On Earth My Nina

by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by serenity_winner

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/217892.html)

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
Yesterday was not the first time I told someone I was an ornithologist and they thought I meant orthodontist, but I can pray it is the last.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard It’s ’cause you got such beautiful chompers!

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
I’m thinking: braces for birds — “Your smile will be im-pecker-ble!”

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
@pen_ham I’m confiscating your phone.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard Come and get it, chickadee.

Jonathan looked across the table, past the remnants of his plate of eggs and ketchup-smudged hashbrowns. Pen’s gaze remained fixed on his phone, tapping and swiping away. Jonathan wiggled his fingers a little in readiness underneath the table, and then made a move, reaching across. Pen twisted his body, pulling the phone out of reach while not even looking up from the screen.

“You’ll have to let your guard down eventually,” Jonathan said, making one last futile grab.

“I sleep with one eye open and one finger on the ‘tweet’ button,” Pen said, and grinned as he turned his phone to face Jonathan, showing him that he had just tweeted, ‘I’m thinking: HASHDOWNS, the first griddled breakfast food laden with barbiturates!’ Jonathan made a face and tugged his plate closer towards him. “What, it’s not like you’re driving today.”

The waitress came by and refilled Jonathan’s coffee when he nodded, and he swirled some cream into it to return it to the right color of sparrow-wing brown. “Well, okay, sure, if you just want me passed out in the passenger seat, fine….”

“You’re right, that sounds boring,” Pen said, and then his wide smile got wider. “Sunny side uppers, instead?”

Jonathan was quick this time and reached out to put a hand over Pen’s before he could pull his phone up and tweet anything. “No thanks, I’m full.”

Pen turned his hand around to tickle Jonathan’s palm a little, but he didn’t remove his hand, no matter how much the feeling of his fingers made the hairs on his neck stand on end. Pen pointed with his other hand to the piece of bacon Jonathan had left on his plate. “So, you’re not going to finish that?”

“Nope,” Jonathan said, and Pen let out a little maniacal laugh of triumph before snatching it off of his plate and smudging it through the syrup on his own. “I thought we might save it as bait.”

“I don’t know if they really tend to go for cured meats,” Pen said, bacon piece flopping from the edge of his mouth. “They tend to go for live stuff, you know? Pigs, dogs, children…”

“Bacon is pig,” Jonathan said.

Pen ate the last of the bacon and gave him a porky grin. “We’ll get a to-go box.”

They did get a to-go box, but it was full of sandwiches for later, and Jonathan found a place to safely nestle it in the car’s tiny back seats. Pen was already settling in to the driver’s seat, doing the shifting and adjusting necessary to get a man of his substance properly seated in a car designed for 1960s body types. The T-Bird was, in Jonathan’s opinion, not really the best vehicle for this trip, but Pen had insisted. It only made sense, he had said.

He put his knees up on the dashboard and tilted his head to the rear-view mirror to see if he had any crumbs in his beard. “What’s on the map today?”

“Taton, New Mexico!” Pen said, turning the key in the ignition and smiling as the car growled into life. “My research tells me there was a sighting there.”

Jonathan glanced over at him, eyebrow raised. “Your research, huh?”

Pen laughed as he backed out of the diner’s parking lot. “Hey, man, I did research. I did a google. I websited. I talked to a librarian. I got books. On eBay I got books, so you know they’re legit.”

“Oh, deeply legit,” Jonathan said.

“It’s the creepy old used bookstore of the 21st century, man, you’ve gotta get with it,” Pen said as they got back on the road. Jonathan sunk down into his seat a little more, letting the wind go through his hair. The combination of the convertible and the Southwestern landscape made him feel a little bit sometimes like he should be smoking a cigarette and being the coolest dude in the universe, but more often it made him feel like Thelma. Well, at least then he might get to have sex with Brad Pitt.

Pen fiddled with the radio for a while, until he found a station playing classic rock. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel for a while, the only sounds between them the wail of guitars, the rumble of the engine, and the roar of the wind. But Penrose Hamilton had never allowed a comfortable silence grow to any ripe old age. “That orthodontist guy was into you, though.”

Jonathan raised his eyebrows, then reached into the glovebox to get his very hip prescription sunglasses. It was sunny, sure, but mostly he wanted to have his reactions somewhat concealed. “Was he?”

“Oh, yeah,” Pen said. “So much eyefucking going on he needed to put rubbers on all of his eyelashes.”

Jonathan laughed. “Well, did you see his teeth? Probably just angling for some free braces.”

“Not your type?”

“Not my type,” Jonathan said, and Pen just chuckled. Jonathan had a very, very definite type, one he’d been fixated on for a good twenty years. If Pen had forgotten what that was, well, maybe it was for the best.

The Birds In My Beard

So, things to know: there is no town in New Mexico called ‘Taton.’ And the people who live around the area where Taton does not exist, well, they do not particularly know much about things that happened in 1892. And when you bring up specifically that you want to know more about a child stolen by a giant eagle in 1892, they ask you to leave the 7-11.

However, I did see a quail.

When they’d been roommates in college way back in the mists of the early ’90s, Jonathan had known, as corny and cliche as it seemed, that Pen was destined for greater things. When Pen had dropped out of college in junior year to seek his fortune in ways that didn’t involve writing essays, Jonathan felt even more certain. They’d kept in touch as best they could back in those days, while Pen hustled and Jonathan went to increasingly more and more school. By the time he’d gotten his doctorate and moved back to the west coast, Pen had put a lasso around the internet and made dot-com millions. To Jonathan’s surprise, he wanted to meet up again and spend at least a few of those dollars buying Jonathan dinner, getting him drunk, and remembering old times.

So it had stayed that way for the past ten years or so: Jonathan up in the woods north of San Francisco, Pen down in the Bay, emailing and IMing and occasionally coming into contact with each other in the flesh every month or so. Pen was the kind of guy who was friends with everyone; it was no surprise he’d want to keep the little feathered asteroid that Jonathan was in his orbit. Whatever Jonathan thought or felt about him really wasn’t that important. He was nothing like Pen’s best friend, which was why it surprised him so much when Pen had called him a few months ago.

He hadn’t heard from Pen in a while before it. Pen had a habit of going dark for a while every once in a while; the guy had sold PalPlace.com for boatloads before the bubble burst and better social networks came along, so these days he was busy shitting money onto startups that amused him or throwing cash at charities. Jonathan had been a long time since hearing from him when he’d called this time, though. And he’d called, he’d actually called on the telephone. Not a text, not an email, an actual phone call. Jonathan had stood next to his truck in the woods, stock-still to keep from losing signal out in the wild like one was apt to, and listened as Pen told him about the dream.

Pen called it a vision, of course. Jonathan didn’t think middle-aged white dudes had visions without chemical interference, but Pen promised he’d been entirely sober when it had come to him.

“A Thunderbird,” he’d said, sounding almost out of breath over the crackling cell phone connection. “I didn’t even know what a Thunderbird was two days ago, other than a car and an e-mail client, but I saw this and I knew. I just knew.” Jonathan had heard Pen excited more times than he’d heard him anything else, but this was different.

“The Thunderbird came to me,” Pen had said, “and now I have to come to it.”

And that was how Jonathan came to be driving throughout the U.S. with Pen, guided on a meandering map of half-baked sightings and old myths. Pen had asked him to come for a month, just a month. Jonathan had tons of vacation time and sabbatical rights and no real reason to say no, other than how the whole thing put all of his professional credibility at stake. His blog did that, too, of course, but blogs didn’t involve leaves of absence.

It was Pen, though. He just couldn’t ever say no to Pen.

They were on the road when his phone buzzed with an email notification. Someone had read his blog and had written to let him know that the kid who’d been snatched up by a giant eagle a hundred and twenty years ago had been in Raton, New Mexico, which was entirely a real place, on Google Maps and everything. So much for Pen’s research. They were already halfway on their backtrack to Arizona — Pen mapped his route through no logical order known to man — though, so Jonathan made the executive decision not to interrupt his plan.

Jonathan turned his phone towards Pen. “Look,” he said. Pen glanced over; the roads were straight and empty enough that he could take his eyes off the road for a good long while and be okay. “A bird is giving a man a fistbump! It’s amusing because this is not usual behavior for a bird.”

Pen looked at the picture, of the parrot with its little foot balled up against a man’s fist, and laughed. “Is it? Is that really not usual behavior?” Making Pen smile was as easy as getting ice to melt in summer, but it still always made Jonathan’s heart flip a little.

“Well, you know, parrots, you can get them to do just about anything.”

Pen arched his eyebrow high above the edge of his glasses. “Anything?”

“Do not be foul,” Jonathan said, and held up his hand to ward off Pen before he made some crack about chickens. “They’re crazy intelligent, though. It sort of makes me nervous. Some of them know how to play the piano or do math.”

“You can’t take that kind of stuff too seriously, man,” Pen said. “They’re just doing whatever it takes to get seeds or fruit or whatever it is they eat.” He lifted a hand in the air in a fist, a fine imitation of the bird on Jonathan’s phone. “Just like us, when we’re working for the man.”

“Ah, yes, the man,” Jonathan said, and put his phone away, settling back in his seat with his eyes closed. Jonathan was a government employee, if you wanted to get technical about it, but that didn’t actually bother Pen. “Damn the man.”

“Save the Empire,” Pen said, and Jonathan laughed. “Oh, oh, get my phone out of my pocket. I need you to tweet something for me.”

Jonathan cracked open an eye. “I’m not tweeting for you. That’s not in my contract.”

“You can either get my phone for me or risk me tweeting while driving,” Pen said. “You don’t want that, man. There are PSAs.”

Jonathan sighed and reached across between them to dig in Pen’s pocket, trying his best not to let his fingers brush over the curve of his stomach or linger too long on his hip. He huffed a breath as he opened up the Twitter app. “Okay, what genius thought does the internet need to hear right this instant?”

Pen spread one hand out in front of him, framing his beautiful thought. “‘I’m thinking: FEMPIRE RECORDS, the all riot grrl music emporium!'”

Jonathan shook his head a little, but tapped it in. “Someone’s probably thought of that one already, you know.”

“Bah,” Pen said. “We’ll just have to become business partners, then.” Jonathan turned Pen’s phone about awkwardly in his fingers, unsure of what to do with it now, until Pen tilted his hip upwards. “Okay, I’m done for now, you can put it back.”

Jonathan bit the inside of his lip lightly and put the phone back into the pocket of Pen’s jeans as delicately as he could, but Pen still squirmed a bit. “Ticklish, damn you!” he laughed. “Oh, angle it in a little more and then send me a lot of texts. That’ll make the next hundred miles a lot more interesting.”

Jonathan pulled out his phone and wrote a text to Pen that said ‘YOU ARE ABSURD.’ A few seconds later he could hear the ‘bzzrt’ of Pen’s phone vibrating his his pocket, followed by Pen’s delighted giggle. “That’s all you get,” he said. “I don’t want you offroading.”

Pen made a disappointed little moue, and Jonathan just looked at the screen of his phone until it went dark, thinking about what other things he might have said.

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
Fun fact: ‘bird strike’ is the term for when a bird smacks into a plane. It hurts the bird much more than the plane.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
Fun fact: ‘bird strike’ is the term for when birds refuse to work until they get better labor conditions or work benefits.

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
@pen_ham Hoo, tell me about it. The big Bird Strike of 2008 was really rough for my profession.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard I remember it! That little Sally Field bird holding that sign that said UNION, just flapping her heart out.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard NO JUSTICE, NO BEAKS!

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
@pen_ham Whoops, and now I’m on strike, too.

“You have to admit, though, the guy had some pretty compelling evidence,” Pen said, partially through a taco.

“He had a lot of bent-up metal parts,” Jonathan said. Pen had been a little sulky after the meeting with man who claimed a Thunderbird had hit his plane had not turned out to be the rock-solid evidence he was hoping for. Fortunately, Pen was easily mollified with carnitas and was back to being chipper and dedicated.

Bloodstained bent-up metal parts!” He wiped the grease from his fingers onto a paper napkin. “And you saw the pictures he had. Those were some seriously big feathers and bird goop.”

“The technical term is ‘snarge,'” Jonathan said.

Pen looked up from his taco. “‘Snarge?'” he said, nose wrinkling. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Jonathan said, and shook his head. “Yeah, I’ll give you that it was definitely a big bird. Probably a condor or something. They get huge. But not… huge.”

Pen looked up at the sky. They were seated at the little picnic tables outside of the restaurant, and the wind was starting to pick up, getting colder. The stars were just beginning to peek out in the darkening sky. Pen was smiling. “But you have to think… what if, you know? It could be.”

Jonathan had been playing the voice of reason, the scientist, the actual man who knew anything at all about wingspans and the amount of weight a large bird could lift, where Pen was the dreamer, the impossible thinker. Jonathan had thought for the trip up to this point that Pen couldn’t really be entirely serious about this whole endeavour. This was just your standard mid-life crisis, an excuse to tool around the country for a while in a classic car while being ridiculous. Something like a grown-up spring break. He watched Pen’s eyes scan the sky, watched the brightening stars reflect in his dark eyes, and had to wonder.

“Do you…” Pen didn’t look at him. “Do you really think so? Really?”

Pen looked right at Jonathan and hit him with the full force of his smile, that beautiful madman’s grin that felt like a laser-guided bullet right into Jonathan’s core. “I just feel it,” he said, soft and awed. “Even before I dug up all this evidence and read all the stories, I just felt it. I just know. People everywhere, all over the country have been talking about them since the beginning. They’re out there; I just have to find one. This is what I’m supposed to do.”

Pen went back to scanning the skies, and Jonathan let out a soft breath. “It… was a particularly large amount of snarge in those photos.”

“Wasn’t it?” Pen said, downright giddy. “I wish they’d been in color.”

“No. No, you probably don’t.” The last of Jonathan’s own tacos had gotten cold. He picked a few of the slivers of red onion off of it and ate them; it wasn’t like he’d be kissing anyone anytime soon. “So… what are we going to do if we find one?”

“Man,” Pen said, and leaned back from the picnic table bench, clinging to the table as he stretched backwards, the bottom of his t-shirt riding up to show the faintly furry rise of his stomach. Jonathan tried not to stare. “I don’t really know. I figure I’ll figure it out when it happens. Destiny and shit.”

“It’s just that, you know, in all these stories you’ve been telling me of people seeing them, it tends to involve a small child or young man being snatched up in horrible sharp talons and carried away.”

Pen laughed. “Ah, I’m not worried. I’m a big fat guy!” He put a hand over his belly and gave it a rub to illustrate. “I’ll just weight it down back to earth.”

“Okay, but what about me?” Jonathan asked. He wasn’t a slim man, himself, but he wasn’t big like Pen; a theoretical aerodynamically absurd giant bird might be able to get lift-off with him in tow.

“Ah, I’ll just grab on to your leg and bring the whole mess down,” Pen said, waving his hand. “And if I don’t, well, maybe you’ll get to check out the nest.”

“Of course,” Jonathan said. “I’ll scope out the ingredients for a Thunderbird omelette.”

Pen ate radish slices off of Jonathan’s abandoned taco. “You know, according to Sioux legend, Thunderbird eggs are the size of South Dakota.”

“Huh,” Jonathan said. “You’d think that’d be easy to find.”

“You’d think!” Pen said. He met Jonathan’s eyes, smiling, and licked a little lime juice off his fingers. “But we haven’t been everywhere yet.”

Jonathan knew right then that this trip was going to last longer than a month. It was fine. He could use the time off. “Not even to South Dakota.”

Pen tapped his temple. “It’s on the agenda. We’ll get there.” Pen tossed his crumpled up napkin on the table and started wadding up the tinfoil remains of the tacos. “Ready to head out? Magic phone tells me we can get pretty far before it gets too late.”

Jonathan stood up from the table. “Point the way and I’ll drive.”

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
If anyone ever suggests to you that you drive across the country in a 50-year-old car, maybe don’t listen to them?

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
I am getting to experience the only Mobil station in Perry, Oklahoma, though.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard SAVOR IT

“It smells of cow,” Jonathan said, not looking up from his phone.

“You like cow!” Pen said, tapping his phone against his lips as he looked out over the very, very flat horizon.

“Like the end of a cow,” Jonathan clarified.

“It’s local flavor!” Pen said. They’d been on the road for several months, and it was far from the first time the car had run into some sort of mechanical problem. Pen had said he’d souped the thing up before taking it out, but there was only so much you could do with old hardware. There was a reason the serious car guys tended to let their babies just sit and be pretty. Jonathan was getting more used to waiting outside a mechanic’s than he liked. He just hoped this round didn’t involve ordering a part; that had meant Pen cooped up in a motel room for over a week, which was problematic for a variety of reasons, like his ideas for reality shows and the way he spent a lot of time in a robe that he was not good at closing the whole way. Jonathan had been taking a lot of very long showers on this trip.

“Not the kind of flavor I’m interested in,” Jonathan said, stretching his legs out. It looked like a storm might be blowing in, dark clouds coming in at the edge of the sky. Brought by giant wings, perhaps.

“Hey, we’re seeing the sights,” Pen said. “You can ask the mechanic about the local wildlife or something. Maybe we’ll see a roadrunner.”

Jonathan smiled. For all his passion about mythical birds, Pen did not know shit about the actual proven ones; they’d left major roadrunner territory while back. Still, Jonathan didn’t feel like bursting Pen’s bubble. “Leave your dynamite at home.”

Pen stretched an arm along the back of the bench they were sitting on, not quite touching the back of Jonathan’s shoulders. “You know, I almost named my first company ‘Acme.'”

“You did not.”

“It was among the contenders!” As far as Jonathan knew, Pen’s first company had been called HamTech and had not been successful.

Jonathan held out his hands, framing his words in marquee with the same wide-eyed delight as Pen always had when he did the same thing. “I’m thinking: Ack! Me!”

Pen laughed and snapped the fingers on the hand that wasn’t creeping around Jonathan’s shoulder, transforming the sound into a proud finger gun. “Oh, see, you even know the slogan! You now owe me the licensing fee.”

Jonathan smiled and relaxed back a little, letting his shoulders press against Pen’s arm for a little bit. It wouldn’t do too good to stay too long in a position like that, not here in the heartland, but for just a few seconds, it was nice. “You can have thirty percent of the nothing I got for using it.”

Pen pumped his fist a little. “Nice.

“Is that too generous? What’s your usual rate?”

Pen lifted his arm up, tucking both of his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. “I don’t negotiate without my lawyer present.”

“Does your lawyer even know where you are?” Pen had brought no technology with him on this journey other than his phone; if he’d been doing any business, he’d been doing it while Jonathan was in one of those long showers.

“She knows I’m alive,” Pen said, and Jonathan supposed that was good enough. Pen kept his eyes closed and hummed a little, some snippet of a pop song they’d heard on the radio earlier, and they sat there in peaceful companionship, Jonathan watching the clouds come in. They’d have to go inside if it started to rain.

“Storm’s a-brewin’,” Jonathan said, in his best impression of a grizzled New England lighthouse keeper.

“Ayuh,” Pen said, without opening his eyes. He rarely slept more than six hours a time at nights, but was prone to catnapping in twenty-minute bursts in the car. One minute he’d be running his mouth, and the next he’d be snoozing.

A little bird, white-breasted and grey-winged, hopped across the dirt in front of them, peeping and cheeping like a little toy horn as it pecked around for crumbs. Jonathan elbowed Pen in the ribs, and pointed to the bird when he opened his eyes. “Look who brought the clouds,” he said. “Think he’s what you’re looking for?”

Pen smiled. “Only if I got really huge while I had my eyes closed.” The bird hopped a little closer to them, then away again. “What is it, really?”

Jonathan let out a deep, weary sigh. “It’s a nuthatch.” Pen made a deep snorting sound, an entirely internal laugh. “Yes, yes, I know, I know.”

“You sure? It’s not a tit?”

“It’s not a tit,” Jonathan said. “I’m glad to see you haven’t let being in your forties mature you.”

Pen’s laugh hitched a little, but he shook his head. “Never. Keeps me young.”

The door to the garage opened and clattered shut again, and the little nuthatch flew off. The mechanic that Pen had had a very rousing and excited conversation about different models of Thunderbirds with earlier came out to stand in front of them. He was a young man, broad and square and cornfed as hell. Not really Jonathan’s usual type, but it had been an exceedingly dry trip; he didn’t mind spending a while looking at the way the sweat made his shirt cling to his chest.

“I’m afraid I’m going to need a little more time with her, fellas,” he said. “If you wait around until I close up here, though, I can take you into town and you can get a room.”

“The lady demands, and so we must obey her,” Pen said, and the mechanic smiled. Jonathan had had some concerns that the non-coastal types might not find Pen’s manner appealing, but the rat-bastard just had a way with everyone. Jonathan let him do the talking, always. “We’d really appreciate that, thank you. And as a token of our gratitude, after we get the room thing sorted, if you know the location of somewhere that serves adult beverages, it would be my pleasure to buy you several.”

The mechanic laughed and wiped some sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “No shit?” he said. “Yeah, I could use a beer or two.”

“Or three, or four…” Pen said.

“Hey, you get me too drunk and it’s going to take even longer to get your car fixed up.”

“Hey, I can tell,” Pen said, the wattage in his smile Times-Square-bright, “in your capable hands, she’ll be purring in no time.”

He had a way with people, a universal flirtation, a confidence deep in his fat gut that he could make anyone like him, an assurance that he could make the whole room want to go home with him and then walk out alone whistling. Jonathan looked at Pen’s grin, at the sweat on the mechanic’s neck, and decided he was really ready for those beers.

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
I am one hungover ornithologist.

The Birds in my Beard

If you’re lucky, you can see a yellow-headed blackbird in Ohio. If you’re very lucky, apparently you can also see a yeti.

One collective noun for blackbirds is ‘merl.’ A merl of blackbirds. I don’t know what the collective noun for yeti is, but I’m going to suggest a ‘lumber.’ Of course, if you see a lumber of yetis, you should probably pick up your camera and get out of there.

“Fucking SASQUATCH!” Pen shouted as he slammed his hand on the steering wheel.

“Well, if we find it, we have his number,” Jonathan said.

“Like twelve different emails!” Pen said, waving one hand around wildly in the air. “Twelve different emails with this guy about how he’s a fucking cryptozoological expert and knows Native American legends out the ass, and we go see him and all he’s fucking got is fucking SASQUATCH! Oh, yeah, that’s right, buddy, I said sasquatch, fuck you and your yeti, probably just a fucking bear.”

“At least he made good coffee.”

Pen stopped gesticulating and took a breath, calming a bit. He pointed at Jonathan and nodded. “Damn fine cup of coffee, I will give you that.” He put both hands back on the wheel and let out a deep huff. “But fuck him and fuck his sasquatch, seriously.”

Jonathan crumpled himself into the seat a bit more, looking deep into the trees that they drove past. “Don’t fuck the sasquatch.”

Pen narrowed his eyes at the road in front of them. “I bet he wants to fuck the sasquatch.”

Jonathan laughed. “Yeah, probably,” he said. “He was eyeing my beard pretty funny.” The yeti guy had been in a house not too different from Jonathan’s own, tucked in the woods and full of the paraphernalia of his obsession. He was more fur than feathers, though, in many ways; he was broad-shouldered and possessing quite a substantial beard himself, a thick man clad in plenty of flannel. Jonathan had had a funny eye on him, himself.

Pen was starting to smile again. His moments of anger always came like summer storms, hard and quick; who knew what kind of birds brought those. “You’re the only sasquatch I’m interested in,” he said. “My mini-sasquatch. Miniquatch. Manquatch.”

“Sasquette,” Jonathan provided, and Pen laughed brightly. He snaked the car through the wooded road, heading back to civilization. Pen flipped the radio on, fiddling with it until it landed on a country station. Jonathan listened to twangy guitar and thought about how far he was from home, how far he was from his usual routines, his usual life. “You know, I might’ve.”

“You might’ve?” Pen said, and glanced over to see Jonathan give him a meaningful glance over the top of his glasses. “…Oh, you might’ve. With him?”

Jonathan had never gone full-on for the bear thing, but the longer he stayed on the road with Pen, the weaker his inner criteria got. “Sure, if he could’ve shut up for a few minutes.”

“Well,” Pen said, his grin ratcheting up on one side only, matching with the arch of his eyebrow. “There’s always one good way to get someone like that to shut up.”

Pen talked a lot. “At least one.”

Pen shook his head. “Hey, man, if you ever feel so inspired, don’t let me get in your way. Just, give me the word, or the hand signal, or…” He made some gesture with his hand, something that looked halfway between the Shocker and a Vulcan greeting. Not the most subtle.

“No, no, it’s okay,” Jonathan said. It was, in theory, totally okay. He was a middle-aged man who could handle a dry spell, but in reality, he hadn’t had this long of a dry spell since before he’d come out. He hadn’t had a steady boyfriend for a few years, but that was never a reason to stop getting laid. It wasn’t every night or even every week, but he knew the bars to go to and the websites to hit up when he was but a human man with some human goddamn needs. But what was he supposed to do on this trip? Tell Pen, ‘you chill out for a few hours; I’m going to go suck a stranger’s cock?’ The terrible thing about that thought was knowing that Pen would just smile and tell him to have a good time.

No, the terrible thing about that thought was that he couldn’t just say, ‘you chill out for a bit; I’m going to suck your cock.’ They weren’t in college anymore. Things were different.

“It’s okay,” he said again. “I was just saying.”

Pen shrugged. “I mean, he wasn’t a bad-looking guy…”

“Nice beard,” Jonathan said, with a soft sigh.

Pen glanced over at him. “Ah, I’ve seen better,” he said, and then winked.

Jonathan swallowed a little and ran his hand over his beard. He’d let it grow a little longer on the trip; he needed a haircut, too, meaning he really did look admirably sasquatch-esque. “Well, thanks…”

Pen reached over and put his fingers under Jonathan’s chin, scratching them through his beard. The contact was brief and ridiculous, but still made the hairs on his arms stand upright and his heart do double-time. “Yours is the only beard for me,” Pen said, happy and oblivious.

Jonathan took a slow breath. “Hey, you think you could pull over for a bit? I need to piss.”

“Yeah?” Pen said, and started to slow the car down, taking it into the pebbly, grassy shoulder. “Me too, actually. I didn’t want to see what that guy’s bathroom was like.”

“Yeti-foot toilet paper holder, I’d bet,” Jonathan said, and got out of the car when Pen parked. They both walked a little into the woods a few feet apart, each finding their own tree to mark. They’d actually made a little point of it, sort of a side quest to their main one, to take at least one nature piss in every state.

He peed on a dry leaf and focused on listening to the different bird calls filtering through the trees instead of letting himself spare even a moment’s thought to Pen holding his dick four feet away.

“Hey, you know what this reminds me of?” Pen asked. Jonathan could tell he was smiling at him, but he didn’t look over.

“The last time we peed in the woods?”

“Sort of,” he said. “Remember in college, when we went to Tahoe? Everyone else was skiing and we got locked out forever? Made all kinds of yellow snow.”

Jonathan took a breath and put a his dick back in his pants before putting a hand on the tree in front of him. “Not all we made,” he said, soft and low, barely more than a thought. Now that he’d said it, it seemed a marvel he’d made it all these months without saying anything like it before, but Pen could not only manage to ignore an elephant in the room, he’d ride the damn thing.

Pen was quiet for a few moments, long enough for a bird to squeal a loud chr-chr-chr overhead; he echoed the sound a little in his own laugh. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Jonathan had been nowhere near the closet door and skittish about even thinking the word ‘gay’ to himself when they’d roomed together that year in college. But things were different with Pen; things were easy with Pen. That combination and alcohol together lead to him and Pen cramped up on one of their tiny dorm beds, to Pen’s being the first man he ever kissed, the first man whose dick he sucked, the first who ever sucked his. It was drunk and awkward and ridiculous, but Jonathan had just never stood a chance since that day. He’d thought it would be a one time thing, but it kept happening again and again, in their beds, in the middle of the night in the dorm showers, in the woods with their knees getting wet with snow outside of a ski lodge. Jonathan had had boyfriends since then, had slept with enough men that he had no chance of remembering all their names, but he always had to come back in the end to how he had one name written right over his heart and it was spelled P-E-N.

He heard the rustling of the leaves as Pen came a little closer. “You ever think about that? You know… back then?”

Jonathan laughed a little dryly, looking out into the trees. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I do.”

He could hear Pen smiling. “We had fun.”

Jonathan looked over at him. Twenty years of basically pretending none of it ever happened, and now Pen was smiling at him about it in the woods in Ohio. He had to smile a little at the perfect absurdity of it. “We did,” he said. “You were pretty drunk the whole time, though.”

Pen shrugged a little. “Eh, so were you. And I wasn’t as much so as you think.” He’d snuck his way closer into Jonathan’s orbit. “It was a real good time.”

“It was,” Jonathan said. His fingers curled on the treebark, the little scrape of it keeping him somewhere in the real world.

Pen kept smiling, the curve of his mouth sweet, and looked at him through his eyelashes. “I’m just saying… it’s just the two of us on all this. I mean, sure, I’m older and fatter now, but I know I’m definitely prettier than any yeti guy.”

Jonathan could feel his heart beating in his eyes. Now? Now? “Shit, Pen…”

Pen laughed and reached out to curl his fingers around the back of Jonathan’s neck; he couldn’t stop his eyes from fluttering shut for a moment. “Couldn’t hurt to have a little fun again, you know? Like old times.”

“Yeah…” Jonathan breathed out, and that was all the cue Pen needed to lean in and kiss him. His lips were a little chapped and his mouth tasted like coffee, and Jonathan could feel his entire world stopping, heart, breath, head. He closed his eyes and kissed him back.

And then he stopped. He put his hands on Pen’s chest and pushed him back a little. Pen made a softly disappointed sound of question, and Jonathan let out an unsteady breath. “Wait, no,” he said, and kept his eyes focused on his fingers on Pen’s chest. “It’d be fun.” He laughed a little, weak and wavering. “Very fun. But there are just… emotions. Involved. Emotions involved.”

“Emotions?” Pen said.

Jonathan crinkled his face in a grimace. If he licked his lips he could still taste Pen there, and it would just make his body angrier that his son-of-a-bitch brain had everyone’s best interests in mind. “Feelings,” he said, and winced more at the word and the words that came out of him after. “I have feelings. For you.”

“Oh,” Pen said softly. “…This whole time?”

“Yeah,”Jonathan said, and forced out a breath he was holding. “So, so yeah. We aren’t in college anymore, and we could have fun, yeah, but I think someone would end up getting hurt.” Someone was an interesting new pronunciation of I that Jonathan was trying out. “So… no.”

Pen took a step back and Jonathan lifted his eyes to look at him. He rubbed the back of his neck and hunched in a little, brow knitted as he chewed on the inside of his lip. Jonathan wasn’t sure he’d ever seen a sight like this before: Pen Hamilton completely thrown off of his game and unsure of where to set his next step.

“Well, uh…” Pen let out a nervous little laugh and turned up the smile again, though it was a little unsure. “Hey, no worries. Just a thought. Just a, uh, yeah. Just an idea.” He shook his head and laughed a little more. “C’mon, let’s get back on the road.”

They hiked up the small hill back to the car, and Pen nervously drummed his hands on the steering wheel as they started driving again, the first uncomfortable silence in the whole damn trip clogging up the air between them. But then he slapped his hand on the wheel hard enough to make Jonathan start, and said, “So what I’m saying is, fuck sasquatches!”

Jonathan let out a very slow breath. “Fuck them right in their imaginary asses,” he said, keeping his eyes on the road’s yellow divider line.

“Oh, I’m not saying they’re imaginary,” Pen said. “But I’m saying they can go screw.”

“Ah, a critical distinction, pardon me,” Jonathan said. He had a dull ache in his chest, but it was fading — or at least getting back to the level he was accustomed to.

“Anyway, we’re getting milkshakes,” Pen said, firmly, and Jonathan fired up the GPS to point them to the nearest Sonic. Brain freeze sounded deeply appealing.

The Birds in my Beard

You don’t need to have a powerful telescope to see the constellation Cygnus, but it certainly does make it more exciting. Isn’t much good for seeing any non-space-birds, but damn, is it cool.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard Hey, nerd, quit stargazing and come back in. Joel wants to hear about your blog.

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
@pen_ham There is not much to hear about my blog. It is a blog. It has birds. It is a bird blog.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard Okay, fine, just come back in because I miiiisss yooooou

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
@pen_ham Shh, I’m having a vision. You doing anything for the next nine months? I need to go looking for Spacebirds.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard Sign me up!

After nearly a week of camping in the Adirondacks, which mostly involved staring at the treetops and sharing a tent with Pen, Pen declared himself sick to shit of it of roughing it and spent fifteen minutes furiously texting before announcing a new compass heading for the T-bird, one that lead straight to the ridiculous huge rich jerk house of his friend Joel, who had also made more money than was at all sensible from having a website. Jonathan couldn’t complain; he had a couple of those showers with three or four different heads coming out of the walls, a seemingly endless assortment of beers, a grill that could have steaks put on it, and, most importantly, was someone other than each other for the two of them to talk to. Someone who didn’t have theories about the Chupacabra.

Jonathan wasn’t tired of Pen, not at all; he’d hit the ‘tired of Pen’ mark for a few days around month three, but had bravely soldiered on and now had essentially forgotten what it was like to spend longer than the span of a hot shower or a decent shit apart. It was strange, after so long like this, to think that he used to spend so much time alone. It would take a bit of acclimation when he went home. Whenever he went home.

Joel and Pen were cut from the same cloth, so after enough beers, they both started talking in a way that Jonathan, a man who had never ventured any capital, could think to break into, fast and constant, and he went to watch the stars. He drank his beer and listened to the crickets, the soft hooting of owls in the trees. He looked up at the sky and smiled; now, of course, would be the perfect poetic time for him to see a pair of huge dark wings spread across the sky.

When he came back inside, Pen had Joel scooted near him around the table, peering at an item Jonathan was very, very familiar with. Much of Pen’s “research,” Jonathan had discovered, came from a men’s adventure magazine from the 60’s he’d found, the kind that had stories about hidden Nazi gold and dangerous women next to the story about monster birds carrying off men. They’d hit most of the locations mentioned in it, but Pen always had more leads to keep them moving. He was showing it to Joel now, pointing at the black and white picture of debris of a downed airplane supposedly hit by a Thunderbird. No snarge, though, sadly.

Jonathan was more than a little drunk and tired. He came up and put a hand to the back of Pen’s head, scratching his fingers a little through the dark, cool strands. Pen looked up at him with the smile of a dog eager to see its master again after a long day, and Jonathan just laughed.

“Jonathan!” Pen said, and he had a charming flush to his face from drinking. “I showed Joel your blog.”

“I like your blog,” Joel said.

“He likes your blog!” Pen said.

“Have you thought about monetizing it at all?” Joel said. He had thick eyebrows and thick glasses, and when he talked his thick eyebrows bunched up below his thick glasses. “Ad partnerships, maybe an Amazon affiliate program or something?”

Jonathan laughed and shook his head. His hand was still resting on Pen’s neck where it met his shoulder, and he was just going to leave it there if no one said anything about it. “No, no,” he said. “It’s just a silly little blog where I write silly little things about birds. I don’t think anyone even reads it.”

“I read it!” Pen said.

“Yeah, and you monetize me plenty.” He tilted his beer bottle back to get the last dregs of it down his gullet, and then gave Pen a little squeeze on the shoulder. “I am old and decrepit and tired. You guys going to get into too much trouble if I go crash?”

Pen tilted his head back and made a ‘pssh!’ noise. “We’ve never been in a minute of trouble in our lives.”

Joel shook his head. “Second door on the right upstairs is you. Clean towels are in the bathroom, and the Wi-Fi password is ‘excelsior.'”

Excelsior!” Jonathan exclaimed, and then bid them both goodnight to shuffle upstairs. He let himself melt away in the shower for a while, then came to bed, stretching out on the ridiculously huge mattress in his underwear. It had been a long time since he’d had a room alone. Pen had the money, of course, to get them separate rooms at the hotels and motels along their trip, but for the most part he insisted on them sharing, for a proper, authentic road trip experience. He almost didn’t know what to do with this sudden privacy.

No, that was absolute bullshit, he knew exactly what to do. He retrieved his laptop, excelsior-ed his way into the wireless, and set browser tabs to as many free porn youtube clones as he could think of. God, it had been forever. It was perhaps strange for him to be picky now, but he spent a while skimming over the thumbnails looking for something really good. The proliferation of amateur stuff had been good for him, as it greatly increased the number of dirty videos featuring his exact type. Perfectly muscled waxed dudes weren’t it, twinks weren’t it, yeti-like bears weren’t it. He liked them chubby and cubby, with soft round bellies for him to come on, big fleshy asses for him to grab, tits to suck. It’d been his type before Pen, at least; Pen just happened to be the ideal damn specimen.

He found a promising video and clicked on it, something ill-lit where the man’s head was cropped out of frame, but his chest and stomach and dick were front and center. The man in the video’s dick wasn’t too long, jutting out and pressing up beneath the curve of his belly. He started to stroke himself, the fingers of his other hand tugging at one of his nipples, and Jonathan slipped his hand under the waist of his boxers, squeezing his own cock as it stiffened in his hand.

An IM window popped up on his screen, directly in front of the video.

Pen: jonathan

Jonathan made a low, frustrated noise. He must’ve borrowed a computer from Joel. The temptation to write ‘brb masturbating’ into the window in response was very high, but he resisted. He didn’t like ignoring Pen, but sometimes…

He minimized the IM window and skipped back a bit in the video, back to the part where the guy was getting some good twist in his wrist. The IM window kept flashing at him though, and the little chirp he’d set as a notification went off again and again. Pen was apparently frantic about something and really wanted his attention. If it was a real problem, he knew, he wouldn’t IM him; he’d just come to the room. He flipped back to the window.

Pen: hey
Pen: hey
Pen: hey
Pen: j
Pen: o
Pen: n
Pen: a
Pen: t
Pen: h
Pen: a
Pen: n
Pen: hey

Jonathan sighed and took his hand out of his underwear to type.

Jonathan: Well, I wasn’t at the computer before, but now I’m ignoring you on principle.
Pen: jonathaaaaaan
Jonathan: Yes?
Pen: check out this bird

A dialogue popped up for Jonathan to accept a file, and he shook his head and allowed it. Probably another unusually large eagle or vulture or crane that Jonathan needed to take the wind out of Pen’s sails about. He opened the file and was greeted by a webcam picture of Pen, smiling like he just ate a whole flock of canaries, giving him the finger.

Jonathan just stared at it for three long seconds before putting his head in his hands and laughing until he nearly choked.

Pen: pretty majestic, huh?

The picture had that soft, grainy quality that everything taken with a webcam did. Pen was obviously sitting on the bed in another room in Joel’s house. He’d showered, clearly; his hair was damp, some strands of it curling wetly on his forehead, and he’d taken his glasses off, making him look unfocused and a little young. He was in a robe, not wrapped tightly closed as usual; Jonathan could see the skin of his neck, his shoulders, and just the top edge of his slightly furry chest. He took a breath. He’d stopped watching the video entirely, but his dick was still getting harder.

Jonathan: Ah, the Greater American Nerdhawk.

There was a pause for a while, enough for Jonathan to think maybe Pen was done bothering him, but then the window pinged again.

Pen: oh shit it’s attacking me!

The image Pen sent then was of himself, face contorted in terror, with his middle finger poking into his eye. He filled the screen with messages while Jonathan laughed again.

Pen: I need your professional assistance!
Pen: jonathan!
Pen: jonathan help!
Pen: jonathan it flew out the door!
Pen: I think it’s coming for you!

Jonathan was a little breathless, both from laughing and from how incredibly, stupidly hard he was. He pondered the screen for a while, then fired up his webcam, framed things properly, and took a picture of himself looking upwards in horror as his own middle finger came in from the corner of the frame. A masterpiece, without a doubt. He sent it to Pen.

Pen: nooooooooooooo!!!!
Pen: jonathaaaaaaan
Pen: jonathan what I have done??
Pen: damn these birds!
Pen: I’ll remember you as you lived, buddy!
Pen: jonathaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!!!!!!
Jonathan: Good night, Pen.
Pen: sleep tight, sweet stuff : )

Jonathan closed the IM window and reclined back on the bed, bringing the shot of Pen flipping him the bird back up. It was hard to tell from the middling quality of the image, but Pen looked flushed. Jonathan entertained the thought — really entertained it, letting it roll over in his mind — that maybe Pen had been getting up to the same thing he had. Maybe he’d jerked off in the shower. Maybe he was jerking off right now. Jonathan had heard a little flutter of his laugh through the walls when he’d sent the picture; he strained his ears to imagine the squeak of a mattress, the slap of skin. He looked at that picture and could almost smell him, clean soap and water. He’d be so good to touch, to grab, so warm and wet. His dick had to taste fantastic.

Jonathan was coming before he’d even fully realized he’d started stroking his cock. He panted and gasped as he shuddered. He couldn’t have been quiet if he tried. He didn’t care, anyway; let him hear it. He closed his eyes and thought about falling asleep just like that, lights on, hand around his dick, spunk drying on his shorts. He was entirely too old for that sort of nonsense.

When he’d cleaned up and settled back down, he looked at that picture of Pen again, him and his big, proud fuck-you finger. For a few seconds, he made it his computer’s wallpaper. “You’re dumb,” he said. To himself or Pen, it didn’t matter. He changed the wallpaper back to its previous picture of a kestrel, put his laptop aside, turned off the lights, and went to sleep.

The Birds in My Beard

The Andean Condor is a bird who means business. It’s bald and doesn’t care what you think about that; it changes color when it’s angry, much like the Hulk; and it’s got a wingspan of ten and a half feet, the largest of any known bird. The most it can pick up, however, is around nine pounds of weight.

The average weight for a domestic pig starts at around a hundred pounds, and they just get fatter the more delicious they are.

However, even if the big and beautiful Andean Condor could pick up a porker, it wouldn’t; it, along with most of the other really big guys, is a scavenger.

But, hey, sometimes everyone needs a change of habits.

Pen had turned his charm up so high the knob broke off, but for neither love nor money would convince this farmer to give them one of his pigs. Jonathan was okay with this, really; mammalian wildlife biology had never been his bag, and also the car was getting enough of a funk from having the two of them in it for so long without getting any extra help. So, they had to improvise.

The porcine substitute they put together was made from a sack that had once held a very large amount of potatoes, basically all of the non-poultry meat the local Pick n’ Save had to offer, some hacked-off water bottles for legs, and, because Pen was feeling artistic, a strip of beef jerky he’d devoted some time to curling into a spiral shape as the tail. They had a surprisingly serious discussion about putting bacon bits on the whole endeavour, but in the end decided it was overkill.

They sat on their stomachs in a field not from from where they’d placed their frankenpig, covered with a camouflage tarp Pen had picked up at an Army surplus store. They had it over their heads, like two kids at a sleepover telling scary stories. It was a beautiful day, sweet soft early spring breezes and a sky of clouds that dappled the grass (and their piggy) with shadows. Jonathan looked at their creation, standing proud and starting to stink in the sun, and listened to Pen sigh.

“I don’t think this is going to work,” he said, and really had to wonder why he hadn’t said that until this very point.

“This is, like, the field,” Pen said, keeping his voice low. “There were tons of sightings right here. Snatched a pig right off the damn ground.”

Jonathan looked at their pig. They should have given it a nose, or at least ears. They could have gotten them in the pet needs aisle. “But it was in the 70s, you said.”

“See, that’s the thing!” Pen said, vigorous although he was trying to keep his voice down. “There are patterns to this sort of thing. There’s a big uptick in sightings every thirty or forty years. And I think we both know how long it’s been since the 70s.” Jonathan had turned forty-one on this trip. Pen would be forty-three soon. “And there are migration patterns, man! They come right through here.” Pen had shown him, on a map drawn by the first female cryptid enthusiast they’d met on the whole trip. She’d been incredibly interested in Pen, flirting with him to an extent that it made Jonathan a little uncomfortable, but Pen had paid her no mind. He was either oblivious or uncaring; either way, all he wanted to talk about with her was Thunderbirds. At least Jonathan wasn’t the only one not getting laid.

He kept his eyes on the pig bait for a long while, an amount of minutes he didn’t want to keep track of by checking his watch. He listened to Pen’s breathing, the wind in the grass, the distant birds. Flies were starting to notice the pig. “Pen?” he said, after perhaps an hour.


“What are we doing?”

He glanced over at Jonathan, cutting his eyes towards him without turning his head. “We’re… baiting a Thunderbird,” he said, in a tone like Jonathan had just asked what Google was.

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But what are we doing?”

“We’re…” He could hear Pen swallow. He got the meaning of his question. “We’re looking.”

“What are we looking for?” He kept his eyes fixed on the pig, but in his peripheral vision he could see Pen’s face tense up, see him start to squirm. It didn’t feel good to do this, but it was time. It was past time, if he was going to be honest with himself. It was getting close to a year that they’d been at this.

“Thunderbirds,” Pen said, quietly.

“I know that,” Jonathan said, and he truly did. For whatever the hell else this was about, for whatever was going on, Pen absolutely really did want to find a Thunderbird. “But what else are we looking for?”

Pen didn’t say anything for a long while, but then he heaved out a huge breath, took his glasses off to toss them into the grass, and rolled onto his back. The tarp crumpled in on him, covering much of his face, concealing him from Jonathan. “Jesus, I don’t know.” Jonathan just waited for more. Pen was not a man who needed prodding to speak. “It’s just… fuck. I’m getting old, you know? I’m in my forties, man. We’re in our forties. That’s one of those things that I was like, yeah, you hear about it happening to other people, but you never thought it would happen to you.”

Turning forty hadn’t phased Jonathan too badly, but he remembered the tremendous party that Pen had thrown for his own milestone, and how he didn’t hear from him at all for three months afterwards. Pen put a hand over his eyes. “Just… like, fuck. What have I done? What have I ever even accomplished?”

“You’ve had so many businesses,” Jonathan said. “Really successful ones.”

Pen let out a sharp, bitter laugh. “Yeah, if you mean that they made me money, sure.” He pushed his fingers up past his hairline, rubbing into his scalp. “Seriously, though, ask any mom on Facebook or kid on Tumblr if they have a goddamn idea what PalPlace is. It’s a footnote. It’s a footnote to a footnote, one of those little weird cross-shaped things, I don’t know what they’re called. It was just me getting really lucky.”

Jonathan wasn’t sure if he should, but it seemed right; he let his hand slide over the grass to rest his fingers lightly against Pen’s shoulder. He sighed a little at the touch. “I invest in startups that make apps to tell you where to find cocktail ingredients and give to charities that raise awareness,” Pen continued. He lifted his hands from his hair to curl his fingers in front of him, lifting up the tarp as they strangled the air. “Everything I’ve done is just air molecules. It’s just dust. It’s just ones and zeroes.” He turned his head to look at Jonathan. He was so strained about his age, but he looked so young and gentle without his glasses, his coffee-colored eyes a little soft, a little wide, a little unfocused. “I’m just looking for something real.”

It couldn’t have been more perfectly Pen. His quest for something real was all about hunting something imaginary. Jonathan squeezed his arm and gestured out to their pig in the field with a jut of his chin. “Well, hey, our bait did attract something.”

Pen rolled back over onto his stomach and picked up his glasses to look at the small murder of crows that had settled on the pig, pecking and poking at the cotton of the sack to get at the delicious spoiling pork loin within. Pen sighed deeply, long enough for his back to shake, and dipped his head to rest it in the cradle of his forearms for a moment. He shook a little more, and it only took a few seconds for Jonathan to realize he was laughing.

“Buzz off, you fuckers!” he shouted at the crows, who, like most crows, did not give a fuck. “You gotta be a shitload bigger if you want a piece of my pig!”

Jonathan put a hand on the small of his back and felt him laugh again as he watched the crows just go to town on that beef jerky tail. “Well, hey. Even more bait, right?”

“Garnish, man,” he said, and his smile was back. “Even better than bacon bits.”

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
You know, this is — excuse me — a DAMN fine cup of coffee.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard Cherry pie to go?

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
@pen_ham You better believe it. Get the whole damn thing.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
I’m thinking: TWIN BEAKS, a surprisingly moody animated series about two cockatiel detectives.

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
@pen_ham They basically did that on Sesame Street.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard SON OF A BITCH

Jonathan felt more at ease in these woods than he had in a while. It was good to be back on the Pacific end of the country, surrounded by tall evergreens and thick mosses. Their quest tromping through the forest was as pointless and fruitless as ever, but at least Jonathan could breathe in the green air. It had him more than a little homesick, but it was better than nothing.

The Quinault people, Pen had told him, had a legend about how Thunderbirds would pick whales up right out of the sea. They would drop them in the trees, and if you looked, you could find whale bones high among the branches, covered in moss. It was just part of the routine by now that Jonathan pointed out how scientifically unlikely this scenario was, Pen smiled at him and told him it’d still be fun to look, and Jonathan parked the car and tightened up the laces on his boots. He had to admit, it would be a cool thing to see.

Pen only had the patience for a few days of full-on forest roughing it before he started to get ornery, wanting a shower and a cup of coffee that he had to pay at least four dollars for. They were almost back to the end of the loop they’d made through the Quinault forest. Jonathan kept his eyes up towards the tops of the massive trees, but he hadn’t seen any whale bones yet.

“So, where are we going to go next?” he asked. Pen was quiet. He glanced behind him to see that, yes, he was still there, walking with an unsubtle step through the underbrush, uneaten by any bears. He was frowning slightly, looking down in a way that was more than to just watch his step. “Pen?”

“I… don’t know,” he said. “I’m kind of, um, out of places.” He stopped walking and looked up at Jonathan. “I think we’ve been everywhere.”

Jonathan stopped and turned to look at him. “Everywhere?” They’d climbed over mountains in North Carolina in search of nests; they’d been to a dormant volcano in New Mexico said to have been calmed by a sacrifice to the Thunderbird; they’d gone in search of a cave in Tennessee said to be full of bones both animal and man from the Thunderbird’s meals. They’d talked to West Virginian hillbillies about the dreaded giant owl “Bighoot” and a professor in New Haven about Poua-kai, the monster bird of New Zealand. They’d been everywhere, but surely not everywhere.

Pen laughed a little, the sound choked, as he pushed both hands back through his hair. “I’m just… out. I’m out of leads. Even the Internet messageboard weirdos are stumped on what else we could possibly see.”

Jonathan watched him, watched how he would look anywhere but at Jonathan’s eyes. “So… what now?”

Pen took off his glasses and rubbed a hand over his face. “Honestly, I was going to make something up,” he said. “Some new myth, some fresh sighting. Something on the opposite side of the country.”

“I… would not have been happy if you did that,” Jonathan said, although really, he had no solid evidence that Pen hadn’t been making up half of the wild giant geese they’d gone chasing after, other than that Pen wouldn’t lie like that. He’d barrel over you with the truth and leave you flattened with no choice to follow before he’d lie to someone who trusted him.

“I know,” Pen said, eyes still covered. A wood-warbler sang proudly above them, and Jonathan closed his eyes, too.

“Maybe…” Jonathan let out a breath. He’d thought about saying this so many times over the past year; he didn’t know why it would catch in his throat now. “Maybe it’s time to go home.”

“No,” Pen said, and put his glasses back on. “There’s got to be something else. Maybe we can go back to somewhere we’ve been, look harder…”

“Pen,” Jonathan said. “This has been good. This has all been good. But… I have a life to go back to. I have a job.”

Pen laughed a little desperately. “This could be your job! You want a salary? I’ll give you a salary.”

Jonathan shook his head. “I like my job.” He let out a soft sigh. “I like my job. I like my house. I like working with real birds. I’ve got a life to go back to. You’ve got one, too.”

“I don’t want to go back to it,” Pen said, soft and stubborn like a three-year-old.


“No, look, listen,” Pen said, and Jonathan did those things. “If we go home, this is just going to… stop. You’ll go back to your life, and I’ll go back to mine, and it’s going to be like it was before. Back to the kind of life where I don’t see you every day.”

Jonathan frowned and swallowed over the rise of his heart. “It’s not like we live so far apart…”

A nervous laugh bubbled out of Pen again. “I didn’t actually ask you out to do this because you know bird stuff,” he said. That had always been the story, that Jonathan was the expert, Pen was the direction. “I asked you because you’re the only person who’d want to be around me this long, and you’re the only person I want to be around this long, and really, after this long, I want to be around you much, much longer.”

Jonathan breathed very slowly and very carefully. “You could have said that.”

Pen managed a little smile, the sun beneath some clouds. “You don’t think that would have been a little weird?”

He probably would have said yes, anyway. “A little.”

“And the Thunderbirds… the Thunderbirds are important too. Were. I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I really do believe. I think they’re out there. I could look forever. I could just never go back to the real world and it would be fine, as long as I got to do it with you.”

“We…” Jonathan’s voice dried up, and he cleared his throat. “We do have to go back.”

Pen filled with breath and let it out again. “It’s the ‘with you’ part that’s the important bit.”

“Pen…” Jonathan said. “What, ah, what are you saying?”

“You remember what you said to me about feelings?” That had been almost six months ago, and they hadn’t spoken one word about it afterwards. Jonathan had nearly convinced himself Pen had forgotten the whole awkward encounter. “Feelings.”

“Feelings?” Jonathan said, the word squeaking past his lips.

“I have them,” Pen said, and there was that smile, that soft glance through his eyelashes. “For you.”

Jonathan let out a very shaky breath and listened to his heart pound in his ears. “Okay,” he said, stupidly. “We still have to go back, though.”

Pen took a step and a half nearer, crackling in the leaves and closing in the space between them. “Yeah, I know we do,” he admitted. “I think I’d be okay with it if I could go back with you.”

Jonathan smiled as his hands twitched; he wanted to do something, wanted to touch Pen somehow, but everything he thought of seemed awkward and stupid. “You want to come hang out in the woods with me?”

“Sure,” Pen said, and solved the problem for Jonathan, reaching out to scratch underneath his beard with his fingertips. “I mean, you’ve got broadband, right?”

“Tons of it,” Jonathan said. “Very broad.”

“Hey, sounds like it could be a plan,” Pen said.

“Could be,” Jonathan said, even though he knew it could be a terrible one. Pen could get bored in another year and wander off. Pen could actually be terrible in a relationship. Pen could never stop talking and scare all the birds away from the feeders around his house. He still couldn’t stop from smiling.

“So,” Pen said, brushing his fingers out across Jonathan’s cheek, smoothing over his whiskers. “I’m going to try to kiss you again. Is that cool with you?”

“Very cool,” Jonathan said, and Pen’s grin had never seemed so bright and beautiful as it was right before he leaned in to kiss him. His fingers slid into Jonathan’s hair, winding through the waves of it to pull him closer as his lips parted to let him in. There was no coffee taste this time, just Pen, just the exact thing Jonathan had been remembering and dreaming about for half his life. It was one of those sweet, perfect kisses corny romances were built on, alone in the woods with a chorus of birds serving as stand-ins for the swelling strings on the soundtrack. It would have been an absolutely ideal moment for a bear to eat them.

Jonathan put his hands in Pen’s hair and pushed it back, grabbing as much of it as he could as he kissed him more fiercely. Romance was all well and good, but he’d been thinking about this too long. He could feel Pen laughing as he met his enthusiasm, perfectly happy to have Jonathan chewing on his lower lip. Jonathan only realized that he’d been advancing forward, trying to violate the laws of space to get as close to Pen as he could, when he met resistance in the form of Pen colliding with a spruce tree. Pen just grinned as Jonathan backed him into the bark, and Jonathan had no choice but to kiss him even harder.

When he moved from Pen’s mouth to kiss his throat, Pen laughed breathlessly. “Jesus, you did not have the beard last time we did this.” He curled his arm around Jonathan’s waist, pulling him closer, pressing him against all the soft parts of his body. Jonathan heard himself growl a little against Pen’s neck and sucked a little red mark into his skin. “I like the beard. I like the beard.”

Of course Pen was a talker. Jonathan wouldn’t expect or want it any other way. He could say whatever he wanted when his mouth was free, which was, in Jonathan’s estimation, not going to be very often. He kissed Pen until he groaned, the throaty sound mixed up with a laugh. He always laughed when he was happy, even at times like these, and it made him hard enough to hurt. “Fuck,” he breathed as he ground his hips up against Pen’s, feeling Pen’s own erection before he devoted all his attention to rubbing against the bottom of his belly.

Pen gasped and laughed and clutched at him, but then tugged at the back of his collar and said, “Jonathan, Jonathan, wait.”

Fuck shit fuck ass fuck cock fuck. “Yeah?” Jonathan said, instead of any of that.

“We are… way too old to have sex in the woods.”

Jonathan took a slow breath, resting his forehead against Pen’s, their glasses clinking together. God damn it. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re right.”

“So let’s get the hell out of the woods,” Pen said, and Jonathan had to kiss that smile a little longer before setting to break speed records at hiking.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
I’m thinking: Cran-KY, the cranberry-flavored sexual lubricant for when you might not quite be in the mood.

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard There’s a line!

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
I’m thinking: ROUGH RAVENS, the enticingly studded condom just for corvids!

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard

Jonathan Crowe @birdsinmybeard
@pen_ham Also, ravens don’t have penises. You’re thinking of ducks.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
@birdsinmybeard I’m thinking: something that RHYMES with ducks. Out in a minute.

Pen laughed and the mattress wheezed as Jonathan knocked him back on the motel bed. In a stunning display of the change in status quo that had happened over the past few hours, he’d gotten them a room with only one bed, asked for while grinning lasciviously at the desk clerk while Jonathan stood behind him and shook his head. It got them a bigger bed, though, larger than any of the extra-long twin mattresses they’d tangled on in college.

Jonathan climbed on top of him without much seductive grace, but he seriously did not give a shit about what anything he did looked like right now. He kissed Pen’s smiling face and pushed a hand underneath his shirt, trailing his fingers through the hair on his stomach and over to squeeze at the side of his waist. “God,” he breathed against Pen’s mouth. “You’ve been driving me completely insane.”

“Sorry?” Pen said.

“You are not,” Jonathan said. “Asshole.” Pen laughed at that, and he was smiling, too.

“I’ll make it up to you!” Pen said, and Jonathan put his other hand under Pen’s t-shirt to push it up off over his head. Pen laughed once he was free from it, setting his glasses back properly on his face from where they’d been jostled. “I’ll make it up to you like crazy.”

“Damn right, you will,” Jonathan said as he dealt with his own shirt, nearly tearing open the buttons and throwing the t-shirt he wore under it across the room. Pen’s hands went right for him, greedily pawing at his torso. He pulled a little at the fur on Jonathan’s stomach.

“C’mere, Sasquatch,” he said, and Jonathan bent back down again, sighing as they came skin-to-skin.

“Rawr,” he said, and kissed Pen just as he laughed, swallowing the sound of it deep inside of him. He kept his balance on one forearm while he touched Pen as much as he could with the other hand, grasping at his flesh, pressing fingers into his skin, tweaking at one of his nipples. That last made Pen jolt and giggle breathlessly, so Jonathan settled his weight on his knees, put one hand back through Pen’s hair to hold him in place, and bent down to tease at it with his mouth, sucking it between his lips.

“Jeeeeesus,” Pen said as he squirmed and smiled. “You learned a few tricks, huh?”

“Mmhm,” Jonathan said, and lifted up to see if the attention would be equally appreciated on the other side; it was. All the things he wanted to do to and with Pen were building up in his mind, crashing together in one giant filthy pileup, too huge and muddled to focus on one thing. At least they all had an important first step.

“Naked,” he said.

“Naked!” Pen said, and kicked off his sneakers before helping Jonathan get rid of the remainder of his stupid clothing. Jonathan stepped back from the bed to finish undressing himself. He paused as he unfastened his jeans to just look at Pen, naked and spread out and grinning at him, short cock popping up happy to see him from under his belly. It took him a few seconds to remember to breathe.

“I absolutely need you to fuck me,” he said. Well, that solved the pileup problem.

“I will!” Pen said, as Jonathan finished undressing. “I absolutely will.”

“Cool,” Jonathan said, and got back on the bed. “Just let me do one thing first.” Jonathan settled between Pen’s knees, got a good hold on either of his thighs, and sucked his cock deep into his mouth.

“Oh, yeah,” Pen said, breathless as Jonathan could hear him smile. That was one of the things that had made him fall for him twenty years ago, the way he never stopped smiling for a minute of sex, the way it was always so much fun to him. “Take all the time you need. It’s cool.”

Jonathan squeezed the flesh of Pen’s thighs and took him all the way to the root. Pen didn’t have a big cock by anyone’s definition, but, Jesus, had Jonathan ever not cared. He’d been with guys smaller, and been with guys with third legs, but Pen hit the baby bear spot perfectly. He’d remembered all this time the way it curved a little to the right at the end, the way the texture of his skin changed when he slid his tongue past his circumcision scar.

Jonathan pulled his head back to lick at the end of Pen’s cock, getting a serious taste of him. Pen put his hands into Jonathan’s hair, tangling in its length, and Jonathan groaned, letting go of Pen’s thigh to stroke his own cock. He bobbed on Pen’s cock, his forehead coming to rest against Pen’s belly each time he took him deeper. It’d be so easy to lose himself like this, to get him off like this and swallow every drop. He squeezed around the root of his own dick just at the thought of it.

Pen laughed again and pulled on his hair, drawing him off. “Okay, okay, whoa,” he said, breathless and gorgeous. “If you have any more plans tonight, that’s gotta stop.”

Jonathan rested his head against the soft rise of Pen’s stomach and breathed in deep, smelling his skin, smelling the sweat of the day. “Yeah, good call,” he said, and pulled himself up. He staggered off the bed again and over to the bag full of Pen’s drug store plunder. He dropped the box of condoms and the bottle of lube onto the bed, and Pen sat up, grinning at him like it was his birthday.

“I thought about getting some really fancy shit,” he said, opening the box and pulling out one foil-wrapped condom. “Like, all kinds of colors. Construct some kind of sex-bower.”

“You know, I sincerely appreciate the thought,” Jonathan said, as his mouth went dry to watch Pen carefully, expertly roll the condom on. “But bower unnecessary.”

“Next time,” Pen said, and swayed forward to kiss Jonathan, sighing quietly as he tasted himself on Jonathan’s lips. “How do you want to do this?”

He and Pen had never fucked, back in college. They’d never even talked about fucking; it had all been too much, too big, too complicated. Now, Jonathan wasn’t about to ask anything as stupid as if Pen knew what he was doing. Of course he did; Pen knew how to do everything. He moved away from Pen and laid on his back on the bed. “Like this?”

Pen grinned and uncapped the bottle of Walgreens-friendly lube, slathering his fingers with it. Jesus, he actually did know what he was doing. Jonathan’s cock jumped against his stomach just at the sight of it. “Cool,” he said, and trailed a slick finger past Jonathan’s balls to slot right inside him, like it was just what he’d been intending to do this whole trip. “I want to see your face.”

“Jesus, fuck,” Jonathan cleverly replied, and angled his hips to get Pen to work deeper. He wanted to tell him to say hell to all the buildup, to just fucking fuck him already, but it had been a long time, longer than just the year they’d been traveling, since he’d been fucked; a little preamble was a good idea. As Pen worked one finger into him and then another, he really, really stopped having any complaints.

“I thought about you like this,” Pen said as he fucked Jonathan with his fingers. He settled his other hand on Jonathan’s body, squeezing at his own pectoral muscle and toying with his nipple. It didn’t have as strong an effect on him as it did on Pen, but Jonathan still jerked towards the touch. “I always regretted that we never fucked.”

Jonathan laughed, and apparently the sound of it made Pen hook his fingers upward, which made him make a sound that was not at all like a laugh. “Now is the time,” he said, and then reached out to grab Pen’s dick and squeeze it. “Now is really the time.”

Pen, surprisingly, said nothing. He slid his fingers out, making Jonathan grunt a little from the absence, and then grunt again at the sight of him slicking up his cock. Pen pushed up close between his legs, pushing his knees up in a way that was not really that comfortable for a man his age, but good lord, did Jonathan not care, because it was all a prelude to Pen slowly, perfectly sliding his cock into his ass.

“Jesus, fuck,” Jonathan worked out, and he grabbed upwards until he found the back of Pen’s neck, grasping on and bringing him down to kiss him. Pen’s stomach pressed into Jonathan’s cock, and for a moment he thought he might come right then. He bit his lip, and then he bit Pen’s.

Pen fucked him slow and steady, making a burn in him that just grew more ferocious with every stroke. “…crazy about you,” Pen said, breathless and distracted as he worked one arm under one of Jonathan’s thighs, lifting his hips half up from the bed. “Just fucking insane over you, you don’t know.”

“Tell me later,” Jonathan could work out, and grabbed at Pen’s chest, groping and squeezing, wanting nothing more than to just get handfuls of all that body, all that flesh. Pen didn’t moan or sigh or groan, he laughed, leaning his head back happy and beautiful, and steadied himself to stroke Jonathan’s cock as he fucked him. For a big guy, he was goddamn athletic, and Jonathan growled to think of the other ways he’d be able to see that performed.

Pen said other things while he fucked him; Pen actually never shut up for a second while he fucked him, but Jonathan couldn’t really hear a word. He just closed his eyes and leaned his head back, feeling nothing but Pen filling him up again and again, Pen’s hand teasingly leaving off his cock for a few seconds to rake fingers through the thick hair on his belly, Pen leaning forward so his stomach nudged up against Jonathan’s balls.

He grabbed handfuls of the scratchy motel sheets when he came, and heard Pen laughing in nothing but pure delight as he spilled over his hand. Pen just fucked him harder in the aftermath of it, enough to make him feel each jolt up into his eyeballs, and the beautiful bastard said Jonathan’s name when he came, pushed up to the hilt in him, dripping sweat onto his body.

Pen pulled out of him after what seemed like a long while, and flopped gracelessly onto the bed next to him. Neither of them touched each other as they caught their breaths, as Jonathan felt his come cool and dry into the hair on his stomach. After a while, though, Pen worked his arm up awkwardly between them to slide his hand under Jonathan’s neck, rubbing his fingers into it while he tangled up his hair.

“Ravens really don’t have penises?” he said, after a few minutes like that.

“Nope,” Jonathan said. Smiling made him feel tired, but he did it anyway. “Most birds don’t.”

“How do they fuck?” Pen said.

“It’s called a ‘cloacal kiss,” Jonathan said.

“Wow,” Pen said, and laughed, high and bright. “Sounds romantic. Think we could try that some time?”

“If you figure out a way,” Jonathan said, opening his eyes to turn and look at Pen, “I will be down for it.”

Pen looked over at him and tapped on the side of his nose. “I’ll do some research. I know a guy.”

Jonathan laughed and rolled over, flopping an arm over Pen’s soft middle. He dozed off for a while, nose pressed into Pen’s shoulder, smelling his skin.

Pen Hamilton @pen_ham
I’m thinking: it’s time to go home.

When he woke up, Pen was no longer beside him. He was standing near the window, dressed again. Jonathan had a second of fear arch through his gut, but then Pen turned to him with an electric smile. “Hey, clean up and get dressed, I want to go outside.”

“Yeah?” Jonathan said, sitting up. His come had formed a lovely crust in his body hair, which was a surprisingly teenage thing for him to experience again at this age.

“It’s a beautiful night,” Pen said. Jonathan nodded, and cleaned up and put his clothes back on. Pen led him out into the parking lot of the motel holding his hand, and brought him to lie down on the hood of the car next to him. The whole time they’d been traveling, neither of them had never done anything like this.

“Dig the stars,” Pen said. Jonathan looked upwards. It was a remarkably clear night, all kinds of light radiating from the sky. It was the kind of sky he was used to seeing from his home near the park. It was nothing like Pen would see where he’d lived. He’d like the change.

Jonathan turned on the hood of the car, hearing the metal whine a little, and crowded in to Pen to nuzzle his mouth. “Nah, I’ve seen ’em,” he said.

“Gotta keep watching the skies, you know?” Pen said.

“Some other time,” Jonathan said, and kissed him, warm and sweet and good. He closed his eyes, Pen closed his eyes, and neither of them paid any mind to the shadow that passed over them, dark wings spread so, so wide.

illustrated by serenity_winner

Thanks, as usual, to ladysisyphus and the fabulous serenity-fails. To learn more about Thunderbirds, consult Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends by Mark A. Hall, or your local librarian. I suggest drmoonpants.

Share this with your friends!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *