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Uncertain Hour

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Late at night – early morning, really – when all the tables have been cleaned up, the glasses washed, the lights turned out, when the girls are all finally in bed, asleep, Jake lies alone in his room, smoking a last cigarette, waiting for Billy to crawl into bed with him.

Billy wraps his arms around him, settling his head against Jake’s chest. He shivers. “It’s cold.”

Jake takes a last puff of the cig and stubs it out in the ashtray on the dresser. “’Course you’re cold, Billy. You’re dead.”

“Yeah, well, it’s also December, and you’ve got the window cracked.” Jake chuckles a little, and wraps his arms around Billy, like they both knew he would. If he thinks about it, he can’t feel anything, just the cold, so he keeps his mind floating elsewhere, and the sensation of ribbed cotton stays under his fingers.

It’s quiet for a few minutes, even the sounds from the street muffled by the snow that had been falling all day, and probably only stopped a few hours ago.

“I’m sorry, Jake. I thought he might finally do something.” It’s hard to tell if the cold on his neck is Billy’s breath or just a draft from the window.

Jake closes his eyes. He sees that little farm in France, and maybe that’s better than seeing the sparring room, or the pub, or even the back hallway in the club. “No, it’s okay. Chris is ...” He sighs, and rubs at the bridge of his nose with one hand. “He’s someplace else now. If there was a chance... it’s gone now.” It hurts to say, even now, even like this. Jake knows it’s stupid, his head is full of all these trite sayings and fluff, like something Paula would write and flutter over with her friends.

“I’m still sorry.” Billy’s voice is soft, scratchy like an old phonograph record, worn down from too many playings. Jake’s chest is squeezed tightly, and he squeezes back, eyes closed, the easier to not wonder what he’s holding onto, the easier to ignore the scratching and prickling behind his eyelids. Billy pulls back easily, and when Jake looks into his eyes, they are dark and glittering like the night sky. “If I could do something to make you happy, I would, you know that?”

You could take me with you when you go. Jake thinks the words every time, but he doesn’t say them. Sometimes he thinks he should have stopped living that night, too. Sometimes he’s almost certain he did. He reaches up to cup Billy’s jaw, softly, barely there. The cold air smells like smoke and mud and gunpowder, but Jake doesn’t mind.

Billy smiles at him, then settles in beside him again, like before. Jake loves the sensation of cold, because it is something he can be sure he is truly feeling, no lying or cheating involved. “Tell me another story, Jake.”

Jake has tried to argue that Billy is the one with the gift for words, but Billy always insists that poetry is different from the way Jake talks – ‘you’ve got strong words – real words’ he’d said, and Jake had given in like he always did.

“Billy, you know all my stories,” he says, just to tease him.

“I don’t care. I don’t care if you tell me the same stories over and over again, until I know them as well as you.” Jake finds that amusing for some reason, and when he laughs the sheets tickle against his chest.

“Okay. Oh-kay.” His fingers trail mindlessly over Billy’s shoulder blade, and he starts telling a story. “The first fight I ever got in, I don’t remember. Mom always said I was fighting even before I was old enough to walk. But my first fight for money, that I remember. They held the fights in the old abandoned granary, though that’s gone now, torn down during the War. I wasn’t gonna fight that day, but I’d lost a bundle at the poker table the night before, and it was Mom’s birthday next week, and I’d promised myself I’d get her something really good this year...” He talks slowly, keeping his voice a low murmur, feeling the cold wrapped around him. He talks for hours, until the sky begins to brighten, until the sun itself makes its way over the rooftops. He talks over the soft clop of horses’ feet and rubber tires beginning to find their way up from the street. He talks until the air is warmed at last, and he looks down, and his hand is lying clenched against the covers on his chest. He flexes his fist a time or two, forcing feeling back into the tingling fingers.

“Don’t worry, Billy,” he whispers. “I’ll stick around another day, and I’ll finish that story later.” He turns over then, pulling the covers up against his neck, and closes his eyes against the sun to try to find a few hours’ peace.