The Border Between Life and Death
Author's Notes: I first spun this story to anne in a bar at about 2 a.m. moments after a band called—I shit you not— The Kowalskis—had just gotten off the stage. It's changed a lot since then but I appreciate her listening to my incoherent ramble. Mia and Terri—are there enough good things to say in the universe about Mia and Terri? I think not. Between the two of them, they put unmentionable hours into this story, reading draft after draft, tweak after tweak, letting me try out 14 versions of each line on them, making smart suggestions which I—no fool!—instantly stole right off 'em. Plus they spot typos like nobody's business—any mistakes left in here are clearly my own. Kat Allison—thank you Kat Allison!—for your wise thoughts, which helped to make this a better story than it would have been otherwise. And resonant—thanks for your enthusiasm , support,keen eye, and inspired suggestions.
"Shift, you fucker! Shift!" Ray wrenched the gear lever forward; the Chevy made an angry grinding sound and crawled down Lake Boulevard, still in first. Ray slammed his left hand against the wheel. Christ, if they didn't put some speed on, he was gonna lose the bastard—
"I'm sure Lieutenant Welsh would authorize a replacement vehicle."
Ray didn't answer. He shoved the stick into second—nothing; into third—nothing; never taking his eyes off the tall man in the pale gray suit strolling down the street ahead of them. Bastard. Fucking lawyer bastard...
"Ray, you've lost second gear. The transmission fluid is burning—"
"I got a nose, Fraser, thanks." Ray stuck his head out the window, squinting through his glasses, trying to get a better look. Dark curly hair, with a leather satchel slung over one shoulder rather than the conventional briefcase. Oh yeah, love the purse, buddy, bet the chicks dig it—
"I can get out and chase him if you want."
That stopped him; Ray pulled his head back into the car and tried to school his face into a more neutral expression. "Chase who?"
Fraser raised an eyebrow, pointedly looked out through the windshield, and slowly inclined his head. "Him. The man we're pretending not to follow."
Ray averted his eyes and gave the stick another futile shove. "Hey, I'm not following anybody," he said sullenly. "I'm just trying to get this shit heap back to the yard—"
"You've been following that man for the last fifteen minutes. And I'll help you, Ray, I'd be happy to help you, if you'd only tell me why..."
The man in the gray suit abruptly stopped short, turning to investigate the wares of a streetside flower vendor. Ray double parked on the other side of the street, rage rising. He watched, eyes narrowed, as the man considered pink roses, then moved to examine a white bucket full of daisies. You had better not, he thought wildly, you had just better not, or those are gonna be your funeral flowers, I fucking promise you, asshole—
"Ray," Fraser was saying, his voice full of warning; and god, how he wished Fraser would just shut up for once.
He watched as the vendor came over to assist; as the man pointed first to the pink roses, then to the daisies, then to some pink and white tulips. The vendor ripped a sheet of floral paper off of a big spool and then moved to pull flowers out of the buckets at the man's request.
Ray was so fixated on the gradual formation of the bouquet that he didn't even notice her approach, didn't notice her at all, in fact, until she slipped her bare arm around the back of the gray suit jacket, tilted her face up, and showed him a smile.
Stella, Stella, Stella...wearing a pink and white sundress, blonde hair drawn back loosely at the nape of her neck, bare-shouldered. Stella showing that bastard her smile, his smile, such a beautiful, familiar smile...
The man smiled back at her, then gestured toward the buckets of flowers with a wave of his hand. Stella put a finger to her chin and tilted her head to the side, considering the choices, considering all her choices...
Lilacs, Ray thought savagely. She likes lilacs, you fucker.
After a moment, Stella raised her arm and pointed toward a bucket of lilacs. Instantly, the vendor was there, pulling out three or four dripping stems and adding them to the growing mound of flowers on the floral paper. The man said something and Stella laughed; and then she turned, and raised her arms, and put them around his neck—
—and he was out of the car and striding across the street, intent on—well, he wasn't sure what. Pain, that was for sure; pain for that guy—massive mondo amounts of fucking pain. He was dying to see that gray suit splattered with blood, dying to see how JFK Junior over there would look with a bloody nose and a black eye. Not so great then, huh? Not so smug then; no, he'd be—
It took him a moment to realize that he wasn't moving, that he wasn't getting any closer to the flower stand, or to Stella, or to fucking JFK Junior. It took him another moment to realize that Fraser had him around the chest, was pulling him backward, was holding him back.
"Ray." Fraser's goddamned voice, whispering in his ear. "Don't."
Ray gritted his teeth and surged forward, but Fraser's arms were like steel bands. "You let me go!"
"Ray, I can't let you do this."
Ray struggled furiously, jerking his shoulders and arms, trying to connect with a rib, a nose, anything to make Fraser let the fuck go. "Give me one good reason!"
"Give me another good reason!" Ray pulled his left elbow back suddenly and made a good, solid connection with Fraser's rib cage. He heard Fraser's soft grunt of pain—and then suddenly his feet were skimming the ground, and he was whirled around and shoved forward, sent crashing against the Chevy's black hood. Ray splayed his hands on the hot metal and raised his head.
"Ray," Fraser said. "Get back in the car."
Ray narrowed his eyes and debated rushing him.
"Ray, please. I'm trying to help you."
That was almost funny; Ray straightened and leaned back against the car, hands clenched into fists. "Oh yeah? And what do you know about it?"
Fraser just stood there. "I know how hard it can be to let go of someone you love."
The words pricked at him like bee-stings, enraging him—God, to be lectured at by a human computer wearing a stupid hat. "So you know that, do you? Oh, sorry, Fraser—I forgot you know everything." Fraser's mouth tightened a little. "But I know this—I know you for over a year now and the one place you ain't impressed me none is in the romance department, okay? So pardon me if I don't take your advice about how to keep it together when your wife's fucking JFK Junior."
Fraser looked away. "Ex-wife."
"Whaddya—you correcting me now?" The sun was beating down upon his face; he was steaming; one more word and he was gonna clean Fraser's clock for him. "Wife, ex-wife—what's the difference? Stella, okay? He's fucking Stella, he's fucking my Stella—"
"We don't own other people, Ray," Fraser said quietly, not meeting his eyes. "We can't, and we shouldn't. People are...a gift. They come into our lives and all we can do is try to love them while they're here, while we have them. And then we have memories. We can honor and respect them in our memories—"
"Memories are bullshit, Fraser!" He had boatloads of memories, useless things that they were—even now he could see Stella in her blue high school jacket, detaching herself from a group of similarly dressed girls at the bus stop, crossing the street to ride with him, to get on the back of his motorcycle. "You can't hold a memory, you can't touch a memory—memories are nothing, no thing, just a sucking fucking hole of vacuous void—"
Fraser visibly flinched; it looked like that particular blow had connected. "I—I understand, Ray, really—"
Ray went in for the kill, jabbing a finger at Fraser. "You do not understand, okay? It's all intellectual to you—and I do not need your fucking intellectual assessment of my fucking problems!"
Fraser stiffened, then nodded. "I see. Fine. I'm sure there's an intellectual problem I could be addressing elsewhere." Fraser took a few steps down the street, and then suddenly stopped and turned back. "I forget that you know everything, Ray."
Fraser strode off then, not looking back. Ray watched as his partner became a red blur and disappeared, and when he finally thought to look back at the flower vendor he saw that Stella was long gone, too.
By the time Ray'd dropped off the damaged Chevy, gone up, talked to Welsh, gotten the papers on a replacement, clocked out, and gone to pick up—oh yes, how shocking, another Chevy!—he was feeling well and truly sorry. He went home, stomping up the three flights of stairs, slamming the door to his apartment as he walked in, knocking over most of the framed photographs that sat on the roll-top desk that he never used anyway. He threw himself onto his sofa, crossed his booted feet on the coffee table, and fished for the remote control under the pillows. Way to go, guy. Way to fucking go. You've already lost your wife, make sure you beat up your best friend while you're at it.
Except Fraser was not his best friend. That was wrong. Fraser was not his best friend, he didn't have a best friend. Best friends were for junior high, anyway. Best friends were for—
—hot summer days like this one, with the sun baking off the concrete and your glasses fogging up with sweat. And you'd ride your bike over to Stella's, watching with wide eyes as the neighborhood changed around you and grew quiet, 'cause nobody ever seemed to be in those big houses—no people, no cars, no nothing. Just big white houses standing there and staring at you with windows like open, dead eyes. It wasn't like on your block where there was always a fire hydrant open and kids screaming and running through the gush of it. Adults sitting outside on folding chairs in front of their apartment buildings, playing cards on milk crates or bullshitting or reading the paper. Where Stella lived, maybe the only sound you heard was the quiet shush of a lawn sprinkler, hissing back and forth as it sprayed perfectly calibrated jets of water over perfectly spaced exotic shrubs.
You'd ride your bike through the empty streets, lots of space, plenty of room for frisbee or stickball here except there was no frisbee or stickball happening, which was weird. His block, you had to stop the game every fourteen seconds to let some asshole with a car through—here, there were no cars, and where were all the kids? Somebody had to have kids—even Stella had two brothers, Richie and John, so what did they do with themselves on days like these?
He'd pull up into Stella's driveway, dump his bike on its side, wheels still spinning, and tuck his t-shirt into his jeans before making his way up the path to the door. Big white door with a column on each side, and him standing there in front of it with his gut clenched. Reaching up, ringing the bell, rehearsing the words: "Hi, Mrs. Norling, can Stella come out?"
The answer had been no for so very long—Stella's mom had looked down at him from the hallway of Stella's big, white, two-story house and smiled and shaken her head: "No, Stanley, I'm sorry." But he'd been persistent, and maybe Stella had been working it from her end, because eventually Mrs. Norling had invited him in. So clear in his mind—going into the cool darkness of the hallway and seeing Stella there, grinning at him in shorts and a t-shirt, fidgeting from bare foot to bare foot. They could play in the den, Mrs. Norling said firmly; in the den or in the backyard, but upstairs was firmly off limits, do you understand me, Stella?
"Yeah, Mom, okay," Stella had agreed, and then when they were alone in the den she'd rolled her eyes at him and said, "What do they think we're gonna do?"
He'd just shrugged—he'd had no idea—and then they got down to the business of playing endless records on Stella's father's record player, a gigantic thing in a carved wood cabinet. The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, The Mamas and the Papas—Monday, Monday, can't trust that day. Abbey Road over and over and over again, laughing and trying to figure out the words to Polythene Pam. She looks at a map? She looks like a man?—what? Big Brother And The Holding Company—Stella in a polka-dotted miniskirt shaking her hips wildly, then falling exhausted next to him on the carpet and staring for hours at Crumb's weirdo cover art. Having heated arguments about the war in Vietnam—Stella said it was wrong, that it was unethical, that the soldiers there were murdering pigs. But Ray knew that the Lapinski brothers were over there, and maybe they were just palookas, but Paul Lapinksi had saved his ass once back when he was in grade school, when a bunch of older kids had decided to shove his face into a brick wall just for looking at them the wrong way. Paul had appeared like an avenging angel, a frown across his dumb, acne-scarred face, and yelled, "Hey, leave him alone!" before knocking one of them to the pavement with a beefy arm. The kids had scattered and Paul had bought them each an ice cream before taking him back to their building—and so Ray defended the U.S. Army with all the vehemence of the truly converted.
Eventually, Mrs. Norling must have decided that he was okay, because she let Stella leave the house with him. They spent a lot of time just riding around on their bikes, pushing the limits of their strength and their geography. Ray took Stella back to his block and rode wheelies through the gushing spray of fire hydrant water—showing off for her, and showing her off to the people back home. Stella, meanwhile, showed him all the paths and back routes around the new lakefront developments, and they pedaled furiously up and down on the quiet, empty streets, feeling like the only boy and girl left in the world.
It was harder when school started, because Stella was at St. Mary's Prep while he was stuck down in the pit that was Great Lakes East. Still, though, he rode his bike to her house after school, and they sat together at her formica-topped kitchen table doing their homework while Mrs. Norling was around, getting distracted when she was not. Mainly they did it though, because the faster they finished the faster they could get out of there—and go out on the town, maybe get sodas, maybe catch a movie, maybe go play catch in the park, as Stella had more than a decent arm for a girl.
And okay, so maybe he took a little razzing because his best friend was a girl—hey, Kowalski, you little faggot, where's your giiiiirlfriend? Except that didn't last long, because out of nowhere he and Stella had both realized just why the second floor of her house was so firmly off limits. And in a flash, overnight, Stella really was his girlfriend— and he was suddenly ahead of the pack, just as cool as all fuck, the first guy in high school to be going steady.
It had been funny, at first—Stella'd made a face the first time he kissed her, then laughed and shoved him so hard he'd stumbled and fallen down on the grass. But it got less funny after a while—1974 passed in a blur of frantic, awkward make-out sessions; 1975 was forever branded in his mind as the year he really discovered the wonder of breasts. By 1976 each day was an agony, a desperate struggle not to do it—because he wanted to and she wanted to, but what if my parents find out? what if I get pregnant? what if something goes wrong, Ray? It didn't help that he'd bought a motorcycle and not a car when he'd got his junior license; clearly he hadn't been thinking. Or, okay, so he had been thinking—he'd been thinking about killing Stanley and creating Ray, about having Stella behind him, arms locked tight around his chest as they drove, but he hadn't properly considered the fact that there was no freakin' back seat on a motorcycle. She didn't want to do it in the park; he didn't want to do it at her parents' house; nobody would loan them a car. Until one day—bliss!—Ray's great aunt Dorinda had a stroke, and Ray's parents announced that they were taking the Greyhound to Minneapolis to visit her. Parents gone, brother already at college—sixteen and with an apartment all to himself for an entire weekend. It was too good an opportunity to miss, and so they didn't miss it—and finally, clumsily, he took her, forcing his penis into her there on his twin-sized bed in the room he used to share with his brother. That first time he'd barely felt anything—he was so excited, so terrified, so pumped full of adrenaline. But then they'd done it again—and again—and again—they'd fucked themselves sore that first weekend and just kept on doing it. Six months later, they'd done it everywhere they could think of: his place, Stella's parents' house, the park, the gym at her school...
They went through a bit of a rough patch early in senior year, right about the time of college applications. Suddenly a stack of brochures materialized on the bureau in Stella's room—and Ray realized that he was gonna lose her, he was gonna lose her, if he didn't think of something and damn quick. He'd done just the barest minimum in high school, just looking to pass. As a result, his grades were, well, pathetic—and so he spent most of September and part of October locked in his room beating his brains against the college entrance exam, knowing that if he had any chance, any chance at all, he was gonna have to ace it and no mistake.
To his surprise, he did ace it, or near enough, getting the second highest score at Great Lakes East. Mr. Halton, who'd never so much as looked at him before, suddenly called him into his office at the beginning of November. There he found not only Halton but three of his teachers—Miss Polchek (Math), Mrs. Verona (English), and Mr. Gadden (History)—sitting around the principal's conference table. Halton waved him in but didn't invite him to sit down, and so he stood there in front of the table, trying not to fidget too much.
"So," Halton said, regarding him thoughtfully, "Mr. Kowalski. Are we to take it that you're finally ready to get serious?"
Oh yes, he'd told them, he was serious; he was so, so serious; you just would not believe the level of seriousness to which he now aspired.
The teachers exchanged suspicious glances amongst themselves and then offered him a deal. Midterms were right before Christmas; college applications were due in January. If he did well on his midterms, they would throw their weight behind his college applications; if he didn't, they would assume that his high score was the fluke that it undoubtedly was.
Pressure, anyone? Hoo boy and holy fuck—he now had a little over a month to learn everything he'd been ignoring for the last four years. He went searching for his textbooks, collected them together, and cracked their spines for the first time. He sat for hours, sat for so long that his back started to hurt—sat in the school library, sat at the roll-top desk in his bedroom, sat at the kitchen table of Stella's parents' house. He ignored everything and everyone else, until even Stella was kind of annoyed with him.
But it was worth it come January. He didn't pull straight As or anything, but he'd gone from a C-/D average to a B+/A- in a single term. With grudging respect, his teachers wrote him letters full of explanatory phrases: "not working to capacity, but clearly bright," "sudden burst of maturity," "might make a good student yet." The word they used over and over again was "promising," he was apparently promising, which he had no trouble translating as: "Hey, this kid has no track record, but you know? maybe take a chance."
He sent his letters everywhere Stella sent hers, and then they waited together, crossing their fingers. All they needed was one school—one lousy school!—to take both of them, to be big enough to both take Stella and take a chance on him. The whole of March was pure hell, zipping around on his motorcycle first to her place, and then to his, to check for letters. Stella's letters were creamy and thick, containing forms to return; his letters were thin: "Thank you very much for thinking of us but no fucking way, sir."
Dinged! from U. Chicago, Dinged! from Amherst, Dinged! from Illinois State, even—until he was sick with it, permanently nauseous, knowing bone-deep that he'd overreached himself, gone out of his league and over his head. They had fights then—why did she have to apply to all these damn fancy schools? he'd yelled; and she'd yelled right back: she'd had no choice, her parents insisted, plus this was her life here, her career, and whose fault was it if he hadn't studied?! He felt like going to bed and never waking up again, he felt like crying—but he covered it up with attitude and anger, picking fights with her, with his father, with random strangers, even making his mother cry.
And then finally, finally, a miracle—a big, fat envelope for Mr. Stanley Raymond Kowalski from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He'd gone home alone that day, because Stella was pissed off with him—and he stood there at the bottom of the stairwell, yanking the fat letter out of the mailbox for 4C. He held it in his hands and stared at it for a long time: God, it was fat, it was so fat, if this was a rejection letter, it was the mother of all rejections. Finally he managed to screw up his courage and rip the envelope open. There was all sorts of paper in there—course list, dorm preference sheet, financial aid paperwork—and the letter, the fucking letter: "Dear Mr. Kowalski, We are pleased to accept you..."
In a daze he went upstairs. His mother was standing at the stove, cooking something. "Stanley, how was your day, are you hungry?" He ignored her, and went straight to the big, black wall phone, dialing Stella's number with shaking fingers. "Stella," he rasped when she picked up, "Stella, I'm in." He heard Stella shriek "Oh my GOD!", heard his mother gasp softly behind him—and suddenly he knew he was gonna lose it, he was gonna lose it right there. "Stell, I'll call you back," he said and quickly slammed the phone back into its cradle, and then he was leaning against the grimy kitchen wallpaper and sobbing his heart out, and his mother's arms were around him, and she was crying and chanting, "Oh Stanley, baby, we're so proud of you..."
That Valentine's Day he put his high school ring on Stella's finger; that May, he took Stella to the prom at St. Mary's, and she came with him to the one at Great Lakes. By then, the disco thing was taking off and everyone was dancing. To their surprise, they found they were good; they had an almost psychic sense of each other's rhythms, of how and where they were going to move.
That summer, Ray worked at a local garage during the day and went out dancing with Stella at night. At the end of the summer, they packed up their things and headed to Ann Arbor, which really, in hindsight, was the very, very beginning of the end. It was obvious to him, within weeks of getting there, that he didn't belong there. The place was full of rich kids talking about places he'd never been, making plans to do things he couldn't afford, laughing over common experiences that he'd never had. Coming to Michigan was the first time he'd ever even been out of Illinois—so no, he hadn't gone skiing in Colorado (or Vermont, or the Alps); he had no amusing stories to share about camp; and he wouldn't be joining the spring break trips to Palm Beach or the South of France.
So he just wandered around for a term, forcing himself to go to class, trying to keep up with his reading, and waiting for Stella—always waiting, waiting, waiting for Stella. Because Stella was getting along fine; she was rising just as fast as he was sinking. She was taking French, she had pledged a sorority, she was wearing a red and purple flared skirt and dancing in the student production of West Side Story.
Meanwhile, Ray drifted—and it didn't surprise him at all that the first guy he really connected with, over draft beers at the local tavern, was a townie. His name was Steve Duchess, he worked at the local garage, and he was restoring a 1956 Thunderbird in his spare time. Soon Ray was avoiding school as much as he could, hanging out with Stevie and his friends at the garage, shooting pool after hours at the tavern, getting smashed and talking trash.
The best part of campus was Stella's room. Ray was sharing a room with three other guys, but Stella's parents had paid for her to have a room of her own—and that was their first real privacy together, their first real home in a way. They made love on her small bed for endless hours, whenever there were no classes. That was also the term when Ray started going down on her—he spent most of that year with his face buried between Stella's thighs. She hadn't wanted to do it at first; she'd been embarrassed about it, pale skin blushing red all over. But he'd persisted, stroking her thighs and then easing them open bit by bit—and finally she'd let him lick and kiss her down there. Eventually, she'd come to love it, and it became part of their routine—long afternoons spent gently sucking her to orgasm, rhythmically licking her clit, feeling her shudder around his tongue as she moaned his name.
He supposed, in hindsight, that it was a power thing—he needed to know he was good for something, so why not be good at this? Maybe Stella went to lunch with other guys, studied with other guys, debated other guys—but she was dancing with him, she was still fucking him, she was having her orgasms around his cock or his fingers or his tongue. Stella spent her spare time with him, dancing or making love or just lying around in bed with him, talking and laughing. Stella was his, Stella was still his, Stella was still his best friend.
At the end of the term they had a long talk, and reluctantly she helped him write the letter to his father. Dear Dad, I'm sorry, I'm not cut out for this, I'm quitting school. He'd struggled with the decision, but he knew in his heart of hearts he was drowning fast—and that was bad enough, that was way bad enough, but he couldn't bear for his father to be shelling out cash and taking out loans on top of everything. The response from home was even angrier than he'd expected: You want to ruin your life? Fine. But don't expect any help from us. At the bottom of his father's letter was his mother's tearful postscript: Don't worry, Stanley. It'll be okay. Just let him calm down. You know he loves you.
Ray sold off his books and bought a used Mustang for two hundred bucks. He moved out of the dorms and into Stevie's apartment in town. Steve got him a job at the garage, and he was happy for about ten months—doing oil changes and tune-ups during the day, going out drinking at night with Steve and Mike and Matt, double-dating with Steve and his girlfriend Molly on the weekends, when Stella could get away from school.
And then things went wrong again. In October, Stella grew odd, and sort of distant. Panicked, Ray reached out to her, but she just shoved him away—she had midterms, she was in another show, Jesus, with one thing and another she was exhausted, she hardly had time for anything, Ray, okay? He didn't quite believe her, because she'd been busy before, had been in shows before, and she'd never pushed him away. He grew suspicious; he started showing up at campus at odd times, maybe trying to catch her at something. She grew defensive; he grew defiant—and eventually the whole mess culminated in a furious argument in her room in which many things were thrown and profanities uttered and Stella said yes, yes okay? she was doing the guy who was playing Danny to her Sandy—and what did Ray have to say about that?!
"Fine!" he'd yelled.
"Fine!" she'd yelled back; and Ray'd fled back to his apartment in town.
Those next two weeks had been terrible; he'd felt like his intestines were being ripped out, yard by agonizing yard. Steve and Mike and Matt tried to cheer him up, getting him drunk and telling him that Stella was just a stuck-up college girl. They had all sorts of friends who'd just love to date Ray—take Molly's sister Sarah, for instance, or Judy Bergman from the diner. But Ray didn't want to date Sarah, or Judy, or Denise, or Laura. He didn't want a chick—he wanted his best friend back.
And then, one November night, he and Matt stayed late at the garage, lying around on the dollies and smoking a little dope. Ray tried to explain to Matt how it was with him and Stella—how they were best friends, how he told Stella everything, how the sex part of it had come later, because friends was more important, friends was everything, right? Right, Matt had agreed; "yeah, Ray, totally." Later they'd gotten the munchies and gone back to Matt's place to forage for chips and beer—and he wasn't sure how it happened, but suddenly Matt's hand was on his neck, and he was tasting beer and stale dope smoke in Matt's mouth, and Matt was shoving him back against the sofa and going down on him, holding his hips down and sucking his dick. And Stella'd never liked to do that, had tried it once or twice with a look on her face before just flat-out refusing—and he'd been okay with that, had been fine with it, except now, oh wow, holy fuck. He made fists in Matt's hair and moaned, "oh...yeah...yeah..." as he came. Then he watched in surreal, stoned fascination as Matt turned his head and spat a big wad of come into his beer glass before swiping at his mouth with the back of his hand.
"That's really cool," Ray said with dazed admiration. "Howja do that?" Matt then showed him exactly how you did it, though Ray didn't make it to the beer glass and ended up spitting come all over the floor and his shirt.
The next morning he woke up on Matt's sofa with his dick hanging out and a hell of a hangover. Matt was lying asleep on the floor next to the coffee table—and the sight of his friend's face, pale and relaxed in sleep, triggered the playback of last night's events and a wave of total panic. In a flash he was up, zipping up his pants, and running for the door—back at his place, he was greeted by a sleepy, coffee-drinking Steve, who asked him where the hell he'd been and if he'd gotten lucky last night or what?
Ray threw up in the kitchen sink.
Later that morning, he called his mother from the phone booth at the diner: Mom, I want to come home, can I come home—? "Yes," his mother had said quickly. "Yes, baby, absolutely," and by that afternoon he'd piled his shit into the Mustang and was burning rubber back to Illinois.
To his surprise, he got a tearful call from Stella three days later. She'd gone looking for him, and was totally distraught to find that he'd left town. She was sorry, she wanted to make up, she wanted to get back together. "Okay," he'd agreed, clutching the phone to his ear. "Okay, Stell—whatever you want." He was gearing himself up to return to Ann Arbor when Stella called back and announced that she was transferring to the University of Chicago at the end of the year, that he should just stay put.
Score one for Ray Kowalski—now that Stella was coming back to him, all he had to do was figure everything else out. He wished he could talk to his father, but his father was still angry at him for dropping out of school. The only thing he knew for sure was that things couldn't go back to the way they were, with him living at home and Stella living at home and them looking for a place to fuck on the weekends.
He had to be with Stella, he had to live with Stella—and that meant getting married, that meant getting married now.
But to do that, he needed money, he needed a job, he needed to get his fucking act together. And his act was definitely not together. He spent hours on the wire to Ann Arbor, talking things over with Stella, seeking her advice. He was thinking about becoming a cop—what did she think about that? Was she okay with that? How did she feel about maybe being a cop's wife maybe?
"Sure," Stella said easily, "I could marry a cop," and Ray noticed that she didn't stumble over either word—marry or cop.
And so that, as they say, was that, and Ray applied to the police academy for the January term. He didn't tell either of his parents until it was a done deal and he had the acceptance letter in his hand: "Dear Mr. Kowalski, We are pleased to accept you..." Back then, the Chicago P.D. wasn't as picky—any idiot over 18 could become a cop, which was just as well, since his "any idiot" qualifications were really solid, totally top notch. The news of his chosen profession went over like a lead balloon. His father just sat there stony-faced while his mother wept into her hands. "Oh, Stanley," she sobbed, "baby—you're going to get killed..."
Way to show confidence, Mom. Gee, thanks a ton.
When Stella came home for Christmas, Ray showed her his acceptance letter and put a tiny diamond on her finger. They made love frantically on the sofa in her parents' basement and agreed to keep their engagement a secret until she came back to Chicago at the end of May.
So Stella went back up to Ann Arbor, and Ray started at the police academy. The good part was that he started earning checks after four weeks; the better part was that right about then he realized he actually had a knack for this shit. By the seventh week he realized he was gonna graduate near the top of his class; by the ninth week he was the top of his class, no question, no contest, nobody else even close. In the meantime, he scouted for apartments, trying to find a place that was suitable for Stella. That was hard—everything he could afford on his salary was too small, too old, too dingy, too depressing.
And then he had a sudden stroke of luck, finding a second-floor apartment that was large and airy, with bay windows and brand-new hardwood floors. The old woman who owned the brownstone initially wanted more than Ray could afford to pay, but he saw her eyes light up when he said he was going to be a cop—oh, she liked that idea, he could see it, liked the idea of having her own in-house police protection against burglars, ax-murderers, and things that went bump in the night. So he said, "yes, thank you," when she offered him a cup of tea, even though he hated tea, and he told her that he was about to graduate from the police academy, and about to get married, and how they couldn't afford to pay much right now, but maybe he could help out in other ways?
She smiled at him, and patted his hand, and said she couldn't wait to meet Stella. He signed the lease on the spot, and moved in the next week.
Stella flew in at the end of March for his graduation; she came to the ceremony with his mother, and they stood there clapping and taking pictures as he was awarded all the top prizes for his class. He told Stella afterwards, nearly dizzy with pride, that those awards really meant something—he'd been recruited by a top precinct, the 31, and would be on the fast track to his choice of specialization if he didn't fuck anything up.
Stella returned to Ann Arbor and Ray started pounding a beat at the 31. He got lucky and was partnered with a guy called Chuck Delancy—Chuck was older, a smart cop and a generous one, happy to make his rookie partner look good at every opportunity. When classes finished in May, Ray drove the Mustang up to Ann Arbor and helped Stella move back to Chicago. And then, holding hands tightly, psyching each other up, they went to break the news to both their parents.
At Stella's request, they told his parents first; Stella felt guilty for lying to his mother on Ray's graduation day. Predictably, Ray's father sat there stony-faced, and Ray's mother burst into tears: "Oh, Stanley," she sobbed, "baby—my baby's going to get married..."
Christ on a handcart. He ought to invest in Kleenex, make a million.
Stella's. Parents. Went. Ballistic. Totally ballistic, totally fucking ballistic, their normally relaxed WASP-y facade utterly shattered in the face of such devastating news.
"No!" Mrs. Norling interrupted, even before they'd entirely finished. "No, I'm sorry, Stella." She shot a vicious look at Ray, as if she were sorry that she'd ever opened the door to him in the first place. "It's just totally impossible. Unacceptable. You're only nineteen years old—"
"Nearly twenty," Stella said.
"Nineteen! Twenty! What does it matter!" Mrs. Norling yelled, waving her arms around. "You're a child, you're a baby—"
That's when things got really bad, because if there was one thing Stella couldn't take it was being called a baby. Ray himself had gotten used to it—fine, he was younger than his brother, that made him the baby, there was no way he was gonna change his mother's mind about that. But Stella hated it, simply hated it—and so she came out swinging, explaining to her mother at the top of her lungs that she was not a baby, and that she was going to marry Ray Kowalski, and there was not a single fucking thing either of them could do about it. That's when Stella's father got into the act, explaining with a red face and clenched fists that if she married Ray she could consider her college education canceled as of now! "Fine," Stella retorted, raising her chin, "that's up to you. Ray will take care of me; and if we need extra money—well, I'll waitress, I'll bartend, or I'll whore."
Ray stared at her, shocked; and then Stella's mother was screaming at him, saying: "You taught her those words, you taught her to talk like that—she never learned that at home!"
Oh, bad, bad move—Stella got even angrier: "I can read, Mother, if you haven't noticed! I've been to college, remember?"
"Yes, and what did you learn there?—how to be disgusting, how to make terrible decisions—!"
Suddenly Stella's eyes blazed and her voice grew icy—and that was the first time Ray ever got a good look at what he would later call her lawyer face. "Let me lay this out for you guys, nice and clear, okay? I am going to live with Ray. I can do so as a married woman, or as an unmarried woman. So what's it going to be?"
Mr. and Mrs. Norling looked at each other desperately, and it was perfectly clear from their faces—this was the rock or the hard place, the devil or the deep blue sea. "Sweetheart," Mr. Norling said finally, "can't you just—wait a while?"
"No," Stella said, crossing her arms. "We can't wait."
"But why?" Mrs. Norling whined.
"Because I'm fucking him," Stella retorted coolly. "I've been fucking him for the last seven years. I think we've waited long enough, don't you?"
That day ended up rating a solid number three in the Top Five Days That Ray Kowalski Never Wanted To Live Over Again. Afterwards, Ray had asked Stella why she'd said that, when they hadn't been having sex for seven years. Stella explained that she'd been desperate for her parents to understand how deep the thing between them was: "They've always treated us like it was no big deal," Stella told him, "like it was something we were going to outgrow. I needed them to understand that—that I don't know how to live without you, anymore."
Under the circumstances, they thought it would be prudent to get married as quickly as possible. That was fine with Stella, who had developed a disdain for what she called "the marital-industrial complex." Stella bought a white lace dress and asked a girlfriend from Ann Arbor to be her maid of honor; Ray, to his mother's sorrow, bypassed his brother and asked his partner Chuck to stand up for him. They didn't issue any other invitations, and in fact, they didn't have that many other friends—so on July 1st, 1980, they went in and did the thing before a Justice of the Peace, just them and the bridal party and their immediate families.
They were twenty years old.
They didn't really have the time or the money for a honeymoon, so they just jumped in the Mustang and spent the weekend at a bed and breakfast out in the Wisconsin countryside. Stella's parents' final concession was that they would pay for her tuition but nothing else, and even then Stella worried that they might change their minds. So she went into overdrive, taking summer classes and doubling her class load for the next term. Ray, meanwhile, realized that he had to keep the pressure on if he was going to stay on the fast track to detective, plus he started taking weekly night classes at the community college, trying to add enough hours onto his term at Michigan to meet the educational requirements for promotion.
That left them with days full of work, and nights spent trying to figure out how to take care of themselves and each other. Ray realized, to his chagrin, that his mother had been doing pretty much everything for him for the last twenty years, and that maybe he'd earned that "baby" thing more than he wanted to admit. So he applied himself and learned how to do laundry, learned which dishwashing liquids really cut the grease and which didn't, learned how to comparison-shop. Stella, meanwhile, started with canned foods—tuna fish sandwiches, Chef Boyardee, Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup—and then worked her way up, moving through hamburgers and meatloaf to stir frys and eventually managing a really creditable Bolognese. They saved money and lugged piece after piece of furniture into the apartment as Ray could afford to pay for it. Mainly they bought things on time from the local furniture shop, but sometimes Ray found and restored the occasional throwaway table or lamp.
The only person who really helped them through all of this was Ray's mother, who turned up at regular intervals with recipes, pots, spices, dishes, silverware, sheets, quilts, and huge vats of sausages and peppers that she always maintained were just leftovers from some other night. Barbara loved Stella, and Stella's devotion to Barbara grew to near messianic proportions, and sometimes Ray just wandered away and let the two of them hang out.
All in all they were fun years—coming home exhausted, finding Stella with a book in one hand and stirring a pot of some Barbara Kowalski-inspired concoction with the other. Eating, hanging on the sofa watching TV, sometimes turning off the lights and dancing slowly for hours on their brand new hardwood floor. Great sex, even though they were tired most of the time. Lying in postcoital bliss in the dark afterwards, holding hands and composing spontaneous Bob Dylan pastiches like they used to do when they were twelve: "Cinderella and Ponce de Leon/ Were rolling around in the house of mirrors/ The infielder was out of it/ And the guy in the parking lot/ Was weeping and begging for validation..." ("What does it mean?" Stella would ask, giggling helplessly in the dark. "Nobody knows," Ray explained. "That's the point.")
Stella, meanwhile, found that she qualified for a special program that would allow her to do her last year of college and her first year of law school at the same time. That way she'd get out faster, and the whole thing would cost less. Like everything else at this time, that decision happened in a blur of speed. Suddenly the books on their kitchen table were bigger and fatter and heavier, and Stella was endlessly agonizing over things like torts, and case law, and intellectual property issues, and whether or not she'd make law review.
Stella refused to attend her college graduation ceremonies in the spring of 1982. She didn't feel like a graduate, she explained, she felt like a second-year law student—which was to say, stressed-out and busy and still in the middle of exams. But Ray had been scraping together all the extra cash he could get his hands on, and on U. Chicago's graduation day he grabbed her by the hand and made her drop the books and practically dragged her over to campus. Together they sat on the side, under a tree, and watched a bunch of kids who all seemed way, waaaay younger than they were march around in their caps and gowns and pull faces at each other. And then Ray turned to her and handed her a pink velvet box—it was another ring, a larger ring, intended to replace the dinky little diamond he'd given her back in Christmas of 1979. Stella stared at it for long moments, wisps of blonde hair falling across her forehead, and then shook her head and shut the box with a snap.
"I don't want it," she said, handing it back to him with a smile. "I've already got a diamond, and I like it just fine."
"But it's small," Ray protested, gesturing toward it.
Stella raised her left hand and together they looked at the tiny diamond, which twinkled in the bright May sunlight. "Okay, yeah, it's small," she admitted, after a moment, "but it's you, Ray."
Ray stared at her in mock-shock. "Hey! You saying my jewels are small?"
Stella burst out laughing and covered her face with her hands. "No, wait—I didn't say that!"
"I mean, geez!—way to give a guy a complex, Stella, thank you very much!"
"All right, hey, give me that." Stella snatched the pink box out of his hand and tucked it into her purse.
Ray grinned. "So you gonna wear it?"
"No," Stella replied. "I'm going to return it. You want to give me a present, Mr. Police Officer, I'll take it in cold, hard cash, thank you very much."
The ring disappeared—but suddenly they had drapes, two new armchairs, a state of the art stereo system, and a oriental-style rug underneath the coffee table. That was just the beginning—the next summer, Stella interned at a fancy law office and started drawing a salary that made his head spin. Bit by bit their old furniture started disappearing—by the time Stella passed the bar exam in May of 1984, they were living in a home full of leather sofas, glass tables, mahogany bookcases, and an art-deco kitchenette set with chairs designed by god-only-knows-which-famous-architect. It seemed like every time he went out something new appeared—sometimes he felt like stopping and checking the number on the door to make sure he was in the right apartment.
Stella went to clerk for The Honorable Harold Abramson at Chicago State Supreme, and Ray continued doggedly racking up community college credits so that he could take the test for detective. Part of him wished he'd stuck it out longer at Michigan, but he knew that he couldn't have. And he mainly liked the people in his classes now; they were people he recognized, who made sense to him. Nobody talking about skiing or summer camp—just local Polish girls wanting to be teachers, Korean immigrants taking business classes, neighborhood guys hoping to be cops or firemen or accountants: everybody working like gangbusters, trying to better themselves.
Ray was trying to better himself, too.
Finally, in December of 1985, he racked up his final credit and asked his sergeant to let him sit for the next exam. He thought he looked pretty good for it on paper, but he got passed up once, twice, three times, and he started to get aggravated. And then, in the fall of 1986, he was the arresting officer on the Botrelle case, managing in one fell swoop to tamper with evidence, arrest the wrong suspect, and get her convicted and sentenced to death. Whereupon, in a spectacular vindication of the Chicago Police Department's "any idiot" theory of hiring and promotion, Ray Kowalski was asked to sit for the next detectives' exam. He got his shield and a big, fat raise in the early months of 1987, and moved with Stella to a three-bedroom apartment in a new, high-rise, doorman building.
It was maybe right about this time that things with Stella really began to fall apart. Detective Ray Kowalski decided to go in for undercover work, and wasn't that just maybe a little because he was starting to feel like he was impersonating himself in his own life? Their doorman tipped his hat to him and called him "sir"—and Ray tried to pretend to be the guy whose apartment he was apparently living in. They went to chi-chi parties at the judges' big lakeside houses, where people kept handing him glasses of white wine and asking him to eat little shrimpy things off silver trays. Ray decided he really hated the little shrimpy things, almost as much as he was starting to hate lawyers.
He felt like he'd finally made something of himself, something pretty good, except Stella just hadn't noticed. He felt like when she looked at him, all she could see was Stanley Kowalski, crying in a bank with piss running down his leg. And that would have been fine even, if he could just have looked at her and seen that little girl dancing in her polka-dotted miniskirt. But all he could see now was her tailored suits, her heavy silver jewelry, the blunt lines of her new power hairdo.
Sometimes he caught her off-guard and she showed him her old, familiar smile. And then he'd think, "There she is," and decide that everything must still be okay.
They started talking over a lot of past history all of a sudden: "Hey, it's been fifteen years since we met, do you know that?" "Yes, it has been a long time, hasn't it? It feels like yesterday." "Remember that red halter dress you used to have?" "Remember that awful suit you wore to the prom?" "Hey, that was the style back then!" "Whatever happened to your motorcycle?" "It broke down in Ann Arbor." "Oh, that's right...remember how we used to argue about Vietnam?" "Okay, so you were right on that one." "I was right a lot of the time, Ray." "Remember Polythene Pam?" And then they'd dig out Ray's battered copy of Abbey Road and play it and laugh because they still couldn't make out half the words.
Sex between them grew desperate and vaguely unpleasant, largely because Ray had suddenly decided that they should have children, that having children would solve everything. Getting pregnant would shatter Stella's new facade; having an infant would wreak disaster on their apartment in the best of all possible ways. The place was anything but childproof—if they had children, they'd have to get rid of the glass tables and the silver tchotchkes and the art-deco kitchenette set by the famous architect, upon which Ray was convinced that any normally active child would be impaled. But Stella just shook her head and said, "Not this year, Ray," for about three years running. Meanwhile, their lovemaking was fraught with the thought of all those children they weren't conceiving, and Ray found himself clutching Stella tightly and praying for an accident every time he thrust into her. Which became less and less often by increasingly mutual consent.
Instead of a baby, Ray got two citations for bravery and a dog he called Sparky. About that time, Stella started to go on odd crying jags. Ray tried to hold her, tried to hold on to her, but she clearly wanted to be alone. So Ray would drag his bicycle into the elevator and take long rides in the park with Sparky running after him, panting harshly and stumbling on clumsy puppy legs.
He felt better when he was out nowadays—in the park, in the bullpen, in the field, anywhere but home. He was starting to feel trapped, and in his heart of hearts he knew that Stella felt trapped too; he could see it on her face. And they could play as many games of "Do you remember?" as they wanted—but that was just another way of reminding each other that they had been together for a damned long time. That was what it all came down to. They had so much to remember because they'd been together forever—twenty years by time the summer of 1993 rolled around
How could they still be together? How could they not be together?
What would it even look like to not be together?
And that was the gist of it when it all finally fell apart. Ray couldn't even really remember how it went down—just that Stella was suddenly crying and crying and saying things like, "I can't live without you, I don't know how to live without you," which just made Ray's head spin, because he was pretty sure by that point that she was dumping him.
During that whole, long day (which came in at number two in the Top Five Days That Ray Kowalski Never Wanted To Live Over Again) Stella sobbed more nice things about him than she'd said for the entire last five years of their marriage: "God, I love you," and "I'm not going to survive this," and "I can't picture life without you," and "You're like the other half of me." Ray felt like he was losing his mind; he felt like screaming, "THEN WHY ARE WE BREAKING UP?!" but from that moment on they seemed to have entered some weird alternate universe where, "I will always, always, always love you, Ray," meant, "Really, you need to be finding yourself another apartment by Wednesday."
Finally, bone-dead with exhaustion and all cried out, he dully agreed to what Stella kept calling a "trial separation." She insisted that this meant "trial" as in "experimental," as in "let's try it out," but he hadn't been entirely drunk at those fucking lawyer parties and he knew that most trials were rigged from the start, that most evidence never made it into the courtroom, and that Stella's own personal conviction rate hovered at something like 78%.
So he didn't much like the odds.
But Stella insisted that this was the right thing to do, that the only way they could possibly ever stay together was to be apart for a while. This didn't make a lot of sense to him—he thought they should just hang on, have a couple of kids, maybe focus on something other than themselves for a while—but he'd been taking Stella's advice for so long that he wasn't entirely sure how to argue against her. And so he agreed, and reluctantly he moved out.
He took his roll-top desk, his bicycle, their stereo system, and Sparky.
He tried to drown himself in work; his solve rate soared, and in September of 1993 he got his third citation for bravery for bringing in three escaped scumbags. Big fucking whoop—the damn thing just sent him into a psychological tailspin. What was the point? He had his act together now, he finally had his act together—and for what? He found himself on the phone to Stella, begging her to come out and celebrate with him.
She agreed, and he blew just every dime he could get his hands on—dinner! dancing! wine! little shrimpy things! They had a wonderful time—a fact he felt compelled to point out to her in the car as he drove her home—and then that was the end of the wonderful time right there.
"Give it a rest, Ray, okay?" Stella said as she got out of the car.
Over the next two years, until their divorce was finalized, Ray would hear that so many times that he thought about needlepointing it onto a sampler, or having it etched in ancient script above his door. And in the words of the prophet: "GIVE IT A REST, RAY." And once more, with feeling: "GIVE IT A REST, RAY." And now, in French: "RESTE VOUS, RAY, S'IL VOUS PLAIT!"
He gave it a rest.
And he did okay for a while, but then he had a small nervous breakdown in the spring of 1995, when Sparky, stupid mutt that he was, suddenly got it into his head not to follow his bicycle away toward the park but to chase some bitch of a cat into traffic. And then suddenly there was a screech and a soft thud and a yelp from Sparky—and in a flash Ray had jumped off of his bike, just abandoning it there on the sidewalk with its wheels still spinning, and run into the street. And Sparky was alive, and in pain, and looking up at him with those big brown doggie eyes. Ray picked him up carefully and put him into the car and drove him to the animal hospital with his siren on.
The vet took him from Ray's arms and brought him into a back room for examination. She came out with a grave face that told Ray the whole story, and he told her to just go ahead and give Sparky the needle. She asked him if he wanted to come back with her, sit there with the dog while she did it. He said, no, that was okay, he'd just wait right here, thanks.
Five minutes later the vet came back and he didn't have a dog anymore—and it was like, out of nowhere, the rapidity of it just whammed into him. One minute you have a dog and then you don't. One minute you have a marriage and then you don't. Man's best friend—and next thing he knew he was sobbing, sitting there on the stupid orange plastic chair at the animal hospital and sobbing into his hands. The vet came and sat next to him, and told him that she understood perfectly, that the loss of a pet was a terrible thing, she saw this all the time and she'd get somebody to drive him home.
Somebody'd found his bicycle; it was chained to the fence in front of his building when he got there. A good deed.
The thing was, Ray couldn't stop crying for three days. He couldn't go to work, couldn't even leave the house, because what was he gonna say—hey, my dog died? But still, tears just kept streaming down his face, even when he wasn't particularly paying attention. So he just stayed home and mainly tried to stay drunk, because that was acceptable. Guys cried a lot when they were soused, and that was perfectly okay. On the fourth day, he had stopped crying but he was still pretty drunk, and out of nowhere he called Stella at her office to tell her that Sparky had been killed.
"Oh," she'd said in a small voice. "Ray. I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry too, I'm really sorry, just the fucking dog, you know, ran off into traffic and bang, he was gone, he was so gone..."
"Ray, I'm really sorry. I know how much you loved Sparky."
"Yeah, well you never liked him, he peed on your fucking leather sofa—just like me, huh? he was just like me—"
"—inconvenient and embarrassing, pissing on your parade, right, Stella?"
"Ray, I'm hanging up now."
"Are you seeing anybody? I need to know if you're seeing anybody..."
"Ray, it took me twenty years to get out of this thing with you. I am in no fucking rush, believe me," and that made him feel a lot better.
He went back to work, he took more undercover gigs—mainly for short spans of time, but it made the time go quicker, not being himself. He thought about getting another dog, but then decided, tearily, one night over beers, that Sparky was the dog to end all dogs, that no dog could ever replace Sparky in his heart.
So he bought a turtle.
And when Stella sent him divorce papers in the summer of 1995, he just signed them and sent them right back.
Fifteen years of marriage.
Twenty-two years of friendship.
Ray groaned and scrubbed at his face. Memories. Useless. And sort of boring, like a movie he'd seen too many times. It was getting old and he hardly recognized himself in most of the scenes. It was kind of like looking at school pictures: you vaguely remembered being there, but you couldn't believe you'd ever worn those pants.
Nowadays he saw himself pretty much the way everybody else did, as "that guy who hangs out with the Mountie." Not like that stopped him from occasionally lapsing into "that asshole who stalks his ex-wife," but every now and then you just had to ride the carousel, just for old times' sake. Thinking of that made him abruptly grateful for Fraser, because it really would have been a bad scene if he'd walked over there and shoved JFK Junior's head into a plastic bucket. Stella would have been pissed off beyond belief, and JFK would have been screaming for the police—until, of course, Fraser politely explained to him that Ray was, in fact, the police. Then things would have gotten really fun.
He wasn't even sure why he did it anymore, other than it was familiar, almost a kind of habit. He'd been living on his own for five years; he'd successfully become somebody else. Well, okay, he'd become a lot of somebody elses, Ray Vecchio case in point—but really, he felt he'd grown up a lot, managed against all odds to become a pretty fully-functioning adult. The only place he was maybe having a little trouble was in the romance department—and Ray winced suddenly, remembering what he'd told Fraser. "The one place you ain't impressed me none is in the romance department!"—except who had he been talking to, there: Fraser or himself?
He shouldn't do that; he shouldn't ever be like that to Fraser. Because not picking any nits about "friends" or "best friends" or "so-so friends", the list was pretty much coming down to Fraser and the turtle. Even if you threw out the whole notion of "friends" and asked it like this—"To whom would it really matter if they found me dead right here on this sofa?"—you'd still pretty much come up with a) the turtle, because it would starve to death and b) Fraser, who at least would get a new line out of it: "I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father, but I stayed to find out why my second replacement partner was found dead on his sofa, the gruesome act witnessed only by a turtle, who unfortunately made a rather poor witness." After them—okay, maybe c) Welsh, who'd have to replace him, and d) Vecchio, who'd probably get his head blown off—but really, both of those were really more about self-interest than anything else. Even the turtle was mostly self-interested, Ray thought, and shot a sour look toward the glass case. Only Fraser, when you got right down to it, had no reason to care about whether he lived or died but cared anyway.
Fraser cared about him; Fraser went to the mat for him every fucking time.
So maybe Fraser was his best friend after all. And maybe that was okay. Maybe he could allow himself to have a best friend again. Maybe it was okay to have a best friend who wasn't Stella Norling Kowalski. A friend like Stevie. Like Matt. Maybe not like Matt.
Ray realized with a start that he was still aiming the remote control at the blank television screen, and threw it on to the coffee table, rolling his eyes at himself.
Fraser didn't come to the station the next day, which meant he was probably still sort of mad. So Ray decided to pick up some really expensive sandwiches and bring them over to the Consulate. He was sort of hoping that the sandwiches themselves would serve as the apology, but he was prepared to suck it up and actually apologize with words if it came to that.
He found Fraser at his desk, working hard, his face blank in that particular way it got when he was really ticked off. "Hey," Ray said, swinging up the brown paper bag. "I brought sandwiches."
Fraser raised his head, staring first at him, then at the brown paper bag, before sitting back in his chair and tapping his pen twice upon the desk. "Oh? What kind?"
"Um...turkey. With, uh, swiss cheese and sprouts. And the other one is, um, roast beef and cheddar. Russian dressing. Good stuff, I promise you." He took a few steps closer to the desk and put the bag down. "Your choice, okay?"
Fraser looked hard at him for another moment and then gave a brief, conciliatory nod of his head, which meant he'd consented to partake of the sandwich. So far, so good. "All right. Thank you."
Ray pushed the door closed, grabbed the back of the spare chair, and pulled it close to Fraser's desk while Fraser gathered up his papers and put them away. "So which is it? Turkey or beef? Or you wanna go fifty-fifty?"
Fraser raised his eyebrow and pulled the sandwiches out of the bag. "I don't think we're that close, Ray."
Ouch. Okay, so he was gonna have to use words, because he couldn't stand this: the world seemed dangerously off-kilter when Fraser was mad at him, when Fraser was withholding whatever it was that Fraser normally didn't withhold from him. "Okay, look, I'm sorry about yesterday, I was a total bastard and a complete drag, I admit it. But if it makes you feel any better, I've been thinking about it and I think I was only being mean to you because I like you so much."
Fraser paused in the act of unwrapping his sandwich; Ray noted with satisfaction that he'd gone for the roast beef and cheddar. "Well, in that case, Ray," Fraser said finally, "I wish you'd like me slightly less."
"I mean it, I'm sorry," Ray said.
"All right." Fraser licked his lip thoughtfully, or maybe he was just anticipating the sandwich, which looked pretty good. "Apology accepted."
"Good," Ray said, relieved and reached for the turkey and cheese.
"Except I hope you realize that I was only trying to stop Stella from slapping you with a restraining order?"
Ray groaned. "Yeah, I realize that."
"Which she really ought to consider if she's got a lick of sense—"
"If she had a lick of sense," Ray pointed out wearily, "she wouldn't have married me in the first place, okay?"
Fraser stared at the sandwich in his hands, but his lips twitched—it was the closest thing to a smile that Ray'd seen so far. "True," Fraser acknowledged, and his smile widened a fraction. "We are, I suppose, utterly indebted to the sheer senselessness of women."
"I'll drink to that." Ray pulled two small bottles of spring water out of the brown paper bag, offered one to Fraser, and twisted the cap off his own. "To the senselessness of women..."
He'd thought that they were okay, and that the toast would seal it—it was Fraser's stupid toast, after all. But Fraser just stared at his bottle of water, and his face had gone blank again—fuck, this was serious, here. "Yes," Fraser said finally, and lifted the bottle to his mouth. "Indeed. Cheers."
They sat there and ate their sandwiches and drank their water while Ray tried to determine another plan of attack. He'd tried food, he'd tried words—and normally, with Fraser, if you took the time to put it into words, he'd be okay about it. But he'd already said he was sorry, and Fraser didn't seem to be okay—instead, Fraser seemed distant and sort of glum, which made Ray feel weirdly achy inside.
He was just about to have another go at apologizing when Fraser raised his head and said something that surprised him. "Of course, I do admire you for it."
Ray leaned forward, confused. "What?"
"Watching you...throw yourself against that particular brick wall, time and again." Fraser's eyes had drifted; he was now looking at the framed print of Canada on the far wall. "It's terrifying. But it's also rather inspiring, really."
"Inspiring?" Ray didn't seem to be able to really process that. "You're inspired by me being a nut?"
"Often, yes," Fraser replied absently. "I generally think of myself as a fairly aggressive person, but you have me hands down when it comes to persistence."
Okay, now that was ridiculous. "Fraser, you're a Mountie."
Fraser looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "Oh really, Ray? I hadn't noticed."
"I mean, you're the one who's persistent, for God's sake. You're persistent as all hell."
Fraser sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. "If I'm so persistent, Ray, then what am I doing here?" Ray mimed confusion and Fraser repeated: "Here." He waved his hand around the room. "Right here. What am I doing here?"
"I...don't know," Ray said slowly; he realized that he didn't know, and that furthermore, it had never really occurred to him to ask the question. "What are you doing here?"
"Excellent question. I've been mulling it myself." Fraser put his elbow on the desk and rested his chin in his hand. "Of course, yes, there's the obvious answer: I'm here because I'm being punished."
Ray felt sort of shocked. "Punished—whattya mean punished?"
"I mean punished. Being subjected to punishment. For bringing the killers of my father to justice." Fraser sighed wearily and closed his eyes. "You do remember the killers of my father, Ray? I talk about them all the time."
"Yeah, I know," Ray began, "but—"
"It may have occurred to you that this is not my normal milieu. Or did you suppose that I simply woke up one morning and said, 'You know, all this beautiful, wide-open countryside is really getting to me—I think I'd much prefer to live in a six by eight office in Chicago. Perhaps they might allow me to answer the telephone there.'"
Just at that moment the telephone on Fraser's desk rang, and Fraser sat up straight and picked up the receiver. "Good afternoon, Canadian Consulate." He listened for a few moments, all traces of sarcasm gone, his face again set in that blank expression that was totally bad news. "Yes, we can certainly help you with that. You'll need to come in and fill out form B-354. Yes. Yes, we have an entire stack of them. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes, unless of course there's a rush. Until 5:00 or by special appointment. You're most welcome, madam."
"Okay, so you're saying," Ray said, when Fraser'd put the receiver down, "that you're here because someone wanted to punish you."
"No, I'm here because of the tremendous number of Mounties wishing to be assigned to police the Yukon border," Fraser said, and put his tongue in his cheek.
"They don't want you," Ray said softly.
"Not even a little bit," Fraser agreed. "It was here or Russia and my Russian's not what it ought to be, unfortunately."
Ray felt sideswiped by this; totally gutpunched. "I didn't—I guess I hadn't realized. I'm sorry."
Fraser nodded and looked away, which was pretty much his way of accepting sympathy. "My relationship with Canada, Ray, bears more than a little resemblance to your current relationship with Stella. Which is to say—I want to go back, and they're not so keen to have me." His eyes drifted helplessly back to the picture behind Ray. "Unlike you, though, I've essentially stopped trying."
The pain in Ray's gut only got worse—what was he supposed to say here? Try? Go for it? But what if Fraser did go for it? And then what if Fraser went? Fraser was his last, best shot at a change of luck...plus, okay, he was really attached to the guy. "I don't know what to say to you, Fraser," Ray managed finally. "I'm—I dunno. I'm sorry that you're unhappy."
Fraser shrugged and then began to neatly fold up the white butcher paper in which his sandwich had been wrapped. "I'm mainly all right. I've been exaggerating slightly for rhetorical effect. It's something I learned to do at school." Fraser ran his thumbnail hard over the top crease in the square. "I just keep thinking about something you said yesterday—"
"Well, don't," Ray interrupted. "Don't think about anything I said. Anything I said was stupid, because I am an idiot and I don't know anything."
"I thought you knew everything," Fraser said, looking sideways at him.
"Well, I don't," Ray said vehemently. "I don't know shit, Fraser—"
The door opened and they both turned to see Meg Thatcher in the doorway, looking surprised. "Constable. I didn't realize you had company..."
Instantly, Fraser was on his feet, and reluctantly Ray hauled himself up as well. "I'm sorry, sir. We were just having some lunch." He glanced at his watch and mimed surprise. "And just look at the time..."
"We were supposed to start five minutes ago," Thatcher said. "Constable Turnbull and I have been waiting for you in the conference room. So we've been making conversation." She paused and fixed Fraser with a look. "And you know how I love Constable Turnbull's particular brand of conversation..."
Fraser winced slightly. "Yes, sir, I understand. And I apologize for keeping you waiting."
Ray began to awkwardly edge toward the door. "I guess I'd better be..." He pointed out the door.
Fraser's expression had gone back to its customary blankness. "Yes. I think you'd better."
Ray felt disrupted, unfinished, undone. "Listen, maybe later we could...um..." Thatcher looked at him, one hand on hip, clearly wishing him gone already—but he held his ground. "When are you done?"
"Half past five," Fraser answered.
"I'll meet you back here at half past five, okay?"
Fraser looked at him for a moment and then nodded, once. "All right, Ray."
"All right. Okay. All right," Ray said, and split.
He went back to the bullpen, headed straight for Lieutenant Welsh's office, and rapped hard on the door before bursting in. Welsh looked up at him. "What?"
"Where's my file, I wanna see my file."
Welsh frowned and leaned forward. "Your file? The Vecchio file?"
Ray reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and flashed it at him. "I'm Vecchio, he's me, I'm not seeing the distinction here."
Welsh made a face at him, pulled out the left file drawer on his desk, and pulled out a battered manila folder. "Here," Welsh said, extending it to him. "It doesn't leave this building, Vecchio, okay?"
Ray scratched his head, nodded, turned to go and then stopped. "What about Fraser, you got a file on Fraser?"
Welsh sighed, yanked the drawer open again, and handed him a second file. It was ridiculously thin, though, and Ray frowned and flipped it open. One page, it was. Name: Benton Fraser. Address: 221 West Racine—then this was crossed out, and beside it was written "Canadian Consulate of Chicago." Date of Birth: August 30, 1960. Blah blah, blah blah.
Ray looked up and said, "So—what—is this it?"
Welsh showed him empty hands.
"The guy's been working for you for four years and you got a page on him? You got nothing, he could be anybody—how do you know he's even a Mountie?"
Welsh rubbed at his face tiredly. "He looks like a Mountie."
"Yeah...he looks like a Mountie. Right. Any idiot..." Ray muttered and wandered out of Welsh's office, still shaking his head. He found an empty interrogation room, locked the door, and sat down at the metal table, determined to give Vecchio's file another thorough read.
The last time he'd seen all this stuff—well, he'd been studying, it was senior year all over again, except failing the test this time meant him out of a job and some other cop he didn't even know shot in the head. But it had all been abstract, a list of cases, names, places to be memorized. He hadn't known Fraser then, hadn't known any of these people—they were just names on a page.
Now, reading it again, he got the whole thing more clearly. Fraser'd shown up at the 27 to make sure that Vecchio was following up on his father's case, and—give him credit—Vecchio had done it, though the trail had led them right back to Canada and...
Yeah, okay, punished made some sense now, he could see it.
He found an official-looking letter from the Canadian Consulate saying that Constable Benton Fraser had been appointed Acting Deputy Liaison Officer. Signed by an Inspector Moffet, who must have been in charge before the Ice Queen. Why, what a useful piece of paper. Shouldn't it be in Fraser's file? Why, I think it should. So why don't we put it there? He transferred the paper from one file to the other, thinking, Nimrods.
He read closely over Vecchio's notes on the Metcalf case, knowing that some real bad shit had gone down with that one. He could remember it coming up in his briefing. "You mean Ray Vecchio shot this guy?" "Yeah. But they're real close." "So I shot him in the back, but I'm still tight with him." "Yeah, Kowalski, you got it."
Uh—hello? Actor's Studio? What's my motivation? How the fuck do I play this?
So he was looking hard to read between the lines of Vecchio's reports. And this time, knowing Fraser as he now did, certain things leapt out at him. Like the fact that they'd searched Fraser's apartment—she'd been staying at Fraser's apartment. Though nobody'd really seen her, because Fraser had taken a couple of days off.
So read between the lines—Vecchio thought Fraser was doing her.
Read between the lines—Vecchio thought Fraser was gonna run off with her.
Read between the lines—Vecchio, normally not his favorite prose stylist, suddenly goes all Dostoevsky to explain that Fraser was trying to apprehend her, not run off with her. Cause he'd gotten the money back, see? He'd found the jewels, see? He'd chased her to the train station—are you getting the theme here? Apprehend, not run! How could you even think run? What are you—a moron? You wanna step outside?
Just sliiiiightly overcompensating, there, Vecchio—but hey, really nice thought.
He finished reading through the files and then shoved them away, still feeling disgruntled. So okay, he now had a better idea of why Fraser was answering phones at the Canadian Consulate, and he knew pretty well what Fraser had been doing with himself for the last four years.
But what about before that?
Who would know about that?
Ray returned to the Canadian Consulate and pushed the front door open quietly, trying to hear where everybody was. Turnbull was not at the front desk, a good sign there. Then he heard Thatcher's voice, coming from the conference room. "Well? Don't either of you have an opinion?"
Then Fraser, sounding lost. "The—red is nice."
"Oh, yes," Turnbull agreed instantly. "The red is very nice. It becomes something of a motif."
Ray took two steps toward Thatcher's office and heard Fraser say, "Pardon me, did you hear something?" God, the bastard must have eagle ears. Or be desperate to get out of that meeting. "Let me just go check..."
He debated either running back out the door or into Thatcher's office—but then suddenly he had a brainstorm, and decided to do something totally evil.
So he just stopped, and turned, and waited, and when Fraser appeared in the doorway he just stood there with a finger pressed against his lips. Fraser instantly nodded—and god, you had to love a guy who was that quick on the uptake. Ray jerked his thumb toward Thatcher's office, pointed at himself, and then flashed Fraser five fingers three times—give me fifteen in Thatcher's office. He saw Fraser hesitate, the conflict of interest warring on his face, before nodding again—and really, Ray felt his love for Fraser swelling beyond all reasonable proportions, because Fraser trusted him, Fraser really trusted him, and it was a hell of a guy who'd help you distract his boss so that you could break into her office to do things you really shouldn't be doing in the first place. And okay, so maybe Fraser would have felt different about it if he knew that what Ray wanted to do was spy on him, but Fraser probably had a pretty good idea that whatever he was doing wasn't quite kosher, and Fraser was gonna help him do it anyway.
Fraser went back into the conference room and Ray heard him say, "My mistake, there was nobody. And you know, it occurs to me that the green might actually provide a nice counterpoint..." Fraser then shut the conference room door, and instantly Ray was on the move, into Thatcher's office, and heading for the wall of file cabinets. He went right to "F" for "Fraser" but there was nothing there—nothing there at all. Okay, wait, think like a Canadian. Think like the Ice Queen.
It took him a second but then he got it—right, "P"—"P" for Personnel—and there it was, "Fraser, Benton," a smaller file contained within the larger one. Thankfully, it felt thicker—more than 15 minutes worth anyway, and so he shoved the drawer closed and headed down the hallway to the photocopier. Standing there, he found himself thanking God for Canadian neatness—because all the pages were the same size and totally flat and so he could just shove them—ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk—through the copier's feeder slot.
Finally, he grabbed his copies out of the tray and stuffed them into an envelope. He ran silently back to Thatcher's office, replaced the file, and was lounging on Turnbull's desk five minutes later when the conference room door opened and Fraser poked his head back into the hall. Ray raised the envelope and mouthed, "Thank you. Half past five?"
Fraser nodded almost imperceptibly and then said, "I'm sorry, sir. I really do need to get my hearing checked," before shutting the door.
Ray took Fraser's paperwork back to the bullpen and settled in for a nice long read—except there really wasn't that much to read here. The file was formal—for which read 'cold and impersonal'—though it did allow him to expand his picture somewhat. Fraser had joined the RCMP early in 1979, had trained at Regina, had graduated at the top of his class, no surprise there. What was surprising was that Fraser had had even less formal schooling than he did—and who woulda thunk that? But yeah, here was Fraser's RCMP application. He'd applied from Tuktoyaktuk, and what he had on his transcript were two schools—grade four and the last two years of high school—and high scores on a bunch of national equivalency exams.
Fraser had been assigned afterwards, at his request, back to Tuktoyaktuk, where he worked until November of 1983. Then in January of 1985 Fraser was off in Aklavik, and after that it was boom-chicka-boom: Aklavik, Sachs Harbor, Holman, Moose Jaw, Paulatuk, Colville Lake, Fort McPherson—if it was cold, miserable, and in the middle of nowhere, Fraser had been stationed there. But he just kept on moving. It was like he maybe couldn't stay still.
Fraser's yearly evaluations told some of the story. Granted, they didn't have Vecchio's charm, but there were lines to read between anyway. And between the lines was this: "Really good Mountie, but nobody likes him. Does not play well with others. Does not laugh at our dirty jokes. Impossible to hang out with." Of course, this was all said in phrases like, "has a tendency to inhibit group congeniality," but Ray had no problem translating that in his head. "This guy is really talented, but hey, you know, he's kind of a drag."
Eventually, it seemed, they had worked out something of a compromise. Benton Fraser, it was agreed by all and sundry, was a man of unparalleled talent out in the field. So here's the deal, Ben: you take No Man's Land, we'll take everywhere else. You just go on out there, run around in the snow, have a good time—and feel free to report in whenever and to whomever you want. Or don't.
But Fraser did report in; and Ray sat there and read his neat, handwritten statements. Illegal trappers. Illegal poachers. Illegal fishing. Illegal use of firearms. Illegal dumping. Drunk While In Control Of A Sled Team. Fraser apparently had just gone on doing his thing, and you know? He kind of made the middle of nowhere seem pretty exciting.
Then, in 1994, Fraser'd written his last report: he'd apparently arrested some guy for fishing four and a half tons over the limit. According to Fraser, this nutjob had been blowing up rivers with plastic explosives, nitroglycerin, and fragmentary mines and then just scooping up the salmon with a back hoe. Crazy.
The next page was Fraser's transfer request; he wanted to be assigned to the Canadian Consulate in Chicago.
This was where he came in.
Ray closed the file, shoved it away, rubbed his eyes. Okay, so there you go—feel better now? No deep, dark secrets, nothing you couldn't have guessed. Fraser was a country boy, Fraser didn't know how to play the game, Fraser pissed the wrong people off, Fraser was now pushing pencils in the Canadian Consulate. He knew that already; he knew that guy pretty well.
That guy was his best friend.
Ray got up, stretched, decided to go and get himself a cup of coffee. He had his hand on the doorknob when he got that weird tingle that he sometimes got—nothing specific, just the bone-deep knowledge that he had seen something, missed something. He frowned, turned, leaned back against the door. What was it? What the hell was it?
He went back to the table, scanned through the pages he'd read, hoping that something would jump out at him, that the thing would jump out at him. And then, hey, it did: Tuktoyaktuk till November of 1983. Aklavik in January of 1985.
There were fourteen months missing. Ray searched through the file again, looking for something to explain it. But there was nothing. Fraser had gone off duty in November of 1983, and come back on duty in January of 1985. That was a year and two months.
What the hell had Fraser been doing from November, 1983, to June, 1985?
Ray went back to his desk, phoned City Hall in Tuktoyaktuk, and explained to the very nice lady that he was a police detective from Chicago, Illinois, USA, and that he was trying to get a little information. What kind of information? she asked. Information about one Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who'd been a resident of—
Oh, yes, the woman said. Ben Fraser, George's boy—
No, Ray interrupted; the Ben Fraser he was looking for, his father was Robert.
Yes, yes, the woman said cheerily, she knew that—but he'd been raised by George and Martha Fraser, his grandparents, who'd been librarians in Tuktoyaktuk until—
Oh. Right. Okay, yeah—that Ben Fraser. He was trying to build up a profile of the guy, did she have anything useful?
The lady told him that she'd do a search for pertinent records. It might take a little while—did he have a fax machine?
Yeah, Ray said, surprised that she had a fax machine. He reeled off the number and thanked her kindly before hanging up the phone. He tried to do a little real work then, answering most of his messages and getting himself organized. But then, at ten to five, Frannie called across the bullpen, "Ray! Incoming!" and Ray went to go stand by the churning fax machine.
The cover sheet was already in the tray: To: Ray Vecchio, Chicago Police Department. From: Janet Scoorman, Hall of Records, Tuktoyaktuk. When the second sheet slid through, he saw it was Fraser's birth certificate: a baby, male, Benton, had been born to Caroline Pinsent Fraser and Robert Fraser on August 30, 1960. The birth had been registered with the authorities on November 20th; Ray guessed that that was the next time Robert Fraser had gone into town.
The next sheet through was a death certificate: Caroline Pinsent Fraser, died February 16, 1967. Cause of death, gunshot wounds—and geez, Fraser'd never said anything about that. He'd known that Fraser's mother had died when he was young, but he hadn't figured for as young as six. And no way had Fraser said anything about gunshot wounds—he would have remembered that, no way would he have forgotten that.
The next sheet through was another death certificate: George Fraser, died October 7, 1975. Cause of death, complications of stroke. And then yet another death certificate: Martha Fraser, died October 12, 1980. Cause of death, cancer—and Ray slotted another piece into place. Fraser'd asked to be assigned back to Tuktoyaktuk at the end of 1979—well, yeah, sure, had to be: his grandmother was dying there of cancer. He could see it like he had been there—Benton Fraser, age 20, seeing his grandmother through her last illness. While he and Stella had been acting like lunatics and buying furniture and eating Chef Boyardee, Fraser's plate had been full of death, death, and more death.
He could hear Fraser's voice in his head: "It does seem sometimes that the border between life and death is very poorly guarded." Yeah, and Fraser would know, wouldn't he? Fraser would know all about it—the Yukon wasn't the only border Fraser'd been patrolling up there in the North. One minute you have a mother and then you don't. One minute you have a grandpa and then you don't. One minute you have Benton Fraser and—
Okay, so mother, grandfather, grandmother... father next. Ray stared down at the fax machine, waiting for it to spit out Robert Fraser's death certificate—but the next piece of paper through was a different kind of form entirely, and it took him a moment to process what he was seeing.
A marriage license. Benton Fraser to Elizabeth Leroy. May 25, 1982.
Holy, holy shit! Elizabeth Leroy?
What, had Fraser lied to him? Jesus Christ, he could have sworn that somebody had asked Fraser if he was married—yeah, it was that crazy lady, down there in the crypt. "Are you married?" she'd asked Fraser, and Fraser had said no, the lying bastard. "No, ma'am, I'm not." Except Fraser had said something else after that, hadn't he.
"No, ma'am, I'm not. But I am acquainted with loss...and on occasion loneliness."
He'd wanted to be closer to Fraser, but not like this, not like this. With rising horror, Ray lifted his eyes from Fraser's marriage license and stared at the still churning fax machine. This time, it was what he was expecting, what he was dreading. Elizabeth Fraser, died December 14, 1983. Cause of death: complications in childbirth.
Ray just stared at the thin page of fax paper in his hands while voices swirled and yammered in his head. I know how hard it can be...I'm not going to survive this...let go of someone you love...you do not understand...give it a rest, Ray, okay?...utterly indebted to women...not this year...and then we have memories...the other half of me...can't hold a memory...don't own other people...I will always, always, always love you, Ray....
The fax machine fell silent, and there were three more sheets of paper in the tray. Ray swiped them out, creasing the paper as he tightened his fingers. The first one was a birth certificate. Will Fraser, born to Elizabeth Leroy and Benton Fraser on December 14, 1983. Right behind that, the death certificate, dated December 15, 1983. Right behind that, Robert Fraser's death certificate...dated 1994...more gunshot wounds....
He felt a hand on his arm and turned his head. Frannie. "Hey. Ray. You don't look so good."
"I'm—yeah. Fine. It ain't buddies, though..."
Frannie frowned at him and then tugged at his arm. "Ray, just sit down for a minute, all right?
"Yeah. But this is seriously not buddies..." Because, God—aquainted with loss? Fraser was buddies with loss, Fraser was best friends with loss— and sure not with him. He was holding six death certificates in his hand—fucking aquainted with loss?—can we talk about your colossal understatements, here? He'd thought—he'd thought that he and Fraser were maybe getting...
Fuck, how could he? How could Fraser do that? He'd told Fraser everything, he'd told Fraser everything that mattered to him, first in the crypt and then in bits and pieces afterwards. And Fraser'd told him what? Inuit stories? Where to get an eagle feather?
"You want some water or something? A Coke? Cup of coffee?" Frannie was sitting next to him on the bench, frowning at him, rubbing his arm. He couldn't ever remember Frannie being so nice to him; he must really be in bad shape.
"No, I—no," Ray said, shaking his head. "I think I'm going. Out. I need a drink," and he realized that he really did need a drink, because if he was gonna start crying he was gonna need to get smashed, and fast.
Ray was still staring at the file and well into his third scotch when Fraser suddenly materialized across the table from him. Ray tried to raise his chin off his hand, found he couldn't, decided to leave it there. "How'd you find me?"
"Francesca suspected you'd be here." Fraser was peering at him curiously, like maybe he'd sprouted a third eye or something. "I thought you were coming to meet me at the Consulate."
"I changed my mind."
Fraser frowned at him. "Has something happened?"
"Yeah," Ray said.
Fraser looked expectant, then moved his hand in a slow circle. "What, then?"
Ray stared down at the table top. "I lost my best friend."
He heard Fraser sigh and shift in his chair. "Stella, you mean."
"No,you I mean," Ray snapped, jerking his head up.
Fraser's face was the very picture of surprise. "Me?"
"Yeah,you. Yesterday. Letting me make a fool of myself—"
"I did try to stop you," Fraser objected.
Ray shook his head wildly. "Not that. This." He gave the papers a vague push across the table. Fraser tugged them toward him and began to sort through them. "Letting me say what I said. Not telling me stuff. You're supposed to be my friend, friends tell each other things—"
Fraser had stopped at a particular piece of paper, and now he looked up. "Is this about Lizzie?"
He wasn't sure what kind of reaction he expected from Fraser, but this wasn't it. "Yeah. Lizzie, my old pal Lizzie, about whom I know nothing." Ray leaned forward across the table. "Maybe you could have mentioned that you were married. Maybe you could have mentioned that you had a kid. You know, somewhere in between the Inuit story and the eagle feather and me spilling my guts to you—"
"Ray, this is ancient history." Fraser seemed bewildered. "This was years ago—"
"Yeah, fifteen to be exact. My marriage lasted fifteen years—big coincidence huh? It ain't that long, I can tell you it ain't that long, it's like yesterday, it's nothing. You saying it just slipped your mind? That it was something you forgot about?"
"No," Fraser said quietly. "I haven't forgotten. But fifteen years is a very, very long time, Ray. Really, it is."
Ray stabbed his index finger into Elizabeth Fraser's death certificate. "That," he said, "is key, okay? That is a key thing that you tell somebody right there. I don't care how long it's been. You mention that to somebody you—consider a friend."
"Ray. Ray, I—" Fraser looked lost for a moment, and then he blew out a long breath. "All right. Ask me anything you want. I'll tell you anything you want."
"Lizzie, not Beth?" Ray asked instantly. "I'd have guessed Beth."
"You would have guessed wrong," Fraser said wryly. "She hated being called Beth—her name was Lizzie."
"Where did you meet her?" Now that he'd gotten Fraser started, he wanted to know everything, needed to know everything.
Fraser stared down at the scarred wood table top. "In church, actually. We often sat together. She was very lovely." Except that wasn't what Fraser said. That was what he was expecting Fraser to say, and so that's what he heard. He rewound the words in his head and listened again: "She was very funny."
"Funny?" Ray repeated. "Did you say funny?"
Fraser nodded. "Yes. She would—say things. Under her breath. Lizzie had what you might charitably call an uncharitable streak." Fraser licked his lip and then cracked a smile. "She would whisper these...rather detailed critiques. Tantamount to character assassination, really. And I would be sitting there, with my head bowed and my eyes screwed shut thinking, 'Please, please, please don't let me laugh.'" Fraser did laugh then, and added, "And then one day, of course, I did laugh—I just started laughing and I couldn't seem to stop. And Lizzie just grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the pew, and when—when—" Fraser stopped for a second and bit down on his lip to collect himself. "And when Mrs. Vickers looked at me, all stony-faced and disapproving and wagging her finger, Lizzie just stared her right down and piously told her that I was suffering from seizures as a result of prolonged exposure to ice glare." Fraser dissolved into laughter again and covered his eyes with his hand.
Ray felt his hurt and anger evaporating, and instead he felt—what? resentment? jealousy?—and how fucked up was that? Still, he wished he'd known her—he wanted to meet the woman who could make Fraser laugh like that, who could still make Fraser laugh, even fifteen years later.
"She sounds fun," Ray admitted finally.
"She was, yes," Fraser agreed.
"So you married her."
"Yes. It was slightly more complicated than that. I was happy to be with her, she made me laugh. She, I think, wanted to get away from her father, who was a very hard man."
"Was he a Mountie?" Ray asked.
"No, he was in the oil business. Lizzie was one of five sisters. Her father wanted sons, I think, and he was almost cruel to his daughters as a result. So she was quite happy to marry me. Get out of that situation. Of course, as things worked out..."
Fraser trailed off, and Ray murmured, "Go on, Fraser. Finish it."
Fraser took a deep breath. "Well, you know the basic story. A year after we were married, Lizzie found she was expecting a child. We were both delighted, of course. But it didn't take long before it was clear that there were going to be...complications." Fraser stopped and drew on the table top with his finger for a moment before continuing. "It was very much a case of everything that could go wrong, going wrong. Conflicts in blood type, and then Lizzie developed diabetes, the baby was in the wrong position—everything, just everything. So many doctors... She wasn't due until January, but by November they'd decided to airlift her into Yellowknife. There were supposed to be specialists there—but they didn't help, it didn't help, none of it helped. She was dead before the baby was even born, and Will died eighteen hours later." Fraser stopped again and then looked up at Ray. "He was supposed to be called Andrew, actually. We'd agreed on Andrew—we knew he was a boy, we knew everything about him by that point except how to keep him alive. But she never met him—and I did. And he wasn't an Andrew, he was a Will."
Ray reached across and clutched Fraser's forearm tightly. "I'm sure he was."
"He just exuded will—he had such a will to live. He was like my father in that. I could see my father in him." Fraser fell silent for a moment, and then said: "Is that what you wanted to know?"
"Yeah," Ray said softly. "That's what I wanted to know—and I'm sorry about what I said, for everything I said yesterday—"
But Fraser was shaking his head. "You said something very important yesterday. Something I've been thinking about ever since."
Ray tightened his grip on Fraser's arm. "Fraser, I was mad, I wasn't thinking, I was being an asshole, I was being insulting—"
"You said that memories were nothing. Literally no thing. And I think you were right about that—you put your finger on the crucial fact of...intangibility." Fraser looked hard at him. "I think I've become altogether too reliant on my memories, Ray."
"Yeah, but—" Ray tried to gather his thoughts, tried to articulate himself. "I mean, I can see why. I can totally see why. You're away from home, you're not where you want to be, the people you love are dead—I can't see how you stand it."
"Exactly." Fraser suddenly leaned toward him, so their faces were close and low over the table top. "You wouldn't stand it—you wouldn't stand for it. There are many kinds of death, Ray. There's physical death—and yes, I've seen a lot of that. And it is very hard—but perhaps the worst of it is how helpless you feel. Everything is in God's hands and there's just nothing you can do. I couldn't have saved Lizzie, or my son, or my mother; it was all completely beyond my control. But you get used to that feeling, that feeling of—acceptance. And I think that's another kind of death, a worse kind of death—a living death."
Beneath them, Fraser's arm twisted and suddenly Fraser was gripping his hand, holding his hand tightly.
"Whereas you—you're still angry, Ray, you're still fighting. Memories are nothing, you can't hold or touch a memory—you're still looking for something you can hold, something you can touch."
Fraser squeezed his hand then, and suddenly Ray was really aware that he was holding Fraser's hand. He could feel the strength of Fraser's hand in his, the firm fingers, the press of his palm. He squeezed back, never looking away from Fraser's eyes.
"Because you're alive," Fraser whispered. "You're still alive. You're still trying to get what you want, who you want—"
"I don't want her," Ray said, before he could stop himself.
"—what you need to live. You're willing to fight for it. I've seen you do it. You fight like hell."
"I don't want her anymore," Ray repeated, clutching Fraser's hand tightly. "I just don't know how to stop, she's like a habit I fall into—"
Fraser's voice grew urgent. "Ray, I'm slipping, I'm always on the verge of slipping over the line. I need something to pull me back, someone stronger to pull me back—"
"—when I get scared of who I am, what I want. I run back to her because it scares me, what I want, wanting you...."
"—over the line into life. That was why Lizzie, and that was why Victoria, and that is why—" Fraser took a deep breath and said, "Ray, come back to Canada with me."
Ray stared at him for a moment and then said, "Yeah, okay." He tightened his grip on Fraser's hand and pulled hard. "Come home with me."
Fraser looked down at their joined hands and nodded. "Yes, all right."
So he took Fraser home—or rather, Fraser took him home, since he was still too wobbly to be driving. He gave Fraser his keys and just let himself lounge on the passenger side, which he found had a great view of the driver's seat and the man in it.
As if by unspoken agreement, they didn't talk about sex.
They talked about Canada.
"What will you do?" Ray asked Fraser's profile. "If they won't take you back."
Fraser tightened his hands on the wheel, his face visibly determined even in the darkness. "Well, they'll have to take me back; I'm a Canadian citizen, Ray. The question is whether or not they'll take me back as a Mountie."
Ray nodded slowly. "And give you the posting you want."
"Yes, precisely. I think they're afraid that I might interfere with economic development in the Territories." Fraser considered this idea for a moment, and then admitted, "Which I very well might. They want to drill, they want to build, they want to dump—for most people, the Arctic Circle is out of sight and out of mind."
"But not out of your mind."
"Never out of my mind," Fraser replied quietly, "but out of my sight recently, I'm afraid. Because I gave up and gave in. Accepted the cards I was dealt."
Ray slowly smiled to himself in the darkness. "So let's go up there and make some trouble. Piss some people off. I'm really good at that."
"Yes." Fraser's lips were twitching. "I know."
"We'll go up there and kick them in the head. Throw 'em into the snow until they say uncle. Then kick them again, just so they learn their lesson."
Fraser was openly smiling now. "That's an interesting plan, Ray."
"And then we'll have cocoa," Ray finished. "You got cocoa up there?"
"Yes, we have cocoa aplenty," Fraser said. "But I should warn you—it's not all snow and cocoa."
"Oh yeah?" Ray asked.
"It's a beautiful place." Fraser briefly looked away from the road. "But it's a hard place, I won't lie to you. It's a rewarding life, but it is a difficult one."
"I can do difficult. I've been told that I'm very persistent."
Fraser's smile widened, and he was suddenly gushing with boyish enthusiasm. "I have a cabin, I have a beautiful cabin right near the border. I think you'll like it—I really think you'll like it, Ray. It's simple," he qualified, shooting Ray a nervous glance, "it's nothing fancy, but..."
"I can do simple," Ray said softly. "Simple's my middle name. I think I'll like it." And he did think he'd like it. He'd liked living with Steve in Ann Arbor, hanging out and fixing cars. He'd liked living with Stella in their first apartment. He'd liked eating out of cans and hauling furniture in off the street, sanding and staining old tables until they looked like new, rewiring lamps until they worked. He'd always liked making things, fixing things, restoring things—maybe because he was such a fixer-upper of a person himself. He'd been his own greatest DIY project, and he'd worked on "Ray Kowalski" the same way he'd turned metal husks into muscle cars: with perseverance, a bucket of elbow grease, and the occasional moment of pure inspiration.
And now he thought he was finally street-worthy. "Take me out," Ray murmured, "and rev my engine..."
Fraser looked at him, startled. "Ray, what did you say?"
Ray, slouched in his seat, looked up and grinned madly. "You could maybe put a little more gas into it, Fraser. I'd like to get home some time this century." He felt his grin slipping away. "Or sooner. Yesterday. Now, Fraser."
Fraser put his foot to the pedal.
Ray felt his insides turn to water, then clench tight into ice, the closer they got to his apartment door. His lungs seemed to be seizing up during that final walk down the corridor, because things still seemed weirdly normal, or normally weird, however you wanted to slice that.
Here was Fraser, walking down the hallway just slightly behind him and to the left, looking just like himself in his jeans and leather jacket and sneakers. Like they might just be going home to order pizza—
—except this was not about pizza. Because they'd just agreed, he'd just agreed— He was going to move to Middle Of Nowhere, Canada, with Benton Fraser. And why? Because he and Fraser were— He and Fraser were gonna start— They were gonna—um.
Take this duet to a whole new level.
And okay, he was maybe still a little drunk but he wasn't drunk enough. He wasn't drunk and he wasn't stoned and that meant he was doing this thing deliberately, in full consciousness and in relatively sound mind. He was gonna go inside there and he was gonna—
—do things with Fraser. He was gonna do things that he'd spent a lot of time thinking about not doing. Or not thinking about doing. Trying not to think about doing. Things he'd tried really hard not to think about. He really didn't want to think about it.
But he was thinking about it—and more than that, he was going to do it. Because this was maybe his only shot at having a life. A real life, a post-Stella life, a life where he could let his new, improved, muscle-car self out of the garage.
So let's see what he could do with a little road in front of him. Let 'er rip.
He unlocked his apartment door, stepped to the side to let Fraser in, and followed after him, pushing the door closed behind them. He flipped on the lights, looked at Fraser, quietly standing there by the door—
—and then it was like some lizard part of his brain took over, the part that he'd been keeping on a leash in a glass case because it wanted things that he didn't want to think about wanting. Two seconds and he'd closed the distance between them, sliding one hand inside Fraser's jacket and gripping Fraser's shoulder tightly with the other. He leaned forward and kissed Fraser hard, smothering his sound of surprise.
Fraser's arms came up and enfolded him—one arm tight around his neck, the other wrapped around his torso, and god, it had been forever since he'd been held like this, except he'd never been held like this, because even Stella, when she'd held him, just hadn't had this kind of strength. But Fraser was all strength, all muscular, masculine embrace, and Ray pushed him hard against the wall, wanting to feel the hard press of his body, wanting to feel him everywhere.
Ray became aware that he was rhythmically rocking his hips, grinding himself against Fraser. Fraser was clutching him tightly, Fraser's tongue was huge and heavy in his mouth—god, this was good, this was so good, this ragged, wild thing between them.
Ray tore his mouth away from Fraser's and gasped, "If you want, I'll give you my one-time-only-special-stoned-blowjob..."
Fraser's head had fallen back against the wall with a thunk. "What? I—?"
"Blowjob," Ray repeated stupidly. "Do you want one?"
"Yes," Fraser murmured, and rolled them around so that suddenly Ray was backed up flat against the wall. Fraser's hands skimmed Ray's chest, undoing the buttons of his shirt, and Ray gasped, "No, wait, no, I meant—"
"No" apparently penetrated Fraser's mind, because his fingers instantly stopped. "No?"
What was he, crazy? "Yes!" Ray amended hastily, "I meant yes! Okay! Go ahead!"
Fraser gave him a quick kiss, his hands scrabbling to undo the last button. And then Fraser's hands were on him, skimming over his chest in a rough caress. Ray shivered and leaned forward, wanting another kiss—but Fraser was on his knees and roughly shucking off his leather jacket.
Ray braced himself against the wall and closed his eyes. He felt Fraser's hands working his jeans, shoving them down, pulling his briefs down over his erection. This was it, this was exposure—every damn way you could think of it. He couldn't run to Stella, or back home—but he was tired of running, anyway. Strong hands gripped his hips, and he felt the warm puff of Fraser's breath a moment before he felt the first touch of Fraser's mouth.
Ray's eyes flew open and he stared down as Fraser kissed and licked his cock, wetting it. And then Fraser curled his hand around the base of him, and bent to take him into his mouth. Ray watched, heart thundering, as Fraser sucked him—and Christ, Fraser knew what he was doing, Fraser had done this before, because Ray had tried this himself and knew that it wasn't as goddammned easy as Fraser was making it look. Because Fraser looked—-Christ. Beautiful, beautiful, so fucking beautiful...kneeling there with his eyes closed and his mouth and hand working together.
Ray found himself gasping helplessly, sweaty palms sliding against the wall. He didn't even need to move, or thrust, or do anything other than hold himself up, because Fraser was doing him so well, fist sliding rapidly back and forth, mouth sucking him rhythmically, calling his orgasm into being and then feeding it. Ray felt the wave of pleasure rising from deep in his gut, and he tried to ride it, stay on top of it, and he was sweating and moaning and panting, "...yeah...oh God...yeah...please...."
And suddenly Ray cried out and just lost it; he went crashing down hard into the surf, his cock jerking and spurting into Fraser's mouth. Fraser made a soft, strangled sound and began to swallow...and Ray closed his eyes and let himself go limp against the wall.
When he came back to himself, Fraser was leaning next to him, one arm tight around him, half holding him up. Fraser was stroking his hair and kissing his face and murmuring his name: Ray, Ray...
Fraser knew him. Fraser knew who he was.
Ray opened his eyes and managed, "You. I'll do you next." With an effort, he pushed his spent body away from the wall and grabbed two handfuls of Fraser's flannel shirt. But Fraser shook his head, took Ray's wrists into his hands, and began to propel him back toward the bedroom. "I'll do you," Ray repeated fervently, "let me do you, I wanna do you..."
Fraser's voice was hoarse and desperate. "Ray. Kiss me."
So Ray kissed him; Fraser let go of his wrists, and Ray pulled Fraser hard into his arms and kissed him. And then he got it, like a light going on in his head, because Fraser just melted against him, melted against his body. Ray tightened his grip, pulling Fraser as close as he could—knowing Fraser needed this, he could feel how Fraser needed it. He found himself wondering how long it had been since anyone had held Fraser, had kissed Fraser like this.
Ray backed Fraser against the bed, then lifted one knee onto the mattress so he could slowly ease them down. Mouths still touching, they settled back onto the bed. Ray sank down on top of Fraser, guessing that Fraser wanted his weight, needed to feel his body bearing down. This seemed to be the right call: Fraser moaned happily into his mouth and spread his legs until Ray's hips were nestled tightly between them.
And then Fraser began to rock his hips gently, nudging his denim-clad erection against Ray's abdomen. Ray slid his fingers into Fraser's hair and hung on, tonguefucking his mouth as Fraser drove himself upwards. After a while, Fraser's chest was heaving, and he seemed almost to be strangling, like he couldn't breathe.
Ray lifted his head and hissed, "Let me do you, let me finish you..."
"I—yes—touch me," Fraser managed. "Please."
Ray lifted himself up and sat back on his heels, straddling Fraser's legs. He unbuttoned Fraser's shirt, ripping off a button in his impatience, and then tugged down the zipper of Fraser's pants. This was it, this was what it came down to. Stanley Kowalski had courted and won Stella—but he wasn't Stanley anymore. He'd become Ray, he'd changed and become Ray, and now here he was, sitting astride a nearly naked Benton Fraser. He had Fraser laid out before him, and Fraser was beautiful—all smooth skin and strong muscle and hard cock.
Fraser's erection curved up and over his belly, needy and demanding. Ray took it in his right hand and squeezed gently, then began to stroke. Above him, Fraser sighed out his pleasure, and then began gasping rhythmically as Ray sped his hand. Ray suddenly realized that he would do anything, anything at all, to make Fraser moan, to make Fraser come, to make Fraser laugh.
Suddenly Fraser's breathing grew irregular, suddenly Fraser was sucking air in wet, desperate hitches, and Ray knew he was close. He lowered his head and pulled Fraser's cock into his mouth, swirling his tongue around the leaking head before beginning to suck in earnest. Fraser moaned softly and made a tight fist in his hair, and Ray sucked hard until Fraser flooded his mouth.
Ray swallowed, trying not to grin, trying not to lose any.
Finally, he felt a gentle tug on his ear. He let Fraser's cock slide out of his mouth, gave it a final kiss, and moved up to lie beside Fraser. Fraser instantly reached for him, pulling him close and resting his head on Ray's chest. They lay there for a while, too sleepy and sated to say anything.
He was nearly asleep when he heard Fraser murmur, "I used to talk to her."
Ray jerked awake. "What?"
"Lizzie. I used to talk to her. In my head."
Ray rolled so that he could look at Fraser, so he could see Fraser's face. Fraser was looking at him, and the way Fraser was looking at him instantly washed all the jealousy out of him. "Oh?"
Fraser raised his hand and touched Ray's nose with his fingertip. "Seven millimeters," he murmured, inexplicably.
Ray laughed and shook his head, now totally confused. "What, does orgasm addle your brain or something? What's seven millimeters?"
"Oh, quite a lot, Ray." Fraser smiled at him. "I would tell her things, ask her things—seek her advice. Consult with her, talk things over with her. In my head, you understand."
Ray nodded slowly. "Uh-huh."
"But then, you see, I had to stop. In fact I did stop. Quite some time ago. Because in my head..." and Fraser touched his own forehead with his index finger, "...she's still twenty-two. And I...am not, Ray." Fraser's smile grew rueful. "I most definitely am not."
Ray grinned faintly. "I hear that. That low rumbling sound?—that's forty, Fraser, just over the hill there. So to speak."
"Yes, I know," Fraser replied. "But it was already a problem for me at thirty. The concerns of a thirty year old man are simply not the same as the concerns of a twenty-two year old woman. And her advice was not as sound it used to be. Our conversations became—well, rather strained and awkward..."
Ray frowned. "You mean the ones you had in your head?"
"Yes," Fraser said. "I had a different set of needs, I suppose—"
"Because she wasn't really there, right?" Ray interrupted.
"Not in the least," Fraser agreed. "Unlike—well, never mind."
"But even in your head, she was talking about things you didn't much care about."
Fraser looked surprised. "You understand so well."
"I understand a ton," Ray said flatly. "But you kept talking to her, because you loved her and she was there for you at, like, a key moment of your life..."
"Yes," Fraser murmured.
"And you had a history together. You'd been through things, you lived through things...."
"Yes," Fraser murmured.
"...and so you tried to make it work. You tried to hang on, hang in, love her as best as you could, even though you were both changing..."
"Yes," Fraser murmured.
Ray frowned. "Though, you know, Fraser, in your case... I mean, she really was—you know. Dead."
"True," Fraser admitted, "but good conversation in the Territories is exceedingly difficult to come by. Beggars can't be choosers." He stopped, smiled, and reached out to touch Ray's nose again. "Though sometimes, you know...beggars get to choose after all."
"I'm telling you, it's a good lamp," Ray protested, clicking it on and off and on. "See? Works fine."
Stella took a step back, arms crossed over her chest, and regarded first the lamp and then him with some skepticism. "Is this another Ray Kowalski special?"
"This is another 'Ray-Kowalski-masterpiece-will-never-break-for-fifty-years' lamp," he declared. "A bargain, going cheap—for free."
Stella smiled. "Okay, I grant you, my desk lamp has not so much as flickered since you rewired it, but—"
"See? Case in point," Ray said and raised his palms in modest triumph.
The door opened and Fraser came in, licking his lips and looking around. "All right. What else?"
Ray took a few steps toward him, scanning around the apartment. "Not much. Just, uh, one more box and the desk. Gimme a minute and I'll help you with the desk."
Fraser leaned back against the wall in his sweatpants and sneakers; he was sweating a little, and he looked simultaneously exhausted and excited. "I remind you, Ray, that it's not a very big truck. In fact, it's not a very big cabin—"
"Just one more box and the desk," Ray promised. "That box there is full of, I dunno, shit, and that desk has gone with me everywhere."
Fraser pushed himself away from the wall and wandered over. "And what's all this?"
"That stuff Stella's taking," Ray said, pointing, "and the other pile is for Goodwill."
"Add the lamp," Stella said. "I'll take the lamp. I'll put it in the den."
"Is this the box?" Fraser asked, crouching down.
"Yeah, that one." He moved to help Fraser hoist it off the floor, then let it go and stood back, arms extended. "You got it? You good?"
"I've got it, I'm good," Fraser confirmed. "Get the door, please." Ray pulled the door open and watched as Fraser carried the box off down the hall.
"What about those dishes you had?" Stella asked; she was poking through the kitchen cabinets. "Didn't you have some really cool dishes with a cow print on them?"
"Yeah, I'm taking 'em," Ray said, rubbing a hand over his hair. "I don't think he has dishes, you think he has dishes?"
Stella considered this. "No, probably not."
"That was my thinking. And I don't like eating off metal plates. I think you get ptomaine that way."
"Can I take your Pyrex?" Stella asked him.
He made an accommodating gesture, and reached down to swipe an empty cardboard box off the floor. Together they packed up his remaining cookware, and then he reached out for a roll of masking tape and sealed the box. He picked up a thick felt marker, pulled the cap off with his teeth, scrawled "Pyrex" across the top, and recapped the pen.
"You're sure you're not going to need that stuff?" Stella asked.
"I'm sure," Ray said, tossing the pen onto the counter. "Besides, he'd kill me." He picked up the box and added it to Stella's pile. "We'll load the car for you, but who's gonna help you on the other end?"
"The doorman," Stella replied, brushing dust off her hands. "He's got a cart."
"You sure you're gonna be okay?" Ray asked, frowning.
"Yeah, I'm sure. What about you?" Stella asked, meeting his eyes. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I'm gonna be fine," Ray assured her. "In fact, I'm gonna be great."
"It's cold up there," Stella reminded him.
"I packed all my sweaters. That Good Will stuff is mainly Bermuda shorts, which I somehow do not think I will be needing."
Stella shook her head from side to side, as if she were trying to jog her memory. "Where is it again? Alavuk?"
"Aklavik," Ray corrected her. "But that's just where he'll report in, and where the mail goes—we'll actually be about thirty miles west of there."
"Ray, are you sure?" Her voice had a muted urgency that he hadn't heard there in years. "You're sure you want to do this?"
"I'm sure. I am surely sure." Ray put his hands on her shoulders, and somehow it seemed okay to touch her now, like he'd been given permission again. "I am the surest of the sure. Besides, I'm gonna be a liaison."
She looked up at him, arching her eyebrow. "You mean have a liaison."
Ray grinned down at her. "Be...have...same difference. You're the one who took French."
The smile fell off Stella's face. "I'm jealous," she said suddenly, and then she laughed sharply. "I mean, I'm not. But I am. I want you to stay forever in some weird, limited Ray-space—a time capsule—where I know where you are and what you're doing and you're always exactly the same."
Ray stared at her for a moment and then said, "I haven't the faintest idea what that could possibly feel like," and then yelled, "Ow, ow, stop!" when she hit him.
They loaded Stella's boxes into her car and waved her off before going back upstairs to bring down the desk. It wasn't that heavy, but it was a damned awkward thing to carry, because there was no decent ledge on it, nothing to hook your fingers onto, plus it was top-heavy besides. So, really, they had to brace the thing between them, each of them holding onto to an opposite leg—and together they danced it down the hall and down the staircase and managed to get it wedged in the back of the truck.
One hand braced on the desk, Fraser managed to send the truck's door clattering down, and then they both collapsed back against the tailgate. "That's it," Ray said, letting his head fall back against the metal door. "That's finally it."
"What's next?" Fraser asked, wiping his forehead with his arm.
Ray closed his eyes. "Gimme a minute, I'm basking. Let me bask for a minute."
"Ah. Well, bask away."
"That desk, Fraser," Ray murmured after a moment. "I've had that desk since I was a kid, longer than anything else I own, and now it's going international, up over the border. Man, I put in some serious time at that desk..."
"Hm. Really." He heard Fraser's hands brushing together. "Judging from the layer of dust, I confess I find that rather difficult to believe..."
Ray opened his eyes. "Okay, so maybe not so much the last ten years. Though I've dusted since then, I swear. Hey," Ray added, grinning, "you wanna hear a fun fact?"
"Certainly." Fraser smiled back at him. "I'm a great devotee of fun facts."
"I got more formal education than you. And you're better in the sack than me. How's that for didn't see it coming?"
Fraser thought about this for a moment, and then pursed his lips. "I'm intrigued and... vaguely insulted, I think."
Ray smiled ruefully and shook his head. "C'mon, I didn't mean it like that. Just—anybody knowing you, knowing me..."
"Well, I admit that growing up in the Territories left me somewhat disadvantaged. Though I have tried to take advantage of what opportunities I've been offered. Educationally, of course," Fraser added earnestly, though Ray could see his tongue creeping into his cheek. "Even in the North, there are opportunities for instruction. And, taken in the right spirit, almost every situation provides its own unique learning experience—"
Ray punched his arm. "All right, lay off. This coy shit cuts no ice with me. We got a 3,500 mile drive ahead of us, and I am gonna get the whole story out of you..."
Fraser groaned and covered his face. "Ray..."
"I am persistent, Fraser. I am a very persistent guy, as a very wise man once told me." Ray heaved himself up off the bumper of the truck and stretched. "So start getting your story straight."
"Oh dear..." Fraser muttered behind his hands. "I may have been overly quick to dismiss the merits of solitude."
"And make it good, Fraser. We got over a week's worth of driving, and long drives put me to sleep."
"I certainly haven't got a week's worth of stories, Ray," Fraser said, dropping his hands. "Perhaps twenty minutes at the most."
Ray was unmoved. "Use some of that rhetorical elaboration that you learned at school."
"But Ray," Fraser protested.
"Hey, you owe me," Ray interrupted. "A week after I met you, I was telling you about my all time most traumatic day ever. You got a lot of ground to catch up."
"But I never publicly urinated in my clothing," Fraser objected, and then he seemed to stop and reconsider. "However, at about the same age, I was hit by an otter..."
Ray grinned. "Good enough. C'mon, let's hit it." He took a step back and swung his arms around to stretch them. He had to pee, he had to wash up, Fraser would want to sweep up, and then they had to drop the keys off with his landlady. Just a couple more things and they could finally get going. He'd take the first four-hour shift, get them out of Chicago, and then turn the wheel over to Fraser somewhere up on I-94. It was gonna be a looooong trip—eight hours just to Minneapolis, and another six before they could haul their collective baggage up over the border...
He couldn't wait.