To complete his seventy-two-hours-clean outfit, Tyler pulls a neon-orange beanie down over his ears. The material scratches the tips of his fingers. He considers this scratching a welcome feature over the alternative, anything to drag out the remnants of the sedative left in his system.
From the corner of his eye, he spies the cashier watching him. An overworked college student, they fiddle with something below the counter. Tyler guesses it's a cell phone—maybe they aren't allowed to text on the clock—but they continue to look at him as their fingers fidget away; if they're texting, they might be texting a supervisor, cataloguing every move of his and reporting it in detail.
He came in wearing pajamas—I don't know where he put them—he changed right in the middle of the aisle—he looks like a—
Tyler closes his eyes, beats his palm into his forehead. "No," he whispers, punctuating the dismissal with another pound to his forehead. "You're better. You're better now."
And to prove he's better now, he gathers the clothes he wore inside the thrift store into his arms and approaches the counter. He hooks them on his arm while he pokes in the pocket of his new coat. The coat's heavy, black-and-white houndstooth in design, and not suited for the incoming spring weather. That's the whole point, though—it's heavy.
Tyler fishes out his wallet and hands over a twenty-dollar bill to the cashier, who slowly takes it. They're still eyeing Tyler, softening a bit around the mouth, as they check the authenticity of the bill.
It's the last of Tyler's cash. He doesn't know how much he has left on his debit card, assuming his parents hadn't already canceled it after Tyler's therapist presumedly called them about his hospitalization. He slides his thumb over the edge of the thin plastic card. This, too, scratches at the itch along Tyler's skin, grounding him for a moment. He can smell popcorn coming from a back room. He wishes he had his appetite back.
"Twenty even," the cashier says, shutting the register and tearing off the receipt. They hold it out for Tyler to take. "Have a nice day."
In the dumpster behind the store, Tyler pitches that receipt along with his pajamas. He wonders if someone will get questioned about the bloodstains on the clothing, then he realizes he doesn't fucking care.
Although Tyler was only ripped from these streets for three days, walking through them now rings no bells of recognition. He didn't think he would have affected his memory like this. He stumbles down the sidewalk as if he were learning how to walk again—and he is, in a way—learning how to walk while ignoring the faces of those around him.
But like that cashier, it's like Tyler knows what they're thinking with just a flash of his eyes meeting theirs. His therapist told him this was unwise for him to do, though he understood where Tyler's fear stemmed from and how this developed into a coping mechanism of its own.
Tyler questioned this once he heard this theory. He asked his therapist, "So, you'd rather I hurt myself physically instead of mentally?" Tyler knew he was acting deliberately obtuse, yet he still had to try, still had to get permission to dig and claw and bite his skin.
He was never given permission. For a second there, sitting in that cramped office with the ground-floor windows open and a white noise machine playing away under the great mahogany desk in the corner, Tyler thought he might receive permission—a prescription for his self-harm, just something that could occupy his body in such a loud and bombastic way that his head struggled to keep up.
His therapist looked at him, a dip of pity behind his glasses, and said, "I'd rather you not hurt yourself at all."
And that's hard—God, it's so hard. Traversing the streets he ran down as a child doesn't hit the same. The concrete pumps him full of agony that nestles deep in his chest. He pictures a screen resting atop his ribs, fractured and blinking in Morse code. If only he could read Morse code.
Tyler listens to birds hop above his head, dancing along power lines and fixing nests in tree branches that have seen better days. He sits under one of the trees, careful of its skinny trunk's proximity to the curb.
Cars whoosh by him, sending the ends of his coat away from him. He grabs, pulls them in close.
The fragrance of gasoline is a scent he can never forget no matter how hard he tries. He hadn't tried to hurt himself with gasoline, despite how often he could feel his father's urge for him to do so whenever Tyler sat by him at the kitchen table. The gasoline itself, Tyler thinks it reminds him of something else. It's like vomiting—sweet at first, pathetic in its anguish hours later.
His therapist advised him to practice mindfulness. All Tyler can be mindful of is how he's been clean for seventy-two hours and all he wants to do is relapse—rinse and repeat. He can start over next week. Maybe he'd have more money to his name. Maybe he'd have his phone. Maybe he won't have all these people staring at him. Maybe he'd have someone to drive him home.
He dives his hands into the pockets of his coat again. He anticipates the contents as if this were an article of clothing he had in his closet, tied together with comfort objects in the form of Beanie Babies stowed away.
When he was a toddler, he carried larger stuffed animals; a child, more stuffed animals; a teenager and his first few years of adulthood, paper clips and rubber bands and the odd trinket toy he won from capsules inside grocery store bubblegum machines. Now, in his mid-twenties, he reverts to a younger version of himself. His bed at his parents' house holds the stuffed animals his mother once boxed away into the attic. When she saw them on his bed once more, her face betrayed nothing.
And despite the pockets of his new coat being too small to hold one of his old stuffed dragons, Tyler finds himself wanting to discover a Beanie Baby—anything—in this coat, hidden, a surprise.
Aside from his wallet, he meets tiny holes along the edges of the pocket liner, sleek to the touch. He rubs it. It doesn't scratch anything inside him, but still produces a wave of calm. He basks in it for as long it takes for him to stand up again. He has to wait until he's alone on the sidewalk, no cars passing or pedestrians nearby. The birds, too—he needs them gone. He knows they share the most gossip.
Somehow, standing is easier than sitting. His body clicks on autopilot, going through the motions that his joints and muscles can remember how to perform without drawing attention. Once on his feet, it's even easy to walk down the sidewalk. He has no destination in mind, but his stomach is tight, and those twists of sharp pain splinters to his chest.
Right there, in the middle of his chest, Tyler knows that's where he's being held hostage. And he tells himself he's a clown for thinking all his problems would have vanished as soon as he had his top surgery. He was back to hurting himself in a manner of two months—maybe one month if he convinced himself the start date of his self-sabotage was sooner than he would ever admit.
He convinced his parents he was fine, that after he recovered from his surgery, he would be back to normal—and he thinks he wasn't lying. At the time, he wasn't lying. He was fine—until he discovered his turmoil didn't stem from his gender dysphoria; it originated further than that.
He was always a mentally ill kid, plagued with the expectations to be a better sibling, a better child; and his gender identity co-existed alongside that. It was another facet of who he was. There was no cause and effect, no correlation or as a result. If he were cisgender, he would still feel the same way.
This tightening in his chest, it litters along the dozens of little scars down his sternum. Every step he takes makes it harder to keep his hands away from his chest, so he shoves his hands into the pockets of the pants he thrifted. They're a little baggy in the legs, snug around the waist. He'll take that—any reminder that he's gaining weight and recovering in that way, too.
A sign hanging in the window of a store catches his eye. It's a simple thing—white poster board with black writing, "YOU ARE LOVED" across it.
Tyler stares at the storefront, the colorful name stamped at the top. BIG FUN, it reads. He remembers coming here a few times as a kid, told his therapist as much when the silences during their sessions stretched far beyond Tyler's comfort levels.
"Can we get some white noise or something going?" he asked. "Like, floorboards creaking or clothes rustling or something?"
When Tyler enters the shop, the old floorboards creak just as they always have.
He's tentative as he walks, arms hanging by his sides and keeping his head low. The store is small, but he must have known that when he was a kid—but everything is bigger in a child's eyes, bigger and bolder and much stronger than they could ever imagine.
Tyler tries to picture himself as a child; if he were to wander into this store and see the adult version of himself standing in the aisle, would he look at him in awe? Disgust? This man with bad posture, wearing thrift-store clothes in a vague attempt at color coordinating; this man with puppy-dog eyes, wearing gauze wraps around his wrist; this man with no hope for his future, wearing a smile he hopes will suffice.
As he stands in this toy store, it finally dawns on Tyler that nobody is coming for him.
If his parents cared, they would have been there to pick him up from the hospital. Surely his therapist would have told them when he would be released. His friends, too, what little he has these days—surely they must have reached out to him? Tyler left his phone on his bed before he went to therapy. That was self-sabotage, too; everything he has done leading up to his hospitalization had been self-sabotage. He didn't want to be found. He didn't want to be contacted. When he entered his therapist's office, he didn't even say "hi"—he went straight to that great mahogany desk in the corner of the room, grabbed whatever sharp object he could find, and stabbed it into his forearm.
He didn't even bother making his bed before going to kill himself. Just another thing to burden his mother.
The cashier of this store doesn't maintain a careful eye on Tyler. He's reading something, only spared a glance up at Tyler before returning to the book. From where Tyler positions himself by a large case of vintage superhero figurines, he surveys the cashier, pins him as around the same age, maybe a year or two younger. Tyler thinks he looks familiar; the dark curls remind him of ocean water nearing midnight.
Tyler can't read the name on the front of the cashier's shirt. Even if it were someone he happened to know, it would only ever be in passing—someone who was in the same general education class in community college, someone who shared an elevator with him in the public library, someone who used the self-checkout station right after him.
There is nothing monumental about this man, but Tyler can't stop his feet when they move right in front of the glass display counter the man's using as a table. He can't stop himself from gazing at this man and thinking, You're gonna change my circumstance.
And Tyler knows that's a bad thought to have, especially when the cashier flicks his eyes up to Tyler. People can't save other people; they just provide the resources and support to make it easier to save yourself. And maybe that's what this is. This cashier—Josh on his white ringer t-shirt—will be the bridge to the other side. But what's on the other side? Is it good? Does it hurt?
Even with Tyler this close to him, Josh continues to read his book. And for once, Tyler's paranoia quiets down to a hum. There's nothing nefarious breeding here. It's a slow Friday morning.
Tyler wants to prove he's better, so he says to Josh, "Hi."
Josh says, "Hey," without raising his head.
Tyler leans his weight to the side to catch the book's cover. All My Sons, Tyler reads. Before he can tell Josh he went through an obsessive phase in high school over this play, he spots a dog on the floor next to the counter. The sight of this golden retriever freezes Tyler in place for only a moment. Along with his Arthur Miller phase, Tyler struggled through a rough patch where he was frightened of dogs. This one seems docile enough, looking up at him with a blue bandana around his neck. It's bright, like Tyler's beanie.
"Oh, don't mind him," Josh says, after seeing Tyler's lull in pleasantries. He turns a page and props his chin on his hand. "He's allowed to be here."
Tyler would think the silver water bowl as evidence enough of that. "Is he—is he yours?"
"Yeah. He's an ESA."
"Oh, my therapist said something about me getting one of those," Tyler says, "but I… I couldn't bring myself to visit the shelter."
His therapist also told him to try being more vulnerable with other people instead of bottling it all up. Is that what he's doing now? Is he being vulnerable when he's talking openly about mental health, his therapist? Or does it only count as vulnerability if he goes deeper?
Josh lowers the book to look over at his dog again, fully this time. "Yeah, my therapist said the same. He helps me with my anxiety, but then you have people constantly looking at him, and that means they're constantly looking at me—and that doesn't really help my anxiety."
Tyler shuffles back an inch.
Josh laughs, waving his hands in front of him. "No, dude, like—it's a joke. It's okay."
"Oh, right. Sorry about that."
Here comes the paranoia—Josh scans him, and he straightens up on his barstool to get a better look at Tyler, from his head to his feet—and it's like Tyler can hear Josh's voice in his ear without Josh needing to open his mouth—
What is he wearing? He didn't laugh at my joke. Is he okay? He probably just ran away from somewhere. Should I call someone? Definitely not the cops; they'll hurt him. Why is he getting down on his knees—?
Tyler crouches before the glass display counter, his hands clinging to the top, something to ground him as he inspects the contents of the case. He wants to figure out if they're real. It doesn't feel real, that singular shelf with the lone quarter-sized plastic blue dragon figurine. It has its mouth open, a paw raised, and Tyler curls his fingers around the hinges of the case so hard he feels the joints in his knuckles crack with a gut-wrenching pop.
Once he rises back to his feet, Tyler jams his finger into the counter. "Can I have this?"
Josh's dog watches Josh. Josh watches Tyler.
Tyler taps the counter, then descends to become face-to-face with the dragon toy again.
It should be too small to evoke such emotions in him, but he stares at this fragile thing and thinks of all the dragon stuffed animals he forced his parents to buy him throughout his childhood. Dragons were the one fixture his relatives knew was a constant in his life. Even his distant cousins knew to purchase something dragon related for his birthday.
As an adult now, he has to shrug off the embarrassment associated with his past interests, no matter the teasing from his family. It's like certain music or movies or animals surrounding you at this age would define who you would forever be in the eyes of your family. Tyler can't be embarrassed over this; how could he grow to hate something so intensely that used to bring him such joy?
Josh plucks the dragon from the case and places it on the countertop.
Tyler is eager when he rises now, ignoring all the stiff muscles in his legs and back to jump at seeing the toy presented to him. And before he knows it, he's crouching again, resting his head on his hands, and looking at this toy like it's religious iconography.
He knows he saw this in a stained-glass window when he was a kid, big wings reflecting the sun's rays and warming his insides. It might not have been an accurately depicted dragon in that glass—if dragons can ever truly be accurately depicted—but it carried the same raw power, the flight of imagination and creativity and the possibility of finally tasting freedom. He could make his own religion. He could make his own gods.
Tyler glances down the aisle, toward the door at the end. It isn't that far, he finds himself thinking over and over, over and over. It's a loop in his head, no laugh tracks and no consequences. His feet shift toward the door against his will, like when he approached this counter. His body knows what to do when his mind can't decide.
"It's fifty cents," Josh says, knocking his book out of the way to give access to the register. "Do you want me to ring you up, or d'ya want to look around some more?"
Tyler looks at the door for the second time, then at Josh, then at the dragon. It isn't that far, he thinks. I need to move. I need to move right now—
Tyler takes the dragon in his hand, the plastic weightless, free, and he runs—he runs and runs and runs; and he's outside now, bolting down that sidewalk, and he thinks he hears Josh yell at him, and he thinks he hears Josh yell at his dog because when Tyler dares to look over his shoulder, that dog's running after him, too—but that can't be right; who would name a dog "Jim"?
He rounds the sidewalk and dips down an alley between two brick buildings, hoping to lose Josh and his dog.
The dragon toy sits in the palm of Tyler's hand.
Tyler's run slows to a walk, allowing a moment to breathe and collect himself.
What was his plan anyway? Nab the dragon and—and what? This toy is meaningless and meaningful all wrapped up in one. It's the same color blue as the first dragon toy he had as a toddler. His dad thought it would terrify him, but he slept with it every night—still sleeps with it every night, right on his pillow, threadbare and limp-necked and speckled with drool stains that smell of rose-colored nostalgia. "I think it belongs in the trash," his mother told him, but she packed it up with the other stuffed animals. Maybe she couldn't bear to let go of it either.
The dragon in his hand stabs at the broken lines of his palm. He curls his fingers around it and squeezes as hard as he can.
Josh and his dog appear in front of Tyler. They had cut through another alleyway, a shortcut. They emerge a few feet away, not expecting Tyler's sudden stop in the middle of the road.
Slowly, Josh walks over to Tyler, holding up his hands to show he has nothing in his possession. Still, Tyler knows he must be carrying something to hurt strangers—a weapon, a couple choice words; someone always has something up their sleeve.
Cars rumble behind Tyler, the scent of gas too far away to make waves in Tyler's body. Tyler looks at them, spins around to look at Josh, his dog staying back, sitting pretty, tail wagging, mouth open in a grin. It's all an act, Tyler tells himself. This is all planned.
But what is his plan? Once Josh reaches him, what is he supposed to do?
Three days ago, he woke up from a nightmare where he was covered in his own vomit and missing all feeling in his hands. His throat burned. His eyes watered. He woke up and looked at his cavalry of stuffed animals, popped seams and no eyes and all. He hadn't taken his SSRIs for a week at this point, and his antipsychotics for longer than that. He can't remember why he stopped taking them, the reason seems so small now, so insignificant, and besides, he thought he was doing okay—and he did feel okay; as he lay there with his dragons, he considered that this day would be a good day to die.
And he was always a melodramatic piece of shit. He could have done it in his room, where he would be protected by these dragons and most likely not found until dinnertime that night, or even earlier, now that he thinks about it—his therapist would have tried to reach him about missing their appointment. He would have lain there, and his phone would have lain there—and he doesn't hate his therapist, not really; he does a good enough job. He listens to Tyler.
Three days ago, he wanted to die; and now, three days later, he has never felt more alive.
And when Josh stretches his arms toward Tyler, Tyler tosses the dragon toy in his mouth and swallows it whole.
Maybe he thought it would go down easy. Maybe he thought he wouldn't actually swallow it, just go through the motions and his body would know to reject it. Maybe he thought everything would be okay.
But he's choking.
And the world goes a little fuzzy around the edges. He tips to the side, greets the concrete with the crown of his head, and he sees Josh's dog grow three sizes, sprout wings, even, as he swoops toward Tyler.
And the world goes a little dark around the edges. Arms wrap around his torso from behind in a feeble attempt at getting him to stand, and those arms—they're strong, attached to strong hands. And those hands, they pound and pound and pound into his ribs until that screen on his chest splits in two and pours wires and fibers and sparks out his esophagus.
Tyler sits on the ground, his hands holding his neck and his head upright, and throws up whatever is left inside him. And after he finishes, panting and crying and leaking from every pore and orifice on his face, Tyler looks down at the pile of vomit and sees the dragon toy standing tall and drenched.
Josh lowers to the ground in front of Tyler, one knee down, one propping up an elbow as he leans in to stare at Tyler. "I don't think eating plastic would be very vegan."
Tyler blinks. "What?" His voice is raw. He can taste blood along his gums.
Josh points at the dragon, then points at Tyler's shirt. "I thought… I thought you were vegan."
For the first time, Tyler takes a good look at his shirt—"TREE HUGGERS MAKE BETTER LOVERS" across the front in black, a big red heart over his own heart. He didn't read it when he pulled it off the rack. He saw the heart. That's all he wanted.
He touches the heart now, wrinkles up his shirt in his fist. "I'm not vegan. This shirt—it, it was the first one I saw."
Josh asks him, "Are you okay?"
Tyler picks up the dragon from the pool of fluids and holds it out to Josh. "I'm sorry," he starts to say, but Josh shakes his head, puts his entire body into the move.
"No, you can keep it. I think if you went through all this"—Josh gestures to the dragon, the vomit—"to keep it, you can keep it. It's just fifty cents. Why would I make a big deal out of that?"
"You went after me." Tyler swallows, wincing a bit. "Why'd you go after me, then, if this wasn't a big deal to you?"
"I wanted to make sure you were okay," Josh says. "You didn't look okay. I know it's not my place to go after you like this, but I thought—I thought that if I was in your shoes, then I'd want someone to notice me."
Does Tyler want to be noticed? Is that what this is, him grabbing the dragon and making a run for it? Swallowing it? Choking? He can still hear his dad telling him, "He's doing it for attention," the first time he cut himself and got scared of all the blood.
His self-harm—he didn't think it was all for attention; it felt like deliberate attempts at helping him feel better. Stealing this dragon was another part of that, he thinks—he knows. He can still taste the plastic on his tongue.
"I've been clean for seventy-three hours now," Tyler says. He places the dragon toy on his thigh and turns to his coat sleeve. He yanks it up a fraction, just enough to show Josh the gauze wrapped around his left wrist. He refuses to look at Josh. He wouldn't be able to stomach whatever look Josh is giving him. That's another thing Tyler's therapist told him to alleviate his paranoia—"You can put off making eye contact as long you can, but eventually, you'll have to look up."
Tyler stares at the gauze and the thick bandage he knows lies beneath. The nurse who put the new dressing on the wound reminded him how loved he was, how he needs to embody that and take it with him wherever he goes, and how often he needs to clean the stitches.
Tyler thinks Josh is about to touch his wrist from how Josh's hand enters his vision, but Josh doesn't. He keeps his hand out like this, and when Tyler finally looks up, he sees Josh is standing, his dog at his heels, and offering to help Tyler to his feet.
So, Tyler takes Josh's hand.
The toy dragon in one hand and Josh's hand in the other, Tyler eases to his feet, stepping around the vomit in the street.
Josh only lets go once they're out of the alley and on the sidewalk.
The sun shines over their heads. It heats up Tyler's shoulders, makes the coat heavier than it already is. Tyler keeps his shoulders low, his voice even lower when he tells Josh, "Thanks for, um, that."
He means to lead it into a goodbye, and Josh senses this, as well, for he says, "Hey, why don't you hang in the store until I go on my lunch break? We can go grab something to eat together. Nothing vegan," he adds as a joke.
"I need to go home," Tyler says. "I haven't been in touch with my family. I don't—I don't even have my phone—and I'm pretty sure I'm gonna be considered a missing person if my therapist doesn't hear from me soon."
Josh considers this. "Do they live here in Columbus?"
His dog, Jim, tilts his head and blinks at Tyler.
"I can drive you," Josh says. He checks his watch. "Actually, I'm supposed to be on lunch in ten minutes. If you wait here, I can close up the shop, and we can head over there."
Josh doesn't want Tyler to be alone. Maybe he thinks Tyler might be lying about this. Tyler tries to pull that assumption out of Josh's face, yet he comes up empty. The only words on Josh's face are I hope he's okay and Am I being too forward?
"I'll wait here," Tyler says.
Josh drives a truck. Jim sits between him and Tyler, a good boy, buckled in and panting to the music playing through Josh's phone. Josh had no way of knowing Death Cab for Cutie was one of Tyler's favorite bands or that Transatlanticism was one of his favorite albums, but Josh tapped on to it as soon as they each settled into their seats, as if Tyler were his closest friend, attune to his moods and what he needs at any given moment.
It would be sweet, if Tyler isn't currently trying to keep it together.
The drive to his parents' house doesn't take as long as Tyler would like. He hasn't formed a script to follow in his head, nor crafted up an excuse if his therapist hadn't let them know his whereabouts. Even though he's an adult, he must have told them, right? Instead of his therapist filing a missing person report on him, Tyler should have assumed his family would.
"Do you want me to stay here?" Josh asks, though Tyler has no idea why. Once he walks into that house, he doesn't think he'll be leaving anytime soon.
"No, you can go." Tyler rubs his thumb into the dragon toy, scratching his skin. "Thanks for the ride. Sorry for everything else."
Josh reaches across Jim to pop open his glovebox. He pulls out a receipt, a pen, and uses his steering wheel as a table. Tyler knows what he's scribbling. It's innate, expected.
Josh gives the receipt to him, but seeing Josh's number tugs at his heart in the most cliché way possible. He has to look away, out the window.
"If you ever wanna talk or anything," Josh says, tossing the pen back into the glove compartment. "No pressure or anything."
"No pressure." Tyler turns the receipt around, reads Josh's Chipotle order—tries to read it; his vision's going blurry. He folds the flimsy paper in half and places it right next to the dragon figurine.
"Hey," Josh says. "What's your name?"
Tyler pauses at that, his hand on the car door, staring at Josh's face and Josh's eyes and Josh's mouth. "Tyler."
And Josh holds out his hand, and Tyler takes it, shakes it, and Josh says, "It was nice to meet you, Tyler."
Tyler doesn't have keys either. He left the house without his keys. How did he make it to his therapist's office? Did his mom drop him off? Did he walk as far as he could, and then take a bus to the city?
Tyler rubs his eyes. He knocks on the front door.
Josh's truck rolls away.
When his mom opens the door, Tyler doesn't wait for her to react before he's ducking around her and disappearing into the living room, the kitchen, down the hall to his bedroom—
His mom grabs his arm. She's been talking ever since he stepped inside, but it isn't until she's touching him that he finally hears her voice.
"Tyler, where've you been? I tried calling you, but your phone was here; and I tried calling your therapist, but he wasn't allowed to tell me anything—"
Around the corner, his younger brother appears, spying on the commotion. He must have stayed home from school, sick or something. Tyler wonders if his dad stayed home from work, too. His mom should be at work.
"I'm okay," he tells her. "Don't worry about it."
But when he goes to take a step, his mom grabs him again, around his wrist this time, the one wrapped in gauze and bandages and held together with stitches and promises for a better future.
And he crumples to the hardwood floor, wincing and gasping and hissing.
"What? What?" His mom holds up her hands, dropping to her knees beside him. "What's wrong?"
Like with Josh, Tyler yanks on his coat sleeve. At the sight of the bandages, his mom shuts her eyes. Tyler joins her, for a second, a minute.
And then, slowly, ever so slowly, she wraps her arms around Tyler's shoulders and hugs him.
And soon, Tyler's brother joins them. Tyler welcomes the arms, the heads pressed against his, and when he cries, it almost feels like a prescription of its own.
It smells stale in his bedroom, uninhabitable.
His bed is made up, four corners all neat, his stuffed animals waiting for him in two rows—the bigger ones in the back, smaller ones up front.
Tyler waits for that night to undo the structure his mother instilled here. Water droplets drip from his hair to land on the navy-blue comforter. He lets his hair hang in his eyes, likes it better this way; it's easier to wear once it's dry.
He can only lift a single dragon at a time, his left hand out of commission, so it takes a bit, him sitting on the edge of the bed and making a Tyler-sized hole between them all. He knows his medication is kicking in when he looks at this hole he's forming and sees a casket instead of a grave.
He sleeps atop the covers tonight, holding as many of the dragon plushies to his chest as he can. The tiny blue figurine, clean from its own bath, perches on his nightstand by Josh's Chipotle receipt and his cell phone, still plugged into its charger after three days.
Sometime during the night, his mother opens his bedroom door and forgets to close it. On his dresser, she's left a note. And like with Josh's phone number, Tyler has to look away after he reads it. The contents are gooey, strung together with reassurances of love, validity in both his mental health and gender identity, and the assertion of her availability if he ever needs to talk. She's taken the day off work again. We can do something together?
Tyler dresses in clothes too big for him. He pulls back on that houndstooth jacket, dropping the small dragon into the pocket. His phone joins it—after he pencils in Josh's number.
Then, on his unmade bed, pulling a body pillow of a dragon onto his lap, Tyler calls his therapist. He's done this before, has been told not to worry about disturbing his weekend; however, guilt clings to Tyler like sweat. He debates on hanging up the phone when his therapist's voice clicks into his eardrum.
"Hey," Tyler says in greeting. "I'm okay. Just thought I should call you. Do you need me to come in and see you?"
"Do you need to come in and see me?"
Tyler bites on his lip. "I don't think so. I'm okay. This is okay."
"We can talk more in detail when you come in next week for your session. We can discuss medication, if that's something you want to continue."
"I didn't like what they gave me in the hospital. It just made me sleepy, didn't shut up my brain."
Tyler hears something like pen against paper, note-taking.
His therapist says, "What are you going to do now, Tyler?"
Tyler frowns at the inquiry, sitting up a little straighter on the mattress. He thought he'd be asked further about the medication, whether he wants to have his dosage upped on the SSRIs and antipsychotics he's taking now. He thinks he would say yes to that. He thinks it'll help him, but his therapist doesn't ask him that.
"I think… I'm—my mom wants to spend the day with me."
"Yes… What are you going to do now?"
And Tyler thinks he gets it, maybe it isn't too difficult to take it one step at a time.
"I'm gonna make up my bed," he says.
His mom and he sit in a worn-out booth at McDonald's. They're isolated from everybody else, but Tyler doesn't trust that they're not being watched. He had agreed to spend time with his mother, and he hasn't spoken a word to her, just hummed his positives and narrowed his eyes at the negatives.
He bites into his hash browns. His mom drinks her coffee.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she asks. She's staring at him, cup of coffee against her bottom lip. "Even if you say no, I think we should talk about it."
"There's nothing to talk about. I tried to kill myself. I didn't. That's all."
"That's all," she repeats.
"But why?" she presses. "I thought—your father thought—you never acted any different, never even… told us anything."
"I didn't wanna bother anyone."
"We thought you were doing well."
"I was doing well," Tyler says, "and I wanted to… wanted to keep it that way."
"And killing yourself would have kept it that way?"
"Do you want to speak to… to our preacher tomorrow? Maybe he could—"
Tyler moves to take another bite, and he does, he bites down, and it's all the wrong texture in his mouth—soggy and hard and rubbery. He spits it up into his napkin, has to stop himself from continuing. It's become almost a reflex at this point to have his esophagus an open doorway.
As much as he wants his mom to drop this subject, she digs in. "Does your therapist want you to… go back to the hospital anytime soon? Maybe for your eating disorder, too?"
He wads up his napkin in his hand. "He thinks my eating disorder is under control. We're just dealing with the, the, like, after-effects of it. You never really leave the recovery phase. You just…" Tyler shrugs. "You just learn how to adapt."
To dissuade his mom from continuing this conversation, Tyler scoops out the dragon figurine from his coat pocket and places it on the table, between his cup of melting ice and his mother's cup of coffee. His mother eyes it, suspicious at first.
Tyler says, "I went to that toy store yesterday, the one we always used to go to when I was a kid. I met a guy there. I know I'm a dumbass for saying this, but he saved my life. How can I repay him?"
For once, his mom smiles at him with nothing but apparent glee on her face. Tyler's paranoia can't even get in the way, not with this, not now.
She says, "For starters, you can tell him that."
But that's scary, isn't it? Tyler struggled through this yesterday, too, after thinking Josh would be the one to change his circumstance—but Josh had, didn't he?
On any other given day, Tyler wouldn't have engaged with a stranger, fearing the worst would come out of their mouth. He would have kept his head low, minded his own business—but yesterday wasn't any other given day. Yesterday was special. He can't compare it to today, where he's meant to revert to a state of normalcy.
He even struggles to come to terms with that. What counts as normal anymore, when the day before he left the hospital after a suicide attempt?
On the sidewalk in front of the toy store, Tyler sits with his back against the skinny trunk of a tree. He has the dragon toy in one hand and his phone in the other. A slow breeze works its way through Tyler's hair, which he tucks behind his ears. The birds overhead chatter.
What is he supposed to say to Josh? Hey, you saved my life. Wanna fuck it up all over again?
Can he begin with an apology, a move he's performed a dozen times? What would he be apologizing for this time? Everything, everything.
In his phone, Josh is listed as "Josh Big Fun," as if Tyler is liable to forget who this is anytime soon. He had hoped those three words would make this easier, lessen the stakes. He's worried nothing will be easy about this, not after Josh had to witness him choking on a small plastic toy.
Could he try to crack a joke? Poke fun at himself? Or would it come across as insensitive from someone who doesn't even know him?
Does he want Josh to know him? Does Josh want him in his life the same way Tyler wants Josh in his? When Tyler leans forward just so, he can see Josh move around the store, talking to some customers animatedly, waving his hands and smiling, laughing.
Should he text Josh? Should he walk into the store, try to buy something? Should he offer the fifty cents for the dragon, despite Josh insisting it wasn't worth it? After they finished at McDonald's, his mom drove him to the ATM. His debit card hadn't been canceled after all.
The door to the store swings open, the small family bounding out with shopping bags and grins. Tyler scrambles to his feet, ditching his phone in his coat pocket, and slides into the store before the door shuts.
Josh is at the counter, his back to Tyler. Tyler takes this moment to start toward him, to stand in front of him like yesterday. "Hey," he says.
Josh spins around. He looks a little taken aback, but he relaxes quickly. He has that smile on his face again. "Oh, hi!" He scoots out the barstool and hops on it. "What can I do for you?"
Tyler holds the dragon toy in his fist. He squeezes it, the wings poking into his skin. "I want to thank you again." Tyler places his empty hand on the counter. He tries to make this a natural move, but Josh glances at his hand, narrows his eyes a bit, and Tyler returns to his personal space, squeezing that dragon and debating if coming in here was truly the right decision.
"You saved my life yesterday," Tyler says, "more than I originally thought."
Then, he says, "I'm also sorry for unloading like that on you. It wasn't fair. I don't know how often you meet… people like me, but I hope it wasn't too detrimental."
"We all have bad days, but that doesn't mean we know how to handle them. All of our experiences are unique to us, including how we react to them."
Josh places his hands on the counter, calculated. He's slow doing it, slower even still as he scoots closer to the counter, his knees against the glass. "I've had my own fair share of mental breakdowns that's scared a few people. Some of them were in public. Some of them were even in here. You don't have to be embarrassed over it. If anybody knows what you're going through, it's me."
Josh holds out his right arm for Tyler, the inside of it up to the ceiling lights. Tyler has to squint to see what Josh is showing off underneath the tattoo encompassing the entirety of his arm, but Tyler's able to pinpoint it straight away. He knows what to look for.
"I was scared of how my life was gonna be like after I got discharged," Josh mumbles. "You just wanna go back to normal, but everybody's acting like nothing will ever be normal again—and I think that sucks, y'know?"
Tyler sniffs. "I'm sorry if the way I acted yesterday triggered anything."
"You're okay, Tyler." Josh stretches across the counter more; Tyler meets him halfway, not quite letting their fingers tangle together, but letting Josh's palm rest on the back of his hand. Josh's skin is warm. It flushes Tyler's body, hot, hot.
"Are you feeling any better?" Josh asks.
"My mom took the day off work to spend time with me."
"But are you feeling better?"
"I'm still clean," Tyler says. "Does that count?"
"It does to me." Josh squeezes Tyler's hand, squeezes it twice—a heartbeat.
Tyler mimics this around the dragon in his hand hanging by his side. He does it just as strong, maybe even stronger. "What did you do after you were discharged? How did you return to normal?"
Josh pulls his hand into his lap. He looks off to the side, down at Jim. A shadow of a smile flashes across his face. It's gone in an instant. "I immediately relapsed. That's what normal was to me. And then, I cleaned myself up and never cut myself again. I don't recommend doing that."
"I won't do that," Tyler says.
Tyler thought about relapsing as he sat under the sidewalk trees, how he could start all over next week—and then, he met Josh, swallowed a tiny plastic dragon; that feels distant now, from another world—a world where he feels ashamed for still living with his parents, a world where he can't hold a job for longer than a couple months, a world where he wakes up and is excited to go back to sleep that night. Josh shifted that world, shook it up like a snow globe, and Tyler watched the buildings and the power lines fold around him to uncover a timeline he knows he doesn't deserve to occupy. And maybe that's the whole point.
"What's your definition of normal?" Josh asks, turning to the register. He pulls at the plastic cup of twenty-five cent buttons and pins and plucks a few out, lines them up. It's absent, almost, his attention still fully on Tyler.
Tyler watches the buttons become the shape of a rainbow, colorful like one, too, with details from TV shows, superhero logos, and cute animals. "It's hard to think about something being normal when you've been told all your life that it isn't normal."
"Give me an example."
Tyler picks at his chin. "I guess, like… what—breathing's normal. I feel like I do that wrong. I have long lungs. Is that normal?"
"If it's normal to you, it's normal."
"How about how I, I don't want to be happy again? How about how I don't want to be happy because I can't be happy all the time, so I would rather not experience that feeling again so I don't get to miss it?"
"Why not just wish not to be sad anymore?"
Tyler twists his thumb into the top of the dragon's head. "Being happy hurts more."
Josh narrows his eyes. "You know how seasons work, right?"
Tyler blinks. "Yes…"
"These periods we're going through," Josh says, "they're like the seasons. Winter is gross, but the promise of spring and summer is a guarantee. And you have to slog through the gross stuff in order to appreciate the rebirth—because that rebirth is also a guarantee. Does that make sense?"
"So, it's like…" Tyler shuts his eyes. "Day and night. The sun will rise, and we can try again."
"Yeah," Josh says. "You just gotta stay alive."
He pushes four buttons across the counter toward Tyler—a set of pronoun buttons. They're in non-stereotyped colors: pink for "he/him," green for "she/her," orange for "they/them," lilac for "ze/hir."
"I'll out myself in the middle of a toy store," says Josh, as he taps the edge of the "he/him" button. "Like I said—if anybody knows what you're going through, it's me."
Tyler places the tiny blue dragon next to the "he/him" button, a chess piece moving into checkmate. When he raises his head, Josh is smiling at him, soft and kind; and Tyler's chest, his ribs, the pressure he is accustomed to feeling is no longer there. He's warm. Oh, God, he's warm.
"Did you just come here to apologize again?" Josh asks, picking up the buttons to return them into the cup. The metal clicks together, sets Tyler on edge. He grinds his teeth so hard that he can't open his mouth to speak, but this doesn't matter; Josh is talking again.
"I get off at six, if you want to hang out or anything after this. I mean, I'd be up to drive you back home if that's all you want to do." After Josh drops the last button in the cup, Tyler feels his entire body relax, first his shoulders, his neck, and finally his jaw. He can talk now. He can talk.
He says, "I don't have anything going on." His voice sounds a little raw, not noticeable.
Josh furrows his brow, pausing for a second. "Do you have to… Does your mom want you back home? Will she be worried?"
"She'll always worry. I'll text her, let her know I'll be out late."
Slowly, Josh shifts his weight on his barstool. He's nodding, smiling a little. "We can chill at my place. Is that cool?"
"Yeah." Tyler smiles, too. "Yeah, that's cool."
Josh's apartment is a one-bedroom unit tucked underneath a wooden staircase that leads to similar units. There's a sense of community here, one that Tyler can smell as soon as he steps onto the patio, can touch as soon as he grazes his fingertips along the stair railing and uncovers cigarette ash. Before Josh invites Tyler inside, he offers to sit out on the porch for a bit. He's timid in his request, wrapping his dog's leash around his palm as he looks at everything except at Tyler directly.
For once, Tyler doesn't feel anxious, not when Josh is sucking it all in enough for the pair of them.
"Yeah," he says, taking a seat at a table overlooking the mud water backyard of the complex. "We can hang here for a bit."
While Jim has no doghouse out here, he does have old padding from a chair cushion he lies upon, tearing into it with his paws when he spies a bug jumping on to join him. He nips at the air.
Josh sits in the rickety plastic chair opposite Tyler. "Sorry. I'm, uh…" He laughs, then, shutting his eyes and tilting his head, hiding his face from Tyler with a palm.
Tyler watches him, his chin propped up on his hands, his own smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He hums.
"I'm what you call"—Josh sighs—"a stoner."
Tyler gasps. "A stoner? A stoner who works in a toy store? What of the children?" He stares at Josh, that smile still on his face, as Josh snatches an ashtray off a nearby table, then dives his hand beneath a flowerpot at their feet. He returns with a pack of cigarettes, Marlboro reds, but Tyler knows that isn't what's inside the carton.
He folds his arms across the tabletop, places his head right on top, and listens to the sound of the plastic wrapping around the cigarette pack crinkle in the most delicate way. Then, the hiss of Josh flicking his lighter, the sharp intake of breath at the initial inhale—Tyler closes his eyes and slowly ingests Josh's secondhand smoke.
"Have you smoked any?" Josh asks. He kicks out his feet, presses the bottoms of his shoes to the leg of Tyler's chair.
"Used to. My family's preacher caught me once. I wasn't smoking at church, before you ask." Tyler raises his head. "I mean, I was in the parking lot, so—"
Josh flicks away ashes, smiling to himself.
"I was supposed to talk to him," Tyler continues. "My mom didn't think my therapist was helping me all that much, so she thought the preacher might help—God might help—and I was so damn nervous that I lit one up right before I was supposed to meet with him one-on-one. Of course, I was late to our appointment—"
"—and he saw my mom's car out in the parking lot. So, he went to check stuff out—"
"—and found you—"
"I don't… I'm not good when I'm high. I don't know how else to explain it." Tyler fans out his hands, looking down at the star shapes he makes with his fingers, the bandages around the ring and index finger on his left hand. "It isn't that I hurt myself or anything like that. It's just… I dunno. It's hard to… words."
Josh says, "I can put it out."
Tyler shakes his head. "No, don't, like… it just makes me think more about stuff—and when I think about stuff, it does nobody any favors. Does that make sense?"
Josh considers this for a moment. When he opens his mouth, Tyler swoops in, saying, "All that reflection basically made me realize I didn't believe in God anymore." He avoids Josh's gaze, instead focuses on his hands and the bandages; he can't remember putting them on, but he must have before deciding to visit Josh. He presses down on the bandages with the pad of his thumb, the pink one first, his ring finger.
"So, when your preacher caught you in the parking lot…," Josh starts.
"Yeah," Tyler says, "it wasn't a good conversation." He rubs at the blue bandage, tapping along the side of his fingers, one by one.
He remembers now. His therapist had tried to get that sharp object out of his hands after he had stabbed himself. What was it? A pen? Scissors? Did Tyler try to fight back? He remembers screaming and screaming.
He places his hands over his eyes. The pressure here is almost as welcoming as the houndstooth coat.
"I don't know if I believe in God anymore either," Josh admits, grinding the end of his joint into the ashtray. "It must've been after my attempt. I guess I was expecting to hear God or something when I woke up—maybe God would have told me my purpose. But… I heard nothing, except for all those doctors trying to decide whether to call my parents again."
Tyler frowns. He drops his hands on the table, a little harder than intended. "What do you mean?"
"They couldn't get hold of my parents." Josh shrugs.
"Who found you, then?"
"My parents," Josh clarifies. "They drove me to the hospital and dropped me off, and I haven't heard from them since. Don't," Josh presses, "look at me like that."
Tyler lowers his gaze. He touches his throat, the side of his neck. His pulse jumps in time with Jim's snore to the left of him.
Tyler wonders if Josh followed through on what he had wanted to do, if Josh had intentionally decided to end his life where his parents could find him. Did Josh want to hurt his parents as much as they hurt him?
"You're close with your parents, aren't you?" Josh asks. "Is that why you look like you're about to cry?" His tone isn't mocking, but it still makes Tyler feel foolish.
"I wouldn't say we're close, but I don't mind being around them."
"My parents were not… as supportive as parents should be. They just—like—" Josh touches his throat now, too, closing his eyes. He squeezes his eyes shut so tightly Tyler swears he can see all the colors bursting behind Josh's eyelids as if they were happening right in front of him. They're colorful, primary hues and soft pastels.
He says, "I'm sorry."
And Josh nods. He opens his eyes and nods and says, "It's fine. I'm used to it. There's no point dwelling on what-could-have-beens." Josh glances at Tyler, glances at his dog, then back at Tyler. "Do you want to go inside now?" He tucks the cigarette packet beneath the flowerpot. "I can put on a movie or something. Do you like tea? I can make you some tea."
Tyler has to avert his eyes again, look out into the trees and the glimpses of apartments in the distance. A dog barks. Someone laughs. It sounds like the world settling in place.
"I… I don't know what I want to do," he admits. "I've never—I, I didn't expect—" Tyler clears his throat, tries again. "Can I be honest with you, Josh?"
From the corner of his eye, Tyler watches Josh lean back in his chair, his elbows propped on the arms of the chair, a hand to his chin. He's studying Tyler, looking him up and down, telling him, "Yes."
His tongue is heavy in his mouth, nearly suffocating him. His mind, though, it's as clear as it's ever been—he's practiced this monologue for years, it seems like. He can recite it in his sleep. "It feels like I've been living my life… passively. I don't make things happen. Things just happen to me, and I let them happen." He pets the dragon's spine. "All my attempts to make something happen to me have ended poorly, and I'm scared that this—being here with you right now—will end the same way."
Tyler grows hotter, can't help it. He allows himself only a moment to openly marvel at that smile on Josh's face—ear to ear, big and small at the same time. It helps him relax, makes it easier to breathe, easier to ground himself. He thinks he should be frightened to see Josh smiling at him right now, but he isn't. He isn't.
Josh says, "You're safe here. You can be in control."
Tyler chews on the inside of his cheek. "Can we—can we do nothing, then, at least at first?"
Josh places his hand on top of Tyler's, still so warm. "We can do nothing at all."
Josh cracks the bedroom door to give them privacy, coaxing his dog to stay in the living room, the bed he has there, his toys.
And it starts to rain once Tyler lays atop the covers. It's a drizzle at first, a methodical tapping along the tin roof, and speeds to a steady hum when Josh stretches next to him. With Tyler lying like this, on his back and his head tilted to look at Josh, his hair falls out of his eyes, and he's worried about being so open with Josh, this man he met only yesterday at the height of his vulnerability. He was so raw, so frightened of the world, and running on the fumes of the sedative the hospital provided. He wanted to die. He swallowed a dragon whole.
He curls his fingers around the figurine in his coat pocket, then rolls onto his side. At this movement, Josh pulls away, detaches, lies on his back like Tyler had before. This rise and fall, it's like breathing.
How would Josh have reacted if Tyler had sent that text he entertained sending in front of the toy store? Hey, you saved my life. Wanna fuck it up all over again? Would Josh be into that? He's here with Tyler now, lolling his head on his shoulders and closing his eyes, tapping his socked foot to whatever song's in his head. The rain is a rival for Tyler's anxiety roaring up his throat.
Tyler wishes he could remember the last time he felt stable. All his medications, his declining mental health, the scars along his body—both natural and artificial—were they all the marks of someone getting better or someone fooled into thinking they would get better?
It seems like for all his life Tyler has tried to regain a semblance of control. He started with his body, his name. He binged and purged and starved himself just enough—anything to feel wanted, to feel important and right. He came out to his parents when he was a hellbent teenager who wore homemade stitches of tape and butterfly bandages along the inside of his thighs.
Has he ever truly felt like himself?
And who is he now, with his professional stitches and gauze wrist wrappings, a chest made of scars, and a stomach and thighs with stretch marks? Is this who he's meant to be until he closes his eyes for the last time? Someone too broken? Someone who's okay with that?
And he knows he's doing this to himself. His self-sabotage has always been a sweet romance. The venom on his tongue tasted dependent at times, saccharine like nectar. It was good—in the moment. He swallowed. He suffered.
He swallowed a dragon whole.
The wooden bed frame groans when Josh rolls over to look at him. Tyler stares at the bed covers, the geometric shapes of blues and pinks and the faintest hint of red, lingering. He touches them, traces these patterns, and Josh shifts to watch his fingers run along the comforter. He says nothing, and neither does Tyler. Is there anything to say?
Yes—Tyler speaks Josh's name, a quiet chirp of a noise that tugs up Josh's eyes, and Tyler—Tyler dives in for another lap of his own self-sabotage; he kisses Josh.
To his embarrassment, he moans sharp and low, has to cut himself off by turning his head, biting his lip, and Josh—he doesn't laugh, doesn't make fun of him; he brings Tyler back to him with a gentle prod of his fingers against Tyler's jaw.
Carefully, he kisses Tyler again.
Tyler appreciates it, this easing into it, abating the nauseating heat beginning to travel up his body. It attaches to him in waves that blink in intensity, several degrees at once. It culminates in his throat, right where his anxiety sleeps, and it's hard, everything is so hard; but kissing Josh feels natural to him, and yet, his stomach leaps up to his throat, and he has to turn his head and look over to the window, the crooked blinds, the rain pouring, the wind blowing, and Josh doesn't notice how hard this is for him.
He's kissing the side of Tyler's face, under his chin, his neck. Right over Tyler's Adam's apple is where he stops, but Tyler thinks Josh can go all night if Tyler didn't need to breathe. This break in his steady inhales, Josh catches it on his lips. He pulls away. "What's wrong?" he asks, slow and a little sick.
"Nothing's wrong," Tyler says. "Nothing's wrong. Nothing's wrong—"
He feels at his neck, the wet prints left behind by Josh's mouth. Tyler shouldn't trust him, not entirely, but he does—God, he does—Josh has matching scars, matching brains. Josh is burrowing his face into the side of Tyler's neck, just breathing him in and rubbing up his chest. The way he touches Tyler, it's like he's touching himself; it's a natural ebb and flow, give and take—and Tyler hasn't experienced that in a long time.
"What is this?" Josh says, and places his hand around Tyler's neck, taking over for him, a delicate grasp. "What do you want from me?"
"What do you want from me?" Tyler replies, his voice trembling the littlest bit at Josh's fingers squeezing his neck. The pressure is gone in an instant, a reflex, in time with the rumble of thunder. "I don't deserve this," Tyler says. "I don't deserve you."
"No," Josh says. "No." He brushes his hand over the top of Tyler's scalp, pushing away any remnants of Tyler's hair still clinging to his face. "D'ya know what I think, Tyler? I think you deserve more than you think you do. You deserve the whole fucking world. We all do. We deserve nothing less than that—and I know that for a fucking fact."
His fingers curl into Tyler's hair at the crown of his head. "After I tried killing myself, I came home to an empty apartment and relapsed. I had no friends. I didn't want friends. Do you have friends? Have they reached out to you?"
Tyler thinks of his silent phone. "I'm sure they have their own problems going on."
"Do they know about your problems?" And Josh tightens his grip, then eases up, shakes it all away. "Depending on people, leaning on them, talking to them and loving them and kissing them and fucking them—you're allowed to do all of that. I know it's scary. I know it's the scariest feeling in the world to give yourself up to someone—but, Tyler—"
"Stop," Tyler whispers.
Josh throws himself to the other side of the bed. "I'm here. I invited you here—"
"You kissed me."
"I didn't think you'd kiss me back."
And that's it; that's what sends Josh to him again, twisting onto his stomach and leaning into him, his forehead to Tyler's shoulder. From what Tyler can see, Josh has his eyes shut, his lips tightly together. When he opens his mouth, his voice blends in with all the rain so well Tyler has to tilt his head to listen.
"I'll take care of you… if you'll let me. Do we want a safe word?" he asks—and the "we," not "you," we, we, we—that means so much to Tyler.
He turns his head, presses a small kiss to the side of Josh's face.
"Trash," Tyler mumbles.
He nudges Josh up, sliding out and beginning the task of removing his thrift-store coat. He folds it, places it over the footboard of Josh's bed. And he says, "Sorry. I haven't been with anybody since my top surgery."
Josh sits up and peppers a kiss to Tyler's cheek. He untucks his shirt from his khakis, undoes his belt. "Tell me what you want," he says, "and I'll do it. You're in control. Tell me what to do."
Tyler yanks Josh's belt from the loops of his pants and throws it behind him. "Eat me out." It's more timid than he intended. He wants to be bolder, stronger, assertive, but he's weak, faltering at the thought of actually receiving what he requests, so he tacks on, "If that's okay?"
Cupping Tyler's cheek, Josh says, "That'd be more than okay."
They're desperate now, the pair of them. Josh has Tyler undressed from the waist down and his thighs around his head in a matter of minutes.
And the way he's sucking on Tyler's clit, kissing everywhere he can reach from here—Josh has no plans to resurface anytime soon. Tyler's fine with that, really; his SSRIs make it difficult for him to come anyway.
And after he comes, Josh gathers him into his arms, cradles him to his chest, and Tyler clutches Josh's waist, his hips, lower and lower—"It felt like I was choking."
"Choke me," Josh says. "Choke me."
Tyler's never touched another man's cunt before, let alone eaten one out, but he knows what he likes, and Josh likes what he likes; and after Josh comes, Tyler holds him just as close and just as tight.
And the storm clouds part, just enough, just enough.
Sometime during the night, Tyler wakes from a nightmare. It's like the one he had last time, with all the vomit and lack of feeling in his hands. He's not protected by his dragons this time, though. Josh is here. He's awake, too, the corner of the comforter tossed over his body in a haphazard fashion. He's naked beneath that, pale skin as bright as the moon peeking through the crooked blinds.
Tyler looks down at himself, the unbuttoned shirt with the outlines of red flowers, the old scars across his chest, the littering of body hair. He sets his hands on his stomach, his palms cold, clammy; Josh's hand joins the mix, resting on Tyler's ribs. As always, he's warm.
"You okay?" he asks, running the side of his thumb across Tyler's nipple. "You were talking a bit. Couldn't really understand what you were saying." Josh rolls the rest of the way over, settling on his stomach and making a home in Tyler's neck. "D'ya wanna talk about it?"
"I didn't mean to wake you."
"I woke myself up. You're good."
"Did you have a bad dream?"
"The opposite," Josh says. "I had to wake up to see if it was real." He flicks his thumb over Tyler's nipple again. "It was."
"I need to clean my stitches."
This is slow, unspoken—Josh kicking the blankets off him, Tyler following him into the bathroom, Tyler putting down the toilet lid and sitting down, Josh digging in the medicine cabinet and taking out what Tyler needs.
It stings a little, physically and emotionally, making him wince. He forms fists and fights to keep his head down. Josh is so slow, so kind, and Tyler has to look at him. Crow's feet have already planted all around the edges of his eyes, deepening when he squints to inspect Tyler's wrist. Josh might need glasses. Tyler remembers seeing something similar to a glasses case on the nightstand. He's remembering a lot about Josh's room now, now that he's away from it—the glasses, the scratches in the bedposts, the rug by the dresser that has the same pattern as the shower curtain at Tyler's parents' house.
Josh peels off a roll of the gauze, securing it around Tyler's wrist. It's a little tighter than Tyler or his nurses have had it before, and Josh senses this, for he loops it looser the second time around.
Quietly, his voice slips out. "I have the next week off for vacation." He holds Tyler's wrist once it's covered, clean and dry, tapping along the bandages. Tyler pretends it's Morse code—if only, if only. "I guess it's good you came into the store when you did. You would have barely missed me."
And this is unspoken, too—it's good you tried to kill yourself when you did.
Tyler stands there, hip pressed into the sink counter, Josh's hand on his wrist, his own hand on Josh's shoulder. He wants to kiss him. He wants to do everything with him.
"Where were you planning on going for vacation?"
Josh shakes his head at first, like the thought shames him. Then, he stares at Tyler, and Tyler sees that shame float away at the blink of an eye. "Nowhere, really. I was just gonna stay cooped up here."
"I think that sounds like a good vacation," Tyler says.
"Thanks. I thought so, too."
When they're back in the bedroom, Josh grabs his clothes from the hardwood and starts to pull them on. Tyler, already sitting down on the bed covers, reaches for his clothes, until Josh says, "Wait—lemme get you something more comfortable."
A pair of red basketball shorts and a t-shirt with a Keith Haring baby on it, the articles of clothing hang off Tyler's frame. He has to tie the shorts. Josh busies himself by rolling up Tyler's sleeves. "I thought you were my size," he mumbles.
"I think I was. I will be—again. I'm working on it."
Josh's kiss is dry against his cheek, wetter against his shoulder. "Take your time." Parting words, parting gesture, Josh worms back toward the bed, tossing aside the covers for real this time and crawling beneath them. Around Tyler, Josh makes a place for him to curl into, when he's ready—Tyler feels it behind him, all the blankets piled up to his back, but he ignores it, instead crawls over to the footboard of Josh's bed.
Tyler digs in his coat pocket, pulls out that small blue dragon. In between his forefinger and thumb, he lies down next to Josh and holds up the figurine for Josh to see.
Hesitant, his eyes never leaving Tyler's, Josh takes the dragon. "How are you feeling?" He runs his thumb over the top of the dragon's head, petting it like Tyler, petting it like he's flicking a lighter.
"I'm okay," Tyler says. "I'm still scared."
"What are you scared of at this exact moment?"
Tyler bites at the inside of his cheek. "You breaking that dragon."
And at this, Josh places the dragon on the nightstand and settles down next to Tyler. He's back in Tyler's neck, back to closing his eyes, back to breathing. "What are you thinking about now?"
That dragon, it roars as loud as the oncoming thunder.
"I know it's over," Tyler tells Josh, shutting his eyes and burying his nose into Josh's unruly curls. "I know the worst is over now."