“I think that’s the last box,” Young said, squinting into the dark hold of the U-Haul truck.
Absently, he rubbed at the back of his neck, feeling a line of cold sweat running down it. He didn’t know if the sweat was from the heat— uncharacteristic for Colorado, this late in one of its long summers— or from the pain that had settled at the base of his back, just below the belted hug of the medical brace he was still wearing.
He didn’t like the feel of the sweat. Every time it came to his attention, he flinched for about a tenth of a second, instincts kicking in and telling him that it was blood.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Mitchell said. He shifted the box to one hip, easy and casual, the only sign that it was costing him effort the stretch of white cotton across his bicep. “That’s it? All your earthly possessions? Man, I swear, V, that is some sad sumbitch shit. I can talk to Emily if you want; you always pull this kind of nice-guy—“
“No,” Young said. “Thanks.”
He was watching that stretch of white cotton, and the edge where the seam of it met Mitchell’s warm freckled skin. When he realized that was what he was doing, he jerked his gaze to the side of the U-Haul truck. An ad covered most of the bolted panels. It showed a big blue turtle afloat in a painted sea. SOUTH DAKOTA, the ad read, and Young was lost for a minute, trying to figure out why a turtle would be in South Dakota, which he was pretty sure was a landlocked state, until he picked up on the black bar of text telling him that South Dakota had once been part of a prehistoric seaway. That made more sense.
But he felt sad for the turtle without really knowing why. It still seemed out of place somehow, with its yellow eyes and fierce expression stuck in the middle of an ad for South Dakota. It had dignity, and he respected that about it. Sixty-five million years ago it had carved through the ancient water with its silent mouth and massive fins.
Life would be easier, Young thought, if everything was underwater. Things that were good underwater died on land.
He was startled from his reverie by Jackson slamming the driver’s side door closed. He realized that Mitchell had started towards the sort-of-salmon-colored apartment complex, and that Jackson had shut the door on purpose, probably, to get Young’s attention, because he was watching Young with an unreadable look. He had his hands shoved in his pockets, his shoulders hunched. He cleared his throat.
“Hey,” Young said.
Jackson said, “Hey.”
“I think Cam got the last box, so you wanna—?” Young jerked his thumb in the direction Mitchell had gone in.
“Yeah,” Jackson said, not moving.
“Great; you can introduce me to this math guy you want me to—“
“Listen,” Jackson said, interrupting, “are you okay? Because you seem kind of—“
He was using that Jackson-voice, the gentle reasonable one that kind of went down at the end of every sentence, like he was launching himself out of a plane and into your personal business. Young didn’t even know Jackson that well, but already he knew enough to know that voice, enough to prickle in dread at it.
“Yeah,” Young said. “I’m fine.”
“Because it’s been a rough year for you. For all of us. With the war, and the Alliance, and—”
“I’m fine,” Young said.
“You could’ve stayed on base longer. Three months is— really not a long time, with the type of injury you—“
“I know what type of injury I have.” He realized he could taste chlorine in his teeth, a taste that always reminded him of tears for some reason. He looked for the swimming pool that must be there, and found it about twenty-five meters away, a thin slice of blue beyond a stretch of neatly-kept grass. It looked like a mirage. Almost unreal.
“Right,” Jackson said. “I’m just saying, you don’t have to bounce back from this. No one’s asking you to do that. We’ve all been there, you know?”
“You’ve been there,” Young said flatly.
Mitchell had been there. Mitchell had bit the ice in Antarctica, had been shot down in his F-302 and woken up in the infirmary, not sure what parts of his body still belonged to him. He’d been there when Young had woken up, too, even though they’d only ever been slap-on-the-back buddies— the second visitor, after Emily, since David was still laid up in his own hospital bed. He had slipped into Young’s life with the ease of one of the screws that now held Young’s spine together, a support that was steely, automatic, and never felt like pity.
Jackson looked down in the pause, his mouth curving in a wry and painful half-smile. “Well,” he said. “I’ve been dead.”
It wasn’t the same, but Young wasn’t going to say aloud what he thought: that Jackson had gotten off easy every time; that it was the rest of them, with their worn-down, ordinary, aging bodies that held on stubbornly to every wound. Jackson always came back brand-new and scrubbed-clean. He had never had to actually not die and live with it.
“I really don’t know why you’re doing this,” Young said.
Jackson regarded him quizzically. “This?”
Young gestured: the apartment complex, the sprinkler chuckling water over a bright green grass square, the parking lot and the turtle on the side of the truck. “This is what friends do.”
“We’re not friends?”
“No,” Young said. “Not really.”
Jackson smiled again and looked down, scuffing one foot against the asphalt. “Well,” he said. “Maybe I want to be your friend.”
“You’re the patron saint of the Stargate Program. You could get anybody you want to be your friend.”
“And I want you to be my friend. Is that so hard to believe?”
Young looked at him hard. “Yes,” he said.
Jackson shrugged. “I’m a friendly guy. I don’t know what to tell you.”
He wasn’t lying; not exactly, Young thought. But he wasn’t a friendly guy, and Young wasn’t his type— Jackson hung out with Carter and the astrophysicists, not with rough-and-tumble, dumb-hick flyboys who broke their backs on other planets, half-bleeding out on the volcanic sand and blinking up at the faint rings that cut the sky into two segments, till David’s taut face loomed in the near distance and said Everett. Ever—
Jackson said, “Maybe call it intuition.”
Young shook off an inexplicable sense of dread associated with the memory, something desolate that spread upwards from his toes till a numb feeling reached his fingertips.
The doctors had said that it was normal to be depressed.
That it wasn’t a mental thing, just part of the injury. Neurons regrowing.
“You just seem like the right person at the right time,” Jackson said. “To be my friend, or— something.”
The dread hadn’t gone away. Young looked at the painted turtle, at its fierce eyes, ten million years dead, feeling tired and sick and too heavy. “You make me sound important,” he said.
“Everyone’s important,” Jackson said, which was a typical Jackson sentiment. “The trick is just figuring out what for.”
Young said, “Is that the trick.”
He shut the back of the truck with an abrupt movement. Jackson flinched just slightly at the corner of his eye, and Young felt a mean hint of triumph. “Come on,” he said. “Better head inside before Mitchell gets some kind of bright idea about redecorating my apartment.”
“It’s not redecorating if you’re starting from nothing,” Jackson said reasonably.
Young shut his eyes briefly against the mid-afternoon sunlight, the smell of the over-green grass and the sprinkler trying to keep it alive, the chlorine— too chemical, something he could taste in his mouth— and the bright dome of the sky over the kid’s-toy marble of the Earth. The hard back of the brace felt, just for a second, like it was part of his body, something that he would never get out of again, and he was hit by the urge to pry it off, to strip off his shirt and jeans with it, to get out from under the scar tissue that was holding him together, the flesh that wasn’t his flesh, till he was left with— some other kind of body.
When he opened his eyes, he was leaning against the van, his hand spread over the turtle’s gray-green face like a muzzle. Jackson was watching him, expression unreadable.
“That’s the problem; you’re never starting from nothing,” Young said.