What I Cannot Fear
(A Sleeping Stone story)
by Alexa Snow
Richard was upstairs, finishing shaving, when he heard the sound outside. At first, he couldn't place it; it was a familiar sound, not something totally alien, but he wasn't sure what it was. Definitely not the lawnmower, which was electric and therefore much quieter than the ones their neighbors had. Maybe the newspaper guy, who delivered the paper by driving slowly up the street in his lumbering white SUV, had a hole in his muffler? But then why did it sound like the thing was idling in their driveway?
He stroked the razor carefully across his jawline one last time, then wiped his face with a hand towel before tossing the towel into the laundry basket. Normally, he would have then drained and washed and even dried the sink, meticulous, not leaving a trace of hair or even a drop of water behind to show that he'd been there. But it had been pointed out to him that this behavior was a little too close to OCD to be healthy, so today he used his curiosity as an excuse to leave a mess and instead went downstairs, hundred-year-old wooden steps creaking under his weight.
Chris was poised in the doorway between the kitchen and the porch. As Richard came in, he turned his head, and the look on his face was so horrified that Richard forgot, for a few seconds, the sound -- which was louder now -- and instead went to him immediately. "What?"
"He's -- Jazz is --" Chris swallowed and shook his head, and Richard pushed past him and went outside.
The loud rumble was a motorcycle. Its rider pushed down the kickstand and shut it off; the sudden silence was nowhere near as shocking as the sight of the bike. Jazz was saying hello to the bike's rider as the guy swung his leg over and offered his gloved hand to shake Jazz's.
"Thanks for this," Jazz said. He looked nervous, his shoulders tense under the old denim jacket he'd dug out of the closet earlier but not said anything about. Glancing at Richard, he said, "It's been a year."
"I know," Richard said shortly. A year since Jazz had gotten on the motorcycle Richard had bought for him, gotten on without a helmet and proceeded to crash the bike and his skull, ending up broken and in a coma for months. Richard had forgotten, actually, which was weird, because he'd been watching the calendar, seeing the anniversary of that day creeping closer and closer. And now here it was. "What's going on?"
Chris came out into the driveway, too, as Jazz started explaining earnestly. "I didn't tell you because I knew you'd try to talk me out of it. And I have to do this. If I don't -- well, I have to. That's all."
"You're not getting on that thing," Chris said.
"I am," Jazz said. "Baby, I have to."
Richard understood, and wished he didn't. "You don't have a license."
"I'm not driving it," Jazz said. He gestured at the guy standing there, who'd picked up a second helmet that had been attached to the bike somehow. "This is Antonio. He's a friend of Greg's. He's going to take me around the block -- that's it. Nice and slow, no stunts. Nothing's going to happen, I promise."
"You can't promise that," Chris said tightly.
"I can promise I'll be careful," Jazz said. "And wearing a helmet. You think I want a repeat of last year?"
Chris's voice cracked when he spoke. "If you don't, then why?"
"Because I have to." Jazz came closer, took Chris's face between his hands and looked into his eyes. "I'm sorry, I am. If I could be different, I would. But I can't not be me, and this... I have to know that I'm not too scared to do it."
"Please," Chris said, miserable. "Just don't."
"I don't want to," Jazz said intently. "I don't. But I'm going to, and then I'm going to come back. I am. Don't ask me not to be me, Chris. I can't do that."
Chris's eyes were shiny, unshed tears clinging to his eyelashes, but after half a minute or so he nodded. "Okay. Go."
Richard could hardly stand to watch as Antonio started the motorcycle up again. Jazz strapped on the helmet and got onto the back of the bike, hands on the waistband of the man in front of him. Averting his gaze as the motorcycle pulled out of the driveway, Richard turned instead to Chris and pulled him into what he intended to be a loose hug. Chris clung to him, though, face pressed to his shoulder. Chris was shaking.
"It's okay," Richard told him. "It's going to be okay."
Chris shook his head slightly, but didn't say anything. He wasn't crying, Richard didn't think.
It was good to have Chris there to provide even a minor distraction from all the things running around in Richard's head. The loudest, of course, was the voice that told him it was all his fault Jazz had the accident in the first place, because he was the one who'd bought him the damned motorcycle. If he had a penny for every time he'd blamed himself, they'd have enough for a vacation house in the Bahamas. As it was, the blaming didn't get him anywhere but depressed, but no matter how much he reminded himself of that, he still couldn't stop.
"It wasn't your fault," Chris said, muffled against Richard's chest.
Chris lifted his face to look at Richard. "The accident. It wasn't your fault. You know that."
"I know," Richard said, but it didn't sound particularly convincing.
"I can practically hear you thinking it," Chris said. "You always get all tense." His hand stroked along Richard's back slowly, comfortingly. "Did you tell him to ride that bike without a helmet?"
"Did you tell him to ride it even though he didn't know what he was doing?"
"No," Richard said. He looked past Chris's ear to the twisted, gnarled crab apple tree halfway across the front lawn. "But I bought it for him."
"You wanted him to be happy," Chris said. "That's all. No one would blame you for that."
Try telling that to my subconscious, Richard thought. "I know."
"I don't think you do," Chris said thoughtfully, but that was when the rumble of the bike coming back up the street from the other direction became audible, and they both held their breath until the motorcycle pulled back into the driveway and stopped with Jazz still on it.
Jazz got off and unstrapped the helmet, handing it back to Antonio. "Thanks," he said. "Thanks a lot, I really appreciate it."
"No problem," Antonio said. He turned around and strapped the spare helmet back into place. "Hey, I'd stick around, but I've got to get back home before my wife leaves for work."
"Okay. Thanks." Jazz lifted a hand in farewell as the motorcycle pulled back out onto the street, then grinned at Chris and Richard. "See? All in one piece and everything." And promptly turned and threw up in the bushes, the curve of his slender back taut under the worn denim of his jacket.
Richard got an arm around him as he heaved, the smell of it sharp and unpleasant. "Shh. Okay, easy. Let it come up, don't try to fight it."
"I hate throwing up," Jazz said miserably, and gagged again before straightening.
Chris, who had disappeared into the house, returned with a glass of water. "Here. I know you hate -- just rinse your mouth out, don't swallow."
"I don't think you've ever said that to me before," Jazz said. He took the glass and did as Chris suggested, swished some water around in his mouth before spitting it back out. "Poor bush. Just sitting there innocently, next thing it knows it's covered in puke."
Chris laughed; it sounded forced. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah." Jazz's arm, which had slipped around Richard's waist, tightened in a half-hug. "Sorry. I'd have warned you if I'd known that was going to happen."
Part of Richard was pissed off, because Jazz sure as hell hadn't warned them about his anniversary motorcycle ride -- but on the other hand, he couldn't blame Jazz for keeping quiet about it until the last possible second. There wouldn't have been any way to tell them and not have it be a huge deal. "Well, let's get you inside."
Jazz looked like he was going to refuse, then nodded. But he reached out and snagged the front of Chris's shirt and tugged Chris closer into a three-way hug. "I really am sorry for springing it on you guys like that. If there'd been another way..."
"It's okay," Chris said. There was an edge to his voice that Richard was sure Jazz could hear just as well as he could, the kind of edge that meant the conversation wasn't over; they'd probably end up discussing it some night soon when they should be sleeping instead. Because, when it came right down to it, their relationship wasn't easy. It took work. Sometimes it took a lot of work.
But, with one arm around Jazz and the other around Chris, with fine wisps of Jazz's dark hair, still short but well on its way to its old length, brushing against his freshly shaved cheek, Richard had to admit that it was well worth it.
Many thanks to Jane Davitt for the help and encouragement, as always.
Chris, Jazz and Richard make their first appearance in Alexa Snow's Sleeping
here to order Sleeping Stone from Torquere Press.