The winter that Collins dies is the coldest that Mark can remember. It's Benny who calls him, of all people, awkward and stiff and somber all at once. Mark doesn't even know how Benny found out, since no one has heard from him since Mimi had died.
"I'm sorry," he says.
Mark shrugs and nods his head, even though he knows Benny can't see him.
"So am I."
It's not like Mark hadn't expected this. Collins. Roger. Angel. Mimi. The list was always in his head, and he knew that someday, he'd be the only one left. Benny had already cut himself off from the group, and Maureen and Joanne, he just knows would get too caught up in their own lives. Sure, they'd probably drop by once in a while to see how he was doing, but it would never be the same.
He's still grateful to hear a familiar voice, though, and when he hangs up the phone, he's proud of himself for how he's handling everything so far. Of course, there's no telling what Roger will do when he hears the news.
Since Mimi's death six months ago, Roger has changed. He'd drifted around the loft like a displaced ghost for the first few weeks, grey and silent and with a blankness in his eyes. It was April dying all over again, except this time no crying or screaming or drugs. And then one day, he'd went out and got himself a job at a nearby bar, settled into a routine of working there every other day. He spends the rest of his time on the couch or in his room, staring at his guitar, staring out the window, watching Mark's movements across the loft.
Mark doesn't know whether to be weirded out or concerned or maybe both, and if it wasn't for the damned sound of Musetta's Waltz that leaks through his bedroom walls every night like regular clockwork, he could almost convince himself that he doesn't have a roommate anymore. So, when he goes to tell Roger and gets no response, Mark isn't surprised. Instead, Roger turns around and walks into his room, shuts the door, and doesn't come out for the next twelve hours.
And Mark is left standing alone in the kitchen, the pale winter sunlight filtering in and leaving patches on the floor. Collins is gone. Kind, level-headed Collins. He had always been able to temper Roger and his mood swings when Mark's anxiety got to be too overbearing. And now? Now everything is slipping away.
The room starts to feel hot and stuffy, spinning in fantastical swoops. Suddenly, Mark knows he has to get away from here. If he stays, he'll probably have a panic attack and he doesn't want to bother Roger. He grabs his camera and stuffs it into his bag. He doesn't know where he's going until he stops at the foot of the tombstone.
"You should be here," he murmurs. "I don't know what to do, Mimi. He's shut himself up, he's shut me out. And now Collins…"
Mark rests one hand on the cold stone, wipes some of the snow off.
"Pan left, close on the steeple," he trails off.
When he gets back to the loft, it's almost nightfall. Roger's door is still closed, but he leans against it, and knocks quietly.
"Roger, you asleep? There's some takeout in the fridge I could warm up if you want."
He doesn't get an answer and sighs, gives it up as a lost case for the night. "Just don't forget to take your AZT. I'll be in my room if you need anything."
It's not until he wakes up in the middle of the night, gasping and throwing off his blankets and struggling to remember. It was something important, he knows that. Some memory that his body is instinctively curling away from. And then it hits him, a sharp pain in his stomach like he'd been kicked to the ground and had the air knocked out of him. He feels Collins's absence gnawing its way into him like a worm, turning his lungs heavy and leaden until he can't breathe. And then he's crying, weeping into his hands. He hasn't cried since he was seven years old and Tommy L. broke his glasses in half during recess. He's not sure who he's crying for, himself, Collins, everyone who's left.
"You doing okay, Mark?"
Mark jerks his head up from his plate. He's been pushing his waffle around for the past hour and it's hardened into an indistinguishable slab. Probably not edible now.
"Sorry," he says. "Sorry, yeah I'm fine. Just filming and stuff, you know. Usual Mark things."
Joanne looks at him a little suspiciously but doesn't say anything as she takes a sip of coffee.
"Pookie, you need to eat! You're so skinny and pale," Maureen exclaims and reaches across the table to pinch Mark's cheeks.
"I've always been skinny and pale." Mark rolls his eyes and looks at Joanne for help.
"Leave the boy alone, Maureen," Joanne says. "How's Roger been handling things?"
"He's the same as always." And then Mark cringes, "Well, the same new Roger anyways."
"Ah," Joanne nods in understanding. "We should try and get him out of the loft," she says thoughtfully. "Throw something together, I could invite a few friends from college, maybe ask Benny if he had any ideas."
Mark almost chokes on his tea. "Benny? No that would drive him away. He wouldn't leave the loft for the next century."
Joanne laughs then, and Mark can't help but join in. It's been so long since he's had something to smile about. If he thinks about it too long, he hasn't had a good laugh since that night in the Life Café when they'd taunted Benny after Maureen's protest.
"I suppose you're right," Joanne chuckles. "Scratch that idea."
She glances at her watch and then glares at Maureen in mock irritation. "I told you to remind me when we were getting close."
She turns to Mark apologetically, "I have a meeting downtown, but don't worry, we'll think of something. And anyways this was nice."
As Joanne stands up to collect her coat, Maureen jumps up and strikes a dramatic pose against her chair.
"I have a brilliant idea! No need to thank me, guys. Let's do this every week!"
"Do what?" Mark asks.
"This! Lunch, breakfast, whatever. We never see you anymore, Pookie," she pouts. "I want to know what you've been up to."
"I don't know," Mark hesitates.
"Mark, don't be a baby. It'll be fun!"
"You're always so busy filming. It'll be good, a chance to catch up," Joanne adds.
Mark holds up his hands in surrender. "Okay, all right, you guys win," and Maureen squeals and runs around the table to hug him.
He fends her off only halfheartedly.
"We'll see you next week," Joanne laughs, and pulls Maureen away and towards the door. "Take care of yourself!"
He doesn't notice when the shivering starts, at least not right away. It's February, dismal and cloudy and the streets are still filled with icy slush. And it's cold, well it's always cold in the city but this time it slithers into his bones, finds the holes in his sweater to exploit. They never have enough money to spare, especially in the winter months. Even though Benny turned back on the heat, between food and Roger's meds and whatever else they buy to survive, everything is still stretched tight. Mark's been thinking about getting a new roll for his camera, and to be honest, he'd rather spend his money on that than a new coat. His old one's fine for now.
So, when he finds himself clammy and nauseous at night, sweating through his sheets, he doesn't think much of it. It's probably a cold and there's no point going to the clinic and worrying anyone over nothing. They don't have the money for more meds and he'd rather die than go begging to Benny to cover the costs.
Roger is still committed to his vow of silence and barely ever answers Mark's questions about his day. Sometimes Mark can hear him pacing across the hall, pausing at Mark's door during his nightly walk. But he never knocks, never says anything and Mark's already treading around him during the day. He wants to ask, to figure out how they can get back to the way they were, the easy talking and the jibing, but they're so far off track from each other that he wouldn't know where to start.
He goes out with his camera, instead. Films anything and everything he can. The kids that play basketball at the lot around the block, the happy couples strolling around the park in the sunset, the old lady selling knitted hats at the corner of the grocery store. Sometimes, Mark swears, he can hear Angel's voice in his ear. Other times it's Mimi's laugh or Collins's deep baritone. When he whips around though, there's nothing. Only wind and silence. He thinks he's going insane, but everyone hears the dead, right? It's a form of grieving and he figures it's his own way of detaching. It's less lonely anyhow, and he'd rather hear them at all then be left with faded memories.
In March, Roger lets his bleached tips grow out and then cuts his hair. He finally starts playing his guitar again, but only chords, and only at night after his obligatory playing of Musetta's Waltz. Mark brings home a cough one day after work (Buzzline, he'd finally given in and gone back. They could use the extra cash, he admits to himself.). It causes little stabbing pains in his chest when he coughs too hard, like someone threw a bunch of knives at him. He decides to attack his cold as best he can and makes soup for three weeks straight. Roger probably thinks he's nuts, but he stays quiet and merely throws Mark some strange glances when he heats a bowl up for dinner again.
Mark still meets up with Joanne and Maureen every week, and he surprised to find that he looks forward to the outings. Maureen can be a little intense and hard to handle, but once a week seems to be the perfect amount of separation and gives him enough time to recover from the previous visit. He's on his way to the café for lunch with them when he has to pause and catch his breath in a nearby alley. Mark's never been the perfect model of human physique, but he doesn't consider himself that out of shape. He puts one hand on the side of the wall to steady himself, but he's still dizzy. His legs are feeling wobbly and he barely has time to consider how strange this is, before he wavers and starts to slide to the ground.
He's aware that he's lying on his side, his cheek pressed into the cool concrete. His glasses are digging into his nose bridge, but he's too tired to raise his hand and adjust them. He can't move, and everything is pulsing under his eye lids and he feels flashes of heat pounding through his head.
How can a person feel hot and cold at the same time, he wonders? Wonderful job, Mark, getting yourself into this mess. No one's coming for you. Lonely, detached, Mark Cohen. Collins had Angel, Maureen has Joanne, and Roger had Mimi. Who do you have?
When he opens his eyes again, the day has passed. It's evening, and the concrete has started to feel less soothing and more like an uncomfortably cold block of ice. Mark shifts himself to lean against the brick wall of the alley with a groan and looks around. His camera is on the ground, the lens cracked in three different places. But it still works, and he figures he can make do until he saves up enough for a new lens.
He struggles to his feet and picks up his bag. I'll have to call Joanne and apologize, make up some excuse, he thinks. She'll understand.
When he gets to the loft and opens the door, Roger is standing in front of him, looking downright furious. Mark's a little off guard, he's so used to Roger not looking like anything.
"Where were you?" he demands.
"Out," Mark says, and carefully sets his camera on the table. He's not about to mention his embarrassing episode in the alleyway.
He shuffles slowly to the fridge. His body is still sore, and if he's not careful, he'll fall flat on his face in front of Roger and that isn't really something he wants to deal with right now.
"You were gone for the entire day! Maureen and Joanne called, they were worried about you."
"I told you, I was out filming," Mark says wearily.
"You're lying," Roger accuses, "Tell me the truth."
"The first time you want to have a real conversation with me, and this is what you choose?"
Mark laughs incredulously. "I already said what I was doing, don't try to play the concerned roommate now. You're months too late."
"Fine," Roger snaps. "I was just asking."
A rush of anger and bitterness bubbles up Mark's throat.
"All those months ago, when it was you and I, and you never said anything. They were my friends too! I had as much a right to grieve as you! You can't come back and pretend like nothing happened. You left me to deal with everything while you just blocked out the world and everyone in it."
Mark's shouting now and all these words he didn't know he was hoarding are pouring out his mouth. Roger's staring at him like he wants to punch him or hug him, Mark doesn't know. But his expression quickly shifts, and he turns around and grabs his jacket that always hangs on the hook behind the door.
"I gotta go," he mutters, and Mark is too tired and too angry to reply.
The door slams shut and Mark sinks into the kitchen chair and puts his head in his hands.
You always hide in your work! You can't face your failure, your loneliness, Roger sneers. The rest of us are dying and you're what? Worried about surviving? Poor baby, he scoffs.
He's right, Mark thinks dimly. I drive everyone away.
Suddenly, he remembers that he was supposed to call Maureen and Joanne. They're probably wondering why he never showed. He stands up to reach for the phone, but he hasn't taken more than a few steps when the rushing in his ears starts up again. Black dots are dancing in front of him, and he barely hears the sound of his head hitting the floor before he passes out.
"Mark? Mark! Dammit! Are you all right? Open your eyes!"
Roger is shaking his shoulders roughly and Mark struggles back to awareness, blinking away the bright pin pricks of light. Roger is hovering above him, the faint scent of smoke and cheap beer wafting in the air and making his head spin.
"Roger," he mumbles. Or that's what he tries to say. What comes out sounds more like a garbled croak.
"I can't breathe," he whispers. Roger nods and bobs his head, tightens his grip on Mark's arm.
"I'm calling an ambulance."
Mark closes his eyes and murmurs his assent.
He forces himself to wrench his eyes open and stares blearily into Roger's frantic, green eyes.
"You can't fall asleep, you hear me? You can't leave me, Mark."
And Roger is sobbing now, clutching Mark so hard he's probably going to leave bruises.
"I'm not," he says, and he means it. He tries, he really does, but he can't keep his eyes open. He's just so tired, and the last thing he sees is the unbridled panic on Roger's face.
When he wakes up, it takes him a full minute to realize where he is and to focus on the figure looking down at him. The hospital. Roger must've gotten him here after all.
The doctor smiles at him and check his chart, adjusts some buttons on the machines whirring next to him.
"Pneumonia. You're a lucky man, Mr. Cohen. If you had waited any longer, you would've likely died. It's fortunate that your friend found you when he did."
The doctor nods his head toward the corner of the room and Mark sees Roger slumped asleep in a chair. He wonders how long he's been here.
"I know," he says.
Roger stirs in his chair and groggily wakes up. When he sees Mark looking at him, he breaks into the biggest smile Mark has ever seen before his expression darkens.
He stalks towards the bed and glares down at Mark. "You bastard," he hisses. "Don't you ever do that to me again or I swear to God, I'll let you die next time."
Mark glances awkwardly at the doctor who only shakes his head in amusement.
"I'll let you two talk."
"Sorry," Mark says, when the doctor closes the door. "I'll try a little harder next time."
"That's not funny, Mark."
Mark grins as Roger starts pacing in front of Mark's bed. "It kind of was funny, though."
"This is my fault," Roger mumbles.
"No. Roger, it's not. It's mine. I let everything go to hell after Collins died. I got tired and I stopped caring about things."
"I was selfish. I knew you were sick, you kept coughing that whole month, stumbling around like I couldn't see what was happening. I'm not an idiot, Mark."
"I know you're not, Roger," Mark says patiently. "You were grieving."
"You almost died! I watched them give you CPR, they had to shock your heart. I was there," he snarls.
"Are you gonna leave?"
That gets Roger to stop his frenetic movements and he stares at Mark with a confused now-you're-the-idiot look. "What? No, why would you think that?"
"I don't know," Mark says quietly, and he can't bring himself to meet Roger's eyes. He traces the pattern of the blanket with one hand.
"I guess I was afraid you'd do something stupid and go to Santa Fe again or something."
"I'm not going anywhere," Roger says fiercely. "I'm staying right here, with you."
"So am I."
Roger stares at him and moves closer to Mark's side.
"Mark, you can't just. I don't, you can't—"
Roger breaks off and swipes angrily at his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket.
"I know," Mark simply says. "I'm not going to."
They stare at each other for a few minutes before Mark clears his throat and Roger jumps, startling them both. They laugh a little nervously, and then Roger drags the chair in the corner closer to Mark's bed and sits down again.
"You were pretty popular while you were dying, you know. Even Benny came to visit," he says slyly.
Mark gives a full laugh at that and shakes his head. "You let him come in?"
Roger looks almost pleased with himself at Mark's surprise. "He was worried, I couldn't bring myself to knock down the poor guy."
He straightens in his chair as if he's just remembered something important. "Oh yeah! Guess what I brought?" He reaches around the door and brings out his battered guitar case. "I figured we could use some entertainment for when Sleeping Beauty finally woke up." Roger unzips the bag and starts tuning the strings.
"As long as it's not Musetta's Waltz. Anything but that."
Mark ducks his head as Roger reaches up to swat at him. "You said you liked it!"
"The first time, Roger. Only the first time" Mark says drily.
"Fine. I'll play something else." He settles into the chair and plucks a few strings.
Mark leans back against his pillows as a low, sweet melody begins to fill the room.
They stay like that until Maureen and Joanne walk in, content in the silence, even after the music stops.
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