In his dreams Brandon found himself swimming again, in a pool a hundred times as large as the one in the hotel, its sides so distant they were little more than shimmering white lines at the very edge of his vision. The water was deep and dark and cool, enough to bring up goosebumps on his bare skin. He looked around, treading water, but all he could see was endless darkness above and below him. A sudden violent shiver brought up more goosebumps to pebble his skin and he had the sudden sensation that something was lurking just beneath him, not quite close enough to touch, but watching him from the depths of the water.
He struck out for the nearest glimmering white line, churning through the water in a powerful stroke, his movements driven by panic. No matter how hard he pushed himself forward, kicking with his legs until his thigh started to cramp, the white line stayed the same distance away. He stopped to catch his breath and try to ease the cramp in his thigh, sinking down and accidentally swallowing a mouthful of water that tasted of both chlorine and salt. He curled his toes in, whimpering, and struggled not to think of things with great sharp teeth coming up out of the depths.
“It’s a pool,” he told himself out loud, trying to will the distance around him to recede and the water to return to the brightly lit chlorinated pool in the hotel. “There’s nothing down there.” His own voice sounded reedy and trembling in his ears, disappearing quickly into the silence.
The cramp in his thigh gradually eased and he struck out for the distant line of white, trying to keep his strokes slow and even, his breathing steady. Below him he felt something stir but he forced himself to ignore it, eyes fixed on the line in the distance. It seemed to grow closer as long as he kept swimming steadily, gradually rising up into the edge of the pool and a section of pale green tile beyond. His chest ached and his movements became sluggish with exhaustion but he struggled to keep going, taking deep gasping breaths and kicking as hard as he could with his feet.
It came up out of the midnight depths, teeth as long as his entire body, its gaping maw big enough to swallow him whole. It caught him around the waist instead with just the tip of its long snout, his lower body vanishing into its mouth as it closed its teeth in him just enough to make him bleed. Pain flashed through his gut and he cried out, choking on a sudden mouthful of hot blood. Trying to move only dug the teeth in deeper, tearing through him as they widened, and this time he screamed, spraying blood from his mouth in a fine mist.
He jerked upright in bed, still screaming, and collided head-on with Alejandro. Both of them fell back, yelping in startled pain. The blow helped snap Brandon fully out of the dream and he wrapped one arm around his unmarred stomach, pressing his other hand to his forehead where he’d connected with Alejandro. Alejandro sat on the floor, both hands pressed to his nose, his eyes squinted shut in pain.
“You okay, man?” His voice sounded shaky, and it took him a moment to slide out of bed and kneel beside Alejandro. “Anything broken?”
“Maybe. Ow. I don’t know.” Alejandro dropped one hand into his lap and gingerly touched his nose with the other. In the dim light it was impossible for Brandon to tell if it actually was broken, though he didn’t think he saw any blood. “You have a seriously hard skull.”
“Yeah, there’s nothing in it but bone.” Brandon offered a hand and pulled Alejandro back to his feet. “Sorry.”
“You were screaming like someone was killing you. Must’ve been a hell of a dream.” Alejandro flicked the bedside lamp on, pressing gently at his nose. “Is it busted?”
Brandon caught hold of his face and turned his head from side to side. “Nah. Probably going to have a hell of a shiner though. We can look like we got in a bar fight together. I’ll tell people my face got busted up by a beer bottle.”
“Let’s not.” Alejandro gave him half a smile and pulled away, going to the bathroom for a towel and then the mini fridge for some ice to press against his nose. “As long as you’re okay. Want to tell me about it?”
“I guess.” Brandon sat on the end of the bed and clasped his hands in his lap when he saw his fingers were still trembling. “I was in the pool again, only it was huge. So huge I couldn’t even really see the edges.” He shivered at the memory. “I was trying to reach them and then this giant monster came up and practically bit me in half.” He leaned over to look at his bare stomach, half-convinced he would see a ring of teeth marks in his flesh and blood oozing out of them. All he saw was his own smooth olive skin but he still felt a chill run down his spine like cold fingers. “Then I woke up and gave myself a concussion with your face.”
“More like I got the concussion.” Alejandro sat down beside him. “Still a few hours til dawn. Want me to sleep with you?”
Brandon opened his mouth to make a dirty joke, but instead just said, “Yeah. Please.”
“One sec.” Alejandro got up again to go into the bathroom, closing the door most of the way behind him.
Brandon touched the scratches on his cheek, gently tracing along the line of raised ragged flesh, then crawled back into bed. Alejandro joined him a minute later, pressing up against his side and laying his head on Brandon’s chest. His breathing had gone a little stuffy and Brandon worried that maybe his nose was broken after all, but sleep was already catching hold of him, winding through his thoughts like cobwebs. He ran a hand absently over Alejandro’s back, stroking a line down his bare skin, and felt Alejandro relax. His last thought before sleep claimed him was fuzzy but he remembered it still in the morning: the beast in the pool had had wings, huge and incongruous in the water, membranous like a bat’s.
Their flight back to Toronto left the next evening and they both got up shortly after 9 am to finish packing and wrap up their stay. Brandon went down to the police station with Alejandro at lunch, to inform the police that they were leaving and to ask for an update in the search. The officer assigned to the case, the same one who had asked Alejandro to repeat his story so many times, seemed reluctant to let them leave, looking between them with suspicious eyes.
“Your friend is still missing but you want to leave?” the officer asked, folding his hands on the desk in his office, where he’d brought them and closed the door behind them.
Brandon saw Alejandro flinch and guiltily drop his eyes, and fought down a flash of anger. “We have to leave. Our money’s almost run out and neither of us can afford to put everything on hold while you guys fuck around.”
The officer pointedly turned his attention to Alejandro. “We may still have a few questions for you, Mr. Quezada.”
“What questions?” Brandon demanded. “You’re acting like he’s a suspect or something.”
“We are keeping all avenues of inquiry open—”
“Oh, eat me. What did he do, raindance the storm up? Huffed and puffed and blew the boat down? Aren’t cops supposed to be masters at reading people? Look at him and tell me this is a guy who could ever harm someone he loves. It’s bullshit and you’re not going to blame your incompetence on him. You think you have a case, fine. Take it up with the Embassy, because we’re going home.” He grabbed Alejandro’s arm and pulled him out of his seat, herding him out the door over the officer’s protests.
“This is usually your line, but breathe,” Alejandro said when they got back out to the street.
“Cops, Leandro. They’re all assholes.” Brandon shook himself, running a hand through his ‘hawk. “We have a couple of hours to kill. How do you want to do it?”
“Can we go down to the beach?” Alejandro slipped an arm around him. His face was drawn and stress had aged him ten years, carving new lines into his face and shadowing his light brown eyes. “Just to sit for a while.”
“Sure.” Brandon led the way, lost in his own thoughts for most of the walk to the nearest beach.
They found a spot on the sand away from most of the other tourists and beach-goers, in bright bathing suits and red sunburns. Brandon watched the lazy curl of the waves breaking on the sand, squinting a little in the strength of the sunlight, and out of the corner of his eye watched Alejandro as well. Alejandro sat with his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped around them, his eyes distant behind the lenses of his glasses. After a moment Brandon scooted closer and draped an arm around his shoulders, flicking an imaginary cigar with his other hand. When Alejandro looked at him, one eyebrow arched, he pretended to take a puff of the invisible cigar and drawled, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”
Alejandro snorted laughter loud enough to catch the attention of a nearby sunbather. He clapped a hand over his mouth, a bright red blush building across his cheeks. “You are such a dork.” He gave Brandon a friendly shove, but Brandon shoved back and a moment later they were wrestling in the sand like little kids.
Brandon won by going after Alejandro’s weak spots, tickling his ribs and the sensitive curve of his lower back until Alejandro was laughing too hard to put up any resistance to being pinned. Grinning, Brandon sat on him and pretended to beat his chest in triumph, to the amusement of several people around them.
“All right, let me up.” Alejandro pushed at him, still laughing a little.
“Not until you give me my due as the winner. Say it.”
Alejandro rolled his eyes. “I’m not saying it, Bran. We’re way too old for this.”
“Say it, or else.” Brandon tickled Alejandro’s ribs again, until he squirmed helplessly. “Brandon is my lord and master...”
“Brandon is a fartface,” Alejandro said, and yelped when Brandon pinched his side. “Jesus, okay, Brandon is my lord and master, I worship the ground he walks on, et cetera, et cetera, get off me.” He choked the last few words out through a sudden fit of giggles, covering his face again as he dissolved into slightly hysterical laughter, until it began to sound more like sobs.
Brandon pulled him up and just held him, stroking his back and waiting patiently until Alejandro relaxed against him, huffing out a watery breath. “Feel any better now that you’ve snotted all over my shirt?”
“Don’t make me laugh, it hurts my ribs,” Alejandro said, rubbing his face against the front of Brandon’s shirt. “There, now it’s snotted.”
“You are the most charming person I know.”
“Mmm. Are people staring?”
“Maybe a little.” Brandon ran his fingers through the damp curls at the nape of Alejandro’s neck, feeling the heat of his skin. “Should probably find some shade anyway.”
He helped Alejandro to his feet and they walked back to the hotel, not quite touching except when their shoulders briefly bumped or Alejandro’s hand brushed against his. They ate a late lunch at the free buffet, listened to a couple of giggly teenage girls from England attempt karaoke on the stage in the corner of the room, then went to collect their bags and finish checking out. A crowded bus took them to the airport, where they checked their bags and got their boarding passes, then wandered around looking for something to do until the plane started boarding.
Brandon had a nervous moment when he thought they wouldn’t be allowed onto the plane, but after double-checking their boarding passes, the flight attendant waved them on and they joined the line slowly shuffling into the plane’s body. He led Alejandro down to their seats and settled into his, putting his belt on and trying to relax. Beside him, at the window, Alejandro watched the bustle of the airport outside, chewing worriedly on his bottom lip. Brandon reached over and took his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze, and closed his eyes, hoping he could sleep all the way back to Toronto.