Shane never had nightmares.
Well, that wasn’t one-hundred-percent accurate. Everyone had a nightmare every once in awhile. But Shane’s were few and far-in-between, and he usually forgot the details of them by the time he was brushing his teeth.
So when he woke up in a cold sweat, having dreamt of terrifyingly real blood-red eyes and a staticky voice, it startled him, but he easily wrote it off. He and Ryan had just gotten back from investigating an amusement park in Appalachia, so he figured he just had West Virginia resident Mothman on the brain.
Shane got ready, throwing together his favorite jean jacket and red-plaid button-down look. He frowned when he realized his Gene Who Was French Fries pin was missing from the jacket; hopefully it had just fallen off in his closet. He made a mental note to look for it later.
The rest of the morning went mostly without incident. He tried to text Ryan to see if he wanted something from the coffee place right by BuzzFeed’s office, but Ryan’s contact info wasn’t in his phone and Shane didn’t know his number off the top of his head. Fucking phones and their updates. Apple was going to get a strongly worded tweet about this.
Shane strolled into the office, debating if he was going to tell Ryan about his weird dream. On one hand, Ryan would be smug as hell and convinced that Shane had finally developed The Shining or some shit. On the other, it would be hilarious to watch his eyes grow wide with hysterical fear as he tried to convince Shane that this meant the paranormal, and possibly Santa Claus, was real.
But Ryan wasn’t at his desk when Shane sank down in his own chair, and it looked like all his knick-knacks were gone. No Paddington plushie, no Lakers jersey on the chair, no plastic popcorn box. Just a couple of cat figurines and Worth It stickers. What the hell?
Before Shane could ask someone where Ryan had moved to (and why), Andrew sat down in Ryan’s chair.
“Morning,” he said to Shane before taking a sip of whatever fancy coffee he was drinking.
“Morning. Where’s Ryan?”
“Uh, right there?”
Andrew pointed to where Ryann Graham and Kristin were chatting by her desk.
“No, not that one. Bergmeister, where’s his stuff?”
“Bergmeister?” Andrew asked, clearly confused. “I don’t know anyone with that name. Are they new?”
Shane was way too tired for this. “Ryan Bergara. You know, about this tall, scared of his own shadow, loves the Lakers more than life itself? My co-host, that Ryan.”
“You have a co-host? Since when?”
“Since always?” Shane lowered his voice. “Is this for a video? It’s cool, I’ll play along.”
Andrew looked at him like he was growing a second head. “I was going to ask you the same thing. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Shane opened his phone to show Andrew a picture of Ryan, and also possibly to call an ambulance for him, but there weren’t any. Shane swiped through all of his photos, and while all the photos of Obi and LA sunsets and purposefully bad selfies were there, there were none of Ryan. What the fuck?
He clicked on Instagram next and tried to go to Ryan’s profile, but there wasn’t a registered @ryanbergara. No @ryansbergara on Twitter, either. Huh. This was quite the prank Ryan and whoever else were pulling.
Ignoring Andrew’s “Uh, are you okay?” Shane opened his computer and brought up the BuzzFeed Unsolved homepage. Whatever was going on, Ryan would still be there.
Except he wasn’t.
Every video still was just Shane, with no Ryan. Shane grinning about the Poison Pill Murders, Shane pulling a face next to an illustration of Lizzie Borden, Shane staring over the rims of his glasses in the Roanoke Post-Mortem.
“Okay, this is genuinely impressive, I gotta say. You guys really went to a lot of trouble for this,” Shane said as he looked around for the camera. “Redoing all the stills? Deleting photos off my phone? A little extreme, but a prank well done. I tip my hat to you.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna go,” Andrew said abruptly, bolting out of his chair. Ol’ Ilnyckyj must have been about to break, or maybe he was going to wherever Ryan was hiding to inform him that the jig was up. Either way, Shane opened his email to see if he had any pressing matters before Ryan and whoever else he had coerced into this scheme came out to celebrate their short-lived victory.
To Shane’s surprise, he had more emails that he expected. Most were company-wide things and other expected messages, but a choice few were not:
- Devon Joralmon Re: Season 6 SPN travel budget
- Devon Joralmon Re: Villisca itinerary
- BUN Research Re: Villisca fact check
- TJ Marchbank PM filming schedule?
- Google Calendar REMINDER: Monthly Lead Producer Meeting This Wednesday 1pm
- Stephen Castro Final Edit Approval - TC 5x6 Thelma Todd
None of these were for him. Final edits, filming schedules, lead producers, that was all Ryan’s bag. Ryan must have used his computer and forgot to log out, but when Shane went to switch to his account, he realized he was already in it.
With a frown, he clicked on the email from the research team.
Shane! Here are our notes on your upcoming Villisca Axe Murder House ep! As usual, not many corrections, let us know if you have questions tho!
What? Shane never wrote episodes or did research. That was kind of the whole point. Ryan did all of that and then got to tell a clueless Shane all about it to get his genuine reactions. Shane was waiting on the document to load when he felt someone step up behind him.
He turned around to see TJ and Andrew hovering behind him, both staring down at him.
“Hey Teej. You having weird issues with your email too? I seem to have gotten a bunch of Ryan’s emails.”
“See? He keeps talking about a Ryan, but not Ryann with two N’s,” Andrew whispered to TJ.
“Shane, are you okay? Did you hit your head recently? Or smoke some weird weed?” TJ asked, his brows furrowing.
“No? I’m tip-top, buddy, just trying to figure out where the hell Ryan is, and why this stupid prank is still going. Is he in the editing bay? Voice-over booth?”
“The only Ryann that works here is right over there,” TJ said, pointing to Ryann again. He waved in their direction. “We have no idea who or what you’re talking about. Are you sure you didn’t take something? No judgement, promise.”
The lines on TJ’s forehead deepened, as if he couldn’t decide whether to be mad or worried or both. Andrew looked similarly distressed, which was extremely unnerving to Shane. Andrew had about three total moods, and that wasn’t one of them.
“No drugs, I swear,” Shane said, rubbing his hand over his forehead. “I didn’t sleep well last night, though. Weird dreams.”
“Ah. I’ve been there, dude. When Silas was first home, I had a fucking wild dream about a giant ear of corn chasing me that I swore it was real. It took me like two weeks to even look at corn in the grocery store.”
Shane chuckled. “You must have had the ol’ Daga on the brain.”
“The what?” TJ asked, his eyebrows raised.
“The Hot Daga, starring Maisey, the heroic holographic ear of corn. She must have been on your mind and showed up in your dream.”
TJ looked to Andrew, who shrugged, and back to Shane. “Is that some new Adult Swim show?”
“Uh, no. C’mon, I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I know you’ve seen it. Hell, TJ, you help film it every week on the Post-Mortems!” he said, motioning to the Unsolved sticker on his computer monitor.
TJ knelt down, lowering his voice. “If you got into some hard shit, Shane, please tell me. I can keep it on the downlow, I promise. No one else has to know.”
“I’m not on drugs!” Shane yelled, popping up out of his chair. The numerous voices in the office grinded to a halt as dozens of heads swiveled toward him. “I don’t like this bit, man. I’m over it. Where is Ryan? Get him to come out here and explain himself.”
“Shane, we told you, Ryann Graham is the only Ryann here-,”
“No, he’s not! Ryan Steven Bergara, he’s five-foot-nine, even though he claims to be five-foot-ten, he believes in ghosts, he loves basketball, and he spends all his free time at Disneyland. He’s my co-host, or better put, I’m his co-host. He started Unsolved, it’s more his show than anyone’s. Where. Is. He?”
The office buzzed with whispers as TJ held his hands up, like Shane was a wild animal.
“Shane. You started Unsolved, remember? It was you and Brent until Brent got transferred and you just decided to keep it going on your own. There is no Ryan Bergara here or on the show. It’s just you.”
“Teej, I swear to fucking God, if you don’t cut this shit out,” Shane warned, his hands clenching and unclenching at his side. “Great bit, truly, but I’m done.”
TJ narrowed his eyes. “Trust me, no one’s more over this ‘bit’ than me. Whatever this is for, it’s not funny.”
Shane opened his mouth to protest, but TJ’s scarily serious expression stopped him. TJ wouldn’t do this, wouldn’t go so far just for a joke or a video. It wasn’t in his nature. Whatever was going on, Teej wasn’t in on it.
Shane grabbed his laptop bag and looped it around his shoulders. “I don’t...I’m not feeling well.”
“Yeah, no shit. Do you want a ride to a doctor?” TJ asked.
“No no, I think I just need some rest,” he said, giving TJ and Andrew a weak smile. “Sorry for being weird.”
“Weird today or weird always?” Andrew asked.
“Just today, my friend,” he said. “Let HR know for me?”
“Of course. Let us know if you need anything,” TJ said.
“Will do, Teejmonster.”
Shane quickly turned to leave, keeping his pace brisk but not a full-on run. That didn’t happen until he got outside, where he sprinted to his car. As soon as he shut the door, he opened his phone again and googled “Ryan Bergara”.
There were a handful of results for a guy who lived in the Philippines but otherwise, nothing. Next, Shane went back to Instagram and looked for Jake. He wasn’t following him, for some reason, but his account was still there. Shane clicked on it, expecting to find family photos of the whole Bergara-clan, but Ryan wasn’t in any of them. It was just Jake and their parents in every single one.
Shane pinched himself on the wrist. This had to be a dream. A dream within a dream. An Inception, if you will. He just needed to wake up.
Shane didn’t wake up.
Shane spent the rest of the morning confirming what he already knew in his gut.
Ryan didn’t exist.
He had never existed.
No baby named Ryan Steven Bergara was born on November 26th, 1990. Not in Los Angeles county, or in the entire state of California, or the whole goddamn world.
It didn’t make any sense. Shane could not have conjured him up, especially not over the course of one restless night. Besides, while Shane prided himself on being creative, not even he could have dreamed up someone like Ryan. A gym rat who turned to goo over Paddington bear and knew more boring minutiae about Disneyland than Walt himself? Come on.
But if Ryan wasn’t a figment of Shane’s imagination, where was he?
Shane pored over his notes where he had written down every single thing he could remember about the last time he saw Ryan. They had been at the Lake Shawnee Amusement Park in West Virginia, investigating its supposed haunting. Ryan had been on cloud nine. A creepy haunted location that was also an amusement park? It was practically made for him. Shane could hardly believe Ryan had waited until season six to investigate it.
It had been an outdoors investigation, so Shane remembered lots of animal noises and wind scaring the bejesus out of Ryan, but otherwise, nothing too crazy. They hadn’t even spent the night, as Ryan was too terrified of bears coming out of the woods to eat them in their sleeping bags.
So why was everything so fucked up? Where was Ryan? And how the fuck did Unsolved start without him? Besides Ryan straight up not existing, that was the most perplexing part of this whole thing to Shane. Before Unsolved, Shane only had a passing interest in all things morbid and creepy. He liked a good horror flick, sure, but he wasn’t one to give a shit about demonic possessions or scour Reddit for the latest on the Golden State Killer like Ryan did.
Shane had tried to watch some of the Ryan-less Unsolved, but it was too fucking weird. Not just because there was no Ryan, but because there was no heart . It was just Shane walking around, and being a dick. Besides, watching someone laugh at a flashlight turning on was not that funny when there wasn’t anyone losing his mind over it, too. How the hell did this show even get picked up without Ryan? Unsolved was Ryan.
The Post-Mortems were even stranger. Just Shane talking to the camera, bantering with himself. And without Ryan there to encourage it, there was no critically-acclaimed tale to close them out.
No Ryan and no Hot Daga. Jesus Christ, this was bad.
Shane rubbed his hands over his face before spotting Obi sunbathing on the carpet. Unable to resist that soft, orange fur, Shane laid down next to him to stroke his fingers over his back.
“At least you’re still here. Don’t know what I’d do if I lost both of my favorite guys.”
Exhausted in every possible way, it didn’t take long for Shane’s eyes to grow heavy. As Obi’s purrs lulled him to sleep, Shane thought of Ryan screaming in Sallie House and smiled.
“This place is so fucking creepy, dude.”
“Ryan, you say that about every place.”
“Yeah, but look at that. That’s an old rusted Ferris wheel covered in vines and tree limbs and shit.”
“It is pretty textbook creepy. Kind of cool, though, how nature just reclaimed it.”
“Yeah, it’s like that everywhere. Check out the swings.”
Shane followed the glow of Ryan’s flashlight, but there was no swingset. There was no anything. Just darkness.
Shane opened his mouth to ask what the hell was going on, but his voice didn’t work.
“Shane?” Ryan shouted from somewhere. Shane could see nothing but he could hear him.
Shane tried to yell, but no matter how hard he stressed his vocal chords, nothing came out. He kept trying, though. He would never stop trying.
Bloody red eyes appeared out of nowhere.
“That’s enough of that,” a staticky voice said.
Shane woke up with a gasp, his hand clasped over his chest. He was still on the floor, although Obi had long abandoned him for a different sleeping spot. Fuck, that dream had been so real. As terrifying as those eyes had been, Shane clung to the rest of the dream.
Ryan was out there, somewhere. It was up to Shane to figure out where.
The office gave Shane a wide berth the next morning. He couldn’t blame them. He’d also probably want to avoid the guy who yelled “I’m not on drugs!” at 8:22am the previous morning. It was just as well, because Shane had lots of work to do.
“Ugh, another one bites the dust,” Shane grumbled, closing the latest YouTube video of some nutbar ranting about parallel dimensions in a not-so-subtly racist and misogynistic way. Where were the good conspiracy theorists when you needed them?
Shane looked back over his notes, still not sure which solution to his Ryan problem was the best to explore. Parallel dimension made the most sense (which, to be fair, was not much at all), but Shane was stuck on the how. Most credible scientists thought if such things existed, they would have to be traveled to through a black hole. Despite what Ryan thought, black holes did not exist anywhere on Earth and Shane was pretty sure he had not been in space ever in his life.
They had been in West Virginia, though. Home of the interdimensional traveler, and Ryan’s potential husband, Mothman. It was ludicrous, but Shane didn’t scratch the possibility off the list. He couldn’t take that chance.
He also had theories on everything from government conspiracy to witness protection to aliens did it to explain where Ryan had gone. Like the theories Ryan presented to him every week, none of them quite fit all the way, which felt strangely appropriate. It wouldn’t be an unsolved mystery if one of them made perfect sense.
As Shane continued down the internet rabbit hole, he realized he never had quite given Ryan enough credit for his research. It was never perfect, and he had once suggested that the lost city of Atlantis resided in the trenches of the Bermuda Triangle, but he still did an admirable job at narrowing down his theories and focusing in on the most plausible ones. Shane was quickly finding out that for every new theory he read, two more popped up in its place, spidering out across his Chrome tabs. It was overwhelming, especially without someone to talk it out with.
Shane needed to find Ryan, but he needed Ryan to do it.
Humming Alanis Morissette to himself, Shane wrote an email to the entire video department.
Hey BuzzFeeders! Do you believe in ghosts? Do you think there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll? Do you think the government is totally hiding aliens from us? Do you carry holy water around with you in a little plastic toy gun in case a demon comes after you?
If you answered yes to any (or preferably all) of those questions, hit me up!
Shane clicked send. It wasn’t quite like rain on your wedding day, but he hoped that wherever Ryan was, he appreciated the irony.
Not surprisingly, most of the responses to Shane’s email were not quite what he was looking for. He had anticipated the numerous “no’s” but even a lot of his coworkers that did believe didn’t seem interested.
Of course I believe but I’m not about to be in a video where you just make fun of me for 10 minutes. No thanks.
I do! I’m kinda scared why you’re asking though...am I about to get pranked? :/
Is this for a video? I’d love to do it but only if you’re respectful.
Yeah man but are you just gonna make me look like an idiot? Not really into that.
Shane frowned. Was he really that much of an asshole? He probably didn’t want the real answer to that, did he?
In the end, Shane was able to round up four potential Ryans: Curly, Kelsey, Maya, and, to Shane’s surprise, Devon. She had always been pretty mild in her paranormal beliefs, more interested in the energy of a place and not its ghosts. Shane suspected she was playing up her beliefs in order to keep an eye on him, which he didn’t blame her for.
“So, you’re probably wondering why I’ve gathered you here,” Shane said from the opposite side of the conference table in the meeting room he booked.
“I assume it’s for a video where you try to prove to us that ghosts aren’t real,” Curly said, crossing his arms against his chest. “And other white boy nonsense.”
“Yes and no, my friend. I want to do a series of episodes where we talk out cases and paranormal phenomena together. I’ll do the research and present what I think is true, but you guys would do the same. So, for instance, if I did an episode on the possibility of parallel dimensions, I could present the fact that I think they’re not real but one of you could argue in their favor. No one wins the debate but no one loses, either. What do you think?”
The four of them shared dubious looks before Devon spoke.
“I think it sounds great, but, uh, we suggested that to you last year and you had no interest in the idea.”
“Right,” Shane said with a swallow. Without Ryan around, he must have really taken the asshole skeptic role too far. “I think now is a good time to give it a go, though. Keep the show fresh.”
The four of them didn’t look convinced, like they were waiting for the other shoe to drop. But in the end, they all agreed, and took their research topics. Shane still planned to do the heavy lifting there, but he thought he would be helpful for them to know what they were getting into.
As Maya, Kelsey, and Curly left, chatting about which topics they’d chosen, Devon hung back, her fingers rubbing over the seam of her packet on mass hallucinations.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Hm? Oh yeah, peachy-keen. Is me wanting to broaden my horizons that much of a red flag around here?”
“A little,” she conceded. “But it’s not that. You just seem a little lost.”
“Lost? I’m not-,”
Shane’s vision blacked out. His hands reached out to grab onto something to hold him up but there was nothing there.
“...lost. SHANE!?! I can’t see you!” Ryan yelled, his voice shaking and desperate.
Shane blinked and the blackness and Ryan’s voice were gone. He was back in the conference room, Devon staring at him with wide eyes.
“Huh? Oh sorry, had a little bit of a brain freeze there,” he covered, rubbing his fingers over his forehead. “What were you saying?”
“It was nothing. I’ll see you tomorrow!” she said, giving him a wave before leaving.
Shane took out his phone and quickly jotted down Ryan’s words. Hold on buddy, Shane thought. I’ll find you.
Shane hated this.
He hated not sitting next to Ryan every day at work. He hated not being able to text Ryan when that sacrilegious popcorn news account didn’t tweet about popcorn. He hated not being tagged as a skeleton in a stupid Instagram post. He hated that his phone didn’t send him Lakers scores anymore, since Ryan’s twitter didn’t exist to throw Shane’s algorithm off. He hated not being able to see the little swirl of black hair every time he looked down while he was walking. He hated not hearing his laugh, all wheezes and guffaws with fondness painting the edges.
But most of all, he hated filming without him.
The first episode Shane filmed had been by himself and it was awful. While he did an okay job narrating his story, the rest had been a mess. TJ was constantly fussing at him to stop looking to his left, there was all kinds of dead air when Shane would pause for a joke he had subconsciously written for Ryan, and the whole thing had just been so boring. Instead of being able to goof off with Ryan in-between takes, he was stuck at the desk with only his crossword puzzle app to keep him company.
But as weird and terrible as the solo episode had been, it was nothing compared to filming with the guest stars.
Even though the four of them were all Shane’s friends, none of them had the same rhythm he and Ryan had. They were all too genuinely nice and sweet and Shane felt like an ass when he poked fun at them. Even with Curly, the most likely to give as good as he got, the vibe just wasn’t there. Shane had always known that he and Ryan’s chemistry was good, but he never quite realized how unique it was until now.
To make matters worse, it had all been for nothing. He still had no solid leads on where Ryan was or why he was gone or any of it. It had gotten so bad that Shane had even added time travel to his list of theories, with only the smallest hint of irony.
“It just doesn’t make sense, Obi,” Shane said for probably the 700th time. “I know he’s out there. I know I didn’t dream him up. So where is he? Why isn’t he here?”
For the first time since the conference room with Devon, everything went dark. Shane’s heart began thumping against his chest.
“Why...h...here?” Ryan asked, his voice cutting out like he had bad reception.
Like always, Shane tried to call for him, but like always, no sound came from him.
Much to his chagrin, Shane’s eyes snapped open and the vision, or whatever the fuck it was, ended. As short and unhelpful as it had been, though, Shane still couldn’t help smiling at hearing Ryan’s voice. Wherever he was, he was still the same old Ryan, yelling about bears.
Bears...Ryan had been wigged out about bears in West Virginia, the last place Shane had seen him.
Surprised he hadn’t thought of it earlier, Shane opened an email to TJ.
Can you send me all the raw footage from the WV trip? Need it asap.
He knew Ryan wouldn’t be on the film, but maybe there was something, some sort of breadcrumb for where Ryan really was
“But it’s so sad!” Kelsey protested.
“He turns grey, Kelsey! That’s hilarious,” Shane accurately pointed out.
“Aw, but Wanda had to kill him even though she loved him. It’s so heartbreaking!”
“No, he sucked way too hard for it to be heartbreaking.”
Offended, Kelsey left Shane to go back to her own desk. Was Ryan really the only other person who correctly knew how fucking stupid grey Vision was? God, if this situation hadn’t been dire before…
Shane swiveled back around to his computer, where he was in the middle of reviewing all eight or so hours of his Lake Shawnee investigation. It was a dull job (another thing Shane wasn’t sure how Ryan put up with), but hopefully something would be there.
“So, all in all, six children died here before the park was shut down, so there are supposedly little kiddie ghosts here. You know, if ghosts were real. Which they are not,” on-screen Shane said.
Real Shane paused, the faint hint of memory pinging in his mind. Kid ghosts...he and Ryan had talked about them, too. But Ryan said something else, didn’t he? What was it?
“Shane! You wanna grab lunch with us?” Andrew asked out of nowhere, disrupting Shane’s thoughts.
“Huh? Uh, no. It’s 2pm, I already ate.”
“But we’re going to that Indian place you really like!”
Shane waved him off, ignoring how strange it was to hear Andrew be so enthusiastic towards him. “I’m good, but thanks.”
Now, what had Ryan said? Was it about how the kids died? It was all from tragic accidents, pretty standard and terribly sad stuff. Ghost kids always wigged Ryan out, though. They reminded him of Sallie-
“-House. Can’t take any chances, so I came prepared,” Ryan said with a completely unfounded smirk as he pulled out a small vial of holy water.
“Ryan. This is not a demon haunting, even I know that.”
“Anytime there are reports of ghostly little kids, I’m bringing my goddamn holy water.”
“Should you really say ‘goddamn’ when describing holy water?”
“Shut up, Shane.”
Shane gasped, gripping the arms of his chair so hard that his fingertips stung. He was garnering a bunch of stares and whispers but he barely noticed them, his mind racing.
Of fucking course.
Shane couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of them earlier. He had every preposterous possibility in the universe written down on his list, adding demons to it certainly couldn’t hurt.
He opened a new tab on his computer to do some cursory searching for demon factoids but as soon as he began to type, his screen went black.
“What the fuck?” Shane muttered.
He hit the power button but nothing happened. Undeterred, he pushed Ryan’s—no Andrew’s— chair out of the way to try his computer, but it wasn’t working either.
“You too? Everyone’s are down,” Devon said, rolling over to him in her chair. “Wonder what happened.”
“Yeah, me too,” Shane said as he pulled out his phone. It was on zero battery. Seriously? He swore this had been at 75% not five minutes ago.
“Hey, Devon, can I borrow your phone?” he asked.
“Oh, I left it at home today. Totally spaced.”
Shane frowned for a second before covering it up. “No biggie. Someone here will have one.”
But they didn’t.
Not one person in BuzzFeed’s entire office that Shane could find had a working smartphone.
Something, as they say, was afoot.
Without telling anyone, Shane left work, determined to find something with an internet connection. He went to the nearest library, but they were closed for repairs. Then he tried a Verizon store, but 4G was down, isn’t that the weirdest thing? Everywhere he went, nothing that could do a Google search worked. With the library closed, where the fuck else could he learn anything about demons? Ryan had learned everything from the internet, along with grade-A asshole Father Thomas.
Oh shit. That was it. A priest. They could tell him about demons.
Or, they could have, if Shane’s car would start.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Shane growled, slamming his car door as hard as he could.
Without a working phone, he couldn’t call for an Uber, and he couldn’t get it towed. He was, in all conceivable ways, stuck.
Shane slid down against the side of his car until he hit the asphalt. He was out of ideas, out of options, out of theories. Like all of Ryan’s mysteries, this one was going to remain unsolved.
Shane choked out a laughing sob at that. Ryan would have appreciated that. If Ryan actually existed at all.
Maybe Shane had made him up. Maybe he was having a breakdown and needed to be hospitalized. Maybe he’d gone crazy with loneliness and conjured up a guy with the brightest smile as a way to deal. Maybe Ryan was a spirit who had attached himself to Shane, the exact opposite of Shane in so many ways, except in the ones that mattered.
Shane tilted his head back against the hot metal of his car and closed his eyes. If he really was never going to get Ryan back, Shane was going to spend as long as possible remembering every single thing about him.
His big brown eyes and the way they’d get ever bigger when he was freaking out. The reverence with which he talked about his sneaker collection. That goddamn Indiana Jones outfit. The nervous way he’d always look to Shane for reassurance when they did live Q & A’s. His baker’s dozen of basketball jerseys that Shane secretly loved. The slight curl to his hair when he let it grow out. When he would cover his face in embarrassment when even he didn’t buy the bullshit he was selling. Both of them eating those goddamn wasabi puffs at the same time. Every time he called Shane “big guy”. The curves of his arms stretching the sleeves of his shirts. That time he looked up how to do a séance on WikiHow. On camera . Not to mention the time they’d done a Ouija board session with a salt circle on a slatted bridge.
Shane grinned at the memory. Ryan fully believed in stuff like séances and Ouija boards, but he never had been good at the critical thinking part, had he? He just went with his gut, even if his gut was ridiculous. Shane wondered what Ryan would do if it was him in a world without Shane. Probably throw a parade, never having to deal with his skeptical ass again.
No, that wasn’t right. As much as Ryan loved to joke about murdering Shane, Shane knew it was just a dumb bit he didn’t know how to let go of. He would know; it was one of the many ways they were so alike.
If the shoe really was on the other foot, Ryan probably would be covered in an exosuit made of holy water, with a helmet made of silver and salt shakers strapped across his chest like a bandolier.
That was it.
Shane had been going about this all wrong.
He had approached this whole fucked up situation in the classic Shane way: quiet, meticulous research that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.
He needed to go about this Ryan Bergara-style.
Shane stood up, wiping his eyes on the back of his forearm. Without another thought, he began to run. There was a grocery store a couple blocks over, and he had to get there as quickly as his long legs would carry him.
Ralphs was suspiciously crowded but Shane didn’t let it stop him. He pushed carts and patrons out of the way, barely pausing to apologize. His mother would be so ashamed of him, but he didn’t care. He had to get to the spice aisle.
Ryan’s life depended on it.
“Finally,” he murmured, skidding into the aisle. Quickly, he scanned through the rows, looking for a can with that girl holding an umbrella but he couldn’t find her. He couldn’t find any salt, not Morton’s, not Ralphs’ brand, not any kind. Okay fine, there were other kinds of salt.
Next, he meticulously looked through all the spices, trying to find garlic salt or celery salt or popcorn salt, any kind of salt.
But there wasn’t any.
“Sir, can I help you?” a grocery store employee asked him.
“Nope, not at all,” Shane said, putting on a cheery smile. “I think I know what I need now.”
“If you tell me what you’re looking for, I’m sure I can be of service,” the employee suggested eagerly.
“I can manage,” he said, looking up at the aisle markers for where he needed to go next.
“Are you sure? It’s really no trouble.”
Shane ignored him when he found the sign. He bolted without saying another word. He could hear the employee chasing after him, but Shane’s steps were bigger and he got to aisle nine much faster.
Without giving it a second thought, Shane grabbed a can of chicken noodle soup, the kind with a pop-tab, and poured it in a haphazard circle around himself. The can was small, so it wasn’t very thick. No matter, he had lots and lots of high-sodium soup at his disposal.
Ignoring the protests of the employees and other shoppers, Shane opened can after can of soup and dumped it on the ground around himself. He embraced the crazy, laughing maniacally as salty broth spread out around him. It was working—as much as he was being yelled at, no one stepped any closer.
“He won’t find you,” one of the crowd sneered at Shane, eyes flashing bright red.
Shane opened another can. “Fuck you.”
Flipping the bird with his left hand, Shane poured a can of tomato soup straight on his head with his right. When he instinctively closed his eyes to protect them from the soup, all of the grocery store noises stopped abruptly. There was only darkness, just like there had been so many times.
“SHANE?! C’mon man, please, I know you’re out here,” Ryan shouted, his voice raw and cracked.
Like always, Shane yelled for him. But this time, Shane’s voice rang in his ears.
“SHANE?” Ryan yelled back before Shane heard a bunch of sticks being stomped on. “Get off me, Teej, I heard him!”
“I know, but use your goddamn night vision so we don’t lose both of you,” TJ said.
“Shane, where are you?!”
“I-I don’t know,” Shane answered as he tried to stay upright. His knees were shaking so badly he was sure he was going to collapse any second.
Ryan’s voice was getting closer now. “What do you see?”
“Uh, nothing. My eyes are closed.”
“And they say I’m dumb. OPEN THEM, YOU IDIOT!”
“But I’ll lose you,” Shane said as he felt something hot and wet on his cheeks. Must be the soup. “I always do.”
“WHAT?! Speak up, dude! What. Do. You. See?!”
Keeping his eyes shut, Shane pictured him. Ryan giggling at a Hot Daga musical number. Ryan brushing cobwebs out of Shane’s hair. Ryan asking him to do this show full time. Ryan on the other end of a unreasonably long hot dog at Knot’s Berry Farm. Ryan pressed flush against Shane, his arms holding Shane in place as he stood on the balls of his feet to reach Shane’s lips.
That last one hadn’t happened. But Shane let himself have it. Might as well, right? There was no point in denying it, not anymore.
“Shane?” Ryan yelled again, sounding as terrified as Shane had ever heard him. “Come on, big guy. Talk to me.”
“I’m...I’m scared, Ryan,” Shane admitted.
“Me too. Big surprise, huh?” Ryan said with a nervous laugh. Fuck, he was so close. Like they could be in the same building.
“Ryan Bergara, scared? Well, I never,” Shane teased. God, it felt good to poke fun at him again.
“Shut up, Shane.”
That did it. Shane couldn’t keep himself up and he fell to the floor, too overcome with emotion. But his knees didn’t hit tile floor or a pile of soup. They hit soft earth and what felt like pine needles.
Shane opened his eyes.
It was dark but he could see the forest floor in front of him, illuminated by the moonlight. He pressed his hands against it, his fingers clutching at dirt and dead grass.
“Ryan, I’m in the forest!” he shouted, voice trembling.
“No fucking shit,” Ryan said. “Wait, don’t move. TJ, that’s him!”
Shane heard heavy footsteps breaking through the trees to his left. Despite his shaky limbs, Shane stood back up and rushed to meet them. He could see the beams of their flashlights and they were his lighthouse. His beacon in the storm.
“Ryan!” he yelled as he darted through the trees.
“Shane? Fuck, we told you not to move!”
“Just keep those lights on, baby. I’m comin’ to you.”
Three steps later, Shane saw him.
Holding a flashlight in one hand and a handheld camera in the other, Ryan was there. He looked exactly like how Shane had seen him last, in his BuzzFeed Unsolved beanie, windbreaker, and impractical holey jeans.
It was the greatest sight of Shane’s entire life.
Ryan dropped the flashlight and the camera to run to him but Shane got to him first, pulling Ryan into the tightest hug he could manage. He thought he might have to apologize for the force of it, but Ryan squeezed onto Shane just as firmly. Shane took all of him in, the smell of sweat and Old Spice hitting his nose, the hot, shuddering breaths against his neck, the way his fingers were clenched in Shane’s jacket; Ryan was real. And he was here.
“Fucking finally,” Ryan murmured against Shane’s throat. “Do you know how long we’ve been looking for you?”
Shane spread his hands out to hold onto as much of him as possible. “Enlighten me.”
“Over forty-five minutes! You asshole.”
“All my equipment went out,” Shane said, the memory coming back to him. He’d gone off to do a solo session in the woods next to the Lake Shawnee Amusement Park and his camera, phone, and flashlight all went dark at once. “I-I must’ve gotten lost after that.”
“No shit,” Ryan said, pulling back as much as Shane’s hold allowed to look up at him. “Where’d you go? I was shouting like crazy for you. I was so sure you’d been eaten by a bear.”
Shane let out a laugh that could have doubled as a sob. “I know. I heard you.”
Ryan frowned. “Then why didn’t you say anything?!”
Before Shane could come up with a reasonable explanation, TJ clapped them both on the back.
“As much as I’d love to hear this story, how about we get the fuck out of these woods first?” he suggested. “Besides, I need to know how much Ryan’s going to owe me if he broke my camera.”
“Oh c’mon, it’s fine, I just dropped it like two feet,” Ryan said with a roll of his eyes. He tried to pull away from Shane but Shane couldn’t let go. “Hey, big guy, you gonna, uh, let go of me?”
“Yeah, just…,” he paused to swallow. He knew what he was about to ask was absurd, but he couldn’t take the chance. “I’ve gotta ask you something first, and you have to promise me that you won’t ask any follow-up questions.”
Ryan looked at him skeptically. “Um, okay.”
“Do you have your holy water on you?”
“Why?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.
“I said no follow-ups. Do you have it, yes or no?”
“Well, yeah. Remember, I said I was bringing it along anywhere with little kid ghosts-.”
Ryan stopped, his mouth falling open as the pieces clicked.
“Shane, did...did you…?”
Finally dropping his arms from around him, Shane reached for one of Ryan’s hands and winded their fingers together. “Nu-uh. You promised, no questions.”
Shane pulled him along, following TJ back to the amusement park. “Come on. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“You can’t do just do that!” Ryan ranted as he jogged to keep up with him. “You can’t just ask me about holy water, which you think is total bullshit, and then not let me ask you why! Especially after you’ve been missing for forty-five goddamn minutes! What the fuck?!”
Shane just grinned as Ryan continued, moaning and complaining about Shane being an asshole. It was better than any music Shane had ever heard.
“You are such a fucking dick. You have no idea how worried I was. We were. Was that all for a bit? Were you secretly filming me screaming my head off for you all while you snickered behind a bush?”
They had just breached the treeline, the rotting corpse of the Ferris wheel looming over them. Shane stopped, turning to face Ryan.
“I promise you, it wasn’t a bit. I wouldn’t do that. I know how much that would hurt, trust me.”
Shane cupped the side of his cheek, amazed that there was skin and bone and a living breathing Ryan under his touch. To Shane’s surprise, Ryan didn’t try to squirrel out of his hold.
“It’s a long story.”
“Oh come on, you gotta do better than that.”
“I will. But first, can I ask you something else that you’re not allowed to ask follow-up questions on?”
“What? Fuck no.”
“Ryan, please,” Shane said quietly.
He folded like a cheap suit. “Fine. What is it?”
“Can I kiss you?
Thinking it was a joke, Ryan wheezed. “Miss me that much, huh?”
“No follow-ups.” Shane tipped his head down to press their foreheads together. Well, Shane’s forehead to Ryan’s beanie. “But yeah. I did.”
“Oh,” he said quietly before reaching out to grab at Shane’s sides, scrabbling a bit until he was able to find his hips. “I did too. Just for the record.”
“So, is that a yes?”
Ryan angled his head back so they could lock eyes. Shane had rarely ever seen him so unfazed. “Yeah, big guy.”
Giving it no more thought, Shane tipped his down to press their lips together. Just like he had imagined, Ryan stood on the balls of his feet to meet him halfway. Shane couldn’t help but grin before going back in for another kiss.
As they kissed, Shane was vaguely aware of TJ talking to Devon and another voice he recognized as the park’s owner. He knew he was going to have to answer to all of them, and, if Devon got her way, get checked out for any possible injuries he might have sustained while on company time.
Shane held Ryan closer.
They could wait.
Six weeks later
“You demons always talk a big game but you’re all fuckin’ wimps. Show me something, demon! If you're really from the big ol’ H-E-double-hockey-sticks, why don't you prove it? Show me what it's like!”
“Right after that, all of Shane's equipment mysteriously turned off. The batteries in his phone, camera, and flashlight all died. He had gone so far into the woods that it took me and TJ over forty-five minutes to find him.”
“Oh, nice fade out on my stupid face there. It's like you cared,” Shane teased as he paused the video.
“Shut up. You know what a nightmare this episode was to put together?” Ryan grumbled, hitting the spacebar. “I will be hearing no criticisms at this time.”
The episode started again, with Ryan and Shane on the Unsolved set.
“So, Shane, you gonna tell everyone what happened out there?”
“My best guess is that when all my equipment died, I fell and hit my head and knocked my ass out.”
“But you don't remember hitting your head, right?”
“I do not.”
“And you didn't have a concussion or any bruises.”
“And you still don't think anything paranormal or out of the ordinary happened to you?”
This time it was Ryan who paused the episode. “I still don’t love that we’re lying to everyone about this.”
“It’s not really lying. We’re just not telling the whole story,” Shane pointed out.
“Yeah, but something paranormal did happen to you, and I can’t even gloat about it!”
“Ryan, we’ve talked about this. Something paranormal might have happened to me, but we don’t know it for sure.”
“Oh my God,” Ryan groaned, throwing his hands up in the air. “You fought an actual goddamn demon with soup and you can’t even admit that it actually happened. Unbelievable.”
“Hey now,” Shane said reaching for Ryan’s hand. He feebly batted him off for a few seconds before letting Shane lace their fingers together. “I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’m just saying I don’t know what happened. It might have been a dream for all we know.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you? After everything you told me?” Ryan asked as he squeezed Shane’s hand.
“No,” he admitted quietly. “But I don’t know what it was, Ryan. I really don’t.”
“So, what you’re saying is that it’s...unsolved?” Ryan asked, putting on his narrator voice.
Shane laughed. “Why wouldn’t it be? It’s us! Of course we can’t solve it!”
“We’re so bad at it. Truly awful. The worst in the game.”
“Speaking of,” Shane said before shoving Ryan’s laptop out of his lap and replacing it with himself. “I never did tell you the worst part of my nightmare or demon fuckery or whatever we’re calling it.”
Ryan immediately got serious as he held Shane steady in his lap. “Really? There was more?”
“Without you, the world was also missing a critically-acclaimed epic—,”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Ryan interrupted with a groan.
Shane continued on, talking over him. “Without you to commission it, and so graciously provide your voice, sadly, there was no Hot Daga. Without it, the sun shone a little less bright, the birds sang a little less beautifully, and the grass was a little less green. It was truly the darkest timeline.”
“You know what, maybe it was a dream instead of a demon showing you Hell. What Hell doesn’t have the Hot Daga?”
“You’re gonna pay for that,” Shane warned before tugging at Ryan’s shirt to help him pull it off.
“Why? I’m agreeing with you!”
Ryan chucked his shirt off the side of the couch. Not for the first time, Shane got distracted, pressing his hands over Ryan’s taut skin, amazed that it was actually there. It was happening less and less as the weeks went on, but sometimes, it felt like all of this was going to be ripped away from him again.
Face softening, Ryan reached up to cup Shane’s face with both hands.
“Hey. I’m not going anywhere.”
Shane leaned down to kiss him. Quietly against his mouth, he said, “I know.”