Author: Guede Mazaka
Sometimes when driving at night, especially through long deserted stretches of countryside with only the headlights’ bitter back-blinding gleam for company, the darkness can play tricks on the eyes. The strangest things will reflect, refract, fragment the headbeams back into the windshield and briefly illuminate things that aren’t there. Or shouldn’t be there.
Maybe it’s an explanation.
* * *
Will had called Helen as a sort of farewell; he’d known what he was going to do, somewhere in the knot of his gut, and that knowledge had spread throughout him till it had weighed him down into his course of action. And after taking that one step, taking that look in the mirror and changing it and still being able to look at it, he knew they’d never see each other again. Not in any way that would allow for honesty, or lies, or any implication of a connection. But he had loved her, once upon a life, so this time he remembered to give her notice.
The car crested a low hill to shine hard yellow light down on a road sign; Will flinched from the sudden glare and squinted, glancing in the rearview mirror in passing.
He jerked out of his leaden fatigue and looked back, hand easing across his chest into the gun nestling so softly against his side. But there was no need for it, because there was no one in the backseat. There was no one but him and his memories, the newest of which was a pair of brilliant green flashes.
Three years had accustomed him to that kind of company, and he soon fell into that old habit. Will drove on and drove, letting the winds and the eerie high music he’d discovered in them guide him, as much as he could be guided. As much of him that was left to be guided.
The gas tank had only emptied by a quarter. He could stop and pull into the little town proclaimed by the sign, or he could go forward and chase that distant crashing whisper until his gas ran out.
In the end, he did neither; the fluttering creep of exhaustion overtook him and his instincts steered the car to a safe stop by the side of the road. Possibly something might happen—the landscape had the look of anything—but Will didn’t care. If it did and he died, then it did and he died. If it didn’t and he lived…there was enough gas for another day of driving.
* * *
On the second day, things were not so peaceful. His skin itched, partly from lack of a shower, partly from lack of direction. His fingers relearned how to tap on the wheel and his blood would occasionally surge roaring into his ears, and then the gun beneath his arm would seem to warm with it till the metal burned through his shirt. He would look in the rearview mirror not to check for anything, because there was nothing, but to look because he needed to. Because he needed to pretend that he was still in the city where there was always something or someone behind and where life was a snarling, snapping flourish of nothing and where he wanted that nothing so badly he could almost imagine its taste.
The truth was something he’d found in the woods, and it was something he had tried to drown himself in, but a man didn’t forget to breathe that easily.
Will breathed. He had to unclench his teeth to do it, and then he tasted blood, licked it from his lip. When he checked in the mirror, his sight twinned and he saw someone checking him back. But once again, the car had no one but him.
Five miles later he drove himself into a small, surly town and rented a room just long enough to wash, shave and feed himself. His suit, strangely enough, was still unwrinkled and free of any smells such as sweat or pain or blood or death. The old garments slipped back on like the way water used to pour over his skin, smooth and soft and silken in their enclosure. For a moment, he couldn’t remember why that was something he should dread.
When he was closing the door, a breeze graced his face and turned it towards his car. Some dark thing was sprawled in the front seat, vicious lazy eyes as verdant as the surrounding countryside fixed on him. He thought he saw a pale hand lift—
--in narrowing his eyes, Will went too far and blinked. Then he no longer saw anything. The parking lot was bare, open space with nowhere to hide, and walking around the car showed only absence.
Frowning, he lingered outside a little longer and stared through the windows till his eyes dried and burned in his skull, watching the scene of so many happier worse times. When he had had no worries and less sense, and when he couldn’t see more than one side of the mirror. Once upon a time, he’d thought he’d be content with only that.
A vague shimmer, like heat rising off tarmac in the summer, wisped before him in the shape of a man’s sloping shoulders. Though it made his strained eyes waver his sight and throb in his skull, Will forced himself to keep staring.
The smoke, if it was smoke, thickened a fraction.
Except everything had been nothing, in the end. He’d thought he was something and had paid for it over and over in blood and bullets and loss, but in the end all he’d been was nothing. All he had done was throw bits of himself down a dark hole and fool himself into thinking it was something to cheer about, right up until the moment he had looked in the mirror and wondered just what kind of man was staring back at him.
Still unblinking, Will walked forward and pulled open the door. He ducked inside, waving at the traces, and his hand slid through a patch of air that was much thicker than the rest. It was like touching the bending curve of a woman’s waist as she swayed under the music, but only for a second.
Knowing he was nothing didn’t make him feel any happier than when he hadn’t known, but it made him better. Had made him better. Now he also knew that it was possible to be nothing and still pretend to be something, that he was somehow capable of working past that devastating realization and functioning according to a world he’d thought long past him. So he couldn’t walk or drive away. As far as he ran, as much as he distanced himself, coming back would be just like splashing a bit of water on the face. And if that was so, then he wasn’t really away, after all.
Will started the car and drove off, ignoring the dark shadows gathering in his car, taking shelter from the pale sunlight.
* * *
On the third morning, he gave in to the swing of the pendulum and stopped for a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes. Three years without a smoke or a drink, and liquid fire on his tongue and acrid ashes searing down his lungs made him feel more human than in all that time. He’d never be able to lose himself in the sound of the ocean again—he’d found that out the night after, but he’d hoped leaving the city might bring it back—but with this distance, he could wonder briefly whether not losing himself might be tolerable. He was remembering what it was like to be comfortable. Blissful. Instead of truthful and hollow.
He went back to the car and laid his hand on the door-handle, blowing out a thin stream of smoke as he did. And when he opened the door, a man with his face and body was slouched facing him, smiling like a lie.
“You’re not here,” Will told him. “You’re just like all the other flashes.”
“Am I?” The man was wearing a black suit over a dark blue shirt, hems and cuffs shading into each other so he was one elongated bruise stretched over the seat. “Were the other flashes false?”
Will put the cigarette to his lips and inhaled, succumbing to the burn like a baby to mother’s milk. It’d been so long that the nicotine and alcohol kneecapped his reason, left him half-dreaming and relaxed and not at all disturbed by the return of this. Not shocked alive like when Davey had been not-there in the bus station, not horrified into the inevitability of anger like when the bath had been not-pouring red. Just…smoking. Savoring the warm acid of the whiskey. Feeding himself barely enough to keep the cravings at bay, not thinking about how they’d only just woken and how he wouldn’t be able to make them sleep again.
He put his head into the car, stowed the capped whiskey bottle in the glove compartment. His hand had to brush between the man’s side and outstretched arm to do it, feeling the slight roughness of quality fabric and the distant warmth of body within the sleeve. “No. But you’re not here. None of them were there, whether or not they were true.”
When Will made to get behind the wheel, the man failed to move. With a sigh, he slid a hand beneath the man’s feet and lifted them only to unceremoniously drop them onto the floor. That provoked another smile—harder, brighter.
“You are a difficult one.” Will’s cigarette whisked from his lips to the man’s, and the man languidly moved to re-accommodate his sprawl in the lesser space. “You realize you actually touched me.”
That didn’t mean anything. Sometimes Will would roll over in the middle of the night and think he’d touched something, sometimes it would happen near the edge of white-hot exhaustion after nearly twenty-four hours’ hard labor—it never turned out to be real. At least, not for long.
“And you’re not even the slightest bit curious about why I look like you?” Gray raveling string coiled about the man’s head; his eyes were chips of enamel flicking to look at Will through it. He sighed, dragged on the cigarette and blew out another string to join the first. “Well, I am. Why not Helen? Or at least someone with breasts?”
“I don’t decide what to see.” After closing the door, Will got himself another cigarette and lit up. Then he reached over to open the ashtray, but in doing so he noticed that the man’s cigarette had suddenly disappeared. And so had all the smoke circling his head.
His laugh was like Will’s had used to be: amused, careless, sharp at the edges lest one presume too much. But there were differences. For one, the man’s laugh was darker and spoke of the twisted borders of society that even Will had disdained. And his glance over somehow said that he not only knew what Will was thinking but was also contemptuous of it.
He flicked his fingers at Will’s cigarette, and suddenly there was smoky itch crawling down Will’s throat. “Don’t I have a right to be? But I suppose your opinion’s understandable. God knows what’s going on—maybe you’re dreaming and I’m not here. Maybe you’re hallucinating, like that one doctor told you.”
Will flinched and then hated himself for it.
The man raised an eyebrow, gleefully catching onto the lapse. “Oh, now you remember. Psychotic break, perhaps?”
“You want one?” With a cool deliberation he should no longer had possessed, Will put out his smoke in the tray. Then he lashed out and caught the clever bastard by both coat lapels, fisted them in one hand because that way it was harder for a man to slip out of his jacket and escape. Dragged the man across to throw him off-balance and to put him where Will could crush both his wrists beneath a knee.
“By the way, I’d like to give myself a name, if you don’t mind.” The man seemed completely unruffled. “If you’re not too busy pondering the possibility that this is merely a manifestation of how much you think you need to punish yourself.”
He had on a wide black tie, which provided a convenient handle for Will’s free hand. Will jerked it around his fingers and pulled till a dark band of red flush rose in the skin above the silk length. “Go ahead.”
Eyes rolling, voice only slightly choked, the man favored Will with a lascivious insouciance. “Shad—”
A slight twist of Will’s fingers wrenched the tie tight enough to provoke violent coughing. Triumphant, Will leaned in and breathed the tiny wet sounds of struggle coming from the man’s mouth. “I never was a fool, you know. You think I feel guilty? Enough to imagine myself having my neck wrung like a dog—” he pushed his thumb into the softness beneath the man’s chin, felt the gorge fighting against the suffocating pressure “—because it’s what I deserve?”
And disgusted in his victory, Will flung the man across the seat. He rubbed at his fingers where the tie had cut into his skin and watched a more considering personality loosened the noose around its neck. “I suppose Shad’s as good a name as any,” the man finally said, voice rasping but insolence unchanged. He even flicked the end of his tie at Will. “Possibly the scenario where you shot yourself after pulling over that first night would make more sense, given your…aggressiveness.”
“Shot…?” Something hurt in Will’s hand; he looked down to see that his fingers had wrapped around to snap his nails brutally into the hollow of his palm. He swallowed and tasted the re-rising of hot bile, felt the jangle of nerves start again and block out all hope of hearing anything in the silences.
“Shot yourself. With the gun still a trace warm from previous use. You did what you had to do for your brother—or rather, I should say you did what you needed to do, and then you decided that you couldn’t live with having to need something like that. So no, it’s not exactly guilt.” Shad shrugged, still crouched over himself, tenderly feeling his neck. For a moment, Will believed it was out of pain, but then he noticed how the corners of Shad’s mouth twitched upwards whenever his fingers pressed into the forming bruise. And even hunched in a defensive position, the man looked as if he were merely enjoying himself in a stretch. “So you pulled over, put the gun to your temple and pulled the trigger. Sound familiar?”
It was infuriatingly familiar—not the description Shad was painting so vividly for him, but the way Will’s muscles shifted, tensed into that ever-ready coil, the way he felt anticipation curling up to his anger like a cat to a stroking hand. “I bought food. Paid for a room. Showered.”
“Yes, an exceptionally mundane afterlife.” Pause. “Well. If this is an afterlife. You could always simply be stark raving mad.”
“It’s not that easy,” snarled from Will’s mouth, and again he was forcing Shad back against the seat, hand closing on that throat in an effort to shut its subversive cooing speech. “I—”
And then Shad did close his eyes, and did slowly, very slowly tilt his head up, moving very slightly against the tightness of Will’s grip. Into it. “You enjoy hurting yourself, don’t you? It’s not guilt, of course—you’re right there. No, your taste is for shame.”
Will wanted to break the man—thing—not-thing—wanted to squeeze and squeeze till what he was holding was unrecognizable. He wanted to flay the smile, the air of content from that face, he wanted to put out the eyes with their unnaturally penetrating gaze, he wanted to make—it—stop. And that was why he couldn’t move. Because if he destroyed, then—then he knew that satisfied look on Shad’s face would never disappear, and he knew he would enjoy it.
“But I’m getting ahead of myself,” Shad murmured, barely able to speak. “We still haven’t decided whether I exist or not.”
“You’ve got a name.” That meant something. Back in the before, Will had heard his name bruited about like it was something in its own right, a tiny but powerful presage of the main event. He’d taken pride in it. And then he’d tried to lose himself and no one had said his name unless he’d wanted them to, but even then he could hear fragments of it beating along his veins.
Names set things in place. Names released them, too, but only to another name.
A whisper drifted along Will’s arm. A finger, tracing its tip along the distended tendons and the clenching muscles of his hand, while Shad opened a sliver of each eye to watch him. “Yes. Thank you for that.”
“You aren’t me,” Will hissed, pressing the man further into the back of the seat. He slapped away Shad’s hand. It fell, and only then did he realize he’d been waiting for it to grab back, for then he would have an excuse. Then it would be defensible.
“Just what are you defending, anyway? Your old life was a life wasted, you told her. So what was your new one? Honestly, now—did it do anything that was less wasteful than before?” Every word Shad said was a particular set of sharp shakes and hard thumps of his Adam’s apple against the webbing between Will’s thumb and index finger, plus soft little rattles in between. They shivered, and he tried not to remember what that implied because he’d used to like that as well. “You weren’t anything before. And what were you when you were crawling around your trailer, skulking in the woods?”
Will could feel his skin begin to freeze. It turned hard and cold and thick around the seething rage that whirled ever higher, pounding against the walls of its dull cage. “Someone I could live with.”
“Of course, there’s a vast difference between someone you can live with and someone you want to live with.” Suddenly the nonchalance was gone, replaced by a sarcasm every bit as scathing and dark and infuriated as that which resided in Will. “You would have driven back into the city sooner or later,” Shad sneered. “Davey’s death or no, there would’ve been a good enough reason, eventually. And you would have gone. Letters drift to nothing, photos rot into yellow dust—and you would have still been the same man.”
Like ice, holding the bodies till the summer thawed them out. The bitterness rose from Will’s mouth to his nose, and he had to grit his teeth against the way it blistered every time he took a breath. Now those were coming shorter and faster, and his hands were beginning to tremble with effort. But what effort it was, he was afraid to find out.
Those eyes, so like and unlike his own, stared at him for a moment longer. Then Shad sighed, looked infinitely pitying—and hit Will. Lightly, knuckles against the front of Will’s shoulder, not moving him an inch. But it was enough of an excuse. He caught hold of the tie again and yanked Shad’s wrists up to meet it, knotting them in it so they hung just below the collarbone peeking out, smooth curve with a bit of silver lighting its lines. The first button had come off.
Furious and unsettled and resigned all at once, Will shoved the man away so Shad fell on his side, head hitting Will’s leg. Then he started the car and wheeled it hard onto the road so the world quickly blurred into something unrecognizable.
“And did that make you feel better? Being able to call it vengeance or defense or what-have-you?” Shad asked. He made no attempt to free himself, as he hadn’t before, and merely assaulted Will with eyes and voice.
The word was thick and ill-formed on Will’s tongue, like a clot. “No.”
His answer surprised Shad. But only into seeming more pleased; Shad pulled himself up to rub his cheek along Will’s thigh. “Good,” he purred.
* * *
The last time Will had been through this part of England had been mere days ago, but he had gone through in a hurry with eyes on something less tangible than the countryside. And before that, it had been three years and three years ago, he hadn’t had the right kind of vision to record whether that tree had been bent like a beggar searching a gutter, whether that house had always looked so blasted. Whether this road would lead him to somewhere he could find peace with himself.
“You didn’t find it out there, obviously. Since it wasn’t that hard to leave it. A bit of razor-work, a good hot iron, and voila! A man emerges from the shade.”
Shad laughed at Will’s glower and rolled over to smile at his bound wrists. He’d loosened the tie the little he could—not enough to slip it over his head—but otherwise hadn’t moved in the past few hours. Or spoken.
“Well, there was little worth commenting on,” Shad added. His fingers spread against the dark leather of the seat and traced swooping unreadable symbols. “Oh, watch the road, Will. You still think you’re alive, so let’s not wreck the car. And yes, I talk occasionally. You won’t say anything, so someone has to.”
Half a pack of butts now resided in the tray, and Will still felt an insistent craving twining around him, quietly but persistently pushing at him. He knotted his fingers around the wheel and stared out the windshield, not thinking about either the unfamiliarity of having a companion presence or about the near-full bottle of whiskey residing in the glove compartment. Drinking had never been more than a flavoring to his life, and that had been when he’d thought he’d needed flavoring to survive. He knew better than that now.
He knew he didn’t like surviving. Will set his teeth into each other and ignored it all.
“I’m curious—did you feel anything, seeing Helen again? Or was it all Davey, Davey, my old life that I should hate, Davey.” The voice would not be ignored. Neither would the man, who twisted about and pushed himself up on his elbows.
“Shouldn’t you know?” There was a clump of trees, a little hazed dot on the horizon. When Will reached it, then he could have a cigarette. No sooner, no later.
Warm, heavy pressure poured itself onto Will’s lap; tied hands and sore neck aside, Shad seemed to have no trouble moving. He slid his arms across Will’s thigh and turned another quarter so, chin against Will’s ribs, he was looking straight up at Will. “You’ve thought of her three times—when you left, when I mentioned her name, and when I mentioned her name. If we’re now subscribing to the theory that I’m a projection of your disturbed mind, then I can’t very well think of her when you aren’t, can I?”
Somehow one of Will’s hands unbound itself from the wheel and dropped to fist in Shad’s coat. He meant to pull the man off, but something flashed outside and distracted him, so it was only a tug. “Maybe you’re my unconscious, thinking what I don’t. I thought that that’s how it works.”
“Have you decided to play along, then? It’d certainly make for a less boring trip, so I hope so.” Shad did something with his hands and inadvertently tightened the tie around his neck. For a second, he choked and Will had to fight the urge to be pleased at that. But Shad still saw, and he was smiling again as he slid a finger beneath the silk. Ran it around to loosen the tie and pet himself at the same time.
Will looked out the window again and tried to remember how horrified and confused and enraged he’d felt at that doctor’s suggestions about Davey, at the psychologist’s careful, thoughtful, eviscerating explanations. But if he did that then he would lose the feeling of dullness, which was all that was protecting him from—
“It is rather interesting that you’re reacting to me more strongly than you did to her. Even when she showed up in your van—and you and I both know if you’d wanted to, you could have had her again. There. Then. Despite everything, including your less-than-appealing appearance.” Fingers brushed Will’s belt, then took their time about moving into view when he flinched. Almost pensively, Shad followed the faint outlines of Will’s stomach muscles with his nails. “Except you’ve made her part of that, part of the old life that must not be touched, so no go.”
“I am not a homosexual. Or bi.” The words came out with commendable calm and clarity. The blow went out with a fierce, overwhelming flash of sheer hatred that left Will shaking, bent over like a shading canopy while Shad jerked backward.
The man hit the wheel, lost his balance and dropped with a heavy thud. His hands and elbows hit painfully on Will’s shins and knees, and he nearly knocked Will’s foot off the gas. It must have yanked on the tie because Shad coughed and spasmed, making half-hearted clawing motions that rattled between Will’s legs like a pebble running down a corrugated-tin roof.
Struggling with the wheel and the car gave Will something to do that was mindless and mind-filling, so he didn’t notice till everything was steady again that Shad had not crawled away. Instead, he had tucked himself neatly between Will’s knees. Will realized there was a hand pressing against his fly just as his belt and zipper came open; he tried to throw himself back, but he only succeeded in stunning himself against the seat.
“Any way you look at this, it wouldn’t be having sex with a man. In the strict definition. So I wouldn’t worry if I were you,” Shad drawled. His gaze flicked up once to mock Will’s paralysis with its easy movement, and then his head was down and he was working at a limp prick that was suddenly taking an interest Will thought had died long before.
The screech got through first—a long fast burn that ripped across Will’s eardrums and left them ringing raw, opening his mouth wide so he could pant hard in a futile effort to give the pain somewhere to go. Then it was the pressure, bone-crushing so the temperature rose, and then it was the sheer intensity of the heat that melted his hands to the wheel and his feet to the floor and his head to the back of the seat.
He’d slammed down on the accelerator. The squeal was the wheels of the car taking off. The pressure was all his bones locking together at once, all his muscles shrinking tight like wet rawhide drying, all the particles of his mind collapsing into a dense pit. And the heat was a hungry mouth coaxing sparks from him, a tongue cradling and licking and teasing them into a leaping flame that burnt him out in the matter of seconds.
Shad backed off, absently running that instrument of insanity over his lips. “It has been a while, hasn’t it?”
“And now you’re going to hit me again and curse me and what-have-you,” he sighed. With surprising care, he redid the front of Will’s trousers. Then he laid his head on Will’s knee like a dog would, waiting patiently either for reward or for punishment, but the expression in his face was far from that simple. “Not that you can afford to have yet another internal conflict. At least make this one creative, would you? I’m tired of seeing the same reaction.”
Will bit down—
--slewed the car round, blood welling from his lip the same way the skidding screech welled into his ears, copper taste drowning and high shriek deafening. The car spun twice, twice and half before coming to a stop with a slam that knocked him back into the seat again. Rattled his teeth, and they kept rattling while he grabbed Shad by the neck and dragged him up. Before Will could stop himself, or even think about it, they were across the seat, him arched over the other man so the only point of contact was tasting his blood dissolve into Shad’s mouth.
He was still shaking and maybe it was with anger, or maybe it was with release, or maybe it was both. Because now there were strings and straps and walls ripping loose inside of him, and he could recall that he’d never, ever gone so far as this—even when he had seen nothing in smoking bloody holes except for smoking bloody holes—and he could, very distantly, remember that once upon a time he had wished he could go to this point. Go beyond it, where the wind screamed across the moors and the ocean snarled along the coast and the city crouched like a devil on the long-haired fields of gray-green. But he hadn’t been able to then. Not while he could be tender with Helen, and playful with Davey, and still find himself blinded by the petty wonders of life.
But a trio of years in the woods had stripped away every particle of those blinders and had left him with nothing but the true sight of the world. He could see every wrong and every right and every gradation, and he could see that it didn’t matter. Good, bad, they didn’t cancel out—instead, they piled on a man and chipped away till he was nothing. It was better to do nothing, to pass beyond right and wrong to simple life.
Shad tore away his mouth with a sudden, harsh movement of his head. He stared up at Will for a long, liquid second, almost like a small, scared child. But then he turned away, cheek to the darkness of the seat, and laughed. “Don’t make me repeat myself. You didn’t find life, either. All you found was more deception.”
“I wanted the truth. I wanted to know what kind of man they were naming.” Will curled his fingers in Shad’s collar, hooking two over the edge so the knuckles stroked fever-hot skin, and then lifted the man. Slammed him down and felt, almost incredulously, how that fluttered the faint heartbeat beneath his fingertips.
A long, weary sigh escaped from Shad. He looked over at the door on his side, twist of mouth strangely soured. “You know what’s the problem with your type? You want the truth, the truth—you don’t want your truth. You want the truth of the world, you want the truth of God and his like, and you think it’s yours. So what happens if you, in fact, happen to love violence, and killing, and being—”
“I don’t love—it’s not something I should—”
“—oh, for fuck’s sake, don’t give me her argument. If she knew anything about you, she would’ve kept you. Whatever she said reflects more on her and her way of coping than it does on you.” Around Shad’s eyes was a very, very weak fluorescence, foxfire and cat-eyes. It could make him look clever and unearthly, or it could make him look lonely for a brief moment, as if he’d spent so long searching in the dark that now he was more used to it than to the light.
Will froze. Then he glanced over his shoulder to see that a bizarre dark had fallen, though it should still have been midday. The sky was a series of low, gunmetal-gray bulges, and those clouds had a hard gleam to them, as if they’d been chopped out of mountains.
“You don’t believe you can’t love. You never doubted how much you loved Davey, did you? What you actually believe, and what is the root of your problem, is that you think you’re supposed to be someone else.” Shad shrugged. “Which is true, but you’re not looking at that the way you should.”
“What’s that? The way you want me to?” There had been another taste in that mouth, at which Will was staring and couldn’t stop, fascinated in the same manner as a mouse with a cat’s paw. He curled in his fingers a little more, and somewhere between his hand and the slight ridges of Shad’s breastbone and Shad’s hands, a button snapped away.
The corner of Shad’s mouth ticked up. Eyes half-closed, he turned back to face Will in a parody of a demure girl. “So we’ve ruled out the possibility that I’m merely another figment of your imagination? Or could it be true that I’m merely a mouthpiece for you, and that what you really want is to be smacked around and half-strangled and pinned to the seat while another man stares at you like he’s about to eat you alive?”
Shad’s voice was like a smoke-snake, soft consonants the scales skittering against Will’s spine, vowels the unpleasant-pleasant slight tingling of the coils slipping about him. Will swallowed against it, growling to clear his throat of its thick choke, and forced himself to detach before he went any further. There had been a reason he’d never done as he’d wished—because somewhere beyond this point laid a shaping that he couldn’t unshape. And somehow, he didn’t think the new form awaiting him would mend him any better.
“Well, not if you want to be Will Graham, upstanding citizen.” On the ‘up’-syllable, Shad suddenly flexed to rub himself against Will, long hard line of prick pressing into Will’s belly, knees and thighs sliding smoothly along Will’s sides. “Are you imagining yourself here? Wondering if maybe your reaction to Davey’s rape was less because you were suddenly unsure of his tastes than because you already knew you were unsure of yours? After all, you still couldn’t figure out whether you wanted the city or the woods.”
Rage surged once more, beating fast and violent against the last remaining barriers Will had set within himself. He shoved back and then shoved down till the leather was creaking in protest, bending hard around Shad. “You’re not really a man. You only look like one.”
“Because you want me too,” snorted Shad. “Just think about that one.”
And Will did. He breathed in till it hurt low in his gut, breathed out till it was like metal bands around his chest, and he stared. Dug deep at himself and scraped the withered, neglected memories off the dank, dark bottom till he could recall the shade of Helen’s hair in the moonlight, dotted with snow, and her sweet perfume, and—
--soft swells beneath his hand, eyes tired and careworn staring puzzled up at him while he was almost strangling her, and—Will recoiled. His mind ricocheted about, not sure whether to settle for disbelief or horror or even the shock of disgust, and then the world spun upside-down. Suddenly his back was bent agonizingly and his hands couldn’t move and his neck hurt so much that he almost didn’t see himself looking down, amused and liking it.
But that wasn’t how it went.
Will knew it, bone and blood and brain. And as simply as that, the world was restored.
Shad was panting and white around the lips, and when he saw Will noting it, he flinched; that was the first sign of uncontrolled genuine reaction Will had seen in the man. The second was Shad’s failed attempt to smile it away: “You’re a bit quicker than I thought.”
But he said it too fast, and the slight expansion of his pupils shrunk too slowly, giving Will time to see the fear. It was almost a sweetness in his mouth, and soothing stroke down his back. His shoulders rolled into relaxation, keeping just enough strain to hold down Shad. “This is how it goes,” he said, unbelieving at how easy it was.
“Of course it’s easy. It’s what’s natural to you.” Composure returned, Shad casually eased himself into an inviting sprawl, asking for something that was pulling itself, hacking footholds and carving away handholds, from the recesses Will had thought he’d filled.
It was becoming harder to remember why he’d filled them. “I didn’t want this,” he hissed, one last attempt to stay where he was, to stay who he was, however miserable and flimsy that man was. But the wind was blowing, and it was blowing with Shad’s voice. Will could no longer hold on—not with everything he knew.
“No, you didn’t want to be a criminal. You didn’t want to be judged. That is one advantage of the hermit life; if you can’t bring yourself to tune it out, remove all of it. ” One finger unbent to point and nearly grazed Will’s jaw.
Something leaped between Shad and him, like a spark of static electricity. And it leapt again, catching fire to the small breach still between Will and that which was in him, that had been waiting and starving for this for so many years. He’d been disturbed when he’d left, he’d been disturbed when he’d returned, but now the disturbance burned to the ground and there was only a smooth, continuous shock. The feel of cloth tearing away beneath his hands, the warmth of skin bending under his palms, the sweet feeling of stolen breath vanishing down his own throat.
He felt knees against his ribs again, elbowed them down and stabbed his tongue through Shad’s surprised sound, killing it in the womb. Pinned the hands, filled the mouth so he wouldn’t be fooled or distracted by the voice, and kept filling it even when it protested, straining lips struggling around his own, teeth trying to come down on his tongue. Then he ran his fingers down the middle of the parted shirt, riding the shivers of chest and belly till he had a handful of rising cock. Slid his thumb across the head, judging the wetness against his own experience, thinking about whether he had time to do this against the background of a body that arched against him, squirmed into his touch even as the voice still threw out whimpering fragments of protests.
Shad was nudging. Wanting to have back the control, but Will was tired of being the one in the wind and he’d planted his feet in the earth. When he pulled back, it was because he wanted to, and not because someone else had brought him to that point. “Do you want this?”
Those eyes had the same shade and shape as his own, but Shad’s were dazed in a way Will didn’t think he could feel anymore. The man took a moment to lick the blood away from his bruising lips, to catch his breath—there were limitations, apparently. Even here, wherever or whatever here was. And here, as he’d just been shown, Will saw what he wanted to see, did what he wanted to do, and no one or nothing could make him do otherwise.
For the first time in his life, he felt completely free.
He stilled. The shadow of his old self rose and reminded him of the hard-earned knowledge he’d found in isolation, and he nodded. It was still in him, not being ignored, but he was now on the border and he could see what lay beyond this point, and it was better. It was better than knowing nothing and doing nothing, than knowing everything and doing nothing. He knew and he did.
It was simple, and he was growing rapidly comfortable with it.
“You don’t like men,” Shad finally said, words whispered because he still hadn’t enough breath.
“No. But you aren’t one. I know that. And I’m not one—not one like him that did Davey. I don’t need this because I feel weak and old.” Again, that old ghost fought for Will and he had to crush it back. Crush them back: the glittering gangster, the recluse. Neither of them had had all of him, and that was why he’d cut parts of himself off from the rest. But now he had all of himself together again, and he could see the differences and not merely the facts. “So do you? Want it?”
A thousand things passed through Shad’s face, some of them human and some of them not, but what chased them all away was the sudden recognition. It lingered, transformed into hunger that lifted Shad’s head and put his mouth where Will could use it however he wished.
He didn’t. He used it like it should be used, somehow knowing where his tongue needed to stroke, where his teeth needed to rasp, and Shad bent for him. Opened for him, took him in and moaned, spreading legs so Will’s hands just naturally drifted lower. Farther. Walked across tense muscles, skimmed through a sheen of sweat and crumpled in fabric. Worked it out of the way, not looking when he dropped massed clothing on the floor, then belt so it spiraled like an anticipating snake on top. No, he was busy mapping the lines that he knew and didn’t know, that he’d never been able to look at before without the mirror coloring his view.
Jaw, angled and hard on the edge of bone but yielding beneath the chin, especially to sharp nips. Cheekbones. Nose. Dark thick eyebrows and lips that parted in deep rasping groans when he pressed his tongue against their sore swell, when his nails raked along a thigh, when his thumb caught a nipple and rolled it. Slight roughness varying across the cheeks because a hand-shave did that, gave character that the mechanized shavers wiped away. Just as the city erased the man, and as nature absorbed him, and so that was why Will had taken so long to find this truth. The one behind the glass and the reflection.
Down in the curve of the neck, where the skin was dark red and blue and purplish beneath the cut of the tie, he found gentle trembling that sweetened his tongue, an erratic pulse that would change to his will, if he wanted it. He stayed there, tracing over the marks of constriction while his hands dealt with his clothes, while his fingers reached under and gouged deep into firm buttocks, while his prick forced its way into a hot, clasping, silk-rough twist that gaped just enough to let him in, then clamped around him.
“You don’t need anything,” Will observed, pausing for a moment. Helen, the memories reminded, had always preferred a bit of gel to ease the way. She was proper, collected, forward-thinking and practical like that. She disliked what he’d done more for its spontaneity than for anything else; what about the risks? have you taken care of those? she’d ask. She hadn’t fit any more than he had, and they’d both known it.
Shad clutched at Will’s shirt-front and licked a prickling wet streak up the side of Will’s cheek. “Not since you’ve gotten it.”
And then there was no talking, because Will could drink that voice and let it spill out the corners of his mouth like fresh cream, and he did that. Clawed up Shad’s hips as he sank down, shoved down till he could suck on Shad’s tongue and feel the ripple in his prick. Then he leaned back—
--and was what he pleased. Was whom he pleased, doing what he pleased, and beyond the measure of any judgment because judgments were for flaws. Holes. But he was complete now, and swallowing even more, and then he plunged forward. Fucked the way he’d never fucked before, eyes open and mind clear and the world full of nothing but knowing.
There were warm sticky droplets collecting beneath his nails—blood he was drawing from Shad, who was moving with increasing frenzy. Will craned over, pressed them both down till it was mouth hanging desperately off his own, hands pawing at his neck, chest and stomach and hips one unbroken pressure that squeezed and rubbed against Shad’s prick, that amplified the slightest movement into a furious joining of hips that rolled and told Will to fuck harder, force it farther, chase it till he could no longer see the horizon from which he’d came.
And after that, he had the pleasure of looking back and being confronted not with regret, but with Shad breaking apart in his hands, all that cool probing and calm instigation degenerating into a shuddering soundless scream that bowed Shad’s body almost into snapping his backbone.
It was beautiful. Will watched it with a new, whole appreciation, waiting till the last tremors disappeared. Then he untied Shad’s hands and sat back to watch the man, wide-eyed and gasping, roll over. Heave himself around so he could lie down and softly, gratefully lick Will’s fingers.
“That was why I bothered waiting so long,” Shad murmured, almost talking to himself.
* * *
The sky lightened, but didn’t clear. Nevertheless, Will saw how the shadows mingled with the weak sunbeams and found it not depressing.
There was still no one on the road, and they’d been on it for several hours. He thought about that while he took off his coat and used his tie to replace the overstressed limp rag that had been Shad’s. This time, he bound the man’s hands behind his back, and then Will moved to the center of the seat so he could lay Shad belly-down across his lap. He leaned down to retrieve Shad’s belt, and on a whim, also got out the bottle of whiskey.
“So are you something I imagined to resolve my problems?” Will asked, unscrewing the cap. He took a long draught and listened to Shad’s purring stop.
“Is it really that important to know that?” Shad countered. He was down to his shirt, and that particular garment had been reduced to some damp silk twisted around his back and arms and ribs. But he still managed to put it to good use by sucking coyly on the tip of an upstanding collar-wing.
Will didn’t need to know it, but he did want to. And it would simplify matters, which so far had proven to be the deciding factor. Simplification hadn’t assumed an old competitor revenging himself three years later on Davey, and had ultimately led to the correct perpetrator.
Davey had deserved much better, and Will was sorry for it. But Davey was also dead, and Will wanted to be alive. So yes, Shad was going to have to answer that.
Their father had used this method on Will and Davey, right up until Will had grown big enough to use it on him. Remembering that and adjusting it to suit the circumstances, Will wrapped most of Shad’s belt around his hand. Then he brought down the free end on Shad’s ass.
He followed that up with another sip of whiskey while Shad, clearly not expecting that, hissed and wriggled and bloomed a dark red mark across his buttocks. “An easier question. Am I dead?”
“Is this what you were like?” Shad craned about to nuzzle at Will’s side. While it was a pleasant sensation, Will wasn’t currently looking for it. He snapped the belt down again, and this time Shad went stiff, dropping down to groan into the seat. “You could have counted your bullets at any time, you know.”
For a moment, Will wanted to hit the man. Then he laughed at himself and did. As Shad moaned and rocked in his lap, Will rearranged things in his hands to do a quick look into his gun; only one bullet had been used. He put it back in its holster and resettled himself, absently smoothing his hand over the stark scarlet welts on Shad as he did. “Am I imagining you?”
The caress had prompted Shad to move fervently into it, muffling more small throat-straining sounds in the seat cushions. Now he reluctantly ceased doing that and twisted about, giving Will the kind of look a disdainful cat would. “Do you really think you’d have the imagination to come up with someone like me? As I recall, you spent three years trying to find the same conclusion I got you to in…about a day.”
“True enough,” Will admitted. Then he flicked the belt twice over Shad’s ass, hitting unmarked flesh each time. The welts were less defined, spreading in a fierce flush, and Shad’s hips were beginning to jerk. When he finally relaxed, his prick started to rise against Will’s leg. “But—”
“—oh, that. You do see visions—you knew that. And you do have a…good deal of influence over this. Me. I assume you can understand how waiting for you to figure that out frustrated my patience.” Shad shrugged and made it look effortlessly graceful, even with his hands locked behind his back.
Since the answer had been volunteered, Will rewarded it by spilling a little whiskey on the raw red patches. Then he leaned over and licked it up while Shad whined and squirmed up to meet him. Curious how it came so easily to him, when he’d never even bothered to consider it before. “What about your influence?”
“I…might feed you the…occasional cue…” Shad gasped, jerking his hips back so Will’s tongue momentarily slid between Shad’s buttocks and drifted over that hot dip that even to Will was still burning with soreness. As for Shad, he went temporarily speechless in his shaking.
So that explained how Will knew what to do to provoke such a reaction. It didn’t seem as if the man—or whatever he was—had a good deal of patience, so it must have been a painful wait. Which brought Will to his next question. He leaned back and rinsed his mouth with some more alcohol before asking it. “What are you?”
“Any number of things. Which you already know about.” Shad’s expression folded in on itself.
Will put the whiskey away and set to work. One flick of the belt produced nothing but a long shaking, so Will aimed the next blow to hurt and not to merely sting. When that still did nothing, he slapped the leather down as hard as he could, then quickly tossed the belt away and bent sideways to kiss Shad while he lightly stroked and grazed nails over the welts. He enjoyed that for a long moment before shoving his fingers in and pulling back.
Eyes blooming, muscles stiffening to rictus, Shad gaped soundlessly at Will. Then he got himself under control, but only barely. “It’s true. I could tell you about dependencies and about going beyond what the others see and finding that space between nothing and something. And about how lonely it is there, since so many are fools. Or I could define what I am in your restricting words. Or I could show you.”
Will considered all of those and found that he did know, so further questions were useless. “Or I could say, ‘Mine,’ and be done with it,” he murmured, testing the word.
Shad closed his eyes and shivered, then lunged forward that inch to meld them again. And Will accepted, then took and then let them melt together once more till he’d wrung out every single particle.
That was what was left behind, after everything else had gone away.
* * *
Occasionally there’s a dark car, and a driver. Or maybe it’s a driver and passenger, or maybe it’s one man and then two. No one sees it long enough to tell, what with the way it roars down the coast roads like careless lightning. And the thunder it leaves in its path is death—strange death, unexpected death, and yet, when time is spent to truly think on it, necessary death in one way or the other.
They come at all times, at any time; they never seem to sleep. Or perhaps it’s he.
It’s not much of an explanation, but it’s what happens. Watch for it.