“Nicky St. Germaine.” Principal Stevens’ voice drifted over the crowd.
“Finally.” Nicky stepped from the rows of Twin Rivers High graduates, eager to receive his diploma and get out of there. Grinning from ear to ear, Nicky made the short walk to the stage, and a cheer roared from the crowd—not that Nicky was popular; he just had a few really loud friends. Well, in reality, they were mostly his brother Avery’s friends, but he loved them. It was good to see their familiar faces beaming up at him. Avery and his girlfriend, Nari, Wylder, Julian and Addison, and even Beckett Anderson showed up for his graduation. Becks was dressed in the most obvious disguise. Large, dark sunglasses covered half his face, and his ridiculous blond wig was swept back into a man-bun. The people of Twin Rivers pretended to let him blend in. They were used to his antics—and they were proud of their homegrown rising country music sensation.
God, I’ve missed him. Nicky accepted his diploma and a hug from Principal Stevens before returning to his seat. He’d missed his older friends over the last two years since they all graduated. It was strange, going back to school for his junior year without them. It hadn’t occurred to Nicky until then that he didn’t have any friends his age. The only one left to brave the halls of Twin Rivers High was Becks’ little sister Wylder, who was a year younger than Nicky. They’d bonded over the shared demise of their social lives with the departure of their older siblings.
And then there was Kenny. Nicky’s eyes swept the crowd, looking for his Defiance Academy boyfriend, also a year younger than Nicky. The last two years with Kenny had been rocky at times, but they were doing well—and looking forward to their last summer together before Nicky left for Vanderbilt University in the fall. Kenny still wasn’t completely out of the closet, but he was trying, and Nicky was patient. With his conservative politician parents, Nicky understood how much harder it was for Kenny to come to terms with his sexuality than it had been for Nicky. Sure, his own father hadn’t always made it easy, but that was nothing compared to Kenny’s parents.
Nicky’s heart stopped when he found his boyfriend among the crowd. He somehow managed to be both adorable and sizzling hot in his suit and tie with his sunglasses shielding his eyes. But that wasn’t the source of his heart’s distress this time. It was the gorgeous brunette girl hanging on his arm. Seeing his boyfriend with a Defiance Academy girl always gave Nicky reason to freak out. This was the same girl Kenny had cheated on him with two years ago.
Surprise. Nicky had trust issues with his boyfriend. It was no secret Kenny wished he wasn’t bi. He felt his life would be easier if he could be the future politician his parents wanted him to be with a smart Jackie O. at his side to conqueror Washington as a power couple.
But he loved Nicky. That much Nicky knew. Sometimes he wondered if that was enough.
As Kenny draped his arm around the girl’s waist, Nicky knew the end was near. He couldn’t take much more of this. In a perfect world, Kenny wouldn’t hate himself for his own feelings, he would see that being bi was okay, and he didn’t have to pretend to be otherwise. But this was never a perfect world.
“Trust me, Nicky, if anyone gets in trouble for this, it’s going to be me, and I’ve already been expelled, and you graduated a few hours ago, so it’s a win-win.” Wylder finished picking the lock, moving to hold the door open for him.
“There’s still the legal matter of breaking and entering.” Nicky shouldered past her, carrying a huge box of party supplies.
“Nothing’s broken.” Wylder shrugged. “We’re just borrowing the venue.” She darted down the main hall of Twin Rivers High where she’d already spent hours setting up the most legendary party Twin Rivers would ever see.
“How did you do this?” Nicky dropped the box he was carrying. White fairy lights draped from the ceiling to cascade over the lockers, transforming the wide school hallway into a fantasy world. “It’s beautiful.”
“Principal Stevens left for her annual cruise right after the graduation ceremony, and I hacked into the alarm system and changed the phone number. I disabled the alarm, but if it happens to go off, the alarm company will just call me, and I’ll tell them it’s a false alarm. I found the code word they’ll ask for the last time I was in Stevens’ office. Then we’ll lock up when we leave, and I’ll change the call list back to the way it was. When summer school starts up next week, they’ll be in for a huge surprise and think it was an epic senior prank. Come on, let me show you the rest.” She tugged Nicky back down the hall to the school lobby she’d set up for the buffet and bar area.
“I can’t hire caterers, so we’re having a pizza and taco bar courtesy of Uber Eats delivery, and we’ll have a couple of kegs at the bar.” The whole lobby was set up like a sports bar, decked out in the school colors and sports team logos.
“You didn’t do all of this by yourself in the last three hours?” Nicky looked at her like she might have magic he didn’t know about.
“I have minions.” She tossed her dreadlocks over her shoulder and beckoned him to follow her.
“We have multiple forms of entertainment planned for the evening.” Wylder led him to the junior hall, lit with tiki lanterns and unlit torches he hoped would stay unlit.
“What the?” Nicky stared down at his feet covered in sand. “What did you do, Wylder?” his voice rose a few octaves.
“I brought the beach inside.” The long hallway was buried in at least two feet of sand, and the classroom doors stood open. Nicky peeked inside the nearest classrooms to see they were all covered in sand too, “We’re having a sandcastle contest in the classrooms, but the hallway is for the waterslide. And the pool is in the last room on the left.”
“Pool? Waterslide? Wylder, you’re insane.” Nicky ran a hand through his carefully styled hair, worried his best friend was going to jail this time.
“It’s a slip and slide.” She pointed to the end of the hall where the long yellow slide of death waited for a bunch of drunken teenagers to probably kill themselves. The slip and slide ended in a kiddie pool, and a huge hill of sand would likely keep most from really hurting themselves.
“It’s definitely epic.” Nicky sighed.
“Come see the cafeteria. It’s the dance club for the night. We moved all the tables out and hung a bunch of disco balls and black lights. It’s going to be amazing.”
“It will be a miracle if we don’t all get arrested before the night is over.”
“I’ve set up escape routes for that possibility. When everyone comes in at the front, they’ll get a colored bracelet and instructions on what to do when the cops show up. I’ve already sent parking instructions to the whole student body so the lot doesn’t fill up with more than a few cars. Exit routes will take the students out in all different directions to get to their cars and out of the area before the cops know where to look.”
“You’ve thought of everything.” There was no doubt this party would be legendary. Just a few weeks ago, Wylder was caught stealing the final exam answers for all of her classes. It was a desperate attempt to improve her grades enough so she could pass her junior year. Not only did she end up flunking the whole year, but she’d been expelled for cheating.
“This party is my swan song to Twin Rivers High. No one will ever forget it.”
Nicky stuck to the lobby-slash-sports bar, waiting for Kenny to arrive. Nothing would get him back to the “beach” hall tonight. That place was dangerous. Kids in bathing suits, beer, and a waterslide were a bad combination. The cafeteria-slash-dance club was the place to be. Wylder and her minions had outdone themselves on the décor. Nicky couldn’t wait to get on the dance floor and celebrate with his boyfriend.
“There you are,” Kenny said, clapping him on the shoulder. “This place is nuts.”
Nicky turned to greet him, but his smile faltered when he saw the brunette clinging to his boyfriend again.
“Penny.” Nicky nodded, the tension he’d felt all day returning with a vengeance. The muscles in his jaw ticked as he turned to face Kenny.
“I’ll just let you two talk.” Penny darted across the lobby to get herself a drink.
“Are you even serious right now?” Nicky glared at Kenny.
“What, she’s a friend from school.” Kenny shrugged, shoving his hands into his pockets, refusing to meet Nicky’s furious gaze.
“That girl has never been just a friend, Ken. What are you doing to us?”
“Me?” Kenny returned his glare. “You’re the one leaving.”
“I’m going to college, Kenny! It’s just a few hours away, and I’m not leaving for three months.”
“I know.” Kenny’s shoulders sagged.
“Your parents are home, aren’t they?” For the last two years, his parents had spent so much of their time in Washington DC that Kenny had moved to the dorm rooms at Defiance Academy. It was one of the main reasons their relationship had flourished. Without his parents’ influence, Kenny was free to be himself in a way he’d never had before, as long as no one found out.
“Yeah. Mom’s home for the summer, and Dad wants me traveling to Washington with him as like an intern or something when I’m not at hockey camp.”
“So what, you’re straight now?” Nicky snapped, hating himself for falling into this same old argument with a boy who would likely never come to terms with his sexuality.
“It’s not as black and white for me as it is for you, Nicky.” Kenny’s voice dropped to a hush. “You know, I still like girls. And I don’t know what that means yet.”
“So we’re done? You’re going to pretend we never happened to please your dad and what? I’m just a casualty.”
“It’s not like that, Nicky. You know I still love you. But—”
“You know what, Ken. I’m done with the buts. Go be happy with Penny if that’s what you want. I just hope for your sake some day you figure out who you are.” Nicky stumbled away before the tears he choked back found their way into his eyes.
The steady beat of the bass matched the rhythm of Nicky’s heart as he sipped a bottle of water—wishing for the first time in ages it was something stronger. But Nicky didn’t drink. His father was an alcoholic who’d finally managed to get his s**t together. Nicky never wanted to go down that road and had given up booze after one particularly bad night a few years ago. It was an ironically similar night. After walking in on Kenny and Penny making out, Nicky had spent the night hitting the hard stuff only to arrive home to find his father in worse shape. Nicky hadn’t touched a drink since then, but it didn’t escape him that his boyfriend’s drama was what made him want to drink in the first place.
Nicky watched Wylder make her way around the dance floor, dancing with everyone and having the time of her life. But he felt like going home to wallow in misery. This should be one of the happiest nights of his life. He just graduated high school, and his life stood like an open road in front of him, just waiting for him to ride out of town and never look back.
Maybe that’s what I should do. Maybe he should leave Twin Rivers now and move in with Avery and Nari a few months early to start his new life in Nashville—a single life in a city with more options. In a small town like Twin Rivers, the gay dating pool was pretty small. But in Nashville? Maybe Nicky’s real love story awaited him there?
“Becks, Becks, Becks!” The crowd chanted, taking Nicky’s attention away from his personal drama.
There he was in the middle of his adoring fans, the big bad country music star, and Nicky’s onetime friend. But Nicky hadn’t seen or spoken to Becks since he left Twin Rivers two years ago after his own graduation. Becks ate up the crowd’s attention, no surprise there. Nari was with him, garnering a lot of attention herself. She was just as famous, but she was a lot more down to earth about it. Nari came home often, so she wasn’t quite the anomaly Becks was.
Once upon a time, Nicky counted Becks among his closest friends. Seeing him now, and how much he’d changed in some ways and how little he’d changed in others, just made him sad.
Get over yourself, Nicky! You were on cloud nine earlier today. He needed to stop letting other people dictate his happiness. It was time Nicky grabbed his future in his fist and made decisions for himself, taking what he wanted out of life. That was what everyone around him seemed to do.
The music came to a screeching halt, and Wylder’s voice sounded over the PA system. “Party’s over, guys. The cops are on the way. Please proceed to your exit and get home safe. I have Ubers waiting in every lot to take anyone home who’s too drunk to drive.”
Kids scattered in every direction, following Wylder’s instructions to the letter. But Becks and Nari stood in the center of the cafeteria, looking confused.
“Come on, you two oldies. Follow me.” Nicky grabbed Nari’s hand in his left and Becks’ in his right. He pretended not to notice the warmth of Becks’ skin against his or the way his large hand engulfed Nicky’s with a firm and familiar grip. “The last thing you two need is to get caught crashing a high school party. Your fans will die of embarrassment for you.”
“Lead the way, Nick-Nick.” Becks ran with him down the hall lit with fairy lights into the gym. At least a dozen other students rushed through the back doors to the small lot behind the gym. Nicky shoved Nari and Becks into the waiting Uber and sent them home to Nari’s house.
“Just great.” Nicky watched them leave. “Even after two years, I still have a crush on my brother’s best friend.”