He hadn’t intended for anything to happen.
Alois had been standing in front of him. He had looked back over his shoulder with wide eyes, the silence around them deafening. He wasn’t sure if it was quieter in his recollection of events than it had been when it was happening—and he thought about it a lot, when he went to sleep and when he woke up in the morning, when he was having lunch by himself in front of the television and put out another plate on accident, when he watched the clock tick past seven, then past eight, then past nine, completely aware that Alois wouldn’t call.
Ethan remembered the way Alois had been looking at him, his bright eyes narrow, beads of sweat on his uncovered face. His dark blond hair was sticking to his face and he opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, there was a flash of light. All Ethan could do was hold his hands up to his ears as he tried to stop the squelching high-pitched sound making his pain feel like it was aflame.
He remembered stumbling back, tears in his eyes, reaching out for Alois—but Alois was too far away. There was nothing in front of Ethan but sand and blood when he reached out for Alois, but that could have been seconds or hours later, Ethan couldn’t be sure. Every event after that was sort of a blurb, but every sensation he’d felt then lingered. When he licked his lips, he could still taste the grains of sand, he could still feel the heat of the sun on the top of his head.
Two years. It had been two years, exactly, and he could still feel the sticky dry blood dripping form his nose to his lips, the dull throbbing in his head, the sharp pain in his arm. He remembered the air on his skin, like daggers, as he was being dragged away from the scene. He vaguely remembered hearing his own voice, calling for Alois, asking where he was.
He took a swig of the water bottle in front of him and leaned his head back on the sofa. He stared at the ceiling, at the fan which whirred and groaned with every cycle. When his phone started to vibrate on the coffee table, yanking him out of his stupor, he was determined not to answer it.
He glanced at the screen and saw a picture of his sister. Severe, unsmiling and beautiful, she had always been the scary one of the family. Even after he had been in a warzone—even after he had lost Alois—she remained the scary one.
He knew she wouldn’t leave him alone. Sighing deeply, his heart in his throat, he decided to pick up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hey,” Rosemary said. “Are you busy?”
He licked his lips, which were salty, grainy. His tongue was sandpaper on them. “No,” he replied, trying his best to keep his tone neutral.
“Ethan,” she said, her tone a cross between pity and anger. “I thought you said you were going to do something today.”
He cocked his head and looked at the TV, which was muted in the background. It was the tenth episode of the seventh season of some sort of lawyer procedural. He didn’t particularly enjoy it, but at least it made his apartment seem less lonely.
“I am,” he said. “I’m talking to you.”
Rosemary sighed. He couldn’t see her, but he could picture exactly what she looked like. The furrowed brow with the crease in the middle, the deep brown eyes that managed to be judgmental and loving all at once. “Listen, Ethan,” she said. “You know this year’s Annual Charity Award Law Ceremony is this weekend, right?”
“And you’re invited.”
“All of the governor’s family is invited,” Rosemary said.
Ethan smiled. “Wait, are you inviting his mother?”
“Behave,” she said, stifling a laugh. At least they could always find common ground in their shared hatred of Catherine Baker-Brown. “But yes. She’ll be here and it would be nice if you could show up too.”
“With a man, right?” he asked, closing his eyes again. “So the governor can show that he supports equal rights.”
“That’s not… yes,” she replied. “But also, you’d annoy Catherine.”
“By my very existence,” he said, shaking his head and scoffing. He looked down at his bare stomach, which was. “Sorry, sis. As much as I would like to help, I’m hopelessly single. You know that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Claudio already found you a date.”
Ethan furrowed his brow, certain he had misheard her. “Sorry,” he replied. “I think I might be having hallucinations, because I’m almost sure I just heard you say that the governor’s campaign manager found me a date.”
“He’s thoroughly vetted, Ethan,” Rosemary said. “A good-looking guy. Openly gay.”
Ethan blinked. “I don’t know whether to be offended or outraged.”
“Neither,” his sister replied. “Be grateful, okay? You get to have dinner with some fancy people. You might even…”
“I might even what, Rosemary?” It wasn’t like he didn’t know what she was going to say. She was going to tell him that it was time he get out of that funk and that he needed to start working again. She was going to tell him that Alois was just a memory and their conversation would end with yelling on both sides and not speaking to each other for months. Ethan knew she couldn’t afford to do that. Her husband certainly couldn’t.
“Nothing,” she replied. “See you on Saturday. Oh, and Ethan?”
“Get a new suit.”
He’d only spent about a week in the village when he first met Alois. Alois had been playing soccer with children on one of the deserted streets, sand whirling all around him every time he kicked the ball. Ethan had grabbed his camera and kneeled down to take pictures of them, zooming in on the boys’ faces, their hair flat and sticky with sweat.
When they were done, Alois had walked up to him. There was a glimmer in his eyes before he spoke. “Hey,” he had said. “I saw you watching me.”
Ethan had thought he sounded like an old-timey BBC presenter. “I wasn’t watching you,” he’d replied. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
Alois had laughed. “Well, someone has to.”
Ethan had extended his hand out and Alois had shaken it, his palm warm and sweaty. “Ethan Zhong.”
He’d nodded. “War correspondent. What about you? Are you a soldier?”
“No,” Alois said, his expression sobering for just a second too long. “I’m a translator. Alois Weber.”
They’d stared at each other then for a little too long before Ethan had looked away, his cheeks red, his heart beating fast in his chest. The moment he had met Alois, he was almost sure his life was going to change.
He just hadn’t known how right he was.
He looked at himself in the mirror, brushing down his newly bought suit. He wasn’t ever one to turn down the opportunity for retail therapy, especially when it was on someone else’s dime. Especially Peter.
After everything Peter had done to Rosemary, Ethan would have spent all day shopping if it had been up to him. If it had been up to him, he would have happily ruined Peter financially.
Since that was impossible, or at the very least pretty unlikely, ruining his night was the best option available to Ethan. He was willing to take it, even if it meant meeting with people he used to work with and putting up with a man he wasn’t likely to be able to stand the company of.
Since Alois had died, Ethan hadn’t found any men interesting. He’d try to go on a couple of dates, but he had lost interest halfway through every time, only pushing forward because he hated the idea of wasting a free meal.
This, he supposed, was exactly like that. He went downstairs to get in the car Claudio had sent, a car that wasn’t exactly a limo but definitely stood out against all the older model Volkswagens in the neighborhood. With a sigh, Ethan opened the door.
He was about to walk inside when he saw the man sitting in the backseat. Tall, slender, with dirty blond hair and high cheekbones, Ethan was certain he had never seen him before. The man looked at him for a second. His expression never changed. “Hello,” he said. “You must be Ethan Zhong.”
He nodded, his throat dry. The high-pitched ringing had come back along with the taste of sand particles in his mouth.
The man cocked his head. “The governor’s brother-in-law?”
He nodded. “Yes,” he replied as he slid into the backseat. He made sure he was a few inches away from the man, licking his teeth and trying his best to keep his composure.
“I’m Max,” he said. “Max Walter.”
Max extended his hand to shake Ethan’s, but Ethan couldn’t bring himself to shake his hand. He couldn’t bring himself to do anything but stare ahead and try to ignore his quickly beating heart, the way his tongue felt like it was covered in sand.
“I’ve met your sister,” Max said. Ethan could see him staring at him from the corner of his eye. “Claudio introduced us.”
Ethan blinked, saying nothing.
“He’s quite a man, that Claudio,” Max said. “You’ve met him, right?”
Ethan nodded, closing his eyes and leaning his head back on the headrest. “Yes.”
“What do you think of him?”
Ethan opened his eyes to look at Max. He was wearing a tailored suit, the black jacket hugging his broad shoulders and showing off his frame. Max’s gaze was searching, his mouth slightly open.
“What do I think of who?”
“Claudio,” Max replied, furrowing his brow. “The governor’s campaign manager.”
“Oh,” Ethan said, peeling his gaze away from Max. He couldn’t help but wonder what Alois would have looked like in a suit. He’d only ever seen him wearing those button-up shirts and the brown Indiana Jones pants that Ethan had teased him so much about.
Max watched him. Ethan was vaguely aware of him, of the way his gaze felt on Ethan’s skin. His eyes felt like they were burning a hole in Ethan, boring through his skin and getting to his very bones. He spent the rest of the drive looking ahead, saying nothing, tasting salty sand on his raw tongue.
He looked up at the stairs leading to the venue and swallowed. The entire place was backlit by white and blue lights, beautiful people in suits and dresses milling all around them. The air smelled smoky and fruity, like cocktails and bonfires, and Ethan could hear the clack-clack-clack sound of heels and dress shoes walking past him.
Something tugged at his arm. He turned to look, his eyes widening when he saw that Max had grabbed his arm and his fingers were wrapped firmly around Ethan’s bicep.
He could have shaken him off, but he had already seen flashes coming from different directions, though he couldn’t be sure if those were just in his head.
Max leaned into him. “Just go with it,” he said. “Claudio said we have to sell this.”
Ethan thought about arguing with him, but it would have taken too much effort. He nodded, looked ahead and walked up the stairs. Reporters around them asked how long they’d been together for, told them they were a cute couple, shouted for comment. Ethan studiously avoided them, his head held high, his gaze entirely on the line in front of him.
Max lagged behind him when they got to the venue, but his fingers were still digging into Ethan’s skin. He turned to look at him. “It’s okay,” he said. “Not as much press is allowed inside.”
Max blanched. “Not as much?”
Ethan nodded. “You get used to it,” he said, looking at Max for the first time under the electric light of the venue. He didn’t look as much as Alois as Ethan had first thought, but there was certainly a resemblance—the shape of their face, their stature, their wide light eyes, their curled black lashes.
“Are you used to it?” Max asked, sounded both amused and terrified.
“No,” Ethan said, looking ahead. He walked into the venue, barely aware that Max was still holding onto him. He looked over his shoulder to meet Max’s gaze. “You can let go of me now.”
Max opened his mouth to protest but released Ethan. “Got it,” Max said.