck in the middle of the night. Him crying softly with a bottle of something in his hand as I sit next to him wondering what prompted another sad late-night adventure.
I want to hold my tongue and leave him to deal with whatever’s wrong without prying, but curiosity gets the better of me. “So, are you going to tell me what’s wrong, Monte?”
He plasters on a fake smile as he meets my gaze. “What do you mean? Everything is perfectly fine.”
“Then why did you call? If everything is fine, I mean.”
“Can’t a guy just want to catch up with an old friend without having any ulterior motive?”
“Then why are you crying?”
“I’m not.” I go to wipe a tear off his face, but he pushes me away. “I just have allergies.”
“Allergies aren’t usually accompanied by sobs and bottles of stolen booze, Monte.” I keep my tone soft. “You don’t have to tell me, but you know that you can, right?”
“Yeah, I know.” His eyes refuse to meet mine, choosing to focus on his shoes instead. “It’s nothing major, really. Don't worry about it, okay?”
“I mean it. I know how you are. I know you’re always worried about me. And I know that’s why you agree to come out here, because you worry about me.”
I’m in shock, really. I'd always been able to read Monte like an open book, but I never even thought he could do the same with me. “Okay. I got it.”
He doesn’t seem convinced but chooses not to say anything about it. “It’s just another one of those nights, you know? A night where everything at home gets to be too much.”
I know exactly what he’s talking about. I've seen him through this situation too many times before. “Hey,” I whisper, looking him right in the eyes. “How many more days?”
“Seventy-three,” he says with a small shrug. Seventy-three was the number of days until he left for college. He’d started counting down ever since he was accepted. Before Monte, I'd never met anyone so ready to leave his whole family behind and never look back.
“It’ll be here before we know it.” I offer a soft smile, which he reluctantly returns.
“Yeah.” Then a cocky smirk appears on his face. “I bet you’re gonna miss me when I leave.”
I don’t play into his games, I just tell him the truth. “Yeah, I will actually.”
This makes his face fall, which I wasn’t expecting. His mock charm leaves him and, all the sudden, I'm worried all over again. What did I say wrong?
“I’m sorry.” Again, his eyes refuse to meet mine.
“For going dark on you for months. For not calling. For not answering your texts.”
I had honestly forgotten this was the first time we’d talked in this long. I'd even forgotten my anger of being ignored by him for so long. Everything was so natural with Monte. It felt like we’d never stopped talking.
“It’s fine,” I tell him.
“No it’s not. You at least deserved an explanation.” He sighs. “I just think you’d clearly be better off without me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“All I do is hold you down. My life is such a mess and I drag you into it all the time. You deserve better than a friend like me.”
“No.” the certainty of my voice makes him look at me, as if he’s searching for any doubt. “My life is better when you’re around, Monte.”
I can tell he’s not convinced. “I just don’t see how that could be true.”
“It is! Trust me. We’ve been friends for a while now.” I don’t know if it’s the heat of the moment or the sleep deprivation, but my next words are as follows. “I’ve seen my world before you, with you, and after you in it, and my favorite by far are the times when you’re around. You make my life better. You brighten it. For all the times you’ve made my cry or worry, there have been a hundred other times you’ve made me laugh or calmed me down. When you’re around-”
Before I can finish my thought, a pair of arms surround me. They’re familiar and inviting. I wrap my arms around his thin frame in return. He smells like a mixture of beer, cigarettes, and cologne. It works for him. “Thanks for agreeing to come here.” I hadn’t realized until now, but he’d never thanked me for coming before.
“Of course.” I pull back from the embrace just far enough to make eye contact. “You know I love you, right?”
“Yeah, I know. I love you, too.” I’ve never seen him look this serious. His penetrating gaze fixates on me.
And then of course is the moment I yawn. That makes him giggle a little. It sounds like music, and all seriousness is lost. “You tired?”
“Only a little bit,” I lie.
“Do you wanna head out?” He hands me the keys.
“Are you sure you’re ready to go home?”
“As ready as I'll ever be.”
I contemplate my next question for a second. “Do you want to just come home with me? You can stay in the guest room just like old times.”
He smiles wide at me. “Yeah, sure, just like old times.”