Clyde should’ve knew better, but he had said yes anyway.
He had been fine on the Fourth of July, he reasoned with himself after he had already agreed, and while Memorial Day hadn’t been great he had gotten through it, not even forced to resort to drinking more than a single beer to go with the burgers Jimmy had grilled, and even that had more to do with having to deal with Fish and Sam’s chatter than anything else.
So when Stensland had taken a seat at the bar and asked Clyde if the Duck Tape was going to be open on Labor Day he had shrugged and said “Usually is,” but as soon as Stensland’s face had fallen he’d back tracked and continued “But we usually ain't too busy, so I was thinking we might not this year,” which was a complete lie, the bar was always packed by noon on Labor Day, but he was already helpless against that sad little frown Stensland sometimes got, the pout he always tried to hide by ducking his head so his hair hung over his face, and Clyde knows what it looks like to try to hide disappointment and couldn’t bear to be the reason Stensland looked like that.
Stensland had peeked up and beamed at him and asked if Clyde wanted to go to the Labor Day Festival and Clyde hadn't hesitated to say yes, and when Stensland leaned over the bar and kissed Clyde's cheek Clyde’s fingers slipped on the bottle of tequila he was holding and he hadn't even noticed the puddle forming on the bar until after Stensland had left and Clyde was staring after him, fingers pressed to the spot Stensland’s lips had brushed while his cheeks heated until Earl had cleared his throat and asked if it would be possible to order a drink or if he needed to come back.
(Which is still better than the first time Stensland had shyly asked if Clyde maybe wanted to get dinner with him sometime and Clyde had knocked the empties he was reaching for off the bar, causing them to smash with a terrible clatter and leak the last of the foamy, warm beer left in them all over and it was only after Clyde had cleaned up the glass, shooing away Stensland’s offer to help because he didn’t want to risk him getting cut even if it was tricky to pick up glass one handed, and then mopped so the floor wouldn’t become a sticky mess people would track all over the bar, that Stensland had bit his lip and looked at him and said that if that was all an elaborate diversion to avoid rejecting him that Clyde could just say so that Clyde had stuttered out a startled “No! No, I want to, I do,” and Stensland had smiled brightly. Stensland is an easier smilier, always finding something to be happy about, and Clyde loves most of all when those smiles are because of him.)
Clyde’s a little less nervous picking Stensland up now than he was for that first date, when he spent fifteen of the twenty minutes he was early sitting in his truck talking himself through the breathing exercises the VA therapist had taught him. This time he only takes a couple of minutes to smooth his hair and straighten the collar of the shirt Mellie told him to wear, frowning at himself in the rear view mirror as he tries to figure out why Stensland, who's bubbly and chatters and shines brighter than the sun, wants to go out with Clyde, who's quiet and intimidates people with his broad shoulders and metal hand no matter how much he tries to slouch and make himself smaller.
Stensland starts apologizing as soon as he opens the door. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” he says, bouncing on one foot while he tries to tug a shoe on the other one. “I know I’m always late, but I just, I just need a minute. Than we can- shit,” he yelps, falling forward against Clyde's chest.
“Ya alright?” Clyde asks, a hand on Stensland's shoulder to help steady him. Stensland stays pressed against him for a long moment, soft and warm, his breath tickling the side of Clyde's neck, a wet smear of lips just dragging down his neck that makes Clyde shiver.
Stensland hums a response. “Yeah, I'm good.” He tucks his head under Clyde's chin, nuzzles against the dip of his throat. “Real good,” he whispers, voice throaty. He breathes deep and Clyde feels heat crawl up his face, across his cheeks and into the overgrown ears he always instructs Mellie to hide with his haircuts even as he pulls Stensland just a little bit closer.
Last week when he had come over for the dinner Stensland ended up burning and they sat on the couch watching a television show Clyde vaguely remembers Mellie loving in high school and that Jimmy had watched because he insisted one of the leads looked just like Bobbie Jo Stensland had put the carton of Chinese takeout they ended up ordering at Clyde’s suggestion because Stensland had looked close to tears when he realized dinner was ruined down and snuggled up against Clyde's shoulder, sighing happily. Clyde had shifted just a little lower on the couch, ignoring the way the stretch pulled the muscles of his lower back, and Stensland had slid even further down, his head on Clyde’s chest and an arm slung across Clyde’s belly, the palm warm and soft where it had barely crept up the hem of his shirt. Halfway through the next episode Stensland had tilted his head up, lips just barely parted, soft and pink and just begging to be kissed, and Clyde was helpless to resist and had pulled Stensland close and kissed him soft and slow, savouring the little gasping breath Stensland took before he pressed closer, lips parting. Clyde had thought he might die from the heady sense of happiness that had filled him, was worried that after being denied good things for so long (and wasn’t Stensland in his arms the best thing? ) he wouldn’t be able to survive the sunburst flare of heat and joy in his chest.
Stensland feels just as good pressed up against him now, wiggling his way just a little tighter into Clyde’s embrace, fingers twisting in the shirt and pulling wrinkles that Clyde can’t be mad about even though he spent twenty minutes pressing it before he left. He knew it wouldn’t hold up in the late summer heat, that the humidity still heavy in the air would make the cotton crease and the starched collar crumple, and he’d much rather sacrifice his cleanly pressed clothes to Stensland’s hands than the weather anyway.
Stensland finally pulls away with a quick kiss to the soft spot right underneath Clyde’s chin, his hands sliding away, and Clyde wants to chase him, wants to follow after and take his own kisses and suggest they skip the fair and just stay inside, wrapped up in each other, but the same worry that made him apologize and say he had to go in for a shift at the bar before Stensland could invite him to stay last time, the fear that even though Stensland had never seemed put off by his hand that the ugly webwork of scar tissue scattered across what remained of his arm and his torso would be too much, that Stensland would take one look at the twisted, puckered skin that still itches and pulls and realize Clyde is broken in ways no one was ever going to decide was worth the effort, stills him.
“We should be goin’,” he says, shifting from foot to foot and scrubbing a hand across the back of his neck.
“Yeah, of course. I just need to-,” Stensland gestures down to his feet, wiggles the toes of his still shoeless foot clad only in a brightly colored sock and looks up at Clyde with a grin. This time he goes over and actually sits down on the couch to tug it on before he pops back up and heads quickly down the hallway to the bathroom, promising the entire time that he’ll be ready soon, he just needs one more minute.
Stensland is still talking, the cadence of his voice broken by the sound of the tap turning on, and while Clyde can’t make out the words he still likes the sound of it, the way Stensland’s accent wraps around the words, shortening vowels Clyde’s own voice draws out while stretching syllables everyone else around West Virginia drops. He walks around the small space that makes up Stensland’s home, the tiny living room crowded with an overstuffed chair and the couch with big, squishy cushions that Clyde blushes just looking at, remembering how Stensland’s weight stretched on top of him had made him sink down in them while they traded slow, lazy, panting kisses. There’s also the boxes, still piled up in the corners, their contents haphazardly half unpacked and scattered, and Stensland had apologized repeatedly for the mess of them the first time Clyde had picked him up. But Clyde likes the boxes, likes the mess of them, because they mean Stensland is here.
“I’m ready, promise. I’m sorry, I picked up an extra shift yesterday, so I got home later than usual, and I didn’t have an alarm set because Monday’s my day off, so I overslept, and-”
“It’s fine,” Clyde cuts him off. It still feels rude to do and Clyde half expects his momma’s spirit to come back from the dead and scold him for his poor manners, but he’s learned that if he doesn’t interrupt sometimes Stensland can carry on forever. He doesn’t mind the talking, not really, has found it a charming quirk since the first time six weeks ago Stensland sat down at the bar and told Clyde he was new in town, and please don’t be offended but he wasn’t really a bar person, it’s just that he was a little lonely and wanted to meet some people and one of his coworker had suggested here…
He had expected Stensland to get bored with him, to decide that Clyde’s silence wasn’t the company he wanted for the evening and wander off to find someone else to talk to, but Stensland had seemed content to stay in the same spot and nurse his one beer and Clyde had found that he kept drifting back to that end of the bar, stealing glances at Stensland and liking the ways his eyes lit up whenever Clyde came back, the way Stensland gestured with his hands while he talked. Stensland never got bothered by Clyde not keeping up his end of the conversation, and Clyde found himself hoping that the strange redhead would come back again sometime, and two nights later Stensland had appeared again, still full of chatter and Clyde had enjoyed having the silence of a slow night filled up as much as he had that first time, as he has every time since.
“I just wanna make sure we got time for you to do everything you want,” he explains, taking Stensland in. Stensland must’ve put some product in his hair, the ends smoothed down and pushed off of his face, although unlike their first date where he had slicked it back with so much gel it had lain completely flat it’s still fluffing up around his ears. He’s overdressed, in khakis and a button down, a bow tie that should look ridiculous but only makes Clyde’s lip twitch up in a smile, and part of him wants to suggest Stensland trade everything out for shorts and a t-shirt so he doesn’t overheat but he likes the fact that Stensland makes an effort for him.
It’s been a long time since someone thought he was worth that.
“You look real nice,” he says, because it’s true, even if he always thinks Stensland looks good, even in the horrible polyester polo with the furniture store logo embroidered on it he has to wear for work. He just likes looking at Stensland, at his expressive face that smiles whenever Clyde is around, at the soft shoulders that he can wrap his arms around so perfectly, his trim waist and long legs and the plush ass he can’t resist stealing glances at when he thinks Stensland won’t notice.
“So do you. You alway look good,” Stensland tells him, stepping forward and running a hand down the line of Clyde’s shoulder, gently squeezing his bicep before tangling his fingers in Clyde’s. “We should go, yeah? Before I make us later than we already are?” He asks, inclining his head toward the door.
“Yeah,” Clyde answers, then clears his throat when the word comes out as a croak. “Yeah, we should, we should head out,” he agrees, the words smoother the second time.
He’s disappointed when Stensland lets go of his hand to lock the door but can’t hide his grin when Stensland takes it again as soon as his keys are in his pocket, only letting go after Clyde’s boosted him up into his truck. It’s not that high off the ground, and they’re near enough of a height he’s sure Stensland would have no problem climbing in himself, but he takes the excuse to fit a hand around Stensland’s waist anyway.
“There’s a ferris wheel!” Stensland announces in excitement as soon as Clyde makes the turn off to the field that serves as parking for the festival.
“We can ride it if ya want,” he offers, then frowns. “Don’ ya’ll have some giant one in Seattle? I’m sure this one ain’t near as exciting.”
“Well yes,” he admits. “But that’s in Seattle, and this one’s here. Where I can ride it with you.”
“Oh,” is all Clyde can find to say before he has to look away from Stensland to concentrate on easing his truck into a spot.
By the time they’ve trekked out of the parking lot past the rows of cars and bought their tickets Stensland’s hair has succumbed to the humidity and fluffed back out and Clyde can feel his shirt sticking to his lower back with sweat. They duck under an archway and into the actual fairgrounds and Clyde’s feet freeze, the soles of his boots glued to the ground, when he registers the sheer number of people.
Clyde flinches at a scream, some part of his brain frantically telling him it’s a child shrieking with joy and not a threat, but his muscles wound tight with the urge to flee anyway, heart pounding as panic seizes him and wraps tight bands around his lungs that prevent him from breathing deeply.
He hasn’t done well with crowds, not since he got back. There are ways he can circumvent his panic, hard won tricks it took too many panic attacks and botched attempts to master. He’s fine if he goes in with a plan, a specific goal he can focus all his attention on. It’s how he managed to press through the crowd at the speedway, to steer Joe and himself to the pipes, breaking it down into simple steps. Go here, this door, down this flight of stairs, almost there now, but an open expanse of land filled with people and no next step in mind makes his knees lock up.
Somehow he had forgotten. In his excitement to take Stensland out, to do something to make him happy, Clyde had forgotten the cruel tricks his fractured mind can pull on him.
Suddenly Stensland’s face is swimming in his vision, a look of concern pulling his lips into a frown, and Clyde doesn’t want that, they’re here because Stensland wants to be. A touch to the back of his hand grounds him and it’s as if all the background noise was nothing but a radio turned so high that Clyde couldn’t think suddenly being switched off, everything sinking to a manageable level and when he goes to take his next breath it’s deep and long, the flood of oxygen calming his nerves and slowing his heart.
“Clyde? Is everything alright?”
He blinks, focuses on Stensland. “Yeah. Everything’s good,” he says, and reasons it’s not a lie, not really. Everything’s fine now , Stensland’s hand warm against his. He can do this, he just has to focus on Stensland.
Stensland frowns, but before he can protest that Clyde doesn’t look fine, and he’s sure his face has gone pale in spite of the heat but he hopes the claminess of his skin just looks like sweat. “Ferris wheel’s this way,” he says, nodding his head toward a branch of the path they’re standing on.
“No, that’s for later. We can’t ride that until dark. It’s hot, let’s go get some frozen lemonade. And then maybe we could ride some of the other rides?” He asks, tilting his head in question.
“Whatever ya want,” Clyde tells him, and let’s Stensland take his hand and lead the way.
They sip on the too sweet lemonade while they wait in line for the Scrambler, Stensland bouncing on his toes in excitement more than the children in line and he shrieks with glee louder than anyone else on the ride as his skinny body is thrown against Clyde’s in the car. They’re still dizzy and staggering on unsteady legs, half leaning on each other for support although Clyde takes great care not to actually put too much of his weight on Stensland’s skinny body because he doesn’t want them to actually end up on the ground when Stensland spots the bumper cars and demand they get on.
Stensland’s a perfect distraction. It’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm, his easy smile infecting Clyde, who gladly lets himself get pulled form ride to ride and spends too much money on the scams they call games because he can’t help the swell of pride he gets when Stensland looks at him with wide eyes when he knocks over all the stacked milk bottles with the first throw of the baseball.
“What about that one?” Stensland asks, pointing across the fairway to the stand with fake rifles set up.
“No,” Clyde says, word reflexibly sharp, then instantly feels guilty at the startled look that flashes on Stensland’s face. “‘M sorry. I just don’ like guns,” he confesses. “Even fake ones.”
“Of course,” Stensland says, voice gone soft and understanding. (But not with pity. Stensland has never seemed to pity him. When Clyde told him how he lost his hand all Stensland had done was bring it up and kiss each carefully jointed finger and stroked his thumb across what would’ve been the knuckles before repeating it on Clyde’s flesh and bone one then looking at him with big eyes and declaring he didn’t notice a single difference.) “We’ve won more than enough anyway. Did you want to find some kids to give them too?”
Clyde keeps a pink bunny with floppy ears that’s small enough he can stuff it into his pocket for Sadie and Stensland clips the keychain in the shape of West Virginia with a heart cut out of it onto his keys, smiling so widely the corners of his eyes crease up while he shows it off to Clyde before they spot a stressed looking woman pushing a stroller while the other two children with her scream and deliver the armful of plush toys to her, waving off the thanks she can’t stop giving them while the kids happily play.
Stensland is working his way through a bag of cotton candy as they wait in line for the ferris wheel, the sun finally dipping low enough on the horizon that Stensland has declared it “dark enough” to ride. Clyde taps a finger against the point of Stensland’s nose, which wrinkles up cutely in protest at the treatment. “I think you’re gettin’ burned,” he says, smoothing his finger over Stensland’s cheeks that are pinked and smattered with more freckles than when they left this morning. “And I think you got more freckles.”
“Oh shoot. I knew I was forgetting something,” Stensland tells him. “I can’t believe I skipped the sunscreen.” he gripes, the corner of his lips twisting down into a tight little frown. “ I’m going to be a peeling mess by tomorrow morning.”
The pout on Stensland’s face is too cute, the skin between his eyes pulled into folds while he tilts his head just slightly, presses into the cup of Clyde’s palm in an clear invitation for comfort. Clyde’s relaxed as the day’s worn on without incident, and now, with the crowd thinned out as it creeps toward night and the families who got here early have headed home to put tired little ones to bed he’s feels even more comfortable, the babble of people around them quiet enough it’s drowned out by the calliope music being piped over the speakers, and he’s been looking at Stensland all day, thinking that maybe when it’s really dark he’ll suggest they leave and go drive out to a deserted field and stretch out in the bed of his truck under a blanket where he’ll pull Stensland close and they’ll look up at the stars in between trading kisses.
Clyde leans down to kiss him, Stensland’s lips parting just slightly, pink from the sticky sweetness of the cotton candy he’s been snacking on, the colorful lights of the ferris wheel bouncing off his hair and Stensland shuffles just a little closer-
There’s a crack, louder than thunder, a sickening snap like a breaking of a bone, but worse, a thousand times worse, infinitely worse, then a boom that rattles through his bones, a blinding flash of light he catches only from the corner of his eye that makes him jerk away, bile thick and heavy on the back of his tongue. Stensland’s saying something, worry on his face but it’s fuzzy, seen through a haze. A whistle, and another blinding burst of light and a horrible rumble.
Clyde stumbles away, thinks maybe he knocks someone down, but he has to get out-
an explosion, and he doesn’t even remember the noise, just knows it was horrible, his ears still ringing, pain lancing up his side and he tries to twist, tries to pull himself up off the ground but every movement makes his side ache and when he looks down where there should be skin there’s nothing but torn, shredded, bloody meat where his side was. He tries to push himself up, slips, because where his hand should be there’s only ragged strips of flesh and the flash of broken bone, blood dripping. He tries to scream but only chokes on blood and sand-
He throws a hand up against the side of whatever building he’s found his way behind to steady himself as he empties his stomach, gasping with the force of his heaves, the smell so acrid it makes him gag again.
“Clyde? Clyde? ” Stensland’s voice cuts through the night, frantic.
He doesn’t want Stensland to find him like this but he has no energy to do anything other than slide down and sit against the wall, tries to hide his nose in his shirt to avoid the rotten smell of his vomit feet away from him as he hugs his bent knees to his body.
Another firework explodes in the sky and he whimpers, too tired to even try not to cry.
“Clyde?” He doesn’t even look up at the crunch of gravel as Stensland approaches, doesn’t want to watch as Stensland’s worry turns to disgust when he see what Clyde’s been reduced to by his own fractured psyche and a measly display of fireworks.
“Hey, shh, it’s ok. It’s going to be fine.” Stensland crouches down before him, a hand held out, hovering over his knees. “I’m here now. Can I, can I sit with you?” They both jump as the next firework goes off, Clyde pulling his legs even closer as he tries to curl up as tight as he can.
He sobs, broken, fractured, barely a sound because he can’t take a proper breath, when a hand settles on his shoulder.
“I’m here, I’m here,” Stensland murmurs as he scoots to sit next to Clyde, his skinny arm wrapping around his shoulders and rubbing his arm. Another thunderous boom, followed by two more in quick succession, leaves him shaking. If there was anything left in his stomach Clyde’s sure he’d be throwing up again, but now there’s just a hollow, clawing ache as his diaphragm contracts.
Stensland makes soothing noises, maybe there’s words but Clyde can’t tell, not when the fireworks going off every few seconds now as the show continues makes him quiver and his pulse kick. There’s a hand on the back of his head, guiding him down, and he’s too confused to understand what’s going on but too shaken to do anything other than allow it. And then suddenly, with one ear pressed against Stensland’s chest and his hand sliding down from Clyde’s hair to cover his other everything’s muffled, his world suddenly narrowed to the thump of Stensland’s heart and fingers stroking through his hair.
He can still hear the fireworks being set off but it’s faded, in the distance, and slowly Clyde’s tears ago away and he can draw in ragged breaths.
“It’s alright, it’s all over now,” Stensland whispers when he finally drops his hand away.
Gingerly, Clyde eases himself out of the ball he had curled into, stretches his legs out and breathes slow and deep when the movement cause his shaky stomach to cramp and scrubs a hand across his face even though he knows it’s hopelessly tear stained.
“Can you stand?”
Clyde’s not sure he can, not really, but he’s already embarrassed himself enough he doesn’t want to admit that he probably can’t, so he nods and heaves himself to his feet, hand going to the wall for support when his knees tremble. He attempts a few staggering steps, Stensland hovering at his side, before his legs steady enough to hold him.
Thankfully the crowds have thinned enough that Clyde can duck his head and stare at his shoes to try to hide his splotchy face without worrying about bumping into anyone. He catches sight of the ferris wheel, now dark and shut down, and guilt stabs him.
“You didn’t get to go on the ferris wheel,” he says, mournfully, hating himself, cursing that he was stupid enough to think he could do this, that he got to have this.
He knows what comes next. He’ll take Stensland home, and Stensland will tell Clyde that it’s alright, he’s not mad. And Stensland is sweet, he’s kind, that’s the worst of it, so he’ll probably even think he means it. But there won’t be another date. Stensland won’t stop by the bar anymore, he’ll stop calling, because Clyde’s too broken for anyone to want to deal with.
He doesn’t get to have nice things. Things like Stensland laughing and happy at his side. Things like Stensland in bed next to him, body curled against him. Things like Stensland in his life, filling it up with sweet smiles and warm chatter and the very brightness he seems to radiate.
Clyde doesn’t get that, and he knows it. He’s always known it.
He knew he was on borrowed time.
He had just hoped it would last a little longer.
“It doesn’t matter,” Stensland says, and Clyde has to close his eyes against the knowledge that this, this is how it starts to end. This is the very first fracture that will grow and spread and break things apart. “C’mon, let’s get you home.”
It’s easy to let himself be led, back out under the same archway they entered through, trudging through the now muddy field to where his truck is parked, just a few scattered cars still there. Stensland is silent the entire way, and maybe that hurts most of all. If these are the last few minutes he’ll ever get with Stensland he wishes he could at least pretend they were normal.
Stensland stops him when he pulls his keys out. “I’m fine,” Clyde protests, even if they both know it’s a lie.
“You’re still shaking,” Stensland says, tugging the keys out of Clyde’s fingers. “Just, let me take care of you, alright?”
“But ya hate drivin’. You’ve told me so.”
“Clyde, please.” And Clyde’s never going to be able to resist, not when Stensland looks at him like that, so he sighs, nods, and dutifully climbs in the passenger seat.
Stensland’s careful as he navigates Clyde’s truck out of the field and turns onto the street, hands white-knuckle gripping the steering wheel as they creep along a steady ten miles below the speed limit. Clyde presses his forehead against the window, stares out into the night as Stensland drives.
Stensland asks for directions and Clyde stares at him before he realizes Stensland is taking him home and not back to Stensland’s apartment. So far he hasn’t brought Stensland to the trailer he used to share with Jimmy. Since Stensland doesn’t drive and instead relies on Boone County’s unreliable bus system to get places Clyde’s always picked him up. It’s not that he’s ashamed of where he lives. It’s not the nicest, but he keeps it tidy and with Jimmy gone to Lynchburg he’s been throwing out the beaten up furniture they got second hand and replacing it with nicer things now that he has the money. He never needed to live there, the bar’s been successful enough since he took over and whatever else the Army’s responsible for he at least has his combat pay. It was Jimmy, left with almost nothing after he split with Bobbie Jo, who couldn’t afford better, and Clyde knew that any suggestion that maybe he pay more than his share would’ve been shot down immediately.
He’s been looking at other places recently. Two bedroom apartments with nice big kitchens he could cook in. Little one story starter homes with tiny garden patches. Places that would really be too big for just him, but maybe in a year or two would be just perfect for the two of them.
But even as he had looked he knew it was too soon, that he was being ridiculous and just dreaming.
And now, now it doesn’t matter.
His fingers tremble as he tries to fit the key in the door but on the third try he finallys manages, twists the lock and pushes it open. He trods down the hallway to the bathroom, Stensland trailing behind him like he’s still afraid Clyde’s going to collapse. He forgoes brushing his teeth and instead just swishes some mouthwash long enough to get the vile taste out of his mouth.
Clyde sits heavily on the bed, drained and exhausted. Stensland kneels on the floor, tugging loose the knots on Clyde’s boots. “You don’t hafta,” he protests.
“Let me take care of you. Please,” Stensland says with a soft touch to Clyde’s knee before pulling one of his boots off. “Did you want your shirt off?” He asks.
Clyde shakes his head. “You don’t need to stay. ‘M fine.”
Stensland frowns and Clyde looks away. Because after this Stensland’s going to leave and he doesn’t want his last memory to be of Stensland with a frown on his face. “Do you want me to go?”
Clyde doesn’t answer.
What he wants doesn’t matter. Stensland will leave eventually.
He lays down and closes his eyes and says nothing. He’s tired and his head hurts and he doesn’t want to watch Stensland walk away from him.
He doesn’t look when he hears Stensland walk away. Doesn’t try to find the words to make him stay.
He does wait until he hears the door click shut to start crying. His throat is raw and his temples are throbbing and all he can do is shake, fists twisted in the sheets because he needs to hold onto something.
Clyde doesn’t hear the door creak open, the clink of a glass of water being set on his nightstand. He jerks at the touch of a hand to his shoulder, hand shooting out to grab Stensland’s wrist before he realizes.
“It’s alright. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Stensland apologizes, holding his other hand up in supplication. Clyde lets go in horror, pulling his hand back against his own chest, feeling every bit a monster when Stensland shakes out the hand Clyde had a grip on. “I’m sorry, that took longer than I expected.”
“Wha?” Clyde asks, shaking his head to try to clear his cobwebbed thoughts, but it still doesn’t make sense that Stensland is here.
“I was supposed to be to work at eight tomorrow. I had to call my manager and tell her I couldn’t make it.”
“I dun understand.”
Stensland should’ve left. Stensland shouldn’t still be here, talking gently like he wants to be here, like he wants to stay .
“Do you mind if I lay down with you?” Clyde shifts over as far as he can, still confused, and Stensland toes off his shoes and then climbs in, reaching across the space between them to card his fingers through Clyde’s hair.
“I’m sorry,” he gasps out, leaning further into the touch. “I know I ruined everything.” There’s more he wants to say, more he has to apologize for, but his throat clogs up and when he tries to draw a breath his nose is stuffed and his vision goes blurry with tears again.
“ You didn’t ,” Stensland insists, shaking his head and making his hair fluff up on the pillow.
“You can go if you want,” Clyde tells him when he trusts his voice again. He doesn’t want Stensland to stay out of some sense of obligation.
“I don’t think there’s any place I’d rather be,” Stensland tells him, and the look he gives Clyde isn’t quite a smile, but it’s gentle and reassuring anyway.
It’s a narrow bed, barely big enough for Clyde and even with him as far to the edge as he can be there’s not a lot of space between them but suddenly even those scant few inches are too much, because Stensland’s still here , right across from him, and he reaches out, needs him closer.
It shouldn’t be possible to forget he’s missing a hand. That half of his left arm below the elbow is gone and replaced with metal.
Except somehow he does.
And it’s only when he touches fingers to Stensland’s cheek and wonders why he can’t feel the warmth for one brief split-second before it registers that he’s touching Stensland not with his working right hand but with cold, unfeeling metal, the closest thing he’ll ever have to being whole again.
Clyde yanks his hand back, tucks it firmly against himself and doesn’t look at Stensland. “You should go,” he says miserably, voice cracked and broken.
“That can’t be comfortable,” Stensland says, ignoring Clyde’s words and instead reaching out, slowly and deliberately, and tapping his fingers against Clyde’s prosthetic before slowly drawing it away from Clyde’s body. He pushes the sleeve up, past the crook of Clyde’s elbow to where the straps cross his arm.
“Wait. Stop,” Clyde croaks out, and Stensland’s hands still.
“Does it hurt?”
He shakes his head. “I don’ want ya ta’ see,” Clyde admits.
“It doesn’t bother me.” Stensland makes no move to undo the straps, just strokes his fingers over the tender skin. Clyde closes his eyes, gives the barest of nods.
Stensland fumbles the buckles but finally works them loose, pulls free the prosthetic and reaches across Clyde to lay it down on the night table before his hands come back to Clyde’s arm. He keeps his eyes closed, because he knows what Stensland’s seeing. The bare patches of skin where hair no longer grows because the callouses from the straps are too thick. The shiny scar tissue. The ugly, jagged scar from the stitches that looks like something belonging to a horror movie monster because field medicine was meant to save lives, not look pretty.
He shivers when Stensland rubs a finger over it, gasps and shudders when he kisses it, his eyes popping open.
“I told you, it doesn’t bother me.”
Clyde’s next breath is tattered when he finally takes it and when Stensland rolls onto his back and tugs Clyde with him it’s nothing at all the follow, to let his head be guided down to lay on Stensland’s skinny chest, to time his breathing with it and to let Stensland brush hair away from his temples, easing him into something like peace for the first time in hours.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Clyde, who hadn’t been sleeping but had been drifting on a pleasant cloud of hazy thoughts, freezes at the question. “No, Clyde. I’m not, I’m not mad. It’s just, you’re miserable, and we could’ve avoided this, if you had just told me.”
“Please,” he asks, because he can’t. He can’t tell Stensland how broken he’s felt, ever since he came back. Jimmy and Mellie and Sadie. His trailer or the bar or the library, the same one he’s gone to since he learned to read at four. His life has been so small, not empty, but lacking. And he had thought, for a long time, that all he had was all he was ever going to have. Because no one was ever going to look past his arm, and even if they could they wouldn’t want him once they realized his body wasn’t the only broken part of him.
And then Stensland had come along, and offered Clyde what had been missing. The chance for something more. A different sort of life. A better life . One where he didn’t do the same things day after day, one where he actually got to live his life instead of just letting it pass him by. And he knew he was going to stumble, fall, end in a spectacular failure. That what he had was all he was ever going to have.
But he had to try, regardless.
Stensland deserves to know. And Clyde will tell him.
But right now he just wants this. Stensland’s body warm next to his. Tangled together in bed. The hope that maybe, just maybe, he’ll get to keep this after all.
“Please, not right now. I promise, I’ll tell you later. Just, not right now.”
“I was so scared of you,” Stensland says after a long moment of silence.
Clyde swallows the hurt sound he almost makes. He knows what he looks like. Missing an arm and the broad shoulders he grew when he hit sixteen only got broader in the military. He’s not in quite as good of shape now as he was then but he still works out regularly, the damaged muscles in his side causing him so much more trouble if he lets them get weak instead of keeping them strong. But he had thought there must be some part of him Stensland liked, enough to keep him coming back to the bar, enough to ask him out.
“You’re just, God, Clyde, you’re so handsome. I couldn’t believe it.”
“‘M not,” Clyde argues. He glances up at Stensland’s face, unsure if he’s being teased, except Stensland’s face is nothing but sincere with a small smile curving his mouth, the freckles Clyde mentioned what seems lifetimes ago standing out against the flush of sun coloring his cheeks.
“ You are ,” Stensland insists. “I was so nervous that first night. As soon as I saw you I was terrified I was going to do something stupid to make you kick me out. I thought for sure I’d scare you away, I know I talk too much, but you kept coming back over and then the next day I asked everyone at work about you, and they all know you and everyone talked about how nice you are, about how much you love your family, how you’d do anything for them. Everyone was teasing me about having a crush on you, and I couldn’t even argue with them because they were right and they knew it.
“And I just kept coming back in and you were always so nice but I thought you were just being friendly, because it was your bar. And I knew you were completely out of my league and I didn’t stand a chance, but I had to ask, at least. I wrote out a script, that first time I asked you to dinner. I said it in front of my mirror every day for a week and I was so nervous I still botched it.”
“I thought I was dreamin’ when you asked,” Clyde admits. “I never thought there was no way you’d be interested in me.”
Stensland chokes out a laugh but when Clyde tilts his head toward him he’s smiling. “I tend to rush into things way too fast. It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble before and I’m trying to get better about it. But God, I took one look at you and knew I’d give anything just for you to talk to me.”
Clyde swallows. He doesn’t know how Stensland can talk like that, not when he’s the special one here. The one who looked past Clyde’s arm and his stoicism, who came into Clyde’s life bright and radiant and made Clyde realize just how dark his world was before.
Stensland’s hand settles on the nape of his neck, fingers digging into the knots Clyde hadn’t realized were there. He splays his hand on Stensland’s belly, the soft give of it under his shirt. “I know, I’m soft,” Stensland whines.
“Naw. I like it,” he says, and slips his hand under his shirt. “It’s perfect, just like this,” he says, and scratched the little trail of ginger hair he sees barely peeking out from the gap between the shirt and the top of Stensland’s pants.
Stensland snorts. “I’m not the one with the perfect body here,” he protests, squirming when Clyde’s touch turns ticklish.
Clyde frowns. “I’m definitely not perfect,” he responds, his fingers stopping their tickling in favor of smoothing down Stensland’s side.
“I don’t care about your hand, Clyde.”
“Not just that. My whole left side got messed up. It ain’t too pretty to look at,” Clyde admits, and makes to pull away, to give Stensland a little bit of space so he can gracefully slip out when he decides this is too much, except he grabs Clyde’s hand, squeezes it tight and doesn’t let go.
“Does it hurt?”
Clyde doesn’t know if Stensland means the roadmap of scars the sometimes still itch and twinge, or his missing left hand, or maybe even his mind that tricks him into seeing danger where there is none, the brain that makes him go grocery shopping at three in the morning because the first few times he tried to go in the afternoon once he was released from the hospital he had panic attacks from all the noise and ended up sobbing in the parking lot with his cart of groceries abandoned.
Whatever Stensland means there’s only one honest answer.
“Sometimes,” he answers truthfully.
“Is there anything I can do to make it better? Now? Or later?”
(Later stretches out before them. And they’ll discover lots of things Stensland can do. Later, tomorrow afternoon, they’ll crawl out of bed to curl up on the couch and Stensland will make Clyde drink water until his headache goes away. Later Stensland will try, again, to cook Clyde dinner but only manage, again, to burn everything, but it won’t matter because Clyde will discover that while Stensland is not to be trusted in a kitchen alone that he likes having him there while Clyde does all the cooking. Later Clyde will shake and tremble and have to close his eyes when Stensland slowly opens the buttons of his shirt and pushes it off Clyde’s shoulders, and all the breath will be knocked out of him when Stensland touches his hands to Clyde’s chest, palms dragging over the gnarled, puckered pull of scars with no disgust or hesitation, sparking nerve endings Clyde thought long dead and he’ll have to bite his lip to keep from arguing when Stensland breathes out “God, you’re beautiful” because he says it with such conviction that even if Clyde knows it’s not true he doesn’t doubt that Stensland believes it.
Even later Clyde will discover that nothing makes him feel better than Stensland taking his hand, and it doesn’t matter to Stensland which one so it doesn’t matter to Clyde, especially when they step across the threshold of their house, their own little house, which might be too small for some people but is just big enough for the two of them who like always being in each other’s space, for the very first time.
Much later Clyde’s hand will shake so much he almost drops the ring he tries to slide on Stensland’s finger before the judge and their two witnesses, but it’s alright, because Stensland’s hands shake just as much when he puts the matching one on Clyde’s finger, bringing it up and kissing the gold band where it sits on the black metal, because Stensland has never cared about the parts Clyde thinks of as being broken.
Eventually Clyde will learn that Stensland worries Clyde’s going to get tired of him always talking, that Stensland tries so hard not to cry at movies because others have complained about him doing it in the past. Clyde will realize that all of the parts of Stensland that Stensland thinks are flaws are part of what Clyde loves about him. It takes even longer, but finally Clyde will come to understand that maybe Stensland loves him not in spite of who he is, but rather just as he is .
But that’s all later.)
For now Clyde lets himself curl back up against Stensland, head on his chest, and he knows he’ll need to move soon, certain he’s too heavy to lay on Stensland’s skinny body much longer, but for now he lays back down and whispers, “Stay?”
Stensland’s “Of course,” is so soft it almost gets lost in the rustle of blankets as he pulls a cover over them, but it doesn’t matter, because Clyde hears it anyway.