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Aiken Sings the Circle of Life

See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)

Being clean was such a blessing that Aiken almost welcomed the tingle of frigid air on his freshly scrubbed skin. Well, for a few seconds, anyway. He folded his goose-bumped arms over his chest and regarded the unpleasant crumple of his underwear on the bathroom floor. It had been mostly, but not wholly, shielded from zombie ichor by his jeans.

“How are you doing in there?” asked his host through the door.

Aiken wrapped the damp towel around himself and opened the bathroom door to look at his knight in (not exactly shining; in fact, now fairly disgusting) plaid flannel. Kelvin was about a head taller than he was and twice his width, but Aiken would happily wear an oversized shirt and look like he was in a bad romcom if it meant not having to put those briefs back on.”Sorry, but do you have a T-shirt or something I can borrow? I dropped my backpack about half a kilometre back.” Everyone said that running attracted the zoms’ attention and it was safer to walk. But the shambling trio had already spotted him, and at that point he’d run out of good choices. Either he dropped everything and made a break for it, or he had about five minutes to live, making freezing or starving to death a moot worry.

“I can do better than that.”

Kelvin led him across the hall and into a cramped bedroom. The wallpaper was silver and grey leaves, fresh probably fifty years ago; a patch on the wall glittered in a beam from the setting sun. The single bed was covered with stacks of clothing, folded jeans and T-shirts and sweaters. The closet door wasn’t quite closed, the caught sleeve of a woollen winter jacket holding it ajar.

“See what you can find,” Kelvin said. “I’m going to wash up and make us a hot drink.”

The thought of that perked Aiken up–he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything warm since walking out of Belleville three days ago, and although he didn’t expect actual coffee, if Kelvin gave him anything with caffeine in it he was probably going to offer the man his ass and/or his firstborn–and he quickly found a change of clothes. Sweatpants, underwear–clean if not new, and Aiken’s standards for a whole lot of things had plummeted in recent months–a long-sleeved T-shirt and fleece, two pairs of socks. Dressed and feeling a little more grounded, Aiken went back into the living room.

It was getting darker by the minute, and the only source of light was the fire, mostly blocked by Kelvin’s large frame hunkered down in front of it. Coming closer, Aiken saw that he had put a pot on a brick-supported grill over the flames.

“Staring at it never works,” Aiken said.

Kelvin huffed out a laugh and stood up. “Yeah, but it’s warmer.”

Aiken made a vague gesture towards the front porch, where he’d stripped out of everything he’d been wearing in front of the stranger who had saved his life. “My wallet’s out there, in my pants pocket.” He hadn’t had cash in months, but he’d held onto his ID through hell and high water, at least one of those literally.

“Okay. Give me a minute so I can clean up the mess before it sets.”

He disappeared into the bathroom and came out with a bucket. They went out the front door. The air smelled of woodsmoke, with an unpleasant coppery underlay. Aiken glanced at the glutinous red tangle of his shed clothing on the concrete floor of the porch.

That proved to be a bad idea. He turned in the other direction and took a shaky breath, waiting for the hot rush of panic to drain away.

“If you’re going to throw up,” Kelvin said, not unkindly, “maybe try aiming over the railing.”

Aiken took a long inhale and focused on the middle distance. “It’s okay. I’m fine.”  He crouched over the mess, trying not to look too closely, and gritted his teeth to peel the square of leather out of his back pocket.

“Can you keep an eye out while I deal with this?” Kelvin asked. There was a broom leaning in the corner by the door, and he used it to push Aiken’s jeans and shirt under the railing, off the edge of the porch and into the bushes. Efficient, Aiken supposed; it wasn’t like there were any garbage trucks coming by anytime soon.

He scanned the end of the driveway and the road for movement as Kelvin poured water over the sticky stain on the concrete and scoured it in circles. There were high weeds and too many damn trees, and it was too close to twilight, and he wasn’t familiar with the property; every gust of wind in a branch or bush sent an electric prod through him. His fingers closed on the absence of his machete, which was over in the grass halfway down the driveway in a clot of rotting flesh and bones.

Kelvin swept the water over the edge of the porch and emptied the rest of his bucket onto the fading stain. Aiken wondered if the vines climbing up the wrought iron railing liked the taste of blood. Maybe eau de zombie guts was good fertilizer. Maybe the rose harvest was going to be killer this year. He shut his lips over a sound that wasn’t sure whether it wanted to be a laugh or a sob, and contemplated beating his head against the aluminium siding by way of relief.

“Let’s get back inside before it gets dark,” Kelvin said. He held open the screen door, and Aiken preceded him into the house.

It was a standard Sixties ranch, kitchen ahead overlooking a living room down a few steps to the right, dominated by a brick fireplace. The furniture reminded Aiken of his grandparents’ house, soft and shapeless and built for comfort. It wasn’t much warmer in here than outside, though.

Aiken held up his wallet. “Do you have a rag or something I can clean this with?”

“I could find something. But are sure you want to keep it? I’ve probably got some spares.”

Aiken looked at the worn leather, gummy with what he hoped was blood and not something worse. It was stupid to be attached to something he would have replaced without a second thought had the world not, you know, ended. “That would be great.”

They went back into the bedroom. Kelvin pulled open the middle drawer of the dresser, and Aiken looked in to see a mess of toothbrushes, pen and pencils, batteries still in their packages, tubes of lip balm, a sewing kit, a deck of cards.

“Oh, nice. I forgot I had those.” Kelvin reached in and snagged a card of hair elastics. He detached one and used it to fasten his shoulder-length dreads back from his face.

“You’ve, uh, got a lot of stuff here,” Aiken said, aiming not quite successfully for neutral enquiry.

“Yeah, I strip everything from my–” Kelvin stopped himself. “You know what, maybe I won’t go to the serial killer joke.”

“Thank you.”

“A couple of my neighbours and I went around scavenging in the village before they moved out. How about this?” He pulled a blue billfold from the drawer, a thin ripstop fabric one with an aura of high-performance camping gear.

“That’s awesome. Thanks.” Using just his fingertips, Aiken pried open his old wallet and pulled out his Ontario photo ID card. Drying red ooze was smeared across his pallid face. It had never looked all that much like him anyway. It was probably ridiculous to want to keep it.

“Here.” Kelvin held out a paper towel. Aiken wiped the plastic card clean. Then his credit union card, his health card–another washed-out version of himself–and…well, that coffee chain was never going to reopen, and the organ donor card was nothing but a sick joke now.

“Garbage.” Kelvin pointed, and Aiken dropped the bloodied reminder of his former life into the plastic bag hanging from the doorknob. He scoured his fingers with the paper towel and got rid of that too, then fitted the cards into the slots of the new wallet, and slid the wallet into his pocket.

“Fab,” Kelvin said. “Let’s get some tea.”

They went back into the living room. Kelvin flicked the lights on as they passed the kitchen. “Black tea? Mint? Chamomile?”

Aiken asked for mint, and sat down on the edge of the threadbare reclining chair. Kelvin made an appealing picture as he knelt on one knee by the fireplace, maroon sweatshirt complementing dark skin, the blue-glazed mug a pop of colour as he poured steaming water into it. Everything Aiken had learned about Kelvin in the half-hour of their acquaintance pointed to thorough competence. His hands would be strong, his touch sure, his–

It wasn’t an unfamiliar response to almost being eaten, Aiken had learned by this time. Better think of something else, though. He looked away, at the wood-panelled walls hung with family photographs and framed cross-stitched mottoes.

“Here.”

Aiken took the offered mug, and then his brain kicked in. “Hey! You have electricity!”

“Yeah. For a few hours a day, at least. Solar panels on the roof. The first time anything breaks, I’m SOL, but we’re good until then.”

Aiken turned to scope out the kitchen. The stove was gas. “Where do you cook?”

“Over the fire, mostly. There’s a hotplate, but it uses a lot of power, and I like having the lights and the water pump better.”

“For sure.” Aiken sipped the hot, vaguely mint-flavoured water. His stomach growled.

“I was just about to heat up some dinner. I have canned pasta, and there’s soup.”

“I would love some soup. But I’d be happy to cook. It’s the least I can do.”

“I wasn’t exactly going to cook.” Kelvin made a beckoning gesture with one finger and headed back down the hallway. He turned into a different doorway, and switched on the lights.

The room had the bones of a home office, cheap pressboard bookshelves lining the walls and a skinny computer desk shoved under the window. But instead of binders or reference books, the shelves held a fortune in cans and bottles and colourful cardboard boxes.

“Wow. When you said stock up, you weren’t kidding.”

“Better than letting it rot or get trashed.” Kelvin squatted down and contemplated a shelf. “Tomato? Cream of mushroom? Beef barley?”

The shelf at Aiken’s eye level looked like every neglected spice rack in the village had been emptied of its contents. There were jars there with vintage labels and probably vintage dust. “Do you have any vegetables?”

Kelvin pointed to another shelf. “Canned peas, I think.” He shuddered.

“Right.” The next shelf held cans of cherry pie filling and boxes of pudding mix. “Any allergies?”

“Me? Not that I know of.”

“Any foods you hate?”

“Not really. Except for mushy vegetables.”

“Is there anything here you don’t want me to use?”

Kelvin looked around and shrugged. “Unless you find a Swiss Chalet half chicken dinner with extra sauce, go wild.”

“Excellent.” Aiken put his mug down on the top of one of the bookcases. “You can go do something else, if you want. I might be a while.”

Twenty minutes later, Aiken manoeuvred an armful of packages onto the kitchen counter, barely catching the bottle of sage as it slid out from under his arm and bounced on the laminate. Kelvin was stretched out on the couch under a crocheted blanket, a lamp positioned on an end table behind him and a paperback book in his hands. Aiken decided to assume he had free range unless told otherwise, so he methodically took stock of what he had to work with: pots and pans in a lower cabinet, hefty and not-very-well-taken-care-of cutting board, way too many barely used novelty kitchen doodads in a junk drawer, enormous wooden block holding a variety of pretty dull knives. Aiken balanced a few on his finger and settled for a basic chef’s knife with a blade that wasn’t too hacked up. He might not even need it, but he felt better with a knife in his hands.

He turned on the taps–pausing to marvel at the miracle of running water, even if there was no hot–and squirted a dash of liquid soap into the sink. Then he organized his haul, and started opening cans.

After a while he went over to the fireplace and rearranged things more to his liking, raking some of the coals to one side and adding split kindling from the built-in firewood alcove to the fire under the grate.

Behind him, he heard Kelvin sit up. “Do you need a hand with that?”

“Nah, I’m good. I have pizza oven experience.”

Kelvin pulled the blanket around his shoulders, but didn’t pick his book up again. It was full dark outside now, the windows glossy black. It was also really quiet. Quiet was good, all things considered. But it was really, really quiet.

“What are you reading?” Aiken asked, mixing dough.

The Duke and his Viking.”

Not what Aiken had expected. “Is it good?”

“It is batshit time travel gay romance loony tunes.” Kelvin made a wry face. “I used to be a book snob. Then the zombie apocalypse ate my brain. In a manner of speaking. But it’s a fun series, and the library had about forty volumes. Have you read anything good lately?”

“I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a reader.” Aiken greased a cast iron frying pan with coconut oil. “But I like cookbooks and food history. I was listening to this one book, The Gastronomical Me, on audiobook when, you know. Everything happened.”

“Oh, yeah, M.F.K. Fisher, right? I had to read How to Cook a Wolf in undergrad. Social and Cultural History of War in the Twentieth Century? Something like that.”

Wow, okay. “I, uh, never got to that one.” He put the baking sheet over the top of the frying pan and carried the pan over to the fireplace. He pushed the hot coals aside, put the pan on the hot stone, and shovelled the coals over the sides and top. The shitty cheap baking sheet was probably going to warp in the heat, but it was what it was.

He carried the saucepan Kelvin had heated water in back to the counter. “So how long have you lived here?”

“A couple of years.”

“Just you?”

“Not at first. It’s my cousin’s wife’s parents’ house. When I made it out of Toronto, I came here. But in the spring they decided to try heading back to Nova Scotia, where his family was from. Is from.”

Aiken diced canned potatoes and tipped them into the pot. “You haven’t heard from them?”

“Not yet.”

Crushing thyme between his fingertip and thumb, Aiken said, “It’s hard, not knowing.” It had been over twenty years since his dad had bailed, and Aiken still occasionally wondered where the asshole was, and if he was still alive. Probably, because life was unfair in all kinds of ways.

“Yeah.”

“You don’t mind it? Being alone?” It wasn’t a huge village, but Aiken had walked through its main street, nineteenth-century storefronts converted to bank and diner and thrift store and a handful of artisan food and craft stores for the tourists. He hadn’t seen another person alive, until Kelvin had come running down his driveway with his axe ready to swing.

“It turns out I overestimated my taste for solitude.” Kelvin’s eyes went to the dark windows. “I always dreamed of moving to the country. Peace and quiet. Home ownership.” He folded his arms, pulling the blanket closer around himself. “There were more people around when I got here, but…”

“Someone got sick?” Aiken guessed. The plague had taken longer to reach rural areas than cities, but it hadn’t gone any easier on them.

“Yeah. Most of the people who survived moved on. I didn’t go with them when I had the chance, and now I’m kind of…stuck here.” He pressed his lips together and shook himself, or maybe it was a shudder. “Anyway. What about you?”

Aiken carried the pot back to the fire. “I heard something was happening in Napanee. Some kind of commune or something. I was ready for a change.”

“So you decided to walk there alone? From where?”

“Just from Belleville.” He shrugged at Kelvin’s look. “I had a machete.” At the time it hadn’t felt like the stupid-ass choice it clearly had been. Zombies weren’t exactly stealthy, and there was a lot of space out here; he figured he’d have time to see them and get out of the way. Obviously, staying too long in the emo shitshow of Belleville had dulled the previous, naturally occurring terror that had kept him alive this long.

“You must have been motivated.”

“Oh, yeah. There was major drama. A couple of big breakups, people taking sides, it was a whole soap opera. Not my scene.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No worries, the breakups weren’t mine.”

Back at the kitchen counter, Aiken opened another can and poured flour into a bowl. “Where do you want to sit to eat?” There was a kitchen nook with facing built-in benches, and a broad dining table that could have sat eight over by the back picture window.

“The kitchen’s comfortable.”

“Sounds good. Can you set the table?”

Aiken retrieved the frying pan from beneath the ashes, raked hotter coals from the fire, stuck a couple of split logs under the grate, stirred the pot, and carried the frying pan back to the kitchen. The zombie apocalypse, he reflected, sure put the complaints he’d had in a former life about inconveniently designed kitchens into perspective.

He had found clean tea towels earlier; now he quickly placed the hot contents of the frying pan into one and folded it around them.

“What’s that?” Kelvin asked, placing cutlery.

“You’ll see.” He dabbed coconut oil in the hot pan and pushed it around with a spatula.

Kelvin reached above him to open a cupboard. “Do you want the drinking glasses with the cartoon animals on them, or the wine glasses? There’s no wine. The liquor store got trashed pretty early on.”

“I’m on it. Wine glasses, please. And you can sit down, if you want. We’re almost ready.”

“Do you want some dinner music?”

Aiken turned to look at him. “You have music? Seriously?”

“Some. I have an old phone and a couple of speakers.”

“I’ll listen to anything other than experimental jazz and death metal.” He’d spent a year working the brunch shift with a guy whose taste in music had certainly wakened them all up at seven on a Sunday morning but which Aiken would be happy to never experience again.

Kelvin pursed his lips. “I can say with confidence that neither of those are on this phone.”

“Then yeah, absolutely, I want music.”

While Kelvin went to bring some things from the living room to the table, Aiken dumped the contents of a can into the frying pan and rolled out his pastry. He made a rough lattice in the pan, covered it with the baking sheet, and took it back to the fire.

“Do you need a hand?” Kelvin asked.

“No, I’m good. Go ahead and start that overture.”

A somewhat tinny piano began to play, followed by a woman’s voice. Aiken ladled the soup into bowls, brought the tea towel and a little crock over, then slid into the bench opposite Kelvin.

“Potato, corn, and cheese chowder with sage,” he announced.

“We don’t have cheese.” Kelvin sniffed the steam curling from the bowl. “Do we have cheese?”

“You had Kraft dinner.” Aiken pulled a warm biscuit from the tea towel. “Baked biscuits with garlic and pepper butter. Sort-of butter.”

“I know we don’t have butter.”

“Coconut oil, canola oil, powdered milk, some other stuff.” Aiken broke open the biscuit. Surprisingly tender, he saw with satisfaction; he’d been a little iffy about the age of the baking powder.

“Oh my God.” Kelvin had swallowed a spoonful of soup. “How?”

“You just have to know what goes together.” It was a little strong on the salt, but Aiken had spent the last three days eating dry granola, peanuts, and apples; the soup was ambrosial. “Oh, I forgot.” He retrieved the pitcher of pear juice and ginger ale from the back of the counter and poured them each half a glass. “Sparking not-wine.”

Kelvin lifted the glass and sniffed it. “You are amazing.” He tilted it slightly towards Aiken in a toast. Another song started, something about looking out over water.

“A lot of cookbooks say you should always get the best ingredients you can afford, but in practise, you use what you can get.”

“Did you do a lot of cooking?”

“I went to the Chef School at George Brown.” Aiken took a bite of biscuit and paused to consider the taste of the butter. Maybe a little more garlic next time.

“Wow.” Kelvin shook his head. “I tried to learn to cook for myself, the year I lived alone. I bought cookbooks, I followed recipes, but I never could make anything taste as good as…” He waved a hand over their meal.

“As good as your mom used to make?”

Kelvin snorted a laugh. “My mom was a corporate accountant who never met a frozen dinner she couldn’t tolerate. I meant, as good as ordering take-out.”

“Okay, well, the secret to most restaurant food is, they use a shit-ton of butter and salt. I’m not joking!” he protested, as Kelvin laughed again. “You could have a heart attack just standing in front of the stove.”

Kelvin reached for another biscuit. “So, George Brown. The downtown campus, right? Did you ever go to Jiu’s Corner Eats at the Market?”

They chatted about their favourite indie take-out spots as they ate. Then Kelvin cleared away their bowls while Aiken brought the frying pan from the fireplace and set it on a trivet on the table.

“Bottomless blueberry pie,” he said, pulling off the baking tray.

Pie,” Kelvin said, almost with a groan. Not undeserved, Aiken thought; the pastry was golden brown, the blueberry filling bubbling a little over the edges of the lattice.

A harmony of voices burst from the speakers. “This sounds vaguely familiar.” Aiken hummed unevenly along as he spooned the pie into fresh bowls. The sprinkled sugar had caramelized on the lattice, and crackled as he broke it.

…blinking, step into the sun…” Kelvin sang, pleasantly and in tune.

Something, something, circle of life,” Aiken chimed in when the chorus broke and soared. “Hey, I know where that’s from. You’re a Disney fan?”

“I am now, I guess.” Kelvin tapped the pastry, shattering it into flakes. “That’s mostly what’s on the phone. I need to break up the silence sometimes, and I lost my own phone a while back.”

“Oh, so–” Aiken looked at the candy-coloured plastic speakers and the phone that Kelvin had set at the wall edge of the table. The phone’s case was pink and thick and rubbery, something that would absorb the impact if dropped by clumsy–or small–hands.

Well, shit.

“Yeah.” Kelvin’s expression went tight around the eyes. “I found it in one of the houses.”

He didn’t need to elaborate. Either some kid had left a treasure behind in the scramble of a family escaping with what they could grab, or…something far worse had happened.

“They were long gone. I wouldn’t have just–” Kelvin said, and his voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “Sorry.”

“Hey, it’s okay.”

Kelvin coughed. “Man, I hate how that happens. It’s like I forget, and then, boom–depth charge. Surprise, remember that the world ended?”

“Oh, yeah, I get that all the time.” Aiken had always thought his dreams were boring, until the zombie apocalypse had struck. Now, they were tedious until, in some vague dreamscape of standing in line at the coffee shop or prepping a fifty-pound bag of onions, he remembered, and then they were terrifying.

“I feel like, shouldn’t my brain be back to normal by now? Why do I keep getting surprised?”

That was stupidly familiar, because tragedy hadn’t entered the world with the zombie plague. The therapy that Aiken had resentfully entered into after his mom died had been gratifyingly useful in keeping him on an even keel the next time life as he knew it shattered like a dropped wine glass.

“I don’t think there is a ‘normal’ yet,” he said. “Big shit changes you. It takes time for you to understand how you’re going to be afterwards, and there’s no point in trying to rush it, no matter how much it sucks to be going through it.”

“In other words, one day at a time,” Kelvin said with a sigh.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

An upbeat rhythm jangled from the speakers, and they both jumped. Kelvin jabbed at the phone’s screen, and the room plummeted into silence so suddenly that Aiken’s ears rang.

Then wind stirred, brushing along the eaves of the house, and he shivered. In this moment they were safe, he reminded himself, safe and full and warm…

“Oh! One more thing.” He went to the fireplace and brought back the last small pot and two mugs he’d left heating on the hearth. “Chai tea brown sugar latte.”

Kelvin wrapped large hands around the handleless mug and took a sip. “You are some kind of wizard, you know that?”

Aiken sampled his own mug. Not terrible for instant milk and some powdered nondairy creamer he’d had to chip off the bottom of the jar. Could have done with more cinnamon. “This guy I knew used to complain about how spending money on restaurants was self-indulgent when there was so much that needed fixing in the world. But you know, I think we deserve indulgence. These days I think we deserve all the damn indulgence we can get.”

This guy I went out with, he’d almost said, and caught himself at the last second. Kelvin seemed cool, and Aiken had been out since he was fourteen, but being true to oneself took a back seat to discretion when a mistake in judgement could mean sleeping with the zombies.

Kelvin stretched. “If you want to go relax, I’ll do the dishes.”

And the whole thing was complicated by the fact that he was more attracted to this man the more time he spent with him. “Awesome. Thanks.”

He went into the living room and poked at the fire a bit. Probably no point in putting another log on this late in the evening. There were built-in bookshelves on either side of the fireplace, holding glossy nature photography books, mason jars of stones and shells, twisty bits of driftwood. He took down a volume about street food in Southeast Asia and sat cross-legged by the fire to page through it.

He resurfaced from a vanished world to find that his hands were cramped and the cold had seeped through his T-shirt; he’d taken off the fleece while he cooked and dropped it somewhere he couldn’t recall now, maybe in the kitchen nook. He shut the book and rubbed his hands along his chilly arms.

“Do you want a blanket?” Kelvin asked, coming down the stairs from the kitchen.

“Yeah, please.”

Kelvin went to the recliner chair and pulled off the quilt that was folded across its top. A pale shape flitted out from it.

“Dammit. I’ll give you circle of fucking life,” Kelvin muttered, grabbing at the moth with one hand. It fluttered out of his reach. He handed the quilt to Aiken, who wrapped it around his shoulders like a cloak. It still held a faint scent of laundry detergent.

Aiken sat on one end of the couch, drawing his legs up so that the quilt entirely encased him. He smothered a yawn. The day was catching up to him, but he didn’t really relish the idea of ending the evening yet. No matter how relieved he’d been to be out of Belleville, three days by himself had been about his limit.

Kelvin settled into the other end of the couch and drew the crocheted afghan around himself. He let out what sounded like a contented sigh. “This feels almost normal.”

“Yeah?”

“Hot food. Dishpan hands. The only thing missing is my roommates bickering over Drag Island.”

Aiken laughed. “Yeah, that sounds familiar.”

“Seriously. It’s good to not be the only one here, for once.”

Aiken looked over at him and opened his mouth to say something. Their eyes met, and it could have been just a shared glance and a smile, except that the moment stretched and tautened and turned into something heavy with possibility.

Kelvin tore his gaze away and looked down at his feet. It was hard for Aiken to tell under his dark skin, but he might have been blushing.

Aiken moved so that he was leaning his shoulder against the back of the couch, half-facing Kelvin. He extended his legs, gently nudging Kelvin’s leg. Kelvin shifted, his thigh pressing against the ball of Aiken’s foot.

The lights went out.

Aiken froze. Cold sweat washed over him as he strained for sound.

“There go the batteries,” Kelvin said. “Let’s hope it’s sunny tomorrow.”

Batteries. Solar power. Right. Not a zombie attack on a vulnerable hiding place, feral destruction of everything between them and their prey.

“I’ll get the candles.”

“Wait.” Aiken’s eyes began to adjust to the fire’s low glow. He could sense as much as see Kelvin, a solid warmth anchoring the other end of the couch. He arched his foot, rubbing his toes along the top of Kelvin’s thigh.

Kelvin ran his hand, large and warm, over the top of Aiken’s foot and up his calf. The touch was comforting and arousing in equal measure.

“Is it okay if I kiss you?” Aiken asked quietly into the dark.

Kelvin inhaled. “Yes.”

Aiken came up onto his knees and shuffled closer to Kelvin. He put a hand out and encountered soft yarn, then brushed it upwards until he found the slope of Kelvin’s shoulder. “Say something.”

“Okay. What?”

Following his voice, Aiken found Kelvin’s mouth. The first kiss was just a brushing touch, orienting himself, and then another, exploring, testing the angle. Kelvin’s hand came around Aiken’s shoulders, a stripe of additional warmth over the quilt. He opened his lips, letting Aiken in. Aiken tasted cinnamon and ginger.

“Is it okay if I sit in your lap?” Aiken asked after a bit.

“It would be very okay.”

He moved cautiously, sliding to straddle Kelvin’s thighs. The quilt slithered off his shoulders. He felt Kelvin catch it and pull it back up over Aiken’s shoulders and arms, draping them both in a tent of warmth.

The room was silhouette on shadow. Aiken couldn’t make out Kelvin’s face, but he felt every intake of breath, every shift of posture and movement of muscle. Kissing felt like a half-familiar language.

“We can stop wherever you want,” he said, “but if it’s fine with you, I’d really like to get my hands on your skin.”

“Hell, yes,” Kelvin breathed. He pushed back the quilt and his arms went up as he wrestled himself out of his sweatshirt, then the T-shirt underneath it. Aiken pulled his own T-shirt over his head, and arched his back to press in against hot bare skin.

They kissed some more. Aiken slid forward down Kelvin’s thighs so they were belly to belly, and skated his hands over sparse hair, smooth musculature, taut nipples. Kelvin flattened a hand against the small of Aiken’s back. Aiken could feel Kelvin’s arousal through his sweatpants, and knew that he himself wasn’t hiding anything.

Kelvin’s fingers wormed under the waistband of Aiken’s sweats. Aiken bucked his hips on a flood of lust.

“You interested in getting off?” Kelvin asked.

“Shit, yes.”

“Lift up a bit.”

Aiken did, and Kelvin eased his sweatpants and underwear down over his hips and ass to the top of his thighs, where it bunched and tightened. The fabric held his legs from spreading, and Kelvin’s body prevented him from closing them. Despite the canopy of the quilt, despite the dark, Aiken felt strikingly bare.

The tip of his freed erection bumped against Kelvin’s stomach, making him jerk with sensation. Kelvin rested his hands on the crease of Aiken’s thighs, thumbs making small circles. Aiken’s skin prickled as if he were feverish.

Kelvin cupped his balls gently, and pressed a finger behind them to stroke the sensitive skin there. Arousal pinned Aiken in place. Kelvin’s other hand travelled up Aiken’s ribs to rub his nipples, trace his collarbone, then come down tantalizingly slow to rest on his stomach just above the base of his cock.

Aiken shook, half a second and an unbearable eternity from coming. Time had dissolved, along with words; he knelt there and trembled, smelling woodsmoke and the faintly floral scent of Kelvin’s soap, hearing Kelvin’s uneven breathing and a soft hiss as a coal tumbled down in the fire.

Then Kelvin’s hand enveloped Aiken’s cock, and the world resumed, motion, ratcheting tension, the point of no return. Aiken managed to choke out a warning, and Kelvin made a half-coherent sound of encouragement; Aiken came and rode the aftershocks, ripples of pleasure sparking down his thighs and up his spine, until he drooped against Kelvin and closed his eyes and let his heartbeat slow.

After a few moments he turned his head and kissed the side of Kelvin’s neck. “How do you want to get off? Like that?”

“Yeah.” Kelvin slouched, and Aiken fumbled at the hem of his sweats, finding the tie and working it open. He pushed the waistband down. Kelvin’s cock fit nicely into his palm, not long but thick. Taking his cues from what Kelvin had done to him and the sounds he made, Aiken kept his touch light, bracing against the back of the couch to lick at Kelvin’s nipples and the skin over his ribs, tasting salt. When Kelvin rocked up, Aiken made a circle of his fingers, letting Kelvin thrust hot and damp into it, and used his other hand to stroke his balls and behind them. Kelvin made a sound like a sob and came, arching up and nearly unseating Aiken from his lap.

They slumped together for a little while. Then the feeling of never wanting to move passed, and they stirred and stretched. Aiken blinked into the dimness, wondering if Kelvin had such a thing as a box of kleenex in his hoard.

“Now I’m going to get the candles,” Kelvin said, and in a few moments he had lit two from the remains of the fire. It turned out he did have kleenex, in an alcove in a side table, and they cleaned up and threw the tissues into the fireplace, making flame flare up into gold and then subside.

Aiken had done more than his fair share of hooking up, and he always liked to keep things friendly; he’d never knowingly chosen a partner who he’d wanted to disappear the moment they were both finished. He looked at Kelvin, who was shaking out the quilt. His skin was burnished in the candlelight.

“That was nice,” he said.

“Yeah, it was.” Kelvin draped the quilt across Aiken’s shoulders again, tucking it around his neck as if to ward off a draft. “Do you want me to show you the spare room?”

“Sounds good.” Not that Aiken was averse to cuddling, but they weren’t really at the sharing-a-bed level of intimacy yet.

Kelvin handed him one of the glass jars that held the candles, and led him down the hallway again to a room at the end. It was an absolutely normal room, a double bed and a desk, walls covered with band posters, nothing broken or trashed, and for a moment Aiken felt as though he’d stepped back in time.

“I’m across the hall. Give me a shout if you need anything.”

“Will do.” Aiken hesitated, then put his hand on Kelvin’s arm and reached up to kiss him lightly.

“Good night,” Kelvin said, squeezing Aiken’s shoulder before he left.

Aiken shed the first layer of his clothing, spread the quilt over the bed, crawled between the sheets, and was asleep within minutes.

He awoke with dawn turning the room pink. He made his way quietly to the washroom, used the toilet, splashed his face and rinsed his mouth out with water from a bucket Kelvin had filled the previous evening before the power went out. The living room was empty, the fields beyond the windows misty. Aiken got the fire going, and got hot water and oatmeal with cardamom and raisins underway.

Kelvin stumbled into the kitchen. “Oh my God, you made tea?”

“Milk, too.” He pushed the little jug of reconstituted powdered milk towards Kelvin.

“You are incredible.”

They ate in the kitchen nook again. Birds were making a racket outside, and a squirrel ran across the roof. By the time Kelvin was doing the dishes, the fog seemed to be lifting, although the sun was filtering through growing clouds.

The shelf over the fridge was full of cookbooks, most of them crease-backed and dog-eared. There was a plaid Betty Crocker binder, and a Joy of Cooking that must have been from the Sixties. Aiken pulled it down and leafed through it. There were dates and comments in more than one person’s handwriting. Takes longer than it says. Needs seasoning. More prep next time.

“How hard would it be to teach me how to cook?” Kelvin asked, wiping his wet hands on the front of his sweatshirt. “Just a few basic things, I mean. Before you leave. Unless you wanted to leave today. Which, feel free, I was just thinking out loud.”

“You don’t mind if I hang around for a couple of days?”

“No, I don’t mind. You can stay as long as you want.”

The draw of a warm fire and stocked shelves and company was strong. “I want to move on before the bad weather comes.”

“I get that. I not even sure–I mean–” Kelvin folded his arms and looked out at the fields. “I don’t know if I want to spend all winter here by myself. You said there was something setting up in Napanee?”

“That’s what I heard. They’re converting a school, and they’re looking for people to help build a community.”

“Oh.” Kelvin made a face. “Somehow I don’t think a former reference librarian is the kind of person they have in mind.”

“Look, you’ve got skills,” Aiken said. “You’re organized as shit, and brave as hell. I mean, you saved me from zombies. You want to come along?”

Kelvin’s expression was torn between hope and doubt. “I don’t want to take anything for granted…just because we…” He flushed.

“You’re totally welcome to come,” Aiken said. “It’s probably only, what, a two- or three-day walk? It’s going to be safer with two of us than I was by myself.” He looked out the windows. “Not sure today’s going to be a great day to go, though. It looks like there might be rain later.”

“‘Red sky morning, sailors take warning,'” Kelvin quoted.

“See? You know things. We’ll go when the weather clears up.” Aiken flipped to the index. “In the meantime, do you want to try baking some bread?”

“Don’t you need yeast for that?”

“There’s a sourdough starter in my backpack.” Kelvin’s eyebrows went up, and Aiken grinned. “I know what’s important. Do you want to go out and rescue the little guy this morning?”

“Yeah, absolutely.”

“Cool. It’s a date,” Aiken said, and slid the book over so it lay open on the counter between them.

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5 thoughts on “Aiken Sings the Circle of Life

  1. This is really sweet. I found Aiken totally charming — any guy who totes around a sourdough starter in the apocalypse is instantly likeable. Loved all the clever food stuff especially — it’s kind of fun to think about how you might make nice stuff without the luxury of fresh food on hand.

  2. Your zombie-apocalypse setting continues being surprisingly cozy, and seeing characters enjoy luxuries like solar-powered amenities and packaged food while doing their best to connect with one another is just lovely. Humans have scrabbled themselves up from nothing before, we and our big brains and our opposable thumbs and our absolute rock-solid tenacity would naturally do our damnedest to pull that off again. You have a knack for creating a real sense of place. I also highly enjoy how the walkers are treated as more of an environmental hazard than anything else, in that they’re definitely a threat (if they weren’t we wouldn’t see Aiken getting their viscera hosed off of himself when the story opens), but the meat of the story is in how people prepare for them, recover from them, deal with them, etc. I think it’s a very smart choice.

    Loved the callback to the school in Constantine’s Red Letter Day, too! I like seeing how people are determined to survive in this harsh new environment and are interested in building communities to enable one another to thrive.

  3. This hits a little different in fall 2020, ngl.

    But I do love the way Kelvin and Aiken help each other and are both so generous with their skills and belongings. And before I got to the comments at the end, I was thinking, oh this reminds me of one of those nice zombie stories I’ve read in ssbb in the past, so even with a reader with a terrible memory, you were clearly hitting the same themes. This is a really nice read!

  4. We know Aiken gets to Napanee and stays there long term, but I don’t think we’ve seen Kelvin in the other stories. I wonder if he gets to Napanee and then what.

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