There'll Always Be MusicbyTransverse©
He walked out of the room, down the hall, and into the elevator. His hair was coming back in now, slowly; it was a soft and fine peach fuzz on top of his head, but it was coming back, all right. When the doors closed, he reached up and patted it gently, proud and heartbroken.
When the doors opened again, he tightened the scarf around his neck and slid his earmuffs onto his head. He shoved his gloved hands into his pockets, striding toward the automatic doors.
It was cold outside.
His knees threatened to lock up, and he had to exert considerable effort to keep bending them on the way to his car. The wind dug it's frozen nails into his cheeks and eyes until he thought he might die of it, but he made it, summoning just enough strength to pull his keys out of his pocket and unlock the door. He climbed inside, fumbling for the ignition and sighing in gratitude when it finally turned over. He turned on the heat, then sat back and closed his eyes, waiting for the car to get warm.
It was finally over. Three years - three long, desperate years - and he was finally done. Fini. Terminado.
I should be overjoyed, he thought, turning on the defroster.
He put the car in reverse, backing out of the space for the last time. He turned onto the street, not yet sure where he was going.
The time had slipped past him; it was December, and he was just noticing. By the looks of things, Christmas was just around the corner and the city had pulled out all the stops; lights on the trees that lined the streets, garland and ornaments strung up in every window. He wondered for the first time in recent memory what the date was.
He got his answer when he turned onto Main and saw the tree. They put it up a week before the big day, and they were still stringing up lights around the bottom. Every night there was music and games and dancing. It was evening now, so couples were already rocking against each other in the shifting light.
He parked his car near them, getting out and wincing as the cold tore into his flesh again. He ignored it, locking the doors and walking over to the benches that surrounded the tree. He sat down, tightening his scarf again before leaning back to watch the happy people dance.
Wesley said he'd bring me here, he thought, smiling as a couple did a speedy dip that threw their balance. They landed in the snow, laughing. Then they kissed, and started to get to their feet.
His face tingled and his eyes stung, but he was determined to stay and enjoy this. It had been too long since he had enjoyed anything. He looked upward at the emerging stars, to marvel at them and to keep the tears in his eyes from running down his cheeks.
They'd visited all the time, at first. Cards, flowers, candy, hugs - he'd had a steady diet of it in those first few months, when there had still been hope that he'd be alright. But with every new scan there was less and less hope, and he guessed they just didn't see the point in pretending anymore- he was going to die, and that was that. Even Wesley had left him in the end; just couldn't take seeing him like that anymore, he'd said. He had cried a lot and apologized even more, but he still left, and had never returned.
He wondered what they would say now if they could see him; if they could face him knowing that he hadn't died off.
You've got your life back now, he thought to himself. Maybe you can finish college - that got cut pretty short. You could even learn Chinese, or climb Everest. And maybe something wonderful will happen.
"Are you okay?"
He started, sucking in a lungful of frigid air. He coughed, breathing through his scarf to get his breath back. When he had calmed down, he looked up at the source of the voice.
He was maybe twenty-one, twenty-two, with a five o'clock shadow and beautiful eyes. He was smiling the smile of a man with a lot of merry Christmases and happy New Years under his belt.
"Who are you?" he asked, wiping away the tears he just realized escaped.
"Erie," the man said simply, sitting beside him. "Who're you?"
"Loren," he replied after a moment, putting his hands back into his pockets. He turned away from Erie, back toward the tree.
"So?" Erie asked. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing major," Loren lied, tightening his scarf.
Erie was silent for a moment. "I don't believe you," he said finally.
"What's it to you?" Loren snapped, shooting a heated glance in his direction. "What the fuck do you care? You don't even know me."
Erie frowned, then relaxed. "You were crying, and I just wanted to help."
Loren looked at him. His bottom lip protruded in a classic pout, and his eyes were sad, but concerned. Loren felt his eyes tingle again, and stood, turning his back into the wind. "You can't," he said simply. "Just leave me alone."
He walked back to his car, making a big show of pulling out his keys and getting inside. He backed up with a screech, driving off into the darkness. He didn't look back.
The doughnut shop was warm, and for that he was grateful. The scarf was beginning to chafe.
He sat in a corner, far from the front, and watched the coffee drinkers and pastry eaters smile and talk and be. He took his jacket off and laid it on his lap, smiling as best he could when the waitress set a little plate with a cupcake on it in front of him. Her nametag said she was Erynn.
He turned toward the window and the tree, which he could still see from here. He hadn't gone far; just far enough to shake the man who said his name was Erie. His eyes had been pretty and they made Loren want to smile. He'd gotten along just fine without pretty things and smiles for a good chunk of time, and he saw no reason to think he needed them now. Pretty things and smiles were for quitters.
He looked down at his cupcake, wondering why he didn't feel happier. Three months ago, he would have given anything to be able to eat a cupcake and keep it down. It was red velvet, and it used to be his favorite; he should have been overjoyed to finally have one. Weren't things ever going to go back to how they were?
His eyes stung, and this time no amount of blinking was going to keep him from crying. He pressed his lips together until they were numb, the tears falling; silent, but constant. He kept his face as expressionless as he could; screwing it up would only draw attention.
When he was finally forced to take a breath, it was loud and ragged, and several people oriented toward him. He turned toward the window, focusing on a point far away to take his mind off of his life. If it wouldn't have killed him, he would have liked to have gotten wasted. He'd been alone with himself for long enough; he could use a break.
When he had calmed down a little, he picked up his coat, preparing to pull it on. This place was depressing him; he wanted to go home. He was putting his cupcake into a take-out box when a pair of plaid Vans came into his line of vision. Above them were some jeans, a sweater, and finally a face.
"What are you, stalking me now?" he said, standing and pulling on his coat.
"I wouldn't call it that," Erie beaming. Loren rolled his eyes, tightening his scarf.
"Well, I hope you enjoyed the ride," Loren said, turning to leave. "Because it's over. I'm going home." He walked off, at a normal pace this time, and headed out the door to the parking lot on the side of the building. When he reached the car, he pulled out his keys, yet again, to unlock the door. He heard a rhythmic scratching in the packed snow behind him, and he turned to see Erie running toward him.
"What's the matter with you?" Loren bit, narrowing his eyes in anger. "Don't you-"
"You forgot your cupcake," Erie said, his smile proud and bright. His cheeks were red from the cold, and little puffs of air materialized in front of him as he panted from the running. "I thought you might need it."
Loren used every ounce of willpower he had to keep his grimace from breaking into a smile. "Thanks," he said, taking the box.
They stood in silence for a moment, looking at each other. Then, Erie stepped forward, leaning in and planting a soft kiss on Loren's lips. His eyes widened in surprise, and he placed his hands on Erie's chest, pushing him away. Erie stood there, smiling shyly and grinding his toe into the dirty snow. Loren blinked, still reeling.
"What the hell was that?" he asked.
Erie shrugged, looking off to his right and blushing. "I wanted to know what your lips would feel like."
Loren stared, more touched that he wanted to admit to himself. Then he turned back to his car. "Well, now you know," he said, turning his back and opening the door. He tossed the box onto the passenger seat.
"Do you think I could maybe…hang out with you this week?" Erie nearly whispered.
Loren froze, then turned back toward him. He was looking down at his feet, still grinding his toes into the dirt.
"I'm only here for college. My family lives in Hawaii, and I…I can't afford to go back this year. I can't just stay here alone…not on Christmas…"
His voice got a little thick then, and he swallowed hard, looking up at Loren. Loren gazed back, unsure of what to do.
He just doesn't want to spend Christmas alone, he told himself. You know what that's like. What, do you have something better to do?
"Fine," he said after a moment, and seeing Erie's smile return to his face made him feel that his decision was right. "What did you have in mind? Were you hoping to do anything special?"
His face brightened, and his smile broadened into a wide grin. "Yeah!" Loren could swear he was actually vibrating, and wondered what he had let himself in for.
"We can go sledding up on this hill that my friend told me about! I've always wanted to go sledding down that hill, it's really great!" He chuckled a little, then continued. "And we can go ice skating. There's a frozen lake just over there"- he pointed off to the left "-and it's supposed to stay solid until at least New Year's day. And at the mall, there's this raffle for a new Wii with the purchase of some food product they're trying to sell…"
Loren felt his smile widen against his will as he listened to Erie go on about all the things they could do before Christmas rolled around. He looked so adorable, bouncing around and talking with his hands. He was like a kid at Christmas time. Which, Loren thought, isn't so far from the truth.
"All right, all right, I get it," Loren was forced to interrupt when he showed no signs of slowing down. "Winter wonderland, Christmas cheer, the magic of Macy's. You still have a lot of growing up to do," he said with a snort.
Erie settled, looking thoughtfully at him. "No," he answered finally. "I hope I never outgrow this feeling." He paused again, then shook his head and went on. "Anyway, I'll meet you by the tree tomorrow. How about around noon? I want to rent a sled from the vendor before they're all gone."
"Noon should be fine," Loren agreed, turning to get in his truck. His knees were starting to creak again, and he had no intentions of sledding the next day. "See you then. Make sure you go to the bathroom before bed tonight. Wouldn't want you to have an accident."
Erie rolled his eyes, his grin at the full hundred watts. He turned, jogging back toward the parking lot near the big Christmas tree. I used to be like that, he thought, sighing. He got into his car and headed back to his house.
He pulled into his driveway, surprised to see that his hedges had been trimmed. Mrs. McCullough must have kept them up. He got out of the car, not bothering with the garage door. It didn't have an automatic opener on it, and he was tired.
He got to the front door, pulling out his keys. He stared at them for a moment, unsure of which ones unlocked the door. It had been almost three months since he'd been to the house.
He finally found the Schlage he was looking for, and turned it in the lock, relieved to hear it tumble open. He went inside, closing the door and locking it. He felt along the wall for a light switch, finding one off to his right. He flipped it on, squinting in the light.
It was familiar enough, and yet still somehow foreign. There were candles and end tables and pictures and pillows everywhere, and none of them felt like they were his, though he knew they were. He floated into the kitchen after a few minutes, mesmerized by the sheer number of things in the house, things that had made up his life. Their lives.
Wesley had cleaned things up nicely; Loren had to hand him that. The dishes were stacked in perfect order on their appropriate shelves, and the pots and pans were hanging on the rack above the little island. Even the salt and pepper shakers were in the right spot; Wesley had never put them back where they should have been when he was done cooking, forcing Loren to go hunting for them every morning to season his eggs. He'd hated it, bitching Wesley out about it every chance he got. He smiled, thinking about those times. They were easy. Alive.
His joints were really beginning to scream by then, so he headed for the bedroom, making a wrong turn and walking into the laundry room before finding it. Even in here, where they had spent so much time together, he felt like he had broken into a stranger's house. Thinking that maybe getting in bed would make it feel more like home, he stripped and climbed into bed in his underwear, shivering even though the heat was on.
He pressed his face into the pillow, trying to see if it at least smelled familiar. After everyone had left, but before he was admitted to the hospital for good, he would lay there at night, smelling the bedding. It reminded him of Wesley; even after he'd washed the sheets, they still smelled like him, and the constant reminder of what he'd lost was the worst thing he could have imagined at the time. He had cried to sleep almost every night, hugging the pillows and wishing for Wesley to come back or that he could erase him from them forever. Now, though, he realized that there was something worse than losing everyone he loved and having vivid memories of them.
Losing the memories, too.
He closed his eyes, and slept.
"You have to do it, at least once," Erie whined.
They were at the top of a hill. They had little one-person sleds in their hands, and Erie was pouting again. Loren got the feeling he did it a lot.
"I told you, I don't feel like it," Loren told him, sighing. Agreeing to this had been such a mistake; he ought to have rejected him last night and been done with it. Now he had to deal with more whining.
Erie clicked his teeth and crossed his arms, furrowing his eyebrows. "Fine," he muttered, throwing his sled down dramatically and dropping down onto it with a thud. "I'll just do it myself, then."
"Yeah," Loren said, narrowing his eyes at Erie's antics. He wished he would stop being so cute.
"Meanie," Erie said under his breath, positioning himself to go down the hill.
Meanie? Loren thought, incredulous. Meanie?
"What did you just call me?"
"Nothing," Erie answered, shrugging. "I just said, 'I wish I had a beanie.'"
Loren stood there, wanting to reply, but he found himself at a loss for words. So he laughed.
At first it was just a giggle, a snort that escaped his chest despite his effort to hold it in. As if encouraged by the escape of the first, more giggles bubbled from deep inside him, until he was on his knees, shaking with gales of laughter. Erie joined in before long, and then they were both rolling on the ground, Loren with tears running down his nose. After a few minutes, a breathless Erie sat up, looking over at him. He smiled, taking Loren's hand and pulling them both to their feet. He dusted the snow off of his butt with both hands, and Loren snorted again.
"Still don't want to come?" he said, his head cocked to one side and a lock of hair hanging in his eyes. Loren smiled without reservation.
"What the hell."
They stayed there all afternoon. At first Loren couldn't stay on the sled; he fell off halfway down the hill at least six times, laughing and shaking snow out of his coat. Erie turned out to be quite good, and after a little practice, they were racing for the bottom. In one race they had even set up obstacles, swerving around them like racecar drivers in some insane course. Loren was reluctant to leave, even after the sun had set, feeling exhilarated.
"C'mon, it's freezing," Erie said, hugging himself. "Let's go get something warm."
They walked back to the little coffee shop where Loren had bought his cupcake the previous night, this time sitting at a table in the middle. They both ordered hot chocolates, Erie's with extra whipped cream. It was the same waitress, Erynn. She smiled at them.
"Did you guys go sledding?" she asked, gesturing toward the boards that lay next to their chairs.
"Yeah," Erie replied, grinning. "It was amazing; we got some great runs in." She grinned back, and their eyes twinkled.
When she left, Loren looked pointedly at him, raising an eyebrow and smiling a little.
"What?" Erie asked, pretending to be engrossed in the dessert menu/napkin holder.
"Do you two know each other from somewhere?" Loren asked, Erie's blush making his lips tingle.
"Yeah," he replied, trying and failing to sound nonchalant. "She's pretty cool."
Loren was surprised at how giddy he was feeling; it was like he was five on his birthday again. His expression dimmed a little when he thought of going home. Stop it, he scolded himself. Be happy, if just for a little while. Every waking moment doesn't have to be miserable, does it?
He looked across the table and saw that Erie's own smile had faded. Great, he thought. Just look at what you've done now.
"So, what school are you going to?" he asked.
"I'm over at State, in Lisbon Falls, but I live here because it's cheaper. Less crowded, too."
"What are you majoring in?"
"I don't know," he said simply.
"That seems to be the major of choice nowadays, doesn't it?"
Erie chuckled, then sobered. "Why are you here?" he asked seriously.
"I don't know, either," he replied.
They left the coffee shop an hour later, ambling in the general direction of the lot where Loren had parked his car. Erie's hands were shoved in his pants pockets, and he was wearing a big, puffy winter jacket. His earmuffs, fluffy and brown, completely covered his ears, making him look like some kind of Alaskan wilderness Princess Leia.
Seeing Loren's grin, Erie looked over at him, a serious expression on his face. He stopped.
Loren continued walking for a few more moments, looking around in confusion when he noticed that Erie was no longer beside him. He walked back toward him, stopping in front of him and giving him a quizzical look.
Erie merely stood, looking at him, his expression ambiguous. His cheeks were red from the cold, and his breaths were visible in front of his mouth as he panted softly. He stared at Loren for a few moments, then his brow furrowed, and he reached up and grabbed the sides of Loren's face in his mitten-covered hands and pulled him close.
He crushed his lips against Loren's, moaning as his tongue slipped past his lips and onto Loren's. Loren's eyes widened in shock, but even in his surprise he began to respond, pushing back gently and eventually opening his lips to receive Erie's tongue. Erie's hands slipped further back onto his head, pressing them even tighter together. When he finally needed to breathe, Erie pulled back reluctantly, his hands still holding Loren's face.
His breathing was shallower now, and the white puffs of air that emanated from his lips came more frequently. Loren continued looking into his eyes, his own breathing uneven. After a minute or so, Erie spoke.