"And don't you try and sneak past me." As she lifted her head from the table, her bleached hair glowed under the light. "What do you think, I'm stupid or something?"
"Okay." Edging around the kitchen, Dell pressed his back to the stove. "I mean, I wasn't." He fumbled with both hands under his shirt. The old jersey hung impossibly huge on him, his bony frame lost within it.
"What are you hiding?" she demanded.
"I can see you, you know. You've got something under your shirt. Oh, what do I care? Do whatever the hell you want. Take drugs or whatever. See if I give a shit. Goddamn kids."
"I'm not . . ."
"And what were you doing down the basement anyways?" Her tirade broke off. Suddenly, her face went rigid, creases sharp as razor cuts across her forehead, and she gestured frantically at the doorway. "Take a look." Scrawny muscles clenched tight against the brittle bones in her jaw and neck. "See if he's listening." Her whole body tensed, her shoulders quivering. "Can you see?" Cigarette ashes scattered across the tabletop as she clutched at a bottle with a bat on the label.
"Did you take something?" asked Dell. "On top of that, I mean." He nodded at the bottle.
"I think I hear him coming." She jabbed the bottle at him. "Quick, hide this under the sink."
He stepped closer. "You're burning yourself." Determinedly, he pried the cigarette from her fingers. "He's not coming. You know you're not supposed to mix stuff. What did you take?"
"Everybody, just stop telling me what to do!" Practically screaming, she clawed at her own throat as though tearing away a noose. "Do you know how many things people get away with in this world? Do you? Why am I the only one who never gets away with anything?" This burst out -- a shuddering revelation -- and she collapsed back into her chair. "Not a thing." Her eyes welled up with tears. "Not me. Not a thing."
"How many did you take?"
"You don't know what he's like. You don't know what it means to be afraid all the time. What's that?" Her hand darted out, and she picked at him in agitation, the gesture proprietary yet hesitant. "Jesus Christ, there's cobwebs in your hair. What's wrong with you?" Her fingers stayed on him now, first on the long hair that gleamed like polished oak, then on his face. "I just took one," she answered, finally. "I needed it."
"For my nerves." She drew herself up. "Did you do the dishes?" she demanded, slightly slurring the words.
"Aren't any dishes."
"Don't you talk to me like that! I don't see you with two broken arms, mister. You could of made dinner. All you kids are so goddamn spoiled."
"There's only me left," he pointed out.
She ignored this. "Why do you treat me like this? Answer me. Why do I deserve this? Tell me that. No wonder I have to get electric shock. Who wouldn't in this house?" Again, her hands strayed to her neck, to the electrodes she'd tried to conceal with the frilly pink collar. "Somebody has to help me. How come nobody helps me?" Her eyes clouded over, then focused without warning. "And what were you doing down the basement anyways, mister?"
He backed away.
"Answer me, I said."
"Nothing. I . . . I got homework." Finally, shoulders hunched, he made it to the door, her shrill voice pummeling at the back of his skull.
"Where do you think you're going? Dell! Don't you walk away from me while I'm talking to you! You come back here!"
The kitchen light dissolved into the darkness that engulfed the rest of the first floor. Even by day, the windows in these rooms remained shuttered and draped. At night, they redefined blackness. He tried to hurry through without banging into anything. The bare boards of the unused dining room creaked so loudly that walking on it always felt like playing some kind of weird instrument, and his shadow capered across the floor in front of him. Finally, his sneakers scuffed on the crumbling parlor rug.
None of the dim glow from the kitchen doorway made it this far, and the darkness seemed part of the silence. Perfectly still, he could hear only his own breathing, but he knew the zombie sat on the sofa at the far end of the room. It always sat there. He could even guess its position - broken neck twisted to one side, face permanently wincing, as though someone had stuck a knife where it couldn't reach. Hoping the thing wouldn't speak, Dell groped straight through the room until his hand found the banister.
"Is she at it again?" The words drifted to him, and no voice from the pit ever sounded more steeped in self-pity.
"Not so bad." He continued up the stairs. He hated having to talk to the zombie, hated to think he might end up like that someday.
"But she's only just back."
Dell wondered if it could see him shrug in the dark. "Been a few weeks," he told it, not stopping. The tension in his back and shoulders didn't ease until he neared the top of the stairs, but no further words pursued him. Up here, the darkness had a thinner, watery quality, and he groped along the hall to his room, trying not to rattle the manacles in the walls as he passed.
Closing the door behind him, he switched on the light. Blue walls pulsed at him, the drawings that covered them seeming to writhe. Blinking, he waited while they shifted and twitched. His most recent effort depicted a shaggy-headed youth with an impossibly huge phallus, dangerous looking as a club, which sprouted from a snarl of fur. Mostly charcoal and pencil sketches, the drawings would never wash off, he knew, not completely, but then she never came up here anymore, and the zombie would never say anything. Twisting movement slowed. At last, the naked torsos and arcane markings settled, became just lines and smudges again. He put his ear to the door.
Slowly, he slipped the old box out from under his shirt. Usually, he kept it hidden behind the oil burner in the basement, because he knew the zombie sometimes searched this room while he was out. With the palm of his hand, he smoothed the dust and cobwebs from the lid. It was a pretty thing, polished wood inlaid with a pearly substance like the teeth of children.
Sitting on the floor, he leaned back against the bed and opened the box. The reek of musty wood and something sweeter filled the room, and he sucked it deep into his lungs. Gently, he lifted out a dead sparrow, laid it on his pillow; then he felt around the box, finding the remains of a joint and a book of matches from a bar called The Slab he sometimes snuck into, though he'd never had much fun there. (They only served Bloody Marys and Zombies - stiff drinks they called them - and the jukebox only played dirges. A spotlight pinned dead go-go boys in cages, and though he'd never ventured to the refrigerated back room, he'd heard stories.)
He opened the window and for a long moment just sat on the floor and smoked the roach. "Tyler, can you hear me?" Blowing smoke through the screen, he listened to the night. "I can feel you out there." Faintly, a breeze rattled a branch across the tiled roof. "Somewhere," he whispered. "Out." He took one last hit and scraped the roach out against the screen. "I swear I can." Cinders glowed red, falling.
Returning to the bed, he fished the remaining item out of the box. The battered deck of tarot cards almost totally lacked color, the violent, passionate images having faded to shades of ocher and mauve, the edges of the cards soft and crumbling. Still, the symbols remained vivid: androgynous bodies with swords stuck in them or tied to stakes. He spread the blunt cards out but couldn't make them lay flat, the mounded bedspread forcing them up at odd angles. Painstakingly, he arranged them into an inverted pentagram.
Sitting on the edge of the mattress, he reached for the bird. "Poor thing." The sparrow's bones felt sharp and brittle, so delicate. He brought it closer to his face. Both its eyes had gone. "Poor, poor thing." Had it seen something too sad to bear? As he stroked it, a tiny feather came away, and he rubbed it across his neck. Now he felt his own collarbone, sharp and hard. His left hand wandered under the jersey, fingertips dancing along the ribs to slip beneath the waist of his jeans. "Pretty bird." Gently, he laid the sparrow on the pillow. Holding up the single feather, he shut his eyes and let go. He tried to sense it settling toward the deck and only opened his eyes again when he thought it had landed.
With impossible slowness, the feather still floated, and he didn't breathe again until he saw which card it chose.
It lay across two of them.
Solemnly, he nodded, then packed the cards away. Tenderly putting the dead bird in last, he slid the box under his bed.
He clicked off the light and just stood in the dark. After listening at the door, he returned to the window and worked the screen loose as quietly as he could. Easing one leg out, he paused again to listen, then clambered out across the porch roof. Just before he jumped, the night wind caressed his hair.
He seemed to fall into the dark a long time. Then his sneakers impacted with the yard, and the palms of his hands burned on the ground ... almost on the exact spot where they'd buried his sister. Even in the dark, he could see she'd been trying to get out again. "It's okay." As he scrambled up, he patted the dirt reassuringly. "It's only me."
A side gate led from the yard to an alley, and he eased into the darkness. Even as he closed the gate soundlessly behind him, he knew he wasn't alone.
The one eye glowed like a green moon. The cat watched him without fear, not even getting out of his way when he nearly tripped over a garbage can. Though he'd never seen the beast before, it seemed to gaze at him with recognition. Like the shadow of a cloud, the cat floated soundlessly down the alley alongside him, and he matched the its stride companionably, until it abruptly flowed under a fence and was gone. A mournful yowl drifted back.
Like a stray current of darkness joining a larger tributary, the alley emptied onto thickly shadowed sidewalk. Night wind moved through trees with a noise like the surf. As he hurried along, he had to crouch, because the leaves hung so close above his head.
He whirled around.
"How you doin', man?"
Dell's heart thundered. "Uh."
The guy stood almost directly under the streetlight. "I've seen you around." Powerfully built, he appeared to be a basic jock, sort of handsome even, maybe something just a little weird about the shape of his head. "You live here?"
"Uh, not far." Dell couldn't understand why the guy was even talking to him.
The jock sidled closer but spoke even louder. "Hey, man, can I give you some head?" The tee shirt pulled taut across his biceps when he reached out to touch Dell's chest. "C'mon, you don't have to do nuthin'."
A pulse hammered behind Dell's eyes. "No, thanks." "C'mon, man." The jock sounded annoyed, incredulous. "I mean, there's a place right over here," he said, gesturing toward a dark area between two houses. "Just let me play with it a little."
Dell shook his head again and tried to hurry past, but the jock grabbed him between the legs. He could see the stitches on the guy's wrists clearly, all around his big hands. He looked up - stitches circled the guy's neck even. Dell's mouth opened and closed, but no words came out. After a moment, the jock let his hand drop away, and Dell walked faster.
"C'mon, man," the guy called after him, his feet rooted to the curb as though he were physically unable to cross the street. "Where you runnin' to? You got a date with death or sumthin'?"
Heavy trees swayed blots of shadow along the ground, and Dell felt relieved to vanish in them. When he reached the next corner, he peered behind him but couldn't see anyone, and suddenly he was afraid. His eyes slicing into the dark, he started to run, a little awkwardly because he could feel himself swelling in a delayed reaction to the guy's touch. For a second, he almost went back.
Finally, panting and practically doubled over, he slowed and looked behind him. Still nothing. Good. He was almost there anyway, the nicer section of the neighborhood left behind. This last block was never lit, a black corridor lined by rotting cars. Ahead lay the gated cemetery.
The finials had been filed to points, and the marble of a small crypt shone through the wrought iron railing. Penned close beyond the fence on all sides by row houses, tilting headstones and broken figures crowded together. As a child, he'd always loved to climb over and read the stones with his fingers, and he sought that comfort now almost instinctively. Starting across the final street, he froze. Voices and low laughter echoed. Immediately, he edged into the mouth of another alleyway, just across the tiny street from the cemetery.
The tight, dirty alley always reeked with garbage: it was a bad place to get caught. They'd cornered him here once before, a couple of guys cutting off the exit, others coming up behind him. They'd made him do stuff he didn't like remembering and afterwards punched him around until they got bored. He'd been lucky to walk away that time. At home, the zombie had just stared at the bruises in silence. She'd never noticed.
At the end of the passage, he pressed his back to the wall and peered around the edge. Darkness and silence. He guessed they must be congregating at the far corner. Taking a deep breath, he squeezed between parked cars and sprinted across the street, darting into a cul-de-sac.
It was the worst block in the neighborhood. The worst. Trash all over the broken sidewalk. Crumbling row houses looking like they held each other up. The most dilapidated one bore no address, and the boarded windows made it appear deserted. He climbed the four crumbling steps and knocked. Nothing stirred, so he pounded harder. A few doors down, a witch with iodine red hair that glowed even in the dark stuck her head out and cursed at him.
He chanted a string of four-letter protective words back at her, and her door slammed.
At long last, chains clanked, and the portal before him swung into total blackness.
"Rollo," he called into the nothingness, his voice quavering. "It's Dell."
"Oh." The opening seemed to suck at the air.
"Wait." Chains rattled again. "I'll come out."
Relief surged. For an instant, the door had seemed to yawn for him, and he wasn't ready for that. Not yet.
A shadow peeled away from the darkness, and Rollo floated heavily down the stairs with his usual lugubrious grace.
". . . wanted to talk to you about it because you're my best friend." Dell's words sounded lame even to himself. He fell silent as they walked around the block, then aimlessly through the neighborhood.
"I see." Perambulating conversation was a ritual with them. They strolled around and around the cemetery, Rollo doing most of the talking, filled with the fatalistic enthusiasm that Dell seemed always to inspire in him. "I always so enjoy our conversations, Dell. You possess an instinctive appreciation for the somewhat dolorous perspective it took me centuries to develop. Why is that, do you suppose?"
Dell shrugged. He was never quite sure when Rollo wanted him to respond.
Dell stared down at the sidewalk. He lashed out with his foot and sent a crushed beer can scuttling into the darkness.
"Or do you suppose you have what's called an 'old soul'?" Rollo would never let anything drop.
"Don't have a soul," Dell muttered. "Not the way other things do, like a cat, something that doesn't need somebody. You know?"
Rollo stared at him strangely.
Finally, Dell met his gaze . . . but uncomfortably now. It was always hard to make out Rollo's eyes. They were just a blur. Behind the thick glasses, his might have been the face of a young boy, belied only by the thick gray shot through the black hair. The lights from a passing car picked him out: he always looked like such a geek in that black suit. "Aren't you hot dressed like that?"
"I am cold. Always." He began to unbutton his pants. "Here. Feel."
"I'll pass," Dell snickered, then looked away. "We better not go that way."
"I wasn't seriously suggesting . . ." They stopped moving. "Ah." Rollo glared into the shadows. "I see what you mean."
And Dell got the impression Rollo could see perfectly, as though it were noon, all the way down to the corner where the group of villagers loitered.
"Our ever-present friends." Moving more slowly, almost daring the gang to taunt them, they continued across the street. "Odiously hearty, are they not?"
"Please." Dell tried to pick up the pace. "If they come after us, you'd be safe but I . . ."
A bottle shattered on the sidewalk beside them.
"Bleeders!" Rollo snarled, then composed himself, and took Dell's arm. "Let us proceed." As they turned the other way - down a side street that led away from the cemetery - he glanced back. "I'll visit the young males when they're alone. The females do not signify." After a moment, his voice took on a thoughtful quality. "I am pleased you visited me this evening. There is something I've wished to discuss with you for some time, and I trust you won't think me too intrusive. After all, there's nothing more discomfiting than having someone knock on the lid of your coffin."
"A vampire expression. Never mind. But, concerning this Tyler creature, I feel I must warn you. Not that I care anything for you. Nothing personal, you understand. I care nothing for anyone. It is not in my nature to do so. But you are a friend of sorts, whatever that word may imply, and whatever validity that concept may hold in these circumstances, and you probably should not see him again. After all, you know what will happen. Inevitably. I mean, you know what he is. Do you not?"
They walked a few more steps. "I know."
The voice drifted like a gentle wind. "And?"
"I love him."
"Ah." Rollo sounded resigned . . . and impressed.
"Rollo?" Dell realized he stood alone on the dark sidewalk. "Rollo? Where are you? What are you doing back there?" Almost invisible in the shadows, his friend had stopped moving. "What is it?" Following Rollo's glittering gaze, he peered across the narrow street. A light glimmered at an open window. The room beyond lay mostly in darkness, but something - a television perhaps or a fish tank - painted a young man's body with dim gray splashes. Naked except for jockey shorts, he stood, solemnly pumping barbells. "Oh." For a moment, it was as though Dell could see with Rollo's eyes, see the thick black hair that stuck to the youth's damp forehead, the sheen of sweet on the stomach. Warm shadows molded his contours.
Rollo's voice seemed to come from above, from a tree or a pole or the sky. "I'll take my leave of you now, and I'll hope to see you again, though considering your decision, that seems somewhat doubtful. Does it not?"
Wind rustled the branches, and Dell knew he was alone. The wind pushed across his body, smoothing his tee shirt. He felt a chill and resumed walking. He glanced back only once. The window across the way had gone dark, and he thought he heard a brief cry, whether of pain or pleasure he couldn't be sure. The wind blew stronger, louder. It seemed to get into his head, to whistle and echo, and his thoughts skittered before it like dead leaves. At first, he had to force one foot ahead of the other, so very slowly, but soon he scurried through the empty streets. As the full moon began to rise, he made his way toward the place that had always been his final destination. Always.
Houses ended. The streets widened into boulevards with mean little strips of dying trees. He passed the asylum. (It was on fire again, and he could hear screams.) There were no sidewalks at all here, just naked earth. But at last he could see an ocean of forest across the black expanse - there on the other side.
Small, pulped carcasses littered the old highway, and he picked his way across. A lamp that tilted on the final traffic island had gone dark, and short poles bore the dents of repeated collisions. A behemoth lumbered past, its headlights searching for victims, as he sprinted across.
The gates to the ancient fair ground stood locked, and hedges pressed close to the fence. He watched for movement within but could see nothing. Clouds squeezed out the moon and stars now, thickening the night. On all fours, he groped blindly for a depression in the earth. He found it, like some animal's tunnel beneath the fence, and he squeezed under, his belt loop snagging briefly. Then he crawled between shrubberies, leaves, and twigs crunching beneath him.
The park spread around him like a dark sea. Once, people had strolled here; now, spectral monuments loomed in scattered sprays of moonlight. He seemed to glide past them, and they gave off a kind of light, as though they radiated with all the emotions the porous stones had absorbed through the decades.
A loud hiss rolled on the dirt road ahead of him, and he ducked into dense foliage until the patrol car passed. He could picture them inside, lightning bolts on their uniforms. The bush he'd dived into proved hollow, a sort of globe, and the headlights made the interior glow for a flickering instant. "I could live in here," he said to himself. "Probably. Hide forever. Like a rabbit or something." When the sound of the car faded, he crawled out again.
A bat swept over his head. It flitted through the pillars of a gazebo, and he followed it, his eyes straining, until the bat became just a climbing shadow, pitch against the lighter dark of the masonry.
Moonlight seeped in again, and the columns glowed. Such purity. Even the grass seemed to shimmer. Thick overgrowth screened the tiny lake from view, but he could smell it, could see patches of shiny black through the reeds. At last, he sat on the shattered concrete, his eyes adjusting until he could make out the broken bottles, condoms, syringes in the grass. Even they seemed to glow.
Hearing a shuffling in the grass, he didn't even turn around. "Look how fast the clouds are moving, Ty. Did you ever see a sky like this?" When finally he looked at him, he felt the familiar lurch in his chest. This was love. He had no doubts.
Tyler shook his head, the shaggy hair flapping over his shoulders. "We don't have much time." As always, he was naked, the muscular torso sweaty and glistening in the shadows. He glided closer through the brush.
Dell would have known that walk anywhere, the strange balance of the powerful shoulders, the long arms swaying. "You're so beautiful," he whispered, rising.
"Were you at the boathouse?" Dell stepped closer. "Can we go out there again? Like last time."
"Don't need no boat." Tyler sprang on him.
He felt Tyler's mouth fasten over his own, felt Tyler's breath in his own chest like the roar of the wind. Tyler's stomach felt taut against his, the hard flesh pulsing with heat. He felt the thorny hands in his shirt, pressing down to fumble with his zipper.
"Right here," Dell panted, breaking away. "Do it right here."
Tyler pulled at him again, then seemed to shake himself. "You sure this time?" He put his hands on Dell again but held him at arm length.
"I know what I want. The cards tonight - The Lovers and Death."
The clouds parted. "Last chance." Tyler stepped back, staring at him. "Think about it."
"I want it." He stepped back too now, watching. They didn't have to wait long. The clouds shuddered to pieces: moonlight cascaded, and Tyler's white flesh seemed to soak it up. He writhed, squirmed in it like a salamander in the rain.
Sitting on the broken ledge, Dell covered his face and just listened.
The gurgling started - a noise caught between a sob of pain and the gasp of orgasm - and the sound flowed around him, mingling with the scratching of dead leaves that slid along the ground. It grew louder, became the choking mewl of birth, a cry both of wrenching joy and of passionate sadness. It pulsed from Tyler.
Knowing what would come next, Dell covered his ears and felt the hot tears course down his face. The sound poured over him. It thundered like his breath, like his heartbeat, like all the love inside him.