It won’t rain.
That’s what the radio says, anyway, halfway across who-the-fuck-knows-where, though maybe it doesn’t, given the number of times that Rhys could swear he’s heard the Eagles in the last hour. Maybe it’s just what Rhys thinks, driving a cranky rental from the airport, as the sun sinks lower behind the mountains and he slides down, down, down into the basin on the other side. Maybe it’s something about the quality of the air — baked-dry and warm, even in the unreal light, just this side of green where it hits the clouds, and endless blue above — or maybe it’s just the feel of the place. It doesn’t rain here. If it did, Rhys thinks, it wouldn’t be the sort that he likes, anyway: brief and breaking, the sort of rain that cuts through the humidity of July like cleaning a window, leaving a certain chill and clarity in its wake. When it rains here, he thinks, and drums his fingers on the wheel, it’s just as harsh as everything else about this place. Brief desert bloom, brief sweetness of ozone, brief respite from the sun, and then it’s gone.
He’s tired. Rhys is tired, and probably he’s not being fair; it hasn’t been a fair sort of year. Almost halfway through the third quarter, and he probably isn’t going to get that promotion; sure, he’s put in the hours. Sure, he’s lost enough sleep. Sure, he’s had his eyes on Henderson’s corner office since his first walkthrough, as one of a half-dozen interns; sure, he had to ask where the coffee machine was, because he was paying more attention to the directory, the first time Vasquez cornered him at his desk and demanded sealed reports and a French Vanilla, in his office, in an hour. Sure, Rhys has bought enough coffees and enough business lunches and enough rounds of overpriced, overcompensating drinks for assholes with monogram cufflinks and Armani boxers and complexes about being good in bed. There’s no such thing as a free lunch at Hyperion, let alone a promotion based on merit; life isn’t fair. Rhys doesn’t feel like wasting his time covering for that kind of inherent deficit.
Anyway, the sun is going down, and Rhys has been driving for long enough that he could use a coffee, but he hasn’t seen a diner in miles, and he’s only got an hour to go, if the directions that he scrawled on a napkin — airport bar, ballpoint tearing through the paper, vodka rocks to blur out the endless monotony of taxiing and takeoff — are worth anything. If Rhys is lucky, he’ll get there before the sun sets entirely. He doesn’t want to think about driving through the desert at night. Even with the endless straight road ahead, and the complete lack of landscape on either side, there’s something unnerving about it, like a half-erased sketch, or chalk smeared on the pavement. There’s too much space, and nothing occupying it. The endless echoing yawn of the landscape, and its immutable emptiness: Rhys feels as if it could simply slam shut, a fault line correcting itself, and nobody would ever notice the difference.
Rhys feels, out here, as if he could disappear without a trace.
It’s too warm for him to shiver, even as he leans on the gas a little harder, and races the lengthening shadows across the valley, between the rocks. This is just one more thing he has to do, to get that office; this is just one more business trip, all creased clothes and travel-sized toothpaste and one carry-on bag thrown in the trunk. Rhys doesn’t have service out here. It’s kind of nice, actually, to have an excuse to ignore his email. We haven’t seen you since New Year’s; where’s that spreadsheet; why don’t these numbers add up. In order of increasing priority: once a year is plenty, he’s waiting on one last contract negotiation to finalize it, and if Rhys knew that, he wouldn’t be driving halfway across the middle of nowhere to find out.
The thing that nobody says about business — Hyperion business, anyway, the sort where a couple million is barely pocket change and nobody knows enough about what they’re doing to be held accountable — is that, more often than not, the numbers don’t add up. Rhys does numbers for a living. It might not be what he likes, and it definitely isn’t why he was hired, but he knows spreadsheets, and he knows data, and a lot of what he’s learned about Hyperion has had to do with when to look the other way, and when to trust the hands above him. That had been what Vasquez had said, the first time he’d pointed out a discrepancy. You’re a smart guy, huh, he’d said, and slapped Rhys on the back, a familiar sort of posturing. Thanks for bringing this to me. Let’s keep it between us, huh? No need to let this get any further.
Rhys isn’t stupid enough to trust the hierarchy. He’s met enough assholes with Ivy League diplomas and spineless handshakes to know that they aren’t even good enough to lie their way to the top. It’s just that he’s never had enough of a target on his back to spend time worrying about what happens to the numbers between the rows of the spreadsheet, swept under the rug and slipped into well-lined pockets. Rhys might be just one more number cruncher, at the end of the day, but it isn’t what got him past the group interview, and he knows it. There’s something to be said for a certain sort of visible ambition. Rhys is never going to look anything but opportunistic, not when he’s gotten through more nights on coffee and fumes than solid food, not when his dark circles may as well be permanent and he can rattle off the contracts that still need a final signature from memory at this point.
It’s just that, at Hyperion, none of that is a bad thing. A good performance review, a social life, and sleep: pick two out of the three. It’s a tired line that gets trotted out at every orientation, but it’s not wrong. If someone is going to stab Rhys in the back, it means that they think he’s worth the dry-cleaning bill. For someone who falls in the uncomfortable space between disposable and indispensable, Rhys will take what he can get. He’ll take uncomfortable.
Ten million dollars is uncomfortable.
A couple million is pocket change. Ten million dollars is just enough to set Rhys’ teeth on edge, and not quite enough to be worth bringing to someone who might take it seriously.
Ten million dollars is worth calling Vasquez on vacation, and flying cross-country, and driving into a landscape where people get swallowed up by the earth itself. Ten million dollars vanishing between the lines is worth answers, no matter what it takes. Dignity? Rhys isn’t an idiot. He’s a liar, and a backstabber, and he can play lackey with the very best of them, but he isn’t stupid. He traded in his dignity a long, long time ago, with the understanding that one day he’ll be the one in the big chair, and he’ll have earned it. He’s already got the handshake for it: more honest than any honest man could muster up, and a smile to match.
By the time Rhys sees the lights of the diner, a bright spot of neon against the low black line of the mountains, the light is almost gone. He guns it, and finds a parking spot — it’s busy, but not dinner-rush busy; late-night road trip busy, last stop before checking into a motel for the night busy — just as the last sliver of sun disappears over the horizon.
Rhys checks his reflection in the visor mirror, brushes his hair back with one hand, blinks at himself. He looks like hell, but that can’t be helped; he hasn’t slept since — yesterday? The day before? Far too long — the plane, maybe. Between the vodka and the hum of the engines, he’d managed to doze off for half an hour, and then been shaken awake by turbulence.
Ten million dollars, Rhys reminds himself. Ten million dollars is worth a corner office. A corner office is worth all of this, feeding himself to the machine a year at a time. He just has to keep his eyes on the prize.
Ten million dollars is worth answers.
The diner is loud, even though it’s half-empty. There’s a jukebox. There’s a bell over the door. There are some disinterested truckers, probably, at the counter, and a family by the bathrooms, and a couple of teenagers who look like they would rather be anywhere else, but are implicated by the number of empty baskets of fries between them. It looks like it shouldn’t be real. It looks like a set out of some half-assed genre movie, some storyline about self-discovery on the road.
Vasquez is halfway to the kitchen, in his own booth, looking comically out of place in his pressed shirt and gold cufflinks and too-tight tie. He pulls at the knot, and looks out the window, and snaps at the waitress when she comes by with coffee, but when he sees Rhys, Vasquez slides right back into his usual mannerisms. Easy entitlement, with all the smugness of someone who thinks they’ve earned it: Rhys looks at him and thinks, not for the first time, that one day he’ll have his boot right on Vasquez’s neck, and he won’t bother being nice about it, either.
“My man!” Vasquez says, as Rhys slides into the seat across from him. “What’re you having? Burger? Fries? Shake? Don’t embarrass me, huh.” He turns to the waitress, convivial as if he hadn’t just waved her off like shooing a fly. “The works, sweetheart.” The waitress turns to Rhys, and then reconsiders; she obviously isn’t paid enough to deal with Vasquez. Rhys doesn’t blame her. He isn’t paid enough to deal with Vasquez, and that’s counting end-of-year bonuses.
“Coming right up,” she says, though she manages to make it sound like a threat. She’d do well at Hyperion, Rhys thinks, and then Vasquez is leaning across the table, and he’s too busy making sure that he doesn’t break eye contact.
“Now, how can old Hugo help you,” Vasquez says. Rhys opens his mouth, and Vasquez waves him silent again. “Let me guess,” he says, and leers. “Henderson, huh? Got your eyes on that corner office? No the. It’s yours when performance reviews roll around.” He shakes his head. “Never did like Henderson anyway. Got an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. What’s a middle manager doing being responsible, anyway?” Vasquez leans back. “Leave it to the people in charge, huh?”
“Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk about,” Rhys says, and takes more than a small amount of vindictive pleasure in the way that Vasquez freezes, unsure whether to lean forward or back, telegraphing intimidation or ease.
“There you go!” Vasquez says, and drapes one arm over the back of the seat, nearly hitting the waitress in the process. “That’s what I’m talking about.” His grin is plastered-on. “C’mon, tell papa, huh? Hugo Vasquez takes care of his own.”
“Well, it’s about the Concamero deal,” Rhys says, carefully not cringing in secondhand embarrassment. At this point, it barely even registers. “The initial bid—”
“Hey,” Vasquez says, and now he looks scared, and Rhys thinks: Good. “Let’s not talk shop before the food gets here, huh? How’ve you been?” He crosses his arms. “No point taking work on vacation. And let me tell you, what a vacation — you know what they say about, well—” and he gestures, some obnoxious and undoubtedly obscene significance that Rhys doesn’t care enough to figure out. “—Anyway,” Vasquez goes on. “Let me tell you. Don’t hurry back, huh? Take a few days on the company card. Hell, take a few days on me. Get some sun.” He looks at Rhys a little more closely. “You look like you could use it,” he adds, and laughs, loud and obnoxious even over the clamor of the jukebox and the family and the argot and clatter of the fry cooks.
“Sure,” Rhys says. “Later.”
“There you go!” Vasquez says, and Rhys couldn’t miss the way that his expression goes blank with relief if he tried. He’s too used to looking for weak points as it is, and this — it’s underbelly, plain and simple, an exposed vein. A smoking gun. Papers on the desk — is so much more than that. This is treasure trove. Rhys looks at the way that Vasquez is smiling and feels drunk with power.
He isn’t stupid, not by a long shot, but he’s greedy, greedy, greedy — hungry eyes and itchy fingers and quick reflexes — and Rhys is going to have what’s due him if he has to pry it free with his own two hands. There’s no way he’s letting it go, not when he’s this close, not when he’s gotten this far and given so much.
Their food arrives.
“Later,” Vasquez says, though, when Rhys shoves his fries aside, and he says it again, when Rhys gives up on the burger — seriously, he’s hungry, not starving — and he says it when Rhys ignores the shake in favor of a second black-tar coffee, and a third, and he says it again when he gets the bill. “Hey, it’s getting dark, huh?” Vasquez says.
It’s been dark since Rhys walked through the door.
“Let’s find a motel, huh,” Vasquez says. “Talk it out on a full night’s sleep. See how you feel in the morning.”
Rhys has felt the same way for a year’s worth of paperwork and budget meetings and spreadsheets creeping into the corners of his dreams.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” Vasquez says to the waitress, and leaves a tip large enough to be an insult on its own.
He gets up — carefully — opens the door — carefully — unlocks the car: red, shiny, new; Rhys notices this, numbly, and also that Vasquez never lets his jacket ride up. There’s something in the way that Vasquez is walking. There’s something in the way that Vasquez is acting. There’s something — there’s a bulge at Vasquez’s side, under his jacket — in the way that Rhys feels, suddenly, like he’s walked into an ambush.
Rhys is greedy. He isn’t stupid.
Ten million dollars is uncomfortable. It isn’t pocket change, but it’s uncomfortable. It’s enough to make a lot of bad options suddenly seem worth it. It’s enough for Rhys to trek out into the middle of the desert, where there aren’t any lights for miles, without telling anyone where he’s gone. It’s enough for Vasquez to put on a pressed shirt and a bulky jacket and buy them dinner and put Rhys at ease. Ten million dollars is just enough to be worth—
Vasquez locks the car doors.
—Rhys, sitting in the passenger seat, looks straight ahead as Vasquez pulls out of the parking lot, and doesn’t need to look over to see that Vasquez isn’t looking at him either.
Ten million dollars is enough to make people do some really stupid shit, Rhys thinks, as if it’s something that he’s known all along, and only just realized.
Between the lines, all sorts of things get lost.
The road keeps on going, and going, and going. Rhys thinks that they’re going further into the desert, but he can’t tell; maybe they’re going back towards the airport. Maybe they’re going north, out of the basin. He can’t tell. The sky is a little too light for stars, but it’s a clear night. In a few hours, there’ll be more stars than Rhys has seen in his entire life, an upended spill of pinprick brightnesses.
For now, though, the sky is dark, a nondescript blue-black halfway between the two, and the road seems to go on and on and on ahead of them. It’s hard to keep track, precisely, of how far they’ve gone. Rhys doesn’t want to look at Vasquez for long enough to get a look at the odometer. The landscape changes once or twice — rocks, wires, the blink of a cat’s-eye mile marker or road sign — but the endless span between landmarks has deadened Rhys’ vision, and by the time he’s registered the difference, it’s already gone, lost beyond the limited span of the headlights.
Vasquez turns on the radio, half an hour in — or an hour, or two — when Rhys thinks that this is going to be it, forever, until he falls asleep, or until they drive off the road. It’s talk radio, this late, caller after caller, and even the conversation is too easy to tune out. Everyone has an opinion. It’s not like it matters, not when it’s filtered through the hum of wires, through the static of endless miles of dusty road. It’s not like it matters when Rhys is pretty sure that he’ll only be getting out of this car when Vasquez has found somewhere to bury him.
So: sure, he’s been an idiot. Sure, he’s been stupid, or at least too greedy to see straight, or too focused on the cards in his hand to consider that they might be playing a different game entirely. Sure, Rhys is probably going to die. Sure, he probably deserves it. Sure.
Vasquez doesn’t talk, but he laughs at a particularly amusing opinion. Rhys doesn’t know what. He isn’t listening. He isn’t even bothering to keep track of where they’re going, at this point, beyond watching the road behind them in the mirror; there’s a lot of it. Probably the waitress won’t remember them. Probably the rental agency loses a couple of cars per year. Probably he’s just one more of the hundreds of thousands of people who go missing per year, between the lines, through the cracks. Probably he’ll just be one more of the thousand-odd who are never found.
Probably there aren’t any motels this far out anyway. He shouldn’t have gotten into the car. He shouldn’t have let Vasquez lock the doors. He shouldn’t have come out here in the first place, cocky and full of confidence, with nothing but a Hail Mary in his pocket and a half-assed bluff in his hand. There are a lot of things that Rhys shouldn’t have done, and none of them matter. There’s a certain relief to knowing that he won’t make it out of this one.
“Shit,” Vasquez says, and wrenches the wheel to the left; he’s not a great driver, but that’s okay. The car more than makes up for it.
Rhys wishes, suddenly, that they’d swerve; he wishes that something would come out of the dark, one of the nameless clusters of lights in the desert, and go under the wheels or through the windscreen. He wishes that something would loom up in the arc of the headlights and blot out the slow brightness of the sky. He wishes for a gas station — not one of the closed, abandoned ones that he’s caught in the corner of his eye, and aren’t they all meant to be all-night now? But the ones they’ve passed have all been closed — or a motel or a diner or even another pair of headlights, blinding in the darkness.
Rhys opens the window, just an inch. It can’t hurt, now. Just an inch, for a breath of stolen air, for a moment of something real. Nothing in the car is real — not him, not Vasquez, not the silence between them, as much an imminent threat as a cocked gun — none of it is as important, right now, as getting a glimpse of sky.
“Keeping me on my toes, huh?” Vasquez says, still not looking at Rhys. “I gotcha, pal. Don’t worry.”
The air is cool, finally, and dry, and it’s something in the silence of the car. It’s something to have one reality that Rhys can trust, after all of this, to be nothing but unpretentiously deadly: searing in the day, and icily arid at night, and a blessed relief after so many breaths of flat, refiltered air. The radio is off — was that Rhys? Was that Vasquez? How long has it been quiet? — and it’s a blessed relief, to hear the whispering of the road and the desert and the night. The spill of stars and the susurration of the sand, and the road disappearing before and behind them: Rhys feels like it could be all right to wish, now, for an impossibility.
He wishes, again, for the brakes to fail. He wishes for the relative mercy of a collision — for oncoming traffic, for reflective eyes in the darkness, for a flat tire or a cliff face or something — anything. Rhys wishes for anything.
Rhys looks into the darkness, and the barely-visible starlit curve of the horizon, and the deep unfathomable shadows of the hills, and wishes — more than anything else in his life, and more than anything ever before, and with the simple completeness that comes from having no other options and nothing to lose — that he could do something.
The night smiles and swallows them whole.
Rhys is in a motel room. Is it his? It must be his, but it isn’t like any room he’s ever stayed in. For a start, it smells — sharp, it stings his nose — like cheap lemon cleaner. Like the sort that gets left under the sink, to cover up unchanged sheets and walked-on carpets and stale central air conditioning and windows that never get opened. It smells like a last resort.
When Rhys looks at his hands, there’s blood on his cuffs, just barely. Just a barely-there spatter of droplets, like the stars — like dust in the headlights — before they stopped. Through the blinds, he can see the car. It’s a nice, new, red car. The keys are on the bed. The room keys are on the nightstand. The sheets on the bed are crumpled, but not like they’ve been slept on; they’re crumpled like someone’s thrown themselves down on the bed a few times, maybe rolled around to make it look slept in. They’re crumpled like someone’s yanked them around for effect.
They’re crumpled like someone’s had a fight, but then there’s nobody else in the room, so that can’t be it.
Anyway, there’s an ashtray on the bed. Heavy crystal, the sort that Rhys used to see in waiting rooms and offices, meant to last: like everything else out here, it looks out of place, like a prop from a badly-dressed set. It’s full of ash and ends, as if someone was nervous. It smells stale, too, under the pervasive acrid bite of lemon, as if it’s been full for a couple of hours, but that can’t be right, because there’s still a single thread of smoke rising from the smudged crystal. Rhys doesn’t smoke: not this much, anyway, and only when he needs the excuse for a break and a breath of fresh air. There’s no way this is his room.
It’s his vest on the bed, though. It’s his shoes by the door. It’s his cuffs misted with blood, and his keys on the bed, and his face in the mirror when Rhys looks up—
It isn’t a mirror. It’s the television, snowy with static, tuned to a nonexistent channel. It’s all right that it isn’t Rhys’ face, in the blinks between one frame and the next, if it’s all dead signal and random noise. It’s all right if it isn’t a mirror.
—but a television wouldn’t have a frame like that, and it wouldn’t be so close to the wall, and it wouldn’t freeze like that.
It’s a mirror. It’s a television. It isn’t Rhys’ face. Does it matter? There’s blood on his cuffs and under his nails, flaking away in tiny chips like paint. There is no blood anywhere else in the room.
Rhys makes sure to check.
He makes sure, too, to wash his hands thoroughly, and to scrub under his nails, picking away at the crusted stain one finger at a time. He makes sure to douse his hands in lemon cleaner. It’s under the sink. Of course it’s under the sink.
It stings his fingertips, where he’s pulled the skin away. It stings his nose and his eyes, when he rinses it off, water so hot that it’s almost scalding. The steam fogs up the mirror, and Rhys doesn’t look anyway.
(It isn’t his face. It isn’t a mirror. It isn’t steam.)
Outside, the television unmutes itself, and crackles nonsense and static into the silence.
Coming out of the bathroom, Rhys nearly trips over a lamp — tipped over, but the bulb isn’t broken — walks through the cone of light that it casts on the pile carpet, like headlights. He feels like he should remember something about headlights. He feels like he should be more worried about all of this. The mirror, and the television, and the lamp; the ashtray, and the keys, and the blood on his cuffs, almost an afterthought. There’s still blood on his wrists, barely visible when he pushes his sleeves up, like the pinpoint bruises of burst capillaries under the skin. Maybe there are those, too. It’s hard to tell, in the yellow half-light and the static.
Rhys takes the car keys, and leaves the ashtray, and shrugs on his vest — at least this still smells like diner, and road, and desert — and lets the door close behind him.
It’s a nice car. Shiny, and red, and new, because it’s the sort of car that picks up a bit of its owner, and gets a little bit lived-in, and it feels empty; it feels hollow, like a house that’s been repossessed. There are cigarettes in the glove compartment — Reds, but they’ll do if it comes down to it — and when Rhys starts it, the engine turns over, as easy as wishing.
The car handles like a dream, all the way out of the car park. Nobody stops Rhys, or runs after him, or even turns on the lights. The sky is pitch-black, an unbroken expanse of emptiness, and Rhys turns on the headlights and turns onto the highway and rolls down all the windows.
There’s blood on his wrists, and his nails are scrubbed clean, and Rhys doesn’t know where he’s going, but he knows he’s headed the right way. He thinks about lighting a cigarette. He thinks about wrenching the wheel. He thinks about doing a lot of things.
He wonders, briefly, whose car it is, and whose room it was, and whose cigarettes, and whose keys.
He doesn’t wonder whose blood it might be.
Rhys closes his eyes and leans on the gas.
It isn’t a turnoff, precisely — more a gap like a hundred others, a simple absence of scrub and rocks and signage — but Rhys swings the car around anyway, takes it off-road and into the dark. It’s a service road, maybe, or some sort of scenic lookout, or just a place where a hundred other people have driven off into the darkness. If they’re lucky, it’s been the daylight.
Rhys isn’t lucky. Rhys isn’t even sure if it’s dark, though he keeps the headlights on. It’s not like there’s anything to hit out here. This far out, it’s all dust and gravel, and the occasional bump, which could be grass or bone or simply an irregularity of the earth. There’s something out there, way out in the darkness, in the middle of it all, and Rhys is falling towards it like a moth to a flame, sure as gravity. There’s something, and he knows it, though he can’t see beyond the sweep of the headlights, can’t even see the sky from here. For all he knows, he could be a mile underground. He could be a dead man driving and never even realize.
Far out ahead of the car, Rhys sees it.
Blue, like neon and liquor and crushed glassy candy: poison blue, the sort that’s a warning as much as a wile, and Rhys is heading straight for it, and he doesn’t know why. All he knows is that this is what he’s meant to be doing, and this is where he’s meant to be going, and he doesn’t have his bag — doesn’t have his car — doesn’t have anything but wide-open windows and a pack of Reds and whatever is in the trunk, whatever he’s been tasked to carry through the night.
He feels, oddly, holy. It’s not a familiar sensation, but it’s one that Rhys puts the word to immediately: the sense of unknowable rules, and forces far greater than himself, and of trespassing in a place that is only nominally his, if even that. Rhys feels as if he has been put into play, set on a given course and left to carry it out, and the light gets bigger, and brighter, and bluer, and when it gets too bright to bear, Rhys stops the car. He leaves the headlights on. It feels like the right thing to do. He leaves the car unlocked, and the keys in the ignition, and he opens the door, and he walks the rest of the way.
“Took your time, kid.” There’s a voice in the blue, and a face, and posture that Rhys can read quicker than any handshake: more honest than any honest man, and with the smile to match, hands in his pockets, and he flickers like a broken turn signal. “Now here’s how this is gonna go. Real easy. You and me.”
He tells Rhys. He tells Rhys a great deal, and Rhys recalls very little of it afterwards; it doesn’t matter. The tone stays with him. It’s a story, and it’s the best story in the world, and it isn’t one that Rhys has heard before. It has a great hero — not the good sort, but the great sort: the sort that goes beyond good and bad, and handsome as hell to boot — and it has Rhys, too. It has Rhys and a red car with a shovel in the backseat. It doesn’t have any answers: not why, not who, not how. That isn’t what matters. What matters is that Jack tells Rhys his name, and his story, and what Rhys has to do.
Rhys has to dig. Rhys has to dig a lot — not a shallow grave, relying on scavengers and the sun to do his work, but a serious grave — as if he’s going to go out and find a roadkill carcass, and some chickenwire, and do things right. Jack laughs at that. When Jack laughs, it sounds like rocks falling; it sounds like brakes failing and the earth coming to pieces. It sounds like nothing but blue light.
When he’s choking on dust, Jack leans over, arms crossed over his chest. He hasn’t moved. “Looks good,” he says. “Wanna guess what’s next?”
Rhys does. He knows, somehow. A grave demands a body, and if he hasn’t brought one — “How do you lose a body,” Jack says, “seriously, pal, that’s a new one” — then they’ll have to make do. In place of a body, blood; in place of one sacrifice, another, willingly given.
“Sure,” Jack says. He doesn’t laugh this time. He just grins, which is almost worse. “Willingly. Same thing, right?” He leans in. “Tell you what,” he says, and he doesn’t reach out, but Rhys holds still anyway, just in case. “Let’s make it worth remembering, huh.” He straightens up. “No point in a scar if you’re not going to remember it, huh, kiddo?”
Rhys doesn’t have a knife. There wasn’t a knife in the motel room. There wasn’t a knife in the glove compartment, or the backseat. There isn’t a knife in his pockets.
He checks, just in case. It’s hard to be sure.
Jack watches, and waits, and — finally — Rhys walks to the very edge of the grave, hands empty, and looks sightlessly through Jack, and brings his right hand to his mouth.
When Rhys bites down on the heel of his hand, Jack doesn’t lean in to get a better look, but Rhys can see how badly he wants to anyway. It’s flattering, in a way, to have Jack’s attention so thoroughly focused on him.
It’s just as well. Rhys could use the distraction. He twists his hand between his teeth, presses hardest where it hurts most, but it takes some doing, and Jack doesn’t look away once.
He does get bored, which doesn’t help. “Aw, c’mon,” Jack says. “You’re making me feel like you don’t care, pumpkin!” He wipes away an imaginary tear, and then spreads his hands. “Nah, I’m fucking with you. Skin’s tough, huh.” He shrugs. “I wouldn’t know. Maybe i’ll give it a test run, how about that?”
Rhys tastes iron, and ozone, and warmth, spilling down his wrist.
”Not mine, I mean,” Jack says, and gestures impatiently. Rhys holds his hand out, gripping his wrist to keep it from shaking. His blood splatters anyway: droplets in the dust, droplets in the shadow of the grave. There’s something down there, something that Rhys hit right before Jack told him to stop, but nothing that he couldn’t break up with the shovel, if he really tried. He hadn’t been able to see much, but he’d heard it, just a sort of hollow noise of steel against—
—Well. Rhys hadn’t looked.
Droplets on that, anyway, even more stark against vague pale planes, long and deceptively light.
“Could use a fifth,” Jack says, meditatively, watching Rhys and the slow drip of dark liquid. “A gram of the good stuff, you know, something to make this a real party. It’s all dust, anyway.”
Even holding his wrist as tightly as he is, Rhys is shaking anyway, now. It’s cold, this late. The smoke is cold, rising around him. He hurts, and he’s cold, and he feels as if he’s full to the brim with smoke, seeping into his veins and stopping his heart.
“What am I complaining about, though,” Jack says, and grins, wide and hungry and all teeth. “I’ll live.”
Jack goes to his knees a little awkwardly, like someone going to church for the first time in a decade. He shifts his mass — even though Rhys can see the dust through him, still: mass, bulk, weight, call it what he will — a little from side to side, settles into it. He’s still grinning. “Hope you didn’t forget the best part,” Jack says, all teeth and no smile. “Don’t keep me waiting, huh?”
Rhys goes to the car — door still open, windows still down, headlights still a spill of light, and how long has he been here — and opens the trunk.
There’s something there. There’s a tarp, generic blue plastic, and a blanket, scratchy plaid wool, and there’s something on top of both of them. Maybe it’s glass, or maybe it’s metal, or maybe it’s just the idea of an edge, glinting in the light. Rhys can’t really tell, with this much smoke around. When he picks it up, it cuts his palm, but then Rhys is shaking — harder now, so hard that he can barely focus on the shape of it — so that’s probably his fault, really. It’s probably his own fault.
Whatever it is that Rhys is holding, it’s harder to hold onto when his palm is slippery with blood — rolling down from his wrist, big droplets of the stuff, stinking of metal and dust and exhaust — but he closes his fist around it, and he goes to the grave, walks around to where the headstone would be, this time.
Jack tilts his head back and says: “Make me proud, kiddo.”
With one hand hanging limp at his side, and the other wet with blood — halfway down his palm now; seeping along the creases, shining in the headlights — Rhys stands behind Jack, and Jack leans his head back against Rhys’ thigh, just enough to let him feel the leonine weight of it, and convey all the same threat.
When Rhys cuts Jack’s throat from one side to the other, it’s as clean and easy as drawing a line with his blood-red fingertips, and just as slippery-wet a second later.
Jack doesn’t go down gracefully. It’s like watching the collapse of some massive formation, ice or stone, just as terrifying and just as abstract, and then the grave is gone — filled, Rhys thinks, fist still closed agonizingly tight — and then the smoke is gone, and it’s just him and the headlights under the flat black sky and the ache in his palm, deep and nauseating.
For a long moment, absolutely nothing happens.
Rhys shakes, and his breath doesn’t steam at all, and he wonders if he’s dead.
Then the earth — dry and packed as if it hasn’t been touched by rain in months, and as smooth and still as stone — cracks.
Smoke, or steam, or maybe Rhys’ lost breath, spills from the fissure, and Rhys pries his palm open and digs with both hands until his nails are caked with earth, and his fingertips are raw against the endless slide of it. He scrabbles and scratches in the dirt until, finally, there is a hand, and there are fingers closed around his wrist, and he can feel his pulse in his palm — still bleeding, a slurry of blood and dust now — even more sharply for his exhaustion.
Jack coughs, and his breath steams, and his hand is warm where he folds Rhys’ fingers closed and holds them there. “Not bad,” he says. “Not bad at all.”
Jack helps Rhys to the car, and when Rhys looks back, the ground is unbroken once again: no shovel, no splatter, no shard glimmering in the dark. Jack wraps the blanket around Rhys’ shoulders, and leaves Rhys to hold his injured hand to his chest, and lights a cigarette, smoking out the window in the dark in silence for a moment before he starts the engine.
The sky is awash with light, more stars than Rhys has ever seen before. He shivers and aches and watches Jack out of the corner of his eye.
Jack looks over at Rhys and smiles. “Stick with me, kid,” he says. “You’ve got potential.”
Jack’s a good driver — not the sort of good where Rhys can’t tell that somebody’s behind the wheel, but the sort of good where he can, and he can tell that Jack’s good — and Rhys doesn’t know how he finds the road, but then the stars are out now. The sky has some sort of dimensionality, now that it isn’t flat black; Rhys can’t even picture what that would look like. Rhys can’t even imagine. When he tries to open his fingers, they stick to his palm, tacky-wet, and he doesn’t bother. Instead, he curls in on himself, one eye on the road, and feels the rhythm of it hum through him. He can tell that Jack’s driving. He can tell when Jack leans on the gas, when he veers a little over the center line, when he checks the rearview. He can tell that Jack knows what he’s doing.
At some point, Rhys falls asleep, lulled by Jack’s humming — a tuneless rumble, or maybe Rhys just can’t pin it down — and the lightening wash of the sky, just the barest hint of gold at the horizon. He isn’t comfortable, and he’ll ache later from having his shoulder jammed into the door, but Rhys is tired, and the sun is coming up, and maybe he’ll get some real rest, soon. It’s out of his hands, and he hurts, and he just wants to close his eyes for a minute and sink into the half-waking doze of the exhausted and the desperate.
When he wakes up, the sky is ablaze — high wisps of incendiary cloud, and the line of the mountains is limned by an orange so deep it almost hurts to look at — and there are other cars on the road. Not many, but then this is the desert; enough, though, to break the monotony with a passing argument in freeze-frame, the thump of bass and the thunder of wheels. Rhys unfolds, painfully, until he can work some of the soreness from his shoulders, and shake the feeling back into his hand, and rub at the creases that the blanket has left along his arm.
“Look at you,” Jack says. “And you didn’t even need a kiss.” He’s smoking again, one hand out the window, and in the light, Rhys looks at Jack: broad shoulders, arms burned dark where his sleeves are pushed up, solid and unmistakably real. “Now what I’m thinking,” Jack goes on, and flicks the cigarette away one-handed, “is this. Coffee. Waffles. Enough sides to clog my arteries for good. More coffee. Whipped cream. Hey, whipped cream,” he says, delighted. “More coffee. Sound good?”
Rhys nods. He’s reasonably sure that he’ll need the coffee all three times, at least, and he’s hungry, now that he isn’t too tired to notice. He’s starving.
“I like you, Rhys,” Jack says. “You nod and you don’t talk and you do what I say, and man, you should see the look on your face right now! Kidding,” he says, laughing. “I’m kidding. Jeez. You’re all right.” He pulls into the parking lot. “Seriously, though, if you don’t say something I’m going to order for you and then steal your fries.”
“I never finish them anyway,” Rhys says, and Jack grins.
“See? I knew I liked you,” he says, and walks into the diner like he owns it, sits at the end of the counter and smiles at the waitress like he knows her over an exchange of burned-black coffee for laminated menus. True to his word, Jack orders waffles, and more coffee — “Keep ‘em coming,” he says, and Rhys doesn’t quite catch how Jack looks at the waitress, but she fumbles the menus, and looks startled-shy for a second — and whipped cream, and smothered hashbrowns, and links. She stops writing and looks at Rhys inquiringly, and Rhys realizes that he hasn’t even looked at the menu.
“Got any specials?” he says, but Jack interrupts.
“The works,” he says. “It’s been one of those nights.”
“Sure thing,” she says, and when she’s gone, Jack trails a finger through the ring that his mug has left on the counter.
“Now,” he says, as Rhys sips at his own coffee, scalding and black and bitter. “Here’s how this works, kid.”
Over coffee, he tells Rhys — again, Rhys thinks, hasn’t he heard this before? Hasn’t Jack told him this story? — but parts of it are different, this time. This time, it doesn’t end in the present. This time, Rhys has an easier time remembering it from one minute to the next. He still doesn’t get any answers, but then he doesn’t ask. He’s probably better off that way.
What it means, though, is simple. Jack — Rhys look like the sort to get it, Jack says. Rhys looks like he understands about how, sometimes, it’s just a matter of whose neck is on the line — talks, and draws with his finger, drips coffee in uneven lines, and says: “Look, Rhysie, I’m gonna be honest. I need you, plain and simple, just like you need me.” He smears his thumb through the ring, almost dry now, and licks the stain from his skin. “Looks like we’re stuck with each other, kid. Could be worse, right?”
Blood, Jack explains, only goes so far. Blood and bone count for a lot, but only so much, and when it comes down to it — and he says this while wiping whipped cream from the corner of his mouth, which should look ridiculous, but Rhys feels like he’s missed his chance to run, somehow — well, Jack’s hungry, he says, and leans in.
“You did such a good job with — what’s his name,” Jack says. “Real dickhead. Black hair, bad cologne, briefcase — you know the one.” Vasquez, Rhys realizes. Jack means Vasquez. “You’ve got a real touch for it, you know? Bet they won’t find him for weeks. Well,” Jack says, and laughs. “Not all of him, anyway. I think we could do some great work,” he says, and drains his coffee, and offers Rhys his hand. “What do you say, cupcake?”
Blood under his nails, Rhys remembers, and the stink of lemon cleaner, and an overflowing ashtray. Blood under his nails, and on his cuffs, and on his wrists, or maybe they were bruises; car keys, and he doesn’t remember where he left the rental, but he does remember one thing — Vasquez had been carrying a briefcase, hadn’t he, metal, serious, locked — and Rhys remembers, suddenly, that ten million dollars is enough to make a lot of bad decisions seem worth it. Ten million dollars, and Rhys didn’t tell anybody where he was going or why, and there had been a briefcase in the footwell of the car, when the sun had woken him: ten million dollars buys a lot of questions, and Rhys doesn’t have any answers.
He shakes Jack’s hand.
“You and me, Rhysie,” Jack says. “Great things. I’m telling you.”
The waitress refills their mugs, and Jack toasts him, chipped stoneware ringing out as hollow as bone.
“To us,” Jack says. “Two smart guys with great taste and a plan that’ll take us all the way to the top, huh? Yeah!” He swallows and sets his mug down. “Go on,” he says, watching Rhys with a sudden intensity. “Drink to it.”
Rhys does, though it scalds his throat and makes his eyes sting.
“Good,” Jack says, and smiles at the waitress as she passes again with all the idle curiosity of a bored cat before he looks back to Rhys. For a moment, Rhys understands why she’d fumbled the menus, and why she’d gone pink anyway. For a moment, he sees.
“You and me, kid,” Jack says, again, and despite himself, Rhys — cheeks warm, still aching, suddenly clumsy under scrutiny — smiles.
They don’t leave the diner for another hour. Jack cleans his plate, and finishes the endless sides he adds onto their order, and then he makes shameless eyes at Rhys’ unfinished fries until Rhys gives up and pushes them across the table. “You weren’t kidding, huh,” he says.
“Nope,” Jack says, and polishes those off as well. “Go wash up. I’ll take care of this, meet you out back. I wanna—” He jerks his head at the waitress. “—You know? Finish up.”
“Sure,” Rhys says. He doesn’t ask. He doesn’t want to know.
In the bathroom, he picks halfheartedly at the blood — under his nails again, and he managed to scrub most of it off with napkins, but there’s still traces of it, crusted in the web of his thumb and down his wrist when he pushes up his sleeve — and eventually just holds his hand under the tap, letting the mirror steam up.
When Rhys looks up, it’s definitely his face in the mirror.
His hand twitches, though, like a reflex, as if he’s hit his elbow, or as if someone’s applied a current directly to the muscle. Secondhand, it’s as if Rhys has thought about closing his hand into a fist, but when he looks down his fingers are still uncurled. The dried blood is starting to peel away, though, sloughing off in great soft chunks, and Rhys forces himself to pull at it, tugging each piece free and holding his hand under the water until it runs clear. It stops hurting after a while, though Rhys can see distinct layers of skin pulled back through the steam; it stops feeling like anything but dull pressure, at least until he turns the tap and shakes his hand dry. It starts to sting, then, and Rhys grits his teeth and dabs along the livid edges of the gash with paper towels, and folds one into a makeshift bandage.
Jack isn’t at the counter when Rhys steps out of the bathroom. It’s almost like double vision, flexing his fingers against his palm: Rhys can see what his hand is doing, and he can feel it, but he can feel another set of gestures entirely, like a second exposure. He can even feel the beginnings of a cramp.
He pushes the diner door open, and walks around to the back, past the half-open screen of the side door, through the scrub over a hundred filled-in footprints, and comes around the propane tanks, and, before Rhys can stop himself, he sees.
“Oh, fuck,” Rhys says, before he even has time to think, and looks away, hand coming up to cover his mouth as his eyes snap to the ground. Anything, really, so that he doesn’t have to look at Jack and — same stained apron, same rough hands, same startled look in her eyes — the waitress, though he can hardly tell anymore. Rhys thinks, unbidden, of roadkill, amorphous and exanimate. “God,” Rhys says. “Fuck! Fuck.”
“Pumpkin,” Jack says, endlessly patient and infinitely amused. “Are you gonna swear, or are you gonna help? And for the record, not throwing up on me counts as helping. Man. You’d think this is your first dead body rodeo.”
“Shit,” Rhys says under his breath, and then he stops talking, because Jack turns back to the — the waitress, Rhys thinks, though it’s harder to think of her as a person by the minute, with the way that Jack is — he’s — the — body. Rhys stops thinking, and stops talking, and he can’t stop listening, but he’ll live. If he doesn’t think about it, he can get through this.
He doesn’t watch.
After a while, Jack wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and clears his throat. “Princess,” he says. “We’re done. We can go. Unless you’re in the mood for a snack,” he adds, and laughs when Rhys flinches. “Kidding!” Jack says, and crumples the apron in his hands, cleaning between his fingers. He tosses it aside, and Rhys focuses on the way that Jack is clean but for dust — under his nails, scuffed into his shoes, a smear of it across the bridge of his nose — and the very corner of his mouth, hematic red.
Rhys, suddenly, wants to lick it away, and the urge hits him low in the gut, and he stares — simultaneously fascinated and nauseated — until Jack grins. “I’ll wait to get started, next time, if you want to watch,” he says, and claps Rhys on the shoulder. “Coming?”
They get separate rooms, that night, in a tiny motel a mile from the border. Rhys isn’t sure which one, but the mountains are closer here, and he gets the sense that Jack wants to test the boundaries, push further and further until he gets rebuffed. There’s a bag of tourist shop tees, dollar-store socks and shirts and underwear, in the backseat — whatever Jack pulled off the shelves, paid for with a crisp new twenty, and the briefcase isn’t in the footwell anymore — and Rhys grabs a plastic-wrapped change of clothes before he gets out of the car.
The motel clerk, uninterested, gives them rooms next to each other, and Jack tosses Rhys one set of keys, plastic tag clicking as Rhys catches them.
“Lock up, huh?” Jack says. “All sorts on the road this late. Get some rest, kid. You’ve earned it.”
Rhys locks the door. Rhys looks at his face in the mirror until his vision goes blurry with exhaustion, and he showers until his skin is pink and stinging and the hot water is tepid at best, and he scrubs under his nails and at his palm until it starts bleeding again, and then wraps it in expired gauze and tape from the first aid kit under the sink, and gets dressed — the shirt is scratchy-new, when Rhys pulls it on, but at least it’s a familiar discomfort — and sits on the bed, on top of the plasticized sheets. Rhys turns on the television, and then turns it off again, and looks at the wall behind it instead, and listens to the muffled sound of the radio next door instead, or maybe late-night reruns of shows he doesn’t recognize and won’t care enough to ask about in the morning.
He thinks about Jack, in shirtsleeves, sprawled on the bed; he thinks about Jack’s hands, steady on the wheel, sketching with salt and spilled coffee; he thinks about Jack’s smile, realer than real, all teeth, and about just a speck of red, and about the taste of iron, absolutely unmistakeable.
After a minute, Rhys gets up and pushes the dresser in front of the door.
He doesn’t fall asleep for another hour.
Town after town — waitress after motel clerk — night after night and morning after morning, and the days start to blur together. Rhys wakes up and gets in the car, hair still damp; Jack picks a diner, or a restaurant that’s open early and half-empty, or coffee to go in Styrofoam, always over-brewed and bitter at the bottom of the cup. For the most part, Jack drives, stabbing at the radio until he finds a good station and singing along, words that Rhys doesn’t understand, under his breath as the miles disappear behind them. He talks, too: Jack doesn’t ask many questions, but Rhys answers them anyway, talks about why he took this job, why he came out here, why he looked so tired that night out in the desert. It feels good to talk. It feels good when Jack laughs, and shakes his head, and flashes Rhys a grin. “Good thing I found you, huh?” Jack says, and turns back to the road. “You look good, Rhysie. Less tired. Like a man who knows what he wants.”
There’s no such thing as a free lunch at Hyperion. There’s no such thing as a compliment without a sting in the tail. There’s no such thing as an apple that isn’t studded with razorblades.
Rhys does look better, though, like this. He looks better on the road, wind in his hair as he smokes out the open window; he looks better when he’s getting eight hours of sleep, even if it’s in a different motel every day, every two days, curled up in the backseat as Jack takes the first shift on the same scratchy wool blanket. He looks better in the sunlight, and sometimes Rhys catches Jack’s eye — heading back out onto the interstate late at night, the first stars visible on the horizon, or the louche bloom of the waxing moon — in the dying light, and thinks that there’s a certain proprietary glint to Jack’s smile, or maybe in the corner of his eye. It feels good.
He still doesn’t watch, in the alleys and the shadows and the corners, to see what it is, precisely, that Jack does with the bodies. Jack winks at Rhys before he heads out, every time, a certain sort of intent clear from the way that he moves, and Rhys always gives him ten minutes — fifteen, thirty, it doesn’t matter; Jack always saves the best for last — and then goes after him, back straight, shoulders back, pace measured and unhurried. There’s no point in rushing when he already knows what he’s going to find.
There’s a bar. There’s another bar. There’s Jack, at the bar, making an inadvisable bet, and coming up aces every time: the briefcase never gets emptied, and the drinks never stop coming, and Rhys barely remembers anything after that, but he remembers Jack throwing back another shot and slamming the glass down on the bar. He remembers the way that Jack laughs, reflected over and over in one bottle after another, and the way that Jack sits, sprawled on a stool as if it’s his throne, and the way that Jack moves, in light and in shadow, and the way that the room whirls around him, dancing. Everything is dancing, Rhys thinks, the whirl of the stars and the lights and the endless, endless road; Jack is at the center of it, arms spread like a king, teeth bared like a dare. Jack will never sleep; Jack will never die. The sunset is livid, the mottled redness of an old bruise; the sunset is gone and the sky is dark and the redness is at the corners of Rhys’ vision, creeping in to claim him.
“Man,” Jack says. “Pineapples. Who knew they could pack such a punch, huh? Get it? Punch? Man,” he says again. “I crack myself up.” They’re sitting against the wall out back of the motel, watching the sky, high cloud skimming past in front of the full moon. Jack had put a hand low on Rhys’ back, helped steer him out of the bar and along the side of the road and back here, had kept him from falling over his own feet. Rhys misses it. Maybe it’s the tequila talking. Maybe it’s just harder for Rhys to ignore the heat coming off of Jack, when it’s this late and this quiet, and the way that he wants to lean into Jack’s side and see if Jack would take a swing at him for trying.
Maybe Rhys wants that, too. It’s hard to tell.
He realizes, then, that Jack’s been watching him for a while, out of the corner of his eye, the same look that he gives Rhys in the car, sometimes, or over coffee, or — in the dark — when he’s wiping his mouth, red smeared over the back of his hand and under the line of his jaw. Same glint, same grin, all of it the same except for the way that Jack leans in, a little, and Rhys understands: it isn’t proprietary, the way that Jack’s looking at him, not this time. Maybe he’s wrong, and maybe it’s something else entirely, but Rhys hasn’t gotten this far by being stupid. Greedy, yes; stupid, no, and he knows what it means when someone looks at him like that. Rhys had looked at Vasquez the same way, when he’d walked into the diner. It isn’t greed, either: Jack looks at Rhys, and all Rhys can see when he looks back is hunger.
“Hey, kid,” Jack says. “So, uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s been a while.” He rubs at the back of his neck with one hand — as incongruous as a lion licking its paw, a predator playing coy — and looks at Rhys sidelong. “Look on the bright side, though, huh?” Jack says. “It’s nothing we haven’t done before, right?” He shrugs, and his eyes flicker to Rhys’ hands, folded in his lap, and the infinitesimal twitch of Rhys’ fingers as Jack opens and closes his own.
Jack isn’t wrong. It has been a while. Too long: Rhys should have known. A week ago, Rhys had lingered over the bill for too long to play lookout, and Jack had met him at the car instead, an itchy dissatisfaction to the way that he had been moving when he tossed Rhys the keys, the flicker of his eyes and the drum of his fingers on the dashboard. Some of it had been, no doubt, irritation at a job left only half-done; the far greater part had been the thwarted fury of a hunting hound denied its kill. “C’mon, kiddo,” Jack says. “Just to top me up.” He winks. “I’ll make it good, baby, I promise.”
“You look ridiculous,” Rhys says, or something like it. That’s hard to tell, too. Maybe he just says yes. Jack smiles like he has, anyway.
“Sure,” Jack says, and shrugs, and smiles. “Works, though, doesn’t it?”
Yeah, Rhys thinks — yeah, it does — and Jack grins as if he already knows the answer.
“Yeah,” Jack says, unbearably smug, and Rhys can feel his face heating up. Rhys knows — enough people have told him, in more than enough contexts — that when he flushes like this, fever-hot and furious about it, there’s no way that anyone can miss it. There’s no way that Jack will miss it, anyway, even in the vague half-light, not with the way that he’s looking at Rhys, and not with the way that Jack doesn’t bother to hide his delight, all sharp edges and smugness.
Rhys just doesn’t have it left in him to try to hide it. That’s been happening a lot, lately. There doesn’t seem to be any point anymore.
“There you go,” Jack says, coaxing, “come on,” and Rhys offers Jack his hand — palm bare, sleeve pushed back, fingers open — and Jack smiles, and bows his head to kiss Rhys’ wrist, and drags his mouth over the thin skin there, slow and hot and deliberate, before he bares his teeth.
This time, Rhys doesn’t look away.
They stay in a hotel, for the weekend, one of the big white palatial structures that seems to take up the entire horizon: tennis courts, lawns, deck chairs, in adjoining rooms with a connecting door which Jack leaves open. There’s a looseness to the way he moves, his satisfaction evident in the way that he seems to lose some of his edges. Jack never becomes any less dangerous — Rhys never forgets, exactly, what he’s seen Jack do, when they’re in the same room — but he looks lazy, and sun-drunk, and lush. He looks the way that good cigars smell and that top-shelf whiskey tastes. He looks expensive and indulgent and, Rhys thinks, appealing.
It’s predictable. Rhys knows it’s predictable, and he knows that he should be embarrassed, but some things are predictable for a reason — the same way his pulse ticks upwards when he takes a corner just a little bit too close, or at the buzz of a tattoo gun, or at the click of a lighter — and Rhys knows what he likes.
He doesn’t say anything, though, not when Jack leaves the door open, and not when Jack disappears into the shower, and not when Jack doesn’t bother with a towel — seriously, what kind of asshole does that, just walks out, just says: “Well, are you coming, sweetheart, or are you just gonna watch?”
“What?” Rhys says, stupidly, and then: “I mean — are you — what?”
“You can watch,” Jack says, sprawled on the bed now, “but honestly that doesn’t seem like your style. Hey,” he says. “I guess I could watch, huh?” He props himself up on his elbows. “That more your speed, Rhysie?”
“God,” Rhys says, mortified and suddenly furious, because yeah, it really is. Jack, watching; Jack, talking: he can’t stop thinking about it, and now Jack knows. “Why don’t you ever shut up,” he says, and crosses the room, and steps through the door, and knows instantly that he’s misjudged the situation. Jack’s lazy, sure, and smug, and a hundred other things that Rhys shouldn’t be into, but he is, and more to the point, Jack is toying with Rhys, playing with him like a cat with a mouse.
“I’d tell you to make me,” Jack says, “but come on, kitten. We both know you love it when I talk,” and he’s grinning, and Rhys hates him, and it’s the most natural thing in the world to let Jack pull him into his lap, hands wide and warm on Rhys’ hips, and Jack smiles up at him, complacent and cocky.
“I’d love it more if you, uh,” Rhys says, and loses his train of thought. “If you. Talked? Less? If you, uh.”
“Don’t ruin it,” Jack advises, pressing a finger to Rhys’ lips, and Rhys bites, just the faintest scrape of teeth before Jack jerks his hand away. “Jeez,” he says. “Vicious little thing, aren’t you?” Jack grins. “That’s okay,” he says, and smirks. “I can take it.”
“God,” Rhys says again, aware that it’s nowhere near as vehement as he would like, “shut up already,” and he bites at Jack’s mouth, scratches at his shoulders, huffs with annoyance when Jack flips them and presses him into the mattress. Rhys puts up just enough of a token resistance for Jack to make him feel it, shifting his weight so that every breath Rhys takes is a conscious effort, and then he takes it — Jack rucking up his shirt; Jack biting at his neck, over faded ink; Jack pulling at his belt and leaning back to admire his work — the way he’s wanted to for so long, now, compliant and complicit and, for Jack, good.
“What?” Rhys says, after a moment, when Jack doesn’t stop staring. “Do you need me to draw you a map or something?”
“Please,” Jack scoffs. “Nah, it’s just — look, kid — you know how buttoned-up you were, right? Back then? All company clothes and hair gel, and let me tell you, I’m glad that’s over. Anyway,” Jack says, and pushes a hand through his hair — not shy, but something close; honest, maybe. Maybe honesty is what brings Jack closest to human — “Well. If this is what you’re hiding under those high collars and Hyperion vests, kid, I don’t blame you. I’d want this all for myself as well.”
It takes a moment for Rhys to register — it’s a lot to hear, that kind of thing — and by then Jack is tracing the faded edges of blue that fan out to span Rhys’ chest, following the lines of ink with his fingertips, surprisingly gentle. “Lucky me,” Jack says, almost to himself, and then says it again to Rhys, smile widening, like he knows Rhys now, every inch of him. It’s not like he doesn’t, anyway, not after this long and this far. It’s not as if this is anything but inevitable.
“Don’t,” Rhys says, and doesn’t know what he means. Don’t say that, maybe. Don’t be gentle. Don’t smile. Don’t mean it.
“Don’t what?” Jack says, his hand flat on Rhys’ chest, dragging his fingertips downwards an agonizing inch at a time. “Don’t do this?” He digs his nails in. “Don’t stop?”
“Don’t tease,” Rhys says, and hates how he sounds, helpless, how he must look, desperate, how Jack smiles.
“Don’t tease, what?” Jack says, and doesn’t stop.
“Please,” Rhys says. “Please, don’t stop, don’t tease, don’t—”
Jack presses, then — hard enough that he’ll leave welts — hard enough that it hurts, but then Rhys wants that too. He hisses through his teeth, and blinks away tears, and doesn’t quite manage to catch his breath.
“Ah,” Jack says. “What was that? I didn’t quite catch it,” and Rhys gives up, gives in, gives.
“—stop,” he says, again. “Please. Don’t stop,” Rhys says, and hides his face in the crook of his elbow at the way he sounds, pleading and hoarse and needy.
“See?” Jack says. “Wasn’t that easy? All you have to do is ask, baby, that’s it, come on. There you go.” He smiles.
Jack smiles when Rhys starts to shake, even with Jack’s hands pinning his hips down, and Jack smiles when Rhys can’t keep quiet anymore, even with Jack’s hand over his mouth and Jack’s fingers spanning his throat and pulling his head back, and Jack smiles when he bites a bruise into Rhys’ shoulder to match the one already coming up on his neck, livid and swollen-soft and tender.
He doesn’t smile when Rhys goes desperately taut, back so tightly arched that he can barely breathe, let alone tell pleasure from pain, but Jack laughs, low and rough and close. He doesn’t let up once until Rhys is too wrung-out to do anything but lie there and tremble and take it, shivering involuntarily, and when Jack comes, the marks that he leaves in Rhys’ hips go blood-dark almost instantly.
Afterwards, Jack lets Rhys stroke tentatively through the hair at his temples, fingertips careful over the thin skin, and makes pleased noises when Rhys gets a little less apprehensive and scratches, lightly, down to the nape of his neck, behind his ears, along the curve of his skull. Rhys feels it, rumbling through his chest, and wonders at the fact that Jack is letting him do this.
There has to be a catch. Rhys pauses for a moment, thinking about it. There has to be a razorblade, somewhere.
Jack looks up at him, and Rhys realizes: there it is. He’s already bitten down, and his mouth is already full of blood; nothing for it, then, but to swallow, and to carve himself apart from the inside out. Nothing for it but to follow through.
He traces the hinge of Jack’s jaw with his thumb, and Jack lets his eyes fall closed again.
Razorblade or not: it’s still something, to be allowed to do this, Rhys thinks.
That’s still something.
The summer drags on, far longer than it should, goes grumbling to the grave, and the warm weather lingers. It’s not enough of a difference for Rhys to appreciate — sun is sun; they drive through a storm, another, and then the air dries out again, gets a little sharper than he’s used to — but Jack says so, points out the minute changes in the stars and the slight restlessness of the road. Not much changes, but once Rhys starts noticing, it’s hard to stop.
They spend more time in the car than out of it, now, one town to the next, and the weekends in hotels get to be few and far between, the exception rather than the rule. Rhys stops sleeping in his own room. Jack still steals the blankets, likes to crank up the air conditioning and take up more than half of the bed, but it’s not bad. It isn’t, really, not even when Jack makes more of a mess than usual and they have to leave in the middle of the night — right out front of the motel, too, right in front of the office — and Rhys doesn’t look at the way that blood looks black in the headlights, doesn’t look at the scattered small shadows or the splatter on the gravel. It isn’t bad.
The next time, he watches. It’s been long enough that he should know, probably, or so Rhys tells himself; it’s not like it can be any worse than what he’s spent so long imagining, in the hours just before dawn when he can’t quite manage to fall back asleep. It’s not like it can be any worse than listening.
Jack doesn’t let him watch, though, that time. Rhys stands guard at the corner, and smokes a cigarette down until he can taste burning plastic, and thinks about taking the keys, and making a break for it, and leaning on the gas until this particular dot on the map disappears in the rearview, and going north until he’s gone, gone, gone.
Rhys could leave any time, if he wanted. He could. Jack trusts him, and Rhys carries cash, and he has the keys in his pocket and he’s learned enough of the grift — the way that Jack smiles at a mark, and leans in, and says: “Wanna bet?” — that he’ll be okay, for a while. He can go someplace where winter is an actual season, and use one of half a hundred names that aren’t his, and keep moving. He can keep running, as long as he doesn’t slow down; as long as he doesn’t stop looking over his shoulder, Rhys thinks, he’ll be fine.
It’s just that when there’s as much between two people — as many secrets; as many late nights; as much blood, and only some of it belonging to Rhys — as there is between him and Jack, that’s something. That’s a commitment. Miles behind them, and every one of them better left in the past: the road has a way of doing that, of making Rhys think that anything is better than standing still and of making him think that he can keep running forever. He can, if he wants. He can.
He only tries once.
Thursday, or maybe Friday, and they’ll get a hotel over the weekend if they pass one in the next day, but in the meantime Jack is hungry, and Rhys could use the chance to stretch his legs, so they stop — right at the edge of town, trailers and dust and a restaurant that looks like it’s a Hail Mary away from closing for good — and Rhys gets coffee, and gets bored, in that order.
It isn’t that Rhys tries to run, exactly, but he interrupts Jack, bloody-mouthed and caught off-guard, something that he’s never done before, and Jack snarls, furious and inhuman and absolutely terrifying.
“What?” he spits, dropping the body, and doesn’t bother to wipe his mouth as he advances on Rhys. His teeth are stained red, and his eyes are narrowed, and Rhys doesn’t know whether to run or to freeze. “You think now’s a good time to do this?” He straightens up, and his grin isn’t an expression that Rhys has ever seen before: it’s feral, a rictus baring of teeth. It’s horrifying. “Come on, then,” Jack says. “Right here, sweetheart, come on.” He taps his cheek with one finger, leaving a sticky smear of red. “I’ll even give you a free swing, how’s that?”
“Jack,” Rhys starts, and falls silent, because Jack has him cornered, now, backed up against open space. If he goes any further, they’ll be seen. Even now, Jack has him on a tight leash, bound by blood.
“No,” Jack says, “come on. I’m feeling generous.” He leans in — Rhys smells iron, and thunderstorms, and burning rubber — and smiles. “But,” Jack says, so close now that Rhys can almost taste the words, “let me tell you, kid. You’d better not miss.”
In the end, Rhys doesn’t swing, and he doesn’t run, and he doesn’t back down. He stands, frozen, until Jack leans away, and mutters: “Didn’t think so,” and then he stands watch, like he’s meant to be doing, and he waits, and he doesn’t interrupt again.
Rhys isn’t stupid. He could run, if he wanted. He just knows that, eventually, he has to sleep, and eventually — no matter how good he is — he’ll mess up, and that’s all it’ll take. It isn’t personal, because Rhys is good, and it isn’t professional, because he’ll never have higher stakes than this; it’s just a fact. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone takes risks, and everyone forgets, sometimes, to look over their shoulder, and in any other circumstances, that would be fine. In any other circumstances, Rhys could get away with it.
He can’t get away with it now. Jack is at the center of everything; Jack will drive through the night, and the desert, and hell itself, if it comes down to it, to take back what’s his, and Jack has his name and his scent and his blood.
It’s a Thursday, and they find a hotel, and Rhys licks the old blood from the corner of Jack’s mouth, the way he’s wanted to for weeks now, ever since he woke up to a trashed motel room and a sunset that was too beautiful to look at straight on.
When Jack kisses Rhys on the cheek, in the mirror of the spot where he’d left a print on his own face — dried brown by the time they’d stumbled into the shower — Rhys doesn’t flinch away. He doesn’t even wince.
He’s not stupid.
More often than not, now, they find themselves caught between towns, between marks, between prey. They pass fewer cars on the road, and the parking lots don’t get any less full, but nobody stays for long. Summer — endless and scorching and weightless — doesn’t go out without a fight, but it stretches thin, and so do the days. The road gets long. The towns get farther and farther apart. More often than not, they have to make do. Jack doesn’t even have to ask, these days, for Rhys to peel away the bandage at his wrist, covering a wound that hasn’t had a chance to heal, and offer Jack his hand.
It's nice to have Jack on his knees, bulk pressed to Rhys' calf, head bent to Rhys' wrist. It's nice to have Jack's teeth set in his skin, the sick sharp throb of Rhys' pulse and the pull of it, as if he's being unraveled a vein at a time. It's nice to know that Jack needs him, really.
It's nice to know that Jack could — would. Rhys is a good liar, slick and certain, but some truths go beyond that, and Jack's capriciousness is one of them — kill Rhys, if he wanted. Jack would open Rhys' wrist with all the casual unconcern of a kiss, just to watch him die.
When Jack looks up at Rhys, his mouth is wet and red, and his smile is wide and real.
Rhys feels sick. He wouldn't trade it for anything.
More often than not, it’s his own blood that Rhys tastes on Jack’s mouth, and he wouldn’t trade that away, either. Playing half of a two-man con, that’s one thing — it’s not that Rhys doesn’t enjoy finding Jack targets, easy marks, people who are desperate for a smile and an honest face; it’s what he’s always done, find the lonely and sell them a story and a prayer — but this is another matter entirely. It’s one thing for Rhys to watch and another to have Jack crowding into his space, pressing him back against the bed, grinning against his mouth.
It’s nice to have Jack’s attention all to himself, really. It’s nice to know that the way that Jack looks — vividly alive, and solid, and real — is all Rhys, and it’s nice to have all of that focused on him, and it’s nice to have the ache in his hand, too, and the taste of his own blood in his mouth, to remind Rhys of that.
Sometimes, when he’s tired, Rhys half-wishes, watching the road in the headlights, that the next town won’t come up until it’s already too late. He wants, but doesn’t want to hope, that things will go wrong. It should be for better reasons — it should be for the sake of the nameless bodies they leave, unburied and unstrung; he should have a better excuse — but it’s all selfishness, all of it. Rhys is greedy, and willing to pay dearly for his indulgences. He watches the road, and he only half-wishes, and he never says any of it, not even in his head.
On the road, it pays to be careful about that kind of thing.
Anyway, with Jack on his knees, Rhys doesn’t tend to think about much — he never touches Jack, either, beyond what Jack gives him — and he keeps his free hand clenched in the sheets, doesn’t let it fall onto Jack’s shoulder and doesn’t pull Jack’s hair until Jack wipes his mouth and grins up at Rhys, implicit permission to test Jack a little and see when he’ll bite back.
Often, it isn’t until Rhys is gasping, Jack’s hands on his knees, spreading his legs, and Jack biting his way up the inside of his thigh, that he realizes it’s too late. Jack’s had his fingerprints smudged all over Rhys — his teeth set in the nape of Rhys’ neck — since the very beginning. Jack isn’t going to let Rhys go until he’s nothing but cleaned bone and dried blood. If Rhys doesn’t run, the next town is never coming. In the desert, the road disappears over the horizon, and goes on forever.
Rhys tangles his hand in Jack’s hair, and Jack looks up at him, warily tolerant. Jack would kill Rhys, if he wanted, but he hasn’t, and Rhys doesn’t know why. Maybe Jack can’t, not when it was Rhys’ blood in the desert and Rhys’ blood now. Maybe Jack finds it amusing, to allow Rhys such liberties, and to go to his knees for someone who knows exactly what he can do. Maybe Jack’s just curious. Rhys never asks. He doesn’t want to know, because as long as he doesn’t, he can keep guessing, and he’ll never get any closer to an answer.
Jack scratches at Rhys’ hipbones, the petulant gesture of a neglected predator, and Rhys jerks forward. It’s a reflex, and an excuse: for his distraction, and for Jack to pin his hips to the bed, and then Rhys doesn’t have the energy left to do anything but feel. Jack hums in satisfaction, a deep rumble, and lets Rhys push, uselessly, against his grip, and takes Rhys to pieces. He’s lazy, and careless, and tar-sticky toxic, like stale cigarettes and cheap whiskey and real gold, so polished that it must be counterfeit, or cut somehow to make up the weight. Jack has the smile and the handshake of an honest man, despite being neither.
Alive, dead, what does it matter: Jack’s realer than real, and more so every day.
The summer is drawing taut and thin, like the surface of a bubble, going grey and blown-glass delicate. It would just take a single exhalation, Rhys thinks, to shatter it for good.
With Jack looking up at him, grinning wide and contented, Rhys isn’t inclined to test it. He smiles back, and breathes in, and ignores how it takes a little longer to catch his breath every time.
They’re getting lost, now, more often, or maybe they’re going in circles. Rhys swears that he seems the same gas station, the same parking lot, the same rock formations, the same stars: an eccentric orbit, speeding up and then slowing down, and the days stretch and snap back. Maybe it’s just Rhys. Maybe he’s just getting tired more easily, sleeping more, waking still woozy, and then they’re back on the road. Maybe it’s both. Everything looks the same out here, after a while. Motel rooms that Rhys could swear he’s been in before, and stretches of interstate where he knows every pothole, even before the car jerks, and every diner has the same menu. All the coffee tastes the same.
Rhys doesn’t dream anymore, not since Hyperion — when he stopped sleeping — and it hasn’t come back on the road, even now that he’s sleeping more than ever. He’s glad. Rhys doesn’t know what he’d do if his dreams were the same, too. On the road at dawn, high noon, dusk, he stares out the window and sees the desert like a map in miniature, unreal and laid out before him like a plan of attack, and at the center of it always that same unreal blue, a point from above. If he could just get close enough, Rhys thinks, he would know what they’re doing and where they’re going. He would know what the point of all this is, once the summer ends for real and the temperature drops below freezing at night. He would know how this is going to end.
He asks Jack, once, late, when Jack is lazy-quiet and warm next to him, one arm thrown over Rhys’ chest, elbow a faint pressure against his solar plexus. What the long game is, what Jack wants, what he wants with Rhys: nowhere near as straightforward as he would like to be, and Rhys stumbles over himself, sounds like a mark desperate to be fooled rather than half of the con himself. If someone asked him the same questions, Rhys would tell them what they wanted to hear without hesitation, if they sounded the way he does.
“What do you think, baby?” Jack says, and he only calls Rhys that when he wants Rhys to say yes. Rhys doesn’t know what he’s agreeing to, but he nods anyway, force of habit stronger than years of caution. Jack does that, too, makes him think that this time it’ll be different. This time, it’s okay to take risks and make mistakes and trust someone — not just someone, this is Jack, but still — because it’ll be different. Rhys is different. Rhys isn’t just another suit, scrambling up the corporate ladder.
It’s hard to go back to that kind of thing, now that he knows what else there is: the way the desert looks just before the sun comes up, and the hundred ways to disappear, and the taste of his own blood in someone else’s mouth. That’s kind of hard to forget.
Nothing really compares, after that. Everything else seems colorless.
Anyway, they aren’t lost, not really: there are the mountains to the west, and Jack seems to know where he’s going. Maybe it’s just Rhys who is lost.
Jack never answers, anyway, beyond looking at Rhys like he should know. Maybe he does. Maybe he’s forgotten. Maybe he just doesn’t want to remember.
He’s not going back. They’ve come too far for that.
“Rhys,” Jack says, “Hey, Rhys. Rhysie.” He’s leaning on Rhys’ shoulder, and he pats Rhys’ cheek, lays his hand on the side of Rhys’ neck. “You coming? All-you-can-eat breakfast, and something about a forty-egg omelet with my name on it. You can even make fun of me when I’m puking, come on.” He pauses. “Hey, kid. You okay?”
“Yeah,” Rhys says. He’s just kind of tired. Jack’s been hungry more often, lately, and less inclined to go out, not when Rhys is right there and willing. Almost like he wants it, Rhys thinks, and he’s pretty sure Jack knows; almost like he likes it. It’s a good lie to tell himself, because he believes it. It’s a good lie because he can’t tell if there’s any difference left between it and the truth. He’s kind of tired, and when he gets up — later and later, these days, but that’s fine; the sun is rising later too — there are dark circles under his eyes, and he looks paler, like he’s having the color leached out of him. Rhys feels light, all bruises and bite marks, bird bones and blood all that’s left of him.
“Aw, cupcake,” Jack says. “You gotta let me take care of you, huh?” He traces the line of Rhys’ throat, following the pulse in his carotid from jaw to collarbone. “Look at you. I bet you couldn’t make it out the door if you tried.”
There’s something in his tone, and in the way that he’s touching Rhys, that makes Rhys want to prove Jack wrong. There’s something in Jack’s smile that makes him feel like he has to move now, or he’ll never get up again: call it spite, or a certain hardwired tendency to contrariness, or what it really is. Rhys knows when to move or die. Rhys knows what it looks like when he’s been hamstrung, left to catch up or fall behind for good.
Rhys wrenches himself upright, leaning on the bedside table, and Jack leans back. “Look at that,” he says. “Good start, kid. You should stop while you’re still ahead, but hey, don’t let me tell you — whoa, easy there — hey, you know babies? How their heads are so heavy that their necks are just, you know.” He mimes a snapping motion. “Like that. That’s what you look like, but all over.”
“Shut up,” Rhys grits out, and takes his hand off the table, and puts one foot in front of the other. It isn’t easy. It’s exhausting, and it hurts, and if it’s the last thing he does, he’s going to make it to the door and into the sun. “You’re not helping.”
“Never said I’d help,” Jack says. “You want to bite it face-first, don’t let me stop you. I’m not the one getting rugburn on my forehead. Hell, it might even be funny.”
“I’ll show you funny,” Rhys mutters, half-hearted, but he’s almost there, and he doesn’t fall, and he makes it the last few feet and opens the door and winces against the light.
“Hey, who’d’ve guessed,” Jack says, and laughs. “You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?” He tosses the keys in the air and catches them one-handed, and slaps Rhys on the shoulder as he passes, ignoring the way that Rhys almost buckles under the force of the blow.
In the diner, he gets extra fries, same as usual, and shoves them across the table at Rhys. “Eat up,” he says. “You look like you need it. You’re a lifesaver,” he adds, in an aside to the waitress and the coffeepot, and probably in that order. “Keep it coming.”
“Looks like you could use it,” she says.
“We were driving all night,” Jack says. “You know how it is. Get to a certain point and you may as well just see things through, huh? Anyway, this coffee’s worth it.” He taps the mug with one finger.
“Sure,” the waitress says, and smiles a little, crooked at the corner of her mouth, like she doesn’t want to, but can’t resist. She half-turns away, and then comes back. “Say,” she says, and this time her voice is quiet, like she can’t believe what she’s saying. “Where are you staying?”
Jack smiles. “Not sure,” he says. “We weren’t planning to hang around more than a few days, but hey. Got any suggestions?”
She’s nice, the waitress, if a little shy, and a little quiet, and a little slow to get to the point. She doesn’t deserve what she gets. She doesn’t deserve any of it — that Jack’s slow, and bored, and inclined to take his time anyway; that Rhys stands guard, shaky as he is, well enough that they don’t get interrupted; that in a week, she’ll be just another headline, and nobody will remember how her voice sounded when she was smiling — but none of them do. That’s just how it goes. That’s just how things work.
They don’t go back to the motel afterwards, but that’s okay. There’s nothing that they can’t afford to leave. Jack drives until the sun is a little lower in the sky, and then he pulls over and smokes for a while, leaning against the hood of the car, and Rhys climbs over into the backseat and watches him through half-closed eyes.
When Jack is done, he flicks the end away and knocks on the window. “Want company?” he says. “I’d offer you a smoke, but you look like you’d fall over and die, and honestly that would be kind of boring.” He frowns. “Maybe afterwards.”
“Get on with it,” Rhys says, and Jack opens the door, shifts until he’s settled over Rhys like some big cat with its kill, bloody-muzzled and the body still warm.
“I just feel so unappreciated,” Jack whines, and laughs. “Come on. You love it.” He rolls his hips, exaggerated and obnoxious.
“Fuck you,” Rhys says, though the second word gets a little bit lost in the way he exhales it, more a gasp than anything else.
“Yeah you do,” Jack grins, says it into Rhys’ neck, and lets one hand drift down Rhys’ side, tightens his grip on Rhys’ hip for a moment, takes his goddamn time. “You love it. Say it, baby, come on.”
“Fuck,” Rhys says, and bucks upwards into Jack’s hand. “Fuck you, no — come on — yeah,” he says, and it’s more of a whine than anything. They both know he’s going to give in. It isn’t a matter of if, but when, and Jack’s inclined to take his time today anyway.
“It’s just words,” Jack says, and tightens his grip, slows down until Rhys is grabbing at his shoulders and gasping for breath. “Just words, sweetheart, say it for me.”
Nothing is just words. Words can be a story, or a lie, or the difference between life and death; words matter more than anything else, when it comes down to it. They’re all that Rhys has left, and Jack’s smudged fingerprints are all over those too, every word out of Rhys’ mouth tar-slow and tainted. “I love it,” he pants. “Fuck you, Jack — I love it, come on — please,” Rhys says, and Jack does, goes for it until Rhys is so close, and then he slows down again.
“One more time,” Jack says, and Rhys wants to kill him, but he can’t, and he won’t, and it’s just a game. It’s just a game, and he’s already lost.
“Please,” Rhys says, “I love this, please,” and Jack pinches at the inside of his thigh, uses his nails so that it really hurts.
“What was that?” he says.
“I love it,” Rhys says, “God, Jack, fuck, what do you want—”
“Just that, baby,” Jack says, “just that,” and when Rhys comes, he isn’t thinking of anything at all, just like he doesn’t dream, just like he doesn’t ask, anymore, where they’re going. He isn’t looking at Jack’s smile, or the look on Jack’s face, or the way that his own hands are shaking. “There you go,” Jack says. “Easy, huh? Easy for me,” he hums into Rhys’ neck, happily, before he sits back, sprawls a little and makes it obvious what he wants.
Rhys gives it to him. He always does.
In the next town, Rhys passes out, or something happens — he doesn’t know, precisely, what, until he comes to — and he realizes that Jack is carrying him to the car, as undignified as it gets. It’s late. Not regular-late, or even the late evening that he’s gotten used to; it’s past that, when there’s nobody else on the road, and Rhys can’t tell if it’s ten at night or one in the morning.
“I owe you one, kid,” Jack says. “It’s been good, huh? It’s been real good.” He falls silent for a while, long enough to set Rhys down and unlock the car, bundle him into the passenger seat and buckle him in and close the door. He leaves the keys in the ignition, and stares out at the road for a little while, and reaches into his jacket for cigarettes. He shakes two out of the crumpled packet. “How’s that?” Jack says. “One for me, and one for you. Seriously, kid, I owe you one,” he says, and leans over to light Rhys. The overheads blink out, and the flame of the lighter flickers, casting shadows that make no sense. “How about that.” Jack shrugs, expressive, and rolls the windows down, and starts the engine. “About time you cashed it in, huh?”
They drive, a long way; Rhys doesn’t watch the odometer, barely watches the landscape, certainly doesn’t watch the road. It’s all the same, this late. It’s all going to the same place. It’s not something he can change, not this late, not now that he’s on the road and in the car and the doors are locked and the windows are open. If Rhys had a choice, it was a long time ago, and he wasn’t greedy, and he wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t anything at all — just an endless hunger, scrabbling to get a second in the sun, throwing himself at last chance after last chance — dead walking, and no better off for it. At least he’s going somewhere, this way. At least he’s had summer, and sun, and a smile that he’s proud of, worth more than any amount of honesty.
Jack doesn’t turn on the radio. It’s all talk this late anyway, and there’s no point. The car is dusty, and a little bit scratched down the side where Jack took a corner too fast and hit a streetlight, and it has more miles behind it than Rhys ever thought it would, back when he took the keys from a motel room that he’s returned to every night since.
He finishes his cigarette, and blows a last plume of smoke out the window, and lets the wind take the glowing end, takes a deep breath, and the air is cold enough to shock him awake. It’s dry, and icy, and something that Rhys can trust, even after all of this. It’ll kill him. That’s close enough.
The sky, when Rhys finally thinks to look for stars, is flat black.
Rhys only bothered to ask Jack the one time, about how this was all going to end — where they were going, why, how — and he never expected an answer, not really, or maybe he already knew. Maybe Rhys already knew, and it was just another one of the lies that he told so well that he even managed to fool himself, or maybe it was just too good a con to pass up. Another last chance to throw away on a bad bet, a story so good in the telling that it may as well be the truth: the long game has always been the same, from the very beginning, and Jack turns off into the desert and leaves the headlights on and gets out of the car.
Rhys doesn’t watch him dig. It doesn’t matter. The taste of blood, and the sound of the earth cracking wide open, and the pitch-black sky, empty as a promise and distant as a smile: none of it has changed, not in the slightest. None of it is any different.
“Hey, kid,” Jack says, and Rhys realizes that he’s finished, opens the door and stumbles when he gets out, and Jack catches him. “I said I owe you, didn’t I? A debt’s a debt, baby, I’ll give you my word on that. You’ve earned it.” He smiles. Rhys can’t quite stand, but that’s all right. Jack gets one arm around his shoulders, and helps him walk, and Jack strokes Rhys’ hair back, rubs a thumb over his temple and kisses his forehead: gentle as mercy, like a knife under the jaw, and kinder than either, and sweeter than both.
Maybe Rhys has always known. Maybe that’s why he didn’t ask.
When Jack buries him, it’s the nothing hours, so late that it’ll start getting light again, soon, though this sky never changes. It doesn’t matter. Rhys won’t be seeing it again, no matter what. One last chance — one Hail Mary of a bet, one last score, one last deal — it’s all the same, in the end. It all ends the same way.
Jack kisses Rhys on the wrist, the last thing he does before he lays Rhys down, and says: “Now don’t worry — I’ll be back in a minute, kid, real easy. You and me,” Jack says, standing there at the center, dust between Rhys’ fingers and a promise under his tongue.
The first shovelful of dirt feels, at last, like rain.