He woke up on the side of the road around noon judging from the shriveled cast of his shadow falling across the gravel and into the mess of early August weeds winding through the ditch. About a quarter of a mile away he could see the car where he’d parked it half in the grass, the driver’s side door still open and the neck of the Jazzmaster leaning up against the back seat window like the eye of god watching with every blistering ounce of divine judgment summoned across all of creation as Remus struggled to his feet and took a shaky lungful of breath, held it, and looked up into the mindless blue sky. Then he doubled over and puked on his shoes.
Fuck, he thought. By now they were probably all out in James’s car, searching the back roads like hungover fur trappers on the trail of a mythical grizzly or something out of a Faulkner story, though he supposed a more apt comparison might be a rabid coyote that had gotten to one of the lambs in the pasture. The taste in his mouth was like a nightmare cocktail of battery acid and bourbon and both an inadvisable four A.M. burrito and a chalupa containing sawdust and slaughterhouse scrapings, which he would never have eaten if he hadn’t been 1) starving, 2) drunk, and 3) roughly two hours post-breakup. Just thinking about that last one made his stomach leap up into his throat in a balletic pirouette; normally he stayed far away from any of Taco Bell’s non-vegetarian options but all sense had apparently exited the premises along with a significant chunk of his sorry fucking soul when Sirius slammed the front door in his face at 1:27 A.M. and then blocked his number. Good fucking Christ. On top of it all he'd undoubtedly eaten prions.
Somehow he managed to get one foot in front of the other and take a couple jelly-legged steps before the world sort of slid off around the edges and he had to puke again, pure green bile this time, like all the poison was kind of gushing out of him the way pus flowed from a lanced wound, but thinking along these lines made him puke again until he started dry-heaving. At least he was still standing, he thought, moving goalposts, hanging on by his toes which were digging into the ancient soles of his Converses for undear life. Once he got his bearings and his feet under him he’d stop at the next gas station or diner and brush his teeth and change his clothes and—dawning migraine driving a pickaxe into his right eye alongside the nauseous heartbeat—buy a whole fucking liter of coffee. This was when he realized he’d left his toothbrush, his laundry, and his last paycheck (after a year of service Taco Bell still had not been troubled to set him up with direct deposit) in Sirius’s bedroom, where he’d been sleeping every night until 1:27 A.M. on this infernal Tuesday morning.
What a fucking dismal adventure in total loss.
“Fuck,” he said. Looked up the road and then down, at his soaked shoes and the grass stains on his knees and the crush of blood on his hip dark as overripe cherries, at the open car door. It wasn’t much; he’d never had much, never been much. But it was still his, minimum wage and wrinkled flannel and puke on the shoes and Sirius Black and all.
“Fuck,” he said again, and limped into the car.
Part of living in a small town meant that everybody knew everybody else and if they didn’t then you were regarded immediately with suspicion and/or disdain until you managed to properly ingratiate yourself via church basements or ambrosia salad or Fourth of July fireworks; if you couldn’t perform these basic functions of middle-Americana then you were doomed to live out your life as the town leper or possibly a witch, getting unabashed stares in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. Truly Remus was fine with it. It would’ve been much easier to be a non-entity in a city, but for one thing he could hardly even afford to live in this backwater, let alone afford to flush a toilet in, say, Chicago. For another, he needed the trees—the swallowing green woods and the muddy river breaking its banks and the September fires and the singe of the sun on the August fields. Whether this was a survival mechanism leftover from having grown up fucked-up in the middle of nowhere or an innate love of the shelter even the most brutal landscape could offer if you just knew where to look, he didn’t and couldn’t know. The truth was probably somewhere in the sickly in-between. The truth also was that he listened to a lot of Joanna Newsom.
The underfunded, constantly struggling little college was probably what kept the town from being a complete corn-fed wasteland, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. The music scene was uniquely vibrant, if much smaller than the other college towns he’d lived in, but there was something about it—an unsettled, nervous pang, slow looming doom and the knowledge that you would never escape because the doom spread through mucous membranes and viscera like toxic mold. A certain psychic trappedness. It appealed to Remus in part because the decay made it so vulnerable, but this vulnerability was blunt and terrifying and often monstrous around its raw bleeding edges. It was enough to keep him around for a while, living out of his car with a guitar he’d stolen years ago from one of his dad’s piece of shit friends, working odd jobs and jamming with college students until he embarked on his greasy fast food career and started sleeping with Caradoc Dearborn, at which point he also joined Dearborn’s band. Events progressed until he met Sirius when he came through the Taco Bell drive-through one night, phenomenally stoned, asking Remus to join his band while Pavement played in his car like he’d planned it or something, which was impossible because even stone-cold sober Sirius never planned anything. He’d even had the Jazzmaster with him in the back. What was he supposed to say to that? He got in the car. The rest, he supposed, was history.
The real problem with living in a small town with an incestuous music scene the size of a flea circus was that everybody knew everybody else and if you didn’t you’d either slept with their bassist or bought acid from their sister. Case in point: mid-morning, about nine-thirty, staggering through the door of the only coffee shop in town that wasn’t Starbucks, Remus was greeted with Mary Macdonald’s stunned pause mid-pour from behind the counter and Caradoc Dearborn’s bloodshot blue-eyed glare, which both paired nicely with the smell of some seriously half-assed scones freshly burnt in the oven. A minute later Dearborn’s glare softened to more of a frown as the confusion rippled its way across his handsome face and then onto his tongue.
“I thought you left,” he said, eyes sweeping over a new-ish tattoo on Remus’s wrist and then guiltily away again, which was ridiculous coming from someone who’d been inside you, even if those times combined all added up to maybe eight minutes total. “Potter said you were long gone.”
“Yeah, well. I came back.”
“I see that.”
“Anything happen while I was gone,” he asked, knowing the answer.
“What ever happens around here,” said Dearborn, typing something on his phone—Remus tried not to visibly cringe—and kicking out the opposite chair a little harder than was necessary, “classes start in another two weeks so everybody’s been talking about which houses they’re gonna play. Other than that,” he trailed off, eyes flickering with meaning back up to Remus’s face.
“Which ones are you thinking.”
“Probably Frank Longbottom’s. And McKinnon’s for sure. She and Dorcas have been jamming with us a little, you should come sometime.”
“Not playing at James’s?”
“We’re not really sure what they’re doing,” said Dearborn, stirring his coffee, into which he abhorrently never put even a drop of cream. “Seeing as.”
Again with the fucking eyes. “So they haven’t—”
“Not that I’ve heard. Potter was still pretty pissed last time I saw him, you know. That was just a few days ago.”
“Haven’t talked to him,” said Dearborn, not even bothering to disguise the lie. Sirius had always been a sore subject with Dearborn despite the fact that he and Remus had broken up well before he started sleeping with Sirius. That Sirius had kind of broken up Dearborn’s band was probably the more lingering wound, but walking into the alley behind the house after a show one night while Remus was in the process of unzipping Sirius’s jeans maybe didn’t help. For a minute he tapped his forefinger on his phone and pressed his lips together, knee bouncing underneath the table, and then looked back at Remus. “Listen—”
“I really don’t need a lecture, if that’s where this is headed. Like I swear I don’t.”
“No, I really think you do.” In the two-ish years Remus had known him he didn’t think Dearborn had ever given him a look as shrewd or disappointed as the one he was giving him now, which was like being a trout on a hook jerked very suddenly onto the cold jagged shore. “It’s too bad no one’s ever cared enough to sit you down and tell you this but if they’d ever tried you’d either bail or pull some kind of stupid shit like you did a while ago. Any time there’s any slight difficulty that’s what you do—you run away or you ruin everything yourself instead of trying to work it out because I guess you think it’s easier that way. But this is your own fault, Remus. You don’t get to keep blaming it on whatever, or feeling sorry for yourself after you fucked it up. You’re so wrapped up in wallowing in your own misery that you don’t even see what you cause other people. You’re not trapped and you’re not beyond change. That’s just an excuse for why you don’t try any harder. And you did a fucking number this time, from what I heard.”
It was nothing he hadn’t thought before on the hundred thousand million occasions he’d squeezed himself psychically through a juicer in the middle of the night, but hearing it from Dearborn was so spectacular a slap he felt himself actually recoil in his chair. “I mean I know—”
“And knowing Black, he did a fucking number too. But what I do know is you’re a good person, there’s loads of good in you, and you do deserve good things. But first you need to stop fucking up.”
“Maybe it’s not that fucking easy,” said Remus, “and maybe he doesn’t want me to—”
“You have to try,” Dearborn steamrolled right over him again. “And you wouldn’t have come back here if you weren’t sick of fucking up.”
“Thanks, Dr. Jung.”
“Next time I give you sage advice I’m gonna charge you like some fucking quack celebrity therapist so watch it.”
“It was entirely unsolicited.”
“And sorely needed.” Leaning back in his seat Dearborn watched him with mild shock, like he’d expected Remus to make a move for the door by now. “Fix your shit, Lupin. You’re one of the best guitarists around here so it’s in my own interests to make you address your stupid relationship drama. And your problems or whatever.”
“You need a place to crash for a few days? Since you’re probably living out of the car again.”
“I’m fine,” said Remus, meaning it. Probably this was like some kind of trial, an odyssey into/out of the heart of darkness: before he could find his way back towards the once and future whatever he’d have to live out of the car again with his banged-up thirdhand guitar and vomit stains on his shoes, eating Cheerios straight out of the box and showering at campsites and sleeping on the side of the road. There would be no more easy way out, no more acts of appalling cowardice. Not after this.
For maybe the first time in his life he understood that he had something to lose. Problem was he’d already gone and lost it.
“Let me know if you change your mind, man,” said Dearborn, “and don’t be a stranger. I mean it.”
About an hour later he walked out into the late morning sun where the gold light and the cicada-drone covered everything, shifting like reverb at the beginning of a familiar song, or one that perhaps hadn’t been written yet… he was thinking about how to coax the sound out of his guitar when he turned the key in the ignition of the station wagon which was roughly ten thousand degrees and put Spotify on shuffle, again feeling the sun and the summer blues and reds shiver across his skin like chords his fingers could almost shape if he just had the guitar in his hands, but then, like a curse, like fate, like pure warped inescapable déjà vu, Pavement began playing with vengeful clarity through the speakers.
This album was their spottiest, in Remus’s opinion, which wasn’t surprising given that it had been their last and that Malkmus was clearly sick to death of it all by that point, but there were a few songs strewn throughout the tracklist that stood out among the strongest in their entire repertoire, and “Ann Don’t Cry” was one of them. He’d listened to it with Sirius not long after they’d started playing together, stoned and half-dressed on the hardwood floors with a bowl of blackberries between them, their mouths red as sacrificial daggers, Sirius’s fingertips trailing along the basin of his belly, making the muscles twinge in rubber-band vibrations, the thrill of it firing along every electric neuron from his groin to his gut to the hollow of his throat and his spine curling in a soft elastic 2. He still hadn’t let Sirius so much as kiss him below the neck.
Don’t do this to me, he thought, desperate with might, please don’t fucking do this to me. But of course it—whatever it was, whatever it had always been—did.
But your vulgar display caught me off guard, cold cold boy with an American heart...
It was perhaps the strongest evidence he’d ever been presented with in all his sorry fractured life that fate was real and it was fucking with him. He pulled over just outside town and sat in the passenger seat with the door wide open and his feet swimming in the ditchside yarrow and chicory, playing until sunset.
Sirius and James and Peter lived in an old house downtown with big windows and a shitty shower box and hardwood floors that had seen better days. James liked to say this gave them character, and Remus supposed that was true if not exactly charming when you stepped barefoot on an exposed nail in the middle of the night on your way to piss or didn’t get your security deposit back. On one side of the street was a natural foods store frequented by an older crowd with C. diff infections that sold gluten-free probiotics and local honey and on the other was a restaurant that served barbecue and French-style frog legs, which he could smell in the evenings through Sirius’s dusty attic windows. It wasn’t exactly appetizing but it was an improvement over smelling quesaritos and cheese sauce of dubious origin all night, and as it was the first thing that hit him when he pulled the car up in front of the house that night the deep-fried barbaric nostalgia of it hit him head-on like an eighteen-wheeler on the freeway and he very nearly puked on his shoes again.
No one and nothing else on earth had ever made him feel like he had food poisoning at significant intervals. Certainly no one and nothing else had ever made him feel happy about it. He’d never known if Sirius felt the same.
Walking up the weed-eaten sidewalk he could see the lights on all through the house but he didn’t hear anything through the open windows, which was odd: normally they’d all be practicing til they dropped and fell asleep in the living room or the basement this close to the start of classes and thus the inaugural drunken house parties, but Remus having made off with Sirius’s Jazzmaster in the middle of the night perhaps had something to do with that. Before he could talk himself out of it he knocked on the door, knowing from the precise pace and fall of the footsteps rattling across to the creaky, arthritic porch like a heartline who was going to answer the door.
In the buttery spill of porch light Sirius looked more or less exactly how Remus had left him in his memory, which was tired, and sad, and his sweaty hair tangled, and his thin mouth just open, and his bright bird-of-prey eyes narrowed, and apocalyptically pissed off. Neither of them said anything for a minute, and after the moment dragged its way from shock to discomfort Remus tried in vain to think of what he’d been rehearsing on the drive over, but Sirius, who’d had always had the quicker, sharper, mouth, said, “What do you think you’re doing here.”
“Because I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to talk to you. I fucking meant what I said.”
Seven seconds in and this was going somehow worse than he’d even expected, and he thought he’d planned for every eventuality up to and including a broken nose and slashed tires. “Sirius, would you just—”
“Fuck you.” Good fucking god, no one was ever going to let him finish a sentence. “Honestly what the hell are you even thinking coming here like I’d want to see you. If I want trailer trash with problems I’ll just go hang out north of town and find some with more interesting ones than yours. Could probably teach him to play guitar. It’s not that hard.”
Nothing Remus hadn’t heard before, if not exactly in those terms. Coming from the beloved mouth it was like being throttled in the gut with a two-by-four, or slamming his head on a low-hanging beam; worse was that Sirius didn’t look one bit like he regretted it the way he normally did after he’d said something awful. “Sirius, I’m not—”
“Get fucking lost, Remus.”
“Jesus Christ will you let me finish a sentence?”
“I just did. Now leave.”
The light from the house bent and warped around him where he was standing in the doorway, like Saint Peter at the gates of heaven if Saint Peter smelled like weed and August heat and murderous rage and was absolutely the most beautiful thing on heaven/earth/hell/any possible universe plucked out of the infinite. “I have your guitar,” said Remus, shoulders still somewhere around his ears.
“Go get it. Now.”
Sirius actually followed him around to the car presumably to prevent any escape and watched while Remus took the Jazzmaster out of the back seat and handed it to him. He looked it over a few times and, on finding it apparently unscathed, tucked it against his side and looked at Remus in the dim fluorescent haze of the streetlight with what could only be described as absolute, searing disdain, like he’d just stepped in dog shit he couldn’t completely wipe off his shoe.
“What were you gonna do with it,” he asked, inspecting the pegs again, probably so he didn’t have to look at Remus.
At this Sirius did look up at him again, the anger and the hurt unambiguous on his face. Remus felt exactly like a bug smashed on a windshield. “If you had half a brain or like half a soul at all you’d have kept it,” he said. Then he turned around and walked back into the house.
For a minute he just stood there, shell-shocked and throbbing with hurt like his entire consciousness or at least his heart had been shoved through a spiritual meat grinder and left bleeding in its flesh casing on the cracked sidewalk, staring at the light in Sirius’s attic window where his shadow moved in a kind of agonizing slow-dance sway. He stayed like that, soul-guts twisting, until he started to feel like the cover of that American Football album he didn’t like and gathered up his bruised heart-gristle and his brain-meat and bundled himself back into the car to drive off. On the radio, as some sort of liver-eating cosmic curse, “Loretta’s Scars” was playing.
It wasn’t the end, he thought, lying awake later that night in his sleeping bag with the trunk open and the wheeling stars cutting a mournful crystal clamor across the familiar backcloth of the sky. Perhaps for the first time in his life he understood that things happened for a reason—that he’d paid no mind to the symbology of his own life or anyone else’s or else he’d deliberately misinterpreted everything and now he was paying dearly. But it was the end, then why this—why all this music, why all this yearning for another beloved breathing body, why all this unknowing, why all this retracing of steps? Why anything—why this mess? Why this compulsion, this mystery, this holy unrest?
In his head the beginning of a song was circling. It wasn’t the end.
The fact was Remus had grown up not far from this place, not in a trailer but a shambling ranch-style house down by the river with disgusting brown-orange carpet and smoke-stained curtains that had been up since roughly 1968 and a roof that leaked and mold in the bathroom and asbestos in the popcorn ceiling. The place had a basement with treacherous wooden stairs and concrete floors and a big empty room with lawn chairs and a gun cabinet where his dad congregated with his friends and stashed his meth; his mom was gone often and couldn’t be bothered half the time when she was around, but he worried about her even more when she was at the house. When things got really bad he’d sometimes climb out the window and spend the night on the riverbank or in the spreading palm of the nighttime fields, watching the bats and the butterflyweed waltzing in the dark. By the time he was about twelve his mind was a ruin of black holes and broken glass and his stomach was a perpetual jellified knot for which the only balm was alcohol or pot or opioids or music. Those first three he stole regularly from his dad or his dad’s friends and got himself slapped or half-strangled across the room or the back yard for it more often than not; the last one he also stole, but upon realizing he could make it himself the thieving became less and less necessary. He went to the public library and printed out chords (the house didn’t have internet then) and rented CDs and cassettes and locked himself in his room, praying in vain to every god and ungod he didn’t believe in that none of them would come creeping into his bedroom while he was up all night unsleeping, and drowned out everything else with the beat-up Fender he’d stolen from one of his dad’s loudest and shittiest friends, who was fond of abusing it with George Thorogood songs and had hardly noticed or cared that the thing was missing anyway.
The fact was Remus got kicked out of the house with increasing frequency as a teenager, stole his mom’s car with increasing frequency, put himself in bad situations with increasing frequency, skipped class with increasing frequency to play guitar in the woods or the house when no one was home, hurt himself with increasing frequency. No one gave a fuck. He left home for the last time about six months shy of his eighteenth birthday; he never finished high school. First he spent some time in Kentucky, then he tried his luck playing in a few bands in Indiana before he decided the whole state was some sort of Black Lodge dead zone and took off in the middle of the night with his roommate’s codeine before it stole his soul away for good; the minute he crossed the Wabash back into Illinois his migraine abated and his appetite returned and he vowed, scaring a herd of deer when he stopped to piss by a cornfield, that he would never again take the Prairie State and her amber fields for granted. This all lasted about twenty solid minutes, until he hit a pothole and the low tire pressure light came on in the car.
The fact was Remus was good at surviving and good at playing guitar and that was pretty much it. He’d never expected to live even this long; he’d never expected anyone to notice him for anything good. When they did, he usually fucked it up, accidentally or wilfully, because this was easier to handle than the paralyzingly terrifying alternative.
The fact was somewhere along the line Remus realized that he very much wanted to be a real human being with real human feelings. The fact was Remus had started working on a few new songs for the first time in months. The fact was Remus kept having this dream that wasn’t really a dream about a little house or an apartment with a few pieces of secondhand furniture and a nice cast-iron skillet in which he made cornbread and pancakes and where his heart would bound against the cage of his ribs in joy and not in stale old fear when he heard the click of the front door opening. The fact was Remus had never told Sirius any of this.
The fact was Remus was kind of a coward.
Dearborn had invited him to a party on Friday, and Remus almost didn’t go, but he’d scarcely done anything the last few days except play guitar and walk around the state park where he showered in the mornings and sit around in the coffee shop or the diner or at the used book-slash-record store, which had a tremendous selection of used folk records unorganized beyond any kind of solution but among which he’d miraculously found a copy of Karen Dalton’s In My Own Time. His record player along with half his life was still at Sirius’s, but he’d been listening to it on Spotify in the car, getting stuck on the very first song, You can’t make it without ever even trying... This, he took to be significant, and came early to help Dearborn and McKinnon set up the Marshall stacks and spike the punch.
The bands were alright, if less volatile than they might’ve normally been given the sluggish August lull and the absence of a few of the more notable bands in the scene due to either the aforementioned summertime hush or their own questionable future following certain well-gossipped-about Events. Remus himself had received no shortage of unabashed stares over the course of the night, but he was too tired and too busy thinking about how to translate the intangible and infinite into words and/or actions to give much of a shit; he was also a little stoned. On the stage Benjy Fenwick—having clearly done too much coke already—was trying for some kind of bizarre rendition of a Birthday Party song; it was like watching a wannabe necromancer try to reanimate a corpse with neither the imagination nor the blood magic to make it work, and Remus took this as his cue to exit stage left into one of the smoky upstairs bedrooms where he’d left his guitar only to find someone already sitting on the edge of the bed, listening to Joni Mitchell on the record player.
Sirius Black, he thought, rolling the name over in his mind-mouth like chocolate or good whiskey, pulsing through him like an electrical current. There was no magic like a name, the beloved presence given language and form between the spell of your teeth and tongue and vocal cords, breathed in and out of your own lungs and flushed through all four chambers of your open heart, splitting new blood cells apart. Names had power, permanence. Or possibly he was just more stoned than he’d realized.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’ll just—”
“You don’t have to leave,” said Sirius. He didn’t have the green Jazzmaster with him but he did have the old acoustic he’d bought off Lily Evans sometime around November of last year; the first thing he’d ever played on it was a Joan Baez song Remus loved.
“I don’t wanna—”
“Well you’re not,” said Sirius, daring at last to look him in the eye, “so get in here and shut the door.”
Remus did. “Take it you don’t wanna hear Fenwick.”
“I never wanna hear Fenwick. About a week ago—you weren’t here—he was playing ‘Eruption’ and it sounded like the aural manifestation of a six-day coke binge. Like he’d been possessed by Keith Richards’s desiccated ghost or something.”
“Keith Richards is still alive.”
“Whatever,” said Sirius. “The point is he fucking sucks.”
“We’re being assholes, you know.”
“Are we really.”
“I mean I guess it is Fenwick. He barely has, like, a subatomic particle of self-awareness anyway.”
“Knowing him he’d take it as a compliment,” said Sirius. “Would you sit down?”
Suddenly he had no idea what to do with all his gangly tattooed limbs or where to put the spillage of his stoned mind seeping out of his ears like tangled ivy vines. He sat on the opposite side of the bed, smelling old sweat and vomit and beer and feeling more off-footed than he ever had around Sirius, trying to remember what it was he thought he wanted to say. “I need to—”
“I’m sorry,” said Sirius, “for what I said. I didn’t mean—”
“Yes you did,” said Remus, all the brittle force he could muster behind it, “I can take a lot of bullshit and god knows I have to with you. But don’t fucking lie to me. You meant it and you meant it to hurt.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Under the floorboards he could hear that another band was setting up, Shacklebolt’s or maybe that one side project of Dearborn’s he’d been talking about, but none of it sounded as good as the thread Sirius plucked out of the motheaten yellow quilt, which was wary, and wounded, and blue as memory and longing, like the same three chords played against his spine over and over and over, like something asking permission. “Alice’s pot is pretty potent this time,” said Sirius.
“Remember,” he said, and then stopped.
“I remember all of it. I remember everything you’ve ever said to me. Every single goddamn thing.”
“I’m sorry I—”
“So am I,” said Remus, “I’m dearly fucking sorry. For a lot of things.”
Where do we go with this, he was thinking, but neither of them said anything, and in the golden womb of the unsilence that followed Kingsley Shacklebolt’s guitar tore open a hole in the space-time continuum, or the fabric of reality, or the veil separating this universe from all the others, and for a long time Remus couldn’t think of anything to say. They sat there like that with the ghost of yearning bleeding out between them on the bed until finally Remus got up and crossed statelines and mountain paths and frozen prairie flats to sit down beside him, and Sirius, goddamn him, reached over and started “All I Want” right from the top all over again.
Bar none it was his favorite love song, which he suspected Sirius knew. He could listen to it for hours on end even when he wasn’t stoned, the fierce tenderness of the guitar juxtaposed perfectly with the dense, restless desire in her voice, the suffocating need to occupy this same cloistered, holy space where he could allow himself to love and be loved by another living thing. He looked up to find Sirius already looking at him, a nervous lilt to his mouth where he’d been biting it the way he’d always done before when he thought of something really good, his eyes brighter than Remus thought anything alive could ever be.
There you are, he thought. There you are. What I’ve come this far to find.
“At first,” said Sirius, not quite able to meet his eyes anymore, “I didn’t think you were really that into me. I mean.”
“Why on earth would you think that?”
“It was—you’d barely even let me touch you for months, Remus, what was I supposed to think?”
“That I wasn’t easy?” In the bare measure of quiet before Shacklebolt started throttling the floorboards again Remus could hear him sigh. “It’s—look. It’s not, it was never you—”
“Whenever I so much as looked below your collarbone you cringed, I could see it. I could feel it.”
“That’s not—Sirius,” he said, face hot, trying to hide how his hands were shaking between his knees and trying also to keep the steel trap of his body open for long enough to say it, “it isn’t easy for me. It’s nothing to do with you, I promise. It’s just. I have a hard time with it so it takes a while. Use your brain.”
From the corner of his eye he could see Sirius shaking his head. It looked like his mouth was working but nothing came out, and Remus didn’t wait for it this time. “I love everything you do to me,” he said. “But you can’t, I won’t ever be able to rinse it out of my head or anyplace else. It’s a thing that is.” He tried to swallow but his mouth was too dry. “Clearly I’m into you like a fucking pileup on I-57. Clearly I love everything I do to you or I wouldn’t fucking be doing it.”
“I’m not, Remus, I’m not sure about that.” Sirius had a hand clutched over his mouth, staring at the wall.
“Fair enough. But I am.”
He watched as Sirius pulled his hand away from his mouth and tightened his red-knuckled fist over his knee, breathing deep. “How am I supposed to,” he was saying, so softly Remus almost didn’t hear, “the only thing I want to do is just, I don’t ever want anything bad to happen to you.”
“I don’t ever want anything bad to happen to you either, but look what I fucking went and did.”
“Heard Dearborn gave you a metaphorical ass beating. That had to sting, man.”
“He ought to go back to school and do psychology or something,” said Remus.
“You ought to go back to school.”
“Sirius, I never even finished high school,” he said, “and really it was gentler than all that. It was like, I wouldn’t’ve noticed until I sat down later on, but he told me beforehand.”
“That’s maybe not the best metaphor to use.”
“Tell you the truth it never lasted long enough to leave any impact.”
“Good fucking god.”
“Right,” said Remus, “but it’s, what I’m trying to say is, Jesus Christ. No one’s ever been—you’re the only person who’s ever taken this kind of care with me. I’m not used to... It’s only ever been you and it’ll only ever be you and I’m, Sirius, it makes me fucking stupid and it makes me do stupid shit and I don’t know how to act. Hence, everything.” Half-assedly he swept his hand between them to encompass the enormity of this confession, but Sirius still wasn’t looking, so he kept going. “And you can’t protect me, Sirius.”
This got his attention. Sirius’s head snapped back up so fast it made Remus’s neck ache, which transferred like a wavering sonar pulse down to his chest at the look he gave him, which was warm, and pleading, and transcendent, and freaked the absolute fuck out. “Why can’t I,” he said.
“You just can’t. Not really much I can protect you from, either.”
“I can try.”
“Well. So can I, for what it’s worth.”
Quiet, then. Downstairs Shacklebolt sounded good, really fucking good, like fingernails in a pink, gummy wound that had just started healing. Gently, so much so that he was startled to find himself doing it, he reached for Sirius’s wrist and wrapped it with his hand, the heartbeat running quick in the climbing blue vines of his veins like Remus had just pressed his fingertips into a pool of water, the spreading echo of it murmuring shades and shadows along every synapse until it obliterated all other sound. They stayed like that, just holding on, just breathing. Then Shacklebolt did something that knocked the cobwebs loose from the ceiling and Sirius caught Remus’s hand up in his like a spider trapping a kill, not letting go, not letting go.
“Where did you even go,” he asked over the hallucinatory slow-motion collapse of sound seeping up through the floorboards.
“I was just outside Independence.”
“Yeah. That’s as far west as I’ve ever been.”
“Not sure why there, exactly. At the time I was maybe thinking like, I could set off on the Oregon Trail and it’d be like some kind of trial. I was about halfway blasted. Then I got completely five-hundred percent blasted in a bar in the middle of nowhere and I kind of ate a bad beef burrito from Taco Bell.”
Owing to his general shitfacedness at the time it had actually been a beef burrito and a beef chalupa, but Sirius didn’t need to know the particulars of his four A.M. nadir.
“Fuck off. I don’t want to hear about this from the man who regularly eats seven-layer burritos when he’s stoned.”
The look on Sirius’s face told him he was very much going to hear about it. “You were fucked up enough to give yourself food poisoning?”
“I was fucked up enough over you to eat prions and puke out my small intestine by the side of the road,” said Remus, “so when I get mad cow you’d better be there.”
“You’re not gonna get mad cow.”
“We’ll see. It can take about fifteen years for symptoms to show up so you’ve got some time to think about it.”
“Still can’t believe you ate prions about it.”
When Remus was very young he’d had a heart murmur. It was one of the numerous occasions when his parents hadn’t had health insurance but he could remember the doctor insisting, and a ton of paperwork for public aid, and a whole day of tests in a town up north where his father had glared at him in the glassy hospital elevator as if he’d done this on purpose and his exhausted mother had sighed and bitten her ragged nails every four seconds, fixing for whatever it was in those days; they’d both disappeared while he was having the ultrasound, and the technician had brought him some lemonade and let him listen to it through the stethoscope, her pretty dark hand resting between his shoulderblades like a monarch butterfly. The sound was like the bellow of a conch shell or radio static suffused with the heady red hymn of his blood, a-live, a-live, a-live, but something else flowed out underneath it, the tuning pegs of his heart valves beating out of sync, a river flowing counterclockwise. A ghost haunting his own body. If he held very still he could feel it whispering in his throat, the sound beneath the sound in which the unspeakable could hide.
This was what it sounded like when he reached into the secretive, unquiet space between heartbeats and found what had been there for a very long time, which was, of course, “I love you.”
The moment circled back in on him again and again in the hush that followed, like a kid who’d just bought their first pedal and discovered reverb. Then it flowed out into something else, heat-hazy, bright as August watercolors or ultramarine September skies, like he’d just fallen off the edge of the world and found it wasn’t that enormous a leap after all. He took one breath, then another, and another.
It wasn’t the end.
“So what are you gonna do about it,” Sirius asked him, thumbpad smoothing over old tattoos before pressing into one of Remus’s palm-lines—life-line, he thought, running down to his wrist and back again.
“Get mad cow I guess,” he said, “throw up, maybe. Suppose I could write you a song about it.”
Without even looking he could hear the smile in Sirius’s voice. “I’m gonna hold you to that,” he said. Shacklebolt’s band had just finished up; on the record player Blue had shuffled over to the end of the first side, clicking softly against the kiss of the late summer rain on the roof. “You got your guitar?”
“Over there,” he jerked his head towards the closet, “I was thinking about playing something to get Fenwick out of my head but then you happened.”
“Sorry to interrupt.”
“You’ve been interrupting my entire sense of self since you tried to fuck me through the Taco Bell drive-through last summer. It’s okay. It’s what I want.”
The breath Sirius took was like the wind unscrolling across the trees and the swallowing prairie plains, almost the way Remus remembered him holding it in the car more than a year ago where he’d been waiting stoned and starving without even touching his bag of greasy refried ooze in the parking lot like a bride at the altar, or otherwise like he’d just seen the truth of pure multiversal inevitability. Remus himself had not expected him to wait.
“Okay,” said Sirius, “okay, then.”
Together they gathered up their guitars and sundry drugs and went outside into the August rain smearing pink and gold and black oil paints on the cars and puddling in the street and the sidewalk, the ink from some of the concert flyers running off into the gutter pooling silver as mercury beads, refracting sound and light, motion and memory. A ways down the empty road the katydids were calling in the trees and Sirius was looking at him like he might want to kiss him, so Remus leaned over and did it for him, watching their shadows change shape on the sidewalk, boozy and sweat-sweet. They must’ve been the only people around for miles.
Caught in the teeth of the blinding gas station floodlights he found Sirius leaning against the wall of the car wash, eyes closed to the shrill megawatt hum of the sign on which the blown-out S had never been replaced. They’d just finished playing at a house show where they’d been offered to go on a brief tour with a band from Lexington; none of them had known what to say, so James said yes yes yes for all of them, and a few hours later Remus staved off a panic attack about it while reading soothing graffiti detailing who fucked who for what quantity of meth in the bathroom at Huck’s.
He’d gotten a new job at the end of summer as a kind of groundskeeper at the lake, clearing the trails and making sure the fish guts got scooped up and walking in on people having sex in the mosquito-infested outhouses; it paid like shit but he liked it well enough and it was better than Taco Bell, though he wasn’t sure he’d be able to take the time off to go on tour and still have the job waiting for him when he came back. Sirius, who’d decided to finish college after all, was looking at a full semester’s absence to make a tour happen, but at least he could go back to his job unloading trucks and herding livestock at Rural King whenever he wanted. The bargain seemed Faustian, but he knew what they’d both have said if James had given them ten whole seconds to think about it, which was yes yes yes.
“Alright?” he asked Sirius, juggling two bottles of water to press his palm to his forehead, which was clammy with fever. The day before he’d sworn it was just a cold but then he’d kept Remus up all night talking in his sleep through the body aches. “You need to breathe.”
“Trying to. Everything fucking hurts.”
“I got some aspirin but you really ought to try to eat something.”
“Like what,” said Sirius, holding a shaky hand out for the aspirin. Remus opened the water for him and watched him drink, then made held the bottle and made him drink more to be sure it wouldn’t shred his stomach lining.
“Want a gas station burger?”
“Christ. What were you even doing in there for so long?”
“Reading gas station literature. I had to piss.”
“You’re gonna get scabies doing that,” said Sirius, “or tapeworms.”
Remus smiled. “That’s not how you get tapeworms. Did you know they can get tangled enough to cause bowel obstructions and grow up to—”
“Remus, I swear to god.”
“You’re really way more likely to get tapeworms from eating undercooked meat and it’s been months since either of us had any that I know of. And I know you wash your fucking hands. I think we’re safe.”
He put his own bottle down and joined Sirius on the asphalt where he’d sunk down with the water clutched to his temple, rubbing his hand in slow circles from the sawtooth-slope of his shoulderblades to the buttons of vertebrae at the back of his neck, feeling more than seeing him crack a gray eye open, teeth chattering in the needle-cold November breeze. “Would you still like me if I had tapeworms,” he asked.
Truly there was no question of this but he pretended to consider the answer anyway. Remus would’ve loved Sirius if he’d had an infected leg full of maggots or if he listened to Whitesnake in the shower, though that latter one was perhaps pushing it a little. “I mean I clean up fish guts at work every day,” he said, “pretty sure I can handle your tapeworms.”
“Good. I’d still like you if you had scabies, for the record. I’d let you give me scabies.”
If he’d learned one single thing resoundingly worth knowing in the last year it was that love didn’t occupy any honeyed middle distance at all. Love saw every spot you missed shaving and every acne scar and flushed the toilet while you were in the shower and cleaned the dirt out of your bloody tearing wounds and then applied pressure. Love made you throw up on your own shoes and gave you the flu and love generally meant dealing with a certain amount of bodily fluids on a regular basis. Love ate questionable fast food in the car with you at two in the morning and stayed in bed with you for hours despite having had to piss for the past twenty minutes. Love fucked up but love also forgave; love burnt and grew and bruised and begged and ripped out your hair and held you in the night and remade itself again and again, like music or blood. Hearing that Sirius would let Remus give him scabies was tantamount to a marriage proposal.
“Might actually have a chance of getting scabies on tour,” said Remus. “Possibly tapeworms too. At least a stomach bug or the flu.”
Sirius groaned, pressed the heels of his palms into his sunken eyes. “I can’t even think about it right now. I can barely fucking see straight.”
“Are we really gonna do this,” he wondered, fingertips stroking a ghostly tremolo up the back of Sirius’s neck to where a few dark wisps of his hair had come loose from his bun.
“Touring makes people nuts. You’ve heard Dearborn talk about it, it’s like, there’s nothing but driving and not sleeping and playing to half-empty rooms and fighting for the single bathroom when you all get food poisoning.”
“He also said it was the most enlightening experience of his twenty-seven years.”
“He did ayahuasca in Montana.”
“Figures,” said Sirius, but he was smiling a little.
“Do you really want to do this?”
“Yes,” Sirius said, hardly half a blissful heartbeatless second before he asked, “do you?”
Even after all the time he’d known Sirius he’d never once been asked what he wanted. It was like being offered blackberry cobbler and a whole cheese board for dinner and listening to ‘90s albums all night or dropping acid on Christmas morning or going to the Tetons or reading in Sirius’s bed late at night—I look at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world—while the rain streaked the golden autumn night-light across the windows, sharing the same pillow and very nearly the same body. His head sort of spun sideways into distant nebulae for a minute, like he’d inhaled too many chemicals while trying to clean the shower.
“Yeah,” he said, “yes, it’s what I want, but it’s just—you have to realize things’ll be different, after.”
Privately Remus wasn’t sure they’d even survive. For one thing they’d never had to live in such a way that they literally couldn’t get away from each other if they needed to; for another their personalities, when under any kind of strain whatsoever, had the potential to level a city. For yet another, just for shits and giggles, the timing wasn’t exactly ideal, in fact it was so not fucking ideal that it felt like some kind of trial by fire and possibly intestinal infection, but these things, he supposed, happened for a reason. If it was meant to happen, then it would. If they were meant to survive, then they would. But just because something was meant to happen didn’t mean jack shit unless you took it by both hands and held on for all you were worth.
“Things were never gonna stay the same anyway.”
“No. You have to change with them. That’s probably at the core of like, at least forty-five percent of our problems.”
“So what about the other sixty-five.”
“Fifty-five. Let’s get home so you can eat something and sleep.” His hand strayed to Sirius’s waist, the nautilus-curl of his spine arching into his hand like the lavender plant they kept in the kitchen windowsill, dead but for the few stray stalks that strained for the autumn sun. “Ten percent is every time you leave the seat up or leave like a thimbleful of coffee instead of making more.”
“You do both of those things.”
“Fine. Twenty percent, then.”
“What if,” Sirius was saying, “Remus.”
He understood without having to ask what Sirius was trying to say. In the three hours since James had perhaps sold all their souls away it had been swimming at the back of Remus’s head, but he hadn’t yet allowed himself to fully comprehend the thought, so it struggled there in the damaged gray mush of his hindbrain, slouching half-formed towards Bethlehem and nausea. That Sirius couldn’t even finish the sentence was all the proof he needed, which was that they were both scared shitless.
“I don’t know,” he said, pausing to feel Sirius’s breath-bellows swell beneath his hand, pulse running quick. “I don’t know about anything. But let’s face it, even if, and it’s a fucking big if, we’re never not gonna have to have day jobs.”
“Kind of sexy, don’t you think.” His teeth were chattering louder than the buzz of the guttering bulbs about to blow out of the sign overhead.
“What I think is we need to go home before you get pneumonia, dumbass.” Up he stood, knees cracking tectonically like the New Madrid Faultline finally splitting its own atoms and taking out everything in a three-hundred-mile radius, and then reached for Sirius’s hand. “But yeah. It is kind of sexy. Come on and I’ll make you some pancakes.”
Sirius took his hand and let Remus pull him to his feet. When he got up he leaned in, dizzy, his eyes huge and moving fever-fast. Remus let him kiss him right on the mouth, knowing full well he’d be sick in the morning.
They walked together through the quiet sinews of the streets to where the station wagon was parked right at the edge of the matchbox-sized downtown square, past the brick of the ramshackle used bookshop and the antique store with a FOR SALE sign in the window and the boarded-up Art Deco movie theater that had been sitting vacant for nearly a decade, smelling late-night frog legs all the way from the restaurant down the road and watching what looked like a drug deal going down in the parking lot of the church across from the deserted bar on the corner. Once they got in the car he took off his flannel shirt and made Sirius use it as a blanket for all two blocks they had to drive and then put on the playlist he’d curated specifically for occasions when he was feeling sorry for himself and/or fucked up about something, the something usually involving or owing great inspiration to the love of his whole unlikely life, not that he’d ever tell him so. Because it had been a few months since his wallowing was severe enough to require a soundtrack the first few notes of “We Dance” spider-veined their way through his consciousness like a crack branching across a glass door.
He couldn’t even question it anymore. It just was, multiverse and Malkmus and the wheel of fate and late-night pancakes and looming body aches and all. He’d always loved this song; it was second only to “Loretta’s Scars” as far as their love songs went, blunt-force sincerity rubbing up against the truly inane in a way Remus found truer to love’s lived reality than just about anything else.
Maybe we could dance, maybe we could dance, maybe we could dance together…
They stayed in the car with the the headlights off and the engine running until it was over. When they got home there was a song he needed Sirius to hear.