LynZ’s thighs were amazing, Frank thought. His admiration was far less about lust --though he did find her exceedingly attractive, so long as he didn’t think too much about Matt Skiba’s stupid comment that he and LynZ looked alike, so being attracted to her was pretty narcissistic-- than about the fact that she didn’t have puny, stupid lungs and Epstein-Barr keeping her from riding hours every day to achieve those amazing, perfect thighs.
Still, she never complained if Frankie was a little too slow on the trails or anything, just slowed down and rode alongside him, chatting away about her latest tattoo or this art installation that was happening downtown at the cafe she worked at and how Frankie would totally dig it.
Frank would stand up and pedal furiously, face red from the effort and mentally cursing his stupid body for not being healthier, but also loving the way it felt, the burn and pull in his legs. He pushed it just a little bit further, just a few more pumps, and that was the crest, and then it was all flying downhill and just hanging on tight, LynZ ahead of him.
Her laughter would carry back in her wake, and Frank would find his own delight bubbling out, and they could go like that for hours.
There was a trail through the forest, wider and well-packed in places for the runners. The cyclists and runners had a system. It worked for them, even though it wasn’t an official bike trail or anything. The runners would stay to the right, just like on the roads, and faster traffic passed on the left. It wasn’t like they couldn’t hear them coming for a ways off, anyway.
Of course, every once in a while, there’d be some new runner up there, ignorant and self-righteous, all “you scared me you little punks!” and Frank would roll his eyes, but LynZ would get off her bike and be all wide-eyed and sweet, all apologetic, and explaining the system while Frank pedaled circles around them, practicing wheelies and trying to ride up and flip backwards off trees.
He’s been more careful ever since the bike handle caught him right in the balls. That shit hurt for days, and he’d never felt pain like that. He got nauseous just thinking about it. A lesser man, he thought--and then amended with a sideways look at LynZ like she can hear him being sexist in his brain--a lesser person would get all skittish and gun shy, afraid to try again, but Frank was determined to nail it, so he could impress the guys down at the park.
His mother calls it hard-headed, but whatever. Frank’s glad for the thick skull; he can take a few knocks on it. He’s not stupid, he wears a helmet, but some falls and shit were necessary in the development of a serious BMX rider.
“So I’m thinking about volunteering down at the track,” LynZ said when they were finally on their way again, peddling lightly. The section of the trail was through a wide clearing with tall grass on either side that came up to Frank’s chest. A few years ago, they’d been shot at through here by some crazy off-the-grid woodsman with a freakin’ bow and arrow. Hunting was illegal through there, and it sure as shit hadn’t been hunting season, but the guy had the dead carcass of some kind of large bird hanging from his belt, which made Frank want to beat his skull in with his own bow. The worst of it was, the guy hadn’t even apologized for almost taking out LynZ. That shit wasn’t cool.
Ever since then, they slowed down, out of caution or what, Frank had no idea. He didn’t think the guy ever came back, though, or at least he hoped not. They hadn’t seen him again, at any rate. Broken bones and even his shit-tastic lungs Frank could deal with, but some forest-dwelling nutcase was something else entirely.
“You’ll get prime riding time out of it, and some merch, at least,” Frank said. “I’d do it, but I don’t have the time.”
“Yeah, and your mother would freak,” LynZ said.
Frank already worked one job in addition to trying to keep up his scholarship. It sucked, but it was really the one thing his mother asked of him - to please finish school so he could get a good job. She didn’t care what kind of job, so long as it was legal and fairly safe, so of course the one thing Frank wanted to do was the one thing most likely to send her out of her mind with worry.
“There’s that, too. Not that it matters, I’ll never be in racing shape, anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s the other thing,” LynZ said slowly. They came to a stop, and she looked at him directly, biting her lip. “They want to sponsor me. I’ll never be pro, but you know the FemmeX race is coming up, and I--Dewees thinks I should enter.”
“That’s awesome,” Frank said. He grinned, holding his bike with one hand while he pulled her down to hug with another. Their helmets bumped. “You’re going to be fabulous!”
“I mean, it’s not much, and the sponsorship is just like, a t-shirt with their logo and the entry fee, you know? But it’s something. And if I place, there’s some prize money, so maybe I won’t have to drop out after this semester.”
He bumped their helmets together again and was just about to say something else when he felt LynZ stiffen. Pulling back, he turned, following the direction of her gaze, his mouth dropping open.
The mountain man was back and was aiming an arrow at them.
Frank held up his hands in the universal, “don’t hurt me, I surrender!” stance, and after what seemed like an eternity, the guy lowered the bow, but with the arrow still in place. He gave them a wide berth, never taking his eyes off them as he made his way onto the path and then, when he was at the edge of the clearing, he ducked under a branch and disappeared into the shadows.
“Fucking weird,” Frank breathed and felt LynZ’s fast heartbeat near his arm. She was squeezing his wrist hard, which he only noticed when she flexed her fingers and let go.
“Maybe we shouldn’t ride through here anymore,” she said.
“Fuck that,” Frank said. He straddled his bike and looked at her. “We just have to keep an eye out. I don’t think he’s here to hurt us.”
“Maybe we should call the cops.”
“All they’d do is try and shut the trail down like they did that area in the pine barrens, though.”
LynZ nodded. “Yeah, what was that about again? Something about rare mushroom species or some shit?”
“Yeah, something like that. But you know it was the hikers association. They’re all back there having a cackle.”
LynZ stared off where the guy had disappeared into the woods and shrugged. “Well, at least let’s give him a minute to get well clear. I don’t want to come up on him again if he circles around or something.”
They made small talk, chatting about racing, their gear, and the happenings of the previous weekend when LynZ had gone on an accidental date with some girl. Frank was still giggling at the horrified look on LynZ’s face as she described how the girl leaned in to kiss her, all puckered up, when LynZ said quietly, “Sometimes, I wonder if my dad turned out like that. I mean, not necessarily some bow-wielding lunatic, but like, a hermit of some sort. Living alone somewhere.”
Frank bit his lip. LynZ’s dad had run a bike shop when she was small, but when the shop went out of business, he took off. He’d left a few bikes, including the two they were riding, but they’d long since sold the rest.
“Most of the time, though, I think he’s probably off with some new family somewhere, and he doesn’t give a shit about us,” she continued, in a much harder voice. She shrugged. “Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll see him at some race, and if so, if he’d be proud of me. If I even want him to be, or if I want to win just so I can rub it in his face. He never won, not one single race.”
She picked up her bike from where she’d carefully laid it down earlier and swung a leg over. “You ready?”
Frank mounted his bike and nodded. “Always.”
The path through the clearing branched off at the tree line. There was the common, wide-open path for pedestrian traffic, and then to the right, there was a darker path, far more overgrown. In fact, it was so overgrown that they’d been riding the trails for a year before they even really saw it. Frank got the feeling the path was being used more often since it was the way the hunter guy had gone. It definitely seemed like it was a bit wider, more accessible, though getting a bike through still didn’t look possible. LynZ’s head turned slightly that way; she sped up, taking point as always. Frank slowed down a bit, ostensibly to let her get a good lead for when they headed downhill, but also because he couldn’t help straining to see if there was any trace of the hunter guy to see.
Just as he passed the mouth of the entrance going the other way, he thought he saw something: a pair of eyes, peering out from the shadows. He shivered and pedaled hard until he hit the incline, then held on tight.
Frank’s mother was watching the news when he walked in the house. He didn’t plan on stopping long. He had to shower and get ready for the party LynZ was dragging him to later that night, but his mother beckoned him over. “Were you running again?” she asked.
The lie was an old habit, by now, to the point where, in Frank’s mind, running and cycling were so associated that it was the same thing. “Yup, we did five miles today. I’m not the fastest guy out there, but it’s more than I ever thought I could do, you know?”
But unlike their normal exchanges, this one didn’t die out at that. She looked up at him, eyebrows furrowed. “You don’t run up on that trail through the hills, do you?”
Frank shook his head. “No, it’s too long, why?” He wondered if the whole thing was going to come out, someone had recognized him, that sort of thing, and what he would say. His bike was at LynZ’s, and his mom had known her dad back in the day. He was surprised, sometimes, that she didn’t figure it out.
LynZ had one time ventured the opinion that his mom knew, but was more comfortable believing the lie. Frank had dismissed it at the time, but as he’d gotten older, he’d begun to wonder. It certainly wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. But today, at least, his mom was allowing the lie to stand. “A runner reported seeing a strange guy up there carrying a weapon.”
“Huh,” Frank said. “What kind of weapon?”
“I don’t know, the full report’s about to come on,” she said.
Frank sat in the tattered arm chair his father used to love, eyes glued to the television. His mother sniffed. “You’re awful interested in this.”
Frank waved her off; the reporter was coming on the television at the mouth of the woods. “Officials are considering closing off the trail to pedestrians until the suspect can be apprehended, but in the meantime, police caution the public to avoid the area and use caution. The suspect was seen carrying a large, crude bow with several arrows, one nocked and ready. The man reportedly shot in the direction of one runner but missed by quite a few inches.”
“He missed on purpose,” Frank muttered.
Frank glanced over at his mom; she had her eyes narrowed at him.
“It was just a line from an old movie,” Frank said. “Robin Hood.”
She seemed to accept this and turned back to the television. On screen, there was a drawing, supposedly of the suspect. Frank snorted. “Do they get 6-year olds to draw this shit or what?”
His mother chuckled dryly. “I’ve wondered that myself at times. It does seem rather amateur, especially compared to Lindsey’s work.”
Frank nodded. LynZ was a great artist.
“That’s what she should do,” his mom said. “Then they might have a chance of catching the guy. Are you eating here tonight?”
Frank shook his head. “No, there’s a party downtown. I’ll probably spend the night there.”
“Eat something before you go, so you don’t drink on an empty stomach.”
“Okay, Ma,” he said and stood up to wander into the kitchen. “I’ll make a sandwich.”
“There’s no bread. Eat the leftover lasagna,” she called after him.
Frank ended up being glad he ate when he got to the party. He wasn’t in the mood to get drunk, and the vibe of the party was off somehow, just a little too loud, a little too many people crammed in. It felt like there was anger or something simmering just below the surface. Frank would have bet money, if he had any, that a fight would break out before the night was over.
He turned out to be right, and it happened even sooner than he thought, not an hour after he walked in the door. He didn’t see what happened, but LynZ was in the hall just coming back from the kitchen when it started in front of her. She got out of the way in time. The guy who started it got hauled out and took off, but the bad feeling didn’t disperse from there. By midnight, Frank was ready to go home.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” LynZ asked him.
“Are you sure you want to stay?” Frank asked in return. “I just have a bad feeling about this, Lynz.”
“I’m heading back with Matt. He’ll keep me safe. I wish you’d stick around, so we could give you a lift.”
“I’m good,” Frank said. “I kind of want to walk a bit, clear my head.”
She looked dubious, but she’d known him long enough to know that sometimes, Frank just needed space, time to be alone in his head. While he loved his mom, living with her was starting to take its toll on his psyche.
He and Lynz had talked about getting an apartment together, but even with their jobs, they couldn’t afford it, not even in the shittier part of town. They tried to put most of their money toward school and their family bills. Anything left over went to their bikes and, on rare, blessed occasions, to getting more tattoos.
They were lucky, or maybe just smart, because LynZ had befriended a tattoo artist while they were still in high school. They dated for a short while, and she even lost her virginity to him. They were off as much as they were on, but without much of the drama that usually accompanied that kind of relationship, and through it all, they maintained a steady, solid friendship.
Matt had a soft spot for them both, though, and when Frank turned sixteen, Matt gave him a sketch for his birthday, along with a promise that on his eighteenth birthday, he’d get it again, but as a tattoo. Same thing on his seventeenth birthday and for both Christmases, so Frank already had a decent amount of ink in his skin. LynZ got the same, plus one or two extras. Frank had once half-jokingly offered to fuck Matt in turn for ink too. He’d been soundly rejected.
“He’s talking about getting a motorcycle,” LynZ said. “Given he’s the only person more accident-prone than you, I can only imagine how quickly that will lead to disaster.”
Matt appeared just then, and he and LynZ hugged Frank goodbye. By the way they looked at each other, Frank figured their relationship was currently set to “on.”
If Frank had known that he wouldn’t get to hang out with her for several weeks, he’d have taken her up on the offer for the drive home. He’d known her schedule was going to be crazy, but the volunteering and the training for the race took up what little free time she had left. Gone were the trips on the bike trails. Now whenever LynZ mounted up, it was full-speed the entire time. She was still LynZ, still great, but her language was peppered with more and more BMX slang, and Frank couldn’t help but feel left out.
At first, Frank spent some time down at the skate park working on his wheelies and slides, but while he was friendly with a lot of the guys down there, he always felt a bit like an outsider, thanks to his stupid lungs. He missed LynZ. Though he got a few minutes here and there chat with her, it just wasn’t the same. She was distracted and stressed out.
He chatted with Dewees, but he was itching to get out and do some of the verts. Frank wasn’t really in the mood by that time, so he said his goodbyes and took off.
He was scheduled for a shift later that evening and then had a combination of work and class for the next five days which would effectively mean not seeing anyone during that time. He was pretty bummed they couldn’t spend it together.
Still looking for something to do, He pedaled down to see Matt at his shop. Derek was sitting behind the counter, feet up and on the phone, so he waved Frankie on back. Dan’s door in the backroom was closed, but Frank could hear his distinctive lisp, so he was probably in with a customer. Frank spent a few minutes watching Matt finish up an anchor tattoo on some old dude, but the guy kept giving him dirty looks. With all of them busy, he decided to take off again. He was restless and he just wanted to ride before the weather got too crappy.
No one had seen or heard anything more about the crazy dude in the woods, and police and rangers hadn’t found anything up there. They’d closed down the trail, but after a few weeks, it was open again.
Frank debated for a few moments, but if he was honest, it was decided the moment he thought of it. He didn’t need LynZ with him, even if it was their thing. He’d hit the trail by himself.
And it was awesome, actually. Still largely abandoned by the runners, Frank didn’t see another living soul for a few miles. He pedaled hard and enjoyed the burn in his legs and lungs, muscles straining to push him as far as he could go. He hit the clearing, and while there was really no reason to do so--maybe it was even wiser to get through as quickly as possible-- Frank slowed down, finally hopping off his bike to walk it.
It was a nice day. The sun was warm, and he’d worked up a decent sweat, but he was comfortable, his body loose and thrumming with the endorphins from working out. Frank stretched and reveled in it, eyes slitting closed in pleasure. He quickly opened them and looked around, but he didn’t see any sign of human habitation aside from where a shoe had scraped at the moss on a rock near the edge of the trail.
He got back on his bike and started pedaling again.
Frank was still going slowly, though, and despite knowing how stupid it was, he came to a complete stop at the fork in the trail, looking into the dark underbrush, searching for a sign that the guy had been around. He thought he saw something and leaned in, just as something moved behind the tree right next to him.
Frank yelped and flailed. Somehow, he twisted and got caught up in his own bike and the thick undergrowth. He went down hard, falling straight onto the path, somehow managing to land mostly on his back, but he felt the sickening way his ankle twisted up in something and knew with a sinking feeling that he was hurt.
And he really needed to get away from the thing--the guy staring at him from where he clung to a low branch in the tree with his legs, eyes wide and pale, with a crude knife in his hand.
The air shivered, and the guy’s head cocked slightly, listening, but Frank couldn’t hear anything except his own breathing.
“Don’t hurt me,” Frank croaked out, even as the guy grunted and put his knife back in the sheath strapped to his side. He swung out from the tree, where it looked like there was a crude stand, and came padding silently over to loom over Frank.
“Oh god, oh shit, oh fuck,” Frank said, but the guy bent down and looked at Frank curiously.
Frank took a deep breath and looked back, bracing himself on his hands, ready to bolt.
“You’re hurt,” the guy said.
Up close, he was really pale, with dark, dirty tangled hair and brown eyes. His beard was actually one of the most ridiculous things Frank had ever seen, scraggly and a piss poor showing for a crazy hermit. He had the bow slipped over his shoulder, and up close, Frank could see that it was hand-carved, slightly crude but definitely serviceable, especially with the arrows sticking out of the quiver strapped to his back.
The guy ran a careful finger down over Frank’s sock, then pulled it back. “Such fine cloth,” he murmured. Frank risked sitting up on his elbows and watching. He realized now, at least, that the guy wasn’t going to hurt him, at least not yet.
He carefully tugged at the shoe on Frank’s foot and unlaced it, looking in obvious awe at the shoe before returning to his examination.
The ankle didn’t seem too bad, but when the Guy put pressure on the ankle, Frank yelped. Further examination, as well as Frank’s own experience with accidents, found it swollen, but not broken. That was something of a relief, but still.
“You can’t walk without assistance,” the guy said. “Can you ride that thing?”
Frank looked at his bike and sighed. “Not back into town, I can’t. Not today.”
“Hmmm.” The guy went over and touched the handle bars. The air seemed to shimmer around the bike. The handles were clear, lying in the shadow of the tree, but the part in the sun took on a kind of haze, like seeing it through a window that hadn’t been washed for a while. The guy tugged at the bike, but the bike wouldn’t budge. When he tried to twist it or lift, it wouldn’t move. It was stuck.
He finally sat back on his heels, staring at it.
“This happens sometimes,” he said finally, turning to Frank. “It usually lasts only for a few days, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to get you home just yet.”
“What do you mean?” Frank asked. “What’s going on?”
“It’s the fairy ring. It’s why I’m stuck here.”
“Here?” Frank asked. “In this wood?”
The guy nodded, biting his lip. “And here, in this time.”
Frank was simply unwilling to accept that they were stuck until he tried it for himself, so after hobbling forward, cursing the entire way, and attempting to pick up his bike, he then tried to throw himself against what was essentially, a mostly invisible wall. It wasn’t that Frank felt anything. He just couldn’t move any further forward. He landed painfully on his ankle.
“Careful,” the guy fretted. “Please don’t hurt yourself any worse.”
Frank glared at him, forgetting for a moment to be scared.
“It’s like trying to jump,” the guy said. “Like, you know how you can try as you might, but you can only jump so high before you fall? There’s nothing pushing you down. You just can’t get past it.”
“Gravity,” Frank said.
The guy looked blank.
“Gravity. It’s the earth’s pull, what keeps us earthbound instead of just floating away. You know, like we learned in school?”
“I didn’t go to school,” he said with some longing. “Papa promised me I would get an education eventually, but I got stuck here.”
Frank blinked. “Okay, so how did you get stuck here?”
“I walked through the fairy ring.”
“Right,” Frank said. His head was reeling. “That makes sense.”
“I didn’t believe in fairies,” the guy said. “I’m still not sure I do because I haven’t seen them, but I am here, in this world of theirs, I guess. So they’re probably real, right?”
Frank had no idea what to say to that. “So what do we do now?”
The guy came over and crouched near Frank and sighed. “I can try to make a splint of some sort,” he said doubtfully, “and maybe we could get a stick to help you walk?”
This proved to be no good, though, so finally, he grabbed Frank’s arm and dipped under it, hauling him up. Frank yelped, and a fresh layer of sweat broke out over his body from the pain.
“Nothing for it, we just have to hop it out and get you to my shelter,” he said.
They hopped along--or, well, Frank did, looking back over his shoulder every few minutes until the clearing was well out of sight, and his bike long since gone. The woods created a canopy over them, almost as if it were a cathedral in the forest. Light got through in a few spots, but it was dark, cool and still. Nothing stirred, and no birds sang in the trees. It was only them.
“It’s so quiet,” Frank said. “I can practically hear my ankle throbbing.”
The guy looked at him, wide-eyed. Up close, his eyes were pretty, and his skin was pale. Frank wondered at what point he stopped being afraid of him, but he remembered this guy aiming an arrow at him, shooting at LynZ.
“Why did you shoot at us?” Frank asked.
“You startled me,” he said, looking shifty and a little guilty. “You came so fast on your wagon-thing, and I was scared.”
Frank blinked again. “It’s a bike. A bicycle. You’ve never seen one before?”
“They don’t have them when I’m from.”
“When--?” Frank asked and stopped. “Did I take a blow to the head?”
The guy stopped suddenly, almost pitching them over as he checked over Frank’s head. “I don’t see any lumps or blood, but the men in my village would sometimes say they felt nauseous or were hallucinating. Are you seeing something odd? Are you feeling okay? Apart from your ankle, I mean.”
Frank felt around his own head. There were no lumps, but he had to be hallucinating. Still, the guy seemed tangible enough; Frank decided to see how it played out, real or not. Not like he had a choice.
“So when are you from?” he asked.
“I was born the year of our lord, 1777,” he said, “to Mr. and Mrs. Donald Way. I was born the same year we won our freedom from England. My papa said I was the first person in our family born free.”
“And what’s your name?” Frank asked, feeling very faint.
“Gerard Way, at your service. Forgive me for not bowing, but I don’t want to drop you.”
“Thanks,” Frank said. “I’m Frank. Frank Iero.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
“And you as well. Though, call me Frank. And welcome to the 21st Century.”
There was a small clearing coming up. Frank could see how it was nearly circular with the path continuing on the other side. As they neared, Franksaw the mushrooms growing all around in a nearly perfect circle. Instead of walking straight through, Gerard turned them to skirt around it.
“Don’t step in the fairy ring,” Gerard said. “It’s what started this whole mess.”
“I don’t understand. How does a ring of mushrooms cause you to get stuck in a...time...loop thing?”
“I don’t know,” Gerard said, grunting. It was a warm day, not too hot, especially in the woods where they were, but both of them were sweating from the exertion. Frank was in a lot of pain. He didn’t really think Gerard would hurt him now, but things were getting a bit fuzzy in his head. This whole time travel thing couldn’t be true, could it? But then, he saw and felt the effects of the force-field wall thingy. Unless it was a concussion. It had to be.
What if Gerard was taking him back to do unspeakable things and then kill him?
“It’s magic. I don’t know that I really think it’s fairies, per se, but I just know that I stepped into the ring, and everything disappeared. When everything stopped spinning around, I was here.”
He stopped near a rock and carefully set Frank down. “I gotta rest.”
Frank nodded. “Resting, resting is good.”
They both took a minute to catch their breath as Frank stared at the circle. Maybe it was just Gerard’s story affecting him, but the circle did seem to exude an aura of magic. It looked really dark, especially in the middle, but then, mushrooms liked dark, damp places, right? That’s what fungus did?
“So I’m guessing you tried walking back through it again to return to your time?”
Gerard looked at him with a faintly scornful expression. “Of course. As you can see, it didn’t work.”
“But you warned me away, so something happened, right?”
“I have a--well, it’s a guess, mind you, based only on my experience, but--I think it spins every single time someone or something walks through it. Not just me, but in other times and places.”
“Have you ever encountered anyone else from the circle?”
“Not from inside it, no. You are the first person to be trapped in with me, which is odd, but I figure, as long as you don’t go into the circle, when the bubble opens you’ll be able to get back out in your own time.”
“You said it--spins. What do you mean by that?”
“It’s like a sundial, almost,” Gerard said. “But we’re standing on the sundial, and the rest spins around the outside of the bubble. It’ll--well, you might get a chance to see. It seems to happen every time the bubble closes.”
“So, if you’re from way back when, how come you talk so modern?” Frank asked.
Gerard shrugged. “I stepped into the ring when I was ten. From there, I’ve learned most of what I know from the different times I’ve been in. Most often, I’m in this time zone. I try to stay away from people, but I do hear things. Voices carry in the woods, I hear you and the girl a lot. And there’s one place, I guess it’ll be years from now, where this area has buildings and things, though the bubble itself is in a park.”
He stepped forward and offered his hand to Frank. “You ready to go?”
“Don’t you think I should just wait by the edge of the bubble, so as soon as it opens, I can get out?”
Gerard shook his head. “It might not be for several days, and you’re injured. I can’t leave you alone.”
He shook his hand impatiently, indicating Frank should grab it. Frank did and let Gerard pull him up. For a second, they stood very close together, face-to-face, and Frank saw something flicker there, an...eagerness, maybe? That made him a bit nervous, but it was gone quickly enough that Frank doubted himself. Then again, this whole situation was remarkably weird.
He put weight down on his ankle without thinking and hissed at the pain, almost falling over. Gerard caught him. “Steady, now. I’ve gotcha.”
“Right where you want me,” Frank murmured, and Gerard looked surprised and maybe, Frank thought fuzzily, a little bit guilty.
“Sorry, the pain is just getting to me. I’m still not sure I don’t have a head injury.”
Gerard looked into his eyes. “Your eyes look normal, and you’re not nauseous, are you?”
Frank shook his head. “Not unless I put weight on my ankle.”
“Are you seeing double?”
Again, he shook his head no.
“Then you probably don’t have to worry about your head,” Gerard said. “Let’s get out of here. It’s buzzing, so we need to be away from the ring.”
And once he said that, Frank heard it, too, like a bee nearby, almost out of his hearing range--but not quite.
They hobbled along the path awkwardly a short distance, almost tripping over each other, upraised roots, and anything else that got in their way.
“You can kind of see the edge through there,” Gerard said and pointed to the left through the trees. The buzzing got louder, and without exactly meaning to, Frank steered them in that direction.
“Okay, so you might want to sit down for this.” Gerard helped him down onto the grass and threw himself down beside him.
Frank could see where the edge was, and as they watched, it grew far more distinct, colors licking up the edges like flames, almost.
“It looks like the aurora borealis,” Frank said.
“Northern lights. Near the north pole. I’ve seen pictures,” Frank said. “Near the poles, the air is thinner, and it’s kind of like what makes lightning in a storm. All these particles rub together creating a kind of friction. It’s like a really cool, celestial light show.”
Gerard nodded. “The Lenape tell stories, ones they’ve gotten from other clans to the north, about things like that.” He looked sad. “I don’t see any Indians, these days.”
“That’s because we whites killed them off,” Frank said softly. “I mean, they do exist, but--not nearly like they did.”
“They weren’t the savages most people thought them to be,” Gerard said. “A lot of them died because of illness in my day. But then, everyone did, back then. You all seem... healthy.”
“In a manner of speaking. The joys of modern medicine,” Frank agreed. “It has its limits, of course. We still get sick, we still die, but we have eradicated entire diseases, like smallpox.”
“So what’s this from, then?” he asked, touching the scar on Frank’s nose.
“Chicken pox. They’ve just recently come up with a cure for that. I had it as a kid.”
The lights changed, and the world suddenly felt like it tilted, the ground shaking, stopping all further conversation. Frank grabbed a handful of roots and scrub on either side, holding on tight, as nausea swept over him. Regardless of what Gerard had said, it felt like they were the ones spinning, not the world outside. It took a few seconds for Frank to open his eyes, but when he did, it was terrifying and amazing, all at once.
Worlds flashed past, sometimes spinning too fast for him to see the difference, mostly woodland, nothing much happening. Once, a hand seemed to come at them, almost as if pressed against glass, but it disappeared after a few seconds.
The image seemed to pause occasionally, showing a tree toppling as it was cut down, which made Frank’s heart ache, and then, for several minutes, stopped, showing a much darker, colder time. There were no leaves on the trees, a bit of snow on the ground, and after a few minutes, a man came into view. He was dressed like the pictures in Frank’s history books, all suede and doeskin, with some fur around his boots. But seeing it live made it seem a lot more real. His clothes were dingy, especially around his boots and cuffs, and he carried a pack on his back, along with a long, primitive-looking rifle. He stood and stared straight at them, holding a hand out for a moment.
Gerard’s pained noise caught Frank’s attention. “Can he see us?” Frank asked.
Gerard shook his head. “No, but I think--I hope--he knows we’re here.”
“Who is it? Do you know him?”
“That’s my brother. Michael.”
“You should try going through,” Frank said. “I’ll be fine, go!”
“I can’t,” Gerard said. “I’ve tried.”
Gerard gave him a look but stood up, resigned. He lifted up a hand and pushed, and for a second, it seemed like he was going to go through, and Michael’s hand looked like it came closer. Gerard gasped, his fingers flexing, and they touched for just a moment before they were each thrown back. Frank had just a moment to see the excitement and wonder in Michael’s eyes before he was gone, whirled away as the time changed again.
“I was so close, so damn close!” Gerard yelled and hit the ground hard with his fist. Tears spilled over his eyes, and he wiped them away angrily, glaring at Frank.
Frank held up his hands, carefully. “I’m sorry, I--”
Gerard took several deep breaths. “No, I’m sorry. I should be-- I felt it. I felt his hand and touched him, just for a minute. I touched him, Frankie!”
Frank smiled. “He felt it, too. I could see his face! He knows you’re alive.”
Gerard raised his head hopefully. Maybe it was the fact that he called him Frankie, or maybe the big eyes brimming with excitement, but Frank felt a flutter in his chest, a sense of--relief, maybe. Hope. And belief. Definitely belief.
“You’ll get back to him someday,” he said.
That hope carried them the rest of the way to Gerard’s home. Well, it wasn’t much of a home, honestly, but Gerard had done what he could to make it comfortable, given it was a run-down shack.
He’d shored up the walls and roof with new boards, though, and while there was no glass in the single window, there were hides hanging up over it, tacked in place with rusty old nails. There was a stinky pile of clothes in the corner and a makeshift bed against one wall, along with an old wood burning stove. This had a few old (and very dirty) pots and pans on it.
“I was lucky whoever was here last left this stuff,” Gerard said.
Frank started really admiring Gerard’s ability when he saw the outhouse. Granted, it was an outhouse and therefore disgusting in a way that transcended even the worst porta-potty he’d ever seen even before he opened the door, but Gerard talked about how he’d shovel in fresh dirt periodically.
“Of course, I just pee against the nearest tree, usually.”
“What happens when it fills up?” Frank wondered how long he could go without using it. With a feeling of faint dread, he realized he probably wouldn’t be able to hold out.
“I fill it in and dig a new one elsewhere.”
Gerard had managed to build a sort of makeshift seat, too. The logistics of it all had Frank’s face burning, but Gerard was strangely matter-of-fact about his bodily habits. It also raised another question for Frank.
“Wait, so you’ve been here how long, now?”
“I was ten when I crossed the fairy ring, and I think I’ve seen...” he counted on his fingers. “Fourteen summers.”
“You’ve been living on your own in the woods since you were ten,” Frank repeated. “Fourteen years. That’s. Damn, that’s amazing.”
It was sad, too, but Frank didn’t point that out. He didn’t need to.
“I feel like a ghost,” Gerard said, finally speaking again. “That’s how I feel, like I’m out of time and place, like there are all these sort of faded shapes around me that used to be my family, but I’m the one that’s the ghost.”
There was also a little garden out back, overgrown. Frank was delighted to find that Gerard could make a passable meal with vegetables since Frank couldn’t eat meat. Gerard seemed utterly confounded by this, but he said, “There was a guy with the Lenape like that, once. We called him Bad Belly.”
“Was that his Indian name?”
Gerard shook his head, smiling a little. “Nope, that was just his nickname.”
Frank felt foolish. “I knew that,” he mumbled.
Gerard laughed a dorky honking laugh that, despite being in pain and exhausted, Frank couldn’t help but join in.
Three days in, Frank was going out of his mind. Gerard was really interesting for a guy who’d basically grown up feral and in the woods, but he was gone for hours at a time doing his hunting and gathering thing, mostly gathering since there was no game in the bubble. He’d found a good tree branch and made Frank a kind of cane. Between that and the brace they’d cobbled together using old rags and a few smaller branches, Frank was managing to keep off his ankle pretty well, but he couldn’t hobble far, which meant he was confined to the area in front of the shack and about the range to the outhouse and back.
Frank was getting tired of awkwardly peeing against trees and the smelly latrine with Gerard’s questionable rags. He found a weird, oversized bag that had a few a few small holes and, picking up the clothes gingerly between one finger and thumb, dropped them into it. To this, he added all the other materials in the shack, shuddering for about the fiftieth time when he thought of all the spiders that were probably everywhere in there, including the tattered blanket Gerard used, and what few clothes he had.
There was a small stream that ran near the back of the shack, little more than a trickle in some places, but it was enough for fresh water. Frank hobbled downstream with the reeking bag hitting his thigh with every awkward step, cursing all the way, until he found a place that was wide enough for him to wade into and dunk the clothes, but shallow enough to be easily navigable. He took off his shoes, wincing, and tucked his socks into the bag as well, and gingerly stepped in.
The cool water felt good swirling around his feet, especially his swollen ankle. Frank sat on a rock that was in the middle of the stream, not caring that it was soaking through his jeans, and set the bag down in the water.
It moved slowly enough that he wasn’t worried about the material drifting off. Where he was, there was almost a mini pool that swirled around itself. Using his cane to secure the bag between two rocks, Frank quickly stripped down.
He washed out his own clothes as best he could without soap, and laid them out to dry on the grass and bushes nearby. Then, still naked, he dumped out the rest of the laundry, studiously not thinking about what he was touching when he cleaned several of the rags. Frank would not have been surprised to see cartoon stink lines radiating from them. He gagged a few times.
Finally, the laundry part was done, and Frank could luxuriate in cleaning himself. Without shampoo, his hair was still going to be a greasy mess, but just the act of splashing water around on his body made him feel so much better.
Using one of the now mostly clean, non-latrine rags, he scrubbed it over his body, dreaming of body wash.
He was bent forward with his head submerged in the water, trying to scrub his hair, when he felt the air shift and heard a bit of a noise. Sitting up, he reached for his cane and cursed the fact that he hadn’t at least left his underpants on in his determination to clean up a bit.
There was a crashing sound coming through the forest.
“Gerard?” he called, his heart pounding.
And then Gerard came around the house, calling his name, but he wasn’t alone. LynZ and Matt were with him.
And for a minute, Frank didn’t care that he was naked, he waved and struggled up the small bank, which wasn’t nearly so shallow when he was trying to climb without putting weight on his ankle, and they were running toward him.
“Frankie, oh wow, you’re all right. You’re alive!”
“You’re naked,” Matt observed. “Don’t forget naked!”
LynZ grabbed him in a bear hug, pulling him off-balance.
“Careful, he’s hurt,” Gerard said anxiously. “See, I told you I didn’t hurt him!”
“Why are you naked?” Matt asked.
LynZ pulled back carefully, steadying him. “Yes, why are you naked?”
“I was bathing and doing laundry,” Frank said.
She blinked for a moment, then laughed.
“Is that my blanket?” Gerard asked, looking at the faded, holey thing on the ground.
“Yes,” Frank said. “I cleaned it as best I could.”
Gerard looked surprised.
“And as soon as we get back to town, I’m totally buying you a new one. And some clothes. And soap. After I get a real shower,” Frank said, almost dreamily. “And my mother’s cooking. Oh God, my mother! She must be shitting herself. I’ve been worried about her.”
“Yes, that’s obvious,” LynZ said, eyebrows drawing together like thunderclouds, but Matt interrupted. “Frankie, your ankle.”
“It’s sprained. Gerard helped me back here when we couldn’t get out of the woods.”
“Why didn’t you stay on the path? We would have found you days ago! Or Gerard should have come got us.”
“We couldn’t get through,” Frank said. “Didn’t you feel it?”
“It was like a force field or something. We tried to get through, but we couldn’t.”
Matt and LynZ exchanged looks.
“I told you there was something fishy about that area,” Matt said. “Remember? I said, Linds, there’s something weird about that area. Why don’t we go explore it? And you said, ‘What area?’ and I said, ‘The one where the cop said not to go.’ and you said, ‘We looked there already.’ and I said, ‘No, we didn’t’ and you said, ‘Yes, we did.’”
LynZ raised an eyebrow. “If that was the case, why didn’t you see his bike right away? It was totally a different area.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Matt said, and then Gerard stepped in. “It does that, sometimes. It’s magical, this place, and it doesn’t want you to see.”
Matt and LynZ both turned to look at Gerard, obviously skeptical, so Frank started talking.
“In any case, I’m mostly okay, except for my ankle and not being able to get out for a while, but the way is open, right? You got in, so that means we can all get out.”
“Excellent point, Frankie. Hey, I’m going to go back and get some police or someone to come help. We’ll need a stretcher or something up here.”
Frank groaned at the idea of going down that path on a stretcher. “Just get some crutches, and I’ll hobble down. I’m getting used to it, I swear. And send word to my mom that I’m okay, like, before you do anything else,” Frank said. “Oh god, she’s going to kill me.”
Matt was already loping off, his long legs carrying him from them fast. “Don’t step into the fairy ring, no matter what,” Gerard called after him anxiously. But he didn’t offer to go with Matt, and after three days, Frank didn’t really blame him. Gerard was leery of the uniforms of the police. In his mind, red or blue, they made no difference—a uniform meant a British soldier and in Gerard’s time, that meant enemy.
“Right now she’s out of her mind with worry,” LynZ said, “But yeah, she’s going to wring your scrawny neck for being up here when there’s a deranged lunatic on the loose.”
Frank looked at Gerard and back to LynZ, eyebrow raised. LynZ flushed. “Sorry, I mean--I can see you’re not really a deranged lunatic. Is he?” she added, sotto voce to Frank.
“Nope, just kind of...stuck here.” He turned to Gerard. “I hope you don’t mind that I washed everything. I figure we’ll get you new stuff in town.”
Gerard had wandered into the stream, grimacing at the water, and started gathering everything up. He handed Frank’s clothes, still dripping wet, to him.
“Better put those on,” he said. He’d managed to look everywhere but directly at Frank, except his eyes were drawn to Frank’s tattoos. Frank flushed and took them and didn’t look at LynZ.
Gerard, Frank had discovered over the past three days, really liked art. He drew things all the time in the dirt, and there were a few pictures he’d managed, faded with ink made from the trees and bark and such, lying around. He was really good at it, too.
Gerard set off with the rest of the wet laundry in his arms, grimacing about the cold water dripping down, and began to drape the items over low-hanging tree branches to dry. The day was warm, but Frank didn’t relish putting on wet jeans of any temperature, so he kept to his underwear, t-shirt, and shoes without the socks.
“Why does he live out here alone like this?” LynZ asked.
“He has to,” Frank said. “Because of his brother.” And that was something else Frank had learned in the past three days, Gerard wouldn’t leave the circle for too long, afraid that he’d get stuck in the current time stream and never return to his brother.
Frank thought it was tragic, and he and Gerard had wracked their brains trying to figure out a way to get Gerard back.
Gerard was a great person to be stuck in a shack with, the stench and lack of housekeeping notwithstanding. He could tell stories that were fascinating to listen to, and the descriptions of life held in the colonies, told through the lens of when he was 10 years old, were utterly compelling.
“I think we’ll be lucky if we can even get him into town,” Frank said.
LynZ looked from Frank to where he was watching Gerard toss the last of the clothes on a bush and stalk into the house.
“We should start walking away. I don’t want the cops and everyone to descend on him,” Frankie realized. “It’s too much, and I don’t want them to think he’s crazy or force him out of here.”
“He’s the guy that shot at us, Frank.”
“He was scared of our bicycles,” Frank said.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, but that still sounds crazy.”
“Well, obviously, he didn’t do any harm to me, and he helped me, so just--Lindsay, I’ve spent three days with him. Can you just trust me right now? I’ll tell you all about it when we get home, and I have a proper cast, and Mom has fed me.”
Frank hobbled around the front of the shack. Gerard was sitting where he’d spent a lot of his time when he wasn’t off gathering and hunting, in a chair made of twigs woven and tied together.
“We’re going to head that way, so we don’t bring the cops here,” Frank said. “But I wanted to say goodbye and promise I’ll visit. Don’t shoot at us, okay?”
Gerard smiled, but he couldn’t hide the sadness behind it. Frank was reminded again that, despite him being a grown man, he’d grown up for all intents and purposes, alone. In many ways, he still had the innocence and demeanor of a ten year old.
“It’ll be good to be with your family again,” he said.
“Someday, I’m going to come visit, and you’ll be gone,” Frank said. “And I’ll be sad, but I’ll also know that you’ll be with your family, too. It’ll happen, Gerard. I know it.”
“I hope you’re right, Frankie, and I’ll tell Mikey the story about the elves and the prince and the one ring that ruled them all. He’ll love it.”
“He totally will,” Frank said. He gave Gerard a hug, which startled him, but Gerard hugged back enthusiastically, clinging for quite a while.
“It’ll probably be a few weeks before I can get up here again,” Frank said, “What with my ankle and all, but I’ll come visit as often as I can. And I’ll bring you some new supplies. You need them.”
“Okay. Goodbye, Frankie.”
Of course, it just couldn’t have been that simple.
It took them a long time to reach the edge of the clearing, long enough that LynZ started fretting that they should have seen signs of help by now. “I hope Matt didn’t get lost. Did we actually see his tracks? Are you sure he went this way?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a tracker,” Frank said shortly, winded from hobbling along and trying not to hurt himself even more than he already was. It was late afternoon, almost dusk, and the darkness in the woods was starting to play tricks with his eyes. Truth be told, he was freaking out a bit, too, because just after they’d started walking, he’d heard a flock of birds in the trees singing to each other, but they’d gone silent all at once and flown away.
The fairy ring had seemed to hum when they walked past. LynZ hadn’t noticed, but Frank had felt it pulling at their legs.
He kept thinking of the way Gerard felt when they hugged goodbye, even his rank, unwashed smell, and how familiar that had become. The words kept tripping in his mind, the way Gerard had said, “I’m a ghost.” And as much as he wanted to go home, he couldn’t help feeling like he should turn back.
“I don’t think we’re going to get out of here,” Frank said. “Not tonight.”
LynZ turned sharply. “What do you mean?”
From behind them, Frank heard a twig crack. He stiffened for a moment, but just the night before, Gerard had demonstrated how silent he could be moving through the woods, even with dead leaves and dried tree branches beneath them. He wasn’t sneaking up on them.
“Gerard?” he asked, turning.
Gerard called back and a moment later, stepped around a tree. He had his bow with him, and a quiver of arrows that Frank had watched him make, sitting around the fire. In the late afternoon light, he looked far more like the hunter they’d seen aiming at them than the smiling face that Frank had become familiar with.
“I was going to hunt,” he said. “Bring in some food, but. I’m afraid we might be stuck again. I’m sorry.”
Frank shrugged. “Well, we might as well go see.”
LynZ stared at Gerard suspiciously.
“Here,” Gerard said and took off bow and arrows. “You can hold these if you like. I’ll help Frankie.”
She took them and, after some hesitation, slung them over her shoulder. “Okay,” she said, and Frank lifted his arm for Gerard to slide under. Gerard shook his head and crouched in front of Frank. “Ride me.”
LynZ choked. Frank glared at her, sending her mental shut up vibes, despite his cheeks getting hot. He was suddenly very glad of the dark as he slung his bad leg over Gerard’s waist and awkwardly hopped on.
Gerard managed to grab Frank’s thighs and hoisted him up, grunting. “I’m too heavy,” Frank fretted.
“You’re fine,” Gerard said firmly. “I carry deer like this all the time, and that’s dead weight.”
Frank laughed in a combination of amusement and horror. “At least I’m not that, right?”
“Right.” He started walking, and LynZ fell in beside him, falling back when the path got narrow.
“So why don’t we go sit on the edge, like we did before?” Frank asked. “If it’s closed up again, shouldn’t we start spinning, soon?”
Gerard shook his head. “It only spins if someone walks across the ring, I think, somewhere, in some time. Who knows, maybe it’s every fairy ring, even?”
“You’d think this would be like, common knowledge or something,” Frank said. “Time traveling fairy rings.”
“It used to be, in old folklore,” LynZ said, speaking up from behind them. “Is that--wait, are you saying Gerard came through the fairy ring?”
“That’s what happened,” Gerard confirmed, slightly out of breath.
“I saw some things with my own eyes, LynZ, you’d never believe it.”
“I--I’m not sure I believe it because he talks too much like a modern person, but it’s something I’ve been studying in our folklore class,” she said. “We were talking about fairy tales, and the far darker side that we don’t see thanks to Disney, or whatever. And according to many of the legends, a mortal who has stepped into the ring must be plucked from the outside.”
Frank felt Gerard pause. He shifted Frank’s weight slightly, but the wave of unease crashed over all of them.
“Which is all great in theory, but rather more difficult when it’s like a wall you can’t get through.”
They walked in silence for a while, or rather, Gerard and LynZ walked. Frank clutched onto Gerard’s back and ducked lower-hanging branches, though Gerard was really good about avoiding most of them. Frank hunkered down and put his chin on Gerard’s shoulder as the path got more narrow and overgrown.
The sense of unease Frank had crashed over him suddenly. “We’ve been thinking the fairy ring is the one we passed, back there, but it’s not the only ring, is it?”
“What do you mean?” LynZ asked.
“It’s a ring within a ring. We’re already in it.”
There was nothing to do but to finish the trek to the edge of the clearing where the paths forked. There, they found Matt, perched on his bike, dirty, bruised, and staring out at people milling around. “I got out. I got well down the path, and it was just like--someone grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and reeled me back in,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get out again, but I keep getting pulled back in.”
LynZ stared at them and then strode forward. On her fifth step, she hit the divide and was pushed back in.
Despite the gravity of their situation, or maybe he’d just had enough of the entire thing, he couldn’t help but giggle at the impression as she kept trying to walk, but went nowhere. “You look like a mime, LynZ.”
“You try, then,” she said.
“We all already have.”
“So we’re all stuck.”
“There’s one bright spot, maybe. I borrowed someone’s phone and called your mom, Frankie. I told her we found you, and you’re only slightly injured, and where you were. So at least she knows you’re okay-ish?”
Frank was relieved. “Doesn’t really help me get back to her or any of our families, though.”
“And now we’re going to be three disappearances,” LynZ added. “Oh dear, what will happen if people start descending on this place? Will they all just keep crowding in here?”
Gerard shook his head. “Most people have what you all described back there, where they can’t even see it, even if they look right at it. I need to rest and put you down a bit, Frankie.”
He leaned down, and Frank got off his back. “Yeah, I was starting to get a cramp in my leg, but thank you for carrying me. And caring for me all this time.”
There was a humming sound and a rumble. The light changed and suddenly got a little bit brighter, matching the other side. Frank heard a bird tweet, the rustle of some leaves, and then the air was filled with the sound of crickets and other noises.
“You never realize how quiet it is until you hear how loud it is on the other side,” Gerard said. “The wall is up. For now.”
He stepped through and beckoned to them. “Best go home while you still can.”
“If it will let us get that far,” Matt said.
LynZ handed the bow and quiver over to Gerard and Frank hugged him again before he climbed awkwardly on his bike, still sitting there. “I think I can pedal one-footed.”
“Be careful,” Gerard said, and they were off, cycling over the packed dirt that Frank hadn’t seen in days.
He waved over his shoulder, and they sped home with the fear they wouldn’t make it. But they did. Frank hobbled into his house, dirty and worn out, and said hi to his mother. She didn’t respond.
“Mom?” he repeated. She went on clutching the phone in her hand, face pinched tight with worry, and Frank stood right in front of her. “Mom? Mom. Mom!” He tried touching her and discovered he couldn’t.
“Oh fuck, oh shit, oh fuck.”
For a second, he thought there was something wrong with her until the phone rang and she answered it, frowning at whoever else was on the line. His aunt, but the conversation. Frank listened, his heart breaking as she sounded so exhausted with worry about him.
“Yes, a friend called and said he was fine, just a sprained ankle, but the cops have not heard a thing, and his friends never came back, and-- yes, it’s so weird, right?”
Frank puttered around the house for a few minutes, picking up things and moving them, testing to see if he could make a racket big enough to grab her attention.
He spotted her grocery list pad on the refrigerator and found a pencil in a drawer. He scribbled, frantic: Mom. I’m alive and well, but crazy as it sounds, you can’t see me though I’m standing in front of you. Please stop worrying, I’ll figure a way out of this soon. I love you. I swear this isn’t a joke, and I hate that I’m hurting you. I’m sorry. But I promise, I’m not abandoning you.
P.S.: the weird magic thing got LynZ and Mattie, too.
The letters started to fade almost as soon as he was finished, and Frank wanted to beat his head in frustration. He was thirsty, so he got up and got some water. Even the running tap didn’t seem to draw her notice. The throbbing in his ankle got his attention, and he found some painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and leftover antibiotics stocked in the cupboard. He took the painkillers. Then, feeling the pull inevitably sucking him back, he decided to be prepared for it.
Down the hall in his small bedroom, he dug up his largest backpack. He tossed the medication in there, along with several changes of clothes, then stripped his blanket, found his spare set of sheets and an extra pillow. The pack wouldn’t fit everything, so he looped the pillow and blanket on top with a couple of his belts.
His mother was still on the phone, but her voice was rising. Frank paused to listen, gleaning from the conversation that it was LynZ’s mother, and she was worried because she couldn’t reach her daughter.
Frank listened until she hung up, then went in and tried to talk to her. She stilled, almost as if she could hear him, so he said, “Don’t worry, Mom. We’ve been stolen by the fairies, but we’ll be back soon. We’ll figure out a way out of this. Just don’t go up there on the path. Don’t cross the fairy ring, whatever you do.”
She had muted the television, and her head was cocked, her breathing shallow. “I love you, Mom, no matter what else happens. I’ll fix this, I promise.”
He tried to grab her hand, but she didn’t seem to notice. She sighed and turned the television off mute.
“I love you,” he repeated sadly. Although it wasn’t late, Frank was exhausted, so he went to enjoy what he feared might be the last night in his bed.
When he woke, he went into the bathroom to try and enjoy one last shower, at least.
Halfway through, the door to the bathroom flew open, and his mom walked in, gasping. “Frankie, where have you been? What--?”
He could barely see her through the condensation on the glass. He was about to grab a towel when she flung the glass door open and looked around, confused.
Mom, I’m here,” he said.
She looked right past him and went to turn off the water. He turned it back on. She turned it off.
He closed the shower door. She gasped again and touched the door between them. He turned the water off.
“I can see you through the glass, but you’re distorted,” she said. “Oh, Frankie, please tell me you’re not dead.”
“I’m definitely not dead yet,” he said. "And, I mean...I'm taking a shower? Do ghosts do that?"
She inhaled, sharply. “I can barely hear you,” she said. “How come this is happening? Is it--was that you, before, really? Did you say fairies?”
“I stepped into a fairy ring. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But I think it’s like what happened in the Pine Barrens with those disappearances a few years ago.”
“You were in the woods,” she said. “On the trail.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. I thought it was safe again. I was trapped up there for a few days. It’s like a force-field, kind of. Weird shit. I thought it let me out, but it seems it’s come with a catch.”
He paused a moment. "It sounds like I'm on crack."
She thumped her fist on the glass, but not hard enough to break it. “I should have known,” she said, laughing painfully. “Only you, child. Only you.”
“Well, and LynZ and Matt, too,” Frank said. “They came in after me. It’s not really a good idea because once you get in, it’s hard to get out.”
“The steam is fading. I’m having a hard time seeing you,” she said. “I wish I could hug you.”
“Well, I’m naked, so that might be awkward.”
She laughed. “Well, you’re still my baby boy, you know. You always will be.”
“I have to go back, but Mom, whatever else you think, believe this--I’ll fix this and come back to you. And tell LynZ’s mom, just in case she can’t, that I’ll bring her back, too.”
“I will, baby. Will do.” She paused, pressing a hand to the glass, and Frank pressed his fingers against it on the other side. “Now finish showering, and get out of there. You’re taking all the hot water.”
“I’m going to take some things with me,” Frank said. “Clothes.”
“Take some food. There’s stuff in the kitchen. And feed that girl, too. I’m headed over that way. I’ll bet her mother will need some comforting, and I will, too.”
“Mom, I love you. I can’t say it enough, I do.”
“I love you, too, baby. I love you, too.”
Thus, Frank found himself peddling toward LynZ’s house with a large backpack on, slowing him down. The painkillers were helping his ankle, but not much.
LynZ’s place was a madhouse of cops and her mother, hysterical. Frank’s mom had her arm around her, and LynZ stood by watching it all, looking helpless.
“She can’t see me,” LynZ said.
“Mine either, though I did manage to communicate via the wonders of steam.” He told her what happened, and LynZ grabbed his hand. “I need to get her into the bathroom.”
“You know we need to go back to the ring, right?” Frank asked her.
She nodded and looked at the backpack on his back. “Let’s go pack, I guess.”
It was amazing how no one seemed to notice items going missing and things being moved around. Cupboards were banged as LynZ dumped all of their medicine cabinet into a large duffel bag, and then cursing, she dug deep into the hall closet and pulled out a pair of crutches.
“They’re from when I was fourteen, so they should be perfect height for you now,” she said smirking. She deliberately avoided looking at where her mother was now ensconced on the couch, friends and family surrounding her. She’d quieted down, and Frank’s own mom was murmuring in her ear.
“Try talking to her,” Frank said quietly. “It sort of worked with my mom. Maybe they’ll both hear.”
The crutches were actually a little too short, fuck you very much, LynZ, but a far better cry than what he’d been working with. He thanked fuck that he hadn’t had the kind of break where his bone was sticking out, but planning for that, he decided they should try to stop at a store and get some first aid stuff, some real things, like gauze and wraps and shit. Gerard would maybe need them, someday. Frank was hoping he’d be back before too long, but he felt it best to be prepared.
LynZ quietly led him without a word out to their falling down shed that he hated going near because he was sure there were spiders.
“Put on your big boy panties,” she said and led him in to where the Ballatos inexplicably had a ton of camping gear.
She pulled out a tent and considered it, but put it away. “There’s the shack. But we should take some tools, like an ax and a hammer and nails.”
She grabbed the tool belt off the old dusty workbench and filled it, then strapped it around her waist. It was... “Kinda sexy,” Frank pronounced. “In a really scary kind of way.”
She laughed, and some of the pain around her eyes eased up just a little.
Matt showed up a few minutes later, looking way too cheerful. “I’m a fucking ghost,” he said. “Also, wow, awesome gear!”
He’d apparently decided to use his invisibility to raid a store. He was wearing the kind of backpack hardcore hikers used with a sleeping bad rolled in there and everything.
He was a bit short on clothes in his pack, but he more than made up for it with food. “I figured a few food items for the vegans among us would not go amiss.”
LynZ went inside and packed a couple of changes of clothes.
“Let’s go,” she said.
When they left, there was a cop standing there looking at the bikes, puzzled. Frank wasn’t sure what they should do, but he wandered off, saying something into his radio, and Matt and LynZ each grabbed theirs.
Frank couldn’t figure out how to put his crutches on his bike until Matt finally grabbed one and laid it across his handlebars. Frank did likewise and, wobbling from the weights of their packs and going slowly, they headed for Gerard.
It took a lot longer to get there than it would normally. Finally, Frank had to hop off his bike on the trail and let Matt and LynZ walk his bike between them and balance their own at the same time, while he hobbled up on his crutches.
It was well past mid-morning when they got to the clearing. They stopped and rested, drinking water that Matt had helpfully packed.
“I’m sorry I dragged you all into this,” Frank said. “And at the same time, I’m stupidly, selfishly glad that you’re with me.”
“It’s the adventure of a lifetime,” Matt said. “And it means I have the opportunity to finally prove once and for all, without competition or distraction, that I’m the man for LynZ.”
LynZ turned bright red. “My love is for Frankie, alas,” she said.
They managed to hold straight faces for about ten seconds before they laughed. Frank threw his water bottle at Matt, who picked it up and tossed it back.
Matt informed them cheerfully how awesome it was to walk into a store and pick up a bunch of items, stick them in a backpack and walk right out, in front of everyone.
“Anytime we can manage it, I’m heading to a store,” he said cheerfully.
“I wonder if it’s like the steam in the bathroom, and the cameras will pick you up.”
Matt shrugged. “Then at least they’ll know I’m alive.”
“Or the store will end up on Ghost Hunters,” LynZ said. “My mom thought I was a ghost. She’s convinced I’m dead.”
And yeah, that pretty much blew. Matt silently pulled out a red lollipop and offered it to her. She took it smiling a little.
“I stole it just for you.”
The rest of the journey was relatively easy in comparison, though the ring shivered around their bikes, like it was considering whether or not to reject them. Finally, though, they walked in and on, arriving at his little shack.
He wasn’t there, and Frank stood awkwardly, wondering what they should do.
“It just occurred to me that we’ve assumed we’re staying with him, but that’s a small shack,” Frank said. “We should have brought the tent.”
“We can use one of the blankets and create a makeshift one if we need to,” Matt said. “I was a boy scout once.”
“We’ll build our own,” LynZ said. “I have a hammer. How hard can it be?”
They settled in outside and built a small fire in the pit Gerard generally used rather than the one inside. LynZ and Matt went off to gather water in the bottles they’d already emptied, and Frank settled in, tending the fire and taking stock of what Matt had packed.
Crowing his joy at finding vegan marshmallows and hot chocolate and cursing when he realized not a single one of them thought to pack toilet paper, Frank repacked the bag, grabbed one of the two not strictly necessary items--his copy of Watchmen-- and settled in.
He’d barely made it past the first page when Gerard came into the clearing, holding his bow with an arrow nocked in front of him.
He dropped it as soon as he saw Frankie. “I thought you were going to stop shooting at me?”
Gerard grinned sheepishly. “I thought you were an intruder.” He saw all the packs and the bikes leaning against the shack. His eyes widened.
“Um, so, no one can see us. We’re like ghosts,” Frank said, using his crutches to pull himself up awkwardly. He hobbled toward Gerard.
“We’ll get this figured out and us all back home, but for now, Gerard, do you mind us staying? We brought supplies, and we’ll like, build our own shack thing, but--”
Gerard darted in and cut Frank off with a bone crushing hug. “I--you’re staying?”
“Yes,” Frank said. “We’re staying.”
“Good,” Gerard said. He pulled back when the others came back, bearing water and suspiciously smug faces. LynZ’s lipstick was a bit smeared, and Matt was wearing traces of it, along with a shit-eating grin.
Gerard dropped his stuff on the ground and sat down in his chair. He smiled, child-like, at all of them, eyes widening at the book Frank had left on the ground.
“What is this?” he said. When Frank handed it to him, Gerard’s eyes got almost impossibly big. “Oooh,” he said, turning the pages slowly. “Oh, this is lovely.”
Frank quietly pulled out the other two items he’d brought, both intentional gifts. One was a thick notebook he’d gotten in some bargain bin and never used, a thick, spiral-bound book with blank pages. The other items were a set of colored pencils, complete with a sharpener.
“And these are for you,” Frank said. Gerard bit his lip and looked teary-eyed. “We also brought some clothing, soap, and other forms of toiletries,” LynZ said. “Medicines as well, though I get the feeling Frankie will need those more than any of us, and blankets and pillows.”
“We forgot toilet paper, though,” Frank said.
Gerard shook his head. “What’s toilet paper?”
They settled in and started talking about their things while Gerard touched everything with wonder and a not a little joy at hot chocolate. “Do you have any tea? I make some tisanes, but I really miss a strong black tea.”
They all shook their heads. “But we did bring coffee.”
The smile on Gerard’s face was blinding.
Of course, Frank wasn’t there three days before he caught his first cold. Luckily, he and LynZ were both well-prepared and he took his medicine and spent a lot of time resting. Gerard, however, hovered anxiously every time he was around and insisted on lots of chicken noodle soup (“It comes in a can!”), his mouth white around the edges with worry every time Frank coughed. Frank felt terrible that he was keeping Gerard awake at night, and he kept trying to insist that Gerard stay away in case he got ill, too.
Gerard pointed out he hadn’t been ill in years.
“That’s because you haven’t been around people in years,” Frank pointed out.
Sure enough, Gerard caught Frank’s cold, and then they both got fed medicine and chicken soup, which prompted Matt to have to make another run back into town for more soup and theraflu. He brought back plenty of it, along with other supplies and a grim face. “They think we’re dead,” he said. “Not officially, yet, as they haven’t found any remains, but they’re having a vigil/memorial type thing. It’s...weird.”
“Are they going to come hunting for us?” Frank asked.
Matt shook his head. “The search has been called off, and the trail is being shut down, too, with penalties for trespassing. Basically, we’re on our own. It’s like that M. Night Shy Llama movie.”
Gerard looked confused, unsure if this was yet another reference he should ask about, or just let it go.
“We’ll explain later,” Frank said. “It’s a bit like Star Wars, only not nearly as cool.”
In two weeks, Gerard had transformed, in large part thanks to LynZ While he was convalescing, and unable to truly fight back, she’d worked wonders on his personal hygiene, insisting that he’d get healthy much faster if he wasn’t wallowing in his own filth.
He was reasonably clean and good-smelling, gone was the straggly beard and dirty, lank hair. She trimmed it up using a knife but left it shaggy around his face. He was also wearing a combination of his old stuff and modern clothes, finding LynZ’s jeans a bit tight, but otherwise a good fit. Matt’s were too tall and skinny, Frank’s too short.
He eschewed underwear, finding them too unwieldy, which left Frank with a bit of a conundrum, considering he couldn’t help noticing the bulge in Gerard’s pants, especially after he’d finally recovered from his cold.
He was preoccupied with this—or rather, the inappropriateness of noticing it at all, when LynZ called him out on it while they were tending the garden.
“Spill,” she said.
“He was ten when he came through, I mean--I’m guessing he knows the basics at least about sex, but um, I don’t know how much he knows?” Frank said to LynZ. He was making do with two wraps around his ankle, which was mostly healed, and he could finally breathe again through his nose.
Frank hobbled along after LynZ. Together, they knelt and started digging up some potatoes. They were learning rapidly how to fend for themselves because they realized that, though they could go into town, oftentimes the wall prevented them from doing so. They wanted to save the canned food for possible shortages when their other stores ran out.
Gerard knew a lot about plants and animals, given that he’d grown up first on a farm and then spent much time hunting with his father and some of the friendlier Indians. He was a patient teacher, too, and incredibly competent about all the phases of food preparation, including the gross process of killing, skinning, chopping up, and preserving animal meat without refrigeration. Neither Frank nor Matt had yet given in to eating meat.
He, in turn, was amazed by the ease of their food, the variety and packaging, as well as the flavors and various herbs, spices, and exotic foods they could get. And he adored the tea bags Matt brought with the second run, along with the coffee.
All in all, they were fairly well provisioned. Slowly, careful of their boundaries, they started exploring when they weren’t gathering food and supplies or trying to build another shack (One wall was leaning quite precariously, and it was hard work chopping wood with an ax, especially into timber planks).
Gerard taught them some of the wild, edible plants and cautioned them away from other things. In the evenings, before the light went dead and occasionally, sparingly with a flashlight using batteries, they read or told stories.
Matt had brought back a few books, a good supply of toilet paper and feminine supplies for LynZ (“There’s no reason to be embarrassed when no one can see me steal them, you know?”) and a few other tools for building (“Ooh, a level and a measuring tape, awesome!”) and supplies, such as plates and pans and forks and knives and spoons. Gerard and LynZ both spent a fair bit of time drawing and talking about art.
It was good, except for how they all desperately still missed their families. That, and Frank’s attraction--and sexual frustration--was growing.
“He knows animal husbandry, but I don’t know if he’s even gay. And, I mean, he’s not from this time, the taboo around gay is probably a lot heavier from back then.”
“I don’t think you’ll have as much problems getting him into your bed as you think,” LynZ said. “He as much as said he was jealous, remember?”
“Frankie, he shot at me,” she said.
LynZ had finally forgiven and started trusting Gerard, but it had taken some time. The fact that she and Matt spent as much time inside the walls of their own shack, despite it’s lack of roof, making certain kinds of noises, might have helped. Though when Frank had caught Gerard listening, he’d simply looked perplexed.
“Just talk to him, Frankie.”
Later, talking to Matt, he said, “Maybe I don’t want to be the one to corrupt him. I want him to feel good and be happy, not feel bad.”
“Thanks to you, he drops the f-bomb in with every other word. I don’t think it’s corruption you’re worried about.”
“Well, what is it, then?”
Matt shrugged, picked up the guitar sitting next to him, and started playing. Frank rolled up to his feet and left when he recognized the opening to Homesick. Matt’s voice carried after him, though, and even when he couldn’t hear his singing, the words echoed in his head. Inspire in me, the desire in me, to never go home.
Frankie was lying on top of his blanket on his makeshift airbed, still awake, when he heard the rustle of material as Gerard shifted.
“Hey, Frankie,” Gerard said softly.
Gerard was silent for a few seconds then he shifted and got out of bed, padding over on socked feet (Gerard loved the socks Frank brought him) and sitting down next to Frank. Frank’s heart began to pound. “Gerard?”
“Will you--?” he said, then stopped. Frank pushed up on his elbows, bringing him a little bit closer to Gerard.
“Will you teach me to ride your bike?” he asked, all in a rush.
Frank squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again. “Not what I was expecting you to ask, but yeah, sure. If you really want to.”
Gerard had been equally fascinated and skeptical of their bikes, especially after seeing Matt and LynZ tool around on them in the clearing one day, messing around playing with sticks like they were playing polo. Then, for Gerard’s combined fear and amusement, they decided to “joust”, each holding their stick like a lance and charging at each other full speed.
“And I’ll teach you to shoot my bow,” Gerard said. “Your foot is all healed now, so it’s time you learned how to track and move quietly and things.”
“Gerard, I’m not going to hunt.”
“You need to learn,” Gerard said, stubbornly. “I don’t care if you never shoot an animal, but these are survival skills. You have your fancy food and stuff, but none of it means all that much if you encounter a hungry bear. I mean, I haven’t seen a fucking bear in years, but there are other things. Those men in uniform, like. And rats and snakes. Or the British.”
Gerard didn’t hate the British, exactly, he’d explained to Frank while they’d peeled a basket of potatoes. “I mean, my dad was a British subject, you know? But he taught me how you can’t trust the British government.”
“You can’t trust any government,” Frank said. “Not even our own.”
Gerard looked terribly sad at that.
Largely, they’d avoided talking about how things were in America. Gerard was wide-eyed over all their largesse anyway, and he brought with him an idealistic view that only someone who had seen democracy in its absolute infancy could maintain. And Frank found that when there was no radio blaring the news, it was kind of easy to be idealistic. Gerard’s views were rubbing off on him.
Frank just wished that weren’t the only thing Gerard was rubbing off on him.
“I might not always be here,” Gerard said, finally voicing the underlying concern they hadn’t voiced since Frank and the others had come back. “I have to get back to Mikey. I have to, fucking, at least try.”
“I know,” Frank said. “Just like I have to get back to my mom.”
“Yeah,” Gerard said. “It’s been great that you’ve been here. But now, I think maybe I understand why it was so hard for my dad to leave his own brothers. He knew he’d probably never see them again. And the prospect of never seeing you again... It hurts. Real bad.”
Frank could only nod. There was only the slightest bit of light from the moon streaming in, but it shone perfectly on the lower half of Gerard’s face, so Frank saw the way his tongue darted out to moisten his bottom lip. Frank’s breath hitched, and he moaned, just slightly.
“Frankie?” Gerard asked, uncertainly.
“If I kiss you, are you going to freak out?”
Gerard shook his head. “I don’t think so, why? Oh, you mean like Matt and LynZ do?”
And Frank couldn’t even see his eyes, but he just knew how wide they were.
“Yes, like Matt and LynZ do.”
Frank leaned in and very carefully, very gently pressed his lips against Gerard’s, brushing them softly. His lips were dry and chapped.
“That’s not how they kiss,” Gerard whispered and pressed his lips against Frank’s, harder, more insistent. It was awkward, but Frank went with it, and they soon found what worked, Gerard’s lips parting, his tongue meeting Frank’s.
Frank wound his arms around Gerard’s neck and pulled him down to lay on top of him.
“I -- this is what they warned about, in the Bible,” Gerard said, pulling up just slightly. He was in shadow, so Frank couldn’t see his face. He reached up to push back Gerard’s hair on one side; he wanted to see.
“We can stop,” Frank said. “I don’t want to upset you.”
Gerard shook his head. “No. I stopped believing in the Bible when the fucking fairies took Mikey away from me,” Gerard said. “If there’s a hell, it’s this constant loneliness I’ve been living for all these years. And maybe you are the devil, sent to tempt me, but I don’t fucking care. I already burn for you.”
As far as declarations went, it was pretty fucking effective. Frank pulled him back down and didn’t let him go until morning.
“If anyone ever told me that I’d actually enjoy living primitive in a shack in the woods without an iPod or running fucking water, I’d have told them to go fuck themselves,” Frank said, leaning back against Gerard’s knee. He was holding a vegan marshmallow on a stick over their fire, waiting for it to scorch. LynZ grinned.
“We need to start thinking about provisions for winter, though,” Gerard said. “Fall won’t be bad. We can store away a lot, and you have canned stuff, which is great, but we’ll need to get the roof on tight and start mudding in the walls on your building.”
“Ours could probably do with some mud, too. It’s drafty.”
“God, just think how much we all are going to stink then,” LynZ said. She turned to Matt. “Good thing I adore you.”
“Maybe we can walk down into town tomorrow and get some winter stuff,” Frank said. “Jackets, some plastic to cover the walls and help keep out the draft, some rugs, that sort of thing.”
“I don’t like the thought of you all stealing,” Gerard said, looking at Frank. “What if someone sees you?”
“They can’t see any of us,” Frank said.
“You don’t know that no one can. You could see me before you came into the ring.”
“I don’t think you’re invisible though, or not completely,” Frank said. “I wonder why we are?”
“Except for the steam. That’s just weird,” LynZ said.
They lapsed into silence, thinking. They’d talked about it before, enough now that none of them felt like rehashing.
“I miss Mikey,” Gerard said.
The fire popped and crackled. And that was the one thing that made this reality, the fact that they all had people they missed desperately. It wasn’t an extended vacation, it was them, stuck in the woods in a fucking fairy ring.
“The race would have been today,” LynZ said. “I thought, for a moment, I actually had a chance, you know? Not—I didn’t expect to win or anything, but just to get in there and actually show what I can do on a bike.”
“I’m sorry,” Frank said, softly.
“Don’t be, Frankie,” she said, looking at him intently across the flames. “It sucks not being in the race, but what sucked even more was not having you around. I want you to be able to ride and hang out with me, you know?”
Frankie knew. So maybe not quite paradise, then. But when Gerard stroked his hand over Frank’s hair, it was hard to be unhappy.
A few minutes later, Matt shook his head at the same time LynZ waved her arm. “I wish that fly would stop buzzing around me.”
“Oh shit,” Frank said, sitting up straight, because he could hear it. “That’s no fly, is it Gerard? We’re about to spin.”
They hadn’t experienced a time change since they’d set up camp. Gerard stood up and only stopped to remember the flashlight. Frankie was right behind him, pausing only to grab his bike, as did Matt and LynZ.
“Hop on behind me,” Frank said, and when Gerard was seated on the narrow seat clutching his hips, legs splayed awkwardly, Frank stood up on the pedals and pumped as hard as he could, leading the way.
“Turn right before you get to the ring,” Gerard said, and Frank remembered, turning sharply.
They tumbled off their bikes just as the lights started flickering and got as close as they could.
“It’ll make you dizzy,” Frank warned, and then they were turning, but it stopped really quickly.
Mikey was standing on the other side of the wall staring at it with something like determination. He had a rope tied around his waist and something else, a large rock it looked like.
“It’s a geode,” Matt said. “Crystal quartz.”
He didn’t say anything more because Mikey’s free hand came punching through, followed by his torso, head, shoulders and legs. His eyes widened, taking in their appearance, and lit on Gerard. He grinned widely.
“Grab hold,” he said.
Gerard hesitated, looking at Frankie, but even though he felt like an anvil had dropped on his chest, he said, “Go. Quickly.”
Gerard reached out both his hands. “You could come with me.”
Frank shook his head. “My mom, Gerard. I promised her I’d come back to her.”
Gerard stepped forward and kissed Frank hard, but briefly. “I love you,” he said and then stepped forward and grabbed Mikey’s hand.
Mikey yanked on the rope, and they started moving backwards, Gerard clinging to his little brother, but staring back at Frank, lips pinched manfully. They were almost to the wall, which shivered and glimmered around the point of the rope, and Mikey gave another tug, was started to be pulled back. The rope went taut and then recoiled, like a spring, sending them tumbling, and a guy with dark features and a mass of curly hair came falling in behind them.
The wall closed and spun again, knocking everyone else to the ground. It spun and spun and spun and spun for what felt like forever, until Frank was practically retching, but then it slowed and stopped.
“Where are we?” LynZ asked. Slowly, they all sat up, groaning.
“I don’t know? Are we back in our time?” Matt asked.
“Your time?” the curly haired guy asked. “What do you mean, your time?” He looked around. “Oh, it’s daylight here. Have we been spinning all that time?”
“I don’t think so,” Gerard said. He stood up. They could hear the birds and other noises entering the woods. As they made their way to the path, they could hear the sound of something or someone crashing through the underbrush. And then there was a voice shouting.
“Frankie? LynZ? Are you here?”
LynZ blinked. “That sounds like Dewees.”
“Matt? Skiba, you little shit, where are you?”
“And Derek,” Matt said, grinning. “We’re here. Don’t go in the mushroom ring!”
They headed toward their voices, but Frank glanced back at Gerard, whose eyes were shiny, like glass. He had his head tucked against his brother’s, their arms around each other’s waists. For a moment, Frank felt something like envy that Gerard had a brother, but it was smothered out by the joy--the purely selfish joy--of getting to see them reunited and happy.
“It’s a time traveling ring,” Dewees was saying to Matt. Dan and Derek were there with their bikes, too, shaking their heads. “Of course it is. So where are we going?”
Trust Dewees to see it not as a trial, but an opportunity.
“Come on, adventures await us!”
“You came into the ring for me,” Matt said to them. “I tried to tell you not to. I guess you didn’t hear me.”
“We heard you,” Dan said. “I mean, you left junk imprints and soap messages on every surface in our place, I think. But you can’t get rid of us that easily.”
“You left messages for them? Using soap? That’s genius,” LynZ said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn't want to get your hopes up in case it didn't work. Don’t worry, I left them for your mom too, Z.” He leaned in and kissed her head. “Though I left out the cock and balls imprint in her case.”
“She’d know for sure it was you, then,” LynZ teased, with a bit of sadness in her voice.
“We’ll get back to them, someday,” Matt said.
Matt was the one who noticed the curly-haired guy staring at all of them and the way they were dressed, most of them in baggy, loose shorts and t-shirts, tattoos on display. He seemed dazed. “Hi, I’m Matt. Who are you?”
The curly-haired guy shook his head quickly, and held out his hand. “My name is Raymond Toro-Ortiz. At your service, Madam.” He bowed quickly to LynZ.
“Call me LynZ,” she said. “And you must be Mikey.”
Everyone introduced themselves, standing around awkwardly.
“Hey, so let’s go see about setting up some camp,” Dewees said. “I hope you have marshmallows. I’m starving.”
Frank straddled his bike and watched as the others mounted theirs, while Gerard decided to walk back with his brother, both of them clutching at each other like they’d never let go again. Which, Frank was going to make them let go, if only long enough that he could get his hands down Gerard’s pants, but it was great to see him so happy. Even in the dark, Frank got glimpses of his face as he showed Mikey the wonders of a twenty-first century flashlight.
“It has this thing they call batteries!” Gerard said, and held the light up under his chin. “Mostly, Frank uses it to tell ghost stories.”
Mikey pulled back a little, but he laughed, high and bright and held out his hand to inspect it.
Gerard promptly handed it over. “I can’t believe how grown up you are,” he murmured. He sniffed. “And how much you smell. Frank and LynZ keep talking about trying to get something called a shower set up somehow.”
“We’re going to be here a long time, aren’t we?” Mikey asked quietly.
Gerard looked at Frankie, and Frankie bit his lip. “Yeah,” Gerard said. “Do you have wife? Children?”
Mikey shook his head. “I’ve spent my whole life looking for you. And there’s no one—his voice cracked a little, and Gerard’s face fell, understanding the meaning—left to go back to. There has only been you to find.”
“What about you, Raymond?” Gerard asked.
Ray smiled, a bit sad. “I knew there was a good chance that I would not see my brothers again. I miss them, but we are adventurers, and what greater adventure than this?”
"Ray is something of an expert at these rings," Mikey said. "He came to investigate. It's why I knew to use the geode to break through."
Frank could hear the low chatter of the others ahead, their voices and sounds fading as they rode away. He kicked up and pedaled after them slowly, keeping pace just in front of Gerard, who kept the flashlight trained on the path ahead.
“I’m going to be here a while, too,” Frank said to Gerard. He looked over at him. “I’m sure I’ll see my mom again, sometime. Hopefully soon, I can feel it in my bones.” He cast a questioning look over at Mikey; Gerard caught it and smiled encouragingly.
“But I think when we do get out, I’m going to want to introduce you to my mom. I want you to be by my side, you know? And until then, there are worse places than this bubble to be.”
“Just wait until winter and the drafts are coming in,” Gerard warned. “It won’t be quite so pleasant then.”
“Maybe I’ll have you to keep me warm,” Frank said.
Gerard cast a hesitant look in his brother’s direction, but pulled Frank in for a kiss, almost causing Frank to fall over and tangle up with the bike. His ankle twinged a bit when he came down on it to balance.
The handlebar caught him in the ribs, and he hissed, but didn’t pull away from the kiss.
Mikey’s face when they pulled back was mostly expressionless; a raised eyebrow and a small smile. Then, he pulled Raymond up flush against his body and kissed him until they were both breathless.
“We can be open here, then?” Mikey said. “We can be truly free?”
Gerard’s grin was blinding.