Genre: romance; high school + later years; drama; m/m
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"Just you an' me. How 'bout it?"
Finlay twangs a guitar string. He's the perfect image of a cowboy pining against the backdrop of a romantic wilderness Charlie thinks he can see through his music, instead of the hospital room that has had him walled in for two days.
"I can't, Finlay."
"You can't or you won't?"
Charlie can feel the disappointment of a crossed child wash over him hotly. But if he stays here, he does not know how long it will be until he tries again. Until he breaks down and becomes a deadweight to all those around him. Finlay's charity is unnecessary.
"This isn't about…" Charlie stops and sighs. "It's complicated," he says.
He can see that Finlay will not be satisfied with such a vague and perfectly generic answer. But how could he tell him? Where would he even start? Finlay could not possibly know how he feels, and yet he thinks he should already know.
Finlay strikes a sour note on his guitar that leaves his fingers with a tension that would not be alleviated.
"Just so you know – I love you," he says, almost blaming him for it.
Charlie only looks down at his sheets and mutters softly, "Alright."
Finlay pinches another string.
"Won't you even tell me where you're going?"
Charlie twists his fingers into the sheets. "Texas," he says. "That's all I know."
The afternoon is a hot, chalky glare. A canvas awning keeps it at bay. On a bench by Charlie's side is an impermeable, dark blue duffel bag stuffed with the few belongings he has managed to salvage, most of them books. The bus will be here in thirty minutes. Hazy troughs of heat and the dry, ropey smell of harvest time waft over him even though it is already the start of November. The boy trails his fingers to the top of his shirt and undoes the first three buttons – there is a little sheen of sweat at the base of his throat. He goes inside the station to have an ice cream cone to distract from the heat.
Inside, the difference in temperature is quasi negligible, though the difference itself could be a trick of the mind from the one fan that slogs painfully above head. A fly-paper twirls slowly beneath the ceiling. He asks for a vanilla-raspberry cornetto and sits on one of the metal chairs that seem to shine with its own sweat.
He uncurls the paper foil around the cone and licks the sweet, white cream, slowly mixing it with the sour red syrup. Ice cream, he finds, has always been a quick band aid to stressful situations. His mother always used to treat Claire and him to ice cream whenever his father would come home in a foul mood fuelled by a bad day and cheap alcohol. Claire preferred hard candy to ice cream since they "lasted longer".
He wonders what Finlay is doing right now. 'Is he practicing with his band? Will he still play after I leave town? Will he forget me?' And he has to stop thinking. The twins believe he is transferring schools to study to become a doctor. He should let Neil know he will not be seeing him again anytime soon. A terse text message should do it. He will have to get a new phone now.
Glumly, he finishes the tasteless cone that cost him two dollars fifty.
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Down the road, past the old cotton trees where the sun stumbles up against, Finlay's legs hurt as he beats Rick's bicycle wheels furiously into the heated narrow stretch of tar. There, finally, he sees the house, tucked away from the road, huddled and remote. His chest and throat burn as he pounds his fists on the door. Charlie didn't show up for the first class. It's today, he is sure of it; he is leaving today. He had to collect his stuff; he has to be still here. They could leave together. With every extra pounding on the door, he feels his determination grow. A large man soon fills the doorway and throws a fist into the boy's chin, sending a sharp pain shooting through his face.
"Robert!" A woman's voice trails behind helplessly.
More punches accompanied with grunts follow. Charlie can't be gone. I'm the only one he has. As blood trickles warmly down his mouth, he thinks about the boy feeding ducks back at the ranch and how secretly pleased he had looked. He would give anything to see that face again.
He's the only one I have.
"Can you hear the snow?"
A lazy groan rises from the pile of sheets warm with body heat.
Finlay unbuttons his shirt and leans onto the mattress. His hands are still numb from the cold outside. He says it is nothing and tells the woman in bed to go back to sleep. Snow is not a rare sight in New York. It is the same year after year. The woman stretches and recoils under the tumbling of satin sheets.
"Your brother called today," she says.
Finlay undoes his shoes and sits up on the bed, back against the headboard and legs splayed in front of him.
"I thought he'd gotten the wrong number," she continues. "He wants to see you for Christmas. Says there's something he wants to give you."
Finlay snorts. "What, like a present?"
"You should go see him."
Finlay leans forward and kisses her neck. "Don't worry about it, honey. Go back to sleep."
It has been twenty years since he last set foot in Cottonwood, Arizona. And it has been a long time since he last heard his brother's voice. He muses about what must have changed in that sandy, red-brown arena of his memories.
His brother's house is the same as the one they used to live in; that much he can tell. Colin has grown some stubble and wears a pair of frameless eye glasses now to keep the look of a neat, professional network engineer. He is the same old, except with a haircut, and when he smiles there are wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. He still cannot bring himself to believe his brother had stayed here instead of coming with him to New York. To him, it will always be a stab in the back. There is absolutely nothing in this town that could make him want to build his life here. The air alone always clings to his face like moist spider webs, irritating his eyes, and mud-coloured sand grains burrow deep under his nails. He does not get the attraction to this hick town.
Colin's wife seems pleasant enough. Though seeing her makes him feel a little guilty for not having attended the wedding. Then again, he had been in the middle of building a name for himself in the industry. Colin understands. In any case, they have their own children who keep them busy enough as it is.
It is Christmas Eve, and Colin's wife is preparing the plum pudding. Colin corners him in the corridor and asks him if he wants to see his old room. Finlay gives half a nod that comes off as more of a shrug. What was once his bedroom has now become the guest room. Plain and sober.
"You'll forgive the refurbishing, won't you?" Colin says. "Unfortunately, old, tacked-on posters aren't everyone's taste." The lines around his face suddenly crease and he asks, "Are you okay, Fin?"
Finlay stops. This is not what he expected.
"What do you mean?" he says.
"I mean…" Colin steps forward. And Finlay has never seen him this serious before. "How are you doing? You haven't contacted me in forever even though I can hear you on the radio. Never figured you would make it so far." Finlay turns his back and continues to listen to the voice behind him while he walks around the room. "I wonder where you found that motivation..." Finlay says nothing. "Anyway," Colin continues, "It's good to see you, Fin."
Finlay gives a small, noncommittal nod. The reason he has come back still eludes him.
On Christmas morning, the two girls rip open their presents and shriek with delight. Their mother takes pictures and assembles the toys with them. Colin turns to Finlay with a large, colourfully wrapped up case in his hands, his expression infused with a calming stillness.
"Is that what I think it is?" Finlay says.
"You didn't think I would have you come all the way here without a present ready, did you?"
"You didn't have to wrap it up…"
"Where's the tradition in that?"
Finlay peels off the glittering wrapping paper to reveal a dark red leather case in more or less pristine condition. Inside lies the sleeping brass figure of his old saxophone preserved snuggly in its tailor-made coffin.
"I had it sent to a repairman just before. Got rid of the saliva stains too," says Colin, egging him on. "Wanna give it a whirl?"
Finlay runs his fingers gingerly across the distorted reflections that gleam off the instrument's surface.
"Maybe later," he says.
Colin, though a little disappointed, says, "That's okay," and pats his knee. "But look," he adds, and fetches a brown paper envelope from a drawer. "You're spoiled this Christmas."
Finlay takes the envelope and tears the top open, all while giving his brother a suspicious look.
"It's a business card…" Finlay says, unsure of how to respond. "For an accounting company. If this is a message, I think I'm too stupid to understand it."
"Look at the name," Colin says, his eyes unusually excited.
"Alexander Mallory? Is he a celebrity around here?"
"Alexander is his middle name. His first name is Charles," he says. "Or Charlie."
Finlay's heart starts racing. His mouth feels numb.
"What?" he says.
He turns over the card and sees an address and another number – a private one he assumes – scribbled on it in his brother's handwriting.
"Your little friend was incredibly hard to find. Not being a denizen of the cyberworld and all… But, well, after some persistent inquiring I still managed to pinpoint him. He's become a tax accountant, you know."
Finlay does not say anything. Charlie… The sound of the name is already ancient to him. Is he supposed to do something with this now? And what if he does not? He wonders if karma follows a particular etiquette for this kind of thing.
"You can do what you want with it," says Colin, as if reading his mind. "Maybe things have changed… but I remember you were happiest when you were around that boy. Like you'd found your inspiration."
Finlay closes the case and tucks the card away in a pocket.
Colin asks, "Don't you play music so he can hear you?"
Finlay scratches the corners of the card. It is Christmas, so he has to have the day off. What if he does call him? What could he say? It is ringing now. Every tone stretches out an almost unbearable vibration in his ear. He could hang up right now. The racing of his heart is almost louder than the ringing tone. He should think about this. He should hang up and just leave it; it is all in the past now; things are different. He might not remember you―
Say something. For god's sake, say something.
"Is this Alexander Mallory?"
He drums his fingers on the card in front of him, simply waiting for words to find him.
"Charlie?" he tries.
There is a pause on the other line.
"Who is this?" the tinny voice says, metallic and cold. "How did you get this number?"
Finlay is suddenly overcome with an incredible urge to see him again. His hand is sore from how tight he is holding the phone to his ear.
"It's… It's Finlay. Finlay O'Connell. Do you remember me?"
There is an even longer pause. Would repeating his name help?
"Of course I remember you," the voice interrupts him, indignant.
And the line goes dead.
Finlay feels an uncontrollable trembling start in his chest spread to his shoulders and finally erupt into a full-blown guffaw that surprises even himself. He has found his "inspiration" again.
- - -
Charlie's knows full well who Finlay O'Connell is. He has never forgotten. But the call from a few days ago only makes his head buzz with a thousand questions, almost all of them starting with "why?"
For a long time, he was never good at talking, would only speak when spoken to, and it seemed like he was born to walk down the wrong path. Maybe, someday, he will forget how to talk altogether. Although he might be incapable to make himself speak better, as long as there are numbers to crunch and food on his plate, it will be alright. It does not matter.
He did not know Finlay in the beginning despite being in the same class because he never bothered to look around himself, only heard things. His surroundings were nothing more than space to use. But for some reason, the boy had wanted to talk to him, even stay with him when nothing more was to be said or exchanged. He was an idiot to do such unnecessary things, especially for a person like him. Often he had wondered if Finlay liked being with him, though it must have been very awkward. Maybe if he had managed to say things like "I love you", even if he was not ready to speak that freely, things might have been different. Or not. Did it really matter in the end? He still cannot say it.
He pours himself a glass of rum from a crystal container and sinks into a sofa. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he registers that the year is changing.
Every day it feels like he is walking through the murk of a foggy night. The obscurity is palpable under his palms, and yet all he can do is walk on, slowly, stumbling forward as best he can while invisible demons bend his path towards a blacker end. The Prozac pills offer moments of clarity that are all too brief. He still has his old phone from all those years ago. Finlay did not let up for a long while. He still received messages from him from time to time; and he had composed many messages in return without actually sending them. Had he been a woman things might have been different, no doubt. Though he feels Claire would have strongly disagreed with that. In any case, he has made peace with all the what-ifs that have plagued his mind and would rather live in the present, in reality.
He sips his glass, and lets the bitter liquid trickle his mind into a pleasant numbness. Then he drinks another, and another, and then there is no more liquid in the crystal container. The doorbell rings. He does not want to get up; he is not interested. If he were to get up he believes he would topple over anyway. But the doorbell continues to ring for what feels like at least ten minutes. Finally he gets up with his only motive being to kill the trespasser.
He opens the door and sees a cleanly shaven man about his age in a leather jacket with dark hair combed back, revealing a large forehead. His face casts an expression of surprise and relief. Charlie wants to throw up.
"The fuck're you?" he starts.
The man's expression morphs into one of worry. "It's me. Finlay."
"I know that," Charlie snaps. "You didn't let me finish. The fuck're you doing here?"
"I came all this way; I may as well come to see how your bony ass is doing."
Charlie cannot believe it. Perhaps the universe is actually going to make him say it this time. They are not teenagers anymore; and yet he feels like tonight, at the turn of the new year, they could go back in time and do everything right. Only for tonight.
"Finlay…" he says, and the name is more gratifying than any alcohol or pill could be. "You know your music sucks, right?"
Finlay lets out a surprised chuckle.
"Oh really? Then why does it look like you're about to cry?"
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