You say, “My dreams are graveyards of ghosts, too, lately,” and so I take your hand and bid, “Show them to me.” We need not fear our graveyards; what harm can the dead do to us now? They may reach out with jealous spectral fingers to touch our warmth and feel our pulses, yet they cannot drag us down into the cold dirt with them. They are naught but the remnants of people who no longer exist (though somewhere someone living still bears their name), memories which fade and curl with time. Do not be afraid as you walk through the graves of your past, our fingers entwined, our steps silent on old leaves and older earth. Stop by one and tell me who lays here, who they were when you knew them, what power they have to come crawling back out of the ground in which you’ve buried them. In turn I’ll take you to mine and tell you about the girl whose heart I broke, the boy who broke mine, the dreams in which they slip through the cracks in the locked door of my subconscious. You need not walk alone in your graveyard. Let me follow at your side and soothe your ghosts back to their everslumber. Then, hand in hand, we will walk out again.
Another fever. Bad this time, too. Tanim slides the back of his hand from Daren’s hot brow and down his cheek, brushing his thumb over the man’s cracked lips. He wonders again, as he has wondered so often since they met, what monster left such lasting damage on his companion. Bruises fade; bones heal; but the nightmares, the physical and emotional trauma, the brokenness verging on madness, those will cripple Daren the rest of his life. Of course, Daren will never admit the abuse he’s suffered or the identity of his abuser. And normally Tanim would respect this decision, honor Daren’s need to keep the darkest aspects of his past to himself, but tonight…
Tonight Tanim can’t bear to watch Daren twist and shiver in the fever’s hold, eyes glassy and breath uneven, too weak to block out the terrors which claw at the edges of his consciousness. Tanim’s heart aches with the knowledge that nothing he can do will fix Daren, rage rising in his throat with the burn of sour bile. He can’t fix Daren, no, but he can bring his lover a modicum of vengeance. Taking Daren’s limp hand in his, Tanim leans over and asks softly, “Who was it, Daren?”
“Nnn…” Daren shakes his head dizzily, eyelids fluttering, not yet delirious enough to answer. “Stop, Tan…”
“Shh…” Tanim strokes Daren’s cool skin. “It’s okay,” he soothes. “Tell me, darling. Please.”
“I-I…” Black eyes try to focus, fail, and Daren turns his face into the sweat damp pillow with another shiver. The sickness is pulling him back down into uneasy sleep and Tanim knows now is his best chance to draw the secret from Daren’s disoriented mind. “Tell me, Daren,” he urges gently, gliding his fingers through the man’s silky hair as he bends so close their lips nearly touch. “Tell me who hurt you all those years ago, my love. It’s easy; just say one name. Let me bring you justice. Please, Daren.”
Shuddering, Daren speaks a name and sinks into fevered sleep. Tanim smiles.
“Thank you, darling.”
I dream sometimes about the things that might have happened to him. Sometimes I’m standing by, watching in the helpless immobility of the dream as Daren is beaten, brutalized, broken down and open. Sometimes I’m witnessing this violence from inside, trapped within Daren’s panicked, paralyzed mind, and no matter how much I long to lash out in defense I can do nothing to protect myself. To protect him. Even waking to find Daren safe at my side does nothing to ease the crushing sense of hopelessness that lingers after the nightmare’s end.
When I wake from those disorienting dreams I want to rouse Daren and swear I would have come. If I had known, if I had been able, I would have put myself between him and anyone who wished him harm. I would have taken those blades myself, or I would have turned them on his assailants. I would have done anything to keep Daren safe. I want to promise him a thousand times that it would have been different had I been there to rescue him from his own fate.
I don’t tell Daren about these dreams, though, because I wasn’t there. I didn’t arrive in time. I came long after he had already retreated inside his aching body and damaged mind. It does no good for me to tell him what I would have done when it changes nothing for him now. I can’t undo his trauma; I can only try to heal as much as I can, even when I know so little about his past. But it’s not enough. It’s never enough.
Daren hurts. Every part of him hurts. He knows he should get up but he can’t bear to move a single muscle and so he remains crumpled on the floor, head cradled in Tanim’s lap like a sick child. He knows, too, that he shouldn’t speak, yet he finds his cracked lips parting and the unexpected, unwanted question rasping softly, “Why me, Tanim? I’m not worth it.” A tremor shudders up his body and he breaks off for a moment as his muscles spasm. After, sucking in a pained breath, he forces himself to continue, though now the words barely escape his lips. “I’ll hurt you. You’ll be the one left behind. Right now you’re lonely, but at least you’re not grieving.”
Tanim sighs over him in the darkness. He arrived too late during this latest attack, nightmare or seizure or whatever strikes Daren so violently, to keep the man from tumbling out of bed and earning yet another set of bruises. Daren knows Tanim blames himself for that – for a lot of things. Tanim’s fingers glide absently over Daren’s sweat damp hair as he replies with painful honesty, “Of course I’m grieving. I’m grieving for you; for what I don’t have but can’t let go of. I’d rather grieve for what I’ve lost than what I’ve never known.” He swallows to steady his voice before adding, “Have faith in me, Daren. Please.”
Daren means to laugh at such naïveté yet the sound that emerges from his aching throat is closer to a whimper than a mocking snort. “You’re a fool, Tanim,” he chastises, but instead of pulling away he turns his face into the solid warmth of Tanim’s thigh. He hurts so deeply that when Tanim replies gently, “You’re no less of one,” Daren doesn’t even bother arguing. Instead he allows the soothing caress of Tanim’s fingers through his hair to lull him into an exhausted and mercifully dream-free sleep.
[ This piece gave me soooo much trouble. Jeeze. ]
They pin his arms and legs, one kneeling on each limb so no matter how violently Daren struggles he cannot fight free. A sliver of bright blade glints at the corner of his eye amid a chorus of wolfish laughter. Not again. He seizes up in panic. No, no, not again, no. Please. But the words never leave his lips. Daren clenches his jaws tight as the blade pierces his flesh and slides beneath, not down but sideways to cause the maximum amount of pain and the minimum amount of damage. His back arches and he groans, the sound caught deep in his throat, the pain excruciating, but Daren won’t give them the satisfaction of hearing his screams. He won’t beg them to stop. It wouldn’t matter anyway; his assailants won’t cease until they grow bored and leave him a trembling, bleeding wreck on the tile. Until then Daren moans behind tight pressed lips and tries to sink into the darkness beneath the agony.
The shadows hid him well, and from Tanim’s vantage point in the alley mouth he could watch passersby without being seen himself. He had waited hours in this same spot and would wait hours more if necessary. Eventually his quarry would cross into the light of the streetlamp and they would be reunited, albeit briefly.
It was Daren. Tanim felt the surety of this in his blood, in his bones. Twenty years may have passed; he may have known his companion at thirty, while this young man could be no more than nineteen; still, he knew they were one and the same. Something subtle first tipped him off, a familiar coolness in the eyes or a certain grace in the movements, and so he waited and watched and yes, he recognized the old spirit in this new body. Tanim had found his lover again.
But things would work out no better this time than last. At least then they had been closer in age and in similar situations. What would this young boy want with an aging alcoholic who silenced his nightmares with sleeping pills? Tanim had struggled to win Daren over once yet he had no misguided belief he could do it again. Not now. If the system wanted to play them, though, then Tanim would play the system right back. He understood the rules of the game now. Life for death; death for life. He could laugh, it was so simple. Laugh or weep.
Footsteps. Tanim drew in a silent, steadying breath, fingers shifting around the grip of the gun. He knew Daren, or whatever this most recent incarnation’s name was, wouldn’t appreciate the poetic justice of using the same gun this time around that Daren used on himself so many years ago. Yet it seemed proper to come full circle and Tanim could think of no more fitting method for their demise and reunion.
The young man turned his head at the unfamiliar voice as he stepped beneath the streetlight. Tanim did not give him time to ask “who?” before he pulled him into the darkness.
You allow me to call you darling and beloved, lovely and dearest. Those are safe, generic terms. But the other names? The ones I would speak in the dead of the night, in the heat of our moment? Those you do not wish to hear. You fear the burden and implication of their truth. I cannot help but think them, though, and so silently I name you angel and master, mad king and damaged lover. You are my world, my reason, my entirety. Would it be so wrong to say such things to you? To tell you I am hollow, having surrendered my heart to you? To make you understand what glorious, terrible creature you are in my eyes? You are more addictive and thrilling and torturous than any drink, any drug, any night of illicit passion. Why deny the control I gladly relinquish to you? If you would but let me breathe even one of your forbidden names against your skin I know I can prove to you who and what you truly are.
He’s never had a name to say before; his previous encounters were all anonymous by necessity or preference. Mine Tanim breathes now like a prayer, a mantra, moaning softly with the rhythm of our union.
His breathless voice binds me to this moment more firmly than the fingers gripping my shoulders. I’d never thought about the power of names before I met Tanim. It was easy to forget I had one sometimes, so rarely did I offer it and rarer still did I hear it on someone else’s tongue. But I remember now, oh yes. Tanim recognizes my name for the gift it is and utters it with wonder, love, honor.
Names have such power. Tanim savors the thrill of murmuring mine with each trembling exhalation but I withhold his until the very end, until he’s gasping in climax beneath me and we can’t possibly be any closer, any more intimate or vulnerable, and then I press the precious words into his flesh.
Your ghost wakes me in the night, needy and lost, demanding recognition, and when I tell her to go haunt you instead she calls me angel, beloved, best and most cherished, and refuses to free me from this burden. I who loved you, albeit in a way I did not ever completely understand, am cursed now to carry the ghost you left behind and refuse to acknowledge. Is this a fitting penance for the actions of my younger, naïve self? Can you truly not bear to remember who you were, what we were, so that instead I must be the one to preserve both the good and ill memories while you recall nothing? I am a thing already composed of so many different people, fragments, lives all sewn up together, your shadow is but one more scrap of guilt to drag at my feet. I did not fail you, though; I failed your ghost, the girl I loved and the girl you discarded in fear. I do not fear this specter. I pity her. I pity you, too, wherever you are, whoever you are today. I owe something to your ghost, however, that I no longer owe you – the loyalty I did not prove often enough, perhaps, or the patience I was too young to have cultivated yet – and that is why I cannot bring myself to chase her from my side. She deserves more honor than a box of letters and crumpled pictures buried in the closet, and if you will not take her back then it is left to me to comfort her in the dead of the night.
We got the fairy tale wrong. It’s supposed to be Beauty and the Beast. See, Beauty is able to look past the Beast’s gruesome visage, even his frightening manor and actions, and to the goodness inside. Beauty’s love acts like a mirror to show him the man he can be, the prince locked safely inside the heart of a wild thing, and at the end of the tale the Beast is freed of his curse and they live happily ever after. But Tanim and I aren’t like that. We’re not Beauty and the Beast; we’re just two beasts of a different kind. I can see the goodness inside Tanim, beneath the fear and the doubt and the self-loathing, but I’m too tarnished to mirror it back to him. There might be something worthy inside me as well, a flicker of warmth within this cold barrier, but Tanim is too gentle to break the ice apart and set me free. We may be in love but we’re both enablers and so there’s little hope for a transformation from beast to man, monster to saint. Instead, we feed our beasts with excuses, platitudes, comforts. We tell them they are good. We tell them they are beautiful. In our eyes, they are.
Daren moves through the crowd like a ghost, slipping from shadow to shadow and uttering a guttural growl at anyone who comes too close. There is little sanity left in him now; it takes his entire concentration to resist the urge to bite and rend and tear those around him. Tanim is gone. Tanim is gone and with him the last of Daren’s energy or desire to cling to humanity. Grief twists him into a feral, hollow beast driven by rage to wander, to seek and pursue, but where? Who? Tanim is gone. Tanim is gone and Daren is cut adrift in the world. A world he wants to see punished even more than he wants his lover back.
[ So the night after I dreamed about Daren as a shape-shifter, I had another dream about him as a shape-shifter. Not the same plot line, but he did turn into a crazed white wolf at the end. Apparently my boys are getting tired of all the mushy emotional stuff I’ve been writing lately and want something with a little more… bite. ]
We argue too much. “You’re not mad,” you say, and I know you’re not lying because the honesty in your eyes is painful to face. But I am mad, darling, so if you’re not lying then you must be blinded by stubbornness. Your denial is in itself a kind of madness, a compulsion, and I wonder if you’re merely fooling yourself to protect us both. Maybe you, my dear, my love, suffer a madness not so unlike my own, and to deny your own brokenness you must deny mine as well. Does madness love company as much as misery? Is that why we are forever drawn to one another? If so, then it is better to be mad together than alone, and better to be honest in our madness than driven to further depths by self-deceit. We are a simple case of folie à deux, beloved. A madness shared by two.
[ It’s probably not a good thing that watching NBC’s new show Hannibal gives me writing ideas, eh? But it’s so good. ]
I guess there’s a theme in certain romance novels where a supposedly straight man doesn’t realize he’s a lover of men until someone comes into his life who stirs feelings he’s never experienced before. He’s unsure of it at first, maybe even outright denies the whole thing, but it’s a romance novel so you know everything works out in the end and they’re together forever. Lucky bastards.
Our story isn’t like that, though. I mean, the beginning is the same: I was married when Daren and I met, despite the fact that I’d never felt any real desire toward anyone, female or male. It was a marriage of convenience, of status, and I knew Catherine had no more love for me than I her; or, if she loved something, it was my last name and my connections. I tried to do right by her anyway, though, because all I wanted was to be the man my family and society asked me to be. My own happiness, or lack thereof, didn’t really figure in. It’s no wonder Daren’s mere friendship felt like the first spark of light in the years of dreariness that encompassed my life.
Whatever was between us didn’t stay just friendship for long. The more time we spent together, both inside and outside of the office, the more I realized my longing to see him had gone beyond the normal or appropriate. For his part, Daren tried his best to hide his own feelings, but soon neither of us could help the flirtation which quickly moved from harmless to serious. And the serious flirting quickly became… more than flirting. We both knew it was a mistake but I’d never been nearly as happy as when I was in Daren’s arms. I soaked his affection and acceptance up like a desert that had never known rain.
Daren changed everything. For once I felt something more than apathy. Even the burden of secrecy paled before the electrifying wonder of this strange new thing we shared. We never meant for it to become more than an amusement, a dangerous fling, but love doesn’t care if you make other plans. It felt like we were fated, and I would have done anything for Daren, would have sacrificed anything to remain with him. For the first time in my life I wanted something for myself and almost had it in my grasp.
It’s the ending of our story that’s different, because of course we don’t live in a romance novel. I didn’t leave my hellish wife to be with the man I love forever. He didn’t choose to remain my cherished secret out of love and loyalty. No, I woke one morning after a precious, stolen night together to find the bed cold and empty at my side. When I got to the office he’d already given notice and removed every trace of his presence. Empty, too, was his apartment, and his phone rang endlessly without ever reaching voicemail. I don’t know where he went. I don’t know where he is now. All I know is Daren made the decision to cease our illicit liaison and that’s where our story ends. I’d be lying if I said I hope Daren is happy wherever he is; all I hope is that he regrets his choice as much as I regret giving him the chance to make it.
In his dream he crumples to the ground, face buried against his folded legs, fingers tearing at tangled locks of hair. In his dream he weeps, great racking sobs that rock his hunched body, muffled only by the press of his mouth to quickly moistening cloth. In his dream he doesn’t bother to reign in the sorrow but surrenders completely to it instead; he is too tired, too worn, too done to feign normalcy anymore. In his dream he allows himself to shatter, knowing only here there are no repercussions, and upon waking he will wipe whatever tears have spilled over from sleep and force a smile once again.
When I wake in the middle of the night Tanim’s back is pressed to mine, a solid warmth in the darkness I’d never have guessed I would find so comforting. We’re still shy and hesitant with our affections during the day but Tanim seems to gravitate toward me when he’s asleep. No matter what positions we begin in, I always wake to find my companion curled against my side, a possessive arm often thrown over my chest or back. Moments like this offer a brief glimpse into the lonely, needy part of Tanim he tries so hard not to show. He told me once that he only wanted from me what I was willing to give and it’s touching how careful he is not to cross that line. He would never pressure me to take our relationship any further yet I know he longs to submit himself to me. It’s the ultimate expression of love, he says, but he never asks me outright to take part in such an intimate act. I doubt he even considers it a possibility for us, guarded and damaged as I am. But could it be? Could I be that person for him?
Tanim stirs in his sleep at my side, burying his face in the pillow as a dreamy smile curls the corners of his mouth. His blissful expression makes my heart flutter and my stomach clench. While I brush a lock of hair from his forehead I wonder what I’m willing to give this man who has already promised so much of himself to me. Am I ready to both give and take, I who have never wanted anything from anyone? I imagine what it would be like to undress Tanim, to run my fingers over his warm skin and touch him in places I’ve never even allowed myself to think about before. Could I do this? Could I take him in my arms and make him mine? Could I sacrifice my own privacy to give Tanim the opportunity to open himself to me?
My hand drifts down to Tanim’s hip and he curls closer as if my caress translates to some pleasant occurrence in his dream. And it probably does; he’s not such a skilled liar that I don’t know he dreams of us together, has fantasized about the very act I’m currently struggling to accept. Even this small step makes my cheeks burn, though it’s hard to tell whether they flush out of nervousness or desire or something else entirely. It feels good to touch him like this. A little strange, but good. Right. It feels like my hand has always belonged here.
Just a few weeks ago – fuck, a few days ago – that thought would have disturbed me. I’m starting to think I’m not the same man I was when I met Tanim. After all, I’m not one to give or take willingly, but with Tanim none of the old rules seem to apply. I think I can do this. Moreover, I want to do this. I want to give Tanim the love and safety and acceptance he needs to be completely vulnerable, to in turn offer as much of himself as he can. I want him to be mine in every sense of the word.
I’m not quite bold enough to act on my decision just yet, though. Instead of letting my hand drift down to touch more private regions of my companion’s body, I loop my arm around his waist and draw him close. He wakes enough to return the embrace, nuzzling his face into my chest and muttering my name, but otherwise Tanim remains in contented slumber. And this, too, feels right. Tanim belongs here in my arms. He belongs with me. To me. And soon I’ll prove that to him.
It’s like a maelstrom, rage and misery and fear all warring for supremacy inside him. He cringes at the voices around him, resisting the urge to clamp his hands over his ears or bare his teeth like a beast to keep the strangers all around at bay. He wants to run. He wants to lash out. He wants to slit his own throat and end this madness once and for all.
Tanim’s voice is the only sound which doesn’t grate against his flesh. Daren shudders and raises his eyes to Tanim’s calm countenance. Instead of holding out his hand to bring Daren to his feet, the young man kneels at his side as if without a care for the stares they both receive. Daren has been waiting for Tanim to arrive and his presence eases the storm of emotions slightly, at least enough to think clearer, but he can’t manage to force a false smile. Daren’s skin skill crawls with the stares of those nearby. He knows he doesn’t belong here; they don’t want him, they want Tanim, and they resent the love which binds the two.
“Have you eaten?”
Tanim talks as if he can’t feel the glares – and maybe he really is oblivious to the hostility, beloved as he is to the ones who loathe his companion. Daren doesn’t bother answering; he craves blood constantly but the last thing he needs is to further alienate himself by feeding in public. Instead he inches closer and rests his head on Tanim’s shoulder, closing his eyes to shut out the cacophonous world as Tanim wraps an arm tightly around his waist. The others may not want him here but Tanim must be kept safe and Daren is the only one capable. He would kill for Tanim. He would die for Tanim. In the end, he may do both.
[ And later Daren turned into a white wolf and killed this… priest dude? Who wanted to kidnap Tanim? Or something. Also, I think they were nomads and Tanim was their prince. It was an odd dream. ]
I’m already lying awake in the darkness when I hear the tell-tale clink of glass. The sound’s faint but I’ve learned to recognize it as a signal to intervene and so I gather my scattered clothing, dress, and pad barefoot through the midnight gloom. Ambient city light illuminates the living room well enough to spot Tanim’s dark figure passing back and forth before the tall windows. I perch on an arm of the couch and wonder aloud, “Does the pacing really help you sleep?”
“No, but the drinking does,” When Tanim catches the frown on my face and my pointed glance to the full glass in his hand he adds sheepishly, “I’m joking. This is my first, I promise.” But it isn’t a joke, not really, and we both know it. I nod to the couch. “Want to talk?” Tanim slides his gaze away from mine so his eyes won’t betray him as he offers the weak excuse, “It’s a conversation we’ve had before. What’s the point?” I only shrug and settle onto the couch, patting the cushion in invitation. “I don’t mind. You listen to me complain about the same things over and over, too.” I assume Tanim will brush off my offer, claim he’s fine and that I should go back to bed, but after a moment’s hesitation he acquiesces and sinks onto the couch with a heavy sigh. While he stares into his glass I sit in silence, trying to exude the same supportive patience Tanim has so often provided me in my own times of struggle. It’s the least I can offer when I’ve no true solution to his problem.
“I…” Tanim stumbles, fingers clenching around the glass, then closes his eyes and lets out a second shaky sigh. When he speaks his words are chosen with great care to keep his voice steady. “I truly don’t believe there’s anything perverse in my desires now, so why…” he swallows, “why do I still experience the revulsion? The loathing?” Now Tanim glances back up to me, searching my eyes for an answer or perhaps merely the comfort of understanding. His own churn with raw desperation as he asks, “Why do I keep slipping back into this old pattern? I feel selfish, like I’m not even grateful for what I have now or how far I’ve come. How far we’ve come. Why can’t I shake it once and for all?”
“Oh, darling,” I take the glass from his fingers and set it carefully on the floor. Tanim doesn’t protest, only lets his hands hang limp until I capture them in my own. “Of course you’re grateful. You prove to me a hundred times a day how grateful you are. This thing is a part of you, Tanim, a brokenness like my own. You can never be completely free but that doesn’t mean you’ve let it defeat you.” His hands tremble in mine and I draw him close to soften the bite of my words, true though they may be. “It’s okay to let yourself hurt tonight, love,” I murmur into his hair as he rests his head against my chest. “I’m here. In the morning you won’t feel this way. It’ll pass; it always passes. You know that.”
“Two steps forward, one step back, huh?” Tanim manages a tired, bitter laugh as I parrot his own words back to him and from the way he relaxes in my arms I know the worst of this night has passed. I look to the untouched glass of whiskey – a small victory, but a victory nonetheless – then kiss the crown of my lover’s head. “At least we’re moving forward.”
The second night, when the worst has passed and I no longer think I may lose Daren, he’s struck by another nightmare. There’s little I can do to ease the attack but murmur senseless comforts as I hold him close, afraid that otherwise he’ll hurt himself in his thrashing. I doubt he’s even aware of my touch or voice but I can’t bear to let him suffer alone. When he’s well enough to care for himself again he’ll have a choice to stay or go, but for now I’m all he has to keep the fever from taking him completely. When the terror finally subsides and the thin, feverish figure in my arms stills, I lay him gently back in bed. He shudders and turns into the pillow yet never wakes. It’s better that way; I know I’ve crossed a line, invaded a privacy Daren holds sacred, and the less he remembers of this, the better.
I’m at the door when Daren speaks, his voice a hoarse rasp. “What do you want from me, Tanim?” The question closes my throat and for a moment I can barely breathe, let alone speak. Swallowing down a hard lump of emotions I don’t even want to touch right now, I turn my head enough to glimpse Daren’s pale outline in the darkness. Even though his expression is lost in shadow I can feel the weight of his regard. What do I want? How can he ask me that? How can he expect me to answer truthfully? Not for the first time I wonder how much Daren suspects, if I’m as transparent as I feel. Is that why he cut off contact weeks ago?
“I don’t want anything from you, Daren,” I finally manage to mutter, trying to at once hide the quaver in my voice and feign a lightness I can’t feel. Daren makes a weak sound that might be a laugh or might simply be another ragged cough. The rattling in his lungs is worrisome but I have other concerns right now. “You won’t ask anything of me, you mean,” he corrects. “Wanting is different. What do you want from me?”
Even delirious and half-starved, he’s still a clever bastard. For just a second I allow myself to admit, at least silently, everything I’ve wanted from Daren for so long: not only friendship but companionship, love, intimacy. I want to surrender my body and heart and soul to him. I want to be his, and for Daren to be mine. I want so much I can never have and so I reply with careful diplomacy, “I only want what you would offer me willingly.” It’s as close to the truth as I can come without revealing myself. I would never ask anything more of him, no matter what I long for.
“Tanim…” Daren’s sigh is heavy with exhaustion and something close to disappointment, and I hate myself for the way I shiver upon hearing my name on his breath. “Please,” I know my voice trembles as I turn away but I’m too tired to hold it steady any longer. “Don’t make me say anything more.” As I shut the door behind myself I pray the fever burns this memory from Daren’s mind. I’m not ready to bare my heart to him when the revelation may turn him from me once and for all. He may suspect but until I say the words aloud I can pretend nothing has changed and I can keep this man in my life a few days longer.
Don’t bother knocking; you won’t wake him tonight. There are two bottles on the nightstand, one of drink and one of drugs, and like Sleeping Beauty he will be lost to a long and dreamless slumber before he wakes again. This medicated coma is a temporary escape from the past and present, a postponement of the inevitable future. The years stretch on in both directions, featureless and repetitive, but here in this fleeting respite the depressants numb both body and mind until he drifts in a senseless darkness. It isn’t comforting, yet neither can he remember for what he needs comfort in the first place, so this choice seems the lesser of two evils. He’ll wake eventually to the brightening dawn or fading dusk, it hardly matters which when all hours feel the same to him, but for now he’s far away from the aching emptiness. It isn’t enough, but it’s something.
“Oh…” Daren relaxed against the headboard with a satisfied moan, eyes closed and lips curved in pleasure. From somewhere farther down the bed Tanim chuckled, the mattress shifting as he rolled onto his back, and gloated, “I told you.” The younger man snorted. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. You’re very talented, darling.” A comfortable, sated silence fell over them for a moment before Daren added thoughtfully, “You know, if anyone knew how we are together, they’d think you’re whipped. Maybe it’s good you don’t talk to your family.”
“So?” Tanim stretched languidly, inching up until his head rested near Daren’s shoulder. “I’m not ashamed I enjoy being ordered around by you. I’ve always been drawn to authority.” A sly smile crept over his lips. “And arrogance.” Daren ignored the quip but the teasing smirk on his own mouth undermined his admonishing tone. “Still, you shouldn’t do everything I want all the time; you’ll spoil me.”
“Spoil you?” It was Tanim’s turn to snort and arch one black eyebrow. “You’re in my bed, aren’t you?”
“Oh, come on,” Daren rolled over, propping himself up with one elbow on each side of his lover’s chest, legs slotted between Tanim’s. “This is hardly your bed anymore,” he purred, gently biting at Tanim’s lower lip. “And besides, I’m not always this… companionable.” Stifling a moan, Tanim slid his arms around Daren’s slender waist and pulled the man close, freeing his mouth to seek the tender hollow just below Daren’s jaw. “I don’t mind,” he murmured into the velvet skin. “Really.”
“No?” Daren’s soft laughter rumbled against Tanim’s chest and though he questioned the older man, his body eased into the embrace. “Even when I’m delusional? Half mad? Even when I say cruel things to you?” Tanim nuzzled his face into the curve of Daren’s neck and exhaled a dreamy sigh. “When you’re wild and feral, when I think you might hurt me, oh yes, I love you then as well. Always.”
Daren seemed content with the answer and they lapsed into silence again, a tangle of loose limbs and idly wandering mouths, until without warning he delivered a sharp bite to Tanim’s earlobe. “Arrogant, am I?” he growled, hips grinding Tanim against the mattress. His companion squirmed in mock struggle, fingers digging into bare skin as he swore, “In an unbelievably attractive way, I promise.”
[ I don’t mean to make it seem like Tanim and Daren spend ALL their time in bed, but… well, they spend a lot of time in bed. XD ]
Tanim had thought it would be easier than this. He assumed by the time the end came he would be used to silence, to absence, to aloneness. After all, had he not already been alone so much of the time? Not physically, perhaps, but in other ways. There were times he hadn’t even been sure Daren was aware of his presence, to say nothing of whether the man actually desired his companionship. His eyes, already too dark to read anything within their depths, would go flat and distant as if Daren saw some different place and time, or perhaps nothing at all. Tanim could hardly blame Daren if he had removed himself in those moments on purpose; after all, Tanim might have done the same to escape the constant pain if he’d been the one trapped in a failing body. Yet forced to watch Daren be there physically and yet so very not there emotionally, Tanim had thought this a small glimpse into his future. A sense of what it would be like to move through empty, untouched rooms, to once more lay awake without the comfort of another’s warm weight pressed to his side. He had been wrong, of course. This was loneliness beyond anything he had even begun to imagine in the dark nights of those final months and weeks. Watching Daren waste away had broken his heart, true, but losing him removed it completely.
In his dream the air reeks of ozone, each particle so charged they seem to scrape and snag against his skin, pressed back by the beat of great wings, and upon waking his chest still vibrates with the force of Daren’s voice, a thing more felt than heard as the man turned creature, demon, angel promises, “I will burn them; I will burn them all.”
“When will I stop having to prove myself to you?”
Eyes bleak, voice hard, Tanim spits the accusation in my face. His lips twist in a sneer but I can’t tell which emotion dominates, the rage or the misery. Is it better in this moment to honor his trust by telling the truth, no matter how painful it may be, or would a well-meaning lie ease us away from this edge on which we find ourselves suddenly balanced? I know which answer he wants but it’s not one I can give. I won’t lie to him this time and so I’ve nothing to say, nothing to offer, and when I don’t reply Tanim drops his gaze to the hand clenched white-knuckled around my wrist. I can see the struggle in his eyes between the need to vent his wounded anger and the desire to give in this time as well, to just let the moment pass so we can go back to being unhappy together instead of apart.
“Right,” Tanim exhales and the anger seems to dwindle to mere exhaustion, the inferno cooled to a burning coal. “Fine.” His fingers unwrap one by one, as if he’s loathe to relinquish this one chance to demand answers, to be the one in control for once, but then my wrist is free and he turns from me; retreating or leaving me behind, I can’t be sure. Either way, I know he’ll push this moment away. Tonight we’ll still sleep in the same bed and we may even hold each other, albeit in a heavier silence than usual. But the words will still linger, both the said and unsaid, and neither can be taken back.
Daren didn’t rise at 3 AM this time when the thumping above his head woke him from a sound sleep. The attic creeped him out enough in the daylight – and no wonder, now that he knew the noises weren’t floorboards settling or tree branches bumping against the glass– so he had no desire to spend any more time in that dusty space in the dark. Instead he waited until the afternoon sun shone through the single high window before ascending the slick wooden stairs, a flashlight stuck into his belt in case a stray cloud plunged the attic into darkness. He wondered briefly why none of the past residents had bothered to install a light up here, but then snorted at his own folly as he remembered the attic’s resident seemed rather protective of the space.
“Tanim?” Old boxes and sheet-draped furniture muffled Daren’s hesitant call. There was always the chance the specter wouldn’t show. Part of Daren still hoped he’d just gone off the deep end, that the conversation he’d held with a ghost while last standing up here had been either an extremely vivid dream or the beginnings of schizophrenia. Either seemed preferable to the truth, and while standing in the dim space he tried not to think of the brief glimpses he’d caught at the corners of his eyes since, or the constant sensation of being watched.
“I thought you were ignoring me,”
Even knowing Tanim could sneak up on him, Daren still twitched at the sudden voice from behind and turned with a nervous swallow. Dust motes sparkled in the sunlight, disappearing as they passed through Tanim’s opaque yet insubstantial form. If Daren’s mind had conjured the young man standing before him the delusion was certainly convincing, right down to the unsettling weight of Tanim’s gaze. Daren almost said I was ignoring you, or trying to at least. You’re a fucking ghost. You shouldn’t even be possible, but instead he countered with the first question that came to mind.
“Why did you do it?”
Tanim tilted his head back, providing Daren a perfect view of the bruise hugging his pale throat, and stared up into the rafters as if searching for the rope long molded away. “I was afraid,” he replied, dropping his gaze back down. “And ashamed. It was the only way out. I was supposed to be free.” There was no trace of fear or shame in Tanim’s voice now despite his heartbreaking words. Daren wondered if the specter even felt those emotions anymore or if he simply remembered the words for a sensation long forgotten. Maybe words and places were all you had left to cling to when you were dead and trapped in this earthly purgatory. He hoped he never found out for himself.
“What were you ashamed of?” Daren tried to focus on Tanim’s eerie eyes but his own kept wandering to the bruise. As if sensing Daren’s discomfort, though surely he was unable to read such subtle human cues now, Tanim averted his gaze enough to hide the mark of his mistake. “I wanted something I should not want.”
The ghost didn’t need to elaborate. Although Tanim’s eyes held no light and his voice no emotion, enough of a last vestige of humanity lingered for Daren to interpret the expression on his face. He’d seen it on his own enough times in the past, after all, especially in the beginning. He thought about saying things were better for their kind now, but what good would that do Tanim? He couldn’t even leave the house, let alone settle down in a committed relationship. If Tanim did fall in love it would have to be with someone inside these walls, and right now the only person who qualified was— oh no. Daren refused to go there. “So you…” He gestured around the dim attic, failing to summon the right words, “…did this. And you’ve been here ever since.”
“Mother wouldn’t stop sobbing,” The corners of Tanim’s mouth twitched but never pulled into the grimace Daren suspected he meant to display. “Father had to have the doctor come every morning for three days to dose her. They took my sisters and left our home after that, but I don’t know where they went. They never came back.”
With the loss of his own parents still so raw, so painful, Daren couldn’t ignore the comment. Phantom or no, Tanim didn’t deserve the years of isolation spent in this empty house while the people and world he loved passed away. Daren closed the few feet between them and reached out to touch Tanim’s hand in hopes the contact might provide some comfort. Unlike the dust motes, his fingers didn’t pass through; the skin they touched was as real as his own, albeit cooler, and beneath that skin solid bones shifted as Tanim turned his hand over. “Are you alone like me, Daren?” the specter asked softly. Before Daren could draw back, Tanim wrapped his hand around the living man’s wrist in a grip firm yet not entirely unpleasant. This time a small smile did draw up his lips as he brushed his thumb over Daren’s palm and murmured in wonder, “You’re so warm. I had forgotten what it felt like.”
“Oh, fuck,” Daren yanked his hand away with a strangled curse. Maybe Tanim didn’t have a heartbeat anymore but his raced at the touch, blood surging at the sound of his own name spoken in that low silky voice, and for all the wrong reasons. He’s a ghost. He’s a ghost, he’s a ghost, he’s a ghost. He’s a goddamn ghost. This is insane. He backed up blindly, throat too choked to even mutter an excuse or farewell, and turned when his heel slid over the lip of the first stair. He nearly slipped as he stumbled weak-legged down the attic steps but Daren’s mind wasn’t on physical safety, just on getting away from those staring eyes. Tanim could seek him out anywhere in the house, of course, but there was something so disorienting about the attic that Daren knew he wouldn’t go back up there willingly. He’d stay downstairs and pretend the 3 AM sounds were nothing more than a creaky old house.
A creaky old house haunted by a painfully attractive ghost.
[ This story is a continuation/fragment of a story originally written by my friend Stacy. The original one-shot is soooooo good you should definitely check it out – at least, if you want to see how this turns out. I included links to the companion pieces as well. ]
If Daren concentrated, he could just make out a faint smudge under Tanim’s chin, a line that disappeared into his hair… (The original one-shot by Stacy)
Tanim waited. He was good at waiting. He’d been waiting a long time, after all… (An added “ending”, also written by Stacy)
Daren’s heart lurched in a thud eerily reminiscent of the mysterious thunk from the attic – or, he realized with a sudden sick understanding, like the sound of a chair being kicked over… (A piece written by me that takes place earlier than any of the other stories)
“You left,” It was almost an accusation, nearly a plea, but as usual the words fell dull from Tanim’s lips. (Daren finally makes his decision, for better or worse)
When I was born God took one look at me, said “This one’s yours,” and handed me over to the Devil. God’s a practical deity and, despite popular opinion, won’t bother wasting his time on a lost cause. Of course, the Devil took one look at me, said “Nope, too much trouble,” and I’ve been on my own ever since.
We don’t fuck tonight, or even touch. There’s a gap between us in bed that our bodies can’t seem to warm and a silence I’m unwilling to break first. I’m lying on my back when Daren finally speaks, his own turned to me so his voice sounds softer than usual.
“I wouldn’t stop you,”
“Stop me?” I’m not sure I want to know what he means but the question comes out before I can think of something better to say. “From leaving,” he supplies. “If you left, I wouldn’t stop you.”
“This is my apartment,” I point out, hoping a little sarcasm can shift the conversation away from what promises to be a wearying discussion. But, “You know what I mean,” Daren sighs, unwilling to honor my attempt at levity. The mattress shifts as he rolls onto his back and whether he means it to or not, his arm comes to rest in the space between our bodies. I resist the urge to trace those fine bones with my fingers as he continues in that flat, steady voice of his, “You can end this any time, Tanim. It’s okay. I’ll honor your choice.”
Okay? It’s okay for me to leave him? It’s okay to abandon this fragile life we’ve forged together simply because things get tough? The thought of returning to the lonely, empty life I barely endured before we met twists my stomach in knots, to say nothing of what Daren would do if he was suddenly on his own again. I’m not sure Daren wants to be touched but I at least need the comfort of warm skin against mine so I lay my hand over his and swear, “You know I wouldn’t. I won’t ever leave you. Why would you even say that?”
“It’s a way out,” he explains, fingers motionless beneath my touch, “that’s all. An easy escape. If the time comes,” though I know he means when the time comes, “just end things. I’ll understand. Don’t feel you have to stay on my account.” Daren’s asking me – no, telling me – to get out before it’s too late to spare myself the heartache. He talks as if I’m only here out of pity or some twisted sense of obligation, as if my love is restricted by caveats and qualifiers. The insinuation would hurt if I thought he actually believed me capable of such disloyalty; instead, it hurts only because it shows how little faith he has in himself.
Fuck this evasive, passive talk. I loop my arms around Daren and drag him into a too tight embrace as I both promise and threaten, “You’re stuck with me, darling. Get used to it.” I expect Daren to twist away at this brazen invasion of his personal space but instead he buries his face against my chest. “I’ll keep pushing,” he mutters, fingers clutching at my body in counterpoint to the feeble warning. “Don’t worry,” I reassure the man I have sworn myself to a hundred times, and would gladly swear so another thousand, “I’m stubborn.” Though it may be my imagination, I think I can feel the curve of a bittersweet smile on Daren’s lips as he replies, “I know you are.”
Sometimes I suspect I use my hunger for touch and submission like a lightning rod, that without such an easy target I would merely find some other reason to condemn myself. It’s like an impulse to find flaws and faults, to punish, to play the martyr, and even before I commit the sin I’m already paying penance. Maybe that’s just who I am – who I’ll always be. Like those people who can’t control the urge to pick at their skin until they bleed, or rip at their hair until it tears off in clumps, I can’t seem to stop scratching at my heart and soul and psyche until I’m shredded inside. It’s not enough to bleed from a single wound; once one weeps blood and rot I move on to dig open another, desperate to keep my fingers busy so they won’t reach instead for a bottle or a pill or the heat of a stranger’s flesh.
Sometimes I think the universe is like a river and if I wait long enough on its banks everything I need will come floating past: an almost-like-new flat screen to replace my ancient beast, a free crockpot bigger and fancier than the one I broke in the sink, two perfectly serviceable bar chairs when everyone’s been complaining I don’t have enough seating in my apartment. Part of me figures I can do the same with you as well, that passive patience will trump active perseverance and if I wait, eventually you too will one day come floating down and I can scoop you like a leaf out of the water. That’s not how it works, of course, and another part of me, the part I really only listen to in the dead of night, knows that. Sure, you may be somewhere in that river, but I’ll never catch you by lingering on the shore. I’d have to wade into those dark depths, risk that unpredictable current, brave the long, cold swim that may never have an end. Yet once I submerge myself, can I ever climb back out? Or will I become another bit of flotsam carried along to some far, unknown destination? I’m not sure I’m ready to take that plunge. The shore is familiar, safe, predictable, and you know I’ve never been the adventurous type. For now I’ll remain on the bank and keep tossing my note-filled bottles into the waves, hoping somehow they’ll find their way to you. And maybe if I’m feeling bold I’ll dip my toes in the water.
“How do they fit?”
There was a long pause before a stilted voice replied from behind the dressing room door, “…Perfectly.”
“Good,” Tanim shifted in his seat and stifled the urge to request Daren model the clothing for him. “What about the sweater? The cashmere one?”
This second pause preceded a sigh of barely veiled frustration. “Stop. Stop, this is too much.”
“What are you talking about?” Tanim rose and opened the unlatched door. He found Daren leaning back against the dressing room’s tall mirror, a scowl on his lips and a gorgeous pair of creased black slacks hanging unbuttoned around his hips. “I don’t deserve all this; it makes me uncomfortable,” the man muttered as he stared at the expensive clothes piled haphazardly on a chair. Crossing his arms over his bare chest, he added, “The clothes I have now are just fine.”
“Oh lovely,” Tanim shook his head and favored Daren with a fond smile. “Of course they’re not, and of course you do. This and more.” Risking retaliation from his companion’s black mood, Tanim came forward and looped his arms loosely around Daren’s waist, burying his face against the curve of his neck. “Daren, you took me out of the darkness,” Tanim murmured into the familiar warm skin. “There’s no possible way I can ever completely repay you for that. Let me do these small things for you, at least. It makes me happy to dote on you when I can.”
Daren’s chest rose and fell as he inhaled, exhaled a sigh and relaxed. “I’d rather have you, not things,” he countered, though his voice had lost its argumentative edge. Sensing the change, Tanim let his hands slide along the younger man’s hips to toy with the unfastened slacks and inquired with a sly smile, “Why can’t you have both?”
“You just can’t control yourself, can you,” Daren shoved Tanim back playfully, rolling his eyes in mock disgust. “Get out of here so I can dress, you beast.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll put this back and meet you up front,” Tanim snatched the soft silver sweater from the pile and headed out the dressing room door. Daren may not care if he wore the finest cashmere or the hand-me-downs Tanim had scrounged out of the closet when Daren came to live with him, only the shirt on his back to his name, but Tanim did. His lover deserved to be lavished with gifts of gold and silk and velvet; and besides, the silver would look gorgeous beneath those stark black eyes.
“I know what you’re doing!” Daren called from behind the door as Tanim made his exit, and he had to hurry his pace to reach the service counter before the man could catch up.
Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to Tanim. I liked him; he was one of our better regulars, always smiled and tipped well, and he never tried to look down my shirt when I bent to refill his coffee. During slow afternoons we servers would make up stories about the people who came into the shop. I wanted to think Tanim worked for some government agency or something, partly because he’d come in at all hours and partly because he seemed so mysterious. He always came alone, after all, and he didn’t have a wedding ring or anything, and never met anyone at the café. The truth was probably a lot more depressing, of course, but I preferred to imagine he was a secret agent on break from spying on bad guys.
All that changed when he met that other one, the man with the gaunt face and odd white hair. He’d been coming to the café for a while and none of us really liked him. To be honest, he gave me the creeps. He spoke as little as possible, even when ordering the same plain black coffee every time, and he sat as far away from the other patrons as space allowed. It seemed like he hated being there, or maybe just hated being around people in general, but then why come at all? There was just something off about him, we all agreed on that, and not just because he looked like a ghost. But somewhere down the line Tanim got it in his head to make friends with the man and I watched him spend weeks trying to break his way into that closed off world. It took him a while but he managed it eventually, God knows how, and they started up a sort of friendship. They were an odd couple but I guess it worked for them well enough. It was nice to see Tanim with someone for once, though it didn’t make his new friend any more likeable to us.
And then one day they were both gone. That quiet one disappeared first and for a while I thought Tanim would just keep waiting for him like some puppy that’s been abandoned but doesn’t realize it yet, forlorn and stubbornly hopeful at the same time. But then one day he stopped coming too, and I haven’t seen either of them since. I don’t know if Tanim eventually gave up and moved on or if perhaps they reunited somewhere down the line. Part of me hopes not, just because I distrusted that strange man and would’ve liked Tanim to find someone else, but then I remember Tanim’s face when they were together and I can’t wish that loss on him. Wherever he is, I hope he’s happy.
[ An experiment. Don’t love it, but oh well. ]