The only sound in the empty house came from the little TV set, in front of which Ash sat on the floor, wrapped up in three blankets. He was watching, but not really watching. The TV provided background noise, and made him feel a little less alone. The children onscreen were his age, but memories of laughing and playing as they were felt so long ago.
The brothers were the life of the show. Two blonde boys, playing tricks on the other kids. Ash was painfully reminded of playing tricks on Dad with Griff.
Before Dad moved out.
Before Griff went to war.
It wasn’t fair that those boys on the Minnie Show had friends to run and play with, while Ash had only himself and the adult that put his hands on him every week. It wasn’t fair that those actors, Siva and Cipher, always had each other, and a nice family waiting at home.
Ash turned off the TV, but the silence that filled the house didn’t help to ease his loneliness.
Ash became used to the feeling of adult hands, desensitized over time. It was the only way to survive. When the man he was pleasing that night would turn over to go to sleep, sometimes Ash would flick on the TV, just for some background noise to cover the sound of breathing from the larger body beside him.
A rerun of the Minnie Show played out in front of him. The twin boys were playing baseball with the other kids, and Ash felt sick looking at them. The sight of the blonde boys in little league jerseys was too ironic. Instead of flipping the channel, Ash stared at the boys, allowing himself to project all his 11-year-old anger onto them.
Ash was fifteen, the next time he gave any thought Siva and Cipher. He was surprised to stumble across that handsome face that had looked down at him from the television, in his very own Alphabet City. He had heard rumors that Siva had fallen to drugs, but he hadn’t believed it until he witnessed the actor greeting the people he passed like he knew them, in this place he so clearly didn’t belong.
Ash stepped out in front of him as he passed. “What are you doing over here, rich kid?” he asked, arms crossed.
Siva answered confidently. “Looking to sell some goods. Interested?”
So the rumors were true.
“Let me see what you have,” Ash said, skeptical. The blonde produced a little bag of what was clearly self-rising flour. He would get himself killed, the idiot. He smirked.
“Sorry man, I don’t do cocaine. But if you head down to East 3rd, I think you can find someone.”
He sent Siva on his way, a sick satisfaction coiling in his stomach. So actors weren’t so far above them, after all.
Scarcely an hour later, he witnessed the child actor stumbling back the way he had come, his clothes torn, and beaten badly. His face was marred by a cigarette burn, right in the middle of his forehead. Ash turned his gaze away. The dumbass was asking for it, trying to pass off flour as cocaine to get money off of the people he deemed beneath him.
Cape Cod was a haven for Eiji, somewhere they could finally behave like the boys they were, after the suffering he had witnessed for the first time in his life. For Ash, it was not quite so. But over the time they spent there, Eiji could see him start to feel more at ease. He was opening up, at least a little.
He and Shorter had spent most of the day at the bar, while Ash was out with Max and Ibe. Jennifer kept them well fed while they wasted away the day watching TV. Finally, as the sun sank lower in the sky and turned the grasses outside gold, Ash strolled into the bar. Eiji looked away from the TV and smiled at the sight of him.
“I was wondering where you two were at,” Ash said, taking the seat on Shorter’s other side.
“I am not familiar with American TV,” Eiji explained, gesturing to the small screen in front of them, “Shorter has been teaching me about it.”
Ash took a look at the screen, and recognized two blonde heads amongst the group of children. “…The Minnie Show?”
“It was always on when I was a kid, but I never watched it much. But Siva’s in it, look!” Shorter pointed at the twins. “I don’t know which one he is, though.”
Ash laughed humorlessly. “Yeah, I’m familiar with Siva. I watched this show a lot when I was a kid.”
“You are still a kid,” Eiji teased. Ash didn’t smile.
“Siva looks a little like you, Ash,” Shorter said, chin in his hand, joining in on Eiji’s teasing. “Were you this cute when you were a kid?”
“I was as cute as Siva, and easier to pick up, so I was even more attractive.”
Eiji’s smile faded at the bitter tone in his voice.
“Siva fell into drugs a while back, you know?” Ash segued, not meeting Eiji’s gaze.
“Oh, I remember hearing about that, but I didn’t think it was true,” Shorter said, interested.
“It’s true. I met him once in Alphabet City. Everyone there knew him, he’d buy anything that would fuck him up.” He crossed his arms and smirked cruelly as he retold the next part. “He was stupid, too. He tried to sell flour as cocaine.”
“He did what?!” Shorter shouted, nearly falling out of his chair. “I’m surprised he’s still alive!”
“Oh, he got beat up pretty bad for it. He got a nice cigarette burn on his forehead, which I bet is why he wears a bindi now.”
Eiji didn’t like the way Ash talked about it, like he got some sort of delight out of seeing someone injured. “You let him do that? Knowing that he would get hurt for it?”
“He was asking for it,” Ash insisted. “He must have learned his lesson, because he stopped coming around after that. But then people started revering him like some hero, for ‘choosing to better himself.’” He said the last four words in a mocking tone. “He’s just lucky he had that choice in the first place.”
Eiji’s frown deepened. Shorter whistled. “Crazy the word never got out about that, though. He’s getting pretty popular now, isn’t he filming some football movie in LA?”
Ash just shrugged, getting up to head back to the house. “Hell if I know.”
Eiji watched him go, then looked back at the children on screen who were so full of joy. “When was this show on air?” he asked Shorter.
“Uh… ’75? Or ’76, I think?”
Eiji did some quick math in his head, returning his gaze to the door Ash had just disappeared behind. It made sense that eight year old Ash, who had already gone through so much horror, would take his anger out on an actor. It was someone practically fictitious, and easy to hate. Eiji couldn’t blame him for that. But to pit that anger against him in real life, to get him hurt when Ash actually met him—that’s what bothered Eiji.
When Eiji and Shorter returned to the house, darkness had fallen over the Cape. Eiji found Ash in the bedroom, looking over Griffin’s letters in the soft glow of the lantern on the nightstand. He sat down beside him on the edge of the bed, looking over his shoulder. Ash said nothing, only folded the letter and held it in his lap. Eiji turned his gaze on Ash’s shadowed face.
“Are you jealous of Siva?”
The silence was broken. Ash turned his head suddenly to meet his gaze. “What?”
Eiji didn’t back down. “Because he had a choice, is that why you do not like him?”
“It’s not just that. It’s because he thought he was better than us—“
“He must have fought hard to get better.”
Ash’s face was stony. “Okay, fine. I don’t think it’s fair he got to choose to drag himself down, and then pick himself up again, when I never had any choice in my life.” His voice rose a bit, and he held up the letter in his hand. “And what about Griff? Whatever he was doing, he didn’t choose to be given the shit that destroyed him!”
“But you are making choices. You are choosing to fight Golzine now. It isn’t fair you were taken as a child, and had so many terrible things done to you, but do you want everyone to suffer like you have? Or like Griffin did? Shouldn’t you be glad Banana Fish didn’t kill someone else?” Ash’s brow was furrowed. He looked at Eiji, someone he so desperately wanted to keep away from all this suffering. Silence stretched between them again before Eiji continued. “You are good person, Ash. You are angry, and you should be, but Siva is not the one who did this to you.”
Ash stood up, and Griffin’s letter fluttered onto the floor. He stooped down to pick it up, and set it on the nightstand beside the lantern.
Ash didn’t respond. He left Eiji sitting there alone in the flickering light. When Eiji finally stood to follow him, he was gone from the house. “Where did Ash go?” he asked their other housemates.
“He didn’t say,” Ibe replied, looking up from the card game he was playing with Max and Shorter, “Did you make him mad?”
“I might have,” Eiji said sulkily, sitting down on the floor with them, “He will come back, right?”
“Sure he will,” Max assured him, laying down a card, “Whatever you said to him couldn’t have been so bad he’d run away.”
But Ash didn’t return until late in the night, leaving Eiji awake with worry. When the blonde finally came in the door Eiji sat up.
But Ash held a finger to his lips, and laid down in the pile of blankets he shared with Eiji and Shorter.
“Ash,” Eiji tried again, in a whisper.
“In the morning,” Ash grumbled, burying his face in the blankets. Eiji frowned, considering pushing the matter further, but he decided that interrupting Ash’s sleep wouldn’t help his case. He lay down again, and the warmth radiating from Ash’s back helped him ease into sleep.
When Eiji awoke, Ash was gone again. Worry momentarily filled him, until he spotted the boy in question outside the window, walking through the grass away from the house. Eiji got up and ran out after him, barefoot.
“Ash!” he called after him. Ash stopped walking, and turned to look back at Eiji, waiting for him to catch up. “I am sorry for what I said.”
Ash shook his head. “Don’t be. You were right.” Eiji felt the worry that clutched his heart loosen its grip. “I was a kid. I didn’t know who to blame, I was just angry.”
Eiji smiled. The sun was peeking over the horizon, illuminating Ash’s features. “So you have forgiven him?”
“Yeah. Recovering from drugs ain’t easy. I guess… when I have much worse people I can hate, I really have to respect him.”
“You shouldn’t have let him get hurt, when you met him.”
Ash sighed. “You’re really stuck on that?”
“Fine!” he threw his hands in the air. “Fine, I shouldn’t have just let him go without at least warning him, I guess, but come on, I was fifteen.”
Eiji smiled again. “And you are still only seventeen.”
Ash elbowed him lightly in the ribs, all forgiven.
Photography had brought Eiji to America in the first place. It’s what brought him to Ash, and to Sing, and Max, Bones, Kong, Alex, Shorter… everyone who had changed his life when he first came here with Ibe. He had photos of all of them, though it pained him to see them now. It had been four years, but the wounds still felt fresh.
Sing practically lived with him now, though he had a place of his own. It felt a bit like Sing was looking out for him. Maybe they were looking out for each other.
Eiji had begun entering some of his pieces in little contests, or submitting them to magazines, though none that were too personal to him. He started collecting magazines for inspiration, and that’s how he found it: in a secondhand shop, a 1986 issue of Men’s Magazine containing a photoshoot with Siva.
As Eiji flipped through the pictures he hardly recognized Siva as the boy he had once seen on TV in Cape Cod. His hair wasn’t the blonde he remembered, and his expression seemed… different. The story Ash had told him back then came back to him, how Siva had fallen so low and picked himself up again. The orange-haired Siva pictured here must be the recovered Siva—he’d changed. Eiji decided in that moment that he wanted to photograph Siva himself.
Upon further research, Eiji discovered it wasn’t so easy to find Siva nowadays. He didn’t act anymore, or even model. He had no agent for Eiji to contact. He had to dig deeper, until he found the agent for the model in the magazine with Siva: Alexandra Levine.
Eiji contacted Levine’s agent to try to set up a photoshoot. Turns out Levine was a pretty popular model, and usually got paid pretty hefty amounts for shoots—much more than Eiji could afford. But for one reason or another, the agent called him back the next day. They took the job.
Eiji hung up the phone and cheered, arms in the air. Buddy barked at him, and he scooped the puppy up in his arms, laughing. Sing came into all the commotion, loosening his tie. Buddy squirmed in Eiji’s arms, trying to greet Sing at the door. Sing came in and patted the puppy on the head. “What’s the celebration for?”
“I got a shoot with the model from Men’s Magazine,” he said, holding up the old magazine with the orange-haired actor on the cover, “The one who might know Siva.”
“Hey, that’s awesome!” Sing high-fived him, both of them grinning. “You’ll really be getting your name out there with this one, I bet.”
Eiji set Buddy back down on the floor. The increase in popularity hadn’t even crossed his mind. “Yeah,” he agreed anyway.
Alex arrived at the designated time and place for the photoshoot—which was just at Central Park. It seemed a lot more casual than the shoots he was used to, which was mainly the reason he had taken the job. He took a seat on a bench to wait for the cameraman, hands in his pockets, sunglasses in place.
Alex looked up to find the man in front of him, his black hair tied back in a ponytail, camera around his neck. “Just Alex is fine.”
The cameraman looked him over. “I thought you were—“
“A woman?” Alex challenged, arms crossed, working up as intimidating a stance as possible. “Watch what you say, kid, you look like you’re twelve, yourself.”
The cameraman’s mouth fell open, protests forming. “The glasses make me look older! And long hair! I am 25 years old, older than you!”
Alex shrugged. “So what you’re saying is, without the glasses, you would look eight.”
The cameraman sputtered, then laughed. “I am Eiji Okumura. Thank you for meeting with me. I am big fan.” Alex’s face flushed, and he was glad to be wearing his sunglasses.
“Oh, um, thanks.”
Eiji kept smiling. “I like to take candid shots, so I try not to direct you too much. We just walk through the park, be yourself, and I will take pictures.”
Alex wondered what sort of project Eiji had in mind. What was the theme? But he just agreed, and stood up to walk with the cameraman. “Should I take off my sunglasses?”
“Do whatever feels right.”
Alex wasn’t used to modeling without some sort of direction. He left them on. Eiji started snapping pictures as they walked, making light conversation.
“You live nearby?”
“Yeah. I’m a senior at Columbia University.”
“Oh! That is a good school, isn’t it?”
“You don’t know? You aren’t from Manhattan, are you?”
Eiji shook his head. “I have been here… almost seven years, on and off with a visa. I am from Japan.”
Alex smiled, and Eiji took a nice shot. “My friends and I took a trip to Japan our sophomore year, to visit our friend Haru…”
Eiji was easy to talk to. He learned about how he initially came to America as a photographer’s assistant, and that he was now trying to build a career in it himself, here in New York. Eiji took lots of pictures, but it wasn’t distracting, and time simply flew by.
“I think I have gotten enough,” Eiji said finally, as the sun sank lower in the sky.
“What will you do with them?” Alex asked.
“I have been submitting some of my photos to different magazines. I will pick out my favorites, and try to get them published somewhere.”
“Tell me where they end up! I’ll give you my phone number, so you can reach me about it.”
Eiji took Alex’s number. “Thank you again. I have one more thing to ask you.”
“Do you know how I can contact Siva? You modeled with him about five years ago.”
“Siva? Sure, he’s my best friend,” Alex answered straightforwardly.
Eiji never thought that finding Siva would be as easy as walking into his condo. Alex even had a key. When they entered though, the place was empty except for a fat, orange spotted cat that Alex stooped to pet.
“He’s probably at the library, if he’s not here. Midterms are coming up, so he’s always there studying.” Alex stood up again and turned back around. “We can meet him there, instead.”
Eiji was quick to shoot him down. “That’s okay. When do you think he will be back? I don’t want to… interrupt his studying.”
Alex pulled his dreadlocks back into a loose ponytail. “He could be a couple hours, but I guess we can wait here for him. I can make some food.”
“It’s okay to use his house like this?”
Alex nodded, without giving it a second thought. “Sure, Jake won’t mind.”
Alex started cooking up some pasta. The cat took refuge on Eiji’s lap, where he sat at the dining table. There was the jingle of keys outside, and the clicking of the lock at the door. Eiji looked up, expectant to see Siva, but a girl with curly blonde hair appeared instead.
“Oh, hey, Anise,” Alex greeted her.
“Hi, Lev. Jake isn’t here?”
“No, we’re waiting for him. You can wait with us, I’m making pasta. This is Eiji, a photographer I modeled for who wants to meet Jake, too.”
Eiji waved at her. “Nice to meet you.”
Anise sat down beside him. “Oh, Ellie likes you!” She pet the cat in his lap, smiling brightly. “What do you want to meet Jake for?”
Eiji pulled out the issue of Men’s magazine he had found earlier. “I’m a fan of his pictures.”
Alex abandoned the pasta on the stove to look at the magazine. “Whoa! These are from the first time I met Jake!”
Anise flipped through the pages. “Look, his hair was still short!”
“I was surprised it was orange. In the past, his hair was blonde, right?” Eiji asked.
Anise smiled fondly down at the image of Siva next to Alex. “It was. But I think the orange suits him better.”
Before Eiji could ask her to elaborate, the door opened again. Siva, with his long, orange hair pulled back, coat sweeping at his ankles, stood in the doorframe. Evidently, coming home to others in his house wasn’t a strange occurrence.
“Oh, Levine, you’re here. And Anise.”
“Don’t say it like I’m some afterthought!” Anise protested.
Siva smiled, shucking off his coat to hang it by the door. “Who’s your friend?”
Alex, who had drained the pasta and was now pulling down a fourth plate for the newcomer, answered, “This is Eiji, the photographer I met with today.”
Eiji stood up. “It is nice to meet you, Siva.”
The man blinked. “Siva? Ah, so you know me.”
“I was once told a very inspiring story about Siva, it means a lot that I am able to meet you.”
Siva’s expression was blank. He looked over Eiji’s shoulder at Alex, and at the four plates of pasta on the table, then announced, “I’m going to take a bath.” Eiji watched him go, worry filling him. He turned back to Alex and Anise.
“Have I said something bad?”
Anise shook her head. “Jake’s past is a little complicated. He probably just wasn’t expecting it to be brought up.”
“I did not mean to offend him.”
“He’s not offended,” Alex assured him, “He’ll be fine, don’t worry. He’s just spent a lot of time growing up, so revisiting those times can be a little tough.”
Eiji sank back into his chair, looking at the plate of food set out for him. He could understand that well enough.
When Siva returned from his bath, his food was cold, but his demeanor had warmed up. He was clearly comfortable with Alex and Anise, and so Eiji refrained from bringing up any of the things he wanted to say, for fear of breaking that comfort. It was nice to sit at a table with people who cared about each other this much. They found the same comfort in one another that he found in Sing.
Eiji found himself spending more and more time with Alex and Jake, and the group surrounding them. Their friend, Hattori, started planning a surprise birthday party for Alex, which further integrated Eiji into the group. He got along well with Hattori, with his playful personality. It was nice to have someone to speak Japanese with again, aside from teaching Sing at home.
“You’re spending a lot less time around here, lately,” Sing pointed out when he caught Eiji at home. He didn’t say it like it was a bad thing. He was relieved to see Eiji finally letting go, moving on.
Eiji wasn’t sure what to say about that. His new group of friends were giving him something to do, some sort of purpose other than photography. “Jake and Alex are full of energy, they are always doing something. Tomorrow we’re having a birthday party for Alex.”
“Oh yeah? Will it be a big party?”
It was, indeed, a big party. When Sing showed up, the apartment was packed full of college students; no one questioned him being there at all. He had decided to come on a whim, despite not receiving an invite, because even if Eiji relied less on him lately, he still relied on Eiji. He was tired of sitting around at Eiji’s apartment without him.
Before he could find Eiji, he was spotted himself. “Yo!” he answered, and crossed the room to join Eiji and his friends.
“What are you doing here?”
“Thought I’d come check out the party,” Sing said, grinning. Eiji grinned back, and introduced him to Jake, Anise, Hattori, and Ambrosia.
“You’re so tall!” Anise said, looking up at him. He towered a full foot over her.
Sing beamed, hands on his hips. “I know, right?”
They were all given the cue to hide when Alex was arriving—Sing had to duck extra low behind the couch to hide his head—and everyone jumped out at him as the door opened.
“You know, Hattori, ‘surprise parties’ lose the element of surprise when you do them every year,” Alex said, teasing.
“You were still surprised!” Hattori insisted, “I could see it on your face!”
Everyone drank and laughed together, ate cake, and eventually, late into the night, people began to filter out. Jake, Hattori, and Ambrosia seemed more than comfortable to set up camp in Alex’s living room. Sing could definitely see the appeal in this group of people; Eiji was in good hands.
Eiji had had a bit to drink. He was smiling, sitting next to Jake, looking at his orange ponytail and playing with his own black one. “Why did you grow your hair out?” he asked.
“I always wanted to, but I was never able to until my senior year in high school,” Jake answered.
“Is that when you got the piercings too? You look like a rebel.” Eiji laughed a bit, drunkenly.
“He used to wear an extension, before he grew it out!” Anise cut in from across the room, where she was putting on her coat and getting ready to leave.
“Because I look cooler with long hair!” Jake insisted. Everyone laughed.
“Why couldn’t you grow it out before?” Eiji pressed on, alcohol giving him the courage, or perhaps the recklessness, to inquire about Jake’s past.
“It was important that my appearance matched my brother’s,” Jake answered simply.
“So it didn’t have anything to do with your recovery?”
Jake frowned. “Recovery?”
Even drunk, Eiji had the good conscience to lower his voice a bit. “A dear friend of mine ran into you once, when you were dealing with drugs. But he said you made a full recovery. In the end, it was very encouraging to him, because you did not continue suffering.”
This was the first Sing had heard about such a story. It obviously had to have been a story from Ash. Suddenly, Eiji’s focus on his project with Siva made sense, and everything fell into place. Eiji might be smiling with these people, but he still hadn’t moved on.
Jake allowed Eiji to finish speaking, but shook his head. “That wasn’t me.”
“My brother, Roy, was the one who struggled with drugs. He’s the one who recovered from it. I can’t take any credit for that.” As he said it, Eiji realized that Jake had no burn scar on his forehead.
“But I hear that it was Siva in that story, not Cipher.”
“We’re twins. A lot of people couldn’t tell us apart. Not that we made it any easier for them.”
“What does that mean?” Sing asked when Eiji faltered.
Maybe the alcohol had helped Jake open up, but even with that help, Sing had pried too far. “Nevermind,” Jake said dismissively. He looked at Eiji again, studying him. “If you’re following your friend’s inspiration, though, it’s Roy you’re looking for.”
Anise waved goodbye as she left. Eiji watched her leave as everyone shouted their farewells, then turned his attention back to Jake. “Does your brother live in New York?”
“He lives with me, but he’s been staying with a friend in LA while he’s filming. He won’t be back until late July.”
“July…” Eiji repeated, and Sing wondered if he could bear to wait that long to be introduced.
“Anise is going to visit Roy when school lets out, isn’t she?” Alex mused.
“We should go with her to see him and Haru!” Ambrosia shouted, “A group trip, like when we went to Japan!”
Alex’s eyes sparkled at the mention of Haru’s name. “That’s a great idea.”
Eiji’s excitement showed clearly on his face. “I can come too? Let me get to meet him?”
“Of course!” Ambrosia clapped Eiji on the back. “What about you, Hattori? And Sing?”
Sing was surprised to be included in this group he’d only just met. They really were an inclusive bunch. “Sure! A trip to LA with you guys sounds like a blast.” And he could keep an eye on Eiji, too.
“I’ll be going home to Japan after graduation, so I don’t think I’ll be able to go with you,” Hattori said woefully.
“We’ll miss you, Hattori,” Ambrosia said, hand on his shoulder.
“When is school out for you guys?” Sing asked the group.
“Our finals are over May 17th,” Jake answered, “But Anise’s might be different. She goes to NYU.”
“Mine, too, I’m at C.U.N.Y. I’ll have to look at the exam schedule.” Sing hoped that this trip would be good for Eiji. This was the first time in four years he had really seemed like the Eiji who had once laughed and bantered with Ash. Whatever his motives for this project were, he didn’t want this Eiji to slip away again.
March and April rolled by more quickly than Eiji could have thought, and the more the weather warmed, the more his excitement for the trip built. Finals were suddenly upon them, and Eiji and Sing watched Jake, Alex, Am, and Hattori walk the stage. Eiji dropped Buddy off with Bones and Kong for the week, and they boarded a plane bound for LA.
A man was waiting at the gate in LAX, dressed like a true Californian in shorts and sunglasses, holding a large, brightly colored sign that read “WELCOME ALEX, JAKE, ANISE, & AM!”
“Haru!” Alex shouted, dropping his bags in his excitement.
“Alex!” Haru responded with matched enthusiasm, his hand-crafted sign slipping from his hands.
“Hi, Haru!” Anise joined in, waving her arms.
“Anise!” Haru sounded a little tearful, though all was hidden behind his sunglasses. “It’s great to see you!”
It was a touching reunion. Evidently their visits with Haru were few and far between.
“We’ve been so excited for your visit,” Haru told them. He and Alex had picked their things back up, and were heading out to where he had parked. He didn’t bother to introduce himself to Eiji or Sing.
“Nice to meet you,” Sing said, more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Haru finally turned his attention to the strangers.
“Oh, yeah, you too! What was your name?”
“I’m Sing, this is Eiji.”
“Cool, I’m Haru. Are all of you staying with us? Shit, I didn’t clean up enough for this many…”
They had to cram into Haru’s car, with Eiji practically in Sing’s lap, as they had two bodies too many for everyone to have a seat. Eiji watched out the window as they drove, his thoughts on the last time he had been in LA. The house they arrived at had twin palm trees growing in the front yard, and when they went inside, a mess greeted them.
“You live like this?” Jake asked in shock, looking around.
Haru laughed, only slightly embarrassed. “It’s cleaner than it was. Roy usually keeps it tidier, but he’s been pretty busy with filming. He’ll be home around three.” He changed the subject, bringing his guests further into the house. “For sleeping space, there are two couches in the living room, an air mattress we can pull out, and plenty of floor space wherever you find it.”
“Thank you for having us, Haru-san,” Eiji said, setting his bags down beside the couch. Sing wondered if he had even noticed the wreck they had walked into.
Haru was flustered, caught off guard to be addressed so politely. “Don’t mention it! We’re all friends, and Roy’s excited too, so…”
Almost immediately, Jake went about straightening up the place. Eiji helped out, too. “You’re just like Roy!” Haru hollered accusingly, “Is that where he gets it? Or did you get it from him?”
“We just don’t want to sleep on top of empty chip bags!” Jake yelled back. Eiji laughed, tossing a crushed Pepsi can into the bag Jake held open.
By the time Roy got home, the house was nearly spotless, and everyone was sitting around the living room, relaxing now that the work was done.
“Roy!” Anise hopped off the couch to greet him with a kiss. When they released each other, Eiji got a good look at him, and his heart stopped for a moment. The last time Eiji had seen Cipher, he was an eight-year-old starring on the Minnie Show. He looked very much like Jake, but with his hair shorter, and naturally blonde…
Sing could see it, too. Roy looked strikingly like Ash.
“Haru! You actually cleaned up!” Roy said, looking around.
“Not exactly,” Jake muttered, also getting up to greet his brother.
“Hi, Jay,” Roy said, hugging him. “Have you been lonely without me at home?”
“Of course not, with this guy always coming around like he’s my lover.” Jake gestured to Alex, who was now getting up from the couch to punch Jake.
Roy laughed. “Hey, Alex! And Ambrosia!” He waved to them.
“Sup, Roy.” Alex waved back to him casually, as though he hadn’t just clocked his best friend. “Long time no see.”
Anise tugged Roy’s hand, bringing him to sit next to her. “Roy, these are our friends Eiji and Sing!”
Eiji stared at Roy, and said nothing. He had a little round scar on his forehead, but aside from that, if Eiji took off his glasses, he could almost make himself believe that Ash was sitting beside him. “Excuse me,” he said, voice wavering. He stood and left the room hurriedly.
Anise looked between Sing and the place Eiji had disappeared. Hadn’t he been looking forward to meeting Roy? “What…?”
“Fuck,” Sing muttered. He stood up as well, heading down the hall after Eiji. “Nice to meet you!” he called back to Roy as an afterthought.
He found Eiji in Haru’s bedroom, crouched down on the floor with his head on his knees. Gut-wrenching sobs reached Sing’s ears, and he sat on his knees in front of Eiji.
“Sing,” Eiji choked, looking up from his knees. Sing pulled Eiji into a crushing embrace. Eiji sobbed into Sing’s shoulder, clutching at the back of his shirt as grief overwhelmed him.
“It threw me, too,” Sing said. “I’d seen him on TV, but in person, I didn’t think Roy would look so much like… him.”
“He should be here with me, I wanted to be with him forever…”
Sing felt his own tears spill over. He didn’t know how long they sat there, on the floor in the fading light coming through the window.
“…Sing? Eiji?” Anise’s voice came through the closed door. Sing released Eiji, wiping his eyes on his t-shirt. “We’re thinking about going out to dinner.”
Sing cleared his throat. “We’ll be out in a minute,” he answered. Eiji took off his glasses and rubbed his puffy eyes. “Will you be okay if we go out?” Sing asked him in a lower tone. Eiji nodded.
“I’ll be fine.”
At dinner, however, Eiji was distant. He and Sing sat on the opposite end of the table from Roy, and the entire group had clearly caught on to their strange actions. Haru, most of all, seemed incredibly irritated by Eiji’s cold behavior after he had welcomed them into his house. Sing made an effort to bridge this error by talking animatedly with them all, but Eiji hardly said a word, and did everything he could to avoid looking directly at Roy.
As the group of eight walked home, Anise took the matter into her own hands. She hung back a bit with Sing and Eiji. She couldn’t ignore Eiji’s red, puffy eyes. “What do you think of LA so far?” she asked Eiji directly, hoping to lighten the mood. Eiji met her eyes, seemingly surprised to be spoken to.
“I have been here once before,” he said quietly.
“Oh, wow! What were you here for then? Did you go sight-seeing?”
Eiji just shook his head, which was filled with memories of Ash, and research; of Yut-Lung, and of Shorter, and being kidnapped, and taken from LA before he even knew it. He was spiraling. Every memory that came to him now was like another knife in the gut.
Eiji hadn’t realized he was crying again. He took off his glasses and put his hand over his eyes. The three of them had stopped walking, while the rest of the group continued down the road. Sing put a hand on Eiji’s arm. “Should we get an early flight back?”
“What?” Anise looked between the two of them. “Why? What’s going on?”
The group of five that had gone ahead noticed that they were no longer a group of eight, and doubled back. Haru marched ahead of them all, a deep frown set on his face. “Listen!” he shouted, before he reached Eiji, “I don’t know what your deal is—“ Eiji dropped his hand from his face, and Haru faltered. “You—you okay?”
“I’m sorry,” Eiji said, voice shaking.
“That’s—“ Haru looked at Roy for help.
“Eiji’s grieving,” Sing explained simply, his hand still on Eiji’s arm protectively.
“…Grieving?” Anise repeated softly.
Eiji looked around at them all. He hadn’t meant to make this an event. His eyes met Roy’s, and he looked away quickly. Those eyes weren’t green, but gray. He tried to speak, and his words came out in a choked voice. “My best friend…”
Anise put an arm around Eiji. “Let’s get back to Haru’s place,” she said, “instead of standing here in the street.”
They all resumed their walk, with Anise and Sing on either side of Eiji.
When they finally returned to the house, Eiji left the group to take a bath. He thought that maybe if he was by himself for a while, he could come back with a better explanation for them all. As soon as they heard the water running, Anise turned to Sing.
“Tell me about the person Eiji lost.”
Sing was taken aback by Anise’s direct action. For such a small girl, she had a huge personality. “Eiji loved him more than anything,” Sing explained. “It’s been four years, but… he hasn’t been able to move on.”
“Is that who he came to LA with before?” she asked, remembering Eiji’s reaction when she had asked about it earlier. Sing nodded.
“Yeah. And he looked… kind of like Roy.” Everyone in the room turned to look at Roy.
“So that’s why he won’t look at me?” Roy asked.
“I think it’s all just been a nasty combination for him.”
“How can we help him?” Ambrosia asked. “Is there anything we can do?”
“I think Jake should talk to him,” Alex said.
Everyone turned their eyes on Jake now. He blinked. “What? Why me?”
“You’ve lost someone you love, too,” Alex elaborated.
The atmosphere in the room darkened further. Roy’s eyes were downcast. “I think it would help him to talk to someone who didn’t know Ash,” Sing added, giving Jake another nudge.
Jake was hesitant. “…Alright,” he agreed finally, “I’ll talk to him.”
Eiji returned from his bath, dressed in pajamas, with his damp hair down from its ponytail to frame his face. Everyone tried to smile at him, but the tension was still thick in the room. He had been wrong—isolating himself hadn’t made anything easier. Jake stood up. “Eiji, let’s talk,” he said, leading him into the kitchen, and away from the concern-filled gazes of the others.
Eiji took a seat at the table, while Jake leaned against the counter. “I have brought everyone down,” Eiji said, running his hands through his wet hair.
“They’re all just worried about you,” Jake told him.
“I’m sorry I have been treating your brother coldly.”
“It’s okay. He looks like your friend, right? Sing told us.”
“It’s hard just to look at him,” Eiji admitted, and even though he was fighting hard to stay composed in front of Jake, tears welled up in his eyes once more. “I keep feeling angry with him, even though I know he has done nothing wrong. It seems unfair that he is here, alive to laugh with everyone when Ash fought so hard his entire life, and died young anyway.” The moment he said it out loud, he realized that what he was feeling was so similar to the anger Ash himself had once projected onto the twins.
Jake took a seat beside him at the table. “…There was a time I couldn’t look at Roy, either,” he admitted. “I also lost someone I loved, and he took the blame for it. Of course, it wasn’t really his fault, but when you’re grieving, sense doesn’t always come into play.”
Eiji pushed up his glasses to wipe his eyes. “I didn’t know you lost someone,” he said, his voice thick with mucus.
“I didn’t know you had, either.”
Eiji gave him a watery smile, but it faded quickly. “Do you think you’ll ever move on?”
“I’ll never forget Dana. I think part of me will always be grieving her. But I’m healing, and I’ll keep healing.”
Eiji absorbed Jake’s words, closing his eyes. They were both quiet for a time, both hearts sitting out on the table. At last, Eiji spoke again.
“I need to talk with Roy, so I can keep healing, too.”
Jake smiled at him. “We’re all here to support you,” he reminded him.
“Thank you, Jake.”
By the time Jake and Eiji returned to the others, it was late at night. Sing and Alex were setting up places to sleep in the living room, while Roy set up camp in Haru’s room so the girls could take his. Eiji was relieved not to have to immediately face Roy. He sank down onto the floor beside Sing.
“Hey,” Sing said, “Feeling better?”
“A little,” Eiji admitted.
Sing nudged his shoulder against Eiji’s. “You came all this way for that project of yours, right? You can’t give up on it now.”
“I won’t,” Eiji resolved.
Sleep greatly lifted Eiji’s mood. Over breakfast, things almost seemed normal. Everyone treated Eiji a bit carefully, but with the same affection they always had. When Roy came out to sit at the table, everyone held their breath. Eiji’s feelings toward Roy hadn’t immediately dissolved, but he was able to push them back a bit, behind his determination to photograph Ash’s story from so long ago. “Roy,” Eiji greeted him, with a small, embarrassed smile, “I am sorry for how I acted yesterday. I am very… glad to meet you.”
And like the flip of a coin, the careful atmosphere was broken. Everyone was laughing again, and it was infectious, filling Eiji back up with the warmth he had felt before Roy’s appearance had shattered it.
After breakfast, Haru and Roy took them all out sight-seeing. While the day before Eiji couldn’t bear to look at Roy, he was surprised to find that now, the more he saw of him, the less he was reminded of Ash. His mannerisms were all different; his laugh, his expressions, even just the way he held himself. And Roy was fun to be around. He was unlike Jake as much as he was unlike Ash—he was entirely his own person. Every word he spoke reinforced this in Eiji’s brain, and seeing him became easier and easier.
“Maybe your name will be here one day!” Anise mused to Roy as they walked hand-in-hand down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Eiji got a shot of her beaming at him, her look full of adoration. Eiji lowered his camera, his own smile wide on his face.
Roy had to return to filming, and Haru became their sole tour guide for a few days. The next day that the actor got off, they all got tickets to Disneyland, something the majority of the group had wanted to do together back when they took their trip to Japan, but had missed out on.
Eiji had never been to Disney. Sing wasted no time in slamming a pair of Mickey ears on both of their heads. Eiji took his picture, and Sing insisted on taking the camera to get a shot of him, as well.
Quickly after entering the crowded park, it became evident that traveling in such a large group would be difficult. They decided to split into two groups, and meet up for lunch. Am, Alex, Haru, and Jake headed off for Fantasyland, while Eiji accompanied Sing, Anise, and Roy to Adventureland.
Anise had a pair of Minnie ears for herself, and kept running ahead to look at the animals. Sing ran after her, the two of them feeding off of each other’s excitement. Eiji walked with Roy at a slightly slower pace, laughing at them as they went along.
“How did you get to know Jake and Alex?” Roy asked him. “Sing told me he’s at C.U.N.Y., are you at Columbia?”
Eiji shook his head. “I am not a student. I am photographer, Alex modeled for me, and introduced me to Jake.”
“Oh! Is photography what brought you to New York, then?”
“Yes… initially. Photography brought me to America.”
“What made you stay?”
Eiji was quiet for a moment, formulating the English to express his answer. “The memories I made there,” he said at last.
“You stayed for nostalgia, then?”
As they passed an enclosure, Eiji spotted a leopard prowling on the rocks near the back. As he watched, he could almost see snow billowing around it, despite the warmth of summer on his skin. “Nostalgia… something like that.” Eiji looked at Roy again, with his features so similar to those that he missed. “I made a dear friend, the first time I came to New York. My best friend. He met you, once, and told me about you. That’s why… I wanted to meet you.”
“Your friend… he probably met Jake, not me. I didn’t do much on my own until the last five years or so.”
“I already asked Jake. My friend thought that he met Siva, but Jake said that it was actually you.”
“Where did he meet me?”
“He never said exactly where. He said that you were buying or selling drugs.” Roy’s eyes widened, color draining from his face. Eiji rushed on, “But he said you recovered! He saw that you got past it, and chose your own life, and he respected you.”
“That’s not exactly what happened.”
“Can you tell me how it happened?”
Roy seemed torn. He didn’t especially want to talk about his past with drugs in the Happiest Place on Earth. “Who was your friend who met me?”
“Ash Lynx.” It had been a while since Eiji had spoken his name out loud. It tore at his heart again, but he discovered that as much as he didn’t want to remember his death, he desperately wanted to talk about his life.
“Ash Lynx?” Roy asked in disbelief. “The gang leader, Ash Lynx? The one who—“ was stabbed to death and bled out in the New York Public Library. His gang’s territory had been in Alphabet City, practically right outside his and Jake’s apartment back then. Of course he knew who Ash Lynx was, but he had a hard time believing that this simple Japanese photographer had been best friends with such an infamous name.
Before he could inquire further, Anise ran back over to them. “Roy, Eiji, we’re getting in line for Pirates of the Caribbean!”
The entire group met up again for lunch, exchanging their adventures with one another. Am now had a princess crown atop her head that matched (or rather, clashed) perfectly with the rest of her wild outfit. Alex had replaced his usual sunglasses with a new Mickey-themed pair. As everyone shared their experiences animatedly, Eiji stepped back to get a photo of the entire group.
“No, Eiji!” Anise called out, “If you’re going to take a picture of everyone, you have to be in it, too!” She took the camera from him and flagged down a passerby. Eiji was shoved into the middle of the group, all squishing together to fit in the frame, Sing towering over them all in the back.
Everyone crashed almost as soon as they arrived home, exhausted from a day in the sun, fighting crowds. It seemed Eiji was the only one who couldn’t sleep. He slipped out to sit on the porch, gazing up at the twin palm trees that perfectly imitated the twin towers back in New York.
The door creaked behind him, and he looked over his shoulder to find Roy creeping out the front door. He jumped when he spotted Eiji. “Oh, Eiji, I didn’t know you were out here.” Eiji shook his head dismissively. “I was just going to go for a walk around the city… it’s a sort of ritual for me, when I have a lot on my mind. Even though this isn’t the city I’m used to.”
Eiji smiled at him. “Can I come with you? If you have a lot on your mind, you tell me about it.”
Roy looked unsure. This wasn’t part of his ritual. But Eiji was already standing up, so he nodded his agreement. “Yeah, okay.”
They set off together toward the high-rise buildings. The streets of LA were completely different from those in Manhattan. Eiji admired the fresh scenery as they reached the top of a hill overlooking the city, and he paused to take a picture of the cityscape before him, reminiscent of a time years ago that he overlooked the same city with Max and Ibe… Shorter… and Ash.
They walked in silence for a while, and suddenly, Roy was talking. “You say I pulled myself back up, chose to be my own person, but it was Jake who pulled me away from drugs, and Jake who gave me someone to be at that time. I didn’t choose to be my own person until I ended up hurting him so badly, I thought I could never see him again.” Eiji glanced sideways at him, remaining silent and allowing Roy to just talk, to explain. “I’ve heard from a few people that know about Siva’s history with drugs, but at that time we were both Siva. I was the one who put that blemish on Jake’s reputation, so he should be the one to claim credit for pulling me back up.”
“But you are different people,” Eiji said after a moment, when Roy didn’t continue.
“We are now, yes. And I guess we always were, but for years, we lived the same life, because that’s what I needed. And Jake provided that for me.”
“Maybe Jake needed it, too. You help each other. That does not mean you can’t take credit.”
Roy nodded, just a little. “Yeah. We’ve both moved on. We really are our own people, now. We chose separate paths, and it’s good for us. Anything I did to him, he’s forgiven…”
“I’m sorry I have brought up bad memories for you.”
“They’re not all bad. I guess it’s just strange, how far we’ve really come.”
Eiji smiled. They reached the heart of the city, with the nightlife bustling around them.
“Can I ask how you got acquainted with Ash Lynx?”
Eiji hadn’t been expecting the question. It took him a moment to formulate an answer, as memories of his first meeting with Ash flooded him. “I came to New York as a photographer’s assistant to take photos of American gang life,” he began, “I met Ash, just as he began fighting the Corsican mafia.” He was at a loss for words for another minute. So much had happened during that time. “You probably heard about him then, from the News, whatever light they painted him in. I was with him the whole time. He was… the brightest light in my life.”
Whatever explanation Roy had anticipated, it wasn’t this one. The soft, sad expression on Eiji’s face as he spoke of the murderer spoke volumes. He must have understood him better than any News reporters.
“I wanted to photograph you, because of the story Ash told me,” Eiji continued, “That’s why I met Alex, and how I met Jake, and what brought me here to you. But I’m glad to have met everyone, no matter the reason.”
Roy smiled gently at Eiji. “Someone told me once, ‘As long as they’re alive, you can see them again.’ All of us, and Sing, and your friends back in New York, or in Japan… we’re all still here.” Eiji took his glasses off, wiping his eyes before the tears could fall. Silence fell over them again, and they walked on for a while. “When I finish filming, and come back to New York… I wouldn’t mind modeling for you.”
Eiji finally returned Roy’s smile. “I would love that. You and Jake, both. Ash didn’t know it, but you were both in his story. Separate, but together.”
The grasses of Cape Cod billowed gently with the wind, the evening light turning the landscape golden. Eiji breathed in the warm air. It was so bittersweet, being back here, a place full of warm memories that only left him longing. He had come back only once, by himself, since he was last there with Ash. It had been too much for him then, and so he had hesitated when he considered coming back now. As he stood in the long grass, the breeze against his skin, he didn’t regret his decision. Healing was a process, and finishing this project in the place it had begun could only further that process, he thought.
Jake and Roy came down from the house to meet him. Eiji watched them approach, talking about something too far off for the wind to carry it to his ears. He lifted his camera and took the first picture. The twins looked perfectly alike, yet drastically different—it was the two of them in their natural state, what they had grown into. With a pang, Eiji thought of how Ash may have changed, what he might have grown into, if we here now, breathing beside him. He raised the camera again, hiding his face behind it as tears fell down his cheeks.
Sing had picked up a copy of the newest Life magazine on his way home from school, the day it was published. They were publishing four full spreads of Eiji’s photos of Jake and Roy. He flipped through the pages as he walked until he found the start of it. At the top of the first page, the words “Separate, but Together” were spread out in a delicate font, over an image of the twins walking through long grass away from an abandoned house that Sing knew to have once been Ash’s. They looked comfortable. Jake was smiling at something Roy had just said, his head slightly bowed. There was such warmth in the picture, it could only be Eiji’s. The page beside it held another full-size image of the twins, lying in the grass side by side.
Sing turned the page. The next spread contained separate images of the boys, defining the title. The left image was of Roy, barefoot on the sands of the beach, arms stretched wide to the cape, loose clothing billowing in the sea breeze. On the right, Jake sat on the porch of the house, legs crossed, with his ponytail tossed over his shoulder. His orange hair was even more radiant in the evening light.
The third set of pages showed an image of Alex, in the midst of removing his sunglasses, seated on the fountain in Central Park. His dreadlocks were splayed over his shoulders, his clothing casual. It had a much more real feeling to it than a lot of the pictures Alex usually modeled for. Adjacent to it were two half-sized pictures, one of Jake, Ambrosia, and Hattori in the foreground, forcing a pointed party hat onto Alex’s head, with many others apparently shouting in the background. The other was of Anise, hand in hand with Roy, smile shining bright as she strolled down the Walk of Fame in Hollywood.
The fourth and final spread bore the image Eiji had taken of the entire group at Disneyland. No one had quite realized he had the camera up yet. Ambrosia was grinning, one arm around Alex, poking fun at his Mickey Mouse sunglasses. Haru had a hotdog halfway in his mouth, with Anise and Sing beside him, egging him on, their heights contrasting greatly. Jake and Roy were separated by the second group, but had made eye contact and were stifling laughter. The image captured a precious, irreplaceable memory that all eight of them had shared. The very last image was another of the twins, from the back, arms around each other’s shoulders as they stood in the dappled sunlight beneath a tree, and looked out at the distant sea. Beneath it were a few more words, “As long as they’re alive, you can see them again.”
Sing had stopped walking, immersed in the pictures. Eiji really was talented. The passion he felt for this project really came through in all the photos he had taken. Sing felt a pang of guilt, knowing that Eiji was still unable to move on from Ash. Even now, Eiji spoke of applying for a green card, and staying in New York permanently. He had to admit, though, that it was because of Ash that the two of them had met this incredible group of people at all. Ash left Eiji with an even greater support system than he could have known.
Sing rolled up the magazine, wiped the tears forming in his eyes, and continued on the rest of the way to Eiji’s apartment, which he may as well call home.