The first time he thinks it, or something like it, they’re driving down a nameless stretch of road somewhere cold. Beside him Marcus is singing along to the radio, warbling a cowboy ballad about lost love, and Tomás heart swells and whispers he’s my best friend. He really is, lock picking and fight picking and wound picking and all. Tomás’ best everything. He smiles and closes his eyes, sending a quick prayer towards Heaven in thanks. When he opens his eyes, Marcus’ are slanted towards his face, the corner of his mouth pulled up in a grin. The last exorcism is miles behind them, the victim safe and sound. I could do this for the rest of my life Tomás thinks and tries to sing along.
The second time, he’s curled in on himself, trying to breathe through bruised ribs. There’s a girl that needs their help, and something curled inside of her that needs to be excised. Marcus, so convinced his hands can only inflict violence, picks him up like a fragile baby bird, careful, careful. For a moment, Tomás is perfectly unafraid. There is no world but Marcus’ calloused palms and nails shorn down to the quick. And then he takes a breath and gasps because it tastes like fire. But there’s no time to dwell on it, he pushes off Marcus’ hands as gently as he can and then their voices rise in unison against something unclean. He thinks about it again later that night, the next morning really, when Marcus carefully checks him over in their dingy little motel room. His palms hover over Tomás’ skin, close enough that he can still feel their warmth. It’s alright he thinks you could never hurt me.
The seventh happens when he reaches for a neon pink packet of some awful waxy candy when he’s paying for their gas at some nameless station on a dusty road in some anonymous state. Marcus likes them, and Tomás thinks I like making him happy. He’ll gripe that they can’t afford it, saying without words that he doesn’t deserve it, but there’ll be a smile lurking near the corner of his mouth and the noise of him eating them, chewing as quietly as possible, will help put Tomás to sleep as they put the miles and miles behind them. He knows this as well as he knows how Marcus takes his coffee and his breakfast and the yellow candies that Tomás doesn’t like when he buys a packet for himself. There are Bible verses he can bring to mind less readily than the catalogue of small facts he has on Marcus, for all that many parts of his companion remain unknowable. It makes him smile to himself as he muscles the door open, sticky from age and lack of use, to step out into the sunlight where his partner is waiting.
The twenty-first, and second, and third and fourth are when Tomás is sick as a dog on a speck on the map somewhere near New Orleans, laughing through his cough as he realizes that this time there is no devilry or divinity in it. Just human fallibility and too much time in a narrow children’s home, lined with the germs they all carry. Marcus is solid as stone by his side, pressing the back of his hand against of Tomás’ forehead and getting him tea even when he doesn’t ask for it. “Ever the Englishman” Tomás mumbles, grateful, and Marcus manages the ghost of smile. In the middle of his fever induced delirium, in between visions of his abuela and frantic bursts of Spanish, he thinks he can feel Marcus’ lips pressed, carefully, against his iron-hot head. He will keep me safe Tomás thinks and the fever breaks.
The thirty-third is when he wakes up, too early, because the seasons have shifted all around him and he’s forgotten that it’s summer which means it’s too bright. But the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes is Marcus, face slack in sleep, and the queasy imbalance in his mind clears. I am blessed, he realizes, to wake up every morning to that. Tomás sends a quick prayer of thanks up to Heaven and sneaks out of the motel to get them greasy breakfast packed in squeaky styrofoam containers that keep trying to slip out of his arms. When Marcus sees him he laughs, “I could get used to breakfast in bed”. They take the day to be lazy, and the memory helps them through the next time they spend a night cold and hungry and determined to pry the devil from a helpless child.
The fifty-seventh is when they’re huddled together on the cold deck of a ferry, deciding that the view is worth getting soaked by the spray. Sea lions bark at them as seagulls scream overhead and they can’t stop laughing even though nothing is particularly funny. Finally Marcus calls it, more for Tomás than for himself, and they buy too expensive hot chocolate inside and warm their hands on their mugs. Flushed looks good on Marcus, he thinks, and giggling looks even better, but then most things do, in Tomás’ eyes.
Seventy is when he realizes that every song on the radio reminds him of Marcus, no matter what language it’s in. Eighty-two when he fixes the engine on his own without thinking about it and meets Marcus’ wide, exultant grin over the hood. Ninety-four is Marcus pulling off Tomás’ shoes after he collapses onto a grey motel bed in the dull milky twilight after the seventh day of an exorcism that was ultimately successful. Ninety-nine is when they collapse onto a single dirty, bumpy and desolate spare bed after one that wasn’t. He starts to lose track after that, of every moment and heartbeat that bring to mind the words. Because eventually there’s not a day that goes by where he doesn’t think I love him.
Tomás doesn’t say it. Or rather he lets his hands and his eyes and his arms do it for him. A pat on the shoulder, a smile, a longer turn at the wheel, a shorter shower. Their lives are entwined in a way that cannot be without love. Marcus says it too, with his jokes, with an extra helping of fries on Tomás’ plate, with a TV turned to a channel that he’d never pick for himself. It’s enough.
More than enough, really, for the eye of the storm, the space between exorcisms where they live their lives. Tomás has love and a partner and a purpose. He can think of few lives that are so abundantly blessed.
And when Marcus smiles at him across the dash, face illuminated by taillights and headlights and the occasional neon flash, his eyes saying love, love, love, Tomás wants no other life but this.