Thursday, April 25
Shane wakes up to the sun in his face and the radio alarm on his bedside alarm clock blaring ‘80s synth (“Well, I’m so tired of losing, I got nothin’ to do and all day to do it!”). It’s annoying enough that Shane considers, briefly, that all the people who told him it was old-fashioned to use an actual alarm clock in the year of our lord 2019 were right after all.
The next thing he registers, after the beam of light directly in his eyes, is the unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach, twisted and looping in on itself and giving him unfortunate airport baggage claim hot dog flashbacks. Anxiety, or nerves.
He shouldn’t have agreed to do this video. Surely half the point of co-producing a successful digital series is that you no longer have to do videos like this. Surely videos like this are for the hungry new kids who have yet to prove themselves.
Surely, surely he and Ryan have put in their time on the clickbait train and should now be free to joke about appalling murder-suicides and yell at air in peace.
The problem is that Buzzfeed recently fired a good three-quarters of their new kids, and have yet to hire the replacement batch they’ll pay half as much. The problem is that Shane and Ryan get the views, and at this juncture Buzzfeed needs the views desperately in order to avoid being eaten tail-first by its own venture capitalist mouth. It doesn’t matter that they’ve paid their dues.
He gets up reluctantly, threading his right hand around his left wrist where the cuff will be coming down in a few hours, literally. It’s nothing personal, it’s nothing to do with Ryan. It’s just that he feels too old for this. He feels silly, like the last five years at this job have been wasted. He got a taste of making content he could be proud of and now he’s back to providing silly over-the-top soundbites on the main channel as if the last three years—Unsolved, BUN, Ruining History, may she rest in peace—made no difference at all.
But after all, it’s only twenty-four hours. It’s just one dumb video.
Shane can put up with anything for a day.
The real kicker, which Shane will have ample opportunity to reflect upon in the near future, is that the video’s really his fault in the first place.
They’d been in the studio in February, taking promo pictures for the upcoming season of True Crime. Ryan had it all worked out with the art director, the ’40s suits, the bit with the handcuffs. Good stuff.
“The fans will love it,” Ryan says. “Tilt your head. Yeah, like—okay, now bring your hand down in a fist. I’m a cop asking you really irritating questions and you won’t stand for it anymore. I just told you I think pancakes are actually better than waffles. I called your cat ugly.”
Ryan’s pulling double-duty for the art director, since she was let go a week ago, sometime after the planning of this shoot but before the execution of it.
“You’ll sleep with the fishes,” Shane says as he pounds the table and pulls a face for the camera. “Pancakes are soft and gross and pointless. Obi is an angel!”
It’s nice to be working with Ryan again. It’s been a while. He took a lot of time off right after they wrapped Supernatural in November, and he’s only in the office one day a week now, or sometimes not at all.
Shane’s mistake is that he says as much to Katie while Ryan’s getting the cuffs put on him for the next set of shots. Ryan’s already accessing the Goldsworth character, all half-lidded eyes and licked lips and a smirk Shane would very much appreciate the opportunity to wipe off. Shane’s gonna get right up in his face, grab the tie, and pretend to really lose it. He’s looking forward to it.
“This is a fun shoot,” he tells Katie, grabbing a bottle of water. “The handcuffs are a nice touch.”
“They were just chilling in the props closet, we used to do a whole series of videos with them. The fans will lose their minds,” she says, tapping her fingers on the table. Shane sees visions of shares and likes dancing in her head.
“You don’t wanna poke that bear,” Shane warns. She gives him a blithe, peaceful little smile that suggests she does, actually. She wants to poke it all the way to the top of Trending.
“It’s nice having Ryan around again,” she says, fishing. It could be an innocent non-sequitur, but Shane knows better. In Katie’s mind, everything might be a video, everything can be mined for content. It’s not a character flaw, it’s her job, and she’s brilliant at it.
“It’s been a long hiatus,” he agrees.
“Not only that, though.” He can feel her eyes on the side of his face, searching.
What most people don’t know, what the fans don’t know, is this: back in the fall, Ryan re-negotiated his contract. He’s not a full-time Buzzfeed employee any more, and hasn’t been for months. He works on Unsolved only, as a contractor, season-by-season. He has no plans to stop any time soon, he’s reassured Shane; he just wants time and freedom to pursue other things in the industry.
So far, the “other things” haven’t materialized. But whatever he’s doing, he’s not doing them in the Buzzfeed office. Aside from a few after-work and weekend group outings, this afternoon is the most time Shane’s spent with him in two months.
“No, I’ve—it’s been an adjustment, for sure,” Shane concedes. Katie smiles at him again, waiting and not pressing. “I do miss the old days, I guess, but who doesn’t around here lately?”
There’s a moment of companionable quiet where they both consider TJ, who by all rights should be here taking these shots.
“Filming True Crime will help,” Shane says. “And there’s that bonus Supernatural episode for Warner, that’ll be fun. I’m jazzed to watch Curly hit on Ryan for an entire day while Ryan pretends it’s not happening.”
“Yes,” Katie says. “Yes, that’ll be…good content.” She doesn’t say anything else for a long time. Shane can tell she’s thinking about something else entirely, the wheels spinning up there in some direction he chooses not to follow.
In the background, Ryan does something to make the handcuffs jingle against each other ominously. Katie’s enigmatic Cheshire-cat smile gets, if possible, wider.
“I’m sure we’ll figure out some fun ways to toss you together,” she says at last. Nothing sinister about that.
Shane’s nose for trouble is validated a few weeks later when Katie sends him and Ryan an email, the subject line of which reads I’M THROWING BOTH YOU SUCKERS IN THE CLINK.
The premise is simple enough. Buzzfeed used to do a series of videos where people would get handcuffed to their friend, or their mom, or their ex, or their mortal enemy, or their dog (probably, Shane doesn’t know the specifics). Katie’s email proposes that they revive the old series and that he and Ryan handcuff themselves together for twenty-four hours, something the fans have apparently been clamoring for. Those perverts.
The concept, Shane must admit, is elegant and brutal: forced intimacy makes good television.
“No fuckin way,” Ryan texts them both as soon as he gets the email.
Shane and Katie get the texts at the same time, which Shane knows because he’s already at Katie’s desk trying to talk her out of it when both their phones buzz. Shane can practically feel Ryan’s indignation radiating through the screen.
“See, Katie?” Shane asks, holding up his phone. “It’s a no. Bad idea. The height difference alone makes the premise ludicrous.”
Ryan texts again: “bush league!!”
“It’s going to be hilarious,” Katie says. “Three Stooges-level comedy. I’m getting palpitations just imagining the two of you trying to navigate a shower without killing yourselves.”
“That’s sexual harassment,” Shane says. “You are my boss and how I navigate showers is my own private business.”
Another text comes through from Ryan, as if he can hear them: “no offense but im not getting in a shower with shane he will block all the water and i will never be clam again!!!!”
“Clam?” Katie stares at her screen in puzzlement.
“I think he means clean.” As Ryan’s agitation increases, so too do his typos and exclamation points.
That should have been that. Ryan’s new contract very explicitly says Unsolved only, with a nice high fee attached to any extra freelance work either on-camera or off, so a no from him is as good as shutting it down.
So it’s a mystery to Shane how and why they both end up here in the studio, bright and early on a Thursday morning in late April, shooting the damn video anyway.
“Ready to do this?” Ryan asks, looking not so ready himself. Shane’s only doing this because he finds it very difficult to say no to Katie, or in fact to anyone, and because he is salaried at Buzzfeed and does what that sweet 401K matching contribution demands. He does wonder what Ryan’s getting out of it, though.
He wonders what Katie told Ryan to get him to agree.
“Okay, so!” Katie starts them off, as chipper as Shane’s ever seen her. Chipper like someone who won an argument she was hoping to win, as she always does. “Here are the rules.”
“The first rule of Cuff Club is we don’t talk about Cuff Club,” Ryan says.
“There are rules?” Shane says, feigning dismay. “I agreed to do this on the understanding that it was more of a free-for-all, American Gladiator-style. Where the dudes get to whale on each other with giant foam Q-tips until one of ‘em falls off his pedestal thing.”
“You’ll be handcuffed together for twenty-four hours, starting when you close the cuffs on yourselves. This time tomorrow I’ll unlock you. You’ll have a key, but you’re only allowed to use it in case of an emergency. You’ll eat together, sleep together, and go about your lives together for one full day.”
“Is having to poop an emergency?” Ryan asks, getting right to the crux of the thing.
There’s a beat of silence.
“I leave that to your conscience,” Katie says eventually. “Let’s get you both mic’d up, and then I’ll get you in front of the camera and toss some questions your way. How are you feeling, what are you worried about, that kind of thing.”
“Well now I’m worried about pooping,” Shane jokes.
“During the day and night you’ll periodically get some footage with the handhelds I’ll give you, and with your phone cameras. I won’t tell you to film anything specific, but try to think of the editing team, will you?”
“Lotta cat content and good-natured bickering, got it,” Ryan says, not looking up from his phone.
“Maybe we try to do double-dutch jump rope.”
“Guys, focus up,” Katie says, rolling her eyes.
[From the transcript of the video “Ghost Hunters Get Handcuffed Together for 24 Hours”]
KL: Okay, boys, why don’t you explain what we’re doing today.
SM: We’re putting metal shackles around our wrists and then placing
ourselves in a series of intimate situations for the internet’s sick pleasure.
SM: I mean!
RB: We’re getting handcuffed together for a day. I thought I’d run out of things to
tell my mom about my job that would surprise her, but I was wrong.
KL: Any big plans?
SM: I figured we could Marie Kondo my sock drawer and
then take a nice hot bath. Wash each other’s’ backs.
RB: No, wh—absolutely not, we are not doing that!
SM: Yeah, man, I know you hate organizing.
RB: Seriously, I think it’ll be a chill night. Dinner, maybe some video games.
KL: What are you looking forward to the most? Like, what do you hope will come out of this experience?
SM: I guess I’m looking forward to spending more time with this guy.
RB: We mostly hang out when there are ghosts involved,
so this’ll be a nice, uh, change of pace.
SM: Ryan, there are never ghosts involved, there’s—there are no ghosts.
RB: Okay, well, you can’t know that!
SM: [stares into the camera]
RB: Actually I hope to get definitive proof that Shane is in fact a demon.
KL: Right, very sweet. Friendship goals. Anything you’re worried about?
RB: I guess I’m nervous about being in public.
KL: Because of the handcuffs?
RB: Yeah, it’s sort of freaky, right?
SM: Do you think people will think you’re my, uh, gimp? My little, like, boy toy?
RB: [laughing] Jesus Christ.
SM: I’m worried because—and not many people know this—Ryan Bergara first thing in the morning, before coffee,
is a rabid raccoon. You don’t wanna wake up next to that.
RB: You’ve woken up next to that so many—
SM: Yes, but I could always get away before, couldn’t I?
KL: Any parting thoughts before we get this show on the road?
RB: I might try to gnaw my own arm off.
SM: See? Just like a raccoon. But, um, yeah. By this time tomorrow either
we’ll be lovers or one of us will be dead at the other’s hand. Excited to find out which.
RB: [laughing] Shut up, Shane. Uh. God damn it.
KL: [tossing handcuffs to RB] Alright, boys. You’re under arrest.
Shane slides the handcuff around his own left wrist and closes it with a definitive click, careful to leave plenty of room so it doesn’t rub too much. He and Ryan already agreed that Ryan would give up his own right hand, by virtue of being both the better driver and slightly more ambidextrous.
Ryan keeps shifting his wrist around, testing the handcuff on his own hand, pulling the chain apart to see how much distance they can get. It’s maybe six inches of leeway. Shane’s already considering what it means in terms of privacy and comfort; if I turn this way, he’ll do that. If I hold my arm out, that’s a good four feet. Maybe not so bad.
The hardest part—the hardest part for Ryan, certainly—is indeed the attention. They leave the studios for the general office, and people take notice.
Curly materializes at their side immediately. He has some sort of mysterious sixth sense for anything remotely spicy and a penchant for watching Ryan blush, and this video falls right in the middle of that particular Venn diagram.
“Oh, are we doing handcuff videos again, or is this extracurricular?”
“Of course it’s for a video. Wh—extracurricular?”
“Qué rico. Why wasn’t I invited?”
“Because I’ve only got two hands and I need one to pee with,” Ryan points out. Shane’s sort of proud of the way Ryan’s standing up straight, not trying to hide his cuffed hand under his jacket. That’s growth.
“Oh please, you know I’m always around to lend a hand,” Curly says, waggling his eyebrows to ensure the innuendo isn’t missed.
“I’m good,” Ryan says with a laugh.
Jen spots them in the canteen and jogs over. She’s got about seven little bags of chips tucked around her person; under each arm, in the pockets of her jeans, down the front of her shirt, and stuffed into her belt. The jogging doesn’t go great.
“Smuggling out the whole canteen?”
“Snack raid for the crew,” she says. “My hands are small but my hunger is mighty. Nice jewelry, you doing that handcuffed for twenty-four hours video?”
“Yep. You did it, right, with Steven? How was it?” Shane’s not sure he’s seen that particular video, but the prospect of being attached to Steven Lim for a full day makes him appreciate how good he has it with Ryan—who might try to drag him to a sporting event but would never take him to church.
“Aw, it’s not so bad. It was nice,” Jen says. “Intimate. We got closer, for sure. You’re in for a thing.”
That’s not what Shane wants to hear. He’s not sure anyone ever wants to hear they’re in for a thing.
“Intimate?” Ryan repeats around a mouthful of Cheetos. “Gross.”
“It probably won’t be that weird for you guys, you spend a lot of time together on the road and stuff already. Heads up for the part where everybody thinks you’re kinky sex maniacs, though.”
Ryan groans. “Right? It’s not even, like, it’s not, I don’t care about—” he juts his chin at Shane, “—but the thought that people might assume I’m the kind of person who would throw my private shit in everybody’s faces makes me feel skeevy.”
“Pro tip, if you hold hands it sort of hides the handcuffs,” Jen advises. She gives them a little salute, drops two bags of chips, and awkwardly makes for the door, kicking the bags as she goes.
“That’s even grosser!” Ryan shouts at her retreating back. She flips him the bird with a hand she can’t spare as she goes.
They spend a little time trying to get some work done, but as working conditions go it’s not ideal.
First of all, because they can’t type one-handed. Second, because in order to get close enough they have to grab their laptops and sit on the floor, nearly right on top of each other. It’s not the most conducive to productivity. Shane also thinks Buzzfeed is probably overpaying their cleaning crew, relative to the amount of cleaning in evidence.
Third, because coworkers keep filing past to stare at them. Shane feels like that one hugely pregnant giraffe everybody dropped their whole lives to watch non-stop for a week back in 2017.
“Wow, people sure are interested in our video on this, their very first day at Buzzfeed,” Shane says drily after the fourth coworker of the morning makes a thin excuse to borrow a pen and not-so-covertly snaps a picture for internet humiliation purposes. “You’d think these people had never seen a pointless, embarrassing spectacle before, except I know that’s not true.”
“I think there’s an office pool going about who’s going to strangle who first,” Ryan says. He pulls Shane’s left hand over to finish typing an email, tugging Shane’s whole upper body in his direction as he does.
“As if there’s any doubt it’ll be you.” Shane catches a whiff of something when Ryan drags him in close, not strong but definitely present. “Hang on, are you wearing cologne? You smell like a National Park.”
“I was trying to be polite,” Ryan snaps, in a way that suggests he went back and forth about whether to wear it and still isn’t sold on his choice. “I didn’t want you to be stuck smelling my pits all day.”
“That’s very thoughtful, Ryan. I’m touched.”
“Okay, well, it’s not a—you don’t have to make a big thing of it. It’s common courtesy to make sure you smell good if you’re gonna be strapped to somebody for this long.”
He does smell good; fresh and a little woodsy, lemon and patchouli and something sweet. If Shane closes his eyes, it reminds him of a particularly beautiful late spring hike he took in the Great Smoky Mountains with a couple of friends a few years back; of a big sky and hazy layers of grey-blue mountains, of pine sap and lemonade and maple ice cream.
Something in Shane relaxes perceptibly, uncoiling and slackening.
“Seriously, you smell like an Ansel Adams photograph,” Shane says. It’s preoccupying.
“The Baby Driver guy?” Ryan asks. Shane can’t tell if he’s joking. He thinks six months ago he’d have been able to tell.
After a solid hour of getting barely any work done, they decide it’s better to go get some footage. As far as Shane’s concerned, the best thing about this video is that they get to blow off work to go do fun shit around town, and if anybody gives them crap about it they can be all, but it’s for the footage! Nobody wants to watch two dudes sit alone at home twiddling their thumbs, no matter how proximate those thumbs happen to be.
The whole point of this is pushing their boundaries, their comfort levels, so that’s what they’re going to do.
“Lunch?” Shane finally asks around 12:30. Ryan’s just twisted Shane’s left wrist around nearly 180 degrees to scratch his nose when he’s got a perfectly good other hand that could’ve done it, and Shane can’t take it anymore.
“Yeah, okay.” Ryan sounds resigned.
“How about ‘Yes, Shane, I’m super-excited to spend the day with you too!’”
They go out for Chinese, because in the days before filming Shane made a whole list of places where it might be funny to eat in handcuffs. “With chopsticks at a Chinese buffet” came in at the top, one notch below “at a restaurant in a literal jail, if such a thing exists” (it does not, Shane checked).
More specifically, Shane wants to watch Ryan try to eat with chopsticks left-handed and laugh at him.
There’s a little place Shane stops sometimes on the way home from work, and they go there for the lunch buffet. Most of the servers know Shane on sight—he’s tall enough to be memorable—so he’s treated to the little rear-back of surprise when they spy the handcuffs connecting his left wrist to Ryan’s right, and then the whispered Cantonese behind hands that Shane doesn’t need to understand to know it’s about them.
“We should’ve gone somewhere where nobody knows my name,” he says glumly. “Now I’m going to have to find a new Chinese buffet because they think I’m some pervert getting off on parading my kept lad around their establishment.”
Ryan hums a few bars of the “Cheers” theme song, and then cuts himself off with a spluttering, choking cough when Shane’s words land. “Maybe they think you’re my kept lad, huh? What about that?”
“Ryan, please,” Shane says with a dismissive wave of his free hand. “I’m the tall one, ergo the keeper of lads and not the kept. I don’t make the rules. After all, how could they possibly know what a bossy little nightmare you really are?”
“Bossy, I’m not—I’m of average height!”
It’s the same argument they’ve had on camera and off for five years, and Shane lets himself sink into the familiar rhythm of it. Even when everything else between them is weird and stilted, even when he doesn’t know quite where he stands in Ryan’s new life, Shane can still make for this one safe place.
Navigating the buffet is a nightmare. They go through one at a time so the other can film it. Ryan pulls his hand away to fiddle with a camera setting just as Shane’s attempting to spoon up some chicken fried rice, and he doesn’t hide his smirk when it half-misses the plate.
“You did that on purpose!”
Ryan shrugs. “It was the handcuffs, man. I’m clumsy. Ol’ Shaky Cam Bergara, they call me.”
It takes Ryan a full twenty minutes to eat his chow mein and Mongolian beef left-handed, fighting with the chopsticks all the while. Shane’s filming the whole time, snickering behind the camera.
“You can use a fork, you know, Ryan. There are extenuating circumstances. Nobody would call you a failure except for me, just now, by implication.”
“Over my dead body,” Ryan says. He shovels noodles in the general direction of his mouth with limited success. “And I could do without the smugness after I sacrificed the use of my right hand for you.”
“My hero,” Shane says, deadpan. He zooms the camera in on a dribble of sauce making a sloppy river down Ryan’s chin and calls it even.
Here’s what they can talk about: the weather, which is sun-bright and spring-perfect as they ease toward May in L.A. The movies coming out soon that they want to see. The season of True Crime they’ve just finished filming. The gossip around Buzzfeed, but only the inconsequential stuff like who got caught with their hand down whose pants in the coat room and who stole all the La Croix from the massive canteen fridge.
Here’s what they can’t talk about: what life at Buzzfeed is like now. What Ryan’s doing when he’s not working on Unsolved. Ruining History. The Hot Daga. Any of their mutual friends who were recently fired. TJ. Whatever comes next. What their lives might look like in six months. The way Shane feels, sour and aggrieved, when Ryan pops into the office on Friday afternoons or Monday mornings to film the Postmortems and then peaces out again. Anything real.
It’s not as if they make a habit of deep conversations normally. Shane can count on two hands the number of serious, introspective talks they’ve had in the entire course of their friendship, and he’s pretty sure Ryan was drunk for most of those. But he’s not used to having this whole laundry list of topics he needs to avoid either.
He’s not used to carefully sidestepping so much, to nudging around the edges of this widening gulf between them and gripping the handrails for dear life.
After lunch they go see the new Avengers movie, and that’s nice because no one really has to talk at all. They do one last on-camera impression of Vision dying, as a parting shot, and then they buy a giant container of popcorn which they set between them and almost knock over with the links of the handcuffs about five times. Shane whispers an apology each time people shush them while Ryan cackles helplessly.
The thing is that being handcuffed like this is almost, almost like holding Ryan’s hand in a movie theater. It’s such a curious thought that, once Shane thinks it, he can’t stop thinking about it. For the entire movie he sits there, sweaty-palmed, Ryan’s hand right there, and he thinks about it. For nearly three hours the better part of his attention is focused on the few inches of warmth-generating space between the back of his hand and the back of Ryan’s.
Ridiculous. It’s an intrusive thought, like when you’re driving along the PCH and can’t stop thinking about driving your car right over the guardrail. It doesn’t mean you want to do it.
“As you can see,” Shane narrates for his cell phone camera after the lights come up and most of the audience has filed out, “we’ve made a bit of a mess over here with the popcorn. Each one of them a fallen soldier, gone too soon. Rest well, brave souls.”
“You have serious issues with personifying food,” Ryan says. “It makes me think you do weird stuff with condiments when nobody’s watching. Anyway, movie was great. Popcorn, A+ from this kernalhead. The handcuffs, though…” Ryan makes an equivocal sort of gesture with his free hand. “You notice them the whole time, right? It’s impossible to forget for a second that I’m attached to this lug.”
“It is weird,” Shane agrees. “It’s like when you have an itch but you’re not in the position to scratch it, so you tell yourself it doesn’t itch and then the itch gets worse to remind you it’s there.”
Ryan thinks about that for a second. His free left hand comes up to touch his cuffed right wrist, pressing delicately under the metal ring of the handcuff, feeling for a spot where it’s indelibly marked his skin.
“Yeah,” he says, finally. “I’m not used to having someone in my space. I’m…I feel very aware of my arm all the time. It’s.”
He goes silent. And that’s interesting, because usually when Ryan’s uncomfortable it goes all the way in the other direction, into manic, unthinking blathering. Although it would be childish, Shane has the urge to make it worse; to probe with searching hands and eyes around the edges of Ryan’s quiet discomfort, seeking fault lines.
Instead Shane does what he does best, which is diffuse awkward tension: “Can I say, though. That ending? Steve Rogers would never.”
“Oh my god. Steve would never!” Ryan’s face lights up as he agrees, and that kicks off a spirited debate about the titular endgame of Avengers: Endgame that keeps them preoccupied past throngs of people and all the way out to the car.
They go to Whole Foods to get some groceries to make dinner, and it’s worse by far than lunch or the movie. Under the bright, artificial lighting of the store, Shane feels bright and artificial himself, just another shitty L.A. dude vlogging in public.
Also, there are moms in here shopping with their kids, and the moms keep giving them dirty looks. No fewer than five moms have noticed the handcuffs and glared at him since they walked in. Shane’s starting to feel like he’s gonna get grounded or something.
He should have made a little sign: “Just Filming a Video. Not Wearing Handcuffs in Public for Sexual Gratification.”
“We’re here at Whole Paycheck to do a little shopping. What are we making for dinner, Ryan?” he asks, turning the little handheld on Ryan as Ryan pulls them down an aisle. Ryan hates grocery stores so much that he becomes a man on a mission the moment he steps foot in one, the mission being to leave again as quickly as possible.
“You are making stuffed peppers. I am going to hand you shit, occasionally stir things, and drink several beers.”
“Well, at least you know yourself.” Shane shakes his head.
“I suggested we get take-out and you said no.”
“You’re a growing boy, Ryan,” Shane says. “This is my one chance to ensure you eat at least a couple of vegetables this week, and by god, I’m taking it.”
“There are sometimes vegetables in take-out!”
“Getting corn on your burrito at Chipotle doesn’t count.”
Despite his shorter legs, Ryan’s walking with such speedy determination that it’s pulling at the cuffs that link them, rubbing a little spot on Shane’s wrist raw. The chain on the cuffs makes a jangling noise every time one of them moves their arm, attracting more attention—which makes Ryan move quicker, which makes more noise, which attracts yet more attention.
It’s a vicious cycle of not wanting attention and getting it. Now that Shane thinks about it, this video could be a punishment someone dreamed up specifically for Ryan, a Dante’s Inferno-esque level of hell for deeply self-conscious people who nevertheless chose a life in the spotlight. He wonders, for at least the third time that day, why Ryan ever agreed in the first place.
They get home about six. Home in this case means Shane’s place, because the idea of doing this around Ryan’s bro roommates—who Shane knows just well enough to dislike—was too exhausting to even contemplate. Anyway, Ryan’s protective of the separate spheres of his life. Shane understands that the compartmentalization is by design, an extended exercise in code-switching, and he doesn’t begrudge it.
Shane spreads all the ingredients out on the counter and starts giving instructions.
“You can make rice, right?” he asks, not wanting to make any assumptions. “You can brown ground beef?”
“I can almost cook rice with two hands,” Ryan offers, not inspiring confidence. “With one? Probably not. Signs point to no.”
“Okay, I’ll do the filling, you prep the peppers.”
“You want me to use a knife with my left hand? What if I stab you by accident, dude? What if I stab you on purpose and make it look like an accident?”
“Okay, Ryan, what do you think you can handle?” Shane asks. They’ve got the camera set up on the far counter and he’s thinking about the angle of the shot, the physical comedy of it, him brandishing the knife and as many peppers as he can hold, Ryan leaning back against the counter with a beer in his free left hand, his right hand pulled tight to Shane’s side. Katie said Stooges, and she’s getting Stooges.
“I think I can handle finishing this beer and telling you what a great job you’re doing,” Ryan says. “Moral support. Just, you know, make sure I’m not in your way. Put me where you want me.”
He glints a little challenging grin upward at this, daring Shane to get annoyed at him, but Shane won’t rise to it.
“What, inside a volcano? On Mars? I’m certain that would be breaking the rules.”
Shane thinks it’ll probably make pretty good TV, The Odd Couple meets one of those cozy British family cooking shows on Netflix. Ryan drinks his beer and hovers while Shane cooks, relinquishing his right hand so Shane can use both of his, occasionally rising to the level of passing Shane an implement or stirring the filling mixture.
“Okay, hit me with some olive oil,” Shane instructs.
“On the peppers. Just drizzle it all over and I’ll rub it in and fill them.”
“Like, what—uh, lube ‘em right up?”
“Forward!” Shane says with a wheeze. “Forward of you. Yeah, lube these bad boys right up.”
Ryan hits the peppers with olive oil with an extravagant, showy flourish. “Oh, I feel like Emeril. Can I say it? Can I—okay, I’m gonna—Bam!”
Some of the olive oil goes on the peppers. A greater quantity of it goes on the baking sheet around them, and on the counter, and on Shane’s hand and arm, and on Shane’s t-shirt.
“Okay, well, don’t oil me up.”
“You covered in oil would be—uh, you’d just be a giant eel,” Ryan says. “A human slip-n-slide.”
He’s quiet for a moment, contemplating this. His eyes go vacant, and Shane can’t tell if he’s going for a dead-eyed traumatized look or what, but then he’s back and laughing and taking a long pull of his beer.
They move around each other pretty well, Shane thinks, spinning Ryan gently around in order to stick the stuffed peppers in the oven. This part isn’t quite as physically awkward as he imagined it might be. Some subconscious part of him has long since become attuned to the way Ryan moves in small, poorly-lit spaces, the uncertain stillness followed by the burst of energy. Shane choreographs himself around it pretty well, and that at least hasn’t changed.
Soon the kitchen is full of luscious dinner-smells: onion and garlic and oregano, the acrid scent of charred red bell pepper. It’s full of Ryan-smells too, the last vestiges of that fresh woodsy cologne, the slightly sweaty cling of his hair at the back of his neck.
They eat dinner while watching a couple episodes of Our Planet on Netflix; Ryan is oddly enamored of well-produced high-budget nature documentaries. It’s strange to sit so close on Shane’s couch. Ryan hasn’t been over for ages, and usually when they watch stuff he sits cross-legged on the chair Obi cares for the least, covered in a towel to protect himself from cat hair and allergens. The vibe of this is different than that, in ways Shane is unable or unwilling to put his finger on.
“Noooo,” Ryan wails, pulling his hands up over his eyes as the first of the walruses plummets to its untimely demise. Shane’s hand flies up with them. “Oh my god, this is horrible. Oh, I’m uncomfortable.”
Same, Shane thinks. He twitches away from the warmth of Ryan’s leg.
Shane blinks and it’s nearly eleven at night, past the time he would usually hit the hay on a weeknight. They’re both stalling.
It’s been a normal day so far: a movie, cooking dinner, hanging out with a friend. It’s all been so average, except for the weighty clink of the handcuffs between them as a reminder. Except for the way Ryan’s hand is always in reach but no less untouchable.
“I usually shower at night,” Shane says, when it’s no longer possible to delay the inevitable. Ryan will know that already, as much time as they spend on the road together, but it’s unlikely that Ryan would ever broach the topic himself. Left to his own devices in this situation, Ryan would wait until he had actual green stench lines coming off his body, like in The Sims.
“Oh, right,” Ryan says. His eyes flick up to the ceiling, considering. “That. Me too.”
“Well, should we—what do we—how do we want to, uh…”
“We could just shower in the morning,” Ryan suggests. He says it nonchalantly, as if he doesn’t care one way or the other, but Shane gets the impression that he does care quite a bit. “I’ll probably want to go to the gym first thing, so I’d need to shower again before work anyway.”
“Oh,” Shane says. He’d somehow totally forgotten that Ryan “gym rat” Bergara would want to lift, and the idea of being around that much grunting and sweating so early in the morning is alarming. “Yeah, that sounds fine. Adjust your expectations on that, by the way. No way am I holding your sweaty towel and telling you two more reps, bro!, because I am not that kind of friend.”
“What kind of friend are you?”
“The kind that tells you that you sound like Fiona the baby hippo when you exercise, and then asks you why your face is so red.”
“So a bad one.”
With the shower weirdness temporarily avoided, they go to bed. It’s too difficult to get all the way undressed with the cuffs on, so they shimmy out of their jeans and sleep in boxer-briefs and the t-shirts they wore that day.
It’d be almost no different than sharing a bed on an Unsolved shoot, except for the handcuffs. There’s no way to get comfortable, so there’s a lot of tossing and turning and general discomfort as they find a position that mostly works. They wind up flat on their backs, cuffed hands on the bed between them. Shane’s sleeping on the wrong side of the bed, which is weird but can’t be helped.
The other thing is that Ryan’s not scared. He drops off to sleep in less than ten minutes, his breathing level and even, and for once it’s Shane who’s alone in the dark, talking to himself.
“So much for the fabled insomnia,” Shane mutters, shifting. He doesn’t usually sleep on his back. He wants to scrunch in on himself, on his side, hands tucked in, but he can’t move or risk waking Ryan up.
With his free hand, he pulls out his phone and starts to record. It’s nearly dark in the room, save for the moonlight creeping in through the cracked blinds, so Shane’s not even sure the camera will pick up more than his shadowed face in quarter-profile.
“So that’s a wrap on hours one through fourteen of handcuffed ghoulboys,” Shane whispers. “It was…honestly, it was fine. I don’t know what I expected.”
Here’s the god’s honest truth: Shane expected more. He expected to learn something about himself. He expected to see Ryan in a new light, to emerge from this experience knowing him again.
He doesn’t feel changed at all. The video’s going to be funny and charming and pleasant, and people will watch it, because they are funny and charming and pleasant—but everything that bothered him at the beginning of the day is still weighing him down. All the lingering reservations and resentments, the growing conviction that he might be starting to hate a job he used to love, the sense that he’s being left behind: it’s all still there.
Bizarrely, Shane feels cheated of the friendship-altering experience he was promised. You’re in for a thing, Jen had said, but this didn’t really feel like a Thing, capital-T implied.
“There was an opportunity here to be…different, and I think we missed it.,” Shane tells his phone camera, a rare moment of honest on-camera self-reflection. “You know, I almost wish I had a do-over.”
It sounds silly and over-dramatic when he says it out loud, and the footage will never make the final cut. He puts his phone down to try to sleep.
Next to him, Ryan is breathing deep and even, the very beginnings of a light snore trying to break through. His arm is pressed up against Shane’s on the bed, warm and close, the metal of Shane’s cuff touching the metal of Ryan’s.
Physically, they’re about as close as they’ve ever been. Shane is keenly aware that in every other way that matters, they’ve never been further apart.
He drifts off, back already starting to ache from lying flat, smelling the very last traces of a mountain morning fizzling at the side of Ryan’s neck.
Thursday, April 25
“Well I’d go out cruisin’ but I’ve no place to go and all night to get there!”
Shane wakes up hot-faced and sweaty, the sun beaming in through the blinds and the alarm radio going off. He thinks again that it’s time to switch over to phone alarms, something gentle and melodic with 100% less post-disco keyboard reverb.
“What is this, the fuckin’ Styx power hour? I’ve got to change this radio station,” he mumbles. He pulls at his wrist to wake Ryan up. “Get up, lazy. That’s my 8 o’clock alarm, which means if you want to drag me to the gym you’re already late.”
Ryan doesn’t say anything. Shane shakes his wrist again, but he doesn’t hear the clinking of the cuffs.
He turns onto his side to look at Ryan, who—isn’t there. He turns freely, because there is no handcuff attached to his wrist.
Ryan must have taken the cuffs off to go to the bathroom, which is cheating, but Shane can’t be too annoyed about it. He enjoys a nice stretch and the opportunity to adjust his morning hard-on in privacy, and then he heads out to the kitchen. On the way he taps his knuckles on the closed bathroom door.
“I know you’re in there cheat-pooping,” he says. “I’m telling Katie!”
Ryan doesn’t respond. Shane goes out to make coffee and scramble some eggs. He doesn’t notice something’s wrong until the eggs are cooked and Ryan’s still not out of the bathroom. Usually the smell of coffee is itself enough to coax Ryan out of whatever hole he’s hiding in, but the door stays resolutely shut.
Only then does Shane notice that the bathroom light isn’t even on.
He knocks on the door again, cup of coffee in hand. “Ryan? Did you pass out from pooping? Do you need me to send in a search party?”
No answer. Finally he braces himself and turns the handle, peeking in carefully, then moving back so Obi can go charging in past his feet to investigate. There’s nobody in the bathroom.
Shane pulls out his phone. No texts, no calls. He texts Ryan, annoyed. Spending twenty-four hours at Shane’s side isn’t that bad, surely. He doesn’t think his presence has ever made somebody flee in the night before.
Shane: Going to the gym without me is in violation of the rules, Bergara. You’re also depriving the viewers of seeing my sculpted physique in exercise clothes, which you know they crave.
Ryan texts back less than a minute later.
Ryan: do u even own gym stuff? “exercise clothes,” u sound like my mom heading off to jazzercise
Ryan: we didn’t have gym plans, did we?
Shane: Last night you mentioned we’d go? But either way we’re only supposed to be uncuffed for emergencies. You’re on the lam, my dude.
Shane: So are you coming back?
Ryan: back? i’ll be into the office today, we’ve got the shoot at 10.
Ryan must have decided he’d had enough. Maybe he woke up and couldn’t face the prospect of the shower situation. Shane gets an odd twinge in his stomach, like hurt, that Ryan couldn’t power through it. He’d known things were off between them, but he hadn’t realized they were so off that Ryan couldn’t even bear to wake up next to him.
He goes to grab the handheld camera from the coffee table, where they left it last night. If Ryan doesn’t think Shane’s going to roast him for this, he’s got another thing coming.
Only the camera isn’t there. Ryan must have taken it with him, maybe to film his own mea culpa.
Shane pulls out his phone to record a short clip explaining that Ryan bailed. Before he does, though, he takes a look at the clips he recorded yesterday.
They’re not there.
There’s nothing there.
“What the fuck?” Shane says.
By the time he gets to the office he’s worked himself into a nice frothy lather of anger. Either this is the weirdest prank in the world, or Ryan suddenly became so horrified at the prospect of this video airing that he broke into Shane’s phone to delete footage, took the camera, and stole off into the dawn like an actual criminal.
When he gets into the office, Ryan’s sitting at his desk next to Shane’s, waiting. It’s the second day in a row Shane’s come in to find him there, just like old times, and if he wasn’t so annoyed he’d probably feel some kinda way about it.
“Ready to do this?”
“What’s wrong, Ryan?” Shane asks. “Did I snore or something? Was it your cat allergy?”
“I mean, you definitely snore,” Ryan says. “But also, what?”
“Why’d you bounce, dude? We still had this whole morning to film and you cut out early. Now we have to explain to Katie why we don’t have any footage from today.”
Ryan’s face is blank, unreadable. Of all the approaches Shane is prepared for, pretending it isn’t happening is not one of them. That’s bold even for Ryan, and he’s unsure how to proceed.
“It’s handcuffed for twenty-four hours, not until you wake up and freak out and bail.”
Ryan stares at Shane as if Shane’s grown a second head.
“Yeah, why do you think I’m here? We’re filming in—” he looks at the clock— “forty minutes.”
“No,” Shane says slowly. “No, what, I—we filmed it yesterday.”
“We definitely did not, I haven’t been in since Monday. Are you fucking with me? Are you feeling okay?”
Shane looks around. Obviously Ryan is up to something. This is, like, a video-within-a-video, and this whole time he’s been working with Katie and the crew to secretly prank Shane. That must be it. Ryan’s even wearing the same clothes as yesterday, which is a nice touch.
“Ha ha, Katie, very good,” Shane says, speaking to the room now, loud enough that some of the people around them turn to look. “Yes, you got me! You can come out now, let’s wrap this up already.”
Ryan’s smile falters, his brow furrows in concern, and that’s the first clue—not the actual first clue, but the first clue Shane registers—that something is wrong. Actually, badly wrong. He feels a bubble of panic rise up his chest and pop at the base of his diaphragm.
“Seriously, dude, if you’re not feeling well we can probably reschedule this.”
“You stay here,” Shane says. He points at Ryan, finger inches from Ryan’s face, so Ryan’s eyes cross a little trying to focus on it. He doesn’t move when Shane careens up and away from their desks.
Shane goes in search of an ally. Instead he finds Andrew, who will have to do. Andrew is Switzerland, a neutral party in almost all things, but he’s one of the only people in the office who won’t go along with a prank or a bit.
“What day is it?” Shane asks, without any preamble or pleasantries. “Andrew, what’s today?”
“Good morning to you too,” Andrew says. “It’s Thursday, April 25, 2019.” Then he adds, confusingly and unnecessarily, “Common Era.” Shane wonders, not for the first time, why people think he’s the demon in this office.
“No, it’s Friday. Yesterday was Thursday.”
Andrew frowns. He consults his Outlook calendar.
“No, because I’ve got a dentist appointment later today, and if I missed it they would have called me.” He tilts the monitor for Shane to see. “See? April 25. Thursday.”
“Nope!” says Shane, even though the calendar does clearly say it’s the 25th. Ryan must have already gotten to Andrew. There’s probably whole email threads planning this. “No. Absolutely not.”
Andrew cocks his head at Shane.
“Is this one of your weird things?” he asks. “Are you road-testing some hot dog plot?”
“I think it might be an I’m-having-a-nervous-breakdown thing,” Shane admits.
Shane locks himself in the bathroom, the one-staller on the third floor, and he pulls his phone out. He looks at the widget on the home screen. It, too, says it’s April 25, which cannot be right.
“Hey Siri, what day is it?”
“It’s Thursday, April 25, 2019,” Siri tells him, way too cheery for a fucking lying robot.
How deep does this thing go?
He pulls up Chrome. He Googles “what is the date.”
Thursday, April 25, 2019.
Nope. No. It’s not—it isn’t possible.
He sinks down onto the floor, his back to the wall, not even bothering to wonder when this bathroom was last cleaned.
He sits there for exactly thirty-two minutes, head in his hands, until ten o’clock rolls around and he’s supposed to be in the studio to film. Then he drags himself up, splashes water on his face, and goes out to face the world again—because no matter what day it is, it still isn’t a day he can afford to get fired.
When he gets on set, Katie and Ryan are waiting for him. Ryan looks up at him with big, worried eyes, and that’s when Shane knows for sure it’s not a prank. He trusts Andrew, and logically he knows there’s no way his phone and the whole internet could be in cahoots to give him a fake date, but it’s those eyes that do it.
Ryan’s a decent actor, but he’s not that good. He enjoys a prank, but not so much that he can look Shane directly in the face of his distress and fake the outright concern he’s showing now.
“Shane, Ryan said you weren’t feeling well. We can definitely move this to next week if you’re not up to it.”
“No, I’m—it’s fine. Let’s just do it.”
“Okay, so!” Katie starts, dangling the handcuffs from her hand. The handcuffs that were around Shane’s wrist last night, and now are off it, and will soon be on it again. “Here are the rules.”
“The first rule of Cuff Club is—” Ryan starts, and Shane jumps in to finish the thought almost without thinking.
“We don’t talk about Cuff Club.”
Ryan gives him a look, askance, out of the corner of his eye. Katie carries on laying out the rules, same as she did yesterday, and then they get in front of the camera and they do that whole thing too. It feels scripted to Shane, because he’s already done this whole thing, already filmed this segment, already made these jokes.
When he clicks the handcuff around his wrist again, he winces so dramatically that Ryan’s eyebrows knit together.
“You sure you’re okay there, big guy?”
“Just saying goodbye to my freedom,” Shane says weakly. “The old ball and chain, you know.” He gestures at Ryan, who gives an indignant sort of squawk.
Katie gives them the handheld and their marching orders.
“Wanna try to work?” Ryan asks.
Shane’s already decided, though. He’s not going to play this the same way as yesterday, or rather, the first today. He’s not about to suffer in silence.
“No, let’s go get lunch. I think we should talk.”
“Should I be alarmed that you handcuffed yourself to me and now you wanna talk?” Ryan asks, but the grin dies by degrees on his face when he realizes Shane isn’t kidding.
They go to this little diner a few blocks from work. Never let it be said that Shane doesn’t learn from his mistakes; he’s not going to jeopardize his favorite Chinese place this time.
Shane waits until their food arrives, completely ignoring the shifty look their server gives them. It’s amazing how playing with time—being played with by time—will change your perspective. Ryan’s embarrassed at the attention, tapping his fingers, trying to hide the handcuffs under a napkin. Yesterday Shane felt every stare, and today he couldn’t possibly give less of a shit.
“I think I’m caught in some kind of time fuckery,” Shane says, because he doesn’t want to waste time beating around the bush. Although, ironically, it seems like he’s got plenty to spare just now.
“You are so weird today. Are you having a midlife crisis?” Ryan asks, taking a gigantic bite of burger. “Because you’re not even 33, so. Not great.”
“Not metaphorical time fuckery. Real time fuckery.”
Ryan looks at him expectantly, still chewing.
“I’ve already lived this day,” Shane says. “Yesterday when I woke up, it was Thursday, April 25. We filmed this handcuff video yesterday. We did the whole…the whole day happened, we went to sleep, and when I woke up it was Thursday again.”
“Yesterday I went to the farmer’s market with my parents, reached out to some brands about partnerships, and watched X-Files for four hours,” Ryan says. He looks worried again, or at least as concerned as a person can look while trying to unhinge his jaw and swallow an entire cheeseburger whole like a ball python.
“Right, well—I get that you didn’t do this already, the you that’s here now. But we did it yesterday, me and…some other you.”
“It sounds like you had a really vivid dream about filming the video and woke up thinking you’d done it,” Ryan suggests. “I’ve done that before. Did the dream get weird? Did we walk on the ceiling or turn into snakes or anything?”
He lowers his voice and puts his burger down. “Oh shit. Did it get, uh, sexy?”
Shane runs his hand through his hair. From the way Ryan’s staring, it must be standing up wildly. He feels a little like a mad scientist trying to explain his crazy theories. He feels a little like Ryan.
“No! Jesus. No. Other than the handcuffs it was a normal day, it was exactly the day we planned. We got Chinese, we saw a movie, we cooked dinner, we went to sleep, and I woke up alone with no handcuff on. That was when I texted you this morning, because you weren’t—"
Shane stops abruptly, because you weren’t in my bed sounds like a lot.
Ryan chews his lip. He’s looking at Shane with an expression Shane recognizes but can’t quite place, until he realizes: it’s pity. Right now Ryan is looking at Shane the way Shane looks at Ryan when he sincerely ventures some insane theory, with disbelief and pity and more than a hint of exasperation.
“Oh my god. You don’t believe me.”
Ryan clears his throat and runs his hand along his jaw.
“You don’t believe me,” Shane repeats.
“I mean…do you have any proof?”
Shane throws his napkin. Ryan ducks.
And the thing is, Shane gets it. He knows if Ryan came to him with this, Shane wouldn’t believe him either. To Ryan’s credit, he hasn’t yet tried to check Shane into a psych ward, which is certainly what Shane would be doing right about now in his position.
He doesn’t quite believe Shane, but he might be entertaining the possibility of believing him.
“Not really,” Shane admits. “But that’s never stopped you before, so—”
Ryan throws the napkin back.
“Seriously, man, you’ve gotta give me something. This is some crazy shit.”
“When I woke up all the footage I took yesterday was wiped,” Shane says. “It was gone. You were gone. There was this, though.”
He reaches for his left wrist and pulls the handcuff aside. Under the metal there’s the faintest red mark, a sore spot where the cuff was starting to rub his skin raw by the end of the day yesterday. Ryan leans down to look closer, and then gets his fingers around Shane’s forearm to pull his wrist up to eye level.
“How do you know this isn’t from today?” Ryan asks. His finger traces the edge of the mark and pulls back, as if he’s afraid to hurt Shane.
“Do you have one? We’ve barely been wearing these cuffs for half an hour, and I’ve got thinner wrists than you. If I’ve got a mark, you should too, right?”
Ryan examines his own unmarked wrist next to Shane’s slightly raw one.
“Ryan, you believe so much crazy shit,” Shane says, beseeching. “You believe that Mothman exists and he’s an interdimensional being who could fly you to Cabo. How is this weirder than that? You desperately want something insane to believe, so believe this.”
Ryan’s quiet for a moment, watching Shane closely for a sign that Shane’s anything less than a hundred percent sincere. He must not find it, because he shakes his head.
“Holy shit, dude,” he says. “You’re Groundhog Daying it. You’ve gone full Bill Murray. I’m sorry, but this is cool as hell.”
Shane leans forward in his seat, unbelievably relieved. The handcuff goes hot around his wrist, hot like it’s burning a brand on him, and he wonders if Ryan can feel it too.
“I’m not making it up,” Shane says. “I’m asking you for help.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” Ryan quotes back, playing along. His eyes are bright and interested. Shane suspects that Ryan lives his life hoping mysteries will find him, disappointed when they never do. Today, one has.
“I don’t know. You’re a producer. Come up with something.”
Instead of the movie theater, they head for the beach. Shane doesn’t want to be inside, in a dark room. He wants to be outside under the sky, where the answers to the universe feel that little bit more attainable. Ryan drives them out to Malibu and then beyond, all the way over to El Matador. It’s quiet there, quiet enough that they can talk about this thing, quiet enough that there’s almost nobody around to gawp at the handcuffs.
“Theory one,” Ryan ticks off. “Time just got caught. Your little piece of the fabric of the universe got snagged on something and you’re stuck. Probably you’ll wake up tomorrow and everything will be normal again.”
“Mmhm,” Shane says, running his toes through the sand. He’s got his shoes and socks in his free hand. “Maybe. God, I hope so.”
“Theory two. You fucked something up and you’ve got to fix it. Something you did yesterday upset the time-space continuum.”
“Shouldn’t have made fun of Vision’s stupid death for the three hundred and tenth time,” Shane says somberly. “Three hundred and nine, sure, but this was a bridge too far.”
“Theory three: you’re on some sort of, like, vision quest.”
“I’m a thirty-two year-old white dude.”
“No, obviously, I mean…” Ryan makes a face. “In the movie, Bill Murray’s got to figure out how to be a doper person, right? He gets happy, he gets the girl, he fixes his shit, he fixes the loop. So maybe the universe is telling you to fix your shit.”
“My shit,” Shane says, firmer than he feels, “is all fixed. It is in order. This house is fucking tidy.”
Ryan makes a small disbelieving noise, as if to say well, the time loop doesn’t agree, Shane, but he doesn’t push. Perhaps he’s grasped with an unusual degree of sensitivity that Shane’s having a tough day.
“Theory four, the handcuffs are cursed.”
“I don’t love that,” Shane says, frowning down at the handcuffs, tugging with his wrist so they rattle. “The timing does seem suspicious, though. Should I take them off and throw them in the ocean? Should I throw the key in the ocean?”
“I wish you wouldn’t. Theory five, and this one’s my favorite. Time Lords are real. You are a Time Lord. Boom, you’re an alien, aliens are real, I win.”
Shane can’t help himself; despite the enormity of the situation, he laughs. He has so many questions: how is this possible? Why him? Why now, why this day of all days? What about today, April 25, made something reach through the ether to disrupt his life?
But they don’t seem as pressing as they did an hour ago. Hearing Ryan talk through the possibilities, treating them as real, has calmed him. The ocean’s doing its work too, making him feel small in the best way, giving him perspective.
It’s cool on the beach, too breezy to get in the water, but they walk in the surf. As the wind ruffles their hair, Shane gets another whiff of that smell that’s already becoming familiar, that same cologne Ryan wore yesterday.
“I like that cologne,” Shane says, chasing the smell a little closer to Ryan while trying very hard to appear as if he isn’t doing just that. “You wore it yesterday, too. Or today, I guess. Whatever.”
“It seemed polite,” Ryan starts, “since we’re so…anyway, my mom gave it to me for Christmas and I’m only now getting around to trying it.”
“Yeah, you mentioned,” Shane says. “Very considerate.”
“I don’t care for you knowing stuff I don’t know.”
“You must have a very difficult every single day of your life, then.”
Ryan tugs at the chain of the handcuffs, making the metal bite at Shane’s skin and dragging his hand down in good-humored retribution.
“I just mean it’s weird, you having memories of me that I don’t have. There was this whole other Ryan running around, doing stuff and saying stuff and – I don’t know. What if he gets up to weird shit when my back is turned?”
The sun pops back out from behind a cloud, becoming a dazzling sparkle when it hits the ocean and reflects back. Shane leans back to feel the warmth on his face, trying to pick his way through this knot that’s been formed by time looping back on itself.
“It’s not like that,” he tells Ryan. “You’re not any more or less Ryan than you were yesterday. You were the only Ryan then and you’re the only Ryan now.”
Ryan lets out a small hmm, disbelieving.
“One of a kind, baby!” Shane tacks on with spirit. Ryan kicks some sand in Shane’s general direction, cursing when some of it flies back in his own face. Shane kicks back. Ryan’s laugh bubbles up broad and loud and contagious, and Shane thinks that if he had to pick one day to live twice, a man could do worse.
They stay at the beach all afternoon and then pick up a pizza on their way home. As the night grows shorter, he starts to get butterflies.
They crawl into bed at about ten. It’s an early night, but Shane’s got to know. He feels like a kid going to bed early on Christmas Eve so Santa will come all the sooner. He has to go to sleep so he can wake up and know what he’s dealing with here.
“You’re freaking out,” Ryan says, frowning. He flips onto his side to face Shane. They’re lying close enough that each can rest his handcuffed wrist on his own hip, close enough that Shane can smell the minty toothpaste and mouthwash from Ryan’s extensive nighttime dental hygiene routine.
“What if…” Shane starts. “What if I wake up and have to do this all over again? And what if you don’t remember?”
It had been lonely, this morning, when he’d thought he was the only person in the world who would ever know or understand this huge, crazy thing. Shane likes to think he doesn’t need people, not the way Ryan needs people, but in truth that temporary loss had been crushing.
“You’ll tell me again,” Ryan says. “And we’ll figure it out. I believed you once, I’ll do it again.”
“Just don’t...” Ryan hesitates. He doesn’t usually take this much care when he speaks; Shane’s used to parsing excitable sentences because Ryan’s in such a hurry to get them out. He’s less used to waiting patiently while Ryan puts it all together first.
“Don’t?” Shane prods after a minute.
“Don’t do anything reckless.” Ryan says it with the air of studied casualness. “You’ve got to treat every day like the one that might stick, right? Because you can’t know.”
Shane weighs that word, reckless. He lets it roll around his tension-filled shoulders and down his back. He’s not a reckless man, as a general rule, but he can see how this situation would make a man careless in a hurry. What does it matter what you do, if by the next morning it’s all undone? What mess wouldn’t a man create, if he thought Time was trailing behind him with a broom and a mop?
“You know me, I’m a pretty cautious guy.”
“I’m saying don’t steal a truck and a groundhog and drive off a cliff,” Ryan says, all of a sudden snappish. “It’s not funny in real life.”
“It would be a little funny.”
“Shane, I swear to god. If I wake up to find out you took a nose-dive off a cliff I’m going to find your corpse and strangle it.”
“I think I’ll probably be pretty burny, but you can try.”
Shane lies awake a long time, watching the minutes tick by, holding his breath every time the second hand approaches the twelve. Ryan falls asleep quickly again, but he sleeps close, as if he wants to feel it the very moment something changes or doesn’t.
And then Shane closes his eyes for a moment—just for a couple of seconds—before, lulled by the warmth of Ryan’s body and the steady rise and fall of his chest, he’s out.
Thursday, April 25
Shane wakes up with the sun warming his closed eyes—but that’s fine, that’s okay, it’s California. It’s sunny all the time here. That doesn’t mean anything.
Then the radio clicks on. His alarm. “Is it any wonder I’m not a criminal?” the guy from Styx yowls, petulant and terrible. “Is it any wonder I’m not in jail?” But even that could be fine, maybe the jockey’s really into upbeat 80s bops, that doesn’t mean—
He reaches over blindly to feel for Ryan, who isn’t there. There’s just a cold bed. His heart sinks.
Shane opens his phone, turns off his alarm, and checks the date. It’s Thursday, April 25.
He texts Ryan.
Shane: It happened again. Do you remember?
And then, a few seconds later:
Ryan: i didn’t forget the shoot if that’s what u mean. i’ll be there. 10, right?
Shane turns over, shoves his face down in the pillow, and he cries like he hasn’t cried in a very long time. Once could be an accident of fate, a little hiccup in the cosmos. Twice, though. Twice is a pattern. Twice is a problem.
This time he thinks he might not bother to tell Ryan at all. That’s the plan, anyway.
Shane dutifully cracks his jokes, and he holds his wrist out for the handcuffs, and he snaps the cuff down on himself as if it’s all brand-new and hilarious. They go out for lunch and they joke and they do bits for the camera, and Shane does his best to act like every cell in his body isn’t afraid.
Only then he’s thinking about cells, about how his cells are aging and no one else’s seem to be. He starts thinking that maybe he’ll do this every day until he dies, and then he wonders if maybe this actually means he can’t die at all. It’s such a horrifying thought that his breath catches in his throat—to be trapped here for eternity, suspended in this day like a prehistoric bug in amber. Caught.
“Are you feeling okay?” Ryan asks. “You look pale. Paler than usual.”
They’re at a new sushi place that recently opened. If Shane’s going to do this over and over he’s at least going to enjoy some new restaurants while he does.
“I sobbed into my pillow this morning,” he says, matter-of-fact, before he can stop himself. Whoops.
He doesn’t mean to say it. It just slips out. Ryan hacks, and Shane looks away so he can pretend not to see the piece of sashimi Ryan spits back into his napkin.
“I—Jesus. Uh. Are you…do you want to talk about it?”
“I think I might be sick,” Shane says, and Ryan opens his mouth to say something else, but Shane doesn’t let him. “Like, really sick. Like, dying. Or maybe never dying?”
He doesn’t want to alarm Ryan, but honestly it doesn’t even seem that hyperbolic.
Ryan goes white around the mouth. He reaches up with his hand to rub an anxious path around his jaw and lower lip, as if he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.
“Experiencing things that can’t be happening. Using time and then wringing it out like a wet dishrag and reusing it. Either I’m in the middle of a really convincing hallucination or my molecules are not behaving as they should.”
Ryan just blinks at him.
“Your molecules? Hey, man.” He reaches out to touch Shane, reassuring himself that Shane is in fact physically present, and he leaves his hand on Shane’s forearm. “I’m no science expert—”
“I’m no expert,” Ryan repeats, “but your molecules feel normal to me.”
“Yesterday when I woke up, it was Thursday,” Shane says, and he knows he sounds insane but he can’t help himself. “The day before that was also Thursday. Today is Thursday. And I have this strange feeling, Ryan, that tomorrow will also be fucking Thursday.”
“Do you need a doctor?” Ryan asks. He looks properly freaked out now. “Do you want a ride to the ER? Are you having a stroke?”
Shane considers this. A stroke could be possible. Something neurological, making him perceive the passage of time incorrectly. The last gasps of a dying brain.
He bares his teeth at Ryan in a grin, testing his facial muscles for weakness on one side. “How’s it look?”
“No crookeder than usual.”
“Okay, smart guy, we can’t all be dentists’ kids.”
“You just called me smart, you really must be sick,” Ryan says. “Seriously, you want to find a doctor? I think we should find a doctor.”
Shane believes in science. He believes in medicine. He doesn’t know if there’s something wrong with him or something wrong with the universe, but he’s confident that there must surely be someone out there who can help him. Whether they can help him inside the scope of one day is another question entirely.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, maybe I do.”
Ryan unlocks the handcuffs before they go inside. He does it on camera.
“You said in case of emergencies only, Katie.” He slow-pans the handheld toward a sign by the hospital entrance that reads EMERGENCY in enormous red letters, which is funny enough that Shane’s sorry no one else will ever see it. “Never say we don’t listen to you.”
Shane’s got a massive headache building behind his eyes. That’ll be the stroke, he thinks, before remembering that he cried his eyes out this morning and also never got his coffee.
Ryan walks in with him, nervously jingling his keys in his pocket. He’s quiet and distracted while Shane fills out paperwork and tries to explain to the head nurse what he’s doing in the ER when nothing appears to be physically wrong with him.
“Should I be calling someone?” Ryan asks. “Your parents? Scott?”
“Yeah, Ryan,” Shane says. “Call my parents. Tell them I’m caught in a time loop and all my cells are dying.”
“Everyone’s cells are dying. That’s what aging is.” Ryan’s displaying a level of knowledge about the human body and science in general that Shane considers unlikely. It makes him wonder if this Ryan is a figment of Shane’s imagination, who knows what Shane knows. “Maybe you’re pulling a Doctor Strange.”
“You know. Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain! You got a fancy time bracelet on or something?”
Shane wonders if Ryan will pull out a new movie reference every time they have this conversation. He wonders how many Ryan’s got queued up right now. If this is a hallucination, it’s a very convincing one.
After two long hours he’s taken into a room. Ryan’s not allowed to come back with him—it turns out the hospital doesn’t accept “we hunt ghouls together” as a familial relationship—so he plugs his headphones into his phone and settles in to wait, giving Shane a cautious little wave.
They can’t find anything wrong with Shane. At least not physically.
His blood pressure is normal. His reflexes are good. An unusually patient doctor walks him through the diagnostic test for a stroke and he passes with flying colors. His labs are normal. It’s all normal.
“We can give you a referral for more tests,” the doctor says. “I’d like to see you get a CT scan and an electroencephalogram to absolutely rule out a brain tumor or epilepsy, which can both present with hallucinations and a sense of time loss, but—”
Shane’s insides clench in around themselves at the word tumor. “I’m not losing time, I’m gaining it,” he tries to explain, but she smiles kindly at him and nods.
“Mr. Madej, I do think our immediate next step should be to refer you to a psychiatrist for evaluation.”
Shane isn’t surprised by this outcome, of course. He’d been expecting it. The problem is that there isn’t enough time. He can schedule an appointment he’ll never be able to keep, but there’s no point.
He takes the referral anyway, and then he allows an equally patient nurse to lead him back out into the waiting room. She pulls Ryan aside for a quick word, and then Ryan corrals him back to the car, a hand on his elbow the whole way as if Shane’s a flight risk.
Shane isn’t used to being treated so delicately. It turns out all you have to do is announce that you’re double-dipping in Time’s jar of salsa and people get real squirrely real fast.
Then the minute they’re back in the car, Ryan slaps the handcuff back on Shane and then gets the other around his own wrist with a definitive click. No time wasted.
“I’m sure she told you to keep a close eye on me, but this is a tad literal, don’t you think?”
“I don’t make the rules, Shane. Katie makes the rules, and Katie’s scary.”
It’s sweet, but it’s not believable. Shane can see it written all over Ryan’s face: he’s scared, but not of Katie. Shane’s behavior, this hospital visit, whatever that nurse said, has spooked him.
“I’m not going to drive the car off a cliff, Ryan. I already promised you I wouldn’t be reckless.”
“I’m taking you home,” Ryan says. “We’re gonna film some bullshit and chill out and then in the morning we’re going to figure it out. We’ll figure it all out, I promise.”
Shane knows he can’t hold Ryan to that promise, but he nods anyway. He closes his eyes and naps on the way home, just for the pleasure of knowing that this time Ryan will still be here when he wakes up.
Shane’s never been privy to this side of Ryan before. He flits around Shane, bringing him a glass of water and Tylenol for his headache and starting a pot boiling for spaghetti, which is just about all he knows how to cook. Then he hustles Shane onto the couch and under a blanket. Shane actually feels fine, apart from the larger question of whether his cells are or are not decaying, which still has not been answered to his satisfaction. Still, there’s something about Ryan’s solicitude that makes Shane want to be babied a little.
Ryan turns on the TV and starts flipping through options.
“So are we leaning into this or what?” he asks, pulling up “The Time Traveler’s Wife” on Netflix. Rachel McAdams’s pensive face stares back at them from the screen. “Too soon?”
“If I’m the time traveler in question, I think that makes you the titular character, bud,” Shane points out, even though he thinks time travel isn’t exactly what’s happening here.
Ryan tosses his head back to laugh in surprise, slapping his hand to his belly.
“Also I’m pretty sure Eric Bana dies at the end,” Shane adds. Ryan’s laughter falters and trails off into one final weak “…ha” as he scrolls for something new.
“Looper?” Ryan asks.
“Edge of Tomorrow?”
“They die so many times, Ryan.”
“Not at the end! Donnie Darko?”
They put on Our Planet instead (again), because somehow global climate change is less depressing.
Shane doesn’t have the heart to tell Ryan he’s watched these walruses cliff-dive to their doom already, that they just watched it together two nights ago. When he sneaks a peek at Ryan, Ryan’s peeking back out of the corner of his eye like he’s worried Shane might be getting ideas from the walruses.
“Atlantic walruses face an uncertain future,” David Attenborough narrates solemnly, and Shane thinks, once again, same.
Thursday, April 25
“Is it any wonder I’ve got too much time on my hands? It’s ticking away with my sanity…”
Shane wakes up to Los Angeles sunshine, although he’d kill for clouds. He wakes up to that fucking song, which is insultingly on-the-nose, and he comes this close to throwing his alarm clock at the wall. Then he realizes it won’t matter, so he looks around to make sure Obi’s not around and he does throw the thing after all. It breaks with a very satisfying crunch.
It’s Sunday. It’s not—it’s Thursday, April 25—but also it is, it’s Sunday, and Shane is exhausted.
There’s still a raw spot on his wrist, from the handcuffs, rubbed more tender than it was before. It’s sore to the touch, but he runs his fingertip over it gratefully nonetheless. Any bit of evidence that he’s not crazy, at this point, is welcome.
He calls in sick to work. Maybe if the handcuffs are cursed, the solution is to just never put them on in the first place. Even if it doesn’t work, Shane needs to come up with a plan. He can’t keep randomly casting about for the fix, he needs to be purposeful.
Shane knows how the scientific method works. He knows how to design an experiment.
1. You begin with a question you want to answer.
“Am I caught in a time loop?” Shane asks out loud to no one in particular. Obi meows in response.
2. You formulate a hypothesis.
“Yes,” he says for the sake of making it formal, and just in case Obi doesn’t know already. “Obi, I think I’m caught in a time loop. I am living April 25 over and over. This is my fourth April 25.”
Obi rolls over, indicating Shane should pet his belly, and Shane obliges. Shane wonders if this is also Obi’s fourth April 25, and how you’d ever know with a cat when all they do is sleep all day anyway.
3. You design an experiment to test the hypothesis.
The problem is that there are too many variables. Shane reasons that the only way to figure out what is causing the loop, and thus how to stop it, is to test them one by one while controlling all the others. He has to go back to the beginning, to the first April 25, and he has to do it exactly the same—changing one thing and one thing only to find out if it’s the thing that makes the difference. And then he has to do it all over again.
It could take him, he realizes with a desperate twist of fear in the pit of his stomach, weeks or months. It could take years.
He gets up, makes himself coffee, and sits down with a pen and paper. He writes down everything he remembers from the original Thursday, everything he said, everything he did, every person he talked to. He won’t be able to bring the paper with him, but the act of writing it down cements it in his memory.
He gets a text from Ryan: “sorry ur sick :o( we’ll film next week yeah?”
“That smiley face is unforgivable,” Shane says to Obi. He shoots back a quick OK and a thumbs-up emoji.
Maybe he’ll get lucky. Maybe not putting on the handcuffs will be all it takes. Maybe he’s already free and he doesn’t know it yet.
Thursday, April 25
Takes 5-34, Assorted
He makes strategic, targeted changes, some big and some tiny. The next day, it’s like they never happened at all.
On the sixth Thursday, Shane wears a different shirt, a flowered short-sleeve button-up instead of a blue t-shirt.
“I dig that shirt,” Ryan says, over their Chinese buffet meal. “Is it new?”
He reaches out to feel the fabric with his cuffed hand, letting it slip between his thumb and pointer finger like he can divine the shirt’s origins by touching it.
The shirt’s not new-new; Shane got it for Christmas and he’s worn it more than a few times. It’s just new to Ryan, who’s rarely around to see his wardrobe these days. Shane shouldn’t make a pointed comment about that because getting in a fight with Ryan isn’t part of the plan (today).
“No, I wear it a lot,” Shane says, letting the not that you’d know remain unspoken. Ryan shovels more chow mein in his mouth and changes the subject.
On the thirteenth Thursday, Shane insists they see a different movie. Avengers: Endgame was good the first couple of times, but the plot doesn’t hold up to this many repeated viewings. He’s also still sore about the whole time travel theme in general, and getting sorer all the time.
Instead they go see, of all things, The Curse of La Llorona. It’s not great, even by mediocre horror movie standards, but the theater’s nice and quiet because everybody else is seeing Avengers. Afterwards Shane pulls out the handheld camera and turns it on Ryan.
“Well, what do you think, man? Glad we took that sponsorship? Did it do you proud?”
They both know they didn’t really have a choice. Bringing in sponsorship money is half the reason Unsolved still has a travel budget, so they’ll take what they can get and be grateful.
“There were some solid jump scares,” Ryan says diplomatically.
“Ryan means it was hot garbage!” Shane says into the camera. “Kinda racist!”
“We cannot put that in the video,” Ryan says, but he doesn’t disagree.
On the twenty-first Thursday, Shane makes Ryan cook dinner while he talks him through it, his own left hand useless so Ryan can use his right to hollow out the peppers and make the filling and assemble.
It goes okay until Ryan gets a little over-enthusiastic blistering the sides of the peppers with Shane’s culinary blowtorch. Before either of them knows it, a dish towel’s on fire. Then the dish towel next to that is on fire, and then Ryan’s apron is on fire and everyone is doing a lot of yelling and flailing and smoke detectors are going off and Obi is yowling for dear life in the background.
Handcuffs aren’t ideal for navigating actual emergencies, as they discover when they end up on the floor, Shane mostly on top of Ryan, heartbeats crashing wildly against each other from the adrenaline. Shane had just wanted to smother the flames before Ryan got hurt, but in the process he’d thrown his hand a little too wide and smacked Ryan right in the face with his cuffed wrist. Then he’d thrown a cup of water down Ryan’s front to make sure the fire was well and truly out.
It’s also difficult to explain the handcuffs to authority figures, as they discover when Shane’s landlord and an entire fire truck full of firefighters show up five minutes later. The firefighter who comes to the door takes in the scene—the blowtorch, the handcuffs, the water on the floor, the Kleenex shoved up Ryan’s nose to stop the bleeding—and sighs the heavy sigh of a man who cannot retire fast enough.
“It’s under control,” Shane says wearily. “We were making stuffed peppers and this genius got a little laissez-faire with the blowtorch.”
“You were making stuffed peppers,” the lead fireman repeats. He’s an older man, suited up in his full kit save his helmet, looking confused and vaguely disapproving. He chances another glance downward at the handcuffs. Shane feels Ryan shift his weight beside him.
“If two consenting adults want to grill up some delicious nightshades, handcuffed, in the privacy of their own home, that is none of your—”
“We’re filming a video.” Ryan cuts him off, picking up the still-running handheld camera off the counter as proof. “For Buzzfeed.”
“What’s a Buzzfeed?” the fireman asks.
“Buzzfeed’s our fella,” Shane says, sotto voce, leaning his hip against the counter and doing his very best to keep a straight face. “Our, you know, our…papa. Our employer. He likes it when we film for him.”
“I gotta get out of this town,” the guy says, shaking his head. Ryan steps on Shane’s heel hard enough to bruise. Ryan can’t know that Shane’s lost all sense of shame from the handcuffs now, this extension of his own body, Shane’s hand to the handcuffs to Ryan’s hand—and all sense of consequences to boot.
“Thanks for comin’ out!” Shane gives a cheery salute, watching the fireman lope back down to his truck to regale the whole truck with this, the strangest thing he’ll see all week.
“He likes it when we film for him?” Ryan says incredulously as soon as the door is shut. “Our papa? What is wrong with you?”
“Oh, shut up, you liked it.”
Ryan’s silent, but his lips are twitching.
“I don’t know how you’re so cool about everything,” he says eventually. “Can you even get embarrassed? Are you humiliation-proof?”
The honest answer, at this point, is yes.
“That guy won’t even remember us tomorrow, Ryan,” Shane says, and Ryan can’t know he means it literally.
Still, on the twenty-sixth Thursday Shane thinks maybe he’d better cool it. Just a little change today. When they’re in Whole Foods the next day, Shane feels Ryan tensing up at one of the glaring, judgy moms. He reaches over and grabs Ryan’s hand, angling their hands to hide the chain of the handcuffs.
“Jen was right,” Shane says to Ryan, giving the handheld camera a quick glimpse of their hands together for an audience that will never see it. “If we do this, we could just be wearing matching bracelets as long as no one looks too closely.”
Ryan relaxes a little, threading his fingers through Shane’s. It occurs to Shane that they’ve only ever held hands before for séances, so it feels strange to be doing it here under the sterile fluorescents of an L.A. grocery store.
But perhaps not as strange as it should feel.
On the thirty-fourth Thursday, Shane gets to take a shower. He couldn’t be more excited about it.
It’s not that he’s gross. Every morning he wakes up clean, as if he showered the night before, presumably because on the first Thursday he had showered the night before. But because he didn’t shower on that first Thursday he can’t do it any other Thursday and still preserve the integrity of his experiment. It’s science.
Except for today, the day he’s testing this particular variable.
Even though he isn’t dirty, he misses showering. He hadn’t realized until now how much he depends on it for stress relief, and how much it’s the place where he does some of his best thinking and all of his best singing. He looks forward to it all day, waiting for the splitting-off point when he gets to send this timeline skittering off in a new direction.
“I usually shower at night,” Shane finally says to Ryan at eleven o’clock, because he always says it at eleven o’clock.
“Oh, right,” Ryan says, “that,” because he always says it back. Shane’s so sick and tired of this script; he lives for the moment of divergence, the one point in his day where he knows he’ll get to have a genuine new interaction. It’s a luxury, to experience something for the first time and have no idea what will happen next. Shane can’t believe he took it for granted before. “Me too.”
“Well, should we…” he nudges.
“Or we could just shower in the morning.”
It’s funny. The first time, the first few times, Ryan’s attempts at delaying this particular set piece of their video had been welcome. But over the course of many Thursdays they’ve come to irritate Shane a little bit. It’s not—it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It’s a fucking shower, not a marriage proposal.
Today, at last, Shane gets to push back.
“No, the whole point is to see what each other’s lives are like, right? We’re supposed to live a regular day, and I shower at night, and you arm is attached to mine, so come on. Unless the thought of it bothers you.”
He lets that dangle, knowing the effect it will have. Ryan can be dared or goaded into almost anything. Sure enough—
“Of course it doesn’t bother me,” Ryan says with a scoff. “Except that I’ve been in your bathroom and I’m not sure it’s big enough to contain all of your appendages and me at the same time.”
“And that’s just the appendages you’ve seen.”
“What, are you hiding an extra set of arms or someth—oh Jesus!”
Ryan stops mid-sentence when he gets the joke. He tucks his face into his free hand with a groan. When he re-emerges he’s composed again, and Shane takes in the still-hot tips of his ears and the creep of color down his neck and thinks, oh. Oh fuck.
There’s a lot that’s ironic about the situation Shane’s found himself in, but chief among those ironies is that the genesis of filming this stupid video in the first place was that Shane had noticed and regretted the relative absence of Ryan in his life. He had wished for things to go back to the way they were a year ago, when life at Buzzfeed was steady and they were constantly working together on Unsolved or Ruining History.
And now he’s got more Ryan than he knows what to do with, day in and day out. Ryan in his kitchen, Ryan in his shower. Ryan in his bed.
“It’s a Monkey’s Paw,” Shane says out loud. It’s the very thing he wished for, ruined. Delivered as a gift, but concealing within it a curse. He did this.
“Okay, that’s a weird thing to call your d—”
“Be quiet, Ryan, I’m in the middle of a personal revelation!”
Shane asked for this. He asked the universe for this specifically. He had wanted to spend more time with Ryan. The universe, working through Katie, had provided—and how.
At the end of that first Thursday, he had been disappointed by the widening gulf between them, by his chickenshit inability to say what he wanted to say, by his disconnectedness from his own job and friendships and life. He had actually said it out loud: I almost wish I had a do-over.
Et voila. Endless do-overs.
Shane understands with a sudden flash of inspiration that he’s not supposed to do everything the same, strategically changing this variable or that, picking at this one day over and over for a single thing that’s wrong. It’s all wrong, and he’s supposed to blow it up.
It’s not a science experiment after all. It’s an exorcism.
Shane starts to laugh, and once he starts he can’t stop, and then Ryan’s just sitting on the couch next to him staring while Shane laughs his damn fool head off. Obi sprints, startled, into the other room.
“Are you still…personally revelating? Revelationing? Is this part of it? Only I’m getting kind of tired and I really want to get this footage so we can go to sleep.”
“Not quite finished,” Shane says. “I can finish in the shower, though.”
“There’s got to be a better way to say that,” Ryan says.
The logistics of it are the real trick. They have to take the cuffs off briefly to get their shirts off, because that’s how arms work. Then they’re both standing in Shane’s bathroom in their boxer-briefs, re-cuffed, the camera set on the bathroom counter at a good angle to preserve some modesty while allowing for narration.
“This is the strangest thing anyone has ever been paid to do,” Ryan says, turning the shower on and—Shane looks away for privacy—kicking his underwear off and flinging them at the wall. Shane, for whom mundane woes like capitalism have ceased to hold any power, manages a non-committal hmm of agreement as he catches a glimpse of Ryan’s bare thigh sliding into the shower.
It only works if Shane sits on the edge of the tub in his own boxer-briefs with his left arm thrust around the curtain to let Ryan use both hands as much as possible, although one-handed shampooing is a requirement. Shane’s arms are long, but they aren’t that long.
The minute the hot water hits Ryan’s skin, the cologne he’s wearing blooms in the heat from the steam and fills the small bathroom. Shane closes his eyes and inhales, sure Ryan won’t hear him over the patter of the shower. A month ago that smell was a pleasant surprise, but in recent days it’s taken on the specific quality of home. Shane can’t even remember what Ryan smelled like before.
“I really am into that cologne,” Shane says over the water. “It’s like hiking, but sort of…”
He can’t say it. He cannot say it. Under no circumstances can he—
“…sexy,” he finishes, because he can, actually. Ryan won’t remember anyway. Blow it up.
Ryan sticks only his head out around the shower curtain. His hair is covered in shampoo suds.
“I said your cologne is like hiking, but make it sexy,” Shane repeats, and hates himself.
Ryan disappears around the curtain again.
“Shane,” he says, “if you’re…on something…you know you can tell me, right?
“I’m high on time.”
“Sorry, what? It’s echoey in here.”
“I said I’m fine.” Shane is too tired to explain it all right now. He wants a shower. He wants a safe place to think. He would very much prefer to not have an inappropriate erection right now, of all times, when there’s absolutely nowhere to hide it.
The thing is that, along with showering, there’s some other stuff Shane hasn’t been able to do without endangering his experiment. Some other simple pleasures he’s been unable to indulge in, and jerking off is chief among those. He’s sure that under normal conditions his body wouldn’t be in full revolt over a proximate naked person and some nice cologne.
He’s, like…80% sure.
The water shuts off. Ryan’s wet foot nudges his leg. “Your turn, dude. Pass me a towel.”
He passes along a towel, trying not to think about it, trying to talk himself down. He looks away when Ryan edges out of the shower, damp and be-toweled and just overall very glisteny.
Shane slides gratefully into the shower himself. He turns the water on and lets himself fold back into the spray. He can hear Ryan chattering at the camera, the way he does when he’s on edge and trying to hide it. Shane’s interested to know what Ryan’s saying, but not interested enough to bring his head out of the water to listen.
He does his best to wash one-handed, trying not to think about how Ryan is right there, perched on the other side of the shower curtain, and about how inappropriate it is that he’s only barely fighting off the urge to touch himself right now.
The problem is that Shane is a different person than he was a month ago, expanding and contracting like a cosmic event. The problem is that for a month Ryan’s been his main source of companionship, the mainstay of his day, the extension of his own arm.
The problem is that he falls asleep next to Ryan every night, the smell of Ryan on his sheets, and wakes up alone every morning. It’s enough to fuck anyone up. Anyone would be confused.
Shane closes his eyes and ducks his head back under the water. For the first time in weeks, he doesn’t know what shape his tomorrow will take. He only knows that he’s done tiptoeing around the edges of his own life, re-arranging throw pillows when he should be smashing through walls.
Thursday, April 25
And so it comes to pass that, after a month of lonely, diligent, plodding Thursdays, Shane wakes up reckless.
He can’t do it anymore. He can’t keep eating awkward lunch after awkward lunch with Ryan, pointedly talking around all the things that are important. He can’t watch Avengers: Endgame again. He can’t stuff another pepper. He hates that t-shirt.
Shane gets up and he makes a phone call, setting the vague outline of a plan in motion. Today he’s just going to do whatever the fuck he wants.
What he wants first is to take another long shower, jerk off for a truly decadent period of time, and roll into the Buzzfeed office at least an hour late blaring Styx to get himself in the mood for some space-time fuckery. And because he’s starting to like that song again; it really comes back around after the first thirty times or so.
Ryan’s waiting for him there. Shane ruffles Ryan’s hair on the way to his own desk, shooting finger-guns when Ryan peers up at him and tries without success to smooth it back down.
“Ready to do this?” he asks Shane for the thirty-fifth time. Shane doesn’t know why he didn’t spot it the first day, how jittery and nervous Ryan is. Maybe it’s only in comparison to how relaxed Shane is on this particular morning, already two orgasms and one sausage, egg, and cheese McGriddle into his day.
“Born ready, baby!” Shane says in return, firing off a wink.
“You’re in a suspiciously good mood.”
“Who wouldn’t be, when they get to spend the day with you?”
Ryan narrows his eyes, trying to figure out if Shane’s being sarcastic or not, or else trying to figure out what Shane’s got up his sleeve.
“I don’t like your enthusiasm. I think you’re planning something.”
“Ryan, please. When has my enthusiasm ever led you astray?”
Ryan’s frown deepens, creating a little crease in his forehead that Shane finds very charming.
“There were all those times we slept in a demon house, and then that time you tricked me into stealing a demon’s bridge, and that time we ate nothing but soup for three days, and Cardio Barre, and…”
“Cardio Barre was great.”
“You only liked it because the instructor complimented your legs!”
“Well, they looked fantastic,” Shane says, experiencing a jolt of triumph when Ryan doesn’t argue the point. “Also, Ryan, you planned all those things.”
Ryan doesn’t have a retort for that either.
At ten they go in to film. Katie walks them through the rules—Shane could recite them by heart for now, and in fact he thinks he might be subconsciously mouthing along because Ryan gives him a weird look partway through—and then they sit down to film.
[From the transcript of the video “Ghost Hunters Get Handcuffed Together for 24 Hours”]
KL: Okay, boys, why don’t you explain what we’re doing today.
SM: The same thing we do every day, Pinky! Try to take over the world.
RB: You asked, Buzzfeed made us—we’re getting
handcuffed together for a video.
SM: You mean our employer has to force you to hang out with me? I’m hurt, Ryan.
RB: I didn’t say that!
SM: Can you believe this guy?
KL: Any big plans for the next twenty-four hours?
SM: Yes, but what fun would it be if I told you?
RB: News to me.
SM: Oh, buddy. Buckle up. You’re about to have the best day of your life.
RB: Now I’m nervous.
KL: What are you looking forward to the most?
Like, what do you hope will come out of this experience?
SM: I’m just here to have a good time, baby.
RB: I hope to get definitive proof that Shane is in fact a demon.
SM: You get one nosebleed in a church and all of a sudden—
RB: And I’m looking forward to spending time with the big guy.
We’re both really busy these days and we don’t hang out as much as we used to, so…yeah.
SM: [extended manic laughter]
KL: Right, well, uh. Very sweet. Friendship goals. Anything you’re worried about?
RB: I guess I’m nervous about being in public.
KL: Because of the handcuffs?
RB: Yeah, it’s sort of freaky, right?
SM: Nobody cares, Ryan. It’s L.A.
RB: True. I just…I don’t know.
KL: Shane, what about you?
SM: Me? Nope.
RB: You don’t have any concerns? Not one?
SM: Yeah, Ryan. I’m concerned that no matter what I do I’ll keep reliving this day over and over,
pushing a rock up this hill like Sisyphus, shackled to you by time itself. Can you do anything about that concern?
RB: Uh. Is this like your non-con heroin thing?
I’m starting to think you’ve got serious control issues.
SM: [more manic laughter]
KL: Well. Any parting thoughts before we get this show on the road?
SM: By this time tomorrow either we’ll be lovers or one of us will be
dead at the other’s hand. Excited to never find out which.
RB: [wheezing] What the fuck. Well, there’s your cold open.
KL: [tossing handcuffs to RB] Alright, boys. You’re under arrest.
SM: Oh, Katie. You have no idea.
Ryan goes to click the handcuff shut around his right wrist, but Shane stops him.
“Nope. This time I’m driving. Wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.”
If Ryan thinks the “this time” is strange, he doesn’t say so. He shrugs and moves to Shane’s other side to accept the cuff on his left hand instead.
Ryan’s so busy fiddling with the music in the car that he doesn’t figure out where they’re going until they’re nearly there. He doesn’t figure it out when Shane eases the car on the I-5, which is miraculously experiencing only a moderate traffic jam instead of a catastrophic one for once. He barely looks up until they pass the last exit for Buena Park.
“Hang on,” he says. “Where are we…are we going where I think we’re going?”
“I don’t know, are we?”
“Are you doing a new thing where you can only answer questions with questions? Because I don’t love it.”
“Shush, Ryan. Make yourself useful. The tickets are in the glove box.”
Ryan scrambles for the glove box and fumbles around for a moment, trying to open it one-handed. When he re-emerges, he’s got two printed off e-tickets clutched in his hand.
“Are you kidding me? Shane!”
Shane’s never seen any adult light up with joy when faced with the prospect of a theme park the way Ryan does. He’s enjoyed it every time he’s seen it, but this is the first time he’s gotten to see it with the knowledge that he put it there. It’s so much better.
Ryan looks over at him, a wide disbelieving grin dimpling his cheeks. Ryan’s smile, when it really gets going, is pure distilled light. It’s a sunrise over the mountains, and oh man. Shane’s fucked.
“What, you’ve never done Big Thunder Mountain in handcuffs?”
“They’ll kick us out.”
“They won’t,” Shane says. “I made some calls. There’ll be media passes waiting for us at the main entrance. Are you surprised?”
Ryan presses his back flush against his seat and closes his eyes for a moment, as if the excitement’s almost too much for him to look full in the face. Something in Shane is singing. This is the most worthwhile thing he’s done in weeks. It’s lucky Ryan’s eyes are closed right now, really, so he can’t see the googly eyes Shane must be making in his direction.
“Hell yes I’m surprised,” he says. “I’m…damn, dude. My heart is going crazy.”
“You have a crippling addiction to theme parks and it’s going to get you in trouble one day,” Shane warns. “Still, it’s nice to watch you freaking out for a good reason for once, and not because you’re having orb-related myocardial infarctions. There might be a couple of FastPasses waiting for us too, by the way.”
Ryan makes a thrilled little noise deep in his throat and pounds his fist gently against the car’s center console, making Shane’s hand move too. He starts talking a mile a minute about what they should do first, planning out where they’ll eat lunch and what rides will be funniest to do handcuffed.
As Shane parks and they negotiate getting out of the car while handcuffed, Ryan makes another muffled sound, indignant this time. “I’m not an orb guy!”
Shane deserves this day. He’s been working really hard for the last month trying to crack this thing, and even if he hasn’t managed to succeed yet he still deserves this, damn it.
Or at least that’s what he tells himself when he accepts the ice cream cone Ryan buys for him on Main Street USA and clumsily films Ryan trying to double-fist two glasses of beer despite the handcuffs. That’s what he tells himself when he tries to explain to the fourth Disneyland employee that yes, actually, they are allowed to keep the cuffs on and they’re just trying to film a video rather than corrupt America’s youth. That’s what he tells himself three hours in, as they’re strolling toward a 3 pm Haunted Mansion FastPass, when he slips his hand in Ryan’s.
“Jen said it helps with the staring,” he reminds Ryan when Ryan jumps in surprise at the unexpected touch. He remembers how it calmed Ryan down before, to hide the chains of the cuffs behind their linked hands. He remembers how surprisingly normal it felt.
“Good call,” Ryan says. “This is a family establishment. If any fans see us we can explain it’s for a video.”
“Which it is,” Shane says. “It is for a video.”
If Ryan thinks he doth protest too much, he doesn’t say so. He merely bumps his shoulder against Shane’s, and Shane wills his hand to not get sweaty and make him look like an asshole, and they walk hand-in-hand toward New Orleans Square.
Shane has a particular attachment to the Haunted Mansion attraction. In it he sees the bones of Unsolved, the kitsch and the humor and the self-indulgent pleasure in being spooked. He thinks he might be getting a glimpse at something essential to whatever makes Ryan tick; that if he dissected the Ryan of Ryan, a not-small piece of him would look like the inside of this ride.
“Is this haunted room actually stretching, or is it your imagination?” the ride’s scenery-chewing narrator says.
“This is what it’s like being with you,” Ryan whispers. “It’s like being in a haunted room that’s stretching all the time.”
But from the way he’s beaming, Shane can’t help but feel it’s the highest of compliments.
“Ryan, be honest with me,” Shane says as they’re exiting the ride. “Is this ride the reason you’re always so scared a ghost will follow you home after a shoot?”
“Is it possible that the hitchhiking ghost premise scared the poop out of lil’ baby Ryan and at some point you internalized it as a known habit of ghosts, when in fact the only lore supporting it is narration on a ride at Disneyland?”
“No,” Ryan says, but in Shane’s opinion he looks a little shifty.
“Oh fuck off.” Ryan says it a little too loudly, but he still looks flushed and pleased from the ride so Shane knows he isn’t actually annoyed. “Just for that I’m not going to get you an overpriced beignet at that little coffee shop.”
It’s an empty threat. They get beignets and wander around, getting powdered sugar all over their free hands and people-watching.
“You’re different today,” Ryan observes as they walk along. He rattles the handcuffs between them, which Shane has become so used to that he almost doesn’t even notice now. “Is it these?”
Shane doesn’t know how to explain to Ryan that it’s because he is in fact a different person now, that the last thirty-five Thursdays of his life have fundamentally altered him. This, he thinks, is the real curse of his situation: he’s going to keep growing, keep learning, keep changing, and no one around him will change with him. Ryan will start from square one every morning, and Shane will leave him behind with the pace of his evolving feelings.
He feels the warm pressure of Ryan’s hand in his and he knows it’s already happening.
“I guess it is,” Shane answers semi-truthfully. “I woke up today and decided not to give a shit. I just want to do whatever I want, for once, and not worry about fixing things.”
“What needs to be fixed?”
It’s such a big, exhausting question that Shane can’t even begin to answer it. He knows from experience that he could explain this time loop bullshit to Ryan and Ryan would believe it, and Shane would get some relief from that, but it would be temporary. It would waste time he’d rather spend living in the moment.
Instead he shrugs and wipes his powdered-sugar fingers on the hem of Ryan’s shirt to make him squeak in annoyance.
“I have a lot going on right now,” Shane says, and it’s not exactly a lie either.
“Wanna make a wish about it?”
This is another one of Ryan’s favorite things to do at Disneyland. Every time they go with friends, Ryan drags the group to Snow White’s Wishing Well to throw a coin in and make a wish. Shane hasn’t asked, but he suspects that deep down Ryan believes in this implausible thing too: the power of hoping for something very, very hard until it comes true.
Needless to say, Shane does not believe in wishing wells. He’s not really in the position to be picky about potential solutions at this stage, though, so he screws his eyes closed and he thinks: please let me break the loop. Please let tomorrow be April 26, and he tosses his quarter in the well. He doesn’t open his eyes right away, but he hears Ryan’s coin follow his with a splash.
“So what did you wish for, dude?”
Shane opens his eyes and Ryan’s got the camera on him.
“Isn’t that the number one rule of making wishes, Ryan? That if I tell you what I wished for it won’t come true?”
Ryan shrugs and leans against the well, the handheld still trained on Shane.
“Maybe. I don’t know the rules.”
“Well, doesn’t that go extra for telling the entire internet, then?”
Ryan waves his hand, as if this is immaterial. “Come on. A hint?”
Shane purses his lips. It’s a wishing well at a theme park, after all, and its wish-granting potential is surely limited. Still, he feels the need to keep it vague. “I wished for a change.”
Ryan puts the camera down. He squares his shoulders, and then he puts his hand out again to pat Shane’s, awkwardly, like you might pat the head of a dog you don’t know very well.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“No,” Shane says. “I’m reckless.”
“You have said so much weird shit today,” Ryan says, poking him in the chest. “Come on, I’m still hungry. When’s dinner?”
Somewhere around dinner time, about four bites into his roasted artichoke ravioli, Shane realizes that he’s on a date.
He’s not sure if Ryan is aware it’s a date. Probably not, since Shane only just became aware of it himself, even though he planned it.
It’s not even any old date, it’s Ryan’s perfect date. Disneyland, all his favorite rides, all his favorite spots, all his favorite foods. Shane made a dinner reservation at Carthay Circle, probably the nicest restaurant at the whole park, and the old-school Golden Age of Film vibes are setting an unmistakably dreamy tone. Shane doesn’t think it was intentional, but here they are nonetheless.
“Can I make an observation?” Ryan asks, running his fork through his braised lamb shoulder, which is so tender it falls right apart without a knife.
Here it comes. Shane’s about to be caught.
“You put a lot of thought into planning this video, getting the media passes and everything, but you’ve barely filmed all day.”
That’s true. Shane’s hardly reached for the camera, for the simple reason that he hasn’t wanted to, and today has been all about simply doing what he wants. Also, he knows perfectly well that the footage won’t be there tomorrow, so it’s hard to make himself bother with the façade.
“I’m experiencing a change in perspective,” Shane says slowly. “I wanted to spend time with you today, and I wasn’t particularly concerned with the performance of spending time with you.”
In another world, in his normal reality, Shane might even tempt fate by calling this a first date. But in this folded-over unreality, it’s a first date and a last date and an only date. And it’s also not a date at all, because Ryan has no idea it’s happening and surely would be up and gone in a flash if he did. Everything has changed for Shane, an entire month of closeness and intimacy shifting into longing as those things are wont to do—and nothing has changed for Ryan at all.
Impossibly, there is not enough time, even though Shane is drowning in it.
Ryan looks at him across the table. His eyes are shining from the light of the many chandeliers, as liquid-dark as deep pools, full of concern.
“Who are you?” he finally asks. He doesn’t say it to be mean, or even with any particularly strong inflection. He asks it like he could be asking if Shane wants dessert.
“Not who,” Shane corrects. “When.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I know. That’s fine. Can I tell you something?”
Ryan nods. He leans in a little and puts his fork down to listen, and there’s more care in that little gesture than Shane’s experienced in weeks. It makes him want to burst into tears, which he will not do. There’s no crying at Disneyland. It’s the happiest fucking place on earth.
Today is his treat day, his reckless day. Today he does whatever he wants, and he does want to get this horrible thing off his chest, and he does not want to cry about it.
“I’m starting to think that maybe I’ll never see my brother again.”
“Are you guys fighting? I mean, brothers fight. Jake and I fight all the time. I’m sure it’ll work itself—”
“No,” Shane says. “Nothing like that. But Scott’s on vacation right now, in Cape Town.”
“South Africa,” Shane adds. Ryan’s knowledge of international geography is shaky at best.
“Yeah, but he’s coming back, right? Or, shit, did something happen to him?”
Shane shrugs. In a world where time behaves as it should, yes, Scott will be returning at the end of April. But in this timeline, it is April 25 every day and Cape Town is 23 hours away by plane. The math doesn’t add up. If Shane needs to see his parents, he’s pretty sure he’ll be able to catch an early flight to Chicago and spend a few hours with them. Cape Town, though.
“He’s beyond me, Ryan. I can’t get there.”
Ryan looks baffled, and Shane can’t blame him. He knows he’s giving Ryan precious little to go off of here. Shane’s pain must be convincingly real, though, because it’s not like Ryan to not push for more information. He’s only holding his tongue now because some instinct for Shane is warning him against it.
“I’m sure you guys will figure it out,” Ryan says, which is probably about as good as anyone with no information could do in this situation. He’s made some version of this promise to Shane before, in the morning we’ll figure it out, we’ll figure it out together. It’s as impossible now as it was then, but Shane appreciates it all the same.
It feels good to speak this fear aloud to a sympathetic ear, and to feel Ryan’s foot kick gently against his under the table in silent camaraderie. Date or not-date, it feels fucking great.
“Okay, my turn to ask a question,” Shane says, because fuck it. He’s been wondering. There’s no reason not to ask. “Why did you even agree to do this video? Contractually you didn’t have to, and I know the whole premise makes you uncomfortable.”
Ryan picks at the last few bites of his lamb.
“Honestly? Just—ugh, this is stupid, don’t—okay. I missed you. I thought it would be a nice…I thought it would be nice.”
“You missed me?”
Ryan flushes pink. Shane cocks his head, fascinated, because that’s not something he sees every day. And he would know, because he sees a lot of Ryan every day.
“It’s not like—you know. We don’t see as much of each other now that I’m not in the office much. I’m off doing…other stuff, and you’re working from home a lot, and there was the hiatus, and…”
Eventually his blithering trails off, but Shane realizes with satisfaction that Ryan is flustered. He’s vexed. Discombobulated.
Shane’s heart swells with fondness.
“Yeah, man. I missed you too.”
“Katie said. Uh.”
“Mm?” Shane encourages, taking another bite of his dinner. He’s very interested to know what Katie said to Ryan.
“She said we needed this.”
Shane considers the possibility that Katie is a witch. This video had sort of been her doing, after all. She’d come up with the concept, she’d talked Shane into it, and apparently she’d gotten Ryan on board as well. It seems unlikely, but perhaps no more unlikely than anything else.
“And today was really fun, so I’m glad I agreed. The handcuffs weren’t even that bad,” Ryan says all in a rush, his ears bright red. He downs the rest of his water very quickly with his free hand. Under the table, Shane can feel Ryan’s cuffed hand tapping against his knee.
He’s nervous. That’s interesting. That’s so interesting.
In retrospect Shane should have realized this morning, when he was grilling his buddy who works front-office at Disneyland for top-secret spots to view the fireworks, that his intentions for today were not strictly innocent.
Or if not then, he probably should have realized, as he was leading Ryan up the precarious staff-only fire exit across from the “It’s A Small World” ride moments before sunset, that his impulse to blow it all up was obviously at work here.
Or if not then, certainly, certainly he should have known when he hooked his leg around Ryan’s where they swung down through the metal bars of the platform, waiting for the fireworks to start. Surely he ought to have understood, when his pinky finger grazed Ryan’s and then didn’t move away, that his body and his brain and his heart and the shackles of time itself had all conspired to bring him here to the edge of his own patience and turn him loose.
It’s really stupid. It’s not even romantic. This is a fireworks and lights show designed for children, after all. The songs are unsettling DJ-remixed Kidz Bop versions of upbeat Disney classics. Nevertheless there’s undoubtedly something magical about it, about the way that Ryan leans forward to rest his chin on the railing of their perch and turns his eyes skyward as the fireworks and the laser show start.
The song from Coco plays, and Ryan shoots him a star-bright look and—possibly, is it, did he just—runs his thumb along the side of Shane’s hand.
But, yeah. Shane’s fine. He’s having a good time.
And then, unbelievably, an absurd remix of “Let it Go” kicks in and Shane experiences a series of poorly-timed and embarrassing personal revelations, one right after the other like dominos falling in a line. He’s not saying it’s because of “Let it Go,” but Idina Menzel wailing “I don’t care!” over and over while ice-blue fireworks reflect in Ryan’s eyes certainly isn’t helping his impulse control.
Shane doesn’t care. He’s so tired of carrying all this baggage with him through days and days of the same bullshit, tending quietly to his grudges like houseplants, tallying up his regrets and missed opportunities. He wants to—look, he’s not proud, but whatever—he wants to let it all go, before he misses another.
Shane turns to Ryan, tilts Ryan’s face to his with his free hand, and kisses Ryan full on the mouth.
Ryan freezes against him for what is starting to feel like way too long. Just before Shane can pull back a firework explodes in the air above their heads and Ryan’s mouth goes soft against Shane’s.
Then Ryan kisses back, which Shane hadn’t dared hope for. He’d really only kissed Ryan in the first place because he had an excess of feelings and nowhere to put them all. There was never any hope of this, of Ryan’s hand on his thigh and Ryan’s tongue in his mouth, what the fuck.
Maybe bad club remixes of Disney songs are an aphrodisiac for Ryan. That would be on-brand.
Considering permission more than granted, Shane leans into it, turning his head to fit their mouths together better and deepen the kiss. Ryan makes a little noise of interest or surprise or both, a tiny hm, and Shane feels genuine purpose for the first time in weeks. He only wants to make Ryan make that sound again. If that’s all he accomplishes today, it will be enough.
They must lose track of time, because suddenly people all over the park are applauding as the grand finale kicks into high gear, lasers lighting up the whole park. Shane pulls back gasping. Ryan wipes his mouth and leans his forehead on the metal of the stairwell.
“Do you have any idea,” Ryan croaks. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting to make out at a Disney fireworks show? And it had to be this one, the least romantic show ever designed by Imagineers?”
“It’s a poor make-out craftsman who blames his tools,” Shane says. “I think what you meant to say was, thanks for checking this off the ol’ bucket list, Shane.”
“You’re right, that is what I meant to say,” Ryan agrees. “But, like. ‘Let it Go,’ really?”
Shane shrugs. He rests his hand palm-down on the cool metal. “The cold never bothered me anyway, Ryan. You know that. Also, no offense, but this is the you of fireworks displays.”
“No offense? I’m offended!”
Below them, people are starting to file toward the exits. The park’s open until eleven, but people with kids often leave immediately after the show. Shane, who’s never moved from making out to friendly banter with quite this speed, doesn’t know what to do with the emotional whiplash. He can’t tell if he’s being given a very gentle brush-off or not.
“We should probably head back,” he says. “Wouldn’t want to get caught, we’re not really supposed to be up here. And it’ll be at least an hour drive back.”
And then all of a sudden Ryan’s mouth is back on his mouth and Ryan’s leaning so close against him that he’s practically in Shane’s lap. Shane gets the sense that the fear of being caught is not a deterrent to Ryan.
Ryan pulls back, delivering a tiny bite to Shane’s bottom lip on the way that leaves him dizzy. “The I-5 is going to be bad this late, they always take it down to three lanes after ten for construction. Two hours easy.”
“That’s a long drive,” Shane says. He’s looking at Ryan, and Ryan is looking back, and it’s too dark to get a good read on him. “It’d be late when we got back.”
“It is. We could. Uh.”
Ryan coughs. He rubs his hand against his leg, as if he’s trying to warm it up.
“We could get a room here on property. Drive home in the morning.”
The traffic into L.A. will be a thousand times worse in the morning, but that’s not Shane’s problem. After all, tomorrow’s consequences never seem to quite reach him, and they’ve started to feel so remote as to become hypothetical.
He thinks he knows what Ryan is really asking. He wants to say yes, so he says yes. After all, he wants to, and it’s Reckless Thursday.
Ryan shells out what Shane considers to be far too much money for a king room at the Grand Californian. They spend a few minutes shooting a quick “going-to-bed-at-Disneyland” clip for the handcuff video, because Ryan declares that Katie will murder them if they don’t get any of that footage and Shane can’t be bothered to tell him otherwise.
Then Ryan packs the camera away in its little case for the night, and Shane pulls the handcuff key out of his pocket and lays it on the bedside table.
“But the rules,” Ryan says weakly.
“If you want to sleep, we’ll leave them on,” Shane says. “But if you want to not-sleep, they’re coming off. I’m—it’s too much. I don’t want…it should just be us. Fuck the rules.”
Ryan swallows visibly. Maybe he hadn’t been expecting Shane to be so frank, but Shane is beyond talking around things at this point. He wants it, he wants it a lot. In fact, he thinks maybe—
He thinks this might be the thing. The Thing. The massive shake-up, the fix. That’s how it had worked in Groundhog Day, not that a comedy film can necessarily be used as an instructional manual for time loops. Bill Murray had earned Andie MacDowell’s affection and the curse or whatever had been broken. Ryan himself, an earlier version of him, had unknowingly raised this exact possibility.
He gets happy, he gets the girl, he fixes his shit, he fixes the loop. So maybe the universe is telling you to fix your shit.
Shane’s still in shock that Ryan wants to be here with him at all. That upon kissing Ryan, Ryan had kissed back. That alone is so unexpected, such a paradigm shift, that Shane is willing in this moment to entertain all possibilities. Maybe the solution was right in front of him all along. Maybe the universe shoved him into this day with Ryan, over and over, to get them into bed. Sure.
Ryan grabs for the handcuff key. He rolls it around in his right hand.
“Earlier, when you wished in the well for a change, was this what you meant?”
“Sort of,” Shane says. Again: not a lie. But not the entire truth.
Ryan nods. He fits the key into the lock, turns it, and clicks open the handcuffs around his wrist and Shane’s. It feels like getting naked. Ryan’s tiny shiver when he flings the cuffs on a nearby chair says he feels it too.
And here Shane had feared he had nothing new in life to look forward to.
Making out with Ryan on a bed—a bed!! horizontally!!—is vastly more thrilling than doing so upright on a metal fire escape, despite the relative lack of laser light show.
Shane’s still not over the shock of it. Last he checked Ryan was not into men in general or Shanes specifically, and yet here he is with his thigh shoved between Shane’s legs, unbuttoning Shane’s shirt and peeling his undershirt up to get his hands and mouth on Shane’s stomach, doing a very good impression of being into both.
Maybe Shane didn’t check thoroughly enough. Maybe Ryan’s drunk on the magic of Disney and it’s impeding his judgment.
“Ryan,” Shane laughs. “Ryan, Ryan, Ryan—is this—are you—”
He doesn’t even know what he’s asking, but he knows he has to ask.
“I’m just making sure you’re really not ticklish,” Ryan mumbles, his mouth sucking a little mark into Shane’s side, right at the rib cage where skin is close to bone.
“Nope. Nothing,” Shane says. He inhales when Ryan presses his hand to the front of Shane’s pants. Then he removes Ryan in his own personal taxonomy from the category of people labeled “doesn’t touch dicks” and reorganizes him into the “dick-touchers” category.
Ryan surges back up to kiss him again, all tongue and hands and arms, and Shane is deeply grateful that he already got off twice today because there is a sex hurricane a’brewin’ right off the coast.
“Off,” he grunts, tugging at the hem of Ryan’s t-shirt, and Ryan goes up on his knees to tear it up and over his head.
Ryan in bed is no different than Ryan out of bed: dying to prove himself, too nervous or excited to think before he touches. More wild, abstract joy than finesse, which isn’t a bad thing, but it does make it difficult for Shane to get a read on how experienced he is.
“Have you done this before?” Shane mumbles. Ryan is affixed to his neck—like a sexy lamprey, Shane thinks, but toothier and well-muscled. He bites firmly under Shane’s left ear and then soothes the spark of pain away with his mouth.
“Not at Disneyland.”
Ryan moves down, biting another mark where Shane’s neck meets the base of his left shoulder.
“What about at places that aren’t Disneyland?”
“I’ve thought about doing it,” Ryan says, a sliver of defensiveness poking through. “That’s pretty much the same thing.”
It’s not really, but Shane’s willing to let it slide in the name of blatant self-interest. He does arrange his expectations accordingly, though. He rolls Ryan over and hovers above him, getting his hands around either of Ryan’s biceps to keep him still. Ryan looks up at him, big-eyed and breathing heavy.
“Stop me if you don’t want,” he says, more because he feels he has to than because he has any reason to think Ryan would suffer in silence through something he wasn’t enjoying. That’s not really his style.
Ryan rolls his eyes. “If you’re gonna take my pants off, take my pants off. Don’t do that Shane thing where you, like, monologue about it and do a whole pro-con list and wait for an engraved invitation.”
In any other situation, Shane would certainly slow this down. He’d want to talk about what it means, about how it might change them, which is certainly what Ryan means by “that Shane thing.” But apparently this is what it is for him to be reckless: an absolute inability to think beyond this moment. Ryan is saying yes, he’s into it, and that’s enough.
He reaches down with a steady hand to unbutton Ryan’s jeans, and then helps him shimmy out of them. Ryan is visibly hard in his black boxer-briefs, and the whole picture is so appealing that Shane takes a beat to appreciate the visual of Ryan laid out under him. It’s not something he thought he’d ever see. More to the point, it’s not something he knew he needed to see, needed like air, until this exact moment.
“Take a picture, it’ll last—” Ryan starts, but Shane shuts him up by cupping his hand around Ryan through the straining fabric. Ryan bucks up into his hand with a low whine, completely forgetting to be a smartass.
“Oh, I don’t think it’s going to last that long at all,” Shane says. Ryan laughs, but he doesn’t deny it. “What do you want, Mr. It’s-Basically-The-Same-Thing?”
At first Ryan doesn’t answer, except to fumble with Shane’s belt buckle and pull Shane’s chinos and underwear down over his ass in one fell swoop. He’s got this amazing look of blind determination on his face. There are no half-measures, Shane knows, once Ryan has decided to do something.
“I want whatever you want,” he says. It’s such a people-pleasing answer that it makes Shane’s teeth hurt. Maybe Ryan genuinely doesn’t know what he wants, or doesn’t know what’s on the table, but Shane thinks it’s more likely that Ryan gets off on getting his partner off and isn’t too stressed about the particulars.
What Shane wants is to get Ryan’s body against his own, to feel him close, so that’s what he does. He wants to bury his face in Ryan’s neck, finally putting his nose to the source of the wonderful cologne smell and breathing deep, pressing his mouth to Ryan’s mouth and to his Adam’s apple and to the sharp jut of his collar bones.
“That trainer-to-the-stars you’ve teamed up with is doing good work,” Shane says. “Before I wasn’t sure it was the best use of your time, but now …”
Ryan is well-muscled all over, and he uses that strength to lock Shane’s hips in place against his own and rub up. For as different as their bodies are, they fit together better than Shane could have hoped. He feels the urgency building in his pelvis and the base of his spine and in the tingle at the end of his fingertips that says touch.
“C’mon, just—” Ryan ruts against him harder.
“God, you’re squirmy,” Shane laughs, and then Ryan’s hands find his ass and he stops laughing. “Don’t make me get those handcuffs out again.”
“Oh,” Ryan mutters, and then it’s as if a desperation switch flips in his brain. He gathers Shane up and has him on his back before Shane can say another word. He pauses only long enough to bite another mark into Shane’s side, right above his hipbone, before he pins Shane to the bed and settles between his thighs. He does it without thinking, a rush of testosterone and a force of habit, like if Shane were only wet and ready he would push in right then.
Shane realizes with a sudden matching surge of need that this is going to be over sooner than he might have hoped. There isn’t really even time to put together a game plan or to be embarrassed about it. Ryan’s so hard—Shane wants to see him, he wants to see what he’s working with but he can’t bring himself to do anything that will make the pressure stop. Shane only has the wherewithal to reach down and blindly tug Ryan’s underwear down his thighs.
They press together skin-to-skin and Ryan’s whole body shivers against him, starting at his toes and working its way up; Shane can feel the muscles of Ryan’s upper back contracting and shifting under his hand, and goddamn, there’s no time.
He uncurls his right hand from around Ryan’s hip to get it around both his own dick and Ryan’s and pull, a maneuver that lacks grace but gets the job done. Ryan groans and starts to come all over Shane’s hand, all over both of them, and the wet pulse of it sets Shane off not far behind. Ryan surges down to kiss him through it, catching Shane’s choked-off fuck before it can hit air.
It’s really good, but it’s not magic. Shane doesn’t feel the fabric of the universe snapping back into its proper shape. He doesn’t feel the flow of time restored through his fingertips where they rest on Ryan’s beautiful back, or anything like that.
Then again, he didn’t feel it when he broke it either.
“…Huh,” Ryan says anywhere from ten seconds to three minutes later. Shane’s starting to lose perspective on the whole relative-passage-of-time thing.
Ryan shifts around under him, and Shane slides to the side, wiping his hand on the sheets uncaringly.
“Your hands,” Ryan says, his voice already thick with sleep, “are enormous. I don’t see how I could possibly…how I’m gonna work with you when you’re lugging those things around everywhere. Expecting me to be physically attached to one of them all day is a war crime.”
Shane thinks that’s supposed to be a compliment.
Ryan waves him off, not bothering to open his eyes. His stomach’s all wet but he doesn’t seem to notice or care, already deep in a haze of prolactin and oxytocin and whatever brain chemicals make up smug self-satisfaction. “We can talk tomorrow.”
Shane’s never seen him this relaxed. He remembers reading once that in order to orgasm the human body has to shut down all fear and anxiety, which makes this probably the first time in the entire history of their friendship that about Shane has seen Ryan without his complex web of anxieties and phobias stretched around his shoulders like a cape. He drinks it in, watching Ryan snuffle and press his mouth to his bicep.
For the first time in a while, Shane has hope that tomorrow might actually come. Surely this was his sea change, his shake-up, the last piece of this puzzle that he’s been missing. He’ll have to clean up from the fallout, literally and figuratively, but that seems a small price to pay for his freedom.
“You didn’t have to be such a whiny baby it, universe,” he mutters into the overstuffed hotel pillow. “You could’ve just said so.”
“Nothing. Don’t go this time, okay? Stay here.”
“M’not goin’ anywhere,” Ryan mumbles. He makes a soft half-asleep noise and curls into Shane’s side, and Shane drifts off to join him there.
Thursday, April 25
When he wakes the next morning, Shane knows before he opens his eyes that he’s back in his own bed in L.A. It’s not the sun heating up his forehead that does it. It’s not even the horrible song—because he was wrong before, it is in fact the worst song ever written by human hands.
It’s that the smells aren’t right. It’s that he’s in his pajama pants, the material soft and too warm on his legs. It’s that no bed has ever felt emptier, not in the entire history of beds.
“I’ve got too much time on my hands, it’s hard to believe such a calamity…”
It should be impossible that something so monumental could happen and leave no trace on his life except a few stray bruises littered along his torso and neck. He thought the worst thing that could happen was living the same boring day over and over, but now he knows that’s not true.
The worst thing is this: pressing those bruises and knowing the person who left them has no memory of it.
Yesterday night, Shane had told himself that he would live with whatever happened, whatever the consequences might be. In the light of yesterday morning he realizes that was a lie he told himself in order to be able to have something nice, and the devastation of it hits him right in the solar plexus.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
He rolls over and goes back to sleep. He doesn’t bother to call in to work.
At ten-thirty he wakes up to the buzzing of his phone. It’s a text from Ryan.
Ryan: hey man where r u? we were supposed to film at 10. KT’s pissed.
Shane considers not texting back. It’s not fair or logical, but he’s furious at Ryan for not remembering. It makes him sick to his stomach, to think about what they did together and know that Ryan can’t and won’t remember it, not ever. That’s not right. It’s profoundly fucked up.
He texts back two words and two words only: “I quit.”
Then he turns his phone off and he goes back to sleep.
Shane’s just getting out of the shower when there’s a loud pounding on his front door.
“Go away!” he yells. He opens up his cupboard and pours himself an absolutely massive glass of wine, towel wrapped around his waist. The pounding continues.
“Shane, if you don’t open this fucking door, I swear to god I’ll—”
“You’ll what, Ryan?” Shane asks from his side of it. “You’re not my boss. I don’t have a boss anymore. Didn’t you hear? I’m a free man. Maybe I’ll freelance.”
He says “freelance” like it’s a dirty word. It really isn’t fair of him; Ryan doesn’t know any different. But Shane can’t un-feel what he feels.
Ryan pounds so hard that the door of Shane’s shitty apartment shakes on its hinges.
“Shane, you dick. I will do this all fucking day. I will break this door down.”
That’s not an empty threat, either. Ryan’s as stubborn as the day is long, and Shane knows he’ll do it. He’ll stay out there yelling and causing a fuss until Shane’s neighbors complain or call the cops, and then there will be paperwork.
Shane swings open the door. Ryan stands there, fist frozen, about to knock again. He takes in Shane’s overfull wine glass, his state of near-nakedness, and takes a step backwards.
Shane walks away, leaving the door wide open for Ryan to either follow him in or not. Ryan spots Obi sniffing around and steps inside quickly, shutting the door behind him. He stands there, back against it, not sure he actually wants to be inside.
“Did I do something?” he asks finally. Shane knocks back the remainder of his wine and wanders into the bedroom without answering, pulling his towel off as he goes, shoving it in his hamper. After a minute of hesitation, Ryan follows him. He throws a hand over his eyes when he gets in the doorway of the bedroom and realizes Shane’s naked, letting out a surprised yelp. “Jesus!”
“Oh, shut up, Ryan,” Shane says. He pulls on clean underwear and jeans. “You don’t have to do the thing where you pretend the sight of a naked man repels you. Even the cat’s not buying it.”
Ryan flinches. You’re being too mean, Shane thinks, but it only urges him on. He only wants to be meaner. He’s so furious he could spit—he’s probably been fighting mad for a long time, actually, now that he thinks about it, at himself and at Ryan and at Buzzfeed—and all that anger has to go somewhere.
“What is…what’s wrong with you?”
Shane starts to laugh. He’s probably never produced an unhappier sound, and Ryan winces again to hear it. If he knew the answer to that question, they wouldn’t be here.
“What isn’t wrong with me? Like, on a basic existential level.”
“Just tell me what I did and I’ll fix it,” Ryan insists. He’s got his hands shoved in his pockets, and Shane can see that his hands are balled up into fists. He’s mad too.
Shane spreads his arms wide, inviting Ryan to take in his bare chest, the tiny bruises and love bites that mar the skin there. His only proof, such as it is. There’s zero recognition there, zero understanding on Ryan’s part that he’s the one who put them there, as Shane knew there wouldn’t be.
“The sex was pretty good, Ry,” he says, “but the morning after left something to be desired. Not your fault, of course, but I’m still pretty salty about it.”
Ryan’s eyebrows knit together in confusion.
“What are you—I’m sorry, what?”
Shane takes a deep breath. This conversation requires so much more wine.
He puts on a shirt, pours them both full glasses, and installs Ryan on the couch for a history lesson.
“Thirty-six days ago,” he begins, “it was April 25.”
He talks, and Ryan listens.
“What, like, ‘all we are is dust in the wind, dude’?” Ryan asks. Shane had been right; his pop-cultural knowledge bank of time travel-related references is stocked full. They could have this conversation a hundred times—who knows, maybe they will—and Shane bets he’d get a new one every time.
“More like ‘time is a flat circle,’ I think.”
Ryan drains his glass. His mouth is very red.
Ryan believes him. Of course Ryan believes him. Believing is what Ryan does best.
He asks a lot of questions, although Shane doesn’t really have any answers. He’s only at the very beginning of understanding this thing himself. He doesn’t know why it happened, he doesn’t know how long it will last, and he doesn’t know how to make it stop.
“For a while I thought that if I could go back to that first April 25, I could figure out what went wrong,” he tells Ryan. “I lived it over and over, changing one little thing every time, and that didn’t work. It was awful, actually. Then I thought it must be the opposite: that I was supposed to fix something wrong with me.”
“Nothing’s wrong with you,” Ryan says automatically. “You’re perf—you’re great. So what did you do?”
"We,” Shane corrects. “What did we do.”
Ryan rubs his hand over his jaw like he can guess what’s coming, and the gesture makes Shane’s gut clench with sadness and renewed anger. He can’t believe the universe would take something so nice and warp it so unpleasantly. He thought he was stuck in a life free of consequences, but living with these memories while Ryan wakes up shiny and new each day is the worst kind of consequence.
“Yesterday—my yesterday, not yours—we went to Disneyland to film. It was sort of a date, although I didn’t realize it. I kissed you, at the tackiest fireworks show the world has ever seen, by the way.”
“Why?” Ryan asks. It must be unfathomably weird to hear this sort of story about yourself. Shane should be gentle with him.
“I don’t know. I just wanted to. We’d spent a month straight together. I think my brain was full of you.”
It’s not the best excuse, but Shane doesn’t know how he could possibly explain this to someone who hasn’t lived it. He can cover the logistics, the particulars, but there’s no way to put into words how it feels when someone is the constant in your life, the touchstone of your day, the one sure thing in a mire of uncertainty.
“Well. Was it nice? That’s always been on my bucket list, you know, so.”
Shane smiles in spite of himself, and in spite of the inherent horror of the situation. Leave it to Ryan to get right to the important questions. As focused as he is, Shane’s surprised it took the man twenty-eight years to get laid at Disneyland.
“Yeah, you mentioned. It was nice. It was so nice we decided to get a room.”
Ryan’s mouth opens and closes several times, fish-like, but no words come out. His eyes dart back to Shane’s torso, as if he’ll be able to see the marks on Shane’s body through his shirt and recognize his own handiwork.
“And, uh. Was that…?”
“The nicest,” Shane says fervently. If he can only make Ryan understand one thing, it must be this: that what happened between them was mutual, and sweet, and hot, and good. That it didn’t happen the way Shane would have wanted it to happen, but probably the only way it ever would have.
Ryan’s jaw sets itself, hard and unsmiling. Shane can practically hear him thinking, but he doesn’t say anything for a long time. Shane doesn’t want to make this worse. He waits it out.
“You just wanted to,” Ryan finally repeats, stony. “But you knew, right? You knew I wouldn’t remember it, and you went ahead and let it happen, and now you’re mad at me?”
“It—what? No. It, Ryan, it was you,” Shane says. Panic starts to creep up again inside him, a slow rolling boil. “That was really you, as much as this is you right now. It was your idea, even!”
“But you had to know we’d be sitting here having this conversation, right? You had to know I’d freak out. It’s not the kind of thing a person wants to not remember doing, Shane! It’s kind of upsetting!”
“No, I didn’t know,” Shane says, shaking his head. “I thought maybe if I did something crazy, something really out-of-left-field, it would…I don’t know. Shake me loose. Get me out of my rut. I thought maybe you were, like, the thing.”
Shane squints his eyes closed, bracing himself, because even as he hears himself say the words he realizes it doesn’t sound great.
Sure enough: “Wait. Wait. You thought I would fix your time loop bullshit with my magical dick?” Ryan asks. He flies up from the couch, a sudden explosion of noise and arms and indignation. He spills a little wine on the carpet. “And now you’ve got the stones to be mad at me because I don’t have a magical dick, which I never claimed to have?”
Shane splutters helplessly. He was prepared for a lot, but not for magical dick. He’s trying to think of a rebuttal but he’s frozen in his seat. Ryan, who never met a dramatic exit he didn’t love, starts for the front door—but then he must think twice, because he stomps down the hallway, slamming Shane’s bathroom door instead.
Don’t do anything reckless, Ryan had made him promise. So much for that.
Shane’s not sure what to do. He considers taking a sedative and going to bed. When he wakes up the slate will be wiped clean, and then he can make the decision all over again about whether to tell Ryan. He can do it again, do it better, or maybe not at all.
This is all very new for Ryan. The problem is that it will never not be new for him, and the breathtaking futility of it hits square Shane in the solar plexus.
And then he’s mad all over again, because what the fuck, and the time loop isn’t Ryan’s fault, but Ryan is here to yell at and no one else is.
If Shane is honest with himself, truly and finally honest, things weren’t right between them long before this happened. They haven’t been right for a while, and the weight of all those unsaid resentments has been piling up for a month of Thursdays and far beyond that.
It was ludicrous to think that sex might fix it. Everyone knows fucking doesn’t fix a friendship, any more than having a kid fixes a marriage.
Shane stands up and follows Ryan’s path to the bathroom.
“I’m not mad at you because you don’t have a magical dick,” Shane says to the bathroom door, knowing that this time Ryan is listening on the other side of it. “Your dick is great the way it is. I’m mad at you because you left me.”
“I didn’t leave,” Ryan says. “You time-traveled, idiot. That’s not the same thing.”
“Not this morning,” Shane says softly. He presses his forehead against the bathroom door, hoping the cold wood will shock him into getting his head on straight. “Last year. When you re-negotiated your contract. You left.”
Shane must be dizzy from the adrenaline of saying out loud this poisonous thing he’s been holding inside himself, because the air around him seems to shimmer, glossy and golden. Then the door flies open. It catches Shane off balance. He goes stumbling into Ryan, who is standing on the other side of it.
Shane bounces off Ryan’s chest like it’s a brick wall. Seriously, that training is really going great.
“I didn’t leave,” Ryan repeats. “We’re still doing the show. We—it’s airing right now, dude.”
“Oh sure,” Shane agrees. “Unsolved chugs on. But most days you’re not there. The day a quarter of our friends got fired, for example, you were posting selfies from Sundance.”
Ryan takes a step backward as if Shane reached out and hit him in the face. Shane can hear the bitterness in his own voice. He hates it, he hates these low blows, but he can’t stop it all from tumbling out now that he’s started. Some hidden part of him, destructive and bitter, has been wanting to say it for months. That same part of him rejoices at the furious tremble of Ryan’s hands at his sides.
“Do you know why we never got the green light on Ruining History season two?” Shane presses on. “After I spent five months writing it?”
“You told me they said the editing and animation was too expensive.”
“It was,” Shane says. “That was part of it. But the other part of it was that you’d just signed a new contract limiting your work at Buzzfeed to Unsolved, and they didn’t want to pay your freelance rate for all that extra filming time.”
“You didn’t tell me that.” Ryan looks shocked. “Those assholes.”
Shane shrugs. “I didn’t want to make you feel bad. You were really excited, you were getting new head shots and talking about how you were free to have options, and I didn’t want to rain on your parade. But we had a good thing going and you left me hanging.”
If Ryan thinks that it is well and truly pouring on his parade now, he doesn’t say so.
“Unsolved is the first thing I ever made that’s me,” Ryan says eventually. “Like, I know it’s not much. It’s not art, it’s just this fun thing that makes people laugh, but it’s the first thing I was ever really proud of. I went contract because I’m scared shitless that it’ll be the last.”
“I get that it wasn’t enough for you. I get that, because it’s not enough for me either,” Shane says. And then finally he says what he’s been thinking in the unbearable weeks and months after the layoffs. “I’m not happy, Ryan. Even before this I wasn’t happy. I’m not ambitious, not like you, but I need more than clickbait and sponsored videos and producing someone else’s passion projects. And if I ever break free of this time loop, something’s gotta change, or I’m done for real.”
And there it is. There it all is.
Well, not quite all.
Allegedly it’s Saturday night that’s alright for fighting, but it turns out that Thursday night isn’t half bad either.
They fight in the living room:
“You told me you were running out of steam on the Hot Daga and you wanted to take a breather!”
“Well, I lied,” Shane shoots back. “They fired half the animators on staff and I don’t have time to do it myself. I’m too busy running point on BUN while you dick around on Twitter and call it networking.”
Ryan runs his fingers through his hair and sits down heavy on the couch. For a small-ish person he can make a lot of impact when he wants to. “I can’t read your mind, dude. You can’t bullshit me and expect me to guess what’s going on in that gigantic head of yours—”
“I thought I was fine! I thought I was handling it.”
“You can’t just keep me out of the loop like this! You don’t get to not tell me you’re time-looping when you—you seduce me!”
He’s pink again, flustered and angry. Shane knows that face because he used to sometimes go out of his way to provoke that face.
“It’s not a partnership if you don’t tell me when it’s not working,” Ryan says quietly, bringing his chin to rest in his palm. He’s not crying yet but his eyes are red-rimmed, and if he does Shane cannot bear to watch.
“It’s not a partnership if it’s not a partnership.”
They fight in the kitchen:
“And then you lit my kitchen on fire!” Shane shouts, gesticulating wildly at Ryan with a set of tongs that he’d left in the dish drainer to dry. Ryan steps back against the counter as if sidestepping the parry of a sword.
“I’m sure it was an accident, dude.”
“No, it happened because you’re a fucking idiot muscle baby who doesn’t know how to cook his own food and thinks it’s cute that he won’t even try to learn.”
“Oh, please. Like you’ve never lit a dish towel on fire by accident, and then another dish towel, and then your apron, and then yourself!”
Shane splutters in disbelief.
They fight in the hallway, Ryan storming toward the door to leave for the third or fourth time:
“And another thing,” Shane starts in, cutting him off at the door, blocking the exit with his considerable length. “We are never using a psychic again, that guy was a scammer.”
“He knew about Hannah’s father-in-law, he was not a—”
“Property taxes are public record, Ryan. He probably looked them up, saw the obituary, and dropped the name at the right moment. He’s an amiable con artist and you guys ate it right up.”
“You can’t know that,” Ryan says. “Just because you can’t see things that aren’t right in front of your face doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”
“No more psychics,” Shane says again, leveling an accusatory finger at Ryan’s face. He has a hunch Ryan might be talking about something other than psychics, but it’s too much to deal with now so he tucks it away for later.
“No more anything, I guess, if you’re stuck on April 25 and don’t want to do it anyway.”
“I didn’t say I don’t want to do it, I said I can’t do it like this.”
They don’t fight in the dining room:
“Idiot muscle baby,” Ryan mumbles into his arms. He’s got his head down on Shane’s kitchen table. “Is that really what you think of me?”
“Of course not,” Shane says with a sigh. In his mind it had sort of been an endearment, but he knows it came out meaner than he intended. In his defense, Ryan did light his kitchen on fire. “That was—you’re a very capable adult, most of the time. Just not around foodstuffs. Or feelings.”
“I’m sorry you’ve had to attach yourself to me for—” Ryan does some quick math in his head— “thirty-six days? Thirty-seven? It’s hard enough for me to be around me all the time.”
But that’s not right either, and it’s important to Shane that Ryan knows that. The situation is a burden, but Ryan himself could never be a burden. Getting to re-learn him has been the one bright spot, the one good thing to come out of this mess.
Shane sits down next to him at the table. Ryan looks up when he hears the soft thump. Shane considers reaching out, but he thinks better of it at the last minute and raps his fist on the table, sharp and businesslike, to keep Ryan’s attention.
“It’s not like that,” Shane says. “I don’t wake up every morning and think, God, sure sucks that I have to see that Bergara asshole again.”
Ryan smiles, wry and dimpled. “That’s another thing I’m afraid of. That I’ll wake up one day and find out that the people I love are just playing along.”
“I’m not playing along,” Shane reassures him. “And you know I’m not because every day I wake up knowing I can do pretty much anything I want, anything in the whole fucking world. And yet for thirty-five Thursdays in a row I chose to handcuff myself to your ass for a video nobody will ever see.”
Ryan thinks on that for a long time. Shane’s own face burns hot with the admission.
“How stupid is this?” Ryan asks finally. “This morning I woke up and I put on cologne. I don’t know, I never wear cologne to work, but today I wanted to for—for this video. For you, I guess. Isn’t that stupid? And then I was so disappointed when you didn’t show up.”
The little fire that started on Shane’s face is creeping down his neck and chest and ribcage, glowing warm and secret where it settles somewhere at the base of his diaphragm. His whole torso is a bellows, blowing that hot air back out when he breathes, spreading the fire around.
If he leans in he can smell the cologne, those woods, that sharp citrine. He can imagine Ryan dabbing it on in the morning, inarticulate but hopeful. And then the crumbling of those hopes at the thought that Shane would rather quit than spend the day with him.
“It’s not. It isn’t stupid.”
Just because you can’t see things that aren’t right in front of your face doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
They fight in the living room, again:
“It’s called informed consent, jackass!” Ryan shouts. He’s got a glass of wine now too, and he’s swilling it around so dramatically that Shane would worry for his carpet if he still cared about such things.
“Oh, buddy!” Shane yells back. “Boy did you ever consent. No one has ever consented as loudly as you! I was afraid they’d ask us to leave. I made sure to check about ten times because I was afraid you were drunk on pixie dust and wonderment.”
“No, I mean, no, what—“ Ryan shakes his head, flustered, trying to get his argument back on track. “You’re supposed to disclose relevant information with someone before you sleep with them, so they can decide! You’re supposed to be like, oh hey, Ryan, by the way, quick heads up, I’m a time-traveler.”
“I’m not a time traveler. It’s a time loop, it’s not the same thing.”
“It sounds like the same thing.”
“Well, it’s not. It’s nuanced, okay? I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. It’s really hard to explain.”
“And I think you should have tried a little harder before going dicks out!”
“I—you’re right. That was shitty. I’m sorry.”
Ryan’s mouth opens, ready to fight back. He snaps it shut, surprised to have won this particular argument so quickly.
“Well, okay. Thank you for saying that.”
“I still think it sounds the same as time-traveling.”
“It’s not the same!”
Ryan crosses his arms over his chest. Shane mirrors the position back at him. He’s aware of what a ridiculous pair they must make.
“So,” Shane says, because he can’t help but push for one teensy clarification. “You’re informed now. Would your answer be no?”
“What? That’s—not the point!”
But it is, Shane thinks, at least a little bit the point.
They fight on the balcony in hushed whispers, because Shane needs some air:
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you’re into dudes!” Shane hisses. “Six years of friendship and I had to find out from your tongue in my mouth, which is—talk about feeling out of the loop.”
“Sometimes a man wants to keep his private life private.”
“Yeah, that didn’t stop you from telling me all about that former UCLA cheerleader in painstaking detail.”
“One time I talked for half an hour straight about Henry Cavill’s deltoids,” Ryan howls. “What do you want from me, a notarized bisexual confession?”
“I thought you were just horny for physical fitness,” Shane grumbles, aware that he sounds petulant and doesn’t really have a leg to stand on here. He returns to surer territory. “You were being deliberately evasive. Like that time you signed a new contract and left Buzzfeed and didn’t tell me until after you did it.”
“Oh my god, this again?”
“It feels an awful lot like you don’t trust me with the big stuff in your life,” Shane says. “I thought we were more than just work friends, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe I never really knew you at all.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it, man. Sometimes I think you’re the only one who really knew me at all.” Ryan takes a beat. He makes a face.
“Did you straight up quote Phil Collins at me?”
“Not on purpose. You led me right into it. Ugh.”
Then they’re laughing again, both of them, bent over and clutching their stomachs and laughing their asses off on Shane’s rickety outdoor furniture.
“We’ve shared the laughter and the pain, Ryan! We’ve even shared the tears. You’re stuck with me.”
Ryan stops laughing. He wipes his eyes where little tears have gathered, shaking his head, still giggly.
“I hope so.”
They fight in the bedroom. Sort of.
“Your hair is looking extremely dumb and floppy these days,” Shane manages to get out. He gets his fist in Ryan’s hair just as Ryan slams him against the wall and goes up on his toes to give him a punishing kiss, so it comes out first with a wheezy oomf and then, at the end, muffled against Ryan’s mouth.
Ryan’s much more aggressive than yesterday. Shane isn’t sure if he is indeed being punished or if Ryan thinks if he goes hard enough he might actually keep the memory of it this time. Either way Shane whines and grinds up into it when Ryan’s own hand finds and traces a line down the center of his throat, coming to rest at the base of it.
“You complaining?” he asks. “Because you’re pawing at it an awful lot for someone who doesn’t like it.”
It’s a fair point. Sometime in the last few months Ryan stopped using so much product in his hair. It’s slipping soft between Shane’s fingers now, lightly curling around his knuckles, and he loves it more now that he can touch it. Caught between Shane’s fingers, pointer and middle and ring, he likes it a lot.
He can feel Ryan’s anger and frustration in the sharp jab of Ryan’s thigh between Shane’s own and the too-firm clench of his other hand above the waistband of his pants, keeping him there to be kissed. He can feel himself giving his own anger and frustration back, tugging Ryan’s head back by the hair so his neck is vulnerable, fingernails etching half-moons on Ryan’s lower back where his shirt’s riding up. The frantic forthrightness of it feels better than fighting with words.
When Shane doesn’t answer, Ryan reaches down to palm him through his pants, just on the edge of too-firm. It’s not that Shane ever expected simpering or feigned hesitancy—that’s not Ryan’s style. He should have known that Ryan would barrel into sex the way he barrels into dark rooms: water pistols full of holy water, looking for trouble. Afraid, maybe, but not enough to let it stand in his way.
Ryan’s mouth curves into a smile against Shane’s own. “See? You do like it.” He cups his hand around Shane’s erection through his pants, framing either side with his fingers and delivering a squeeze.
“Maybe I’m dumbhairsexual,” Shane says, but he knows that every moment Ryan’s hand stays on his dick weakens his case. “That would explain so much about this entire situation.”
It would be pretty easy to keep doing this. Maybe they can keep fighting and fucking and fighting again, every day until Shane gets bored of it. It would probably take him a really long time to get bored of it.
On the other hand.
Ryan grabs for Shane’s belt buckle and starts to undo it none-too-gently. Shane stands there panting, his hands outstretched to the side and braced against the wall, until Ryan gets as far as ripping the belt through the loops and throwing it to the floor. His hand makes again for Shane’s fly, and that’s when Shane reaches down to stop him. The regret’s so bitter that he can taste it in the back of his throat.
“Ryan, you know we can’t, right?”
“We definitely can,” Ryan says. His hand twitches under Shane’s, fingers straining for his zipper, knuckles brushing against Shane’s erection again. “We already did, remember?”
“Of course I do, but you don’t. And it kind of upset you, which I know because you just spent three hours yelling at me about it. You think that tomorrow you’ll magically feel differently?”
“Tell me tomorrow that I wanted it,” Ryan says, voice ragged. He won’t beg, but there’s desperation there all the same. “Remind me.”
“You wanted it yesterday, but it didn’t matter this morning and it won’t matter tomorrow. I can’t imagine how you felt, hearing about things you can’t remember—but imagine how I felt, doing something that felt right, something we were both into, and then finding out the next day that I hurt you.”
Ryan bites his lip. He’s clearly trying to think of a way in which he can have his cake and eat it too.
“So don’t tell me!”
“Ryan,” Shane says, exasperated, because surely Ryan knows him better than that. Surely he knows that Shane couldn’t keep this from him, couldn’t spend every day getting Ryan into bed and pretending each time is the first time.
“Yeah,” Ryan agrees, looking crestfallen. “It’s just—really not fair. I’m getting all of the fallout and none of the fun.”
“It is unfair. But tomorrow you won’t have any idea, and it’ll go back to normal. For you at least. So it’s only for tonight.”
Ryan takes a deep breath and a step back, putting enough distance between himself and the wall that Shane can slither out the side. Shane sits down on the bed heavily, even though beds don’t exactly seem like a safe place for them right now.
“What about you?” Ryan asks.
Shane doesn’t know. He’s still only about 85% sure he isn’t crazy or suffering a brain tumor or both. The possibility that he may never again have a normal life looms large in his mind.
“I’ll figure it out,” he says. “Or I won’t.”
“Yeah, I guess those are the two options.”
It’s late by the time they run out of things to fight about, all those things that friends or lovers store inside to stew about until they boil over. They wind up in bed, closer on Shane’s king-sized mattress than they’d need to be. Shane’s got his head at a funny angle so he can hear the vibration of Ryan’s chest when he speaks.
Despite their shared ritualistic airing of grievances, or more likely because of it, Shane is more at peace than he’s been for ages. He’s said things tonight he’s wanted to say for a very long time, an excellent use of the perma-get-out-of-jail-free card if ever he saw one.
“I can’t believe your NPR-listening ass tried to scientific method your way out of a time loop,” Ryan says. “That’s not…everybody knows that’s not how it works.”
“Literally nobody knows how it works, Ryan.”
Ryan makes a little wet snuffling noise, half a laugh and half something else. His hand lands on Shane’s hair, freezes, and then attempts something that might be an uncertain stroke. This closeness, the quietude, feels stranger than the sex had. Shane wants to tiptoe around this new intimacy lest he break a delicate thing before it’s even had a chance to burrow its roots in and grow.
“Sometimes when you try to pick apart a miracle, you ruin it,” Ryan says. Shane can feel fingertips dancing around the shell of his ear. “Whatever’s happening to you, it’s special. I know it sucks, but you were chosen for a reason. You shouldn’t explain it away.”
He almost sounds jealous. Shane thinks about what it must be like for Ryan, to finally encounter something genuinely unexplainable, something truly preternatural, only to find himself on the outside looking in.
Maybe the only thing worse than being chosen is not being chosen.
“I’m sorry,” Shane says. He’s not even quite certain what he’s apologizing for at this point. Perhaps it’s just what you say when there’s nothing else left to say.
Shane’s almost drifted off to sleep when Ryan says, very quietly, “Shane, I really didn’t know. I didn’t realize you were unhappy. You can be weirdly hard to read sometimes. You’re so unflappable that it’s easy to assume shit doesn’t bother you. I took you for granted, and that sucks.”
Shane tries so hard to seem chill and unfazed, and he knows that the things that are the most important to him are the things he guards the closest. He suffers in passive-aggressive silence, and Ryan steamrolls ahead, and when they miss each other the blame is shared.
“Well, I’m flapping now, baby!” he says. It’s a little nonsensical, but sue him, he’s sleepy.
Ryan laughs, and the movement finally pries Shane’s eyes open. He looks up but he can’t make out Ryan’s face in the darkness.
“If you—when you figure this time bullshit out,” Ryan starts, “come find me and tell me again. Tell me everything. All the stuff you said, about Ruining History, and the Hot Daga, and you not having anything that’s yours…that’s fucked. You’ve got to tell me again, and then I’ll hold Unsolved hostage until they greenlight the next season of Ruining History, and I won’t charge the stupid freelance fee to film it, and they can all suck my dick.”
“That’s beautiful, man,” Shane says.
He won’t hold his breath for tomorrow, but it’s a nice idea anyway. He imagines Ryan storming into their boss’s office demanding justice for Ruining History. Maybe carrying a little picket sign that says STRIKE on it. Maybe wearing a little dress and a little sash and marching like the sister suffragettes in Mary Poppins, Shane doesn’t know, he’s just spitballing here—
“I mean it,” Ryan says, as fiercely as a half-asleep person can. He smushes his face against Shane’s upper arm, trying to get comfortable. “And then you can let me tell you about the—about the cologne, and pretend you don’t already know. Like it’s the first time.”
Shane imagines that too, the two of them finding each other somewhere they can do something about it, bridging the gap between whatever plane of existence Ryan’s living on and Shane’s current reality. He wants it more than he can say.
“You’re already much more than Unsolved, you know,” he tells Ryan. “You’re not just this fun thing that makes people laugh.”
Ryan sighs, in a way makes Shane suspect Ryan doesn’t quite believe him. He’ll have to tell him all the time, every day, until it sticks.
“It’s late,” Ryan says. “Do you want me to go?”
“No, stay,” Shane says. “You should stay.”
But he doesn’t have any real hope of it. In the morning this Ryan will be gone forever, and a shiny fresh Ryan will be in his place, untouched by what they did together, unburdened with this knowledge. Simultaneously brand new and same old, same old.
And Shane will begin again.
Shane is dreaming.
He’s dreaming of a better morning, one his brain remembers even if his body doesn’t. A phantom limb of a morning.
The bedroom’s dark, not because it’s early but because it’s overcast. Shane can hear the familiar arrhythmic pitter patter of raindrops against the siding outside his bedroom. God, he’s missed that sound. April 25 is a perfect day, every day: blisteringly sunny, not too hot and not too cool, and never, ever raining. He’d kill for a proper storm.
He curls in against the body heat at his back and ducks under the sheet again. Someone else’s breath whispers at the back of his neck, the ghost of a morning past or future, stale from sleep.
Five more minutes, he thinks. Please. Just five more minutes. I’m not ready to wake up.
“Hi,” Ryan’s voice filters in from behind Shane, his voice scratchy and deep. “Hmm. Morning.”
Not a phantom limb, then. You can’t remember what you never had; you can only imagine it very hard.
Shane turns himself around to get a good look at dream-Ryan’s face. It’s sheepish and sleep-rumpled, a line from the pillowcase embedded along his cheek. Shane wants to reach out and touch, and because he’s caught in the unreality of sleep with yet another ephemeral Ryan and there is no longer any connection between the actions he takes and whatever happens next, he does.
He runs his thumb along that pillow-crease and captures Ryan’s ankle between his own. How many times has he woken up next to Ryan in this hotel or that sleeping bag, seen him looking like that, and wanted to do this? A dozen, maybe more, even if Shane never knew the wanting for what it was until now.
Ryan looks at him, eyes wide with surprise. They’re eye-level, heads at the pillow. Shane has to give his own sleeping brain credit for doing the geometry, filling in the blanks using their one night together and everything he’s ever known or guessed about Ryan’s body.
He kisses Ryan and Ryan melts into the kiss immediately, more pliant and easy than he’s ever been for anything while awake.
“Hmm,” he mumbles again against Shane’s mouth, suspiciously agreeable.
Shane pulls him close, gets his hands all the way around Ryan’s body and up underneath his t-shirt to rest on his spine where it knobbles and curves up his back. He traces all the way up Ryan’s back, vertebra by vertebra, feeling Ryan shudder against him as he grazes ticklish spots and peels Ryan’s shirt up with his hand as he goes.
He breaks the kiss to pull Ryan’s shirt up and off. It feels so real—it could be real, except that it’s all too perfect to be believed. It’s his brain’s last gasping, tremulous attempt to heal itself, or some cruel-kind hallucination. What a marvelous organ, to conjure something so lifelike and so lovely.
He angles himself just right between Ryan’s legs. Ryan shudders against him, a full-body shudder that vocalizes into a tiny hissed “oh fuck.”
It is an enormous relief to stop thinking and let his body do what bodies do, easing Ryan onto his back, covering him. Mouth on Ryan’s neck, hearing the panting in his ear, feeling Ryan hard against him. Savoring the ragged, confused gasp of breath when he winds his hand down to slide into Ryan’s boxers without much preamble.
“Oh, you’re gonna—oh, wow, okay,” Ryan says. “Thought you might wanna talk about this, but—”
“No talking, there isn’t time,” Shane says, yanking Ryan’s boxers down one-handed to the best of his abilities. Outside, thunder rumbles in the near distance, a storm rolling in off the coast just like he wanted. If he wakes up before he gets to come he’s going to spend the whole day in bed sulking about it.
Shane makes his way down Ryan’s flushed torso, which really is exceptionally sculpted. He’d rolled his eyes at all those videos Ryan had posted of himself working out, but he’s mentally thanking them both—Ryan for posting and himself for guiltily watching—for how beautifully-detailed the dream has rendered it now. He presses open-mouthed kisses all along the way: neck to sternum, a brief detour at the nipples, abs and treasure trail and hipbones.
When he settles in at the hipbones, biting gently at them, Ryan jerks under him.
“Right,” he breathes, tipping his head back. Then he cranes his neck to look down at Shane. “Except yesterday you wanted to only yell and not do this at all, so that’s confusing. I’m not sure where we stand.”
“Mmm,” Shane murmurs, only half paying attention, sucking a love bite into the skin of Ryan’s inner thigh.
“And there was a lot of stuff about how I wouldn’t remember it and it would go back to normal, only I can’t help but notice that I, uh, do. And it didn’t.”
He’s heard of lucid dreaming, but this is a little much.
“And, like, I know we’ve done this before, but I still haven’t, the me who is here now, and it’s you, and I don’t want to fuck this up—”
Ryan is rambling on now, his head back on the pillow. He’s got one forearm thrown across his eyes like it’s physically paining him to pump the breaks.
“But I’m dreaming,” Shane says dumbly. “It’s raining.”
Ryan hauls himself up on his elbows.
“Sometimes it rains in L.A.”
“Not on April 25 it doesn’t,” Shane says. He still doesn’t quite understand what Ryan and all the available evidence is trying to tell him.
Ryan scrambles up to a sitting position, grabbing for Shane, pulling him up too and making their entire position slightly less compromising.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It’s April 26, man. Happy Friday. We—you did it. I don’t want to take the credit, obviously you did way more than me."
Ryan’s mouth is still moving, but Shane can’t hear any words. His vision goes fuzzy and soft around the periphery. His ears are full of a panicked, ragged sound that he realizes belatedly is himself, hyperventilating. Thunder claps again, closer this time, and then—
When Shane flickers back into himself he’s got his head between his knees, breathing deeply. Ryan is hunched behind him, rubbing his back in a methodical, reassuring sort of way.
He half-wonders, with the small part of his mind capable of higher-level functioning, whether Ryan is still naked.
“Hey man, I thought you were gonna pass out,” Ryan says. “I was going to get some smelling salts or something. Undo your corset for you.”
“Today is tomorrow,” Shane says in wonderment. He’s almost afraid to speak it out loud, lest it disappear in a puff of smoke, the illusion of some cruel trickster god. “It happened.”
“It’s cool if you just wanna quote Groundhog Day, I’m a big Murrayhead too, but we should probably actually talk about this.”
“Oh my god, I quit my job,” Shane says quietly. He’s pretty sure he’s in shock. The tips of his fingers are numb and tingling, his hands are shaking.
“Mm,” Ryan says noncommittally. “Well. Technically…”
“Technically you texted me and then I lied and told everybody you were sick and then I came over here to yell at you, so. I don’t think you did quit, not really.”
“Maybe I should. Oh my god, we slept together,” Shane blurts out.
“Allegedly,” Ryan says. “I mean, I believe you. I’m just saying, I didn’t have sex. If you want to pretend it didn’t happen, that would—I probably could. Due to the part where for me it didn’t.”
“No,” Shane says firmly. He pulls his head up even though he’s still dizzy and whips it around to look at Ryan. “No way. If everything goes back to the way it was before, it was all for nothing. Fuck that. You stayed.”
“So what do you want?”
Ryan is clearly trying very hard to pretend he doesn’t care what the answer is, but his posture gives him away. Shane knows that anxious hunch of shoulders, the uncertain fingers carefully tracing along his own neck and jaw, as well as he knows his own map of neuroses.
Shane has had over a month to come to terms with what he wants. He’s sure of it now, as sure as he’s ever been about anything in his life, and to his surprise and pleasure he doesn’t feel an ounce of guilt or shame or fear when he says:
“I want to kiss you for the next—” he quickly consults the clock at his bedside table— “forty-seven minutes, and then I want to eat a breakfast burrito with extra guac, and then I want to go to work and lay down an ultimatum. Give me Ruining History, or I walk.”
“Oh,” Ryan says. He licks his lips. “Well, that’s—that sounds okay.”
Ryan coughs and runs his hand along the back of his mouth. “Yeah. I’ve got your back. In, uh, all of those things.”
“Don’t bother putting your boxers back on,” Shane says. Ryan laughs, surprised at Shane’s forthrightness. He laughs again as Shane pulls him back down on the bed.
Shane goes into work that morning a new man. He feels as if he’s storming the barricades. Having Ryan by his side makes it all the better. Ryan is, alas, not wearing the little suffragette outfit Shane imagined, but the determined chipmunk expression on his face is satisfying enough.
“Okay, huddle up,” Shane says, beckoning Ryan in close in the parking lot outside the building. He knows from experience that utilizing sports metaphors with Ryan tends to result in a higher success rate. “I want to make a plan, a—what’s it called?”
“You’re calling the play,” Ryan says.
“Right. Okay. So I’m thinking we get Katie alone and lay out our demands and make her take it upstairs. She’ll want to run the numbers and be prepared, but I think she’ll have our back.”
“And our demands are?”
“One,” Shane holds up his pointer finger, “approve the second season of Ruining History. With all the props I want. I can’t emphasize enough how important the props are, Ryan. Two, a proper travel budget. If Worth It can go to Japan ten times to eat $2000 grapes they can give us one international episode every Supernatural season.”
Ryan pumps his fist and then jumps in. “Three—they hire TJ back. None of this freelance shit. Full-time with benefits, baby!”
Shane thinks that’s enough to be getting on with. If he gets those three things he’ll be satisfied. For those three things, he’ll stay.
“And you,” he says, gesticulating at Ryan, poking him in the chest. “You’re gonna be in the office at least two days a week, every week. You’re going to come to boring meetings and have my back when we fight with the editing team. This thing doesn’t work without both of us.”
“Deal,” Ryan agrees. “So did we do it in the handcuffs?”
“What?” Shane asks, distracted, confused by the sudden 180-degree change in subject.
“Like. Before. Did we do it in the handcuffs?”
“No, we didn’t, I—why?”
“No reason. You just seem very…in charge. Never mind. It’s fine, it’s not a—forget it.”
Shane notes that Ryan has gone all twitchy and sweaty again. He files that information away for later.
“Eyes on the prize, Bergara, for god’s sake. Now what do the sports guys say?”
“Right. Sorry. Uh, well, the Lakers usually break a huddle by yelling ‘I love basketball!’ but that doesn’t really apply here.”
“No,” Shane agrees. “Although you do love basketball. Okay, on three we say: not today, demons.”
Ryan beams. “Renouncing your own kind for the good of the show, that’s so sweet.”
“No, Buzzfeed is the demons. Capitalism is the demons.” Shane counts down. “Three—two—one—”
“Not today, demons!”
They’re not even in the building five minutes before Curly sniffs them out. His instincts for interpersonal drama really are impeccable.
“Hey Shane, feeling better? Ryan said you pulled a sickie to get out of filming the handcuff video.”
“I didn’t pull a sickie, I had a stomach thing.”
“I don’t know,” Curly says slowly. He looks from Shane to Ryan and then back to Shane. “You look awfully healthy to me. Glowy, even. Glowy and smug and—wait a minute.”
Next to him, Ryan coughs. He even coughs guiltily, Shane thinks. He’s really not the ideal counterpart for subterfuge, which is why it’s so inconvenient that Shane is head-over-heels in love with him.
“You had sex!” Curly hisses, triumphant but, thankfully, near-silent. “Together!”
“No, Curly—” Shane starts. At the same time, Ryan stammers, “What—no—who’s saying—that’s not—” which is, in Shane’s opinion, less than convincing.
Curly shakes his head. “Don’t bother, babes. I know that glow. That’s the glow of self-actualization through tender railing.”
“Self-actualization comes from within,” Shane says. “It comes from the heart or the soul or some bullshit.”
“Something certainly does come within,” Curly snickers.
“Shane’s here to take back Ruining History!” Ryan jumps in to change the subject. “By force!”
“By collective bargaining,” Shane corrects. “In that Ryan and I are bargaining, collectively.”
“Ooh, organized labor,” Curly says with relish. “My fave. Very sexy. Come find me if we’re breaking out the guillotines.”
“Well, we’d better get up there,” Shane hooks his thumb in the general direction of Katie’s desk and tries to recall everything he ever learned about the Progressive Era in his college history classes. “Got a lot of, you know, labor relations stuff to do. Picketing. Striking. Wages, hours, and working conditions. That kind of thing.”
At his side, Ryan stifles a snicker at the word relations and tries to conceal it by nodding vociferously. Shane elbows him in the ribs. None of it is remotely subtle.
“Don’t let me stand in the way of your— “and Curly’s lips curl up into a sly smile as he says it, “— union.”
He pats Ryan hard on the back, a high-key ‘grats on the sex pat if Shane ever saw one, and saunters away.
Katie’s waiting for them in one of the private conference rooms at ten, as Shane had requested via text before they left the apartment.
She smiles when they walk in, and Shane reminds himself again that it’s highly unlikely she had anything to do with this whole time loop situation. There’s no such thing as witches, and there’s certainly no such thing as cursed handcuffs. The very most she could reasonably be accused of is some light matchmaking, which is no crime.
“Shane, glad to see you’re feeling better,” she says. Then she tilts her head. “You’re looking great, actually. Sort of…glowing.”
“What is going on,” Ryan whispers under his breath. Shane waves at him to shut him up.
“Probably just a fever. Katie, I’ve had some time to think,” Shane says, and then he bites back an inappropriate laugh, because boy, has he. “And I’m not satisfied with the way things are. Because you’re our showrunner I thought it was only right to come to you first and not do anything reckless.”
Shane eases into a chair across from Katie. Ryan shifts from one foot to the other and then sits next to him, a unified force.
Katie sighs. “Okay, guys, what’s up?”
“Justice for Ruining History!” Ryan says, pounding his fist on the table, which isn’t quite the way Shane planned to ease into negotiations, but that’s fine.
“What he said. I want to produce the second season. It’s already written, we just need to hire some animators. Ryan’s on board for filming, and Sara told me ages ago she’d be in too.”
Katie sucks her cheek and taps her pen on her notepad. “The budget is so tight right now, you guys. I don’t—”
“It’s non-negotiable,” Ryan says. “And we want the money for one international Supernatural episode a season, and we want TJ back. Or we’re done.”
“I’m not willing to sit here watching everything I love about this job get chipped away,” Shane says. “I’m not here to make sponsored advertising for Warner Brothers, I’m here to make stuff I care about. I’ll still do the sponsored videos, but only if we can do the passion projects too. And only if we can take care of the people who bust their asses for us.”
“By done, you mean done-done?” Katie asks.
“Done-done,” Ryan confirms. “No more Unsolved. No more events. Definitely no more clickbait nonsense. We quit, and we quit together.”
Katie exhales. She pushes her hair off her face and then starts to collect it into a messy ponytail, which Shane recognizes as her getting-down-to-business-to-defeat-the-Huns ritual.
“Ruining History,” she repeats, scribbling away on her notepad. “International travel. TJ. Anything else?”
“No, that’s—” Shane starts, but Ryan cuts him off.
“The Hot Daga!” he blurts out. “We need an animator for the, for the stupid Hot Daga. God damn it.”
Shane looks over at Ryan, beyond shocked. They didn’t talk about this. Ryan looks like there’s a real internal war going on inside him; he’s pursing his lips as if even he can’t believe he said it.
“I thought you hated that,” Katie observes. She pauses in her writing, shrewd as ever.
“Yeah, well.” Ryan shrugs. “For some godforsaken reason it means a lot to him, so it means a lot to me too. Give the man his dumb animated food-people.”
“Touching,” Katie says, but Shane barely hears her. He’s only got time for Ryan, who is clearly embarrassed to have shown his hand so candidly. Katie said it sarcastically, but Shane is touched. He knows it’s a sacrifice Ryan didn’t have to make, and an apology.
“Thank you,” he tells Ryan softly. He expects Ryan to roll his eyes and do some performative blustering, but he only lifts his shoulders again, defeated.
“Package deal, right? Besides, it’s what the people want.”
Shane finds Ryan’s foot under the table. It’s tapping wildly with anxiety. He nudges against it and then gently traps it with his own foot, trying his very best to make it not obvious that they’re playing footsie under the table. “I’m going to bring Dr. Goondis back, and he’ll be a hero this time. There’ll be a triumphant redemption arc culminating in 80’s hair metal.”
“I regret this already,” Ryan says, but he’s smiling.
“In terms of romantic gestures you could have gotten flowers like a normal person instead of requesting $15k in part-time animator salaries, but sure,” Katie says. She circles something on her notepad.
Is it a trick of the light or does Shane spy a gleam of triumph in Katie’s eye, Dumbledore-style?
Surely not. That would be wildly improbable. Shane’s come out of this thing a lot more credulous than he started, but—no way.
“I’ll take this upstairs and do my best,” Katie said. “I have to warn you right now, they’re going to insist you do the handcuff video, and probably some other marketable clickbait main channel stuff too. Ryan, they’re sure to insist on a contract amendment to argue down your fee.”
“Cuff me,” Shane says.
“Cuff me too, I guess,” Ryan agrees. He holds his wrists out in symbolic acquiescence.
It’s just—Shane can’t help but feel that Katie doesn’t look nearly as annoyed as she should. Her stars are sitting here threatening to quit and she looks…downright pleased. He has to say something.
“Katelyn Elizabeth LeBlanc, if you did this to me with new-age witchery, I swear to god.”
Ryan’s head whips around.
“Did what? I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” Katie says calmly.
“Because that would be a real Pam the Evil Hot Dog Witch move, Katie. Do you have any idea what the last month has been like for me?”
“Uh, ix-nay on the ime-tay oop-lay, buddy,” Ryan cuts in, as if Katie won’t understand pig Latin.
“You should take him home, Ryan, he must still be sick. I’ll try to get you an answer on all this stuff by Monday.”
“I want to make it really abundantly clear that you can’t just hold people hostage with cursed handcuffs whenever you feel like it!” Shane insists.
“Okay, buddy, that’s enough, come on.” Ryan hauls Shane up from his chair and hustles him toward the door. “Thanks, Katie. Feel free to ignore, uh, all of this part. It’s probably the fever.”
“You guys are real weird!” she says to their retreating backs.
Ryan brings Shane back to the beach at El Matador. It must be one of his favorite spots.
“I can’t believe I have to tell you this,” he says, turning off the ignition, “but you can’t go around accusing our female colleagues of being evil witches who curse you with props. Even in 1619 that was not a good look.”
“She knows what she did, Ryan,” Shane says darkly.
“Again, I recognize the irony of me saying this, but: that’s an insane theory and you’re insane for entertaining it.”
“This whole thing is insane, but it still happened.”
“Do you think they’ll go for it?” Ryan asks, popping his door open and getting out to stretch in the sunshine. Shane opens his door too, taking a hit of the fresh salty sea air right into his lungs. “Our ultimatum?”
“Yep.” Shane kicks off his shoes at the edge of the sand where the stairway down to the beach begins. The view from this cliff is breathtaking, the beach stretching out into miles of soft coastline and seaside caves and rock arches. Shane’s partial to the Midwest for the weather variation alone, but he has to admit there aren’t many views there to match this.
He’s confident that the universe wouldn’t have done this whole thing for nothing. He wouldn’t have been led through some ridiculous time travel saga reminiscent of a Hot Daga plot for no reason. Something out there wanted to give him the courage to stand up for himself. Something wanted to make him confident enough to slip his hand into Ryan’s, heading down the steep stairs to the beach, and squeeze.
And now, strolling hand-in-hand along the beach with his chinos rolled to the knee, listening to Ryan’s little yelp every time the incoming chilly ocean water laps a little further up his ankles, Shane knows he’s about to be rewarded big time.
“Something in me is different,” he tells Ryan. The tide is coming in. The cyclical nature of it, the rise and fall of it, the flood and the ebb, is reassuring on a cosmic level. He’s grateful for the reminder that it’s natural to begin again, to make some of the same mistakes over and over, to fall back on old patterns and habits. But it’s also delicious to break them.
“Good different or bad different?”
“Anything different is good,” Shane says, well aware that he’s quoting again, knowing Ryan will enjoy it. “But this could be real good.”
Ryan grins and squints into the sunlight, hand over his eyes to see Shane’s face, knowing what’s coming.
Shane’s grateful, too, for the mostly-empty beach. No kids around, probably nobody who recognizes them—and even if there is, who gives a single flying fuck? Shane would still do it even if Curly was standing right there eating popcorn and cheering. Maybe especially then.
He tilts Ryan’s chin up. Ryan goes easily, a light arch to his back, rising up on the balls of his feet to meet Shane as he leans down. Shane makes a mental note to re-evaluate, because Ryan is, at least in this one thing, really not nearly so stubborn as Shane imagined.
He kisses Ryan on the mouth, gently but comprehensively. He doesn’t want there to be any fight in it, nothing adversarial. He only wants to convey promise, and future, and tomorrow. He wants it to be something to count on, as regular as the tide. He wants to pull them both out to sea with it.
“Hmm,” Ryan says, pulling back after a bit, breathless. “Hey Shane?”
“About those handcuffs.”
Shane turns his head up to laugh into the clear blue sky. Off in the near distance a seagull caws back in answer, shrill and hungry.
“Sure, Ryan. Yes, when we film the damn video I’ll handcuff you to the bed and boss you around a little. Jesus.”