Are you still, still breathing?
-- Tattle Tale, "Glass Vase Cello Case"
Winter blew in with the ferries the night before, and now the cold wind rattled the shutters on the windows and made music singing through the narrow passageways under the roof. Gus marked another night of insomnia with resignation and the last of the whiskey, and from his place on the sofa watched the fire burn down to coal. Around three a.m. he heard Bunsy moving around up in the loft, shuffling and coughing, and his heavy steps on the stairs. Gus rolled over as the light from the lamp in the kitchen spilled over the back of the sofa, and nodded in return to Bunsy’s hoarse greeting; Bunsy’s mouth twisted in the grimace that he used in place of a smile and he went to make the coffee, leaving Gus to leverage himself up and fight his way out of the layers of blankets and sheets. Sitting up, Gus rubbed his hands over his face and arched his back, feeling the snap of vertebrae realigning, and contemplated shaving and dismissed the notion all in the same thought.
"Fish cakes or bacon with your eggs?" Bunsy asked, and appeared to take Gus’s grunt to mean either was fine. He lifted the large iron skillet from the hook on the wall. "You going to get to that motor today, Gus? Sil’s been harping on it something grand."
Gus shivered as he stood and stumbled over to the counter where he sloshed cold water into the basin, and then over his face. He was moving slowly, heavy all over with the weight of sleep that wouldn’t come and a persistent itch that crawled under his skin. He didn’t answer Bunsy’s question, burying his face in a towel instead.
The bacon had started to sizzle in the pan and Bunsy was quartering tomatoes as the smell of coffee percolated into the room, but Gus’s hunger didn’t have anything to do with food. He looked at himself in the mirror above the sink—red eyes and unshaven cheeks and wild hair—and looked away again, not sure what he was seeing, or what he was looking for. He slung the towel he’d used on his face around his neck and went over to the hooks by the door, where he’d hung yesterday’s clothing. He shed the thick flannels he’d slept in, tossing them over a chair, and dressed quickly, thermals and trousers and sweater and vest, wool close to the skin and in layers. His collar.
"I’ll get to it, Bunsy. I’ll get to it," he said, pushing off the irritation and putting on his coat and muffler. He pulled open the door, meeting a blast of frigid air that hit him full in the face.
"Don’t you want your breakfast?" Bunsy called to him, turning with a pan full of fried bacon and eggs and tomatoes, but Gus shook his head and stepped out into the dark morning, shutting the door without a word. He took a cigarette from his pocket and cupped his hands to light it, then stood quietly smoking, watching the smoke and his breath get blown away by the wind. After a moment, he tucked the cigarette between his lips, shoved his hands deep into his pockets, and started to walk.
It was a path he could find in his sleep. Uneven and badly paved, and full of cracks. He walked slowly, looking over the mini-putt golf park, the painted grass and make-believe house. Leaves followed the wind to gather at the sides of the road, crowding the fence posts and curling up next to the tree roots. Further up the hill, into town, he could see lights coming on in other houses, where other men were getting ready to go out on the water. He could see the bright windows in the diner, and the café. Some things had changed about Solomon Gundy, himself included, but there was always the sea, would always be the sea, the sea and the waves and the fishermen.
His boots and the cuffs of his trousers got wet as he walked and smoked, past the church that needed painting, the graveyard.
Does it matter, in the end, what we do in this life?
Solomon Gundy’s fifteen minutes of fame had come and gone, leaving behind unlikely heroes. Death had changed Dexter Lexcannon from a lawyer into a hero, a cult icon. A Judas who had flung back the thirty pieces, like St. Paul, Dexter was a Pharisee who became a saint. When Bucky Haight recorded "Battle of Solomon Gundy," Dexter’s story spread on the wings of thrash guitarists, and now every summer and fall brought tourists with green and blue and orange hair to visit his grave, singing songs and carrying flowers, paint and trinkets, and pink plastic pigs named "Hamlet" to decorate his grave. The city council didn’t like it at all but soon figured out there was profit to be had, and now Dempster’s wife kept a booth on the road outside the cemetery entrance, selling Russian nesting boxes bearing Dexter’s face, and temporary tattoos, and brochures that told "real" story of Dexter Lexcannon and the Freedom Fighters of Solomon Gundy.
Gus wound his way through the graves to stop at Dexter’s, and leaned against the tombstone to light another cigarette. The name of Dexter Lexcannon was almost lost now beneath the graffiti, the peace signs and the anarchy symbols, the quotes from Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Twitch City. Messages from Tim from Chicago and Gary from Vancouver, and Graham from Christchurch. From Patsy and Darla, and Betty, who loves Sue. And Joe Dick—Singer, Songwriter, scrawled along side the rest.
He lit another cigarette off the one he had just finished.
Dexter wasn’t the only one who’d gotten famous in the aftermath of the Victory Against Ottawa, as the locals tended to refer to it. Zita wrote a novel, Big Pigs Eat First, that climbed to number 73 on the New York Times Bestseller List, and was praised in its Sunday Book Review as a "post-modern allegorical tale of redemption." Zita just smiled and took the twenty thousand, and sold her rights to the movie.
Rumor was they had Bruce McDonald lined up to direct.
Other changes had happened on a smaller scale. Sure enough, they’d had to give back the sub, but Luba Fedorova—former Cook and de facto Senior Officer of Submarine K-672—did, in fact, defect, and was granted asylum as part of the reunification deal. After a long courtship, she married Sil last summer, and they bought a fishing boat, and another pickup. Luba applied for citizenship and opened a café that sold boats carved out of shark bone, and boats in bottles, and lattes, pashka and borscht.
Most things didn’t change, of course. Dempster Millard ran for the Senate again on a United Alliance ticket, and lost again when the Liberals won a majority. Zita still kept the library on top of the hill, and still lectured Gus on his appearance, his slovenly ways, and his drinking. Sil still violated probation and found himself in jail most Monday mornings, and most Friday nights still found someone telling the story of the Teaser.
It turned out Noel was right the first time—she could never live on an island. Turned out Gus couldn’t live anywhere else. Noel packed up about three months after she'd arrived and went back to Ottawa and the Minister of Social Development, leaving Solomon Gundy with a smile and a commemorative key chain. She still sent Gus the occasional letter, and a holiday card every Christmas.
And Augustus Knickel?
Gus smiled and put out his cigarette. Nobody wrote songs about Augustus Knickel, who lived, and stayed on Solomon Gundy. Augustus Knickel, who was still Christ's representative on Earth and who gave sermons every Sunday, sometimes even good ones; he was still the Mayor of Town, and still the best person to see about parking tickets, snow removal and dog licenses. He still ran the only mini-putt golf park on the island, and sometimes, lately, he believed in God.
Oh. And he’d fallen in love. With a rock star.
But that was another story.
Gus took the flask out of his pocket and took a long, long drink. Then he closed it back up and turned back toward home.
The sun was just breaching the horizon, the sky grey and pink and orange—and maybe just a bit blurry around the edges—when Gus rounded the side of the house. All his cigarettes were gone; his flask was empty. The first rays of light caught the silver in the grey of the ocean. Just like in the movies, when God appeared. Gus closed his eyes to feel the salt air on his face and felt a shiver dance down his spine, like the touch of cold fingers, and he turned, and opened his eyes.
He knew what he would see. It was Billy, leaning up against the door jam as if he belonged there, looking just like he did the first time Gus saw him, blond and black and blue. The long coat he wore was buttoned from neck to knee, and the tails flapped and fluttered in the strong morning breeze. He had a couple of scarves around his neck, wrapped up almost to his ears, and a cowboy hat on his head that obeyed different laws of physics—barely tipping in the strong wind. His hands were jammed in his pockets and he had one foot behind him, boot resting on the clapboard wall, balancing himself as he leaned back. He was smoking a cigarette, and blowing the smoke out the side of his mouth. His head was tilted back and his eyes were closed, and he was smiling like he was dreaming, but Gus knew Billy knew he was there, and knew that Gus was looking, and Billy opened his eyes, and turned, and smiled.
Blue. The eyes were the same, the bluest eyes Gus had ever seen, and that same smile that had twisted something up inside him every time he saw it. His breath was cold coming into his lungs and it didn’t matter that he knew what this was, or wasn’t, and then Billy was using that booted foot to push off the wall and come toward him. Billy took one hand out of his pocket, took the cigarette out of his mouth and tossed it away, even as his other hand wound its way through Gus’s hair, stroking and petting, and then grabbing a handful at the base of his neck to reel him in.
Gus followed. The tug on his hair pulled him in close, and he could smell Billy, could recognize him in the stink of stale cigarettes and dried sweat that meant he’d jammed last night in some dive of a club, the onions that meant all night diner, and the beer that said he’d fallen off the wagon once again. And then Gus could taste him, could taste the beer and the onions and the cigarettes. The women, the other men. The blow. Gus opened his mouth; the kiss was aggressive, hard and wet.
"Billy," he whispered, when Billy gave him a second to breathe, but it was only a second and then they were locked together again. Both of Billy’s hands were in Gus’s hair now, and Gus wrapped his arms tight around him, holding on and pulling him closer, struggling to feel hard muscle and bone through his clothes. Gus reached blindly for the buttons on Billy’s coat, unfastening just enough to get his hand inside and down between Billy’s legs, and he swallowed Billy’s sudden moan as Gus grasped warm denim and hard dick in his hand.
"Fuck," Billy whispered, a hiss between clenched teeth, sibilant tongue, and he stumbled back as Gus pushed forward, stumbled back up against the clapboard wall again. Gus kissed him again, pushing his tongue into Billy’s mouth, and everything was cold, everything was freezing except the inside of Billy’s mouth and the heat between his legs, where Gus’s hand worked feverishly, rubbing hard. Billy started to moan steadily, his hips jerking, and then he pushed Gus away and looked at him, irises large and dark, lips red and wet, and he wasn’t even breathing hard as he ran a hand over his own bristled cheeks and jerked his head towards the door. "Bunsy gone?"
Gus was breathing hard though, harsh and ragged, like he’d just run twenty kilometers, and his hands were shaking and he didn’t trust his voice, but he nodded and turned and walked to the door like he was in control, like everything was under control.
Until they were through the door and Billy touched him again, hands on his arms and chest pressing against his back, and Gus could feel Billy’s dick again, hard against his ass. He moaned, turning, and pulled Billy into his arms again. Billy’s mouth fastened on his, and they pulled at each other’s clothing, peeling off heavy coats and sweaters, shedding shirts and thermals and t-shirts, and Gus reached behind his neck to unbutton the collar and Billy stopped him, "no, no, no, leave it on," whispered in his ear. Gus shivered, and nodded, and wrapped his arms around Billy, resting his forehead against the ball of his shoulder, then used his tongue to follow the hard muscle down Billy’s arm to his tattoo, sinking his teeth in. Billy smiled and shivered in turn, but he didn’t stop undoing the buttons on Gus’s trousers, and when he was done he pushed the trousers down Gus’s legs.
And then Billy was taking charge again, shoving and pushing and pulling until he had Gus in front of the sofa, and then down on the sofa. Gus lay back in the muddle of blankets he’d left earlier, and watched as Billy stepped back and shucked his own trousers, torn black canvas that had seen better days. Gus could really see him now, all of him, pale skin over a jungle of hard muscle, flushed face and chest, aroused genitals jutting dark from a thatch of brown hair. Gus reached for him, open handed, reaching, reaching, and Billy came to him, smiling, always smiling. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," Billy whispered, grinning, and then he was falling to his knees, spreading Gus’s thighs, and Gus’s dick was in his mouth. Billy was sucking and swallowing, one hand working Gus and the other his own dick, and Gus’s head fell back with a shout.
"Ah, god, Billy—"
"Missed you," Billy whispered, looking up at him through blue, blue eyes, and went back to working him with mouth and hand, and Gus twisted fingers in his hair, stiff with dried sweat and gel. He missed Billy, too—missed you, missed you, miss you—missed the noise and the music, which were sometimes one and the same, and the pissy attitude in the mornings and defiant glare he sometimes threw in Gus’s direction. The skittishness and the passion, the dirty laugh and the way he sometimes got, late at night, when his voice got soft and low, and he smiled up at Gus through his lashes, talking about everything and anything, almost as if he were telling the truth. “—I love him, loved him, like I’ve never loved anyone—”
And Gus laughed, his laugh high and breathless, giddy, tortured, and he spread his legs and pulled Billy’s head down, feeding him dick, feeling his cock slide against the roof of Billy’s mouth and into the back of his throat. Billy was swallowing, and Gus could feel his balls tighten up and his hips started to thrust frantically, to push in, in, in, and then Billy’s mouth was gone, the warm, wet suction was gone, and Gus groaned.
Billy sat back, his hair slipping away between Gus’s grasping fingers, and Gus gasped an apology as Billy wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, grinning. He climbed up into Gus’s lap, sliding sweat-drenched arms and legs around him, and Gus groaned again and pulled him in and down, grinding up against him, frantic with lust.
"Shut up and fuck me," Billy groaned, and Gus could feel his dick sliding against his belly. "God damn it, just fuck me alrea—" and he groaned, Billy’s head fell back and he moaned as Gus penetrated him with two fingers. They ought to have lube, he really should be using lube, except that Gus couldn’t wait, couldn’t take the time to stop and find the tube, couldn’t wait one more minute to be inside him. Billy was panting, open-mouthed, and working himself on Gus’s fingers, and he moaned when Gus added a third.
Billy shook his head, and then nodded, and then groaned. "Fuck, stop fucking around, Gus, and just—"
And Gus pulled his fingers out and reached down between their bellies to grab his dick and guide it in. Tight, god, it was tight, and then Billy moaned and pushed down, and something inside him relaxed and let Gus in. He looked down at Gus and Gus could see the heat in his eyes, the fire that always burned close to the surface, and Billy was grinning again, leaning down and kissing him, biting and licking. He started to ride Gus’s dick, lifting himself up and sinking back down again, slow, slow, and Gus tightened his grip on Billy’s hips, fingers digging into the flexing muscles as Billy laughed softly above him.
He let Billy set the rhythm—and it was like the first time, just like the first time—until he thought he’d lose his mind with the need to move—shitty little bar in Montréal, four o’clock in the morning—and he rolled them over, flipped Billy onto his back—blue, blue eyes, hot blue eyes—Billy’s ankles over his shoulders—they stayed in that hotel room for days, talking and fucking—and Gus returned the favor, riding him faster and faster—"Fuck me—"—until Billy was laughing—"—gotta get back to LA—"—smiling, smiling, goddamn him, that smile—"You live on a fucking island in the middle of nowhere, Gus—"—and Gus was crazy with it now, blood and heat and need—"I’m sorry, Mr. Tallent isn’t available at the moment. May I take a message?"—and he couldn’t keep it going, couldn’t keep the rhythm—and he was sobbing, and Billy was moving under him, rocking up into every thrust and, god, he was dying, he was dying, he was coming…
Bless me Father, for I have sinned, sinned, sinned…
Silence. Except it was never really silent, there was always the sound of the sea. The blanket he had collapsed onto was wet underneath him. His hand was down the front of his pants, the back of his wrist raw, abraded where the teeth in his zipper had scraped back and forth against his hand. There was mud on his boots, drying now and caking off in clumps.
He could still smell fried bacon.
And he turned his face away, and closed his eyes, felt the wetness on his cheeks. He imagined the bed dipping and the warmth of a body that wasn’t there, and he rolled into sweet arms that wrapped tight around him. Billy was talking, Billy was whispering, and Gus buried his face in the curve of his neck, and tried to focus. Billy was saying something about end of the tour, and down time, and sticking around for a few weeks, and Gus was so, so tired—it felt like he hadn’t slept in a long, long time—and he felt the ache in his throat and tried to talk around it, tried to say "that’s great, Billy, that’s great" but he couldn’t get the words from his heart to his mouth. And Billy was laughing—grinning, grinning—and kissing him, and the last thing Gus remembered was Billy telling him to go to sleep.