Chapter 1: The Day Before
my love is like a dark cloud full of rain
that's always right there up above you
“See America Right” by The Mountain Goats
It wasn't the state trooper that woke him. That honor was claimed by the wide-eyed kid blinking at him through the open window and yelling over his shoulder that he found a dead guy, Dad, come look!
He'd passed out in the rest stop at some point in the early morning. Seat shoved back and reclined as far as it would go, feet propped out the window because it had felt right at the time. But come morning his legs were numb and his ankles ached like an amputation line where they rested on the lip of the window.
He grunted and winced and slowly retracted them, and then it was like his whole body was blaring out distress calls, chief of all in his head.
His eyes teared up against the bright morning light. He sat up and fumbled over the dashboard for his sunglasses. Shoved them on his face just in time for the state trooper to show up.
Right. The cop. He had a mustache that was almost too much to be believed, and a hardass expression that said quite plainly we don't like your sort around here.
Not anymore. “No, sir.”
“You smell drunk.”
Flick a Bic too close to his mouth, and you were liable to set the air on fire. “I had a bit of a rough night. But I'm fine now.” He summoned the memory of a smile.
Trooper made a show of looking over his vehicle, hands on hips and lips pursed beneath that fucking mustache. Nix knew what the man thought he saw. Rich asshole, all liquored up and out driving in his fancy car, probably thought he could just pay his way out of any trouble if it came to that. (And, well. Nix could. Not the point, though.)
He held back his nausea and hoped he wouldn't have to use the vet card. It made him feel like a complete tool, but he couldn't afford the delay of half a day in jail.
Fortunately, in the end, the trooper let him go with a stern word of warning undergirded with the suggestion that he get the hell out of his county. Nix wasted no time putting his car into gear and going while the offer to avoid lock-up was still on the table.
Sun was already higher than he would like. Pennsylvania was a fair many miles farther yet, and he had a wedding to get to.
It's Harry he found first, by accident.
He arrived late in the evening and sniffed out the nearest bar, because why not. And what do you know but his second best friend in the world was set up against the counter, grinning crooked across the room as he instantly recognized Lewis in the doorway.
He hadn't expected to meet up with anyone just yet – didn't know that this particular bar would be the watering hole for his old friends. Second to last time he stepped foot in this town, none of them had been old enough to buy alcohol. (The drinking had still occurred, understand, just not in a fine, licensed establishment like this one.) And the last time, well. He hadn't drank the last time.
“Lewis Nixon,” Harry said as he walked up, eyes darting all over him, like he could see every inch of hard road on his rumpled suit and stubbled jaw. “You know, you are a reassuring man.”
He hooked a stool out with an ankle and sat. “That so.”
Nothing in either of their tones suggested that they hadn't seen each other in over three years.
Lewis caught the eye of the bartender. Man came over and he ordered a double, neat. Not the Vat but the closest approximation this bar would have. He felt Harry's eyes on him the whole time, amused but not wholly forgiving.
“How'd you know to come here?” Harry asked, rolling his own beer back and forth between his hands.
“I didn't – lady at the Hampton mentioned it was close by.”
A lie; he was not checked in yet. Got over the bridge on 44 and wound around the old killer bend PennDOT still hadn't redesigned; saw the familiar scattering of lights and knew he'd need a drink before putting himself up in some hotel room like a stranger passing through.
He cast a glance around the room. “This where you usually hang out, then?” He looked back at Harry in time to catch a slightly bitter smirk. “What?”
“Nothing, Lew.” He shrugged and lifted his beer for a healthy dose. “Sure. This is where I usually hang out. Me and the rest of the guys.”
“Yeah? All of them?”
“Well, Dick still doesn't drink,” Harry said. His sharp eyes waited until they registered the hit before cutting away. “And even if he did, he wouldn't tonight, what with – tomorrow and everything.”
“He's taking more care than the groom himself,” Lewis said lightly. He wished the bartender would hurry up with that drink. “Why does that not surprise me.”
“You know Dick. He's very serious about his duties as best man.” It was impossible to decipher Harry's tone. Lewis could probably read judgment in it, if he cared to look. He didn't.
Harry continued, “So he's not coming out tonight. But Lip and Ron said they'd swing by.”
Lewis felt the tension bleed out of his shoulders and watched Harry take it all in with a half-bitter slice of a smile. And he thought, could you be more transparent.
Summer after graduation, when the days feel like the sun's out until near midnight and none of them ever need any sleep, they get it into their collective heads to build a boat.
“A raft,” Dick corrects, because he doesn't have a single fanciful bone in his whole body.
It's an all-hands-on-deck affair, both literally and metaphorically. Harry provides the barrels from some connection of his uncle; Ron shows up one day with a retro little Evinrude and no explanation; Dick and Lip are the only two who took shop class, so they're in charge of figuring out how to actually build the damn thing; and Lew, having the best head for numbers, does his part early on by working out how many barrels and what surface area they'll need to haul five eighteen-year-old boys and accompanying supplies on the water.
“I padded the calculations a little,” he'll say once it's built and they are floating down the river for the first time, rocking in the wake of pontoons and speeding motorboats. “It really only needed four and a half men, on account of Harry.”
And Harry will then shove him overboard. Lew won't know what is louder, the splash or his friends' laughter.
The only thing left in question after all the planning is sorted are the materials for the deck. Lew waits until they come up with an estimate of what they need before he claps Dick on the back – real paternal, like he is one of their fathers – and announces he'll take care of it.
“Lew,” Dick says quietly, “that amount of lumber – even if you pick it up on the cheap, it's still going to be – ”
“Dad didn't give me the plastic for nothing,” he says, and leaves with Harry and Ron in tow, all three of them biting back smirks.
It's late when they retrieve the wood. Harry is lookout and getaway driver while he and Ron sneak onto the remodeling site of the Wells Fargo bank downtown. They move back and forth until there is a neat pile of white pine 2x4s and 2x10s in the bed of his truck.
With the way the bank has ripped off half the folks in town, including Lip's, they figure they are practically performing a public service. Not that they plan on ever telling Lip or Dick about it.
So gathering the supplies is more of a production than actually building the damn thing, which takes all of one afternoon in Ron's parents' driveway. Ron is the only one of them who lives on the river, and they figure it's going to be hard enough getting the final product onto the water without having to cart it out to a public landing.
Lew tries to help with the aligning and hammering and all that, but is testily waved off by Dick, so he mostly sits back in a lawn chair and sips beer. Harry and Ron, not having even attempted to muscle in on the construction action, spend their time pitching a baseball to each other on the lawn.
The late June sun overhead finally brings on some proper summer heat.
Lew's sunglasses slip down his nose, and sweat springs up enough to bother even Dick, who strips off his t-shirt and throws it to the side like Lip had wisely done over an hour previous. He's going to burn, but there is no sense in telling a farm boy that. Every summer around baling season, he shows up in the evenings with his corded forearms colored an impressive deep red and radiating heat like a stove.
“What're we gonna call it?” Harry says, coming to a halt at some point beside Lew's chair and stealing his beer.
“Hm?” Lew is hazy with heat and beer, gazing unfocused at Dick and Lip moving back and forth over the still-unrecognizable shape of their raft.
He doesn't really pay attention to the following conversation. Ron shows up and there is some good-natured bickering back and forth across the lawn. Lip wants to call it the Indefatigable, after some ship from the Hornblower books he geeked out over last year. Ron sides with him, because that's what he always does. Harry thinks the name is too much of a mouthful. And Dick ignores all of them and continues hammering away, the muscles in his shoulder and back flexing with every controlled swing.
Lew drowses and sweats and daydreams. When they tell him later that they've decided to name the raft the Enterprise, he doesn't bother calling them on the nerdy cliché of it all.
The next trial is the painting. And you'd think they were all girls, the way they argue about that one.
Eventually, for lack of a consensus, they give in to Lip's recommendation of a clear varnish and let the raft stand au naturale. Except Ron insists on painting the motor mount in the middle of the raft a bright fire-engine red. It's his motor, so that's the end of the discussion, really.
And then it is barely just July, and they suddenly have a new mode of transportation, one unhampered by parents or curfews or money or law.
“We still need to abide by – well – all of those, actually,” Lip says.
Lew and Harry shush him, and Ron slings an arm around his neck and says into his ear, “Relax for once.”
Surprisingly, Dick doesn't say anything. When Lew glances around, he finds him sitting on the edge near the back of the deck, his jeans rolled up to his knees and his legs in the water. The thin white shirt he's wearing has streaks of oil around the waist from where the motor slipped when they were inserting it. He has his head tipped thoughtfully back and is observing the river.
The sky is a brilliant creeping purple, and it makes the bluffs on the river's edge look almost red.
The others go on arguing, Lew doesn't recall exactly what about. Later, the only thing he'll remember is the slow slither of the evening river sluicing around their new craft, and Dick Winters finally enjoying it all.
The Night Before
It would almost be better, or easier maybe, if Lewis found the guys' company suddenly awkward, if he didn't seem to slot right back into place around a table with the other three. But their company wasn't and he does.
He was on his third drink, and the hangover that had been stalking him all day appeared to finally be on the retreat. His headache was gone and he was leaning forward, elbows on the table, laughing as Lip related the events of June 3rd, a night that will apparently forever live in infamy – which is all he would expect from Harry Welsh's bachelor party.
“So, you know, by now the police have showed up, right? And they're ordering the bar cleared, and outside we can see the street's just like a war zone. Never seen anything like it, not even in college. Dick and me, we're holding up Harry, who's dead to the world – ”
Harry, his drinker's pride pricked, protested, “I've told you, I was perfectly awake. I remember everything – ”
Lip said dismissively, “Only because we've told you the story like a hundred times. Anyway, it's around this time that we realize the box with the rings he'd picked up earlier wasn't in his jacket pocket.”
“Oh, Christ,” said Lew.
“Yeah. And now there's about ten cops and some fifty-odd inebriated bar patrons between us and the table we were at. And the cops, they're not having any excuses, they just want everyone out of there. So this crazy son of a bitch,” and here, he elbowed Ron, who only looked back at him and smirked, “he jumps up onto the back of the nearest booth and starts running along the dividers, all the way to the back of the bar.”
“And the crowd goes just crazy. I think even Dick let out a yell or two. The cops don't even do anything at first, I think they couldn't believe what they were seeing. I mean – Ron's completely trashed at this point, but he's still as nimble as a ballerina.”
“And then,” Harry prompted.
Lip nodded. “So, you know, he gets to the table, finds the ring box. And here you think he could just hop down and join the crowd leaving the bar.”
“But no,” Lew said.
“No,” Lip confirmed. “Instead, he climbs right back up and returns the way he came, jumping from booth to booth like a ninja. He joins us back at the door and we all book it before the cops can make up their minds about what to do about him.”
Lew finished his drink and sat back, shaking his head in admiration. “You never do anything by halves, do you?” he asked Ron.
“Never saw the point,” he said. “Legends don't get made with half-measures.”
Only Ron could get away with saying shit like that. Lew just shook his head and went to go order a fourth drink.
Lip followed him.
“You seen Dick yet?” he asked once they were belly up to the bar. If it were anyone else, Lew would expect an ulterior motive in the question, but Lip's not like that.
“Nah,” he said. “Just got in a couple hours ago. Figure I'd see him tomorrow.”
Lip looked at him, quietly incredulous. “Before the ceremony, though, right? You're not going to see him for the first time when we're all lining up to go in?”
What damn difference does it make, Lew thought. Aloud, he said, “I'll head over in the morning, all right? Let him give me the hairy eyeball first thing, save everyone the trouble of having it out at the church.”
The bartender reached them and they ordered another round. As they waited for the drinks to be delivered, Lip said, “You know he'll be happy to see you.”
Christ. “Will he.”
Lip studied him for a long moment. “He always is,” he said finally.
He probably didn't mean it this way, because it's Lip after all, but he said the words like pronouncing a sentence. You, Dick Winters, are sentenced to a lifetime of caring about Lewis Nixon.
None of them knew it at the time, and they didn't piece it together until over a year later, but it was pretty obvious after the fact that Dick's dad had been diagnosed long before any of them found out about it. Maybe it even happened sometime during that long summer that had felt so bright and full of possibility.
Lew can't get the idea out of his head, afterwards. There they all were, seeing nothing but an open book, and there was Dick, alone, counting the pages left.
At the end of July, they discover the island.
It's not much to look at it – a tiny scrap of land held together by maybe a few dozen trees. Half is practically swamp and the part that's solid ground is clogged with neck-high stinging nettles.
During their initial survey from the raft, they notice a small hunting stand on the north side, half-rotted wooden boards that plainly state the island hasn't been used for a long time. It's the final straw in their half-formed desire to conquer the island; they return the next day with machetes and clippers.
Half an hour into cutting a path to the center, Lew's shirt is completely soaked through with sweat and he's been bitten at least ten times. He scratches the raised patches of skin and glares at Dick, who can walk through a cloud of mosquitoes without a single one alighting on him.
Dick just shrugs at him and goes back to hacking at nettles.
With all five of them working, it only takes a couple hours to clear out the middle of the island, transforming it from a shapeless jungle into an almost respectable campsite.
By the end, Lew is sitting on a log and smoking his way through a pack of cigarettes. He doesn't think it's his imagination that the smoke is warding off the mosquitoes, so he keeps at it and tries to ignore the looks Dick throws him.
The smoking's a relatively new habit. He kind of kept it secret from Dick for about two weeks before losing patience with himself. It's just – he's eighteen, for Christ's sake. If he doesn't accept the mothering schtick from his actual mother, he doesn't see why he should be compelled to accept it from his best friend.
Lip finishes making the fire pit, even managed to find some stones to ring it, and that's the signal for everyone to throw up their tents and crack open some beers.
Lew waves Dick off and sets about putting up the tent they'll be sharing. The thing belonged to Dick's grandparents; it's an old triangular two-man tent that makes Lew wonder just how much people used to care for close quarters. In place of poles it has a confusing tangle of ropes and stakes, and Dick nearly has a coronary from restraining himself from helping. That's funny, at least.
The others all have newer dome tents that take all of five minutes to pitch, so when they're done, they join Dick in watching him struggle. Harry steals one of Lew's cigarettes and grins around it when the tent collapses at one end, again.
“Really, I can do it,” Dick says, for like the tenth time. He tries reaching for a stake and Lew has to scramble to snatch it from him.
He points the stake at him sternly. “Now, honey, a man's gotta be able to provide shelter for his woman.”
“You know, Dick never struck me as the girl in the relationship,” Ron says.
“He still doesn't have to shave,” Lip says. “If we're going by secondary sexual characteristics.”
“Hey,” says Dick.
Lew straightens up, momentarily giving up on the disaster of nylon at his feet. “That's right, Lip, thank you. I do have stubble. Manly stubble.”
“Is that why you've been leaving that patchy monstrosity on your face,” Dick wonders. “You think it's manly?”
“You're not convinced,” Lew says, stepping forward. “That's okay, I'll show you – here – ”
He tries to rub his chin on Dick's baby smooth cheek, and Dick's laughing and fending him off and then they're wrestling and, anyway, Dick ends up having to pitch the tent after all because it gets dark and there's just no way Lew's going to be able to figure that shit out.
Hours later, the others have stumbled off to pass out on their sleeping bags, and Lew and Dick are sitting out on the raft. The trees on the island are surprisingly tall and, while they'll make excellent shelter from the morning sun, they kind of impede one's view of the stars.
Lew's lying back, a half-empty beer can balanced on his sternum. His body is buzzing happily and the stars are a dazzling smear overhead. He's feeling pretty okay about everything.
“Hey,” he says. “You get the letter with your housing assignment yet? Mine arrived this morning.”
“Yeah?” Dick doesn't look over. “What you get?”
“They gave me a single. The small essay I attached to my form must have been persuasive. What about you?”
When Dick doesn't say anything, Lew props himself up on his elbows and squints over at him. Dick's a dark shape against the water, face directed down at his feet.
He still doesn't look over. “I meant to tell you. It just got – lost with everything else going on.”
The beer's starting to roil a little in his stomach now. “What? What is it?”
“I've told the university I'm deferring for the semester. Might take the spring too.”
Maybe he's drunk, but Lew is having difficulty making sense of anything. “You're taking a gap year? Since when? Why?”
Dick's shoulder rises and falls in a shrug. And that doesn't seem right, Dick Winters of all people, shrugging off college.
“My folks need some extra help around the farm, is all.”
Lew sits up all the way; their shoulders brush. He stares hard at Dick with narrowed eyes. “I don't buy Mama and Papa Winters wanting you to delay going to school.”
Dick glances at him, finally. In the dark, he can't read his expression. “They didn't ask me to do this. It's just been a difficult year with the herd and – I just think it's the right thing to do.”
Of course he does. Goddamn Dick and his sense of duty.
“They're going to have to get along without you some day,” Lew says, and doesn't understand why Dick almost flinches at that.
“It's not that big a deal,” he says. “It's only a year.”
Lew doesn't know what to say to that. How does he explain that it feels wrong, him going off to college and Dick not, that it matters to him that they'd be out of step with one another.
Now he's the one staring at his feet.
“I'm going to swim,” Dick announces, voice back to normal. He strips off his shirt; the moonlight is strong enough that Lew can see the knob of his spine, that impossibly straight back. He turns to Lew. “You want to come?”
Lew thinks about that for a moment before knocking back the rest of his beer.
“Sure,” he says, and tackles Dick off the side of the raft, heedless of his own clothing.
That night, he tosses and turns on his sleeping bag. The tent smells faintly of campfire and, weirdly, chlorine. Dick's inches away and by all appearances sleeping soundly.
Lew blinks at him through the darkness, eyes tracing his profile: wanting, wanting, and wanting.
The Night Before
“Did you drive here?” Ron asked him at the end of the night. He cut himself off hours previous and was tasked with seeing the others returned home in one piece.
Lew shook his head. “I walked. Staying over at the Hampton.”
“That's got to be a mile away.”
Lew shrugged. “Didn't mind the walk. I was driving all day, so.”
“Well.” Ron looked over at the other two; Harry kept listing dangerously to one side and every few seconds Lip had to tug him back to stability. Lew watched them all and felt a pang of some sadness he didn't bother to categorize.
“Do you want a ride?” Ron asked finally, looking back at him with eyes that were too sharp for the late hour.
He almost said yes. Ron accepted the no with the ease of expectations being met, and something about that has Lew saying:
“So, you're not going to say anything about Dick? Threaten me with bodily harm if I don't go see him?”
Ron looked at him with faint surprise. “Why would I do that to him?”
After a moment, Lew shut his mouth. He nodded and gave Ron a sour smile. Yeah.
Ron clapped him on the shoulder and stepped past him out of the bar. “I'll see you tomorrow, all right.”
Harry called over to him on the street, and Lew lifted a hand in acknowledgment before shoving it back into his pocket. He started walking back to the hotel.
Something changed on the way. There were thoughts running on a treadmill in his head, spinning on relentlessly and going no where fast. He passed the Wells Fargo bank, now almost a decade old and still the new bank in his head, and maybe that's when he made up his (drunk, he's drunk) mind.
He got to the commercial strip next to the highway and his steps carried him over the Hampton parking lot to his car. Instead of grabbing his bags and heading inside to bother the night clerk, he slid behind the wheel and reached for his keys.
It would be a terrible thing to admit to anyone, so Lew never will, but he was not a bad driver when drunk. Practice anything enough and you'll get better at it.
He was careful navigating the lights and getting back to the highway. From there, his mind quieted and his hands steered him along a route memorized long ago.
It was about fifteen minutes from town. He made it in twenty, because he was going under the speed limit and maybe, just maybe, prolonging the drive as long as he could. But sooner than he was prepared for, he turned down a long driveway. On one side stretched out a field of corn that was at about half the height it would reach by the end of the season.
On the other was the lawn where the Winters had thrown Dick's high school graduation party. Lew had fallen asleep under the large maple tree in the middle and woken up two hours later to a bouquet of flowers on his chest and Ann's friends giggling down at him.
“We were about to go get your prince,” one of them had pouted.
He'd stuck a blossom behind one ear, leaving the rest on the ground, and then gone to find Dick, feeling lazy and not a little bemused.
Lew drove down the driveway and parked a little to the side, so he wouldn't be blocking the garage. He turned off the car and listened to the engine tick as it cooled, listened to the ticking give over to the chirping of crickets outside.
He didn't know what he was doing. But he was here.
He didn't grab his bags, didn't want to presume or look like he was presuming. Just carried himself up the walkway to the porch, eyes darting all over the old house. It looked exactly the same.
The light came on just as he stepped inside the porch. He was not given the opportunity to ring the doorbell before the door opened and a barefoot, tousle-headed Dick Winters stood staring out at him.
Lew breathed out, and smiled.
A bare futon mattress and a smell damnably familiar; a little after dawn, he woke up covered in sweat.
He opened his eyes. Daylight poured in through the small windows on the far wall, but he'd bet it wasn't too long past dawn.
He felt oddly alert, in a sick sort of way, despite the few hours of sleep he'd snatched. Night sweats. Time was, drinking was the one thing that guaranteed him a night's sleep. Now even that was letting him down.
He needed to piss, which was the first thing he noticed when he sat up. The second was that he was lying on a reclined futon. And immediately following came the third and most devastating: he was in Dick's basement.
Of course that's what the smell was. He didn't know how it could be the same after all these years, but it was.
He untangled his legs from the thin fleece that was wrapped around him like a boa constrictor, pausing for a moment to take in their naked state with some unease, before noticing the crumpled slacks on the ground next to the futon. Thinking about it, he was sure he had done that himself.
He remembered last night. He hadn't been so bad off as that.
Guided by memory that felt so distant it might as well have been a sixth sense, he navigated his way through the back room of stacked boxes to the small basement bathroom. He relieved himself and then dunked his head under the faucet, water as cold as he could make it run after ten impatient seconds.
He surveyed his dripping face in the mirror. Two days of stubble and uncombed hair aside, he didn't look too bad. Favor of the early hour; the hangover would likely catch up to him. There was no use worrying about it.
It wouldn't be Harry Welsh's wedding if someone wasn't hungover for the ceremony.
(Christ, Harry's getting married.)
He went back out to the makeshift bunk and pulled on his slacks and shirt. After a moment's consideration, he gave the rumpled jacket up as a lost cause – it had not weathered two straight nights on the road well. He folded his sleeves up to his elbows to disguise the worst of the creases and then turned towards the stairwell leading to the main floor of the house. Only to pause at the bottom stair.
“Lew,” Dick had said. He took in his state with an efficient glance, complete with a flicker over his shoulder at the car and a flattened mouth for follow-up. A brief, charged silence but then only:“You didn't RSVP.”
“Got away from me.” And then Lew grinned at him, a little messily. “But you guys couldn't have thought I wouldn't come to give Harry away.”
Standing there in bare feet on the cool cement floor of the Winters' farmhouse basement, he was highly aware, for not the first time, that he was one hell of a lousy friend.
The dark stairwell looked very long, and the basement was private. It lacked all judgment. But he couldn't stay down here forever and besides, he really needed to drink some water. There hadn't been a glass beside the futon like when he was a kid.
He got over himself and climbed the stairs. Put his hand on the knob, turning it all the way so that he could shove the old stubborn door open as quietly as possibly – the same lost cause it always had been.
Upstairs, the house was silent – it was early still, and he didn't know if anyone else was up. He crept into the kitchen and filled a glass of water. Drank it down eagerly enough that some of the contents spilled out the sides of his mouth.
Once that was taken care of, he set the glass down carefully on the counter and padded over to the window overlooking what he thought had been the garden.
There was an assortment of indoor plants to peer around, but his eye was practiced even after all this time – he spied Dick immediately.
If anyone could see him at that moment, he was sure he would make a ludicrous picture. Palms flat on the bay windows, twitching away from the interfering ficus leaves but still leaning forward desperately just to get a glimpse. This was a little pathetic, except then he realized there was no need for any of this spying – he could just go out and talk to him.
Lew reached the door before stalling out. His shoes weren't there. He didn't remember seeing them downstairs and spent too many seconds wondering where they were before finally losing patience and opening the door anyway. It wasn't like he was going to pick up something terrible between the house and the garden.
The porch door creaked open and then Lew was standing facing a lawn only barely starting to wake up.
Outside was strange. It had been a long time since he'd seen so much green in one place. It was early enough in the summer that the real beastly weather hadn't yet set in; the trees in the yard danced to the direction of the breeze, and it was almost like standing on an alien planet. That's how long it had been.
Lew hopped off the porch step and cut across the lawn to where his erstwhile reluctant host was toiling away in the garden.
He expected to find Dick in some iconic farmer pose – bent over a row of unweeded potatoes, perhaps, or surveying his domain with his hands on his hips from the far end. He could picture it in his head with disconcerting detail: the rising sun backlighting his tall, proud figure. Prime American agrarian idyll.
What he found, however, was the man sitting square in the yard a few feet from his tomatoes, elbows on his knees and a general attitude in the lines of his body that implied his face was dangerously close to falling into his hands.
And here, Lew finally paused.
Dick had never been in the habit of letting anyone see him vulnerable – this was the same man who kept his father's cancer a secret for almost two years for fuck's sake. Lew wasn't necessarily witnessing vulnerability at the moment, but it was close enough to make him secondhand uncomfortable, to make him want to step back quietly and go hide down in the basement. He could be the drunk, no-good late-sleeper, if it meant Dick got the moment of peace he needed.
That's what he thought, anyway, but Lew's mind had always possessed more grace than his actions. Some other instinct was already in play, joints loose and all over the place, and he found himself ambling down the slight incline from the house to where the other man was sitting.
Dick had to have heard the noise of his approach over the grass, but he still jerked in surprise when Lew tumbled down beside him.
He put his weight down on his hands behind him. “Look on your face, I have to assume the garden has offended you somehow.”
He'd like to say it was hard to make himself look over to see Dick's response, but who is he kidding? He could never look anywhere else.
And Dick looked back. For a long, nerve-wracking moment, it didn't seem like he'd play along, but then –
“The zucchini and butternut have mildew,” he says. “It's too early in the season for it.”
“Is there a good time for mildew?” Lew asked, automatically curious.
Dick lifted a shoulder, restless. His eyes darted over Lew and then retreated to the safe haven of the garden vista. “It was a wet spring. There'll be more problems,” he added, with the engrained pessimism of a third-generation farmer.
Lew nodded like he understood such burdens, and they lapsed into a silence that was far too tense for the setting.
He could feel the dew soaking through his slacks. In the early morning light, his toes looked pale and cringing; he dug them into the grass to hide their shame.
The other man sighed, and Lew looked over again like it was a crack of lightning.
Dick rubbed his jaw and smiled ruefully forward at his garden and the hay field behind it and then finally angled a smaller version at Lew. His hand dropped down to the grass and he leaned on it, almost like he wanted to get a better look at him.
“I'm glad you came,” he said, because Dick was never anything but straightforward. Bravest man Lew ever knew, the kind of brave that made one question every decision they'd ever made in the hope they could somehow catch up.
Lew's mouth was dry, made a desert from drink and impossible emotions, but he summoned the spittle to lick his lips and reply, like a goddamn genius, “You bet.”
In August, his mother tells Lew she's moving to New York. He doesn't take it well.
By this point, their slow summer seems to be suddenly ending, and all of them are dealing with the hassle of the upcoming school year.
Lew's father has called three times to remind him of incoming Yale legacy socials, none of which he has any intention of attending; Ron and Harry, who somehow managed to wrangle roommate status at Penn State, have been obsessively drawing up budgets and bitching about who has to bring a TV (it's going to be Ron); Lip is facing down his senior year without his four main friends and being suspiciously quiet about it –
Except that's not right, is it. He's going to at least have Dick around, because Dick isn't going to fucking college. Everyone and his own damn mother are leaving, but not him.
“I should have known you were too calm about this when I first told you,” Dick says to himself.
It's just the two of them on the raft. They cut the motor half an hour ago, and are drifting downriver with the slow current. What had felt like a random trip on a lazy afternoon is now seeming to Lew like shrewd premeditation. He can't storm off in the middle of the river, after all.
But as the heat of anger crawls up his neck, he's sorely considering swimming for it.
Dick is sitting cross-legged on one corner of the deck, back ramrod straight and face doing that damn expressionless thing. His eyes attentively follow Lew as he paces and rants on the other side of the raft.
“I figured the fewer witnesses to this, the better,” he adds, like Lew is somehow overreacting and it would be embarrassing or something.
One thing to understand about Dick: it's not like he's exactly good at dealing with Lew when he's in a high temper. He's kind of – well, a dick, actually. But he's a dick who isn't going to get offended or alarmed when Lew starts shouting. He'll just watch him with that flat gaze until Lew's anger has cooled enough for him to start feeling ridiculous, and then they'll move on to the next thing.
“I can't believe this,” Lew says for at least the third time.
Dick doesn't sigh but it's obviously a near thing. “You knew she never planned to stay here forever,” he says patiently. “With you going, this is her chance.”
“Yeah, but I'm going to come back!” He says it with anger, and exasperation, but he means it like a promise. He's going to come back.
Not that he's positive anyone hears the promise, or even cares.
“What the hell is wrong with our parents,” he says, and when Dick stiffens: “Oh, come on. My mother's packing up and hitting the road without a care in the world, your parents are apparently all right that you're quitting college – ”
“I'm eighteen,” he says. “And it's my choice, so what they are all right with is immaterial.”
Dick is one of those people who might as well have honor thy father and thy mother written into his DNA, so Lew doesn't give that bullshit even a grace note of consideration before scoffing.
Dick's lips thin. “And I'm not quitting. I'm deferring. A lot of people do this, Lew, and for far more frivolous reasons.”
Frivolous, jesus . Lew wheels around to look at him. “So you admit it's stupid?”
Dick levels that flat gaze back at him. “You're angry with your mom, and that's fine – but Lew, don't take it out on me.”
And Lew – Lew doesn't even really know why he's so angry. It's not like he would have more opportunity to see Dick if he went to Franklin & Marshall instead of staying home. It really shouldn't make any difference to him at all.
Except of course it does.
It's an entirely different game if the two of them are moving forward and experiencing new places and people. That's supposed to happen. And they're supposed to weather it and – fuck, Lew doesn't know, let it strengthen their friendship or something? Everyone knows most high school friendships don't last. And that's especially true if one party goes away and the other stays behind.
Lew curses again. On impulse, he turns and whips his mostly-empty beer can into the river. It lands with a sad little plop.
He doesn't have to look over to know Dick is giving him a look; after a second, he curses again, more quietly, and yanks his shirt over his head. He dives into the river and goes to fetch the can before it can sink.
“It's going to be fine, Lew,” Dick says, after he's hauled himself back up onto the raft, dripping and scowling.
He sounds perfectly confident and matter-of-fact, but then, he's never anything less than either of those things.
Lew collapses backwards on the deck, feeling the water on his bare skin already beginning to dry in the heat of the day. He stares up at the drifting sky.
Belatedly, he replies dully, “Yeah.”
If Dicks says it will be fine, than it must be true.
The Morning Of
They went back inside the house. Dick puttered about the kitchen making coffee, and Lew sat uselessly at the kitchen table, having been waved off absentmindedly when he offered to help.
“You still skip breakfast?” he asked Lew over his shoulder.
The question struck him dumb for a moment, in both meanings of the word. He didn't know why he would get hung up on the fact that Dick remembered such an inconsequential detail, but – well, he was. And he almost felt bad answering in the affirmative when the other man took out a carton of eggs and started chopping chives and whisking things with cream. Last time he was here, Dick and Edith had been eating nothing but cereal for breakfast, because it was easy and required no thought.
Ten minutes later, he nursed a mug of coffee while Dick tucked into a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs and what looked like homemade sourdough toast.
His head pounded dully, but it was really nothing on the hangover scale. Combined with the nervous energy brought on by his current surroundings, he almost felt good and awake. Alert enough to notice the second plate waiting on the counter.
“Is that – ”
“Good morning,” Edith Winters called out, walking briskly into the room in a nightgown and unbelted robe.
Lew froze and, in doing so, spilled coffee on his hand and lap.
“Shit!” He leapt up and grabbed for some paper towel, dabbing at the front of his trousers. His ears felt hot too, even though there was no way the coffee had reached them.
“Oh Lewis, hello. Is your hand all right?” Edith said, like it was perfectly normal for Dick's one-time best friend to be standing in her kitchen before seven in the morning.
Flushing, he looked up and met her inquiring gaze. “Yes, it was – I'd been drinking it slowly. It's fine.”
Now that they were looking at each other, there was no avoiding it. Lew waited for the inevitable anger or disgust to break out over her face.
But she only frowned at him for a moment before asking slowly, “So can I get my breakfast?”
“What – oh, right. Of course,” he said, stepping aside so she could lift the plate of eggs and toast off the counter.
Dick, he noticed, was watching the scene with bright-eyed interest.
“When do you have to be at the church?” she asked him, sitting easily at the table with her plate.
“Ten-thirty,” Dick said, “but I'd like to be a little early, in case there are any wrinkles.”
“Of course,” Edith said. “Knowing the Welshes, you should be prepared for anything.”
Lew was still standing at the counter, damp with lukewarm coffee and barely-born sweat. He knew he could simply fill his cup back up and return to the table. He could (fuck, he should) sit down and play nice. Why else did he come here last night? Or rather: what did he expect to find when he came here last night?
“Think I'm going to take a shower,” he announced, awkwardly and too-loud. They both looked over at him, but god, anything to get away.
“You're going to shave, right?” is all Dick said.
“You should shave,” Edith agreed, munching on a bit of toast. “Just because you're not standing up, doesn't mean you shouldn't look your best.”
If she was anyone else, Lew would read into that statement, but Edith was all practicality. She hadn't meant anything by it besides exactly what she said.
Lew, of course, was more than capable of providing the missing condemnation.
“You got a razor I can borrow?” he asked Dick. “Forgot to pack mine.”
He waved in the direction of the upstairs bathroom. Lew nodded at them and did his best not to look like he was fleeing the scene as he left the room.
The shower worked its usual magic in making him feel less like a train wreck. By the time he's combed and shaved, he looked respectable enough to have lunch with a senator.
Except he forgot to grab his suit, and was suddenly averse to pulling on his old clothes. So he found himself in the position of creeping around the Winters' home in nothing but a towel. He figured he'd make a quick dash to the car and change in the basement.
But where were his goddamn shoes?
He sidled past the kitchen, which was emitting reassuring dish-washing noises, and turned the corner for the door only to almost bump into Edith, who was just coming back inside. She had his suit bag over her arm and in her hand –
“Where'd you find those?”
She hefted the shoes with a quizzical look. “They were in the middle of the yard.”
“Oh, right.” He remembered now, unfortunately: he'd taken them off and chucked them across the dark yard, to demonstrate how he planned to stay.
He was really lucky Dick wasn't the type to throw a punch.
He took the suit and shoes from her and then blinked as she tapped him disapprovingly on the chest and said, “Lewis, this – ” he thought she was referring to his general state of nudity, “is a cheap tactic. Now go make yourself presentable.”
“It wasn't a tactic,” he said, a little mortified. At her look, he lifted the suit bag in defense and retreated to the basement.
“You sure you don't have any other place to be?” Dick asked. If he were any one else, he'd be fidgeting. As it was, he just stood there, car key in hand, eyes on Lew.
He'd just spent an hour putting creases in his suit while watching cable news in their living room. He was a little on edge about how normal it had felt, like any other lazy Saturday from back when he was the hungover punk that overstayed his welcome on the regular (he had the suit now, so there was at least some improvement).
“Dick, I didn't come back to town to check out the new library.” He was starting to feel like the lady that protested too much. What did Dick want him to do, just come out and say it?
Dick twirled his key once around his finger, caught it neatly, and seemed to come to a decision.
“Ride with us,” he said.
“Ride – ”
“We're going to the same place, right?” Nothing in Dick's face or voice gave away his thoughts.
If I go with you now, I'll have to leave with you.
Dick is watching him, pale eyes steady and measuring.
“Sure,” Lew said.
His expression didn't change, which wasn't exactly gratifying, but Lew would take what he could get, and what he was getting was an implicit guarantee that he would be riding back tonight with Dick.
“Grab that box, will you,” Dick said, turning towards the door. “My mom is insisting on bringing her own separate gift for them.”
Correction: riding back tonight with Dick and Edith.
“You know, I thought she'd be angrier with me,” he said, and bit his cheek.
Dick went still. Lew stared at him, trying to read his emotions from the set of his shoulders. Now that he went and opened his big mouth, he figured he might as well finish the job. Give Dick the opportunity to rescind that offer of a ride. He can be thoughtful.
“And, I guess – I guess I thought you'd be angry with me too.” He wished he had a cigarette to fiddle with, but he'd just finished that first shitty month of quitting. Timing: he needed to work on his timing. He waited a second and said, “You know, after what happened in the – ”
“I remember what happened in the church,” Dick interrupted, and he sounded kind of incredulous.
He still wasn't looking over at him. Lew was really starting to regret saying anything.
At last, Dick said quietly, “She's not angry because I never told her about it. I never told anyone.”
“No one?” Lew echoed. “Not any of the guys?”
Absurdly, he felt a little outraged. “But – they were all pissed at me last night.”
Dick finally turned around. “Lew, you left my father's funeral without saying anything to anyone and haven't been back in almost six years.”
“Right.” Well, when you put it like that.
He gave him a thin smile. “So you understand, there are plenty of reasons for people to be upset. You have a unique gift.”
Lew licked his lips. “So – are you still – ”
“Yes.” Dick eyed him speculatively. “But we're not talking about any of that right now, because our friend is getting married in a few hours, and I have a lot on my plate today.”
“Right.” He put his hands in his pockets. “Do you still want me to ride with you, or – ?”
Dick rolled his eyes. “Just get in the damn car.”
Dick handed off the keys to his mother without a word, and she navigated a sensible little Toyota Camry out of the garage and around his rental.
“You want shotgun?” Dick asked, because he was still, after all these years, kind of a dick.
Lew smiled tightly. “That's all right. I'm fine with the back.”
They climbed in the car. He got the large gift situated on the seat beside him and then settled back and waited, watching the breeze move over the hay on the field behind the garden.
He looked away from the field and found himself pinned to his seat by an unamused pair of blue eyes in the rearview mirror.
“How old are you?”
“I'll be, uh, twenty-nine in September,” he said, wondering if she should really be driving if she couldn't remember that he was the same age as her son.
“And do you think that bones hold up better in a car crash when you're approaching thirty?”
Now he was a little lost. “I – what?”
“She's telling you to buckle up, Lew,” Dick said, angling an amused look back at him from the passenger seat.
“Oh. Right.” He dug behind his back for the seatbelt, chastised and feeling closer to thirteen than thirty. For a moment, he could almost believe he was riding into town with the two of them for one of Dick's wrestling meets.
It would almost be nostaglic, if it wasn't so deeply surreal.
The vegetation is spilling over everywhere, the river lined with green wild and thick to match the humidity, and if they were just a few years younger they might playact like they're on that riverboat from Apocalypse Now. But they're not, and anyway, tonight's their last night camping on the island.
Lew's leaving the next day, Ron and Harry the day after that. On the way to the island, everyone else is laughing and shooting the shit like normal, and for some reason it puts him in a black mood. He takes control of the tiller so he has an excuse to stay out of things and ignores the glances Dick sends him.
They arrive about an hour before dusk and make quick work of unloading the raft and setting up camp.
The campsite, which for most of the summer had felt like a delightful hidden secret, now looks terribly makeshift. Their small conquered patch of earth will likely be half-covered again even before the first frost. By the first buds of next spring, one might not know they had ever been here at all.
Lip draws Ron and Dick up onto a fallen tree on the back side of the island to check on the bird's nest they'd been keeping an eye on. Harry waits until they've disappeared into the bush before muscling obviously past Lew in the clearing. He swipes the half-finished cigarette from his mouth and takes a drag while staring at him with narrowed eyes. He exhales a cloud of smoke irritably.
“Jesus, Lew. Try to look more like you're at a funeral for someone you hate.”
Mulish, he takes out a fresh cigarette and lights it. “Joke's on you. I wouldn't go to a funeral for someone I hate.”
Harry is unimpressed. “Is this still because of Dick? I don't want to tread on your tender feelings – ”
“Fuck off, Harry.”
“ – but it's not like you'll be across the country or anything. New Haven's like, what, four? Five hours away?”
That's not the point, but Lew isn't in the mood to discuss it. Harry watches him for a moment longer before shaking his head and flicking the stolen cigarette into the unlit fire pit. He turns and starts pitching his tent.
Lew remembers he still doesn't know how to set up Dick's damn antique and has to suppress another surge of directionless anger.
The fire goes unlit well into dusk because they spend half an hour arguing about what kind of bird is over on the shore and whether they could eat it.
“I could kill it,” Ron says.
“Moot point,” Lew says. “Because I'm sure as hell not plucking it.”
The argument only has half his attention; a few feet away, Dick is squinting down at a can of beans and trying to figure out how to operate the can opener in the dark. In five minutes, if he doesn't get it, Lew's just going to grab it and do it himself.
Lip gets a fire started and they all have a hotdog. Lew's ends up tight and burned on the outside and barely lukewarm in the middle, but it goes well with his beer because everything does. So he has another of each.
This far down the river, they're far enough away from other humans that it's very quiet. It's just them and the crickets and the occasional splash of an opportunistic fish. It makes his friends sound almost too loud, but Lew doesn't want to shush them.
At some point it gets late and Lew is leaning over with intent to grab another marshmallow, only he wobbles out of balance. He catches himself on Dick and lands hard beside him on the log.
He'll stay here for a moment, he decides.
Dick gives him a sidelong look. “You doing all right there?”
You might never see him again . Lew knows that's dumb and dramatic, but he must be in an alliterative mood tonight, because he's also drunk , so drunk.
He props his chin on Dick's shoulder, digs the point of it into the fleshy part just above his clavicle and says with a loud, fake-whisper into his ear, “Take me to bed or lose me forever.”
“Wow,” Harry says from across the fire. “Wait, why does that sound familiar?”
“Goose's wife,” Lips puts in, because he has an unerring memory for that kind of thing.
“Goose's wife, that's right.” Some kind of unholy glee is building in Harry's voice, and Lew twitches instinctually at the sound of it, but he's too comfortable to move beyond that.
“Well, what do you say, Dick?” Ron: better at hiding it, but secretly the greatest asshole of them all.
Lew's got his cheek pressed to Dick's neck, and he can feel the rising heat of his skin, probably warmed from sitting so close to the fire. He closes his eyes against the glow.
“I say I'm worried he's going to throw up in my tent,” Dick says. Lew can feel the vibration of his vocal cords and, curious, lifts a hand to the other side of his neck. Dick swallows, his Adam's apple dipping against Lew's palm.
“Slander,” he says. “I never throw up.”
He does, however, fall asleep right there on the log, half-draped across Dick's shoulders.
When he comes to, the fire's down to embers and the others have crawled off to bed. The moon has set and the campsite seems darker than ever.
Dick tries to haul his arm over his shoulders, like he's a wounded soldier or something, and Lew bats him away only to trip on a tree root.
“You deserved that,” Dick says.
“Ugh,” he says, heartfelt. “Where's the damn tent?”
“That's what I was leading you to, before you flailed and hit me.” A strong hand grabs his arm again. “Here, this way.”
Lew doesn't resist this time. And when Dick gets the tent open, he wastes no time crawling in first and collapsing on his sleeping bag. The tent is still too small, and it still smells funny, but at the moment it feels private, like they're off in their own little world and that's just about perfect.
“Is that what you want?” Dick whispers. He's still down at the end of the tent, tugging Lew's shoes off. Lew allows this to happen by pretending it's not happening. After, he turns on his side.
Dick strips down to his undershirt and boxers, folding his clothing neatly at the foot of the tent. Lew's too drunk and tired to not watch, but Dick doesn't seem to notice his gaze until he's stretching his long body out on top of his own sleeping bag.
Neither of them move to get inside his bag; it's too hot inside the tent, which has no mesh panels like the others' newer domes. Lew could have easily bought a new tent earlier in the summer, but for some reason he didn't.
Dick bunches the end of his bag up and tucks it under his cheek like a pillow. He meets Lew's eyes. “Well?”
He sighs, and the sound is loud in the close quarters. Lew kind of feels like Dick's been doing nothing but sighing at him all summer.
“Why were you in such a bad mood all day?” Dick asks. When he receives only a shrug in response, he says, “I wish you'd stop worrying about me staying here and you going away. It's – disrespectful.”
Lew is surprised into a snort of laughter. “Disrespectful?”
Dick's mouth curls up into a grin. “Yeah, Lew. It's disrespectful.” He watches him for a moment, eyes intent. “You really think we can't handle it?”
His smile fades. He knows he's still drunk, but it's like the feeling is temporarily on hold, or maybe turned towards a higher purpose or something. He licks his lips and says, “Of course we can. We can handle anything.”
Lew doesn't want to fall asleep again, wants to stay awake and try to keep this strange, stark honesty they've got going alive, but he's betrayed by chemistry and biology and all those fucking sciences and pulled back under within fifteen minutes. He sleeps, still curled on his side facing Dick.
Thank god the others didn't hear us, he'll think the next day, when whatever mood conjured up by the darkness and close quarters has been dispelled and Dick's still looking at him like normal.
They're mostly silent as they pack up their tents and sleeping bags early the next morning. Lew lets Dick do most of the work, choosing instead to take a piss over the coals of the fire and then smoke a cigarette or two. He has his sunglasses on and doesn't care that the sun isn't up over the ridge yet or what anyone thinks of that.
This early, it's just them and a few fishermen out on the still water when they make their way back downriver.
Lew can barely watch the passing riverbank without his stomach stirring ominously. He's sick, real sick, and he doesn't want to drive to fucking Connecticut.
...at this rate, I'll be impressed if I finish this story by the end of the year!