The first time he dragged himself into the pub, he was rain-drenched and looming over the counter. Shadow man. I can still hear the sound of the rain pearling down his coat, hitting the wood like bullets. I can still hear my breath hitching when he wiped his hair out of his face - looked at me, pinned my head against the wall with nothing but a stare.
There was this distinct otherness to the way he held himself - haunting, witchy - the kind of presence that could get him out of a viper pit alive. All the snakes huddled in a corner stinking of fear...submission...
But there was something tragic about him too. This blue thing, a shade darker than sadness. Melancholia, maybe.
I've only noticed it after two months of him sitting at the counter, staring down whiskey glasses and scribbling on napkins and the back of coasters. Every time I've tried to take a peek at the things he writes, he slides it under his arm and gives me a glance that never fails to feel like a paper cut.
He talks to himself too, mumbles things under his breath like 'rondo form' and 'scherzo', 'tonic', 'major', and then he'll hum things or sing tunes that sound like nursery rhymes.
I think he might be mental. Penny, the waitress who works on weekends, thinks he's one of Tim Burton's discarded character sketches: the derailed alcoholic vampire. (His widow's peak is bloody insane.)
I think he's far too young to be a mess. He'll call me 'vexatious' every time I mention it. Or 'irksome'. That's his favourite…'irksome'. He's probably too good to be stuck in a pub like this. People who use words like 'irksome' and dress like they frequent polo matches with the Queen shouldn't be drinking in a place filled with earless, toothless vagabonds. But he doesn't seem to mind. I think he might actually like it, rubbing shoulders with ex-convicts sporting face tattoos and perky Essex girls who'll kiss and tell for 20 pounds and a fag.
I think I might like him just because of it.
He's always the first to come in - and always the last to leave. I'll clean up the bar while he plays on the mistuned piano shoved between the pinball machines. He's the only one to use it. And he's the only one to use it well. It's never much - he'll break off a tune the second it starts getting good - but it's enough to make me stop breathing without realizing. He's never played something for longer than a few seconds. He gets riled up so quickly, starts cursing and kicking the pedals, slamming his hands onto the keys with a triumphant bang.
Once I asked him why he never finished playing something, and for the first time, he didn't answer me with a grumpy, "Mind your own business."
"I just keep losing it," he said quietly as if he were running after something he couldn't catch up with. He looked so blue. I wondered whether I'd ever seen him smile. I wondered why I really wanted to.
❂ ❂ ❂
"My name's Baz, by the way."
"That's a - really weird name."
"That's a very mundane name."
"Are you mundane?"
"Not as much as I'd like to be...Are you weird?"
"More than I'd like to be."
❂ ❂ ❂
Three AM is my favorite time of day. One hour after closing time. One hour of Baz playing chopped off music-box-tunes on the piano. One hour of Baz cursing. One hour of Baz mumbling strange things to himself, like 'Motive A', and 'No, what? Motive B', and 'Adagio'.
I like 'Adagio'. It sounds like he's casting a spell.
He starts playing something that sounds like a lullaby, and I try to memorize it, try to hum along while scraping off dried bubblegum from under the bar counter. (Courtesy of the Essex girls that hang around here on Fridays…)
I don't know when I start humming something else, the silly nursery rhyme Ebb made up when I was a kid. It stays crouched in the back of my head on a day-to-day basis. It's always just a matter of time until I catch myself humming it, the sleepy tune on the tip of my tongue. I don't remember the lyrics. All I have is the melody, this silly, heartfelt little thing.
Sometimes I feel stupid for realizing I'm humming it in the shower, on my way to work, while going out for a smoke - or right before I fall asleep. It's like I've caught myself redhanded - 'gotcha!' - like it's a bad thing. And maybe it is. It's what I do without noticing now. It's like scratching the back of my head when I get nervous…or picking at a scab. It's just a habit I don't know how to get rid of.
It hurts a little. So maybe that does make it bad. Another bad habit to add to my collection of aching indiscretions.
"What is that?"
My eyes snap open. I hadn't realized he'd stopped playing.
"Hm?" I back up from under the counter and hit my head on the edge. "Wanker," I hiss, rubbing a hand over the bump.
I look up. He's staring at me, rummaging through my face, looking for something. I've never seen Baz so awake.
"What is that?" It's the first time his words don't sound like afterthoughts that just happened to slip out of his mouth.
"What is what?" I try to rub the throb out of my skull, heatedly staring at the pink crumbs of bubblegum on the floor.
"The thing you were - just now. Do it again," he says.
I look back up at him. There's this strange zing flashing through his spine, his shoulders. He pushes the piano bench back and leans towards me. Wild-eyed. As if he was hit by something, a lightning bolt, a bright epiphany.
I scrunch my eyebrows. This feels like a prank. Baz like this just has to be a prank. Or a dream. Maybe a nightmare.
"What? Why -"
"Just - " His chest is moving fast. "Again. Please. Do that again." So fast.
He looks like he shook the leftover whiskey out of his system. He's so alert I half-expect him to throw the piano bench out of the nearest window, lurch towards me and pin me to the wall by my shoulders.
Do that again.
I snort. It's a terrible sound.
"What? I mean, I - "
"Just - " He lifts his arms, fingers bursting up around him. It's the strangest thing. Baz like this is the strangest thing. "Just - again." Urgent. Heated. Needing.
He shoves the bench back, and I stumble against the counter.
"Okay! I - shit, okay. Why are you - "
His eyes feel sharper than ever, digging through my face, scratching at my brain.
Do that again.
"Are you serious? It's just some - I mean, it's just some…thing." I wave a hand. It feels comical. I don't sing in front of people. I don't even fucking hum. Especially songs that are so personal they feel like secrets.
"Yes," he says. Dead serious.
"Are you -"
I manage to laugh, jittery and helpless. My spine grinds against the edge of the counter. I feel cornered.
I don't know how he's capable of making a 'please' sound like a knife to my throat and a hand brushing my cheek at the same time.
"Okay, Christ. Relax!"
He's mad. At least, a little. Baz is a little bit mad.
I bust out another awkward snort - before his stare turns into something furious enough to bully the sound straight out of me. I start humming in chopped blurts.
"Again," he breathes, face smoothing out. "From where you went down to a B-flat.
"Wha - I - From where I what?"
"That last part, last few bars. Notes."
I swallow. He stares at my throat, then back up, at my mouth, my eyes. I look away. I hum again. I feel bare, cheeks going hot, chest aching. Like I'm coming undone.
Which is fucking stupid because I'm just standing here, humming a nursery rhyme to a stranger.
"Again," he demands. It's hard enough to kickstart the heat in my stomach.
I hum again. That same last part.
And I do it again.
Again, again, again.
The more I repeat it, the more his body starts to move: fingers tapping on his thighs, the heels of his feet rolling back and forth, up and down. Limbs sending out morse codes.
His mouth starts to twitch, little things slipping out - words, maybe; spells, even - but he isn't loud enough for me to hear him.
"That's it," he says, eyes on me, but I know it was only meant for him to hear.
"Just keep - " His breath hitches. "Doing that. Just - yeah."
And he rakes his hands through his hair, pulling the inky strands out of his face. It's the first time I'm seeing all of it, sleek and regal - but fragile at the edges, spread too thin, as if he's only composed from a distance. Where you can't touch him. Where you can't add enough pressure to break him.
He whips around, pulling the piano bench with him, his fingers hovering over the keys, roaming. His head bobs slowly, then fast, then slowly again, shoulders swaying, feet twitching over the pedals. It's like there's a beat stuck in him that I can't hear, gears rattling into motion, jumpstarting. I've never seen him so alive.
"Okay, okay," he says, breathy. "Okay," he says again.
I go quiet, watch his body move to that beat, that breathing.
He starts to play. It's a giant sloppy mess.
He's humming along to the movement of his fingers, cursing and repeating patterns, chopping them off, playing them louder and softer, faster and slower, going higher, going lower, turning everything into something different each time.
Shouting for me to sing it again, shouting for me to shut up, apologizing, and then doing the same thing all over again. He starts to mumble things under his breath, hits the top of the piano with a fist, shoves a fag into his mouth and forgets to light it until I try to hand him a lighter.
I remember the day he told me his name.
"Are you weird?"
"More than I'd like to be."
He's decomposing. He's everywhere. He's hysterical - completely fucking wild. A witch dancing around a goblet.
"Paper! Pen! I need - ah, shit - " He wipes the crumbs of his fag off the keys. "Do you have?"
I blink. "Do I have?"
He's staring at me, everything about him moving, making the atmosphere quiver. I've never realized how huge his eyes are, ripped open, pupils blown. Alive.
"Oh! Yeah - I'll, uh - " I stumble behind the bar, feeling like I've been hit by whatever he's running on. Because we haven't been able to speak in coherent English sentences for the past hour.
All I can find are takeout pamphlets and an IKEA-sized pencil. Baz starts scribbling, one foot constantly fluttering over a pedal, fag dangling from his lips, scorching fast.
I wonder if this is what he's been smudging over greasy napkins and the back of coasters. Music.
He's sitting here - in this decaying pub in the bowels of London - between pinball machines and flaking booths, beneath a permanent cloud of smoke and a constellation of cracked lightbulbs, his feet planted onto spilled liquor stuck between the floorboards. He's sitting in a mess - humming and mumbling and swearing - and he's making music. He's making something monumental, something that's meant to be accompanied by an avalanche of strings and drums and horns and thunder. He's making the pub burst.
And I think he might be mad. And I think he might be brilliant. And I think he might be magic.
He's turned Ebb's song - my bad habit, my aching indiscretion - into something larger than life.
He's turned ache into ease, and that might as well be magic.
I don't know how long I watch him. One moment, he's banging his forehead against the edge of the piano, and the next, I'm watching the sun crawl across the crooked floorboards. He shies away from it like some big cat slinking around a bathtub.
He stops. Everything about him stops. He stands up, fingers shaking, legs shaking, body aquiver. He starts pacing around the room in circles with his hands stuck in his hair. He coughs out a laugh. It sounds like his music. Out of this world. Fallen from the sky. Larger than life.
He looks at me, and I look back, and there's nothing sharp about him, nothing composed. Right now, he looks the way he plays.
A brilliant mess.
He's a blur as he grabs his things, his limbs still shaking, coat only half-way slipped on, scribbled-on takeout pamphlets pressed against his chest like treasures. He rushes towards me, and he grabs my jaw with a hand. Before I know it his mouth is on my cheek. A quick peck, hard enough to sear straight through my skin.
"Thank you," he whispers into my ear, breath so warm it's wet. He smells like sharp things, cologne and smoke - and bergamot.
There's a kick drum in my chest.
I stare after him as he bursts out of the door. I press a hand against my cheek, the imprint of his mouth...scorching.
I'm not sure if I'd rather run after him and punch him. Or kiss him until I black out.
❂ ❂ ❂
He's here the next day - and the day after, and the day after that - sitting at the piano and scribbling onto lined paper, mumbling, humming, casting spells. Sometimes he'll bring his laptop and type the notes into some sort of software. When he brings his laptop, it's a sign of impending doom. He swears at it a lot, and he'll order twice the amount of whiskey - which makes the swearing turn into the verbal equivalent of kitchen knives and shark teeth. He'll scare away half the pub. He's like a fancy gold-chained rottweiler shackled to a loose post.
It makes me like him more. It also makes me want to punch him more. He tends to kiss my cheek when he's drunk and hit by musical epiphanies, or he'll ruffle a hand through my hair, make me feel like a child that's done a good job, or he'll hold onto my wrist so tight it throbs. I hate that the most. It'll make him seem so needy my heart crashes down into my stomach - boom - chemical madness. He'll be holding my wrist, fingers digging into the bone, and he won't seem so wild anymore, just domesticated, just soft, endearing....and deprived of something I don't know how to give him.
I don't know what it means. I don't know if he'd let me kiss him back, or touch him, or tell him to stop because he's fucking with my head. I keep talking myself into thinking it's just some mad-musical-genius thing. I bet sexually confusing bartenders is just what they do in their free time. Besides drinking and being sad. I'm sure he doesn't even know what he's doing. I imagine him being so caught up in a triumph, he'll just kiss any living thing around him in a two-meter radius.
He's completely bonkers. Liking him messes with my brain - and the gullible organ in my rib cage. It's an easy mark, this ugly red chunk beating under a chest that's been cracked too many times to stay whole.
It's an easy mark. I'm an easy mark. Far too bloody easy.
❂ ❂ ❂
"Baz?" I lean my head against the side of the piano, fingers ghosting over the last key he almost never touches, the one that makes the lowest sound. I'm curled onto a chair, thighs pressed against my chest, my chin on my knees.
It's three AM, my favorite time of day, and I'm watching him being brilliant and thoroughly insane. He lets me do that now. He lets me sit beside him and be his only witness.
This is the only time Baz doesn't look blue.
"Simon?" he mumbles around a fag - after a long stretch of him crunching a scribbled-on paper into a ball and flinging it at my head.
"You've never told me what you do," I say, pressing my face against the polished edge of the piano, feeling my cheek bunch up.
"This." He plays out a chord with a smooth twist of his wrist.
"Yeah, but…you know what I mean. You're here every day. Don't you - I mean, isn't there something you actually do?"
He places his hands on his thighs and stares at the keys, hair loosening from where he'd curled it around his ear. My fingers twitch. I have to keep them from surging forward and wiping his hair out of his face.
"Don't you work?" I ask. Tentatively.
There's a low rumble coming from his chest. He hands me his fag, and when he opens his mouth again, there's something so wonderfully thick about his voice. Low and scratchy like a vintage radio. I like to think of it as the bittersweet outcome of smoking too much and sleeping too little. And also cursing. Cursing the way he does probably turns your throat into a sweatshop.
"This is work," he says. "This is what I do."
"For like - the piano? Or for like...uh - symphonies?"
"For orchestras. Symphonies are the music orchestras play."
"Oh." I snort. It's a sad little thing. "I don't, I mean, I have - like, I have no - " I shake my head. "I have no clue. About your stuff. I mean, the stuff you - do. Classical stuff. I mean, not stuff! Music! I - yeah." I chew on the inside of my cheek.
He's smiling at me, a little wicked, a little amused. I inhale so much air my chest tingles. I want to punch that stupid smile off his face.
"So…you're like Mozart?"
"Hardly." He laughs. I stop breathing.
"You're like Mozart," I say.
His hair is still in his face, a pretty wave of black curling at his jaw. I still feel like wiping it away, maybe brushing my fingers against his cheek by accident.
"You're crazy," I whisper.
"I don't think Mozart was crazy."
"All geniuses are crazy."
"You think I'm a genius?" He cocks one perfectly arched eyebrow. It looks the way the rest of him does. Everything about him is perfectly arched, perfectly sculpted and angled, symmetrical, buffered down to a mirror finish. Every inch of him, raw intimidation.
He's so attractive he's terrifying.
"Don't push it," I mumble, sticking his fag into my mouth to have something to do.
The arch in his eyebrow smoothes out, a smile creeping onto his face, a welcome replacement.
"You?" he says, quirking his head to the side like he's looking for a better angle to scrutinize me with. I press my thighs tighter against my chest in hopes they'll muffle the sound of everything in my body working overtime.
My cheeks heat up.
"Is this what you do?" He gestures at the pub.
At three in the morning, it's a sad little thing, crumbling at every edge and stinking like an abandoned factory ground.
I nod, cough up a puff of smoke and squeeze out the fag in the empty whiskey glass he'd placed on the top of the piano.
This is it. There's nothing else I'd be good for anyway.
"What did you do before…this?"
"Nothing I'm proud of," I say.
He nods but doesn't seem to want to add anything else.
I press down on the last piano key, the sound far too deep to be a part of anything, nothing but a rumble, like thunder. But Baz knows how to use it from time to time. He can make it sound paramount.
He nods again, and he presses a pedal, so the sound stretches out into an echo. It makes my head vibrate. There's something intimate about touching a key he's touched, as if I'm grazing an imprint of him, feeling every ridge of his fingertip on the cool polished plastic. It's like he's touching me too.
He lets go of the pedal. I let go of the key - but keep my finger resting against it. I'm afraid it might hurt if I let go completely.
"You?" I ask, too hasty for it to be considered a calm reciprocation.
I smile. Of course, he'd be the type to use 'pardon'. It makes me want to tackle him to the ground. Kiss him until I go stupid.
I look at his mouth. I look away.
"Did you do anything before this?" I ask.
He shakes his head.
"No. It's always been this. Music. Always. There's nothing I'd rather do, really," he says, still staring at my finger on the last key.
"That must be nice…doing something you love." I lean my head against the edge of the piano again.
The smile on his face turns into something weary. It's like the smudge of a thumb could wipe it right off. He's back to looking the way he always does: sad, quiet, in need of something I don't know how to give him.
"It can be a curse too," he says. "Everybody expects you to be happy. But," he shakes his head, "you can be even more - lost doing something you love, than doing something you hate."
I nod. But I don't know what he means. I wish I did. Maybe I'd be able to understand his sadness, his blue hues.
He slides his fingers across the keys, towards the last one, towards mine. And his hand wavers there, waiting, lingering, and I grab it, and he holds mine, cradles it, rubs his fingers over the scars on my knuckles, over my crooked thumb.
My hand, the outcome of violence and bad decisions.
His hand, cleaner and smoother, there to create things, there to coax a pretty sound out of anything it touches.
Our hands, like two strange creatures getting acquainted.
❂ ❂ ❂
He says he likes having me around. He says I'm loud. He says I'm full of sound. He says he likes that.
I don't know what that means.
I don't say I like having him around. I don't say I feel like I come undone every time he plays. I don't say I like the way he holds my hand at three in the morning.
I wonder about the things he doesn't say.
We don't talk much. I don't know what this is. It's a strange thing, a little too haunting, a little too gentle. Silence before the storm.
All he does is play. All I do is listen. All we do is sit at the piano at three in the morning, my finger on the lowest key, his foot on the pedal. It's not enough. I feel ashamed for needing so much more. It's been so long, too long, and all I want now is something fast-paced and reckless. All I want is to push him up against the piano and kiss him so hard I forget my name.
But I don't want to scare him away.
I'm always the first to grab his hand. But there are days where I'm not. And that makes me feel hopeful.
Maybe he likes the way I hold his hand at three in the morning too.
❂ ❂ ❂
"So, this is where you are when you're not at the pub, huh?" My voice echoes past the edge of the stage, travels across the sea of red seats, the carefully crafted balconies, the lightbulbs lining the dome above like fireflies, like stars.
I'm standing on the conductor's podium, hands curling around the railing, and I just know: this is where magic happens; this is where nothing kickstarts to life.
"Yes," Baz says, letting the bag of Chinese takeout plop onto the polished boards of another podium. Even the rustling of plastic makes the atmosphere tremble. Every puff of sound turns into something larger than life in a place like this.
"If you tell me you have the keys because you're the janitor - I will punch you."
He huffs out a laugh.
"Belongs to my family."
"This," he says with a shrug of a shoulder, as if your family owning an auditorium should never be considered anything other than typical. Completely fucking common.
"'Course it would," I mumble, jumping off the podium and dropping to the floor next to the takeout. Baz curls down next to me. Our shoulders bump. I lean away, silently hoping I don't forget to breathe.
"What do you mean 'of course'?" He opens a takeout box, tangy steam puffing up, giving him an almost devilish demeanor when he cocks an eyebrow.
"Look at you…" I pick at his cardigan. He's dressed like he's ready to fall into a wine testing party at a vineyard. "'Course you own this place. You're, like, pedigreed."
"You make it sound like a bad thing," he says, pointedly mushing his chopsticks through his noodles.
"I just have a bad rep with…you guys." Your kind. The posh. The clean. The white-buck-wearing folk.
"Shocking," he says, sticky-sarcastic, but he smiles.
"Oh, fuck off." I smile back.
I don't get to have this much. Not-blue-Blaz.
"And let me guess. You're in a delinquent street gang."
He says 'delinquent street gang', the way suburban mums tell their kids to stay away from the 'cracks' and the 'mary-juh-anas'.
He stares at my ears, the pierced cartilage - then down at my hands, the tattoos crawling out from under the hems of my sweater.
There's this strange feeling of shame creeping up the back of my neck, urging me to cover up my ink, my ears, my scars. Testimonies of a blotchy past.
I swallow, and I pick at the plastic tear at the edge of my takeout box, smudging the greasy spot with my fingers. I don't know why I don't feel hungry anymore.
Baz raises his head, stops chewing, swallows. I can hear the gulp like the pop of a bubble. Nothing goes unnoticed here. I wonder whether he can hear the organ in my chest stumbling over its own beat. I wonder whether he can hear the things inside of my skull, the ugly ones that don't come out of their hideaways much.
"Oh," he says. It's a very accidental 'oh', the kind of 'oh' that wasn't meant to make a sound.
"I work at a pub filled with prostitutes and ex-cons - and you didn't think I had some sort of fucked up backstory?"
He looks back down at his food, eyebrows scrunched instead of cocked.
I rub a hand over my face, trying to scrape off the memory of a time I don't like to think about…rigged bare knuckle fights…and baseball bats…and hurting…and asphalt scraping my face open…and Ebb's teary blue eyes staring at my orange jumpsuit.
"Not - I mean, not gangs…just, like, groups of - " I flex my fingers, then make a fist, watch my knuckle lose color fast. "Blokes getting into trouble. That's it. Just kids making a bunch of bad decisions. But it's, you know, it's over. Was a long time ago." I crunch my fist into the palm of my other hand, feel the knuckles crack.
"What happened?" It's a careful, white-gloved question.
I inhale. "Juvie." I exhale.
"Oh," he says. Again. Accidentally.
I rub a hand over the back of my head, scratch at the prickly shaved patch until my skin feels raw. I thought I was done feeling ashamed.
"I was a stupid kid," I say, shaking my head like some quiet apology. "Did a lot of stupid stuff."
"We all did stupid things."
"Yeah, but some are lucky enough to get away with it." I didn't mean for it to sound so gruff. I didn't mean for it to sound like I'm angry at the world for being so unfair. I didn't mean for it to sound like I don't know how the world works.
But I do.
And this is it.
We're all here by chance. So the world doesn't owe us a single thing. Not even a good head start.
"That's true," he mumbles, and there's a something flashing over his face so fast I barely catch it.
Guilt. Raw and unnerving guilt.
I don't know why, but there's something about this Baz that is so similar to blue Baz.
Maybe I should start a collection: Baz and his nightshades.
He grabs my hand. It catches me off guard, and all I can feel is my heart jerking out of its skin. He holds my hand like something that could crumble under the tiniest ounce of pressure. He holds it the way no one has ever bothered to.
I watch him fold the hem of my sweater up to my elbow, carefully, slowly, and he traces his fingers over the ink stuck beneath my skin. I close my eyes. I listen to him breathe - and me breathing so much louder.
"My family always made sure to clean up after every one of my messes," he says. I've never heard him sound so small. "I used to take a lot of things for granted." So, so small. "So, I know. I know what it's like to do stupid things and hate yourself for it. I know." I'm afraid I'll open my eyes and he'll be minuscule, too small for me to see.
I think he might be telling me things he doesn't tell, trading one of my secrets for one of his own.
I feel him press his mouth against my knuckles, against the scars and the scrapes and the ugly little leftovers. And for a moment, I forget that they're even there. For a moment, I'm clean, I'm faultless - and the world has done me no harm.
He won't play me a part of the symphony he's been working on, no matter how many times I beg. He says it's no good without an orchestra. He says he won't let me hear it until all of it is done.
"Opening night, Simon. Wherever it is. You'll be sitting in the crowd. Middle row. And I'll see you. And I'll wave. And you'll know."
"You'll just know."
I end up lying under the winged piano at the edge of the stage - polished and glorious in the limelights - and he plays me stories…tragedies, adventures, fairy tales.
And I've never felt so safe, cradled, fully submerged. Nothing can hurt me here, beneath the wood and the sound. I am untouchable.
I'm back in the womb listening to another heart beat next to mine.
❂ ❂ ❂
The first time I kiss him, it's New Year's Eve. I'm drunk. I'm a mess.
I'm a lightweight.
Whiskey does that to me. And he does that to me too.
I'm holding him, and it feels like he's already a memory slipping right through my fingers, and I'm so desperate to keep him here.
The streetlights above our heads are nothing compared to the fireworks, the rumble. We're in the middle of a busy street, passersby throwing firecrackers, the whole neighborhood out under the sky, their bottles clinking, their voices like a violent thunderclap.
Everything's moving. While we stand still.
Like the moon.
It's somewhere up there, watching us from a distance, just as quiet as we are, just as still.
Baz holds me by my jaw, breathes straight out of my mouth, and I let him in. I let him crawl right under my skin.
I forgot what it felt like to be wanted - to be important enough to be wanted. Maybe that's why I'm so willing. I'm not even putting up a fight. I'm letting him do whatever he needs to do. I'm giving myself over, giving myself in, completely, stupidly.
I'm a lightweight.
He looks so out of place in my cluttered apartment. He looks so out of place lying on my unmade bed with his clothes on my messy floor.
Bare. Slender. Smooth gestures. Calm curves.
He doesn't look like the man who dragged himself to the pub those three months ago. He's not sharp-edged, not hostile. He's not even blue.
He looks like a whisper. He looks untouched. There's not a single thing out of place, no scars or indents, no ugly leftovers that could pin him to an ugly past.
And perfects. And symmetricals. And strongs. And firms.
I don't know how someone is capable of looking like life has done them no harm. Like life never happened at all.
And maybe I'm just drunk because all I can think is: compared to you, I look like I've lived a hundred years.
And blacks. And blues. And scars etched throughout.
I'm a compilation of shattered kneecaps, a fractured skull, two crooked fingers from trying to hurt those who hurt me more, cracked ribs, a bruised heart, corrupted lungs from smoking anything that would turn the world into a paradise, asphalt burns, crooked teeth, a brain filled with memories of jumping into dried out pools to see if the pain could rattle me awake.
I look like life has only ever done me harm.
And he has the fucking guts to call me lovely.
"Come here," he says. I can barely hear him through the roar of the fireworks and the pounding in my chest. There's a quiet smile on his face. I swear he's never looked more out of this world.
"Come here," he says. "Come here."
And I do. And I always will. I stumble into his hands, those clean, smooth hands that can coax a pretty sound out of anything they touch. I trust those hands with every one of my faults. I'm letting myself tumble right into them.
I'm a lightweight.
"You don't know how lovely you are," he breathes. "You make the world sing, Simon. You make the world sing."
He's right there. He's under my skin. I'm not thinking about how hard it will be to dig him out when the time comes.
I'm not thinking - because I don't care.
"What is this?" he asks.
I hum at the feeling of his fingers carding through my hair.
"Why should it matter?" I whisper, my mouth on his neck. He smells like leftover sleep and bergamot. He always smells like bergamot, something tangy-sweet to soften the punch of the whiskey and the smoke and the cologne. I always get drunk on him quicker than I want to.
I'm not sure whether I'll wash the sheets right after he leaves, or sleep in them one more night just to have him on my skin, in my lungs.
"I don't know," he says "Because…just because…right now, my life is a bit of a mess. Too much of a mess for anything to last."
He's never the one to talk about these things. This is blue Baz and his chest full of secret sad things. Sometimes his music is the only thing that tells me he's not okay. He's been writing nothing but tragedies. And I've been trying to hold him tighter.
He grabs the back of my neck and squeezes it hard. I don't know if he wants to rip me off or pull me closer.
I nuzzle a tendon, feel it quiver against my skin.
"I'm sorry." Thick words. "I can't give you anything."
"It's okay," I say. "It's okay."
I don't think this is one of those things that are supposed to last.
I kiss the sharp cut of his jaw. Bite it. It makes his breath kick in his throat. He lets his hand crawl up into my hair, and he wraps my curls around his fingers. He pulls me up to his face, eyes dipped but on me. Clear and awake.
Anybody who says grey isn't a color doesn't have a single clue.
"It's okay. You don't have to - You know, I get it. I get it. Let's just be stupid," I say. "Let's be so, so, so stupid. Just," I wipe an inky strand out of face, feel his eyelashes shudder against my fingers, "be mine for a little while."
He laughs. It's music.
"Are you asking me to prom, Simon Snow Sallisbury?"
I flick his forehead. He bats my hand away, grabs my wrist so tight it hurts.
Maybe I regret having slurred my full name standing on the counter of the pub with a pint shoved into the air. New Year's makes me do things.
"Fuck you." I straddle his waist, press my forehead against his, hot air hovering in the space between our mouthes.
"I'm asking you to stay," I say, and I can barely hear myself over the breathing and the beating and the things in my head.
"Just…for a little while," I whisper. "Stay."
He clutches the back of my neck, eyebrows scrunched. He whimpers.
"Just for a little while," he says, pained.
"Just for a little while," I say, kissing a trail from his temple to his jaw to his mouth.
Just until this can't last anymore. Just until we come to our senses.
❂ ❂ ❂
"I'm okay with you leaving whenever you like. You don't owe me an explanation," I whisper, from where I'm sitting on the cool floor of my balcony, staring at him through the slide door and the smoke of my cigarette.
It's three in the morning. Baz and three AMs have always gone hand in hand.
He's sprawled across my unmade bed, sleeping, calm and quiet. It's the first time he doesn't look so out of place in the middle of something that's mine.
"You don't owe me a single thing. That's how stupid I am to trust you," I say, and I flick my cigarette through the bars of the railing, watch it tumble down to earth.
I hadn't noticed I'd been humming Ebb's nursery rhyme. It's never hurt this much.
❂ ❂ ❂
It's unhealthy, locking ourselves up in my apartment the second I'm off work, trying desperately to get sick of each other. No breaks, no breathers, just smothering and holding each other so tight it hurts.
I know I'm speeding through something I should be taking my time with, being reckless with something I should handle with care.
But this is what I want. This is what I need.
I'm in over my head, taking too much, giving too much. Loving in unreasonable amounts. I'm waiting for this to blow over and him to walk out the door. Maybe that's the whole point of it - knowing this won't last, knowing there will be a brief end to this brief thing we've started - going in with my guard down. It's like drinking on an empty stomach, this fast-paced, disquieting thing.
I have no shame in what I'm doing. I'm loving him like I don't know where to stop, discarding the memories of having been hurt enough before to know where to draw the line. I'm going in blind all over again. I'm being child-like, needy. I'm being stupid.
I'm loving him like these wrongs on my body don't exist. I'm clean and new and life hasn't touched me. I'm loving him like this is my first.
And, fuck, it should've been. He should've been my first everything. He should've been the first to hold my heart and break it. I would've trusted him with it.
I trust him with it now.
❂ ❂ ❂
"Baz, come on, stop. My shift starts in -" I check my phone. I groan. "Now. My shift starts now. Penny's going to kill me." I try to fend off his hungry mouth with my hungry hands, but he keeps dragging me down with him. He won't give me any room to breathe.
"Stay," he presses into my skin, again and again, leaving imprints, reminders. "Please…just a little longer." His words on me.
"Baz. I can't."
"Just a little longer." Baz. Drowning me. Hazy. Heady.
And then he's on me again, straddling my waist, mouth mumbling little things into mine.
"Just five more minutes," he breathes.
It hits me like a sucker punch, and it hurts, and I hate that I like it. Love it.
And I say, "Just five more minutes."
And he says, "Stay."
You've got me.
"Don't go." Kisses here.
"I won't." Kisses there.
"Driving me crazy." Hands here.
"Insane." Hands there.
And then he's off me. He's gone. It's cold. And I'm swearing because -
"Why the hell do you have to keep doing that?!" I shout after him.
He's rushing out of the bedroom, stumbling into his boxers and falling over the stack of books sprawled over my floor.
I don't even flinch.
"Can't you just - shut your Mozart brain off for two seconds!"
"Simon, I swear, this is the most fantastic motive A I've ever come up with."
"That's what you said last time. And that one time before that. And all those times before that too. And you end up throwing them away anyways!" I shout. "Come back!" I sound like a cross child that's been sent to the time-out corner.
Something clatters in the kitchen. I don't even know why he's in the kitchen. There's a very specific reason for why he hauled his keyboard into my bedroom - and not the bloody kitchen.
"I swear, this one's beautiful. Your mouth - it inspires me."
I feel my face scrunch up.
"Please don't ever say that in public."
"You're my muse, Snow!"
"You love it when I call you that."
"No, I -"
He stumbles back into the room with a sandwich. He practically throws it at me.
"Wha - "
"So you won't rip my head off," he hums, kissing my forehead. He's got that wild look in his eyes, bright-alert, and I know it means his brain is filled with sound and ideas and out-of-this-world things. Sometimes I think I'd kill a man to just crack Baz's skull open and take a peek.
I groan. But I take the sandwich anyway. Because I will not fucking waste it.
"Fine," I roll off the bed and start picking my clothes up from the floor, "then I'll see you at - I don't know - whenever you come to the pub." I shuffle into my clothes with the sandwich clamped between my teeth.
"You said you'd stay." He pouts. It's horrible. He can make himself look like something small and injured with nothing but his mouth.
I try not to get caught up in everything else that mouth can do.
"That was when you were naked," I say "And on me." I chomp down half of the sandwich like I'm trying to make a statement.
He switches the keyboard on, already humming things, mumbling. By the time he hauls it onto the mattress, I know he's lost himself in his own head. The second Baz thinks about music, it could be the end of the world and he wouldn't notice a single thing. Me being whiney doesn't cause a ripple.
"Just call in sick," he mumbles, already scribbling things into his notebook, his fingers ghosting over the keys, so eager to coax out the prettiest sounds.
I roll my eyes.
"I've been calling in sick - and everybody's starting to get, you know - suspicious."
"Suspicious of what?"
"Of me not being sick!" I stuff the rest of the sandwich into my mouth.
"Oh, I thought you meant…" he trails off, and I'm not even going to ask - because he probably already forgot what he was talking about in the first place. His eyebrows scrunch, his mouth mumbling, casting spells. Like adagio. Like concerto.
I watch his fingers slide across the keys in tinker-y tunes. He smiles. And it's something so child-like and callow, something so secret, I can't help but smile too.
"All right," I sigh, scratching the back of my head. "I'll bring you lunch later, yeah, Mozart?"
He doesn't answer, simply keeps smiling that small smile while his hands slide across the keys. I grab the ashtray from the balcony and place it on the bed. Last time he was so caught up in composing, he ended up using the back of his notebook to stub out his cigarettes. I ruffle his hair.
"See you later, you lunatic," I whisper.
I kick a few books out of the way as I make my way to the door.
Ever since Baz temporarily set up camp in my apartment, it's turned into even more of a mess: clothes scattered across the floor, empty takeout boxes, pillows, blankets, Baz's notes taped to the walls, coffee mugs stained with red wine, pots of plants on makeshift book tables (because Baz will go for walks and 'accidentally' bring home a cactus. Or four.)
He says he's usually not the messy type - but, "Music makes me this way, Simon!", and I end up whacking the back of his head with a book.
I'm already at the door when he calls my name, followed by a, "Come here."
Softer than necessary. Sweeter than I can handle.
I clench a fist around the door knob, hit my forehead against the frame. Breath hitching. Heart stumbling. It's like a reflex.
"Don't do that," I say, curls grinding against the wood as I shake my head.
"Come here," he says. "Simon."
I bite back a groan, wipe a hand across my face so hard my skin tingles.
And I do. Because I always do. Because I am weak.
"That's so unfair." I'm back in the bedroom, my bag sliding off my shoulder, hitting the floor. He's sitting there in my unmade bed, and there's this stupid crooked smile on his face, all boyish and charming, and he knows it. He fucking knows it.
"Come here, love," he breathes - and I break a little.
'Come here' is so much worse than 'stay'. He knows that. He knows I wouldn't dare turn my back on a 'come here'.
And I'm kicking off my shoes, stumbling right into his pretty, music-making hands.
"Call in sick," he presses against my temple. "Last time." Against my forehead. "I promise." Against my mouth.
I like the way he falls apart when he plays. He starts shedding every sleek layer, every regal mask. It's like he's not earthbound enough to care about keeping his composure. He's somewhere way up there, some place filled with air and motion. He's making music. He's coming undone.
A brilliant mess.
His eyes keep trailing me, the way painters look at their subjects, hungry, searching. And every time he writes a note on the lines - a scribble, a slash, a word - I wonder what he found.
"You said I had a sound," I mumble, my head in his lap, his hand in my hair.
"I did," he says. He's playing chords with his free hand. He could lose all of his fingers except for one, and he'd still be able to make magic.
"What's it like?" I ask.
"Discordant," he hums.
I snort. He smiles.
He pushes the keyboard away. "And wild." Shifts. "All over the place." Crawls onto my hips. "All-consuming." Pins me down. "Bloody intoxicating." Kisses me like a knockout. "You're all I hear - even when you're not around. You're all I hear."
❂ ❂ ❂
I don't know Baz the way I'm supposed to. I don't know who he is. He's a mystery. Sometimes he's blue, and sometimes he's bright. Sometimes he cries in his sleep. Sometimes he kisses me and smiles, and I swear I can taste the color. Sometimes he tells me he's leaving, but then he shows up at my doorstep in the middle of the night. Sometimes he holds me, and he tells me everything's falling apart. Sometimes he laughs. Sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he's so angry the whole world shakes, bares its neck, pliant in the face of his fury.
Sometimes I think he'll tell me who he is. Sometimes I think he never will.
I'm blind and deaf and numb. Baz is something I have to make up in my head, in my chest. Baz is my imagination. Baz is a feeling.
I know the second he becomes more than that - I'm done for.
❂ ❂ ❂
I can hear him shout through the closed balcony door. I don't know what time it is. It feels like that time of day that's either too early or too late.
He's standing out in the cold with his winter coat, one hand wrapped around the railing, the other pressing his phone to his ear. He's shaking. Everything about him is shaking. It looks internal. He's in the throes of something angry, face taut, skin reddish-brown and blotchy.
"She's gone, Mordelia!" he shouts so loud a light turns on in the opposite apartment building. His voice cracks. It's a terrifying thing. It makes me wonder if that's a shard of what he sounds like when he screams. I fist the sheets. I'm cold - even with the heater on.
A strange name. Like Basilton.
"She's gone, Mordelia! Okay? She's gone. It's been four months…" He rips his hand from the railing and cards his fingers through his hair. I've never seen him so frantic, so jittery.
Someone shouts for him to be quiet, but he just flips them off. And then he's on the floor. I don't know how he ends up on the floor. But he's crouching there now, picking at the tiles like he's trying to dig something out.
"It's been four months, Mo. Please. Please, stop acting like she's still alive."
I feel my skin go numb. I try to swallow away a clump in my throat, but it stays. Thick and slimy.
"I'm not stepping foot into that house. And you shouldn't either. Stay with Fiona." His hand is back in his hair, gripping, the skin around his forehead reddening. "Please. Promise me you'll stay with Fiona." His voice cracks again. I press a fist against my mouth.
"He doesn't know what he's doing anymore. Stop calling him that. A man like that is not a father, Mordelia. He's lost it. You've all bloody lost it," he says. "I've lost it."
I think he's crying. I've never seen him cry while awake. I've never seen him crumble this much. He's pressed against the railing, quivering, holding onto his hair. I don't know how somebody so hostile could look like he's barely there. I'm so scared the wind might take him apart one by one, scatter him, make him disintegrate.
"I'm sorry. I wouldn't know how to. I can't. I just - I can't be there. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm - " He jerks. "Mo? Mordelia? Hello? Mordelia are you still there? Morde - "
He hurls the phone onto the ground, a hand pressed against his mouth. He pinches his eyes closed. And it reminds me of something so childish. Like when I was a kid, and I'd close my eyes, and I'd pretend I'd vanished. Because if I couldn't see the world - then the world couldn't see me.
"Fuck." He wipes his hands over his face. "Fuck!"
All I can hear is the bang of his fist against the glass of the slide door, the whole room caught up in a shudder. I flinch.
He presses both of his hands against his mouth, letting out a string of muffled somethings. He looks through the glass. He sees me. Or at least, I think he sees me.
I didn't notice how far I've backed up against the wall. Like I'm trying to get away. Body stuck in flight mode. I keep swallowing, fucking hoping it'll get rid of something, anything, everything, this. Maybe this is a bad dream.
He fumbles to open the door.
"Simon, I'm - fuck - I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to. It just happened. I just - I didn't mean to wake you - I - " He looks back the door. "It's not broken. I don't even - I mean, I'm -" He takes a deep breath. It's like he's sucking the atmosphere dry, taking away all the air, all my air. I clamp my mouth shut, keep enough oxygen in my lungs to feed me for a few seconds.
I'm afraid of turning the lights on.
He exhales. I exhale.
"It's going to be okay," I say. And it sounds like a desperate lie the second it stumbles out of my mouth.
He rushes into the room, picking up his things and heading towards the door. I can hear his footsteps staggering out of the apartment.
"Baz, wait - " I'm stumbling out of the sheets, running after him, my feet freezing up on the cold floor. It's too dark to not bump into every sharp corner. My hip hits the dresser by the front door. It's left ajar, the hallway fluorescent lights spilling into the apartment. I swear. I run out into the stairwell.
"I just - I need a break," he says. He turns. He's standing next to the railing of the staircase, one floor down, looking up. The lights make him look like something green and sick, something haunting.
I stop in my tracks, feel the metal bite into my palms as I grip the railing.
"What happened?" My voice shakes.
He wipes his eyes with a hand. There's this choked sound coming from his chest. It hits me. It hurts.
"Simon," he breathes.
And when he looks up, it's all gone. The frailty of him, the hurt, the child-like sadness. He looks so composed, everything about him toughened up and steel sharp. As if nothing could get close enough to his chest and crack it.
"It's personal, Simon," he says.
He sounds like a stranger.
He's gone before I'm able to cough up his name.
"Baz," I mouth. Because my voice was coaxed straight out of my throat. Maybe by the cold. Or maybe by the stranger who said my name like he'd never heard it before.
I end up sitting on the edge of my bed, staring at his cracked phone thrown onto the sheets. I can't get his voice out of my skull. This sad little thing squirming between the folds of my brain.
It's personal, Simon.
It shouldn't bother me. It shouldn't bloody bother me. This thing we have…it's not enough for me to be allowed to be bothered.
He doesn't talk about the things that hurt. He has his secrets. All I ever get to hear is that everything is falling apart.
I thought I was okay with being the one to let in - not the one to be let in. I know I'm never able to simply care. It's either hate them or love them, nothing or everything. I've never been the one to know about stable in-betweens. I thought I was okay with being the one who ends up loving more. I always am.
I'm always the first to give in. I'm always the first to want more. Maybe that's just my thing.
Four months ago Baz came to the bar for the first time. He drank so much we had to confiscate his car keys and call him a cab.
I dragged him off the piano he'd latched himself onto, and he was shouting and kicking, and he was holding onto me, desperately, tragically. He made me feel like a lifeline.
"I'll never forgive her," he'd slurred, and he'd gripped me by my collar. I remember his stare. Hard enough to cause internal bleeding.
"Go on! Tell her! Tell her I'll never forgive her. Never. I'll never forgive her. Her. Her...Never."
He comes back when the sun comes up. He's quiet and blue.
And he grabs me by my jaw. And he kisses me. And I let him.
I ask him if he cares.
"Do you care, Baz? Just tell me - do you care?"
About me? Do you care?
And he says nothing. And that's okay. Because I'm always the one who ends up loving more.
I'm a lightweight. I'm a lightweight. I'm a lightweight.
❂ ❂ ❂
"I brought dinner, Mozart!" I shout the second I barge in through the door. "Or breakfast…It's still dark out, though, so I'm calling it dinner."
"Not hungry." Nothing but a mumble coming from the bedroom.
I can already imagine him sprawled in front of the keyboard with his headphones on, slamming a catastrophe into the keys using nothing but his forehead. Writing has been tough for him lately. He says it's because I've been taking double-shifts, and the only source of inspiration he has are my sweaters.
But I know it's because of that night. We've both been pretending it never happened and that since then things haven't gotten darker.
I guess it's supposed to be that way. Maybe we're coming to our senses. Maybe this thing we have is finally running dry.
"Don't lie to me and tell me you haven't eaten since I left this morning," I say, stumbling out of my shoes and heading for the bedroom. He doesn't answer.
I find him sitting on the floor, stacks of books cluttered around him, some haphazardly flung open, pages wilted and yellow, splatters of crayon stains here and there, squished between paragraphs. He's wearing nothing but his boxers and a sweater that looks very much like mine, a cigarette limply hanging out of his mouth. He grins. I let the bag of takeout drop, and I fold my arms.
"What are you doing?"
"Reading," he says, matter-of-factly, waving a book around.
"Really? It looks like you're procrastinating."
I roll my eyes. He rolls his right back and stubs his fag out on the ashtray he'd placed on a stack of old school books.
"You have a very extensive library, Snow." He throws me a tattered copy of Paddington.
I press it against my chest like a treasure. And it is. They all are. My treasures.
Having Baz read them makes me feel a little nervous. But it's Baz. I hate how there's this part of me that's okay with Baz touching them, flipping through them, reading the little notes I'd scribbled on the pages with crayons and glitter pens.
They're like memoirs of an eight-year-old. They're like diaries.
I guess there's this childish hope in me that thinks if I keep letting Baz in - maybe he'll let me in too. Even if just a little bit. Even if it's ten of my secrets for one of his.
I plop onto the bed, biting the inside of my cheek. I can't stop scratching the back of my neck.
"How long have you been, you know…reading?"
Baz has never addressed the books even once. He's only flipped open a couple out of boredom, but he's never actually thoroughly inspected them before. And judging by the pile he's sitting in, he's probably been doing it since this morning.
"Don't know," he mumbles, skimming a page of Goosebumps - Night of the Living Dummy.
"That was - I mean, I've read more - uh - sophisticated things," I blurt - because Baz seems like someone who reads Albert Einstein's Essays in Humanism for fun.
"Like The Very Hungry Caterpillar," I say.
He chokes up a laugh. I haven't heard that sound for days. I feel like reveling in it, closing my eyes and humming along.
"Your place is two-thirds literature…" he breathes, skimming the room - books stacked against the walls, scattered across the floor, towering over dressers and shelves - and he cocks an eyebrow.
I don't even know why we've never had this conversation before.
"Didn't have a lot of friends," I say, watching my fingers pick at a hole in the blankets. I look back up. Baz gives me a concerned glance. It looks so out of place.
I just want him to laugh again. That's all I want.
"You don't seem like someone who wouldn't have a lot of friends."
"Well." I shrug. "Moved around a lot…no time for friends."
"Moved around a lot?"
"Oh." Again. That small, accidental 'oh'.
He closes the book in his hand, nodding, and he carefully places it onto the nearest pile as if he's afraid of disturbing something.
Maybe if I just keep letting him in, he'll let me in too.
I repeat it in my head like a mantra. This is what I do. I'm always so gullible. I'm always the easiest target in the room.
"That's how I got so many books," I say, reaching for the nearest one - The Odyssey: Book One - and I open up it up.
'This book belongs to Jamie Ackerman' sprawled across the title page in a six-year-old's chicken scratch.
Jamie was a little shit. He loved shoving the blame onto the new foster kids whenever he could.
I show Baz the title page.
"I hoarded a bunch of books at every home, and I'd, like, hide them under the bed or…in a drawer…in the basement - and then every time I got transferred, I'd give them to my social worker," I say.
I think about Ebb. I think about her small melancholic smiles every time I handed her a stack of books once I was buckled up in the back of her car.
"You can't keep doing this."
"But they're my friends, Ebb. No one's gonna...take care of them. So I - I'm gonna do it, Ebb. I'm gonna take care of them. My friends."
And she'd reach over from the driver's seat, and she'd ruffle my curls. I'd hope people told her how pretty she was with her hair down. I'd hope people told her how pretty she was when she smiled. Even if her smiles were always a little sad.
"You're a strange little fellow, aren't ya, Simon."
We'd go get ice-cream before she'd drop me off at a new doorstep, at a new family, at a new home that wouldn't want me - but a new home with so many new books.
"She was sad - but really nice," I say. "She'd keep it a secret. And she kept all of the books until I turned eighteen. It took me a week to haul them to this place."
Baz shifts. His right foot won't stop wiggling.
"How long were you," he swallows, "in the system?"
"Long," I say. I laugh. But it's a bitter thing.
I was every foster family's worst nightmare. I wouldn't be able to count the numbers of times I'd crawled out of windows with a plastic bag flung over my shoulder, the sharp edges of books digging into my spine, urging me to run faster, faster, faster. Until I reached the end of the world. Until I reached a place where nobody spoke English, where nobody knew my name, where I was faultless and new, where I could be the boy I was supposed to be. I would do things so great my mother would regret having sat in that courtroom - hollowed out, broken - saying she didn't want me anymore.
But Ebb would always find me. Ebb would always pick me up from an empty bus station and buy me ice-cream from a 24-hour open kiosk and sing me her silly nursery rhyme.
Ebb and her sundown smiles.
Ebb and her hand in my hair.
I look up.
Baz is kneeling in front of the mattress, his pretty hands around mine.
"Hey," he whispers, pressing our foreheads together, and he breathes in and out while I try to match his sleepy-steady rhythm.
"What." I scrunch my eyebrows.
He kisses my forehead, my nose, my cheeks, my mouth.
"You should've been there when I was a kid," he says. "You would've saved my life."
I wonder what someone like Baz had needed to be saved from.
I wonder if he'd be less blue had we met when we were kids.
Maybe you would've saved my life too.
❂ ❂ ❂
I don't know how long I stare at Ebb's letter. It's crumpled and tinged yellow at the edges. I've been keeping it in an empty tin can at the back of a kitchen cupboard. It's been there for eight years. It's been quiet and waiting and withering away - ever since she quit her job and moved to the Netherlands, to Delft, this tiny town carved out of canals and pebbled walkways. A very Ebb-like town. Something peaceful and quiet, sunny in the summer.
She never told me why she quit. But I know me going to juvie ruined her. She kept saying she had let me down. She's never been good at accepting the fact that other people's problems aren't her fault.
I used to read her letter every time I felt lonely.
It's a compilation of typical Ebb things like what she ate for dinner and what she's thinking about eating for dinner the next day, like what she likes about the weather in the Netherlands, like a list of flowers blooming around her home.
She left her phone number at the bottom:
Call me, Simon. When you're ready. When you need to.
I'll be waiting for my strange little fellow.
Ebb has always been a handful of numbers away. Even when I was a child.
I grab my phone. I've always known her numbers by heart, and I know this one too. I've called her more times than I can count, but I've never let it get further than me listening to her blurt out a 'Hello' and a 'Simon?'.
I let the phone ring, once, twice. I've got a new number, but she'll know it's me. She always knows it's me. And yet she never calls back. Never.
"Petty," she answers. I listen to her breathe. "Hello?" Her voice like a handbell, the softest thing.
I rub a hand across my face.
"Hello? Hello," she repeats.
All I can hear is the voice of eight-year-old me crying in my head, sniffling into a clunky home phone:
Ebb? It's me. Come get me. Come get me. I don't like this family. The kids, they're really mean. So mean. And I hit one of them. And it was an accident. It was an accident, I swear, Ebb. Accident. He took one of my books. He hurt one of my books. I hit him. I'm sorry. I don't like it here. I hate it here so much. Can I come over? Please, can I come over? Can I come over?
I feel familiar words on my tongue, so eager to be let out. But I don't let them. I never do.
"Hello? Simon, is that you?"
I hang up.
❂ ❂ ❂
"You've never told me which one's your favorite?" he asks, throwing the empty takeout box towards the trash can. He misses. He always misses.
"Book," he says. "I mean, which book is your favorite one?" He's looking at the takeout box like it will magically rise up from the ground and scurry into the trash can if he just stares at it hard enough.
"All of them," I say.
"Yeah, but if you had to choose."
"I won't." He smiles. And I wouldn't even mind if he did laugh. Baz's laughter can make the world go full technicolor. Baz's laughter is the musical equivalent of the sun.
I grunt and scramble off the mattress. I pick up his takeout box and throw it into the trash can. I don't miss. I never miss. He cocks an eyebrow.
I fish a book out my bag, the binding crumbling and the color fading faster each day. It's the first book that truly, solely belonged to me. Ebb gave it to me the day she picked me up from the police station. She'd said she'd just finished reading it, and that it would be a waste to watch it wither away on a shelf.
It might as well be The Book. Like The Pyramids. Like The London Bridge.
It's my very own monument.
"Here," I hand it to him, carefully, hoping he'll hold it with care.
He does. Baz's hands treat everything with care.
"Around the World in 80 Days," he says. "Jules Verne. How very adventurous of you." He laughs. And I don't mind. My smile widens into something that makes my face hurt.
I crawl onto the space next to him when he pats a hand on the bed, and I curl my arms around his waist, watch him flip through page after page after page. Some were ripped out and taped back in, some flaking, some filled with grubby handwriting and crayon landscapes.
"Wow, you really went to town on this one."
"Yeah. I was a very artistic child."
"Mhm," he hums, still smiling.
I bury my face into his side. I don't know why he's still here. I don't know why I keep waiting for him to shove me off and barge out of the door without looking back. It's like we're running in circles. We're not getting anywhere. We just keep hoping we do.
Or maybe it's just me.
He hasn't been playing music. He hasn't even written a single thing for days. Sometimes I'll catch him crying at his reflection, and I'll try to hold him so tight all the blue will squirm away. And he'll bury his face into my shoulder, and he'll tell me he looks like her.
I've never asked him who she is. I'm scared I already know the answer.
"I thought I'd be somewhere by now," I mumble. "I thought I would've seen half the world by the time I turned 25. It's all I'd dream about. Leaving. Just leaving. Leaving everything behind until I'd forget what I'd left behind in the first place."
Baz puts the book aside. I can feel his hand rub along my spine. Up and down and up and down.
"I've never been anywhere. Just homes, just different families, different bedrooms - but never countries. Never different places. I want to know what the whole world looks like - you know, in the flesh. Like, how cold is it on the North Pole? Like, if you spit - will it, like, freeze? Like, mid-air? And what - like, I wanna wear a bloody kimono. I want to know what poutine tastes like? And where does the Great Wall of China end? And…and…"
What does Ebb's new home look like? Does she still keep her hair short? Did she find someone who loves her as much as she deserves to be loved? Does she still smile the way she does in my memories?
Is she happy?
Is Ebb happy?
"Go," he says.
"Go find out."
"No, it's - dumb." I roll away from him, and I sit up. "It's not even worth it."
Baz perches himself onto his elbows.
"Why would you say something like that?" he asks, his eyebrows squirming towards the middle of his face.
The world blurs, temperature dropping. I can feel the smell of metal crawling up my nose, stinging my eyes, my tongue. And I can see Ebb. She's sitting across from me at this little square table, the bright lights of the Visiting Room tinging her ten times more melancholic. She won't stop staring at my orange jumpsuit. It's two sizes too big.
"Because all I ever do is let people down," I whisper so quietly only I can hear it.
"What?" he asks, shaking his head. "What did you say?"
"I said I can't just leave. I can't just go."
"Would it really be so bad to just leave?"
I don't know when he rolled off the bed, but he's standing so far away now, too far way for me to reach. He's trembling. Or maybe that's just in my head.
"This?" He gestures at my room, one big sloppy wave that ends with his arms slapping against his sides. "Is all of this really worth it? Really, Simon? You deserve so much more than - this. Look at what you're doing with your life."
His face scrunches, like there's this big glitch taking over, and he's trying to fight it.
This is it: the crack, the slash, the end of us running in circles.
"Fuck you." I feel my fingers pinch into the blanket, fisting it so hard everything aches. Baz pulls his hair back.
"Simon. Look, I didn't mean -"
"Yes, you did." I shake my head. "Not all of us were born filthy rich. Not all of us can write bloody symphonies. Not all of us have parents that'll bail us out of all of our fuck-ups!"
I hate myself the second those words tumble out of my mouth. Baz stares at me like I kicked him, punched him, like I hurt him.
"That's not fair," he says, breathy.
I wipe my hands across my face.
"That's exactly the point. Nothing is fair! The world isn't fair, Baz. That's why I'm stuck here."
That's why I won't ever get to know if she's happy - because what if I'm not meant to? Because what if I'm only meant to mess things up? I'm so good at that. At least, here, in this little life I have, it goes unnoticed.
I go unnoticed.
"Are you even listening to yourself?" he scoffs. It's an ugly, ferocious sound. "Stop blaming the world, Simon! Stop pitying yourself."
"I'm not pitying myself!" I've never been this ashamed of sounding so frustrated. Like I'm desperate to cover up the fact that I know: I'm fucking pitying myself.
"I'm not," I breathe, but I don't know why I'm still trying.
"Yes, you are," he says. It's nothing but a downbeat. Something hard. Something heavy. It hits me on the top of the head, the impact dizzying.
"The thought of you having what it takes to change all of this - is just something you can't handle." He's using that stately voice of his that makes every word sound like a clean-cut exclamation mark.
"Don't - " I grip the back of my neck, feel my heart beat there, too frantic, unyielding. I snap my head back and forth like I'm trying to quiet it down, but it just gets worse. So much worse. "Don't talk to me about what I can and can't handle. You don't know a single thing. You don't know a single fucking thing!"
"I don't," he shouts. It's a slap to my face. "But I know the only thing that's keeping you here is you, Simon!"
He says my name like he's heard it too many times for him to ever forget. He says my name like it's his own.
I hear the door slam. I know he's gone. I don't bother to look up. I just keep staring at my hands, my violent, crooked hands that have never done me any good.
Because I've never given them the chance to be anything else.
The world isn't fair. But I haven't been very fair either.
❂ ❂ ❂
He's banging at my door, and he's quiet, small, all his sharp edges dulled to a blur. He looks like he's barely here. He looks like a leftover of himself, a sorry imprint. I wonder if I look the same.
I open the door.
Because this is what we do. We keep crawling back again and again and again.
I let him in. I always do. I made myself like this. I wanted to. It was my decision.
I kiss him, press a sloppy apology against his skin, his mouth.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorrysorrysorry."
"I'm sorry, too. I'm sorry."
And we stand in the doorway, holding and clutching. He grabs my hands, and it's the first time I don't feel like he's turning them into something faultless, something clean. He's not covering up their scars. He's not smoothing out all of their crooked corners.
His hands have never looked less out of place against mine.
Maybe those who are seamless are just better at hiding their cracks.
"I know you won't listen to anyone but yourself. But you need to know…you deserve more than this. I know you'll never believe me. But you do," he says, and he towers over me, his hands cupping my jaw, his face so close. He smells like smoke and whiskey and bergamot. Always bergamot. Something to soften the punch.
"You deserve the world, Simon. The bloody world," he says.
I hope you know you do. And the galaxy. And the universe. You deserve those too, Baz. You deserve those too.
❂ ❂ ❂
I don't want someone else to wipe away my faults. I don't want someone else to turn me into something better.
I want to do it on my own. I want to be the one to take my hand and lead me towards a mirror, and tell me it's okay. These scars, these crooked corners, these cracks - they're there, they're permanent, they're mine. They happened by chance. I didn't ask for them. I am not proud of them.
But I will not be ashamed of them.
They are what they are. And so am I.
Maybe one day I'll be able to say it out loud. Maybe one day I'll look at myself, really look at myself, and I'll see all my scars, my crooked corners, my cracks - and I'll be whole, I'll be faultless.
Maybe one day I'll be able to forgive.
❂ ❂ ❂
"Simon? Simon, is that you?"
"Yes. Yeah, it's me, Ebb. It's me. Simon. It's me. It's me."
"Simon, you - Simon."
"Yes? Christ, yes. Simon? Yes?"
"Can I come over?"
She laughs. A silly, heartfelt little thing. It sounds just like her nursery rhyme. Her song. And it's never sounded less like a bad habit. It's never sounded less like an aching indiscretion.
All it sounds like right now...is home.
❂ ❂ ❂
The first time he dragged himself into the pub, he was rain-drenched, looming over the counter like a shadow. I can still hear the sound of the rain pearling down his coat, hitting the wood like bullets. I can still hear my breath hitching when he wiped his hair out of his face - looked at me, pinned my head against the wall with nothing but a stare.
The first time I heard him play, I came undone.
The first time he touched me, he was wild-eyed and brilliant, caught up in world of sound. He kissed my cheek, and my body was music.
The last time I heard him play, it felt like I was saying goodbye to an old friend.
The last time I saw him, he was standing in the middle of my room staring at the open suitcase sprawled across my bed, filled to the brim with books. He smiled. And I smiled too.
"I'm…leaving," he says. "I mean - music. I'm leaving music. Just for a while. A break. I need a break."
"But you haven't finished your symphony."
"Maybe that's exactly why I should let it rest for a while," he says, a hand coming up to wipe his hair behind his ear. I wish I'd been the one to do it.
"They need me." He looks at the floor, then back up.
"I know you're right." He nods. "Not everybody has a family that gets them out of their messes. They've needed me for a while, and I've been," he wipes a hand across his face, eyes going red, "gone. I need them too. I need them. So much."
I can't stumble against his chest fast enough.
He chokes up a little laugh, but he holds me tight. And I hold him back. Tighter.
"Thank you," he breathes into the top of my head.
"For making it bearable."
I dig my face into the crook of his neck.
"Promise me I'll get to see you around," I whisper.
"Hey." He pries me off, grabs my jaw, looks at me like he's trying to make my brain ache. "I promised you there would always be a seat for you. Wherever I play. There will always be a seat for you." He comes closer, our mouthes touching, feeding words. "So you better promise me you'll show up."
"I promise," I say.
He smiles. I can taste it.
"And you'll wave," I say.
"I will. And you'll know."
"You'll just know."
The last time I touched him - something inside of me made a terrible crack.
❂ ❂ ❂
I find a crumpled note tucked away at the bottom of my suitcase.
I would recognize his terrible handwriting anywhere…on soggy napkins, on coasters, on ripped out notebook pages:
One night you asked me if I cared. I should've said excessively. Terribly. Always.
I should've just said yes.
❂ FIN ❂