Despite the years between us—it’s been decades and decades since we were children—I still came. I still came, even though his voice was unsteady on the telephone, at times demanding and at others hesitant.
I argued with myself. It had been too long. But in the end, I agreed to fly home (is it still home?) to see him.
So I packed up my life, my little fragments (most go in the garbage can, all scraps of paper I tried to write letters on, napkins from restaurants and bars with smudged numbers from a century ago, unopened cigarette boxes, gum wrappers, and nicotine patches). It’s pathetically easy. But I’ve been living in a hotel these past few weeks, no real need to go into the reasons, no real need to pull off that band-aid yet, let it rest. It has nothing to do with him, after all.
He isn’t there to meet me at the airport, but was I really expecting him to be? His voice was too soft. I almost can’t believe in it, in him.
So I hail a cab.
It takes awhile. It’s raining. I fidget and clench my fingers tighter around my baggage handles, trying to deny the urge I feel, the addiction, and the need. Everyone around me is smoking. It isn’t my fault. It breeds in my lungs, though, in the fabric of my jacket. I’ll smell it there for days and half believe that I did it. That it’s my smell.
I get in a taxi, finally, after days and days, after an eternity of fresh rain and smoldering, toxic nicotine fires. The driver is a balding man, who looks at me in the rearview mirror with tired, empty eyes and asks, “Where?”
I rattle off the address like I’ve kept it in my lungs for years and years. It feels like exorcizing a ghost. The seat beneath me is comfortable, broken in, and inviting, and I feel lighter, but not less guilty.
The driver grunts and removes his eyes from the rearview, puts them on the road.
I close my eyes for the ride, imagining the house as it was, years ago (too many to count). The fence had just been fixed and all the paint redone. It had looked like an emaciated woman, hollow eyes framed by a too narrow face, all her imperfections highlighted by an excess of foundations and powders. I could never envy her, but I could not pity her either. There, in the monolithic steps and ornamental, towering door, is a frigid pride that is not lessened by the spider vein cracks in the supporting columns. I have always felt, or I always did feel, that I was standing in the carcass of some great beast when I stood on that porch.
There is a cough that shocks me from my musings, and I glance up to catch the driver’s eyes once again in the rearview mirror. “Here.”
I hand over the fare and, dragging my bag behind me, step out of the cab and onto the patched sidewalk, keeping my eyes on the dead weeds that remain in the cracks like fallen warriors abandoned on the battlefield. I don’t want to look up and see the house, but I hear footsteps and then, before I’m ready, his voice.
He says, “Hey, hey, welcome. Let me get your bag,” and his voice is familiar, but it isn’t his. It feels like a derivative, like someone took his suave college voice, the one that so elegantly quoted “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” on the college meadow when the sun was rising and I was still drunk off of bitter wine, and whittled it down to the core.
It isn’t like he’s been broken. I glance up to make sure of it, and his blue eyes are just as frigidly perfect as they have always been. But his cheeks are hollow, his mouth white at the corners, and his hair billows and drifts above his head like a storm cloud.
He is wearing, I am astounded to note, a white dress shirt with the cuffs unbuttoned and the front un-tucked from a pair of dusty, black slacks. He does not seem to be aware that there is an odd stain near the second ivory button that resembles the brown of dried blood.
I clear my throat and manage, “I can get it, thanks. It’s only one bag.”
He nods, wringing his hands, which seem longer and more slender than I remember. An image comes to mind of his hands, famished and bone white, dragging his body after them, in my direction. I shake my head to clear it.
I square my shoulders and let him lead me up the sidewalk towards the house.
But I can’t breathe. Everything is wrong. The fence is gone and the house has undergone some acid bath that has left the wood looking like granite and the marble columns like bleached bones. And to the left, where there was once nothing but an empty patch of grass, there is a massive curling tree that has dug its roots up beneath the porch and pushed part of the sidewalk up into a rolling wave.
I try not to tremble. He doesn’t seem to know why I have stopped. I have to step back to avoid the touch of his haggard fingers on my shoulder.
I have to voice it though. “How long has that tree been there?”
His brow furrows and he dips his head. I try to catch his eyes, but he’s always been taller than me. His gaze dances somewhere to the left and higher than the top of my head. He flinches. I have never seen him flinch that way. He once stood in the back alley, between the Literature 320 room and the college cafe . . .
He says, “Why, forever,” and drifts his eyes back down to mine. They’re normal, his eyes, and his face is clear.
“Okay,” I say. “Okay. It’s nice to see you again, Lordes.” But I don’t mean it. I don’t even feel bad about lying. But that moment, his eyes are on me like he’s daring me to argue the point, and stay with me so that before I know it, I am inside the house. I’ve passed under her gaze.
He shows me my room, the one I’ve always used, and in this at least, I sense no change. The twin bed in the corner and the old wardrobe that smells of rose petals. I place my bag on the bed and the metal springs laugh.
“Lordes,” I begin, but I feel an absence. He’s gone.
I comb my fingers through my hair. Steady, steady. There are probably no cigarettes in the house.
I take a moment, or two or three, standing with my hands trembling on the windowsill, overlooking the empty field that is thankfully empty. And then, with an unsteady heart but a steady tread, I descend and seek him out in the living room.
I find him where I thought I would, sitting in his mother’s chair and starring blankly into the fireplace, which seems to be filled with little bits of paper, tiny like globes of snow. I try to imagine him sitting there, tearing paper into tinier and tinier pieces, but it seems like something a damaged person would do and Lordes isn’t.
He cuts me off, “Thanks, I know. I know that this place has always disturbed you. You came anyway. Thanks.”
This puts me in an awkward place. He has never been so obliging. What could possibly be wrong?
He steeples his fingers beneath his chin, breathes out through his nose and then, just waits. His eyes are wide and on me. I feel like I’ve forgotten the chess board upstairs, but the next move is mine.
“Lordes, why am I here?”
He smiles, slow, and it feels like the movement is a journey across his face. I suspect he’s about to recite poetry, and tired, I fling myself onto the unresisting sofa and parody his position.
This might have, at one time, caused him to react angrily. It doesn’t now. Instead, he lets his arms drop and, as though nervous, fiddles with his right sleeve.
“I called you here, old friend, because I’m going insane. I was hoping you could stop it.” He says it with all seriousness. He says it like I’ve been known to save people’s sanities on my days off.
Can he tell that I flinched? He can’t. He mustn’t.
But his smile is still there, worming its way up. It fills me with dread, like this house that isn’t a home; he isn’t smiling at me, he’s barring his teeth to devour me. I’m just not awake enough to realize.
I’m tired. I haven’t slept since I left my hotel. And this house . . . I’ve never liked it, but I don’t remember telling Lordes anything about it disturbing me. I have never allowed myself to admit that it disturbs me. But it does.
I feel like there’s a fire, but I have no recollection of Lordes moving to light one. I shift my head (when did I lie down?), and see that he is still reclining in his mother’s overly ornamented chair, regarding me thoughtfully.
I drift off to the cackle of burning logs and to the glacial caress of withered distal phalanges.
I dream of a memory—I am afraid of this particular memory, but no one would blame me for it.
It’s a dream of college, of overcrowded classrooms and the eerie scrape of pencil against blank paper. I have too much time for books. I just want to be loved. I just want to be loved. My fingers scrabble against ink stained pages until they are just as ink stained. I hold my hands up to the light and can read science in the pale veins of my flesh. Carpals, metacarpals, proximal phalanges, and intermediate phalanges . . . I just want to be loved.
I wake with the taste of salt on my lips; it could be tears or sweat, but it’s not bitter enough for the latter. And my back aches, probably because I am lying like I fell from a great height on the old springy mattress of the guest room (my room).
The sun is high and the window open, a fresh breeze bringing in fresh air that does nothing to filter the dusty, rose petal smell of the room. It makes me feel old, combined with the ache in my back. I rise and stretch and wonder what Lordes must think, me passing out like that.
But I can’t find him. He isn’t in the kitchen or the living room, and his bedroom door is wide open, revealing the square corners of his perfect bed. I have a flash of him in a military uniform, but the image is more post-apocalyptic than generic action thriller. I shudder.
His voice, from behind me, “Looking for me?” He seems wan, bruised in the afternoon light.
He has a book tucked into his armpit that I recognize as one of my own. No, I’m not an author, not like that. It’s one of my old school books. I know it as mine because I marked the cover (was it an accident, I can’t remember?) with green paint. My fingers twitch, and I realize that I’m blushing as though that old school book retains all my secrets. It’s the shady corners of my mind that I refuse to stain as either black or white.
He says, “Let’s go for a walk.”
My mind, raw as I watch him stumble, titters back and forth from disease to disease to fantastical imaginings. I remember him as the most vibrant thing I had ever laid eyes on. And to see him so wasted, so devoid . . . He must be dying. I cannot help but hypothesis what it will be when he tells me. Cancer? HIV? I lie to myself constantly; I already know the answer.
He pauses beside me, pale hand patting down his pockets, the book slipping precariously from its position against his side. I catch it and immediately drop it, the leathery feel of its cover burning my fingers just as effectively as any fire.
He has his hands on his knees. He is trembling. Cradling my own quivering hands, I kneel in front of him. “What is it? What is it?”
Lordes coughs, his lungs rattling as though the rest of his carcass is empty. “My pocket . . . some painkillers. Could you?”
My hands aren’t burnt. I’m being melodramatic. I nod and retrieve the painkillers for him, all the while admonishing myself. And then, maybe because I do feel guilty that he was suffering while I imagined brittle flesh, a massacre of hands, I allow him to lean against me, the book leaning against him, back to the house.
I don’t expect much in the way of food, and Lordes makes no mention of it. He seems to think that neither of us requires it. So I help him into his mother’s chair and sit across from him, waiting.
He coughs. “Ever since college, you see. It was ever since then. I would have the strangest dreams. All I could think about was coming home, so I never went anywhere. And eventually, very vaguely, my health degenerated to the point where I was useless anyway.”
He isn’t looking at me. He’s looking at the fireplace with its tiny snowstorm of paper. “I still dream. Endless, pointless dreams. The kind with lightning that cracks stone in two, and of trees with roots that twist like snakes and hunger for blood. But I don’t sleep. I’m incapable of sleep.”
I’m thinking I’m in a room with a madman, not a dying man. He has put himself in the grave with his belief in a sort of haunting, and he is trying to drag me down with him. Or maybe, I could offer him some sort of glimmer of hope and save him? Is that what he’s hoping for?
But he doesn’t ask for help, he just regards me with his stained dress shirt and wild hair. There is a shudder as though the branches of the strange, impossible tree are trying to infiltrate the walls. I flinch; Lordes does not.
I sleep the kind of sleep that leaves me feeling hollow. I keep glancing at my watch. Finally, at one o’clock in the morning, I surrender and shuffle barefoot down the hall. The door to the basement is open. I know this means that Lordes is waiting for me, so I descend.
It is much like descending into a nightmare, and it is easy to imagine that Lordes’ insanity springs from this, from the tree roots in his basement. I have to climb over them. Why are they viscous as though bursting from a womb?
“Lordes? Lordes?” my voice echoes.
He is sitting in a clear patch, free from roots, holding a bucket of soft chalk. His face is set, grim lines and determination; he looks more alive than he has the last two days.
“What happened to Jaime?” he asks, reaching a hand into the bucket, eyes on mine.
Jaime. Oh, Jaime. Standing tall and much too high. I can’t go that high without falling. It makes sense right? Jaime went too high and then broke. But he loved me. I know that.
“Suicide,” I say. I won’t be afraid of this.
“And the one before that?”
I won’t be afraid of this. I am, of course, too close now and the toss of a fistful of chalk can’t be avoided. He has marked me.
“Finish this,” he demands, holding out the bucket and my book. I’m covered in chalk, but it might as well be blood.
I had to admit it then, what I did. I just wanted to be loved, but it all went wrong. The spell called for a finger bone, but I was too afraid. It’s understandable; it’s okay. So I just cut my palm instead, and I substituted more blood for chalk and by the time the spell was finished . . . he didn’t love me, but he had noticed me.
He notices me now, his wide eyes full of decay. I have haunted his house long enough, used his life to fuel my love affairs. Anyone could have done it. But I’m the one that did.
“You didn’t need a spell to make me love you,” he says like a curse. It wasn’t enough. It would never have been enough. I know that now.
I put the book in the bucket and set it on the floor. I then reach into my pocket. It’s not a cigarette box, but a box of matches. It’s always a box of matches. I light a match against my thumb.
He summoned me to end us both. Our connection, now frail, still pulsates between us. When I look into a mirror, I do not see my own face, but the diseased heart of each of my lovers. Lordes’ life was never enough to fuel such a series, and yet I spread it thin as though it could.
And now we are both thin and frail like paper.
“Please,” he says. “Throw us to the fire. We cannot live forever. Not like this. Please.”
I think that maybe I can free him if I burn the spell from my flesh, but I have always been selfish. I do not seek the dark alone. And he is right; we cannot live like this anymore. I have been tired for a long time.
I drop the match into the bucket. The flames devour the pages of my book, the ink of my spells, and the fingerprints of my touch. As my flesh begins to fragment, I stare at my hands—my ragged claws—and then I reach for him across the flames.
But he is already gone.
T. M. Tomilson is a graduate student and USAF reservist. She lives in a foggy city on the coast of California with her husband and three pets. She can be found on Twitter @TMTomilson.