The first call comes at nearly two in the morning. Basil's startled by the sound of the phone.
He's a lot more startled by the caller ID on his phone's screen.
"Hi," he says, and hopes he doesn't sound as breathless as he feels.
For a very long time, there's nothing but silence on the other end. Basil starts to wonder if it was a mistake. People butt-dial each other all the time, don't they? Sleep dialing could be a thing too. He'd never heard of it, but it surely could happen, couldn't it?
"Hi," says the voice on the other end of the call, soft and a little bit uncertain. "I didn't mean to call you so late."
"Hi Sunny," says Basil. He almost drops his phone in his frenzy to answer the call. He hopes Sunny can't hear him fumbling. More than anything, he hopes Sunny can't hear his heartbeat, which sounds like an artillery drumfire in the hollow of his chest.
"Hi," says Sunny, his voice soft and a little bit hoarse. "I— It's very late."
"That's okay. I don't mind."
"I thought— or, I was thinking. We live in an apartment now, my mom and me. My bedroom has a window planter, so I thought, I thought you'd know what would grow well. In that sort of place. In a window planter. I didn't know what could grow there. But you'd know, so I thought I'd ask you. I thought you'd know. You know all kinds of things like that."
It depends on what the sunlight is like, Basil wants to say, and how often you're going to water it. It depends on a lot of things.
It's all very complicated.
He doesn't say any of those things. He doesn't really know what to say.
"Sure," he says finally. "Sure, I can help you."
The second call comes while he's in class. He's not the type to talk to friends when he's supposed to be focusing on class. Not that he really has friends demanding his attention, but if he did, Basile doesn't think he'd be the kind who would be answering texts or calls mid-class. He excuses himself when the call comes, out of habit more than anything else. Phone calls have become more or less synonymous with emergency in recent years.
"I don't know what it means," Sunny says. He doesn't say hello. Just launches into conversation. Basil leans against the cold and ugly tiled walls of the high school hallway.
"Hi to you too." He hopes he sounds funny. Light. He doesn't know how to be light with Sunny anymore, but he wants to be. He wants that more than anything.
Sometimes, more than he wants death undone and grief erased, he wants the ability to smile once more with Sunny, easy and free and fun.
It feels terribly selfish. It's a wanting he can't erase, no matter how many years he's spent telling himself otherwise.
"Hi. What does partial sunlight mean? It's all very confusing. I'm at IKEA. My mom thinks I should buy these plants, because they're easy to take care of. The labels say how to take care of them, but I don't know what it means. You probably know though. Will they grow in a window planter?"
"You're buying plants at an IKEA?"
"Where else would I buy them?"
"I…. don't know," Basil says eventually. His brain feels like a car engine trying and failing to jumpstart. "I can't tell you how to take care of them unless you tell me what they are."
"Oh." Sunny falls silent for a terribly long moment. "I'd have to go check. All I remember is that they were all green."
"Most plants are." He's not sure if the bubbling in his chest is euphoria or panic. He doesn't really know what to make of his emotions anymore. To be fair, he hasn't known what to make of his emotions for a very long while.
"This one was very green," Sunny insists. "It was a very green kind of green. With some white spots. Or stripes. I'm not sure. It was both, maybe. It was supposed to be easy to care for."
"Haworthia ? "
"Probably. Maybe. You know more than I do."
I don't, Basil wants to say on an instinct. I really don't know anything. I'm just pretending I know things. I'm treading water even though I still want to drown.
"It's a succulent," says Basil, "if it is a Haworthia plant. So it doesn't need to be watered so often. Only every few weeks. Succulents aren't very demanding."
Sunny is silent.
"Haworthia plants thrive in direct sunlight, but they're very hardy, and they can make do even if they don't have as much sun as they'd like. They're pretty strong little plants."
"I see," Sunny's voice is very serious. Diligent, like he's taking notes on the other end of the one line. Knowing Sunny though, he actually might be, even though all Basil is saying is spewing facts based off of conjecture. It's not actually that useful.
There's a lot of things he could say. A lot of things he should say. Things like: I should get back to class . Things like: This isn't good timing.
"You should call me more," he says instead.
"I'm not very good at that."
"Me neither. Don't they say that practice makes perfect though?"
Sunny laughs at that. Basil missed the sound of his laugh. He hadn't even realized how much he missed his laugh until he's hearing it again, light and gentle and oh-so-sweet.
He missed that sound so very much. It's been such a long time since he's heard that laugh. He wonders if Sunny's face still crinkles the way it used to, if the dimple still shows in his right cheek (but for some reason, never the left) when he's smiling or laughing wholeheartedly.
"I can try?"
That's good enough for Basil. Trying is good enough.
Trying is a lot better than what they've had, after all.
"It was a haworthia plant," is how the third call starts. "I named it Captain Plantboy."
"Plantboy?" Basil can't help the laugh that escapes him like carbonation bursting out of a just-shaken soda can. " Captain Plantboy? Like, Spaceboy? I can't believe you still remember Captain Spaceboy. It's been so long."
"They're both green," Sunny explains, even though it's not really any sort of explanation at all.
"They are both green," Basil admits, more than a little bit fondly. "You're right."
"I haven't killed it yet."
"That's good, I guess." Haworthia aren't easy to kill. Even if you're lazy or forgetful, you only have to water them every few weeks. They're stubborn plants.
"It keeps growing. I feel like every time I look over at it it's gotten bigger. Maybe that's my imagination? I don't know. It's kind of amazing. I haven't killed it yet. It's really kind of amazing."
"You're not going to kill it. I'll tell you to take care of it, so you won't kill it."
"Right. You know a lot about this stuff." It's all Basil knows, really. It's not something so worthy of the admiration he thinks he hears in Sunny's voice. It's not so special. All he's done is hide away and care for his plants. Plants, at least, are easy. There's logic and reason to them. There's PH levels in the soil and the amount of sunlight throughout the day and the minerals in the water. It's almost mathematical, broken down to facts and figures and conditions. It's just reason. Basil likes reason. There wasn't a lot of reason for a long time.
But there's a reason to plants. There's reason to water and sunshine and soil and to foliage. Nature has its reason. It has a lot more reason than people have, at least.
It was easiest to forget that he was also part of people when he was tending his plants. It's not such an admirable thing, really. It's forgetting, the same way that burying himself inside his house was forgetting for Sunny.
All they've been doing for so many years is forget.
It's not forgetting though, to talk about plants with Sunny now. It makes it feel almost novel, even though it's all the same steps he'd dedicated every day to for the past several years. It's a lot more basic than what he's been doing, like it's the same dance in slow-motion— but it's fun.
It's fun, to talk about all of these things, to talk about the hours of sunlight and PH levels and all of the things that have become part of a mindless daily routine. It's a bit like remembering what it's to breathe after surfacing for a long time underwater.
Oh , Basil realizes somewhere along the way into their conversation, I really do love plants. I really do love this .
Loving this has been his lifeline for a fair few years now. He's not sure how he managed to live for this and to forget at the same time that he loved it.
"It's really amazing," Sunny says again. "Seeing it grow. I keep measuring it. It's something.. to look forward to, I guess?"
Something to look forward to. Basil knows all about that. That's all he knew for so many years. Life, for him, was measured not by his own steps or breaths, but by the slow but steady growth of green things around him. Nature was certain and nature was silent, and nature never doubted. Nature was alive, even when he felt like a dead thing walking.
"That's good," he says hoarsely. He wishes he were able to say all the things that sit like a stone on his heart. He's a coward, really, he is.
"I guess it is. It feels good. I feel.. better."
"You talk more," Basil points out, "when you're talking about plants." Sunny makes a little sound on the other end of the phone line.
"Not really. It's just.. it's a little bit easier to find words when I'm talking to you, I think."
He doesn't know what to do with something like that— with a thought like that. What is someone like him supposed to do with something like that?
The words make his heart swell like a balloon. He wonders if hearts can burst like balloons too, going pop just like that, all of the air and everything else inside of them escaping in a single violent second.
"I'm used to you not saying anything to me," he blurts out, and regrets it the second he says it.
Sunny is quiet for several moments.
"Yeah," he says at last, after an eternity has passed between them. "I know. I'm not really used to it either."
Basil breathes in. Breathes out, loud enough that he's sure Sunny can hear it on the other end of the phone. "I wish it wasn't like this." He feels selfish for saying it. Greedy, almost
Sunny's voice, when he finally speaks, is soft and sounds so very fragile.
"Me too." Basil wishes he knew what to say to words like that.
"I miss you," Sunny adds.
Sometimes, Basil imagines that an invasive plant species was planted deep inside of him on that day long ago, something hungry and always-growing, a plant that springs from the soil in his soul and rips the roots of everything else he used to be out. A creeping ivy plant, or something like that, which climbs his ribcage like a trellis and chokes the breath out of his lungs. It's choking him now, curling tendrils around everything inside of him.
"I've missed you for years," Basil confesses.
He needs to get off this call. He needs to leave. He keeps saying things he shouldn't say, letting loose all the thoughts and feelings he's kept locked up inside of him for so long that they've become part of the foundation that the person he's grown into is built on. Basil shouldn't be saying these things. Basil shouldn't be letting these thoughts become words. Basil shouldn't be saying these things to Sunny .
He used to say everything he thought of to Sunny. There wasn't a thought or feeling inside of him that Sunny didn't know, once upon a time.
But that was the Sunny-and-Basil from Before, and now they're the Sunny-and-Basil of After.
The Basil of After doesn't say these things. Not to Sunny, not to anyone.
"I know," Sunny's voice sounds small and a fresh wave of guilt rolls over in Basil's stomach.
It feels like there's an empty space inside of him where the words he just spoke used to sit though, a space that feels free and light. "I guess.." Sunny starts, and then stops, and then starts again. "I guess a 'sorry' would be cheap, after all this time, huh?"
I don't want a sorry , Basil wants to say, but he doesn't know what he wants instead. For this phone call to end, maybe. Or for it to never end, because he's afraid of plunging into the dark silence that he knows will come rising up to catch him the second one of them hangs up.
He wants to be the Basil of Before. He wants the Sunny of Before. He wants to get rid of everything that's happened, erase it from existence, pulling those years out of their lives like weeds.
Almost more than anything else, he just wants to cry.
"I don't know," he says eventually, hoarsely. "I don't know."
For a second that feels as short as it feels infinite, all is silent.
"Sorry," Sunny whispers.
Basil hits end call before he's even aware of himself doing it. He stares at the glowing screen of his phone dumbly, trying to think over the rushing sound rising in his ears.
I shouldn't have done that , he thinks. His head feels like it's full of molasses all of a sudden. He can't think.
The glow of the screen is wobbly. It's distracting. It hurts his head and his eyes. His hand is shaking, he realizes, and opens his hand to let the phone fall. It hits the ground with a dull thud that he barely hears, its light barely visible from where it lands.
He ignores it, choosing to curl into himself instead and ride out the storm raging inside of himself, stifling sobs into the crook of his elbow.
Sunny doesn't try to call him back.
Sorry isn't big enough of a word for everything that's come between them. It's kind of like putting a bandaid on a gaping wound. There's not really any words that are big enough for what they need. They could spend a lifetime looking for the right words to fix everything broken between them and inside of them and never even start stitching up their wounds.
But then again, a little word like sorry is a start of sorts, isn't it?
The fourth call starts just the same way the third call ended.
"Sorry," Basil says as soon as Sunny picks up the phone. His voice wavers, cracking like he's going to cry again. Maybe he is. His face still feels wet. Maybe he's crying again and hadn't even noticed it. "I'm sorry too. For hanging up on you. For– for everything, I guess."
"Me too," Sunny's voice sounds just like his, like a fragile broken thing. "I'm sorry too."
Basil laughs wetly. His lips tremble and his throat feels so raw. "You already said that."
"I don't know what else to say," Sunny retorts, but his voice hitches like he's crying too, or laughing, or both at once just like Basil is. What a mess. What a mess they are.
"Me either." There aren't any words they can say, and there's so many words they need to say. So many unspoken things that stand between them, forming a divide that Basil had become certain was impassible.
He's not sure now. He's not sure of anything anymore. His head feels light from all the crying, but his chest feels lighter too, somehow.
Maybe all that crying knocked something loose in him, made the imaginary strangler plant in his chest relinquish its hold a little bit. For whatever reason, Basil feels lighter than he's felt in years, even if he still feels a bit like he's about to burst into tears all over again at any second.
For such a long time, his life has been divided into the Before and the After. The Before was better, and After was always bad and never ever ending.
He's starting to think, in spite of himself, that maybe there can be something after the After. A third act to their play, and maybe— maybe they can shape this act into less of a tragedy. Sweep up all the broken pieces and make something new out of themselves, something a little bit better.
Maybe is as big of a word as sorry is small. It's a multitude in five little letters, an endless question.
Basil falls asleep to the first fingers of dawn stretching across the sky and the soft sound of Sunny's voice in his ear, and he thinks to himself: maybe.