Dream thinks he’ll remember this moment until the day his flesh melts and his bones are compressed to ash. Which, as it happens, seems to be approaching a little faster than he’d always anticipated.
It's laughable that his blue line could be cleaved into quarters faster than the sirens start to wail. He looks down at his unfurled palms and half expects the life thread to have shrunk, but it gazes back up at him with bitter admonishment.
Stupid, it seems to say, you really think death comes with a warning on the lid? And he knows it doesn’t, knows it comes in unmarked brown bottles with cyanide plinking against the insides like lost teeth. It doesn’t make the abruptness of it all any easier.
TV static crackles in his ears when George readjusts his positioning and the antenna he’s grasping between a thumb and forefinger slips a fraction of a centimetre. An infinitesimal amount, but enough to send a flurry of white stars and black matter scattering over the screen. The image is distorted in a wave of dissonant galaxies, projected there as their own imitation of the night sky.
“George! Put it back,” Sapnap complains.
He’s seated on the floor with his legs crossed and a freezing mug of coffee balancing near his ankles. Dream isn’t sure why he bothers making it anymore, considering the most he’s ever seen Sapnap drink is a quarter of the cup before it ends up forgotten. Not to mention how revolting coffee tastes—like he’s stuck his tongue straight onto hot tarmac and held it there despite the burning and the tang of cement. It’s a squabble they’ve beaten to a bloody pulp by this point. George calls it dick-measuring. They call it debate.
And speaking of George, his expression sours until it’s all rigid sketch lines and apathetic limestone cliffs. He’s leaning over the TV, clutching at the antenna just right so it’ll pick up some signal.
Somehow, his back manages to remain pretty and straight. Dream knows it’s soft despite its appearance of tumbled marble, he knows it gives and gives and mottles blueberry whenever he so much as breathes upon it. Fruit delicate and easy to bruise.
His agency kicks in and he looks back into the static instead of subtle arcs which appear to be crafted with the explicit purpose of making his life difficult. Now is definitely not the time for it.
“My arm hurts,” George says. His tone is marred by the sort of whine he adopts when it’s his turn to argue with Sapnap. “I’m getting cramps.”
“Just deal with it, you’re such a baby.”
“Says the actual teenager.”
Sapnap sneers and a deep line bolts across his forehead. “I’m nine-fucking-teen-”
“Will you shut the hell up?” Dream has to listen to enough of their shit at the best of times. He stands in the doorway, one shoulder pressed into the jamb so he can feel stray splinters sticking against his skin like suburban thorns. The bite yanks at his nerves, pushes him over the edge until he can’t stand the sound of Sapnap and George’s pettiness.
It’s difficult to see what’s happening on the dilapidated TV set behind all the crackling and static pulsing in choppy waves, but in fairness, it’s also difficult to ignore the fucking apocalypse announcement that’s currently being broadcast. There’s a diagram displaying the asteroid’s trajectory as it hurtles towards earth, ready to decimate humanity like a cosmic A-bomb. Rain black fire upon them until their lungs give out.
He supposes he should be impressed—leave it to his idiot best friends to find a way to fight even through the end of the world. Dream’s always said the sky could collapse and they wouldn’t notice, instead squabbling over the last cigarette or the third of an inch height difference they won’t let go.
He doesn’t take much satisfaction in being proven right.
His interjection seems to herald the call of cold reality, and the pair of them fall silent.
Three sets of eyes settle on the screen, and as the compulsory newscast drones on, the truth of it seems to dawn upon them as would the apathetic tug of daybreak. Perhaps at the end of summer, when the days flash by too fast and slip out of hands hesitant to let go. When each time the sun crests the horizon means September is closer than before. Anticipating them with arms the same colour as decaying leaves.
Dream glances at the calendar nailed to the wall, at the printed letters and red X’s displaying early August. Fate really does have a sense of irony.
The anchor is demonstrating the trajectory of the thing with an expression far too placating for the severity of the situation. Panic clutches at his throat when a rendition of it is pulled up, noting its collision course and dimensions. It looks so harmless when it’s on the TV, as though it should be on a movie billboard. Not hurtling towards earth at thousands of kilometres per hour.
The diameter of the asteroid tips towards 30 kilometres, and although Dream isn't the physics major among them, he's not stupid, it might as well have yellow tape wrapped around it.
Thirty fucking kilometres. Jesus.
Some part of him is intrigued, and he thinks he’s getting a little too much like George with his eyes widening in sheer curiosity. He wonders whether this is on a cave wall somewhere, a fading image of the earth being whacked against the asteroid like a pair of seer stones. Perhaps buried under Naples, put there by a Sibyl.
A spark of hope flickers in his chest when the anchor starts talking about the escape shuttle, the hunk of experimental technology that’s supposed to transport a small percentage of the population safely out of harm’s way.
All of its passengers will be put into stasis, frozen for resuscitation at some undefined point in the future. Or perhaps not at all, and their bodies will be left to drift through the loneliness of space like sad thoughts etched onto golden discs.
There’s a good chance it’ll combust. It’s better than the prospect of being killed by the asteroid impact, or worse, the aftermath.
The announcement ends, and they’re dropped back into silence. He supposes not many people would have the stomach for more TV after they’ve just been told they have a month before the apocalypse.
A sense of unease shimmers between them as heat does when it rises from the asphalt, turns everything hallucinogenic and dreamlike.
Sapnap looks very, very pale. “So that’s it then. Boom. Everything was all for nothing.”
“We still have thirty days,” Dream says, but it comes out strained and wrung of all the sunbeam which usually saturates his voice. It’s weak and he knows it.
“Great, thirty days to wait for death. I can’t see how that could possibly be of any detriment to my mental health,” Sapnap says, tone doused in sarcasm.
George shakes his head. "That's if you're lucky."
"Yeah, you'd have to be in the collision radius for that. Most of the shit is gonna happen when crops can't grow and we starve."
Sapnap laughs in delirium. "Wow, that's great. You're such a beacon of positivity."
“It’s interesting that they told us.” George has let go of the antenna now, and he’s massaging the top of his arm in a way that’s clearly performative. Over-dramatic as usual. When he’s met with twin stares of disbelief, he scratches his nails over his scalp with a tentative smile. “NASA monitors NEOs like crazy. And this one’s massive, they must’ve known about it for ages.”
“Um, because the goddamn apocalypse is about to happen?”
George exhales like it’s obvious. “Yeah but like, surely that just accelerates it. What’s the point? It’s not like we can do anything about it. And that leads to um, anarchy.”
Sapnap scowls. “I’m glad one of us is fascinated by this.”
“I didn't say that.”
“But you are. Would it really kill you to at least act like you care, just for once?”
“You’re an asshole, you know that?”
Their voices are beginning to needle at Dream’s mind again, white hot and painful. He’s a tolerant guy, and he loves them to death, but he can’t help but feel that this is everything but the right time for it. His fingers push into his temples and he flops down onto the couch regardless of how many flea colonies are infesting it. He fears his knees may buckle otherwise.
“It’s not over yet,” he offers. “There’s the escape shuttle, we could be selected for that. Put into c- cr- what was it?” Admittedly, the spark of hope might as well be flickering in the middle of a rainstorm for how effective it is. But it’s there, and Dream’s always liked how fire is coloured.
“Cryostasis.” George is still pushing his fingers into his shoulder.
“Cryostasis. You never know, we could do that.”
Sapnap’s words add to the torrential downpour. “Yeah, less than a tenth of the population are gonna be on the dumb shuttle. We’d be lucky if one of us got selected, let alone all three.”
“I’m not even eligible. I’m not a US citizen,” George says quietly.
The spark is snuffed out of existence, reduced to street lights reflected in puddles which somehow make the asphalt seem more depressing rather than less.
Dream sighs, tugging at the ends of his hair so an ache blossoms from the roots. They’d be inordinately lucky if him and Sapnap were called to the space centre, but even so, they’d be leaving George behind to live his last few days in solitude. His family are all the way across the atlantic, and Dream doubts much of anything is going to function as normal anymore. It’s a bleak prospect.
“Well, I guess we’re just gonna have to wait and see,” he says, and it’s not enough to dispel the mounting sense of disbelief pressing against the windows. He can hear sirens echoing from the horizon. None of it quite feels real, like they’re discussing what they’d do in an apocalypse just because there’s nothing better to do on Sundays.
It looks as if Sapnap is about to bite another response, spit out a fat lot of good that’ll do us, but the muffled sound of shouts filtering through the single pane window seems to soften his resolve. The hardness melts away, and Dream is left with the sight of a terrified nineteen year old, life snatched out of his hands before he can really begin it.
“I don’t want to go out there.”
He thinks about Sapnap pushing through the hysteria to reach his dorm, about George returning to a shitty cupboard room made even smaller by the boxes pushed against the wall because he’s going back to England soon and needs to sell most of his junk. Dream supposes those boxes will stay packed forever now.
“You guys can stay here, I have spare sheets-”
“I’m good. I’d rather avoid the flea-couch.” George stretches his arms over his head until they shake, all the stiffness extracted in one motion. A yawn tumbles out of him. “I’ll come back tomorrow, I guess.”
“Maybe we want you to stay here,” Sapnap cuts.
The flat line of George’s mouth squeezes at Dream’s chest with iron claws. His eyes are frozen over, and Dream wonders if there’s someone beneath them, pounding at the ice in the desperate hope it’ll break. It’s not the first time he’s pondered it. George’s features are always like this, carefully schooled, composed as if by an artist into soft lines and crescents.
“It’s dangerous out there,” he says, and it’s gentler than the furrow adorning Sapnap’s brow. It sounds like fingers against freezing hips and skin tugged between teeth and the taste of orange juice and and and- Dream shoves the thoughts all the way to the deepest seas of his mind. “I just want to know you’re safe.”
“I’ll call when I’m home.”
“You never do,” Sapnap says.
He’s right—Dream isn’t sure how many hours he’s spent staring at the phone, mounted on the wall in an unassuming shade of peach with the plastic showing through at the corners. And the dial gets stuck more often than not, jamming until he gives up and chucks the receiver back into place, but he can’t bring himself to replace it yet because his mom salvaged it from God-knows-where. He can still imagine her chirping if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and he wonders how he’d ever know if it actually did break. George never calls anyway.
Dream isn’t sure why he’s so determined to keep his back to them.
“George. It’ll be better if you stay.”
None of them should be alone right now. That’s for thirty days’ time, when their hands are ripped apart by grey space rock. Bones charred to ash and atoms scattered to be sown into stars. March seems to dawn, and it pushes snow back into the earth.
The ice breaks.
“Alright,” he says. His expression appears to morph into cloudmatter instead, and it doesn’t crush Dream’s chest with the force of heavy marble pillars. “I’ll stay. But I’m not sleeping on the fucking sofa.”
Dream ends up with his cheek pressed against threadbare cushions and his limbs contorted so he can fit his legs onto the couch.
The call comes early in the morning when everything is dim and musty, and Dream’s only up because his bones feel like they’ve been disassembled and put back together all wrong. His neck clicks when he moves, and there’s an ache zipping up and down his spine with frantic electricity.
Dark storm clouds bruise his under eyes. He’s staring at the toaster as though it’ll make the bread cook faster, the sort of useless endeavour he tricks himself into doing every morning by rote.
Shit, he mutters, darting over from the kitchen before the ringing can wake Sapnap and George.
He snatches the receiver with a motion fogged by sleep, brings it up to press against his ear so hard his brain starts to rattle against the interior of his skull. As if he’s falling asleep on a bus and has nowhere better to rest his head than the window. Only this time there’s no heat-hazed sky to stare at, just the sight of bare toes pressing into a carpet stained to hell and back by cigarette smoke.
He slams it back into place only minutes later, because he’s heard everything he needs to make his stomach sink like a comet destined to collide with tectonic plates. A hand drags over his face, rough calluses scratching against his cheeks.
And he should be elated, that he’s been randomly selected to board the escape shuttle.
Dream is one of the lucky few, and fate has picked him to cast its warm rays upon. He could be travelling millions of kilometres away in less than a month, body chilled into stasis so he’s numb to the pain webbing across his heart. The stars casting watchful eyes over him.
He’s fortunate, but he can’t shake the strange feeling of ultimatum.
It’s unsurprisingly difficult to tell his best friends he’s been selected to board the shuttle.
They emerge at differing points of the morning, bleary eyed and with red tributaries sticking out from hazy scleras. Dream sits on the couch with his back ramrod straight and his hands squeezed between his thighs, bottom lip chewed raw by pointed incisors.
George pauses in the doorway when he emerges from Dream’s room, although it’s ticking closer to noon now. His hair forms a dark cloud around his head, fluffy and too long against his neck because he can’t be bothered to get it cut. He glances between them. The neckline of his shirt falls off his shoulder, and Dream would usually fight the urge to drink in the sight of angular collarbones.
But today is different. Today, he’s staring out at the sky and wondering if he’ll be overcome with vertigo when he’s hurtling through space.
“What’s happened?” George asks. His voice is marred by sleep.
Sapnap’s eyebrows draw together in an austere line. He’s sitting on the floor even though there’s more than enough room on the couch for both of them, and then some. But he says the positioning of it is all wrong, makes his leg hurt because he broke it when he was a kid and it’s never been the same since. His ankles drag over stained carpet marred with burn holes as he crosses and recrosses his legs. “Nothing..?”
“Then why are you sitting here like that?”
George sighs as if he’s terribly fed up with them. There’s a flask clutched by his delicate fingers, reflecting the light against white brushed walls whenever its facets catch the sun. Dream pretends he doesn’t notice. “It’s Monday morning, and you’re just sitting here like...like someone’s fucking died.”
Dream has to bite back a delirious laugh at that. His apartment feels like it’s full of ghosts at the best of times, with dated photographs mounted on the walls and only half their subjects still around to view them.
He swallows past the knot in his throat. The sight of the phone seems to taunt him, and his fingers itch to rip it from the wall. Tear it out until there’s plasterboard flaking over his carpet, toss it out the window so the plastic shatters upon the sidewalk and the bubbling sounds of hysteria are cut, if only for a split second. He grips the edge of the couch.
“I got a call,” he admits because he despises the feeling of it rotting away in his chest. “Earlier.”
“What was it?” George asks like he doesn’t already know. The way his lips tug down is evidence enough. He knows—he always knows what’s going on in Dream’s head before he even does himself. George is a little terrifying like that. Terrifying, because even though he knows, he wants to hear Dream say it. A pale wrist is attached to the hand twisting the knife stuck between his ribs.
“I got selected for the stasis thing, okay? Is that what you wanna hear?”
Sapnap looks ill. “T- they already called about that?”
Dream rubs a hand over his face, but it doesn’t clear the lingering feeling of dread. “Yeah, it was ass o’clock as well, I was only awake because George is a little bitch and the couch was uncomfortable.”
“That’s nice, Dream,” and George has a delicate smile applied to his features.
Nice. Real fucking nice, that he has to leave his home behind. All of it will be incinerated; the photographs of his mom holding kid-Dream; the bowl of tangerines on the kitchen counter; the sheets covering his bed tainted by sweetgrass and lilac.
And George, too. He’ll have to stare up at the sky with those vacant eyes even though he’s always loved the stars more than Dream ever will.
“You should call your roommate,” he says to Sapnap. He’s clinging to the chance they’ve both been selected, although he’s not entirely sure it’ll make him feel any better.
Sapnap blinks. “I guess I should.”
Dream tugs George from the lounge when Sapnap reaches for the receiver, rotary dial whirring under shaky fingers as he dials his dorm building. He figures it’s best if they leave him alone.
The feeling of anticipation must be overwhelming, must taste like bile and nerves scalding an arid tongue. At least his call had been out of the blue, rising from the depths like some eldritch horror to claw and clutch at him until he was overwhelmed with a sense of utter despondency.
Sapnap doesn’t have the same luxury.
“You can let go,” George murmurs.
He realises his hand is still curled around an icy wrist, and he drops it as if he’s been burnt. Shit. “Sorry. I zoned out.”
They’re standing just outside the room, awkwardly facing each other because they’re not sure if they should be eavesdropping or not. It’s not that Sapnap would mind, but the feeling is detestable. Dream cares more about Sapnap escaping this than himself. The utter terror permeating his irises when the announcement broadcast had made his insides twist, no matter how much Sapnap desperately tried to hide it.
“This is horrible,” he says when the silence swells so much it feels as though his lungs will collapse.
“You care about him more than yourself, don’t you?”
George’s eyes are a little terrifying. They seem to gaze straight past the barriers Dream constructs around himself, beyond the cheerful demeanor to the dark knot of worry sitting in his brain. He looks away, instead focusing on the chipping plaster and carpet so thin it would be better suited to an office building.
“He’s nineteen. He has so much shit to see, to do.” His voice is so low they have to strain to hear each other. Lips forming around urgent whispers, eyes which can’t meet each other because they’re scared of what’ll happen if they do. If it’ll end up like last time, with George slipping through Dream’s fingers and leaving the phone for dead.
And George reaches for his hand. His touch is strange when he’s the one initiating it, and Dream feels something in his chest shatter because he’s freezing. “You’re twenty, don’t try and tell me that’s any different, because it’s bullshit. You have aspirations too.”
Then his fingers squeeze around Dream’s before retracting, falling to hang loosely at his side again. As though nothing’s happened.
He thinks that’s a little rich coming from George, who’s terrified of his expiry date even though he tries to hide it. Terrified of the plane ticket he’s booked for the first day of September, terrified of the growing pains which come with leaving college. Of the varying bottles tucked under his bed. George thinks he’s too old to give a shit, and Dream wants to clutch him tight until his shoulders stop hunching under the weight of it.
He doesn’t, because now Sapnap’s speaking into the receiver in hushed tones.
“...congratulations man, I’m happy for you.” He hums as his roommate continues speaking, little noises to show he’s still listening even if Dream knows his mind is worlds away. “Hey, did they say anything about me?”
The pause is sickening. Dream nearly runs to the bathroom to empty the contents of his stomach, but he breathes slowly through his nose until it eases somewhat. He’s crossing his fingers so hard it hurts. George stands there with his hands clasped, chin tipped forward as he strains to hear what’s going on.
And then the impact comes.
“A- alright. That’s alright. Thanks for asking,” Sapnap says, and his voice breaks a little. “Huh? No, I’ll be okay.”
No you won’t. Dream shoves the heels of his palms into his eyes until he sees stars.
“Yeah, guess I’ll see you later then.”
The receiver clicks as it’s returned to the phone.
Sapnap looks tiny when they re-enter the lounge, mouths set into grim lines. He’s got his palms facing upwards in his lap, and he’s staring down at them as though he’ll find answers etched there. A prophecy, painted by soft hands onto the innards of the earth. “It doesn’t feel real,” he mutters. “None of it does. Like I’m gonna wake up back in the dorm and I’ll have pissed the bed or something and it’ll be horrible. Not as horrible as this, Jesus.”
Dream’s been there. Nothing quite feels real at first, feels as if it’s all an elaborate dream. But then the taste of doom seems to bite, and everything begins to unravel like a spool running away from him. Blue thread tangling into a mess of arteries snipped short by fate.
He sits down on the couch, and their knees knock even though there’s enough room to avoid it.
It’s so obvious Sapnap’s trying to seem composed, but they’ve been best friends for almost his entire life and he’d have to be blind to miss the way his eyes cloud with raging tempests and drown under spilled crude oil. Any more, and surely his mind will ignite.
“I’ll come to your dorm with you,” he suggests, mostly because he’s not sure what else to say.
Sapnap’s eyes are pleading. “Please, I can’t go back there. I need to-”
“Hey.” It’s George who cuts him off, dark eyes flitting between the pair of them. His shirt is still falling off his shoulder because the neckline is so stretched, and it looks dumb, but Dream can’t stop his breath hitching all the same. “He doesn’t mean like that. You need clean clothes, you can grab some and come straight back. Right, Dream?”
He coughs as if it’ll restart the torrent of haywire thoughts bouncing off the inside of his mind like popcorn kernels. “Yeah, that’s what I meant.”
The streets feel all wrong.
It’s quiet, but in all the worst ways. There’s no screaming, there’s no bedlam occupying the wide suburban roads, but there’s also a distinct lack of crackling radio music and bare feet slapping against the sidewalk because it’s Summer and there are supposed to be kids in the way. Dream supposes the initial hysteria has bubbled down somewhat, left them with this empty shell of a neighbourhood. He reckons it’s worse in the city, where everyone is crammed on top of each other until they’re choked with claustrophobia.
His cortina sounds offensively loud against the silence as it stalls, and a grimace tugs onto his face. A street cat yowls in the distance.
The residence complex is awful, full of students marooned hundreds of miles away from home and classes that suddenly aren’t due to resume in a few week’s time. It’s not even as bad as it should be, considering it’s still early August and there aren’t any freshmen here yet, only returners to the godawful college accom.
He sees a group of girls emerge onto the plaza, all huddled together with their hands joined and lined eyes wide with disbelief. As if they’re seeing everything differently now. They’re dressed as if they’re going to class despite it all, with hair tamed into shiny curtains and bangles slipping around on their wrists. Except there’s no class to attend, nothing to do except sit around and await the inevitable.
“Christ,” he says as they hurry to the cafeteria. Heels clicking against concrete walkways cracked by blinding heat. He’s just glad Sapnap can crash at his place instead of returning here, where newspapers are passed from room to room and the silence is punctuated every few seconds with the shrill ring of trim phones. The fleeting arguments of roommates pushed to their limits by the looming shadow of the asteroid.
He’d tried to convince Sapnap to move in with him at first, when he’d phoned to say he’d gotten into the same college as Dream and they could see each other again for the first time in years. They’d be able to have real conversations like they hadn’t since they were kids, voices no longer trapped in the metallic echo chamber of a switchboard.
“You can live with me,” he’d said, fingers rubbing absently over the receiver as he cradled it between his shoulder and ear. His neck was bent at an awkward degree for the accommodation. “The mortgage is already paid off, you’d just have to help with bills.”
“I’m not taking your mom’s room,” Sapnap cut.
Dream sighed. “Why? It’ll give me an excuse to redecorate it—a summer project.”
“Dude that’s like, morbid.”
At that was the end of that particular conversation. Sapnap moved into the shittiest dorms on offer to start the following September, although he seemed to spend most weekends on the dusty airbed Dream pulled out of the cupboard for him. So much so that it became his without either of them ever acknowledging it, and sometimes Dream didn't even bother deflating it during the week because he knew Sapnap would be back in a few days. A constant in his life.
There weren’t many of them, but Sapnap always, always came back.
He didn't bother offering his place again when summer approached, and Sapnap didn't ask. The second bedroom in his apartment remained sealed, a time capsule he wasn’t sure he was ready to open.
He coughs as they pass another group of students, this time all sprawled out on the scratchy grass with hazy eyes and red lines where they haven’t applied sunscreen liberally enough. Orange trees cast gentle shadows over the huddle. Their clothes contrast with the grass, dried and brown because the sprinklers must have stopped working and heat shimmers from the concrete in psychedelic waves.
Smoke floods his sinuses, and his eyes water a little. Sapnap turns back to look at him in amusement, lips slipping upwards despite himself. “Don’t hack up a lung,” he says, although his nose wrinkles too.
“Not gonna. Just wasn’t ready.”
Then they’re in the dorm building, and Dream can feel a chill pass through him as the AC chugs away. It rattles alarmingly every now again, like it’s about to whir right off the wall and shatter into pieces upon the vinyl floor. The horizontal slats are reminiscent of prison bars. Dream supposes it’s a testament to how faux-budget this place is, shitty facilities without the prices to match.
Sapnap’s key gets stuck in the door at first, and Dream wants to laugh. He does. Sapnap glares at him.
“You try it then,” he grits, and he slaps the key into Dream’s preemptively outstretched palm so hard it stings a little. With gentle fingers, he guides it into the lock, pulls up so the leverage is better...and the door clicks open. Sapnap glares at the key when it’s handed back to him. “That was a fluke.”
“Sure it was,” Dream says, and shoves the door open with his shoulder.
Sapnap sets to shoving clothes into a duffle as soon as they’ve passed over the threshold, as though the place is infested with parasitic dread which creeps into their pores and rots their brains. And Dream can’t exactly disagree. He’s never liked college much, never really understood the campus culture behind it or the cult-like frats which ring around the main university area. Nobody really knows him, he’s always been the guy who lives off campus and very occasionally shows up to parties when George or Sapnap manage to convince him to go. He’s the guy who sits in the back of class, a pen in his mouth and ink leaking out across his tongue when he chews too hard. He’s the guy with his own apartment, the guy who visits the local cemetery every other week with a portable cassette player and a C90 loaded with piracy. He’s the guy who plays Pink Floyd to a fucking headstone.
Of course, none of them know that. Nobody’s ever asked.
Dream prefers it that way. He has the best fucking friends in the world, even if George looks like he’s been burnt every time they touch. It’s so, so complicated, and now he’s not sure they’ll ever have the chance to iron everything out.
“Dream.” He realises Sapnap’s been trying to get his attention, and his gaze flicks away from the sky marred with darkening clouds.
“Huh? Hey, don’t roll your eyes.”
Sapnap does it anyway. “As I was saying, should I pack everything? I can stay at yours until...you know, right?”
He hums under his breath, tugging some of the crumpled shirts adorning Sapnap’s single bed towards him. “Yeah, you don’t need to come back here,” he says. His hands fold the shirts even though Sapnap can very well do it himself, and begins to tuck them into the bag along with everything else he’s packed. “Fold your clothes, dude. Saves space.”
“What are you, my mom?”
“Something like that.”
They set about packing it all together, moving in a way only best friends can without knocking elbows. It’s fortunate that Sapnap’s roommate isn’t here, because they’re able to make dumb small talk without the feeling of being watched. Dream thumbs over the edge of a peeling Black Sabbath poster, the corner of it slipping free from its adhesive so it hangs skewed. Somehow, he’s not surprised Sapnap hasn’t bothered to take the ten seconds to fix it.
There’s a discarded mug of coffee sitting on the desk, and when he peers into it, he’s dismayed to find what seems to be an independent ecosystem growing in the bottom of the thing. “That’s gross,” he complains. “Your roommate un-lucked out, oh my god.”
“Just leave it.” Sapnap glances up from the stuffed animal he’s holding.
Dream looks at it with an eyebrow raised, taking in its matted fur and ears which look as though they’re about to fall off. It rings a bell, conjuring an image of an old twin bed in a room which belongs to a stranger now. “Not a word,” Sapnap hisses, before he shoves it into the holdall.
“I think that’s everything,” Sapnap says, tugging at the zip with some difficulty until it closes.
They cast their eyes over the room, over the dirty socks littering the floor, the ashtray on the sill and the desks crammed against each wall. Sapnap’s is surprisingly clutter free, although Dream’s not sure whether that’s a good thing or not, academically speaking. A collection of biros is scattered towards the back of it. A dried puddle of ink haloes one of them with matter as dark as the void.
“Alright, let’s go back to the apartment. Home, I mean.” He’s not sure why the word seems oversized when bestowed on the place he grew up in.
“Fuck college!” Sapnap cheers when they’re backing out the door, both middle fingers up in a saluted farewell.
The next few days coil around his mind with all the energy of a live wire, tight and electrifying him to insanity.
They shut the doors a little harder than they should. Sapnap fiddles with the radio dials even though the feel-good music all the stations have been hammering just makes them feel worse. Dream finally lets his cheeks flood when he’s in the shower, banging a fist against the wall because he’s not sure why this had to happen to them. Even the shower spiders skitter away from him. George goes missing in the middle of the night, and they only know because he turns up the next day with a newspaper shoved into his waistband and the cloying smell of triple sec sticking to him.
To put it simply, they’re driving each other up the wall. The apartment feels like he’s left the stove on, gas leaking out of it to push against the windows and fill every crevice with the stuff.
And it’ll only take one spark for everything to go to shit.
He’s lying on the couch, knees bent so he can fit himself between the armrests. The moon streams in through the window, mottles over his skin until it appears the same as the soft insides of an oyster shell. Palm trees flutter in the night breeze, enjoying their last few days of clean air free of debris and ash.
His spine clicks when he shuffles to lie on his back. Now he can look at the map of fault lines branching over the ceiling, each one splintering out into a cobweb of imperfections. A roach disappears behind the AC unit.
It’s performative when he closes his eyes, rests his hands against his chest as though his living room is a coffin. But there’s too much irritable energy buzzing in the apartment, presenting itself in the form of Sapnap’s malfunctioning coffee machine he keeps in the kitchen because he’s over so often, the blinds which don’t close so Dream has to deal with the moon staring at him in discontent, George’s shoes absent from their spot by the front door. The chain swinging free.
Sleep slips between his fingers and it sounds like the heavy silence of a quiet phone.
His head spins as he pulls himself off the couch and stumbles towards the doorway, limbs still half tethered to sleep even though it’s been evading him for hours.
He’s going to the kitchen, mind settled firmly on the strawberry pop-tarts sitting at the back of the top shelf where George and Sapnap can’t see them. But something makes him pause in the middle of the corridor, hands fiddling with nothing in particular as he tries to remember what exactly he was doing.
It’s no coincidence he’s standing in front of his mom’s door.
A moment passes as he deliberates, as he stares at the wood panelling and the strip of moonlight bleeding through the crack at the bottom. The door has been shut for years, and he dreads to think how grey everything must be. It’s laughable that he reaches for the handle now, fingers curling around the cold bite of cheap brass and flexing as he grips.
It only took the literal apocalypse for him to stand here again.
The door squeals when it swings open, hinges unoiled and disused. It bumps against the opposite wall with a soft thud and stills so the apartment is dunked back into silence. Water filling his ears, cutting off all the sound so he can only hear the surface lapping in lazy circles.
Her room is exactly how he remembers it, except for the grey layer of film which covers everything. It seems as though the place has been plunged into a realm of sepia, where the people are silent and communicate only with exaggerated gestures and eyes widened to the size of round towers. Quiet, simple lives. Even the bed appears muted, floral spread marred with heather toned motes and stains where water’s leaked through the ceiling. Stray pieces of plasterboard ring around the edges, small white chips because his neighbours slam the doors too hard and it makes the walls shake as if there’s a faultline beneath the building.
He takes step after weary step, and it feels like there are weights shackled to his ankles.
His fingers drift across the bedposts, cold wrought metal outdated and downright out of place amongst the bright colours she’s decorated with. The wallpaper is peeling because the adhesive is terrible, the kind of stuff he can buy for a few dollars per kilo. It’s difficult to breathe in here. He realises it’s due to the dust plumes he must be inhaling, entire clouds of it ensnared by gaudy walls and threadbare carpet.
The window is heavy, resists his tugging and sticks stubbornly halfway up the frame. Dream glares at it for a moment, before the early morning air spills over his hands and suddenly he doesn’t care so much anymore.
There’s an armchair positioned underneath the window, floral patterned fabric worn thin and matte. He remembers her sitting here, a copy of Ariel balanced in one calloused hand. She’d always have blisters on her palms. A cigarette in the other, smoke drifting through the open window to disperse amongst the swaying palms.
Dream isn’t sure where the anthology is, and he’s not sure he’d particularly want to flick through it even if he did. Surely it’d be too tragic, for him to sit here on the precipice of the apocalypse reading Plath with the moon staring at him from her hood of bone.
Regardless, he darts back out to the lounge to swipe Sapnap’s Marlboro box, and sits himself down in the armchair with the corners digging into his palm. Smoke floods around him until he can’t tell greys from mauves, cloying smoke from the hurricane of dust he seems to kick up with every infinitesimal movement.
And he exists for a while or two.
His feet rest upon the dresser, ankles crossed and a red mark forming at the base of his sole. An ache is settling in his throat, the kind of sting which accompanies sleepless nights and sinuses easily irritated by thick Floridian heat.
He grinds the cig into the dish on the windowsill, muddying pink ceramic with dark ash.
This room is full of her, from the clothes shoved into the closet, the plastic sweet ivy plant trailing its leaves before the window, to the stain on the carpet where she’s spilled peach nail polish. On the floor lies a rug, brown shag and downright revolting. The bed is made, and her tape deck is discarded atop the spread.
Dream ignores the nightstand, ignores everything with drawers or doors because he doesn’t want to know what horrors he’ll find hidden, haphazardly shoved into nooks and crannies safe from teenage-Dream’s eyes. He wishes she’d been less careful about it.
Her perfume bottles line the back of the vanity, differing heights and shapes all crammed together with no real sense of organisation. He remembers her buying some of them, price tags massively reduced because she swore by purchasing them duty-free more often than not.
The largest one flares at the top, swells with clear glass because the perfume is dwindling towards the bottom. Dream knows exactly what it’s like, knows the smell of oudh and jasmine even through the veil of time. She’d worn it every day, to the point he imagines he can still smell it clinging to his sheets sometimes.
And here it stands. It looks innocent enough, an unassuming bottle containing enough force to set off detonations the size of entire cities in his head.
But it’s something smaller which catches his attention, a square bottomed phial separated from the rest of them.
The amber inside it splashes against the sides when he leans out of the chair to pick it up, catches the light in curious ways so there are anglerfish set free in its depths. Dust transfers across his fingerpads. This one had always been his favourite, reminiscent of summer and thousands of miles of asphalt flying underneath them.
Dream briefly wonders if guys are supposed to wear perfume, but the thought is lost to a raging memory-sea of familiar milky limbs and dark hair tickling his chest.
He thinks there are an awful lot of things guys aren't supposed to do.
The cap falls into his palm. He takes a deep breath, staring down at the top like it might bite him. But it doesn’t, and after a heartbeat or two, he compresses the pump. His wrist tingles as it freckles over the delicate mess of veins visible through golden skin.
Sunny orange peel and patchouli fill up his head, so nostalgic it makes him want to weep for the stars. He’s clinging onto the bottle like it’s a lifeline, and he thinks it must look pretty stupid—a twenty one year old college student wearing his mom’s perfume at three in the morning with a faraway look pulled over his face.
The moon slips by, and he’s reminded of falling asleep in the passenger seat, the smell of tangerine and cola flooding his senses as she guides them into the parking lot of a roadside motel. What he would give to do it all again, have her hands gently shaking his shoulders so he could walk up to their room and collapse into a lumpy mattress. He’d sell half his worldly possessions to run his tires smooth upon cracked asphalt, to see the landscape pulse and morph as he passes through unfamiliar states and towns.
And as he creates a cloud of perfume around him, he’s left with a singular distinguishable thought—
Why the fuck not?
He proposes his idea the following morning, when George has returned to the apartment and he thinks Dream doesn’t know. But he’d been standing in the kitchen when the front door creaked, gaze unstraying from the toaster as George had stolen back into Dream’s room. Even if he’d slept, he thinks the weary film covering George’s eyes is evidence enough that he’s left in the night again, but he doesn’t comment.
It doesn’t feel like it’s his place.
Now, sun warms the room to dazzling honey tones. Sapnap is sitting on the floor again with his bad leg stretched out in front of him, head leaning back against the mantle and a mug of soluble coffee by his knee because the machine’s broken. Dream eyes it—he’s certain it’ll end up discarded in the next few minutes, and he’ll have to tip it down the sink. Earthy granules sticking to a metal basin. Hanging on for dear life, until the rush of tap water erodes them to nothing and they’re dissolved into non existence.
Dream passes through the doorway, bare feet whispering against the carpet. He comes to a halt in the middle of the room, so his arms are warmed by the sun and his hair is set alight with its piercing gaze. “Morning,” he says.
The pair of them grumble greetings in return, and he can’t wait any longer. Fuck it.
“Let’s drive to Cali,” he says breathlessly, lips parted because it feels as though his heart might punch its way through his ribcage. A freed hummingbird, fluttering skywards where it might be safe from the impact of several atomic bombs in apocalyptic synchronisation.
George looks up from the coffee table magazine he’s leafing through, one eyebrow raised in interest. “Cali? For real?”
“Yeah. Me and mom did it one time, all the way up the i-10 until we hit L.A. We could go to Santa Monica. Fuck, please say yes. I’m gonna go crazy if we stay here for the next fortnight.” Until I gotta leave.
“Dream, you have to board the ship in two weeks, remember?” Sapnap has a cigarette box in his hands, and he’s flipping it over and over in rhythmic intervals. The cardboard is becoming creased, worn into smooth wrinkles by the anxious press of his thumbs. “We can’t drive to California.”
“I don’t have to be back for a whole two weeks.” He doesn’t. The impersonal voice floating over the phone line had told him to show up exactly a week before the asteroid is due to collide with the crust of the earth, bringing nothing but two forms of identification and his detestable bag of bones.
Everything else will be left for the carnage. Everything else, including Sapnap and George. His stomach churns at the thought of it, and Dream knows to stay here in Florida would be suicide. Mind addled to stewing swamp water, toxic and permeated with the stench of disease. “We can make it there and back easy. We’ll have days to spare.”
“I don’t know…”
George casts the magazine aside. It falls to the floor, its pages folded haphazardly and the spine pointing towards a parched ceiling. “Sapnap, come on. We’re going to be at each other’s throats if we stay here. Besides, it’ll be fun.”
“Fun.” Sapnap sounds uncertain.
“We have to find small joys now,” Dream placates. He smiles at Sapnap, and he hopes the warmth kindling in his stomach is enough to transfer to his sunny expression. “You know, make the most of it or whatever.”
God, he’d die for the both of them, allow his bones to be compressed to ash time and time again if they wished it.
But they don’t. They want him to board the escape shuttle, have all his atoms frozen so he doesn’t age and his heart falls silent in the cavity of his chest. They want him to be tossed millions of miles away to the other side of the universe, lying dormant in a mess of intestine-like steel corridors to be discovered in god knows how many years.
They want him to live.
Dream’s just not sure if it’ll really be living if they’re not there with him. He wants to be selfish, take and take what little time they have left so he doesn’t regret it when the stars are the only company he has left.
Sapnap runs a hand through his hair so it’s pushed back from his forehead momentarily. “Your car threatens to break down every time you drive it out of the street, dude. It’s scrap metal. No way it’s getting to Santa Monica.”
“There’s uh, the van.”
That grabs Sapnap’s attention. He sucks in a breath through his teeth, eyebrows raising as he meets Dream’s gaze. “You haven’t touched that thing since- well, y’know.”
It’s true. The van’s been gathering dust in a storage unit for almost four years now, sealed away from the world by steel shutters and confined to its concrete tomb. Dream says it’s because the thing’s too unwieldy, too difficult to drive around the suburban dystopia he needs to cross to get to work, to college, to George’s cupboard sized room.
Really, it’s because the seats still stink of oudh. Because a dumb Jesus bobble-head still sits on the dash, and there’s an expired tube of lipstick melting onto the leather. The doors are crammed with the C60s and C90s him and his mom used to blast when they were embarking on a road trip for no reason in particular, other than to roll all the windows down and forget the world existed for a few days.
He sighs. It is difficult to drive it around sharp corners. Every month, he swears he’s going to sell the thing and stop paying the rent, and every month, he doesn’t.
“I’m never getting another chance to give it a proper send off, am I?” He prays Sapnap can tell he’s serious about this, because he is. It’ll be difficult to clamber back into it, to slide back into seats which feel smaller now he’s gained a few inches. To retrace the route to California. But he thinks he can do it, and it’ll be better than staring at the cracks adorning the wall of his apartment until it’s time to go.
Sapnap looks at him, hard. Then his shoulders drop a degree or two as if he’s a marionette and his strings have been cleaved in half. “You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”
He sighs, and Dream can tell he’s considering it. For him. He’s reminded of all the dumb shit he’s dragged Sapnap into over the years, all the grand plans and ostentatious schemes running on the fumes of his oversized imagination.
Sapnap always relents. “George, you in?”
The hummingbird in his chest flutters so wildly he feels he may collapse when George beams without holding back for once. “Of course. I’ve got nothing better to do, have I? And Dream’s dumb schemes aren’t always as dumb as they seem.” Dream fights the laugh which bubbles on his tongue.
Sapnap tugs a cigarette out of the box, brings it to his lips and flicks his lighter so his face is illuminated by a burst of amber. Then it retreats, and he’s left shrouded by gentile tendrils of smoke.
“Alright,” he says. Smoke tips from his mouth. “Sure. I don’t give a shit anymore. Let’s get the hell out of this godforsaken state.”
They cram into Dream’s ford the next morning, daybreak still retracting from the clouds and misty blue condemning orange to the horizon. The trunk is full of hastily packed holdalls, each one full to the bursting with clothes, booze, and everything else under the sun a trio of college-aged boys deemed fit to lug with them all the way up the interstate.
It feels odd, to be pulling away from his two storey apartment building and the last glimpse of the peeling cream exterior the shrunken image of it in the rearview mirror.
He doesn’t spend much time thinking about it, because he nudges the pedal until it recedes into the distance and cool air claws its fingers across their faces. All the windows are down, and he can hear snippets of suburbia as they pass through it. A baby crying, hungry dogs impatient for breakfast.
It doesn’t take them long to reach the storage unit, although it seems to drag because he stalls every other time he reaches a stop sign and the engine wheezes every now and again. “Yeah, there’s no way we could’ve used this thing,” he comments, knocking against the dash with his knuckles. He’s surprised it doesn’t make the thing fall apart. The speedometer stays frustratingly low, needle tipping towards the bottom end of it because he’s nervous anything over 40 will cause it to die a sudden death.
He breathes out a sigh of pure relief when they pull up next to the storage unit. With a twist of the keys, he kills the engine. They sit there for a few moments, just staring at the absolute eyesore that is the facility, all garish yellow folding doors offset by greying bricks. Dream thinks they’re supposed to be beige. It doesn’t matter.
He pops the door open, hands shoving into his pockets as he deposits the keys there so they jangle against his thighs.
“You need the key for the damn unit, Dream,” George says. His head emerges over the roof of the car in a cloud of dark brown.
He blinks. “Huh.”
“And to lock the car, scatterbrain.” Sapnap slams the door behind him and pries the trunk open. When he retrieves his bag, his arms strain under the weight of it. He tosses George’s onto the parking lot, which receives him a shout of contempt. “Just pick it up, you baby.”
George hefts it from the cracked asphalt, pulls it up against his chest. Even the way he stands seems to be thoughtfully composed, hip curving against the line of his shirt and his shorts fluttering in the early breeze. Statuesque. “Which one is it, then?”
Dream startles from his stupor. “Right. Um,” he says, crossing to the other side of the car so he can lock the passenger door.
Once he’s grabbed his bag and triple checked all the locks, he leads them across the parking lot to the storage facility. There are angular numbers painted on the cinderblock mantles above each rolling door, apathetic and unseeing of the three of them. The place is dead, the parking lot only punctuated by Dream’s decrepit car and a McDonald’s takeout cup which drifts across the bays.
How clinical their footsteps sound when there’s nobody else to hear them. Dream clutches the bag tighter to his chest as though it’ll tame the monsoon tipping about in his stomach.
“It’ll be okay,” Sapnap says, and clearly he’s being more obvious than he thinks.
He’s standing under the painted 04, eyes dragging over a door painted a hideous shade of yellow. “Yeah, I know. It’s just a van.” Even though it’s not just a van. It contains things he’s not sure he wants to see, a black mass pushing against the pandora’s box of the rundown storage unit.
Somehow this is worse than opening the second bedroom. This time, he’s affronted with memories of trundling down the interstate in the middle of spring break, towns in the middle of nowhere with junipers lining the streets, the smell of lemongrass permeating everything he owns.
“I’ll do it.” George sticks a palm out, brighter than usual under the sun.
Well. It’s easier to let someone else pull the splinter out.
He drops the keys into George’s hand, and they cast dim refractions over the map of lines. Then he’s stooping down to unlock the door.
Dream has to concentrate hard on the cinderblocks when his shirt rides up, drifts to hint at the bottom of his ribs, pressing against taut skin dotted with sun blemishes. It reminds him of too much, and Dream is sick to death of memories.
The door rolls up with an unhealthy squeal, the mechanism disused and ageing.
“Here.” And there are cold fingers pushing the keys back into his own.
And the door’s open.
And the van stares at him as though it’s a ghost.
Somehow, Dream doesn’t feel so ill anymore. It’s just a hunk of metal, side bars and doors which jam when he opens them at the wrong angle. Seats stained with hot sauce and lipstick, glitter stuck to the floor from something or other they’d done a decade ago. Whatever it was, he doesn’t remember it so well. The glitter is the only proof it ever happened, clinging stubbornly to every surface no matter how hard he’d tried to get rid of it all, until at some point, he’d just given up.
He laughs when the side door jams, and it alleviates some of the building pressure in the cinderblock room. It takes a few tries to get the angle right, but it rolls back eventually, and the three of them are left gazing into the main body of the vehicle.
There are circular burns all over the mat carpet, and a blanket is thrown across the rigid back seats in an attempt to make them seem more forthcoming. The smell of oudh hits him like a sweatered hug, soft and ever so gentle. He’s not sure whether he’s imagining it or not. When he tries to focus upon it, gasoline fills up his head, engine grease and leather cracked under years of use.
“Tada.” He gestures to the lacklustre interior and tosses his holdall in. It lands with a dull thump, and no spectres rise from the carpet.
“Shotgun,” George and Sapnap chorus, and Dream feels a part of him die a little.
“You can’t even drive,” Sapnap bites.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Sapnap’s face draws into disbelief. “It means if you’re not driving, you don’t get shotgun privilege. Obviously.”
“That’s not fair, it’s not like I’m choosing not to drive.”
“You’re twenty-fucking-three, you can’t say it’s not your fault. And don’t look at me like that, you know it only works on Dream.”
George’s reply is cut off as Dream slams the door behind him, body settling into the driver’s seat with a removed familiarity. He can still hear them arguing, but at least it’s somewhat muffled now, separated from him by a layer of glass and metal.
Now he’s sitting in the van, he’s acutely aware of how inhumanely hot it is, and he shoves the keys into the ignition so he can crank up the fan. It kicks out a tangible cloud of dust which seems to coat his tongue and clog the back of his throat with grey haze. “Jesus,” he mutters once he’s stopped coughing.
A quick glance outside reveals George in a loose headlock, and it’s an actual, physical effort to stop his eyes rolling out of his fucking skull and across the parking lot.
Dream stretches across the central console and shoves the door open. “Could you just get in already? It’s gonna be September if you keep this up, I swear to God.”
“Dream, tell him teenagers sit in the back.”
“No. You can both sit in the back if you’re gonna be this annoying the whole time,” he says. “Seriously, I don’t wanna deal with your bullshit.”
“Fine, Dad.” Sapnap climbs into the passenger seat and pulls the door shut behind him so it clicks.
His feet go straight up onto the dash as if this place is his second home, dangerously close to kicking the stupid bobblehead off its perch. It’s tacked down, but Dream doesn’t have much faith in it lasting the entire trip. A string of rainbow beads swing from the rearview mirror, each one refracting the small amount of sunlight filtering into the unit in kaleidoscopic patterns.
Dream preempts George’s whined protest, rolling down his window so he can still address him. “George, get in the back or I’ll legitimately drive off without you,” and that seems to finally achieve some compliance.
The van rattles when the side door slams shut, rolling into position so it’s just them and the dusty, stagnant air.
Their duffels are shoved up against the front seats, pushed in such a way that they won’t fall free and knock George out mid-journey. Dream glances into the mirror just to see the way his limbs are sprawled out across the backseat, hand curving against the floor, fingers soft like lilies. His throat tightens again.
He shoves a cassette into the player once they’re all settled, pushes it shut with steepled fingers, and quiet music begins to filter through the stuffy space. It’s a compilation of sorts, crammed with songs his mom liked to listen to when she was driving. Her tape deck remains shoved in the corner of the second bedroom, dormant with age because Dream thinks he’s got all the songs he could possibly need jammed onto her old collection of C90s. The doors are brimming with them, each one with a handwritten tracklist in either evenly spaced, rounded characters, or Dream’s chicken scratch. Only a few come with the addition of album art, only the most special.
“It’s getting near dawn,” Sapnap hollers off key.
“What the hell have I gotten myself into?” Dream asks nobody in particular as he jostles the gear stick. The engine groans.
He gets an answer anyway, accented and floating from somewhere in the back. Softened by sleep and the music as it flows around them in heady waves.
“A roadtrip with your best friends, idiot. Let’s make it good, yeah?”
“Oh sweetheart,” he says, tone lifting up at the end so it’s over-exaggerated. The van pulls out of the facility and rolls across the lot towards the distant highway rush. “We’ll make it so good the fucking world ends.”