We wait another fifteen minutes to make sure the Swarm are gone before going back outside. Thunder yaps and paws at our legs, trying to keep me and Josiah from returning to the darkness.
“Easy boy,” I murmur as I rub his sides. “We gotta go get everything back.”
Those radios and walkie talkies are our only defense against the Swarm, after all.
“Stay here, buddy,” Josiah adds, then scratches gently behind Thunder’s ear. “It’s safer. I promise.” Josiah’s calves and shoulders are tensed. He’s ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.
I want to believe we’ve grown perceptive enough. That Josiah and I will always pick up on the Swarm’s otherworldly grating and the howling wind they ride in on at least a minute or two before they arrive. But I can’t bet my life on it.
We lost too many friends...too many teammates who made the same mistake.
When I pry open the back door, Josiah raises his flashlight with a swift jerk and casts its beam into the gloom. Counting the last two radios I have clipped to my waistband, I unsheathe my hunting knife. Though I doubt a couple of Buck hunting knives will do us any good if the Swarm come back.
Out on the back deck, I kick some downed branches out of the way before leaping onto the second level of the three-story yard, a trash bag dangling from my shorts. Each tier is walled off with a stack of wooden beams that are almost as thick as my waist. Together, the three levels form a kind of giant’s staircase, albeit one that doesn’t go much higher than five or six yards. I bend over and pick up the first radio I stumble across, a blue mini USB radio I’d taken off the grisly remains of one of the neighbors three houses down. The memory of his mangled hand, how his still-wet blood had drenched the silver speaker, claws its way back into my head. I shudder and rub my bare biceps before moving on.
“They really hauled it out of here.” Josiah stares at the red fence higher up before puffing his chest out. He sounds worn, unsure, but somehow still curious. The Swarm fascinate him, even when he’s living moment to moment in this hellish nightmare.
I don’t blame the dude, though Josiah’s childlike awe is starting to grate on me. Instead, all I can do is try to shrug off this full-body ache and watch my friend bend down to pick up another walkie. I wince and look down. The minor cut on my left knee has stopped bleeding, but something inside still feels raw. Untreated.
Now’s not the time to start tripping over love again.
“Hey-ey, this is cute!”
My heart flutters. I turn and watch Josiah pick up a Hello Kitty radio that he hadn’t seen yet. He turns it over before shooting me a grin. “Is this the new one you were telling me my sister would love? Cause she totally will!”
I smile for the first time that night, though my cheeks are sagging in the darkness behind my flashlight. I wanted to show the Hello Kitty radio to Josiah to brighten his day yesterday, since I know that his younger sister, Grace, loves Hello Kitty.
Or had loved. I shake my head and give myself a swift pinch on my elbow. I know there’s no way in hell I can get by with second-guessing and expecting the worst-case scenario. Believing there are others out there, in the possibility that both our families are still alive, is all we have to hold on to.
I clear my throat and drop another radio into my trash bag. “Yeah, I thought it was sweet.”
In total we pick up all sixteen radios and walkies. I thank the Universe for all of them being intact and still working, even the one with the now-flimsy antenna. The second-to-last one that Josiah snatches up has its battery back popped open, but he finds both AAA batteries amid the blanket of leaves and rocks a few seconds later. I breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe there is a God after all.
I never thought that pocket radios, walkie-talkies, and batteries would become so damn precious to me. To us.
Back inside, Josiah and I triple check each device. Other than a couple of scratches on the side of mine, they look fine and still work. The static that pours out of its microphone is more beautiful than any of Beethoven’s symphonies.
Josiah, still focusing on sorting through his own pile across the center island from me, asks, “What’d you call them again?”
I grin and clip another battery cover back into place. “Weapon walkies.”
I look up to Josiah in time to see him holding up a yellow Garmin radio, the antenna that was holding on by a plastic thread now completely broken off in his other hand. Josiah’s frown is exaggerated, but the pain in his eyes isn’t.
I lean my head against the island and squeeze my eyes shut. “Dammit.”
Fifteen working weapon walkies and radios left.
“Ah, man,” I whisper to Josiah, a dim pool of light engulfing me and him, “not now.”
I scrape my fork across the leftover black bean residue and granules of jasmine rice on my plate, trying not to glance twice at Josiah. Across the table, Josiah’s eyes grow more deep-set, He wiggles his eyebrows like we didn’t just almost die an hour ago. “Come on! We can just run through the basics. Bird poise, high flying whale, the easy motions.”
Easy acro yoga motions. My skin bristles at the mention of the first acro moves I’d ever learned. The familiar electric surge of energy pulses through my fingertips and toes. I press my back into my chair and huff. “Alright, alright. Just let me clean up first.”
The glow in Josiah’s face could power our whole block on Wilderness Street, if not the entire cul-de-sac. I’m sure of it. I rise with a shake of my head and fight the urge to smirk. Instead, I grab both of our plates. It’s my turn to do the dishes, since Josiah helped sweep up the leaves and twigs.
How can I say no to his smile? To his entire upbeat aura?
Josiah folds his paper towel, which barely has a single smudge of food on it. “Hey, thanks again,” says Josiah, “…for being there for Thunder.”
“You too,” I reply, the back of my palm grazing Josiah’s open hand. I want to add more about how Brad must be smiling down at us, but only trail off into silence. If Josiah notices, he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he leans over and pats his shorts before grinning at Thunder. “Come on, boy! Let’s get those stickers out of your fur.”
I can’t help but chuckle. We just nearly got swallowed up by a hoard of Swarm outside, and all Josiah is worried about is acro yoga and plucking sticker burs off Thunder?
Once I’m by the sink, I lower my plate so that it rests against the side of my knee. Thunder spies his window of opportunity and slips away from Josiah. Our loyal guard dog is beside me in an instant and laps up the last traces of beans in two seconds flat. “Good boy,” I murmur, then place my dish gently under Josiah’s before lathering up the sponge with a bit of cold pitcher water. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Josiah’s smile spread a couple of stickers already cupped in his palm.
“After what Thunder went through,” Josiah says before standing and shaking his head, “I’d say he deserves a little extra food.”
I grin up at the vaulted ceiling of the kitchen. “Tell me about it.” The last bit of soap foams up and runs between my fingers. “So do we.”
If Josiah is pained by my comment, he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he goes after the first of many stickers clinging to Thunder’s underbelly. I wince along with them when the last couple come out with a distinct phhhtt of torn fur. Thunder yelps before twisting his head around and gnawing at his missing patches of hair. “I’m so sorry, buddy,” Josiah murmurs, scratching Thunder behind his ears. Josiah and I take a winded breath right before Thunder slips out of Josiah reach and scampers into the dining room.
I wish I could tell Thunder that Brad – his real owner – will be back soon. That he can stop waiting by the front door with his head on his paws and his whimpers tearing at us. But I can’t. So I scrub my plate harder, my circular motions getting sloppier. How do you tell a dog his master is never coming back?
I picture Thunder following his usual routine, the single candelabra that Josiah had lit and set on top of the fireplace mantle casting its flickering glow across Thunder’s messy fur. The flames sighing and swaying side to side as Thunder lies before the boarded-over front door.
I glance over my shoulder at the second-story balcony that overlooks the kitchen. The upstairs loft is dark, but all I have to do is squint, and there Brad and Tyler are, leaning over the railing and waving at me and Eric to toss them a roll of paper towels. Dude, hurry, Thunder’s puking! Brad cries out, his grin stilted as he jumps up and down like a little kid.
I close my eyes and chase after my roommates’ voices. But they’re gone in an instant. All that remains is empty space behind the banister. The trickle of water against my fingertips, flowing from the blue jug that Josiah had made into a makeshift faucet, is all I feel.
My eyes flutter open. Josiah swipes the last few burs into the trashcan next to the center island. Then he takes two steps in my direction, bare feet padding against the cool tile, which he had swept clean earlier while I tended to the Mexican casserole simmering over our skillet on the stove. There’s one last leaf stuck in between my big and middle toe. The muscles in my calves and groin twitch. Josiah closes in.
With almost no distance between us, it’s glaringly obvious how curved Josiah’s biceps and shoulders are. Hell, even Josiah’s pecs bulge against his soft tank top. I trace an imaginary line across the freckles that kiss his shoulder blades. No – I’d rather call them shoulder hills.
“I miss it too,” Josiah says, stepping to my side and craning his neck so that he’s studying the loft above us. “The old Cy House. All the good memories we made here.”
I shake my hands over the sink before sliding the plastic cap over the mouth of the water jug. “I can’t stop thinking about how we used to fit everyone in this place,” I say, watching the last swirl of dirty water spin down the drain. “All the team dinners we had here.”
“Same. The last time I made vegan chocolate chip cookies was here, too.” Josiah crosses his arms and lets out a huff that’s heavier than the one Thunder gave us.
“And they were the bomb,” I add with a wry grin, “Brad and Eric were drooling. Remember how they ate the dough first?”
Josiah’s laughter is mellow and just the tiniest bit shrill. “I had to get onto them for that one,” says my friend. “Though I guess technically it was safe since I didn’t use any eggs.”
I smirk. Still vegan. I don’t know why I thought Josiah might change after the Swarm appeared.
He reaches out and rubs my arm. There’s a spark. Josiah can hold me close. Our eyes come to rest in a steady gaze. My lips part like I’m about to speak, but that’s dumb, because I have nothing on my mind that isn’t clouded by exhaustion. My wristwatch reads 10 till 10:00, and the outside world stays hushed. Lifeless. We scared the Swarms off for another night. Even if it’s just a temporary win, it’s ours for the taking.
I offer Josiah a high-five, which he snaps to in a flash. The spell breaks. Shaking my head, I set the clean plates aside and reach for the dish towel. “Come on,” I tell him. “Let’s do some acro.”
We pad into the dining room, Josiah sweeping up his yoga mat from the leather couch before punching his arms in the air. By the front door, Thunder sits up and cocks his head. “My thoughts exactly,” I say in a sing-song voice to our guard dog (if a twenty-one-pound Schnauzer and Airedale Terrier mutt can really be called that). “You think Josiah’s obsessed with acro yoga? Me too, buddy.”
“I prefer to say I’m in love with it,” retorts Josiah. His smile blooms as he unrolls his mat with a soft hiss. He stands in the center of the dream catcher design and trills his toes, then extends his left hand out. I step out of my socks and send them sliding across the hardwood floor with a swift kick.
The first step is always calibrating. I take Josiah’s outstretched hand, the two of us stepping closer together so that our faces are only a few inches apart. The way our interlocked arms fold into our chests, you’d think we were about to start a ballroom dance. Josiah’s breath falls along my bare throat. Before I can shudder, I go tense as Josiah lowers himself onto his mat. With a difference of just over 30 pounds in our weight, I know that paying attention and using our opposite forces is key. Josiah lies flat on his butt first, then lets his back rest against the mat.
I grin to myself. Calibration accomplished.
Josiah’s next step is to form an L with his body. His shorts fall to just above his knees when he raises his legs towards the ceiling. His adductor muscles rise out of the skin of his thighs, making his wavy leg hairs bristle. Do thighs have biceps? I like to think so. I step up the instant Josiah trills his fingertips on the portion of the mat encircling his ass. ‘Come forward, it’s okay. I won’t let you fall,’ his dancing fingers seem to say.
Now for the bracing test. The second point of physical contact for bird pose. I stand straight and relax my shoulders as Josiah presses his warm feet into my hip bones, searching out that sweet spot where the muscles of my hips cushion my pelvis. Blood starts rushing to my head, and I’m glad that’s the only place it feels like it’s going. It takes Josiah less than three deliberate presses of his big toes against the soft of my hips to find the perfect placement. “Okay, lean in,” Josiah tells me, holding up his arms so that his shoulders, elbows, and wrists are all stacked vertically. I murmur my silent mantra – Krishna – before leading with my hips, Josiah’s legs now folding back to a tilted 45-degree angle as he brings his knees towards his chest.
Our hands meet, my fingertips curling around the back of Josiah’s knuckles. Palm to palm, ten fingers meld together to make a less-than-perfect ball.
I look up and set my eyes on the candelabra on the mantle. Josiah receives me and scoops me up. There is no wobbling, no overbearing pressure on my hips or groin as Josiah lifts me up into the air, using the balls and soles of his feet to take almost all my weight. The rest is supported by our arms as they find their natural alignment. Though I feel like I’m gonna pitch forward, I make sure to turn the insides of my elbows in and tighten my core.
“Nice,” I say, my laughter coming easy. We share a quick nod, but Josiah’s eyebrows soon harden as he studies my posture.
“Good.” He tilts his chin to his left, my right. “Shift a little more weight on the right side of your hips.” When I do so, a lightness crosses Josiah’s expression, as if someone just open the blinds of his windows to the soul. “Yes! Perfect.” He wiggles his left foot down just a couple of millimeters before his soles finds their new placement. We let our hands drift apart before I channel my inner Superman and round my back. Our hands are separated.
I’m stable. I’m flying.
“Beautiful, man.” Josiah’s words caress my ears.
Then my head and chest are rotating forward as Josiah presses his palms into the tops of my shoulders. I wince before raising my eyes; I hate how bony my collarbones feel against Josiah’s warm palms. The thought is ripped away like a piece of tissue when Josiah slides his fingers behind my back and presses them against my shoulder blades. I can’t help but sink closer to Josiah, the interlocking of my hands with the tops of Josiah’s shins not so much a collision as a melding: lanky with stocky, guarded with happy-go-lucky, broken into peaceful.
Last step: pike my legs straight into the air, feel my hips roll and find balance. Cue a slew of giggles – my own, I realize in delight.
“Damn, I forgot how good this feels,” I say with a grin. My head swings to within an inch of Josiah’s groin. The garage door and Thunder are upside down. Something faintly electric flows along my inner and outer thighs. Josiah’s joy spreads to me and floods my heart.
“Folded leaf,” Josiah says, settling into his comfortable position and interlaces his fingers across his chest. “Nicely done.” It’s a more advanced move we hadn’t practiced much before tonight. I hang like a bat and stare ahead at his bearded face.
Now back in bird pose, Josiah and I search each other’s eyes, trying to gauge where our flow is. I want to keep my bird pose as long as possible, my creaking back be damned. Josiah is quick to take my hands for the third time. Not out of a need to recalibrate, but more as a reminder that he’s the one stabilizing me. A reminder that I’m the flyer.
“Dismount,” Josiah says, gently driving me back so that my feet come gliding onto the hardwood at the head of Josiah’s mat. My breathing grows shallow, our trace connection lingering for a moment after our fingers separate. All the blood rushes to my head. I’m high. Light. Once I find my balance on my own two feet, I do a little pirouette and bow.
“There’s the spiritual lift,” Josiah tells me before swinging up and onto his feet. “You’re getting better.” I do my best to smile back and high five him. Thunder yawns and lets out a faint yap.
While Josiah does his stretches, I slip back into the kitchen and lean against the counter. My head is still swirling, but somehow there is balance in my center. I shake my bushy hair and allow myself a little thought: We’re the last two gay guys around. Anything can happen while we’re safe in the Cy House.