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Sinking Fear In Quiet Steps

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*

 

You can do this, Dirk tells himself. Chin up, shoulders back, count— 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21—you can do this. He crumples his grocery list in his hand: it’s written in pen on a small scrap of paper, like grocery lists are supposed to be. It lists the food that you are supposed to buy at a grocery store. He made sure. He went over every step with Jane. He can do this.

 

*

 

So, Dave didn’t smile, in the apartment. He stood there while Dirk awkwardly set aside a few particularly cute smuppets and culled the rest, stuffing them into a trash bag, stuffing in firecrackers and handcuffs and— god, dildos, leather stuff, spy cameras, weirder shit, frantic to scour the place clean, to bring back what he could remember of his own space, that sense of safety, of order and brightness.

 

Dave had stood there with his shoulders drawn in and he’d looked angry, and he’d looked guilty for being angry, and he didn’t look at Dirk. His mouth was a tight flat line, and his hands never hung still, always tense, ready, waiting. He drew his sword on Dirk four times, the first day, when Dirk came around a corner too quietly. And Dirk couldn’t help being quiet: the Game was over and done and so too were everyone’s magical reality-fucking powers, and apparently talking to people across a species gap— or a centuries gap— was one of them. In Dirk’s case he felt like it was probably both. Dave’s barely-bottled emotional shitstorm kept him quiet, too, for long periods in between talking so much his voice was just static, a frantic buzz drilling through Dirk’s skull as Dave tried to be good to him and didn’t know how and hated it and lapsed into tense stone-faced silence again.

 

Dave ordered takeout for them both every night, and what he ordered for Dirk was impossibly good, it was his favorite. Each time. And it felt like a betrayal each time, each and every fucking time Dave would bring him a movie, a mixtape, a few well-worn paperbacks. I know you, Dave was saying, angry and sad, guilty, It’s okay, I forgive you, I’m trying to, and Dirk wanted to say I’m not him, I’m not ever going to be him, you can be angry at him forever— but he likes anchovies and artichokes on his pizza just the same, and sometimes when he laughs Dave will go very still. And Dirk thinks It’s not fair, but he doesn’t know to which of them.

 

A week into life after the Game, Dirk had looked at Dave lying on his bed, stretched out flat and blank as an old doll, and had thought in a jumble of his own anger and sadness, I did this to him, some of me, part of me— still me, I. I’m still doing this to him. He had gone and brought Dave a cup of water, because it was all that he could think to do and Hydration Is Important. That other Dave had said that, slurping pure clean water from a wineglass, laughing on an ancient CD. This Dave had been surprised, and sat up, and took the cup, and thanked him.

 

This Dave almost smiled before he rubbed his face— his mouth, like he was erasing it— and his face went still and smooth again.

 

“You didn’t have to, man,” Dave had said.

 

Dirk nodded, his throat too thick for words, nodded some kind of bullshit coolkid nod, and went to go sit in the bathroom shower. And he started to plan.

 

*

 

The grocery store Dirk has targeted is open 24 hours, and Dirk is approaching it at 2:30 AM, the optimal time to avoid interaction with fellow shoppers. He’s found that he has to ration out talking to new people. There’s something in him, some social inadequacy, that just craps the fuck out on him. He’s a wire monkey, he figures. All the rap bots and chat friends in the world— in his clean-scrubbed, empty world— couldn’t prepare him for having to live in 2012 with seven billion other humans.

 

Three, he thinks. Three would be okay. He can talk to three people tonight.

 

He walks into the store. The doors open with a soft hiss and chime. Someone by the door welcomes him in and offers him a sales flyer. He says “Thank you,” — that’s one— and walks to where the carts are to study the flyer. Numbers, percentages, glossy photos of fruit. Staid and traditional typography, neatly set, some kind of chunky serif font.

 

He has as much money as he wants. He could buy this store if he wants.

 

He unfolds his list, and compares it to the flyer. Chicken broth is on sale, cool. Grapes. Pasta. That’s kind of nice. He calculates the cents he’ll save if he choses the sale brand versus the— the— oh, fuck.

 

The other brands. Rows of food stretch for what seems like— miles, fathoms, an average of four variant brands plus the house brand for every single item. He gets a cart and then stands and stares helplessly at some oranges. Mandarin, blood orange, naval oranges, tangelos, cuties. Lemons, or are those oranges too? Are there yellow oranges? And what about the ones with green patches, are they raw? Do you have to cook them?

 

“Can I help you?” an employee asks, and he looks at her with mute desperation.

 

“I,” he starts. Two. You can do this. Explain your problem. Request advice on solution.  “I’m fine.”

 

Dipshit you fucking idiot, why did you— no. No.  Breathe. 2584, 4181, 6765, 10946— you’re alright. You’re fine.

 

He continues staring at the oranges. He’s going to need to come up with some kind of operating procedure for choosing. While it doesn’t matter if he gets the best of everything this time— it’s his first, he’ll improve each successive iteration as he gets proper feedback— he can’t handle just grabbing things at random. Why the pomelos and not the tangerines? Why the tangerines? Why not pick grapes instead? Grapes are on sale, but he wants to try an orange first, and what about apples? The disorder of chaos sucks at his hindbrain, prickles him all over with fear-sweat.  He can work off arbitrary parameters but only as long as they’re consistent.  

 

Red, he decides. He’ll pick out whatever variant of a list item is the reddest. A good traditional hunter-gather option, right? Ripe fruit, injured prey, yum yum, time for caveman munchies. He picks out the ruddy tangelos and puts them in the cart, already breathing more steadily.

 

Red cabbage, bright radishes, red-stemmed chard, a bag of jewel-toned cherries. Pasta in red boxes, cereal mascots weighed against one another by their fashion accessories. Soup in the plain red-and-white cans, not the ones with pictures of the contents. Ground hamburger, not chicken. A jug of apple cider displaying four less apples on the label than the runner up, but the juice has a darker, warmer tint than its competitor. Cheese with crimson wax around the outside. Knock-off peanut butter with awful kerning on the cheap red label — better luck next time, Jif. Rasperry jam. Rye bread with a small sale sticker on the bag, like a wound on its flank: the floundering bread-seal to his deadly bread-shark attentions.

 

You can do this, Dirk thinks, and then, it’s done. He crosses the last item off the list. He uses a self-checkout machine all on his own, quietly, smiling to himself: smiling at the vegetables, the cans and bags. He doesn’t get points for a quest finished up in real space, but he feels like he’s leveled up.

 

“Have a good night,” someone tells him, as he walks back outside with his haul. Three.  

 

“Yes,” he says to them. Yes. A good night.

 

*

 

This apartment, these walls and corners, these floors and doorways, they’re Dirk’s refuge. His shell, his armor. This place is light and warmth in an endlessly empty dark sea, a piece of the past to cling to in the wreckage of the future. A gift from his brother, a birthday present, the present of having birthdays, of being a human in a place meant for humans. Dirk could go out on rocket board, on rap-bot, on rafts, following the gulls, living free out under the sky, sailing by the light of the stars, but always he’d return to his sanctuary, his roost, his home.

This apartment is Dave’s cage, and he spent thirteen years crammed up against the bars by a man who did not love him.

 

*

 

He climbs the stairs. He pulls the fucking swords out of the fridge, a big stupid pile of cheap iron, katanas and cosplay-prop replicas, clanking and ringing and sharp. A few have dark patches on the hilt wraps. Disgusting. Disgraceful. Dirk would bet a million universes that those blood samples' dna wouldn't match his.

 

Dave appears in the doorway, tense and pale, blade drawn. When he sees Dirk with the swords at his feet he squares his stance, raises his sword, not his legendary sword from the Game but just some shitty renfair hunk of garbage. But he looks ready to die. His face is blank and his stance is stiff and Dirk can see what he must have looked like at thirteen—shorter, skinnier, hopelessly alone and afraid—and Dirk wishes he didn’t know how easy it is to think you can treat people like they’re machines.

 

Humans make for really shitty machines, is what he’s figured out: too late, too fucking late, but he’s learned. They can’t be cracked open and screwed back together. They can’t be programmed. They have to be... they have to be loved. You have to see the wet pulp inside, the disorder, the churn and boil and acid and blood and pus and shit that hosts their burning soul—you could never make a machine like a person, never, never — you have to love them. Anything else is useless.

 

Dirk gives him a very, very casual nod, and kicks the pile of swords out of the way. He drags some of the groceries over in front of the fridge. He’s not quite sure how to do this. Everything he used to eat came from cans and bottles. But there are distinct compartments in fridges, aren’t there? The shelf sections have been pulled loose and stacked against the back to make room for the swords, but okay: he can fit them back in. And the crisper drawers have their functions printed on them in grey: ‘fruit’ on the left, ‘vegetables’ on the right. Hell yes. After that he just arranges everything as logically as he can, each food group to its own shelf, and spends a little self-indulgent minute lining things up in order of least to most red, per grouping.

 

Dave hasn’t moved from the doorway but he’s leaning against the frame now, and his blade’s put away. Fuck . Dirk forgot to factor Dave into the count. Four: can he do four? Can he talk to four people in a night? Shouldn’t Dave count as, as... not zero, but neutral, default. Person prime.

 

“I— I got you apple juice,” Dirk says, pushing the words out into the thick silence.

 

“Okay,” Dave says. “You didn’t have to.”

 

Dirk nods.

 

“You don’t have to be— fuckin’ sorry, all the time, alright, I know you’re not him, you don’t have to keep trying to, to make up for it, to fix things, you keep tip-toeing around all guilty and shit, I know you’re not him, okay—” Dave’s blank mask is starting to crack but it’s not towards smiling. It’s angry. “—I never said you were, this isn’t your fucking cross to goddamn NAIL yourself to —”

 

Pressed back tightly into the counter corner, there’s nowhere to go, and— Dirk’s never been trapped in his apartment before, but this— this isn’t his apartment, this is Dave’s, and Dave is yelling. Looming. From this angle he looks bigger, older, and his voice is a crackling painful wash of noise, it’s like getting acid poured into his ears and his head is going to fucking explode please, he thinks, trying to mouth it, please, please don’t be angry with me, please stop thinking I wanted to hurt you, I’m so fucking tired of— I wanted to help I wanted to fix things why does it always go wrong what’s WRONG WITH ME?

 

Dave’s hand lands on Dirk’s shoulder, burning-hot, searing, and Dirk lashes out. Instinctive, graceless, no room to draw or swing and no thought to, either, he shoves. Dave stumbles back a step, two steps, looking shocked, and Dirk: Dirk is going to be sick. He can’t take this, the noise and the— the glare of the lights overhead and the rip-saw noise that whatever Dave is saying comes into his head as. He’s going to be sick and he raised his hands against this kid he was trying so hard to love like an actual person — again, again, why is he only ever a fuck-up, why is he such a stupid, broken machine, why can’t he ever— he scrambles for the bathroom, slams the door.

 

The shower spray is the same as ever, is his shower, forceful but soft, something to drown out the noise. He strips his clothes off in the dark— he wishes he could strip his skin off— and curls up in the stall, letting the water run through his hair, down his back, trying to breathe.

 

Count: 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89— what’s next?— 144, 233, 399, no, 312, no. Start over. 1, 3, 5.

 

*

 

Dave comes into the bathroom just when he’s starting to calm down, and Dirk yells, a panicky garbled noise of fright and shame and apology, hiding his face in his arms and knees and Dave goes shh, shh, and sits down against the wall.

 

He’s got an apple, and he eats it slowly while Dirk sits in the corner of the stall and stares at him from between his fingers, trying to breathe. Dave rotates the apple around the axis of its core after every bite, eating it up in a crunchy spiral. Dirk can’t quite look at most of his face but he can watch his hands, the way they peel off the sticker, the way thumb and middle and forefingers hold the top and bottom of the apple by the remnant of skin.

 

Dirk opens his mouth, closes it when nothing happens, thunks his forehead against the side of the shower. He doesn’t know how to say I’m sorry with a gesture. Roxy would know, she grew up with pawn language and still uses her hands easy as, as anything, as a kid who had neighbors, as a kid who isn’t completely fucking defective.

 

“I’m sorry,” Dave says. “I can’t keep taking all this shit out on you.”

 

It’s Dirk’s shit, anyway. Who else should Dave take it out on? Dirk shrugs.

 

“Rose says— and I mean, I agree, I should have known this already but that’s what Rose is for, I guess, telling you stuff you’d have known if you hadn’t had your head crammed up your ass, scopin’ out your own ripe backlog of crap. Uh. Rose says you’re not just not-him, you’re, uh, you’re us.”

Dave looks at you. He looks awkward and lost.

“Rose is my best friend,” he says. “And you— you look like her. Too. She got your nose, and your eyes, except the color, I mean, and, and if you smile. When you smile. It’s kinda hers too. Bro never smiled.”

You don’t either, Dirk tries to indicate, gesturing at his face.

“Yeah, well,” he says.

He’s quiet for a while.

“Rose wanted to be loved but she didn’t think there was like, anything there for anyone to love. About her. She didn’t think she was a real person. Some kind of thing with her mom left her like that, all that passive-aggressive opposite-day bullshit where you could get her a cup of water and she’d think you were declaring jihad— she told me once, she was hells of drunk, ok, but she told me she was made out of mirrors. That that was the catch to her land, the big shitty joke about Light or whatever. There wasn’t anything to her but reflections. I don’t know. It made me really fucking sad. But I think you’re like that too.”

Empty metal. Dirk nods slowly. That fits.

“I love her,” Dave says. “I always fuckin loved her. The stuff about mirrors was maudlin bullshit. She’s just— yknow, a kid, like us, like you, and she’s fucked up, and that’s— okay.”

Dirk watches him.

“I love you too,” Dave says, real fast, and it socks Dirk low in the gut. Leaves him shocked and breathless. “You’re my brother. We’re both fucked up but I don’t want us to be like, so fucked up we don’t both know that.”

Dave leans in, blocking the shower spray, and pecks Dirk on the cheek. He smiles, shy, up so close Dirk can see the water sticking his eyelashes together even in the dark. “You have no idea how hard it is for me not to be making a no homo joke right now. But uh. Haha. Welp.”

He goes to back off but Dirk’s arm is around his shoulder— whoops— and Dirk pulls him back down— shit, shit— and Dave falls into the shower with a breathless grunt. But his arms come up around Dirk’s shoulders. He curls around Dirk’s legs.

“However outrageously homo either or both of us are, next time we hug it out you’d better have some fuckin underpants on,” Dave decrees.

Dirk nods. Next time.

They sit quietly in the dark until the water gets cold, and afterwards, later, in the kitchen, Dave shows him how to cook.