There was a muffled noise that brought Josh out of his trance and forced his head up to look at the man sitting across from him. He had clearly been trying to say something. He felt bad, but felt even worse zoning out of the little bit of conversation he had been clearly struggling to have.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.” Josh said, trying to will away his embarrassment. Crimson dotted the other man’s white shirt, he tilted his head up exposing his neck as he clenched the soggy brown paper towel to his nose and mouth. Venues like this never had anything adequate in the bathrooms. Maybe if he snuck into the girls room and got a tampon or something...
“In what?” The other man asked, still muffled by a mouthful of blood and his swollen tongue. His nose was dripping thick red blood at a steady pace. His head still up, his fingers were firmly adhering the towel to his face he eyed Josh who obviously wasn’t following. If it was the mumbled question or the faint pounding from overly loud bass he wasn’t sure but he shrugged his head and offered a noncommittal half grin from his bar stool at the back of the club.
“I don’t think I’m getting the whole thing here, bud. What’s up?” The other man pulled his towel away, drops of water and gore dotting his thin upper lip. Josh chewed his lips nervously making a full effort to listen to the question that was being posed to him.
“In what?” The man asked as clearly and loudly as he could, leaning forward off his seat and using his unoccupied hand to reach out and tap on Josh’s chest. That’s when it hit him. He looked down, the UFO large enough that it seemed to make the point, the white writing at the bottom. I want to believe.
“In what?” His companion asked again looking at the towel, darkened with his blood. The light brown turned to a soggy mushy black from the saturation. At least his mouth stopped bleeding - Josh thought thankfully. When he’d seen so much blood he’d almost passed out thinking he’d killed the man. Couldn’t imagine going to jail just for being in a pit. He recalled the blind swing he had taken as the bass had dropped back into the song and as he had told the man draped across his shoulders that he shouldn't be in a mosh pit if he didn't understand what might happen.
“Uh, well you know. Aliens I guess.” Josh hadn’t really ever been asked a question like that, wasn’t even sure what the expected answer would be. Normally he would follow the question with another question but he had felt so bad that he just tried to get through it. If the man had asked for a hundred dollars Josh might go panhandling outside to collect for this poor stranger. The man across from him nodded once like he approved. It was stiff and totally unnatural. He waded up the towel and tossed it into the bin across the narrow hallway, making the basket.
“Ah, man, ten points!” Josh joked, hoping to come off as light. The other guy just sort of looked at him like he had grown three new heads then continued his prior line of questioning like nothing had happened. His nose periodically dripped in the dim glow of the bar lights.
“So do you believe in aliens or do you want to believe in aliens?” His fingers swiped away the liquid on his lips, the back of his hand brushing against his chin and coming away with some fresh blood. He sighed, Josh didn’t know what else to say. He licked the streak off his hand then screwed up his lips. He rubbed the remaining gore on his pants.
“I, uh, believe in aliens.” Josh wanted so badly to just take this guy to the hospital, instead he had insisted this would be alright.
“So then you don’t want to believe.” The stranger's jaw looked swollen, puffy on the right side. Josh wasn’t sure how one wild swing could do that much damage to a person’s face. His paranoia rang inside his mind, you fucked him up for life. A cold sweat dotted his brow and dripped down his back despite, or perhaps in part of the strangers lack of concern of bodily harm. “You already do.”
“Well it’s sorta like I believe but I want to know - like for sure.” Josh tried a smile again. "I want to see some evidence."
“Then it should say ‘I want to know.’” His face screwed up for second, his nose pulling up, his eyebrows furrowing. “Oh no.” He managed to get out before he sneezed, his eyes shut, his mouth a firm line across his face that only opened for a second. Blood flew out in a tiny spray, dotting Josh, his shirt, his face. He shut his eyes. This is what he deserved, he was sure of it. He earned this random man's blood and diseases and contagions. It was all his fault in the first place.
“Oh - I’m. I’m sorry.” Now it was his turn to look humiliated, red faced he reached out his hands, still bloodied before he pulled them away. “I can get you a towel.” He started, but the sneeze had started his own flow back up. The bass pounded away in the next room. An idea raced through Josh's mind. Hopefully a much better one than this night had been so far.
“I’ve got a better idea.” Josh said, rubbing the back of his hands against his face hoping to remove the splatter.
“I can’t believe you’ve never been to a Denny’s before.” Josh held the door open, the glass streaky with fingerprints. A set of five fingers silently reaches out and taps his shirt, the words again. Josh laughs. In the half hour they've known each other they already had private jokes.
They sit in a booth off to the side and at one am when it’s normally packed nobody is around except a waitress in a messy coffee stained uniform checking her phone. She's got a headband on with two neon orange pumpkins on springs bobbing back and forth with every motion. The cooks laugh loudly in the back and Josh watches his new friend flip through the options. He assumed there would be more people in costume here but then finds they're probably out having fun at a party or bar instead of a food chain.
They must be a sight, the two of them. The man across from him a deathly pale with what's clearly real blood all over his shirt, neck, and palms. Now and again a forming clot drops from his nose to rest in his lap. There's Josh, skeleton painted face and neon green hair, red dots on his own face from the encounter. Nobody says anything about it so he doesn't either.
“There’s a lot.” The stranger says his fingers leaving a smear on the plastic menu. A gross mix of oil and blood swiped across a picture of French Toast.
“Yeah, dude. It’s a diner.”
“What do I do?” The man looks over the menu almost forlornly his face still puffy. It's unnatural how much it's swelling, still swelling actually - and Josh is half afraid it'll pop like an overly inflated balloon. He thinks of cherry tomatoes.
“You order, friend.” Josh laughs without actually laughing. He doesn't want to come across mean, but doesn't know how else to explain that Denny's is just like Olive Garden or Burger King or Arbys. You tell the person in uniform you want food. They give you food.
“But I don't -”
“It's my apology to you for friggen your face up.” Josh cuts him off, his guilt weighting heavy on him suddenly and heavily. “Pick anything. Money is no object when it comes to repairing our friendship in the fragile zygote stage it's in.” He laughs, with sound this time, but the man across the table only smiles. Something not clicking or catching. It's okay though, it's a no judgement type of smile. It's the blank smile of a child or a puppy. It's a nice smile on his face if Josh didn't feel so bad looking at it.
Josh orders two cups of coffee when the waitress swings by and she delivers quickly like she was waiting. Her pumpkins wave in the wind, and Josh notices they sparkle with what must be a million pieces of glitter. Her eyes glitter too with matching orange makeup. He smiles at her and she retreats back to the kitchen. He can hear her laugh through the window his food will sit in for too long.
“What's your name? I hate thinking of you as just the guy I punched in the face.” Josh asks, his hands wrapped around the cracked white mug letting the heat from the drink ease into his body.
“Tyler.” The man says, lifting his own mug to his lips. The way he says it seems like he's trying it out on his own lips for the first time. It might just be the possible broken jaw bone. He takes a tentative sip through swollen lips and pulls a face, eyes shutting and teeth biting down on the tender swollen skin.
“No good huh? Denny's coffee isn't the best.”
“I've uh - “ Tyler begins again, setting his cup on the table and watching the murky black surface steam. “Never had coffee before.” That somehow is one of the most unbelievable statements of the night and Josh finds himself choking on his own beverage. He coughs.
“For real? You've never even tried coffee before?”
Tyler smiles sheepishly and shakes his head in a solid no gesture.
“Okay well I guess we're going to Starbucks later so I can apologize for my apology because Denny's is not the place to drink the world's best coffee.”
“I've heard good things about it though.”
“Yeah from truck drivers and drunks. IHOP wouldn't let them in so they come here.” They both laugh this time, and Tyler tries another sip- his face again screwing up into a visage of torture.
"I want to believe this is good." Tyler says, Josh nods then leans over the table to take control.
“Here try this.” Josh attempts to helpfully add creamer and sugar, dumping much more than necessary, willing the coffee to become drinkable. This time when Tyler tries it he manages to swallow without much of a grimace.
When the woman returns they order. A plate of nachos for Josh and of all things a meatloaf sandwich for Tyler with fried mushrooms on the side. It's a bizarre order for a bizarre person but somehow Josh wouldn't expect anything different.
“So,” Tyler begins shoveling the cooked mushrooms into his mouth with a fork some time later, “you like aliens?”
“I mean I guess yeah. They're something I'm interested in.” Josh can't even eat, he just sips his second cup of coffee black and watches his new friend devour his side order. Mushrooms aren't something normal people eat by the forkful. He still plows them right into his open mouth as if it's normal. Even the waitress is staring at this point. He’s hypnotized by the way he shovels the steaming hot mushrooms into his mouth.
“What do you think they look like?” His words muddled around mashed food but a lot clearer than they were at the concert.
“Uh, I mean they're probably not little green men but I picture the kind of horror movie X-files grey men. With big heads and eyes and long fingers. And ribs.” Josh fingers a soggy chip on his plate then licks the cheese sauce from his finger. He doesn’t make any motions to eat the food. “Did you ever see Signs?” He asks, then without waiting for a reply he asks another. “Why?”
“Just wondering. Why can't they look like people?” Tyler asks, his eyes normal sized. His fingers are regular fingers, if a little on the short side. Josh is sure he has ribs, but not the kind in his mind. The kind covered in grey flesh under a seven foot tall body. Josh isn't sure why he's watching Tyler and thinking of aliens. Shakes it from his mind.
“I mean I guess they could. I've never met an alien. That would be confusing I guess. I mean aardvarks look like aardvarks and not potato chips. If they looked like potato chips people would eat them.” It's the kind of thing somebody deprived of sleep might say but Josh hasn't slept in a long time and he doesn't mind sharing the weird places his mind goes. Somehow he thinks Tyler won’t think it’s weird.
“What's an aardvark? Also what if I was an alien.” Ty doesn't miss a beat and his own questions mash together.
“Like an alien from Mexico?" Josh laughs as he licks sour cream off his probing fingers, "And it's a type of animal with a hard shell like a big peanut but alive.”
“Not from Mexico and how can an animal be like a food?”
The woman at the counter is for sure listening in now and there's no way she thinks these two are either sober or not escaped mental patients. Instead she nods towards them, coming over to refill the cups. She only spills a few drops on the place mat as she tops off Josh's third cup.
“Honey, you’re thinking armadillo. Those have shells, not aardvarks.” She smiles with all her teeth around her lipsticked lips. Her nametag reads Ash. Josh would think she’s cute with her too short hair and awkward way of butting into his conversations but instead he’s wrapped up in the guy in front of him. He thinks he'll give her a good tip for all the nonsense she has to listen to.
“Wow, this isn’t at all what I thought of when I read meatloaf.” Tyler says examining the sandwich ignoring the talks of animals altogether. It's just a piece of meatloaf sliced to fit on the bread. It's exactly what Josh thinks of.
“What did you think of?”
“A loaf. More like.” He chews the sandwich thoughtfully before gulping the whole thing down in a matter of seconds. It’s like he’s never eaten anything before in his life. Josh wonders if he's high.
“You know, can I get a to go box?” Josh asks his waitress. She smiles again and he would assume she’s flirting. Normally he would flirt back, but he can’t seem to be himself tonight, it's Halloween after all and people are different. “Let’s get out of here.” He says instead. Tyler smiles.
Josh takes him home if only because he wants to use a french press and treat this guy to something really good instead of the junk they serve in 24 hour diners and gas stations. He doesn’t use creamer so he’s stuck with sugar and plain milk and assumes it would work just fine for most people. He never for one second think it's weird that he brought a guy home he's only known for hours at best.
Tyler sits almost knees to chest on Josh’s Sal-Val couch and watches Josh in the kitchen. His shirt is dotted with crusty red spots. It's not the fresh wet red dots anymore. He picks at one spot with his thumbnail then ignores it. He doesn’t talk about it. Josh doesn’t either. His face is bruised on one side but the swelling is going down at least. They don't talk about that either.
“So you big into the punk scene? Haven’t seen you around before.” Josh hollers at him over the counter tops. He wishes he had creamer. He wishes he was a better host. He wishes he didn't live in an apartment the size of a shoe box.
“Hm?” Tyler makes a noise inside his throat as Josh brings him a warm mug. It's not the sound of someone who isn't listening, but rather someone who doesn't get the question. The shape of Ohio is painted on the outside - as if he can ever forget the shape of Ohio. The road signs, the shirts, everything inside his state is his state. Tyler examines it for longer than necessary but doesn't ask.
“The show tonight, are you from around here?” Josh rewords his inquisition.
“Oh no. Sorry. Not from here.” Tyler replies, taking the cup from the outstretched, his fingers touch Josh's and they are so cold. “Just visiting.” He doesn't offer anymore.
“For how long?”
“Oh.” Josh tries not to sound disappointed. He’s not sure why he should be. He’s just met this person. Confusion runs through him. “Did you come in for the show?” He asks.
“Um. No. Just to visit.” Tyler tries a sip of his coffee, leaving a thin brown smudge on his upper lip. “Oh this is very good.” He says, his words filled with the warmth of the beverage. Josh can’t help but smile, for some reason it’s worth noting that this stranger likes his coffee. It's like being the employee of the month for a nonexistent company.
“Thanks. I’m sorry if I ruined your trip.”
“Not at all.” Tyler smiles and sips again. The smudge grows bigger. “This is fun.” He nods his head. Every gesture is so earnest it's heart wrenching. “Do you have any aardvarks around here?” He asks out of the blue. Josh laughs.
“Uh, maybe at the zoo.”
“Maybe next time you come in we can go see them.” And something inside Josh’s body flutters like butterfly wings with blind and stupid hope. He sees the two of them at the zoo, walking around and pointing out animals to each other. It's not relationship level imagination, it's a weird sort of friendship imagination. Josh wonders if it's weird that he's that lonely to just fantasize about having friends. He sees them holding hands though and maybe just maybe it's a little bit on imagined relationship level.
“Okay. We can. Next time.”
“Can I show you something else? Before you leave?” Josh asks, suddenly sure of one more thing to do.
It’s four am and it’s cold because it’s technically November now, Halloween officially over and the new day on it’s way. But the stars look amazing from the Schiller Park at night. Dangerous? Sometimes. Worth it? Almost always. When Josh is lonely and can't sleep he comes here sometimes. And he's always lonely and can never sleep.
Josh gave Tyler a jacket, since the idiot had been walking around without one. So now Tyler was laying on the ground right where Josh told him and they watched the stars.
“Those look so different from here.” Tyler says, his voice cracking from the cold and chill creeping in. “It’s nice.”
Josh smiles even when he knows Tyler can’t see it. It's a smile for himself. It's not something he feels forced to share. He doesn's ask for clarification on Tyler's statement.
“So why did you come here?” Josh asks.
“You brought me.”
“No. I mean here, Columbus. The show tonight. Ohio.” He never seems to ask where he’s from or what he wants. Just why. It’s the question inside his mind. If he came to visit his family he wouldn’t spent his last night running around town with some guy who punched him in the face in a pit. Josh wouldn't do that. If a guy made his nose crunch and his jaw swell he'd stay far away from that guy. He wouldn't go to his house to drink coffee in the earliest hours of the morning let alone lay on the ground with him in a park and watch the stars.
“You’ve said.” Josh wants to press for more. He doesn't really push. He doesn't want to get shut down but he also doesn't really care. It's not in a way that you don't care about a friend, but rather in the way that whatever Tyler says won't change his mind about him.
“I’ve told you, I’m not from here,” a soft laugh. “I just wanted to see what things are like, around here. Down here.” He says then stops. “I like it but I can’t stay. You’ve been very kind.”
“I have not. I took you to Denny's and made you eat sub par meat loaf and awful coffee.” Josh laughs, the mood strange and tension filled.
“There’s so much more I want to do.” Tyler says, and Josh is suddenly afraid. Afraid that when Tyler says he’s leaving tonight he won’t be back. Afraid he won’t see him ever again. Afraid his departure will be permanent and they’ll never see aardvarks or armadillos or potato chips. He’s known this guy for a matter of hours but feels a chill bone deep that he needs to do something.
So he kisses him, full on the lips and it’s weird because Josh has never done this before. He kissed his friend once, just a peck on the lips in the backseat of a van as a dare and he’s kissed a few girls before but this is different. Tyler is just sitting there like a stone. He’s not kissing back, not moving his mouth, not even breathing. His mouth feels funny still puffy on one side but Josh breaths into the kiss and lets it happen until his lungs need oxygen.
So Josh pulls away in a panic and the wind doesn’t bother him at all and he pretends like it’s the late hour that makes his eyes red and runny.
“Oh fuck I’m sorry. I have no idea what you were talking about and I just assumed and I’m such a fucking idiot you can totally leave right now and I would understand and I’m not even really into - “
“That was nice.” Tyler’s words are soft, Josh can hear him chew his lips. “I’ve never done that before.”
“Oh god.” Is all Josh can somehow mumble. “ I just assumed we were, like we had something going.” Josh can't find the right words. He doesn't know how to explain why he ruined the nice night they were having. Can't seem to even think about why he would do this. The mental image of zoos is gone and nothing can bring it back.
“We do have something.” Tyler starts back up, “I think. If you would like to. That was nice. I liked it.”
“Oh.” Josh doesn’t really know what to say. Isn’t sure how to act or what to do from here on out.
“I need to go soon.” Tyler supplies the words as Josh lays back down onto the ground. The stars are so far away and they look…off. Something about them is different. He squints and watches but can’t put his finger on it. Instead he puts his hand onto Tyler’s and feels he’s cold. The stars are moving. Like shooting stars but not.
“Okay.” Josh says. He doesn't want to let Tyler go. Doesn't want him to leave.
“Okay.” Tyler says. “Thank you.”
Josh wants to ask for what, wants to know where he’s going, why he can’t stay, when he’ll be back. Instead he stays silent and squeezes the fingers. Tyler opens his mouth next.
“Do you want to believe? Or do you believe?”
“I want to.”
“Then do it.”
He makes it sound so simple. He makes it seem like aliens are possible. He makes it sound as easy as putting on a shirt or kissing a stranger. Maybe it is that easy.
It’s too early to be daylight - far too early. Josh checks his watch and it’s four thirty two in the morning. It doesn’t make any sense as to why it’s getting so light, it’s like the sun is coming up far off in the sky and chasing away everything else.
“Okay.” Josh says, he squeezes the fingers and doesn’t understand why. Doesn’t let himself understand why. He wants this second to last a little longer. He wants it to be four thirty two in the morning for a little bit longer. He wants to tell Tyler he’s weird but he doesn’t. He wants to tell Tyler he really likes him, but he doesn’t.
“It’s okay I am weird. I like you too.” Tyler says and there’s a grin on his lips that Josh can’t really see but feel. He feels it inside his fingertips. He feels it inside his chest. He feels the ground, vibrating against his back. It's like an Earthquake in his muscles and bones. It shakes him. He grips the hand in his as tightly as he can.
“When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you come back?”
It’s too bright to see anything, not the sky or the stars. Not the world around him, it’s all just so blindingly bright he can’t even see his own nose. Everything is white. There’s a hum that turns to a buzz that turns so deep it reverberates inside of him. The sun eats the universe.
He doesn’t get an answer. He shuts his eyes because he has to. Because he wants to keep them open and stare into the light but if he does he’ll never look back. He’ll never be the same again and he can feel his eyes burning inside his skull. His nails dig into skin that isn't his.
When he opens them it’s nighttime, it’s dark and the stars twinkle above him, far away. Nothing moving and swooping through the sky the way it had moments before. He’s alone. His nails left half moon crescents in his own palm.
His watch says four thirty two. It’s November first. The world is silent as he ears adapt. He stands, noises begin to return. A far away car alarm, a dog growling, wind hushes. His eyes look up and the night is still.