Ronan doesn’t let anyone touch his radio.
His terrible music is sacred. It’s awful and unpleasant and it’s his and he loves it, and it’s the soundtrack of every cherished moment spent behind the wheel of his car, the place where he felt most at home for all the months he couldn’t actually go home.
Ronan doesn’t let anyone touch his radio, except for Noah.
Noah’s music is terrible in different ways than Ronan’s music. For one, it’s at least seven years out of date; half of it has become memes by now, and not the fun murder squash kind of memes, but the too-embarrassing-to-enjoy-even-ironically memes. For another, it’s just terrible. Everybody’s girlfriends dumped them and everybody wants to leave this town. Whiny bullshit.
But Noah loves it, and there’s no place where Noah seems more alive than when he’s sitting in Ronan’s passenger seat with his terrible early-2000s pop punk blasting through the speakers. In the dark, under distantly-spaced street lights, everything looks less tangible, which makes Noah look more corporeal by comparison. Even the the smudge of his caved-in cheek, the ever-present reminder of his untimely death, faces outwards toward the window, putting it out of Ronan’s view.
It’s not that Ronan likes to pretend that Noah’s alive. He knows perfectly well that Noah’s dead, and he has no interest in pretending he isn’t. He is how he is – it doesn’t make him any less, and he does everything he can to make sure Noah knows that.
But every time Noah flickers or fades or does something ghostly, he thinks of Noah, promising them all, “I was… More… When I was alive.”
Noah deserves a few minutes to feel alive, even though they all know he isn’t, even though they all love him anyway. He deserves to feel alive for himself. And this is the closest he gets to that.
Ronan sometimes can’t sleep, and Noah doesn’t need to sleep, which makes him a perfect co-conspirator for 3am escapes from Monmouth, when Ronan needs to go but has nowhere to go, when Ronan needs to get out but doesn’t trust himself to be alone.
It starts with Noah trying to sing the lyrics of ‘All the Small Things’ to a screaming, pulsing electronic beat that absolutely did not allow for it.
It graduates to Noah being allowed to change the channel.
It ends in Ronan making Noah old-fashioned mixtapes, not just for while they drive but also for Noah to listen to when he’s alone. It’s hard for him to remember sometimes that Noah continues to exist when he isn’t with the rest of them – probably, at least – and Ronan figures that being dead is probably pretty unpleasant when there’s nothing magical happening as a distraction.
“Music,” Ronan says, “to keep your spectral ass company when we can’t.”
And Noah loves it. Ronan and Gansey come home to Monmouth to find Noah singing into a pool cue like it’s a mic stand or dancing on the couch dozens of times.
Ronan gets used to Noah’s brand of terrible music. He still thinks it’s terrible, of course, but at some point he stops hearing the music itself and starts just hearing Noah’s voice singing along, raucous and awful and passionate and splendid and very nearly alive.
But, after everything, after Noah’s gone, late night drives aren’t the same. Ronan doesn’t spend nearly as much time tracking the streets of Henrietta after dark as he used to – he usually doesn’t need to anymore – but when he does, on nights where dreams still turn sour, on nights where he can’t sit still with his thoughts, it’s not the same.
He misses Noah.
So he listens to Noah’s music.
He puts in a cassette with ‘As Outdated as Noah Czerny’ written on one side and ‘Dead Tunes for Dead Friends’ on the other.
The All-American Rejects call him their dirty little secret. Blink-182 asks him ‘What’s my age again?’
He keeps his eyes steeled forward, the emptiness of the passenger seat biting at him like a live animal.
Green Day pleads to be woken when September ends.
Seven years have gone so fast.
Ronan slams the horn, forcing the BMW to wail down the vacant road.
As my memory rests / But never forgets what I lost.
“Remembered,” Ronan snaps out at thin air, but his voice is lost in the music.
Like my father’s come to pass.
He blinks furiously as street lights grow cloudy.
The innocent can never last.
His car jerks and slams to a stop as he pulls over, burying his face in his hands and spewing an ugly, artful string of curses. He ejects the tape, slamming the butt of his palm into the button as the car patiently spits it out.
He wants to roll down the window and throw the cassette into the middle of the road to be ground to dust by speeding eighteen wheelers. He wants to play it louder than his car will let him – so loud he can feel it in his veins. He wants to burn it and watch the plastic melt. He wants to memorize every single word.
He wants his friend back.
As he sits on the side of the road, knuckles white around the steering wheel, eyes brimming with tears he wont let fall, the windows start to fog – the only indication of time passing in the quiet hum of the idling engine.
A thin layer of condensation forms, trapping him in the car with his thoughts. Eyes wide, pinned up and open because even looking down may send tears slipping down his cheeks, he watches a line appear in the fog on his windshield.
The line is joined by four others, forming the shape of the letter ‘M.’
“No,” Ronan says, something resembling panic rising in his throat.
The image of Noah’s dusty car patterned with the word ‘Murdered’ invades his memory.
The ‘M’ is quickly joined by a ‘u’.
“No,” Ronan says with more vehemence, posture rigid. “Remembered.”
The writing hastens – the next letter is ‘s’ –
and Ronan can breathe again.
“Music,” his windshield reads in a few short seconds, and then, “to keep you company when my spectral ass can’t.”
Ronan balls his fists against his eyes and rests his forehead against the steering wheel, and he cries, for a moment or two or longer than that, as the fog fades from his windshield, stealing the message along with it.
“Damn it, Noah,” he says, not even able to feel ashamed of how sad he sounds.
And then, lovingly haunted by the ghost of a ghost, he pushes the cassette back into the player and drives home with tears clinging to his eyelashes and Blink-182’s ‘I Miss You’ pulsing in his bones.