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salt, sweat, sugar on the asphalt

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i don’t know much
but a crutch is a crutch
if it’s holding you from moving on

— EVERYTHING TO NOTHING, Manchester Orchestra

 

 

you were the last good thing about this part of town.

— FALL OUT BOY

 

 

 

 

 

1.
There’s this photo of the twelve of them.

It’s from back when Johnny still took pictures all the time. Back when he’d go every Sunday to this hipster storefront that had a darkroom to develop roll after roll of film. He’d kept every picture he ever took, back then, even the ones that didn’t turn out. He’d organize them into respective empty VANS shoe boxes that he kept under his bed. Johnny hasn’t looked at most of those photos in years, and he can specifically recall almost none of them. Most of them are probably all gummy and stuck together from years of unuse.

This one he remembers as clear as day: the twelve of them. The backdrop is the weathered chain link fence of the skatepark. There’s a discarded pair of torn up shoes tied together at the laces and tossed over the fence, left to sit. The sky is bright blue. It was summer and you could tell how it was that day just from looking at them.

It was the twelve of them. It was Taeyong, his hair barely still coloured from when he dyed it in March, wearing a caught-off-guard scowl, and Yuta with an easy arm thrown over Taeyong’s shoulders. Ten took the spot down in front of them, smiling the same easy smile he always did, and sat on the curb next to Jungwoo. Next: Jaehyun and Doyoung, heads inclined together, and sandwiched between them, slightly haunched with his hands braced on his knees was Taeil. Sicheng, then, and next to him was Haechan, and next to Haechan was Mark. The picture, this photo of the twelve of them, has immortalized how much like elementary school kids Haechan and Mark looked in those days. Josh had Mark in a half-hearted, playful headlock, and then Johnny stood at the end of the line. He was the afterthought of this photo: inserting himself as fast as he could near the edge after he set the timer on his camera.

It’s a good picture.

Johnny hates it. He wishes he could tear it into pieces. He wishes he could take a match to it and watch it catch, curl up slowly and sadly and be swallowed by flames, reduced to only ash. It’s a bitter reminder of the summer Johnny was seventeen; the summer he thought he was invincible. The summer he thought if he just tried hard enough, maybe, he could make the season go on forever. It was the summer before the accident, the summer before Johnny broke his nose, the summer before Ten left for NYU. This was the summer before all everyone ever wanted from Johnny was to grow up and move, before growing up and moving on were things Johnny seemingly forgot how to do.

That’s why Johnny hates the picture. And it’s also why he can never, ever get rid of it.

 

 

 

2.
Sometimes people who don’t skate will hang out and watch Johnny and his friends zip around the skatepark on their boards. He wonders if some of them find comfort in it: that, usually, no matter what, there’s always a handful of them here, skating. They don’t usually talk to them, only sometimes. It’s how they met Yuta, who doesn’t skate, but whose parents own a surf shop on the boardwalk.

People who like to watch and don’t skate, though, they are always audible if you wipe out. They’ll gasp, or groan, or maybe just wince, or shout something out to you. Because they don’t get it: the wipeouts are never as bad as they look. Or, at least, Johnny thinks so.

It’s something he had to drill into Mark when he was teaching Mark how to skate.

(Mark, who was a kid the first time he rolled up on Johnny and the rest of his friends practicing skills. Who reminded Johnny so much of himself. Who Johnny had an unshakeable, unspeakable urge to take under his wing, the way Josh did for him.)

It doesn’t feel nice to fuck up your whole outer calf with road rash, Johnny told Mark, over and over. It doesn’t feel nice to pick rocks out of your palms, or rip open the knees of your jeans and the skin underneath too, but it’s not the worst thing that’s gonna happen to you. The skin will scar over, come back thicker. You’ll get smarter, better, and the next time you fall it won’t hurt as much.

There’s so much more shit — and Johnny knows this — there’s a lot of other shit that hurts a lot worse.

 

 

 

3.
The first week of June, this year, after Johnny and Mark grab sticks of beef jerky and Red Bulls from the gas station down the street from the skate park, Johnny’s board slips out from underneath him on a landing and he knocks two teeth right out of his mouth.

There was this ugly noise, wet and hard, that Johnny didn’t even realize was the sound of his face smashing into the pavement. Not until his vision was dark from being face planted into the concrete and all blurry from the head trauma.

Mark rolls up beside Johnny’s prone form just as Johnny is sliding up onto his elbows. Mark can’t even see Johnny’s face, at this point, just the splatter of blood on the concrete. It was spread out like a toddler had just dipped their whole hand into fingerpaint and smacked it against the ground, except the red was too sinister to be any colour of paint. Mark whispers, “well, shit,” under his breath.

Johnny’s bleeding from his nose and his mouth, the inside of his top lip split, looking like a mess of blood thick like syrup and gore, but he knows his nose isn’t broken. He’s broken it before. He knows what that feels like.

After he stands, Johnny spits blood onto the sidewalk, lamenting the shirt he’s just ruined. Something hits the ground when he does, sounding like a pebble as it bounces away. Mark leans over, picking it up, and presents Johnny the object, stained red.

Against Mark’s palm, Johnny’s tooth looks wrong, foreign and alien. It was meant to be in Johnny’s mouth, not Mark’s palm. But there it was. Johnny feels the hole it left behind in his gums, now, throbbing with trauma.

“Well, shit,” Johnny echos Mark. Then he laughs.

Mark chuckles, maybe still a little nervous. Then he says, “dude,” he says, “that’s pretty fucking punk rock.”

The second tooth falls out when Johnny is washing the blood out of his mouth in the bathroom later. Johnny watchs it fall down the drain without even trying to save it.

 

 

 

4.
The worst thing about time, Johnny thinks, is that it’s got no care for anything but itself.

Time is selfish. It takes and takes and takes and before you know it, you’ve got nothing. The world has left you behind, a lonely island in the ocean. Everything is different, now, and you’re standing alone. And your hands are empty, and you don’t know who you are or what you’re doing.

The worst thing about time, Johnny thinks, is that it can convince you you’ve got a tight enough hold on it for it to even matter. It never does. It always slips away, going non-corporeal in your grip and disappearing. You’re always running after something you’ll never be able to catch.

 

 

 

5.
Johnny wakes up and his eyelashes are sticky with eye gunk, and his mouth is gummy from lack of spit. His gum is throbbing again, pin pricks of pain that feel like needle stabs, and he worries that he might have dry socket.

Something smells like breakfast. The room he is in is not his own; it’s Taeyong’s. It’s the room Taeyong has in the apartment he shares with Yuta. Johnny is only wearing his boxers, his shirt and jeans discarded somewhere on the floor.

He takes some moments to breathe, to wake up properly: it’s probably Taeyong in the kitchen, making eggs like he does most mornings.

The pain in Johnny’s gum fades, if just barely, and it leaves room for the dull throb of something at Johnny’s hipbone to make itself known. He looks down. Just above the line of his boxers, in the unmistakable shape of a mouth, is a purpleing, red tinged bruise. He pushes his thumb against it, hisses at the white hot flash of pain, and then smirks.

He finally gets up after that.

It is Taeyong in the kitchen. Yuta’s shoes aren’t sitting at the front door, and Johnny assumes he’s already left to help his parents out at the shop.

Taeyong must hear Johnny coming, because before Johnny even wraps his arms around Taeyong’s waist, Taeyong is talking. “I’m making eggs,” he says, “and there’s coffee on the warmer. Yuta made that.”

Johnny hums in response. He kisses the jut of bone at the base of Taeyong’s neck. Taeyong smells freshly showered; like warm water and soap and the sun. Johnny breathes in deep. His hand slips under the hem of Taeyong’s shirt, resting just above the elastic of his sleep shorts, against bare skin. His fingers knead into the toned muscle there, purposefully, and he kisses the base of Taeyong’s neck again.

The bruise on Johnny’s hip bone bumps into Taeyong’s own hip from behind.

“I have work in an hour,” Taeyong says, distracted. He slides the pan off the hot burner, eggs forgotten.

“Okay,” Johnny replies, but he doesn’t stop. Then he says, “can I blow you?”

Johnny can feel Taeyong shudder against the hand Johnny has under his shirt. He doesn’t answer verbally but he nods, enthusiastic, and turns around.

Then, Johnny sinks to his knees and gets what he asked for.

 

 

 

6.
When Johnny was a teenager, all he ever looked forward to was summer. It’s like all the summers back then were perfect Venice Beach summers that promised everything: sweltering days that broke open upon sunset to reveal cooler nights. Josh would take Johnny skateboarding every day those summers, and their friends would always meet them, gripping warm cases of soda and bluetooth speakers. They’d ride down the coast with their shirts tucked into their back pockets and eat shitty, greasy food. Sometimes, in the late evenings, they’d go swimming. Skin all fresh with salt and cool water after sweating all day, caught between hot pavement and hot sun. Yuta worked at his parents' surf shop those summers, and in July they’d leave to visit family, and they’d throw parties there every night for two weeks straight. Those summers, Johnny would stay up late, hang out with his brother, see his friends everyday. He’d party and drink and sleep in and climb into his room through his bedroom window every night. He’d skate. Back then, even when he’d eat shit on his board he would barely feel it. He’d dust off his knees and elbows and just get moving again.

Those summers, the summers Johnny was a teenager, were good summers.

Johnny isn’t a teenager anymore. He’s twenty-one. Summer lost it’s spit-shined gleam to him years ago.

If anything, Venice Beach gets really annoying in the summertime.

Johnny likes Venice. He’s always liked living in Venice. But he feels like he might have been much more in love with it a few years ago. Before the disillusionment of adulthood hit, stripped the veil off the less shiny parts of the city. Before —

The thing about Venice Beach in the summertime, now, when Johnny is twenty-one, is that the whole city is basically on fire because of the heat and it’s also steaming with tourists. Johnny used to always say, “Venice is just like, I don’t know, authentic, man,” and he’d meant it, but it always feels less authentic in the summer now. Everything feels especially fake and put on, like every tan a girl from the Midwest will slather on before she comes down for a week to get day-drunk with her friends and flirt with surfing instructors. Venice shifts for tourists in subtle ways: like how the beachfront burger shack is suddenly charging an extra dollar and fifty cents for food Johnny can normally get with just the change leftover in his pockets. Or, how Johnny has to start swerving a little more on the sidewalks when he’s riding his board, crouched low to avoid stray shoulders and elbows. Non-locals love to stop right in the middle of the way to check their fucking Google Maps, in the summer, looking for some Jamaican place that closed two months ago.

Jaehyun constantly tells Johnny to stop complaining. “All you do is bitch from, like, mid-May until late August. We get it,” he always says.

Right now, they’re gathered as the four of them — Johnny next to Mark who is across from Jaehyun who is next to Doyoung — sitting on the patio of this cheap taco place they like to go. Tourists don’t come here, usually, but the four of them are not tourists, so they know this place doesn’t card and has good guacamole that they make in house.

“When you’d become a grumpy old man?” Mark jeers, jabbing his elbow into Johnny’s ribs. Mark’s taken to wearing braces since he sprained his wrist two months ago, and they sit a stark black even against his tan skin, and leave behind the weirdest looking tan.

“Fuck you,” Johnny throws back. He picks up stray pieces of wilted lettuce off his mostly empty plate and throws them in Mark’s face.

After Mark sputters and rubs his face clean with his sweaty palms and they all laugh at him, Doyoung speaks. He asks Johnny, “you talked with Ten lately?”

Johnny shrugs. “Yeah,” he replies, “like, a week ago? Something like that.”

“Is he coming down for the summer?” It’s Jaehyun who asks the question now.

Johnny shakes his head. “No,” he says, scratching his chin. He didn’t shave this morning, didn’t have the time or the tools at Taeyong’s. “He’s going to Thailand to visit family.”

“Bro,” Mark throws his hands up, visibly upset. He sinks into his seat. “He acts like we’re not his family too.”

Their table is quiet for a moment after that. Mark adjusts and readjusts his wrist braces. Jaehyun motions for the check and Doyoung looks, pointedly, at anything and everyone besides Mark and Johnny.

Finally, Johnny catches Mark in a playful headlock. “He knows, man,” he says, affectionately rubbing the top of his head. “He’s just busy.”

Johnny says it because it’s what Mark needs to hear and not, necessarily, because he believes it.

 

 

 

7.
Things were hard, after Ten left.

The accident happened in late July, and by August Ten was moving away. And Johnny had known the whole time, yeah, that that was going to happen. But it didn’t stop him from desperately clinging to the hope that it wouldn’t, it didn’t stop it from feeling like amputating a limb when Ten did leave.

Johnny had four best friends growing up: Josh, first, and then Ten, and eventually Mark, and Taeyong, kind of. Though sometimes he leaves Taeyong off the list. But Ten was always second place, and he was only second to blood. Johnny recalls spending so much time together, just the two of them, after Josh got into college and had to spend more time working on school. Ten would burn blank CD after blank CD with whatever songs they liked at the moment. He’d name them dumb shit like CHILL, VOL. 2: CHILL HARDER or MUSIC TO SHRED AND EAT SHIT TO or SKATE OR DIE! and they’d let them play over and over while they fucked around at the skatepark all day. The first time Johnny smoked weed it was with Ten, and the summer Johnny was sixteen that’s basically all they did: smoked weed and skated and played video games. Johnny told Ten everything; the stuff he couldn’t even talk about with Josh he’d talk about with Ten, and Ten would trust him with secrets in return, like trading back a firefly between cupped hands.

Johnny had been happy, at first, when Ten got into NYU. He was excited, he really was, and he thought yeah, Ten will leave, but he’ll come back, and I won’t be alone. It’ll be harder for him to be gone then I will be for to have him gone —

But then the accident happened. But then that proverbial damn broke and Johnny felt like every single person in his life was leaving him one by one.

He never told Ten not to leave. He knew that that would be selfish. In dreams, he’d beg Ten on his knees to not leave him behind. He’d cry, in his dreams, he’d sob into Ten’s shirt that he’d clutch in his hands. But he never did any of that in real life and then Ten left, and then Johnny didn’t talk to him for two months.

They talk again, now. Ten’s almost done at NYU. Johnny hasn’t asked him if he’ll move back after that, and he thinks Ten probably won’t. It’s not the same as it used to be; Johnny thinks, maybe, it never will be.

He misses Ten like a phantom limb. Like one day he’ll turn around and see Ten standing behind him, smiling, and everything will be back to normal. But that day never comes, and it probably never will.

 

 

 

8.
Taeil invites them to a bonfire on the beach that night.

Johnny goes with Mark, Jaehyun and Doyoung. Sicheng and Jungwoo are already milling around the beach, only lit orange by the fire, when the four of them get there. They offer casual, friendly waves, that Mark, Jaehyun, Johnny and Doyoung all return, and smiles over the lips of their plastic cups. Taeyong and Yuta show up late, after work. And just like that: if Haechan and Ten were here, it would be like old times.

Well, almost.

The fire makes the air smell burnt, sticking to everyone’s clothes, even with the salt of the ocean so close by. It helps mask the smell of the weed, though. Johnny and Jaehyun pass the spliff back and forth, mostly, with Doyoung quietly abstaining, and Mark only puffing on it a few times. At some point, Yuta comes over and paws at Johnny until he hands it over, Taeyong following not far behind.

Eventually, they’re all pretty high and loose-limbed. Johnny’s laying in the sand, staring at the sky, wondering if he’d see more stars if the fire wasn’t so big. There’s a loud conversation going on with almost everyone, except for him. Except for him and Taeyong. The sand feels soft, despite it’s coarseness. Johnny kicks off his shoes and digs his bare feet into it.

“Johnny?” It’s Taeyong’s voice that rouses Johnny from his careful documentation of everything around him. Johnny’s eyes shift, just so, to the left and he finds Taeyong leaning back on his elbows, watching Johnny’s face. “You good, man? You’re being quiet.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m good,” Johnny reassures him. “Just like, high, is all. Y’know?”

Taeyong laughs quietly. “Yeah, man. I know.”

Taeyong doesn’t move and neither does Johnny, mostly. What Johnny does do is begin carefully burying one of Taeyong’s hands in the sand, pushing mounds and mounds of the stuff on top of it until it disappears. Johnny’s own fingers brush up against Taeyong’s on occasion and maybe Johnny’s movements get a little more sloppy after this, a little bit on purpose, so their fingers can touch a little often, for a little bit longer.

Johnny doesn’t know who’s playing music but they’re playing Frank Ocean: in the wake of a hurricane, dark skin of a summer shade, nose dive in the flood lines. There is a cacophony of half-muffled sounds: the waves of the ocean coming in and going back out, the crackling off the wood as it’s eaten by flames, the steady hum of chatter from all the people around, the music.

Johnny feels contended. He likes moments like this; moments that feel dulled at the edges. Quiet enough so that his thoughts can still pierce through them, loud enough that they dampen the harshness of them. The pain in Johnny’s gums is gone, and so is the throb at the highest point of his hip.

Johnny finishes burying Taeyong’s hand in the sand and their eyes meet. The world has the air sucked out of it, for just a second, and then Taeyong says, “you wanna go somewhere?” and when Johnny nods, all the air comes rushing back in.

 

 

 

9.
The thing about Johnny and Taeyong, as a unit, is that it’s complicated and confusing, and simultaneously the most consistent and unchanging thing in Johnny’s life. The dichotomy feels like whiplash sometimes.

It’s been long enough that neither of them really remember how it started. It must have been a night where they were drinking, or smoking, or both. It must have been one of those nights in the backroom at the surf shop, when they’d turn the lights green and blue and red with coloured glassine paper. It was one of those nights, probably, and it must have been late, when almost everyone else was gone. Taeyong and Johnny must have been both still kind of fucked up and sleepy in the boneless way, inhibitions at an all time low. It was probably on that ratty couch Yuta’s parents kept in the back room that Taeyong kissed Johnny for the first time. Johnny must have kissed him back. Probably, right? Probably. It must have been one of those nights when Taeyong slid into Johnny’s lap, for the first time, and they kissed for a very long time after that.

It was probably something like that. Probably. But it also could have been something else.

See, it was less a matter of if that powder keg was going to blow, but when.

 

 

 

10.
They’re in Taeyong’s car and they’re listening to Hippo Campus and kissing.

Taeyong is the only one between them with a car. He drives Yuta around with it, and the rest of them pretty exclusively use their boards to get everywhere. Johnny doesn’t really like driving, anyway. He’d much prefer to be on the skateboard.

Johnny’s high is wearing off, kind of, and he wishes he had a little bit more weed. He asks Taeyong, “do you have any weed in here?”

Taeyong, who is sitting in Johnny’s lap, the two of them spread out in the back seat, shakes his head. “I have, like, adderall in my backpack,” he offers, “but that’ll kind of have the opposite effect.”

Johnny shakes his head. He doesn’t want any adderall. He kind of wants to go to sleep. Instead, he threads his fingers into the hair at the base of Taeyong’s neck and pulls him forward so they can kiss some more.

Kissing Taeyong is like kissing a loaded rifled, sometimes, with the gunpowder firing off between the press of their mouths. Johnny is slow and meticulous, now, dragging his mouth across Taeyong’s in purposeful, thoughtful ways. It’s like someone’s hit the button on the remote that slows everything down. It’s easy to move thoroughly through every painstaking detail like this.

Whenever they do, Taeyong always flushes bright red. He doesn’t get as tan as the rest of them, spends too much time at work and not enough out in the sun. Johnny doesn’t mind though. He worries the pink blush of Taeyong’s skin — of his cheeks and throat and chest and thighs, even — would start to disappear if Taeyong’s skin went more honey coloured.

“Can we go to my place tonight?” Taeyong asks. Johnny wants to say yes, he really does, but he hasn’t been home in days. Eventually, his mom will start to worry. He tries not to worry her these days.

So, Johnny says, “no,” he says, “let’s just — let’s just do this here.”

Taeyong lets out a meek oh, sounding disappointed, but he relents to Johnny’s advances. He lets Johnny switch their positions so Taeyong is lying against the material of the seats in his own car. He lets Johnny stick three fingers into his mouth and he sucks on them diligently and gets them on as wet as he can. Then, he lets Johnny fumble both of their cocks out of their pants, and into his hand, and he lets Johnny jack them off, slowly and in tandem, while Johnny kisses Taeyong’s mouth and his eyelids. Kisses the high points of his cheeks, the hollow of his throat and the jut of his collarbone. Johnny bumps the bruise on his hip with his fist in the tight squeeze of this whole thing, this whole jerking them both off in the car, Taeyong’s back curved and making the space between them even smaller, and he hisses but he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t stop until Taeyong is coming, all over Johnny’s fingers, and then Johnny is hiking up Taeyong’s shirt so he can come all over the soft skin of Taeyong’s stomach.

Taeyong usually complains, even just a little, when Johnny does that. This time he doesn’t.

“Do you want me to drive you home?” Taeyong asks, after they’ve cleaned themselves up and are sitting across from each other now. “I didn’t smoke much, and it’s been hours, so I’m good to drive.”

Johnny shakes his head. “No,” he says, again, for the second time tonight. “No, I’ll ride home. It’s fine.”

Taeyong looks like he might want to say something, just maybe, but he lets Johnny open the door to his car and leave before he even opens his mouth.

 

 

 

11.
In the picture of the twelve of them, propped up against Mark’s road rash raw knee, is Johnny’s old board.

Johnny had bought a new one that summer. This was back when he had more grandiose dreams of maybe being sponsored. Of maybe competing, of maybe seeing himself on a magazine cover — wearing clothes he was being paid to wear with his board hoisted over his head. When Johnny thought he might be good enough for that. So, he had sunk a hundred and thirty dollars into a new board that summer. Mark had snapped his board in half the week before. It had just worked out.

The board was mangled. “Well loved,” Josh always corrected. It had been broken and fixed in nearly a dozen places. And Johnny knew Mark couldn’t keep it forever, probably could barely get a few more years out of it, but Mark was so excited when Johnny offered it to him anyway.

In the picture, you can see the mess of white paint along one of the edges of the top of the board. Some of it is rubbed away, or chipped off, but you can still tell that it says something. You can’t read it, though. Can’t quite make it out. The picture is too grainy, too blown out. Maybe the sun is too bright.

Johnny remembers what it said. Mark still has the board, even though he has a new one he bought himself since, and the words are still there. It says, roughly painted in all capital letters:

THIS DEVICE CURES HEARTACHE.

Johnny had believed it when he wrote it when he was sixteen. He wonders if he still does. And then, desperately, he wishes he could.

 

 

 

12.
It’s less that Johnny still lives with his mom out of necessity, and more that he still lives with her because he doesn’t know how to tell her he wants to leave.

They fight a lot these days. They fought a lot when Johnny was a kid, but it’s worse now. The years have given Johnny a cruel edge, and a plethora of options for words he can use to dig into his mom’s heart like a knife.

On a particularly awful day, he says, “I bet sometimes you wish —”

His mom smacks him across the face before he can finish. It makes the pain of his missing tooth in his gum flare up again. “Do not,” she says, teeth grit tight. “Do not ever even think of saying that to me ever again, Johnny. Not ever again.”

 

 

 

13.
It’s August when Johnny breaks his wrist.

He’s skating down one of the roads near the beach. It’s almost always deserted. No, well, it’s filled with cars because everyone parks here, but there aren't really any other people around besides them.

Mark’s there, and Taeyong and Mark and Doyoung. And everything’s good. It’s not too hot yet and between the sun hidden behind the clouds and the wind that rushes by Johnny from his own momentum, he almost feels cold.

It’s not until later that Johnny will think about how fast he must have been going.

The whole thing Johnny only remembers in pieces: the pavement had been smooth under his board and he moved unburdened. There had been an open door on one of the cars parked on the street, then, all of a sudden. And Johnny had two choices: bail and maybe avoid hurting someone else, or let himself hit the door full force and hope for the best. He had two choices, but not enough time to consciously make either of them. He doesn’t remember the next part. He thinks he probably purposefully bailed, and then he was rolling down the street, his board somewhere far off, feeling rocks and sand tear up his skin, but feeling a much deeper ache in his arm.

Eventually, Johnny was on his back, staring up at the sky and it felt like his hand had been cut off at the wrist, it was so painful and still so numb. The pavement felt raw and unforgiving underneath him, in a way he had never before. He wondered if maybe he was dead. And then, he thought, that dying probably didn’t hurt this much.

He threw up on the way to the hospital. They had to pull Taeyong’s car over so Johnny could throw up onto the street. He clutched his limp wrist in his hand and groaned, with Mark gripping the back of his shirt so he wouldn’t fall.

It wasn’t even that his wrist hurt that much. It wasn’t even that the combination of his wrist and the cuts along his neck and elbows were too much all together. It was that Johnny hated the hospital, and he didn’t want to go, but he knew he had too.

 

 

 

14.
Sitting in the waiting room is even worse.

Johnny’s stomach will not settle. He’s wearing a thrown together splint that ties his mangled wrist to his chest. The cut on his cheek isn’t bleeding anymore, but the blood that came from it is left behind. It dries against Johnny’s jaw and throat. Next to him, Taeyong holds a bottle of ginger ale he steadily tries and has Johnny drink from, and Johnny keeps refusing.

Mark and Doyoung are trying to find a vending machine to get food for Johnny, because the nurse said he should try and eat, but he probably won’t. He’ll take maybe two bites, to make them happy, and then he’ll offer Mark the rest. And Mark, always the nervous eater, will probably devour the thing before Johnny even blinks.

“How does it feel?” Taeyong asks. Johnny knows he’s trying to be nice, that he’s just Johnny’s friend (kind of) and he cares about him (is that what we’re calling it these days?) and that that’s normal (kind of) and, if anything, pretty thoughtful. But Johnny’s sitting here in the hospital waiting room, feeling like there’s a second heart beating in his wrist, it’s throbbing so bad, and it’s just kind of annoying. Johnny clenches his jaw and the hand attached to his good wrist into the fabric of his jeans. Taeyong notices, assumes it’s pain, and asks, again, “are you okay?”

“It’s fine,” Johnny manages. “I just wanna get out of here.”

Taeyong sighs. “I know,” he mumbles, “I know.”

 

 

 

15.
Taeyong drives Johnny home.

They end up spending four hours at the hospital. They take Johnny’s information and he’s nervous about what the bill will be when they send it to his mom’s. Johnny is so pumped full of painkillers when the doctors are finished with him that he couldn’t get home on his own if he tried. He’d probably get lost and end up falling into the ocean, or getting arrested and put in jail. What’s worse, even, is that Johnny’s board had snapped in half in the accident, and so there was no way for Johnny to get home even if he could.

So Johnny sits in Taeyong’s passenger seat, half asleep, and watches California at night fly by. His wrist still hurts but the painkillers make it easier to bear. They make him less nervous to be in the car too.

Taeyong keeps looking at him. Johnny can feel Taeyong's gaze on him, every so often, and he can also see the slight movement of Taeyong’s head in his direction in his peripheral vision. He wants to tell Taeyong to look at the road but he’s so tired and his tongue feels fat and heavy in his mouth.

When they pull up to Johnny’s house, the light in the kitchen is on. Johnny wonders if someone called his mom and told her what happened — Mark, maybe — or if she just left it on for him regardless. Because she’s his mom and she loves him. Even after everything, she loves him.

Suddenly, Johnny feels like crying. This whole day has been awful. He wishes his wrist wasn’t broken, wishes his board wasn’t broken. He wishes he didn’t have to go to the hospital earlier. He wishes he didn’t have to stare ahead at the white walls, smell the antiseptic, hear all the noises that came with hospital visits, and pretend it wasn’t crushing him. He wishes all these parts of him, like pins in a map, didn’t hurt so bad. His missing tooth, his wrist, his hip. His heart, his lungs and something deeper, more figurative but more visceral. He wishes Taeyong would stop looking at him like that. He wishes he knew what he and Taeyong were doing, here, with each other, half the time. He wishes he told his mom he loved her more.

He hasn’t cried since the accident, not even once, and all of a sudden, he wishes he could. And the reality that he can’t cry when that’s all he wants to do makes him want to cry even more.

Taeyong touches Johnny’s elbow, the one on the arm whose wrist he broke, and Johnny flinches away. “Sorry,” Taeyong apologizes. He says it over and over again until his mouth remembers how to move to make other words. “Are you okay?” He asks, and then again, back to the, “I’m sorry.”

“Yes, yes, okay?” Johnny snaps, all of a sudden. Taeyong leans back, away from Johnny, in one quick move. It makes that deep ache, the more metaphorical one, break open and hurt even further. “Please, stop asking, okay? Stop. I said I’m fine.”

“Okay,” Taeyong says and he looks hurt, he really does. He looks broken apart and crushed, like brittle glass under the press of Johnny’s foot, compounded and compounded until it becomes sand again. And, yeah, okay, he wishes Taeyong would stop looking at him like that and if this were any other night, maybe he’d back off, maybe he’d have the state of mind, but this isn’t any other night.

This is this night. And this night Taeyong says, “sorry,” again, for the umpteenth time and Johnny snaps back, “stop saying you’re sorry,” and slams Taeyong’s car door behind him when he gets out, leaving Taeyong wide-eyed, pale and shrunk into his driver’s seat.

 

 

 

16.
In his room, Johnny tries to cry again. And still, in his room, it doesn’t work.

He thinks about tearing off his cast and slamming his ruined wrist into his bedroom walls and the edge of his desk and dresser and how much that might hurt. How that might make him cry, finally, and he sits on his bed and wills for the strength to do it, but it never comes.

If Josh was here, he thinks, maybe he’d know what to do.

But Josh isn’t here, is he?

 

 

 

17.
Everyone knows about Josh. It is not a secret. Josh was friends with all of them. Josh taught Johnny how to skate and then Johnny made all of these friends, somehow, from extending branches of the steadfast tree in his life that was skateboarding. So everyone knew about Josh. They were all friends with Josh. Johnny knows it’s unfair of him to expect none of them to ever talk about him. He knows it’s unfair to drag everyone into this dark place with him.

But they don’t talk about Josh anymore. At least, they don’t talk about Josh when Johnny’s around.

(People tried, at first.

Ten called from New York on the one year anniversary. It was 9PM over there and 6PM in California. He said, “hey, I really wanted to make it out but I can’t get the time away. I’m sorry, man, I really did want —”

“Don’t,” Johnny said in return. “I don’t want people to tell me they’re sorry. Sorry doesn’t do anything.” This was when the wound of it all was fresher. When it was a gaping hole in the centre of Johnny’s chest, still leaking blood. “I don’t want to talk about my brother, okay?” Johnny had said, a hard line drawn in the sand of finality.

There was a moment of silence over the phone. Then Ten had said, voice sad, “okay.”)

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

1.
Their mom never called him Josh. With her, he was only ever Joshua.

She stills does it; only ever calls him Joshua. These days she’s always crying when she says his name, or she’s frowning with three fingers poised over her mouth, as if she’s trying to keep things from spilling out of it. Johnny still only ever calls him Josh, when he has to say his name at all.

Josh was five years older than Johnny and, technically, they were half brothers. Josh’s mom was Johnny’s mom but Johnny’s dad wasn’t Josh’s dad. Johnny’s mom married Josh’s dad, and then they had Josh, and not long after that they weren’t married anymore. And then Johnny’s mom met Johnny’s dad, and they never got married, but they had Johnny anyway.

They didn’t talk about Josh’s dad.

(Johnny can remember the first time the conversation happened: when he said why doesn’t Josh call Dad dad? and his mother had executed that same movement he’s become so familiar with; she had touched her pursed lips with her three middle fingers and just said, because your dad isn’t Joshua’s dad and Johnny wasn’t sure what that meant, at the time, but the twisting of his gut told him not to ask about it anymore.)

(There’s another conversation Johnny remembers: he and Josh as the skatepark, splitting a can of Sprite. Josh’s shirt was discarded and his shoulders were turning pink in the sun. Johnny’s hair was growing long, a floppy mess, and he kept telling his mom he didn’t want to cut it. It was summer — and if Johnny had known, then, that he would have a finite amount of summer’s with his brother, maybe he would have paid more attention to certain things.

Truth is, he would have paid more attention to everything.

“Dad’s not your dad, right?” Johnny had said. It was phrased like a question but it wasn’t really a question. At least, it wasn’t a question that Johnny didn’t already know the answer to. Johnny doesn’t remember how old he was — but if Josh was already teaching him how to skate in this memory he had to have been at least eight. Josh would have been thirteen. And somehow, that seems too young. Josh had always seemed so much older back then.

“Guess not,” Josh had replied, rolling his shoulders like he didn’t care. He had a bruise on his cheek that was old and a bright red patch of blood on his knee, just below the hem of his shorts, and that one was new.

Johnny remembers thinking that wasn’t fair. That he got to have a dad and Josh didn’t, just because Josh was born first. And so he had said, “well, my dad is sort of like your dad.”

And Josh had looked at him, face placid, and said, “I don’t want your dad to be my dad.”)

 

 

 

2.
Eventually, Johnny’s dad left too.

Johnny had woken up in the middle of the night, right before he did. His mom was screaming, fighting with his dad, who wasn’t screaming but Johnny could hear talking all the same. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, though. The voices were muffled, as if coming to him through the haze of a dream. Like when your alarm goes off and instead of waking you up, it simply penetrates your sleep until you realize something’s off in this world your brain has created for itself.

But Johnny’s asleep. He’s awake and staring at his ceiling, trying to strain his ears enough to hear what’s being discussed. There’s a scab on his palm he got when he wiped out two days ago and now he’s picking at it; unconsciously, just scratching and scratching until his nail catches too deep and he flinches, pulling away half-healed skin and drawing blood.

Josh was slipping into Johnny’s room, then. Quiet as the shadow that had passed under the door just before Josh had opened it. He had his board clutched to his chest and then he asked Johnny if he had his board in his room, and tossed it to him when Johnny indicated it’s spot leaning against the wall with an incline of his head.

Josh was opening Johnny’s after that and Johnny knew, wordlessly, to follow him out of the window and down the fire escape.

It had to have been after 11PM when they left. It was that kind of night darkness that feels less black and all consuming and more navy blue and penetrable. They rode and rode, until Johnny’s knees ached, and then they kept skating anyway. Even when Johnny was crying, silent tears staining wet trails down his cheeks, they kept skating. If Josh noticed, he didn’t say anything. Neither of them said anything the whole.

It was nearly 6AM by the time they slipped back in through Johnny’s window. Everyone and everything was still asleep around them, or just starting to rouse. The slow cresting sun was turning Venice Beach from foggy blue to crisp orange. The whole night they left behind them felt preserved in amber; a bee caught in honey, a fly caught in a web.

Before he fell back into bed that morning, that was when Johnny painted the words onto his board. His hands were shaky from lack of sleep and the effort of crawling back up into his bedroom. So he painted in slow strokes, and it still looked like something a preschooler would do, but Johnny didn’t care.

THIS DEVICE CURES HEARTACHE.

(Johnny doesn’t find this out until he wakes up mid-day: at sometime around 2AM, his dad left.

And then he never came back.)

 

 

 

3.
After that, that’s when Johnny started running away.

He was sixteen the first time he did it, and it was a habit he didn’t break until after he was eighteen. It got easier and easier each time: to abandon everything when he got overwhelmed. As an adult, he’ll think his mom was always just trying her best, and he was always just making things harder for her, wasn’t he?

He never meant for it to be a forever thing, whenever he did leave, but he always pretended it was. Always tried to convince himself this was it this time. He’d leave just like his dad, fulfilling some unspoken prophecy he felt chained to despite no one else expecting it of him. He’d leave and think I’m not coming back. Eventually, though, Josh would come collect and he would go back.

He’d usually spend a night with Ten, sometimes with Jaehyun. Ten’s mom never really approved, but she never turned Johnny away, and Jaehyun’s parents either never noticed or never cared.

(Later, Ten will tell Johnny his mom was convinced something was going on at home. And there wasn’t, not really, but there was kind of. There were a lot of things going on at home. But none of them were the things Ten’s mom thought were going on. Not anymore.)

Josh would usually find him at the skatepark. He’d pull up in the car Johnny’s dad left behind when he left his family behind and Johnny would always pretend not to see him. Inevitably, Johnny would eat shit, no longer singularly focused on what he was doing now that his brother loomed nearby. Josh would always be the one who would offer Johnny a hand, then, so he could stand up and dust himself off.

“You good?” Josh would say. And, yeah, he could have just been asking if Johnny was okay after the fall, but he never was. He was always asking in a broader sense; the context just made it easier.

Josh was always Johnny’s older brother, before he was anything else. Josh always acted like that was the most important job he had.

He always loved Johnny, no matter what.

Johnny would always say, “yeah,” in response to Josh. He’d pick all the gravel out of his elbows, already covered in scar tissues, and Josh would clap him on the shoulder.

“Mom’s making burgers tonight,” Josh would say. But sometimes she’d be making stir-fry, or spaghetti, or chicken. But Johnny would always nod, and then sometimes they’d skate for a little bit longer, together, and sometimes they wouldn’t.

But Johnny would always go home.

 

 

 

4.
There is something they never, ever talked about. Not before the accident and especially not after. And Johnny knows; there’s a lot of stuff in his life that he doesn’t talk about, will never talk about. There’s a lot of half-buried skeletons in his yard, a lot of ghosts stalking the halls of his house. But still — they don’t talk about this:

Johnny’s dad was not Josh’s dad, and that’s what made hurting Josh so easy for Johnny’s dad.

Johnny doesn’t know how long it had been happening when he finally found out. When he finally heard it, for the first and not the last time, happening through his bedroom wall. The wall his bedroom shared with Josh’s bedroom.

(Too long, Johnny will always think now, after the fact, it had been happening under his nose for way too long before he noticed, and the guilt of that will always eat away at his stomach until it makes him want to throw up.

Josh never blamed him. But, then again, Johnny never talked to him about it, so how could Johnny know that? Johnny deserved to be blamed for it — what kind of other explanation was there? Josh was a good brother and Johnny loved — he loves his brother — but that doesn’t mean all these strings of guilt tied around Josh in Johnny’s life don’t tangle up into a mess that leaves Johnny feeling hollowed out and awful.)

Johnny doesn’t know if the fight that night was about Josh. The fight that made his dad leave. He doesn’t know if it was about the black eye Josh had the week before, or the ugly yellowing and halfway healed bruise on Josh’s ribs, or the split lip Josh had last month. But he knows his dad left, and after he was gone Johnny found it hard to really miss him.

Josh was better after Johnny’s dad left. He was happier. He did better in school. So it didn’t matter. Johnny didn’t need a dad. He had a brother. He had Josh.

 

 

 

5.
Johnny runs away for the last time on a Thursday, when he’s eighteen. The accident happens on a Friday.

Johnny wakes up in the hospital on a Saturday. He’s not sure where he is and his whole face hurts, a throbbing ache that seems to find its source nestled into two points at his nose. His mom is sitting beside his hospital bed. Her eyes are rimmed-red.

“Mom,” Johnny says, throat dry and voice nasally. In about thirty minutes, the doctor will come into Johnny’s hospital room and tell him his nose is broken in two places.

Right now, his mom tells him, “oh, Johnny,” between sobs. In the saddest he’s ever heard, she tells him, “your brother —”

The accident happens on a Friday. Johnny wakes up on a Saturday.

They bury Joshua on Wednesday.

(The guy in the other car had been drunk. Josh was in the driver’s seat, stopped at a red light, and the drunk guy behind them didn’t realize he had to stop. Johnny was in the passenger seat and he couldn't look at his brother, only out the window at the night-slick street around them, at the yellow glow of the streetlamps. Their mom had made pizza that night, Josh had said, and she had left some on a plate covered in foil on the counter for Johnny. The neon red of the analog clock on the dashboard blinked 9:47 PM up at them.

And then there was a loud noise, maybe the loudest noise Johnny’s ever heard. The disgusting crunch of metal on metal — an unstoppable force and an immovable object — and then there was a shattering of glass. That sound was more twinkly, like a wind chime. The shards fell onto the road like rain drops, or snowflakes, only it never snows in California. After that, Johnny doesn’t remember anything, but he still knows, he’s been told: there was a lot of blood. Johnny’s face was all smashed up when they found him, his shirt ruined with blood. He had found leftover splatters of it dried and crusted into places like the bend of his armpit and his clavicle even days after the accident, gone brown coloured and itchy. He had various superficial cuts all over his face, too, and a more substantial one on his forehead that bled a lot too. There was less blood on Josh. But that didn’t matter. It was the head trauma that did it, they said. It was the way the impact made him hit his head, they said. It was complications with fluid in his brain, they said. They explained it to Johnny and his mom, and sometimes just Johnny, and sometimes just his mom, in a lot of different ways. In the end it didn’t matter how they said it, though, because the result was always the same: Josh was alive in the ambulance and by the time they got to the hospital he wasn’t anymore.)

 

 

 

6.
They bury Josh on Wednesday and, suddenly, Johnny’s house feels impossibly big.

There are two extra chairs at the table that no one sits at anymore. Johnny’s dad's razor keeps it’s spot in the medicine cabinet. Josh’s bottle of shampoo and sits in the bathroom for months, collecting mildew and leaving green-grey rings of sludge behind after Johnny’s mom finally throws them out. Josh’s skateboard, retrieved from the car by firefighters (after Johnny and Josh had already left in separate ambulances, maybe when Josh was still alive), still smells like gasoline and lies forgotten in the entrance; tucked away but still the only thing Johnny can ever look at before he leaves the house. Johnny still finds his dad’s socks in the laundry when he helps his mom with it. There are four of every plate and bowl and piece of cutlery in the house. Josh’s favourite cereal sits in the cupboard, right next to Johnny’s. All of Josh’s extra shoes and jackets stay in the hall closet.

Johnny is entombed in an evidence locker of a life that is no longer being lived.

It’s the hardest when Johnny’s mom finally cleans Josh’s room. It’s been four months, by this point. Johnny offers to help, but his mom says no, and it takes her a very, very long time because she cries a lot the whole time. Josh had left his room messy that night, of course he did, and there were still pages of research scattered on the bed for a paper that was never going to be finished. There was a basket of unfolded clothes that Josh had maybe planned to get to, eventually, but never would. There was a half-finished glass of water on the bedside table. There was still a CD in Josh’s stereo, too. The Sunset Tree, it was called, by The Mountain Goats. It had a song on it that went: I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.

Johnny’s mom left Josh’s room as close to how he had left it as she reasonably could. She picked up the garbage and the dishes. She organized his mess of paper. She folded his clothes. She swept, and dusted, and then she made his bed. And then she left the rest of it untouched, for years, and they always kept the door closed. As if, one day, Josh would come home and lay on his bed, find comfort in a world that stopped spinning for him, be thankful that, hey, at least his mom had made his bed.

Johnny would go into Josh’s room sometimes. Not often, but sometimes. It was only ever late at night when he did. Moonlight would be coming through the window, Josh’s blinds cutting it apart. Johnny would sit on Josh’s bed and keep the light off. He wouldn’t cry but his chest would feel wet and on the edge of it the whole time. But he wouldn’t cry; he would sit, close his eyes, and breathe and steady. Try not to let himself drown in the sorrow that filled the room like the below deck of a sinking ship, all consuming and inescapable.

His mom would go in sometimes, too. Johnny wouldn’t go in with her, but he knew she went in sometimes. Sometimes she would leave behind a wrinkled impression in the bed. Sometimes Johnny would pass by the closed door on the way to his own room and hear her crying behind it.

But this, like so many other things, they never talk about.

And that was it: their house, meant for four, now only holding the two of them. Johnny’s got a dad that left and a brother that died on him and now all he has is his mom, who sometimes feels even more distant than his dead brother.

A house that had once been a home for four people, something warmer and brighter, now a torture museum for the two of them left.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

18.
Ten calls long distance a week, to the day, after Johnny breaks his wrist.

“Taeyong told me you broke your wrist,” he says. His voice sounds laced between gravel and sand over the crackle of the phone receiver. “How long are you out of commission for?”

“I don’t know,” Johnny replies. He picks at a loose piece of thread that comes from the cloth part of his cast. “Doctor says four to six weeks.”

Ten sucks in a breath between his teeth. “Sheesh,” and, to his credit, he does sound empathetic.

Johnny wishes he wouldn’t.

He wishes he could stop pretending he’s mostly forgiven his friend for leaving him behind when he needed him the most when, really, he probably hasn’t forgiven him much at all.

Then, something occurs to Johnny.

“I thought you were supposed to be in Thailand for the summer?”

“Oh,” and immediately, even with just a simple small noise, Ten sounds guilty. “Yeah, I didn’t — I ended up not being able to go.”

“Why didn’t you come home, then?”

Ten sighs. Johnny wonders if Ten still quantifies California as that — as home — or if it’s shifted in the years since he left. “Johnny,” Ten says, voice like he’s talking to a kid. “It’s not that simple.”

“How is it not that simple?”

“It’s just not, okay?”

Johnny’s wrist is throbbing again, the bone deep ache of it. Suddenly, all he wants to do is take his painkillers and sleep for twelve hours. Maybe things will be better once the sun sets on this day and rises on a new one.

“Whatever, Ten,” Johnny says, and he hangs up before he’ll let himself listen to anything else Ten has to say.

 

 

 

19.
Taeyong makes these noises, high and whiny and breathless, in the back of his throat. They always embarrass him.

Johnny loves them. He always tries to pull as many noises like that out of Taeyong as he can.

It’s hot in Taeyong’s apartment. There’s no AC, so their only respite from California in the summer is the tiny standing fan that chugs along diligently in the corner. But they’re pressed together and, even with their shirts off, it compacts all the heat between their bodies and makes the two of them wet with sweat. Below Johnny, Taeyong is panting and flushed bright pink, and his hair is stringy with sweat and fanned out around his head on his pillow. He is the picture of debauchery.

If Johnny could paint, he’d paint this. If he still took pictures, he’d take a picture of this.

Johnny bites a mark into the skin just below Taeyong’s collarbone and Taeyong makes one of those noises — the high-pitched whine, cut off at the end by his lack of breath. Johnny smirks against the nearly unbearable warmth of his skin.

What is it about the heat that makes this whole thing seem electrically charged? What is it about that makes it feel some much dirtier, nastier? Because sex is warm and sweaty, anyway, but right now, Johnny feels like he might be melting. His body is wet all over, and his chest is flushed red, and everytime he kisses Taeyong’s mouth or skin he tastes the salt of Taeyong’s own sweat. And it’s so, so hot — that fan is doing nothing to help — and maybe the reason this is so dirty and nasty and bone deep is because Johnny and Taeyong are doing this anyway, and they aren’t going to stop soon. With the world on fire around them, here they are, trapped in this moment.

Taeyong’s legs fall apart a little wider and his back arches, just slightly, off the bed. Johnny rubs at Taeyong through his shorts, the material soft and worn under his hand. Johnny’s kissing down Taeyong’s chest now. Since he broke his wrist and lost the use of a hand, Johnny’s only touched Taeyong everywhere he wants to touch with his mouth. He thinks, at least, that that might be a fair enough trade.

It doesn't feel any cooler once Johnny and Taeyong are both naked. If anything, with their hips knocked against one another, trying to find some friction in just the press of their cocks together, it feels hotter. Johnny pushes it further. He drapes himself over Taeyong so they touch from head to toe, sticky skin not quite sliding together right, sometimes catching in an odd dry spot, sometimes sticking too much. They’ll both be rubbed raw after this. There will be marks from mouths and fingers but also, undeniably, the marks of the way one body might have moved against another.

Johnny fucks into Taeyong, slowly and in long strokes. Taeyong’s toes curl and he makes the whiny noises, louder and louder, and Johnny is thankful Yuta is at the beach with Jaehyun right now.

Johnny’s brain works in snatches of consciousness, half focused on the flutter of Taeyong’s eyelids when he hits a particular spot inside of him. The other half, murky in his subconscious, wonders ideally about when this whole thing became comfortable. When Taeyong’s mouth and hands — the cradle of his hips and soft skin of his thighs and stomach, the pretty curve of his jaw and the way his hair falls into his eyes — when all of that became a marker of familiarity. When did Taeyong start walking into rooms and Johnny could tell without looking up? He wonders when Taeyong’s body became less about indulgences and something more complacent instead.

But that thought, that part of Johnny’s brain, runs away from him. Taeyong braces two hands on Johnny’s chest and digs his fingernails into his pectorals, groans and says more, please, more, and all that carefully categorized evidence ends up lost.

It takes awhile for either of them to come — Johnny’s not sure if that’s the heat or his slow pace doing that — but when that bough finally does break, it’s like a tsunami of bliss tears it’s way through them from head to toe.

Taeyong says Johnny’s name and Johnny, matching Taeyong’s cadence and breathlessness, repeats Taeyong’s name back to him.

 

 

 

20.
Johnny is dressing after his shower — the shower that was still too hot, the shower that managed to only half clean him and only made his skin feel tighter and more uncomfortable with heat — when Taeyong speaks for the first time since Johnny made him come.

“Did I — did I do something to upset you?”

He doesn’t mean recently. He means when Johnny was in the car with him, his wrist freshly molded into a cast and high on painkillers.

And see, that’s the problem, with Taeyong and Johnny as a unit: Johnny grew up not talking about things, and Taeyong is always trying to pry words out of him with a crowbar.

And see, that’s the problem, is that Johnny could say I want people to never say sorry to me again. I want everyone to stop looking at me and feeling sorry for me. I want to forget about my dead brother but I want him to come back. I miss my best friend. Why is everyone leaving me one by one? Everyone is getting older and moving on and changing and I feel like all I’ve done is getting sadder and further on and desperate for things to stay the same. But everything’s already changed and I can’t go back, can I?, but he won’t. He won’t say any of that.

Instead, he’ll say: “I wish you wouldn’t ask me things like that.”

Taeyong’s brow furrows. “Like what?”

“You always ask me,” Johnny runs a frustrated hand through his still wet hair. “Stuff like — stuff like are you okay? And I’m sorry, how are you feeling? And did I do something to upset you? And I never know how to answer.”

“The truth, Johnny,” Taeyong has his arms folded across his chest. With the way his hands clutch his upper arms, he almost looks cold. He almost looks huddled and small for warmth. “You’re supposed to tell me the truth.”

“No,” Johnny shakes his head. “No, because the truth is always worse than anyone wants it to be.”

 

 

 

21.
When Johnny broke his nose it was bad. When Johnny broke his nose, it was so bad, all he could smell and taste for weeks was blood.

(It was always stuffed with gauze and held with splints. They had cut Johnny’s nose open to try and reconstruct it as best they could, so he had stitches and delicately pieced back together veins and shattered bones all located in this one place. And then it would inevitably bleed, and it would bubble in the back of Johnny’s throat, making him cough. And then his mom would have to delicately change his bandages, and sometimes Johnny’s nose would still be bleeding, and his blood would get all over his mom’s hands. And, back then, Johnny never thought about how sad that made him but, now, he thinks — his blood stained red on his mom’s soft, weathered hands — that might have been one of the saddest things he had ever seen.)

It turned everything to rust in his mouth. He forgot the way certain things tasted, it lasted so long, and even now — even now, sometimes, he’ll bite into something and it will be nothing but the harsh metallic taste of blood that will be waiting for him.

Johnny leaves Taeyong’s apartment, and it’s like he forgets how to talk to him after that. Or, he doesn’t want to talk to him. Or, he just doesn’t talk to him. And then, all of a sudden, it’s like Johnny’s nose is broken, again, because no matter what he eats, or how much water he drinks, or how many times he brushes his teeth, his mouth tastes like blood. He lets the spray of the shower fill his mouth and spit it out onto the floor and half-expects it to come out the thick consistency of plasma. 

(Johnny stares at himself in the bathroom mirror one night. His nose has these two mounds of fused together bone on it that you can’t miss. He has a scar on his forehead, too, from where he needed three stitches after the accident. His eyes look far gone — missing on some plane that no cartographer has mapped out yet. There is a healing cut on his chin from when he broke his wrist, almost gone. He thinks about how many other cuts and bruises and scars his clothes hide beneath them, and then how many cuts and bruises and scars he has that are deeper. Those are the ones covered up by his skin, by his bones and muscles. He thinks about the second tooth he lost the first week of June, how it had fallen out of his mouth, into the very sink he stands in front of now, and how he had let it circle the drain without even reaching for it. How he hasn’t thought about it since it happened, besides in a slanted way when his gum would hurt, and how, suddenly, he misses it.)

 

 

 

22.
There is a point — a point that comes from not talking to Ten, not talking Taeyong, not skateboarding because his wrist is broken — that Johnny realizes he is probably a part of the problem.

That people leave him, one by one, and that’s kind of his fault, isn’t it? It must be. He must be doing something wrong.

He could try harder, maybe. But he’s not sure how.

He wishes, not for the first time and not for the last, either, that Josh was here.

 

 

 

23.
Johnny’s watching Mark skate when it happens.

Taeyong’s car pulls up to the skatepark and Johnny’s breath hitches. It’s been two weeks since they’ve last spoken. Last week, Mark and Doyoung came with Johnny to the hospital, so they could do new X-RAYS and give Johnny a new cast, and he had spent the whole visit bouncing his leg anxiously, wishing he had Taeyong beside him offering him ginger ale, or something. Something like that last time.

Johnny instinctively grips his cast, a habit now. Something about the plaster under the pads of his fingers makes him feel more grounded.

Only, it doesn’t look like Taeyong getting out of the car — it looks like Ten. Only, only it is Ten, wearing the hoodie Johnny bought for him the year before he left.

If he did that on purpose, Johnny won’t ask.

Mark is gone, now, gone somewhere Johnny can’t see and where Mark probably can’t hear. So, he must have known this was happening too. Johnny doesn’t know how to feel about that; seemingly all of his friends converging on this. That he warranted the necessity for that.

Ten looks the same but different, somehow. Maybe it’s his hair, or the dark shadows under his eyes, or the way he’s not nearly as tan as he’d get this time of year when he lived in California. Or maybe it’s not something physical. Maybe it’s not something Johnny sees, really, but something he feels.

Maybe everything is just different now. Maybe it’s been different for a long time and Johnny is, only now, catching up.

The first thing Johnny says to Ten, face to face for the first time in three years, is, “when did you get here?”

“Like, an hour ago,” he replies. He’s scratching the back of his neck, still at least five feet between him, standing, and Johnny, sat on the lip of a skatepark bowl. “Traffic was bad.”

“Did Taeyong pick you up?” Johnny leans over to try and catch a glimpse of Taeyong through his windshield, but he can’t.

“He did,” Ten nods. “He, uh. He bought my ticket too. My ticket to come back.”

Johnny looks back up at Ten, then, unsure of what to do now that Ten’s handed him that information. For a while, they are quiet and just look at each other. Somewhere a little ways away, some kids are playing and yelling. A car goes by on the road. A bird perches nearby, chirps, and flies away when no attention is paid to her.

Finally, Johnny swallows, and he says. “You haven’t been back since you left,” he doesn’t see a reason to dance around the reality of it, “why didn’t you ever come back?”

“I —” Ten starts and stops. He’s not looking at Johnny anymore. He looks at Johnny’s cast, then Johnny’s shoes, a ratty pair of VANS, and then at his own hands, shoved into the pockets of his hoodie.

“Ten,” Johnny never begged Ten not to leave, but his voice sounds like he might be begging now. “Ten, my brother died and then you left and, before now, you never, ever came back. You were my best friend. My best friend, Ten.”

“I was scared to come back, okay?” Ten’s voice shakes when he admits it. His eyes look wet. “I left right after — right after everything, okay? And I never learnt how to deal with any of that here, I never learnt how to deal everything that was going right here, and every year I avoided it it just got worse and worse. And I know that’s selfish because you lost your brother, and I didn’t. But Johnny, Josh was my friend too. And, Johnny, it’s like Josh took a piece of you with him, and I didn’t know how to be around the Johnny that exists, right now, anymore. The Johnny with the piece of him missing. And I’m sorry, okay? I should have tried harder. I shouldn’t have been scared that you’d hate me and then made you hate me anyway by accident.”

Ten is breathing heavy now. Johnny thinks, maybe, he might be done talking now. But then he fits the last, little bit of what he wanted to say in, snuggly against everything else. “But, Johnny,” Ten says, “You never said anything. You never once said anything either.”

“Oh,” Johnny says, and then he wants to say more, but he doesn’t know how. “Oh,” he repeats lamely, “oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I —”

They go silent again. Neither of them move, for what could be seconds or minutes or hours, but, eventually, Ten pads quietly over to where Johnny is sitting, and he sits beside him. “Does it still hurt?” Ten asks, and he means Johnny’s wrist, and Johnny wants to say does what still hurt? and then he wants to say, yes, everything still hurts.

“Not really,” is what he actually says out loud.

“It’s weird,” Ten looks into the distance and when Johnny looks over at him the colour in his eyes makes it look like he’s somewhere up much higher, overlooking the entire expanse of this place that they grew up. “How we kind of forgot how to talk to each other, y’know?”

Johnny nods. He knocks his knees together and lets his head rest on the perch at the apex of them. He’s tired, all of a sudden.

“I think we could figure how to do it again, y’know?” Ten continues, “maybe. Like, maybe, we could remember how.”

The thing about life — about growing up and getting old and the things that change and the things that stay the same — is it hardly ever feels like things click into place perfectly. It’s hardly ever, ever about the ways everything worked out for and more about the compromises you made.

The compromise here is this: Johnny misses his best friend, has missed for three years, and maybe it will be hard to forgive him but Johnny could never forget him.

And so, Johnny nods, and then he says, “yeah. I think we could.”

 

 

 

24.
Mark hugs Ten when he comes back out from his hiding place and it’s kind of perfect and sorrowful all at once.

Ten didn’t bring his board with him (“I skate everywhere in New York, thank you very much,” he had said, when Johnny asked him, playfully, if he still even had one) but he borrows Taeyong’s and he and Mark become to determined to zip around the skatepark until all the light leaves the sky.

Taeyong sits next to Johnny on the curb. They both lean up against the fence. Johnny's still tired. It’s the same fence from the picture of the twelve of them.

There is a moment, Johnny feels, where it’s like he and Taeyong are holding a giant piece of thin glass between them, and one wrong move and it will shatter, but they’re both here, holding it, and they have to do something with it, don’t they?

“You didn’t have to do all that,” Johnny says. He means Ten. He means this pseudo-ambush at the skatepark.

“I know,” Taeyong replies. Johnny turns to look at him and finds Taeyong’s eyes already on him. “I wanted to help. I thought Ten might help.”

Johnny winces, “what did you tell him to get him down here again?”

“Just enough,” Taeyong shrugs. “He was already worried about you anyway.”

Johnny’s feelings on the reality of those words lie somewhere between embarrassed and thankful.

“I have this picture,” Johnny says next. “I have this picture of the twelve of us, y’know? Like, literally all of us from back then. Josh, too,” the name catches in Johnny’s throat, but he keeps going. “And I think we’re in this exact spot we're in right now. Or at least, it’s definitely in front of this fence, somewhere on this curb.”

Taeyong smiles. “Will you show it to me sometime?”

Johnny thinks about the piles of photos he has in shoe boxes under his bed that he hasn’t touched in years. “Yeah,” he decides, “yeah, I’ll show you sometime.

(Later, Taeyong drives the four of them to Yuta’s parents surf shop. It’s that time of year when they leave to visit Japan, and Yuta is throwing a party. When Mark and Ten disappear inside, welcomed by a chorus of their names when the door opens, Taeyong and Johnny sit in the car for a little bit longer.

Johnny leans over the centre console and kisses Taeyong. His own hands sit limp in his lap, movement impeded by the cast. But Taeyong cups his fingers along the bottom of Johnny’s jaw, and his cheek, and just next to where the scab on his chin sits, and he sighs into the press of Johnny’s mouth.

“I’m just trying to help,” Taeyong says, after he pulls away. “I know sometimes you don’t want me to help, and that’s okay, but I wanna help even if you don’t want me to, okay? And that matters. In some way, at some point, it matters.”

“I know,” Johnny says. “It’s just hard — sometimes.”

“I know,” Taeyong echoes Johnny’s own words back to him.

Taeyong kisses him again. He is slow when he does it, as if he’s giving Johnny the time to move away, to lean back, to put up wall after wall that Taeyong will let exist, if Johnny needs it, but will never stop trying to climb over or dig under. Johnny does not move, safe for a small tilt to his head when Taeyong fits their mouths together.

It is a short kiss, by their standards. Taeyong pulls away after a few seconds and worries the corner of his bottom lip between his teeth. “I know we do this — the no feelings thing. But I kind of feel like there are feelings? Or, I’ll rephrase that: there are feelings from me. And if there is from you, well, I thought, maybe — maybe we could stop doing the no feelings thing, maybe?”

The yeah, okay, yes slips out of Johnny’s mouth before he can even think about it.)

 

 

 

25.
The cast comes off in September. Johnny’s wrist feels brand new. Not like it just sewed bone back together piece by piece but as if it grew new bones entirely, and new skin, and fresh muscle and blood and tissue.

It feels like that, most of the time. Except when it aches on occasion. Especially right before it rains.

Johnny gets back on the board after the cast comes off. He didn’t skate at all while he was healing. Trauma has bred a sort of nervousness in him that he sometimes can’t shake. But the cast comes off, and Johnny gets back on the board, and it almost feels exactly the same as it once did.

(The reality is that things never feel exactly like they used to. That’s impossible. Johnny’s working on remembering that.)

It’s Mark that gives Johnny a board to use. It’s Mark who, a week after Johnny’s cast comes off, shows up to the skatepark clutching two boards. One for himself — his new one he just bought, bright red with blue accents — and one for Johnny. And the one for Johnny isn’t new at all, because it’s Johnny’s old board that he gave Mark all those years ago.

It’s the board that says THIS DEVICE CURES HEARTACHE.

Eventually, Johnny will buy a new board again. Not the same brand as the one he broke in his accident, that pain is still too close in the rearview, but he’ll buy another board. But, for now, he finds comfort in the familiar. He runs his fingers against the grain of the board and the peeling paint of those words and finds comfort in this thing Josh taught him to skate on, and the thing he taught Mark to skate on in return.

 

 

 

26.
In October, Johnny’s mom asks him what Taeyong's favourite food is.

Johnny, distracted by something — what exactly it was he can’t remember — had said something like, “I don’t know, Mom. Maybe spaghetti? He likes sweet things, mostly.”

And then a few days later, Johnny’s mom told him, “I’m making spaghetti on Friday. Maybe you can invite Taeyong?” Johnny had blinked, unsure of when he might have let it slip to his mother that Taeyong was someone in his life worth having over for dinner. But he nodded, and did as she asked, and Taeyong showed up for dinner on Friday, swathed in the fabric of a hoodie a size too big and his only pair of jeans without holes in them.

Johnny’s mom made way too much food for any of them to feasibly be able to physically eat. Taeyong ate a lot, anyway, and didn’t refuse when Johnny’s mom offered him green tea ice cream. He just ate and ate and Johnny could not believe what was happening; could not believe that someone was sitting in one the chairs that sat at their kitchen table empty for so long.

After dinner, and desert, and a lot of Taeyong laughing into the sleeve of his sweater that his hand was tucked into, Johnny’s mom puts on her coat and says, “I’m going to take some of this pasta sauce to the lady downstairs. You know the one, right, Johnny?”

Johnny, still half way gone into the cloud from the high all of this, could only manage a nod. And then, all of a sudden, he and Taeyong were alone and Johnny leaned over Taeyong, still sat in the chair at the table, and kissed him. He tasted like ice cream and honey and home and, maybe, in this quiet moment, Johnny’s house didn’t feel so impossibly big anymore.

 

 

 

27.
Taeyong stopped dying his hair after Josh died — not a direct symptom, he insists, only a coincidence. But in the picture of the twelve of them, his hair is tinted purple just below his outgrown roots, and steadily darkens closer to the ends.

“That was a bad decision,” Taeyong says, holding the photo delicately between his thumb and forefinger. He flips it over to look at the back, finds Johnny’s handwriting, a scribbled mess of the date the photo was taken and each one of their names.

It hadn’t taken long for Johnny to find the photo after he decided to properly look for it. He knew which shoebox it was in and, after that, it was only a matter of shuffling through the stacks the box held, until he found what he was looking for.

“I think it was cute.” Johnny shoves the shoebox back under his bed with his foot, sits next to Taeyong on the bed. Taeyong’s nose wrinkles at the compliment. Johnny doesn’t remember if, in this picture, he and Taeyong were — whatever this is. Only, no, they were never whatever this is before, because this is new, this is changing and shaping itself into something new. But you know what he means.

Johnny points to Mark and Haechan in the photo. “They look so much younger here,” he says. Mark, with Josh’s arm locked around him, and Johnny on the end next to them, they almost look like brothers. All three of them.

“We all look younger. We’re old now, bro,” Taeyong replies. He’s flipped the photo over again. His eyes flow slowly from person to person, taking them all in. This is a single moment in large lives caught forever, for most of them, and a single life preserved in nothing else but photographs now, for one of them. “We look happy.”

Johnny bites his bottom lip. There’s a thought that knocks around in his head; a thought that, previously, Johnny might have been determined to catch and bury in the graveyard in his head. And yet, somehow, he let’s plant itself and grow into something he can say aloud this time. “You know,” he starts, nervous. His fingers thread together, wring themselves against one another. “I think about that sometimes. How he — Josh, I mean — how Josh. He was, at least, kind of in a good spot when it happened, y’know? Dad was gone and he was in college and things were — things were good for him. And I know that that should probably make it sadder, what happened but I just — I think about it sometimes and it makes me feel better. That he wasn’t sad, or lonely, or all messed up before it happened.”

That, for a little bit, he got to be happy. He got to taste it. That we can remember him as happy. That he didn’t get worse before it happened. That he never had to see me like this. The way I was worse before, the way I still am not perfect now.

It’s the most Johnny has spoken about Josh since he died. It’s been three years. Almost four. Johnny’s throat aches with forcing the words out, and his heart aches at the thought that he’s gone so long without even mentioning his brother.

Taeyong looks at him, looks up from Johnny, in the photo, to look at Johnny, sitting right beside him. Johnny is afraid to return the look, afraid of what Taeyong’s eyes will tell him that his mouth will refute. He still hates the pity of it all, still hates the sad look people always get that ruins their whole face when they’re reminded Johnny’s got a fucking dead brother.

“I get it,” Taeyong says, even though Johnny’s still not looking at him. “I get that, man. That makes sense. I think he was happy too.”

Taeyong’s hand reaches over to gently pry Johnny’s hands apart, then. He slides one of his own hands between both of Johnny’s and then fits his fingers into all the spaces between Johnny’s fingers.

The hands they clutch together share scars; not exact mirrors of each other, but the same patterns in different spots. The same suggestion of palms cut open by sharp-edged rocks, fingers smashed bluntly into ledges, nails bitten down to nubs.

They still don’t look at each other. The ache still exists, deep in Johnny’s chest like the worst kind of infection, but Taeyong’s hand in his dulls the pain.

It is not perfect. And maybe it never will be. But it is better. It is getting better.

 

 

*

 

 

my broken house behind me
& good things ahead

[ . . . ]

I am going to make it through this year
if it kills me