His fingers fit through the diamond slots in the chain link fence like nothing has changed, as though he never went to college or moved away from home. Except now, instead of a high school in the distance behind the runners in their white T-shirts and matching blue-and-grey track shorts, it’s a rocket.
It’s just past dawn; the sleek lines of the rocket stand against a sky silvering from deep blue to almost-white where it touches the horizon. The moon is a slim crescent, grinning.
In his recurring dreams, there is a moon that looks just like that. It is the moon, the one from his dream, more than anything that takes him back.
The year he started seventh grade, the year after the accident, Devon would wake religiously before the alarm and sneak out to watch the early morning track practice at the high school across the street from his house. It was three whole glorious months before his mother caught him. He couldn’t explain how those hours—caught between dawn and full sun-up—were just for him. In the rising light, he was a ghost; he could watch, unseen, and it didn’t matter that he’d never run with the boys, their long, lean strides kicking up grey dust, their breath forming clouds around their faces in the early morning. Unseen, no one could pity him.
The bodies running around the track now kick up red dust and they aren’t high school kids, but men and women waiting to go up into the sky. They have the same strong, lean legs and straight spines as those boys long ago. Their breathing mists the morning air just the same, too. So does Devon’s, as he clutches the fence until his fingers ache.
A sharp whistle and the runners stop. Devon watches them gather their bags and head back into the building where they’ll learn to fly. Nothing has changed. Unseen, he can watch the bodies in motion without being accused of envy, pity, longing. He can appreciate them for what they are: unlike his, but no better or worse, only different. It’s only when he’s seen, caught watching, that he feels weighted down, flattened into one dimension; as if anyone could be so easily known.
It’s like the men and women themselves. In the silvering light they are wild and strange creatures, beautiful and terrible for how other they are. Until the sun comes fully up and they’re only human again.
Devon is always careful to leave at the whistle blow, but something makes him linger, and one of the men pauses as he hoists his bag over his shoulder. Devon’s cheeks flush. He pulls his hands from the fence, shoving them deep in his pockets, turning away.
As he does, he catches the edge of a smile, revealing what might be a dimple. The man winks before jogging after his fellow astronauts-in-training. Devon’s pulse stutters. It’s a moment before he can make himself move, the signal caught up in his flustered panic. Even after all these years he still has to concentrate.
And even after all these years, he can’t shake the notion there’s a near-imperceptible whine as the impulses finally kick down the length of the spine, clinging silver to his back and twin to the bone underneath, telling the braces wound around his legs, skin-close, to move. Of course there’s no sound, but that doesn’t stop him from hearing it, or feeling the lag ghosting each step as he walks away.
The pre-dawn chill lingers even back in his apartment. Devon lowers the shades, blocking out the airfield, the running track, and the squat buildings where the astronauts train. His legs ache from the walk, another thing he’s been assured is only his imagination. He resists rubbing them, feeling the skin on top of his skin, and concentrates on his arms instead, chasing away gooseflesh as he waits for his tea to boil.
Devon’s gaze strays to the wall above the battered couch he brought with him from college and the framed drawing hanging there, a parting gift—or parting blow—from artist-Mike. It’s a perfect pencil rendering of Devon’s metallic spine, separated from his body, curled like a centipede, endlessly spiraling inward, or outward, depending on the perspective. The tiny wires laced through the vertebrae and branching from the central cord are splayed, like the diagram of the nervous system unwound.
Is that how you see me? He’d asked as Mike held out the picture. In the moment, the glaring white spaces around the lead-sketched spine drew all of the Devon’s attention: a portrait where he was conspicuously absent, reduced only to the metal and wires holding him together. Trying to read Mike’s expression, he’d discarded outright pity and settled on confusion.
There are new surgeries, Mike had said, countless times. Or so it seemed to Devon who’d grown tired of counting after one. You could at least try.
I don’t need fixing. I’m not broken, was never a good enough answer, only causing Mike to frown, creasing the skin between his eyes in a way Devon had found charming once upon a time. Back when he thought he could kiss it away; back when he thought Mike would be the one to change.
Devon runs a finger across the glass, tracing the whorl of the spine. In the corner, in Mike’s tiny, perfect handwriting, is a title: The Ghost in the Machine. Devon knows which he’s meant to be, the ghost, trapped inside the machine. Maybe Mike would have stayed if Devon had let Mike try to save him.
The kettle whistles, and Devon turns away. Enough time has passed for the sting to fade. The drawing doesn’t need to mean anything, it’s just a lovely object hung upon his wall.
In his recurring dream, Devon never realizes he’s dreaming.
The milk-pale moon is almost invisible against the brightening sky. Fingers slotted through the cold metal, he watches the boys on the other side of the fence. Instead of running, they jump, their legs bent impossibly backward—muscle and bone, flesh and sinew—driving them into the sky. Each jump carries them higher. They should fall like seed pods, their arms outstretched, twirling back down to Earth, but they just keep going up, and ever upward.
That’s when Devon realizes the silver knobs of his spine are really buttons. He undoes them all in a rush, fingers shaking. He slips out of his skin, leaves it behind, and climbs the fence to join the other boys. But when Devon jumps, the moon’s grin is a sickle blade. It cuts him to pieces, and he falls back to Earth every time.
The evening air is chilly, but Devon buries his hands in his pockets, walking instead of waiting at the bus stop. Three blocks in, the bus catches up to him. He keeps his head down, shoulders up, as the door hisses open behind him. He only stops when a hand touches his arm.
“I thought it was you.” Up close, the blond astronaut-in-training is even more handsome. His eyes are the color of the pre-dawn sky and this time, when he smiles, the dimple is unmistakable. “I asked the driver to stop so I could be sure. You come to the field to watch us train every morning.”
Devon’s first impulse is to deny it. He shakes his head, sure his cheeks are crimson, but the astronaut-in-training holds out his hand, still smiling.
“I’m Gary. Do you live around here?”
Devon opens his mouth, closes it. A simple admission, but if he makes it, Gary will think he knows him. An apartment within sight of the airfield could only mean Devon’s an astronaut-wannabe, a failure, to be pitied.
Devon shoves his hands deeper in his pockets, and Gary finally drops his, but his smile doesn’t falter. Under that blue-eyed gaze, Devon feels compelled to answer.
“More or less.” He’s about to keep walking, hoping Gary will be satisfied with his non-answer, but fear of the imperceptible whine freezes him in place.
What if this time, of all times, the system fails to respond? What if he gets tangled in his own legs and falls on his face? Even though Devon wants to resent his questions, his intrusion, Gary is far too handsome for Devon to make a fool of himself in front of him.
“Hey, it’s getting kind of cold out here. Do you want to grab a drink? You can even tell me your name, if you feel like it.”
“Devon.” He answers without meaning to, but it unlocks the panic keeping him in place, and he realizes he’s being ridiculous.
An attractive man wants to have a drink with him, that’s all. Devon falls into step beside Gary, and it’s as easy as breathing. His legs don’t tangle; they carry him forward at a smooth, even pace, just like they always have.
The pub is warm, but Devon’s fingers are still cold. He rubs them, focusing on the slow return of blood with its attendant tingling pain instead of staring at Gary. He’s not the kind of guy who gets picked up on the street. He’s not the kind of guy who gets picked up at all. He’s never even been asked out on a date, not properly; every relationship he’s been in has simply happened—growing out of friendships, mistakes, and once a blind date, but no one has ever asked him out before.
As Gary returns, drinks in hand, Devon looks away quickly; he still hasn’t been asked out. Maybe Gary really was just cold and didn’t want to drink alone. But Gary brushes Devon’s fingers as he nudges one of the beers across the table. The last of the chill leaves Devon’s hands, and he lets hope crash in and swallow him whole.
Gary is painfully easy to talk to. Drinks evolve into dinner, unspooling into more drinks, and finally Devon inviting Gary up for a nightcap. There’s no stutter, no hesitation in his movement; it’s as easy as breathing. There’s no look askance at the location either, even though the blinds are up and the rocket, crisscrossed by sharp beams of light and shadow, is clearly visible from Devon’s window.
The last drinks are never poured. Devon’s pulse thumps when he finally pulls his shirt off. They’ve been fooling around, touching, kissing; he’s undressed Gary, but he can’t stall any longer. Gary is relaxed, instantly comfortable, propped against Devon’s pillows and stroking his cock slowly as he watches Devon undress.
This is the moment of truth, and there’s no sense in delaying.
Devon turns, deliberately letting the light hit his spine so there can be no mistaking it. He shucks his jeans, revealing the metal spiraled around his legs, crisscrossing his skin like the shadows wound around the rocket. With his back still turned, he waits for the sharp in-take of breath, but it never comes. Gary’s hand stills in its rhythmic stroking. But instead of revulsion, Devon sees awe when he turns around. Gary’s fingers twitch, grip tightening, and his voice husks.
“Turn around again. Let me look at you.”
Heart pounding, sure the pulse at his wrists and in the hollow of his throat must be visible, Devon obeys.
Afterward, sweat cooling on his skin, Devon lifts his head from Gary’s shoulder. He’s drifting on the verge of sleep, and it’s the only thing that makes him bold enough to ask the question that’s been lingering with him all evening.
“Because you came to the airfield every day.” Gary’s voice is muffled as he buries his mouth and nose in Devon’s hair, breathing deeply. “And I like the way you watched me.”
Life develops a new rhythm. Devon still goes to the airfield every morning, linking his fingers through the chain link fence and watching the astronauts run. But his cheeks don’t burn when Gary catches his eye, and he keeps his head up, smiling in return. Evenings, after work, Gary is there, waiting outside Devon’s office, or along the route home, and inevitably they end up back at Devon’s place. They watch movies together, they make dinner, they fuck. They talk, but rarely about anything consequential, except every now and then Gary gets a faraway look in his eyes and Devon’s chest tightens with the fear of what’s coming.
“Tell me about this,” Gary says. His fingers trace the silver of Devon’s spine, following the metal wrapped around his legs.
Devon fights the urge to shiver. It’s a ghost—phantom skin syndrome—conveying the trace of Gary’s fingertips even though they never touch him. Devon shrugs, trying to make the motion casual. The motion of his shoulder, nestled under Gary’s arm, causes Gary to shift beside him.
“I got my first rig when I was eleven. It was much clumsier than this one, bulkier. But I was one of the lucky ones. My paralysis was partial, and I only needed a little extra help to ‘live a normal life’ as the doctors liked to say. That made me a good candidate for this rig, once I stopped growing. Having a mother and an aunt in the field didn’t hurt either.”
Devon tilts back to look at Gary, trying to smile. He’s told the story before, but every time is the first and he can only hope the answers will satisfy just this once and no further questions will be forthcoming.
“Your mother and your aunt?” Gary shows his dimples. “Isn’t that a conflict of interest, giving family preferential treatment?”
“There’s an equal chance something could have gone horribly wrong. I don’t know what’s preferential about that.”
Gary is still smiling, his eyes bright, and Devon allows himself to relax. Before Gary can speak again, Devon moves out from under the weight of Gary’s arm, propping himself up on one elbow.
“Now it’s your turn. Tell me something about you. Anything.”
“Like what?” Gary’s fingers twitch, restless, as though they want to stroke the metal of Devon’s spine again.
“Anything.” Devon keeps his tone light, afraid if he pushes too hard the moment will collapse around him. “What did you study in college?”
“Physics. Fascinating, right?” The corner of Gary’s mouth lifts.
Gravity tugs at Devon. Suddenly, he feels as though they’re on the edge of something dangerous, but he can’t tell where the line is, or why. He can only sense it.
Gary pulls Devon on top of him. Devon flinches, an absurd flutter of panic taking over. The only thing he remembers about physics is the ‘observer effect’ and the idea of being watched, being changed by the watching, lodges in his skull.
“Hey, are you okay?” Gary’s hands still, fitted to Devon’s shoulders.
“Fine.” Devon forces himself to relax; he’s being paranoid.
He leans forward, kissing Gary harder than he needs to, but not relenting until he’s certain the shivers skipping across his skin aren’t imagined, not ghosts, but real. He lets himself go, and they shake him to his core.
Morning light spills through the window, pulling Devon up from dreams he can’t remember. When he opens his eyes, the rocket is the first thing he sees. He rolls over, reaching automatically for Gary, but the other side of the bed is empty, the pillow still indented. Pulling on flannel pants and a T-shirt, Devon pads into the hallway. Gary stands halfway between the kitchen and the sitting room, back turned, entranced, staring at the framed drawing of Devon’s spine.
Gary starts, guilty, but he smiles as he turns around. Devon can’t help searching for the ghost-curve of his spine, spiraling into infinity, imprinted on Gary’s eyes.
“Sure. I’m starved.”
Devon moves to the stove, laying out pans, cracking eggs. After a moment, Gary steps up behind him, nuzzling the back of his neck, cupping his ass. When Gary moves his hand away, it lifts Devon’s shirt; the motion seem incidental, but it exposes his spine.
Devon tries not to flinch. He doesn’t tug the shirt back into place. But he doesn’t turn around either. What if there’s hunger in Gary’s gaze as he settles back to watch Devon cook? Another phantom sensation. The weight of a gaze is no more than the weight of a touch, just a ghost; it can’t hurt him.
Butter sizzles in the pan. Devon shifts slightly, imagining Gary tracking the motion. It is the year of seventh grade again, and he is unseen in the pre-dawn, watching the track team run. It is three months ago, and he is invisible, watching the astronauts do the same. It is here and now, and some deep part of him thrills to the observation; he wants to be admired, noticed.
He shifts again, making his spine more visible, heat flushing his body. It isn’t as though Gary doesn’t reciprocate. The way he makes sure to catch Devon’s eye as he runs around the track, the way he stays shirtless even now while Devon cooks, the way he leaves the bathroom door open when he showers. Devon tries to revel in the sensation, to feel beautiful, to be flattered.
But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t forget: when he looks at Gary, there’s no need to separate metal from skin. There’s no chance for white space to overwhelm the sketched curve of a spine, for Gary to be absent in the face of an object, a component, taken to be the whole of him.
Devon wants to be admired, yes, but deeper than that, he wants to be seen—not just looked at. He wants to be known. And loved.
The dream recurs after their first fight. In the dream, Devon can’t believe he’s never realized there are buttons on his back before. They’ve always been there; how could he have missed them? He can slip out of his skin and put it back on anytime. He can still be himself when he’s finished flying. He doesn’t have to give up anything to be himself, to be whole.
But he jumps, and the moon slices him to ribbons. The boys with their outstretched arms keep rising, and Devon falls and falls and falls. Every single time.
Throwing back the covers, Devon looks for evidence of blood on his hands where the moon cut him. The light through the window shows nothing but the empty pillow beside him. He can’t even remember what the fight was about. He replays Gary’s gestures, his facial expression, the movement of his hands. He loses the words as he tries to decipher the memory of Gary’s body language.
Devon goes to the window, feeling the ghosting in his movements, the faint hesitation as old fears return to dog his steps. The rocket is out there, silent and waiting, crisscrossed by shadows. The dreams are an omen. Devon will be left behind. If Gary goes up in the rocket, he’ll rise into the sky and never come back.
A white rose, its long stem woven through the diamonds of the chain link fence, waits for Devon at the airfield. He’s careful freeing it, but still manages to draw blood. His fingers are in his mouth when Gary comes over, expression hang-dog.
Devon nods, finding it difficult to breathe.
“Good.” Gary smiles. “I hated sleeping alone. I hated turning around and not finding you there watching me.”
Gary extends his fingers through the diamond-shaped gaps. After a moment, Devon takes his own fingers out of his mouth, still spit damp. Gary pulls them through to his side of the fence, taking them in his own mouth, banishing the last of the blood, along with the morning’s chill.
As time goes on, one fight evolves into two, unspools into a third. The crack of doubt widens, running crazed between them and out of Devon’s control. Gary only wants him as a fetish object, only wants him because he will always be the earthbound boy, unable to leave. Devon projects resentful fantasies into the future, Gary coming home from missions, kissing Devon on the forehead, a keepsake set up on a shelf, waiting exactly where he left it.
It isn’t fair and Devon knows it. If he was stronger he would talk to Gary instead of letting imagined wounds fester. But he’s a coward. Better to only suspect the truth, rather than have it confirmed.
Underneath the resentment is another truth. No matter what he does, one day Gary will go up into the sky. He will leave Devon behind, and the Gary that leaves will not be the same one who returns. It’s the nature of the sky. It cuts you to the bone and sends you tumbling back down to Earth; it’s impossible to put the pieces back together again.
When he books his next physical therapy appointment, Devon reserves a session in the immersion tank. It’s pricy and medically unnecessary—a luxury. But it’s worth it as he peels off his clothes and climbs over the tank’s edge. The dark room is studded with false stars from a projector in the corner, humming as it spins galaxies across the walls, spiraling ever outward. Devon lowers the mask, taking a moment to remember how to breathe before sinking into the gel, letting it take the pressure from his joints before he opens his eyes.
At least he has this, curled in on himself, floating weightless among the stars. Maybe it isn’t real, but he can still hang suspended in nothing but his own skin while the universe turns around him, and that’s something Gary will never have. The best he’ll ever be able to do is see the stars through the curve of a faceplate, trapped inside a suit, tethered by an umbilicus to a shuttle falling endlessly around the Earth.
The sharp intake of Gary’s breath wakes Devon, though he doesn’t remember dozing. The last thing he recalls is lying beside Gary, his head buzzing with champagne that never quite got him drunk. They—both of them, Devon keeps telling himself—had been celebrating; Gary had been assigned a spot on the next shuttle. Even though it hadn’t gotten him drunk, the alcohol made him sleepy, his head fuzzy. He thinks—though he can’t be sure—that just as he started to drift off, he murmured, “I love you.”
Now Devon’s mouth is dry, cotton-hollowed by the champagne, and the sound that follows Gary’s intake of breath nearly breaks him. As quietly as he can, Gary is sobbing.
Devon’s mind spins, struggling to process this sound of all sounds coming from the astronaut with sky-blue eyes and a dimpled grin. For a moment he considers pretending to be asleep. But he immediately loathes himself for the thought, rolling over to see Gary with his knees drawn against his chest, arms wrapped around them, rocking.
Light from the window gleams on his skin; he barely looks human. In this instant, he’s one of those pre-dawn creatures, wild and strange, and Devon has no idea how to touch him. Although the wires only extend down toward his legs, it still takes a moment to remember how to move his hand. He brushes Gary’s shoulder.
Gary starts, his head snapping up. Threads of drink still lace Gary’s eyes; they won’t entirely focus. After the champagne, Gary kept drinking, vodka, gin, whatever he could find.
“I had a dream,” Gary says. “My hands were invisible. Everything kept going through them. No one could see me, and I wasn’t real.”
Gary holds up his arms, as if to demonstrate. The light plays a trick, and for just an instant, Devon sees it, too. Gary’s skin is translucent. His bones are long shadows, tucked beneath his flesh, eerily visible.
“What do I do?” Gary asks. “I don’t know what to do. I need someone to watch so I won’t fall.” His voice breaks.
Devon is afraid to touch him, sickened by the illusion of bones beneath the skin. The moment stretches, just long enough that Devon sees something fragile crack. In the moment he observes it, it becomes real, flattened, fixed, and known. It moves beyond his power to change.
He folds Gary in his arms, too late, and Gary collapses against him. He makes hushing sounds, stroking Gary’s hair, but there’s a stiffness; Gary’s flesh is cold, resisting. The curve of Gary’s spine rises hard against Devon’s palms as he smoothes them over Gary’s back, feeling each knob of bone pressed against the skin. He has a mad desire to unbutton Gary, see what lies underneath, but all he can do is whisper to him in the darkness.
“It’ll be okay. Everything will be okay.”
They curl around each other, a shape spiraling outward, unwinding without beginning or end. But even when Gary’s breathing goes even and he slackens into sleep in Devon’s arms, his skin never warms.
The moon is a pale sliver in the sky, the ghost of a smile against darkness falling to light where it touches the horizon. This time—for once and only—Devon is inside the fence. He’s standing with other men and women, bundled into their coats against the cold, watching the rocket from the closest safe distance allowed. Even with his hands shoved deep inside his pockets, his fingers are numb.
He never told Gary about his dreams, and now he thinks he should have. He should have said I love you, again when he was sure Gary was awake and listening. He can’t stop replaying their last conversation, the quiet desperation in Gary’s eyes, buried beneath the mask of infallibility and excitement so deep that Devon can almost pretend he didn’t see, doesn’t know. He tries to fix Gary in his mind one way—running, his limbs straight and long, smile dimpled under sky-blue eyes—and make that the only truth. But this is the moment that keeps creeping in, the fear, the uncertainty.
“Promise me you’ll keep watching, the whole time?”
“I promise.” His lips on Gary’s, both chilled in the hours before the rising sun.
Breath mists in the air around him; bodies shuffle, impatient, waiting. Devon looks for the moon again, but it’s already vanished, erased by the rising sun.
Over the loudspeaker, the countdown ends. Rockets fire and the roar drowns all other sound. It rolls like thunder across the ground, traveling through Devon’s soles and all the way up his spine.
Even though he knows it isn’t what’s happening, an image persists in his mind: Gary pulls off a thick, white glove, and presses his hand to a window in the shuttle as it lifts into the sky. As the rocket pushes away from the Earth, jumping into the sky, Devon breaks his promise and closes his eyes.
More from A.C. Wise
AC Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 1, among others. In addition to her writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story. Find her online at www.acwise.net.