Travis had never gotten over the fact that such a nice little creek ran through this rundown park in the middle of a low-class neighborhood. He never realized how much time he would spend here admiring the browning grass and rusted swing set, either. Or how he would eventually come here so often, retracing his steps as if it was a path he'd been walking every day of his life, and making it a part of his daily routine to visit a dark, square-cut stone with a beautiful name, a span of years, and a heartfelt quote from said person engraved into it.
He walks his typical route, enjoying the sun on his face and the thin breeze just going through his long-sleeved button down to give him the relief that levels out his core temperature perfectly. He smiles to himself knowingly, a small little curvature of the lips that would probably go undetected by anyone who didn't know him personally. He didn't always smile so subtly; once it had been wide and obvious, even at the smallest of things. But since the years have passed after the stone had been placed and secured, it faded and lessened, used for much more significant things. No smile is taken for granted— given or received.
Like usual, there isn't anyone else here, and he stops just before the bank of the creek to turn around and soak it all in. It isn't much to the common eye. However, Travis has come to grow a deep appreciation at the attempt for a childhood pastime. With the knocked over garbage cans, chipped-paint monkey bars, and swings mentioned earlier, it was still a playground, nonetheless. An apt one at that. And with this glance, Travis can nearly see a young Alexander having the time of his life.
Another smile is called for.
He wears it as he walks about the large oak tree until he faces the gently flowing water. Before he is able to look down, he has to close his eyes and imagine. This ritual is one he follows religiously, and it is as though his commitment is enough to allow the requested presence to envelop him within seconds. Once he feels the hairs on the back of his neck rise and an entangled sphere of warmth settle in the pit of his stomach, he opens his eyes again and suddenly his smile is matched with a figment of another's.
He sits down carefully, tucking himself between two roots of the tree and the trunk and settling the bag he carried to his left. He leans in bit to run his fingertips along the cool surface of the stone between his feet. It's as shiny and as sharp and as powerful as the first time he saw it, maintained by his meticulous caretaking. It never fails to give him a shiver when he looks at it; two years have flown by like that, and his throat still tightens when he lays his eyes on Alexander's birth and death dates below his name.
"Hi, baby," he says out loud, having his fingers glide over the ridges in his first name. He traces the X with a certain fragility, remembering the times when Alex would make the same X over his bare chest, whispering, "Cross my heart and hope to die," before kissing the invisible mark right above his rapid pulse.
"I brought a chicken salad sandwich," he goes on casually. He pulls out a plastic baggy with the sandwich in it from his bag, which is really just Alex's old messenger bag that Travis now has with him all the time. It's tattered and faded, but he takes adequate care of it to be able to bring it everywhere with him. "I'm still not too big on them, but I know they're your favorite." He grabs his half and takes a delicate bite, chewing slowly to make it last. "Maybe I'll like them more if I keep eating them," he chuckles quietly. His mind allows for a quick glimpse of Alex's soft laughter and butterflies swarm his entrails. It gets him every time, like it had when it was real and Alex's sweet-smelling breath would fan out into his neck.
He eats in silence for a long time, simply remembering and imagining. His eyes are trained on the ebony-tinged stone as it shines wistfully in the sunlight that shimmies through the oak's leaves. He only sees it vaguely, for also in front of him is a film of a life with a lover, a best friend, playing in the air as a personal movie for him to view. It's faded in the beginning, but as he gets down to the last of his meal the images thicken and they feel nearly tangible around him, and he has to force himself to keep still, knowing that it could all just slip away right at the tip of his fingers.
As a showing of two young men rolling around and laughing with each other begins to dance in his mind, his voice finds its way to his tongue: "It's crazy to think that you've been gone now for as long as we were together." The statement is heavy, and he's not really sure that it came out loud enough to disturb the air. It submerses in his chest as an anchor of longing pain, swelling until his ribs get crowded. The two boys share a kiss and he stops breathing for a moment. His lips tingle, but other than that and the dull hurt, he can't feel anything. "Two years just wasn't enough, Alex," he shakes his head— at least he thinks he does—and keeps himself from blinking. "I wanted us to grow old and have a family and spend the rest of our lives together." An uncomfortable lump wedges itself in the back of his throat as he watches himself and Alex start to tenderly free each other of their clothes. He never knew that "the rest of their lives" meant Travis living on Earth and getting older and hanging onto Alex's heavenly spirit and memory as he does so.
Alex lays himself on Travis's naked body, and just as they're about to start making love, a gust of careless wind blows it all away. Travis has to keep himself from trying too hard to bring it back, or else he'll just get too frustrated to enjoy this time they have together now. "I still think this happened for a reason," he comments instead to distract himself, "But I still haven't a clue why. I want to know why, though. I really do. I want to know why we weren't supposed to live together forever. I was so happy with you. We were just... so perfect. What reason would there be to take that away?"
His pulse quickens in frustration as he tries to wrap his head around this theory of everything having a purpose. The lingering anger bubbles up inside him, attempting to claw its way to the surface until he can't handle it anymore. But before that happens, an unexplainable, light yet obvious pressure flattens out on the small of his back and all at once his resentment dissipates as if it had never came. He lets go of a breath that he didn't know he held and closes his eyes, tilting his head back. "I know," he mumbles to Alex's reaction, and he pictures him resting his head on Travis' shoulder so vividly that he can feel it. He knows Alex can't actually say anything, but just him being there is plenty. And they both knew each other so well that they could've had a completely tacit relationship, so why should now be any different? "I know I'm being selfish but I can't help it. You were everything to me. You're still everything to me. You can't blame me for wanting to know." The invisible hand rubs a circle soothingly into his back. "I know you don't. I'm just ranting.” His chest falls with an expulsion of compressed air. The fabricated comforter filled warmth all over his skin, and he resisted the urge to lean back into for fear that it might disappear. He then admits, “I'm starting to get really stressed because I realized that my birthday is in five days."
The first birthday Travis spent without Alex was absolute torture. All he did was get himself alone and cry; wanting so deeply to wake up from a nightmare that he knew would never end that he made himself sick. The only time he would let someone see him was when he had to either run to the bathroom to throw up or get a glass of water to wash out the putrid taste from his mouth. They knew better than to approach him, but he could feel them watching him with concerned, sad looks, some even wiping at the corner of their eyes. It only made him angry. What did they know about being sad? They didn't understand what he was going through. They didn't know what real sadness was. They didn't have a real reason to cry. So he had locked himself in his room again, throwing things and ripping papers and screaming until he sank to his knees and wept some more. A few hours later, after midnight, he'd driven himself in his non-alcoholic drunken stupor back to Alex’s and his home, which was the mobile house Alex and Bambi had bought but where he and Travis lived since after her marriage. Travis just stood in the living room, so overwhelmed that he stayed on his feet, completely paralyzed, staring at the couch where he and Alex made love for the first time a week after his birthday the first year they met, until the sun rose and his legs gave out. He was so exhausted that he fell asleep the instant he hit the floor. Hours later he woke up to Bambi and Jet talking in hushed tones across the room. The only problem was they had moved him to his and Alex's bedroom once they had found him, and as he realized he was in their bed he began to sob silently, too tear-drained to wet his face, but it was the same, nevertheless.
This will only be his second birthday alone, and he started worrying about having something like that happen again a few days ago. It gets stronger as the date gets nearer— the fear of snapping— but in hindsight, he can't help but like it better than wallowing in self-pity. That pain, that had never quite dissolved, has a constant noose around his heart, and with any chance he gets to loosen the rope he takes it.
"You know what I'd really like?" he whispers, his voice childish and vulnerably hopeful. "I'd love for you to visit me in a dream. I'd love that so much." Simply thinking about it winds his stomach in knots and salty liquid prickles the corners of his eyes. "We could dance like old times where you would put your hands on my waist... and I would lock my arms around your back... and I'd rest my head on your shoulder and you'd hum the same little song every time." The tears cling to his eyelashes by this time, and it makes it difficult to keep talking. He pushes through it, having the hand on his back slip off as a brief wind ruffles his hair; he envisions Alex brushing his fingers through it. "My favorite part was when you'd kiss my neck... or my ear. . . . And when you did, your hands would tighten or you would stutter with your steps." He breathes in a shaky breath, forcing out a smile to justify the happiness these memories fill him with. "I loved our dances. Especially the one we had during Bambi's wedding. At that moment it felt like our wedding."
The first tear falls.
Behind the screen of black that is his eyelids, he pictures the two of them to the side of a dance floor, a slow romantic song playing in the background, and staring into Alex's green eyes the whole time as their bodies took control in their swaying and turning. He kisses Alex chastely, who grins against his lips before telling him he loves him and that no matter what they'll always be together. Then the evening fast-forwards to night, to the two laying in bed, nothing between them but skin, breathing in each other, touching each other, just studying each other until they know every single inch of the other better than themselves. Alex had promised him that he would never leave him, that they would keep falling in love over and over again, and that he would do whatever it takes to make Travis the happiest person alive. Travis just smiled one of those toothy, wide smiles and said that he already was.
"I knew we would've gotten married eventually," he says. The Alex beside him is now only in his head, and he leans back on the tree trunk, relaxing his body until all he needs to focus on is his imagination. "I know we talked about it after Bambi got engaged and after the wedding, but..." He shrugs. He envisages Alex taking his palm into his hand, kissing each knuckle, and Travis fists into the fabric of his jeans. "I guess we thought we had time. It's not like it would've been easy for us, anyway, though. It doesn't really matter, right? I mean we were practically married anyway. It's not like we ever would have separated." He remembers Alex brushing back his hair so that he could kiss his forehead, even though Travis was sweating after their first round of lovemaking. That was the first time Alex put up his hair during sex— being that it was an unusually hot Spring— and Travis had thought that it made him look particularly sexy. "Yeah. . . . We were married. We still are." Travis rolls on top of Alex and runs his hands up his neck to hold his face and slips his tongue into his mouth with a smothered moan of sheer ecstasy: after all this time, thoughts like these can still pull a blush to his cheeks.
It was one hundred percent honesty when he said that they would never separate. Not for an instant had it crossed Travis' mind to look for someone to start a new relationship with. Not once had he looked at another person with such a loving desire as he had with Alex after their first kiss. There was never a second thought, never a second guess after they had committed themselves to each other. Travis only had eyes for Alex. No one even compared. It would've been unjust to do so. It would have been a total lie. There was no one that could make him look away from Alex, no one that could make him smile like Alex did, no one that can take Alex from him. It's not that he planned it like that. It just happened. Ever since Alex had told him he was in love with him, he knew that there could never be another person to make him feel so purely happy. So why should he try to find that again? He's okay with knowing that there's never going to be another person he can fall in love with like that. He knows there will never be another Alexander. He doesn't want there to be. He doesn't want to try to find another Alexander. He doesn't want to just throw away all this love he still has in his heart for Alex on someone else. He wants Alex to be the first and last person he'll ever love, like Alex had confessed to him so many years ago.
The images keep coming, a steady stream of a situation, and Travis knows he wouldn't change any of this for the world, even as all he can do is sit here in this abandoned park alone— because he remembers. He has a memory of it because it actually happened. This visual of him holding and loving that beautiful person was real. How could he possibly have asked for anything else?
"I loved when you did that," Travis declares under his breath, referencing the display in his head. It was Travis who was taking Alex, and Alex had a sturdy grip on his hips to pull him closer and keep him there, telling him to breathe and to feel. "You always knew what to tell me to make it better. Not just with that, though." A tiny lighthearted noise slips past his lips for a laugh. "You gave the best advice." Alex murmurs he loves him before the picture decides it's time to go. By the chill that litters goosebumps over his arms, Travis knows that was the ending credits. "Do you have any? I could really go for some of your insight right now. I don't know how I'm gonna be in a couple days. I can already feel myself breaking apart. I can't— I hate having my birthday without you. It's too hard. And I feel bad when I push everyone away but I can't help it. I tried to explain that to Blue, but I think I really hurt him that last time." He sighs deeply, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I should've known that he was upset like I was, and he was just trying to help, I know. But I still don't think I can deal with being around anybody. It's just too sad." He scrubs his eyes with the heel of his hand before any tears fall. His chest swallows his heart and he feels hollow despite himself. "I'm turning twenty-one. All I'm going to want to do is drink—all I want to do is drink— and my dad has been trying to get me to because he hates seeing me like this because he still doesn't want to talk about it. And my mom doesn't want to even try to talk to me because all she does is make me feel worse about it. I'm starting to think they're never going to accept the fact that I'm in love with you. I know they just want to forget that their son's gay and the only boyfriend he had passed away and he can't move on, but I can't give them what they want; I'm never going to be able to do that."
A more typical frown tugs at his features and the everlasting crease between his eyebrows reappears. He brings both shaking hands to his face and rubs his cheeks, trying to get all the heat out. That sickening realization threatens to torment him, and somehow he manages to keep it down enough so he can stay a little longer. After all, he worked overtime all last week so he would have afternoons off to spend as much time with Alex as he wanted— there's no use in treating it like garbage. He must bite his lip and suck it up and stay until he frees the weight off of his shoulders enough to come back tomorrow and repeat the process.
"Even right now I want to just grab a bottle of. . . . Of something, I don't know— and drink until I pass out and have a huge hangover in the morning so that I won't be able to think about anything else. But I don't want to be like that. I promised you that I would never do that. So I'm not going to allow myself even a sip of alcohol, ever, because as soon as I do I won't be able to stop. I know this already. But it doesn't make the want go away, especially when there are a lot of people who are telling me stuff like 'Hey, come on, it's only one drink,' or 'It's only one night, you can stop tomorrow.'" He rolls his eyes and sniffs miserably, cursing under his breath as his neck becomes irritated by all the wetness and drying, a cycle he recognizes all too well. He knows his eyes are puffy and his face is in blotches and that it's going to take a while for it to go away, but luckily he has nowhere to be. So he can wait. He can vent and he can try and sort this out now. "It won't be only one drink or only one night, though. And I'm scared that I won't be able to say no anymore. Now that I don't have the excuse that it's illegal, it's going to be even harder to refuse." He stops to hiccup and cough into the inside of his elbow. He didn't want to cry, not yet, at least. There is still four other days that he has to break down like this, yet he's already starting. And he’s not going to be able to stop.
"Alex, I don't know if I can do this anymore,” he confesses. It’s not the first time the statement has come out of him, but every time it does he means it more and more. Which means that today’s it’s the rawest, most intense one yet. “I miss you so bad. I miss you more every second you're not here. I can't take it. I can’t take it! I'm going to go insane soon from how much I miss you. It hurts, Alex, it hurts. It makes me sick." And a knife stabs him just below the ribs and twists on cue. The sharp pain is familiar. He knows he can't fight it off so he just takes it and sinks in it until he thinks he tastes blood. Somehow it damns up the tears and he has time to wipe them all away with his sleeves robotically. His collar is damp and now the welcoming breeze morphs into tiny freezing needles. He can no longer sense the sun.
He hates how quickly his body is ready to turn on him, how ready his life is to fold in on itself and never straighten out again. He hates how he can’t come to this place, a makeshift sanctuary, and have peace to take pleasure in some alone time with the stone that somehow brings him comfort when nothing else will. Most of all he hates how Alex isn't there to tell him it will be all right. Because when Alex said it, everything truly was. And now there’s no one to tell him that. He can’t tell Alex that, either. So he settles for, "I hope you're not like this wherever you are. I don't want you to be like me. I hope you don’t cry like I do. I don’t want that. I want you to be happy even if I can't be. You deserve to be happy more than anyone else in the world. If you’re happy, then I guess I am too."
This time he swears that he can here the soft reply of, "I’m happy," he swears to god he does, and it's enough for him.
It takes him quite a bit to be able to get his stiff joints to cooperate, even as the physical pain subsides gradually. The sun had changed its angle and the stone now was only illuminated at the bottom half where "Family and love are the only things I need” was carved in a flowing cursive font, similar to Alex’s own handwriting. He stares at it for a long while, letting the words soak in again, finding a new enlightenment in it. And he tries to be happy. He tries so hard.
Eventually, after the sun yet again moves in the sky, he stands and kisses his fingertips then presses it to the stone, telling it, “I love you. Sorry today wasn’t as optimistic as I meant it to be,” and he picks up his bag, securing it on his shoulder in a protective grasp. “I’ll see you soon.” He makes sure to leave the other half of his sandwich and his half-finished apple on one of the roots of the tree before he takes one more lingering glance towards the stone, feeling his heart strangely rip apart and get sewn back together. In the back of his mind, he knows the real reason the food is gone the next day— that some of Nature’s children come along to benefit from it— but it doesn’t hurt to pretend it's someone else.
That night he dreams of nothing; just the pitch-black darkness is there to welcome him with open arms. It doesn’t last very long. In the middle of the night, he gasps himself into consciousness with a cold sweat dripping down his back for reasons unclear to him, and with the lights still turned off he walks determinedly to the untouched closet at the foot of the bed. In a panic he hurriedly picks out one of the only long-sleeved shirts Alex owned, and with the hanger still attached to it, he wraps the sleeves around his waist and presses the fabric to his nose, breathing in as deeply as he can and holding it until his lungs burn. He forces himself not to soil the top with his tears and they clinch his closed eyelashes for dear life.
In the small space he’s confined to, he hums hysterically through his clamping throat a tune that only he knows, and pushes himself to sway his hips back and forth even the tiniest bit. His heart rate speeds up to dangerous heights and his head spins; dizzying sparks of gray light explode behind his eyelids. He refuses to sit back down. He only breathes in more deeply, frantically searching for the long-lost scent of the love of his life, and hums louder. By now the concern of crying has washed away and he only trembles in lonely fear, trying desperately to bring back what he'd lost. Every time the sleeves fall off his hips a thick needle of ice jabs into his sides until he replaces them. His knuckles turn white as he fists the shirt, bringing it impossibly closer to his face. He can smell him, that impossibly sweet, warm, vitally unique aroma that he needs to clutch to stay alive, but he can't get enough. He’s drowning in the unaffected air that surrounds him, choking on the very oxygen that supposedly gives him life: but it isn't what keeps his heart going. It will never be. And the closest thing that can is only a faint whisper in his nose, too little too late to keep him from collapsing on himself.
He grits his teeth as intense nausea floods his stomach and he hugs the shirt until the hanger is digging into his shoulder. He can't feel it, he won't breathe; he won't permit himself that luxury, driving himself to the edge of fainting. And when he finally does, he’s able to sleep again, curling in on the shirt like Earth to its core.
He wakes up in the middle of the next day underneath a woman’s jacket, in the same exact position, still shaking in his vice-like grip. He doesn't have the energy to do anything but look around with his eyes. He's not startled when he finds Bambi sitting by his feet, watching him carefully. Ever since the first time on that first birthday he had gladly given her his set of house keys and kept Alex's for himself.
"I called you off for the rest of the week," she says just barely loud enough for him to hear. She never takes her eyes off him, but she doesn't ask, doesn't mention anything about the state he's in or why he's on the floor with her brother's shirt. She just knows. "I told Sue I'd take your shifts to make up for it." He gives her a half-hearted look, hopefully saying she didn't have to but not really wanting to change the fact. "It's fine. I want to. You need this." She doesn't have to say anything for him to know what she means. She seems to hesitate for a moment after his eyes fall back to his hands. "Do you want to be alone?" she asks quietly.
He feels bad at how nervous she sounded when asking that, like she was stupid for even considering he wanted company. And even though she took Alexander's passing better than he had, he knows it isn't easy for her. Nothing like that ever is. And he shouldn't make anything harder for her if he can help it. They're in this together. She watches his back, and he knows it was time to start realizing that yesterday.
"No," he manages to whisper. Bambi has to make a double-take to be sure she just wasn't hearing things, and eventually she just nods and leans back on the wall. He vaguely wonders what it's like for her to sit in Alex's room like this, possibly remembering everything that led up to them buying this home, and how, at this moment, she's worrying about him and his wellbeing, and not breaking down like he wants to every time he opens the front door. He can’t imagine how she’s doing this fine when her only family left died. Maybe she has more family, Travis thinks dully, maybe she's made more family. He remembers once when he, Alex, Blue, Bambi and Jet had all gone camping together, and while they were around a campfire, Alex announced that he couldn’t believe how big his family had grown in such a small time. At the time, Travis couldn’t have agreed more, although since Alex’s passing it felt like nothing was real and that he had lost everything. But here was Bambi, looking out for him as if she had her whole life, like she was his sister, like she was his family. A few seconds pass by after the thought when it just starts to simmer, then after a minute more, he starts to shake. Bambi places a gentle, warm hand on his leg, mumbling “It will be all right,” and he starts to cry.
But these were happy tears.