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Way Back When

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“You know what I miss?” came the question out of the dark.

Galen moved his head off the makeshift pillow under his ear. With a little noise of anticipation he uncurled from his blanket and rolled over. They were playing that game again.

He propped himself on one elbow to listen, pulling the blanket up to his chin with the other hand. The temperature had dropped by what his friends would call ‘a few degrees’ since they stopped for the night. His muzzle, which had been buried in the warmest corner of the bedding, felt suddenly colder but his curiosity, as ever, was greater than the discomfort.

“No, tell me,” said Virdon, who was supposed to be taking first watch. There was a slight reluctance in his tone, although he offered the usual answer obediently. Galen could see the broad-shouldered silhouette of their leader sitting by a large boulder, a stick in one hand with which he had been poking at the fire. He was staring into the embers, a study in thoughtfulness.

“Sirens,” said Burke. He was lying on his back at the other side of the camp and Galen could just make out that he had his hands behind his head. Firelight partially illuminated his face, although his hair disappeared into the darkness while Virdon’s stood out, gold against black. “You know, all those cops chasing down the bad guys. Used to make me feel safe.”

Virdon uttered a low laugh. “And you miss the sound of jets landing at Houston airport too, am I right?”

“I wasn’t talking about the last months,” Burke said. “I mean… way back in Jersey City. Waaaay back. Lotta sirens.”

“Uh-huh.” A long pause. “Me, I miss making pancakes on Sunday morning.”

“You can do that?”

“Pete, it’s just milk, eggs and flour.”

“Just that? No ready-mix?” A mischievous question to which Alan wouldn’t rise.

“Just that. Go on, your turn.”

“The big game on TV.”

“Gershwin,” said Virdon. “Puccini.”

There was a short hesitation and Galen could see Pete’s mouth move as he pursed his lips in thought, weighing up the answer. “No kidding?” he said after a while. “You like opera, huh? How come you never told me that before? I mean, I wouldn’t have figured that about you, pal. Thought you were strictly Beach Boys.”

“Quit giving your opinion and play the damn game, major.”

A not very chastened snort, then, “Big fight on TV.”

“Yeah, tough guy. Gatorade.”

“Hmmm. And a Philly cheesesteak sandwich.” There was a real yearning in Pete’s voice now. Galen knew what a sandwich was, but the specifics in this case were an exotic, even rather disturbing, mystery.

“Oh boy. Let’s pull it back from there. Uh… the smell of engine oil.”

“Kinky.” Pete laughed out loud. “Riding the subway downtown.”

“Wal-Mart,” said Virdon with a sigh. Galen recognized this as the arrival of the inevitable moment when Virdon would descend into melancholy. Burke seemed to recognize it too and used extreme tactics to veer them back on course.

“Porn!” he shouted. “Porn and sex and bowling and beer. Yeah baby… ”

There was a huff of something from Virdon – disapproval, disbelief – and then he said, soberly, “New York Times on a Sunday.”

“Boy, you really have this thing for weekends don’t you,” said Burke, and that was when Galen couldn’t help interjecting.

“What is a ‘week end’?” He could have added ‘what on earth is ‘Gatorade’?, ‘a Sub way?’, “Wall Market?’

“It’s when you don’t go to work, Galen,” said Virdon, sounding tired. “Like a rest day. We used to get two rest days in a row at the end of every five.”

“Oh.” Galen tried to imagine it. “Was that time efficient?”

“Maybe not but it gave Al the chance to play chef and arrange flowers,” Pete said.

“Play what?” hazarded Galen, not very hopefully.

“Anyhow.” Virdon was suddenly brisk. “You two should be sleeping. It’s your watch in a couple hours, Pete. Get some shut-eye, go dream of sirens.”

“Can’t sleep,” said Burke, gloomy but matter-of-fact.

“Something bothering you?”

“Oh just being thousands of years too late for everything.” Burke yawned then and there was the sound of him hunkering further down under the scratchy blanket. “Hot dates, movie nights, the Giants next game.”

Giants?

Galen’s heart beat a little faster. It was always intriguing to hear of the dangers of the past, and not just its incomprehensible pleasures. He burned with more questions, but he knew by now Virdon would get tetchy with them if they carried on much longer.

“So are you finished?” he asked.

A wistful silence, that stretched out longer than Galen expected.

“Yep, all finished.” Burke sounded casual, although it wasn’t very convincing. Galen thought he knew him well enough by now to catch the edge in his tone.

“For tonight.” Virdon didn’t sound casual at all. There was a crackle of red light as he turned over the embers once again, reaching for more fuel. After a while the fire hissed lazily, new smoke rising up and hiding Burke from view.

Galen could hear him shuffling about trying to get comfortable, a bad-tempered kicking sound.

Stoic as ever, face still set, Virdon built up the fire. Then he settled back down. After a while he raised his head, looked across at Galen, still propped on his elbow.

“You should tell us to shut up,” he said. His eyes were suspiciously bright.

“I like to hear it.” Galen tried not to be apologetic. Because it was true. The wilder and more perplexing the things he heard, the more he wanted to know.

“I know you do, but…” Virdon regarded the stick he’d been using as a poker, and then shoved it into the heart of the fire. “We shouldn’t do it. Doesn’t help.”

“Well…” Galen wasn’t so sure about that although he didn’t know if he should say. When Alan fell into a depression it could last for days and did none of them any good. “Perhaps it keeps you focused? On what you want?”

“And what’s that, genius?” Burke said over his shoulder from his new position with his back to them.

“To go home of course. To all that… your sirens and your pancakes.”

“Doesn’t sound so appealing when you put it like that.” There was more amusement back in Burke’s slightly muffled voice now and Galen smiled to himself. Pete always bounced back quicker.

“It’s all gone, dead and buried.” Virdon’s voice sounded like he had something in his throat he couldn’t swallow.

“No, no,” Galen said quietly. “It’s all alive, in your head. And it needs to stay alive, to keep us alive.”

There was a fine line, he guessed, between motivation and acceptance, between the desperate drive to return to their old home and the incentive to survive in this new one. The ways these two walked that line were many and varied, and they weren’t even at the same point along it to start with but still… Galen knew it wouldn’t do to allow Alan’s spirits to sink any further. The first thing he’d learned from being on the run with these odd and fascinating men was that they all needed to pick each other up from time to time. Out of the dust of the earth or the mire of despondency, whichever it was at any given time. Not that Virdon ever allowed himself to wallow. Just that Galen noticed the cuts seemed to hurt him more. On the surface anyhow.

“Neat,” Pete said on a yawn, seeming to confirm it. And then, even less distinct, “’night.”

Virdon looked over at him. Something like a fond smile touched his face briefly, chasing away the tension in the tight set of his jaw.

“’Night, Pete,” he said and then, “See you in two hours.”

“Yeah,” Pete mumbled back at him, sounding strangely content. “Fuck you too, buddy.”

Virdon’s lips quirked and he looked back at Galen, clearly expecting some reaction to the expletive.

“It’s been three months,” Galen said drily. “I’m well aware of his mastery of linguistics.”

Virdon nodded a wry acknowledgement but didn’t say anything else. His eyes drifted back towards the newly leaping flames and he pulled up a blanket from the ground behind him, draped it around his shoulders.

Trying to find a comfortable spot, Galen settled himself down once more, turning away from the fire as he curled up. Sleep was tugging at his senses now, stronger even than the hunger in his belly and the anxiety that never went away. Over by the fire he heard Virdon expel a long, quiet breath, sighing out the memories for the time being.

In his corner, Pete was quiet. Very, very quiet.

“Sleep well, my friends,” Galen murmured, but mostly to himself.

As a blacker night descended, he could only tuck his muzzle close into his shoulder and hope, as he’d always done ever since he was a very young chimpanzee, for better things tomorrow.

Knowing there was as much safety as the world offered in this small camp at his back, he closed his eyes and slept.

 

-ends-