“I never meant anything,” he tells John, because he is not a hero. He is disposable; a rotten branch from a tree, an uncomfortable beat in the silence. He meant nothing. He was doomed from the start, sinned from his first breath, born to die.
“You meant everything,” John tells him, and kisses him on the mouth.
“I didn’t want to die,” he says. Sometimes, floating through the dream bubble, he will see the other Dave in the garnet suit, ivory bow tie singeing at his throat. He remembers him, because he is him, the heavy body thrown out the window, coating his hands with warm, slippery blood. His skeletal frame had been heavier than he expected, and lighter than he wanted.
In the ghostly visions lingering in his eyelids, he can see his tumbling body falling towards the shadowy lava. He could see his own twisted face, screwed up in silent horror, melting away by slow-eating fire. He could see himself dissolve in the molten heat. The face of death is his own face. His hands clenched hard against the sill, slick with blood and sweat, and his mortality churned hard against his stomach, a cold fist jammed down his throat.
He wonders if his own expression, in the green felt suit, had been twisted in a silent, inescapable scream. He remembers pain, searing pain, across his throat, and the world swam above him. He remembers.
“Oh,” John says, simply.
“I don’t want to die,” he mumbles into the night. The shame burns in his throat, hot lava poured down to his stomach, and he hopes John doesn’t hear him. He isn’t a hero, but he doesn’t want to be a coward. He doesn’t want to admit his mortality, even in death.
John touches his hand, and they stare at the stars.
“We were doomed,” he tells John. “We’re extras in a Hollywood blockbuster, except we get paid in dead chump change. It didn’t matter. We didn’t matter.”
Somewhere in the universe, he thinks his other self already changes. Before he died, they were the same, the same flesh and bones, the cartography of their skeletons mapped out in replica. His muscles strained under the same looming thoughts, his tendons stretched for the same fears. But somewhere in that second, in the smallest inhale, something inside him changed. He became disposable. He would never become a hero because something inside him rotted, twisting roots inside his chest, and he—he—needed to die for the other Dave to live.
He studies himself in the lake, his clothes sagging with dream water. The silvery liquid drips down his hair, flecking on his shades, but he cannot see inside him, what makes him so wrong. He counts his rib cage, each ridge and edge, dipping his fingers his sunken sternum and draping his fingers along his collar bone. He glides along his sharp shoulders to skim along his face, searching the hollows of his cheeks and the dryness of his lips for the thing that makes him different. The thing that makes him disposable.
But he never finds the missing rib, the original sin. His reflection stares back at him, and he is the wrong Dave, wrong, but he cannot see inside himself to know where he is wrong.
“You’re not wrong, Dave,” John says, “You’re right. You were always the right Dave. I promise.”
“It hurt,” the other Dave says, with the ivory bowtie gleaming at his throat. “Doesn’t really matter anymore.”
(But no resignation lingers in his voice, and he still doesn’t understand the differences in the gaps between their ribs.)
“It doesn’t matter what you do in life,” he says to John, “If you’re born dead doomed, then you’re born dead doomed.”
John plays in the sand, his jacket slung over a dune. He’s rolled up his dark shirt, and he’s building a sand castle. Dave stands nearby, and he can see himself in the distance, speaking to a troll in yellow, and he sees the sky soar with robots. He remembers meeting John for the first time, seeing his dark green suit, and he remembers John hugging him tightly, until his breath nearly ran out of his mouth. He remembers John’s scent, something like grass and sweet cake, and he remembers John grinning up at him, for the first time he had ever met him without a monitor between them. He remembers thinking John’s teeth were even better in real life, even in death. He remembers.
“You could be a good person,” he tries to tell him, “and you could do everything right. Brush your teeth on time, eat your fruits and veggies, your body’s not just a temple, you treat it like Zeus himself depends on you taking a jog with jiggling manboobs every other day. But one day, you’re walking across the street, bam. That’s it. End of the line. Didn’t matter if you were a good person, bad person, hell of a person. Doesn’t fucking matter.”
“It matters, asswipe,” John says, and he builds a small turret from grinded glass.
“How do you know?” Dave drops down to sit beside him, and digs the moat. The sand gets under his fingers, and he almost forgets about his question in the heat of the sun and brushing against John’s fingers.
“Because you taught me,” John says, and he leans over. His black shirt brushes against the keep, nearly destroying the sandy gatehouse, and he kisses Dave on the cheek.
Dave has more to say—more to ask—more to argue—but his ears burn, and he busies himself with the moat, pretending he doesn’t care at all.
“He’s not here,” he says, walking over the hills. The flowers bloom before him, petals spread thinly against the ground. John walks a little ahead, his suit dirty on his knees and elbows from where he crawls in the meadow, searching for four leaf clovers. Dave thinks he could just imagine one up, but John insists on finding it on his own.
“Yeah,” John says, “I don’t think anybody’s guardians are here.”
“The one good thing about dying isn’t even here.” Dave stares up at the sun, and listens to the grass rustle.
“We’re not super dead. We’re just… kinda dead.”
“Limbo.” John holds up a buttercup, grinning like a fool. Dave drops down next to him, sitting cross-legged in the grass. He can already feel his knees staining, but he says nothing when John leans against him, trying to gather all the buttercups in the grass. The yellow petals twist and stain John’s hand.
“I never told him,” Dave says, and the wind catches the slight dip in his voice, accentuated by the careful architecture of his resonant bones.
“But I never said it. Fuck, my last words to him were probably stupid.” He lapses into silence, feeling the sun warm the back of his neck and dip along his shoulders. “My last words to all of them were probably stupid as hell. Telling them to fuck off. Go fuck themselves. Gave them a stupid laundry list, talked about the latest action packed movie with six packs. Should’ve actually said what I meant. Shit. I didn’t think I’d die, shit.”
All his lost words rush back to him, winding through his lungs. His skin prickles in the torment, all the earnestness lost in the posturing, all the things that needed to be said brushed away because he couldn’t stand to shut up about his thoughts about shitty games and hot, sticky weather. He thinks about Jade with her bright eyes and curved smile, and Rose, with the kindness in her long fingers. He thinks about the silhouetted figure on the rooftop, when the sun has only begun to set, and sweat already beads up underneath his collar and the sword feels heavy on his hands, and he thinks about what he never said and what he could never say.
“I think they knew.” John props up his chin against his knees. “Sometimes a lifetime means more than a few words. That’s what I think, anyway.”
“What does that even mean?” He peers over his shoulder at John’s dark hair. “Steal that off an inspirational poster? Four flying eagles, all shedding patriotic tears?”
“I just mean that they knew. If my last words to you were, like, picklefucker, would you think I didn’t like you?” John releases the petals into the gust, his breath sweet and smelling like cake.
Dave thinks about John, while they were alive. He remembers the late hours with his knees on the chair, perched and waiting for the response. He remembers video chats and sent presents, he remembers John’s voice and loose laugh. He remembers typing out raps, line after line after line, sent over to some computer he’d never see, to someone he’d never meet while breath still filled their lungs, to someone who filled him with a strange feeling every time he saw another blue line. He remembers.
“Of course you liked me, who wouldn’t,” he murmurs, but his sardonic joke falls more earnest than he intended. John laughs, and stands up, dusting loose grass away from his pants. Dave sits still and watches the sea of grass with their cascading sweeps, bright sunrise flowers bobbing up and down with a phantom understanding. The greenness shouts something at him, a wordless yell, but he couldn’t translate their vitality into structured words.
“They knew, stupid,” John says. “Of course they knew.”
“But I still had shit I wanted to say to someone,” he says later, when night has fallen and they sit above the empty streets, legs hanging off the ledge. The cement behemoths tower over them with spindly legs, the dark sky barely illuminating the dusky alleyways. Empty pavement sprawls on for miles, and a tinny ice cream truck could be faintly heard.
“To who?” John asks.
“What did you want to say?”
“A lot of shit.” He imagines his dead body falling off the building, rolling into the lava, but he cannot concentrate. John’s swinging legs inch him closer to Dave with every stroke, and John’s pinky touches his own, in feather brush strokes.
“Did it matter?”
“Three words did.” Dave swallows, but his throat has filled with sand. He’ll never grow up into those words, he thinks. When he died, he hadn’t yet realized them, the seed ingrained between his ribs. He can feel it, but his blood is not ink and his skin is not parchment, so words will not form.
“They were probably nerdy words, anyway,” John says, hitting his legs against the cement. “Super stupid, like, ‘I’m marrying Mr. Hawk’ or ‘I drop socks’ or ‘I hate splinters.’ You wouldn’t say them, anyway, you’re too dweeby.” He leans over to kiss Dave on the cheek, a soft brush, and Dave thinks their shadows cast behind them stretch long into the night. John smells like cake, but he’s bittersweet, because Dave suddenly regrets the times he turned off John’s messenger, shut off his calls, rejected his jokes, because he can see the importance of small moments. He regrets working so hard and earning so little of actual significance, he regrets the missed moments lingering between them like atoms drifting towards the moon.
But John no longer has enough breath for regrets, so Dave doesn’t say it.
He can’t remember when John started kissing him. Time melds together for him in the dream bubble. Sometimes, when he lies down on the grass, he can barely hold onto his identity. Everything seems so easy to lose, but John still kisses him.
John is slightly different, but not in any way that matters. He seems wispier and dreamier, less fiery hammering about his favorite movies and more half-sentences about things he loves, sometimes trailing off to abstracted silence. But John feels the same, and he smiles the same. John thinks the biggest difference to the smell of carrots.
“Sometimes I smell them,” he says in his lost voice.
Dave thinks the biggest difference is John’s breath. He thinks, sometimes, his breathing has grown thinner, his hurricane hands colder. He thinks John will one day forget to breathe, and Dave thinks one day, he himself will lose track of time completely. He thinks of his sword, always circulating between time points, never with the solidity and confidence to graciously pretend in linear time.
He might become the sword, he considers, where he cannot tell when he began to kiss John or when John began to kiss him. Sometimes, he falls asleep with John curled by his side. When he wakes up, John tells him they will have a sleepover that night. It doesn’t bother him, though. John kisses him, and the ghostly serenity passes over him. The anatomy of ghosts cares less than the anatomy of the living, the ghastly skin and translucent veins much less concerned with the pounding of a throbbing heart.
But still, still, he feels the phantom heart course hot blood through his arteries.
“I should have spent more time with them,” he says. He means it, but he means more than that, figments drifting above the sky. He means he should have discarded his armor of words, he should have embraced them. He’s lucky, in some twisted way, that he’ll never be missed. Nobody will mourn for the dead who still walks amongst them.
“Sometimes I think about the movies that’ll come out, and I’ll never see them.” John turns his eyes towards the sky. Dave sometimes missed the darkness of his eyes, the brief flash of a cloudless day.
“They’re probably going to suck ass,” he says. “Trust me.”
“Yeah.” John jostles against him, half-amused smirk on his face. “Maybe they woulda made Back to the Future 5000. You would’ve missed that.”
“You’re the one missing Con Air 5: Fly Shittier.” He can feel John leaning against him, the slight warmth still clutching to his skin. “I never learned how to drive a scooter.”
“If you’re gonna regret, at least regret not learning to drive a car. A scooter is so stupid.”
“Fuck no. Scooters are the shit.” He struggles to conjure up his shaky future, but the day is bright against his eyes and John rests against him. “Maybe it would’ve been nice. Doing shitty high school volcano projects, reading Shakespeare out loud. He’s always saying wise quotes, ‘sipping on gin and juice, laid back.’ Get your diploma. Bro would’ve been embarrassing at graduation.”
“There woulda been so much cake,” John murmurs against his shoulder. “God, the cake. Did you want a wedding?”
“Only if it happened in Las Vegas. Do some gambling there, lose everything, sell your stuff to get more chips.”
“Oh, so I’m there too. Don’t touch my stuff, some of those movie memorabilia is super expensive in sentimental value.” John props his chin up, eyes heavy lidded. “Are we the ones getting married?”
The ocean stumbles against the beach in constant march, long foamy fingers reaching towards them, but drawing back delicately, aware of their intrusion. A half-derelict pier stretches out towards the vast water, creaking every time the ocean rocks against the unsteady frame.
Dave wishes the pier had been Las Vegas, though not for his own sake. Like an aftertaste of mellow wine, he suddenly, violently, wants John to be loved. He thinks he loves the spoiled child who rests against him with the thin inhales, the one who kisses him on the mouth, but doesn’t expect to star in marriage fantasies. Something melancholic nests in his heart when he thinks John is dead and won’t ever be kissed in Las Vegas, something dark and feathery and persistent.
“Yeah,” he finally says. “We’re getting married.”
“You’d make a crappy husband,” John says, laughing, and Dave starts to think about John.
Because John was—right. He was right, in every way. Dave knows this, because he has lain beside him, and watched him breathe in the night. John should have been the one to live, but instead, he had made the choice and died. It was different, it was different in every way, because Dave had not been the choice-maker—but still, he knows John is the right John.
John sometimes plays with string, tangling them in his fingers. When he lies in Dave’s lap and creates strange designs from colorful string, Dave carefully traces along the contours of John’s skull. He tries to see the thickness of his heavy eyelashes, the diameter of his teeth, his spiritual cells embedded in his being. John lets him touch his mossy coat, fingers brushing underneath to the black shirt. He lets him unbutton his shirt, pushing up against the hip bones, trying to find the difference that had doomed John to a dream bubble, instead of living as a god.
“I made a star,” John says, holding up a rectangle. “Well, I had it, but you missed it.”
Everything about John was right, a mirror image of a small god. Dave traces the smooth bumps on his spine, the planes of his shoulder blades, trying to find the knotted fate that had made John wrong.
“Do you ever regret it,” he asks. “Saying yes to Typheus.”
“I have a lot of regrets,” John says. “But that isn’t one of them.”
“But now you don’t matter. None of this mattered. No matter what you did, you would have ended up here. We don’t have a future, fuck, we’re dead. We’re deader than dead, we were doomed and nothing mattered.”
“You keep saying that.” Dave digs his toes deep into the sand, where John builds a small city in a shallow pit. “But how do you know? We’re the wrong ones, we could’ve been the right ones, but we weren’t, and so we didn’t fucking matter.”
“I know because you showed me.” John sits back in his suit, blinking with his glossy eyes. “Because you loved me when you were alive.”
Something catches in his throat, heavy with life, and shame floods inside him. He becomes a child again, even though John kisses him in the morning. He stammers, he mumbles, he waves his hands, and John builds a small city in the sand, even with the ocean’s long fingers stretching out to destroy it.
“I never said it,” he finally says.
“You didn’t have to,” John says. “Dave, you mattered. We might be dead, but other Dave’s probably doing really well because of you. Doesn’t that mean something?”
“It means I was disposable.” Dave’s hand flutters to his throat without thought, touching the smooth skin where he felt his throat fall out, warm spray of blood across his green suit and dripping to the floor, his vision swimming out until he awoke on the other side.
“Nobody’s disposable, Dave, I mean… I dunno, but, you’re not. I know you’re not, and I know it matters because you were alive and that makes the difference. Because some stuff doesn’t die just because you die.” John sits back on his heels, sand between his fingers, eyes earnest and focused and if Dave closed his eyes, he would have believed them blue. “Love matters and it lasts and somewhere out there, something’s changed because you loved.”
“This isn’t a tagline for one of your shitty movies,” he says, throat dry. “This is reality, in an 8-bit pixel game.”
“I know,” John says, lowering back onto the sand. “But it’s what I believe because, I dunno… Because this isn’t purgatory, and maybe it isn’t limbo, but I’m happy here. I get to play with you everyday, and even though you’re really shitty at building sand castles and you can’t weave flowers to save your stinkin’ life, I’m happy.”
“I’m disposable,” Dave says, but something’s gone out of him, because he can almost turn and see the faint glimmers of the children playing in the distance. He never thought of them as children. He hadn’t been thinking about anything except his rotting, doomed life. But he saw them, specters floating on the back of his eyelids, he saw the trolls pushing their heads together in peaceful murmurs never found in life, he saw them as children.
He saw his face, twisted in a silent scream while wearing that blood red suit, and he could see the same face settled into silent peace, overlooking the ocean.
“Do you want to play?” John asks, but his voice fluxes in a second. He sounds five and ten and fifteen and thirty, all in a single breath, like the entirety of his life has been rushed into the childish sentence.
“Your games are shitty,” Dave says, but he kneels down on the sand, and kisses John on the mouth.
(He doesn’t find the answer to his death, but he finds a light in the sky.
In a second, he’s shoving back John because John died as a child and he will always stay a child and so John doesn’t understand the death in the sky, he doesn’t get a choice and he’s scared. Dave doesn’t understand, either, but he knows it isn’t good. He’s scared of his own mortality even in his death, frightened of that twisted scream on his face, and he can sense it in the sky. It’s impossible, it’s unfair, and his stomach churns beneath him, even in his ghostly skin. Something’s going to happen, something’s going to come.
He steps in front of John because there’s two of him in this bubble, two of him, so he can die, but there’s only one John, John can’t die—
And he gets it.
John’s haunted murmurs floods his tormented stomach, and he gets it, he gets it, he can’t find the reason for his death but everything is connected, and he isn’t disposable. John was right all along, he wasn’t disposable, but he needed to be disposed. He pushes John away because if his death means John can live, he needs to die. There’s no missing rib in his stomach, no lost apple in his throat, he’s doomed from the start, but he matters, and he gets it—
Everything happens in a blur—fast, quick, shocks of light—in the air, fingers touching, and he’s screaming because he’s in pain, and he can feel himself falling apart, he can see John’s empty, lost expression dissolve into ashes, dark skeleton appearing from the murky suit, and the sight would have burned on his eyelids if he wasn’t already burning, the length of his arms, the stickiness of his lungs, he barely has time to think, but he thinks—
He thinks: he should have told his brother that he loved him, should have been honest with Jade, should have been upfront with Rose.
He thinks: he’s in pain, he’s dying in death, his worst fears dissolve him before his eyes, he is becoming dust.
He thinks: he doesn’t want to die.
He thinks: he meant something.
He might have thought more, about the lingering regrets, about how he kisses John on the mouth, about the lost wedding at Las Vegas and the lost lifetimes collapsing like sandy castles under the waves, about what comes after the purgatorial limbo, about how much he loves John with some unspoken grief, but he sees inside himself, for a moment. He sees his skeleton flashing before him, in some surreal lighted gaze, and he thinks he is no different in architecture, but there’s a heavier weight on his heart since he came, and he wonders if somewhere, after his death, the boy who is him will look up at the sky and finally understand.
But he disappears before himself, and there is no more time for thoughts.)