You suppose you would have brought him there sometime of your own accord, and perhaps you did. You took him to the woods on an unseasonably warm day, when the living stayed inside and sweated and the sun was brighter than you thought you'd ever seen it, you who spent your whole life in the rainy valley of Roarton and died in the darkness there. You let him hold your hand and told him to lead. I don't know the way, he said, and you said, That's all right, I won't get lost, and perhaps you knew that somehow Simon would bring you to the cave.
“Will you tell me about him?” he asks tentatively, the candlelight casting his shadow over the words you know are there: REN + RICK 4EVER. “About Rick Macy?”
You are sitting in the spot where you died, and you haven't spoken a word since you led him in here. You had hesitated at the entrance, and he had gripped the back of your neck hard. “Kieren,” he had murmured. “You're okay,” and you really weren't, but you thought you could be close enough for him.
“This is a place you need to see,” you had said, and walked down the narrow passage, his hand pressing hard at the small of your back. You trailed your fingers down the wall and felt your way to the old familiar alcove, retrieving the matches there and lighting candle after candle, banishing as much of the darkness as you could. You were conscious of Simon taking everything in, and you felt anxious and exposed, as if Simon would read your whole history here, and judge you for it.
Instead he asks you a question, and it catches you strangely off guard. Did you come here to talk about Rick? His ghost is everywhere in these walls, but your ghost is everywhere, too, and you wonder whether Simon can see the afterimage of your body bleeding out on this floor. You wonder why he's standing so far away from you instead of touching you to offer you comfort, but you know why: your relationship is built on you kissing him and him wanting to kiss you, on him giving you what you want and taking what you give him. He is looking at you cautiously, alert to your well-being, asking you about his rival. This is not the first time you have thought he deserves more.
So you tell him about Rick Macy, because he asked you to, and because you don't know what else to do with the knowledge that they are both by now a part of you, fighting for control of your dead heart.
“Rick and I first came here when we were twelve,” you begin. Simon is sitting where your mother sat months ago, but his knees are pulled up to his chest, and his arms are clasped around them. “It was his fault we were wandering around in the woods, which we were definitely not supposed to be doing. When we were younger, our friendship ran on him doing stupidly reckless things to show off to me, and me making sure we didn't get caught. So he decided we should explore the woods, and I kept us from getting lost. And I said we shouldn't go out there, it was dangerous, and all that, but I wanted to do all the stupid things he wanted us to do, and we both knew it. When we were twelve, I thought Rick Macy was the bravest person I knew. I thought he made me brave.
“We come across this big hole in the rock, and he says, Ren, let's check it out, and I say, you're mental, and we check it out, and it's....it's amazing. It's perfect. Right away it was our place, and we knew it; we didn't know what we knew, but we knew it. We snuck a bunch of candles out of our houses, and non-perishable foods, biscuits and candy and stuff. When we were thirteen, we taught ourselves to build a fire, but then one day I kind of fell into it—which was predictable—and got this nasty burn on my stomach that I couldn't tell anybody about, and it took forever to heal. Let's see...one time we smoked pot, which was miserable, and I put my foot down on doing it again. I watched Dead Poets Society when we were fifteen, so for a while we read poetry out here, but neither of us was really into it.”
Simon makes an involuntary annoyed face at the implied slight against poetry, which is why you threw that in there. You grin at him; he rolls his eyes. You feel an overwhelming rush of fondness for him, and for the fact that you are neither of you children. You have never in your lives strung together so many words about Rick, who was always too precious and too forbidden to talk about to other people, and yet here you are, talking about your dead lover to your undead lover, because you are not thirteen or fifteen or eighteen anymore. You were always walled off in the darkness of your head, but now you have someone to follow back into the light.
“We mostly just talked, though. We talked for hours. About, you know. The things you talk about with someone you think is going to be yours for the rest of your life. After a while it felt like this was the only place we talked. I was banned from the Macy house, and my parents didn't say anything, obviously, but they got pretty uncomfortable about Rick and me, and Rick made his jock friends hang out with me, but of course they hated me and Rick got different around them. Talking about girls and strutting everywhere like he owned the place. The way people do. But I stuck with him because he was Rick, and he was always Rick when we were here. After a while this was the only place I let myself touch him. We weren't even doing anything. Everyone knew about us, about me, and it's not like I was even getting anything out of it. I mean, I was his closest friend, I knew he cared about me, and when we were out here, he was more...he touched me more, in a plausibly deniable sort of way. But we weren't—I mean, I spent years, literally years trying to figure out if he liked me like that and changing my mind twice a day. I went back and forth so many times on whether it was platonic when he put our names on the wall.”
You point, and Simon cranes his neck back to look at Rick's handwriting again, and suddenly you cannot bear that he is sitting so patiently so far from you. “Come here,” you say desperately, and Simon turns to you and hesitates, so you say it again, and he does. He crawls to you across the rock and looms over you, unsure where to touch. You don't move; you will him to, this once, touch you like he's sure you won't push him away. You end up sitting side by side, his strong arms wrapped around you and your head on his shoulder, the firelight flickering over REN + RICK 4EVER, and your voice cracks for the first time when you say without planning to say it,
“Christ, I loved him so much....”
There is a moment when you mean both of them, or all of them, even—your sister, your parents, your dead best friend—and then the moment breaks, and you remember what it was like to love no one but one person, not even yourself.
“He was everything, he was my whole world. I gave him everything he ever asked for. I asked him to move to London with me. I was going to go to school and he was going to get a job working with kids or something and we were going to get a flat together and fucking buy a cat. He put his arm around my shoulders and wrote that on the wall and, and stroked my hair, and I thought I was so happy I was going to die....”
And you did. And you feel a helpless, horrified bitterness deep inside you, all of the old pain and fear but in a different light. “Fuck him,” you say, and Simon's arms tighten around you.
“Don't say that,” he says, the first time he's spoken since you started talking.
“Why not?” you say, your voice starting to tremble. “He was a coward.”
“He wasn't a coward,” Simon insists. “He was young.”
“Don't tell me he didn't know what he was doing,” you say. You pull away from Simon, but he keeps a hand on your arm, digging his fingers in; you think it would be hard enough to bruise. “We got drunk after graduation, and he brought me here and kissed me, and, he jerked me off, okay, and I didn't even get to touch him, and that was my first time and he knew it, and he said, Oh, see you tomorrow, Ren, and the next day he was gone—he was already on his way to basic training, which he hadn't told me about. He left me here,” and you can feel yourself getting hysterical, you spent so long hating yourself for what happened to Rick and you don't want to do it anymore. You want to hate him for hurting you all along, for not sticking up for you at school or holding your hand or telling you you're incredible, Rick did it, it was Rick, you deserved better, surely you did.
“You're better to me than he ever was,” you say.
Simon flinches hard and says, “It's not a competition.”
“Yeah, it is,” you say. “I can either pick you and decide I'm actually worth a damn, or I can love him and stay in this cave for the rest of my life, which is what I did the first time. He did that to me. He found this place and kept everything real about us here and kissed me and screwed me and literally wrote it in fucking stone that we were gonna be together forever. And then he went and died, and what was I supposed to do, huh? Where was I supposed to go? He trapped me here, he killed me—”
“No, you did that,” Simon says, and you blink at him in surprise. His voice is sharp, his expression focused: you have, apparently, struck a nerve.
He says, “Rick Macy didn't kill you. He was a kid. He had no one to teach him how to be different. What do you expect from him? You were teenagers, and what, you're holding it against him that he didn't kiss you in front of this whole backwards town? That he didn't stick up for you to his father? Because from what I understand, he did, it just took him a while to get there. It's not his fault—it's not yours either, you got fucked over, both of you. But, Kieren, I didn't know him, but I can promise you, Rick Macy didn't ask you to die for him.”
You are taken aback: Simon, who has been so sweet and careful ever since you kissed him, is calling you out. He is not telling you you're incredible; he is not silently longing for you to touch him. He is criticizing you and disagreeing and refusing to let you get away with defaming Rick Macy, whom he has never met. And you feel...oh.
You feel relieved. In the face of his anger, yours just bleeds out of you; you know he's right, or sort of right, but it feels overwhelmingly good not to carry the burden of making Rick's excuses. Simon will do that for you, you can talk to him, and suddenly you kind of want to cry with relief, because sometimes you secretly, uneasily wondered whether you hadn't made a mistake about Simon: he'd been so purposeful and challenging when you met him, before he started deferring to you at every turn. But here he is. He's the charismatic disciple you fell for in the first place, and he's a massive dork in an oversized jumper, and for the first time, you genuinely believe the two of you might have a future.
Regret is creeping onto his face, so you lean forward and raise your hand to his cheek. “Keep going,” you plead.
His hand slowly rises to mirror yours, touching your face lightly. “I'm not gonna be part of a love triangle, I don't want to do that. I don't want to fight Rick Macy for you, I'm never gonna ask you to take that painting down or stop visiting his grave, okay? And if you think when I was telling you that you're important, that you have nothing to be ashamed of, that you're fantastic— if you think that was just some seduction technique....It's just the truth , Kieren, and you sound like, like you think you have to be with me to believe that, and you don't. And neither do I,” he says, and he stops suddenly. He looks surprised at himself.
“I, uh,” he goes on. “I have a tendency to...get swept along by things, by people. Because when you don't give a damn about yourself, you might as well just go along for the ride. But I don't want to be that person anymore. Look, when I think about you dying, I can't...I can hardly stand it, I want to...I would rather be rabid than have to keep going without you. But I would. I swear to God, if you died tomorrow, I would keep going, because I love your family, and there are people I love that I want to see again, and because out of the whole fucked-up shitstorm that was the ULA I did learn that we, people, every one of us, are important. That I deserve to live, even if a lot of days I have no fucking clue why. And, Kieren, you must believe something like that, because Rick Macy died twice, and you're still here.”
“My mum,” you say. “She followed me here. She told me to live.”
Your quiet, private mother had followed you here and broken herself open for you and cut her way through your pain; she had brought you back. You had cherished a small secret hope that everything would be better for you after that, but it wasn't: you were still afraid, and you remembered every day why you had wanted to disappear. But you didn't leave again—not even for France. You couldn't anymore.
You had thought, the first time, that death would be the end of it, but there had turned out to be so much left for you to do. You still had to hug your father and be Amy's best friend and save those two rabids and sit in the waiting room during your sister's therapy appointments. You still had to look at your reflection in your bathroom mirror and smile. And you did. You did it without him, you did it with all your pain still with you. Your mother had told you it would get better, and you hoped it would, and it didn't, and now. Gradually.
You say, “I did live, and then I met you.”
“It's not about me,” he says, and you say, “I know,” and kiss him.
Or that's what you start to do, but he kisses you first. Your eyebrows go up, and you kiss him back like you're starving for it, and this is it, this is what you came here for: Simon straddling your lap, pushing you against the wall Rick pushed you against, stripping off his jumper and pulling your hands to the scar on his back you are always careful not to touch. He's melting against your body like he wants to disappear inside it. You have a moment of vertigo where it feels like you're dissolving into each other, but Simon pulls back, to your relief: you are two separate bodies again, you can see his face.
“Can I—” he says, tugging urgently at your shirts. You pull off your jacket and both your overshirts and your T-shirt; you have never been this bare in front of him before. He makes a soft, yearning noise and kisses your throat, your collarbone, your shoulder. You want him to keep going, and oh, God, he does: he laces his fingers with yours and lifts your arm to his mouth and kisses your scar fervently, tracing it with his tongue. You run the fingers of your free hand along the deep gouge in his back and think, you're so beautiful, you're so beautiful, and you don't realize you're saying it aloud until he utters a choked cry and buries his face against your shoulder.
You sling your arm around his neck and press your mouth to his ear and say, “Tell me what you want, tell me, Simon, I'll do anything.”
He shudders against you and breathes, “I want to see all of you,” and you whimper. You push him back enough that you can fumble with your trousers, and he tries to help you, but his trembling hands are just getting in the way, and finally you give up and say, “No, no, stop, back up.”
You're not expecting him to stand up completely and smirk down at you while he slowly unbuckles his belt and pulls it off. You lose track of what your hands are doing and gape at him as he undresses, shoes then socks then trousers, until he is standing naked in front of you, tall and luminous and determined. You have never seen another naked human being before. You are staring at him, and it feels as if time is collapsing: you have died and are not dead, you are looking at his gorgeous body, you are desperate for what he will do to you, REN + RICK 4EVER is on the wall behind him.
“Kieren,” he says raggedly, and you push off the rest of your clothes as fast as you can, but your trousers get hopelessly tangled on your shoes in your haste, and Simon grins fondly at you swearing in frustration. He kneels down and undoes your shoelaces efficiently, holds each ankle in his hand in turn as he takes off your shoes and socks and tosses them against the far wall into the pile of his own clothes. When your feet are bare, he gets a mischievous gleam in his eyes and bends to kiss your foot. “My lord,” he says gravely, and you burst out laughing. He smiles at you as he pulls off your pants and trousers the rest of the way, and at the sight of his smile your breath catches in your throat. You don't need your breath at all, of course, but it acts the way it always has: your body remembers. Your heart still flutters, your stomach still clenches, you still feel dizzy and aching, at the sight of a boy smiling at you in this cave.
You can't say how long it lasts. You are hyper-aware that this is sex, but not as the living mean it. When you masturbated, when you were with Rick—your first and only time—sex was linear: desire, erection, ejaculation; done; repeat. But you can't get hard anymore, so there's nothing to aim for, nowhere to go. You just are, you just do. Everywhere feels the same in your dead flesh, everywhere is equally available: Simon's mouth on your knee, your ribs, your nose; your fingers running over his hips and teeth and calves. There is no direction. There is the two of you rolling together on the stony ground; the hard, glorious drag of his skin against yours; his hands turning you over, pulling you open. He is gasping nonsense into your mouth, a litany of devotion against your palms and the curve of your spine, and you are shocked at how vocal you are, your helpless cries echoing all around you. At some point your outflung arm knocks over a few of the candles, and the image is frozen in your memory of the precise change of light over Simon's rapturous expression, the shadows licking up the arch of his neck, the inhuman whiteness of his eyes. You are furiously hungry for the sight and smell and taste of him, an exquisitely painful hunger that multiplies even as he slides between your thighs, as you bite and kiss the insides of his wrists, as his weight presses you into the ground, his hands pinning your hands, so that when you push up there is just him all around you, holding you still. You are feeling sensations no human can feel, your bodies neither numb nor quite awake, suspended between the memory of touch and the unnatural, unfolding dimensions of your existence: indescribable, unspeakable, ineffable.
You don't believe in God, but Simon does, and for the first time, you're considering the possibility. You don't know what else to call this feeling of being so connected, to Simon, Rick, your family, the universe, yourself. You wonder how living people can stand to feel like this—you think if your blood could beat, it would beat right out of your veins. And perhaps, once, it did.
But you are not that person anymore—you have remade yourself, you have been remade.
Simon is lying on top of you so you can stroke his back. You're both breathing deep and evenly, not quite in unison. Time is running forward again, but you are in no hurry.
“I've never...,” Simon says quietly. He tips his head back to look you in the eye; you see the same wonder in him that is flowing through you. “I've never felt like this before,” he confesses.
“Me neither,” you say, just as softly. He furrows his brow, and you realize what he meant was, I love you. “It was different,” you clarify. “Maybe we could have gotten here. I don't know. I'd like to think we could have.”
“I'm sorry you didn't,” he says.
“Yeah,” you say. “But I'm here now.”
He says, “I'm sorry for him.”
You close your eyes. You think you love him. It's not what you thought love was, but you don't know what else to call it.
You sit up, and Simon goes with you. You sit in his lap and cup his face in your hands and press your foreheads together. “You're incredible,” you whisper. “Forget about Rick, forget about me, you're incredible. You're brave and kind and trusting and honest, and I don't tell you that enough, and if you don't know how amazing you are, then someone needs to be telling you, so. I am. I love you.” He jerks back, eyes wide, and you let him read the truth in your face. “I feel like...like you gave me the keys to myself and I'm finally becoming someone I always wanted to be. And I can never, ever thank you enough for that, because you saved me, you helped me save myself. And I'm scared, I'm so scared. Because this is all I've ever known about love, that it rips you up until you're dead, that it's about being terrified of losing whatever little bit of happiness you've managed to scrape up. I don't want to leave here and end up like that.”
“Kieren,” he says, taking your wrists and running his thumbs delicately along your scars. “I can promise you that when we walk out here, I'll still love you. Hell, we can go down to the Legion and I'll kiss you in front of God and everyone if that'll make you feel better.” You chuckle and he smiles at you.
“Yeah, no,” you say. “But, um. Maybe when Jem's around sometime. Baby steps.”
“Deal,” he says. The smile slips from his face. “But I won't promise you forever. I want to, God, Kieren, I want to spend the rest of eternity making you happy. But if I'm not enough for you, you have to leave me behind, and. Well. And vice versa.” You haven't seen him this intense since he was preaching to a crowd of followers. “Is that...right? Is that what you want?”
You nod. You kiss his temple chastely, and he closes his eyes; you kiss his forehead, his cheekbone, his jaw. You take your time with your next words, searching for exactly what you mean.
“What I want,” you say slowly, “is to wake up every day and go to you because I choose you, not because I can't live without you. And I want you to choose me again every day until you don't anymore. And then...and then I want us to be over.”
“Okay,” Simon says, wrapping an arm around your shoulders, stroking your hair. “Okay.”
Later you put your clothes back on and kiss some more, languid and ordinary. Simon breaks it off eventually and puts his hands on your chest. “Stay here,” he says, and at your raised eyebrows he elaborates, “I want to do something,” before jumping up and heading deeper into the cave.
“There's a Sharpie next to the matches,” you point out, and at his startled face add, “Trust me, a rock's not gonna work.”
“How did you—oh, fine,” Simon says. “It's the thing to do, I guess. Don't look.” You dramatically throw your arm over your eyes and flop onto your back, giggling at Simon's muttered, bloody ridiculous.
Lying on your back, listening to the sounds of Simon rummaging around, you let your mind circle back around to Rick. And it occurs to you that in all of the talking you've done here today, you've still hardly told Simon anything about him. You told him about you: who Rick was to you, how you felt about him, what you were together. You feel a stab of shame, layered over the old guilt of Rick's death and your part in it. Rick was a person, separate from you, and all you've told Simon is that Rick was your first love.
“I'm sorry,” you whisper aloud. You figure this place is as good as a grave.
“What for?” Simon asks from somewhere near your feet.
“Every wrong thing I've ever done.”
“Mm,” he says. “S'alright.” And you suppose, in the end, it is.
Someday you will tell Simon that Rick knew all the words to every Doors song and loved going to the station alone at night to watch the trains go by. You will talk about Rick's annual adventures at scout camp, and his gift for making children laugh, and the girl who was briefly his best friend once when the two of you were fighting—you think they kept in touch after she moved to Derbyshire. You close your eyes and think about Rick, Rick himself, Rick outside of this cave.
You give him back credit for his own lives and deaths, and you take credit for yours.
You remember him.
You feel the pressure of lips on yours and open your eyes to Simon's serious face. He opens his mouth, then closes it again and wordlessly offers you a hand. He pulls you up to stand at his side, your arm around his waist, and you look at what Simon has written on the wall:
SIMON + KIEREN FOR TODAY
“Is that all right?” he asks you nervously.
You look at Simon's tidy handwriting traced carefully in the space below Rick's. He's kept the same basic layout; you figure he just couldn't bring himself to use a 4. Rick's slanting scrawl dwarfs Simon's neat, compact words, which seems fitting: Rick's desperate eagerness, Simon's cautious hope. You are struck by amazement that all of these words have come together on this wall—Rick's name, Simon's name, your name twice over. You cannot believe that after the worst that could happen to you happened, you have still ended up here. You want to tell Simon what it feels like to see your past and your present on this wall and to glimpse a future in which you, Kieren Walker, will learn how to love and be loved.
“Yeah,” you manage. “It's all right.”
Night has fallen by the time you return to the mouth of the cave. Simon catches your hands and stops you there, and you're grateful. You think it very likely that you'll never come back here, and you want to linger just a little longer in this place that has held onto you so tightly.
“Thank you,” Simon says. “For bringing me here. For...for sharing yourself. With me.”
“I wanted to,” you say. “Thanks for letting me.”
“There are things I need to tell you. About my past. I haven't...gone into much detail, because....” He ducks his head, shuffles his feet. “I suppose I wasn't sure you'd want to hear it.”
You tip his chin up and look him in the eye. “I do,” you say. “Today, I do.”
“I know,” he says, and kisses you.
You think, Thank you, and you don't know whom you're thanking. But you think it again and again: Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are kissing your undead lover in the place where your dead lover brought you, and you are okay now, you are going to keep going. You don't believe in miracles, but you don't know what else to call it. Soon you will leave here forever, or at least for today. You will be born from darkness into darkness, and Rick's ghost will stay with you until you die again. You will clasp hands with Simon, whom you love, and you will say, Should we have brought a candle?, and he will say, No, I think we can make it, and somehow, together, you will find your way home.