I need to write a happy story. I will write a happy story next. And blah blah blah. No, seriously. I promise. It's finals week making me testy.
I wanted to write a fic involving Ellis's home life. Because seriously, with the stories he tells... how can you NOT want to get to know his buddies?
Surprise! Present tense!
After catching some errors in my previous fics... I'm sorry for any mistakes. I don't have a beta.
What Feeds the Fire
Keith has been sleeping in Ellis's bed since the fire.
They don't talk about it. Neither of them need to talk about it. When Keith came home with Ellis from the hospital, riding in the car they built together out of love and metal and sweat, he tumbled hard into Ellis's bed, lost in the forest-green sheets, and there he has stayed.
Ellis has lived in his own trailer ever since he dropped out of high school and opened up The Shop with Keith, Dave, and Bobby. His Mama kicked him out, though since then they have made up. He never had anything to put in it, and in a way, Keith's presence fills the empty spaces. Ellis prefers it this way, and would get lonely otherwise.
Tonight, Ellis strips down to his boxers, because it's hot out in the summer nights, and lays across his bed. Keith watches him, flexing his scarred, callused hands, leaning against the wall in his blue pajama bottoms. They watch each other. Ellis smiles.
"What're you doin' up?"
"I had a bad dream," Keith answers with an uneasy shrug.
"What about?" Ellis asks, and as the words come out his mouth he gets ready to settle in and forget about sleep. He has a drink of Coke and holds it out to Keith, who shakes his head numbly.
"Nothin'," Keith says, and then, seeing the way Ellis's eyebrows sweep up, amends with, "Pa, mostly."
"Again? Ain't I told you not to worry 'bout that old bastard?"
"Shit, Ellis, don't I know it?" Keith runs a hand through his grizzled mop of sandy hair, which has been recently bleached in the summer sun. "You know I don't doubt you not a lick."
Ellis smiles a private kind of smile that Keith readily returns. "He can't get to you no more," Ellis says. "All right?"
"Don't I know it, Ellis," Keith murmurs, and now he seems even more distraught. He scratches the taut skin of his belly with the roughened edges of his stubby fingernails. He isn't any good at growing body hair and only has scattered tufts of yellow hair on his chest, and a thin, weaving trail dipping below the waistband of his sleeping pants, which are really just work sweats with a tear across the knee.
"Do you need anything?" Ellis asks at last, feeling helpless. His eyes sting with tiredness but still he puts his feet back on the floor to stand. "Don't you? A beer, or nothin'? Somethin'. Let me get you somethin'."
"Don't need nothin'," Keith says. His voice is choked. "I promise. Don't worry 'bout me none. Just the dark cranks me up."
"C'mere. Lay next to me, all right?" As if they didn't do it every night. Every time Ellis makes the offer, the meaning is clearer, and nowadays it is like glass, like air. There is nothing and everything between them.
"Hey, Ellis," Keith says quietly. His eyes are blue and piercing as the sun reaches that final pitch against the horizon and the sky blanches cold and violet. "Remember when we was back in school, and that kid Joey Sampson knocked out my lights? What cause I called him a queer, I think it was."
"Hell yeah," Ellis answers with a grin. "I whooped him 'round the parkin' lot twice for that."
"You still got that old slugger?"
"Ain't no more. Broke it when we was buildin' that pyramid."
"Forgot all 'bout that," Keith muses, and he laughs faintly. "Was it my idea or yours to hang him up by his britches?"
"Shit, I dunno," Ellis answers, and this is usually the answer. Sometimes they aren't sure who does what anymore, because they are so singular at times, like an organism, like a unit. They both laugh now.
"Shit," Keith mutters thoughtfully, appreciatively to himself. He brushes a thumb over the little scruff of hair he calls a beard but which is really only a puff of facial hair on the dead center of his broad, dimpled chin.
"Come to bed," Ellis says now, his voice softer, lower, sweeter, and reluctantly Keith does. He isn't usually the one taking orders.
"Sometimes I hate it here," Keith whispers into the dark, letting Ellis loop an arm around him. The boundaries of masculine friendship melt away in the mask of night. "I figure one day I'll just light out and not look back."
"I love it here," Ellis replies, already tucked under the first layer of sleep and descending fast into its depthless belly. "I ain't never leavin'."
Thickly: "Not if I can help it. Love it here, love it."
"Not even if I left?"
"Naw. Maybe. Naw…" Ellis's voice mutes out.
"I guess I would stay, for you," Keith says.
Ellis doesn't answer, gone under the smoky blanket of slumber.
"Ellis! Ellis, fuck, man, wake up!"
Ellis breaks the hard barrier of sleep screaming and trashing. His face is wet with tears, and sobs burn and tear his throat as he gulps in air. Nick kneels beside him, touching his shoulder. The world comes back into focus slowly, in shades of gray. Nick is speaking but his voice registers are something faint and far away.
"You all right, man? Are you all right?"
"Oh Lord, Oh God," Ellis moans into his hands. A sob rocks from the base of his spine and up, racking his body. It's the only one; the next wave comes and Ellis stands up, staggering to the corner to vomit. The contractions hurt his gut, because he can't bring up much but a bit of stringy mucus and water.
"Ellis, oh, Ellis, honey," Rochelle says over and over.
Nick hangs back, not sure what to do with himself. His nose has let up its bleeding from the night before.
"Don't worry 'bout me none, go back to sleep," Ellis rasps, his raw throat burning from the stomach acid. "Go on, go back to sleep."
"You were screaming," Rochelle says, taking his face in her hands. She puts her fingers in his hair like a mother, and this touch soothes him more than he believed it would; he lets his eyes close, just for a minute. "You're clammy! Oh, my poor sweet thing…"
"Ain't nothin' you can do," Ellis whispers, pulling himself free. "Sorry, y'all. Didn't mean to cause a ruckus."
"You'll find him someday soon, I'll bet you," Nick says in a dull sort of way, even though his heart lays on the words in the open air. He looks at Ellis with a burning accuracy.
Ellis smiles. "Yeah, 'course we will."
His hollering attracted a small clump of zombies. They kick at the saferoom door. Rochelle screams, and Nick calmly grabs his shotgun off the shelf.
For some reason, it's always Ellis's job to make breakfast. Keith always sets things on fire when he cooks, and anyway he can't make grits for the life of him. Ellis usually wakes up first and sets around making something involving ham in some way or another.
He's busy stirring up some eggs on the pan when he hears something shift behind him, but as he turns to face it, Keith's warm arms engulf him. Ellis laughs in delight, even as he is leaned dangerously close to the cooktop. It was a gift from his uncle and has burned far too many hands in its time.
"Smells good, El."
"Ain't it? It'll burn if you don't get off."
Keith's eyes shine and he lets Ellis go. They stand there for a moment, parallel, just breathing in the morning; Ellis reaches out and brushes his fingertips along the scar arching over Keith's eyebrow before he lets his hand fall away. Keith's smile fades and is replaced by something even more beautiful, profound – it hurts. Ellis turns away.
They eat their eggs in silence, until Bobby comes bounding in.
"Baseball, folks! I got some apples we can pitch!"
Up on the hill, looking down on the main street to the right and the brook to the left, Ellis swings the bat with all of his might. The flesh of the apple splinters apart and busts open like a split lip, splattering Ellis's face with cool juices, and Keith whoops and hollers in triumph.
Ellis hates the feeling of wood against bone. As he drives the bat down on the snarling, bloody face of a young woman, he feels sick and frightened and horrified, but on top of that he feels something else, something colder and sweetly higher, as if his veins are filled with rushing air from the upper atmosphere, the skimming of heaven's underbelly. He feels high and dizzy and as he splits that skull wide open, sees the pink-gray-and-red brains pop over the floor like ground beef in a water balloon, he shrieks in bloodthirsty victory. His vision is stained with red.
The muscles in his arms are burning. He keeps on swinging until everything is still, and the water oozes around them with a new viscosity.
Something stirs in the scum of blood and pond water. Ellis stomps on it until he hears the satisfying crunch of death.
Coach, slumped against the far wall and holding his injured arm, stares at him with something akin to understanding. "You all right, son?" he asks.
Every part of Ellis feels numb. His unfeeling mouth says, "Yes."
Nick makes a hitched, deep sort of noise. Ellis thinks he might be crying, but his eyes are dry.
"Good job, Overalls," he says. "You showed that bitch."
A hand is seizing on top of the water, causing ripples. It is dead, but still in motion. The fingers tighten up and let go over and over and over. Ellis lets the baseball bat slip from his hand.
The rain comes down. It tastes bitter, like judgment.
Work is over. Keith and Ellis are both covered in grease and dirt and oil. They laugh and hose each other down, shrieking at the freezing water and running around in the spray. Bobby is there, but he can't work on account of his broken ankle, so he sits it out and smokes a cigarette. Dave, a quiet sort of boy – a churchgoer, more devout than the others, with dark hair that is always perfect – sits on the grass and laughs and laughs.
Ellis falls over exhausted, and smiles at the sky. Keith stands over him and blasts him with cold water. When it hits the air, it makes rainbows.
"I'm drownin'!" Ellis yells between bouts of giggles, and nobody rescues him.
Bobby goes home to his girlfriend, who is due to have her baby in two months. They didn't plan for it and Bobby is scared half to death. Sometimes Ellis wonders about him, because he caught Bobby crying once, and Bobby hit him for asking after it.
Dave follows Keith and Ellis home. He whistles while he walks. Ellis will always remember two things about him – his perfect hair, and the slim gold chain around his neck, from which a tiny cross hangs. When Dave is nervous, he handles it over and over again, pinching it in his thick fingers.
"I went to Atlanta this weekend," he says, as if they don't know. "You wouldn't believe what I saw!"
"What'd you see?" Keith asks, clearly not paying attention. He's looking up at the sky as if waiting for something.
"I saw these two guys, and I thought, you know… nothin' of it. But then they was feedin' each other ice cream, and I was like, that's kinda weird, and then they was like, kissin' and stuff, and oh, man, some old guy darn near started a riot when he saw it – and I was like, I don't wanna be part of this, but I couldn't quit watchin' you know. It's like when you two start doin' somethin' stupid and I can't look away. Anyway, that old man chewed those fags out right and sent 'em packin, and I was glad. We got enough sinners down here, we can't afford to go all to hell now."
Keith starts chewing some gum.
Ellis looks at Dave thoughtfully, and smiles. "But you didn't say nothin'?"
"Naw. Well, I dunno." Dave shrugs and shoves his hands in his pockets.
"A sin is a sin is a sin," Ellis says. He isn't sure why.
Dave doesn't much like black people, either. Ellis doesn't mind them. Keith once had a girlfriend who was black, but she cried a lot and wore on Ellis's nerves with her constant criticism – and when Ellis brought it up, Keith dumped her.
This night, they sit around eating sandwiches and watching the smoggy television. Keith is silent and pensive. He hasn't stripped out of his soggy clothing, and he's making Ellis feel damp and a little chilly.
"What are you bothered for?" Ellis asks. "Did somethin' happen with the truck?"
"Naw," says Keith, so softly, staring down at his feet. "Naw."
Ellis, for the life of him, can't figure it out.
The saferoom is silent. Rochelle and Coach are fast asleep. The minute the laid their heads down, they tumbled hard and fast into that darker, thicker slumber that stems from exhaustion – yet, at the slightest change in the wind, they will surely start straight awake.
Nick is on guard, but Ellis can't sleep. He eats cereal dry from an already opened box, hunched against the wall. His head throbs with tiredness, but every time he shuts his eyes, he can only feel those cold dead fingers closing around his neck. They need to keep moving.
"Never should have left Savannah," Ellis mutters to himself.
Nick glances at him. His eyes are bloodshot. "What?"
"I shoulda died."
"It's fucked up, hearing someone like you talk like that," Nick snaps. "Quit it."
The silence stretches. Nick fiddles with the safety on his gun. Finally, he speaks, just softly, "I left things behind too, you know?"
"Did you?" Ellis asks, grinning wryly. "I thought you was Mr. Gamblin' Man, with no attachments or nothin'."
"I used to have a wife."
They don't talk. Ellis watches the sun rise, and as they pack up and head out, his whole body pains him. He sleeps on his feet, wades through death like a dream.
The first time Keith kisses Ellis, Ellis isn't expecting it.
It's a Thursday. The rain is coming down in gentle little sheets, dusting everything in a faint shimmer. They have just returned from trying to unsuccessfully light fireworks over the river, and they are both covered in grime and sweat.
"El," Keith says, and laughs. He catches the rain in his mouth. Water runs down his face in rivers.
Everything is soft and muted and full of perfection. Ellis smiles and savors time.
When Keith starts to dance, spinning and hopping around in the ankle-deep puddles, Ellis laughs and laughs. And when Keith grabs him and spins him about, Ellis doesn't mind. They've done this since they were little children, this sort of play. And when Keith holds his face, and kisses him, Ellis is too stunned to respond.
He remembers profoundly the heat of that mouth, the dry chapped lips, the stale taste of Keith's breath. He remembers water rolling down his back, the familiar pressure of those well-known hands on his back. He remembers what it feels like to be so full of something, some feeling, that tears begin to roll down his cheeks.
"Ellis… Oh, El, my El…" Keith murmurs between soft, sweet, desperate kisses. Ellis focuses on breathing, the shallow spike of air when he can get it. He feels shocked and pinned down to the earth, like a butterfly on a corkboard. His fingertips are tingling and his gut is numb and weighty.
"Keith," he whispers, blinking back water from the rain and from his tears. It's unfair, how very naked he feels – exposed, humiliated, as if Keith has stripped away his clothes and skin and left him ugly and alone in the spotlight. Keith's stubble brushes his cheek. Ellis's voice clicks and stings in the back of his throat before it comes up in a quiet, simpering protest. "Stop it, stop…" But it feels so nice, so good.
"El," Keith says, and then his muddy eyes turn clear. "Oh shit. Oh, God."
And Keith runs away, tearing down the street, and Ellis lets him go, couldn't stop him if he wanted. The storm chases him, swallows him.
Ellis stands in the rain and lets God wash away his sins.
Nick is eating a Twinkie as they walk down the street. Coach keeps his eye on the upper balcony while Rochelle covers the rear, while Nick and Ellis cover the sides. They move in a unit. Ellis can't remember a time when he was singular, not looking after somebody, or having somebody look after him. It fills the empty parts of him. Ellis thinks that, perhaps, if he ever dies – he will die from being alone.
"Want some, Overalls?" Nick asks with uncustomary kindness. He does it because he knows that Ellis hasn't eaten anything besides cereal and lukewarm water for the past two days.
"I'm fine," Ellis says, even as the corners of his vision jog and double. Sometimes he can't focus on what he's looking at. Most of the time he feels sick and dizzy and pumped full of air.
A zombie wanders out from a nearby storefront. He wears a pale apron. Ellis swings his axe against the side of his head, and it sticks there with a nasty sound, like a melon being split. The zombie's jaw works without sound, and Ellis wrenches his weapon free with a sickening sucking noise that makes Rochelle moan low in her throat. He swings again and this time kills the thing for good. A sound bursts from him that, for a moment, he doesn't recognize as his own – a sort of gloried shriek.
Just for a second, everything in his vision goes black.
Nick finishes his Twinkie and chucks the wrapper. He licks the remains off of his fingers.
Rochelle mutters to herself every once and a while, playing over and over with the ring on her finger, endlessly, in stuttering, jerking motions – the kind you see in a bad, old film. Coach has taken to grinding his teeth. He is always grinding his teeth. It's a low, constant sound that they've grown to ignore.
Ellis isn't the only one breaking.
It's Christmas. Ellis visits his Ma and comes home to Keith. They watch A Christmas Story together, sharing from a plate of gingerbread cookies Keith bought at the convenience store for four dollars.
"I never really liked this movie," Keith says. "Never much cared for Christmas."
He never had, not since what happened with his father, and especially not since the turkey – the turkey that had set the house aflame, the turkey that had killed his mother and his little sister Daisy. The turkey that had landed Keith in the hospital with third degree burns all up his right side, and had landed him without a home, without a family. A stupid accident, a stupid mistake.
"I like making people happy," Ellis says. "Christmas just seems like a damn good time to do it."
Keith looks at him, his eyes wet and huge and blue. He's a strapping boy, despite his missing tooth and the black eye he received from crashing the four-wheeler into a tree. His jaw is strong and masculine, his mouth wide and smiling. He has dimples in his cheeks, and for some reason these are Ellis's favorite feature.
"I'm sorry," Keith says, and kisses him, and this time Ellis lets him, grabs his hair with shaking hands and pins him back against the seat. Ellis pours everything he has into Keith through that kiss, tries to fill every last gap in his heart.
Keith gasps for air and laughs a weary sort of laugh. They watch the movie without talking, though every few minutes Keith stops and looks at Ellis and laughs again, as if amazed. Maybe they shouldn't.
Before bed, Keith hefts Ellis up onto the table and loves him deeply; Ellis hangs onto him and cries. In the aftershocks, in which their bodies and their minds and their souls are separate from each other in individual layers, and these unite in the infinite space of time, Keith buries Ellis in kisses, and Ellis maps his face over and over with his fingertips, to never forget a single curve, a single scar.
"I love you," someone says, and to this day Ellis can't remember who it was that said it, and it is the dirtiest, worst thing to say, and the perfect thing to say, and the most beautiful thing to say.
"It's a secret," Ellis says, still sitting bare-assed on the table from which they eat, smeared in sweat and everything else. "Pinky-swear it."
"Wouldn't tell a soul." Keith hooks pinky finger in Ellis's own, and then kisses it.
For some reason this makes Ellis laugh.
"Gator wrestlin' will never beat this."
Keith has cookie crumbs on his chest. Ellis brushes them off.
They pass a church as they walk. Ellis is reminded of Dave. Coach mutters a prayer under his breath and does the symbol of the cross. Spraypainted in green across the pretty double-doors are the words GOD IS DEAD.
"Everybody gotta die someday," Ellis mumbles, and then, seeing Rochelle's surprised look, he laughs a high, unnatural laugh. "Ain't it so? Might as well we all die now."
"Shut up, Ellis! Shut up, shut up!" Nick socks him across the face, and Ellis shuts his trap. Blood leaks from a cut in his lip. He stumbles, but manages to right himself. Nick puts his fists down and his eyes are huge with surprise.
Ellis spits on the concrete. It's pink.
"Enough!" Coach rumbles. "We got to keep movin'. Don't you understand? We can't fall apart now."
"I'm sorry," Nick is saying now, his voice low and kind. "I'm sorry, El, I'm so sorry."
"Didn't mean to say it," Ellis murmurs, horrified at himself. "I didn't mean it when I said it at all. I miss them, Lord."
"Keep walking," Rochelle says. "Please, just keep going. We've got to make it there."
Nick grabs Ellis's hand and holds it in his own, only for a second. His skin is warm and smooth and nothing like Keith's.
Ellis looks in his eyes and sees answers. He wishes he didn't. He feels compelled in a way, and he crushes that feeling – because what if Keith is watching?
They continue to walk in the dead, infected streets.
"All that shit on the radio," Bobby mutters as digs around in the breast of a car for a dropped pair of pliers. "Makin' me nervous."
"Ain't nothin' gonna touch little Savannah," Keith says. "Naw. Nothin'."
He catches Ellis watching him, and winks. Ellis's chest swells with warmth. It's been a year, and he's still hopelessly tangled up in those first bubbly feelings of flirtatious affection, as if they have only just begun. It's a challenge much of the time to avoid showing his favoritism too much.
"Can't find my goddamn pliers," Bobby growls. "Christ in a handbasket."
"I'll get you some new ones," Ellis offers, and wanders over to the toolbox. Bobby continues to rummage.
"Slow day," Keith says thoughtfully, as if there is still nothing to do.
"Why don't you clean, or somethin'? Make yourself useful," Dave says snidely, rubbing his temple. He's been having spot headaches today, and the beginnings of a fever.
Muttering, Keith goes to get the broom. He stumbles over nothing. He was in a fight the other day and wasn't in top shape, but he is feeling better since Ellis cared for him like a loving mother.
"Weirdest girl, this weekend," Dave murmurs as he works. "She kept sayin' how much she wanted it, and then she runned out at the last second."
"That's how girls do, sometimes," Bobby says sympathetically. Ellis hands him a new pair of pliers, and he smiles in thanks.
"Well, it's probably better I didn't," Dave concedes. "She didn't look too healthy. Somethin' not proper, you know? And I don't know, cause I wasn't lookin, but I think she was bleedin'."
"Like, from her mouth."
"Man, and you were gonna just roll in the hay with that?"
"Well, other than that she was clean," Dave mutters, but now he is appropriate bashful. He has a big purple bite mark on his neck, a hickey with no good story to go with it.
Everyone is more disgusted than surprised when he runs to throw up. It's the blood that gets them worried.
"You need to sleep," Nick says to him. His voice is gentle but it barely penetrates the fog that has seized Ellis's mind.
Ellis shakes his head numbly, staring out of the saferoom door. "Got to keep watch."
"Rochelle will keep watch. It's her turn. Get to sleep, Overalls. Don't be a hero."
"I'm feelin' fine. Great."
"No, man, no, I'm fine. I can't sleep. Don't make me sleep."
Nick sighs, resting a hand on Ellis's shoulder. The weight of a human there soothes Ellis's nerves, just a little. "There's nothing out there. We're less than ten miles from the evac."
"You don't know that," Ellis says, grinding his teeth. "You don't know that."
"Ellis. El. Ellis." Nick's voice pitches down. "Please, get to sleep. Sleep, for me. You're falling apart."
"I can't," Ellis whispers, and looks up at him, and he must look like a real wreck because Nick's eyebrows pitch up and his lips part as if some soft part of his heart has been touched. "I dream too much."
"You've got to try. You're not doing well. We can't have you get sick, okay – it would be shitty if you fucking died now. All right? I need you."
"You? For you?"
"Yes, for me. Go to sleep, you dipshit."
There is the Nick Ellis knows and loves. He smiles. "Can I at least stay here?"
"You can stay. Of course you can stay. Who the fuck am I to tell you… Never mind. Never mind."
"Did you know," Ellis says distantly, "they're settin' up fires, all in the city?"
"I saw them, yeah. Ellis…"
But Ellis is already sinking to the floor, curling in on himself, settling in to sleep.
Nick brings him a blanket. Ellis demands he lay beside him. Nick sits there, stroking his hair, patiently, endlessly, as Ellis listens to his steady heartbeat. Nick is there, breathing, vital, alive, even as the first black hands of sleep drag Ellis under. And Nick is there, warm and real, when Ellis wakes shaking and weeping; Nick is there to kiss the tears away.
"Need you now, okay? Need you to stay with us."
Ellis moans. "No, no, I can't do this. I can't do this."
Nick seems surprised at himself, but he smiles nonetheless. "I'm not doing this as a favor to you, Overalls." His voice is soft and strangled.
He's cracked a little bit, too.
The second time Ellis dips under, he stays in the sweet, dreamless layer he remembers from a time long ago. He sails through it, without pain, without an end. He sleeps for the first time in four days.
When he wakes up in the morning, it is time for a breakfast of stale bread and peanut butter, time to start the flow of blood yet again.
"I'm not feelin' so good, Ellis," Keith says quietly. It's the middle of the night, and his fever has been rising and rising.
"Maybe you should go to a hospital," Ellis whispers back. "Do you think? I think it would be better?"
"Are you a'scared?"
"Naw. Me? Never a'scared."
Keith coughs wetly into his fist. "I'm afraid, Ellis."
"You? You can't be. You been through everything."
"You seen what that virus does to folks on the television… You seen it…" Keith's mouth trembles, and Ellis kisses him until he relaxes. He doesn't mind the taste of blood and sickness there.
"I'll watch after you, you hear? You don't got to worry."
"I believe you, Ellis." Keith smiles wanly, drifting off towards sleep. "Love you, love you, love you."
Ellis holds him close and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he finds dead eyes staring back at him, and a snarling, angry mouth.
He screams and screams and screams.
The baseball bat snaps in two. Blood hits Ellis's face in a hot spray. His lungs are filled with smoke. There can be no hiding from the truth, now – it is there, and raw, and real.
Nick reaches out for him. His fingers catch Ellis's sleeve. The chopper is waiting.
All Ellis knows is the handle of the bat in his hand, the taste of infection in his mouth.
And as the city shrinks beneath them, he feels nothing, not even triumph, not even pain. The fire swallows everything.
- the end