Chapter 1: Sweet Dee Gets Empowered
They head back to her place. It’s not really big enough, but it’s about the best they’ve got; there are still a bunch of builders in Mac and Dennis’s burnt-out apartment, getting it ready for them to move back in, and Charlie’s bedsit isn’t even under consideration. Dee plugs in the electric blankets, heads to the fridge out of habit for a beer. Obviously there isn’t one. She called Artemis from the hospital; the memory’s basically a great big smudge, nothing she can read or remember, but the end result seems to have been Artemis wholesale ransacking her refrigerator. There’s no beer, and also no food, and a little note on a crumpled receipt saying best of luck, bitches in familiar, loopy handwriting. Maybe she asked Artemis to take everything. Her appetite’s sucked this whole time; honestly, even now she’s pretty sure she’ll gag if she puts too much in her stomach.
“You don’t even have chips?” asks Charlie, wandering into the kitchen behind her. “Dee, why did you even let us come here if you don’t have chips? That’s, like… that’s bad hostessing.”
“Back off, Charlie,” she says, monotone, and it’s sort of incredible that he actually does.
She pours them all water, since there’s apparently nothing else to drink in the whole goddamn apartment. She checks the back of her cutlery drawer for any traces of her emergency crack stash: nothing. Past Dee is a bitch and a ruiner. Then again, Past Dee presumably just wanted to get out of hospital and not go back. She had her reasons. Present Dee rests her head against the cool plastic of the refrigerator door. Present Dee can’t think of a reason to do anything; maybe she’s just jealous. It would be so like her.
“You don’t even have Gatorade?” asks Mac, when she takes the water out to the couch. It’s been a while since she really had to look at him; he looks like he’s shrunk in the wash, like his colours have run. Good. He deserves it. Ungrateful piece of shit. “I can’t believe you didn’t plan ahead for this. Charlie, is there Gatorade at your place?”
“No, man.” Charlie shrugs, open-handed. “I don’t, like, keep emergency Gatorade in my apartment. Beer, sure, but--”
“Artemis went and picked it up,” Dee says, and slumps into the armchair, ragdoll limp. “I called her. She, uh, she probably broke your lock trying to pick it, though.”
Charlie shakes his head. “She had a key. Frank gave it to her back when they were--”
It’s a horrible silence. Probably the worst silence Dee’s ever had to sit in. Curled up on the far corner of the couch, electric blanket already wrapped around his shoulders, Dennis is shivering; it’s the only movement in the room, in the whole apartment, for way too goddamn long.
“Are we just not going to talk about this?” asks Mac. She can’t tell what he’s getting at, whether it’s a request or an observation, which direction it’s taking either way.
Dennis makes a weird, quiet hum of assent. “Yeah,” he says, hoarse; he sounds like he’s halfway to sleep, or halfway to dying. “Seems right to me.”
The problem -- the biggest problem of all their many and varied problems -- is that if being sober is horrible, getting sober is worse. Getting sober beats out getting mentally stable for worst hospital experience of Dee’s entire life. At least when she was on the psych ward it was all just kind of boring; sure, periodically some weird chick from out of town would start throwing herself at a wall over and over again, but those were just breaks in the weird and soothing monotony of being certifiably insane. You don’t take breaks from getting clean. Even after the worst was over, all the puking and the shaking and the feverish sweating, there was never a day off from wanting a goddamn drink. There hasn’t been one yet. Every bar and every liquor store in the whole of Philadelphia is a big blinking neon sign, Drink Me, like in the trippy Disney movie about the girl on drugs. Maybe Dee will just stay here forever.
“I don’t know about you guys,” says Charlie, and reaches for his mug of water, “but talking about it kind of makes me want to get wasted? So, uh, my vote is to definitely not talk about it, maybe ever.”
This gets a murmur of approval. Dee joins in, closing her eyes. It would be awesome just to snap all her bones at the joints and take herself apart, rearrange herself so she never has to feel like this again.
“We can move past it,” says Dennis. He makes a vague, half-assed attempt to lift his head; he hasn’t looked this shitty since he accidentally went into withdrawal in the men’s room at Paddy’s. Didn’t they promise themselves they’d never do that again? Not a single goddamn one of them has stamina worth shit. “Right? We moved past worse shit before.”
“With alcohol,” allows Mac. “Alcohol was… actually a pretty big part of the process of moving past it, if I remember correctly.”
“And crack,” Dee says, more wistfully than she means. Or maybe exactly as wistfully as she means. Probably for the best if she doesn’t overthink it. “And weed, and… gasoline? Oh shit, Charlie, do you have any--”
“I do not keep a flask of emergency gasoline in my pocket, Dee, we’ve been over this!”
“Guys,” says Dennis wearily, and waves his hand. He looks kind of like Batman, with the blanket over his shoulders, if Batman was an underweight forty-year-old with skin the colour of dead fish. “Guys, come on. We… we already moved past the worst of it. We aren’t actively vomiting anymore, is what I mean, and I for one do not want to start actively vomiting again. Can we just -- drink this goddamn trash water and get some sleep? For once?”
“It’s not trash water,” Dee mutters, more out of habit than anything else. She folds herself up in the armchair like her body’s made of paper. “It’s bottled. I probably paid money for that water.”
“Shut up, Dee,” mumbles Mac. The more things change. They drift to sleep by degrees; Dee dreams of a dark auditorium, no sound but the audience’s breathing as they watch her from the black.
She goes with Mac to the realtor. It’s really a process of elimination; she’s the most immediately functional Reynolds right now, so she’s got the bank account, and Mac’s the most immediately functional actual owner of the stupid goddamn bar, so he’s got the paperwork. Last time they teamed up they got wasted and stuck in a waterslide, in about that order. They spent most of that whole day in uncomfortable silence, while the sun blasted Dee straight in the face, and while Mac kept trying in vain to rip his dumb wristband loose, over and over like he seriously thought it’d help. They aren’t exactly talking now, either, and the sun’s still fucking horrible. Center City’s all mirrored glass and high windows; she has to shield her eyes from the glare of the office as they head up the steps and go inside. It saw them coming, maybe. It knows they’ve got no business being there.
“So this is it,” Mac says, in the waiting room. There’s a water cooler; his hand’s shaking way too visibly around his shitty plastic cup. Most functional owner of the bar, sure, but between Dennis and Charlie it’s not like he had a whole lot of competition. “No more Paddy’s.”
Dee shrugs. She doesn’t want to talk to him, not really, but he wouldn’t be talking to her if he didn’t need to fill the silence; she knows that, at least. She’s known that longer than any of these assholes. Too much to hope for a little credit, even now they’re catching on. “You do know they’re not going to let you blow it up, or whatever your stupid plan was?”
He doesn’t rise to it. It shouldn’t surprise her -- no-one knows how to rise to anything anymore, not a single goddamn one of them -- and yet it completely does, a little shock of relief down her spine. Definitely best not to overthink that. “Yeah, I know. I kind of… don’t want to do that anymore. What was it, like a hundred schemes back now?”
“And you were definitely drunk when you planned it,” she says. Agreement, sort of. He nods, bizarrely somber, smaller than she remembers ever seeing him look. And he was a skinny little bitch in high school. The bar is pretty goddamn low.
“Right -- but even if we weren’t, you know, it’s a whole different thing now. Like if we blow it up, then there really won’t be anything left.”
She frowns. “It would be really dumb to keep going back.”
“I don’t want that either!” He shakes his head, like he’s trying to shake the right words loose. It’s sort of pathetic. “I just want to know it’s there. Or the building’s there. You wouldn’t get it, Dee, you weren’t there in the beginning--”
“I was the only waitress you could get--”
“It was all we had, okay?” He’s still not mad. He’s just -- really unhappy, she realises, and it kind of gives her chills. Last time he looked like this, he was sitting neck-deep in rising water, and she was pretty sure Dennis had broken him forever; even thinking about it has her breathing more deeply, sucking in all the air she can get while the getting’s good. Maybe they’re all broken forever, all four of them, smashed up like their stupid game pieces over and over and over again until there’s no fixing any of what’s left. “Me and Dennis and Charlie, we were so proud of it. You and Dennis got to go to college and do all that shit, but me and Charlie -- it was the only thing we ever did with our lives. And maybe if they keep the building, it’s not…” A disconsolate shrug. “It’s not all the way gone.”
Goddamn it. Feeling sympathy for Mac may be the worst detox side-effect yet.
“We’re still a gang,” is what she says to him, and Jesus only knows how long that’s going to be true for, but it’s not hard to push Mac’s buttons; never has been. He’d lay down on train tracks for a few carefully-sourced crumbs of affection. “That’s something you did, right? You found your weird codependent life partners, or whatever. You don’t need Paddy’s for that.”
She tells the therapist about it later. A new therapist, obviously; she pretty much burned her bridges with the first one when she smashed a bunch of dishes on her gross old carpet. This therapist is older, and Asian, both qualities which Dee pointed out when they met the first time, though obviously she feels weird about that now and she’s pretty sure the therapist is to blame. Dr Kwan doesn’t do anything unsubtle, though; she’s not easy to catch out. She just sort of listens, and sometimes she asks a question, and then Dee goes home feeling weird and exposed like a shucked crab. Therapy was better when she could be an actress and invent fake actress problems to talk about and resolve. She’d say as much, except Dr Kwan would only get her to talk about it.
“And then he was like, I guess,” she concludes, doing her best and least unflattering impression of Mac, “and the corporate guy came out to get us, and that was kind of it.”
“And you went through with the sale?” asks Dr Kwan. She’s holding a glass of water, and her hands aren’t shaking at all. Dee can’t even remember what having steady hands was like. If you feel like shit for long enough then you forget what it felt like before. That’s just a thing that happens. No getting around it. The only reason she’s still here at all is that every asshole at AA has promised she’ll remember in the end.
“Yeah.” She leans back, carefully casual, on the couch. “I mean, we just poured a whole bunch of money into detoxing, you know, it would be dumb to think we could keep tending bar for a living…” She’s sort of laughing. She’s sort of on edge, more to the point, and she’s making weird on-edge sounds that would be laughter on anyone else. “We just sold it straight to the realtor. It’s… you know, it’s a shitty old building, I don’t even remember half the ways Charlie tried to hack the electrics or the plumbing or whatever. It’s not, like, millions. But we put it in the account with all the money from Frank, and it’ll pay all our rent for a while. All our rent, all our medical bills…”
Dr Kwan tilts her head. “Would you consider investing in insurance?”
She snorts, and she can hear Dennis in her head: don’t be gross, Dee, this is a medical establishment. Fuck him. He’s in bed sweating through the sheets and puking every half-hour; it’s his turn to be the gross one, or at least to be as gross as she is. “Yeah. Sure, doc, insurance. Like we aren’t all just walking, talking pre-existing conditions. It’s fine, okay? We’re fine. We’re not even spending money on beer anymore.”
The days bloat and sag without Paddy’s to fill them. When Mac and Dennis finally fuck off back to their old place Dee starts to rearrange her apartment, and ends up slumped on her bed in the middle of the day with a pile of furniture in the centre of the lounge. She and Charlie throw out a bunch of old beer bottles, pitching them overhand into a dumpster, cheering half-heartedly when they land with a smash. It’s the most fun she’s had in months. Frank owes her so many favours, she thinks; when she remembers it’s like a chain around her neck, jerking her back when she wanders too far.
This is why they never leave arbitration until later. Get the whole goddamn thing tied up and signed off or whatever the fuck before they all realise they’ve forgotten what actually happened. Dee can only barely remember what this particular case -- except it’s not a case, Dennis has been screaming to that effect for the past five minutes -- is about. Something to do with who gets credit for some swimwear designs, except the last fashion design scheme she can think of was way back when they were versus Fatty Magoo, and nobody came out of that one looking awesome. Still, she’s on Charlie’s side, mostly because Mac’s on Dennis’s side, and it’s more fun watching Dennis’s veins start to pop than it is watching Charlie get confused and start flailing. And who wants to team up with Mac, anyway.
“I was responsible for those goddamn designs,” Dennis concludes, with a punctuating blow to the surface of the bar, “and that is the beginning and the fucking end of it, and anyone who refuses to see reason is an idiot motherfucking savage in the highest contempt of this whole process.” Priceless. Never gets any less goddamn hilarious.
Charlie’s yelling and flailing anyway, obviously. Something about how Dennis is a son of a bitch who can’t even draw, and then Mac’s all up and pointing fingers because how dare Charlie criticise Dennis’s art, and yeah, this is why they don’t let things sit. She pitches in -- “What art?” -- and Dennis’s voice goes up at least an octave. Might as well make the best of it, right?
So they’re yelling, and then Mac throws a beer bottle at the wall only to have it smash on the floor, and then they’re pretty much all united again in mocking Mac for his shitty aim. Charlie’s doing a pretty awesome impression of Mac’s incompetent throw when she starts to hear it, through laughter and shouts and the rushing of blood in her ears: “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.”
She straightens up, rolls her shoulders back. “All right!” she yells, and gestures at the suit-wearing asshole in the doorway until the guys start to shut the fuck up. “All right. What.”
The suit looks like he’s smelled something gross. Given the current state of Charlie’s clothes, he probably has. “Are any of you… people Dennis or Deandra Reynolds?”
Dennis swans past her before she can open her mouth. Dick. “Right here, pal,” he says, like he thinks he’s so goddamn suave. He’s slurring a little bit. She hopes the suit can hear it. “What’s going on?”
“I’m the executor of Frank Reynolds’ estate,” says the suit, “such as it is. I gather you asked to be de-listed as his emergency contacts, so the police have been in touch with me, rather than contacting you directly--”
“Right,” agrees Dennis, too loudly. “Sure. Listen, we’re busy people, okay, we’ve got a business to run, we don’t need to be hauling ass across town every time Frank takes a fall or whatever it is he’s--”
“Mr Reynolds is dead,” the suit says, and the word lands heavy and flat like a cartoon anvil, straight through the floor and into the basement. Carbon monoxide spills up to choke them through the floor. “There was a traffic collision earlier this morning. It seems he lost control of the vehicle, and, ah, crashed. Into a car containing a married couple and their child. It’s my duty to inform you that none of the parties involved survived the incident.”
There’s water rising all around her and it’s lifted her feet from the floor. There’s a current running down below and it’s pulling her under, down where the world is strange and dark and quiet. She looks at Dennis. His eyes have gone lightless and flat, like a shark’s.
“Frank’s dead?” he asks, monotone. No way to tell if he means it, if he’s mad, if he doesn’t believe a word this guy is saying. Out of the corner of her eye she can see Charlie shaking, staring, knuckles white around a half-empty bottle he’s already forgotten. The suit just nods. His lips are thin. Maybe he’s sympathetic, or maybe he’s just sick of them all already. “Is there… can we see the body? I mean, do we need to?”
Gross, she says, except she doesn’t, because her lungs are full of water and there’s nothing to do but wait it out.
Dennis limps through the formalities and it’s fucking awful, watching him grasp for a language he only barely speaks on a good day. Mac’s quiet, hovering, waiting for something to give so there are pieces for him to pick up. Charlie is looking right past them all, seeing things on a frequency none of them are ever going to get, and there’s no one who can see Dee drowning, there’s no one to reach for her, no one to remind her body how to breathe.
She checks in on Charlie more often than maybe she should. If years of experience have taught her anything at all, it’s that leaning on anyone in the gang for emotional support ends variously in tears, costume, and prison. Still -- it’s a good walk to his place. Keeps her busy. Dr Kwan told her in one of their earliest sessions to try and be more attentive to her surroundings, to take the time to notice trees and clouds and birdsong, and Dee may or may not have laughed right in her face a little bit, but it does sort of help to be out and about. Even if all there is to pay attention to is shitty graffiti and the smell of cat piss.
His asshole landlord nearly bowls her over, one morning when the pavement is all autumn leaves mulched up with rain; she’s already nearly landed on her ass once, and she flips him off as he storms past her, muttering in whatever it is he actually speaks. Charlie hasn’t locked his door. She lets herself in, trying to stop noticing her surroundings before the reek of old cat food gets too overpowering. “You need to move out, Charlie,” she declares, tossing her bag into the corner. “This place is not getting any less gross, and your shitstain of a landlord is not getting any more -- Charlie?”
He’s in the goddamn crevice. Her stomach’s a lead weight, crashing through the floor.
“Charlie?” she asks again, and hates how guarded she sounds about it. It’s not like he’s been drinking paint, or planning some kind of play for the waitress. It’s probably fine. “Everything okay in there?”
Muffled, sharp: “Yes, Dee, obviously everything is great, which is why the crevice is my home now.” Motherfucker.
“Great,” she says, and attempts to sit on the couch. It’s gross, and covered in cheeto fingerprints, and Charlie makes a weird yelping noise when she leans back against the cushions. “That’s awesome, Charlie. Want to tell me exactly what’s so great that you went full crevice with it?”
“It was sarcasm, Dee,” he snaps, and does some sort of bizarre convulsion behind the cushions. “Oh my god, are you trying extra hard to be dumb today?”
“Wow,” she says, and gets to her feet, because she definitely did not trudge through an autumnal cat piss miasma just to be backsassed by a man in a crevice. “Okay. Real nice, Charlie.”
He makes this horrible wrenching groan, like an animal caught in a trap. “Wait, Dee, don’t just leave—”
The door’s right fucking there. Despite herself, she doesn’t go.
The problem emerges shortly after Charlie does, which is to say it only emerges after a lengthy and meandering conversation about what Charlie’s been getting up to in art therapy. Dee has never been this patient in her life, and frankly, a gross illiterate in worn-out thermal leggings writhing backwards out of a couch is not good enough as cosmic rewards tend to go. She’d settle for a medal. Charlie’s apartment is so full of animal drawings now — more than it ever was before, which is already horribly impressive — and frankly, Dee’s interest in animals ends where hoagies begin. It definitely doesn’t stretch to Charlie’s interpretation of a moon jellyfish, which seems to be living on the literal moon.
“Jellyfish could totally go to space if they wanted to,” Charlie says, as though he was never in the crevice at all. “They already live underwater, Dee, and you know water is like reverse space. They don’t even need to breathe.”
Reverse space. Jesus shitting Christ. She’d fuck a jellyfish herself for even a fraction of Mac’s patience with this bullshit.
“So you went in the crevice because some art bitch didn’t believe you about jellyfish?” she asks. Shit, he looks terrible. Even by typical Charlie standards, he’s filthy; more than that, he’s about as upset as she’s seen him since the day they got the news. His eyes are weird empty hollows in his face. “I mean, far be it from me to dictate your crevice schedule, but it’s kind of an overreaction, don’t you think?”
He scuffs his foot against the bottom of the couch, back and forth. It’s like sharing space with a goddamn cat, except he’d probably take that as a compliment. “Nah, I mean -- it wasn’t the art bitch. She’s not even a bitch, actually, she’s pretty nice, but -- Dee, what is this, are you interrogating me? In my own home? Because I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
“Oh, so you’re banning me from giving a shit about you now?”
The pace of his scuffing picks up. Her pulse follows it without really understanding why. “It’s Hwang, okay? Coming in here, being a giant dick about shit all the time… like, am I supposed to care about his weird snakemeat sandwich choking stories? Or all his dumb fighting with people? I’m, like, my own person, you know, I don’t want to always be hearing him saying names about Frank all the time…”
And there it is. Took him fucking long enough.
“I’m paying rent on time and everything,” he continues, with one last decisive kick to the couch. “He’s such an asshole.”
“So leave.” She shrugs. “He’s not going to change, is he? It’s only going to stop if you get out.”
“Dee,” he says, with all the world-weariness of some elderly crank on his porch. “Sweet Dee. You don’t just get out of the only place you can afford, okay? That’s, like… not even how the economy works.”
It’s not even a thought in her head until she says it. Which is basically how serendipity happens; she’s seen enough chick flicks to know that much. “You should move in with me,” she tells him, and he stills, face twisted up in confusion. “I’m serious -- Mac and Dennis were fine with the couch, and it’ll be easier for both of us to split the rent. There’s no way it’d cost you more than this shithole, anyway. And you know,” and fucking fuck, here comes the nervous laughter, bubbling up like vomit from her gut, “I’m already over here all the time, it’s not like we’re bad at hanging out--”
“For real?” he asks, all suspicion. “Don’t mess with me, Dee, I need to be like ten times higher than this before you start messing with me like that--”
“It’s so boring,” she says, before she can stop herself. “Don’t you think it’s so goddamn boring? There’s no bar and no beer, I have literally nothing to do, and -- maybe Mac and Dennis are onto something. Maybe having someone around is -- is easier, in some way. I’m not peeling apples for you, though,” she adds. There’s precedent. It’s not paranoia if there’s precedent.
“Okay,” he says, “well, I’m not helping you if any more cats get in your wall, so I guess that’s a compromise?”
What’s surprising is that it is, and it works, and it gets bigger and more functional all the time. Dee vetoes cat food, but tries super hard not to get mad when Charlie gets back from a walk covered in cat hair and scratches. Charlie showers three times a week, even though he complains about how it’s a waste of perfectly good drinking water and he could just as well do without; Dee buys a proper duvet for the couch, and a decent set of pillows, now she’s sure he’s not just going to infuse them with pee smells and sweat. Dee helps him out with his reading practice, even though all the stories are about a bunch of dumb kids who don’t understand jack shit about anything; Charlie sits with her while she looks through job listings, and distracts her from her own frustration when all of them turn out to want a goddamn college degree. He’ll say some stupid thing like “I got change at the Wawa, let’s go throw it in the fountain,” or “there’s like ten cats that followed me back today, and I definitely don’t have enough hands to touch all of them,” and she’ll sigh, because she’s got to sigh, but she’ll go. She’ll always go. He papers the walls of her apartment with the shit he draws in art therapy. There’s a wax-crayon picture of the four of them stuck with a magnet to the refrigerator door, next to the note Artemis left, under the printout of the twelve steps she’s meant to keep on taking.
They don’t fuck. Which is sort of what Dee had expected; the surprise is that she doesn’t really care. He’s fallen into the habit of leaning on her shoulder when they watch TV. They don’t talk about it, they’re probably never going to, but it’s good. It’s good to coexist, just quietly, like they’re already moving past it even while they’re still there.
Mac stops by maybe a month into the new arrangement, picking up the last of Dennis’s shit. “Whoa,” he says, when Dee opens the door; he drifts past her without so much as a hi or how are you, surveying Charlie’s art with a look of total disbelief. “What the shit is this?”
“My apartment, dickhole,” says Dee, because even if Dr Kwan keeps telling her to minimise conflict, she feels like the rules definitely don’t apply to Mac. “Get your shit and go, okay? I’m not running a gallery.”
“How have you not killed her?” Mac asks Charlie, as he scoops up a bunch of books Dee’s pretty sure Dennis has never actually read. “Like, are you living out of the crevice or something?”
“I don’t know, man,” says Charlie, breezily. He’s sprawled on the couch like he’s been there all his life, and Dee doesn’t even give a shit; he looks better on her couch than the one he used to have. In the right light he almost looks like a person. “I feel like we do okay, you know?”
“Yeah,” says Dee, triumphant, and goddamn it, Mac and Dennis did get it right: it is so fucking great to be one of two, a united front. “We do just fine. Jerk.”
Her expression hardens as soon as she sees Dee, which is not at all surprising even if it’s still irritating as shit. Not even irritating in the way things used to be irritating, where they’d make her want to claw at the source with her fingernails until the irritation went away; that would at least have been interesting. Maybe exhausting is a better word. There’s literally no way in which AA meetings need to be made more unbearable. The goddamn coffee-shop waitress is totally unnecessary.
“I thought you moved away,” she says, when they inevitably end up next to each other at the snack table. The coffee here is fucking disgusting, like it’s actively trying to drive Dee back to drinking. “Even Charlie stopped following me around. What are you doing here?” She says here like it’s an insult: here, of all places. Here, where you aren’t good enough to be. Dee would’ve punched her, a month ago. Even now, she’s still got the itch.
“What the hell does it look like I’m doing here,” she says instead, low and sharp. “I quit. We all did.”
The waitress looks unconvinced. “You quit what? Drinking, or drugs, or--”
“All,” says Dee wearily, “yeah, all of that. Those… sure are a bunch of things we don’t do now.”
“You own a bar.”
“What, you sold it?”
Dee glares at her. “Oh my god. If I wanted to rehash the whole thing I would’ve stood up and done it for the group, okay? Can you back off?”
“All right,” says the waitress, and she actually does take a step back. Dee didn’t even ask twice. Is this how normal people deal with their shit? “You’re right, it’s not… cool of me to keep asking about it.” She hesitates, glancing at the door; Dee knows an exit strategy when she sees one. Perhaps she thinks Charlie’s hiding in a trash can, waiting for the right moment. “For what it’s worth, I’m… I guess I’m glad you’re trying to work things out? It’s not easy, realising you need to get help.”
“Okay.” Dee’s turn to withdraw; she feels brittle, suddenly, like she’ll smash to pieces if anything else picks today to hit home. “Good talk, waitress.”
“You know that’s not my name--”
“I’m gonna go and just… be in my seat,” she continues, “so you go ahead and keep drinking the garbage coffee, okay? We’ll definitely talk more later. Definitely. One hundred per cent.”
Obviously she doesn’t mean it, not at the time. But then Dennis laughs his creepy airless laugh when she says she saw the waitress; he asks if she’s still in a homeless shelter, rolls his eyes when he catches even the first sniff of discomfort. And then Mac joins in, god, yeah, she’s so gross, and if she were feeling better she’d step in, but she’s not. She feels like shit, the way she’s forgotten how not to fucking feel, and so Charlie’s knuckles stay bone-white as he grips the arm of the couch, even when Dennis and Mac have moved on. They’re like cats. They fuck with their prey, let it run around like it’s got a shot at escaping, but only ever until they get bored.
She blows off the next movie night. They’ve been trying to keep it alive, something like normal in the aftermath of everything, but she thinks about an evening spent itching with fury at her asshole of a twin and she realises with a too-familiar exhaustion that she absolutely cannot be fucked with it. She goes to the Starbucks where Charlie says the waitress was working last; it’s kind of reassuring to know she sold out, too, in her own boring way.
“Oh my god,” says the waitress, before Dee’s even closed the door. “We’re closing in literally two minutes. I’m about to shut off the machine.”
“I don’t need coffee,” says Dee. She’d sit down, but something’s stopping her; maybe she’s too tired to really get into making shit difficult, or maybe she’s second-hand guilty on behalf of Mac and Dennis. Which would suck, if it were true. Just one more way for them to ruin her life. Better hope they never find out. “I don’t even want -- look. Okay. I hope you’re seeing this, because I am really fucking trying here -- do you want help closing up?”
The waitress looks her up and down. Seeing, like Dee asked. Maybe that was a stupid thing to want. “My manager would kick my ass,” she says, at some length. She sounds almost like she’s sorry. “There are all kinds of… you know. There are rules, CCTV cameras, and I kind of need to keep this job, so…”
“Yeah,” says Dee. Her tongue feels heavy and tired; her words sink to the ground like they aren’t even trying to keep it light. “No, I get it. It’s… whatever.”
“You could sit here while I close?” She hasn’t stopped looking at Dee. Charlie would’ve looked away by now; any of them would. No one wants to see some ugly bird-looking bitch get sad. “I probably shouldn’t, but -- you know, maybe it’d be good to have company?”
Dee is fucking terrible company and she knows it. “Sure,” she says, regardless, because she’s got to take whatever she can get. “Okay. Uh… where’s a good place to sit? Like, did you already clean any tables, or…?”
The waitress gestures her to a table a safe distance from the window, where nobody can see her from the street. It seems basically fair. Probably not the greatest idea ever to put her out of two jobs, all things considered.
They don’t talk so much, which automatically puts it streets ahead of fucking movie night. Dee watches her power down the espresso machine, sweep the floor, wipe down tables until they’re shining. It looks pretty gross. The whole place smells like the astringent lemon gunk Charlie used to use in Paddy’s; he definitely used to sniff it, though he denied it every time they asked, every time they laughed. He’d come out of the men’s room unfocused and slurring, and Mac would seize the moment and insist on a chugging contest he knew for once he could win, and Dennis would dick around at the pool table like he even knew how to hold a goddamn cue, like he was too cool for any of their bullshit anyway. And where was Dee? Where was Dee. Half the time they spent at Paddy’s, she was barely even there, always halfway on a jet plane or a red-curtained stage, waiting for her moment to go all the way.
It never looked like this. It never felt quite this shitty, when she used to imagine it then.
The guys are still there when she drags herself back home. Mac’s head is on Dennis’s shoulder, his eyes fixed resolutely on a screen showing nothing. Dennis just looks bored. God help Mac, if this is what they’re doing; if Dennis was always unbearable with beer and crack to distract him, fuck knows what Mac’s living with now he’s got nothing to fill the void.
“Oh, there she is,” he says, not looking at her, as she tries to cross to the kitchen. “Sweet Dee, everybody. Too good for movie night all of a goddamn sudden.”
Charlie’s at the table, eating her cereal. It’s fine. It’s fine. She’ll berate him for it later.
“Where did you even go?” he demands, when she doesn’t give him anything to go on. You can starve Dennis out by not paying him any attention, which is all very well, except that he always makes at least a token attempt to get you to feed him. “Did you hit up a bar, or something? Are you off the wagon, Dee? Because if you’re the first one of us to go then it’s pretty much going to be hilarious forever--”
“I did not fall off the wagon, dick,” she snaps, and slams open the kitchen cupboard. There’s something cheap and microwaveable in there, there’s got to be, because there is no way she’s eating Mac and Dennis’s leftover popcorn. They don’t even get the salted kind, because they’re babies and they hate everything that’s good. “I went to a cafe. Sorry if, you know, I wasn’t super excited to watch you guys pop boners over Lethal Weapon for the thousandth time--”
“Do not cheapen Lethal Weapon with your gay apologism, Dee,” says Mac, without even turning his head.
Dr Kwan would be telling her to take deep breaths right about now. There’s a mirror image of herself under her skin, confined and furious about it, struggling to tear herself free and rip these bitches apart.
“I’m tired,” she says, because she’s trying. She’s trying. “Okay? I’m really tired, so if you could just, you know, get the hell out of my apartment now, that would be awesome, thank you, come back soon or whatever--”
“You’re kicking us out, now?” Dennis stands up; he’s not imposing, not even a little bit, but he’s all but shaking with a tension that’s infected the whole room, and it’s hard to look at him, somehow, when he’s like this. Hard to look at him, but dangerous to look away. “Jesus Christ, Dee. Clearly being sober has had a terrible effect on your personality. I mean, were you always this abrasive?”
“Pretty sure she was,” says Mac. He’s a fucking traitor who has clearly forgotten how nice she was to him at the realty, but it’s fine, it’s whatever, she always figured he would. “Come on, Den, we don’t need this bullshit.”
“Guys,” says Charlie, and she could slap him, she could kick him, they’re about to finally fucking go and he’s trying to mend fences and she could scratch his eyes out of his stupid face. “Guys, come on, we’re all having a weird time right now, okay--”
“Don’t you!” yells Dennis, rounding on Charlie like a tiger in a cage, and Dee feels her fingernails bite into her palms; her teeth are grinding together so hard it’s hurting her jaw. “You have no right at all to tell me how I’m feeling -- you barely even knew the man, for Christ’s sake, you only met him when you were twenty-eight years old--”
She hears herself shouting: “Get the hell out of my apartment, Dennis, I swear to god.”
“He probably wasn’t even your father,” Dennis snarls, “and if he was, he couldn’t stand to admit to it -- tell me, Charlie, what’s worse? Deluding yourself for the past ten years that you might have found your daddy, or sharing a bed with a man so ashamed of you he couldn’t stand the thought of sharing your genes--”
“Out,” she yells, and throws a plate at the spot where his head abruptly isn’t. It shatters hard against the wall, and just like that he and Mac are scrambling for the door like a couple of idiot kids, Dennis yelling insults until the door’s clicked shut behind him. After, too. His voice echoes with her heartbeat in her ears.
Dr Kwan would have told her to take deep breaths. Dr Kwan would have been right. She’s supposed to be getting better, and yet here she is, blasted apart by her own goddamn anger, standing in the same old wreckage she’s seen a thousand times before. “Dee,” says Charlie. He’s on his feet, cereal abandoned at the table. “Shit, Dee, that was -- kind of badass, actually? I wish you’d done that, like, all the time when we still had the bar…”
He doesn’t even sound upset. This was never even about him, she realises, and her heart sinks like a ship. Charlie was collateral damage -- this was all her and all Dennis, same as it ever fucking was, and she walked right into it, same as she always has.
“I’m going for a walk,” she says. She hasn’t even taken off her jacket; it’s easy, effortless, to lurch toward the door like a badly-handled puppet. “I’ll be back, okay, I just have to--”
“Okay,” says Charlie. She hears him flop down onto the couch, as though from very far away. “Enjoy that, or… or whatever.”
It’s freezing out; her breath rises in little puffs of smoke until it’s nothing but dead air. Every neon sign is a temptation, or a warning. It was never meant to be like this. Getting out was supposed to be clean, final; not this godawful retread of all the old familiar patterns, with no way left to take off the edge.
Charlie’s still on the couch when she gets back, doodling absently in a sketchbook Mac gave him. Sketchbook may be generous. It’s an old St Joe’s branded notebook, with lines, that Mac dug up when he was clearing out his closet and passed on to Charlie because the recycling plant was too far to walk. Still, Charlie’s filled more than half of it. “What’re you drawing?” she asks, and sinks down onto the couch beside him. It looks like a cantaloupe. Maybe an elephant, if elephants were shocking pink.
Charlie shrugs, and starts scribbling in the elephant’s messy semi-circle of bootblacked hair. Shit. “I dunno. I know Dennis said he’s probably not even, like, my dad or anything, but… he was my roommate, you know? He was my friend. Hey, did I tell you about the time we got married?”
Part of her wants to cry and cry and cry; part of her wants to laugh until she’s sick. She compromises, and raises her eyebrows, and keeps the rest of her face as still and calm as stone. “You did not. Uh… why?”
“Oh, you know.” He waves a hand. Nearly gets the black felt tip on the arm of the couch, but Mac and Dennis spent nearly a solid year sleeping here, all told; it’s seen worse, she can basically guarantee it. “Benefits, and… and assets, and all that tax stuff. Mostly I just wanted in on Frank’s health insurance. But then he had this whole freakout about it, like what if he had to be the woman, and then we got annulled, I guess.”
“You mean you annulled the marriage.”
Charlie sighs. “I heard what the lawyer said, Dee.”
“I’m going to stop speaking to Dennis,” she says, and there it is, no takebacks, nothing to do but follow through. Easy as that. Charlie looks at her like she’s a book and he’s trying to understand her, sounding out every syllable of her until he knows what to say.
“Because he yelled at me?” he asks, at last. “Because Dee, it’s sweet and all, but Dennis yells at me all the time -- you know, you don’t have to--”
“It’s not that,” she says, and immediately regrets it. “I mean -- not just that. He’s just…”
There aren’t even words. Or maybe there are, and they just won’t come to her, won’t fit right in her mouth or sound right on her tongue. She used to think they’d grow up normal, against all the odds, in spite of everything that made them. Dennis would calm down, level out, and she’d figure out how to be something other than a disappointment; she’d find some way to be happy, or at least feel something other than anger or exhaustion. They’d be successful, they’d be pillars of the goddamn community, and they’d go to fundraisers with spouses on their arms, a respectable distance between them all the way. But there were never any fundraisers; there was only briefly a spouse. They just got weirder, and sadder, and sicker, until Dennis was visiting Dee on the psych ward, or Dee was keeping Dennis’s pills in her sock drawer in case he ever gave in and decided to take them. She remembers walking around the arboretum at Penn, the day they kicked her out for real; trees do weird shit when the alternative is dying, it turns out. They lock themselves together and twist into one big gnarled monstrosity, and that’s what happened to the Reynolds twins when life caught up with them; it was a sign the whole time, an early warning she never understood until now.
“He’s just such a dick about everything all the time,” she concludes, weakly. “You know?”
And just like that, Charlie’s on board. “Oh, yeah,” he agrees, and the notebook slips from his lap to the floor. “He’s such an asshole, right? Like when we missed the boat party that time, and he was all, like, bluh bluh I’m a legend you’re all idiots bluh bluh bluh--”
She snorts with laughter. It’s the kind of sound her mother would have crucified her for; she claps a hand over her mouth, giggles spilling like puke between her fingers.
“And they were all, like, trying to storm off at the same time,” Charlie continues, “except it was weird, because they were all doing it? It’s definitely your turn, Dee. They all did their share of storming already, so I say you should storm all you want. All you want, Dee! All storm, and… and rain, and shit. Uh… wait. Wait, no, not like crying rain. That’s not the kind I meant.”
It wasn’t ever laughter. She could’ve guessed. It never has been before. Her fingers are wet; her shoulders are shaking like they’re trying to give out.
“What’s that?” asks Charlie, part concern, part confusion. “Dee, why are you doing that?” -- and she can’t answer, she can’t even try to explain.
Chapter 2: Sock Drawer: A Mac McDonald Musical Spectacular
Firstly: thank you so much for your extremely generous response to chapter one! It's been a joy to hear from everyone who has commented. I hope the fic continues to live up to expectations, and would love to hear what you make of the new chapter.
Please note that this chapter contains canon-typical sexism and internalised homophobia. It also comes into contact with Dennis's canonically-fraught relationship with food. Content notes from chapter one remain in force. None of these people are good, and the author does not endorse any of their actions past 'going to therapy.'
You should expect chapter three on Thursday. In the meantime: Mac is in the house.
It’s not even a proper theater. It’s just some shitty community centre that smells like that paint they give you in school when you’re a kid. Plus, it’s full of gays. Just way too many bow ties and loafers for comfort. Mac had planned on wearing the duster -- which is objectively speaking the most badass kind of coat there is, perfect for a first venture into the native home of your typical gay -- until Dennis laughed at him as he was heading out of the apartment. He needs to stop listening to Dennis. Especially when Dennis is clearly only doing it to psych Mac out of leaving him alone.
Dr Jackson says it’s important to keep your mind busy. He also says it will definitely, absolutely help Mac get better if he makes a real effort to understand the gays. Mac isn’t totally clear on how that last one works, but Dr Jackson is so much more better than that garbage therapist Dee had way back, in that he is a man, and he doesn’t have any kind of problem with Mac borrowing his pens. Mac is ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, even if it means he has to wear a bow tie or whatever. Musical theater was fun when he tried it on the cruise ship, right? Sure, it’s still sort of hard to think about the cruise ship without wanting to smash something, but this is another one of Dr Jackson’s favourite things to say: you have to remember what’s good. Which is pretty goddamn wise. Maybe he believes in God, too.
“Hey!” says one of the gays, and hurries over. He isn’t wearing a bow tie -- just a tank top, like the ones Mac wears. Choosing to wear a bow tie is one thing, but what’s he even going to do if he’s been wearing some kind of gay uniform the whole time? “You must be Mac, right?”
“Yeah,” he says, and manages a smile. It’s been forever since he talked to someone besides Dr Jackson, or a member of the gang. Dennis, specifically. Dee’s been out of touch for months now, and sure, he still sees Charlie, but it’s weird not having the bar to pull them back together at the end of the day. Almost as weird as this strange dude with the pecs and the -- yeah, those are leggings, those definitely are leggings. “That’s me. Mac attack,” he adds, which is dumb, except the gay laughs like it’s funny instead.
“Awesome,” he says, like he really means it. “I’m Scott — I helped set this whole thing up. Let me tell you, it’s so great to have some new blood. We can be pretty insular here sometimes -- you know how things get.”
Mac kind of wants to laugh at him, because this dumbass has no idea at all what insular looks like — look at all his goddamn friends, talking to each other like they don’t want to kill each other, having a great time. He’s cool, though. He’s like a spy, infiltrating this whole bizarre operation, pretending like he’s one of them. Whoever they all are. “I knew a guy named Scott,” he says instead. Small talk. Block, point, Mac.
“Yeah?” Scott grins. He’s got super white teeth. “What did he get up to?”
“Singing,” says Mac. “But also Jesus. And, uh… being gay married?”
“Sweet!” It isn’t sweet. Mac remembers the way boat Scott and David looked at him when he showed up at their door, like he was a kid they’d got to be responsible for, some stupid little bitch who didn’t understand anything at all. It was one of the first things he told Dr Jackson. “Sounds like he’d fit right in here — and I’m pretty sure so will you. You need anything, let me know, okay?”
Maybe Dr Jackson isn’t one of the smart ones after all. Scott hurries off to sit at the piano, and Mac feels like there’s a roomful of seawater closing over his head.
This is dumb. Maybe all gays are called Scott, or something. If they think Mac’s going to change his name, they’re going to have to reassess themselves, because there is literally no way.
They hand out songsheets, and Mac can’t, like, read music, but he can see the shapes on the page and it sort of makes sense if you don’t get hung up on the weird little symbols between the lines. He muddled through last time, anyway, and it was awesome. After a certain point you can hear what everyone else is doing, and then you can just go with it, and it’s great, when you really feel it. It’s the way he used to figure you were meant to feel singing hymns, like your whole soul is bigger and brighter than your body. They used to sing a lot when they were younger, just the four of them, before Frank showed up and escalated them all right up to a ten. It got old right along with them. But when they were still in their twenties, when the bar was still new and exciting and theirs, they’d sit on the barstools and Charlie would arrange them into harmonies and it would feel right. It would feel awesome. Maybe this will be like that.
The song is called Jesus Christ Superstar. Okay, new plan: this will absolutely, one hundred per cent be like that, if not even more better.
“All right, everybody!” One of the bow tie gays claps his hands. It’s easier to spot the lesbians now they’ve all found their way into a circle; they’ve got rainbow pin badges on their bag straps, and hair Mac’s pretty sure Dennis used to want back in high school. It would be really, really easy to go home and tell him all about it: you used to want a lesbian haircut, bro, how messed up was that, except that even if Dennis did by some miracle give a shit, it would feel good for like five minutes before Mac worked right back around to guilty. It is so annoying trying to think ahead like this. Apparently when you haven’t washed it down with like eight beers and a few toots of glue, five minutes is not long enough.
“All right,” says bow tie gay, like they didn’t hear him the first time. “Welcome back, everyone. For those of you who are only just joining us, I’m Yan, I’m the musical director -- it’s great to meet you.”
Dennis replaced Mac with some queer dude named Yan once. Or maybe he spelled it with a J. Mac doesn’t give a shit. Mac’s going to sing and sing until giving a shit is not even on the goddamn menu.
“We’re going to run through it once,” says Yan, “see how it sounds, then start to tidy it up. Call it a warm-up, okay? David--” And of fucking course the gay at the piano is called David. “David, whenever you’re ready.”
The big opening fanfare sounds tinny and small on the piano. Mac tries to listen anyway, and let it grow more and more bigger in his head and his chest.
He peers at Dennis’s blister-pack of lithium. Today’s pill is gone, which means he’s either taken it or he’s found a way to hide it more better. Mac’s not used to thinking the best of people. He closes the bathroom cabinet anyway.
“Ready for the nutritionist, dude?” he asks, as he heads back out to the lounge. Dennis doesn’t dignify it with a response. He hates Dr Carson, he’s decided, because she’s dumb and she doesn’t understand anything about food. At least he’s dressed to go outside today. “Because I totally need a ride to Center City, so you should definitely drive me there even if you aren’t going to keep the appointment.”
Dennis casts him a withering look. “Mac. My god. Do you think you’re being subtle?”
He folds his arms. “Dennis. There’s a time and a place for subtlety, and this is not it. Get the goddamn car keys and let’s go.”
With a groan that’s way too much for the situation, or for any situation ever, Dennis lurches up to his feet. Mac can see the moment where his vision dims, where the coloured dots swirl around the edges; he can see the moment when the lights come back on, and the colours recede. This is why the nutritionist. Sure, the meds situation is under control, but there aren’t any dirty dishes anywhere in the apartment. Breakfast is not under control. Breakfast gets the drop on Mac every goddamn time. “You owe me for how fucking boring this is going to be,” Dennis declares. “I swear to God, I will exact my pound of flesh.”
Mac breathes through his teeth. Whoever let Dennis anywhere near the Bible has a lot to answer for. “Come on, man. You haven’t been out in days.”
“Because there’s nothing there.” Dennis snatches up the car keys with an irritable jangle. “Just a bunch of fun shit I can’t do. Do you know how uncomfortable it is trying to pick up girls without even a vodka tonic?” he demands, and then laughs like he’s just remembered a joke. “Oh, wait. No, no, of course you don’t know. Why would you? You’re--”
“Not going to work, dude,” says Mac, even though it is working and Dennis clearly knows it. “I’m the cooler, okay? I’m chill. You can’t throw me off my vibe.”
Dr Jackson says that saying this stuff helps it be true. Dennis’s therapist Dr Brynner presumably says that Dennis should not be this much of an asshole. At least one of them fucking listens. “Sure,” says Dennis, like a sarcastic little bitch, “okay,” and they walk down to the car in silence. Dennis slams the driver’s door way more harder than he has to; he doesn’t like this car, wants his goddamn amphibious exploring vehicle back from the grave Frank drove it into. Sometimes Mac thinks Dennis mourned the car Frank totalled more than he mourned Frank. Most times, Mac knows that’s not actually true. It just seems that way. The engine on the new car coughs and splutters as it starts; Bryan Adams grinds into life in the stereo. Some things don’t change. Dennis’s hands stay white-knuckled on the wheel.
“When is it gonna be my turn to pick the music, Dennis?” asks Mac, because it did work, whatever Dennis keeps pulling on him, and this is as close as he’s ready to get to picking an actual fight.
Dennis just rolls his eyes. “When hell freezes over. Or when you come out of the goddamn closet. Whatever comes first.”
Mac watches him drive, face in profile, gaze fixed resolute on the road. He’s pale, dark circles under his eyes, grey hairs at his temple that he hasn’t bothered to pluck. Some days he thinks they’re going to die together, in the shitty new car on a day like today; Dennis will twist the wheel like he’s snapping something’s neck, send them careering off a bridge and into the river, and he’ll sink and he’ll drown because it never even occurred to him to open the goddamn door.
“So you took him to his nutritionist appointment,” says Dr Jackson, later, looking intently at Mac from over his glasses. They’re cool glasses, with thick dark rims. If Mac was a nerd, he’d probably wear glasses like that. “And you stayed for the whole thing. Even though it took up an hour of your time, and you didn’t… actually have to be there, once you’d made sure Dennis had kept the appointment.”
“Yeah,” says Mac impatiently. “That’s what I said.”
“Right,” says Dr Jackson, and that’s all. It feels heavier than what it is. Mac frowns at him as hard as he can, but it doesn’t work; he doesn’t take it further. “And what else have you been doing, besides keeping your roommate’s medical commitments? Did you try the musical theater group?”
Mac feels himself light up. “Oh man, doc, it was awesome. I mean, at first it did seem extremely gay -- like, levels of gay I personally had never witnessed before.” This is not quite true, but Mac doesn’t think about that one time he went to a gay bar, because if he doesn’t think about it, then maybe it didn’t happen. “But then I realised -- singing is badass. Singing is super badass. You’re basically making a noise, but it’s like -- good noise? With teamwork, too. I’m gonna keep going back, I think. I mean, they promised I didn’t have to start wearing a bow tie.”
“Which is a good demonstration of what we’ve talked about,” says Dr Jackson, “right? Nobody’s going to make you dress any type of way, or hold a particular set of values, or anything like that. The only requirement for being gay is being attracted to other men.”
Great. Back to this. “Which is something women do, doc,” Mac points out. Probably Dr Jackson should know this already. He’s meant to be the therapist here. “So it’s automatically feminine for a guy to do it, which makes that guy a pussy, which -- you know, logically speaking, being a pussy is basically a set of values. Right? So you do have to think a certain way. It’s just biology.”
It’s not that he’s not gay. He’s exhausted all his options in terms of not being gay; what he isn’t is actively gay. Like sometimes Jews are Jews but they don’t believe in God. Maybe it’s not a sin -- not as big of a sin, anyway -- if you have the thoughts and the urges but you don’t actually do them. If he can’t get out of hell on this one last technicality, he’s screwed for sure. And yeah, okay, he’s had some lapses, but he confessed most of them, so the slate is basically clean. Dr Jackson looks kind of sad, the way Charlie gets when he sees rats in cages in pet store windows. “I’m aware this may be a difficult question for you,” says Dr Jackson. “So if you need to take your time to answer, that’s okay. Mac, what do you find attractive in other men?”
It’s not difficult. That’s the worst part; it’s easy as shit to think of the answer, and it feels like being punched in the gut. “Uh,” he says. His face feels hot.
Dr Jackson raises a hand, like Mac’s a horse and he’s about to say something dumb like easy or whoa. “Take your time,” he says, again. He doesn’t get it. If you don’t rush right at it, eyes closed and head first and all your thoughts turned off, it’s impossible. Therapists are all kind of dumb that way.
“I guess,” he says, “I look up to men who are tough? You know. Beefcakes.”
“Look up to?”
He grimaces. “You know what I mean. It’s the kind of man I am, doc -- hard bodies! Strong men! Not girly or femme or…” Or in front of the bathroom mirror for an hour every morning putting on just enough makeup that nobody can see it’s there. No. “Or skinny like some kind of chick. That’s… what I like. I guess.”
“So do you think your line of thinking holds up?” Dr Jackson is watching him really carefully. “That there absolutely has to be a feminine element involved in attraction to men?”
Mac’s chest is way too tight. It’s the way his shirts used to feel when he tacked on all that mass -- too close, restrictive, hot and chafing. “No,” he says. He feels stupid. He feels like a kid in class, missing the point. “No, I… I guess not.” He doesn’t even argue the attraction bit. What would it get him? Some dumb scared part of him always knew what it was.
“And even if there is,” Dr Jackson says, “for some men, that doesn’t imply anything about how strong they are, or how much of a man they are. There’s a school of thought that says that feminine gay men are actually tougher -- because they have to be, to stand up for who they are and what they want. Can you see that, Mac?”
Mac shrugs. He still feels weird, like his body’s gone wrong somewhere. “I don’t know. Dennis is pretty girly, and he’s, like, totally not tough. I mean, he yells a lot, but when he’s actually scared, he’s…” He feels it dawn on him; he narrows his eyes. “Doctor Jackson, are you trying to make me talk about Dennis? Because Dennis isn’t gay. Dennis has banged a ton of chicks. Even if he does have girl thighs.”
Dr Jackson blinks. “Girl thighs.”
“You know, all slender and shit,” says Mac, impatiently. “He takes in his jeans to show them off. I mean, he also basically doesn’t eat, hence the nutritionist, but--”
“Mac,” says Dr Jackson, and shifts his weight in his chair, which means it’s serious. “I have to say that from an outsider’s perspective, the amount of effort you put into looking out for Dennis…”
He hears it before Dr Jackson even says it, and it feels the way he always imagined getting stabbed would feel, like the panicked feeling is a knife and his gut is a target. “Whoa. Doc. If you’re trying to imply something gay about my friendship with Dennis, you’re way off base, okay? He’s femme as shit. He’s a little bitch, basically. And if I have a type, which I’m not even saying I do, we already agreed it was hard bodies and strongmen. We agreed.”
“Do you check in hourly with your other friends, Mac?” asks Dr Jackson, like it’s not even a big deal. Which it isn’t. Checking in is normal. They established this; it’s a way to manage anxiety and it’s totally not gay. Even if Mac might be. Everything he does isn’t automatically gay.
“No,” he says, and folds his arms. His fists hurt from clenching. “But that’s just me and Dennis, you know? We check in. And yeah, we go for monthly dinners in a classy restaurant, and yeah, I wear his old t-shirts, and yeah, we kissed a couple times in high school -- but that was only when I was high! It doesn’t even count if you’re high when you do it. Pretty sure that’s the law.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s the reverse of the law,” Dr Jackson points out. “But that isn’t the point. Mac, you seem very defensive about this. Do you want to tell me why you think that is?”
“Because it’s not a thing!” he protests. “I’m not into Dennis. I never have been into Dennis. In fact -- you know what, doc?” He jabs an accusing finger in Dr Jackson’s general direction. He may be a brainiac with a fancy college degree, but Mac’s got street smarts; Mac’s got a plan. “I’m so not into Dennis that I’m gonna tell him I’m gay.”
For a moment, Dr Jackson is speechless, blown away by the excellence of Mac’s scheme. “Explain,” he says. Mac grins.
“If I was into Dennis, it would be weird to tell him I’m gay, because -- well, Dennis is vain as hell, you know that. He’d immediately assume I was telling him because I wanted to bang him. Which I don’t. So if I do tell him, I’m basically proving that I don’t want to bang him. Because I’m secure enough about not wanting to bang him that I can take a chance on him assuming I do. Want to bang him, I mean. Which, again, I don’t. It’s pretty simple, doc.”
Dr Jackson looks like he has more to say. Probably a bunch of SAT words about how Mac is ‘in denial’ and ‘should try to be honest with himself.’ But the hour’s basically gone, so he just nods, like he’s too tired to pick a real fight. Pussy. Mac’s winning at therapy and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop him. “Okay,” he says, wearily. “You -- you do that, Mac. Let me know how you get on.”
He means to pick his moment -- you sort of have to, with Dennis, especially with a version of Dennis who doesn’t have many other people to balance him out. He’s going to do it mid-morning, when Dennis tends to be better. He’s had the time to shower and do his make-up and pick out his clothes for the day; he’s still feeling fresh, early in the day, before hunger and boredom and frustration start to set in. He can call Mac stupid all he wants, but Mac’s way more smarter than Dennis will ever know, because Mac’s been navigating Dennis without Dennis even noticing for nearly twenty years. As far as Dennis knows, this is just the way Mac is.
It’s not. Actually, Mac loses his nerve and his cool less than twenty-four hours after telling Dr Jackson his plan. Which is how he ends up coming out to Dennis over breakfast, watching as Dennis cuts his second pancake into pieces that get smaller with every pass of the knife. Maybe it’s a bad day. Maybe every day is just going to keep being a bad day, and Mac is going to be trapped in the orbit of all these neverending bad days until he dies. Maybe Mac’s going to die, or maybe Dennis is; maybe one of them will crack and hit up a bar somewhere in Center City, one of those really fancy neon places where they ring bells and the whole place drinks together, and they’ll never come back and there won’t even be a body to put in the ground. Or actually, no, what would really happen is that they’d find a South Philly dive for old times’ sake and the cops would dredge the bodies up from the Schuylkill maybe half a year down the line. Even now it is so easy to believe in all these worst-case scenarios. Would the musical even go on if he fucked up so badly he died? And maybe it’s because he’s thinking about the musical that he says it, dropping his fork with a clatter onto the plate: “Dennis -- dude, I think I’m gay.”
Dennis stares at him for a moment that stretches like a rubber band, pulling and pulling until it’s ready to snap -- and then he laughs, that weird open-mouth cackle he does when he’s feeling especially pleased with himself. “You think?”
His heart’s going to snap his ribs in half. “I’m not joking, man, don’t laugh at me--”
“I’m not,” says Dennis, and drops the knife as he raises his hands, “Mac, seriously, I’m not. I, uh--” Mac can almost hear him thinking, like he’s rooting around in a drawer for words someone else put in his head. “I’m sorry, dude. I don’t wanna be a dick about it. I’m… glad you figured it out? Shit, that’s not what I mean. I’m glad you’re acknowledging it? I mean, come on, we’ve known for years, we were all just sort of waiting for you to say it…”
Mac shakes his head. “You mean I’ve just been some big joke this whole time?”
“No! Goddamn it, I’m trying to--” Dennis sucks in a breath through clenched teeth; his eyes flutter closed like the lens of a camera. Or like some dumb animal in a cartoon film. “Mac,” he says, at some length. “I am saying -- quite clearly, I might add -- that I am happy for you. Charlie will also be happy for you, though I can’t speak for Dee because as we both know, she’s a goddamn bitch -- and therefore, you don’t need to make this such a big fucking deal. It’s not.”
The air is sharp like razor blades as Mac breathes in. Dennis is staring at him intently, pulling him apart, looking for clues. “It’s not,” he repeats. His voice doesn’t sound like his voice at all. He went over all this with Dr Jackson yesterday; it should be fixed now, it should be chill, he shouldn’t be freaking out. “But it’s… I’m not meant to be gay, Dennis. I’m a badass. I’m a man’s man, you know? I wear a duster.”
Dennis sighs. “Mac. Come on. We’ve been over this. A bear is a pretty common subtype of gay, usually but not always a top--”
“And hairy,” Mac interjects, “which I’m not! I can’t be an otter, Dennis. Otters are girly as shit in animal terms, and I can’t be associated with that.”
“Are you kidding me?” asks Dennis. He doesn’t sound as irritated as he should. In fact, there’s a weirdly reassuring undertone in his voice, which Mac can’t even start to figure out. “Otters are badass, dude. Have you ever seen an otter fight a man?”
Mac scowls. “You haven’t, either.”
“My parents actually took me to the zoo as a kid, asshole,” he says -- again, way too gently, way too soft. Even the insult is sort of affectionate at the edges. “Or my nanny did. Whatever. My point is that an otter will bite a man’s face off almost as soon as look at him -- in fact, an otter will prioritise the biting off of the face, given the opportunity. There are all kinds of stories about fools who thought they could keep otters as pets, Mac. Look it up. Every single one of them lost at least some of their face, which if you ask me is just what they deserve for their foolishness. They underestimated the otter. The otter showed them the error of their ways.”
“You don’t know dick about otters, dude,” mutters Mac. Eating a man’s face does sound very, very cool. Badass, even. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.
Dennis rolls his eyes. “I was going to be a veterinarian, Mac. I know substantially more than dick.”
This is Dennis being nice. It hits him like a sucker punch. This is Dennis making an effort. It’s weird as hell, like a bruise he can’t help touching -- and it’s working, which is probably the weirdest thing of all.
“That sounds kind of gay, man,” he says, trying for a joke. It doesn’t even make him laugh, never mind Dennis -- Dennis, who sighs and folds his arms. He looks weirdly like a teacher, all disapproving and stern. Except that Dennis would just teach all the kids how to put on make-up like a girl every morning, or how to rig up surveillance systems in their parents’ rooms. Dennis needs to not be a teacher. It’s sort of a relief when he remembers that with Dennis’s trophy cabinet of priors, no school in the world would ever hire him.
“I’m not gay, Mac,” he says. He sounds bored, almost. Still not irritated. “I’m not anything. Okay? I’m above all that shit. I’m -- I’m a higher being. All these words are just… they’re dumb. I’ll say it. They’re really dumb, and they’re beneath me.”
Mac absolutely, definitively does not think about what Dennis could have done with other dudes before. It’s not like this is even a surprise, not really. He was way too ready to bang that little Asian guy. There was just no way to put it down to necessity.
“Tell Dr Brynner you’re a higher being,” he says, instead. He feels sort of shaky. Nothing about this is what he expected. He’d figured he’d be praying for forgiveness by now, laughed out of the apartment by a victorious Dennis. He hadn’t one hundred per cent discounted the possibility that he’d be on his knees for a whole other set of reasons, either, and he’s probably going to end up praying for forgiveness on that count when Sunday rolls around. “See what she says.”
Dennis huffs, and returns to his decimated pancake. “You’re going to tell tales on me to my therapist, now? Is stalking me to the nutritionist’s office not good enough anymore?”
“I won’t tell her,” he says. He’s so goddamn weak. “I’ll totally tell on you to Dr Carson, though, so eat your goddamn pancake. Asshole.”
Nothing’s what it should be. Except that maybe that’s a good thing, now. Mac’s whole life ought to be in ruins, and yet here he is, sitting at the table, berating Dennis about breakfast like they’re fourteen years old and dicking around in homeroom. He should be drowning, except the water’s not that deep, and in any case, he’s learning how to swim. Dennis stabs a hunk of pancake, scowling; Mac pours himself another cup of coffee, hand steady, breathing a little easier than before.
(“Didn’t you tell him how you feel about him?” asks Dr Jackson, a week later at their next session; “Oh my god, don’t ruin this for me,” says Mac, with a groan.)
There is no way to cool this situation down. Charlie’s not talking, just staring at the stained glass window with eyes like a dead bird’s. “You know what the glass is, right, dude?” asks Mac. Nothing. Not even a twitch. “It’s our lord and saviour, Jesus Christ. He’s getting born. And everyone else is like -- whoa! Look at this awesome god baby. There’s a whole book in the Bible. It’s like the best bit, after the rains of blood. And the frog plague.”
“Frog plague,” slurs Dennis, and snorts with derision. “Goddamn frog plague. That’s not a thing that exists, Mac. In nature, or in… in anywhere.”
“In your ass,” says Dee, smug like she’s said words that mean anything, and Dennis shrieks in your ass, bird with his face all screwed up like a toddler’s. People are staring. This wouldn’t mean a goddamn thing if half of Barbara’s extended family hadn’t showed up for the occasion. Probably just looking to stand over the coffin and gloat. Lord it over Frank one last time, and over his kids, however natural they are or aren’t. Some old person who looks like an aunt is tutting at Dennis, specifically, from the pew just behind them.
“It’s an awesome frog plague, Charlie,” says Mac. He’s not even talking to Charlie anymore. He’s talking to God. He doesn’t know who he’s talking to. “God is the greatest badass of all. It’s all there in the good book, you know? He wanted His deeds to be recognised for years to come, so He got a bunch of guys to write it all down.”
Dennis leans close. His breath reeks of the genuinely hard liquor, and there are teary streaks in his foundation. “Like my memoirs,” he says. He’s so warm. His shoulder is pressed up against Mac’s bare forearm, and it’s burning like a brand into his skin. “Years to come, Mac, in years to come, they’re gonna -- all over the world they’re gonna know.”
“Sure, Dennis,” he says. There’s a horrible churning feeling in his gut.
“They’re gonna make glass stains about me, Mac.”
“Totally,” he agrees. “Listen, Den, you have to shut up, okay? It’s a funeral. You can’t be yelling about asses and frog plagues and shit. God does not want to hear about Dee’s ass.”
Dee rolls her eyes. “My ass is divine, Mac. God created my ass. How do you feel about that, huh?”
About a week ago he would’ve come back at her hard, like Dee, the only thing responsible for your bony ass is Satan, and maybe your freakish bird genetics. She’s doing that gross thing she does where she thinks she’s being sexy, all sidelong glances and smirks, except she’s sweaty and drunk and disgusting and Mac’s skin is pretty much trying to crawl all the way out of the church. Why are they doing this in a church, anyway? Frank never gave a shit about God. It’s probably why he ended up dead.
“I don’t give a shit, Dee,” he says, like old times, except it’s nothing like old times at all.
They limp through the service like a dog that got hit by a car -- like Poppins, that one time when Mac was fourteen. Charlie doesn’t sing; his eyes are all glazed over, staring down at the tiny print on the yellowy page, not seeing a goddamn thing. Dennis and Dee do sing, too loudly and kind of sharp. Dee starts crying halfway through Abide With Me, big ugly gulping sobs like she’s a fish washed up on the beach. At least normal people cry at funerals, too. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes. They are all going to die and God is never, ever, ever going to let them into heaven.
“You ready for my eulogy, bro?” asks Dennis, in a really obvious stage whisper, as the congregation sits after the hymn. Mac’s whole stomach plummets down under the ground with the corpses. He forgot the eulogy. There’s no way this is ending well.
Dennis lurches up to the lectern before the priest is even done saying his name. Christ, he looks a mess. His shirt’s not even buttoned right, and the streaks in his makeup are somehow even more obvious from a little distance away. His hair is gross and his mouth is all red and wet and Mac lowers his head in prayer because there’s literally nothing else he can do. At least like this he can’t see the lack of light in Dennis’s eyes.
“Frank Reynolds,” says Dennis, and his voice comes from everywhere, from high up in the rafters of the church like an angel’s. He sounds drunk as shit. There’s no way around it. “Frank Reynolds. What a… what a guy, everybody. Right?”
Dee is still sobbing. Charlie’s eyes aren’t even open anymore.
“He was a pioneer,” Dennis slurs, and Mac hears him stumble, hears the lectern scrape on the stone floor as it catches his weight. “A goddamn -- an innovator. He did a whole bunch of gross shit, like -- seriously, you wouldn’t even believe it. Your dumb tiny minds couldn’t even compre--” He swallows. “Couldn’t comper--”
He never works it out. There’s just the unmistakeable sound of retching, and the splatter of puke on the floor, and cries of horror and repulsion from everyone in the goddamn church, up to and including the priest. He should get up, he should go get Dennis and make sure he’s okay, but he can’t even remember which way is up anymore. From somewhere overhead, from everywhere at once, Dennis emits a feeble little groan.
“He was a terrible father,” says Dee, all at once, and loudly enough that it distorts in Mac’s ears. Her high heels scrape on the floor as she staggers up to her feet. “You hear me, assholes? He was a goddamn awful father, he never gave a shit about us, he used to steal our Christmas presents and fucking ruin them all the time. He spent years and years running a sweatshop in Vietnam. You want to -- you want to sing hymns about him, huh? About a man like that? You want to do a whole funeral for this piece of shit?”
They’re escorted out of the church. Mac doesn’t even try to put up a fight. He lets Dennis hook an arm around his shoulder, breathe his shitty puke breath right up against Mac’s face, and it doesn’t matter. It was always going to go like this. It was just a matter of when.
Dennis’s phone is ringing when Mac gets back from the gym; he picks it up just as Mac closes the apartment door behind him. It’s pretty sweet, having the apartment all fixed up. Even the hinges on the doors don’t squeak anymore. Mac can sneak around with the grace of a cat, which is totally badass. He can say what he wants about demons’ whispers and the grace of a falcon; Dennis only wishes he had Mac’s capacity for sneaking.
The door to Dennis’s bedroom is a little way open, just enough for Mac to listen in. “Dee?” says Dennis, like he can’t believe it. “What is it? Did something happen?”
There’s a moment’s quiet. Mac is still as a stone. His heart’s racing in his chest, going so hard he can’t help thinking Dennis can hear it.
“You’re ready to be in contact again?” Dennis asks. And then he laughs his creepy hollow laugh, like a switch has flipped and he’s stopped being a person. Mac’s stomach clenches up; he thinks about Dee kicking Dennis off the stairway to her jet plane, Dee sinking into the water without an I love you too. Dennis isn’t this stupid. “Wow. Uh -- wow. Gotta say, sis, I didn’t notice you ever went out of contact? It’s been busy here, you know, lots going on, irons in the fire -- Mac’s doing musical theater now, and I’ve been -- Dee?”
So Dennis is that stupid. Who knew.
There’s a moment’s silence, a lull before the storm, and then Dennis is stomping out of his room like an angry toddler. Only more bigger, and -- somehow less angrier than usual. His face is all red, and he’s pretty much vibrating with rage, but his eyes are all shiny and wide like he’s seconds away from starting to cry. Mac tries to look busy, which basically means looking super invested in his gym bag. He’s lucky that Dennis isn’t paying much attention.
“She told me to eat a dick, Mac,” he snarls, pacing back and forth like a lion in a cage. Or maybe just a really overzealous guard dog. “Me! She called me, and then she has the goddamn nerve to hang up on me -- I won’t stand for it, Mac. I don’t have to stand for it. I should be the one hanging up on her, and if she thinks she can just -- just undermine me like this--” He’s got one hand twisted in his own hair, the other hand all but clawing at his face, and if Mac is good at anything he’s good at cooling down situations like this. He grabs at Dennis’s wrists, which are way too bony to feel like any part of a dude. The fact that Dennis doesn’t immediately struggle to break free and start scratching his face up is pretty much a miracle; maybe for once they can skip the part where they beat the shit out of each other until Dennis calms down. Mac can feel his own pulse in his throat. If he ever meets Dennis’s therapist he’s going to buy her flowers.
“Dude,” he says, firmly. “Dennis, calm down, okay? It’s just Dee.”
“Just Dee?” His voice jumps up to the really high notes, the ones he sometimes hits when he’s singing. “That’s my sister, Mac, my twin fucking sister--”
“And you just told her you didn’t even notice she stopped talking to you.” Maybe this is a dumb thing to say. At least he’s got a decent hold on Dennis, a solid line of defence against getting his eyes clawed out of his head. “Den, seriously, take a goddamn breath. You’re acting like an asshole.”
Dennis’s face is sort of purpling at the edges, like Mac’s hands are around his throat instead of his wrists. He looks about ready to scream. He doesn’t. Instead, for once in his life, he does as he’s told; he takes a breath, and then another, even if every breath he takes is shallow and rough and clearly still really goddamn angry. “I won’t stand for it, Mac,” he says again, and his whole body is shaking. He’s way too close. Mac can feel every twitch, every tremor that wracks him. “I’m her brother.”
“I know, man,” he says. He can hear all his confidence draining away, like he’s a useless wrung-out sponge. Even his grip on Dennis is slackening. “I know. But -- dude, you need to keep your cool, okay? You can’t get all -- all weird and defensive about shit.”
“Weird?” Dennis protests. “Defensive?”
Mac rolls his eyes. “If you wanted to talk to her, dude, you should’ve just talked to her. I don’t know why you’d want to talk to her, because she’s pretty much the grossest person alive, but -- you know, even gross bird women don’t like it when you treat them like you don’t give a shit.”
Dennis’s shoulders are starting to slump. This is probably the most quickest they’ve ever gotten through a meltdown. It’s definitely the first one in ages not to end in an all-out fight. “I’m a legend, Mac,” he says, but there’s no real conviction in it anymore. It’s just the protestations of an idiot who knows he screwed up. “A legend. She would have been lucky to get to talk to me.”
It doesn’t make sense. Dennis has been in therapy for exactly as long as Mac. His meds are stronger, and he sees a whole extra medical professional on a regular basis. And yet Mac’s come out, and the world didn’t end. Mac’s going to be in a musical and it’s awesome, it’s a totally sweet concept with a healthy respect for Jesus Christ, and just last week one of the gays invited him to the big club night at the Rainbow. He can’t go, obviously, because there’s no way he can spend a whole night in a bar without forgetting he’s meant to be sober now, but it’s pretty great to be invited. Mac’s getting more stronger and more bigger all the time, because the gym’s an awesome distraction from wanting to go out and rage. And Dennis -- Dennis is just sort of treading water. Dennis’s sister isn’t talking to him. Dennis goes outside maybe twice a week, and the rest of the time he’s just bored in the apartment; he doesn’t go to the gym. He doesn’t have hobbies like Mac does. He’s surviving. That’s… kind of it.
He definitely would not have given a shit about this a year ago. Except that he probably would, and it’s getting more and more harder to pretend anything different.
“You need to do something else,” says Mac. “Okay? You need to -- to get your mind off her stupid bird face. Come on, dude, we’re gonna get through this. What do you want to do?”
He’s still holding onto Dennis. He lets go too quickly when he remembers what he’s doing, like it’s something that matters. Dennis gestures vaguely to the TV. Now that the rage is passing, he looks like he’s too exhausted for speaking in words. It’s fine. It’s normal. They’ve been through this a thousand times before.
Mac’s still really ripe from the gym, and sweaty in a way Dennis would usually object to in the strongest of terms. Not today, though. Today Dennis folds himself up against Mac’s shoulder without even a token effort at berating him. The Simpsons is on, which is great; it means he doesn’t have to get up or put in a DVD, and risk jolting Dennis out of his new and fragile quiet. It’s mindless enough that it’ll probably help, if anything actually does. Dennis’s breathing is slowly, slowly starting to even out.
“Okay?” asks Mac. As questions go, it’s not enough. Dennis nods anyway, though he’s still kind of shaking. He’s totally not okay, but what else is Mac going to do except believe him? It’s a matter of protecting his dignity. It’s a matter of something he doesn’t want to think about naming.
The thing is -- the thing is that the Dennis feelings have always kind of been there. They’ve been hanging around all nameless and troubling since the first day they met. And that’s fine. Mac is used to them. He’s not even in the closet about them, because that would require them to have enough power over him to put him somewhere. He put them in the closet, to cool off. Or he stuffed them in a sock drawer, where hopefully they’ll run out of air sooner rather than later. And sure, sometimes they do make him think it’d be an awesome idea to kiss Dennis on the face, or lean over on his shoulder while they’re watching a movie. But he’s getting better at not doing those things, like, all the time. It’s progress. Dr Jackson is always telling Mac he’s making progress.
Dennis doesn’t need to know. It’s better if he doesn’t, even. Honestly, he probably does know and just hasn’t said anything about it, in which case the fact that he’s never followed up means he doesn’t give a shit how Mac feels. And that’s fine, too. At least, it’s what Mac sort of figured. Dennis doesn’t give a shit how anyone feels, even Dee -- especially Dee, never mind all the things his face is doing right now just thinking about her. Goddamn it. She’s the worst.
“D’you think she’s ever coming back?” asks Dennis, all soft and hoarse, and Mac thinks: sock drawer. The smell of the socks will totally choke those stupid feelings. It’s a metaphor. Dennis is looking at him like they’re the only two people left in the world.
“She will,” says Mac, as reliably and confidently as he can. He’s the cooler. He’s the tastemaker. What he says is just what happens, so really he’s doing Dennis a favour. “You’ll see, bro. You won’t be able to get rid of her in the end.”
“I don’t know, man,” says Charlie, kicking a pebble down the street without much conviction. “She’s still, like, super mad at him. Maybe this is just the way things are now, you know? We’re not a gang, or whatever -- we’re just a bunch of people. A few guys. A bird,” he adds, and Mac laughs.
“Cause she looks like a bird,” he agrees, and Charlie grins, eyes crinkling up at the corners. “Right, right. But dude…” He feels his smile slipping, falling, landing splat on the sidewalk. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like Dee. I think she’s annoying and needy and -- I mean, just completely hideous. Not to criticise, but the big guy upstairs went way too hard on the bones when He made Dee.”
Charlie just shrugs, his own smile long since vanished. It’s weird. It’s a little uncomfortable, actually. Charlie always laughs along with him. “You know what I mean,” he says, eventually, and waves a hand like he can bat all the awkwardness away. “You get it, dude. So, like, you get what I mean when I say it’s not the same like this. It’s like, we sold the bar, but that was fine, because we would still see each other all the time anyway--”
“--but then they fell out,” says Charlie, switched on again just like that. “And now it’s like, I have to make time to see you, man, and I like to see you, but it’s hard to make plans about it! What even are plans, anyway, like who invented plans, they must’ve been boring as shit--”
“And dude,” says Mac, as they round the corner to the coffee shop, “it is so tiring living with Dennis all the time. Like, you know I love the guy--”
“Yeah,” says Charlie, with a sideways glance, and Mac’s chest does this gross awful thing where his ribs get more smaller around his lungs.
“Of course I do,” he says, and shakes it off. “He’s my blood brother. Obviously I love him. But he’s…” He takes a breath. “He’s not getting better as fast as us, man. You know, we’re all… walking around the city, seeing liquor stores, not even thinking about them, right? And I take my meds, and I do what Dr Jackson says is a good idea, and it’s -- I mean. Is it great? Not really. Is it easy? Hell no! But I’m doing it. And Dennis… I have to go with him to his nutritionist, dude. Or he just doesn’t go.”
The little bell rings as they open the coffee shop door. It’s not the one they used to go to -- that one closed years ago, and it also definitely had Charlie’s gross waitress in it, and basically everyone involved is trying to move past that at this point. There’s a line, which is annoying. Coffee’s not even that great anyway; it’s fine if you can’t drink beer, but Mac’s still a little fuzzy on why you wouldn’t drink beer if you could. “Is he sad about Dee?” asks Charlie, blithely drifting towards the back of the line. “Because, I mean, I get why she didn’t want to talk to him, but it’s gotta be hard on him, too. He’s like the neediest asshole alive.”
He thinks about defending Dennis’s honour, except that it’s actually a pretty fair assessment. God, he’s missed Charlie. “He got super mad when she hung up on him,” says Mac. “Which. Yeah. That usually means he’s sad, I guess. But it’s his fault!” He shakes his head; he kind of hates how frustrated he sounds. “She said she wanted to talk, and then he got all mean and sarcastic about it, and it’s like -- why are you even surprised she hung up on you?”
“Right!” exclaims Charlie. “And she was the same -- like, she was definitely mad, she went for a walk and everything. But she was miserable that whole night. She really wanted to talk to him, dude.”
Mac sighs. Dennis still isn’t out of bed, back at the apartment. “I wish they’d just start talking again,” he says, as the line shuffles slowly forward. “Like, I understand digging in, you know? You pick a side, you stick to your side, you don’t change. I get that. But if neither of them even wants to be on the side they picked -- what’s the point?”
“I don’t know, bro.” Charlie sighs, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “It’s all weird now, I guess. At least it’s sort of normal to be in a fight.”
What’s not normal is the conflict resolution time involved. It’s never taken more than a month before, and even then it’s because there was lots to discuss in arbitration; it’s never just dragged on like this, like a silence nobody knows how to interrupt. The annoying thing is that it’s making Mac miss Dee. Sure, she’s an irritating bird person and a baby-killing liberal heathen, but -- well. She gets Dennis. Mac always thought it’d be awesome to have Dennis to himself, back in high school, but it’s not at all, not like this. It’s like looking directly at the sun, if the sun were a high-strung asshole with an unreasonably possessive attitude to Thin Mint cookies. Maybe Dee used to be Mac’s shades, in this scenario, except she’s not even cool enough to wear shades, never mind be them. It doesn’t matter what she is. She helped. She was another target, or she was someone they could all unite in hating, or she was someone else who vaguely knew what to do when Dennis shredded his knuckles punching out a mirror. It’s just Mac, now. And Charlie, but the end result of putting Charlie and Dennis in a room together is that goddamn stupid Dayman song. It’s not worth it. Although Mac would be way more invested in staging one of Charlie’s musicals now than he was back then.
“You should come over,” he suggests anyway. Maybe he can be like a buffer. Stand between Dennis and Charlie and the inevitable fallout from their horrible decision-making. “Come for movie night or something. It’s been ages.”
Charlie cringes a little, sidling a little way forward. “Yeah,” he says, and drags it out until he runs out of breath. “Maybe. I, uh, I dunno how Dee would feel about that, though. If I did.”
Mac’s not disappointed. It’s sort of what he expected, anyway. Maybe CharDee MacDennis was some kind of fortune-telling voodoo this whole time. “You’re right,” he agrees, and feels heavy all over. This had better be some seriously powerful coffee. “I mean, if you’ve got to live with her…”
“I haven’t got to live with her,” Charlie says. “Or -- okay, maybe I have a little bit, because there’s no way I’m ever talking to Hwang again. But I don’t hate it, you know? She’s actually sort of okay. In roommate terms.”
Mac feels like the four of them are hurtling down a freeway with no signposts and no guardrails, veering off into different lanes, waiting for the junction where the road splits in two. Charlie orders straight milk, heavy on the froth, and the coffee guy gives him the weirdest look, like an asshole. It would be okay to laugh at him if the others were here. He downs his espresso like a vodka shot, but it’s not what it should be; it’s bitter in all the wrong ways, and it sticks in his throat long after he’s swallowed.
And then it’s been a year. Just like that. Or, like, not actually just like that. Strictly speaking they both saw it coming. Dennis has been pricklier, quieter, like Mac always imagined hedgehogs except way less small and cute. It’s been easier just to hit the gym, most days, around musical theater rehearsals and therapy sessions, rather than tiptoe between rooms while Dennis bristles at nothing. He basically has a near-constant full pump. Shit could be worse.
“What do you think you’ll do?” he asked Charlie, when they hung out in the park a few days back. “You know, for the anniversary. Are you going to do something, or…?”
Charlie shrugged, and tossed another crumb of stale bagel to the pigeons. “I dunno, man. I was thinking maybe I’d make Dee a grilled Frank? And we could eat the grilled Franks, and it’d be like a little memorial thing, because he really did love those sandwiches. Like, way too much for a man his age, you know?”
“Yeah,” said Mac, ripping his own trash bagel in half. “Yeah, no, they were pretty gross. It’s a cool idea, though. Maybe just make one for Dee, and make a grilled Charlie for you?”
“Nah, dude,” said Charlie, shaking his head. “Nah, it’s not in the spirit of the thing, you see. He did all that gross shit with a mannequin when he thought I died. And now he actually did die, and it’s like… I gotta return the favour. It’s the honourable thing.”
Dennis is hunched over a coffee mug when Mac emerges from his room, hollow-eyed and feral in a way Mac hasn’t seen since the first weeks out of hospital -- he’d almost forgotten it, the way it ages him, makes him impossible to read the way nothing else does. “Morning, dude,” he offers, and Dennis barely moves. “Did you get breakfast already? I can do pancakes today, if you want.”
“Mm,” says Dennis. Mac glances into the kitchen. There aren’t any dirty dishes by the sink; he’s definitely not eaten. Pancakes and fruit, then. Fruit is healthy; maybe it’ll make the pancakes more better for him. Take that, Dr Carson. He demonstrates a sweet karate chop on the air above the sink before he starts to pull together the ingredients.
“You doing anything today?” he asks Dennis, as he stirs the pancake mix together. Dennis makes a no sound, which Mac just barely hears over the clattering of the spoon against the bowl. “Oh. Well, maybe we should do something. Get out there, get into something, you know? It’s a good day to do something awesome. Charlie was saying he found this totally sweet skate park--”
“What,” asks Dennis, monotonous, “would we do at a skate park?”
“You can’t even stand up on a skateboard, Mac. Last time you tried you fell on your ass and sulked for a week.”
He huffs. “I did not sulk, Dennis. I reflected. It was like self-care. See, I’ve been self-caring before I even knew what self-care was, which is why I’m great at therapy, and also at extreme sports.”
Dennis doesn’t say anything, which is understandable; Mac totally put him in his place. He ladles pancake mix into the pan. This is going to be the best goddamn breakfast ever and they’re going to make it through the day just fine. “Anyway,” he says, loudly enough that Dennis can definitely hear him over the cooking sounds, “the point of the skate park was that it had all this cool graffiti art, like, all over the concrete. Like an art gallery, only not for nerds. Charlie was asking me if I wanted to help him do some graffiti art, you know, provide security, but I’m pretty sure if we get arrested we’re basically boned forever, so he said he’d just do it on Dee’s refrigerator instead--”
“What is this,” demands Dennis. It doesn’t sound much like a question. “Why are you telling me all this dumb shit I don’t care about?”
Mac falters. The pancake is browning at the edges, like it’s on fire. “Are you really okay with sitting around doing nothing all day? I’m trying to help, bro -- keep you active, you know? You’re always complaining about how bored you are, and today of all days, I thought you might want to do something--”
The couch springs creak ominously; Dennis walks toward the kitchen doorway like he’s a zombie in one of those shoot-’em-up video games, and he’s got Mac cornered. “Today of all days. What do you mean by that, exactly?”
He turns off the heat on the stove. Waste of a perfectly good pancake, but like hell he’s going to risk burning down the apartment a third time. “I mean,” he says, and folds his arms, “that today’s one year since Frank crashed your car, and because of that, and because of the fact that we’re all recovering addicts, maybe it’s not the smartest idea to lie around wallowing and feeling like shit?”
Dennis laughs, and it sounds weird, hollow. “Oh. Sure. So you’re the arbiter of grieving, now. Everybody listen to Mac, because God knows he’s the only man who can save us! He’s enlightened, see, he’s so much better at -- at self-care than anyone who’s ever lost their goddamn parent!”
The kitchen’s too small, like a cage. Mac’s hands are itching to give it back to him hard, to shove him away and hit him until he tires himself out. “You need to stop yelling,” he says instead. Like he practiced. New Mac doesn’t solve his problems by punching them, even when he really really wants to. “I get it, Den, I know you’re mad, but you need to--”
“You need to stop pussying around,” Dennis snarls. He’s all teeth, radiating heat. “Come to me like a man, asshole. Fight back. What the hell kind of badass are you, if you won’t even give it to me straight?”
His ears are ringing. Maybe they were never going to stick this out; maybe it was always going to collapse, the way everything else they’ve ever tried always has before. “I’m cooling the situation down,” he says, and holds Dennis’s gaze. “That’s badass, Dennis. Don’t tell me that’s not what a badass would do.”
Dennis turns on his heel, shoulders hunched up together like he’s waiting to pounce. “I don’t want to look at you right now,” he snaps, and stalks off towards his bedroom. “You’re a condescending fucking coward, Mac. I hope you choke on your goddamn pancakes.”
The door slams behind him like a gunshot. It’s only a matter of minutes -- Mac standing shellshocked in the kitchen, heart racing like he just ran a marathon -- before the Steve Winwood starts up, Higher Love seeping out like flood water through the crack between the door and the carpet. It’s always Winwood. Mac’s never seen the appeal. When he gets mad he wants to listen to fight music, hitting-shit-with-your-fists music, not this synth-pop trash. Dennis is an asshole. But he’s known that for twenty years. He just never did anything about it.
He finishes the pancakes. More for him, if Dennis isn’t eating. He piles them high on his plate and he drowns them in syrup and he eats and eats until he stops feeling anything. A little queasy, maybe. Whatever. Queasy’s better than mad, or scared. He turns on the TV. There’s a Family Guy box set somewhere around; if Dennis gets to wallow, so does he. If Dennis gets to be an asshole, Mac gets to be an asshole back. He turns up the volume high enough to drown out Winwood, and grabs a box of Dennis’s precious Thin Mints, just to really make his point.
He wonders if Charlie made Dee a grilled Frank, in the end. Dennis would never have eaten it, if he’d tried the same thing. He’d have thrown it out the window and screamed at Mac for trying to poison him. Some things don’t change. Most things. Too many.
Dennis emerges when it’s starting to get dark out, by which time Mac’s watched an entire season, made dinner, hit the end of the second season, and found that the jokes are wearing thin. He looks horrible. The shadows under his eyes are darker than his usual eyeliner. Mac tries not to look at him directly, but it’s a losing battle. He lingers in the doorway, visibly struggling for the right words, something twitching around his jaw as he tries and tries and tries again.
“I’m sorry,” he says, at way too much length for just two dumb words. “Okay? I… am sorry that I got irritated with you.”
“Okay,” says Mac, because this is actually pretty incredible for Dennis, except that Dennis just holds up his hand, shaking his head.
“I’m not done. Goddamn it. Just -- let me say the words, okay, it’s important.” He takes a breath. He isn’t meeting Mac’s eyes. “I got irritated with you, even though you were just… trying to be a good friend. Which was wrong of me.” There definitely isn’t an onion involved. His hands are at his sides, fingers straight, like he’s trying to prove a point. Jesus Christ. “And I’m… gonna try to do better. I mean, I’m probably still gonna get mad at you, because -- come on, you know, I’m not a goddamn saint.” A hollow little laugh. “But I’m gonna try to not… yell about it. And again, I mean, I just want to reiterate -- I am sorry. For yelling.”
Mac’s gripping the arm of the couch so hard he thinks it’s about to snap, just splinter out between his fingers like a cartoon explosion. “Den,” he says. His voice doesn’t sound like it belongs to him. “It’s… it’s cool, man. We’re cool.”
“Good,” says Dennis. He’s still tense as shit. Like he’s made out of wire, and maybe he can move around and talk but nothing’s going to stop him being made of metal in the end. “Thank you.”
“I made lasagne,” he says. It’s only fair to do a peace offering, right? “I left some in the oven for you, if you want it.”
Dennis’s smile doesn’t even try to touch his eyes. “Yeah,” he says, quiet. “Sure.” And there it is: another point to Mac. Maybe he could even be a nutritionist, someday; figuring out how to get Dennis to eat probably makes college or whatever look easy as shit.
He puts on Predator. It’s basically a comfort film, at this point, except that it doesn’t work at all in the face of Dennis hunched over a bowl of lasagne, picking at it and picking at it and chewing every goddamn mouthful until it probably tastes of nothing. He stares straight through the screen with nothing behind his eyes, like there’s a war going on somewhere under his skin, and Mac’s got nothing; just pasta dishes and forgiveness. Not enough. Of all the things that could have changed, and didn’t.
Chapter 3: Dennis Feels Something
You all continue to be excellent. I did not at all anticipate this kind of response to my attempt at human word-saying: thank you, thank you, thank you.
Please note that this chapter contains Dennis's canon-typical disordered approach to food, Dennis's canon-typical attitude to boundaries and consent (though there is no non-consensual sexual content), Dennis's canon-typical attitude to women, and... you know what, just the whole Dennis. We also briefly cross paths with his CSA-related trauma, but again, nothing is explicitly discussed or described. Warnings for previous chapters remain in force. (This is also the chapter where we finally earn that E rating, for those keeping track.)
Unless something goes horribly wrong in my weekend plans, I'll be posting the final chapter, from Charlie's point of view, on Saturday.
In Dennis’s dreams he’s back behind the bar, back when the bar was newly theirs. It’s late and quiet, just him and Mac, and the jukebox and the sign in the window are brilliant blurs in the low light. Mac’s hair is soft, like the lines of his face, like his skin wet with salt and spit. I get it, he says, and leans in over the bar, eyes bright, beautiful. I get it, Den -- you bite the lime, and then you lick, and then -- and he’s wrong, he’s so wrong, he’s never going to get it right, except he’s looking at Dennis with perfect trust and Dennis is drunk enough to want to keep trying. No, he says. No no no. You lick -- and his hand is clumsy, unsteady as he lifts it to his mouth. His tongue is hot on his own skin. And then you drink, and it burns fiercely enough to drive back everything else, all the persistent aches of emptiness that never completely go away. And then you bite, and Mac nods, like he’s seen the light, and Dennis could do this forever; Dennis could stay here forever, in the hazy 3AM world they’ve created. It’s just him and Mac and a bottle of tequila, sweating and immaculate in a tight tank top, reality a good couple of decades down the line -- and what’s a decade, when you’re drunk? It doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t have to. It’s the moment, the shining perfect mess of a moment, that keeps you alive.
He wakes up feeling emptier than before, like the simple act of dreaming about it has poured a little more of him down the drain. It’s harder not to snap at Mac over the breakfast he can’t get out of eating; pancakes, because Mac is unexpectedly and irritatingly good at making pancakes, and true to form he does it all the fucking time. Mac drowns his plate in maple syrup, and Dennis chews and chews until he can’t taste a thing.
“Your therapy is making me sick,” he tells Dr Brynner, after three repeats of the same dream. It’s not even a good dream. His subconscious is an asshole without beer to shut it down.
She doesn’t miss a beat. “How so?”
“I keep dreaming about the bar,” he snaps. His head’s at capacity; he can speak out loud, or he can modulate his tone, but he can’t do both, not today. She’s got to be used to it. “And then I feel like shit when I wake up, which I can almost guarantee is thanks to you. So we’re not going to talk about the bar anymore, okay? Because I don’t get sick. That’s not who I am.”
Dr Brynner would be hot, if she were twenty years younger. This is exactly the kind of thought she’d be disappointed in him for having; disappointed because she’s never been mad at him, not once in months of trying to hit her limits. Apparently she doesn’t fucking have any, which is less awesome than Dennis would have expected. All it means in practice is that he’s told her the worst shit he’s ever done, thrown everything at her like plates at a wall, and she didn’t even flinch. She got him to talk, all the while letting him think he was asserting dominance, making an increasingly desperate play for power. Hard not to admire that kind of deviousness, even if she is irritating as shit.
“Tell me how you feel,” she asks, “after you dream about the bar. What kind of sick?”
“What kind of -- the kind where I want to puke up my goddamn stomach. What kind of sick. Is there another kind?”
She shakes her head. “Well, have you ever actually vomited? Does it make you nauseous?” A moment’s pause. He doesn’t have to dignify any of this with a response. He’s better than that, he’s better than any of this. “I’m trying to help, Dennis.”
God fucking damn it. “I haven’t -- physically been sick,” he concedes, and folds his arms. He has his dignity, even if apparently he doesn’t have any secrets anymore. “Not since the first month out. But I want to be. You know, when it’d feel better if you just -- stuck a finger down your throat and got it over with?”
“That can be a symptom of anxiety,” she says. And why wouldn’t it be? Just another dumbshit medical label to slap on his shirt like a name badge: hello my name is Irreparably Broken. “Not necessarily in the clinical sense -- it would be understandable if thinking about the bar brought up some feelings of worry for you. Am I off-base here, Dennis?”
He remembers trying to freak out Dee’s shitty therapist way back when, posturing by her shelf full of books on marital happiness. All that talk of executioners’ switches, and now Dr Brynner has unimpeded access to whatever self-destruct mechanisms underpin his own mind. Now he has his own therapist, and Dee’s off doing whatever the fuck she’s doing, and he’s barely spoken to Charlie in what will soon be a year. Mac rides with him to the nutritionist’s office every second Tuesday. There’s no base, really, for her to be off. He hasn’t had precedent since Frank trashed his goddamn car and took their whole shared life out with him.
“What is there to be worried about?” he asks, flat. “I don’t even have the bar anymore.”
“But it was an important part of your life.” She’s watching him closely, waiting for him to give her something. “Important as more than just a place of work. It was where you spent time together, wasn’t it? Where you used to drink, where you used to make all your plans.”
“So you’re saying I’m afraid of alcohol, now?”
The barest flicker of a smile. “You said it, Dennis, not me.”
In Dennis’s dreams they’re all young and beautiful and merciless, and where they are isn’t where they’ll always be; except it is, no matter what they do or think or try, and he leaves part of himself behind the bar every time he wakes.
He clicks around, squinting at the smeared-up laptop screen through the dark. The average GPA of a successful candidate is 3.59. He kicks the leg of the couch as hard as he can, hands shaking over the keyboard. They don’t even mention mature students. Okay, sure, he never quite got his GPA up there with the high-scorers -- the nerds, let’s be straightforward about it, the irritating little nerds at the front of the goddamn class all the time -- but he was a small business owner, wasn’t he? He made shit work out for him, didn’t walk right into some cushy job in Center City before graduation was even over. He’s a self-made man, an independent thinker. He’s the kind of student these assholes should be looking for. They just can’t see it. They don’t deserve him anyway.
“Oh my god,” says Mac, blearily, from the doorway to his bedroom. “Dude. Are you seriously still up?”
Dennis closes the tab with a decisive click. It’s okay. He is a higher being, no matter what Dr Brynner says, capable of restraint in the face of this fucking idiocy. “Research won’t do itself, Mac. Information never sleeps.”
“You find anything good yet?” Mac wanders over, scrubbing sleep-grit from his eyes, and leans up against the back of the couch. His breath stirs in Dennis’s hair. It almost certainly reeks. “Or are you thinking you’ll just stick with Penn?”
He bites back a scream of frustration, feels it die between his teeth. “It’s not that simple. Okay? If you ever actually applied to college yourself, you’d -- listen. Mac. Penn is a prestigious institution. You know that. If I want to get back in, I have to -- to prove it’d be worth their while to have me.” The glare of the screen is beginning to hurt his eyes. “Yeah. That’s all I have to do. You’ll help me, right, man? I’m gonna need some pretty glowing references, so I’ll write those and then you and Charlie can sign them, they’ll never check it, they never check this shit -- and you can test me, you know, for the GREs--”
“You have to take tests?” demands Mac, like the very thought is a personal insult.
“I know, I know,” he says, “it sucks, but we’re a team, right, dude? We’re blood brothers.” He shakes his head. “The dynamic duo! I said it before, didn’t I? I can do anything if you’re behind me. Anything, and no one can stop me.”
Mac’s hand drifts down to his shoulder, like an accident. Dennis knows better. If Mac would just show a little commitment, apply a little pressure or something, rather than just grazing the edge of Dennis’s scapula like a goddamn coward -- he sucks in a breath. He promised to try not to yell. Which, sure, is a pretty handy get-out-of-jail card in case he ever does yell, but he did promise to try. The opposite of yelling is gentle non-judgment. It’s annoying as shit that he knows this by heart.
“You’re gonna be such an awesome vet, dude,” says Mac, like he really believes it. At least there’s that. “You should get some sleep, okay? And I’ll start testing you first thing tomorrow.”
First thing tomorrow is therapy; he takes his plan to Dr Brynner, refreshed and ready to start anew. “So you see, doc,” he says, when he’s talked her through his chosen method, “I have so much to look forward to that has nothing to do with the bar. I have plans. I’m capable of making plans. What do you think?”
She gives away absolutely nothing. Dr Carson is way more obliging; she reacts to him, smiles when he shows up to appointments, laughs at his jokes. Dr Brynner has probably never laughed at a joke in her life. “Dennis,” she says, in the carefully-neutral way that means she’s trying not to upset him. “Is this a real plan?”
He stares at her, withering. “What are you talking about? Obviously it’s a real plan. I put work into this, doc, come on -- do you think I’d put this much effort into a fake plan? This is what I’m doing to do!”
“I don’t doubt that it’s plausible,” she says gently. “And I do mean that, Dennis. I have every confidence that if you decided, from a place of real stability, that you wanted to apply for vet school, you’d be able to make it happen.” And -- yeah, okay. Maybe she’s not a completely lost cause after all. “But you framed it just now as a demonstration that you can make plans. Is it something you’d actually want to follow through on, if you had the opportunity?”
He thinks about Dee. The only reason you wanted to be a veterinarian is because you wanted to keep the skins, she said, before they proceeded to get high as shit on crack rock and scam a severely injured Frank. He stops thinking about Dee. She wouldn’t be on board with this plan even if she did give a shit.
“Dennis?” Dr Brynner prompts. He comes back to his body with a jolt; he can’t stick the landing, never could.
“I always wanted to be a veterinarian,” he says, with less conviction than he wants. It’s getting harder to summon these things up on command, which is going to play havoc with… well. With basically every interaction he has with another person. This is why he wanted to be a vet; animals don’t give a shit if you can’t speak their language. Screw Dee. She doesn’t understand a goddamn thing. “Or, I mean, I was fine with owning a bar. I just wasn’t fine with undoing thousands of dollars’ worth of medical attention, you know? So I’m naturally revisiting the idea of becoming a vet, since it was under consideration before -- isn’t that the sensible thing to do? Do we need to make it a whole thing?”
“You mentioned before that you found college stressful,” says Dr Brynner, and Dennis doesn’t roll his eyes on purpose -- they just sort of go. “That you relied heavily on substance abuse and sexual activity to relieve the pressure you felt. Would it be sensible to return to that environment, now that you’re in recovery?”
It’s his own goddamn fault. She’d probably love it if he admitted as much, so he doesn’t, but it’s basically all on him; back when he was still trying to establish dominance by way of fear and awe, he gave her way more information than anyone needed about his previous stint at Penn. Made it all a big deal, though admittedly it didn’t need much embellishment -- it would’ve gotten Dee’s shitty therapist’s attention, that’s for goddamn sure. Dr Brynner is just irritatingly hard to crack. “Come on, doc,” he says wearily. “Obviously that was… mostly bullshit. Basically all of it. We discussed this.”
She just looks at him.
“It wasn’t dangerous if I had Mac on the phone! That’s what we agreed, okay? I said that, you know, right up next to all the other shit, and you nodded, which means you agreed with me--”
“Goddamn it.” He closes his eyes; his skin is starting to prickle with sweat. “Fine. Fine. It’s a fake plan, okay? Is that what you wanted to hear? I don’t have references, I don’t have aspirations, I don’t have a goddamn thesis statement. I don’t even have the right GPA. Are you happy now? Are you feeling good about this?”
“You know I’m not, Dennis,” she says, and sure, whatever, that’s true, but it’s not real. He breathes; he tries to pull apart what he’s feeling, and comes up with something between the desire to break shit on the floor and a bottomless elevator shaft of misery. If there’s a floor at the bottom of the chasm then his bones will break, at least; wouldn’t that be something. “I’m not here to judge you. It’s completely normal to look for structure under pressure. What I’m saying is that it isn’t something to rush, and it’s certainly something to think about carefully.”
He glares at her. “So what are your suggestions, then? Or are you just demolishing my ideas for the fun of it?”
She shakes her head. “As I said, Dennis -- I think that in the long term, you’d be more than capable of following this through. But you need to move slowly, and you need to set yourself realistic goals. Have you looked into community college, at all?”
And there it is, there’s the ground, rushing up to meet him. “Community college.”
“It would show any college you ultimately applied to that you had recent academic experience -- as well as a willingness to commit to your plans.” She regards him carefully. “I know it seems beneath you. But I do think it’s worth considering.”
Mac’s all excitement when he gets home, asking what Dennis is going to put in the goddamn fake references, announcing he’s been practising his signature. Dennis shuts the door to his bedroom behind him.
The day after the funeral, they don’t open the bar. They show up, because what else are they going to do, but Charlie goes to switch off the Closed sign and just ends up standing there, vacant around the eyes, his blotchy face lit up in neon cherry-red. It’s fine. They have a long and sordid history of avoiding the difficult shit. Mac goes through Charlie’s stash for the strongest inhalants they have; Dennis doesn’t bother mixing drinks, just pours straight vodka into half-pint glasses. They end up sprawled on the floor, hanging onto reality by an overburdened thread. Dennis looks up at the ceiling and sees Frank in the water stains and cigarette-smoke yellowing. He closes his eyes and sees lights going out all over town. He’s hollow, like a reed. There’s nothing of him for death or grief to touch.
“I don’t get it,” says Mac, and he sounds like he’s about to burst into tears. Little bitch. “We didn’t even give that much of a shit about him. He was just… kind of there, you know? Like the grossest ATM in history. So--” His breath hitches. “So why are we all sad?”
“Guys,” says Charlie. It’s the first thing he’s said for hours if not days; through the grime on the windows, the light is fading. “Guys. I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
Dennis feels Mac flinch against his side, and reaches blindly to catch at his wrist. He doesn’t get to leave. Anchoring Dennis when he’s high and drifting is one of the only things he’s good for. “Charlie, don’t say that, okay? We’re gonna be fine, we’ve got loads to live for--”
“Nah.” Charlie sounds the way he did in boat jail; maybe he really does believe they’re already dead. Wouldn’t it be something if they’d died in the ocean, holding hands, all five of them together the way it should have been? “Not, like, dying. I mean I can’t -- I can’t live like this. You know? With the vodka and the gasoline and the cat food and… and the whole thing. ‘Cause it killed Frank. It just… it straight-up killed him, and he was probably my dad and shit, and now it’s like… what if I die? Or one of you?”
He is so ready to laugh. That’s the annoying thing; he is so goddamn ready to make it some big joke, about Charlie and Frank’s bizarre cohabitation, about how they’re all in too deep to get out and the easy thing to do is just keep on sinking. The kind of thing you can laugh off. He is opening his mouth to fix the whole thing in the simplest possible way, except that Dee opens her mouth too, and says, “Charlie’s right, you guys. I think maybe we need to stop.”
Dennis opens his eyes. Everything’s hazy, like the air on the freeway, or a steamed-up window. “Stop… what? Because I thought we discussed what happens when we stop drinking.”
“He’s got a point,” says Mac, because of course he does. “Would we even win at it, if we tried? We got so sick last time, and it is really not that difficult to buy drinks, and -- no offence, guys, but we don’t have anything like the attention span for getting sober. You gotta keep doing it, and we don’t keep doing… anything.”
Dee shakes her head. She’s got this glint in her eyes that means she’s onto something; it’s hard and sharp like a knife, and Dennis hates more than anything that he can’t see what she can. “They have places for that. In hospitals, or rehab clinics. It’s a whole industry, it’s worth a fortune.”
“Oh, right,” says Mac, scornfully. “Because we definitely have money to pour down the drain on famous people shit like rehab.”
“Actually, we do,” she says. “Were you dumbshits not paying attention to the attorneys? We’ve got Frank’s entire goddamn fortune to do what we like with -- and oh, you guys, it is a fortune.” She’s practically salivating. It’s gross as shit. “It’s, like, hospital-bill money, with rent-for-a-year money left over. We could afford it. If we decided we were going to, we could.”
Silence. Well, silence except for the creaking pipes and the traffic outside. Couple of bums fighting in the alley. Paddy’s silence. It passes soon enough.
“I don’t want to stop drinking,” says Mac, at length. “Like -- it’s good. It’s fun.”
There’s a murmur of assent. “Also the drugs,” adds Dee, and Dennis adds his own agreement to the chorus.
“But if not stopping means ending up like Frank,” Mac continues, “and we don’t stop, and we die, and nobody has us on their emergency contact list, and there’s nobody at the funeral, and we all end up in hell anyway--”
“Oh my god,” mutters Dennis. On the ceiling, Frank is laughing: I could be Satan.
“I don’t want that, either.” Mac almost sounds tearful again. Goddamn it. “I want -- I want us to have a legacy. I want people to think well of us. You know?”
This is unbearably dumb. But Dee’s sitting up, and so is Mac -- the warmth and the weight of him drawing up and away from Dennis, leaving him bereft -- and so is Charlie, and they’re looking at each other like they know something Dennis doesn’t. “I guess,” says Dee, guardedly. “I guess if we hate being sober, we can just… stop?”
They’ll all go away, if he lets them. Dennis grits his teeth, pushes himself upright; his head is swimming, the usual lightheadedness mixing with the gasoline fumes. Mac reaches out a hand to steady him, warm fingers at his back. “Sure,” he says. “Sure. Okay.”
“Oh,” says Mac, like a bolt from heaven has descended and blessed him with the answer. “I know. You’re good at -- that thing you do, when you move your food around on your plate, and it looks like you’ve eaten loads when you haven’t.”
Dennis looks up from the page, which is really just an old water bill. Too high, but if the water company wants to screw him over for prizing his personal hygiene over material wealth, then the water company can eat a dick. “Are you mocking me right now?”
“No!” Mac holds up his hands, and something in Dennis flinches; he looks like he’s blocking a punch. Like he’s waiting for Dennis to attack him. Dr Brynner would be fascinated; he would’ve been proud of himself, once. “No, seriously, dude, that’s like a marketable skill. You know they have people to do that in restaurants? To make the food look all artistic and small and shit on the plates? You could be one of those, dude!”
“They absolutely do not hire people just to make the food look small.”
It’s a new low, having Mac look at him with pity in his eyes. “Sure, Den. But you should write it down anyway, right? You never know.”
He looks back down at what he’s written. It’s not enough at all. Thus far, his list of talents runs to bartending and picking out shirts. Both are caveatted in brackets, simply and damningly: ‘(unsafe)’ here, ‘(not a career)’ there. He writes ‘making food look small’ mostly so the list looks a little healthier; the irony of it isn’t lost on him. Still, it doesn’t take him long to add ‘(not a thing)’, like a lead weight to sink the whole idea.
“I could go back to being a handsome companion,” he muses, and Mac looks appalled in his peripheral vision. “Oh, come on, man. It didn’t work out before because Frank was only in it for the pimp chalice. You could be my pimp, if you wanted.”
Mac swallows; the architecture of his throat shifts under his skin. “I just,” he says, like it’s the biggest effort in the world. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea, you know? Like, if I told Dr Jackson I was going to be a pimp, I feel like he wouldn’t go for that? And -- dude, Dr Brynner would definitely be the same. You know if it was just us then I’d be with you all the way, man, it’s just that we aren’t--”
He doesn’t need to finish the sentence. It’s enough on its own; they aren’t, not anymore. “Yeah,” says Dennis. It flops out of his mouth already mostly dead. “Yeah, I guess so.”
He was smoking a shitload of crack towards the end of that whole thing, anyway. Probably for the best he doesn’t even try to get back in the game. He writes ‘sex’ on the list anyway. Good to have something there without any fucking brackets.
Dr Brynner doesn’t even blink when he presents her with the list; she gives it a quick once-over, giving nothing away. “I feel like you don’t understand what I’m paying you for here,” he tells her, “which is to make me feel better, and not to make me feel like some piece-of-shit idiot who can’t do anything. I need you to fix this, Doctor, okay, because I refuse to accept that this is all I’ve got going. Are you hearing me? I won’t do it.”
Or something like that. Maybe there’s more yelling. It gets blurry, even without beer to turn down the focus; by the time the lens readjusts he’s breathless and gripping the arm of her hideous sofa, and she has that look that says she sees him, and she hears him. There are white-hot needles pricking at his skin.
“Do you feel better?” she asks, pouring him a glass of water like she even gives a shit about the answer. He doesn’t feel better, not at all, but there’s no way in hell he’s going to admit that to her.
“Fucking fantastic,” he says. His voice is shaking. “Never better. You still haven’t told me how you’re gonna make this right.”
Dr Brynner doesn’t flinch. There’s just no way around it; she’s always seen worse, she’s never surprised. It is aggravating as shit not to be able to surprise her. “Dennis, I don’t know what to tell you that I haven’t already told you. I can’t fix you. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I’ve never fixed anyone. I’m here to help you work on yourself--”
“So tell me what to do!” It hurts his throat to even get close to yelling. God fucking damn it. “Give me something, at least.” I didn’t go to school for that, says Mac, air fresheners hanging on the wall, and sure, they aren’t ideal but they’re fine, aren’t they? They do the job, which is overpowering the piled-up garbage so they can get on with being alive. Except now he’s been sold this dumbass promise that the house will be fine if he takes out the trash, and there’s so much trash to take out, and the house still fucking reeks even though he’s trying. Past Mac is getting away from him. Everything is getting away from him. Dr Brynner is looking over his list, brow furrowed into a frown.
“‘Making food look small?’” she asks, and he rolls his eyes.
“Like moving it around a plate. Mac thought that was a thing.”
“Dennis, does this say ‘cult leadership?’”
“What, so you can’t read now?” He folds his arms. The glass of water remains untouched; his shirt is sticking to his back where he’s sweated straight through it. “I did write ‘bad,’ okay? I’m not actually going to start another cult.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Another cult?”
“It was a whole thing.”
She sets the list back down on the coffee table. Dennis has never been mad at his own handwriting before; it all looks so stupid, so pointless, written down on paper. Even sex looks like nothing from here. “Dennis -- have you considered writing things down?”
“Uh.” Has she been stupid this whole time? “What do you think this is, Doc?”
“I don’t mean plans.” She gestures at the abandoned list. “I mean feelings. Have you ever kept a journal, or anything like that?”
He manages a weak, half-hearted laugh. “Funny you should ask,” he says. “I recently attempted to turn my personal erotic memoirs into a movie -- no, no, not a movie. An event. A cinematic event, starring Richard Grieco, focusing specifically on the early parts of the book and indeed of my own erotic journey--”
“That isn’t exactly what I’m getting at, Dennis.”
“The only reason it didn’t work is because Dee loves to ruin everything I do. My script was flawless.” He runs a hand through his hair; he barely even remembers what he wrote. “Also, Grieco was just super weird about the whole thing. Dude ate way too much seaweed. Like, basically the whole budget went on Grieco’s seaweed fives and chalk breaks--”
Dr Brynner leans back in her seat. “Dennis.”
“We’re going to talk about these memoirs another time,” she says, in a tone that brooks no argument. “Okay? And in the meantime -- I’d like you to try to keep a journal. Not an autobiography,” she adds, before he can even try it. “A record of what happens to you, day-to-day. A record of things you experience, rather than a narrative. Do you think you can do that?”
He sighs. “Is this your idea of telling me how to fix myself?”
“It’s something to try,” she says. “I don’t have all the answers, Dennis, any more than you do.”
“So why do I listen to you?”
She offers a smile across the table, like the glass of water he still hasn’t taken. “I suppose the alternative is doing this alone. Will I see you next week?”
She knows the answer to that, at least. His body aches right down to his bones by the end of the walk back home.
The first entry is just a list, and it feels dumb as shit the whole time he’s writing it down. There’s no point to a list of things he already did, not if he can’t even dress it up a little. Besides, he barely did anything to list. Went to therapy. Mac made vegetable stew. Watched TV. Took a shower. Wrote this stupid list. There’s no point to this except making him feel even worse. Dr Brynner saw how mad he got about the list of things he’s good at, and figured she’d found a weakness. She’s a bitch. More to the point, she’s wrong; Dennis is going to power right through this goddamn list-writing exercise, and it’s not going to mean a thing, and she’ll feel like a big old failure when he breezes into her office without a care in the world next week.
It folds itself neatly into his evening routine, between cleansing and toning and turning out the light. The list book takes up residence next to the condoms and lube in his bedside drawer, with a biro clipped to the cover, ready to go every night. It’s fine, because all he’s doing is proving a point. Walked to the Wawa. Bought apples, chips, Thin Mints. Did not look at the beer aisle. Mac made roast chicken and vegetables. Watched Braveheart. It’s easy. It’s like she’s not even trying to get under his skin.
So it gets comfortable. Sure. Habits do; it’s how they all ended up addicts, just abject complacency sentencing them to death. At least this isn’t likely to kill him. On the day he and Charlie meet up for the first time in ages, he writes:
Went to cafe with Charlie. Had toasted sandwich, espresso. Saw some of Charlie’s drawings. Charlie is doing art therapy. He draws a lot of animals but he also did a drawing of the four of us watching a movie and a drawing of Frank. It looked like shit really but he was proud of it. I said I liked it. He was happy I said it even though he probably didn’t believe me. I missed spending time with him I think. We wrote a song together once and he turned it into a musical even though he can’t read. It wasn’t even a good song we were just really high. It was good to see him again. Walked home, stopped at the Wawa for pizza to share with Mac. Looked at the beer aisle but didn’t buy any. Mac cooked the pizza.
Which, yeah, is sort of pathetic when he looks back at it the next day. Dr Brynner asks how the writing is going, and he tells her it’s fine, it’s boring, it’s pointless but he’s doing it anyway. Went to therapy. Said about my erotic memoirs. Read the part with the wounds of Christ but Dr Brynner didn’t enjoy it. Dr Brynner has no eroticism in her soul and that’s just facts. I looked great with the wounds of Christ anyway even if Frank hit me in the head with a nail gun to make them. So the joke is on her.
He gets so irritated about it that he forgets half the list. He reads it back the next day, when he feels tired and hollow and bored again. If there is value in this then it’s on a level Dennis doesn’t get. Writing things down doesn’t make them go away. It just means they get to hang about on paper forever, useless, taking up space.
Dee called again today, he writes, a few days later. I said I was sorry. I think I meant it. We talked about how boring it is to be sober. She didn’t hang up on me although Mac listened in. We made a plan for movie night and everyone is going to come. A deep, bruising indent on the page where he pressed in with the tip of the pen. I missed her. I was happy she called.
Mac cooked snapper for dinner. He said he was glad I made up with Dee. I think I know why people write things down now.
It’s godawful timing, which -- annoyingly -- is sort of his own fault. Sure, he could blame Dr Brynner. She’s the one who decided this was the best day ever to talk about Ms Klinsky. But he could have asked to wait. Or he could have done the sensible thing, and not scheduled their first all-together movie night in more than a year on a therapy day at all.
Mac’s cooking when he gets home, if you can even call pizza ‘cooking.’ He’s bought a whole set of novelty aprons, one for every day of the week, which is just plain irresponsible as far as budgeting is concerned, but Kiss the Cook is more temptation than Dennis cares to admit, when he’s feeling like this. His skin is too big on him, like an ill-fitting suit; his limbs are out of joint with his torso. It would be something, at least, to let Mac throw him up against a wall until he breaks in a way that’s familiar.
“How was therapy?” asks Mac, as Dennis peels off his jacket.
“Fine,” he says. His throat is completely hollow; the words come easily. “Yeah. Great.”
He gets a sideways glance that very clearly says I don’t believe you, but Mac, devoted Mac, doesn’t push it. “You want to sort out the snacks, dude? I bought some more of the nuts and berries; you could get some bowls together or something.”
His stomach tightens. “I was thinking I’d take a shower first,” he says, and even though he wasn’t thinking it at all until he said it, it’s an awesome idea. “Freshen up, you know? Reunion movie night, I mean -- that’s a pretty big deal.”
“Right!” Mac smiles. It’s not right. It’s a gesture, it doesn’t fucking mean anything. “Right. They’re not gonna be here for a half-hour, so you’ve got time. Go… freshen.”
He stands under the water until he stops feeling it burn his skin. There’s not time, afterwards, for a full face of make-up. It’s fine. It has to be fine. He’s fucking resplendent with or without foundation. If Dee says anything -- she kicked him out before. It’d only be fair to kick her out right back, make it even, make it square. He has that power. His knuckles are white on the bathroom sink. Maybe he’s not ready after all. It’s not even a thought he should be capable of having -- he’s Dennis Reynolds, he’s ready for anything, he always has been. Except he isn’t. Except he wasn’t. His face is framed with steam in the mirror, and he can’t understand a single thing about it; it’s barely even his. It’s so much older than he remembers.
He towel-dries his hair, pulls on his clothes, opens the bathroom door. Dee and Charlie are on the couch, like they came out of nowhere. The clock on the wall says he’s been in the bathroom way longer than just a half hour.
“Shit,” he says, uselessly, and runs a hand through his hair. It comes away wet. “I, uh. I guess I lost track of time there.”
Dee smirks at him. She doesn’t look real, either. It doesn’t seem possible that she’s sitting in his apartment, after a year, after a thousand years, smirking at him like she’s only been gone five minutes. She looks tired, but they all look tired; looking tired is normal now. “No shit, dumbass,” she says, almost fondly. He’s never been so relieved to be insulted. “It’s fine, okay? Mac got the snacks ready, pizza’s nearly up, Thundergun’s ready to go. That’s not horrible timing.”
He occupies the seat next to Dee carefully, acutely conscious that there’s not enough room, waiting for her to move away. She doesn’t, so he chances a glare at Mac as he comes through with pizza. “Thanks for letting me know they arrived,” he says. He takes a slice of pizza anyway, as soon as the plate touches the table. Might as well. Something to tell Dr Carson about next week. “Asshole.”
Mac grabs a cushion from right behind him, settling down on the floor with a slice of his own. His shoulder is warm against Dennis’s knee. “Are you kidding me? You would’ve screamed at me for hours if I tried to interrupt your shower time. I’m not about to inflict that on company.” There’s no insult at all in it. He just sounds like Mac. Dennis wishes he’d sat on the sofa; it would’ve been tight, but he could’ve leaned in against Mac until his bones stopped shaking under his skin. It would’ve been worth it. “Grab an electric blanket, okay? We’re gonna start the movie.”
They all do as they’re told; the blankets are already warm, because clearly Mac put effort into making this work. He’s outdone Dennis without even trying. “I don’t know about you guys,” says Charlie, reaching to grab a slice of apple from the snack bowl, “but I’m excited for dude hanging dong” -- which of course gets unanimous agreement. “Like, after all this time, it’s still an important moment, you know? It’s still meaningful. I’m ready for it.”
“It never gets old,” Mac agrees. “Like the Shyamalan twist in The Sixth Sense. Except it’s way more better, because -- well, I mean, dude hangs dong.”
Dee nods, lips curved up, something avid in her eyes. She’s still bony as shit, all sharp elbows and knees, but it doesn’t even matter; she’s here. She’s here, and she and Mac are inescapably pressed up against him, and it’s hard to be drifting out of your body when you’ve got people right there. It’d still be easier with beer. Or whiskey, or whatever. Something strong. Mac hits play on the remote, and the TV screen flickers into life, and Dennis curls his free hand tight around his electric blanket, letting the heat of it bite into his skin. It’s fine. There’s no way for him to get a drink. He takes a bite of pizza, tries to focus on the tang of the tomato in his mouth. The big fanfare plays out of the tinny TV speakers, and he tries to hear every wobble in pitch, every buzz where the volume reaches too far for the TV’s abilities. It’s fine. He’s watching a movie. It’s fine.
“Director’s cut,” observes Charlie, as the title cards start to play, and it takes Dennis way too long to realise: he read that right off the screen. He read it. “Good call, guys, good call.”
What’s he missed? He lost a year of the best -- the only friends he’s ever had. They wised up and they dropped him and in his absence they just fucking got on with their lives. There’s an opposite to this thought; there is. Mac’s leaning in against his leg, head dangerously close to resting on his thigh. If they abandoned him before then they came back to get him. They’re here, all of them, and they’re watching a movie and it’s like no time has passed at all since they went away. They chose this. They chose, despite everything, to come back.
He could commit a goddamn murder for a beer.
“That body, though,” says Dee, as shirtless Thundergun strides away from the first big explosion of the movie, all grimy and sweaty and ripped. “It’s just stupid.” Mac hums his agreement, like it’s no big deal, and it echoes in Dennis’s bones. He takes another, smaller bite of pizza. It’s going cold in his hands.
Dude hangs dong. It’s exactly as quality as Dennis had remembered.
“Hey.” Dee elbows him, as lightly as someone with elbows like Dee’s can ever elbow anyone. He doesn’t say anything about what probably amounts to a stabbing in the eyes of the law. She’s here. He’d be some kind of idiot to jeopardise that now. “C’mere, loser.”
He doesn’t get it, not until she rolls her eyes and hooks an arm around his shoulders. Maybe it’s pity. Maybe she’s just known him for too long not to know when he’s losing his shit. Whatever. It doesn’t have to matter. Dennis rests his head on her bony shoulder, and she combs her long fingers through his damp hair, and god, when did their lives turn into this? They had so many goddamn stupid plans.
Her free hand is tight around Charlie’s. Mac is not even pretending not to lean on Dennis’s thigh. Maybe if they keep hold of each other they’ll manage, somehow, to stay afloat.
He’s still restless after they’ve left. Mac does the dishes while he tidies the lounge, folds all the electric blankets until they’re perfect; it’s not enough. Nothing’s going to be enough, he realises, except a fight or a fuck; he’s got this great gaping void right under his skin, an empty feeling that demands to be filled. It’s Dee’s fault. If she’d never abandoned him this would never have happened; he’d never have had to feel any goddamn kind of way about her, not if he didn’t want to. Except she did, and now here he is, halfway feral with his brain trying to kill him.
Dennis scrubs at his face like it’ll fix him. When it doesn’t, he turns on his heel and walks, brisk and decisive, into the kitchen. “We’re doing this,” he says, before he can think too hard about it, and Mac looks up from the sink with a frown.
“Okay,” he says, hanging onto the last syllable for longer than anyone should. “Sure. And what’s this, exactly?”
It’s almost a physical pain in his sockets, trying not to roll his eyes. “You. Me. Us, asshole. I’m sick of dancing around it -- we’ve been almost there for too goddamn long at this point.” Mac is staring at him, not seeing it. “Okay. Goddamn it. I’m going to my room. You’ve got an open invitation to join me. If you don’t want to join me, then--”
--then it’s fine, I get it, it’s a lot to take in, but you’ll do it eventually, I know you will, I’ve seen the way you look at me when you think I’m not paying attention, and honestly all it’d take is a little push for you to snap like a goddamn twig and throw me on my bed and fucking go to town--
“--then don’t join me,” he says, tightly, and it’s not progress. Nothing is progress. Progress is some bullshit therapists invented to make their believers feel better; Dennis has been drowning in the same goddamn ocean all his life and he’s still only barely breaking the surface. “Whatever you want.”
He doesn’t look at Mac. He turns, stalks toward his bedroom, pointedly leaves the door ajar.
It’s raining outside, a thousand fingernails scratching at the window, like if they try hard enough they’ll eventually claw their way in. Dennis kicks off his shoes. He doesn’t have time to do much more than that; behind him, the door creaks quietly as Mac eases it open. Dennis should have figured it wouldn’t take him long -- should have adapted to this bizarre new reality in which Mac is actually, meaningfully, long-term out of the closet. Of course he came. He’s been waiting for this since they bought the bar.
“So we’re doing this?” asks Mac. He is so fucking eager, and so tragically awful at hiding it. There’s a look on his face like they’re still nineteen and catastrophic, like he’s already in the inevitable moment when Dennis turns effortlessly away and leaves him behind.
Dennis is heavy and tired, now, like gravity’s trying to put him on the floor every second he spends upright. Nothing effortless about it. “Isn’t that what I said?”
Mac looks him up and down. Sizes him up. “Yeah, but -- you look pretty rough, dude. Are you… you know. Sure?”
“Mac.” He folds his arms. Surely he’s allowed to fold his arms, even if he can’t roll his eyes, or scream, or throw his shit all over the floor until everything’s smashed underfoot. “I want you to fucking -- I want you to plow me. Okay? I’m not messing with you -- I’m totally serious, dude.” He wants to claw his own throat out. Dude. He sounds like Mac would’ve sounded if they’d done this years before, trying to no homo himself to redemption. They probably could have done it. He probably could have found a way. “I’m sure.”
At least Mac’s convinced. He’s already hard, eyes dark, pupils wide. There’s still water on his hands, a smudge of dish soap on his thumb; it shines in what light’s getting in through the blinds. This right here, this is the kind of detail Dennis can focus on. Mac takes a step closer; hesitates, like he thinks Dennis is going to say stop. There are frown lines between his brows. Where have the years gone? Mac used to look younger than his age, his hands softer than they had any right to be, dumb as shit but still so beautiful. They both were. They both used to be so goddamn perfect.
Mac is saying something. Dennis blinks, frowns. “What, asshole?”
“Are we actually doing this?” asks Mac, and old Dennis would slap him right across his face for all this solicitousness, all this nervous repetition. Look me in the eye when you’re praising my name. New Dennis, or at least now Dennis, just keeps breathing. “Or are you just gonna go dead behind the eyes every half a goddamn minute?”
For fuck’s sake. He’s got this. He’s in control. He was an erotic powerhouse before the hospital and he’s sure as hell an erotic powerhouse now. “Give me something to stick around for,” he says, and quirks an eyebrow. Mac’s face is a deeply satisfying picture for about three seconds -- Dennis counts them down -- until it resolves into a kind of fierce determination, two decisive steps forward and his mouth on Dennis’s neck. Which is more like it. Dennis is curling a fist in Mac’s hair before he’s really thought it through, nails on skin, clinging.
Mac’s all strength, no finesse whatsoever, but fuck if strength isn’t what Dennis wants out of him, if just for tonight. Easy to forget he’s been working out for real until his hands are on your hips and his fingers are pressing in against your bones. Dennis is a tangled mess of nerve endings and heat, the kind of arousal that’s almost panic; Mac is leaving bruises where anyone could see. Good. Let them. Let them see that Dennis Reynolds is a man to be worshipped, a fucking masterpiece of a human being who hasn’t peaked and hasn’t burned out and hasn’t wasted his life on dumbshit vices that all amounted to nothing--
He hears himself groan somewhere low in his throat; Mac rears back, all concern. His mouth is red and wet and completely fucking indecent. “Dude, what’s going on?” he asks, and Dennis just shakes his head.
“It’s good,” he says, and berates himself at once for sounding even vaguely like Charlie. Harder to think straight now there’s nothing to ground him. “That’s the sound people make when it’s good, asshole. It’s not a stop sound.”
Mac regards him doubtfully for a moment that drags, like a loose thread caught on a nail. “I don’t think I can decode all your weird sex noises on the spot, Dennis. You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Fine. Fine.” Deep breaths. “God, you’re insufferable. Take your goddamn shirt off, if we’re doing this.” It’s still a question. His chest is tight, too small for the pace of his heartbeat. No amount of yes is going to stop it from being a question.
It’s a mercy that Mac does as he’s told. He can’t remember how this usually goes with chicks. The clothes just kind of came off, or they didn’t, in which case they got out of the way pretty fast when things got going. It feels stupid to be fumbling with buttons, twisting arms out of shirtsleeves. If his shirts are getting tight on him he’s going to fucking scream, it’s the last thing he needs, no beer and no crack and no clothes that don’t make him feel disgusting -- Mac’s hands are on his hips again, and goddamn, he actually has been going to the gym. Part of Dennis had wanted to believe he’d been lying.
Dennis pulls Mac as decisively as he can into a kiss. It’s the best power move he knows, in the face of all this goddamn bulk. Mac kisses like he’s trying to win a fight, but again, it’s not terrible. Given the circumstances. Losing a fight on purpose isn’t losing, not really.
“Dennis,” says Mac, low and urgent on Dennis’s mouth. His breath is hot, sort of stale. “I don’t know what I’m doing--”
“Nothing new there,” he says; it’s a cheap shot, it’s beneath him, and in any case it goes wide. It’s for the best. They aren’t even kissing anymore, it’s just Mac’s forehead hot against his own, and -- Jesus Christ, their noses are bumping, whatever this has escalated faster than Dennis had imagined it would. No, not only that; it’s going somewhere new, somewhere he ought to have predicted.
Mac shakes his head, nowhere near hard enough to break them apart. “Screw you, asshole. No, I mean -- did you ever bang anyone sober? Dennis?”
Hard to roll his eyes when they’re this close together. “Does it matter? Jesus Christ, Mac, it’s just banging, it’s not difficult--”
“So no,” says Mac, not incorrectly. Dennis is about to pull away, and maybe Mac feels it, some tension in his shoulders or his back. “Wait, dude, no, I mean -- me neither. Okay? I obviously haven’t been… prioritising my sex life since we got out of the hospital, or naturally I would have been picking up chicks, or -- or whoever on a regular basis. Like, all the time. But -- you know, man. We both had other things to think about. Right?”
Oh. Oh. “Picking up chicks,” Dennis echoes, thoughtful. All of this would sound so much better if they weren’t cheek to cheek. Mac’s hands are so warm, stroking up and down his back like he’s trying to memorise Dennis by feel. “You’re saying you never--”
“Had gay sex?” And there it is. Mac is all hard lines of tension against him. “No. Why? Did you?”
Dennis shrugs. His shoulderblades shift against Mac’s sweating palms. “Some. College. You know.”
“I do not,” says Mac, more scandalised than he has any right to be; they’re basically cuddling, for Christ’s sake. Like girls. Would this even be an issue if they were girls? “But… that means you know what you’re doing, right? If you banged dudes before?”
“It was hardly banging,” Dennis snaps, and catches himself guiltily before he can go on. “Goddamn it. Look. It isn’t difficult, Mac. You banged Carmen, right?”
“Yeah.” Mac walks them slowly back to the bed; Dennis feels the backs of his knees bump up against the mattress. Mac follows him, unhesitating, as he sits. “Carmen. A girl.”
“Same difference.” He cannot be giving Mac a pep talk while bracing himself to take it in the ass. There is literally no way in which life would not be easier if he could get hammered, maybe get high a little bit, and find a stranger willing to pound him until his brain stops breaking the fucking speed limit. “Just -- do that. Okay? Pretend I’m Carmen. That is literally all I require from you right now.”
Mac shifts back, frowning; the absence of his hands aches more than anything should. “Dude. Why would I want to pretend you’re Carmen?”
“For practicality!” Dennis shakes his head, his hands twitching on the bedsheets. “If you think I’m going to hold your hand until you work up the nerve to just pound me already--”
“But it would be pretty weird,” Mac says, like he’s contesting a motion in arbitration, “if you wanted me to pretend you’re Carmen. Because I’m actually… uh. I mean. I’m fine with not doing that? I feel like it’s possible to learn from banging Carmen while still actually banging you.”
“You’d be banging me either--” He cuts himself off, brings the knife down hard on the entire stupid argument; he shuts his eyes and wrenches himself inward. Dr Brynner’s in his head, talking in her low even voice about long-term consequences and counting breaths. It is possibly the biggest boner-kill Dennis has ever had. “Mac,” he says, after two counts of five and what’s almost definitely an awkward silence. Therapy has killed his game. Nobody warned him this would happen. “Can we just do this? Can we stop making it a big conversation, or whatever, and just…”
Mac’s hand finds his, curled tight around the duvet and braced against the mattress. “You’re okay?” he asks. Even without looking, he can feel Mac’s eyes on him, seeing too much, remembering more than either of them would like.
Dennis opens his eyes. “Yeah, man,” he says, and Mac’s concern cracks into a smile that’s all relief. “I’m okay.”
Mac presses him down onto the bed, doesn’t let go of his hand. He’s heavier than he was when they last fought -- when was it? The last time they had an all-out fucking brawl on the living room floor, over some stupid thing they always forgot in the morning. Two years ago. More. After too much time spent heavy enough that he could have smothered Dennis if he’d ever tried, Mac was surprisingly light when Dennis barrelled into him and threw him to the ground. Light, or not trying to fight back. Hard to remember. He’s stronger now. Impossible not to feel every second of this slow devouring kiss while Mac’s on top of him, keeping him here. He’s going to run out of air. His lungs are going to collapse on themselves like dying stars, and Mac’s going to keep kissing him even then. Maybe he’s going to die. Every ending of every frayed nerve is on fire, and Mac’s hand on his chest, Mac’s fingers on his nipple are doing nothing to stop him burning.
“You like that,” Mac says, right up against Dennis’s mouth. It’s almost a breath. Dennis steals what he can, lost for words, lost for anything in the world but this. “Shit, Dennis, you look--”
Dennis presses his hips up, grinds hard against Mac’s thigh; it cuts Mac off with a harsh, urgent noise. He can’t stay like this. He’s going to come all over his jeans, and they’re good jeans, they deserve better than that. He reaches down with the hand Mac hasn’t stolen, tries without success to get the zipper undone -- Mac gets the message, thank God, and scoots back enough to help out. He looks at Dennis’s dick like it’s a miracle; like he’s been offered something he never thought he’d get, and it’s too much, it’s blowing his mind. Dennis ought to defuse the situation. He could make it into a game, like what you see or are you just going to stare at me until I come, chivvy him along or rile him up until he moves past whatever the hell this is. Except he can’t. The words are stuck in his throat, and they’re just looking at one another, and there are years and years behind every second that passes them by.
“Sorry,” says Mac, and Dennis’s stomach is a bottomless pit; this is it, he pushed too far, and now Mac’s going to leave, and -- “Sorry, dude. It’s just… weirder without beer, right? It’s a lot to take in. Do not,” he adds, too quickly, “make a joke about that. I swear to God, that wasn’t what I meant.”
He laughs, except it sounds more like he’s choking. He’s so strung out he can barely even speak. “You said it, man, not me.”
“Den, you--” Mac reaches again for his hand. “You’re shaking.” And he’s not wrong. His fingers feel clumsy, barely even his, as he tries to tighten his hold on Mac. “Are you still getting withdrawals, or--?”
“Withdrawals,” says Dennis. His throat’s tight. He can feel sweat beading on his skin. “Yeah. It’s, ah. It’s nothing to do with you, so just -- get your goddamn pants off and get the lube, all right? Top drawer. We’re doing this, Mac.”
“Yeah,” says Mac, and proceeds to get naked with the absolute bare minimum of grace and dignity, legs all over the place, face blotchy and flushed. He finds the lube more by luck than good judgment; condoms, too, which at least shows he’s been reading up on gay sex. The way he read up on surgery for Carmen, and on BPD when that whole thing went down. He gives a shit. Dennis tries to carve it into himself so he remembers: he cares, he’s committed, he’s not going anywhere.
Mac kneels between his thighs, braces a hand on the angle of his hip. He looks almost reverent, from here, like an oil painting in the sodium orange glow from outside; the light lands in stripes on his skin, spilling through the blinds where it can. He eases a single slicked-up finger into Dennis too slowly, too carefully -- he’s braced for pain that isn’t coming, wound too tightly, stretched too thin. “Am I doing this right?” asks Mac, and lifts his head just enough to catch Dennis’s eye. Dennis turns his face away. All at once it’s too much, too real; if he looks at Mac for too long he’ll go blind, like some idiot kid who never learned not to look at the sun. He’s supposed to be the centre of gravity here. Mac crooks that finger inside him and he hears something wrench itself loose in his chest.
“I’m not made of glass, asshole,” he snaps. It’s not convincing. There’s no way to sell anger like this. “You can do better than that.”
He doesn’t. Or -- not by much, not by anything that matters. Every press of his finger is unfamiliar and electric; of course he’s done this before, but it’s not the same, being this kind of subject to someone not himself. Mac presses in another finger and Dennis hears his breath catch; he’s all heartbeat, all racing pulse and lightheaded incoherence. Two fucking fingers and he’s already undone. “Mac,” he says, blurry, hands fisted tight around his own sheets. It does nothing. The only thing anchoring him to the bed is Mac’s hand on his hip, Mac’s fingers twisting deeper. “Shit -- Mac, you have to--”
“Yeah?” asks Mac, and it’s not eagerness, exactly. Some other, quieter kind of urgency; a candle, not a fire. “More?”
“I’m going to fucking bust if you don’t--” He shakes his head. He’s hot all over, like his skin is made of light. “You need to fuck me. I need it, Mac, goddamn it--”
He feels every incremental movement of Mac’s fingers withdrawing, shudders under the immensity of it, and of course Mac takes forever to put on a condom; he barely knows what a condom is. It’s a small eternity before there’s something to feel again, Mac braced above him, breathing hot and wet against his mouth. He’s looking right at Dennis. Of course he is, they’re having sex, you look at people when you’re fucking them, except that Dennis can’t remember the last time he did -- pounding some girl from behind, coaxing her down until her mouth found his dick. And none of it was real anyway, was it? It was all at least half-beer, so that even if he looked, he wouldn’t really remember--
“Shit,” he whispers, and Mac breathes out a quiet, nervous laugh.
“Yeah,” he says. “I know, man.”
And he does. That’s the worst of it. He pushes into Dennis so goddamn slowly, breathing through his teeth, and the knowing is in every line on his face, every broken-up sound that escapes him. There’s nowhere else to be but here, nothing to turn this into just another fuck. The stretch and the burn and the ache of it occupy every part of him, driving out everything else; it’s like being punched in the face, he thinks, and nearly laughs. Like the aftermath of it, just him and the feeling. Like being punched in the face but slowly, and with all the tenderness in the world.
Mac’s moving, slow and deliberate, wrecking himself against Dennis’s body, and Dennis is never going to be here again. There’s no camera, no blinking red light across the room. There’s just Mac, streetlights striped across his shoulders, and Dennis, vision swimming, reaching up to clutch him close.
“Den,” says Mac, and it takes Dennis a moment to hear him. His hips stutter and still. “Jesus, dude, you’re crying--”
He thinks: oh.
“I’m gonna stop,” Mac says, and pushes himself up on his hands, and if he pulls out then Dennis is going to die; every cell in his body is screaming an alarm. Dennis clings to Mac’s shoulders, sweaty hands slipping on skin.
“Don’t you dare,” he says, like someone who is in control. Fake it til you make it, right? “Don’t even think about it, asshole. This has nothing to do with you.”
Mac falters. He laces their fingers together, when Dennis loses his grip and his hand hits the pillow.
“Pound me hard enough and I’ll stop,” Dennis snaps. It’s not subtle. It works anyway. Only another minute before Mac’s breathless and shuddering, making sounds Dennis never believed people could make; when he comes with Mac’s hand on his dick he could swear a part of him dies, so quietly and painlessly it almost doesn’t feel like a death.
His face is still wet when they’re done, and his chest is tight and overfull, weighing him down against the bed. Mac doesn’t go anywhere; Dennis thinks he sees him throw the tied-off condom overhand into the trash can, and if he weren’t basically in pieces he’d complain. His whole body aches. Weird as shit to be back in the realm of material hurts again, after -- whatever that was. Is. Whatever this is going to be, when he’s got the words to pin it down.
Mac curls up against his back. They’re both disgusting, sweaty and covered in their own jizz; Dennis’s breath keeps catching in his throat. This would be so much sexier if it were porn. Hell, if it were porn, they probably wouldn’t have stopped banging at all.
That’s not the point. None of it is. The point is somewhere between them, impossible to avoid.
“Wow,” says Mac, against his shoulder. “Maybe let’s not bang face-to-face next time, or…?”
Dennis’s heart glitches briefly out of his chest. “Next time,” he says, like he’s some kind of alien, trying for human language and not quite getting it right.
Mac makes a weird anxious sound that echoes all through Dennis’s body. “I mean,” he says, hesitating. “If we do this again. Do you… do you wanna do this again? Dennis?”
No amount of yes is going to stop it from being a question. There isn’t enough yes in the world. Dennis presses his lips tight together against a rising tide of yes; it will wash him away if he lets it, even now. “Yeah,” he manages, when the wave has receded. “Yeah, I do.”
It’s still raining. He can hear it tapping on the glass again, now; and why wouldn’t it? Why wouldn’t the world want to get inside? It’s warm in here, and Dennis is wrapped up in Mac, and every stupid drop of rain is stuck outside in a cold, impossible world. Maybe he can live like this, occupying a silence that doesn’t demand to be filled. Maybe they’re both exactly where they should be, somehow and impossibly still holding on.
Chapter 4: Charlie Kelly's Hand-Curated Star Collection
Here we are at the final chapter. I feel like I'm running out of ways to express gratitude for the generosity of everyone's response to this fic, so I will just say 'thank you' one more time and leave it there. Extra thanks on a cosmic scale to infinitevariety, who is the only reason I even started writing this in the first place. Without her this would still be in my head and inaccessible to everyone but me. (Also, oh my god, what are you even doing if you haven't read her fic yet.)
I'm afraid I have indulged myself and made an official soundtrack for the fic as a whole, which can be found here on Playmoss (since 8tracks is dubious now). There are five songs for each chapter, in order. I've never used Playmoss before, so if it doesn't work, let me know and I will look into playlist-hosting alternatives.
EDIT 01/05: in a genuinely delightful turn of events I have been gifted some wonderful fanart by ao3 user asimiento, which can be found here and also at the very end of the fic. thank you so much, T, you are a Nice Egg In This Trying Time.
There aren't really any warnings that need to be added to the ongoing warning list here. As mentioned, I'm on tumblr as mxingno if you want to chat, and I hope you enjoy both this last chapter and the fic as a completed work.
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.
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.”
“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.