“I’m with you, no matter how bad things get.”
Josiah’s words carry me up out of my sleep and into the cold chill of his family’s home. I feel like I’m falling sideways, even though I’m able to sit upright in bed. The haze clouding my head tells me that dawn is still far off, that I should try and get some sleep before tomorrow comes with all its unknowns. Through the slats of the two-by-fours nailed across the two windows facing north, there are flecks of sleet falling, punctuating the blanket of night that lays over the Knect’s land. Sleet in October? Stranger still.
It feels like I’m caught in a spotlight as I slip out of the guest bedroom and head for the stairs. The long hallway is dim. I pause by the open restroom door. There’s a men’s razor someone left on the edge of the sink. By faint moonlight, the butterfly head glints with specs of water and slivers of beard hair. Josiah. He must’ve been freezing, having to splash the well water his parents drew up earlier that day so that he could shave. My shoulders leap up without my say so, and I head for the stairs.
Downstairs, the fire is still crackling and burns bright. The metal flue rising up from the iron firebox rattles and sighs. I lead with the periphery of my sixth sense, trusting in myself and knowing that it wasn’t just the snap of burning wood or the shifts and groans of the house that woke me. I take one step off the stairs, then another, my wool socks protecting me from most of the chill of the hard floor.
There’s movement to my left. Both Josiah and I jump when he rounds the corner of the dining room, his cheeks and mouth hidden by his scarf. Josiah falls back on one foot before he scrambles for his drawstring back, which slips down the side of his arm.
“Lord, you scared me.”
“Sorry,” I say, my voice barely above a whisper. He steals a look over his shoulder, then looks at me and raises his index finger to his scarf. I nod. His parents’ room is on the far side of the kitchen.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he whispers once I’ve stepped into the dining room. “Just been…”
“Thinking about tomorrow?”
Josiah raises his shoulders and sputters his lips. “Trying not to. I decided to at least make the most of my insomnia and get some supplies from the guest house.”
I shrug and say, “I can help you, if you want.”
We both look at reinforced double doors which lead out to the wraparound porch. Josiah jerks his head and motions for me to follow him. Slipping into my jacket and boots takes almost no time, and he opens the back door in slow motion before we head out.
I don’t ask questions. Something faint and electric carries me through the dead of night, not entirely without fear, but with more than enough courage to be ready.
We hurry across the stone walkway leading from the wraparound porch to the main yard, both of us with drawstring bags hanging from our backs. Josiah crosses the white wooden bridge that spans the pond, his footprints in the grass almost evenly spaced out. I realize with a warm swirl in my stomach that I can place one boot in front of the other and land in his steps, without changing my stride length at all. It’s part of the flow we share.
“This used to be my grandparents’ house,” Josiah says right after I slip through the double doors of the guesthouse, which, from the outside, looks more like a cabin one would find in the middle of the Rockies. “This whole area of land was theirs, actually.”
“It’s nice,” I say as I take in the high vaulted ceiling and the upstairs balcony. Josiah stamps his boots on the rug that spreads out into the center of the living room. Tiny arcs of sleet fly across the Monaco design before they begin to sink into the fabric and melt. The glow from the fireplace to my right is a sweet surprise, and my muscles relax and sigh in relief after I shut the door. He must have been up for a while, then.
“What can I help with?”
Josiah slips around to the other side of the faded couch before he shrugs his drawstring off. “I was gonna start looking for extra batteries for our walkie-talkies and radios.” He sets a couple of his weapon walkies on the counter of the built-in wet bar. “If you want to check upstairs for them, I’d really appreciate it. There should be some in the hutch on the far end of the loft.”
I tip-toe up the L-shaped set of stairs, the floorboards creaking beneath me. The wood railings and semi-sanded support beams of the guest house glow by the firelight. Overhead, shadows play like kids rolling in the grass. I love the sloped ceiling. This whole place has a rustic feel to it, one I don’t want to just skim over.
I move over to the hutch at the opposite end of the loft. Two packs of D batteries are waiting for me in the bottom left drawer. I slip them into my bag, then sit back on my haunches and look over the board games stacked before me: Monopoly, Pictionary, Chess, Apples to Apples. There were normal days not that long ago, days when Josiah’s family would have gathered around a board game and gotten swept up in their own laughter. My smile wobbles and threatens to collapse into dust.
We have to get back to those days. We will.
I take in the two guest bedrooms on my left, plus the tiny bathroom sandwiched in the middle. The heat from the fireplace down below has already filled the loft, and slipping my beanie off brings a much-needed rush of cool air over my scalp. By the weak firelight, I can just make out a couple of framed pictures hanging on the far wall of the guest bedroom closest to the stairs. I step into the bedroom and scan every detail I can. There’s a sewing machine resting on a table in the corner. The table’s surface is smooth but faded. I bet his grandparents made that table by hand at least thirty or forty years ago.
I back up and turn to the loft. “Hey.” I lean over the railing and wait until Josiah sticks his head out from behind the wet bar. “Want me to look for first aid stuff?”
Josiah nods and finishes unraveling his scarf. Pink skin and stunted stubble catch my attention when he looks up at me. “There should be some supplies under the sink in the bathroom. Here-” and he pauses to vault over the bar - “I’ll come up.”
I get a head start and raid the cabinet above the sink. Tylenol, Aleve, a couple of bottles of witch hazel...I sweep them all into my bag. Josiah appears in the door frame and tilts his head.
“We’ll need everything we can carry.” His throat locks up, but he forces the words out. “I don’t want us to have to come back out here if something happens. If we have to fight or run.”
Josiah hangs his head down low. When I zip up my bag and rise, he’s already drifted to my left and into the second guest bedroom. With my heart fluttering, I follow. Josiah moves past the dresser across from the bed, barely giving the framed pictures a glance before he heads into the closet. I grip the side of the open door and will myself to take a deep breath. There’s no reason my heart should be racing like this, not one.
“It’s not enough,” Josiah says in a strained voice. Hangers clatter together inside the closet. I reach over and turn up the lantern he left on the edge of the dresser. Josiah goes on. “None of this will help get us through winter.”
“Hey,” I call with a soft but clear urgency.
Josiah rushes out of the closet, half a dozen jackets cradled in his arms. I hold up my hands until he bumps against me. Josiah hurls the jackets onto the single chair in the corner, then collapses on the edge of the bed before he buries his face in his hands.
“Hey, hey, what’s wrong?” I take a knee beside my friend. “Come on, you’re doing everything you can. Josiah, look at me.”
He does, his pupils wide and the whites of his eyes like shards of ice capping a mountaintop. I take a seat next to Josiah on the bed. “Listen, man, your family is safe,” I plead. “We may not know when the Swarm are gonna come back, or what the hell Reg and his people are gonna do, but right now, you’re a part of your family again.”
Josiah turns away from me, though he tries to keep his eyes trained in my general direction. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but- ”
“But it’s okay to be scared,” I say, looking past him at the fluttering curtains and the pale moon behind them. “Worrying, thinking about how to be safe every single second of every single day... It’s what we have to do now.”
Our still point is too much for him. Even though something lights up his face, Josiah runs the back of his hand across his nose and rises. I take his hand before I know what I’m doing. Stop. My message is clear in the way I give him a gentle tug with both my hands. Something ripples down his arm and through mine. He stops and raises his head to the ceiling.
“You have your parents, your brother and sister,” I say. “Just stop and feel that. You’re home.”
His fingers slip out of my grasp. The wind glides along the side of the guest house and rattles the window. Tears sting at my eyelids. I drop his hand, rise on shaky legs, and hobble toward the open door. I need to move, have to -
When I turn back, Josiah is one step apart from me. Close enough so that, by the light of the camping lantern, I can see faint nicks where the razor blade caught on both his hair and his skin. He lifts his bare hands and takes what feels like a minute to study the lines of his palms. “I’m thankful for you, too,” Josiah murmurs.
I’ve never thought of you as anything more than a friend.
More crackling energy hits me. Just be still, Rayland. Those are Josiah’s words from days ago. His world has changed since then. Maybe, just maybe, his feelings have too.
So I do. Even when I raise my hand to Josiah’s face and let the ridges of my fingerprints catch on what remains of his beard, I’m still. When I lean in close to Josiah’s neck, I’m still. I let my body find its own course, though there’s enough nerves firing off inside me to rival a nuclear reaction.
But the greatest stillness I find at my core happens when I kiss Josiah.
At first we’re frozen together. Our lips press hard and meld with warmth. With every inch of skin that we line up, another wave of fireworks goes off behind my closed eyes. They fly through my head space and bombard my heart. My hand rests on his shoulder before I reach for his hair bun. I hit a soft spot, though; Josiah backs off, easing up the pressure before our lips part.
“I’m thankful for you, too,” I whisper. We fall into each other’s pupils, get out, and dive right back in again. “Is this what you want?”
“I don’t know,” he murmurs. “I think so.” His hand drifts down to my hip.
Now he’s the one who leans in and kisses me. The waves between us spread out. I’m stuck in a snowglobe that somebody just shook. No, not snow. His hair. His hair tie is in my hand, and Josiah’s curls are falling everywhere: across his shoulders, his forehead, my face. Time falls with us, tumbling sideways before the thick comforter catches us. There’s no up or down, no top or bottom; we’re going in all directions all at once.
Josiah sweeps me up and plops all 130 pounds of me onto the bed. I roll my jacket off and out from under me, then help him slip his off, his long-sleeve shirt riding up and exposing his flat stomach. My hand finds its place across his belly button. Josiah lets out a shrill yelp before he shudders.
“Sorry,” I say with a laugh, letting my hands come to rest on the comforter. The goosebumps that ripple across his faint abs are chased away by the faint curly-cues of hair at his belt line.
“Here,” he says, his lips curling into a half smile before he slips my shirt off. There’s just enough light from the moon and the lantern to see his chest by. Josiah’s face is starting to take on this warm pink color. It’s no different from the times in acro yoga where he based and I was his flyer.
Josiah falls next to me and stares up at the ceiling. “I’m just...not sure about me.” He flares his nostrils before exhaling through them. “I’ve never…”
This time I ball my hand into a fist before blowing three quick puffs of hot air through the narrow opening my fingers make. I uncurl said hand and press it against his peck, which rises and falls like the first of many waves coming in from the sea.
“We can go slow,” I whisper.
His hair hisses when he turns my way. There’s a new softness around his eyes. “Okay.”
Let your body be free. Flow is doing that, of not being ashamed of your vessel, your temple.
I let myself rest on top of Josiah, letting my body meld with his. We’ve looked out for each other, learned things that we never would’ve had to accept in a world without the Swarm. There’s a bond between us; Josiah and I are in this together.
There’s always something that floors my heart whenever I slip out of my pants next to another guy. Something about the side-to-side rocking that we do, the pained half-smiles that we share when our pant legs get stuck around our ankles. Like now, when Josiah and I bear our boxer briefs. Heather gray and forest green -- our underwear seems to blur together. We fold into each other before I rest my hand on his groin.
The more our bodies tumble in this cycle of warmth, the more I find my center. Josiah spread out across the bed so that his arms can almost touch both ends. He stares through me, into me. I stare back and swim in his every curve.
One deep inhale and slow exhale later, I’m straddling Josiah again and closing off second guesses. I shake my head like I’m trying to scatter raindrops from my hair. His eyebrows furrow with worry. “It doesn’t hurt that much,” I reassure my friend. “I’m okay.”
To show him, I slip my hand from his hair down to his cheek, cupping it so that he is looking up at me straight on. Josiah’s relief is so clear in the way his crow’s feet soften. He clasps his hand on the soft of my bare hip. I plant one last kiss on his lips and take the lead. Our bodies rise and fall as one.
So that’s what it feels like. I can hear him thinking it now. There’s the flood of endorphins, but also the rush of racing thoughts: Is this right? What if this really is against God’s will? I don’t want to lose myself…
They’ll be silenced, too.
Our momentum builds. When he pants, I echo him. Our groans get chained together in this kind of song no one else can ever emulate. This is our dance, our new flow, and I could ride in it forever.
Soon I slip and collapse into the bunched-up sheets beside Josiah. His hand comes to rest against my peck. I settle in the nook of his arm, and he draws me closer. We close our eyes and let the seconds fall away.
“We should probably get back,” he murmurs after a while. Now it’s my turn to graze his chest with what remains of my stubble. It feels good to shudder, to know that, like shaving and letting our facial hair grow back out, all parts of life come and go. The pleasure radiating out of my center starts to melt at the edges. …What are those called again? The root and sacral chakras. That’s right.
I nod before I close my eyes and plant a kiss on his forehead, my lips parting his sea of curls. “Soon,” I mutter.
In the whirlpool of our body heat, I sink back into myself and let my ears do the leading. The snap of firewood down below, the low wail of the wind, and our heartbeats. All of it blends into this subdued symphony, and it plays for us alone.