In the autumn, James comes home. He’s got three years at Oxford under his belt, a scar on his neck, and half of his hearing gone. Punctured ear drum, the concussive force of a controlled demolition too close not to leave lasting damage. Rehab has left him with new, untested skills and no one to talk to. He signs at the bus driver, who shrugs and points out the door, like James was saying, where am I? and not thank you.
James can hear past the ringing, if he’s close enough and it’s loud enough, but mostly it’s not worth it to try.
The air is crisp, and cool, and his mother couldn’t get off work, so he walks home from the bus station. He still has his dog tags around his neck, because some things are not meant to be unlearned. He keeps his hands in his pockets and his steps measured, and it’s still odd how he can’t, quite, hear the wind ruffle the gold and red leaves, but he can watch them move, at least.
He breathes in the cold until his lungs start to burn, ambling down his old milkman route, letting things settle back into the familiar. He is twenty-eight and back to living with his mother. He has years of back pay he’s never had to use, and money coming in from the settlement, and he is at loose ends.
The ground is soft underneath his shoes. He’s in no hurry.
His mother is there and gone again, just like it always was, and with his sister still in Uni, it doesn’t take long for James to get bored. He takes up reading again, in the way that he hasn’t has time for since Oxford, or before. He reads in his room or in the park, mostly, but he’s in the library when he sees Scripps. Scripps is wearing the same blue sweater he’d had on the day of Hector’s accident, only now it’s stretched at the hem, small holes dotting the sleeves and the collar. He looks tired, sitting at one of the desks, running a hand through his short blond hair. He’s flipping pages like he’s looking for something specific.
James thinks about saying hello, catching up, but he doesn’t feel like explaining, so he tucks his book under his arm and heads out into the overcast day.
James speaks to his mother, even though he doesn’t like to. She signs please and thank you and yes and no, but doesn’t know the alphabet and doesn’t have the time to learn. She touches his shoulders, instead, and gestures toward the tea she’s set on the table. She cups his cheek and smiles at him. She speaks so slowly that James wants to punch a wall. She means well, he knows, but that doesn’t matter so much. He misses music, and cinema. He smokes more than usual, and leans against the front of the apartment building, watching the passerby drift silently past.
The ringing gets worse, and then better, and then worse again. He spends four days in bed with the resulting headache, dizzy and tired and terrible. He tries to finish Moby Dick but the words swim, and his head pounds.
He thinks about how he’s going to be like this more or less forever. He keeps the blinds closed, and goes to sleep.
It’s Scripps who catches him in the library, three months after he’s gotten back. He’s trying to work his way through Camus in the original French, and he’s rusty enough that he needs a French dictionary, something he no longer owns. He’s engrossed enough that the tap on his shoulder makes him jolt.
Scripps is looking at him, surprised, and James can’t decide if he should smile or just leave. He settles for stillness, waiting.
“I called your name but you didn’t look up,” Scripps says. James has gotten good enough at reading lips to tell. He shrugs, and waves a hand next to his left ear – the worse of the two.
“I can’t hear for shit,” he says. “Punctured ear drum. Inner ear damage. Shrapnel.”
He watches Scripps’s mouth open with the intake of a breath James can’t hear, watches Scripps’s eyes widen, and he lifts one shoulder in a shrug.
“How are you?” he asks, not because he’s polite, but because he doesn’t feel like answering questions.
Scripps makes a face. “Writing my first, you know, real book. More research than I’d thought it would be, but at least I’m used to it.” He speaks like James is anyone at all, someone he knows and not a mostly-deaf ex-schoolmate he hasn’t seen in eight years. Something in James’s chest tightens, and he nods to cover his confusion.
It’s only later, after Scripps has invited him for a drink, that James realizes what it is. Scripps hadn’t talked slower. Hadn’t changed anything about his speech at all, except to direct it specifically at James. James had almost forgotten what it was like to have a real conversation.
It’s almost two am when Scripps finally reaches out to touch the scar on James’s neck. He’s been looking at it for the past three hours, on and off, so James is expecting it. Scripps fingers are clumsy with drink, cold against James’s skin, and James is warm all the way through from the alcohol. The touch makes him shiver.
Nurses told me I was dead for fifteen seconds, he signs, maybe because he knows that Scripps won’t understand him.
Scripps catches his fingers, says, “Talk to me,” with a downturn in the corners of his mouth.
“There are some things I can’t say out loud,” he says, and watches the frown slip fully onto Scripps’s face. James can feel the bass in the bar’s loud music, but not much past that. It’s making his teeth hurt, his head throb, and he knows he should leave, but Scripps is the same as when they were in school together. Always asking questions.
“Buy us another round,” he says, and watches Scripps’s mouth curl up.
They sit side by side at the library – James reading, and occasionally translating, Scripps researching and writing. James watches Scripps’s hand move quickly over the page, his small, angular letters filling line after line. James will look over and catch a few sentences before Scripps sees him at it and makes a face.
James always sits facing the door, because he hates having his back to it – he would, anyway, but its worse when he can’t hear what’s behind him. It takes Scripps a few weeks to notice James looking over his shoulder, but he doesn’t make James explain, just adjusts his habits to include James’s.
James works his way through the epic poetry section, before starting on the complete works of Shakespeare. He’s had to read most of them, but never for his own benefit, and never at his leisure. He takes the time to look up words he doesn’t know, references he doesn’t understand. He hangs around often enough that the librarians get used to him, and smile at him when he walks in. If Scripps has arrived before him, whoever is manning the front desk, usually Miranda or Constance, will point him out.
Scripps asks him, once, why he has never asked any of them for a date, and James just shrugs. He’s not really interested, not in them, and he doesn’t want to string them along. When he asks Scripps the same thing, Scripps just shakes his head, and turns back to his writing.
Sometimes James wakes up sweating, his pulse thundering in his ears even over the ringing, and he’ll lurch into a sitting position, reminding himself that the memories are just that. It doesn’t help that the week after the blast is a blank made up of swimming colors and black patches, the time when they weren’t sure if he’d pull through or not. Some nights James doesn’t sleep at all, instead sliding on his battered sneakers, sneaking out into the cool night air, walking the streets until the sun starts to come up.
Those days, he sleeps while the sun is up, and doesn’t see Scripps again until it passes.
The notes start simple and inconsequential – James asking for a French word, Scripps wondering about possible book titles – but they bloom into a habit that James has trouble breaking. They pass a pad back and forth between them, keeping a running commentary of phrases coined by Shakespeare, and small bits of prose, and ancient newspaper headlines. If Scripps asks him a question out loud, James will often write his answer out.
James makes it halfway through a reunion lunch with Timms and Posner and Akthar before he has to leave. Scripps puts a hand on his knee, something new, something precious, as if to say, come on, please don’t go, but it doesn’t make up for the spitfire conversation he can’t keep up with, all of their laughing that he can’t hear, all the possibilities in their futures. James is happy being static, he’s happier now than he can remember ever being, but that doesn’t mean he is unaware of how it looks from the outside – the wounded soldier, not even tested in battle, squatting in his mother’s apartment and doing nothing at all but wasting time.
He finishes his tea in one long gulp, and Scripps squeezes his knee, and then pulls away, the frown in the corner of his mouth that James hates.
He says, “I’m going for a smoke,” and he does, but he doesn’t plan to come back in. They all know it, and only Scripps watches him go.
James’s sister, Penelope, comes home from Uni on a weeklong February holiday, one semester away from her degree, a whirlwind of skirts and smiles and brightly colored lipstick.
So who is the boy? she signs, because she’s been taking an evening course to learn how to talk with her hands, and the first things she wants to know after banal greetings is the gossip he doesn’t have any answers to.
It’s not like that, he signs back, and nudges her with his elbow. He almost doesn’t mind it when he misses her laughing, because she’s a breath of air, someone he doesn’t have to translate for.
Because you don’t want it to be, or what? She’s still smiling at him.
Because, he starts, and stills his fingers for a moment, considering. Because he’s the only one besides you who treats me like a person, and that’s more important.
It’s important, she says, but I don’t think it’s more important.
It’s almost spring when Scripps takes James home to look at his typed manuscript, the one he’s been piecing together between the articles and columns he still needs for money. He lets James brush his fingers over the pages, flip through them, and then he gently pulls it out of James’s hands and puts it aside.
He kisses James in the doorway to his study, one hand on James’s face, thumb brushing over the puckered scar, the other hand just touching his hip. James tilts his head up and into it, opening his mouth for Scripps’s tongue. Scripps hadn’t implied that he leaned this direction, but it isn’t as if James had either. Scripps’s fingertips push underneath the fabric of his shirt, smoothing over the skin at his hip, and James shudders. He doesn’t mind at all.
On James’s 29th birthday, his mother takes off from work, and they bake together in the apartment. James is thinking about Scripps’s mouth as he mixes the flour and baking powder and salt, thinking about Scripps’s fingers on his skin. He thinks about telling his mum, but in the end, he watches her beat the eggs and stays quiet.
There’s no need for talk while they work. They’ve been baking this cake every year since James could lift a spoon, excepting for Oxford, and his time in the military. His mother kisses him on the cheek and smiles. The kitchen smells sweet and warm. James is happy.
When Scripps pushes the pad at James, he lets his fingers brush over the back of James’s hand. Come home with me, he writes, I have a sort of surprise for you.
You’re bloody hard to keep secrets from, Scripps signs, and it takes James a few long moments to realize the significance. It’s been two weeks since they first kissed, but Scripps had to start learning much earlier to be at the level he is now.
James wraps both is his hands around Scripps’s and kisses him with sharp teeth and desperate force. Scripps doesn’t try to pull his hands away, just lets James hold him captive.
You’re amazing, he signs, one-handed, still holding both of Scripps’s hands in his, and Scripps’s mouth is just close enough to his right ear that he can hear the needy sound that breaks free from Scripps throat. It’s enough.
Six months after getting back, James is huddled against the wall in Scripps’s bedroom, covers piled in his lap. The cold is seeping in through the window pressing just against his shoulder blade, and James has finally finished the last of Shakespeare. He’s decided that he’s going to read the philosophers next, Kant, and Freud, and Jung, and Nietzsche. Scripps turns over onto his back, squinting, half awake, at James. His hair is a mess, and he has three bite marks along his collarbone. The memory of putting them there makes James smile.
Good morning, Scripps signs, still a little clumsy with sleep. What are you smiling at?
You, James says with a shrug. Scripps laughs, and James wishes he were close enough to hear it.
Come here, Scripps says, and after he lets the last sign fade, he reaches out, touching James’s shoulder and chest and face. I can’t get enough of you.
The signs are close enough to James’s body that he almost misses them, but he sees enough to catch the meaning. He smiles, and presses his mouth to the side of Scripps’s face.
“Me neither,” he says, aloud, and finds that he means it.