Before I Wake
Cowboy Bebop, Gren and Faye. Spoilers for Jupiter Jazz. Ramble for a lone musician's mind.
"I had a dream like this once," he said, and his fingers proved themselves more delicate than hers when they curled around his chin with room to spare. Propped it up. I had a dream that went something like this one time, he'd said, but it had sounded more like I'm sorry like I hope I didn't hurt you.
"I have three hours," he said, and his words proved themselves more crude than please don't be offended that I'll still go in both their sets of ears. Blame for that could go on the alcohol buzz. Alley Tea, that's what they were calling it on Callisto these days, vodka mixed with hot water to soothe throats sore from winter winds. Some people added lemon. Others, honey, but it was the vodka that was the real medicine.
Lull you down. Lull you to sleep, to rest while the alcohol drew its humming blanket over your nerves and soothed them into nothingness.
"Some dream," his guest snarled, voice dull. Gren blamed himself for that. Despite all his care in immobilizing her, it had taken a strong rap upside her skull to stun the woman long enough to cuff her. Even then, she had kicked.
"I could tell you about it."
"Do I look like I'm here to write your memoirs?"
She was still angry. He could understand that.
"No," he'd replied, as soft as the night pulling together like velvet curtains closed, hiding the moon from bathing itself over the snow-cripple of Callisto. No had been spoken like a song, one that had been already composing in his mind, something entitled Woman Lost and performed best on brass. Maybe guitar, if it was a solo.
He'd never have a chance to write down the tune. It whelped itself out of old habit and joined with the hundreds that lingered with the set he privately called Prison and sometimes Betrayal and sometimes just simply Why.
There was enough room in Gren's mind to board it. Gren kept his songs back there where they would always be secure, hiding out with the memories. They were refugees. Clothed in stained burnoose rags because scraps were the only fabrics left to cover themselves with.
Woman Lostslipped in there and snuggled up next to Shady Saturn Days. Bummed a cigarette.
He lost the details from Faye even while in the process of observing her. The information soaked in through his eyes and ears. In through his fingers, from where he'd carried her to the mattress and clipped her wrists together with the very pair of handcuffs he'd found in a pocket of her jacket. Out the back of his brain like victims of last call turnouts when all the bars closed.
Little details, seeping. They mixed in his sepia-toned thoughts and became music instead, melting just like watercolors in the rain, or photographs becoming smooth when you ran your hand over them enough times. Like his thumb stroking the physical surfaces repeatedly as if he could still touch the faces imprisoned on film by doing so. Everything soft. Sleepy. Tasting of Alley Tea and sugar.
Photographs slid away from clarity in his mind too when he ran his attention over them again again again, but he knew he was losing resolution each time and so it was forgiveable. Expected. The past would always become glossy the more you caressed it.
Faye blurred, aged in an instant. She was already the past even while lying on the bed of his present.
Emotions, too. Emotions changed over time. They hurt less frequently in sharp ways, less like bullets ripping into you or the knuckles of someone else's hand. They forgave you more.
Emotions were okay with Gren. Fellow musicians; they were cool with him, smug like swaggering jazz players, yeah we cool. They got along at bars. He picked up their tab. At very late hours when he was struggling under the weight of instruments, you could accuse him of being their groupie, but never directly to Gren's face if you wanted to be polite.
Anger wasn't much him these days, so it was all right even if you slipped up. The world of Titan dreaming kept colors such as impatience and irritation safely enfolded away. Hatred. Dread. The palette running together in a blur of sidewalk chalk underfoot until it didn't matter which parts were supposed to be blue, and which supposed to be terror.
The last time Gren remembered really being gripped by fear was a planet and a moon and a jail cell experimentation away, well before the eternal drowsiness of the walking dead. It hadn't been when he realized that his lighter was missing. It had been when he noticed he was also lacking his knife.
Somehow he'd acquired security blankets during the war. It didn't matter how many bullets were fired at you so long as you could smoke afterwards, light up in the trenches and join the ranks of dying stars dotting the dirt to your left, to your right. When they'd bunked down to wait with enemy lines just several hundred yards away, only the desperate had reached for tobacco.
That had included all of them. All but one, so he'd been the black hole in their midst.
It was surreal, to know that just out of sight was a batch of people waiting to kill you. Unrealistic enough that Gren had waded through the first weeks of the war with something like a sleepwalker's acceptance, feeling terribly out of place with the noise of death around him and the smell of death inside him and the voice of someone dead in his ear reminding him to reload, Gren. Reload. Reload now.
Most of the platoon had been composed of soldiers so green they forgot not to try and twirl loaded guns on their fingers just to show off. It was summer camp at the gallows block. Laughter was nervous to mask the panic of your rifle jamming, mask it and pretend it never happened and never would again.
Never happened never would again.
Nerves could and would drive people to turncoat. Someone from platoon 2542 down the line said they'd had a packmule up and desert on them, which wouldn't have been too bad except he took all the coffee grounds. Mention of that had caused Gren's unit to nod solemnly. Gren himself had had to resort to packing a pinch beneath his lip, pressed against his gums; the slow bitter trickle of caffine worked to keep him awake through watch, but cleaning it out always left a grit that he ended up just having to swallow.
It was the little details that stayed with you, even when you forgot the rest. You reconstructed the rest of the picture from those hints. Blurs became faces. Sounds became names. Faye became a streak of yellow on his bed and mixed with the sheets and golden hair.
The nights were cold back then, the days swollen with desert heat. The air over the dunes swayed like a pregnant woman asked to dance. Somehow it wasn't fair that the skies seemed brighter on the side that wanted to kill them. Several hundred yards away, and you'd never know if you'd turn around to be face to face with an advance strike sneaking in. Turn around and it would be boo, surprise, boo, surprise boo surprise bang.
It might have happened. Gren had lost track of what he'd once been sure of. It might have been that way, and he was just fumbling the particulars of his own death.
Titan might have killed all its veterans this way. No survivors. Just sleepers, even the ones with insomnia.
These were memories that meant nothing now, except to Gren and even then he knew he wasn't remembering how it really had happened. He was only treasuring the gloss, the vague and blurry details with all the hard edges rubbed away from too much touching.
On a 5x8" in his mind, there was printed the jagged circle of his squad. Gren remembered the afternoon as orphaned from its official date. 2542'd caught their renegade mule. The squad leader had meted judgement. Gren had worked this particular memory almost raw trying to smooth out the razor edges, make it soft as a river's pebble or ocean glass.
"I wouldn't want to be called a traitor. I'd hate that... people thinking I wasn't," he had started to say to the gunner on his right. He'd broke off when he saw the man's eyes, tongue stumbling. "Wasn't... their comrade."
"He got what was coming to him." The stranger with the wolf's teeth smiled, but there was nothing of humor in it. "Betrayers deserve to die."
I guess they do,became just a sigh when it transformed itself through Gren's lips. He inhaled immediately afterwards, drawing his own regret back across his tongue and down his throat and into the back of memories where it spoke to the Vicious of then. Much too late for the Vicious of now.
Sometimes it was hard to tell between the two images in his mind, but Gren knew there wasn't a difference. Not really. The person he had leaned his shoulder against to steady himself in the search for ammo clips had been the same cold voice on his answering machine. Wolf's teeth. Prison songs.
Vicious wouldn't be interested in the stacks of sheet music, so Gren had never written down the many compositions done to that battle-harsh name.
"Are you just going to stand there the rest of the night?"
Faye's plaintive exasperation visited his ears and came out his mouth in counterpoint musical. Automatic duet. Sorry, Faye became more along the lines of, "They say that the point where you actually cross over death... it's like opening your eyes just in time to fall asleep." Calmer words against her fire, completely ignoring her question in the bargain. Gren walked across the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. She didn't try to hit him this time.
So he kept talking. "Sometimes… I wonder if I'm already dead. Just a ghost waiting to resolve one last haunt." The idea was poetic enough to make the veteran smile to himself, even though the expression hurt inside like the pang of a casing against a canteen. "I had a visitor once who told me… that trying to hang onto my past was just as bad as being dead. But without memories, what are you? Are you even alive? Or do you only think you are, and you're just going through the motions until the dream runs out?"
These questions made her face quiet. She hid it away from him, tucked it against her shoulder like a bird with its wing in winter.
Gren considered options. Mostly the lack of them.
Eventually, Faye spoke. "Do you really think you're the only one like that?" Question buried in the pillow, but hardly intimate.
"No." This time when he smiled, it ached less. "Julia had that look. That's why I spoke to her... but you don't," he added swiftly, and he allowed his voice open curiosity. "There's something different you're missing."
And to say, but you're still a Woman Lost was a notation that would overload the melody. Drag it down.
So Gren let it go.
"I don't know," he continued after a suitable rest beat, gathering himself to stand, "maybe it happens to everyone whether or not you're in a war. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe you only fall asleep on the battlefield one day and just think you come home." Leave your fear behind you like spent shells. Let your reputation be taken just as easily as a pair of dogtags ripped from your neck.
Maybe it was execution when they took your name from you and forgot to give it back.
Battlefield humor might have a rightful answer to that riddle. Gren wasn't on Titan anymore, and the dust outside was snow instead of sand. It was his specter that spoke instead, laughing rhetoric, while memory of his living self stood apart and thought of blue crows. "Makes me think of that old children's rhyme, times like these. 'If I die before I wake, I pray that heaven my soul will take'... remember that?"
She frowned. "I wouldn't know."
Blue crows, mismatched eyes, and brass.
Second thoughts might have made their way through the dreamer's fuzz of nightclub melody then, but Gren had already looked away from Faye, already started to wonder where he'd hung the set of women's clothes he'd bartered from Julius.
"I'm sorry. I had something I wanted to write for you. But if I stay..." Squeaks came from the mattress as he stood up. "I know I'll get distracted."
Behind him, Gren heard a snort as Faye lifted her head from the pillow and gave a futile cuff-jingle. "That's some excuse," she retorted, every word heavy despite the play she was attempting to interject. "Don't you know you should always present a gift properly to a lady? Saying you have business first just puts her down."
When I see you againbecame I'll give it to you next time became Gren smiling while details slipped away and folded upon themselves. We'll have plenty of time later became there's no time left, so Gren said nothing about how he'd claimed originally there were three hours to go.
Woman Lostjoined Space Lion. Gren unhooked his funeral shroud off the hanger in the back of the closet, and slung it over his arm. He turned back once to look at her, and the distance between them was as short as a bedroom floor, as long as the difference between life and death.
"Take care before you wake, Faye," laughed the saxaphone ghost. See you then.