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the shortest straw

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October 1988

Kirk’s favorite thing about touring is rooming with Lars after each show. They leave the band party early, fingers brushing each others’ hands on the walk back to the hotel, then Lars steals a long, sloppy kiss because the elevator is empty. In the shower, their hands and mouths skim over wet skin. Kirk likes to leave hickeys on the inside of Lars’ thighs as secret reminders of their liasons.

If James and Jason have suspicions about the thing percolating between Kirk and Lars, it’s unspoken. They’re all still reeling from the loss of Cliff two years earlier. Jason, being the new guy, probably feels he has no right to criticize how Kirk and Lars behave behind closed doors. And James most likely tolerates Kirk and Lars’ open, unpleasant secret for the sake of unity.

Tonight, Kirk lay in bed, flipping through channels on the hotel TV while Lars stands in front of the bathroom mirror drying his hair. Even in these early stages of their relationship, there’s a level of comfortable domesticity between them.

How did Kirk get so lucky?

You know exactly how, his subconscious speaks from some deep place within him. Maybe Kirk does, and maybe he feels a little (or a lot) guilty about it.

Lars shuts off the dryer and stands in front of the TV, blocking Kirk’s view. “Looking for the stud channel?” Lars says, planting his hands on his hips in a gesture that does nothing for his masculinity. “It’s right here.”

“Big talk for a twink in his underwear,” Kirk says. He switches off the TV, far more interested in teasing Lars, which is practically foreplay for them at this point.

“You and your smart fucking mouth.” Lars crawls onto the bed and straddles Kirk’s hips. “Put it to good use.”

“Not from where I’m sitting.” Kirk isn’t that flexible, though he does sit up to kiss Lars’ smirking lips. From there, kissing leads to roaming hands, which leads to Lars taking Kirk inside and burying a moan into his shoulder.

Lars is a vocal power bottom (though drums aren’t the only thing he can give a good pounding, much to Kirk’s delight), and surely the entire floor must hear him swearing over and over as he works his way to orgasm. Or maybe it’s Kirk who makes the most noise, gasping Lars’ name like a prayer while coming inside of him.

Afterwards, as they lay tangled in the dark, Kirk murmurs, “Do you ever feel guilty?”

Lars knows what he means. “Sometimes. But we made the best of a bad situation. What else were we supposed to do?”

“It just feels wrong sometimes, is all.”

“You are so unsexy when you’re having a moral dilemma. Can you at least get naked next time?”

“I’m almost naked.”

“But all my favorite parts are covered,” Lars says with a devious smile.

Kirk glances down at his own chest. “No love for nipples, huh?”

“When it comes to you, I’m an ass man.”

“More like a ‘take-it-in-the-ass man’,” Kirk says as he turns onto his side.

“Fuck you,” Lars says with love.

“Tomorrow night. I’m beat.”

Lars curls around him, his chest pressed to Kirk’s back, and they doze.

At some point in the night, Kirk awakens to darkness. He checks the bedside clock — 3 a.m., still plenty of time before his flight out — but as he does, something catches the periphery of his vision.

Moonlight streams through the edges of the window shade, illuminating the room just enough for Kirk to make out a human figure standing in front of the TV, just as Lars did hours earlier.

Except it isn’t Lars, because Lars is fast asleep beside Kirk.

Kirk’s skin goes cold. His heartbeat becomes thunder in his ears.

For the briefest moment, Kirk considers that James or Jason broke into the room to play some stupid prank. But the intruder isn’t tall enough to be either of them.

Part of Kirk wants to grab Lars and run like hell out of the room, both of them screaming and scrambling down the hall in their underwear. But all Kirk can do is stare at the statue-still figure.

There must have been a cloud passing over the moon, because more light fills the room now, enough that Kirk can recognize the intruder. It’s not just the sight of himself, disembodied and standing at the foot of the bed, that makes all rational thought drop out of Kirk’s mind. It’s the blood. The face of his doppelganger is smeared with dark blood pouring in sheets from his hairline.

Kirk yelps and fumbles for the bedside lamp. As his shaking, sweaty fingers flip the switch, his mind screams, it won’t work! That thing will still be there when you turn on the light!

The lamp lights the room like a supernova. He sees the table pushed against the wall, covered with empty beer cans, bottles, and dirty clothes. He sees the television on top of the dresser. What he doesn’t see is a ghost or anyone else in the room.

“What the fuck,” Kirk whispers, then louder: “What the fuck?”

Beside him, Lars stirs, his long hair fanned across the pillow.

On shaking legs, Kirk slides out of bed and goes to check the bathroom. He stands in the open doorway and switches on the light. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a regular hotel bathroom, complete with Lars’ bottles of hair products on the countertop. The familiarity is almost comforting, and Kirk steps inside. He pushes aside the shower curtain. No ghosts hiding there.

It occurs to him that maybe he’s being ridiculous, though in all fairness Kirk never experienced anything like this before. He grew up hearing ghost stories, and as a child he often mistook mundane shadows in his bedroom for hideous monsters, but every kid knows the rules: monsters can’t get you if you hide under the covers. Somehow, Kirk doubts that same strategy will work now that he’s a twenty-five-year-old man.

He turns the tap on the sink, lowering his face to splash it with cold water. If Kirk sees anything but himself in the mirror when he rises up, he’s punching the fucking glass, tomorrow night’s show be damned.

But only his reflection stares back at him. No ghostly, blood-soaked doppelganger.

Maybe it was a dream, a dream that frightened Kirk so deeply he turned on the light as soon as he woke up. But Kirk doesn’t really believe that. He awakened, then saw the figure, not the other way round.

Kirk shuts off the bathroom light and shuffles back to bed. Lars is half-awake, watching Kirk through bleary, squinting eyes. “Morning already?”

“No, I just — ” Kirk isn’t sure how to continue. He can’t say, “I thought I saw a ghost, but it disappeared when I turned on the light, so I checked the bathroom, just in case the ghost had to piss before heading back to the spirit world. Also, the ghost was me.”

“I had a bad dream,” Kirk says instead, knowing Lars will be sympathetic. After Cliff’s death, Kirk, James, and Lars all experienced their share of nightmares.

Lars makes a noise of understanding and holds out his arms, beckoning Kirk to find comfort there. “Turn that fucking light off first.”

Kirk fears the ghost will reappear if he turns off the lamp. But there’s a possibility, however slim, that Kirk imagined the whole thing. That’s what Lars would tell him, along with a friendly but tired jab about too many horror movies rotting Kirk’s brain.

Kirk shuts off the light and burrows into Lars’ warm embrace, peering into the dark. Within minutes, Lars is snoring softly against Kirk’s bare chest. Kirk glances around the room, his eyes seeking shadows in dark corners.

It takes Kirk a long time to fall asleep again.

Next time, it’s Lars who sees the ghost. They’re in London, snacking on potato chips in their hotel room. Lars goes into the bathroom to take a leak, and after he finishes, he turns around to move for the sink. That’s when he sees Kirk standing by the closed door, gazing at him. Fake blood drips down Kirk’s face from his hairline.

“Were you trying to scare me?” Lars wonders, sticking his hands under the running faucet. “You’re so fucking weird.”

He glances at Kirk again. Lars is fairly certain Kirk was wearing a Metallica tee and not a plain black shirt, but maybe he spilled beer on it and changed shirts while Lars was in here. It’s not impossible, but an odd feeling comes over Lars all the same.

“Oh, Lars,” Kirk sighs in that familiar, tender way of his. He moves closer, bracing himself on the edge of the sink and watching Lars like he’s never seen a human before.

A week ago, that might have stricken Lars as odd, but since his recent nightmare Kirk’s behavior has taken a turn for the strange. Stranger than normal, at least. He claims that his bad dream must be an omen warning of his impending death, and he’s been obsessed with avoiding any potential risks.

So, sure, this is weird, but Lars is used to weird where Kirk’s concerned.

Lars shuts off the tap, and Kirk lays a hand on his arm. Kirk’s touch is cold, freezing Lars in place. “Hey... I love you, okay?” Kirk says. “No matter what happens, you have to remember that.”

Lars makes a pathetic little squeak and stumbles back against the sink. They’ve never said that to each other before, and Lars sees no reason for Kirk to get sappy now unless he truly thinks he’s going to die. Metallica already lost Cliff; no fucking way is Kirk going out too. Lars will fight the Grim Reaper personally if he has to.

Kirk’s touch slides from Lars’ arm to his hand, clasping it in both of his own. Lars knows Kirk’s touch, and it’s never been this cold; there’s an almost inhuman quality to the hand grasping him now, though Lars can’t describe how, exactly.

“Um, okay, thanks, but seriously, man, you gotta chill the fuck out,” Lars says.

Kirk takes hold of Lars’ face, and Lars gets a closer look at the blood caked to Kirk’s skin. It runs in dark trails, as though someone cracked a huge, gory egg over his head. His curls are matted together.

“‘Thanks’?” Kirk says, incredulous. “Lars, you don’t just say ‘thanks’ when someone says they love you. Especially when I — ” He stops, swallows, and starts again. “You have to say it. I fucking swear, if you don’t, you’ll regret it forever.” There’s no anger in his voice, just a terrible pleading that unsettles Lars.

“Okay, for fuck’s sake. I love you, you fuckin’ psycho.” Lars blushes at the weight of his words.

Kirk smiles and steps back, releasing Lars’ hands. “Great. Now tell him for real.”

Lars blinks, and before he can properly process that, Kirk is gone. Lars blinks again, figuring if Kirk disappeared in one blink he might reappear in another. But it’s just Lars standing there in the bathroom, the overhead lights gleaming on the porcelain.

“What the fuck?” Lars says aloud to his own reflection.

He dashes out of the bathroom, and there Kirk is, sitting crosslegged on the bed with a handful of chips shoved into his mouth. He gives Lars a confused look. The blood is gone, washed away as if it had never existed, and the logo across Kirk’s T-shirt is Metallica’s own.

“What?” Kirk says with his mouth full as light from the TV flickeres across his face.

(“Now tell him for real.”)

Lars shakes his head. “Nothing.”

Metallica plays two more shows in London, and Kirk sees his dead doppelganger in the crowd of each one. During his solos, Kirk looks into the sea of faces and finds his own bloodied one staring back at him. No one else seems to notice the dead Metallica guitarist in their midst, but they don’t stand too close, as if sensing some unnatural energy in his presence.

Kirk looks down at his hands — not that he needs to, but watching himself in the crowd while he’s also onstage is a bit of a mindfuck — and when he glances up again, the ghost is gone. But somehow Kirk knows he’ll be back.

Kirk can’t understand why his own ghost is, for lack of a better word, haunting him. Kirk isn’t dead. If any spirit is going to haunt him, it should be Cliff. Cliff probably hates Kirk for not taking his own bunk that awful night on the tour bus. Either of them could have punched their ticket that night, but the dice rolled one way, and Cliff cashed out.

They just passed the two-year anniversary of Cliff’s death. Four nights from now, the band will play in Sweden. Given that Cliff died there, it only makes sense that this ghost is a manifestation of Kirk’s own survivor’s guilt and unresolved trauma from that cold September night.

I could probably get used to him, Kirk thinks, catching sight of his ghost in the crowd as he starts up “Seek and Destroy.” It’s not like he can hurt me, right?

But what if he can? What if Kirk’s own spirit haunts him for years, decades, hovering nearby on his deathbed and following Kirk into the afterlife?

The ghost is waiting for them in their Stockholm hotel room after a night of partying. Kirk and Lars freeze in the entryway, the heavy door thunking shut behind them as they see a bloodied Kirk sitting in the armchair by the window.

Kirk unconsciously holds Lars back with a hand, protective, the way he used to do with his little sister when they approached a crosswalk on the way to school.

“Fuck!” Lars gasps. “You see him too?”

“Don’t run,” the ghost says in Kirk’s own voice. “Please, I just want to talk. I won’t hurt you.”

Running through the hotel screaming about ghosts will probably get them kicked out, rock stars or not. Kirk and Lars exchange a look, sharing the intuition they’ve cultivated over five years of playing and writing music together. Deciding to hear what this ghostly apparition of Kirk has to say, they move closer.

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” Ghost Kirk says with a sheepish smile. “I didn’t know how else to get in touch.”

“Use the fucking phone like everyone else,” Lars says, his voice trembling.

“Have you — has anyone seen you before?” Kirk asks his doppelganger. “Or am I the lucky one?”

“I saw him once,” Lars says.

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“You’d think I was fucking insane!”

The ghost watches them with fondness. Kirk recognizes the smile on his twin’s face; it’s the same one he wears while watching Lars do something ridiculous, like he can’t believe he’s fallen for this chaotic little gremlin.

“Did you tell him yet?” the ghost says to Lars.

Lars scowls, folding his arms over his chest. “Are you fucking kidding me? Is that why you’re here, to play couple’s therapist?”

“Tell me what?” Kirk says. “What the fuck’s going on, Ghost Me? I’m not dead yet, so are you, like, a hallucination? That apparently Lars can see too for some reason?”

“See, that’s the thing,” the ghost says. “You are dead. I’m you, remember?”

Kirk swallows. “So I’m really going to die soon? Holy shit. Jesus. Fuck. Just — just tell me when and how and maybe I can — ”

“You died two years ago. On September 27th, 1986.”

The significance of the date isn’t lost on Kirk. All of the strength runs out of him then, and he drops onto the bed, dazed like a boxer who’s taken too many punches.

Lars wipes a hand across his face, then scrubs it through his hair. “No, that’s when Cliff died.”

The ghost nods and smiles the way a teacher would at a pupil who doesn’t quite get it. “In your timeline, yeah. But in mine, Cliff slept up front on the bus, and I took my bunk.” He spreads his hands. “And here I am.”

“No,” Lars says, shaking his head as if he can shake away what he’d just heard. “No, that’s — no way.”

“There’s a theory — that I guess isn’t so much a theory anymore as it is the way things work — about parallel universes. Every possible decision and choice gets spun off into its own branch of reality,” the ghost explains. “So there’s a timeline where you” — he points to Lars — “followed your family legacy and became a tennis star. One where James’ mom never died, one where Dave stayed in the band, even one where Kill ‘Em All was a total flop and Metallica never went anywhere.” He looks at them both. “Yours is the one where I survived but Cliff didn’t.”

“And you’ve seen all of these timelines?” Kirk asks, feeling like he’s floating despite being anchored to the bed.

“I’ve done my share of traveling,” says the ghost. “But I was mostly interested in this one.”

“Why? Why not the one where there’s no bus accident at all?” Kirk says. “Wouldn’t that be better for you? Where the band goes on without a hitch?”

“Sure, but you can’t be haunted if you’re unaware you survived by a stroke of luck.”

“This is fucking crazy!” Lars blurts out. “There’s no way you’re Kirk from an alternate dimension where he fucking dies instead of Cliff!”

“You believed I was Kirk,” the ghost says, almost accusing. “When I came to you the other night. You didn’t doubt for a second until I disappeared.”

“Because why the fuck would I assume you were a ghost?”

“What are you doing here, then?” Kirk asks, trying to steer them back on track. “What do you want?”

“I want you to help me pass on to the other side,” the ghost says. “I think one of you can help me do it.”

“You want us to kill you?” Lars says.

“I’m already dead, man. Just help me catch up to my Lars while there’s still time.”

A shockwave ripples through Kirk’s chest. “‘Catch up’?”

“What does that mean?” Lars asks, but he already knows. They both do.

A look of pain crosses the ghost’s face. “My Lars is dead.”

Kirk thinks of Lars on that cold, icy night, of the glimmer of relief in his own chest and the words that pulsed in his brain: he’s alive. He’s alive.

Kirk can’t imagine a world without Lars.

“Your timeline is fucking bullshit!” Lars crows.

“You’re not wrong about that,” Ghost Kirk says with a sigh.

Lars’ voice trembles as he says, “Did I die in the crash too?”

“No, you survived that, just like you did here.” Ghost Kirk shifts in the chair. “But in your reality, I acted on my feelings for you. And I think Cliff’s death had a hand in that.”

Kirk and Lars grew closer in their shared grief, unified by the dark understanding that tomorrow may never come. Emboldened by that fragility, Kirk drunkenly admitted his attraction to Lars. Lucky for him, Lars felt the same way about Kirk.

Kirk shudders to think of a timeline where that attraction is unrequited and, even worse, intolerable.

“So when I died,” the ghost goes on, looking at Lars, “you were a mess, because you never got to tell me how you felt. Maybe it would’ve been worse if you had and lost me anyway. I’ll never know.” He shrugs, a gesture so human it makes Kirk shiver. “You tried to soldier on with the band, of course. You hired another guitarist, but you couldn’t see him as anything but a poor replacement for me.”

Kirk wonders if that’s how James views Jason: a second-rate stand-in for Cliff. Is the tragic story of that timeline’s Kirk and Lars playing out in this one, their roles filled by Cliff and James?

“Who took my place?” Kirk asks, because of course he’s curious.

Ghost Kirk smiles. “I knew you’d ask that. It was Kerry King, by the way. From Slayer.”


Lars whirls on Kirk. “‘Nice’? Half of Metallica’s fucking dead!”

“What’s Justice sound like in your timeline?” Kirk asks his ghost.

“I can’t really compare. I’ve only heard your version of the album a handful of times, y’know, at your shows.”

“So how the fuck did I die, then?” Lars says, impatient and irritated.

“You swallowed double handfuls of James’ leftover painkillers from one of his skateboarding accidents. You took them with a bottle of vodka. You were really determined to die that time.”

That time.

Those words pierce Kirk’s heart like a fish hook, but Lars groans and said, “God, that’s so fucking lame. Why couldn’t I have died doing something cool, like jumping a motorcycle through flaming hoops?”

“It was on the anniversary of my death. This year.”

Kirk doesn’t realize his cheeks are wet until he wipes his face. “Jesus fucking Christ. How do you know all of this?”

“Because I watched it happen. I’ve been stuck in this hell of a purgatory for two years, but I thought it wouldn’t be so bad if I could watch over Lars. I wanted to see him move on and live a happy life without me.” A tragic smile crosses Ghost Kirk’s face. “Maybe there’s a timeline where that happens.”

“He never saw you?” Lars asks.

The ghost shakes his head sadly. “I tried to make him see me, but it never worked. If it had, maybe I could’ve saved him.”

“So how come we can see you?” Lars asks.

“I don’t know.” Ghost Kirk shrugs again. He looks so incredibly human, and perhaps he is — or, at least, he used to be. “I don’t know why you can see me, Lars. Kirk, it makes sense, since we’re the same person. Maybe we’re on the same spiritual wavelength or something.”

“How’d you get to our timeline?”

“Losing you — um, my Lars, sorry — must have broken the last link I had to my reality. I was able to travel to different timelines. I guess they’re more like strings. Maybe somewhere there’s a master of puppets pulling them.”

“Is there a timeline where you aren’t a corny motherfucker?” Lars asks with an edge of fondness.

Ghost Kirk grins. “I gotta be me.”

If someone told Kirk a week ago that he’d be chatting with an alternate version of himself like a long lost friend, he would have laughed.

“So how do we, um, put you to rest?” Lars says, fumbling for a polite euphemism for killing a ghost. “I’m not trying to be a dick or anything, but your life sounds like it sucks, and if, um, euthanizing you would make you happy, that’s what we want.”

Ghost Kirk chuckles, but there’s a sad edge to it. “There’s the million-dollar question. I guess I feel like there might be some closure here, y’know, in this timeline. Since you can see me. Since I’m a branch of you,” he says, looking at Kirk. “Or you’re a branch of me.”

“Well, ghosts exist ‘cause they can’t find peace, right?” Kirk says, thinking out loud. He’s watched enough horror movies to know the tropes; maybe one of them will prove correct. “Unfinished business and all.”

“Or traumatic deaths,” his ghost adds.

“Sure, but I don’t think being in denial about your death is what’s keeping you from moving on. Coming to us and asking for help dying is pretty cut-and-dry acceptance.”

Lars’ mouth drops open, and he turns to Kirk. “His unfinished business is me! Or us. He died before we ever got together, so maybe… Do I have to get fucked by a ghost? I’ll take one for the team. It’s not cheating if it’s the same person from a different timeline, right?”

Both Kirks laugh in eerie stereo.

Kirk says, “Maybe we don’t have to go that far.” Though a threesome with a ghost version of himself isn’t entirely off the table, if that’s what it takes. “We’re the same person, so maybe we can, like, share memories.” He looks at his ghostly mirror sitting in the chair. “I have two years of great memories with Lars. I can try to show them to you. Maybe that will give you some peace.”

Worry creases the ghost’s blood-caked brow. “What if it works both ways? What if you get my memories? You want your own death in your head? The years I had to watch Lars fall apart? Watching him die slow and awful right in front of you? No, no, you don’t want any of that.”

Of course Kirk wants none of those memories, but if that’s the burden he has to bear to give his alternate self some comfort and a chance at a happy afterlife, it seems only fair to take on a few more bad dreams in exchange for surviving the crash. For being with Lars.

“I already have nightmares,” Kirk says with a shrug. He holds out his hand, beckoning for the ghost to take it. “But you could use some good dreams.”

“Wait!” Lars breaks in, and Kirk lowers his hand. “What if it’s a trap? What if you touch him and he fucking takes over your body? His life sucks, so he’ll steal yours and ride off into the sunset.”

Kirk shakes his head. “He’s me. And I would never do that.”

“But don’t ghosts get all fucked up in the head the longer they’re in limbo?” Lars asks. “They get vengeful and violent even if they weren’t that way before?”

Kirk is oddly touched that Lars has picked that up through watching horror movies with him and listening to Kirk ramble about occult shit. “He seems cool to me.” Kirk offers his hand to the ghost again. “C’mon, man. I’m not afraid.”

The ghost rises from his chair and steps forward, watching Kirk’s proffered hand as though it’s a snake that might bite him. With great care, he takes Kirk’s hand in his own. His touch is cold, but light bursts through Kirk and warms him from the inside out. The world vibrates like a guitar string, but he holds on, grabbing the ghost’s other hand to bolster their connection.

He sees the awful things the ghost warned him about, images spinning around and bumping together like scattered marbles: the topsy-turvy roll of the bus before everything went black; Lars’ unbearable sobs over Kirk’s body; James hauling a worryingly pale Lars into a cold shower; Lars downing handfuls of pills with vodka while James and Cliff slept nearby; James sobbing, “You fucking coward!” as he tries to shake Lars awake in a drab hotel room.

Kirk chases those images away with his own good memories: Lars’ blushing grin when Kirk confessed his crush; the boozy taste of his kisses; the way he clings to Kirk at night, pressed up tight against him; the gentle touch of his hands; the sweet sound of his moans when Kirk blows him; the secret smiles they share in stolen moments.

A bright, warm light fills the ghost, and he glows like a carved pumpkin on Halloween. “Thank you,” he says, his voice wobbling with emotion. “I think I can go now.”

Kirk holds on. The ghost changes shape then, losing the form of Kirk himself and becoming amorphous, a blob of light and energy as bright as an exploding star. Then the light fades, and he’s gone.

Kirk’s hands drop to his sides, trembling slightly.

“Did that seriously just fucking happen?” Lars says from behind Kirk. He sits on the bed as his legs give out. “And we can’t even tell anyone about this! They’ll think we’re totally batshit.”

“They already think that,” Kirk says. At least they have each other. It was worse before, when Kirk saw his own ghost and had no one to confide in.

Kirk sits beside Lars, staring at the chair as if expecting the ghost to return. “What a mindfuck.”

“Yeah,” Lars agrees. They sit there in silence, absorbing what just transpired and once again contemplating mortality.

After a moment, Lars says, “You think there’s a timeline where I turned you down?”

“According to Ghost Me? Absolutely.” A grim thought, and Kirk has quite enough of those to last a lifetime.

“What did he show you?”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s not real.”

“It was for him. And you’re the same person, so now it’s real for you too.”

Kirk doesn’t want to talk or even think about his alternate self’s life, though he can’t help but wonder if there’s a branch of that timeline where Lars puked up the pills and decided to live. Kirk hopes there is, for sanity’s sake.

“What did the ghost want you to tell me?” Kirk asks to divert the conversation.

Blush colors Lars’ cheeks, his mouth twisting into a pout. “That I love you,” he mumbles, but Kirk hears him loud and clear.

Kirk knows Lars loves him even without a verbal admission, but he understands Lars needs to say it out loud for his own sake.

And maybe Kirk needs to as well.

“I love you too,” Kirk tells him, covering Lars’ hand with his own.

Things left unsaid are their own kind of ghosts.