They turn off the county road onto the bottom of the driveway at nineteen hundred hours on the dot, while the early-June light is still strong and clear. Just beyond the approach, the driveway is blocked by a big six-bar tube gate hanging a little crookedly between a pair of six-foot posts. A hand-painted sign, peeling with age, tells them NO SOLICITORS.
“Looks like the place,” Jack says, as Gabriel eases the car up to the gate and puts it into park. He unbuckles his seatbelt and lets it retract.
Gabriel frowns through the windshield and taps his thumbs on the steering wheel. “Better hope so,” he says, “or someone’s going to shoot you.”
Jack reaches under Gabriel’s outstretched arm and jabs his knuckles between his unguarded ribs. Gabriel hisses and clamps his arm down against his side.
“Some of my favorite people have shot me,” Jack says jovially, shouldering his door open and ducking outside just as Gabriel takes a retaliatory swipe that comes up short as the radius of his seatbelt holds him back. Jack waves cheerily as he bumps the car door shut with his hip and approaches the left side of the gate, where it’s chained to the fence post. From either side of the gate, three-strand wire fences demarcating the property lines run parallel to the county road. There’s a tree immediately next to the gate; the trunk is on the other side of the fence, but the lowest branch arcs across it toward the road, easily within reach. Jack hooks his hand around the base of the branch and finds, at the crook where it joins with the trunk, a little hollow place packed with dry leaves. He touches something that jangles under his hand, then turns around to show Gabriel the ring of keys swinging from his fingers.
Gabriel raises his hand in acknowledgment of a job well done.
The padlock on the chain is marked with a dab of blue paint, which matches a blob on the biggest key on the ring. Jack unwinds the chain, then twines it around fence post and locks it into place. Then he walks the gate open and stands in the ditch at the side of the driveway to let Gabriel pass. Gabriel noses the car forward, moving just far enough up the driveway for Jack to be able to swing the gate shut again. But when he comes around the passenger’s side and reaches for the door handle, the car suddenly lurches forward a few feet. Jack blinks, then turns and tries to open the door again. He moves faster this time, stepping quickly forward and lunging out for the handle, but the car jumps ahead a second time, taking the door back out of reach. Jack smacks the trunk with his palm. The car leaps forward like a startled horse, then starts to cruise steadily along. Jack pursues it at a jog, and then is forced into a sprint as it picks up speed. The car stays just out of range, and soon it begins to pull away as it reaches a speed he can’t match. Jack flips off the retreating car with both hands as he runs for several more yards, then drops his pace and lets himself fall behind while Gabriel drives onward.
The driveway is unpaved and climbs at a fairly steady nine degree angle, curving slightly with the slope of the hill so that the end isn’t visible from the bottom. It’s tunneled in by beech trees, and the old wheel ruts have become channels for rain water, creating two parallel valleys. Jack walks along the grassy high ground in the center of the driveway, craning his head back to stare at the tree canopies. They sway above him, letting through irregular dapples of light. He hears the cries and flutterings of birds that are hidden amongst the leaves and branches, and smells road dust, and moist soil, and tender green things.
The driveway is about a mile long. He finds the car parked at the top, and Gabriel lying on the hood with his hands laced together under his head. His eyes are closed, and he doesn’t react at all as Jack comes crunching across the last few feet of gravel. Jack stops beside the car, stands there for a couple of seconds, and then reaches through the open window and slams his hand against the horn.
Gabriel flings himself off the car and lands in a wide, defensive stance. He meets Jack’s eyes—serene, self-satisfied—and lunges at him. Jack catches his rush and pivots with it, using Gabriel’s momentum to swing him around, and, still grappling at one another, they stumble into mutual orbit. They spiral close together, stepping between each other’s feet as they wrestle in a circle, and Jack ducks in to smear an ungainly kiss against the corner of Gabriel’s mouth before pushing off from him and backing away.
“Ass,” Gabriel grunts, squaring up his shoulders and lurching half a step closer like he’s ready to take a swing.
Jack stands his ground. “You deserved that, and you know it.”
“I was just helping you stretch your legs after the long drive,” Gabriel says, brimming with innocence.
“Yeah? Well, I feel pretty stretched now, thanks, so I’ll give you the chance to stretch your arms by carrying in the stuff from the car.”
Gabriel scoffs, but he doesn’t refuse. He trudges over to the car, then trudges back a moment later with a bag on each arm. Jack lets him take the lead toward the house, then calls, “say cheese,” and, when Gabriel jerks around to snarl at him, snaps a picture without giving him a chance to say anything at all. Gabriel’s expression turns murderous.
“Don’t fucking send that to anyone!” he barks.
Jack says, “Okay, I’m deleting it.”
He types out Made it to the love shack and sends the picture to Ana. The cabin is there in the background of the photo, out of focus behind Gabriel’s wrathful face. The whole picture is slightly blurry.
Ana responds with a string of heart and eggplant emojis.
Exactly, he writes back.
The house at the end of the driveway is a cabin built partially into the slope of the hill, with a daylight basement and cedar lap siding. The main level has a wide covered deck extending over the open side of the basement, and the basement and deck each have a pair of south-facing sliding glass doors. The actual front door is around the corner from the deck, on a side of the house with an elevated landing that connects a corner of the deck with a flight of steps from the ground to the main level. The house itself is huddled to one side of a large, open, grassy space cleared on the hillside. There’s a single tall elm perhaps forty feet from the house with a bench beneath it, and a raised garden bed, overgrown with weeds, near the bottom of the steps. A tiny creek slashes the property into uneven diagonal halves. Jack can’t see the water, but there’s a wobbling line of taller, greener grass from one side of the clearing to the other, which suggests its existence. Some kind of shed stands beside the little creek where it passes closest to the house. Behind the cabin, where the clearing gives way to the woods at its northern end, the elevation suddenly steepens. The upper part of the hill is rockier, and the deciduous trees are crowded out by evergreens. The smell of them is on the air.
Jack goes first up the wooden steps, and Gabriel follows. There’s an unlatched wire screen door, which Jack holds open with his foot as he flips through the ring of keys. The lock on the main door has a little blot of yellow paint. Jack scratches it with his fingernail, and it flakes away easily.
“Just one key for this door,” he says, showing it to Gabriel. “We should put it on a separate ring so we can leave it somewhere around here if we’re not together.”
He lets the screen door swing shut and feels around under the rail cap on the outside corner of the landing, a spot hidden from view except by looking for it from the ground at the rear of the house, until he finds the protruding head of a nail. He taps the rail above that spot. “It can hang right here.”
Gabriel shrugs and looks on over his shoulder as he finishes unlocking the door. “Rustic,” he mutters. “Very quaint.”
Jack holds the door open for Gabriel, and they step into the house. To their right is an open plan kitchen with a long dining table. To the left, a furnished living room with a little wood-burning fireplace set into a broad knee-high brick hearth. The big sliding glass doors take up half of the living room’s far wall, showing off the deck on the other side. Gabriel drops their bags beside the front door, and they poke their way around the kitchen. All the appliances are in working order, but the fridge is empty except for a bottle of ketchup and an unopened jar of dill pickles. There’s a salt shaker and a pepper grinder on the stove. In the cupboards they find a can of chickpeas and a box of peaches-and-cream instant oatmeal packets, along with other dry goods: baking soda and powder, a plastic container of sugar, some spices. Gabriel opens the cumin and sniffs, then derisively sets it down again. “Old,” he says.
Having satisfied themselves with the kitchen, they walk down the hall directly across from the front door. There are three doors: the first two, facing one another, are a bathroom and a linen closest. The third door is at the end of the hall, on the right side, while the left side turns into a descending staircase. They open the last door and peer inside together. It’s the master bedroom. There’s a big bed with a solid wooden headboard, a dresser, a standing corner lamp, a ceiling fan. Tall windows look onto the sunlit trees.
“Probably shouldn’t take this one,” Gabriel says, after a second. “Seems rude to fuck you in the bed that your family is going to sleep in.”
Jack sputters, and laughs, and elbows him in the ribs. But he doesn’t disagree. They close the bedroom door and go down the stairs.
The stairs bring them into an open den with the second set of glass doors leading to the area under the deck. There’s a work desk against one wall, and several bookcases packed with actual books. A big wheeled grill has been brought inside and pushed into a corner, resting on a piece of plywood. Both of them make vague, delighted noises, and then go to opposite sides of the room: Gabriel to the bookcases, and Jack to the grill. It’s greasy and a bit dented, and gritted up with charcoal residue. He lifts the lid and inhales. It smells like lighter fluid and char.
“I swear I haven’t seen a charcoal grill like this in thirty fucking years,” he says, turning to Gabriel.
Gabriel is holding a book pried from one of the shelves. “Half of these are fucking Star Wars novels,” he says, accusingly, as though Jack is to blame.
Jack puts his hands up, pleading innocence in the matter. “Don’t you like Star Wars?”
“Not—” He shakes the book for emphasis. “This is—”
“Well, I’m going to look at the other rooms,” he cuts in before Gabriel can really get going.
The other half of the basement is built into the hillside: two more bedrooms with narrow windows set high on the walls, and a bathroom and utility room between them. Both of the bedrooms have about the same dimensions and are similarly furnished, but Jack lingers in the eastern room. They’ll at least get more light from the sunrise if they’re on the eastern side of the house.
“This one all right?” he asks.
Gabriel looks past him and says, “Sure,” shrugging. “I’m going to look around outside. Want to come?”
They leave through the basement’s glass doors and walk in a complete circle around the whole cabin, which reveals nothing but a pile of deer droppings and a dried-out compost heap that Jack had mistaken for an old pile of dead leaves. As they wander past the garden bed, he pauses to tear up a handful of weeds and, not knowing what else to do, throws them aimlessly aside. They walk up to the elm tree, and Gabriel, moved by some boyish compulsion, launches himself off the bench and gets a foothold in the fork of the trunk where it separates in two. He gets twenty feet up the tree before he says, “Oh. Ants,” and rapidly scales his way back down. They spend the next minute and a half slapping at his arms and neck. Jack, nobly, only laughs for ten seconds of that time.
From the elm tree they move on to examine the little wooden shed, which is actually a pump house. And, up close, the adjacent creek is bigger than expected. In a couple of places it widens into shallow, sluggish pools harboring clouds of tadpoles clustered inside the shade cast by the tall grass. Jack crouches to dip his hands into the sun-warmed water and scoops up a joined handful of thrashing tadpoles. Gabriel takes several steps back and looks on with distaste. Jack laughs and spills the tadpoles back into the water, then stands and wipes his hands on the hips of his pants. Gabriel looks away like he’s witnessing something unendurable.
Then they walk straight north until they pass from the clearing into the shade of the evergreens. They climb steadily uphill for perhaps half a mile before a wire fence crosses in front of their path and cuts them off. It wouldn't be a challenge to climb over, but they turn to follow the fence, which leads them in a straight line across all the dips and rises in the hillsides. It’s an easy walk: the trees are widely spaced, with few low-growing branches, and the canopy is so dense that there’s little undergrowth. But the blanket of pine needles does disguise jutting pieces of rock, and both of them stub their boots and stumble more than once as they pick their way along. Aside from the fence, there are no other signs of human settlement, though Jack is certain that they’re not far from other properties. But all they see are squirrels bouncing over fallen pine needles and frisking up and down the tall, straight tree trunks. It’s dim and quiet. Peaceful. Gabriel, however, slowly goes tense all over. He tracks every noise and movement with his eyes and head, his arms held slightly away from his sides.
Jack reaches out to squeeze the juncture between his neck and shoulder, projecting the motion so that Gabriel won’t be surprised. The muscle is all bunched up and rigid. “You all right?”
“Yeah.” Gabriel jerks his shoulders slightly. “Just not used to… just… walking like this. Feels like something is going to happen.”
Jack knows what he means. Ambushes, traps. Watch out, watch out. Something is waiting to get you. These are particularly nonthreatening woods, with good lines of sight and plenty of space to move freely, and still it feels like something might come rolling over the next hill crest and start firing on them. Even now they haven’t left all their instincts behind.
“We should go camping sometime,” he says, off-handedly. “Maybe this fall. One of the big national parks. Yosemite, Yellowstone, you know. Lots of people around.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m missing: tourists.”
“There are isolated spots. We could be around other people, or not. You just feel strange because you don’t have a pack or anything. Makes you feel unprepared, right? It’d be different if we were geared up for a real hike.”
Gabriel makes a noncommittal noise, but, uncharacteristically, he’s the one to say, “Let’s turn back,” a few minute later.
They end up overshooting the house completely and run into the county road, and then have to find the driveway to guide them back to the downhill end of the clearing. A chorus of frogs welcomes them back. Jack takes a dim but less blurry photo of the house as they approach and sends it off with assurances that they found all the keys and everything is in fine order.
They pick up the cooler from the car on their way past, gather plates and silverware from the kitchen, and move onto the deck. There are four big Adirondack chairs tied together in a cluster. Jack unlocks them and drags them apart into pairs.
They don’t end up using the plates at all: they just balance containers of food on the joined arms of their chairs and pick apart a roasted chicken, potatoes cooked in the seasoned fat, and a vinegary cucumber, tomato, and blanched asparagus salad.
“Good place for a hammock,” Jack says, after they’ve eaten, nodding up at the solid beams that support the deck’s overhanging roof.
It’s dark by then, the deck softly illuminated by the light from inside the house. Jack leans on the rails and looks up into the open sky above the clearing: treetops, and clouds, and stars. All around them is the overlapping noise of crickets and frogs, the spicy pine-sap smell, the rustle of foliage against itself.
“Remind you of home?” Gabriel asks, and Jack knows that he doesn’t mean their home but his first home, the one he’s revisited only in memory.
The terrain is all different, the way the things smell, the level of humidity in the air. But he says, “A little. How about you, huh?”
Gabriel sniffs and peers out into the yard. “Too fucking dark,” he says, conclusively.
There’s not much left to do after that. They stay on the deck for awhile, just standing quietly, and then go back inside to plan out a grocery list. Then they unpack their luggage into their chosen bedroom and the next-door bathroom. They get ready to sleep.
The bedroom in the basement will be theirs for the next two weeks. For the past forty years, this cabin in North Carolina had belonged to a relative on his mother's side of the family and had been a summer reunion spot for sundry kin and their chosen affiliates. It’s been a month now since they flew into Asheville for Kent Clark's funeral. His wife was fifteen years dead already, and they’d had no children. It had been a very long time since Jack had last seen him. His cousin, Steve, had inherited the cabin and had, in turn, entrusted the management of the estate to his daughter. Maggie herself had already settled most of the immediate affairs and would be returning in another two weeks to finish the remaining business and oversee the possible land sale. Jack, with his comparatively open schedule, is simply the interim caretaker of furniture and other immovable property. The house has been cleared of papers and significant heirlooms and looks, now, like a curiously incomplete imitation of a family home, with all of the rooms properly arranged but devoid of the elements that make a house seem inhabited and real.
Jack has never visited it before. It doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with him.
With the lights switched off, the bedroom is nearly pitch black. The high, narrow basement windows are overshadowed by the trees growing close to the house, letting in not even enough light to create a gradient of darkness. Jack lies with his eyes open, seeing nothing. He waves a hand above himself, bumps it into his own nose, then reaches out until he encounters some part of Gabriel’s body: the side of his face. He’s lying on his back. Jack hears him turn and imagines that Gabriel is glaring.
Jack says, “It’s dark."
“No shit. What do you want?”
Jack passes his hand over Gabriel’s face again. “I can’t see anything.”
“We’ve established that. I’m not going to be able to see anything ever again if you keep putting your fucking fingers into my eyes.”
The mattress gently wobbles as Gabriel scoots away and rolls onto his side, turning his back into a wall.
Jack lies as still as possible for as long as he can, but the unfamiliarity of a new environment makes it difficult to relax enough to sleep. There is so little noise that his senses switch over into intense attentiveness, straining to detect and categorize even the faintest disturbances: tree sounds, frog sounds. Are his eyes still open? He holds a hand close enough to feel his eyelashes brush his fingers when he blinks. There’s no difference between when his eyes are open and when they’re closed. He’s been staring unseeingly at—what? The ceiling. Yes. He’s on his back. He rolls toward Gabriel.
“Mm?” His voice his clear and immediate, no hint of sleep in it. He’s been awake, too.
“Can’t sleep?” he asks, regardless.
“Just taking awhile.”
He touches Gabriel’s back, his hand all spread out to feel as much skin as possible, and then sweeps his fingers down the taper of Gabriel’s waist. Gabriel shifts, and says nothing. Jack presses forward, wedging a thigh between Gabriel’s legs. He fits himself against Gabriel’s back and brings his hand around to touch his lower stomach. Gabriel’s abdomen jumps slightly under his fingers.
“You sure you want to start this, Morrison?” he mumbles.
“We’re both awake. Might as well.”
Gabriel gives a short laugh and repeats “might as well” in a sarcastically indifferent voice. Jack grins as he strokes up and down the outside of Gabriel’s thigh, and then sets his mouth against Gabriel’s neck: a gentle bite, and then a quick pass of his tongue. Gabriel stretches an arm behind himself and hooks the top of Jack’s thigh, just below his ass. He tugs Jack forward, urging him to rock their bodies together. Jack grinds into him, obligingly. They’re both undressed down to their underwear.
“No objections to fucking in this bed, I take it?”
Gabriel just laughs again. He lets go of Jack’s leg and brings his arm up and back to grab Jack by the hair, dragging his head forward until they connect for a kiss over Gabriel’s shoulder. It’s a little sloppy. They half miss one another’s mouths in the dark, but it’s still good. It’s good. Gabriel opens his mouth for him, and Jack presses the advantage. In the complete darkness, Gabriel’s body is the only thing that still exists to all his senses, his one anchor to the whole rest of the world. Jack cranes over him, kissing him gluttonously. Gabriel squeezes Jack’s leg between his thighs, and Jack slides his hand down to massage him through the front of his briefs.
“C’mere,” he murmurs. “Lemme touch you.”
“What do you think you’re doing right now?” Gabriel asks, molding his hand over Jack’s.
“Want more than that,” Jack says, and he turns Gabriel around to face him and pushes his briefs down just enough to get his hand on Gabriel’s thickening erection. Gabriel exhales, stirring the air against his face. Jack feels Gabriel’s hands on his hips; his boxers being dragged down his legs; Gabriel’s broad, cool palm on his cock. He's already more than half hard. He pushes himself forward, welcoming the touch.
“I’m going to have to turn on the lamp if you want me to fuck you,” Gabriel mutters, all smug.
Jack shakes his head, sighing: “This is good. Just this. Just keep—yeah, just like that. Just like that…”
They crowd closer, their wrists crossing as they stroke one another. Jack rolls his forehead against Gabriel’s, bumping their noses together.
“This good for you?” he asks, and Gabriel says, “Yeah, it’s good, it’s good.”
They work at one another in the dark, Jack’s mouth grazing against Gabriel’s, his chest beginning to sweat even as his exposed back turns cool. The space between their bodies traps an oval of warm air between them. It's heady but unrushed.
“Gabe,” he says, after a while, “can you finish yourself?”
The pillowcase rustles faintly as Gabriel tilts his head away, instinctively trying to look him in the face for clues. “Mh? Why?”
“Just want you to.”
Gabriel pauses, and then says, “Fine.”
Gabriel stops touching him, and Jack does the same. A second later he feels the slight shiver of motion through the bed as Gabriel begins to pump his arm again. Jack reaches out and finds the back of his hand, then feels his way to Gabriel’s wrist, then his shifting forearm, then his bicep. He rubs circles on Gabriel’s shoulder, then widens the radius of his touch: now brushing the nape of his neck, now stroking his chest, now grabbing handfuls of his legs and ass. He knows every shape of Gabriel’s body; there’s nowhere he hasn’t touched again and again, but this sightless exploration exaggerates his perceptions of everything: Gabriel's whole body seems bigger, sturdier; and here he's softer, and here he's rougher, than Jack can ever remember.
The way Gabriel breathes, and the way he shifts on the bed, tells Jack what state he's in even before he rasps, “Shit, Jack, I’m close.”
Jack turns onto his back and tugs Gabriel toward him by the nape of his neck. “On me,” he urges.
Gabriel laughs, low and breathy. “You’re filthy, Morrison.”
But he slings a knee across Jack’s legs, propping himself up over half of Jack’s body. The darkness makes Jack bold: he runs his hands over Gabriel’s face, rolls Gabriel’s bottom lip open with the pad of his thumb, thrusts it lazily against his tongue. Gabriel sucks it into his mouth. He breathes shallowly through his nose, little brushes of air over Jack’s hand.
Then Gabriel suddenly turns his head aside, Jack’s thumb slipping out of his mouth. He hisses softly, and then holds his breath as he comes across Jack’s stomach, and his hips, and his cock. Jack moans, squirming beneath him, and slings an arm around Gabriel to stroke up and down his back, encouraging him through it.
Finally Gabriel stops pumping his hand and begins to draw away, and Jack spreads his fingers wide, pressing down on Gabriel’s back. “Stay here,” he says. “Wanna feel you right there.”
Gabriel says ah, under his breath, like he’s been hit. He touches his mouth to Jack’s jaw.
Jack is nearly gone even before he puts a hand on himself, all wet from Gabriel's release and his own insistent arousal. Gabriel’s leg is across him, his weight and closeness making half of Jack’s body sweat. Jack uses his other hand to knead at Gabriel’s ass, at the fat and muscle, good and firm and pliant. Then Gabriel drops himself closer, and his mouth presses against the sloping base of Jack’s neck. It’s not a soft, brushing kiss: he latches on roughly, and Jack’s neck begins to sting under the seal of his mouth. He’s trying to leave a mark. Oh. Oh…
His orgasm isn’t a swift, sudden peak of intensity; it’s a slow and steady pulse of feeling, like a glass being over-filled, drop by drop, until the surface tension finally breaks and spills over. Jack’s hand stills, but his hips continue to twitch up, chasing sensation. For some reason he feels obligated to be quiet, just like Gabriel was quiet, so he turns his neck and presses his mouth against Gabriel’s head to muffle himself. It’s not refined enough to be a kiss. He just pushes his mouth against Gabriel until his lips hurt from being crushed by his teeth. His lips sting, his neck stings. He pours over, pours over, pours over.
“I think you’re drooling on my head,” Gabriel says, after a moment.
Jack pulls back. Sure enough, his mouth is all wet at one corner, and there’s a little smear of moisture on his cheek. His lips had parted without his notice.
He wipes his face with his forearm. “Sorry.”
Gabriel rubs a circle on the middle of his chest. “Feel all right?”
“Think I might be ready to sleep now,” he admits. He kicks his boxers off entirely and gropes around for the covers, long since forced to the foot of the bed.
But Gabriel immediately pushes him, shoving him several inches across the bed. “Oh, no you don’t. Go clean yourself up.”
“Hmh. Wanna sleep.”
“Get your ass out of bed, Morrison.”
Jack sighs, very heavily, and scoots to the edge of the bed to sit up. The wooden floor is unexpectedly cold for June; he retracts his feet in shock and has to spend several seconds mustering up the willpower for another attempt. He shuffles his way across the room with a hand out, but once he makes it to the doorway, the indirect light from the glass doors in the other room is enough to guide him to the bathroom. He leaves the door open and the lights off as he cleans himself up, and urinates, and washes his hands.
Gabriel lifts an arm for him to slip under when he gets back to the bed—and then writhes away, shouting, when Jack puts both of his hands on him.
“Fuck! Dry your damn hands!”
“I’m trying to,” he says, curtly, as he reaches out again. Gabriel folds his leg up to create a wedge between them, and then uses it to shove Jack to the edge of the mattress. He gropes at Gabriel’s thigh and wins another shout. They scrabble around on the bed for a moment, and then Gabriel gathers his wrists together and presses his hands above his head, and rolls onto him, and kisses him until all the fight goes out of his body.
Jack laughs under him, a little breathlessly. “What, you ready to go again already?”
“Just helping you get warm,” Gabriel says. He mouths his way down Jack’s jaw and to his neck—to the other side of his neck, exactly opposite the spot he’d gone after earlier—and sets his lips against it. Jack laughs and tips his head back. He turns his face against the pillow and lets Gabriel create a little patch of pain on his neck.
“I don’t know if you’re allowed to get me off again after pushing me out of bed,” he says. Gabriel pulls his mouth away, and the wet spot on Jack’s neck turns cold when the air touches it. He grimaces and rubs his hand there. “Ah, shit, that’s cold. Thought you were trying to make me warmer.”
Gabriel doesn’t apologize, but Jack does feel him dragging the covers all the way up to his chin. He snorts, but allows Gabriel to tuck him into the bed.
“I don’t get a kiss good-night?” he asks.
Gabriel lands a sloppy kiss on the side of his nose, then rolls over to face the other direction. Jack slithers up behind him, and hooks his chin over his shoulder, and slots his arm around Gabriel’s waist. Gabriel lays a hand over his arm. It feels good to be in bed with nothing between them, and no one else anywhere nearby, and no reason at all to get out of bed in the morning except that they’ll want to, eventually.
Jack sleeps without knowing it, and wakes again in absolute darkness. He’s certain, without checking, that he has slept for exactly the right amount of time to take over for a typical lookout shift for a three-person team: an old instinct, etched into him in some irreversible way, that asserts itself in any new environment. He has rolled to the edge of the bed, facing outward, his arm dangling over the side. He turns himself over and shifts toward the middle of the mattress, where it’s dipped toward the center by Gabriel’s weight, and puts an arm over him. Gabriel’s body is cool, and still, and quiet.
Jack pistons upright. He grabs Gabriel’s shoulder, finding it unerringly even in the dark, and shakes him, and says, “Gabriel,” in a strangled voice that does not sound like his own.
Gabriel stirs and says, “Jack?” He's immediately alert and clear, even woken from a dead sleep.
Jack goes numb all the way through as relief chases the horror out of his body. “I thought—I didn’t think you were breathing. I—”
He knows what’s coming next, and he’s on his feet even before the nausea hits him. This time it’s easy to walk across the room, even in the dark; having done it once, spatial memory takes over for him. He makes it to the bathroom and drops beside the toilet just in time to retch painfully.
Gabriel, still naked, steps into the bathroom barely two seconds behind him and turns on the light. Jack winces and drops his head, shadowing his eyes with his forearm. The nausea has made him salivate, and he swallows several times, not speaking.
Gabriel hesitates, then steps forward and settles into a crouch beside him, and rubs between his shoulder blades as he coughs again, which brings up nothing but makes his eyes mist over.
“I’ll get you a glass of water,” Gabriel says, and starts to stand.
“No,” Jack says, grabbing at his arm. “No, just stay. It’s fine. I can just…”
He coughs twice more and then drags himself across the floor, to the tub, and turns on the tap. Unheated water gurgles out. Jack drapes himself against the rim of the tub and drinks a few handfuls of gut-shockingly cold water, then wets his face and neck with his dripping hands. Water drops roll down to his chest and back, and goosebumps rise across his body. After a moment, Gabriel sits cautiously next to him on the edge of the tub and combs fingers through his hair. Jack switches off the faucet, letting the water swirl away down the drain, and leans his head against Gabriel’s solid thigh. Neither of them speak. Gabriel rubs a thumb behind his ear. Jack lays his cold, wet hands limply across his own lap.
“You used to be so warm,” he says, after awhile. “I’d wake up sweating from sleeping next to you.”
Gabriel’s hand stills. There’s a long pause before he says, “Sorry,” like he doesn’t know what else to offer.
Jack shakes his head and turns to kiss Gabriel’s thigh, and then his knee, and then the protrusion of his hipbone. He tugs Gabriel’s hand off of his head and kisses the wrist, and the palm, and the inner joint of his thumb. He takes the tips of Gabriel’s index and middle finger between his teeth and bites them, very lightly. Gabriel lays his other hand on his shoulder and squeezes it. Then he leans down, and pulls Jack up by the back of his head, and kisses his mouth. Jack holds Gabriel’s face between both hands, his fingers molding against the contours he knows so well. He feels Gabriel’s breath against his lips.
They stay like that. Then they both stand at the same time.
“Let’s go back to bed,” Jack says, and Gabriel nods.
He walks on ahead with Gabriel behind him—and then double-takes as he passes the bathroom mirror, and has to stop and turn to look more fully. His wan-faced reflection gawks back at him, two big round purple blotches stamped on either side of his neck. He doesn’t bruise easily. Jack steps toward the mirror, and his dazedly grinning reflection moves closer from the other side.
“Damn!” he exclaims, swiveling his head to look at either side. “You eally got me. Look at that!”
Gabriel’s reflection looks like it's been caught red handed. But he steps up behind Jack, and slips an arm around his chest, and settles a hand against the base of his throat so that his thumb and fingers span the space between the bruises. Gabriel leans against his back and puts his mouth behind his ear. “Yeah,” he says. “Got you. I got you.”
In the cool pre-dawn there’s just enough light to see edges. There’s the foot of the bed. The dresser. Gabriel’s shoulder. He’s lying on his side with his back turned. Jack rolls and puts an arm and a leg over him to keep him from getting up. Gabriel’s awake. He shifts and murmurs indistinctly. It feels good to share a bed with him, and it feels good to touch him, so that’s what Jack does: touches Gabriel with his hands and his mouth until both of them get hard. He gets off between Gabriel’s thighs, tucked against his back, and then slides down the bed and gives Gabriel his mouth.
Afterward, in the bathroom, Jack asks, “You want to shower now, too?” with a certain degree of unselfless hope, but Gabriel just shakes his head as he cleans his legs with a rag.
“I’m going to go for a run while it’s early.”
“Don’t get shot,” Jack says, raising his eyebrows.
“I’ll run fast.”
“Bring your phone.”
“Uh-huh. I won’t take candy from any strangers, either.”
“And watch out for cars,” Jack goes on, and Gabriel laughs and leaves him with a kiss on the cheek.
Jack has his shower, and brushes his teeth, and has breakfast. There are twelve packets of instant oatmeal in the box they found in the kitchen, so he eats six of them. He finds a thermos still half full of coffee from yesterday’s drive, and Jack considers his options before pouring it into a mug, topping it off with tap water, adding an extra spoonful of sugar, and reheating it in the microwave. He has a text from Ana wishing him good morning, and he takes his reheated coffee onto the deck to sit while he responds.
He’s standing at the deck rail with the mug balanced next to his elbow when Gabriel comes running up the driveway. He’s leaning into the incline with his chin down. Gabriel hates to run, but it’s simple exercise that he can do anywhere, so he’s diligent about it. He looks up, sees Jack watching him, and puts on a burst of speed for the remainder of the distance. Show off.
Gabriel bounds up the stairs and comes directly onto the deck, breathing hard.
“Well, I don't see any bullet holes,” Jack observes.
Gabriel approaches, then gives a lurch as though finally succumbing to an injury after great perseverance, and flops his weight against Jack. He’s very sweaty.
“Ah!” Jack shouts. “No! I showered!”
Gabriel wraps both arms around him and pushes his face into Jack’s neck. Jack sighs, relenting. He strokes the back of Gabriel’s damp neck. “See anything interesting?” he asks.
“Bunch of fucking deer,” Gabriel says, finally standing up straight. “I turned a corner and they were all crossing the road right in front of me. I almost ate it. They stared at me like assholes and then wandered away looking all fucking majestic.”
“Did you just stick to the road?”
“Mostly. Tried going across some kind of field at first, but it was full of these giant shits.”
“Oh, you mean from cows? Or horses? Were they r—”
Gabriel cuts him off: “Jack, I am not going to describe the shits to you to classify. They were just big shits. I didn’t want to step in shit from cows or horses or any other fucking kind of animal, so I got back onto the road and went, uh, north, uphill, away from the highway. I think I got to the end of it; it just turns into a driveway for some huge fucking house. They’ve got horses.”
“Mm, yeah. I think there are some wealthy families in the area. You hungry?”
Gabriel perks up. “Goddamn starving. Did you make something?”
“No,” he says. “But I left half of the oatmeal for you.”
Gabriel’s hopeful expression withers up. “You’re useless, Morrison. Hey, give me some of your coffee.”
He takes the nearly-empty mug off the rail without waiting for permission and takes a swallow—and then pivots aside to spit explosively off of the deck. Jack folds his arms.
“Morrison, what the fuck! What did you do to it? That’s the worst coffee I’ve ever fucking tasted.”
“Well, I didn’t make it for you.”
Gabriel wipes a forearm across his mouth, betrayal shining vividly in his eyes, and then shoves the mug against Jack’s chest and tromps inside. Jack swirls the last of the coffee around the bottom of the mug, gulps it down, and follows him.
Gabriel showers, and shaves, and takes his medications before he makes a brave attempt to eat breakfast. He manages to eat half a serving of instant oatmeal before losing the battle against subpar breakfast food. He holds up his uneaten oatmeal, which Jack swoops in to finish, and says, “Let’s get food.”
Asheville is forty minutes down the highway, but they decide to pick up staples at the nearest grocery store, in Burnsville, a quiet little place with some ambition of being a tourist town. They pretend not to notice the stares they get throughout the grocery store. Between them they fill two entire grocery carts, though there are certain things Gabriel insists that they have to get from Asheville: steak, coffee, wine.
“Why didn’t we just go there in the first place, then?” Jack demands. “We could have gotten everything at once.”
Gabriel just shrugs, unabashed. “I was hungry, and this was closer.”
Jack is annoyed out of principle, but he doesn’t have any reason not to go on another grocery run: their time is open and unscheduled. He lets Gabriel sit in the passenger’s seat and tear into a couple of protein bars as he drives them back to the cabin, where they stop for just long enough to unpack their groceries. Then he makes Gabriel take over for the drive into Asheville and dozes for twenty-five minutes along the way with his seat reclined.
Asheville is bright, and energetic, and artsy. All the coffee shops and cafes seem to be decorated with pieces from local artists. Gabriel navigates them through all their stops: a butcher’s shop, a coffee shop that does its own small-batch roasting, a co-op market. Jack hangs back, offering input when requested, and lets Gabriel do all the talking and decision-making. Gabriel has good tastes, and a charming, composed manner that makes people want to please and impress him. He seems to get what he’s looking for, in any case. They stop for lunch, and wander through art galleries and tchotchke shops. It's nice. When they get back into the car, each with to-go coffees ordered from an old bus converted into a drink stall, Gabriel says, “You’ve been staring at me. Did I miss a spot when I shaved, or what?”
Jack laughs and shifts his legs. He hadn’t realized he was being obvious. “Nothing. Just... mmh, thinking about everyone we met—the, the, the Secretaries of This and the Ministers of That, and the journalists, and the, you know—who didn’t think you were a people person.”
Gabriel snorts, trying to disguise a laugh. “Well, I’m not.”
“Oh, ha. Yeah. Right. You know, you always lied to yourself better than to anyone else.”
Gabriel sips his coffee and eyes him narrowly from behind the cup. “Huh. Well, just think about all those poor bastards who thought that you actually liked talking to them.”
Now Jack is the one who laughs. “I did!” He pauses, thinking about it. “Well, I liked… I liked thinking that I did a good job talking to them. It felt, uh, like a mission that I had to perform, and I could do it well. Well enough. I liked it because I could do it. You know? That was satisfying, I guess.”
“You did do a good job,” Gabriel says, generously. “If only they could see us now, huh?”
“Ha. Yeah. If only.”
When they get back to the cabin, Jack drags the grill outside. He opens it up, and looks into it, and then shuts it again. It’s a mess, and he didn’t buy any charcoal.
They spend the rest of the afternoon on the deck as the heat settles in, neither of them moving or speaking much. Gabriel has found a soft-cover copy of The Man In The Iron Mask. Jack reads the news. He doesn’t realize that he’s fallen asleep until he wakes up in one of the Adirondack chairs with his head slumped sideways onto his shoulder. He looks up, and winces when his neck gives a sharp twinge. Gabriel is standing at the rail, leaning forward as he focuses on something in the distance. Then Jack hears something—a short, sharp blip of noise—and sits up straight.
Gabriel, hearing him move, looks over his shoulder and makes a beckoning motion. “Come take a look at this.”
Jack gets up and shuffles over. He puts his hands on the rail and squints outward into the light.
There’s a brown dog with puppyish proportions marching purposefully up the driveway, barking every few steps. Specifically, it seems to be barking at Gabriel. Its head is raised up to look at him. It pauses for a second when Jack appears on the deck, too, but rallies itself and continues to march up the driveway, still barking. Both of them watch it. The dog reaches the top of the driveway and edges past the car toward the house. It’s still barking. They stare. The dog barks.
“What’d you do to piss it off?” Jack whispers, elbowing Gabriel in the side.
Gabriel elbows him right back. “It just showed up and started making noise. I haven’t done anything.”
“Well, have you seen it before? Is it from one of the houses around here?”
“It’s a fucking mystery to me.”
The dog barks. Bark, bark, bark.
“It’s really loud,” Jack observes.
Gabriel says, “Yeah.”
Bark. Bark, bark. Bark.
“It’s pretty small. How can it be so loud?”
Jack drums his hands on the deck rail. The dog doesn’t seem like it particularly wants to be petted, and he’s not sure, exactly, what else to do with mysterious dogs. Then, without warning, Gabriel leans forward and shouts, “Hey, fuckass! Shut the fuck up!”
Jack is startled. So is the dog. Both of them jump slightly, and the dog drops into a bewildered half-sit, its front legs sticking stiffly forward and braced very far apart like an over-stuffed toy. Then it gathers itself back together, says “bwuff!” in a tone of clear outrage, whirls around, and goes tearing back down the driveway at full speed with its whole ill-proportioned body floundering like a rag doll being pulled by a string. They hear a diminishing series of barks as it vanishes into the distance.
“Why’d you do that?” Jack bursts out, punching Gabriel’s arm.
Gabriel punches him back. “It was being noisy! It woke you up!”
“What if that was someone’s lost dog? We could have at least checked it for tags!”
“Then it’ll wander up to someone else’s house and bark its fucking head off again until someone else rescues it. Jack, it’ll be fine. Everyone loves stupid puppies. Someone’ll look after it.”
“Something could happen to it,” he protests. “It could get sick. It could get hurt.”
“Well, fuck, if it comes back you can make friends with it and save the day just like you love to.”
“It’s not going to come back after you yelled at it like that,” he snaps.
The dog comes back.
Gabriel makes them steak and eggs for breakfast the next morning. Jack is cleaning the dishes when Gabriel pops into the house from the deck and says, “Fuckass is here.”
Jack follows him onto the deck and, yes, it’s true. The dog is standing in front of the house, barking.
“Well?” Gabriel asks, flatly. “Are you going to go form an inspirational bond with it, or whatever it is you do?”
Jack sniffs. “I’m going to see whether it has any tags. Stay here.”
Gabriel folds his arms and stares the dog down from the deck as Jack makes his way around the corner to the landing and slowly descends the stairs.
When he reaches the bottom of the stairs and creeps closer, the dog realizes that it has fallen victim to advanced sneakery. It had continued to stare at Gabriel without paying attention to what Jack was doing, and it goes abruptly quiet when it sees him come around the corner. Jack drops into a squat and stays there, unmoving.
“Boof,” the dog says, cautiously.
“Hey,” Jack says. “Hey, there. Good dog. How’s it going? Good dog, good pup. You want to come over here?”
He extends a hand slowly, palm up.
The dog says, “Wuff.” It does not want to come over there.
“Hey,” Jack calls again. “Hey, boy. C’mon.”
He glances up at the deck. Gabriel is still standing there, one elbow braced on the rail and his chin propped on his fist. The dog glances between them, uneasily. No one moves.
“You’re scaring it,” Jack accuses, speaking just loud enough for his voice to carry.
“I am not. I’m not doing anything.”
“Go inside, or it’s going to run away again.”
“It can fuck off, then.”
“Gabriel,” he growls.
Gabriel neither answers nor moves. He’s not going to cooperate. They’re at an impasse: Jack crouched on the ground, his knees starting to ache from the gravel digging into them, and Gabriel watching from the deck, and the dog nervously poised to bolt. Eventually, Jack dares to edge a step closer. The dog doesn’t move. Good, good.
“See?” Jack says, softly. “This is fine, this is fine.”
He moves forward again, and again. The dog hasn’t resumed barking, but it doesn’t stop swiveling its head around to watch both of them alternately. But then Jack apparently encroaches too far. When he takes another step and holds out his hand again, the dog tosses its head, spooked, and whirls around, and gallops halfway down the driveway.
“Yowp!” it scolds them from a distance, pausing to look back.
Jack sighs and unfolds himself from his squat, and the dog breaks into a trot and becomes a receding tumbleweed of ears and gangly puppy limbs.
“Well, it doesn’t have a collar,” he calls up to Gabriel. “Are you proud of yourself for defending your territory, tough guy?”
Gabriel shrugs, unmoved by the rebuke. “Think we should call Animal Control? It’s going to get run over or kicked by a fucking horse if it’s just running around like a dumbass.”
“Maybe,” Jack says, though the idea doesn’t sit quite right with him. “But I don’t want to send them on a wild goose chase without knowing where it is. Doubt it’ll come back here again.”
Jack makes a platter of French toast after Gabriel’s morning run, eats several pieces while standing right over the pan, and then heaps several more onto a plate and brings it onto the deck. Gabriel is standing at the rail. He silently points at the ground.
The dog is sitting beside the car. It looks up at Jack and says, “Uff.”
Jack puts the plate into Gabriel’s hands and says, “Okay. Okay. I’m going into town to buy some dog food.”
Gabriel hacks into a piece of French toast with his fork and begins to chew. “Fine, fine, fine, fine. Just give me five minutes to eat.”
“No, you should stay here and keep an eye on it. Actually, do me a favor look up any lost dog ads around here. We should have done that sooner.”
Jack doesn’t bother trying to put the dog at ease this time: he just strides slowly but purposefully up to the car, giving the dog plenty of time to get out of the way. The dog skitters aside but doesn’t dash off down the driveway this time. Jack looks into the rear view mirror and watches the dog, and the cabin, and the shape of Gabriel standing on the deck recede into the distance as he drives away.
The dog is still there when he gets back, roaming around on the other side of the creek. As Jack hauls bags out of the car, he watches the dog lift its leg to pee on the corner of the pump house. Well. Looks like it’s a male.
Gabriel meets him at the bottom of the stairs to take a bag out of his arms, and they carry everything up to the deck.
“No ads matching Fuckass’s description,” Gabriel tells him. “Called the animal shelter and a couple vet offices to see if anyone had contacted them about a lost mutt, but they didn’t have any leads. Left them your phone number.”
“You didn’t ask the pound to come collect him, did you?”
“Shit, Jack, no.” He nudges one of the bags with his foot. “You need a hand with any of this?”
“Nah, I’ve got it, thanks.”
The bags include, among other things, a collection of several dog bowls. Jack fills three of them with water and places one at the bottom of the stairs, another at the top of the landing near the front door, and the third at the end of the deck that connects to the landing. Then he pairs each one with a bowl of dry dog food.
They stake out the deck for the rest of the day, waiting for results. It’s an unsophisticated plan, but the dog is an unsophisticated dog, so the results work out pretty much as intended. Within half an hour they hear the faint sound of sloshing water and peer over the rail to find the dog drinking from the bowl at the bottom of the stairs. They watch, sipping coffee, as it shoves its face into the food bowl and crunches voraciously.
Two hours later, the dog makes it to the top of the stairs. Jack sees it through the screen door while he’s in the kitchen making a pepperoni and cheddar cheese sandwich. He hears more crunching sounds.
After another hour and a half, the dog arrives on the deck itself and creeps, nearly flat on its belly, to the third set of bowls. It glances suspiciously at them as it devours the food, scattering kibble fragments across a six-inch radius around the bowl.
Jack has filled each bowl with only a couple scant mouthfuls of food: just enough to be enticing. When the third pair has been emptied, Jack places the fourth set of bowls, filled to more appropriate levels, at the far end of the deck, all the way opposite the landing and the stairs, and then sits down next to Gabriel. The dog will have to pass them to make it to the rest of the food. They remain right there on the deck, studiously ignoring the dog and going about their own business as though it does not exist. The first time Jack gets up to go to the bathroom, the dog bolts all the way down the stairs, into the middle of the yard, and barks uproariously. This happens several times. The dog flees when one of them shifts their legs, or swats a fly, or laughs too loudly—but it runs slightly less far away each time.
At last, the dog bravely endures the terror of one of Gabriel’s sneezes and makes it all the way to the last bowl. They watch it gulp down mouthfuls of food and water.
It’s an ugly dog. Clumped brown fur, a crusted nose, a narrow ribcage with a belly distended from starvation. Its mouth is scabbed at the edges. Maybe six months old, by Jack’s guess. A medium-sized breed.
“What kind of dog do you think it is?” he whispers.
Gabriel considers. “A mutt.”
“Oh, you don’t fucking say? Can you elaborate on that?”
Jack scoffs and surveys the dog for several seconds with his head cocked. “Might be some kind of lurcher.”
“A fucking what?”
“You know, it’s a mix between a, a sighthound and some kind of - like, a herding dog, you know?”
Gabriel just stares at him. He clearly does not know. Jack clears his throat and tries to forge on. “I just mean, it looks like some kind of working breed, don’t you think?”
“No fucking clue,” Gabriel says, helpfully.
The dog finishes eating and sits back, contentedly licking around its mouth. Then its whole body jerks, and it belches loudly. All of them jolt in some surprise, and Gabriel starts to snicker. The dog swings its head around to look at them, and Jack snaps a photo. He sends it to Ana with a caption: Look at this huge rat.
Ana writes back to him: ive seen bigger
And then: whats its name
Jack looks at his phone and doesn’t answer. If he gives the dog a name, it’ll change the entire dynamic of the situation. If it has a name, it’ll go from being some interchangeable stray to a specific dog in which he is personally invested. He doesn’t want to be personally invested in anything while they’re on vacation for family business. He pockets his phone and stands up.
“I think I’m gonna check with the neighbors, see if anyone knows anything about him.”
Gabriel raises his head and frowns. “Let me guess: you want me to stay and babysit again?”
Gabriel snorts. “Don’t get shot, Morrison.”
“Text me if you go anywhere.”
Jack walks instead of taking the car. He treks down the driveway and follows the country road all the way to the highway, then works his way back up the road from there. There are a few other long driveways, but most of the houses are close to the road. He knocks on doors, and smiles at the people who answer the doors, and shows them the picture of the ugly dog. It’s a weekend; most people are at home, and all of them have condolences and something nice to say about Kent Clark when he mentions where he’s staying. But it’s hard to extract himself from the conversations after he’s asked his few questions. He has to turn down more than one invitation for a cup of coffee or a cold beer. The whole process takes hours.
Gabriel sends a series of accusatory texts in the interim.
Gabriel: Fuckass bit the car.
Gabriel: Fuckass peed on the deck.
Gabriel: Now he’s biting the deck.
Gabriel: I’m going to turn him into a bathroom rug.
But there are no texts during the last hour that Jack is out. He starts to feel uneasy. The mild climb back up the driveway sets his heart beating faster than it should. But he slows when he reaches the yard, and makes the final trek up the stairs as quietly as possible.
Gabriel is sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs with his legs stretched out and a beanie pulled over his eyes. He’s asleep. The ugly dog is lying in the space between Gabriel’s legs and the legs of the chair, also asleep. One of his back paws is twitching.
Jack stealthily takes another picture, which he sends, uncaptioned, to Ana.
'R they dead?' she asks, seconds later.
The joke falls a little flat on Jack. But he types out ha ha ha to her.
Jack circles around the back of the chair, leans down, and whispers, “Hey.”
Gabriel’s head jerks up. Jack squeezes his shoulders lightly, then tugs his hat farther back on his forehead, uncovering his eyes. “Don’t move. Look down.”
Cautiously, Gabriel cranes his head sideways, enough to bring the dog’s rear end into view. Then he tilts his body in the other direction until he can see the dog’s head and front paws. He studies the dog for a moment. Then he asks, “Did it fucking die?”
Jack cuffs him gently on the head. “Just so you know, you don’t get paid if the thing you’re babysitting dies.”
Gabriel reaches over his own head, trying to grab him, but Jack snags his wrists and holds them captive in the air. “You can’t move until he wakes up, sorry.”
Gabriel grunts and turns his failed grapple into a stretch, rolling his shoulders back. “Bring me some coffee, then.”
“You didn’t like my coffee the last time you had it,” Jack reminds him.
“Fuck, Jack, I’m just asking you to make a normal cup of coffee, not to go Doctor-fucking-Frankenstein on some toilet water, or whatever it was you did.”
Jack clicks his tongue and grabs one of Gabriel’s ears, twisting it until Gabriel slaps a hand to the side of his head and tugs down both sides of his hat for protection.
When Jack returns with a cup of coffee some time later, it looks like Gabriel has fallen back asleep. His head is down, and he’s very still. Jack stops half way through the door, not wanting to wake him again. He can hear the dog snoring softly. He starts to take a step back into the house, and the deck betrays him with a creak. Gabriel sits up straight and looks over his shoulder, trying very hard to look like someone who hasn’t just been caught watching over an ugly puppy while it sleeps. Jack passes him the mug to him, and Gabriel sniffs it before taking a cautious sip.
“I’ve had worse,” he says. “So, what’d you find out?”
Jack braces his hands on the back of Gabriel’s chair and shifts his weight onto his arms, leaning over him. “A couple of people had seen him wandering around the area during the last couple of days, but no one knew much. They figured he was probably abandoned around here. Apparently this road has some kind of reputation for being a - a dog dump. Hunting dogs, I guess. Puppies that didn’t make the cut. A few turn up every summer.”
“Seriously?” Gabriel frowns. “Why not take them to a shelter, or give them away to people?”
“Couldn’t tell you.”
“What happens to them?”
“Don’t know. I guess they get picked up by Animal Control, eventually. No one I talked to could account for all of them. A couple had been adopted by people who live around here, but there are too many of them to keep taking in every time they appear.”
Gabriel mulls this over. “Well, he sure doesn’t look like he’d be a good hunting dog,” he says. “Is that why you’re out here, Fuckass? You’re too shitty to do your job? Welcome to the fucking team.”
He reaches down as though to pat the dog’s head, then catches himself. He withdraws his hand. The dog stirs slightly and lets out a long, burdened sigh, then continues to snore.
“Do you want to call Animal Control?” Jack asks.
Gabriel shifts his legs carefully, crossing one ankle over the other, and sinks more deeply into his chair. “What, and have them come here? I’m not in the mood to talk to anyone. We can do it in the morning.”
By noon, the dog is inside the cabin.
They find it asleep on the deck when they come upstairs in the morning. They open the sliding glass doors; Jack leaves bowls of food and water near the fireplace and in the kitchen. They make huevos rancheros.
The dog pokes his head into the house at the tail end of breakfast, then retreats, then returns. They pretend not to see it. They go about their routines slowly and quietly and speak, when necessary, in whispers. For the most part they just don’t talk out loud at all. Jack has experienced every possible iteration of not-talking to Gabriel Reyes, but this is the easy, comfortable kind. They can get by just fine without talking.
The dog comes inside. It sniffs the armchairs. It sniffs the rug. It sniffs the fireplace. It sniffs the food. It eats the food. It sniffs its way into the kitchen and eats all of that food, too. Then it lays down directly in front of the main door with a tremendous, world-weary sigh and goes back to sleep.
The cycle repeats a couple of times. The dog wakes up, wanders around, eats things (including, but not limited to, several inches of Jack’s shoelaces and approximately three and a half dead houseflies), and then falls asleep again. Once he shakes things up by peeing on the bathroom floor.
Jack and Gabriel step onto the deck to confer.
“We can make him stay outside again,” Jack offers, fearing that this violation of cleanliness has put an end to Gabriel’s gracious tolerance. But Gabriel just shrugs, shockingly noncommittal.
“Easier for Animal Control to pick him up if we keep him in the house,” he says. “But we have to bathe him. He stinks, and he could have things.”
The dog does stink. The cabin is now perfumed with a pungent unwashed-animal smell, and the dog ejects little puffs of dust when he scratches himself. But Jack asks, for clarification: “‘Things?’”
“You know. Parasites. Bugs. Ringworm.”
“That’s a fungus.”
“He could have a fungus!”
Gabriel Reyes doesn’t have the first idea about what “things” a stray dog might pick up in the hills of North Carolina, but he has concerns about them.
Jack hums in acquiescence. “I can go back into town and pick up some dog shampoo, stuff like that,” he offers.
“Alright. Let’s go right now while he’s asleep.”
“No, we can’t both go. He’ll - he'll wake up and chew on everything while we’re gone.”
Gabriel thinks for a second. Jack can almost see the conclusion forming in his mind: whoever goes is less likely to have to clean up more dog piss. “Okay. You can stay and keep an eye on him.”
“Oh. Well.” Jack shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “Thanks. But, uh. I’ve already been to the store, and - I don’t know if he would react well to being left with me. He, he already seems comfortable with you.”
Gabriel gives him a long look. It’s hard to hold eye contact with him. “Jack,” he says. “I can do things on my own.”
“Right. I know that.”
“You don’t act like you know it. I don’t appreciate being under fucking house arrest.”
“Then let me go.”
Jack breathes in: one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, four. “I’d just. Prefer. You not to. This time.”
“Fuck, Jack, come on! You going to stop me from going running next? Do I have to have supervision to use the bathroom?”
“I— Shit, Gabe. I’m not going to stop you from doing anything. It— I just—”
Jack laces his fingers together behind his neck and tugs his own head down. He breathes in through his nose and out through his mouth. Easy, Morrison, easy. When he looks up again, Gabriel’s expression is gently expectant. Jack smiles for him as much as he can.
“Look. I’m. I’m not trying to make you feel like you can’t take care of yourself, but I’m asking you to indulge me. You know I’m selfish.”
“Jack…,” Gabriel says, clearly wanting to argue but not sure how.
“You know how much old people worry about things.”
Gabriel frowns and says, “You’re younger than I am.”
Jack looks him up and down at length. “Well, it sure doesn’t look that way.”
The flattery, as usual, is what gets through. Gabriel jerks his shoulders. It’s a dismissive gesture, as though this conversation is no longer of interest to him, but Jack knows that he’s touched Gabriel’s ego. Gabriel snorts, and looks around at nothing in particular, and says, “Fine. Anything I can do to keep you from losing more hair.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Jack says, instead of ‘thank you.’ “Want me to pick up anything while I’m out?”
He keeps the trip under an hour. When he returns, Gabriel meets him on the deck with a harrowed expression. Jack wordlessly fishes a six pack of apricot sour ale out of the grocery bag and hands it over.
“That fuckass dog shit out half his fucking body weight while you were gone,” Gabriel says, pointing, when the first can is empty. The dog is lying sprawled in the far corner, peacefully snoring. It looks like like it just materialized in another spot without ever waking up.
“Oh. Did you see any worms in it?”
Gabriel gives him a withering look. “Morrison, where did this fixation with examining shit come from?”
Jack huffs as he sets down the shopping bags. “Did you see any goddamn worms or not?”
“No, it was all-natural, unadulterated shit.”
Jack looks past Gabriel at the dog and says, “You still want to bathe him?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m not going to let that asshole win.”
“You want to do it right now?”
“No. First I want to drink to forget.” Gabriel grabs another can from him and tromps into the house.
Jack brings the bags into the house and slowly works his way through one beer in the time it takes Gabriel to drink four in a row. It’s at the four-beer mark that Gabriel decides that the perfect time for a bath is right now, and he won’t be dissuaded. He takes a little sliver of smoked ham from the fridge and lays it on the deck an inch from the dog’s nose.
The dog stirs, nose twitching, and then opens his eyes to find Gabriel crouched beside him. His body gives a tiny fear jump, but he flattens himself down instead of leaping away. Gabriel doesn’t move. Several seconds pass. And then, cautiously, the dog stretches his neck out and snaps up the ham with his teeth.
Gabriel offers his hand. Maybe he still smells like ham, because the dog’s nose twitches, and he gives Gabriel’s fingers a tentative snuffle. Gabriel extends his arm, little by little. He touches the dog’s neck. The dog stiffens, then sniffs his arm. It’s the first time one of them has actually touched the stray.
Gabriel runs his hand along the dog’s neck. One pass, then another. His fingers curl a bit. He scratches through the shaggy fur. The dog lowers its head again, but its little body seems less tense than before. Gabriel pets between its shoulders.
“You’re about to have the experience of a lifetime, Fuckass,” Gabriel tells the dog. He scratches behind an ear.
“Come on,” Jack says. “Give it a little more time before you traumatize him. He’ll throw a fit if you try to bathe him right now.”
Gabriel raises his eyes. “Damn, fine. You can come pet him, too.”
“No, that’s not what I—” Jack purses his lips and shifts from foot over to the other. “Fine. Okay.”
Gabriel scoots over a little, making room for him to sit, and Jack kneels beside them. The dog’s head comes up. He cups his palm for it to sniff, and the dog bumps a dry, rough nose against his wrist.
For the next three quarters of an hour they just stay there on the deck, both of them scuffing at the dog’s neck and rubbing at his ears. His fur is matted and very dirty. Jack carefully works out a few burrs and sets them aside. As Gabriel said, the dog stinks: a putrid, spoiled-meat smell. He probably rolled in something rotten.
“Think we’ll have to shave him?” he asks.
“Don’t know. We’ll have to see what the bath does.”
The dog’s flattened fur fluffs out as they pick and pet at it, and he gradually inflates between them like a bowl of rising bread dough. He seems to enjoy the grooming. He even raises his head to allow the underside of his neck and chin to be scratched. Then he rests his chin on Jack’s knee and sighs heavily.
Jack works another burr out, then hisses as one of the spines sinks into the tender skin under his thumbnail. He pops the tip of his thumb into his mouth without thinking, and immediately regrets it. The taste of dirt and the faint, sweet musk of putrefaction spreads over his tongue. He jerks his thumb away and licks the inside of his forearm to clear the taste, and Gabriel laughs as he looks on with incredulity.
“I don’t think he has fleas,” Jack says hastily, to distract from what he’s just done. “Or not a bad case, at least. Have you noticed him scratching himself?”
“I don’t know, a few times. Not much.”
“We should look for ticks during the bath.”
Gabriel eyes the dog, perturbed by this idea. Jack can already tell that he’s going to be left on solo tick-removal duty. Then Gabriel levers himself to his feet. “Well, time to ruin this comfortable rapport. Come on, Fuckass, it’s time to find out what you really look like.”
He goes to the fridge and collects several more morsels of ham on a napkin, and Jack gets up, too, to get the bathroom ready. The upstairs tub has a detachable shower head, and Jack runs the water for a few seconds to make sure it’ll come out warm when they need it, then gathers a heap of towels, shampoo, a bucket, flea and worm medication, and a dog comb. Gabriel rounds the corner a moment later, guiding the dog by a piece of ham held in front of his nose. Jack slips around behind them and closes the door. The dog’s ears lift, and he looks back over his shoulder. His tail goes between his legs.
Jack pulls his shirt over his head. “Let’s do this thing.”
The dog screams when Gabriel lifts him into the tub. That’s really the only way to describe it: a scream, shrill and unexpectedly human-like. All three of them dissolve into a moment of temporary panic. He and Gabriel jerk back, and the dog tries to jump. But it slips on the edge of the tub and collapses right back into it, floundering. Jack reaches into the tub and gently but firmly holds the dog still with his arms while Gabriel carefully feels along its body, searching for any overlooked injuries that they may have agitated while handling him. But they find no gashes, no evidence of broken bones, no other tender spots that illicit any pain reactions. The dog is totally unhurt. It wriggles indignantly in Jack’s arms.
“Don’t be so dramatic, Fuckass,” Gabriel says, giving his haunch a tiny thump. His tone is disaffected, but his voice comes out a little high. “Morrison here gets scared easily. Be brave for him.”
“Rehhhhh,” the dog whines, making no attempt at bravery.
But that turns out to be the low point of the ordeal. When some whimpering and thrashing fails to make the harassment stop, the dog heaves out a big sigh and resigns himself to the situation, hanging his head. He stands still and doesn’t struggle. They reward him with some petting and another piece of ham.
Together, they clean the dog from snout to tail. Gabriel starts at the dog’s hind end, patiently combing through tangles with his fingers while Jack begins looking for ticks around the dog’s head. He pulls them out deftly and casts them into the toilet, where their tiny kicking legs make divots in the surface tension. They switch places when they meet in the middle of the dog, shuffling around one another on the floor. Jack has to stand up part way through the bath to stretch his knees, which have begun to ache from pressing against the floor. He puts down a few layers of towels before lowering himself. Again and again they work soap through the dog’s fur and flush out the lather with warm water, each rinse becoming less sludgy until the water running down the drain is finally clear. Gabriel holds the shower nozzle near the dog’s mouth and lets him snap at the spray, and Jack quickly looks into his mouth. His gums are slightly red but not swollen; none of his teeth are broken, and he doesn’t have much plaque. Jack tosses a flea-and-tick pill into his mouth while he’s fighting the water.
At last, the bath is finished. They throw a towel over the dog and briskly rub him down, then lift him out of the tub. Jack finds a hair dryer under the sink. The sound of it makes the dog flinch, but soon he’s flicking his head back and forth and trying to bite the jet of air. When he’s finally dry, Gabriel goes over his fluffed-out fur with a comb while Jack quickly and lightly takes each paw and clips the overgrown nails. The pads of his paws are slightly cracked; some of them have opened up and begun to bleed, but they don’t seem infected. Jack looks into both ears, but they appear to be free of mites. When they’re finally done, the dog sits between them with a lolling tongue. Now that he’s clean, Jack can see dark patches along his back.
He looks almost cute.
Jack turns the hair dryer on again and points it at Gabriel, who is very damp with bath water. He didn’t take his shirt off.
“All mission objectives satisfied,” he says, cheerily.
Gabriel swats the hair dryer away. He stands and gives Jack a hand-up to help him get to his feet.
“What do you think?” Jack asks, nodding at the dog. Its dumb little face is tilted up at them, tongue still hanging out. Gabriel squints.
“Less ugly than I thought,” he says, finally.
Jack chuckles as he puts his shirt back on. “Now, let’s not go wild with sentimentality. I’d better take him outside before he pees on anything. Can you put the towels in the wash?”
“Sure,” Gabriel says. “Just keep him out of the dirt.”
Jack does not keep him out of the dirt. The dog’s paws have scarcely touched ground before he dives onto his side on the dusty driveway. Jack watches in hopeless despair as he wallows over onto his back, tongue flopping from his mouth and legs churning in the air. Clouds of dust rise around him.
“You asshole,” he hisses. He glances up, nervously, to see whether his failure has been witnessed. Gabriel is standing on the deck, shaking his head very slowly. Goddammit. Jack tosses his arms up in a challenging gesture. “You try to control him, then!”
To his surprise, Gabriel comes tromping down the stairs to join them. The dog flips back over and raises his head, nose quivering.
“Hey!” Gabriel shouts. “Hey! Come on, Fuckass, let’s shake that dust off you!”
He takes off running across the yard, and the dog, stirred, perhaps, by some hereditary hunting instinct, leaps to his feet and goes barreling after him—and then overtakes Gabriel, and keeps running, and flings himself into the creek with an enormous splash. Gabriel yells.
Jack watches from a distance as all four of the dog’s legs come briefly into view as it rolls over in the shallow water. Gabriel catches up and steps across the creek with one leg, straddling the banks. He bends to scoop up the dog, who then launches himself out of the water like a salmon surging upstream and smashes half of his body into the back of Gabriel’s knee. Gabriel staggers, and then, unable to retain his footing on the muddy banks of the creek, goes down. He yells again.
When they get back to the house—the dog bounding eagerly ahead and Gabriel trailing behind in squelching shoes, both of them smeared in mud—Jack is waiting for them with an uncoiled garden hose.
“No,” Gabriel says, an instant before Jack blasts him in the chest with a stream of water. They maintain heavy, unblinking eye contact as Jack passes the hose spray all over Gabriel, and then all over the dog, until both of them are dripping clear, unmuddied water.
“You’d better watch your back, Morrison,” Gabriel says. “When you least expect it, I’m going to—”
Jack sprays him in the face.
Gabriel lunges at him, and Jack drops the hose and bolts up the stairs three at a time, Gabriel right on his heels. The main door is too close to the top of the stairs; if Jack slows to get through, Gabriel will catch him. So they both hurtle past, racing for the sliding doors. As they round the corner to the deck, Jack hears something happen behind him. Specifically, he hears Gabriel yell “fuck!,” and then the sound of a person running into a solid obstacle. Jack skitters to slow himself as he races through the sliding doors, manages to turn himself around in the living room, and peers outside again.
Gabriel is leaning against the rail. He’s clearly stopped himself from a dead run by hitting the rail with his hands and letting his arms absorb his momentum. The dog is running back and forth along the deck, tail propellering in the air.
“You,” Gabriel pants, “are a bad dog.”
“That—” Gabriel turns and points accusingly, “fucking animal fucking teleported in front of me, and I had to jump so I wouldn’t run him over like fucking Mufasa. But there wasn’t any space left, so—” He gives the rail cap a meaningful thump.
“Hmm,” Jack says. “Well, don’t come into the house while you’re wearing wet clothes.”
And he slams the sliding door.
On the other side of the glass, Gabriel flips him off.
Jack pillages the house for spare towels. When he approaches the deck again, Gabriel is lying there on his back, naked. His clothes are draped over the rail, dripping softly down either side. Jack tosses a towel over him, carelessly, and then kneels. The dog comes rambling over, and Jack captures him under another towel and begins to scrub. He is rebuked with several offended yaps, but doesn’t relent. He looks up after a few moments to find that Gabriel has folded the towel into a pillow for his head. One of his arms is bent across his face, guarding his eyes from the sunlight.
“I’m going to make something to eat,” Jack says, once the dog has been dried to his satisfaction. He stands up and tosses the used towel over the rail, next to Gabriel’s clothes.
Gabriel says, “Make enough for me, too.”
Jack scoffs and pokes his toes into Gabriel’s side before he walks back into the house. But he doubles the portion measurements, all the same.
Gabriel wanders into the house some time later, just as Jack is straining a pot over the sink. Jack glances at him.
“You’re naked,” he says.
Gabriel looks down at himself. “Yes.” He walks closer.
“Don’t come into the kitchen naked!”
Gabriel makes a face, as though this is an unreasonable and prudish request. But he grabs the towel slung over his shoulder and obligingly wraps it around his waist.
“Not what I meant,” Jack says.
“Then you should have been more specific.”
“…I’ll allow it on a technicality.”
Gabriel immediately sweeps up behind him and looks over his shoulder into the drained pot, still steaming with residual heat. “Macaroni and cheese?” he guesses, with some disappointment.
“Nah,” Jack says. “This is a family recipe.” He halves a stick of butter and stirs one of the pieces through the macaroni, then opens a can of condensed cream of chicken soup and upends it into the pot. It makes a sucking, squelching sound as gravity pulls it from the can.
Gabriel whispers, “What the fuck,” as he stirs the soup in. “What else is going in there?”
“No, this is it.”
“Well, you can still add other things, if you want. My dad always made it with a can of sardines mixed in. I guess you could add, uh. Thawed peas, or cut up hot dogs, or some chicken. Or, uh. Other things. Whatever you want. I was just going to leave it plain.”
“You’re telling me this is a real Morrison family thing? This is something you actually like to eat?”
“Why are you acting so surprised? Haven’t I made this for you before?”
“I’d fucking remember if you had! Damn, Morrison, now I know how this happened.”
Gabriel’s hands slide around his hips and cup his lower stomach where it pushes softly over the waistband of his pants.
“Oh,” Jack says. “Ha. Yeah. Going to - going to need some photo editing if someone wants to put me on another poster. Should get back on the old coffee diet, huh?”
“Morrison. Hell.” Gabriel headbutts him from behind, very gently. “Come on. I didn’t mean that. Overwatch fucking starved you.” He knows what an exaggeration that is because he did starve, for a time. “You deserve to eat whatever you want until you’re a hundred twenty years old.”
Jack makes himself laugh. “Oh, so you’re going to put me on a diet as soon as I hit a hundred twenty-one?”
“Mhm. That’s when your metabolism really changes. You have to start watching your figure after that. But you’ve got a few years left before you have to worry.”
One of Gabriel’s hands skates across his chest, while the other lightly tugs him back by the hip. Jack sways on his heels, his whole body brushing up against Gabriel’s as the side of his neck is kissed. Jack realizes that he is being seduced. He rallies himself with tremendous force of will and says, “This is going to clump up if it gets cold.”
This profoundly un-sexy statement makes Gabriel pause and let go of his chest. Then he grabs Jack’s wrist and says, “Let me try this stuff.”
Gabriel pulls on his hand, which is still holding the wooden spoon bearing a big scoop of macaroni, and lifts it up until he can lean across Jack’s shoulder and take a bite. Jack hears him chewing next to his ear.
Gabriel says, “Hm.”
“You like it,” Jack says, with ferocious triumph.
Gabriel lowers their arms until the wooden spoon squelches back into the pot. “I thought it would be worse.”
“How could it be bad? It’s just pasta and soup. You want more? Hand me a bowl.”
Gabriel picks a bowl out of the cupboard, then gets himself a glass of water and a fork as Jack dishes out a serving of macaroni. He takes a bite when Jack hands him the bowl, then resolutely cracks half a teaspoon of black pepper into it and takes it to the kitchen table. Apparently, he’s just going to eat while wearing only the towel. Jack decides he doesn’t mind. He looks across the room. Gabriel has left the sliding glass door slightly ajar. The dog is sunning himself outside, ears flicking as he’s menaced by a horse fly so big that Jack can see it from where he is standing. He shakes a tablespoon of Tabasco sauce directly into the pot and takes it to the table to sit. Gabriel raises an eyebrow. Jack looks him in the face as he scoops a mouthful from the pot.
“A real gourmet Morrison family specialty,” Gabriel says, gravely. “Should I break out a bottle of wine? What do you think, a fruity white?”
Jack snorts and stirs his fork through the pot. “Knock yourself out.”
“What, you want me to drink alone?”
“I’m going to be flat on my face before the sun even sets if I drink anything else. Hate to say it, but that bath wore me out.”
Gabriel laughs, but not mockingly. “Jesus, he’s a fucking handful. No wonder he got dumped out here.”
“Heh,” Jack says. “Yeah.”
They both turn to look out through the glass doors. The dog is right where he was, sprawled on his side. One of his back paws is kicking, and his mouth twitches every now and then. It looks like he’s in the throes of some intense dog dream. Jack wonders if he’s had enough good experiences in his life to have a nice dream, or if this is a nightmare.
Jack puts his elbows onto the table and says, “Whoever gets stuck taking care of him is going to have their work cut out for them.”
In the morning, it’s clear that the dog is now Their Dog.
The dog is asleep on their bedroom floor when they wake up. He is still clean and fluffy. They look at him, and he raises his head and gives a vast yawn, then shakes his himself. His ears flap audibly. They get out of bed, and check the absorbent pads with which Jack has covered the house, and have breakfast. The dog runs outside while they’re eating.
It’s going to come back to the cabin, and they’re going to let it come inside and stay there. Jack knows it. He knows that Gabriel knows it. By silent accord, they agree not to discuss it.
But all of them convene on the deck, after breakfast, to consider the next step. What is the next step of dog acquisition?
“I suppose we should give him a name,” Jack says, eventually.
Gabriel immediately makes a dismissive noise. “His name is Fuckass.”
“No, I mean, a - a real name.”
“What do you mean, a ‘real name?’”
“Gabriel, come on. You know what I mean. A name we can call him.”
“Okay, well, a ‘real name’ is just whatever we call him. So his name is Fuckass.”
“You call him Fuckass. I’m talking about a name that we—that both of us—that isn’t—” Jack breaks off and rubs his forehead. “Okay. Just imagine—look—just think about meeting a veterinarian, and facing that veterinarian, and saying, ‘Fuckass needs a check-up.’ Is that something you want? Does that seem funny to you?”
“Yes,” Gabriel says.
“No!” Jack yells.
“Well what’s your fucking suggestion, then? What’ve you got?”
Jack doesn’t have anything at all. He clasps his hands behind his back, then in front of himself, then frowns. He drops into a crouch and stares the dog hard in the face. The dog licks its own nose.
“Well,” he says after a moment. “I hope I’m not the only one thinking this, but if you’re not going to say it, I will. He looks like Jesse McCree.”
Gabriel rocks back onto his heels with laughter. It makes his whole face open up, and Jack looks at him with satisfaction.
“Jesus,” Gabriel sputters. “You’re fucking right. But he hasn’t bitten me yet, so at least he’s better behaved.”
“What?” He laughs, startled. “McCree bit you? When? Where?”
“When I fucking arrested him. Got me—” he taps the space where his thumb joins his hand— “right here. Really dug in.”
“I didn’t— You didn’t report that!”
“What? Yes, I did.”
“I would have fucking remembered!”
Gabriel gives this some consideration. “I may not have reported it,” he admits.
“I can’t believe you agreed to recruit him after he bit you. Christ.”
“Well, it was ballsy. I was only pissed for a couple of days. But, no: we can’t name the fucking dog after fucking McCree. He’d find out and get ideas above his station.”
“True,” Jack concedes. He reaches out and rubs one of the dog’s soft ears. “I think he looks like a Henry.”
“We can’t give him a people name, Jack.”
“Wait, you, no, you don’t think a peop—a person’s name is okay, but ‘Fuckass’ is? Explain that to me.”
“Fuckass is his name because that’s what he answers to,” Gabriel says, with a tone of noble patience. This, clearly, is the more self-evident thing he’s ever been forced to explain to some poor dimwit.
“He has no idea what his name is! He doesn’t know anything!”
“Yes, he does; he follows me if I call his name.”
“He follows you because you smell like ham!”
Gabriel is plainly affronted. “Let’s test it, then.”
Gabriel wants to begin the test immediately. Jack insists that he go inside and wash his hands first, to make things fair. He does. Then he returns to the deck with a piece of ham speared on a fork and pointedly eats it right in front of them. Jack yells at him to go brush his teeth. After a further ten minutes of squabbling, Gabriel finally lets Jack take his turn first.
Jack crouches on his hocks, clears his throat, and lets out a brisk little whistle. The dog’s head jerks up. He extends a hand with his palm turned upward and wiggles his fingers a bit. “Henry! Hey, boy! C’mere, boy! Henry, c’mere!”
The dog’s perk forward. He stretches out his neck and sniffs. But he doesn’t budge.
“He-enry! Henryyy! C’mere, come to me!”
Jack whistles, and clicks, and claps, and calls out until he feels blue in the face. Then Gabriel puts his hands up, signaling a halt. “Alright, alright, that’s enough. My turn.”
Jacks grunts. He stands and leans backwards against the deck rail with his arms crossed, looking and feeling very petulant. As he watches, Gabriel shifts his posture minutely. His back straightens; he becomes taller. He takes a breath.
“Hey, Fuckass!” he booms, in the exact same tone he first used to scare the dog away from the house. “Get over here!”
The dog blunders up onto its feet. It doesn’t run away. It goes toward Gabriel. It sits down at his feet and noses at his leg.
Jack says, “Oh, fuck off.”
They argue about the name for another hour. Gabriel spends that time trying to condition the dog to respond to ‘Fuckass’ by calling out the name every other minute and then flicking slivers of ham at the dog each time it reacts to the noise. Jack grows increasingly incensed every time it happens. He tries to take the ham away. They wrestle over it. The fight ends when, through no fault of Jack’s, the entire pack of ham falls on the deck and is summarily devoured by the dog.
Jack walks away to cool his head. Gabriel finds him, twenty minutes later, furiously scrubbing the bathroom grout, and hands him a cup of coffee. He stands in silence next to the sink while Jack drinks.
“We should get him a collar,” Gabriel says, and Jack agrees that they should.
He goes to buy a collar.
He picks out a breakaway collar, hoping to curtail the likelihood of the dog strangling himself in the bushes. He gets their phone numbers etched on the tags. He also buys out more absorbent mats, dog waste bags, and, optimistically, a walking harness and retractable leash.
He’s debating over some dental hygiene treats when he gets an email notification alert. Gabriel has forwarded him a message. It’s an email confirming an appointment at the Southpaw Veterinarian Clinic on July 7 for Henry Fuck Ass Morrison-Reyes. Gabriel has added a line to the beginning of the message: ‘I told them Fuckass was one word.’
Jack stares at the email. He closes his eyes. He opens them again.
For entirely non-vindictive reasons, he picks out several toys with squeakers.
Jack presses the collar into Gabriel’s hands as soon as he gets back. “Care to do the honors?”
Gabriel narrows his eyes. He knows he’s being punished for using food to manipulate the dog into liking him better. If the dog associates him with the collar, too, then the field will be evened somewhat. But Gabriel doesn’t argue. He just gives a little whistle, and Henry comes trotting up to them with his nose twitching. Gabriel squats down. Henry approaches to snuffle at his hand, and Gabriel swiftly fastens the collar around his neck. Henry jumps back, giving Gabriel an utterly scandalized look. Then he shoots through the open deck doors like a bullet. Both of them run onto the deck. Henry has already reached the bottom of the stairs and is running full-tilt down the driveway. He gets about twenty-five yards before he suddenly stops, pitches himself upside-down in the dirt, and thrashes around on his back. They hear him wailing: "Uuuwawaaau!"
They exchange glances. Without a word, Gabriel jogs around the corner and down the stairs to go collect the dog.
“Oh, no wonder you like him so much,” Jack drawls. “Finally, someone else with a passion for the fine art of Drama.”
Gabriel picks up a piece of gravel and throws it at him.
The next two days are spent adapting their routines to the existence of a dog. Henry follows Gabriel on his morning runs and wears himself out enough to be more or less manageable during the rest of the day. They cautiously introduce the harness, which Henry finds enormously offensive. He wails about it for two straight hours before the drama exhausts him. When he wakes up from his tantrum nap, he seems to have forgotten all his outrage, and he tolerates the harness thereafter. They take turns walking him around the property. Then they herd him into the car to see how he’ll behave.
Henry likes the car.
They take him on short drives up and down the road that connects them to the highway. Then they progress to taking him on a trip to Burnsville. Then Asheville. It’s the first time they get to see Henry around other dogs. He turns shy and aloof but doesn’t fight against the leash or try to run. No barking or growling or snapping. They walk him around for the time it takes to finish a cup of coffee each. They feel very proud of him. Jack sits with him in the backseat during the return drive and lets Henry sprawl across his lap.
But Henry’s still a puppy, and he does puppy things. He leaves tooth marks on the armchair. He pees on the bed. (How did he get up there?) He figures out where they’re hiding the squeaky toys and wakes them up in the middle of the night with an impassioned serenade from a stuffed turtle.
“Buy more beer,” Gabriel grits out in the morning, after two days of dog ownership. He’s resigned himself to letting Jack run their errands.
Gabriel isn’t on the deck when he returns, but the deck doors are open, and the front door is unlocked. That must mean that Gabriel is inside the house, but there’s no noise at all when Jack walks inside and sets the grocery bags down. He peers down the hallway. The bathroom door is ajar. So, probably not in there.
He goes onto the deck and looks around. He hadn’t seen anything in the yard as he drove up, but the extra height gives him a better perspective. Nothing. He checks his phone. No messages.
He calls Gabriel as he moves back into the house and closes the doors behind him. He listens for the ringtone, but Gabriel nearly always has his phone on silent. He ends the call before it switches to voicemail and sends a message: 'I’m back. Where are you?' Then he goes down the hall and looks into the bathroom, just to be sure. Empty. As he backs out of the room and shuts the door, the little tap-tap of Henry’s claws announce that he’s woken up, and Jack looks over to find him standing at the end of the hallway, yawning. “Thought you were going to keep track of him for me,” he says, smiling tightly as he moves on to the master bedroom. It’s also empty, but he walks inside to check the attic hatch. He shuts that door on the way out, too, and turns around to stand at the top of the basement stairs. He calls, “Gabe?” loud enough to annoy him, but the shout just dies away into flat silence.
He goes down the stairs. After the first five or so steps, he starts taking them two at a time. When he rounds the corner of the final landing, he clears the entire bottom section in a leap. The landing jars his knees. He registers the heaviness of the impact but not whether it hurts.
The den is empty. He turns to the hall. All the doors are closed. He throws open one bedroom door, then the other. Empty, empty. Where is he? He wouldn’t, he wouldn’t—
The bathroom door is last, but he can’t open it. The door isn’t locked, but his hand won’t move the way it’s supposed to. His fingers are fixed in a clumsy, useless position. He can’t make the handle turn. He has to get inside.
Jack puts his shoulder to the door and shoves. Just once, hard. Crack—and it opens.
A stripe of light slices across the room. Gabriel’s hand is draped over the rim of the tub, framed perfectly by the light like a shot from a film. Jack stands in the doorway and looks at it. He cannot think.
A dark mass stirs inside the tub, and Gabriel’s head rises into view.
“Jack?” His voice is hoarse. “Hey, Lucky.”
“Hey, Lucky,” he answers, thickly. Their old thing. Lucky Thirteen. Lucky devil. Lucky bastard. “Hey, here you are. I— How are you?”
Gabriel pulls himself a little higher. He keeps his face angled downward and away from the door. “Fine,” he says. “I. Just. Wanted to be somewhere dark.” A pause. “Did you break the door?”
“No.” He looks at the splintered frame. “I’ll fix it. It’s fine.”
Jack realizes that he is still standing in the middle of the doorway. He takes a full step into the room and half shuts the door behind him. He places himself in front of the gap to block as much of the light as possible. “How bad is?” And then, not waiting for an answer: “I’m going to call Angela.”
“No, no. It’s fine, I’m better, it’s passing.”
Jack wants to argue. Gabriel looks like he’s fighting an intense hangover: his face is rumpled with discomfort, eyes barely open, body slumping under its own weight. He’s shirtless. Jack spots an indistinct shape that must be a pile of his clothes on the floor.
“Are you sure?” he presses. “Can I bring you anything? Have you taken your—”
“Yeah, Jack, yeah. And, no, I don’t need anything.” There’s a small pause before he adds, “Thanks. I’m fine. Thanks.”
“Can… Do you want some company?”
Gabriel takes a few seconds to answer. “You don’t have to stay. I’ll be out soon.”
It’s close enough to a ‘yes’ to count. Jack pushes the door farther shut with his heel. It won’t latch, but he doesn’t want it to close completely, anyway. He still needs a little outside light by which to see. Jack edges his way toward the bathtub. He finds Gabriel’s shoulder with one hand and squeezes it. “I’m coming in there. Can you sit up more?”
Gabriel hauls himself more fully upright with a grunt and scoots a little forward in the tub. Jack removes his boots and socks. He realizes, by the way that the light reflects on a knee, that Gabriel is naked. Jack climbs into the tub behind him and sits down. It’s wet inside, like the tub has just been drained. He shifts uncomfortably as cold water seeps through his pants. Gabriel notices him squirm.
“Sorry,” he mutters. “I… My nose started bleeding. I turned on the water to rinse out the tub.”
Jack cups Gabriel’s chin and carefully turns his head around so that he can look. It’s too dark to really see anything. He brushes a thumb under Gabriel’s nose and feels the slight roughness of a thin ring of dried blood crusted around his nostril. “Hm,” he says, unhappily, but there’s nothing valuable he can add. He stretches his legs out along the bottom of the tub, wedging them to either side of Gabriel’s body. Gabriel turns sideways to make himself narrow enough for Jack to fit. Jack loops an arm around him and pulls him back, but Gabriel immediately sits up again and prods at his hips.
“Take off your belt.”
“Oh. Sorry. Right.”
Jack bangs his elbow against the side of the tub as he pulls the belt through its loops. He lets it slither from his hand onto the bathroom floor. Then he struggles out of his shirt and lays it behind him against the inner edge of the tub. He leans back again, and Gabriel settles against him with a sigh like he’s sinking into a hot bath. Jack slides both arms around his waist.
“We can get up in a minute,” Gabriel mumbles, and Jack says, “Okay.”
He closes his eyes.
A minute passes.
There’s suddenly more light in the room. He looks over, squinting and blinking. The shape of Henry’s head is silhouetted in the partially open door. When Jack stirs, Henry trots closer and says, seriously, “wuff.”
Gabriel grunts. “Hey, Fuckass.”
He grabs the edge of the tub and sits up. Jack sits up, too. As Gabriel rotates to straighten himself out, their backs crack in unison. They both wince, then laugh in awkward commiseration. Jack notices that his knees ache.
“Fuck,” Gabriel says. “Were we asleep?”
“Maybe for a minute.” Jack fishes his phone from his pocket. “Oh. It was… a couple of minutes.”
“It was, uh. A hundred thirty-seven minutes.”
“Oh, fuck my ass,” Gabriel says, with a tone of voice that invites doing no such thing.
Gabriel climbs ponderously out of the tub and stretches his arms over his head, groaning. Jack, still seated, looks his body up and down in the near darkness as though this is the first furtive glimpse he’s ever gotten of it. He still finds himself doing things like that: sneaking looks at Gabriel like they’re in the locker room and he’s trying not to get caught peeping. He reaches out and puts a hand on Gabriel’s leg.
“How are you?” he asks. It comes out a little too doctor-like; too close to the way everyone spoke to them during the early part of Gabriel’s rehab.
Gabriel moves, stepping out of Jack’s range. “Damn, Jack, I’m fine. I told you it was passing.”
Jack retracts his hand. Henry puts his front paws on the tub and rises onto his hind legs to bop his cold, wet nose against Jack’s hand.
“That’s very helpful, thank you,” he says, seriously.
Jack picks up his shirt, then reaches over the side of the tub and snags his belt. Gabriel turns and holds out his hand, and Jack grasps his wrist for balance as he climbs to his feet. He puts on his belt, then steps out of the tub and shuffles his wet feet on the bathroom rug. Gabriel just continues to stand there. Jack waits to see if he’ll do anything.
After awhile he asks, very mildly, “You going to get dressed again, or what?”
Gabriel gives him an arch look. “What, are you complaining? I thought you’d appreciate it.”
“Oh, I appreciate it. Just want to know how much appreciation you have time for right now. Got any plans for the next hour?”
Gabriel’s expression goes soft, and a tiny, reluctant laugh rattles out of him. “Honestly, I’m starving. What do we have to eat around here?”
“Well, I could give you something to—”
“Can you ever restrain yourself?” Gabriel interrupts. “Even once?”
“I restrain myself all the time,” Jack protests. “You have no idea how much I restrain.”
Gabriel looks away from him again and doesn’t answer. Jack is starting to worry that he’s actually angry when Gabriel makes a small noise, like the very beginning of a laugh. “You really broke the door.”
Jack makes the same noise, but he doesn’t get it quite right. It comes out strangled and uneasy. “Guess I don’t know my own strength.” He hopes it sounds like a joke, but Gabriel’s expression is serious when he turns back around.
“You were that worried?”
“I told you that I worry.”
“Hm.” Gabriel drops his head. “Yeah. Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he says—quick, as ever, to downplay anything that affects him, even now. Sympathy isn’t a finite resource, he knows that, but it doesn’t feel right to let himself have any of the pity. “I’d be bored without anything to worry about.”
Gabriel gives an actual laugh this time. “Well, shit, don’t let me bore you.”
Jack reaches for him, and takes him by the chin, and pulls his head up. He says, “Never,” but he doesn’t make another move until Gabriel gathers him up and kisses him.
It rains the next day, torrentially.
This is perfectly fine, except for the matter of how to make the dog pee outside the house.
They open the basement doors and Henry gets as far as the edge of the patio slab, where he stands and looks out onto the yard, whining, but refuses to break cover to relieve himself. It becomes apparent that one of them will have to take the dog outside by brute force. This, too, would be perfectly fine, except that there are no umbrellas in the house. They stall for time over breakfast, and then solemnly square off for a round of rock-paper-scissors.
“You better make this quick, Henry,” Jack growls, several minutes later, as he lifts the dog into his arms and bodily carries him away from the cabin.
Henry wails piteously as Jack bears him into the yard, the rain instantly soaking them both. But no sooner have his paws hit the ground than he forgets all his distress becomes completely enamored by the novelty of puddles. Jack watches, wearily, as the dog goes on a several-minute-long puddle-jumping romp around the yard instead of just getting down to business like a normal animal with any concern for its own bodily needs.
“You always wanted a dog,” Gabriel calls from the patio.
“I always wanted a dog,” Jack answers, loudly. “Sure do love ‘em.”
At this moment, Henry comes galloping back over, heaves himself onto his hind legs, and braces both front paws on his pants. Jack makes a disgruntled noise and takes a step back, letting Henry drop onto all fours. He looks down at himself. Two muddy paw prints are stamped on his legs, disproportionately big relative to Henry’s lanky growing body.
Jack laughs, surprising himself. He looks at Henry, the front half of his body wiggling out of sync with the back half, and some grimy mechanism buried in his chest begrudgingly rotates and sets all the clockwork that controls his enthusiasm ticking along.
“Oh,” he says, “is this fun for you? Do you think this is fun? Will you still think it’s fun after I get you? Huh? C’mere! I’m gonna get you!”
He raises his arms and lumbers toward the dog with Sasquatchesque menace, and Henry, recognizing the start of a game of chase, tosses his head in delight and sprints off across the yard. Jack tears after him. Henry can outrun him easily over short distances, but the dog pauses every time he gets too far ahead, watching Jack’s progress and allowing him to get close enough to keep the chase exciting. Jack takes big, exaggerated swipes at him each time he catches up, and Henry reacts with dramatic, floundering leaps to get out of the way. He bounces in circles around Jack, splashing mud onto his legs. Well, more can’t really hurt at this point.
They pursue one another tenaciously, cutting through the grass, and across the driveway, and around the elm tree and bench. Henry trips over his own paws as they blunder back down the hill toward the house, and Jack is so close behind him that they experience a small man-and-dog pileup as Jack staggers to avoid running Henry over and trips onto his hands and knees, bridging the dog.
After some minutes of this, both of them get tired at the same time. Henry stops running, and looks at him, and a moment of understanding passes between them. Truce. They sulk back toward the house—and then Jack remembers that Henry still hasn't used the bathroom and has to sternly turn him away until he, at last, slinks away to relieve himself in the grass.
Gabriel has shut and locked the basement doors. The front door is also locked when they finally climb to the main level. Gabriel is waiting for them at the deck's doors. There’s a heap of towels draped over his arm.
“Don’t come into the house while you’ve got wet clothes on,” he says, all syrupy sweet.
Jack spreads his hands in supplication. “You’d leave a poor old man out in the rain?” Henry chooses that moment to shake himself, sending watered-down mud flying across the deck, and against the house and glass doors, and against Jack. Jack gives him a sharp look and hisses, “You’re making us look worse.”
“Didn’t say you had to stay out there,” Gabriel drawls. “Just that you can’t come inside like that.”
“I’m going to remind you of this when I’m in the hospital with pneumonia,” Jack says. But he begins to unbutton his shirt, all the same.
“Ah-ah-ah,” Gabriel interrupts. “Don’t be selfish. Fuckass first.”
Gabriel flicks his hand, and Jack catches a bath towel out of the air. He pointedly scrubs his own face and hair before kneeling to dry the dog, who continues to shake himself every other minute, gently misting Jack’s face with cold water each time. Gabriel offers no help at all.
At last, Henry passes inspection and is allowed to enter. Then, under Gabriel’s vigilant watch, Jack begins to undress himself. He doesn’t try to be coy or alluring about it; he pretends that Gabriel isn’t even there as he stoops to remove his shoes and socks. Then he takes off his shirt, doubles it over itself, and wrings it out like a rag. A gush of water spatters onto Gabriel’s sock-clad feet.
Gabriel makes a displeased noise. He slings a towel around Jack’s head.
Jack unbuttons and unzips his pants, paying the towel no mind as Gabriel methodically rubs his shoulders, chest, and arms dry. Jack shoves his pants down his legs and steps out of them. Then he hooks a thumb in his boxers and pulls the band an inch away from the front of his body. He asks, blandly, “These, too?”
Gabriel hums thoughtfully and grabs his ass: one side, then the other. “Mm. Damp. Gotta go.”
Jack shucks his boxers down to his ankles and kicks them at Gabriel. They splat against his knee and slump to the deck in a sad heap.
“Satisfied?” he asks.
Gabriel says, “Very,” and circles around him to rub the towel down his back and legs. Jack stands still and lets him. Then Gabriel steers him through the open glass doors.
Jack hears the doors glide shut behind him. Then something soft and heavy settles across his shoulders. He looks down at himself. He’s been draped in a big patchwork quilt, faded with age and slightly baggy at the seams. He looks up. “Where’d you find this?”
“I checked the attic. Does it smell too musty?”
Jack tilts his shoulder up and sniffs the quilt cautiously. It smells like his parents’ basement. His stomach suddenly hurts. He says, “Just dusty. It’s all right.”
“Didn’t have a chance to air it out, sorry. Give me your shirt.”
Jack hands over his shirt. He sees that Gabriel has already picked up his pants, boxers, and socks from the deck. Gabriel bears all of his clothes away and disappears down the hall. In his absence, Jack finally notices that the fireplace has been lit. It’s a low fire, lazily crackling and murmuring like gossip after church.
“You want any coffee?” Gabriel asks, reappearing from the hall.
“Sure,” Jack says, cautiously. “What’s all this about? When did you have time to light a goddamn fire?”
“You were out there quite awhile, old man. You said you didn’t want pneumonia, right? Sit down.”
Jack sits down.
Gabriel brings him an enamel cup, and Jack sticks his arms out from under the quilt to accept it. “Thank you,” he says, with an artful blend of gratitude and skepticism. It’s strong, hot coffee, with a layer of heavy cream floated over the top. He watches Gabriel as he sips it.
Gabriel asks, “What?”
“What’s this about?” he asks again.
“It isn’t about anything. Try to relax for five minutes, will you?”
“I have to fix the bathroom door.”
Gabriel says, “Five minutes.”
“I’ll… finish the coffee.”
So he stretches his feet toward the fire and sips from his mug. It’s ridiculous to have a fire going in June, but not unpleasant. It’s not actually close to being cold outside, but the rain has dropped the temperature by a good twenty degrees from what it’s been. The contrast makes the air seem chillier than it really is, and the fire’s heat is soothing and welcome.
The dog comes to him and lies across his feet.
By the time his coffee is gone, Henry is snoring. Jack frowns. Well, fine. He’ll get up in another five minutes, then.
Except then, a minute later, Gabriel comes over, sits on the floor, and leans his shoulder into the joint between Jack’s leg and the seat of the armchair. He has a book. He starts to read it.
“You want this chair?” Jack asks.
“Nah. You want more coffee?”
Jack watches the fire move. He’s warm and comfortable bundled in the quilt, and somehow drowsy despite the coffee. He looks over Gabriel’s shoulder but can’t make out what he’s reading; his eyes just drift out of focus when he tries. He keeps thinking, I should get up, find something to do. But then he’d have to pick out a fresh set of clothes. It’s tiring to think about. So he slouches in the armchair, and Gabriel moves now and then to stir the fire and feed it little branches, and Henry snorts and twitches in his sleep. The clockwork in Jack’s chest feels like it’s running more smoothly.
“I would’ve killed for a day like this twenty years ago,” he says, after a long stretch of quiet. His voice comes out as a croak. “Jesus, can you imagine? Just staying in all day?”
“Naked,” Gabriel adds, turning a page.
“Naked,” Jack agrees. Then he sits up a little straighter, narrowing his eyes. “Well, hold on. Only one of us is naked right now. You’re not taking full advantage of this - this opportunity.”
Gabriel clicks his tongue, and Jack sees the way the side of his face buckles up as he smiles. “You’re almost asleep already, old man. If I take you to bed now, you won’t get up again for the rest of the day.”
“Not saying we have to fool around,” Jack says, defensively. “Just think you’d be, uh, more comfortable that way.”
Jack looks at the ceiling. “Can you even remember the last time we got to say ‘fuck it’ just because of the weather? Damn, not since before basic. What did I even used to do on rainy days?”
“Didn’t you have farm boy chores? Still had to milk the cows, didn’t you?”
Jack bumps his knee into Gabriel’s shoulder. “Fuck off, you know we didn’t have cows. Hey, what about you? What’s the last rainy day you remember? Before the - before we met.”
“What, in LA? Fuck if I know. Everyone probably recorded fucking videos of the rain and then complained about how it made the traffic worse.”
“Hey. I know: we should make donuts.”
Gabriel perks up, interested. “Like the ones we got in Vermont? That orchard?”
“Ahh, well, not cider donuts. We don’t have cider.”
This is clearly not what Gabriel hoped to hear. “Oh,” he says. “Do you… know… how to make donuts?”
“Used to make them a lot. On Sundays, after church, if it was raining. My family. You know. It was a tradition.”
“Another Morrison family specialty, huh?” Gabriel asks, with increasing doubt. “And you still remember how to do it?”
“I can figure it out. I remember most of it. It’ll be easy if you help.”
In fact, the only part of the donut-making process in which Jack had been allowed to participate was flipping the donuts in the middle of frying and fishing them out of the oil with a slotted spoon. He doesn’t admit this until after they explode their first donut in the frying oil, by which time they’ve dirtied every square inch of counter space and have several blobs of dough waiting on stand-by.
Gabriel assists by pointing out everything they’re doing wrong. Donuts made with yeast are better (but they don’t have any; and, anyway, Jack prefers cake donuts); the oil isn’t the right temperature (confirmed by the exploding test donut); the house is going to smell like fried food for the rest of the day, all of tomorrow, the entire week. But when Jack tells him to mix this, roll that, hold this, he does it.
Jack perseveres. And he makes Gabriel perseveres with him.
They end up with slightly less than two dozen sour cream cake donuts with lemon zest glaze. They’re tremendously ugly.
Gabriel eats one, then walks away with a second one, and then comes back twenty minutes later to take two more. Jack stands at the flour-covered counter and compulsively eats six donuts in a row, still warm and crisp, the smell and the flavor suspending him in a loop between now and some long-gone place and time from which he thought he’d been severed, a tiny spot of solace reconstructed from small comforts: rain, and a busy kitchen, and everything warm and good-smelling, and nothing else important to do for the rest of the day.
Then he waddles back to the armchair to nap off a six-donut stomach ache.
He’s cleaning dried glaze off the floor a couple hours later when Gabriel reappears in the kitchen with a hand-length rectangular box. “Look what I found,” he says, and pushes out the center of the box. There’s a cigar nestled inside. “We have to smoke it.”
Jack’s eyebrows furrow together. “You found it?”
“In the bookcase. One of those fake books you can store things in.”
“It belongs to the estate. We can’t smoke it.”
“What, do you think your family is going to sell a dead man’s cigar? It’ll get thrown out. Might as well use it.”
“It’s probably years old!”
“It smells fine. McCree says it’s a good brand.”
“You… you asked McCree?” Jack asks in the flattest possible voice.
Gabriel’s expression turns defensive. “I don’t know anyone else who would know one cigar from another.”
“Could’ve asked me, first.”
“You don’t know shit.”
“Well, did you try looking it up?”
Gabriel ignores this question. “He says that if we don’t want it, we should give it to him.”
Jack grunts. He knows the truth: Gabriel went straight to McCree because he wanted to have someone else on his side before making his request. Extra reassurance. If Jack refuses, he’ll be disappointing not just one person, but two. He narrows his eyes. “If it’s so good, maybe it will get sold. I can ask Maggie.”
“Boy Scout, I swear, you pain me sometimes. This’ll be our payment.”
“I don’t need any payment.”
“It’ll be my payment then, shit!”
They’ve made this trip to look after the cabin on their own dime, not charging the estate for any of their time, mileage, or other expenses. Jack knows that Gabriel doesn’t actually care about being compensated: he’s just trying to find the loophole that will let him win. It’s not an unreasonable request, really. Gabriel is even being somewhat merciful. If he wants to strike the killing blow, all he has to do is ask how much dog-related damages have cost the estate. Jack ought to fold before Henry gets dragged into it.
“Fine. Fine. Take it outside if you want to smoke.”
“No, no. We’re going to smoke.”
Jack closes his eyes.
Unfortunately, not only does the house not have an umbrella, there isn’t a lighter to be found anywhere. “How do we not have a goddamn lighter?” Gabriel yells as he bursts back into the house after a wild back-and-forth dash to search the car’s glove compartment box. “Are we animals?”
They’d played rock-paper-scissors to decide who should go. Gabriel won. Then he looked Jack in the face, said fuck under his breath, and ran out the door.
So they improvise. Gabriel trims the cigar, fishes around in the fireplace with a pair of tongs, and manages, with some effort, to get the cigar lit.
They take it onto the deck. Henry is left imprisoned inside the house, with a gap in the sliding glass doors through which he can stick his nose and whine at them.
They pull two of the Adirondack chairs up against one another and sit side by side, passing the cigar unhurriedly between them. The smoke chases the lingering sweetness out of Jack’s mouth. Everything smells good: the rain, and the wet trees, and the burning tobacco. The air is heavy with cool humidity, and the rain patters on the roof and through the pine needles. The cloud of water vapor is so thick they can’t even see the far edges of the clearing. If the world dropped off into nothingness right at the end of the yard, they wouldn’t know it.
“We really should put up a hammock,” he says. “Get some use out of it while we’re here.”
Gabriel murmurs indistinctly. Jack looks at him. His eyes are half open, sitting low in the chair with his knees splayed apart. Terrible posture. Affection crushes Jack’s chest mercilessly. He inhales too deeply and begins to cough.
“Know any cool smoke tricks?” he asks, and Gabriel laughs and spreads his hands apologetically.
“I had some good ones, but I can’t do them anymore. Hang on.” He takes the cigar from Jack’s hand, and puts it to his mouth, and leans forward. His expression becomes very serious. As Jack watches, he blows a smoke ring into the air. It’s very wobbly. He scowls and swipes a hand through the ring, striking it from existence. “Aw, shit. Don’t tell McCree I fucked that up.”
Jack snickers and says, “Looked like the first donut we made.”
Gabriel moves the cigar between two of his fingers and flips him off with it.
He blows another ring a minute later. It looks better than the first one, but he’s still dissatisfied. He dashes it angrily out of the air, then settles back to brood about it.
The cigar is halfway burned down when Gabriel straightens, leans toward him, and says, “Hey. I want to blow you.”
Jack blinks several times in succession.
“Okay,” he answers, with commendable calm. “Give me that.”
He takes the cigar from Gabriel’s fingers and pinches it in his mouth. Gabriel slides out of the chair, going right onto his knees, and all the drowsiness evaporates out of Jack’s body. Gabriel unbuttons his fly and opens the zipper, and Jack lifts his hips so that Gabriel can pull his pants and underwear down his thighs.
He gets hard inside Gabriel’s mouth. Gabriel sucks him off slowly and lazily, holding him to the chair with one hand planted on his thigh and the other resting on his stomach, under his shirt. Jack wants to give the situation his full attention, but somehow he finds himself falling back into the same lull he just broke out of. His legs fall open, and his chin sinks onto his chest. He feels a spot of heat where the cigar comes close to touching him. Both of his hands stay on the chair, gripping the arms to stop himself from grabbing Gabriel.
Suddenly, Gabriel sits back and says, “If you’re just going to let that burn out, give it to me.”
Jack blinks, realizing that he hasn’t been smoking the cigar at all. It’s just been smoldering away, washing him in fragrant smoke. Gabriel plucks it out of his hand, and it flares red at the tip when he brings it to his mouth. He wraps his free hand around Jack’s cock and strokes him without haste as the smoke pours thickly from his lips. After a few seconds he offers the cigar back. Jack takes it, and they trade it between them a few more times, Gabriel’s hand still moving on his dick, until it burns down to an unusable stub. Then Gabriel turns at the waist and casually flicks the stub over the side of the deck. It plunges out of sight, falling with the rain.
“Hey,” Jack protests. “That’s littering.”
Gabriel bends over his lap again. He opens his mouth and blows a near-perfect ring of smoke around his dick. Jack laughs despite himself.
“Don’t distract me. Henry’ll probably try to eat that if he finds it.”
“Worry about it later,” Gabriel says, and swallows him down again.
Jack sighs, and slips a hand around the back of Gabriel’s head, and rubs the little divot behind his ear. Gabriel’s eyes are closed; Jack closes his, too. He’s always liked things rough, fast, urgent—but he likes this, too. The option of this. Slow, calm, controlled. It’s a rainy day, and the world doesn’t need them.
But, eventually, he does start to squirm. Gabriel’s gotten him sensitive and close to the edge through sheer duration.
“Gabriel,” he pants. “I’m gonna come.”
Gabriel pulls up and says, “So come, then.” And he does, immediately. Right onto Gabriel’s mouth and across his chin, thick lines that mimic his own scars. The sight makes Jack’s cock twitch again, his hips rising.
Then he lets go of Gabriel’s head and pulls himself out of his slouch. “Aw, shit, Gabe. I didn’t mean for that.”
Gabriel rocks back on his heels and licks the corner of his mouth, like a lizard, and Jack laughs without meaning to.
“Want me to get you a washcloth?”
“Just put your dick away, Morrison.”
Jack puts his dick away. “You know, Henry’s probably due to go back outside soon. That’d wash right off in the rain.”
Gabriel gives him a narrow look. “You come on my face and then want me to go out in the rain? That’s some way of saying thanks, Morrison.”
“Well,” Jack says, “I could jerk you off first, but it might dry by then. Or you want me to blow you, too?”
Gabriel’s gotten hard, his erection pushing against the front of his pants. Jack wants to put his hands on him—here, now, right on the deck, out in the open. The thrill of being able to do anything he wants, whenever he wants, has not lessened during these few quiet, private years. But Gabriel shakes his head. “Maybe later. I’m— That’s all I wanted.”
“Alright,” Jack says, sitting back. “Well, I hope you enjoyed your payment.”
Gabriel laughs at him. “What, you think a cigar is all the payment I need for putting up with you? You owe me for the rest of your life, Morrison, and don’t you forget it.”
Jack manages, barely, to keep his face neutral. “Ah, well, I’m pretty forgetful. You might have to remind me.”
“Oh,” Gabriel says, “believe me. I will.”
They buy a hammock the next morning. On the way back to the cabin, they stop at the side of the road for someone selling produce out of the back of her truck. Gabriel smiles and laughs with the woman as they examine collard greens and leeks, and she gushes over Henry, who is unusually cute and well behaved. She sends them away with an extra carton of sun-softened raspberries on top of the watermelons, sweet corn, tomatoes, and spring onions they buy.
They put a watermelon away to chill while Gabriel helps him install the hammock. They string it up across the far corner of the deck, and then Jack hangs up four new bird feeders: three around the deck, and one near the bench under the elm. He fills the central feeder on the deck with nectar for hummingbirds.
The rain has taken some of the humidity from the air, but by the time Jack finishes repairing the bathroom door frame, the heavy midday heat has settled in. Good hammock weather. The watermelon’s rind splits under its own ripeness with a sound like ice breaking over a thawing pond when Jack takes a knife to it. He cuts thick slices, and heaps them onto a plate, and tucks two dewy beers under his arm.
Gabriel climbs into the hammock first and takes the beers from him. Jack balances the plate of watermelon on the deck rail and follows.
The hammock strains under their combined weight, but they maneuver carefully until they stabilize. Gabriel hands him a beer. They enjoy approximately forty seconds of comfort and satisfaction before Henry makes himself known by launching himself into the air. He does not make it into the hammock. But he does make it high enough to smash against the hammock.
The dog splats onto the deck. So do Jack and Gabriel. Jack manages to hang onto his beer as they go down—then gets hit in the face, first by Gabriel’s elbow, and then by Gabriel’s beer when the shock of elbowing Jack’s face makes him drop it.
They try again.
Gabriel gets back into the hammock. Jack hands him the dog. Then Jack hands him the beer. Then Jack clambers up next to him. He stretches out to grab the plate of watermelon. They share a congratulatory handshake. Jack opens his beer. The beer erupts, geysering foam onto his chest.
“Ah,” he says. “This one was yours.”
Gabriel cradles the watermelon, beer, and dog alike as Jack struggles out of his shirt and tosses it onto the deck rail. At least it’s a warm day.
They’re facing each other from each end of the hammock, their legs wedged side by side and Henry stretched lengthwise across the mountain range of their knees. Jack drinks what remains of his beer, and they pick out slices of the watermelon. It’s crisp all the way through, the way Jack likes. He eats each piece down to the white of the rind and spits mouthfuls of seeds over the edge of the hammock. Gabriel just swallows the seeds, like an absolute goddamn weirdo.
Jack puts his third piece of tooth-marked rind back onto the plate. He licks his lips. He says, “You know, that woman really wanted you to check out more of her melons.”
Laughter explodes out of Gabriel, along with two watermelon seeds. He twists aside with his arms clamped over his stomach, making the hammock swing dangerously. Jack grabs onto Henry to keep him from jumping up in surprise and overbalancing them again.
“Holy shit, Jack,” Gabriel wheezes. “Melons? Holy shit.”
Jack frowns. “Come on, I don’t believe you didn’t notice. You always notice.”
“What, the, the ‘melons?’” Gabriel snickers.
“That she was checking you out.”
Gabriel doesn’t roll his eyes: he rolls his whole damn head around on his neck. “Fuck, Jack, every person we’ve ever met in the past forty-whatever years has given us a second look for one reason or another. Come on, are you serious about this? She wasn’t going to give me her fucking phone number with you standing right there fondling the sweet corn.”
“Well, why not? Why would she think I was there with you?”
“What the fuck are you talking about, Morrison? What else would she think? No one is going to assume that we’re brothers.”
“There are plenty of brothers who don’t look—”
“I know that! But that’s not going to be anyone’s first guess, fuck.”
Jack sniffs. “Well, I look old enough to be your father.”
“You—you fucking do not! Why the fuck would anyone— Jack, what the fuck?”
“You look like a baby now.”
“Then wear your fucking glasses for once! Jack, I fucking swear—”
“Alright, so people could think I’m your sugar daddy, then.”
“Wh—” Gabriel doesn’t even finish the word. Jack has never seen him with an expression of purer surprise. Then his face scrunches up unattractively and he dissolves into peals of wheezing laughter. He kicks his feet like a fucking kid, and Jack scoops Henry the rest of the way into his own lap to save him from being jostled. He picks up the plate of watermelon and slides it back the rail for safety, as well.
“Maria, Madre de Dios,” Gabriel manages at last, wiping at his eyes. “Fuck. Say that again.”
“I look like your sugar daddy,” Jack says, grimly, and Gabriel throws his head back with another roar of laughter, slapping at his own stomach in hysterics. Jack patiently scratches behind Henry’s ears as he waits for Gabriel to calm down. It takes quite a while. Every time he gets close, he looks at Jack and breaks down all over again. At last, still hiccuping faintly, Gabriel flops one arm over the edge of the hammock and uses the other to wipe at his wet face.
“Jack, holy fuck. Do - do you— Sugar daddy? Are you sure you understand that term?”
Jack frowns and doesn’t answer.
Gabriel continues to laugh, quiet and intermittent now. Jack feels the tremors pass through the hammock. “Well,” he goes on, “If you give me wrinkles from laughing, I won’t look any younger than you for long. You know that people check you out, too, right?”
“Gabe, they’re just looking at my scars.”
“Hand of God, Jack, you stupid bastard, they’re not looking at your scars. Shit. Where were you even going with this conversation?”
Jack shrugs, saying nothing. A lot of people look at him, yeah. They have for decades. He doesn’t know what most of them are thinking when they look at him anymore.
“Jack.” Gabriel’s voice has gone gentle, and Jack raises his eyes from where he's been looking fixedly at Henry. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know it bothered you. You never brought it up. Did it seem like I was encouraging her?”
“No, you— No— You’re, you’re fine. It’s, uh—” Jack folds his hand down to a fist and rubs his knuckles back and forth across his mouth and chin. He stares at the hammock mesh, letting the pattern bring his eyes out of focus. “For years you were right next to me, and I could never, uh, do anything about it. I couldn’t… say anything. Couldn’t touch. Couldn’t… be angry when other people— When they clearly wanted to— We’re past that now, I know, you don’t have to tell me that. But I still… don’t… know what to do, when it happens. When I see other people looking at you like that. Wish I could tell you it doesn’t bother me anymore, but I guess it does.”
Gabriel looks at him, considering. Jack can see by the set of his eyebrows that he’s thinking seriously about his answer. But when he opens his mouth, what he says is, “Well, the next time you feel threatened by a melon vendor, feel free to slap my ass to assert your dominance.”
Jack is startled enough to laugh. “Fuck off, that’s not what I’m trying to do. Don’t make it weird.”
“You’re the one who made it weird, daddy.”
Jack barks another laugh into his hand. He shakes his head. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I was just—”
He doesn’t want to say it. It’s petty. Juvenile.
“Jealous?” Gabriel supplies, not snide or teasing. Jack notices that his eyelashes are still stuck wetly together. He looks incredible.
Jack drops his eyes and says, “Yeah. Jealous.”
“Hell, she just didn’t know any better. She was lusting after my body, but she has no idea that I use all the hot water during showers, and steal your pillow, and only buy low-sodium soy sauce.”
“It really doesn’t taste as good.”
“That’s because you over-salt all your other food, Morrison.”
“Heh,” Jack says, and gives a little shrug. “Shouldn’t have brought it up. I know it’s nothing. M’just selfish.”
Gabriel just looks at him for awhile, then clears his throat. “Sorry, I… shouldn’t have teased you about it. I fucking know how it feels.”
“Oh,” Jack says. Suddenly he feels stupid, in an enormous and shameful way. Of course. “Well. Next time we see the melon lady, I’m going to hold your hand.”
“Or slap my ass.” Gabriel grins, stretching an arm up to tuck it behind his head. Jack watches the way his chest moves under his shirt.
“Or slap your ass,” he agrees, soberly.
Gabriel drops his leg over the side of the hammock and swings it slowly back and forth, making the hammock rock. Jack isn’t aware of closing his eyes or falling asleep, but he must have done so, because the next thing he knows is that Gabriel is nudging him and saying, “Hey, look,” and he turns his head to see a blue jay perched at one of the bird feeders, scrutinizing them with one eye. They hold still until the jay decides that they’re inconsequential and begins to pick at the seeds, scattering empty shell casings onto the deck.
“Another house guest,” Jack murmurs.
“Hope this one isn’t planning to stay. We’ve got a full house now.”
“We’ll have to ask him to leave after lunch.”
But Henry saves them from having to negotiate hospitality with the jay. After a few minutes he opens his eyes, raises his head, sees the bird, and stands up on Jack’s stomach. Jack realizes what’s going to happen at exactly the same time that Henry leaps.
The leap gets him nowhere close to the jay. But Jack lunges to try to catch him, and the hammock dips beyond its recovery point. As it capsizes, Gabriel bails out on one side, and Jack tumbles out the other, and they all splatter onto the deck amidst several watermelon rinds and a shattered plate. The jay flies off.
They decide that they’ve had enough of the hammock for the day. Henry goes into time out while they clean up the deck, and Jack showers so that he won’t smell like beer for the rest of the day. The beer and watermelon have put him in the mood for something savory, so he drifts into the kitchen to make lunch. He cuts the kernels off several ears of sweet corn and sautes them, briefly, with butter, salt, and pepper. Just before taking it off the heat, he adds a few glugs of heavy cream to the skillet. Gabriel stands next to him at the counter and fixes cold sandwiches. Jack divides the corn into two bowls, and Gabriel adds a handful of finely chopped cilantro and red chili flakes to his portion.
They eat lunch back on the deck, watching little brown birds wheeling through the air around the bird feeders. Henry is given one of his toys and left on house arrest inside.
Gabriel takes pictures of the birds with his phone and uses a bird-watching app to recite facts about the territorial range, migratory habits, and courtship practices of each species. He specifically points out which of them are also native to Indiana, and Jack solemnly says, “yeah, I know that bird; owes me twenty bucks,” and “how’re the kids doing, Eleanor?”
They split up after lunch: Gabriel to wash the dishes, and Jack to do some work on the bench under the elm tree. After the previous day’s rain, it’s finally just cool enough to tolerate working outside. He devotes himself to scraping off the old layer of paint and sanding down the exposed wood, smoothing away splinters and rough spots. He figures that he'll seal it and let the natural wood show. It'll look good that way. Gabriel brings him a glass of water and a donut after a couple of hours, then wanders around the yard sipping a beer and hurling sticks that Henry chases down but fails to carry back. When Henry, exhausted at last, tumbles himself into the shade for a nap, Gabriel walks closer and asks, “Can I sit?”
“Stay on that side,” Jack says, pointing, and he does.
Gabriel sits there and reads the book from yesterday, and Jack sneaks little glances at him until Gabriel says, “I can see you, Boy Scout,” without moving his head or eyes. Jack grumbles at him and puts a little extra force into his work, making the bench vibrate.
Gabriel finishes the book. He gets up, walks a few feet away, and does crunches in the grass until the the back of his shirt is completely soaked with moisture from the still-damp ground. Then he sits up and asks, “Want to hike?”
They haven’t explored the land much, and he reasons they should take advantage of the moderate temperature while it lasts. So they pack a little bag with more sandwiches, water, and a bar of dark chocolate, and Jack puts on a better pair of shoes and sets the cabin as a waypoint on his phone. They lock Henry indoors with the stuffed turtle, surrounded by absorbent mats.
They walk uphill, climb over the fence that they encountered on their first day, and keep going. The woods smell different than they did the first time: a distinct post-rainfall scent, something deeper and richer than before. The carpet of pine needles is springy with absorbed moisture, and there are tiny, new green fern shoots curling delicately into the open.
It’s quiet. As they edge along the western slope of one hill they hear the hushed whooshing of cars passing along an unseen roadway, but the trees break up the noise and make it sound far away, like distant surf. A dog barks as they enter another valley, and the sound echoes between the slopes. They go forward at random, picking their direction by whatever catches their eye: an enormous tree stump armored with shelf-like fungus; a shadowed dip in the hillside that looks like it might be a cave opening; a big spider web strung between two trees. When they see another fence ahead of them, they simply turn from it and walk on until it disappears from sight. They should go uphill, Jack suggests, and get as high as possible so that they can see all of their surroundings. So they look around, take a guess about which of the hills is the tallest, and go.
It’s not a challenging climb, but it’s steady. Jack takes out one of the sandwiches and eats it as they plod on. When he’s half done with it, Gabriel wordlessly holds out his hand, and Jack places a second sandwich into his open palm. They trade the water bottle back and forth a couple of times.
They say almost nothing to each other. They move side by side, making tiny adjustments to their paths simultaneously, like fish or birds do. Gabriel doesn't seem tense, like he did before. There's an openness to his face and body that refreshes Jack to see.
Then they emerge abruptly into a small opening. It must have been caused by a lightning strike: there’s a blackened tree trunk felled at the center, which took down a few other trees on the downhill slope when it crashed onto them. The branches of the fallen trees are bare of needles, but new growth hasn’t fully taken over the clearing. The pine saplings are only knee height. The gap in the tree cover reveals a section of a wide, flat-bottomed valley. There are several houses on the lower half of the opposite hillside and in the bottom of the valley, but they’re too far away for any of the people in their yards or windows to have distinct features. The trees disguise any houses that may be below them on their own hill. They’re up higher than Jack expected, but the peak of the hill is still perhaps fifty vertical feet beyond their current elevation. Above them he spots a big hawk or eagle hanging on an updraft. When he turns to get Gabriel’s attention, Jack finds him shading his eyes to look at something in the distance. Gabriel points. A pair of vultures are circling about a quarter of a mile behind them.
“Hm,” Jack says. “Do you think that’s bad luck?”
Gabriel cups a hand to his mouth and shouts, “You’re too late! I’m not dead anymore!”
Jack laughs in surprise and grabs his arm, yanking it down. “Don’t mock the omens of death, asshole!”
Gabriel just puts his other arm up and flips off the vultures. “They’re not omens of death.”
“They show up when things are about to die! That’s exactly what death omens do!”
“They show up when things are already dead; that’s different.”
“Okay, but they always appear in, you know, those really old cartoons when someone’s lost in the desert and is about to die of thirst. The vultures know they’re going to die soon. Which makes them omens of death.”
“Cartoons don’t mean anything, Jack!”
They go on walking as they argue about whether cartoons can be taken as reliable evidence of animal behavior. But the light is beginning to fade around them; if they want to get to the hilltop before it gets dark, they’ll have to pick up the pace.
So they stop meandering and pick their way up the most direct possible route, though it’s steeper and somewhat slippery. Jack breaks off squares of chocolate and chews on them as they climb. This part of the hill is rockier than it was near the base; they have to climb around several half-buried boulders as they go, and there are big patches of flat, rainfall-pitted rock, half covered by hearty lichen. Then, suddenly, they come to another break in the trees, just below the uppermost point of the hill. The clearing is dominated by an enormous slab stone jutting from the ground, almost perfectly horizontal, creating a shelf-like plateau overlooking the downhill slope. The elevation change below the slab is so steep that the tops of the nearest trees below it rise only slightly higher than the plateau itself. Thankfully, they emerged toward the upper part of the clearing and are nearly level with the slab. The ground leading to the plateau is strewn with loose rock: fine gravel and flat, palm-sized chunks. The shadows are long and black from the low angle of the sun. There's just sky above them, and trees below them, and ringing them in, at a distance, are more towering hills. They stretch on and on.
Both of them pause for a second. It’s an unexpectedly striking sight.
“Oh,” Gabriel says. “Look at that.”
Then he sets off for the plateau. Jack follows, moving slowly. The loose rock shifts under his feet, making his right knee twinge every time his leg tenses to correct his balance.
That’s when the sun sets. It touches down on the hills to the west, instantly turning them into solid black silhouettes, bristling at the edges like heaps of iron filings. The sun streams through the trees along the crest of the hills, painting horizontal stripes of shadow and golden light in the air. The sky turns rich and golden: a warm, runny egg-yolk color. Jack feels like the whole world has been suspended in yellow sap.
Gabriel is ahead of him, thirty feet away and slightly higher on the hill. He’s standing on the plateau, looking west with his face in profile. The sunset bathes him from the front; his shadow makes a three-dimensional form in the air behind him where his body carves out its shape from the light. Some part of Jack separates from himself and melts away into the light and shadow: some piece that will never move on from this moment, that will always be anchored to this time and place. Another waypoint at the end of this tiny journey, marking down a place in his mind to which he can find his way back.
“Gabriel,” he starts, and then doesn’t go on, and Gabriel says mm?, distantly, without turning his head. He shifts his feet and continues, with sudden urgency, “I want to marry you.”
Now Gabriel looks at him. He says, “What?”
“I don’t have a ring,” Jack says. “I didn’t plan anything.”
Gabriel just stares at him. The light gilds half his face; the other half is cast into cool shadow. Jack notices impossible details: the length of Gabriel’s eyelashes, and the fine creases of his lips, and the little tick of movement in his neck where his pulse flows.
Jack says, “I’m going to kneel.”
“Don’t,” Gabriel says, with horror, and starts to walk quickly toward him. But there’s too much ground to cover between them, and Jack has already touched one knee down on the rock before Gabriel reaches him. Gabriel grabs him by the shoulders and lifts him roughly to his feet. Then he just holds Jack like that, hands clamped on his upper arms. They stare at one another. Jack doesn’t know what to do next. Gabriel is the one who’s supposed to respond now, isn’t he? But nothing happens. The sunset starts to fade.
“Gabe,” he starts. He can only think of stupid questions, like, did you hear what I asked? Then he asks, “Can I kiss you?,” shyly, like they’ve never done that before.
Gabriel makes a sound like he’s just broken the surface after a dive and drawn his first breath. He takes a step forward.
On level ground, if Jack doesn’t lift his head at all, his mouth touches the spot below Gabriel’s lower lip. They used to be exactly the same height: nose to nose, mouth to mouth. Completely aligned. Jack liked it. Years ago, he’d gotten some meaningless comfort, when there was none else to be had, knowing that there was one way in which they were still eye-to-eye. Some of their fights might have ended worse if one of them had actually been able to look down on the other. He hasn’t lost much height since then—he owes that to the Program, probably—but Gabriel’s pristinely recrafted body is younger than his actual years, and he’s lost none at all. So they don’t line up perfectly anymore, and right now Gabriel is a step above him on the hill. But Gabriel tilts his chin down, and Jack tilts his chin up, just a tiny degree of motion from each of them, and the kiss feels as good as it ever did.
Then Gabriel leans back and says, “It’s going to get dark. We should go back.”
Jack says, “Alright.”
They spend no more time looking at the sunset. Gabriel leads the way back, walking ahead of Jack at a distance of ten or fifteen feet. Jack lets himself hang back: because he likes watching Gabriel walk, and because he doesn’t want his nearness to make Gabriel feel like he has to say anything just to avoid awkward silence. He is very aware that Gabriel has not given him an answer. But that’s his own fault, isn’t it, for making a declaration instead of asking a question. A bad proposal strategy.
He looks back once before they leave the clearing and sees the eagle plunge straight down with folded wings, diving to hunt. By the time he remembers to look for the vultures, the trees have already blocked his view.
The light fades out as they go. There’s a big, three-quarters-full moon already in the sky to give them some extra brightness, but as it gets darker Jack has to move closer and fall into step directly behind Gabriel, letting him pick out a path for both of them to follow. His eyes aren’t as good in the dark anymore. He eats the rest of the chocolate bar.
The crickets are singing when they get back to the cabin. Henry is waiting for them at the door, and he throws himself against their legs as they come inside, tail thumping. Jack bends to rumple his ears, and Gabriel steps aside to unlace his boots. His expression isn’t identifiable, but controlled blankness means plenty on its own.
“I’m going to take Henry outside,” Jack says, and Gabriel gives him an indifferent, “Thanks.”
Jack stays out longer than he really needs to, letting Henry run himself to exhaustion. He drifts around the yard, sometimes following Henry and sometimes just letting his feet take him forward. He wonders if Gabriel is watching him from inside, and keeps his posture neutral.
When they come back indoors, Gabriel is standing in front of the sink with his back to the room, eating a donut.
“These are starting to get stale,” he says.
Jack takes off his shoes. He sits sideways on the arm of one of the living room chairs. Henry collapses in front of his feet and sighs enormously.
“You haven’t said anything.” He doesn’t think it’s necessary to specify what he’s expecting Gabriel to talk about.
Gabriel turns. “Were you being serious?”
“Yeah,” he says, taken aback. “Of course. You think I’d joke about that?”
“Well. We have, before.”
A long time ago. When it was a safe joke, because the possibility was too outlandish to be anything but a joke. Just an idea to laugh about, when they needed a laugh to get by. Can you imagine? Us? Ha, ha.
“I wasn’t joking,” he says.
“Have you been thinking about it for long?”
“Off and on.”
“So why now?”
Jack shrugs. In his mind the scene is still vivid: the black cutout of the hills, and the light and shadow streaking through the air as though through clear water. He’d wanted to press a pin through that scene and frame it for display, like a mounted butterfly. He’d wanted it to be preserved like something trapped in amber. But the proposal didn’t require a special moment. There hadn’t been a plan; there didn’t need to be a plan. It might have happened yesterday; it might have happened tomorrow. It might have happened in another five years. It’d happened now only because he’d been swept up in the desire to possess that moment in some tangible way, and that was the best he could do.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Was there a better time?”
Gabriel grunts. “Why do you want to? What’s the point?”
Jack grates his breath out and scrapes both hands down his face. “Jesus, Gabriel, you weren’t dropped on the planet yesterday. Stop acting like a fucking alien who has to have Human Customs explained. You know what the point is, fuck.”
“Humor me,” Gabriel snaps. “I’m asking a serious question. Your name is on the title to the car; my name is on the house deed. We’ve got a fucking joint bank account. Shit, Jack, you get to pull the life support if I go brain dead. We’re not living with anyone else, we’re not fucking anyone else. What’re we missing, exactly? Everyone who’s important already knows that we’re—” He gestures into the space between them, a brisk little back-and-forth motion.
Jack leans forward and jabs a finger toward him. “See, you don’t even know how to say it. It’s been—we’ve always been—this, this fucking top-security thing. Everyone has to have the proper clearance to find out.”
“Oh, that’s bullshit. It’s not a secret anymore. Anyone can fucking figure it out.”
“Well, they shouldn’t have to figure it out. And not everyone does.”
“Not everyone needs to! It’s not their business! Just, shit, come on, explain this to me. Do you want to start every conversation we have with someone by waving a ring in their face? I’m trying to understand what this is supposed to change.” His lower eyelids draw up. “Is this about the melon lady?”
“It’s not about the melon lady!” Jack booms. “Shit, Gabe, sometimes you’re harder to talk to than the whole fucking UN.” Gabriel opens his mouth to protest, but Jack just barrels onward, “I just want the word! I want the option of having the word. I want to be able to - to say that you’re my husband. That’s it, that’s the whole mystery, goddammit!”
Gabriel’s nostrils flare. After a moment, he says, “Well, no one’s stopping you from doing that. People aren’t going to ask to see the marriage certificate.”
Jack barks out a laugh, shaking his head. “Yeah, clearly you - you’d go right along with that.”
Gabriel sighs through his nose and turns his head to stare hard through the kitchen window.
Jack looks up, waiting for him to say something, but he’s just met with silence. If it wouldn’t change anything, he wonders, what’s your reason for not wanting to do it? Why am I the one who has to explain? He puts his hands on his knees and rocks his weight back and forth.
“You’re right,” he says. “We can say anything we want. But one day we’re going to die—” Gabriel grunts and opens his mouth to speak, but Jack holds up a hand to ask for quiet; “we’re going to be dead, and we won’t be able to speak for ourselves, so all we can do is leave a, a, a paper trail that can’t be misunderstood or ignored. Gabe, we’re part of history; we don’t get a choice about that. There are kids right now learning things about us in their history classes and their politics classes, and we’re going to be part of textbooks from now until God only knows when. People wrote our biographies when they thought we were dead, and other people are going to write more biographies later, and I don’t want to give those people the chance to fuck things up like the first ones did. Gabriel, I, I don’t just want it to be indisputable: I want it to be unavoidable, something they can’t fucking misinterpret or exclude, that we were always us.”
Gabriel’s teeth are tight together. Jack sees a muscle in his jaw tick. He says, “Hell, Jack.”
It’s the closet thing Jack has given to an inspirational speech in years. He’d hoped for something a little better than, “hell, Jack.” He’s lost his touch. Well, what had he really expected? For Gabriel to fall weeping to his knees, moved by the thought of civics textbooks being forced to refer to their marriage?
He realizes, belatedly, that he didn’t say anything at all about his own feelings. It seems a bit late to tack an ‘I love you’ onto the end. Cheap.
Jack pushes off from the armchair. He crouches over the dog and scratches behind his ears. Henry twitches in his sleep. “I thought it would be best for Henry to grow up in a traditional household.”
Gabriel turns his head back aground. His expression softens slightly. “There’s no hope for him. He was born a delinquent.”
“Heh.” He rubs the back of Henry’s neck, making the skin bunch up. “So I guess you’re saying ‘no?’”
Gabriel folds his arms and crosses one ankle over the other. Jack sees the edges of his mouth pulling down. “Is it that important to you?”
Jack stops petting Henry. He brings a hand up and rubs at the corner of his own mouth. He’s surprised to realize that he’s not disappointed. It’s been brought up. They’ve talked about it. The answer matters, in a way, but not to the way they’ll live their lives. They’ll go to bed together, and they’ll wake up together, and tomorrow will be another day spent with Gabriel, and so on, and so on. He’s tried to learn not to measure his life by what other people know or believe about him. He stares back at Gabriel. “It was important enough to ask. But it - it’s only worth doing if it’s important to both of us. I’m not going to try to change your mind. If you’re set against it - fine. That’s fine. Nothing’s changed.”
“I need time to think about it,” Gabriel says, looking at Henry instead of at him.
You’ve had decades to think about it, Jack wants to say. But that’s not how things work with Gabriel. So he smiles and says, airily, “Take as much time as you need.”
Later, in bed, Gabriel noses the back of his neck and whispers, “Hey, Lucky,” and he shifts around and says, “Hey, Lucky.”
They feel their way carefully around one another in the dark, and Gabriel rides him, slow and quiet, and all of this is enough, it’s more than enough.
Gabriel doesn’t have an answer to the proposal the next day, or the day after. Jack doesn’t ask him for one. If Gabriel wants to bring it up, he will. Otherwise, the silence is answer enough. Except…
Except it’s not complete silence. Gabriel is brushing his teeth over the sink, Jack shaving next to him, when he spits out a mouthful of toothpaste and asks, without warning, “Would we invite anyone else to the courthouse, or go by ourselves?”
Then, later, as he passes the salt shaker during dinner: “Would we hyphenate our names, or what?”
Later still, as they strip the bed sheets to be washed: “We’ll have to cater lunch if anyone else comes to the courthouse.”
Jack discusses each point, as they arise, in a calm, practical manner. But, mostly, he just lets Gabriel talk to himself. His responses offer just enough traction for Gabriel to roll the ideas forward all on his own. The details don’t matter to Jack; he only cares about the conclusion. Invitations, names, parties—these things are interchangeable. But to Gabriel, outcomes are just the aggregate of all the details leading up to them. The planning comes first; Gabriel will make a choice once he decides how he feels about all of the related parts and pieces.
Jack tries not to let himself read too much into the questions. It won’t do him any good to get his hopes up. If Gabriel doesn’t want to get married, then—that’s fine. It’s fine. Disappointing, but… fine. He said it was fine; he meant that. They already have a lot together. Decades of one another’s lives; a home; levels of familiarity that have never needed to be documented or formalized. They don’t need marriage. Jack wants it, but there are a lot of things in life that he’s never gotten.
But. But, but, but. But having the proposal hang over him, unresolved, is distracting. He finds himself looking at Gabriel and testing the words in his mind, trying to make them feel familiar and natural. He thinks to himself, this is my husband, Gabriel. My husband. Husband. Gabriel is my husband. It pulls at his attention, makes him restless.
He needs a distraction. Something that can fill the hours and occupy his mind more than the dog, and the news, and sex, and naps in the hammock can do. Something he can plan and work on. It’s too late in the season to plant anything in the garden bed; and, besides, he can’t count on anyone looking after it once they leave. The kitchen could stand to have new cabinets, but he doesn’t have time to see a project like that through, either. He cleans the gutters, and replaces the door hardware on the pump house, and scours the fireplace and hearth, but there’s too much downtime between each project. His mind treads and re-treads over the same ground like an animal on a short tether.
So he says, after Henry has collapsed beside him following a brutal game of tug-of-war on the floor, “We should have a cookout. When Maggie and Nadine get here. Invite the neighbors.”
“We don’t know the neighbors,” Gabriel says. He looks at Jack like he’s just suggested they set the house on fire.
“I met some of them when I was asking around about Henry. And at the funeral.”
“This isn’t our house, Jack. Do you think Maggie wants a bunch of people showing up while she’s trying to get shit done?”
“I’ll ask her,” he says, and Gabriel groans, “Jack,” plaintively, but he’s already excavating his phone from where it’s wedged between his own body and Henry’s.
He composes a message while pretending that he doesn’t notice Gabriel pointedly frowning at him. It’s all right; he still has some time to bring Gabriel around on everything. ‘Do you want to invite anyone to a cookout at the cabin? We’ll take care of the food. - JM’
Within half a minute, he sees that she’s starting to respond. The answering message comes seconds later.
Maggie: Oh, you don’t have to do anything like that! Just relax!
Uh-oh. He didn’t hype the idea enough. He needs to have Maggie on his side if this is going to work. He mulls over his answer.
‘We thought bringing people by might help with the sale. The cookout was Gabriel’s idea, but if you’re not interested, I’ll tell him that I don’t want to do it . - JM’
That’ll cinch it, he thinks triumphantly.
“What’d she say?” Gabriel asks, squinting at him.
“She says it sounds like a great idea.”
“Do I get to have any input?”
Jack smiles and says, “Nope.”
Another response comes from Maggie: ‘Really? Wow, tell him thanks for thinking about us! Let me ask Nadine.’
“Want any coffee?” Jack asks, standing up. “I was thinking about making a cup.”
Gabriel grunts in a way that means ‘I’d love some, thank you ever so much.’
Maggie gets back to him as he’s spooning sweetened condensed milk into one of the mugs. Nadine thinks a cookout sounds fun; they should talk about it together, all four of them. Jack offers to call them in a few minutes, once he's ready.
Jack hands the thick, sweet coffee to Gabriel in passing. “Be right back,” he says. He uses his foot to hold Henry at bay as he slips onto the deck, makes himself comfortable in one of the Adirondack chairs, and sets up his phone for a video call.
Maggie’s face is very close to the screen when she answers. There’s a bit of motion, and then she sits back, revealing more of the space around her. Her wife, Nadine, is sitting next to her on a couch with her knees tucked up to her chest. It looks like she just finished putting on her headscarf; she fiddles with the edge of it with one hand and waves with the other. Maggie waves, too. There’s a window behind them, and Jack sees a backdrop of blue sky and a picturesque cascade of willow branches.
“Did I call at a bad time?” he asks.
“No, no, we’re good,” Maggie says. Then she asks, “Where’s Gabriel?”
“Oh, he, uh. Had to use the bathroom.”
“Oh! We could have waited, then! You didn’t have to call right away.”
“No, uh, he, uh, ate something that disagreed with him. Might be awhile. I’ll fill him in later. He says hi, looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
They make sympathetic noises. Then Maggie asks, “How have things been? We’re really excited to see you! Sorry that we had to leave before you got there. Have you been enjoying it?”
“Weather’s been good,” Jack says. “Rained like Hell a few days ago, but it cleared up. You do much hiking in the hills around here? We saw a real nice sunset the other day.”
“Right around the house? Oh, a little. The hiking is better in the Smokies. Have you been there yet?”
“Ah, no,” Jack admits. “We’ll have to go the next time we visit.”
“Speaking of which,” Maggie says, “how long can you stay? I thought you were going to leave tomorrow, after we got there. That doesn’t really leave time for a cookout, does it? Or were you going to leave the next morning?”
“Well, if you don’t mind sharing the house, we can stay an extra day or two. How about we do the cookout the day after tomorrow? In the afternoon? That’ll leave the rest of today, and tomorrow, and the next morning to get ready.”
Maggie glances at Nadine for approval. She gives a thumbs up.
“Yeah, sure, the day after tomorrow is fine with us. But will that give you enough time to get ready? Will that be too much work? I mean, we can help when we get there, but…”
Jack grins and says, “I’ve done more with less. If you want to help, you can do the invitations. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Absolutely! How many people do you want to invite?”
“Oh, ah, I, I don’t know. We were going to leave that up to you. Do you have people in mind?”
“Well, I think we should invite the neighbors. Kent was friends with pretty much everyone on the road. And I’ve got a list of everyone who signed into the guest book at the funeral. Where’s - hang on - let me find—”
Maggie leans forward and starts to fumble around for something that Jack cannot see. Beside her, Nadine calls up a screen and taps her lightly on the shoulder to get her attention. Maggie says, “oh!,” kisses her cheek, and starts to scroll through a list. “Okay, yeah, I’ve got phone numbers and everything right here.”
“I don’t want to turn anyone down, but it was a, a pretty big funeral."
“We’ll be the only family members there this time, and I won’t invite anyone who isn’t local. Is there anyone you specifically don’t want to invite?”
“Ah, no, I don’t think so. Think people will actually want to come on such short notice, though? I’ve gotten ahead of myself, maybe.”
“Well, I’m not sure. I can probably send the invitations within a couple of hours, but it’s still not much time… But, I mean, that’s all right. They already had a chance to come to the memorial service and funeral, and we’ll probably have an open house event if the house goes on the market. This is just something extra. It’ll still be fun even if it’s just us. And, I mean, it’ll be less work for us if most people can’t make it, right?”
“I suppose,” Jack laughs. “Well, so, what should we have to eat? Anything you want.”
“We should have watermelon,” Nadine pipes up.
Jack laughs again, spreading his hands. “Alright, watermelon. Any cooked food?”
“Um,” Maggie says. “I don’t know. We’re not picky. What do you want to make?”
“Figured we could have the classics: burgers, hot dogs, sweet corn, you know.”
“I think that sounds good. I’ll ask people to bring a side, or a dessert, or something, so don’t worry about those.”
“That’s a good idea, thank you. We’ll take care of drinks and, you know, plates, and things.”
“Okay, okay. I'll run a draft of the invitations by you before I send them; you can let me know if you want anything to be changed.” Maggie smiles at him, looking excited and totally undeterred by the short notice and limited details of this haphazard plan. She inherited her family’s capacity for making things work out. “Oh, Pop’s going to be so mad that he missed out on this. He always talks about the family reunions you were at.”
“Well, he’s welcome to visit any time. I can show him the house.”
“He says you should visit him.”
“He did say something like that when I saw him,” Jack laughs, shrugging. Then he clears his throat. “Hey, uh. You… Can I ask you for a favor? When you send the invitations, could you, ah, not, ah, mention us by name?”
Maggie takes this totally in stride. “No problem. Has anyone been bothering you?”
“No, no, no, no. Don’t worry. It's just—you know.” Jack notices that he’s clasped his hands together between his knees, and wrenches them apart. “Actually, I should mention one more thing. Just so you know, there, uh, there’s a dog around here.”
A dozen times over the last few days, he’s thought about telling Maggie about Henry. He’s not sure he could explain what prevented him. Keeping the dog felt, in a way, like a theft. He’d claimed a little piece of a place that was meaningful to Maggie, not to him, and decided to take it away with him. It seemed selfish.
Maggie groans, but she doesn’t look surprised. “Seriously? I’m sorry, Jack, has it been getting into the trash or something? I don’t know why, but there are some assholes who abandon dogs around the area. Sorry, I didn’t even think to bring it up. You can call—”
“No, um.” Jack clears his throat again. “What I mean is that there’s a dog that’s—here. In the house. We - we’re going to take him back with us. He’s - sorry - he’s done some damage to the furniture; I can reimburse—”
He doesn’t get to finish before Nadine leans toward the camera with an expression of focused intensity. “Where is he?”
“Oh. He’s… I can get him?” Nadine nods vigorously, so Jack stands up and goes to the sliding glass door. He opens it slightly, and Henry, whose temporary banishment from the deck has made him realize that there is no place on the whole earth he’d rather be, shoves past him and goes rambling around the deck, whacking the chairs with his tail. Jack herds him into Maggie and Nadine’s line of sight.
Nadine gasps out loud and actually bounces up and down on the couch. “Oh! A puppy! Look at his face!”
Jack smiles as he sits down again, corralling Henry to sit between his knees and ruffling the top of his head. “Didn’t know you liked dogs so much.”
“She’s allergic to dogs,” Maggie deadpans.
“Oh. You’re—oh.” Jack leans back, tugging on Henry’s collar as though Nadine might have an allergic reaction just from seeing him too closely. “I, I’m sorry, I didn’t know that. We can clean the house, make sure that he stays—”
“I have medicine,” Nadine says, hastily. “I’ll just take medicine. It’s fine!”
“It’s really fine,” Maggie confirms, with beleaguered fondness. “A lot of our friends have dogs, and she has never hesitated to pet a single one of them. What’s his name?”
“Henry! Hi, Henry! Hi, Henry!”
Both of them start to talk at once, and Henry thrusts his nose toward the screen, snuffling loudly as he tries to make sense of this situation. His head tilts to one side, then the other, then back again. His ears flop cartoonishly with each movement. Jack picks up his forgotten coffee and takes a lukewarm sip. Now that he’s done it, it seems absurd that he was nervous about telling them about the dog. A weight dislodges from inside him.
After a moment of fussing and baby talk, Maggie sits up straight, hauls Nadine back by the shoulder, and puts a hand over her eyes. Nadine laughs and tugs at her wrist, and they struggle playfully for a couple of seconds. “We should go or we won’t get anything done today,” Maggie says. “I’ll work on those invitations. We’ll see how many responses there are by the time we arrive.”
“Alright. You sure you don’t want us to meet you at the airport?”
“No, no, don’t worry, we want to get a rental car. We should be there around noon. See you tomorrow! Tell Gabriel we said ‘hi!’”
Nadine finally pries Maggie’s hand off her face. They lace their fingers together and wave at him with opposite hands.
The call ends, and Jack lets go of Henry’s collar. The dog walks forward and drags his nose over the deck boards, then swivels his head to look behind him. He makes a little whining noise, and Jack spreads his hands and says, “Gone. Sorry.”
Jack finishes the rest of his coffee at his leisure, then strolls back into the living room. Gabriel isn’t there, or in the kitchen, but he appears from the hallway before Jack has a chance to get anxious about it.
“Hey,” Jack says. “So, what are you in the mood to cook?”
Gabriel curls his lip slightly, showing a couple of teeth. “What, for your little barbecue?”
“It’s not a barbecue. I mean, unless you want to barbecue something.”
“I’m not barbecuing jackshit. This is your party; cook for it, yourself.”
Jack nods, rocking back and forth on his heels. There’s no need to argue. Gabriel won’t be able to endure the thought of what’ll happen if Jack is left in charge of meal planning. He’ll intervene sooner or later. Jack just needs to bide his time. But he decides to give him a little push in the right direction, anyway.
“We-ell,” he muses, “macaroni and cream of chicken soup is easy to make for a big group. And if we do baked potatoes, too, I could set up a toppings bar for both of them.”
Gabriel stares at him for a second, then turns away as though unable to bear looking at him. He walks into the kitchen and pours a glass of water. Jack follows him there and sets his empty mug next to the sink. Gabriel’s coffee cup is already in the drying rack.
“You don’t want to know what the plan is?”
Gabriel eyes him sidelong as he drinks his entire glass of water without pause, his throat bobbing as he tips his chin up and swallows heavily. When he’s done, he immediately starts to wash the glass. “I figured you’d tell me whether I asked or not.”
Jack sidles up behind him. He hums noncommittally and hooks his chin on Gabriel’s shoulder, pressing him up against the sink.
“Hey. You pissed?”
“You’re acting pissed.” He nips at the side of Gabriel’s neck. “I’ll make it up to you.”
Gabriel sighs. He runs water into the soapy glass, swirls it around, and drains it into the sink. He puts the glass into the drying rack, then cranes an arm back. Jack feels Gabriel cup the back of his head—and then shake him gently, so that his chin wobbles back and forth on Gabriel’s shoulder.
“Is that how it works?” Gabriel asks. “You just do whatever you want, and then make up for it later?”
Gabriel stops shaking him, fingers loosening from his hair and falling away, and Jack picks his head up. “Are you really mad?”
Gabriel pushes him back with an elbow, then turns around so they’re face to face. “No, Jack, I’m not mad. You can do whatever you want, I don’t give a damn, but you haven’t been relaxed since we’ve been here—”
“What? I’ve been relaxed!”
“You broke a door.”
“That was just one time! I had a good reason!”
Gabriel makes a dismissive noise, but he doesn’t try to argue that point. “You haven’t been relaxed the last couple of days, and now you’re going to be busy while your family is here. You’re going to burn yourself out.”
And why do you think I haven’t been relaxed lately, smart guy? is what Jack wants to ask, but he does not. He slides his hands up Gabriel’s arms. He reaches Gabriel’s shoulders and rubs gentle circles over them. Then he grips firmly. He sees Gabriel’s eyes move, darting sideways at one of his hands then instantly back to his face. “Gabriel, I appreciate the concern, but I don’t need it. I led a global peace-keeping organization. I can coordinate a fucking cookout.”
“Well, you’re in therapy because of that, so.”
Jack takes his hands off Gabriel’s shoulders. He deserved the rebuttal. Using their careers to win arguments is forbidden.
“…And the therapy has been going well,” he says, primly.
“So well that you didn’t even need to call your therapist after you dry heaved into the toilet in the middle of the night?”
Jack glances away. His eyes land on the cupboards. They’re pretty dated. Make the kitchen feel old-fashioned. It’s really too bad he can’t replace them. He says, “It was the middle of the night, like you said.”
“Come on, Jack.”
“Thought you’d be proud of me for wanting to be around people.”
Gabriel snorts, and he feels the brush of air against his ear. “Oh, bullshit. You’re just saying that to make me feel bad.”
Jack looks back at him. “Is it working?”
Gabriel simply raises his eyebrows.
As he stands there, Jack recognizes the reality of what he’s done. Gabriel is already considering meal options for an event he hasn’t even agreed to yet, and Jack has invented a whole new public occasion with barely two days of notice. He wanted a distraction from Gabriel, but he’s gone and created one at Gabriel's own expense.
“I’m sorry,” he says, shame making his voice thick. “It’s, ah, it’s not too late to cancel. We haven’t told anyone else yet.”
Gabriel grunts at him. Then he says, “There are tables in the attic, if you need them.”
Jack says, “What?”
“Folding tables. In the attic. I thought I saw one when I found the quilt, so I checked. There’s, I don’t know, four or five.”
“Oh,” he says. “I’ll, uh. Take a look. Thank you.”
He takes a step backward, but he gets no farther than that. Gabriel has grabbed onto his wrist. Jack stops, lifting his eyebrows inquisitively.
“So when is this picnic happening? Tomorrow?”
“Ah, no. The day after.”
“How many people are coming?”
Gabriel closes his eyes for a second. “Okay. What’s your vegetarian option?”
Jack had not thought about vegetarians. “Uh, we haven’t, uh, decided everything yet.”
“Hm. I’ll make tamales, then.”
Jack blinks, then blinks again. “You only make those for special occasions?” he says, an uptick of surprise turning the statement into a question.
“Well, this is a special occasion, isn’t it? It’s for your family.”
“Oh.” Jack just stands there for a second. Then he raises the arm that’s being held, reeling Gabriel’s up with it, and kisses the back of his hand. “That… that’d be nice. Thank you.”
Gabriel cocks his eyebrows, his mouth turning up at the corners. “What, that’s all I get? A kiss on the fucking hand? You said you were going to make it up to me, Morrison.”
Jack laughs lightly and swivels his grip, pulling on Gabriel’s arm and forcing him into a forward stumble that brings them chest to chest. “Oh, I’m just getting started.”
As Gabriel said, there are folding tables in the attic. Jack also finds folding chairs, coolers, large serving bowls and platters, and a greasy grilling apron. It says ‘RAISE THE STEAKS’ across the chest. Jack likes it.
The ladder that unfolds from the attic doesn’t reach all the way to the floor, leaving a two-foot gap under the bottom rung, so Jack has to lower the tables through the hatch door and let Gabriel take them out of his hands. When he climbs down afterward, Gabriel claps him heavily on the back and chest and legs, and big puffs of dust bloom from his clothes. They carry all of the attic treasures into the basement den for temporary keeping. Then Jack shoves the grill onto the concrete patio and starts to clean it. He’d been so pleased to see it when they arrived, but he’s barely touched it since then. It just doesn’t feel right to fire up a big grill for a two-person meal. Grills are for family reunions, tailgating parties, the Fourth of July: lots of people, lots of food. But finally he has a reason to put the life back into it. He sweats over the grill for a good three hours. He can’t get the dents out, but it gleams when he’s finished.
He makes them a proper steak dinner: potatoes baked on the grill, served steaming-hot beside big, fat-marbled cuts of ribeye. Gabriel breaks out a bottle of wine, then another, and they waltz clumsily on the deck with all the house lights turned off while the crickets applaud them to go on, go on, go on.
Maggie springs the last step up to him and flings her arms around his back. The exuberance of the moment makes him forget himself; without a second thought, he picks her off her feet and spins her, something he’s not done for a good twenty years. Maggie laughs loudly into his ear and thumps on his shoulders. As he sets her down, he glimpses Nadine and Gabriel standing on the other side of the rental car, Nadine serenely kissing each side of Gabriel’s face. Then they break apart and exchange partners: Maggie strides over to hug Gabriel, and Nadine steps up to shake his hand.
“The dog’s inside,” he whispers, and her eyes light up. “Door’s unlocked. You can let him out, if you want.”
Nadine spares a peek at her wife and then slips past him to do just that, which gives Jack the opening he needs to collect the luggage from the backseat of the car. As he’s dragging the bags off the seat, the other door pops open and Maggie swipes her arm inside to try to snag one of the bags out of his hands. He backs up hastily and bumps the door shut before she can establish a grip. Maggie doesn’t get another chance to fight him for the bags, because two seconds later, Henry comes flying down the stairs with Nadine in close pursuit, looking quite mortified. The dog skids to a stop behind Gabriel and peers out from behind his legs, making skeptical little buff -buff sounds at both women in turn.
Jack decides to let Gabriel handle it. He sidles past Nadine and carries the luggage up the stairs and into the cabin.
A few moments later, everyone seems to be friends. Nadine walks through the door proudly bearing Henry in her arms, Gabriel and Maggie laughing together as they bring up the rear.
“Figured you’d want the upstairs bedroom,” Jack says. “How was your flight? Have you had lunch?”
“It wasn't bad!” Maggie turns to her wife. “Do you think you can put the dog down long enough to eat something?”
Nadine does, reluctantly. They eat lunch with Henry lying under the table between them, his neck darting forward to lick crumbs off the floor whenever one of them entirely accidentally lets some tiny morsel fall. Afterward, Jack sends Maggie and Nadine away to unpack their bags while he clears the table and Gabriel brings Henry back into the yard for his midday romp.
Maggie reappears some minutes later, leaning her shoulder against the refrigerator. Her hair is all swept up, little bits of it hanging wispily across her forehead and behind her ears.
“I saw that you put up a hammock?”
Jack comes absurdly close to denying that he’s done any such thing. He glances through the living room window at the irrefutable evidence, swinging gently in a mild breeze, and gives a little cough. “I, ah, I should have asked for permission first. I can take it down.”
Maggie laughs it off, tilting her head. “Oh, what, are you kidding? I always wanted to have a hammock out here. Kent didn’t trust them because he broke his wrist in one during his honeymoon.”
“I didn’t know that,” Jack admits. One of many gaps in his family knowledge.
“Well, he didn’t like to talk about it,” Maggie laughs. “Can we go look?”
A tiny congregation of birds takes off from the rail cap when they walk onto the deck. Installing the bird feeders has had unconsidered consequences. Jack carefully cleaned seed shells and bird droppings from the rail and deck boards that morning, but already there’s a messy spatter under one of the feeders. Jack guiltily places himself in front of it and tries to look nonchalant. Maggie goes straight to the hammock and tumbles sideways into it, her legs kicking into the air. Nadine approaches the hummingbird feeder and taps it. It swings gently to and fro, the clear red plastic casting a patch of colored light that skates over the deck and side of the cabin.
“Have you seen any hummingbirds?” she asks.
“Only through the windows.”
Maggie beams at him from the hammock. “Thanks again for helping us out. Kent would’ve really appreciated you looking after the house like this.”
“Mm.” Jack runs his palm over the rail cap, warm from the morning sun. “Wish I’d gotten the chance to tell him what a nice place he had here. How soon you do think it’ll sell?”
“Oh, boy.” Maggie puffs out a breath and runs a hand through her hair, creating more loose wisps. “No idea. I’ve been talking with Pop about it, but he hasn’t made a decision, and I don’t know what to tell him to do. If we sell it then, you know, we have to figure out who should get the money from the sale. Pop isn’t any more entitled to it than anyone else, you know?”
Jack doesn’t really know, but he makes a thoughtful, understanding noise. “He doesn’t want to take ownership? Seems a shame not to keep a place like this in the family.”
“I think so, too!” Maggie says. “But he doesn’t want to have to look after a second house. I think some of the— Well, I don’t want to gossip, but I think a few other people are interested, and Pop doesn’t want to mediate between them. I don’t know, it’s kind of complicated. We’re going to get everything appraised, but after that - I don’t know.”
“What do you want to happen?”
Maggie looks past him for a moment: at Nadine, at the bird feeders, at the sky. She pushes her toes against the deck, rocking herself back and forth. “I don’t know. I really like it here. I always looked forward to it. I hate the idea of just… never coming back again. I don’t want someone else to live in Kent’s house. But I don’t think I could live here permanently.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” He stares across the clearing, remembering the way it looked in the rain, a bubble unto itself. “Well. You want to go grocery shopping? How many are we buying for?”
“Oh, hang on, hang on, let me check. We’ve got, ummm... eleven acceptances. So, let’s double that, round up a bit more to be safe, and say… thirty people?”
Divided between the four of them, that doesn’t sound awful. Jack cups a hand to his mouth. “Gabe! Come here! You ready to party?”
Gabriel shouts, “No,” but he comes plodding back to the house, anyway.
Together, all four of them collaborate on a shopping list of everything they expect to need, then divide it between pairs. Gabriel goes with Nadine; Jack joins Maggie. She drives the rental car for them.
They gossip about all the things they didn’t have the time or heart to discuss during the funeral: who’s in college now, and who’s expected to get engaged within the year, and Maggie’s opinion about Steve’s latest home improvement project and the diet he’s on. It’s pleasantly ordinary. Jack gets to spend his afternoon feeling like a proper retiree, someone whose daily life seems appropriately modest and sedate compared to the goings-on of a bustling extended family.
Gabriel and Nadine are already in the kitchen when they get back. For just a second, as Jack comes through the door, Nadine gets an odd look on her face, as though she has never seen him before. Then her expression clears, and Jack doesn’t have any time to think about it, because he’s promptly subjected to Gabriel’s scrutiny as he lugs a new meat grinder and an intimidating quantity of chuck steak into the kitchen.
Gabriel watches him assemble the grinder and says, very gently, “You know, you can buy meat that’s already in burger form.”
“It’s better when you do it yourself.”
Gabriel grunts at him, then turns to Maggie. “I assume he’s not planning to brew his own beer tonight. What’d you get? I have to do a taste test.”
“Help yourself,” Maggie says, pointing. “I dropped it by the door.”
Gabriel does just that. Jack hears miscellaneous rustling and clanking noises as Gabriel examines their selections. They came back with several choices, but Jack knows exactly which one is going to earn a comment. And, sure enough: “The fuck is this?”
“The fuck is what?” he asks, like he doesn’t know.
“Fucking… Black Watch Double Chocolate Milk Stout?”
“It’s local,” Jack says, mildly.
“God, I love this country. Win a fucking war and someone will use your career to sell beer.”
“Cool the ego, Gabe, they started making that shit before the ’20s. Not everything is about you.”
Jack ducks when Gabriel pries the cap off a bottle and flicks it at his head, and it pings harmlessly off the refrigerator door and bounces to the floor—where Henry summarily pounces upon and attempts to swallow it. Jack subsequently takes Gabriel’s elbow to his head for the second time in as many weeks as they both dive to save their dog from a bowel obstruction.
They spend the rest of the day in the kitchen. Jack grinds and forms dozens of hamburger patties, cleaning and freezing parts of the meat grinder between each batch to keep everything cold. Gabriel secures Nadine as his tamale-making sous chef and rules over the stovetop and as much of the counter space as he can claim. They squeeze lemons for lemonade, slice tomatoes, shuck ears of corn. They open the windows, open the doors, simmer pulped lemon rinds in pots of water to make the kitchen smell nice. It’s good. It feels good.
Tomorrow is going to be good.
By the time the first ten people arrive, Jack’s hands are shaking.
He doesn’t know why. He recognizes six of the guests standing in the yard, talking boisterously with Maggie and Nadine. They’re neighbors. The Davises offered him iced coffee. Veronica Campbell mentioned leaving a bowl of food outside for Henry when he’d first been spotted roaming the area.
He’s been in crowds during these past few years. He’s spoken to strangers. Been in court, given interviews. He’s not a goddamn shut-in now. But these perfectly ordinary people, standing nonthreateningly outside of the house that’s become more comfortable to him than anywhere else for hundred of miles around, are making his heart pound so heavily that his teeth rattle together if he doesn’t clench them.
Were any of these people among the ones who wanted Overwatch disbanded, years ago? Did they want him court martialed, jailed, dead? Did they want Gabriel Reyes drawn and quartered? He’s learned, by and large, not to think about it. Not to question the politics or opinions of people he sees in grocery stores, coffee shops, clinics. But it gets into his head, sometimes.
He’s already said his hellos—introduced simply as ‘Uncle Jack’ by Maggie—to each of the current guests, and since then he’s just made himself part of the background scenery, keeping the grill hot and trying to look busy. He’s already cooked some of the burgers and put them aside to stay warm, just for the sake of doing something. They’ve got a modest but inviting little set-up. The tables and folding chairs are arranged under the elm tree’s shade. All the cabin doors are wide open, with the Adirondack chairs and the hammock waiting there on the deck. The grill is sitting on the eastern side of the cabin, near the garden bed, where it gets shade from the house as the sun moves west. The weather is nice. The birds are singing. Henry is gamboling through a forest of legs. The only thing wrong with any of it is him.
He tells himself that everything is fine. Everything is fine. There’s no problem here. He guides himself through two breathing exercises.
Then another call rolls up the driveway and parks in the big yard, and Jack’s palms start to sweat.
He strolls over to greet the new couple. He smiles at them, and shakes their hands, and says something friendly and innocuous about the weather. The couple exchange a couple minutes of ordinary smalltalk with Maggie and Nadine, then move along to add their fruit salad to the tables. As soon as they’re out of earshot, Jack says, “Hey, Mags, can you keep an eye on the grill for a couple minutes?”
He doesn’t see any surprise in her face, but there is, perhaps, a second of pensive attentiveness. She smiles at him. “Sure! Give me your apron.”
Gabriel catches his eye as Maggie ties the apron strings behind her back. Jack turns from him without reacting and casually wanders toward the house, stepping through the open basement doors into the den. A minute later, Gabriel is there, too. They don’t go far into the basement. They’re visible from the driveway and the portion of yard in front of the house, but far enough away not to be overhead. Jack crosses his arms and puts his weight onto one leg, trying to look nonchalant.
He takes a breath. “Gabriel, I don’t think I can do this.”
“Okay,” Gabriel says. “Let’s send them home, then.”
“What?” Jack takes a step back, like he’s been physically pushed. “We can’t fucking send them home.”
“Jesus, Gabriel, we invited them here.”
“So fucking what? We don’t owe them anything. They came here to get some free food; if they don’t get it, who cares? They can go home and eat their potato salad in the comfort of their own homes.”
“We’re not going to do that,” he says, firmly.
Gabriel purses his lips. “So then, what? You want to just sit this one out? You can do that. But I don’t know how to grill, so you’re going to have to live knowing that I fed all these people charred hamburgers.”
“Well, Maggie—” he starts to say, then pinches his mouth shut. No, Maggie cannot. Not because she’s not capable, but because that’s not her responsibility here. Everyone here has known her and her family for years; they’re here to talk to her, reminisce with her. He can’t expect her to stand in one spot while everything else goes on around her. Jack gives a low, joyless laugh. He rubs at the back of his neck, his fingernails scraping raspily against the skin and shorn hair. “Okay. Shit. I hear you. Okay.”
Gabriel’s hands clamp onto his upper arms. He leans close, and Jack tucks his chin down, defensively. They’re supposed to look casual to anyone who might see them, and Gabriel is ruining it. “Jack. I am being completely serious. I do not give a shit about these people’s expectations. I hope they get to have a nice afternoon, but if they don’t? Doesn’t matter. If they’re disappointed? Doesn’t matter. They’ll get over it. This isn’t that important.”
“Maggie and Na—”
“You think they’d disagree with me? Let’s ask.”
“We’re not going to ask,” he snaps.
Jack sees Gabriel’s eyes moving over his face. Gabriel’s attention is searing, the way it’s always been. “What’s going to happen if everyone stays?” Gabriel asks. “Is this an ‘I’m going to spend hours looking like there’s a rock in my shoe and throw up in the grass’ day, or an ‘I’m going to break someone’s fingers if they make any sudden motions’ day?”
When Jack pauses, trying to find words for where he falls on that spectrum, Gabriel takes his silence as an answer. Jack finds himself being steered across the den by his arms. They round the corner and step into the bedroom that they’ve taken for themselves. Jack ends up with his back to the wall and Gabriel chafing at his arms, standing close.
“Jack, talk to me, talk to me.”
He pushes back against Gabriel's hold, just a little. “I don’t think I’ll hurt anyone.”
“You don’t think?” He manages to make the question sound neutral.
“I won’t hurt anyone,” he says, more firmly. It’s not an empty assurance. He knows the grinding claustrophobia of suppressed hostility. This is the feeling of wanting to be masked and faceless, no longer a person; this is the cloying dread in his throat that something is going to go wrong, the way he’d felt during months and months of hospital visitations. Back then, he’d thought if he survives, I’ll never worry about another goddamn thing. “Might throw up,” he admits.
“Okay; eat some jello salad, and we’ll blame it on that. You want something to drink? I can mix you something strong. Or you just want a beer?”
“Shouldn’t,” he admits, ruefully. “Don’t think I’d be able to stop.”
“Mm.” Gabriel slips a hand to the back of his neck and rubs there. It’s the same way he pets Henry, Jack notes with a touch of wry amusement. “Alright. Then let me ask again: do you want everyone to leave?”
How many cookouts has Jack Morrison missed? How many birthday parties, baby showers, funerals, weddings? How many more chances will he have with family members that he knows well enough to love? He answers with an inflectionless, “No.”
“Okay. Do you want me to do grilling?”
He says, “No,” again, with more conviction.
“Alright.” Gabriel claps him on the shoulder with his other hand. “Then you’re going to put on some sunglasses, and you’re going to cook some hamburgers, and you’re going to do what you do best.”
Jack decides that he’s feeling indulgent enough to play along. “Which is?”
“Looking pretty in front of a crowd.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” he says, flatly. “Yeah, yeah.”
Gabriel is still holding the back of his neck. His face is calm and sober. “You can change your mind any time. No one can make you do this. I won’t make you do this.”
Jack says, “Uh-huh,” and shrugs him off. He makes a quarter-turn toward the door—then pivots back, grabs Gabriel by the sides of his face, and kisses him firmly and gracelessly, his nose pressed almost flat so that he can’t breathe except by gulping through his mouth as he presses their bodies together. Gabriel pulls the back of his shirt up and skates his fingers along his waistband. That’s quite nice. He hikes his hips forward.
Then Henry strolls around the corner and gently wuffs at them.
“You’re right, you’re right, you’re right,” Jack says, pulling back. “We’re being rude.”
Gabriel licks his lips and stands up straighter. Jack feels his shirt being tucked back into place. Gabriel plucks up his sunglasses from where they’re hanging at the front of his shirt, unfolds them, and settles them on his face. He straightens them carefully. Then Gabriel is scooping him forward one more time and kissing the side of his forehead. “You already know how to do this. Let me do the rest.”
They walk out of the bedroom and step out of the basement just as another car pulls up. Gabriel nods for him to return to the grill, and he goes to relieve Maggie from her post.
“Thanks, Mags. Hope it wasn’t a stampede.”
“Nope.” She clicks the tongs a couple of times at the covered platter of already-cooked burgers before pulling the apron over her head and handing it over. “No one has even started eating yet. I guess no one wants to be the first person to go for a burger? I’m going to send Gabriel your way to take one; hopefully that’ll get things rolling.”
Maggie relinquishes her place at the grill and jogs away to welcome the just-arrived guests. Jack recognizes them, too: the Tran-Korbans, the neighbors who spent ten minutes telling him about the year that Kent Clark had invited them over for Thanksgiving dinner.
He stands there, watching them talk from a distance, and then he sees Gabriel gesture in his direction. All three men start to approach him. Jack breathes deeply through his nose. He can play the role for a few hours. He knows how to do it. He can be good at it.
When they’ve almost reached him, Jack sees Maggie turn and start to come up behind them. It looks like she wants to catch up to say something.
That’s when Gabriel says, “And this is my husband, Jack.”
Jack doesn’t move, but he experiences exactly the same plunging shock of missing the bottom step on a set of stairs. He opens his mouth—and just leaves it open. A couple of paces behind Gabriel, Maggie skips to a stop, her eyes going big. He glances at her. With his sunglasses on, Gabriel cannot see the direction of his gaze; he doesn’t know that she’s close enough to hear. She stares back at him for another second, then makes a sharp one-eighty turn and marches right back to the cluster of people she’d just left.
Jack tears his eyes back to Gabriel and the neighbors.“H—uh. Hi.”
Then instinct kicks in, and he remembers what he’s supposed to be doing. He straightens his back, smiles, and says, “How do you folks like your burgers?”
Maggie’s theory was right: once a couple of people have gotten food, everyone else also lines up for hamburgers and hot dogs and corn and tamales. Side dishes are served. Beer and lemonade are passed around. After awhile, a certain pattern develops. People arrive, and Maggie greets them. Then Gabriel intercepts them as they reach the grill. Gabriel introduces Jack as his husband, and Jack smiles like this is normal, even though a little shock fizzles through his body each time. Jack gives them food. Then they go up the hill to join the growing crowd under the elm tree where Nadine and Henry circulate through the group, keeping up conversation. Sometimes people go into the house, or sit on the deck, or wander around the big yard.
People seem to be having a good time. There’s a constant buzz of conversation, regularly punctuated by laughter.
But there is one problem: more people keep arriving. They reach, and then exceed, the number of people Maggie expected to attend, and cars keep pulling up. A line of them forms down either side of the driveway, vanishing around the bend. The reserve of side dishes is replenished with each arrival, but Jack starts to panic as he realizes that they’re nearing the end of their burger supply. It’s the same with the hot dogs. There are some vegan tamales left, but all the ones with cheese are gone. The next time that Gabriel walks past, Jack grabs his arm.
He leans conspiratorially close to Gabriel’s ear and hisses, “We’re going to run out of food.”
Gabriel extracts his arm, looking oddly pleased. He pulls out his phone and studies it for a couple of seconds. “We are not going to run out of food, becaaause—” He points. Jack turns his head to follow the direction of his arm. Gabriel is pointing at the driveway.
Twenty seconds later, Jack turns back around and raises his eyebrows. Gabriel drops his arm and looks at his phone again. He frowns at it for a moment, and then says, “Okaaaay, now,” and points at the driveway again. Jack looks. Another moment passes. He’s about to ask Gabriel what the fuck he’s supposed to be looking for when a car appears around the bend and creeps its way slowly between the aisle of parked cars. Gabriel says “aha!” The car reaches the top of the driveway and manages to fit itself into an empty place, and then an omnic in a floral dress steps out.
“Oh, you’re fucking—” Gabriel chews at his lip as he checks his phone one more time before shoving it into his pocket. “Okay, they’re running behind the delivery timer, but we’re not going to run out of food. Because I ordered pizza.”
“Oh. Oh.” Jack scans the yard, trying to get a head count on how many people they’ve accumulated. Most of them have only had one burger or hot dog or tamale apiece. He has no idea how many others might still arrive. “That’s—thank you. Thanks. Thanks. How many did you get?”
“Fif…,” Jack says, faintly. “Fifteen pizzas. Okay. I think that will be… enough.”
A delivery car does, indeed, come a few minutes later. Jack helps carry the fifteen boxes of pizza to the tables under the elm tree. By that point, his job has basically come to an end. There’s no more sweet corn to grill; there are no more hamburgers or hot dogs to cook. And without the grill to use as his refuge, he has to… mingle.
Everyone there knows who he is. They’d always known. Asking Maggie for anonymity had been meaningless. Everyone at the funeral had recognized him; all the neighbors he’d met at their front doors had recognized him. He’d known it then, and he knows it each time someone looks at him, whether they’re looking him in the face during a conversation or sneaking glances from the corner of their eyes from across the yard. He’d let himself think—pretend—that he could be a random someone at an ordinary cookout between friends and family.
But it’s not terrible. No one has tried to sneak photos or videos of himself or Gabriel. Even better: no one has asked him any questions he doesn’t want to answer, which is better than he could have possibly hoped. It doesn’t escape his notice that Gabriel, Nadine, or Maggie are always nearby, and that they often just-so-happen to join conversations in which he becomes a participant. He keeps his hands at his sides as much as possible so that the shaking isn’t obvious.
It’s Henry who really saves his hide, though. He’s the key to pleasant, casual socialization with strangers. Everyone likes to hear about dogs, and everyone who learned the first part of the story about the stray dog is eager to know what has happened in the interim. Recounting Henry’s story is easy to talk about and eats up several minutes of conversation time per person. Whenever Gabriel is the one chaperoning him, he jumps in to supplement details. He makes people laugh. Hearing the story put into someone else’s words is enough to make Jack laugh, too. Sometimes, he manages to get out of talking almost altogether by eating a lot, nodding a lot, and offering one-word reactions. He eats platefuls of potato salad, and macaroni salad, and potato skins, and watermelon, and succotash, and rice crispy treats. And pizza. Many kinds of pizza. It takes him awhile to realize that he didn’t even save a burger for himself—but he does take the last tamale.
People do start to leave, eventually. The sun is low by that point, the shadows stretching long across the yard. Guests seek out Maggie to give her good-bye hugs, and she and Nadine implore them to take leftover pizza. Cars trickle back down the driveway. Instead of being relieved, Jack’s chest and throat tighten. Past experience has taught him that people are more likely to confront him shortly before they leave, when they can just say their piece and then go their way without repercussion. Jack tries to make himself look busy to discourage anyone from trying to deliver parting comments. He gathers up pizza boxes, he cleans the grill; he picks up bits of trash that didn’t manage to stay in the garbage bins. He carries empty platters and dirty serving utensils into the house.
But as more people go, Jack becomes increasingly certain that one woman is going to do… something. He catches her looking at him several times: not staring, but glancing at him too often to just be coincidence. He recognizes the way people look at him when they’re planning to say something. But her expression is otherwise inscrutable. He has no idea what she’s going to say. Dread calcifies in his throat.
Then he looks around after clearing and folding up one of the tables and sees that she is talking to Gabriel. They’re standing far enough away that he can’t hear them speaking; the woman’s back is to him, and all he can see is Gabriel’s face. He doesn’t seem to be saying much; his arms are crossed, and he nods at intervals. He looks attentive and sober. Then they shake hands. Gabriel’s expression remains serious. And then Gabriel’s eyes find his, and he nods one more time. The woman turns and follows his gaze. A second passes during which they all just look at one another, and then she begins to walk toward him. Gabriel starts to follow her. Then, in a rare display of indecisiveness, he stops; takes one more step; stops again. At last, he turns and plods aimlessly away.
Jack just stands there as the woman approaches. He’s on his own for this one. Maggie and Nadine are occupied saying good-byes to someone who’s about to get into their car.
The woman stops in front of him. She’s middle-aged. Tall, square. They stare at one another. They must have been introduced earlier, but Jack cannot remember her name. He’s usually good with names.
She says, “You’re Jack Morrison?” And then, as if it requires clarification, “With Overwatch?”
“Formerly,” he says, and barely keeps himself from grimacing. It sounds like an excuse, as though that could absolve him.
Then she starts to cry, just like that. Her face remains so composed that it takes Jack a second to realize what’s happening. Tears flood into her eyes, and when she blinks, start to fall, noiselessly.
Oh, he thinks, watching the tears run down her face, I got her child killed.
The woman wipes her eyes on her wrist. “I didn’t want to cry.”
“It’s all right,” he says, even though she did not apologize for it, because he cannot fathom anything else to say.
She looks up at him, the tears dripping off her jaw and falling to the grass. “You saved my life. It was in Athens. The war.”
“Commander Reyes led our strike team,” he says. He nods at Gabriel, as though she might have forgotten speaking to him. Gabriel is trying to wrestle a pizza crust from Henry’s mouth. It’s not the first time this has happened: he, as Overwatch’s public face, getting the credit for something that predated it.
But the woman says, “No. It was you. He was there, I remember his voice. But it was you. I remember your voice. We were hiding—my family—but then…” She pauses, bending to tug her long skirt up to the calf. Jack sees a prosthetic ankle above her shoe, and a prosthetic leg above her ankle. She lets her skirt fall over her foot again. “You killed the machine. And you wrapped my leg. And you carried me.”
Jack does not remember. Or, rather, what he remembers of Athens is the way it smelled when it was on fire. He remembers stepping on a piece of marble carved into a face. But individual rescues, individual casualties, have seeped together in the morass. Athens had been hard, with few moments worth celebrating. Did he carry anyone? Apparently so. He shifts his feet, embarrassed. “I’m… glad I could help.”
The woman continues: “When I saw you later, on the news—you got a medal—I knew it was you. I sent you a letter.”
“I’m sorry, I…” Don’t remember the letter. He’d gotten a lot of letters. He’d tried to remember the good ones, particularly when they’d come fewer and farther between. But after the explosion it didn’t feel like he deserved to remember them. He’d let them go.
He clears his throat. “Thank you for… for your support.”
The woman says, “I sent flowers to your funeral memorial.”
Jack feels his mouth waver. He realizes that he should have taken his sunglasses off before this conversation started. He doesn’t want to take them off now. But he does. He tucks them into the front of his shirt. He makes an uncertain motion. “Do you mind if I shake your hand?”
They shake hands. Then, simultaneously, both of them draw forward. They’re hugging before Jack can think about what he’s doing. He closes his eyes. His mind goes still and quiet, like a puddle smoothing out after the wind has stopped blowing. It’s a moment beyond what he can explain or understand. Everything just stops.
He’s not sure where he expected to find himself when he opens his eyes, but the yard comes as a slight surprise.
They step apart at the same time. Jack glances from side to side and notices several other people quickly looking away, not wanting to be caught staring.
“I’m glad you could come,” Jack says, as though he’d extended the invitation personally and they are fond old acquaintances. They shake hands again.
“Thank you,” she says, quite simply. She wipes her eyes again. “Good night.”
And then she’s walking away, and going to her car, and is gone. And that's that.
Everyone else leaves soon afterward. They seem to understand that the event has reached a moment of conclusion that they cannot live up to. The four of them say the last of the good-byes and nice-to-meet-yous, and then they’re alone. So they start cleaning. They carry things here and there, and run water in the sink to soak, and scrub, and rinse. There’s mercifully little leftover food to deal with.
An hour into the work, when they’re all together in the kitchen, Maggie turns to him and says, “Hey, Jack, can you help me get the tables back into the attic?”
“Sure,” he says, wiping his hands. Then Nadine literally drops what she’s doing, saying, “I’ll help, too.”
Well, they might as well all help, then. He turns to Gabriel. “Hey, Gabe, give us a hand.”
“Alright,” Gabriel says, but Maggie and Nadine both shake their heads and flap their hands to ward him off.
“It’s okay, we’ve got it!” Nadine insists, while Maggie says, “Keep doing what you’re doing!”
Given the choice between following an order from Jack Morrison and arguing with Maggie and Nadine, Gabriel immediately abandons him. He shrugs and says, “Don’t break your necks.”
Between the three of them, the job is easy. They carry the tables into the master bedroom, and Jack gets sent up into the attic itself. Maggie stands below and lifts things high enough for him to grab, and Nadine makes little trips to collect everything else that also needs to go back into storage. Then, when the last cooler has been tucked away, Maggie says, “Hey, I want to reorganize a few things while we’re at it, can you help?” and comes right up the ladder with Nadine following behind.
Jack stands by while Maggie surveys the strata of stacked boxes. She asks him to move the folding tables to lean against the opposite wall, so he does. Then he turns back around and finds Maggie and Nadine standing side-by-side, just looking at him. They look so serious that a Pavlovian guilt reflex kicks him in the stomach. A montage of childhood crimes flashes through the back of his mind: dropping the antique glass pitcher; walking with muddy boots over the dining room rug; flipping the windrower in the ditch. He is prepared to confess to all of them.
“Jack,” Maggie says, “how long have you been married?”
He says, with profound eloquence, “Huh?”
“When did you get married?” Then she bites her lip, and her face and neck flush. “It - I’m sorry, I should say congratulations. I, sorry, I didn’t mean to ask like that. I don’t mind that we weren’t invited, but - Sorry. Did you think that we wouldn’t be, um supportive? We really care about you a-and Gabriel. I mean, not just us.” She motions at Nadine. “Everyone. The whole family.”
Jack boggles at her. “I— We didn’t… We’re— No.”
“Sorry,” Maggie says again. “It’s none of my business. I won’t—”
“Did you elope?” Nadine asks.
“No, we… Um. Ha.” Jack drops his head and scuffs the back of his neck. He feels the slight tackiness of dried sweat. He should have said something. Brought it up himself. But the cookout had taken up too much of his attention for him to really consider what Gabriel had said. He’d put it behind a ‘think about this later’ wall in his mind and had not yet come back to tear down that wall. He stares at a cardboard box with “Christmas tree” scrawled in marker on the side as he says, “I’m sorry. I should have explained. We’re not married. We didn’t elope. I, ah. I proposed a few days ago. I didn’t tell you because he didn’t give me an answer.” He braces himself for pity, but when he raises his eyes, Maggie and Nadine just look like they’ve been told a riddle.
“That, that sounded like an answer to me,” Maggie says, cautiously.
Jack laughs, his shoulders going up and down. “That’s not how it works with him.”
“Um.” Maggie pulls her bottom lip between her teeth. “I don’t know Gabriel very well, but I know that he’s very private. I don’t think he’d share something that personal with everyone if he wasn’t sure about it.”
Jack shrugs again. He hasn’t had time to reverse-engineer Gabriel’s intentions. “I don’t know, I guess he wanted to… test the idea, and this was his first chance. We haven’t really met anyone else since I proposed.”
Nadine shakes her head. “He had a chance yesterday, when he was with me.” Jack feels his eyebrows lift. He gawks at Nadine as she says, “We bought the corn from someone we found by the road, and he said, ‘my husband really liked the watermelon.’ I didn’t want to be nosy by asking about it, but...”
“Oh, my God,” Jack says. A spike of laughter burbles out of him. “Jesus.”
Jack turns around, cupping his chin and rubbing the corners of his mouth. He puts his other hand on his hip and taps his heel against the floorboards. That’s the man he wants to marry, Jesus. When he turns back around, Maggie and Nadine have drifted slightly closer together, the backs of their hands touching in the narrow space left between their sides.
“I’m sorry,” Jack says. “I don’t know how to explain him. I would have told you if I’d known he was going to do that. If he wants to elope, or, or something, I swear you’ll be the first ones to find out. Just - please - don’t tell your pop, alright?”
Maggie peers at him through the dust motes and says, “I won’t.”
He sees her shoulders bunch up in a distinctive way. She’s thinking about whether to try to hug him. In her posture and expression he recognizes some likeness to a dozen other people he knows and loves. He remembers, suddenly, his mother’s face as they looked through the window at Gabriel sitting spotlighted under the flood lights of the porch steps, her saying, “All right. I won’t ask anymore,” with her mouth thoughtfully pursed. Jack registers a little throb of tenderness; a fondness that aches like a pressed bruise.
Then a shadow cuts through the light coming up through the open hatch door, and Jack hears the attic ladder creak. Gabriel’s voice calls up to them, “Are you lost up there?”
They look at one another. It doesn’t feel like they’ve reached a resolution yet. Nadine mouths ‘I’ll go,’ and jogs over to the attic door. “Hi! We’re coming!” she calls through the hatch. She turns herself around and starts to climb down the ladder. The top of her head disappears from view; then they hear her give a squeak and laughingly cry out, “No! Put me down!” Then comes the sound of feet hitting the floor, and then another laugh.
One side of Maggie’s mouth has lifted. But her gaze is alert and concerned, and her voice comes out low: “Are you okay, Jack?”
The answer doesn’t require any consideration: “You know, I am. I am.” He jerks his head. “We’d better go, or he’s going to come get us.”
They walk together toward the hatch and stand on either side of it to look down. Gabriel is standing at the bottom of the ladder, looking up. Nadine is next to him.
“After you,” Jack says.
Maggie makes a shooing motion at Gabriel, but he doesn’t move. “It’s not that far down,” she insists. “I can make it on my own. I’ve done this before.”
“It’s for your safety,” Nadine calls up to her, sweetly.
Maggie looks at him for help. Jack raises his hands. “Sorry, but nothing I can say is going to make him leave.”
So Maggie sighs, puts a foot onto the first rung, and starts to climb down. As she nears the bottom, Gabriel reaches up and plucks her right off the ladder, as easily as picking an apple from the bough. She laughs and kicks a little, reflexively, as Gabriel swings her down and sets her lightly on her feet.
As soon as she’s collected herself, she points up. “You’d better pick him up, too!”
Jack takes a step back from the hatch. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Don’t want you to fall and break your hip,” Gabriel says, evenly.
“I’ll break your hip,” he snaps.
“Pick him up!” Nadine calls. Maggie joins the chant. They flank the ladder on either side and repeat, “Pick him up! Pick him up!”
“I think I’m going to stay up here, actually,” Jack says. “Nice and quiet. Not a bad place to sleep.”
Henry chooses this moment to come waddling over to see what everyone has been doing without him. Nadine snatches him up and clutches him to her chest. “Look! He misses you! Come back to us!”
Henry pays him no mind whatsoever. He wriggles indignantly in Nadine’s arms, his back feet cycling in the air.
But there’s no other option. Jack switches off the attic lights, steps onto the ladder, and begins his descent. Midway down, he lets go and jumps the rest of the way.
Gabriel grabs him right out of the air. Jack grunts as his fall is suddenly arrested. His heel bangs into Gabriel’s leg, and then he’s placed neatly onto his feet. Maggie and Nadine both cheer.
Jack straightens his shirt and brushes the dust off his hands. When he turns around, Gabriel is already folding the ladder back into the attic and closing the hatch. Jack studies his back, wondering. Was Gabriel listening to them talking in the attic? He could have stood below for awhile without being noticed.
“Give me that,” Jack says, pointing at Henry. Nadine grants him custody, and he deposits the dog onto the floor. “I’m going to take him out one more time.”
“Oh, volunteering yourself for walkies while the rest of us clean?” Gabriel drawls, turning.
“You wanna pick up dog shit? Happy to trade.”
Gabriel does not want to trade, which is good, because Jack was lying about being happy to do it.
He weaves across the big, open yard, wanting to put some distance between himself and the house. He hops over the little creek and skirts the far edge of the clearing until it curves all the way back down to the driveway. He glances back at the cabin, then starts to walk down the long, gentle slope. After two weeks, he no longer notices the way the air smells. The dirt and the tender aroma of living green growth have become too normal to be noticeable all the time. He sucks a bit of air through his teeth and holds it in his mouth, then breathes deeply through his nose. The lungful of air is sweet and summery. He tries to savor it. The songbirds are all asleep now, but there are crickets and frogs making tiny cacophonies, and trees brushing together to whisper amongst themselves. Jack listens to his feet crunching on the gravel, and the patter-patter as the dog follows him in a loose orbit, traipsing through the fifty-foot radius around him as they pass down the driveway.
A quarter of the way along, he sees a fist-sized hunk of rock and starts to kick it ahead of himself. Henry rushes forward in pursuit of this new toy and stoops to bite it, then looks back at Jack with betrayal in his eyes.
They get to the county road, and Jack stops walking and nudges the piece of rock into the ditch. He looks up the road to his right and sees a pair of tail lights disappearing around a corner. A dragon’s eyes, blinking shut the moment something looks back at it. “Do you know we’re leaving?” he asks, watching Henry nose around the posts for the six-bar gate. “You gonna miss it?”
Henry lifts his leg and pees on the gate.
When he gets back the cabin, he finds Maggie, Nadine, and Gabriel sitting in the living room, all of them laughing loudly. Jack smiles, even though he has no idea what’s going on. He lingers by the door, but Henry marches right up to Nadine and tries to clamber into her chair. Gabriel says, “Hey, you, don’t,” but Nadine scoops him up, and both of them look very pleased with themselves as Henry splays across her lap. Then Gabriel turns his head. “You were out for awhile.”
“Wanted to give Henry a chance to say good-bye to everything,” he says, and then regrets the honesty.
Nadine gives an affected little gasp and presses her hands over Henry’s ears. “Don’t say that! It’s not good-bye! He can come back to visit any time he wants.” This, of course, may not be true. They don’t know how long they'll have ownership of the house. He doesn’t bring that up.
“Do you need any more help with the—” He makes a vague gesture to indicate the whole room. “Anything?”
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Maggie answers, smiling a little. She’s stretched out her arm to scratch the back of Henry's neck. “Thank you.”
“Mm.” He realizes that he’s tired. Heavy. “I hate to cut things short, but we should probably turn in for the night. Gonna try to get an early start. Gabe?”
“Suppose.” Gabriel stands up and nods his head at Henry. “Hey, if you want to take him off our hands, he’s all yours.”
Maggie and Nadine feign exaggerated shock and immediately begin to reassure the dog that Gabriel doesn’t mean it, he’s just joking, he loves Henry very much. Gabriel crosses his arms and looks on with stoicism, trying to show how utterly and completely serious he is.
“He can sleep in your bedroom tonight, if you want him there,” Jack offers. “You’ll, ah, want to put some pee pads down, though. But we don’t want to wake you in the morning before you're ready.”
“Come on, what? We’re not going to let you leave without saying good-bye!” Maggie insists. “We can get up early.”
“Let us make you breakfast,” Nadine says.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“We want to!”
Jack glances at Gabriel, who supplies a shrug. “Only if you’re really sure…” They nod emphatically. “Well, thank you. That'd be nice. What time do you want to have breakfast? Five-thirty?”
Nadine and Maggie look at one another, and Maggie moves her eyebrows significantly. “Um, six… thhhirty?”
Good enough. They agree to breakfast at six-thirty, and say their good-nights, and leave Henry happily wallowing on Nadine’s lap with his plump belly rolled toward the ceiling.
He and Gabriel spend time packing away everything they won’t need in the morning. Somehow, through sheer inexplicable accident, one of Henry's squeaky toys ends up in Gabriel's bag, which coincidentally happens to startle Gabriel as he squashes down a stack of clothes. Jack pleads ignorance, but he still gets picked up and tossed onto the bed on top of a pile of his own clothes. He hooks one of Gabriel's legs as he flounders on the bed, and they don't end up getting the packing entirely done.
Lying side by side, in the dark, Gabriel finds his hand and covers it loosely. “Hey. You all right?”
“Huh? Ah, mm. Yeah. I’m good. Thank you for… Thanks.” He turns his face toward Gabriel, though there's nothing he can see. “How are you? I, I should have asked.”
“Me? I’m fine. Tired, I guess. Don’t worry.”
If either of them has an excuse for social anxiety—to mistrust people, to avoid them, to dread what they’re going to say to his face—it’s Gabriel. But Gabriel isn’t furtive or fearful, and Jack has gotten used to relying on that. He doesn’t ask as much as he should. Doesn’t always look after him the way he ought to. Gets caught inside himself, sometimes.
He turns his hand over so that their palms are together and says, quietly, “Yeah. Get some rest.”
But Gabriel doesn't fall asleep right away. Neither does Jack. He lies there with his head crackling. Gabriel has rolled onto his side, and Jack wants to touch his back and shake him. He recalls the ease with which Gabriel said This is my husband. He doesn't understand. He wants to ask why. But if he does, he knows that Gabriel will give him an explanation instead of an answer. He'll make it sound reasonable. Jack doesn’t have the heart to hear a practical explanation. So he touches Gabriel’s back with the side of his hand and asks, gently, “Do you like it here?”
“Hmm? Mm. Yeah. It’s nice.”
“We could buy it, you know.”
There’s a pause. Then he feels Gabriel turn, shifting onto his back. “We already have a house.”
“We could have another one.” He doesn’t know where this idea is coming from. “A place to get away.”
Gabriel doesn’t answer. Jack wets his lips and continues, hastily, “You’re right, maybe that’s too drastic, buying something. We could rent a place. Find cabin somewhere. Maybe Alaska. Get a place during the summer, you know, when the sun barely sets. Wouldn’t even have to worry about the time. Just do whatever we want, whenever we want.”
“Oh, yeah? And what would we do with all that time, exactly?”
“You know. Eat, sleep, hike, fuck. The important things.”
Gabriel snorts. “You’d get bored.”
“I wouldn’t get bored.”
“You got bored staying here; how would Alaska be any better? You can’t remodel a rental.”
“I wasn’t bored.”
“You adopted a dog.”
“A dog that came to us. I didn’t go out and find one.”
“You proposed to me.”
“Not out of boredom.” Jack pushes himself up on one elbow, shocked. “Is that— Do you think I did it just to have something to do?”
“Well, why’d you do it now? You never told me that.”
“Gabriel!” Jack lets his arm give out and collapses heavily onto the bed. He rolls onto his back and presses the heels of his hands against each eye. “Goddammit, I proposed because I’m a stupid bastard who’s wanted to marry you for - for years, and it seemed— it felt right, I don't know.” He gives a little coyote laugh, wild. “How are you still like this? You’re so fucking smart, and it takes you fucking decades to figure out the simplest shit.”
“Fig—figure out?” Jack has hit a nerve; Gabriel rarely trips over words. “There’s nothing to figure out. This isn’t about me. I’ve been— I’m happy with the way things are. You’re the one who’s never satisfied, Jack.”
“That, that’s not true.”
“You always want something else.”
“I’m satisfied with you, you asshole!”
Jack flings a hand out. He misjudges the distance in the dark, and his palm slaps down on Gabriel’s chest with too much force, surprising them both. Under his hand he feels Gabriel’s living heart, the regular lift of his chest as he breathes. Not so long ago, his entire life revolved around whether those things would still work the next day. “I am satisfied. I am satisfied. That’s what I’m trying to prove. That, that I have what I want.”
Gabriel’s hand comes down on top of his own. Jack expects to be pulled away, but Gabriel’s fingers simply slot between his, holding him right where he is. “What the fuck are you talking about? You don’t have to prove anything. I know, Jack, I know.”
“Do you?” he snaps.
There are a few seconds of aching silence. Then Gabriel says, “Yes,” in a low, resounding voice. His fingers curl, squeezing Jack’s between them. “If I haven’t made you believe that, I’m sorry. I'm sorry, Jack.”
Jack's teeth clack together. “It, it, it’s fine,” he says, all the frustration evaporating from him in an instant. “It’s… no. You have. That wasn’t fair of me. You've been… good. You've been really good.”
They’re quiet again. He feels that Gabriel’s heart is beating a little faster. Jack moves his thumb minutely, drawing it back and forth over Gabriel’s breastbone. His chest aches with the awareness that he's caused pain.
“Were you going to get a ring?”
Jack’s hand stills. He stares unseeingly. “Only if you wanted one.”
“Hm.” Jack feels one of his fingers being pried up, and then one of Gabriel’s own fingers wraps around it, close to the first knuckle. “I don’t know your size.”
“Same as yours.”
“I don’t know my size.”
Jack laughs breathily, pushing his hand against Gabriel’s cool palm. “Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.”
“Jack. Anything that matters to you matters to me.”
Jack closes his eyes, though it makes no difference at all. Helplessly, he says, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Gabriel's knee knocks into his, and he drags the joined tangle of their hands to Jack's shoulder. The bulk of Gabriel's body jostles against him. Gabriel's breath warms the side of his face.
“Where are you?” Gabriel asks. “I can’t see shit. I’m trying to kiss you.”
Jack reaches for him, and they find each other.
They have shakshuka for breakfast. Jack makes coffee. They speak quietly to one another around the kitchen table, as though there’s someone they’re trying not to wake. After they've eaten, Henry goes on one last wild run through the yard, cutting trails through the dewy grass. The morning is thick with mist.
Jack returns the house and gate keys. They pack the car, pack Henry into the back seat. Then there's nothing else to be done.
"Thank you for being here, Jack," Maggie says, with her chin on his shoulder and her arms tucked under his. "And for everything else."
He doesn't pick her up this time.
"Happy to do it," he says. "Tell us if there's anything you need."
She nods as she draws back from him, and they regard one another.
"Let us know if there's any news," he says, and Maggie says, "Yeah; you, too."
He nods in return. Then they smile at one another with private understanding.
He gets into the car. Gabriel gets in after him. They pull around in a circle, and start to go home.
* * *
Jack stares at his reflection. He hasn’t worn a bow tie in a long time now. It looks better than he remembers. He tilts his chin up. Is it even? Seems a little higher on the left. He tugs on it. No—now it’s uneven. He tugs it back again. He lowers his chin and smiles at himself. The lines next to his mouth are longer and deeper on one side than the other. He tries to relax that side and lift the other a bit more, but it makes his expression look stilted and insincere. He rubs at his face as though trying to press the wrinkles from a shirt. Then he nudges a bit of his hair with his fingertips. More to the right. A little more to the right…
Too far. A little to the left…
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Jack stops. Gabriel isn’t in the room with him. He drifted away fifteen minutes ago to get his shoes and hasn’t returned.
He leans out of the bathroom. Gabriel isn’t in the bedroom. There’s no noise.
“Gabe?” he calls. “We have to leave in ten minutes to make it the courthouse in time. You ready?”
He listens carefully. No response.
Jack clears his throat. “GABRIEL.”
Gabriel shouted back at him, but it sounds faint and distant. Did he go outside? They just brought Henry back in an hour ago.
Jack leaves the bathroom and makes his way downstairs. He calls, “Gabriel?” one more time, but there’s no answer other than Henry raising his head from inside his crate and yawning toward him. The rest of the house feels empty. Jack goes to the back doors and opens them. And there’s Gabriel, walking toward the house in his suit with dirt on his knees, holding something ragged and dirty balled between his hands. Jack looks at him despairingly.
“What…” He doesn't finish the question.
The thing in Gabriel’s hands moves, and Jack realizes that it’s alive. It has a head, and limbs. Gabriel steps onto the porch, stops, and lifts the thing a little higher so Jack can get a better look. Jack identifies a pair of very round eyes, and like a trick image suddenly coming into focus, he realizes what he’s staring at.
Gabriel says, “Look at this shit-ugly cat I found.”
Special thanks goes to coelasquid for understanding compound words better than I do, and to flufandnonsense for valuable help and support. And a big, big thank you to darkforetold for catching all the things that I messed up in my eagerness to be done. I would also like to extend my thanks to each and every person who was patient and kind with me while I threw tantrums and failed to meet deadlines for months on end. You're all very good, and I appreciate you - yes, you - more than I can say.
For an additional morsel of background information about this fic, you can find an itty bitty little thread here.
Black Watch Double Chocolate Milk Stout is a real beer made by the Highland Brewing company in Asheville, NC. It was a limited-release beer, but who's to say that it didn't make a comeback by popular demand?