No one ever tells you the beginning, the moment when time seems to stretch. I always found time to be such a malleable thing. Fragile, in its own right. Yet we handle it so carelessly, blissfully unbothered as traces of it slip through our fingers like so many immutable grains into a never-ending crescendo. And all we are left with, in the end, is this feeling of dread, our heart pumping, pumping, pumping. Beating with all its might to keep us here, now. To remind us firmly of the ground beneath our feet, the concrete sweating with the afternoon rays of the blistering sun in this part of the country. Welcome to New Hope, Pennsylvania; population: 2,500 to the penny.
And here I stand, amongst those handful of people, in the backyard of a backyard of the backyard of PA. (It’s actually Andrew’s backyard, so the last part is more for the poetic justice of it rather than an alliteration.)
My hands are shaking, blood withdrawing from my face as I stare at the naked body lying face up in front of me. Eyes open, unseeing. Never to be closed off its own accord ever again. And as I keep staring at the eyes that were just minutes before so full of life, the hazel iris speckled with green so bright against the encroaching darkness, time slows down. As if giving me a moment untethered. The mind is weird that way. The ways it deals with grief, loss –
the pain of letting go
– would leave the super computers of the world in a bright red
Defying the loss of physics, my mind gives me time, space as I take in the body. And then, as if overloaded, it shuts down manual processes, taking over my body. It’s cool like that. Knows how to have our backs, the path forward when we lose the way. The feeling of trepidation subsides, leaving behind space for hard math. And as the weight of the last five years come crashing down, I let go.
On autopilot, I calculate the time it had been since witnesses, the noises she had made – the screaming as she begs and begs and begs ‘please please pleasepleaseplease’ the word losing its edge somewhere around the second time the knife carved out the guts from her inside, and that was her flopping on the ground, like a fish, and it was me holding the knife over her spasming body. I had done that, the sound of her screams a siren song in my overheated blood.
It's night when I come to. Consciousness a bitch as the dark numbness recedes, leaving behind a whisper. Not fully receding, not yet. I look around, taking inventory. There is only so much the mind can do without our conscious input. Looking down I find myself dressed in an off-white shirt, top three buttons undone, coupled with blue ripped jeans, most of it threaded with holes after years of usage. Casual. Out for a night of fun. Where they came from, I do not want to know. Now, geographically, there’s a lake, a pier jutting out like an accusatory finger pointing straight towards me on the opposite side. Get in line. A shadow of a grin tries to stretch my parched lips, the muscles working against the stiffness birth of half a decade of negligence. Wonders do come tru –
He was right there, smiling at me, looking at me like I was It. Like I hold the entire universe in my eyes, and that he was glad to be pulled into me. Like I mattered something to him. Like . . . he loved me. My skin was too tight, my lungs not capable enough as it tried to bottle up that smile like a reservoir. But try it did. Until . . .
(the red ground and my lungs are burning as I scream, scream, scream. And
I love you.)
My fault, my fault, my fault.
Gritting my teeth, my hands holding my hair down to its roots, I breathe. Counting backwards: 1000 – 7 = 993 – 7 = 986 and so on and so forth. By the time I reach 888, I finally have my breathing in a steady beat. Turning away from the lake, I stumble through the undergrowth of the forest surrounding the clearing, the trees silent priests to my confession.
After what feels like half an hour, I stumble out of the forest onto a highway. And lo an’ behold: a Welcome to New Hope board right in front of me. Irony’s a bitch. Or is it coincidence? Fuck them both.
I have Nutshell by Alice in Chains, and God of Wine by Third Eye Blind in a loop in my head, the soft tune alarming (also: a comfort) in its own right. And with that, the thud of my boots hitting the pavement my silent companion, I head towards the place that had started to feel like home before . . . a life of what-ifs. And as those thoughts now pervade my mind in every way, shape and form, all I can think is: inevitable. The thoughts come, a staccato harmony as the music merges and morphs. And I jump in with no reservation, knowing with two miles in three to go, I might not come back up ever again.
It was the end of April, and summer was in full swing when I received the call, directing me towards my next target. Shawn Whitmore McCallister, age: 24, occupation: in training to be a therapist. I had eight months. The line cut off at that.
‘Important?’ the boy in my bed inquired. Jerome? Jeromy? I had no idea. Did not particularly care. ‘You have to go.’ I said, without looking over at him. I was staring out the window, to the setting sun. In my periphery, the taut ass of the 21-year-old (I had vetted the age thoroughly before bringing him back to my place that first time all those years ago) disappeared underneath black jeans that was barely there at all it was so tight. Got to give it to it, the thing worked. Him being here a major indictment in the usage of skinny jeans. Jeromy/Jerome did not bother with the shirt, and what with the heat spell blowing over Cali these past few weeks (highs were as high as 110), no one would give a second look. Walking over to me, he crouched and ignoring my half-deflated dick, pressed a light kiss to my lips. A slip of paper was waiting in my hands when he let go. I did not move a muscle. He knew the deal. Knew what I did. Even without me admitting it outright, he had been in my life long enough to piece it all together. The late hours, the sudden disappearances, certainly had not helped. And when he confirmed my suspicions, I had just warned him to periodically change his number, to use burner if he ever had to be the one to initiate contact. That had been that. And so, without a backward glance, he let go. That should tell you enough about myself, considering Jeromy/Jerome was my one constant in this shitty son a bitch I called life.
And I did not even know his name. Not due to lack of trying . . .
Sighing, I got up, and went to my en-suite bathroom to wash up. Maybe finish what was initiated.
And as I put my soapy dick in my hand, a dry chuckle escaped my mouth.
It was definitely due to lack of trying.
Try – the one lie that I had fed myself, all throughout life. It was better this way. Less casualties. Less disappointments. Less chances of hearing one more faggot in my life. There had been plenty of that to go around, growing up in a small town in Somewhere, Florida.
In five hours, I was on a plane. New day, new destination. New Hope, Pennsylvania. Who named a place after the word Hope? What were they trying to find there?
Sometimes, I wished I had never found out the answer.
Dawn is breaking when the first of the buildings indicating the start of town come in view. A gas station vis-à-vis a convenience store. The irony of all ironies. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why this town’s the way it is. It’s like someone had placed a game of dice and just let the chips fall where they may. The bell makes a small chime as I make my way into the gas station store. Perusing the aisles, I pick a soda and a pack of gums. $4.23. After paying, I chuck half the can right there in the store. ‘Ooh,’ the clerk, Andy, smirked, handing me the bill. ‘Someone’s thirsty. Rough night?’ Years of field time, of killing and covering up, of beholding monsters both real and not, has me bringing a smirk of my own. Shoulders loose, fists unclenched. Too tight I’d crush the can. Too loose and it would slip through my hands, spilling all over the floor. Making the throatiest post sex voice I could muster from a part of my life I usually kept under a night-shrouded blanket, I answer, ‘Ya betcha.’
Andy laughs. ‘Hope you left her still being able to walk.’ This time I couldn’t hide the shudder that went through me, the way the shadows enveloped my ‘creepy’ black eyes, making it darker than usual. I look up at Andy, letting some of the tight leash I keep on the dark inside, loose. His face blanches, loses its pallor. I see myself reflected in his eyes, in the way his lips thin. I see him staring at something he never had and quickly hoping he never would again.
I wrap once on the marble counter, eliciting an unearthly thud that do not belong there. He jerks back in shock, shoulders tensing as his body readies itself to protect at any cost. I just give him a small smile. Keeping the change in the jar beside the counter, I give him a nod. And with his wary eyes tracking my every step, I leave.
The house is exactly as I had left it five years ago. The bed is still ruffled, untouched.
Shawn lying there, the afternoon sun a moist, shallow balm against his sweat slicked skin, illuminating every ripple of muscle as he chuckled at my expression of pure bliss after taking him bare for the first time, the cum a dried up foam against the dark, fine hairs, and then he was there before me his lips saying the words that had my heart racing a thousand beats an hour and I know I do not deserve that, do not deserve him, but I’m helpless, falling, falling, falling as I say those words out loud for the first time ever in my life, and I am happy.
I do not remember falling. One second, I am staring at the bed, the memories burning through every barrier I had in place, and the next I’m staring out the window, the morning sun’s light dewy on my overheated skin and I can not breathe, I’m choking on my own oxygen, and I welcome it.
The house is dark, shrouded in shadows. And the rising summer sun can not seem to penetrate the layers of dark. Or maybe it is just me. Seeing might be believing but most of what we see are subjective, narrated by mind to consciousness. So, the scene before me might be a little biased as the shadows blend and twirl.
I just lie there for however long. The sun is nearing its zenith by the time I manage to pull myself up, bracing an arm against the bed.
‘The sun is gonna rise tomorrow.’
His words float around the place like a memory covered in honey. We were just two naïve kids who should have known better. But love is apparently stronger than nuclear weapons. Master at manipulation. And we dove in headfirst, even knowing the risks. What fucking tomorrow? Looking around I take stock, the urge to drink it all away strong. Oh, how good it would feel, how wonderful. Just two shots to make the pain go away. Four; to wash the night in its entirety. Eight; and maybe I will finally be brave enough to do what I wasn’t back then.
The sound of the bar across the street filters through the open window as someone exits. In a town where police presence is minimal at best, drinking starts well before dawn.
Oh, that I’d just die,
If you ever took your love away.
The laugh that escapes me this time is broken, ravaging my throat in its trajectory to be free. That fucking song. The irony of it is not lost on me. Shawn loved this song. The sound still fresh in my head. After all this time. Guy could not sing for shit but the confidence he had was mesmerizing. Otherworldly. And then in those later stages. When there was no ‘I’s and ‘you’s but us. An us that never got the chance.
‘Thought it was you.’ I slowly lift my gaze as the baritone registers. And as I take in Alexis McCallister in all her 5 ft nothing, holding up two glasses full of something amber, passing one to me as she takes a seat on the bed beside me, a smile escapes before I can hold it back.
We sit there, drinking in the silence left behind by those who held us together in the first place. The one who’s the bond is gone, the tether frayed to an inch of its existence.
Something is still there, underneath all the cesspit that is my soul. A thread of warm silver. And after burying it down for so long, burying everything down for so long, I finally let go.
I do not even realize I am crying. The tears glide silently down my face, splashing onto the glass half empty. One heartbeat I’m crying silently, the cold a foreign entity as I finally let go the fire of my vengeance that has burned steadily for nearly half a decade. Last night was the last person who was there when they took my Shawn away.
She smells like clove and cigarettes; something woodsy. She smells a lot like Shawn (maybe it’s twin thing), and the thought is a background as I feel her arms come around me. I stiffen, the glass cracking under my hands as I squeeze it too tight. My skin cracks under the sharp glass, amber liquid mixing with red creating a heady concoction that has me mesmerized as the smell hits my free fall like a freight train. It simultaneously grounds me and makes me want to run, run, run. The need to escape is the pulse beneath my skin. Throbbing. I do not even feel the pain of the cut as I clench my hands tighter, glass puncturing my skin further.
And she feels it all. Sees the emotion play thorough my face clear as day. A steady sort of determination seems to tighten hers as I take her in from my periphery. Like, this time she is not going to let me go. Like last time was a mistake. And she is fucking determined to break the cycle.
And so, when her hand tightens and she leans her entire body against my side, as she rests her head on my shoulder, the ringing in my ears lessen. The pain’s a distinct reminder, a tether to being here, now. In the room that was ours. Mine and his: the man with hair dark as midnight, of laughter that filled a room like autumn’s light. The man with the tattoos all over and under, masking the scars. The man with eyes so dark they seemed to be staring into your very soul. The man who stole my heart and claimed it his without my permission. The man that I love with all my heart, even now, five years after. I’ll probably love him forever. Back then it was a torture, the thought alone sending me in a bender that lasted weeks at times. Much like Alexis’ presence it used to be a reminder of all that was lost. It was scathing over a wound that had not yet had a chance to begin healing. Time. The thing that we did not have enough of. And now the only thing that exists. Until this.
Alexis’ arms around me are a promise, holding me up, a dam keeping the darkness at bay. As those thoughts register, it hits me like a tsunami, obliterating the final barrier that I was unwittingly holding on to.
This is what Shawn meant by not losing everything. This is what he meant. It was me, with him. Always.
I smile as I cry. And there is my heart beating, valiantly, after all this time. I raise my head, and following the movement Alexis does too. As she beholds me in all of myself, laid bare, she does not flinch. Does not go running for the door. Cursing me or running away from me. I know that she knows everything: my past, my present. What I have been doing all this month a weight pressing down on us. But she does not turn away.
She just smiles, gently. A silent vow of understanding. ‘Welcome back.’ Her eyes say, glittering with unshed tears. Her hold on me tight.
A chocked laugh escapes me at that. And as I close my eyes, Shawn’s right there. I take in the man who still has my heart wrapped around in the form that is all him. Just as he promised.
I feel light for the first time since that November night five long years ago.
It took me some time but . . .
‘I’m home, love.’