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No Length of String

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“Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said. In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person’s silence.” -Nicole Krauss

 

Simon had always despised being alive.

He remembers being six years old, staring out the window at the pointless line of trees down the lane, and knowing, for certain, that he should not be feeling sad. Mum pet his hair and told him it was normal to feel glum, while Dad gave him a squeeze round the shoulders and said, “Liven up, will ye,” and read him a long confusing poem that sounded like music.

He remembers long days locked in his room as a teenager, curled in his bed, music blaring into his headphones, trying to block out all the other noise in his head telling him he’s a failure, a nothing, that life isn’t really meant for him. He remembers the notes his mother would slide under the door, asking him if he wanted supper. He remembers swiping his father's books of poetry and reading them until the pages were dog-eared and ruined.

He remembers Sundays, the slog of church, the numbing repetition, pungent scent, music. His family front and center, and his rebel brain screaming Lies! at the old priest, even as he took the wafer in his mouth, drank the blood.

He remembers papering the walls of his room with New York.

Simon remembers his first hit of meth, with this girl, Cora? Cara? Something. First in a long line who mistook his distance for love. Shame, really, but how could they know he hadn't been able to feel anything for years? The drugs, though. Shit. They took all the doubt and pain away, so long as another hit was coming soon.

There's a lot Simon doesn't remember about what came after that. Shouting matches with Dad, sleeping rough for weeks, hitching rides to Dublin, trying to hide his most violent shakes so that friendly folk would pick him up and buy his shit. He'd always been a good talker. His Mum would say, "Our Simon could talk God out of the deed to Eden." Simon talks his way into every substance, every sin, everywhere, talks his way all the way to New York (That's with another girl, poor Donna, although by then Simon is fucking every junkie boy he meets, because it feels great, and who the hell cares if he lives or dies. He doesn't lie to her.)

If he never stops moving, his brain never has time to catch him up.

There's a brief time in New York when it might be getting better. He meets Caleb. Caleb wants to help him get clean, Caleb is beautiful- dark, dark skin and huge green eyes, Simon fucking falls into those eyes- and Caleb loves him. But Simon can't do it, without the drugs his enemy brain is still there waiting for him. It's over when Caleb finds him, high and bleeding, in bed with two prostitutes. Simon never does anything halfway. Caleb's final gift to Simon is a plane ticket home.

He never tells his parents he's returned. Three years pass, according to the calendar, and Simon can't remember a single specific day, until the end. The last day, he remembers that. He woke up that day, and knew, clear as crystal, he wasn't going to wake up again. That final needle, and then quiet. Nothing.

Simon has to guess what happens next, of course. Mum and Dad coming for him, bringing him home. Someone (undertaker?) cutting off his long hair, and now he's stuck with the parent-pleasing coffin look for eternity. Did they convince Father Clement to say a few words over his drug ravaged body? Did they cry? Who even came to see him off? Were they all, as Simon has always assumed, relieved?

It should have been over. He was a mistake, a living thing that didn't want the gift, an error in the judgment of genes and divinity.

But then, Simon came back.

*

The most shocking thing about being alive again is that Simon doesn't hate it the second time round.

He thankfully doesn't have a single memory from the rising, not even a grainy image or a troubling feeling in his gut. He spends hours, days, hearing the dull, repetitive rising stories of his kind, hopeful that no one will ever get cheeky enough ask him (disciple and all, very intimidating) to share his story in return. He doesn't have one. It's a blackness, a nothing time, more gone than all the days he lost on his longest binges. Thank Christ. Knowing what he did is horror enough without any memory of it all.

When he was young, Simon had been fascinated by the idea of Hell. His imagined Hell was a child’s fantasy- fiery pits and caverns and screams and a cartoonish devil with a pitchfork obsessed with suffering and punishment. Then he'd died, and there was no Hell, no punishment. There was nothing. So Simon considers his time at Norfolk and...just after...as his own personal Hell, well earned. In fact, for a long time, he is certain that this entire fucked up world he's been brought back to is just some punishing afterlife that old Mrs. Trilly at Sunday School never could have dreamed up.

There's a difference though. In this world, Hell though it is, Simon wants to live.

Maybe it's something about the drug he's being given, repairing his broken brain. Maybe it's that the other drugs don't work anymore (he tried, every way he could, as soon as his dad kicked him out), or that for the first time ever he feels better without them.

When he puts on his mousse and his contacts and looks in the mirror, he sees his old self, the addict, the user, the failed son. He likes the new, chiseled down version of himself, stripped, bleached clean. He doesn't recognize himself this way, maybe he's something new?

He finds people who take him in, value him, who like listening to him talk again, who love that he rejects his cover up, think he's doing it for far more noble reasons. He doesn't correct them. Instead, Simon talks. He talks and talks until he starts to believe his own shit. Talks his way right into the inner circle, talks an entire commune together, talks people in love with him. He's powerful, without the drugs, full of the words of the prophet. Better than drugs. People love him. It doesn't really matter that he can't love them back. They don't even know. At least there is purpose, meaning. He believes. What he's doing matters, at last.

Then, he meets Kieren.

*

Simon doesn't even notice Kieren at first. He's just another recruit, Amy's troubled friend, who he needs to charm, woo, and bring into the ULA fold. Simple, it's what he does now. There's a formula: bare skin and white eyes, sensitive tone of voice, quote a little Yeats, talk injustice, hit them with the prophet's message of hope. Easy. And if he needs to, he can always pull out the guitar.

Kieren doesn't go easy, but Simon doesn't care at first. His resistance is of the usual sort- don't rock the boat, it's easier to pretend- Simon's heard this line before. (He might need the guitar.) But then Kieren walks right between Simon and a gun, at the pub, just does it, without fear, and in a very humbling way, Simon knows Kieren's not doing it to save him from being shot. Kieren doesn't even know him. He's doing it...well, he's doing it for himself, to stand up for himself, to do what's right for all of them. It's brave and stupid and...new.

A light turns on inside of Simon at that moment, like a warm zap of electricity that resets his circuits, and wakes him up. Without planning it, he says Kieren's name out loud. Kieren turns those big, dark eyes on him in, what? Judgment? Disappointment? Envy?

Oh Christ, is he glad to be alive.

*

If Simon could have requested help from the government in his recruiting efforts, he would have suggested the Give Back Scheme himself. After that, the undead literally flock to him, the Pied Piper of Roarton. They're so easy: throw a party, remind them how to be human, how to feel pleasure, then talk to them some more, get their stories. Follow the mission, find the first risen.

It's Kieren he can't stop thinking of, though, Kieren he builds the fence for, Kieren he waits at the bonfire for, stays sober for. Kieren, who doesn't even notice, who hides his beautiful scars and who just wants out of Roarton, wants Simon to help him get out. Simon wants to say something real ("What do you see when you look at me?"), not just his same tired rhetoric trying to bring Kieren over, but he can't remember what sort of thing he is supposed to say instead. Maybe he never knew? When Simon reaches over and touches Kieren's hand, he knows he shouldn't be able to feel it, but he does, he feels it in his bones, and for a moment, he thinks Kieren feels it, too.

Jesus Christ, he's distracting. Like a guilty schoolboy, Simon goes back to the basics, reciting his purpose, his creed, hearing the truth of the prophet's words in his head, like a boy saying his Hail Mary's after confession. Picks a fight with Kieren even, at the GPs, just to be rid of the distraction. "I don't lead people on." He doesn't. Hasn't. Simon doesn't need Kieren for this mission. Better without, in fact. Better alone. Talk talk talk.

When Kieren kisses him, Simon dissolves, it all dissolves, his whole life, in a slow swirl that starts in his lips and ends in his toes and out the top of his head, and for the first time ever, ever, Simon feels every cell in his body and knows he's meant to be there, meant to be a living being on planet Earth. That he’s not a mistake.

*

Amy is home, of course. When they kiss. It’s late. Simon doesn't need to breathe, but he does need to catch his breath, so after a long minute of coming apart at Kieren's hands, he steps back and looks. Time slows for him, let's him. He needs to remember this, every detail.

Kieren's a mess, lopsided and furious, missing a contact, mousse patchy and smeared. He's gorgeous. As Kieren looks at the floor and opens his mouth to speak, Simon raises a finger to his lips, nods his head towards Amy's room, then grabs Kieren's hand and pulls him outside, into the dark night. Fringe benefit of being undead: cold is meaningless. Once they are outside, Kieren shakes his hand free of Simon's grasp and strides off, stiff and angry, behind the bungalows, out into the wilderness below. Simon watches him for a moment, mind full of sparks, then follows, several paces behind.

The lights of the buildings fade. The sky is dense with stars, and Simon lets himself look up at them for the first time in years. The universe seems suddenly bigger, immense. Kieren stops and leans up against a large outcropping of stone, arms crossed. He's looking up (at the stars as well?).

Simon takes a seat next to him, but not too close. Not touching. He can't feel that again yet. His body is still thrumming, like it’s trying to be alive.

"Kieren." Simon keeps his voice so low, isn't sure how to approach this one. "What’s happened? It’s good you came to me. We can help..."

Kieren's mismatched eyes turn to him. Ah yes, there's the disappointment. Unmistakable. "Don't talk,” Kieren says.

"What?" Simon is at a loss.

Kieren shrugs his jacket further around himself, even though Simon knows his can't be feeling the chill. "Don't talk. When you talk, it's all a bunch of bullshit."

"Jesus, Kieren."

"No, it is, Simon. It is." Kieren leans in then, right in and grabs the back of Simon's neck before he can react, and kisses him again, possessive and hard and full of...oh Jesus, Simon is not ready. Kieren pulls back a fraction, and whispers into Simon's lips, "What I need is for you to listen."

Their foreheads are touching, and Simon can feel how, under his confident veneer, Kieren's hands are shaking. Jesus Christ, listen. Listen. He reaches up and cups his hands around Kieren's cheeks (and he can feel it, how can he feel it?) and then nods, just a little, looking right in Kieren's eyes, and doesn't say a word.

Kieren lets out a long sigh and then starts talking. About Rick and his dad, mostly, but also about his sister, about her sparing his life, about the girl he knows he killed (ate, he says ate), about Gary and Freddie, and how many times he has had to step in front of a gun. It’s a long, long exhalation of words, and Simon holds Kieren's hand in both of his, and just listens, not even making a sound, and nothing else is important in this world except listening.

When it is quiet again for a time, and the stars are even brighter and the Milky Way stretches before them, Kieren turns to Simon with a little sad smile. He looks better, calmer. “So.”

Simon feels like he’s just been given the perfect gift, and he can’t even speak to show his gratitude. He just nods and holds Kieren’s hand tighter.

“Sorry. You can talk now.” Kieren nudges him on the shoulder, which reminds Simon to smile. (Smile, that's what you do when you're gloriously happy, yes?) “What about you?”

Simon lowers his head. Kieren is too much, he can’t possibly live up to him, doesn’t deserve this. “I can’t...I can’t do that.”

Kieren looks at him, and Simon can see his confusion. “Do what?”

“What you just did.” Simon can talk, talk all day and night, but not like Kieren, not naked and brave and without motive. There’s too many hard things that he can never say out loud.

Kieren is still staring at him, for a long moment, but then he takes his free hand and runs it along Simon’s cheek before settling them into another slow, prying, endless kiss that unfixes Simon from the ground. When it ends, and Simon floats back down to the solid granite, Kieren says, “That’s all right, though. We’ve got time, eh?”

Kieren stands then and reclaims his hand, looks out at the darkness. Simon isn’t sure what comes next, Kieren has him entirely off his program. ULA, prophet, first risen, it’s all gone, zapped away by an electrical tide of feeling. Without warning, Kieren turns and presses Simon back against the stone, their entire bodies flush, only the layers of wool and cotton between them, Kieren’s hands restless along the skin at Simon’s waist (Simon swears he can feel his touch again, Christ), his face nestled into Simon’s neck. God, Simon is suddenly deeply aware that he has not been with anyone, ever, when he’s not high.

“My parents will be frantic. I should get home.” Said into Simon’s shoulder.

Simon gets a little of his own confidence back, grabs Kieren by the beltloops and leans back, finding his lips and trying for a kiss that says, don’t you fucking run away from this or at least this is a beginning, not an end, you understand. Then he tries some words, “Stop in tomorrow. At the bungalow.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe.”

“If ye can.” They are still pressed together, arms intertwined, and it takes everything in Simon’s two lives to let Kieren go, push himself up from the rock. He is leaned over, dusting himself off, when he feels (feels) Kieren brush a kiss on the back on his neck and whisper, “Simon...yeah. ‘Night.”

Kieren lurches off, not the same way they came, but across the darkness to where he must live, to where his family must be waiting for him. Simon stands under the stars, watching, until Kieren’s lanky form disappears into the shadows, and then he starts the lonely trail home.

*