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four men in three boats

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In the middle of the lake, there is an island. The sky above is blue, so blue and clear he could swim in it, plunge himself up into it. There's a pier, jutting out from a village with no people in it.

"So this is the afterlife," he murmurs to himself, hand going once more to his temple.

Moored to the pier are three boats- for the others, he reminds himself- one for John, one for Pipe, and one for him and Billy. He sits down on the bench, picks up a white stone, and throws it into the lake.

*

On his anniversary, they stand by the grave, drinking beer.

"It's too neat," Pipe says, face twisted, old looking. John nods. The gravestones are all in neat rows, the grass clipped and healthy.

Billy drops his cigarette onto the grave, spits onto the grave. "We move him tonight," he tells them. They rent a van, for old time's sake, get the coffin out and shove it into the back of it, cover it with Pipe's old blanket. Then, they drive out to Bucky's farm.

They bury him next to the scarecrow. Billy puts in the guitar, still broken.

*

He becomes a session drummer, a stand in, for a bit. Then, he dates a girl who does re-enactments and swears like Joe during sex. He thinks he's in love, goes with her everywhere, touring with her, only in this touring you get spit roast and armour. One of the blacksmiths lets him work for him, and for six months he makes nails, nothing but nails, until he wants to scream.

Then he gets to make axe heads, then lance points, and finally, swords.

He might live by the sword, now, but it's a musket misfiring he dies by.

*

He doesn't fly. When it comes to it, he doesn't fall and fly and crash to the ground. He gets old, and gets content and complacent, and writes poems that pretentious art students in berets read once they've finished Kerouac.

He has a string of lovers, women who think that his stutter's endearing, who fuss over his skinny frame, feed him and try and change him, then give up when they realise that there's nothing underneath the skinny awkward stuttering.

He lives in a house with a cherry tree in the garden, and he dies peacefully in his sleep.

*

Billie visits him when she's fifteen. He's spent a week redecorating, feels like he'll never stop jittering, apologising for his house, his face, his life.

It's okay, though. She's a cool kid- likes Young Canadians, plays along when he timetravels, because he's let go enough to goof off, doesn't complain when he manages to burn pasta.

She asks if he misses Joe. No one asks that, no one.

"All the time," he tells her, and it's enough of the truth to hurt like fuck and enough of a lie to make him feel like a tool.

He kept Joe's gun.

*

Three of them sit on the bench.

"When's he coming?" Pipe asks, like a small kid.

"Time's flexible. He could be forever," Joe tells him- now that's a fucking trip. John nods, quiet, self contained. Peaceful- now that's something he never thought would happen. Pipe's still a jerky little fuck, but not as angry. They got to live some more. To grow up. He's been doing his growing up by a lake with an island in the middle, a deserted village by the side and three boats for four friends.

He throws another stone. The three boats stay moored.

*

He gets invited to Billie's wedding, puts on a suit but doesn't wear a tie. Her stepfather gives her away, but she smiles at him as she walks down the aisle. Last time he was in a church was Joe's funeral.

At the reception afterwards, no one knows who he is. He ends up talking to Billie's old primary school teacher about fifties musicals. Time was, he'd have seduced her out of boredom, smoking and smiling and leaning in too close for too long.

She loves Gene Kelly, hates Grease. She has cats. He feels too old for this.

*

The kid looks up at him with clear blue eyes. He has a squint- he almost tells Billie this, knows Joe would- and his face is crumpled, like Winston Churchill.

"I'm a grandfather," he murmurs. Happiness has crept up on him; his smile surprises him. He leans back on the couch, supporting the baby's head. He knows from a lifetime of faking with skill that he looks at ease doing this. Truth is, he's terrified.

His knees are starting to ache when the storms come, music magazines call him 'veteran', and punks don't become grandfathers. Except when they do.

*

His finger joints swell. He gives himself until he can't span the G major ninth, then writes a letter to Billie, puts it on his kitchen table. He leaves the house unlocked, puts his guitar in the passenger seat and drives to Bucky's farm.

Joe's gun's cold in his pocket. His face is lined with age, but he stands up straight.

He's in the field where the pole that held up the scarecrow marks Joe's grave. He sits there on the soil and plays China White, fumbling for familiar chords.

The gun drops to the ground next to him.

*

He sees a lake, and an island. Then houses, then a bench. Three men sit on the bench, legs stretched out, hats covering their faces like it's a western.

He grins.

"Miss me?" he asks, the sun shining into his eyes, making him squint. Joe stands up, hugs him so tight his ribs hurt. The whisky cigarette smoke smell of his coat is just like before.
John and Pipe smile at him.

"What are those boats for?"

Joe's eyes gleam, blowtorch-like, fierce and wonderful.

"Thought we could go on a roadtrip."

"On a lake?"

"Welcome to the afterlife, baby."