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The Gang Learns to Exist in the Moment

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The waitress gave Dee a list of all the places they could look, because she’s kind and helpful even though they’ve all been sort of shitty to her over the years. It’s pretty sweet to be able to read her handwriting at last, even if it’s slow going sometimes. She does this really nice loopy thing with the tails of her G’s and her Y’s, like the line doesn’t want to break just so it can get back on a level with the rest of the word, and Charlie’s going to tell the social worker about it when he sees her next week, because maybe she’ll show him how to do the same thing. Sure, she says cursive is still a way down the road, but everyone’s always underestimating what Charlie can do. Keeping a line going can’t be as hard as some of the stuff he’s done before.

“Are we sure it’s this one?” asks Dennis, huddled in his scarf and jacket, hands shoved deep into his pockets. “Because not to be an asshole about it, but these places really do not seem like safe environments for us.”

“Old Black Man said he’d seen him here,” says Dee. Charlie doesn’t even know how she kept in touch with Old Black Man, or, like, why she would want to do that ever, but Dee’s got a lot of stuff going on that Charlie doesn’t always get. It’s cool. She’s allowed to have schemes if she wants. “And we already tried most of the rest of the list.”

“Just stick together, guys,” says Mac. “Okay? If you see any beer, or crack, or whatever—“

He doesn’t even need to say it anymore. They all figured it out, and it’s kind of awesome: if they’re together then none of them will screw up, because none of them want to be the first one to go. It’s always been true. It’s just never been true in the good way before. “We’re cool,” says Charlie, and gives Mac a firm pat on the shoulder. It’s not his fault he gets worried about stuff. It’s just who he is, like how Dee’s back still hurts her sometimes when the weather gets cold. “We’re totally cool. Let’s go find Cricket.”

Turns out it’s the right place after all, which is awesome, because it was getting super old visiting all these gross depressing places over and over. Maybe if they hadn’t sold the bar then he would’ve shown up sooner or later, to spend a cold night in the bunker or clean himself up in the men’s bathroom. Then again, if they hadn’t sold the bar they probably wouldn’t give a shit about finding him. They ask the receptionist if he’s seen a Rickety Cricket, and when he looks at them like they’re crazy people they have to stand around for like five whole minutes trying to remember his actual name. “It began with M,” says Dee, eyes all squinched up as she thinks. “M… Myron? Marty? Jesus Christ, you’d think the guy could’ve tried to be more memorable.”

“Burn scars,” Dennis says to the receptionist. “All over his face. He’s all burned up -- come on, how many people in this place are burn victims?”

The receptionist is doing the face at them, the one they all know and hate -- the one that says get these people away from me without actually being properly rude. “A few,” he says. “Actually.”

“Well, that does make sense,” Mac points out. “The homeless are always starting fires in trash cans, which can’t be a safe way to handle fire. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

“Matthew,” says Dee, and flings her arms open wide, all look at me. “That’s him! Matthew Mara. Matthew fucking Mara. You know him?”

“Oh,” says the receptionist. “Yeah. He’s out back smoking.”

Dennis grimaces. “Crack?”

The receptionist raises an eyebrow. “A cigarette,” he says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Out back is about as gross as the actual building. It’s just a porch that smells like Cricket and cigarettes, all cold and grey and concrete. Cricket looks the direct opposite of happy to see them. “Oh no,” he says, and holds up his hands like they’re about to shoot his face off. His right hand leaves a trail of cigarette smoke in the air. “No no no. You guys don’t get to show up here, okay? Go back to dropping off the face of the planet. You were great at that. At not being anywhere near me, specifically.”

“Relax, Cricks,” says Mac. He already sounds bored. In fairness, Cricket is kind of boring. “We’re not sticking around. And we actually bought you a present, so I don’t see why you’ve gotta be so hostile.”

Cricket does not look excited for a present. “Okay. What is it, then? You got uppers? Downers? If you’re not here with the good stuff then I don’t give a shit, okay, because your presents--” He points a shaky, filthy finger right at Mac’s face. Mac goes cross-eyed a little bit, staring at the fingernail like maybe it could kill him. It’s not impossible, probably. Maybe there are no showers in the homeless shelter. “Your presents ruin people’s lives.”

“We got you money, asshole,” says Dee, and fishes a wad of hundreds out of her purse. It’s not actually all that much, in the bigger picture of what Frank left them, but therapy and rent and food and coloured markers all add up. They can’t be too reckless with their cash. And anyway, a thousand dollars will go a long way for a guy like Cricket. “And a pamphlet. And we’ll know if you spend it on crack rock, okay, so don’t even try it.”

He stares at Dee with his one good eye. Hell, even his bad eye is staring a little. “What’s the catch?”

“What’s the catch,” echoes Dennis, and rolls his eyes. “The catch is you just got a ticket out of… whatever the hell this is. It’s on us. Take it to the hospital, use the pamphlet, they’ll see you. Call it--” He makes a face like he’s eaten something gross. “Call it an apology.”

Dee waves the cash insistently at Cricket. He’s quiet, watching her like he’s waiting for her to snatch it back. It’s sort of like watching a ghost. Or maybe they’re the ghosts here, and that’s why he thinks they look scary. Maybe from Cricket’s point of view, they look like the monsters who chased him out of his home.

He takes the hundreds anyway. The pamphlet, too. He doesn’t have a lot else to say to them, but there’s no real reason why he would. Nothing personal. Charlie figures it’s fair enough.

“D’you think he’s gonna spend it all on crack?” he asks Mac, as they pile back into Dennis’s new car. It’s smaller than the Range Rover, kind of a squeeze, but it’s got an awesome red coat of paint, so Charlie’s ready to accept it.

Mac sighs. “I think if he does, then… at least we tried. You know?”

“Christ, I’m tired,” mutters Dee, riding shotgun next to Dennis. The engine coughs into life, like it’s caught a cold the same as the rest of them. “Any more of this apology shit, we get coffee first. All in favour?”

They all raise their hands. It is tiring, she’s totally right. It’s weird and bad and difficult just walking up to some guy whose life you ruined and throwing money right in his face. Even without the money, Charlie’s pretty sure it would still suck. He’s got this sad feeling that’s like an echo of Cricket’s sad feeling, like a shitty hand-me-down or a contagious disease. It’s the kind of feeling it’s easy not to care about when you’re high or you’re drunk. Without it, there’s not a whole lot to do but sit in the feeling and hope it starts to suck less.

“We did it, though,” he says, more to himself than to the gang. Houses with frosted windows slip by as Dennis drives them away. “We pulled off a scheme.”

“Guess there’s that,” says Dennis, quiet and sad. They don’t talk much on the drive back home.

It was Monica’s idea, really, so he can’t take all the credit -- but it’s a great idea, so he figures he gets to be proud about it anyway. She asked him if he ever had a star chart when he was a little kid, to track all the good things he did, and he said no, he never had that, because his mom was always telling him what a good boy he was no matter what he did. He would have definitely preferred to have stars, though, and he told Monica that, too. Stars are neat. Maybe aliens live on them. Charlie can’t even imagine how awesome it would be to live on a star.

He writes DEES SALF CARE CHORT at the top of the page, in yellow. Yellow is like gold, and gold is fancy. It’s a good gift. Now she won’t feel left out when Charlie tallies up the stars at the end of the day.

“Oh,” says Monica, when she wanders past his end of the table. “Oh, you’re making one for Dee! That’s real generous, Charlie.”

The art therapy room is super quiet today. Maybe it’s because nobody wants to come out of the house in winter, when they’re the kind of person who needs to go to art therapy. Charlie gets it. Dee’s been having a rough couple of weeks since the snow started falling -- she’s slower getting out of bed, she eats less food, she watches a lot of the really trashy stuff on TV. He left her on the couch today with a bowl of cereal and an electric blanket, which would be two stars on her chart if he’d given it to her already. She’s eating, and she’s keeping warm. But she’d get a whole extra star for going outside. Maybe the star would make her want to do it. It works on Charlie, either way.

“I dunno,” he says, and leans back from the chart-in-progress. “She’s kind of sad lately, you know? It’s not really generous if it just makes sense for her to get stars.”

“She’s gonna love it,” Monica says, like she knows for sure. “You keep it up, okay?”

When he made his own chart he did it on green card, because green was the colour they always had in Paddy’s, and it still kind of makes him happy. He did the header in rainbow colours, and did a neat swirly frame around the place where he sticks the weekly schedule. Dee’s card is pink, because even though Charlie was pretty drunk when he saw her childhood bedroom, he remembers it having a lot of pink stuff going on. Plus, the art therapy room’s got glitter pens now. He goes for the gold one, shakes it all up so there’s glitter enough to go over her name. It’s going to be so shiny. The best place for stars in the world.

It’s not weird. He’s pretty sure it’s not weird, anyway. There’s definitely precedent, like the time they all thought it was his birthday and got him a load of things from his dream book. He had to throw out Denim Chicken when it started to get mouldy -- they used actual chicken, for authenticity -- but he’s still got all his worm hats on display in Dee’s apartment, and the bird with teeth spends his time hanging out on the coffee table, watching Charlie sleep. He left the rat stick in the bar. Maybe whoever buys the place next will get some good mileage out of it, really put it to use again. There aren’t a whole lot of rats at Dee’s place, anyway. Sure, he was sad to let it go, but you can’t let a rat stick like that gather dust. You have to let it do its thing. It makes him kind of sorry when he remembers it, but most of the time he doesn’t remember it anymore. Rats just aren’t part of his life now. He’s not always sure how he feels about that.

There weren’t a whole lot of nice times when they had the bar. Good times, sure, plenty of good times -- finding something really cool in the sewer, or pulling off a health inspection, or blowing a fireball in a gas station parking lot. But thinking about that one fake birthday feels different. His chest does this whole thing it doesn’t usually do, like there’s a hole there that nobody can see. Maybe you have to be a social worker to understand it for sure.

The social worker’s really nice. She’s called Aimee, spelled with a whole bunch more letters than you’d expect from hearing it out loud, and one of the first things she did when she met Charlie was help him practice spelling her name. That way he could draw a picture of her and write AIMEE next to her face so she’d know for sure it was her. It’s still on her office wall, in a shiny picture frame. “It was a whole different kind of good,” he explains, as best he can. “Like, different from when we would get done with a scheme, you know? Like, I was mad at first because they were trying to make me do all this shit I didn’t wanna do, but when they gave me the stuff I was actually… sort of happy?”

She nods. She gets it; that’s what he likes about Aimee. “It was a very thoughtful thing your friends did,” she agrees, “making you presents that were just for you. I think it’s fair to be happy about something like that.”

“Even if all the rest of the time we were drunk and yelling at each other?”

Aimee looks thoughtful. She’s got a nice face, the kind of face you can trust. She’s been using the same face for maybe fifty years and everything it ever did is all there in lines and crinkles, so you can know she isn’t lying to you because her skin is always telling the truth. “I think especially then,” she says, when she’s done thinking. “You spent -- ten years, was it? Ten years owning a bar with your friends?”

“Well,” he says, “kind of closer to eleven by the end of it, but -- yeah, sure, that’s about it.”

“And now you’ve sold the bar,” she says, “and you’re sober, and just about everything in your life is different. I think most people would find it very difficult to make such a big change in their life, after such a long time doing the same thing. It can be a real challenge to feel as though you’re starting from scratch.”

Charlie nods, trying to work it through. “Yeah,” he says, when he finds that he can’t. “Yeah, I guess people might… uh. Might be challenged by that.”

“So as far as I’m concerned,” says Aimee, “it’s good that there are things you want to keep from those ten years. Things like memories of your friends giving you gifts, for example. Or putting on an exhibition of your art.”

“Right,” he says, with a little more conviction. For all it was annoying that Cricket got all the credit, it was pretty great seeing everyone look at his art. “Right, so like -- having that stuff to think about means it wasn’t just ten years of getting high and drinking beer all the time.”

“Because it had other things in it, too,” she says, encouraging. “Do you see?”

And, yeah, he kind of does.

He gives Dee the chart a week later, after one more session of art therapy to get it just right. She’s watching the show about the mom and the daughter who drink all the coffee when he gets back; she only ever watches that when Charlie’s out, because he can’t keep up with all the talking they get up to. Maybe everyone in Connecticut talks that much. The mom is saying a whole bunch of words when Dee hits pause. “Good session?” she asks, and her voice is still all throaty from the cold. The whole place is warm, and smells of soup.

“Oh, yeah,” he says, and starts peeling out of his coat and scarf. “I finished the thing I was working on, so yeah, it was a pretty good time.”

“Did you bring it home?” she asks, as he flops down next to her on the couch. Steals a little bit of duvet, too, but it’s technically his duvet given he’s the one who sleeps with it. “‘Cause I’m pretty sure we’re running out of wall space, so, uh, you might want to start sorting some of it out a little--”

“Actually,” he says, and grins as he offers her the chart, “it’s for you.”

She stares at it like it’s written in another language. Another alphabet, maybe, like they have in Russia. “Charlie,” she says. “What’s a… salf care chort, exactly?”

“Oh, man, did I spell it weird? It’s a self-care chart, Dee! You know, for when you do something that’s like looking after yourself, so you can do a little weekly grid right here in the box and put stars in when you do a self-care thing--”

She frowns, still trying to figure out what it means. On the TV screen, the coffee mom’s face is frozen in this weird expression, like she’s making fart noises with her mouth. “So you made one for me?”

Maybe she doesn’t actually hate it. Maybe she’s just really tired or something. Who is Charlie to know what’s right and wrong in the world? “Sure. I mean -- why not, you know? Sometimes you just wanna give your friend a present or whatever.”

Finally, she reaches out and takes it out of his hands. “You know what I’m gonna do?” she asks, and there it is: the beginning of a smile. Okay, so her eyes are sort of shiny and she sounds a bit hoarse still, but it’s probably just the cold. Both of it. “I’m gonna put it on the refrigerator. It’s -- it’s really nice, Charlie. Thank you.”

She puts it on the refrigerator. The charts look awesome next to each other, green and pink and covered in glitter. The best possible home for stars.

“Okay,” says Mac, pacing back and forth by the coffee table like he’s getting ready to go fight something. Like a bear, maybe. It is basically polar bear season. Dee’s brow is all furrowed up at him; Dennis just looks like he’s suffering. “Okay. So, now that we’re all here, and talking to each other again, I have an announcement. A big announcement for everyone here.”

“Yeah,” says Dee, impatiently. “Yeah, we got that. From the big announcement text message, and the voicemail, and -- you know, the fact that you’ve said the word announcement like ten times since we got here. Which we did despite the goddamn snow, so you owe us, dickhole.”

The snow was pretty gross. Normally Charlie would be all about it, but it’s one thing to be out there throwing snowballs at the back of Mac’s head, and a totally different thing to have to walk somewhere fast and not even stop to make snow angels. From his favourite seat on the couch, Dennis sighs. “I did try to talk him out of the voicemail.”

“The floor is not open to Dennis at this time,” Mac says, and Dennis rolls his eyes, but he doesn’t interrupt anymore. The rules of arbitration are pretty much sacred. It’s a good thing they allow for plenty of yelling. “And for the record, the voicemail was on account of Charlie still learning how to read. This is my announcement. Thank you. I’m gay.”

Charlie feels his eyebrows going up and up and up. “Uh,” he says. Mac doesn’t seem like he’s joking, but he’s been in and out of the closet so many times before that it’s kind of impossible to tell. “For real? Like, you’re actually full-on gay this time?”

Mac hasn’t as such stopped the pacing. Maybe coming out is more like fighting a bear than Charlie ever thought before. Bears are pretty gay anyway, based on what Dennis has to say about the whole scene. Come to think of it, Charlie never asked him how he knows all this stuff; it’s pretty suspect, when you think it through. “Yeah,” says Mac, and his hands are all twisted together, and his knuckles are off-white like milk. “Yeah, for real. I know this may come as something of a shock to you, given how masculine and tough I am, but I’ve been talking it over, you know, working things out, experimenting, and I… I think I’m ready. To be gay. Like, out gay, specifically.”

Charlie looks over at Dee. Her face is doing the thing where it’s sort of proud and sort of disbelieving -- it’s something around her mouth, and around her eyebrows. Their eyes meet, and then their eyes unmeet again, as Dee looks back at Mac and says, “That’s great, Mac. That’s… really great that you’re figuring it out. Finally.”

“Yeah,” Charlie agrees. Mac’s pacing is starting to slow down, and his face is getting redder. It’s been years and years since Charlie saw him blush. “You know what? I’m proud of you, man. You’re doing your thing, and it’s working for you, and… yeah. It’s awesome. Good for you, you know?”

Mac laughs. It’s sort of high-pitched and nervous, but hey, it’s a laugh. A man can’t control his own laugh. “Good for me?”

Dennis stretches lazily on the couch. “Come on, Mac,” he says, as he clicks his neck from side to side. “They’ve known for years.”

Dee folds her arms. “Actually,” she says, “I didn’t. Nope. Never suspected a thing. So, uh, good going, Mac! You got me.”

“Why aren’t you proud of him, dude?” Charlie asks. Dennis hesitates mid-stretch, one arm up over his head like a nerd in class. “I said it, and Dee said it, so -- you know, what are you saying?”

“He told me months ago, asshole,” snaps Dennis, just as Mac says “Oh, yeah -- I banged him already.”

Dee’s eyes go wide like two moons; Charlie’s eyebrows had sort of started to come down, but they go all the way back up again at the speed of light. “Whoa,” he says. “Whoa, say that again.”

Dennis grimaces. “Must you?”

“They were going to find out anyway,” says Mac, with a little huff. “I’m saying we’re banging now. Mostly it’s me banging him, you know, because I’m obviously the top--”

“Excuse me?” Dennis hits a G sharp. “I ate your ass until you screamed last night, you goddamn bitch--”

“Wow,” says Dee, loudly enough to shut them both up. Definitely for the best, because holy shit, Charlie enormously does not want to know how Dennis could eat Mac’s butt. “Wow. Okay. That is way more about my twin brother’s sex life than I ever want to know. Thank you.”

“Oh, so you’re proud of Mac when he comes out of the closet, but the minute you get even a fragment of detail, you suddenly don’t give a shit--”

“Guys. Guys.” Charlie holds up his hands. “It’s cool, okay? Whoever’s the top, whoever’s getting their ass eaten -- we don’t care about that shit, you know?” Mac looks unconvinced, but he doesn’t say anything. “What we care about is -- it’s sweet that you’re dating now. We want you to be happy, you know, doing your thing, banging each other, whatever that is.”

Dennis says “Dating.” His face has gone all blotchy.

“We’re here to support it!” says Charlie, encouraging. “I could give you some pretty sweet dating tips, man, if you want them.”

He gets a blank look. “Why would I ever want to take dating tips from you?”

“Because I know Mac,” he points out. “I’ve known Mac basically my whole life. So to give you a taste of the stuff I know about Mac -- rule number one is you gotta let him read to you.”

Mac looks at him like he’s suggested something totally weird, like turning down free food or wearing a real tie. “What.”

“You know!” Charlie sighs. “Oh, man, you’re all slow today, huh? You remember when Dennis went off to college, dude, and you would read all those weird books about dumb kids all the time, and, like, say all the words to me about the kids? Like, I still read those books with Aimee sometimes, and they're still super dumb. They’d do really stupid stuff, like they were always going to the hospital or going to school and that was, like, the whole story? I didn’t even care about those kids, they were idiots, but you were always reading about them anyway. So… you know. If Mac wants to read you books, Dennis, you should just let him. Like, it’s not worth it trying to get him to stop.”

Mac’s face has gone blotchy, too. At least Dennis has gone back to normal, though he looks like he’s thinking pretty hard. He’s looking right at Charlie, come to think of it, like he’s trying to decide whether or not to burst out laughing.

“Okay,” he says, after what feels like hours and hours. No laughing. “That’s -- yeah. That’s good advice, Charlie. Uh… thank you.”

“No problem, man,” says Charlie, and grins. “Like I said. I’m in support of… whatever you wanna do to each other. Even eating butts. And you know, if you ever want any more tips--”

Dennis shakes his head. “It’s cool, man,” he says. Mac’s looking at him like maybe he’s a superhero, which seems legit, because even if Dennis is weak as shit, he definitely owns enough spandex for the job. Like, way more spandex than your average guy would even think about wearing. “I’ll figure it out. But, uh, that’s a pretty solid head-start for me. I appreciate it.”

They walk back home once the snow’s stopped falling. Charlie kicks up the snow with every step; sure, it’s dark, so everything looks a weird streetlight orange, but it’s still pretty now it’s not trying to get all up in his eyes. “I am happy for him,” he says to Dee. “You know? It’s been so long, and he was so weird about it, and now it’s like… he can live his dreams, you know? Touch all the dudes he wants.”

“Yeah,” says Dee, “and he picked Dennis, which proves he’s an idiot.”

Charlie makes a dubious noise. “I don’t know. Is anyone else going to put up with him for that long? I mean, at least they deserve each other.”

“Each other?” Dee scoffs at him, and kicks up a hunk of snow of her own. “I wouldn’t wish Dennis on anyone. Even Mac. Especially not when this is Mac’s first big gay thing.”

“I dunno.” Charlie shrugs. She’s not being serious about it, anyway; if Dennis said something nice to her right now she’d fight his corner as hard as she’s ever fought anything. “They seem happier. Dennis was snacking when we got there, even. Hey -- you wanna make a snow angel in the park?”

Dee looks at him like he’s lost his mind. It’s cool, though. She does that, like, every other day;it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. “Charlie, dogs pee in the park. Junkies leave needles there. And you just wanna lie down in the snow?”

He grins. “Guess so.”

It’s pretty awesome to watch her face get softer, like melting ice. She’s prettier when she’s not mad. Or -- no, mad isn’t the word he wants. She’s prettier when she’s excited, or when she’s happy. When shit isn’t getting to her. It’s hard to explain. “Okay. Fine. But you’re on your own if you shoot up on accident, I swear to god, I am not walking you to the hospital while the weather’s being a bitch.” She’s already walking off towards the park gate. Charlie can’t stop smiling, even though his face is starting to ache.

He makes an excellent snow angel, even if he says so himself -- and he does, to Dee, who just stands over him looking tired while he makes the wings as big as he possibly can. By the time he gets up he’s wet all down his back, and there’s definitely some snow in his hair, but the angel looks great. Her skirt’s all billowy in the wind, and in the orange light she’s glittering a cool sort of bronze. “There it is,” he declares, as he brushes snow off his butt. “That’s what winter’s all about, Dee. It’s about snow angels, and snowball fights, and getting snow all over you even if there’s dog pee -- wait, are you taking a picture?”

She totally is. Her phone makes the camera clicky sound before Charlie can even photobomb, which is just unfair. “What?” she says. “It’s cute.”

“Take one of me?”

“Take a selfie, jerk,” she says, and that’s that, until he gets a glimpse at her phone a few days later and the snow angel photo is set as her wallpaper. She put a filter on it, even. There’s more good stuff to remember every day.

Getting to ride shotgun is the best thing about letting Frank drive. Ever since that whole thing with the cereal, it’s been a house rule that he does a live-action sat-nav thing whenever Frank gets behind the wheel, and then they arbitrated super fast that he should get shotgun by default when he’s giving directions. “It’s true,” Frank agreed, happily drunk, “I’m deaf as shit, I won’t hear him if he’s in the back,” and even though Dee was still sulking and Dennis was still muttering about his milky shirt, it was a unanimous vote in favour. Milk’s a totally reasonable thing to have on your shirt, anyway. Dennis doesn’t appreciate stains the way he should.

This wasn’t so much ‘letting Frank drive’ as Frank being the first one to make it out of the mall to the car, but hey, you have to hand it to the man: he’s good in a crisis. Or at least he’s too short for security guards to really lock onto him when there’s four other people running away.

“Left,” he yells, over the objections of Dee’s car’s weak-ass engine. “Left, left, Jesus Christ, dude--”

They turn left. Only just, though. Mac shrieks right in Charlie’s ear as they tip up onto two wheels for, like, half a second going round the corner. “You see ‘em?” Frank demands, veering hard into the wrong lane as he tries to look behind him.

“No!” shrieks Dennis. He’s clutching at the headrest like it’s the only thing keeping him alive, which is dumb, given that his seatbelt’s right there and he’s totally not wearing it. “For god’s sake, Frank, you lost them three goddamn wheelies ago, now get back in your fucking lane and stop trying to kill us!”

Frank parks the car instead, doing a sweet sideways drift into the space between two cars against the sidewalk. Sure, there’s a bit of a crunch as he bumps into one of them, and a second, louder crunch when he reverses away and straight into the other, but that’s it. Mac visibly shrinks with relief when he turns off the ignition, and throws open the door so the three of them in the back can scramble out into the street. “My car!” yells Dee, like they haven’t had this conversation a zillion times before. Charlie gets out mostly so he can watch her start to turn purple. “Goddamn it, Frank, you son of a bitch, you’re paying damages, we’ve got precedent for this now--”

Frank gets out of the car like it’s nothing. There is maybe some smoke coming out from under the hood, which undermines him a little bit, but they’ve had worse; the guys at the garage know all their names by now. “Nope,” he says, and dusts off his hands. “I’m calling emergency circumstances. You want I should’ve waited for you to get to the car? Gotten us all arrested?”

“The man’s got a point,” says Mac. He’s got this greenish tint under his skin somewhere, like maybe he’s some kind of man-snake. “You were slow as shit, Dee. If it’d been up to you, those asshole security goons would’ve had us in custody and called the police, and you know we all have priors--”

“You didn’t think of the priors,” adds Dennis, “you bitch.”

Dee stares at them with wide eyes and thin lips, like she’s one of the Angry Birds from the game where the birds want to fight the pigs. It never really made sense to Charlie that birds would think they could defeat pigs, who are famous for being smart, and also just way too big for a bird to properly defeat. Also pigs have teeth. Dee is a bird, but she’s definitely not the kind with teeth, which means that any given pig would just gnash her right up. “Are you kidding me?” she demands. “Are you goddamn kidding me with this shit -- you were screaming like little babies back there! Are you telling me you don’t wanna get -- get satisfied from Frank? He basically made you shit yourselves!”

“Wrong,” points out Frank, reasonably enough. “Would’ve stunk the whole car up.”

“And besides,” Dennis says, “this wouldn’t have happened in the first place if you hadn’t tried to scratch up that manicurist. So in… well, basically every significant way, Dee, this one’s on you.”

With a squawk of protest, Dee holds up her hands. Her fake nails are half-finished, and splattered all over with nail goop from the tray she flipped over. “She tried to ruin my hands!”

“Yeah,” allows Charlie, “but also, you ended up actually ruining them when you freaked out and attacked her, so…”

“So what?” she demands. “You’re just gonna let this asshole get away with almost crashing my car and killing us all?”

“That seems to be where we’re at,” says Mac. “All in favour?” And it’s unanimous. The car is definitely smoking, now, and the smoke is a colour that looks way less harmless than it should.

“Cheer up, Deandra,” says Frank, as they start the walk back to the bar. “I wasn’t gonna kill you.”

Dee rolls her eyes, and doesn’t say anything. Her half-finished fake nails are digging into her skin where she’s balled up her fists.

“Nah,” Frank continues, oblivious. He’s high as shit. Still, they’re all here, right? He got them out of a crisis and he did it with style. Charlie can’t find it in himself to be mad. “Nah, I couldn’t have killed you. We’re gonna live forever anyway.”

And yeah, he’s definitely high, but Mac raises a fist to the sky and says a solemn “Amen,” and it’s easy to believe the shit you want to believe, isn’t it? Maybe they are going to live forever. Who’s Charlie to say that they aren’t? If they were going to die then they probably would’ve done it by now, like, a whole bunch of times. High or not, Frank knows his shit. They’re never going to die. It feels right, like it’s always been true, in Charlie’s head. It slots into place between the moon’s cheesy crust and the Nightman, a perfect fit.

“Never gonna die, baby!” he yells, and Dennis whoops, and Dee drags her feet the whole way back.

“So you inherited all the beer, huh?” he asks, and Artemis grins with all her teeth. She looks older than Charlie remembers, but maybe that’s just a thing that happens to people now. How long has she been around? She was Dee’s friend, then she was Frank’s… whatever that whole thing was, and it’s been, like, ten years since she first showed up in the bar. Maybe everything just looks different now he’s clean. “Do anything cool with it?”

“Major blowout,” she says, smirking. “Everyone I know, my place -- everyone but you guys, I mean. I can’t say I remember that much of it, but I do definitely remember you dickweeds still being in rehab.”

“That’s sweet,” says Charlie, cautiously. “I mean, I think that’s sweet? If you were super out of it but, like, you still thought about us.”

She shrugs. “I did your place last, y’know. Right before the party got started. Kind of figured it’d be weird without Frank in it, which… yeah, it was. You guys even threw out the goddamn toe knife.”

“We buried that knife at his funeral,” he protests. “The knife and a perfectly good tin of cat food, so he wouldn’t think we were trying to scam him out of any good gifts. You know, it’s like… you’re born and everyone gives you shit, you get older every year and people keep giving you shit for a while, and then you die and what do you get out of that? An urn. It’s bullshit, man. It’s not fair on dead people. You gotta make sure they’re provided for, you know?”

Artemis takes a long pull of her cigarette. Charlie kind of wants one, too, but he’s pretty sure Aimee would be mad at him. At least she didn’t bring any beer over with her. “Didn’t he say he wanted to be buried in trash?”

“Well, yeah.” He gestures vaguely, not quite sure what his hands are trying to say. “Yeah, he did… say a bunch of stuff about that. And I was down with it, you know, it’s a non-traditional burial for a guy who did a lot of non-traditional stuff in his life. Makes sense to me. But then the other side of the family were all, oh no, you can’t bury a man in trash, that’s weird, even though our dad was a full-on Nazi and we’re all just gonna not talk about that, that’s not weird, trash is weird, he gets a coffin and that’s that.” He shrugs. “So he got a coffin and that was that, I guess. We had to sneak back later to bury the knife and the cat food. I don’t know. I wasn’t even really at the funeral.”

She quirks an eyebrow. “Yeah? Because Mac said you cried like a little bitch.”

“Oh, no, I mean--” She’s looking at him like maybe he’s a crazy person. It’s probably true, even. But that’s okay. It’s okay to have things go wrong in your head sometimes. “I mean, like, my body was there, and it was walking around and crying and Mac was looking after it. But my brain was like -- in the apartment? Or maybe under the bridge. Sometimes it does that. Just kind of… wanders off without me. When I’m sad, or whatever. Dennis’s does the same.”

“Yeah?” she asks. There’s cigarette smoke in her hair, like a cloud.

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “So I wasn’t there.”

“For what it’s worth?” She looks him in the eye for the first time since she got here. “Me neither. I was invited, don’t get me wrong, I had a dress picked out and everything -- god, I was gonna wear the glittery gold number I wore for our first ever dumpster hump, it was gonna be awesome. But then Dee said Barbara’s side of the family got involved, and it was gonna be this whole thing, with a church and a coffin and all that bullshit, and…” She takes another drag. It sort of makes Charlie think of the sad black-and-white people in old-timey movies, the way she’s looking at him but also looking through him a little bit. Maybe she can see in his head. She always used to say she was kind of psychic. “I don’t know. I bottled it, I guess. Didn’t feel like showing up just for a bunch of old rich jerkoffs to glare at me.”

This seems fair enough. “Honestly,” he offers, and her eyes come back in focus. “I wish I skipped out too. It’s just… it wasn’t what he would’ve wanted, you know? It was all serious and boring and shit… I mean, it was until Dennis puked on the coffin. Actually, he might not have hated that part.”

She snorts with laughter, and smoke comes out of her nose like she’s a dragon. “We should’ve done our own thing,” she says, and leans on the arm of the couch. “You guys and me and whatever bridge people showed up. Poured some whiskey into the river.”

“Dressed up in costumes,” says Charlie. “Man, he had so many costumes. Like, I’m pretty sure the whole filing cabinet in the back office was just costumes. I could’ve been a man-cheetah, or a man-spider, or… probably just about any animal. None of this fancy black suit bullshit. He always hated that.”

“I’m fucking great at eulogies,” Artemis says. “They missed the opportunity of a lifetime there, Charlie. And when we got done we could’ve just… gone to town. You know? Just had the biggest blowout in history. Seen you assholes off to rehab in style.”

“You could’ve come too,” he says, but even while he’s saying it it doesn’t feel true. “We would’ve paid.”

She’s shaking her head before he’s even done talking. “Nah,” she says, and she sounds more tired than maybe she means to sound. “It wouldn’t have stuck. You do something that big, you need to be sure it’s gonna take, which means you’ve really gotta want it. The way you guys wanted it. Or, you know. The way you guys got into it and then got too stubborn to back out.”

“What was I supposed to do?” he asks. It feels like missing the point, but on purpose, like pretending you didn’t hear someone say something mean. “Let Mac win at being sober?”

She shakes her head, smiling a weird sad smile. It’s not really an answer. Maybe there isn’t one at all. “You assholes do your asshole thing,” she says. “I’ll do mine. And I’m dead serious, kid -- if I die before you, no matter what my family tries to pull, you pour one out for me under the bridge. All of you. Get fireworks, you know. Play some tunes. Make it a party.”

He nods, very seriously. “You got yourself a deal,” he says. Then, before they can keep moving past it -- “But don’t die yet. Okay? That’s part of the deal too. You gotta hold out as long as you can.”

They shake on it. That means it’s real. Dee gets back with takeout, pizza dripping with stringy white cheese, and they stay awake until after midnight, like the old days, only there’s more to remember when the sun comes up the next morning.

She’s using the star chart. Sure, it’s taken her a couple months to get into the swing of it, but he’s been watching long enough that he sees when the stars start to come out. Spring rolls into town slowly, weeks late, and as the days get longer Dee’s star chart gets brighter and brighter on the refrigerator door. He doesn’t say anything for a little bit, because he doesn’t want her to get all weird and stop. It’s a fine line, with Dee. He still doesn’t get how she can roast them all to shit at movie night and then get gaggy over an open mic, or a compliment on her choice of glittery star stickers. She got the gold ones. It’s great; they match the glitter he used to write her name.

“You know you get a star for doing a job application, right?” he says, when she moves past tired and into frustrated with the whole exercise. It seems weird to Charlie that Starbucks would need so many forms; it’s just coffee, surely. And Dee’s already been a waitress. “Like, it counts.”

She sighs through her teeth, and closes the lid of her computer. “Do I get a star for taking a break before I throw the goddamn laptop out the window?”

“Definitely,” he agrees, and grabs a star from her sticker sheet, sticking it in place with a press of his thumb. “There. See? No takebacks on the star.”

She flops back on the couch, closing her eyes. “You’re such a dumbass, Charlie.”

“Yeah, well,” he says, and wanders over to sit next to her. She looks tired, like her face is a drawing and someone smudged her eyes a little bit. “I do okay out of it, you know?”

“I hate jobs,” she says, like she didn’t hear him. It makes sense. Like, maybe the point isn’t to have a conversation right now; maybe it’s just about having someone to hear you. “I hate the whole goddamn concept of jobs, Charlie. I literally never want to apply for a job again in my life.”

“I hear you,” he offers, and pats her on the shoulder. “It’s like, what even is the point of that?”

She hums in agreement. “What is the point of that? I don’t get it. I don’t get it, Charlie. They all want you to be super goddamn fancy all the time, and not have dropped out of college, and they ask you if you’ve got priors or anything wrong with you and I don’t even think they need to know! It’s just so they can mess with you, you know, get you scared to even apply. It’s bullshit. It’s bullshit, Charlie.”

“I know!” This is escalating. He goes for the full-on arm around the shoulder accordingly, and hopes she doesn’t elbow him away. “I know, Dee, I get what you’re saying. It sucks. But you are super fancy, though -- you totally are! You know, who gives a shit what Mac and Dennis say; you definitely clean up okay. And you’re funny, and you know a whole bunch of stuff, and they’d be dumb not to hire you, Dee. And like, do you even wanna work for a dumb company? Full of dumb-dumbs who don’t get how fancy you are?”

She hasn’t elbowed him yet. It doesn’t seem like she’s going to elbow him, which is weird. The nice kind of weird, though. Like opossums. “I mean,” she says, and opens her eyes, staring up at the ceiling. “I guess not?”

“I know not,” he says, as firmly as he can. “So don’t worry about it, okay? If they don’t wanna hire you, then they’re dumb, and you don’t need them.”

“Yeah.” She’s getting into it; she’s sitting up straight, looking at him properly. She… is really, really close, and she smells like girl deodorant. “Yeah! Charlie, you actually don’t suck at giving advice. I mean,” she adds, looking sort of guilty around the eyes. “You’re… you’re good at it. You’re calming me down. Thank you.”

Charlie could kiss her. Like, right now, he could just lean in and kiss her and it would probably be pretty great. Sure, sex is weird and gross, but sex with Dee is -- was -- a whole different thing, still sticky and strange but not bad. They could do that again. It might be something to do it sober, and remember the whole thing the next day. They could. There’s nothing stopping him. Hell, maybe she’s even thinking the same kind of thing.

“Hey,” he says, before he can just dive right into the kissing and blow the whole thing. “Dee. Uh… do you remember when we had sex? Like, with each other?”

Her face does all kinds of things that move too fast for him to see. “Well, yeah,” she says, not quite snapping but dangerously close. “Obviously. I thought you didn’t wanna talk about that.”

“I, uh.” He pulls his arm back from her shoulder so he can rub the back of his neck; it’s hot and prickly, like a whole bunch of needles on his skin. “I didn’t. But that was when we were all still at Paddy’s, you know, and Dennis would’ve been a massive dick about it, like, the biggest asshole in history, and Mac would’ve laughed at us, and Frank would’ve made it really weird.”

Grudgingly, she nods. “Yeah. No, I guess. And, uh… we were really not doing great, I think. Back then. It wasn’t really gonna ever be…”

What we wanted, she doesn’t say. Or maybe what I wanted. Charlie holds his breath.

“It wasn’t gonna work,” she says, at last. “Mac and Dennis wouldn’t have, either.”

“And now they’re banging each other too,” he points out, even if Dee makes a grossed-out face at him for it. “So they can’t laugh at us. Like, if they find out that we, uh… banged each other once. They wouldn’t be able to laugh about that -- that one-time thing.”

She nods slowly, without much conviction. “Charlie,” she says, and he can see her picking out words in her head, trying to settle on the ones that are absolutely right. “I, uh… I didn’t hate it. The whole us-banging-each-other thing, I mean. It was actually pretty -- pretty good, and if you’re trying to say you wanna do it again, then, uh…” She swallows like she’s swallowing vinegar. “Then I wouldn’t say no. To that proposal. If you asked.”

He wants to laugh and he can’t really explain it. It’s just there, this out-of-nowhere butterfly feeling all over his body, chasing the needles away. “It’s like,” he says, and shakes his head. “It’s like, I don’t even like sex, you know? It’s all weird and gross and -- but not you!” he adds, as fast as he can, when he sees what her face is starting to do. “That’s what I’m saying, Dee, is that it wasn’t gross with you, it was just… it was cool, you know? It was just a cool thing we did together.”

Dee is looking at him like he’s a cat, and she kind of wants to pet him, except maybe a whole bunch of cats have scratched her up before and she isn’t totally sure how fast he is with his claws. “You have to shower before we do anything,” she says, after a moment of just watching him and waiting. “Like, ever. Every time, Charlie.”

“Got it.”

“I am not negotiating on this.”

“I said I got it!”

She nods, still staring at him. “Good. And, uh… we don’t have to do anything right away. You know? ‘Cause I know you have a lot of, uh… a lot of mixed-up feelings about this stuff, and that’s fine. For however long you wanna wait.”

“Yeah!” He grabs her hand tight. “Yeah, you’re right -- like, we don’t have to rush, do we? We can take our time, let it breathe, wait for it to feel good--”

“Good, and organic, and -- yeah!” She grabs his hand right back, her fingers lacing together with his, and the butterfly feeling takes off, a million tiny wings all going together. “Yeah. We can go slow. At our own pace. It’s up to us.”

Their eyes meet. She’s tired and messy and all her sharp features are even sharper with no beer to dull the edge. She’s looking at him like maybe the world isn’t the worst thing ever after all, like maybe there’s a point to it she never even guessed until now -- and Mac would totally be mad at him if he knew, but she’s probably the most awesome person Charlie’s ever met.

He doesn’t kiss her, and she doesn’t kiss him. They kiss each other. She pulls him into her lap and he wraps his arms around her tight, and her mouth tastes like Gatorade a little bit, and she makes the best sound ever when he gets his knee between her thighs. It’s up to them. Whatever the hell this is, wherever it’s going, it’s theirs.

It comes together, slowly but surely. Dee gets the job at Starbucks, nearly throws her phone at the wall with excitement as she hangs up on her new boss; she and Charlie dance around the kitchen, giddy and stupid on joy. He goes out to the Wawa and buys a cake to celebrate, and sure, it says HAPPY BIRTHDAY rather than CONGRATULATIONS DEE, but she hasn’t gotten paid yet and it seems reckless to pay out of pocket for Gail the Snail to hand-ice anything. It’s like a birthday, anyway. It’s her job birthday. He hears her leave the apartment early on her first morning, creeping past him on the couch like she’s trying not to wake him. She looks pretty great in her uniform. Green suits her, and she’s unexpectedly cute with her hair pulled back.

He puts a star on her self-care chart when she comes home that afternoon, smelling like coffee beans and sugar. “You went to work,” he says, when she looks him like he’s losing it. “You earned money, Dee -- you provided for yourself. That’s totally self-care.”

“Yeah,” she says, “well, it’d better also be self-care to never get out of the bathtub again, because guess what.” Charlie puts bubbles in the bathwater. She hugs him tight when she comes back out of the bathroom, and her hair’s a little damp against his cheek.

She starts bringing home leftover coffee beans, stashing them in the cupboard by the refrigerator, and when her first paycheck lands the first thing she buys is an apartment-sized espresso machine. She practices all the time, which is awesome, because it means Charlie never has to actually buy coffee. “I always knew I’d end up with a waitress,” he says, and she elbows him so hard he nearly spills his coffee and says barista, asshole. Which is fair. It’s on her name tag and everything.

And then Mac gets a job, which is a little more surprising. Turns out he’s been at the gym long enough, getting to know all the trainers and the regulars, that when their receptionist quit they just asked him right away. They get together at Mac’s place to celebrate, and Charlie buys another cake; this one says HAPPY EASTER but hey, Mac still goes to church, it’s probably fair game. “It’s gonna be great,” he says, as he passes out cake on paper plates. “They already showed me how the scheduling works, and I get to say hi to people, check membership cards -- it’s like security detail! I get to keep out the intruders. Like a gym bouncer.” He attempts a sweet karate move and nearly throws his cake on the ground.

Dennis’s smile is shallow, like a puddle. He doesn’t say anything, keeps it together while they eat cake and get fake-blasted on grape juice, but he ends up at Dee’s place on Mac’s first day at work and that kind of says everything Charlie needs to know. It’s fine. They get out the keyboard, play around with it a little. Charlie improvises a little song about a cat who fights crime, and by the time Dennis has hustled it into the shape of a real song, with verses and a refrain and everything, it’s almost time for Mac to come back home.

“You should get a cat,” says Charlie, as Dennis is putting on his coat. “For when Mac’s out at work, you know? You can hang out, keep each other company, get into adventures… it’d be good for you, dude.”

“Cats are for lonely people,” says Dennis. “Dee got a cat once. I don’t need to get a goddamn cat.”

(A month later, the four of them drive to the pet store to pick up Dennis’s goddamn cat. Mac and Dennis spend a solid week trying to negotiate a name.)

He doesn’t mind having the apartment to himself. Dee’s always home in the evenings anyway, and on the days when she’s working he’s got his drawings to keep up with, or music to make. Art therapy, social-worker meetings, all that stuff. He keeps busy. He’s not even sure he wants a job yet, anyway. Kind of nice not to have to think about it yet -- to have people telling him not to, even. Maybe one day he’ll be a janitor again, somewhere with no kids and a really awesome steam cleaner. Maybe he won’t, and instead he’ll do like all the teenagers do and sell his drawings on the internet. Anything could happen. And right now, none of it has to. It’s pretty much the best of both worlds.

Mac gets bulkier again, some of it muscle and some of it a product of the burrito place across the street from the gym. It’s fine. Nobody goes after him about it. Even Dennis -- less freaked-out by the day about getting left alone, now he’s got a cat to talk to -- just uses him as a pillow on movie nights, and looks at Charlie and Dee like he’s daring them to say a goddamn word.

On the two-year anniversary of the car wreck, they dig out a couple of Paddy’s t-shirts from the back of Dee’s wardrobe, and they go down under the bridge with Artemis and a bottle of red wine. Artemis does the honours, turning the bottle upside-down and just letting the wine slosh out into the river. It looks like maybe the Schuylkill is bleeding. “Miss you, buddy,” says Charlie, to the broken and rippling reflection of their faces in the water; they look like themselves, they look more like themselves than they’ve maybe ever looked. They hold hands, all five, as the sun melts away into the skyline. It’s dark by the time they finally head back home.

“So you got it?” asks Charlie, for what feels like the millionth time, except this time he gets three nods instead of yet another pointless round of questions and bickering. Finally. “Great! Great. Awesome. Mac, it’s your song -- want to count it in?”

“This isn’t even the musical I’m in, dude,” Mac points out. He leans in anyway, though, because obviously he wants to count it in; that’s just who he is. “The musical I’m in is about what a superstar Jesus Christ is, not about… sad cats or whatever.”

“Can I--?” Dee raises her hand, and waits for Charlie’s nod. “Okay -- so how do you know the sad cat song in the first place?”

“We practised it at musical theatre,” says Mac, at the same time as Dennis says “Listening to the soundtrack all the goddamn time.” Dee’s face says oh, and she catches Dennis’s eye, nodding her head.

Mac’s cheeks are sort of pinkish. Still, he doesn’t bottle out, which is pretty good going for him. “Because it’s an awesome soundtrack. Which you sing along to with me, by the way,” he adds, and Dennis goes way pinker than Mac in, like, the blink of an eye. “And Charlie gets it, too.”

“Oh, totally,” Charlie agrees, as he powers down the keyboard at the mains. “A whole musical about people dressed up in cat clothes? Singing songs about remembering cat stuff and doing cat crime? I mean, come on. As concepts go, it’s basically genius. D’you think your theatre people will do the whole show one day, Mac? Because I’m just saying, I’d totally watch.”

Their apartment feels more like a home every day. The couch is a couch again, now that he and Dee spend most of their nights in the same bed; sure, they still have the fancy duvet out like before, but it seems a shame to let a duvet that fancy just go to waste because nobody’s using it for sleep. The refrigerator door is glittering with two sets of stars. And they’re all there together, the way they used to get together at the bar. Mac and Dennis are holding hands in a way they’re clearly hoping Charlie and Dee won’t notice, which is sort of sweet, so Charlie’s not going to say anything about it. Dee’s stretching out her arms and her back, finding her breath; it’s apparently still not in her mouth, which is weird, but maybe girls just breathe differently or something. And Charlie is winding up the keyboard wires, putting it away so they can all stand up and sing. It all fits together. Charlie never got the hang of jigsaw puzzles, but he gets how they work, and he thinks they work like the gang. One big picture, made up of a bunch of weird shapes that don’t even really have names.

“I wouldn’t be singing this song, though, Charlie,” Mac says, and stands up from the couch, tugging Dennis up with him. They’re so goddamn married. It’s not even a big deal, though; it’s just like a casual marriage situation, a natural result of years and years of sharing the same life. Like grass growing, although Dennis would totally yell at him for comparing him to grass. “This is actually a girl solo, which is why Dee’s singing lead. So we gotta let Dee come through, okay, guys, or it’s gonna sound weird.”

Dee looks lost. Happy, sure, but it’s the kind of happy that doesn’t really know how it got here, like maybe it’s hungover and foggy on the details of the night before. Dennis extracts himself from Mac so he can nudge her lightly with his elbow. “You’re gonna kill it,” he says, and her face pulls itself together into a proper grin.

“I’m gonna murder it,” she says, and Dennis grins with her. They’re so weird, both of them. There’s an alternate timeline where they never started talking again, somewhere out there in space or whatever, and Charlie thinks if he lived in that timeline he’d never stop trying to get out of it. It’s dark as shit over there. Possibly people got dead. It’s pretty sweet that they ended up here instead.

“From the top, little man?” asks Mac, falling into line beside Dennis. Charlie thinks about Christmas after Christmas, down by the train tracks, pockets heavy with pebbles and stones and their sneakers covered in dust. Maybe they’d be dead without each other. Maybe twenty straight years of getting at each other and lurching from disaster to disaster was worth it, actually, for still being alive to sing songs and hold hands. Summer’s on its way in now. Christmas seems like a whole other planet.

“Yeah,” he says, and clears his throat. “Yeah, from the top. Give us two measures, bro?”

Mac knows what measures are now. Mac’s proud of knowing that. The past is another planet, too.

“Right,” says Mac, and lifts his hand, ready to go. “Let’s go, guys. One-two-three-two-two-three--”

“Midnight,” sings Dee, and they find their notes around her, and it’s perfect. “Not a sound from the pavement. Has the moon lost her memory? She is smiling alone…” Except they aren’t alone, not any of them. They’re together and they’re singing and it’s all hanging together in one beautiful sound that’s bigger than anything they could ever make by themselves. Mac’s never looked so happy. Dee’s never looked so pretty. The sun is streaming in through the windows and it’s turned her hair gold, like a fairy tale. Her eyes are closed; Dennis’s, too. For once they’re all here, in the moment, in the sound.

“I can smile at the old days,” she sings, “life was beautiful then” -- and sure, maybe it was, but it seems to Charlie that life is way more beautiful right now than it’s ever been before. It will get hard again, that's just what life does, but it will get good again too, and whatever else happens they’ll remember this. That’s pretty great in its own right, as far as Charlie’s concerned. There will always be more things to remember, maybe forever, and he can collect them the way he collects his stars, glittering bright so he can always find his way back.