To Those Who Wait

Melody Clark

A WISEGUY story originally published in Manacles Press's "Concupiscence 1," May, 1991

Since the Terranova family trips to Welsherman Mountain, the forest had always been a friend to him. It was wild with quiet and fragrant with life, and a cordial refuge from the chemical haze and mechanical clink of Brooklyn, New York.

He and Pete would pitch their tents below the stoic crystal–net of stars, and Vince would lie there quietly. Beyond the blinding city lights, he would find the Little Dipper and the North Star, remembering how old their cold light was. But he always drew some comfort from the moon, which was never more than one second away.

And that would make him think about astrology, and if some spell of stars had cast a meaning on his life–if the narrative of its events now formed some constellation. He wondered if life was no more magical than math, or if men, like the wood, had their seasons.

And like an answer, he’d once heard a howl rise out of the wood and melt into the moonlight. All around, he felt the company of something beautiful and old.

It was that childhood memory that soothed as they drove on, the traffic and skyscrapers dimming in memory, the trees reclaiming the land. They were six sweet hours out of Hell and, nearing evening, Vinnie was beginning to feel the first cool drafts of deliverance.

The weather report had promised rain, but–true to form–none had arrived. In fact, there wasn’t a storm cloud in sight.

Except, of course, for the one sitting next to him in the car.

“Sorry, Frank. The Grim Reaper Look-alike Contest is over,” Vince said, shaking his head. “You lost again this year.”

The only response was a stony stare reflected in round glasses, as the other man glared at the other side of the road.

Vinnie groaned in surrender. “Ionospheric problems breakin’ up transmission, Houston,” he sighed. “The fog is just too damn thick.”

The head turned slightly toward him. “Am I supposed to be amused?”

“I’m surprised that you’re alive. You been semi-comatose since I towed you off the plane and I was about to stick a mirror up your nose to check it out. Care to spare me the suspense and give a reason?”

“Gee, I dunno, Vince. Imagine all the possibilities. Maybe it’s because I’m still recovering from a AR-15 slug in my chest–”

“The doctor says you’re fine, Frank.”

“–or maybe it was the hour and a half tilt-a-whirl flight into Sputtering Puddle-Jumper International–”

“Mea maxima culpa already. Give me some peace, all right?”

Frank turned completely toward him, glaring at him forcibly. “I wasn’t the one who disturbed it, Vincent.”

Vince shook his head with utter proclamation. “Okay. Cut your fuckin’ tongue out. Do your Harpo Marx impression. See if I care. But for my money, this trip is comin’ not one little second too soon.”

Frank went back to his roadside vigil. Vince looked down at the map–Uncle Mike had circled their destination in red. They were not far now, thank god, but the thing that made him smile was the charming little squiggle in the mapline, the length of road between here and the View Drive turn-off to the cabin.

Okay, the inquisition liked the rack. Elliot Ness used bright lights and big cops. But there were jollier ways to loosen a McPike tongue. And the squiggle in the road seemed a pretty pleasant one…at least for the driver.

So, Vince jammed the pedal and the Taurus roared off, screaming sharply up the mountain pass, slithering safely to a rough-and-tumble stop at the final curve, by a sign that read “View Drive.”

McPike pried his fingers loose from the upholstery. “You wanna be careful with my car?” he growled, when he could breathe again.

Vince looked up from the map. “The reason I drove your car up here, Francis, was to let it out a little.”

“You call that letting it out?”

“Yeah. You got a good engine in this, a good engine you let sit in a parking garage all the time. You ought to blast out the carbon every once in awhile.”

“I got a good engine in it, Vince,” Frank explained patiently, “because I’m not reckless. Because I don’t slip-knot it around pine trees every chance I get.”

“I’m not talkin’ recklessness, Frank, I’m talking spunk. An engine needs spunk. There’s a big difference.”

Frank stared at him drolly over his glasses. “Oh, yeah? Elaborate.”

“Spunk is creative and recklessness is destructive. Creative is coughing the carbon out. Destructive is letting it rust out in a stupid parking garage all the time.”

“Thank you, Martin Buber.”

“You’re welcome, Miss Manners.”

At the roar of the engine, brown shadows sprang across trees. Another sound trilled over them, darting shrilly out of range. Like the spring thaw swelled the mountain streams, their arrival swamped the hollow with the larger sounds of life.

It was their second visit, and Vince remembered the first one kindly as he pulled Frank’s car into the shadow of the cabin–the cabin that was very much like the man who owned it: the man who was Lifeguard to the Lifeline techs and “Uncle” to all field operatives and Daniel Benjamin Burroughs to the rest of the human race. The man who had steered Vince aside on their second week home from Seattle, when things at the Bureau started heating up.

“What in the hell are you gonna do to fix it?” Dan had asked, pointing at the impervious figure robed in ragged terry cloth, absently flipping through the TV Guide.

“I’m gonna take it to your cabin and work on it,” Vince had replied. “Make it relax…even if I have to shoot it with animal tranquilizer.”

“Relax? You call that stressed? If he was anymore relaxed he’d be catatonic.”

“He’s not relaxed,” Vince said resolutely. With the thought, he drew a deep breath of trepidation. “Something’s bugging him. Somethin’ bad.”

“Something like?”

At that moment, Vince had considered telling him. But as good a friend as Dan had been, he wouldn’t savvy this. Such secrets should have sanctuary, Vince realized, even if he had violated that refuge himself. But his trespass would only be magnified if he invited someone else to tea.

“Just something,” Vince said and shrugged.

Dan had responded with a sad smile, proffering the map to the cabin, like Parcifal’s gazetteer to the Castle of the Fisher–King. “Well, good luck, pal. You’re the expert in charming your way through the moats ‘round Castle McPike.”

Vince shook his head in the direction of their friend. “Yeah, but this time the crocodiles are packin’ machine guns.”

Vinnie stepped out of the car, standing up a moment to stretch both muscles and memory. Most of his recollections were scattered down the north ridge, around the river. It was in that direction he smiled as he exhaled doubt and dust and the scent of the city, and inhaled the breath of an old friend.

Better this than the Bureau, he thought darkly. No, better this than anywhere right now.

As he turned, he found he had been joined by a shadow visually browsing their surroundings. “Hasn’t changed.”

“Hasn’t been used since we were here last, according to Uncle Mike. Why don’t you pay a visit to the fish while I play sherpa to the Samsonites?”

“Thanks all the same for the suggestion, Vince,” Frank’s voice rumbled in reply–not yet thunder, but definitely brewing. “But I’ve been planning my own life since first communion.”

Vince glanced at him sharply. “Oh, gee, you’re welcome. And give my best to the rest of the dwarves.”

Vinnie expected a riposte–the usual piquant and well-timed rejoinder. But Frank just flinched at Vince’s bait, his eyes widening a moment. Finally, he deadened over with stone-cold Federal reserve, staring down at his shoes firmly planted in the dust.

“Sorry, Vince,” he said softly.

Vinnie felt like an incredible jerk, which was not an unfamiliar feeling as of late. He shook his head firmly. “No, Frank. Surplus the apology. I just want a long talk. And soon.”

Frank shook his head. “Not now.”

“Then when?”

“Later,” Frank offered with a sigh, keeping his gaze trained down. “Tonight.”

Later, Vince thought. It was always “later” with Frank. But “tonight” gave more weight to the usual promise.

“You’ll stop playin’ the Artful Dodger?” Vinnie asked. “You’ll admit there’s something wrong?”

There was a momentary pause. But then he nodded. “Something,” he said.

There was a little hope…a little. Something to hang the future on. But Vince knew he’d have to back it up with every stanchion he could find.

“You know, Frank,” Vinnie said, “there isn’t anything you could say to me that would change the way I feel about you….”

McPike looked up, and looked at him. His eyes betrayed secrets, the mass of which Frank no doubt thought well-hidden from the eyes of men. But the secrets were shining there, if someone knew where to look. And Vinnie knew precisely where to look.

“Oh, yeah, Vince, I know,” Frank said softly. “I know real well.”

And with that, McPike walked toward the north ridge, in the general direction of the river.

For a second, Vince considered going after him. But time had always been Frank’s only healer, and that was what Frank needed most just now–some time alone. The kindest thing Vince could do was haul a weekend’s load of their lives into the cabin.

With that, Terranova rescued the suitcases from the beige vinyl purgatory of Frank McPike’s car.

Dan’s key complained only a moment in the lock; the door slid easily open.

The pine scent of stagnant time swarmed up through the cabin to greet him–its last purpose, their fateful fishing trip. The whole place might have been paralyzed by time, each thing in each room, each room unchanged. And stepping in was like awakening from an illusory present, to the clear and present danger of the past.

“The good old days,” Vince said softly, pitching their luggage into the bedroom.

When he checked back through the datafile of his memory for a hint of wholeness, he stopped at this place, at this time–in the wake of perdition but definitely on the heels of Hell. It was post-Sonny, but pre-Amber and Seattle and all the bits he could remember of his life over the last year. When he was here, he couldn’t feel any tide of pain crash in with the memory. And for Vinnie Terranova, that feeling was as good as innocence.

So it was decided that here they would come, here he would bring Frank to knit the rest of his wounds–the ones that went unseen.

And Vinnie felt something like a penitent at mass, as he lowered to his knees to light the hearth.

The hearthstone was cold; he reached for the flue crank and a sudden freshet of wind alarmed last year’s phantoms of ash. Then he took from the cord at the side of the fireplace, trusting, as usual, in the integrity of the wood. He tossed in the log, then struck a wooden match, pitching it past the screen and into the hearth.

Logic said a flaming match, when tossed on wood, invented fire–clear, causal determinism. He realized immediately that he had missed some staging step in his mechanical equation. It wasn’t enough to solve the problem…you had to show your work, too. Vinnie always had hated showing his work.

Okay. You’re a man of intellect, he thought. Masters degree, with honors. Could’ve had a doctorate if you’d gone crazy first. A Field Agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Organized Crime Task Force, but don’t hold that against you. You are smart and this is a simple matter of deduction.

Think critically? Left-brain analysis? Today? Yeah, right, as Frank would say. And let’s go to Fresno for the Mardi Gras.

“I surrender,” Vince groaned, sitting back on his heels.

All he could think of was the Federal blue manila folder slipped politely into the front pouch of his larger suitcase.

‘When you ask a question, Vincenzo,’ his mother used to warn him. ‘You better be darn good and ready to hear the answer.’

And he had wanted to know what was wrong with Frank, when the dark moods descended. Vince had bullied him out of the hospital bed–had almost spiritually insisted he get well, that he go on. “I need you,” he had told him in the hospital, and he did need him. But it was more than that. A lot more. Life without Frank? The thought brought first to his mind all the empty human platitudes, but none of them could hope to fit.

The psychological evaluation was mandatory after all in–field injuries. It was even, Vince had to admit, advisable. Especially as Frank was rarely in situations of “field-related weapons fire”, as Rodin’s boys would call it. And Vince knew all too well what catching a slug did to your quest to take the corner. To take the next blind-sided risk.

So they trucked Frank off to Bethesda for a thorough going-over.

Frank’s only comment on the experience was his revel in the way he’d screwed the Rorschach test. Behavioral psychologists called it “The Problem of Subtle Interdiction of Controlled Analysis Determinants Via Subject Insurgence”–in other words, show Frank a stupid ink blot, you get a smart-ass answer.

‘What’s this?’ the psychologist had asked him, flashing the top blot.

According to Frank, his poker face had ranked among his finest. ‘Pack of wolverines plotting the overthrow of the United States of America,’ he’d replied.

One eyebrow lifted vertically. ‘Interesting,’ the shrink had said, shuffling to the second blot. ‘And this?’

‘A bunch of bears holding a flea market to fund the effort,’ he’d replied.

‘Bears?’ the shrink had asked, his voice ruffing up like an old paper tablecloth.

‘Yeah,’ Frank replied, his voice growing soft with treason and sinister with effect. ‘Great big, Slavic-looking bears.’

It took them twenty-four hours to discern that he was sharking them. But there were more subtle means to decipher the cryptic conundrum of Francis Xavier McPike. Vinnie knew them all, though the shrinks just discovered a couple. Trick the mind, lure it away. Lure its defenses into revelation. Control the environment, then trigger a reaction in the most sensitive environs.

Finally, they emerged from the jungles with recon.

Enmeshment, the report had read.

The word felt warm and soft against his soul. It had been both obvious and unexpected. As he’d copped the file (or had it copped for him), Vince had had every intention of turning it over to Frank–after reading it himself for a little enlightenment and a couple of impish chuckles. But that had become impossible, the moment he had hit that word–enmeshment–and then moved on.

It had taken him three hours to read the rest of the report. And it had consisted of a page and a half of computer text. But each passage was a hurdle of emotion…a labyrinth of meaning. It burned at his eyes and in his mind and by the time he turned the last page down, his hand was cold and shaking. He had felt both lost and found at once….

“…Subject evidences obsessive-compulsive characters toward object…. We find a subjective, non-analytical response combined with protective, aggressive urges concerning and toward the object….”

It went on and on. Vince brought it blind study to a Bureau-consulting clinical psychiatrist and said, “Kindly sum this up in shorthand for the great unwashed.”

The therapist read it over. He shrugged his shoulders. “Typical romantic obsession,” he said.

“Romantic? You mean–”

The psychiatrist nodded. “It would seem.”

“With whom?”

The psychiatrist pointed to his door. “It doesn’t go past there?”

Vince nodded.

The man considered the file again. “I would say his Field Agent.”

Vince felt the planetary poles shift slightly beneath his sneakers. He barely found a voice. “That common?”

“It happens. That’s why we limit Field terms to three years. To limit–enmeshment.”

They had to be wrong, Vince thought at first.

He lived with that delusion for a day. Then memory drifted back to him…moments, words said, thoughts exchanged, all now clicked into context. Surely Frank would have said something to him. Sonny had said something…hell, Sonny had gone for him. But then to judge Frank by Sonny’s standards was like owing the sun’s heat to the reflection of the moon.

Frank would never have pushed; would never have tried. Would simply have felt what he felt and said nothing. Frank was like that kid in Vince’s neighborhood, who used to long after the kites in the toy store window. The kid had dreamed of days with his father, flying great box kites and Topp’s Royal Streamers. But his parents worked long hours for the little that they had. It wasn’t fair for him to want those things, the kid would always tell himself.

But Vince had grown up and bought the damned kite for himself, and then taken it out for a whirl.

But the glass had trapped Frank’s dreams on the opposite side. He would seldom spend a dime, but let his money gather interest in a Federally-insured savings account. Frank lived in American-made triple-ply knit-worsted suits and bought wholesale when he could find it. Vince knew Frank better than anybody…better than even Jenny, damn it. And he knew that Frank’s walls were made of two parts integrity, and one part despair.

‘Oh yeah, Vinnie, I know. I know real well….’

Maybe his grim moods were a sign of retreat. Maybe the battlements were falling. This might be Vince’s one and only chance to scale the walls. Like Vinnie’s boyhood meditation on the still, small voice of planets–all the right stars at the right time and all that kinda stuff.

Timing was everything. Timing and circumstance.

With sudden revelation, he reached for the crank and quickly shut the flue. The ashes settled attentively. He struck a wooden match, tossing it onto the paper. Faint smoke rose, and with it, fire.

As the crackling increased, Vinnie gently cranked the flue ajar. The wind, formerly a hindrance, inspired the flame through wood.

It was growing dark. It was already cold. Frank would be here shortly, driven in by the night.

As the room warmed, Vincenzo sensed the coming of the future–the gravity of the stars and their alluvial memory. He stared into the hearth and smiled upon the prospering of fire.

• • •

He had been there for hours, skipping stones off the river, with one eye aimed occasionally at the cabin.

Paradise Ridge’s promised “happy mountain chill” was gathering faithfully around him. His face burned with frost, and his sweater shared the wind. And now that it was night, gray smoke climbed through the chimney and up into the thin mountain air.

Vince had built a fire. The cabin would be warm and homey.

And anyway he had to face up to it sometime.

Vince had made all the usual excuses for this trip–telling him he hadn’t been out of the house in a month, which he hadn’t…saying he needed to see the world again, which he did. But Frank was sure that far from some Long-in-the-Tooth Boy Scout Jamboree, what Vince had in mind was really something else–something more like “facing up to it”. And McPike knew he couldn’t hide from it forever.

“Hey, Frank,” Mark had said over the phone one day last week. “Somebody filched your psych file.”

McPike could almost hear the wink in his voice when he’d said it. Mark no doubt thought Frank had copped his own psych file–which was fairly SOP. But he hadn’t. Though it only took a little ferreting through the index to find out who had.

As he saw the handwriting on the forged signature, Frank’s solar plexus had gone numb.

During the shrink sessions, there had been…well, things…said. Basically, he’d unraveled at the braid. The next morning, he’d awakened with one huge humiliation hang–over…the ones he always got when he just knew he’d said the wrong damned thing to the wrong damned person in some damned unguarded moment. He cringed at the very thought…the very idea…of somebody else…of anybody, but especially of….

“Ah, gawd,” he said softly, confiding to the fish. “Frank, you have truly gone and done it this time.”

It was getting cold as hell, he thought, steering his eyes toward the cabin again.

Face the music, Francis…that had been his mother’s parental summons to answer for a broken vase or a chore forgotten. Frank always preferred to get the screaming over with. Not that Vince would scream. No, he’d be a bastion of compassion, wanting to “look The Problem in the eye and deal with it.” His voice full of solace and sympathy.

But right now Frank didn’t want to face “The Problem” at all, let alone “deal with it.” Selective amnesia had always been a friend to him. There are none so deaf as those and all that stuff.

And yet when Vinnie rang the bells in Seattle for him, he had heard them. He heard them like Vince had heard them and they had both followed them out of the dark. Vinnie being Vinnie took it as a sign from god, but Frank knew the bells had been there for them because they’d needed them to be.

And now here were these…feelings…rising out of a similar darkness, for whatever reason.

Maybe it had been his taste of death. Maybe it had been the bells. Or maybe it was just Vince going renegade to Seattle that had shaken some feelings of gold out of the old tin pan–they were bright and precious and far different than anything Frank had ever known before. Friendship’s metal under pressure polished to a higher shine, he was sure–iron sulfite, not gold…please god, not gold.

And with that fallacy he’d lived happily ever after…until they dragged him off to Bethesda.

“Frank!” a voice charged up the grade, especially for him.

It was time. “In a minute, Vince!” he called back.

He made his way up the south slope in the darkness. He was surrounded by the conspiring of animal noises, the flutter of things in the dark, but nothing could hope to scare him–not in the face of what he was walking toward.

For of all the things in the world that McPike feared–and they were legion–the greatest thing of all was Vince’s pity.

Frank entered by the back door.

He snared his coat on the hall tree then turned to survey the room–not an Italian in sight. The hearth was crackling ambitiously. From the wooden table, Vince’s tape deck played something utterly atypical–something dark and reverberant and brooding. From the first few strains, Frank recognized Mozart’s Requiem Mass.

“Okay, who are you really and what have you done with my friend?” Frank said to the rest of the house. “This is not the music of Vinnie Terranova.”

Vinnie appeared from a cabinet carrying snifters of brandy. “Yeah, ’cause I picked it out for you, sorehead. It’s classical.”

“This is not classical. This is music to shoot yourself by.”

“I thought all classical music was depressing. I thought it was like a condition for classification.”

“You’re such a kid.”

Frank moved across the room to the hearth, to mold his hands around the amassing warmth. At once, he felt a prod at his shoulder. He glanced across to see Vinnie, who was offering his snifter like a circuitous apology.

“Chase the chill away?” Vince said.

Frank redirected his gaze, then accepted the glass. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. But I’m still telling Beckstead you’re consorting with those Slavic bears again.” He withdrew to the sofa and lowered himself into it slowly. He was smiling, at the hearth, but not at him. “Unless you can come up with a damn good explanation.”

Too near the precipice, Frank thought. He remembered the kitchen, concluded it a prudent distance, then turned in that direction.



“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To roast a Lean Cuisine over a flaming Radar Range, if you don’t mind. And just in case you left your Happy Meal at home, I brought you one, too.”

And Vince finally turned his eyes toward Frank. The blue glowing bronze from the fire. “I’m not hungry. And I think you can survive a few more minutes, too,” he said, his voice very strange and very quiet.

Frank looked toward the kitchen, feeling a mild escalation in his pulse. “Yeah, well, it’s dinnertime for us old folk, sport.” What else?–quote from his nutritionist, he thought, that always gave people pause. “If you eat so many hours before bedtime, you get better nutrient absorption–”

Vinnie’s hand thrust out and grasped Frank’s arm.

McPike stopped speaking, staring in mute dread at the fingers fastening tightly around his wrist.

Vinnie looked up at him, the tumult in his still eyes turning like a midnight tide.

“Stop it, Frank.”

So that was how it would begin. Stop it, Frank, and then the revelation.

McPike exhaled, then lowered himself to the other end of the sofa. “I don’t suppose I could bribe you out of this little conversation.”

“You don’t make enough money.”

“I was afraid of that.” McPike settled back, fighting to measure his breathing. “Can I have my hand back?”

Vinnie released, but Frank still confided his gaze to the fire. Even so, he felt Vince staring at him, his eyes making an exacting study of his face. He could tell right off this wasn’t to be any gab fest–there was nothing “so-you-think-the-Mets-got-a-snowball’s-chance-in-hell-at-the-pennant-this-year” about his posture. He looked like Vincenzo Terranova sitting forward, the sincere epitome of sympathy about to be the bearer of bad news.

Vinnie’s eyes were soft and shining and vaguely hurt. A sad smile played faintly at his mouth. Frank’s warmth had gone in a moment. He felt cold, and ill and frightened as hell.

“You know,” Vince said softly. “I really oughta be pissed off as hell at you.”

Of all the scenarios Frank had surmised, this was the least expected–this one wasn’t even on the fucking Yahtzee card.

But anger was good–anger was aegis.

“Pissed at me? What did I do?”

“Oh, c’mon, Frank, I said I wanted a talk. You asked me to wait till later. Well, I played your game. I waited. But the old clock on the wall says ‘later’, Frank. Now, you owe me honesty. And you also owe me an apology.”

“An apology?” Frank finally looked at him–glaring at him over his glasses. “Wait a minute, I must have entered another reality zone here. Correct me if I’m wrong, Agent Terranova, but aren’t I the one who had his privacy invaded?”

Vince nodded, the saddened eyes growing even more so. “Yeah, all right, I stole your records. But it was either that or go boccie-headed trying to figure you out. I mean, you’re always about as forthcoming as the Sphinx, but for the last month talking to you’s been like opening a can of peas with a plastic fork.”

He shook his head. “You made me do it, Frank–you did. I shouldn’t have had to. All this time I thought we told each other everything!”

That moment, Frank could not help but think of Drake and the night he caught his hand sliding a tooth from under his pillow–and slipping a dollar in its place. Like it was yesterday, he felt the tiny hand on his hand, saw the face full of large-eyed pain and demolished trust.

He was feeling that very same boulder of guilt forming in the more delicate chambers of his heart. “We do, Vince,” he said gently.

“Not from this end of the see-saw, partner.”

“We do,” Frank snarled back, the fire in his eyes leavened by his glasses. He stood up, moving to the window beside Vince’s shoulder. “I tell you everything. Everything I know myself. But I’m not Krishnamurti, Vince. I’ve never been bullish on knowledge of self. I took a slug the size of a quarter that cut a hole in me the size of a grapefruit and I don’t know anything anymore!”

Vince reached out and grasped the back of Frank’s arm, squeezing tenderly through the fabric. He moderated his voice to a far gentler tone. “So, you know now. And I know. And we both know enmeshment’s the reason the Bureau won’t let family work together–puttin’ the person before the job. Well, that report says we’re enmeshed, Frank, and they’re gonna use it to split us apart.”

Frank exhaled. Here came the second part…party to the first part. “They’d have split us up anyway. Three years is the gate. You know that.”

“And I also know there are ways around the gate. Especially for a pair with our service record.”

McPike shook his head. “Not anymore. Not after I had to go and mess things up. But they’re only after you, Vince, ’cause of me. I finally got that through my thick skull yesterday. And once you’re…repart-nered….” His words lapsed; he’d finally said it. The one thing he’d been trying to avoid.

Vince stood quickly, overshadowing the other man. “That’s not gonna happen.”

“It’s out of our hands, Vince.”

“Like hell it is.”

“The gate is the gate and there is nothing you can do about it. As far as OCB procedure–”

“To hell with OCB procedure! That’s just our jobs, Frank, that’s not us. They can issue me a smorgasbord of caveats for all I care. They can quote me chapter and verse from the Quantico confederate specs until Langley runs out of bullshit. They can crawl around inside our skulls until they fuckin’ find Atlantis–none of that matters, Frank. They don’t matter.”

He lowered his hands to Frank’s shoulders. “What matters is you and me–what matters is us, you and I’ve both known that for a long time. You’re the one and only reason I’ve stayed with the O.C.B.–I’m the only reason you put up with their bullshit, too, you told me that. We both been cuttin’ a lot of ties, but the only one we hang on to is each other. That should tell us something–it would have, if you’d have stopped bein’ pig-headed and paid attention. But you nearly lost us the chance, Frank.”

This time, Frank was a baffled middle-aged man possessed by the spirit of a stupid student who’d slept through the entire lecture of the class and awakened in the midst of the goddamned quiz. That moment, he felt as dense and flustered as he had ever felt in the entire landscape of his miserable, middle-class existence. Sartre was right, he thought–life is absurd. Either that or his brain had truly given up the fight.

“Vince,” he said, turning around, speaking in the voice of utter desperation. “What in hell are you talking about?”

Vinnie’s face was crippled trust and its progeny of sadness. The misted color of his eyes were finite veils of rain. And even his sweater was a storm-gray wool, so soft and yet vaguely annoying against the pale skin of McPike’s arms. And the further Frank drew away, the closer Vinnie moved.

And beneath that misty-gray softness was very firm, insistent muscle.

“What’s this?” Vince whispered gently. “What happened to Frank McProphet who sees the future? You wanna know what you know–you got charcoal-colored glasses, Francis. You’re always resigned to the worst-case scenario when you haven’t even staked out the suspect yet. Most of the time, it just makes me sad. Now it makes me furious.”

Out of his sweater, Vince yanked the psych profile in question. “You know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t boosted this file, Frank? I’d never’ve known. I’d have gone on thinking you were straight as Saint Ignatius and still in love with Jenny. ’Cause you sure as hell never would’ve told me.”

Frank took a deep breath–his first in several seconds. He tried for a coherent thought, but the best he could draw was a scattered one. “Vince,” he said.

Vinnie touched two fingers to Frank’s mouth. “No, you don’t talk, sport, you listen,” Vince said, his voice unsettling sharply. “The Bureau would’ve used this fuckin’ file to keep your mouth shut. They’d have threatened to file formal or go Quantico on enmeshment and you’d have had no choice but to let them give us the gate, Frank. To let them tear us apart.”

Finally, he shoved Vince’s hand from his mouth. “What was I supposed to do, Vince?”

“You were supposed to trust me,” Vinnie said, his voice finally shattering.

Frank fell back another step, his face racing with a chill, strange confusion. He reached a hand out to steady himself. “I do trust you,” he said softly, his own voice crumbling in despair. “I trust you with my life, Vince, with everything I have.”

“Then show me that you trust me!” he said. “Tell me. Tell me the words you said to a psychiatrist–to a stranger, when they belonged to me–to me first!”

“Just tell you?” Frank said softly, shaking his head in bewilderment. “Just tell you like I should just pick up Poudeau, Oklahoma and move it to New Zealand? Like I should just clear up the Clouds of Magellan, Vince? Just tell you like that?”

“It’s easy, Frank–”

“It’s not easy!”

“It is if you trust me!”

This time, Frank angrily closed distance between them, delving his hands profoundly into Vince’s gray sweater, gripping at the body within.

“All right, Vince!” Frank said. “All right! In my neighborhood they beat gay men with tire irons for breathing, but I’ll tell you! I got pestered every day of my life by the local franchise of Big, White and Stupid, for being little, and wearing glasses, and for knowing that Camus and Sartre weren’t a couple of smart whales at Sea World! But if you say it’s easy, then it’s easy, Vince! So, I’m in love with you!” His full eyes finally spilled over into tears, his voice caving inward to a whisper. “Now what the hell do you think about that?”

Vince’s eyes closed gently, his silver-black lashes enchanted by the light. But Frank had lowered his face into his hands, fighting for his last, remaining moments of dignity.

“Wanna know what I think, Frank?” Vince said delicately, breathing deeply.

“No,” Frank cut in, before Vince could make his reply. “I know your answer. I’ve heard it every night in my dreams for the last three months. Is that what you wanted? Me to tell you so we can do a nice small arms trade with the truth? Fine. I understand. Just kindly get it over with.”

“You understand?” Vince said, shaking his head. “You don’t understand anything. Anything at all. You’re not gettin’ out of this that easy. In fact, you’re not getting out of this, period.”

Frank had gone from sadly certain back to dizzy and perplexed in a New York minute. He felt like he was watching an Ingmar Bergman movie.

“What?” Frank said, nearly too exasperated to even care about the answer.

“I used to sleep with Sonny, Frank.”

Terranova re: Steelgrave. Enmeshment, the record said.

He remembered the consensus opinion among Rodin’s boys, but the impact was small and hollow, like a latent percussive. Like he had known it all along.

Frank nodded slowly, reeling from a right jab following the first left hook. It was the last thing he wanted to hear about just now. “So, what do you want me to say?”

“I don’t want you to say, I want you to know. It happened. I dunno why, we’d had a lotta wine and we got talking late one night and in the end, I did it with him because I loved him. And because I loved him, the sex was good.”

“Vince, I really don’t want to hear this–”

He reached out to stop a tear from traversing Frank’s face. “Well, you’re gonna hear. ’Cause you gotta hear. That affair made me realize that love is filled with shadows. The effect makes you feel that there are walls in it when there aren’t any. Not really.”

“Spare me the poetry, Vince,” Frank said distantly.

“All right, up front, straight out. Being in love is loving someone so much that just being with them isn’t enough anymore. It’s loving someone so much that you don’t want anyone else to be as close to them as you are.”

Vince shook his head. “And then I started feeling things…about you. Thinking… about doing things with you, sharing things…sharing everything. And those feelings were sacred to me, sacred between you and me. And I had to go and read about them in a fucking psychiatric report like it was something sick and twisted!”

The tears on Frank’s face were joined by a fast, cold perspiration. Suddenly, he understood. All the contenders for reasons lined up again quickly, but he had to discount them all one by one. Then, there was one possibility remaining–it was the most impossible one, of course. But it was the only one he had.

“Vince…no…,” he said, taking a long step back.

“Oh, yes, Frank. You can take no, but you can’t deal with the opposite. But that’s my answer. My answer is yes.”

With that, he tore the gray-wool sweater over his head and slung it to the floor. “Now come here,” Vince moaned, his voice a rich and velvet whisper. “I’m gonna teach you a lesson about keeping secrets.”

Frank suddenly felt the wall behind him–solid, slick and cool–as impassable as Vinnie’s Roman-blue eyes reaching into his soul. It was like staring into the cathedral of a hidden religion, something dark and ancient and powerful as hell.

Frank’s heart stammered, his thoughts staggered, he made himself distract, made himself suppose, forced his mind to seek out any possible asylum. But there was only the fire’s shadow in the hearth now, and the mantle clock moving forward into night.

And the ultimate impasse: his own desire.

And so, he surrendered. Dear god, of course he surrendered.

“We better be awfully sure about this, Vince….”

Vinnie backed him firmly into the corner, with no promise of escape. “I don’t have a solitary doubt in my mind. And I think I’ll enjoy the challenge of convincing you.”

Vince framed Frank’s face between his gentle hands, whispering his lips across the other man’s mouth. Frank buffeted back at the impact, the bright flash of heat in his eyes not abating. And Vinnie followed after it, his bright, feverish smile storming the other man’s soul, consuming its coldness.

And when Frank’s mouth moved for words, Vinnie’s lips stilled them, his soft, moist mouth enclosing Frank’s, breathing hot and piquant love into his soul.

Frank only allowed himself to dream when the need consumed him, only when his body damned all logic from his brain. On some nights, the strength of his need for Vince vanquished a small corner of his certainty that he never, ever would have him. When the odds seemed a mere 80-20. And that gave him some margin to dream.

For a moment, he refused to believe–decided it had to be a dream–except for the power of the mouth on his, except for the feel of his body. But suddenly a hand slipped behind to anchor his head from escape, and his mouth was impulsively filled with Vinnie’s impassioned tongue, making it all suddenly, vigorously real.

Vinnie leaned out of the kiss, sweat rising on his face, his hands holding Frank’s face hostage. “I advise you to take off your clothes,” he said softly, his hands travelling the length of Frank’s sweater. He peeled the edges up, then pulled it carefully over his head.

“Now, gimme your glasses.”

With numb fingers and a dazed mind, Frank complied, handing his glasses carefully into Vinnie’s large hand, accepted like something delicate and precious. He moved with them to the mantle and tenderly placed them down.

“I wouldn’t want you to break ’em,” he said, mopping his brow with a slow backhand, inhaling a treacherous breath.

Then he turned quickly, slamming his Fordham blocking leg against the coffee table, sprawling it out of range. He grasped up one sofa cushion and sailed it into the darkness; then he pitched the other in its path.

He wrenched the sofa into a bed and slammed it against the floor.

The crash launched Frank back against the wall, his hands gripping its cold comfort to escape his own damning heat. The need was rising. It was too great, it wasn’t possible. He could feel it kindling under his skin.

But the flame became fire, as Vinnie turned toward him.

Vinnie smiled brightly from the fire of dangerous love, and at the astonished desire in Frank’s eyes. Slowly, Vince reached for him, his fingers delving deeply into the anxious muscle of his lover’s shoulders.

Frank winced at the power of the touch, at its hard edge of pain that unravelled like pleasure. “Vince,” he gasped.

But before he could speak or think or bargain a second breath, Vince’s arms engulfed him. And Frank was swept down into darkness, down to the sudden expanse of bed that quaked violently with their assault, and further into the arms that swallowed him.

Vince brushed his lips against Frank’s. “Wanna see what you made us wait for, Frank?” he teased softly, his hands gripping Frank’s shoulders powerfully to hold him profoundly still.

Then he climbed down the face of Frank’s chest to caress his mouth across nipples that budded explicitly, every muscle awakening at the touch of each tease. And as Vinnie traced from chest to navel a wet path with his tongue, Frank reached out for him, grasping imploringly at the wealth of Vinnie’s hair gone wild beneath his fingers.

Vinnie pulled up sharply, eyes full of worried questions. “God, Frank, did I hurt you?” he gasped out, visibly trying to counsel something inside himself, to quiet it for a moment.

Frank shook his head, collecting a couple of breaths before he tried for any words. “I don’t think…I don’t think I’m ready for this, Vince….”

“You’re just afraid,” Vince whispered, freeing one of Frank’s hands to merge their fingers together, pressing it tenderly to his mouth. “It’s because it’s new to you. But it’s what you need. C’mon, Frank, don’t you want me to suck it?”

The flame found its mark; Frank’s eyes burned sharply at its impact, his fingers clawing at the bed. “Yes,” he whispered.

Vinnie smiled radiantly, moving all the way down, caressing the length of Frank’s thigh. He promised every nerve, comforted each muscle, the denim growing hot against his palms.

And finally his hands closed in on the hardness, bulging at the confines of the zipper, throbbing at the touch of Vinnie’s hands.

Vinnie leaned down and licked delicately up the length of the zipper.

Frank’s whole body flexed up at the impact. “Vince!” he screamed out, testing the walls of the cabin.

“Mine,” he whispered, closing his wet mouth around the bulge, probing his tongue through the denim to make it throb acutely in his mouth. “All mine, Frank,” he whispered raggedly.

Vinnie drew up to his knees, astride his lover. Frank’s face was flushed, his every muscle deadlocked. Vinnie knew he was frightened, but he also knew that, beyond that fear, was an overpowering need.

Vinnie knew the power of that need, had felt its rawness. It came from the deepest well of love, forever caged by silence. It defied all attempts at liberation by the sterile craft of words.

Through his hot, anxious mind, he remembered their love. All the good days. All the bad ones with bright moments nested in the wake of them. All the times Frank had been there for him when nobody else was. Frank’s love was Vince’s gravity, holding all the wind-blown fragments of his soul into one whole, one rational being. It was the one thing in the world Vincenzo Terranova trusted without question. And this man beneath him, the only person.

“I love you,” he whispered, shaking his head as he drew a noisy breath. “God, I love you, but it’s gotta be your choice, Frank.”

“My choice,” the other man gave a winded laugh, shaking his head in august wonder. “Like I ever had a choice, Vince.”

Frank sat up slowly, his legs dropping off the side of the bed. His skin admitted that the room was cold, he could feel it nip at the edges. The fire in the hearth was now a low orange haze of soot, yet the heat in the room was constant. The man beside him was staring toward the shuttered window, as if imagining the forest beyond. His face was softly-featured, yet somehow strong, kind and obstinate, sweet and sullen, falling well into the shadows of his ancestry, reminding anyone who knew it of Roman sculpture.

“You really want this?” Frank said, fighting to be fair, damned to be reasonable, hating the part of himself that demanded he do so. “You’re not just…doing this?”

He nodded, his answer flooding through his face. “I’m not just doin’ it, Frank,” Vinnie said.

“You gotta know this scares the hell out of me.”

“I know,” Vince said sharply, a wicked edge to the words. “It scares me, too. ’Cause you’re my life. You have to know that.”

Frank nodded. “You’re my life, too, Vince,” he said softly.

“Then you know. I don’t want to mess things up between us. But I love you enough that I want to try. I want to get past what we have. I want to have more with you, Frank, than beer and a ball game. I love you enough to risk it. The question is, do you love me enough to meet my odds?”

Frank rose to his feet slowly. He touched a hand to Vince’s face.

Here it comes, Vince thought, turning his eyes away. The brush-off. The gentle fucking cop-out. Frank was selling out again. And he wanted to the core of him to force him…to drag him to the bed and love him into believing….

But then the sound of the zipper swept the last of Vinnie’s doubts away. After a moment, Frank pitched clothing into the darkness.

“I probably should have my head examined.”

Vince smiled brightly at the naked man standing before. “You already did. That’s what got us here. But now, I can peruse the rest of you.”

“Peruse? Peruse? You know you really can go–” Frank’s voice shattered at the touch of Vinnie’s hand. At the fingers he watched in stunned awe caress the shaft of his cock, whispering over the glans, sliding down to encompass all of it. Vince pumped once, and Frank grabbed Vince to keep from falling at the potent surge of joy.

The sweat was gaining on Vince’s brow again, and the more he fucked Frank’s cock, the more strength sapped out of his lover’s legs.

“I think you better lay down, baby,” Vince whispered, a bead of sweat trickling down his face.

The word “baby” landed hard and sweet…it had been a long time between words of endearment. And the fact Vinnie’s lips had whispered this one stirred him deeply.

Frank leaned down to press their mouths together, and then to deepen the kiss, but Vinnie allowed it only a moment.

“Kisses come later, Francis,” Vince said, dragging him by the arm down to the bed. Vince moved on top of him, smiling down at him. “Right now, I just want my mouth around your cock.”

That moment, it was real for him. By whatever name the last twenty minutes might pass within his ever-infinite capacity for self-delusion, this one could have only one name. Vinnie was moving up between his legs, Vinnie was caressing his thigh, Vinnie was reaching up to massage his abdomen all the way to his cock.

It was throbbing avidly again, at the whisper of Vinnie’s hot breath against it. And as Vince cupped Frank’s cock lovingly to his mouth, brushing the head across his lips, the impact flexed through Frank like some white charge making a true connection.

At the first touch of Vinnie’s tongue, Frank’s blood screamed down through his body, his hands grasping for mercy from the bed. Vinnie’s tongue licked a delicate path from shaft to glans, slithering back down to his testicles. Then he paused, softly brushing his lips across the tight sac, tenderly gathering one between his lips, suckling softly.

The charge spread, intensified, enshrining need in all his nerves.

Then Vince drew his cock into his hand again, smiling up at him as a promise, as a tease of what was now to happen. Every inch of his body was alive. His breaths were coming in spasms.

The full lips parted suddenly to engulf his cock, sliding it tenderly in, then tenderly out again.

The effect was utterly gentle at first…warm and comforting and soft. Surrounded by Vinnie’s love.

“Vinnie,” Frank murmured, feeling love, sensing the full, sweet descent of an orgasm. The promise of coming in Vince’s mouth.

But all thoughts ceased as Vinnie sucked, and sucked hard.

The gentle became hard and the sweet became lewd and Vinnie’s love became wonderfully wicked. The wet cock-sucking sounds screamed around him, filling the cabin, intermingled with the screams being torn from him one by one.

Bliss roared in every nerve, overflowing all his pleasure centers, swelling like ecstasy in his groin to the point where he knew how frighteningly large the thing was that was coming.

“Vince!” he screamed out, starting to pull away to relieve this aching edge.

But Vinnie’s hands sprang upward to anchor him tightly. He was not about to let him go. His only reply was a groan of satisfaction, coupled with the mounting wetness of the sucking sounds.

“Vinnie!” he screamed again.

But it was too late. Delight swelled fast and shattered–into wild waves of sharp and piercing pleasure. And Vinnie only sucked it further, licking feverishly at every pleasure edge in his whole body.

He was left trembling, half-remembering, never wanting to forget.

Finally, he felt a presence moving up to his side.

The presence kissed him gently on his mouth. The other lips were moist and vaguely salty. It brought him back. It made him remember. He rolled into the other man’s arms, leaning his forehead to the other man’s shoulder.

The tears were silent, travelling down his face without a sound. “Vince,” he whispered against his throat.

“I need you, Frank,” he murmured, his voice heavy and tremulous with need. He grasped Frank’s hand, urging it over the swelling in his jeans.

Frank gazed up into Vinnie’s face, up at his fine skin lustrous with another kind of heat. “Tell me what you want, Vince,” Frank said, his voice filling out with the power of the soul his mildness sometimes concealed. “I want to give it to you. Just tell me.”

Vinnie tenderly moved his lover aside, stealing to the edge of the bed, to the precipice through which Frank had gone a few sweet moments before. He rose up nimbly, and turned around to face him, his fingers hovering just a moment before he tugged the button open and yanked down the fly.

Finally he shed the denims and kicked them away. The night moon cast a flaxen glow across the room, embracing Vinnie’s nakedness and confessing it to Frank. The older man smiled with a hint of loving irony, his face blushing vividly as his gaze coveted the other man’s body. As Vince joined him on the bed, Frank reached a timid hand for Vinnie’s full, thick cock. It pulsed as Frank’s fingers brushed it for the first time.

“Frank,” Vince choked out, reining back a wild urge. Instead, he caressed Frank’s face, grinning brightly into the very shy smile, dallying softly on Frank’s mouth. “And now,” Vinnie whispered, running the tips of his fingers over the edges of that smile, “you know everything about me. And I know everything about you.”

“Not everything, Vince,” Frank said faintly, his hand taking Vinnie’s cock into his. In a moment, he’d have rolled Vince over and moved down to claim his cock, but a hand covered his hand.

“Not this. Not first, I mean. I want something else,” Vinnie said almost shyly.

Frank revived his smile. “Something like?”

“When I used to think about you and me, I used to think about–”


Vince reached far into the dark, to seize a small glass jar. As he lifted its lid, he smiled softly, the room’s last traces of moonlight captured by the bronze unguent. And suddenly, the air was filled by something strong and wild and sweetly scented, something that made Frank think of nothing but Vince’s love.

Vince dipped his fingers deep into the unguent, then lifted the hand toward Frank. A drop of sweat spilled down his face, his eyes glowing with a profound invitation.

Frank understood, grasping his hand for Vince’s hand, joining their fingers together, sharing the musk-scented oils and his joy in the moment. Then Vince’s hand released Frank’s palm to reclaim it, clamping his lover’s hand over his cock again, moving it up and down.

The joy that burst fresh over Vince’s young face flushed Frank with desire. He knew then what Vince wanted. And he knew that, above all else, whatever Vinnie wanted, he wanted too.

He reached for him, drawing Vince deeply between his thighs. “Do it,” he moaned, through set teeth.

“It’s gonna hurt at first.”

“I don’t care.”

With that, Vince rode the urge fiercely, tenderly pushing forward, filling Frank’s soft, warm ass with his oily hardness.

For a moment, it did hurt. For a moment. But for the moment, Frank kept his gaze on Vinnie’s eyes, warming himself with the bliss that took possession there as he slid all the way in.

“Mygawd,” he gasped out, every muscle in his body contorting. He thrust a second time. And a third. “Gawd, Frank.”

By the fourth thrust, the pain was gone completely…and replaced by a vague, pleasant ache…a very pleasant ache. It increased and encircled him, surrounding and filling him. Just when he thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.

“Vince,” he gasped out, his hands seizing Vinnie’s shoulders.

Vinnie smiled hazily, a rise of sweat surging down his face. “It’s that good, huh?” he whispered, noticing the evidence of his lover’s pleasure–the new stirring in his cock. “Let’s just see if we can make it better.” With that, he fucked Frank’s new erection with a gentle, encouraging hand.

When one good wave abated, another pursued it. Frank had already sanctified the first orgasm as the best one ever, but now he felt another coming to take its place.

“I don’t believe this,” he moaned, his fingers plying Vince’s shoulders. His own muscles grasped back at Vinnie’s cock as it plunged in again and again.

Vince’s head thrust back, the impact sparking white fire in his eyes. And then followed an arduous rhythm that quickened as Frank grasped back at him.

“Believe it now, Frank?” he groaned out of the midst of it, the dampness rung from his face now one part sweat and another tears. His large hand pumped forcefully on his lover’s cock, feeling his own penis about to erupt deep inside the other man.

But Frank was beyond words, his hands hungering for anchorage in Vince’s arms, feeling his love gush furious and thick to somewhere so deep he felt like it pervaded him completely. Swept the old Frank away. Forged a new one.

And suddenly, one pleasant ache moved toward the pleasure Vince’s hand was demanding from him. His penis throbbed in reply.

“C’mon, baby. Give it to me,” Vinnie whispered. “Give it to me like I just gave it to you.”

“Vince,” Frank moaned softly, surrendering completely to the wave that took him as his pleasures merged, his cock spilling warmth into Vinnie’s waiting hand.

When he could breathe and see and think again, his eyes were filled with Vinnie’s smile.

“That,” Frank said feebly, “has never happened to me.”

“You got one hell of a short memory, Frankie.”

“I mean, Vince, it’s never happened to me twice. Not in a row. Not in a long time anyway.”

“Oh, forget all that yesterday stuff. We’re gonna rewrite the rules.” He gathered Frank to his chest, leaning his head down to nuzzle in deeply. “Was the past really as bad as you’re always complaining, Frank?”

McPike turned a scathing eye up at him, the effect more potent without glasses. “My dear Vincenzo, my past experiences of falling in love have been like going camping dressed like a loaf of Wonderbread and sleepin’ in a pic-a-nic basket. It’s been an invitation to the bears, Vince.”

“But you do know that this one is gonna be different?” Vince said, giving him a gaze that implied that failure to agree with such a premise would result in more trouble than he could stand.

“Yeah, I know,” he said softly, as if unpersuaded.

“You’ll want to put more confidence into that tone,” Vince cautioned. “And give me solid reasons.”

“Because, like it or not, this is the big one for me, Vince…the brass ring…the great love everybody’s supposed to get in life. And for another, I have just had the peak sexual experience of my life. Without a single contender.”

Vinnie subdued his joy and kissed Frank’s thinning hair. “The peak so far, you mean. I’ll take that as a challenge. But thanks.”

“Don’t thank me.” His voice grew dim and distant, shadowed by sleep. “Just don’t bother returning the compliment. You’re a terrible liar.”

Vince laughed, cloaking his lover in his arms. “I wouldn’t bother, ’cause you’d never believe me, but it wouldn’t be a lie,” he said. “Frank?”

“Sorry, I’m not in right now, but leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

Vince whacked his backside. “Look at me.”

Frank turned and looked, staring up into Vinnie’s love-drunk smile, his black hair spilled across an eye. “The one you love most,” he said, “is supposed to be best. I love you most.”

Frank closed his eyes and smiled, settling his head again on Vinnie’s chest. He reached a hand up to grasp Vince’s hand, making his reply with the language of his fingers.

“C’n I sleep now?” he said groggily.

“How come you want to sleep?” he said.

“It’s this odd thing my body does every 16 or so hours,” he groaned back. “I don’t do it, it pulls my plug. You got a problem with that?”

Vinnie pouted. “I hate the look of you lying there, not moving. It reminds me of a week I’d sooner forget.”

“For the moment, I’m not gonna go anywhere, Vince,” Frank said. “And for the long haul, I’m gonna try to stay forever.”

Vinnie reached down and steered Frank’s chin in his direction. “What’s this ‘gonna try’ crap? I warn you, you better choose to stay for good. Or you’ll never survive the escape.”

With Vinnie’s words, something dark crawled across Frank’s thoughts. And with it, all the muddy images of his own death…the phantoms that sprang out of shadow-closets, between the failure of one heartbeat and the victory of the next.

For life is a dialogue between the spirit and the dust, he remembered. His ear against Vince’s chest, he heard the rhythm of his lover’s heart and thought of its fragile human pact with life. And in that precious contract, was Frank’s one reason for breathing.

“It’s not always a choice, Vince,” Frank said, feeling haunted as hell, by ghosts of the past and specters of all possible futures. “There are Saturday Night Specials, and AIDS, and our old friend the myocardial infarction. And if the little things don’t getcha, there’s always that hole in the ozone to deal with. As a mutual friend of ours would want me to mention.”

“Yeah, Frank, there’s a hole in the ozone. But there are crop circles in Wessex, too. And there are kitty cats and making love and Beatles music and Woody Allen movies. And there are several billion lovable human beings in the world. And, best of all, one of ’em’s named Frank McPike.”

Frank kept his gaze on his face, lifting a hand to stroke away an errant hair, and to caress the edges of a smile. “You’re impossible. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know that, Frank. The feeling’s mutual. So, come here.” Vince pressed Frank’s head to his chest again, resting his chin against the other man’s forehead, as they once had done so long ago…so long it seemed another life. “Just listen to the bells, Frank,” Vince whispered, stroking his hair with a gentle hand. “Just close your eyes, baby, and listen to the bells.”

In a moment, Frank closed his eyes and heard them again.

Drawn from his memory as they were pulled by his comatose mind from the world….

Out of the brown fog, a sound…honest and clear…strong enough to finally vanquish the void.

It was the distant sound of bells across the morning. And he had followed them out of the night, just as Vince’s voice had called him in from the mountain cold. He followed them, then, as he had followed them always.

And in his heart, Frank knew the future. He had seen the wax and wane of life a thousand times within his own.

But he also knew that despite the future…no matter the name of the thing that would one day steal his Vinnie away…if the only time they had was this one night, or this one year, or a few together, he knew the bells would be there for them.

For Vinnie had given them to him, as a touchstone, as a promise, and a reason to go on.

And now he knew that they would never fade away.

The End