Tanim counts. Days, hours, minutes, heartbeats. He is strangely, beautifully calm now that he has decided, comforted by the promise that the fear and sorrow will soon become meaningless. There is an exhilarating freedom in the knowledge that his suffering is temporary because he has finally taken control of his own fate. What power such a simple decision wields! Once he would have sought blessed intoxication to numb the dread of the lengthening nights, but no more. The night holds no terrors for him now. It cannot touch him, cannot hurt him, cannot break him. When the sun sets and darkness threatens to peel away all his paltry defenses, Tanim merely closes his eyes and counts. One hour gone; one minute passed; one heartbeat fewer to ever beat again. He has promised himself that soon there will be an end to these things and he can finally rest. It is the only promise that still matters. The only promise he will ever keep.

Tanim counts. Twenty-three days left. They cannot pass quickly enough.

There are questions we do not ask each other, out of fear or mercy or the simple understanding that some things should not be spoken of. When he trembles in the darkness I do not question what night terrors have clawed open old wounds and unburied dark memories. When he flinches from my touch I do not bid him tell me whose hands he thinks reach out to break him apart again, nor when his eyes turn from mine do I pry into what secrets he seeks to hide. These are his private burdens; if he chooses to suffer them alone I will not force him to do otherwise. And in his turn he never asks about the others, the ones before him that I knew for an hour or a night. He knows if he but demanded my history I would reveal them all: the cruel ones, the cold ones, the ones wounded and broken as myself. Surely he suspects how frequent were the mornings I woke with more hangover headache than coherent memory, longing for another drink or another pill, anything to numb myself again. Yet he does not ask and that is the sweetest kindness he could ever do me, for it would break my heart to reveal that shameful past. We may commit lies by omission but at least they are lies born from love. Some sorrows are not meant to be shared.

[ Roughly based on a dream I had regarding Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree. ]

 

Tom remembers Egyptian sands and Notre Dame shadows. He remembers ducking great Samhain’s scythe and dodging the yellowed phalanges of grasping skeletons entombed in a Mexican catacomb. Sometimes he wakes at night to rain drumming on the window and wonders to what frozen gargoyle the water gives temporary voice. Oh, the others may not speak of that night, they may claim it was mere dreaming, but good Tom Skelton knows the truth deep in his heart. Tom remembers the House, so impossibly old, and the Tree, so impossibly tall, and the thousand times a thousand lit carved pumpkins dangling from its branches, so impossible. But most of all Tom remembers the sliver of sugar candy skull ground between his teeth and the sweet taste of death defied once but promised to come again in some far burned candle end year of his life. Tom has explored the Ravine a hundred chill autumn afternoons since that night but the House is gone, the Tree is disappeared, the grinning jack-o-lanterns are forever vanished. Yet Tom remembers. Tom Skelton, wearer of the bones, braver of the catacombs, will always remember.

Silas masked a nose wrinkle of displeasure behind his usual nonchalant sneer. Humans; why did they all have to reek so terribly? Could they not still smell the animal musk poorly smothered in floral perfumes and harsh aftershaves? Being trapped in a room full of hot, sweating bodies made the vampire’s head spin and his mouth long for a cool drink of water, yet he forced himself to endure the ball with at least a modicum of propriety. He scanned the milling crowd for sight of his contact. The sooner he caught up with the dealer and had the packet safely on his person, the sooner he could get out of this human meat market and back into the cold, quiet night. It did not take long for Silas’ keen gaze to lock on his quarry across the room and he slid between the crowd with ease, joining the man in a small alcove off the main ballroom. Money changed hands smoothly and Silas slipped away again into the crowd, carefully stowing the precious packet in his waistcoat pocket.

Eyes followed him. Silas felt the familiar crawl on his back like hackles raising, the tingling adrenaline rush when prey catches wind of its stalker. He scanned the milling humans rapidly, hoping it was nothing more than some mortal girl drawn by his looks or mysterious manner, but luck was not with him tonight. A quick glance to the gallery overhead revealed the irascible Detective Rafferty. Their eyes met for a heartbeat, or at least what would have been a heartbeat had Silas’ heart done anything in the last few years but sit like a useless weight in his chest, and then both reacted. Rafferty disappeared into the crowd, no doubt hurrying for the stairs before Silas could meld back into anonymity. Silas had no intention of waiting around to see if the detective just wanted to chat or had something more sinister on his mind. The moment Rafferty moved, Silas spun and darted toward the closest exit. His escape route turned out to be through an elegant but thankfully fragile stained glass window which shattered outward in an explosion of colored glass as he crashed through headfirst. He hit the ground, rolled once, and launched to his feet again in a dead run. He thought his keen ears picked up the sound of someone yelling “stop!” but above the cries of startled guests it was hard to tell.

Silas’ first priority should have been to put as much distance between himself and the detective as possible, then double back the long way to a safe house where he could lay low until the hunt passed on. As he ran, however, the tiny paper packet in his waistcoat tapped against his skin like a firm yet patient reminder of how long he had gone since his last hit. Sheer physical proximity to the precious opiate made his mouth water and his skin, so many years unfeeling and cold, itch with a familiar nagging hunger. Withdrawal pounded like the blood no longer flowing in his veins, made him anxious and clumsy. Just one hit, that was all he needed. Surely he had time. If he only found a safe spot and a light he could breathe in a few delicious lungfuls and be on his way again. Just a few moments. Just a single flame.

But he did not have a flame. As he darted down alleys and up slippery stairwells, Silas cursed himself for such poor preparation. A light. A light. Who would have a light? His mind went immediately to his own kind – druggies, not vampires. At the next alley junction he took an abrupt right, heading toward the crowded slums scattered in the older, dilapidated portion of the city. Despite hearing no sounds of pursuit, Silas never slowed his speed; he knew Rafferty was close on his trail like a dammed bloodhound and would hunt him as relentlessly.

Silas burst into the slum district and pounced on the first likely looking candidate, a strung out student whose glazed eyes suggested he had recently partaken of the sort of illegal substance for which the vampire hungered. “Where is it?” he demanded as he riffled through the user’s clothing. The student, for his part, only blinked dully. “You’ve got to have one somewhere. Come on, come on, come on!” His fingers closed around a small metal box. “Aha!” He retrieved the silver lighter and leaned back, fumbling for the packet in his pocket with trembling, eager hands. If he had had more time Silas would have done this right, folding a small pinch of the crumbled leaves in thin paper and savoring the slow inhale of acrid smoke. Withdrawal made him rush, though, and he held the lighter up to one corner of the packet intending to light it, curb the craving with a quick drag, and stub the fire out again. Licking his lips expectantly, Silas struck at the lighter. Nothing happened. “You bastard!” He struck it again, again, again, but each time he earned nothing more than a pathetic spark. “Dammit, come on, just one fucking flame!”

“I think you’re empty, Silas,” A heavy hand fell on his shoulder in a mock commiserating squeeze. Silas twitched, wincing at the familiar voice, and abandoned his futile effort to summon a flame. “Oh, Detective Rafferty. Were you looking for me?” He tried to force an innocent smile but the vice-like grip on his shoulder twisted it into a grimace of pain. Not for the first time, Silas wondered if perhaps he should finally get clean…

Since so many stories take place in Tanim’s apartment, I want to provide a basic description of its layout and features. Bear with me; I don’t have much experience with décor lingo.

Apartment Layout: The apartment is a two bedroom, two bathroom penthouse in an old yet very expensive apartment complex. The front door opens onto a spacious hexagonal main room with vaulted ceilings comprised of the living room, dining area, and kitchen. Right and forward of the entryway is the dining area. To the immediate left is the open kitchen. Perpendicular to the kitchen is a long, wide hallway. Past the hallway opening is the first wall of the living room, which connects to the second and third to create a half hexagonal wall. This wall then connects back to the dining alcove and to the entryway again. Down the hallway are six doors. The first door on the right is the master bedroom; the second door on the right is the master bathroom; the first door on the left is the second bathroom; the second door on the left is a hall closet; the third door on the left is the second bedroom; the door at the end of the hallway is a large linen closet. The apartment comes fully furnished with matching mahogany furniture.

Kitchen: The kitchen is open to the rest of the room, cut off only by an island which extends half the length of the kitchen. The floor of the kitchen and entryway is a granite tile flecked with garnet to match the brickwork in the living room. The counter tops are likewise granite with a red tile back-splash flecked with mica. The cabinets are cherry wood with brushed silver handles; the sink is brushed silver as well. The appliances are either black or stainless steel, each in arguably brand new condition due to little use. There are no windows along the kitchen wall.

Dining area: The dining area is also open to the room, only differentiated from the living room by a mahogany dining table with four matching chairs.

Living room: The living room dominates the apartment by sheer size alone. It takes up half the main room and is sunken two steps below the rest of the room. Along its left-hand wall is a large electric fireplace. The next two walls are entirely formed by bay windows reaching from floor to ceiling, broken every fifteen feet by brick pillars, and overlook a gorgeous and unobstructed view of the city. These walls form the half hexagon shape which connects to the dining area. In the corner connecting the two right-most walls is a free standing mahogany home bar facing into the living room. The carpet throughout the living room and rest of the apartment is thick, a pristine cream color to set off the red of the brick, and the wall color is a pale amber. The only furniture in the living room besides the bar is a mahogany coffee table and a large L-shaped deep red suede couch. The long side of the couch faces the main wall of windows and coffee table while its perpendicular side faces the fireplace.

Master bedroom: The master bedroom is a darker shade of the same amber paint set against the cream carpet. The right hand wall contains a walk-in closet lined in brick, as it backs up against the fireplace on the other side of the wall. The far wall of the bedroom features French doors which open onto a small and rarely used balcony. Along the left-hand wall is the door leading into the master bathroom. Like the living room, the bedroom is sparsely furnished with a mahogany dresser, mahogany wardrobe, one small cushioned chair, and a mahogany king bed with its headboard against the left hand wall flanked on both sides by matching side tables.

Master bathroom: The master bath can be accessed either through the bedroom or the hallway. Its tile is pale with flecks of garnet red, as is the granite counter top. The sink faucet and handles are brushed silver. From the bedroom doorway the sink and toilet are along the far wall, the bathtub along the right-hand wall and the hallway door along the left-hand wall. Between the toilet and bathtub is a door which opens onto a linen closet. The bathtub easily fits two and is sunken into a tile ledge. Above the sink is a mahogany framed medicine cabinet/mirror.

Second bedroom: The second bedroom functions as a study and library. It matches the master bedroom in color, though the closet is smaller and the room has no windows. The walls are lined with mahogany bookshelves and a matching desk sits in the nearest right-hand corner. Along the far wall are two dark brown leather chairs with a mahogany end table between them.

Second bathroom: The second bath is a miniature version of the first in color and style, though it has a frosted glass walled shower instead of a bathtub and no window.

And now you know why Daren doesn’t mind getting kicked out of his shitty basement apartment and having to move in with Tanim.

I don’t want to write this story; it makes me so heartsick I can barely breathe. The moment is all wrong. Tanim should be the one yelling and weeping, not Daren. It should be Daren’s patient voice coaxing logic and calm, not Tanim’s. But tonight is different and for once Tanim remains dry eyed. He tries futilely to once again explain something Daren has never understood and never will: how frightening it is not to be able to control your own body, your baser hungers, your perverted lusts; how only the drugs and the drink mute the ravenous beast inside enough to sink into blessed darkness for a few hours, and how you despair knowing the morning will still come, that tomorrow you’ll have to go through the motions again, and the next day, and the next. He can’t bear to see the next sunrise. He can’t wade through one more torturous day. Even when Daren yells and begs, argues and forbids, Tanim’s choice is set. It breaks his heart now to weather the young man’s misery but soon it won’t matter to him at all. Nothing will. Tomorrow Daren will wake to the bright, cruel morning, will have to somehow while away the meaningless hours as he nurses this terrible loss, this unforgivable betrayal, but Tanim won’t. Tanim won’t ever have to face the morning again. And this moment hurts me to imagine, sickens me to write, chokes my throat and burns my eyes. I don’t want to dwell on it. I don’t want to relive Tanim’s crushing depression, the crippling self-loathing which drove him to this end, nor Daren’s helplessness as the life he’s so desperately struggled to save slips out of his grasp. Yet like a broken record the story keeps replaying and there’s nothing I can do but listen to Daren’s sobbing until I’m ill with his grief.

[ I'm not gonna lie; this is 100% inspired by Tate from American Horror Story and his fantasy about shooting up his high school. Speaking of which, I would give anything to see Daren with Dia de los Muertos makeup on his face. ]

Oh darling, don’t you see? They will never accept you. This world’s so cruel, so cold, so callous. People like you don’t stand a chance. You’re beaten bloody and strung up as examples for the rest of us to never deviate from the norm. You’re the sacrificial lambs so we all remain dumb, quiet little sheep. I want to protect you from that terrible fate, my love, my dearest, but there’s only so much I can do. I can’t punish them all; there aren’t enough bullets for everyone who will hurt you. But one bullet can protect you forever. Just one bullet can take you far away from the reach of those who condemn you. Do you understand? This is how I can keep you safe. This is how I can prove my love. I won’t let them ruin your beauty, twist and torture you until you’re just as much a monster as they. One bullet can preserve your innocence forever. Do you understand? Everything will be okay now. I’ll keep you safe, beloved. Just close your eyes.

Silk had to hand it to the woman; her coat may be ridiculous, but at least it was currently doing a pretty good job of soaking up her blood. That would save him some cleanup time, at least. He stepped over the motionless figure sprawled across the front step and glanced about. It had turned out to be a pretty nice day, all things considered, sunlight shining peacefully through the red-gold trees which lined the mansion’s long drive and warming his face with a rare autumn heat. Still, the man frowned. He hated to tear up the manicured lawn or painstakingly tended rose beds but they were running out of places to bury the bodies. The front lawn was too conspicuous, the earth out back by the gardener’s shed already full. He could perhaps try down by the koi pond but that was such a long walk…

“Good morning, sir! Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Wrapped up in his current dilemma, Silk hadn’t even noticed the gentleman wandering up the drive. He narrowed his eyes as he watched the stranger approach, one hand resting lightly on the gun hidden inside his jacket. The man wore a cheap blue suit and carried a large briefcase under one arm. He was in his early fifties, easy, thinning hair more gray than brown. Not exactly a threat, but Silk took no chances. He was paid very well and with good reason.

Finally the man made it to the house. He stopped on the walk and flashed a wide, folksy smile, apparently oblivious to the dead woman laying on the flagstone. When Silk said nothing in greeting he went ahead and continued, “Yes, a fine day indeed! And a gorgeous, I say an absolutely gorgeous house you have here! You’re obviously a man with fine tastes. I have in this case a fabulous opportunity I know one such as yourself is too smart to pass up. For just a limited time only, you see, my employers at Hartford Fine Crystal are offering unbelievable discounts on all crystal dining sets, including–”

“I killed a woman,” It seemed to take the salesman a moment to even notice Silk had spoken. That happened often, though. His voice was very soft and he rarely bothered with inflection. He watched the words dawn in the man’s mind, understanding slowly making its way to his face as he glanced down to the body sprawled at Silk’s feet. “…oh,” the man managed. Then, “are you going to kill me too?” Silk tipped his head back, basking in the warm sunshine for a moment before he fixed his attention back on the problem at hand. “No,” he decided, a surprise to them both. “I’ll give you one minute to walk down that driveway and never look back.” The man gaped at him. “You’re not?” Silk gave a bare shrug. “I’m feeling magnanimous today.” The salesman stared at the dead woman for a second, then shifted the case from one hand to the other and managed a pretty good imitation of his earlier smile. “Well, sir, I’ll give you my card and if you ever want a discount on fine crystal products just–”

Now the gun was out, balanced with deceptive ease in Silk’s capable hand. “You’ve now wasted thirty seconds trying to sell me your cheap shit.” Silk believed it uncouth to curse but the salesman’s babbling grated on him. The man paled and shut up immediately at the sight of the weapon pointed at his rotund stomach. He might have turned tale and ran just then if they hadn’t been interrupted by the easy-going chatter of a group of well dressed young men making their way around the corner of the house. Silk swore again, this time with rare passion. His employer would be quite unhappy if these particular guests discovered the murdered woman. As irritating as his employer had found her, his friends had taken some delight in her nosy ways and would already be sorry to hear she had gone missing. If he hadn’t let himself become distracted by this damned salesman…

“Look here,” Silk yanked the man close by his collar, vanishing the gun back to its hiding place. “You play along now or I swear your end won’t be nearly as quick as hers.” Then as the group rounded the bend he shoved the salesman back, one hand still gripping his collar and the other a vice around his arm. “Get the fuck out of here, you sorry sack of crap,” he snarled, loud enough to grab the others’ full attention. “If I catch you trying to sell that shit on these premises again, I’ll beat you black and blue.” Not terribly clever but the threat seemed to do the trick. This time the salesman caught on immediately and made a great show of stumbling along before Silk, struggling against the hit man’s iron grip while he babbled terrified apologies. “Shut the fuck up and just keep walking!” Silk growled, sparing a quick glance to their audience. His employer’s colleagues had paused momentarily to watch the altercation but now that the show seemed more or less over, they were moving on across the path toward the twelve car garage. None seemed to have noticed the body; their eyes lingered on Silk and the profusely apologizing salesman the entire way. Once they disappeared around the corner of the mansion Silk gave the salesman one last disgusted shove and speared him with a glare that sent the man scurrying toward the road.

Finally alone again, Silk turned back to his original dilemma. He nudged the dead woman with one foot as he contemplated his options, grimacing at the thought of having to drag her to a suitable burial spot. Ah, well. Koi pond it was.

I know what they’re thinking when they stare at me. “What good have you done?” they wonder, sneering at my weakness, disgusted by my sickness. “What worth are you?”

‘What worth am I?’ I want to cry. ‘What good have I done? I’ve stayed up nights with him while he wept. I’ve talked him back from the darkness, held him until the riptide of self-loathing ebbed, leaving him shaken and empty. I’ve remained at his side when he otherwise would have faced his demons alone. And I’ve battled those demons myself, just for him, always for him. Did you do that? Were you there when he touched his hand to his throat and said ‘I’m afraid to be alone; I don’t know what I’ll do to myself’? No. No, you never saw how close he was, how easily he could fall over the edge. It was I who stood by him. It was I who protected him from himself. What worth am I? I’m worth every morning he reaches after the impossible night. I’m worth every next breath and heartbeat. I’m worth his life.”

They don’t know these things, though, and I will never speak those words. It isn’t my place to reveal his secrets. If he wishes to bear his burdens in silence then I’ll bear them with him. In the end it’s his choice, for better or worse. No matter what happens, I’ll be at his side. He has me if nothing else. Whatever good I can do is all for him, only for him, but they’ll never understand that and I’ll never be worth anything in their eyes.

I don’t know if there’s a God but sometimes I want so desperately to believe He exists. Not a kind and loving God, nor a cruel and wrathful one. A fair God; a just God. A God who will strip me of these unnecessary fetters, cloth and flesh and muscle, and judge the essence of the soul beneath. I don’t trust a mere mortal mind to weigh the burdens of my heart without bias. Mercy and bigotry are equally poisonous to truth; how can I believe what anyone says when humanity is so fallible, so prone to lies and self-deception? I’m not fool enough to trust another, not arrogant enough to trust myself. But a God, a being utterly without fault or machination, might peer into my depths and deliver honest judgment. Am I the selfless martyr others claim me to be? Or am I the monster which stares back at me from the mirror, the beast which twists beneath my skin and hungers for depravity? I must know. If there is a God, I pray His scalpel is sharp for dissection.

They say you’re born this way, that it’s not a sickness, not a fault, just part of who you are. Something natural and beautiful. But they aren’t the ones who have to live with it; they aren’t the ones who were never given a choice. How can they possibly understand what it’s like to desire something so perverse, so filthy? How dare they act as if this hunger is something to be proud of? They don’t wash the thirst for sweat and semen away with alcohol and sleeping pills. They don’t wake from nightmare fantasies, or fantasy nightmares, weeping with the repulsive longing to submit, to succumb, to surrender. They don’t have to live with the beast.

It’s a cruel joke to tell me I was born like this. Why me? What did I ever do to deserve imprisonment in my own traitorous flesh? I don’t care if they want me to embrace my disease, accept it as part and parcel of who I’m meant to be. I can’t. I won’t. I have to believe this is something that can be fixed. If it’s a taint in my blood then I’ll bleed myself dry. If it’s a corruption in my heart then I’ll cut the damned thing out. I’ll do anything, even if it means taking my own life, to destroy the monster I’ve become. I can’t be this man anymore.

Tanim edged up the darkened stairwell, the wooden steps polished to a dangerous sheen by hundreds of years of passing feet. At the top of the stairs he stopped and drew in a slow, calming breath, allowed himself a moment to gather his thoughts. No sense going in with his nerves already wound tight; he needed to remain clear headed or he wouldn’t be able to trust his own experiences tonight. He didn’t want anyone to refute his conclusions based solely on human fallibility.

The gory legend surrounding the Hanged Man Inn began, or perhaps ended, with the suicide of the Reverend Aaron Smith in the late 1700s. An investigation launched upon discovery of his body hanging from the rafters of the Blackbird Inn revealed Smith as the perpetrator of a total of thirteen murders over half as many years. The reverend’s private journal, found hidden beneath a parish floorboard, uncovered a sordid tale of illicit affairs with young men conducted at the very inn where he had taken his life. Smith believed these men to be incubi sent by the Devil to tempt him to a life of sin and so destroyed them all as they wore out welcome or allure, each killing more horrific than the last. It was now popular belief that the ghosts of his victims haunted the inn, trapped at the place of their bloody demise. Thousands of paranormal enthusiasts flocked to the inn each year, hands clutching reprinted copies of Smith’s diary and suitcases full of investigative equipment. Tanim doubted most of the stories of incoherent screaming, headless specters, and invisible attacks were true, of course, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to prove that first hand.

Raising his digital voice recorder, habitually double checking the full battery life left in the device as he did, Tanim moved down the hallway. He trailed his free hand along the wall, counting each closed doorway as he passed by. He would return to these rooms later to take EVP recordings but his eagerness drove him to start at the heart of the haunting: the attic where Smith had ended so many lives, including his own. The current owners of the inn had transformed the attic room into a single suite reserved for those whose desire to stay a night in death’s chambers knew no monetary limit. Tanim spared a moment at the door for an appropriately dramatic pause, then crept inside. Moonlight filtered through rippled windows illuminated reproduction furniture and lovingly laundered white lace linen. The room looked nothing like it had when the reverend lured his victims to their deaths, of course, but the period décor still made one feel as if Smith’s victims might appear at any moment, alive and unaware of their impending doom.

“Is anyone in here? Can you hear me? Can you answer me?” Tanim left a long pause between each question, allowing time for the recorder to pick up sounds outside his own hearing range, and tried not to feel too silly carrying on a one sided conversation. “If there is someone in this room with me, please say something. Say anything.”

Silence. Of course. No investigator had ever recovered anything more from an EVP session at the Hanging Man than the sound of settling old wood and winter wind whistling beneath window cracks. Not exactly the stuff of horror movies. Tanim snorted and turned back to the door.

“Daren–”

He recognized the phantom on sight. The reverend’s diary described this particular young man in almost lurid detail, whole pages devoted to his angelic features, his piercing black eyes, the taste of his sweat and the heat of his flesh. Tanim hadn’t been able to read those passages through in one sitting, physically sickened by the reverend’s perverse obsession and violent fantasies. By the time authorities had found Daren’s body buried in the forest behind the parish, all that could be determined was that his jaw had been broken, his spine snapped, and his body dismembered; the more gruesome ghost tales preferred to presume the poor boy had been alive throughout. Of course, the lingering fragment standing before Tanim betrayed nothing of his horrific end. Neither blood nor bruises marred skin so pale it shone silver blue in the moonlight. The dark, flat eyes which stared back showed no rage or sorrow, fear or helplessness. Nothing remotely human at all, in fact, which somehow unnerved Tanim more than anything else about this moment.

Tanim swallowed, suddenly at a loss for what to do, to say, to think. He wanted to ask a thousand questions but each one died on his heavy tongue and he only managed to choke out, “you were his first…” Pale lips moved as if in reply but no sound emerged from the specter and as quickly as he had appeared, Daren vanished. Tanim rushed to review the EVP, desperate to discover what the lingering spirit had said, only to find his recorder’s batteries drained and useless.

“Do you know how many times I’ve died?” A long drag on the cigarette can’t mask the trembling of his hand, nor the acrid smoke disguise the sneer twisting his mouth. “How many times I’ve been torn to pieces? Beaten? Burned? Raped?” He draws again on the cigarette. The embers spark a brief light in his eyes but fail to warm his frozen gaze. “I can’t remember which moments are real and which are nightmares or hallucinations; everything’s muddled by fever and fear. Maybe some of those delusions are even sick fantasies. Maybe after thirty years of madness not only have I lost my memory, but I’ve lost the ability to discern between desire and revulsion as well.” He laughs as if amused by the notion of his own corruption. “I guess suffering makes masochists of us all, huh?”

There’s no comfort I can offer that he would accept. What must it be like not to be able to trust your own memories? To question every experience and sensation because you have no anchor to keep you steady, no grip on reality? It’s little wonder he believes himself a psychopath. All he’s ever known is the sickness, the fever nightmares, the drift between unconsciousness and waking hell. No man could suffer such torture with his sanity completely intact.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’ll wake up and find you’re just a delusion like all the rest,” The cigarette burns forgotten in his hand as he stares into some future I can’t share. “I think I’ll open my eyes one morning and be back in that shit hole apartment, laying in a pool of my own bloody vomit. You’ll have been nothing but a fever dream; nothing but a desperate fabrication of my damaged mind. Wouldn’t that be ironic? The one time I actually want the lie to be the truth?” His gaze slides over, holds mine, and the disassociation in his eyes sends a crawl of unease up my spine. A part of him believes this hypothesis. He holds me forever at arm’s length so when I do finally disappear, it won’t hurt. He doesn’t expect me to stay. Even when he’s staring straight at me he doesn’t really believe I’m here. I’m just another insubstantial phantom in a lifetime of terror and loss.

My poor lover is so thin skinned, so quick to bruise and bleed. Words cut him to the bone and leave wounds which tear open again at the slightest provocation. He doesn’t have the armor of apathy and disdain that I do. Where I can turn my back on the hurled insults, the cruel whispers and spiteful glares, each one lands a fresh blow on his unprotected flesh. He breaks beneath their loathing like a sapling stripped and battered in a storm. I wish just once he would turn his fear and sorrow to fury and hatred instead. Anger would cleanse him, burn away infected, necrotic flesh and speed the healing. I want him to fight back, to spit his blood in their faces and laugh when they flinch away from the taint. We can’t change the world but we can sure as hell bear our battle scars with pride. If he would just embrace the rage, learn to strike out instead of backing down, he’d never spare a tear for their slurs or condemnation again.