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The Breath at Your Shoulder

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It started right from the jump, on the very night they rolled out of Chicago.

That first night they were laying real low, so they took berths in a regular Pullman: the open section, a whole car of curtained bunks snoring its way west. Henry wasn't sleeping well. Partly the excitement, the victory, sure, but partly the leftover nerves; every noise in the corridor was one of Lonnegan's apes, there to dangle Hooker by his ankles over the tracks and make Henry watch.

By the time he finally felt he might be sleepy, it was the truly wee hours. And over the quiet breathing of a dozen other people, he recognized Hooker's voice at once.

Too soft to be a shout, too thin and high to be a groan. It was as if Hooker was on a train heading the other way, and this quiet keening noise was all Henry had left as he faded into the distance.

Henry was out of his berth immediately, on his knees by Hooker's bunk across the aisle, shoving his head and shoulders in through the curtain.

Hooker lay on his back, the sheet at his bare waist. His whole body was straining to make just that tiny noise. Henry reached out gingerly and put a hand on his arm—it was tacky with sweat. Hooker's eyes jolted open and the noise stopped.

"You all right?" Henry asked.

It was a stupid question, and he deserved the answer he got. Hooker took a few seconds to swallow and blink and gasp, then he nodded, forced a smile. His teeth gleamed in the light filtering through the curtain. Very casual, very convincing, with his skin all sweaty and his eyes wild.

"Bad dream?"

"Nah. S'nothing." Strands of hair stuck to his brow in damp spikes.

Henry might almost have taken it personally. But he hadn't the heart, seeing how shaken and strange Hooker was. He was still touching his arm, and now he squeezed it. "They say if you tell it quick while it's still fresh, that ends it. Pulls the fangs out."

Hooker stared at him. His sweat was drying under Henry's fingertips; the skin there was hot and humming with tension.

"Henry," he said uneasily. "Do you think that—"

"Shhh!" came a harsh and peremptory whisper from the next berth.

Hooker flinched, shook his head. He turned onto his side, facing away, his arm sliding out from under Henry's hand. And that was that.

Henry hesitated. But he could see the shadow of Hooker's jaw, tight-set, and what could you do? A man was entitled to his own demons.

"Okay," he said. "Okay." He patted the sheets next to him instead of touching him again. Then he crept back to his own berth.

They didn't talk about it in the morning. It never happened.

It didn't happen a few times in their first hotel, too, in St. Louis: Hooker a sleeping shadow across the room, then that little teakettle noise, that stiff and straining body. And even without the next berth to shush him, he never talked about it.

Bad dream? Nah. Sleep well? Sure. It almost became a breakfast ritual, until Henry saw sense and stopped asking.

They spent a while in Omaha, helping the locals with an elaborate variation on the Baltimore Stockbroker. Hooker had never seen that one before—not surprising, since he'd made his bones on the short con and the street—and he soaked it up with wide, intelligent eyes.

The boarding house they bunked at was one hundred percent family, experienced grifters all, from the fellow boarders to the odd-job man to the old woman who ran the place. Minnie, her name was, and she fed Hooker a steady stream of tall tales, mixtures of truth and horseshit so well polished that even Henry couldn't always remember the right of it.

Hooker's dreams seemed to settle down for a while there, maybe because the con kept him so busy. They came home late every night, had a nightcap, sat on their beds and shot the breeze a while, fell asleep smiling.

Until one day, the job needed a quick infusion of emergency cash, and it was Hooker, Henry, and Rube from the top floor, out on the street for a quick hit. They did it just the way Luther used to: Rube stole a wad of money from poor old Henry, ran off, Hooker knocked Rube over to save the dough, the mark was convinced to take the money for delivery to a numbers racket downtown—wrapped up safely with all his own personal cash, of course. And slick as a whistle, the mark ran off laughing in the other direction with what he thought was a free payday, but what was really a package of old paper.

They worked it a few times around town until they were well in the green, then headed back to the boarding house to deliver the goods. They ate a hearty meal, sat in the parlor with Rube and Minnie, retired to bed. Should've been a good solid sleep after a long day's work.

But every time Henry turned over, he saw Hooker sitting up against his headboard, nipping out of a pint bottle. The level in the bottle got lower, then the dregs, then empty.

Henry woke from an uneasy doze at the feeling of someone climbing in under his blankets. The moon had set, and the room was cool and dark.

"Hooker—" he said, as that warm muscled body pressed up against him.

"It's me." Hooker laughed a little, his voice blurry with drink. "Surprised?"

"Frankly...yeah." Henry's heart was thudding a million rounds a minute.

"You gonna sock me? Huh?"

He wasn't doing anything more than just lying there, close and bare and hot, one hand toying with the hem of Henry's undershirt. Henry breathed hard and tried to concentrate.

"What's the matter, you cold?" he asked.

"That's it." Hooker breathed against Henry's throat, grazed his lips across the skin. "You'll warm me up, won'tcha."

Jesus, Mary, and holy Joe. Henry had missed out on a fair amount in his life, one way and another, and these days he'd thought he was used to it.

Turned out he'd been wrong. But how could you be used to shrugging off something like this, Johnny Hooker stropping his cheek gently against yours till you shivered, bringing all that light and heat and force right into your arms?

"Kid—" he croaked.

Johnny growled playfully, bit on the muscle of Henry's neck like a puppy. Then he was up at Henry's gasping mouth, laughing into it, the tip of his tongue teasing Henry's lower lip.

He kissed Henry, sloppy and rye-scented and hard, and Henry let it happen, shame and helpless heat rushing through him.

But the sweet-smoke smell of the booze, it seeped between them somehow, it woke him up. And the moment Johnny eased off a little, Henry had him by the arms and was holding him back.

"Listen— Kid," he said, keeping his voice even as best he could. "What's this about?"

He couldn't see Johnny's eyes in the dark, but he felt the amused huff of breath. "If you don't know, maybe I better show ya, huh."

"No, listen." He shook him gently. "You all right?"

"You trying to tell me you ain't interested?" Johnny countered. Nimble fingertips stroked up Henry's thigh.

"That's not the point," Henry managed. "What—"

But he knew. Of course he knew. Maybe it was the hot muscle of Johnny's arms in his hands, bringing him back to that stuffy little Pullman berth.

So he stopped and just said, "That dream again?", and was rewarded, if you could call it that, by a wince striking through Johnny's whole body like the smack of a cosh.

"Fine," said Johnny, and he'd never been half so bad at a lie. "Okay. Never you mind." He pulled clumsily out of Henry's grip and lay on the bed, breathing hard.

Henry hoped he might actually fall asleep there. But he didn't; he just lay and breathed and practically vibrated himself to pieces like a rattling engine.

Finally, Henry had to say it, though he was almost sure it would drive him away—maybe even down to the parlor on the hunt for a fresh bottle. "So. Tell me."

Johnny shifted and turned on the mattress like he was fighting against someone, like Henry had his arms and was pinning him down hard. Henry lay quiet, hoping. They'd come a long way since that Pullman—not a long time as the world reckoned it, but they'd found their own link, built it fast and sure, and maybe by now it was even something you could lean on.

"You..." said Johnny tentatively after a while. "Do you believe in haints?"

Henry blinked into the darkness. He hadn't expected that, but he took his time thinking it over.

"Don't know," he said at last. "What kind?"

Johnny gave a long, frustrated breath. But he did speak, eventually, as if he had to or bust, and his voice was tight and small. "...Luther."

"Oh," said Henry. "Oh, sure. Of course."

He remembered a few times after he'd come home from the trenches, the boys who'd stood just behind his shoulder, the stink of grave-mud and rain. Maybe someday he'd tell Johnny about it, if he asked.

"Of course?" Johnny snapped. It didn't seem to have comforted him any. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Henry let that pass. "What's he want?"

"How would I know!" His voice was thin and sharp, a knife-edge of hopeless pain.

"You knew him," said Henry, and Johnny went very still.

"I don't..." he said thickly. "I don't know, he... Why would he do this to me?"

"Why wouldn't he?"

Johnny drew a sharp breath by reflex as if to argue, but Henry had asked it as an honest question, and he could tell the moment his tone really sank in.

"He wouldn't...because he cared about me." Then, angry and lost: "I thought he cared about me."

"He did," said Henry. He reached out in the dark, touched Johnny's arm. "Hey. He did. I should know."

Johnny gave a faint, unsettled sigh.

"Do you think he wished it was you?" Henry asked, point-blank.

"No!" said Johnny at once. "What the hell kind of a question is that!"

"Just one more... Did you ever wish it was you?"

The mattress shifted, the covers moved, and Henry could feel Johnny subsiding into a fetal curl under the blanket. He rubbed his thumb along Johnny's arm, gently.

"Not on purpose," came Johnny's muffled voice at last. "Not on purpose, Henry, I swear."


"S'just that... Alva, when she saw him lyin' there... Jesus, Henry, her voice. The way she..." he fell quiet, with a click in his throat.

"Yeah," Henry said.

They lay a while longer, until Johnny suddenly said into the mattress, "D'you think he'll ever leave me alone?" He sounded guilty and ashamed.

"Well," Henry said thoughtfully, "if you really want to know what I think... I don't think he's haunting you at all. You are. And you're a tougher nut to crack, ain't you."

Johnny chewed on it a while. "Luther would've said so," he admitted.

"I know it," said Henry. "Maybe you should listen to him."

There was a sound in the darkness almost like a rueful laugh.

This time, when Johnny approached, it wasn't the pounce of a hunting cat, and it wasn't the rye talking. He sidled up almost apologetically, but Henry ignored the sheepishness and just pulled him close. After a while Johnny's throat worked spasmodically, his breath hitching. Henry laid a hand on his head and stroked his hair.

Morning found them on their sides, Henry curled around Johnny's back. Johnny turned over in his arms and kissed him, his mouth morning-dry. This time, Henry let himself respond, and the shiver down his spine had not a fleck of shame in it.

"Sleep all right?" he asked.

"Depends," said Johnny against his jaw.


Johnny's smile stretched lazy and slow. "Not that one. But I guess I can think of another one."

"Oh?" Henry said innocently, and rolled Johnny on top of him.

They were warm and easy together, Johnny's eyes soft with pleasure, his hands on Henry with a matter-of-fact confidence. Eventually Henry lay sprawled out and boneless, submerged by a blissful flood tide. He squinted, gasping, dazzled by the sunlight spilling molten gold across Johnny's hair and his bare tan skin.

"Johnny," he said, just to feel the name in his mouth.

"Yeah," said Johnny, and kissed his throat, lingering.

They slept again, and made it downstairs in time for lunch. Johnny was charming and friendly as he explained they'd been happy to help but they had to get going. Henry nodded, backed him up, and devoured a plate of ham and eggs.

At the station, he left Johnny to make the decisions. And when Johnny returned from the ticket window, he had two for Joliet in his hand.

Alva lived on a different street now. And Henry figured it wasn't just because of the big payoff from knocking down Lonnegan—Luther had died in that old courtyard, and Alva would surely see him there in the dust every single day.

The new place was a rowhouse, fine and airy, neighbors out on their stoops exchanging gossip and eyeing these two strange white men coming up the walk. Henry hung back a bit and waited for Johnny to knock.

When Alva answered the door, she had a black armband pinned to her dress. Henry, sensitized to the smallest twitch of Johnny's body, thought his knees almost buckled for a moment there—but then it was past. Johnny held firm, stood still, and didn't make Alva carry his burdens. Instead he held out his arms.

She embraced him hard, rocked him back and forth, kissed his face and swatted his head. And when she saw Henry, she drew him into the general commotion as well, shaking him by both hands, chivvying them inside.

"Oh, it's been donkey's years," she said, settling Henry next to her on the davenport. "Hooker, don't stand around, boy, go get Mr. Gondorff some lemonade from the icebox."

"Yes ma'am," he said, and went.

"'Mr. Gondorff'," Henry said. "Are you trying to tell me something, Mrs. Coleman?"

She clucked her tongue. "No, no. Just...look at you!" She tweaked his tie. "And look at him."

"Luther taught him well."

"Maybe," she said. "Lord knows he tried. But Luther would be the first to say that that boy wasn't suited to spend his whole life on the short. Now isn't that so?"

"Yes ma'am," he said.

"He looks happy. Luther would be glad."

"I hope so." Henry felt a bit warm around the ears, but Alva smiled at him.

"I know so," she said.

"Well...I never was willing to disagree with you and Luther at once," Henry said, meeting her eyes frankly. "I know better."

She patted his hand. "You always were a wise one."

Johnny came back with two glasses of lemonade, and as he handed them out, the door opened to admit Louise, holding a baby. The boy tagging along behind her with a bag of groceries was surely Leroy, though Henry hadn't seen him since he was the baby's age. Cue a general ruckus, and somehow Henry found himself with the baby in his arms goggling solemnly at him, while Louise and Leroy swung Johnny around the room.

"Well," he said to the dimpled little face, and straightened its knitted hat. "Welcome home."

The next night, in a private compartment on the way through Indiana, Johnny slept with his head on Henry's pillow.

Henry lay close against Johnny's back, arm over his waist, feeling the life in him banked for the night. Light and shadow flickered across them like a cool patter of rain. At last, lulled by the quiet, by the scent of Johnny's hair, Henry finally fell asleep himself. And that night there was nothing but the sound of the train, the rocking of the berth, and their breath, falling softly into the same slow rhythm.