Luke lay on his stomach, his chin resting on crossed arms, and gazed into the distance, breathing deeply and trying to take in everything through his senses, wishing he had his notebook with him. 'Writers see and hear everything. You never know when your smallest observation might yield a gem of an idea', his English teacher always said. Yeah, right. Not so easy to carry a notebook and pen when you were only wearing swimming shorts and laying on a floating platform a hundred meters from the shore. An image of the rotund Mr Baxter squeezed into minuscule red speedos flittered across his mind, and he snickered to himself. Oh yuck. That was definitely not something he wanted to dwell on, thank you very much.
The steady movement of the platform, its gentle rise and fall on the calm waters, lulled the already drowsy Luke, and he wondered if this was what it felt like to be hypnotised; to feel yourself floating in a metaphorical ocean - hey, he really must remember that idea for his notebook - as your thoughts and inhibitions swam free. What would it be like, he wondered, to totally be yourself, without fear of consequences or recrimination? The thought lingered as he stared blindly out towards the shore, too far away to hear the squeals of young children in the surf - and Ethan, his little brother, was surely one of them - yet not far enough away to be considered truly alone.
He pondered that idea for a moment, the word echoing across his consciousness. That's how he felt most of the time these days; cut off from everyone around him, whilst still surrounded by the people he'd known and loved all his almost fifteen years of life. They didn't know him any more – didn’t know they didn’t know him, if that even made sense – and couldn't see he wasn't the same as them. Part of him hated them for it; hated them for not noticing; hated himself more.
The mournful cry of an overhead seabird perfectly reflected his melancholy mood, and Luke squeezed his eyes shut against the unwanted sting. Fucking salt on the wind. He lay there, lost in his own thoughts, as the gulls wheeled and screamed overhead, and happy families with perfect children enjoyed their time together on the beach.
The sudden rocking of the platform brought Luke from his introspection, and he turned his head, watching as someone hauled themselves up out of the water. He shielded his eyes with one hand, unable to make out any details of the interloper, the sun momentarily blocked out. An out-of-breath ‘hey’ told him it was a boy, and Luke watched as he flopped down on to his back, arm thrown over his eyes, his chest rising and falling with exertion.
“Fuck, I’m out of shape,” he huffed out.
Luke wasn’t sure if a response was required but suddenly found his throat closing over in horror. Oh my God! It was the dark haired boy from the hotel; the one Luke had so far only seen from a distance; watched from a distance, if he were being totally honest with himself. And he was. If nothing else, the last few months had taught him he might be able to hide from those around him, but he needed to be brutally honest and not hide from himself, not if he wanted to survive.
Luke swallowed audibly – at least, to himself it sounded loud – and could feel the heat of a blush rise in his face. His gaze was drawn to that still rising chest as the boy’s breathing settled. He watched, unable to look away, as the small sea droplets dried in the sunshine. He desperately wanted to reach out and touch, just to confirm the warmth he knew would be coming from this boy’s bronzed skin, but he held himself rigid, hands clenched.
Several moments had obviously passed before Luke realised the boy was watching him watch the boy. Oh fuck! It must be written all over his face, everything he was feeling right now. If he thought he’d been embarrassed before, it was nothing to the feeling coursing through his blood right now. He pushed himself to his knees, intent on getting off this platform as quickly as possible, but the boy stopped him, reaching out a hand.
“Hi there. I’m Noah.” He smiled disarmingly, effortlessly forcing a reflex response from Luke. How the hell could he resist? “I wondered what was so great about being out here for so long, so I thought I’d come see.” He grimaced slightly as he continued, “I’m seriously outta shape.
That smile – oh my God, that smile – was the decider, and Luke settled back on his knees, reaching out to grasp that steady hand with his own.
“Luke,” he introduced himself, his voice barely audible, even to his own ears, and the boy - Noah - was suddenly leaning towards him.
“Sorry, I didn’t…”
“I’m Luke.” Louder this time, Luke wanted to say more, wanted to sound confident and mature, but he was mesmerised by the deep blue of Noah’s eyes looking directly into his. Seconds passed, eyes locked and hands still grasped in the age-old greeting, before Luke’s breath hitched in realisation and he snatched his suddenly burning hand away, mortified. Fuck! If this was how he reacted to someone he liked, he was sure-as-hell grateful he wasn’t interested in any of the girls his parents’ friends so recently seemed interested in bringing to his house. He’d have had a fucking nervous breakdown by now.
“Hey, Luke. It’s good to meet ya.” Noah lay back against the platform, his arms cushioning his head. He looked totally relaxed, and Luke envied him his easy nonchalance. The break in contact, however, gave him the chance to take a couple of deep breaths and mentally tell himself to ‘just keep your cool, man. Keep your fucking cool’.
“You too,” Luke replied, and lay back against the warm wooden boards, forcing a casualness he certainly didn’t feel as he mimicked the other boy’s position. Concentrating on keeping his breathing even, Luke closed his eyes and slowly felt his body relax, in so far as he could with his hyper-awareness of the boy laying less than a meter away.
Several minutes passed in companionable silence, the gently rhythmic motion of the platform calming overwrought nerves and senses. Without even realising he was doing it, Luke turned his head and let his gaze roam freely over the body of the boy laying so close to him. He was taller than Luke and more muscular. He looked sporty – something Luke definitely was not – preferring to spend his time writing than trying out for the school sports’ teams; horse riding and farm chores kept him as fit as he needed to be, and the swim out here hadn’t been a problem.
Luke smiled to himself as he took in the red speedos, his mind going back to his earlier thoughts about Mr Baxter. Now, here was a guy who didn’t need to worry he didn’t look good, and he could imagine setting pen to paper to describe him. Still inwardly laughing, it took a couple of seconds for Luke to realise Noah was looking straight at him and had probably seen Luke checking him out. If he thought he’d felt embarrassed before, it was nothing compared to the wave of dread that now suffused his whole being. He had to say something, try to diffuse the situation, laugh it off maybe. He swallowed and turned his head again,
“I was just…” but he wasn’t given the chance to finish as Noah turned his whole body towards him, his head resting on one hand, gaze intent on Luke,
“You were just…checking me out, huh?”
“No! I…I would never…I was just...” Luke spluttered, his usually articulate responses deserting him in the face of those damned blue eyes. How the hell was he supposed to be rational when he couldn’t think past wanting to touch this boy? He’d seen him several times over the past week – always at a distance – and even then he hadn’t been able to take his gaze away. It was something about the sinuous way Noah moved; the way he ran a hand through his already mussed hair; the way he laughed so freely, so obviously happy in his own skin. He was everything Luke felt was missing in his own life; everything he, himself, wanted to be. Fuck. He hadn’t realised how totally messed up he was until right this moment.
“Hey.” Noah’s soft voice broke into Luke’s turbulent misery, and he turned his head, meeting that gaze, suddenly determined to take whatever was coming. He was done hiding; done blaming others. He moved, mirroring Noah’s pose as he held the other boy’s gaze.
“I was checking you out.” Damn, he hadn’t quite meant to blurt it out quite so bluntly – what the fuck was wrong with him? - but he couldn’t take it back, now. Didn’t want to. Luke waited, ignoring the flight instinct that urged him to jump into the calm water and swim to freedom. Trouble was, for Luke there was no freedom. Home felt like a prison, with him trapped in a life everyone else seemed determined to map out for him. This - right here and now – was the closest he’d come to freedom in what felt like his whole life. He was making his own decisions; okay, maybe mistakes was a better description – fucked up as they might be – and taking responsibility for the consequences. He grinned suddenly,unable to hold it back, the relief he felt almost overwhelming. He knew he could do this.
Whilst all this ran through Luke’s head, he was unaware of the picture he made; slightly sunburned blond, gawkily cute with his smattering of freckles and wind-roughened hair. His nervousness was palpable, most of what he was thinking and feeling chasing across his expressive face. He didn’t hear Noah’s sharp intake of breath as he smiled, his face open and honest; didn’t realise Noah couldn’t not respond in kind with his own wide smile; didn’t realise that, while he’d been noticing Noah, Noah had been noticing him back and had just been waiting for the perfect moment for their paths to cross.
But he was going to find out.
By the time the two boys lowered themselves into the cooling water and swam side-by-side back to shore, confidences had been shared, promises had been made and lives had begun to change. And if Luke had a notebook full of ‘gems’ he wouldn’t be sharing with Mr Baxter – not least of which was that first innocent, yet perfect, kiss that sets you on the road to love – then that was his business. He was the author of his own life, after all.