Tyler had gone missing nearly two and a half years ago.
Everyone thought he was fine. Tyler was healthy, happy, living his dreams out with his best friend as they toured around the world playing music. After three years of touring, Josh returned to Los Angeles, and Tyler returned home to start working on the next album. He and Josh kept in contact over text and hours of Facetime every single day to the point where Jenna had to come downstairs and remind him to do “people things,” like take a shower or eat.
Tyler knew he wouldn’t last a day without Jenna in his life. Josh knew this too and trusted Jenna with his life.
Which is why when Tyler walked into the woods and never returned, Josh had screamed and cried at her for hours and hours and hours, asking how she could have let that happen.
“He was your responsibility!” Josh shouted with tears streaming down his face. He knew at the time that talking about Tyler like he was an innocent child or a puppy was probably rude, but it felt right. Tyler, although brilliant, sometimes forgot he was a human being with needs. He was so dedicated to his craft, his music, that he put it over his hygiene and health. Jenna always had been much more patient when it came to Tyler’s lack of awareness. Josh felt like boiling water in a tea kettle, bubbling up when he could only deal with so much and screaming when he reached his limit.
Jenna never yelled. Not even when Josh was screaming at her for Tyler’s disappearance.
And when Josh was sobbing, his arms curled around himself, snot dripping down his chin, Jenna did not yell. Instead, she wrapped her arms around him and held him tight.
“He’ll come home,” she whispered into his ear, her breath warm. “He’ll come home, I just know it.”
But he never did.
The whole world came to know about the case of Tyler Joseph, the musician who walked into the woods and never came out. Friends, family, even fans, were completely devastated. Josh had stayed silent, deleting all his social media, unable to deal with the thought of Tyler. He wanted to believe Tyler was still out there, alive, hiding, maybe, but Josh knew, deep down, that just wasn’t true. Tyler wasn’t a kid or a lost puppy. He was a grown man who was capable of taking care of himself if he tried. Tyler would have come back out if he wanted to.
The police began speculating suicide when they found Tyler’s notebooks. Jenna said those were lyrics. Josh said he wasn’t like that anymore.
The notebooks said otherwise.
And then, six months after Tyler went missing, his case was closed when they found scraps of his clothes and gallons of blood inside the forest. Josh had broken his hand from hitting the wall. Jenna stopped eating.
Their families grew apart.
While Josh had blamed Jenna, Tyler’s family blamed Josh. He knew they didn’t mean it, that they were grieving and lashing out, but it still hurt.
At the funeral, it rained. Josh wasn’t surprised. Tyler always had been dramatic and would have loved the idea of a downpour at his funeral. It was almost like a piece of him was looking down over the grieving families and friends.
In a black suit, Jenna on his arm, Josh looked at Tyler’s empty casket and let his silent tears fall. The Josephs did not look at him, would not bat even a single eyelash towards his being. Not even Jay, who had once looked up to Josh like a brother. Jay and Tyler had been close, Josh knew that. Which is why it hurt even more.
He should have been there. If he had been there, in Ohio, with Tyler, perhaps things would have been different.
Jenna still had hope. “They never found his body,” she said, stirring her pasta, “he could still be out there.” Since Tyler’s disappearance, Jenna had turned towards cooking to keep herself busy. She did it constantly, always bringing dishes to Josh’s apartment and family. He was sure she brought food over to the Josephs as well. Sometimes he found himself wanting to break down their door apologizing, but also sometimes, he knew that would never work. They would still blame him for not being here for their son, for Josh’s best friend.
Today is the anniversary of Tyler’s disappear “#RIPTylerJoseph” is trending on Twitter and just seeing Tyler’s name makes Josh sick to his stomach. He brushes his phone to the side and pushes his fingers into his eyes.
Josh wasn’t doing much these days. All of Tyler’s unfinished files full of songs, riffs, and lyrics had been transferred to his computer, but Josh had yet to find himself able to open up the folder. Even hearing Tyler’s voice got to be too much for him when the dark thoughts that raided his mind reminded him that his best friend’s body was lost to the forest he so deeply loved.
He and Jenna stayed close. Josh had moved back to Ohio to spend time with her, picking the closest apartment complex he could find. Even two years later, his living room was still covered in boxes and his mattress sat askew on the floor. Half the time he was sleeping in Jenna’s living room anyways, so he never felt it necessary to make his shitty apartment feel like home. Home was where Jenna was.
Where Tyler had been.
Josh’s phone starts ringing, causing him to pull his hands away and glance down at his buzzing cell. It’s Jenna.
Immediately, he tucks it between his shoulder and ear and stands up to pace the length of his living room. “Hey, love.”
“Josh,” her voice is sweet and he can practically hear her smile. “I invited Mark over for dinner tonight.”
“Oh,” is his reply. Since the band was no longer a thing, Mark and Josh had grown apart. Josh blamed himself for that. He had closed himself off from all his friends, with the exception of Jenna, and let his grief consume him. It wasn’t something he was proud of, but Josh couldn’t bring himself to reach out and fix his fallen friendships.
“I hope that’s okay. I figured we could talk about things.”
“Yeah, no, it’s cool. I’ll uhm, same time, right? Six?”
“Yep. But you’re more than welcome to come over earlier if you’d like.”
“Uh, yeah. Probably. I’ll grab a bottle of wine from Target and head on over.”
“Sounds great.” She pauses, sighs. “I know today has been... difficult for you.”
“That’s an understatement,” Josh mumbles, dropping down onto his sofa. Jenna chuckles sadly.
“It’s been hard for me too. Just know that he--” She gets a little choked up, causing her to stop and take a deep breath, “he’s looking out for us. Wherever he is. And we have each other.”
“Good. Love you, Josh. See you soon.”
“Love you too,” he replies, ending the call and letting his phone fall into his lap. Josh can feel tears of his own welling up in his eyes. God. It had been two years and he still couldn’t get himself together. He thinks it’s because sometimes, he can still picture what Tyler would say or do if he was around. The dumb jokes he’d make. The way his eyes would light up when he started talking about music or a “really cool bass line” he had been playing with.
Josh would spend hours at his drum kit, banging away until his knuckles bled and tears stained his cheeks just thinking about Tyler out there in the woods, all alone, bleeding to death. It wasn’t fair. Josh should have been there.
He should have been there.
At Jenna’s, Josh kisses her cheek as he comes in and sets the bottle of Cabernet on the kitchen table. She’s made spaghetti and lit candles that smell like pumpkin pie. Fitting, considering it’s Autumn.
“Smells so good, Jen,” Josh compliments her as he slides his jacket off his shoulders and hangs it up on the rack behind the kitchen table. Her eyes crinkle at the corners.
“Thanks. It’s a new recipe. I’m hoping the pasta isn’t too rubbery-- it was the first time making it from scratch.”
“I’m sure it will be amazing, as always.” He forces a smile for her. Jenna forces one back. They are used to communicating in forced emotions. If they let the sadness waft around any longer, both thought they might go mad.
Josh makes his way into the living room to sit down when he notices all the pictures of Jenna and Tyler in them are laid down flat, hidden from view. His forced smile turns into a voluntary frown that Jenna notices.
“Too hard,” she says quietly. “Not today.”
“It’s okay,” he nods, patting the cushion next to him. Jenna joins his side and leans into his chest as he wraps an arm around her shoulders. His fingers begin to play with the fabric of her sweater as she sniffs, staring blanking at the dark screen of the television.
“I try so hard to be strong because I know it’s what he would have wanted. You know how optimistic he tried to be about life, especially when his depression was really bad. But sometimes, when I wake up in the mornings, it feels like a bad dream. And I roll over to feel him next to me only to find his side of the bed empty.” Her words tremble like the water droplets Josh and Tyler used to hit off their drums during concerts. His stomach stirs with pain. “I get lonely, sometimes.”
“I get lonely too,” Josh reassures her, beginning to gently rub her arm with the heel of his hand, “don’t worry. That’s why I’m always over here bothering you.”
She laughs lightly. “You could never bother me, Josh.”
“Good,” he replies, right as the doorbell rings. They share a look before Jenna hops off the sofa and makes her way to the front door.
“Probably Mark,” she guesses, proving to be correct when she opens the door and Mark pulls her into a hug.
“Jenna!” He exclaims, his hands tight around her waist, “God, it is so good to see you.”
“Good to see you too, Mark.” Jenna steps away, her hands clasped at the waist as Mark clears his throat and raises a hand to awkwardly wave at Josh.
“Hey,” Josh says back, lowering his eyes to the ground. He honestly has no clue how Mark has been processing things since the funeral.
“Well,” Jenna cuts the tension, her sweet voice a knife, “now that we’re all here, time to eat, huh? Josh brought wine.”
“Cool,” Mark exclaims, following Jenna into the kitchen. Josh reluctantly stands, his stomach twisting with anxiety at the mere thought of having to make small talk with Mark. Especially since Josh had been a huge asshole by shutting him out.
“Jesus, man,” says Mark as Josh slides into his seat, “Hundred Acre?”
“I thought you were going to Target,” Jenna adds, pressing her lips together. As much as she loved giving gifts, Jenna always had a weird thing about receiving them, especially when she knew they cost a lot. Josh had been giving her a lot lately. He felt like it was the least he could do after spending all his time in her house like he lived here.
A shrug. “It’s whatever. Not like I’m spending money elsewhere. And I have it, so.” He clears his throat uncomfortably while Jenna busies herself by scooping pasta into bowls for both men. Josh looks over at Mark, who is not even trying to hide his gaze, studying him like one of his photo shoots. In discomfort, Josh’s eyes return to the tablecloth.
“Guess we better make this count, then.” Jenna sits down in her chair and smiles. “Shall we say grace?”
“Oh.” Josh didn’t realize that was still something Jenna did. Sure, her and Tyler were religious people, but ever since Tyler’s passing, Jenna hadn’t once gone to church. Eventually, Josh lost faith in there even being anything above.
“Sure,” Mark replies, reaching out for Josh’s hand. Josh takes it, barely wrapping his fingers around the back of Mark’s hand, as Jenna takes his other.
“Our Lord in Heaven, we thank thee for our food and for the friendships I’ve had over the years to keep me sane. We ask that you keep an eye on Tyler for us because I can’t imagine the trouble he’s getting into up there.” She laughs a little. “Just, thank you. For everything. Amen.”
“Amen,” Josh mumbles, tucking his hands back into his lap. He glances over at Jenna briefly, just to make sure she’s okay, before turning his attention to the wine. “I can pour.”
“There’s a corkscrew in the kitchen,” Jenna says, starting to stand up, “I can grab it.”
“No, it’s fine!” Josh jumps to his feet to beat her from leaving her seat. He’d like to think he was doing a kind thing by offering, but really, he’s just trying to avoid conversation with Mark. “I’ll get it. You just, uhm, enjoy your food.”
“It’s great,” Mark speaks through a full mouth. Josh disappears into the kitchen.
His heart is beating so quickly, he feels like it might jump out of his body. With a few quick breaths, Josh begins to open the drawers for the corkscrew haphazardly, leaving them all slightly open. He can’t imagine it’ll bother Jenna too much, considering Tyler used to do the same thing.
And, of course, it happens to be in the very last place he looks. This time, Josh is thankful, because every second in here is one more he doesn’t have to be out there. Leaning against the sink, his fingers wrapped tightly around the corkscrew, Josh sighs. He didn’t expect this to be so... hard. It was Mark. Mark was his friend, someone he had spent all his time with for years and years. Josh knew he was going to have to apologize; perhaps that’s why he was so bothered. Giving apologies never had been his strong suit.
Just then, a loud howl comes from outside, stealing his attention away from Mark’s presence. He leans closer, narrowing his eyes, to stare into the darkness of Jenna’s backyard, to stare into the woods Tyler had died in. Were there wolves in Ohio? He wasn’t sure if he knew the answer to that.
And then, there’s a flash of grey. Startled, Josh stumbles backward, the corkscrew crashing to the floor loudly below. It prompts Jenna’s chair to squeak as she leaves it to join Josh in the kitchen.
“Are you okay?” She asks, her eyebrows knitted in worry. Josh bends down to pick up the fallen object and nods his head.
“Yeah. Sorry. I thought I saw something.”
“It was probably a coyote or something,” she suggests, shrugging her shoulders. “ I hear howling all the time. Ohio has those, right?”
“I’m not very knowledgeable on the species living in Ohio woods,” Josh admits, “but, maybe. Either that or a wolf.”
“I don’t think there are wolves here, hun,” she offers a comforting smile and nods back towards the dining room, “are you doing okay being around Mark?”
“Yeah,” Josh chews on the inside of his cheek, “I think.”
“It’ll be okay.” She moves to loop her arm around Josh’s, presses a kiss to his cheek, and steers him out, leaving the howls and flashes of grey in the woods behind them.
The rest of the night goes surprisingly well. Mark talks about the new projects he’s been working on, filming and taking photos for other bands now that Twenty One Pilots was no more. Josh is glad Mark has been able to find work and continue living because he certainly has not.
Josh even gets the courage to apologize. “I’m sorry, dude. For cutting you out. I shouldn’t have done that. I had no right to get so upset at everyone.”
“It’s okay,” Mark tells him, pulling Josh into a hug, “we all cope in different ways. Just know, it was really good to see you again. And I know there are lots of other people who feel the same as I do.”
“Not Tyler’s family,” Josh mutters sadly. Mark sighs.
“Yeah. It’s not your fault though, you know that right? It’s not. It isn’t anyone’s fault.”
Josh is silent for a few moments afterward as he reflects. “You don’t think Tyler killed himself though, do you? He was... he was happy. At least, I thought he was.”
Mark looks at his hands and begins to pick at his fingernails. “Honestly? I dunno, Josh. I don’t want to think that he did, but... who knows. Maybe he was struggling and we didn’t notice.”
“So... maybe it is our fault.”
“I thought he was happy too if it means anything.”
“They never found his body. Maybe... maybe he’s still alive.”
Mark smiles sadly. “Yeah, maybe.”
And later, after Mark has left and Josh is helping Jenna clean up, he asks her the same thing.
“Do you think Tyler is really dead?”
She freezes, her sponge clenched hand stopping mid-wipe. Josh leans against the countertops and folds his arms across his chest, pushing the toe of his sneaker into the ground.
“I mean, ‘cause, at first, you told me you didn’t... think so, and then tonight, at dinner, when you said grace--”
“I don’t know,” Jenna interrupts, her tone snippy. Josh doesn’t mind, because he knows he brought up something he probably shouldn’t have. “I don’t want to think he is. But... he probably is at this point. Where else could he be? Do you really think he would just leave?” She scoffs bitterly, her eyes filling with tears. She lets her hair fall into her face to cover her crying. “I thought everything was okay. We talked about having kids, Josh. He was working so hard on a new album, you guys talked every day, he smiled all the fucking time--” She has to pause to catch her breath. Josh steps forward to gently touch her shoulder, just to let her know he’s there, and he’s listening.
“You know, the day before he disappeared, he had told me he bought plane tickets for us to go on vacation. He was so excited, kept kissing me, kept talking about how it was a surprise and he wanted to to be romantic. But when the police went through his emails, his things, y’know, they didn’t find any confirmations for plane tickets or hotel bookings.”
Josh frowns. “Did you tell the police that?”
“No. I thought, maybe, he just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. You know how Tyler is-- scatterbrained, all over the place, constantly getting distracted. And then, the more I thought about it, thought about how he was phrasing things... it sounded like he was making plans, amends, like he somehow knew he wasn’t going to be on Earth anymore.”
“So... are you thinking suicide?”
She doesn’t answer right away, resorting to slowly shaking her head and staring out the window at the swaying branches of the trees. “Ty... he always talked to me if he was struggling. You know how open he was about mental health. It just... it doesn’t seem right. But he started giving things away-- clothes, his little action figures, collectibles that had been downstairs in his studio. He went to his parents' house a lot, hung out with Jay. He knew just as much as I did how much Jay looked up to him. I can’t help but feel like Tyler knew, that maybe he got caught up in some bad stuff.”
Josh blinks. “Are you insinuating murder, Jenna?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” her words run together as she begins to backpedal on what she said. “I just... I think something happened that we didn’t know about.”
“But the police went through all his stuff, Jen. If they would have found anything suspicious, they would have let us know.”
“Maybe so.” She shrugs her shoulders. “I just... I’ve never had a good feeling about Tyler’s disappearance. He told me he’d was going for a walk to clear his head. I know the woods was always the place he’d go when he wanted to get some inspiration and clarity for writing. He knew those woods, so I didn’t worry. But I should have. I should have.”
“Oh, love,” Josh replies, pulling her away from the sink and into a giant hug. “It wasn’t your fault, okay? It wasn’t.” She sniffs into his shoulder as Josh continues trying to comfort her. He isn’t really thinking, just spewing words he think will make her feel better. “As much as we were on Tyler’s ass about taking care of himself, we just gotta remember that he was an adult. He made his own choices, and there was only so much we could have done.”
“But did we do enough?” Jenna speaks into his shirt, her voice hoarse. Josh knows she’s about to break down because he is too. Every time they talked about Tyler, it got like this.
“I wanna say yes. So badly.”
“I know.” She collects herself, pulls away from Josh’s hug, and smiles. “That’s enough sadness for tonight. I actually... wanted to ask you something.”
Josh knits his eyebrows. “Yeah, sure. What’s up?”
Jenna returns to the dishes. It’s what she feels comfortable doing, what helps her cope, so Josh doesn’t stop her, only takes the plates from her and places them in the dishwasher. “I... I think I’m going to leave for a while, get out of Ohio. Just visit my parents.”
“Okay.” He wished he could get away sometimes, but it was always Jenna that kept him here. “When are you thinking of leaving?”
“Tomorrow.” Jenna sounds almost... regretful, like she feels bad for dropping this all on him. Josh hopes she doesn’t think that. If anyone deserved a vacation, it was Jenna. “I bought my ticket earlier today. One way.”
“So you don’t know when you’ll be back?”
“No.” She wipes her hands on a dishtowel and turns around to face him. “I just... I was wondering if you’d wanna house sit for me. Get the mail, keep the house a home, lived in, and stuff. Maybe go downstairs and see Tyler’s studio. I haven’t been down there since....” A pause. “Since he disappeared. It’s probably covered in dust and stuff, but it might help.”
“I haven’t looked at the music he recorded. The ones that the police gave me from his computer. I just can’t bring myself to listen to his voice.”
“It’s okay,” Jenna promises, stepping forward to hold him in her arms. “I haven’t been able to either.”
“Can I take you to the airport?”
“I’d like that. Would you be okay with staying the night?”
His smile is warm. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
“Cool. I haven’t moved Tyler’s clothes from his dresser. I’m sure he’s stolen some sweats of yours, so, you’ll be able to find something.”
“Do you think they still smell like him?”
She nods her head. “Yeah, I bet they still do.” Jenna’s hands slide back around Josh’s neck, pulling his head down to catch him in a kiss. Josh kisses her back because it feels right. Jenna always had known the special bond Tyler and Josh shared, and she allowed them to experiment with each other but never had she kissed him like this. Kissing her reminded Josh of Tyler’s kisses.
“Feels right,” she mumbles against his lips, “like he’s here with us.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
The two abandon the rest of the dishes for an early evening in. Jenna turns on the television while Josh changes, but he finds himself unable to even touch Tyler’s dresser. He can see the dust on it, so Jenna must feel the same way.
And so he sleeps in his boxers, knowing Jenna won’t care. They snuggle up close, Jenna laying her head on Josh’s bare chest. There’s a rerun of Seinfeld playing on TV, but the volume is so low that he really can only hear the laugh track.
Jenna begins to trace her finger across Josh’s stomach, causing him to tense up. She jerks her hand away.
“No, it’s...” he swallows nervously, “it’s okay, really. I just... it’s been a while.”
“Yeah,” Jenna agrees, nodding her head. “People have told me I need to get back into dating, but I just... I can’t. I really thought that when we got married... that would be it. We would live happily ever after.”
“Kissing him was like taking ecstasy.” They share a chuckle. As close as they had gotten over the two years since Tyler’s disappearance, never had they sat snuggled up in what had once been Tyler’s bed too. Here Josh was, sitting in Tyler’s spot, holding Tyler’s wife in his arms. To anyone outside their inner circle, that would have been a horrible thing to do, but to Josh, he knew Tyler would have wanted him to take care of her.
“It was,” she agrees, her painted nails back on his stomach. Jenna’s hair tickles his chest. “You made him so happy, Josh. I hope you knew that.”
“He made me happy too.”
“Tyler was so scared you would feel abandoned when we got married. It kept him up at night. And when I told him he didn’t need to change anything, that he could continue to love the both of us in any way he pleased, I think the idea of having power made him second guess himself about everything.”
“I remember.” He and Tyler had never put labels on what they called themselves, even when they first met and fell hard for each other. They would spend cold nights in the van, kissing, holding each other, annoying Mark and Michael to no end. The first time they had kissed again after Tyler got married scared the crap out of him. He had cried, told Josh he was sorry, that he didn’t want to make him upset. Josh had promised Tyler would never upset him, not purposefully.
“Once he got comfortable, it was like everything fell into place. You guys were my boys. And I loved both of you so much. I still love the both of you with all my heart. All I ever wanted was for Tyler to be happy. And when I think about what happened to him, I feel like I failed him.”
“You didn’t. You were his everything.”
“We were his everything,” Jenna corrects him, tilting her chin up to see his face. Her eyes are still wet. “You were just as important to him as I was. And Josh, without you, I don’t know how I would have gotten through this.”
“I feel the exact same way.” This time, Josh is the one to initiate a kiss. Jenna slides her hands to grasp at his waist, adjusting her position to better reach his mouth. Josh cups her cheek and closes his legs as he feels his body beginning to react to his first kiss in years. Even though it’s Jenna, and he loves her, he’s still thinking about Tyler. And he knows Jenna is too. It’s what’s bringing them together, fueling their kiss, giving them the incentive to continue.
Jenna pulls away long enough to take her shirt off. She isn’t wearing a bra, but Josh keeps his eyes level, not wanting to disrespect her.
“Are you sure?” He asks.
“I want to,” she nods, “if you do. I just think it’ll help us. To know. To feel.”
“Our emotional connection.”
“Tyler would have wanted it. Wanted us to take care of each other.”
“You’re right,” Josh agrees wholeheartedly. Jenna kisses him again, her hands guiding his own to touch her breasts. His breath catches a little.
“It’s okay,” she whispers. “It’s okay, J.”
“Yeah,” he gasps, thumbing her nipple, “yeah.”
Slowly, Jenna climbs into his lap and parts her lips to allow Josh’s tongue entrance. He can feel himself growing harder, especially when she helps him peel his boxers away.
And although it started as a way to mourn Tyler, by the end of it, Jenna is all he can think about.
The next morning, Josh drives Jenna to the airport. She only has one suitcase, her things thrown in without much thought. Josh isn’t too worried, though. He knows she’ll be able to take care of herself.
“Keep in touch, please,” he asks her, leaning down to kiss her forehead. Jenna smiles.
“Of course. Keep our home warm, okay?”
“And go down into his studio. I really think it’ll help.”
“I’ll try.” As much as it’ll pain him to see Tyler’s things untouched, it might be something he needs to finally close the loop. Being with Jenna was the first thing. Perhaps this is what will help him move on.
“Love you,” she tells him, pulling him in for one last hug.
“I love you too.”
Josh doesn’t go back to Jenna and Tyler’s home right away but stops at his apartment to gather up his things. He’s always wanted to tell his apartment to fuck off, anyway.
At the Joseph household, Josh dumps his things in the master bedroom and takes a moment to study what had been Tyler’s dresser. With a long sigh, he steps forward and drags the tip of his index finger through the thin layer of dust. If Josh thought he was sad, he couldn’t even imagine how Jenna felt constantly being reminded that Tyler was no longer around.
She was strong; so much stronger than he was.
The first drawer is full of Tyler’s underwear. With a scoff, Josh closes it and continues down to pull open the second containing Tyler’s shirts. There’s a few Josh recognizes instantly, ones that Tyler wore practically every day, and even some that Josh had been looking for everywhere. Of course Tyler took them. Tyler was constantly asking for Josh’s hoodies and sweats because they smelled like him. And Josh could never say no to Tyler.
The last drawer contains his shorts and jeans. Josh pauses to rub his fingers over the fabric before he shuts it. Jenna was right. His clothes do still smell like him. Jenna must have not ever touched this thing, even after all these years.
Afterward, Josh pads into the kitchen to pour himself a drink. Tyler wasn’t a drinker, but Jenna had some wine lining the top of the refrigerator. He decides on a white wine and fills the cup halfway before turning to approach the basement door. It really shouldn't be this hard. It feels like he’s walking to his death instead of Tyler’s basement studio.
But he had spent so much time down there, by Tyler’s side, working on music. And the idea that he would never get to do that again was heartbreaking to him.
Josh knew Tyler would have wanted him to continue playing music, and perhaps Josh would, later in life. Playing with anyone except his best friend didn’t feel right. For now, he was still dealing with Tyler’s loss.
The lights flicker when Josh turns them on. Glass in hand, he begins to descend the carpeted stairs until he reaches the bottom, the corner of a wall obstructing Josh’s full view of the studio. He straightens his shoulders, takes a sip of his drink, and steps forward.
Jenna was right. It looks untouched like Josh is staring at a photograph. It makes his chest ache as he makes his way around, touching the iMac, the keyboard, pushing away dust from the tabletop. Even his little figurines are still in their original spots, and Josh finds himself smiling as he picks up Bowser only to feel it in his hand.
Everyone thought Tyler was this bold, cool, intimidating dude, but in reality, he was a giant, dumb nerd. And Josh loved him for it.
“Nope,” he speaks out loud, setting the Bowser figure back down. Josh sets his drink down on the desk before returning upstairs to get retrieve a duster. It doesn’t feel right to let Tyler’s studio disappear in dust or decay away. This piece of Tyler deserved to be kept alive.
When he runs the duster over the computer mouse, the monitor blinks on. Josh frowns, surprised the computer is even still on after all this time of disuse and finds himself abandoning his chore to sit in Tyler’s leather office chair. He puts in Tyler’s password, it being something Tyler always shared with him, trusted Josh with, and stares at the desktop.
It’s a picture of him with Tyler, one of the last ones they ever took together. Josh feels tears well in his eyes but keeps himself together. He needs to be strong. It’s what Tyler would have wanted.
The mouse hovers over the folder marked Trench. Josh closes his eyes, bites his tongue, raises himself up, before double clicking.
Most of it looks normal, which isn’t surprising. Josh isn’t sure why he was expecting to see something wild or crazy. A lot of the songs are ones Josh was aware of and had helped work on. They even had made a music video for one of the songs.
He moves the mouse to click on “Jumpsuit” and leans back in his chair for iTunes to load. Josh keeps his hands tucked under his chin, his breathing uneven, as the song starts. It’s not perfect, and definitely hadn’t been mastered yet, but just the sound of Tyler’s voice alone is enough for him to have a mental breakdown.
His entire body shakes with each sob and he slams his head down onto the desk to cry into his arms. It wasn’t fair. Josh would have given his own life for Tyler. Tyler had spent his whole life fighting to be alive and for him to die young anyway pissed Josh off.
Josh sits up, wipes his eyes with the bottom of his shirt, and sniffs. He looks back at the computer screen to exit out of iTunes, to close out the file, and return to his dusting.
But before he closes the folder, something catches his eye. There’s a file underneath the last song that isn’t a wav format. It definitely had not been there when Tyler had sent him a screenshot of the folder right before he disappeared.
The file is a note titled “The Woods.” His Adam’s Apple bobbing rapidly, Josh double clicks it and leans forward. Tyler had never mentioned anything about a song called “The Woods.” It didn’t make sense since they already had a song called “Forest.”
The thing that shocks him the most is that it isn’t song lyrics, but a single sentence that reads:
I am gone but never left; you can find me in the woods.
Goddammit. Even after death, Tyler was being cryptic.
“God,” Josh mutters under his breath, “you can never make this easy for me, can you, Ty?” It felt like he was reading one of those stupid riddles you could find in a kids magazine. Those things always pissed him off.
But it’s the words “gone but never left” that really have Josh puzzled. Was Tyler insinuating that he was still here, even after his disappeared? Did Tyler know he wasn’t going to return when he walked into the forest that crisp, October day?
Maybe Jenna had been right. Maybe the police had thought it was another song and hadn’t given it a second thought.
Maybe Tyler was still alive.
Josh reaches into the drawer of Tyler’s desk to retrieve a pen and a post-it note to sloppily scribble down Tyler’s riddle. He shoves it into his pocket and returns to his chores.
As Josh is getting ready for bed, he finds himself in the kitchen, staring at the woods that back up to the backyard. He rubs the crinkled post-it note with Tyler’s riddle on it in between his fingers, and as stupid as it sounds, it feels like Tyler is with him, looking over his shoulder, just like old times. Flashes of grey in the forest again steal his attention away from his best friend and make him think back to his conversation with Jenna. Were there really wolves or coyotes in the woods?
Another howl causes him to jump a good foot into the air. It’s followed by a loud screech that sounds like nothing Josh has ever heard in his entire life. A tingle settles at the base of his spine that Josh knows for certain he does not like at all.
That night, before he goes to sleep, he searches wolves and coyotes in Ohio. Most websites say sightings aren’t common, but sometimes coyotes could be spotted from backyards.
Josh wants to believe it was a coyote he heard-- but that screech?
That wasn’t an animal.
And it definitely wasn’t human.
The next morning, Josh stares out the back door while he sips his coffee. Heaps of orange and yellow leaves twirl to the ground below when the wind blows through them. Josh narrows his eyes, trying to see past the fallen leaves into the forest for coyotes. Obviously, he knows he isn’t going to see anything wandering around in during the day, but he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about that screech he heard. Josh could barely even sleep.
He figures he’ll spend the day in town, buying a few groceries and adding to the Joseph alcohol collection (or lack thereof). Getting out will be good for him.
Josh downs the rest of his coffee, sets the mug down on the table and returns his attention to the backyard. He tries to put himself in Tyler’s shoes and imagine what he was thinking of when he walked into those woods and never returned.
But Josh doesn’t know what Tyler’s intentions where. He doesn’t know if Tyler was scared, happy, or even felt nothing at all. All he knows is the outcome.
“Tyler,” Josh murmurs, tucking his hands under his armpits, “Tyler, Tyler, Tyler.”
The more he thinks about it, the more likely it seems that Tyler’s riddle was a suicide note. Josh didn’t want to believe it, because the police had never found a body, but maybe there was a chance that Tyler was still out there somewhere, rotting, becoming one with the Earth.
He really doesn’t want to think about it, but his stupid brain loved thinking of things he really didn’t want to.
After a long day of grocery shopping, Josh busies himself with making dinner. He hadn’t cooked on his own in a long, long time. There wasn’t time for it on the road, and after Tyler disappeared... Josh couldn’t bring himself to do it-- or anything, really.
It isn’t like Josh would call himself a super chef; he was nothing compared to Jenna, but as he sat frying pork chops, he’d be lying if he wasn’t feeling just the tiniest bit of pride for cooking.
He understands why Jenna felt lonely. The house wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t small, either; Tyler had wanted only the best for Jenna. But now that she was the only one here, it couldn’t have felt nice to live all alone.
The clinks of his knife and fork echo in the silence of the setting house as he eats. Outside, the wind stirs. It sounds like it might start storming soon.
He hears another screech come from the backyard, the same one he heard the night before. Josh wonders if Jenna ever wondered what was out there screaming in the woods, and then wonders if she ever thought it was something that could have eaten her husband.
Almost like she knew Josh was thinking about her, Jenna calls him. He lets his fork clatter to the plate as he practically leaps out of his chair to grab his phone from the middle of the table.
“Josh!” She exclaims loudly. It sounds like she’s in a busy place.
“Hey, Jen. Got to Nashville okay?”
“Yeah, Mom and I went out for dinner. How are you doing?”
“Good. I got some groceries, made myself dinner for the first time in... jeez, forever.”
“That’s so awesome to hear! Do anything else?”
“I visited Tyler’s studio.”
“You did?” She pauses. “Good.”
“I dusted it. Even listened to one of the new songs.”
“I’m so proud of you, Josh. You’ve accomplished so much in one day.”
“Yeah.” He smiles to himself before clearing his throat. “Jen, did you ever hear like, weird screeching from the woods at night?”
“It’s just the coyotes. Nothing to be scared of. They’ve been howling a lot this past year.”
“Sure, sure.” Josh looks back toward the window, where it’s started to drizzle. He thinks about Tyler’s note. “I found a note on Tyler’s computer with the Trench songs. It... kind of sounded like a suicide note.”
“What?” Jenna yells. “I can’t hear you, Josh. I think the service here is getting worse. I’ll call you tomorrow!”
“No, Jen, wait!” It’s too late. With a groan, Josh sets his phone down.
The police gave him those files. Maybe if Josh had looked earlier, they could have found more. Maybe they even could have found Tyler in time.
Another screech roars from the woods. Josh feels like he might be going crazy because he finds himself actually sliding his arms through his jacket sleeves and pushing himself through the french doors to the backyard.
The wind is starting to pick up as Josh makes his way towards the forest, using the flashlight on his phone to avoid tripping over fallen branches. There are two more screeches this time, simultaneously. Josh sucks in a breath. He knows what he’s doing is incredibly stupid, but he can’t help but feel like the woods will have the answers he desires. Besides, he doesn’t think those are coyotes in the woods.
The rain begins to pick up the deeper into the forest he ventures. Josh wraps his arms around himself, pulls his jacket tighter around his shoulders, and marches forward.
The next screech he hears is far too close for his liking and causes him to walk into a tree. As he rubs his nose, something runs past him, causing his phone to plummet to the grass below.
“Hello?” Josh feels like an idiot. Obviously, no animal is going to answer him out here. He thinks about how stupid he is as he bends down to pick up his phone and steadies himself before raising the flashlight.
At that moment, Josh wishes it had been coyotes wandering around the woods because what he finds himself nearly nose to nose with is definitely not human.
It’s tall and lean, with sickly grey skin, pointed ears, mustard yellow eyes, and giant, sharp fangs that protrude from its mouth. It bends down on all fours and screams at him.
“Fuck!” Josh yells, immediately bolting. He was an idiot. Why did he come out in the woods alone at night? What the actual fuck is wrong with him?
From behind, the creature screams again as it scurries up the trees and drops down back in front of him. Josh stumbles to the ground, his phone landing in a pile of wet leaves, plunging the woods into darkness. He scrambles backward on his bottom, trying to catch his balance to run deeper into the forest. His phone doesn’t matter anymore. Josh only cares about his life.
Maybe this is why Tyler never came out of the woods. He was eaten by whatever the actual fuck this thing was.
This is bad. It’s all he can think about as he runs, his breathing heavy, his heart pounding against his chest. Tree branches tug at his arms, tearing through the fabric of his jacket. Josh can still hear the howls behind him. It sounds like there are more of those creatures out here than just the one.
Something grabs him by the hood of his jacket, yanking him onto his back. He screams as the creature sinks its teeth into his leg. A clawed hand wraps around his throat as the yellow-eyed... thing screeches into his face.
Josh thinks about Jenna. She had trusted him. Loved him. And here he was, about to die, because he had to go into the woods like an idiot.
He closes his eyes and waits, but death never comes. Something slams into the creature, sending it spiraling into a tree. It’s hard to make out the figure as it howls back. Lightning cracks above them, giving Josh a glimpse at two other of the creatures who join the third’s side. A fourth continues to scream, hidden in the shadows. They scream back and forth for what feels like forever before the three scamper off. Josh’s eyes have adjusted enough to see that the fourth creature doesn’t have the same, long and skinny limbs as the other three did, but it still sat back on its haunches, its shoulders pointed back in defense as a wolf did with its ears. Josh scrambles against a tree and holds his breath.
Slowly, the creature approaches him, and once Josh can see who it is under the moonlight, he about passes out.
Despite his yellow eyes, or his pointed ears, or the row of jagged teeth protruding from the right side of his face, it’s still Tyler.
“Tyler,” Josh’s voice cracks and his eyes fill with tears, “oh my God, Tyler.”
He offers Josh a hand to help him stand up. His fingernails look more like claws and his clothes are torn to shreds. Tyler doesn’t say anything, only tilts his chin in a gesture for Josh to follow him and scampers ahead on all fours. Josh follows, because what else can he do? His just found out his best friend was alive after thinking he was dead all this time. He stumbles, a sharp pain in his leg, but continues forward.
Tyler leads Josh to a rock overhang that leads into a cave. Josh sits down as Tyler lights a fire. By the faces he’s making, Josh can tell that this version of Tyler is not a fan of light, but is sacrificing his comfort to try and keep Josh warm.
Josh can’t tear his gaze away from Tyler’s ghastly face. Half of it looks normal, with his greasy hair falling in waves over his forehead, but his skin is pale and covered in pinkish-purple bruises. He has dried blood across his jaw, down his neck, in between the crevices of his teeth. The other half of his face is the scary bit.
The monster bit.
His skin is ripped up all the way to his ear, providing his sharp, jagged teeth places to extend from the rents. His skin is so pale, paler than Josh has ever seen before, and his cheeks are sunken in. The tip of his long, pointed ear pokes out from his mess of unruly hair and his irises are the color of honey mustard. His collarbones protrude from his skin where the tatters of his shirt hang and Josh can barely make out his tattoos underneath all the blood and dirt sticking to his skin.
Tyler looks at him. “Hey.”
His voice is rough and hoarse. Josh assumes so since he probably hasn’t been doing much talking over the past two years.
“I... God.” Josh rubs his eyes and scoots closer to the fire. “After all this time, all you have to say is ‘hey?’”
Tyler grunts. “I... it... uhm, been awhile.” He hides the warped side of his face from the flames and sighs. “Sorry.”
“No, don’t apologize. It’s not your fault.” Josh doesn’t know what to say. He knows this is hard for the both of them.
Tyler is much skinnier than Josh remembers. His arms and legs aren’t as long and limber as the other creatures were, but they are long enough for him to move on all fours like a predator. He has blood caked underneath his claw-like fingernails.
“I’m... so sorry. I don’t know what to say, or how I even... start a conversation like this. I... everyone... thought you were dead.”
Tyler bows his head. “Yeah.”
“Have you been living here the whole time? What have you been eating?”
He doesn’t reply. This whole thing is stressing Josh out. He doesn’t know what those things were or what Tyler has become. And he doesn’t want to freak Tyler out with a bunch of questions, either.
“What were those things, Tyler? And how come... how come you never told us you were alive?”
“Can’t answer.” He’s thinking his way through his sentences, trying to remember how to speak. “I... need to think.”
“Can we go back to the house?”
“No. Not safe.”
Right. There were monsters outside.
Josh runs a hand through his short hair. “Okay, well, guess we’re spending the night here.”
Tyler nods. “I have to... uhm. Eat.”
“Okay, yeah. Sure. Whatever you need to do, man.”
“Keep warm,” Tyler gives him a command as he rises to two legs, his long, skinny arms wrapping around his fragile body. “You... safe here. The others...” His sunken cheeks swell with air that disappears as he exhales, “my territory. They leave you be.”
He’s getting better at speaking already, Josh notes. He’s very impressed, considering Tyler probably has been leaning more towards animal instinct these past two years than anything remotely human related.
Tyler’s footsteps are loud and inhuman as he shuffles out of the cave. Josh hears some more screeching and pulls himself closer to the flame. He knows Tyler might be some kind of... monster, but it’s okay.
Josh knows Tyler would never hurt him.
To say he even got a “little bit” of sleep would be an understatement. Josh doesn’t sleep one bit because he’s too busy huddling close to the dying embers of the fire, his jacket zipped up to his chin, his arms wrapped around himself to provide a little bit of body heat. Outside, the creatures continue to screech and scream at each other. Tyler sits at the cave opening, marking his territory, protecting Josh.
The one time Josh does manage to fall asleep, he’s woken up to the sound of chewing and finds Tyler hunched over the carcass of a squirrel, using his fangs to rip through flesh and bone. The sounds alone are enough for Josh to roll over onto his hands and knees and vomit up his dinner. Tyler is by his side in an instant, resting a blood-covered claw onto his back. Josh gags again, his stomach reeling as he slinks away from Tyler’s touch and backs against the cool wall of the cave.
That wasn’t normal. Tyler shouldn’t have been eating squirrels like that. He shouldn’t even have been eating squirrels, period!
“Sorry,” Tyler tells him, “I will... explain. Promise.”
“Back at the house,” Josh coughs out, using the back of his hand to wipe away the puke at the corners of his mouth. “It’s safe. We can talk.”
Tyler shakes his head. “No.”
“Tyler, please. I can get you cleaned up. I bet it’s been a while since you’ve bathed, huh?”
He sighs. “Jenna.”
“She’s in Nashville. It’ll just be me and you, man.”
He’s thinking about it, leaning back on his hind legs. A hand moves to touch an infected cut on his arm. His eyes flicker to the blood soaking Josh’s pant leg.
Finally, Tyler says, “okay.” Josh sighs with relief.
“Jenna’s bound to have first aid stuff at home, right?”
His eyes flicker with a frosted, white film, hiding his yellow irises from view. Tyler turns to look out the mouth of the cave.
“What?” Josh sits up and scoots away from his pile of puke, an itch running down his spine. “It’s okay. What’s up?”
He shakes his head. “Can’t. Rem-m-m...”
“Remember? It’s okay. It’s okay. We’ll just, go back to the house when the sun rises. Those monsters won’t bother us during the day, right? I can only assume, since... you didn’t like the fire very much.”
Tyler narrows his eyes and his face, the human part, at least, fills with pain. Josh realizes all too late what he said and before he can apologize, Tyler is darting into the woods.
“Ty, I didn’t mean it, you, you aren’t a monster!” It’s too late. Tyler is gone.
Josh pushes his fingers into his eyes and grumbles loudly. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to react. Mostly, he’s in a state of shock. He has no clue what Tyler has become or what the other creatures out there are. All he knows is that those things tried to eat him, and Tyler wasn’t dead.
When the sun peaks over the horizon, Tyler returns. He has more blood down his front and must have been out there feeding again.
“We have to go,” he growls, pointing towards the forest. “To the house.”
“Okay,” Josh nods, pushing himself up off the ground. “Do you know where you’re going?”
“Yeah,” Josh whispers. He has a limp but continues to shuffle towards the mouth of the cave. “Tyler, I’m sorry. About what I said. You aren’t... y’know.”
Tyler doesn’t reply.
They are quiet as Tyler leads the way back to the edge of the woods. Josh limps behind him, his leg twitching every so often. He knew he had gotten bit and the thought that he might turn into... whatever Tyler was, lingered in the back of his head.
Tyler hisses when they reach his backyard, that frosted white film returning to his eyes. Josh wonders if that’s like, some kind of defense against light as the sun peeks over the roof of the house. Quickly, Josh slides off his jacket and hands it to his best friend, who looks at him, waiting for approval.
“It’s fine, dude. Seriously. If it’ll help while we cross the yard.” He pauses. “You aren’t going to like, turn into ash if the sunlight hits you, right?”
“I’m not a vampire,” Tyler grumbles as he slides Josh’s jacket over his elongated limbs. His arms are too long for the sleeves to protect him, but he keeps it on anyways, popping the hood over his long, greasy hair. Josh holds his hands up apologetically.
“Sorry. I just... don’t know what to expect, or whatever.”
Tyler blinks, his gaze on the french doors of what had once been his home. Josh thinks he might be crying, but there’s so much grime caking his face that he isn’t sure.
“I wasn’t supposed to come home,” he finally says. “That’s... what, I uhm, was trying to say.”
“It’ll be okay for a day, right? I don’t want you to get hurt, and we walked pretty far from your little hobbit hole already.”
Tyler lowers his chin to his chest and sighs. “Yeah. Okay.” He gestures with his clawed up hands, allowing Josh to lead the way as he tucks his exposed skin under his armpits.
Once inside, Josh turns all the lights off and closes the curtains, allowing it to be just dark enough that Tyler lets the film off his eyes. It’s weird, his eyes being yellow, after so many years of them being brown.
Josh looks at his unfinished dinner he left behind. “Oh, shit. Forgot about that. Are you by any chance interested in eating cooked meat?” Tyler shakes his head, already busying himself by removed Josh’s jacket. One of his claws pokes a hole right through the fabric, making Tyler’s entire body shake. Josh blows a raspberry in what he hopes is a lightful tone.
“Don’t worry about it, man. I needed to get a new jacket anyways.” It allows Tyler to relax as Josh brings his dishes to the sink and returns to the dining room. Tyler is still looking around, probably noting all the minor differences Jenna had made since his disappearance. Josh reaches out to touch his arm, which, looking back on, probably wasn’t his smartest idea, considering whatever the hell Tyler was, but his best friend only flinches and turns to look at him. He tilts his head and stares as Josh rubs his thumb over the x tattoo they had gotten together many years ago. It’s partially hidden by scabbed blood and makes him chuckle a little.
“Do you remember that?” He asks. Tyler’s skin is cold to the touch, but smooth, like he’s touching granite.
“Of course,” Tyler replies, tugging his arm away. He lowers himself down to walk on all fours and scampers down the hallway. Josh assumes he knows where the bathroom is and follows to find him staring at a picture Jenna kept of them by her bedside.
“She misses you,” Josh comments quietly. Tyler nods.
“I miss her.”
“I’m sure she’d be happy to see you, even now. I mean, if I reacted how I did, hers isn’t going to be much different, right?”
Tyler scowls but continues to journey into the master bathroom. He always had been one for baths, so the tub itself is huge and jacuzzi like, with a plethora of good smelling bath bombs Jenna bought from Lush and all kinds of shampoos and body washes. Tyler sneezes and hides his head in embarrassment.
“Did you just sneeze?” Josh asks, the corners of his mouth tilting into a small smile.
“No,” Tyler mumbles. “I was... trying to... laugh.”
“It was cute,” Josh promises as he kneels down to turn the faucet on. He runs the water hot because it’s probably been a while since Tyler has experienced anything but the cold. Josh reaches for the showerhead and tilts it downwards.
“Probably better to clean you off a bit before we start a bath, or you’ll be swimming in your own filth.”
“Okay.” Slowly and clumsily, Tyler peels the remains of his clothes off. They are the same ones he disappeared in, the ones the police found pieces of in the woods. Josh wonders if it was the other creatures that did that to him.
And look-- he knows he really shouldn’t be looking, but he does. Tyler’s junk looks exactly the same, which makes Josh breathe a sigh of relief.
“What?” Asks Tyler as he climbs into the tub. The water mats his hair to his forehead and is already sending muddy red-brown rivers into the drain. Josh smiles, for real this time.
“It’s just... your dick, dude. I was wondering if that had changed at all.”
Tyler rolls his eyes and snorts. It sounds more like a sneeze than his laugh did.
They stay quiet as Josh cleans Tyler off. He washes his long hair with Jenna’s shampoo and conditioner, and uses what had once been Tyler’s extra-sensitive body wash for his now even extra-sensitive skin. The pale color of his skin makes his tattoos look faded, but it is nice to see them return as Josh runs a washcloth over his body. He doesn’t even want to attempt to wash the face, unsure of what is a wound and what’s simply part of his face.
Tyler is making a weird, vibrating noise that almost sounds like a purr. Josh doesn’t want to say anything, because he doesn’t want Tyler to feel embarrassed, but it’s really cute. Josh thinks that Tyler isn’t even aware he’s making that sound.
“Okay,” Josh announces, leaning back on his knees with the washcloth grasped firmly in his hand, “I think we can actually get some water in here and turn on the jets. I’ll probably have to get in with you, though. To clean your face up.”
At the mention of his face, Tyler raises a hand to touch it. All of a sudden, there’s a weird, slurping sound as Tyler’s claws retract into his knuckles all Wolverine style. His fingernails are still long and filthy, but at least he can avoid tearing holes in anything.
He smiles a real, honest-to-God smile that makes Josh’s heart leap. It’s the first one he’s seen since Tyler saved his life.
“I guess that’s new?”
“Yeah,” Tyler nods. He leans over to plug the drain as Josh turns off the showerhead to fill the tub with water instead. As it fills, Josh takes his clothes off, leaving his boxers on before he moves to sit on the edge of the tub. His leg is covered in dried blood and there are bruises where the creature sank its fangs into it.
“Am I gonna turn?” Josh asks jokingly. Tyler narrows his eyes at him.
“Doesn’t work like that.”
“Right. Sorry.” He settles himself over the lip of the tub and gestures for Tyler to turn off the facet as he drops a bath bomb that reminds him of a unicorn into the water. It fizzles as it turns the water pink and blue, like cotton candy. “I don’t mean to be rude. I just... I keep saying all the wrong things. And I don’t want to make you upset, or nervous, or force you to talk if you aren’t comfortable. I don’t know what’s going on. I thought you were dead, Ty. We all thought you were dead.”
Tyler doesn’t reply, which isn’t surprising. Josh assumes he’s thinking, probably trying to remember the words he wants to say. He rests a bony hand against the surface of the water.
“I... tried. So hard. To keep my hum-m-manity,” he stutters, clears his throat, “but the beast consumed me.”
“You can take your time. I’m not going anywhere. My only concern is you.”
Tyler’s gaze returns to the water. “I got... so hungry. And when they brought me f-food, I didn’t... hesitate. I didn’t hesitate and I knew.”
Josh frowns. “Who’s they? And what do you mean, you knew?”
He shakes his head. “People go missing. And they... they fed me...” Tyler doesn’t finish his sentence, but Josh can connect the dots. The thought alone makes him gag, but he knows he needs to make it clear. He needs to say it.
“They made you eat human flesh?”
Tyler bows his head in shame. “They starved me. I was so hungry.”
Josh ducks his head as well. His stomach is churning. “You ate people and then... that happened? To you?”
He doesn’t look up, his hands gently splashing the water. “They are Wendigos. I guess... I’m one of them now too.”
“But you aren’t... like the others. You still have humanity in you. I mean, you can talk. And your face isn’t... completely... Wendigo’d.”
That gets Tyler to scoff. “I’m still a monster. I may not eat humans, but you saw how I tore that... thing, apart. I need raw meat to survive. And I... I want to kill everything that moves. I even... wanted to kill you, at first.” He turns away, causing the hair on Josh’s arms to rise, despite being in the tub. He knows Tyler wouldn’t truly hurt him, but just the words alone are enough to make him doubt it just a little bit.
“Why did you leave, Tyler? I found the note you left, in the Trench files. If I would have looked earlier... Maybe I could have... could have saved you.”
“No. You couldn’t save me. I... I knew what was going to happen to me. From the beginning.”
Josh’s face softens. “You did?”
“The others have been there for a long time. They’ve come down from the lakes and I...” A pause. “They seem like monsters, and maybe they are, but they’re smart. So we made a deal. I sacrificed myself so they would stay in the woods and not come any further down. They aren’t allowed to cross over the edge.” His speech is starting to sound more tangible. Despite the blood still caked on his face and in his teeth, Tyler’s presence feels more human. If Josh pretends hard enough, it’s almost like nothing changed.
“They kept me locked up, wanted me to be like them. Punishment, I guess. They already made me give up my life, leave my home, abandon the people I love. I didn’t want to do it, but I... I was so hungry, Josh. My body just... snapped. Seeing you... I snapped again, but... it went the opposite way. You turned the human in me back on.”
“You sacrificed yourself. For everyone else. Tyler... you shouldn’t have done that.”
“I had to. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”
But why did it have to be you?
With a huff, Josh reaches for the washcloth and begins to gently wipe the blood off Tyler’s face. Despite the fact that the right side is made of jagged teeth, he still knows it’s Tyler. Deep down, it’s always going to be Tyler.
He grimaces as Josh runs the cloth over the rents in his skin and begins to dab at the blood encrusted around his black eye.
“A lot of people miss you.”
“I thought you would have finished up the record by now.”
“I couldn’t just... put it out. And it hurt to even hear your voice.”
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, “I wanted to tell you... tell Jenna. But... I knew you’d stop me. And I couldn’t let that happen.”
Josh sets the washcloth on the lip of the tub so he can cup Tyler’s cheek. He gently rubs his thumb over the teeth that have broken through skin lightly, causing Tyler to start making that weird, vibrating sound again.
“You’re purring,” Josh smiles. He swears Tyler is blushing, even if his crazy teeth take up most of the room.
“Yeah. That... happens sometimes.”
“God. I... I really missed you, Tyler. It’s been so hard being without you. And your family... they blame me. You shoulda seen how awkward the funeral was.”
That catches Tyler’s attention; when he tries to pull his face away, Josh’s grip tightens and he pulls himself closer. Tyler was definitely much taller than he had been, and so damn skinny, but Josh was the one folding himself inward.
“You guys had a funeral for me?”
“The police found all the blood. And pieces of your torn clothes. It wasn’t a pretty sight, so I guess everyone just kinda... assumed.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry.”
Josh smiles, to let Tyler know it’s okay and moves his hand to push wet hair off his forehead. “I’ll give you a haircut after this. I know how much you hate having your hair long.”
“I think they were expecting it to all fall out, eventually, but after that first time, of eating... I refused to touch another piece of human meat. And the transformation just kinda... stopped. Got stuck. And here I am.”
“I assume the others won’t let you just waltz off, huh? Even though you could. And we could fix you right up. Get you into therapy, plastic surgery, fix your teeth-- all of it. Things could be normal again.”
Tyler sighs. “No. Can’t do that. Once a Wendigo is born... it has to stay. We’re cursed.”
“So no more touring, then.”
“I haven’t thought about the band in so long, Josh. All I can think about is how I’m a monster.”
“You aren’t a monster.”
“You’re the one that said it first.”
It feels like he’s been stabbed in the heart with a sharp knife. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t know what was happening. And I... I know now. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t love you any less than before because you... look like this.”
“And yet you were so eager to fix me.” He smiles and reaches a hand out to feel Josh’s thigh. His fingernails are rough, but it’s better than having claws go through him.
“Just having you here, right now, is enough. Even if I only get you for a few hours... it’s enough.” Josh was never one to make the best decisions, and often reacted on impulse and spontaneity. It had never been something Tyler particularly agreed with or enjoyed, up until he started getting involved in Josh’s rash decisions. And, simply because Tyler was involved with this decision, Josh thought he wouldn’t mind.
The kiss is strange, since only half of Tyler’s lips are normal, but it isn’t bad. Tyler doesn’t seem to mind either. In fact, he’s kissing back, sliding his hands to Josh’s waist and bending his long limbs so he can climb in Josh’s lap. Josh isn’t going to lie-- he can taste raw meat on Tyler’s breath, and it’s really disgusting, but the familiar feeling of Tyler, actual, real life, Tyler, against his lips is putting him in a state of pure euphoria. He gets a headrush.
And then, Tyler starts crying. Starts hiccuping. And his claws come out.
“Fuck!” Josh shouts, jolting away from Tyler’s hands. He looks down at the puncture wounds turning their bathwater red.
“I’m sorry,” Tyler sobs as he scrambles out of the tub, splashing water everywhere. He continues to repeat apologies over and over again as he darts down the hall and burst through the backdoors. Josh chases after him, calling his name, begging him to come back, but Tyler doesn’t listen.
“Tyler, WAIT!” Josh tries one last time, drops of blood and water dripping to the floor. He knows how ridiculous he looks soaking wet standing in his boxers, but Josh doesn’t care. All he wants is for his friend to come back. “Tyler, please come back!”
But it’s too late.
Tyler is gone.