[2]

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"Hey."

I open my eyes, looking down to see another boy-man. He looks my age. We're the in-betweens of a man and a boy, but some of us - people our age - are still boys, and others are full fledged men.

I purse my lips and finally answer after assessing him. "Hi."

"Are you coming down?" He asks.

"No."

He nods. I curiously watch him walk underneath my tree. When something stings my hand, I realize just how hard I'm holding onto the trunk.

"I'm Oliver," he says, testing a branch before climbing onto it.

I continue watching him silently. I'm scared for him. If he falls, I can't get down, so we'll have a scared boy on a tree and a hurt Oliver on the grass.

"The little brother," he adds as if this situation has absolutely no risks,"At least, that's what my brothers call me."

It takes him only a few seconds to reach me. When he does, he seats himself next to me, smiling wider than a teenager should. But what do I know? I'm not here to decide how wide teenagers should smile.

"What's your name?"

Valentine. But I hate it like the snide remarks that push and pull at my body until I don't recognize it anymore. Sometimes I imagine myself painted in deep purple drowning in navy blue.

"I guess not." His smile grows wider, dimples becoming more pronounced on grinning cheeks. As if gravity can't land him into an early casket, he spreads his arms open and closes his eyes.

Any protest dies on my lips from the sight before me. He's a beautiful silhouette dipped in dark shadows and encased in a beacon of light. I don't think I can ever forget this moment even if we never meet again.

"Anything but Val and Valentine," I manage quietly.

He turns back to me, shadows hiding his face, but I know he still looks impossibly happy. "Then I'll call you your middle name."

"I don't have one." It takes a moment, but I think of a name. I lick my cracked lips and form the word slowly the first time, "Brent. Call me Brent."

"Okay. Brent it is. Nice to meet you." He holds his hand out.

I take it, an unfamiliar warmth blossoming in my chest when we touch.

"It's getting dark so we should be getting home," Oliver announces, "Do you need help getting down?" His tone is pure of jagged judgements. I find myself thankful for him and wondering how we've never met before.

My cheeks warm as I bite my lip to contemplate my reply. He starts climbing down before I can answer. I swallow a protest.

"Come on! Put your leg on that branch and just look at the trunk," he calls cheerily. How is it possible to be such a bubble of happiness?

Hesitation. I move slowly. My right leg shakes as I place it on a lower branch. The moment it makes contact, I get the urge to bolt back to my safe place, but I force myself to carry on. My knuckles are white and I know I'll have to pull out splinters tonight. It's a slow process, but we finally make it to the ground. However, this feat doesn't deem me any less of a scared boy. I'm just a scared boy forever counting stars and dads.

"Will you be here again tomorrow?"

I nod but then stop. "No, we have to meet at my house. I live on this street, that house over there." I point to it but you can hardly see the structure between the trees.

"Where?" He cranes his neck.

An in-between, I decide at that moment. He's both a man and a boy but neither at the same time. The night has descended on us and his tanned skin seems too radiant in it.

"I'll show you," I say.

He walks with me, too-close, but too-far away.

Boys like me count too many things and want too many things. We smile and cry at the same time and hate our mothers with eternal love. We're lonely but thrive in solitude. Boys like me are complicated. We don't even know ourselves.

We pass houses of their own universe. A blue one with a woman on her front porch smoking. There's two kids in the small yard fighting over a ball. There's a lighter blue one beside it with a car parked but lights off. Living but dead. A pale yellow one with a mother and a father loving a child that's growing up too fast, twisting and screaming out of their safety-net hold. And more and more until we reach mine, crammed a few feet from both the neighbor's, mirroring the others in this suburban desolation.

It's dark blue with mom's car parked in the short driveway. Flowers she planted ages ago are somehow still breathing.

"This one."

Before Oliver can respond, the front door opens.

"Al! Where have you been?! How many times do I have to tell you to come home before sunset?"

I chew my bottom lip. How can I tell her that I was stuck on a tree from trying to reach the sky?

"Hi," Oliver saves me, "Brent and I met today and now we're friends, right?"

I want to say no. I want to say that I hardly know him. But I nod instead.

"His name is Oliver," I say softly.

"Brent?" My mom asks. Her voice subtly wavers.

I take in a deep breath and exhale. "I don't like being called Valentine."

"Al will see you tomorrow," mom addresses Oliver. I can see her eyes glossing over with a watery look. She's going to cry.

I move forward and hug her. It feels more like she's comforting me and I want so badly to mind it, but I don't. Just a boy. Just a silly boy with a bullet wound chest who thought he could be a man by stealing a name.

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