We Can Live Beside the Ocean
When Rodney was sixteen, all he wanted was to leave school and have the run of his city and the camaraderie of his mates, the freedom to fuck and fight and play football in empty lots.
When he was twenty-six, all he wanted was to make crew chief and get the job in Kuwait.
When he was thirty-six, all he wanted was John and a house of their own and a steady job that wouldn't ship him off to the desert.
Now it doesn't matter what he wants. All that matters is what he has. And all he has is John.
They're in a grocery store, stopping on their way out of Portland to stock up. What produce is left is looking ragged, but they take canned goods and paper goods and soap and batteries and as many condoms as they can carry. Rodney turns around for a minute and when he turns back, John is gone. And he panics.
"John!" he yells, resisting the urge to sprint down the aisles. "JOHN!"
John's head pops up from behind a shelf. "What?" he says, looking a little confused, and Rodney wants to hit him and hug him at the same time.
"Don't fucking do that again," is all he says.
"Ok." John clearly has no idea what Rodney's talking about. "Hey, canned peaches." He holds up a can in each hand, laughing.
After the world ends, they pack up the car and drive south. They stop in Santa Barbara, which has some kind of law and order, not a lot but enough to draw travelers and refugees. It's as if some kind of psychic call went out and now people are slowly answering.
Rodney's glad. The empty streets and buildings make him nervous, remind him of the trackless landscapes he used to drill and the people he'll never see again. If he lets himself think about them, he starts missing his family with an ache so deep he can't function. He just tries not to think about it.
He won't even let himself miss silly everyday things - their dining room chairs, the ridiculous built-ins in the archway between the living and dining rooms that John wanted to buy the house for. The symbols painted on the road for Portland's bicyclists. Voodoo Doughnut's maple bacon doughnuts and John's inhuman ability to pack them away.
There's a girl with a Dalmatian walking on the beach. The dog thinks John and Rodney are the most exciting people he's ever met, to judge from the way he jumps on them and tries to lick John's face off when John bends down to say hi.
The girl watches Rodney watch John romping and throwing sticks for her dog, and Rodney, feeling her gaze on him, admits he never lets John out of his sight.
"Pretty obvious, huh," he says.
She grins. "Yeah. But I get it."
The first time Rodney wasn't paying attention, John wandered into a sandstorm and nearly vanished forever. And not so long ago an astonishingly high percentage of the people on the planet disappeared while the rest of the world wasn't looking, and he's not taking any chances. He only had to make that mistake once.
Rodney's been away for so long that sometimes he forgets he grew up on an island and his first legitimate job was being stranded on an oil platform in the middle of the North Sea. But he's been landlocked ever since, and every so often he'll wake up and forget where he is and why, and those days, the Pacific Ocean is always a huge surprise.
The first time it happened, John laughed at him. The second time, he laughed at himself. How could he forget? Their life now bears almost no resemblance to the life they had. Far fewer people, far less rain. Far more uncertainty.
Not everything's changed. Rodney still can't eat a canned peach. John still gets claustrophobic. Rodney still wakes up first and panics until he can touch John and know where he is. John still loves the beach but hates the sand, and every so often he'll ask, mournfully, "Why'd we come to California, Rod? Why didn't we go to Canada?" And Rodney will say because the weather's better here, and the ocean's warm.
They're fishing on the wharf - John is leaning against the railing watching his lines, Rodney is making up stories about his tattoos to entertain a small Hispanic boy - when a belligerent guy in a ballcap decides that John is fishing in his spot and taking all his fish. John explains that he hasn't caught anything and there's lots of room on the wharf, but the guy isn't interested.
Rodney's tempted to step in, but the guy probably wouldn't notice him anyway. Rodney can tell from the guy's stance and the way he's jittering that he's about to throw down. John can apparently sense it too, because he straightens up, all six foot five of him, but the guy isn't fazed and takes a swing anyway.
John steps back, startled, the guy's fist glancing off his chin. Rodney sees red and lays the guy out on his back in the space between one breath and the next. When his vision clears, John is staring at him and the guy is groaning on the floor and the little boy who was so interested in Rodney's tattoos is grinning hugely and Rodney is suddenly, acutely, embarrassed. He walks away, down the wharf and across to the road, John right next to him.
"Sorry about that," Rodney apologizes, stopping on the far side of the road. "I know you can handle yourself."
"That was, um...."
"It won't happen again."
"No, it's ok." John leans in and kisses Rodney on the mouth. "It's ok."
And mostly, it is. When Rodney last thought hard about what he wanted from his life, the first and most important thing was John.
And he has John.
And everything will be ok.