Dream can’t decide whether all of his dangerous thoughts are more or less dangerous now they’ve even less chance of coming to fruition. Plucked from the branch too early, seasick green and decay rather than the satisfying red or orange grapefruits are supposed to be. His tongue stings. Neither sour nor saccharine. His stomach acid boils over and over, heated unbearable by asphalt flickering beneath his feet and the beach calling to him with the sort of siren song he can never quite imagine.
He remembers her voice. But it’s difficult to remember how it sounds.
Sapnap is sitting across from him, pointer finger drawing dust patterns onto the window of the diner they’re occupying. There’s nobody around to watch as he makes stars, letters, lazy scribbles which flow out in every direction with no end to their mindless cascading. Then again, there’s never anybody around. Not unless they’re in sad little sections of suburbs, paranoia keeping the sidewalks slick with rain and kudzu pushing up between the gaps in the decking.
So it’s just them sitting at their cramped table, knees knocking together and feet aimed for each other’s shins just for the hell of it. Dream spins a pen around his fingers, drags it across lined paper for every instance the sun looks more dazzling than usual, every time another engine rumbles past in a blur of peach or white or murky orange. He’s trying to get it all down, but it sounds silly to talk so poetically about the way the earth turns over each new day, rain gathering in potholes, eight balls spelling out doom and perfume beading on his throat.
And then there’s George.
George, peeling milk foil with gentle fingers, lifting it to his face and deeming it fit for consumption. George, painted in the purple shades of dawn which steadily melt to gold and amber, orange highlighting the tip of his nose with delicate phoenix-fire and cig embers. George, bending over his stupid pancakes even though they’re crepes, really. George insists on calling them pancakes anyway, so Dream isn’t going to fight him on it. George’s hair falling in front of his face as he does it, ridiculously long and damp with morning dew where it curls against his nape. George’s feet, bare against the floor and the soles of them tainted grey with dirt, brown with dust, red with summer.
Dream’s dangerous thoughts are back.
He’s thinking about a sad little studio apartment again. With all the paint flaking from the window frames and draughts blowing through when the year reaches November in a torrent of birthday candles and frosting flavoured kisses. Hands linked in front of the TV at seven in the evening. Cold showers in the dead of summer, made redundant because they’d be in there together with their skin simmering in all the most intimate places it connects. Dream’s thoughts are full of Christmas trees and marzipan, icing sugar dusting George’s cheeks because they’d move up north where it snows in the middle of winter.
And he can’t decide whether they’re more or less dangerous now. They’re equally unattainable, after all.
“Happy birthday,” George says, with a plateful of pale gold and juiced lemon in his hands. He sets it down in front of Dream, who can only blink past dust motes and bleary sunlight with disorientation. Then he’s sitting next to him, fingers falling out of sight to perch upon his thigh.
“Oh,” he breathes, tallying up all the days in his head. Calendar grids swirl in his periphery, an uncomfortable reminder of scarlet crosses counting down the days until Autumn semester. It helps. The red brick and stained carpet lining his mind begins to bleed, until he’s left surrounded by love and light and the end of the world. “Is that today?”
“Yes, idiot. The big twenty-one,” Sapnap says. He leans forward to swipe a pancake off the plate, just fast enough to avoid pale hands swatting him away. A grin crosses his face, maimed for a second as he chews. “George made me wait to say anything, it was driving me insane.”
“Well, I thought he might forget. We have plenty of other things to be thinking about.”
“I did. Forget, that is.” Dream angles a fork towards the plate, but he’s stopped by George grabbing hold of his wrist.
“Wait,” he says. It’s all scratchy with morning. Shadow covers the bottom of his face, enticing Dream to do something stupid like lean closer and drag his lips along the harsh line of George’s jaw. As though they’re somewhere very different and have all the privacy in the world to count each other’s eyelashes. “You need to make a wish.”
“Yeah.” Sapnap says it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, reaching into his pocket and emerging with a white lighter. There’s a shamrock on it. Dream supposes that’s supposed to be some sort of omen. “We don’t exactly have candles but, well, we don’t have a real cake either, so who fucking cares?”
They both hold lighters over brown sugar and burn freckles, thumbs compressed so twin flames flicker in a poor imitation of candles. But it doesn’t matter. Dream’s heart swells as he leans forward to exhale, crushing up against his ribcage so hard he swears blood may begin to drip between the bones.
He doesn’t make a wish. There’s not much point anymore.
He blows. The flames burst out of existence, and before he can squeeze his way out of the booth Sapnap is leaning forward to punch him in the arm.
“Fuck off!” Dream slams his knee into the table as he’s attempting to escape. His face screws up with discomfort, but he can’t exactly stick around to hold a funeral for his goddamn kneecap because Sapnap’s expression says he has no intent on stopping. He squeezes between the tables, eyeing the way the door is propped open with an upended crate. Breeze meanders through, leading to the grey expanse of asphalt all marked up with picket-fence white before opening back out onto the road. Empty soda cans roll instead of wind chimes.
“C’mon, you need twenty more.” Sapnap’s lighter clatters to the floor when he stands, fully prepared to chase Dream into the parking lot if that’s what it’ll take.
From an outstretched palm, George watches as Sapnap darts towards where Dream is standing. And with the air of an apathetic prince observing starvation from his ivory tower, doesn’t move a muscle.
Every muscle stings with the previous night as Dream rushes over the threshold, grim reminders in the form of sleeping cramps of what lying on the floor feels like. Lead limbs, heavy as if George’s head is still sending waves of pins and needles across his palms because he’s decided Dream is a better pillow than the assorted shit rammed beneath the backseat. And it’s difficult to stay upright like this, with black spots crawling over his vision, all spidery legs and the noise of radio static.
It ends up being short lived. Dream might be taller than both of them by a considerable margin, but Sapnap can run much faster than he should be able to, and so Dream has to suffer through the barrage until his nerves turn woozy with numbness. He supposes he sort of deserves it. If George could cope with makeshift tattoos in the back of a dust-infested van, Dream can sure as hell cope with being punched twenty one times.
But he’ll complain about it anyway, just to be annoying.
He’s still cradling his arm as he slides back into the booth, whining for all he’s worth about the bruise that’ll undoubtedly appear as the daylight matures. “Don’t you think having a birthday right before the world ends is bad enough?” he asks between mouthfuls, although neither of them are really listening to him anymore. “Gimme a break.”
Gentle fingers slide into his hair, pulling and pulling until his nose bumps against George’s. A beat, and the wet sugar coating his tongue sours with the taste of tobacco. His eyes widen because George is kissing him right in front of Sapnap, and his fingers are trembling against Dream’s nape, and they’re not drunk on the feeling of forgiving sunset breeze. There’s only morning sobriety. Every atom of his being begs to lean into it, to savour the drag of their tongues since they don’t have much time left.
He doesn’t. He’s terrified he’ll start thinking about breakfast in bed if he does.
“And one for luck,” George mutters against his lips, and Dream’s mind is still so clouded with driving fatigue he doesn’t register George’s fist on course for his tricep until it’s too late. Despite how fucking frail George’s arms look, the impact stings enough to promise a cherry outline stamped onto him like red kisses, hot lips sliding over skin in a smoke clouded backseat. George pulls away. Wicked teeth gleam at him.
“What the fuck? You’re supposed to be on my side,” he groans. George and Sapnap have already devolved into hysteria, lips arcing high to overflow with dizzy elation.
Seagrass blossoms over the sky when George’s smile stretches until his eyes glitter with mirth. “I’ll make it up to you.”
Sapnap chokes on the mouthful of coffee he’s swallowing. A hand flies to his mouth, and his face screws up in unbridled disgust as he spits the coffee back into the cup. As soon as he’s finished coughing, he says, “that’s so fucking gross. Like when you hear your parents going at it or something.”
“We’re not your parents.”
“You might as well be. You’re old now.”
“I’m twenty-one. That’s not old.”
“...No, it’s not.”
The sunshine leeches return, sucking and sucking all the brightness out of the room until they’re sitting in their respirator of stolen oxygen. Again.
“Hey, enough of that,” George says.
The discarded fork rests between his fingers, somehow more delicate when he’s holding it, because George grasps everything as if it’ll fall apart. Pens, cigarettes, flasks all seem lighter in his grip, less tangible. As if he’ll flicker out of existence should Dream blink for too long, atoms scattering over the road like discarded polaroids doomed to be forgotten. And now he’s lifting food to Dream’s mouth with a determined little smile, waiting with a cocked eyebrow until he relents and accepts lemon sugar upon his tongue.
“‘m not a baby,” he says around his pancakes.
“You act like it sometimes. Both of you.”
“Fucking let it go,” Sapnap complains, tracing his middle finger around the rim of his coffee cup. Each divot and chip scratches against chewed nails. “I only called him a bastard once. Textbook definition. You can’t stay mad at me for that.”
“Well, you don’t have parents either. Not anymore,” Dream says.
There’s a moment in which he thinks he’s crossed the line, pushed Sapnap too far into the corner so his shoulders will slump and storm clouds will brew over his head. And he knows George is thinking it too, because his breath hitches as he awaits the inevitable collision.
But then Sapnap is laughing, chin tipped upwards with vermouth delirium. “God. We’re fucked up, aren’t we? You ever think about what the fuck we’re even doing?”
“Uh, just about every single mile, yeah.” Especially when so many hours on the road threatens and threatens to split them apart. And it has, too. Whacked their bonds against the earth so hard they detonated, then sewn them back together with titanium wire. Fused their palms with blood pacts.
Sapnap exhales from the very bottom of his chest when he sets the coffee cup back onto the table. A collection of mushroom coloured rings forms a fairy circle around it like it might a rotting corpse. “Least I’m not the only one.”
“You snore fucking loud, man,” Dream says, stretching his legs out to shake the thick mortar beginning to build in his joints. “I’ve thought about taking George’s knife and just-”
“Driving it between my goddamn ribs?”
Sapnap huffs with bemusement. He pushes a rough hand through his hair, so the grease stuck to his forehead is exposed for a second, and the sun illuminates his acne scars. “Weird. I could say the same.”
“We should get to the coast,” Dream says impulsively. Conversation tilts towards hot sand and tangerine sunrises instead of rainstorms, instead of nights spent with their arms pressed together and their chests rising out of sync. A little like watching the blinkers of the car in front and praying the timing will match up with his, as though some sort of balance will be fulfilled if they do. It’s irritable. Dream doesn’t want to remember how the air crackles in the dead of night, with the three of them at war with each other. “It’ll be night by the time we arrive otherwise.”
He’s flicking the lightswitch hard, begging for their lucid dream to be lost to fluttering eyelashes and hazy morning light.
Where would he even want to wake up? There doesn’t seem to be a reality preferable to this one, with bruises trailing up his neck and acid licking at his muscles.
“So you won’t need the knife?” Sapnap jokes.
“Something like that.”
Because something about reaching the sea feels symbolic, even if it’s a delusion of carnival candy and grey water, boardwalk splinters and sunburn. If he blinks hard enough, Dream might begin to see the pages are full of gibberish like the insides of his memo pad and wake up back in Florida. So he doesn’t. He allows himself to think of the ocean as the finishing line, perfect and blue and full of cemetery spirit.
“I want to see the sunset,” George mutters, chin in palm. “We’ll miss it if we wait too long.”
“I guess we should leave, then.”
“No point in delaying the inevitable.”
Sapnap takes the wheel at first, with a silent agreement they’ll switch over in a few hours. Most likely when his leg begins to seize, or Dream grows tired of trying to recount their strange journey to scrawl in his memo pad.
Every song burnt into the reams of cassette film has already been played to their tired reception, so they listen to the quiet humming of radio static instead. It’s unnerving, because now there’s a little piece of space projected right here into the van, where Dream is supposed to be safe. Protected by steel casing. He shifts around in the seat uncomfortably, keys inches away from the ignition.
“Go,” Sapnap coaxes, and it’s what prompts him to grip the wheel and cease thinking about the miles and miles of expanding void overhead.
The floor tremors beneath his feet.
George’s legs tuck into his chest, battered Ariel copy secured between his knees. Even through the grime coating the rearview, Dream can see how he thumbs at the pages, tracing over pen annotations with poorly concealed interest. “Wake me up when we reach L.A,” he says, and although he’s just laid down, his eyes look as if he’s been sleeping for hours already. The book opens in front of his face.
Just like all the other diners and gas stations and motels, the parking lot is lost to endless stretches of road, and ceases to exist now that there’s nobody around to perceive it, to feel it, to live upon its salmon coloured tiles. Nobody to gulp down lungfuls of air infested with dust motes. Nobody to draw patterns on the glass, nobody to crack eggs against the side of the counter and fry batter on the grid.
He blinks, and it dies to the horizon.
They reach L.A in the late afternoon, and it’s not as monumental as Dream thought it would be. The sky is still uniformly vast, the asphalt widens a little but remains the same smoke grey colour, and the radio station they’ve resorted to now that the collection of cassettes shoved into the doors have been rotated too many times is still blasting sunshine songs. Sky blocks their foresight here just like it does everywhere else, a comforting blanket of childhood bedroom blue flung overhead so they can all stumble around in the dark and forget about the asteroid.
But he sits up straighter in the driver’s seat, hands clutching tight at the wheel, gaze fixed firmly upon the middle distance as he thirsts for a glimpse of the sea. Past the miniature cities cobbled together in patchwork fashion, the lowrises full of static airwaves, the figures sitting in the middle of streets because they don’t feel any more lost than usual in this strange place.
Dream supposes the aimless are everywhere. The aimless are in tiny towns and swamp dripping cities, but the fall is much more obvious when everyone else is elevated so high. He used to think his mom might’ve wanted to live here, with her bright hair and red smiles, before she ended up stuck in Florida with a tiny version of him on her hip. He used to wonder if she would’ve survived had he never been born.
He thinks now it’s better she didn't move, because this place is full of crushed dreams.
“It’s exactly the same,” he breathes, morbidly relieved to see some consistency. “It’s the same as it was without the asteroid, I swear.”
“That can’t be right.” Sapnap is staring through dusty glass at something Dream can’t perceive with the sun falling across his eyes. Something adjacent to dread, he thinks.
Like there are headstones waiting for them.
He swallows past the thistles growing from the netting cast tight around his lungs, fingers flexing against flaking leather. “I guess...I guess it’s not so different for a lot of the people here,” he admits. The dead end of a career can feel awfully like the end of the world when it really comes down to it, and the realisation draws Dream’s gaze for the millionth time to the rearview.
George sleeps on the backseat, palm slid under his cheek.
“Shit,” he murmurs, heart squeezing.
“What is it?” Sapnap asks. He’s picking at the scrappy skin covering his lips, nails tearing at cracked desert and uprooting the membrane keeping his lifeblood beneath the surface. Scarlet dots his fingertips.
“Nothing. Just realised something.”
There’s a reason George is so unaffected by the apocalypse. Why he looks at the sky just the same as he always does, intent on watching the clouds pulse like paraffin, the contents of a tapered glass bottle. And Dream supposes it’s sort of mesmerising. He understands now.
He can see it through the same kaleidoscope lens, more beautiful than before now that he can’t see himself having a future.
“There it is,” Sapnap says when they’re sitting dead in front of the sea at long last, surrounded by a wonderland of mirage. Heat distorts vision, white wave noise distorts hearing. The thrumming of his pulse in his fingertips ensures he can’t even touch things properly without feeling as though he’s sitting on the bus headed towards the interior of the country, planes blurring together with brown and green. “We drove so fucking far for this. It barely looks real.”
He laughs under his breath. “We’re idiots. There’s sea in Florida, yet we had to come all the way here. Fucking figures, right?”
“We would’ve gone mad in that apartment, and you know it.”
Dream has to admit Sapnap is right. He’s tired of stray drafts pushing the doors shut because sometimes he can imagine the slam is accompanied by the rustling of convenience store bags filled to the brim with groceries, the handles stretched thin around his mother’s fingers. Then the click of her heels following her to the kitchen, an orange rolling off the counter and falling to the floor with a dull thump. Glass bottles of milk wobbling against the fridge door.
He would’ve rotted his mind in that apartment, especially with all his limbs crammed onto the couch and George crammed into the corner of his bed. With his knees to his chest, just like always.
The asphalt fades into bleach sand a small distance from where the van sits and runs uninterrupted all the way to the edge of the water, fading from light to dark as gradually as the day rolls over. It’s late afternoon, so he feels as if they should be standing halfway up the beach, but instead they’re just looking at it with blank expressions. Upon the sand are blurry figures. They sit in groups far from the water, although some of them are tadpoles with their heads bobbing just above it. If they were to walk a little closer, Dream might be able to decipher crooked noses, uranium eyes, scarred cheeks, but all the people here are just shadows for now. Maybe they’re carrying bags of oranges too, but he would be none the wiser.
“Kill it,” Sapnap murmurs, casting a glance to the ignition. Beneath them, the engine continues to hum and hum, coughing up its last life with greasy lungs full of oil. Dream is so used to it he hadn’t even realise he’d neglected to fucking move once he pulled the brake up, limbs frozen with frozen acid.
The plastic heart sits in his palm for the very last time. He twists the key, and they’re plunged into silence.
Only the rattling of the fan accompanies them for a while, the radio long since switched off when Sapnap grew tired of happy lyrics and happier melodies, a hand whacked into the thing to shut it up. From the backseat he can hear George breathing long and deep, evenly spaced like he’s dreaming about the sun caressing his face.
“Are you gonna be okay?” Sapnap asks. His knee pulls up to his chin as he stretches. Dream hears the joint click, and the only reason he doesn’t wince is because he’s so used to it.
“Wasn’t this the last place you came with your mom before she…” Sapnap trails off with a grimace, his expression a little too close to all the faces he didn't know at his mothers’ funeral, not quite sure what to say to Dream. Certain nothing they could mutter would make it better.
“Oh, yeah. It’s closure, or something. I’ll be alright.”
“Are you sure?”
Before the urge to roll his eyes can solidify itself into reality, Dream shrugs noncommittally, with half his attention stuck to the conversation and the other half cast to the gulls. They bicker amongst each other, the only thing separating them from Dream, George and Sapnap being their inability to imagine, their inability to sit on the roof of a van and talk about everything inhabiting the sky beyond their familiar blue-white. He wonders where the line is, whether the miniature societies chained to the interstate are closer to them or the gulls as they fight for food. He wonders if the line really exists.
For a moment, he wishes his brain was the size of a pea. Maybe then he wouldn’t be tying all this empty significance to a stretch of sand, maybe then he’d be more worried about the sky falling down rather than his struggle to hear spectres speak.
“Seriously, I’ll be alright,” he says, grimace hidden in his palm.
It seems to work, because Sapnap doesn’t press. He knows when to stop, when Dream tenses up as a silent warning to move along, quickly. Poking at wounds only makes them worse, so it’s better to ignore it altogether and allow salt water to draw the infection clean out.
“Wake George, ‘kay?” Sapnap doesn’t wait for Dream’s response before squeezing between the seats and retrieving his shades from the back of the van. The sunlight accepts him readily when he rolls open the door, legs held awkwardly so he can climb out. He neglects to slam it.
Dream can taste salt on his tongue, and it makes his stomach roll.
He stares at the hazy mass of blue for a while more anyway. Acid tips about in his core, singeing every delicate membrane with jellyfish veins and hornet tails.
And he should probably wake George. He said he’d do it when they arrived, and the van lays silent around them. Inside, the temperature is rising ungodly. They’ll start to suffocate before long, choking on recycled air and sunshine heat only a fragment of the temperatures they have to anticipate when the earth is razed to the void.
He unsticks his thighs from hot leather. Slides between the seats, kneels in the back with a needle three inches from one leg and a pen lid close to the other.
“Hey, George,” he calls, thumbs rubbing over his cheeks so he won’t startle. And perhaps if it were Sapnap asleep on the backseat he’d be less courteous about it, maybe shove his body right onto the floor of the van, but there’s just something about George reminiscent of dragonfly wings and buttered kisses. He’d looked just the same when Dream first saw him on the green, at odds with the storm of coloured binders, leaking ballpoints and annotated margins surrounding him. Removed from mundanity. It must be easy to wound up all lost, once he’s lost his grip on reality.
“What?” George’s voice is slurred, although Dream can’t quite decide if he would taste of shamrock or sleeping lavender if they kissed.
His head moves against the poetry book so the title is revealed. One, curious word stares through the shadow. A memory presses at the static covering Dream’s mind, but each time he attempts to extract it, to hear her voice reading it out to him, he only becomes more interested in the way George’s wrists glow in the sunlight.
“We’re here,” he breathes.
It felt as though they wouldn’t make it at some points. Pride licks at his soles, because they’re here on the other side of the country, and the goddamn ship can very well leave without him. He’s never going back to Florida now. Not even to save his own ass from the end of everything.
“Yeah, idiot. I wouldn’t wake you otherwise.”
George’s limbs tremble as he stretches his arms above his head, bare toes curling where they’re pressed up against the back window. He smells of leather and fennel, and Dream only knows because he can’t stop himself from leaning forward to press his lips between dark brows. And again, and again, and again. Until he’s probably kissed George for every year he’s been alive, each one just the same as an affectionate fist to the arm.
Sleepy breath ghosts over his throat. “Why’re you kissing me?”
“Don’t need a reason.”
“Yeah?” He grabs at George’s hands to pull him upright, mindful of the metal roof an inch from his head when he begins to straighten up. Dream’s knocked his skull against it more than enough. Salt blows in through the side door, rolled open wide enough so his periphery is full to the brim with sandy asphalt. Sapnap stands at the boundary of it all, where coarse grass yearns to retake the land and civilisation submits to the beach. “Look at it,” he says, tugging George out of the van before he can boil alive.
Weary knees keep George upright as he stands amongst it all, with clear skies embracing him from behind and surf drifting aimlessly against his face. Dream yearns to see the spray dotted over his cheeks. Tiny quartz freckles. So it’s with this primitive sort of goal he’s sliding the door shut behind them, heart set on the spot the water meets the sand, gaze fixated on the boulevard stretching its arms across the top of the beach. There are silhouetted figures drifting down it in technicolour, but they’re not close enough yet. An invisible barrier of home exists for now.
“I lied,” George utters.
“In the van, I wasn’t really sleeping once you killed the engine. It’s sort of jarring.”
“Okay?” Dream isn’t sure why George is telling him with an expression so full of earnest, hands gripping at the air as though he wishes to take hold of Dream instead. Like he'll abandon him otherwise, cast him into the road and hightail right back to Florida so he can enter the space facility with nothing but the clothes on his back. He doesn’t even have a tattoo to remind him of this like George does.
George exhales as if it’s obvious. “So I know this is the last place you came with your mom before she died. Isn’t it unpleasant, to be standing here?”
Sand claws at his attention, leading down and down to white capped waves.
The descent seems kind enough, smiles at him with bumps reminiscent of the dips of pretty vertebrae, beads of orange absolute rolling across veined skin. But phobias aren’t always so obvious when they form, and Dream can’t remember when he’d started feeling so seasick. The deck tips beneath him, back and forth, back and forth, until bile swirls around in the depths.
And he’s terrified of the ocean.
“Holy shit,” he breathes, palms splaying one on top of the other over his stomach. It rolls with deep thunder, grey and purple and bruised blue ink spilling into every pothole scar he carries around with him.
“What is it?” George’s voice is tinged with concern.
“I think...I’m scared of the sea.”
“I thought you loved it. You wanted to come here to see it again.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t been to the beach ever since. I always associate it with her.”
For some reason, Dream can’t help but remember an odd little Greek term, the one which simultaneously describes the passage to the coast as well as the passage to the fucking underworld itself. And it’s a strange thing to resonate so strongly with him, but he supposes there’s a reason he keeps remembering his mom so close to the tide. Standing right next to the boundary between the depths and freedom, a skeletal hand curled around her ankle tugging her down,
“It’s really like the underworld, isn’t it?”
George sucks at his lip thoughtfully, before his hand is sliding back into Dream’s to grip tight. As if he never intends to let go. “It’s the same as space, really. Worse.” So much of it undiscovered, cracked submarine windows which look the same as spaceship ports.
“Is that why I’m too afraid to board the ship?”
“Maybe it is. I don’t know.”
“But you always know,” he says childishly, clinging to the flimsy hope George can unpick all of his thoughts and leave them lined up like fishbones on the edge of a plate. Decide his future for him, make him a rich man with honey kisses. Deem him a thief with a gentle smile, tell him he has a knack for stealing life away from himself when he really shouldn’t.
“You’re scared of the void,” George decides. “The void, the night, the ocean, whatever it might be. You’re scared of leaving us behind. I’ll come with you into the sea, so you won’t have to be so terrified of it.”
As it turns out, the feeling of normalcy spreads its wings out onto the beach as well as the streets of the city. Its beating heart continues to push blood down the roads, regardless of how long it has left to stand. Thrumming life bursts onto the sand in the form of sunburnt backs and oversized shades, crumpled beach towels and flocks of people enough to rival the gulls. Smoke enshrouds them. They sit in groups just like theirs, with radios and cassette players set in the middle as if they’re holy. Rather than the gospel, they emit the same music Dream’s been listening to the entire way here, and he doesn’t feel so out of place anymore.
Dream is lying on the sand with George pressed against his side because he can’t bear to touch the water just yet. It’s bad enough being so close to it, and he finds himself lifting his head every few minutes to check the tide is still out and it’s not inching closer and closer to his bare toes.
“It’s not coming in yet,” George says eventually, when he’s got his chin to his chest again. “It’s not acid, Dream.”
“I know. Just don’t like it.”
He allows his vision to glide back up to the sky. It’s difficult to see when the sun’s still glaring down at them and the lulling of the sea makes his eyelids feel weighted, but he’s determined to drink up every last second of the day. There’s something beautiful about the beach. It’s filled with those who have nowhere left to turn, washed up on the west coast with nothing but a burning desire to take and take until there’s nothing left.
“We could just lie here, you know. Just lie here and wait.” It doesn’t sound so bad, not with the breeze touching him so gently and heat spilling over his stomach, with Sapnap walking back towards them, hair soaking. Dream’s lost count of how many days are left, so he isn’t sure what would claim them first.
“I think I’m a little tired of looking at the sky. I’d rather die standing up.”
“Then get up,” he says, pushing himself onto his elbows. The sea remains dutifully distant, with foam remnants sticking to wet sand in frothy white.
George blinks, slow. Slow as is possible at the end of the day when the sun grows heavy and his limbs grow heavier, numbed with the burn of green and gold. “Are you going into the sea?” he asks. Even his voice resounds like caramel, thick and warm and familiar.
And although Dream stiffens, he wants to be impulsive.
If George can stand up, he can go into the sea. Or perhaps the descent to the water will be what makes George stop looking at the sky, but Dream doesn’t have so much time to sit around thinking about cause and effect. All he cares about is George’s smile, George’s hand curling around his own as he’s pulled to his feet. George’s fingers pulling and pulling.
“Ready?” They’re facing down the beach, gazes firmly set upon the finishing line.
“Perfect. Easier if it takes you by surprise.”
Then George is tugging him down, down past all the huddles of bowed figures, past a concerned Sapnap, past just about everything that separates them from the very edge of the world. And when they’re standing right next to it, Dream allows himself to look and look into the distance as if he can see tomorrow.
“Step in,” George murmurs. “It’s not going to burn you. You’re making it symbolic and it doesn’t have to be.”
“Isn’t it symbolic?”
“It’s water, idiot.”
“In that case, why don’t you just push me?”
“That wouldn’t be fair. You deserve to do it yourself.”
It’s a little like opening the van after a few years of stagnancy as he steps into the shallows, sunwarmed water lapping at his ankles. George anchors him to shore. Dream feels safer with their hands linked, fingers gripping at each other so he can’t possibly be whisked away by the current and deserted at the very depths of it. He’s reminded of sealed bedroom doors, orange bottles of perfume and plastic ivy plants, half empty cigarette boxes in dresser drawers. Poetry books and cassettes covered in loopy writing.
“How is it?” George pulls him away from window frames next to empty armchairs. And they’re still wading deeper, until the water haloes his waist and their shorts are soaking. The bottom of his shirt is sodden, and he doesn’t care.
“I’m not disintegrating.”
The sun is beginning its descent, teetering off its perch at the apex of the earth’s orbit to sink towards the ground. Gold will flood George’s face soon, he’s sure of it. Their edges will soften and it’ll be just like a late summer evening in Dream’s childhood bedroom spent shrugging their clothes off, the taste of elderflower sticking to the back of their tongues, barely discernible.
Dream surveys the beach, partly to appreciate how yellow fades to gold and baby blue to something deeper, but mostly because he’s unnerved by how far the ocean stretches in the other direction. Palms stick up against the sky to separate them from the boardwalk. There are so many people here compared to miles and miles of empty interstate, so much isolation Dream has begun to feel as though he’s less than real. Motels don’t feel right when they’re empty, but at the same time, he can’t imagine anyone spending much time in them. Only as long as necessary. It’s much different here, because there’s a strange sense of home to be found in a place miles and miles away from where he lives, surrounded by things he doesn’t recognise and standing next to a boy from the other side of the fuking world.
And then he sees it.
There are two boys with their lips moving lazily against each other, fingers drawing through salt crusted hair and hands glossing over sharp hip bones. They’re sealed away from the world even though the beach hums around them, hundreds of footprints circling around where they sit without a single insult hurled their way. And Dream’s heart pounds against his ribcage. Disbelief bursts in firework technicolour. He wants and wants, but George is still hovering with his fingers an inch away from Dream’s now that they’ve made it into the water.
He thinks this might be George’s version of setting one foot into the waves, of leaving behind the shore and fucking freefalling because they’ve nothing left to lose. He’s not going to push him. But he deserves to be shown to the edge of the water with gentle hands, an arm at his waist.
“Look,” he says, nudging George.
Brown eyes whip back towards him, wide with constellations and wonder. “Right out in the open?” It sounds like he daren’t believe it.
His hands slide over George’s hips, slow enough he has time to pull away if he really wants. Around them, the sea swells and dips, rushing over their feet with peaceful sugar and cream. “Right out in the open,” he says, leaning down so their noses brush ever so slightly. Freckles blur with closeness. “You alright?”
“Nobody is looking at them. Nobody is looking at us,” he whispers.
“Well, Sapnap probably is. Just to be annoying.”
George exhales with gentle laughter, dizzy dizzy dizzy on the crash of the waves and the conflicting music filtering out of multiple cassette players. “You can kiss me,” he says. “Kiss me, there’s nothing anyone can do about it now.”
Dream is more than happy to comply.
They stay like that for a while, with their arms around one another as though they wish to be solidified like that with pompeian ash. George tastes of life salt, and he can’t stop himself from sliding his tongue into his mouth, from drinking up the noises it elicits. Until they have to pull apart to breathe, to heave lungfuls of precious oxygen back into their helium chests.
“Come with me,” George mutters with bitten lips. His hand tugs at Dream’s, and the line of his shoulder blades is plainly visible beneath sea-sodden cotton.
He allows himself to be led up the beach in a daze of lemon towels and wrists laden with plastic orbs, clouds of smoke and crackling cassette players battling with each other. Lyrics flow over lyrics, voices talk on top of each other so Dream can’t tell tracks from conversations, love from lust, the end of the world from paradise. The beach fades to burning sidewalk, gritty underfoot. Until George is pulling him into the restrooms like they’re seventeen years old. Sand covers the floor, and gloomy afternoon light reflects from damp tiles.
George’s back collides with the door as soon as they’re in the stall, skin covered in spiderbites because Dream’s fingers reach up under his shirt to brush along his ribs, across his sternum, down over his stomach. The tiles shine with over spilled ocean, but neither of them can bring themselves to care. Not when George has to bite hard on his bottom lip as Dream sucks strawberry juice up the column of his throat, adding to the muted collection of bruises he has leftover from neon-lit parking lots.
“We’re gonna fucking die,” George says breathlessly, reaching up to curl his arms around Dream’s neck and pull his head down. He smiles into the kiss, wider and wider so Dream can taste the salt on his lips, followed by smoke and shamrock as he licks into his mouth.
“Why does it fascinate you so much?”
“I don’t know,” he says. His breath hitches as Dream grinds against him, purposeful enough to bring out the stars in broad daylight. The drag of it is delectable, sets electricity loose through his veins. And it becomes too much to bear, burning and burning so his thoughts all tangle together and all he wants to think about is the way George gasps into his mouth, presses his hardness against Dream, fists at his shirt because they can’t possibly be close enough. He wants to feel him heavy, he wants to solder their diseased forms together with flesh bonds.
But sex will have to do.
With one fluid motion, he’s flipping George around to press his cheek to the door, back arched like they’ve had years to perfect this. The switch makes George exhale, slow. And again. And now he’s pressing back towards Dream like they’re surrounded by gold embroidery and spotless sheets rather than stained porcelain, because every plane of him glows with Dream’s personal moonlight.
“Fucking perfect,” he breathes because he absolutely can’t help it, with one hand pushing George’s shirt up to rest upon the divot of his spine.
“I’m a graduate with a quarter life crisis and a drinking problem,” George laughs. It sounds strange because he’s acknowledging it for once. Dream supposes candor tastes sweet no matter how much it bites, because at least it’s a foot placed staunchly in the right direction.
“I love you.”
“Whatever, can you fuck me?”
“Say it back.”
“No, you’re about ten seconds from sticking three fingers in my ass.”
“Yeah, and you love me.”
“Fine. I love you.”
“Shut up,” Dream sighs, heart beating along with the rise and dip of the sun, the swell of the sea as it climbs up the beach to reclaim the land. His fingers push past George’s lips just as easily, the pads of them pressing down against his tongue so that membranous eyelids flutter shut in the ocean breeze. George sucks like he’s in a hurry for something, and Dream just wants to clutch every second of this to his chest. He won’t ever have another birthday to redo it. “Slow down, we have a bit before sunset.”
But George is already pushing his waistband over his ass with two hooked thumbs. It strains against his hips for a moment, before resting at the top of his thighs with the bulk of them bubbling over the hem. He pulls off Dream’s fingers, mouth shining with the light spilling in through frosted windows. “What’s at sunset?”
“You like watching them.”
“Only when the day’s nice enough to bid goodnight?”
George’s face splits into the most perfect smile, as if he’s got Dream’s heartstrings attached to the corners of his lips. Tugging at the helium pouring into his chest cavity, the caramel solidifying his lungs to sickly death. “I guess so.”
“So you’re gonna want to see this one.”
He considers that for a moment. “Yeah, I guess so,” he repeats. “Fuck me good, yeah? Then maybe I will.”
George can be a quiet person. He can withdraw into himself when he’s standing in a room of unfamiliar people, content to please with polite smiles and gently tipped eyebrows, content to observe and read each one of them like lines of poetry. He knows how to stand down from confrontation and take it all with calculative eyes, cold and hard and fucking infuriating. Hot asphalt freezing where it meets his toes.
He can be loud, too. Brimming with life, reflecting the sun itself when he’s standing with his head out of the sunroof, eyes fixed on the spot the sky turns orange. Late nights in the middle of summer spent surrounded by honeysuckle and cigarette smoke, lips tilting up and up and his limbs grow looser and looser. George can be quiet when he wants to, but it’s carefully constructed. Poised with a purpose.
He’s loud now, with diamond beading in the corners of his eyes as Dream’s fingers breach his rim. Each one coaxes a string of breathy gasps from him, until Dream has to lean forward and stick more digits into his mouth to keep him quiet. Pressing down hard on his tongue until his eyes roll up. And he thinks he might’ve made it to heaven without even taking the trouble to die for it, because George moans around him when he’s got three fingers in his ass, and it’s perfect.
So fucking perfect.
He tells him so.
“Stop saying that,” George whines, broken because Dream brushes right over a nerve and sends his fists curling against the door. “And fuck me.”
“I’m getting to that.”
“Not fast enough.”
Dream decides to give him what he wants.
For a moment he thinks they’ll be found in here, because the noise George emits when the head of his cock pushes past his rim is loud enough to rival the screeching gulls and crashing waves surrounding them. Then he remembers the soundtrack of life blaring up and down the beach, and how so many existences playing over each other is certain to drown them out. Besides, he doesn’t think anyone would give a shit. They’re drunk on life because they’ve swallowed the whole bottle and now only the dregs are left, the last few mouthfuls which need to be savoured before it’s all gone.
His hips push flush against George’s ass, and Dream can glimpse green bottomed glass.
“I feel like a teenager,” George mutters, face pushed into the fold of his arms.
“Kinda nice, isn’t it? Just being young and dumb for once.”
“Right before the world ends.”
“Well,” Dream says, savouring the choked noise George makes when he thrusts right against his prostate, hand flying over his mouth in a flash of pearl. “We don’t have to think about that right now. Let’s just pretend we’re on a roadtrip because it’s fucking summer, yeah? Mom died right after one. Didn't ruin it, because I didn't fucking know.”
“Okay,” George says, and Dream can hear his smile even if all he has to look at are the points of his shoulder blades.
Dream begins to move, loving enough that he doesn’t have time to mourn all their missed opportunities. He’ll die without knowing George’s every intricacy. But it’s alright, because he still manages to make him moan every so often, he still knows how to brush over his prostate and palm at his cock to make him whine and whine.
“I still-” George gasps, chin tipping upwards to acknowledge a higher being. “I still can’t believe how fucking big you are. Should’ve been doing this all year.”
“Yeah, so fucking good.”
Reality begins to melt after that, just like the clouds melt when it’s mid evening. Dream is so full of dust motes and brine and lilac he can barely tell when George is close, until he reaches back to wrap slender fingers around Dream’s wrist and squeeze hard.
“So close,” he gasps, and then his hole is tightening around Dream, locking him into a strange paradise with death knocking at their door.
They cum close together, exactly how it is in romance novels, and he wonders if there should be cherry blossom arcing over their heads instead of chipping plaster and frosted glass. He doesn’t particularly care either, not with sweat beading along George’s hairline and rolling over his temples. Not with George tight around him. Not with the smell of leather receding to memory, replaced by late spring lilacs and aphrodisiac chamomile.
“We’re in time for the sunset,” he gasps as his chest swells and dips. Dark hair brushes the underside of his chin, and he never, never wants to let go of George.
“You want to watch?”
“I’d rather die than miss it.”
The look Sapnap gives them when they return isn’t for the faint of heart. But George simply sits himself down on one of the beach towels with a blank expression and neutral features, so Dream decides to do the same, and squeezes into the gap between them.
“Your hair is fucked up,” he says to George, and the tension simmering between them evaporates. “Couldn’t you at least try to be subtle?”
“Who put a stick up your ass this morning?” George shoots back. His fingers comb through his hair, desperately trying to flatten it as english rose blooms over his cheeks.
Sapnap stares at him in disbelief. “Says you.”
“I’m so fucking tired,” Dream whines before George can come up with a response. Every time he closes his eyes he can see road rushing beneath him and the speedometer ticking over the limit, higher and higher as he stopped giving a fuck. Pulsing tide morphs to the rumble of the engine, and the music playing up and down the beach is just too easy to imagine filtering out of the central console.
“You could sleep,” Sapnap points out.
“No, he wants to watch the sunset. For some reason.”
Dream fights back a groan. “You wanted to watch it too, idiot.”
“Only because you suggested it.”
And because he doesn’t have the energy to bicker with George, he wraps both arms around his knees and begins to pick out cloud shapes again. If he unfocuses his eyes enough he swears he can see a shamrock in the middle distance, leaves imperfect and distorted. He blinks, and it’s gone.
“I was thinking-”
“That’s always a bad sign,” Sapnap interrupts.
“True.” George squeezes his hand and he’s fucking delirious with how it feels. Cool against skin left in the beach light for several consecutive hours, salt running into his pores and sand sticking to his soles.
“As I was saying—I was thinking, maybe we don’t have to keep driving. We can’t run from the asteroid, we can’t run away from fate.”
Sapnap pulls a cig out of the box thrown haphazardly onto the sand and lights it, brow crumpled with thought. “You want to stay here until it happens?”
“Yeah. It’s nice, isn’t it? It’s full of people like us.” People with nowhere else to turn, people who have to hold onto hands that don’t share their blood.
“I’d like to stay here,” George says, pressing his lips to the underside of Dream’s jaw. Tentative, cautious. Stolen as though it’s midnight and there’s nobody around to see them when in reality they’re sitting with sunbeaten land surrounding them and the skies observing every touch of red to peach and gold.
Sapnap exhales, and it releases in a plume of gunmetal. “Feels like there’re so many things I could be doing. I guess I’m scared of doing everything exactly right. How do I make sure I’m not wasting the rest of...well, forever?”
“Fuck that,” Dream says, irritation sparking under his skin. “I’m so fucking tired of trying to do everything perfectly. We can just smoke cigs on the beach until it’s time, and we’ll be fucking happy doing it too.”
An eyebrow cocks in surrender. “The wise words of a poet.”
Dream’s lips press together, clamped tight to contain the outpouring of honey sweet satisfaction pooling in the centre of his tongue. “Well, I always wanted to be a writer.”
They turn their gazes back to the heavens because the clouds have started to bleed pearl to citrine to amethyst, and the sun is sinking lower and lower. Something up there must be painting, he thinks. Perhaps spilled paint isn’t always so bad, if it ends up looking like this. A hundred glass eyes turn towards the sky as the day draws to a close, and he wonders if anyone else is mentally crossing it off the calendar in speculative red. Somehow, he doubts it.
As he squints against the light, Dream finds dark water pulling him under, coaxing him deeper and deeper to a place he thought he’d never see again. A time he thought he’d never be able to remember.
He’s sitting on the beach in this memory, but it’s all wrong because the sky isn’t beautiful like it’s supposed to be. The waves are much closer to his feet. Terns dot the beach, although he doesn’t bother to focus upon them, more interested in the swell of his palms with adolescence. On the sand sits his mom, and there’s paisley spread beneath them in just the sort of quaint way he equates with childhood.
She’s reading something to him, but all the words hurry together. Each one must live in a city, he thinks, surrounded by so much droning noise it becomes second nature to do just the same and exist as a grey blur.
He gazes at the sea.
When he looks back, the syllables sort themselves out, no longer upended upon the sand for a mind greater than his to decode. And he can tell the words apart from each other now, spaced out with the sort of slowness which accompanies the dreariest sections of heather filled suburbs. Long roads which bend at the same pace as honey tipping from a jar, identical gardens all lined up next to each other with electric lines cutting the sky into neat little sections and short fences cutting the land into postage stamps.
A clean slate, with your own face on, she finishes, reaching up to push the shades onto the top of her head. It’s easy to remember something when he’s staring right at it, and he can remember now how her eyes are the colour of seagrass. Green looks more like swamp water when it’s trapped in his eyes, but there’s something about her commanded by the skies as the tides are commanded by the moon. Light footed, elusive. If he looks hard enough, the beads strung around her wrists and neck appear as conches, and the silk holding her hair back from her face is made of fishing net.
“What does it mean?”
Whatever you want it to.
He blinks, and she’s opening a cake box with peach nails. The paint sticks to her cuticles and flakes off her pointer finger, but every imperfection is overshadowed by the circular piece of moonstone sitting at the base of it. Do you still need candles? she asks, lips tilted in amusement. She’d ask the same question every year for the rest of her life, and Dream would always say yes.
“I’m gonna make a wish,” he says. Like it’s obvious.
He looks at the sky while she’s sticking the candles into the cake, lips downturning at the corners because the sky is apocalypse blue. The sort which appears in a solid block of heather grey the same colour as February, with no variation to mark each miserable day apart from the next. And it’s growing darker, and that must mean the day is drawing to a close.
“Why is there no sunset?” he asks, a little intimidated by the lifelessness of the sky.
Look behind you, she says, flicking a match against the side of the box so that clementine juice runs over her hands, drips into the lines and vanishes when she pulls away. The candles are all lit, and they wink at him like crossed stars.
Sunset paints his vision when he looks back up the beach. It’s wonderful, how the clouds appear to be set ablaze by celestial fire. Sapnap would love it, he thinks. But he’s most likely already asleep, face pushed deep into his pillow and red tear tracks dripping down his cheeks. He’s never allowed to stay out late.
He turns his head back towards the sea, surging with disappointment.
“Why doesn’t it set there?” Dream asks, spring eyes fixed upon the grey boundary between the sea and skies. He’s at the age where things such as this seem unjust, and he thinks it would be better if he could look at the sea and sky at the same time. “Like on postcards?”
She doesn’t sigh with the resignation of a person annoyed by the workings of the world, doesn’t run ringed fingers through her hair and curse the layout of the land. Instead, her red lipstick arcs into a heart, peach nails flashing as she leans forward to pull Dream’s thumb out of his mouth because she always says he’ll screw his teeth up if he keeps doing it. You can’t change the way the world spins just for a postcard, can you?
“No,” he admits.
It would be nice if it set over the sea, but there’s no changing it, so there’s no need to worry. It doesn’t matter if things aren’t always perfect.
“Does it ever set over the sea?”
In better places than this one, she sighs, reaching behind her head to retie the fabric holding her hair back. I’ll take you one day. I’ll buy a car, we can go on a roadtrip to somewhere it does.
Dream wonders how she can afford something like that, when she winced at the sound of coins being exchanged for their bus fare just hours earlier. When she looks at the peeling wallpaper in the living room and tells him she’ll renovate when she has a better job with better money.
“Okay,” he says, although he doesn’t believe her.
But she had a knack for speaking the imaginary into reality, for taking life between both hands and colouring it with crayon. That’s how Dream learnt to paint his soul.
And before the end of the following year, Dream was sitting in the passenger seat with bubblegum stuck to his teeth. An 8-ball in his hands, blue lines claiming to tap into fate. The asphalt blurred underneath them, miles and miles of it phasing from green to brown to westerly orange, until they were surrounded by halogen lights and murky smoke. He never quite knew how, but they made it.
He thought perhaps it was because he wished and wished to see the sun setting over the sea when he blew his candles out that August.
Do you still need candles? she asked for the very last time on his seventeenth birthday. But they were on the other side of the country this time, and the sun was sliding towards the sea just like it did on postcards. No matter how many times they went back, he didn't tire of it.
It was a ritual by that point, he supposed.
“You didn't bring seventeen candles.”
You’re doubting me, she said, and produced all seventeen of them with the wicks white and unused. Do you want them or not?
“‘course I do,” he muttered, leaning forward so he could stick each one into blue frosting. “I need to make a wish.”
Even though it was sort of the entire point, he didn't make a wish, because the sun was setting over the sea, and his heart was still buzzing with the thrill of travelling, and his mom was smiling at him with imperfect teeth.
Dream often wonders if things would’ve turned out differently if he just wished for something.
He didn't have candles for a few years after that.
And he’s back on the beach in his ageing body, although it’ll begin to decay instead of mature before long.
Two lost souls flicker either side of him, and he wishes and wishes they’ll never be extinguished. But it’s futile, because the whole magic of birthday wishes only occurs when blowing the candles out.
“Can you just- can you say it again?” he asks in desperation. He’s running out of time, and before long the sun will be swallowed up by ocean navy.
George looks at him in confusion. “Say what?”
“Happy birthday,” Sapnap mutters, because he always knows what Dream means.
Gentle lips press against his temple, joined by the faint impression of the tip of George’s nose. “Happy birthday,” he breathes, rounded after being sea-tumbled all day. A soft hand slips into Dream’s right and a calloused into his left, and someone’s cassette player is louder than all the others with the exact same tape he used to play to a headstone week by week. The sea wells in his eyes.
This time he makes a wish because he thinks he’ll regret it if he doesn’t, rocking bare feet against the sand at the same pace of crackling music. Because it’s always been a little easier to use the words of someone else as a crutch when he’s all run out, especially when his lines are filled up with the contents of his heart and there’s nothing left to say.
He makes a wish, and even though there’s not much time left, he hopes it can become true at some hazy point on the horizon.
Wish you were here
The sun sets over the sea.