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Changing Feathers and Picking Up Frogs

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The looming shadows of fir trees line the highway, needles shaking in the night air: flashes of a more corporeal blackness that skitter past at the edges of Junebug's vision.

Somehow they've ended up chasing the moon, and that seems like an omen of some kind. Not a good omen or a bad omen. Just of some kind. A premonition of something down the road.

Her Cricket is half-awake, drooping eyelids, and probably humming a vaguely familiar tune; the type that she wouldn't quite be able to place, even if she could hear it over the roar of the engine. The type that sticks in your brain until it begins to ache, like a scar.

When Junebug looks over, he smiles.

*

And Junebug thinks, Johnny is -

*

Johnny is a dog curled up in the footwell of the sidecar. The soft patter of rain on your rooftop, while the fire crackles merrily away. The smell of river water and exhaust fumes.

Johnny is a man with cheap shades and the wind in his hair. Wires for blood and bones held together with screws. Warm metal and electricity. He refracts the sun.

He's a sculpture. He's art.

*

She becomes more aware of it when they join up the others, is the thing. Or maybe Junebug just remembers it for the first time in a while: how iridescent the two of them are. That other people pale in comparison to how bright Johnny is, until they almost fade from sight. White noise.

She and Johnny, they made themselves this way; that's the difference. Built themselves up out of the grey wisps of smoke and fog until they became something sunlit and conspicuous. Magnetic. Johnny is a force of gravity that is forever pulling her inwards..or, maybe it's the other way around? It has been such a long time that it's hard to tell, and it has always been just the two of them.

Gravity. Yeah. A mutual orbit that holds them together while they spin through the universe on a joint trajectory.

Junebug never was very good at sharing (not Johnny, and what does she have to share except Johnny?) but these folks are all right. They're...friends, maybe. Or they will be, by the end of the night. She doesn't mind tagging along with them for a while. The old man swayed and smiled while she sang, and Shannon stared with glassy eyes. Rapture has always been a decent compliment. Besides, that package won't deliver itself; a favour for a favour.

Nah, tagging along with them is just fine - it's the look on Johnny's face that bothers her.

The thought that maybe he's waiting for a comet, or a meteor, or a sun to implode...

*

You can paint yourself any colour that you please, Junebug thinks. Change your hair, change your shirt, or capture the sound of a cat mewing to reverberate around a big empty bar, but -

But maybe learning to be specific is about remembering what you were built for. Sometimes you have to go right back to the beginning and climb up out of the damp earth, clothed only in the smell of rust and death; grey corpses born out of a grave.

You have to remember the clickety-click-hiss and the choir of mud-muffled voices singing

(Where the blue of the sea meets the sky
And the big yellow sun leads me home)

After all, it's hard to be punk if you don't remember what you're rebelling against.

Not that she's punk, of course. She's Junebug.

That's...kind of the whole point, isn't it?

*

On the bow of the Mucky Mammoth, Johnny nudges her shoulder and asks,

“You OK, ma'am?”

Junebug tries to remember when he started calling her “ma'am” but the memory has trickled away, a glitch in the system.

“Sure.” she tells him, in a voice that both is hers and isn't. Johnny hums and reaches down to scritch Homer behind the ears. The old dog only sighs. “Homer looks like Hell, doesn't he?”

“Yeah.” Johnny says softly, and then he touches Junebug's sleeve like you might touch an exhibit in a museum – secretly, and with reverence. “He's just humouring me; he's kind like that. I should let him rest.” A beat. The river is quiet; the water flows black as berry-blood. “I hear Cyrano's playing, tonight. You think we'll stop off at The Rum Colony?”

“We always do, Cricket.”

“I guess we do, ma'am.”

A gentle series of taps on her wrist; a code, a bad joke in the making.

Junebug tries not to laugh, and fails.

*

Cyrano is indeed playing at The Rum Colony tonight.

Junebug closes her eyes and the world dissolves around her; colours flash behind her closed eyelids and she swings her feet rhythmically under the bar stool.

Asinine thoughts try to assault her – things like, she ought to get those bike parts, ought to help Johnny hand the can around, ought to make sure Ezra isn't getting into trouble – ought to, ought to, ought to...

But all she can hear is the waves' hushed whispers to the shore and the sweet whorls of the lap guitar, singing its mournful lullaby; it tells her who she is, right now, here in this moment. Asks her who she will be tomorrow. Asks her what new lines she will pencil in, what new words she put to music.

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow has always been a tricky concept; they never know where the road might take them, they simply trust that they are safe together. Free as birds flying the same migration route year in and year out, only ever changing their feathers or picking up frogs.

Damn.

When she opens her eyes, Johnny shuffles in and out of view, can clinking with gathered change. Metal bumping against metal. Junebug wants to say something, anything, but the words won't come. Her mouth is all filled up with things she can't explain. She listens to Cyrano and imagines a sky studded with stars and two planets orbiting each other in a celestial dance – never able to meet in the middle.

Junebug thinks again of that look on Johnny's face, of him asking to go mushroom-hunting with the dog.

*

Who am I to tell my private nightmares to if I can't tell them to you? 2

*

When Patch offers her a drink, Junebug casts a look at Conway, leaning back in his chair, conversing with the empty air. She says no.

There's always a reckoning where that stuff is concerned and Junebug has enough debts to pay.

*

The waves lap wearily at the shore. The water looks endless at this time but it isn't. Not really. Not to Cate or Will, who know it so well; it just looks that way, when you catch it at the right moment. Or maybe the wrong one.

Junebug thinks of the miners. Huddled down there in the deep dark depths, confused and wet and frightened. Waiting for the inevitable tide to roll in. She thinks of the monument; that bleak, angry sepulchre, standing guard over dozens of headless helmets. Bobbing, bobbing, but never floating away, held fast by an invisible tether. Junebug thinks of the miners and she feels -

*

Now Shannon – you can see in her a fearsome sense of useless desperation, like a mama bird protecting chicks that have already fallen out of the nest and hit the hard ground below. Grief and rage, the heavy kind that sits in your blood and burns like acid, eating away at flesh and muscle until all that is left is the bones, the framework of how you intended to feel in the beginning. Sad and empty. Hurting; the phantom pain of a missing limb. Yeah. Shannon, you can see she thinks those men and women died with courage.

It's what she needs to believe.

Junebug – she just feels pity. She would never say so, not to Shannon at least, but it's pity that she feels, plain and simple. Pity that the only path they could see took them yards under the earth, down, down, until even the air can't breathe. Pity that they couldn't look at the open highway and see an invitation to move on, however temporary.

At least when you eventually find your way back and retread the same path, its always a little changed. Or you are, and isn't that the same thing?

She pictures them, marching single-file down into the darkness, one by one by one.

Never to return.

*

Cyrano finishes his set and the world is a little less bright for it. It's always a wonder, how he can make steel sound so beautiful.

“You can put the can down, now, Cricket. Cyrano's wrapping up. Why don't you and go see what the old man is up to or something?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

Yeah. It will be good for him to work the creak out of his joints and get some sand between his toes. They'll be heading back to the boat soon and there's never any telling how long you'll end up travelling down this particular stretch of water. Junebug watches Johnny slink away, hands in his pockets, disappearing between the parasols.

It's too late for her to pick up those bike parts, now, but she figures The Weird Vector won't mind. As machines go it's pretty patient, and besides, she built it with her own two hands; even machines know not to talk back to their mothers. Maybe she could walk down to the shore and write some lyrics in the sand, watch the sea wash them away. Or ask around those bureau types, see if they have any of those gummy pomegranate seeds that Johnny likes so much.

She doesn't do either of those things; she simply sits and closes her eyes and swings her feet and wishes Cyrano would play a little more.

5 Dogwood Drive. Junebug hopes it's a real address, not some sort of prank. Shannon will be awful sore if it is, and it might just break the old man in two.

Junebug opens her eyes to the sound of footsteps and giggles – focuses her gaze just in time to see Johnny sweep Ezra up in his arms, ostensibly to keep the kid from running around in circles like an excitable pup, but really, it's more than that, isn't it?

When Johnny looks over, she smiles.

*