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Dark Winters Wear You Down

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Nate runs. Each morning he follows the same path through Cambridge. When the weather turns cold and wet he likes the way the air fights with his lungs. He keeps his key in his left shoe and pretends he didn't start, pretends there's not an end. He's just always in an USMC t-shirt, running next to water. Why this is not his whole world—running along the Charles, the shoulders of his olive shirt dusted with rain—he cannot understand.

His apartment is small and bright, but the door still looks unfamiliar. He has lived there, always alone, for four months, but he will go to open the door and find he is expecting there to be someone on the other side. It is an odd, sudden leap of his stomach as he removes his key from his shoe and it does not stop until he has opened the door and found the room dark. 

Often, he falls asleep reading and dreams about folding himself up in between the pages of books: flat, crisp, and clean.

-

One bleak, November morning, he returns from running to find an email from Brad. Nate scrambles to double check his phone, to make sure he doesn’t have a missed call. The blank screen turns the cold, sharp panic into a different kind of dread: a curious horror for what unbelievably strange phenomenon could have caused Brad to email him for the first time since he left the Corps.

The email contains a recent newspaper article about Harvard edited to reflect Brad’s own, unique view of the school. Nate shakes his head at the banality and replies with: "Forward this to the Lampoon for you, shall I?" The next morning, Brad sends a picture of Ray from Halloween. He is dressed like a unicorn and vomiting onto someone else's shoes. Nate isn’t sure how anyone is supposed to respond to that.  

-

When his mother mentions Thanksgiving and how nice it will be to see him, he tells her he is too busy to make the trip. She has his sister try next, but Nate replies to Meg with various lines from Ovid until he can hear the eye roll across state lines.

“Fine, asshole," she tells him, before hanging up. "Enjoy missing out on mom’s stuffing.”

It feels great that morning, being alone when he would normally have to deal with prodding question after prodding question. Nate settles into his favorite chair with the newspaper and a book and cup after cup of coffee. When his family calls from the dinner table to tell him just how much they miss him, he nods easily until he has to scramble to hang up because he's not expecting his throat to get tight, to start crying.

He goes to bed without dinner.

-


The woman who lives across the hall hangs a new wreath for every holiday. Nate suspects she makes them herself. The Christmas one is covered with cotton ball snowmen and candy cane reindeer. After he turns down a third invitation to tea, she knocks rapidly on his door one night, insisting he come fix her sink. Nate is shepherded across the hall to find tea waiting and the sink fine. He sits where she tells him.  

Gloria is seventy-five (“But I don’t look it,” she winks) and she does indeed make the wreaths. She also sells duplicates online. She feeds Nate most of an apple pie while explaining her fear of open water and how it means she won't be going on a holiday cruise with the rest of her family.  

“I’m not going home, either,” Nate hears himself say, even though he has yet to admit this to his mother.  

“You can come over here. We’ll have a grand time.”

Nate opens his mouth to tell her the reason he isn’t going to see his family is he would rather be alone, but realizes—before all the words form—he wouldn’t. The sentence ends in a jumbled squawk, but Gloria has moved on to planning the menu, asking about allergies and favorites.

When he is finally released to his apartment, Nate orders a Christmas wreath to be sent to California. 

-

There is a girl who makes his coffee and a woman in his Public Finance Seminar who smile at him with all their teeth. Kelly follows him after class one day, tells him what he did was brave. His face does not feel like it should, accepting praise. He nods and walks away. He realizes he is walking in the wrong direction when it starts to snow.  By the time Nate is home, it is closer to hail.

-

While running the next morning, he avoids falling on a patch of ice by grabbing at the nearest pedestrian. The woman waves away his apologies, finds it more amusing than harrowing. Nate jogs for two more blocks before he has to catch himself on an iron fence as his knees try to shake themselves to the ground. He leans there and breathes through his nose. That woman can respond to an (however accidental) attack on her person with an easy humor, free from knives in pockets and bombs on chests. It is marvelous and ordinary and Nate thinks about which bones he could have broken the quickest if someone had fallen on him like that.  

-

On Christmas Eve, he leaves his phone in his apartment.  

Over braised lamb, Gloria talks first about her late husband, then her sisters, then her daughters. She has four grandchildren and more nieces, nephews, and cousins than Nate can remember. She lingers on a favorite grandniece who is Nate's age, but she reassures him, "I won't try to set you two up because you're obviously working through a few things, dear." She cuts Nate another piece of cherry pie and pats his hand kindly as he eats.  

He is already in his bed before he realizes the longest sentence he’d said was, “Yes, I would like seconds.”

-

On December 31st Nate is studying the frost on his front window when his phone rings. It is not the ring tone assigned specifically to members of his family, so he crosses to his counter.

"Happy New Year."

"Don't get ahead of yourself, sir. Something terrible could happen in the next two hours."

"Yes, I suppose you could send me more pictures of Ray. I think I'll be avoiding my email for the foreseeable future. And I'm no longer your commanding officer, Brad. Have some respect."

“While I don't have the pleasure of spending this delightful evening with Ray, all bets are on a repeat performance on his end. And old habits..."

"All that training, hmm?"

"I’d hate to disappoint Uncle Sam."

"Hey, Ray should look into one of those hats. It could double as a place to vomit."

Brad's laugh is loud. Nate realizes he's smiling.

"Are you speaking from experience? Don't tell me that's how Nate Fick is going to spend his New Year’s?"

"Haha. I'm writing a paper. Or I was. Well, I should be. I'm just, not. Yet."

"The bane of the educated."

"It's worth being able to look down on all you plebes."

Ten minutes into the new year, Nate is yawning around his drink. They've been watching the coverage of Times Square, idly making comments on the general idiocy of those involved, but Brad’s been quiet for minutes.  

“Brad?”

He doesn’t respond.  

“Are you still there?” Nate checks the connection. “Hello?”

“I think we should be friends.”

Nate double takes at his phone. 

“I can stand a finite number of people on this planet,” Brad continues. “Most are part of my family and most of those are only because of repeat, early exposure.”

“What is—Is one of your resolutions to make new friends?”

“I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.”

“Is this a dare?”

“Never mind. Forget it,” Brad says, low and quick.  

“No, no, I accept. No matter how fourth grade the circumstances.”

There is a small, dangerous laugh.  

“On the topic of school, how is the paper you're supposed to be writing? Wait, don’t tell me—you magically finished it while simultaneously talking on the phone, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and bringing peace to the Middle East.”

"The secret,” Nate says, hating the stack of books waiting on the edge of his desk, “was locking everyone in a room with no weapons and Ray Person. No, I haven’t done any work on my paper. And you know that, you ass. You can hear the sounds of typing from fifty yards off. The end of my vacation is going to suck.”

“I’ll be sure to think of you and your terrible trials of sitting and writing indoors while I’m leading a three day survival class. Yes, Private, it is cold out here and we’re skinning squirrels, but think of Nate, he has written work.”

“You do not skin squirrels. I think I need to get this ‘offer of friendship’ in writing.”

Brad snorts.  

“Seriously, you should look into offering certificates. If you send me one I promise I’ll hang it between the two from Harvard.”

“You continue not writing papers and Harvard won’t give you shit.”

“You continue begging for friends at New Year’s and see how many you end up with.”

Brad is absolutely silent. Nate can’t even hear breathing.  

“I’m sorry, I–”

“How’s the weather there? Still freezing?”

"Yeah, it's snowing here,” Nate sighs and rubs his bridge of his nose. “Three inches already. I have developed a desire to go sledding."

"You could steal a tray from the dining hall."

"I think they’ve discontinued tray use to save water. And Brad, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

“It’s fine.”

“I really—”

“Jesus Christ, I said it was fine.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

They are quiet again. The New Year’s coverage on the TV is winding down even though Times Square is still a mass of bright faces. He can hear Brad breathing now.  

“So,” Nate says, even though he knows he shouldn’t, “should I add a byline to my business cards?"

Brad groans and hangs up. 

Before he goes to sleep, Nate checks his email. There are three more pictures of Ray from Halloween, sent way back before Brad called. He concedes the victory.  

-

Some mornings in January he watches the news in bed instead of running. He pulls the goose down comforter up to his nose and flips between CNN and FOX. When he’s ready, he makes coffee and toast and reads the paper with the TV muted and his breath warm and even.

-

He continues to eat with Gloria because she never tires of talking enough for two. He fills his plate again and learns about when she used to horseback ride and why the second youngest of her grandchildren is already a bad apple.  

It’s a Tuesday and he’s over a little earlier than normal because his apartment has seemed strangely dim all day. Gloria has the news on and there’s a story about Iraq. He stops in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room.  

“I was there,” he hears himself say when Gloria grasps his elbow and asks if he could, please, set the table. He watches her eyes shift to the TV and then return to him. He looks straight back. There is a silence in which he imagines her sympathy and her horror and her questions and his body prepares itself to run.  

She lets go of his arm.  

“You know where I keep the silverware.”

His entire body shivers from his spine. He sets the table.  

-

He hasn’t spoken to his mother since before Christmas and he still lets the phone ring because he’s listened to the messages. She believes he is living some new, tidy, safe existence and would like to hear every detail. But he doesn't feel new or tidy or safe or like telling her so. He would like to watch the cars driving down his street in the dark, eat Thai food from the container, and keep his phone off. Or break it in half. He calls Brad and bemoans Economic Policy instead. 

-

His mother arrives unannounced on a Monday morning in February. She has talked the taxi driver into helping her carry her three suitcases up the stairs and Nate feels the guilt before she enters his apartment. 

"Dear," she says and kisses his cheek. "You look awful. Are you sick?"

"I'm fine. Mom, you didn't have to come."

She examines his face and then takes his pulse.

"Hmm."

She checks the fridge, the cabinets, under both sinks, and in the vents before she declares he seems to be able to care for himself.

"I'm not twelve," he snaps.

"No shit, Nathaniel."

The back of his neck turns red. He looks at the floor.

"Sorry."

She tips his face up and hugs him.  She smells like the summer and like cinnamon.  

-

She takes him to lunch and in a high-backed booth he explains his classes. Nate details the work he has done and the work he is expected to do. He thinks he sounds like a malfunctioning robot, but his mother is nodding and smiling. He can’t taste his sandwich and he can’t believe he is getting away with this charade.

“And why couldn’t you tell me this on the phone, Nate? Or even answer your phone? Really, it shouldn’t be surprising that I’m here.”

“I responded to a few emails.”

“Telling your father how much you liked his forwards does not count.”

“As you can tell, I’m busy.”

“I know you are, but I still want to know how you’re doing. It’s one of those unfortunate side effects of carrying you in my womb for nine months.”

Nate doesn’t tell her he would like to know the answer to that question too. He nods at his plate and thinks of recess when she asks if he’s made any friends. He hadn’t realized the answer is no.  

“A few,” he starts. “There are a lot of nice people, but I’m just not close to anyone yet.”

“But you do go places with them? You have fun on the weekends?”

He thinks about last Friday night when Gloria made hot dogs and he was shocked to discover she actively cheered for the Celtics and Saturday when he and Brad IMed for hours before he fell asleep in front of his computer.  

“Of course,” he says.

-

Nate calls Gloria after his noon class Tuesday and cancels their plans for dinner.

“Nothing’s wrong, there are family things I have to deal with.”

“Your mother.”

“It’s unhealthy how often you look through your peep hole.”

“She looked like she was moving in.”

“I think she has. Listen, Gloria—”

“You want me to leave you alone until she goes?”

“It’s not you. You’re wonderful. She’s just...”

“Your mother. I wouldn’t want you to meet my mother either—God rest her soul.”

“Thank you.”

“What’s it you all say? Semper fi?”

“Yeah, that's it, semper fi.”

-

He runs further, those mornings. He stands outside his door and hopes for the rooms inside to be empty. When she’s still there, reading a mystery novel on his couch, he locks himself in the bathroom and calls Brad.    

"My mother has been here for three days. She keeps suggesting we go on ‘outings’ and trying to come to my classes. And I don't know when she's leaving."

Brad snorts.  

“You could ask her.”

“If I ask her, she’ll make me feel guilty for wanting her to go even though I didn’t invite her. No, this is a clever game she’s playing.”

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

"I think I'm asking you to save me."

"I don't get leave until April."

"She may still be here."

"While I admit it will be awkward to share a bed with your mother, I accept."

"When in April?"

-

There is a moment towards the end of the week when Nate walks into the living room and find his mother has fallen asleep in his armchair and the room feels full instead of crowded. He pulls the blanket from the back of the couch and tucks it around her body.  

“I can take you on a tour of the campus, Saturday,” he tells her when she wakes. “And we could go to some of the monuments you mentioned and do whatever we don’t get to then on Sunday.”

“That sounds wonderful, Nate, but I'm leaving Sunday morning.”

“You don’t have—”

“Don’t lie to me. I can see you resisting the urge to jump up and down.”

“No offense or anything.”

She smacks his arm halfheartedly with her paperback.  

-

Saturday, Nate battles to stay cheerful and articulate. He tells stories with gesture and finesse. He wants her to leave seeing him happy. He wants her to believe she helped him even though his mind still spins and spins. He watches his mother’s calm, happy face and lets it light him up like a child.  

After dinner, they walk home through fresh snow.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t better at hosting,” he says with a light laugh. “You could have seen more of the city.”

She stops and grasps one of his gloved hands in hers.  

“No, you’re doing the best you can.”

Something squirms in his stomach. She lets his hand go and continues walking. Nate stands at the dark intersection and knows he was stupid, thinking she didn’t still know everything about him.  

In the morning, she plants a final kiss on his cheek at the curb and slides into her taxi. Nate waves as the car pulls away. He runs and repeats, over and over, all the lies he told his mother and all the times she nodded, smiled, and pretended she believed him.  

-

Gloria exhibits a spooky accuracy in filling out her March Madness bracket. Nate crumples his up after the first round. She watches the games with a notebook on her lap and talks about ‘the boys’ like she knows them, like she taught them. He turns to her at the half of a quarterfinal game intending to ask if she wants anything from the kitchen, but the words he actually says are about his men. It feels like a secret he isn’t suppose to tell, but when he shifts on the couch, his chest isn’t as heavy.

Night after night, he keeps his focus tight on the bold personalities, on the long, boring hours across the sand. Gloria is charmed by Walt, impressed by Mike and Brad.  She remains doubtful of Ray’s existence as every story seems to leave him a little more impossible. He doesn’t mention Evan or the article.  

The first time a story veers towards the action, he apologizes.

She places a hand on his cheek.

“Dear, my father fought in the First World War. He dealt with it after by drinking and he was a chatty drunk. You do have him beat for eloquence, though.”

-

Nate doesn’t know if it’s connected to these retellings, but his dreams are steadily increasing in their violence. One morning, he wakes up brandishing his alarm clock like a sword. A week later, he wakes to discover he is hunting under his pillow for the gun. And when the bombs turn out to be thunder, he still can’t sleep until the storm ends.  

-

“You know,” Gloria says one night after dinner, “I jog.”

“Really?”

“Your skepticism is wonderful.”

“Would you like to go jogging with me, Gloria?”

“I would.”

On Saturday she wears a teal track suit and a visor and leads Nate in a two block circle of their building. She pants slightly on the front steps, so he unlocks the lobby door and holds it open.

“Coming over, dear?”

“I’ll be over later, Gloria. I run six miles every morning. I’m going to go do that first.”

He can hear her laugh all the way to the corner.  

-

When his mother calls, he answers. She asks her little questions about his eating habits and his friendships and Nate answers even though he doesn’t understand why she isn’t pushing him. She knows he is full of shit and she’s letting him lie. He talks about the pineapple on his counter and the bar he went to with a classmate and decides she’ll have to blink first.

-

Nate is still holding a pen when he answers the door. Brad's right there, broad shoulders to fill the doorway, leather jacket and a sunburn. He fumbles the pen behind his ear; doesn't miss Brad's grin as he almost drops it. 

"Hi."

"Hello, sir."

"Really?"

Brad laughs and drops his bag inside the door.  

"Hello, Nate."

"There. That was easy. Hungry?"

-

Brad orders a steak and Nate doesn't know why he finds this funny, but he laughs for a long moment. Brad doesn't ask why, just passes a level glance. Half through the steak, he tells a story about a new recruit's less than helpful contribution to their last training exercise and Nate's mouth goes dry.

"What is it like? Now?" he asks and knows Brad can hear the unsaid: without me?

"Different. Exactly the same. We don't blame you, Nate."

"I still feel..."

"You needed to do it. And look at you: all functional in the real world. I would be a fucking mess."

"I avoided my mother for four months until she descended on my apartment without warning and now we’re caught in some ridiculous cycle of lies which somehow includes talking about my fiber intake. Also, my best friend is a woman in her seventies who force feeds me pie and made you that hideous wreath."

"You would."

"Sorry?"

"Be a favorite among senior citizens."

"Shut up."

"What, the young ladies aren't lining up to touch a real live war hero? This country is worse off than we are commonly lead to believe."

Nate shakes his head.

"Oh, there was a woman last semester who told me what a hero I was after class and I basically ran away. Then last month I bring a date to my coffee place, and the barista—who is maybe 18—becomes unreasonably jealous, messes up our coffee, gets yelled at by her boss, and now I can't go there any more because she starts crying. My life is a worse version of high school. I'll probably wake up tomorrow covered in zits and late for homeroom."
 
Brad grins.

"Well, you do look the part."

-

At 3:30 am Nate fumbles his way into the kitchen for a glass of water. He can see Brad's feet at the end of the pullout. His bag is still next to the door. It looks very small. Nate finishes the water and leaves his glass in the sink. It's raining and he twitches a curtain away from the window. The street looks like a canal. He hopes it rains for days. Nate falls asleep in the chair by the window and is woken at dawn by the horrible creaking of his couch.

The rain has stopped.

“Fuck,” he says.

"What?" Brad says, sitting at end of the pull out.

“I like rain.”

Brad shrugs and cracks his neck. Nate stands to discover he can’t turn his neck either way without wincing. Brad removes tennis shoes from his bag and shakes them at Nate. He laughs sharply and shakes his head.

“Ow, fuck. Ow.”

Nate falls back asleep in his own bed.

-

“Did you sleep alright?” Brad asks immediately, dropping the newspaper.  

Nate pauses at the entrance to his kitchen.  

“Yes. My neck’s better and, of course, the sleeping in a bed part was nice. Why? Did you do something horrible to my apartment?”  

“No,” he says, but looks unsure. “You’re positive?”

“Okay, seriously, what did you break?”

Brad opens his mouth, eyes searching his. He closes it briefly before admitting, “I drank the last of your orange juice.”

“And you didn’t even make me coffee.”

“You left me to navigate the mean streets of Cambridge on my own.”

“And what dangerous streets they are. You could have startled any number of undergraduates into a panic attack.”

“You may also be out of bread.”

“I had over half a loaf. What the hell did you do with it?”

Brad grins, soft and wide across his face, but his eyes don’t change. Nate smiles and shakes his head before crossing the length of his kitchen to start the coffee.

-

For the rest of the week, they run together. Brad follows Nate’s route without question, except to once complain, “Only six?”

"Swim the difference," Nate says as he tries to push Brad toward the river.


-

Saturday night, Brad removes a large bottle of vodka from the freezer. Nate mixes it with orange juice until Brad asks, “What sorority are you rushing again?”

“Whichever one your mom is in,” Nate replies, but returns the juice to the fridge.

Jurassic Park is on TNT and they decide to drink every time there's a dinosaur.

-

Nate wakes up with his face flattened into the arm of his couch. He tries to stretch his legs, but there is a grunt.  

“I think that was my kidney.”

Nate moves his legs to the left and drops them across Brad’s knees.

“You have two.”

“They may both have evacuated my body in some kind of protest.”

“You were the one who wanted the dinosaurs. I had orange juice. Remember the orange juice?”

“Oh. There’s a little more vodka.”

“Shh.”

“We should finish it.”

“That’s not in the rules. I’m not going to.”

He feels Brad lean forward to retrieve the bottle from the floor. There is more vodka than Nate had expected. Brad unscrews the cap.

“Okay, you cannot drink all that. Stop, Brad.”

“Well, then help me, asshole.”

“I’ll go get the orange juice.”

I’ll go get the orange juice.”

Brad gets the orange juice, two clean glasses, and a bag of chips.  

“Next time, we invite Gloria,” Nate says accepting the glass. “I can’t believe she’s out of town the week you’re here. The two of you talking—that would be something.”

“It is sweet you want me to meet your replacement mother.”

“She doesn’t try to organize my shit.”

Nate is quiet for a moment.

“I told her about Iraq.”

Brad stops pouring orange juice into his glass.

“Yeah?”

“She just listens. And she doesn’t pretend I’m okay.”

Brad leans toward him.

“You are okay.”

“I’m better. But this can’t be okay. If this is okay, then I’d like to be something else.”

Brad looks at him, his jaw hard and serious.  

“You’ll be okay. You’ll be great. You’ll be really fucking great.”

“Well, if you think it’s true.”

“Shut up.”

“You’re a good part,” Nate says after Brad locates the the remote and starts flipping channels.

“Shut up,” Brad says again, but it’s soft and he’s smiling.  

-

They don’t run Sunday. Nate makes Western omelets and they watch cartoons. He works in the afternoon and Brad reads one of his foreign policy textbooks, laughing aloud.

Brad leaves Monday morning.

Nate wakes up Tuesday and rushes into the living room to tell Brad he has finally remembered that terrible blonde joke he overheard in a campus bar. The room is empty and he stands there in a moment of acute panic before his mind wakes enough to remember this room should be.

-

At 3:00 am in the middle of finals week he picks up his phone to call Brad about a quote in a book.  

Brad answers in a tense, tired voice.

“Everything okay?”

“What?”

“It’s 12:00 am here, which means it’s 3:00 am there so—”

“What?”

Nate finds his watch among the mess of his desk.

“Oh, fuck. I’m sorry. The last I checked it was 11:30.”

“Well, I’m awake now, so go on, what essential knowledge are you imparting?”

Nate looks at the book in his hands. The words swim.  

“It’s not important,” he says and closes the book.  

“Nate.”

There is a stiff pause.

“How have you been sleeping?”

“You want to know how I’ve been sleeping?” Nate finds this funny until he can’t remember the last time he slept more than four hours at a time. “It’s a busy week. End of term.”

“So not at all?”

“Some.”

“And the dreams?”

His mouth dries out.  

“I don’t— What do you mean the dreams?”

He can hear a rustling on the other end of the phone, like Brad is getting out of his bed.

“Right. I woke you up. I’ll just go and you can go back to sleep.”

He hangs up and dumps his phone onto his desk. The apartment is mostly dark and Nate leaves the lights off as he looks in his fridge and then eats an apple. His phone rings. He lets it.  

-

For a few months now, about once a week, he thinks he sees Brad while running. The men are always tall, not always blond, and he never quite catches the color of their eyes. Usually they jog towards and then past him, but once a man cut sharply in front of him and once he was the man fishing in the river.

That morning, after three rough hours of sleep, his exam in five more, three missed calls, and a headache approaching a migraine, everyone seems to fit.  

-

Nate takes the exam after drinking five cups of coffee, then he goes home and paces for an hour until the caffeine dissipates enough for him to fall, fully clothed, on top on his comforter and sleep.  

His phone is in his front pocket and the vibration startles him awake.  

“Hi, there.”

“Fuck you. Learn to answer and call back like a normal person.”

“You woke me up.”

“You woke me up first.  Are you all right, Nate?  And no bullshit. If I think you’re lying I will find Gloria’s number.”

“She will never give me up.”

“Then I’ll call your mother.”

“That’s low.”

“I’m worried.”

Nate turns onto his side and curls up.  

“How did you know?”

“The first night I visited, you went back to sleep and when I got back from running, you were almost yelling. You sort of woke up, looked right at me, told me you couldn’t find your gun, and then fell back asleep.”

“I don’t— remember that.”

“But you remember other times.”

“It’s not—I don’t have—it just happens, sometimes. Since I started telling Gloria about everything.”

“You need talk to someone, Nate.”

“I’m talking to you.”

“Not to me.”

“It’s a little like a panic attack, I guess,” Nate starts loudly. “It isn’t always a gun. Sometimes I’m sword fighting. It’s always life and death and I always wake up before there’s an outcome. I was just tired this week, worrying too much about a final. I promise. Please, don’t call my mother.”

Brad doesn’t laugh, but Nate would bet there’s a smile.  

“If it gets worse, don’t be an idiot.”

“I’m not—”

“You are.”

“I won’t be.”

“Good.”

Nate sits up and plays with the cuff of his jeans.  

“I’m done at the end of this week. Can I come visit you?”  

Brad exhales into the receiver.

“No. What we’re training for is happening, soon. You know there are always signs when it get close, but I can’t—”

“—tell me any more.”

“Right.”

“If you can, when you find out when, just so I know.”

“Of course.”

Nate holds the phone closer to his ear and pretends he can hear waves in the background.  

-

A week later, the buzz of a text wakes him.  

Brad is out of the country and Nate can’t stop himself from knowing exactly what that means. He can’t stop seeing the firefights and the crosshairs and it's a new reason he can’t sleep though the night. He rubs his eyes in the kitchen and tries to focus on cereal, but it’s soggy by the time he figures out his spoon. Nate starts his summer position with a local think tank and he wonders what they must think of him when he scrambles for his phone.  

-

Two of Gloria’s grandchildren visit in June and when Nate whispers to Gloria after dinner that he suspects they don’t like him, she pokes him in the chest.  

“Of course they don’t. I’m having trouble, currently. You know that saying about how some people can brighten a room with their smile? Lately, you’re pulling quite the reverse with that frown, dear.”  

Nate stomps across the hall and broods for an hour before he catches his reflection in his window and throws his hands up. The next morning, he buys a Super Soaker and chases the little brats around the block until they collapse on the front stoop. The youngest, Jason, takes this opportunity to tell him he’s awesome.  

Nate feels pretty awesome.  

He goes with them to the zoo the next day and the Boston Museum of Science the next.  Jason falls asleep in his lap on Gloria’s couch in the late afternoon light and Nate watches him breathe. For the first time, he thinks about how far away Brad is and doesn’t panic.  

-

Nate spends the 4th of July weekend at his parent’s house. He brings the Super Soaker and stages an epic battle with his nieces and nephews. It culminates with everyone turning their fire power on grandpa. Richard takes it well, considering, and Nate just shrugs when his father turns to him.

“You think I can control any of them?”

Nate changes into dry clothes in his old room and goes into the bathroom to rub a towel across his hair. He smiles at it sticking up in every direction and heads towards the kitchen. He short stops at the door frame; his mother and sister are talking about him.  

“He’s much better than in February,” his mother says. Nate can imagine her leaning against the sink, cigarette in hand. She’d quit smoking five years before, but his childhood is full of that image. “He’s still a high functioning wreck, but he’s less...collapsed.”  

“What’s he said about it?” Meg asks lightly, but Nate can hear the curiosity.  

“He’s not talking to me and he’s obviously not talking to you, so the specifics are none of your business.”

“I’m just worried,” Meg insists. “The last time I called him, he spoke only in Latin.”

“We’re in the middle of a standoff. He’s waiting for me to demand answers and I’m waiting for him to be ready to offer. I have no idea who he was able to open up to. He doesn’t seem to be close to anyone there.”

“No one?”

“Megan, if you want to know everything about your brother’s life, maybe you should ask him yourself.”

“You brought it up, Mom.”

“But I didn’t open the floor to questions.”

Nate turns around and exits out the side door. He finds his father leaning against the garage.  

“I don’t trust the lot.”

He nods towards his grandchildren, who are still playing in the front yard, then toward the cooler at his feet.

“If they try any more funny stuff, I’m going to dump ice water on them.”

“I don’t think it’ll even slow them down.”

“Then I’ll go hide behind your mother. They’re frightened of her.”

Nate nods solemnly, then fetches two folding chairs from the garage. His father hands him a beer and then holds his own up in a toast.

“To you,” he says.

-

Under the ripple of fireworks, the kids are catching fireflies with their last ounces of energy and Nate stands at the edge of the yard and looks at the first, creeping stars.  He checks his watch. It’s about 1:00 am in Iraq.  

-

“Thank you,” he tells Gloria and hands her a bouquet of roses. She rubs her fingers across the petals and Nate sees the tears gather at the edges.  

“I didn’t really–”

“You did. I didn’t know what I needed until after I found it. Let's just call it a happy accident.”  

She rubs the petals again.

“Would you get me the big vase from the sideboard?”

“Of course.”

-

This dream is different. Nate’s running. It’s dark and through it he thinks he can recognize his living room. Then there's Brad, falling onto sand and the bomb in that garden. They are running and running and Nate is tired when he wakes up.  

It happens every night for a week.  

-

In early August, Maggie, a second year law student, walks straight up to him in a park and asks him to dinner. He likes the way her smile pulls to the left and says yes.  They get pizza and talk about Plato and the Red Sox. Nate kisses her goodnight and it feels good. He’s going to call her the next morning; he needs something bright.

His phone rings as he’s unlocking the door and he thinks, Maggie, already? It’s Brad. He is very cold and then very hot and his fingers stumble across the keys to answer.

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

“I’ve—Are you okay?”

“The world is still going to hell in a fucking Humvee, but, yes, relatively speaking, I’m okay.”

He sounds just like Nate remembers. He slumps against his front door.  

“Good. That’s—that’s good. ”

“Listen, I’m not...back.”

“Oh.” 

The sound leaves his chest in a small puff.  

“This is the first time we’ve had access to phones since we came over. Figured I should let you know I'm still kicking.”

"And the mission, did—I mean, fuck, you can’t tell me that.”

Brad lowers his voice.  

“I don’t know how lack of communication can continue to surprise me, but Jesus Christ—”

He can hear Brad shut his mouth and exhale. Nate’s hand tightens on the phone. He wants to fix this, but there’s nothing...

“I’m sorry.”

Brad is quiet, but Nate imagines he is nodding his head, slow and even.

“Brad,” he says, with such conviction he startles himself.

“Yes?”  Brad sounds just as surprised.

Nate can hear his heart beat in his ears when he says, “I miss you.”

“Same.”

The world hangs there and Nate starts to feel as though he accidentally said something else.  

“And you?”  

“Me?”

“How are you?”

“Oh. Yeah. I’m okay. I’m staying busy.”  

His mind snaps to Maggie for a second. 

“I actually went—I actually visited my parents for the 4th,” he finishes, instead.  

“I bet the Fick family is very serious about their 4th of July celebration. You all get matching American flag t-shirts, don’t you?”

“Um...when we were younger, yes, my mother did do that to us.”

Brad laughs.

“I thought so. One 4th of July when I was a kid—” Brad starts, but there’s a rush of noise behind him and Nate knows what’s coming.

“Duty calls,” he says.

“Bye.”

Nate is momentarily startled to realize he's still in his hallway. Inside, he turns on his TV, but doesn’t watch it. There was something important he’d thought of while talking to Brad; it had been only half formed and it had moved fast, it had felt urgent. Nate goes to sleep with the prickle still creeping up his spine.  

The next morning he’s holding his phone, thinking of how best to invite Maggie on a second date, when it slips back. Somewhere in the middle of the want to smother and yell, to order and control, to drag everything into a perfect line, right between I’m sorry and I missed you he’d thought, I love you.

Nate's brain halts. He breathes in and out. He starts to laugh and it sounds slightly hysterical, but he stands at his counter and lets it pass. Then he coughs once and calls her.  

-

This is not going to change his life. This is not him. This is for other people. Nate’s just stupid and tired today. It’s just he misses the man and their strange stab at friendship. That’s why it feels like more than it is.

-

Nate doesn’t know how to explain the drum set in his chest when Maggie wonders why he seems to have lost the ability to carry on a conversation and asks if something large and life-altering has happened since last time.

“I’m sorry,” he finally manages. “I think I’m just tired. It’s been a weird week. Some minor family drama.”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” she says. "We can talk about it if you want?"

He shakes his head and she changes the subject, but her eyes stay worried.

Tonight, by her car, Nate doesn’t linger. It’s like kissing an old friend. Nothing glows; there is no light. He pulls back and knows she sees his confusion.  

“I’ll call you,” he manages.

She nods.

“Feel better about whatever’s bothering you.”

-

What he feels for Brad, he feels for everyone else. Theirs is the love of brothers who walked into fire together. It isn’t soft or pink or for Valentine’s Day. It’s about respect. It’s not meant to shock; you don’t have to hide it. It’s not breaking or bad. It’s just what happens when you agree to die for country.

-

“Hi,” Nate says the next time he calls Maggie.

“Hey, I was hoping I would hear from you. There’s a new place in Central Square that—”

“I don’t think this is a good time.”

“Excuse me?”

He honestly hadn't meant to say that, but now that it's out he lets it sit.

“What did happen last week, Nate? It felt like we had something going here, but now—”

“I have a friend,” he says. “My best friend, actually.”

He wills for her to understand, to accept that much as reason, even though he knows he hasn't said a thing worth hearing.  

“Did something happen to them, because, honestly, it sounds like someone died...”

The splutter he makes leaves his chest raw.

“I want...”

“You know, never mind. You don’t have to share. You're telling me this is over and I should listen. I’ll see you around, Nate.”  

“...him to come home,” he tells the dial tone.

-

So that’s why. It’s only worry and when Brad's back, when he’s in California again, when Nate can call him at 1:30 to describe an absurd commercial he won’t feel the rest. He is willing to entertain that Brad might be like a bucket filled to the brim which then flooded into other places in his heart and that he can scoop the water back. It’s just that, when he said home, he wasn’t thinking about California.

-

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hello, Nate. It’s wonderful to hear your voice. How are you?”

“I want to ask...how did you... How did you deal with me being over there?”  

She is quiet and Nate hates himself for asking because what didn’t she do and what could she do?

“Never mind. You don’t have to—”

“I hated thinking about you. It scared me more than I had ever been, but when I wasn’t thinking about you, when I had to focus on something else or when you slipped my mind, and then I would remember, that was— it was worse because what if you had,” she stops and Nate hears a catch of breath, “when I wasn’t watching?”

He can hear her start to cry and he bites down on his lip.  

“Honey, why?”

“I love you, Mom.”

He hangs up and closes his eyes very tight. It doesn’t work. Brad is bigger than everyone else. Even if he could scoop the water, he’d need a larger bucket and then it would still hold the same things.  

-

She waits a day, but his mother calls back.  

“Hi.”

“Hello, dear,” she says.  

Nate waits for her questions, for whatever news she’s pretending he’ll care about, but they don’t come.  

“How’s dad?” he coughs as the silence builds.

“Your father is fine, I’ll tell him you were asking.”

She's quiet again; Nate thinks he can hear her turn the pages of a book.

“Is there something you needed to talk to me about?”

“Hmm?”

“Mom, you called me.”

“Yes, I did.”

“But you have nothing to say?”

“Nate, I have plenty to say.”

“Okay, then.”

“Okay.”

Nate hates his mother’s mind games. He takes the phone from his ear and considers hanging up.

“I’m worried about the men who are still over there,” he says instead.  

“Honey, of course you are.”

“I don't want to go back, but not being able to control any of it—”

 

"You were never good with things you couldn't control."

There's so much more he could say, but right now, he know this is more than enough. 

“Have a good night, Nate,” she says softly into his silence.

“You too, Mom.”

-

Nate runs along the river and gets sun burnt, but he also has a plan. It involves specific questions he can or cannot ask and a ban on talking about feeling sorry for or missing Brad, but it’s mostly about ignoring how much hearing Brad’s voice across this distance is going to hurt.  

-

“I just want to play cards,” he tells Gloria with passion the weekend before his semester starts. “I don’t want to talk about anything. Just the cards.”
 
Gloria nods seriously and deals. She knocks after six hands. As she marks the score, Nate takes the deck and shuffles.  

“It’s so I can concentrate on the game. No distractions.”

She undercuts him severely in the next game and in the one after she gets gin after two hands. Nate drops his cards and pushes away from the table.  

“Gloria, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“You’re playing the game correctly, I’m just better at it.”

“Almost suspiciously better—” he starts, but his phone rings. When Nate sees the screen he stands and gestures to Gloria he’ll be taking the call. His hands don’t shake as he answers and walks towards Gloria’s front windows.   

“Hi.”

“Hey.”

It hurts like he thought it would, quick and deep.  
 
“Are you—”

“Still over here. There have been certain additional...fuck-ups.”

“You do sound a litle less ready kill than before.”

Brad laughs.

“Give it an hour or two.”

“Anything along the lines of Ray Person and a cook stove to report?”

And it’s easy, listening to this story. It isn’t any different than before and maybe Nate was mistaken. Maybe this all he needs.  

“This isn’t like last time, we’re not traveling every day in those fucking things. We have had reason to travel in Humvees the total of four times, but there is a Private who, every single time, has not only ended up on top of one, but has also fallen off. We don’t know why he climbs them or why he can’t stay up there when he does, but he could do without the repeat trauma to his head.”

They both laugh and another question is on Nate’s tongue, but Brad asks first.  

“How was the rest of your summer?”

Well, Nate suddenly wants to say, it’s taken an unexpected turn. He pushes the twisting of his stomach away, but his hand has tightened on his phone and now he can’t feel any of his fingers. He should hang up.  

“It’s almost over. But it was nice while it lasted.”

He can’t open his hand. He can’t imagine pushing the button, severing the connection, but he also knows what’s going to happen next.

“Soon you’ll be back in those storied halls of learning and I’ll have to come up with new ways to distract you from your work. Don’t tell, but when the officers aren’t looking we teach classes on annoying them.”

It is living on his tongue like fire. It is going to burn Brad away.

“I'm in with love you.”

“What the fuck?”  

Nate is in an old woman’s apartment. There are ceramic busts and porcelain chickens on the shelves and cross-stitched sayings framed on the walls. He doesn't know why he didn't stop himself. 

“Shit. Why didn’t I hang up? I knew that was going to happen. I saw it and I let it.”

“Nate, you need to stop talking and actually explain what the hell you're saying.”

“But I don't—" He's trying to make sense, he really is, but this is all happening right now. "I'm not sorry. Even though I'm pretty sure that makes me even more of an asshole.”

“Yeah is really does. I am going to need you to rewind and explain—”

 

“Is knowing when or why or how long really something you want to know?”

“I would have been fine not knowing at all, but you fucked that up already.”

“I'm going to hang up now,” Nate is so tired and he has to patch this wound alone.

“Don’t—”

Nate stays on the line, eyes closed, head leaned so far forward he's waiting to tip. He hears Brad abandon two sentences before he says, very quietly, “I’ll call you again.”

“Sure.”

“I will.”

“I probably won't answer.”

“Answer.”

“Brad, how can I? With what I just ruined? It’s not getting rebuilt. It’s not coming back.”

Nate hangs up then and collapses onto Gloria’s floor. He breathes into his cupped hands.  

“Have you ever done anything that stupid?”

“Of course I have.”

Nate turns to find her in the kitchen, standing behind his chair.

“What happened?”

“Howard and I were married for 50 years when he died.”

Nate leans his forehead on his hands and laughs.  

-

His classes start and, just like last September, Brad isn’t there. It’s nice, knowing he’s already done this part alone. Nate starts to accept friendly offers of company, but there is still a lot of empty space. There are still a lot of things he doesn’t tell anyone. He wonders what he did with those things before.

-

Nate doesn’t realize how long he’s gone without a violent dream until he bolts awake after dreaming about Brad and leaning in until they were forehead to forehead, a hand around the base of Brad’s skull and his lips open. In the shower, he lingers over the memory of Brad’s interest in his dreams.  

-

True to his word, Brad starts calling in October. Nate doesn’t answer. Brad calls for weeks without leaving messages and then sends a single email which reads, “I get it.  You told me so.”

When Nate calls his mother to ask if he should bring anything to Thanksgiving, she tells him, “A date,” and Nate laughs so hard he drops his phone.

-

A package arrives from California as winter starts to show. Nate slits the tape with a knife and pulls out something rectangular and covered in bubble wrap. It’s a certificate “For the purpose of announcing Mr. Nate Fick has been declared suitable company by Mr. Brad Colbert.” There’s a glossy, fake seal and a line where Brad signed. It’s even framed.  

Nate dials, hand shaking.

“Thank you.”

“It was your idea.”

“It was me mocking your poor social skills.”

“You can send it back if you don’t like it.”

“I like it. I already hung it up.”

“Is it above or below the one from Dartmouth?”

“I’m detecting a sense of disdain towards my alma mater.”

“I only have the utmost respect for each of the places where you attended school.”

“Good, because if I catch you talking shit about my grade school we’re really going to have a problem. K-5 was prime time. Mostly due to the designated snack break.”

“Visit me.”

Nate sighs.

“And it was going so well.”

“You wanted to. You should.”

“You don’t have to offer that.”

“Will you shut up and say yes?”

“No, I won’t, because it’s a very stupid idea.”

“Then I’ll visit you. How’s Christmas?”

“I’m at my sister’s.”

“Right after Christmas.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Think about it.”

“Brad,” he raises his voice, “the answer is–”

Brad raises his higher.  

“Just think about it.”

The silence ticks. Nate’s jaw unclenches.  

“I’ll think about it.”

He runs to the river’s edge in the mist of predawn and looks at the trapped, browning water. He thinks about the ocean.

-

With noise and warmth they eat turkey and pie and his youngest nephew gets caught feeding his green beans to the dog.

Meg finds him on the porch after she puts her kids to bed.

“You look much better. Less zombie like and all that.”

“Sick of getting all your news from mom?”

“She keeps withholding the good stuff.”

“She doesn’t know the good stuff.”

“So there’s good stuff?”

Nate watches his breath hang in the air.

“There might be.”

She elbows him in the ribs.

“And?”

“And don’t tell mom or I won’t tell you.”

“Deal, but I want something concrete now.”

“No.”

“Hey Mom,” Meg acts, “Do you know why Nate didn’t bring his girlfriend to Thanksgiving? Oh, you didn’t know he had one? Well, he didn’t really tell me, but you know how he is, all those secrets. You think she calls a lot now.”

“There’s not a girl.”

“If by ‘good stuff’ you meant something to do with your higher education, I will push you off this porch and lock all the doors.”  

“It’s nothing to do with a girl.”

She starts to shoulder him towards the railing. Nate pushes back and she stomps on his foot.

“Foul!”

“Liar!”

Nate circles away from her, towards the house.

“It hurts you don’t believe me.”

“Nate. You know nothing besides a girl qualifies as good stuff, but you dangle shit in front of me anyway. Now I know you’re some kind of big shot Marine, but I am also fairly certain you are still a little scared of me.”

Nate realizes she has managed to back him into the corner of the porch.

“How did this happen?”

“You will never know.”

He drops his head and runs his fingers through his hair.  

“I maintain that there is no girl. Do your worst.”  

Nate manages to get back into the house through one of the dining room windows. He looks up from his tumble into the darkened room to find Meg at the head of the table with two glasses of wine.  

“You forgot this window.”

“You think I’m sitting here by accident?”

He whistles low and shakes his head.

“Sit down,” she says, pushing one glass across the table. “Tell me about him.”  

Nate takes the glass, but he doesn’t sit down.  

“It’s not pretty. And I make very bad choices.”

“I promise I won’t stop loving you.”

Nate makes a face at her as he drinks from the glass and then sits heavily.  

“He was in my unit. He’s still in the Marines and I told him I was in love with him over the phone while he was overseas."

“Wow. You weren’t kidding.”

“He’d somehow become my best friend and now that’s just gone. He keeps offering to visit, but it’s a lost battle. We can't go backwards from this.”

“Wait, he wants to visit? Is this after you told him you loved him, that’s when he asked to visit?”

“Yes. Not right after. And not like you think.”

“I vote you tell me the whole thing in chronological order and I decide that for myself.”

“I vote you go to hell,” Nate replies, but he finishes the glass and starts with the email.

-

Meg fills their glasses again and says, “I’m very sorry for not caring more when your life sucked so much.”

“Thank you,” Nate responds as he lifts the glass. “But honestly, leaving me alone was the best thing you could have done. Space is hard to come by with mom and I needed it.”

“I’m going to have to remember that dropping-in-with-no-warning-and-keeping-my-departure-date-a-secret trick for when my kids grow up and become emotionally repressed.”  

“A Fick family tradition, that.”

Meg sets her elbows on the table and leans forward.

“Nate, I want you to listen carefully. Brad sought out your friendship in a way reminiscent of a lonely teenage girl. Then, when you made an ass of yourself, he still called you, repeatedly, much like a teenage girl. And when you didn’t call him back, he resorted to arts and crafts gleaned from a thing you once said way back when, exactly like a teenage girl.”

Nate falls into a fit of giggles across the table cloth.

“Brad isn’t often compared to a teenage girl?”

“It’s very safe to say you are only person in the world who has ever done so.”

“I’m not wrong.”

“You are very wrong.”

“You won’t be in love with him forever.”

“Meg—”

“I know it feels like that now, but if he really doesn’t like you, you’ll get over him. So your friendship will be awkward for awhile, big deal. You’ve probably survived worse.”

Nate drums his fingers on the table before he looks up.

“Just let him visit, you...dunce.”

He tries to bite back his grin, but they are both laughing hysterically when Richard finds them on his way to the kitchen to sneak another piece of pie.  

-

This year, Gloria’s wreath is a string of fake ivy, with glitter covered snowflakes between the leaves. It is already up by the time he arrives home from his parent's. Nate curls into the chair by his front window and wraps a blanket around his legs.

“Okay,” he says when Brad answers the phone.

Brad starts typing and talking about possible dates and Nate sits there, nodding. He should explain these stupid expectations his sister has unleashed before Brad buys his ticket and he has to watch their friendship further destruct, this time in person.  

“The 28th? Nate? Are you still there?”

But Brad believes in their friendship. He looks at the pieces and doesn’t see the same hopeless mess. Nate takes a deep breath. Like it’s a town, he believes him.  

“The 28th. That’s good.”

-

Nate knocks on his sister’s door and says, “Don’t worry, he’s coming,” as a greeting.

“There’s someone else coming?” her husband, Paul, says as he takes the brown paper bag Nate is holding.

“He better. I will haunt you if he doesn’t.”

“You haunt me right now.”

“Kids, Uncle Nate said he would build snowmen with you.”

Meg takes his overnight bag from his shoulder and shoves him back outside. Nate helps build six snow creatures of various species before everyone is called inside for dinner. It feels like family in a way he hasn’t felt since coming home. He’s quiet because this looks fragile, a snowflake lattice. Then Meg asks if he remembers when he was seven and she convinced him a man lived in their garage and controlled the door.  

“Vividly.”

“Nate didn’t go into the garage for weeks. Mom to let him out in the driveway or he would start to bawl. It took you almost three weeks to tell anyone why and then Dad had to literally carry you in there to show you it was gears and not a short, hairy man named Boris.”

“Your mother is a terrible person,” Nate stage whispers to his six-year-old niece.

“I know,” Claire responses, earnestly.

Meg flicks a pea at Nate’s face.  

After dinner, Nate helps Meg and Paul fill the stockings and arrange the presents. Paul turns out all the lights except for the tree and Nate offers to get everyone a drink.  When he returns to the living room with three glasses, they are silhouetted against the bay window: Meg, with her head on Paul’s shoulder. Nate steps back into the kitchen.  

-

There’s snow on Brad’s shoulders when Nate opens the door and he wants so much to know if his lips are as cold as they look. All this distance did nothing to stamp out his hopeful, foolish heart. 

“What?” Brad says, “Did you forget this was today?”  

He is carrying the same, small bag.

“This isn’t going to work,” Nate says.

Brad’s eyes freeze on his.

“Oh!” Gloria exclaims as she opens her door, “You’re here.”

Brad turns fast and Nate keeps staring at where his eyes were.  

“You must be Gloria. It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

“You’re too sweet,” she smiles, and accepts his hand. “Dinner is ready.”

“I thought we would eat with Gloria, tonight,” Nate states quickly, when Brad looks back at him.  

Brad’s face tightens, but he says, “That sounds wonderful.”

“I’ll take your coat and your bag.”  

Brad looks down to the bag in his hand and up to Nate’s. For one, wild moment Nate believes Brad is going to turn around and take the bag with him, but then it drops, heavy, into his hand. Gloria shoos Brad across the hall and Nate steps backwards into his apartment. He holds Brad’s bag in one hand, his coat in the other. He wants to hide them as much as he wants to throw them out the window. He leaves the coat on the back of a chair and the bag just inside the door.  

Gloria serves pot roast and mashed potatoes and questions Brad about the accuracy of Nate’s stories. Brad answers with the politeness born of military training, but Nate knows he is wary of how much she knows. Nate moves his food around his plate and ignores most of the conversation.  

He has to work not to react when Brad tells Gloria, “Nate sent me one of your wreathes last year.”

“Oh, yes. I remember that. Christmas, was it?”

“Snowmen and reindeer, ma’am. It was partially a joke—my family is Jewish—but I appreciate fine craftsmanship, no matter the source.”

“Thank you. You probably saw this year’s on the door. You would get the family discount if you’re interested. This one is very non-denominational.”

“Even so, one holiday wreath is my limit. I have to keep up appearances. I admit, the one I have now is hanging on the back of my door.”

Gloria hmms and Nate’s head snaps up.

“What?”

“It’s on the back of my front door.”

Nate wants to call bullshit, wants to tear into him for lying about something so small and stupid, but it’s just the kind of impossible thing Brad would do.

There is pie for dessert and then Nate loads the dishwasher while Brad drinks coffee and Gloria talks about the blizzard of ’78. Nate leaves first, after kissing Gloria’s cheek. He unlocks his door, but doesn’t go inside. He waits for Brad to say goodnight and then he turns around. Brad stops short, outside of Gloria’s now closed door, wreath just visible behind him. His eyes are cold again. Nate opens the door without looking, keeps his eyes on Brad. Brad moves in two quick strides to the doorway and almost takes a third, but stops with a shudder on Nate’s plane. Nate tries to stand still, but his hands want to move. He ducks far into the room.  

Brad closes the door and sees his bag.  

“It’s like I never left.”

“Shut up.”

Brad turns to him, quick and pointed.

“I’m going to bed.”

“Nate... that was stupid to say.”

“This whole thing is—” he stops himself. “I’m not doing this.”

“You told me I could come here.”

“I was wrong. It’s been known to happen.”

“Stop. You don't have to—”

“There are a lot of things which were my fault and I would very much appreciate it if you would let me accept the blame I’m due.”

“Fine take it.”

“I am,” Nate moves towards his bedroom.

“But you don’t deserve it.”

Nate stops and shakes his shoulders out as he turns back. He looks at Brad, still standing right inside his door, still saying things which make him shiver. Brad can’t hear his own voice and he can’t see what he looks like. Nate needs to explain.    

“Did you really hang up the wreath?”

Brad considers the question, looking for trip wires.  

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“It was Christmas.”

“Why?”

“A little over 2000 years ago some chick said she was knocked up by God and the kid grew up to do a bunch of important things like making wine and dying for your sins.”

“This is the last time I’m asking.”

“I don’t know, Nate. What else do you do with a Christmas wreath?”

“If you’re you, you throw it away.”

Brad looks around the room, like he wants to deny it. Then his eyes catch on the Christmas cards Nate still has propped on his counter top.  

“You gave it to me.”

“No,” Nate shakes his head.

“That’s why,” Brad insists.

“You don’t get to say that.”

Brad almost steps forward, but changes his mind at the point where he almost bobs in place.

“Fine. Tell me, Nate, what should I have said?”

“You weren’t supposed to have kept it. And you weren’t supposed to call me again. Or send me that certificate. Or come here. What is all this, Brad? What did you really want when you called me last year? What were you judging your request of friendship on? Iraq? An email? The wreath? What do you want from me?”

The silence is very clear and then a siren wails by and Brad’s words seem to hang on its tail.  

“I want to be your friend, but you’re making it difficult right now.”

“I asked you to stay away, damn it. You can’t tell me you don’t know how hard this is for me.”

Brad’s mouth opens before he speaks.  

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Nate smiles, small and dark.

“You being my friend and all, you should know when I’m serious.”

“I knew you were serious, I—”

“Just didn’t care? Thought you knew better? Well, you really fucking don’t.”

“Once an officer...”

“Fuck you.”

“Is that a request? Or an order?”

Nate crosses the entire room.  

“Get out,” he says, the words metal sharp across his tongue.

Nate can see a tiny flinch across Brad’s face, but he says, “I’m not going to find a crappy motel because you’re not strong enough to make a decent effort to rise above all your shit.”

“I'm not strong enough to rise above my shit?" he repeats, quiet and mostly to himself.  

“You’re not–”

“You’re right. If I was strong enough I would have flown to California the second you got back and kissed you in the middle of the fucking airstrip. There’s been some terrible kind of weakness keeping me here. I’ve been hiding behind it and pretending it was the difficult thing.” His voice is loud and calm. “I’m not going to be in love with you forever, Brad. Why couldn’t you just promise to go away until I said it was done?”

Brad’s entire body flashes with anger and Nate straightens to his full height, but Brad half steps back and everything falls away. His spine bends, his arms droop, and his eyes are almost like water.  

“I... I don’t know.”

Nate pushes him against the door, one hand around the back of his neck and the other pressed to his chest. He crushes his mouth onto Brad’s and then pulls back to bite the edge of his bottom lip. Brad jerks and his hands go up to Nate’s shoulders. He doesn’t push away and Nate moves forward, pressing closer with his hips and his mouth. It’s a scramble for something, his hands up and down Brad’s chest, through his hair and down his neck. And Brad has one hand stuck on his right shoulder and he’s lifting the other to Nate’s face. Brad’s lips open. Nate’s knees try to go, but he drops more weight onto Brad and the door. Brad shifts up and Nate feels the thick line of his cock against his leg. Brad snaps his head to the side and pants onto his shoulder, eyes very wide. Nate lets his fingers drag, but he takes two steps away.  

“I’m going to leave now,” Brad says.  

“It’s been snowing all day.”

“This is not what—”

“At least stay tonight.”

“How is this—”

“I won’t leave my room until you’re gone.”

“Can you please be on the same page as me?”

Nate can’t stop his laugh, but he stifles it and nods.

“Not easy, is it?”

Brad can’t even manage to look angry.  

“Whatever you need me to do,” Nate says, and he lets his fingers touch the cuff of Brad’s shirt. Brad watches as Nate’s hand curls closer until their fingers are linked. He looks at their hands like he can’t even begin to name the animal and pulls them slowly apart.  

“I need to leave.”

“Okay.”  

His eyes get big again and his fingers start to work on the cuff Nate had touched.  

“It’s been snowing all day.”

“Indeed, it has.”

Brad tries a smile, but it only makes him look more lost. He shakes his head and puts on his coat.  

“I think I need to go home.”

“I’m learning it can be a very good place if you let it.”

“I hope so.”

He picks up the unopened bag and opens the door. Nate holds onto the back of his couch so he doesn’t try to run to him. Brad turns around and he lets go of the couch. 

“I’ll call.”

He grips it tighter.  

“I’ll pick up.”

Brad closes the door swiftly. From the window, Nate watches him struggle against the snow until he’s gone.  

-

Nate moves after he graduates. Before locking his old door for the last time he looks around the place and decides it’s best like this: empty. He knocks on Gloria’s door and reutters the promise to visit as often as he can. He knows she’s crying, but it’s so quiet he doesn’t comment. She presses a deck of cards into his hand and gently tells him to get out.  

-

Meg has another girl and he takes his time when buying presents: nothing pink. She presses her forehead to his when he arrives and says, “I’m sorry he still hasn’t called.” Nate doesn’t ask how she knows.  

-

In the office he hangs his diplomas, but keeps Brad’s certificate in his desk drawer. When he’s had a bad day, he opens the drawer and looks at the names. He thinks about Brad, drunk and smiling on his couch. He thinks about the sun and the ocean. He doesn’t think about the snow.

-

He finds this apartment to be a different kind of empty because he knows what’s supposed to be there.

-

Brad spends some of the time in England and most of it at war. They talk online where there are no voices and a delete key and it makes sense when the world feels fake.  
-

Except Nate thinks about it every time he watches a woman walk away and wants to follow. Every time someone smiles and it’s just for him. Every morning he wakes up and there is no one next to him and no one’s called and he’ll have Brad’s name on the screen of his phone before he drops it back onto the counter.

He’s running in a different place now, but it feels the same.

-

It’s a Tuesday in October when Gloria dies. One of her daughters, Jason’s mother, calls him. Nate feels stupid, thanking her for the news, but he does and then he pours himself a drink. He watches the front window and prays for rain. At the funeral, Jason doesn’t remember him and it makes Nate feel very small until the grandniece who had been Gloria’s favorite throws her arms around him. He holds her and it’s hard to let go.  

-

Three of his cousins had weddings that past year so Nate stays put for Christmas. He looks at Alice’s number and folds the paper in half until the corners are too thick. On New Year’s he’s out with friends and drinks enough to declare he’s done waiting for people to call him. No one knows exactly what he’s talking about, but there’s a lot of patting him on the shoulder when he can’t pull his phone from his pocket to prove no one’s called.  

-

Nate wakes up with a New Year’s hangover to discover, after a frantic search, his phone had slipped into the lining of his coat. There are, of course, two messages.

“I hope it’s snowing where ever you are,” Brad says, his voice drunk and warm, “and that you’re very cold. I am enjoying the best non-weather California has to offer and Ray isn’t here to vomit on anything so it’s been a real winner of an evening.” His breath crackles for a moment. “Listen, I don’t usually make resolutions, but... this year I’m looking to make some friends. Any suggestions?”

The second was left hours later. Brad’s voice is tired, but very clear.    

“Also,” he says, “it should be noted you didn’t pick up, asshole.”

-

California is that nice kind of warm which feels like a smile. The day is clear and Brad does a double take when he sees Nate leaning on his fence. Brad shakes his hand and Nate can see the urge to lean in further tick along his skin. Brad presses his hands to his sides.

“I’ll be back in the afternoon. I only have a few matters which require my attention,” he says with precision and continues towards the street.

“Brad,” Nate says and his body stops like a tank, “am I allowed to wait inside your house?”

Brad hovers in the doorway after letting Nate in, but pulls sharply from the frame a moment after almost leaning inside. Nate watches him inch his way up the front path before he climbs onto his bike and roars away.  

Nate looks through his CDs and waters the drooping flowers on the porch. He wanders down to a gas station and buys two postcards. He writes and mails one to Meg.  The other he writes to Gloria and keeps in his pocket.

-

They eat on the porch and Nate keeps looking at him in the thinning light and Brad keeps ducking his head when he notices. Clouds follow the night, press the sky closer. And when Brad stands, with a long, arched stretch, to go to bed, Nate has the sudden thought that he is going to slide his hand across his shoulders say, come with me, and that will be that.  

Brad doesn’t; he just lets the screen door drop behind him. Nate finishes his beer.  

Brad is in his kitchen, setting dishes in the sink, lit by a dim strip-light. Nate steps right up to him. Brad is cast into shadow as soon as he turns. His face moves all at once; it’s more of a sound than actual words and he brings his knuckles to his mouth to help stop it.

“What?” Nate says, very soft.

The storm starts all at once. Caught in the first flash, Brad’s eyes are wide and ice blue. Nate looks right at them.

“If I wanted to be your friend, I could have just called. Me? I’m here for the non-weather.”

The lightning flashes the sky purple and Brad reaches for him.  

-

In the bedroom, Brad’s curtains can’t keep out the lightning and it’s like someone is taking pictures of his stoic face falling apart as Nate takes off his clothes. With Brad on top and thrusting, Nate is so unprepared for him to slow and cant his head to press his lips right to his ear. He speaks and Nate shudders against Brad’s body and twists to meet his lips.  

It’s after they’ve fallen side by side onto the cooling bed with the rain still running and his heart beating faster than his chest knows how to control that a hand curves into his and Brad falls asleep at his shoulder. Nate tucks his head down and breathes into his glow of sleep.

-

He follows Brad along the beach. Their feet kick up sand, thick after the rain. There is something large written with rocks, but there isn’t light enough to read. Brad turns toward the cliffs. At the top, there is an overlook and a white fence. The sun is creeping up behind the city.  

The fence needs paint. Nate leans on the tallest railing. Night settles in the ocean; sinks under steady, brilliant color. His eyes feel too big for his face, as though they’d like to push themselves from the sockets and dive. This air is salty all the way into his blood. On the beach, someone has written, happy birthday.  

“I’m glad you came to visit.”

He finds Brad in front of him, backlit like the skyline. Where the light slips around his body, it is yellow and fine.  

“Me too.”

Brad leans in without touching him. The kiss is soft; another color on the ocean. Brad pulls back and there is the smallest, smallest spot of blue above his head.
 
“Race you,” he says.

Nate runs.