Author’s note: This story is supposed to oscillate between the past and the present, between the protagonists and their undefined relationship, between life and death without interruption. Any ambiguity that I left in the dialogue concerning who is speaking is welcome and purposeful and serves to bolster the tone of the story.
Michael Kitt, Elias Johnson, and Colin Campbell pulled up on Moses in the cold of the morning. They were black and patent leather and oiled hair out by the curb. The weather reminded Moses of fall practices, the taut leather of the football warming as it passed from hand to hand. The others played basketball in the winter; Moses preferred track. But he knew Coach Hamil, everybody did. He remembered the boys repeating Coach’s refrain over the winter—sport is ritual, sport is ceremony. We train our bodies as purification for the rites. Colin was particularly good at imitating Coach’s voice, the dry rot of vowels, the curve of his lip, the hot breaths that he steeped his sentences in. Coach brought his basketball team to championships over and over and it was always easy. They chatted and laughed in Michael’s busted Camry until they turned the corner and spotted the spire of the church. Campbell said Is that it? They were bursting and bulky over Coach’s frame, shrunken and damp in the casket, his makeup a gray-brown mask. The blush was too pink. Elias had gone to Coach’s for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner a few times, and he held himself close to the shining brown wood as he carried him out of the church. Moses could not stop watching his twisted, injured expression. All funerals are too long. The autumn leaves were hot and light and sun in Coach’s backyard. Elias and Colin and Moses and Michael had gathered with former teammates they had spotted at the service. Repass was a premature reunion, with low chatter and laughter and sad eyes. Moses was content to leave Coach in the ground and to begin not remembering. He spotted Auden about an hour in. He had turned to get a look at the bodies spotting the grass, hundreds of them rotating in and out as the light changed. Auden was alone. They stood under a tree with red and yellow boughs, fluttering and dancing in the breeze. They wore a black coat over their suit. A black shirt and tie. I’ll be right back. He spoke to no one in particular, moved ahead of his sentence. His heart was loud in his ears as he closed the gap between himself and Auden. It was like percussion when his eyes met theirs. Moses almost jumped out of his skin; Auden strode forward to lock him in a hug. Moses told himself not to hold on so tight, not to get hard, not to tear up. Auden sighed when they separated. God, Mose. He felt tipsy from the smell and feel of Auden’s body. How are you doing? It was all he could think of. Auden smiled. All right, how about you? Moses nodded. His throat was lined with a sweater. Fine. He realized then that he had not stopped staring at Auden since he had seen them from across the yard. They seemed to indicate with their expression: Yeah, I noticed too. Their skin was dark black, hair blacker still and reflective with the oil they had no doubt smoothed through it that morning. The curls hung to the bottom of their shoulder blades, shook and refracted with their movement. Brown eyes with yellowish whites. You haven’t changed. He remembered all of them. Neither have you. Their jaw tightened. I came here once, for a party when we won states junior year. He got us a nice cake, a cake from a bakery. I ate probably three slices and fell asleep on the deck in one of those chairs. They pointed in the direction of the house, seats now occupied by wilted aunties and Coach’s tired children. Moses fiddled with his hands. Auden gathered a handful of their hair and tossed it over their shoulder. Moses looked away as he spoke: I missed you. They touched his shoulder briefly. Enough to set him ablaze, to jolt his body awake and alive. Me too. A lot. Moses raised his gaze to meet Auden’s. What’ve you been up to all these years? He coughed, shifted. I left school after my sophomore year when my grandma got sick. My aunt and I watch her, take different days. I worked a few different jobs before I became assistant manager at Home Depot. Auden nodded. You’re doing the right thing, taking care of her. You’ve always been good to her. He smiled. Except when I was sneaking out with you. They smirked. Except then. They pulled at the collar of their shirt. Did you come alone? Elias, Colin, and Michael picked me up. You remember them? They let out one laugh punctuated with a slanted grin. Of course. They turned towards the deck, towards the crying aunties and the dessert trays. You want to get out of here? The tree burned hot above them. Moses thought of Coach’s momma throwing a handful of dirt on his casket with an odd and raw grimace. Sure. They passed goodbyes around, found Coach’s widow drowning in the living room couch. She smelled like hand lotion and potpourri. Auden had parked a ways down the block, wedged between two minivans. They bought the car the summer before their junior year of college, a used black Honda Accord. Is it weird, being back again? He asked as they pulled off. It had taken Auden a moment to get out of the spot. Moses had watched the furrow of their brow, the switch of their head as they checked over their shoulder. Auden nodded. It’s always odd to come back. My whole life happened here, I never left until I went away to school. The house disappeared behind them. But it’s nice to be back, it’s still home to me. Even when I was at school, I felt this place pulling on me, you know? They drove smooth and fast. I do, yeah. I know the feeling. The shale-cold sky pressed down on the car as they drove. After some time, they pulled into the parking lot of a park. Moses smiled at them. You remember? They nodded. Sure, I do. They had gone to the park together the night after graduation. Auden’s aunties and uncles and their momma had gotten drunk and fallen asleep strewn about the house. They had told Moses about it, the one drink they had, the restlessness that overtook them as they waited for their relatives to crash. They commandeered their momma’s car, pulled up to Moses’ still in their white shirt and slacks. A plastic Jesus stood sentry on the dashboard. They spread out an old blanket when they got to the park, got down together in the dark. Moses took Auden out of their button up, put it on over top of his t-shirt. They kissed in the dark, felt the shape of their bodies around one another. He thought of college, of miles between them, of giving them away. They barely spoke. Auden got him back home around dawn. The years elapsed had not changed the place. They were quiet first, walking together amongst the swirling leaves. The park’s rolling grass hills eventually gave way to a border of forest, a well-trodden path cutting a loop through it. The leather of Moses’ shoes pinched his toes together. Auden looked up at the sky. Have you been here recently? He wiped his sweating palms on his pants. Not since. Really? Yeah. Auden looked ahead. Their skin was pulled tight over their bones and muscles, like a mannequin, a porcelain doll. I love the woods and all. I wish I could live out there. He laughed, kicked a rock. You’d drop out, then? They shrugged. Maybe after I finished. Moses heard that they were serious before he saw it. You’d live alone? They were still gazing forward. You could come if you want. They said it like an order at dinner, like a greeting to a boss on a Thursday, like the name of an old classmate who recently got married, like anything that someone said without thinking too hard. Moses’ heart rose behind his ears. He smiled. Auden turned to him, blushed. They pushed him gently. Quit fucking smiling. They reached up to loosen their tie. Moses noticed for the first time the tattoos on the back of their hand. Eyes under the first row of knuckles, a black and white traditional flower spread over the back of the hand itself. He saw other designs reaching out from under the cuff of their shirt. Moses wanted to see the arms he used to know so well, to feel them under their clothes, to kiss their skin. He caught himself. What’ve you been up to since you graduated? It was this past spring, right? He knew. He knew because he was supposed to have crossed the stage in the same month. Grad school, getting my Master’s in English. Never thought I’d sign up for more school. Auden squinted up at the sun. Hazy behind the clouds. What I really want to do is work for a publishing house or a literary magazine or something. Moses could see it, Auden wearing suits to work, maybe a coat rack in their office by the door. They would have a couple of cups of coffee throughout the day between reading work. What? He spat. I can see it. Auden stopped walking. Moses did the same. They reached their hand up and touched his cheek. He wanted to hold Auden there, to tell them with his eyes don’t go, don’t move, just be here with me, please. You’re just as pretty as I remember. He had not let himself look Auden straight on until then, had not let his eyes settle without swarming thoughts and contrived nonchalance. But they were there, and they were so beautiful, too beautiful for him, he always thought. Moses started to get hard. No, stop. Auden was quiet. He swatted their hand away, walked ahead. It was a familiar dance. Auden caught up. They were walking towards the trail. Auden tucked their hair behind their ear, the flash of their tattoos jumping up at Moses again. It was like the feeling of the blinds turned down, the obfuscation of the beaten path, the dismembered leaves and branches falling and dangling ahead of them. But the death was beautiful. It was fire and smoke, rusted leaves underfoot, it was the wet ones already breaking down and giving off a rotting breath. What’s it like, at your school? Auden exhaled. It’s like here, but a little less bright. And faster. The leaves fall off in a rush after they turn. But there are big old trees on campus, you know? Huge. They’re something. The shadow and light played on Auden’s face. You talk like a writer. Auden bowed their head, shook it. I always loved your work. Even though you only let me read a few things, they stuck with me. They ducked a branch. Maybe I’ll send you what I’m working on now when I finish. Moses put his hands in his coat pocket. I would like that, really. Auden’s gait slowed almost to a stop. Last year I wrote you a letter. They had reached the end of the trail, discharged back near the entrance of the park. I couldn’t send it. What was it about? His voice was a half-octave higher. Softer. They just smiled, shook their head. Are you hungry? He nodded. Do you need to get back? My aunt’s got her today. They made their way back to the car. When they started it up, Moses reached over to crank up the heat. Auden pulled themself out of their coat, tossed it in the back. Moses could see the outline of their undershirt against their top. Where do you want to eat? He shrugged. Anywhere. Auden nodded, shifted gears, and pulled off. The town had always been small to Moses, the sidewalks spare and narrow, the buildings like origami dropped down between gridded streets. Haunted by people he had never known and who had never been born. They cut their eyes up into the rearview mirror. Autumn is my favorite season, you know. Always was. I remember. They were quiet the rest of the way. They pulled into the drive-thru line at Sonic. We don’t have a Sonic in D.C. They put in their orders. Auden paid; Moses protested, but they shot him an old smile and he felt himself quiet. They pulled over into an empty space to eat. Moses had ordered tater tots with his meal, which made Auden laugh. They still got their cheeseburgers plain and used a lot of ketchup. He did not want to ask. He took a sip of his Sprite, let it out, Are you seeing anyone? He focused out of the windshield. No. I was with someone for some time during undergrad, but not anymore. Moses felt their eyes on him. Are you? Moses scoffed. The cars leaving the drive-thru sped past them. No. He turned to Auden. They always listened hard—that struck him when they first met back in high school. They made eye contact, inflected with their lips and their cheeks and their eyebrows, angled their body in a way that said Keep going, I’m interested. The question posed toward him was ridiculous, almost made him laugh. Why not? They asked gently. He shrugged. I don’t know. I just never really dated or anything. They nodded. I understand. He heard the haltingness in their voice, the question loading. Mose? Yeah? Why didn’t you call me, after we went off to school? It was hard for Moses to keep his eyes up with that question. They had both abandoned their food. He made himself think about it, made himself really consider why, what it had meant that they had separated and not talked since. I thought you would’ve forgotten about me. He shifted in his seat, wiped his nose. I hadn’t really moved on, you know, so I didn’t think it was right to call if you had. Mose. He looked up. I never forgot you. Blood rushed hot over his temples; his lungs were only working at half capacity. Auden reached out and held Moses’ cheek again. Salty fingers. They were quiet in each other’s eyes. What’re you thinking? Voice fragile as tissue paper. Auden shook their head. I’m just here with you. He took in a breath. You know, I really missed you. Me too. I’m glad you came up to me. I had to. Auden’s hand was warm on his cheek. Do you want to go somewhere? They drove towards the red orange purple stretched wide through the windshield. The trees thickened the closer they got to the edge of town, reached up and burst into the sky. They parked in a field, a big blank off the main road leading into town. They used to park there after nightfall. They disappeared with the headlights out. They got out of the car, walked a bit. The cold was biting now. Moses turned to them as they walked. Do you believe in Heaven and Hell? Auden sighed. There’s so much we don’t know. The sun was loud red in its last moments. Auden? Yeah? Why didn’t you ever ask me to be your boyfriend? It lost the weight of years unasked when he heard it out loud. He felt like a teenager with that word on his lips, boyfriend. He saw Auden rolling their words around their mouth before speaking. At the time, I thought you weren’t ready. But I see now that that was an excuse, that I was scared. Twilight, now. A burn mark left on the horizon. I could’ve been brave, if you’d asked me. I felt safe with you, even when we weren’t. Auden’s eyes gleamed in the phosphorescence. I always wanted to be strong for you. Before he heard the thought, Can I kiss you? A quiet yes. Moses was hard and shaking and did not realize it until he saw the stillness of Auden’s hand on his forearm. It was like it had always been. Auden was in his ear. They were saying the words that lovers say before they go to bed together, and Moses was speaking back but did not hear it. He needed it all at once like an IV. His hands tightened on Auden’s body, his lips going back for more, afraid of losing the taste of them, afraid of losing them. Moses heard himself finally. Yes, yes, please. Auden was barreling through town, both of them wound up in their seats. The house was empty, their momma out for work. They barely made it to the bedroom. Auden fished a rubber out of their suitcase. They pulled off one another’s clothes. Are you sure? Please, yes, please. And when Auden was inside of him, he sighed heavy and cussed because nobody ever taught him how to say I love you.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Lacey Johnson is a junior undergraduate student at Howard University pursuing a degree in sociology with a minor in English. He is primarily a writer of short fiction and nonfiction personal essays with an interest in telling stories about and for people who share his intersections. They are based out of Baltimore, Maryland.
**This story was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2021.