They took him for the war after all.
I say took because it’s true; he may have thought he volunteered, he may have thought he wanted it with his every breath, but the truth is the war was just waiting for him. It snapped him up in its hungry jaws; as it did to me; as it did to us all.
Some it released gently, unharmed in body if not quite whole in mind. Some it chewed up and spat back out.
Some it swallowed entirely.
His leg heals right this time. All our angry, hurting words and those few tears we tried to hide from each other—they set the two of us right again. I know what I am capable of, and Finny now knows it too. There is no more hiding between us, and the heady relief of it makes me almost giddy.
I won’t hurt him again. I couldn’t. I’m a part of him, now.
Breathless, pink-cheeked, looking stronger than he has for months, Finny says to me: “Doctor Stanpole says I’ll be fine now. I can join up, Gene, they’ll take me this time! They’ll have to!”
It’s a little like being stabbed in the chest; I realize that a part of me had already, prematurely categorized Finny as safe. I had deemed myself his strongest, most insidious enemy; after what I did to him, nothing could touch him any further. What war would dare to steal him?
The reminder that life rarely works the way you think it will hits me in the face.
Finny must see some of it, maybe all of it, God knows I have no secrets left from him; his face softens, still as easily compassionate as ever, and who the fuck would put a gun in this boy’s hands? “It’ll be all right, Gene,” he says to me. “I remember what you said to me in the hospital, but it’s all right,” Finny says gently. “I figure the war could use a few more guys like me.”
I say nothing, just clap him on the shoulder. The truth is, there are no guys like Finny, and every place in the world would be better for having him. I say nothing, because anything I might say would only reflect my fears, and something in Finny’s face tells me it would slide right off him.
I am afraid.
Finny should have looked entirely alien with a weapon in his hands, in uniform, with his hair trimmed short. He didn’t. He still looked like Finny, irrepressible and so alive everyone else paled in comparison. They taught him how to salute, they taught him how to push his body to the limits, and Finny ate it up, loved the challenge with his inimitable vigor.
They could teach him how to kill, in theory, at least; but they couldn’t teach him how to hate. (But they tried, oh, how they tried.)
Finny listened to their instructions, head cocked to the side, nodding intently, because he loved his country as fiercely and wholeheartedly as he did everything else that was dear to him. Finny was the kind of boy you put on posters, his conviction shone so bright. But it was me—who had spent our school days questioning everything, thinking myself so cynical and grown-up—whom he came to with his questions and uncertainties.
“They’re probably telling them the same things over there,” Finny said to me quietly, looking down at his hands. “That we’re all evil, that we’re going to kill their families and their girlfriends, that it’s their duty to fight. Gene, I know I told myself that the fat old men made up the war so I wouldn’t feel bad about my leg, but some of it’s true, isn’t it? It’s the fat old men who control the war, not us. They’ve probably got those old men too. I bet every country does.” I looked into his eyes and saw how troubled they were, and it was wrong; Finny’s eyes should have been clear and bright and as joyous as they were when he used to run around in the sun for the sheer joy of summer. He wet his lips. “Gene, aren’t they just dumb kids like us?”
I saw the winter in his eyes, and I had no answer.
I should be uneasy around Finny after all that I did, but in typical Phineas fashion, he brushes all my shoulds aside; in his mind, I apologized and meant it, his leg is fine, we’re going to war, and we’re pals again. Nothing strange in that.
God, it drives me half-mad. I want him to hit me, to clear this tension, made worse for the fact that I know the tension is all on my side, entirely of my own creation. Finny has forgiven me, and that should calm my mind.
It doesn’t. If he will not blame me, self-flagellation is all that is left to me, and I have never quite had the strength to hold myself accountable for anything
“Finny,” I say one day in our room, half-desperate with it. “How can you just—how can we still be friends? After what I did?” Teach me where you got your capacity for forgiveness, is what I mean.
Finny looks at me like he hears it, like he hears it all, everything I’m saying and everything I’m too scared to say. “You’re my best friend,” he says simply. “You made a mistake, but you’re my best friend.” And maybe to Finny, that really does say it all.
I laugh, and it comes out a little choked, a little manic. I put my head in my hands. Even without seeing him, I know when Finny stands up and walks over to sit on my bed beside me; the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. His presence is uncontainable, spilling out of him to everything in his surroundings. His hand on my back burns my skin even through my shirt.
“Besides,” he says, a little awkwardly, “I already told you once: when you really love something, then it loves you back.”
My breath stops. I realize this is something I have known all along, something I knew but could not see until he put a name to it. Until Finny spoke it. Finny, who has always been the braver of us two.
I am not brave enough for this. But something in the weight of his hand tells me I might be, someday, and Finny will wait.
“In whatever way it can?” I ask hoarsely, feeling his each individual finger tightening incrementally in my shirt.
Finny breathes out, and strangely enough, the little shake in it makes me feel like it will be all right. But that’s who I am, then; I am at my best only when Finny is off-balance.
“With everything it has,” Finny says, and I tremble with it; I could lean in the scant inches between us and swallow the rest of his words down into my hungry mouth; but I don’t.
Time stretches on, slow and aching. I count the seconds and feel his hand on me and breathe.
When you were at war, no one looked at you funny if you and your pal seemed a little too close; they were more preoccupied with keeping themselves alive, for one. For another, when there were no girls around and it got to be too much, sometimes, a lot of guys turned to someone else for a bit of a helping hand.
Even with what we had, it shocked me, just a little, when Finny came to me for that. Oh, not that he came to me; who else would he go to? The idea was impossible. No, it was only that maybe some part of me had thought him above things like that. Foolish, I realized. I knew Finny better than anyone else. I knew better than anyone how fragile, how human he really was. All the same, watching everyone around us consciously or unconsciously react to the indestructible shine of his goodness, it didn’t seem to me that Finny should be touched by the mundane, the ordinary—like lust, or fear, or death.
He came to me with no awkwardness. I decided that maybe we had left all that behind us. I broke us that day I broke his leg; not a clean break, but an ugly, insidiously jagged thing. Then when I found my moment of courage, and he stopped lying to himself, it hurt, but the kind of hurt that meant that something was finally healing right. We healed together too strong for any petty squabbles to ever come between us again.
We healed so tight that I think I must have become a part of him. Maybe that was why—anyone else’s hands on Phineas would have seemed alien, but with me it was all right. I was his and I was him, and I could touch him in our darkest moments, make him gasp my name quietly into the hollow of my neck. I could break him and piece him together again, and it was fine because it was us.
I still didn’t say it to him, because I was a fucking coward.
But he knew; he knew before I did, like he knew everything else about me. He must have known.
God help me, I hope he knew.
Finny enters our room with the air of a magician unveiling his greatest act. He smiles at me like the sun is rising in front of him. I think maybe he has always looked at me like that.
“Let’s go to the beach,” he says, announces, utterly certain I will say yes.
I have half an essay to finish, but I push my papers aside without a word. I would follow him if he told me we were traveling into a desert, a deluge, the depths of the great unknown. The time is long past when I resented him for that. Finny could no more stop his unearthly draw than he could his own breathing.
And it’s me he wants with him on his impromptu excursions. I would follow him anywhere, and he would go nowhere if I wouldn’t agree to come along. I won’t forget that.
We ride our bikes up, slow, because it’s been months but we’re both still wary of his leg, and the sun is already starting to set when we reach there. Finny leaves his shoes and his bike in a haphazard pile, unconcerned with the possibility that someone could come by and steal it. On this day, the idea seems absurd to me as well. Steal from Finny? Who would dare?
I leave my things on top of his and walk at his side. The sand crumbles under my toes, and Finny stops for a second just to blissfully dig his own feet into the ground. He closes his eyes and smiles at the sky, and I watch him. Nothing new, except that when he opens his eyes, he turns and looks at me too, and this time I don’t look away. What point would there be? Nothing left to hide from him, I remind myself, and the thought is as thrilling as it is every time I remember.
Finny looks at me some more. There’s nothing urgent in his glance. It’s as if he just likes looking at my face.
I let him, because the beach is empty around us, and his eyes are cat-green and shine in the growing darkness, and I feel the days like these already slipping out of my grasp.
“C’mon, pal,” he says softly, and it’s like he’s saying something else entirely; something dangerous and beautiful and true. He grabs my wrist with breathtaking entitlement and pulls me to the water’s edge, and doesn’t let me go. His fingers are strong and warm. I wonder if he can feel my pulse pounding. I would like to feel his in return, proof of his vitality, his vigor. I would like so many things, but my tongue remains clumsy and silent.
I abhor awkwardness. There is nothing awkward in our silence, but the trouble is that I cannot trust that it will remain that way; I have never been able to trust anything like that. I open my mouth to speak, and Finny sees it, and says quickly, “No, don’t say anything.”
His fingers tighten, and I close my mouth.
“Just,” he says slowly, and the sky is almost dark now, and all I can spare for my unfinished essay is the barest, fleeting flicker of a thought; that is all I can spare for anything when Finny is around. He takes up everything else in me. “Just—tell me we’re good. Tell me we’ll always be good,” he finishes, and the boy who lights up our entire school with his fervor and surety sounds uncertain at what I might say.
I slide my wrist out of his grasp until his hand locks loosely with mine, and hope it’s answer enough.
I close my eyes and feel his smile like the heat of the sun.
It wasn’t supposed to be him. It was never supposed to be him. I had never even considered the possibility because it was Finny, fuck, it was Phineas, so joyous and special that surely everyone must know it—surely he would be safe?
Surely if Death came for him, Phineas would offer him a joke and a riddle and a smile, and that would be that; because not even Death could resist him. I believed it with everything I had.
It turned out that everyone who knew Finny loved him, but the eyes and hands on the other side of a gun knew nothing of him at all.
And Finny, who was slowly losing his smile, who looked like his faith in the goodness of people was less steady than he had thought it to be, who made friends because he couldn’t help it, and watched them die before his eyes—it was Finny who walked ahead of me one morning and turned around, as if he had some premonition of it and only wanted to see my face.
He opened his mouth like he was about to say something, and then it was like I was standing two years back, in a tree, watching and ultimately helpless as he fell, he fell—
“You worry too much,” Finny says cheerfully, and tucks two fingers companionably into the back of my shirt. “Good thing I’m going to be around to help you with that.”
“Is that supposed to be reassuring?” I say dryly, convinced I sound grownup, but so unutterably young.
Phineas just laughs in the face of my sarcasm, as he always does. “It is,” he tells me brightly. “We’re a team, you see; you handle the boring common sense side of things, and I make sure you remember that you won’t be fifty for a long time.”
I roll my eyes at him but keep my shoulders still so that I don’t dislodge his hand, even by accident. “The Unbeatable Duo?” I suggest facetiously.
“Exactly,” he says, suddenly looking very serious under his smile. “The two of us can beat anything, Gene. Do you believe that?”
And looking at him, I can give him no answer but yes.