They pick him up on the side of the road.
“Where are you guys going?” he asks, leaning down to look at them through the rolled down passenger seat window.
His voice is a mix of accents that neither Zia nor Eugene can place. They look at him and he looks back at them. The red of his hoody is the brightest colour Zia thinks he can ever remember seeing here. He blinks, but no, that does not alter it.
“East-ish,” he remembers to reply after a beat.
The guy in his red, red hoody pauses. “East-ish?”
Zia looks at Eugene. Eugene shrugs.
It seems to be good enough because the guy gets into Eugene’s car. He says name is Eduardo. He is tall, dark eyed and tells them he is looking for the People in Charge.
“There’s been a mistake,” he says as he buckles himself into the backseat. “I’m not meant to be here.”
At this, Eugene looks at Zia.
Zia isn’t sure if that’s a first or if it’s something he’s heard before. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Eugene thinks Eduardo is new, and that he needs to accept the situation. Eduardo is new, he tells them. He’s only been here a few weeks. But he doesn’t pay any attention to Eugene. Whenever they stop, he talks anyone that will listen (and some that don’t) to try and find leads.
There aren’t any. But that doesn’t stop him either.
Time and space are different here. Or wherever they are.
(They keep driving.)
Eduardo doesn’t care where they’re going; he just wants to go somewhere. Eugene thinks that’s an admirable quality for a person to posses. Zia doesn’t know either way. There are other things he has an opinion about. He doesn’t need to have one about a random hitchhiker.
They are driving to find Desiree.
Well, Zia is. He’s look all over the city and she is not there. That can only mean she’s elsewhere. So that is where he’s going. He has to find her. (He thinks he misses her. He thinks he loves her and that if he could have changed things, he would have).
Eduardo’s just along for the ride.
There is a black hole underneath the passenger seat foot rest and the headlights do not work no matter what they do. Eugene explains this to Eduardo. Eduardo nods like he understands.
With only one cassette tape and a horizon that never moves, they talk to fill the time and to try to distract themselves from the obvious.
“So you were in a band?” Eduardo asks Eugene somewhere between sunrise and sunset.
Eugene nods. “It was for shits.”
Eduardo turns to Zia. Zia cuts him off before Eduardo can ask. “I was a fuck up.”
This, strangely enough makes Eduardo laugh. “I was one of those too.”
“Why are you doing this?” Eduardo asks at one point.
Zia does not answer him.
“I just want to go home,” Eduardo says. “That’s why I’m doing this.”
Zia does not say anything for a long, long time. In the backseat, Eugene sleeps. In the rear view mirror, Zia glances at him and thinks. Beside him, Eduardo has wound down his window and has his half his torso stuck out through it. The wind makes his hair even more of a mess and gives his face color.
“I’m trying to find my girlfriend.”
Zia bites his lip. But he makes himself continue for a reason he does not understand. “Her name is Desiree.”
Nodding, as if that is enough to understand it all, Eduardo turns back to the open window. The back of his collar is stained with sweat and dirt. Zia should have his eyes on the road, but instead his eyes are on Eduardo’s collar and the tendons of his neck as they flex underneath his olive skin.
Eugene wakes up eventually and demands beer and smokes.
He is upset when he discovers Zia accidentally dropped his sunglasses and the black hole swallowed them.
Eugene shakes his head. “I told you to be careful,”
“I know, I know. I didn’t mean too,” Zia attempts to apologies.
Eugene doesn’t want to hear it.
They sleep in the tent when it gets too dark to keep driving without headlights; the three of them pressed together like sardines in a tin.
In the middle of the night Zia blinks awake. Against his side, Eduardo is quiet and still.
Zia’s exhaled breath becomes Eduardo’s inhaled one.
In the morning, Eduardo offers to drive.
“Why?” Zia asks.
“I can get us there faster,” Eduardo offers.
“Can you?” Zia asks, not that that is a detail that matters too much.
Eduardo nods absently.
“I will not sit in the backseat,” Eugene says when Zia goes to sit in the front. “Only guys without cocks sit in the backseat.”
“It is a fact,” Eugene says as if it is. “The guy in the backseat does not have a cock because if he did he would not be sitting in the backseat.”
Eduardo’s mouth narrows. “I rode in the backseat.”
“You had no cock.”
They end up sitting three across. Thigh to thigh, elbow to elbow, pressed against each other like three dusty, monochrome sardines. It is very cozy. In the corner of his eye, Zia watches Eduardo. The corner of his mouth twitches. But nothing more than that. No one can smile here.
(Zia hates that.)
Eugene likes Eduardo. But Eugene likes an audience. New to all his stories and jokes, Eduardo’s happy to indulge him. He’s a shit driver though.
“Why the seatbelt?” Eugene asks.
Eduardo opens his mouth, but suddenly stops.
Eugene nods. “We are here now. I do not think there is anywhere else we could go.”
Zia closes his eyes. When he opens them it is dusk and Eduardo has the window rolled back up and his foot pressed down hard on the accelerator.
Everything looks more or less the same.
For some reason after this discussion Eduardo starts to vandalize and destroy things. With a black marker he writes over ‘No Trespasses’ signs and with quick fingers he steals ‘Strictly No Smoking’
‘Oh,’ Zia realises. ‘Oh.’
Somehow they forget they were pumping gas into the car and as they pull out of the station they rip the gas nozzle out of the petrol station pump. The guy who runs the service station makes Zia write a report since out of the three of them apparently he looks the most responsible. Or something.
“Don’t worry. It happens all the time,” the guy says, showing Zia the book of reports.
Zia flips through them.
He stops halfway through.
She was here. She did the same thing and filled out the same form.
Zia feels his heart stop.
But when they drive to the address she gave, she is not there.
Eugene touches his shoulder when Zia gets back into the car. “It doesn’t mean anything other than we’re getting closer.”
Zia shrugs Eugene’s hand off his shoulder.
“Want to hear something that will cheer you up?” Eduardo asks, after a period of tense silence.
Zia eyes him.
Eduardo waits, as if not willing to continue until Zia acts interested enough. It’s childish and what’s worse, it works. Eduardo doesn’t talk about anything. Not really. One time Eugene, while drunk, had slurred Eduardo’s name, dropping the ‘e’ and lengthening the remaining vowels in it. Eduardo had reacted as if physically struck. And Zia wants to know. He wants to know everything about Eduardo, and for the first time Eduardo is offering to let him know something.
“Tell me,” Zia finds himself ordering. He adds a ‘please’ too, when that does not seem enough.
Edaurdo’s mouth twitches. Zia thinks if he could smile, he would. A not-smile – the closest thing anyone was capable of here.
“My ex girlfriend set my apartment on fire.”
Eugene pauses. “Really?”
Not-smiling sharply, Eduardo nods.
“Fuck,” Eugene laughs. “Why?”
“I bought her a scarf.”
“And she set it on fire?”
Eugene looks as if all his Christmases have come at once. Zia doesn’t believe it. No. Not a bit. That wouldn’t happen to someone like Eduardo. But no, apparently it did. Eduardo nods and tells them about how his bed caught on fire and how all the smoke detectors were set off and how the whole building ended up being evacuated and how every single resident hated him. At the end of his story Eugene offers to buy Eduardo a beer.
“You,” he says, lighting cigarettes for them. “I knew there was a reason we picked you up.”
“I don’t smoke,” Eduardo tells him.
Eugene gives him a look. “What the fuck does it matter? We’re dead.”
Eduardo huffs out a laugh and takes the cigarette off Eugene. “You’re right.”
Zia is speechless.
Eduardo not-smiles, as if he’d put everything into perspective. “Hey, want to know the worst part?”
“There’s a worse part?”
Zia doesn’t think anything can top an arsonist girlfriend.
“Christy wasn’t my worst break-up,” Eduardo says. “Once, I came in second to facebook.”
And wow. Zia might not have found Desiree, but at least his luck wasn’t so bad that someone had chosen their facebook account over him.
“Fuck,” he laughs.
“Yeah,” Eduardo agrees, lazily exhaling smoke as he speaks. “So buck up. There’s hope yet.”
(In the driver’s seat, Eugene is confused “What is the face book?”)
There is nothing to do but keep driving. So they do. They keep driving. They drive and they drive. Perhaps they drive too long and too far into the evening. But Zia doesn’t want to stop and Eugene doesn’t care. Zia thinks perhaps Eduardo doesn’t care either.
“Stop that,” Eugene says, when Eduardo starts fiddling with buttons and knobs.
“What do these do?” Eduardo asks, speaking over Eugene.
Zia has a headache and he almost misses it: the flicker of light. Eugene doesn't. He slams on the breaks and jumps out of the car. The headlights, the ones that never lit up, not matter what they or anyone else did or tried to do, illuminate him. Washing him out more so than usual, they light him up and he drops to his knees in amazement.
“What’s the big deal?” Eduardo asks, peering out the window.
At his words, Eugene gets to his feet and throws open the passenger side door, pulling Eduardo to his feet.
“You fixed them!” Eugene exclaims, wrapping his arms around Eduardo and kissing him hard and opened mouthed.
It makes Eduardo laugh, breathless and surprised and beautiful.
Zia – Zia can’t remember the last time he heard someone laugh in this place.
And for the first time they drive into the night, brave and exhilarated and full of something Zia tentatively thinks could be hope.
In the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, they see a man laying on the middle of the road. They only just avoid hitting him. Veering off the road, it is all a blur of breaks and dust and panic. Zia gets thrown forward into the headrest and Eduardo gets thrown from his seat and almost through the windshield and Eugene hits his head on the steering wheel.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Zia swears. “Fuck.”
The man gets up.
He tells them his name is Kneller and he is looking for his missing dog, Freddy. This does not explain why he was asleep in the middle of the road. But then again he does not try to explain. He just says he was tired so he lay down and slept. Simple as that. Then he takes them to a compound where everyone performs miracles as if they’re nothing (in fact, they consider them just that; something done when one doesn’t care about them). Everyone except Zia.
“I don’t understand,” he finds himself saying to Kneller.
“Don’t worry. You will.”
Kneller is a rambler. He talks, ambling from word to word, taking his own good time to say what he wants to say.
Zia doesn’t understand him. But when he looks at Eduardo, he thinks Eduardo does.
In the morning they go out into the desert and Eduardo asks Zia about his old life. Zia thinks, but it is strange because now he is thinking about it, he doesn’t really miss anything. Just Desiree. But she’s here. So, he supposes he doesn’t miss anything at all.
“I miss everything,” Eduardo says quietly. “My friends, my family, my job, my house, fuck, I miss my three pieces suits.”
The last part makes Zia laugh.
“You three piece suits?”
“Yeah. Ties too. I really miss my ties.”
Zia can’t imagine it. In his head there is only Eduardo in dusty black jeans, stretched out t-shirts and that fading red hoody of his.
Eduardo is quiet for a little. “I even miss the things I hated. Even the things that made so angry and so sad and so disappointed in myself. Everything.”
There is such hurt in Eduardo. Someone or something left him like this; left him as a person who smiled sharp not-smiles and was covered from head to toe in hairline fractures that no one could see unless they looked closely (and if someone looked closely, that’s all you could see). Zia saw it in Eduardo right from the beginning, right from when he first lent down to look through the passenger window to ask for a lift. It is all he sees now. Eduardo might not say a lot but when he does he doesn’t try to hide anything, not even a little.
Zia thinks Eduardo is so brave. Zia isn’t. Not even a fraction. But he wants to be.
“I had this dream last night that I was in the hospital. That my suicide failed and I woke up,” he tells Eduardo even though the words feel like teeth being pulled from his mouth. “And I think, in the dream, I missed this place.”
Eduardo doesn’t say anything.
There really anything to say.
From the top of flint cliffs they watch Eugene charm one of the women, Nanuk the mute throat singer, from the compound. It’s funny and strange. Funny because Eugene flirting is always going to be funny and strange because she’s almost a mirror image of him. She is odd and wonderful and strangely enough all her family is here too and they are all like Eugene’s family. It looks like love at first sight.
Zia feels something inside him twist when Eugene performs a miracle, changing the colour of a fish he caught in the artificial lake.
“It’s not a big deal,” Eduardo says when he catches Zia’s expression.
Maybe it isn’t for someone like Eduardo who fixes unfixable things without even noticing.
It annoys Zia. “Just like you looking for the People in Charge is no big deal.”
It’s mean and stupid and no even that clever of an insult but it makes Eduardo flinch.
“That is not the same,” he says, brittle and uneven.
“Yeah, right, cause you’re here by mistake or something,” Zia says because he can.
Eduardo’s eyes flash and his hands curl into fists. “Fuck you. I never killed myself okay.”
For the third time, he watches as Eduardo turns and leave.
Zia walks back to the camp by himself. Eduardo ignores him for days. Zia feels how he ought to and he feels it more so when the first thing Eduardo says to him, is that he wants to leave.
“I need to keep looking. I’m not going to find any answers here.”
Zia’s been dreaming a lot. Almost every night. Dreams of waking up in a hospital bed, dreams of his parents, dreams of Kneller and the story he told; the one about the trees, the one about surviving. There is only one thing he can say.
“Me too,” he breaths.
There is Eugene though. Both Eduardo and Zia know he does not want to leave Nanuk. Not when he had found what he had not known could be found in this wasteland.
But before they can be forced to say anything, Kneller’s dog is found.
“The King has him,” Yan says.
The King, apparently is the Messiah King, another performer of miracles, and according to Yan, one of the campers, the King has Freddy.
“We want to come with you,” Eduardo says, when Kneller and Yan prepare to leave and go retrieve Freddy.
So the four of them go.
They go, and they walk. For hours. Hours and hours.
When darkness falls upon them, they set up camp and Eduardo goes to find firewood. Zia – Zia goes with him and together they walk and somehow find a beach.
In the blue black darkness, against the blue black sea, Zia feels they are the only two people in existence.
“You know when you asked me if I missed anything from before?”
“Yeah?” Eduardo replies, hesitantly.
“When I’m here with you, I miss who I used to be,” Zia tells Eduardo, because he does.
“What were you like?”
Zia looks at Eduardo, who wears red and who does not smile but wants too even though he carries something dark and horrid underneath his skin. Inside his chest, Zia feels something he thinks he must have felt before, because it feels familiar even though it feels new at the same time. It tugs and it pulls and –
“Happy,” Zia finds himself saying.
Eduardo looks at Zia.
There is darkness in Eduardo. He carries it with him like an old companion and Zia thinks – no, he knows – somebody put it in him. Somebody or multiple somebody’s. Zia reaches for Eduardo. It isn’t much and it might not matter at all, but Zia hopes at one point or another, even with all that soot under his nails and staining his veins, Eduardo was happy too. Zia hopes very much that he is right. He hopes for that more than almost anything.
“Mark. His name was Mark.”
“Is he who you’re going back for?” Zia asks, even though he already knows.
(Or thinks he does.)
Eduardo – “He betrayed me. I was his only friend and he betrayed me.”
“Is that –” Zia starts to ask, but Eduardo shakes his head and stop Zia before he can finish.
“I’m not going back for him or Christy. Well, perhaps partly. I – this whole thing was a mistake. I was just so tired after sitting in that room dissecting everything that had happened between us, but I couldn’t get to sleep and it was only a few more pills than usual…”
Zia hears what Eduardo is saying and – someone like Eduardo should have his whole life ahead of him. He shouldn’t be out here in the middle of nowhere, where no one can smile and things go missing in the black hole in Eugene’s car and the only colour in the whole wide expanse of whatever this world is, is Eduardo’s stupid red hoody.
Someone like Eduardo isn’t meant to be here.
Someone made a mistake.
When Zia’s around Eduardo, Zia knows it. Zia knows it and feels it and it’s strange to feel so much in a place like this. Everything here is muted or grey or dull, but Eduardo is bright and Zia sees him more than he sees anything else in this world.
Not bothering with sleep, they take their shoes off and let the waves wash over their feet. In the darkness, Zia takes a deep breath and laces his fingers through Eduardo’s. It feels so very daring and Zia’s heart races. He does not know if he was always like this with people, but he is like this with Eduardo. Eduardo squeezes Zia’s hand though, and in the blue, black darkness Zia feels bold and fearless. Turning, he tilts his head towards Eduardo and kisses him.
After a beat, Eduardo kisses back.
Zia’s heart does all kind of stupid things.
In the morning, Zia wakes tucked against Eduardo’s body; their temples touching and legs tangled. And for the first few moments, Eduardo is all Zia can see. Vaguely in the background he hears someone – Kneller – yelling. Blinking awake, Zia’s vision slowly focuses. As it does, he catches his breath.
The beach of the nighttime is something else in the day.
It’s all trash and filth and nothing at all like it should have been.
(Immediately Zia shakes Eduardo awake and pulls him to his feet. Zia can’t let Eduardo lie in that foul mess.)
Kneller yells at them. Yan is lost. They are screwed, except they aren’t, because Yan isn’t lost and they aren’t screwed. In fact, they are found. Yan finds them, appearing out of the scrubland to tell them they are close. So close it’s a short walk to the King and the crowd of followers who have apparently gathered to see him perform some kind of miracle.
“We’re here to find a kidnapped dog,” Zia explains, when asked to.
But no one listens, not even Eduardo. He is more interested by the crowd of people and the supposed miracle that apparently is going to occur.
“I thought they happened everyday,” Eduardo says, confused.
The follower shakes her head. “No, not like the one the King is going to perform.”
The King is a charismatic figure, or somewhat charismatic. Like a Vegas magician or 70s cult leader, he had an ego that fills up space and overwhelms. They meet him when Kneller goes to collect his dog. Freddy though, does not want to leave and he growls at Kneller when he tries to call him from the Kings side.
But Zia misses all of that because when he enters the room, he sees Desiree.
Zia doesn’t remember much of what happens next. Desiree wraps her arms around him and she is just like he remembers. He can’t stop touching her, because she is just like he remembers. Exactly. He doesn’t know how that is possible. He didn’t think it was. Not here.
Pulling him outside, she tells him about meeting the King and committing suicide after he did in order to follow him here. She tells Zia that the King is a visionary, that he is a miracle worker, that his teachings gave her hope after Zia died. She leaves to assist the King before Zia can really digest what she said. Mostly, he feels numb. He goes out into the crowd and looks for Eduardo but only catches sight of him for a second (his expression is distant when he waves back at Zia). A second, and then Zia looses track of Eduardo all over again.
“Why don’t you tell him?” Kneller asks, appearing at his side with a newly affectionate Freddy in his arms.
Zia doesn’t understand.
Kneller gives him a look. “That you love him.”
Zia looks for Eduardo again but cannot find him.
Then it is a mess. Instead of a miracle, the King kills himself a second time and suddenly there are people dropping from the sky and Kneller is gone and – Eduardo is gone too, in the back of a PIC car and even though he tells Zia that he’ll be back soon, he doesn’t return. Zia waits, but Eduardo does not come back.
“It turns out there really was a mistake,” Eugene says, when he comes to pick Zia up hours later. From the passenger seat inside the car, Nanuk nods in agreement. “I think they’re sending him back.”
They, turns out to be the PIC. The PIC and Kneller; who apparently is an undercover angel which perhaps isn’t as insane as it should be.
So Eduardo is gone.
The news is bitter and lodges in Zia’s throat.
Eduardo is gone.
He is never coming back.
Not knowing what to do, Eugene and Nanuk take him to the train station and make him dinner. They are going to visit Nanuk’s family. Zia thinks it is good. He does. Nunak and Eugene might be two sides of the same coin, but if her throat singing is inspiring him to make music for the first time since he died, that can only be good.
So Zia is happy when they leave.
Pulling out a crushed packet of cigarettes, he takes out one and lights it as the train rattles into the distance. Throwing the match aside, he inhales deeply and concentrates on exhaling evenly. Except out of the corner of his eye, something flickers bright and warm in the blue black night sky.
It’s the match.
Zia feels his breath catch in his throat.
Above his head the match gracefully spirals upwards. A miracle. His first and only one.
Suddenly he understands what Kneller said. It doesn’t matter though. Not even a little bit.
(Sitting by the railroad, he watches Eugene and Nanuk until their train disappears into the night.)
Which leaves Zia.
Without anywhere to go or be or someone to find, he drives. Just drives. No purpose, no destination. Not a thing. Just him, Eugene’s car, and one tape of music left to play on repeat. He drops the tape though. Somehow it slips from his fingers and falls. No, not falls. Descends into the hole in the passenger seat floor and disappears.
And – and Zia, there isn’t a thought inside his head as he leans over.
(That, of course, is a lie).
There is black.
Black and Zia feels himself falling though space. He does not feel the pull of gravity or anything. But he is falling. He knows it in his bones and he does not doubt it for a second. As he falls, he sees all of the lost cassette tapes and the sunglasses and the pair of tennis shoes and maps and all these random bits and pieces – everything – that had ever fallen into the hole.
He sees everything until he doesn’t see a thing.
Doesn’t see a thing until he opens his eyes and sees only white.
Blinking, he tries to focus and as he does, the white turns into a fluorescent light and slowly he begins to hear it hum. It, and the steady beep of the IV drip. He hears those things, those and the sound of arguing outside his door; loud and desperate and rude in the bluntest, most infuriating way.
(“No, I’m not family–”
“If you’re not family, I can’t release any information. It’s hospital policy.”
“You didn’t let me finish. I’m not family, but I am the person who can buy and sell this hospital if you do not tell me what is happening. I am also the person that will do that if you don’t tell me what is happening,” someone threatens in a clipped and dangerous tone. “This is where you tell me what is happening.”)
Zia hears those things but they are just noise to him. Lifting arms, he looks at the thick white bandages. Feels the stitches and the texture of the gauze and – he turns a little and is able to attribute the noise to four people. A nurse and three guys around his age; a blonde, red head and short brunette with curly hair and a pointed face. They look scared and pale and their eyes are red rimmed and tired. Zia doesn’t know them, but he looks at them and their obviously panicked state and he turns his head a little more and –
In the oversized hospital scrubs, he looks (probably is) thinner and more fragile than before, and the white of the sheets and the harsh glare of the fluorescent light washes him out, but it is Eduardo. Bright and brave and beautiful Eduardo, who is alive and who is looking at him and smiling and ‘wow,’ Zia thinks, ‘wow.’
Eduardo has such a wonderful smile.