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White Knuckles

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         Mac feels distinctly wrong. He’s lying sweaty and awake and a quick glance at the alarm clock on his bedside table tells him that it’s nearly three o’ clock in the morning. He’d topped off a handful of sleeping pills with some whiskey and he can feel the smudgy edges of exhaustion dragging him down; however, sleep still feels like it’s just outside of his reach. He rolls over onto his stomach, buries his face in his pillow and grunts in irritation. Despite the fact that he’d bought the exact same bed, sheets and comforter he used to have before they’d burned up in the fire they no longer smell familiar. They still hold the overwhelming floral aroma from the fluorescent hellscape of a store he’d had to purchase them in. He laments the fact that he hadn’t been able to convince Dennis to share the bed for even one night before he’d jetted off to his fancy new white-picket life. He can’t help but miss the familiar smell of Dennis’ overpriced hair products and his stupid fancy cologne. Mac even sort of misses the smell of Dee’s cheap strawberry shampoo that Dennis always complained about and claimed was attracting ants.

         Mac never realizes how much he desperately needs consistency until it’s yanked away from him. It’s like some infuriating form of irony that feels the need to keep popping up again and again in his life. Like God is trying to prove some point that he’s never quite able to understand.

         This is the first time he’s had to go to bed alone in over a year and, as cheesy as it sounds, he’s found that the past week without Dennis has felt more like an eternity. He can’t sleep; he misses the comfort of having his friend right next to him, of knowing exactly where he was while in such a vulnerable state. Well, Dennis wasn’t right next to him due to the fact that he’d insisted on Dee sleeping in the middle for some reason that Mac couldn’t get him to articulate nor back down on, but he was close enough that Mac could hear his light snoring so that he knew he was alive. He’d prefer to know where Dennis is every moment of every day, but he’d learned to give him his space, otherwise Dennis would get hostile; or worse, distant and weird.

         Of course, now he has no clue where Dennis is. In fact, Mac is almost positive that Dennis had died in some fiery plane crash because he definitely would have called to check in by now. Or maybe he survived the crash and he’s stuck on some magical deserted island like that show Lost, and right now he’s tossing out a message in a bottle in the hopes that it will float its way to Philly so that Mac can come and rescue him. Mac hardly ever goes to the beach though, and he vaguely worries that he might not receive it. He supposes maybe Charlie or Frank might find it floating around in the sewers or something, which comforts him somewhat. Mac’s mind is plagued with the infinite list of horrible things that are probably happening to Dennis that he’s unable to defend him from and the contents of his stomach seem to churn and spiral like the thoughts in his mind. He rolls onto his back again because lying flat really isn’t helping with the nausea and the intense heavy feeling of innate discomfort that’s taken up permanent residence in his gut.

         Mac wonders how the Hell he’d managed to get to this point, how this tiny apartment suddenly feels like an enormous haunted mausoleum. He thinks about everything in his life that's led up to the way he feels right at this exact moment, and he wonders if he’d known that it would end up like this whether he would have done anything differently. He’d like to think that he would’ve been best friends with Dennis under any circumstances, but the longer Mac is alone the more he starts to think that Dennis isn’t coming back and the more he wishes he hadn’t set himself up to fall.

         His stomach sort of feels the way it had in high school when Charlie had dared him to eat that entire tub of expired sauerkraut from the cafeteria. Mac had downed it in record time, but ten minutes later when they’d been walking down the hall he’d began to sweat and his stomach felt like it was trying to devour itself from the inside out. He’d ended up barfing directly onto Chelsea Maeler’s brand new shoes and her boyfriend had reeled back and punched Mac hard enough that he’d heard the bone in his nose snap like a gunshot in his ears. Charlie had laughed at him along with the others but after they’d moved on he took Mac to the old bathroom hardly anyone used anymore and snapped his nose back into place with a grimace. The blood gushing down had been far too metallic and hot on Mac’s lips and he remembers Charlie carelessly wiping the red on his fingers onto the ratty thighs of his jeans.

         Mac had attempted to clean himself up a bit but his nose had hurt too badly to touch and every time he’d wiped the blood away more just seemed to take its place. Finally, Charlie had just sighed exasperatedly and grabbed a bunch of paper towels from the dispenser and handed them to Mac before leading him out to their usual spot under the bleachers so they could smoke some of the cheap weed Mac used to sell. Mac recalls that his face had been black and blue for weeks but he never told anyone else what had happened; although rumors and harsh nicknames about the incident ran rampant despite his fervent denial.

         Charlie had always been the person Mac went to with his injuries. Not because Charlie was particularly skilled at medical stuff, but because he never got squeamish no matter how disgusting something was. The two of them always had sort of a rule as kids that if you told an adult about an injury that meant you were a pussy; which was the worst thing to be. Mac and Charlie were tough, and that meant taking care of each other so that no one else had to. Mac had even allowed Charlie to set three of his fingers when he’d broken them attempting to ride his bike off the roof. Two of them healed pretty crooked but they mostly worked fine, and even if they hadn’t Mac is pretty sure he’d still trust Charlie to fix him up. After all, the kid is still alive even after an entire lifetime of attempting unbelievably stupid shit and ingesting highly toxic substances, so he must be doing something right.

         Mac has never really worried about Charlie the same way that he worries about Dennis and the rest of the gang. He worries, sure, but he almost always just assumes that Charlie can take care of himself because he’s proven capable time and time again. Mac has seen Charlie drink enough paint to kill a horse, get hit by three separate cars, and fall out of a two story building, and every time he walks away slightly wobbly but alive and kicking. He’s always kind of reminded Mac of Poppins; scruffy, beaten up, filthy and hopeless, but he’s a survivor just the same. They also both have a habit of biting whenever they feel threatened. The only difference is that Poppins used to disappear for weeks or even months at a time while Charlie always stays right by his side. For as long as he can remember Charlie has been beside him, encouraging whatever half-baked scheme Mac could come up with. He always throws himself in headfirst, never does anything halfway; it’s something that Mac begrudgingly respects about him, even though it often get’s him into terrible situations. In fact, and Mac would never tell him this, Charlie is actually one of the toughest people he knows; besides himself, of course.

         Mac has never been one for thinking things through, he’s more of a doer, and Charlie’s one of the only people Mac knows who thinks the same way. Instead of trying to predict the future Mac would rather just act first and figure out how to deal with the consequences later, and Charlie can be pretty good for that sort of thing. They’re good at getting each other out of shitty situations, or at least at walking away relatively unscathed, and it’s something Mac prides himself on.

         When Mac had met Dennis in freshman year of high school he and Charlie had stopped spending quite as much time together. Mac can now admit in the safety of his own mind that he had, in fact, grown a bit infatuated with Dennis once they’d become friends. Dennis held himself with an aura of confidence that Mac could never even hope to achieve. Dennis’ clothes never had any holes or stains in them, his shoes unscuffed and new, his shirts ironed flat. He wore his hair perfectly coiffed and he always somehow smelled sort of expensive. Everyone in school knew that Dennis’ family had money, and he never got tired of lording it over his classmate’s heads. Dennis would sometimes even sit at the cool kid’s table in the cafeteria and he always seemed sort of distant and untouchable to Mac like something fancy in a museum. But even still, nearly every day he’d meet up with Mac and Charlie under the bleachers to smoke and bitch about his life. At first, Mac had thought that his and Charlie’s social status was finally beginning to rise, but he gradually realized that they were in fact only lowering Dennis’.

         Even still, Dennis continued to spend more and more time with them; he’d even brought Mac a few new customers to sell to and Mac repaid him by smoking him out whenever he asked. Mac isn’t sure when it had happened but he’d found himself constantly siding with Dennis in every argument, in an attempt to stay in his good graces. He’d make fun of Charlie’s illiteracy and his hygiene right along with him in the hopes that Dennis would begin to see Mac as an equal. His relationship with Charlie grew strained for a while, Charlie became more hostile and distant and his jealousy grew obvious. Mac felt bad but he didn’t want Dennis to stop coming around. However, when it became clear that Dennis wasn’t going anywhere, Mac eased up and slowly but surely they found a comfortable rhythm in their friendship.

         They’d meet up to smoke or drink from whatever they’d manage to snag from their parents, they’d bitch about anything and everything until they got Dennis fucked up enough to convince him to go along with whatever terrible ideas they’d come up with. They’d wander around the city late at night chasing stray dogs and avoiding junkies, or they’d play dodge ball with empty beer bottles in the alleyway behind the old bowling alley. They once hiked into the woods and attempted to make their own zip line, which had ended in colossal failure. Dennis usually strongly objected to these types of plans, but if you got him high enough he’d usually go along with anything until someone got hurt. There were numerous times that Dennis had screamed at them to fuck off and told them he’d never speak to either of them again before stomping away, but Charlie and Mac knew that he’d be back under the bleachers with them within the week. Charlie once asked Mac why he thought this was and Mac had just shrugged wordlessly before stomping out the butt of his cigarette into the ground and changing the subject. Deep down though, he’d thought that it was because despite Dennis’ wealth and confidence and the apathetic mask he wore, he was just as angry as they were.

         Mac doesn’t remember exactly when Dee had managed to worm her way into their little circle, but he can still perfectly picture her scrawny form shambling around stiffly in that awful back brace with a permanent scowl glued to her face. She had thrown off the dynamic of their friendship yet again, but it went smoother than when Dennis had started hanging out with them on a regular basis. In fact, she actually helped them in some ways. Instead of picking on each other they’d just make fun off Dee and spend their time trying to get her to leave. Dennis would endlessly criticize and mock her for everything that she did and it was easy for Mac and Charlie to follow along in his lead. Mac thinks Charlie was just happy that he wasn’t constantly the butt of every joke anymore. Despite the fact that they all claimed to hate her, her presence somehow became integral to the group without any of them even noticing, and when she’d get fed up with them and leave it always felt like there was someone missing.

         Mac had found her constant need for validation annoying, and he’d never particularly liked being around girls much, but he couldn’t help but feel like she’d been cut from the same shitty cloth as the rest of them. Once she’d worked her way into the gang she fit in seamlessly and bickered and complained and fucked around like the rest of them. She actually came up with some pretty good ideas to make cash and she somehow always seemed to know everyone else’s dirty gossip, which they could appreciate and use to their advantage. However, Dennis somehow almost always managed to take credit for her ideas. Sometimes Mac really thought that Dennis was too harsh in his mockery of everything about his twin sister, from her looks to her intelligence to her voice. Everything she did he criticized with a sharply barbed tongue, but sometimes the way he spoke sounded more like he was only repeating things he’d heard since he was a child rather than stating his own opinions.

         Pretty early on Mac had realized that Despite Dennis’ clean-cut appearance he was actually just as bad at taking care of himself as Charlie and Mac were, if not worse. Dennis would go for days at a time without eating and he was always popping a variety of pills that he’d retrieve from the large number of pockets on his backpack. He never had bottles for them, just little plastic baggies labeled with sharpie in precise handwriting. Mac found himself worrying about Dennis a lot. His whole life he’d only felt the need to protect his mother, his father, Charlie and Poppins, but suddenly this guy seemed to have appeared in Mac’s consciousness without him even realizing it, as if he’d just been there all along.

         He often reminded Dennis to eat whenever he began to look especially gaunt and pale but this always made him snap at Mac harshly, so instead Mac began packing extra snacks in his bag that he’d wordlessly hand to Dennis throughout the day. Sometimes Dennis would just glare at him before pointedly tossing the food into the garbage; but other days he’d frown and take it, slowly nibble away at it and avoid eye contact. The weed also helped Dennis eat more so Mac always tried to keep at least a little on him at all times. It was sort of the same as when he’d make Charlie take a shower and brush his teeth when he’d spend the night at Mac’s house. Or the way he’d snatch the bag from Charlie’s twitchy fingers when he’d huff too much glue.

         However, Charlie seemed to manage himself better than Dennis and gradually more and more of Mac’s attention was diverted to his new friend. Mac feels sort of guilty now when he sometimes thinks about the fact that Charlie is probably just as bad at taking care of himself as Dennis, he just hides it better and doesn’t complain. Dennis just always seemed like the type of person who was barely there, like if Mac didn’t hold on as tight as he could he’d disappear right in his fingers. Mac had gotten less afraid of this as years passed and still Dennis stayed, but clearly he shouldn’t have become so sure that Dennis was permanent. He should know by now that no one in his life is permanent. Even the people who stayed weren’t really there, his mother just a hollow shell of the person he knew growing up. She’d definitely never been a warm and nurturing presence, but before his dad was sent to prison he can at least remember having conversations with her.

         If Mac is being honest, Charlie is really the only person that’s stuck by him through everything and stayed the exact same person he’d known since they were ten years old. He’s the only person that Mac thinks will probably continue to stay that way no matter what. God knows that Dee would bail at the first opportunity that was even slightly better than what she has now, and Frank can’t be relied on for anything, especially consistency or support. Mac thinks that Charlie might be even more afraid of change than he is. The kid has never even really left Philly for God’s sake. Besides the time he beat beet Bogg’s record, which Mac is pretty sure Charlie doesn’t even remember.

         Mac almost wishes that he could talk to Charlie right now. He isn’t even sure what he’d say exactly, but he just needs something to distract himself from the ever expanding hollow feeling in his chest. For some reason Mac is almost positive that Charlie is still awake. It’s this weird thing they’ve been able to do ever since they were kids. Charlie had gotten them a pair of walkie-talkies for Mac’s eleventh birthday so that they could talk at night after their parents had gone to bed or left altogether. They both had nightmares and the ability to talk to each other at any given time was comforting even when they didn’t actually use them.

         Mac distinctly remembers a particularly vivid nightmare where his father drowned him in the bathtub where he’d woken up shaking and drenched in sweat. He'd immediately reached for his walkie-talkie and somehow been positive that Charlie was awake as well. Sure enough, Charlie picked up right away and told him that he’d just had a bad dream about him. This happened over and over again, they pretty much never accidentally woke each other up. The other was practically always anticipating their friend’s voice crackling out of the plastic speaker. Mac chalked it up to the fact that they spent so much time together but after awhile it started to get sort of eerie. They’d stopped using the walkies some time around eighth grade, but sometimes late at night Mac still gets the nagging feeling that he should reach underneath his pillow and radio Charlie to make sure he’s alright.

         Mac isn’t sure whether it's this thought or the growing ache of anxiety in his stomach that’s now spreading up throughout his entire body that makes him reach over to his bedside table and grab his cell phone. He presses seven to speed dial Charlie’s number and waits with a frown on his face. The line trills nearly ten times and Mac is just about to hang up in frustration when a click sounds in his ear before some loud smacking noises followed by Charlie’s voice asking, “Whassup?”

         There’s some weird chirping in the background on Charlie’s end and Mac squints as he tries to make out what it is.

         “Uh… nothing. I can’t sleep. Where are you?” Mac asks warily.

         “’M at the park.” Charlie answers, his words slightly slurred.

         “Why the fuck are you at the park in the middle of the night??” Mac asks incredulously.

         “’S technically morning I think, so it’s, like, safer. ‘S fine dude.”

         “That’s not at all how that works, you’re definitely gonna get stabbed by some tweaker.” Mac says with a shake of his head.

         “I don’t have anything for them to steal, I’ll be fine.” Charlie replies in a carefree tone.

         “I don’t think they’ll care if you-“ Mac’s lecture is interrupted by Charlie screeching into his ear.

         “Dude, no! Fuck off! I told you no! Get yer own you piece of shit!” There’s some shuffling and more weird noises and then Charlie’s talking loudly again. “This fuckin’ stray dog wants my sandwich but, like, I already told him no! It’s fuckin’ finder’s keepers law man, who doesn’t understand that? I thought this was America.”

         Mac groans and closes his eyes as he asks, “Dude, are you eating a sandwich that you found at the park?”

         “Yeah man, how lucky is that? I’ve been finding hella cool stuff tonight!” Mac can hear some distant barking and then more shuffling and some creaking.

         Mac sighs and says, “Dude, just give the dog the food and come over here. I’ll make you a sandwich that won’t give you food poisoning.”

         Charlie goes silent for a moment and Mac can faintly make out what he realizes must be crickets in the background.

         “Why?” Charlie asks, sounding highly suspicious.

         Mac huffs and says, “’Cause I’m bored and I can’t sleep and I don’t particularly want to see another story on the news about someone getting devoured by coyotes at Fairmount Park.”

         Charlie goes quiet as he seems to contemplate this for a moment before saying, “Alright, fine. I guess she won’t be looking for me at your place either.”

         Mac’s eyebrows furrow in confusion as he asks, “Who won’t-“ but he’s interrupted once more by Charlie yelling something at the dog about how he may have lost this time but he won’t be forgotten before the line goes dead. Mac stares at his phone’s screen in confusion for a moment before sighing, setting it back on his bedside table and peeling himself out of bed to make his way to the kitchen.

         Upon inspecting the contents of the fridge Mac realizes that he desperately needs to go grocery shopping and he wonders how often Dennis had restocked their food without him even noticing. Most of the stuff he has now is just stuff he'd managed to steal from Dee when they'd moved out. He settles on making Charlie a peanut butter and jelly sandwich due to the fact that he doesn’t have any other ingredients. The bread he finds in the cupboard has mold growing on it so he tosses it in the trash and instead uses a raisin bagel he manages to find. Once he’s finished smearing the ingredients on he puts the sorry excuse for a sandwich on a paper plate and heads into the living room to plop down on the couch. He places the food on the coffee table before leaning back and taking a deep breath in an attempt to relax himself.

         The only lights that are on are the two lamps placed at each corner of the room and the apartment is cast in dim a hazy glow. Mac sits for a good ten minutes before his exhaustion starts to take hold of him. He’s not sure how long exactly it took for Charlie to make his way to his apartment because he must’ve dozed off at some point. He’s jerked awake by the loud knocking at his door and he gets up with a groan and rubs his neck where it’s sore from resting on the back of the couch. When he unlocks and opens the door he finds Charlie slouching with bleary eyes and messier hair than usual. He smells like dirt and spray paint and he’s holding a filthy half eaten sandwich in his left hand, which Mac frowns at.

         “I thought I told you to get rid of that.” Mac says, nodding toward the food.

         Charlie looks confused before he glances down at the offending sandwich in his hand and frowns as he says, “Oh, yeah. I guess I forgot.” He drops it onto the floor before pushing past Mac to get through the doorway.

         “Are you high?” Mac almost doesn’t bother asking as he stoops down to snag the trash off the ground where Charlie had dropped it.

         Charlie just hums vaguely and says, “I dunno, probly.”

         Mac rolls his eyes as he closes the door and slides the lock back into place. “Whatever, your food is on the coffee table. There’s beer in the fridge.”

         “The fuck is this? This isn’t a sandwich.” Charlie says in an offended tone as he gestures vaguely in the direction of the food Mac had prepared.

         Mac walks across his living room to the kitchen where he throws Charlie’s sandwich in the trash where it belongs. “It’s all I had. You were just eating literal garbage, dude. If you keep complaining I’ll throw that one away too.”

         Charlie huffs and plops down onto the couch. He grumbles and says, “I doubt this one tastes any better.” However, he snags the sandwich off the plate and sniffs at it dubiously before taking a cautious bite.

         Mac opens the fridge and snags the last six-pack of beers and heads over to join Charlie on the couch. He grabs the remote off the cushions and turns the TV on. However, there’s nothing good playing this late at night so he just flicks through channels for a bit before giving up and turning the volume almost all the way down on some reality television show about houses just so that he can have something to stare at as they drink.

         Charlie makes a disgusted noise around his mouthful of food and asks, “Gross, what is this, raisins?? The hell are you trying to do to me?”

         Mac cracks open a beer and hands it to Charlie as he says, “The tiniest bit of nutrition in your diet wouldn’t kill you, dude.”

         Charlie accepts the drink and takes a long indulgent gulp before burping loudly and saying, “’M not a fuckin’ rabbit.”

         “Too bad, then at least you’d be cute.” Mac says snidely. “And I don’t think rabbits eat raisins.”

         “That’s like all rabbits eat, man. Haven’t you seen their poops?” Charlie explains before taking another large bite of sandwich, scowling and then washing it down with the rest of his beer. He attempts to throw the can into the trash but misses by a mile and sends excess liquid spraying across the apartment in the process.

         “Dude, watch it!” Mac chastises him, shaking some of the foam off of his hand that Charlie had gotten on him. “And what are you talking about? That’s just what their shit looks like. They don’t eat raisins and then poop out entire raisins, that doesn’t make any sense.”

         “You don’t make any sense.” Charlie sneers as he tugs another beer loose from the plastic rings holding them together.

         Mac just rolls his eyes and decides to drop it. Charlie cracks open his beer and starts to drink but he suddenly remembers something and yanks it away from his mouth so fast that liquid dribbles down his scruffy chin.

         “Oh shit, dude! I almost forgot! Look at all the treasure I found!” Charlie slams his drink down onto the coffee table and Mac thinks about how if Dennis were here he’d berate him for not using a coaster.

         Charlie begins frantically digging through his coat pockets and plopping down random miscellaneous items in front of them. There’s a decent amount of loose change that Mac assumes he must have dug out of some fountain, three acorns, a “vote Obama” pin that’s rusted and weathered from being outdoors, a shoelace, a few shiny rocks, a chipped marble, some colorful broken glass, a bark chip in an interesting shape, a broken pencil, and what appears to be part of a tiny animal skeleton.

         “Aw, dude, gross! Get this crap off the table, I eat off here!” Mac whines as Charlie continues to rummage around in his pockets excitedly.

         Charlie freezes and says, “Um, excuse me, but this ‘crap’ as you call it is all extremely valuable and useful under certain circumstances, Mac. And I think maybe you’re gonna wanna apologize once I show you the best thing I found.”

         “I highly doubt that.” Mac says in a patronizing tone.

         “Bam!” Charlie pulls out an old rusty Swiss Army knife from his pocket dramatically and waves it in front of Mac’s face.

         “Whoa, that’s actually pretty sweet, dude.” Mac says, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “If you clean it up a bit that’d be a pretty good knife. Can I have it?”

         “Hell no, not after you made fun of all the great shit I found. Find your own treasure, asshole.” Charlie replies, quickly yanking the knife out of Mac’s reach and shoving it back into the depths of his navy green pocket.

         Charlie pauses and seems to think for a moment before he says, “Maybe I’ll consider loaning it to you if you apologize and just admit that you’re super jealous that I’m freaking Indiana Jones over here uncovering priceless artifacts while you’re sitting around moping like a little bitch.”

         Mac glares and snaps, “Yeah, that’s never gonna happen. And I’m not moping, what the fuck are you even talking about?”

         Charlie just rolls his eyes and says, “All you’ve done since Dennis left is sigh ten thousand times and slink around pouting every day at the bar. It’s pathetic.”

         “Fuck you, Charlie. I don’t even know why I invited you over here.” Mac snaps and downs the rest of his drink in one go.

         “Because you’re a lonely, mopey bitch.” Charlie responds before taking a gulp from his drink.

         “Shut up, you don’t know shit.” Mac says, but he’s too tired to put any real anger into his words. Deep down he also knows that what Charlie is saying is true and his brain is too foggy to come up with any decent excuse for his behavior.

         Charlie huffs in irritation and they drink in silence for a few minutes, just watching a rich white couple ramble on about marble verses granite countertops on the quiet television. The flickering light from the TV bounces around the dim room and flashes off of Charlie’s face and Mac isn’t sure whether it’s the pills, the booze, or the lack of sleep, but reality seems sort of altered and surreal. Every once in awhile Charlie makes some nonsensical comment about the show they’re watching but Mac doesn’t really have the energy to explain to him why he’s wrong and eventually they just sit in comfortable silence. After a few minutes and another half can of beer Mac begins to grow incredibly sleepy again. His head lulls forward a few times before he jerks back up and blinks rapidly to try and stay awake.

         “Why couldn’t you sleep? You seem pretty tired to me.” Charlie asks after the fourth time Mac’s head dips and then bobs back up.

         Mac grunts vaguely in response but then he hates how much he sounds like his mother so he adds, “Not used to sleeping alone.” He normally wouldn’t admit this and he regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth, but he’s too exhausted to have any real filters.

         Charlie hums knowingly and says, “I get that. I can’t sleep on my own either.”

         Mac already knew this about Charlie but he’s never actually bothered to ask why it is.

         “Why not?”

         Charlie seems to grow uncomfortable and he shrugs slightly before saying, “I don’t want anyone doing anything bad to me while I sleep.”

         Mac frowns at this and asks, “Wouldn’t having someone sleep in the same bed as you only increase the risk of that?”

         Charlie shakes his head wildly and says, “No way, Frank will protect me.”

         Mac is pretty sure that Frank wouldn’t protect anybody but himself, but he decides not to point this out. It’s late and he doesn’t actually want Charlie to leave so he figures he shouldn’t say shit that might upset his whole worldview. Just because Mac isn’t getting sleep doesn’t mean he should deprive Charlie of getting any. He just hums in response and sets his half empty can of beer down on the table so that he doesn’t drop it if he accidently falls asleep again.

         Charlie lets out a big yawn and scrubs at his red-rimmed eyes with the back of his hand before saying, “’M tired. You wanna go crash out?”

         Mac feels his cheeks heat slightly at the fact that Charlie hadn’t even questioned whether he should sleep in Mac’s bed, but then again Mac had pretty much spelled it out for him that that’s what he needed. After a moment Mac settles on saying, “Uh, yeah. Yeah, that’s fine.”

         Charlie pulls himself up off the couch and raises his arms above his head as he stretches. Charlie’s back lets out a few loud cracks before he drops his arms and starts walking toward the bedroom. Mac doesn’t even bother turning the TV off as he follows after his friend with an itchy feeling settling in his insides. Mac hates being vulnerable or admitting that he needs someone else’s help more than anything. He wants his friends to think of him as the tough badass one who’s there to protect them.

         He briefly considers yelling out to Charlie that he shouldn’t have assumed things and that he has to sleep on the couch. However, Mac pauses when he thinks about the fact that he’s not going to be able to body guard much of anything if he’s too tired to stand up. They’d slept in the same bed a million times so Mac just tells himself it doesn’t have to be weird just because he admitted to needing it. He tells himself that it doesn’t change anything even though he knows that it does. Mac hopes that Charlie is too high to remember what Mac had said tomorrow.

         Mac walks across his living room  with a confusing feeling filling his chest. He’s glad that he’ll probably actually be able to get some sleep tonight, but at the same time even just the fact that he’s relieved makes Mac hate himself all the more. He always says what a tough badass he is but at the end of the day he can’t even fall asleep on his own.

         He moves slowly and by the time he steps into his room Charlie has already removed his pants and jacket and left them in a rumpled pile on the floor. He’s tugging the blankets up to his chin and attempting to make himself comfortable and Mac glares at him warily as he prays that Charlie has boxers on underneath the covers. Mac pads across the cold wooden floor of the dark room and plops down on the right side of the bed. This is the side he always sleeps on and he’s glad that Charlie always remembers this even when he’s trashed. Mac thinks this is due to the fact that Charlie craves routine and consistency even more than he does.

         Mac slips his legs under the covers and tries to relax as he lays back against his pillow and takes a deep breath. However, a few minutes pass and he realizes that the tension in his shoulders hasn’t alleviated in the slightest. Sleep feels further away than ever and Mac is jealous of the calm, steady breathing of his friend laying next to him.

         Suddenly Mac remembers something and asks, “Dude, you awake?”

         Charlie huffs and says, “Uh, yeah, it’s only been like five minutes.”

         “Why were you at the park? Who are you avoiding?” Mac asks.

         Charlie scowls and says, “The Waitress, dude! I’ve only told you this, like, a thousand times this past week. We banged and now she’s become a total psycho stalker!”

         Mac rolls his eyes and says, “Seriously? She’s still bugging you for a baby?”

         Charlie groans in exasperation and whines, “Yeah dude, she keeps showing up at my apartment and banging on the door. She even climbed up the fire escape a few days ago so now I have to lock my windows! She calls me like a hundred times a day and she keeps taping these threatening letters on my door. It’s not like I ever signed anything so I don’t actually owe her a baby, or anything really. It’s so creepy man, I don’t know why she can’t just take a hint.”

         Mac rolls his eyes at the absolutely  ridiculous irony of Charlie’s problem.

         “I can’t believe after all the years you spent obsessing over her and stalking her the second she shows an interest you freak out. What’s so bad about raising a baby if you really love her? It just means that she won’t be able to bail on you when she realizes how crazy you are.” Mac says.

         “I’m not crazy!” Charlie shouts angrily before going quiet again. After a few moments have passed in heavy silence Mac hears him mumble, “I dunno.”

         Mac frowns and asks, “You don’t know what?”

         Charlie’s eyebrows furrow and his voice is quiet as he says, “I don’t know if I love her...”

         Mac whips his head over in surprise to look at Charlie’s face so he can be sure whether he’s being serious. Charlie had been going on about his deep, eternal love for the Waitress since they were in the ninth grade and Mac can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. He had always known that Charlie’s feeling for the waitress were a lot closer to an unhealthy, all encompassing obsession rather than genuine love, but he never thought that Charlie himself would realize this. He’d given up long ago that Charlie would get over her like a normal human being. He’d always assumed that if they hooked up Charlie’s obsession would only get worse. If he’d known that this would happen he would’ve tried a lot harder to help him get it over with.

         Mac would strongly prefer that he never hears her shrill demanding voice ever again, and he never understood what Charlie saw in her that he thought was so great. Mac figures it’s because once Charlie gets an idea in his head about how things are it’s virtually impossible to change his mind regardless of the facts. He’s always been that way, too stubborn and hung up on things that aren’t even real. In some cases it’s amusing or even endearing, but when it comes to the Waitress Mac has never had any patience for his friend's delusions.

         “Seriously?” Mac asks in a disbelieving tone. “Since when?”

         Charlie shrugs and says, “I don’t know, since we banged I guess… Like…. I don’t know how to explain it.”

         Mac groans and says, “Well, can you at least try? Because I’ve been listening to you ramble on about her for like twenty goddamn years.”

         Charlie huffs but he stays silent for a few moments as he tries to collect his thoughts. His mind is foggy with exhaustion and paint and the words don’t seem to be coming easily to him.

         “Look, I’ll try and explain it, but you can’t make fun of me, ok? You just have to listen.” Charlie tells him in a strangely serious tone.

         Mac rolls his eyes but he says, “Yeah, fine, whatever.”

         Charlie huffs and takes another long pause before he starts speaking again in a slow methodical way.

         “It’s just…. Like… Ok, so, I guess I’ve never really gotten the whole sex thing, like, why it’s such a big deal and everyone’s all obsessed with it. It just seems kinda gross and sticky and like a big hassle, you know?”

         Mac absolutely did not know, but he doesn't want to interrupt Charlie’s thoughts and get him off track so he stays quiet.

         Charlie continues in that same slow voice with furrowed brows, “Like, thinking about it can be nice, but when I actually try it with someone it’s just sort of wet and uncomfortable and my stomach gets all weird… But then when I’d think about having sex with the Waitress it was like… really hot, ya know? Like, it seemed like it would be really nice, ‘cause, like, I loved her I guess…”

         Mac can’t hold his tongue any longer and he asks, “Wait, so you only want to have sex with people you’re in love with??”

         Charlie shrugs and says, “Well, not in love necessarily… but I have to love them, I think.”

         Mac scoffs and says, “What’s the goddamn difference?”

         Charlie huffs and says, “I don’t know, there just is one!”

         Mac groans and clarifies, “Fine, whatever, so you have to love someone to want to have sex with them?”

         Charlie considers this for a moment and then says, “Yeah, that’s… yeah.”

         “What are you, Mormon or something?” Mac asks.

         “Shut up! You promised you wouldn’t make fun of me!” Charlie yells.

         Mac rolls his eyes and says, “Fine, fine. So what, the sex wasn’t everything you’d hoped it would be?”

         Charlie frowns at this and says, “No, I mean, it was awesome. It was like the best sex I’ve ever had. But I always thought that afterward I’d wanna marry her and, like, move to the suburbs and have kids and it’d be like one of those dumb romantic comedies that Dee likes, ya know? But afterward I just felt… the same. Like... the more I listened to her talk the more I kept thinking about how annoying it would be to spend the rest of my life with her doing everything she wanted to do? I always thought when we finally had sex it would be like this magical thing that connected us forever and made our relationship perfect. But afterward we were both just… the same.”

         Charlie’s rambling explanation doesn’t entirely make sense to Mac, especially in this foggy exhausted state, but he understands some of it. He has no idea what he’s supposed to say, however. Their friend group has never been very big on reassuring each other or sympathizing, so Mac is kind of at a loss since he isn't allowed to tease Charlie.

         Finally Mac settles on, “Well… yeah. Sex is just sex, man. It can make you feel closer to someone and it can be special, but it doesn’t fix anything or change who you are.”

         Charlie frowns and rolls onto his side so he’s facing Mac. He scratches at Mac’s sheets with his grubby fingernails as he asks, “Then what’s the point?’

         Mac huffs and says, “I don’t know, there’s like an infinite list of reasons why people have sex, Charlie. I’m not gonna sit here and name them all.”

         Charlie contemplates this for a moment before asking, “Alright, then why do you have sex?”

         Mac groans and scrubs his hand over his bleary eyes. He really hadn’t thought that a simple question would lead to this weird ass conversation, but he supposes he should’ve expected as much from Charlie.

         “I don’t know, because it feels really awesome? Because it makes me feel powerful and desirable and when you like someone it feels good to make them feel good?” Mac pauses in thought and then after a long moment he adds on in a slightly quieter voice, “A lot of times I had sex with girls because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. Or, like, to prove some point I guess.”

         Charlie hums thoughtfully and says, “Yeah, I get that. I think I did that too.”

         Mac blinks in surprise a few times; of all the things he and Charlie have in common he never expected this to be one of them. He’s not quite sure what he’s supposed to say next and apparently neither is Charlie so they just lie there in heavy silence. Mac feels laid bare, like he’s set up everything inside of himself on a table and labeled it to be displayed and judged. He already felt disgustingly vulnerable after practically asking Charlie to sleep in his bed and now he’s talking about this weird deep shit that he doesn’t even like to think about in the privacy of his own mind. However, despite the uncomfortable churning in his gut, it does sort of feel like a weight has been lifted.

         After awhile the silence begins to feel as though it’s suffocating Mac so he decides that he has to break it or else he might drown.

         “Are there other people you want to have sex with besides the Waitress?” He asks. He’s genuinely curious, but he also just wants to say anything that will alleviate the tension he’s feeling.

         Charlie tenses up beside him and his fingers go back to fiddling with the blankets while he seems to consider his options. Finally Charlie says in a squeaky embarrassed voice, “That’s none of your business.”

         Mac raises his eyebrows, genuinely intrigued. “Wait, seriously? Who?”

         “I’m tired, I’m going to sleep.” Charlie says, rolling over onto his other side dismissively.

         “What the fuck? Come on dude, tell me! Since when do you keep secrets from me, I thought you were my best friend!” Mac prods at Charlie’s shoulder with his finger but gets no reaction.

         “Shut up,” Charlie grunts, “I’m trying to sleep.”

         Mac huffs and flops back down on his back. He knows from experience that if Charlie doesn’t want to talk about something there’s nothing anyone can do to get it out of him. Mac tries to let it go but the longer he lies there in the dark the more he keeps thinking about it. Judging from Charlie’s reaction it definitely has to be someone he knows, which is just all kinds of weird. Mac can’t think of a single option that doesn’t make his skin crawl. The bizarre idea suddenly dawns on Mac that perhaps Charlie had meant himself.

         ‘But that’s just ridiculous, Charlie is straight’, Mac thinks; ‘lack of sleep is making you ridiculous.

         Their weird conversation keeps playing over and over again in Mac’s mind and he’s incredibly frustrated when Charlie's gentle snoring informs him that his friend has fallen asleep after a mere ten minutes.

         Mac lies there in the stiff suffocating darkness just listening to his friend’s soft snores for another twenty minutes before his eyes begin to feel heavy. When he finally manages to fall asleep it’s fitful and restless and the sun is just beginning to peak over the horizon.

 


 

            When Mac wakes up it’s to a blistering heat encasing him from all sides. He rolls over and groans as he realizes that at some point in the night Charlie had wrapped himself around Mac like some grubby drunk koala. He's clutching at Mac like his life depends on it with his arms and legs wrapped securely around him while he mumbles nonsense in his sleep. Mac is grateful to find that neither one of them has morning wood, but the situation still makes his face heat up and his heart hammer in his chest. Charlie had always been like this, ever since they were kids. At some point in his sleep he’d just glob on to whoever was closest to him like some sort of security blanket. Mac figures he should really be used to this by now, but it still sort of freaks him out every time.

            It’s not that Mac hates cuddling, it’s just that he’s not particularly used to it. Even after sex his partners usually just bail or go to take a shower. His friends aren’t very physically affectionate and neither are his parents, so Mac never really knows how to react. Sometimes over the past year when Dee would stay out all night and it was just him and Dennis in bed he’d wake up in the morning to Dennis pressed all along his side. It was extremely rare due to the fact that Dennis was almost always awake and dressed far earlier than Mac, but he began to look forward to the rare occasions where this happened. Dennis would never be cuddling him per se, but he’d sometimes have his back pressed snugly up against Mac’s. Mac’s heart would hammer in his chest and he’d try his best to hold as still as possible so he wouldn’t wake Dennis up. It never lasted very long but Mac was always in a great mood for the rest of the day after mornings like this.

            Charlie is a lot warmer than Dennis was, and a lot smaller and softer. He’s clinging to Mac like he’s some giant stuffed animal and even though Mac is embarrassed, he finds that he feels sort of nice. Charlie makes a disgruntled noise in his sleep and nuzzles close against Mac’s neck so that he can feel his breath fanning out against him. Mac’s face heats further and he attempts to wiggle away to little success.

            “Dude, get off me.” Mac says groggily, shoving at Charlie’s arms to dislodge himself from the crushing grip.

            Charlie snuffles and attempts to burrow in closer but Mac just roughly shoves him away again.

            “Dude, seriously, get the fuck off. I never said you could cuddle me. It’s like…” mac glances at the clock on his bedside table. “Shit, it’s like three o’clock in the afternoon, we gotta get down to the bar.”

         Charlie finally seems to wake up somewhat and releases Mac so that he can scrub at his eyes and roll over onto his other side with a groan. “Jus’ five more minutes…” Charlie mumbles into the pillow beneath his cheek.

         “No, dude, get up. We gotta go, Dee and Frank are gonna kill us.” Mac says. He snags his phone off of the table and flips it open to find that he has nearly ten missed calls and a slew of texts cussing him out and telling him that he was supposed to open today.

         Charlie doesn’t bother responding, just let’s out a soft snore, so Mac snags the pillow out from under his head so that he flops down onto the mattress.

         “Ugh, fuck off!” Charlie grouches, yanking the blankets over his face and scrunching up into a ball. “My head is killing me.” He whines.

         Mac rolls his eyes and says, "Fine, I’ll get you some Aspirin but you better not go back to sleep, I’m serious. I’ll draw stuff on you and glue pubes to your face, I swear.”

         Charlie makes an unintelligible grumbling response into the mattress, which Mac doesn’t even try to decipher. Instead of bothering to respond Mac pulls himself out of bed, stretches and pops his back before heading in the direction of the bathroom. He opens the medicine cabinet to snag the Aspirin and frowns when he finds that the cupboard is completely empty. He really needs to go shopping. When he’d refurbished the apartment he hadn’t bothered to get any actual food or supplies, which he’s now realizing was a serious oversight. He heads into the living room and snags what’s left of the six pack of beer that he’d left sitting on the coffee table and takes that into the bedroom instead.

         He tosses the cans in the direction of the Charlie shaped lump underneath his blankets. They smack him somewhere near his shoulder and Charlie jumps and grunts in irritation before pulling the blankets off of himself so he can see what Mac is hurling at him. His hair is sticking up in every direction imaginable and his eyes are sort of puffy from sleep, making his scowl look a lot more ridiculous than threatening.

         “There’s no Aspirin but you can finish off those if you want. Just hurry up.” Mac explains as he goes to begin digging through his dresser for a clean shirt and pants.

         Charlie grumbles but he takes a beer and pops it open. He takes a sip and then makes a face as he says, “Ugh, these are warm.”

         Mac shrugs and says, “Yeah, I forgot to put ‘em away last night. That’s all I have. If you want something cold you’ll had to get it at the bar.”

         Charlie huffs but he downs the rest of the beer without further complaint. He cracks open another and by the time he’s halfway through with it Mac is fully dressed and staring at him impatiently.

         “Seriously man, we gotta go. Dee’s pissed and I don’t really wanna listen to her squawking at us for the rest of the day. Also, now that I’m the only one paying rent here I’ve gotta start making more money.”

         Charlie groans and sets the can down on the bedside table as he slides his legs over the side of the bed and scratches at his head. Mac is relieved to find that he is, in fact, wearing boxers. Charlie wobbles a bit upon standing and has to brace himself on the wall as he tugs on his ratty jeans from where he retrieves them from the floor. Charlie get’s dressed a lot quicker than Mac had due to the fact he just hastily shoves on the same thing he’d been wearing yesterday, and soon Mac is dragging him into the living room and toward the front door.

         As Mac is sliding the lock free Charlie asks in a gravely half-awake voice, “Do you got anything to eat? I’m starving.”

         “Not really,” Mac sighs as he swings the front door open. “We can stop at the burger place on the way.”

         “I don’t got any cash.” Charlie says, scratching at his stomach lazily.

         Mac huffs and leads him out into the hallway as he says, “Whatever, I’ll pay for you, but you owe me.”

         Charlie seems satisfied by this because he stops complaining and dutifully follows behind Mac as they make their way toward the bus stop. 

 


 

       

         The day passes by pretty much the same way as all the days before had. Dee complains loudly at them for a good hour upon their late arrival and Frank sits in the back office cooking the books or napping or whatever other creepy shit he likes to do back there. They actually get around ten customers, which is a good day for them, and Mac is grateful for the small amount of cash it affords him in tips.

         Frank comes out a couple times and tries to get them involved in some insurance fraud scheme he’s half-assedly cooked up, but Dee just ignores him and waves him off in favor of reading a magazine in the corner. Charlie tells him that the ideas Frank comes up with are never good and always end up getting him hurt, and he goes back to restocking the cherries and nuts at the bar, which Dee had somehow tricked him into doing. It ends up being a pretty mellow day and Mac finds that he’s a little grateful for it. Ever since Dennis left, participating in the usual schemes and shenanigans they often get into just feels sort of weird and hollow to Mac. He isn’t sure if it feels that way to the rest of the gang or if they’re all just more laid back as a whole now that Dennis is gone.

         Mac really needs money for rent anyway, so he’s grateful not to have any distractions. He’s never been one for throwing himself into his work, but for some reason today it sort of helps. The fact that he’s going to have to start looking for a new roommate soon is something he hates to even think about and he plans to put it off for as long as possible. The idea of some random person crashing at his place makes him feel even more uncomfortable than having to sleep there alone every night.

         Frank eventually get’s bored of trying to talk them into doing something dangerous and leaves to go meet up with some people under the bridge. Dee stays for another hour or so before she announces that she has somewhere to be as well, and she says that since Charlie and Mac had shown up halfway through the day they were gonna be the ones closing. Mac didn't even get the chance to argue before she was slamming the door behind her on her way out. He just huffed in annoyance and went back to serving drinks.

         The rest of the evening passes by as uneventfully as the first half had. Charlie ignores Mac’s orders to clean the bathrooms in favor of rambling at him about the latest episode of Law and Order, which Mac sort of half listens to. As Mac works his mind keeps wandering back to the conversation he’d had with Charlie the night before. He isn’t sure why it feels so important and unusual in comparison to the things he usually talks to Charlie about, but it does and he can’t seem to forget about it. During the last couple hours of the day when the customers start thinning out he starts drinking more and by the time he’s closing up he’s got a decent buzz going.

         Charlie hadn’t tried to bail on him at any point, which Mac actually found vaguely surprising, but he figures now that Charlie isn’t stalking the Waitress he isn’t sure what exactly he’d go and do.

         As Mac is gathering up the rest of the empties he asks, “Hey, you don’t think the Waitress is going to start showing up around here do you?”

         “Nah,” Charlie says, waving his hand dismissively, “I doubt it. I think she’s scared of the bar, man. It usually doesn’t end well for her whenever she comes here. She also said she feels like she’s going to catch a disease as soon as she sets foot in here.”

         “And yet she’s fine going to your apartment.” Mac says, shaking his head in disbelief.

         Charlie just shrugs and wordlessly pops the top off another beer.

         Mac pours them one last round of shots before they close up for the night. After he switches the lights off and locks up Mac is surprised that instead of heading off in the direction of his own apartment Charlie begins to follow Mac toward the bus stop.

         “Where do you think you’re going?” Mac asks suspiciously, raising an eyebrow and stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to glare at his friend.

         Charlie huffs and says, “I told you, dude, the Waitress is probably waiting for me at my place right now. I’m gonna crash at your apartment. Unless you want me to sleep at the park.”

         Mac is about to snarkily reply that he would, in fact, prefer it if Charlie slept at the park, but he’s interrupted by Charlie saying, “Besides, you said you can’t sleep alone anyway. It’s a win-win.”

         Mac cringes and scowls at the way Charlie artlessly explains the embarrassing secret Mac had divulged the previous night due to his exhaustion.

         “Ugh, you better not go telling people about that or I’ll kick your ass.” Mac says.

         Charlie holds his hands up in surrender and replies, “Chill man, it’s between us. But just for the record, we both know there’s no way you could kick my ass. I'd beat you in a fight any day of the week.”

         “Um, we definitely don’t know that, because you’re like the size of a toothpick. I’d fuckin’ destroy you, dude.”

         “Sure, keep telling yourself that. I guess all those times I kicked your ass at wrestling were just a fluke.” Charlie says mockingly, rolling his eyes.

         “You cheat and you know it!” Mac defends, puffing his chest out.

         “I do not!”

         "There’s no biting allowed in wrestling!”

         Charlie doesn’t bother to respond, he just waves his hand dismissively and says, “Whatever dude, all I’m saying is that I can’t go to my place and you need someone sleeping at yours, so quit complaining. You’ve been such a mopey little bitch lately; if getting some sleep is gonna help with that then you should just accept my generous offer.”

         “I’m not moping! And ooh, yeah, so generous of you to volunteer to squat at my place rent free and eat my food.”

         “Ooh, that’s a good idea, we should stop at the store and get some more food and beer.” Charlie says nodding decisively.

         Mac groans and gives up on trying to fight it as he starts heading in the direction of the bus stop once again. Deep down he’s a little grateful not to be going home alone again. He misses the car rides home with Dennis where they’d complain about the day and argue over what music to listen to and what to watch that night. He wonders if Charlie would want to have an annual movie night the way that he and Dennis had. It’s hard to keep Charlie focused on one thing for that long, but maybe if he let Charlie pick the film it would work out.

         They continue to bicker all the way to the bus stop and Mac wonders how long Charlie is planning for this arrangement to go on. He guesses for however long the Waitress continues to stalk him. Mac tells himself that’s it’s annoying and a hassle, and that living with Charlie is pretty much intolerable considering how messy and disgusting he is, but deep down he can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of relief.