Chapter 1: I
It started with a phone call at 3:43 in the morning.
“I can’t sleep,” Link said. Rhett could hear him tapping his fingers on his phone, jittery from exhaustion.
“Well, neither can I,” Rhett replied. “’Cause I was just woken up by some jerk who thinks callin’ in the middle of the night is normal human behavior.”
“No, I mean I can’t sleep, period.”
Rhett paused. “Whaddya mean, man?”
“I haven’t slept in three days. I’m gettin’ scared now, Rhett. Why can’t I sleep?”
“Have you tried counting sheep?”
“Rhett,” Link huffed. “Rhett, don’t joke with me. I’m real scared. Can you…can I…” He paused, making a soft sound of frustration.
“Can I what?”
“Can you come over? I’ll meet you outside.”
By 4:07, Rhett’s car idled in Link’s driveway. Link’s front door opened and he spilled out into the dark, padding across the lawn in nothing but briefs and a bathrobe. He was a picture of aggravated exhaustion, his robe hanging open around his slender frame and his glasses perched on top of his head. He had a few days of stubble on his face and deep, dark purple bags under his eyes, punched into his skin like bruises. As he climbed into Rhett’s car and slammed the door, Rhett drank him in. He was still Link, still Rhett’s best friend, still the same person Rhett had always known. But beneath that, he was fragile and nothing at all like himself. He looked like he could break if Rhett reached out to touch him. Instead of testing the theory out, Rhett told him the truth. “You look terrible.”
Link rolled his eyes and slumped low in the passenger seat, his glasses slipping off his head and falling neatly into their rightful place. “I feel terrible,” he grumbled. “I couldn’t wake up Christy for the third night in a row. She’s already worried. So.” Link gave a noncommittal sort of shrug. “Thanks for comin’, man.”
“Sure,” Rhett replied.
“I just feel like my head’s gonna fall off my shoulders,” Link said. “It feels so heavy, man. I can’t explain it.” As if to demonstrate the terrible weight of his head, Link buried his face in both hands. He groaned into his palms, the sound tearing from somewhere deep in his throat. “I’m sorry, man,” Link said. “Shouldn’t have called you. I just…I’m so tired. And I dunno what else to do.”
“Anything I can do to help, I’ll do,” Rhett reminded him as gently as he could. At that, Link peered at Rhett through splayed fingers.
“Thanks,” he said. “But b’sides knockin’ me upside the head, I don’t think there’s much you can do.”
“Still,” Rhett said.
“Thank you,” Link said, more sincerely this time. He was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment before adding, “Rhett, what if I never sleep again?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Rhett laughed in reply. But when Link’s eyes met his again, cerulean irises bright in the dark of the car, Rhett swallowed his laughter. “’M sorry,” he said. “Don’t worry, man. You’ll sleep again. You’re probably just overworked and stressed out. We’ve been busy lately, yanno?”
“I know,” Link said. “You’re probably right.” He dropped his hands, shouldered open the car door, and slipped back out into the night. “Thank you for comin’, man,” he said. “I’m really sorry I called you. I just got scared. You know…my mind gets away from me.” Link pointed to his own head and mimed thoughts leaving it like wisps of smoke, his fingers waggling in midair.
“You don’t have to say you’re sorry, man,” Rhett replied. Something seized at his heart as Link shut the car door, something that told Rhett he should call Link back. That he should probably worry. That something wasn’t quite right. But Link made his way back to the house, turned on his heels on the porch, and gave Rhett a wave to see him off. You’re gonna see him in a few hours, Rhett told himself sternly. Don’t panic. He’ll be fine. Even so, Rhett watched Link until he vanished back into his house with a swish of his open robe.
Rhett idled in the driveway until near dawn as if to rescue Link at any moment. It wasn’t until the sky began to shift from deepest black to navy that Rhett made himself drive away. He didn’t know the clock started ticking towards the end the moment he let Link go back inside alone.
He didn’t know a lot of things.
Behind the Good Mythical Morning desk, Link was irritable at best and downright unpleasant at worst. He snapped at Rhett, he snapped at the crew, and Rhett called a timeout when he snapped at his mug for getting in his way.
The moment the camera turned off, Link sagged against the desk, his head hitting the wood with a dull thunk. “I’m sorry,” he said. “’M just…so…” He didn’t finish his thought. One moment he was talking, conscious if not alert, and the next moment, he was dozing. Rhett looked up to meet Stevie’s wide eyes and told her it was probably best if the crew went home for the day.
“I’ll take care of him,” Rhett said, one hand already on Link’s back, following the awkward curve of his spine. Stevie nodded, her mouth tight and eyes alight with concern, but Rhett was already looking away before she was out the door. His best friend was struggling and Rhett couldn’t help. “Hey, buddy,” Rhett said, sweeping his hand up and down Link’s back. “Hey, d’ya need me to carry you to the car?” Link groaned and arched his back up into Rhett’s touch, sighing in contentment as Rhett explored his spine. “Hey, are you with me?” Rhett asked.
Instead of replying, Link turned his head, one eye opening and landing on Rhett. It made Rhett’s stomach flip over to see the vacantness of Link’s big blue eyes.
“Hey,” Rhett said. He leaned closer, lowering his chin until it touched the desk. “Are you with me?”
“No,” Link replied. “’M far away.” His eyes slipped closed again as he yawned so wide it sent a shiver rolling through him. Rhett’s hand rode the wave that was Link’s undulating spine until it came to rest, Link making a soft, defeated sort of noise in the back of his throat.
“Let’s get you home, buddy,” Rhett said. “Christy will take better care of you than I can.” Rhett stood, intent on carrying Link if he had to. But Link’s hand shot out and grabbed for Rhett, trapping his wrist in a barricade of slender fingers.
“She doesn’t know how bad it’s gotten,” Link said. “Please don’t take me home.” Rhett had picked Link up for work like he had been doing for a few weeks now, the two of them riding together. Link was in Rhett’s hands for the time being, and Rhett had the feeling his hands were the safest place for Link to be. The feeling was a strange one, but one Rhett didn’t ignore.
“Okay,” Rhett said. “Take a nap here. I’ll text Christy and tell her we’re runnin’ late. Okay? Just lemme at least get you somewhere more comfortable, man. It’s not good for you to sleep all hunched over like that.”
“Right, Doc,” Link sighed, teasing. Rhett felt a sweep of relief at the lighthearted jab- this was still Link. He was all right. He just needed sleep, and then he would be good as new. Link surprised Rhett by holding his arms out, asking for help getting to his feet. Rhett obliged, Link’s hands locked into tight fists as Rhett hauled him up and out of his chair. For a moment, Link collapsed against Rhett’s side, knees betraying him. Rhett caught him easily enough, the other man so slight it was nothing to carry his weight.
“Woah there,” Rhett said as he set Link upright. “Not bein’ able to sleep makes you even clumsier, huh?”
Link scrubbed at his eyes with his fists, glasses slipping off and clattering to the desk. “Shuddup,” he said. Rhett scooped up the glasses and followed Link, caught off guard when Link stepped into the bathroom and shut the door in Rhett’s face. The faucet turned on as Rhett stood alone in the hall, holding Link’s glasses in one hand. The other hand, Rhett brought to his mouth, gnawing on a fingernail. It wasn’t like him, the nerves burning a hole in his stomach. But shutting Rhett out wasn’t like Link, either, the two of them acting out of sorts.
When Link opened the door, his hair a mess and dripping in his eyes from splashing water on his face, Rhett tried to behave normally. Something was wrong, really wrong, but Rhett passed Link his glasses and chose not to mention it.
“Changed my mind,” Link said, still scarily pale and looking fragile under the fluorescent studio lights. “I wanna go home.”
Rhett wanted to press the issue, but one look into Link’s stern face and he changed his mind. When Link set his jaw hard like this, there was no talking him down. His mind was made up. Rhett had two choices: drive Link home or watch Link find a way home himself. There was no middle ground. There was never middle ground. Not with Link.
When it came to falling apart, there was no middle ground there, either. Link was fine and then he wasn’t. He was together and then he was not. On the drive home, Link shivered and shook, cupping his elbows in his hands, hunched over in the passenger seat. He dozed, coming in and out like static on a TV screen. His chin hit his chest and then bounced back up, Link grumbling that he was fine, goddammit, and couldn’t Rhett drive any faster? Rhett did his best. When he pulled into Link’s driveway, Link spilled out onto the pavement like blood from a nasty cut.
“See you tomorrow?” Rhett asked, leaning out his open window to watch Link make his way to the house. In reply, Link held one hand up. He didn’t say a word, only offering a half-hearted wave. Rhett knew then without knowing a thing that he was about to lose him.
It got worse.
Link stood abruptly from the desk in the middle of filming and vanished. Rhett found him on his knees in the bathroom, clinging to the toilet for dear life. He heaved as Rhett pushed his way through the door, despite Link ordering him to stay away. Link bristled, ready for a fight the moment Rhett came to him. But he was shaking hard, hard enough to rattle his teeth, and he told Rhett with wild eyes, “Rhett, I can’t breathe.” It had been a long time since Link had had a panic attack but Rhett knew it for what it was even before Link did.
“Okay, c’mere.” Rhett held his arms out and Link regarded him with heavily lidded eyes, his chest heaving, lower lip shiny with spit. In the end, Link fell into Rhett’s embrace. He fought for air, fighting terror, and Rhett held on tight, trying his best to be an anchor. If Rhett could do nothing to stop this, the least he could do was tether Link to Earth. He found himself stroking Link’s sweat-damp hair with both hands, whispering softly, reminding Link that everything was going to be okay. It was just a panic attack, it was all in his head. Everything was fine. Link shuddered against him, breath rattling in his throat.
He didn’t believe Rhett, not even for a second. That was okay by him. As long as Link remained calm, as long as Link’s shivering began to slow, Rhett could handle a little skepticism. From Link, he expected nothing less than a skeptic’s eye.
“Rhett,” Link breathed, cradled to Rhett’s chest like he held his children when they were sick. “Rhett, what’s wrong with me?”
“Nothin’, Link,” Rhett said, despite the way Link’s trembling scared him. “You’re okay.”
“Doesn’t feel like it,” Link grumbled, and when he pulled away, Rhett let him go. He stayed on the tile floor of the bathroom as Link rose on unsteady legs. “Wake me up when I’m back to normal, will ya?” Link asked. He didn’t wait for a reply. He flounced from the room, all anger and heat, leaving Rhett alone with hands that smelled faintly of Link’s shampoo.
Rhett sat there for a long time, closing his eyes and tilting his chin to face the ceiling. Whatever it is that’s troubling him, Rhett prayed, silent, scared. Whatever it is, take it away. Please.
Whoever Rhett prayed to, they weren’t listening. No one ever was.
Every time Link managed to fall asleep, Rhett let him stay that way. Link fell asleep at the desk almost every day, his arms acting as a pillow. He fell asleep in the car on the way home, his forehead pressed to the window and his mouth hanging open. Normally, Rhett would tease him, jabbing at the underside of Link’s stubbly chin with his knuckles to get him to shut his mouth. But every second of sleep was precious to Link and Rhett let him keep them all. He drove past Link’s house to give him more time, but Link always woke up confused and angry and unappreciative.
Rhett didn’t mind.
As long as Link got any sleep at all, Rhett was happy. He took to spending extra hours at work to let Link sleep at their shared desk. Link almost never made it to the sofa or the loft, always pretending to not be tired until his head hit the desk and he went out like a light. Rhett would call Jessie and tell her, “It’s Link,” and she would sigh but she would tell him it was all right.
“Christy’s worried sick, you know,” Jessie said. “Link is still faking perfect health, but you’d have to be an idiot to miss that something’s really wrong.”
When Rhett gulped, Jessie changed her tune. She didn’t want him to worry as much as Link’s wife was, that was all. But all attempts to backpedal were fruitless. If Jessie saw it, if Christy saw it, that meant this was real. That meant Link was hurting and there was no more pretending not to see it. Not anymore.
Rhett also took to gifting Link tiny kisses, just a brushing of lips on Link’s forehead. Asleep or not, every time Rhett did it, a crooked smile flashed across Link’s face. The reward was good enough reason to keep doing it, and every time Link awoke to Rhett’s lips on his skin, he shook him off, told him it tickled, and told him to cut it out. But he never smiled like he did when Rhett kissed him. And that was enough for Rhett.
When panic attacks made it hard for Link to breathe, Rhett acted as his oxygen. When exhaustion took him away in the middle of a crowd, Rhett acted as his pillow. And when fear struck Link dumb, his mouth slack and eyes glazed over in terror, Rhett acted as his savior. If it was all that Rhett could do, he was going to do it.
Rhett started to sleep with his phone under his pillow. Link texted him in the middle of the night, and at dawn, and just after the cloak of darkness eased across the sky. Rhett wanted to be there for him. If Link texted him at 2:13 in the morning saying, I had the best idea for a new character. Funny things happen to your brain when you can’t sleep, Rhett saw through the vain attempt at making light of this. He texted back, I think you should see a doctor, and Link didn’t have a reply for that.
It kept getting worse.
Link missed a day of shooting, claiming he had a headache, and Rhett told the crew it was time to call it a day. He let them go and he went to Link, rapping at Link’s front door with his knuckles. Link’s family wasn’t home and Rhett knew it; they were out for a hike somewhere and Link was alone. For Rhett, that wouldn’t do. The door was unlocked, and Rhett went inside without waiting for Link to let him in. Something told him Link was in no condition to make it to the front door. Rhett was proven right when he made his way upstairs and finally found him.
Link was in his bedroom, the curtains drawn and the blinds pulled down. It was chilly in the room, the air conditioning cranked up high, and Link shivered in his bed wearing nothing but baggy plaid pajama bottoms. He had an arm thrown over his eyes, hiding most of his face from Rhett. But Rhett only had to see the taut line of his mouth and the hard set of his jaw to know something was terribly wrong.
“Link?” Rhett said. He’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine, Rhett tried to tell himself. But his heart threatened to hammer its way out of his chest and betray how he truly felt. Truly, he felt like he could drown in the tear tracks on Link’s cheeks. “Link, why…?”
“I feel like someone’s watchin’ me,” Link mumbled, cutting Rhett’s question off. “There’s this…this shadow in the corner of my eye. Been there all goddamn day. And I’m gettin’ real scared, Rhett, that something’s really wrong with me. What the hell is wrong with me? Why’m I so tired, Rhett? Why the hell can’t I sleep?”
There was nothing Rhett could say to make it better, but he tried. He tiptoed to Link’s bed, moving as if Link could be startled away like a deer in headlights. He sank to the mattress at Link’s side, the bed dipping with his weight, tipping Link a touch closer. Link moved his arm up just enough to peer at Rhett, his eyes shining in the almost perfect darkness. No matter how dark it got, those eyes always shone like stars. It made Rhett feel a little better; if Link’s eyes were gleaming, how bad could things be? He was bright and alive, if not alive and well. It was all that Rhett could ask for.
“’M sorry, Link,” Rhett said. He wanted to touch, to soothe, but Link had been shrugging him off, turning away, and telling him to let go every time he tried. He kept his hands in his lap as he watched Link frown, sniffling and trembling.
“Don’t be sorry,” Link replied. “Just make it go away.”
“I can’t,” Rhett said.
“I know that, Rhett,” Link sighed. He paused, face still hidden from Rhett, his bare chest rising and falling rapidly like he couldn’t get a handle on his lungs. “Can you d-do something for me?”
“Of course.” Rhett pretended not to hear Link stumbling over his words.
“Gemme a washcloth,” Link said. “I’m sweatin’ my ass off here.” And he was, a sheen of sweat on his skin, the divot between his collarbones damp. Rhett wasted no time in heading to the bathroom. He ran the faucet to get the water hot, the way he knew Link liked it. He pulled a neatly folded white washcloth from the stack under the sink and wet it, wrung it out, and folded it once lengthwise. By the time Rhett made it back to Link, he was dozing. Rhett paused. Leave him be, he told himself. But the smarter part of Rhett’s brain told him, there’s no way in hell you’re leaving him all alone.
Rhett sat on the bed as gingerly as he could, Link’s head lolling on his pillows as the mattress bowed again with Rhett’s weight. Rhett was grateful for the manufactured darkness that hid from him the waxiness of Link’s pale face. “Hey, buddy,” Rhett said. “C’mere.” He tucked one finger under Link’s chin to turn his best friend’s face away from him and towards the ceiling. Link didn’t stir as Rhett draped the warm washcloth across his forehead. He didn’t stir when Rhett made a quick, calculated decision and kicked his way out of his shoes. Only when Rhett arranged himself carefully at Link’s side did his eyes open.
“Chris?” Link mumbled, brow furrowed as he tried to climb out of his restless sleep. One hand reached out across the darkness towards Rhett, landing clumsily in his beard. “Ah,” Link breathed. “Rhett. ‘M sorry. I forgot you were here.” He laughed to himself as he stroked his fingers across Rhett’s cheek, still half asleep and mindless. Rhett took a turn being completely still as Link slowly came back into himself. The hand in Rhett’s beard withdrew and found the washcloth on Link’s forehead, a frustrated sigh escaping Link at the discovery. “Was I asleep when you got here?” Link muttered. “Nice of you to…you didn’t have to do this for me.”
“No, Link,” Rhett said. He rolled to face Link, the smaller man still lying flat on his back, one hand fumbling with the damp washcloth. “You asked me to,” he said.
“Oh.” Link didn’t say anything for a while. When he spoke up again, it was the last thing Rhett wanted to hear. “I’m fine, you know,” he said. Rhett watched Link’s profile in the meager light streaming in under the window shades, the face he knew better than his own. He watched Link’s chin tremble as he spoke. “Did Christy ask you to babysit me? Don’t answer that. She’s worried. I know. But this is just…somethin’. It’s nothin’ to worry about, all right? Stop lookin’ at me like you’re gonna get up and drag me to the hospital.”
“I’m thinking about it,” Rhett admitted.
“You haven’t been yourself for a few weeks now.”
“You can’t just keep goin’ on like this, man.”
“I know.” Angry and fed up, Link flung the washcloth over the edge of the bed and rolled over, facing away from Rhett. He tucked himself up into a ball, knees close to his chest, and the sigh that escaped him seemed to rattle in his throat. Rhett was going to fall apart for wanting to fix him. Tentative, Rhett reached out into the space between them and wrapped one hand around Link’s bicep. Strong muscles flexed under his palm as Link tried to pull away, but Rhett pulled harder.
“Link, look at me.”
“Link. C’mon. Look at me.”
“Leave me alone, will you? ‘M tired.”
“I know you are,” Rhett said. Link’s bare skin burned under his hand, his arm slick with sweat. Whether it was a fever ravaging his brain and his body or something worse, Rhett couldn’t leave him here by himself. There was no way in hell. “But a lotta people count on you for a lotta things, Link, and you need to be okay for them. I don’t care if you don’t care about yourself. I care, and I’m not gonna let you keep doing something this selfish.”
Link laughed a hollow little laugh and jerked his arm out of Rhett’s grasp. “Selfish,” he echoed. “Funny. I think hitting the panic button and scaring the crap out of my family for no reason would be a little more selfish than this. Don’t you?”
“No,” Rhett says, immediate. “Link, you…you need to take care of yourself. Please.” Rhett’s voice cracked on the last word and all at once, Link was in Rhett’s face.
“I’m trying,” Link hissed through his teeth, incisors flashing inches from Rhett’s own mouth. Link’s voice was dangerously low, close enough to a growl to make Rhett’s heart pick up in double time. Whatever was wrong with Link, it was worse than Rhett had thought. The man looking hard at Rhett looked nothing like his best friend. Even in the dark, Rhett could see the tightness of his jaw and the anger mounting in his eyes. “I want this to go away,” Link said. “I want to sleep, really sleep, not fade in and out like I’ve been doin’ for weeks. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be so tired you can’t breathe and still not be able to sleep?”
“No,” Rhett admitted. He had no goddamn idea. But with every bone in his body, he wanted to know. He wanted to feel what Link felt so he could help, so he could take some of the burden onto his own shoulders. Barring that, Rhett wanted to make Link feel good as much as he could. Face to face, nothing but air between them, Rhett made a move. He brushed Link’s sweaty hair back with careful fingers, tucking loose strands behind his ear. Link stayed perfectly still, watching Rhett with wary eyes. Rhett hardly dared to move himself. He trailed his fingers down, tracing the shape of Link’s ear with his middle finger. When Link didn’t pull away, Rhett grew braver. Exhaustion making Link pliant and fear emboldening Rhett, he cupped Link’s face in his hand. “I’m gonna fix this,” Rhett said. “Whatever it is, I’m gonna make it better. Okay?”
Eyes wide open and breath mingling with Rhett’s, Link nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Get to it, then.” His eyelids fluttered as his eyes flicked down to Rhett’s lips and back up again. Rhett knew exactly what the heaviness in Link’s voice meant- he was issuing a challenge. But he was sick, he was seeing things that weren’t there, and Rhett was not going to indulge him. Not in the dark, not in Link’s room, and certainly not in Link’s bed.
“I will,” Rhett said. Instead of asking Link why he was looking at him like he wanted to swallow him whole, Rhett ceded. He gave up his half of Link’s marital bed, he gave up the surety of his hand on Link’s face, and he gave up his half of a fight unfinished. Link watched him take a step back with half-lidded eyes, face unreadable in the dark. When he spoke, his voice was ragged at the edges.
“When’re you gonna fix me, Rhett?” Link croaked. “I can’t wait forever, man.”
“I can’t do anything if you’re not willing to work with me, Link,” Rhett said. He tried to make his voice stern. He really did. But Link lolled like a ragdoll in bed, his bare chest heaving, and the next thing Rhett knew, he was on his knees on the carpet in search of the wet washcloth. He found it close to the window and he ignored Link’s sounds of protest as he brought it back to the bathroom and wet it again under the faucet. “Let me,” Rhett said when he returned, sinking again to the bed. Link fought him for a moment just like Rhett knew he would. Link always hated when he needed tending to. He liked to be the strong one, the dependable one. The one who could be counted on when everything went wrong. But Rhett implored him, Rhett begged him to just this once, please, accept the help offered to him.
Defeated, Link nodded. And Rhett did the best he could. He pressed the washcloth, now damp with cold water, to the soft spot behind one of Link’s ears. At the sensation, Link sighed in relief, going boneless, going still. Rhett hovered over Link as he languished in his bed, groaning as Rhett dabbed sweat from his brow. Despite his best efforts to pretend otherwise, Link needed all the help he could get.
He let Rhett tend to him for the first time in longer than Rhett could remember. That was when Rhett knew for sure: whatever was happening, there was no coming back from it. No matter how this ended, that was all it could ever be- an ending. The knowledge stilled Rhett’s hand as he held the washcloth to the side of Link’s throat, offering his burning skin temporary relief. He didn’t move again until Link covered his hand with his own, a question on the tip of his tongue.
“Wha’s wrong?” Link mumbled, troubled sleep threatening to take him away again.
“Nothing,” Rhett replied. His answer came too fast and Link saw right through him. It was just as well. Rhett saw right through Link, too. Which one of them was going to break and admit the truth first?
Rhett wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
Link always had a tremor in his hands, but nothing like the way they shook as he struggled with a knife in his kitchen. Christy, in an attempt to cheer a frustrated Link up, had invited Rhett and his family over for dinner. Rhett’s presence in the kitchen as Link tried to chop up onions only seemed to make him feel worse. He glowered, holding the knife in his hand so tightly his knuckles turned red and then white. Five kids shouted and roughhoused in the living room, the noise setting Link on edge. Jessie had already offered to have Link’s kids spend the night and Christy had jumped at the offer, telling Link it would do him good to have some quiet around the house. But until it was time for Rhett and his wife to take all five kids home with them, Link was left to grind his teeth and shudder every time they made a noise.
“D’ya need help with that?” Rhett asked as the knife in Link’s hand slipped and clipped the cutting board. “I don’t want you to cut yourself, man.”
“Not gonna,” Link replied. It had been a struggle all night to get anything more than monosyllabic gripes out of Link, but it didn’t stop Rhett from trying. As Jessie and Christy talked over the kids in the living room, Rhett went to Link. He met him by the sink, where Link struggled to cut uniformly and not add his fingertips to the mix. “What?” Link asked as Rhett hovered anxiously at his side. This close to Link, it was easier to see his hands. They shook like Link was falling apart from the inside out, but the motion of Link’s hands was messier than a tremor. His fingers twitched like he was getting shocked, his fingertips out of sync and jerky. As Link ignored Rhett, he almost lopped off the pad of his thumb, and that was enough for Rhett. He closed his hand over Link’s and took the knife from him, trying to make it easy, trying to make it not so obvious what he was doing.
Like always, as ever, Link saw through him.
“You’re being an ass,” Link told him, heedless of the kids in the next room over. He tried to snatch the knife back, uncoordinated and unbalanced, and Rhett played an immature game of keep-away. He didn’t know what else to do. He held the knife out of Link’s grasp, the smaller man not thinking straight and trying to grab for the blade.
“You’re being reckless,” Rhett snapped back. “And stupid. Lemme help you, all right?”
“I don’t need…”
“If you tell me one more time you don’t need my help…”
“Don’t threaten me, Rhett.” Link’s voice took on a dark tinge that Rhett had never heard before. The thickness of it was the only thing that quieted him as Link yanked the knife from his hand and went back to his chopping. Rhett stood at his side, utterly dazed.
Whatever was wrong, it was only getting worse. And Rhett felt more and more like Link was hurtling towards a wall he would never be able to break through once he hit it.
Link continued towards it at breakneck speed.
Four weeks after the first phone call, there was another.
“Rhett,” Link whispered into the phone. Rhett didn’t bother looking at the time. He got out of bed, careful not to wake Jessie, and he shut himself in the bathroom. Only when he was alone, perched on the edge of the bathtub, did he reply.
“What is it?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
“No,” Link replied. He sounded far away, and Rhett fought a wave of panic that he was too far to catch Link if he needed it.
“What’s wrong, Link?”
“Oh, Rhett, I…” Link paused. He sniffled heartily, chasing it with a harsh cough. He was crying.
“God, Link, what is it? Do you need me to come over? Do you need to go to the hospital? Where’s Christy, Link? Wake her up for me, so she can take care of you until I-“
“I fell asleep for three minutes and I had a dream that you died.” Link cut him off, blunt, typical Link, cutting to the chase and cutting to the bone. Rhett stammered to a stop, heart in his throat. “But you’re alive,” Link went on. “I…I was just checking. It was so real, Rhett. I watched you die right in front of me. When I woke up, I was…I was sure it was real.”
“I’m fine, Link,” Rhett said. “I promise, I’m fine.”
“I know,” Link sniffled. “But for a second, I was sure you were gone.”
“’M not going anywhere, Link,” Rhett told him.
“Rhett, I think I’m losin’ my mind.”
“You lost it a long time ago, buddy.” Rhett tried to joke and immediately wished he hadn’t.
“Don’t,” Link replied. “I’m scared outta my mind, Rhett. What the hell am I supposed to do? If something’s really wrong with me, what the hell am I supposed to tell my family? Where does that leave you? We’ve worked so hard for so long, and I can’t just…die and leave you to work it out alone…”
“Don’t,” Rhett echoed right back at Link.
“You’re the one who acts like you already know I’m dyin’.”
“I don’t think you’re…” Rhett couldn’t even make himself say it. He gnawed on one fingernail, his knees shaky and his hands shakier. “I just want you to take care of yourself,” he finished lamely. “Is that too much to ask?”
Link was gruff when he replied. “No,” he said. “No, it’s not. ‘Cause I’d ask the same of you.”
Rhett sighed, relief warming him. “So you’ll…”
“Yeah. I’ll go to the fuckin’ doctor,” Link snapped. He hardly ever swore like that, bitterness tinging his voice. It sounded terrible coming from him. “Does that make you happy, Rhett?”
“You’re such a jerk sometimes,” Rhett replied. He had been cutting Link slack for weeks, miles of it, but he was tired, too. He was spent, and he needed comfort. He needed his best friend back. The thought of a diagnosis, of help, was the only thing that kept Rhett from shouting out loud until Link could see how badly he was hurting him.
“Tell me somethin’ I don’t know,” Link shot back. “I’m glad you’re not dead, Rhett. Have a nice night.” Link hung up the phone with a harsh click, and Rhett could only imagine him flinging his phone across the room in a fit of anger. It was what Link did: he got angry, he threw things, he said things meant to cut deep. But in the end, he always said he was sorry. He always meant it.
This time, the apology came in the form of a text an hour later when Rhett was no closer to sleep than Link.
I love you, Rhett, the text read, entirely uncharacteristic of Link. You’re right. I am a jerk.
Rhett thought about it for a long, long time before he hit SEND on his reply. My jerk, he sent back. When Link replied only with a colon and an end parenthesis, Rhett could almost see the real smile on Link’s face.
So they weren’t broken just yet. They were going to be okay. Link was going to be okay. They just needed some time, some hope, and some miracle. That wasn’t too much to ask. Was it?
After that, Rhett didn’t hear from Link all day. He didn’t hear a thing. He checked his phone every ten minutes and then every five, scared out of his mind. He thought about calling Christy, about begging for an answer, but Rhett tried to be patient. It was almost impossible to sit still as he ate dinner with his family. Jessie noticed him shoving food around his plate, stomach too twisted up to eat much of anything. She laid a hand over his and told him everything was going to be fine. She was sure of it. As much as Rhett wanted to believe her, he knew.
If Link was all right, Rhett would have known it by now.
Rhett excused himself from the table and plunked into a lawn chair outside, sinking low. If everything was okay, Rhett would already know. He couldn’t get the thought out of his head, the certainty that silence could only mean calamity. What would Rhett do if something were to happen to Link? That was a thought too painful to hold onto, but try as he might, Rhett couldn’t let it go.
As the sun set in gold and red across the horizon, a hand landed on Rhett’s shoulder. He reached behind himself to cover Jessie’s hand with his own, nuzzling into the gentle fingers.
“He’s fine, Rhett,” Jessie said. “He probably figured there was no point in calling with good news.”
“You’re right,” Rhett said hollowly. He and Jessie both knew Link like the backs of their hands. They both knew it wasn’t good news that Link kept from them, not ever. Why would he start now? Still, Rhett indulged his wife, scared to admit to himself something was horribly wrong. He was going to have to call Link; he was going to have to reach out and pray while the phone rang. He was going to have to chase Link for an answer. He couldn’t sit and wait a second longer. “I’m calling him,” Rhett told Jessie, and as the sky faded from brilliant red to bruised purple, Rhett pulled his phone from his pocket. Jessie settled into his lap, one arm slung protectively across his shoulders, her fingertips brushing idly along the back of Rhett’s ear.
Link was the first in Rhett’s recent contacts just like he always was, and as Rhett drew the phone to his ear, he closed his eyes and prayed. Please answer. Please. Please be okay. Please, please be okay. Rhett hardly dared to breathe as the phone rang once and then twice. It kept ringing, the sound settling hotly in the pit of Rhett’s stomach.
Link didn’t answer.
“Shit,” Rhett hissed. He tried to tell himself this was typical Link, not answering the phone when Rhett needed him. Nothing was amiss, nothing was wrong. This was normal. This was any other night. But Rhett knew better. And he had to hear the truth before it tore him apart.
Jessie sat cradled in his lap as Rhett dialed Christy’s number. His lips moved in a wordless prayer that went unanswered. When Christy didn’t pick up, Rhett swore and tossed his phone across the sun-kissed lawn. Without saying a word, Jessie rose to retrieve it. She passed it into Rhett’s hand and leaned over him, her hand in the hair at the nape of his neck.
“He’s fine,” Jessie said. Did she know Rhett could see the bleak terror in her eyes as well as he could feel it in his own chest?
“Go see him if you need to,” Jessie said. “If it’ll make you feel better to see for yourself, just go.” She looked at Rhett with stern eyes and he looked up at her.
“No…” Rhett replied. He knew better than to chase Link when he wasn’t ready to talk; he knew better than to try and force an answer out of him. Hunting Link down would only make him mad. As hard as it would be, Rhett would keep on waiting. When Link was ready, he would call. In the meantime, Rhett was going to have to keep himself distracted to keep himself together. He followed Jessie back into the house and she set about making a movie night, wrangling the boys and enlisting their help to make popcorn on the stovetop.
Rhett felt far removed from himself as he and his family settled on the couch, Rhett in the middle and in charge of the bowl of popcorn. As the boys shoved their hands into the bowl and Jessie told them to slow down all through the credits, Rhett tried not to scream.
He’s fine, Rhett told himself. He told himself over and over. But it never felt any closer to true.
It was 1:56 in the morning when Rhett’s phone ringing shook him awake. He dove for it, waking Jessie as he lunged out of bed, the phone pressed to his ear. She sat up and watched his face with wide eyes as Link breathed down the other line.
“Rhett,” Link said, his voice a gut punch.
“Link,” he replied. He waited for a second punch, for cataclysm to an apocalyptic degree. Instead, he got silence. And that was worse. “Link?”
“Can you come pick me up?” Link asked. “I need to get outta the house. Please.” He spoke with measured calm, but Rhett heard the shimmy in his voice. Whether he knew it or not, Link always made his feelings crystal clear by the timbre of his voice, and Rhett knew each sound by heart. This wasn’t true calm. This wasn’t ease. This was terror.
“I’m coming,” Rhett said. Jessie followed him down the stairs, surging up on her tiptoes to give him a frantic kiss on the cheek, her hands fluttering on his shoulder. When she tried to pull away, Rhett caught her up in his arms. He buried his face in her hair, panic tightening his chest. He couldn’t make himself leave just yet. For a minute more, he pretended nothing about this was unnerving or terrible or wrong. Jessie clung to him as tightly as he clung to her.
“It’s okay, baby,” Jessie soothed. Her hands traced slow, careful patterns along the slope of his back as he tightened his grip.
“Jess, what if…?”
“Jessie, what if he’s not?”
Jessie had nothing to say.
Rhett extricated himself from Jessie’s embrace and extricated himself from the house. In the dark, the night pressing in on him from all sides, Rhett made short work of the drive to Link. When he pulled into the driveway, Link was waiting on his front porch. Rhett let the engine idle as he took in the sight of his best friend. Link sat hugging himself, curled up on the porch steps in his pajama pants and a T-shirt that made him look horrifyingly small. He looked up as the headlights of Rhett’s car cut across the lawn and on shaky legs, Link rose.
“Take me far away, please,” Link said in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead into the night. “I don’t care where. Just as far as you have time to go.”
Rhett didn’t tell Link that for him, he had all the time in the world. Instead, he drove. He drove to the sea and then cut south. With no destination in mind, Rhett just kept on driving. He waited for Link to speak. When he was ready, he would. It was hard to stomach the silence, but what the hell else could Rhett do? All he had always done was give Link the time he needed, the space, the quiet.
It was impossible, but Rhett kept giving it now, silence weighing him down like cement poured over his shoulders.
In the end, home a hundred miles behind them, Link began to talk.
“Rhett, yanno how I used to say, if I died, that I wanted you to go on without me? For a week, maybe, and then make a big show of not bein’ able to do it alone?”
“Yes,” Rhett replied. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Link turn his face Rhett’s way. Rhett didn’t dare look back. It was four in the morning and the road ahead was empty, but Rhett didn’t trust himself to ever be able to look away from Link if he tried to look now. He stared at the open road and his white-knuckled hands on the steering wheel.
“I don’t want you to do that,” Link said. “I want it to be over now. It’ll be easier that way. I don’t want a big, stupid week of goodbyes. It would…it would kill me.”
“Link, what’re you talking about?”
“It’s rare,” Link said. “Incredibly rare. Unfeasibly rare, they said. But guess who’s got it?” He gave an awful, hollow chuckle and sank lower in his seat, the seatbelt cutting into the soft skin of his throat. Rhett’s brain picked through a million possibilities and tossed them aside, words like cancer and tumor and inoperable bouncing around in his head. He rejected each one, the thoughts too painful to bear. But what spilled from Link was worse. “Sporadic fatal insomnia,” Link said, tongue dancing expertly around the diagnosis like he had already said it a thousand times.
The only thing Rhett heard was the second word: fatal.
“Link,” he said. “Link, what’re you talking about?”
“There’s no cure,” Link replied. “One hundred percent fatality rate within eighteen months, give or take a month or five.” Again, he chuckled. The sound made the hair on the back of Rhett’s neck stand on end.
“Link, that’s not funny.” Link was joking. There was no other explanation. Rhett immediately tossed out the possibility of Link telling the truth; it was too much to think about and Rhett shoved it aside. There had to be a different reason for the way he kept his distance, the way he shivered, the way he fought waves of panic as frightening as tsunamis. There had to be an explanation, there had to be something. Because Link was lying. Rhett was sure of it.
“Rhett,” Link snapped, kicking his bare feet up on the dashboard and slinking further down. “God. I wouldn’t friggin’ lie to you. You think I’d be sitting here with you if I was fine?” The sudden hitch in Link’s voice scared Rhett more thoroughly than the words he spoke. Without saying anything else, sure he would be unable to if he tried, Rhett pulled the car neatly off the highway and onto the shoulder. He punched at the hazard lights and put the car in park. By the time he looked back at Link, there were tears brimming over in his bright blue eyes.
“Link!” Rhett cried. “Oh, Link, don’t…”
“My fucking kids, Rhett,” Link said. He looked at Rhett like he wasn’t seeing Rhett at all. “My kids. How is Christy gonna take care of them on her own? It’s not like I was the best dad, but God, what the hell am I gonna tell them, Rhett?”
Rhett didn’t have time to tell Link he was, he was the best, the best of everything. Link kept going, an unstoppable train hurtling towards the end of the tracks.
“I’m not gonna see them grow up,” Link choked. He blinked and fat tears rolled down his cheeks. The tracks they left on his face were tinted orange by the streetlights overhead. “The show’s over, Rhett,” Link said. “All of it’s over. I have to…I want to…I need to make the best of the time I have left. You understand that, dontcha? Please tell me you understand. I can’t sit behind that desk for one more second. I can’t say goodbye to them.”
Sure, there was a world of people to worry about, a great and all-powerful them. But what about Rhett? What the hell was Rhett supposed to do?
Link was an over-thinker and he left Rhett dumbfounded in his wake.
“Rhett, I’m gonna die,” Link whispered. And that was when Rhett broke.
“You can’t,” he replied. What a stupid thing to say. But it was all Rhett could come up with, all he could think of, all he could get his mind around. Whatever Link thought, he was wrong. He was going to be fine. He was going to keep getting older at Rhett’s side; they were going to keep getting older together. That was always the plan, always. There was no changing it now. Surely, if Link was gone, Rhett would be, too.
There was no Rhett without Link. If Link was going to die, Rhett was going to follow. It was the only thing Rhett was sure of: they were tied together by the wrists and if one of them drowned, the other would sink with him.
“You don’t have a say,” Link spat.
“There has to be something…”
“There isn’t.” Blunt. Cold. Link stared at Rhett across the center console, his lips trembling at the corners. If this were Jessie, hurting this badly, Rhett would lean over and kiss those lips to get the shaking to stop. But it was Link, it was Rhett’s best friend, his Link. And there was nothing Rhett could do.
“Link,” Rhett breathed.
“I know,” Link replied. His voice cracked. Tears dripped like rain from the point of his chin, spilling down his face and pitter-pattering on his jeans. “Rhett, I love you.” There was something terrible in the admission and Rhett took it as his first of a million goodbyes. He refused to accept it.
“Don’t,” he said.
“Don’t be like that,” Link croaked. “Please, for the love of God, tell me you love me. I need to hear it.”
When Rhett opened his arms, Link fell clumsily into them. They embraced awkwardly, seatbelts locking and threatening to choke them. Link undid his first, the buckle smacking the window from the ferocity of Link’s hands. Rhett followed. They met back in the middle. Link barked a sob into the hollow of Rhett’s throat, his breath washing hotly across Rhett’s skin.
From now on, every moment would be one to count down. Only so many hugs left, so many whispered utterances of I love you. There were only so many touches, so many laughs and fights and bouts of mindless bickering. There were only so many night drives. Brainstorming sessions. Late nights and early mornings. Mugs full of coffee, greetings and goodbyes.
From this moment on, they were running out of time.
“I love you,” Rhett whispered, Link’s hair tickling his lips. “Don’t cry, Link. I love you.” And there was two right there, two I love yous out of the few that Rhett had left. He wasn’t going to waste a single one.
It was dawn by the time Rhett got Link back home. Christy flew out of the house the moment Rhett pulled into the driveway, and Link threw himself out of the car to meet her. He left the door hanging open. Link and his wife met in the middle of the front lawn, Link crying loud enough for Rhett to hear. Christy held onto Link like she had thought she already lost him. Rhett knew the feeling.
Numbly, he watched Link and his wife embrace in the light offered by Rhett’s headlights.
Link didn’t say goodbye to him, but Rhett didn’t want his goodbye. Feeling sick, intrusive, and wrong, Rhett reached for the open passenger side door and yanked it shut with a bang.
Link didn’t look back as Rhett drove away.
When Rhett got home, his own wife was there, timid in her exploration of his salt-sticky cheeks with her hands. Whatever answers she sought, she saw them in his face. Her lips fell open in horror before she could stop it, and like a child, Rhett fell into her arms. She didn’t ask him what was wrong. She knew.
The cheery California morning did nothing to take away the weight on Rhett’s chest. He went to bed willingly enough and Jessie tucked the sheets up to his chin. “Get some sleep, honey,” she whispered with a lingering kiss on his forehead. “I love you.” Undisturbed by numbered days, Jessie was reckless with her admissions of love. Rhett didn’t have the heart to say it back.
Only when Rhett was alone did he let the dam crumble and fall. He buried his face in his hands and he cried. Tears slipped down his face, down his cheeks, down to his ears. Palms slick and shaking, heartsick and breaking, Rhett cried himself dry.
And for the first time in his life, he questioned the existence of God.
Good Mythical Morning went on summer hiatus seven weeks early, in the last week of April. True to his word, Link didn’t say goodbye. He left Rhett to gather the crew and he left Rhett to tell them the news. He left Rhett to watch tears well up in a dozen pairs of eyes; he left Rhett to watch hands clap over mouths and eyes widen in disbelief.
He left Rhett all alone to hold Stevie as she cried.
Like Rhett, she didn’t want to believe it. None of them did. Rhett should have expected Stevie to take it the hardest, but he didn’t. He held onto her as the weight of Link’s prognosis fell upon her shoulders.
Rhett could have gone his whole life without knowing what Stevie sounded like when she cried.
He stayed at the studio long after sending the crew home. He had wanted to offer comfort, to tell them there was the slightest possibility of this being anything but the end. But there was nothing Rhett could have said that wasn’t a downright lie. So he had told them the truth: this was not a hiatus, this was no see you later. This was the end.
Most of the crew had offered to help Rhett sort through the mess of memories, things accumulated over years and years of playing pretend for the world to see. Instead of accepting the help, Rhett had told them later. Later, they could dismantle the set. Later, Rhett could write letters of recommendation as the Mythical Crew looked for work somewhere else. Later, they could pack up all evidence of a lifetime’s worth of fun and stow it all away. Later, later, later. For Rhett, a man scared to death of all the laters he was never going to get, the thought of later began to burn a hole in him.
Alone, Rhett began picking through the studio in search of something to keep his mind and his hands busy. Instead of a distraction, he found evidence of all the things he was going to miss. He ran his hands over costumes and wigs, props and discarded remains of ideas only half fleshed out. He hesitated before running his hands over the Wheel of Mythicality, cocking his head from side to side to read every prompt they would never get to act out. It didn’t take him long to stop reading, every new idea settling uncomfortably in the empty space growing in his heart.
Without thinking, Rhett took hold of the wheel, wrestled with the unfamiliar weight of it, and toppled it to the floor. It cracked down the middle with an earsplitting crash. The crack split the Good Mythical Morning logo in two. It was just as well. Everything in this place might as well be just as broken as Rhett. Once one thing was broken beyond repair, it was easy to keep breaking. Rhett shoved a makeup vanity with all his might, the mirror and lightbulbs surrounding it shattering on the floor in a flash of glass. It was all too satisfying to ruin instead of being the one ruined, and Rhett did all he could to tear the storage room to shreds. He dented the wall by picking up a chair and throwing it, almost throwing out his back in the process. As he leaned on the wall with one hand, the other clutching at the sharp pain in his spine, Rhett bowed his head.
He heard the voice before he heard the approaching footsteps.
“Rhett? I forgot something and I heard a crash from back here, are you…?” Chase, the owner of the voice and the hurried footsteps, paused somewhere behind Rhett. “Oh. Uh…”
“’M sorry,” Rhett said. He pushed off from the wall and brushed tears from his eyes before turning to face Chase with an offering of a watery smile. Never had Chase looked so young, so small as he looked up at Rhett to meet his eyes.
“No, I should…I should have known.” Chase shoved his hands deep in the pockets of his jeans, working his lip between his teeth. It took him a long moment to decide, but in the end he steeled himself and said, “Want some help?”
First, he allowed Chase the same release he had desperately needed. He clapped Chase on the back after the younger man threw a blown glass lamp against the dented wall with all his might. After that, he and Chase spent the next hour cleaning up. They swept the floor and dumped the debris into garbage bags. They shoved things into boxes and taped them up, Chase labeling them with a Sharpie that he had tucked behind his ear from packing away his own things. It was slow going and Rhett was going to have to come back and finish on his own, but he appreciated the company more than he would admit. It made him feel better just to be with someone who understood how hard it was to toss memories and happier days into boxes with no intention of ever opening them again.
Chase was on his way out the door when he stopped and turned back. “Rhett?” he asked.
“Whatever happens, we’re…I’m here for you. You know, not just as an employee, or whatever. As your friend. Okay?”
“Thank you, Chase. I appreciate it.”
Chase’s reply made him sound far younger than he was. “Just don’t lose touch with us, okay? We…we love you, yanno? And we’d be worried if you…dropped off the face of the earth.” Chase shrugged, noncommittal, as if worried he said too much. But Rhett reached out to take Chase’s hand and the younger man accepted the too-tight handshake.
“Yeah, I won’t be a stranger,” Rhett said. He wondered, as Chase got into his car and drove away, if he knew Rhett was lying.
He never wanted to see any of them again.
After this, after Link, Rhett would never be able to face the people who helped shape the life he and Link shared. He wouldn’t be standing here in a vacant, sterile studio without them. But it was always going to be too much. Rhett could see it already, the pity and the way they would tiptoe around him. Because they would know as well as anyone that Rhett wasn’t losing a friend. He was losing half of himself. He was losing half of his soul.
And there would be no coming back from that.
Chapter 2: II
Rhett wanted to be angry at Link for leaving him alone to tear apart the studio. So badly, he wanted a reason to fight, to yell, to scream. He wanted Link to be angry, to come at him, to hit him if it would bring light back Link’s eyes. But the moment Rhett opened his front door on the day after Link abandoned him to find Link standing there, all intentions of rage and anger were swept away. What replaced them was despair.
“I tried,” Link said, hugging himself on Rhett’s front porch. “I tried to sit through dinner with my family and act like everything was fine. Goddammit, Rhett, I left Christy alone to tell the kids. Why did I do that?”
Instead of giving him an answer, Rhett opened his arms. Gratefully, Link stepped into them. He shivered and shook in the chill of a breezy spring night, but as Rhett rubbed careful hands up and down the slope of his back, the shivering slowed and stopped. When Link looked up into Rhett’s face, his glasses were smudged from his face pressing into Rhett’s chest. Somehow, the sight of smudgy glass hurt worse than the redness of Link’s cheeks or the tremor in his chin.
“Where do you wanna go?” Rhett asked. “I’ll take you anywhere.”
“Home,” Link replied. “I wanna go home.”
Rhett knew him better than to think he wanted a ride back to his house, back to his family. No, Link wanted a journey of twenty-five hundred miles. He wanted to be back in Buies Creek.
“Okay, baby,” Rhett breathed, a slip of the tongue that had Link stiffening in his arms. But Rhett didn’t try to take it back. He was surprised to find that baby rolled off his tongue just as easily as buddy. There was no reason for Rhett to reel it back in. For his part, Link didn’t ask him to. “I’ll take you there.”
Jessie was understanding when Rhett told her what Link wanted: he wanted to go home with Rhett. Rhett and no one else.
Christy put up a fight.
She told Link he was being selfish, taking himself away from her and the family when he only had so much time left. She told Link he was being childish, a coward, asinine. She wept. But in the end, she gave her blessing. She cried all night, staying awake with Link, keeping space between them in their bed. All of this, Link recounted to Rhett as he drove them to the airport.
“And she won’t even…” Link began, trailing off, twisting his wedding band around and around his finger.
“Won’t even what?”
“She won’t even touch me,” Link said. At the admission, he shoved his glasses up to scrub at his eyes. “Like she thinks I’ve got a fragile stamp on my forehead or somethin’. She’s been sleepin’ on her side of the bed with her back to me since the day we…since we got the news.” Link let out a frustrated sigh and let his glasses fall back down the slope of his nose. With one finger, he pushed them into place. How long had it been since they started running out of time? To Rhett, it felt like minutes, each precious second slipping through his fingers like fine sand. But it had been weeks, hadn’t it? Two weeks, maybe? Rhett wasn’t sure. All he was sure of was that he had to do something to make Link feel better.
He settled for dropping a hand to Link’s thigh and squeezing. Link let out a surprised little squeak but eased into the touch easily enough. The tense muscles in his thigh flexed and then relaxed under Rhett’s hand. Link visibly relaxing at Rhett’s touch didn’t surprise him much. What did surprise Rhett was Link draping one shaky hand over Rhett’s on his thigh and keeping it there. He didn’t look at Rhett when he did it. He didn’t look at Rhett the rest of the ride.
The warm hand over Rhett’s made him dizzier than he would ever admit. He breathed a sigh of relief when it lifted as he pulled into the airport’s long term parking. Link wouldn’t give anyone a solid answer on how long he planned to stay at home. But he had packed for a week, and Rhett had followed his lead.
They dragged their bags out of Rhett’s car and trudged into the airport. It was loud; Rhett always forgot how loud it was. At his side, Link grimaced, a picture of frustrated bemusement. He was a pretty picture, still, despite the violent slashes of purple under his eyes and the frightening paleness of his face. It should have surprised Rhett to have such a thought. But it didn’t. He allowed himself the luxury of thinking of Link as pretty. Because he was. He was tired, he was grumpy, he was grumbling. And he was pretty. He was Rhett’s best friend in the world, the only person who could drag Rhett across the country in the blink of an eye. And yes. He was pretty.
Rhett trailed behind Link and watched as he slumped sideways from the weight of his bag. It was all Rhett could do to keep himself from asking, do you need help? Nothing good would come of trying to baby Link; he had had enough of that from his wife. Rhett was going to do his best to treat Link the same as always. He needed the reminder that vulnerability did not mean fragility. He could be tired, sore, and sad without being breakable. Rhett was going to prove it to him.
On the plane, Rhett expected Link to doze like he always did. Instead, he sat awake, drumming his fingers irritably on the foldout tray in front of him. He scowled as he danced his fingers along the beige plastic, jittery and on edge. Rhett urged him to try to get some rest and regretted it the moment Link looked at him with red-rimmed eyes.
“Would if I could,” he replied. And that was all the talking they did for a while. Link played with the can of Coke given to him by a flight attendant, running his fingers along the mouth of the can.
“You’re gonna cut yourself,” Rhett said, and to that, Link told him to fuck off. Rhett allowed him the moment of anger; he had every right to feel angry. Not at all did Rhett mind it being directed his way. At least Link was feeling something.
Three hours into the flight, without warning, Link’s head clunked against the tray before him as he dozed off. He sat up fast, grimacing and smacking a hand to his forehead.
“C’mere,” Rhett said. And Link did. He settled on Rhett’s shoulder, unkempt raven hair tickling Rhett’s nose.
“Head hurts,” Link grumbled.
“Probably ‘cause you smacked it, silly,” Rhett replied.
“No. Hurts deeper down.”
“Dunno. Can’t explain.” Link’s voice lowered as he started to slip away again, sleep trying to take him from Rhett.
“Don’t worry about it,” Rhett whispered in reply. “Go to sleep.”
“Mmm,” Link sighed. “Okay.” He fell into a fitful sleep on Rhett’s shoulder, just like he always did. But unlike every other time, Rhett didn’t make a move to push him off. He let Link stay there, his head heavy and body warm, pressed flush to Rhett’s. The sweat on his forehead dampened Rhett’s T-shirt, but Rhett didn’t mind. Having been drooled on more times than he could count, Rhett would take a little sweat any day. Still, he asked the flight attendant for a cupful of ice and a napkin to fashion an icepack. She smiled sympathetically at the sight of Link sleeping with his mouth hanging open and she came back instead with a silicone icepack from the first aid kit up at the front of the plane.
“Thank you,” Rhett said, careful not to wake Link.
“If you need anything else, I’ll be back around soon,” the flight attendant replied with a smile. But it was a smile dripping with pity, like she knew, and Rhett fought a wave of nausea that had nothing to do with the motion of the plane. He ignored it. Careful and slow, Rhett reached around himself and draped the icepack over the back of Link’s neck. Link didn’t stir. His head lolled lifelessly on Rhett’s shoulder and Rhett had to resist the urge to wake him. The stillness of his limbs scared the hell out of Rhett. He was going to wake up, wasn’t he? He wasn’t gone yet. Not by a long shot.
With one hour left to go of the flight back home, Link sat up straight, gasping for air. He faced Rhett, blue eyes impossibly wide, his hands scrabbling for purchase on Rhett’s. As his fingers closed over Rhett’s wrists, he choked around the words stuck in his throat.
“Rhett,” he gasped. “Oh, Rhett, I had the most vivid dream…” His eyes glazed over as he spoke, his fingers tightening. “Move,” he said. Rhett had the aisle seat, boxing Link in, but he didn’t need to be told twice. He moved. Link flew from his seat, one hand over his mouth, and Rhett craned his neck over his headrest to watch Link make a beeline for the bathroom. Rhett didn’t pause in chasing after him. He knocked on the bathroom door with his knuckles moments after it slammed shut and the red OCCUPIED sign locked into place.
“Link?” Rhett asked the closed door. All he heard in reply was Link heaving. With no answer from Link and with no other choice, Rhett returned to his seat to wait.
When Link came back to him, he had tears clinging to his eyelashes and spit shining on his lower lip. He threw himself into his seat, climbing heedlessly over Rhett, and he ignored Rhett’s attempt to take Link’s hand. It was just as well. It was a silly, fleeting idea, anyway.
“I puked,” Link said after a while.
“I know,” Rhett replied.
“I just had a dream that the plane went down, and we all died, and…why do I keep having dreams that I lose you? Shouldn’t you be having those dreams?”
“No,” Rhett replied. “’Cause I get to actually live it. Lucky me.”
Link looked at Rhett for a long, breathless moment, heat radiating off his body. Sweat shone on his face and his hands shook in his lap. “Lucky you,” Link agreed. He picked his icepack up from where it had fallen on the floor and thanked Rhett for the gesture. When he paused, working the icepack between both hands, Rhett didn’t wait for him to ask. He offered up his shoulder. Link’s thankful smile sparked a fire in Rhett’s chest that burned long after the smile faded.
Rhett and Link stumbled into Raleigh, yawning and grumbling. Rhett was exhausted, but he wasn’t stupid. The tiredness weighing him down was nothing compared to what Link felt. He let Link sit down with their bags as he sorted out the rental car, followed the rental company employee out into the lot, and pulled the pristine new car up in front of the airport. Link staggered outside with both bags slung over his shoulders and refused any help Rhett offered him.
Rhett understood. Link wanted his vulnerability to be on his terms. He was going to ask for help only when he wanted to, and Rhett was going to respect his wishes. It was hard to watch Link struggle to toss the bags into the trunk of the car, but Rhett sat on his hands and gnawed at his lip in an effort to keep still. He was rewarded with another grateful, timid smile from Link that had his heart singing.
The drive to the hotel Rhett had booked passed in easy silence. He didn’t bother messing with the radio, choosing instead to listen to Link breathe. It was comforting, the knowledge that Link breathed the same as he had his whole life. At least that was never going to change.
Link insisted on carrying the bags to the lobby, to the front desk, to the elevator, and to their room. Even as Link panted, his face strained, Rhett let him. If Link wanted to struggle in order to feel alive, who was Rhett to tell him he couldn’t?
The moment Rhett got the door open, Link made his way to bed. He fell face first onto the bed closer to the window, leaving Rhett the bed next to the door. Rhett sank onto his bed and kicked off his shoes, sore and irritable from hours spent cramped up on the plane. But one small noise from Link and Rhett was back on his feet, crossing the distance between his bed and Link’s in one stride. He sat down at Link’s side, his best friend facing away from him, long limbs askew across the bed.
“What’s wrong?” Rhett asked. He went to touch Link and pulled back at the last second, hand hovering inches above Link’s shoulder.
“I just hurt,” Link replied. “Everywhere. My head, my neck, my back. My chest, my stomach, my…oh.” He groaned in pleasure as Rhett’s hands landed on either side of his spine and began to work. Rhett did it without thinking; all he wanted was to make Link feel good. He kneaded the knots from Link’s back, the heels of his hands eliciting low sighs of contentment from Link’s open mouth. The sound went straight to Rhett’s head. He flushed, cheeks burning, and when Link turned his head to look up at Rhett, he shifted to straddle Link’s thighs in an effort to hide. “Rhett, what’re you…ung.” Link moaned as Rhett’s hands slid up to cup the sides of his neck. “Oh, that’s good. Right there.” His hands on hot bare skin, Rhett tried to ease away a fraction of Link’s pain. Every touch of his fingers caused a different reaction. When his thumbs brushed Link’s hairline, Link followed it with a shiver. When Rhett’s hands slid back down to work at Link’s shoulders, he sucked in a breath and whimpered.
Rhett was having a hard time focusing on Link, feeling like he was chasing his own pleasure by pleasing his best friend. He sat back on his haunches and lifted his hands. Link made a soft sound of protest and craned his neck to peer at Rhett, eyes half-lidded and faraway.
“Rhett,” Link said. “Please don’t stop. I…” He paused, drawing his upper lip into his mouth. With his arms tucked under his pillow and his body tensed up, he came to a decision. Rhett could almost see his mind whirring as he mulled over each possibility of what could happen next.
Rhett was doing the same thing.
Link decided Rhett’s fate for him. “Need you,” Link admitted, and that was all Rhett needed. Tired, terrified, and more than a little reckless, Rhett slipped his hands up under Link’s T-shirt to get at soft skin. The muscles in Link’s back twitched as Rhett sought sore spots with his fingertips. The long expanse of sun-kissed skin before Rhett was almost too much for him to handle. Some part of him had always wanted to touch, to feel. To taste. But not like this, not with Link limp and pliant under Rhett’s hands. No, he wanted Link to writhe. He wanted Link to follow the motion of Rhett’s fingers with the rolling of his hips. He wanted…
He wanted something better than this for Link.
But with nothing better, no better plan, Rhett leaned over Link’s body to whisper in his ear. “Take your shirt off for me?”
Obedient, Link did as he was told. He rose up on all fours, giving Rhett a view he never thought he’d see. But it was gone just as quickly as Link sat back on his heels and dragged his shirt over his head. The T-shirt hit the floor and Link hit his pillow. Rhett wasted no time in getting skin on skin. He started at the base of Link’s spine, the muscles just above his ass rippling as he lolled.
“Quit squirming,” Rhett said. Link went boneless at the sound of Rhett’s voice and Rhett fought to swallow down the pleasure the sight brought him. Get a grip, Rhett told himself. This is Link, this is Link, and he’s hurting. Make it better. Shoving away his own intrusive thoughts that ordered Rhett to lick and nibble instead of touch, Rhett did his best to fix what was broken. Something was screwy in his brain; something told him to give Link what he really wanted. Whatever that was, Rhett had no idea. But what he was doing simply wasn’t enough. Link groaned and whimpered under Rhett’s hands, sagging limply into his pillow with his hair mussed and glasses askew, but Rhett knew Link better than he knew himself. Rhett wasn’t seeing things that weren’t there. Link wanted more.
“Mmm, no, lower,” Link sighed as Rhett’s hands dipped back into the divot at the bottom of his spine.
Link hesitated for a fraction of a second before breathing, “Yeah.”
Rhett gave Link what was asked of him. He moved his hands down to the waistband of Link’s jeans, digging his thumbs in just under the top of the soft denim.
“Mmm,” Link moaned. His lips twitched up into a smile that Rhett recognized immediately. He was up to something. Rhett should have been afraid. He should have been recoiling, calling it a night, pretending this wasn’t happening. Instead, when Link challenged him to go lower, he did. Link gasped aloud as Rhett began to massage his ass through his jeans, taking Link up on the dare issued. Whatever game Link was playing, Rhett was laying all his cards down on the table. All he had to do was wait for Link to follow suit.
He rolled over, so smoothly that Rhett didn’t have time to pull his hands back before Link was on his back, smiling invitingly up at him. Rhett drew his hands away like a man burned by fire, his fingertips brushing the bulge in the front of Link’s jeans. Link watched him with mischief in his eyes as Rhett held his hands out, palms up.
“Link?” Rhett asked. He wasn’t stupid. He knew Link, he knew him. But this was something entirely new, and Rhett had to be reading it wrong. There was no explanation for the way Link’s bedroom eyes followed Rhett as he flew to his feet. There was no apology. There were no excuses. Link simply wanted, and he wasn’t scared of showing Rhett the lust burning hotly in his eyes. Rhett thought he was laying it all out there. But to have Link accept, to have Link hear Rhett saying without words this is okay…it was too much for Rhett. All of it, from the blue eyes locked on his to the T-shirt on the floor, was too much for him.
“Rhett,” Link replied. He ran one hand down the length of his body, down his bare chest, down to his stomach, down to the button of his jeans. When Rhett didn’t move, Link said his name again. “Rhett. Please touch me.” It was a simple request, sounding even simpler whispered through parted lips. But this was Link and he was vulnerable. He was desperate for the affection denied to him by his wife and for some reason, somehow, his mind landed on Rhett to fill the void. He smiled benignly up at Rhett, one hand halfway down his pants and the other still propped under his pillow. Link was beautiful, graceful, and lithe, and if Rhett wanted, he could forget all the shaking those longs limbs of his had done in the past few weeks. But above most things, Link was impatient, and he frowned as Rhett stayed right where he was, frozen at the foot of the bed.
“Rhett,” Link whined. With the corners of his mouth turned down, he looked the textbook definition of betrayed. Rhett couldn’t stand to see Link look at him with wounded eyes. Conceding to the panic edging into Link’s voice, Rhett climbed back into bed. He hesitated, heart in his throat, no longer sure of much of anything. Did he know Link? Did he really? Link beckoned, frustrated tears clinging to his eyelashes. And Rhett went.
He straddled Link’s thighs, hovering on all fours over his best friend. His hands were braced on either side of Link’s head and his knees bracketed Link’s. If there was ever going to be a time to call Link’s bluff and back down, it would be now. There was a line in the sand, a point of no return. Rhett didn’t know exactly where that line was, but he felt dangerously close to it as he tried to read Link’s face.
There was nothing to read. Link waited for Rhett to make a move. He waited for the cards Rhett still had tucked up his sleeve.
“Link,” Rhett sighed, voice coming out ragged.
“I need you to touch me now,” Link whispered in reply. And Rhett did.
It didn’t matter why Link needed a warm pair of lips in the hollow of his throat. It didn’t matter at all. Everywhere he pointed to, Rhett gave him a kiss. First, it was his neck, once and then twice, and then it was his cheek. Next it was his sternum, his collarbones, and then it was each nipple. Rhett went where he was led. Link wound his hand into Rhett’s hair to show him where to go, stilling Rhett when his lips found a particularly good spot. Rhett knew nothing about the body beneath him, the size and the shape and the dark hair all wrong. But Link came alive under the gentle press of Rhett’s lips, and the sighs escaping Link with every touch were well worth the price of not knowing.
“I love you,” Link sighed as Rhett grew bold and lapped hungrily at the salt on Link’s skin. “Thank you, thank you, I love you.” He stopped talking for a while after Rhett sank his teeth into one jutting hipbone. Link’s breathless exaltations were going straight to Rhett’s head. If only Link knew how badly a younger, more naïve version of Rhett had wanted this. He had stayed up late in their college dorm, fighting sleep so that he could stay awake and listen to Link breathe. He never told Link, not ever. He thought he would take his secrets to the grave.
Rhett would have died for his lips on Link’s skin. He would have died to be able to kiss Link, to caress Link with his tongue, to touch Link with roving hands. But now, it came with a price tag: Link had to have his life ripped out from under him so that Rhett could taste his skin.
He doesn’t really want this, Rhett tried to tell himself. He doesn’t really want you. Still, Link twisted his hand in Rhett’s hair as he nuzzled into Link’s navel, and Rhett was not so sure. If he was any less afraid, Rhett would have pulled away. If he wasn’t sure that losing skin to skin contact meant losing Link, he would have stopped this train just before the final destination.
If Link was safe, if Link was always going to be at Rhett’s side, Rhett would be smarter. But there was only so much time left to show Link exactly how much he meant. Exactly how much he was loved. And exactly how much Rhett was going to hurt when he was gone.
Rhett took one more step and found himself beyond the line drawn in the sand. He slid down the zipper of Link’s jeans. He tucked his fingers into the waistband of Link’s briefs. And in the moment Rhett gave him to call it off, to end this before it could start, Link did nothing but hold fast to Rhett’s hair and whisper again, “I love you.”
Rhett did what was asked of him. He kissed Link where Link needed it most, and his cries of pleasure tipped Rhett closer towards his own. When Link whimpered, Rhett moaned. The soft sound from Rhett had Link yanking at his hair, frantic and desperate.
“Love you, love you, love you,” Link sighed.
I’m never going to recover from this, Rhett’s whirring mind offered in reply. But from his lips, all Rhett gave was a quiet and careful, “Love you too.”
Link no longer guided. Rhett knew where to go. He helped Link out of his jeans and underwear and kissed his way down Link’s trembling thighs. Rhett looked up to watch Link’s eyelids flutter shut as Rhett made his way back up again. He had no idea what he was doing, but knowing this was just as new to Link made Rhett brave. He didn’t hesitate. He took Link into his mouth and savored the strange and unfamiliar taste of hot, velvety skin. There was no coming back from this. But Rhett didn’t want to go back. This was too good, every caress of Rhett’s tongue spilling oaths and sighs from Link’s pretty mouth. Rhett ignored his own need and the heat pulsing between his legs. There would be time later for him to take a shower and use the hot water and one hand to scrub away his sins.
This was sin, if there even was such a thing. Rhett was sure of it. But God was looking the other way if He was looking at all, and there was nothing to be afraid of. Not from the sky above, anyway.
As the muscles in Link’s thighs began to clench and the hand he had in Rhett’s hair tightened, Rhett knew the only things he had to be scared of were right here in front of him.
“Rhett, Rhett, I’m gonna…” Link made to pull away, to give Rhett room to breathe, but Rhett held him down by the hips and kept him pinned. “Oh, Rhett, you’re so…” Rhett never got to find out what he was. Link shuddered, his body taut and lips spilling open. His climax rolled through him like a wave and he came hotly across Rhett’s tongue, whispering Rhett’s name to the ceiling. Rhett fought panic as he swallowed, the taste of Link inescapable, thick, and perfect.
Link moaning beautifully was just another thing Rhett was going to miss.
When again Link beckoned, Rhett went. Link cradled Rhett to his chest, Rhett weighing the smaller man down. Fully clothed on top of his best friend’s sweat-slick naked body, Rhett had never felt so impossibly at peace. He wanted to lie still forever and never move again. To lay here with his ear pressed to Link’s heart until the end of time sounded like heaven to Rhett. But Link had other plans. His lips brushed Rhett’s forehead as he whispered, ordering Rhett out of his clothes.
Rhett did what was asked of him.
He stood to free himself from his clothes, Link laughing lightly as Rhett struggled out of jeans made too tight by his arousal.
“C’mere, c’mere,” Link cooed. And Rhett did. He fell back into Link’s arms, the two of them deliciously, wonderfully naked. Rhett didn’t have time to say anything at all before Link’s hand slipped down his torso, brushed through his pubic hair, and closed around him. He gasped into the crook of Link’s neck, utterly dazed, the taste of Link still heavy on his tongue. Link stroked him, not making a sound, applying pressure until Rhett groaned. “There you are,” Link whispered.
Here they were, in this together. Whatever the hell this was, whatever the hell they were becoming. Here they were.
With his body pressed flush against Link’s, it was impossible for Rhett to hold back. He whimpered into the hollow of Link’s throat, mouthing lazily at the soft skin there as Link worked him with his hand. Every noise Rhett made caused a tremor in Link, a miniature earthquake for every gasp and whimper and moan. Link was a natural disaster set to destroy everything in his wake. And he was taking Rhett down with him.
“Link, Link…” Rhett keened, getting closer and closer to the edge. Link’s warm hand on him was the only thing Rhett could feel, the salt on his skin the only thing Rhett could taste. He was coming apart under Link’s hand and he had no idea what was going to happen once he let go. But there were only so many moments left in which to figure it out.
When Link breathed, “Please come for me,” it felt like the end of the world. Cradled to Link’s chest, safe in Link’s arms, Rhett spilled with a cry of relief into the space between them. He collapsed fully on top of Link, his best friend letting out a soft oof of surprise. The stickiness of their bodies didn’t matter. Neither did the inevitability of dawn. All that mattered was the hand wound protectively into Rhett’s hair like he was the one who needed saving.
Coming down, seeing stars, Rhett struggled to find his limbs in the aftermath of falling to pieces.
“I love you, Rhett,” Link whispered. His lips followed the admission as Link pressed a gentle kiss to Rhett’s forehead, and then another.
“I love you,” Rhett replied. “I love you.”
Pink cheeked and self-conscious, Rhett and Link stepped together into the shower. Link looked better than he had in weeks, his lips rosy red and his hair in utter disarray.
“What?” he asked when he caught Rhett staring.
“You’re beautiful,” Rhett replied. And the coy, crooked little smile he got in reply was the greatest thing he was yet to have seen.
Later, after crawling naked back into one bed instead of two, Rhett cuddled close to Link as he dozed. Link was in and out, making soft noises and mumbling in his sleep as he tucked himself safely under Rhett’s arm. Rhett stroked his fingers up and down Link’s bare bicep every time Link stirred, and his touch seemed to calm him more than words could. It made Rhett feel important. There was something unfathomably good about having Link curled up against Rhett’s side. It felt too right for Rhett to be worried about it being wrong.
He was worried about other things.
Rhett opened up his phone and typed sporadic fatal insomnia, intent on learning all he could while Link slept fitfully at his side. He always wanted to know, whether it was good news or bad. Not knowing was not an option: sooner or later, Rhett was going to have to see for himself just how bad this was. Now was a good time to get it over with, when he had Link with him, when he could kiss Link if he needed to.
Nothing Rhett found made him feel anything close to good. The average lifespan of a person diagnosed was eighteen months. In eighteen months, they could accomplish nothing. That was no time at all. Link would die at forty, then, forty when he deserved to live to see one hundred.
There were steps to the disease, a checklist of symptoms that led deeper and deeper, closer to death by the day. First it was the inability to sleep; it was falling asleep in bits and pieces, vivid dreams following like a shadow. It was never moving past the first stage of sleep. No matter how long the person slept, their bodies were sure they hadn’t slept at all. It was hallucinations, panic attacks, and paranoia. It was losing a grip on reality, it was incoordination, unsteadiness, and trouble speaking. It was rapid weight loss, it was memory loss. And then it was…
Rhett dropped his phone, casting it aside off the edge of the bed. Link made a quiet noise of unease and curled closer to Rhett, his cold feet slipping in between Rhett’s calves.
It was dementia. It was the person fading away. And then came death.
“Rhett?” Link mumbled. He reached for Rhett in the dark, one hand flexing on Rhett’s chest.
“I’m here,” Rhett replied. “And I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
“Good,” Link replied. “Tha’s good.” He settled back into sleep, nuzzled comfortably against Rhett’s bare chest.
Rhett was never going to survive this. He was never going to survive losing Link.
He gave up on sleep for the night, carefully extricating himself from Link. He booted up his laptop and sat, naked and shivering, at the hotel desk with his computer inches from his face.
There had to be something he could do.
What Rhett found over and over again were the two words he felt could burn a hole in him: no cure. But there was one case, one man, who lived a year longer than he should have. It wasn’t much; it was nothing at all. But Rhett kept reading, hoping blindly that there would be something, a great and big, powerful something that could save Link when it could save no one else. What he found were silly things he didn’t quite believe in. Meditation. Vitamins. Hypnotism.
Rhett remembered how it felt to be in complete darkness, complete silence, floating lifelessly in a sensory deprivation tank. It seemed like something fun back then, something interesting to talk about. But now? Rhett latched onto it. It seemed impossible, crazy, even. But he would tell Link. In the morning, he would tell him, and insist that Link try it. What would be the harm? If it was the only thing that could give Link more time, Rhett was going to ask him to try.
All the silly things, all the things Rhett never believed in…he was going to ask it of Link to try them, too.
Mediation. Vitamins. Hypnosis.
Rhett was ready to try it all.
Link refused to tell his mother the reason for his impromptu visit. He hugged his mother, shook hands with her husband, and kept a tight-lipped smile when asked what prompted such a nice surprise.
“I just missed you,” Link said. He begged Rhett with his eyes not to say a thing. So he didn’t. He hugged Link’s mother just as tightly as Link did and didn’t tell her this could be one of the very last times she saw her only son. What kind of person did that make Rhett? Keeping Link’s condition a secret made Rhett’s heart sink low and he was glad when Link made an excuse to leave.
“Are you going to tell them?” Rhett asked once they were safely back in the rental car. Link looked straight ahead into the midafternoon sun and told Rhett he was not. “You have to tell them,” Rhett said.
“Link, you can’t just die on them.”
“No? Watch me.” Link’s stubborn streak was one thing Rhett always found it hard to handle. But at the moment, all he was thinking was how much he was going to miss the hard set of Link’s jaw once he lost it forever.
Link was quiet for a long time as Rhett drove towards the Cape Fear River. Rhett didn’t have to ask to know where Link wanted to go. It was a beautiful day, closer to hot than to warm, and Rhett took Link to the riverbanks where they grew up. Together, they spilled out of the car, and together, they raced each other down the overgrown trail leading to the water. When Link caught Rhett’s hand up in his, Rhett allowed it. Later, they would talk. Later, later, when Rhett’s head was clearer. Try as he might, he couldn’t clear it now. That was the excuse he had ready, anyway, when he lost his head and pushed Link up against a tree.
“I love you,” Rhett said. And then he kissed him. He expected Link to balk in the warm light of day. But Link met his lips with a groan that could have shaken the stars from the sky if they were here to bear witness. Link’s mouth was warm and his lips soft. His hands were a different story. On the riverbank, the two of them breathing hard, Link’s hands touched down everywhere they could. His fingertips were cold and their motion rushed, like Link wanted to touch everything at once. Rhett felt much the same.
“I love you,” Link finally replied, breath hot in the crook of Rhett’s neck. “God, Rhett, do I love you.”
“Then why didn’t you…why haven’t you…all these years, Link…”
“I was scared,” Link replied, teeth sharp on Rhett’s skin. His incisors were going to leave a mark. “I’m not anymore.”
Link paused with his hands in the back pockets of Rhett’s jeans. “I’m dyin’, Rhett,” he reminded, gentle like Rhett might need time to come back to his senses. “What the hell did I have to lose by begging for you now?” He sucked lightly at Rhett’s neck and took all half formed thoughts away before Rhett could get them out.
He tried, anyway. “Link, how long…have you always…?”
“Always,” Link said, the whisper of his stubble on Rhett’s throat making him dizzy and weak-kneed. “Always and forever, Rhett. Since we were kids. And long after I’m dead. It was always you.”
Later, they would work something out. Later, Rhett would tell Jessie there was more than enough love in him to go around. She would understand. Rhett was going to lose Link. She would have to understand, simply because there was no time to lose. And Rhett was not going to give this up for anything.
At the river, Link kicked off his shoes, dropped his glasses into the dirt, and peeled off his socks. Rhett did the same, shimmying out of his jeans and T-shirt, and in their underwear, they dove into the icy river. It was too early in the spring for the water to be warm, but Rhett didn’t mind. The cold felt good, delicious on skin heated by Link’s teeth. Rhett tried to catch Link up in his arms, to hold onto him in the current. But Link slipped out of his reach, grinning devilishly from ear to ear.
“I’m lettin’ the river have me,” Link said. “So death can’t. Whaddya say, Rhett? Comin’ with me?”
Rhett didn’t have to think about it. He was.
Link’s head went under the water and Rhett followed him. With icy water swallowing him up, Rhett could almost pretend he was a kid again. A teenager, lollygagging in the river before a basketball game, Link at his side. He could almost pretend he was whole again. But, in the end, he and Link came up gasping for air, Link giggly and giddy as he pulled Rhett in for a kiss. Link curled his hand into Rhett’s hair and pulled, the pain sharp but welcome.
“I love you,” Link said over the bubbling current. His blue, blue eyes bored into Rhett, imploring him to hear something Link wasn’t saying with his mouth. He was beautiful, his hair dripping in his eyes and goose bumps standing out in stark relief on his skin. He was beautiful. And Rhett didn’t know what to say. Link filled the silence for him. “I love you forever,” he said.
“Forever,” Rhett scoffed, because forever meant nothing when Link was leaving him behind.
“Yes, forever.” Link was stern. He kissed each of Rhett’s eyes and then he dove away, back under the water, back out of Rhett’s reach. It was just as well.
Rhett was going to have to get used to that.
Together, they traipsed the sidewalk in search of salvation. Rhett tucked memory after memory into a box in the back of his mind, one he sealed with the intention of opening it only after the end. After Link was gone.
Together, they paced the streets, back and forth, stopping at every place they used to play and dash and roam. The elementary school, the sidewalks lined in honeysuckle, the streets where they used to love and scream and skin knees. All of it, Rhett stowed away. He was going to need these moments once he was alone.
He tried to tell Link of his thoughts about saving him. But Link wouldn’t hear it. He told Rhett it was useless, buying him time by wasting so much of it. Sure, they could meditate in a garden somewhere in the hopes of buying Link a month or two. Sure, they could stuff him full of vitamins from the pharmacy and herbal supplements from elsewhere, only to buy him a few weeks. Link simply wasn’t interested, and he told Rhett again and again.
Rhett kept trying to get him to see the light.
Link seemed to find it, of all places, when he fell back into bed with Rhett after a day spent walking to exhaustion.
“I’ll try for you,” Link breathed, one hand down Rhett’s pants and the other in his hair. “Okay? Rhett, for you, I’ll try anything.”
“You’ll stay alive for me?” Rhett asked.
“For you,” Link replied. “For s’long as I can.”
“Thank you,” Rhett said. “Thank you, Link, thank you.”
Link leaned close to Rhett’s ear, kissed his earlobe, and whispered, “Thank you.”
As Rhett packed his bag, ready to go home, Link lolled on his stomach in bed with a hotel notepad and pen in his hands. The muscles in his back twitched and jerked as he lay still, drawing up a hangman’s noose with a shaky hand. Underneath the noose he drew lines, and Rhett counted them as he stilled in his packing to look over Link’s shoulder. One four letter word, followed by a three letter word, followed by a seven letter word. A period. Link hesitated, the pen between his teeth, before adding two more periods to complete the sentence with ellipses.
“Guess a letter,” Link said.
“R,” Rhett replied. Carefully, Link placed two R’s into the puzzle. The last word read _ _ R_ _ _ R.
“L?” Rhett zipped up his bag and started to pack Link’s as he wrote an L into the first word. L _ _ _. Link’s pen paused, and Rhett said, “S?”
“Gotcha.” Link drew an S above the noose and added a circle for the hanged man’s head. “Try again.”
“E?” There were more of those. Rhett hovered over Link’s shoulder to read what he had so far. L _ _ E _ _ _ _ _ R E _ E R.
“Keep guessin’, baby,” Link said, tapping his pen on the paper.
“Baby,” Rhett breathed.
“Yeah, baby. You said it first. ‘M allowed to say it back, aren’t I?”
“Of course.” It was only fair. But still, as much as Rhett’s heart thrilled at the idea of being Link’s baby, the two of them were married men. What they were doing was deplorable in the eyes of God and in the eyes of their wives; Rhett could hardly breathe for the fear that this could end in calamity. But with Link lying in a pool of pristine white sheets, his raven hair a stark contrast, Rhett found it hard to be scared of much of anything.
“Guess a letter, Rhett.”
Link filled it in. LO_ E _ O _ _ORE_ER, the puzzle read. Rhett thought he had it, but the pang in his heart told him to prolong the inevitable end. He guessed P, B, and got to J before Link realized what he was doing. Link scolded him, teasing, so bubbly with laughter it was easy to forget what brought them here to this hotel room in the first place. With only one more guess left to go before hanging, Rhett told Link the answer.
“Love you forever,” he said. And with a nod, Link filled it in. He ripped the completed puzzle from the notepad, carefully folded it in half, and handed it to Rhett.
“Keep that in your wallet for me,” Link said without meeting Rhett’s eyes. Their fingers brushed as Rhett took it from him. “Take it out when you need to remember.” Link capped the pen in his hand and laughed himself silly when Rhett slipped the paper into his wallet, cast it aside, and threw himself recklessly into Link’s arms.
“Promise me you’ll keep it!” Link laughed, soft and warm underneath Rhett.
“I promise,” Rhett replied.
He had no idea the request for a promise was Link’s way of saying goodbye.
They returned home. They got back to the airport, back to Rhett’s car, and back to idling in the driveway at Link’s house. Link twisted his hands in his lap as he sat at Rhett’s side, turning his wedding band in circles around his finger.
“I’m gonna tell Christy,” Link said.
“That’s okay,” Rhett replied. “’M gonna tell Jess.”
“What’s gonna happen?”
“I don’t know.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Link.” Rhett paused. When he looked at Link, Link was looking back at him. “More than anything.”
“Don’t say that.”
“’Cause. Then what will you love the most when I’m dead?”
“You,” Rhett replied simply. “Still you.”
Link closed the space between Rhett’s mouth and his and caught his lips in a kiss so deep it took Rhett’s breath away.
“Goddammit, Rhett, I love you. Why didn’t I ever say it?”
“You said it all the time, brother. Just not in so many words.”
Link pressed his forehead to Rhett’s, kissed his lips, and then hopped gracelessly out of the car. He loped around the front of the car, taking fast strides, and rapped Rhett’s window with his knuckles. Rhett rolled the window down.
“Whatever happens, I’m glad we finally happened,” Link said.
“Me too,” Rhett replied. Link nodded, his brow furrowed and his mouth turned down.
“I’m almost scared that if we say g’bye now, everything that’s changed will go back to the way it was.”
“It won’t,” Rhett said.
“Promise me, Rhett.”
In a place where Rhett couldn’t promise much of anything, be it Link’s safety, his life, or his mind, Rhett could promise one thing. He could promise himself to Link. That much he can do. “I promise,” he said.
It was the only promise he never broke.
When Rhett told his wife what he and Link had done, the earth did not end around him. Instead, Jessie took both his hands in hers and told Rhett she loved him.
“Anything you need from each other, I want you to take it,” she said. “While you still can. I wouldn’t ever ask you to leave anything unsaid.”
Rhett held her as he cried, thankful beyond all words for the forgiveness of his wife. If only God were so forgiving.
“Give him all the love you can, honey,” Jessie whispered, her hands small and delicate as they roved over the notches in Rhett’s spine. “He deserves to know how much you love him.”
“Jessie, I can’t lose him.”
“I know, Rhett, I know.”
“Jessie, he’s the other half of me.”
“What’s going to happen to me?”
Instead of giving him an answer, Jessie hushed him, kissing him in all the places Link’s lips missed, as if she knew exactly where Link had laid claim. She held Rhett in strong arms, the front of her T-shirt and the collarbones underneath damp with tears. She held Rhett as he shook, feeling dangerously close to imploding, falling apart from the inside out. She held him. It wasn’t enough, the safety in his wife’s arms, and when Jessie whispered, “Go to him, baby,” Rhett didn’t pause to think.
Link was on his front porch, sunglasses low on his nose and his youngest son in his lap. He was dazzling, the prettiest man with bags under his eyes and salt-and-pepper stubble on his cheeks.
“Rhett!” Lando saw him first and called his name, hopping off his father’s lap to meet Rhett in the middle of the lawn. Like he had done a million times before, Rhett caught him up in both arms and flipped him, dangling the laughing, giddy boy upside down over one shoulder. “Put me down!” Lando giggled, struggling fruitlessly against Rhett’s arms.
“I dunno,” Rhett said, eyes on Link. “Maybe this time I’ll run away with you. Whaddya say?”
“Nooo!” Lando laughed in reply. He kicked out at the open air as Link got up, using the porch railing for support. Link lifted his sunglasses to show eyes as focused on Rhett as Rhett’s were on him. Beginning to lose his grip on Lando, Rhett readjusted his hold to put the boy down. As Lando plopped back into the grass, Link loped across the lawn to meet him.
Up close, it was easier to see Link’s sunken cheeks.
“Why don’t you go inside?” Link asked of his son, bending down to drop a hand into Lando’s hair. “I gotta talk to Rhett for a minute.”
Lando shrugged and didn’t put up a fight to stay outside in the blissfully warm May afternoon. Link watched him go inside, and the moment the front door closed, Link was in Rhett’s arms.
“I told her,” Link said, face pressed into the front of Rhett’s button down shirt. “She slapped me.”
“What?” Rhett asked weakly.
“She apologized fifteen thousand times,” Link went on. “But it was her gut reaction, when I told her I was the one who started it. I deserved one hit.”
“No, you didn’t,” Rhett said, but Link cut him off.
“I did. But she loves me still. By some miracle, she stills loves me. She said she won’t…what were her exact words?” Rhett couldn’t help but laugh as Link put on his phony Southern belle voice, the one he always used to imitate his wife. “I won’t deny you anything,” Link quoted. He went back to his normal voice, propping his chin up on Rhett’s sternum to look into his face. “Lucky me.” Link paused to glance at his front door before pressing a tentative kiss to the side of Rhett’s neck. “And Jessie?”
“She said almost exactly the same thing,” Rhett replied, and Link’s hold on him tightened.
“Good,” Link said. “B’cause I need you desperately, Rhett, and I was scared for a second that I went too far and I was about to lose you.”
“No, never,” Rhett replied.
“This is horseshit,” Link breathed. He scoffed, giving his head a sad little shake. “All these years. Rhett, we could’ve had so many goddamn years.”
“Don’t think about it that way,” Rhett said, although thoughts of the same nature kept him awake at night. “At least we have this now.”
“Yeah,” Link said. “Just in time for me to die.”
“You have time left, baby,” Rhett breathed. “We have time left.” And Rhett wasn’t going to lose a single second. He would rather die than miss a thing. (If he could trade his life for Link’s, the deed would have been done already.)
He didn’t tell Link so. Link already knew.
May fell away and took all pretense of spring from the dry California air with it. Summer descended on the valley and landed heavy into the sand as June swept in.
Link refused to celebrate his birthday.
“If it’s gonna be my last one, or even my second to last, I want nothin’ to do with it,” Link said. “You can celebrate without me. What’s the point in celebrating bein’ one year closer to bein’ dead?”
After that, Rhett stopped asking him what he wanted.
Christy didn’t smile when she opened her front door to find Rhett waiting. She seemed to think better of the harsh words ready on her tongue when she saw the roses in Rhett’s hand.
“Are those for him?” she asked, an eyebrow arched.
“They’re for you, Chris,” Rhett replied. “I’m sorry, I really am. But can I steal your husband for the night? Please?” Rhett passed the bouquet of roses, the peace offering complete with sprays of baby’s breath, into Christy’s arms. “I want to make his birthday special.”
“I already tried,” Christy replied. She plucked a loose rose petal from amongst the buds and let it flutter to the floor at her feet. “He’s sleeping now. Still want to come in?”
Christy stepped aside to let Rhett by. All three of Link’s kids were on the floor in the living room, watching TV with the volume off and the subtitles on. Rhett found the reason why when his eyes landed on Link, sleeping sprawled out on the sofa. Jade was perched on his chest and his glasses were in Lily’s hands. Link’s only daughter opened and closed the arms of the glasses absentmindedly as she watched TV with her brothers. From behind Rhett, Christy banged around in the kitchen in search of a vase for her bouquet of roses. He listened to her find one, drop it on the counter with a clang, and fill it with water from the sink. Next came the angry sounds of scissors as she hacked into the stems of each rose, one by one.
Rhett stood behind the sofa and watched Link sleep as his children ignored Rhett in favor of cartoons.
Without any eyes on him, Rhett chose to be a little bit reckless. He reached down to brush a loose, sweat-dampened lock of hair from Link’s eyes. At the touch of Rhett’s fingertips, Link stirred. He grabbed Rhett’s hand, squeezed his fingers, and said, “Hey, bo. What’re you doin’ here?” He cracked one eye open to peer up at Rhett.
“I wanted to take you somewhere for your birthday,” Rhett said. Mindlessly, Link’s free hand came up to pat at Jade’s head, the little dog perking up at the attention. Link scratched behind her ear as he yawned and stretched his long legs out.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“It’s almost seven, Daddy,” Lily chirped. She leaned back to look upside down at Link, reaching out behind herself to pass Link back his glasses. Did she know? It had been years since Rhett had heard Lily call her father Daddy. She had to know. But she smiled when Link’s fingers brushed hers and just like that, she went back to watching TV. How could she smile like that if she knew?
“Thank you, sweetcheeks,” Link said, teasing his daughter gently. With a groan and a series of crackling noises down his spine, Link sat up and shoved his glasses up his nose. “Okay, Rhett,” he said. “Where do you wanna go?”
“Are you sure…?”
“Yes. Where do you wanna go?” Link looked hard at Rhett. I’m fine, his eyes said.
“Anywhere,” Rhett replied. Anywhere with you.
As night fell over Burbank, they found themselves on their backs under the stars. Rhett parked his car at the beginning of a familiar hiking trail, but Link’s knees proved too shaky to support him for the moment. Instead of taking a long walk up a long, winding trail, the two of them clambered up onto the roof of Rhett’s car. Side by side, hands laced together in the space between them, they lay back and watch the sky.
“I wish I knew which one was mine,” Link murmured. When Rhett turned his head to look at Link, the stars reflected off his glasses and gave his face an ethereal glow. Like he was from another world. Rhett didn’t allow himself to think of other worlds, new dimensions or different planes of existence. He could go mad imagining all the worlds in which he got to keep Link as his own.
“Doesn’t matter,” Rhett said. “I’ll think of you when I look at all of them.”
Link laughed, caught between wanting to be careful and wanting to accept Rhett’s romantic offering. “Oh, shuddup,” he settled on, a crooked grin lighting up his face. He was pleased, though. Rhett saw it in each corner of his smile.
A soft noise of surprise escaped Link as Rhett rolled to his side and covered Link’s mouth with his own. Link settled into the kiss, his free hand sliding into Rhett’s hair. It was the longest kiss they had yet to share, lengthened by neither man wanting to be the first to pull away. Only Rhett’s need to breathe caused him to break the kiss.
“You’re so sweet to me,” Link whispered. His hand slipped down the side of Rhett’s face, fingertips sweeping lazily through his beard and then down to cup his chin.
“Only because I love you,” Rhett replied. He ducked his head to nuzzle into Link’s throat and smother the side of his neck in hurried kisses. Link squirmed and laughed, hands all over Rhett, and all at once Rhett was far away. He was in college, pinning Link to his bed as they wrestled. He was in elementary school, play fighting with Link on the playground. They had so many chances to come together, to get it right, to realize what they realized now.
Why did it take them so long?
Rhett did everything he could to make up for lost time.
He popped open the top button of Link’s flannel shirt and buried his nose in the soft hair on Link’s chest. As Link gasped, his fingers slipping under the collar of Rhett’s shirt, Rhett made short work of the rest of the buttons keeping Link’s bare skin from him.
Link’s bare chest heaving as Rhett freed him from his shirt was wondrous enough to bring grateful tears to Rhett’s eyes. For however long, this was his. For the moment, Rhett was allowed to touch and kiss and caress every inch of soft skin before him. He was allowed to touch, kiss, and caress the man he had loved all his life.
Link didn’t tease Rhett when tears began to land on Link’s chest.
Rhett didn’t know why he was crying. It was simply something he had to do, like breathe, like taste Link’s skin. As he kissed his way down the perfect plane of Link’s body, Rhett collected his own tears with his tongue.
“I love you,” Link sighed. “Oh, Rhett, I love you.”
Rhett paused in his worship of Link’s jutting hipbones and looked up into crystal clear eyes. “I love you too, Link,” he replied.
In the backseat of Rhett’s car, he showed Link just how much he loved him. He helped Link out of his clothes and smothered him in kisses, his beard leaving beautiful bites of red in Link’s pale skin. Link whined, impatient, as Rhett struggled out of his own clothes and dropped them to the floor of the car. When they touched, bare skin on bare skin, Link sighed. He sat cradled in Rhett’s lap, hands fluttering on Rhett’s shoulders, head tipped far back. Rhett licked and nipped all up the stunning slope of Link’s throat, bearing down with his teeth at Link’s collarbone. The sounds that escaped Link’s lips were nothing short of apocalyptic in their beauty.
Never did Rhett think he would get to hear something as wonderful as Link crying out his name.
Link laughed as the windows fogged up, and he told Rhett to watch him. He pressed one hand to the misty window and dragged his fingertips down the glass, leaving a handprint with strange, elongated fingers. “I’ll never let go, Jack,” Link quipped, and Rhett kissed him silly as Link giggled in his lap.
“Wrong part of the movie,” Rhett said.
“Yeah, but that’s the only line I know,” Link replied.
Titanic and laughter aside, Rhett made it his mission to map out every perfect inch of Link’s body. He had seen it in all its glory more times than he would ever care to count, but before, it wasn’t okay to look. It wasn’t okay to admire. Now, he could do more than admire. He could revere. Rhett closed his eyes and let his hands memorize the muscles in Link’s arms. He memorized strong hands, taut and rippling muscles, and hot, frantic lips. He memorized the soft hair on Link’s belly and the coarser hair below it. He memorized the way Link said his name, the silkiness of the hair at the nape of Link’s neck.
Rhett wasn’t going to forget a thing.
Afterwards, Link trembled as he picked apart his clothes from Rhett’s on the floor. His biceps twitched as he shrugged back into his button down shirt. Rhett asked him if he was all right and Link nodded without looking at him. “Are you?” Link asked.
“No,” Rhett replied. Only then, dressed in nothing but his underwear and an unbuttoned shirt, did Link meet Rhett’s gaze.
“No.” Rhett paused, his best friend looking at him with curiosity glimmering in his eyes. But he didn’t have time to tell half-truths and downright lies. Not anymore. “I wish you were mine,” Rhett said. “All mine. It isn’t fair that we never got that.”
“Oh, Rhett, cut that out.” It didn’t take much for Link to come back into himself, a grumpier and more irritable version of the man who cried Rhett’s name to the stars. “There’s no point in moanin’ about what we don’t have. You have me now. That has to be good enough for you.” Link climbed lithely up to the front passenger seat, leaving Rhett stunned in the back. “Now please, take me home.”
In his driveway, Link apologized. And just like he always had, just like he always would, Rhett accepted it. As Link walked on unsteady legs back to his house, Rhett couldn’t help but roll down the window and call his name.
“Happy birthday, Link,” Rhett said. Link flipped the middle finger of his left hand up at Rhett but gave him a wave with the other.
“Here’s hoping I get one more,” Link replied.
It wasn’t fair that one more was all he could hope for.
Chapter 3: III
July was agonizing. Link went away with his family for the 4th, whisking them off to Disney for a long vacation. They were gone for two weeks. Every second, Rhett fretted.
“I should have gone with them,” Rhett said, Jessie hovering at his side without being able to offer much help at all. “I shoulda forced my way. I can’t survive not knowing how he’s doing, Jess. I just can’t.”
“Rhett, give him time with his family,” Jessie said.
“I know, I know, I’m bein’ selfish,” Rhett replied. “Tell me somethin’ I don’t know. But I had him first, Jess! He was always mine! Why do I have to share him now?”
“Rhett, stop it. Wouldn’t you want to be with your family if it was you?”
“I’d just want to be with him,” Rhett replied. Hurt flashed across his wife’s face before he could tell himself you’re being cruel. “Jessie, I didn’t mean…”
“It’s okay,” she said with a shake of her head. Her long dark hair fell over her face as she looked down at the floor. “No, stop, it’s okay.” She pulled away from the hands Rhett tried to place on her shoulders. “I love you,” she said. “I know you don’t mean that. I’m willing to be second place, Rhett, for as long as you need me to be. Just don’t forget that me and your boys are gonna be here for you when…” She didn’t go on. Rhett didn’t need her to.
When Rhett tried again to hold her, she stepped into his arms.
In the middle of the third week of July, Rhett got a text at 2:12 in the morning. Plane just landed. I’m home. Rhett didn’t ask permission to see Link. He just went. He was waiting in his car in the driveway when Link’s car pulled in behind him. Somehow, Rhett managed to sit still as Christy and three sleepy, yawning children filed out of the car and onto the dewy lawn. He only hopped out of his car once the kids were inside and Christy came back out, the front door of the house hanging open. She met Rhett with a phony, halfhearted smile on her face.
“You’re taking him from me so soon?” she asked. She was nicely tanned and beautiful from the long two weeks away, but her eyes were tired and rimmed in red. She smirked when Rhett told her he was sorry. “I know you are,” she said. “Just don’t forget to always bring him back to me.” Christy surprised Rhett by surging up on her tiptoes to give him a swift, dry kiss on the cheek. She walked to the passenger side door of Link’s car and pulled it open to reveal a drowsy, dozing Link. He reached for Christy’s shoulder and used her for balance to climb out of the car. When he stumbled, she caught him awkwardly around the middle and grimaced under his weight.
It took Rhett longer than it should have to offer help. He slipped an arm around Link and took him off his wife’s hands.
“He’s fine,” she said like she was convincing herself. “He’s just been a little clumsy the past few days.” When Link laughed weakly into Rhett’s chest, Christy sighed. “That’s it. Really, that’s it.”
“I knocked over a glass table in the hotel room,” Link said. “Shattered it.” He lolled against Rhett’s body, all his weight resting on Rhett. “They charged us three hundred friggin’ dollars for it. A little clumsy doesn’t cover it, babe.” Link lifted his head to look at Christy, who looked back at him with weariness dragging her shoulders down.
“Oh, just take him away from me, Rhett,” Christy said. She swiped fiercely at her eyes with the back of one hand. “I might as well get used to it.” She didn’t say goodbye to Link. Instead, she turned on her heels and walked away. And she didn’t look back. Once Link’s front door slammed, Link began to chuckle again.
“God,” he said. “God, I’m makin’ a mess of things.”
Rhett told him it was okay. He hadn’t made a mess of Rhett. Not yet.
Link didn’t want to do much of anything, and Rhett understood. He took Link to his house and carried him inside like a bride, Link chastising him for risking his back all the while. Once Rhett had deposited Link on the living room sofa, he stopped his griping. All Link did was watch Rhett with faraway eyes as he pulled a fleece blanket from the hall closet, wrapped it tightly around Link, and settled in beside him. Not for a second did Link look away from Rhett’s face. He sat with his knees curled up to his chest, the blanket wrapped around his shoulders. His eyes bored into Rhett as he turned the TV on and picked an infomercial just for the noise.
“I scared the shit outta her,” Link said.
“Panic attack,” Link replied. As he spoke, he dropped his chin to his knees. His eyes on Rhett didn’t waver. “I couldn’t breathe. She wanted to take me to the ER. She threatened to divorce me when I said no.” Link gave another one of those horrible, hollow laughs that chilled Rhett to the bone. “She didn’t go through with it, obviously. She loves me.” He said it like it was a curse.
He probably thought it so.
“You didn’t go?”
“No. Didn’t wanna waste anyone’s time. That’s all these things are now. A waste of time. If they can’t save me, why should they bother trying to patch the holes? You know?”
Rhett didn’t know, but he told Link he did.
“I need you to hold onto me for a while, okay?” Link asked. “Don’t say anything. Just hold onto me. Can ya do that?”
Rhett could. He opened his arms and Link crawled into them. Rhett stroked his hair back as he took long, deep breaths that rattled in his throat. Link filled his lungs and Rhett fell into rhythm with him easily enough. Together, they breathed. They didn’t do anything but that for a while, perfectly in sync and perfectly still. Link leaned heavily into Rhett and Rhett brushed kisses into his hair through every other inhale. He was warm in Rhett’s arms. Rhett luxuriated in the heat of his skin, the scent of his hair, the sound of his breathing.
“I love you,” he whispered to find Link too tired to say it back. That was okay. Rhett still knew it was true. Link loved him. He didn’t need to hear it in so many words to know. Link’s hand slipping out from under the blanket to clasp Rhett’s was all the answer Rhett needed.
They tried. They tried and they tried.
Link took over the counter sleeping pills and they only made it worse, giving him uneasy, fitful catnaps that never seemed to make a difference. He meditated, sitting in his backyard all alone, his back to the house. He was prescribed Ambien by a doctor Christy didn’t quite trust. She was proven right when she found Link outside in the middle of the night, telling the grass what it was like to feel pain. (Link laughed about it later, unable to remember the episode, but Christy tipped the rest of the bottle down the garbage disposal the morning after.)
Rhett drove Link back and forth from home to a man they already knew, a man with a sensory deprivation tank and a soft spot for Good Mythical Morning. They went twice a week. Rhett waited in the garden and made small talk while Link rested. He always emerged looking the same as he did when he went in: haggard and pale and tired to the bone.
August roared up hot and arid, another of Link’s months eaten away to nothing.
The first time Rhett saw the new and improved incarnation of Link’s panic attacks, he knew why Christy looked so weary. It was like nothing Rhett had ever seen. He and Link were hiking, Link’s limbs cooperating for the first time all week. Link still looked strong. When he hiked, shorts showing off the defined muscles of his calves, he almost looked good again. Rhett walked behind him to admire the beauty in the motion of Link’s body.
Link was strong, Link was himself. And then he wasn’t. He tripped over a tree’s protruding roots and landed on the ground on one knee, swearing under his breath. Rhett caught him under the armpits and helped him to his feet, but the ground had already left its mark on him. His knee was bleeding, cut open by some idiot’s broken beer bottle.
“Shit,” Link hissed. He was out of Rhett’s grasp after that. He sat down hard on the same root that tripped him, hands scrabbling to cover up his knee. Blood spilled scarlet through his fingers as Rhett dropped to his knees at Link’s side.
“Oh, Link, lemme take care of that.” Rhett tried to pry Link’s hands from the cut on his knee, but Link’s arms were taut under Rhett’s searching fingers. He didn’t realize something was wrong until Link’s breathing began to quicken. Rhett looked up sharply into his best friend’s face to find his mouth slack and his eyes glazed over. “Link?”
“I can’t…I can’t…” As Link’s body shook, Rhett watched the trickle of blood between his fingers slip down the long, tan slope of his shin. It kept him mesmerized, eyes glued, until blood tinged the top of Link’s sand-dusted sock crimson. Then everything happened at once. Link’s breath hitched and stuck in his throat, he clapped one bloodied hand to Rhett’s shoulder, and he bore down with his fingernails until pain made Rhett see stars.
“Link, what’re you- ow!” Rhett hissed through his teeth as Link did the same. “Oh, Link, what can I do? Are you…Link, God, are you breathing?” Grimly, Link nodded, his tongue caught between his teeth. If Rhett didn’t trust him, he would never have believed it. Link shuddered, making terrible, gasping noises as panic ripped the air from his lungs.
“Fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,” Link choked. He was obviously not at all, hunched over in the dirt with one hand on his knee and the other digging painfully into Rhett’s shoulder.
“Link, breathe for me, all right?” Rhett smacked Link on the back in an attempt to force him to draw breath, but all he got was a hiss of pain and Link choking on his own spit. It wasn’t until Link stopped responding to Rhett’s repeated requests for Link to keep squeezing his shoulder that Rhett made up his mind. “Okay, we’re goin’ to the hospital.” He was in the process of scooping Link up into his arms when Link’s fingers tightened minutely into the fabric of Rhett’s T-shirt.
“Kiss me,” Link asked. “Keep me…keep me safe. Kiss me. It’ll help.” He babbled and Rhett obeyed. Cutting off Link’s words, Rhett covered his mouth with his own. The kiss was brief but sweet. Link relaxed into it. He gripped Rhett by the collar of his shirt as Rhett hovered over him, one arm still tucked up under Link’s knees as if to lift him off the ground. Blood marred the front of Rhett’s shirt, but he didn’t mind. Link’s blood had spilled when the two of them made an oath a long, long time ago. It was all right if a little bit spilled now.
“Did I make it better?” Rhett asked.
“A little,” Link replied. “I can breathe now, at least.” He looked down at his knee and immediately paled. Rhett covered the oozing cut with both hands and ordered Link not to look.
“Why don’t I get you home, honey,” Rhett said, “and get you cleaned up? You might need stitches, but if we get home and it looks okay, I’ll…” Rhett trailed off as he took in the dazed look in Link’s eyes. He snapped his fingers before Link’s face and Link frowned, swatting Rhett’s fingers out of his face with a bloody hand.
“Stop,” he said. He looked at Rhett through eyelashes painted silver with tears. “Honey,” he went on. “Honey?”
“I’m sorry,” Rhett replied, the term of endearment borrowed from a long marriage and two children. “I shouldn’ta called you that. Look, let’s just get you off the ground, okay?”
Link looked at him with his brow furrowed and his body quaking. “No, Rhett. I l-l-like it.” He gifted Rhett a wan smile, warm enough to make everything else fall away. But his eyes landed on the blood on the collar of Rhett’s shirt. He paled further, breath hitching, and said, “Ohhh no. I think I’m gonna…”
Rhett didn’t need to hear anything else. Despite Link’s weak protestations, Rhett picked him up. He was light and easy to carry. Link fought against the panic attack that left him wheezing, but every breath he took in sounded thick and pained. He rested his head in the crook of Rhett’s neck and let himself be taken care of. Rhett kept his eyes on the trail, as much as he wanted to look down into Link’s face to make sure he was all right. If he wasn’t careful, he could trip just as easily as Link did and spill the both of them across the dirt path. So he made slow work of the short trail, back the way they came, a gasping and shaken Link held tight to his chest. By the time they reached the car, Rhett’s back was screaming out in pain, but there were more important things than the sorry state of his spine. He deposited Link in the passenger seat and knelt in the dirt to get a good look at Link’s knee. As he placed his hands on either side of the injury, Link’s hand landed in his hair.
“Love you,” Link whispered.
As the California sun beat down on Rhett’s car, the air hot enough to make drawing breath a fight, Rhett looked up to meet Link’s eyes. What he found was awe. Link looked at him like no one else ever had. The adoration in Link’s blue, blue eyes was staggering. Rhett wanted to tell him to cut it out, that he didn’t deserve such a look. But he looked at Link the same way. He was sure of it. So, he soaked it in, the adulation in the way Link looked at him.
Because once Link was gone, no one was ever going to look at Rhett like that again. How was he expected to survive a loss like that?
There were easier weeks. There were weeks where Rhett could pretend everything was the same as it had always been. Link was stubborn to a fault and that didn’t change in his refusal to show weakness whenever he was able. He pushed himself to move even when his limbs betrayed him and his lungs seized up. Christy asked Rhett to forego sleep in favor of walking the streets with Link in the middle of the night. He agreed. When Link’s wife couldn’t be there for him, Rhett always could. The mutual agreement to share Link between them put Rhett and Christy on equal footing. They weren’t Link’s best friend and Link’s wife anymore. Rhett wasn’t quite sure what they were. But they wanted the same things. They wanted smiles and sure steps. They wanted better tomorrows and restful nights.
But there were worse weeks. Link couldn’t sleep, not even in stolen naps on Rhett’s shoulder. He was angry, furious, breaking things because he could. He hardly ate, picking disinterestedly at the food his wife or Rhett tried to force on him. And when he tripped over his words or forgot them entirely, he took to swearing and giving up on half formed sentences. He had always been easily tongue tied, his brain faster than his mouth. But as his tired brain slowed down, his tongue did too.
He forgot things.
He would forget the words for things he used every day. It took him a long time to come up with what he wanted to say. Every word was labored, picked carefully. He was scared of getting things wrong. Every sentence he spoke ended with a question mark, his surety leaving him as swiftly as his equilibrium did. It wasn’t until he greeted Rhett one September morning with, “Hey, Rhett?” instead of, “Hey, Rhett!” that hope began to dwindle. Rhett clung to hope for a lot longer than Link or even his wife did. But all it took was Link looking up at him with a question on his lips, and Rhett couldn’t find the spark inside his chest anymore.
The worst weeks were the ones when Link refused Rhett when he came around. He would cite a headache, or exhaustion, or he would be honest and say he needed to be alone. No matter the reason, it hurt like hell every time Link shut the door in Rhett’s face.
For Link’s sake, he tried not to let it show.
It was Rhett’s birthday before Link had a day as good as all the days he and Rhett shared behind them. Much like Link, Rhett found himself not in the mood to celebrate. But like Rhett did for him, Link wouldn’t take no for an answer. He showed up at Rhett’s house with an overnight bag and a smile.
“C’mon, big guy,” Link said. “You only turn forty once. Let’s go.” He didn’t give Rhett a chance to protest. He walked away, threw his bag in Rhett’s car, and as Jessie stepped up behind Rhett and wrapped her arms around him, Link shouted, “We’re takin’ your car, all right? I’m outta gas!” Dumbfounded, Rhett could only nod as Jessie laughed into the space between his shoulder blades.
“He’s been planning this for a while,” Jessie said. “Says he’s takin’ you to a hotel for the night. Happy birthday, baby.” Jessie kissed Rhett’s back through his T-shirt and laughed as he whirled around to grab her up into a hug. “Have fun,” she said. “I told him to be careful with you ‘cause you’re an old man now. He said not a chance. What’m I supposed to say to that?”
Instead of answering the question, Rhett told his wife he loved her. “Thank you,” he added as she prodded him out the door.
“No problem,” she said. She leaned on the doorframe as Link leaned on the car horn. “But I get you tomorrow.”
Rhett told her that sounded good to him. And as Link honked the horn again, Rhett kissed his wife goodbye. The moment Rhett slipped behind the wheel, Link had his head on Rhett’s shoulder. In a rare moment of possessiveness, Link sank his teeth into Rhett’s skin. Rhett hissed in pain and Link muttered, “Mine.” Only when he let up and left a kiss where his teeth left a bruise did Rhett start the car.
“Yeah, Link,” he said, rubbing the sore spot on his shoulder with one hand. “Yours.”
Six hours and four beers apiece later, Link sat on the edge of the hotel room’s Jacuzzi in a bathrobe and nothing else. It hung open around his slight frame, showcasing the weight he had lost in the sharpness of his bones. Rhett chose to focus instead on the grace of Link’s hand as he tested the heat of the water.
“It’s nice and warm,” Link said, his voice made fuzzy by the beers and the steam in the bathroom. “Wanna get in?”
Rhett didn’t need to be asked twice.
He dropped his own robe and joined Link in the Jacuzzi, sighing contentedly as the warm water enveloped him. Link folded up his glasses, placed them on the side of the tub, and looked at Rhett, one corner of his mouth quirking up. He was devilish, beautiful, and before Rhett could speak, Link’s hands were all over him. Water sloshed from the tub and spilled across the floor as Link moved, his mouth as urgent as his hands. He sucked at Rhett’s neck and slid both hands down Rhett’s chest, his breath coming hard and fast. All thoughts of wasting the night away lounging in the tub vanished as Link bit down hard on the side of Rhett’s throat. Rhett moaned, and Link moaned with him. When Link’s mouth met Rhett’s, he tasted like beer and peppermint.
“Rhett,” Link breathed against his lips. “Rhett, Rhett.”
“I want tonight to be so, so special.” Link chased the thought with a kiss on Rhett’s cheek. His hands traveled lower, down the expanse of wet, sensitive skin before him. Rhett shivered with the gentle caress of his fingertips.
“It already is,” Rhett replied.
“No, I want…shit.” Link broke off the string of frantic kisses and raised his hands off Rhett’s belly and out of the water. He cupped Rhett’s face in both hands. Link hesitated, but only for the smallest moment. “Make love to me, Rhett.”
Link held onto Rhett as his heart seized, stuttered, and began to race unbidden. This was the boy Rhett had always wanted. This was the man Rhett loved. And this was the man Rhett was going to lose.
He didn’t need to be asked twice.
He took his time; he cared for Link. He didn’t have a lot of time, but he sure as hell had tonight. Link was impatient at first as Rhett insisted on making this last. It didn’t take much to convince him to sit still so Rhett could wash his hair, reveling in the soft, happy noises Link made as Rhett massaged shampoo into his scalp. Once Link was pliant and forgiving under his hands, he squeezed the tiny bottle of hotel soap into his palm and caressed the tension from Link’s body bit by bit. The water went from hot to tepid to cool, and as Link began to shiver, Rhett lifted him from the tub. They shared one towel, Link’s arms wrapped tightly around Rhett’s middle as Rhett dried them off.
Link kissed beads of water from Rhett’s chest and left him breathless.
Hair dripping and bodies still slick with sweet smelling bathwater, Rhett and Link fell into bed. Rhett made it his purpose to worship every inch of Link’s body. Holding himself up on his forearms over Link, Rhett took it slow. He kissed Link’s nose and then his lips. Rhett kissed his best friend’s chest, and then the soft plane of his stomach. Link sighed, one hand in Rhett’s hair, as Rhett nuzzled and kissed his way across the insides of Link’s thighs. And he gasped, legs falling open wide, as Rhett pressed a row of wet kisses up to the head of his glorious, perfect cock.
Rhett thought he might be able to end the world with his bare hands as Link cried his name to the ceiling.
Instead of ending anything, Rhett navigated a series of firsts. He stammered his way through asking Link for help, and Link told Rhett to check his overnight bag. When Rhett returned to bed with a bottle of lube in his hand, he cracked a joke about its rosy scent to make Link laugh. The muscles in his torso contracted and tightened beautifully both when Link laughed and when Rhett slicked his fingers up with lube. All at once, Link was deadly serious. He reached down to still Rhett’s hand as Rhett pressed tentative fingertips to unfamiliar territory.
“You want this,” Link said.
“Yes,” Rhett replied.
“You want me.”
“Then show me.”
Link’s chest hitched as Rhett slipped one slick finger inside him. His eyes closed, eyelids fluttering.
“Is that…okay?” Rhett asked. He felt young and inexperienced again, unsure of what to do and where to go. But he knew Link, he knew everything about him, and the furrow of Link’s brow gave him everything he needed. Link threw his head back as Rhett added another finger. It was strange, it was like nothing Rhett could have expected. Because above all else, it felt right. Like he and Link were made for this, for falling into one another, for falling in love, for chasing new highs together. It was easy.
Rhett worked Link open until Link began to cling to the sheets, soft little whimpers falling from open lips. “Oh, Rhett, that’s so good…” Link gasped when Rhett pulled his fingers out and leaned back on his haunches. He opened his eyes to meet Rhett’s, his hands fisting the white sheets and the muscles in his thighs twitching. “What’re you starin’ at?”
“You.” It hit Rhett all at once, the staggering weight of what he stood to lose. It came in waves, the terror and the sorrow, and one crashed over Rhett’s shoulders as he took in the open beauty of Link’s face. Link’s eyes darkened as he realized what was going on in Rhett’s head, just like he always did, in the end.
“Don’t,” he said. “You’re here and I’m here and I’m not dyin’ tonight. Make it mean something, Rhett. Gimme all you got.”
Instead, Rhett admitted what he should have on Link’s wedding day, when he couldn’t breathe for the fear of losing him to someone else. “Link, I’m in love with you.”
“Good,” Link nodded. “B’cause I’m in love with you, too. Now please, for the love of God, gimme somethin’ good.”
Rhett did. He wanted to look at Link, his beautiful boy, and Link didn’t protest as Rhett slipped a pillow under the small of his back to prop him up. Link laughed as he wrapped his legs around Rhett’s waist to pull him close. Rhett understood. He was giddy too. Nerves struck them dumb, Rhett’s laughter spilling across Link’s tongue as they kissed. When Rhett scooped up the bottle of lube, Link held out his palms. Rhett squeezed the sticky-sweet liquid into Link’s hands and Link worked it over Rhett, grinning as he moaned at the touch. Rhett thought he might have been a goner until Link used the rest of the lube on his hands to reach under himself, slicking up his tight hole. And then Rhett knew for sure.
He saw stars when he pushed himself inside Link, and by the sweet sounds slipping from Link’s lips, he felt the same. Rhett paused with his hands on Link’s narrow hips, but Link urged him on.
“No, no, no, it’s good,” he babbled, eyes shut, the knuckles of one hand in his mouth. “Keep goin’, Rhett. You’re so good.” The parting of Link’s lips was all Rhett needed. He pushed all the way in and lost himself entirely in the heat of Link’s body. He began to move, scared to cause pain, scared to give Link everything he asked for.
But like everything else between them, this came easy. Their bodies fit together like puzzle pieces. Waves of ecstasy rolled down Rhett’s spine as he moved within Link, the two of them creating a perfectly imperfect rhythm. Inexperience made Rhett shaky and unsure, but every move opened Link’s mouth in a desperate, pleading O.
Like everything else between them, Rhett knew what Link needed without being told. As he built up towards an all-encompassing climax, Rhett wrapped one hand around Link’s reddened, leaking cock and began to stroke. The simple touch sparked a reaction that rolled through Link’s whole body like a wave. Together, they ebbed and flowed, like a river, like the sea. It was easy, give and take, and when Rhett leaned in close to kiss Link’s lips, Link whispered, “I love you,” like he wanted Rhett to taste it.
Rhett tipped over the edge first, clinging to Link unabashedly. As he came, Link groaned, tossing his head back in pleasure at the new sensation. His orgasm followed, Link spilling hotly around Rhett’s hand and over his own stomach. Rhett wanted to take the time to lap it up, to taste Link, but Link had other plans. As Rhett pulled out, dripping and still half hard, Link took hold of Rhett by the shoulders, shoved him to the side, and rolled them over. Straddling Rhett’s hips, Link grinned down at him, his cheeks flushed prettily and his eyes glazed over. And he collapsed on top of Rhett, pinning him to the mattress, their limbs tangling up as Link buried his face in the crook of Rhett’s neck.
“’M dead,” Link mumbled into Rhett’s sticky skin. He gave Rhett a kiss in the hollow of his throat and smiled as Rhett wrapped both arms around him.
“Don’t say that,” Rhett replied.
Link made a soft harrumph and kissed Rhett again. “Better get used to it, baby. ‘M gonna be dead for a long, long time.”
Rhett could always count on Link to drag him back to reality kicking and screaming. Link apologized, sincerely and kindly, but the damage was done. He kissed away the tears that slipped down Rhett’s cheeks before he could swipe them away. “I’m sorry,” Link said. “I’m sorry.”
Link clambered off of Rhett and led him by the hand to the shower, where they continued the graceless dance they choreographed in the bedroom. Rhett ducked his head so Link could wash his hair, and Link bit down hard on Rhett’s shoulder as Rhett massaged the soreness from his tired body. They crashed back into bed, naked and clean, and only when Rhett was almost asleep did Link speak again.
“Happy birthday, Rhett,” Link whispered in the dark. “I hope it’s not the last one I get to share with you.” His voice broke on the last word, and as it was Rhett’s turn to lend comfort, he told Link it was the best birthday he could have hoped for.
“You’ll be there for more,” Rhett said. “I’m not givin’ you a choice.”
What Rhett didn’t expect was for Link to concede. “Okay,” he said. And then, “Thank you.”
Rhett didn’t let go of him for the longest time after that. Every time Link slipped from his grasp, he prayed it wouldn’t be last.
In the middle of November, Link spent a lot of time fading. He lost weight fast and kept losing it, despite Christy pumping him full of weight gain shakes. His cheeks hollowed and Rhett could count his ribs every time his clothes hit the floor. He was cold in his own house and he took to wearing a down comforter like a cape as he traveled like a ghost from room to room. He kept himself bundled up even in the California sun, wearing one of Rhett’s hoodies over his own as they took long walks. Link wasn’t much up to hiking anymore. Instead, he and Rhett meandered the streets, sometimes hand in hand but always side by side.
Link would sit perfectly still for hours at a time, unresponsive and dulled. If prodded, his eyes would slide blearily across Rhett’s face or his wife’s. But in those moments, he would be gone to the world. Christy cried her eyes out the first time she lost Link to the stupor that left him nodding out on the sofa. She called his doctor, incoherent and babbling, and Rhett had to take the phone from her and explain that for lack of a better word, Link was gone. It was Link’s body trying desperately to repair the damage done by lack of sleep, the doctor said. There was nothing they could do, the doctor added. Make him comfortable and he’ll come out of it soon, the doctor promised. Rhett and Christy sat on either side of Link on the couch, clasping hands over Link’s lap. Every time Christy squeezed Rhett’s fingers, he squeezed back. In the end, Link’s head tipped onto Rhett’s shoulder, and Christy cried harder than Rhett had ever seen her cry.
“He calls for you in the middle of the night,” Christy cried, her fingers flexing in Rhett’s. “It breaks my fucking heart, but when he drifts off and he talks, all he wants is you.”
“I never thought I’d lose him, Rhett. Never mind to you.” She got up and tried to walk away with Rhett still clinging to her hand, her husband’s sweaty forehead on his shoulder. Rhett pulled her back. She fell, sobbing, back to the sofa, and as much as Rhett wanted to hold her, she wouldn’t allow it.
When Link came back into himself, blinking long and slow, neither Rhett nor Christy told him how much he had scared them. After the first time, each subsequent hour spent cradling Link as he fought valiantly against his own body should have been easier. They never were.
Link wrote a will.
Rhett’s kitchen table coated in a layer of legal documents, he sat at Link’s side as he puzzled over all the things that were his. There was a lot to sort through, a lot Link was leaving behind. He sorted out college funds and mortgage payments, life insurance and inheritance. Link was stony faced and silent as he worked, while Rhett could do nothing but trace idle fingers up the slope of Link’s spine every time he sighed. It didn’t seem to help much, but it was all Rhett could offer.
The silence was only broken by Link groaning, dropping his pen, and burying his face in his hands. “Shit,” he sighed. Rhett’s hand traveling up to the back of his neck only served to agitate him. “Rhett, I need to talk to you about something serious.”
“Okay,” Rhett replied.
“I need you to swear to me that for the rest of your life, you’re gonna take care of my family.” Link shuddered and propped his elbows on the table, his glasses clattering to the wood as his shaky hands knock them aside. “Whatever they need, I need you to make sure they get it. You’re to watch over them, and love them, and help them grow. If Chris needs you to move in, I need you to do it. If she needs support, or love, or someone to talk to, you have to be there for her. If my kids need a father, find them one. I don’t care what you have to do. I just need to know they’re safe in your hands, Rhett.”
“You want me to go through with that whole game show thing? Finding your wife a new husband to replace you?” Rhett tried to tease, to ease the tension in Link’s rigid body. But Link shook his head and heaved a shuddery sigh.
“God, she’s going to hate me.”
“I’m leavin’ her alone with three kids,” Link said. “She’s tryin’ so hard to save me, and I haven’t been good to her. I’m angry and I snap at her and I always pick fights…oh, she’s never gonna forgive me once I’m gone.” Link was together, Link was strong. And then he wasn’t. He cried into his hands as Rhett drew the smaller man to his chest, acutely aware of the sharpness of his bones. He tried to soothe, pressing kisses to the side of Link’s head, but it didn’t help.
For the first time, Link admitted to being afraid in so many words.
“Rhett, I’m so scared to die,” he cried. “It isn’t fucking fair. My kids, Rhett. God, I’m never…oh God, I won’t…shit.” He lost control of his voice at the same time tears began to drip from the point of his chin. He cried for a long time, crying himself dry. Link ran out of tears long before he could free himself from sorrow. It hung over him as Rhett cradled him, rocking back and forth at the kitchen table. Their knees hit the underside of the table in tandem to the rhythm of Rhett stroking Link’s lank, unkempt hair.
Later, once Link was done crying and Rhett was done letting him suffer, Rhett carried him to the sofa. Rhett’s family was with Link’s, the two wives and five kids getting a well-deserved break from the men who tended to hurt them without meaning to. The house silent but for the sound of Link’s breath catching in his throat, Rhett lay him down on the couch and shoved him aside. The couch was too small for the two of them to share, but they shared the space anyway. Rhett slipped under the fragile frame of Link’s body and held him close, Link light and shivering in his arms. Only once Rhett dragged a blanket up over them and began to stroke the back of Link’s neck with his fingertips did Link find his voice again. Everything Link asked for, Rhett promised to give to him.
“When Lily gets married, I want you to give her away.”
“If Christy falls in love with someone else, I want you to make sure he’s good to her. Better than I was, even.”
“Don’t let Lando forget me.”
“When I have grandkids, Rhett, it’s your job to tell them stories about me. Make sure they know how sorry I am that I can’t be there to meet them.”
Rhett choked on his acquiescence but agreed just the same. “Okay.”
“When…if Lincoln has a son, can you ask him to give him my name? I know it’s a lot to ask, but…”
“Okay, Link. Okay.” It was too much, far too much, and Rhett quieted Link with a frantic kiss to his temple. “God, I don’t want you to leave me.”
“That makes two of us, Rhett.”
“You’re everything to me.”
“Cut it out. I know I am. How’m I supposed to die knowin’ you’re gonna have to live without me?” If it was any other time, Rhett would have laughed and called Link conceited. But he was right. Rhett was going to have to learn to live without him. Sooner or later, Rhett was going to find out what it felt like to walk the world alone. If it was the other way around, if it was Rhett instead of Link, he would be just as worried. If he was leaving Link behind, he would be looking at Link with the same terror.
(Rhett would give anything to have it the other way around.)
It was a dangerous way to think. In a different version of this world, Rhett would have what he wanted. He would be the one. But here and now, in the universe he was given…he was going to have to live the rest of his life as the surviving half of a broken whole.
Link wasn’t giving him a choice. And neither was God.
Christmas came up fast and Link feared it would be his last. He swore to Christy he would tell his family. To Rhett, he whispered that he was not so sure.
“I won’t look my mother in the face and tell her she’s gonna outlive me, Rhett,” he breathed. “I can’t. I won’t.”
“You have to, baby,” Rhett replied. “They would never forgive you for dropping dead on them.”
Link thought about it and gave his head a little shake. “Will you?”
“Nothin’ to forgive,” Rhett said. “Don’t worry for a second about asking for forgiveness from me.”
“Okay,” Link replied. Still, on the plane to North Carolina, the Neals and the McLaughlins squashed into two rows, Link apologized when panic had him flying from his seat over Rhett’s lap. He apologized when Rhett went after him to the tiny airplane bathroom. He apologized as Rhett rubbed his back. And he apologized when Rhett told him he loved him.
“Don’t be sorry,” Rhett said. “Not for anything.”
“Okay,” Link replied. Still, he said he was sorry when he knocked Rhett’s coffee out of his hand at the Raleigh-Durham Airport. He said he was sorry when he couldn’t stop shaking for long enough to sign the paperwork for his rental car. And he said he was sorry when his teeth chattered in the breezy December evening.
“Don’t be,” Rhett said.
He still said he was sorry for reaching for Rhett instead of his wife when the icy pavement outside the airport tripped him up.
Rhett glanced at Christy, who wore a pretty pink coat and an expression too hard to read. She looked away the moment Rhett looked at her. Maybe Christy was not as forgiving as Rhett. Maybe she simply was tired of offering salvation. But as long as Link was going to beg for forgiveness, Rhett was going to ask him not to.
Link told his mother.
He told her first, and everyone else second. Everyone is crying and I need to get out of here, Link texted Rhett in the middle of their separate family dinners. Rhett’s family and Link’s were set to retire to the same hotel for the night, and Rhett texted back to remind Link they would be able to escape soon. Not soon enough, Link sent back. I hate being reminded I’m a dead man walking.
Rhett didn’t reply to that.
It wasn’t the best Christmas, but Rhett couldn’t help but think it had to be better than the Christmases he was going to celebrate without Link at his side.
Instead of bringing moroseness and sadness to their families by staying, Rhett and Link packed up their kids and their wives and met in the lobby of their hotel. As Christy and Jessie got them checked in, Link embraced Rhett beside the massive Christmas tree sitting proudly in the corner. The light dancing off the tinsel in the branches gave Link a strange glow as he burrowed into Rhett’s arms like he had been burning for his touch all day.
“Missed you,” he breathed. As if they had been apart for weeks, he clung to Rhett, his hands sliding up under Rhett’s coat.
“I missed you too, Link,” Rhett replied. And he had. They usually spent Christmas apart, to get some space, to clear their heads before a new year and another season of Good Mythical Morning. But without anything to look forward to, without anything to need a break from, Rhett had found himself utterly unwilling to part ways for the holidays. Maybe that was the reason for the hotel more than the excuses he told himself. Whatever the reason, Link was with him now, after two separate but parallel days spent spilling the bad news like blood across fresh snow.
The sound of a camera going off dragged Rhett from his reverie and from Link’s arms. He looked up to find his wife smiling at him, her phone in both hands. “Sorry!” Jessie said. “You just looked so sweet. I’ll send it to both of you.” She looked down at her phone and her smile faltered just a touch, but it quirked up again as Christy leaned over her shoulder to look. “Lookit our boys, Chris,” Jessie said. Christy propped her chin up on Jessie’s shoulder from behind and sighed.
“Our boys,” she agreed. She didn’t have much else to say.
When Jessie sent Rhett the picture, he didn’t look at it. He quickly saved it and shoved his phone into his pocket. He didn’t want to look. Not yet.
He had no idea how many times he would later pull his phone out just to look at the pretty picture of two boys who couldn’t bear the thought of losing one another.
The beginning of January had Link edgy and exasperated. It was around the time they would usually start filming again, and the blankness of their calendar started to wear on him. He wanted to do something, to create something, and barring a return to a work schedule that would be beyond him, Rhett agreed to a big, open something. They sat in Rhett’s living room when no one was home and tried to write songs. Rhett had his guitar in his lap and Link at his side, and if it wasn’t for the new tremor in Link’s tenor, he would have thought that nothing had changed. They were just two boys over one guitar like they had been for over a dozen years, and they were going to be the same for at least a few dozen more.
But Link tripped over his words and lost his train of thought easily, half-formed rhymes passing him by. When he got frustrated and started ripping into the notebook in his hands, Rhett switched to playing their old songs on his guitar. Link was receptive at first, closing his eyes and humming contentedly along with the familiar melodies. But when it was his turn to sing, his eyes flew open and met Rhett’s with abject horror.
“Don’t remember this one?” Rhett asked. Glumly, Link shook his head. “That’s okay. It’s kinda old. Granted, all of them are kinda old at this point.” He shrugged and stopped playing, slapping a hand to the neck of the guitar to still the thrumming strings.
“You’re kinda old at this point,” Link reminded him. He teased Rhett gently, but the terror in his eyes still burned bright behind his toothy smile.
“So’re you, man.” Rhett began to strum at his guitar again, not playing anything in particular, just moving his fingers to have something to do with the hands that wanted to reach out and touch Link.
“Rhett, can I talk to you about somethin’ without you freaking out?”
“Sure,” he replied. Link’s question sent a spike of icy panic through Rhett’s chest that he pretended wasn’t there.
“I want there to be a…a plan for the, uh.” He swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing as he tipped his head back to face the ceiling. “I want to have a plan for the end of my life. The end result of…of this. It’s dementia, Rhett. I know you know that already. You musta done research the second you knew what I had.”
Rhett nodded, his guitar the only sound in the room for a heavy, dreadful moment.
“I’m havin’ a hard time already with my memory,” Link said. Rhett nodded again. He knew that, too. “Rhett, I don’t want my kids seein’ me like that. If I could stop Christy from seeing it, too, I would. But she’s just as bad as me when it comes to bein’ stupidly stubborn. I just…please don’t let my kids see me when I’m lying there pissin’ the bed or whatever. I don’t care what you have to do to stop them, but God, I don’t want them to remember me like that. Rhett? Are you listening to me?”
Rhett shook his head to clear it and quickly changed it to a nod when Link’s eyes narrowed. “Yes,” he said. It was just the thought of Rhett having to remember his best friend like that that kept him locked up in his own head. For a while, Rhett and Link sat in silence. The moment was drawn out too long and Rhett was going to cry if he let it drag any longer. He chose instead to start playing again, making up a song on the spot in an attempt to make Link laugh.
“When I’m old and pissin’ the bed, don’t you fret, I’ll soon be dead,” Rhett sang. Link looked at him with shrewd, unreadable eyes. “I might not remember your name, but I sure hope you love me the same…”
“If that’s s’posed to be funny, it’s not,” Link cut in. But his mouth twitched up, and Rhett knew him better than Link would ever admit. Rhett had him.
“I used to be good and sharp and witty, I used to be good at writing ditties. But now, just look at me, it’s a pity, I’m no longer young and pretty…”
“Rhett!” Link started to laugh despite the worry tightening his eyes, one hand over his mouth like he didn’t want Rhett to know he still knew how to smile.
“If I forget how to tie my shoes, if I forget how to sing the blues…” The nonsensical, rhythm-less song got cut short by Link taking hold of Rhett’s guitar, setting it aside, and climbing into Rhett’s lap. He kissed Rhett silly, over and over, stealing laughter from his lips.
“I love you,” Link said. “God, I love you. I love you. I love you.” He kissed Rhett’s cheeks, his beard, his ears, his lips. He kissed the bubbling laughter straight out of Rhett’s mouth and kept it, giggling breathlessly in between kisses. With his hands on Rhett’s face, Link looked at him. Behind the haggardness, behind the exhaustion, he was Link. He was young, he was pretty, and he was the boy Rhett was going to love for the rest of his life. Rhett didn’t tell him any of that. It wasn’t the time just yet. Instead, he curled his hands around Link’s bony hips and met each frantic kiss with one of his own.
It was all he could do.
Link stopped taking care of himself. He forgot to shower, to eat, to brush his teeth. Christy did the best she could, giving him gentle reminders when it was time for lunch or time to walk the dog. But she called Rhett one night in the middle of March, crying so hard he could barely understand her.
“Get your ass over here,” she wailed through the phone. “I got the kids in bed and I was just trying to get him to come upstairs with me. I just wanted him to rest, but he won’t listen to me. It’s like he’s not even here.”
“What can I do, Chris?” Rhett asked. What was he supposed to do to help? What the hell could he do that Christy couldn’t?
“He’s sitting in the living room,” Christy choked out, “crying for you.”
“Yeah,” she cried. “Oh. I’m losing my fucking husband, Rhett, and every goddamn time he starts to slip, it’s you he’s askin’ for. So get your goddamn ass over here, Rhett, and make him okay. Do you hear me? If he’s gonna spend the rest of his life lookin’ for you, you better make it your job to be here.”
“I hear you, Chris.”
“Good. See you soon.” She hung up, leaving Rhett to pull on his coat, slip on his shoes, and leave his family behind for the night.
“What does he want me for?” Rhett asked as Jessie kissed him goodbye by the front door.
“He’s had you by his side for thirty-five years, sweetheart,” Jessie said. “You’ll have to excuse him for wanting you to stay there now.”
She was right, but it was still impossibly hard to make the drive to Link’s house in the dark. When Rhett pulled into the driveway and cut the headlights off, Christy yanked open her front door. She met him as he hit the pavement, and all at once, she was in his arms.
“I hate you,” she said, voice muffled by Rhett’s chest. “I hate you.”
“I know,” Rhett replied. He held her tightly as she took deep breaths that shook her whole body. Had she always been so small?
“Just give him what he wants, please,” she whispered. “Whatever it is, he’s made it clear I don’t have it.” Rhett didn’t resent her for the bitterness in her voice. He deserved it.
Christy followed him into the house but breezed straight past the living room where Link sat, dashing up the stairs to bed like she was being chased. Rhett didn’t blame her for that, either. He sat at Link’s side, his best friend listing to one side as he sat at an awkward angle against one arm of the sofa.
“Hey, Link,” Rhett said. There were fresh tear tracks on Link’s cheeks but the tears themselves were gone. And so was Link. He didn’t say anything. All he did was lean on Rhett, his head on Rhett’s shoulder, curling his fragile body as close to him as he could get. “Hey…” Rhett wound an arm around Link’s shoulders and pressed a kiss into his unwashed hair. Link didn’t reply. “I heard you were askin’ for me, baby.” Still, Rhett got nothing back in exchange for his whispered words. “Done talking? That’s okay. Want me to talk to you for a while?” He expected nothing, no reply, no reaction. More and more often, Link was stoic and stony. He was quiet, silent, the rising and falling of his chest the only proof that he was still alive.
“Okay,” Rhett replied. “I can do that. Lemme think of something good.” He wracked his brain, trying to come up with something soft and sweet to whisper to Link, something safe to draw him from his reverie. What he settled on was something Link used to tease him about but didn’t anymore. “Hey, I’ve been thinkin’ about the whole multiverse thing again,” Rhett said. “And how it relates to us.” Link stiffened, the only sign that he was listening. Rhett pressed on. “I wonder how all the other versions of us are doing.” Again, he paused.
This was the time Link would usually tell him to cut it out, to get his head out of the clouds and focus on the present.
This time, he didn’t.
“Do you think they’re happy?” Rhett asked. “Do you think they’ve had as many adventures as we have? More? I bet there’s a version of us where we have everything we’ve ever wanted. Where we knew since we were kids that we belonged together. D’ya think there’s any chance of that world bein’ real? Where I kissed you every time I wanted to, all the way back to when we were young? There has to be a chance.”
Link made a small but pained noise in the back of his throat and squeezed himself closer to Rhett. His fingers curled into the front of Rhett’s shirt.
“Don’t worry,” Rhett said. “In every version of the world, we love each other. That’s all that matters.”
“No ‘s’not,” Link mumbled in reply.
“No. Not…not fair that this’s the one we gotta live.” He sighed and his breath puffed out hotly across the hollow of Rhett’s throat.
“I know,” Rhett replied. He kissed Link’s hair and then his ear, nuzzling into feverish skin. All at once, Link laughed. “What is it?” Rhett asked.
“’S’funny,” Link said. “When we were…dunno, younger. When we were younger, I used t’have all these…all these friggin’ dreams about you. Us. Doing…you know. And I always thought I was goin’ to Hell for it. And now…I can’t dream at all. Funny.” It wasn’t, and the humorless chuckle that slipped from Link’s parted lips made Rhett shiver. “I’d give anything to have nightmares, even. It’d be nice to have my dreams back.”
Rhett didn’t mention the nightmare they lived every day. Why would they want it in their dreams? He didn’t mention, either, all the mornings he woke up as a teenager with sticky sheets and Link’s name on his lips. The knowledge that Rhett felt the same, that he had always felt the same, wasn’t going to do Link any good now.
As the night wore on and Link showed no sign of coming back from whatever space in his head where he resided, Rhett left a text message for his wife. Sleeping at Link’s, he sent. I love you.
He should have expected her to be awake. Her reply came quick, Rhett’s phone buzzing in his hand. I love you too, she wrote. And tell him that I love him for me, okay?
Rhett promised her he would when Link was present to hear it. For the moment, he focused on rearranging his body to cradle Link’s. He shifted until he was lying on his back, Link limp and murmuring on top of him as they settled, chest to chest. “Shh,” Rhett breathed. He kissed the space in the middle of Link’s furrowed brow and did his best to soothe.
“Rhett?” Link asked, as if unsure of where he really was. As if he had lost Rhett for a moment and was trying to find his way back. Rhett led him there.
“I’m here, baby,” Rhett whispered. “Hey, I’m here.” In reply, Link let out a happy sigh.
“Ah,” Link breathed. “Thought so.”
“I’ll always be here.”
“Mmm,” Link sighed. “I know.” His knees slotted between Rhett’s, his head on Rhett’s chest, Link said something that made no sense at all. “Rhett, I forgot t’tell you. There’s somethin’ in the sky for you.”
“What?” Rhett asked, lips in Link’s hair.
“Bought you a star,” Link chuckled, his words slurring around a tired tongue. “So you’n me could be together forever. Stupid, I know. But I love you, Rhett. I couldn’t…I couldn’t stand the thought of bein’ up there alone without you. Now I don’t hafta be.” He propped his chin up on Rhett’s sternum to look him in the face. “God, do I love you.”
There was nothing Rhett could say that would result in anything other than tears. But now was not the time to cry. There’d been enough of that lately. Instead of saying anything at all, Rhett brushed Link’s messy hair back from his forehead to get a better look at him. His skin was waxy and his eyes red, his lips chapped and his cheekbones painfully sharp. But still, he was Link. He was perfect, and he was everything. Later, Rhett would remind him. But for now, he traced a thumb over the swell of Link’s lower lip until Link took it into his mouth and bit down, holding him captive.
“Love you,” Link whispered, his tongue pressing at the pad of Rhett’s thumb. This time, Rhett said it back. It was all that he could say.
Rhett fell asleep under Link’s body and his gaze. When he woke up to the sounds of Link’s children getting out of bed, he tried to extricate himself before they could dash down the stairs and see him. But Christy was there to still him, one hand on his shoulder, and Link looked up to follow her with his eyes. She draped a big fleece blanket over Link, tucking him and Rhett in snugly, and she kissed Link’s forehead as he gave her a lazy smile. Rhett craned his neck to watch her walk away to the kitchen, but she changed her mind and came back to the couch. Before Rhett could say anything, she leaned in close and kissed him, too.
“Thank you,” she whispered. And then she was gone, bustling around the kitchen, getting breakfast ready for the kids. “Rhett, whaddya want for breakfast?” she asked over the ticking of the toaster. “We have frozen waffles, cereal, I think we might have some oatmeal somewhere…”
“I’m okay, Chris,” Rhett replied.
“At least lemme make you toast, Rhett.”
To that, he agreed. Christy brought him toast on a little ceramic plate, deliberating for a moment before smiling mischievously and placing the plate on Link’s back.
“Don’t move, baby,” Christy said as Link began to laugh.
“Wasn’t plannin’ on it,” Link replied. When Rhett got crumbs in his hair, Link’s laughter only got louder. He laughed until he cried, tears wetting Rhett’s shirt. Rhett swept the crumbs onto the living room carpet and earned a scolding from Christy.
It was a strange moment of pure bliss, but Rhett clutched it to his chest and held it tight. He was going to need it later. In it went into the box in his heart, and there he locked it away.
Chapter 4: IV
A year to the day after his diagnosis, Link locked himself out of his car at the grocery store. He called Rhett. “I don’t wanna worry Christy,” he said. “She cries every time I forget something. Just rescue me, okay?”
Rhett did. He pulled into the sprawling parking lot to find Link perched on the hood of his car, shaking like a leaf despite the warm air. Link hopped down to meet him, and only then did Rhett see the ire burning in his eyes.
“I hate myself,” Link said. “I’m so stupid. Christy wouldn’t even let me drive if she could have it her way, and I just proved her right.” He showed Rhett the car keys, sitting innocently on the front seat. “I’m so fuckin’ stupid. I can’t believe it.”
“You’re not stupid, Link,” Rhett replied. Link looked fierce and fiery in the morning light, his hands balled into fists and his body quaking. “Let me call someone to help.” Rhett didn’t ask why Link had called him when he could have called for help on his own. Link didn’t ever need a reason to need him. He wasn’t about to start asking for one now.
The sun beat down on the car as they waited for help to arrive. Soon, Rhett’s shirt was sticking to his back and Link’s hand was sweaty in his. A guaranteed ten minutes turned into thirty, and Rhett left Link on the hood of the car to go inside for a Coke. When he met Link back at the car, they took turns taking long sips of the cold soda. Rhett admired the way Link’s lips caressed the bottle. Link didn’t protest when in broad daylight, in the middle of a crowded parking lot, Rhett stole a kiss.
When he pulled away, Link was looking at him with utter admiration. It was deeper than that now, heavier than love and thicker than trust. It was a look that told Rhett I’m giving all of me to you. Link was trying to press his heart and his soul out of his own hands and into Rhett’s, as if for safekeeping. Without questioning, Rhett took them. He was going to keep them safe for the rest of his life.
Link was rescued, his keys plucked from the front seat by a man who assured Link it happened all the time and it wasn’t a problem at all. As the man drove away, Link kept one hand on the back of his neck, a wordless gesture of anxiety.
“I’m gonna keep forgettin’ stuff until my head is empty,” Link said. “Aren’t I?”
He was; that was the nature of slipping away. But Rhett wasn’t about to tell him so. “No, baby,” he said. “You’re gonna remember the important stuff.”
Link scoffed. “This morning, I remembered to brush my teeth. Christy started to leave sticky notes all over the house for stuff like that. The only thing is, I forgot where she keeps the toothpaste.” Link scuffed the toes of his sneakers on the hot pavement, shaking his head. “Rhett, you’ve always been more patient than me. Can you help me remember things as I forget them? I won’t die not knowing who my fuckin’ kids are, Rhett. I won’t die not bein’ able to recognize my wife. Do you hear me?” The fight that Rhett had not seen in him in weeks was back. The sight of Link’s anger made Rhett’s heart soar. He was still alive. He was still going. He had fight left in him yet. Rhett could cry for the fury mounting in Link’s voice. “I need…I need to scream somewhere,” he said. “Take me somewhere where no one will hear us. Please.”
The desert was the same as it had always been and would always be: dry, unforgiving, and as vast as the sea. Rhett parked his car and Link spilled out of it. Before Rhett could get out of the car himself, Link was already shouting to the sky. It sounded terrible, thick, like Link could spit blood or fire or something in between. Rhett joined him. Together, they leaned back, hands cupped around their mouths to amplify the sound. And they screamed. Their voices mingled and chased each other across the wide open horizon, soaking into the sand and the distant mountains.
Just like the way their singing voices caressed one another, creating something pretty and sweet, the screams they cast across the sky had the same effect.
They lay on the roof of Rhett’s car and watched the sun sink. Link was nestled under Rhett’s arm, safe from the evening chill in the arid air. Still, he shivered. He was skin and bones, a body held together with sinew and veins. His slender, shaky fingers were splayed out on Rhett’s chest, over his heart, like Link needed a reminder of life.
“You know,” Link said, “there’s still so much I wanted to do.”
Rhett closed his fingers over the hand Link had on his chest. “I know.”
“Do you think my family will ever forgive me for leaving them?”
“Yes, honey. Of course they will.”
“Will Christy love me forever, you think?”
“God, Link, of course she will.”
Rhett sat up, abrupt, and Link whined in protest. Link lay back on the roof, his head hitting the metal with a soft thud as Rhett loomed over him, blocking the setting sun from his face. Link’s eyes on Rhett’s lit him up far brighter than the sun ever could. “Link,” Rhett said.
“You’re my brother. My best friend. My soul mate, for cryin’ out loud. You’re the other half of me. You have been my whole life. And for the rest of it, I’m gonna keep on lovin’ you. You’re…Link, after everything we’ve done together…after everything. You’re still my favorite part of me.”
Link’s mouth quirked up at one corner, a lazy, wan smile crossing his lips. “Sounds like a good song,” he said. He sang a short little tune, creating a song out of nothing. “You’re still my favorite part of me…” He cut himself off and shrugged, his voice echoing across the sand before fading away.
“I’ll write that for you someday,” Rhett said.
“Yeah,” Link replied. “Maybe in a different life. One of the lives you were talkin’ about before. One of the lives where you get to keep me.”
As Rhett lay back down and Link resettled against his body, Rhett tried not to dwell on the life he should have been living. It was useless to mourn the loss of a life that was never his, but while the sun set on another one of Link’s numbered days, Rhett couldn’t help but curse the version of him who got to hold Link until he was old and gray. Maybe that version of Rhett was looking at the same sky and shoving back nightmares in which he lost Link. That was the tradeoff- live in fear of loss or lose early on in the game. When they were young, Link used to fear losing Rhett. He had thought Rhett might move on without him, might go somewhere he couldn’t follow. But now, it was Link who was doing all the leaving.
Rhett was still yet to figure out where that left him.
Link turned forty. Rhett’s family and Link’s sat, talked, and played in Link’s backyard over a massive cake with forty candles pressed into the icing. Rhett insisted, counting out each one as Link tried and failed to roll his eyes. He was having a hard time getting his eyes to obey him, much to his chagrin, and he had taken to clicking his tongue instead of rolling his baby blues to the sky. Rhett would have teased him about the obnoxious noise if he made it for any other reason. But he did it to keep hold of something, to keep his dry, impatient nature intact as long as he could. So Rhett wasn’t going to say a thing.
The evening abuzz with the sounds of their children playing and shouting and chasing one another, Rhett felt he could live in this night forever. He closed his eyes and made a wish that was not granted: I would die right now if it meant that he could live. No one listened to the unspoken wish, not even the red and purple sky.
As Link tried valiantly to enjoy his birthday cake despite a dry tongue and a sore throat, Rhett snuck up behind him where he stood to wrap both arms around his middle. With no one looking, Rhett buried his face in the soft spot behind Link’s ear and breathed him in. Link’s heart thrummed under his lips and his hands.
“Happy birthday,” Rhett hummed into Link’s skin. “I love you.”
Link tipped his head back to rest on Rhett’s shoulder. “I love you, too.”
Rhett nuzzled into the long, exposed slope of Link’s throat and kissed him as he wiggled, ticklish under the touch of Rhett’s beard. “I love you so much,” Rhett breathed. There was a camera flash, and again Jessie was there, grinning as she snapped a picture of Rhett and Link.
“Don’t quit canoodling on my account!” she said. She teased as Rhett groaned in faux exasperation. Truth be told, Rhett was more thankful than he’d probably ever get around to telling her for all the pictures she’d been sneaking. She did it for him, so he would have something to look back on, and he knew so without asking. She was good like that.
Link was quiet for a long, long time as Rhett swayed with him, lazily moving his hips in a tiny, silent dance. When he spoke, it was through a veil of tears. “Rhett?” Link said.
“If there is a Heaven.”
“I dunno how much I believe there is one anymore. But if there is.” Link surveyed the yard: his beautiful children, his beautiful wife, his carefully cultivated life. Lily and Locke talking with their heads close together, Lincoln gabbing animatedly with Christy. Lando and Shepherd playing tag, slipping in dewy grass and helping each other up. Link took in all the things that were his, and his voice was watery when he went on. “If there is a Heaven, I think it’s probably just like this.”
Rhett tightened his hold on Link but didn’t tell him he felt the same. He had the feeling Link already knew.
June and July faded away and Link faded with them. As August burned hotly across Burbank, Link began to wane. Up until then, Link’s decline had been anything but linear; he had good days, good weeks, good months. And the bad days were only a fraction of all the days Link lived. But in the middle of the summer, Link deteriorated faster than anyone could have anticipated. He stopped responding to his own name more often than not. Moments of lucidity were fleeting, few and far between. He was hard to reach, retreating within himself more and more every day. Not even Rhett could reach in and pull him out anymore.
When he was lucid, he cried. He was scared, and no one blamed him for it. Still, Rhett didn’t like to see tear tracks on Link’s face. He did his best to kiss them away. And he never let Link see that he was crying too. He had to be stronger than that, not only for Link, but for Link’s family. When Christy called Rhett and asked him to come talk to her, he went. She needed someone, and if it had to be Rhett, he was going to be there, no matter how badly it hurt to pretend to be brave.
“Rhett, please,” she said, clasped in his arms on the living room couch. “Please, please tell me we get to keep him.”
“Yeah, Chris, of course.” Rhett rubbed her back as she shook, her hair in his face and her tears on the collar of his shirt. It had been three days since Link’s doctor had suggested something that left Christy a trembling, sobbing mess. Hospice. It was a horrible word, bringing to mind a place where people far, far older than Link went to die. Rhett refused to imagine it. Link didn’t belong in a place like that, where nurses spoke in hushed tones and offered their sympathies. The only thing Rhett could think was the same word that Christy punched out: no. The doctor had told her to think about it. He had told her that it was the best option for someone like Link- someone who was slipping away, someone who needed around the clock care. The doctor had told her to take a few days to discuss it with anyone who had Link’s best interests at heart and then get back to him.
The answer was still no.
“I want him here,” Christy cried in Rhett’s arms. “God, I won’t send him away to die. I want him here.”
“I know,” Rhett soothed. “We’ll keep him here, Chris. Don’t worry. We can take good care of him here.”
She wailed. “Stay with me,” she said. “I can’t do this alone anymore. The kids…Rhett, they’re so scared. I don’t know what to do. I just need…I just need someone.”
“Okay, shh,” Rhett replied. He stroked her hair and began to rock her, Christy’s hands clasped together at the small of his back. “I’ll be here as long as you need me, okay?”
“Rhett?” came a small, ragged voice. He looked up to find Link in the kitchen, his hair a mess and his pajama pants hanging low on his narrow hips. His bare chest served as a painful reminder of the weight he never managed to put back on. He looked like hell, but he was present. Rhett was so relieved he saw stars as the panic tightening his heart lifted just a fraction.
Christy extracted herself from Rhett’s arms and ran her sleeve under her streaming nose. She locked eyes with Rhett, gauging his reaction to how terrible her husband looked before turning around to look for herself. “Link,” she said. “Hey, what do you need?”
Link didn’t say anything. Rhett watched from the sofa as he wordlessly stepped into Christy’s arms, his arms coming up to wrap around her middle.
Rhett was sure that Christy didn’t miss who it was Link asked for. But he wasn’t going to say a thing. He stood on shaky legs and without saying anything, he headed out the door. He got into his car. He drove for a while, the traffic keeping him from finding an easy place to hide. In the car, he felt like a thousand pairs of strangers’ eyes were on him. He waited until he got to the barren parking lot of an old gas station before burying his face in his hands and breaking down.
He couldn’t do it. He wasn’t strong enough; he wasn’t made to watch Link die. It wasn’t fair.
Rhett cried into his hands until he couldn’t breathe, and in the silence all around him, he prayed aloud for a miracle. “It’ll be an even trade,” Rhett said, face tipped towards the sky. “Him for me. Just make him better and take me instead. Do you hear me?”
As ever, as always, no one was there to listen.
Rhett didn’t try to talk to God again until the very end.
They didn’t know it was the last time, the last time they made love. Link was back to his normal, impatient, irascible, beautiful self for one day, and then a week. Rhett was hopeful, but Christy tried to quash it. “Don’t get used to the upswing, baby,” she said, like baby was something she always called Rhett. He didn’t flinch at the term of endearment, didn’t blink. Sure. As long as Rhett was Link’s baby, he could be Christy’s too. “He’ll drop off again and you’ll only make yourself sick bein’ sad about it.”
Rhett tried to take her advice, but eight days after coming back into himself, Link asked for Rhett to take him camping. “I just wanna lie under the stars and kiss you until I die,” Link said. Rhett ignored the second half of the sentence and told Link he would love to be there with him. Christy gave her blessing and pecked Rhett on the cheek as they left with a whisper of, “Take good care of him,” on her lips. Rhett promised he would.
The desert rolled out before Rhett’s car like an endless ocean, the tires kicking up dust and Link leaning half out the open window. He had one arm outside the car and his chin resting in the crook of his elbow, eyes screwed up against the desert winds.
“You’re gonna lose your glasses hangin’ out the window like a dog, bo,” Rhett said.
“Tha’s okay,” Link replied. “What the hell do I need ‘em for?”
Rhett had nothing to say to that.
Link wanted to help Rhett pitch their little tent, but his hands weren’t cooperating with him and he lost his patience, kicking at the pile of stakes Rhett had at his side. Rhett kissed him until he stopped frowning, and as the sun began to set, Link sat on the hood of Rhett’s car and watched him work. He was bundled up in a blanket, wearing it draped over his head like a shawl. Still, Rhett could hear his teeth chattering over the sound of the wind. He finished setting up the tent as fast as he could and hurried Link inside.
“Get warm, honey,” Rhett said, zipping up the tent and wrapping Link’s blanket tighter around his frail body.
“Start a fire,” Link replied. “A big one, like the ones we used to build when we were kids. D’you remember that, Rhett? All the fires we built? You were always so good at it. I admired that about you. Course, I never told you. ‘Cause you don’t go sayin’ stuff like I admire you to your friends.” Link was far away. His eyes were unfocused, his mind on summer nights twenty-five years ago now. Rhett let him stay lost for a while. He left Link alone in the tent to build a fire, one that would make Link proud of him. He wanted to make Link smile, to dream of days far behind them. Anything to make Link stay with him, present and accounted for, instead of lost and scared in his own head.
When the fire was crackling, the sound cracking across the sand, Rhett poked his head inside the tent to find Link meditating. He sat with his head bowed and his hands palms up on his crossed knees, eyes closed and lips parted. Rhett didn’t mean to, but for a minute, he stared. Link was beautiful and Rhett loved him desperately. He couldn’t help himself. He wanted to kiss those pretty lips and touch those fragile hands. He wanted to break the spell and call Link back to him. But Link moved first. He cracked one eye open, catching Rhett in the act of ogling him.
“Hey,” Link said. “Fire ready?” His brow furrowed as Rhett stayed where he was in the door of the tent. “Earth to Rhett,” Link said.
“Sorry,” Rhett replied. “You’re just…”
Link interrupted Rhett’s attempt at a romantic, overly poetic declaration of love. “Cold,” he said. “I’m cold. Help me up.”
Rhett took Link by the hand to the roaring fire and sat down next to him in the sand. Link looked impossibly pretty in the orange light cast by the fire, beautiful despite the pallor of his cheeks and the circles under his eyes. He hugged his legs to his chest and stared into the flames. “’S’nice, Rhett,” Link said. “You did a good job. Thank you.”
Rhett nodded and held his hands out to warm them by the flickering flames. Link sat so close to Rhett that their shadows looked like a creature with two heads instead of those of two people.
“What I wouldn’t do for a couple’a marshmallows right now,” Link said. So he was still thinking of childhood, of all the camping trips he and Rhett made, surviving off of hot dogs and s’mores for whole weekends at a time. That was okay with Rhett. He was thinking about it too.
“Sorry,” he replied. “Next time I’ll bring some.”
“Mhm,” Link hummed. “Next time.” The space between them felt electric as the fire cracked and popped. Rhett wanted to touch and to hold, and it wasn’t long before Link looked over at him and saw it in his face. “Kiss me,” Link said. He leaned in, close to Rhett’s face, and Rhett closed the distance. The kiss was tender, sweet, Link’s lips soft and dry. When Link pulled away, Rhett kissed him again. The second kiss was more insistent, urgent; Link nipped at Rhett’s lips with sharp teeth until he hissed in pain. “Thank you for the fire,” Link breathed. “But I think there’s a better way to keep warm.”
“Put your hands on me, Rhett.”
It was cold in the tent, away from the heat of the fire. But Rhett freed Link from his shirt and felt blissfully warm the moment he touched hot skin. He lay Link on his back on their sleeping bags, pillowing Link’s head with one arm. Link mewled, biting at Rhett’s lips and rolling his hips. The soft noises of pleasure escaping Link were prettier than the vast expanse of stars outside. His hands were clumsy as he tugged Rhett’s shirt over his head, and Link gasped aloud as they lay chest to chest, legs slotted together.
Link’s hands on Rhett’s back were icy, but his mouth was warm. They shared kisses like prayers, passing desperate pleas through parted lips. Stay with me, Rhett prayed. Please, please stay with me. Link responded with his hands and Rhett heard him loud and clear.
I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.
Link was shivering but he allowed Rhett the luxury of skin against skin. Rhett was in his underwear and then nothing at all, and Link tossed his head back and groaned as Rhett dug graceless fingers into the button on his jeans. God, it was cold, but all Rhett wanted was Link and his perfect, lithe body and its wonderful, sublime nakedness. Link squirmed as Rhett attacked, biting, licking, and nipping his way down the sweet slope of Link’s neck. Both of Link’s trembling hands were buried in Rhett’s hair and his hips were bucking up, Link’s body twitching restlessly in an attempt to get closer to Rhett.
“Baby…” Rhett breathed into Link’s sternum. “Shh, baby, we have time.” They didn’t; they had no time at all. But Rhett wanted this to last and he wanted to make Link feel good for as long as he possibly could. He bit at Link’s chest, tasting salt, and Link writhed beneath him. Rhett used his teeth all the way down, reveling in the soft, pained whines spilling from Link’s open mouth. I love you, Rhett said with his tongue on Link’s skin. I’m gonna spend the rest of my life loving you. It was something he had said before but something he didn’t say enough. Later, he would tell Link, just to remind him. For the moment, Rhett satisfied himself by writing it on Link’s hip with his tongue.
Love you forever.
Rhett nuzzled Link’s warm thighs just to make him moan. His beard scratched sensitive skin and Link hummed in quiet bliss. As Rhett worked at Link’s thighs with his hands and his mouth, slowly they fell open. Rhett took Link’s open legs as an invitation. He slid his arms up under Link’s ass to prop him up, and when Link realized where Rhett was going, he dropped one hand into Rhett’s hair.
Rhett paused. “May I?” he asked.
Link looked down at him in wonder, ankles crossing at the small of Rhett’s back. As he held Rhett captive with his legs around him, Link nodded. “You may.”
He stopped talking once Rhett spread his cheeks with careful hands. Rhett marveled for a moment at the man before him, the man who gave all of himself to Rhett again and again. Something like this, something easy and sweet, was all Rhett could do to thank him. Link reacted beautifully as Rhett began to move. He worked Link open with his tongue, awed equally by the noises Link made and the sweet taste of him. Maybe, if Rhett could keep surprising him with things that were wonderful and new, Link wouldn’t leave him. Maybe, promised new experiences and memories, Link would stay.
Link fisted Rhett’s hair in both hands as Rhett tasted him, mapping out new territory with his lips and his tongue. The happy, heady sighs that slipped from Link were like poetry, like music. Each was gift enough for Rhett, who would be happy to die right here, buried between Link’s thighs. But Link took hold of him by the shoulders, desperate, and Rhett surged up to present Link with the taste of himself. As they kissed, Link sighed, his tongue in Rhett’s mouth and both hands seeking heat down Rhett’s torso. When he found what he was looking for, he began to stroke, breathing hard against Rhett’s lips.
“Rhett,” Link sighed.
“Make me forget everything except your name.”
And Rhett didn’t want Link to forget a thing; he wanted Link to remember. But Rhett did as he was told. He kissed Link like it was his last night on earth, like he was never going to get to taste his lips again. (That day would come, but it was not this night.) Link writhed beneath him, pretty and graceful and lithe, hands everywhere and mouth insistent. He tasted sweet, like unspoken declarations of awe: I’m yours and you’re mine and I can’t believe I get to touch this body. Rhett heard everything Link wanted to say without him having to say it. In perfect rhythm, they moved together.
The world outside of Link’s breathy, heated whimperings ceased to exist. As Rhett sank into him, moaning at the heat of Link’s body, nothing mattered but skin against skin. Nothing mattered but Link’s teeth on Rhett’s shoulder and his fingernails leaving marks on either sides of his spine. Rhett was slow and gentle, careful, like Link might break. But he got tired of it and his impatience made him irate; Link broke the skin on Rhett’s back with his nails and told Rhett all he needed to know. Link wanted more.
Rhett was not going to deny Link anything.
He moved faster, deeper, Link’s mouth falling open as Rhett held on tight to his hips. He couldn’t help himself; he told Link he was beautiful. “Shuddup,” Link replied, eyes closed, eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks. “Just…just like that. God, just like that.” He sighed, chest heaving, stomach taut, reveling in the feeling of Rhett pumping inside of him. His mouth was raw and red from Rhett’s beard and his chest was flushed, every part of him pink and warm and pretty. Impatience overtook Link again as Rhett paused to worship his sweat-sticky chest, lapping and biting at rosy red nipples.
“God, Rhett, cut it out,” Link sighed. “Stop makin’ love to me and start fucking me.”
The heat in Link’s voice almost tipped Rhett right over the edge of oblivion. But he held on, clinging to Link and clinging to the sound of Link crying out his name. He lost himself in Link’s body. It was all Rhett could do to keep from saying all the things Link didn’t want to hear: you’re beautiful, you’re stunning, I love you, you’re mine, you’re mine, you’re mine. Instead, Rhett said something that made Link smile and preen like a proud tomcat, pointed teeth gleaming. “God, you’re so hot like this, Link,” he said. And it was true.
“I’m what?” Link asked. His body rocked as Rhett thrust within him, keeping his climax at bay by sheer force of will. He wasn’t ready for this to be over. Not yet.
Rhett knew exactly what Link wanted to hear. “You’re so fucking hot, Link. So gorgeous.” He started to babble, helpless under the weight of Link’s beauty. “So perfect,” he breathed. “My beautiful Link, so pretty…”
“Rhett!” Link laughed, because he always laughed, reeling Rhett in when he needed it. “Don’t be romantic! Stop bein’ sweet! Fuck me, Rhett, like you mean it! God, just take me! I need…” Despite every word spilling from his lips, Link said one thing entirely romantic and sweet. “I need to be yours.”
“You’ve always been mine,” Rhett replied, and before Link could scoff, could scold, could insist, Rhett picked up speed. He held Link down by his hips as he tried to buck, trying to meet Rhett’s thrusts with his own. As Link moved beneath him, flushed cock on proud display, Rhett leaned in close to his ear to make him shiver. What he said next made Link go utterly boneless. “And don’t you forget it.”
“No, never,” Link promised, but Rhett took the words from his lips with a desperate kiss and a desperate tongue. Link stopped trying to speak after that.
Crying Link’s name against his lips, Rhett didn’t last much longer.
“That’s it, baby, that’s it,” Link cooed, coaxing Rhett to climax. “That’s it, honey, that’s it, sweetheart.” He forgot about fucking and he forgot about roughness, stealing terms of endearment off the tip of Rhett’s tongue. “Come inside me, baby, I need to feel you come inside me.” He sighed, head tipped far back, giving Rhett the most beautiful view of a long, pale neck marred by teeth marks and love bites. Mine, each mark said. Mine, mine, mine.
When Rhett came, he came hard, eyes closing, body betraying him. He collapsed on top of Link as he spilled inside him, and Link made a soft noise of happy surprise.
“Oh!” he chirped. “Hey, baby, hey.” He stroked Rhett’s hair with restless fingers as he recovered, shivering through the aftermath of his orgasm. “Hey, baby, hey, I love you. Rhett, hey. God, I love you.”
He stopped talking when Rhett fought his way back up to his elbows and slowly pulled out, Link’s eyes closing in ecstasy at the sensation. By the time he opened them again, Rhett’s mouth was on him, seeking salt and soft skin. He bit at Link’s thighs and lapped at the insides, his stomach doing strange, blissful somersaults at the sight of his seed dripping from Link’s hole. Link rolled his hips and dug his fingers into Rhett’s scalp.
It hurt, and Rhett was going to remember the sharp, wonderful pain for the rest of his life.
Rhett pressed wet, messy kisses into Link’s hips, his thighs, his ribs, and his taut, twitching stomach until Link begged him to stop. “Just put your mouth on me, Rhett,” he sighed. “Please, God, I need your mouth on me.”
Link’s pleading took Rhett’s breath away. He fought to keep his voice calm and sure as he kissed Link’s navel and said, “Whaddya call this, huh?”
“Rhett! Oh, Rhett, you know what I mean!”
“Yeah,” Rhett breathed. “I think I do.” When Rhett kissed the glistening tip of Link’s cock just to taste him, Link swore and hissed Rhett’s name. When Rhett took Link into his mouth as deeply as he could, Link did it again. It was the sweetest sound Rhett had ever heard. As Rhett moved, Link babbled, and it wasn’t long before he began to keen.
“Oh God, Rhett, I love you. God, Rhett, I’m gonna…I’m…” Link’s voice trailed off into a wordless, beautiful moan as his muscles tightened, his fingers opened and closed, and he spilled hotly across Rhett’s tongue. “God, Rhett, God,” Link sighed, eyes screwed up tight and mouth beautifully slack and reddened. Rhett reveled in the taste of Link all over his mouth for a long moment before swallowing. When he did, releasing Link to wipe his mouth with the back of one hand, Link’s eyes opened. “Oh, honey,” Link breathed. “You got a little…” He raised one hand to swipe his own seed from Rhett’s chin, his hand lingering on Rhett’s face. A quiet, awed gasp escaped him when Rhett captured his hand to lap the mess from his fingertips. “God,” Link said.
“You keep saying that like He’s here,” Rhett replied. He cradled Link’s hand between both of his own, pressing soft kisses to the pads of his fingers. Link watched him with bleary eyes.
“I didn’t think He was,” Link said, “until you kissed me and reminded me.”
So Link saw God in Rhett. What was the trouble with that? Rhett might not have been much into the idea of a higher power anymore, but he sure as hell felt like he could be again every time Link touched him. Maybe that was all that God was, anyway: gentle hands, reverent cries, and love laid out in crystal clear eyes. Rhett wasn’t sure, but he was sure that as long as Link loved him, it didn’t matter what existed beyond the realm of Link’s love.
The night wore on, and as Rhett began to yawn, Link held him. Rhett curled up at Link’s side, tucked under his arm, one hand splayed over his chest. Rarely did Rhett get to be held; he was used to a lifetime of being the one to do the holding. But he felt safe in Link’s arms as Link trailed lazy fingertips along his bicep. Link’s lips were in his hair and Link’s heart thrummed under Rhett’s hand. It was too cold in the desert to be naked, but Rhett couldn’t bring himself to get dressed. The stickiness of Link’s bare chest and the scent of his skin were not things Rhett was willing to give up.
He feared moving an inch would cause an avalanche. He feared that drifting off in Link’s arms would be to lose him forever. It was a fear that wouldn’t leave Rhett alone. Long after he and Link quit talking and focused on idle drags of idle fingers instead, Rhett was still wide awake.
“Sleep, Rhett,” Link whispered into his temple. “I love you, go to sleep.”
“What if when I wake up, you’re gone?”
For a moment, Link stiffened. He knew just as well as Rhett that his mind was just another dam waiting to be broken, right along with Rhett’s battered but still beating heart. “Then do me a favor,” Link replied in the end.
“Love me anyway.”
“Even if I don’t know you’re there. Even if I’m really gone. I need you to keep on lovin’ me, Rhett, b’cause you’ve loved me your whole life. You’re not allowed to stop now just b’cause I’m not all there. Do you hear me? You don’t have permission to stop lovin’ me, even for a second. I won’t allow it. It wouldn’t be fair of you to quit on me when I…when my family needs you most. Okay? Can you do that for me?”
“Yes,” Rhett replied. “Yeah, Link, no problem.” He was short with Link to keep the tears in his throat from bubbling to the surface. If he cried, Link would follow, and Rhett had seen him cry enough tears for a lifetime.
“Rhett,” came Link’s small, weary voice.
“I’m not ready for this.”
“Oh, Link, you…”
“Dyin’. Leaving everyone behind. All the shit I’m leaving undone. It’s not fuckin’ fair, Rhett. I’m not ready. I’m scared. And all I can do is beg you to keep loving me, and I wish I had more time to say all the things I shoulda been sayin’ my whole life.”
Rhett thought about letting it go. He thought about not asking, sure he didn’t want to know, but his mouth opened and he spoke, unable to keep the question from spilling out. “You have time now, Link. Why don’t you say it all now?”
Link paused. He dug his fingertips into Rhett’s shoulder and his lips to Rhett’s hair, pressing a kiss there that lingered. “I love you,” he replied, like he wanted to taste every word. “I love you desperately and I wish I had told you. Twenty friggin’ years ago, I should have told you. And it’s okay, b’cause I still got to spend my life with you. But I can’t help but feel like we missed out on so much. I know it’s selfish of me to…to devote so much of me to you when my family needs me. Hell, I need them too. I can’t tell you how horrifying it is to know I won’t ever see my kids grow up…that my wife is gonna have to try and take care of them on her own.”
Rhett tried to tell Link he would be there, he would never, ever leave them, and as long as Rhett was alive, Link didn’t have to worry. But Link hushed him.
“I know,” he said. “And thank you. I won’t ever be able to repay you for everything you’re promising me. But they’re mine, Rhett, and what if they forget? What if they don’t remember me? God, I don’t tell them how much they mean to me enough. I don’t say I love you as much as I should. Do they even know how much I love them?”
“God, of course they know.”
“And there might be another man someday, and that’s fine. ‘S’long as they’re happy, who’m I to wish for them not to have it? But there might be someone new and I just want them to know that I did everything I could to make their lives the happiest and best they could be. And I know I wasn’t always the best dad, or husband, or friend, and I know I’m angry and bitter and hard to love, but, God. I need you to love me, now and for the rest of your life. If I know you do, I can let go easier. You hear me, Rhett? I’ve never been so goddamn scared in my life, but as long as I have you on my side, I’ll be okay.”
“Shut up.” Link surged up to kiss Rhett savagely, his tongue plundering Rhett’s mouth. “God, I love you. Love me too.”
“I do, baby,” Rhett said into the kiss that yanked his heart from his chest. “I do.”
Link kissed Rhett breathless and then kissed him some more. He was good as the night wore on, closer to himself than he had been in months. He nuzzled close to Rhett as he faded in and out of sleep, whispering sweet things every time Rhett stirred. Link was good, soft and sweet and warm.
He was never quite as good again.
Rhett knocked on Link’s front door for the first time in his life. He passed fresh flowers to Christy and smiled as she brought them to her nose. “Like ‘em?” he asked.
“They’re beautiful,” she replied. She dumped the flowers he had bought her last week into the trash and tucked the new bouquet into the same vase. Half a dozen times and they had perfected their routine: Rhett brought flowers, Christy told him they were wonderful, and she left them in a vase without water to die. Rhett didn’t ask her why. He knew. He followed Christy to her bedroom where Link lay, sheets tucked up to his chin. He had been in his bed for weeks, not moving much, only showing life by the rising and falling of his chest. His glasses sat on the nightstand, unfolded like Link might have picked them up at any moment and pushed them up the slope of his nose.
He hadn’t moved in weeks, but his eyes followed Rhett as he pulled up a rocking chair to Link’s bedside.
“Hey, Link,” Rhett said. Link didn’t pull his hand away when Rhett took it in both his own. Rhett took that as a good sign. Some days Link didn’t know him. Some days Link was scared of him. Those days were the worst. But as Rhett held onto Link’s cool, limp hand, Link’s lips twitched up into a contented smile. “How’re you doing today?”
“’M very tired,” Link replied. His voice had taken on a new low rumble, scratchy from disuse. But he looked happy, blue eyes sparkling in the meager light offered by his bedside lamp. The curtains were drawn as if Christy was hiding Link away. Rhett didn’t dare open them. She was prone to erupting, to screaming, to breaking things, and he did his best to keep her from falling apart. It wasn’t good enough, but he did what he could.
She had told Rhett it was time for him to stay. She couldn’t bear to be alone and she needed him; she had grimaced as she said it. But the admission was enough for Rhett. He had a bag in the back of his car, ready to stay until the end. He had kissed his kids and Jessie goodbye that morning with a promise to come around when he could. Jessie had looked up at him with tears in her eyes and told him she wouldn’t hold him to that. “Stay with him as long as he needs you, baby,” she had said. “Don’t you dare leave him for a second if he wants you there. We’ll still be here when it’s you doin’ the needing.”
Rhett had cried the entire way to Link’s house but his eyes were dry by the time Christy opened the door for him.
“I know, honey,” Rhett replied. He drew Link’s hand to his mouth and kissed his knuckles, one after the other. Link’s smile twitched again, lopsided and wonky. It looked beautiful on him. “What can I do to make it better?”
“Mmm,” Link replied. His eyes slipped closed and a thrill went through Rhett as he imagined miracles. (Link falling asleep, Link waking up better than he had been all year. Link closing his eyes and keeping them closed for days if he had to, as long as he woke up healed.) But his eyes opened again and he said, “Can I have my glasses?”
“Sure,” Rhett replied. He picked Link’s glasses off the nightstand and slid them up the bridge of his nose, putting them in place. The smile he received for the simple task was the best reward he could have gotten.
“Thank you,” Link said. “I can see better with ‘em, yanno. ‘M not gonna fall asleep. I don’t need them off my face.”
“I know,” Rhett replied. “I’m sorry. I’ll let you keep them from now on. Okay?”
“Mhm,” Link agreed. “Thank you.” He settled into his pillows and smiled lazily up at Rhett. “You’re beautiful,” he said. “You say it t’me all the time, dontcha? But you are too. Beautiful. I love lookin’ at your face. Lemme…come here.” Link didn’t give Rhett time to reply. His head spun as he leaned close to Link’s reaching hand. Link buried his fingers in Rhett’s beard, his thumb stroking Rhett’s cheek. “My baby…” Link sighed. As Rhett nuzzled into the touch, Link’s hand cold on his face, he marveled at the sweetness in Link’s eyes. It still burned bright, the devotion, the loyalty, the fierce and almost painful love. All of it was still there.
No matter how Link worsened, Rhett could always see it.
“Yeah, yours,” Rhett agreed. He held Link’s hand to his face and kept him captive there.
“Forever, yeah?” Link asked.
“Yes, Link,” Rhett replied. “Of course.”
“While I have you, can I tell you something important?”
“Huh? Yeah, yeah. What is it?” Link’s eyes were sharp as they focused on Rhett, pinpoint pupils giving him an intensity that served to make him shine.
“You’re everything to me.”
“Don’t say that.”
“’Cause I’m leavin’ you, baby. If you lose everything, how’re you gonna keep going?” His smile turned impish as he tried to tease through the same conversation they had time and time again, his fingers shaky as they curled around Rhett’s jaw. “You’ve always been everything to me. Guess I get lucky. I don’t hafta lose you.”
“Lucky,” Rhett scoffed.
“I used to worry all the time about what I’d do if I outlived you.”
“I thought I’d die if you did.”
“I know I’m bein’ a jerk, but God, ‘m glad I don’t have to find out.”
“Link.” Rhett leaned in and kissed Link’s face, tasting salt on his skin.
“Rhett,” Link replied. It felt good to hear Link say his name to make up for all the times he didn’t quite know it. Rhett kissed him again, right under his eye. “Rhett. Don’t make it so hard!”
“Make what hard?” Rhett asked, tickling Link’s face with his beard.
Laughing and lovely, Link said, “Leaving you.”
Rhett froze with his lips on Link’s forehead. Link buried a hand in his hair and held him still. “Hey,” Rhett said. “I have an idea.”
“Don’t leave, then.”
“Oh, baby,” Link replied, fingers flexing in Rhett’s hair. And that was all. Rhett fell asleep in his chair with his head on Link’s bed, using his own arms as a pillow. Christy woke him up and set him up on the sofa with a quilt and a cold glass of water. Instead of going to bed when Rhett thanked her, she sat on the couch at his side and drew him into her arms.
“I think a part of me always knew you’d be taking him from me,” she said. Rhett held her as tight as he dared, not daring to reply. “He wishes it was you sleepin’ next to him.” She sighed, warm in Rhett’s arms, and there was nothing he could say to make it better. No refuting it, no telling her she was wrong. Because Rhett heard it, the way Link whimpered his name as he dragged himself out of his own head. He loved his wife more than life and his kids just the same, but Rhett was his oldest memory. Rhett was in every corner of his battered and bruised mind. It wasn’t Link’s fault that when he fought against his failing memory, it was Rhett that his brain clung to. It wasn’t Rhett’s fault either. But Christy had every right to be upset, to be furious, and as she told Rhett she hated him, he took it. He took it every time.
It never got easier, but he took it just the same.
By November, Link had beaten the odds. The eighteen month life span he was given came and went. He was happy and aware with decreasing frequency, but he was alive. He was alive, still with Rhett, still his Link. He was gorgeous even in his fragility, his frailness, his pallor. He was still the bravest man Rhett had ever known.
One evening, he asked to go downstairs to spend some time in the living room with his family, tired of the silence of his room. Rhett gave him what he wanted. Rhett carried him down the stairs, Link clinging to his neck and pressing dry lips to his throat in tired almost-kisses. Link’s wife and children sat playing cards around the coffee table, gathered on the floor.
“Hey, Dad,” Lily said as she pondered her cards. “Wanna play?”
“No thank you, Lil,” Link replied. Rhett set him down on the sofa and took care wrapping him in a blanket, tucking it tight around him. Link thanked him and held the blanket under his chin with one hand as Rhett plunked down at his side. Slowly, Link tipped towards him until he rested on Rhett’s shoulder. “What’re you playin’?” Link asked.
Lily laughed and gave her head a disparaging little shake before replying. “We were playing Crazy Eights, but Lando started making up his own rules. I dunno what we’re playing now, but it’s fun.”
“My rules make it funner!” Lando chirped at her side. “I was bored, so-o-orry!”
As the kids bickered and Christy tried to control them to no avail, Link began to laugh. He chuckled into Rhett’s shoulder, mouth warm through Rhett’s T-shirt. It wasn’t long before Rhett was laughing, too. Christy gave them a wary look, brow furrowed, but the dizzying, nonsensical laughter proved contagious. She looked better than she had in weeks as she covered her mouth with one hand to laugh into her palm.
“All right, all right,” Lily said. “Just ‘cause I’m winning, it doesn’t mean you get to stall the game!” She won the hand and then the next, and she shuffled the deck with careful hands as her brothers grumbled and left the room in search of something else to do.
Later, Christy sat on the sofa with Link’s head in her lap as Rhett curled up on the floor. He played War with Lily and listened as she told him all about the book she was reading. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Christy stroke Link’s hair. For his part, Link watched Rhett. He nuzzled into Christy’s gentle touch, making soft noises of protest every time her hand slowed. As much as Rhett wanted to be the only one to touch Link like that, it was a terrible, selfish want and he didn’t let himself want it for long.
Christy nodded off sitting up on the couch. Rhett rose to try and wake her but thought better of it when he took in the startling purple rings under her eyes.
“Let her sleep,” Lily said from behind Rhett. “She doesn’t sleep much.”
“My sweet girls,” Link mumbled. Christy’s limp hand was still lying flat on his chest as he lay stretched out on his back. He pressed his hand over Christy’s, running his fingertips across her knuckles. “I love you so much.” It didn’t matter who Link was talking to. He loved all of them, and regardless of his intent, it was good to have the reminder.
“I love you very much, Dad,” Lily said. “We’re not that sweet, though.”
“Sweet enough for me.” Link picked up his wife’s hand and kissed it. Only then did Christy stir. “Hey,” Link whispered into the back of her hand. “Go to bed.” In reply, still pulling herself out of sleep, Christy shook her head.
“Staying with you,” she said.
Link didn’t put up a fight. He stayed where he was and so did his wife. His only daughter kept playing cards with Rhett, staying up well past midnight as Rhett’s back began to ache from leaning over the coffee table. He ignored the pain in favor of letting Lily beat him in every game they played. He ignored the pain to lie on the floor with Lily as she began to yawn, and he ignored the pain to fall asleep on the carpet. When he woke up, Christy was sleeping on the couch with Link’s blanket tossed over her. It took Rhett a moment to locate Link once he got his gummy eyes to open. Link was sitting on the floor by Christy’s feet with Lily curled up against his side. Rhett made to speak up and tell Lily she should go to bed, but the sound of Link’s voice stopped him. Instead of speaking, Rhett listened.
“No, Lil, he’s gonna take good care of you. He promised. Don’t cry. There’s no point in crying. You won’t ever want for anything, okay?”
Lily’s teary reply broke Rhett’s heart. “But Daddy, he won’t be you.”
Link clicked his tongue and held Lily tighter until she squeaked. “And you say you’re not sweet,” he said.
“Daddy, it isn’t fair.”
“I know, Lil. Hey, don’t cry. I know.”
“You don’t know!” she burst out. In so many ways she had always been just like her father: sharp as a whip, funny and warm. And she was Link’s daughter through and through as anger made her harsh. “You have no idea, ‘cause you’re the one leaving us! You won’t ever be left!”
“I don’t want Rhett to take care of us. I’ll do it. I’ll take care of Mom, and Lincoln and Lando, and everything. I don’t want him thinking he has to be my dad. ‘Cause he doesn’t. I have one already.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re dead,” Lily punched out. “You’re still gonna be my dad forever. Why’re you trying to give me a new one?”
“Oh, Lil.” Link gave up on talking for a while, instead rocking Lily gently and pressing a kiss into her hair. When he propped his chin on the top of her head, he caught Rhett watching them from where he lay. Link furrowed his brow, smiled, and winked. “You’re way too good for Rhett, anyway,” Link said. “I’d never let him take my place.” He held onto his daughter and his smile for one beat more before letting both of them go. Somberly, he told her, “He just wants to protect you. Not replace me. Okay?”
“I don’t need him to protect me. I need you.” She punched out each word and Rhett didn’t blame her. Link kept his eyes trained on Rhett as he replied.
“He’s gonna be there for you whether you like it or not, sweeptea,” Link said. “I wouldn’t push him away if I were you. He has the best stories about me. Just imagine all the things I never let him tell you! You’ll be learnin’ new things about your daddy for the rest of your life.” Link’s eyes shone with tears as Lily started to cry in his arms. And no one protested when Rhett got up, sat down on Lily’s other side, and shared the moment with them. It was a stupid, selfish thing to do, but he and Link were both experts at taking things that were not theirs. They had both perfected the art of selfishness over the course of a year and a half spent losing everything.
For now, what the hell was wrong with that?
When Christy jolted awake and sat up fast, Rhett took his cue to let Link spend time alone with his family. What he didn’t expect was for Lily to follow him out to the front porch and sit down hard beside him.
“You heard everything we said,” she began, her jaw set tight. “Didn’t you?”
Minutely, Rhett nodded. There was a lot of power in Lily, too much anger for such a compact body. Rhett understood, and he was never going to tell her not to be angry. (She looked more like her daddy when her stubborn streak tightened her face, anyway.) All Rhett did was wind an arm around her shoulders and let her cry.
“You will then, won’t you?” she sniffled, impossibly small under Rhett’s arm. He had held her as a baby and he had watched her grow, marveling at her size, but now, as a teenager, she once again felt fragile and small.
“Tell me stories. All of them. Everything he did, and stories about things we did together that I don’t remember. Please.”
“Of course, Lily. I would love to.”
“I wanna know every stupid thing he did and every time he made you laugh.”
“That’ll take a lifetime, Lil.”
“I know. I hear him, you know. He asked you to give everything you can to us. I expect you to hold to that.”
Rhett held back a laugh that threatened to rumble unbidden from his mouth. She was a spitting image of her mother, but she was Link’s daughter to the bone. He didn’t tell her so. She knew.
Rhett and Lily watched the sunrise, side by side, and that was how Christy found them. She didn’t say a word. As the sun freed itself from the horizon and beat down on the earth, Rhett took a deep breath that seemed to shake within him. Everything seemed to shake loose within him the longer each day stretched out across the horizon.
The end was coming, and neither Rhett nor the girls sitting at his side were ever going to be ready for it. And he was expected to be the strong one, the one to take care of them, the one to be stoic and brave as his world fell apart. How the hell was he going to do that? How the hell could Link expect so much of him? Rhett would never ask so much of Link, not if it was him. Because he knew what losing one another meant: it meant losing everything.
How was Rhett expected to recover from that?
Christmas was hard. For the first time in their lives, they did not return home for the holidays. Link was too frail, hardly able to make his way downstairs without help. Rhett would never forget the way Link’s mother wailed over the phone when it sunk in that her only son was never coming home again.
On Christmas morning, Link was listless. This year, Rhett had helped Christy do all the shopping. Link had tried valiantly to help wrap his kids’ presents but his shaky hands had proved too treacherous and unsure. As the kids ripped into the carefully wrapped gifts, Link sat in silence, burrowed deep into a blanket and a hoody. The hood was tossed over his head to keep him warm. It served as a barrier between Link and his family, and it hurt Rhett’s heart to watch him separate himself.
He took a break from helping Christy hand out presents to sit down at Link’s side. Almost like he was waiting for it, Link leaned in and rested his head on Rhett’s shoulder. “Didn’t get you anything,” Link whispered, turning his head to press his lips to Rhett’s bicep.
“That’s okay, honey,” Rhett whispered back. “You’re here. That’s all I wanted.”
Later, Rhett carried Link to bed as Christy cleaned up from dinner. When Rhett set Link down, Link dragged him close by the front of his shirt. The kiss Link gave him was startling in its ferocity, Link’s tongue slipping between Rhett’s lips to meet his. Rhett sank to the mattress and sank into the kiss, his hands finding Link’s cheeks and cupping them carefully.
“I love you, I love you, I love you so much,” Link babbled into the messy kiss. “I love you, I love you, Merry Christmas, I love you.”
“God, Link, I love you too.”
“Their faces, Rhett. They know. They know it can’t be much longer. What’m I gonna do?”
Rhett had no answer for that. He kissed Link over and over, leaving his mouth to press kisses into the side of Link’s throat, his chin, his ears. Link tipped his head back to receive each gentle kiss, his hands buried in Rhett’s hair.
“Thank you for lovin’ me,” Link said, breathless, panting into Rhett’s open mouth. “All my life, thank you for lovin’ me. It was…God.” Link pressed his forehead to Rhett’s, eyes so intense they burned. “God, Rhett, it was a life well lived. We did so much good, Rhett. Didn’t we? We did so many things right.”
“Yeah, baby,” Rhett replied. He choked on tears but didn’t try to hold them back. Link’s eyes were wet, too. “We really did.”
“Don’t forget,” Link breathed. He kissed Rhett’s lips and pulled away just enough to let him breathe.
“Don’t forget what?”
Link’s voice dipped into a whisper as he spoke, urgent and low. “I’ll be waiting for you. Just make sure you take a good long while to join me, okay?”
When Rhett started to really cry, tears slipping down his cheeks, Link kissed them away until tears overtook him, too. After that, all they did was cry for a while. What else could they do?
If Rhett had known just how close they were to the end, he might have held onto Link for longer. But he was tired and he was scared, and the panic edging black into the corners of his vision left him running for his life. He kissed Link on the forehead and breathed him in, the same scent he had cherished his whole life. Later, he would commit himself to memorizing the smell of Link’s hair, of his clothes, of his skin. Rhett would spend far too long pressing Link’s T-shirts to his nose just to remember.
But for the moment, he had the real thing. For now, Link was still here.
“I love you,” Rhett said.
“I know,” Link replied. He grinned wickedly as Rhett kissed him again. Rhett would take any reply. The sound of Link’s voice was just as good as getting an I love you in return. He cherished everything he got from Link, be it sarcasm or impishness or sappy, poetic utterances.
With the days slipping away, Rhett would take anything. He took a kiss and then another, and then he took Link’s hands. They were slight and cold, blue veins prominent and stark against white skin. But they were Link’s hands, the same hands that used to steer an old pickup. The same hands that held Rhett’s children, and the same hands that could have moved mountains. It didn’t matter that they were fragile and shaky now. Those hands did great things. Rhett kissed each of Link’s knuckles to remind him just how great those things were.
Link only stopped him to kiss him senseless. What the hell did Rhett need senses for, anyway? He didn’t need anything else but Link. Each kiss brought them closer to the last, but Rhett didn’t allow himself to dwell on the inevitability of something so bleak. Counting down would get him nowhere. Instead, he counted each twitch of Link’s fingers against the sides of his face. Link’s hands in his beard was the memory Rhett would revisit most.
If he had known that, he would have made the moment last forever. But he didn’t know, and he didn’t stay, and when he went back downstairs and joined Christy in the kitchen, he didn’t say a word. If Christy saw the redness Link’s frantic kisses had brought to his mouth, she didn’t mention it. Rhett was grateful.
He went home and he spent some time with his own family. It was almost strange to be with them after hiding away in a different world with Link for so long. But they welcomed him with hugs and kisses and he tried to be the best he could be.
Jessie didn’t blame him for his wandering mind. “Thank you for loving us,” she said, kissing him on the cheek as she got ready for bed. Rhett wished desperately his love wasn’t the only thing he could give. “But they need you, baby. I want you to be there if that’s where your heart is.”
“Jess,” he replied when she tried to pull away. He reeled her back in until she was pressed flush to him, one arm wrapped around his waist.
“What?” she asked.
“My heart’s in a place where none of this is real. What’m I supposed to do with that?”
The sympathetic look she gave him made it easier to leave again.
By the time he returned to the Neal’s, the house was silent. Everyone was asleep, the lights off, the quiet oppressive and cold. Everyone was asleep, of course, except for Link. Rhett made himself comfortable on the couch and looked up to the ceiling, imaging Link lying in bed above him. Link must have heard him come in. Maybe Link was comforted by his presence. Maybe he was smiling, almost happy to know Rhett was just downstairs and Rhett was not going anywhere. Maybe he was asleep, and Rhett’s wish had come true, dimensions shifting to give him a world where Link was going to follow him to the end of the line.
Useless thoughts such as those chased Rhett to the edge of sleep and followed him into his dreams.
Chapter 5: V
Link made it to another year. January bloomed bright and cloudless as Link began to fade. It wasn’t Christy who told Rhett to stay close once New Year’s came and went. It was Link.
“’M slipping,” he said, calling Rhett on one of his rare stops at home. “Need you.” It was all he had to say. In minutes, Rhett was there at his bedside, holding one of Link’s hands in both his own. Christy hovered closely behind Rhett. He could hear her crying before he started to feel teardrops pattering onto his shoulder through his T-shirt.
“Hey, can you squeeze my hand for me?” Rhett asked of Link. It took a moment, but Link obliged. “Hey, thanks. I just wanted to make sure you were in there.”
“Mhm,” Link hummed. “’M here.” He blinked up at Rhett, his eyes cloudy and far away. What does he see when he looks at me? Rhett let himself wonder. Because when Rhett looked at Link, he didn’t see the illness that carried him away. He saw the same beautiful boy Link had always been. Did Link see the years behind Rhett’s eyes? Rhett tried to make sure they were visible, all the things the two of them had seen together, but Link was too bleary-eyed to see.
“Good,” Rhett stayed. “You stay, all right?”
“Mhm,” Link hummed again. “Yeah.” His eyes slid to his wife, one corner of his mouth lifting up before falling back down. “Don’t cry, Chris. I’m here, aren’t I? I love you,” he said. “Don’t be sad, I love you.” Christy didn’t reply. She choked on her tears and that was reply enough for Link. He looked at Rhett, eyes focusing and going unfocused again like faulty camera lenses. “Rhett, I’m here,” Link said. “God, I’m here, and I don’t wanna leave again.”
“Then don’t,” Rhett insisted.
“Okay,” Link agreed. He nodded once and then again, making up his mind. “For you, and my kids, and for my wife. Sounds good. I’ll stay. Help me up. I got more things to do.” He smiled when Rhett broke, a sad little smile that still looked damn good on him. Link wiggled his hand out of Rhett’s to brush tears back from his cheeks. “Don’t you cry, either,” he said, stern, voice strong. “I mean it. Be brave for my family, man. ‘M countin’ on you.”
“I know,” Rhett replied. Still, it was impossible. Link must have known that. He didn’t hold it against Rhett. When his hand found Rhett’s again, Rhett held on for dear life.
“Thank you,” Link said. He glanced over Rhett’s shoulder at his wife, fondness overcoming the fog in his eyes. But when they flicked back down to Rhett, they dimmed. When Link spoke again, he was as deathly serious as he was deathly calm. “I love you, Rhett,” Link said.
It would be the last coherent thing Link ever said. And Christy never quite forgave Rhett for that.
Link withdrew entirely into himself. He didn’t talk and he didn’t move. The only motion in his body was that of his chest expanding as he breathed and his eyes that roved restlessly over everything they landed on. He had trouble focusing on anything, but he still squeezed tight every time Rhett took his hand. That had to mean something, didn’t it? As much as it seemed otherwise, Link was still with Rhett. He was still present.
He smiled lazily when Rhett pressed kisses into his hair. That had to mean something. It had to.
Rhett refused to believe that Link was too far gone to know when he was there.
“He’s not listening,” Christy said as Rhett reminisced, telling Link stories from when they were kids. Without looking back at Christy, Rhett shook his head.
“He is,” he said. “He always listens to me. Even when he pretends not to.” As if to prove Rhett’s point, the limp fingers held tight in his flexed and tightened. “See?” Rhett said. “See, he’s here. He’s not leavin’ us yet.”
Christy clicked her tongue and walked away. It killed her to see Link fade. Rhett knew that. Still, it was agonizing to watch her give up on her husband. No matter how many times Rhett insisted Link was with them, Christy never believed it. She wrote Link off months ago. Rhett tried not to hold it against her.
Rhett didn’t do right by Link, either.
Link had asked him, long, long ago not to let his kids see him as he faded and dimmed. Rhett begged Christy to help him keep his word. She wouldn’t have it. She had told him, “They have every right to say goodbye to their dad, Rhett.” She had told him he was being selfish and there was no way in hell she was going to let Rhett keep her husband all to himself.
Rhett tried not to hold that against her.
When Christy walked away to make dinner for her family, Rhett kept on telling stories. He told Link about growing up (swimming in the river, basketball games, school dances) and he told Link about growing old (messed up shoulders and backs, new lines in their faces, the first discovery of gray hairs). Link never responded, but Rhett didn’t need him to. Link was listening. He always listened. Even when he was young and he wanted to be the one to speak, always talking over Rhett. Even then, he was listening.
Rhett was sure of it.
He wasn’t sure of a lot, but he knew one thing: Link would want stories to carry him over. And Rhett wasn’t going to stop telling them until over Link went. It was his duty to make Link happy; it had been his duty their whole lives. He wasn’t about to stop now. Not for anything.
Rhett talked. Link listened. And that was all Rhett had. It was all he could ask for.
Rhett talked, Link listened, and they clasped hands and held on tight.
It was all that Rhett could ask for.
“I’ll remember this forever, you know,” Rhett said to his best friend one January night. “The way you smile at me. I won’t ever forget it. I promise.” As if he wanted to give Rhett more to remember him by, Link’s tired smile widened. Christy was asleep on the couch downstairs and the kids had been tucked into bed hours ago. The world was just Rhett and Link and the stars outside Link’s bedroom window. The moon was their witness, hung high in the sky in the middle of the night.
Rhett paid the moon no mind. He only had eyes for the sun. He kissed Link’s forehead and kept his mouth on Link’s warm skin for a long moment. Link ran his hands idly up and down Rhett’s back as Rhett sat at his bedside. The motion was comforting, the ceaseless rhythm of Link’s fingers serving as a command: go to sleep.
“I wanna stay with you,” Rhett said, and the motion stopped. Link’s hands paused in their exploration of the notches of Rhett’s spine. Rhett kissed every inch of Link’s face and then pulled back just enough to see the wide, wide pupils of his eyes. “’M gonna be right here for you, okay?” Rhett said.
Slowly, Link nodded.
Rhett cried into Link’s hair, face buried in the unwashed, unkempt locks. Link smelled most like himself in the beautiful mess of his hair. Rhett breathed him in, spilling tears into the soft raven strands. He would have thought Link gone if it wasn’t for the hands that began to move again up and down Rhett’s back. Link was with him. Link might not have been present, his mind far away, but he was with Rhett. He touched Rhett as Rhett touched him. He breathed Rhett in as Rhett breathed his name.
There was time left. There was.
Link’s family flew across the country to say goodbye. Rhett left the house once Link’s father started to cry. It was something Rhett never thought he would see. He sat on the front porch with his head in his hands and cried himself dry. With tears seeping into his jeans, he didn’t hear the person making their way towards him until they flopped onto the porch at his side.
“Rhett,” a tiny voice said, and Rhett scrambled to pull himself together. Lando sat beside Rhett, his little hand landing on Rhett’s knee.
“Hey, buddy,” Rhett said. He sniffled and did his best to clear his voice, but Lando wasn’t a baby anymore. He knew that he had caught Rhett crying.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Rhett replied.
“Did my dad ask you not to cry, too? ‘Cause I haven’t been allowed to cry for a really long time and I don’t like it. Why’re you allowed?”
“Oh, hey,” Rhett replied. The little boy at his side scooted closer as Rhett draped an arm around him. “You can cry. He shouldn’t have told you not to. You can cry whenever you want to.”
“Are you sure?” Lando asks.
“Yeah, of course. I mean, look at me. I’m cryin’ with your whole family inside. Doesn’t that prove my point?” Before Rhett could finish his sentence, Lando had tears spilling down his cheeks. For a long time, Rhett held him close without saying anything. Lando cried into Rhett’s chest, Link’s baby in need of comfort that Link could no longer give.
As long as Rhett was alive, he was going to keep on giving all he could to the boy in his arms.
It wasn’t long before Lincoln and then Lily sought solace in the open air. Lincoln sat down between Rhett’s knees and Lily at Rhett’s side, all three kids leaning heavily on him. Rhett didn’t mind. The same comfort they took from him, he took from them. They were all going to miss the same man. They were all scared and feeling alone; they were all losing someone they loved. As long as they could share the same pain, maybe they could try to lessen it.
“Rhett,” Lily said, the first to speak after a long, long period of utter silence. “Can you tell us a story?”
“What kind of story?” Rhett asked.
“One where Dad took you on an adventure,” Lincoln said.
“Sure,” Rhett said. “I can do that.” And he told his story, one of a million, one where Link had an idea and Rhett followed him. The kids listened raptly and didn’t say a word. They had followed the same man their whole lives, and they knew what following Link meant. At the very least, it always meant a story to tell.
When Rhett finished the story, he told the kids they should head inside. “See if your mom needs anything,” he said, tickling Lincoln under the arms to get him to move.
“Are you staying out here?” Lily asked.
“Yeah,” Rhett replied. “This is your family’s time. I don’t wanna intrude on that.”
Lily thought for a moment, her lip between her teeth. “You are family,” she said. “Just as much as everyone else here.”
Truthfully, Rhett couldn’t argue with that. He let Lily take his hand and drag him to his feet, and he let Lando hang off his arm as he headed back inside. It was quiet in the house despite all the bodies there to make noise. Rhett couldn’t focus on anything; he couldn’t find a place to touch down. All he wanted was to touch Link and make sure he was still there, upstairs with his family hovering over him. But he didn’t. Instead, he sank to the living room sofa and let the quietness of the house seep into his bones.
He might as well get used to the quiet.
The part of him that was occupied by Link was getting quieter by the second. Sooner or later, the quiet hum of Link’s lifeline in Rhett’s heart was going to go silent. And with no soft noise like static in the back of his mind to remind him Link was there, what was Rhett going to listen to once Link was gone? The prospect was too painful to imagine.
Rhett hugged Link’s family goodbye. They all knew it would be the last time they saw Link alive and Rhett whole. Because of the finality and because she loved Rhett will all of her heart, Link’s mother held him for a long, long while. Not once did Rhett try to ease the pain by stepping away from her embrace. Instead, he told her he knew what she was feeling.
“You can’t possibly know,” she said, tears in her bright eyes. “Losing a child is not comparable to anything you’re about to lose.”
Rhett wanted to tell her how wrong she was, but with one kiss to Rhett’s cheek, she was gone.
He was left standing in her wake, wondering if the way he loved Link was going to be enough.
Rhett made damn sure Link knew how much he loved him. He sat at Link’s bedside and strummed at his guitar until Link smiled. And he kept playing: oldies, nonsense, and the songs that he and Link had written together. He played until his fingers hurt and he didn’t stop until they cracked and bled. After that, Link reached for him. Rhett didn’t have time to pull away, and his blood painted Link’s fingertips red. Link held on, anyway.
“Remember when we made a blood oath, Link?” Rhett asked. “God, that was a long time ago. But you remember. Dontcha?”
Link looked at him with wide eyes and didn’t say anything. Rhett didn’t expect him to. Instead, Link drew Rhett’s hand to his lips and held it there.
“What’re you doing, bo?” Rhett whispered. In reply, Link ghosted his lips across Rhett’s knuckles. “You must remember,” Rhett said. “If there’s a Heaven, baby, you’re goin’ there. And I hope it’s just me and you and the cows up there, the two of us together. Would you like that? To be young with me, forever?”
Link’s cerulean eyes locked on Rhett’s, brighter than Rhett ever expected to see again.
“Yeah,” Rhett said. “Yeah, I’d like that, too.” He knew Link well enough to know what he was saying with those sweet, faraway eyes. He knew what Link was trying to say with his lips, too, pressing at the back of Rhett’s hand. “Don’t worry,” Rhett said. “You wait for me in that pasture, you hear me? Sooner or later, I’ll be there too. And I don’t wanna get there to find you moved on without me. Can you do that for me, baby? Wait for me to catch up?” He bowed his head, the first to break eye contact. He squeezed his eyes shut. Link wasn’t going to answer him. Link never answered him.
The hands clasping Rhett’s tightened until it hurt. Rhett looked up to find Link frowning deeply at him, his eyes brimming with unshed tears.
“What is it?” Rhett asked. “Hey, don’t cry. What is it?”
“Wait,” Link replied. His voice was creaky from weeks of disuse, scratchy like an old record. “I’ll wait,” he said.
“God,” Rhett breathed. He leaned in close, close enough to count Link’s long eyelashes, and he brushed a kiss on Link’s forehead. Into his feverish skin, he whispered, “Thank you, baby. I promise I’ll meet you there.”
Link kissing Rhett’s knuckles was all the reply he needed. When Rhett sat back down, the hands clasping his slackened.
“Just count the stars until I get there, okay?” Rhett said. For all the strength that left Link’s fingers, Rhett answered with power of his own. He tightened his hand in Link’s until he could feel two heartbeats pounding in his fingertips. “I can’t wait to see you.”
It ended with a phone call at 3:43 in the morning.
“Jessie,” Rhett said. “Jess, I need you to come here now, please. He’s gone.”
Jessie came. She came with two sleepy boys and she left them in the car in the driveway. The buckle of her seatbelt cracked against her window as she dashed out of the car. She met Rhett in the driveway and she caught him just in time, taking his weight as he hit the ground on his knees. Her hands were in his hair and her lips at his ear, her voice steady as she held him.
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” she said. He wasn’t. He cried in her arms in the middle of the driveway, the headlights of his car burning against his closed eyes. “Hey, hey, breathe, baby, you’re okay.” Jessie kissed him over and over, everywhere she could. But it wasn’t enough.
Rhett’s boys were out of the car and in his arms all at once, two boys clambering to be the one to hold him. He did his best to hold onto both of them as his wife ran full-out across the dewy lawn. He heard Christy shriek and he heard Jessie kissing her, too, reminding her she wasn’t alone. Rhett had his boys in his arms and his face buried in Shepherd’s hair, the sound of Christy sobbing cutting through the night. And Rhett was crying too, crying hard, choking on it.
He couldn’t breathe but he didn’t much want to.
It was Lily who helped Rhett draw breath. Her voice, high and thin, cut across the lawn, and Rhett looked up to find her standing on the porch. “Rhett!” she shouted, hugging herself, her brothers peeking out from inside the house like ghosts. The tears in her eyes brought life back to Rhett’s body. He found his limbs and he beckoned, and three more bodies collided with his.
He could only hold so much in two arms, but they held onto each other.
Jessie’s voice broke as she cradled Christy, the two of them on their knees in the grass. As Jessie began to cry, Rhett closed his eyes.
If anyone is listening, take me somewhere where none of this is real. Rhett prayed because he didn’t know what else to do, but no one was there to hear it. No one had ever been there to hear it.
He prayed anyway, one more thing, one more request for the open sky. Keep him safe.
On a cold February morning, Rhett cried to the stars. His star was up there somewhere, and so was Link’s. The thought was not a comforting one. What the hell was the point of their stars being up there together if they couldn’t be together down here?
“Rhett,” Lily whispered, her hair in his mouth and her hands on his face. “Rhett, Rhett, tell me a story. Please.” Her tiny hands shook on his face and her teary eyes burned. “Please.”
“He loved you,” Rhett choked in reply. “From the first second he saw you. He was…he was scared to hold you.” His voice cracked and Lily urged him to keep going, her fingernails digging into his cheeks. “Thought he might break you,” Rhett said. “I almost had to hold you first to prove you weren’t…that breakable.”
“Oh, Rhett,” Lily cried, and that was all she could handle. She threw her arms around his neck and held him, and the rest of the kids followed. In the driveway they sat together, tangled up, tears pattering onto clothes and faces and hands.
It was a long, long time before they got up again.
The morning came because it always did, even at the end of the world. Rhett willed the sun away and was answered with a shroud of clouds. It rained for the first time in weeks. As the sky opened up and rain fell hard, Rhett went through the motions of being alive. He filled up Jade’s water bowl and patted her on the head as she looked up at him with her head cocked to the side.
“He’s gone,” Rhett told Link’s little dog. “Don’t bother looking for him.”
Jessie took all five kids out of the house to keep them from seeing Link being taken away. Rhett didn’t look either. He watched Christy’s face instead, her hands over her mouth and her eyes wide. She left the house and closed the door behind her. The last thing Rhett expected was to be alone in Link’s house, but that was exactly how he ended up. He stood alone in the kitchen, one hand over his face and the other braced on the counter. It wasn’t until Jade made a soft, sad sound and started pawing at Rhett’s calves that he realized he was making soft, sad sounds of his own. He scooped Jade up and pressed his face into her soft fur.
“Don’t break their hearts by trying to find him, Jade,” Rhett said. In reply, she twisted in his hands to lap at the tears on his cheeks. “You hear me?” Whether she understood something was wrong or not, she was more than happy to try and help. She licked at his face until he gave up on speaking to her like she knew a thing. When he set her down, she dashed away, and Rhett was truly alone.
He couldn’t bear to stay that way for long. He made his way outside to find Christy sitting on the porch, her head buried in her hands. When she heard Rhett open the door, she told him to leave her alone. He didn’t.
“I’m gonna die, Rhett,” she sobbed. “I’m gonna die.”
He didn’t tell her there was no truth in that. Instead, he let her weep in his arms, and he didn’t say a word as she cried. There was nothing he could say to make it better, anyway; they both knew that. It was better simply for Rhett to be present, to hold Christy, and to keep her safe as best as he could. He was a sorry replacement for the person who should have been holding her, but what the hell could he do?
He did the best he could and prayed it would be enough.
Rhett had not been to a funeral in years. It was a beautiful day, sunny and unseasonably warm. It was the kind of day Link would usually spend restless, legs jiggling impatiently under their shared desk at work, ready to run out the door and enjoy the sun. It was the kind of day Rhett would have liked to spend chasing Link down a bike path as Link teased him for not being able to keep up. The sun reminded Rhett of being young, of days passed by lounging in the Cape Fear River. It reminded him of camping, of the beach, of countless, endless days that seemed to stretch towards infinity. It reminded him of the thoughts of youth and the idle dream that he was going to live forever.
It felt good to feel that way, but it was never meant to last.
With both his hands held tight in Jessie’s, Rhett waited for it all to be over. He kept his head down and his eyes on the ground as a gentle breeze carried the promise of spring. That was one thing Link asked for: he wanted it to be outside. He wanted his family and all the people who loved him to sit in creaking metal chairs outside, out where they could breathe. Rhett was thankful for the gesture, but he still felt stifled.
He still felt like he was falling.
Jessie cried quietly at his side, her long hair hiding her face, but Rhett held back. The sunny morning was Link’s attempt at keeping them from crying, and Rhett was going to do everything in his power to respect that. Why else was the sun there, if not to provide some semblance of hope? Rhett tipped his head back and closed his eyes against the cloudless sky.
Sitting still when all he wanted was to run proved impossible. Rhett did something terrible. He stood up and walked away. No one followed him and no one pulled him back. With his head down and his hands in the pockets of his black pleated pants, Rhett left the sea of spilling tears behind.
Wherever Link was, he wasn’t back there. He would be somewhere good, somewhere bright and warm. Rhett wasn’t going to find him in a graveyard, no matter where the stone was that bore his name. Still, no amount of distance from the less than soothing voice of the officiant brought Rhett peace; he didn’t hear Link anywhere. A part of him had expected to feel something, some sign that Link was with him still. Instead, he was met with silence. He was met with nothingness, a hole in the place Link used to occupy. What was he supposed to do with that? There was static noise in his chest where he used to hold Link close to his heart.
He was going to die with nothing there to fill the empty spaces in him.
The funeral ended. Jessie held five red-faced children close to her sides as Christy strode across the green, green lawn. Rhett watched Link’s wife come and he deserved the sharp smack she gave him across the cheek.
“You coward!” she cried. “You don’t get to run away! This is real! Face it!” She shoved Rhett with both hands and he let himself be moved. When he stumbled, Christy shoved him again. His back hit a tree, his hands went up, and Christy stopped fighting him the moment his fingers tightened on her shoulders. “Let go of me,” she whimpered. But in the next moment, her face was buried in his chest and her hands were bunched up in the lapels of his crisp black jacket.
Rhett held her as tight as he dared and only let her go when Lily offered up a smaller, sweeter set of arms. Backed up against a tree, bark jutting into his spine, Rhett watched Link’s family come apart. He was a coward. He was. Because he didn’t go to them as they cried; because this time, he let them think they were alone.
Jessie was the only one who didn’t seem to see the deplorable weakness in Rhett that kept him pinned. She took his hand and held it and didn’t say a word. In the bright sunlight, in the big open sky, Rhett stood by his wife’s side and wished to be anywhere else.
His wish left un-granted, Rhett took what he was given. He took the sun on his skin and the breeze in his hair; he took the sound of crying and the soft, warm hand enveloped in his own. He took the hollow heart and the long walk across hallowed ground. He took the car ride to Link’s house, where people he didn’t want to see would gather to tell him things he didn’t want to hear. He bore it all because he had to. He promised Link he would be present, for Link’s family if for no other reason.
So he was.
He wove in and out of a maze of sympathetic eyes and comforting hands. He offered them himself when it was needed of him. He was a warm body, a soothing voice, and not much else. Deep inside his bones, Rhett knew something no one else knew: a vital piece of him had died and he was going to die with it. Maybe not now, maybe not soon, but Rhett’s clock started ticking the moment Link’s stopped.
He was never going to get better from this.
If they knew, they didn’t say. They held him and told him they were sorry and he held them and told them he was sorry too. It didn’t help, the shared sorrow. Rhett only wanted to be alone.
It was Locke who looked up at Rhett and rescued him. “You wanna go home?” he asked, his jaw set tight and his eyes rimmed in red. Without waiting for an answer, he said, “I’ll tell Mom.”
Christy refused a parting goodbye from Rhett. You’re doing wrong by him, the look in her wide eyes said. Rhett ignored it. He was going to do what was asked of him and he was going to protect Link’s family. But not yet. Not now. Now, he was dying, and now, he was going to fall apart. He wasn’t going to let it happen in front of the people who needed him to be stronger than that.
In his bed, the curtains drawn, Rhett cried. Every part of him ached, his body thrumming with it. He was old and tired and more alone than he ever thought he’d be. Jessie sat down at his side only to make him drink a glass of water, and when she tried to leave, Rhett reached for her. “Stay with me,” he said. Alone, he felt worse. He thought it would be better, to be far from the people who were still alive. But all solitude did was remind Rhett that he was going to feel alone for the rest of his life. He begged his wife to stay, and she stayed. She stroked his hair, his head in her lap, and she didn’t ask for anything from him. She was quiet, and soft, and she was the one person now who knew him better than anybody else. She knew what he wanted without having to ask.
“Baby,” she breathed. “Wherever you need to go to find him, go. I’ll be here for you when you get back.”
He didn’t need to be told twice.
Tears drying on his cheeks and dripping from his beard, Rhett left the house in search of his best friend. He drove to the shore, shaky and unsure, but as the beach rolled out before him, he knew he was in the right place. The sea beckoned, the same sea it always was and the same sea it was always going to be. This sea belonged to Link. Finally, blessedly, Rhett felt a pull.
He was moving before he could catch the breath the Pacific snatched from him. He hopped out of the car and kicked off his shoes, leaving them on the seat. His phone clattered from his pocket to the floor of the car and his wallet followed. When the old leather wallet hit the floor, it opened, spilling coins and cash and cards across the carpet. Rhett was going to leave it, forget it, but a white slip of paper caught his eye. It poked out between the carpet and a crumpled five dollar bill, stark white in the fading light of day.
He picked it up.
The piece of paper was folded carefully, neatly, and Rhett’s hands shook as he unfurled it. When he opened it to find Link’s handwriting on the page, he froze, a cry of pain stuck in his throat.
A game of hangman. A hotel room in North Carolina. A promise to keep the declaration with him for the rest of life, to open when he needed it. He had forgotten. But he sure as hell needed it now.
LOVE YOU FOREVER, the puzzle read. Rhett had guessed it right and Link had filled it in, his eyes sparkling with excitement at all the new things they said to one another.
Rhett had forgotten. But he sure as hell remembered now.
He folded the slip of paper and he crumpled it in his hand as he made his way to the sea. It wasn’t a long walk, but it felt like years before he felt the icy fingers of the water curl around his ankles. At the end of the world, at the edge of the sea, Rhett held the paper in his fist. He raised his arm, prepared to open his hand and let go. The last piece of Link, his handwriting on a slip of paper, was Rhett’s to do with as he pleased. And Rhett wanted nothing more than to open his fist and let the ink run in the salt of the sea.
Something held him back.
This was Link; this was thirty-five years of love deeper than the ocean at Rhett’s feet. This was the boy Rhett loved and the man he let go; this was the person who meant more to Rhett than anything else. This was the smile that greeted Rhett every morning, the hands that touched him, the mouth that brushed his, the voice that Rhett knew by heart.
Rhett drew his fist back and held it to his chest, the balled up paper biting into his palm. With his eyes closed, it was easy to pretend Link was at his side. If he opened his eyes, he might have seen Link, bright and happy and shivering in the icy water. But Rhett knew better than that. Link wasn’t with him. He kept his eyes closed for a long, long time.
When he opened them, he was more alone than he had ever been. Still, he spoke. Maybe Link wasn’t with him. But Link was listening.
“Love you,” Rhett told the sea. Simple and truthful and easy; the only thing he had to say. He loved Link, he loved him desperately, and he was going to love Link forever, just like the note in his hand requested. But Rhett was going to do something selfish and he was going to let the Pacific claim this part of Link. He couldn’t bear to do what was asked of him and keep it for himself. With his hands shaking and tears brimming hotly in his eyes, Rhett brought his fist to his mouth. “I love you,” he said again. He opened his hands, pressed the note to his lips, and then he let it go.
Floating on the restless sea, the note was carried away. Rhett watched it drift out of his reach, carried back and forth by rolling waves. He watched it until it was too far to grasp and then he dove after it, splashing into the surf. When he closed his hand back around it and pulled it from the ocean spray, only then did he let himself fall apart.
“God, I love you,” he said. He unfurled the rumpled paper once more and smoothed it out, up to his chest in icy water, numb from the waist down. It didn’t matter. He memorized the words on the page, the swoop of every letter, the shape of every curve. Hell if he was going to miss Link for the rest of his life and yearn for the note he released to the sea.
He kept it. If he couldn’t keep Link, if this was all he had, hell if he was going to let anything else take it from him. Maybe the sea deserved it more than he did. But the sea didn’t love Link like Rhett did. The sea couldn’t have him.
Rhett cried until he saw stars, the cold taking air from his lungs and blood from his limbs. The only warm parts of him were the parts that tears touched. He waded from the sea with a confession of love clutched to his chest, shaking hard enough to make it difficult to breathe. Carefully, he unfurled the piece of paper, folded it neatly back up, and slipped it back into his wallet. He started the car and pulled away from the Pacific, leaving the edge of the world behind.
The note burned a hole in him.
He drove towards home and changed his mind, turning the car around as he reached for his phone. His wife picked up on the second ring. “Rhett,” she said.
“Jess,” he replied. “Jess, ‘m goin’ to Christy. There’s somethin’ I need to tell her.”
“Okay, baby,” Jessie replied. “Okay. I love you.” She paused and Rhett followed suit. When she spoke again, her voice was soft. “You’re okay,” she said. “You’re so, so brave. I love you.”
Rhett swallowed the lump in his throat and told her, “Not as brave as I should be.”
“You’re the bravest man in the world,” Jessie assured him. “Do what you need to do to stay that way. Rhett, you are so, so strong.”
He said nothing about how heavy and sick the sympathy in her voice made him feel. “Thank you,” he told her instead. “I’ll be home soon.”
“If you hear him,” she said before Rhett hung up. “If you do, tell him I say hello.”
“I will,” Rhett replied. “But I haven’t heard anything yet.”
“You’ll hear him,” Jessie said. “I promise you.”
“Sure,” Rhett said. He didn’t believe it, not really. He didn’t dare. Even so, he flicked his eyes to the sky as he drove as if there was someone up there watching him. The stars twinkled but offered nothing more.
“Rhett, you know he wouldn’t leave you without…”
“No, no, don’t be sorry. I’m…”
“Don’t be sorry.”
Rhett had no reply for that. He drove, his wife on the other line, the sound of her breathing and the rumbling of the car all that he could hear. Blinking tears from his eyes, he waited for her to break the silence. She didn’t.
“Me too, honey,” Jessie replied, voice gentle and small. “I am too. But we’re gonna get through this, okay? He would want you to.”
“I know that,” Rhett said.
“Just don’t forget,” Jessie replied.
“I…I won’t.” He thanked his wife, he hung up the phone, and he tossed it into the empty passenger seat. (For the rest of his life, that seat would remain devoid of the man who spoke animatedly at his side, life and fire in his eyes.) In silence, the radio turned down, Rhett drove. His headlights cut through the night, guiding his way. When he pulled up to Link’s house, he found everyone gone, Christy waiting for him on the front porch. She sat alone, huddled under a blanket, her chin on her knees.
“I knew you’d find your way here,” she said as he sat down at her side, still damp from the sea. Without another word, she opened up her blanket to let him inside. She draped it over his shoulder and scooted closer on the porch step. “I was waiting for you.”
“Sorry I kept you waiting.”
“That’s okay. You’re here now.”
“The kids okay?”
“No. But I won’t ask them to be. Yours? Jess?”
In reply, Christy made a small, noncommittal sort of sound and leaned heavily on Rhett. She shivered at his side, so small and fragile it made him want to cry. But he didn’t. He was going to be the stronger of the two of them for once; he was going to do right by Link and be there for his wife.
It was the least that he could do for a lifetime of Link giving Rhett his all.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Me neither, Chris.”
“I miss him. How’m I expected to keep missing him the rest of my life?” Christy squeaked when Rhett wound his arm around her and squeezed.
“I miss him too,” Rhett said.
“I wish this wasn’t real. Why can’t this be a dream?”
“And I can’t even count on findin’ him in Heaven, Rhett, because wherever he is, he’s gonna be waiting there for you.” Christy’s voice broke and she turned her head, her face pressed into Rhett’s shoulder. “God, I want to hate you. But you made his life the best it could be in every way I couldn’t. We…we made a good team, Rhett, didn’t we? We did the best we could? Please tell me we did.”
“We did, Chris,” he said. “I promise.” He wasn’t sure, he was never sure, but Christy needed him. And as much as his heart was breaking, as much as he wanted to assure her this pain wouldn’t last, he couldn’t promise that. Already, he felt the hole that was going to sit in his chest the rest of his life. Nothing was ever going to fill it; it was simply going to hurt until the day he died. Christy had the same hole, and nothing Rhett could say would help to fill it up.
“Which star is his, Rhett?” Christy whispered, her voice a beacon of light Rhett could follow to stay out of the dark. “I know you don’t know. Make it up. Tell me which one it is, just so I can look at him.”
Rhett looked up into the cloudless sky, at the vast expanse of stars dulled by the California lights. But there was one star that shone brighter than the others, twinkling silver like it was going to be up there until the end of time. Rhett scooped up Christy’s hand and pointed her finger towards the star, up so high she had to crane her neck to see.
“That one?” she asked, closing one eye to pinpoint the right star.
“Yup. The bright one.”
“Of course,” she replied. She dropped her hand and looked up at the star, blinking fast to keep back tears. Rhett was doing the same. “Do you…do you wanna say something to him with me? I can go first, if that helps.”
Rhett thought about saying no, about getting up and leaving, about leaving her alone. But this was the girl who had held half of Link’s heart, and who carried it with her in her own heart all these years. Rhett was going to do right by her no matter how much it cost him.
“Yes,” he said. “You go first.”
She did. Looking up into the face of the star, Christy spoke, slow at first and then faster as she found her voice. “Hey, baby,” she began. Rhett bowed his head, closed his eyes, and listened. “We miss you a lot down here. That’s…that’s an understatement. I feel like I’m gonna die for missing you. God, I hope you’re listening, ‘cause I have a helluva lot I want to say.” Christy steeled herself, squaring her shoulders and letting out a long, wavering breath. “First of all, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the times I told you that you were bein’ selfish, and mean. I didn’t mean that, not for a second. I was just scared. I know you understand. I’m sorry that you won’t get to see our kids grow up, baby, because they’re gonna miss you in every empty seat for the rest of their lives. They’ll leave one for you, I promise. I’ll make sure of it. And I’m sorry I couldn’t be braver, baby, for you and for the kids…and for Rhett.” Her shining eyes flicked up to meet Rhett’s and he kissed her, right on the top of the head. When she went on, her voice matched the tears spilling down her cheeks. “I can’t believe you left me here, baby,” she said, and that was all. She curled in on herself, crying so hard her teeth chattered. Rhett did all he could. He held onto her and waited for the tidal wave of pain to roll over her and let her come back to the surface.
“If it coulda been me…” Christy said. “If it coulda been. I would have traded places with him in a second. The world doesn’t need me like it needs him.”
“Chris, that’s not true.”
“You’re thinking the same. I know you are.”
“Good. Now, go on, then. Tell him. Tell him everything.” Christy sniffled, shivering under Rhett’s arm, and he propped his chin up on her head to gaze up at the stars.
“Do I have to?” he asked. All at once he felt overwhelmed, unsure, scared to speak under the weight of Christy’s words. What could he say that she couldn’t say a thousand times clearer?
“Yes,” she said, curt. “Tell him. He’s listening. Our boy would never leave us like this, Rhett. Please tell me you know that.”
The pull he felt at the sea and the note in Rhett’s wallet made up his mind for him. “I know that,” he said.
“So tell him.”
Rhett closed his eyes and did the best he could. “Link?” he said. Christy shuddered in his arms. “Link, I sure hope you’re up there. I…I never thought I’d be talkin’ to your star and hoping that it’s really you. This…this is harder than I thought.” Rhett cleared his throat, voice ragged at the edges. Christy didn’t say a word. “I’ll keep thinkin’ of things I never got to tell you, and I’ll tell you them as I go. But for now, I love you. I love you. You’re…you’re the best part of me, Link. And you always will be. I…dammit.” Rhett buried his face in Christy’s hair and choked back a sob. Christy told him to let it out, but he had a few more things to say first.
“Thank you for sharing your life with me,” Rhett said. “It was a good one. And it will be again, I hope, when I make my way to you. All of us, Link. We’ll find the path to you. It’ll be nice, won’t it, to be together? I’ll let you in on all the things you missed. And…I’ll keep an eye on things down here. You don’t have to worry about your family, not ever. If that’s any comfort to you, then there it is. I’m here for your family, for the rest of my life. I just…I almost hope it’s not a long one.”
“Stop.” Christy hushed him as he stepped too close to the edge, and with her quiet voice, she pulled him back. “That’s good, Rhett. Thank you for saying goodbye to him with me.”
“Was that goodbye?” Rhett asked.
“I think so,” she replied. “Anything else you want to say?”
“Yeah, one more thing.”
“Then say it.”
Rhett opened his eyes to look up into the stars, into the one star that shone as bright as Link ever did. “Love you forever,” he said. “I’ll see you soon.”
Christy didn’t say anything more. Neither did Rhett. They sat side by side, sharing the same moment and the same star, until the night began to fade. As the rising sun stifled the light of the stars, the morning promised a golden new day.
And if there was someone who should have been there to share the sunrise, neither Rhett nor Christy mentioned him. The sunrise said goodbye for now, and the fading stars said take a breath and live well. Rhett took one last look at the star that reminded him of late nights, of guitar strings and a singsong voice, of songs around a fire, of fire burning in a blue pair of eyes. When he looked up again, the star was gone, replaced with orange rays of sunlight.
“C’mon, Rhett,” Christy said. “Let’s go inside.” When she rose on shaky legs to turn and head inside, Rhett took her by the wrist and pulled her back.
“What’re we supposed to do, Chris?” he asked.
Her tear streaked face softened as she looked back at him. “We’re s’posed to live,” she said. “That’s all we can do, to do right by him.”
“How’re we supposed to live without him?”
“I don’t know, Rhett,” she said. When she pulled on his hand, insistent, he rose to his feet and followed her. “But we’re gonna find out together.”
In the kitchen, Rhett sat down hard and Christy set about starting her morning. As she set two mugs down on the counter and turned away, Rhett’s eyes landed on a family photo stuck with magnets to the fridge. There were five smiling faces in the photo, but Rhett only saw one. He saw Link, smiling wide, his eyes sparkling as he held his family close.
Love you forever.
Rhett owed Link the world. Since he failed to give Link everything he deserved, he was going to give it to Link’s family. It was the least that he could do. He accepted a steaming mug from Christy and a kiss to his cheek, leaning into her comforting touch and offering one himself. I’ll take care of you, he said without saying a word.
I know, Christy’s embrace replied.
There were stories to tell and a lifetime of unspoken memories to share, and Rhett was going to share them all. He was going to tell Christy about all the wonderful things Link had to say about her that he was too shy to say when he was young. He was going to tell Link’s boys about swimming in the river back home, about staying up late sharing secrets, about what it was like to grow up at their father’s side. He was going to tell Lily about how deeply Link loved her, being the first, being the only girl in a line of boys.
There were stories to tell and Rhett was going to tell them all.
For now, for the moment, he was quiet. He had a good, long while to tell his tale, and Christy was going to be there when he was ready.
At dawn, the morning light streaming through the windows, Rhett felt a thrill of excitement. There were stories to tell, a million of them, more.
And he was going to tell them all.