In Patrick’s next resupply package, the card from his parents is handmade, a folded rectangle of construction paper with a photo of Jon Bon Jovi glued to the front.
Whooooa, you’re halfway there , his dad’s handwriting says inside. Stay livin’ on a prayer.
“Oh my god, dad,” Patrick chuckles, bringing his palm to his face.
“What?” David asks.
They’re sitting side by side on the steps outside the post office in Old Station, a tiny town almost eight hundred miles from where they started on the trail. David is wrestling with the tape on his own box from home, but takes the card when Patrick hands it over.
“Lame jokes are, like, 80% of his personality,” Patrick explains.
David spends a minute looking at the card, longer than it takes to get the joke, but he doesn’t laugh. His eyebrows scrunch together slightly.
“Hm,” he says finally, and hands it back. “Your parents seem sweet.”
Patrick reads the message from his mom:
I worry about you all the time, out there all alone. I hope you’re staying safe, sweet boy. Keep sending postcards, and I can’t wait to hear about your adventures when you come home.
It is a sweet message, yes, but it brings a familiar churn to Patrick’s gut. It’s the same guilt he feels whenever he remembers staying behind to see that one last sea lion at Marineland and letting himself get lost. A part of him can’t help but think he owed it to her not to make the selfish choice, and he let her down.
David finally tears his box open, and the first thing he pulls out is a black flannel shirt with thin white plaid stripes.
“Well. This one isn’t so bad,” he says and reaches for the note clipped to the collar. Once his eyes scan across it, he hisses, “Oh for fuck’s sake, Stevie!”
Before Patrick can even ask to see, David thrusts the note at him. The handwriting is just this side of chicken scratch.
If your first thought seeing this shirt was that it isn’t so bad, then my work here is done. Welcome to team flannel, buddy! Now come home. Things aren’t the same here without you.
“So that’s Stevie, huh?” Patrick asks, half-hiding a smile behind his hand. “I like her.”
He feels a prickle of annoyance at her, too, for telling David to come home, but keeps that selfishness to himself. It’s not like he can blame her for missing him.
“She’d like you, too, unfortunately.” David keeps digging through his package. There don’t seem to be any other notes from anyone else. “The two of you together would create a very imbalanced social dynamic for me.”
Patrick’s postcard back to his parents shows the same monotonous view he’s been staring at for weeks now: mountains on the horizon, nothing but flat dirt and scrub grass between. The sight makes Patrick ache with boredom, but to fresh eyes it will look beautiful.
I’m safe, he writes on the back. Please don’t worry.
When he comes back out from posting it, David is shouldering his pack and pointing down the road to a restaurant called JJ’s.
“That place has bacon,” he yelps, bouncing from foot to foot. “I can smell it.”
Patrick laughs and lifts his own pack.
“Come on, let’s get lunch.”
It feels almost like a date, sitting in a booth across from David, devouring a BLT each and sharing a plate of mozzarella sticks. Patrick wonders if the other people in the diner think it’s a date, then feels silly for wondering. Of course they don’t. They must think he and David are exactly what they look like: two grimy hikers who haven’t tasted real food in a month and a half.
“I can’t tell if I’m just starving,” David says, swallowing half a mozzarella stick in one bite. “Or if these are actually really good. I don’t think they even came from the freezer!”
Patrick desperately wants to hold one of David’s big, expressive hands, but they’re too busy, as always. Gripping his sandwich, drifting to smooth his hair under his toque, punctuating the air as he talks. Patrick settles for watching them instead, and that must be just as obvious. He hooks his ankle around one of David’s underneath the table and gives it a tug. David tugs back, without looking up from his plate, and the smile on his lips doesn’t seem to be entirely about bacon.
Patrick isn’t even sure what there is to communicate about who they are to each other. We make out a lot, maybe. Or, I’m in love with him; he’s not convinced. Whatever there is, though, he wants everyone in this restaurant to see it. He wants them to know.
“So this is halfway for you, huh?” David asks abruptly. “Where exactly are you going?”
“Oh, uh.” Patrick has trouble shifting his focus. The end still feels like a long way off. “Through Oregon to the Washington border. A place called Bridge of the Gods.”
“Oh nothing, I just figured you’d want to go all the way up to Canada. Nice Canadian boy that you are.”
Patrick hadn’t considered this. He decided on Bridge of the Gods as his endpoint for the same reason that he chose Tehachapi Pass as his start point—that’s the path Cheryl Strayed took, the path the movie followed. He needs to get better, probably, at not fitting his life around whatever seems like the default option. Too late on this one, though. His resupply boxes are already packed, and they will run out by the time he reaches the Washington border.
“Well, maybe I’m not so Canadian,” Patrick offers.
David snorts. “Okay, no. I’ve heard you say ‘toque.’”
Patrick prepares a wicked grin, planning to rejoin with a Maybe I’m not so nice, then, but David keeps talking.
“Anyway, I’ve decided,” he says, laying his palms down on the table. “Wherever you’re going, this Bridge of the Thing. That’s where I’m headed, too. That’s as far as I want to go.”
Patrick doesn’t respond right away, his mind frozen in place, calculating what it means to have almost eight hundred more miles of David to count on. It’s more than he’d allowed himself to hope for.
“If that’s… if that’s okay?” David prods.
“Of course, yes, it’s more than okay, David. I want you to stay as long as you want.”
The words come out all in a rush and then stop short. If Patrick continues, he’ll say something like always or forever, and he promised David. No future talk. Instead he takes David’s right hand in both of his, twists a couple of his silver rings back and forth like he’s cracking a safe, and lets that fill the silence for him.
When David goes back to eating, it’s with his left hand only.
After they pay their bill, David uses the bathroom, and Patrick waits outside the diner with both their packs. He should have waited inside where there’s air conditioning, but it’s too late to lug everything back in now. He leans against the warm siding next to the door, his eyes closed, submitting to the bake of the midday sun.
“Hey, I know you!” says a voice. “Patrick, right?”
Patrick blinks his eyes open and sees a man and a woman standing in front of him, fellow hikers he almost recognizes.
“George and Sarah,” the man says, pointing between them. “You taught us to play cribbage back in Kennedy Meadows.”
That night is still vivid in Patrick’s memory, playing cards next to the bonfire, sitting across from David and not knowing, yet, what he was seeing. It feels so long ago now.
You don’t know me, he’s tempted to say. You’re thinking of a different person.
“Ah, right,” he says instead. “George and Sarah, with the caterpillar-in-the-sleeping bag story.”
“I’d rather be remembered for losing at cribbage than losing my shit over a bug,” Sarah chuckles. “But sure.”
David bursts through the door, out into the sunshine and heat, and bends down for his pack.
“Ready to go?” he asks Patrick, not noticing anyone else is there.
“Oh,” George says, clearly recognizing David, too. “I didn’t realize you two were hiking together.”
“We weren’t.” Patrick can feel a softness overtaking his expression and doesn’t try to suppress it. “It just kind of happened.”
“Well, it’s good to see both of you still out here,” Sarah says with a smile, opening the door to the restaurant. “Keep going, we’ve got to get some food.”
“Order the mozzarella sticks!” David shouts after them and gets a friendly wave in return.
When he turns back around, Patrick is close enough to pull him in by the waist and does. David’s hands creep up to Patrick’s shoulders. They kiss, sweet and brief and cozy.
Patrick wonders if George and Sarah can see them like this, through the window. He wonders if it might change the stories they tell about him. If Patrick, the hiker who taught them to play cribbage will become Patrick, the gay hiker who taught them to play cribbage. He weighs the difference that one word might make, tries to decide how much it matters to him, whether it fits.
He wonders what stories David will tell about him, back home.
The next two hundred miles of the trail, through Hat Creek Rim and Burney Falls to the start of the Trinity Alps is intermittently used as grazing ground for cattle. Patrick has shared the trail with plenty of wild animals by this point, but it’s jarring to come across a herd of the domesticated variety, placid and indifferent to his presence. Even without any other humans around, it feels like an intrusion of civilization, a reminder that he’s headed back to it now. His real life is officially closer ahead of him than behind him.
He’s not sure how to feel about that. From this distance, he’s learned to see the seams and cracks in it, learned to question the parts he thought he understood. But it’s still his life, shaped by the choices he made, full of people who care about him. He can’t keep walking away from it forever. He’s loved being the person David expects him to be out here—dependable, funny, free. Who knew that being the person someone expects you to be could feel right, and not just good? He’ll have to see, when he gets back, what still feels right to him and what doesn’t.
In the meantime, his body gets more broken down with every mile. It’s been so long since he walked on feet that didn’t hurt that the memory of it seems like a myth, like a story he read once that was never meant to be mistaken for reality. He keeps himself going by imagining he’s giving a pep talk to David, a constant internal chant: You can do this, I know you can do this.
Somewhere along the way, believing in David starts to feel like believing in himself.
“I need a break,” Patrick says the first night they camp in the foothills of the Trinity Alps, at about the thousand mile mark.
“Oh.” David raises his head from where it’s resting on Patrick’s shoulder, unwinds his fingers from Patrick’s curls. “Okay. Sure.”
“From the trail, David,” Patrick says, hauling him back down and kissing his temple. “Not from you.”
“Oh,” David whispers, snuggling in again. “Good.”
Patrick rolls onto his side and draws David into a kiss, lets his hands roam under his shirt and up his back, across his chest. He forgets that he was about to say something until, a while later, he remembers.
“Ashland is about two hundred miles up ahead, just over the border into Oregon.”
“Uh-huh,” David responds, with a mouth that’s not ready to be done with the kissing.
“I was thinking of getting a motel room for a couple nights,” Patrick says, the next chance he gets.
“Mmm,” David hums against Patrick’s jaw, down his neck.
“I don’t know how familiar you are with motels—”
David pinches Patrick’s side, hard enough to make him squirm. So at least now he’s listening.
“—but they have these things called—”
Patrick threads his fingers into David’s hair and pulls until he feels a moan vibrate against his own skin.
Patrick sucks David’s earlobe into his mouth, holds it between his teeth.
“Hold on.” David pulls back far enough to study Patrick’s face. “Are you seducing me?”
“Glad you’re finally getting the message.”
“Are you seducing me two hundred miles ahead of time?”
“What can I say?” Patrick shrugs. “I play the long game.”
“Whatever sport that is, I don’t watch it.”
“I’ve been seducing you for one thousand miles, David. What’s two hundred more?”
Patrick rolls onto his back, pulls David on top of him, sinks into the feeling of being weighed down, pinned in place, by someone he wants. The moment closes in around him, immediate and endless. He doesn’t worry about losing any of it to memory. He’ll never forget what it feels like to love this, David’s hands and David’s mouth and David.
“It’s just that two hundred is so many miles.”
He even loves David’s whining.
“You can make it,” Patrick whispers. “I believe in you.”
Compared to the High Sierra, the Trinity Alps are nothing. Or they should be, at least. They’re less than half the elevation, heavily shaded throughout, with very few treacherous cliff-side paths. Getting through them is still torture.
Patrick tries to push himself further and further, extending their pace to twenty miles a day and paying the price. The soles of his boots are almost worn through, and he can feel the jagged slice of rock beneath every step. The pain and tedium of walking are so persistent that they bleed into each other and become indistinguishable. He starts singing to himself all day, anything he can think of, usually more melody than words, just for something else to do.
With the promise of Ashland looming, touching David at night becomes almost as unbearable as not touching him. Now that they’ve agreed, between them, on the motel room and what it means, Patrick is on fire with the wait. He burns whatever energy the day’s hike leaves him with in the blaze of desire between them, then douses it with exhaustion and sleep.
It would be so easy to stop waiting, to let their rolling hips go too far, to let their hands drift. There’s a moment one night when David almost does, before Patrick stops him. It takes all his willpower.
It’s not that Patrick is holding onto romantic notions of the perfect first time, candles and rose petals like he did for Rachel. He knows there’s no special magic in those kinds of details. But he keeps thinking about what David said the morning after they first kissed (“I’m not exactly feeling my sexiest”) and everything he’s learned about him since. He thinks about how important David’s appearance and fashion sense and self-image are to who he is. He thinks about how he still hasn’t seen David without a hat in the daylight or without a shirt at all.
He’s only interested in having sex with David if David gets to feel like himself, or as close as he can get out here. He wants David, but he wants him comfortable and confident. And if that means waiting until they have a couple of days with a real shower and a real bed, then he wants to keep waiting.
They return to familiar distractions.
“What did you think about me the night we first met?” David challenges, brushing his fingertips up and down Patrick’s throat during their cool down period one night. “Two truths, one lie.”
Patrick brings himself back to that AC-chilled motel room in the Mojave desert, when he had no idea all that the trail would bring to him. All it would bring out of him.
“I thought you were beautiful. I loved the way you said ‘fuck.’ You seemed like a guy really at home in a motel setting.”
“Okay, that last one better be the lie.” David’s glare shines bright through the darkness. “But I don’t believe the first one, either.”
“The first one is true,” Patrick says. “I wouldn’t have used the word ‘beautiful’ at the time, but it’s what I thought. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. I still can’t.”
David lets his smile persist, too pleased or too tired to make it disappear, and closes his eyes.
Patrick wonders if this is what people always mean when they say love at first sight. Not necessarily that you see someone and fall instantly in love, but that when you look back, you can see the love in your first sight, clear as anything.
“Same question,” Patrick prompts after a bit.
David inhales like someone pulling himself back from the brink of sleep, but he answers.
“I hated that you helped me. I knew I liked you. I really didn’t want you to beat me.”
“At anything. You told me how many miles you were hiking and I just thought—” David yawns. “—I can’t let this guy get farther than me.”
Patrick laughs softly. “So now the real reason for you following me to the Bridge of the Gods comes out. You just can’t stand to lose.”
“Mm-hm,” David agrees, but he’s already half asleep.
By morning, Patrick forgets to ask which of the first two statements was the lie.
When they reach Oregon, at first it feels great to leave the trail behind.
It takes surprisingly little convincing to get David on a bus to Ashland (it helps that the only alternative is hitching, which has made an even more terrifying cinematic impression on him than Speed), and then they’re watching the signs of civilization sprout up around them through the big pane windows. Roads and telephone wire and houses and shops and sidewalks and people living their regular lives. Nature recedes until it’s just a backdrop. It feels like rest.
But then it keeps going. Those people and their regular lives get denser, busier, as they cross the city limits. The buildings get taller and closer together until they block the view of the mountains at the horizon. When the bus drops them off downtown, they’re no longer hikers, just two absolutely filthy people with backpacks who don’t blend into the normalcy around them.
By the time Patrick turns the key in the motel room lock, and they step inside, something about the four walls feels like reality closing in. He’s not sure he’s ready for that. He’s not ready to feel out of place again.
David sets his pack down next to the dresser and hovers. “Do you want the first shower, or...?”
“No, you go ahead.”
“Okay, thank god.” David spends some time digging through his pack, then takes a step toward the bathroom, cradling an armful of supplies. “I may be kind of a while.”
“That’s fine.” Patrick smiles. “I can wait.”
David flashes a smile back before closing himself behind the bathroom door. Normally Patrick wouldn’t lie down directly on a motel coverlet, but in his trail clothes it’s tough to say which of them is getting the worst of it, so he calls it a wash. He stares up at the ceiling, listens to the sounds of David in the shower, and sinks into the absence of rocks and tree roots beneath him until it wipes his mind blank.
He doesn’t mean to fall asleep, but he must, because then he’s waking up to the click of the bathroom lock releasing.
“Um,” David says, and he’s just a face in the crack of the doorway, black hair wet and falling loosely over his forehead.
“Now that I’ve stepped in front of a mirror, I’m having second thoughts about letting you see me naked.”
“Oh?” It’s the most eloquent response Patrick can manage to this statement.
“I’m pretty wrecked. All over.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Patrick says, but the words fail to soften David’s expression. He tries a different tactic. “Anyway, I’m sure I’ve got you beat for trail wounds.”
“Okay,” David snorts. “I don’t think so.”
“Well.” Patrick stands and strips off his T-shirt without any second guessing. “Only one way to find out, right?”
“That’s not—I mean—”
Patrick crosses to the bathroom door and gives it the slightest nudge with his palm. “Can I come in?”
For a second it seems like David might refuse. Then he steps back and Patrick is standing in a tiny room with him, both of them half naked. David’s wearing a pair of sweatpants, cinched just below his waist, the rest of him dusted with the thick body hair that Patrick already knows the feel of and freckles he never would have guessed were there. Every inch of him is shaped by muscle, all firm curves under his skin. The mirror along the wall behind the sink doubles the effect, and it’s too much to take in at once. It was worth hiking twelve hundred miles for this view.
Patrick swallows and forces himself to say words. “Come on, show me your worst.”
“So there’s this one.” David twists his right arm, prodding at a yellowed bruise that stretches from his shoulder down to almost his elbow. “Pretty ugly.”
“Not bad,” Patrick admits. Then he points to his own smaller, but fresher bruise, a screaming slash of purple around the left side of his ribcage. “But this is uglier.”
David pokes at almost the same spot on his own ribs, where there’s a scrape the length of his middle finger, healing in an angry shade of red. “This happened a week ago, and it still looks this bad.”
Patrick traces down the pink line on his own right forearm, where he sliced himself open trying to cling to that first and toughest of the Sierra Mountains, as his feet slipped away beneath him. “I think I’m going to have this scar forever.”
“Okay, well. I really didn’t want you to have to see these, but…” David turns around and shimmies his sweatpants slightly lower. “They’re from the first part of the hike, before you showed me how to get my waist strap tight enough.”
The twin discolored patches of skin just above David’s hips are healed over now, but at one point they must have been rubbed completely raw from the friction of his pack. Patrick recalls the pain and heat of those first hundred miles through the desert and then tries to add this to it. David must have been in agony. And he didn’t quit.
Before he knows what he’s doing, Patrick drops to his knees on the tile and presses his lips to these old wounds.
“You should be proud of these,” he whispers across David’s damaged skin. “I’m so proud of you for these.”
David makes a sound that’s halfway between a yelp and Patrick’s name, and leans forward to steady himself on the sink. Patrick adds his tongue to the next kiss, squeezes a hand down one of David’s calves.
“Hey.” David gets a hand on Patrick’s shoulder, pushes him back, catches his gaze through the mirror. “I need you to shower, like. Right the fuck now.”
Patrick half-hides the curve of his smile against David’s hip. “I can do that.”
The hot water runs out part way through Patrick’s shower, and that’s probably for the best. It’s no mountain waterfall, but the cold spray freezes out the anticipation buzzing through his brain. The half-educated guesses about what sex with David will be like can’t help him anyway. By now he’s learned not to assume he knows what his body is capable of. He dries off in front of the mirror, savoring the sight and sensation of being clean, ready to share it. He drops the towel next to his dirty clothes on the floor and steps out of the bathroom naked.
David is naked, too, stretched out on his stomach on the bed sheets, his face turned away toward the curtained window, possibly asleep. Patrick spends the three steps between them reminding himself to breathe. Back in his real life, he probably would have approached a moment like this one armed with research, preparation, a plan. It’s hard to say for sure, because he can’t picture David showing up in that life. Or maybe it’s this version of himself that he can’t picture there.
Three steps is all the planning he gets, and when they’re over all he can say is, “I don’t know where to start.”
Stirred by the sound of Patrick’s voice, David rolls over, reaches lazily toward him.
“We started a long time ago,” he says and pulls Patrick down on the bed. “Now we just keep going.”
It turns out to be that simple. David kisses him, pressing one hand to Patrick’s jaw, one hand to his lower back. After the first grind of their hips together, Patrick’s body takes over to chase its own pleasure. He lasts like that, rocking close and insistent, holding David with him through every second.
“I want this so much,” David breathes.
“I love you,” Patrick breathes back, unable to hold it in.
They keep their eyes open until they can’t.
In the post-orgasm haze, Patrick decides that the best part is that it was a little clumsy, too quick, and he knows it can only get better. He’s going to have so much fun getting better at this.
Patrick sucks kisses into David’s chest, leaving new marks among the old, until David declares things too sticky and drags him into the shower. When it turns out the water is still cold, they spend an appropriately patient amount of time making out against the tiled wall, waiting for it to warm up again.
“Okay,” Patrick says a while later, slapping David on the hip. “I’m taking you out.”
After showering off together, they found their way back to bed and got tangled up in each other. The touching led to teasing led to more touching. Patrick kissed his way down David’s body, dove eagerly into giving his first blowjob and got so turned on that he finished himself off ninety seconds in. David laughed with him, tried to pull him back up the bed, but Patrick resisted, saying, “Remember, I said I had a thing about never doing anything halfway?” Then he sucked David back down until he came.
Now they’re both warm and elated in the fading daylight, dozing and close to drifting off to sleep for real.
“Mmm.” David drapes himself across Patrick’s chest, presses an uncoordinated kiss to his lips. “Counteroffer: Let’s stay here forever.”
“That’s a tempting option, for sure.” Patrick swirls a finger through the hair behind David’s ear. “But if I may counteroffer your counteroffer: Food.”
The growl of David’s stomach decides for them.
While David gets ready in the bathroom, Patrick flips through the motel’s binder of nearby restaurants, then pulls on the only clean clothes he has, fresh from his resupply box. The T-shirt says “Runners-up” across the front. Everyone on his high school baseball team got one of these for losing the league championship in Grade Twelve. From now on he’ll always remember it as what he wore after fucking David for the first time, and it will make him feel like a winner.
“Burgers?” he asks, leaning against the open bathroom door. “We’ll have to walk a few blocks.”
David pauses whatever he’s doing to his hair and glances sideways at him, smiling. “If we can’t handle walking a few blocks to burgers, there’s no hope for the next three hundred miles.”
“Okay!” David says into the mirror, flinging his hands out of his hair in frustration. “It’s too long, and I don’t have the right product, but I refuse to put that disgusting hat back on while I’m clean. So this will have to do.”
Patrick isn’t sure how much his opinion matters on this kind of thing, but David looks incredible. His hair is swept up and back from his forehead, parted so it falls loosely to one side. The black long-sleeved T-shirt and dark gray sweatpants he’s wearing aren’t especially form fitting, but Patrick still finds it impossible not to think about his body under there.
“At the risk of putting more pressure on your hair situation,” Patrick says, “I want to be clear that this is a date. I’m taking you on a date.”
The pleased smile stealing across David’s face looks more incredible than the hair and the sweatpants combined.
“And if it makes you feel better, this—” Patrick points to his T-shirt and jean shorts. “—isn’t my normal date look, either. So we’re both working from a disadvantage here.”
“I think you look very cute.” David grasps Patrick by the shoulders, caresses them a little with his thumbs. “Besides, I already put out. Twice. So what do you have to prove?”
That this feels real to you, too.
Patrick catches this thought before it becomes words, just in time.
“Can you blame me for wanting to go three for three?” he says instead, adding an eyebrow waggle for good measure.
“Oh my god, your enthusiasm is exhausting. Let’s go.”
They’re still three blocks from the restaurant when David stops on the sidewalk, putting one hand on Patrick’s arm. “Can we go in here for a minute?”
It’s one of those boutique catch-all shops that sells organic produce to locals and overpriced twig pencils to tourists. A bell above the door rings when they go inside, and a woman behind the checkout counter looks up to greet them.
“Welcome to Ash & Arrow! Can I help you guys find anything?”
“No, thank you,” David says, his voice tight with an unfamiliar politeness. “Just looking.”
Patrick trails behind David as he wanders for a bit, picking up a jar of hand lotion and studying the label, straightening a stack of sweaters, rotating a small potted rosemary plant by ten degrees. He’s looking closely at everything, but his attention seems far away.
“Hey.” Patrick bumps shoulders with him. “Something wrong?”
“This was my idea,” David says. “Well, this but better. They don’t even have a unified color palette in here. It’s like, are we doing warm neutrals or cold neutrals? Pick one. And half this stuff is only pretending to be handmade.”
Patrick isn’t quite keeping up. “Your idea for…?”
“My business idea.” David gives him the barest eye contact as his gaze flits past. “When the old general store back where I live went under, I had this idea to take over the lease and turn it into a shop kind of like this one. It was gonna be a... general store, but also a very specific store? Sort of a branded immersive experience that would support local artists by curating a selection of their products and selling them on consignment in a one-stop-shop retail environment that would benefit both the vendor and the customer.”
This whole speech started out tentative, but by the end David’s speaking passionately, waving his arms in circles as if he’s digging each word out of the air around him by hand. Patrick remembers this now, the business idea that even David’s own mother wouldn’t vote for.
“Sorry.” David drops his hands. “That probably just sounds like a bunch of buzzwords.”
“Not at all. I think it sounds like a great idea, David.”
“Yeah. Well.” David sniffs. “You probably feel like you have to say that to keep getting in my pants.”
“No,” Patrick says, “actually, that’s my professional opinion.”
“Your professional opinion, sure.”
David squints at him and cocks his head to the side. Patrick mirrors the expression. Then he starts cycling back through the hours and hours of conversation they’ve had by this point, because surely he must have mentioned–
“Have I never told you what I do for a living?” Patrick asks when he comes up empty.
“Um. No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, I have a degree in business management.” Patrick leaves out the part where all he’s using this degree for at the moment is freelance bookkeeping. “So, yeah, my professional opinion is that rebranding local products and crafts is very inventive. And sustainable, if you do it right. When you’re supporting local businesses, there are usually grants you can apply for, which would be good startup money.”
“Hmm, well. I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
David looks around at the shop again and Patrick joins him. He tries to imagine a version of this room where every single thing on the shelves was something David put there. He pictures walking through the door under the bell and finding nothing but products and furniture and artwork that David has ideas about and opinions about and has found a place for, and if you ask him about any of it he will tell you, for hours. He can’t imagine what it would look like—he can’t even tell the warm neutrals from the cold—but Patrick knows what it would feel like.
It would feel like a place where everything makes sense.
“Anyway, it’s a Christmas World now,” David says, breezing toward the door. “Come on, I’m starving.”
The thing that the motel binder didn’t mention about the burger place is that it’s a karaoke bar. Or maybe that’s just on Tuesday nights. The burgers are slightly overdone, but the margaritas are delicious and strong, and after they both drain their glasses they’re no longer regretting their decision to stay. Someone named Tammy does an engaging rendition of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and they join in the applause. A scrawny bespectacled kid who looks barely out of high school absolutely slays “You Oughta Know,” and they order another round, settling in at their table in a back corner.
“I’d forgotten what it’s like to be around people,” David says as they clink glasses. “It’s not as bad as I remember.”
“Is that opinion going to change if I get up and sing something?”
David chokes into his drink. Patrick’s only joking, and he’s pretty sure David knows he’s only joking, but he keeps his face straight, because unpredictability is the spice of life.
The woman on stage singing “Desperado” is doing a lovely job, slow and melancholy. They’ve somehow managed to stumble into the only karaoke bar on the planet where everyone knows their wheelhouse and stays in it. One of the lyrics catches in Patrick’s ear, “Your pain and your hunger, they’re driving you home.” It makes him remember the five days he spent in Kennedy Meadows, and how he almost never left.
“I’m glad we’re doing this now,” he says. “I think if I’d stopped to rest any sooner than this I would’ve wanted to quit.”
“And you don’t want to quit now?” David asks.
“No. Do you?”
“Mmm, no. Not really.” David twists his drink in his hands. “But I’m lucky that I have so much spite to fuel me.”
They don’t say anything for a while, just listen to the woman’s voice as she begs her desperado to come down from his fences, to open the gate.
“When I’m out on the trail, I keep thinking about everyone who’s ever doubted me,” David says before the song is over. “Exes, friends back in New York, my—my parents, I guess? It’s a pretty long list, all the people who think I’m a joke. I don’t want to let them be right.”
“You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late.”
The song ends, and the singer accepts her applause and leaves the stage. Patrick can’t stop hearing what David just said.
“Hey, tell me honestly.” He leans in and puts a hand on David’s knee. “Am I going to ruin this date if I sing something?”
The question makes David visibly flinch, but he at least tries to temper it. “That depends. Are you going to embarrass me?”
“Only on purpose,” Patrick grins. “I promise I can actually sing.”
“Mmm.” David nods up at the ceiling.
“I’ll make you a deal. There’s a particular song I’m thinking of, and they probably won’t have it. If they don’t, then you’re off the hook. But if they do, then I kind of have to, right?”
“Oh, is that how that works?”
Patrick kisses his cheek as he stands up. “Trust me?”
David looks at him long enough to mean it when he says, “Okay.”
As he weaves through the tables, Patrick thinks about how he would never do this if he weren’t a tiny bit drunk. Or if this were a first date that actually felt like a first date, with someone he still didn’t know how to impress. Or if it didn’t seem like the only way to make David see what he sees. There are a lot of circumstances under which Patrick would never do this. It just happens that none of them are in effect at the moment.
The songbook is a binder with laminated pages organized by title. Patrick thinks it would probably make more sense to organize by artist, but he finds what he’s looking for in the short list of Js: “The Joke” Brandi Carlile. He taps his finger over the listing and has to laugh, then he shrugs an insincere apology at David from across the room. David’s face briefly disappears behind his hands and the glint of silver rings.
Patrick gives the emcee his request and gets the microphone and the stage in exchange.
“I’d like to dedicate this song,” he says as the intro kicks in, “to someone who’s doing a very hard thing right now and could use some encouragement.”
He doesn’t say David’s name or point him out in the crowd, but the few people who twist around in their seats don’t have any trouble following his gaze.
“You're feeling nervous, aren't you, boy?”
Patrick has sung this song before. He filled an empty afternoon learning it on the piano just after he moved back in with his parents, but he doesn’t remember all the lyrics to the first verse. As they appear on the screen in front of him, he’s surprised by how much they remind him of David, with phrases like “impeccable style,” “your gentle ways,” and “the way you shine.”
The chorus he does have memorized, so he looks up from the monitor and finds David’s eyes. They evade at first, then hold steady.
“Let 'em laugh while they can
Let 'em spin, let 'em scatter in the wind
I have been to the movies, I've seen how it ends
And the joke's on them”
Patrick felt like a joke when he first started learning this song, sitting in his parents’ living room at the upright Yamaha where he took lessons as a kid. He’d just sent a mass email officially uninviting his and Rachel’s entire guest list from a wedding that wasn’t going to happen. Picking out chords from the black and white keys distracted him from imagining all the forwards and replies flying around behind his back and what they might be laughing about. The thought that the joke would end up on them was a comforting fantasy. Now it feels like a prophecy coming true.
He hopes David can feel it, too. He hopes they can share it.
There’s one more verse, two more choruses, then he’s done, and the roar of applause is loud in his ears. He ducks through it, to the table in the back corner where David is already on his feet, his face bursting with too much emotion to read.
“Thank you,” he whispers, grabbing at Patrick’s shoulders as soon as he’s in reach. “That was—You are—”
The rest of the words, if there are any, disappear inside a bear hug that starts out vicelike and only gets tighter. David sways them on their feet and doesn’t let go. He doesn’t let go. It feels solid and affirming until a desperate edge creeps in. Then there’s a splash of tears on Patrick’s neck and a hitch in David’s breathing that isn’t laughter.
“Hey. David.” Patrick wants to lean back to see his face, but he’s being held too tightly. “David, it’s okay. I’m here.”
For three hundred more miles. Patrick realizes, all at once, that he forgot there’s a problem with proving this is real.
The problem with it being real is that it’s ending.