God first speaks to David during a dream about baseball. David has had the dream a few times since he was a kid. In it he is playing outfield in a pickup game near the edge of a cliff, and as he goes for a long out he steps right off into nothingness. Happens every time but this time, because this time there is someone in his way.
David doesn't know that this small, unshaved, harried looking man is God. He won't know until a few days later.
"Who are you?" David asks, trying to catch his dream-breath and watching the ball soar overhead and then down, down into the darkness where, this time, David does not join it.
"That's not really--" The God that David doesn't know is God sort of laughs and rubs at his beard and clears his throat. "Look, just... he needs you."
"By the river," the man says. "You'll find him by the river. He won't need a doctor. Just you. Find him, David."
David hadn't gone after the ball but when the man reaches up and lays a hand on his shoulder he feels a sensation like falling anyway. He wakes in his bed, in his home, on his own street, alone, a morning like any other, and though he goes through his day as usual and tells himself that it had just been a dream, shakes his head over coffee, and again during morning sermon, he thinks that there might be no harm, surely nothing wrong with taking a walk down by the river.
David walks by the river twice a day every day since that first Sunday morning. It could be any river, he realizes, but there's a stretch near home where he runs whenever he remembers that he enjoys it, and where he's taken some of the youth group to fish. He walks before work and he walks after work and sometimes, if he cannot sleep, he walks by the river at night, air cold and unwelcoming. He's not afraid of the dark or the water, black and noisy under the moon, and he's not afraid of the shadowy figures that he sometimes passes, on the street, even on the trail. Sometimes he knows them and they say hello and he says hello back, but often they are strangers, or unrecognizable in the dark, mummied in their coats, and do not speak.
He knows a lot of people in town, more than he would had he moved here alone. His father is gone now, ten months gone, but people remember him, and David is left behind like something the town inherited. He wonders what his father would think of his walks, his dream, and he wonders if doing this, believing even a little, might make him a bit crazy or worse, vain, to think that such a thing, a vision perhaps, could come to him of all people. But what he fears more than burning bushes, what he fears in equal measure, is that he might actually find the person his dream said he should find, and that he might never find them at all.
On Wednesday morning he wakes and walks out to the river in the early still-dark, coffee steam and breath pluming in the cool morning air. He finds nothing but a rock worn smooth by the river which he rinses in the freezing water and stuffs into his coat pocket, and is home again in a little over an hour, shoes and pantslegs soaked from the dew on the grass, his mug long empty so he starts a fresh pot, pulls the rock from his pocket and puts it with the others in a bowl on the kitchen table. He thinks as he showers that he will probably be late for the first job, but there is still time to ask himself, as he bows his head beneath the warm spray, just what he thinks he's doing.
He's an electrician, because the Air Force had helped him to earn a degree in electrical engineering, and he had been trying for bigger and better and more, but he realized eventually that he really just liked helping people feel safe in their homes.
That morning he installs a dimmer and pocket lights for some newlyweds, toothachingly happy in their new-old house (which he rewired three weeks before), then spends the afternoon replacing outdated panels at the high school gymnasium. Some of the kids there know him from church and shout "Hey, David!" and "see you tonight!" over the hollow, echoing sound of young feet pounding on waxed floors.
That evening he sees them again as he attends service and teaches a study group of eight or so twelve and thirteen-year-olds which has somehow become part bible study, and part tutoring. He talks to them about the Valley of Elah. They ask him about long division.
"You look miles away," Shirley says to him before the last of the kids have gone home. She's one of the oldest members of their congregation, and one of the most active. She plays piano Sunday mornings while David plays guitar, and where David is best at math, the kids come to her for English.
"I've got something I need to do," he says, packing up his things and wondering if that's really true.
"Haven't we all?" She asks, smiling with a mouthful of improbably pearly white dentures until he has to smile back, then asks him to walk her home, even though she only lives next door.
The night is windy so the river is noisy, choppy and dark but for white foam ripples and the arcs of wings pale under the moon when he walks too near the bank and flushes a bird from the shallows. The man in his dream had said he would find someone here, but so far he has found only birds and frogs and a homeless man (who accepted his money but would accept nothing else). He knows by now where not to step to avoid washouts and foot-sized holes where small things have burrowed, and to walk closer to the edge of the woods when he passes the place where a still inlet turns the usual river-smell to something like death and he hopes that's nothing to do with what he hasn't found.
"Who cooks for you all?" he asks an owl that calls overhead, mimicking its own strange tone, then there's a silent shadow of wings over the moon and another call farther off.
The footbridge appears ahead, picked out black against the reflecting water. He has always turned back by this point but he has no appointments tomorrow and maybe that's never been far enough, so he stuffs his hands deeper into his pockets, glad for the heavier-than-usual coat, whisper-sings the song they've been practicing for next Sunday and keeps walking. He walks until his toes are a little numb, then further until he doesn't recognize anything, until up ahead the woods clear to an open sky, cut through from one bank to the next by the patterned shadow of a crumbling railroad trestle. The upright timbers, faded white at the top, plunge into blackness at the base, and if there is a way through he has no flashlight to find it.
He didn't grow up here. Twelve years ago he came from New Mexico in his father's old jeep with his father too small and frail on the seat beside him. He thinks that if he had grown up here, he might have played by the river, the trestle, every day, maybe even broken an arm falling from a rotten span, and he'd know the way through blindfolded.
It's after midnight and it's been three days. It's hardly even a disappointment anymore.
Halfway home he whistles at a heron that ignores him, but when he passes by he hears it take off. He turns to watch, wings white in the moonlight, but something more catches his eyes, something just behind him, pale and tall and not a bird. It staggers and reaches out and he hadn't realized he was so close to it, or it to him, but when it falls forward he catches it under the arms.
"Easy," he says.
"I find it very difficult," the man says, rough and serious and shaky.
"I mean take it easy."
"What am I meant to take? I don't understand."
The man is heavy in his arms and naked, damp and dirty and when he lifts his face, his eyes, to meet David's, to face the weak moonlight and the stars overhead, David thinks he knows then what to call the man who had come to him in a dream.
"I don't understand. Who are you?"
The man has a lot of questions. They're all the same ones: "Why do I feel so strange? Why am I here? How did I get here?" David has no answers for any of those, no more now, standing in his bathroom, than he did on the river bank when the man had first asked them, wrapped in David's coat and making that face of intense concentration, like he might answer them himself if he just thought hard enough. But this is the first time he's asked about something besides himself, something that David can answer.
"I'm David," he says, toweling the man's shoulders dry after the bath he hadn't been able to take on his own. David hadn't known that at first, not until after fifteen minutes of silence behind a closed door, only to find the man still standing in the room where he'd left him.
"David was a king of Israel," the man says, muffled beneath the towel. He seems to have no injuries, no signs of exposure to a cold Colorado February evening.
"Yes, he was."
"He was an ancestor of Christ and he slew a giant with a stone." There's gravel and gravity to the man's voice, as if something more than words are meant to come from the use of it.
"It's a very good name, David. It means 'beloved' in Hebrew."
The man's hair is probably dry enough but David thinks he's gone red so he takes his time. He used to bathe his father before church on Sundays. This is very different. "You sure remember a lot for remembering nothing."
"I seem to know a lot, it's just there. But I don't remember anything. Does that make sense? I don't remember my name. It could be David as well for all I know."
David pulls the towel away and the man looks up at him, hair wet-wild and eyes vivid blue and open and trusting and David doesn't know what he's supposed to do with that.
"I don't think it is, though," the man says solemnly.
"It's okay," David says, with a confidence from somewhere he cannot place. "We'll find it."
It is nearly two a.m. by the time he lays himself down to sleep, the stranger silent in the guest bedroom where no one has slept since his brother and his brother's girlfriend had flown in from Nevada last year. He's not sure that anyone is sleeping in it now.
"I don't think I am tired," the man had said, standing stiffly in a pair of David's too-big sleep pants and an ALLEN ELECTRIC t-shirt, one of hundreds he'd had made a few years ago, his store of them even now only reduced by perhaps a dozen.
"Maybe you're in shock. But I've got to sleep, and--" I don't know what else to do with you, David had not said as he pulled the covers back and offered the bed and the man just looked at him. "Do you want to lie down?"
"Should I?" the man had asked, and then, "... want to?"
That was how he'd left him, sitting in the lamplight of his guest room in clothes too large and a world even larger for all that he didn't know about himself, and for all the places David didn't know where to look to help him find answers.
That night, when David finally does sleep, he hopes that he will dream of another pickup game, and the dream-prophet who had set him on this path, but he doesn't remember what he dreams, and in the morning the house is so quiet.
"Did you sleep at all?" he asks the man when he knocks and finds him precisely as he'd left him.
Confusion and a furrowed brow are the answer he receives, along with a flat and uncertain, "Should I have?"
He considers the Bible for finding a name, because the man needs a name. David needs to call him something. Calling him nothing makes him more alien than David is prepared to handle, and he's handled a lot already.
"You should eat," he says, bringing his laptop to the table because, after a bit of thought, there are too many strange names in the Bible.
The man nods, agreeing in some very objective way, and picks up the toast on the plate David had sat before him earlier, nodding again as it crunches between his teeth. "This is your home?" he asks, crumbs flying as he looks around the kitchen, pronouncing the word as if he's never spoken it before.
"Yeah. Where's your home?" Maybe if he asks the right question, the man will have an answer without thinking.
"I don't know. I think it must be very far away."
"Far away like another country?"
"You don't have a foreign accent," David says, but the man just nods again. The plate and the walls and the towels in David's kitchen are blue because his father had liked blue and David has changed very little about the house since his father's passing. It's unnerving how normal the man looks sitting in his kitchen, with eyes that almost match the room, eating toast, dropping crumbs on David's shirt.
David clears his throat. "Can you read?"
There's a moment before replying when the man looks at nothing, as if searching internally for the answer, then nods emphatically, yes, so David pushes the laptop over, stands to lean over the man's shoulder.
"This is a list of names. You can choose one. Move down like this." He shows him which key to press to scroll the page, and suddenly there are long fingers and elegant hands that make David's seem too large.
"Adam was the first man. I don't think I'm him."
"Let's hope not."
"Jonathan might be appropriate."
"Does it feel familiar?"
"No, but he loved David above all others."
David straightens then because they had somehow become very close. "How is that appropriate? You've only just met me," he says, trying to let it sound good-natured.
"Precisely. You're the only person I've met."
"Keep looking, okay. We'll keep it in mind."
When he finally chooses 'Emmanuel', David tries to at least take the italicized God is with us next to it as a sign that maybe the guy isn't from Mars.
He has no jobs lined up but there is choir practice in the evening and before that, Shirley had asked if he could move a bureau for her. She likes making up things for him to do, excuses to feed him, to get him to stay and talk, and to make him watch American Idol. Emmanuel will have to come with him, because he can't leave him alone, and because he doesn't know what else to do with him.
"How did you know where to find me?"
David looks up from where he's searching a rack of clothes for something that might better fit Emmanuel than a pair of David's old jeans cinched with a belt and that same t-shirt that fits okay but seems strange all the same. They're standing very close again. It seems it's something Emmanuel does, no matter how many steps David takes in the opposite direction.
"How do you know I knew?"
"I think you did. I feel that you did. Did you?"
"I had a dream."
"The dream told you?"
"Someone in the dream. It could have been a coincidence."
"Do you believe that?"
"No. Here, I think this will fit."
"Do you know who the someone was?"
"No. Would you try this on, please? Not here, in the-- c'mon. In here."
"And you just believed them? The person in the dream?"
"I don't know. I guess so."
David herds him into a dressing room, shuts the door, then leans on it when it drifts open again.
"Is it customary to help others find clothing?" Emmanuel asks him through the door.
"I guess if they can't help themselves."
"Is that why that woman is helping that child?"
The woman two aisles over looks toward the dressing room and David tries to smile at her. She looks uncertain but smiles back.
"It's probably her daughter," he whispers.
"Do you have any daughters?" Emmanuel asks, and then "How do I know if they fit?"
"No," David says when he opens the door again, "I don't have any daughters or sons. How do they feel?"
"I'm not sure."
David tests the waistband by tugging on them the way his mother used to do to him, and tries not to think about the warm skin his hand brushes, but Emmanuel's face is only curious.
"I think they're fine. Put these back on."
"Have you dressed many people?"
Once or twice, David has had to fill in watching the five to seven year Sunday school class, and couldn't answer their questions fast enough. This reminds him of that.
"I helped my father," he tells Emmanuel through the door once again. "Before he passed he was very sick. I had to help."
"I'm very sorry to hear about your father. But I think you're very good at it."
"Helping. Can I come out now?"
"Yeah. Let's find you some shoes."
It makes him real, bringing him into public, introducing him to Shirley, proving to David that he hasn't just made him up, that he hasn't been talking to himself all afternoon, buying clothes for invisible people in his mind.
"Where did you find him?" Shirley asks and it takes him a moment to remember that she can't possibly know and that it's just one of those things people say. She had raised an eyebrow at Emmanuel's introduction when they came to move her bureau, but waited until after choir practice, with everyone scattered around the sanctuary, to ask.
"He's a friend."
"Well I hope so." She smiles and brushes his arm with her shoulder. "He's very handsome."
"He's a friend," he stresses.
"You said that already. He must be alright. The girls like him. They're very discerning."
The girls are her great granddaughters, twins. They are sitting beside Emmanuel, telling him secret eight-year-old things, information which he receives with the utmost sincerity.
It's something he hasn't wanted to admit to himself, that Emmanuel is, in fact, very good looking, tall, dark and everything. But only by the grace of Disney or the Brothers Grimm do people find their true love washed up on a river bank and, a cynical outlook on love and questions of morality concerning amnesiacs aside, he only has a bearded man in a dream to thank.
It is generally known in their small community that David is gay. He hasn't dated often since he and his father moved to town but when his father was still alive he had set David up (with the eager help of Shirley) with a couple of men from the congregation who, through David, later met each other and now live together six blocks away. David installed track lighting in their living room a few months back.
What he did in college could not be considered dating, and of the men he has met since, none have understood or even completely believed his devotion to faith. They seem to think it is a phase, in the same way that he was told by his high school counselor that liking the other boys was a phase. It wasn't, and it will never be, and while he never doubted the truth of it, he once questioned the fairness of it.
"Bring him to dinner?" Shirley suggests.
That evening David makes dinner for two for the first time in a long time and Emmanuel sits across from him, watching him as if for cues: what to eat first, how to eat it, how much of it. He matches David's gestures silently.
After dinner, David turns on the television and sits Emmanuel down in front of it, not the news because that could be overwhelming, and not a sitcom because he's not sure Emmanuel would understand the jokes, and no reality television because, really, that's not reality, not the reality of anyone he knows, anyway.
"What is this?" Emmanuel asks and David pauses on a channel. Emmanuel sits forward, studying the screen with some intensity, so David sets the remote down and tells Emmanuel that he will be in the kitchen washing up, the smooth jazzy tunes of the weather channel filling the room when he leaves it.
David takes his time washing dishes, bypassing the dishwasher and doing it by hand. It's a mindless task and he doesn't have to think about what he's meant to do with each dish, or where the forks came from, or if the glasses would be better off in someone else's care.
When he can no longer pretend to be busy, he returns to the living room to find that Emmanuel has learned to use the remote and is watching something David probably saw once, years ago. He knows the actress but he can't remember the name of her love interest and he tries desperately to recall if there is a love scene, because he doesn't want to answer any of those questions. But Emmanuel is silent, taking in every line of dialogue and watching every movement as if filing it away for later, squinting at the screen in a way that makes David wonder if he sees very well.
He falls asleep in a chair, watching Emmanuel watch television, and wakes to the same thing a little while later. Emmanuel hasn't moved but the movie has changed, another romantic comedy that earns the same somber concentration.
"I have to work tomorrow," he says to Emmanuel as he stands from the chair and stretches and Emmanuel looks up at him. "Just for a few hours in the morning."
"You're going to bed," Emmanuel says, like it's a phrase he just learned.
"If you want. Aren't you tired? You didn't sleep last night."
Emmanuel concentrates inwardly again, in the same way he had when David asked if he could read, or earlier that afternoon when David asked if he was hungry.
"I don't know," is all he says.
David convinces him to try and shows him how to use the toothbrush he'd bought for him that morning. Emmanuel learns things quickly, precisely. He watches David brush his teeth and mimics it down to the stroke and spit and then asks if he should bathe like last night. David tells him he can if he wants, and asks if he could do it alone this time and Emmanuel says that he can and David brings him clothes to sleep in and new underwear and shows him how the shower works if he'd prefer that.
"Will you be alright on your own tomorrow?" David asks when they're standing in the guest room. "It will only be for a few hours." He's still not sure that it's a good idea but you don't keep business by canceling jobs.
Emmanuel nods with certainty.
"There are books downstairs if you want to read or anything. Or watch television. It's just a little while," he says again.
"You said that."
"Yeah. You can call me. I showed you how."
David nods, runs his palms along the flannel of his sleep pants. "Do you want to see a doctor?" he asks, even though what he meant to say was 'good night'. "I mean... maybe they could help."
There's a clock on the wall that ticks softly, three times before Emmanuel says, "Do you think a doctor could help?"
A breath, a shrug. "I don't know." Six ticks. "Not really, no."
"I think you are helping," Emmanuel says.
David shakes his head but says, "Alright. Good night," but before he can turn away, Emmanuel steps forward, arms open, and closes them around David, chin on David's shoulder, hugging him good night. He must have learned it from one of those movies. David wonders what else he's learned.
"Good night, David," Emmanuel says close to his ear, and then steps away, climbs into bed and turns off the bedside lamp like he's done it every night of his life.
In the morning, Emmanuel is not in bed. David finds him downstairs reading a book on how to lay, repair, or replace tile work. It seems to be as engrossing as the films he'd watched the night before, but he looks up when David says his name.
David owns a lot of books on do-it-yourself work, basic and advanced. His shelves are also full of books on control systems, circuitry, biographies of Tesla and Edison (which he's never read and were given to him as gifts), ham radio, build-your-own telescope, shrubs and trees of Eastern Colorado, and various other subjects that might be applied to this project or that, requiring hands and effort and time. He has a lot of books on spirituality, too, though he doesn't always agree with them.
Emmanuel doesn't want breakfast. He asks if that's okay and David tells him that's fine. It is fine. Some people don't eat breakfast.
He showers and shaves and dresses for work and Emmanuel is still there on the sofa, frowning over an in-depth explanation of grouting choices when David tells him, once again, that he won't be long.
The job is across town at a manufacturing plant that's having new machinery delivered and installed and David knew it would be quick work but he wants to stop by the police station before he goes home.
Jack is a cop that David met the first time he'd had to call rescue services for his father, because, to his surprise, a police car and a fire truck had arrived along with the ambulance. He is middle-aged and married and his daughter is one of David's youth group, although Jack himself only ever attends church for weddings, funerals, and once for his nephew's baccalaureate service.
Sitting in the police station, all hard surfaces and shiny metal and waxed tile and Jack's desk cluttered with paper, David can't reconcile this corner of the world with the one in his home, where Emmanuel is alive and real and reading about grout.
"Is someone missing?" Jack asks, clicking through something on his computer that David can't see from across the desk.
"No... maybe. Do you have a database of people reported missing?"
"Sure, but..." Jack squints at him. "Have you found someone?"
David's stomach drops and he wonders if he's still very good at lying. "No, of course not. I'm just curious."
Jack looks skeptical. "Jesus, Dave, you didn't find a body or anything, did you?"
"I'd report a body, Jack. Give me some credit. I was just-- look, nevermind."
"No, now, wait. Here," Jack scribbles on a piece of paper as he talks, "you can look on the D.O.J. website, there's pictures and everything. And of course you can see the Fed list, just search "missing persons". It shouldn't be hard to find."
The note when Jack hands it to him has a web address. "Of course. I don't know why I didn't think of that."
Jack asks about practice, they talk about his daughter and having lunch some time until Jack walks him out, blocks the door in that bodily, cop-like way he has sometimes without realizing it.
"Hey, you'd let me know if you needed help, right?" he asks as he shakes David's hand goodbye, one hand on David's arm, reassuring.
David has lied to his parents and his teachers and drill sergeants and boyfriends (a word he uses loosely), but not for a long time. "Of course," he says easily, and smiles.
That night Emmanuel asks if they could go for a walk. He'd finished the book on tile and moved on to bathroom plumbing. When he asks if they can walk by the river he sets aside Drywall for Dummies and David says, "yeah, sure."
It's nearly eight o'clock but it's not dark, not yet, and somehow the river looks different, whether it's because he's here with no purpose, or because he's not here alone, he can't be sure.
"Did you build your home?" Emmanuel asks, that same flat, serious tone, keeping pace with David on the path by the water.
"No, I bought it.... My father bought it. Then he died and it became mine. Why?"
"You have all of those books on how to build a house."
A couple of runners pound up from behind with a chorus of "on the left" and David pulls Emmanuel to the side to make way. The sun is low and rosey through the trees, painting the water pink and orange and yellow and the frogs are noisy in the shallows. He lets go of Emmanuel's arm but they don't drift far from each other.
"They're for repair. You have to maintain a house, when things get broken or worn."
Emmanuel seems to consider this, then repeats, almost a question, "For repair."
"Am I broken?" Emmanuel doesn't look up from watching the ground just ahead of them.
"I don't know. Maybe a little."
"Do you think there is a way for me to find out who I am?"
That afternoon David had searched missing persons databases in Colorado, and surrounding states just in case, and then of course the federal list. He will look again, expand the search, but he has no real expectations. Emmanuel must have come from somewhere, that's clear enough, but maybe no one is missing him. Maybe no one had been looking for him. No one but David.
"I don't know."
Emmanuel stops walking. When he looks up he squints at the sky, at the sunset, and then at David.
"I thought if we came here I could remember... something. I know I must belong somewhere. I feel that I do, but... I only remember you finding me."
"What about before? I mean immediately before?"
Emmanuel closes his eyes, that inward search David recognizes easily now, then sighs and his shoulders slump and it's so... normal. David feels guilty that it makes him feel just a little better.
"Just the water," Emmanuel says when he's looking at David again.
David nods. For some reason he thinks of the thing he's been wanting to say, practicing in him mind, but it doesn't come out any easier for it. "You know, I'm not... you don't have to stay with me. If you'd like to, I don't know. If you need to find something or someone else..."
Emmanuel only looks at him, blue eyes a little wide and alarmed, more confused than David's seen them yet, and David regrets it immediately. He has read about the importance of touch in development and healing, in times of distress or illness, in infants and the elderly, and everyone in between, and remembers last night, standing in the guest room.
Emmanuel is stiff in his arms at first, until David says that he's sorry, and that he didn't mean to say that, and Emmanuel softens, goes a little heavy, so David just holds him for a while, the sky darkening overhead.
"Do you want to go back now?" David asks, stepping back but with a hand on Emmanuel's arm.
"Yes. Thank you."
It's fully dark by the time they are home again, scuffing their feet on the mat in front of the door, removing their shoes and hanging their coats in the entryway closet, side-by-side. They watch Jeopardy and Emmanuel knows the answers to all of the history and science and geography and potpourri categories, but nothing about pop music or Disney princesses or business and industry. David is close enough to touch his shoulder and a few times he does, then he leaves his hand there and maybe he needs that contact, too, and maybe it's a relief that Emmanuel doesn't know everything, and though he wouldn't have thought so yesterday or even this morning, maybe it's a relief that he's still here.
Saturday morning comes bright and almost warm, a hint of false spring, and David teaches Emmanuel to shave. He's very precise, watching David in the mirror with all the concentration of a bird of prey, still and silent and absolute. They dry their faces and David smiles at him but Emmanuel only looks thoughtful, brows drawn together.
Not today, then.
Lying in bed the night before, listening to the distant, muffled voices from the television, David had made a few decisions. He wouldn't push the issue of sleeping or eating breakfast. He wouldn't ask again what Emmanuel might remember. He would stop waiting for signs. He would stop locking his bedroom door. And he would find out what it takes to make Emmanuel smile, a real one, not the thing he imitates from films.
Emmanuel would like to build something. He tells David this as he watches David eat breakfast and stacks toothpicks like a log cabin that won't stay together. He doesn't know what but he wants to make something. He feels that he should.
David may never get used to hearing that.
He has a book on building birdhouses and window boxes and dog houses and other things. It's from 1963 and the illustrations are of a boy with a handkerchief tied around his neck and he's had it since he was in Scouts. He remembers building a birdhouse that never did hang in a tree, but Emmanuel likes the plant boxes.
They need a couple of one-by-ten planks and brackets from the hardware store, David has most everything else. While they're there, Emmanuel chooses a seed pack each of impatiens and dahlias and daisies, and a small can of paint and a bag of soil. They don't even know if the flowers will thrive together, or if the warm weather will last, but David thinks there's no harm in trying.
It only takes once. Anything Emmanuel wants or needs to learn, he only needs one lesson by example and he's off on his own. In spite of this, David cuts the boards on the miter saw himself, with Emmanuel watching close enough that David has to push him away, has to not laugh at those serious eyes behind the safety goggles. But the rest is done by Emmanuel with minimal assistance, careful and precise, consulting the book just once, and maybe he was right to feel the need to make something. His hands are adept at creating.
In the afternoon they leave the unfinished box in the garage, clamped while the glue dries, and David drives them to the middle school where several of his kids are in a soccer match. David explains the game and introduces Emmanuel to cotton candy, which he eats without reservation or coercion, so David buys him another bag to take home.
The home team loses but the kids don't seem too upset, just sweaty and tired and a couple of them ask David if he'll take them for ice cream if their parents say it's okay. Three of them pile dusty and hot into the back of David's Jeep.
"Are you one of David's friends from the air force?"
"Did you move here from New Mexico, too? Is New Mexico anything like real Mexico? David says it isn't."
"Do you live with David?"
"Do you play baseball?"
"What's wrong with your voice?"
"Are you coming to church tomorrow?"
David helps to fend off the questions that Emmanuel can't answer and the kids quickly lose interest in favor of ice cream or talking about school, or that special brand of violent flirting that twelve-year-olds perfect. Emmanuel watches them like he watches his terrible movies or reads David's do-it-yourself books. Maybe children aren't the best teachers, but these are lessons he couldn't learn anywhere else.
"You were a soldier?" Emmanuel asks later when they're sitting on the sofa, eating half-flattened cotton candy and watching Vertigo, because David thinks Emmanuel watches too much of the Lifetime network.
"I was a technician. Spent most of my time stationed at Holloman base in New Mexico. I learned a trade and got a degree but I never saw combat.”
“You sound disappointed.”
David shrugs. “I’m not. I think I kept a lot of people safe, twisting a few wires and turning a few screws.”
“But you feel you could have done more?”
Emmanuel is looking at him very earnestly. David had decided that Emmanuel is probably a little older than him, but with that look in his eyes he seems, somehow, as if he might be far, far older.
“I felt I could have,” David admits. “My dad fought in the infantry in Korea and I always felt he would be disappointed. I guess that was most of it. But he never was.”
"I would think that fathers fight wars so their sons don't have to."
"Yeah, that's what he said."
Across the room, Jimmy Stewart is chasing Kim Novak down a rocky shore, along the backdrop of a technicolor blue ocean.
“What was your father like?”
“Don’t you want to watch the movie?”
“I’d rather hear about your father.”
“He was kind. Maybe too kind. He worked iron, buildings, and bridges, way high up. The only time he complained about it was when they started making him wear a safety harness. He was in his late forties when I was born. Most of the time people thought he was my granddad. My mom was a lot younger. She left us when I was fourteen."
"Why would she do that?"
"You'd have to ask her."
Emmanuel frowns, confused.
"It's a figure of speech. It means I don't know why. She was pretty young. I still talk to her."
The film has been completely forgotten. "What else? About your father?"
"He taught me about small engines and baseball... and he had a lot of faith. The whole time I was growing up it was all I heard about. God and steel and cattle--he grew up on a farm. He didn’t force it on me, though. I stopped going on Sundays as soon as I realized he couldn't make me anymore. Then I joined the air force and the first week of basic someone suggested I go to church, that it was the only break I’d get. So I went, after years of avoiding it. I said I wouldn’t but by the end of the week I was so exhausted, and that first Sunday I cried like a baby and called my dad as soon as I could. He got sick a few years after I finished college. One of my cousins lived up here and she was a nurse. She got married and moved to Missoula last year. He’s why everyone’s so nice to me. He didn’t meet a stranger and no one treated him like one. They all remember him. Even the kids.”
“Surely you have your own character to thank for the way that people treat you.”
“Maybe. I try not to disappoint them.”
“Or your father?”
On their second Sunday together, Emmanuel shaves himself and at church he repeats the things that David had told him to say if anyone asks certain things, and David only leaves his side during the service, leaving Emmanuel seated neatly between Shirley's twins, solemn during the sermon, during prayer, during hymnals. He watches only David, playing guitar, singing, praying, unless the girls speak to him and then he bends his head low as they church-whisper something into his ear.
Shirley insists they come to dinner but David promises next week, definitely next week, as Emmanuel joins them, one twin holding each hand until the sanctuary is almost empty and the girls tug away to follow their mother and father and grandmother.
"Did you like the service?" David asks on the way to the car in the overflow parking out on the grass.
"It was fine."
"Honestly, it's the people for me, more than anything. I guess I shouldn't admit that."
"I don't think there's anything wrong with that. What is God without people to worship him?"
David shrugs. "That's a good point." Something touches his hand but it's only Emmanuel's, sliding into David's palm the way the girls' had surely found his. He doesn't squeeze but after a second David does, and he doesn't think the smile that Emmanuel wears then is anything but his own.
This is how the weeks go by.
Winter slides slowly away for good and spring arrives in the four window boxes that were built while David slept, and the other dozen given to their neighbors. Emmanuel does many different things while David is asleep. He builds things and learns things and after a thoughtless Saturday afternoon when David let him watch as he'd cleaned the bathroom, he cleans things.
David works most days and holds his study group and coaches baseball for the church team. Sometimes, if Emmanuel is not too busy in the corner of the garage he's made his workshop, he will watch them practice. He attends every game. He drives (very carefully) and he cooks (with perfection but little creativity) and he smiles. He does it for real. Every time is like the first time for David, and every time is a little better.
They have that dinner with Shirley and her family, and have had several since. They help with clothing drives and food drives and most people are too polite to ask about the nature of their relationship, even in an open-minded UCC, but everyone is curious, and they tell their stories even when they don't ask his, so that Emmanuel knows nearly everyone David knows and a few others besides, by name and handshake if nothing else. People like to tell Emmanuel things.
He's even met Jack, who gave David a long, suspicious look, standing in the plumbing aisle of Home Depot where the two had run into him, until Emmanuel offered to help replace the pipe that was leaking beneath Jack's bathroom sink (he'd read a book on it). Afterward, they all had a beer in Jack's kitchen and Jack told David, grinning, slapping him on the back, that this one was a keeper.
Emmanuel has made the guest room his own. David moved out some of the things that he'd been storing there, old trophies and clothes that haven't fit him since basic training and boxes of photo albums filled with people he can't name, because they were his father's and they came from his father's father.
Now there is a shelf of poetry books and art books and another of things he has made: a crystal radio, a carving of a dog, a speaker made from a styrofoam plate, a shadow box of stones they have found on walks by the river, a journal with drawings of different grasses and flowers and trees, carefully labeled and dated. He is an accurate artist and a very poor poet.
They hold hands in church and in the library or the grocery store or wherever Emmanuel reaches for him. There are hugs at night and in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon, in the kitchen or the garage, just half-holding one another as Emmanuel presents his latest project for David's approval, smiling that smile when he receives it.
But there's always something else to make or do. Immediately. Nothing seems to satisfy, David notices, and Emmanuel voices it one day, almost two months after he'd crawled cold and naked onto the banks of the river and into David's arms.
"I feel like... there must be something else."
He is not smiling when he says it and it might be the lack of it or the words themselves but David aches at the implication. Sometimes he forgets that Emmanuel doesn't remember, that there's a life he's left behind and that one day it will catch up to him.
April arrives with a new project: a tree house for a family two houses down. They have three boys, each about a year apart, and Paul, their father, has been out of work for six months. It’s not exactly help but it’s something, and it had been Emmanuel’s idea. He borrows books on treehouses, including something from the children’s section but David tells him the Lundgren boys do not need or have room for thirteen storeys and a bowling alley in their old oak tree.
It takes a few days and by the end of the third David is bone-tired when they are home again that night, sweat dried on his skin and his muscles aching. Emmanuel looks messy, paint on his t-shirt and his hand and his cheek, but otherwise unaffected. His dark hair could use a trim but it’s looked that way since he climbed out of the water and David tries not to think about that, pours Emmanuel a glass of water because he can let a few meals slide when Emmanuel doesn’t seem to lose any weight, but everything needs water.
"Aren't you tired?" he asks, shifting on his feet as they lean against the kitchen counter.
“Does that mean you were?”
“I have experienced it, yes.”
David laughs, even though he's not sure it's a joke. He stretches out an arm behind Emmanuel across the counter and Emmanuel shifts, leans closer. He can feel the warmth of him against his side, a contrast to the almost cold damp of his t-shirt.
"Tougher than you look. I don’t understand where you get it all from.”
Emmanuel smiles secretly. The shadow on his jaw and his chin never seems to go past five-o'clock, no matter how long he goes without shaving. "I think I might rest tonight."
"That's good. I wondered when you'd get some sleep."
"It don't find sleep all that restful. I don't know if it is sleep. But the days seem very short to me."
"Me, too. When I was younger they lasted forever. I mean they seemed to," he adds when Emmanuel looks confused. "Now there's not enough time."
"Time for what?"
"I don't know, there just doesn't seem to be enough."
"Do you think the Lundgrens' children feel that time is slower?"
"I don't remember being a child."
"I know. I'm sorry."
David lets his hand slide from the counter to Emmanuel's waist, the same kind of easy embrace they've shared dozens of times.
"The Lundgrens care very much for each other, don't they?" Emmanuel asks.
"I think so."
"And we care for each other?"
It's a simple question and with an arm around each other and the warmth between them it should be a simple answer, but there's a skip in David's chest all the same. "Yeah, we do."
"Then why do we not sleep in the same room? Share a bed?"
That thing in his heart drops to his stomach and he thinks he should pull away but he won't. "There's more to it than that, Emmanuel."
"I know about sex," Emmanuel says matter-of-factly, turning to face him, "it's not a book I haven't read or a film I haven't seen. I came from that river with the knowledge of it, along with several dead languages and the capital cities of Europe." He sighs. "And I have been watching Sex In the City."
David laughs, grateful for the opportunity. "I don't think that's a complete education."
"Regardless of that," Emmanuel continues, "the times I feel most rested, are when I am with you."
There are flecks of blue paint on Emmanuel's cheek, from a brush wielded with enthusiasm. David touches them, rubs his thumb over them and the prickly stubble there. The paint is not the same color as Emmanuel's eyes, but he's not sure what blue ever could be, and his heart is hammering but his hands are steady, and though he knows he should hesitate he does not.
It is a ghost of a kiss that Emmanuel doesn't return, until David pulls back and Emmanuel follows, pressing his mouth to David's with the same eager need to learn with which he mimics David at everything, and as with everything, David leads by example, so that when his hand on Emmanuel's waist seeks out skin, he feels Emmanuel's palms slide warm against his side, up, up until there is the cool air of the kitchen and Emmanuel's hand on his back. And when he pulls Emmanuel against him he is held closer in return, kissed in return, small sounds from one and then the other, heartbeats racing in tandem and a hardness to match his own.
David pulls away, pushes at Emmanuel just enough.
"I shouldn't have done that," he pants out, eyes closed because he couldn't say it otherwise.
He can hear the confusion in Emmanuel's, and when he has the nerve to look, it's even plainer to see.
"Because you don't know yourself."
Emmanuel frowns, brows deeply furrowed and his hands are still on David's bare skin beneath his rucked up shirt, just the pressure of fingertips but it's a weight like gravity. "One's decisions and desires are not solely dictated by memory alone. I am proof of that."
"But you could be married. You could be straight or a monk or I don't know what. You don't know what."
"Would you care for me any less if you knew?"
"Of course not."
After a few silent, still moments with no sound but house sounds and crickets muted through the window, Emmanuel takes his hands away and David feels the loss. It is the first time since finding Emmanuel that he truly regrets the dream, and wishes for different circumstances. Nearly anything that wasn't exactly this.
"Do you want to sleep in my room tonight?" he asks.
It's early still after they've both showered so they play backgammon and listen to Bobby Darin because a week ago Emmanuel had found a box of David's father's things in the garage and both the board and the records were in it and Emmanuel had learned and taught David to play and David had found a record player at a pawn shop.
He thinks it will be awkward but sharing a bed with Emmanuel turns out to be as easy as sharing any other part of his life, and Emmanuel is a warm presence in the room, at his back, even though they don't touch much. In the morning he wakes alone but he can smell something cooking so he rolls over onto the other side of the bed, into the body-shaped disturbance in the sheets. When he gets downstairs there's pancakes and he asks if Emmanuel got plenty of rest and Emannuel says, with one of those smiles, that he did.
There are a few things that are remarkable about the day that David learns of Emmanuel's abilities. It is a Sunday and Emmanuel is still in bed with him when David wakes. He is never there in the mornings and when David asks if something is the matter, Emmanuel says no, nothing at all, and touches David's face and lying there in the early morning light, David nearly kisses him again, but then Emmanuel asks if he would like scrambled eggs and David says that he would.
As they are getting dressed for church there is a knock at the door. Mrs. South from two blocks down has brought them a casserole.
"For the-- well," she hesitates, face red from the walk and the cool morning but she looks upset enough that David invites her in, unburdening her of the heavy glass dish. It's still warm. She must have been up early (or late) cooking it.
"No, no, love, I'm fine." She smiles at something over David's shoulder, Emmanuel standing a little behind him. "Just to say thank you," she says to Emmanuel, a quiver in her voice as if she might cry, and then she's off, leaving David standing on his doorstep in bare feet holding a casserole dish.
"What was that about?" He asks Emmanuel when they are both in the kitchen.
"I guess she wanted to thank me," Emmanuel says, though he will not look at David.
"Helping with what?"
"Mr. South has been ill."
"Oh," David says, sliding the casserole into the refrigerator after he's made room for it. "Okay." He knows, of course, that Mr. South has been sick, that he'd been on the prayer list, that their only daughter is away at college and that an extra hand might be appreciated. But he's still trying to ignore the feeling that, perhaps for the first time, Emmanuel is keeping something from him.
They see Mrs. South again in church that morning, Mr. South, too, clearly back on his feet, lively and smiling. The pastor even mentions it, praises the Lord for the health of brother South. But Mr. South does not seem to share his wife's appreciation of Emmanuel's assistance, and during the sermon, David notices him watching Emmanuel more than once, the cold, distrustful scrutiny of a man who doesn't know what he's looking at.
After worship there is a second Sunday dinner in the fellowship hall and outside some of the children chase each other in a game of tag with rules in flux to the whims of the oldest players. David and Emmanuel sit crosslegged in the grass under an oak, David having his lunch and Emmanuel hiding his lack of appetite from well-meaning ladies who would recommend their own potato salad, baked chicken, and cherries jubilee as the cure for it.
One of the children, Alison, is the youngest of four sisters, and as she hurries past to catch the others she trips over her own dress, the other children running even faster in the opposite direction.
David hurries over to her, Emmanuel at his side, and helps her to pick herself up, but her shin is bloody and so is the torn hem of her dress. She hisses at the pain, but that's not why she cries.
"My dress," she says, high and soft, "momma will be mad! She said she wouldn't buy me another one if I got it dirty."
"It's okay," David tries, "It was an accident, she''ll understand."
But Alison shakes her head and cries a little louder.
"Let's get you to your mom, okay?"
"No, no, no!"
"May I?" Emmanuel asks, reaching for her.
"Not to my momma."
"No. May I see?"
Alison nods, wiping her eyes, and David shifts to allow Emmanuel room. She calms as soon as Emmanuel's hands are on her, and if there's any way to explain what he sees, David does not have the word for it.
That's not true. He has one, but he doesn't think he could say it aloud.
When Alison opens her eyes, having shut them tight as if expecting something far worse, her knee is clean and there is no cut, no blood, on her leg or her dress, and no tear in the lace. She accepts this far sooner than David, who looks to Emmanuel for an explanation, but Emmanuel is only smiling down at Alison.
The oldest Massey daughter is headed over, and before David can speak past the thing sitting stone-heavy in his throat, before he can say it, Alison sees her sister and she says it first.
"Please don't tell, Mr. David," she whispers. "Momma would be so mad." Then she brushes herself off and meets her sister halfway, where they exchange words David cannot hear, and then both head toward the other children to continue the game.
The drive home is quiet, except when Emmanuel says, "You're angry with me," and David says that he's not.
He has to make it home first. It might all make sense there. But there are no more answers inside of the house than there were outside of the church, so they're standing in the foyer when David finally, against everything that's in him, asks.
"What was that, Emmanuel? What did you do?"
Emmanuel is frowning, sorrow clear on his face, in spite of the words, "I healed her."
David nods for a moment, silent, then shakes his head. "You can't... how can you do that? Have you always been able to?"
"I think I have. I didn't always know."
"How long have you known?"
Emmanuel is wearing one of David's old coats, even though it's too warm for it, one he bought in New Mexico, for when he had a little time to leave base and didn't want to wear a uniform. Nights in the desert could be brutal in many ways. He can't make that world and this one fit together. This one, where the man he thinks he might be in love with is walking science fiction.
"I've suspected for some time, but I've known for a few days."
David runs a hand over his mouth, across his brow, through his hair.
"Jim South?" he asks at last.
"Yes. I'd just wanted to help... to fix what was broken. And I did."
"How long had you suspected? I mean, why--"
"The window boxes. When I was making so many of them, I cut myself on the miter saw."
David flinches, the image coming unbidden.
"There was a lot of blood, and then there was none."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You told me so many times to be so careful. I didn't want to disappoint you."
"That and... sometimes," Emmanuel says, stepping closer, "I feel that you are afraid of me."
David realizes that he's got his back against the door, having backed away as Emmanuel had moved closer. He does the math, counting backward to the window boxes. Six weeks at least. Six weeks that Emmanuel has had to keep this from him, working through it on his own, thinking that David would be too frightened to accept him.
It doesn't seem possible, this gift of Emmanuel's, and though he is afraid, it doesn't change anything, not really. He's always been a little afraid.
There's a sound Emmanuel makes when David embraces him, a sound of surprise so normal and human that all of the knots and stones and heavy things in David's chest and stomach all let go, and the relief comes out in a rush against Emmanuel's ear.
"I'm not afraid. Okay? I won't ever be, I promise."
"What if there's something else?" Emmanuel says, uncertain, but his hands come up to David's sides, his back, holding him, as if to keep him there.
"I think this is what's missing. The thing I keep trying to find. It's not something I can build. I think that I'm meant to help people, only not with plant boxes and tree houses. I feel that I must."
It's in the way he says it, like an apology. David can only bury his face in Emmanuel's collar, coat and shirt and undershirt and skin, the smell of soap and aftershave and the something that lingers on sheets on bright spring mornings.
"Mrs. South has a niece who needs help... in Nebraska. She says she will drive me."
David steps back, just enough. "On your own?"
"I'll be fine." Emmanuel smiles, his hands on either side of David's face, thumbs just nearly touching the corners of his mouth.
"Alright," David says, willing himself to be convinced, "alright," and this kiss is everything the first one was, but without the regret when they part.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you," is spoken hot against his ear.
"It's okay," he says into Emmanuel's collar. "If there's anything else... I wish you'd tell me. I can't help if I don't know."
"I will, David." The words are damp on David's neck, and then something that sounds like a laugh. "Is this how you show me you're not afraid of me?"
"Yes," he whispers.
"It's very effective."
Emmanuel does not go to Nebraska on his own with Mrs. South.
In the morning, when she is suddenly on their doorstep again to pick him up, Emmanuel is packed for an overnight stay and David kisses him again in the foyer as Mrs. South politely admires the window boxes, but when they part, he can't quite let go.
"Wait," he says, pulling Emmanuel back from the doorway, "just wait." In moments he has a bag packed and a coat and shoes on and he hasn't even combed his hair or showered or shaved but he offers to drive and Mrs. South insists on sitting in the back seat. Emmanuel smiles at him as they pull out of the drive, then combs David's hair down with his fingers.
It's a quiet four-and-a-half hours and a quieter lunch with Mrs. South not quite knowing where to look. She's about the age of David's mother and she keeps her hair a peculiar shade of auburn that matches her nail polish, and when his father had been alive she and Mr. South had come over to play canasta and eat peach cobbler with ice cream, and it had been an awkward evening, the night she brought her daughter to meet David.
In Alliance, Nebraska, David sits in a small hospital waiting room. There seems to be only one other group in with him, a family. The adults speak quietly or look through magazines. A few children orbit like restless satellites. There's coffee and it's terrible and the man in the mirror when he finds a bathroom looks tired and lost.
Emmanuel is alone when he returns from the room. He says that Mrs. South would like to stay longer and has a ride back to her sister's and that they are welcome to stay, but they get a room at a Days Inn and David expects Emmanuel to be tired for some reason, but he's the one who falls asleep after they lie down and after Emmanuel tells him about Mrs. South's niece and the car accident and how she had cried, and after David kisses him, and kisses him.
They pick up Mrs. South early the next morning, welcomed to breakfast that they decline, and Melissa, Mrs. South's niece who is home and standing on legs that shouldn't hold her upright, cries again when she thanks Emmanuel, and though David can't understand everything she says for the way she mumbles it into Emmanuel's shoulder, he hears the word "miracle" and it's more than enough.
Emmanuel wants to start with the prayer list at church, but enough doors are shut in his face after what he offers, and enough people start to look at him, sometimes both of them, strangely, that David has to explain that perhaps he's better off helping elsewhere, farther from home.
Word travels and at first they are all some friend or relation of Mrs. South, who gives him a car, a fifteen year old Chevy Malibu that used to be her daughter's. David has to put new tires and brakes on it and it won't be long for a new transmission, but it carries him across the state and then out of it, again and again.
Soon there are strangers calling, and Mrs. South must have started giving David's number because suddenly he's keeping Emmanuel's schedule, calling him on the road to tell him where to go next.
David has never gone with him again since that first trip to Alliance.
The second time God speaks to David it is in a dream about Emmanuel. He has had rather a lot of them, especially since Emmanuel first started sleeping next to him. The first one had involved Jeopardy. A few times he's chased Emmanuel up a bell tower. There was one he does not like to remember that was in a hospital waiting room, cold tile and Oprah on the wall-mounted television. But this time they are only in his bed, naked and tangled, gasping, laughing.
In reality, they have never been this way. For all the kisses, and touches, David could not justify it.
In reality, he has not seen Emmanuel in almost two weeks.
But in the dream he is warm under David's hands, sweating where they touch, and that smile is there, dream-visible in the darkness, until someone over his shoulder clears their throat and the room brightens, lighter and lighter, past too-bright.
It's the bearded man and he has his hands in his pockets, waiting patiently.
"Are you God?" David asks, once he's climbed out of bed, trying for some modesty as he covers himself with his hands and Emmanuel and the dream (the other one), fade away behind him.
Maybe-God smirks, but it is somehow a solemn expression. "I see you remember me." He says.
"So you are God?"
The man shrugs. "I'm a storyteller."
"Is that supposed to be the same thing?"
"You don't have to hide from me, David," the man says with a smile, ignoring David's question. "Yourself or what you want."
"You're not a doubting man. Not really."
"Could I ask, then..."
"Why you? Why of all seven billion possible people on the planet did it have to be you?"
"Yes," David says.
"Because you're very special, David. You're something very rare."
"What am I?"
Probably-God shrugs. It's like watching a mountain wink. "You're a decent guy."
"More or less. That's it."
"Well..." and this is the question he doesn't really want to ask, or even really want the answer to, "what is he?"
The man who David is sure must be God shakes his head and smiles and David knows he doesn't have to fear the answer, whatever it is.
"I said that he would need you and he does. Even now. He still does. Give what you can, David." There is a hand on his shoulder again and just before David feels like falling, God says, "You won't have the opportunity for very much longer."
David wakes to a presence in the room. There is a moment when he thinks he must still be dreaming, but when he turns on the bedside lamp it is not God standing next to the bed.
"Emmanuel? Are you alright?"
Emmanuel stands just outside the circle of the lamplight, in a thin t-shirt and his pants and tennishoes, car keys still in his hand. He's frowning and when he finally answers David it is quiet.
"I'm sorry I woke you."
"No, it's okay," David squints in the light that wouldn't be bright except that he's been sleeping, and sits up, "I'm glad you did."
"I wanted to come home," Emmanuel says.
He was in Omaha when David spoke to him that morning, having just arrived at the home of an elderly woman named Susan, whose husband had called David two days before, voice thin and warbly. He'd been doubtful and then grateful, and David had read the address off to Emmanuel over the phone. He could tell he was in the car, he could hear the road, probably pulled off to the side, David hoped at least. He is always in the car when David calls. Then he'd read off an address for a man in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where Emmanuel was meant to be after Omaha, but here he is. Home.
"Is everything okay?"
"I just wanted--"
Emmanuel's arms are cold when David stands and touches them. "You're freezing."
"I'm not cold."
"C'mon," David says, takes the keys from Emmanuel and sets them on the bedside table, tugs him by cold fingers to sit on the bed, pulls the blanket around his shoulders and kneels to pull off Emmanuel's shoes. "Have you been wearing your jacket?"
Emmanuel shakes his head. "I think I left it in Nebraska."
David pulls off his socks. "What happened?"
"She passed away."
The light of the lamp illuminates only half of Emmanuel's face, so when David looks up he can't quite read what's there. "Who?"
"Susan. Mrs. Grayson."
"You couldn't help her?"
"I don't know."
David stands and sits next to him on the bed. He's heavier than Emmanuel so Emmanuel can't help but lean into him on the mattress, but he thinks it's more than that. "What do you mean?"
"When I got there, she had already passed. People were already crying. Mr. Grayson was very nice, though. He thanked me anyway. Why would he do that?"
"Because you came. Because you cared, I guess."
"But I did nothing. I fixed nothing."
"You would have, if you could have."
"I'm not sure that I couldn't have. But I didn't think that I should do that."
There's nothing that David can say to that. He isn't capable of it. Instead, after a while, he stands and pulls Emmanuel to stand with him, and unbuckles Emmanuel's belt and pushes his pants down and Emmanuel steps out of them, then climbs into bed after David and they lie down together. David rubs at Emmanuel's arms to warm them, across his back to soothe him, holds tight to soothe himself.
"Was that right?" Emmanuel asks after a while.
"I'm sure it was."
"Everyone kept saying she was in a better place."
"We have to hope so."
"Before Omaha I was in Wichita."
"I know." He remembers that call, too. A frightened young mother and a baby girl with a heart defect.
"She was so small. She smiled at me."
He kisses Emmanuel's temple, still cool against his lips.
"Before that I was in Memphis."
Memphis had leukemia. He was getting married at the end of the month, if he survived for it.
"He asked if I wanted to be his best man."
David laughs, small and quiet, and he can feel Emmanuel smile against him.
"Should we get you a suit?"
"I said I didn't know where I'd be, but I thanked him. And then his girlfriend kissed me, but not the way that you kiss me."
"I hope not."
There is a long stretch of nothing, just house sounds and breathing and then, "I don't think I want to be gone so often, David." He sounds a little guilty, but something uncoils in David's stomach that he didn't even know was wound so tight.
"Selfishly, I'd like that."
David still hasn't turned out the light, so when Emmanuel leans up and looks down at him, he can see the intent clear on Emmanuel's face, eyes dark and lips parted and he can feel breath across his lips along with Emmanuel's thumb, tracing them before he leans in and with eyes closed David tilts his head a little, letting Emmanuel take and take.
He had forgotten the dream, but something in the shape of Emmanuel's mouth against his own reminds him, first of the good part, the sweating, laughing part, with skin and hands and nothing between them but warmth. Then he remembers the man and what he'd said about how little time they might have left, and although perhaps he should not put too much stock into homely, bearded dream-Gods, the last time he'd let himself have that kind of faith he had found something remarkable.
His hand slides down Emmanuel's side and then up again, beneath his shirt, pushing it out of the way until they're just skin on skin, until he whispers "you wanna take this off?" against lips, chin, and Emmanuel nods and leans up enough to let David help him pull it off over his head. It leaves his hair messy and leaves him looking down at David with just that hint of a smile and then David's sitting up, too, and pushing Emmanuel down, rolling them over and there's still cotton pants and cotton underwear but everything else is gone, David's reservations, his hesitation. It's replaced with the soft slide of palms and the warm press of lips and breath that quickens when David moves just so between Emmanuel's legs and Emmanuel says "oh" like he's just figured out the answer to something.
"Is that okay?" David asks, and he gets a yes and another yes, and hands slipping beneath his waistband, stronger than one would assume, pulling David's hips down again and again and lips that say yes, and David, and yes.
When they're catching their breath and staring at the ceiling, kicking off sleep pants or underwear from around knees or ankles, Emmanuel says, "That was sex," a bit like wonder, and David has to laugh a little. When he looks over, Emmanuel is smiling.
"Sort of," David says.
"I like it."
David laughs again, sighs when Emmanuel takes his hand.
He wakes just a little later when Emmanuel pulls the kicked-off covers back over them. "You were shivering," he says, and David's only just awake enough to feel lips against his own, and then everything's so much warmer, and the second-to-last thought he has before he goes back under is that he'll have to check the lamp for a short in the morning, and the last is that he hopes, just a little, that morning never quite comes.
A week later, after a trip for Emmanuel to Muskogee and back, and nights spent warm and close, learning and exploring each other, Emmanuel asks David to marry him.
They're squatting in the Lundgren's tree house during a neighborhood barbecue to celebrate Mr. Lundgren's new job, and Emmanuel has no ring but he gives David a stone from the river, smooth white with a pink blush, and he knows they can't legally but that doesn't matter to him.
"You love me," Emmanuel says, a comic book still spread across his lap as the last of the Lundgren boys descends the ladder, leaving them alone. David smiles because Emmanuel hadn't been concerned by the company of the three boys when he asked the question, made the statement, and because while it's presumptuous it's also true.
"I do," he says.
Emmanuel smiles. "And I love you. In many of the films I've seen, people don't say it when they mean to, and someone dies or goes away, and they either never say it or it takes many years, but I don't want to wait that long."
It's the mention of time that finally makes David's smile falter. "What if you ever--what if when you recover your memories, you remember that you're already married?"
Emmanuel nods, a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the possibility that makes David's throat close a little.
"I think we would have to deal with that when we came to it, but for now I believe this is right... and I think that even if I could remember my life, you would still be the best part of it."
They climb down the ladder to a chorus of applause and congratulation, the boys having told the part of the story they knew, and David and Emmanuel's faces telling the rest. Someone tells David that his father would be proud, and although somewhere inside him a voice reminds him that he won't have long, he tries not to listen, and in his and Emmanuel's joined hands, the river stone grows warm.
The third time David talks to God, he knows it is a warning. The air smells of cut grass and the late summer sun is bright but cold. The man who is God stands on their lawn where Emmanuel is mowing but Emmanuel doesn't see him, just as he doesn't see David step off of the porch to meet his dream visitor.
"It's a nice day, David," God says, though it sounds like an apology when he looks at his feet.
David nods, "We've had a few nice days." He twists the gold ring on his finger with his thumb, it's become a habit. He likes to feel it there. It's been almost two months.
God smiles but it's uncertain. "I know. I'm glad."
The sound of the mower dies and they both look to Emmanuel who bends to pick something up, too small to see. He looks up, into a tree, then back to the still, small thing in his hand. After a moment there is movement, fragile wings against his palm, and then the young bird is up and away, new life in its song. Emmanuel watches it.
David can't ask when or how, but he knows then that it will happen.
"Have you always looked out for him?" he asks instead.
"Will you always?" He can only manage to say it because it's a dream.
The God-man smiles. "You've been really good for him."
It's the other way around, of course, but David doesn't think you're meant to argue in these situations.
"Just tell me you'll keep him safe."
"He's not meant to stay safe, David, or else he could stay with you."
Dream or not, the lump in his throat is too big, and he gasps around it. "You're not the God I thought you'd be."
"He's not meant to stay safe, but he will go on."
The mower starts again but David can hardly see. He wipes his eyes and somehow now the man looks more smug than sympathetic. David wonders what happens if you dream-punch your creator. "To where?"
"You can't worry about--"
"Where, goddammit? You tell me!"
God has the decency not to smile. "Where he has always been. Not a place but a time. A very long time. You can't measure it, David."
David shakes his head, wipes away tears, braces for the familiar fall into consciousness even as God reaches out.
Somehow 'forever' is harder to hear.
The next afternoon, David has a real visitor. He's making dinner when Paul Lundgren knocks on his door, wearing a sweater vest that's almost comical, and asking where to find Emmanuel.
"He's in Colorado Springs, but he'll be back by dinner."
Paul nods, steps past David into the house. "Business?"
"Yeah.... Anything I can help with?"
Paul shakes his head, walks around the living room like he's looking for something. He pokes at books on the shelves, inspects the smooth, pinkish stone in a glass box on the mantel, and sniffs (actually sniffs) at a carving of a bird that Emmanuel made on a Sunday afternoon, sitting on the porch with curls of pine falling between his feet and David sitting next to him, watching the thing come into shape.
"Lot of carpentry work in Colorado Springs, is there?"
"As much as anywhere, I guess...." David says, and maybe that's the thing, the reason why Paul's standing in his house, acting so strange so early in the afternoon when he should be at work. "Your work okay?"
"Oh, yeah." Paul smiles but it's not one David's ever seen. He puts the bird back on the mantle as if it's offended him. "Peachy."
"Say, you mind if I wait around for Emmanuel?" It sounds friendly but rings false. Still, he knows Paul. There must be something wrong.
"Sure... I was just peeling some potatoes if you want to come into the kitchen. Something to drink, maybe?"
Paul smiles, something David recognizes and for a brief moment it puts him at ease, but then the laughter starts, high and unsettling. "You're quite the little housewife, aren't you?"
"Peeling potatoes and baking pies, I bet. You just need a frilly apron and a rolling pin." Paul steps closer, leering. "Of course it's no wonder you've got him playing house, with that pretty mouth of yours. I bet you know just how to use it."
It's like a slap in the face, those words from a man he's known for years. "Have we got some kind of problem, Paul? Have you been drinking?"
Paul grins, manic and huge. It seems to fill the room, the house, lashing out like a threat. "You've got a problem alright," Paul says, gleeful, and the rest happens in a blur.
Paul moves fast, faster than David, especially since David still can't believe it's happening, and though Paul is smaller and a head shorter and David knows how to defend himself, there's something unnatural in Paul's strength, as unnatural as his laugh, his speech, the sulphuric smell around him when he pushes David to the floor too easily.
David pushes back, gets in a few swings but Paul's fists land like sledgehammers, he knows bones are breaking, ribs and cheek and maybe his clavicle, then hands are on his throat and he's losing air, light, and maybe it's the approaching unconsciousness or a trick of sunlight through the drapes, but the last thing he sees before he sees nothing, are Paul's eyes, cold and black and empty.
When David regains consciousness it is to pain and shadow and an unsettling quiet. He jerks fully awake, straining at the ropes binding him to the chair, and a sudden and excruciating breath as he searches the room. He can taste blood and he's half blind. It takes him a moment to realize this is because one of his eyes is swollen shut, but from what he sees with the other, there's no sign of Paul.
He doesn't know how long he's been out, or if Emmanuel could have come home or if Paul could have attacked him as well. It's the thought of Emmanuel that makes him try harder at the ropes, digging into his skin.
Somewhere, over the sound of his own breathing and struggling, he hears a voice, two voices, on the porch. He twists his whole body, sending the chair he's tied to in a half turn, loud in the room and certainly outside it. Pain blooms through his chest and he almost can't see past it, but when he opens his good eye again he does see the men on the porch, one Paul Lundgren, the other a stranger, looking straight at him through the curtains.
The stranger reacts quickly once he's put the scene together, his motions a blur of steel and blood and something impossible that flashes briefly, then Paul Lundgren, friend and neighbor, tumbles limply down the steps and off of their porch.
David doesn't know if he should be relieved or more frightened that Paul is dead, but the pain in his chest burns anew and darkness overcomes him once again. Then there's nothing at all until there is Emmanuel's voice.
"David? Please, David, wake up."
Emmanuel's presence, even more than his voice, is a blanket of calm concern, a soft membrane that David must breach if he wants to breathe again. Consciousness trickles back slowly and with it, a sensation like being pulled up from beneath the ground, through rocks and roots and grassy soil, up and out. Everywhere. He feels light, like dust and thought, then it all starts to shift, rearranging precisely into the shape of a thing called David. When this passes, he feels only the chair beneath him, Emmanuel's hand on his own, and the heavy weight of Emmanuel's gaze.
“Yes, David. Can you stand?”
Emmanuel helps him up, though he doesn’t need it. He could stand until the end of time for as glad as he is to see that Emmanuel is safe.
“He was looking for you,” David says, bracing himself for the pain that the breath and standing will cause him, but it does not come. He realizes, too, that he can see with both eyes and that he tastes no blood. He looks down at himself, at the blood drying on his shirt, thinking of that feeling like being reshaped. “You…“
“Yes,” Emmanuel looks apologetic. “I did. I hope that’s alright. You wouldn’t wake up.”
David suddenly remembers months back, newly-healed Mr. South looking across the sanctuary like Emmanuel was something to be feared, revered. He finally understands that look, but he only says, “Yes, of course," and then, "Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, David.”
Emmanuel looks down. “Not as lucky.”
There’s a shuffle of feet across the room and for the first time David notices the stranger from the porch, the man who’d killed Paul Lundgren. He steps forward automatically, placing himself between the man and Emmanuel, even as the man raises his hands and Emmanuel takes David's arm to stop him.
“Easy, pal,” the stranger says, “I’m not the bad guy. Not this time anyway.”
“What did you do to Paul?”
“Paul? Who—oh. Yeah. Well, whoever Paul is, that wasn’t him.”
He’s got a look, a tone about him that David doesn’t like, but he believes him, especially when Emmanuel steps around to shake the stranger’s hand and introduces himself and David. There’s something there that seems like a lie, but it’s not about being good or evil.
“Husband?” the stranger, Dean, asks, seems surprised, but not in the usual way.
“I saw its face,” Emmanuel says. “Its true face.”
Dean nods. “He was a demon.” He says it so matter of fact, like there’s no doubting their existence.
“A demon walked the Earth?” Emmanuel asks, as incredulous as David feels.
“Demons,” Dean corrects. “You don’t know about—?”
Why would he? David wants to ask, wants to tell Dean there can be no such thing, but he knows the deliberate ignorance of that statement, when a few months ago he believed there was no such thing as Emmanuel, and anyway, he’s too distracted by what he sees on Dean’s face, what he hears in Dean’s voice, and the way that Dean can’t seem to stop staring.
Dean knows Emmanuel.
“Why are you here?” David asks him, breaking the strange silence and Dean’s concentration on Emmanuel. “Because of the…” he gestures toward the porch.
“No,” Dean says, but David only earns a moment of his attention before it shifs back to Emmanuel. “I came for help. I heard about Emmanuel here, that he can heal people up.”
Emmanuel looks down, almost embarrassed. David feels very distant to the conversation. “I seem to be able to help to a certain degree. What’s your issue?”
Dean’s face softens, saddens, and he doesn’t seem like he could be the same man who stabbed Paul Lundgren just moments earlier when he says with a shaky voice, “My brother.”
Emmanuel is upstairs packing a bag when Dean steps into the kitchen where David is leaning against the counter, wondering how this is supposed to work, how he’s going to explain the body of his neighbor hidden in his bushes, how he’s supposed to just let Emmanuel leave, how to say goodbye when he knows (he just knows) it’s for good.
“You know, for what it’s worth,” Dean says, “I’m sorry about your, uh… Paul.” He leans against the door frame, hands in his pocket like he does this every day. He might for all that David knows. “You can call the police when we’re gone, explain everything. Except for the demon thing, of course. I'd keep that to myself. You can even give them my description. Should keep you out of trouble.”
He reminds David of a dream he’s had, of a God he wanted to silence with his fists.
“You think I’m worried about trouble?”
Dean shrugs. “You should be. He might not have been the only one of those things to hear about Emmanuel. There could be others.” He pushes off of the wall, digs into his pocket. “Here.” He holds out a charm on a leather cord. “That’ll ward off possession anyway. Can’t do much for the beatings. I mean, you look like a prizefighter, but you know their strength now. Salt helps too.”
“Salt?” David takes the necklace, shaking his head.
“Make a line at the doors, windows.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Who are you?”
Dean shrugs again. “Nobody worth saving, but Sammy, that’s my brother, he is.”
There’s a faint noise upstairs and David looks up, as if he might see through the floor.
“I’ll bring him back,” Dean says, as if reading his mind. “Just as quick as I can.”
David looks at him, watches him for a long, silent time. Dean’s not quite his height, not many people are, but he’s not at all intimidated when David steps closer, doesn’t flinch. In fact he stands a little straighter, shoulders rolling back. Dean either believes what he says or he’s a good liar. David wishes he could believe it.
“David?” Emmanuel says softly as he joins them, looking from one and then to the other and Dean just backs away.
“I’ll wait in the car.”
When the front door closes behind him there is just the faint hum of the house, and the silence of what seems suddenly like a void between them.
Emmanuel sets down his bag. “He’s right, you know. I’ll be back.”
David can only nod.
“I’ll keep my coat on.”
He smiles at that in spite of himself and Emmanuel takes it as some cue, steps forward and into David’s arms that close around him without thought.
“You’re frightening me,” Emmanuel says against his shoulder.
“I’m sorry.” He is. He really is. “Don’t be. You’ll be alright, I know it.”
“I believe you.”
“I love you.”
“I know. I love you, too.”
“Don’t let this Dean guy get you into trouble.”
“Call me when you can.”
“I love you, Emmanuel.”
“You said that already.”
“I know. I don’t want you to forget.”
They take both cars, Emmanuel's and the old black Impala that Dean drives, so that they can park the Malibu a few towns over and David can say that Emmanuel never came home. He waits two hours before he calls Jack, who doesn’t even believe David at first, then spends the afternoon at the station while police search his house and meticulously photograph the bushes where they find Paul's body. He describes Dean in great detail, claims shock as his reason for not calling sooner, and only gets to go home because he promises to be back the next day and Jack believes him.
David doesn’t sleep, not even after Emmanuel calls later that night, the sounds of a noisy truckstop in the background. He says that he’s fine, and that he hasn’t forgotten.
In the morning, David cancels his appointments and goes back to the station and tells the same story two dozen more times before he can go home again and wait. He's missed two calls, one from mid-morning and a voicemail that says Emmanuel is well, that they drove all night, and another later that day saying that they’ve picked up someone else, a woman, that everything’s fine, though Emmanuel sounds strange and uncertain.
That evening he makes dinner but doesn’t eat, calls Shirley to say he won’t make it to practice, keeps their conversation brief so as not to tie up the phone, but there are no more calls.
It’s nearly midnight when he climbs the stairs, half asleep and soul-deep weary. But he passes their bedroom door, walks instead to the guest room where many of Emmanuel’s trinkets and inventions, drawings and poetry still wait, more patient than David. He sits on the bed, remembering that first night, Emmanuel confused and curious and helpless. David had wondered if he was an alien. He tries to laugh at that, but fatigue won't let him and it turns to a sigh, head in his hands, phone on the bed beside him, until the bulb in the lamp unexpectedly flickers and dies, and something touches his shoulder.
David stands but Emmanuel steps back, out of reach. “How… what’s happened to you? Why are you covered in blood?” He’s wearing a trench coat that David’s never seen, spotted in dried blood but there’s something even more strange… something different.
“It’s very old blood. I’m not harmed.” Emmanuel's voice is deeper than usual, and there's a sorrow in his brow that David doesn’t recognize.
“How did you get all the way back here so fast?”
“That’s not important.” Curt, cold. almost as alien as that first night. “I wanted to thank you, David.”
“For taking care of me.”
“Of course, Emmanuel—“
“That’s not my…” Emannuel pauses, looks away, and David understands.
It’s worse than just losing him. It’s worse than not knowing, he thinks. It’s worse than waiting to see.
“You remember,” he says. He doesn’t have to ask.
The bed creaks beneath David's weight as he sits again. He feels heavy enough that it should break.
“I wanted to thank you,” Emmanuel says, stepping closer now that David is sitting,“and to tell you goodbye.”
“We already said goodbye.”
“Yes. But I want you to know—“
“I don’t want to know your name, if that’s it. Don’t tell me if you’re leaving.”
Emmanuel’s hand twitches at his side, a gesture of helplessness. It’s all that David can see. He won’t meet those eyes again, not in his lifetime.
“I appreciate you,” Emmanuel says. The tone and the overcoat make it seem so formal. “I appreciate your assistance. I didn't deserve it.” Then the silence stretches. The clock ticks. David watches the floor as Emmanuel shifts his stance, waiting for something. “I’d like to help you in the future if I can… should you need me.”
“I’ll be alright.”
“I’ll leave this.” There is the sound of paper being folded but David doesn’t look up. “You can call me. I will come if I am able.”
“I’ll be alright.”
“Yes,” Emmanuel says with certainty, then there’s a pause before he steps forward. David thinks he should pull away from the hand that slips gently into his hair but he cannot. After a moment Emmanuel says, “If I could forget again…”
“But you can’t.”
“Just stay out of trouble, like I told you.”
“I will try.… Could I ask a favor, David?”
“Keep me in your prayers.”
A few hours after Emmanuel leaves for the last time, David finally sleeps, exhausted and heart sore. It's fitful sleep that doesn't last, but there is enough time for dreams of black eyes and bloody things and police stations flooded with dark, icy water.
In a few days David starts to work again. Being busy helps. He still isn’t sleeping well but he eats sometimes and that helps, too.
In a few weeks he can sleep through most nights, and he stops seeing shadows everywhere.
In a few months he sells his house and most of his things and packs his jeep with his clothing and some of his father’s things and a box of carvings and stones and drawings of shore birds and a slip of paper folded tightly, never opened.
He never walks by the river again. He tells Shirley goodbye and she hugs him and says he’s too thin and to take care. He tries to give Mrs. Lundgren what money he thinks he can spare but she won’t open the door when he knocks on it, and mails the envelope back to him when he tries that way.
He never sees Emmanuel again.
In a year, for the first time, he thinks about taking off the ring, but when he slips it halfway off his finger there is a pale band in the shape of it, and he fits it back into place.
Two weeks later, the leather cord holding the charm around his neck breaks and he throws it out.
Eight months after that, he meets a librarian.
Standing in a library in Billings, Montana, he’s being carefully appraised by a dark-haired woman behind the desk. He tells her he’s with Allen Electric.
“Someone called an electrician.”
“Well I’d hope so, seeing as you’re here…” she leans in to read his shirt, “…David.”
“I got a call from Greg… I didn’t get a last name.”
“You don’t need a last name, sugar, I’m just sorry it wasn’t me that called.”
She’s gone for a moment and returns with a man who looks a few years David’s senior, blonde but maybe already going grey, who smiles and shakes David’s hand like he already knows him, and says, “Thank god you’re here."
Greg leads him to the basement, to a long dark aisle lit only by the light from a distant high window.
“It’s the weirdest thing, but when I opened this morning, this whole section of lighting was out. Not one but all of them. It could have been longer than that, we don’t come down here often, but no more than a couple of days. I figured it had to be a breaker, but none had tripped. We had maintenance in but the new bulbs won’t work either.”
David pulls out a flashlight, shining it up at the drop ceiling for any signs of water damage or smoke.
“I’ll see what I can find.”
“Wonderful, thank you. I wasn’t sure if you’d come all the way from Hardin. I almost didn’t call you.”
“I don’t usually make it out this far, no. How’d you hear about me?”
“Well your name literally fell into my lap. Your card, I mean. Out of a book. Someone must have been using it as a bookmark. We find all kinds of things.”
“What was the book?” David asks, though he doesn’t know why.
Greg pauses, thinks, his brow all concentration above his glasses, then his face lights up with memory. “Tree houses.”
“You know, how to build them.”
“Well….” Greg hesitates for a moment and the silence lengthens, but when David looks up again Greg only says, “I’ll be up on the second floor if you need me. Gloria will know how to find me.”
A ladder and a few minutes tells David the problem, but not how, because it’s not faulty wiring, there simply is no wire. It’s vanished. He suggests vandalism to Greg who shakes his head and says it doesn’t seem possible, but doesn’t argue when David quotes a re-wire. He doesn’t have everything he needs to do it just then, so he says he’ll be back the next day. Greg says that’s good, because he’s not sure the good people of Billings can go much longer than that without access to the archives of the Sheep Farmer’s Almanac, years 1841 to 1952.
The next day, Greg appears at the bottom of his ladder after David’s been there for hours, asks if he would like to take a lunch. David almost says no. He’s sweaty and dusty and he’ll just finish by the end of the day if he keeps working, but Greg has a bag of sandwiches and they eat them in the study cubicles on the other side of the basement, where the lights are on a different breaker.
When the work spills over into a second day and a second lunch, Greg asks about the ring.
“I was,” David says, spinning the gold band on his finger, “but he left.”
“I can’t imagine how,” Greg says, quiet and sincere.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Two days later, Greg, who knows his own name and eats at regular intervals and doesn’t frighten him, who makes him laugh and wasn’t sent to him by a God he hardly thinks of anymore, even though he prays every day, calls him again and invites him to dinner.
The last time David speaks to God it is in an airport in Nevada.
“Just this, sir?” God asks when David places a pack of chewing gum, a bottle of water, and a chocolate bar on the counter. He’s just as tall as God remembers but he’s grey around the temples and there are laugh lines around his eyes that suit him better than the frown, the anger of when they last met.
“Do I know you?” David asks.
“I don’t think so. I’ve just got one of those faces.” God smiles, scans the chewing gum and the register makes an excited beep. The water and chocolate follow. “That everything?” he asks.
David’s still looking at him, squinting and tilting his head sideways.
“You're making that confused puppy face again,” someone says, stepping up to the counter, hip to hip with David, and presents his own bottle of water and a book.
“These, too,” David says, pushing the book and the water toward the scanner.
“Yes sir,” God says. “You two heading out?”
“We’re going home,” the man who isn’t David says. “We’ve been visiting the in-laws. Well, his brother and the wife.” He has a kind face and full features framed by glasses, the beginning of a beard with even more grey and deeper laugh lines.
“Sounds nice. Where’s home?” then, “That’s twenty-four-sixty, sir,” to David.
“Cold this time of year?”
“Colder than here.”
“Everywhere’s colder than here.”
“Are you sure I don’t know you?” David cuts in.
God smiles. “I don’t know. I meet a lot of people in my line of work. Name’s Chuck.”
David nods, too serious, scratching his own five o’clock shadow and there’s a flash of gold on his finger. God knows it’s not the first one he’s worn. “Have you ever been to Montana? Colorado? New Mexico?”
“I’ve been a little of everywhere.”
“It’s just…” David says but it trails to nothing.
“Well he’s David and I’m Greg,” the man who isn’t David chimes in, “and now we all know each other, but we’re going to miss our flight if we keep up this reunion.”
“Here you go,” God says, handing over the bag of their purchases. “It was nice to meet you Greg. David.”
“Likewise,” Greg waves.
“Yeah,” David says, turning to walk away.
“Have a safe trip,” God says, and it isn’t a suggestion.
“You too… I mean, you know what I mean.”
God smiles. "Happens all the time. Maybe I’ll see you again some time, David.”
“Yeah, maybe,” David says, but Greg’s pulling him by the hand toward their terminal and soon he disappears into the crowd and there’s another customer with a stack of magazines and an inflatable pillow and a spoon with NEVADA engraved into the metal. At the last moment she adds a single serving packet of Tylenol.
“Nice day?” God asks her.
“Not really,” she says.
"Don't worry," God tells her, and smiles, "it will get better."