By the time Carlos found Akane lingering in the hallway outside the reception room, it was so late that drunk wedding guests had fallen asleep where they sat. Her back was to him and she held her dress up so the hem didn’t drag. Her bare feet were exposed and without her heels she’d lost three inches. She looked around dazedly, muttering to herself in Japanese, and startled when he tapped her on the shoulder. “Oh, Carlos!” She looked dewy and relaxed and like she couldn’t believe she made it this far. She sniffled, cried, and laughed all day and stumbled into her brother when they danced. They ended up in a bear hug swaying gently as the song petered out. Junpei’s hand was probably covered in makeup with how often he’d wiped her face.
Carlos smoothed down some hair that had fallen out of her elaborate style. When he touched her he thought that he should’ve asked her for one more dance today and one more kiss last night. “Congratulations.” His hand lingered on her cheek, and she held hers over it. Was it bad etiquette to tell a married woman she was beautiful if you weren’t her husband? The wedding wasn’t officially over—she was still a bride. Everyone told the bride she looked amazing. “I’m so happy for you two.”
Her face softened and she held onto his hand when he tried to pull away. “Then why do you look so sad?”
“Do I?” He stroked her cheekbone with his thumb, accidentally streaking some blush that clung to him like the bittersweet feelings he carried leading up to this day. “It’s champagne. You know how I get when I’m drunk.”
“You’re an awful liar,” she said. “‘Say what you need to while there’s time to say it.’” She remembered that far back, and from another history? Of course. She was Akane: she knew the answer to every trivia game show question, how to breakdown fringe science theories, and the Latin names for at least 20 breeds of rabbit.
“I guess I’m happy and I’m sad. I, uh…” Even head over heels for them, Carlos felt hopeless and clumsy with romance. “I picked a crap time to say goodbye, but I’m gonna miss you two. We had some good times, and you guys made even the darkest moments bearable.” And he’d never forget the morning after a bar crawl when Junpei clarified their kiss last night wasn’t impulsive by pulling him in by the collar. Sitting by the phone all night waiting for news that Junpei was out of surgery. Coming home from a 24-hour shift to find them sleeping in his bed. How proud Akane was when he wolfed down her first edible batch of spaghetti napolitan. “And you gave me something I never thought I’d have.” He was content with being alone until they all met, and now he counted the seconds until she walked away. “So thank you. Go be happy together.”
He expected her to smile knowingly and echo similar sentiments, until she brushed his hand aside. She stood on her tiptoes, braced her hands on his chest and tilted her head up. Her typical cue to kiss her. When he hesitated, she bit her bottom lip. “Hey.”
Their same dance—he put his hands on her waist, her wedding dress so fragile and smooth in his grasp, and kissed her until her lipstick rubbed off on him. “We’re happy with you,” she said when they pulled away, him holding onto her even as she eased back onto her feet. “I didn’t think I had to say that.” She smiled and rubbed her hand over his mouth so her fingers came away colorful. “Junpei is my husband. That doesn’t change that you’re mine, too.” She touched his mouth once more. “Speaking of him, I need to go.” She pushed his hands off her waist and turned away.
Carlos grabbed her arm but she slid through his grip, looking over her shoulder once before disappearing into a side room. Even though she was gone he floated in the moment suspended by hope and cautious joy, until she yelped and he ran to action. He arrived in time to find Junpei holding up an empty tumbler, gloating in Japanese to a passed out Aoi, before he too slumped forward. The glass shattered as he fell off the sofa.
Carlos and Akane spent the rest of the night in the ER, waiting to hear about her husband and brother who’d given themselves alcohol poisoning because they wouldn’t quit a drinking contest. “I can’t believe them!” she groaned, and Carlos put his arm around her and let her fall asleep on him.
Akane kept her promise: they continued showing up at his door unannounced or actually reaching out to make plans, and during those visits it was like they were never apart. He and Maria were the only Westerners invited to their second, traditional wedding ceremony in Japan (under strict orders not to tell Junpei’s family they were already married, as if Carlos spoke enough intelligible Japanese to direct them to the bathroom). They treated Maria and Aoi like their respective in-laws.
The dry spells—when they were gone for months at a time for work and semi-unreachable—ground him down. He found their toiletries and clothes around his place and sighed instead of smiled. It all came to a head when they hit three years together, including one year married for Junpei and Akane.
“It’s not that easy to up and leave here,” Carlos said for the millionth time and Junpei rolled his eyes.
“What’s hard about it? You move in for good, you don’t have to think about money again, you—”
“I’m not me anymore.” He couldn’t keep frustration out of his voice. “The Carlos you guys like is a firefighter. He’s a brother. He can take care of himself.” He slumped a bit. “You make me happy, but you’re not my whole life.”
“Does a life with us sound that bad?” Junpei narrowed his eyes, lay down on the couch, and looked at the ceiling like he knew his question was pointless. In the armchair, Akane murmured in her sleep and curled up tighter. Carlos suspected Junpei brought this up now because she wasn’t awake to tell him to respect Carlos’ feelings and drop the subject.
“Don’t guilt trip me.”
“Answer my question.”
“If you have to ask…” Carlos began, but trailed off seeing how Junpei started snapping one of Akane’s hairbands on his wrist. Carlos sat with him on the couch and pulled Junpei’s legs onto his lap. It was a little-known Junpei fact that he liked foot massages, and he twitched when Carlos started at his arch. “My sister and my job need me, too.”
“It’s just easier when you’re around, you know,” Junpei said. He didn’t elaborate but let Carlos play with his stocking feet until he relaxed and fell asleep.
In the morning, Junpei made “Forget That Conversation Happened” crepes and Akane contributed by cutting fruit into cute shapes. Presentation and making tea were the only cooking skills her brother taught her that stuck. When she was done she put her chin on Junpei’s shoulder and pointed at the skillet as he worked. “No leeks,” he said in English so Carlos would understand, hoping to win someone over to his side.
“He’s saving you from yourself, Akane,” Carlos said, leaning in the doorway. Watching them together always charmed him even when they squabbled during the Decision Game.
“It tastes good.”
“Call your brother if you want catered to,” Junpei grumbled, but put his free hand over her arms wrapped around his chest.
“You think you’d both be nicer to me since our anniversary is coming up.” Their anniversary always seemed to be “coming up” when Akane wanted something. The real date floated because the day they all met was morbid and they never sat down and declared this an official Thing. The only tradition surrounding it was they traded off who got to pick the celebration.
“Speaking of.” Carlos tapped his fingernails against the fridge, over a picture of Maria in a forest in Oregon. He was low-key jealous that Aoi still lived with his sister. Carlos missed Maria to death even though he was happy she enjoyed her life on the road. She was enamored of the landscape, the people, and the weather and swore Oregon was a different world. “I know what I wanna do.”
Akane floored the gas pedal until the needle passed 80mph and the desert and highway signs blazed by in Carlos’ peripheral vision. He thought of every high-speed collision scene he ever worked, and opened his mouth when Junpei beat him to the punch: “You’re gonna kill us!”
Akane giggled. “You never let me drive.”
“This is why!”
At least SUVs have a large crumple zone, Carlos thought—but oh fuck, rollover—"Akane for God’s sake!“ Carlos clenched his hand over hers on the wheel and she hesitated a moment before taking her foot off the pedal. Once they slowed to a highway-legal speed, he turned on cruise control. “No more Speed Racer.”
She pursed her lips. “You two used to be fun.”
In the backseat, Junpei sank back with relief and sighed. “I want a divorce.” It only took him four hours on the road to get to that old line. Carlos knew that at the next rest stop Junpei would still nag her to eat, holding a yogurt cup in one hand and fresh fruit in the other, and surrender when she grabbed two pudding cups and a bag of sour gummy octopi. When she ate those he refused to kiss her but, hey, more for Carlos. He liked that it was three years down the road and she still blushed when he bent down to steal a sweet-and-sour kiss.
Carlos daydreamed about this for years: a road trip through the middle of nowhere, taking pictures everywhere and driving each other insane. When he was thirteen his family tried it but he spent most of it sick, sunburned, and babysitting seven year-old Maria who got the worst of both. The destination was Truth or Consequences, New Mexico—a place he’d been too grumpy and ill to enjoy as a kid—and he pitched a 17 hour, 1,000 mile plus drive with promises of stops at Death Valley, Vegas, and Coconino National Forest along the way. Akane begged for at least one ghost town visit and he caved in the face of her excitement. Whenever Junpei tired of the ride or his companions, he complained that he just wanted to be in Truth or Consequences’ hot springs already.
“I need some music,” Carlos said, and the others looked to the car stereo in anticipation. A minute later they were all yelling along to “Womanizer.” Akane undid cruise control and picked up speed, Junpei lowered his window to put his head out, and what a sight they must’ve made: racing the wind with Britney Spears as their battle cry.
They nearly melted in Death Valley, and got fleeced in Vegas (where they also had to sneak out of their hotel via fire stairs before staff could kick them out due to noise complaints when they came back drunk, disorderly, and singing the associated Katy Perry song). They acted their age just enough to avoid arrest and just ridiculous enough to keep each other on their toes. Aoi threatened to block their numbers if Junpei and Akane kept calling him in the middle of the night to say they’d been abducted by aliens or saw a cryptid.
By the time they made it to Coconino, the car was full of eclectic souvenirs, empty water bottles and receipts for dinners at wherever sounded interesting. Refreshed at the thought of a nature park that wouldn’t broil them, they arrived early in the morning at Crescent Moon Ranch with their hearts set on splashing around in Oak Creek.
“Does he realize he’s gonna scare all the fish away?” Carlos said as he and Akane sat watching Junpei wade around, focusing intently on the water. He’d wandered in without care for his shoes and jeans, and was up to his knees in his own world when Akane called out to him.
“He thinks he is one. He always liked going swimming in school.”
“And you were a scaredy-cat at the pool?”
“No!” Akane adjusted her sunhat and pulled the brim down to hide her face. “I just liked having a swimming partner.”
Carlos tried to pull her hat up and she clutched it tighter. “So there are no stories of you crying in two feet of water or needing the teacher to carry you out?”
“Junpei told me.” He snorted when she buried her face in the hat. “It’s cute. I’ll be your swimming partner.”
“Shh, I’m thinking of how to get back at him.”
That morning, Akane took one of his favorite photos from the trip: him carrying Junpei on his back in the water. They were mid-conversation about who could catch a fish with their bare hands, and then how to get Akane to join them. They ended up picking her up and dangling her between them and she didn’t stop shrieking and kicking until her feet hit the creekbed. They held her sandwiched between them to show they’d never let her drown.
(Akane’s revenge was picking the eeriest ghost town along the way and disappearing. When they searched for her, she jumped out at them from behind a corner and a group of kids giggled at Carlos’ and Junpei’s screams.)
Junpei booked their hotel because it was the the first one on the tourism website that boasted in-room hot spring baths: the Blackstone Hotsprings. He’d pored over their website before they left for the trip and decided on two rooms: one with the largest bath and the one beside it so the third person jettisoned there by hotel occupancy policy could come over at bedtime.
Carlos assumed he’d be that third while the married partners roomed together, but he watched Junpei pick up his and Carlos’ bags and drag them into the As The World Turns (God, he could remember Mom rushing him off to nap so she could watch that soap) room while Akane winked at him and settled into the solo room. Carlos lay face down on the king bed and let Junpei toss their bags were he would. He drove the last stretch from Coconino and his back ached.
“These people are staring at me,” Junpei said, and when Carlos turned his head he saw on the wall a looming photo collage of former soap cast members with shellacked hair and garish makeup providing a study in Unfortunate Fashion History. “There better not be anything like that in the bath.” The thought of old soap stars watching him bathe was worse than the memory of Delta’s surveillance. Junpei turned to his serious task of arranging various alcoholic beverages in the fridge before rushing to see the spring room without unpacking anything else.
The spring bath passed his inspection: a three-walled corner tub with stone waterfall that promised hot spring water for unlimited in-room soaking. “I’ll see you in an hour,” he said, and shut the door in Carlos’ face. He heard water running, clothes hitting the floor, and a heavy contented sigh as Junpei settled into the tub.
Akane was taking a nap when he peeked in on her, so Carlos took the opportunity to snap photos of the room, the patio, and the stone and wood decor. Since Maria hit the road last year for her indefinite road trip to “experience real life,” he looked forward to the dozens of photos she sent him. She captured everything from architecture to animals, and more recently a tentative shot of a “new friend” she made in Oregon. She was a girl Maria’s age, who with her flower crowns and pastel clothes was the epitome of the style fifteen years ago. Maria beamed in every photo of them together, and though she wouldn’t say he had a feeling she’d bring her home to him someday.
Yay Carlos left the house! she replied. Are you having fun?? Send more pics of Junpei and Akane I miss them. :( </3
Definitely, he typed back, but you should’ve come.
Why it’s your anniversary!! A moment later she added, And idk when I’ll have time to drop in cuz I got a job. :D Tell you later xoxox.
Her response gave him pause. She was right but it felt odd to acknowledge that there was a part of his emotional life that didn’t include her. Odder still to realize that he’d texted her sporadically during the trip but hadn’t thought about her as often. Or that she wasn’t rushing to tell him about her big milestone. Look forward to it. Xoxo.
Junpei found him lying in bed, sipping a drink from the coffee bar in their room and watching a syndicated true crime show. He lay down next to him and moaned. “You gotta try that.” When Carlos didn’t respond, he looked at him. “Uh, hello?” He gestured to the show. “This can’t be that interesting.”
“I’m fine.” Carlos set the mug down on the floor. “Just had an epiphany is all.”
“Doesn’t look like a good one.” Junpei rolled onto his side and propped himself up on one elbow, resting his cheek on his fist. “What’s up?”
“I don’t think Maria’s coming home.” Thinking it and saying it out loud were two different but equally difficult things. “She likes Oregon, so that’s good, but I always thought this was temporary.” Even though she asked him to ship a bunch of her personal things to Oregon a month ago, and she hemmed and hawed when he asked what to do about renewing their lease.
“Sorry man.” Junpei muted the TV. “I know she means a lot to you. Akane would be a wreck if Aoi left.”
Carlos sat up and leaned back against the wall but bumped his head on the picture frame. Damn rich people and their haughty expressions. “I shouldn’t complain. I wanted her to be happy. If she is now, who am I to stop her?” The thought of moving back into a small apartment and putting her things in storage made his heart sink. She was a massive part of his life but his presence in hers shrunk more by the month.
“Good point.” Junpei sat up and folded his arms over his chest. “She’s gonna be fine. So will you.”
“I still have my job.”
“You still have us.” He leaned into it when Carlos kissed his temple. Junpei didn’t say more, but that was part of his comfort: that he didn’t need to do much to convey what anyone meant to him.
“I guess we should wake up Akane?”
“Or she’ll keep us up aaallll night talking about alien sightings in New Mexico.”
To her credit, Akane talked about aliens for only half the night. She was preoccupied with finding a restaurant with the most promising dessert menu, and walking her husband through a boutique of oddities while debating what they should get for Aoi. Junpei scoffed but lingered over the photography and clayworks like her, tilting his head once and asking Carlos if “this one looks like the Funyarinpa.” Carlos nodded along, and Junpei bought it and refused to let anyone else touch it.
“Hey Carlos,” Akane said as they stood outside the store debating where to go next. She grabbed his left hand and slid a truly ugly red-and-black ring onto his index finger. “Oh yay, it fits! It reminded me of a fire truck.” She held his hand between both of hers. “I know you can’t wear it at work, but you can for the rest of the trip.”
“Of course.” When she released him Carlos twisted the ring on his hand. Two over from the ring finger.
Junpei hadn’t had his fill of baths yet, and with his determination and a likely bribe managed to secure a last-minute evening booking for the largest outdoor private bath. The Turquoise Room could accommodate eight people with the bath to prove it, and after a quick shower Carlos sat on the ledge and kicked his feet in the hot water. He had to buy swimming trunks on the way here and he picked ones in “bunker gear yellow.” Junpei and Akane wore blue and red respectively, and Carlos thought to himself how silly that they made up the primary colors.
“Carlos. Bath. Relax,” Junpei ordered while submerged up to his neck with his eyes closed.
“I am relaxed.”
Akane scooted over to him on her soaking ledge and pulled on his arm until he sank into the water beside her. He was used to heat, but he still gasped and braced himself. After a while his muscles relaxed and he tilted his head up, admiring the sunset visible through the gap between the canopy and the walls. Everyone was quiet and still, and it let his thoughts wander. Whether he liked or not, his life wasn’t the same as when he was 28. He didn’t miss being broke and sleep-deprived and watching Maria sleep away her childhood. Twenty-eight year-old Carlos would never believe that in his thirties he’d have his sister back and time for friends outside of work and two people who loved him.
If everything was better now, why was he so anxious about letting go and allowing himself to enjoy something new?
“Can we just keep SHIFTing back to this day?” he said. “Could we go back to this exact moment in time whenever we want?”
“Agreed,” Junpei said. He hadn’t moved from his exact spot and Carlos worried he’d fall asleep.
Akane shook her head and perched her heels on the ledge so she’d curl in on herself. “You could, but eventually you have to make another choice: to stay in that loop or let go.”
“You can’t resist the flow of time forever.” She tilted her head. “Well, I suppose SHIFTers could, but eventually we would have to choose between living in the past or the present.” She put her arms around her knees and looked over the water. “I think about it a lot. Radical freedom is a big responsibility, and I’m still not used to it.”
“You take 20 minutes to pick your morning tea,” Junpei said fondly. He rose and waded over to them, sitting at Akane’s feet because there was no more room on the ledge. “But isn’t it cool to know you can technically do anything, even if it’s unappealing? You never know the good that might come of it.” When neither answered, he added, “Or maybe I’m just talking out my ass.”
“It’s terrifying,” Carlos admitted. They both looked at him with concern and surprise. Their rock was not invulnerable. “To know that right now I’m free to do whatever I want. I know how to deal when things are hard. When everything seemed impossible, I had a sense of purpose. I did only what I had to do for others.” He looked between them and held Akane’s hand, and she reached out and took Junpei’s when he offered it. “I wasn’t unhappy per se, but I’m happier now.” He looked at them both but couldn’t hold eye contact when he spoke his next thought. “And I want to go with you. What if I regret it and we can never go back to the way things are?”
“Carlos.” Junpei shook his head. “That’s the point—when you can do anything of your own free will, you’re the only one to blame if you hate how it ends. It scares the shit out of everyone.”
Carlos shrugged. “Point taken.”
“Junpei and I aren’t the same people we were when we got married.” Akane squeezed her husband’s hand and Junpei returned it. “But continuing with the idea of radical freedom, we choose each other every day despite the headaches and fears. Nothing forces us to stay together or break up except ourselves.” She ran her thumb over Carlos’ hand in circles. “And maybe you’re second-guessing because you realize all your insurmountable obstacles are in your head.”
Carlos mulled over her words before letting go and getting out of the bath. “You might be right.” He toweled off and sat down in a turquoise Route 66 motel chair and looked back up at the sky. The sunset wasn’t a pleasant distraction anymore even though it was still beautiful. He chose to stay with them for three years. He chose to go on a road trip. He chose to admit that he wanted to live with them. What now?
Junpei and Akane exchanged words in Japanese, muffled by the fountain in the room. He never learned enough to keep up with them, but he was familiar with their habits. If they were speaking it in front of him they were either talking about work, a surprise, or something intimate they could only explain to each other. Suddenly, Junpei got out and helped Akane up. He wrapped a towel around her when she shivered. “We’ve got two in-room baths between us,” he said when Carlos pointed out their 50 minutes weren’t up.
They piled into the same bedroom and Junpei and Akane covered him like cats. They went over all the photos they’d taken between them, and idly discussed how they might just come back here next year. Akane had even more sweets delivered and Carlos marveled that she could eat dessert for dinner and still crave a candy bar, a pastry, and a sundae afterward. She held it out of Carlos’ reach when he tried to grab it, and glared when Junpei took it from her and shoved a spoonful in his mouth. They found a monster movie marathon on TV and watched it late into the night.
At 2AM, Junpei flopped back on his pillow and nudged Akane away from him with his feet. “I’m exhausted. Go to sleep.”
“I’m not tired,” she complained and then crawled over Carlos to bracket him. They both fell asleep before him, leaving him to think in circles again. Of course those two turned his existential crisis into a philosophical discussion that exacerbated it.
He looked to Junpei on his left: the one who took the gun from his hand after he killed Delta and never once judged his decision. Who hated phone calls but sat through every late night confession that Carlos couldn’t stop thinking about it. Who taught him how to kiss and hoarded all the pillows when they shared a bed.
He looked to Akane on his right: the one who never gave up hope they could find a peaceful solution to the Decision Game. Who never hesitated to turn dinner into a debate and refused to back down unless someone made a good argument against her. Who couldn’t sing but thought she was an idol.
Both of them, who admired him for who he was and not just what he did. They reminded him every time they came back to him. They never said the words but always showed that they loved and needed him. Who just might wait for him until he told them to leave. Carlos pictured himself at a crossroads, stepping forward and backward in all possible directions before all the branches merged into a single path.
Carlos woke to Junpei shaking him. “Dude, stop talking in your sleep. You’re so loud even I woke up.” Beside him, the bed shifted as Akane sat up.
“About little green men,” Akane joked, and pushed his hair back from his forehead. “And your past life as a train robber.”
“Take a sleeping pill or something.” Junpei slid his legs over the edge of the bed, but Carlos grabbed his elbow and tugged him back so he fell across his chest. “Hey!” He wriggled but Carlos put his arm around him and even Junpei’s strength couldn’t defy a steadfast firefighter.
“I guess I was thinking out loud.” Carlos’ throat hurt and he swallowed before continuing. “About radical freedom.”
Akane perked up. “Yes?” She was always up for a meandering hypothetical conversation. Junpei resigned himself to his fate of being stuck awake with them and stopped struggling.
“I think it’s easier to say I ‘have to’ do something than think about the alternative. I ‘have to’ wait for Maria. I ‘have to’ be a firefighter to still know myself. I’m jealous that it all comes so easily to you two.”
“I choose to stay sober during these conversations,” Junpei added. “It’s not an easy choice.”
“And I choose not to gag you right now,” Akane said.
Carlos pushed through their banter. “So…what if I chose to stay with you two?” He hesitated, but kept going with his mouth running faster than his thoughts. “Staying in Nevada is ideal, or at least in America. Somewhere where Maria is only a few hours away if she needs me. But if I had to I’d go farther away. I actually kinda like traveling. And my job—”
“Carlos,” they both interrupted at the same time. Did he sound like a fool? “Who says HQ is in Japan?” Junpei said. “Or that we can’t find a use for say…a fire investigator?”
Akane nodded. “Someone with EMT training, too. Or search and rescue? You could still help people.”
“Those are options.” There were too many of those all of a sudden, and for a moment he feared he spoke too soon and he couldn’t take anything back without losing them. “Where would we go?”
“A home big enough for you and us and my brother.” Akane grabbed his hand and began playing with his fingers, lingering over the ring he hadn’t taken off. “And rabbits.”
“I’ve only ever had cats.”
“My brother likes cats. And you.”
“We’ll make him understand you’re there to stay,” Junpei said.
“I would be,” Carlos said softly. “I’d need time to quit my job. I can’t just disappear on them.” And then he’d need months, years to mourn what he left behind. That grief and the happiness he imagined with Junpei and Akane could co-exist, but it would take time.
“We won’t handcuff you and drag you on a plane today.” Junpei twisted in his grip and Carlos finally let him go so he could roll over and prop himself up on his elbows. “You’re not doing this because you think you ‘have to,’ right?”
“Everything is a free choice.” He chucked Junpei under the chin. “This one is messy and complicated, but it’s mine.” He felt the course of his life diverge and one path lock into place like train tracks. No reversing the course, no way of telling his eventual destination. Just the enthusiastic, clumsy kisses they peppered his face with right now, and the hope that someday he’d look back and thank God that he took a dip in the healing waters of Truth or Consequences and finally cleared his mind.