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There are stars inside you.

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It is seven o’clock in the morning, and Simon Monroe is staring at his To-Do List.

The list isn’t particularly long or exciting; it’s simply a few bullet points, most of which were hastily scrawled at some point during the last month or so on the small magnetic whiteboard he keeps on his fridge.  There’s “buy some new music,” from that day when he realized he’d heard every song on his phone fifty times, and “somehow grow flowers,” so that Amy would stop looking disappointed in him every time she came over, and “new light bulbs,” because the living room is now down to only one, which is just sad.  And then there’s “more variety in ordering take-out,” and “organize bookshelves,” and “get better sunglasses.”  Not to mention, of course, the ever-present, “buy milk.”

Most of the items on Simon’s list have been there for a few days, two weeks, tops.  He’s generally fairly systematic – he writes things down, he gets them done, he crosses them off.  But one item – the first one he wrote down – remains unchecked, even after two years.

“Publish a novel,” it says.

Simon woke up this morning, wandered into the kitchen in search of coffee, and got stuck in front of his refrigerator.  Sometimes days can pass without even a glance at the top of the list, but this morning he caught a glimpse and hasn’t moved for a good five minutes.

It’s strange, to see it there in handwriting from two years ago.  Surreal, almost.  To think that in – five months, twelve days, Simon calculates slowly, pretending he didn’t already have the number memorized – this goal that has been sitting at the top of his list for as long as he can remember is finally going to become a reality – he’s going to hold a physical copy of his writing in his hands, feel its weight, see it in bookstores on shelves and poking out of the tops of bags – he should pinch himself, hard, or maybe drop something heavy on his foot, make sure this isn’t a dream.

His phone rings.

Simon ambles into his bedroom to grab it on the fifth ring, coffee and impending dreams reluctantly abandoned.  “Hello?”

“Simon!” exclaims a voice far too cheerful for this time of day.  “My favorite squire of the pen!  How are you on this lovely morning?”

“Hi, Amy,” Simon replies.  “I’m all right.”

“Just all right?” she repeats.  He can almost see her pouting through the phone.  “That’s no good.  But don’t worry, I’ll fix that in no time.”

“I’m sure you will.”

“So, you remember my friend Kieren, the artist?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Simon says.  At least, he thinks he remembers her mentioning someone named Kieren who’s an artist.  “Why?”

“He’s been doing quite well recently.  Getting a lot of business doing portraits and that sort of thing.”  Amy sounds as though she’s giving a pitch for some new political candidate, complete with complimentary tone and praises that may or may not be true, which seems mildly suspicious to Simon.

Simon wanders back into the kitchen and starts up his coffeemaker.  “Okay, but what does that have to do with me?”

“I’m getting to that, dum-dum,” Amy says.  “Be patient.”

“All right, sorry,” Simon replies as he searches for a clean mug in the cabinet.

“I’ve got Kieren a new project!  Guess what it is!”  Amy’s probably jumping up and down on her end, Simon can tell.

“Amy, how could I possibly guess?” he asks, vaguely exasperated.

“One guess.  Please?”

Simon sighs, and grabs bread to make himself toast.  “Is it ... painting you?”

“No, although he has done that before.  The new project is ...”  Amy pauses for dramatic effect, then makes a vague tooting noise, like a trumpet player after one too many shots of whiskey.  “Doo doo-doo-roo, the cover for your book!”

Oh, so that was ... not what Simon was expecting.  He had known that the publishers were searching for an artist to do a cover, but he’d thought that he lost all input after submitting his final draft.

“Why are you telling me this?” he asks Amy.  “It’s not like I get to decide what he paints.”

“I know,” she says.  “I just thought you’d like to know that your pride and joy is finally getting a face.  The picture everyone in bookstores from here to New York will see.  It’s exciting, right?”

Simon pauses, his coffee safely brewing and his bread safely in the toaster, to picture it: a bookstore across the Atlantic in New York City, windows looking out on the constant life of millions and inviting in people from all walks of life, from businessmen in gray suits to old women walking to the grocery store to young kids pulling on their parents’ arms.  He imagines some of those people – not all, certainly, but a few, a curious few – pausing their searches for old classics or new romances or presents for their nieces to survey the “new arrivals” rack, finding a little (or big) red (or blue) book with his name on the cover.  He wants them to pick it up, read the back, run their fingers along the front, flip through the first few pages.  He can’t quite imagine the people’s faces, or their expressions as they start to read, and he can only guess at the cover, but he wants to see it clearly.  He wants his words to be read.

“Okay, yeah,” he admits.  “It’s pretty exciting.”

“See?” Amy exclaims.  “I knew you’d think so.  All right, I’ve gotta go – promised Lily I’d meet her for breakfast ten minutes ago to talk about ideas for her next book.  Bye, lovely –”

“Hey, wait,” Simon says before she can hang up.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.  For telling me.”

“Oh, no problem,” Amy says, her smile audible in her tone.  “Anything for my favorite squire of the pen.”

The call ends, leaving Simon to pour his coffee, butter his toast, and glance one more time at his To-Do list.

Five months, twelve days.


At about three P.M. the next day, Simon’s phone buzzes from across the room.  He waits a few minutes to look at it, instead finishing the stanza of a poem he’s working on and stretching his back languidly.  Only then does he take a few steps across the room to grab his phone from the night table.

Simon’s phone will buzz for a lot of reasons, these days.  Amy forcibly persuaded him to start getting involved in social media as part of his “journey into stardom,” as she so lovingly calls his awkward attempts to gain publicity in the world of writing, so he now has a Twitter, a Tumblr, and a Facebook page, not one of which he quite understands.

It’s not that he’s bad at using social media – it’s all about communicating through the written word, and he’s a writer, the written word is where he excels – but he’s not quite sure why anyone would be interested in his occasional posts about writing he’s working on, and he’s even less sure why he has to get all of these notifications all of the time.

Someone “liked” his post, or “retweeted” his tweet – why does he need to know?  It’s good that people like what he’s doing, he guesses, but the constant notifications are kind-of annoying.  (He’d turn them off, but he has yet to figure out how.)

Today, though, Simon seems to be in luck – the phone’s buzzing was caused not by some inexplicable twitch of the social media beast, but from an actual text message.

The words appear on the screen, letters small, white and somehow friendly:

020-2488-7801: hi.  simon monroe?

A new number – this could be the beginning of either a horror film or a romantic comedy, Simon’s not sure which.  He stares at the text for a few seconds, gets up and paces his room, then sits back down and slowly types out a response, one letter at a time:

You: Yes?  Who is this?

Simon sits back down at his desk, intending to write another line or two of his poem, but he can’t concentrate – the only words he can think of are, who sent that message?

Two (infinite) minutes later, his phone buzzes again:

020-2488-7801: i’m kieren walker, amateur artist and now, apparently, book cover creator.  and, also, friend of amy.  she gave me your number, hope that’s okay.

Kieren Walker.  Amy’s friend, the artist.  So, not a demon from the underworld come to curse Simon through his phone then.  Although that still doesn’t explain the reason for the text.

Simon types a response, more quickly this time:

You: That’s fine, but ... Why are you contacting me?  Shouldn’t you be talking to the publishers?

An answer comes within a minute this time.

020-2488-7801: i guess the standard procedure is that i would be, but i don’t really like being told exactly what to paint and why.  i’d rather talk to you about your story and figure out what kind of cover it needs myself.

And then, a few seconds later:

020-2488-7801: ... is that okay?

Of course – this guy is friends with Amy, the most unconventional person Simon knows.  It just figures that he wouldn’t be conventional, either.  But it is comforting, somehow, that his book’s cover will be painted by someone he’s talked to, not just some nameless artist in another city.

You: More than okayThat sounds much better than what the publishers told me they were going to do, at least.  But won’t we get in trouble or something?

He doesn’t even bother turning off his screen to wait for a reply

020-2488-7801: we can handle it.

You: If you say so.

Simon imagines the publishers scolding him and Kieren Walker, chewing them out like a pair of kids caught filching cookies before dinner.

020-2488-7801: i do.  so, tell me about your story.

Okay.  This request isn’t unexpected.  This is easy.  Simon’s done it a thousand times – the first thing people want to know when he tells them he’s a writer is what he writes about.

He types out the synopsis he knows by heart:

You: Well, it’s basically your traditional princess tale – for the first couple of pages.  Then, the princess has to ally with the dragon, save the kingdom from her own family, and figure out how to cast a spell that will turn the dragon human.  Only it’s all from the dragon’s perspective.

The response is not very quick, this time.  Simon waits five minutes, then ten, then fifteen, pacing around his room and eventually lying on his back on the bed, staring at the ceiling.  When Kieren finally does text him back, it’s only a single word:

020-2488-7801: no

Simon reads it twice, wondering if he missed something.

You: What?

A few seconds later, an explanation offers itself:

020-2488-7801: that’s the same synopsis i found when i googled the book.  the official synopsis.  boring.  predictable.  i can’t make art out of it.

And so, the unconventional artist continues to be, well, unconventional.  Simon has always thought it unfair that authors didn’t get to write their own synopses – that some mysterious person he’d never met in an office far, far away would get to decide the paragraph that could make or break someone’s decision to read his book.  Who could know his story better than he?  Who could possibly be better qualified?

Simon never wrote an actual synopsis or introduction, but he’s told countless friends, family members, and new acquaintances about his book.  This isn’t too different – and yet it’s entirely different, writing down what has always been spoken word.

His answer takes several messages, many typo fixes, and his quickest proof-reading:

You: Okay, what about this: inside a great cave at the top of a mountain lives a dragon.  She is very old, so old that she has shed her skin and changed her fire more times than she can count. 

You: There is treasure in her mountain – gold and silver and jewels from all of the most powerful kingdoms in the land, but she does not care for it.  There is knowledge in her mountain – books from all around the world that tell of people and places long long ago and far far away, but she cannot read.  There is space in her mountain – for a hundred palaces, a thousand carriages, a million peasants, but all of the people are frightened of her.

You: The dragon is so very tired.  She does not move and barely ventures out to eat – and she does not remember how to breathe fire any more.  And then, one day, a girl ventures into that mountain. 

You: She pulls off her helmet, shakes out her long, dark hair, and says, “My uncle is having a contest.  The greatest knights came from miles around, and he has sent them here to find the true Starstone of our people.  Whoever can bring it back first will win my hand in marriage, and my uncle will proclaim that he is heir to the throne. 

You: “I thought that was a load of bollocks, so I’m here to get the stone first.”  And the dragon feels fire coursing through her veins again.

As he hits send the last time, Simon lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.  Kieren – who had let Simon spin his summary without interruption – is quick to guess:

020-2488-7801: and then the two of them save the kingdom?  and the dragon finds a way to turn human to be with her princess?

Simon rolls over onto his front, propping himself up on his elbows

You: That’s the gist of it, yes.  But it’s all really a given from the beginning – from their first meeting.

020-2488-7801: okay, i can work with that.

“Work with that.”  Does that mean he liked it?  Why does Simon so want to know?

You: Do you know what to paint now?

020-2488-7801: i said i could work with it, not that i had been immediately struck with a bolt of inspiration.  be patient, young grasshopper.

The snark is audible, but the Star Wars reference softens its edges.

You: Sorry.

020-2488-7801: don’t be.  and for what it’s worth, I think the story sounds like something i’d definitely want to read.

Simon can’t help it – a smile breaks out across his face.  He barely thinks to check himself before replying:

You: I can get you a copy of the manuscript, if you’d like.

020-2488-7801: oh, no, then we’d both be in trouble for sure.  well, thanks for your help, and i’ll possibly get back to you when progress has been made.  a biento.

You: Goodbye, and good luck with the painting.

Simon waits for a few minutes after that, but no further message is forthcoming.  He presses his phone’s screen, finding the right way to add a new contact into the phone’s infallible memory.

Kieren Walker – 020-2488-7801.

And then, Simon goes back to work, phone sitting on the desk beside his laptop.


A couple of days later, Simon gets coffee with Amy.

As usual, she spends the majority of their meeting blabbering on about anything and everything she can think of – how the book is doing with the literary journals, the last time she went thrift shopping and found a great new skirt, the TV show she just finished watching, the restaurant she went to on a date with Philip the previous week.  Any other day, Simon would be happy to just let Amy go on, listening to her stories and quietly searching for inspiration in her curious sentences – but today, he has news, too.

As she pauses for a sip, he takes a deep breath and says, “Amy, your friend texted me the other day.”

Her eyes widen, and then she grins.  “Really?  How exciting!  What did you talk about?”

Simon curls his hands tightly around his coffee cup, suddenly very unwilling to share any details.  His conversation with Kieren feels strangely private, although he can’t explain why.

“He just asked me what my book’s about,” he finally says.

“Oh, of course,” Amy replies.  “That’s why he asked me for your number.  So, do you like him?”

Simon sighs.  “Amy, I talked to him once, how can you –”

“Do you like him?” she repeats, leaning forward across the table and reaching out one gloved finger to poke Simon in the cheek.  “He’s one of my best friends, Simon.  It’s very important to me that you like him.”

“I do like him.”

Amy Dyer is a hard person to lie to, but Simon’s gotten pretty good at it over the couple of months she’s been his manager – “Yes, Amy, I’m almost done editing.”  “Yes, Amy, I slept for eight hours last night.”  “Yes, Amy, I think Phil definitely wants to go shopping with you.”  This time, however, when he reassures her, something rings true.

“Good,” she says.  She sits back in her chair and takes a sip of coffee, triumphant.

“So, um, how do you know Kieren?” Simon asks.

“Oh, we’ve been friends forever,” Amy explains.  “Ever since year one.  He was the only other kid in my class willing to make fairy houses with me.”

“Fairy houses?”

“You know, when you build little houses on the playground out of sticks and leaves and acorns and stuff for the fairies to sleep in when they come to visit at night?”

Simon just stares at her.

“You’ve never heard of them?”

“Nope.”

Amy shakes her head sadly.  “Atrocious.  We’ll have to go to a park and build a couple sometime.  But yeah, Kier and I have known each other basically our whole lives.  I haven’t seen him in a while since we went to uni – he went to art school in London, I stayed near home – but we still talk all the time.  And we Skype, because I like to show him things I think he should paint.  Ooh, have you seen any of his paintings?  They’re amazing.  I can send you a link to his website if you want ...”

Simon lets her go on, describing what all of her favorite pieces of Kieren’s art look like, and why they’re her favorites, and what she thinks they mean, philosophical-wise.  He agrees that it would be nice if she sent him a link, and conveniently neglects to mention that he’s already Googled Kieren Walker and spent hours poring over every single piece of information he could find on that very same site, from paintings to testimonials to the lack of a self-portrait.

The author and his manager sit in a cafe in Dublin drinking coffee as the sky slowly fades from early-morning gray into midday blue.  Simon finishes his coffee long before Amy does hers.


Simon doesn’t officially follow Kieren on any of his many internet platforms – Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, to name a couple – but he still finds himself checking them every day, hoping for updates.

Apparently, in the week and a half since their conversation, Kieren sketched a stray cat he found wandering around his block, got caught in the rain when he went out to buy groceries, and is a tad disappointed in the new season of Doctor Who, but there’s no mention of any project to paint a cover for a fantasy novel about princesses and dragons.  Simon knows he shouldn’t expect anything – i’ll possibly get back to you when progress has been made, Kieren said, and it would be unprofessional for an artist to put up pictures of something he’s working on for a major publishing company – but then again, contacting him in the first place wasn’t exactly professional, was it?

Simon isn’t expecting anything.  He’s not.  He just checks Kieren’s websites once or twice a day, and feels his heart beat a little faster every time his phone buzzes, and keeps the ringer on full volume when he’s home alone even if he’s not expecting any calls.

And then, a week after his coffee date with Amy, Simon’s phone does ring.  He’s in the kitchen heating up some soup for lunch when it happens, and he nearly drops the entire pot on his foot in his hurry to run into the bedroom and pick it up.

Before he hits the little green answer button, though, Simon stares at the screen for a second – takes a deep breath, reads, Kieren Walker in small, block letters.

“Hello?” he says.  He hopes the nervous chattering of his mind isn’t audible over the phone.

“Hi,” replies a voice on the other end.  “How’s it going, Simon Monroe?”

Simon’s not sure how he expected Kieren Walker to sound, but he wasn’t prepared for this.  He wasn’t prepared for long vowels, hard consonants, Si-mon Mon-roe.

“I’m doing okay,” he says, walking back to the kitchen and starting to pace.  “You?”

“Oh, well, I’ve been better, but a Florence and the Machine song came on the radio while I was doing errands this morning, and I found an excellent new kind of tea, so it’s been a pretty good day in general.”

Simon isn’t sure how to respond to that – should he give an anecdote, too?  Ask which song or what kind of tea?  Talk about the weather? – so he ends up just pacing around the kitchen, soup forgotten.

Kieren doesn’t seem to mind the silence, though.  “Anyway,” he continues, “I called because I want to start actually working on your cover.  I’ve got a couple of preliminary sketches done, but I’m not clear on what to do for background or coloring, and I have no idea how to handle the title.”

Simon wants to ask if he can see the sketches, even though he knows that would be completely unwise.  “What can I do to help?” he says instead.

“Well, do you have any particular visions for the cover, first of all?” Kieren answers quickly.  “I have ideas, of course, but it’s your story.  If there’s something you want, I’ll try my best to make it happen.”

Simon considers that – stops pacing for a moment and stares out his kitchen window at the street, empty save for a few businessmen heading to lunch and an old woman selling flowers on the corner.  When the publishers bought his manuscript, they told him that once he finished editing, it was out of his hands.  Cover, formatting, advertising – everything would be up to people at the company, and Simon would just have to accept it.  Nobody ever thought to ask him what he might want.  His job is already done.

“There isn’t anything in particular,” he says after a few moments.  “I just don’t want it to be too busy, I guess.  And I want it to be distinct, but powerful.  But, I mean, isn’t that what all good covers should be?  Ideally?”

“That’s the goal,” Kieren agrees.  “all right, so, if you don’t have any particular requests, would you mind reading me some of your story?”

“Reading …” This ... was not something Simon expected he’d be asked to do.  “But I thought sending you the manuscript would get us in trouble?”

“This is different.  Just read me, I don’t know, the first chapter – there won’t be any record of it.  Unless some vague yet menacing government agency is listening in on our calls, of course.”

“Well, I’m sure all the vague yet menacing government agencies out there have much more interesting people to spy on,” Simon replies.  “Like, I bet Steven Moffat gets his calls tracked all the time.  People trying to get Doctor Who spoilers and all that – ‘Okay, Mark, so what if this character turns out to be the master?’  And then, on a secret, secure line somewhere in Scotland, ‘DID YOU HEAR THAT, MATE?  I TOTALLY CALLED IT!  YOU OWE ME FIFTY QUID!’”

Kieren laughs at that – a beautiful, ringing sound, like church bells on a Sunday morning – and Simon forgets how to breathe for a second.

“Um, anyway,” Simon says once his lungs are working properly again, “I can read you the prologue, if you like?”

“That would be great, yeah,” Kieren replies.

“Okay, just give me a minute to pull it up …” Simon heads back to his bedroom, then sits down at his desk, opens his laptop, and finds the final version of his manuscript.  He’s strangely nervous – he knows the publishers are planning a book tour during which he’ll have to read to twenty different audiences in twenty different cities so he might as well get used to it now – but for some reason, he cares more about Kieren Walker’s opinion than those of nameless readers he’s never met before.

Simon shakes his head slowly, trying to clear it, then takes a deep breath and begins to read.

 

“On the top of a mountain, there lives a dragon,” the king says.

His daughter lies back against her armada of pillows, blankets curled around her in a cocoon.  She peers up at him through wide, emerald eyes, keeping herself still in a valiant attempt at patience.

This is a story that all fathers, regardless of wealth or status, tell their children at bedtime.  It is a story that has been passed down for generations, told not because it is true or because it is exciting – although it could be considered both – but because children need to learn as early as possible to keep away from the mountain.

“The dragon on that mountain is old,” the king continues.  “She has lived there for as long as I can remember.  My father told me this story when I was your age, as his father told it to him, and his father to him.  Nobody knows when she came to that mountain, or from where.  All we know is that one day, almost a hundred years ago, she called on our village.”

“She did?” the princess asks, her eyes bright and her heart pounding.  “What did she do?  Did your great-grandfather see her?  Was she exciting?”

The king shakes his head gravely.  He places a hand on his daughter’s shoulder to press her back against her pillows, as though to impress on her the weight that her kingdom has born.

“She was terrifying.  She razed our lands – she spit and expelled and roared flames as bright as midday sun and as red as blood, and everything burned.  Houses, trees, fields, palaces, families – all of it burned to a crisp, just like –”  The king snaps his fingers, loud and clear as a gunshot.  “ – that.

“Wow,” the princess breathes.  “So powerful.

“No.  Horrible.”  The king glares at his daughter, regal anger he practices in the mirror twice a day.  “That dragon killed at least three hundred of our subjects – we still don’t know the exact number, because no bodies were found, only piles of ash.  Hundreds more lost their homes, their family members, their friends.  We had to build our kingdom back up from the very dirt.  And worst of all?”

“Worst of all?” the princess echoes.

“She took our Starstone.”

The king does not need to explain what the Starstone is.  The princess has heard the legends since before she can remember.  She’s seen its pictures on the tapestries in the Great Hall, its descriptions in the tomes of her kingdom’s history, its empty place at the top of her father’s throne.

“My great grandfather had to earn his people’s respect,” the king continues.  “He had to sacrifice all the wealth not stolen from the palace by distributing it among the people, because otherwise, without the Stone, he would have been overthrown.  And now, we rule not by birthright, but by –”  He clenches his fist, the resentment of generations carried in his blood.  “– the people’s will.  And that will continue – we will be vulnerable, forced to bend to our people’s wishes to keep our throne – until the dragon is defeated and the Starstone is returned.”

“But can’t we just ask for it back?” the princess wants to know.  “Surely, if we go tell the dragon how important the Stone is, she’ll understand?  She probably has a lot more treasure, just one jewel isn’t that mu –”

“No!” the king roars.  His daughter shrinks back, trembling, and he puts a tentative hand on her knee to calm her.  “No,” he repeats more quietly.  “Many have tried – princes from our family, knights who swore fealty, even foreigners hoping for a prize of land or status or riches – but all have failed.  They go to the mountain and never return.  So, do not be curious, my child.  Do not stray from the palace up into the wild mountains.  Do not seek out the dragon.  She is far more powerful than you can ever imagine.”

“But, Father –” The princess begins, sitting up and letting her blankets fall behind her.

“Do as I say, and you will be safe,” the king tells her sternly.  He stands up and starts to walk away – then turns, almost as though on second thought, and bends down to place a gentle kiss on his daughter’s forehead.

“Goodnight,” he says.  “Sweet dreams.  And remember – do not seek out the dragon.”

He walks out of her room and shuts the door behind him, his tall shadow following until it molds with the darkness around him.

And the princess thinks herself to sleep.  She dreams of ravenous fire and roars that tear the sky.  She dreams of flying.

“So, um, what did you think?” Simon asks after a pause, his voice scratchy from the reading.

“I definitely want to read the rest of that book,” Kieren answers.  “Like, it’s obvious that the princess is going to look for the dragon, but I want to know how she finds her!  And how she convinces her to help her, not kill her!  And how the dragon eventually becomes human, and everything!”

Kieren sounds so excited, like a kid discovering a new favorite game and trying to tell his mother about every detail of it all at once.  Simon can’t help smiling, at that – it’s always such a good feeling to realize that someone likes his writing, actually likes it, and wants to know more about the characters he’s created, as though all the time he’s spent sitting at his computer, staring at blank Word documents has somehow become worth it.

“Well, I can answer a few of those,” Simon says.  “She finds the secret lair by –”

“No, wait, don’t tell me!” Kieren interrupts.  “Didn’t anyone tell you not to give people spoilers?”

“But I thought you wanted to know?”

“Not now.  I want to read the book when it comes out, obviously,” Kieren says.  “You’ll send me a copy, right?”

Simon would – he’d send much more than that, he realizes suddenly – but he doesn’t exactly see why he has to.  “Can’t you just buy it at a bookstore?” he asks.

“I could,” Kieren agrees, “but I want a free, signed copy.  I think it’s only fair that I get one, after the amazing cover I’m going to paint.”

“You haven’t painted it yet.

“Okay, but when I do – you’ll get me a copy?”

Simon sighs, feigning annoyance.   “I suppose.  But you should probably get to work on it soon, then.  Unless you need more from me in the way of inspiration?” he adds, two parts unsure and one part not wanting the conversation to end.

“I think I’m good,” Kieren says.  “Wait, no – one more thing, actually.”

“Yeah?”

“Your title – Do-ee-whatsis?  How do you say it?”

“Dóiteán, pronounced Doh-i-tyawn.  It means ‘fire’ in Irish Gaelic.”

Doy-tee-an,” Kieren repeats.  “Is that it?”

“Close enough,” Simon replies.

“No, I want to get it right.  Doy-i-taahn.  Better?”

“Not really.”  Simon says it for him again, laughing a little – and then Kieren tries it again, messing it up even more – and then Simon says it another time – and then both of them are repeating the word until it no longer sounds quite like a proper word any more.

Eventually, Kieren just gives up, saying, “I’ll be sure to practice it – like, in the shower, and in the car, and whatnot – and then I’ll get back to you, all right?”

“all right.”  Simon imagines Kieren standing in the shower, saying the title of Simon’s novel again and again – the thought gives him a strange, warm feeling he doesn’t quite understand.

“Thanks for your help, though,” Kieren says.

“Oh, no problem,” Simon replies.  “So, goodbye, then, I guess.”

“Talk to you later.”

The call ends with a beep before Simon can ask what he means – when is later, what else do they have to talk about?  He puts his phone down slowly, then returns to the kitchen, trying to picture the cover Kieren might paint and coming up blank.


Simon wakes up to a pitch-black room and a bright phone screen.  He doesn’t remember the phone vibrating or beeping, but it must have, because the light of a new notification is casting shadows across the ceiling.  He takes a moment to roll over and switch on his light before looking at it.

Kieren Walker: you awake?

Simon is now, he supposes – although he doesn’t know why Kieren is texting him at this late hour.  Why the hour, why him ... But then, Simon realizes, maybe it’s better not to ask.  Amy always tells him he overthinks things, so maybe he should just ... answer, and see what Kieren says.

You: Sure.

A reply comes quickly:

Kieren Walker: good.  tell me a story.

It’s not a request Simon has ever had before, but ... He thinks that he could fill it, anyway.  He has a thousand potential stories rattling around in the back of his mind all the time, and it would be easy to just pick one out, give it to his right brain, and see where it goes.

You: Any particular reason?

Kieren Walker: i’ve been having artist’s block and i need something to draw.  tell me a story.

You: Okay, but give me five minutes to think of one, and then I’ll call you.

Simon rolls over onto his stomach, then adds:

You: And then you’re going to have to return the favor – paint a picture for me to write a thousand words about.

And then, uncomfortable on his stomach, Simon rolls to his back – just as his phone starts to ring.  He picks it up almost immediately.

“Your story, sir,” Kieren says, without preamble.

“Of course.”  Simon looks up at the dark ceiling, imagining that the story Kieren needs in somehow hidden in its maze of shadow.

“Okay, so there’s this boy,” he begins.  (It’s not a good beginning, but it’ll do.)  “He’s about, say, four or five.  Let’s call him ... Martin.  And he goes with his family to a Costco.”

“Costco?” Kieren interrupts.  “What’s a Costco?”

“Have you ever been to America?” Simon asks.

“Not yet, I haven’t.”

(“I’ll take you,” Simon wants to say.  “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”  But he holds back.)

“Well, in America,” he says instead, “they have these really massive warehouse stores where you can go and buy food in bulk – and, actually, they also sell furniture, and clothes, and electronics, and books, and pretty much everything.”

“America sounds like a fantasy land,” Kieren observes, and Simon almost laughs at how wrong he is.

“A couple hundred years ago, it probably was.  Now, it’s just full of cranky people with loud opinions and an inability to compromise.  For the most part, anyway.”

“But you were talking about its warehouse stores?” Kieren prompts, bringing Simon back to the story.

“Yes.  Costco is one of those – one of the biggest chains.  Sells everything from apples to dresses to credit cards.  So our hero, Martin, goes with his family to a Costco.  His mother holds his hand and instructs him very sternly not to get lost, and his father constantly points out interesting items on the shelves to keep his attention, and his sister offers to push him in the cart as though it’s an amusement park ride, but his mother starts to examine discount sweaters and his father gets caught up in new computer monitors and his sister wants to try out the sofas on display, and when they look up, Martin is gone.”

Simon’s voice is quiet – he never projects when he reads aloud or talks for long periods of time, Amy says it’s something he needs to work on – but in this dark room, silent but for the tale he’s weaving and the soft breathing of his audience, it’s plenty loud enough.  It could well be the only voice in the world.

“Where does he go?”

“That’s precisely the question.  They search everywhere: wander through aisle after aisle, call his name into every nook and cranny, even ask the general manager to make an announcement over the intercom for a lost boy named Martin to please come to the front desk.”

“I’m guessing that doesn’t work.”

“Not even remotely.  For hours, they search, voices growing hoarse and multitude of shoppers dwindling to nothing, but they still can’t find him.  Until finally, Martin’s sister wanders into the very back of the store – the storage area, where they keep extra supplies in case something runs out – and finds him sitting amidst a shelf full of bags of flour.”

“Wait, plant flower or cooking flour?”

“Cooking flour – why would there be bags of flowers?”

“I don’t know, it’s America.”

“Fair point.  But, okay, Martin is on top of a small tower of bags, leaning over with something in his hand.  When his sister gets closer, she can see that he’s drawing – scribbling, vague lines and spirals and constellations all across the white paper with bright yellow crayon.  And she asks him, ‘Martin, they called for you on the intercom, didn’t you hear?’”

“And what does he say?”

“He says, ‘I did, but I didn’t know that was for me.’  ‘How many lost boys named Martin can there be in one Costco?’ she demands, voice rising.  And he shrugs and replies, ‘But I’m not lost.’”

Kieren laughs, strange and echoing in the shared space of their phone call.  “Of course he isn’t.”

“And, of course, she wants to know what exactly he is doing, if he’s not lost.  So, he tells her: ‘I’m growing a garden.’”

“I love that.  I love Martin.  Martin is a hero and a scholar, and I will definitely paint his garden.”

Simon grins.  A hero and a scholar, indeed.  “Do, please – but first, we had a deal, remember?”

“Oh, right,” Kieren remembers.  “Paint you a picture.  But ... I can’t.”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“The whole reason I needed a story from you was because I have art block!” Kieren exclaims, indignant.

Simon rolls over onto his side, still holding the phone to his ear.  (This feels strangely intimate, when he imagines Kieren doing something similar in his own room in London.)

“So just describe something you’ve painted before,” he suggests, “that’s okay.”

“Oh, all right, then,” Kieren agrees.  He’s silent for a moment, then says, “So, you have this field, right?”

“I have this field.”

“Hey, let me finish!”  Kieren sounds so petulant – it is, Simon thinks, kind-of adorable.

“Sorry, sorry,” he says.

“You have this field,” Kieren goes on, “and the sun is setting.  It’s a really beautiful sunset, of course – all these colors, not just red and orange but also purple and blue, and the sunset takes up about half the painting.  It’s completely dominating the space – drawing your eye, like an explosion or something, impossible to miss.  And then, around the edges of the painting, it’s very dark.  The sky up above the sunset is dark, the fields below are dark, the houses off in the distance are dark.  It’s as though ... As though as soon as the last rays of sunlight leave, everything else is going to die right along with it.  If that makes sense.”

“That makes a lot of sense, actually.  For an artist, you’re not bad at the whole description thing.”

“Thanks,” Kieren says warmly – sort-of like he’s smiling.  And then, “Can you write a story about that?”

“Of course I can.”  Simon has no idea how at the moment, of course, but he’ll think of something, he’s sure of it.

“Well, then –”  Kieren yawns loudly.  “– I’ll draw Martin’s garden in the morning.  For now, I think I can finally sleep.  Thank you, really.”

“You’re welcome,” Simon replies.  “It was no problem, really.”

Kieren yawns once more and says goodnight, then ends the call, leaving Simon’s room feeling strangely empty.

Funny, how Kieren woke him up and now it feels impossible for him to get back to sleep.

Oh, well – nothing for it but to open his computer and do some writing.

Simon sits awake for a long time after that, staring at his computer screen – the only bright light in the sea of darkness around him – and trying to picture the scene Kieren described to him.  His eyelids grow heavy, craving rest, and he wonders, dimly, what it might be like to sleep once and never wake up again.

And then, waking back up with a start, he realizes that there it is – that’s his story.  Simon switches on his bedside lamp so that he can see his keyboard, opens a new Word document, and starts to type:

 

I sit on the edge of the porch rail and watch darkness take over the fields.

It descends like a cruel master, subjecting everything below it to its will.  The fields, the fences, the other animals – all of them bow before the master, allowing him to cloak them in a coat of black.  I don’t understand why they do that.  Surely they want to keep their light, their color, their freedom?

My sister sits beside me on the railing.  She is older, by fifteen minutes.  Perhaps she knows.

“Why is everything turning to black?” I ask her.

“I don’t know,” she replies.  “But I’ve heard rumors – I’ve heard that it’s the end of the world.”

She sounds strangely calm about it, which somehow makes me all the more worried.   I jump up and hover in the air above the railing for a few seconds, flying back and forth, forth and back before settling back down.

“What do you mean, the end of the world?” I demand.  “Do you mean we’re about to die?  How do you know?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure,” my sister says, still so bland, as though discussing the weather.  “Maggie said that Peter heard the butterflies talking about it.  They said that when the light leaves, darkness comes and kills all the mayflies.  End of the world.”

“But can’t we fight it?”  I stare at the darkness, glaring at it with all the force I can muster.  I think it hesitates for a second, but that might just be my imagination.  “Isn’t there anything we can do?”

My sister flutters her wings a couple of times, apathetic.  “Not really.  I mean, look at it.  It’s so big, and we’re so small.”

“But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do,” I say.  My sister may be older, and perhaps she is wiser, but I am braver.

I look at the darkness, taking everything in its path, then turn back and look at the house behind me.  It is big, and full of lights – from the windows, and from the lamps, and from a torchlight on the porch itself.  The house stands tall and confident, and I can’t imagine that it will succumb to the darkness.  Perhaps, if I borrow just a little bit of that light, it will be enough for me to survive.

I lift up off the porch rail and fly over to the torch on the wall behind me.  It burns brightly, flame standing bravely against the darkness.

This will work.  It has to.

I take a deep breath and fly into the light as fast as I can.  For a moment, I feel nothing, and then – power, burning, fire, pain pain pain –

“What are you doing?” my sister screams.  She continues screaming, words I can’t understand, and then stops, abruptly.  The darkness has taken her.

It will not take me.

I fly out, burning but soaring, shooting straight into the darkness.  Everything about me is black, but I am orange.  I am red.  I am fire.  I am a survivor.

The darkness will not take me.  The pain will not take me.  The fire will save me.  I will –

And Simon saves the file as “Sunset,” closes his laptop, shuts off the light, and goes to sleep.  He will edit and post the story in the morning, but he quite likes how it turned out – a bit morbid, but a bit hopeful.  He hopes Kieren likes it, too.


For the next few weeks, Simon and Kieren begin to interact more frequently.

Simon follows Kieren on Twitter and Tumblr (no more sneaking around, checking what Kieren’s up to without actually acknowledging anything) and replies to his posts from time to time – especially when he disagrees with them, which is often.  They get into arguments about everything from the philosophical implications of robotic conscience to the proper way to make toast.

Kieren eventually starts sending Simon texts like, it’s okay for young people to read crappy ya lit because at least it gets them reading: discuss, and why the hell does everyone hate ayn rand so much? and can we please stop critiquing teenage girls for just existing as themselves?  Simon replies with his opinions, and neither of them get any work done for the next two hours.  Kieren has conflicting views on a whole lot – he’s much more optimistic than Simon is, and he likes to believe that people can change while Simon is much more certain that the human race is this close to blowing itself to smithereens.

But still, Kieren is intelligent, and makes great points, and occasionally even manages to convince Simon he’s wrong.  Simon hasn’t enjoyed talking to anyone this much since university, and he definitely hasn’t texted anyone this much since he bought a phone.  His conversation with Kieren has easily over twice the messages of all the other conversations in his phone, combined.

It’s possible that their fans are starting to notice something’s up, that people have guessed that when Kieren posts sketches based on “stories told to him by a friend,” that friend is Simon, and when Simon posts short stories based on “paintings done by a friend,” that friend is Kieren – especially when they post them at the same time.  Not to mention that they tweet at each other all the time, and Kieren has started a tag for Simon on Tumblr (mostly consisting of pictures of angry cats, Doctor Who gifsets, and extensive literary criticism, but Simon appreciates it, if appreciates is a big enough word to describe what he feels), and they just mention each other often – either their fans are very polite or very unobservant.  Amy herself has probably only failed to notice because she’s so busy planning Simon’s book tour, twenty-five stops across the UK and US in the three weeks after his book comes out.

Simon does worry sometimes, though.  He worries that Kieren is always the one starting their arguments and Simon always the one finishing – that Simon’s not quite brave enough to do something so simple as text first.  But Kieren never seems to notice, never calls him out on it, seems perfectly content to text him his thoughts and wait for responses.

Simon promises he’ll call if he’s ever in London, though, and he hopes that at least begins to make up for his transgressions.


And then, one day in the middle of March, about two months before Dóiteán comes out, Simon’s phone ring as he’s washing dishes.  He rushes to get it, hurriedly wiping off his hands and throwing down the sponge so that he can pick the phone up on the last ring.

“Simon!” Amy exclaims – and Simon is oddly disappointed, which he immediately feels terrible about.

“Amy,” he says.

“You need to do me a favor.  Right now.”  She sounds series – and Amy rarely sounds series, or gets to the point without chit chat, so Simon pays attention.

“Right ... now?” he repeats.

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me what it is?” Simon asks, walking back to pick up the sponge he so cruelly cast off and putting it on the bathroom counter.

“I need you to Google-image search your book,” Amy tells him.

It's ... kind-of an unusual request.

“... Why?” Simon wants to know.

“Just do it,” Amy insists.  “Please.  For me.”

And since it sounds as though this really is important, Simon heads into his bedroom, opens his laptop, pulls up a new tab, and does as he’s told.  At first, he’s still not really sure why Amy needs him to do this, but a couple of seconds (and the first ten of some thousand-odd results) later it quickly becomes apparent.

Amy,” he breathes.  And then, louder, “You didn’t tell me the cover was released!”

“Yeah, well, I wanted to surprise you!” she says, her grin audible in her voice.  “Do you like it?”

Simon looks at the cover again, now blown up on his screen in high-resolution glory.  It is bright orange, with yellow at the edges and red in the center: the color of fire.  But this cover is more than just painted the color of fire – it is fire, with a thousand flames licking up from the bottom all the way to the top, where “DOITEAN” is painted in simple, black script, each flame individually drawn, so painstakingly realistic that Simon fears if he touched the cover, it would burn his hand.  And on the bottom of the cover, in the right corner, there are two tiny silhouettes: two girls holding hands.  One of them is holding a sword, and the other, a large, round object that Simon knows must be the Starstone.  The silhouettes are painted not in black or gray, as anyone who’d seen a shadow would expect, but in deep blue, almost indigo, with maybe just a hint of purple – the color of royalty.  And when Simon looks more carefully, he can see that hint of purple reflecting outward and up, spreading to the rest of the cover.

It’s simple, memorable, and powerful.  It’s the best cover Simon could have dreamed of.

“It’s perfect,” he tells Amy.

“Yeah, I know,” she agrees.  “Kieren’s amazing, isn’t he?”

“He’s incredible,” Simon says.

They talk for a few more minutes, mostly Amy recounting a couple of stories and telling Simon about new project ideas she might have lined up for him, but Simon keeps looking at that cover the entire time.

He can see someone – himself five years ago, maybe – wandering through a bookstore, idly running their fingers along the spines of new arrivals, and stopping at this one.  He can see someone admiring it, picking it up, reading a few pages.  He can see someone taking it home.

After Amy Hangs up, Simon texts Kieren.

You: I just saw the cover, and I love it.  Thank you.

Kieren Walker: it’s only what your book deserves. <3

And if Simon spends the next hour deciding what that heart could possibly mean, well, that’s nobody else’s business.


Three weeks later, Simon is sitting up late, working on a short story – one of the online literary magazines that publishes him from time to time asked him to lengthen and expand on “Sunset” – when his phone buzzes.  He glances at the screen, and, of course, it’s the very person who inspired the story he’s writing.

Kieren Walker: hey, you awake?

You: Of course I am.

Kieren Walker: of course

Kieren Walker: one moment

And then, the phone rings.  Simon smiles at nobody, closes his laptop, and answers it.

“Hi, Kier,” he says.  “What is it?”

“Simon, I’ve got art block again.  Tell me a story,” Kieren implores.

Simon stretches out his legs, flexing his feet beneath the covers.

“Again?” he asks.  “It seems like you always have art block.”

“Well, I don’t know ... I think, I think I’ve run out of things to draw,” Kieren admits quietly.  To be honest, Simon has been ever so slightly worried about him for a while.  He doesn’t think art block should go on as long as Kieren’s has – he knows that, even at his lowest point, he always had ideas to write.  He only lacked the will to actually write them.

“How can you say that when there’s so much out there?” Simon asks.

“It’s like ...” Kieren is silent for a moment, thinking.  “It’s like, nothing’s interesting to me, I guess.”

Simon shakes his head, even though he knows Kieren can’t see him.  “I just don’t know how nothing can be interesting,” he says.  “I mean, when I realized I wanted to write, I started to get so many ideas, and they’ve never stopped coming.  Every time I go outside, or talk to someone, or even have a dream, I get a new idea.”

“Are you going to write a story about this conversation?” Kieren asks.

Simon considers it: one man calls another late at night and they tell each other stories.  It wouldn’t make a bad piece, he thinks.

“I don’t know,” he says.  “Do you want me to?”

“Maybe,” Kieren replies.  “But only if you write us as, like, goblins, or something.”

Simon wonders what Kieren would look like as a goblin.  He wonders what Kieren looks like, period.

“I could – hey, you’re getting off topic!” Simon exclaims.

“Okay, sorry,” Kieren says.  “So I don’t get new ideas for drawings as often as you, big deal.  You can write about anything – I can only draw what I see.”

“No, you’re wrong.”  Simon rolls over onto his side, turns the phone on speaker, and places it on the pillow beside him.

“What?” Kieren’s voice comes out louder, with speaker on – as though he’s actually here.

“I think,” Simon starts, “well, I can’t write about a person unless I completely understand them.  I have to know their hopes, their fears, their favorite songs, and what they refused to eat for breakfast when they were seven.  I have to be able to get inside their heads to write about them.”

Kieren is quiet for a moment, and then he asks, “But what if you’re writing about someone you don’t know?  Some person you just meet randomly and talk to for a few seconds?  You can’t possibly know all of that stuff.”

“Yeah, but I can make it up.  And then the story starts coming, right there.”

“So, are you saying I should do the same thing for my art?  Completely know someone before I paint them?  And make up a story for them if I don’t?”

Simon considers that.  He knows painting and writing are two different crafts, but both of them are about trying to record the human experience, right?  So maybe what works for one will work for the other.  “I don’t know if you have to – but it could help, maybe.  At least it’ll make the world more interesting.”

“Okay, I’ll try.”  And for a moment, the only sound is Kieren’s breathing, even with Simon’s.  “But for now – could you tell me a story?  Please?”

“Oh, all right,” Simon says.  And he tells a story about a robot uprising that threatens to destroy the human race until a young girl (surprisingly similar to Amy) teaches the robots compassion, and then they both fall asleep, the call still going.


One day, just as the sun is rising, Simon’s phone buzzes – once, twice, six times.

Kieren Walker: i had a dream last night that you were reading to me

Kieren Walker: you were reading a poem you wrote and i can’t remember what it was about but i remember it was beautiful

Kieren Walker: and then i painted your poem and the painting turned into a huge swarm of butterflies, all different colors

Kieren Walker: i don’t know why i’m telling you this

Kieren Walker: it’s just that it was a good dream, and wouldn’t it be great if all paintings could turn into butterflies?

Kieren Walker: art museums would be so much more lively.

Simon reads the messages three times, then rolls over onto his stomach, closes his eyes, and whispers, “Fuck.”

He stays there for a few minutes, just thinking.  And then, suddenly, he sits up, reaches for his laptop, and opens up a new Word document.

 

Friday morning – in Dublin – in London – in the universe.

I think I’m in love.

I’ve never even met him – I’m in love with his voice, his creativity, his spirit

and I’m fucking terrified.


It’s odd, that Simon grows used to being woken up at all hours of the night by Kieren’s texts.

He should probably be mad at Kieren for disturbing his sleeping cycle, or at least ask why he’s so often awake at two o’clock in the morning, but he doesn’t.  He even sets his phone to play a loud chime tone at night, maximum volume so that Kieren’s texts are sure to wake him up.

One night in particular, about a month before his book’s release, Simon is awakened at four twenty-six A.M. by that chime.  He doesn’t hesitate to grab his phone before he’s even fully awake.

Kieren Walker: simon

Simon’s fingers are slow and clumsy as he types out:

You: Do you ever sleep?

Simon sits up in bed, fingers already poised to reply when he receives Kieren’s answer.

Kieren Walker: not really

Kieren Walker: can i call you?

Simon smiles.

You: I don’t really have any say in the matter, do I?

(Not that he would object, if he did have a say.)

Kieren Walker: no

The phone rings, not ten seconds later.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up,” Kieren says as soon as Simon picks up.

“That’s all right.  I don’t mind,” Simon replies with a yawn.

Kieren doesn’t answer for a moment, so Simon puts the call on speaker and lies back down, placing the phone on the pillow beside him.

“Can you tell me why you called?” he eventually asks, folding his arms beneath his head.

“I just needed someone to talk to,” Kieren replies, his voice quiet and somehow very small.

“Oh.”

Simon is strangely nervous – he took psychology classes in school, but that’s nothing compared to actually listening to a real person talk about their problems and try to help. (Not that he wants to psychoanalyze Kieren, he just – okay, it’s a bad comparison.)

Kieren, for his part, stays quiet.  Simon waits a minute, to be sure Kieren isn’t going to offer up anything of his own accord before saying, “Kieren, I don’t think it counts if you just sit there and stay quiet.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Simon reassures him, “just – just talk about whatever it is you want to talk about.  I’ll listen.  I’m pretty good at that, or so I’ve been told.”  (Well, by Amy, but she isn’t exactly a lenient judge of character, so Simon thinks that counts.)

Kieren hesitates for another few seconds, then asks, “Do you ever wonder if this is all worth it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what have we accomplished, really?  I’ve painted some people.  Made a decent amount of money.  Lived for twenty-some-odd years.  What does that do?  What is that worth?”

Simon’s read philosophy books, but the ideas never seemed quite real to him – old men arguing through antiquated articles whether or not God exists and whether or not people have souls isn’t as real as lying in the dark, listening to Kieren – to his friend – questioning his existence.

“It’s worth everything to the right people,” Simon articulates slowly.

“Right,” Kieren replies, his voice louder now – angrier.  “And who are the right people?  Where can I find them?  If I died tomorrow, what would it matter?”

If I died tomorrow.  The thought of that – of a world without Kieren Walker to give it light – sends a cold feeling right into his chest, starts a long winter there.

“Kieren, don’t say things like that,” Simon says.  He hopes it doesn’t sound like he’s pleading.  “It would matter.”

“Why would it?” Kieren demands.

“There are people who care about you.  Your family.  Amy.  A hundred other people you’ve helped at some point or other in your life.”  Simon pauses, steels himself, then adds, “Me.”

Kieren is silent for a long moment.  Simon holds his breath, until he hears, “Okay.”

“Are you all right?” Simon asks cautiously.

Another pause, and then Kieren says, “I am now.  Sorry.  I’m usually better than this, it’s just ... It’s hard to remember, sometimes.”

The cold feeling slowly dissipates, or maybe thaws, and Simon rolls over onto his other side, moving the phone so that it stays close.

“That’s okay,” he says.  “Just don’t think too much about death, please.  Unless you’re drawing the Grim Reaper, in which case you should give him a funny hat.”

“That sounds fair.  Actually, I’ve always thought the Grim Reaper should have a sense of humor – like, he’d have to, otherwise his job would be so sad, you know?”

“Yeah, it makes sense, I guess.  Like in that one Terry Pratchett book, what’s it called?”

Reaper Man?”

“Yeah, that one.”

And then they’re talking about Discworld, exchanging opinions on favorite books and characters and potential allusions and philosophical meanings until they both fall asleep.  Simon realizes, the next morning, that their call continued for almost forty-five minutes with no words spoken on either end – just slow, even breathing.


Simon receives his advance copies of the book two weeks before the official release date.

He spends one of those weeks deliberating over precisely what to write in the copy he’s promised to send to one Kieren Walker, resident of Knoll Road, London.

Eventually, after pacing his flat several times, going for a couple of long walks, and finally banging his head against his desk for a few minutes, he settles on:

 

To Kieren –

You were right, you definitely deserve this.  The cover is even more amazing in print.  Is it too soon for me to ask you to paint one for my next book?  (Note that aforementioned next book currently contains approximately negative six words.)

–      Simon Monroe


To be honest, the official release day isn’t all that exciting.

Simon wakes up, lies in bed staring at the ceiling for a few minutes, and then gets up to make himself coffee and toast – as he would on any other morning.  The sun isn’t shining any brighter and the birds aren’t singing any louder.  Actually, it’s a bit cloudy – enough so that Simon turns on the light in the kitchen, something he rarely needs to do.  He looks at the news on his phone (nothing about his book, of course) and checks his email (Amy’s forwarded him a favorable review, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary).

But then, after breakfast, Simon stands, crosses the kitchen, and grabs a black marker from the counter.  His To-Do List needs to lose an item.

 

Publish a novel --> Publish a novel

Simon stares at the crossed-out words for a long moment.  The transformation is almost surreal, enough that he can’t quite believe it, even with the advance copies that arrived two weeks ago sitting on his desk in the bedroom.

And suddenly, his phone buzzes.

Kieren Walker: today’s the day!!  your book hits stores, i just got the copy you sent me (how ironic is that, right?  slow english post, doing something right for once), and i am going to start reading right now :)

Simon reads the message – and starts to laugh.  His laughter echoes in the otherwise quiet flat, strange and a little maniacal, but gleeful.  He’s done it.  He’s actually, finally done it.

And he’s got his first reading in half an hour, his phone helpfully reminds him.

Simon grabs his coat and steps out.  He answers Kieren’s text on his way, still grinning.

You: I hope you like it.


Simon’s worldwide (or, well, two continents-wide) book tour starts off small.

The first reading is held at a library on the grounds of University College Dublin, Simon’s alma mater.  He only expects about twenty people to show up, half of them friends of Amy’s she probably blackmailed into coming and the other half tired English students who just want extra credit.

It’s run by Professor Gallagher, an aging literature professor who taught Simon Shakespeare back when he was at uni and whose affection for the Bard hasn’t diminished since, if the tiny bust of the guy dangling from the professor’s keychain is anything to go by.

When Simon runs into him on his way to the library, he greets Simon with a kind smile and an, “I’m so happy to see you putting your love for literature to good use.”

“But, Professor, I never really had much love for literature at uni,” Simon corrects him gently.

The Professor snorts.  “I remember you getting into an extensive debate about the role of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus.  You loved literature then, even if you didn’t realize it.”

Simon doesn’t remember the debate to which Professor Gallagher’s referring, but he does remember pulling an all-nighter to finish his paper on the play in question – which ended up twice as long as the minimum page limit – so he won’t argue the statement.  They reach the library, and Simon holds the door open for the professor to go in first.

Inside, Simon sees the familiar shelves, desks, and stairs where he spent hours studying political science theories, struggling to keep his head up and his mind focused into the late hours.  And at those tables, there are people: college students and teachers, and older people who might be graduates or parents or even just people who live nearby, filling up all of the chairs, standing in the back, and even sitting on the floor in front.  The number is more than twenty – forty, maybe, or even fifty.  Simon wasn’t prepared for this.  How is he going to speak to all of these people?

“How ...?”  He trails off, unsure of what he’s even asking.

Professor Gallagher chuckles.  “Weren’t expecting this much of an audience, were you?  Didn’t you think the English department here would turn out to support its prize student?”

But, Professor, I was a political science major, Simon wants to say – but before he can, Amy appears at his side.

“Come on, Simon, don’t just stand there gaping,” she says, tugging him over to the far side of the room.  They’ve set up a chair for him, one of the special, plush armchairs that students get to the library at the crack of dawn to fight for.

He sits, and stares out at all of these people who have showed up – not because they’re bored or have been coerced into it, but because they’re genuinely interested in what he has to say, in the story he wrote.

Simon gives them an awkward wave, and they seem to take it as a cue to applaud.  He stands up and takes a bow, then sits back down, not really sure what else to do.

“Hey.”  Amy pokes him in the shoulder.  “Did you bring a copy of the book?”

“Um, no?”  Simon gives her a confused look.  “Why would I?”

“Because you’re supposed to read from it, dumb-dumb!” she exclaims.  “Lucky for you, I brought my copy.  Plus extras, for signing and stuff.”

Amy digs in her bag for a second, then takes out her copy, already slightly dog-eared, and thrusts it at him.

Simon looks back out at the crowd and smiles nervously.  Professor Gallagher, seated in the first row, smiles back.

“Hello, everyone,” Simon says.  “Thank you for coming – I’m impressed at the turnout, really.  I know how hard it is to get up before eleven, so I really appreciate the effort.  And if you fall asleep halfway through my reading, I won’t judge you.”

There’s scattered laughter after that, which Simon appreciates.

“Okay, so,” he goes on, “I’m going to read the prologue of my book, Dóiteán, then I’ll take questions, and then I believe Amy has brought more copies that I can sign for anyone interested?”  He glances at Amy, who nods.  “So, I’ll just start with the prologue now.  I could give you a summary of my book or tell you how I became a writer, but I think it’s best to just read you my writing and see what you think.”

Simon remembers reading this prologue for Kieren, the words tiny and black on his computer screen.  He remembers reading it for Amy the first time he met her, in answer to her question of why she should bother working for him.  And he remembers reading it out loud to himself the night he wrote it, looking at the scrawling ink on the blue-lined pages of his notebook and thinking, this isn’t bad.

This reading – for an audience of strangers, but strangers who woke up early and sat patiently in a library for him – is not any more difficult than those were.

“On the top of a mountain, there lives a dragon ...”


The reading in London is the biggest so far.

Not that Simon’s had many so far to compare it to – just the one in Dublin, ones in two other towns in Ireland, one near Edinburgh, and one in Bath before here – but it’s still strange to see a room that’s actually full of people who look actually anger to meet him.  These people have been reading his work for some time, if the messages they’ve been sending him on Twitter are anything to go by.  Simon estimates maybe a hundred and twenty eager faces, two hundred and forty hands clapping when he sits in front of them in the back room of the bookstore.

Still, he’s not nervous, exactly.  Anxious, yes – he wants these people to like him, as he has wanted every person he’s met to like him for as long as he can remember – but not nervous.  The words of the prologue are familiar now, familiar as the layout of Simon’s flat or the words Kieren Walker on a bright phone screen in a dark bedroom.

And so, Simon reads, and his audience likes it.  Or, at least, they applaud enthusiastically when he’s finished and they ask a lot of questions, which he takes as approval enough.

One girl in a bright pink T-shirt asks Simon what he thinks of the cover, and he can’t help grinning widely at the question.

“Usually, authors aren’t supposed to have a lot of input on what their covers look like,” he says, “but I was lucky enough that I actually talked to Kieren Walker, who painted Dóiteán’s, beforehand and gave him some input.  Or, well, I read him the prologue – the same prologue that I just read for all of you – and then he figured out what the cover should look like from that.  I think it’s brilliant, myself, and – small promo – if you like it nearly as much as I do, definitely look him up and give him a shout.  He’s usually pretty receptive to his fans.”

When Simon signs copies for people later, he hears several promises to look Kieren up, which he counts as a victory.  He’ll tell Kieren that, when he calls him – because he will call him.


The pub is, like any other in London on a Friday night, crowded and noisy.

Simon sits on a stiff, leather stool at one end of the bar, his phone out in front of him.  His fingers ache to reach for a pen and paper to scrawl down some, any of the colorful and intriguing pieces of life spinning around him – the woman in a red dress with intricate tattoos crawling out across her shoulders, the man in a suit who appears to have lost his jacket leaning against the wall, an older couple laughing loudly between pints of beer, a group of girls in tight skirts dancing in tandem as though auditioning for the devil’s personal dance troupe, the lone figure slouched in a corner, fingers clamped around the neck of a wine bottle – but, stupidly, he left his notebook in his hotel room.  I’m going to be brave, Simon had told himself when he went back to his room after finishing his reading at the bookstore, left alone by his manager (who apparently had cousins to visit or something).  I’m going to be brave, and I’m going to go out, and I’m going to call Kieren.

Well, so far, he’s accomplished item number two, but not item three, making item one a hard victory to call.  His phone sits in front of him, Kieren’s contact left open.  Every so often, the screen starts to dim, and Simon has to tap it (first lightly, then more aggressively) to bring it back to life.  The longer he sits, the harder it seems to make that one extra tap – call.

“You know, contrary to popular belief, phones can’t actually read minds,” a voice says from behind him.  “If you want it to do something, you need to press more icons, make more swipes, all that technobabble nonsense.”

Simon swivels around so quickly he nearly gives himself whiplash, turning the bloody phone off and shoving it into his jacket pocket in the process.  The man who spoke laughs – and there’s something familiar about it, almost painfully so, but Simon is soon distracted by messy golden hair, big brown eyes, pale skin, softly curved cheeks, glowing smile.  This man looks like a prince straight out an old storybook, only dressed in a faded Doctor Who T-shirt, flannel button-down, and skinny jeans.  Simon is distracted – no, that’s the wrong word, that’s a word for lecturers going on tangents and social media taking you from your schoolwork.  Simon is mesmerized.

The man takes a seat on the empty stool beside Simon, then waves at the bartender and orders, “Two of whatever he’s having!”

“So,” he goes on, turning to face Simon, “what were you trying to will your phone into doing, anyway?”

“Um, well, I’m here from out of town,” Simon says, “and I have a friend who lives here, in London, who I said I’d call if I was ever in town.”

“And have you called him?” the man asks.

Simon shrugs.

“I’m gonna take that as a ‘no.’”

He shrugs again.

“Why not?”  The man’s question is not accusatory but merely curious, as though he wants to paint Simon in watercolor but needs to know his story before he can begin to choose hues.

Simon is not usually honest with people.  He’s a storyteller, weaving elaborate lies is his profession – but he is mesmerized, and this is London, and he wants to call Kieren (if only he can muster the courage.)

“I’m not brave enough,” he admits.  “I mean, I’m a novelist, I write about characters who are really brave and always stand up for what they believe in, but when it comes to real life, I’m only good at following what people tell me.  I don’t know how to find goals for myself – except publishing a book, and now that I’ve done that, I have no idea what should be next.  I wish I could be like a fantasy protagonist, to be honest.  They’re always noble and end their stories with solid character development.  Real life doesn’t always work like that.”

“I’m sure you’re much braver than you realize, Simon Monroe,” the man says.  His brown eyes are warm and kind – like hot chocolate after a long trek in the snow, and – wait.

“How do you know my name?”

“Come on,” the man replies, laughing.  (Simon knows that laugh, he’s sure of it.)  “You’re clever, figure it out.”

Simon looks carefully – replays in his mind the laugh, the voice, Si-mon Mon-roe.

And his heart leaps over a hurdle and begins to sprint.

“Kieren Walker?” he asks.

The man – Kieren, this is Kieren, actually Kieren – grins and offers his hand.  “In the flesh.”

They shake hands, and Simon would be lying if he claimed he didn’t feel honest-to-God, romance-novel-worthy sparks fly up from his fingertips all the way to his chest.

“So, how did you know who I was?” he wants to know.

“I went to your reading, obviously,” Kieren replies.  “Did you think I wouldn’t?”

“Well, I –”  Simon hadn’t realized.  How hadn’t he realized?  But maybe it was better that he hadn’t – that Kieren Walker had been just another face in the crowd instead of standing alone the way he is now, alone and bright in a sea of London grey.

It occurs to him, a bit too late, that he had started to speak, probably far too long ago.  “I didn’t realize you would – I mean, I hadn’t told you –”

“Hadn’t told me you were in town, I know,” Kieren interrupts.  “But I do know how to use the internet, believe it or not, and I looked up all the stops on your tour.”

“Oh.”  Simon feels silly, for not thinking that Kieren might want to come to a reading.  It was partially his book, too, after all.  “So, um, what did you think?”

“It was brilliant,” Kieren answers without hesitation.  “Your story is brilliant.  You’re brilliant.”

Simon is floating.  This is not practice, this is not a drill – Kieren called him brilliant, brill-i-ant, long vowels and a prodigal of winged consonants, and what would that sound like if Kieren whispered it into Simon’s skin –

Time has passed, and Simon is staring.

“Um, thank you,” he tells Kieren.  “For the record, I think your cover’s brilliant, too.”

Kieren smiles at that (Simon is mesmerized) then drains his glass of beer and asks, “So, what’s the plan, anyway?”

“What do you mean?” Simon wasn’t even aware that there should be a plan.

“For what we’re going to do,” Kieren replies.  “We’re here, we’ve got a night in London – think of it like one of Amy’s day trips, right?  What’s the plan?”

“I honestly hadn’t thought of anything beyond going out somewhere and calling you,” Simon admits.

“So there’s no place you really want to see?  Thing you really want to do?”

You, whispers the warmth in Simon’s gut.  And, out loud, he answers, “No, not really.”

“Good.  That’s what I wanted to hear.”  And with that, Kieren stands and reaches for his jacket.

Simon just looks at him, confused.

“Come on,” Kieren says.  “You don’t want to just sit there and nurse your drink for the rest of the night, do you?”

Simon looks back at his drink – glass half empty – then up at Kieren – standing, face illuminated by the pub’s golden lighting – and reaches for his coat.


It’s ten minutes of brisk walking through the chilly London fog before Simon thinks to ask where they’re going.

When questioned, Kieren simply shrugs.  “Anywhere,” he says.  “Anywhere, nowhere, whatever.”

“So, there’s no destination.  You asked me for a plan, but you don’t, in fact, have one.”

“Pretty much.”

Simon’s not really sure what to do with that information.  Even when he’s had no idea where his life was going, he still had a plan – some kind of agenda, some simple goals (organize bookshelf and buy milk) to keep him going.  But Kieren is pulling him in new directions, telling him to stop in a shop if he thinks it’s interesting and read a sign if it catches his eye, not focus on the destination and nothing else.

“Why are we doing this?” Simon wonders after browsing through a tiny tea shop and tasting all of the free samples twice.

“Experience,” Kieren replies.  The two of them reach a corner – Kieren looks from one side to the other, then chooses left and heads off.

“What do you mean?” Simon says, taking long strides to keep up.

“You can’t be a good artist if you don’t have a lot of life experience, right?” Kieren explains.  “I remember – well, I used to struggle a lot with depression.  Even thought about killing myself.  But then, my sister, Jem, and Amy – the two of them told me that I couldn’t leave because there was so much left I had to paint.  So, I went to art school, moved to London – and now, I’m doing my best to see things worth painting everywhere.  To know things well enough -- like you said, that night when you told me how to get rid of my art block.”

They’re both silent for some time, after that.  The confession hangs in the air with the fog, cold and damp but not quite heavy.  Five or six blocks pass, two pairs of steps echoing in time.

And then, without preamble, Simon says, “I used to be a drug addict.”

Kieren turns and looks at him, but stays quiet, waiting.

“Yeah, I –” Simon breathes in, breathes out, figures out what he’s going to say, then continues, “I was at school.  Political science major.  Did my studies, got a degree and everything, but there were no jobs.  Nobody needed some kid just out of uni with no real experience and no drive to earn a position to get some.  I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I moved to New York, hoping for more opportunities – and instead of jobs, I found drugs.

“I tried everything – crack, heroin, hallucinogens, even new stuff - experimental stuff.  Anything to forget how pointless my life was.  I almost didn’t make it, but then one day, wandering around Manhattan high as the bloody Hindenburg, I stumbled into a bookstore and found Old Angel Midnight.”

Old Angel Midnight?” Kieren asks.  And Simon stops, suddenly – realizes he was so relieved to finally share all of this that he forgot Kieren might not know everything he’s talking about.

“A less-known Kerouac novel,” he clarifies.

“Kerouac?”

Okay, so this might be a step further than Simon thought he’d need to explain.  “You know, famous novelist of the Beat Generation?”

“Beat Generation?”

“Um, group of American writers, revolutionized their medium, brought more freedom to the previously tired form, wrote about the things nobody wanted to talk about until society changed around them?  Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Cassady?  I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked?

Kieren just shrugs.  “Nope.  Never heard of them.”

Simon shakes his head sadly.  “You were clearly taking the wrong lit classes in uni, Kieren Walker.”

“all right, maybe,” Kieren admits.  And then, after a moment, “Why don’t you tell me what I missed, then?”

“What?”

They’ve reached a busier street, now – cars zooming by from who-knows-where to God-knows-why, headlights shining out into the oncoming blackness.  The artist and the writer stop and wait for them to pass before continuing on.

“Tell me what I missed,” Kieren repeats.  “Who is Old Angel Midnight?”

Simon thinks back, closes his eyes and pictures the basement of an old second-hand bookstore, shelves that go on forever and the smell of dust, words pushing themselves out of the pages for his over-stimulated brain, covers so much brighter and titles so much bigger.  He can feel that book in his hands – thin, pale-yellow, man holding a rosary, spindly white cursive – and he can feel his hands shaking, the hands of a once-Catholic schoolboy who fought back and lost his pride, a boy turned man now turning page after page of prodigious vowels and winged consonants and finding himself wanting.

The book sits in his suitcase now, settled amid his suit and sweaters and shoes, full of marks in black and blue ink, but he can still see the words as though he had them in front of him now.

Friday afternoon in the universe,” he begins, “in all directions in & out you got your men women dogs children horses pones tics perts parts pans pools palls pails parturiences and petty Thieveries that turn into heavenly Buddha -- I know boy what I’s talkin about case I made the world & when I made it I no lie & had Old Angel Midnight for my name and concocted up a world so nothing you had forever thereafter make believe it’s real --

Simon trails off, trying to remember the next phrase -- he thinks it starts with “but,” but he’s not sure what comes after, something about forever boys and girls, maybe -- and finds Kieren staring at him, eyes wide and such a deep brown they nearly match the shadows.

“What the fuck,” he says.  “I mean, what?”

Simon grins.  He’s so used to Kerouac, has read those words so many times, that he’s forgotten how strange normal people find the guy.  “Brilliant, right?” he asks Kieren.

Kieren shakes his head, hair flickering golden for a moment as he passes beneath a street lamp.  “Brilliantly weird, if that’s what you mean.”

“all right, well, what about this part?”  Simon thinks to another page, one of his favorite parts, and recites in time with his footsteps, “You get a vision of the truth as the universe of electrical waves all of it pure ecstasy then you open the old sutras and all you see no matter how many pages you turn over is human egoism & warnings -- bah -- I am the new Buddha -- and I shall call myself ELECTRON --”

Kieren stops walking to listen and Simon nearly knocks him over, so caught up in his words.  He stands in the middle of the sidewalk, on a spot of light that must have been cast just for him, and his voice grows louder, emboldened by his audience of one. 

Why the all this hassel over what you do when there’s no time no space no mind just illusion & mystery?  It’s sheer ignorance & old-fashion’d God fear -- Why shd I fear Myself? -- It’s like looking at a movie high & insteada the story you see swarming electrical particles each one a bliss fwarming in the screen eternally -- shit!  I’m going to the other side.

“I dont need precepts
I need love
I need the Vision of Love
VISIONS OF LOVE”

Simon takes a breath, having finished the section, and starts walking again.  Kieren hurries to follow him, hands jabbed into his pockets for warmth.

“Okay, my second question,” Kieren says, “after what the fuck, is -- how do you remember all of that?”

Simon shrugs.  “I don’t know.  I guess I’ve just read it so many times that it became natural.  And I’ve always been good at memorizing things -- we’d have to memorize parts of the Bible back in Sunday School, and I’d always be the one who learned the assigned passages the most quickly.  I still know parts of it, actually.”

“So, how much more of Old Angel Midnight do you know, then?” Kieren asks.

“Just bits and pieces -- hard to say, exactly,” Simon replies.  “There are some lines that stick in my head, lines I really like: death was too proud so I stopt is one, and there’s another that’s just, Poo on you too, proo the blue blue, hello Buddha man --

Hello Buddha man?” Kieren repeats, dubious.  “Is he talking to Buddha?”

“He probably is.  Or he thought Buddha was talking to him.  Or he just thought it sounded clever, I don’t know.”

Kieren seems to find that an acceptable answer, and they cross another empty street before he asks, “What do you like about this Kerouac guy, anyway?  And about the -- what did you call them -- Beat poets, or whatever, in general?”

“Well …” Simon thinks about that for a moment.  He’s never had to explain his love for the Beat Generation before -- nobody has ever asked.

“The first time I read Old Angel Midnight, I was high as a kite, so all of the illogical phrases running all over the place made sense.  And then, when I read it again while sober, and when I started reading other Beat works, I thought it was amazing, how these people could take the most mundane things and make poetry out of them.  Like, I used to think that in order to be a writer, you had to be really creative and come up with whole new worlds and new people and all that, but these guys just wrote about their friends and their drunk exploits and it was way more interesting, because they made them interesting.  Kerouac wrote Old Angel Midnight by transcribing the noises he heard outside his bedroom window, and then extrapolating from there, and you heard the result.  Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem that is literally all phrases that rhyme with ‘washing machine,’ and it’s brilliant.

“I guess … I guess reading those writers -- starting with Kerouac, then reading Ginsberg and Burroughs and Ferlinghetti and any other books I could get my hands on -- I realized that if they could turn their shitty lives into beautiful poetry, so could I.  And I’d always been good at talking to people, telling stories, so I thought writing was worth a shot.  So, here I am.”

“Here you are, indeed,” Kieren says.  There’s something odd in his voice, Simon thinks -- if he didn’t know better, he’d call it wonder.


Twenty blocks, an hour or so, and an insane amount of conversation (Kieren asking Simon to recite more Kerouac, Simon philosophizing about how the world will end, Kieren insisting that Simon should listen to a podcast he’s certain to love, and arguments in any and every direction that arguments could go after that) later finds them in Greenwich Park, sitting on a bench and eating curry from a nearby takeaway place.  Twilight has long since past and the stars are out, multitudes of tiny pinpricks of incalculable brightness long ago and far away.  The occasional shadow passes on the path, but for the most part, Simon and Kieren are alone.  They could very well be the only people left in the universe.

Kieren finishes his curry and puts its plastic container down on the bench next to him.  “Can I ask you a question?” he says.

“You already did,” Simon replies.  He wonders if Kieren can hear the unsaid in the shape of his silence – of course you can, you can ask me anything, I’d do anything.

Kieren huffs.  “all right, smarty-pants.  I have a question that I would like you to answer, okay?”

“Was that it?”

“No, it was not!”

“What is it, then?”

“It’s ... well.”  Kieren pauses for a moment, then asks, “Why dragons?”

Simon isn’t sure what kind of question he was expecting, but he’s sure it wasn’t that.  “What do you mean?”

“Why did you want to write about dragons?  And not scary, powerful dragons, like in fairy tales or movies, but sad, lonely dragons who would rather have love than loot.”

Simon considers, then says, “When I was a kid, I always thought that dragons were the scariest thing.  I read The Hobbit, and I had nightmares.  But then, I grew up and realized that they weren’t scary – they were just lonely.  They had a lot of material wealth and not much else, and I could relate to that – a lot of drugs and not much else.  So, I wanted to show people that, you know, just because something looks big and scary doesn’t mean it is.”

“That makes sense.  Okay, so, what’s your next project?  More dragons, or something else entirely?”

Simon has to think about that one more.  He looks around – the trees, whispering secrets to each other, a few isolated cars honking about nothing, the stars shining brilliantly.  This is the perfect place, the perfect time for poetry, he can feel it.

“I don’t know,” he says.  “Right now, I could write about anything, but I left my notebook in my hotel room because I’m an idiot.”

Kieren grins at that, but it isn’t a mean grin – it’s more exasperation, or maybe even fondness.  “Write on me,” he suggests, and sticks out his arm.  Simon stares at the appendage as though he’s never seen one before.

“Write a poem,” Kieren clarifies.  “Write me a poem.”

Simon looks up at the stars, and then he looks ahead at Kieren – eyes twinkling brightly in the faint light.

“Do you have a pen?” he asks.

 

Fire is burning the cells beneath my heart,

destroying dismembering devouring me raw,

bright orange-red as a million suns.

And then you enter stage right, calm moonlit blue,

paint your beauty on raindrops teacups blades of grass.

There are stars inside you and I –

I want to map your constellations

across my scorched sky.

Kieren reads the words, then runs his finger along the ink, staining his index finger indigo.  It’s strangely intimate, this immediacy – Simon is used to editing and revising, five drafts before he shows anyone his work – and yet here he is, writing a stanza and leaving it to dry, not a letter crossed out.

“Thank you,” Kieren says quietly.

He’s close – very close, Simon realizes, his hand still on Kieren’s arm and their legs pressed together on the park bench.  It would be easy – the work of a few muscle contractions – to lean in and –

Simon’s phone buzzes abruptly.

Amy Dyer: SIMON IAIN MONROE WHERE ARE YOU??!!

Amy Dyer: ARE YOU LOST?  DEAD?  CAPTURED BY CANNIBALS????

Amy Dyer: SPEAK TO ME SIMON!!  SPEAK TO ME!!!

Simon is confused for about five seconds – until he checks the time, and realizes that it’s almost three o’clock in the morning.

“Shit,” he mutters.

“What’s wrong?” Kieren asks.

“Our flight – mine and Amy’s – to New York is at ten tomorrow, we’re supposed to be at the airport by seven!”

“Well, then.”  Kieren jumps up and offers Simon his hand.  “We’d better get going, then, right?”


You: Sorry, Amy.  I’m fine, and I’m on my way back.  Please don’t kill me when I get there.


And they run.

Simon’s hotel is twenty-five blocks from the park.  It took Simon twenty minutes to walk from there to the pub, and three hours for him and Kieren to amble from that pub to the park, going a more roundabout way.  It takes them forty minutes to get back, sprinting as quickly as they can past street lights and stop signs and darkened windows.  They barely pause at street corners, crossing without checking for cars.  Nobody asks them why they’re running – anyone else out at that hour is either too tired, too drunk, or too lost to care.

It could be a race, Simon supposes – it could, if they weren’t holding hands.

Kieren’s hand fits well in Simon’s, tugging him along and passing him warmth.  Simon’s legs are slightly longer, but Kieren moves faster, so they move together and it just works, in a way that Simon will probably analyze and over-analyze later, when his universe expands beyond feet slapping on concrete and breathing in time and a hand holding tightly to his.


“Well, this is me.”  Simon stops in front of his hotel: a plain, white Victorian building with black siding and a small garden out front that would look lovely in the daylight.

“It was nice finally meeting you in person, Simon Monroe,” Kieren says, his hands stuffed back in his pockets.

“Yeah, it was ... It was nice meeting you in person, too.”

Kieren leans forward slightly, as though about to say something else, or do something else – then bounces back on the balls of his feet.  (Simon is disappointed somehow, even though he doesn’t know what he was expecting – no, that’s not right, he can’t allow himself to consider what he was hoping for.)  And then, Kieren turns and begins to walk away.

Simon doesn’t know what to do – only that Kieren walking away is somehow so fundamentally wrong that he needs to do something, anything to stop it.

“Wait,” he shouts.  The word is torn from him, almost painfully –

But then Kieren turns, and his eyes catch the light of a nearby streetlamp or maybe the moon, and Simon doesn’t think, cannot think, can only look at him and say:

“I really want to kiss you right now.”

Kieren grins – sudden and unexpected, like the first star coming out after a torturously long dusk.

“So why don’t you, then?” he asks.

“Should I?”

Kieren steps closer.  “Please.”  His voice is a whisper, and yet it is the only sound that can be heard for miles.

And Simon steps closer, and Kieren steps closer, and then Simon is finally close enough to lean in and oh, yes, there you are, I’ve been looking my whole life for you.

The kiss is simple, at first.  Almost chaste.  And then, Kieren presses in and brings his arms up around Simon’s neck, and Simon opens his lips to taste, and Kieren quickly takes the invitation, and Simon tightens his arms around Kieren as though he never wants to let go.

When they finally have to pull apart to breathe, Kieren’s grinning widely.  His breath forms tiny clouds in the air – it’s cold out, Simon suddenly realizes, really cold.  (He probably should’ve noticed long before now.)

“I should go,” he says.

“Yeah, you should,” Kieren agrees.

And yet, for some reason, they stay there for another fifteen minutes – or another hour – or another small eternity – it’s hard to tell.


Simon has never been very good at sleeping on plane flights.

Ever since his first flight, when he was nine -- a vacation to Italy, planned by his parents in some kind of last-ditch attempt to bring romance back to their marriage -- he couldn’t just lie back in his seat and rest, not when the seats were so uncomfortable and the plane was traveling so quickly and he was going to be in a new place by morning.  Instead, he pulled out a flashlight (since he couldn’t reach the overhead lights, and this was more exciting anyway) and read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, all the way from chapter one to chapter thirty, until it didn’t quite seem like the same book anymore.

Now, about to take off from Heathrow on his way to JFK, Simon is no closer to dozing off than he was at age nine.  Amy, sitting next to him, is already yawning -- she lays her head on his shoulder and he lets her use him as a pillow.  He’s just as tired as she is, from waking up at six that morning, hurrying to the airport, and going through more security checks than he thought he’d need in a lifetime, but he just can’t seem to get his brain to shut off.

The lights go down, the flight attendants weave quietly through the aisles, and Simon stares straight ahead, thinking of bright eyes and a brighter smile and the feeling of Kieren’s lips on his.  He wonders what Kieren is doing now.  He wonders if Kieren is thinking of him.  He wonders if last night was an ending or a beginning.  He tries to compose poetry, tries to find the right words and falls short, no words are quite beautiful enough –

Simon’s circling train of thought is interrupted suddenly by the captain coming on the intercom, announcing that the airplane is on the runway and will be off in no less than fifteen minutes, and please remember to turn off all electronic devices or put them into airplane mode if you haven’t already.

Fairly sure he hasn’t already, Simon reaches into his pocket and takes out his phone.  Airplane mode, that’s something under Settings, right?  And Settings is in the top left corner, next to his email --

One new email.

The pilot said no less than fifteen minutes, which, in service language, is probably more like twenty-five.  Simon figures he has enough time to check.

 

From: kieren.walker@gmail.com

Subject: that podcast i mentioned

since i know you won’t have time to look these up on your own, i sent you the first couple episodes of night vale.  listen to them.  you know you want to.

have a nice flight!  <3

- kieren

Attachments: 1-Pilot.mp3, 2-GlowCloud.mp3, 3-StationManagement.mp3, 4-PTAMeeting.mp3, 5-TheShapeInGrovePark.mp3

Simon grins at his phone -- Kieren sent him a heart, that’s good, right?  And five episodes of that weird podcast he insisted Simon would love.  He looks around quickly to make sure that no flight attendants are lurking in the aisle nearby, ready to yell at him for having his phone out this close to take-off -- Amy makes a little noise and turns her face more into his shoulder, but other than that, Simon is in the clear.

He takes out his headphones, opens up the first file, and starts to listen.


On Twitter, the next day:

 

@SMonroe: @kierenwalking Alligators.  Can they eat your children?

@kierenwalking: @SMonroe yes.


Simon is seriously jet-lagged, because he’s an idiot who thought he could completely disregard everyone and their mother’s warnings about transatlantic flights, and he is going to murder whoever scheduled him a reading at nine o’clock the morning after his arrival in New York.

“That was me, sorry!” Amy calls from the bathroom of Simon’s hotel room, where she’s checking her make-up as she waits for him to get his arse out of bed.  “But you can’t murder me, you need me.”

Simon rolls over and mumbles something about resurrection into his pillow.

“Nope, you can’t do that either,” Amy says, much closer to his ear this time.  “There are adoring fans waiting to meet you in a bookstore not ten blocks from here, because I am a genius at finding hotels, and you owe it to them to get up and go.  Come on!”

Simon just sort-of groans.

“And you can’t do it as a zombie, either!”  Amy pokes him in the arm, hard.  (Did she sharpen her nails for this express purpose?  Simon wouldn’t put it past her.)

“Ugh, fine.”  Finally convinced, Simon rolls out of bed and surveys his open suitcase, torn apart by Amy in the hopes of finding him something decent to wear.  She shoves a shirt, jeans, and a not-too-horrible sweater at him before he can get too indecisive, and returns to the bathroom while he throws the clothes on.

By the time the two of them are out of the hotel and onto the street, they only have fifteen minutes until the reading’s supposed to start – which is approximately ten less than they had when Simon woke up.  He counts that as a small victory, and celebrates by taking a moment to look around.

New York City is awake, as usual.  The city probably didn’t miss him – it probably didn’t notice he was gone.  It just continued, endless heartbeat of honking horns and rattling subway trains and shouting people in a hurry to get somewhere unaffected by the loss of one bloke with a funny accent from Nowhere, Ireland.  But Simon did miss the city, with its constant life force – always moving quickly, always looking up, never boring for a second.

“I forgot how fast people walk here,” he remarks, glancing at a woman in high heels shouting on her Bluetooth and two kids having some kind of race who rush past him within moments of each other.

“Yeah, maybe we should follow their example.”  Amy grabs his arm and starts marching down the street.

“But what if I want to write a poem about this?” Simon asks.

“You can write it later.  Come on, you can’t be late to your own reading!”

Simon ends up being dragged for an entire block before he relents, and only then with an agreement that they’re allowed to stop for coffee before reaching the bookstore.  (Brilliant as Simon is, he can’t function before noon without an espresso.)

Nine and a half minutes after stepping out, they turn the corner – and Simon suddenly gets why Amy was in such a hurry to get him to this particular reading.

The bookstore is small and old, with no neon signs or fancy advertisements – just a whole lot of books.  Old books, new books, big books, small books, all stacked in the window to entice the world of potential customers walking by.  Simon forgets, sometimes, just how much he loves books, and then he walks into a room full of them and it seems impossible for him to love anything else quite as much.

He walks in, looking around and up so much that he nearly spills his coffee into a woman brushing by him.  There’s something familiar about this place – something in the soft mahogany of the shelves, or the dark blue of the genre signs, or the speckled gray of the tile floor –

And then, it hits him.

Simon turns to look for Amy – she’s having a chat with the owner and trying to figure out exactly where they’re set up for the reading, there’s no way she could have known – it must just be coincidence.  An amazing kind of coincidence, but coincidence nonetheless.

(Simon has never really believed in fate.  Kieren’s trying to change his mind on that – Kieren thinks that the important thing isn’t whether or not your destiny is predetermined, but what you do with it.)

Simon walks through to the back and takes a seat where he assumes he’s supposed to: a small, dark green armchair next to a table with a small stack of copies of his book.  He has a couple of minutes left before he’s supposed to start, and the audience looks as though they’re still settling in, so he uses that time to snap a quick picture of the store and send it to Kieren.

You: Look at where I am!

A minute later, his phone buzzes.

Kieren Walker: ... a bookstore?  in nyc?  what’s so special about it?

You: It’s a pretty special bookstore to me.

Kieren Walker: wait, is it ... ??

Kieren Walker: the one you told me about last night?  or, well, this morning?

Simon smiles as he types:

You: Yeah.

Kieren Walker: oh, wow!  that must be so exciting

Kieren Walker: i mean, you’ve come so far and all

Simon is about to reply when Amy catches him grinning at his phone and pokes his arm.  “Oi, stop that,” she whispers.  “You’re on!”

He gives the phone one last reluctant glance – as though he hasn’t already memorized Kieren’s message – before shoving it into his pocket and standing to greet his audience.


After the last fan has left the store, her signed copy of Dóiteán clutched in her arms, Simon goes up to the owner of the store, an old woman with dark skin, silver hair, and green tortoiseshell glasses that remind Simon of librarians from children’s cartoons.

“Hello, young man,” she says.  “Now that you’ve earned your pay for today, would you like to browse for a few minutes?”

Simon looks around at the bookshelves, contemplating her suggestion, then shakes his head when he remembers that he has a specific purpose right now.

“I would,” he tells the owner, “but first, I would like to thank you.  You probably don’t know this: your store basically saved my life.  A couple of years ago, I was wandering around New York City drugged out of my mind when I found your store, picked up a copy of Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight, and realized there was still some good I could do for the world.  I wanted to buy it, but with all the change in my pockets, I was short five cents, and the man at the register let me have it anyway.  So, thanks.  For that.”

The owner smiles kindly.  “You’re welcome.  And I would also like to thank you – for believing in yourself enough to start writing.  I’ve read your novel, Mr. Monroe, and it is brilliant.”  She waves her arm out, indicating the vast number of volumes around them, and says, “Take a book, any book you like.  On the house.”

He spends an hour trying to decide which book to take.  He walks down aisle after aisle, gets lost in mystery and tired in history, sits down and reads for a while on the floor next to biography, and earns a lecture from Amy along the lines of, “Oh, my God, just pick something and let’s get going, I want to see the city, not just a dusty bookstore!”

Eventually, Simon decides to take an anthology of Beat poetry.  He has most of the poems in it already, in one book or another – but this one isn’t for him.  It’s for Kieren.


Simon learns, about halfway through his book tour, that these things are exercises in being really tired all the time for no reason other than traveling, talking, and signing.  He’s been on more planes in the past week and a half than in his entire life leading up to this point, and his signature no longer looks at all similar to his name.  But he still has ten more cities to visit, so he has to chin up and be strong, as Amy says.  (Sometimes, when he starts to really lose his willpower, she pokes him and quotes Lady Macbeth’s “Art Thou a Man?” speech at him until he gets up.)

To be honest, Simon probably wouldn’t survive the tour if it wasn’t for Amy’s prodding, and for Kieren.  They text almost more frequently than before – between Simon’s stories about cities in America and Kieren’s questions as to how does America even function, is it really legal, they have a lot to talk about.  Sometimes, Kieren calls and they stay up late talking.  (One night in particular, when Simon’s trapped in a hotel in Chicago with very uncomfortable beds, Kieren convinces him to marathon the entirety of a strange cartoon called “Over the Garden Wall” – which Simon admittedly enjoys, although he enjoys the sound of Kieren laughing at the cartoon’s strange humor more.)

And occasionally, Simon composes short lines of poetry and puts them up on Twitter.  He doesn’t expect anybody to understand the context – at least, he’s hoping nobody does – except for the one person who matters.


 

 

 @SMonroe: My muse was a dragon, her scales faded black & white. // But they turned to flaming sunset orange when you lent her your color.


Kieren Walker: so, are you the writer fellow kieren won't stop going on about?

You: I'm sorry, who is this?

Kieren Walker: his sister, jem the amazing

You: Hi, Jem the Amazing.  To what do I owe the pleasure?

Kieren Walker: well, with your tour or whatever, I can't give you this lecture in person, so I had to steal kieren's phone when i was visiting him and give it this way.

You: Naturally.

Kieren Walker: basically: I looked up some of your writing and you seem nice and intelligent and all, but I need you to know that breaking kieren's heart is very much not okay.  like, I will hunt you down and slice off your balls as slowly and painstakingly as possible while listening to the fifty shades of gray audiobook not okay.  are we clear?

You: We're clear.  Not that I'm planning on breaking his heart, anyway.

Kieren Walker: good.

Kieren Walker: oh, my god, I am so sorry about that.  jem's my sister and I love her but she has literally no concept of boundaries

You: It's okay.  She seems lovely.  I wouldn't be opposed to meeting her in person.

Kieren Walker: ... next you're going to tell me you want to come home to roarton for the holidays with me.

You: I mean, if you want me to come, I'd love to.

You: Is that bad?

Kieren Walker: no!  I was just surprised that you want to meet my family.

You: Well, I want to thank them.

Kieren Walker: what?

You: For raising such an incredible son.

Kieren Walker: oh my god, shut up

Simon locates the heart emoji for the first time in his life and sends it off to London before switching off his phone’s screen and going to bed, grinning like an idiot the whole time.


It’s five o’clock in the morning when Simon finally arrives home from Toronto.

He fumbles his key into the lock, bangs into the door with his shoulder until it gives way, staggers in, dumps his bags unceremoniously on the floor, and falls face-first onto his bed.  He doesn’t move from that spot for twelve hours, except for one bathroom break at around noon that somehow becomes a bathroom-water-shedding layers-and-nearly-tripping-over-everything break.  The mattress is his mattress, not some crappy hotel facade, the blankets are actually the right warmth, and the pillow is neither too puffy nor too flat.  After three weeks in hotel bedrooms, Simon’s really learned to appreciate the simple things.

He’s lying drowsily on his side, eyes closed against the late afternoon sun, when he hears the doorbell.

Simon’s initial instinct is to just ignore it.  He spent at least sixty hours in the past two weeks dealing with people – that’s sixty-five hours too many.  He deserves a break, and whoever it is can wait.  That settled, Simon turns over onto his other side and burrows more deeply into his blankets.

Uncooperatively, the doorbell rings again.  And again.  And then, there’s knocking – a fast staccato of pounding on wood.

“One minute,” Simon shouts.  He doubts his mystery caller can hear him, but the statement helps him push himself out of bed and into a standing position.  Simon takes a second to right himself (being vertical feels strange and new after such a long sleep), then lumbers over to the front door of his flat, like a sleepwalker or a lethargic zombie.

He opens the door slowly with one hand, pressing a yawn against his hand with the other.  It falls back, revealing Kieren Walker standing on the other side.

Kieren Walker, in dark jeans, his favorite gray hoodie, and a leather jacket, with a backpack dangling over one shoulder.  Kieren Walker, wide brown eyes and fairy-like features and messily combed golden hair.  Kieren Walker, in Dublin.  Here.

“Um, hi,” Simon says.  He’s suddenly very conscious of how he must look – completely unkempt from the plane rides and subsequent sleep, dressed only in an old T-shirt and boxers.  (At least, he’s not quite so drowsy any more.)

Kieren doesn’t answer, except by stepping forward into the flat and kicking the door shut behind him.  He hasn’t been invited, but that doesn’t particularly matter.

He’s so close, after days of wishing – a daydream given life, only this daydream is so much more radiant in person.  Kieren looks at Simon, really looks at him, as though peering into his soul – and then leans forward and kisses him, hard.

Simon responds immediately, instinctively – brings his hands up to cup Kieren’s cheeks and presses him back against the wall.  Kieren’s hands grab at Simon’s shoulders, his fingers curl in Simon’s hair, and he is so close and so here that Simon doesn’t ever want him to let go.

“Hi,” he gasps after a minute, their foreheads pressed together.

“Hey,” Kieren says.  He’s grinning, bright and incandescent.

“Why – how – are you here?” Simon asks.  And then, quickly, “Not that I’m complaining.”

Kieren laughs and says, “I’m here because I wanted to see you.  ‘So I wait for you like a lonely house, till you will see me again and live in me.  Till then my windows ache.’”  He pauses, then adds, “I don’t know pages of Kerouac, but that’s not bad, right?”

To answer, Simon grabs Kieren’s hand and leads him to his bedroom.


Afterwards – after exploration, demarcation, exaltation – Simon lies on his back and stares up at the ceiling, Kieren tucked into his side.

The ceiling is dark up above them, white paint black shadows just as it’s always been, and the lights of London shine familiar through the window – but they seem closer somehow, more tangible, with Kieren’s head on Simon’s chest, their heartbeats beating a single tempo.

"Are you awake?" Kieren asks.

"I'm awake as long as you want me to be,” Simon replies.

He’d thought that their late-night phone conversations, taken place in that strange shared space that exists on the telephone, were the closest he could get to another person, but he was wrong.  This, now, with Kieren’s head rising and falling as Simon breathes slowly, in and out?  This is closer.

"Simon."

"Kieren."

"Tell me a story."

"No."

"What?  Why not?"

Simon smiles in the dark at Kieren’s incredulous questioning.

"I've told you a lot of stories – why don't you tell me one?"

"But I'm not a storyteller - I'm just an artist, I paint what I see."

"So, paint with words."

"Once upon a time,” Kieren begins.  He stops to think for a minute or so, then continues, “Once upon a time, there was a cat.  His fur was soft as silk, orange as sunset.  He loved to sit on the windowsill and watch the people go by: the mailman, with his bag of letters, and the joggers, with their exhausting determination, and the dog-walkers, with their masters tugging excitedly at their leashes, and the children, with their imaginary lives.  But then, one day, he realized that he'd seen all of the people a thousand times.  They didn't change – they just got a little older and a little sadder.  They weren't interesting anymore.  So, he got down from his windowsill and curled up in a ball to sleep.  He did nothing but sleep for a long time."

"And then?  Did he ever get up?"

"A new cat came to the house.  This cat was dark, with fur the color of the night sky, but his eyes were warm and excited.  He asked the orange cat why he only laid down and didn't go out the window, and the orange cat said that everything out the window looked boring.

“'Of course it looks boring!' the dark cat told him.  'You have to go out and experience it.  Listen to the people, and run beside them, and learn from them.  That would never get boring.'

“And so, the orange cat went outside with the dark cat, and the dark cat taught the orange cat to like the world he saw – and to help the people in it."

"Wow,” Simon says quietly.

"How was it?" Kieren asks.  He turns his head ever so slightly – if the light was on, he’d be looking straight at Simon.

Simon reaches, searching.  It only takes a moment to find Kieren’s hand, grab ahold, and press his lips to the palm.

“It was brilliant,” he says.  “Even if the analogy was a little too obvious.”

“Excuse you, Mr. Fire-and-Stars.  That doesn’t even make sense, comparing fire to stars –”

And the only course of action Simon can take from here is, obviously, to kiss Kieren quiet.  So that’s what he does.


Simon wakes to midmorning sunlight and Kieren sitting on the edge of the bed, sketching him.  He’s dressed in only boxers and Simon’s white button-up, half the buttons undone

The bed is warm – so much warmer than with only one occupant.  The sun shines gold, casting a light so bright it’s almost otherworldly, illuminating Kieren’s tousled hair and convincing his wide, dark eyes to sparkle.  He looks like something magical come to life - a dryad, maybe, or a friendly spirit, or an elven king.  And he’s sketching Simon.

Simon tries to sit up – reaches for the notebook, wants to look.

But Kieren gives him a stern look, shaking his head like a disappointed school principal.  “Not yet,” he says.  And he reaches out one index finger to push Simon decidedly back to his former position: lying on his back with one arm outstretched, palm up.

“Stay still,” Kieren orders.

Simon tries to obey, he really does – but Kieren is so distracting, with his long, nimble fingers and the easy grace with which he moves his pencil across the page and the little quirk his eyebrows get when he’s concentrating hard.  Every inch of Simon’s body aches to touch him, the atoms of his skin magnets pulled to their polar opposites.  And he’s supposed to stay still.

Eventually, Simon just turns over onto his stomach with a soft sigh.  He can still picture Kieren sketching, though – and Kieren standing at his door, and Kieren smiling at him the first time they met.

Pardon me, here I am,” he murmurs, the words coming to him in time with the strokes of Kieren’s pencil.  “My heart is full.  I could not live on as I was living, and I have come. Have you read what I placed there on the bench? Do you recognize me at all?”

It’s been some time since he read these lines - but he remembers, as he always remembers the strokes of brilliance and heartache.

Have no fear of me. It is a long time, you remember the day, since you looked at me at the Luxembourg, near the Gladiator. And the day when you passed before me? It was on the 16th of June and the 2nd of July. It is nearly a year ago. I have not seen you for a long time. I inquired of the woman who let the chairs, and she told me that she no longer saw you. You lived in the Rue de l'Ouest, on the third floor, in the front apartments of a new house,--you see that I know!”

Kieren’s sketching has stopped.  Simon continues, unable to do much else now that he has started.

“I followed you. What else was there for me to do? And then you disappeared. I thought I saw you pass once, while I was reading the newspapers under the arcade of the Odeon. I ran after you. But no. It was a person who had a bonnet like yours. At night I came hither. Do not be afraid, no one sees me. I come to gaze upon your windows near at hand. I walk very softly, so that you may not hear, for you might be alarmed. The other evening I was behind you, you turned round, I fled.”

The words don’t travel far - only to the pillow, then, muffled, they bounce back to Kieren.  How must Marius have felt - looking upon Cosette’s face that first time, so beautiful and so close yet impossibly far?  How did he keep going - how did he not run in the other direction as quickly as he could?

It must have taken all of his courage.

“Once, I heard you singing. I was happy. Did it affect you because I heard you singing through the shutters? That could not hurt you. No, it is not so? You see, you are my angel! Let me come sometimes; I think that I am going to die. If you only knew! I adore you. Forgive me, I speak to you, but I do not know what I am saying; I may have displeased you; have I displeased you?

Simon takes a shaky breath and looks up, finally – Kieren is watching him, hand still pencil lost and lips curved in a quiet, “Oh.”

“Um, that was Les Miserables,” Simon explains, hoping his face isn’t as flushed as he feels it must be.  “Marius, first speaking to Cosette – ”

“I know,” Kieren interrupts, his voice low and thick.  And he drops his sketchbook to the floor and himself to the bed, taking Simon’s face in his hands and kissing him as though the world is engulfed in flames and he’s got the only clean air.  When they finally break apart, Simon reaches up to grab Kieren’s shoulders and flips the two of them around so that Kieren is lying on his back, Simon on top of him.

Last night, they moved together in darkness, a choreography of touch and sound, but now, in the light of day, Simon can see every detail of Kieren in his bed, head tipped back against the pillows, eyes wide and dark - and Simon is struck, for a moment, by how impossibly beautiful the sight is.

“Waiting for something?” Kieren asks, breathless.

Simon shakes his head wordlessly, letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding - and reaches to undo the buttons on Kieren’s (his) shirt, pushing it off his shoulders before going for his briefs.  Kieren runs his hands across Simon’s back, nimble artist fingers dancing down and down, and the heat in Simon’s gut is a supernova ready to explode --

Ding-dong.

Simon rolls over onto his back, side by side with Kieren.  “Fuck,” he mutters.

“That was the goal,” Kieren says, smiling.  (Simon cannot get enough of that smile.  He wants to gather a pile of blankets, hunker down, and live inside that smile.)

Simon covers his face with his hands, wishing against all reason for whoever it is to just give up and go away.

The doorbell rings again.

“Can’t you just ignore it?” Kieren asks.

“I mean, probably,” Simon says, “but I haven’t been home in weeks, it could be important -”

As though to emphasize his point, the bell rings a third time, shoving its loud, irritating tones into their quiet utopia.

“Yeah, all right,” Kieren agrees.  “But before you get all dressed, let me -”  And he pulls Simon in for one more kiss - longer and deeper than he’d initially planned, probably, but neither of them is really complaining.

Simon can’t stop a smile from invading his face as he sits up.  “Okay,” he says.  “I really should -”

The doorbell rings yet again - this time, several times in quick succession, an angry di-di-di-ding-dong.

“Yeah.”  Kieren reaches down below the covers to unearth the shirt he’d been wearing, then tosses it to Simon.  Simon grabs a pair of boxers from his dresser, puts them on, and then heads out of his room, putting on the shirt as he goes.  It smells just a bit like Kieren - lavender and something a bit sweet, like cinnamon sugar or dark chocolate.

“Hurry back!” Kieren calls after him.  “Or I’ll write parts of John Galt’s speech all over your sheets!”

Simon tries to write the no-doubt ridiculous grin off his face by the time he gets to the door, but he doesn’t think he’s very successful.

He opens it to find Amy bouncing on the doormat, holding coffee in one hand and Phillip in the other.

“Good morning and welcome back!” she chirps.

“Hey,” Phillip adds, looking vaguely uncomfortable.  (Admittedly, he almost always looks vaguely uncomfortable, so that doesn’t say much.)

“We thought you might want some breakfast,” Amy continues, “so we brought pancake mix -” Phillip holds up a shopping bag, on cue, “- and I thought we could - hold on a tic.”

Amy takes a step forward and looks Simon up and down, scrutinizing everything from complete lack of slippers to ruffled hair.  Simon feels like a cell under a microscope - a very guilty cell.  His face is most likely going red.

“Is someone in there?” Amy asks, eyes narrowed.  She leans up, trying to peer around Simon as though he’s hiding some mysterious lover just behind the door.  “I mean, you only just got back -”

“What are you talking about?”  Simon’s voice is much too high-pitched to be believable.  He thought he had lying to Amy down, but apparently it still needs some work.  Damn.

Amy rolls her eyes.  “Come on, Simon.  As though I didn’t see you Tweeting all that poetry.  Someone’s here, and you’ve been hiding whoever it is from me, which, as your manager and as your friend, I do not appreciate -”

“Hi, Amy,” Kieren says, padding up to the door in his own briefs and (heaven help him) another one of Simon’s shirts.  He gives her an awkward wave and a guilty smile.

Amy’s mouth drops open.

Well, for about two seconds - and then she pushes past Simon to throw her arms around Kieren, talking a mile a minute about “I didn’t know you were in town!” and ”Since when are you dating Simon?” and “How did you not tell me about any of this?”  Phillip follows, giving Simon an apologetic glance as he passes, and heads into the kitchen to put his bag on the counter.

"I mean, Simon.  Kieren.  You fell in love, and didn't tell me?  How dare you?  How can you even sleep at night?"

"Um, I'm not sure you can say we -" Kieren starts.

Amy rolls her eyes.  "You literally jumped on a ferry to get here just to see Simon as soon as he was back.  What else would you call that, dumb-dumb?"

Kieren looks down at his feet and mutters something inaudible.  When he looks up, shy as a middle-schooler admitting a first crush, Simon is watching him in some kind of awe.

Their eyes meet, Kieren smiles with a small shrug as though to say, could I really have helped it, and Simon honestly cannot wait until they're alone again.

But right now, they aren't, so he follows Amy into the kitchen and asks what he can do to help with breakfast.


 To-Do List (from the refrigerator of the Monroe-Walker apartment, two months later):

 

Buy milk
Get shaving cream (a new kind!!)
publish another novel (thanks, Kier)
Learn more songs on guitar  (NON-SMITHS songs)
never ever order indian food from that one place again ever (debatable)
world domination (amy, no)  (Amy, maybe)
Don’t fuck up what you have with Kieren (we’ll be fine, idiot)


And in the year to come, Simon and Kieren will put together a picture book about giants who can reach high enough to poke the edge of the solar system.  Kieren will paint the artwork in blue and purple watercolor, and Simon will write a poem for the inside cover:

 

Stars (plural noun):
1. Giant, flaming balls of gas millions of light years away.
2. Benevolent spirits of your ancestors keeping watch over you.
3. Molecules that cause the contractions of your beating heart.