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live in hope

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The desert is strewn with trash from generations of inhabitants, military testing, spaceships from earth and other planets -- chemicals leaching into the air, the water, the earth. Alex’s brothers used to take out metal detectors and turn up old broken bits of artillery, bullets, a few coins. His mom would drive them out to the desert, set them loose, and tip her seat all the way back in the dry New Mexico heat with the all the doors flung wide open to let the breeze in. Once or twice a rancher came along to run them off the property and they’d stop when they caught sight of her, her long hair blowing in whip-like tangles, one leg trailing out of the driver’s door.

He and Michael poke around the old mines, looking for -- Alex doesn’t know what, exactly. Alien technology or giant glowing pods or a map of the stars. The holy grail, Atlantis, a city of gold. They’re probably breathing in all kinds of poison oxides that will riddle their lungs with tumors in a couple of decades -- Alex’s, Michael is probably immune to earthly things like cancer -- still half-convinced they’ll live forever, ignoring that earth could collapse around them at any minute. As a kid he was a sunshine baby, hated going underground and into the dark; as an adult he finds he likes poking around old lava tubs, shimmying through narrow passages in the sandstone. There’s a whole world down there, buried deep in the earth. Once his brothers convinced him to wedge himself in a crevice among tightly packed stalagmites and he got stuck, his narrow ribcage holding him fast. Coaxing and pleading and yelling made it worse, Alex increasingly panicked, but once they’d left to get their mom, he found his breath made him small and slippery like an eel and he popped out into a huge cavern, dark and lit as if from within. His voice carried.

“How’d you get out?” asks Michael.

“I got out on my own,” says Alex. He found a breeze and followed the cool air up and out into the stars. He climbed down to the car and fell asleep in the back seat, waiting for his family to find him.

When he thinks of Michael’s search for his family among the stars, Alex feels as though his breath is being stolen from him, as if a fist has plunged into his chest and is keeping his heart from doing its vital work of keeping him alive. He can barely, haltingly, put what he feels for Michael into words in his own mind. Kyle tells him that helping Michael is just more proof of Alex’s masochism. The truth is he cannot not help Michael, because to keep him against his will would be to kill him.

It’s still daylight when they emerge, the sky striped through with pink-orange clouds. The ground at the mouth of the mine is littered with fragments of rock, some shot through with stripes of silver, and smooth black stones. His brothers used to make him count to fifty for hide-and-seek, then melt away into the shadows, into caves he couldn’t see and plateaus he couldn’t reach, leaving him alone. He remembers searching for what felt like hours, tireless like a some kind of hunting hound, until his mom sent him out to look for bits of black obsidian to make into jewelry. They would keep the fragments, so polished and a black they seemed to absorb all the light in the room, in a jar on the counter. After she left his dad dumped them out in the backyard. Michael picks up one of the smooth stones and thumbs it over, like a worry talisman.

“Beer?” says Michael. Alex thinks he means should they stop on the way back, but then Michael pulls a sixer from behind the passenger seat. He seems stilted and a bit shy, so unlike himself that Alex is reaching for a beer before he thinks better of it. He examines the label: Extraterrestrial Pale Ale, brewed in Roswell, New Mexico. It’s lukewarm and the label has a little green alien wearing a ten-gallon hat riding a giant rocket. The resemblance is undeniable. Alex has a six pack in his own fridge, collecting dust because once he bought it, he wasn’t sure Michael would laugh. It’s hard to know now how much is too fast or too much or not enough, how much fumbling around in the dark he can do before he falls off a cliff of his own making. He’s constantly tearing open carefully scabbed-over wounds and side-stepping hidden traps. Every day he rips down a wall only to have it spring up again before his eyes, in the next breath. It is as though he’s carving an immense castle into granite with nothing more than a handaxe. To open up that shadowed room of his heart, to fill that dusty, disused shed with light, is akin to belief in magic. He lives with the constant weight of letting Michael down, of not being worthy of Michael’s faith. The work of transformation is exhausting.

Michael is blushing, Alex can see the red of his neck and ears as Michael digs into the cargo box, pulling up folds of woolen blankets. “Wow,” says Alex, as the pieces click together in his painfully slow mortal brain. Michael standing in the refrigeration aisle at the grocery store thinking about Alex, about making him smile, the way Alex thinks about him. He heaves himself into the bed of the truck, curls his hands into the blanket, watches Michael settle himself gingerly, like a horse ready to bolt. It’s weird but he never thought of Michael as capable of embarrassment. “Brings back memories.”

Michael raises his eyebrows. “To the good times.” He gives a jaunty salute with his beer, but he’s looking down. There weren’t many. And still Alex held onto that summer, cherished it, reveling in the memory of the golden light against Michael’s hair, of his hands dragging over Alex’s hips, would chase the faint reminder of his scent.

When Alex showed up at the autoyard during Rosa’s wake, he’d had a speech planned, prepared apologies and accusations that ran off endlessly, ready for Michael to scream at him or tell him to get lost, but he hadn’t done any of that. Michael had looked at him, slightly unfocused, and let Alex touch his neck and shoulders and face. They curled up in the bed of Michael’s truck under ratty blankets and sleeping bags, tarps strapped down with bungee cords, and Alex held Michael as he trembled, cradling his ruined hand. Their breaths were loud under the tarps and the wind outside made unsettling, scraping sounds whipping over the plastic. Michael’s hair smelled dirty and sour, like grease and sweat and fear, but he was warm and he tucked his face under Alex’s chin, so Alex could feel Michael’s breath over his heart. His fist clenched in Alex’s shirt.

In his memory, they didn’t kiss that night, but they must have, because in those early days he couldn’t get enough of Michael, of his mouth and skin. He was wild with it, with the wanting and the having. Michael would drop by the museum at closing and they’d press up against each other just inside the emergency exit or he’d climb into Michael’s truck just as the sun was setting, drenching everything in a golden-red and they’d park on some dusty farm-to-market road so Alex could crawl across the cab into Michael’s arms. Michael was a marvel to him, how warm and soft he was, how eager, his hands on Alex, the shape of his body and his smooth skin. He would kiss Alex breathless and dumb, over and over again, and Alex let him, because he couldn’t bear to lose him.

Michael also has snacks: a clamshell of queso fresco and fresh tortillas he must’ve picked up from vendors at the gas station on their way out of town. Alex didn’t even notice. As a kid he used to butter charred tortillas and stuff them full fresh cheese; he’d eat eight or nine at a time when he got home from school, standing over the open flame of the stove. Now he lives off frozen burritos and microwavable meals. He never learned to cook as a kid and now he can’t be bothered. Alex breaks off a piece of cheese and stuffs it into a tortilla. It’s so good, salty and creamy, even better than he remembered. One of the things you talk about when you’re deployed is food: mom’s black beans or grandma’s burnt rice, dad’s seven-hour basted ribs, the specific sweet-acid-heat of the salsa roja at the place down the street from your high school. “I used to dream about this,” he tells Michael.

Michael looks at him. “Me too,” he says, heavy, and Alex swallows. You think you’re going to come back changed, that time and distance and the slow grinding of life will make a difference, but you’re just the same idiot kid you were ten years ago, when the best afternoon he could imagine was sitting in Michael’s truck in the middle of the desert, watching the shadows grow longer around them. Some things are hardwired.

He moves very slowly, feeling like he’s dragging against a sudden undertow, and Michael meets him halfway, opening his mouth. It’s almost strange, after all those years of longing, of cramming everything into each stolen encounter, preparing for it to be the last time, to kiss Michael like a normal person, like they have all the time in the universe. To feel Michael’s warmth and his dry lips, to kiss him deliberately. To relearn the shape of him, unhurried and unharried. When he told Michael he wanted to know him, he meant normal stuff: his family, his past, his dreams, his standard hangover breakfast order. But he also meant this: the taste of his skin and the soft sounds he makes when Alex has time to memorize them. He wants to listen.

Alex lets Michael drag him into his lap, settling with his knees bracketing Michael’s hips, so he can touch Michael’s chest, kissing him soft and open-mouthed. So he can duck down to the plane of Michael’s sternum and the thin skin of his neck. The rough scrape of Michael’s beard against his cheek and lips. Michael tastes beery and warm, like himself, like home, like a leap of faith.

The blankets look familiar. One, slate-blue with a orange stripe lightning bolting across it, used to occupy the back of the sofa in Alex’s childhood home. “Tell me you’ve washed these since high school,” says Alex, pained.

“Once or twice,” says Michael, skimming his hands up Alex’s sides, lifting his head to be kissed. He’s smiling. This ease is new, the pauses where Alex comes back to himself, to his body, to the present, to Michael reaching for him.

Alex presses Michael down on his back. The wool smells of rust and oil and laundry detergent. He rubs his nose against Michael’s and presses his thigh between Michael’s legs. “Thought you might get lucky, huh?” he says. He touches Michael’s hips and stomach and Michael pushes up against him. He’s still a marvel to Alex.

“I live in hope,” says Michael. His smile is slow and his eyes are heavy-lidded. A flush creeps across his collarbone, across his neck. He looks happy. Alex wants him so badly he aches with it, with the childishness of the baby of the family: he wants him and he wants to never let him go, for any reason. He wants him for keeps.

Everything takes longer now, in this new normal. There’s more to negotiate, more patience to extend for their scars, their baggage. He feels clumsier now, with the weight of it, the wanting. The having. Alex lifts himself up on one elbow and Michael meets his gaze, mouth open, lifting up to pull Alex back. When he was a kid, he could barely stand to look at Michael when he touched him, afraid of what he’d see. He lets himself rest his forehead against Michael’s when he touches him, kissing his face, his cheeks, the bone of his jaw. Watching Michael’s eyes close and swallowing his low, soft sounds. Michael draws him close as though he wants to climb inside Alex, his arms pulling the breath out of Alex’s body, tight across Alex’s shoulders. Michael’s breath goes ragged; he tries to capture Alex’s mouth against his and ends up just breathing against his chin, coming quietly, shaking apart and letting Alex soothe him.

Michael holds Alex by the low curve of his back and lets Alex grasp his face, fingers smoothing over his cheeks and mouth. Alex trembles, his body warm and liquid, shimmering like a hot summer day. He would let Michael do anything he wanted. The truth is Alex has always seen stars when Michael kissed him, has always been stuck dumb and in love when Michael touched him. He doesn’t know how to do anything else.

When they were kids, they’d lie against each other, staring at each other, sweat cooling, until they were freezing. It always felt like a battle of wills, the first one to move away breaking the moment, and they’d both fold back up inside of themselves. A game of chicken they both lost. Alex dreaded it. Bracing for the loss was almost worse than the privation, like uselessly sandbagging a tent against a tsunami. Knowing the force of it will cut you down. Now they straighten themselves up, Alex lifting off Michael’s body, away from his closeness but not his warmth, and he leans his knee against Michael’s, drying out. They sit side by side, Michael close enough to smell, animal and alive. Michael’s belt hangs open and his hair is wild, sticking up all over the place, insane cowlicks poking up everywhere.

Michael opens another beer. Alex’s is half-empty and flat. He drinks it anyway. He traces one hand against Michael’s arm, feeling the strength of him. He tells himself anything could happen, that Alex could get blown up or hit by a truck or shot in the head, that Michael might never figure it out -- but he knows in his bones, in his cells, in whatever the spark is that keeps him alive to love and lose and grieve, that Michael will. Imagining Michael leaving is like imagining the death of the sun: impossible, unfathomable, inevitable. When it happens, it will blot out all meaning; Alex’s world will cease to exist. The universe will expand on, indifferent. “Hey,” says Alex. His voice sounds fragile, tissue-paper.

“Waiting for that other shoe,” says Michael. He can feel Michael’s eyes on him. Measuring. Not everyone gets a happy ending. They both know that. There is a part of Alex that hopes this whole thing will fall apart, that knows the whole thing is combustible and lies in wait with flint and steel.

“Yeah.” Alex is unmoored, like a crab outgrown its shell, vulnerable and newly-pink, huddling against the vast ocean. Allowing himself a spark of hope, to see the coming constellations instead of the setting sun, can be terrifying, strange, almost worse than fearful apprehension. Dread can become its own comfort. It makes its own gravity, becomes its own suffocating force. The stars begin to wink to life in the east, twinkling in the deep purple-pink as the sun recedes. Michael’s knee is warm against his. He touches Michael’s hand, the knobs of his knuckles, where the skin is thin and dry. Michael lets out one long, shaking breath.

Tiny wildflowers grow up out of the brush like sunbursts: the hardiest species coming up after a long drought when everything else is burned out and dead. Turning their faces to the sun, unfurling their roots. Worth the wait.

“Hold this.” Michael reaches for the bottle; Alex holds it to his chest, protective. “Not like that,” he says, his voice thick with a tremor. He swallows down the fear. Michael freezes, gaze flickering from Alex’s face to the bottle. Alex holds his breath, unsteadiness in his stomach that he’s overstepped, damaged this fragile thing before it’s had time to root.

Michael’s eyes change, soft focused like he’s somewhere else. Alex feels a tug, not like a push or a pull but like a lift, and it takes some internal coaching to get his hand to release. The beer floats between them, a little unsteady, the dumb bug-eyed alien disappearing out of view.

There is a difference between what you know is a special effect on screen and paying witness to actual magic. He has seen it before, but never born it. The body knows. It gives testimony. The bottom drops out of Alex’s stomach, like he’s rushing down a roller coaster or free falling out of a plane. Alex reaches up, tentative, circling his hand around the bottle forward and back, top and bottom, checking. Michael rolls his eyes. Checking for what, he doesn’t know. The strings, the man behind the curtain. Nothing but air. Just Michael. Alex feels faintly ill and awed, like he did the first time he peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon to survey the sheer rock face, the dizzying drop. Bursting out of a narrow crevice, his chest aching, into a wide subterranean cathedral. Some things are beyond human comprehension, beyond what Alex’s dumb earthbound brain understands. Time, space, the universe, falling in love. Anything is possible.

“Cool,” Alex says, barely a breath.

Michael’s brow is furrowed in concentration, but his face lights up in delight, radiant. “Yeah?” he says, like tell me again. Rarely is Alex given the opportunity to watch Michael’s face without being watched himself. Michael’s pleasure is easy to share, expansive and catching, like a firework, like a spark on a dry prairie. Explosive. He’s easy to love. The bottle wobbles a little, then rights itself. Michael’s face has creased into smirk. “So cool,” says Alex, giddy with it. The improbability.

“I try,” says Michael, taking deep hits off his own overblown ego. Alex wants to kiss him again, taste his joy. Breathe him in.

The bottle rotates like a top, angling with centrifugal force. A little loop. Showing off. Alex studies him for a second, his barely-buttoned in smile, his hair blowing into his eyes. He pinches Michael’s side, quick like a rattlesnake striking. Three things happen almost simultaneously: Michael flinches, yelping; the bottle overturns as it drops, spilling lukewarm beer all over Alex’s lap; and Alex catches it before it can shatter. “Needs some work,” says Alex. He sets the bottle down, gentle. First there was nothing. Then: light. A miracle. Michael himself is proof.

“Nice reflexes,” says Michael. He dips his head down, watching Alex between his lashes. Alex knows that look.

“I’ve got you,” says Alex, leaning over the rest of the way to kiss Michael, taking his time.