Tuneups in the Dark
When I return to the living room, Josiah is sitting on the fireplace hearth with his shirt off. He only has to spot the legal pad in my hand before he flashes me a thumbs up. “Hopeful news, I hope?”
“Eleven cans of veggies,” I begin, “nine bottles of water, six cans of tuna, another six of mixed fruit, and four boxes of crackers.” I sigh and slump onto the upholstered sofa neither of us had recognized when we first returned to the Cy House. I flash my buddy a self-assured shit-eating grin over the armrest. “Said tuna is still not vegan friendly. Sorry.”
Josiah’s smile grows, even as he squints and folds his hands in his lap. “Ahh, no worries. Food is food. But hopefully I can get by on whatever canned produce we can find out there.”
Ever the odd optimist, that’s Josiah. “You can hope,” I say, leaning my head back and studying the faded pastel walls of the dining room behind me. The candlelight and the glow from the two lanterns on the dining table cast agitated shadows across both me and Josiah. More shadows leap in between the railing of the stairs, which rise into the darkness above.
The Cy House, though older and a little rough around the edges, had captured my heart from the get go. Hell, for a house built in 1993, it had stayed up well with all our indoor bike riding and outdoor grilling shenanigans. This place has definitely seen its fair share of cycling and horny college student antics.
I stare up at the low-hanging candle-style chandelier above the dining table and curl my lips in. The house had also been my shelter in the months after my dad had died. I had spent more nights holed up in my bedroom up stairs, soaking in my own tears between the sheets, than I care to count.
I press my palms against my temples, though I know the tinny buzzing of the Swarm is only a memory replaying itself in my mind. I’m surprised that their latest attack didn’t make me or Josiah go deaf. Their supersonic roars were enough to shatter the windows of the kitchen, but, thankfully, the wooden boards held fast. Our ear protectors did their job, too.
Josiah purses his lips and makes a squeaking noise of contemplation. “That CB radio idea you’ve been mulling over...I’m starting to think it’s our best bet.”
“It’s a big risk, though. The truck’s two streets over,” I reply, tossing the legal pad onto the side table before I rub my thighs through my basketball shorts. Then I exhale. “At least, that’s where it was, like, four months ago.”
Josiah plants one of his legs on the hearth and puckers his lips to the side in deep thought. The semi, a bright green and white cab, had always been parked out in front of a house that I used to run by countless times during my solo night jogs. Sometimes the only remedy for my anger at the world, at my dad for leaving me, had been to run laps until my lungs screamed at me to cut it out.
How long will it take us to bike over to the truck, assuming it’s even still there? Three minutes? Less? Either way, it has to be right before sunset. From what Josiah and I have learned, the Swarm only seem to come out around midday and at night. Never at dawn or dusk.
The last time I’d seen them out in broad daylight before tonight had been three weeks ago. Back on the train tracks. Back when there had been eight of us, not just me, Josiah, and Thunder.
My eyes begin to sting. Tyler, Gabby, Sarah, Brad, Eric...none of them will know what it means to survive another day in a world where the Swarm reign. None of them will spend another ounce of strength fighting to get back to their own families.
Two fists ball themselves up in my stomach before they come crashing together. I couldn’t save them. Just like I couldn’t save my dad. I don’t want to close my eyes. Every time I do, crumpled cars barrel through my dreams in midnight blackness, slamming together with a metallic screech and taking my dad’s life all over again.
“Then we’ll go tomorrow night,” says Josiah. I snap out of my sharp-edged haze and look over at him. “We should double-check our bikes tonight, just to make sure they’re not gonna give us any trouble when we ride over to the semi.”
“Alright. Tomorrow night, then,” I say, sitting up before I unwrap my arms from around my knees. “If the truck is still there, if it still has enough juice in the battery, then maybe we can use the CB and get in contact with other people.” That feels like an exponential number of ifs.
“And our families,” Josiah adds, glancing in the direction of my notepad on the coffee table. “If anybody could have lasted for this long, it’s them.”
Mr. and Mrs. Knect, and Josiah’s younger brother and sister. They had to have heard the news, probably found a way to hunker down in Argyle and fight off -- or at least hide from -- the Swarm. Right?
A light wind rustles the two trees in the front lawn, which faces north. The whole house shifts and lets its wooden joints settle with a low sigh.
Josiah and I need each other, and in some ways the duality of that message reawakens a familiar ache throughout my body. Like parts of me are being carved out with a scalpel. Longing can become such a bottomless pit.
Josiah sticks his legs out in front of him before he catapults to his feet. Relief floods me the second he grabs his purple Yoga Movement shirt, throws it up into the air, and dives into it with a little hop. His curls spiral out before he blinks at me.
“Shall we?” Josiah juts his thumb towards the garage door. Our bikes. Right.
“Yeah. Let’s do it.”
I’m the first one in the garage, and I hold my flashlight out like a peace offering to the darkness. Thunder trots past me and disappears in between the moving boxes the old owner had left behind. I jerk forward as I spot Thunder heading for the hole in the window.
“Thunder, sit!” Both Josiah and I say it in unison, and we snort before laughing at each other.
Josiah waves me on before tiptoeing to the workbench standing next to the broken window. “I’ll board it up. Give me two minutes.”
I snatch up Thunder’s leash and give him a gentle tug while Josiah moves our bikes away from the workbench. Then he props our last sheet of plywood against the window overlooking the front lawn of the Cy House. Thunder whimpers and spins around my legs twice.
“Easy buddy,” I murmur, then look off into the blackest corner of the garage. I know he’s gotta be feeling guilty for having escaped earlier. What’s happened is past, though, and the three of us are still alive. That’s all that matters.
But it’s that unclear timeline of me living that makes my stomach turn and my skin prickle with goosebumps. I scan the corners again with my flashlight. No monsters in here.
While Josiah hammers away, I glance down at the toolbox I’ve got in my other hand. Between our two flashlights, we should be able to see well enough to work on our bikes. Last time we had checked, Josiah’s chain was gliding roughly. We’re gonna have to fix that. Out in the open, sound seems to attract the Swarm, more so at dusk. Josiah and I figure that’s when they wake up, when they begin to hunt.
I study my friend for a few seconds, watching as he drives a couple of nails through the plywood with careful swings of the former homeowner’s hammer. Deciding I don’t want to be a bump on a log, I step up next to Josiah and brace the plywood sheet with my shoulder.
Josiah works without words, his eyebrows furrowing in concentration after he’s given me a thankful nod. I look away from the harsh glare of my flashlight and out into the settling night, which is cut up into amber grids of faint moonlight by the mesh screen that’s barely hanging on to the window.
Eight nails later, we both step back to admire Josiah’s work. “That should hold for a while,” he tells me with a swipe at his glistening forehead. “Thanks for your help.”
I make a hat-tipping motion, then let Thunder’s leash go. “Anytime.”
Our next step is to tune up Josiah’s bike. I set my toolbox down on the table before Josiah hoists his bike up and balances the front wheel on the nearest pallet. “Looks like the barrel adjuster is off on your rear derailleur,” I say, latching my index finger onto the hanger bolt before giving it a good wiggle. Then I glance up at Josiah and add, “Just like you suspected.”
“This is the part where you say you never doubted me for a second,” he replies with a grunt. When I laugh, Josiah finds it in himself to crack a sliver of a smile.
I get to work, slipping my Philips head screwdriver into the top adjustment screw. The little black ’H’ on the body of the pulley is now mostly scraped away from years of Josiah lugging his bike around, hauling it into the back of a dozen different teammates’ cars. I rack my brain while twisting the screwdriver. Why is it so hard for me to remember the last race that Josiah and I had done together?
Our last step is to index Josiah’s gears. It doesn’t take me more than a couple of revolutions of the rear wheel for both of us to hear the dull metallic clang of the chain snapping down to each subsequent gear. After Josiah raises his bike so that the back wheel is off the ground, I crank the pedals and turn the barrel adjuster counter-clockwise. A couple of twists later, the chain is finally clear of the right sprocket and no longer rubs up against it.
“Sorry I was pushy earlier about Thunder,” I say, watching Josiah flex his thick fingers while he squeezes his handlebars. “It’s just...been harder for me to stay here.”
“You’re on a long healing process,” comes Josiah’s reply, gentle and forgiving. He glances at the cracked door leading back into the house. “We did a lot of growing up here. This place feels like a shell of the home we used to know, now that it’s just us.”
I give the crank another pull and listen. The chain shift with a much cleaner snip, snip, snip. Just when I think I can exhale in relief, Josiah adds, “I’m sorry I haven’t been giving you as much space as you’ve wanted.”
Another string gets plucked in my heart. It takes me two seconds to help Josiah ease his rear tire back to the oil-stained ground, but that’s more than enough time for me to be thrown off kilter. I stare through the blur made by the spinning spokes of his front wheel and rest my hand on his bike seat. “I don’t even know what I need right now,” I whisper, wiping the black grime from my hands with the red rag I left hanging out of my back pocket. Then I hold the rag out. Josiah bows slightly before taking it. “Time to mourn our dead teammates, my dad. Hell, to be pissed off at the goddamn Swarm.”
I only have enough energy in me to set my screwdriver back in my toolbox. Then I slide down the side of the workbench before I’m full-on crying. I keep quiet, scared that I might wake the dead if I sob any harder. Josiah sets his bike to the side and sinks down beside me.
“I can’t even feel happy,” I begin, curling my knees up to my chest. “He’s still dead, y’know?” I rub away the heaviest of my tears. “But there’s a lot I wish I’d said to my dad. About me being gay. About him not being the supportive kind of father I needed him to be.”
Josiah’s smile cracks. “I think I get what you mean. My dad’s been the same way. Plus, my mom won’t even talk about me coming out.”
I sniff. “Really?”
Josiah’s nod is sure and certain. “They see my lifestyle as...well, not in line with their beliefs, to say the least.”
My scoff comes out a little too harsh, but it’s not directed at him. “Tell me about it,” I say with a slow nod. Josiah comes from a deeply Catholic family, so there was never going to be a smooth coming out process for him. Just like for me; mom and dad didn’t want to accept the truth that their son is gay. They resisted - hard. Mom made it about grandkids; “Why don’t you want to have children?” To which I told her that wasn’t true, that she was just going off and making assumptions like she always does.
I gulp down more stale garage air. Maybe like she always will.
Josiah and I both press our hands together near our chests. He takes a shaky breath and looks over at me. I curse them: parents. What the hell do they know, anyway?
Something in me softens with Josiah’s gaze. “Whatever happens tomorrow, thank you” I tell him, “for being there when my world went to hell.”
Josiah puffs out his lower lip, his gentle soul clear as day even in the small pool of light we’re huddled around. He speaks. “It’s the least I can do. And yeah, I’m hoping for the best tomorrow too. I’ve gotten too comfortable here.”
Wings flutter in my chest, only the flaps are weak, like the bones holding said feathers together are on the verge of snapping. The fluttering only gets faster once Josiah helps me to my feet. Josiah pats my hand with a trembling grin. “We’ll move on,” he promises, “find help. Together.”