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Falling Quickly

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Phil Tandy Miller loved his brother, and Erica Dundee loved her parents, but none of that prevented these two things from happening:

In the year 2009 Phil Tandy Miller was almost thirty years old and he found his brother’s old telescope in the attic. Mike was living at a camp for trainee astronauts then, but when he came back for the weekend he saw Tandy using it. “That’s mine,” he said, and then he looked down the lens. “Oh my god, you’re spying on guys. Why’d you never tell me you were gay, Skidmark?”

In the year 2014 Erica was sixteen years old and she started to get interested in musical theatre. She made a list of the shows she wanted to audition for, but her father found it and rolled his eyes. “These are all about queers,” he said, as Erica’s mother nodded.

Life went on. And then it didn’t.

*

Midnight, sometime, somewhere. Possibly Mexico. A campfire.

“Tandy, I’m only gonna say this once,” Erica said. “Prison life is not actually like Orange is the New Black.”

“Yeah, I’ve never watched that,” Tandy said. “But when me and Mike were kids, we had this huge stockpile of the dirtiest lesbian porn-“

Why,” said Erica tetchily, “do you think I would want to know about that?”

Tandy did not have an answer.

“You ever take any sort of gender studies at college, Tandy?” Melissa asked. She was the only other one awake.

“No. Do I look like not a college dropout to you, Melissa? Boom.”

“Probably for the best,” Melissa said, “even the other guys would’ve been lining up to tell you how gross you are.”

“Not your best comeback, Melissa. A-minus-minus and see me after class.”

“It wasn’t a comeback,” Melissa said. “It was an observation. You’re gross around women.”

“Especially around women who want to date other women instead of your obviously straight self,” Erica said. It was a concept she had been considering throwing in his face for quite some time. Had Gail been awake, instead of out like a light, she would have enthusiastically joined in the dragging.

“I’m a feminist,” Tandy said, but his heart clearly wasn’t in it.

“Just go the bloody hell to sleep,” Erica said.

Tandy rarely took orders from Erica. She was twenty years younger than him and more importantly the only person he had never seen kill or set out to kill someone else. But he went the bloody hell to sleep.

*

Erica and Gail never knew what forces had brought them to each other. First time around, it had been “hey, we could be dead tomorrow, might as well sleep together.” Second time, it was “hey, we’re inexplicably alive and well and surrounded by love, might as well sleep together.” Second time had been better.

Sometimes when she lay in her wife’s arms, Erica thought about her parents. She had not buried them. By the time she had ended up in prison in Adelaide, they had washed their hands of her and she never saw them again. She only saw her sister, Claudia, when she had come to pick her up from jail. Claudia had had one hand protectively against her pregnant belly the entire time, as if afraid that being in the presence of her wayward sister would contaminate the baby.

It was her third baby, Erica’s third niece. She had never met it and she never would.

Whenever she and Gail held each other, they always clung a little too tight. It wasn’t loss which had brought them together, not exactly, but Loss was present in their every caress. It wasn’t a bad thing. Sunny days would look super weird if there weren’t any shadows.

*

2020-ish. Tandy slumped on a table, semi-inebriated, listing what he missed about the old world. “Skinny jeans on dudes,” was one of the things he came up with, but then he quickly corrected himself.

*

Brent Junkins the football player was a big fan of skinny jeans. He was a good looking guy, tall, muscular, bore no small resemblance to Phil Two. He was rich and lived at the Bonita Estates and was married with a wife.

After Mike reclaimed the telescope, Tandy started sneaking around the estates hoping to bump into him. He didn’t. After the second time he was chased away by a security guard, he took to wearing a gillie suit and meandering about the hills above the houses. He thought if he ever spotted Brent, who he absolutely totally wanted to be just friends with, he could take the suit off and dart down the hill and start a conversation. (What would happen after that, he had no idea.)

He never did put that plan into action. Brent lived in his wife’s place in Europe half the time anyway.

“I can’t believe you’re so obviously gay and you’re still trying to get with girls,” Mike said. It was impossible to tell if he was joking or not.

“I’m not gay,” Tandy said.

Next day a cute delivery girl called Christine came to the house. Tandy vied so hard to get her number – she was every bit as smoking hot as Brent – but it was Mike who walked away with it.

*

Erica had known a woman called Christine once too. Well, Chris. Chris frequented the only LGBT bar in Erica’s corner of Australia. They became girlfriend and girlfriend, complicated casual lovers. Sometimes they retreated to the woods and did assorted recreational drugs.

“You wanna get outta your parents’ house, don’t you?” Chris asked one day, as the sun was setting.

“More than anything,” Erica said. Her family was homophobic and her hometown was racist. Wherever she went she felt isolated. And she worried constantly that the drugs were becoming more than just recreational.

“My older brother’s in a criminal gang,” Chris said.

“Right, okay,” said Erica, deciding that the best bet was to treat this like it was totally normal.

“Not like a drugs cartel or anything. They’re only interested in money, nothing else. It’s barely even organized crime. But y’know what they’re always looking for? Hot girls. Like you.”

“Oh?” said Erica.

“They hire ‘em to distract store tellers and bank clerks while they rob the place. They have guns, but they never use them, they never need to.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Erica, “but I dunno.”

*

“Mike,” Tandy said one day, mere months before the first cases of the Virus were reported, “I wanna call dibs on Christine.”

“You can’t call dibs on an actual human woman. That’s sexist.”

You do it. I’ve seen you. Anyway, when we were all at the football game last night she was looking at me the whole time. The whole time, bro. Every time I raised my corn dog to my mouth, she was looking.”

“She was grossed out by seeing you eat.”

“That’s as may be. I still want dibs.”

Mike shook his head.  And then he smiled. “See, me and Christine actually have something in common? We both like football. You were only there cos you have a boner for that Junkins guy. Why don’t you go after him instead of trying to take over my territory?”

“Now who’s being sexist, Mike? Now who is?”

“You know where he lives. Go to his house and serenade him. Sing him Falling Slowly with one hand on your weiner. Do friggin’ something.”

Tandy wanted to punch him, but they were at their parent’s house and their parents hated to see their boys fight. Their parents were very good people, and they would have accepted their children no matter their sexualities or genders. But in a few years they would be dead.

*

As Erica’s child grew inside her and as the Virus grew inside Mike, the pair of them had their one and only one in-depth conversation. They sat in an abandoned restaurant in an abandoned town. It was on the edge of a cliff and one day soon it would fall.

It was Mike’s last good day on Earth.

“I bet you had the ladies queuing up for you when you were in prison,” Mike said. He actually didn’t mean it offensively. That was one of the weird things about Mike. If he had ever been asked why he was making fun of his brother for having a clear crush on another man, he honestly would never have thought in a million years that “casual homophobia” was anywhere near the answer.

Mike was smart as hell. He was captain of a spaceship, the consultant on many a science experiment, an actual expert on oligochaetology. But he was also pretty stupid.

“Prison isn’t like that,” Erica said. “I’ve actually only slept with two women my entire life. One of them was this girl I knew from my hometown, and the other one-“

Mike interrupted her. “Wait, you actually did – I mean, you are?”

“Well that was what you were implying, wasn’t it? And it’s true. I’m bi.”

The thing was, Mike hadn’t been implying it. He hadn’t been doing anything, just saying the first compliment on her hotness that came to mind. Now he felt uncomfortable, which was an almost entirely new feeling for him.

“Sorry,” he said, “I just meant-“

“That I’m hot? I know. Thanks.”

To prevent the problem of an awkward silence, Mike said, “The other one?” He realised too late that that, too, may not have been the best tack to take.

“Gail.”

“What, Gail Gail? The Gail who’s in a weird threesome thing with Todd and Melissa?”

“I don’t think she’d call it that.”

Once again Mike was silenced. He was starting to feel guilty.

*

  1. A parting shot. “So long, skidmark. I’ll be back in a year’s time, probably to a hero’s welcome. Until then, I fucked Christine. Sorry. Love, Mike.”

“I do wish you boys weren’t so crude with each other,” Tandy’s mother said.

  1. An opening remark. “Another person! Another woman! Oh my god, you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

*

The thing about Erica was that she was a very forgiving person, almost too forgiving. She had long since forgiven her family, and often hoped that someone had taken the time to give them proper funerals. She forgave Tandy most of his obnoxious transgressions, because he was Tandy and he probably had reasons for it buried somewhere in his brain. She forgave Phil Two for almost ditching her, and even forgave him for dying while she carried their child.

“I didn’t mean to be weird, sorry,” Mike said. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually hung out with someone who was bi.”

“Oh, you definitely have,” said Erica. She meant that statistically there was no way he hadn’t, she didn’t mean Tandy specifically. She had no idea about him. Mike’s spiel to the whole group about Tandy and Brent Junkins should’ve tipped her off, but it hadn’t done.

“Sorry.”

“S’alright, you’re forgiven.”

The fling with Mike was the only good thing that would happen to Erica for a long while, until she found Gail again.

*

Mike soon would’ve grown into a much more mature and humble person. He and Erica wouldn’t have lasted as a romantic couple but he would’ve been best man at her wedding to Gail. He wouldn’t have taunted his brother about his sexuality any more, having realised that that was what he was doing. He might even have come to different conclusions about his own sexuality, met a man, married him. But none of that stopped him dying.

Alone in his room at the Miller house, he made some drafts of letters to his brother. They all were detailed, and apologetic. Mike taped them to the telescope next to his bed, and he coughed up blood, and he thought. The last thing in the world he wanted was for his brother to find his body, because he loved him more than anything else alive.

So in the end he pulled himself from house to house until he found a gun in someone’s drawer. He took it, and he went to his own backyard and sat by the grave that was already made for him and that’s how it happened.

But he did die as the best person he’d ever been. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

*

“Erica. Erica. Erica. Erica.”

Erica awoke.

“I’m used to being woken up by my own baby,” she hissed at him, “not someone else’s.”

“That’s harsh,” Tandy said. “I just wanna talk to you.”

Why?”

“I’m not gross around women.”

“What?”

“I’m gross around women and men! Haven’t you noticed?”

“What?” Erica said again.

“I don’t mind it when women who want to date other women instead of me, because there’s been men who’d I’d rather date instead of particular women!”

It was very late at night.

“You touched a nerve,” Tandy said. “Y’know?”

Erica sighed and got up. She grabbed Tandy very hard by the wrist and led him away from their sleeping family.

“What are you on about?”

“I’m not straight,” said Tandy. “I think I might be whatever you are.”

Erica rubbed her temples with her fingers. She should never have gotten out of bed. But the thing about her was… she was a good person. Probably too good. But that’s sometimes what the world needs when everything else is too bad.

“Bisexual,” she said.

“Yeah!”

“Why do you think that?” she asked.

“Because I used to like guys as well as girls and I think I still do. Like I only wanna have sex with Carol,” and here Erica marvelled, just a little, at how much he’d changed since they first met, “but if for whatever reason I had to have sex with a dude I would totally have sex with a dude! Todd, anyone, within reason! And I would enjoy it! You know, if it didn’t hurt Carol.”

“Okay,” Erica said. “Okay. I never knew. I’m sorry.”

“What’re you sorry for?”

Erica blinked. This would be a difficult conversation, she thought.

“Because I wouldn’t have said you were gross around non-straight women if I’d known you also weren’t straight. Although you kind of are gross, constantly. Oh, I don’t know.”

“I don’t mean to be gross though.” Erica gave him a pointed, tired look. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Erica never knew why she did the next thing. Maybe it was the memory of Mike, who she had truly liked. Actually, it wasn’t that. It was the memory of Mike’s cheerful face when he outed Tandy to the whole group, without a single one of them knowing he had done so.

Perhaps it was his ghost, begging her to help him make up for his mistakes, that made her reach into her pocket.

“I had a sister once, you know,” she told Tandy. “She’s dead now.”

“Sorry,” he said again.

“Everyone is. The whole society that thinks it knows what your sexuality ought to be, who you ought to marry, all of this… it’s gone. We’re all that’s left.”

Tandy didn’t say anything, which was extremely rare for him.

“See, my sister, she was like my parents. Soon as she found out I had a girlfriend instead of a boyfriend, that was pretty much it. When I moved to America I figured I’d never hear from her again. But, she found out one of my addresses somehow, when the postal service was just about still running. And one day, it was around the time you and Lewis went on that roadtrip, me and Gail went round my old apartments and I found this.”

Tandy tried to take the letter but Erica whipped it away.

“My hands only. And Gail’s. But I’ll read it to you.”

Tandy nodded and Erica read. “Dear sister. As you may know, our parents are dead. My children are also dead. There’s nothing left for me. I don’t know yet whether I should wait to die, or take matters into my own hands.” Tandy flinched.

“Either way, I hope you remain on earth at least long enough to read this. I was wrong to ever judge you for who you wanted to love. It never occurred to me how much my slightest gestures hurt you. If there is a world after this one I hope it will be kinder. I’m so sorry. Claudia.”

Silence.

“Claudia…was your sister?” Tandy said eventually. Erica suspected he was playing dumb on purpose.

“Yes. Obviously.”

Another long pause. “Thank you for showing me that,” Tandy whispered. “That was really… thanks.”

Erica didn’t know why he was whispering. No-one would’ve heard him at normal volume.

“It’s okay,” she said.

Whole worlds are forged by Ericas.

*

“Carol,” Tandy said in the morning when she’d woken up, “would you think any less of me if I told you I was bisexual?” He thought he knew the answer but he wanted to check.

“Of course not, Tandy,” Carol said cheerfully. “I mean, I probably am too. Me and my roommate Bernice did have a bit of a fling long before I met you.”

“Oh.”

“I would’ve told you, but it would’ve been like telling you my eyes are blue.”

Tandy loved her a lot in that moment, and for many more moments to come.

“Well, I love your eyes, and your bi-s. Boom.”

“Awww, you’re so cute,” Carol said. “Hold Mike for me.”

Tandy took the baby. It was a sunny day. And there were probably ghosts in the shadows, but that was okay too.