Chapter 1: Karma
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.”
Chapter 2: Magic 8
The gas runs out a little sooner than Dream anticipates.
They’re only an hour or two in, slogging through Florida with the sort of resilience they only maintain because they’re not bored of cloud gazing yet. (That one looks like a dick, Sapnap says every now and again. George laughs, Dream rolls his eyes.) Tallahassee seems to evade them, grows legs and runs away from the shitty little van every time Dream thinks they’re making progress towards it. He thinks they’ll be stuck in Florida forever. It sounds like a perfect premise for a horror movie, driving around and around with the same landmarks popping up every few minutes.
“Gas,” he groans when the needle teeters slightly too close to the bottom. Dream is happy to run on fumes most of the time, but he doesn’t really feel like walking up the interstate to the next town to get a canister right now.
Sapnap whistles. “Wow, already?”
“There wasn’t much in the tank,” he says.
“Okay, just pull into a petrol station, no big deal.” George is still awake despite the travel sickness he claims to have. "You always make everything more dramatic than it needs to be."
So they pull into the next gas station, which seems to be constructed entirely of peeling paint and marred concrete. Dream wonders if everything’s always looked this decrepit, or if he’s seeing it all through a grey apocalypse filter now.
“Ugh, there are still workers in there,” Sapnap grumbles.
Dream shoots him a puzzled glance. “Uh, yeah?”
“That means we have to pay for shit.”
George chimes in from the back. “I don’t know if you noticed, but the interstate’s practically deserted. I think the assumption is people aren’t really going about their lives anymore, especially not if it’s to work in a petrol station.”
The interstate has been pretty quiet, only punctuated by the occasional car hurtling past them far over the speed limit. Most of the lanes seem to be unneeded, lying dormant and unused for once. Dream imagines the road is relieved, now it can allow itself to be sunned and breathe cleaner air less weighed down by smog.
“For once, you make a point,” he concedes.
“Fuck off, I always make good points.”
He takes the opportunity to locate the gas station toilets and rub cold water over his face, scrubbing at the perspiration and oil that’s already accumulating upon it. Sapnap is bridled with the thrilling task of filling the tank and paying for the gas with the bills Dream had pushed into his hands.
It feels strangely like he’s being watched, as if something dark and horrible is lurking in the cracks adorning the sinks. Dream doesn’t spend a second longer than he has to in the toilets, rushes outside wiping his hands off on the front of his jeans.
“Got you this,” Sapnap says once he’s back in the driver’s seat. He’s holding two cokes with condensation gathering upon the glass. “No thank you, Sapnap?” he asks when Dream takes one.
“You bought them with my money!”
“Dream,” George says. “Look what I found.”
He twists in the seat to peer into the back of the van and is rewarded with the sight of George lying across the back seats with one of those dumb magic 8-balls in his hands. There’s an unopened coke on the floor next to him, bending the light into boiling rays. “It’s an 8-ball,” Sapnap says observationally.
“Yeah. I dunno, I thought it was cool.” George’s nails tap against the glossy surface of it. “There’s an icosahedron dice in here,” he says, because it’s just the sort of thing he would happen to know.
Dream wracks his brain for a moment, tries to dredge up anything that’ll remind him why the fuck there’s a magic 8-ball in the back of the van. Rolling between George’s palms soft enough to make his throat tighten. It hits him in a burst of halogen lights and orbs of bubblegum crunching under his teeth, tugging ulcers from the insides of his cheeks.
“Shit, I remember getting that. Mom had to buy it so I’d have something to mess with.”
“What, on a road trip?” George is shaking it, smiling as he cycles through the different answers. He manages to make the most mundane of items seem special, cradled in his hands as though forged of eggshell.
He nods. “Yeah, I was an annoying ass kid.”
“True.” Sapnap is grinning at him.
Dream elects to ignore him. “I dunno why it’s still in here. I must’ve gotten bored of it after that trip and chucked it into the back.” Never to be seen again, it seems. Lost along with all the other assorted junk shoved into the doors and seat pockets and nooks and crannies.
Until now, anyway. George tosses it into the air again, catches it with deft certainty. “God, did you never clean this thing?” He seems to take in the assortment of stains littering the carpet and the places where the seats have torn. The dust covering the string of rainbow beads, the permanent condensation marks on the windows. “...nevermind.”
Dream laughs and it warms the pit of his stomach with prosecco. “Yeah, there’s a ton of junk in this thing. I think I prefer it that way.”
He twists the keys in the ignition, and they’re off again, trundling down the interstate with the needle tipping over 50 because it’s the end of the fucking world and nobody cares if they break a speed limit or two.
“Hey, lemme drive for a while,” Sapnap says once the day’s drawn out over hours and hours.. He’s got his Paranoid cassette rolling because Dream had finally relented and let him pick the music. Iron Man filters out of the player in quiet waves, and it makes his head thrum. The sun is passing its midpoint in the sky, sliding down back towards its temporary resting place. And when it finally reaches harmony with the earth, it’ll mean they’re another day closer to the impact.
Dream is terrified if he stops driving he’ll miss the sunset—he doesn’t have many left. “Are you sure? I’m good to go longer,” he says, although he has to stifle a yawn in his fist.
“Nah, pull over. If you fall asleep at the wheel and crash the van I’ll be pissed. I know me and George’ll be gone in a few weeks, but you still have your life to live.” And Dream realises Sapnap deserves to see the sky as it morphs to pink and purple to black more than he does. Perhaps he’ll be able to see the light recede behind a foreign horizon someday, but Sapnap will only know a world of ash and decomposition.
The interstate is so desolate he doesn’t even need to drive off the road, instead just guiding it into the rightmost lane so there’s more than enough space for everything to pass them by. He yanks at the handbrake until it gives, the joints of it sticking so badly he’s certain it must be violating a law or two. But laws don’t mean all that much anymore, not when the courthouses are about to be decimated.
“I gotta piss,” Sapnap says. “You good?”
Dream hums. “Yeah, I’m good.”
He switches seats once the passenger door slams shut, the force of it reverberating throughout the van with an odd sense of finality. Dream mumbles along with the cassette, taps his fingers against his thighs while he waits.
Despite how the floor trembles whenever the doors swing, George remains undisturbed on the back seat, eyes curved shut and the old blanket pulled to cover his legs. He twitches every now and again, tiny shivers running through him which make his nose scrunch. The fan stutters as Dream knocks it down a few notches.
Ugh, he’s staring at George in the rearview again. He’s not even doing anything interesting, but there’s something about the way his features fall loose when he’s asleep that’s strangely fascinating. The 8-ball rests in the crook of his stomach, cradled there by his body so it doesn’t careen back into the depths of the van. Silver glints from his fingers.
He yanks his gaze away from the mirror.
It falls on the glove compartment instead, sealed with the key still jammed into the lock. A plastic charm swings from it, a red heart shape with scratches all over the surface. He stares at the hatch just so he can feel the acid bubbling within his stomach, singeing the lining and pooling at the endings of his nerves with frantic energy.
Nothing in there is going to bite his hand off, Dream reasons.
The glove compartment pops open with a small amount of resistance, unleashes the godforsaken smell of oudh again because everything in this van seems to be personally tailored to shove him into the past. He coughs from the force of it. Then he’s rifling through the compartment, pushing aside even more cassettes and wondering why his mom seemed to transport an entire library’s worth of music around with her.
Most of it is perfectly ordinary. An aged packet of fruit gummies with half the contents missing. A tube of mascara and a lipstick to go with it, cherry red if the smudges adorning the sides are anything to pass judgement on. A map of the i-5 tumbles into his hands, one of the corners torn off and all the others dog-eared.
There’s a phone number scrawled along the inside cover when he checks, a string of digits that could belong to quite literally anyone. Dream almost wants to ring it, find a telephone somewhere and punch it in so he can wander back into his mom’s past.
Then he remembers people have better things to be doing than talking to some overgrown kid these days.
An earring glints from the depths of the compartment, shoved out the way behind everything else. He twists his lips before tugging it free. It's small and silvery, an understated hoop he remembers her wearing whenever she was driving because they didn't weigh her lobes down with headache. Its counterpart is nowhere to be seen.
He’s still holding the earring when the driver’s side door opens, and a burst of hot air rolls over him. Sapnap pushes himself into the seat, runs his nails over the stitching on the wheel. The door remains open for now, haphazardly extending into the road so they can taste the lucid combination of cracked asphalt and cypress.
“I sort of wanna wear this,” he says.
Sapnap peers at the earring. “Is that your mom’s?”
“Uhuh. It’d be cool right?” He holds it up to his lobe to demonstrate. It’s tiny, really, but it still manages to refract sunbeams onto the dash. “Not sure where the other one’s gone though.”
“You don’t even have piercings.”
“So? It’s the apocalypse in three fucking weeks, dude. One sec.” Dream pulls himself behind the seat so he can rifle through the sheer amount of junk that’s accumulated in the van over the years. His hands sift through old photos, endless cassettes adorned with his mom’s handwriting, and an unopened packet of incense sticks which reek of jasmine. “God, where is it…” A dead spider tumbles from an old jean jacket and nearly gives him a heart attack.
“What are you looking for?”
And in a moment of revelation, Dream pulls a travel sized sewing kit from the elasticated pocket attached to the back of the passenger seat. “This. She always kept one in here. I kept putting holes in my pants.”
He remembers all the clothes he’d owned with the material worn to threads around the joints, seams tearing open and blood staining the edges whenever he tripped onto the road or climbed trees he wasn’t supposed to. It wasn’t that Dream was a klutz when he was a kid. He thinks most boys that age are something similar. And he misses the innocence that came with it, the ability to knock around unfamiliar neighbourhoods and have his mom stitch all his clothes back together whenever he wore them to the breaking point.
“Sapnap,” he intones.
Sapnap sighs because he already knows. “You’re gonna ask me if it’s a good idea to stick a sewing needle through your ear, aren’t you.” It doesn’t tilt up at the end like a question would.
“Nah, I was gonna ask if you’d do it for me.”
“That’s literally the same thing.”
Sapnap breathes out a sigh because he’s used to this. He’s used to Dream’s spontaneity, used to the amount of dumb shit he proposes because he thinks it’s a waste of time to worry about the consequences. It’s always been like this, Dream the first to lunge headfirst into everything and drag Sapnap along with him. And George is often right behind, curious to see what the outcome’ll be just because he’s rotten to the core with morbid curiosity.
But even when the fire had pushed Sapnap across a state line, he’d been the one to dial up Dream’s mom’s old landline and utter a distraught hey into the receiver. Sapnap always comes back, no matter what.
“Yeah, why the fuck not.”
They do it when they've pulled off the interstate that night, onto a highway so they can find somewhere to rest for the night. They're just past Pensacola, and it feels as if Florida will never fucking end. He'd suggested they keep driving towards New Orleans until they found a motel, but both his and Sapnap's concentration was wearing thin and the road was beginning to morph into an unpleasant grey monolith.
So it's Florida for now.
Rain hammers against the roof, huge droplets of it that create a racket and all but drown out the sound of the cassette player. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and it seems even the clouds are expressing their discontent with the sorry state of the world. The road is illuminated by periodic flashes which reveal its hollowness. And then they’re dunked back into a world of quiet, only the sound of rain thrashing against the windows to accompany their strange gathering.
He's convinced the three of them can sleep in the van if they put their minds to it, keep their elbows to themselves and don't begin any dumb arguments for the sake of arguing. Dream doesn't see how giving himself a makeshift piercing could possibly escalate the tension.
“Hey Georgie, gimme that,” he says, gesturing at the flask laid over his thighs. He hopes his tone is saccharine enough.
“Huh?” White fingers close around the neck of it and fiddle with the lid. Light bounces across the roof as George moves it closer to his stomach, protective. Clearly not. “Nuh-uh. You’re gonna waste it.”
Dream sighs and drops his voice back to its usual register. “What is it, shitty vodka? We can get more.”
“I'm not gonna enable this, it's a dumb idea.”
“George, I thought you said my ideas always turn out better than they seem.”
“Yeah, like when you drag us on some stupid hippy-pilgrimage. Not when you're literally about to give yourself a nasty ass infection for no reason.” George's tone is sour, and Dream can tell he's a little miffed about being forced to sit in the backseat the entire day. He almost points out George had needed very little persuasion to embark on their ‘pilgrimage’, but he doesn’t want to start another dumb argument.
“C’mon, we’ll just flame the damn needle,” Sapnap says, wiggling a lighter out of his jeans. It flickers with orange, sends trailing embers over them and illuminates the way George’s eyebrows are pushed together. Sapnap grins, and Dream thinks he’s smiling a little too wide considering he’s about to shove a needle through his ear.
“Why do you look so excited about this?” He asks weakly.
Sapnap swipes the sewing kit from where it lies on the floor, rifles through it until he finds the plastic strip of needles. They glint like thorns under the starlight, wicked and silver with points too thin for purpose. “Are you kidding? You’re gonna cry like a baby, I bet,” he laughs.
“It can’t be that bad.”
“Hmmm, we’ll see about that.” Sapnap’s tongue pokes out as he waves the flame over the needle, sucking in through his teeth when it dances too close to his thumb. “Fuck, ouch.” The wheel clicks back and they’re plunged into twilight once more. Stars reach out delicate hands and spin their circle into something like a pact. All they’re missing is a bloody palm each.
The needle is still glowing when Sapnap begins advancing towards Dream.
“Wait for it to cool, oh my god,” he bites, leaning out of the way before he ends up with the thing in his eye. He’s not sure how the hospitals are doing at the moment, but something about the near-deserted nature of the interstate makes a coil of doubt spring in the pit of his stomach. Dream doesn’t think they’ll be able to find much help if he’s blinded with a sewing needle.
Once it shines with dull lustre rather than orange, he allows Sapnap to position it over his lobe. The tip scratches his skin, and the feeling of it makes his stomach tense in anticipation. He wonders if it’ll hurt much. Even though he tells himself literal kids get this done, a fear of the unknown makes his fists tighten and pulse thrum.
“At least mark it,” George says right before Sapnap’s about to shove the needle through flesh. The anticlimax makes him reel, shoulders slumping as the point draws away.
Sapnap snorts. “Sorry princess. Do you have a pen?”
And George produces a biro from his pocket, because of course he fucking does. Dream’s used to seeing him with numbers scrawled along the insides of his forearms, reaching their jagged roots down to line his palms and curve around his thumbs. He often wonders if the ink would transfer to his own skin were they to hold hands, grip tight until everything runs with dew and heat. George’s arm is clear of equations and mindless theorising today, a blank canvas to be transformed.
He thinks if George would just write something on him, he might push the ink under his skin with the needle. A blotchy memento aging to appear tear-stained. It’ll still be there in a far-flung timeline, when he’s pulled from the depths and made to live in another life.
“I’ll do it,” George bites when Sapnap reaches for the pen. “I’ll get it centered.” Dream knows he will. George is something of a perfectionist, likes everything to be sorted into neat rows within his mind. He’s forged from harsh lines and the colour doesn’t bleed out of them, instead packs into every plane of him until Dream is left with what he’d call a vision. By comparison, he feels like a display stand of paint tins knocked over onto the asphalt.
His tongue seems to swell when George leans in, each of his freckles somehow familiar and strange all at the same time. It’s rare to see him this close. Dream notices his bottom lip is split, darker red where his body rushes to knit it back together. They part in concentration, and Dream’s nails dig so hard into his palms he’s certain he’ll be left with a collection of his very own miniature crescent moons. The pen presses into the centre of his earlobe, and George is gone.
He’s replaced by Sapnap once more, tongue sticking out in concentration. Dream isn’t sure if he should be relieved that Sapnap’s actually trying to get this right or not. He feels sort of snubbed that he can’t take it for granted.
His eyes screw shut when it pushes through his lobe, a sting that curls into the side of his head. It’s not really painful per se, but his shoulders rise at the intrusion and he drags oxygen in as his breath hitches. Dream thinks it’d be better with a gun, thinks it’d smart less if it was all over in a second. But instead he has to sit there with a goddamn sewing needle through his ear when Sapnap leans away to douse the earring in flame too.
George is looking at it with a morbid curiosity, eyes focusing on the tiny mutilation. “Does it hurt?” He asks. He almost looks concerned, but Dream’s certain he’s imagining it.
“Nah, it’s okay.”
“Alright, pull it out,” Sapnap says. He’s got the earring between two fingers, and it glints in the light.
His eyes water when he pulls the needle out, because somehow the drag of it is worse now. The inflamed skin sparks with irritation when it moves. But then it’s out, and the thing drops to the floor, discarded.
Sapnap replaces it with the earring, slides the back on with a movement that makes his lobe sting all over again.
“All done,” he says. He leans back against the door and crosses his legs with a sharp wince. Dream realises his bad leg must be bothering him after so long sitting in an uncomfortable leather seat, and a pang of guilt coils in his chest. He thinks he’ll make it up to him, but how? They only have two weeks left together, and he’s reminded that every loose end he’s ever left untied will stay that way.
Dream has to stoop when he stands, shoulders curved over so he doesn't whack his head against the roof. He leans forward until he can pull the rearview mirror back and forth, tug it to the right angle and peer at his reflection. His eyes look glossy, dotted with tears where they've watered.
The skin around the piercing is angry red, hot to the touch and thrumming with an energised pulse. He tilts his head slightly as he tries to get a better look at it, at how the hook cleaves through layers of skin and flesh to emerge on the other side. It’s not dead centre, the hole just to the left of where it’s supposed to be, but Dream knows it’ll be less noticeable when the ink washes away. Despite the inflammation, he thinks it looks sort of pretty.
“It looks good, right?” He turns back to the pair of them.
“I guess so,” Sapnap says.
But Dream is looking at George, who has sleepy eyes ringed with blood and his knees pressing into the floor. A silver flask stuck between his thighs. He seems to sense Dream’s attention is upon him, because his throat rises and falls, chin tipping upwards as he takes in the piercing. “I still think it’s going to get infected,” he murmurs. His expression lacks the rigidity it held when he’d first warned Dream, as if he’s given up. “Yeah. It looks good,” he says at last, and it sets Dream’s heart off into a syncopated meter.
“It aches,” he complains. He reaches up to twist at the piercing, but George slaps his hands away. Cold where they touch, even if for a brief moment.
“It’s like you want to get it all fucked up,” he says. “Just leave it alone.”
Sapnap’s rifling through his bag now, humming under his breath as he pushes aside shirts with holes in the necks. Come on baby, don’t fear t- He stops singing to exclaim when he produces a joint from the depths of the thing. “Dream, is this gonna shut you up?” He offers it out between two fingers, and Dream has to lean forward until he can take it.
“You know, I would say it’s a nice gesture if I didn't know this is full of garbage.” Sapnap always seems to produce the most low quality shit.
“Oh, you’re such a dick.” He tosses Dream a lighter anyway.
A lazy grin slips onto his face. “The one and only.”
It doesn’t take much for his mind to begin unfolding, because he’s fucking tired from driving around the panhandle all day and the sun’s made his eyes sleepy. The grass is awful, but it’s all he needs to fill the van with indica-haze. It’s easier to pretend like the end of the world isn’t advancing when he closes his eyes, rests his head against the side door and prays it doesn’t roll open because the locking mechanisms are wearing down. Easier to ignore the reaper curled around their contented hunk of metal.
“Where’d that magic 8-ball go?” Sapnap turns his head this way and that as he sweeps his gaze over the van.
The ball is produced by George, cupped in his palms so it looks darker than ever. It’s facing up so the 8 observes them, and it appears almost as an eye swivelling out of its socket.
He accepts it with a smile. “Are we gonna be killed by a freak asteroid collision in three weeks?” The liquid tips about as Sapnap shakes the thing, up and down in movements slowed by the hazy cloud surrounding them. It presses against the windows, doubles back on itself until every breath tastes of it and Dream’s mind feels woozy. “Aww, man.”
“What’s it say?” He asks.
Sapnap spins the thing around so him and George can see the answer, one side of the die pressing up into the window and announcing their future in cold lettering. Signs point to yes, it announces, glowing blue with melancholy.
Dream sucks in a breath. “Holy shit, it knows.”
“Dude, I got goosebumps."
“You know half of them are positive answers, right?” George’s flask glints as he uncaps it. Something like star anise cuts through the smell of smoke, cloying and sweet. He wonders if George’s tongue would taste of it, fennel and herb enough to purify his mind despite what they’d be doing. If his teeth would burn, coated in absinthe strong enough to sting. “It’s more likely you’ll get a yes.”
“Ah, but it’s still only a fifty percent chance,” Dream says.
He can see George’s eyes roll even in the darkness. “You’re so annoying.”
Dream extends a hand, and Sapnap places the ball into it without any need for him to voice the request. He shakes it for a few seconds, screwing his eyes shut just so he can really focus on the question and attune himself to the cosmic forces of the universe. “Is George a fucking spoilsport?”
His eyes blink open and he’s presented with a simple Yes.
“Again, there are 10 positive answers in there,” George says when Dream and Sapnap proceed to break down into lazy giggles. “It’s not that funny.” Although a smile is breaching the bottom of his face. The ice is cracking, melting under the sun as it does at the end of winter. A giggle bursts out of him even though he tries to contain it, and Dream feels fucking delirious with how nice it sounds.
He takes a hit from the joint, holds his breath until he feels warm inside, and releases it in a contented exhale.
“Hey, George. Here.” Dream offers it out to George. He seems to hesitate for a second, before relenting and accepting it with a flash of his eyes. The way the smoke tumbles between his lips is awfully distracting, Dream must say.
George pulls the ball towards him and shakes it hard. “Is this a pile of bullshit?” He peers into the window and shrugs. “Most likely. See, I told you.”
“I thought you said positive answers didn't mean anything,” Dream says.
George smiles again, soft and gentle enough that it makes his heart feel as if it’s squeezing like a bloody cloth. The whites of his teeth are exposed for a few seconds. Dream is so, so fucked. He’s spent the entire day looking at the road with laser focus, concentrating on the lane dividers because otherwise his gaze seems to drift back to the mirror like it’s magnetised. The back of the van steadily fills up with enough lilac and absinthe and tobacco to make his mind reel, spin around and around because normally they can leave the room to avoid each other but now they’re stuck in a metal tomb.
“God, do you remember that time we contacted the spirit world?” Sapnap’s voice cuts through the haze of Dream’s addled mind as he tips his head back to rest against the backseat.
Dream thinks about it for a second. He’s grateful for the distraction. “Oh, you mean with that dumb ouija board.”
“Yeah!” Sapnap clicks his fingers. “Imagine my mom found out about that, holy shit.”
“She would’ve dragged your ass back to Texas then and there. Well, she did that anyway, but you know what I mean.”
“No, dude. She would've dragged me to a fucking exorcist. She already lost her shit at me for playing ding-dong-ditch. My ass still hurts when I think about that, Jesus Christ. I never wanna see a belt again.”
“Okay, even my mom got mad about that.” Dream pitches his voice up a little to imitate her, draws his shoulders up and juts his chin out in caricature. “Dream, that's very inconsiderate for the community.”
“Not the Ouija board?”
“Huh? No, it's a bunch of hocus pocus.”
Sapnap’s eyes widen. “Sure didn't seem like hocus pocus when the spirits started talking to us.”
Realisation dawns on Dream all of a sudden. "Wait, Sapnap. You realise I moved the planchette, right?"
He has to physically restrain himself from laughing in Sapnap’s face. “Oh my god, you are so dumb. You really thought it was real this whole time-”
“Shut up.” Sapnap has his arms crossed.
“Wow, you guys must’ve had such a fun childhood together,” George says. The bottom of his flask flashes. His tone draws out like it does whenever he’s being a sarcastic son of a bitch. “So fun.”
Sapnap and Dream look at each other, unimpressed. “You’re so moody,” Sapnap says, and pulls George into his arms so quickly he doesn’t have enough time to worm his way out of it. “Stop squirming. Lemme cuddle you for once.”
George seems to realise there’s no way in hell he’ll be able to shove Sapnap off him, and all his limbs fall loose in defeat. “I hate you so much.”
“You love us really.”
They occupy the rest of the evening with more semi-lucid conversations, most of which seem to centre on Dream and Sapnap. After an entire hour, they manage to drag a story out of George, something about how he scarred his eyebrow when he was a kid. Their eyes begin to stay shut for a few seconds whenever they blink, and that’s how they decide it’s time to sleep.
He’d be lying if he said it isn’t an effort to fit the three of them semi-comfortably into the back of the van. Dream grabs the blankets off the backseat and spreads them out over the floor, more so their clothes will be protected from all the ash and dirt embedded in the carpet than anything else. They unanimously decide to put Dream in the middle because he’s the tallest and he can stick his legs between the seats that way.
George, just sleep on the backseat, Sapnap had said. We’ll have more room that way.
Nuh-uh. I’ve been on it all fucking day, my knees’ll go all bad like yours if I sleep like that too.
So they’re squeezed in the narrow space between each door with their elbows knocking every now and again.
It’s uncomfortable as hell, with all their arms pressing together and his bag as a makeshift pillow. He wishes he’d worn shorts like George does, even if the fan makes the skin covering his legs bumpy—at least he wouldn’t have seams digging into his hips. Not even the receding smoke-induced haze can soften the spark of irritation flaring between his lungs. Dream stares up at the roof and waits for his mind to seize proper control of all his extremities once more.
George falls asleep straight away, of course. He’s pressed tight against the door, barely taking up any room because his limbs fold neatly when he’s sleeping. Dream realises he could’ve slept across the backseat after all, but here he is, making their lives more difficult. Although he can’t bring himself to be annoyed, and a quiet laugh escapes him.
“What?” Sapnap meets his eyes through the darkness.
“George. He totally could’ve slept on the seats.”
Sapnap huffs. “Well yeah, but I did point out this was gonna happen. And you were the one who let him do it anyway.”
“You’d do fucking anything if George asked you,” Sapnap presses, and it makes something like fear tease its dark scythe along the insides of his stomach. “Why? We’ve been friends so much longer.”
Dream squirms under the scrutiny of his gaze. Is he really so obvious about it? He’s terrified the way he looks at George has given him away, and Sapnap will uncover his dirty, shameful secrets as easily as one might tear through netting. “I dunno. He’s like, endearing.”
He says a silent prayer to a God he doesn’t believe in when Sapnap hums in acceptance. “Must be a british thing.”
“Yeah, must be.” He dodges the bullet for what feels like the hundredth time.
It takes a while for Sapnap’s chest to slow, for his eyelids to stop twitching with consciousness and his fists to fall open. He turns over in his sleep, and it makes the van dip for a moment.
And Dream’s really coming down now, jarred by the shot of adrenaline coursing through him when Sapnap had looked across the van with dark eyes. His skin itches, and the more he tries to chase sleep, the more it evades him. Sapnap and George are breathing out of sync, and he’s losing his mind trying to keep track of who’s exhaling and who’s tugging oxygen into their lungs.
The crook of his elbow provides darkness when he shoves his face into it, but his mind is alight with thousands of miles of interstate and the smell of gas. Cypress trees with freshwater dripping from their clutches. Rain continues to plink against the sunroof in melodic rhythm.
And slowly, so slowly he has plenty of time to trick himself out of it, he allows his gaze to fall back upon George. He wants so badly to remember, to pick apart the past which only has to murmur in order to drive a wedge between them. Wraps its ghostly hands around his neck. And squeezes tight. Tight enough he’s choking, tight enough he feels as though he’ll turn purple from the strength of the embrace. Maybe it’ll be better if he allows himself to open that particular vault door lining his mind.
So he remembers.
It was the time of year when nothing quite seems real and the hours begin to dissolve into a sticky mass.
The time of year when it’s a chore to cross off the days in red marker because he wants to mourn the passing of each one rather than celebrate the call of a new week. Honey clinging to his limbs, every atom of him reluctant to leave August behind and enter the bleak realm of Autumn. He’s always hated September. Dream wonders why everything notable in his sorry existence seems to happen at the very end of Summer. Perhaps it’s because his gaze is iced blue with melancholy and it all seems so much more bittersweet that way.
George was at his apartment.
It wasn’t unusual—he tended to show up whenever the fuck he felt like it, no call beforehand to give Dream any sort of warning. The spare key under the doormat ended up well acquainted with the soft curve of his palm. He’d let himself in every few days, appearing like a spectre in the middle of Dream’s kitchen and a glass bottle of juice stuck between his thighs. His heels swinging to hit the cabinets.
“Hey,” he said. The juice slid over his tongue, stuck to the top of his lips.
Dream stood there with the ends of his hair creating a fairy ring of water marks around him. A towel was clutched in his hands, damp as he rubbed it into his scalp. The neckline of his shirt was growing wet. “You’re back,” he observed.
“I was bored.”
“You’re always bored.”
George set the bottle down and it rattled with emptiness. Dream knew he would inevitably be the one to clear it, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to bite out a reprimand. Not that it would have any effect on George, anyway. His head was full to the brim with stars, constellations etched onto the innards of his brain so deep he became lost within them most of the time. The real world fading away, only scrolling numbers and titbits of useless info to occupy him. Although he would protest vehemently if Dream ever said it.
“Sapnap’s not here,” George said. A rhythmic thudding sound filled the kitchen as his legs swung back and forth.
He didn't know why it made his throat feel tighter. “N- no, he’s not.”
What he would’ve given, to know what the fuck was going on behind those eyes. “George, what are you getting at here?” Sometimes he needed to remind George to withdraw from the constellations, to tug him away from the orbital pull of the stars and into his own instead. It was late August after all, and each day seemed more precious than diamond.
“I mean, we could just...chill. I’m bored of TV, and the streets are all starting to look the same. They’re greyer than they’re supposed to be.” Dream didn't think he’d ever heard George propose it before. He didn't like talking, didn't like the gaps in conversation people expected him to fill.
But maybe George found it bearable with him. Maybe the gaps were comfortable instead of voidlike, maybe he was alright with spending time with Dream even if they weren’t really doing all that much. Maybe there was something about him that George didn't mind. And maybe Dream was overthinking this, allowing his mind to run laps ahead of itself because George was temptation personified.
“What, did you get sick of your computer?” George had one because he was a fucking nerd.
“Maybe.” George swallowed heavily, and his eyes darted away from Dream’s face so he could stare instead at the yellowing linoleum. “Or maybe I just like being around you.”
He felt his eyes widen. “You like being around me?”
“You know what, forget I said anything,” George said, and then his legs were straightening into pale lines, revealed by shorts that only reached his mid thigh. Dream knew because his gaze frequented the hem. Wondered what it would look like, if George let him tug and bite at the skin there until he had to wear something else to cover the marks. Or maybe he wouldn’t, perhaps he’d be alright with everyone seeing.
He had been wearing the shorts when they met, white limbs splayed across the green outside the math building with an astrophysics book over his face. Moisture freckled over his skin, left there by the fountain he was lying precariously close to. It was easier to look now, didn't feel as shameful.
And George was about to leave again, wasn’t he? He was about to dart through the gaps between Dream’s fingers like sand, evasive and scattering at the slightest gust of summer breeze. Where the particles went, he wasn’t sure. Dream only knew he wanted to hold him close where he couldn’t disperse as grey ashes do when they’re tipped from an urn.
His fingers closed around George’s wrist, stopping him from ghosting through the doorway. “Stay. Please.”
So they ended up sprawled out on Dream’s bed, skin pressing together in ways he desperately tried not to think about. But it was difficult, when George smelled like chamomile and every atom of him seemed to surge closer. To resist skimming his nose along knobbly shoulders before shoving it into the crook of George’s neck was to resist delectable sin presented to him like a bulbous apple.
Their conversation lulled, and they were left with the solitary crackle of The Dark Side of the Moon as it rotated on Dream’s banged up record player. Much like everything he owned, it belonged to his mom, and sometimes he imagined he could still hear her humming under her breath and sliding slippered feet over the kitchen. A wall of brown glass often slipped between him and that memory.
What is it with you and this record? George had asked, but a tiny smile tugged at his lips anyway. They’d already worked their way through Wish You Were Here because Dream wanted to save his favourite for when the sun was further across the sky.
And truthfully, he didn't know. It’s a masterpiece, isn’t it? It felt silly to say when George was sat on his bed with a chin delicately supported in his palm. Inquisitive.
There are other masterpieces. Your eyes go different when you’re listening to this one, like your mind isn’t quite here or there. Dream had wondered why George cared enough to notice.
Then he’d set the needle in place, and the first few songs rolled into each other, only disrupted when it reached a scratch upon the disc. The music jumped, and Dream didn't care because it meant the songs sounded unique just for them.
Everything seemed to blur to incomprehension, oil spilling across water in hallucinatory beams. They resumed talking about everything and nothing, about George’s diss (Dream didn't understand much, but he liked to listen to him talk, liked to watch the way veiled excitement filled his eyes), the weather forecast, his little sister’s birthday. Dream asked if he was going to fly home for it.
“I can’t afford that, come on.”
“I could pay some.”
George shot him a withering look. What, with the money your mum left you? his eyes seem to inquire, but he didn’t put it into words.
The music kept the silence from souring, rolled in summery waves full of nostalgia. Dream could hear slippers on kitchen tile, could smell lemon cakes and oudh. It was there to embrace him with flannel arms as he tilted his chin up, throat warmed by gentle sunbeam. His head spun and spun like bedding in the drier, scorched to purity once more.
“Fuck, this is pure auditory orgasm. It’s laced with something, swear to god.” Dream tried to prevent his eyes slipping shut, but it felt like they were weighted with rainbow coloured gravity. He was plunged into darkness for a moment, before he decided he needed to stare at the dip of George’s throat again.
Far away across the field...
George was fiddling with a loose thread on the embroidered quilt, far too warm for the Floridian summer. But Dream liked to imagine it still smelled of osmanthus and jasmine, and so he refused to remove it. In reality, it was muddied by tobacco. He watched pale fingers pick at the stitching, running over the garish embroidery with a quiet rasp. It was entrancing, but then again, everything George did felt hypnotic to him.
...to hear the softly spoken magic spells
The song rolled over, and fuck, Dream was really done for.
“Why do you look at me like that?” George’s chin tipped up in curiosity.
His throat seemed thick with oxygen all of a sudden, swelling up into puffy ridges. It was difficult to get words out like that, and each one felt like gravel extracted from raw pink flesh. He scrambled to deflect. “Why are you here?”
“What the hell do you mean, why am I here?”
“Well,” and he had to swallow past the clamouring of winter moths fluttering against his trachea. “Normally you’d want to grab a bus to the beach, or watch TV, or drink shitty beer until nothing feels real anymore. Maybe make mojitos if you can be bothered. You hate talking, but here we are. Talking.” With their knees almost touching and an atmosphere that seemed like it was electrified. The crackle of vinyl filling their heads up.
“I don’t hate talking.”
“You hate talking about yourself,” he amended.
George smiled at that. “Maybe,” he said, and his teeth flashed. “But maybe it’s because I don’t have anything to talk about.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’m not interesting. Not compared to you.”
Dream searched every facet of George’s face and found a worrying conclusion—he really believed it. The words nestled in the core of his mind became sticky on his tongue, glued themselves there and hardened into resin. He forced them out, and it was a wonder his teeth didn't crumble like white cliffs. “I think you’re interesting.”
And there it was. Once, he’d thought his fascination was inexplicable, but as he considered every individual piece of him, it all seemed to slot together. George was a rock in the middle of the current, splintering Dream into fragments just so he could spin them back to planet matter. George was all things full, even if he liked to pretend he wasn’t. He was barely there and omnipresent all at the same time, light feet and swift hands that unconsciously knitted every piece of Dream together with gold. Imperfect, but beautiful nonetheless.
Enigma had a tendency to be irresistible.
George shook his head, reached up to push his hair out of his eyes. Dream almost wished he’d left it, because he was faced with frozen earth and black holes for irises. “Yeah, I figured.” He believed this too.
All these things that George stored in the labyrinthine tangle of his mind. Dream wanted to move further into it, to unscramble passageways and chasm walls until he touched the middle. He wondered if it came in the form of blinding singularity, warping reality around it until his world crumbled because Dream was far, far beyond the event horizon. Strung out into a tentative thread of atoms by everything that George was.
“So why are you bothering with the bullshit hypotheticals? You know it all already, don’t you?” Dream had always set his feelings out to be dissected and prodded at. George didn't even need to wield a scalpel because he seemed to have a sixth sense for it. He felt vulnerable for the first time in a while, as though naked and shivering under the cold light of the sun.
“If you’re saying what I really think you’re saying, we never have to speak of this again,” George said, and his fingers fit so perfectly in Dream’s that it made him want to weep. “I know how you look at me. Like you’re starving.”
And fuck, he was. Something about George gnawed away at his stomach, chewed his insides hollow until he ached so hard his own fist couldn’t possibly satisfy the itch. His hands were too big, too tan, too callused. Too warm.
Time and time again he’d tried to make it morph into George, imagine pale skin and bloodflushed lips instead of corded gold. Now he had the real thing sat on his bed, neck bowed like a waxing moon and petal hands cupped in his lap. It felt unreal, as though everything was about to dissolve into chaotic sandstorm and leave him with more sticky sheets to toss into the washer.
“Do you want me to kiss you?”
The words made his throat seize up in blind panic, but they were already out and tumbling across the bed to where George sat.
And he was about to take them back, to retract the statement and laugh it off because guys weren’t supposed to kiss, guys weren’t supposed to think about each other in the shower and guys especially weren’t supposed to imagine their best friend when their hand crept under the sheets at night. Every facet of his life told him it was shameful, spelled it out in legislative red letters across the television screen or in the middle of newspapers. Plastered itself over church flyers, and even though he told himself he didn't believe them it stuck to his mind more than he cared to admit.
George’s throat flexed. His eyes were drawn to it.
“Yes, I want you to kiss me,” he said. “Idiot.”
Dream thought he finally understood what it meant when something was easier than breathing, because George had such intense gravity the sun seemed to blink out for a few moments. He could taste the juice on his tongue, the tang of pressed apple and something like chamomile. His heart seemed to collapse like a star as they kissed, nervous because they couldn’t shake the feeling the whole world was eyeing them with disapproval.
But minutes passed, and they relaxed as they realised the four walls of Dream’s room were safe, nothing could take this from them.
“Get this off,” George said, tugging at the bottom of Dream’s shirt with fisted hands.
He paused. “You want to-”
“We’ve come this far.”
He had a point. Then he was undressing, tossing everything to the floor as one casts aside the weight of life to boat to the underworld. Dream reached for George, pulled him closer because he wanted to see if his skin looked the same as how he imagined it.
George’s shirt became stuck on his chin, and the giggle that spilled out of him was nothing short of heavenly. Dream couldn’t stop himself from smiling too, hands tugging at it this way and that until the material finally came free and was strewn onto the carpet. It lay there in a white heap, crumpled and forgotten about. He’d somehow never seen George without a shirt before, despite all the times he’d stayed over because the night tended to creep up on them. Timekeeping was difficult, when they seemed to exist in tantra.
He wished and wished he could see it again, see it a million times so he could die a happy man.
George’s bones swelled against soft skin, the nubs of his shoulders appearing as glistening oyster stones do. Dream pulled him forward so he could run his fingers over the ridges of his spine, another string of baroque pearls stretched down the plane of his back. And George arched into the touch even though it was barely there, beautifully responsive to featherlight hands as delicate as the sun that crowned the pair of them.
“So perfect,” Dream breathed.
“You’ve been thinking about this a while, haven’t you?”
He expected George to be cocky, have a self assured smirk pulled across his face. What he didn't expect was the gentility of his expression, warm eyes full of trust spun from blown glass because this was dangerous, this was shameful, this could never leave the sanctity of Dream’s bedroom.
“Every now and again,” he admitted.
“Really.” George sat back on his heels, thighs pillowing out where his shorts rode up. “I think you imagine this all the time. I’ve been in your head for a while, haven’t I? I know because I have eyes, Dream. You stare at me and you think I don’t realise.”
He blew out a shaky breath. “Can you really blame me? It’s terrifying. I didn't want to tell you. I thought I’d lose you forever.”
George shuffled forwards, so close his eyes blurred and Dream’s hands could roam over swathes of marble skin. Up over his back, across his shoulders, over and over and over so the feel of it would be embossed in starlight upon his mind.
“You can have me for a little while,” he said. “You can have me here, where it can’t hurt us.”
Oh, how wrong he was. How tragically, abysmally wrong.
George pressed his shoulders against the wall as they met once again, two ships in the night locked in their strange liminal exchange. Dream’s head overflowed with appleblossom and tobacco and chamomile, the tongue in his mouth soft enough to bruise his poor, fragile heart. They kissed and kissed and kissed with Clare Torry busting a fucking lung at them, a siren song of despair which somehow explained the condensation marring his vision. His thoughts boiled down to George, how he looked at golden hour, how gentle his lips were, how he tugged at the ends of Dream’s hair just to pull gasps from his chest.
Until the song trailed to completion, and his hull was dashed against the rocks.
“George, stop,” he whined, pulling away. When he was met with a confused stare, he rubbed a sheepish hand over the back of his neck. “I gotta flip sides,” he said.
“Please don’t tell me that’s really why you stopped.”
He continued to beam at George, who could only look at him in unmasked disbelief. “You’re so annoying,” he said once he realised Dream was, in fact, being serious. He hesitated for a second, fingers clasping and unclasping as he worried a lip between his teeth. “Fine, I guess. Just hurry up, you’re warm.”
Dream didn't comment on it, although his lips tilted upwards against George’s temple.
It didn't take him long to clamber off the bed and across the room, bare feet whispering against the floorboards. Sun dripped from deep set divots exposed because his shirt lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. Caught in his collarbones like pools of sweet ambrosia. What he would’ve given for George to stick his tongue in, press soft kisses to the skin there as if he could really taste something tangible. The beams mottled and bent over his chest as he reached for the record player. Late afternoon brought with it gold and amber, spread everything with potent ichor until the minutes all seemed to blend into one another. They didn't have much sunlight left, and soon it would slide below the horizon and end their secret golden hour.
He flipped the disc over with hands which felt more uncertain than they were. A whirring cash register filtered from the player, as well as coins tossed carelessly into the drawer. Dream stared down at the needle for a few more seconds anyway, content with the way the sun painted him softer than reality.
Money, get away
“Dream,” George said, dragging out the syllable until it spread pink over blue haze. He’d always liked how George said his name, how it sounded in his accent and how he seemed to cradle it upon his tongue for a few moments before releasing it. It made him want to discover in what other ways George could say it, gasp it, whine it until he lost his voice. If he’d continue trying to whisper it anyway, despite the cotton stuffing his head and muffling his vocal cords. “Come back already.”
“So needy.” He shifted his limbs back onto the bed anyway. A stronger man than him couldn’t say no to George when his eyes melted to soft earth like that. “You’re needy. Can’t even wait a few moments, can you?” His thumbs were resting on either side of George’s jaw, and he was obsessed. It wasn’t often he could hold George’s face in his palms, run his fingers over skin soft and unlined, tug at his bottom lip just so he could watch it spring back.
Dream wasn’t sure how he was ever going to stop.
Breathing seemed easier when he leaned back in, attaching their lips so his head filled up with tobacco and violet. The juxtaposition was perfect. It suited the rest of George, from the grass stains covering his knees to the scrapes which adorned the flesh of his palms. Barely healed, pink with birth.
He was overcome with the urge to bite and bite and bite, graze his teeth over expanses of bloodless skin until it bloomed heather and blue. After so many months of wandering eyes and sodden sheets shamefully changed in the middle of the night, Dream felt he couldn’t be close enough to George. The delirious slide of their tongues wasn’t enough, nor was the feeling of ice cold hands reaching up to brush over his chest. Chills trailing where he touched.
George beat him to it. “Fuck, please.”
“What?” He smiled so wide it felt as if his cheeks would split in two.
“Need you closer. I want more.” Needy needy needy.
Money, get back
His hands fiddled with the waistband of George’s shorts, fingers dipping underneath to brush against cold skin. Just a little, just enough to make him shudder. He was lying there, head cushioned on Dream’s pillow in a haze of dark hair. George was angular in all the right places, pliable in others, every facet of him pieced together to bloom in Dream’s mind like an aphrodisiac. And Dream wanted so hard he ached, so hard it felt as though iron claws were dragging along his insides.
George looked as if he might sob when Dream layered gentle kisses over his sternum. Right above his heart, branded there with heat and afternoon sun. Trailed down to the dip beneath his ribs. “Are you sure?” He murmured, words muffled into cream and opal.
Because there was no turning back on this, no falling back into their old dynamic. A part of Dream screamed, screamed that it was already past the point of no return, that they’d gone too far now. It sounded like tight barbed wire and shattering glass.
“Fuck,” he breathed. Dream wondered if George was about to cry. His eyes looked so glassy, scattered with something he’d never seen before. He thought it might be called desire. “Yes, I’m sure.”
“Alright,” and he was tugging the shorts off, pulling them over perfect legs and grazed knees until they joined the shirt on the floor.
The sight of George lying there all bare like that, moon coloured skin exposed to the sun with dappled palm shadows pulsing over his limbs, was enough to set off a kerosene fire in the pit of Dream’s stomach. It threatened to consume him, to eat him whole and compress him to embers. He touched, touched and touched until he was certain he would remember how George gasped even from the grave.
And as the sun dwindled below the horizon, Dream opened him up as sakura blossoms in spring, allowed them to be as close as possible and breathe in addictive synchronisation.
After, it took a while for the fog to clear. Afternoon passed and the stars blinked to life one by one, the ancient eyes of lost souls opening with disappointment.
The moon wasn’t visible, but it was alright because George curved into him, crescent-like, with damp skin and red still blooming high on his cheeks. Gold and white flowed seamlessly together, cast into the realm of night so they appeared more subdued than normal. He wondered if this was how George saw the world, with the colours leeched out of everything by a midnight syringe. Hues muted by the comedown, apparent in the eye of the beholder because he was looking for them. A perfect eclipse, heavenly bodies aligned just for a fleeting moment.
There is no dark side of the moon really
Matter of fact, it’s all dark
His fingers ran up and down the indentations lining George’s back once again, each one swelling against his skin like wet sand when the sea’s withdrawn. Bumpy under his feet, crushing as velvet does with the slightest exertion of weight.
George hummed, pulled closer so his hair brushed the underside of Dream’s chin. Teeth positioned right over his jugular, so he could lean down and tear it out if he wished. And George might not have been interested in soaking Dream’s sheets with blood, but in a way, it felt as if he was lying in a pool of viscous plasma anyway.
George could hear Dream’s heartsong loud and clear in that position, with his ear pressed to a tanned chest and his fingers hovering over where it thrummed. It beat in steady cadence. The panic hadn’t dawned yet.
The deck fell silent, and with the absence of sound came clarity.
“I should go,” George said, and it shot Dream’s heart out the sky.
He knew this was coming. “Yeah.” His fingers skimmed over all of him, sketching out the lines in his head so he’d never forget.
There was a moment in which he thought George may kiss him, may press his lips to the corner of his jaw. But the fog had already cleared, and George’s eyes were hardened back to familiarity. He was left with the sight of white sails disappearing over the horizon as George pushed himself off the bed, pressed his feet into the floor and transferred his weight to them. For once he seemed awkward, stiff and rigid as his knees strained to keep him upright.
“Call me when you get home,” he said, so soft it’d haunt him how George didn't clock something was wrong with it.
“I will.” George pulled his shorts back over his hips, pale fingers yanking at the zipper until it gave. Next came his shirt, white and damp with perspiration. It fell to reveal the arc of his collarbones, and Dream felt his tongue swelling up all over again because he’d never get to bite and suck the skin stretched across them anew. He watched as George was reassembled, as he combed his fingers through dishevelled hair so it lay almost flat upon his head. Something about it made his heart crumble to chalk, the sight of him erasing evidence of what they’d done.
And then George looked composed again. If not for the constellation of bruises peeking out from under his hems, Dream could believe they’d really just spent the afternoon working their way through a pack of lucky strikes and liquifying their minds in front of the TV.
“Your spare key,” was the last thing George said. He set the key down on the nightstand with a metallic click which sounded oddly like the cocking of a gun, before veering towards the door. It was too quiet without the music, every sound ear splitting against the blank canvas of silence.
“You can have it,” Dream murmured, but George was already subsumed by the clutches of evening. His words fell to the stars, but even they were disinterested.
A sigh billowed out of him, full of abject resignation. He shuffled to the lounge instead because his room smelled of heady lilac which stuck to his tongue and left him craving more. His limbs settled against the couch, aching from exertion. Dream ached all over, so much so that it seemed to drill into his chest and wrap its thorny roots right around his heart.
He waited for hours that night, waited for the phone to ring and tug him from his ocean of thoughts. But it remained silent, and September seemed closer than ever.
George’s chest crests and falls, over and over and over with the surety of the evening sea. Salt pushed through his hair, pearls and barnacles scoured from the bed of it to clamour at his limbs because not even the light itself can pull away from him. He seems to gather every last grain of starbright in Dream’s world into his arms and hold it all to his heart. And the ground beneath his feet is cast to shadow, plunged into darkness by the looming threat of the asteroid.
Dream pulls his gaze away from soft collarbones, dark hair curling at the nape of his neck, eyelashes midnight against snow-cheeks. It’s not right, he tells himself. Not right to sit here while George is asleep and remember all these things about him, how his voice sounds when it’s pitched into its upper register and breathy little whines are tugged from the back of his throat. Echoing from the depths of the underworld, laced with temptation.
The 8-ball rolls between his palms, heavy and grounding. His nails tap over the bulbous surface of it.
He tosses it into the air once, twice, and the rhythm of it hitting his skin is enough to solidify him in the here and now. Trapped in stasis, all his molecules compressed by icy longing. Rubbed fresh and raw by the sight of George enrobed in moonlight, the junction of his neck leading down to his chest and everything Dream remembers lies beneath. It’s branded into the grisly stomach of his mind. It tastes of bread and wine and guilt.
“Do I tell him?” And the words are too loud in the silence of the van. Tell him what, anyway? Dream is terrified to begin sorting out the knots and brambles nestled into his heart, choking his ventricles with poison ivy.
He shakes the 8-ball because there’s nobody else to ask.
Reply hazy, try again.
He supposes that’s what he gets for asking a question so vague.
Dream finds himself looking at George again anyway, tugged with all the mass of 4 million suns. He remembers George telling him that’s how big Sagittarius A* is once, before they stopped hanging out alone because the tension began to choke them. He misses it. He misses the way George’s eyes light up when he rattles off numbers, all stored on the insides of his mind in white chalk. He knows exactly how to prod and push to make it happen, but he’s not sure George would really want to talk to him anymore. It’s been a year, but they don’t have another to fix everything.
They have two fucking weeks. Dream isn’t sure how they’re going to resolve something so supermassive.
It feels childish when he shakes the ball once more, immature hands and babyish words spilling from him with all the desperation of a man standing on the precipice of the universe. “Does he love me?”
Ask again later.
His lips pull down. “Does he wanna fuck me?”
Cannot predict now.
“Do I love him?”
Concentrate and ask again.
This thing’s fucking broken, Dream thinks. His knuckles turn white against the black, and he launches it into the front of the van. It bounces off the sealed glove compartment and lands on the seat with dull resonance. Concentrate, it seems to mock. Concentrate concentrate concentrate. His mind is set alight with petroleum and lilac, so much fucking lilac it feels as though his blood is about to run purple.
And it’s not enough for the ball to stare back at him, blue window glowing through the darkness like an eye. He wants answers, and there’s nobody left to help.
The night air is pleasant against his arms, lacking the stifling heat it tends to smother him with during the day. He seizes the ball and climbs out the van, shuts the door behind him as quietly as possible so as not to rouse George and Sapnap. It’s stopped raining now, but the ground is damp under his feet and the asphalt stinks of grit and dirt pulled to the surface by heaven’s onslaught.
He clutches the ball until his fingers appear skeletal. Concentrate. He wants to see it bleed aqua, gush with aquarium blue over the asphalt until it runs dry.
It hits the road, and nothing comes loose.
Dream presses his lips together as it rolls into a pothole. Water ripples around it. He just wants it to break, to split in half as a heart does so he's left with the cylinder of night blue. It stares innocently back at him from its resting place, with the 8 facing upwards and the truth window pressed into the asphalt.
His fists clench and he wants to throw it again, over and over until the plastic splinters and something, anything can atone for the swirling mass of sin in his head.
A truck rumbles into his periphery, headlights slicing through the darkness as it makes its way up the road. He wonders what it’s doing, driving around at silly hours in the morning when the apocalypse looms and a skeletal knuckle knocks at earth’s door.
He prays it’ll drive past him, but it begins to slow, and he wishes he had a pistol. Something to rest his fingers on, feel the deadly bite of cold metal just in case this is someone with a mind corrupted by the shadow of the collision.
“You alright?” The voice drifts out of an open window.
Is he? Dream stands at the side of an empty highway off the interstate in the early hours of morning, fists clenched and an 8-ball in its pothole grave. “Yeah,” he says with more certainty than he feels. He jerks his chin at the van, then regrets it. Perhaps he shouldn’t be drawing attention to it. “Road trip. Can’t sleep.”
“Not picked for the ship, huh?”
He tenses. Dream isn’t sure whether he should lie, whether he should tell a stranger he’s driving to California instead of waiting safe and sound for the day he’s supposed to leave the earth. Ghost hunting, chasing after something he’d felt years ago in the hopes he’ll remember what it’s like. Maybe he’ll remember better this time, now he knows the memory of it will be all he has left.
“Nah,” he settles upon. It’s easier to explain. Easier to explain why he’s driving coast to coast with a hollow heart and a glove compartment full of posthumous relics.
“Me either. Don’t think I’d wanna board it even if I was, mind. Humanity’d be an awful empty word without home behind it.”
“I guess so.”
They wish each other well, and the engine groans as it retreats back into the clutches of night.
Dream thinks about that a while, with his hands shoved in his pockets and his chin tilted up so his throat’s bared. They say that’s a common trait for this country, an inexplicable longing for something they’ve never known. He wonders if it’d be worse were he to know what the itch was for, exactly why his heart sang for far flung shores and cracked asphalt. Cigs and narrow shoulders, perfect under his palms even though he can never, ever have it. Surely it must. Surely there’d be nothing worse than awakening in some distant facet of space with the memory of home visceral and bloody.
The 8 watches him as he climbs back into the van, whispering of all the infinite possibilities he’ll never have. As he pops open the glove compartment and retrieves George’s biro from the floor.
The ball doesn’t have any more answers for Dream now. It’s up to him to make his own decisions.
Dream isn’t sure whether his heart shatters into a million pieces of silicate rock or finally beats free of its iron shackles when they cross the state line.
His demons remain encased in swampland and stagnant water, but he doesn’t know if the lack of their presence is relieving. He’s become used to it. They smother him like a weighted blanket, keep him grounded and tied down to the strip of land he’s always known as home. Without them, he’s just some guy, ripped from nowhere in particular by the asteroid collision and sent hurtling through space to achieve nothing at all. A waste of time.
Dream is terrified he'll drift off into the atmosphere now, a helium balloon waiting to pop. It's fucked up, how lost he feels without the heavy weight of a headstone to tie him down.
I'm not interesting compared to you. George had been so, so wrong.
He’s an empty shell with its pearl missing, and he doesn't have enough time to relearn what identity means. Everything he has is painted across his skin, shreds of sun and rainbow he scrapes from the bottom of his mind and throws out into the world instead. George's gaze has always appeared piercing, but all this time he's fallen for the illusion, believed the façade and mistaken it for substance. George believes everything he feeds the world, hangs onto it like his words are spun from copper and gold. Nausea sweeps over Dream as he wonders whether that’s why he likes him so much.
They're perfect, really. Because George's features are laced with apathy which reveals nothing about the constellations underneath, and Dream’s shell seethes with pulsing nebulas which hide the hollowness of his chest cavity. He wants to scream until his lungs are raw. He could do with a little stardust to fester in his heart, and he'll never have it.
The blackness nags and claws and scratches and kicks at him until he's a bleeding mess of irritation. Slammed against the front of a truck, bones crunching under the impact. Ribs splintering into a thousand pieces. It wouldn't be so bad to lie on the road with his life flickering out of him, because at least the asphalt's embrace is tangible.
So he does the only thing he can think of, and stops driving in the middle of the interstate.
Call it the pull of the void. It's so much easier to give in when the end of the world's coming and space clogs his windpipe with black roses. He wishes the void would just fucking take him already so he doesn't have to spend his last few weeks anticipating it.
“Dream?” Sapnap looks over the tops of his shades, eyes glinting in the morning sun. His legs are propped up on the dash, crossed over one another with his feet resting next to mini jesus.
Dream sits there with his hands on the wheel, the van stationary in the rightmost lane. A car rushes past them, the silence broken as a stranger’s palm whacks flat against the centre of the wheel. The horn blares for a few seconds, grating against the morning membrane covering his ears until he swears he can feel blood dripping against his eardrums. And then it’s gone, driving off towards the horizon to leave them alone with the silence of the road once more.
“Have we broken down?” George asks.
A quick glance in the rearview confirms George has been asleep across the backseat, the blanket tugged around his shoulders and unconsciousness clinging to his eyes. He looks softer like this, with his hair disorganised and flat on one side where he’s had it pressed into leather. His eyes are obscured every now and again as he blinks to clear them, stifles a yawn in his fist and kicks his legs out in addictive lines of pale flesh. Somehow it’s worse now. It’s worse, because Dream remembers with revitalised sharpness how George's thighs look when they’re mottled blue and purple, how his eyelashes flutter against the peaks of his cheekbones when he’s halfway through his descent to hell.
He shouldn’t stare. “I’ll be one second,” Dream says before opening the door and stepping onto the asphalt. It bruises the soles of his feet with warmth.
The door slams behind him, and he’s left alone with the road.
He's exhausted. His world turns dark for a few seconds too long each time he blinks, eyelids weighted by cartographer's lines and squiggling masses of land. Highways and freeways cutting through the grid, cities marked in red, the flat plane of blue to denote the sea.
And Dream's handwriting, all over a map of the i-5.
It's wishful thinking. Dream sits in the dead of night with a map of the vertical interstate, George's biro clutched so hard in his fingers the plastic groans under the force of them. His friends asleep in the back, painted shades of pearl as the moonlight ignites their features. Green eyes, flitting to the rearview every time one of them turns over, fingers seizing at dog-eared corners in anticipation of shoving it back into the locked glove compartment where it belongs.
His mind careens up the interstate, away from LA, through Sacramento towards Seattle. The air phases through shades of orange to green, blue to brown. They could continue until they reached fucking Alaska, if they wanted. But they can’t. Dream has to drive back to Florida soon, kiss everything goodbye and leave George and Sapnap to unmarked peasantry graves. Feel his atoms freeze over, unseeing as he’s transported through the atmosphere, away from this bloodstained piece of land.
He’ll never get to visit the cemetery again. He aches to lie upon a headstone, fingers clutching at his tapes as the sun drifts towards the horizon. He’ll never sit next to the flowers, limp stems curling at the bottom of their jar in the way an immortelle never would. She wouldn’t have wanted one. Real flowers decay as everything must.
The door is boiling against his back, sends searing heat over his skin even though he’s wearing a shirt. This is a waste of time, he thinks. He’s standing here feeling sorry for himself when they have places to be.
“You should call your mom,” he says when he climbs back into the van. The keys are still in the ignition, glinting every now and again when they catch the light. They clink together when he swings the door shut, singing the sea’s melody as it calls and whines for him in bittersweet sirensong.
Sapnap looks at him like he’s grown another head. “My mom?”
“Yeah, you should call her. We’re gonna be around Houston, we can wait a while, if you wanted to...you know. See her, or whatever.”
“I thought you hated her.”
Dream snorts. “I never said she wasn’t a fucking bitch.”
She is. He still remembers how distraught Sapnap had sounded when he rang Dream’s landline all those years ago, voice frail and shaky as it crackled over hundreds of miles to reach him. Sapnap wanted to stay in Florida, wanted to spend his weekends on Dream’s blow up air mattress eating candy until their mouths were ridden with ulcers. Drawing in chalk upon the sidewalk until their fingers were mottled with rainbow, cycling around and around until their tires punctured. And when Sapnap came running back as soon as he started college, Dream remembers the radio silence she’d given him.
Or rather, he remembers how hard Sapnap had tried not to care, and how much he did anyway. Eyes crimson in the dead of night, nails bitten to raw stubs because he’d checked the mail every day only to be disappointed.
But he could forgive her for dragging Sapnap back over a stateline.
He can’t forgive all the shit she’d said to his mom, each barbed word a rock that only served to press her into the earth quicker. How she was awful young, considering they had kids the same age, how she was awful alone, in that awful apartment she paid for with her awful job. That awful son of hers, hyperactive and undoubtedly plagued by the lack of a father figure. She’d looked at the pair of them like they were trash, as though they’d been thrown up by the recesses of society and left in sunny Florida with the implicit purpose of making her life hell. Yeah. Pretty fucking awful life, Dream thinks. The bitch could die in front of him and he wouldn’t feel sated.
But she’s still Sapnap’s mom, and the asteroid is coming, and Dream thinks he deserves to see her.
“Call her,” he says, even though he hates it.
“I need a phone.”
“Can we go to a truck stop?” George asks, flipping his flask over in his hands. Only this time, the motion isn’t accompanied by the cadence of a spirit splashing against the sides. It’s empty, Dream realises. “I want a shower, and you can call your mum.”
“Fuck, you’re so smart.” Dream is acutely aware of how his hair seems to stick to his forehead all of a sudden, how the material of his shirt chokes him with stiff cotton and how his skin feels more oily than usual. He’d spat toothpaste onto the side of the road early this morning, but his limbs are stiff as hell. As if the roof has leaked in the night and rusted all his joints brown and immovable. It’s expected, considering he’d slept on the floor of the van with only a blanket to cushion his body.
“Alright, no need to suck him off for the bare minimum. I could’ve come up with that one,” Sapnap says, fiddling with his sunglasses.
George catches his gaze in the rearview, dark and dangerous.
Dream scrambles for words before the silence turns incriminating, but it’s difficult when it feels as if his tongue has swelled to triple its size. “But you didn't. That’s the point, you idiot.”
The cassette player stutters when he twists the ignition keys, track jumping in and out of the air as the sound wavers. Dream sighs, endeared by the banged up pile of scrap metal he seems to be driving, and whacks a palm flat against it. Something seems to work, because they’re accompanied by music again as he floors the accelerator, shoving the battered engine to its absolute limit despite his better judgement.
Break on through…
...to the other side
Sapnap is delighted to find this particular gas station deserted, only occupied by the empty takeout cartons spilling from the bins and the fleet of swallows darting overhead. They mar the sky with shades of purple, trailing towards the horizon like ashes. No attention is paid to the lonely little gas station with all the lights off and a rusted chevy abandoned by the entrance. A cobweb stretches from the side mirror to connect with the open window. It must’ve been there for ages, its fate solidified when the apocalypse was announced—nobody is coming back for it now.
It’s depressing, but it means they’ll go unbothered. He puts the van in park across the lines just for the hell of it.
“I’m showering,” George announces, rolling the door open in a burst of heat. The smell of asphalt is overwhelming. It reaches its concrete fingers into the van and tosses his head to road trip delirium, drives memories of juice cartons and magic 8 balls and rainbow beads wrapped around his wrists back to the forefront of his mind.
"Don't drown," Dream calls.
"Wasn't planning on it!"
The side door slides and slams.
“He’s getting more alcohol,” Sapnap says once they’re presented by the sight of George’s back as he makes his way into the gas station. He flips out his army knife to pick the lock on the entrance, deftly twisting it a few times until the door swings open. Scout’s honour. Dream would love to pretend he isn’t impressed by it, but there’s something so satisfying about seeing the way George’s fingers are certain in a manner that peels back the blank veil he wears over his face. The knife tumbles back into his shorts pocket to rest alongside whatever else he keeps in there.
“You think I don’t know that?”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
He sighs, a hand rubbing over his face as if it’ll wash away the tiredness. “What the fuck do you want me to do about it? It’s kinda a George problem.”
“I don’t know, talk to him? He fucking listens to you, man. He looks at you like you’re spouting the goddamn gospel, you saw how fucking quick he agreed to your stupid hippy pilgrimage. Even if he pretends he doesn’t give a shit.”
The music is too much right now. He whacks the cassette player so The Doors will shut up, and they’re plunged back into uncomfortable silence only punctuated by the drifting of the wind as she spins her wrists in lazy circles. Plastic bangles clinking together, presented to them as the sound of a swallow as it dies on the gas station roof. It’s a sorry spot to pass over, but then again, most places are.
“He agreed to that because he’s got nothing better to do.” Nothing better than to stare at the wall of his little studio and addle his brain to inebriated mush.
“Really. Name one time George hasn’t listened to you, in that case. I’m fucking waiting.”
Dream thinks about George walking home by himself with bruises all over his inner thighs, barely hidden by his shorts. How he must’ve let himself back into his room, seen the phone staring at him in admonishment, and decided to ignore it anyway. The way he would’ve lain in the middle of the bed, limbs curled inwards as he decided he’d never talk to Dream about what happened, about the things they wanted to do to each other. He wonders if George had stretched his fingers up to the window, as though reaching for the moon. And after all the calculations were bracketed by pencilled full stops in his head, George and Dream began tiptoeing around each other.
But he can’t tell Sapnap any of that. He presses his hands between his thighs like a schoolboy beckoned to the office.
“Exactly,” Sapnap says, self-satisfied.
“I can’t help but feel like this is besides the point, you know. George is his own fucking person, he doesn’t need two kids telling him what to do,” he says in a muttered rush. The weight of floral scented sheets presses down upon his shoulders, cooking everything in his chest with all the force of a particle accelerator. “And he’s gonna be gone in a few weeks, anyway. It’s pointless.”
Sapnap’s fist collides with the dash. “Dream, what the fuck? I know you didn't just say that.”
“What? It’s the truth.”
And Sapnap is gritting his teeth now, eyebrows pressed into a deep furrow. “Yeah, and that’s why I’m not gonna fucking watch him drink himself into oblivion. He’s been doing that for months, Dream, I don’t know if he even remembers what it’s like to walk around on his own two feet.”
Dream runs his fingers over the stitching on the wheel. “He has a lot on his mind.”
“What, leaving college? Going back to England? Growing up?”
And everything else he can’t possibly tell Sapnap.
“Yeah, he’s scared. You would be too, I think.”
“Must be nice to be scared of the future. Fucking hell, at least he had one. I have the grave to look forward to. And the worst part about it is I’ll never even have a headstone, you know? My bones’ll be tossed someplace random, lost forever along with everyone else’s.”
He winces. That’s what separates George and Sapnap’s fear, because they’re both terrified of wildly different things. Dream supposes the apocalypse must be something of a relief to George—it’ll make all his decisions for him, come careening down to earth to erase his groggy existence. All of a sudden, he doesn’t have to get rid of the boxes lining his walls, he doesn’t have to board the flight back home, he doesn’t have to assimilate with society despite the darkness pressing down upon his narrow shoulders. He doesn’t have to avoid Dream like he’s covered in plague boils. The asteroid must be dressed in silver clouds, must be a blessing in disguise to someone like George.
To Sapnap, it’s a lost piece of space debris clawing through the atmosphere to yank the rug out from under his feet. His eyes fill up with fear whenever he looks at the sky, primal and vicious. He’s sent tumbling to the ground, head cracking against the asphalt every time the thing crawls back into his mind. The bottom of Dream's stomach is lined with a grille, brimming with all his soured milk.
“You’re angry,” he observes. Anger sucks the blood of fear, fear snaps anger's spine in its jaw until its throat bulges. Until Sapnap is a crackling star of marrow and sinew, blazing with a force so massive it’ll continue to throw light out into the void even after he’s been extinguished. And that should be enough to soothe the ache in Dream’s chest every time he thinks about boarding the ship, but it’s not.
“‘course I’m fucking angry.”
“It’s not you. It’s that,” he says with a glance at the sky. It grins back down at him with straight teeth and blue skin. “It’s putting the words in your mouth. Come on, you sound like your m-”
“Don’t you dare.”
Dream supposes that’s a little harsh. “Alright. But please don’t lash out at him, okay? I’ll talk to him, I will. Just—just put a lid on it for now?”
They sit in burning silence until George reappears from within the gas station, hair damp and messy against his forehead. It curls at the ends when it’s like this, falls in tangled waves across his scalp. And his face remains blank underneath it all, oblivious to how much of a vision he looks.
Blank, until he steps out into the glow, and his mouth curves back into its perfect crescent.
Dream wants to fish the instant camera out from the bottom of his bag and take a hundred pictures of it, burn through his film to immortalise the way George looks when he’s standing upon the asphalt, haloed by the morning light with wet hair and a towel clutched to his chest. His heart trills. He wants to stay in this moment forever, driving towards the coast, Sapnap and George safely beside him with their wrists thrumming in asynchrony. One for the past, one for the future. George’s skin appears paler than normal, thrown into bleak clarity by the blue tint of the sun. Marble to melting snow, salt to sugar.
Dream coughs into his fist because it feels like there's a moth entrapped there. "Call her while I'm showering? There'll be a phone behind the counter."
"Sure," Sapnap says as Dream shoves himself through the seats and into the back.
George rolls the door open when he's kneeling on the floor, fingers tugging at the zips of his bag. "Hey," he says, eyes warming to melted Hershey's.
“Hey. Are the showers okay?”
“Other than the spiders? Yeah, they’re okay. No bodies or anything.”
Dream rummages around in his bag, pushing aside folded clothes, crumpled cig boxes, and a porn magazine Sapnap probably put in there because he thought it’d be hilarious. He rifles through cassettes and packets of spare film, but none of it reveals what he’s looking for. A sigh escapes him, and he sits back on his heels. “Shit. George, can I borrow your soap?”
“George uses women's soap,” Sapnap chimes in from the front. His fingers fall open. “You know like, the shit they fill with vanilla and flowers or whatever the fuck.”
“Fuck off, it's better,” George says defensively, frail arms wrapped around his chest to clutch the towel to it. Like he's terrified of something, like he's terrified Sapnap will continue this winding path of thought and chance upon the forest full of everything he's not supposed to know.
Dream decides to put him out of his misery. “That's okay, I don't mind. It's just soap.” His lips curve into a smile he can only hope will ease George’s nerves a little.
It seems to work, because George concedes after a moment, and digs the bottle out of his towel, pearlescent purple in the mid morning. When he hands it to Dream, he keeps his eyes stubbornly fixated upon the floor, bottom lip seized between his teeth. His skin is freezing when their hands brush, even the slightest contact shoving Dream's heart right out of his chest to beat a tattoo on his throat. He leans away too quickly to be natural, so Dream is left with a hand full of plastic and convenience store soap filling half of it.
“Give it back after.” His stare doesn't deviate.
"I will. Thanks," he says before exiting into the parking lot.
The showers are dripping with dark matter, chipped tiles and stained walls appearing more ominous than they should in the gloom of the apocalypse. As if the asteroid casts a shadow over everything it touches, as if it crawls with parasitic dread and worms itself under the earth’s skin until all its matter is decomposing. Eaten away by pulsing larvae. There’s no grime under Dream’s feet, but when he closes his eyes for a little too long it feels as though the ends of his toes are stained black. Mould under his nails. Grit pushing up against soft soles. Blood and bruises and bites mottling his calves, each one a reminder of the sin pit he wades through.
He shudders, and flips the water on so hot it kicks out plumes of white to veil his limbs.
Relief washes over him like holy water, almost baptismal as the mirage of grime and dirt swirls down the drain. His muscles untense somewhat with heat curling across his scalp, with sun-bleached hair falling into his eyes to obscure the sight of leaking pipes and a ceiling stained halfway to hell and back.
His palms fall open in surrender. Water bounces across the creases, ties them all together in neat bows so he can stop fretting over the length of the life line. It’s a welcome change from having his hands curled around a wheel, leather sticking into his skin in all the most unpleasant of ways.
Dream hums to himself as he pushes weary fingers through his hair.
“Breathe, breathe in the air… Fuck.” He drops George’s soap bottle on his toe. It slides across the tiles before smacking into the opposite wall, grinning at him with a half smile of self satisfaction.
He rolls his eyes and bends down to grab for it. “And all you touch and all you see,”
When the bottle is retrieved, he straightens back up so quickly his head spins with blood. The cap falls into his palm and cleaves his skin into silvery sections. “...is all your life will ever be.”
Soap spills out, purple and sickly enough to cloy his neurons to a mess of syrup. He rubs it into his skin, small circles around and around so his joints will stop filling with spider blood. And it’s a terrible idea, because now lilac is spiralling through the cubicle, folding back from every plastic wall and tumbling into his head like he’s standing in a floral hotbox. It’s so bad Dream swears his vision turns violet. Everything around him seems to be formed of delicate petals, dainty and pretty like pale wrists cradled in his fingers and swollen lips falling open for the express purpose of pleasure.
Sap fills the back of his throat and pollen clouds his head with itching sores. He wants to tear every last flower to shreds, until the earth is barren and dead.
It’s stupid—it’s just soap, after all. It’s supposed to be clean and sterile, but he can’t shake the dark tendrils of shame reaching up from the bottom of his stomach as he thinks about limbs bruised lilac, a tongue marred by juice, the smell of cigs and chamomile in direct conflict. Secrets swimming in black holes, everything left unsaid tangling to polari incomprehension. Dream grits his teeth and washes the grime from his body with renewed vigour, scrubbing and scrubbing until he’s no longer caked in dried perspiration.
”Run, rabbit, run,”
A truck passes the gas station, rumbling off into the distance so loudly Dream can hear it even from within the showers.
He sets a hand against the tile, observes the way his arm is more red than gold now. He touches and touches and touches, running his fingernails across the joins just so he’ll hear the rhythmic thunk thunk thunk of it. He scratches at his skin. He blinks several times to certify that all of this is real and not conjured of his imagination in the middle of a desert.
Well. Dream doesn’t have long to carve out his legacy anymore. It’s an optimistic notion, that he can define how other people see him by cramming sunbeams and love as forceful as atomic blasts into his actions, but he supposes whoever came up with it wasn’t living in the shadow of the apocalypse. His rabbit heart beats and beats until it’s crushed between rubber and asphalt, haloed with sticky plasma and left to rot.
“You race towards an early grave.”
He can still smell the godforsaken lilacs.
He’s hard, he realises rather belatedly. Perhaps it’s twisted of him, to be standing here with tension yanking at the pit of his stomach when he’s thinking about roadkill, when he’s thinking about lying down in the middle of the interstate. As he’s pushing thoughts of lilac limbs and tobacco tongues out of his mind. But his blood flows down, down, down anyway, uncaring of what’s right or wrong.
A sob claws its way up his throat with iron talons. Tears it open, until he’s drowning in a tide of blood. Red streaks over his vision, the lilac petals soaked in a crimson that drips onto his tongue and chokes him with an iron barrel shoved into the back of his mouth.
He should shut the water off, plunge himself back into the frosted tide of silence. He should tug his clothes back on, yank his jeans up around his hips no matter how hellishly uncomfortable it would be. He should douse himself with ice, stand in the cold until he’s shivering despite the southern August heat and wait until he can stop thinking with his fucking cock.
Dream has always been a little lily-livered.
It sounds too loud against the linoleum when he gasps, hands running over himself in a way that’s too hot, too rough, maimed by violet even though he doesn’t have the real flower. He has an imitation, a plastic plant, a shady illusion to drape over his imagination. Two red petals fill his mind, ten white, ten pink, too many black to count. This construction of flowers, this effigy of monkshood feels less sinful to imagine as he chases release, as he palms where he needs it most. His head brims with pollen and snapped pistils instead of everything he’s running from.
Oh, how it would feel to cram blossoms onto his tongue, to push petals into his maw so he could keep them there until they rotted and turned tawny. Sometimes it’s not enough to look at the bloom, sometimes it’s not enough to stand in a field of flowers and remain contented with burning the image of them onto camera film. Sometimes, he’s consumed by the desire to chew them up, to hold them so close to his spineless heart that their venom pulses through his veins.
He spills white and red onto the tiles, and it takes him a while to realise he’s not imagining it.
There’s blood dripping from his chin, smearing over his cheeks when he lifts shaky fingers to wipe it away. It’s real, unlike the black tendrils that snake out of the plugholes and pull at his calves, unlike the dark lichen and crawling maggots that writhe beneath his nails. Unlike the blueberry stains adorning his legs, the asphalt tearing into his skin, the pipes as they morph and bend into the grill of a truck, hellbent on ramming into his face. The taste of copper on his tongue is real.
“Shit,” he murmurs, bringing a palm up to staunch the flow. It drips from his nose, runs in sacrificial rivers over every one of his limbs until he’s painted in shades of cadmium, and perhaps he looks pretty for once. If there’s anything living beneath this gas station, some beast that sits upon the centre of the earth, he thinks it’s sated now, the thirst quelled as his iron churns in the drain.
Another part of him left to drip into the earth, another anchor to this landmass he calls home. He leaves the showers with shoulders higher than they’d been going in, a tongue that isn’t clotted to the roof of his mouth with necrotic soil.
Sapnap looks as though one of the gas station haunts has reached its bony fingers right out of the sink and sunk them into his brain, parting pink flesh with steely nails. “She said yeah,” he says when Dream climbs back into the driver’s seat. His lip is chewed raw.
“She did?” Dream tosses the soap bottle at George’s head and misses. He still receives a clipped glare. It spreads fiery disappointment across the soles of his sand-torn feet.
“Yep. Guess we’ll stop in Houston, then.”
“Calm down, man. ‘s just your mom,” Dream says, because Sapnap is bouncing his knees to the point he’s surprised they haven’t drummed straight through the carpet and into the underbelly of the van. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“She disowns me?”
“Oh. I thought she already did.”
Sapnap considers it for a minute, and Dream can see the empty mailbox residing behind his eyes. The car from a decade ago, pulling him down the highway hundreds of miles from Dream. The same highway as it unfolded the opposite direction, granting Sapnap freedom and vitality and life. The hospital bed. But Dream doesn’t like to think of that-
“Huh, I guess so,” Sapnap says. “I don’t suppose I’m written into her will anymore. I don’t know if I ever was. Not that it matters, I’m not gonna be around to inherit anything.”
Dream laughs despite himself, twisting the ignition keys so the engine rumbles. “See, you’re getting into the spirit of things now.”
They're thrown back onto the road, Sapnap's feet on the dash, George's nose shoved into a book, his silver full of numbing anaesthetic. Dream's hands tainting the wheel black and dirty. And the cassette player easing the blow of the fall, spreading its blanket out over the pits of Tartarus.
Dream quickly comes to realise Florida was something of a blessing. Florida is sleepy, Florida is sunny and slow and lethargic enough to make his blood run with sticky glucose. Even the cicadas seem to sing woozily, as though they’re hopped up on hallucinogens. He misses the taste of orange juice and dazed junipers as they descend into the deep south, the sky pressing down upon their little metal tomb with the reckoning force of divine judgement.
The interstate is fucking creepy now, punctuated every few miles with decrepit houses left to waste and ruin, but otherwise consisting of fields which look as though they’ll never end. Worst of all are the damned signs—haphazard boards painted in angry red which needle at Dream’s delicate nerves with all the vigour of a spiked trident.
“I don’t like the Jesus signs,” he comments when they drive past one that proclaims TODAY IS THE DAY OF SALVATION. “It’s putting me on edge.”
“What, like we’ll get shot just for driving through? I feel you,” Sapnap says, pulling his shades off so he can take a good look at the one that’s just appeared on the horizon. “Prepare to meet God? Well fuck, I hope he likes me.”
Dream thinks about lilacs, gas station showers with ghosts in the drains, and magic 8 balls announcing his sin and lack of repentance like an all-seeing crystal orb. Laid out for judgement. Each misdemeanour presses down upon him, pressing and pressing until his heart hardens. A shudder passes over him. “Yeah, I dunno. Feels like there’ll be cannibals, or something.”
“It’s only been a few days,” George’s voice announces. Dream tenses as he appears over his shoulder like a spectre, pale hands gripping hard onto the seat so he isn’t sent flying as the van trundles down the interstate. He can’t even see George, but tobacco tumbles over his shoulder and scatters bumps across his nape. “You really think that’d happen already?”
“Didn't mean it literally,” Dream says. He considers George’s words for a moment with half his concentration on the asphalt flying beneath them—he supposes a mad place like this might breed mad occurrences. Perhaps they’re past the point of no return, given over to their own devices by an empty sky. Tucked away into this little southern pocket, out of sight, out of mind. And now with the asteroid blazing towards Earth, Dream thinks any misdemeanour could fall to blind eyes. “You think it’d happen at all?”
George laughs, and it reminds Dream of the windchimes his mom keeps in her room. Kept in her room. They’re covered in dust now, a melody silent for three years too long. “Probably. ‘s backwards around here, I bet there’re people waiting for the opportunity.”
"Uhh, the opportunity to like, eat people?" Sapnap is eyeing George with some concern.
"I don't fucking know. America is weird."
"You're weird," Sapnap says.
"No I'm not."
"You're a little freak, come on. You eat mayonnaise out the jar. You think physics is fun," he adds for emphasis, like he can’t decide which is worse.
"That's a bit different to eating people. And physics is cool, fuck you."
“You smell of fucking girl, dude.”
Dream scrambles to change the subject as another sign approaches, this one painted over a billboard in what seems like the most pointless location known to man. The lettering itself isn't much more helpful, a simple HELL scrawled over whatever advertisement of frivolity had been there before. Well, Dream can appreciate the minimalism. "They're running out of creativity now," he says.
"Bible thumpers," Sapnap adds helpfully.
“Ah.” George shifts around, and Dream catches sight of his arms in the rearview. They’re covered in scrawling black pen, numbers and letters and tangled lines running over his forearms, up into the crook of his elbows. The writing is neat and concise on his right, but grows larger and messier on his left. Dream wonders what all of it means, wonders if any of it reveals the supernova of George’s mind. He also wonders if George’ll give himself ink poisoning. The illusion shatters, a mirror against the sidewalk.
Sapnap presses two fingers to the bridge of his nose, features tightening as another sign flies by.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.
“You’re gonna love my mom,” he says.
They switch seats several times during the day, but no matter how much Dream dozes against the passenger side window, he never feels any more awake. His eyelids are weighted with ambrosia and pollen, blinking slower and slower each time they close. He chews at his lip to retain some consciousness as he drives, until blood spreads over his tongue and liquifies his mind to toxic copper. It’s too much, it’s too reminiscent of drains and sinks and ceramic. Lafayette and Beaumont flicker past too quickly, but they don’t have time to stop off the side of the road. Dream has a ship to board after all, a place in cryostasis beckoning him forwards so he can be torn from his home and cast into the far reaches of space like trash.
Still, he fishes his polaroid from the depths of his bag whenever they stop, points it at everything and nothing because he doesn’t care so much about wasting the film anymore. Not when he doesn’t have long left, not when he’ll have to leave all the pictures behind to drift around the earth like lost souls. He’s left with blurry shots of the sky, of electric wires, of George’s fingers as he cradles the battered edition of Ariel between them. Dream’s stomach had turned over at the sight of it, dented cover pulled from the recesses of the van and thrust back into daylight to haunt him. Ghosts never look good in the sun.
And by the time they finally pull towards the outskirts of the city, Dream might even go as far as to say relief courses through his veins.
Dream is surprised lightning doesn’t crackle over the roof of Sapnap’s mom’s house. He half expects there to be a cat sat on the fencepost, and harbours mild disappointment when they arrive to find a water damaged magazine and a scrubby elm that looks as if it’s seen better days. Kudzu dead against the side of the house, paint peeling off the porch. The neighbourhood seems to have the colour drained out of it, greens and blues seeping back into the earth and withdrawing from this wretched place. Mundane surroundings breed boredom breeds festering wickedness, minds rotted to sleepy morphine and three mile cigar smoke.
“I told her we’re driving to the coast,” Sapnap says as he reaches up to bang the knocker. It resounds as a gunshot would, too loud in the stiff quiet of this ordinary neighbourhood. A dead end street, lined with dead-eyed children and potholes big enough to fit whole families of shattered magic 8 balls. “I didn't say anything else. Not about the ship or- or-”
“Alright.” Dream reaches forward to pull Sapnap back from the door. He seems terrified to be standing next to it, with his hands balling into tight blossoms. “Relax, it’s just your mom. I bet I could knock her out if I wanted.”
The door squeals when it opens, the hinges sticking with a lack of oil. Sapnap’s mother isn’t the most remarkable looking person, greying strands of hair tucked behind her ears and the rest swept back into a knot at the base of her neck. She looks mostly the same as the last time he’d seen her a decade ago, although her face is marred by deeper lines, more creases spiralling around the corners of her eyes and nose. He wonders with a pang of agony if his mom would’ve looked like that eventually, with smile lines multiplying across her skin as she grew and grew into something beautiful. She’d always been a little too young. Immortalised with too few tree rings.
“Hi, mom,” Sapnap says, his eyes tracked onto her slippers.
“Nick.” She doesn’t smile. Dream isn’t sure whether he’s ever seen her smile properly, whether he’s ever seen her beam and sweep Sapnap into her arms just like his mom used to whenever he did just about anything right. A fridge covered in crayon drawings, a wall full of ageing photos, a house with mud all over the carpet and fond hands scrubbing away at it with bleach. Clay, she used to say, cramming so much warmth into one syllable it seemed superhuman.
Nothing like the cold resonance of Sapnap’s mom’s voice as she sees her kid for the first time in months and months.
She looks at George already, bored of the sight of Sapnap’s face, takes in his narrow shoulders and delicate hands, confusion marring her brow. “Hi..?”
“George,” he says, sticking a hand out for her to shake. Dream tries his best not to visibly cringe as she takes it, lined skin defiling marble as if she’s spat on an ancient headstone. “I’m Nick’s friend. From college.”
She remains placated until her vision slips to the left of George, until she catches sight of Dream, standing on her porch like the prodigal son thrown up by Hades himself. Covered in bile, hair soaked with hydrochloride. As if he drips black matter onto her precious decking, as if he’s the one who parades around yanking on people’s hope threads just for the fun of it.
“Clay,” she says, a demure smile pulled over her face. But Dream can still see her viper teeth, rows of them protruding from scarlet gums like cyanide pills. “I didn't think I’d see you again.”
He smiles right back at her because it’s exactly the opposite of what she wants. “Didn't think you’d see me again, or wished you wouldn’t see me again?” That earns him a sharp look from Sapnap over the top of his aviators.
“You haven’t changed at all,” she says with a resounding crack of leather.
“Neither have you,” he bites.
“Dream,” George murmurs, breath hot against his ear. His fingers are knotted in the fabric of Dream’s shirt so he can tug him close, so close wisteria is pulled over his eyes and he can almost feel George’s lips against his skin. It’s torture in the purest sense of the word, white hot and painful. Like he’s fallen into a vat of peroxide and now the flesh is being stripped from his bones. “Just play civil for a while, alright? You’ll end up with a bullet between the eyes at this rate.” He pulls away, releasing the shirt so his chest feels too loose.
And normally Dream would see how far he can push it, normally he’d poke and poke with the pointed end of his stick until something explodes. But George’s eyes are entrancing in the evening light, and somehow, they convince him to quit digging his own grave. The ground in Texas is much too arid for it, anyway.
“Why don’t you come in?” She asks once the crackling stormcloud around Dream reduces to a timid cyclone. Dust threatens to choke him because he’s being treated like a ten year old, as though he hasn’t grown a jot since she last saw him.
“I can’t think of anything worse,” he mutters as Sapnap breathes a timid alright.
They end up sitting in her living room, suffocated beneath the weight of peeling wallpaper and bland carpet. The couch cushions are surprisingly pleasant under his hands, patterned enough that Dream can occupy himself with running his nails over the stitching. Conversation turns stale over and over again, stagnating in places it really shouldn’t, considering this is the last time Sapnap will ever see his mom. He sits there as if he’s been kicked in the stomach, with two hands crossed over it and his legs thrown out awkwardly because the angle of the couch is difficult to adjust them to. A rifle rests behind her, gleaming with malice in the lowlight of evening, poised to rip them from this earth a fortnight too early.
"How is your mother?" She asks when one of the pauses occurs, an eyebrow quirked in Dream’s direction.
"Oh. I'm sorry," she says. She doesn't sound sorry in the slightest. It sounds like she doesn't give a shit, and Dream knows she probably doesn't. It’s one less thornback in the world, he supposes with morbid cynicism. His fists turn bloodless.
Sapnap glances between them, a wary expression pulled over his features. “Dr- Clay’s been renovating the apartment.” He hasn’t. He keeps saying he’s going to, but something about ripping up the carpets when they’re the only pieces he has left of her seems sacrilegious.
"Huh? Oh yeah- yeah. Lot of her stuff to go through first, though."
"Anything valuable?" Like they're discussing paintings for auction. A gleam sparks in her pit of a pupil, flickering with curiosity for the first time. Like she’s wondering what items of value Dream’s mom could possibly have, when she lived in such a rundown place full of rats and roaches.
"Yeah," he lies. "Not like it matters so much anymore, not when…" he trails off in a meteor shower of hopelessness.
“Of course. I suppose you’re all staying down here, if you’re driving across the country,” she says, orange flickering across her skin as she lights her cig. Smoke spills free of her lips, and it smells so much worse in this context. Dream prefers it when it’s all mixed up with lilac and chamomile.
“Actually, Clay’s going,” Sapnap provides. He looks back and forth between them as the atmosphere pulses.
Well, that’s a waste, her eyes seem to say. “I’m going too. I guess I’ll have to go back to Florida soon, huh? That awful place.”
Awful son, awful state, awful apartment, awful job, awful life.
Dream clenches his fists so hard it hurts. It’s not fair, that she gets to board the ship while Sapnap is stuck down here on earth. It’s not fair that she can live out the rest of her miserable life while her son is left to be killed by stray space rock, it’s not fair that a heart like hers has been picked out from the rest of the population. He doesn’t think it’s worth preserving in cryostasis. Worst of all, she doesn’t even look upset by it—her grey eyes remain unnerving and frozen solid, like the lakes he’s become so accustomed to. The only difference is there’s nothing humanoid struggling to break free. Her head is full of eldritch terror, a writhing mass of inhuman claws and teeth and maws and tentacles. Rotted by inherited values, escalated by the asteroid’s elongating shadow. The sun is setting, fast.
“This neighbourhood is an awful place,” he says once his restraint flies straight out of his chest and dies on the asphalt. A bird heart stuttering as it clings to torn fragments of this world, of sky and sea and summer migration. “I can see why Nick moved the hell out of here as soon as he could. I would’ve, too.”
“I don’t care what you would’ve done. You’re not my son.” She’s staring at him with that same blank stare.
“Thank god. My mom actually gave a shit about me.”
“And look at where that got her—six feet under.”
He hears George gasp next to him, a sharp inhalation that tears at something in his heart. A tin of blackness, a flask tipping around with his guilt cocktail.
Dream doesn’t really register standing, doesn’t really register tightening his fists in anticipation to deck her in the face. He wants to do it so badly. He wants to see her bleed for everything she’s done, to sit with a broken nose so she’ll finally realise the effect she has on people. Maybe then some semblance of regret will pass over her sorry face, maybe she’ll whisper an apology for the ears of someone who can’t even hear her through the thick sides of a coffin. All that earth pressing down upon it, shielding her from the asteroid impact and the black rain it’ll bring with it.
She seems to realise Dream is a little taller, a little bigger than he was a decade ago. “Get out of my fucking house,” she says. Her words shake in tense vibrato.
“Your son is about to die,” he spits, a red flame moth seething in his stomach. Wings turning his insides to acid and molten sunset. “Or had you forgotten? There’s no reconciliation after this, you kick us out and then you’ll never, never see him again.”
Sapnap chokes something back, although he’s not sure what.
In all honesty, Dream isn’t surprised when she twists around, reaching behind her for the rifle. There’s something inherently chekhovian about it. It looks all wrong in her hands, all oversized and twisted. Or maybe it’s just because it’s pointing at her son and his pair of best friends, innocent twenty-something year olds who’ve already been put through quite enough. At the same time, the way it rests in her grip is perfect, as natural as if she evolved that way in inexplicable symbiosis. “I said get out.”
Sapnap is cut off as she tuts. It sounds like a collision, devastating enough to bring absolute silence. When she speaks, her voice is calm, controlled. Just like it's always been, just like it was when she'd snaked her tendrils of doubt into his mom's mind. "Don't call me that," she says, gesturing with the barrel of the rifle.
"You won't shoot," Dream says. "You won't."
He sounds desperate, but not because he's scared of something as clinical as a bullet to the brain. He sounds desperate because they don't need two of them left motherless.
"Why not? You’re gonna die anyway, ‘s inevitable. Blown to bits," she says, oblivious to the way it makes Sapnap curl in on himself. Terror gathers under his facade, planted by news broadcasts rising out of the blue and fertilised by his own mother waving a rifle in his face. Crowing about the end of the world with that barbed tongue of hers, uncaring of how it makes Sapnap look as if he’s been run over.
George tugs at his hand, gripping tight enough to bruise. "Dream, leave it."
He looks hard into her eyes and finds a woman driven half mad by the heavy weight of silicate rock. They’re similar, really. She’s scared of leaving behind the known, terrified of how vast and empty space is when the only person she’ll know will be her son’s wretched, troublemaking best friend. There won’t be thick bibles to wave, there won’t be gabled roofs to cower under and there won’t be the comforting bite of steel against her hands whenever someone comes a little too close to scratching the surface.
“You’re a fucking coward,” he realises. “You’re scared.”
He finds George’s eyes swimming with rare urgency. Their hands are still joined, and perhaps the contact would be relieving if Dream weren’t consumed by anguish for Sapnap. The rifle remains pointed at him, cold and clinical and full of temptation.
It would be selfish to coax the shot from it.
“Fine,” he says, short and clipped. Boarding this boat of revenge would require two graves, no matter how badly he wants to wrap his hands around her neck and make her pay for everything she’s done. His shoulders slump, and he steps towards the splintering archway, feet shuffling against a threadbare carpet. It looks the colour of bile. For a moment, he thinks he’ll spew more acid onto it. “But you’re a fucking cunt-”
He doesn’t get the satisfaction of seeing her eyes widen in rage because George tugs him through the doorway, heartbreakingly cold where their skin meets. It makes him want to lean into the touch, makes him want to pull George into his arms in the middle of this suburban hell and kiss the fucking soul out of him until bullets tear them apart. Separated by loss of life, joined by common place of death. For some reason, it sounds comforting to Dream.
The van is deathly quiet as they pull out of the neighbourhood, even the cassette player silent in its spot on the dash. They sit in dread and unease, eyes trained upon the sky through the windscreen, through the sunroof, because in a world where everything’s turned against them, they can’t even seek parental embrace.
Houston phases into memory, converges in a straight line of highway as Dream presses the acceleration needle far higher than he should. The night surges against the windows, pushing them farther and farther across the country so they can at least try and forget the bullet holes positioned smack in the centre of their chests.
It’s pure beauty when they pull into the parking lot of a roadside motel, the sign calling to them with all the temptation of paradisiacal Omelas. Vacancies! it proclaims in flickering text. Yeah. Dream bets it has vacancies for the rest of time, or until it’s reduced to rubble, at the very least. The lot is desolate, but he thinks every parking lot they chance upon is beginning to look the same. There’s nothing to mark it apart from every other abandoned gas station or motel or tourist destination in all of America.
The place has the classic motel look—which is to say, fucking ugly. It’s short and squat and stained yellow, but it’s not so easy to tell in the cover of night. Each door is mirrored, and Dream supposes the rooms are too, cloned over and over again, blending into anonymity. He wonders how much sin seethes in the walls of this place, allowed to fly right under the radar because nobody’s keeping an eye on some old motel sitting next to the Texas interstate.
There’s nobody manning the front desk when they make their way inside. To be fair, Dream should’ve been expecting it. They only got in because of George and his army knife, tongue sticking out in concentration as he wiggled it around in the lock until it sprang open and the door swung away from pale palms.
He doesn’t like this place much.
It would’ve been eerie enough without the added abandonment of it, with the peeling paint and stained couches shoved haphazardly into the lobby. But now there are discarded flasks of coffee on the front desk, a calendar with the wrong date, a whiteboard scrawled with a to-do list that’ll never get done. Checkboxes remaining empty forever. Blinds pulled low over the window to keep the darkness out.
An old newspaper from another life is sat on the counter, the corners of it trilling in the draft as it spills through the lobby. Skylab tumbles back to earth, it announces, and Dream almost laughs at the irony of it. Some cynical part of him wonders whether it was all just a ruse, an elaborate sham so nobody would suspect the approaching asteroid and the escape shuttle being developed in its wake. Space travel seemed like an impossibility yesterday, but today, it’s their only hope. Even if there’s a substantial chance the thing’ll come crashing back to earth alongside the very disaster it’s supposed to be providing escape from.
“Room keys!” He exclaims, pulling himself up onto the desk so he can climb behind it. The keys are lined up on silver hooks, tinkling together like wind chimes every now and again. Some of them are blackened to disfiguration, the metal barely visible under grime and dirt. With cautious fingers, he pulls three from their resting places, turning around to toss one each to Sapnap and George.
George catches, Sapnap doesn’t. The key skitters across the atrium floor and tosses light beams around the dingy room. “And you’re the one who plays football,” he tuts.
“It was a shit throw,” Sapnap says, bending over to snatch it off the lino.
“You are fucking obsessed with George, chill out. You’re like one of guys, you know, one of those-”
Dream’s blood runs cold. “I’m fucking exhausted,” he says before Sapnap can continue. George is spinning the key around his index finger, snapping it against his palm just so he has something to fiddle with. “That was way too much driving in one day.”
The motel only looks worse when they step back outside, footsteps clattering against rickety stairs as they climb onto the veranda. Each door flits past as Dream looks for the three he’s got the keys for, randomly selected off a board of so, so many. Yet they hold just one key each, the rest of the rooms fading into non-existence under the weight of their apathy. It’s not long until the corresponding numbers gaze down at him, tarnished plates denoting these doors as the lucky ones.
“Fucking finally,” he says, spinning the key around in lazy circles. The chain attached to it brushes against his palm with frigid cold. Every pin and joint of him groans in relief at the sight of the orange door, relaxing in anticipation of collapsing face first into a pillow smelling of bleach and dust. Breeze blows across his skin, grateful for human company.
“I’m gonna...go to bed then,” Dream says, reaching a hand backwards for the door handle.
“Yeah, me too.” Sapnap doesn’t move from his spot.
They stand on the veranda for a moment, at an impasse. The light overhead flickers in irregular bursts, spewing sickly fluorescence over them every now and again so they appear poisoned. Night presses against them, shoves their limbs into a dark decompression chamber, and it’s suffocating. Something shuffles around in the wall cavity.
“Fuck, let’s just sleep in the same room,” Sapnap says.
“Thought you’d never ask.” Dream shoulders the door open, one hand around Sapnap’s wrist for warmth, one cold around George’s so he doesn’t try and squirm his way out of it. He rolls his eyes, but follows Dream into the room anyway, trailing kudzu in his wake.
And perhaps it’s unorthodox, for three college guys to be so afraid to let go of each other, but Dream thinks a lot of things about their predicament are rather unorthodox. In the deserted corridors of the motel, it seems too easy to go missing, to wander around and around into madness until all the triangles on the carpet worm their way into their neural passages. Until the wall art begins to repeat itself, until they step right into another dimension where everything resides a few inches to the left. So they stick close together, breathing the same dust, exhaling the same air toxified with terror.
George looks tiny on the couch, knees pulled up to his chest so all the grazes are plainly visible. His hair falls onto the pillow he’s stolen, so dark against the cream it appears as night and day. Relief pools in his stomach as his eyes trip over the way George draws air in and out of his lungs, chest expanding and compressing in circadian rhythm. He looks peaceful like this, with his features falling loose.
Thank the heavens they’d assigned him the couch. It’s easier that way.
He doesn’t know what he’d do with himself, if George was as close to him as Sapnap is now, warm as a hearth and familiar as home. If it were George lying a foot away from him, the bed might feel as if it were floating at sea, cast out from a capsized ship and left for the winds to toss around however they saw fit.
Dream realises he’s staring for what feels like the millionth fucking time. He clenches his fists, hard, and turns over so he can’t look at the writing on George’s arms, the palms unfurled and washed with nightlight. Instead, he’s met with two dark eyes, peering up at him through the blackness from red rims and bruised sockets.
“You can’t sleep?”
“Nah,” Sapnap says, and it sounds like a secret since there’s nobody else around to hear it. “Got a lot on the mind.”
Dream huffs out a delirious laugh. “Fuck, I can imagine.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it. She was gonna shoot, I know it. She was.”
He mulls that one over for a while, lets it mature in his head amongst the festering shame and doubt and leftover exhilaration. “Maybe,” he says eventually. “Maybe not. Perhaps it would hurt less if she had.” If she’d left them for dead by the side of the road. At least his blood could sink into the soil of home then, at least he could die looking up at a familiar sky rather than an apathetic void. The rivers of Osiris swelling around him.
“Dude, that’s messed up.”
He’s smiling into the darkness like an idiot now. The moon illuminates him with cold hands, and he imagines it makes his smile flash, outlined by luna rays. “We’re all a little messed up, right? Your mom’s round the bend, and mine’s dead. Pretty good duo.”
Sapnap humours him, because he always does sooner or later. “What about George?”
“His mom’s british.”
They dissolve into quiet laughter again, hands clasped as if they’re holding onto a lifeline of flesh and blood and bone. Neither of them question it, because they’ve always been like this. For years, Sapnap has been the only family he has left, and now Dream is the same to him. And he doesn’t mind. He doesn’t mind, not when all they need is each other.
“I don’t think I can sleep right now,” Sapnap says after a while.
“Me neither.” The air here is suffocating. It burns the insides of his lungs every time he breathes, spreads molten lava over the back of his throat.
“Wanna take a walk?”
“George is asleep.”
“So? He’ll be alright.”
Dream glances over at George, at how peaceful he looks when his mind isn’t yearning for the stars. He wonders if his dreams are full of supernovas anyway, if he tumbles into a black hole every time he enters the realm of unconsciousness. If stars and suns tug over his vision, fill up his head so being asleep seems better than the walking around amongst the living. He hopes it is. George will be asleep forever soon.
It’s sort of rare for Sapnap to be the one to propose things like this—if he blinks, he’ll miss it. “Sure, why not.”
They end up sitting on the rooftop, flickering cigarettes to keep them company. Dream tugs a drag, feels the way his stomach warms with heady smoke, and exhales in a rush of grey. It spirals up towards the stars like a flurry of cloudmatter, tangling with the darkness until he's left with nothing more than a clear night.
“Why are we up here?” He asks.
“Thought you wanted to go for a walk. We did. Through a motel stairwell. It was awful.”
Dream exhales through his nose. “You know what I mean. Talk life to me, dude.”
“That doesn’t sound like a stellar idea to me,” Sapnap grumbles, flicking the ash from the end of his cig. When Dream only looks at him with an anticipatory grin, he sighs, and takes a long drag from it before watching the smoke unfold in front of him. His legs shuffle around as he attempts to shake the aches out of them as one removes splinters from soft fingertips. “It’s weird—I don’t believe in God. Or purgatory. Or hell. But I’m terrified of what’ll happen to me, where I’ll end up, you know?”
“Me too,” Dream mutters. His lungs fill with tar. His heart fills with void.
“Oh, fuck off. You’ll be alive at least.”
He frowns at the loose gravel scattered across the roof. Where it’s come from, Dream’s not entirely sure—perhaps carried miles and miles in the beak of something before falling down to rest atop this shitty roadside motel. The neon sign flickers every now and again, washes them with pallid yellow so they look gaunt and fatless. Dilapidated faces to match a dilapidated place. “Will I? I’ll be asleep.”
“Rather be asleep than dead.”
“Nah. What’s the point?”
“You’re so, so close to pissing me off,” Sapnap mutters.
His cheeks are beginning to ache. “We’re best friends. I’m supposed to piss you off.”
“No, I mean, I feel like I’m about to blow. I was just getting started, I was doing good in all my classes and getting chased around by the campus police all the fucking time because it’s what you’re supposed to do. I had you and George, and it didn't even matter that my mom- well, that woman didn't give a shit about me. I thought maybe things were getting better. And now I’m gonna fucking die. Isn’t that funny? Fuck, I wish more than anything I could be crying over midterms again, isn’t that fucking hilarious?”
Dream’s stomach is full of buoyancy, bobbing along with all its lack of substance. “Damn. You do have a lot on the mind.”
“Yeah, feels like I’m being crushed to death. Feels like I need to scream or something, just to get it all out.”
“You want me to cry like a kid?”
Dream shrugs, shifting his palms onto his knees. “You’re nineteen. You are a kid.” And that’s the absolute worst part about it.
It’s ugly when he begins to scream. It’s not the tragic call of a sailor lost at sea, it’s not harmonious and bittersweet as it coasts along the top of the waves like a skipping stone. This scream is brutal, packs nerve endings frayed to bloody tangles, brims with chipped bone and spidery writing spiralling out of the margins. Sapnap turns pink, then red, his eyes filling up with pure desolation as he unleashes everything wrong with his existence to the unhearing ears of the stars.
Sapnap screams until his vocal cords fail him, until the noise breaks off into a bloody coughing fit. As soon as it's over, he's screaming again, emptying all his woe for the night to shoulder instead. And he looks a little less like Atlas now, with the curve of his back straighter than it was.
He falls silent once more, hands braced against his knees as he gasps polluted air back into his lungs.
"Fucking scream with me Dream," he croaks, the words pushed to his lower register by black tar. "Fucking prove you can hurt."
"I do hurt." Just not in the way Sapnap thinks. It's the kind of hurt he saves for when he's in the shower, when he's between his bedsheets, when he's all alone on the side of the interstate. It's not the kind of hurt he goes around piling upon other people.
"I've never seen you cry, man. I've never seen you let go. You keep it all hidden away in there, and it can't be good. You're as bad as George."
Dream scoffs. "That's a bit far." He paints his skin with everything he has, empties the cans over his head until he’s covered in a rainbow of emotion. But perhaps he’s forgetting something, perhaps he’s forgetting the tin of midnight black that sits encased by the flesh of his heart. Perhaps he can pull it free, shake the sinew loose until he’s surrounded by a halo of blood.
“Come on. You don’t have to talk about it.”
He just has to scream until his lungs give out.
The cigarette is cast over the side of the roof when he starts screaming, hands white around the railings and every nerve electrified by the way his voice bounces off the asphalt. It tumbles over and over, falls off the side of the building and shatters into a mess of blood and bones in the road. Looking for something to love. They stand there screaming together like maenads driven mad, like bacchae with the flesh of their wailing stuck between their teeth, dripping crimson like the Nile.
Weirdly enough, it feels good to tear that particular tin out. It’s full of too many things to count, of cyanide, lilacs, russet apples, pale skin, cassettes loaded with piracy. The contents swirl into a seething mess for him to shake about, to hear its viscosity splashing against the sides like absinthe in a silver flask. He empties it over the exterior of the motel, and it makes his mind feel a hundred pounds lighter.
Now his heart is empty, perhaps he can begin rebuilding the insides. It’s no good trying to erect substance upon shaky ground, it’s no good constructing his identity on toxic wet sand. The sea will wash it away before long, take apart the bricks and mortar piece by piece until he’s left barren and desolate. But with his song of nightcry crashing down around him, Dream thinks he might’ve found some stable foundation.
They scream until they’re crying, until their cheeks glimmer with salt. Sapnap lets go of the barrier and grabs hold of his hands instead, aged palms not so different from that of two ten year olds torn apart by forces outside their control. They’re still the same behind the eyes, lost in the world, drifting like tumbleweed. And they’ll be torn apart again in one way or another before long, ripped into a thousand mismatched jigsaw pieces. It’s up to Dream to decide which will hurt less.
“Fuck you for making me cry,” he gasps, voice bloody and broken. Bile scalds the back of his throat.
And Sapnap is laughing now, pushing tears aside as he laughs and laughs and laughs. “It’s good, isn’t it? It’s like the stars care about us.” He has to shout over the evening breeze because the sound of junipers rustling is too loud to bear.
“The stars don’t give a shit. Some of them are already dead, you know? We’re looking at the light, but the star doesn’t exist anymore.” George told him that last summer, before he’d learnt how his tongue tasted. What his skin was like, pulled between his teeth. Before George started gazing off into space instead of meeting his meadow stare.
“I don’t care if they’re dead. They’re still nice to look at.”
It warms Dream’s chest with whiskey and campfire. He’s reminded of the water tower close to his mom’s apartment, the one they’d sit under during the day when they were hiding away from the brutalism of the world. The joints were rusting and it creaked alarmingly every time the wind blew, but it protected them from the glare of the sun nonetheless. They’d stay there until the sun dipped too far and Sapnap had to bike back home, pedalling fast enough his face turned pink with exertion. It was better than what would happen were he late.
“Ain’t that the truth.” His cheeks feel tight as the tears dry, and he’s sure his eyes are as blotchy as Sapnap’s. They should really be going back inside, resting their weary bodies before they’re subjected to another day of the fucking interstate as it winds through Texas, but there’s something pleasant about sitting up here with nobody to watch them besides the stars.
It’s no surprise when they cry themselves to sleep on the rooftop, hands clasped and skin dotted with tears as the tide of grief crests and falls over and over. Every time Dream’s reserves are empty, they seem to refill, until he’s dry-sobbing, clutching onto Sapnap with white knuckles because he never, ever wants to let go.
George wakes them in the morning with cold hands and eyes rolled skywards.
“You really fell asleep on the roof?” He asks, feigning annoyance. “The fuck were you doing up here?”
“Saying goodbye to the stars.”
Chapter 4: Shamrock
George is so fucking pretty.
He’s the moon—pale and covered in shadowy potholes, refracting sunlight with softer hands, gentler fingers than blazing fire. Blue strokes and anglican features. And the lines might be blurred a little at the moment, might be torn into ashy shreds by fennel and shamrock sprites, but luna glow conquers wormwood nonetheless.
The Atlantic churns, a glitter of seas.
“Come on, let’s go inside. What’s the worst that could happen?” George is saying, every last word illustrious.
“The roof crushes us to death?”
“Uh, we’ll only be losing two weeks.”
Sapnap looks up at the abandoned house they’re standing in front of with pinched features, eyeing the veranda full of wood rot and half boarded windows. The padlock on the door doesn’t last long. It springs open beneath bloodless fingers and an army knife, arms with equations smudged all over the insides, veins pulsing indigo underneath chamomile linen.
“We get asbestos poisoning? The ghosts appear and give your pale ass a run for its money?”
Sunlight spills over George, runs its boughs along the deck until he’s glimmering with it. Armfuls clutched to his chest. In a crowd full of brown and blue and beige people, George would stick out in luminescent splendour, haloed with his purple cloud of petals, adorned by wicked hyssop horns.
Dream stands on the grass like a lunatic.
“You’re so boring.” George rattles the door handle and sighs when he realises the deadlock is still in place. “And ghosts aren’t real.”
“I know, I’m not stupid.”
“You fell for the ouija board thing.”
“I thought you were too stoned to care about that conversation.”
"Never. My tolerance is pretty high," George says, wiggling his blade around in the keyhole. There must be some art to it, but from where he stands on a yellow lawn it looks pretty random to Dream.
"We all know why that is," Sapnap mutters.
George chooses this moment to pick the deadlock, knife twisting with a precision that makes Dream's ribs sting. “In you come,” he says, vanishing into the depths without so much as a glance back outside.
Dream tries to walk forwards, and finds himself standing in the entryway with a mile of grass behind him.
The house is about as dusty and dirt covered as Dream expected.
They traipse through the rooms in their odd procession, two eyes curious, two bright, two flickering astray at even the most infinitesimal of sounds. Plaster litters the floor, mould grows from the ceiling, emitting toxic spores Dream is certain they shouldn’t be inhaling, but they do it anyway. Half the balusters are snapped, leading him to believe something’s been hurled down the stairs at high velocity and left to die at the bottom. Surprisingly, there are no bloodstains on the steps.
Then he blinks, and there’s crimson all over the floorboards, pills cascading in waterfalls. It’s unsettling, so he looks away.
Sapnap jumps fifty feet when the kitchen door slams, yanked by the draft blowing through the front of the house. A cloud of dust kicks up in their faces. “Who’s idea was it to break into the creepy abandoned house again?” he asks, scowl tugging onto his face while Dream and George piss themselves laughing.
“Listen, it’s a change from- wait, what are we doing?” Dream says, lifting his camera to nudge the shutter before Sapnap has time to reactively shove his arms over his face.
“I didn't consent to that.”
The photo develops quickly, putting the instant in instant photography. It displays a disgruntled Sapnap, eyebrows furrowed due to the freshly slammed door, lips parted in horror, a weaver spider chilling out in the corner, barely visible. Eight eyes blink up from the back of Dream’s hand. A white blur sits at the edge of the picture, a stroke of desaturation in amongst the dust colours of the abandoned house. He swears it’s wearing fuzzy slippers.
George appears at Dream’s elbow, cold as he tips his chin forward to get a better look at the developed picture. “Look, it’s a ghost,” George says, tapping his nails against the edge of the polaroid where the blur resides. “Guess this place is haunted after all.”
“Shut the hell up, I know it’s overexposure. I’m not stupid.”
“Oh really?” Dream decides to prod at Sapnap a little just because it’s sort of hilarious. “Because you believed we communicated with the spirit world for like, a whole ten years-”
“I’m not listening!” Sapnap calls. He’s already back on the deck somehow, standing among the kudzu with his arms crossed over his chest. Dream doesn’t remember him moving. Pampas shudders around him, and the peeling wicker set on the porch groans with every movement he makes. Seems like he won’t be returning to the house anytime soon.
Wandering around a boarded house with George doesn’t sound like a particularly good idea, not when George prods at faded upholstery with nimble fingers, stares at rain damaged floorboards with glimmering wonder, and looks between dusty books abandoned in locked cabinets. There’s nothing on the pages, so Dream isn’t sure why he bothers. He’s picking the leaves off a dead ivy plant now, scattering them like a breadcrumb trail as he pokes around the drawing room. George seems to have a thing for rifling through phone directories and poetry books, for shoving his knife into deadlocks. Information he’s not supposed to have, stored in the middle of a black hole.
His head jerks up when Dream clicks the camera again.
“I wasn’t ready,” he whines. “It’s not going to be photogenic.”
“Shut up, you know it will be.”
And sure enough, the developed photo is enough to shoot Dream in the stomach, leave him to bleed out for hours and hours while he dreams of a bullet to the brain.
He’s abysmally, tragically in love with George.
There’s nothing on the film.
Cold hands wrap around his ankle and set him down on a motel rooftop.
“The fuck were you doing up here?”
The clock falls closer to midnight.
They’ve stopped because Dream is just about ready to slam his head against the dash, cover it in pink flesh so he doesn’t have to stare at the interstate anymore. It’s drilling into his head, peck peck pecking with a sharpened beak. Ironic, that he dreams of driving further, all the way up the west coast with Sapnap and George in tow, eyes greyed by road and shoulders burnt under the weight of the sun.
Pale limbs and legs vanish through the sunroof, elegant fingers curling over the lip of it and red knees swinging up to rest upon the metal top. The van groans under George’s weight.
The smell of oudh phases to cedar when he follows. His hands grab at Sapnap’s to help him onto the roof, until the three of them sit in their odd trio at the top of the world. Draft flutters around them, butterfly wings kissing their skin with the same lightness as bluebells and crocus. Except it’s not all that pleasant, because they’re choking on the sort of heat that makes it feel as if Satan’s fucking sat on them. There’s no salt breeze here, no cloud cover. Just the degrading ozone.
“Ugh this makes-”
“Your legs hurt,” Dream and George chorus. They glance at each other, nervous smiles.
“We know it does,” he adds. “Even the weather makes your legs hurt.”
“Alright, I’m allowed to complain. It’s your fault in the first place.”
This isn’t Dream’s favourite conversation to have. He skims his fingers along the roof of the van, burning metal against sun kissed skin. How George isn’t suffering third degree burns with so much of his legs exposed because of his dumb shorts, Dream isn’t entirely sure, and he’s also not entirely sure why George can’t just wear jeans like everyone else. His skin turns bumpy in the van. It must be freezing with the AC cranked so high.
George notices the way Dream shifts uncomfortably with his hawk stare. “I remember watching the moon landing,” he mutters, cheeks hollowing as he drags from his cigarette. It drifts through the air in a neat spiral, waved back and forth by relaxed fingers.
“What, when you were twenty?” Sapnap says.
Brown eyes tip skywards. “Fuck off, I’m not that old. I would’ve been...twelve? Thirteen? Anyway, I was just thinking, it’s crazy.”
“Well, it seemed like such a big deal back then, to land on the moon. And now life on earth’s about to be obliterated, and NASA magically has their escape shuttle all fired up. You forget how much is kept from us.”
“Until the very last moment, when it’s too late to do much else than lie down in the road,” Sapnap says, face turned away from the sun.
Dream stares up at the clouds, metal burning against his back. Heat claws through the material of his shirt. His fingers stretch towards the summer ocean, higher and higher until he swears he can push aside the curtains and peer right into the depths of space.
Perhaps he’ll meet its maker. He’ll give it a good punch in the face if he does, broken knuckles and bloody fists be damned.
“I can't believe the sky's so quiet,” he muses. Watery brightness clouds his vision.
“There’s a paradox for that,” George says, reading between all of Dream's words with uncanny ease. He pulls his shades down to shield himself from the glare, frames balancing at the tip of his nose as if held there by karmic magic. They’re thick rimmed, plucked straight from a bygone decade. Psychedelic in ways George isn’t. “You know, like, wondering where the fuck all the aliens are.”
“On the other side of the goddamn universe, probably,” Sapnap mutters. “They can’t hear us from all the way over there. They can’t save us. They can’t even kill us so it’ll be over faster. Fuck, where are the vogons when you need them?”
“That’s the problem. In the entirety of cosmological history—like, a long fucking time—shouldn’t something have developed enough to make it here?”
“I don’t know George, can you just tell me the damn answer already?”
“I’m saying, there should be signs of life, right? Galactic colonisation wouldn’t even take that long, in the grand scheme of things. Unless...unless those kinds of advanced civilisations want nothing to do with us, unless they shun us, turn their backs to us,” George says. He gets like this sometimes, when they poke him towards his interests and the words start spilling out of him like oil from a gas tank with a hole in the side. Roused from slumber to spin galaxies with his mind. Dream is addicted, addicted, addicted.
“Like gods,” he finishes. Dream’s thought about this before, about invisible hands sowing seeds of doubt into pure minds. He would never bow to anything like that, even if it fell out of the sky one day and ran around in front of him. “Cruel, apathetic, wretched gods. For their sake, I hope there’s nothing up there. I'd hate it.”
One hundred kilometres shield him from the cosmos, tuck him safely behind the Kármán line. Boarding the shuttle will take away his safety blanket, leave him naked and shivering in the deep sea. An abandoned disc of gold.
George’s face is obscured for a moment by grey smoke, chapped lips parting to release an addictive stream of it as he tips his chin into an open palm. “But there could be a ceiling for advancement, maybe there’s only so far a species can evolve before some kind of filter prevents it from going further, maybe meiosis, maybe gamma rays, maybe the jump from a prokaryotic cell to a eukaryotic cell, maybe-”
“A fucking asteroid slamming into the planet?”
George’s throat flexes, bedsheets beat against drying stones. “Maybe freak accidents,” he says. “It happened to the dinosaurs, didn't it?”
Uneasiness dawns upon them with the horror of daybreak. Larks screaming as their flesh melts from hollow bones, arthritic trees convulsing and snapping under the pressure of rolling seasons. Earthworms pried from soft ground and fed to bloody maws, wives awakening to dead husbands, teenage boys opening bathroom doors to yellow pill bottles and jaws cut slack.
And all of it will be gone soon. Coated in ash, petrified in pompeian terror.
Dream is beginning to think nothing would want to help them, even if it uncovered a voyager full with the essence of humanity. Perhaps it'd be better to put them out of their misery, vaporise the planet with a fleet of bricklike ships. Perhaps the silence of the night is bliss.
“Do you think anyone’ll survive?” Sapnap asks.
George’s face tenses for a moment as he coats his tongue in star anise. Chases it with smoke. “The collision?”
“Oh, they’ll survive that alright. Although the thing’s massive, so it’ll probably flatten an entire country, but still. Shit hits the fan when the sun’s blocked out. And the firestorms. And the earthquakes, and-”
“Alright, I get the picture,” Sapnap says.
“I’m kinda...curious about how it’ll pan out.”
Sapnap stares at him as if he’s grown another head. “You’re curious.”
“I mean, not everyone lives to see an impact winter.”
“Are you messing with me? How can you possibly be sat here, saying you’re curious about it? I’ll tell you what happens—we die. That’s it. There’s no softening that.”
George rolls his eyes, autumn storm, and something snaps.
"You know what, fuck you George. You couldn't give a shit, even if you tried. You're fucking drunk, aren't you?"
George is staring at Sapnap with onyx lining the back of his soul. "Do I look drunk, to you?"
It's a trick question lined with thorns. George is poking something dark and dreadful with the pointed end of a stick because he can't seem to resist danger. Dream knows he can't. He's seen it before, in waves of lilac and apple juice coating his tongue with raw sucrose.
George doesn’t get angry, George doesn’t lose control of his limbs, George doesn’t scream and cry to himself when he’s drinking. But it’s like he needs to do it in order to fill some sort of cavity in his stomach, to close up the puncture wounds that have been gnawing away at him over the past year. Even if he pretends like they don’t exist. They’re shaped like growing pains, an airplane ticket back to England and white sheets—soaked in perspiration, crumpling under the force of pale fingers. A phone, silent in its cradle.
He realises George might act worse were he sober.
"That's the thing, I'm so used to it I can't even remember what you're like when you're not fucking drinking. Maybe you'd be doing something, anything right now instead of staring at me like that. Like you're already dead."
"I'm not gonna sit here and be lectured by a teenager-"
"Really. Because it kinda seems like you are. Don't you wanna punch me right now? Don't you wanna fight me until I'm fucking bleeding out? Don’t you wanna grab my neck and squeeze and squeeze until I’ll finally shut up and you can go back to whatever the fuck it is you do with your time?"
George's lips curl into a gentle smile. "I'm not nineteen. I'm not going to fight you like a schoolchild." Each word sounds terrifying when George is the one saying it, cold and calculated and sharpened with pencil whetstones.
"Fuck you," Sapnap repeats, and Dream can't stand it.
He's watching them break apart, watching as the pressure of the asteroid cooks all the tension between them to the boiling point, cracks their friendship down the middle, ceramic in a kiln. It cracks and cracks and splinters, until Dream can see all the divides in bleak clarity and he feels as though they're one second away from breaking the last two years into a thousand pieces.
“You don’t mean any of this shit.” They turn to look at him with mismatched gazes, one burning hotter than hell, one apathetic and alpine. “You don’t. Just stop, for me? We don’t have much longer together, it’s a waste of time.”
“He’s been doing this shit for months, Dream. It had to be said eventually,” Sapnap says.
“Listen, I get it. But you have to realise that the asteroid is escalating all of this, because you’re both scared and it’s making you say things you don’t mean.”
“Speak for yourself,” George says.
His shoulders fall a few degrees.
George tends to construct this illusion around him, this facade of wit and wisdom just because he was born a handful of years earlier. Dream doesn’t give a shit about any of it. He cares about the kind of energy which accommodates for mistakes, impulse, and the most unbelievably stupid of actions because it proves George is human, forged of flesh and bone rather than marble to be placed in the middle of a museum. George can be bruised, George can bleed.
Most importantly, George can be fucking terrified of growing up.
It’s alright to be clueless sometimes. Dream would give George all the stars he collects upon his skin, even if it would make him realise he’s nothing fantastical, just another college student dredged up from the sinkhole, covered in mud. He’d do it in a fucking heartbeat. Dream is forged of gold, of sunburst fracturing into rainbow beams, but even something as substantially lacking as light cannot resist the pull of a black hole.
“Are you gonna stay civil?”
“I didn't even do anything,” George says.
And Dream supposes he didn't, not really. All George ever does is say what they’re all thinking, put it into words. It just so happens he has an uncanny ability to voice Sapnap’s most violent fears, to speculate upon the collapse of their universe because he forgets not everyone would welcome it with weary arms.
“Whatever.” Sapnap brushes them off, reigning in the red flickering behind his eyes. “I’m exhausted, you can drive,” he says, before shuffling over to the sunroof and disappearing back into the van. Dream hears him slump into the front seat.
He sighs, exasperated. “This trip turned pleasant.”
“I mean, what did you really expect? Me and Sapnap fight all the time, over far less.”
“You really don’t care?” Usually they’re squabbling over the bills they find shoved between Dream’s couch cushions, or who gets to ride shotgun. The end of the world is sort of unorthodox.
George shrugs. “He’ll get over it.”
He flicks the cigarette over the side of the van so it can pulse to nonexistence.
This gas station must be the strangest fucking thing Dream’s ever stepped into.
He guesses it makes sense—they’re in the middle of nowhere, a breeding ground of uncanny unaffected by the interstate slicing right through the centre of it. The place looks as if it sits on the border of four different dimensions, each one wildly different. How it holds together with the sheer amount of bizarre spilling out of it, he’s not sure.
The pay cashier inside sign stares at him while he’s jostling the pump around, praying it still works because they’ve adapted alarmingly fast to a world where everything comes free. There are no barrels knocking against doors, no sirens, no nothing. No attendants to pump gas, no cashiers, nobody punching numbers in motel lobbies. Other than the fucking jesus signs cropping up every few miles, Dream feels pretty unwatched. A dead sky looms above.
George appears with wet hair just to make his life difficult. “Deserted,” he says.
“Same as everything else.”
The pump slides back into place. Dream eyes the canopy with disdain, noting the broken panelling and sheets falling free in the corners. It looks like it’s been left untouched for years, held together by brute stubbornness alone. “I’m gonna move this,” he decides, knocking against the window to emphasise his point.
“Damn roof’s about to cave in, don’t you think?”
George looks up at it too, and his lips press flat. “Yeah, maybe.” He throws a hand out as Dream begins climbing back into the van, keys swinging from his thumb. Dream shivers when he grabs his wrist, gentle enough it feels as if a ghost’s just walked right through him. “When you’re done, there’s like, a shitty diner thing inside. Go eat something.”
He finds Sapnap sitting on one of the tables, stolen peanut butter cups resting by his bad knee. Dream can only hope it’ll make him chill the fuck out. A polystyrene cup obscures his face for a moment, a torrent of caffeine and tarmac tumbling in ochre waves to where Dream stands. His nose wrinkles. Fucking gross.
They stare at each other for a minute.
Sapnap straightens his legs out, slowly because they tend to seize up when he’s been sat down for too long. With impeccable aim, he tosses the cup into a trashcan, fists balling in subtle victory as the lid flutters shut. “Do you want one?” he asks, rattling the reese’s around.
“Nah, I’ve been ordered to find some food,” he says, shitty accent imitation and all.
“This is food,” Sapnap says around a mouthful of chocolate.
“Real food,” he corrects, shuffling around on the stained carpet so he can locate something packed with enough preservatives it’ll have survived the last few days out of the fridge.
To his surprise, the lights flicker on when he whacks the switch. He figures the electricity supply is still running, but someone’s been pretty thorough about turning off all the appliances. The thought makes him shiver. Spectres float around him, laughing and laughing because a goddamn asteroid is about to hit the earth and he’s most scared of strangers finding them here.
Sapnap groans. “My eyes, give a guy some warning.”
The interior is revealed to them in a burst of faded orange and pink. “Hey, they have fucking space invaders. The hell is this doing in the middle of nowhere? Weird,” Dream muses, dropping into a crouch next to the cabinet so he can figure out how to turn it on.
“Cool,” Sapnap says.
“It is cool, come on. I thought you liked this shit.”
The looping bassline filters out of the thing when Dream locates the outlet, a four note sequence which manages to conjure pixel aliens and laser cannons. “Come on, I can see you smiling,” he accuses, straightening back up so he can tug Sapnap off the table and towards the cabinet.
“It’s alright,” he says, facade crumbling. The smile deceives him when he’s standing in front of it. “...do you have any coins?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Right, the registers.”
Dream hurries to the counter, fiddling with the change drawer until it tumbles open. He’s presented with handfuls of coins, Smaug fingers reaching into the depths to pull them free. “I love the end of the world.”
“Tell me you didn't just say that.”
“I’m kidding,” he says, crossing back over to the cabinet with pocketfuls of change. He swipes a coke out of the fridge, although it’s warm to the touch. “You’re so sensitive, dude.”
Sapnap wiggles the joystick around. His lips twist with uncertainty, palm hitting shoot every now and again. “I dunno. I’m just a dumb teenager, I wanna fuck around without all of this—” he gestures around him and loses a life— “stressing me out. At least you’re an idiot about it, ‘s kinda funny. George is all like, drippy.”
“He is! You would’ve strangled me when I told you to.”
“Of course,” Dream says. “Only because it’s more annoying to argue at a brick wall.”
“You get it.”
Dream watches as Sapnap burns through his lives time and time again, shoving coins into the machine with an increasing amount of exasperation. Every time he volunteers to just beat the game for him, he’s met by whined refusal.
“Let me try,” a voice lilts, light feet and silent presence.
Sapnap flinches like he’s shoved a knife in the toaster. The cannon degrades to nothing, a swarming cloud of aliens fluttering triumphantly over the screen. His face sours, milk left in the sun. “Fine,” he cuts, accompanied by an exaggerated yawn that Dream knows is fake. “I was about to sleep anyway. Have fun, or whatever.”
They watch as he exits the station, door slamming with finality behind him.
“I pissed him off really badly this time, didn't I?”
He’s not sure what he’s expecting when he turns to face George, but brown eyes swimming with overflow rivers certainly would’ve been near the bottom of the list. There’s no sugar coating to be had here, no saccharine to cover up the bubbling cloudburst.
“Yeah,” he breathes. “You did.”
Dream is tugged to consciousness in the middle of the night by an overfull bladder, particularly uncomfortable considering he’s wearing the same damn jeans he’s had on for twenty hours straight. His head spins in woozy circles, muddied to a state of derealisation only worsened by orange beams of high-masted light spilling through the windows. They entrap his limbs in amber, pull him close to the sap of unconsciousness until it’s a behemoth task to escape sleep’s sticky embrace. He almost stops trying.
The spinning intensifies when he sits up, around and around, thunder rolling off the inside of frustrated clouds. Tumbling free into the night sky, wracking across their sad little section of interstate so the apocalyptic silence doesn’t feel quite so lonely anymore.
George is missing. There’s still an outline of his limbs visible upon the blanket, but when Dream presses his hand into the depression, he doesn’t find any warmth. Cold, abandoned. Maybe it had been too much for him to sleep this close to Sapnap, when the atmosphere between them was so filled up with roiling gas.
Dream is well acquainted with the feeling. He knows how dangerous one spark can be, no matter how accidental.
He steps outside. Rain needles against his skin, running over his cheeks and beneath the hem of his shirt in tropical rivers. Gas station lights cast sickly yellow over the lot, rods of uranium which reflect in pothole-puddles and bounce from cracked asphalt. It’s not an onslaught, it’s not a summer tempest, but Dream feels like he’s been pulled right from the washer and left crumpled on a cold kitchen floor.
A soft curse is muttered, lost to the night. He hurries away from the van, hands shoved under his arms in a futile attempt to shield his chest from the wracking cries of heaven.
The gas station accepts him with a blast of warmth, and the floor grows damp around his feet, freckled by the water falling free of sunshine hair.
A radio crackles with rain on the counter. The aerial is fully extended, picking up the twenty four hour slew of feel-good songs every station has been blasting ever since the goddamn collision was announced. But the storm still slides over darkened windows, deep space still presses down upon his shoulders, and Dream doesn’t think any amount of upbeat music could possibly alleviate the shadow of the asteroid. Thunder rolls. Static fizzes over crooning vocals.
Dream is grateful for the onslaught—it masks the sound of the door as it squeals back and forth, it masks his footsteps as he hurries over the threshold, it masks how he gasps oxygen into his lungs. He vanishes under the sound of the clouds’ dissent.
“Yeah, put her on,” he hears George murmur from within murky depths.
The darkness swallows Dream whole when the floodlights retreat from his back. It pushes him towards the source of an accented voice, fills him with festering resilience cold enough to be dredged up from the mariana.
George is sitting on the counter, legs crossed in front of him, the uncapped biro tracing in mindless circles all over bare calves. His nape glows bone white. Every moon of his spine pokes up through his skin in addicting curvature, and shadow tumbles from him as he swaps the receiver from one hand to the other, freed fingers falling to run over the phone perched by his knee.
An angel fish thrown into the middle of a meadow, gills choking uselessly upon air.
“Hey,” he says, hushed in a way that’s reminiscent of moonlit sheets, osmanthus blankets, whirring vinyl.
Dream startles at the greeting, but George hurries ahead, shifting around on his ass in search of comfort. He’ll never find it against a hard surface like that. “Yeah it’s- it’s late here. I’m in Texas at the minute...oh, we’re driving to California, me and Dream and Sapnap. Gonna go to Venice Beach, or something.”
He splinters at the end in a mess of burning rock.
“I know, I know. It’s alright.” His words are waterlogged, punctuated by quiet tears. “It won’t last long, and then we’ll just go to sleep for a while...yeah, just like ripping the plaster off.”
Dream doesn’t think an impact winter sounds much like ripping the plaster off. Nor do the firestorms, tsunamis, earthquakes, acid rain that’ll follow the collision. He might as well pull his skin free along with the band-aid, run a blowtorch along the exposed flesh and watch as it bubbles with tectonic heat.
“Miss you so much,” George whispers, over and over and over.
Miss you miss you miss you.
Dream realises George hasn’t seen his family in years. He might become a believer just for George, just so he can pray and pray that he’ll get to see them in white fields and the lofty echelons of a cloudy sky.
The phone clicks against its cradle. It’s now or never.
Startled eyes whip towards him, red rimmed and sore. George’s wrist rubs over his face with frantic urgency, hurrying to disguise the collection of starry tears he’s gathered upon bloodless cheeks. “You’re awake,” he says, and pushes the tips of his fingers right into his eye sockets.
“Yeah I, I had to piss.”
That earns him a raw laugh, too thin in the oppressive treacle swarming against the windows. “Shouldn’t you go do that, then?”
“I guess so. Are you okay?”
Stupid question. George sits here with the northern sea spilling from his eyes, spoiling his hair, beading upon his skin in torrents of gale and grey. But he smiles anyway, tight with a year of distance and a fortnight of reconciliation.
“I’m not going to die if you leave for ten seconds.”
He supposes George is right—freak accidents are for two weeks’ time, not in the middle of the night when there’s nobody around to witness them.
The toilets are about the same as all the others Dream’s visited over the course of the last handful of days. Chipped tiles, peeling mirrors, flickering lights. He doesn’t bother trying his luck with the driers when he’s done, instead electing to wipe his hands off on the front of his jeans as he rushes back out into the darkness. In the cover of night, they appear bloodstained.
If George looks pretty when balanced upon the deck of a dilapidated house, he looks ethereal this close, with every crater and scar of him only inches away from Dream’s ravenous gaze. Every eyelash distinguishable, every tremor and shake magnified by the seismometer of Dream’s attentiveness.
Purple veins and powdered skin and lilac melancholy.
“You’re shivering,” he says.
His hands fly to George’s shoulders, but he pauses with an inch of space between them. It sparks with soft lightning, delicate beams of energy stringing between his palms and George as if they’re sat in the midst of a plasma ball. George is the electrode, pulsing with bursts of light which dance over Dream’s glassy surfaces and paint him more beautiful than he could ever hope to be out of his own volition.
The plasma ball in George’s box bedroom must be packed into plastic now, destined for a junkyard that’ll never be emptied.
“I’m not going to break if you touch me, Dream.”
“Right,” he struggles, and his hands are settling on George’s shoulders, his fingers are running over the bones swelling against white cotton, his palms are hot hot hot upon marble swathes of damp skin.
As if it wasn’t enough for George to be so close to him like this with his head full of halogen gas, George leans into the touch, head tipping forward to expose the crescent of his neck, pale and delectable.
For a moment, Dream wants to bite and suck, but he shoves the urge so far down it fizzles away in the pit of hydrogen chloride lying at the bottom of his stomach. Because George still has seawater clinging to his eyelashes, George is still covered in goosebumps, George still trembles, cast out into the road for the skies to lay waste and ruin to.
The rains of the states, the currents of the underworld—Dream isn’t so sure of the difference anymore.
“That was your mom, on the phone?”
Hesitation. Struggle. Acquiescence. “Her, and my sister—she’s just a kid, really. It’s so early in London. The sun must’ve barely cleared the rooftops.” George smiles with clouded skies, the song of wood pigeons, the underground rumbling to life. A weary tube pulling to a stop at the wrong station, so very far away from where he needs to be. The Charing Cross hammered into grey stone instead of a blue bar.
“You guys were- are close?”
“Yeah. I know I don’t really talk about stuff like that but...I love them so much.”
Dream pulls himself up onto the counter alongside him, so close their knees press together in swells of white and blue. Red grazes and silver light. They’re encased by sleepy radio waves, bursts of fizzing effervescence that muddle all of Dream’s thoughts into blue washed rooms, mother’s bedsheets, a siren wailing about death at the end of summer. But the stations don’t play music like that now, not in the existential dread of the impact event.
In the stillness of remembering what you had…
...and what you lost.
“Don’t say you’re sorry, or anything,” George says. “I’m sick to death of pity.”
Blizzards, hurricanes. “Yeah. I guess it was worse for you.”
Dream laughs to himself, dredging up a thousand cold faces he barely knows. “What the fuck do you say to a seventeen year old who just buried his mom? I know what pity looks like, I know how ugly it is. They never want to help, not really.”
“No. They obsess over it to feel better about themselves. It makes their lives seem livable.”
George looks up at him, dark and furious.
Dream thinks he’s waxed quite enough poetics about George over the short years he’s known him—privately, verbally, channelled through hot lips pressed to freezing skin. Perhaps that’s why his tongue swells up in his mouth, why his stomach caves in.
“You’re so pretty,” he rushes, mind tripping over itself.
“Dream.” A warning.
“Yeah, sorry. Couldn’t help it.”
A while passes. A blip in the grand scheme of things, all of cosmology to a man with his heart kicking its little legs like a toddler.
“It’s alright, I think,” George says eventually. His fingers run over scarry knuckles, gentle gentle gentle and too reminiscent of the way he touches other parts of Dream. Rounded nails, raised tendons, red cuticles.
“Dream. We’ve literally had sex, I know you think I’m pretty.”
It’s strange to hear him acknowledge it, strange to see the words cast out into the night with George’s deadpan accent. Flat, blunt.
Dream has been standing atop a skyscraper all this time, wind whipping at his clothes, chin tilted towards the clouds and rain slicing against his limbs. Now, a gentle hand rests between his shoulder blades. And shoves hard. Freefalling isn’t so bad after all, when the sidewalks look like tears running over pale cheeks, when the breeze tugs his lips into delirium, when the collision with hard concrete is so much better than floating away off the rooftop with nothing to tie him down.
“Took you a year,” he murmurs.
“It’s scary.” George looks up at him, hot and cold dancing until he melts, or Dream extinguishes. Until fire licks at his calves and he runs off into the void. “You understand, don’t you?”
“Doesn’t make it fair.”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? You avoided me for a fucking year, sweetheart. And it doesn’t matter anymore, because we’ll die without wives, we’ll die before September comes, we’ll die with nobody even knowing.” Something icy flickers in Dream’s stomach, chilling his blood with green glass and lemon slices. “We wasted our last year because of you.”
The word shatters upon gas station linoleum, parts fragile sinew and rainbow paint with its metal casing.
Dream stills, lips parting in soft resignation. “I-”
“I know about your map,” George says. “You’re not planning to get on that ship, are you? You want to keep driving until the impact event physically stops you, you want to keep going and going so you never have to leave us, so we can die together. Be honest, were you ever intending on boarding it?”
“No,” he breathes. “I don’t think I was.”
“I’m not mad.” George stares into his blue tinted window and reveals the truth with one good shake.
“How could I be?” The most beautiful smile in the world shines at him, cast in tones of amber and moonlight. “I think we’re the same in a lot of ways. We’ve always been a little twisted, two sides of the same dirty money coin. I understand.”
“What, how it’s easier to fall into the void than wait until it suffocates you?”
“Yeah, just like that.”
He’s affronted with half-finished goodbyes, with rotary phones and apocalypse announcements and empty pill bottles. A rifle gripped by southern hands, a headstone with wilting flowers atop it. Dream realises collision doesn’t incite fear in the pit of his stomach anymore.
“You know, I think I’ve done this before. When the rug gets yanked out from underneath you, and it doesn’t quite feel real for a while. Not until your skull smacks against the floor and you wake up staring at the ER ceiling, a motherfucker of a headache screaming real at you. But we’re gonna be alright, it’ll be like ripping the plaster off. And we’ll fly together, far away so we can be reborn in the same constellation this time.”
Dream has to smile at all the what-ifs now and again. An apartment someplace surrounded by lemon trees and the salt of the ocean flooding through the windows, citrine and amethyst sheets even if they have to pretend they sleep in different beds, a whole wall of vinyls because life’s better when it has a soundtrack. Instead, they’re left with a van straight out of the sixties and half the music to go with it, a brewing storm between two best friends, and enough fear to fill a goddamn gas tank.
Thunder only happens when it’s raining
“Jesus.” George reaches to his side, tidal waves crashing over his head as he tugs familiar silver into his fingers.
“Hey, chill,” he says, George’s wrist caught in his hand. The metal is cold against his palms when he takes the flask, when he flips it over even as George watches with a certain edge to him. “You get through this shit like water.”
“I’m not fucking drunk, Dream.”
“Yeah just—hold that thought?”
“You want me to stop drinking.”
“Christ, no, I know that’s not realistic. I’m not gonna get angry at you, George, I’m not Sapnap. But it’s the middle of the night.” His hands reach up to brush over a sharp jaw, uncertain, crossing a line he hasn’t dared to walk since last August.
George is quiet for a while.
“The headlights are always fucking there, you know. But it makes it easier to step into them, because you won’t feel the collision so much when it comes. Without it, you get jumpy after a while, your mind is too loud. You can’t sleep. Shit, I just want some fucking sleep.”
Dream ignores the swallow’s blood all over George’s face because it breaks his heart into pieces. “You sleep all day,” he pokes.
“I know. Uh- Dream, I’m really sorry, you know? We could’ve had a whole year together, we could’ve had the best last year on earth.”
But George has waited too long, and evening is spilling through their fingers.
His world fills with Provence fields when he pulls George into his arms, soft and angular in all the same places he remembers. He remembers what George looks like underneath his shroud of cotton, remembers the way his lips fall open and the way his toes curl. The way he tastes, how he tightens around Dream with blistering warmth.
“We don’t have enough time for regret,” he murmurs into dark hair. “Better to focus on the road, right?”
“I guess so.”
When the rain washes you clean you’ll know
Soft exhalations and the light shadow adorning George’s face ghost across his skin. The press of his cupid’s bow into Dream’s throat isn’t as electrifying as it should be, but he supposes the sky’s stopped rolling deep thunder overhead.
“What are you doing?” He asks, a smile tugging onto his face, bright bright bright with crackling plasma.
George hums against his neck, warm and familiar as a hearth. “You smell good. Like oranges. Very Floridian of you.” Sunshine.
“You like looking at me too, don’t you?”
George flicks at his earring, sends a stinging pain into the side of his head. “You’re not so bad.”
“Oh, come on. Feed my ego a little, I’ll be forgetting it soon.”
“Fine. I never really liked women, right? And- I think you made me understand why. You forced me to do something about it, anyway. You’re just so obvious about everything.”
He stifles a laugh. “I was your awakening.”
“Shut up. I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“No, I don’t.”
His lips press against a cool temple, and it feels more like home than the festering swamp water of Florida ever has. George’s skin is mausoleum granite against him, grounding and familiar and excellent to sit in front of with a banged up cassette player. There’s always been something comforting about the cemeteries and abandoned gas stations and haunted houses of this world, full to the brimming with those who’ll provide company without demanding the need for conversation.
What the fuck is there to say to a headstone?
How does he begin to organise the torrent of cyanide-kerosene-chlorine into sentences?
Whenever words fail him, Dream likes to hit play instead, allow the music to tumble out in waves brimming with summer oceans and blue skies. Acidic lemon trees, Three Mile radiation. He thinks about the cassette collection, about the ones his mom liked the most, even though she didn't get to listen to them as many times as she should’ve. It was alright, at the time. Dream thought he had the rest of his years to play them to her.
But now he has to make it count, pick the best parts to murmur into George’s hair, voice spilling over with leaked engine oil and orange absolute and bloody hearts, jilted lovers.
Their names are written on the wrong stars.
“Shine on, you crazy diamond.”
Everything comes to a head when the battery dies.
Dream might as well have thrown a match into a tank of crude oil, doused himself in gasoline, left the stove on for an hour with all the windows shut and flicked a lighter afterwards. The force of it is stupid enough to reduce them to rubble. Charred ground remains underneath, a blight on their makeshift family they’ve cobbled together over the last two years because they don’t exactly have anyone else.
They stand on the side of the road, situation grim and faces grimmer.
“Huh, it’s really unlikely for the battery to die while driving,” George says when he’s done poking around the inner workings of the van. “Guess we’re unlucky.”
Sapnap laughs. “Guess we’re unlucky? Fucking look around, we’re the goddamn epitome of it.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Dream asks, pressing at the bridge of his nose.
“Uh yeah, if you have jump leads.”
He casts his mind back, to hands with peach painted nails and labradorite rings wrapped around familiar fingers. Wrenches out of place in feminine hands, caramel hair wrapped in silk. Bare feet emerging from beneath the van, Dream’s legs kicking hyperactively against the seat because he was bored, mom, and he wanted to get to Miami already. And she’d say something about the engine exploding if she didn't cull the problem early, which shut him up pretty fast.
“My mom kept all kinds of shit just in case, take a look in the back,” he says.
George isn't particularly careful about it, banging around as he shifts junk out of the way. His shorts ride up when he leans over the backseats, exposing far too much of his thighs for Dream’s pathetic hate pit of a mind to handle. But he looks anyway, because there’s something decidedly wrong with his sense of self preservation. A sob of relief almost escapes him once George emerges with the cables clutched in his palms, hems reaching where they’re supposed to again.
“Got them. Now we just need another battery. Like a car or something, if we can get someone to stop.”
Sapnap exhales loudly. “Because that’s so easy right now, isn’t it?”
“Suck it up.”
And so they stand in the middle of the road like three idiots for a while, arms waving around until a car grinds to a halt in front of them. The window rolls down. “What do you want?” A voice floats from the inside, Texan enough it makes Dream’s mind dry up, arid.
“Battery’s died,” he supplies. He realises he has no idea what he’s talking about, and hazards a glance back at Sapnap.
It’s George who speaks, eyes widening like they do when he wants something. Pretty pretty pretty and reflecting the sun upon wet earth. “Can we use your car to kickstart it? It won’t take long.”
A sigh. “This car isn’t even mine, I don’t know a thing about batteries.” Dream doesn’t want to ask how the stranger had come to be in possession of it. The eyes of the law are firmly closed at this point, blind to the riots outside the white house they’d heard about over the radio, blind to the fringe groups swarming in the Southwest, blind to the vandalism and thievery and hot blooded murder occuring hour by hour. Rich men hurry away to their bunkers to wait until shuttle-day. Random selection is never as random as it seems.
“That’s alright, it’s not gonna blow up or anything,” George says.
“Hah. That’s what they said about the goddamn planet, and look where we are now.”
Evidently, George is tricky enough to finesse himself into any situation, because within five minutes Dream and Sapnap sit against the side of the van while he wrestles with jumper cables. The other car is around the opposite side, the stranger presumably sitting in front of the wheel.
“I need a smoke,” Sapnap groans, rolling his arms in stiff motions. The metal door burns both their backs even though they’re on the shaded side of the van, legs splayed onto the road surface as they attempt to gasp boiling air into their lungs. Throats burning, tears prickling red scleras.
George interrupts them with an abrupt protest.
"You can't smoke while I'm jumpstarting this thing, how dumb are you?"
“How does he know what he’s doing? He can’t even drive,” Sanap murmurs, an eyebrow quirked in amusement. Something about George being their only hope in resuming their journey has softened Sapnap, ice melting down the side of glaciers in freezing rivers. Dream wants to sob with relief.
“There’s a lot of shit he knows.”
“Uhuh. He’s been picking the locks for us this whole time, remember? Plus, he knows how to start fires, a ton of chess openings, first-aid, like twenty different knots-”
“I know more than twenty, come on,” George interrupts, disembodied voice floating around the side of the van. “And you’re not very good at talking quietly.”
“Focus on the jumpstart,” Sapnap says.
“I am!” Positive, negative… George mutters, presumably triple checking he’s hooked everything up right. Dream is trying really hard not to think about the way he’d looked with jump leads in his hands, a self assured grin tugged over the bottom half of his face as he pulled gloves on.
George must shoot a thumbs up to the stranger, because the car rumbles to life, stationary with the engine running. The van follows a few minutes later with the roll of the side door, engine starting with an unhealthy sounding wheeze. They stay running for a while, the cacophony of it a blip in the silence of the sunbaked interstate. A pollutant blight. Exhaust fumes plume like ash, trailing around them in a heady mess until Dream feels he’ll hack up a lung wet with motor oil.
Silence resounds once more after a few minutes, both engines killed so George can work on detaching the jump cables. Once he’s finished, Dream hears him call out a thanks to the stranger, and they’re graced by the sight of the car trundling away towards the horizon. Where it’s going, he supposes it doesn’t matter. Could be anywhere, could be straight to hell itself. A rickety black boat, guided by styxian oars and skeleton hands.
George twists the ignition again just to be certain the jumpstart has worked. Relief courses over Dream when they’re met by the van groaning with tentative life, the song of a cawing hawk fed by an excess of voles. It still sounds as if it’s about to die. At least it’s running, elderly pipes coughing up exhausts to prove the thing’s alive in the first place, no matter how much of a corpse it is.
The engine cuts out. They’re greeted with the sight of pale legs and grazed knees emerging from the driver’s side. A slam bounces from the asphalt when George shoves the door shut.
"Okay, now you can smoke," he says, sitting himself down next to Dream so their shoulders nearly touch. Static hisses between them. Rain slides over the windows of his soul.
Sapnap shoves two hands in his pockets with the most enthusiasm Dream’s seen all day, rummages around for a second, and pulls them out empty. “I’m out of cigs,” he whines, gaze turning towards Dream. “Do you have any?”
“Not for you.”
“Come on, we’re best friends, gimme one.” He pulls at Dream’s jeans, fingers searching for anything that feels like a box.
“Stop groping me,” Dream protests, swatting him away. “There’s some in the glove compartment, probably. The key’s in the cupholder. Red heart keychain.”
Sapnap vanishes to the passenger side door, leaving Dream and George alone with the asphalt burning their legs.
“Seriously though, how do you know how to kickstart cars?” Dream asks conspiratorially.
Pretty cheeks bunch above a pretty smile, sunburn and bloodrush indistinguishable. George uses sunblock like his life depends on it, but he still comes out of every summer with light pink dusting the apexes of his face. All Dream wants to do is kiss hot skin with aloe lips. “I can’t go around telling you all my secrets.”
“Come on. I don’t have long left to learn them.” His voice dips down, chin angling to the crook of George’s neck as he murmurs for his ears alone. “You’re fascinating, you know. The most interesting fucking book of all time. With a padlock across the pages.”
Oyster teeth flash in the gold light, lilacs dripping with motor oil. “And this is why it’s always a good idea to learn lockpicking,” he says. A flash of silver makes Dream’s stomach tighten, but it’s the army knife flipping over his fingers, produced out of thin air with the same allure of water bleeding malbec crimson.
“What’s in mine?”
“In your book?”
George laughs, petals tumbling from his lips. “I don’t need to pick anything to read you. You write it all on cassette tracklists, in the margins of poems, on record sleeves and phone directories. I like it.”
In his attempt to talk about anything other than this, with dark eyes boring right into his fucking soul, Dream realises Sapnap’s been gone far too long. He’s just grabbing cigarettes, after all.
“Sapnap?” He calls.
He shares a look with George, summer and autumn in equinox exasperation. Sapnap’s probably distracted himself with something, with the string of rainbow beads or the lump of rose quartz sitting square on the dash. The christ bobblehead, perhaps Dream’s collection of polaroids he’s slowly amassing over the course of their bizarre journey. His legs twitch. Dream could really use a cig right now, if only to soften the blow of hours spent smoothing his tires upon the road.
The asphalt bites into his palms when he pushes himself to his feet, muscles crying to be set down again as soon as he’s straightened. He’s watched by moon eyes and the afternoon sun, blazing in bitter contrast. Peeling paint fills his vision because the side door is popped open, and Sapnap’s feet kick idly under the bottom of it.
He pulls the door wider.
His throat closes up, a viper wrapping around it tightly until his trachea collapses. Teeth sinking into his neck, ice spreading through his veins because he’s fucked up for real this time.
Sapnap is holding the i-5 map, thumbs running back and forth over the markings in a cadence as even as the passing of day. “What is this?” he asks, full of venom. The interstate crumbles away around them, asphalt tumbling into a seething chasm of deceit and magma.
“You know what, actually? Don’t fucking answer that. You’ll just lie to my face again, spout some bullshit about how you don’t know what the fuck this is. You’ll pretend you’re not thinking about letting the goddamn escape shuttle leave without you, but I know it’s been the only thing on your mind since we left Florida, since before we left Florida. We’ve been friends for more than a decade Dream, you really thought I’d never find out?”
A presence appears by his elbow, high alert and fizzing with curiosity. “What- oh,” George exhales, everything laid out plain as day in front of him to unpick like one of his locks. Rough hands on a weathered map, biro crossing over roads and cities, the pools of gasoline dripping right from the centre of Sapnap’s skull. Teeth grind together.
“George, did you know?” Sapnap’s voice is bound by nothing more than fishing wire, the flesh of it bulging out, marred by criss-crossing scarlet lines.
“Don’t fucking bring him into this.”
Sapnap presses anyway. “George, did you know?”
“No.” George scratches at his elbow, worrying his bottom lip between straight teeth. Ink and oil shake around in a tumbler, splashed onto concrete to spell out uncertainty in starry tributaries.
“You’re fucking lying. You can’t even look at me when you do it, I know you’re a liar.”
Liar, liar, liar.
Sapnap doesn’t even know how much his words weigh upon George.
Dream can see the sky as it falls down to crush his shoulders, the bruising weight of the clouds snapping his spine into a million pieces of ceramic. Lye churning at his joints, and the light flickering from his eyes as he hunches in on himself. Dream’s chest cracks down the middle. A knife teases under his ribs.
“Shut up,” he bites, anything to stop the way George reaches for all things green and peaceful. The grass sprouting between headstones, the innards of a silver tomb whispering promises of numbness.
Sapnap burns. “Oh yeah, defend George. Fucking bully the teenager into submission, right? What are you, a pair of-”
“You fucking shut up,” Dream says. “You sound like your mother.” Because Sapnap’s fists are clenched, the air is subzero, his brows are austere and pencil straight. Because knives sit upon his tongue, because barbed wire bubbles at the back of his throat.
Because George’s eyes are deerlike, anticipating the slam of hotrods into a skull of misrule. Wish bones cast over the road, reflecting the night sky in hollow white shafts.
“Don’t you dare.”
“But you do. You’re spouting her bullshit, you’re gonna piss yourself because of the goddamn asteroid.”
“I’m gonna fucking die,” Sapnap screams, voice breaking as the weight of it slams into him. “You have a fucking out, Dream, you piece of shit. Why is it so difficult for you to think with your head for once? I’m so sick of you falling into everything because you can’t take a moment to fucking think about it first. You can leave, you can live, and I’m not letting you commit like your mother-”
Dream’s fist collides with the side of his face, so hard it’s a wonder no crunch accompanies the punch.
Satisfaction curls in his gut when Sapnap’s head snaps to one side, hands rushing up to cradle his jaw. His fingers smart like hell, knuckles complaining under the brunt of the impact. “You don’t get to talk about my mom,” he hisses, spitting deadly cyanide.
“You have no problem talking about mine.”
“Mine’s dead, you bastard.”
“Bastard? ‘s kinda rich, coming from you.”
Dream’s knuckles turn white, readying for another collision of flesh and bone.
“Dream, Dream,” George begs, shoving himself between them, cold hands resting against a clenched jaw. His back to Sapnap, the smell of engine oil shimmering in the air between them. “The hospitals aren’t running, you can’t break his nose. Or your fingers, come on. You’re being pricks.”
Dream opens his mouth, preparing to deflect the ice covering George’s eyes, but he realises he’s not five years old and he started it isn’t a valid excuse for decking Sapnap in the fucking face.
His shoulders slump. George stays in place, every inch of him cast between Dream and Sapnap like the most ineffective shield in all existence. But there’s something about the way his palms feel upon Dream’s neck that knocks the fight out of him, that tosses his mind to a sea of moons and weary stars blinking to life at the first signs of darkness. Clouds and blossom and linen. Chamomile tea. He’s tied down now, safe from burning up in the atmosphere.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” he says, oddly reminiscent of the few times his mom had made him apologise to other kids for being too brash. Hand clutching his tightly, lips pressed into a grim line. He can’t help but feel like he’s spit on her grave, punching Sapnap like that. “About your face.”
He’s not feeling particularly sorry about what he’d said.
“Fucking save it.”
Sapnap rolls open the side door, his shoulders drawn into a tense curve.
“Uh-” George trails off in uncertainty.
“You can have fucking shotgun,” Sapnap bites from the shade of the interior. He’s illuminated for a second when he crouches beneath the sunroof, before he collapses onto the back seat. “I don’t want to look at either of you right now.”
The door slams back into place. They’re left alone in the middle of the interstate, interrupted for a few seconds when a corvette drives past in a blur of white. A guardian angel, abandoning them because they stand screaming at each other on the side of the road, rabbit feet lost to the void, hands torn apart not by space rock, but of their own volition. Faces tilted up at the sky, screaming from motel rooftops for a UFO that’ll never appear.
“Well, at least we don’t have to listen to Black Sabbath anymore,” Dream jests.
“I know, I know. I’m kidding around.”
Shining a flashlight at grim situations is the only way Dream knows how to deal with them, even if it reveals the colonies of roaches and mayflies. The cobwebs stretching between their misfit family.
It’s boiling when he climbs back into the driver’s seat, forest fires pushing against the windows hard enough to melt glass, southern sun beating down on them with all the force of a blinding supernova.
He twists the keys in the ignition. The safety clicks off.
He begins to think this isn’t so terrible, not when George sits with late afternoon sunshine pouring through the windshield, apexes painted gold. Red knees support his chin, legs tucked up onto the seat. His thumb is stuck in the middle of the poetry anthology, right on the page where Spinster crawls in spidery text. The irony isn’t lost on Dream.
George looks narrow again, light enough that it seems he’ll dash his skull against the glass if Dream so much as nudges the brake. They drift back towards the national speed limit.
Silence spills from the cassette player.
It’s uncomfortable like this, when they’re accompanied by nothing but the tread of tires, the engine as it chokes on years of use, the turn of yellowed pages. Dream’s mind begins to drift away from crackling rage, away from uncertainty among friends, until he’s left with saturation and the interstate as it paves their way to the underworld.
Dream’s memories of his childhood exist in technicolour, in state fair candy floss and hard bubblegum.
Shining marbles, rattling eight balls, grass stained knees and shasta daisies. Before divine fingers yanked the lightswitch cord and plunged him into purple darkness, the glow of a silent bathroom flickering from his vision as quickly as ash obscures the sun during an impact winter.
He’s thinking about Sapnap again.
It was before Disney World sprung up with all the appeal of watermelon candy to their polistes fingers, before Florida was bashed around under the wheels of tack and tourists. Cocoa Beach stretched its arms out to accommodate the appearance of the space centre, providing a gritty expanse for Dream and Sapnap to run around on until they were due to pass out from exhaustion.
They collapsed in the late afternoon, youthful limbs covered in salt and sand burning red under the sunglare. Volleyball wasn’t supposed to be fun with two players, but they always seemed to make it work. Acid stung the back of Dream’s legs. His stomach complained about its emptiness, whining and whining at him to go find his mom and convince her to buy him strawberry topped soft serve.
A quick glance up the beach revealed she was sitting in the distance, legs crossed and a book held in front of her face. He groaned, and dropped his head back onto the sand. It was much too far to walk, and the four o’clock sunshine was liquifying his mind to a happy mess of heat and sugar.
Sapnap pushed himself upright, leaning back on hands bursting with youth. It was strange to be with him when the sun was so far across the sky—normally, he would have to return home far earlier or risk the crack of cruel palms. But they were away for the entire weekend, and Dream was dizzy on the prospect of snooping around their shitty hotel at ten p.m with him.
How his mom persuaded Sapnap’s mother to let him come, Dream never managed to figure out. One glance at the scrapes covering his knees when he arrived home ensured it never happened again.
“What are you doing?”
Sapnap was staring at the horizon as though God himself would part his curtains of sea and sky and begin walking towards them. His brows furrowed, eyes turning red with the effort of keeping them open.
“Trying to see the war,” he replied, lisping around the gaps in his teeth.
“You’re looking at Europe, idiot. And you can’t see it from here.”
Sapnap flopped back down with a huff. He was just young enough for Dream to tease him relentlessly, back when their age gap actually meant something.
“I don’t ever want to go home. Your mom is way cooler than mine.”
No nine year old would ever admit his mom was cool. “She’s fine,” Dream said, with a shrug that Sapnap couldn’t see because they were both gazing up at the clouds as if a colossal peach sun would float past.
The surroundings grew fuzzy after that, bleeding blue and gold until they were lost to a churning sea of memories. Dream only ever remembered flashes of that evening, of key lime and beach towels and his mom’s sunglasses, pulled down over her eyes. Her hands as she held on tight to both of them whenever they crossed the road despite all his whined protests.
His mind sewed itself back together to a dim hotel corridor, illuminated by faulty lights and moonbeams. They were supposed to be asleep, but instead they were playing espionage because Sean Connery taught them that spies were the coolest fucking thing. Nobody bothered them. People had better things to be paying attention to than the two kids snooping around a shitty hotel just before midnight.
“We need cryptonyms,” Dream said as they entered the stairwell. The carpet was revolting, with palm shapes dotted over it and stains spread across every step.
A woman in a lime beach dress paused when she saw them, as if she realised it might be a good idea to drag the pair of them to the front desk so Dream’s mom was forced to come and put them back to bed. But she seemed to dismiss the notion as tiresome. Her mary janes carried her down the stairs with a dull click click until they were left alone again. The stairwell door banged shut.
“What’s a cryptonym?”
“Like a codename.”
“Yeah.” Dream thought hard for a minute, fingers scratching over his jaw in the exaggerated way Hollywood stars did. He needed something easy to remember that still sounded like it belonged at the top of movie billings. “Mine is Dream.”
“Give me one too,” Sapnap implored, eyes wide because Dream was practically his older brother.
He thought less. “Sapnap.”
“The fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
“Hey, I said you can’t say fuck,” Dream reprimanded. Sapnap liked to copy him just because he was older—and while it made Dream feel sort of self-important, he didn't think it would be a good idea for Sapnap to return to Orlando spouting curse words like there was no tomorrow. His mom already hated Dream, he didn't need to be grown up to see that.
“You just said it, you just said it!” Sapnap said petulantly.
“My mom doesn’t put lye in my mouth if I curse.”
“Yeah, oh. Stop it, Sapnap.”
“I’m not Sapnap!”
But Dream was older than him, and whatever Dream wanted normally ended up happening sooner or later.
He’s pulled back to the interstate by the appearance of Sapnap over his shoulder, face murderous in the rearview. George blinks away darkness, shuffling his limbs around in sleepy motions as he realises Sapnap is willingly hunched behind the front seats.
“Dream, stop driving,” he says urgently.
George seems to conquer unconsciousness when he sees what Sapnap’s on about. He sits up, back straightening to attention. “Are you kidding? Fucking run him over,” he says, eyes fixated on the road with the kind of icy calm Dream is used to seeing when he’s bent over an astrophysics textbook. “We’ll get shot if we stop.”
“That’s murder, what the hell?”
Because a man stands in the road, and his shotgun is aimed right at them.
Chapter 5: Ariel
Dream curses Sapnap for everything he’s worth when he steps out of the van, the keys twisted in the ignition so the engine remains silent. Red flutters over his skin, refracted by the charm looped through the eye.
And even though he thinks George was probably right, they should’ve run the guy down, Dream doesn’t want to die a murderer. Not when he’s done so many other things, and he doesn’t think he’s quite ready for judgement to be passed upon him with blood still staining his bumper. Not when there’s no guarantee of a rainstorm to wash it free. Besides, he could do without a popped tire, not when they’ve already had to wire the battery up to a stranger’s car with jump leads.
It’s just a shotgun, anyway. The sort of thing leisurely propped against walls, the sort of thing made for plucking birds right out of the sky at short range. If he stays back, he should be alright.
At least that’s what he tells himself, with the road scorching the soles of his feet and his shirt sticking to his back with blistering afternoon sun. Sweat drips from the tip of his nose, slides over his temples. A hangnail comes loose as he picks at it, sharp pain stinging the side of his thumb with the bite of ripped skin. He sucks on his teeth.
“The fuck do you want?” he calls. His voice bounces from the asphalt, rolls off into the distance until it's lost to the void. “Money? Money’s got no value, not anymore.” The sense of security is quickly dissipating as the guy walks closer, following lane dividers as if they’re the only thing keeping him from straying right off the road and into the undergrowth.
Dream startles when George’s hand reaches for his elbow, refreshing in the stifling heat. But George isn’t supposed to be out here with him, considering Dream’s the one driving and his stature is more intimidating anyway.
“What are you doing?” he murmurs, ice stretching its branches out into all of his arteries so it seems he’ll wake up with a bad case of frostbite. “You should stay inside, yeah?”
“Wasn’t gonna leave you to deal with this by yourself, idiot,” George grates.
“Thanks,” he says, side-eyeing George so his vision flashes with porcelain lines and midnight. “But it’s no use if we both end up with bullets to the stomach.”
“Well if you’re getting one, I want it too.”
And he doesn’t have time to figure out what the fuck that’s supposed to mean. The guy is talking now, voice quieter than Dream’s shouting since he’s creeping closer and the barrel is tipping downwards as he assesses them. It makes Dream relax infinitesimally. Which is to say it’s not effective in the slightest.
“Why are you here?” the man asks, hands flexing where the rest upon the shotgun. Dream is still busy calculating the distance between them, which he realises is pretty futile at this point, now he can pick out the lines of his face. Instead his mind races off down a separate path of how long it would take to get the fuck back in the van and yank the ignition, pull George along with his body shielding him from the slug.
Dream scoffs with indignation. “We’re just driving-”
“Why do you fucking care?”
Calm down, George mutters, reminiscent of his fist colliding with the side of Sapnap’s face, of his voice rising in angry tidal waves when affronted with the barrel of a rifle held by his mom.
“You don’t just drive through here when the apocalypse is on the doorstep,” he says, finger poised terrifyingly over the trigger. One pull, and Dream could be reduced to nothing, left for his blood to run rivers around him. A grisly halo, marking the sorriest fucking spot to die with the sun beating relentlessly upon his corpse and the flies gathering at the corners of his mouth to gnaw upon his flesh.
“I mean. We are, so.” It comes out confrontational despite his attempt to keep his tone level.
The guy’s brow creases when he looks at Dream, and it takes him a while to realise he’s looking at the damn hoop pushed through his ear. It’s pretty difficult to miss, glinting in the afternoon light. He’s overcome with the urge to hide it, perhaps bring a hand up to protect himself because he can see conclusions being drawn, connections being made as he glances at George. George, who’s standing a little too close to him with their fingers brushing.
For the first time, Dream is fucking terrified.
Bile scorches his throat. His vision grows hazy around the edges as he nudges George behind him, desperately praying he’ll get the fuck back in the van and scream at Sapnap to drive before he joins Dream as roadkill.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he says, voice jittering on its seismometer. “Please. We just wanna go to the coast.”
“I see,” he sneers.
Dream’s heart stops when he speaks again, words vile enough it coats his insides with crude oil. Words he wishes he could forget. His gaze flickers over to George in alarm, desperate to murmur into lilac scented hair that he’s not any of the things the guy is accusing them of, he doesn’t have to hide away from the world because of people like this.
He doesn’t, because putting his lips on George would make it so much worse.
They’re woken from the reverie by the slam of a side door, the sound of angered footsteps stalking up to them. Sapnap appears by Dream’s shoulder, pushing his way past so the pair of them are separated from the man by the irritated stance of him, rage simmering in waves of heat as he stands under the blinding sunlight.
And inexplicably, Sapnap has a revolver balanced in his hands, shaking like a leaf in the eye of a storm.
Dream prays they’re standing too far away for the tremors to be noticeable.
“There are three of us,” he calls, reasonable. It’s the most level-headed Dream’s heard him in a while, voice unwavering enough it doesn’t betray how much his fingers tremble over the trigger. “Just let us go, alright? Be stupid, if someone got shot this close to the end of everything.”
There’s a moment in which he’s certain he hears the crack of gunfire, the whip of destruction wrapping around their wrists to tug them apart and discard their bones at the bottom of a canyon. But it never comes. Instead, the man seems to realise he’ll only end up with a hole in his head if he fires, if he steps up to his mantle of twisted justice and aims steadfastly at Dream and George.
Doomsday can deal with them, he seems to decide.
The barrel lowers. Adrenaline rushes out of Dream, pools in a crimson halo around his feet with enough volume he swears he’ll pass out. Nausea crashes through his aorta, grips at his stomach with iron hands and pulls in opposite directions, exerting enough gravitational force upon the intestinal mess of his insides he’s amazed he doesn’t fucking piss himself.
“Jesus,” he gasps, tightening his knees so he won’t crumple. George’s hands hesitate before settling on his back and guiding him towards the van, cold through the damp material of his shirt.
“I’ll drive,” Sapnap mutters as he pushes past them, revolver lax in one hand. Even the sight of it puts Dream on edge, reminds him how easy it would be to press the thing to his head and snatch the world out from under his feet in a split second. “Sit in the back, yeah? I don’t think I want to talk to you right now.”
Dream’s not going to say no to the guy with a gun in his waistband.
They drive in dead silence, George and Dream shoved in the backseat with a foot of uneasy tension simmering between them. Sapnap pretends like they don’t exist, staunchly focusing his gaze upon the road even though there’s nothing in the adjacent lanes. It’s desolate, empty. But now everything feels a little realer than it was before. Now they know what people are doing in the recesses of this world, mad places driven madder by the looming threat of the apocalypse, shotguns brought out every time the wind changes, bullets fired through Southern heat as though their seconds aren’t already pathetically numbered. Black Sabbath rolls over the player because neither of them have the guts to tell Sapnap to turn it the fuck off.
Dream nearly cries with relief when they find a motel in the mid evening, an abandoned two story square of a building with a broken sign announcing all the vacancies in the world and windows half covered with yellow curtains. The lights flicker in technicolour. It doesn’t make him feel any better. Even the bricks are the colour of bile, with grit and dirt embedded in the bonds holding it all together.
The engine dies a sputtering death, and Sapnap is turning to face them for the first time in hours.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’re not cool,” Sapnap seethes, words flying from him in tangles of barbed wire. “I saved your asses because I’m not fucking crazy, alright?”
“We’re gonna die in September anyway,” Dream grits, cheek pressed up against the window. Coloured light filters over his hands, astral shades of rainbow flickering from the motel sign. Half the letters are dimmed.
George’s gaze bores into the side of his head, an icy warning.
“Whatever, Dream. I’m not gonna fight you anymore,” Sapnap says. He leans over the gap between the front seats to root around in the glove compartment, every movement tight, angry, bristling with subtropical heat. A cigarette box is clutched in his hand when he straightens back up, crumpled around the top where he’s gripped it too hard. It serves as a gruesome reminder of what put them in this situation in the first place, with dead silence falling over the van and all the swallows shot dead. Black lettering, blood red lid. “Don’t wake me unless the world is literally about to end.”
When George huffs a laugh, he’s met with dark eyes slicing across to him. It dies on his tongue, falls onto the floor between them with all its bones snapped like roadkill. “Sorry,” he mutters. “It’s not funny.”
“No, it’s not.”
Sapnap pops the door open with his vacant hand and pulls himself free of the van, a cigarette already stuck between his lips. His movement is stiff, knees seizing. A curse flutters from cracked lips when he jumps down onto the asphalt, presumably because the few inches of distance is enough to jar his legs, to send needling pain over jigsaw ligaments and delicate bones. Orange bursts over his chin when he lights the cig, a flickering ember that’ll die just like everything else when he’s done sucking the life out of it. Smoke drifts around him.
Then he’s shoving the door with a flat palm. They’re left with the tensed line of his shoulders as he stalks towards the motel, a spectral trail of grey dissipating into the atmosphere with every regulated exhale. Pink light illuminates angry outlines, cast right from the motel sign onto the flawed canvas of skin he presents to the world.
“‘s too quiet,” Dream mutters, the resounding slam of the side door still bouncing around their metal coffin.
George hums in agreement, before pulling himself out of the back seat. His back bends so as to avoid knocking his skull straight into the roof, and his shirt rides up at the bottom to reveal the triangle of freckles stamped like coffee granules above his hip. Dream doesn’t need to look to know they’re there. He’s committed all of George’s imperfections to memory, kissed every dip and scar of him so not even a thirty kilometre rock can make him forget.
The cassettes clatter against the door when George begins to rifle through them, long fingers turning over handwritten tracklists and inserts covered in doodles. Daisies slip through his grip, five pointed stars, bubble lettering, shaded hearts. Until he’s pulling a cassette from the back, straightening up with the plastic casing clutched in his hand, victorious.
“You remembered,” Dream breathes, heart beating and beating and beating as George slots The Dark Side of the Moon into the player. The pulse thumps. Doomsday ticks closer with the threat of shrill alarm bells. Fate laughs in their fucking faces, driven mad by the moon.
George pulls him onto the floor of the van by his wrists. “Of course I remembered,” he says, settling with his back pressed against the back seat. His legs cross on the discarded blanket, and his hands reach for his bag where it’s abandoned next to the side door. “You never shut up about it.”
“Used to.” Dream sits across from him.
“You’re telling me you don’t anymore?”
“I only talk to you and- you and Sapnap, really.” Sapnap comes out undersized, whispered and altogether too quiet for the gravity of their relationship. “You’re a better listener.”
“You guys fucked up,” George states.
“And you didn't?”
“The fuck do you mean, it’s different?”
“Huh, let me think,” George says, irises glimmering with sarcasm. “Me and Sapnap always fight—about dumb shit, usually, but we know how to argue. I don’t give a shit what he has to say about me, doesn’t really go in, you know?”
“You’re thick skinned.” He’s only seen George break once, one fucking time over the entire two years he’s known him. And it was in the dead of night, quiet cries into a rotary phone so reminiscent of siren song Dream can’t even be certain it actually happened. He wouldn’t be surprised if he dreamt the whole thing, imagined the way pale hands gripped the receiver, the way George’s voice shook and shook with tidal force as he realised the last time he’d seen his family was the last in every sense of the word, and he was none the wiser. That’s what hurts the most. The sudden nature of it all, the fragility of human mortality.
George’s head tilts to one side as he considers that and his calloused palms, the opacity of his skull, the knife he carries to dissect all of Dream’s inner workings. “Right. But I know you’re not, I know you try and hold it together for us when your heart’s about to break. And you’re upset, because he’s the only family you have left.”
And even if he’ll lose both of them by the end of the month, Dream wants to grip onto their last few days with both hands, absolute refusal to let go. The currents of fate can rip them apart if it’s meant to be, but he’ll hold tighter and tighter even as the river rushes around them. Until he’s pulled under.
“It’s not the first time this has happened,” Dream admits, because it’s not. But they’re much older now, and everything feels a little more serious than last time. They have revolvers and absinthe and illicit magazines to line the bottom of their graves this time, and less than a month to fix it. Bullet wounds won’t heal overnight, won’t knit themselves back together in a mess of pink flesh just because he wills it hard enough, just because he prays and prays to an empty heaven that everything’ll be alright. The sky is full, but in all the wrong ways.
“No. He moved away, remember? Back when we were kids, I didn't see him for years after he left.”
“I know there’s something up with that, but you never told me exactly what. You like to leave me in the dark about that sort of shit, shut me out so you can suffocate in it by yourself,” George says. He’s ghosting gentle fingers over the backs of Dream’s hands now, and the ice of it threatens to send tributaries spilling over his cheeks. “It’s your worst habit.”
“Fine. I’ll tell you. It was fucking ages ago, anyway.”
He drops his head to rest against the backseat, leather pressing uncomfortably against his skin as he regards George, as he reaches for memories blurred by TV static. Dampness forms beneath his cheek. Sticky heat crowds into the van, reaching its claws through every gap and crevice until he’s choking on it, tongue drying up in his mouth, rubbed raw by sandpaper. And perhaps it’s good. Because it’s easier to imagine endless Summer days like this, when the heat is just the same and so is the feeling of doomsday looming just over the horizon. Everything feels like the end of the world when viewed through child eyes. Life has a funny way of repeating itself, and Dream is fucking tired of going through the motions.
The water tower was always good for blocking out the sun, and even better for climbing once they grew brave enough to wrap their hands around rusted rungs. Sapnap said he could see his house from the top of it, Dream said he was full of shit. They had brown stained fingers, green knees, scabs adorning their elbows.
Dream grabbed ahold of Sapnap’s hands when he started to pick at one. “You’ll have a scar forever if you keep doing that.”
“Don’t care. Scars are cool.”
“Not when they’re from falling onto the road, they’re not.”
Sapnap grumbled a protest, and kept doing it anyway.
They stayed at the top of the water tower even though the sky began to turn grey, even though thunder rolled off the horizon. If anything, it just made them want to stay more, rolling marbles around on their palms and frowning whenever they lost a glass orb to the rusted precipice.
“We climbed that damn water tower every fucking day, I swear,” Dream explains. “No problem. I guess the storm made the rungs all slippery, or something.”
“That would do it.”
“I thought he was gonna die, honestly. That’s the part that freaks me out the most,” Dream mutters, pushing a hand through his hair because it’s overgrown and it mars his vision with dusty blond. “You’re a kid and your friend fucking screams, right? Like he screamed a lot but it was always the baby kind of scream back then.”
“Yeah. But this wasn’t for attention—sounded different than when he bashed his palms up and cried just so mom would give him popsicles,” Dream says, eyes rolled skywards. She loved Sapnap, loved him harder because she knew his own mom didn't show it enough. “And his leg was bent the wrong way, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what happens when you break your spine.”
Other kids were scared of the monster in the cupboard, of dirty laundry that rearranges itself into limbs and teeth when the lights are out. Dream was scared of snapping his neck. He walked around with his hands under his jaw for a good two weeks at one point, hyperaware of how fucking breakable humans seemed to be.
“Kids break their bones all the time, you know. Not a big deal.”
A sigh escapes him, weary and eroded. “I know. But I was the one who made him go up there, so obviously it was my fault, right? His mom said all these horrible things to mine afterwards, and somehow that felt like my fault too. Like it wasn’t already bad enough.”
“Stop blaming yourself for everything, he’s alright now.”
“Still whines about his legs.”
George groans. “Good point. Maybe I should be blaming you after all.”
“Oh, shut up,” Dream says, the corners of his lips betraying him as he leans forward to swat at George’s arm. Not hard enough to sting, but he feels as if his palm is covered in frostbite anyway. “You’re so annoying.”
He loves it when George is like this, when his eyes are sharp and his tongue is sharper, when all his words have thistles sticking out of them because he can take and take and take the blinding heat. George doesn’t treat him like he’s delicate. He would despise him if he did, so he’s determined to return the favour.
George produces a joint from the depths of his bag, and a lighter to go with it. One of his eyebrows tips up in proposition, lazy and contented despite everything Dream’s just told him, despite the fact that they’ve spent all day driving through Texas with the sun dissolving them to sweltering messes of rage and confusion and petty fighting. “Without Sapnap?” he asks rhetorically, because it’s been so fucking long since they’ve done anything with just the two of them, without the buffer of a third person to diffuse all the awkward tension and lingering glances when they think they’re not looking.
“Ah,” George says.
Something orange coloured bubbles in his chest, grows entire clementines between his lungs until breathing becomes difficult. He parts his lips for George to secure the joint. It should be nerve wracking, to have someone else waving a lighter around so close to his face, but he’s let George push a needle through his earlobe and he thinks he’d probably put his life in his hands, if he had to. Not because he trusts him—Dream is scared of George and his flightiness, terrified of the way he flits just out of reach every time he’s certain his fingers are about to secure a handful of his shirt.
He’d give it to George because he wants to. It’d be too easy to stick his neck out for someone he wholly trusted, because there’d be no risk of hitting the ground too hard, no risk of winding up broken and dead in the road. With George, he’s constantly teetering upon a rooftop, concrete looming below.
And he does it anyway, risks every part of himself because it’s better than condemning them to mundanity.
Smoke curls around them, blurring just about every boundary to greywash.
"Come here," Dream says, dragging from the joint so lazily his eyes slip shut.
He cradles George's jaw when he leans in, thumbs at the corner of it so it'll fall open. Their lips hover a butterfly wing’s distance. His skin is cold, so cold Dream wants to cry, perhaps lie down in the snow so he never has to burn in the stifling heat of Florida again.
His insides are warm now, hazy and full of indica. He exhales in a rush of white, watches with morbid pleasure as the smoke tumbles between them, blurs everything to chalk in the rain because he's not sure what the fuck they're doing anymore.
"Suck," he murmurs, two fingers resting against the bottom of George's chin. As if he's art, as if George is chiselled from marble and presented to Dream as a gift from the heavens.
George sucks, and it’s more for show than anything else. There’s no way he can reduce his mind to orange sunglow like this, no way he can do much more than warm his stomach with the effects of dissipating smoke and tanned fingers pulling at his face. The way delicate eyelashes flutter against his cheekbones is enough to wrap barbed wire around Dream’s stomach, run a glowing knife over his navel and beat his heart to a bloody pulp. Toxic air sticks to his throat when George blinks, a lazy grin tugged over his face.
“It doesn’t do anything,” George says with the corners of his lips stretched to a crescent.
“Mmmm.” Dream knows it doesn’t, knows he’s making his life more difficult for himself with no reason in mind. White curling around George’s lips will be the death of him, etched onto the backs of his eyelids in glowing red outlines so he’s haunted every time he falls asleep. “Want to try again?”
It’s not his first deathwish.
The shuttle readies for takeoff, and he’s halfway across the country with a pretty face centimetres from his own.
Pretty face, pretty smile. George’s teeth flash through the lowlight. “Okay.”
This time when he takes a hit, he pulls George impossibly closer, uncaring of the stars as they glare through the windows in bursts of soul light. And their lips are brushing together, a collision of mind-bending force. Enough to surround them with ash. Dream exhales in a rush, storm clouds crackling across his vision because they’re breathing the same air, in and in and in as George sucks, throat flexing in phases.
The alarm screams at them when George pulls away. A bell tolls somewhere on the horizon, and Dream’s not sure whether it’s being struck by ephemeral cloud beings or the devil himself.
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day…
"What are we doing?" George's eyes are wide, and Dream can imagine headlights reflecting off the back of them as he waits for the impact.
He hums under his breath, deep and contented as he drops his head to rest in the crook of George's neck. Violet swirls around him, choking, saccharine, George George George. Dream wants to tug lilacs across his skin, suck and bite until the expanse of white is marred with blotchy purple and indigo petals. There's an undertone of tobacco, heady and rough like hundreds of miles of cracked asphalt. It's temptation, it's tangible, and all Dream wants to do is taste. "What would you like for us to be doing?"
"Dream, that's not fair."
"Why?" He pulls away, and is met by irises crackling with lightning.
George's fingers curl, flexing and bending as he stares at Dream as if he's about to scream, scream so loud his lungs collapse and the only thing left of him is the sound wave from it travelling up towards the stars. "You know we can't be doing this. We've been through this," he says with all the force of a receiver slammed against a phone and left for dead.
"What if we can?"
"We can't. Have you forgotten what happened earlier?"
Something shatters within Dream, something that makes him want to run out into the desert with rain streaking over his cheeks. Throw his arms out and wait for a UFO to appear above him, glowing green and surreal because anything would be better than this, than having the final shattered fragments of himself ripped from his clutches when he could hold on tight instead. He’s so, so tired of George looking at him like he’s a missed opportunity. Washed up, dead. A brown jar loose in his hand.
"Oh, because of society? Because of what people will think, if we kiss? If I fuck you? If I fuck you again?"
Because he knows how George feels around him, knows the way his voice kicks up into a whine whenever Dream presses just right, whenever he bites and sucks at the skin covering his neck. Whenever he holds onto George's hips like a lifeline, whenever he fucks into him deep enough to spread constellations out across his vision. How George looks covered in nebulous bruises, eyes glossed over with hedonistic delirium. The way he pulls at the sheets and tips his head back, the way his limbs cover in a shining film of oil slick.
And worst of all, how quickly he regains his knife edge when it's all over, fingers combing through his hair to remove the evidence of what they've done.
Perhaps Dream should stop. Perhaps he should tug George into his arms and apologise, cradle his shoulders as if he's holding the earth's plates together, protected from the asteroid shards burning up in the atmosphere. But Dream is consumed with kerosene, gallons and gallons of it tipping out of a canister in a rush of months spent longing for George, days and weeks of tension clotting over his skin like tar.
How badly he wants to see George come undone for him again, lips soft as petals against his own as they kiss and kiss until the world loses its meaning.
And here is the spark, fluttering to life as the motel sign illuminates them.
"It's the fucking apocalypse, George. The clock is a second to midnight. Less than that. It'll be like last summer again, perfect and ours because nobody is around to watch us. Not the fucking hicks, the trash angry just because they want something to be angry about. There’s nobody here." His voice loses its heat for a moment. “I promise we’ll be alright.”
"He hates us right now," he says, and it feels all wrong in his mouth. Like he's broken a blood pact, left Sapnap for dead on the side of the road. His mind spins around and around with grass, and Dream knows he's going to regret most of what he's saying in the comedown. So he might as well push it to the max, shove the boat so far out it's lost at sea forever. "Fuck him."
"You don't mean that," George whispers.
“You know what? Right now I do. I don’t give a shit what he thinks about us. Even if we can't have life, even if we can't have anything else on this godforsaken planet, we can at least have this. I know how you fucking look at me, like you’re starving," and he says it in George’s voice, George’s voice from a whole year ago when they’d bumped hulls in the honey sleep of afternoon.
George is quiet for so long it’s a wonder the asteroid doesn’t come crashing down overhead. Hands clasped between pale thighs, bottom lip bitten red and raw. His eyes speak of crackling vinyl, of ivy leaves trailing in the afternoon breeze, of orange blossom vignetting a blue sky and amber sunshine pooling in the dips of Dream’s collarbones.
The world fills with earth, real and firm underfoot when he whispers, “alright.”
Autumn finally falls. George looks up at him with eyes the same colour as the inside of his heart.
“Yeah?” Dream says, gentle enough to throw ash over the sky.
“Yes. We’re too late, we’re much too late, but we can at least have this.”
And George is falling forward as a comet hurtles at full velocity, lips searching and searching and searching for the sweet bite of ambrosia.
It’s not careful, delicate, sacred like the first time. Dream doesn’t feel like he’s touching the cold marble of an altar, doesn’t feel like there’s stained glass painting his skin. This time it’s teeth and petroleum and heady incense trailing around them until nothing quite feels real anymore. He feels as though they’re shoved behind a beaded curtain, skin pressed up against matted velvet and coarse sand falling into their eyes with every movement. Grit rubbing into every join and fold of them, grating against soft skin until it’s red and irritated.
Perhaps it’s because they’re crammed into the back of a van while the apocalypse presses against the windows rather than in Dream’s childhood bedroom, the sheets the exact same as the ones he’d had when he was a kid. Echoes of osmanthus tipping around them. There’s nothing tying them to this place, nothing to anchor them to this sorry scrap of land just off the interstate.
Phoenix sits slightly past the horizon, too far to see what they’re doing to each other.
They collide over and over, knowing they’ll have to separate when the asteroid slices through the atmosphere as easily as one cuts through flesh, as easily as people in the recesses of this world pull the trigger on each other. A bullet through a chest, emerging the other side in an eruption of blood.
George pulls away to cram oxygen back into his lungs, and the way his lips are bitten pomegranate red makes Dream want to commit the worst of sins. It’s worth it, to descend to hell for him. “You smell like oranges again,” George gasps, eyes tipping with citrus delirium. “Like a damn hippie.”
“It’s perfume,” he says. “I found it in her room, I brought it with me. It feels wrong, to wear it.”
But a lot about this feels wrong. And that’s why it’s so addictive, because Dream’s been all the way to fucking heaven and he knows the core of it is pure sin.
“You brought it with you?”
He hums affirmative.
“Show me,” George says, eyes rolling up when Dream leans forward to suck red below his jaw.
The glove compartment sounds like a mausoleum when he opens it, spilling from the seams with ancient relics and pressed flower petals. Pieces of her, he realises, left here to roll around like glass eyes, to stare at them so even the dead can find some disappointment in him. He shakes the thought. She’s not here, she can’t be hurt by this when she’s already underwater.
He turns away with a square bottomed bottle and, hesitantly, the tube of lipstick clutched in his fist. His fingers twist at it, fascinated by the way it clicks when it’s fully retracted. “She left this in here too,” he explains, sliding the cap back on so he doesn’t smear pigment all over the seats. Not that it would matter much anyway—not when they’re already marked by crayons and spilled cola and candy solidified to rock. “It’s probably like, poisonous or something by now.”
“Nah, it’ll be alright,” George says. He’s reaching for the perfume, studying the way it splashes against the side in phases of bright orange. Fascination blooms across his face when he compresses the top, clementine and cola cubes spilling out into the space between them to dissipate the smoke haze.
“Alright for what?”
“Put it on,” George murmurs. The perfume floods Dream’s mind with August and aching. “Put it on and kiss me.”
He thinks about covering George with cherry red, pigment mixing with bruises until he’s left with trees full of summer fruit adorning his skin. Possessive and bloody, marks curling around all his limbs so the whole world knows what he’s done. And it doesn’t even matter, because everything will be gone before long, blown to sand or choked of light and oxygen once the sun’s covered over with debris. Dream wants to mark George, mark him up so well it fills the silence of a thousand missed phone calls.
“You’re a fucking genius, you know?” Dream says as he reaches for the tube again, as he uncaps it to reveal shining red lust.
“It’s the astrophysics.”
“They taught you about this?” he asks, just to humour him. “You went to your lectures and they taught you how to sin?”
“They told us about the stars,” George says with his smile cracking around the edges from the sheer amount of light attempting to spill out of him. “It’s not so different.”
Dream exhales in a rush of wonder. And with the roaring solar tide scorching his edges with pulp and acid, he thinks George is probably right, just like he always is. Comets trail wherever they touch, imagined because their minds are a little looser than usual. Blistering and beautiful.
So he ascends, battered by high altitude.
He takes his time applying the lipstick, hands careful and steady as though he’s about to push a needle right through his earlobe. It’s not so permanent this time, but he wants to get it perfect, wants to colour inside the lines just so it’s more satisfying when it bleeds out of them. Pigment carried by lust and heat and lips and teeth, all curdling together in this toxic cocktail of damnation. It splashes against the sides of the van, resounds like absinthe in a silver flask.
The two halves of his lips press together, a cherry stone of desire settling on his tongue.
George gasps when he leans forward to kiss him, when he sucks pale skin between his teeth and bites hard enough to leave red indentations. Roses paint his neck when he pulls away, each one marking exactly where Dream’s claimed George as his. Possession fills him to the brim. He wants to have George before the universe can take him away.
So he dives to kiss and bite and suck, drinking up the way George trembles whenever his teeth ghost over the juncture between his jaw and neck, whenever tangerine clouds their heads with heavenly delirium. And George was right. This was the best idea he’s ever had, Dream thinks as he leaves haloes of pigment all over his collarbones. They grow fainter and fainter with each connection, until he’s reaching for the stick again so he can swipe more over his lips and hurriedly transfer it to his perfect canvas.
He stamps the hollow of his throat before pulling away to survey the state of George. It’s surprising he can tell left from right at this point, make out cohesive shapes when there’s wisteria and lilac trailing over his vision in breezy patterns. But he manages it anyway, because George deserves the effort it would take to observe.
“Fucking hell,” he groans, painfully hard and with a head brimming full of cherry.
Dream can barely think anymore, his mind addled with an addictive cocktail of pot and perfume and George, covered in red pigmented lipstick and newborn bruises. His hair is chaos, pushed into a crackling stormcloud by Dream’s hands as he drags his fingers through it. Every inch of George radiates with shamrock and violet and tobacco, contrasting sin meddling with every atom of sanity remaining in Dream’s head. There aren’t too many left. They whack against each other as seer dice do, as an asteroid collides with the earth, frenzied and destructive.
“Look so pretty,” he breathes, running his tongue over one of the bruises just so he can watch how it makes George shudder. His eyes tip closed, displaying a map of purple veins only visible because of how pale he is. Dark eyelashes against marble cheekbones, perfect and addictive to the point Dream never wants to look at anything else again.
“Yeah?” George blinks at him slowly, although he knows exactly what he’s doing to Dream.
“Fuck, George. Where’s that camera? Wanna take pictures of you.”
George gasps, eyes clouding over as he considers it. “That’s dangerous.”
Dangerous, because capturing this on film will solidify it as real, will allow evidence of what they’ve done to travel outside of the van, outside the brick and mortar of Dream’s childhood bedroom.
“You’ve always had a thing for danger, haven’t you?” His thumb rubs over George’s jawline, back and forth in a steady cadence.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s something twisted about you, isn’t there? You should’ve been scared out of your goddamn mind when the asteroid was announced, but you could only look up at the sky like you could already fucking see it. I know it fascinates you. You’re a sick son of a bitch, getting off on this.”
George is hanging onto his every word like the collision will be tomorrow. Like he’ll never hear Dream speak again.
“You're not terrified of the asteroid yourself, though. You have an out, but here you are.”
Dream considers that with his fingers curling at George’s nape. His hair is soft against his skin, gentle seaweed pushed around by an October ocean off the coast. “The asteroid already hit,” he says, cruel and biting. “The asteroid hit a year ago, when you walked out on me.”
“I’m sorry,” George whispers, pressing their brows close together as if to begin a viewing of the soul. He pours it all out for Dream, the sacred gallery locked away in his head, its violent brushstrokes, messy vignettes, illegible name cards. “I’m sorry, I’d do it all differently if I could.”
“That’s why it hurts so much.”
Dream swallows any retort George might have to that, kissing and kissing him in a burning disarray of tongues and pearl. The noises George makes are so pretty, pressed into his mouth for only him to hear. Even the stars look upon them blindly, flickering a slow death so many millions of miles away Dream’s human brain can’t begin to comprehend the sheer scope of the distance. He doesn’t need to. He doesn’t give a shit anymore, not when his galaxy is right in his arms.
Dizziness overtakes him when the camera flashes, trained on the mess he’s made of George’s neck, of his collarbones, of his lips. He’s standing at the precipice of something, toes curled over a cliff edge while the polaroid develops, blooms with bruises and blood in delectable ink wash. George angles his head for more. Until Dream holds pictures and pictures of his skin, condemning it to silver halide.
And it’s not enough.
He ignites with want, hot and heavy against his soul.
“Get these off,” he mutters, yanking at George’s dumb shorts until the zipper comes loose. He pulls them down with awed hands, the waistband of his underwear secured beneath his thumbs so they’ll be discarded too.
He’s stepping off the cliff now, revealing George to the heavens to taunt their maker, to shove all of this right back in its face as they undress themselves.
And George lies bare on the blanket, mottled with red, cock straining against his stomach. Dream runs a finger along it just to watch the way he shudders, hips canting upwards uselessly because Dream is determined to drag this out until he’s fucking crying. He wants to crack George. He wants to watch the rivers overflow, he wants to dive into the black hole and allow it to rip him apart atom by atom.
“You’re so tiny, aren’t you? So pretty.” To prove his point, his hand wraps around both of George’s wrists, holding tight, a lighter pressed into a glacier.
“Maybe you’re just big, smartass. Ever considered that?”
His teeth graze the shell of George’s ear. He’s burning with missed opportunities, with months of silence when they could’ve been doing this all along, taking each other apart because it feels so damn good. “You tell me, sweetheart. How did my cock feel inside you? You made such dirty noises for me, would you say I’m big?”
“I’m not sure I remember.”
Seeing as he doesn’t want to look like a complete idiot, he hides his smile in the side of George’s neck. “I guess I’ll just have to fuck you harder this time. So you can’t remember anything else when the damn asteroid hits, so all you fucking know is my name and the way I feel inside you.” His free hand splays out over George’s navel, hot and heavy.
“Get on with it,” George says, smiling smiling smiling even as he masquerades annoyance. “We don’t have all the time in the world.”
“No, but we have enough to enjoy it. You’re just so pretty, lying there like that.” He runs his hands over George’s ribs, committing every line and swell to memory so he’ll be buried in ash with a collection of polaroids plastered over the lining of his brain.
George rolls his eyes. “Take a picture-”
“It’ll last longer? You read my mind.” Dream reaches for the discarded camera again, drunk on the way George’s blood rushes to his skin as soon as the lens is pointed towards him.
It's funny. It's fucking hilarious. Dream's memories will die soon, and there's no point burning any of it to film when there'll be no one around to view them. Still, he pushes the shutter, watches as light flashes over George's skin, over lilac bruises, pink hardness, birdcage ribs containing the thrumming lifeforce of him. The ink develops with chiaroscuro contrast. Somehow, George looks perfect even when he's condemned to his prison of three square inches, and it's unfair, really.
Dream always knew he never stood a chance. Not when the first time he saw George he was lying upon the college green with all his limbs relaxed as if he’d just fallen an awfully long distance. Collided with the grass at terminal velocity.
This reminds him of that day a little too much, with George’s stomach hollowing at every exhale, with the lines of his thighs stark against a blanket dripping oudh. With Dream surveying every inch of him in wonder. It reminds him too much of another life, one with an empty sky and airwaves full of chatter, students with ring binders clutched to their chests, a phone with Sapnap on the other end of it.
Everything has to go, at some point. He shouldn’t be afraid.
“Turn over,” he commands, hands grabbing at George’s hips to flip him onto his stomach. And just like that, George isn’t caressed by grass, isn’t sleeping with a book over his face. He’s here, at the end of time, hips pushed into the air as he beckons the eclipse. He reaches for lube, shoving clothes out the way until he finds what he’s looking for. When he turns back to George, deep rooted aching crackles at his nerve endings, pushing him closer so he can throw himself right off the deep end.
His thumb presses against George’s rim, pushing and pushing until it starts to give. George whines with every infinitesimal movement, breath seized from his lungs as Dream pushes a finger past the ring of muscle. “Hurry up,” he drawls in that stupid grey skies accent of his. “Seriously, the asteroid’ll hit before we get anywhere.”
He brings his hand down on pale skin when George grinds his hips against the blanket, searching searching searching for anything that’ll relieve the tension. It’s not hard enough to hurt, not really, just enough to bring George to a shuddering standstill. His head falls forward at the impact, shoulders shaking as pink blooms across his ass. When he speaks, his voice comes out shaky, wrecked. “The hell was that for?”
“Patience,” he says, running a palm over hot skin.
“Dream, it’s been a whole fucking year.”
He tips his head to one side. “You haven’t been with anyone since…”
“Not since last summer. I couldn’t stop thinking of you, couldn’t stop thinking of how your hands feel, how you taste, how stupidly warm you are.”
“You couldn’t stop thinking of me?”
“Don’t sound so surprised. I know you think the moon fell out of the sky one day and reformed into, well, me, but have you ever thought about how it glows? Have you ever thought about that, Dream?”
George squeezes his eyes shut as he laughs, cheek bunched up because he’s got it resting upon crossed forearms. He’s hewn from pure quartz, laid out on the floor of Dream’s van, heaven’s sweetest gift. “It reflects the sun, you idiot. The moon is only beautiful because of the sun, only shines because the sun brings out the best of it. You’re my sun, don’t you think? You're so stupidly warm.”
Awe crashes over him. A kiss is pressed to the small of George’s back, another between his shoulder blades, another at the top of his spine. Each one makes him arch more and more, marionette strings pulled tighter in every place they meet until he’s dressed with cloud silk.
“I never thought of it like that,” he murmurs against a pale back.
“Because you’re blind to yourself.”
“Maybe. But you missed the most important part.”
“What would that be?”
“Y’know, the moon is just as entrancing when it’s new as when it’s full,” he explains. “It’s beautiful even when it’s not reflecting any light at all, even when it’s not visible anymore.” He stops himself, because the moon is like Mother, and he doesn’t need to see it with the scorched whites of his eyes to feel its presence, as terrifyingly violent as a black hole.
George, his star-swallower, supermassive, spectrally beautiful.
“You’re poetic today.” George gasps when he presses at his rim again, pressing down and down until it’s tight around his index.
Dream holds up the camera, fills the van with the click of a shutter aimed at sunshine hands and blood moon skin. Even the sound of it makes George keen, throat flexing because Dream’s got a goddamn polaroid of his hole and a finger pushing into it. “I always liked the dark side of the moon,” he says, pressing a second finger in alongside the first.
George arcs for him, moonlight spilling between the gaps in his ribcage, head cradled upon the fold of his arms. A year ago, they bathed in sunglow, in dappled gold and cyan, but now they only have the tacky brightness of the motel sign to illuminate their hands. Ivory painted by halogen. George trembles, laid out bare for Dream in all senses of the word, gluttonous for more of whatever this is so he’ll have something to take to the grave.
He decides to give George what he wants for a change, scissoring his fingers in a way that makes his thighs shake, his mouth fall open to cascade with sweet wine. Still, George pushes back for more even when he’s got four fingers shoved inside him, begging Dream to fucking hurry up with tears beading at his eyelashes.
“You’re so impatient,” he murmurs against the small of his back. George gasps when he sucks at the skin above his hip bone, fingers curling around nothing as Dream takes every soft part of him between his teeth to turn it purple.
“I don’t care.”
Because he can’t fucking say no to George.
Dream doesn't give a shit about the asteroid when he pushes into him, chasing and chasing the warmth of sunbaked asphalt, groves of orange trees, white sand burning the soles of their feet as they race each other to the endless ocean. He's always been a little afraid of the way it merges with the sky, the point heaven converges with the underworld upon the horizon. He's always been a little afraid of falling right off the earth. Better to wade into the depths and allow it to eat him whole, spit out his bones twelve thousand feet below the surface so he can rest in dark silence. A journey to the underworld seems more comforting than the rickety stairway to the clouds.
And as George gasps oxygen into his lungs, he knows he's made it.
He holds George gently as he fucks him, thumbing over bites and bruises and bursts of carnelian. The pigment smears whenever he drags a little too hard, smudging like gouache under his touch, bleeding under spring showers as they wash the streets with baptismal water. George’s skin is feathered beneath his hands, pure and angelic. Like he’s been birthed from the centre of a constellation.
Dream doesn’t grip at his waist hard enough to bruise. That part’s already over. Instead, he thrusts deep, thrusts as if it’s a Sunday morning and George is still smiling at him with sleepy eyes, as if it’s nine in the evening and they’re going to sleep early, as if their bones are a little older and they’re thumbing corks out of bottles because it’s their anniversary.
George seems to know—he always does.
“I’m not going to break,” he gasps, whining when Dream pushes tight against the backs of his thighs. “We don’t have time to do this right, we don’t have time to be sweet and nice like we deserve. Fuck me like you’ll die tomorrow.”
And it’s not so far from the truth, so Dream indulges him.
He fucks him hard this time, pressing deeper so George has to hold back screams, face shoved into the sanctity of his arms with the dark curls of hair at his nape visible. Every time Dream moves, George moves with him, rocking with the force of the tides and the winds and the storms that plague their world. Monsoon tumbles from his eyes. Pleas fly free of his lips, pleas for Dream to continue just as he is, with his hips slapping against him in a steady cadence, more certain than anything else in his pitifully short life.
Dream knows he’s hit his prostate when he arcs, curses filling the space between them with vulgarity. “Fuck-” he groans, cutting off when Dream does it again. He’s always been a fast learner. And George is so wonderfully responsive to him, it’d be difficult for him to not notice. “I’m not gonna last long, ‘s been months, Dream.”
He leans forward so his smile is received by George’s back, by every bump of his spine. “That’s alright, sweetheart.” When he snaps his hips again, George sobs, guttural and desperate as Dream snakes a hand beneath him to thumb at the head of his cock. It leaks obscenely, covers his palm with precum. Salt flows into the lines, brine and brimstone cresting across the crease that’s supposed to mark his life out into red flesh. “Cum whenever you want, alright?” Because he’s twelve thousand feet under when it comes to George, and what the fuck else is he supposed to say?
George tightens around him when he cums, back shining with oil slick in the lowlight. He trembles, breathy gasps spilling out of him because Dream isn’t stopping, Dream isn’t going to stop until he’s writhing, until he’s certain George will feel this for the rest of the month.
He rests a palm on his stomach where the head of his cock pushes against taut skin, guides George’s hands too so he can feel Dream from the outside, even as he twitches and twitches against the blankets. Carnation lips fall open, jaw unhinged by immorality. “What is that, sweetheart?” he asks, smug against the junction between George’s jaw and neck. The soft triangle of skin, delectable and paper delicate under his subtly pointed canines.
“You,” George sighs, and his voice reflects the sunlight from its cratered surface. “You can keep going, by the way. I don’t mind.” And he’s twitching with every thrust Dream makes, fingers clawing at nothing, but there’s a bright smile pinned to his face so Dream is inclined to believe him.
“I was planning on it.”
Dream would sell his soul to the fucking devil when he spills inside George, pushing closer and closer so that his chest is pressed to the marble expanse of his back. Souls are stupid little things, he thinks as his cock twitches against tight muscle. He doesn’t need a consciousness, doesn’t even really need a brain to tell how good this is, how perfect and right it feels to be seated so deep inside George he must have constellations mapped out over his vision, above his head, across every facet of his mind.
And George accepts it all, thanks Dream in the form of quiet humming when he leans closer to scatter more marks along his spine.
“I’m happy I met you,” he says when Dream’s pulling out of him. It’s no I love you, no dramatic proclamation to be screamed from rooftops or cliff edges so the whole world can be made aware of the gold wine flowing between them.
The tip of his nose is cold under Dream’s lips, flushed pink with blood.
“I’m happy you did too.”
A line clicks, and he’s connected to George with copper wire.
They rest for a while, waiting for the storm to pass and their chests to stop heaving. Waiting for heavenly bodies to come crashing back down to earth, to lie relaxed and loose and pretty enough to pull the eyes of strangers upon a green at the beginning of Autumn. It’s peaceful. Not the sort of peace which falls when a heart ceases to pound, not the sort of peace which accompanies fingers cold against bathroom tiles, but the kind of silence which rests between lovers in deep slumber.
George takes it apart with delicate hands.
“Hey, wear your own damn clothes,” he says when George reaches for his shirt where it lies crumpled upon the passenger seat. “The hell am I supposed to wear?”
“You brought more than one shirt, didn't you?” George pulls it over his head, allows the cotton to flow in white tides over his ribs until every bruise and kiss stain is covered by a veil of purity. “Stop whining.”
“Kinda besides the point,” he says. His head tips back against the seat.
George is silent for a while, only the steady cadence of his lungs expanding and contracting to signal he exists in the same realm as Dream. “It’s like home,” he says quietly, clinging to the neckline with both hands. “I never realised it, but you’re home.”
Dream’s been standing upon the cliff edge ever since the fucking asteroid was announced, ever since the news anchor spelled out the death of their youths. He’s good at holding it together, at laughing right in the face of death like it’s his oldest friend. Even when Sapnap screams and screams at the stars, even when George tosses spirits against the back of his throat and waits for his senses to numb around the edges, Dream is the one smiling, Dream is the one with sunbeams spilling between his teeth.
The sight of George pushing his face into the neckline of his shirt shoves Dream straight into the sea.
A weight presses upon his chest, a constrictor wrapping around his heart and squeezing with every bloody thump of it. Tighter and tighter, until his pulse burns with wildfire in his ears and his throat fills with sinksand, every pore of him clogged by murky swamp water. He’s drowning. The surface crashes over his head, carrying with it everything that could have been and never will. There’s not enough time left in the hourglass. It was better before, when the bell of it smashed abruptly against the bathroom floor, but now he’s forced to sit and watch as each granule slips through the opening, as the last seconds of his life tumble into the abyss.
“Dream,” George mutters, hands grasping at his shoulders. “You’re breathing so hard—are you alright?”
It’s all he can do to shake his head.
Of course he’s not fucking alright.
His vision fills up with white when George tugs his face into his shoulder, orange blossom dripping from the cotton hanging loosely off his frame. Cold hands run up and down his back, over each unfamiliar ridge of his spine. “I want to grow up,” he gasps, each syllable wracked with nightfall. “I know it’s your worst fucking nightmare, but god, I want to grow up. I don’t wanna leave yet, I’m not ready.”
“You can leave,” George murmurs against the shell of his ear. “You can turn around right now, get the hell on that shuttle and live. You’re doing this to yourself, don’t you forget that.”
“You’re so- christ, you’re so fucking stupid,” he says, each word dripping with summer rain. His chest heaves, and it feels as if he’s seventeen again, wandering around the suburbs at three in the morning because it’s better than sitting in a haunted apartment. Each inhale is more difficult than the last. He’s fighting for oxygen, and the notion that he’s been tossed out into the vacuum overwhelms him until his voice shakes with panic. “I want to grow up with you, idiot. I want to get a shitty job and a shittier house and live.”
How badly he wants to promise George the entire world, promise him his leaky studio with a double bed they have to keep a secret. How badly he wants to give him a band of silver nobody can know about, gentle kisses in the shower, skin sliding with hot water, grocery lists stuck to the fridge and hands joined under the covers. Autumn rain pressing against the windows. Snow petals drifting into their hair when spring comes. Maybe then he wouldn’t be so terrified of the future, eyes filling with primal fear every time he thinks about getting older. Dream would run into the fucking night and bring back all the stars for George if he asked, but he doesn’t know how to save them from the asteroid.
He isn’t even sure George wants to be saved.
George stares through the sunroof, and Dream is presented with the soft underside of his chin. “I- I don’t know what to say,” he admits, hands pressing flat over Dream’s shoulder blades. “There aren’t any second chances for us, not now. It’s no use pretending like there are.”
A laugh escapes him, even as his eyes brim with ocean. The stars turn blurry as he looks up at them, stringing together constellations as they swim around like glow fish lost in the very depths of the ocean, souls cast over the side of Charon’s boat to wander aimlessly forever and ever. “You’re brutal,” he mutters. George rips his heart out as if by habit, sawing away every ligament with precise cuts.
“Brutally honest. You can’t go wrong with facts.”
“Tell me a fact.”
“You’re always sleepy,” Dream mumbles into soft skin, revelling in the way his lips feel against it. Warm, solid, real. “We should go inside, probably. It’s sort of late.” It’s ticking closer to midnight, beckoning the sort of darkness that’s stifling, eerie, sinister. Evening dusk is more light-hearted, and Dream is never prepared for true night fall.
“Probably.” George begins to shift around, pushing himself forwards to reach for the door. He’s stopped by Dream’s hand, heavy on his arm because he figures he’ll speak this into existence after all.
“I’ve got a fact for you,” he says, ringed with uncertainty.
He leans up to whisper it against the side of his face, a secret quiet enough even the stars are deaf to it. For their ears only, terrifying and truthful and real.
The asteroid hits again in the middle of the night, when Dream and George are whispering to each other with their lips brushing every now and again, their hands clasped tightly beneath bleached sheets. George is warm against him, with his soft smiles and softer eyes. He fits perfectly in Dream’s arms, solid and real with a small enough frame he can wrap his arms around his waist and have miles left over.
The asteroid hits when Sapnap shows up, hushed voice as he calls their names, as he shudders away from the darkness of night and motel terraces.
“See what he wants,” George whispers, quiet so he won’t hear them, “he sounds...he doesn’t sound good.”
“I don’t wanna fucking see him,” comes Dream’s reply.
Something like disappointment permeates brown irises, strikes guilt into the core of his heart. “You’re best friends, Dream. Please don’t forget that because of me.”
So he sighs and rolls out from under the covers, leaving George to his haven of motel bedsheets. He wants to get this over with, he thinks as his feet drag along threadbare carpet, as he reaches for the key so he can unlock the door. He’ll see what’s up, and return to cold arms and bruised skin, thighs covered with pink. The thought of it makes his stomach bubble with champagne, vineyard sunlight warming every terracotta facet of him.
Sapnap is standing upon the veranda when he steps over the mantle, back pressed against the door so it won’t swing shut. It’s like he has George at his side this way, warm presence falling a few inches below the top of his head. And he fucking needs it, if the way Sapnap looks is anything to gauge by.
Red rims his eyes, burst vessels and rawness flashing across his scleras in bolts of lightning. He shuffles from one foot to another, hands clasped awkwardly as he picks at the peeling skin around his fingernails. “I can’t fucking sleep,” he confesses, voice low so it doesn’t disturb the night. “Keep thinking about the gun every time I close my eyes.”
“So you want to talk to me about it?” Dream bites.
Sapnap cringes, bottom lip worried between his teeth. He looks like a teenager right now, with uncertainty sparking from every muttered word, with blood pooling at the split in his lip and smudging across his teeth in bursts of muted anger. “I shouldn’t have said half the things I did, earlier,” he says.
“Yeah, but you did.”
“You said I sounded like her, I was angry, alright? ‘course I was gonna be angry.”
Dream seethes. “You fucking do, that’s the problem. Remember when you fell off that water tower, remember all the shit she said to my mom? Yeah, that’s what you sounded like.”
The air falls dead between them.
Morning sun peeks over the horizon when Sapnap slumps instead of rising to the challenge, allows his limbs to fall lax instead of hurling his fist into the side of Dream’s face. They’ve collected enough bruises, scars, broken bones, scabs to last them the rest of time. “I’m sorry,” he says, moving towards Dream with gentle steps. “Let me in?”
“No,” he deflects, one hand gripping the jamb so hard it’s a wonder he doesn’t end up with splinters forcing their way under his nails.
“Huh?” Confusion bolts across Sapnap’s forehead, strikes the centre of his eyes with electric currents. “Why?”
“I said so.” It’s oddly reminiscent of when they were kids, Dream running two steps ahead so Sapnap could eat concrete whenever anything backfired on them. He would always be the one in charge because he was older, and it’s obvious in Sapnap’s bad leg, the grazes scarred onto his elbows, even the way everyone calls him Sapnap now.
When Sapnap’s eyes harden in resolve, he knows what it means. And back in the day, Dream would only need to tell him twice before he was defeated, content to tail him like a puppy because Dream was basically his older brother, and he always knew best. “Seriously, don’t-”
But Sapnap is bigger, taller, stronger than he was when he was ten years old. He shoulders past Dream, back drawn into a tense line. His heart slides into his throat, thrumming away with terrified urgency as Sapnap steps forward into the room. And it’s all he can to follow behind, hands grabbing at thin air because everything is delayed, audio and video mismatched like a badly synced TV broadcast with all the colours wrong and surrealistic.
Sapnap looks like he’ll empty bile all over the motel carpet when he catches sight of George.
And Dream sees it as he does, barren of the rose filter he’s had over the world for the last few hours. He sees George sitting in the middle of the bed with a shirt too big for his body, thin arms crossed at the wrists and resting in his lap. Sleepy eyes accelerating downhill, knife edges sharpening as he blinks back at Sapnap, as his lips fall open in two halves of a venus flytrap. The bluebottles as they rest on his tongue, excuses upon excuses battering their delicate wings against the inside of his mouth.
But it’s useless, because George’s skin is blurred to incomprehension, painted red and blue and mulberry with the quick strokes of an artist driven mad. Teeth indents stapled across his collarbones, angry tally marks to denote how many times Dream has taken him upon his tongue like a carnation to be preserved.
George tugs the sheets across his thighs to hide the way the insides of them are dappled with constellations, but it’s far too little, far too late.
When Sapnap speaks, it sounds like the barrel of a rifle held in shaky hands, quivering with uncertainty.
“What the fuck have you done?”
Chapter 6: May Queen
more needles content, it’s incredibly dumb dont do it irl lmao
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“What the fuck have you done?”
Dream bites back a laugh, crams it down his throat so its metallic edges carve out dripping flesh. “I think it’s fairly obvious what we’ve done.” He briefly wonders whether Sapnap has the revolver. He thinks for longer about whether he’d train it on them if he did. The seed of a migraine is fertilised between pink ditches.
The doomsday clock sounds awfully metallic when it’s measuring the seconds of silence in a motel room rather than the rate at which humanity cannibalises itself, but Dream supposes they’re more or less the same thing, in reality. With his boy behind him, arms wrapped tight around a narrow chest. Arms which can’t possibly stave off the threat of a bullet, arms which could end up slick with blood once sanity is poured down the drain in a rush of gasoline. A thirty kilometre asteroid is more than enough to knock the canister over.
“Just fucking say it, Sapnap.” Call us all the horrible things you’ve learnt from your mother.
Instead, Sapnap asks, “how long? How long have you been…”
Dream doesn’t know what to say.
“Why does it matter?” George asks instead, leaning forwards to lay his palms flat against white sheets and fill the yawning canyon opening up between them, splitting the motel room in two with the force of the earth’s crust rebelling against itself. “I don’t think you would’ve wanted to know.” His gaze flicks down to Sapnap’s empty hands, conjuring a barrel, a trigger, a chamber enclosing them in tight metallic panic.
Dream shifts so he’s positioned between them.
“What do you mean, why does it matter?” Tremors wrack Sapnap’s form, bowing under the molasses pressure of night. There’s no baptismal brightness here, nothing to stave off the creatures which dance in the shadows and the parasitic growths festering in all the dimmed corners of the motel room, the dusk blotted across George’s collarbones in blood wine clusters. Sapnap is empty without the light. He fumbles blindly, grasping for straws as the fabric of their strange trio is yanked out from underneath him. Skull splitting upon concrete. “You’re my best fucking friends, that’s why it matters.”
“Yeah? You haven’t been acting like it,” George bites.
Even Dream winces.
“I’ve known Dream since we were kids,” Sapnap says, arms wrapping around himself even as George waves a grasshopper around on the end of a fishing line, twine curled around his thumb because he knows exactly how to push all of Sapnap’s buttons with bait in his hand. He refuses to take it. “I never knew-”
“I barely knew myself, jesus christ,” he says, running both hands through his hair in desperation. “You would’ve hidden it too, don’t fucking tell me you wouldn’t.”
“You know it’s everything else too, how you fucking knew you weren’t setting foot on that ship even before we left. I don’t think you were ever going to, I think you took the fucking call knowing you wouldn’t. Because you’re stupid enough to die for us, you dumbass.”
Sapnap takes a shuttering breath, brushing the wetness from his forehead with one splayed hand.
“I guess I’m just sick of being lied to, Dream.”
Liar is becoming Dream’s least favourite word, so easily forged into something with which to part flesh and sinew. Too few letters for the gravity it holds, all the ugly connotations it has.
“You made it difficult for me to tell you the truth,” he says eventually, voice bending, morning dew shaken from slender stems.
“I’m your best friend. You told George.”
“You proved me fucking right earlier,” he seethes, imprinting scarlet meters into the soft skin of his palm as he speeds towards the crash barrier with no intent of stopping. “I knew you were gonna lose your shit over that map, and you did, and I know you’re gonna lose your shit over me and George because that’s what you learnt from her, isn’t it? I’m fucking waiting.”
Waiting for Sapnap’s eyes to fill up with rage again, for acidic words to scald them badly enough they walk away with eroding flesh and eroding hearts. For him to drag the dead into it, features contorting with rage because sometimes love is so stupidly brutal the only way to release it is by dousing it in gasoline and dragging a match down the side of the box. But the impact doesn’t come.
Sapnap’s eyes glimmer with nighttime instead of crude oil, ripple in tidal pools illuminated by nothing but the stars. He ages backwards for a moment. His shirt is hospital blue in an instant, his expression flickers with innocent fear as what’s supposed to be the central pillar of his universe tells him Dream is to blame for all of this. Dream, with his grazed knees and scarred palms and ember holes in his clothes.
And he rejects her.
“I wish you just told me,” he says, cupping the weight of the sky with nothing but his bare back. “But you told George instead, and I feel like some fucking kid who can’t be trusted to know the truth about anything. Makes me wonder what else you’re hiding.”
“That’s it,” George mutters. Are you content? he says through an even stare and nails picking at the loose skin scabbing over his bottom lip.
“Me and George,” he says, words shattering as the earth stills in its perpetual orbit. It’s fucking scary, to verbalise something he’s kept locked up in his chest since last summer—longer, if he really thinks about all the times he’s fallen asleep and dreamt about all the wrong things. Woken up with his sheets sticking to him and cheeks the colour of sunburn. It whacks against the metal insides of his brain, but he’s not strong enough to open the door.
“We had sex a year ago,” George fills in. A shrug graces his shoulders. “And I know you’re probably not fucking comfortable with it, but I don’t care. This isn’t about you.”
Sapnap crumbles, the soft side of a cliff wrenched away from the homeland by gales and downpours and fretting tides. His voice tumbles to the seabed, watery, shrinking down to the appropriate size for a nineteen year old with a handful of loose ends and a red mark painted right over the hollow between his lungs.
“I just want my friends back.”
The guillotine falls. Dream’s heart tears down the middle, every haphazard needle stitch he’s pushed through it over the years ripping out so he runs in rivers of blood. And he knows it wouldn’t be right, if they died with an ugly division slicing between them. He knows a little too much about wasted time.
So he steps forward to pull Sapnap against his chest, crushing and crushing so hard he must be on the verge of snapping a rib or two. Sapnap doesn’t complain. Wetness spreads across the neckline of his shirt, hands gripping his best friend tight so his shoulders won’t shake too hard, pulses set into erratic cadences by the force of the sky falling down around them. It’s homecoming, with the most familiar person left in his life clutched to his chest and an ocean of rage simmering to a standstill between them.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters against Dream’s neck. “Shouldn’t have talked shit about your mom, that wasn’t cool. I was mad, and the asteroid doesn’t help. Makes everything so much worse.”
Dream hums, because he knows how the asteroid paints the horizon red, douses everything in cherry rage and taunts them with oil fires around their ankles. And he doesn’t even care that Sapnap had snapped at him. He deserved it, because he wasn’t blind to the colour red, to anger and the tight descent to hell. He didn't mind taking and taking it, because he instigated half of it in the first place.
“I’d rather you apologise to George.”
Sapnap stiffens against him, fingers knotting in the cotton of his shirt as he blinks with eyes full of trepidation.
“Seriously,” he mutters. “We don’t need words so much.”
They don’t. Not when they’ve spent more than a decade learning how to interpret empty silence and each intricacy of each other’s gaze. They don’t need to talk to understand what they’re thinking, but George’s cover is closed tight and Dream thinks the wound will gape wide and open until Sapnap puts it all into words.
This, of course, he understands in an instant.
Dream is graced by the back of his head as he turns to face George, shoulders tensed and hands shaking with erratic nerves. It’s surreal—it’s barely been any time at all since they detonated, not really. And yet the atmosphere in this cramped motel room is so much worse than it had been in the airy light of Dream’s apartment, even with the phone and the dull pictures and the sad fruit covered in bruises injecting melancholia into the place. How easy it is to tear all the stitches out of a friendship in ten minutes flat, be left with open wounds and bloody cuts.
“I’m sorry,” is what Sapnap begins with, like he’s trying to assure himself that what he’s doing is the only way to iron out the gashes. “I don’t wanna spend our last month angry with you, really. That was dumb.”
He’s met with a blank stare, brown eyes frozen earth impenetrable by even steel tipped hardware.
“I didn't mean to get so fucking angry,” he mutters, crushing his fingers in a vice grip. “You just kind of stare at me, like I’m some kid and everything I say is bullshit. God, I hate you. But I just say that because I’m supposed to, you know? I love you so fucking much, and seeing you do all this shit to yourself scares me. So fucking bad. I guess she taught me to deal with it all wrong.”
“Shut up,” George says, swiping the bottom of his palm over his face and turning to stare out of the window so his face is obscured. He pulls the sheets back in one gentle motion, revealing the red debauchery bitten all over his thighs. And if Sapnap stiffens at the sight of it, Dream doesn’t pay much attention. Not when George is doused in starlight. “Get in.”
“Are you sure?” Sapnap transfers his weight between his feet, lips parting to reveal pointed teeth when the motion plucks at his bad joints.
“I wouldn’t have said it if I wasn't,” George says, and Dream knows it’s his way of saying he forgives Sapnap, especially when he turns to them with shining eyes, starlight set free in the depths of dark pools to swim to the gates of Asphodel.
Sapnap abandons his jacket by the foot of the bed and climbs in next to George with caution pulled tight over his face, an inch of empty space left between them and his gaze tracing over the popcorn patterns on the ceiling. Stiffness clings to his shoulders. There’s an oil stain in the centre of his shirt, hairline scratches and dark scabs adorning his elbows, circling around his forearms. And it’s familiar, grounding and exactly what Dream is used to next to George’s blue arcs and curving eyebrows.
It’s too hot when he gets in the bed but they don’t care, damp arms sticking together and sweat condensing in raindrop patterns upon their foreheads because the alternative would be to sleep alone with darkness crushing their windpipes. Sapnap lies between them, gripping at Dream’s wrist with white knuckles. His fingers shake.
The lamp balanced upon the bedside flickers every now and again, spinning cobwebs over the room each time it blinks to grey, to yellow, to weaver’s darkness. Dream reaches for the cord, anticipating the bite of cheap nylon beneath his fingertips before Sapnap grasps at his wrist, eyes blown wide with elliptical panic and his chin knocking in a sharp back and forth.
“Leave it on,” he pleads.
“You’re afraid of the dark?” George asks incredulously, linen sliding over his limbs with little contrast as he shifts around. His face is shielded from them when he vanishes beneath the covers, chasing the amber washed darkness that accompanies holding his head in a gentle cage of stale oxygen and recycled space.
“Oh yeah, that’s why you want to leave the light on,” George says, sarcasm dripping seawater from the limestone of his voice, cold and unyielding.
Silence blankets them for a while, heavy and comforting.
It feels so right with the three of them there, George’s hand cold in his where they rest across Sapnap’s stomach. White linen and flesh exoskeletons are all they have to protect themselves from the weight of the sky, pressing down upon their chests even through layers of wire gridding and ceiling plaster. The atmosphere, spanning in inefficient waves. Cast aside as easily as a tattered veil, gossamer unravelling into white moths.
They don’t have long before the world is reduced to snowstorm, ashes piling high upon street corners and the relics of their lives disappearing underwater. He holds them tighter. Engine oil fills his nose, along with asphalt and lilac and spearmint. And they clutch at each other because they don’t know what else they can possibly do except lie down in the middle of the road, palms splayed towards the sky as they wait and wait to step over the threshold to whatever it is that comes afterwards.
“I wanted to write books,” Dream mutters, face pushed into Sapnap’s hair even though they’re both dripping with heat and his voice tastes of tar. “I wanted to get on the road and write about it.” He’s not sure why this is flooding back to him now, in the dimness of the motel room and no paper to even begin writing everything upon. But he guesses there’s something about healing which makes him more reflective, because to grow outwards and outwards and stretch his branches towards the light he must build a strong foundation first.
“Like we are now?” George asks, with warmth filling his gaze.
“Yeah, like we are now.”
“You still could, you know. Write something while you still can.” George picks at a hangnail, leading his thumb to his mouth so he can rip it free with his teeth.
“It’ll be destroyed along with everything else. Forgotten if it’s not. There’s no point to things which can’t be read.”
“Doesn’t need a physical form to exist, idiot. That’s just for you to organise everything. More important that it happened, right?”
Dream thinks about the photographs pressed into plastic frames and hammered into the wall of his flat, photographs which meant absolutely nothing to anyone except him. And that was enough, wasn’t it? They’ll still adorn the surface of the earth even when he’s gone, they’ll immortalise him even if nobody’s left to see them.
“Maybe I’ll write something,” he acquiesces, curling and uncurling his toes to shake free the oncoming cramp that threatens to send white needles of pain over the soles of his feet. When he receives no answer, he props his cheek up on one hand, frowning through the darkness at where George lies. “George?”
“Think he’s asleep.”
“Oh.” His head falls back onto the pillow, haloed by dusty hair.
“Dunno how. He sleeps most of the day while we’re fucking driving. The road is driving me insane, I swear. I see asphalt whenever I’m sleeping, and princess Aurora just passes out on the backseat for ten hours at a time.”
Dream snorts, fingers gently tugging at George’s hair. “He got the battery running again, in fairness.”
Sapnap sighs, dredged up from the very bottom of his lungs and dripping with weariness. “That’s true. Another one of his many allusive talents, I guess.”
The message is implicit. Sapnap feels like he barely knows George, a stranger even after a year of living in the same existence as each other, brought together by Dream and hanging on with fraying threads. And now George and Dream are...whatever it is they are, it must feel even worse, like he’s being left in the dust. Dream is greeted with the sickening realisation that they’ve been horrible to Sapnap, even if he’s been just as horrible back.
He shifts closer, desperately hoping Sapnap can pick up how fucking apologetic he is through the simple motion of a hand set between his ribs. “He really loves you, y’know. He’s not good at saying it out loud.”
“Not like he loves you.”
Laughter bubbles at the back of his throat, saccharine disbelief. “I don’t think you want him to love you like that,” he murmurs, tilting his jaw so the light bruises stamped onto his neck are bared to the darkness.
“Fuck no. I still can’t believe you’re…” Sapnap trails off, nose wrinkling.
“He’s George. He’s a little freak.”
“Exactly. He’s George,” Dream says simply, lips drifting up and up and up as though the corners are attached to helium balloons as he reaches across Sapnap to push his fingers through soft hair, across dark eyebrows and over every plane of George’s face. Rose lips fall open in slumber. He still can’t quite believe this is all his to touch, to trace warmth across quartz and inject gold into marble veins. “You’re not supposed to understand.”
“You’re right. I just wish I had someone like that.”
The rainstorm occupying his chest cavity rumbles in melancholy thunder, static filling him up with cold dread. “You’re so fucking young,” he realises.
“I know. You think it leaves my mind, how I’m not even twenty fucking years old?”
Dream swallows past the colossal mass of rock lodged in his throat. “I know. You’re too young, we’re all too young, really. Even George is too young—he hasn’t figured out how to stand up yet.”
“Well. You can leave.”
They fall into tight quietness, silence swelling with soft breathing and the whisper of Dream’s fingers through George’s hair.
“I love you,” Sapnap says eventually, piercing the night with raw, bloody wounds.
Dream thinks about rage bubbling over, displaced love morphing into rage when cooked under the hot pressure of the asteroid.
“I know. I do too.”
He just has to pray and pray it’ll be enough.
Sleep is not filled with decaying houses, skeletons compressed to ashes, fuzzy slippers, polaroids washed white with desaturation. Dream sits amongst orange groves, leaves crowning his head. Grass pushing up between his toes. A soft cheek pressed into his thigh where George’s head rests upon his lap, eyes shut in slumber because they’re miles and miles above the impact site and they don’t have anything to fear—not with clementine suns surrounding them.
A yellow dress drifts in the breeze, bangles slide up and down poised wrists as their owner reaches for fruit, soles arching to gain elevation.
Speak, he begs her, hands stilling in dark hair when she winds between the trees. He fears he’s forgetting what her voice sounds like. If she would just speak, step across the boundary line between the sky and the land where the horizon runs watercolour over reality and dims memory with hazy cloudmatter, perhaps he’d remember.
Even if she were to open her mouth, Dream isn’t entirely sure what he’d want to hear. Perhaps it’s better she stays silent, face obscured from him by a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses pulled down tight over her eyes. Condemned to the distance. She lives just out of his line of sight, too far for him to make out the embroidery lining her hems or her soft humming to be audible. Distorted as her image bounces from satellites or passes over state lines through copper wires.
His fingers push into the grass as he stands, limbs entrapped in amber to be fossilised for millions of years, insect wings fluttering pathetically as he attempts to fly to the heavens-
“Wake up,” George beckons, revealed to Dream in shattered mirror fragments because his eyes strain to stay open for longer than a few seconds at a time.
He’s hovering over the bed, spectre hands poking at Dream’s face as though he wishes to free him from the drift of slumber piece by gossamer piece. There’s warmth by his side—Sapnap, he realises. One of his arms cages Dream to the bed. The other is stretched towards the dip in the mattress, shaped like a furled lotus and vacant of the person who put it there. White sheets are caught around his ankles, kicked halfway off the bed since the heat at this time of year is stifling and the AC units in motels like this one tend to whir like they intend to chug right off the wall. Or, Dream supposes, because they’d insisted on cramming the three of them into one bed.
“What?” he asks when George leans forward to tug at his wrists. Even the smallest of movements draws attention to the dull throbbing coursing through each of his muscles, driftwood fire lapping a gentle tongue at his limbs. “It aches.”
This doesn’t impress George. “Oh, you ache?” he mutters in disbelief. His hand reaches up to pull at his neckline, revealing entire star systems of pink and mulberry. “I feel like I’ve been hit by the fucking van. Get up, I wanna smoke.”
And despite the stingers lodged into his joints, Dream manages to disentangle himself from Sapnap and pull on a clean shirt, hindered somewhat by the freezing touches ghosting across his stomach. George vanishes into the bathroom and comes back smelling of peppermint and absinthe. His knees swell purple when he crouches by the bed, deft fingers rooting through Sapnap’s jacket where it lies in a crumpled mess, fraying patches trailing loose thread like drifting nerves. He straightens up with stolen cigs.
They leave a memo stuck to Sapnap’s forehead, jagged letters fluttering with each meandering exhale.
George complains the entire time they’re climbing onto the roof of the veranda, perspiration beading at his hairline in a nymph crown as the sun beats down upon them. “My ass hurts,” he says once, “you’re taller,” he says more. Their hands are slippery when Dream leans forward to grab at him, pulling and pulling until he can swing his leg up from the railing and onto the cover. Corrugated metal glows warm beneath their palms. When the morning matures and the heat begins to choke the birds out of the sky they’ll have to climb back down or be left covered in red welts, but it’s alright for the time being.
The sun has long since crossed the horizon, but it remains confined to its corner like a glossy postage stamp for a while longer. Haziness rings around it, haloes of zest which spin the clouds to ethereal entities. There aren’t many of them. But there are enough for him to stare at, tilting his chin this way and that as if it’ll make the shapes become more apparent, sharpen their forms to something more comprehensible and spell out all the answers for him, presented upon a silver platter.
He makes out a space shuttle. Dream stops cloud gazing after that.
“-ass hurts, I know,” Dream says, inhaling tar smoke when George’s lip sticks itself between his teeth like it tends to when he’s about to moan. “You’ve said that already.”
“Romance died so fast,” George muses, dropping his head onto Dream’s shoulder so he can look up at the sky with those event horizon eyes of his. Waiting, waiting, for omnipotent hands to smite him.
Doubt seeds itself in his stomach, stretching sapling boughs up his throat until he’s choking upon eucalyptus oil. “This,” he begins, gesturing between them. “This isn’t something you’re doing to distract yourself, is it?”
“You mean like the drinking.”
“Yeah, like that.”
“I won’t patronise you,” George sighs, breaking off to drag from the cigarette. When he pulls it away, he’s surrounded by a greying veil and early morning dusk. “This only happened because of the- the asteroid. You know that. I’d be going back to England in less than a month otherwise, and we’d never speak again, even if we promised we would, because that’s not how adult friendships work.”
A sad little smile creeps its way onto Dream’s face. “The same thing that gave this to us is gonna rip it all away.” Their iron lung, dragging the oxygen in and out of the beating heart of their relationship while chaining them to the cold fidelity of death. Respirators instead of platinum bands.
“Yeah. But you’re more than a distraction.” George’s fingers run along his palm lines, dissecting each piece of him with expert attention. Reading every word because it’s all so decipherable to him by now.
“What am I?”
“My worst nightmare.”
“Why is that?”
“You’re the only thing keeping me here until the bitter end. I sort of hate you for that.”
“Do you think I’m a coward?” Because it’s so much easier to stay here with Sapnap and George, turn his back to everything that could’ve been and lie on the crust of the earth with them. Some primal part of him is terrified of existing, and here George is, breathing and pushing blood around his body for Dream even when it’d be so much easier to drift away.
George has been killing time instead of living. And now he’s found his finishing line, but there’s a firestorm in the way, and Dream’s about to run right into it with him instead of turning around and preserving the fucking memory of him, at the very least.
Here George is, doing exactly what Dream can’t.
“I don’t care if you’re a coward.”
George shakes his head. Orange flares from the end of the cigarette, crushed against the roof with careful fingers and flicked over the side, lost to the parking lot. “I can’t care when I’m dead. Why should I care now?”
The sun climbs higher in the sky. Shadows are pulled tighter, mockingbirds fall silent.
“I’m sorry for asking,” he says, cutting the silence with lead and brass. “Last summer haunted me, George. I can’t stomach doing it again.” He can’t handle being used to numb George’s tongue, to spread warmth through his stomach until his reserves are empty and he’s nothing more than an empty flask.
Soft lips press over his cheekbone, smoke and lilac and clover wrapping long limbs around him. “You don’t have to. I promise.”
Dream thinks it might get better this time, end up with calamities of noise instead of a phone silent in its desolate cradle.
It’s far from the last page of a fairytale, but Dream thinks there’s still something perfect about living twice as bright to combat the shadow of the apocalypse.
When the metal begins to scald them, they hurry back to the room, and everything tastes of the distant promise of the ocean, sunscreen melting off hot skin, sand sticking between ivory limbs, raspberry ice liquifying upon bitten lips. Dream swats at the burns forming at the ends of George’s sleeves, at the backs of his thighs where his shorts ride up. He receives a sharp elbow to the ribs for that one.
“You burn so easily,” he comments when they’re sidestepping around each other to be the one who rouses Sapnap with a pillow to the face. He’s still passed out even though it’s mid morning, but Dream supposes the last few days have squeezed him for all he’s worth.
“You’re used to fucking-” George breaks off to grab a discarded pillow and raise it to his chest—“Florida.”
“See, you say that, but you’ve lived there for four years.”
“Shut up.” The pillow arcs down, colliding with Sapnap’s head and eliciting a groan so vacant of enthusiasm it sends them both into delirious hysteria, giggling as though they wish to join the morning birds as they puff their chests out.
“Can you fuck off?” he says, lethargic hands reaching for the sheets so he can close himself off to the world. The calamity of their laughter seems to annoy him more, hands cupping at the delicate cotton membrane protecting his ears. “‘m tired.”
They grab at his wrists, pulling and pulling until he’s dragged out of bed and onto the floor, legs immediately curling up to his chest in defence. Dream stands over him with a smile guiltier than George’s. “You’re driving,” he says. “Get the hell up.”
Sapnap’s eyes blink open, film gathering over them due to the light streaming through the gaps in the blinds. When he speaks, his words are muddied by sleep. “Huh? I drove yesterday. ‘s your turn.”
“You can pick the music if you drive.”
Dream and George sit in the back together because they have to savour every single second they have left like sour candy dissolving too quickly on their tongues.
George stretches his legs out before tucking his feet up next to him, soles leaving dust prints all over the leather. He smiles because he knows Dream won’t tell him to cut it out. As Sapnap nudges the dial over the speed limit, wrecked cars flashing past them every now and again, George takes every opportunity to whine about the music, the way Sapnap switches lanes for no reason, the bumps covering his thighs because the side window is cracked open and breeze rushes over his skin. Dream considers kissing the lights out of him more than once. But he’s not sure how George feels about that with Sapnap shifting around in the front seat, so he doesn’t.
Once George has grown tired of complaining, the tip of his ballpoint glides in lazy circles over Dream’s skin, looping letters and numbers and shapes in uneven characters. His thumb presses over the mess of veins pulsing in Dream’s wrist. Ice enters his bloodstream, and while he supposes it’s supposed to be unpleasant, there’s something perfect about sucking ice cubes when it’s the height of summer and nothing else is cold enough to feel just as good.
“That’s bad for you,” Sapnap says, eyes flashing in the mirror. He’s referring to the mess of ink adorning Dream’s skin, so tightly packed it’s begun to smudge with heat and leave him covered by washed out grey.
They manage to keep straight faces for a heartbeat before bursting into quiet laughter, strained with the irony of the end of the world and everything else that’s bad for them. The list seems to grow longer and longer by the second, with each day they spend numbing their minds with the rush of asphalt under rubber. Flasks of absinthe. Loaded barrels. Smoke filling their lungs until they double over coughing, drunk on the feeling of it because it means they can switch off for a few moments and stare dead at the sidewalk.
So Dream holds his hand out for the pen. It throws sunbeams across his palm, sunlight refracted by the plastic casing and glittering like a cascade of low grade diamonds. The cap is freed between his teeth and spat somewhere into the depths of the van, disappearing behind George. He sets the point down on a pale inner forearm and draws, frown deepening when the ink clumps and leaves uneven lines behind the nib. Two dots, a rainbow arc underneath.
Then he pulls away. He doesn’t drop George’s wrist, fingers circling around it like a life jacket cast into choppy seas as he frantically attempts to tread water.
“That’s it?” George says when he slides the pen back into his shorts.
“Uhuh. It’s cute.”
George considers for a moment, free fingers drumming against his thighs to some sort of beat which doesn’t match the one trawling from the cassette player. He’s in his world of black holes and event horizons again, eyes full of suns and music etched onto golden discs. Dream is entranced. The stars have a certain pull to them, enchanted by the same cosmic witch condemning them to all of this, aiming a chunk of space rock right at their sorry little planet floating in the sea of the void, forgotten by all, known to none.
“Where’s that sewing kit?” he asks, coolness gliding away from Dream’s side as he leans out of the seat and begins to rummage through the hordes of miscellaneous junk piling high against the side doors. Curious eyes flash at them in the rearview. Sapnap’s fingers drum along the steering wheel, leather creaking each time he flexes a little too hard.
George sits on the back seat with his legs tucked underneath him, knees pressing downwards so the cushioning dips under the weight of him. There’s a strip of needles clutched to his palm, a neat row of points glinting in the sunlight even as it struggles to flood into their bubble at the back of the van. A needle is clutched between his lips, the rest discarded. His fingers produce a lighter from one of his pockets, thumb flicking at the wheel to produce a burst of tangerine flame each time it clicks down, only to flicker out of existence when he lets go.
“Do it,” George says, running flame over the needle before handing it to Dream and stretching a narrow arm across his lap so the ink faces upwards.
“That’s a dumb idea.”
“So was this.” He flicks at Dream’s ear, smile growing wider when it makes him hiss.
“That fucking stings, stop it. And this is sort of...a bigger deal. I’m definitely gonna fuck it up, and it’ll look horrible, and we’re in a moving vehicle. It’s doomed.”
George stretches his legs out, eyes screwing shut as he trembles from the weight of it like a persian rousing from twenty hours of summer slumber. “Yeah, it’ll look like shit. But it’s from you, idiot.”
Oh. His mind rearranges itself, a flat copper disc bouncing off the insides of it until the spinning top comes to a still. George isn’t good at stringing heavy words together, words which hold the weight of several universes, isn’t good at repeating Dream’s three favourite syllables back whenever he dares utter them. But this is it—George’s way of telling him he does. It lands in the form of a needle and ink scrawled over his forearm, Dream’s careless strokes begging to be preserved for the short weeks before the world ends.
It’s still until the end of time, so Dream thinks the magnitude is just the same.
“Alright,” he breathes, like speaking too loudly will shatter the rose coloured bubble they’ve constructed around themselves. The world falling away, crumbling into the chasm because he’s got no use for it. Not with the needle poised over ink, with George staring at him with a gaze full of trust.
He takes his time aligning it with the ink, because it’s best to begin how he wishes to proceed.
George tenses when the needle pierces his skin, and Dream wants to stop immediately. He has no idea how deep he needs to puncture, no idea how long this sort of thing should take, no idea why George is allowing him to push pen ink underneath his skin so he’ll have a hastily constructed piece of Dream with him even when the asteroid cleaves the atmosphere in two.
“I’ll stop.” The needle withdraws, so tiny, so insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
“Keep going,” George says. “Just caught me off guard—it doesn’t hurt that bad.”
He leans forward to settle his chin upon Dream’s shoulder, humming contentedly when a beam of sunlight slides over his face. Gold haloes his nose, sets every plane of him alight until he looks heaven sent, basking in divine light because he’s the cosmos’ favourite, and Dream is fucking certain of it. There’s no other explanation to the way his freckles scatter like meteors. Even the shadows under his eyes rival the rings of saturn, dark and dangerous and deathly beautiful.
But maybe he’s obligated to think all of this.
He does better this time, following the scratchy ink lines with the point of the needle as he punctures skin over and over. George’s throat pulses when he drains his flask, and it’s probably not a good idea for him to drink while they’re doing this but Dream isn’t about to ask him to stop. Crimson springs to the surface. The lines look awful, even worse than they were when they were sitting above his skin rather than underneath it. Dream finds the contrast amusing. Here is George, with all his graceful curves and cliff faced apathy, with his musician’s fingers and lilting accent, and he’s adorned by ink which looks as though it’s come straight from a detention centre.
“You know, it doesn’t look as bad as I was expecting,” George muses when Dream is done, needle lifted from his forearm so he can gaze at the way the smile distorts with every tiny movement.
“You’re lying, but alright.”
“No, seriously. You’re not bad at it.”
Dream would love to say a tiny, pathetic, insignificant bubble of pride doesn’t swell in his chest when George smiles at him, but it does. Sometimes he’s not sure what’s wrong with him. He’s never wanted to pluck the stars from the sky one by one and arrange them into a glittering flower bouquet before, but something about George disarms him, shoots him straight between the lungs and rips his heart out with the force of it. George takes apart all his atoms with deft fingers and keeps him in a display jar, and he realises he doesn’t mind in the slightest.
Before he’s graced with the sensation of rivers flowing over his cheeks, he’s broken out of his reverie. “What the fuck, I wanna poke him with a needle too,” Sapnap says, twisting around so he can cast a glance over the mess on George’s arm.
“You can, if you want.” George chews at his bottom lip until the skin tears and blood bubbles from the fissure, staining his front teeth with scarlet. “I have space.”
“Yeah. I don’t care. It’s like a fun ‘I forgive you for being an asshole to me’ activity.”
“Okay, you were also an asshole. Let’s not forget that.”
“I know. That’s why I’m the one being stabbed repeatedly with a sewing needle.”
Sapnap grins to himself, fingers falling downwards to fiddle with the gearshift as he surveys the road ahead of them, free of wrecks and other solitary vehicles for once. The heart keychain clinks when he flicks it. “Dream, can you switch?”
“While we’re driving?” It doesn’t seem like the best idea, even though the road stretches its limbs in a straight line all the way until it vanishes over the horizon.
“We’ll be fine,” Sapnap says. “C’mon, I’ve been driving for fucking ages.”
That’s fair enough. Seconds melt into minutes melt into hours when he’s got George’s fingers ghosting over his arms and his exhales gentle against the triangle of skin stretched between his collarbone and neck. Sleep taunts him. There’s something about George which makes his insides fill with honey dopamine, lavender sprouting between the folds of his mind and lulling him towards soft slumber. Back to his grove of oranges, safe from the panic inducing EMS synthesiser of living. Malevolent, claustrophobic.
He mourns the loss of drowsy warmth when he wobbles to his feet, lurching across the back of the van with little elegance. George laughs under his breath. White floods his knuckles, blood rushing out of his hands as he grabs onto the back of the passenger seat, back curved so his hair brushes along the roof and collects static.
“Hold the wheel, I’m gonna go between the seats. I’ll be quick, and then you gotta get in quick too.”
“You better be,” Dream mutters. Air stagnates in his chest as he squeezes between the passenger and driver side seats, the string of rainbow beads knocking against his bare skin where they drift from the mirror. Plumes of dust create a watery film over his eyes. Mini Jesus watches the spectacle with unimpressed eyes, haloes surrounding the base because it’s been knocked loose and restuck upon the dash an innumerable amount of times.
“Uhuh.” Dream’s hands are already sliding onto the wheel, mild anxiety brewing in the pit of his stomach because the asphalt is flying beneath them a little too fast for comfort, and Sapnap’s shoulders are broader than his so there’s not all that much room to maneuver.
When Sapnap lets go and shoves himself into the back, Dream rushes to take his place, hot leather sticking to his legs. He seizes the wheel and nudges the gas, one hand falling to the stick so he can situate his mind in the right frame for driving.
“See? We’re good.” Sapnap’s voice recedes. It’s followed by creaking leather, and a whined protest from George Dream can only assume comes as a result of Sapnap’s tendency to annoy him for no reason.
“I never said we weren’t gonna be good,” he says, twisting around to glare at the pair of them where they sit like kids with candy shoved into their cheeks, thick as thieves.
“Focus on driving,” George jabs.
And Sapnap latches onto it, because George is the oldest and he can go along with anything he says to get his way. They’d be terrifying, if they always agreed. “Yeah, Dream. Focus on driving.”
His eyes gravitate skywards.
“Done!” Sapnap exclaims a while later, when Dream’s just about accustomed to tuning out all of George’s whining. He swears he hadn’t protested as much when he was the one doing it. But it’s Sapnap and George after all, and he’d honestly be a little concerned if they weren’t squabbling over the slightest of inconveniences, over the infinitesimal height gap Sapnap claims makes all the difference, over the last cig clattering around the box.
Dream peers through the mirror to where they’re sitting side by side, George cradling his arm as though it’s forged of spun glass. His lips drag downwards, and his fingers flex whenever paper delicate skin pulls taut over his limb. The lines are a mess. They make Dream’s smiley face appear professional, neat and decipherable compared to the shape of Sapnap’s work, which looks as though he’s tried to paint on a cave wall with his eyes closed.
“What the fuck is that supposed to be?”
Sapnap sits back, a contented smile flashing over the bottom half of his face. “It’s fire. Cool, right?”
Soot coloured lines flash in and out of visibility as George twists his arm to observe the thing from every angle, as if it’ll make it any more comprehensible. Red beads next to ashy grey. “You seem to have taken a realism route with this,” he observes.
“Oh, yeah. That was sort of an accident. Do you like it?”
“It’s horrendous,” George says, voice bubbling with poorly hidden exhilaration. “It’s so obvious you did it. So yeah, I guess so.”
“Georgie,” Sapnap hums, flicking the needle onto the floor of the van, lost to stacks of magazines, gum wrappers, cigarette boxes, stray cassettes, newspapers with all the crosswords filled in. Before George has the opportunity to wiggle himself out of the situation, Sapnap’s arms are wrapping around his shoulders, vice grip holding his narrow frame to the backseat.
Dream has to laugh at the faux disgruntlement which passes George’s face, because he can see him leaning into it even through the grubby rearview. Blue skies turn hazy. The road markings weave together in a white mess of yarn. He smiles as if he can see the moon even through the veil of daylight pulled over the sky as happy delirium fills his chest, fed by the sound of George and Sapnap bickering in the back of the van.
He reaches a scarred, grazed, battered, weathered, lived hand towards the cassette player and dials it up, but he doesn’t think it’ll go high enough to drown out Sapnap singing every word of The Chain off key. They’re linked together like this, iron bonds unbreakable by something as intangible as the void.
And everything is right.
Dream leaves the van with a stack of polaroids shoved into his back pocket when they stop in an unincorporated area off the interstate. The door slams. Cassette music continues to filter out of the van since none of them can be bothered to turn it off, especially considering they’re only stopping for a few minutes.
George flips the knife over his fingers as he’s approaching the store Sapnap is standing in front of, wiggling the handle as though willpower alone will force the lock to spring open. They’re inside within a minute, rifling through the shelves for candy bars and warm glass bottles. Coke for Sapnap, juice for George. Dream peers through the glass front for a moment, endlessly endeared because they’re fighting over something orange and melted with sharp elbows and sharper smiles.
And he turns around, flicking through the polaroids. The ground juts up in front of him, pushing against the horizon in ochre rock. But Dream doesn’t care. He walks away from the store while he’s turning over each tiny photo, while he’s sifting past the criss-cross of electric lines dividing the sky like decaying picket fences and winding country lanes. Dream doesn’t pay so much attention to the web of patched asphalt passing underneath him, instead electing to run his index over the inky rendition of an 8-ball displaying It is decidedly so, with the blue letters glowing through the darkness.
There are photos for every colour—the ice of the horizon at dawn; the red heart keychain swinging from the ignition; orange perfume splashing against the insides of a glass bottle; endless desert stretching either side of the interstate in uninterrupted beige. Pink pigment covering George’s collarbones, the red flush of blood under opalite skin, the beginnings of amethyst geodes wrapping around his waist.
Dream sticks a cig between his lips and lifts the lighter to it.
“What are you doing?” Light footsteps draw closer, slicing through the radio static enveloping his mind whenever he allows it to untune for a little too long.
George looks at the polaroids, sunburnt cheeks darkening as Dream thumbs over the topmost image, endless pale skin confined to three square inches. “That’s my fucking ass, put it away,” he complains, reaching forward to grasp the polaroid between two fingers. It doesn’t really help, since Dream’s holding far more compromising subject matter underneath. They’re greeted by the sight of his cock, the sides blushed cherry with lipstick. “Dream,” he deadpans, unimpressed.
“What? You wanted me to take them pretty bad.”
“Yeah, but now you’re standing here in the middle of the goddamn afternoon with them.”
“Yeah. I’m thinking.”
George’s eyes flit upwards, but their centres are melted with gentle summer warmth, helplessly attentive to Dream’s mess of a mind. George loves every colour he huddles to his heart, every rattling paint tin he tips over his skin in a torrent of puddle brown. He’s a little taken aback at the realisation. The word love doesn’t seem so oversized anymore, not even as he attaches it to George’s face, to their fingers linked together. Somehow, he doesn’t doubt it for a second.
The polaroids slip through his fingers, grains of sand and sparrows and drifting pages of poetry paper seized from his hands and clutched by the wind. They watch with flat mouths as each photo drifts against the watercolour backdrop of blue, resting in the gutters and atop the asphalt and in sparse vegetation. George turns to him.
“Nobody can scatter our ashes. This is the next best thing.”
George’s bottom lip wobbles for a second before he’s tugging apathy back down over his expression so he reverts to limestone curves. But his voice betrays him when it comes out, shaky and stretched over far too many miles of interstate. “I…” he trails off. The column of his throat flexes. As if he’s filled it with shards of mirror and now blood is coating his tongue in thick clots, solidifying so it’s difficult to rip it from the roof of his mouth.
“It hits you sometimes, doesn’t it?”
“I need- I need,” George mutters, fingers reaching for his waistband and coming away empty. “I need to go back to the van.”
Dream pushes his nose into dark hair, the world eroding to blue dimness when he squeezes his eyes shut and surrounds himself with lilac, with rainfall, with George. His arms fall around narrow shoulders. They exist like that for a moment, with photos lying dead in the road beside them because once they walk away, there’ll be nobody left to view them.
“I’m gonna go into the store. ‘m hungry,” he mutters, pressing kisses to a red tinted scalp. George stiffens under each one, and his eyes flit around the empty lot like he’s expecting hundreds of irises to blink open at them. But the world is strangely silent these days, full of shutters closed tight and blinds pulled down over windows, doors locked with the deadbolt and radio static drifting through dusty rooms in sunny melodies which don’t match the mood. They’re the only ones standing outside with their jaws tensing at the sky. Driven mad, but in the sort of way that flash fuses and snaps bones and drenches asphalt in rivers of blood, rather than the way which might make them listlessly obsess over the moon.
“Don’t be long. We need to reach Phoenix by evening.”
He holds onto George for as long as he can before their fingers fall apart.
Dream walks away from the store ten minutes later with a memo pad clutched to his chest, sheets and sheets of ruled paper waiting for him to deface them like he ruins blank skin with bruises and red pigment. There’s a glass bottle under his other arm, and a bubblegum strip between his teeth. It’s the same flavour he’d chewed and chewed when he was a kid, wide eyes staring out the window as peach nails tapped along the steering wheel. The rasp of stitched leather, the smell of artificial strawberry, the pine air freshener swinging from the rearview. It tastes of home.
His feet flex along with the whirring of the cassette player once he’s sitting in the back of the van, George’s head balanced against his shoulder. Eyelashes kissing his cheekbones. Gentle fingers clutch at Dream’s shirt, falling looser and looser as the drone of the engine rocks him to sleep. He stirs a little when Dream pulls a ballpoint from his shorts where he knows it’ll be, membranous eyelids twitching at the movement, blue veins crackling with electrostatic. Nirvana rolls in, and George is gone again.
And with one arm pinned by George’s body, Dream doesn’t have much choice but to uncap the biro with his teeth and dot the nib at the topmost left corner, handwriting spiralling downwards in the same waterfall that flows over cassette inserts and between lines of poetry.
Dream thinks and thinks, and starts with the word he’s beginning to accept is more important than he’s ever allowed it to be.
He shakes George awake when the sun is setting and the sky's ablaze with mandarin gasoline fires because he knows how much he loves orange. It’s proven when George leans further into his neck, inhaling so he can be washed clean with waves of clementine and fizzing cola, acidic peel sitting on his tongue, the sharp aftertaste of sleep. Even the sun looks a little like a grapefruit. Red and sharp, yearning to fall right off its bough to land upon the floor. Succumbing to the sour pull of gravity beckoning its plump rind downwards, the tongue of the earth begging for tart juice.
“Look. Sun’s setting,” he murmurs, easing to his feet and pulling the sunroof open so he can stick his head out of it. His hands hold onto the lip of the roof, metal hot against his skin. Breezy fingers tangle his hair, wind whipping at his face with barbed leather as they speed down the interstate far over the limit, winding past occasional wrecks and changing lanes each time Sapnap grows tired of the one he’s in, for whatever reason.
George joins him, blinking to clear the mothcotton from his eyes. “Any reason why you woke me?”
His hand finds its way home to George’s waist, pulling him tight into his side so he can imagine they’re flying together, uncaged doves. “You like the stars.”
“Yeah. And the sun is the brightest star of all,” he mutters. “And besides, I like this song. I wanna listen to it with you.”
“Are you going to sing, or something?”
Their hands link atop the roof, clutching tight like they’re the only things attaching each other to the earth. And Dream supposes they are. He’d be halfway to cryostasis by now if it weren’t for George, dead eyes and dead soul packaged up neatly to be spit out on the other side of the universe with his heart chewed up, covered in acid. George….he’s not sure where George’d be without him, but something tells him he might be acquainted with orange groves and rattling brown bottles, tube stations with a monotony of people standing around on the platform. George in the middle of them, just as ashen as everyone else.
The piper coaxes his voice, orders him to stop thinking with his mind and instead focus upon the way the world feels when it’s thrown against his face in shades of summer air.
“Mmmm, makes me wonder,” he hums against the side of George’s head, lips ghosting over soft hair, lilac neck, the tip of his ear. “Sweetheart,” he intones, words stringing together into a whine.
“I’m not singing.”
“Oh come on, you know the fucking words,” Dream says, pulling George close with both arms wrapped around his waist. The movement of the van jostles them, wind clawing at their faces as they run towards the horizon, hoping and hoping they can inch closer to the point the sky kisses the land. But the closer they get, the farther it becomes.
“No.” George is beaming at him with the force of every damn star, beaming harder whenever Dream reaches down to press his lips into the corner of his smile because he can’t fucking help himself. They’ll die soon, but all he cares about is the way George feels in his arms, safe even as the asteroid plummets towards them.
“Fucking sing, George!” Sapnap yells from inside the van, breaking off to slam the heel of his palm into the centre of the wheel. Blaring noise surrounds them. It interweaves with the music and the melodious sound of their laughter, elated because they’ve stuck a shitty bandaid over the holes in their friendship and it’s good enough to last them until the end of time. He presses the accelerator further, until Dream is dizzy on oxygen, drunk on life and George’s absinthe tongue.
George doesn’t holler the words like Dream and Sapnap, but he seems to enjoy them anyway, if the crescent moon of his lips is anything to go by. Each syllable is more matured when they’re rolling off his tongue, kept in the dark cellar of his mind for years and years before the glass bottle is smashed tart red flows out of him in a rush of abandonment.
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our souls
Dream thinks he might see her for a moment, with citrus bleeding from the skyline and clementine bleeding from his skin like he’s squeezing the rind between two fingers. With his face pressed into dark hair so the light doesn’t glimmer from his cheeks, doesn’t set amber fish free in the bottom of Salt River. I’m coming, he thinks childishly. He’s so certain they can approach the horizon as they drift towards Phoenix, depart from the earth entirely and climb right through the allusive border between two realms. But with George’s thumb pressed into the centre of his palm, he’s not so sure he wants to.
When all are one and one is all
Lilac curls around him when he leans forward to take George on his tongue, but it doesn’t burn anymore. And he thinks maybe it’s better this way. Maybe it’s better, because they can love and love and love as fiercely as they want until the end of summer with no fear of burning each other to ashes. They’ll never have the opportunity to overwater their sunflowers, watch as the petals curdle and fall apart in torrents of sickly bile, scattering across arid ground to wilt in the rain. Instead, they can leave with stems bowing under the firestorm.
“I wanna grow up with you,” he mutters again, this time for the skies and the road and the songbirds to hear because he’s not so uncertain anymore.
George rolls his eyes, lips bitten ripe. “Maybe on the other side, okay?”
The sky fades to purple when he leans in again, close enough to taste the tobacco clinging to George’s tongue. “‘kay. We’ll rain check it.”
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
massive thanks to ant for helping me with the font in this chapter, please read his fics thank u bye
Chapter 7: Anabasis
nsfw warning u know the drill
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dream can’t decide whether all of his dangerous thoughts are more or less dangerous now they’ve even less chance of coming to fruition. Plucked from the branch too early, seasick green and decay rather than the satisfying red or orange grapefruits are supposed to be. His tongue stings. Neither sour nor saccharine. His stomach acid boils over and over, heated unbearable by asphalt flickering beneath his feet and the beach calling to him with the sort of siren song he can never quite imagine.
He remembers her voice. But it’s difficult to remember how it sounds.
Sapnap is sitting across from him, pointer finger drawing dust patterns onto the window of the diner they’re occupying. There’s nobody around to watch as he makes stars, letters, lazy scribbles which flow out in every direction with no end to their mindless cascading. Then again, there’s never anybody around. Not unless they’re in sad little sections of suburbs, paranoia keeping the sidewalks slick with rain and kudzu pushing up between the gaps in the decking.
So it’s just them sitting at their cramped table, knees knocking together and feet aimed for each other’s shins just for the hell of it. Dream spins a pen around his fingers, drags it across lined paper for every instance the sun looks more dazzling than usual, every time another engine rumbles past in a blur of peach or white or murky orange. He’s trying to get it all down, but it sounds silly to talk so poetically about the way the earth turns over each new day, rain gathering in potholes, eight balls spelling out doom and perfume beading on his throat.
And then there’s George.
George, peeling milk foil with gentle fingers, lifting it to his face and deeming it fit for consumption. George, painted in the purple shades of dawn which steadily melt to gold and amber, orange highlighting the tip of his nose with delicate phoenix-fire and cig embers. George, bending over his stupid pancakes even though they’re crepes, really. George insists on calling them pancakes anyway, so Dream isn’t going to fight him on it. George’s hair falling in front of his face as he does it, ridiculously long and damp with morning dew where it curls against his nape. George’s feet, bare against the floor and the soles of them tainted grey with dirt, brown with dust, red with summer.
Dream’s dangerous thoughts are back.
He’s thinking about a sad little studio apartment again. With all the paint flaking from the window frames and draughts blowing through when the year reaches November in a torrent of birthday candles and frosting flavoured kisses. Hands linked in front of the TV at seven in the evening. Cold showers in the dead of summer, made redundant because they’d be in there together with their skin simmering in all the most intimate places it connects. Dream’s thoughts are full of Christmas trees and marzipan, icing sugar dusting George’s cheeks because they’d move up north where it snows in the middle of winter.
And he can’t decide whether they’re more or less dangerous now. They’re equally unattainable, after all.
“Happy birthday,” George says, with a plateful of pale gold and juiced lemon in his hands. He sets it down in front of Dream, who can only blink past dust motes and bleary sunlight with disorientation. Then he’s sitting next to him, fingers falling out of sight to perch upon his thigh.
“Oh,” he breathes, tallying up all the days in his head. Calendar grids swirl in his periphery, an uncomfortable reminder of scarlet crosses counting down the days until Autumn semester. It helps. The red brick and stained carpet lining his mind begins to bleed, until he’s left surrounded by love and light and the end of the world. “Is that today?”
“Yes, idiot. The big twenty-one,” Sapnap says. He leans forward to swipe a pancake off the plate, just fast enough to avoid pale hands swatting him away. A grin crosses his face, maimed for a second as he chews. “George made me wait to say anything, it was driving me insane.”
“Well, I thought he might forget. We have plenty of other things to be thinking about.”
“I did. Forget, that is.” Dream angles a fork towards the plate, but he’s stopped by George grabbing hold of his wrist.
“Wait,” he says. It’s all scratchy with morning. Shadow covers the bottom of his face, enticing Dream to do something stupid like lean closer and drag his lips along the harsh line of George’s jaw. As though they’re somewhere very different and have all the privacy in the world to count each other’s eyelashes. “You need to make a wish.”
“Yeah.” Sapnap says it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, reaching into his pocket and emerging with a white lighter. There’s a shamrock on it. Dream supposes that’s supposed to be some sort of omen. “We don’t exactly have candles but, well, we don’t have a real cake either, so who fucking cares?”
They both hold lighters over brown sugar and burn freckles, thumbs compressed so twin flames flicker in a poor imitation of candles. But it doesn’t matter. Dream’s heart swells as he leans forward to exhale, crushing up against his ribcage so hard he swears blood may begin to drip between the bones.
He doesn’t make a wish. There’s not much point anymore.
He blows. The flames burst out of existence, and before he can squeeze his way out of the booth Sapnap is leaning forward to punch him in the arm.
“Fuck off!” Dream slams his knee into the table as he’s attempting to escape. His face screws up with discomfort, but he can’t exactly stick around to hold a funeral for his goddamn kneecap because Sapnap’s expression says he has no intent on stopping. He squeezes between the tables, eyeing the way the door is propped open with an upended crate. Breeze meanders through, leading to the grey expanse of asphalt all marked up with picket-fence white before opening back out onto the road. Empty soda cans roll instead of wind chimes.
“C’mon, you need twenty more.” Sapnap’s lighter clatters to the floor when he stands, fully prepared to chase Dream into the parking lot if that’s what it’ll take.
From an outstretched palm, George watches as Sapnap darts towards where Dream is standing. And with the air of an apathetic prince observing starvation from his ivory tower, doesn’t move a muscle.
Every muscle stings with the previous night as Dream rushes over the threshold, grim reminders in the form of sleeping cramps of what lying on the floor feels like. Lead limbs, heavy as if George’s head is still sending waves of pins and needles across his palms because he’s decided Dream is a better pillow than the assorted shit rammed beneath the backseat. And it’s difficult to stay upright like this, with black spots crawling over his vision, all spidery legs and the noise of radio static.
It ends up being short lived. Dream might be taller than both of them by a considerable margin, but Sapnap can run much faster than he should be able to, and so Dream has to suffer through the barrage until his nerves turn woozy with numbness. He supposes he sort of deserves it. If George could cope with makeshift tattoos in the back of a dust-infested van, Dream can sure as hell cope with being punched twenty one times.
But he’ll complain about it anyway, just to be annoying.
He’s still cradling his arm as he slides back into the booth, whining for all he’s worth about the bruise that’ll undoubtedly appear as the daylight matures. “Don’t you think having a birthday right before the world ends is bad enough?” he asks between mouthfuls, although neither of them are really listening to him anymore. “Gimme a break.”
Gentle fingers slide into his hair, pulling and pulling until his nose bumps against George’s. A beat, and the wet sugar coating his tongue sours with the taste of tobacco. His eyes widen because George is kissing him right in front of Sapnap, and his fingers are trembling against Dream’s nape, and they’re not drunk on the feeling of forgiving sunset breeze. There’s only morning sobriety. Every atom of his being begs to lean into it, to savour the drag of their tongues since they don’t have much time left.
He doesn’t. He’s terrified he’ll start thinking about breakfast in bed if he does.
“And one for luck,” George mutters against his lips, and Dream’s mind is still so clouded with driving fatigue he doesn’t register George’s fist on course for his tricep until it’s too late. Despite how fucking frail George’s arms look, the impact stings enough to promise a cherry outline stamped onto him like red kisses, hot lips sliding over skin in a smoke clouded backseat. George pulls away. Wicked teeth gleam at him.
“What the fuck? You’re supposed to be on my side,” he groans. George and Sapnap have already devolved into hysteria, lips arcing high to overflow with dizzy elation.
Seagrass blossoms over the sky when George’s smile stretches until his eyes glitter with mirth. “I’ll make it up to you.”
Sapnap chokes on the mouthful of coffee he’s swallowing. A hand flies to his mouth, and his face screws up in unbridled disgust as he spits the coffee back into the cup. As soon as he’s finished coughing, he says, “that’s so fucking gross. Like when you hear your parents going at it or something.”
“We’re not your parents.”
“You might as well be. You’re old now.”
“I’m twenty-one. That’s not old.”
“...No, it’s not.”
The sunshine leeches return, sucking and sucking all the brightness out of the room until they’re sitting in their respirator of stolen oxygen. Again.
“Hey, enough of that,” George says.
The discarded fork rests between his fingers, somehow more delicate when he’s holding it, because George grasps everything as if it’ll fall apart. Pens, cigarettes, flasks all seem lighter in his grip, less tangible. As if he’ll flicker out of existence should Dream blink for too long, atoms scattering over the road like discarded polaroids doomed to be forgotten. And now he’s lifting food to Dream’s mouth with a determined little smile, waiting with a cocked eyebrow until he relents and accepts lemon sugar upon his tongue.
“‘m not a baby,” he says around his pancakes.
“You act like it sometimes. Both of you.”
“Fucking let it go,” Sapnap complains, tracing his middle finger around the rim of his coffee cup. Each divot and chip scratches against chewed nails. “I only called him a bastard once. Textbook definition. You can’t stay mad at me for that.”
“Well, you don’t have parents either. Not anymore,” Dream says.
There’s a moment in which he thinks he’s crossed the line, pushed Sapnap too far into the corner so his shoulders will slump and storm clouds will brew over his head. And he knows George is thinking it too, because his breath hitches as he awaits the inevitable collision.
But then Sapnap is laughing, chin tipped upwards with vermouth delirium. “God. We’re fucked up, aren’t we? You ever think about what the fuck we’re even doing?”
“Uh, just about every single mile, yeah.” Especially when so many hours on the road threatens and threatens to split them apart. And it has, too. Whacked their bonds against the earth so hard they detonated, then sewn them back together with titanium wire. Fused their palms with blood pacts.
Sapnap exhales from the very bottom of his chest when he sets the coffee cup back onto the table. A collection of mushroom coloured rings forms a fairy circle around it like it might a rotting corpse. “Least I’m not the only one.”
“You snore fucking loud, man,” Dream says, stretching his legs out to shake the thick mortar beginning to build in his joints. “I’ve thought about taking George’s knife and just-”
“Driving it between my goddamn ribs?”
Sapnap huffs with bemusement. He pushes a rough hand through his hair, so the grease stuck to his forehead is exposed for a second, and the sun illuminates his acne scars. “Weird. I could say the same.”
“We should get to the coast,” Dream says impulsively. Conversation tilts towards hot sand and tangerine sunrises instead of rainstorms, instead of nights spent with their arms pressed together and their chests rising out of sync. A little like watching the blinkers of the car in front and praying the timing will match up with his, as though some sort of balance will be fulfilled if they do. It’s irritable. Dream doesn’t want to remember how the air crackles in the dead of night, with the three of them at war with each other. “It’ll be night by the time we arrive otherwise.”
He’s flicking the lightswitch hard, begging for their lucid dream to be lost to fluttering eyelashes and hazy morning light.
Where would he even want to wake up? There doesn’t seem to be a reality preferable to this one, with bruises trailing up his neck and acid licking at his muscles.
“So you won’t need the knife?” Sapnap jokes.
“Something like that.”
Because something about reaching the sea feels symbolic, even if it’s a delusion of carnival candy and grey water, boardwalk splinters and sunburn. If he blinks hard enough, Dream might begin to see the pages are full of gibberish like the insides of his memo pad and wake up back in Florida. So he doesn’t. He allows himself to think of the ocean as the finishing line, perfect and blue and full of cemetery spirit.
“I want to see the sunset,” George mutters, chin in palm. “We’ll miss it if we wait too long.”
“I guess we should leave, then.”
“No point in delaying the inevitable.”
Sapnap takes the wheel at first, with a silent agreement they’ll switch over in a few hours. Most likely when his leg begins to seize, or Dream grows tired of trying to recount their strange journey to scrawl in his memo pad.
Every song burnt into the reams of cassette film has already been played to their tired reception, so they listen to the quiet humming of radio static instead. It’s unnerving, because now there’s a little piece of space projected right here into the van, where Dream is supposed to be safe. Protected by steel casing. He shifts around in the seat uncomfortably, keys inches away from the ignition.
“Go,” Sapnap coaxes, and it’s what prompts him to grip the wheel and cease thinking about the miles and miles of expanding void overhead.
The floor tremors beneath his feet.
George’s legs tuck into his chest, battered Ariel copy secured between his knees. Even through the grime coating the rearview, Dream can see how he thumbs at the pages, tracing over pen annotations with poorly concealed interest. “Wake me up when we reach L.A,” he says, and although he’s just laid down, his eyes look as if he’s been sleeping for hours already. The book opens in front of his face.
Just like all the other diners and gas stations and motels, the parking lot is lost to endless stretches of road, and ceases to exist now that there’s nobody around to perceive it, to feel it, to live upon its salmon coloured tiles. Nobody to gulp down lungfuls of air infested with dust motes. Nobody to draw patterns on the glass, nobody to crack eggs against the side of the counter and fry batter on the grid.
He blinks, and it dies to the horizon.
They reach L.A in the late afternoon, and it’s not as monumental as Dream thought it would be. The sky is still uniformly vast, the asphalt widens a little but remains the same smoke grey colour, and the radio station they’ve resorted to now that the collection of cassettes shoved into the doors have been rotated too many times is still blasting sunshine songs. Sky blocks their foresight here just like it does everywhere else, a comforting blanket of childhood bedroom blue flung overhead so they can all stumble around in the dark and forget about the asteroid.
But he sits up straighter in the driver’s seat, hands clutching tight at the wheel, gaze fixed firmly upon the middle distance as he thirsts for a glimpse of the sea. Past the miniature cities cobbled together in patchwork fashion, the lowrises full of static airwaves, the figures sitting in the middle of streets because they don’t feel any more lost than usual in this strange place.
Dream supposes the aimless are everywhere. The aimless are in tiny towns and swamp dripping cities, but the fall is much more obvious when everyone else is elevated so high. He used to think his mom might’ve wanted to live here, with her bright hair and red smiles, before she ended up stuck in Florida with a tiny version of him on her hip. He used to wonder if she would’ve survived had he never been born.
He thinks now it’s better she didn't move, because this place is full of crushed dreams.
“It’s exactly the same,” he breathes, morbidly relieved to see some consistency. “It’s the same as it was without the asteroid, I swear.”
“That can’t be right.” Sapnap is staring through dusty glass at something Dream can’t perceive with the sun falling across his eyes. Something adjacent to dread, he thinks.
Like there are headstones waiting for them.
He swallows past the thistles growing from the netting cast tight around his lungs, fingers flexing against flaking leather. “I guess...I guess it’s not so different for a lot of the people here,” he admits. The dead end of a career can feel awfully like the end of the world when it really comes down to it, and the realisation draws Dream’s gaze for the millionth time to the rearview.
George sleeps on the backseat, palm slid under his cheek.
“Shit,” he murmurs, heart squeezing.
“What is it?” Sapnap asks. He’s picking at the scrappy skin covering his lips, nails tearing at cracked desert and uprooting the membrane keeping his lifeblood beneath the surface. Scarlet dots his fingertips.
“Nothing. Just realised something.”
There’s a reason George is so unaffected by the apocalypse. Why he looks at the sky just the same as he always does, intent on watching the clouds pulse like paraffin, the contents of a tapered glass bottle. And Dream supposes it’s sort of mesmerising. He understands now.
He can see it through the same kaleidoscope lens, more beautiful than before now that he can’t see himself having a future.
“There it is,” Sapnap says when they’re sitting dead in front of the sea at long last, surrounded by a wonderland of mirage. Heat distorts vision, white wave noise distorts hearing. The thrumming of his pulse in his fingertips ensures he can’t even touch things properly without feeling as though he’s sitting on the bus headed towards the interior of the country, planes blurring together with brown and green. “We drove so fucking far for this. It barely looks real.”
He laughs under his breath. “We’re idiots. There’s sea in Florida, yet we had to come all the way here. Fucking figures, right?”
“We would’ve gone mad in that apartment, and you know it.”
Dream has to admit Sapnap is right. He’s tired of stray drafts pushing the doors shut because sometimes he can imagine the slam is accompanied by the rustling of convenience store bags filled to the brim with groceries, the handles stretched thin around his mother’s fingers. Then the click of her heels following her to the kitchen, an orange rolling off the counter and falling to the floor with a dull thump. Glass bottles of milk wobbling against the fridge door.
He would’ve rotted his mind in that apartment, especially with all his limbs crammed onto the couch and George crammed into the corner of his bed. With his knees to his chest, just like always.
The asphalt fades into bleach sand a small distance from where the van sits and runs uninterrupted all the way to the edge of the water, fading from light to dark as gradually as the day rolls over. It’s late afternoon, so he feels as if they should be standing halfway up the beach, but instead they’re just looking at it with blank expressions. Upon the sand are blurry figures. They sit in groups far from the water, although some of them are tadpoles with their heads bobbing just above it. If they were to walk a little closer, Dream might be able to decipher crooked noses, uranium eyes, scarred cheeks, but all the people here are just shadows for now. Maybe they’re carrying bags of oranges too, but he would be none the wiser.
“Kill it,” Sapnap murmurs, casting a glance to the ignition. Beneath them, the engine continues to hum and hum, coughing up its last life with greasy lungs full of oil. Dream is so used to it he hadn’t even realise he’d neglected to fucking move once he pulled the brake up, limbs frozen with frozen acid.
The plastic heart sits in his palm for the very last time. He twists the key, and they’re plunged into silence.
Only the rattling of the fan accompanies them for a while, the radio long since switched off when Sapnap grew tired of happy lyrics and happier melodies, a hand whacked into the thing to shut it up. From the backseat he can hear George breathing long and deep, evenly spaced like he’s dreaming about the sun caressing his face.
“Are you gonna be okay?” Sapnap asks. His knee pulls up to his chin as he stretches. Dream hears the joint click, and the only reason he doesn’t wince is because he’s so used to it.
“Wasn’t this the last place you came with your mom before she…” Sapnap trails off with a grimace, his expression a little too close to all the faces he didn't know at his mothers’ funeral, not quite sure what to say to Dream. Certain nothing they could mutter would make it better.
“Oh, yeah. It’s closure, or something. I’ll be alright.”
“Are you sure?”
Before the urge to roll his eyes can solidify itself into reality, Dream shrugs noncommittally, with half his attention stuck to the conversation and the other half cast to the gulls. They bicker amongst each other, the only thing separating them from Dream, George and Sapnap being their inability to imagine, their inability to sit on the roof of a van and talk about everything inhabiting the sky beyond their familiar blue-white. He wonders where the line is, whether the miniature societies chained to the interstate are closer to them or the gulls as they fight for food. He wonders if the line really exists.
For a moment, he wishes his brain was the size of a pea. Maybe then he wouldn’t be tying all this empty significance to a stretch of sand, maybe then he’d be more worried about the sky falling down rather than his struggle to hear spectres speak.
“Seriously, I’ll be alright,” he says, grimace hidden in his palm.
It seems to work, because Sapnap doesn’t press. He knows when to stop, when Dream tenses up as a silent warning to move along, quickly. Poking at wounds only makes them worse, so it’s better to ignore it altogether and allow salt water to draw the infection clean out.
“Wake George, ‘kay?” Sapnap doesn’t wait for Dream’s response before squeezing between the seats and retrieving his shades from the back of the van. The sunlight accepts him readily when he rolls open the door, legs held awkwardly so he can climb out. He neglects to slam it.
Dream can taste salt on his tongue, and it makes his stomach roll.
He stares at the hazy mass of blue for a while more anyway. Acid tips about in his core, singeing every delicate membrane with jellyfish veins and hornet tails.
And he should probably wake George. He said he’d do it when they arrived, and the van lays silent around them. Inside, the temperature is rising ungodly. They’ll start to suffocate before long, choking on recycled air and sunshine heat only a fragment of the temperatures they have to anticipate when the earth is razed to the void.
He unsticks his thighs from hot leather. Slides between the seats, kneels in the back with a needle three inches from one leg and a pen lid close to the other.
“Hey, George,” he calls, thumbs rubbing over his cheeks so he won’t startle. And perhaps if it were Sapnap asleep on the backseat he’d be less courteous about it, maybe shove his body right onto the floor of the van, but there’s just something about George reminiscent of dragonfly wings and buttered kisses. He’d looked just the same when Dream first saw him on the green, at odds with the storm of coloured binders, leaking ballpoints and annotated margins surrounding him. Removed from mundanity. It must be easy to wound up all lost, once he’s lost his grip on reality.
“What?” George’s voice is slurred, although Dream can’t quite decide if he would taste of shamrock or sleeping lavender if they kissed.
His head moves against the poetry book so the title is revealed. One, curious word stares through the shadow. A memory presses at the static covering Dream’s mind, but each time he attempts to extract it, to hear her voice reading it out to him, he only becomes more interested in the way George’s wrists glow in the sunlight.
“We’re here,” he breathes.
It felt as though they wouldn’t make it at some points. Pride licks at his soles, because they’re here on the other side of the country, and the goddamn ship can very well leave without him. He’s never going back to Florida now. Not even to save his own ass from the end of everything.
“Yeah, idiot. I wouldn’t wake you otherwise.”
George’s limbs tremble as he stretches his arms above his head, bare toes curling where they’re pressed up against the back window. He smells of leather and fennel, and Dream only knows because he can’t stop himself from leaning forward to press his lips between dark brows. And again, and again, and again. Until he’s probably kissed George for every year he’s been alive, each one just the same as an affectionate fist to the arm.
Sleepy breath ghosts over his throat. “Why’re you kissing me?”
“Don’t need a reason.”
“Yeah?” He grabs at George’s hands to pull him upright, mindful of the metal roof an inch from his head when he begins to straighten up. Dream’s knocked his skull against it more than enough. Salt blows in through the side door, rolled open wide enough so his periphery is full to the brim with sandy asphalt. Sapnap stands at the boundary of it all, where coarse grass yearns to retake the land and civilisation submits to the beach. “Look at it,” he says, tugging George out of the van before he can boil alive.
Weary knees keep George upright as he stands amongst it all, with clear skies embracing him from behind and surf drifting aimlessly against his face. Dream yearns to see the spray dotted over his cheeks. Tiny quartz freckles. So it’s with this primitive sort of goal he’s sliding the door shut behind them, heart set on the spot the water meets the sand, gaze fixated on the boulevard stretching its arms across the top of the beach. There are silhouetted figures drifting down it in technicolour, but they’re not close enough yet. An invisible barrier of home exists for now.
“I lied,” George utters.
“In the van, I wasn’t really sleeping once you killed the engine. It’s sort of jarring.”
“Okay?” Dream isn’t sure why George is telling him with an expression so full of earnest, hands gripping at the air as though he wishes to take hold of Dream instead. Like he'll abandon him otherwise, cast him into the road and hightail right back to Florida so he can enter the space facility with nothing but the clothes on his back. He doesn’t even have a tattoo to remind him of this like George does.
George exhales as if it’s obvious. “So I know this is the last place you came with your mom before she died. Isn’t it unpleasant, to be standing here?”
Sand claws at his attention, leading down and down to white capped waves.
The descent seems kind enough, smiles at him with bumps reminiscent of the dips of pretty vertebrae, beads of orange absolute rolling across veined skin. But phobias aren’t always so obvious when they form, and Dream can’t remember when he’d started feeling so seasick. The deck tips beneath him, back and forth, back and forth, until bile swirls around in the depths.
And he’s terrified of the ocean.
“Holy shit,” he breathes, palms splaying one on top of the other over his stomach. It rolls with deep thunder, grey and purple and bruised blue ink spilling into every pothole scar he carries around with him.
“What is it?” George’s voice is tinged with concern.
“I think...I’m scared of the sea.”
“I thought you loved it. You wanted to come here to see it again.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t been to the beach ever since. I always associate it with her.”
For some reason, Dream can’t help but remember an odd little Greek term, the one which simultaneously describes the passage to the coast as well as the passage to the fucking underworld itself. And it’s a strange thing to resonate so strongly with him, but he supposes there’s a reason he keeps remembering his mom so close to the tide. Standing right next to the boundary between the depths and freedom, a skeletal hand curled around her ankle tugging her down,
“It’s really like the underworld, isn’t it?”
George sucks at his lip thoughtfully, before his hand is sliding back into Dream’s to grip tight. As if he never intends to let go. “It’s the same as space, really. Worse.” So much of it undiscovered, cracked submarine windows which look the same as spaceship ports.
“Is that why I’m too afraid to board the ship?”
“Maybe it is. I don’t know.”
“But you always know,” he says childishly, clinging to the flimsy hope George can unpick all of his thoughts and leave them lined up like fishbones on the edge of a plate. Decide his future for him, make him a rich man with honey kisses. Deem him a thief with a gentle smile, tell him he has a knack for stealing life away from himself when he really shouldn’t.
“You’re scared of the void,” George decides. “The void, the night, the ocean, whatever it might be. You’re scared of leaving us behind. I’ll come with you into the sea, so you won’t have to be so terrified of it.”
As it turns out, the feeling of normalcy spreads its wings out onto the beach as well as the streets of the city. Its beating heart continues to push blood down the roads, regardless of how long it has left to stand. Thrumming life bursts onto the sand in the form of sunburnt backs and oversized shades, crumpled beach towels and flocks of people enough to rival the gulls. Smoke enshrouds them. They sit in groups just like theirs, with radios and cassette players set in the middle as if they’re holy. Rather than the gospel, they emit the same music Dream’s been listening to the entire way here, and he doesn’t feel so out of place anymore.
Dream is lying on the sand with George pressed against his side because he can’t bear to touch the water just yet. It’s bad enough being so close to it, and he finds himself lifting his head every few minutes to check the tide is still out and it’s not inching closer and closer to his bare toes.
“It’s not coming in yet,” George says eventually, when he’s got his chin to his chest again. “It’s not acid, Dream.”
“I know. Just don’t like it.”
He allows his vision to glide back up to the sky. It’s difficult to see when the sun’s still glaring down at them and the lulling of the sea makes his eyelids feel weighted, but he’s determined to drink up every last second of the day. There’s something beautiful about the beach. It’s filled with those who have nowhere left to turn, washed up on the west coast with nothing but a burning desire to take and take until there’s nothing left.
“We could just lie here, you know. Just lie here and wait.” It doesn’t sound so bad, not with the breeze touching him so gently and heat spilling over his stomach, with Sapnap walking back towards them, hair soaking. Dream’s lost count of how many days are left, so he isn’t sure what would claim them first.
“I think I’m a little tired of looking at the sky. I’d rather die standing up.”
“Then get up,” he says, pushing himself onto his elbows. The sea remains dutifully distant, with foam remnants sticking to wet sand in frothy white.
George blinks, slow. Slow as is possible at the end of the day when the sun grows heavy and his limbs grow heavier, numbed with the burn of green and gold. “Are you going into the sea?” he asks. Even his voice resounds like caramel, thick and warm and familiar.
And although Dream stiffens, he wants to be impulsive.
If George can stand up, he can go into the sea. Or perhaps the descent to the water will be what makes George stop looking at the sky, but Dream doesn’t have so much time to sit around thinking about cause and effect. All he cares about is George’s smile, George’s hand curling around his own as he’s pulled to his feet. George’s fingers pulling and pulling.
“Ready?” They’re facing down the beach, gazes firmly set upon the finishing line.
“Perfect. Easier if it takes you by surprise.”
Then George is tugging him down, down past all the huddles of bowed figures, past a concerned Sapnap, past just about everything that separates them from the very edge of the world. And when they’re standing right next to it, Dream allows himself to look and look into the distance as if he can see tomorrow.
“Step in,” George murmurs. “It’s not going to burn you. You’re making it symbolic and it doesn’t have to be.”
“Isn’t it symbolic?”
“It’s water, idiot.”
“In that case, why don’t you just push me?”
“That wouldn’t be fair. You deserve to do it yourself.”
It’s a little like opening the van after a few years of stagnancy as he steps into the shallows, sunwarmed water lapping at his ankles. George anchors him to shore. Dream feels safer with their hands linked, fingers gripping at each other so he can’t possibly be whisked away by the current and deserted at the very depths of it. He’s reminded of sealed bedroom doors, orange bottles of perfume and plastic ivy plants, half empty cigarette boxes in dresser drawers. Poetry books and cassettes covered in loopy writing.
“How is it?” George pulls him away from window frames next to empty armchairs. And they’re still wading deeper, until the water haloes his waist and their shorts are soaking. The bottom of his shirt is sodden, and he doesn’t care.
“I’m not disintegrating.”
The sun is beginning its descent, teetering off its perch at the apex of the earth’s orbit to sink towards the ground. Gold will flood George’s face soon, he’s sure of it. Their edges will soften and it’ll be just like a late summer evening in Dream’s childhood bedroom spent shrugging their clothes off, the taste of elderflower sticking to the back of their tongues, barely discernible.
Dream surveys the beach, partly to appreciate how yellow fades to gold and baby blue to something deeper, but mostly because he’s unnerved by how far the ocean stretches in the other direction. Palms stick up against the sky to separate them from the boardwalk. There are so many people here compared to miles and miles of empty interstate, so much isolation Dream has begun to feel as though he’s less than real. Motels don’t feel right when they’re empty, but at the same time, he can’t imagine anyone spending much time in them. Only as long as necessary. It’s much different here, because there’s a strange sense of home to be found in a place miles and miles away from where he lives, surrounded by things he doesn’t recognise and standing next to a boy from the other side of the fuking world.
And then he sees it.
There are two boys with their lips moving lazily against each other, fingers drawing through salt crusted hair and hands glossing over sharp hip bones. They’re sealed away from the world even though the beach hums around them, hundreds of footprints circling around where they sit without a single insult hurled their way. And Dream’s heart pounds against his ribcage. Disbelief bursts in firework technicolour. He wants and wants, but George is still hovering with his fingers an inch away from Dream’s now that they’ve made it into the water.
He thinks this might be George’s version of setting one foot into the waves, of leaving behind the shore and fucking freefalling because they’ve nothing left to lose. He’s not going to push him. But he deserves to be shown to the edge of the water with gentle hands, an arm at his waist.
“Look,” he says, nudging George.
Brown eyes whip back towards him, wide with constellations and wonder. “Right out in the open?” It sounds like he daren’t believe it.
His hands slide over George’s hips, slow enough he has time to pull away if he really wants. Around them, the sea swells and dips, rushing over their feet with peaceful sugar and cream. “Right out in the open,” he says, leaning down so their noses brush ever so slightly. Freckles blur with closeness. “You alright?”
“Nobody is looking at them. Nobody is looking at us,” he whispers.
“Well, Sapnap probably is. Just to be annoying.”
George exhales with gentle laughter, dizzy dizzy dizzy on the crash of the waves and the conflicting music filtering out of multiple cassette players. “You can kiss me,” he says. “Kiss me, there’s nothing anyone can do about it now.”
Dream is more than happy to comply.
They stay like that for a while, with their arms around one another as though they wish to be solidified like that with pompeian ash. George tastes of life salt, and he can’t stop himself from sliding his tongue into his mouth, from drinking up the noises it elicits. Until they have to pull apart to breathe, to heave lungfuls of precious oxygen back into their helium chests.
“Come with me,” George mutters with bitten lips. His hand tugs at Dream’s, and the line of his shoulder blades is plainly visible beneath sea-sodden cotton.
He allows himself to be led up the beach in a daze of lemon towels and wrists laden with plastic orbs, clouds of smoke and crackling cassette players battling with each other. Lyrics flow over lyrics, voices talk on top of each other so Dream can’t tell tracks from conversations, love from lust, the end of the world from paradise. The beach fades to burning sidewalk, gritty underfoot. Until George is pulling him into the restrooms like they’re seventeen years old. Sand covers the floor, and gloomy afternoon light reflects from damp tiles.
George’s back collides with the door as soon as they’re in the stall, skin covered in spiderbites because Dream’s fingers reach up under his shirt to brush along his ribs, across his sternum, down over his stomach. The tiles shine with over spilled ocean, but neither of them can bring themselves to care. Not when George has to bite hard on his bottom lip as Dream sucks strawberry juice up the column of his throat, adding to the muted collection of bruises he has leftover from neon-lit parking lots.
“We’re gonna fucking die,” George says breathlessly, reaching up to curl his arms around Dream’s neck and pull his head down. He smiles into the kiss, wider and wider so Dream can taste the salt on his lips, followed by smoke and shamrock as he licks into his mouth.
“Why does it fascinate you so much?”
“I don’t know,” he says. His breath hitches as Dream grinds against him, purposeful enough to bring out the stars in broad daylight. The drag of it is delectable, sets electricity loose through his veins. And it becomes too much to bear, burning and burning so his thoughts all tangle together and all he wants to think about is the way George gasps into his mouth, presses his hardness against Dream, fists at his shirt because they can’t possibly be close enough. He wants to feel him heavy, he wants to solder their diseased forms together with flesh bonds.
But sex will have to do.
With one fluid motion, he’s flipping George around to press his cheek to the door, back arched like they’ve had years to perfect this. The switch makes George exhale, slow. And again. And now he’s pressing back towards Dream like they’re surrounded by gold embroidery and spotless sheets rather than stained porcelain, because every plane of him glows with Dream’s personal moonlight.
“Fucking perfect,” he breathes because he absolutely can’t help it, with one hand pushing George’s shirt up to rest upon the divot of his spine.
“I’m a graduate with a quarter life crisis and a drinking problem,” George laughs. It sounds strange because he’s acknowledging it for once. Dream supposes candor tastes sweet no matter how much it bites, because at least it’s a foot placed staunchly in the right direction.
“I love you.”
“Whatever, can you fuck me?”
“Say it back.”
“No, you’re about ten seconds from sticking three fingers in my ass.”
“Yeah, and you love me.”
“Fine. I love you.”
“Shut up,” Dream sighs, heart beating along with the rise and dip of the sun, the swell of the sea as it climbs up the beach to reclaim the land. His fingers push past George’s lips just as easily, the pads of them pressing down against his tongue so that membranous eyelids flutter shut in the ocean breeze. George sucks like he’s in a hurry for something, and Dream just wants to clutch every second of this to his chest. He won’t ever have another birthday to redo it. “Slow down, we have a bit before sunset.”
But George is already pushing his waistband over his ass with two hooked thumbs. It strains against his hips for a moment, before resting at the top of his thighs with the bulk of them bubbling over the hem. He pulls off Dream’s fingers, mouth shining with the light spilling in through frosted windows. “What’s at sunset?”
“You like watching them.”
“Only when the day’s nice enough to bid goodnight?”
George’s face splits into the most perfect smile, as if he’s got Dream’s heartstrings attached to the corners of his lips. Tugging at the helium pouring into his chest cavity, the caramel solidifying his lungs to sickly death. “I guess so.”
“So you’re gonna want to see this one.”
He considers that for a moment. “Yeah, I guess so,” he repeats. “Fuck me good, yeah? Then maybe I will.”
George can be a quiet person. He can withdraw into himself when he’s standing in a room of unfamiliar people, content to please with polite smiles and gently tipped eyebrows, content to observe and read each one of them like lines of poetry. He knows how to stand down from confrontation and take it all with calculative eyes, cold and hard and fucking infuriating. Hot asphalt freezing where it meets his toes.
He can be loud, too. Brimming with life, reflecting the sun itself when he’s standing with his head out of the sunroof, eyes fixed on the spot the sky turns orange. Late nights in the middle of summer spent surrounded by honeysuckle and cigarette smoke, lips tilting up and up and his limbs grow looser and looser. George can be quiet when he wants to, but it’s carefully constructed. Poised with a purpose.
He’s loud now, with diamond beading in the corners of his eyes as Dream’s fingers breach his rim. Each one coaxes a string of breathy gasps from him, until Dream has to lean forward and stick more digits into his mouth to keep him quiet. Pressing down hard on his tongue until his eyes roll up. And he thinks he might’ve made it to heaven without even taking the trouble to die for it, because George moans around him when he’s got three fingers in his ass, and it’s perfect.
So fucking perfect.
He tells him so.
“Stop saying that,” George whines, broken because Dream brushes right over a nerve and sends his fists curling against the door. “And fuck me.”
“I’m getting to that.”
“Not fast enough.”
Dream decides to give him what he wants.
For a moment he thinks they’ll be found in here, because the noise George emits when the head of his cock pushes past his rim is loud enough to rival the screeching gulls and crashing waves surrounding them. Then he remembers the soundtrack of life blaring up and down the beach, and how so many existences playing over each other is certain to drown them out. Besides, he doesn’t think anyone would give a shit. They’re drunk on life because they’ve swallowed the whole bottle and now only the dregs are left, the last few mouthfuls which need to be savoured before it’s all gone.
His hips push flush against George’s ass, and Dream can glimpse green bottomed glass.
“I feel like a teenager,” George mutters, face pushed into the fold of his arms.
“Kinda nice, isn’t it? Just being young and dumb for once.”
“Right before the world ends.”
“Well,” Dream says, savouring the choked noise George makes when he thrusts right against his prostate, hand flying over his mouth in a flash of pearl. “We don’t have to think about that right now. Let’s just pretend we’re on a roadtrip because it’s fucking summer, yeah? Mom died right after one. Didn't ruin it, because I didn't fucking know.”
“Okay,” George says, and Dream can hear his smile even if all he has to look at are the points of his shoulder blades.
Dream begins to move, loving enough that he doesn’t have time to mourn all their missed opportunities. He’ll die without knowing George’s every intricacy. But it’s alright, because he still manages to make him moan every so often, he still knows how to brush over his prostate and palm at his cock to make him whine and whine.
“I still-” George gasps, chin tipping upwards to acknowledge a higher being. “I still can’t believe how fucking big you are. Should’ve been doing this all year.”
“Yeah, so fucking good.”
Reality begins to melt after that, just like the clouds melt when it’s mid evening. Dream is so full of dust motes and brine and lilac he can barely tell when George is close, until he reaches back to wrap slender fingers around Dream’s wrist and squeeze hard.
“So close,” he gasps, and then his hole is tightening around Dream, locking him into a strange paradise with death knocking at their door.
They cum close together, exactly how it is in romance novels, and he wonders if there should be cherry blossom arcing over their heads instead of chipping plaster and frosted glass. He doesn’t particularly care either, not with sweat beading along George’s hairline and rolling over his temples. Not with George tight around him. Not with the smell of leather receding to memory, replaced by late spring lilacs and aphrodisiac chamomile.
“We’re in time for the sunset,” he gasps as his chest swells and dips. Dark hair brushes the underside of his chin, and he never, never wants to let go of George.
“You want to watch?”
“I’d rather die than miss it.”
The look Sapnap gives them when they return isn’t for the faint of heart. But George simply sits himself down on one of the beach towels with a blank expression and neutral features, so Dream decides to do the same, and squeezes into the gap between them.
“Your hair is fucked up,” he says to George, and the tension simmering between them evaporates. “Couldn’t you at least try to be subtle?”
“Who put a stick up your ass this morning?” George shoots back. His fingers comb through his hair, desperately trying to flatten it as english rose blooms over his cheeks.
Sapnap stares at him in disbelief. “Says you.”
“I’m so fucking tired,” Dream whines before George can come up with a response. Every time he closes his eyes he can see road rushing beneath him and the speedometer ticking over the limit, higher and higher as he stopped giving a fuck. Pulsing tide morphs to the rumble of the engine, and the music playing up and down the beach is just too easy to imagine filtering out of the central console.
“You could sleep,” Sapnap points out.
“No, he wants to watch the sunset. For some reason.”
Dream fights back a groan. “You wanted to watch it too, idiot.”
“Only because you suggested it.”
And because he doesn’t have the energy to bicker with George, he wraps both arms around his knees and begins to pick out cloud shapes again. If he unfocuses his eyes enough he swears he can see a shamrock in the middle distance, leaves imperfect and distorted. He blinks, and it’s gone.
“I was thinking-”
“That’s always a bad sign,” Sapnap interrupts.
“True.” George squeezes his hand and he’s fucking delirious with how it feels. Cool against skin left in the beach light for several consecutive hours, salt running into his pores and sand sticking to his soles.
“As I was saying—I was thinking, maybe we don’t have to keep driving. We can’t run from the asteroid, we can’t run away from fate.”
Sapnap pulls a cig out of the box thrown haphazardly onto the sand and lights it, brow crumpled with thought. “You want to stay here until it happens?”
“Yeah. It’s nice, isn’t it? It’s full of people like us.” People with nowhere else to turn, people who have to hold onto hands that don’t share their blood.
“I’d like to stay here,” George says, pressing his lips to the underside of Dream’s jaw. Tentative, cautious. Stolen as though it’s midnight and there’s nobody around to see them when in reality they’re sitting with sunbeaten land surrounding them and the skies observing every touch of red to peach and gold.
Sapnap exhales, and it releases in a plume of gunmetal. “Feels like there’re so many things I could be doing. I guess I’m scared of doing everything exactly right. How do I make sure I’m not wasting the rest of...well, forever?”
“Fuck that,” Dream says, irritation sparking under his skin. “I’m so fucking tired of trying to do everything perfectly. We can just smoke cigs on the beach until it’s time, and we’ll be fucking happy doing it too.”
An eyebrow cocks in surrender. “The wise words of a poet.”
Dream’s lips press together, clamped tight to contain the outpouring of honey sweet satisfaction pooling in the centre of his tongue. “Well, I always wanted to be a writer.”
They turn their gazes back to the heavens because the clouds have started to bleed pearl to citrine to amethyst, and the sun is sinking lower and lower. Something up there must be painting, he thinks. Perhaps spilled paint isn’t always so bad, if it ends up looking like this. A hundred glass eyes turn towards the sky as the day draws to a close, and he wonders if anyone else is mentally crossing it off the calendar in speculative red. Somehow, he doubts it.
As he squints against the light, Dream finds dark water pulling him under, coaxing him deeper and deeper to a place he thought he’d never see again. A time he thought he’d never be able to remember.
He’s sitting on the beach in this memory, but it’s all wrong because the sky isn’t beautiful like it’s supposed to be. The waves are much closer to his feet. Terns dot the beach, although he doesn’t bother to focus upon them, more interested in the swell of his palms with adolescence. On the sand sits his mom, and there’s paisley spread beneath them in just the sort of quaint way he equates with childhood.
She’s reading something to him, but all the words hurry together. Each one must live in a city, he thinks, surrounded by so much droning noise it becomes second nature to do just the same and exist as a grey blur.
He gazes at the sea.
When he looks back, the syllables sort themselves out, no longer upended upon the sand for a mind greater than his to decode. And he can tell the words apart from each other now, spaced out with the sort of slowness which accompanies the dreariest sections of heather filled suburbs. Long roads which bend at the same pace as honey tipping from a jar, identical gardens all lined up next to each other with electric lines cutting the sky into neat little sections and short fences cutting the land into postage stamps.
A clean slate, with your own face on, she finishes, reaching up to push the shades onto the top of her head. It’s easy to remember something when he’s staring right at it, and he can remember now how her eyes are the colour of seagrass. Green looks more like swamp water when it’s trapped in his eyes, but there’s something about her commanded by the skies as the tides are commanded by the moon. Light footed, elusive. If he looks hard enough, the beads strung around her wrists and neck appear as conches, and the silk holding her hair back from her face is made of fishing net.
“What does it mean?”
Whatever you want it to.
He blinks, and she’s opening a cake box with peach nails. The paint sticks to her cuticles and flakes off her pointer finger, but every imperfection is overshadowed by the circular piece of moonstone sitting at the base of it. Do you still need candles? she asks, lips tilted in amusement. She’d ask the same question every year for the rest of her life, and Dream would always say yes.
“I’m gonna make a wish,” he says. Like it’s obvious.
He looks at the sky while she’s sticking the candles into the cake, lips downturning at the corners because the sky is apocalypse blue. The sort which appears in a solid block of heather grey the same colour as February, with no variation to mark each miserable day apart from the next. And it’s growing darker, and that must mean the day is drawing to a close.
“Why is there no sunset?” he asks, a little intimidated by the lifelessness of the sky.
Look behind you, she says, flicking a match against the side of the box so that clementine juice runs over her hands, drips into the lines and vanishes when she pulls away. The candles are all lit, and they wink at him like crossed stars.
Sunset paints his vision when he looks back up the beach. It’s wonderful, how the clouds appear to be set ablaze by celestial fire. Sapnap would love it, he thinks. But he’s most likely already asleep, face pushed deep into his pillow and red tear tracks dripping down his cheeks. He’s never allowed to stay out late.
He turns his head back towards the sea, surging with disappointment.
“Why doesn’t it set there?” Dream asks, spring eyes fixed upon the grey boundary between the sea and skies. He’s at the age where things such as this seem unjust, and he thinks it would be better if he could look at the sea and sky at the same time. “Like on postcards?”
She doesn’t sigh with the resignation of a person annoyed by the workings of the world, doesn’t run ringed fingers through her hair and curse the layout of the land. Instead, her red lipstick arcs into a heart, peach nails flashing as she leans forward to pull Dream’s thumb out of his mouth because she always says he’ll screw his teeth up if he keeps doing it. You can’t change the way the world spins just for a postcard, can you?
“No,” he admits.
It would be nice if it set over the sea, but there’s no changing it, so there’s no need to worry. It doesn’t matter if things aren’t always perfect.
“Does it ever set over the sea?”
In better places than this one, she sighs, reaching behind her head to retie the fabric holding her hair back. I’ll take you one day. I’ll buy a car, we can go on a roadtrip to somewhere it does.
Dream wonders how she can afford something like that, when she winced at the sound of coins being exchanged for their bus fare just hours earlier. When she looks at the peeling wallpaper in the living room and tells him she’ll renovate when she has a better job with better money.
“Okay,” he says, although he doesn’t believe her.
But she had a knack for speaking the imaginary into reality, for taking life between both hands and colouring it with crayon. That’s how Dream learnt to paint his soul.
And before the end of the following year, Dream was sitting in the passenger seat with bubblegum stuck to his teeth. An 8-ball in his hands, blue lines claiming to tap into fate. The asphalt blurred underneath them, miles and miles of it phasing from green to brown to westerly orange, until they were surrounded by halogen lights and murky smoke. He never quite knew how, but they made it.
He thought perhaps it was because he wished and wished to see the sun setting over the sea when he blew his candles out that August.
Do you still need candles? she asked for the very last time on his seventeenth birthday. But they were on the other side of the country this time, and the sun was sliding towards the sea just like it did on postcards. No matter how many times they went back, he didn't tire of it.
It was a ritual by that point, he supposed.
“You didn't bring seventeen candles.”
You’re doubting me, she said, and produced all seventeen of them with the wicks white and unused. Do you want them or not?
“‘course I do,” he muttered, leaning forward so he could stick each one into blue frosting. “I need to make a wish.”
Even though it was sort of the entire point, he didn't make a wish, because the sun was setting over the sea, and his heart was still buzzing with the thrill of travelling, and his mom was smiling at him with imperfect teeth.
Dream often wonders if things would’ve turned out differently if he just wished for something.
He didn't have candles for a few years after that.
And he’s back on the beach in his ageing body, although it’ll begin to decay instead of mature before long.
Two lost souls flicker either side of him, and he wishes and wishes they’ll never be extinguished. But it’s futile, because the whole magic of birthday wishes only occurs when blowing the candles out.
“Can you just- can you say it again?” he asks in desperation. He’s running out of time, and before long the sun will be swallowed up by ocean navy.
George looks at him in confusion. “Say what?”
“Happy birthday,” Sapnap mutters, because he always knows what Dream means.
Gentle lips press against his temple, joined by the faint impression of the tip of George’s nose. “Happy birthday,” he breathes, rounded after being sea-tumbled all day. A soft hand slips into Dream’s right and a calloused into his left, and someone’s cassette player is louder than all the others with the exact same tape he used to play to a headstone week by week. The sea wells in his eyes.
This time he makes a wish because he thinks he’ll regret it if he doesn’t, rocking bare feet against the sand at the same pace of crackling music. Because it’s always been a little easier to use the words of someone else as a crutch when he’s all run out, especially when his lines are filled up with the contents of his heart and there’s nothing left to say.
He makes a wish, and even though there’s not much time left, he hopes it can become true at some hazy point on the horizon.
Wish you were here
The sun sets over the sea.
poem: you're - sylvia plath
yaknow the happy one she wrote about her kid and AGH FUCK IM SORRY idk why i do this
i said i wouldnt do an end note but actually i lied i can't help myself, i put pyramid song at the end of the playlist because im a big masochist and ending on wish u were here isn't sad enough??, here is what i would totally one hundred percent just absolutely add at the end of the fic if it were set in modern timez: (radiohead can take me to court that's ok)
I jumped into the river
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
And all the things I used to see
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt
listen not to suck thom yorke off but thanks bub, i enjoy listening to this song now that it unavoidably reminds me of kb because i made the grave (haha) mistake of putting it on the playlist. actually now im thinking about it im the same age as this song, this has literally no relevance to anything whatsoever but it makes me cool because i was born in the same year as pyramid song and u weren't (unless u were then ur cool)
can you tell im losing my grip on reality rn
there is a lot of shit i could say about the fic but i won't, however i might not be able to hold back if i get comments so, be forewarned.
also yes that is the ending, it was always going to be the ending and im not sorry about it really (pls share with ur friends to annoy them too!! im ready to piss people off it satisfies some sick little part of my soul, probably the same part that adds all my crying music to the kb playlist)
im shutting up now, thank u all for coming <3
biggest thank you ever to moon, who reads absolutely everything i write before posting and inspires most of it too. i'll buy u a drink or three at some point ;)
much love, Saint <3