Chapter Title: He's Not Here
It's the summer of 1994. Mark and Roger are closer than ever. The only problem... is that Roger has been dead for more than two months. Told between flashbacks, dreams and the confused present of Mark's mind, a tale of tragedy and the supernatural. Marker. Mark/Roger.A/N: I'm actually really proud of this, and excited. I'm still working on it and it may be a long time before it's finished but I'd love if some LJ users gave me feedback! :)
Disclaimer: RENT isn't mine and the basest idea for this came from Next to Normal, also not mine.
Chapter 1: He's Not Here
May 29th, 1994
The alarm I've owned for the past six years is the most annoying thing you will ever hear. I don't care who you are, what you do, when you get up- that monotone beeping right in your ear? Yeah. No one wants to wake the fuck up to that.
I have to say, however begrudgingly, that it gets the job done. I bought the stupid old thing from the thrift shop for five bucks after the second time I noticed Roger sneaking back in at four in the morning, high as a kite; I needed something to wake me up in case he forgot his key. When I think about it I did a lot of crazy things like that for Roger, even before…
I had to really restrain myself from whipping the small black contraption at the wall, slamming my hand down on the big raised button on the top- the letters rubbed off a long time ago, but it used to say 'snooze' and it never worked until I got Collins' friend to fix it. Sitting up, I glared briefly at the flashing red numbers proclaiming it to be 3:00 am. It took me a moment to remember why I was getting up so early on a Sunday morning, but a quick glance at the calendar tacked to the wall over my bed cured me of that ail and I jumped out of bed in a much better mood, absently pulling on some clothes off the floor.
The cold wooden floor was less than pleasant to my sleep-warmed feet, but I walked slowly and allowed it to wake me up. The trip to the kitchen was uneventful. I passed Roger's door and paused for a moment, gazing a little too long at the scuffed piece of wood hanging crookedly in the frame, but no one emerged and I sighed as I continued, trying not to be disappointed. Roger was never up this early.
As I reached up into the cupboards, searching in vain for any remaining packets of cocoa to mix with my coffee, I absently thought of a day way back when in the early days of my New York experience. It was my first Christmas in the city and Roger had spent the day educating me about the city way of celebrating things.
"Real New Yorkers don't have trees or ornaments. They're a fire hazard, and besides, it's a pain in the ass getting them upstairs," he had instructed me sternly. I had nodded eagerly along, wide-eyed and adoring. At twenty, I was a puppy, not a man. I followed every rule he set me down to the last detail- Roger was my guardian angel. In some ways, he still is.
"No tree… What about presents? Can we put up decorations at least?" I had asked, slightly sad over the thought of a Christmas without strings of tinsel and popcorn, the scent of pine needles. Though my mother was as Jewish as they come, my father was Catholic- every other year, our house had been lit up with multicolored bulbs and flickering red and green candles in the windows, the brightest house on the block.
"Decorations are a waste of money. Presents are only if you want to. Come on, Mark, don't be a sap. You don't have a job or anything, right? How do you expect to pay for fucking Christmas presents?" He'd snorted at that, finding the very idea ludicrous. Once again I had nodded, suppressing a hurt frown.
Roger had been in the city for a year already while I tried- and failed, pretty miserably- to make something of myself at Brown. If anything had been a waste of my time, it was that year and a half I spent on a college campus, miserable and awkward amongst my peers. Roger had it right- the bohemian lifestyle was the ideal, no matter what cost. Even if I had to give up Christmas.
"So… What do New Yorkers do for Christmas?" I remember asking, hesitant. Roger grinned crookedly in response.
"We trick… and then we have ourselves a treat."
"… Wait, that's Halloween!"
"Every day is Halloween here, Marky."
He'd thrust a chipped mug of cocoa under my nose then, still hot thanks to the hotplate that, back then, still worked. And even now, the frothy chocolate and tiny marshmallow morsels tasted sweet as I recalled it.
My reminiscing, as per usual, gets me in trouble. Suddenly I'm not on my tiptoes struggling to feel the dusty corners of the cupboard- I'm sprawled across the floor with a bump on my head, having collided with the corner of the counter on the way down. Dizzy, I laid back and stared up at the skylight until all of the doubles re-merged into single objects. I grimaced at the sharp pain in my temple, waiting it out.
"Y'kay?" mumbled a voice to my right. I blinked and turned, ignoring the throbbing in favor of my curiosity. Sitting on the metal table that I'd been eating my breakfasts on for nearly a decade, cross-legged and bleary, Roger gave me a little wave and then yawned widely, chapped lips stretching and revealing a row of perfect white teeth, a dark abyss of throat and then nothing as he sealed his lips again. Despite myself, I was already grinning. I sat up perhaps a little prematurely and raised one hand to wave back.
"Fine," I assured him, getting to my feet and wobbling. Let's hope I didn't have a concussion. Already the concern has vanished, leaving that trademark mischievous gleam in his eye. "Are you coming?"
"Today?" He brightens. Always count on Roger to know what I'm talking about before I even finish saying it. "Is it already Sunday?"
"Went quick, didn't it?" There was a hint of a chuckle in my voice as I nodded and reached to unplug the coffeepot. No reason to start a fire if I wasn't even going to get a caffeine buzz out of it, and Roger never drank coffee anymore. He hopped off the table, lithe as a cat and totally silent, and padded up behind me. I was turned the other way, but I've grown sensitive to Roger's movements as of late, almost supernaturally so. I toss an adoring grin over my shoulder, still caught in my half-remembered non-Christmas from years back, and I know that he's smirking.
"Yeah, sure, I'll go." The nonchalance is totally fake. I know him too well, but he still tries to pull one over on me once in a while. Now that I've seen beneath the arrogant façade, I can't forget the vulnerable boy ZI saw. "Why not? Boring as fuck around here anyways."
"You could always bug Maureen," I commented drily, still turned away. I took the pot off the burner and poured myself a mug, knowing full well that I wouldn't drink it. When I did turn he was right there, calloused hands gripping the edges of the counter on either side of my waist, leaning in so close I was almost afraid he'd crash into me and we'd both be down for the count.
"She ignores me," he whined, lower lip jutting out in a ridiculous pout. I would have called it out but I was breathless from our proximity. Instead I blushed crimson and smiled weakly, letting him continue. "She doesn't even like me, mark. Face it. You're the only one I can bug."
Maybe that should have exasperated me, but inwardly I smiled.
"I'm the only one who puts up with your bullshit," I agreed, thrusting the mug futilely under his nose. There's an ache in my chest, because I know that he's not going to drink it before he even shakes his head but I really wish he would. God, I wish… I set the mug down on the counter.
"You ready?" His expression, a sad, knowing twist on his usual smile, only makes it worse. All I do is nod again, averting my eyes and trying to regain my usual cheer so that we could continue our banter. Without having to push or even ask I duck right out of his grasp and head for the bedroom for my camera, returning just a few short moments later. Roger is gone, but that comes as no surprise. I'll see him soon, anyways.
The front door clangs shut behind me and I begin the descent of a thousand stairs. Another memory, one of a million involving Roger's bitchiness, drifts past; winding the crank on my camera I smile fondly as I recall the whiny note in his voice, the many mornings I would listen to him bitch and moan over the eight flights of stairs that we climbed on a daily basis. In all the years that we lived there, he never got over that.
"People weren't meant to live up this high," he would say, totally serious as he gazed at me from the opposite end of the couch. "This isn't an apartment. It's a fucking nest! We might as well sprout wings."
And then Collins would pass the joint his way and I would giggle, already halfway to stoned myself, and he'd relax again.
By the time I reach the sidewalk, I can feel my mood lifting again. Perhaps it's unhealthy, how I let Roger rule my emotions, but I certainly enjoy the ups if not the downs. People brush past brusquely, nothing on their minds but getting where they're going. I take my time. It's a long walk to the cemetery but it's Sunday and I have nothing better to do- in fact, I've been anticipating it all week long, since my last Sunday morning visit.
I know without having to look that Roger is beside me again. We walk in companionable silence, enjoying the mild warmth of this late spring morning. It's that perfect moment between rainy springtime and sweltering summer and we have to enjoy it while we still can. The weight of my camera in my hands is familiar and comforting and I can practically smell the exasperation rolling off Roger in waves as I film random passerby, stoplights, alleyways. I've never gone into the cemetery without my camera- and I'm not about to start- but I know he'd like it if I left it at home for once.
Next time, maybe. If he really wants it. But it's doubtful.
The sun rises in the sky as we walk and by the time I see the cemetery gates it's blindingly bright. Light reflects off of the concrete and makes me squint, repeatedly pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose only to have them slide back down again. Yes, it's definitely an early summer; there's no mistaking the teensy miniskirts and nearly-naked men and women walking in small groups, the teenagers licking at ice cream cones and chattering like chipmunks. I remember being one of those kids. It's almost sad to think that I won't ever have that brand of uninformed bliss again.
Life isn't all ice cream and pleasant conversation, but they won't find out until later.
My hands lower slowly and the camera with them. I stared up at the sign, old and cast iron, and then out over the grassy hills within the gates. They're dotted with headstone after rugged headstone; it's not a high-end place. The stones are closely packed, almost on top of each other in certain places. It's the same cemetery we buried April in and where we would have buried Mimi, had her mother not interfered. It's all we could afford. Angel's grave rests in a much prettier graveyard uptown.
It might be a place for the living to mourn the dead, but I sort of liked it. It's quiet and peaceful, and on a day like this there are hundreds of flowers in bloom to cheer the place up.
Already, my feet have automatically begun to tread the path to my favorite destination. The camera is switched off. I've never come there without it, but the only footage I have of the realm beyond the front gate is the video I took of the burial. I never watch that. The sight of the coffin being lowered into the dark soil never fails to make me cry, and crying isn't exactly my thing.
There is a tune in my head, the same old one, and I dare to hum a few notes before becoming self-conscious and falling silent. Musetta's Waltz. Roger will hopefully take it as a sign to strike up a conversation now.
Looming up ahead is a black slab with gray-white letters etched into the face, no more special than any of the others unless you're me. This particular headstone was precious to me. For the first time, I'd taken money when Benny offered it. We both knew that it wasn't ever going to be paid back, promises be damned, but the relief far outweighs the guilt. I wasn't going to let them bury my best friend without a marker.
When I reached it I knelt and, ignoring the leftover dew soaking through the knees of my corduroys, reached to touch the polished surface. My fingertips had hardly skimmed over the inscription when I heard the familiar sound of an amused cough above me.
Roger's legs dangled over the edge of the headstone, sneakers barely scraping the ground beneath him. I sat back on my heels, setting my camera carefully down on a dry patch beside me and shaded my eyes as I smiled up at him.
"Hey." He smiled briefly back at me, but it didn't reach his eyes. It was still odd seeing him clean of makeup, free of bleach. Hair dark and eyes un-rimmed, he hardly seemed like Roger, but that wasn't really for me to decide was it? "How are you feeling?"
It struck me as strange that he would ask me so formally, but I shrugged it off and pushed myself up off the ground, lurching to wrap my arms around him in a hug. The fact that his bare arms felt papery, almost wispy under my touch, didn't bother me. Hugging Roger was a commodity that I had to appreciate whenever I could. Several deep breaths later I reluctantly pulled away, hoping he wasn't uncomfortable. He smiled wanly. I chose to ignore the strain in his expression and the bags under his eyes, glad just to have him there.
"I'm good." Belatedly, I realized he was waiting for an answer and stammered one out. "Maureen's been stopping by more… She's worrying over nothing."
"Sounds like someone else I know." Lips pulling into a slight smirk, Roger gave me a pointed look before tipping his head back and gazing at the sky. "What else?"
"Er…" At a loss, I cringed and shuffled my feet, a pink tint to my cheeks. I didn't have much of a social life, or a life at all- that was nothing new. I was probably boring him and I grasped at straws, desperate to keep his interest. "I had a really odd dream last night."
"Was it the one with the cats again?" He didn't bother to look at me as he asked, seeming mesmerized by the wisps of white in the azure sky. I guess I could understand that; it was rate, when Roger got a glimpse of true blue sky.
"No." I shook my head, sidling closer. I was hesitant to touch him without permission, since I never knew what would happen, but I couldn't help the magnetic draw he had to me. Once again, I allowed my eyes to wander and glimpsed the words etched into the stone he sat on.
Roger Adam Davis
Rock God and best friend.
The same deep feeling of regret welled up and made me clench my fists at my sides, gritting my teeth as subtly as possible as I fought off tears. It was harder and harder to be stoic these days. Crying was still strictly forbidden- something that was self-imposed- but every so often I wondered if I should just give in. There was so much to cry about and so few reasons to abstain.
He must have noticed my prolonged silence, or perhaps he sensed my sorrow because he lowered his head to gaze at me mournfully. "Are you going to tell me about your dream?" he asked, voice low and husky.
Though moments ago it hadn't seemed like the dream was anything significant, I found myself meekly shaking my head. No, I didn't want to share it. It didn't seem right. Roger furrowed his eyebrows for a moment, scrutinizing me, and then hopped off of the headstone. He crouched down and I had a moment of alarm before I realized what he was doing.
He was tying my shoe.
Again, my mind whirled and I found myself caught in a fragment of the past.
"I can't do it."
"Yes you can. You're not stupid. It's just a shoelace!"
"I can't DO It!"
Increasingly frustrated, six-year-old Roger stomps his foot and turns bright red, lips set in a petulant frown. I knew him well enough by then to see the angry, embarrassed tears gathering at the corners of his big green eyes.
"It's not hard. I can teach you. My mom taught me last year."
I had smiled at him then, dimpled and full of holes where my baby teeth had fallen out. Inside, I had been anxious and ready to do anything to make my friend feel better. Roger was the first friend I'd ever made, and I wanted to hold onto him forever.
The other boy had wiped at his eyes as quickly as possible, trying to be subtle, and I had pretended not to notice. "My mom said she would… But she's at work all the time. I thought I had it figured out but…" He looked down doubtfully at his sneakers, ratty laces tangled up in ineffective gray knots that did nothing to prevent his feet from slipping right out.
"I said I'd help you, didn't I?" I'd knelt then, right in front of him on my own front lawn, and picked up the ends of his laces. It felt awkward to look up as I set to work- up and over, loop-de-loop and pull…- but I peeked anyways over the top of my Coke-bottle glasses. Roger's blurry face watched avidly, chewing his lip. He smiled tentatively and I did as well.
"That's all," I remember saying, and he had ducked his head to mutter a quick thanks before, just as hastily, pulling me into a tight hug. As soon as he let go, he ran.
I'd watched him, sneakers slapping the pavement without flying off for the first time in what seemed like forever, until he disappeared in the distance. And the smile hadn't left my face for the rest of the day.
Present-day Roger got to his feet and reached to squeeze my hand. His normally sickly-pale skin was tinted pink, the only hint that he felt anything more than platonic about the action, and I automatically squeezed it, glad for the abnormal papery feel of it in my grasp.
"I miss you, Mark."
I looked into his eyes and read the despair, mirroring my own emotions. I squeezed harder, vaguely hoping that I wouldn't break this fragile remnant of the man I loved.
"I miss you, too."
"Is that him?" Maureen shaded her eyes against the bright June sunlight with one hand, tugging Joanne along with the other. She squinted into the distance, over the rows and rows of simple headstones towards the single skinny shadow of a figure who she strongly suspected was her mentally unbalanced ex-boyfriend.
"Could be… It's close enough to the grave. Let's go see," Joanne sighed. She allowed Maureen to drag her, long brown hair swaying behind her, and struggled to keep her mind on the task. It seemed like every day her fiancée grew more beautiful- and she wasn't even aware of it. But that wasn't the issue at hand.
The issue at hand was, unfortunately, Mark Cohen.
As the couple wove their way towards the familiar shape, Joanne began to dread facing him again. She and Maureen and Collins loved Mark, of course, but the past couple of months had been an uphill battle. It was Roger that set him off- specifically, his death- and since they had only seen a steady decline.
Mark had always been the most levelheaded of the bohemians, but lately he seemed ready to crack.
"What's he-?" She shut her mouth with a snap as they drew within earshot. It was definitely Mark, definitely alone, but then who was he talking to?
She and Maureen gave each other looks of disbelief as they listened.
"You know I love you right? I still do."
A pause. Then, a laugh.
"No. I wouldn't even think of anyone else. I could never replace you."
Forcing herself to relax, Joanne gently wriggled out of Maureen's grip and took another step forward, still staring uncertainly at the empty air that Mark seemed to be having a conversation with. This was worse than they had suspected… As curious as she was about how this would progress, Joanne knew she had to put a stop to it. One dark-skinned hand reached for Mark's thin shoulder.
"Mark?" she asked slowly, wary of the response she might receive- or lack of response.
The reaction was instantaneous and startled- he turned on his heel and stepped back, blue eyes wide and nostrils flared. When he saw that it was only his friends, the strawberry-blonde relaxed a little and attempted a skittish smile. The way he stood seemed defensive, but neither Maureen nor Joanne could fathom why.
"H-hey. Hi." He fidgeted, feeling ridiculously as though he'd been caught in some forbidden act. But talking to Roger wasn't forbidden, was it? Only unusual. Misunderstood. Behind him, the other man had probably already slipped back into whatever world he lived in when he wasn't by Mark's side.
That feeling of regret hit him full force in the gut, threatening to choke him.
Increasingly worried as Mark winced, Maureen stepped forward and pulled him into a hug, the smile on her face ready to slip off as she wondered what could be wrong with him.
"You said you'd go out sometime with us, right? We thought today would be good. Right, pookie?" She darted a nervous glance at Joanne, who was a little more composed. Training in law had, over the years, given her an excellent poker face.
"We were just heading down to the Life," she said evenly, smiling warmly without making another move to touch him. Like a wild animal, she reasoned, he would need his space. "You coming?"
"Ah… Sure. Why not?" Licking his lips, Mark twisted his hands together and shifted again. He knew that he was acting like a guilty child but there wasn't much else he could do. "Just… give me a minute?"
After a moment of helpless indecision, Maureen finally nodded and pulled Joanne back in the direction of the gate. "Sure," she agreed, still smiling, strained. "Be quick though."
The moment they were out of earshot Mark turned on his heel, desperately hoping for one last glimpse of Roger before he had to return to living company in the busy New York world. He had vanished into thin air, leaving no sign that he'd been there at all. And maybe he hadn't. Half-smiling bitterly, Mark briefly closed his eyes and shook his head.
So maybe no one else saw him and maybe common sense said that none of this was real. Mark would rather believe in the hallucination anyways.
The filmmaker rested one hand on the cold, smooth surface of Roger's headstone and brought the other up to finger the cool silver ring hanging from the chain around his neck. "Goodbye, Roger." His voice was little more than a whisper, all-too-aware of his other friends watching him from afar. They probably thought he was crazy… "I'll see you later."
With that, he turned to rejoin Maureen and Joanne, trying to ignore the pang as he left Roger's ghost- hallucination?- behind and the feeling that maybe the others were right about him.
But if he was crazy, he didn't see anything wrong with it.
After all- crazy kept Roger around, and that was alright by him.