Sage Hefferman sat alone on top of the black iron external stairwell of his dingy, seventh floored apartment, breathing smoke out of his nose. Wrapped in two sweaters and a heavy black jacket, he watched the light pillars of the Okanogan grow in length, a steaming cup of Campbell's chunky soup in his right glove and a cigarette in his left.
His apartment, situated at the fringe of New Seatrouver, faced north and had a perfect view of the snow filled landscape and the frozen expanse of Lake Penny.
The light pillars were vertical, luminescent extensions of the lights from urban development on the far side of the lake, and only started to appear in this area when the unstable cycles resulting from global warming brought deep cold spells to the Okanogan. They rose bi-axially into the ground and far into the midnight sky, turquoise and gold, a green haze suspended between; arcane columns of refracted photons. Although Sage knew they were a natural phenomenon produced by terrestrial light sources reflecting off of ice crystals, he liked to pretend they were other things; UFO death beams, light signals sent from heaven.
Watching them after a long day of construction was his favourite pastime. Or, it became his favourite pastime ever since he moved to this boring city.
New Seatrouver was very young, constructed in response to the alarming rise of sea levels over the past decade. Like hundreds of other similar cities being erected further away from the coastline, the city was only five years in the making, and the job prospects, with regards to construction, were more than excellent. Sage left his home before he received his high school diploma and worked every day, save for Mondays off, ever since.
He ran a gloved hand through his short, black hair and yawned, sleepy tears filling his eyes. Perhaps it was time for bed. He rose slowly on the balls of his feet, taking his soup, still full, with him. He crushed his cigarette in the palm of his gloved hand and threw it over the balcony.
In mid-turn towards the door into his house, a single light pillar pulsed with unexpected brightness in his periphery. Sage watched, curious. Suddenly, the pillar bifurcated into two streams of light into the sky like a pair of glowing antennae, but then just as quickly, disappeared altogether.
Sage leaned over the balcony, squinting, wishing he had binoculars. When he realized it was probably just the consequence of a dying street lamp, he turned to head back in, but was stopped once again when something caught the edge of his vision. Movement flickered somewhere out at the fringe of the frozen lake, about half a kilometre away from his apartment, shrouded in the shadows of the trees.
At first, he thought it was a coyote or some stray dog, but when the shadow emerged, it was clear that the figure was bipedal. Sage frowned.
Ice skaters? Sage thought. Out of all the years he had overlooked the area, no one had thought of indulging in such an activity. Everyone in this city was so preoccupied with construction that people rarely wandered to the lake.
Intrigued, Sage watched as the figure stumbled and ran out from the surface of the lake, scaling the steep hill, heading straight towards his apartment.
Halfway uphill, the moonlight uncovered the man's figure.
Sage's eyes widened in shock.
x x x
Sage remembered the first time he met Callen. Everything felt like yesterday, but it was fourteen years ago, when the coastal tides were calm and in check, and when New Seatrouver still hadn't existed.
Sage was eight, going on nine, and he was having a miserable morning in the small town of Ephrata. His hand was wrapped in a large ball of bandages where his mother's boyfriend had taken Sage's hand and pressed it into the burning stove because he had been misbehaving. Sage had run away, and he sat at the edge of Lakeview with his small backpack, sniffling to himself. The lake seemed to stretch onto infinity, its silvery surface glowing pure white.
The hot summer air steamed the moisture right out of the ground. Fat, yellow and black dragonflies skimmed across the water's edge, perching on cattails, flitting off to chase foreign intruders out of their territory, hovering like shiny, alien space crafts. Every now and then, Sage would look towards his right at the broad stretch of grass, yellow and wilted in the heat, and he would watch the boys from his school play soccer. He wanted to play too, but he wasn't very good, and the boys didn't like him because of it.
Sage had chosen a flat rock to hurl into the water when he saw a boy riding a small black bike with tremendous speed along the North trail, some fifty metres away from him. He was golden all over – golden shirt, golden skin, golden hair that absorbed the sunlight. He was alone, but he looked at ease. Free. Awesome.
Then the bike caught on something, snapped to a halt, and the boy shot three feet forwards with a crash, skidding on the ground on his belly.
Sage stood up, and hesitating for only a second, ran towards the boy.
When Sage reached him, the boy had crawled into a squat, and was examining his arms with an irritated expression. Sage gasped when he saw the damage. Scrapes tore into both his forearms, and bits of gravel were embedded in his palms.
"Are you okay?" Sage asked him in a small voice.
The boy looked up, at him, and Sage was struck by the blueness of his eyes. He was also surprised by the nonchalance present across his face.
"I'm okay," he replied. He stood up gingerly and groaned as little flecks of blood fell to the ground. "Great. My clothes are dirty."
"Your clothes?" Sage asked, baffled. Doesn't it hurt? He wanted to ask, but instead shook his head as the boy picked up his bike carefully, and walked towards the direction of the lake.
"I can hold your bike," Sage offered, following alongside. His steps were little compared to the boy's easy strides, and he had to walk faster than usual to keep up.
The boy passed it to him, and then smiled. He had strong white teeth, except a gap where his canine was missing.
"Thanks." His voice was hoarse, likely due to the hot, dry air. "My friends call me Cal, but I like to be called Callen."
"Ok," Sage said, and fell into silence, bemused when Callen shot him an expectant look.
"What's your name?"
"Oh!" Sage said. He looked down, and felt heat bloom in his face. "I'm Sage."
"Nice to meet you, Sage," Callen said, grinning again. He eyed Sage's bandaged palm. "I'd shake your hand but it looks like you hurt yourself too. What happened?"
"N-nothing," Sage said quickly. He fumbled to change the subject. "Where are you going now? I have Band-Aids at my house."
Callen gave Sage a quick look, and then shrugged. "Oh, I'm just going to go wash my scrapes in the lake."
"Wait!" Sage cried. He stood in front of the boy with a determined expression. Callen stared back at him.
"Wait," Sage repeated. "The water is dirty. I have some clean water in my water bottle. Don't move."
He set Callen's bike down and scrambled off to retrieve his backpack, shooting a look backwards to make sure the boy didn't go anywhere. He retrieved the water and ran back to the boy, panting. They sat down, and Sage cleaned his wounds. Callen watched with interest, and started picking out the larger bits of gravel, an action that made Sage shudder with second-hand pain.
"How old are you?" Callen asked.
Callen examined him with wide eyes for a moment.
"Really?" he said. "You look like you're six."
"That's okay. It's 'cause I'm short," Sage said, sighing. "Are you twelve?"
"No," Callen laughed. "I'm nine, but people always think I'm older. It's 'cause I'm tall."
"Oh," Sage replied. He flushed with embarrassment, but the boy didn't seem to notice. And if he did, he didn't seem to care.
"I just moved here," Callen explained, throwing bits of bloodied gravel into the lake, aiming for scurrying dragonflies. "I was just biking around to check out the park. I like it here, but it's kinda boring, so I'm waiting for school to start."
"Oh," Sage said again. He scratched at his arm.
"I'm going into grade three at Colville Elementary. What about you?"
Sage felt a rush of excitement course through him, but he tried not to let it show.
"Me too," he said, as nonchalantly as possible. "I'm going into grade three too. At Colville. I mean, I was always at Colville."
"Cool!" Callen smiled, standing up. He eclipsed the sun, and Sage squinted.
"Wanna come over to my house?" Callen asked. "My dad's got an Xbox and my mom will be cooking dinner soon. She always cooks dinner super early. It'll be fun."
"Ok," Sage said. Callen beamed. Sage smiled a little in return, betraying the churning in his gut.
A churning, that for once, felt really good.
And they spent every afternoon of third and fourth grade together. They played Xbox, Lego, and biked out in the hot sun. They did their homework together over at Callen's house, and splashed in his outdoor pool. Sage had dinner, but that was where he drew the line with his involvement in Callen's family. No sleepovers. No talks about his mother, his mother's boyfriend, his house, his bandaged hands.
Sage was careful to take every precaution not to let Callen know anything about his home-life. Sometimes, Callen would express curiosity, and other times, concern, but he never asked too many questions.
It became harder for them to spend time together when his mother's boyfriend implemented that dreaded 3 p.m. curfew.
x x x
Sage stared, incredulous, as the naked boy ran up the hill, a hand between his legs, splashing firm snow in all four directions around him. He stopped only metres away from the entrance of the stairs to his apartment.
"What... the... fuck." Sage blinked.
The boy looked up, wide shoulders and chest heaving. His hair was messy, stuck up at various ends, framing a face squared by a strong jaw. Breaths escaped in raggedly puffs, encompassing his head in a halo of steam. Even from a distance, his limbs, unclothed, gave him the impression of much tallness.
Although shadows cast by his brows hid his eyes, Sage could tell that the boy was looking straight at him.
Sage felt his face grow absurdly hot. He held the boy's gaze, almost challengingly, but soon realized that there was nothing hostile directed towards him. As a matter of fact, a vacancy soon passed over his features, and he began to sway visibly.
Rational thinking clicked back into place.
"Hey!" Sage yelled over the balcony. "What the hell are you doing?"
The boy's features contorted momentarily in confusion, long eyebrows dropping. He turned slightly to the left, and the light shifted, revealing blue eyes narrowed to slits.
A familiar expression.
Then all at once, with a surprisingly painful lurch to his chest, Sage recognized him. He felt the world around him shudder.
It couldn't be.
"... Callen?" The word barely left Sage's mouth, two shivering syllables evaporating from his lips.
As if on cue, Callen keeled forwards and crumpled into the snow, out cold.
Sage stared for a few more moments, numb, waiting for the rush of blood to clear out of his brain. Then instincts kicked in and he started running. Bounding down the rickety iron stairs two at a time, he slid down the retractable ladder and raced through the snow, removing his jacket with fumbling hands, head buzzing with questions.
What was he doing here?
How did he get here?
Why the fuck is he naked?
When Sage reached him, he gripped Callen by the underarms and squatted. His skin was soft, but much too cold. Sage heaved, and groaned when he nearly fell backwards. He was heavy. Callen had obviously gained several pounds since Sage had last seen him – and how long since then? Carrying him up six flights of stairs was going to be nearly impossible.
He wrapped his friend's body with his jacket, and slapped his face. Callen stirred, albeit slightly.
How long had he been naked? Sage wondered what caused his current state, at first thinking it was some sort of streaking prank gone wrong, but then realizing he had likely paradoxically undressed.
This was not good.
Sage shook Callen again, dragging him to the foot of the ladder, searching his pockets for his phone. He cursed. He left it at his house. Just his luck.
"Someone help!" Sage yelled. Only his echoes answered. He tried again several times, to no avail, so Sage struck Callen across the face with both palms.
A gasp, and Callen roused, eyes blinking. Sage released a huge sigh of relief.
"C'mon man, you gotta help me out here," Sage huffed, throwing Callen's arm around his shoulders. Slowly, Callen shifted his weight. He made a few noises as if to speak, but the chattering of his teeth drowned out any attempts at talking.
Together, they climbed the ladder, up the stairs and entered his apartment.
Freshly constructed, Sage's living space was just like every other in the city – a single, kitchen-dining-room-living-room area, with shitty appliances and shitty insulation to match. But it was just the way Sage liked it. Cozy was how he saw it on most days as he wouldn't know what to do with any extra space that he had. With Callen's bulk in his living area, however, he felt a little claustrophobic.
Sage released his friend as they crossed the threshold, and Callen stumbled, collapsing at the foot of Sage's bed with a groan.
Sage stripped the bed of its blankets and dumped them unceremoniously over Callen's head, changing into a pair of track pants. He turned on his cast-iron radiator and pulled off his numerous sweatshirts, turning his back. He ducked behind the laminated isle and poured a mug of hot water.
A heavy silence stretched between them, permeated only by Callen's continuous chattering and the hum of the radiator.
Callen's shivering stopped momentarily as he cleared his throat.
His voice was hoarse, but soft. Sage closed his eyes, and took three deep breaths. It took all of his willpower to not to whip around and kick him right back out the door.
Instead, calmed his nerves, and approached the situation like how he was trained on the job. He had never been very adept at first-aid, but given his fair share of encounters, he knew the signs to look for in a hypothermic victim. He turned around and approached Callen, who looked up at him with inquisitive eyes. Luminescent eyes.
Sage crouched down and placed a hand on the blond's forehead. His skin was warm, but not feverish. Surprisingly, it wasn't cold anymore. He slipped a hand below Callen's collarbone and searched for his heartbeat – flushing as he palmed bare skin beneath his fingers. Callen held very still. His heartbeats were deep and even. Sage felt warm breath tickling his ear. Satisfied, he retracted his hand quickly, set the mug of water beside Callen, and retreated two steps back.
"How did you get like this?" Sage asked.
Callen spoke. Despite his trembling, his voice was smooth, even. "I was skinny dipping."
That took Sage a moment. He blinked in surprise, and then indignation, when his friend shot back a toothy grin.
"You're retarded," Sage replied flatly. "The lake's frozen and it's negative ten out. Seriously though I need to know when you last..."
"I don't remember," Callen said, shrugging. He scratched his shoulder underneath his blankets, and tapped his foot restlessly. "Can we talk about something else? I'm hungry. Do you have anything to eat?"
Then, he climbed gingerly to his feet and stretched, blankets slipping down his torso and falling at his feet in a heap. Oblivious to modesty.
"Jesus Christ." Sage scrambled to pick up the nearest pair of pants off the floor and hurled them at his friend, who caught them with a laugh.
"Thanks," Callen said, "and I'm fine now, don't have hypothermia if that's what you're wondering."
"I would know," Callen said firmly, his smile wavering. "I'm totally fine. Can we get something to eat?"
Sage shook his head. "Why are you here?"
Callen picked up his hot water and drained it in three gulps. His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, and he lowered his empty, steaming mug, tapping the bottom against his palm.
"I came looking for you," he said.
Sage stared. "Naked?"
"Well, yeah." As if it was the most normal thing in the world.
Sage narrowed his eyes, his hands balls into fists. Patience, he thought. Patience is a virtue that everyone should have...
"How did you get naked?" he asked through gritted teeth.
"Well," Callen said. He pulled on the sweats Sage threw at him, but ignored the shirt. He settled on the bed without an invitation, propping a pillow underneath his waist as he – obnoxiously – laid back. "I flew over here on a snowboarding expedition with my buddies. One has a cabin up at Mt. Baker, but we wanted to check New Seatrouver out."
He looked thoughtful for a moment, staring at the ceiling, biting his bottom lip. "They headed over to a bar and I wanted to walk around in the snow and said I'd meet up with them later, but then I got ambushed by four gangsters. They said they wanted my clothes."
Callen cleared his throat. "Uhm, they got my clothes."
Sage fumbled for words again, unable to find anything to reply to such a ridiculous falsification, so he asked another question.
"And... how did you find me?"
Callen shrugged. "Well, I looked you up on Yellow Pages."
Sage fought the urge to throw himself on Callen to wring his neck. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."
"I'm not kidding," Callen said. He sat up, a dimple on his left cheek, and then paused, as if in deep thought. His fingers drummed against his thigh. "But I wouldn't mind some fucking."
In two strides Sage had the door open with a bang, chest heaving.
Callen stood, and his expression changed entirely. He held his hands up in the air in pacification.
"Wait," he said, "hey man..."
"Look," Sage growled. "You show up in the middle of the night, five years since I last saw you, naked, and you want me to believe this isn't some sort of fucking joke? You could of called, or something. Instead you pass out in front of my apartment, so I had to save your fucking ass, and now you won't even give me a real explanation on how you got here, and how you found me?"
"I said, I used Yellow –"
Sage inhaled, nostrils flaring, and Callen fell silent.
"No one uses Yellow Pages anymore," Sage snapped. "People ask Siri!"
"Well," Callen said, crossing his arms, irritation pinching his eyebrows together. "If you already knew the answer then why did you even bother to ask me –"
Callen's arms dropped down to his sides. A single drop of perspiration – and why was he sweating – rolled down his collarbone, down the cleft of his thick chest, and dropped past the flat planes of his belly. He deliberated. Then, squaring his shoulders, he approached. Sage's heartbeat increased, and a second lurch of pain hit him in the chest. He opened his mouth to admonish him again, but felt the words catch in his throat.
Callen didn't stop until he was only inches away, and when he did he simply stood there. Sage looked up at him, feeling slightly trapped. He fought the urge to rise up on his toes so he could appear taller, but after a moment, he realized that Callen didn't seem to be trying to intimidate him at all. As a matter of fact, he wasn't sure what Callen was doing, standing so close to him. Breaths fanned against his forehead.
"I don't remember how I got here," Callen finally said, his voice all but a whisper. His face was impassive. Blurry at this proximity.
"Yeah, right." Sage felt his voice break.
Slowly, Callen reached forwards and placed a hand behind Sage's neck. His touch was so soft he barely grazed the skin, but Sage felt heat rush into his face at the contact. He felt Callen's fingers trace the line of his clavicle, finger the strap of his wife beater, draw circles on top of his bare shoulder, then creep tentatively to small of his back, leaving curious pinpricks of static in its wake.
Callen's eyes were downcast, staring at patches on the floor. When he finally looked up, his eyebrows were furrowed in a way that betrayed the turmoil within him. Sage felt his breath hitch when moisture crept into Callen's eyes.
And then, abruptly, the distance closed between them as Callen pulled and crushed him in a sudden embrace. Startled, Sage tensed, uncertain whether to pull away or hold still. Warmth engulfed him. A frighteningly heavy heartbeat echoed against his cheekbone. Sage breathed in; he breathed out, his exhalations far too shallow, far too painful.
"I can't remember," Callen said, his voice heavy and muffled in Sage's hair. "You have to believe me. One moment I was driving down Blackcomb... then I was underwater... and then..."
To Sage's surprise, Callen started to tremble violently. His breaths interrupted one another, tearing raggedly through his chest, as if he was fighting back tears. He held on tighter, and Sage coughed into his friend's chest, now feeling very squashed.
Gingerly, Sage arched a hand behind him to close the front door. He steered Callen back into the room, their feet tripping over one another in an awkward backwards tango. Then Callen's legs hit the edge of the bed and they fell backwards, collapsing in an awkward heap. With a huff, Sage pulled Callen's arms off him and wriggled out of his grasp. He picked up the blankets off the floor and repositioned them over Callen, who now had both hands on his face.
In all the years that Sage had known him, he'd never seen Callen cry, so he felt strangely relieved when he saw that Callen's face was dry and his eyes were once again clear when he had finally recomposed.
Sage straightened his shirt, making sure to back a safe distance away. He tried to ignore the burning that was probably still evident on his face.
"So," he asked, clearing his throat, "you were driving down Blackcomb, and then you were in water, and then... and then somehow you got here?"
"Okay," Sage said. "Where was this... this water?"
"I don't know." Callen shrugged.
"Can you tell me what you remember about it?"
Callen seemed thoughtful for a moment. "I don't know, really. It was dark. Cold. So cold. But that was all I remember."
"Was it... like, an ocean? Or a lake? Were you... I don't know, swimming in a pool?"
Callen shrugged again. Sage rubbed his brow.
"Okay," Sage said. "Never mind about that. What about before that? Who were you snowboarding with?"
Callen frowned into the ceiling for the next few minutes, forehead crinkled, and then he shook his head, sighing in disappointment. "I don't know either. The whole snowboarding trip is kinda fuzzy."
"Okay," Sage said, "how long ago was this? A week? A few days ago?"
Callen shook his head, shrugging further into his blankets. "I'm sorry, I really don't know. My whole head is kinda fuzzy."
Sage pinched the bridge of his nose, his mind buzzing with possibly even more questions than before. At this point, he didn't even know how to continue this interrogation. For one thing, Blackcomb was hundreds of kilometres away and there were no direct flights to New Seatrouver. He would have to transfer to Seattle, fly into Omak, and then be driven here, as New Seatrouver didn't have an airport yet either. In total, the trip would have taken two days at the very least. Sage couldn't fathom what could have possibly made him lose his memory for such a large amount of time.
It could have been a product of hypothermia or brain trauma, Sage thought, and considered again in sending his friend to the emergency room, but upon inspection and question, Callen told Sage that his head felt physically fine. He also wondered, for a moment, if his friend was high or drunk, but then quickly dismissed it as an option because, despite his baffling behaviour, Callen was undeniably sober. Which left only one option – Callen was lying, because he didn't want to talk about it, whatever "it" was.
But as Sage watched his friend, he couldn't seem to muster up any more anger or hostile suspicion towards him. Callen was upset. Definitely upset. Sage realized that it bothered him a little more than he would have liked.
He would ask him again in the morning, Sage thought, but for now, he'd let it drop. Because he knew that Callen would do the same for him if the situations were reversed. He had proven it plenty of times in the past.
"Look," Sage said. "Just get some sleep, I'll take the couch..."
"I'm not tired," Callen said at once, and as if a sudden surge of energy had rushed into him, he leapt out of bed. "I'm not tired at all. I don't want to go to sleep."
Sage nodded slowly. "Okay. Alright. That's fine."
"You can if you want," Callen said, shrugging, ducking his head. "I won't bother you."
Sage stood up, sighing. "Nah I'm not tired either. And I got a day off tomorrow, so lucky you."
Callen looked back up, a familiar, lopsided smile crossing his face.
"Lucky me," Callen said. "But do you know what would make me luckier?"
"What?" Sage asked, eyes narrowing.
"If you go and make me a sandwich."
Sage threw a pillow at him, indignant, but sauntered off into the kitchen anyways. Callen's laughter echoed throughout the house.
"I don't have any bread, but there's some bacon and eggs," Sage said, sifting through his fridge.
Callen leaned against the counter and shrugged. "Doesn't matter, anything's fine. Nothing like breakfast after midnight."
He turned to the sink and began to wash a pile of dirtied dishes. Sage didn't object, and was grateful when his friend didn't make any attempts at small talk and was quiet for a while. He bathed in their lack of communication, listening to the swish of the water running, the sizzling of oil, inhaling the smell of butter wafting through the air.
When Callen was finished, he placed a hand on Sage's shoulder. His palm was broad and warm.
"Hey," he said softly. "Thanks for this."
Sage just shrugged, staring determinedly into the pan, cracking an egg flat on the counter with a little more force than necessary.
Thirty minutes later, when they were both stuffing their faces with protein and grease over the rickety Ikea table, Callen spoke again.
"Do you remember," he asked, "that day when I first took you sledding?"
"Nope," Sage grunted, not bothering to look up from his plate.
"No," Sage repeated.
"Aw, c'mon. It wasn't that long ago... well, never mind, it kind of was."
"I don't remember too much from the past."
Callen chuckled with a mouth full of bacon, seemingly more to himself than to Sage. "Guess I'm not the only one here who has amnesia."
Sage stabbed an egg and chewed his tongue. He scratched absently at the many burns that lined the left side of his brow, circular and shiny, overlayed on top of one another like eroded wax stamps. Sage watched Callen's face carefully out of the corner of his eyes, and wondered if his friend believed his lie.
I remember, Sage wanted to say. I remember everything.
After all, how could he forget the day that Callen discovered his secret?