Author: Guede Mazaka
It is something to face the sun and know you are free.
* * *
Paul is old, and maybe by now he’s got some wisdom but he can’t tell you much about it when he’s sober. Yeah, he makes cracks and rips to shreds the pride of the upstart bastards who think they can out-youth him in the arena, but that’s not wisdom and he knows it. That’s smarts. That’s sarcasm. That’s fucking style, and God, a guy knows he’s getting old when he comes to rely on style.
He’s got bitterness. That he has in spades.
It’s like an old friend nowadays. An old, nasty, stain-shaped cloud that sits to the righthand side always and never leaves him be, a nemesis he’s come to know better than any so-called love. Time was, he railed against it. Cursed it and ran from it and fought it till one night he came to, fist bloody from the doorframe and bottle smashed on the floor, and realized he was fighting a fucking shadow. Not only that—fighting his shadow. After that, he got to know it better. Got used to it.
After he met the twins, he missed it. They were bright and cocksure and there were no shadows from them because they vanquished them all. If darkness came near them, it was brought by others. If it touched them, it left no mark but instead rebounded to tarnish Paul’s brass-cheap gilding. Yeah, he missed the safe secure hand-holding of his bitterness, but at the same time he was grateful for a chance to live without it. Because they were so goddamned brilliant, and sure, and clear-minded unlike himself.
He hasn’t seen them personally in a long, long time. And in that time, his old pal’s come sidling back and now he’s almost glad because shadows can be their own light and in them he can see things to which they blinded him.
It’s ‘almost’ because Jesus, Paul doesn’t dream or believe or have faith, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel the lack. They gave him something. Even if it is false, even if he’s turned out to be the old fool suckered in for a ride, for a little while it was real. It looked real.
Paul’s old, and not wise with it.
* * *
St. Louis. One policeman dead. One phone call—Murphy desperately trying to explain. Paul buys it, forgives them even as his stomach gnaws on itself the same way it had when Il Duce had tipped up the chin of that girl in the courtroom.
She spiraled into a depression and slit her wrists three weeks later. Paul didn’t mention it then. He doesn’t mention it now.
What he does, boyos, is take home some genuine Irish whiskey and work up to a howling hangover in the morning. In the afternoon, he’s pulling the files for a New Orléans crime boss who’s got too damn many lawyers and he sees the picture of the man’s family included and he rips a fucking long tear in his hand. It’s only a paper cut, but it drips blood over the faces of the man’s little girls.
* * *
Louisiana swamp, with Connor in the background cursing the mosquitoes. Murphy’s explaining about the ambush and the crossfire and Holy Mary, did Smecker know if she was okay.
“About as okay as the other girl your daddy touched,” Paul snaps.
That launches Murphy into a long diatribe about their sainted father and fucking pedophiles, and Paul discovers to his surprise that he’s just fucking angry. He’s not sick—he’s angry.
He says so. He says why. He hangs up before he can figure out whether Murphy’s choking from rage or from being about to puke all over the phone booth. The thing about idols are that they’re so bright, and so marvelous, and so damned what Paul isn’t. Not a good thing to be when they’re too far away to keep dazzling him and he’s got time to work up jealousy and frustration. And when he’s got time to think.
This time, he wakes up at home sprawled in the midst of his law books. They’re lying all over, wide-open like so many flayed bodies to show their white guts, and sprinkled all over them are notes. Big sheets of paper, little scraps, and they’re covered in writing. Federal laws, local ones…Paul’s taken more notes in his drunken stupor than he ever did in his entire academic career.
At the very end, he gets to the Bible that he’d forgotten he had. There’re no notes stuck in it. Because that’s where he finally passed out, he figures.
* * *
Later he’ll do an unauthorized track on his own phone and figure out the call came from California. But for the moment, Paul sits on his couch and yanks out his tie and listens to the phone ring and ring and ring. He knows who it is. No one else calls at this hour.
Well, the evening news is on and flashing through it is the face of a man he’d known, a dull but good man, and a dead man. He knows who the killer—killers are, too, and they can go fuck themselves. They can call someone else, get someone else that’s got the faith and stop bothering with a raddled queer who can’t stop thinking and rethinking the right and wrong of it. Who can flaunt a wayward sexuality in a straight-arrow world but who cannot straddle black and white without touching the gray.
Fuck them and their pretty asses. It was all a really fucking bad mid-life crisis. He’d been thinking with his prick and not his brain, and even worse, he’d been doing it without a hope of payback. Just call him a besotted jackass and be done with it.
When the phone stops ringing, Paul turns to the shadow next to him and says, “Well, are you happy now? So much for your competition.”
Maybe he’s already drunk, but he can still tell he’s lying.
* * *
Now that they don’t call anymore, Paul doesn’t have quite the preternatural predictive powers he used to, but he’s still better than anyone else at guessing where the Saints will jump. God, he hates that nickname. It sticks in his throat and makes him cough up all the memories that proves they were only men after all. Which he fucking knows and of which he doesn’t need a reminder.
He’s good enough at guessing, and also at repressing, that it takes him a month and a half to realize he’s unconsciously holding back. The map in his office is a half-step behind his real prediction.
Instead of moving the markers, he sets up another map at home. At night he stares at the needles and imagines that they stick in the pulse-lines of a human body so the pain ebbs and flows with every heartbeat.
It’s not possible to be disillusioned when you had no illusions to begin with. But then, the twins have worked more than one miraculous curse on Paul’s life.
What he does when he’s imagining the needles and how they stab is pressing his hand over his chest, stomach, thighs. Digging his nails into the pulses so it hurts and he gasps, feeling the way the pain mounts and mounts till the map is spinning before his eyes and he’s crying out, grasping for a handhold. But when he comes to, what is there but his limp come-smeared dick in his limp fingers and two fucking men fading from his memory?
He wishes they’d stay. He wishes they’d leave faster. He wishes there’d just be a fucking end, God.
* * *
There is a fucking end. It comes after a wavering, broken trail of bloody dashes that come from the balcony into Paul’s apartment and stop at his bathroom. When he turns Murphy over, the other man has blood bubbling from his mouth and can’t focus his eyes. But he’s still lively enough to curse Paul for moving him, and to curse him again when he suggests a hospital, a doctor, a—
“Fuck, no. Fuck.” Murphy’s head falls back and his eyes roll to pure white.
He’s not dead, only passed out. So he doesn’t see the mess Paul makes of the kitchen. Or the way Paul stops halfway through to put his hands on his face and draw in a wretched breath because even rudimentary medicine can make a verdict on this. Maybe, if there were the best doctors and equipment in the world…
…but there’s not, and even if there was, it’d only be preparing him for death behind gray bars later. Which should be what Paul wants, and which was what he’d almost convinced himself he could accept, but now with the broken body of his idealistic self before him, he can’t do it.
Paul blinks. The world clears to show Murphy’s face instead. Not that it changes anything.
The best Paul can do is tidying up, really. Making it cleaner for the funeral director later, or whoever’ll be in charge of that.
Murphy wakes up in the morning. First thing he apparently sees is Paul, which has to be disappointing. He’s very pale, and very weak, and when he grins he shows ghosts of teeth against bloodless lips. “Sorry about the floor.”
“What the hell happened to you? What are you doing here?” Paul asks. He’s spent the night scrubbing the floors, and now when he looks down he can see dull brownish stuff around his nails and beneath them. A few lines from MacBeth come to mind, and it would figure that he’d identify with the Lady most.
“Fucked up. I couldn’t go to Connor and there was no one else left.” Then Murphy shifts. His face twists and when he’s settled back in place, it doesn’t quite untwist. He’s dying.
He knows it without Paul telling him.
Instead he does his own telling, voice thready and weak but insistent as a pebble in a shoe. The end’s hours away and Murphy wants to get everything off his chest. He talks about where they’ve been, who they killed, who he wishes they hadn’t killed. He fixes Paul with eyes that grow brighter by the second and he tells about getting to know his Da through his Ma’s words, about getting to know him for real. At one point he drifts off into babbling about Ireland and pranking the priests, but soon he gets back on track and he talks about how it went wrong. How his stomach wouldn’t keep food down and his eyes would see the faces of the dead—the wrong dead, the dead they’d judged wrong—and how Da wouldn’t hear any of it.
Maybe Paul looks like a priest. His shirt is stained dark except for his collar, and maybe to Murphy’s failing eyes it looks like a black cassock with the white collar. Or maybe Murphy can see fucking fine and it just seems that Paul fits better than someone who’s stepped back from earthly temptation before it could step forward.
Murphy gets to his brother, and then the words come fast and furious and desperate because he’s sinking like a stone. He tells everything. He tells about love and sin, about thinking with two minds and hurting with one heart. He must be half-delirious now because he talks about Connor’s thighs and cock the way guys in a locker room crow over their favorite whores. But then he also talks about Connor’s words: comforting and scathing and, at the very last, renouncing.
At the end, Paul finds himself leaning so close to Murphy that he can smell the stale death wafting from Murphy’s cracked lips. He’s holding Murphy’s wrist—he remembers it was to check the pulse but now he’s gripping it too damn hard to feel that.
“Got no reason to make you do it, but take care of him,” Murphy whispers.
Paul chokes on grief and fury. It takes him a moment to clear his throat before, staring blurry-eyed at the blanket, he can say, “You selfish manipulative little shit.”
Then he looks up, and he shouldn’t feel guilty because obviously Murphy hadn’t had enough time to go out of the world hearing nothing but hatred. But he does anyway.
* * *
But there’s another end. Because there’s two, fucking two, and they can’t do anything clean but have to drag it out. And Paul can’t let anything go clean, but has to let it drag out.
He’s still smelling Murphy’s blood on his hands when Connor shows up. Connor doesn’t say a word, but instead just punches Paul. The skin beneath Connor’s eyes is puffy and haggard in a way that only comes from days and days.
It puffs up even more, a violent blue-black, once Paul’s regained his balance. Paul is a fool, and not wise, but he’s sober this time and he dances away from the next one. He’s old, and so he can stand back to watch Connor fall on his hands and knees and sob, and he can do that while thinking wearily, Jesus Christ, and nothing else.
After they’ve both got icepacks—Paul had to jerk up Connor’s hand to make him hold it—Paul takes him to the cemetery. There’s a lot of conversation he could make on the way. He could ask for confirmation of what Murphy had said, he could bitch about the difficulty of arranging a funeral for a FBI Most Wanted man, he could ask if that goddamned father of theirs was going to show up next.
Paul keeps his mouth shut. Maybe, after so many years, he’s learned something about kindness.
Or maybe, he thinks while watching Connor kneel bareheaded to the marker, he’s afraid of the cold freeze in his gut and the hot confusion in his head. If he opened his mouth, he might never be able to shut it. And he’s tired. Tired of fighting, of analyzing, of dying amid unresolvable chaos.
He smokes a cigarette to give his hands something to do. But even through the cigarette smoke, he can smell Murphy’s blood.
* * *
There’s a weight sinking down the side of Paul’s bed and then there’s a tongue licking at his hands, a mouth sucking on his nails. He thinks he’s dreaming at first, but the hand on his crotch says not and he rips off the sheets. Asks Connor what the fuck he’s doing and gets mauled to the fucking floor in reply.
They’re up and stumbling, fighting while their clothes shed and their skin rasps and tears, chewing into each other with all that they can’t say. Connor hangs onto Paul with shockingly small fingertips that are like hooks, that seem to haul Paul to his feet and slam him into the other man. Only really it’s Connor falling into the wall, and Paul pushing him there, and Paul’s teeth sunk deep into Connor’s shoulder.
He pushes his hand into Connor’s mouth and keeps it there. While he’s viciously rubbing their cocks together, while he’s shoving his fingers into that fucking ass that yes, he’s wanted for so long, while he’s stretching it with his prick till Connor gasps, chokes. But at no time does Conner let Paul’s fingers slide away. He sucks them, wraps his tongue around them, treats them with an intense gentleness that is the brutal counterpoint to their rough fucking. Paul nearly breaks Connor’s jaw because goddamn it, he can’t hold up Connor’s legs and crook his arm like that and forget whose body his cock is in all at the same time.
Connor throws his arm around Paul’s shoulders and his leg around Paul’s waist. Uses the leverage to push down, to welcome the hard thrusts, to hiss and gasp and yowl around the fingers in his mouth. He’s a grey thing, a pale grey shape shaded with dark blues against the wall, and his eyes are closed and he never hurts Paul’s fingers. Even when he comes and his body rattles, his nails slice flagellation marks into Paul’s back and his knee crushes Paul’s ribs on one side. He never bites down.
* * *
Silence is the rule. They walk around each other in silence, they fuck in silence, they sleep curled together in silence.
Once Paul sits down with whiskey and starts to get drunk, but Connor takes away the bottle and gets down on his knees and sucks him off instead. He ends up fucking Connor over the couch, splaying his fingers over the gunshot scars and the bruises that muddy Connor’s skin, and he comes with his teeth in Connor’s shoulder because he doesn’t want to know what he cries out.
That time, he breaks the silence and he talks about how Murphy ended up in his apartment, and what Murphy’s last words had been. And that time, Connor turns to look at Paul with eyes like wet rot and says: “Then you’d better. He’s gone.”
To which Paul says: “Fuck you, you goddamned sanctimonious assholes. Why the fuck should I give a shit about you? You ruined my life.”
The guilt sits heavy in him for that too, because it wasn’t only them but him as well with his fucking uncrushed hope for a beautiful, simple, righteous solution to the world’s ills. To his longing for certainty, which only came with unquestioning faith.
But it doesn’t mean a fucking thing to Connor. The other man turns away and Paul can see his words had about as much effect as when he’d been cursing over Murphy’s body.
Connor’s a corpse now. He’s still breathing, but he’s deader than the grinning skeletons hanging in the medical schools.
* * *
Murphy had a gun with him. It’s been cleaned and polished and now it sits on Paul’s desk. He’s caught Connor looking at it more than once. But when he loses his temper and asks why the fuck the other man doesn’t, what’s he waiting for, Connor just looks at him like he’s an idiot.
And when, having collected his temper and exchanged it for sick fear, Paul asks if it’s because suicide is a sin, Connor nods. Paul rolls his eyes, but it’s a parody of his old atheist scoffing. “Don’t tell me you’ve still got faith.”
Which is when Connor speaks for the second time. “I don’t take chances with Murphy.”
“You fucking well did before when you went on your justice joyride.” No, it’s not how Paul wants to talk, but it’s the only way he’s ever learned and it comes too easy to him to make it stop. The truth is in his face, burning in his eyes, but Connor doesn’t really see anything now.
Paul sees only them.
* * *
Connor comes docilely. He goes to his knees before Murphy’s marker, hands edging the stone and head bowed so his darkish blond hair is all Paul sees. It’s cold out, and the wind is bitter so soon Connor’s hands are violent red. Much longer and they’ll turn dead blue and black to match how he is inside.
When Paul bends down, he sees that Connor’s lips are moving, but no sound is coming out.
Paul stands back up, takes the safety off the gun, and puts it to Connor’s temple.
In the movies there’s always a flock of pigeons to take off, sudden and scared. Crock of romantic shit that they are. In truth, there’s nothing but a leafless tree on the edge of Paul’s vision and other than that, he’s alone. He’s cold, and he’s got something wet freezing to his face, and he’s finally back to equilibrium. Nothing but bitter.
He leaves the gun in Connor’s hand. Later he thinks back, and he realizes how he carefully planned it to look like a suicide, but at the time all he’d thought about was that it’d been Murphy’s gun so let his brother take it to him. God knew Paul didn’t want anything left of them in his life.
* * *
He’d been in love.
Paul retired and went to Ireland where he stood on a hill and watched their mother chase some skinny fuck down a dirt road. He submerged himself in a Mass while across the ocean, his former colleagues cornered their father and took him out in a blazing firefight that left five agents dead and two paralyzed to various degrees. And one sunny day, he looked around and could not find the shadow of bitterness, no matter how hard he tried.
He is old now, and no fool because he can look at his train ticket that’s the first step to going back to America and trying to start a life after them, and he can laugh to himself. And he can say, very quietly, “I was in love. God, what an idiot.”
Just before he walks straight forward and ignores the shouting and steps straight off the platform as the train is rushing in.
They’re gone, and despite all their flaws and nicks and tarnishes, who’s left?