by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三 )
Beside the bed, on the old steamer trunk Jacob used as a table, Peter’s phone buzzed. Peter noticed it and immediately forgot about it again. He had other things on his mind.
“Never have I ever worn lingerie,” said Jacob. His breath was warm on Peter’s lips.
“Oh, yeah? You’re into that?” Not specifically Peter’s thing, but Jacob would look hot in pretty much anything.
“No, hello, the name of this game is ‘never have I ever,'” Jacob said, for about the third time.
“Okay, I’ve never worn lingerie either.” Peter leaned forward a few inches to give Jacob a kiss.
“Never have I ever…” Peter tried to think of something Jacob might not have done. “Done it with a guy with piercings…you know…” His gesturing hand lifted the duvet.
“Not that I recall.”
“I have.” Peter spared a fond thought for Tom, who’d broadened a number of his horizons.
Jacob turned his face into the pillow to smother a laugh. “You’re supposed to pick something you haven’t done. That’s the point.”
“I am? I mean, I know that, I tricked you with my cunning plan.”
Jacob nudged his knee between Peter’s thighs. “Never have I ever been tied up in bed.”
“I have! You win!” Gleefully, Peter slid his hand down Jacob’s hip and then up his cock.
“Mmm. Wait, you’re the one who gets the penalty on this.”
“That’s a penalty? I thought it was a reward. Your game is confus–ah.” Peter rocked his hips into Jacob’s touch, and made a sound of protest as Jacob withdrew his hand.
“Your turn again.”
“Let me think. Never have I ever had a threesome.” Peter’s eyes widened at Jacob’s grin. “You have?”
“A few years ago, with this couple, kind of friends of a friend. It was fun.” Jacob hummed as Peter’s thumb rubbed a circle around the head of his cock. “If I tell you all about it, will you keep doing that?”
“Nuh-uh.” Peter released Jacob and wriggled tantalizingly closer. “This was your idea. I just wanted to make out, but no…”
“Oh my God, fine. Never have I ever read Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“What?” Peter shoved Jacob’s shoulder in mock indignation. “Does that mean you think I’ve read it?”
“I have no idea, Mr. I-Get-Tied-Up-In-Bed.”
“It was only the once, and it was for educational purposes. If you know what it’s like, you’ll be better at doing it to someone else.”
“Is tying someone up, uh, something you really like doing?”
“I can take it or leave it.” The real thrill had been in watching Tom’s gratification….
Jacob inhaled as Peter curled his hand around his cock. “What’s that for? I haven’t read Fifty Shades either.”
“I’ll show you something I really like doing,” Peter said, nudging Jacob onto his back and ducking under the duvet.
Later, while Jacob was in the shower, Peter slouched on the battered chaise by the window and checked his phone. There was the usual detritus of newsletters and bills, and an email from someone he didn’t know asking if he was available for a job, something to do with rattles and bangs in an old house off Roncey. They’d be in all day, and did he have a rush fee?
He didn’t have a fee at all, as it happened, but it was nice to be asked. He shot off a message to Duncan. Roncesvalles wasn’t that far from Peter’s house; maybe they could meet up when Duncan got off work.
As they stood in line at the coffee shop down the block from Jacob’s apartment, he pulled out his phone again. No reply from Duncan. He tucked the phone back into his pocket.
“What are you up to today?” he asked, leaning against Jacob as he surveyed the case of baked goods.
“I want to go to that big fabric store on Queen West, and the little place with all the vintage buttons.”
“That’s out by me,” Peter said.
Jacob looked past him to give his order at the cash. Peter followed, and they sidled into the crowd waiting for their orders. By the time Peter was standing on the slushy sidewalk juggling cappuccino, cranberry scone and phone, Duncan still hadn’t gotten back to him.
Jacob emerged from the coffee shop, where he’d gotten caught in the clump of people around the cream-and-sugar station. He frowned at a splash of coffee on his leather glove, and dabbed at it with a napkin from his pocket.
“I’ve got a job off Roncey,” Peter said. “It’s not that much farther than Queen West. Do you want to come with?”
“One of your kind of jobs?”
“Yeah, sounds like it.”
Jacob grimaced. “No, thank you.” Jacob saw ghosts, but only when he was drunk, unlike Peter, who had no sensitivity to spirits at all.
“You probably won’t even notice anything.”
“No, I have to finish this suit and start on a frock coat that’s due at the end of the month.” Thought his day job was as a receptionist, Jacob had a side business making reproductions of historical costumes.
“Um, see you tomorrow then?”
“I’m going to be working on it all weekend.”
“Do you want to maybe watch a movie and text on Sunday night?”
“I’ll see how far I get.” Jacob pinched the collar of Peter’s jacket and pulled him in for a kiss. “I’ll see you soon, though.”
“Okay. Good luck with the buttons.”
Low clouds were already greying over the morning sun. Peter shivered in the damp, and took another futile look at his phone. He thought about going back into the packed coffee shop and finding a seat, but instead gnawed at his scone and drank his rapidly cooling cappuccino as he slogged down the sidewalk towards the streetcar stop.
Saturday was usually for chores and errands, laundry and cleaning and making sure there was something in the fridge so he didn’t eat peanut butter sandwiches three times a day. But if someone needed him now, that was way more important. He could drop in at home and get his kit on the way. He didn’t need to wait for Duncan. He didn’t need Jacob to come with him. He was totally capable of doing a job on his own.
Whenever the weather wasn’t actively dumping snow or buckets of rain, Duncan liked to go sit outside on his breaks. His coworkers at the tea shop today were reasonably easy to work with–Ifra’s thoughts were focused on the long and complex story she was writing, something about a World War II superhero, and the music in Walter’s head was generally something Duncan could bear to listen to–but he still took his green tea vanilla soy latte to the parkette across the street to get some air.
It was a raw February afternoon with a front coming in. Duncan sat on the edge of the damp bench and wrapped his hands around his cup. There was nothing like having a hot drink in the cold air.
When he’d finished his tea, he took his phone out to check the time and found a string of messages from Peter. Peter had spent the night at Jacob’s; Duncan hadn’t expected to hear from him until at least tonight, and possibly all weekend. He was off to investigate things going bump in the night–Peter’s words–and he’d forwarded the original email to Duncan, in case Duncan was interested.
Duncan sent an acknowledgement and pulled up his email. As well as Peter’s, there was one from a Sarah at an unfamiliar address. Something weird was going on in her apartment, and her friend’s cousin had gotten Duncan’s name from someone she knew. Was he available to come check it out?
Neither he nor Peter had had a case in a couple of weeks, so they were about due, Duncan figured. He replied, asking for her street address and schedule. He also forwarded the email to Peter, who probably had a full day planned with Jacob and his own case but might want to know the details. Then he went back across the street to spend the afternoon making tea for cold, damp shoppers.
The house Peter ended up at was a majestic three-storey brick home from the oughts before last, with most of the original windows and woodwork. He tried not to rubberneck too obviously as Graham and Sylvia ushered him into a sunroom off the main living room. Peter loved the little house he’d inherited from his babcia, he really did, but occasionally he fantasized about having a basement door wide enough fit a washer and dryer through, so he didn’t have to have them in the kitchen, and being able to plug in both the toaster oven and the microwave at the same time.
“We really appreciate you coming so quickly,” Sylvia said, as she perched beside her husband on one of the couches. She was wearing impeccably ripped jeans and a loose, brilliant white shirt. Graham had on a sweater that Peter, having spent the last two months hanging out with Jacob, recognized as probably costing more than his own winter coat.
“It’s no problem. I had an opening,” Peter said. “Why don’t you give me an idea of what’s been happening?”
Little things, it turned out, eerie but not precisely threatening: doorknobs rattling, hinges squeaking on the second floor when no one was up there, the soft slide of a drawer opening in an empty kitchen. There was a transom above the study door that angled open or closed at random, though they both swore they hadn’t touched it and hadn’t even known it wasn’t stuck shut.
“When did it start?”
“When we moved in.”
“And what made you decide to call me now?”
“Well…the noises and things,” Sylvia said, flicking a puzzled glance at Graham.
There was something Peter wasn’t getting here. “Have you bought anything used or antique recently? Furniture, knicknacks…”
“Most of the furniture’s antique,” Graham said.
Peter could see that. Plenty of carved Victorian wood, scaled for a house with these high ceilings, interspersed with modern easy chairs and art. “Okay, but have you gotten anything new–old new–since just before the sounds started?”
“Like I said, most of it. I mean, we went from a condo to this, and our decorator knows what we like, so we just went ahead and expanded our line of credit.”
Something clicked. “Wait. How long have you been in the house?”
“About a month and a half.”
Peter looked around him at the richly gleaming baseboards and the leaded windows overlooking a winter-scraggly back garden. If they’d done a lot of work and awakened a quiet spirit with the changes… “How extensive were the renovations?”
“We didn’t have to do anything but paint,” Sylvia said. “It was in move-in condition. The same family had had it for over sixty years.”
Maybe a longtime resident resenting the interlopers, then. “Do you know when the last resident passed away?”
“He didn’t. He was ninety-three and slowing down, and his grandkids convinced him to move into a nursing home.”
“He wrote us eight pages of instructions for taking care of the perennials,” Graham said.
Okay, not that either. “Why don’t you show me around the rest of the house?”
As homes went, it was pretty damn perfect: large rooms for entertaining and smaller cozy ones for laid-back family time, an enormous kitchen with beadboard cabinets to the ceiling, a many-windowed office with built-in bench seating beside a tiled fireplace. There were four bedrooms on the second floor and two on the third. All of the subtly colour-coordinated furnishings made Peter feel rather grubby, and he was relieved to find an assortment of half-unpacked cardboard boxes and plastic storage containers stacked haphazardly in one of upper bedrooms.
“Is it just the two of you living here?” he asked, looking out over the rooftops to the naked winter branches of decades-old trees.
“For now,” Graham said, and he and Sylvia smiled at one another as though they were the only ones in the room.
Not one of the drawers and doors the couple identified as having moved looked at all suspicious. Peter took out drawers to rap on the bottoms and sides, examined door latches, knocked on window panes to see if they rattled. Some of the sounds could have been the usual creaks and ticks of an unfamiliar house, but it was plain that Sylvia and Graham didn’t think so.
Neither of them was having nightmares or virulent mood swings or any of the other hallmarks of a truly dangerous haunting. And if there was some kind of spirit hanging around, swinging doors and leaving drawers half-open out of boredom or malice, Peter, of course, couldn’t see it. He ended up doing a standard four-directions cleansing of the house, because why not, and got them to promise to write down any further strange occurrences.
Walking in the direction of home, Peter pulled out his phone. Duncan had caught another case and would be stopping by to check it out after work. It never rains but it’s buckets, as Babcia had used to say.
Peter toyed with the idea of dropping in on Duncan at work and going along with him. But Duncan hadn’t asked.
Peter’s thumb hovered over the keyboard. Then he shook his head, dropped his phone back into his pocket and put on his woollen gloves.
Sunset wasn’t for several hours yet, but the afternoon felt leaden. Coffee, Peter thought. He’d only had the one cup today, and he never slept all that well in the ambient noise of Jacob’s main-street apartment.
Of course, tea had caffeine in it too…
Peter firmly turned himself in the direction of the indie coffee shop, where he got a double espresso to go, and the grocery store. His narrow cooking skills were expanding to include a mean veggie stew with dumplings, and this was just the day for it. If Duncan didn’t make it home for dinner, well, all the more for Peter.
The front door of the apartment building had been wedged ajar with a section of two by four. Duncan nudged it out of the way with his foot and let the door close behind him. The lobby was shabby and he could smell dryer sheets from the laundry room down the hall, but all the lights were working and the woodwork had recently gotten what was probably its fiftieth coat of paint. There was no elevator. He walked up the stairs to the third floor.
A heavy-set young woman with a partly long, partly buzzed haircut opened the door to his knock. She was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and cut-off sweatpants. The apartment had that over-baked atmosphere Duncan recognized from older buildings with inconsistent heating. He immediately took his winter coat off.
“Hey. I’m Mikey. Thanks for coming over. Sarah got called into work and she’s been trying to get extra shifts, but I figured, since you were on your way anyway…”
“It’s no problem. Is it always this warm in here?” Spirits often caused cold spots, but there were always exceptions.
“When it’s not fucking freezing. Uh, that’s Bình over there. They’ve got a cold but they’re not going to breathe on you or anything.”
Duncan lifted a hand to wave at the platinum blond figure under lumpy blankets on the couch. The TV and their grumpy thoughts were matching static.
“So, I could show you the place, I mean, it’s not exactly a palace but…”
“That’d be great.”
Alcove of a kitchen, a dining area just big enough for a four-seater table, a living room dominated by the couch and a large table covered with rolls of wire and plastic boxes of beads, mostly black and purple. The larger of the two bedrooms continued that colour scheme, with a fair amount of lace and an excess of fabric swags. “Me and Sarah’s,” Mikey said, giving Duncan a hard look; he nodded without comment. The second bedroom was sparsely furnished with battered Ikea furniture and bright blankets. The bathroom was a clutter of makeup containers, incense holders, and dusty candles.
Duncan stood on the square of carpet outside the bathroom, more or less in the centre of the apartment, and listened. The murmur around him was the thoughts of the living: Mikey nervous, Bình cranky, various excitements and anxieties bleeding through from the surrounding apartments.
“Tell me what’s been going on,” he said.
Windowpanes shaking when it wasn’t windy. The fridge door found hanging open one morning. All the lids of Sarah’s bead boxes taken off and her plastic storage drawers pulled out. Except for the windows, no one had seen anything actually move; the larger manifestations seemed to be taking place either when everyone was asleep or out of the apartment. The thing with the bead boxes had happened when they’d all been out for a few hours together, so they didn’t suspect each other, and while two separate friends and the super had the keys to the apartment, Mikey was a light sleeper and didn’t believe anyone could sneak in at night without being heard.
“Have you bought anything second-hand recently?”
“Sarah buys shit to reuse in her necklaces all the time,” Mikey said. “She sells them. But I couldn’t tell you what’s new in her stuff. And clothes. And games. Bình’s friend gave us her blender a couple of months ago, but this thing’s only been going on for about three weeks. Which, I mean, is more than enough.”
Duncan took another pass through the apartment. Mikey and Bình were the only personalities he could sense in it. There didn’t seem to be anything significant about the box lids, or the fridge, or the closet doors that had been left open, or the drawers of the wooden sideboard they’d picked up one day at the curb to hold their towels and Christmas decorations and which had been found all pulled half-out one evening.
“I can’t see or sense anything,” he said finally. “That doesn’t mean I don’t believe you. Keep an eye on things and let me know if anything happens again. Even something small,” he added, because Mikey was more rattled than she was letting on.
“I don’t want to bug you…”
“Every piece of information helps. You can text me anytime, I won’t mind. I hope you feel better soon,” he added to Bình on the couch, and shrugged his coat on as Mikey closed the apartment door behind him.
The wind was raw as he hiked along the curve of King Street, but after the heat of the apartment it was refreshing. Duncan breathed in the damp air and enjoyed the glow of the backlit store signs and leftover Christmas lights in the almost-twilight–
Huh. He stopped and considered his mood. He hadn’t felt particularly gloomy while in the apartment, but he was pretty happy to be out of it. Something to consider more closely if he was called back, he decided, and headed for home.
The lights were on and the house smelled of sautéd onions, but Peter wasn’t around. On the way upstairs to shower and change, Duncan checked his phone.
gone to Huys last minute invite for a wild Sat nite while his wifes away, Peter had texted him. haha prob pizza and dudes falling asleep in front of the tv. stew in oven if you want. wont be late.
Duncan had been looking forward to discussing the apartment with Peter, and hearing about how his case had gone. He shrugged away unfamiliar disappointment; they could talk tomorrow. He heated up a bowl of stew, which was exactly what he wanted to eat, and had a cozy night by himself reading on the couch. He was in bed and asleep before Peter came home.
Peter awoke briefly the next morning to the sound of the front door closing behind Duncan, then feel back to sleep for another couple of hours. It took him two large mugs of coffee to get going. He’d only drunk one cider, but he wasn’t used to staying up that late.
After breakfast he took a half-assed pass at doing some housework, wiping down the bathroom and throwing a load of laundry into the machine. Then he fired up his laptop and investigated the history of Sylvia and Graham’s house.
It had been built by a doctor in 1906 and owned by a handful of well-heeled families after that, but there wasn’t much else to find. Birth and marriage announcements, a kid who’d won a spelling bee, an attempted break-in foiled by an insomniac live-in cook. Obituaries, but nothing that indicated violence or trauma. He found a 1930s photo of the house, looking much as it did now. No murders, no devastating fires, no upsetting wholesale renovations.
That pointed to the cause of the disturbances being something that had been brought into the house. But the problems weren’t centered on one particular piece of furniture or even room, so how he was going to nail down what that was, Peter had no idea.
He mulled it over while he ran the vacuum and changed the sheets on his bed. By that time the coffee had long worn off. Peter flopped down onto the couch intending to take a break and check out what was happening in the world.
He scrambled back to consciousness some time later with an alarm going off on his chest. His phone thumped to the floor, still emitting the Star Trek communicator beep on a loop. Peter scooped it up, glanced at the unfamiliar number, and cleared his throat. “Hello?”
Graham was not happy. He and Sylvia had been entertaining guests in one of their several sitting rooms when they’d felt a cold draft and found their back door standing open. Sylvia was (not Graham’s exact words) freaking the fuck out. The problem was clearly not solved, so why had Peter said it was, and Graham expected Peter over on the double to deal with it.
Peter had most certainly not said that the problem was solved, but he knew enough not to argue with Graham about it. He rubbed sleep out of his eyes and looked out the living room window at the deepening late-afternoon grey. His will to go out into the cold to manage the feelings of unreasonable people who didn’t listen was low. Babcia had impressed upon him that he worked for the spirits–the haunter, not the hauntees–and he didn’t have any new ideas that would help it or them.
Keys jingled at the front door. Duncan stepped in, carrying a cloth grocery bag.
“I’m going to bring in a consultant,” Peter said into his phone. “In the next few days. Tomorrow, if I can. I have to see if he’s available. Yes, I understand that, but he may not be available. I’ll email you. Yes, as soon as I know. No, I don’t think doing another cleansing right now is going to help. Because it didn’t work the first time. Okay, you know the definitions of insa–”
The stifled silence of a hangup stopped him. He made a face at the phone and dropped it on the couch beside him.
“Another case?” Duncan asked, carrying his bag into the kitchen.
“Same one, just getting more annoying.” He stood up to follow Duncan, and his phone emitted the piano trill that announced a text from Jacob. “Gimme a sec and I’ll tell you about it.”
Duncan emptied his bag on the kitchen counter and grabbed the frying pan and colander from the lower cupboard. He threw the mushrooms into the colander and ran water over them.
Peter leaned against the door frame. “So this house,” he started, and his phone sounded again. He read it and began typing. Duncan rubbed the mushrooms clean and got out the cutting board.
“Nobody’s died in it that I can find out about. The last owner is still alive. But it’s full of antiques, so I mean, it could be anything.” His phone interrupted him, and he laughed at it and tapped out a message. The mushrooms hissed as Duncan emptied them into the hot pan. “Are you making that lasagna thing?”
“Yeah.” Duncan had had a stubborn headache all day, and the cold drafts from the store door constantly opening and closing had gotten to him. He needed warming comfort food.
“Awesome. How was the stew last night?”
“It was good. Did you put something different in it?”
“Thyme,” Peter said with such pride that Duncan concealed a smile. “Anyway, I did a cleansing yesterday but it didn’t work. Then this afternoon–” He looked down at his phone. “Um. Would it be okay with you if Jacob came over for dinner?”
“Peter, it’s your house. You can invite whoever you want.”
“Sure, but–I mean, you’re cooking, I can order a pizza or something if–”
“There’s enough for three. As long as he’s not going to complain about the tofu.”
“Great! I know he likes it in pad thai.” Peter sent off another message. “I’m going to go have a quick shower.”
By the time the tomato sauce was bubbling and the noodles were nearly done, Jacob arrived. There was a little conversation and a little kissing–self-conscious, even though Duncan couldn’t see them–and then Peter came back into the kitchen.
“Jacob brought salad.” He stretched up to flick open the cupboard door over the fridge. “Can you–”
“Got it,” Jacob said, sidling into the now-crowded room. He brought down the nested bowls Peter was pointing at. “Hi, Duncan.”
“Hey.” Duncan had met Jacob in passing a handful of times. Aside from Peter, their spheres of interest didn’t seem to intersect at all, but he struck Duncan as a decent guy, generally good-natured and sure enough of himself that he didn’t need to score points on other people. “How are things?”
“Good. I finished the suit that I wanted to get done this weekend. How about you?”
“Can you put these back?” Peter put the bowls back into Jacob’s arms, keeping one for himself. “Maybe we can do this in the dining room, there’s no room to move in here.”
They disappeared back into the front room. Cellophane rattled. Duncan put the plug in the sink and squeezed in a glob of dish soap, then turned on the tap.
He caught a hint of consternation from Peter. “Wait, that’s creamy dressing.”
“Is that a problem? I didn’t put on the bacon bits. You said he was vegetarian.”
“Vegan, I said vegan.”
“Is that different?”
“Yes, it’s different.”
“Oh. Crap. I think there’s some pieces underneath that didn’t get dressing on them…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Duncan called. There was a guilty silence. He stuck his head into the dining room. “It’s fine. You guys have the salad.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Jacob was equal parts embarrassed at himself and annoyed at other people’s ridiculous picky diets, but he concealed it well.
“Vegan is vegetarian but also no dairy, eggs, or honey,” Peter said. “Or gelatin, or…there’s a bunch of hidden stuff. I can send you a link.”
“I’ll remember for next time.”
“FreshCo’s still open. I can run out and get another bag. Should I go get another bag?”
“Peter, relax. It’s not a big deal. I wasn’t expecting salad anyway. I made carrot and celery sticks.” Movement caught the corner of Duncan’s eye, and he ducked back into the kitchen to turn off the tap before the swelling pyramid of suds cascaded onto the floor. “Actually, supper’s on, so why don’t you come and get it?”
They filled their plates at the stove and sat at the small table in the almost-as-small dining room. “This is really good,” Jacob said. “Is it some kind of deconstructed lasagna?”
“Skillet lasagna. I’m not used to having an oven.”
“Yeah, I think I’ve used mine about twice since I moved into my apartment.”
“So, um,” said Peter, “did you have any questions you wanted to ask Duncan about the thing that happened at the Christmas party? You know.” Jacob had only discovered his latent ability to see spirits a few months ago in a historic house restaurant with more than its fair share of spirits hanging around.
“Hell, no. Your stories are interesting, but I never want to be in one again as long as I live.”
“It’s not for everyone,” Duncan said. He could sense Peter, who was already tense, working up a head of steam about the responsibilities of people with what he called talent. “Peter says you make historical costumes, is that right? What’s that like?”
Jacob took the ball and ran with it, talking about museum research and fabric choice long enough for Peter to wind down some. Then they got onto costuming failures in movies, and from there onto TV shows in general. It turned out that that was something all three of them could talk about, since Duncan had watched more television in the past eight months than he had in the previous decade, thanks to Peter’s Netflix subscription. After that Peter and Jacob moved on to hot gossip about the real estate agency where Jacob worked and Peter sometimes consulted. Duncan slumped back in his chair, melting into lassitude under the influence of a hot meal and the luxury of finally being able to sit down. He’d done a lot of jobs, from construction to picking apples, but standing around in one place for hours at a time really took it out of him. He yawned and decided to let the dishes soak for a while.
Peter saw Jacob to the door. He could hear Duncan clinking things in the kitchen, probably making himself a cup of tea. In the shadows, he crowded Jacob into the corner by the front closet and nuzzled his neck. “You could stay over.”
Jacob combed his hand upwards through the hair at the back of Peter’s neck. “Duncan’s here.”
“He won’t mind.”
“I don’t know.” Peter leaned into him, and Jacob bent down for a kiss. They made out for a few minutes, lazy and sated from dinner and the slow descent of Sunday night.
Jacob straightened. “I have to work tomorrow.”
“I don’t. I could make you breakfast. Well, toast. I’ll make you toast. And coffee.”
“I’d have to stop by my place to change anyway.” Jacob slid away from Peter’s hold. He pulled his winter coat out of the closet and wrapped his scarf around his neck. On him, the beige wool trench coat and grey scarf were classically elegant rather than plain. His pale hair glowed in the street light gleam that came through the fan window in the front door. Peter couldn’t help stealing one more kiss as Jacob buttoned up his coat.
“Are you busy tomorrow night?” Peter asked.
“Tomorrow’s bad. Tuesday?”
“I’m working ’til six.”
“Want to come over after and watch something?”
“Sounds good. I’ll text you.”
Jacob raised his voice. “Bye, Duncan. Thanks again for dinner!” From the kitchen, Duncan called something indistinct back. Peter opened the door, and watched Jacob as he went down the front walk. Jacob turned to wave, and Peter stood in the draft through the ill-fitting storm door until the neighbours’ porch hid Jacob from view.
He locked the door and went back into the kitchen. Duncan was washing the dishes.
“Hey, let me do that. You worked all day, plus you cooked dinner.” Peter took the dishcloth from Duncan and sunk his hands into the sudsy water. “You have tomorrow off, right? Can you come with me to this house? The guy’s kind of being an asshat, but I get why he’s weirded out. Except the history of the house seems pretty calm–”
He unspooled what little he’d found about the history of the house and was trying to find words to describe the mixed-eras-but-so-much-money interior design when Duncan, leaning against the back door, covered a yawn with the back of his hand.
“I’m sorry, I’m really bushed and I’m not really taking in anything you’re saying.” Duncan straightened. “You can fill me in tomorrow, okay?”
“Yeah, sure, that’s fine. No worries. Sleep well.”
It only took another five minutes to finish the dishes. Peter left them to drain dry in the rack. He flicked off the kitchen light as he went into the living room, where only one of the side lamps was lit. The house had that winter night-time silence, the lamp a yellow circle in the gloom, the furnace only just succeeding at keeping the warmth up against the sinking temperature outside. It reminded him of last winter, after Babcia’d died, when he’d been living here on his own.
He turned off the light and went upstairs by the light of his phone. Duncan’s room was dark. Peter brushed his teeth and went to bed to flick through his social media feeds for a while. Nothing much was going on. He thought about texting Jacob, but Jacob got up ridiculously early and Peter didn’t want to wake him. He chose a podcast and fell asleep to the sound of two people describing how they’d met.
Duncan woke himself up with the sound of his own unfamiliar snoring. He coughed and rubbed his itchy nose, his itchy eyes, his itchy face. His throat felt lined with sandpaper. Well, crap, no wonder he’d been so tired, he thought, and plunged back into sleep.
He was awakened some time later by his phone’s email notification dinging. He reached for a kleenex, blew his nose, and focused blearily on the address.
Sarah was sorry to bother him, but he’d said to let him know if something happened. A neighbour had woken them up at six because the apartment door had been wide open, two locks and a security chain bypassed and unharmed. She’d be home today if Duncan was able to drop by again.
Duncan stumbled out of bed and downstairs to hunch over a cup of tea, inhaling the steam. Peter clattered into the kitchen fifteen minutes later.
“Morning. What’s wrong?”
“I’m coming down with a cold.” Duncan dabbed at his nose with a kleenex.
“Oh, man, that sucks. Do you need cough medicine or anything? I can make you some hot honey and lemon. Or, maple syrup and lemon, I guess? I’ll let Mr. Impatient know it’ll be another few days.”
“I’ll be fine.” When it came to spirit work he was used to pushing through colds, sprains, headaches, whatever came around.
Peter frowned at him. “You should go back to bed.”
“Sarah from my apartment case emailed me this morning. Something opened their front door in the middle of the night. I want to go over there again and see if it’s getting stronger.”
“Wait. Opened the door? No way. That’s what mine’s doing.”
Duncan pulled another kleenex out of the box. “Huh.” He should probably be more surprised, but his skull felt stuffed with wadded-up tissues. “Okay. Get your coffee, sit down, and tell me about it.”
Graham was used to solving problems. The fact that he couldn’t solve one that was threatening his wife and unborn child, and that he apparently couldn’t force anyone else to solve either, was making him want to claw the paint off the walls. While Sylvia showed Duncan and Peter around their enormous house, Graham paced and circled and made impatient noises. The touch of his wife’s hand on his arm or shoulder momentarily stilled him, and then he’d be jittering in place again, shoving his hands into his pockets and making his keys jingle.
Duncan stood on the front hallway rug, between the birch branches stuck into a clay pot of sand and the old wardrobe with the built-in mirror and seat. There was something going on in the house that he couldn’t quite focus on, emotion like a light mist that he could only barely sense.
“I’m going to try something out,” he said, shoving his feet into his wet boots. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
He walked down the flagstoned front path to the sidewalk. It was a relief to be outside. The chill air seemed to clear his sinuses. Now if he could just keep going…
He walked back to the house.
“Anything?” Peter asked as soon as Duncan stepped inside.
“I think something might be trying to get out.”
Graham inhaled sharply and turned to Sylvia. “That’s it, you’re going to go stay at your sister’s.”
“I’m fairly sure you’re not in any danger,” Duncan said.
“You’re fairly sure? I’m not taking any chances.” He ran his fingers through his hair as Sylvia patted his back. “You’ll sleep better.”
“If you prefer, dear,” Sylvia said mildly.
“I don’t want you alone in this house until this gets straightened out.” He scowled at Peter.
“You’re not going to hurt anyone, are you?” Duncan said to the air. “We’re going to work this out. Please give us a little more time.”
Graham shivered and muttered something under his breath. Sylvia looked dubiously at the ceiling.
“We’ll be in touch soon. In the meantime, email me if anything new happens,” Peter said, and they escaped into the chill.
They walked east to the stores and cafés of Roncesvalles. Peter insisted on stopping to get a coffee–and a huge tea latté for Duncan–and then on flagging down a cab. It was a ridiculous expense for a distance they could walk in twenty minutes, but Duncan was grateful to sit down and wrap his hands around the hot cardboard cup. He’d be ready for a nap when they got home, that was for sure.
The apartment building was one of the shabby pre-war low-rises off King. The door to the apartment itself was opened by a tall Chinese woman about Peter’s age wearing a worn Skinny Puppy T-shirt that was probably older than either of them. Her hair was in messy pigtails, and her pyjama pants had tiny skulls printed on them. Goth’s day off, Peter thought, following Duncan through the door.
In contrast to Sylvia and Graham’s house, the two-bedroom apartment took about a minute to walk through. Duncan, who was visibly wilting, stood in the middle of the living room and closed his eyes. Peter could hear the traffic from the expressway, and someone shout-singing outside.
“Please don’t leave the front door open,” Duncan said, eyes still closed. “It upsets people. I know you need something, and I’m sure it’s frustrating not to get it, but we’re working on it.” He sighed and opened his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said to Sarah. “There’s something I’m not getting. Let me think about it some more, and I’ll get back to you.”
Sarah chewed on a black-polished nail. “Is there anything we can do in the meantime?”
“Not that I can think of. But you’re probably not in any danger.”
Peter pointed to the slab of pink salt on the coffee table, rimed with dust like frost. “Try cleaning your candle holder off and getting some tea lights for it. Beeswax or soy, not the cheap white kind. Burn them for a couple of hours whenever you’re home.” Duncan looked at him, and Peter shrugged. “Babcia said pink salt vibes calm everybody down. It can’t hurt.”
Sarah looked relieved at the prospect of having an action to take. “Okay, I’ll try that. Thanks.”
Outside, Peter flagged down another cab. Duncan slid into the back seat without even arguing.
“Do you think it might be something going on in the neighbourhood?” Peter asked, buckling up. “It’s not that far from here to Sylvia and Graham’s. Except I haven’t gotten any other calls. Have you?”
“They could be calling people who aren’t us.”
“Yeah.” Peter made a face. “I could ask around.”
“That might be helpful.”
There were a couple of people in the community who hadn’t been total dicks to Peter after Babcia had died and left him trying to carry on the work without any kind of talent. Not many, but a few. “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
The next few days were uneventful. Duncan went upstairs to lie down and stayed there, venturing out occasionally to get a cup of tea or a bowl of soup and then shuffling back to bed. Peter sent out three emails and got back two responses; no one had heard anything about restless spirits opening doors and drawers.
For a wonder, neither Jacob nor Peter had to work overtime or deal with some new crisis on Tuesday night. Jacob made one of his regular meals, a thing with noodles, bottled teriyaki sauce, canned tuna, and frozen peas. Peter had wanted to make it at home for a while, except he couldn’t figure out what to substitute for the tuna. Tofu could stand in for a lot of things, but rich and salty it was not.
After dinner, Jacob made popcorn and they settled onto the couch to watch a movie. Jacob’s small apartment was furnished with the kind of flair and comfort that Peter, who hadn’t changed a thing when he’d inherited the house except for replacing the twenty-year-old mattresses, found inscrutable but appealing. Peter’s hands were a little achey from a full day of doing massage therapy, and the puzzle of the two hauntings was nagging at him. But in the darkened living room, with entertaining nonsense on the TV and a warm body next to him, he could feel himself slowly relax. He put his feet up on the coffee table and reached over for a handful of popcorn from the bowl in Duncan’s lap.
Jacob’s lap. Peter blinked. He must be tireder than he thought. He hoped he wasn’t coming down with Duncan’s cold.
“What?” Jacob said a few minutes later.
“You keep looking at me.”
“Well…” Peter poked Jacob’s calf with his toe. “You’re kind of hot.”
“You really are.” Jacob had kind of a Thin White Duke thing going on, even in soft grey sweatpants and a hoodie. Well out of the league of a short, ordinary-looking guy descended from a thousand years of Polish peasants.
“You’re not so bad yourself.”
Peter leaned sideways to give Jacob a kiss, though the angle was wrong and he ended up making contact with his chin instead. While Jacob was laughing, Peter grabbed the popcorn bowl and deposited it on the coffee table. He swung a leg over and straddled Jacob’s lap. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Jacob slid his hands around to cup Peter’s butt. Peter leaned down, enjoying the novelty of having extra height on Jacob, and kissed him properly.
They made out for a while, the dialogue from the television fading into a background blur. Jacob ran his hands under Peter’s shirt, then forward to start undoing the buttons. Peter nuzzled along Jacob’s jaw and nipped at his ear.
“This button’s loose,” Jacob said, momentarily distracted.
“Probably. I wear it a lot.” Jacob had given the shirt to him, a green Peter wouldn’t normally have chosen, and though Peter couldn’t have said why, it really did make him look good.
“I’ll do it for you properly later.”
Peter snickered. “That’s what she sa–”
Jacob pulled Peter’s T-shirt up and put his lips against Peter’s chest, flicking a nipple with his tongue. Peter inhaled sharply and rocked his hips forward. Jacob’s arousal was evident against his own.
“Tell me what you want,” he breathed into Jacob’s ear. He could easily have guessed, but he knew Jacob liked telling him.
Jacob tilted his head up to look at Peter. “I want you to suck me off.”
“You got it.”
Peter slid down until he was kneeling on the floor. Jacob gave an anticipatory sigh as Peter pushed his knees apart. Peter rubbed the backs of his fingers along the sweatpants over Jacob’s erection, and Jacob pushed into his touch.
Peter hooked his fingers under the waistband of the sweatpants; Jacob lifted himself a little and Peter pulled them all the way down, underwear along with them, baring Jacob to his sight. Jacob’s cock was as attractive and elegant as the rest of him. Peter leaned forward, breathing in the scents of sweat and soap. He rested his forearms on the outside of Jacob’s thighs and circled the head of Jacob’s cock with his tongue. Jacob rewarded him with a cut-off groan.
Peter knew what Jacob liked. What Peter liked was knowing that he was giving pleasure that someone couldn’t get on their own, the shared vulnerability, the feedback spiral of gratification and need. He slid his lips down Jacob’s cock, feeling the couch cushion dip as Jacob clutched at it in an effort not to move. Peter might be the one on his knees, but this was an act that made him feel fulfillingly capable and in control. He cupped Jacob’s balls and rubbed his fingertip along the sensitive skin behind them, relishing the changes in Jacob’s breathing, and set about tantalizing him.
When he paused to give his jaw a rest, stroking Jacob’s cock with a wet hand, he looked up. Jacob’s eyes were half-closed, and even in the low, moving light of the television, Peter could see the flush on his skin. Warmth suffused Peter, lust and affection in a heady mix.
“Are you ready to come?” he asked, lightening his touch, teasing with his fingertips.
“Oh my God yes Peter come on,” Jacob said in one half-laughing, half-desperate breath, and Peter bent forward again and brought him there.
Later, they dozed in a half-dressed tangle, and Peter woke with a start to the sudden rock ballad of the movie credits. He pushed himself up off Jacob and looked around for his pants, which had ended up over the back of the couch.
Jacob stretched. “Don’t get dressed. You can sleep here.”
“I wish I could, but not tonight.”
“Are you working tomorrow?”
“No, but I told Duncan I’d be home in case he needed anything.”
Jacob swung his legs over the side of the couch and sat up. Peter dressed and buttoned himself back up, and reached for his phone with sleep-clumsy fingers. It was ten-thirty, and he didn’t want to message Duncan in case he was asleep, but he also knew that Duncan wouldn’t ask for anything without a certain amount of prodding.
“You know–” Jacob said, and stopped.
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Jacob retrieved the remote. The television went silent and dark. “I’ll get that button next time.”
“You can teach me how to do it, and then I can do it myself.”
“Okay. Yeah. Sure.”
Peter gave him a quick kiss. “You around on the weekend?”
“No, I’m going to that workshop in Kitchener I told you about.”
“If you get back in time, you could probably come over for dinner on Sunday.”
“I’ll have laundry and stuff to do. I’ll text you,” Jacob said, and yawned.
“Text me!” Peter said. He gave Jacob another kiss, and went to get his coat.
On Wednesday morning, Duncan took an unconscionably long shower as hot as he could stand, blew his nose for a minute straight, and went downstairs feeling light-headed and hollow.
“Hey, how are you feeling?” asked Peter, at the dining room table. “I made some oatmeal. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“I can get it.” Duncan shuffled into the kitchen, filled the kettle, and leaned against the counter, sweating.
Peter came into the room and emptied the remainder of the coffee press into his mug. “You will not guess what just happened.”
“More doors opening? Is it in the neighbourhood?”
Peter added two spoonfuls of sugar and a blob of cream to his coffee. “Sylvia spent the night at her sister’s, and when they woke up, every drawer and door in the house was open. Jewellery boxes, medicine cabinets, the works.”
“There’s a spirit attached to her?” Duncan rubbed his forehead. “I didn’t sense anything like that.” So far, the difficulties he’d been having with the door to the next world had only been about sensing the door itself. If it was starting to distort his perceptions even when it wasn’t around–
“Or to something she took with her.” Peter brandished his mug. “That narrows it down. I’m going up there as soon as rush hour lets up. I’ll let you know as soon as I figure it out.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Peter looked at him skeptically. “Are you sure? You look like–kind of tired.”
“Yeah, I feel like shit too,” Duncan said dryly. “I still need to be there.”
A bowl of oatmeal and almond butter, two cups of tea and some ibuprofen went a ways to propping his energy up. After a little more arguing about whether or not a taxi to midtown was too expensive, he managed to get Peter into the van and they drove up to Sylvia’s sister’s place.
It was a three-storey red brick house in a neighbourhood of mature trees and competitive landscaping. Sylvia’s sister Gloria welcomed them in and took their coats with a practiced graciousness that concealed how unnerved she was, and ushered them into a sunny living room hung with bright abstract art.
“I hope you can get it to leave,” she said in a low voice, fiddling with the bracelet around her wrist.
“Is it following me?” Sylvia asked, standing up from the backless grey couch where she’d been waiting. Her voice was tense. Having a intriguing story to tell about her new house was a little different from being stalked by something she couldn’t see.
“It’s more likely to be connected to something from your house,” Peter said. “What did you bring with you?”
“Just the usual things. Clothes, toiletries, my laptop.”
“Anything more personal, like, I don’t know, pictures? Your favourite mug? A special quilt?”
“My ergonomic pillow,” she said doubtfully.
Duncan closed his eyes to feel the room better. Peter, an earnest spot of warmth; Sylvia, rucked up with uncertainty; Gloria, worried for her sister and the baby, tugging one by one at the charms that dangled from her bracelet…
“Jewellery,” he said.
Peter broke off what he’d been saying. “Oh my God, good thought. Did you bring any jewellery with you?”
Sylvia’s hands went to the gold studs in her ears. “Some basic pieces.”
“Anything antique?” asked Duncan.
“No–yes. My wedding ring.” She put her left hand out in front of her and looked at it in dismay. Her ring was white gold, six small square diamonds curving over the top of her finger.
“That’s beautiful,” Peter said. “Tell me about it.”
“We’d just bought the house, and I found out I was expecting.” She smiled. “I saw this in the Sunday antique sale, you know, down by the market? I love that it’s not flashy. It’s not even very old. Nineteen forties, the dealer said. Graham bought it for me and went down on his knee right there.”
“They more or less eloped,” Gloria said. “Mom was beside herself.”
“Would you mind if I took a picture of it?” Duncan got out his phone, and sent a photo to Mikey and Sarah.
“Do you need to touch it?” Sylvia asked, twisting the ring up to her knuckle.
“No, it’s fine. That’s not how I work.”
“What about you?” she asked Peter.
Duncan felt Peter’s flash of chagrin, but Peter smiled at her brightly. “Me neither. I’m more like operational support,” he said.
“Is it cursed?” Gloria asked.
“No, no. Well, highly unlikely,” Peter reassured her.
Sylvia rubbed at her temples. “God, I wish coffee didn’t make me want to hurl right now.”
There was more small talk, which Peter handled. Duncan took a kleenex from the little packet Peter had given him, and discreetly wiped his nose. His phone vibrated. He looked at the picture Sarah had sent him, and handed the phone to Peter.
“Bingo,” Peter said, and turned the phone so Sylvia could see it.
The ring in the picture was white gold. Two fine engraved lines followed the curve like a road, and between them were short perpendicular lines, forming small squares on the metal.
“What’s your husband’s ring like?” Duncan asked.
“Just a plain band. We bought it new to match mine. I don’t remember seeing that one.”
“So either the dealer sold this one first, or they got separated before that. Doesn’t matter.” Peter looked at Duncan. “Neutral ground, do you think?”
“Yeah.” The wish to leave the house tugged at him. “As soon as we can. Do you know a place?”
“Let me ask around.” Peter gave Duncan’s phone back to him. “Sylvia, I’ll be in touch soon. Later today, I hope.”
“Please be patient just a little longer,” Duncan said to the room. “It won’t be long now.”
Rychenkov’s Spiritual Supply was on an unlovely stretch of Dundas West, with a coffee shop/second-hand record store on one side of it and a cafe/bar full of soccer posters and elderly Portuguese men on the other. The arch of gold lettering on the front window looked as though it had been there for a while. The scents of sandalwood and dried leaves enveloped Duncan as he followed Peter in.
“Hey, Suze,” Peter said to the dark-skinned woman at the front counter.
“Peter.” She put down her crochet needle and yarn. “Corinne said you’d be coming by. I didn’t think you were still doing the work.”
Peter gave her a tight smile. “Yeah, I am. She said I could use the meeting room.”
“Two other couples are going to show up. Could you please send them through?”
“Sure, no problem.” She picked up her crocheting again, but her gaze followed them as Peter led Duncan between shelves of coloured candles and crystal doodads to a door at the back of the store. She was wondering who Peter thought he was fooling.
Aside from the chakra chart on the wall, the windowless meeting room might have been in any slightly run-down office building: folding tables, stacking plastic and metal chairs, a square of freestanding counter in the back holding a water-spotted coffee machine and an electric kettle. Duncan angled a chair so it faced the door, and sat down in it. He’d spent the afternoon in bed, but it hadn’t been enough. He hadn’t felt this wiped out since he’d gotten the flu the winter he’d spent up near Renfrew, in the most miserable motel in the province.
“How does the room feel?” Peter asked, hitching himself up to sit on one of the tables. “Any weird vibes? I mean, the actual ritual space is in the basement, and they say they cleanse the whole building on the regular, but…”
“It’s fine.” There was a dog in one of the apartments upstairs that really hated a newly delivered couch, but other than that things were calm. “Is this the community you used to be part of?”
“Kind of. This is the more woo-woo end of things, but even Babcia couldn’t talk to spirits the way you do. She had to work with their mythologies, and when you need some dragon blood resin or water from the Jordan River, Corinne is who ya gonna call.”
Duncan felt Sarah and Mikey arrive, and in a few moments Sarah knocked on the door frame to the meeting room. She had dressed up, black eyelids and lips and a lot of black lace. Her happiness shone around it like the corona of an eclipse. Mikey was wearing a grey blazer over a blue and red plaid shirt and jeans, and on the fourth finger of her left hand was the ring. She kept touching her thumb to it, reassuring herself that it was there.
“Hey, thanks for coming,” Peter said, jumping off the table. “Come in and have a seat.”
“I’m sorry for ruining your surprise,” Duncan said to Sarah.
“It’s fine. I needed a kick in the pants to do it anyway.”
They took seats side by side, and Mikey laced the fingers of her right hand through Sarah’s. “Why, did you think I was going to say no?”
“No, I don’t know, I’ve never done this before.”
Mikey leaned closer to bump her shoulder gently. “Doofus,” she said fondly.
Graham hesitated on the threshold of the room. “Ah. Peter.”
“Come on in,” Peter said, as Graham gave the room a pained look. “Oh, right, you haven’t met yet. Sarah, Mikey, Graham, Sylvia. Sylvia, do you want to sit over here?”
“Oh, there you are,” Duncan said, standing up as the couple he’d never seen before flung their arms around each other. The man buried his face in her hair, and she clutched at his checkered shirt.
“I believe we’re a few minutes early,” Graham said.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s not talking to us,” Peter said. Graham hastily moved away from the door.
The woman looked past the man’s shoulder at Duncan. “I was shouting as loudly as I could.”
“I know. I’m sorry it took me so long.”
The man cupped her face. “Anneke, Anneke, I couldn’t find you anywhere.”
“I was calling to you but I couldn’t get out. Oh, Harry, they kept me from coming to you.”
“It wasn’t on purpose,” Duncan said.
Anneke looked around as if noticing the room for the first time. She frowned and pointed at Sylvia, who was tilting her hand so that Mikey and Sarah could see it. “That girl has my ring!”
“Yes, but you still have it too,” Duncan said, and they both looked down at the white gold bands on their hands, Anneke’s jewelled and Harry’s engraved.
Harry pulled Anneke back closer to him. “Say, why don’t you explain what’s going on?”
“That’s what I’m here to do. Tell me, how long have you been married?”
He tightened his arm around her. “Sixty-eight years last September, and I wouldn’t change a second of it.”
“Look at each other,” Duncan said gently. He watched as they took each other in: her victory rolls and puff-sleeved dress, his army cut barely growing out, how much younger they were than sixty-eight years.
“Something’s…changed, hasn’t it?” Harry said.
Anneke twisted the ring on her finger. “I want my…” She stopped in confusion.
“Your rings have passed on,” Duncan said. “Look at the couples who have them now.” He turned towards Graham, whose hand rested on Sylvia’s shoulder where she sat, and Sarah and Mikey, leaning on one another across the gap between their chairs. “Two couples who are just as in love as you are. People who are going to live long lives together, make homes together, just like you did. Your rings are in–on–good hands now. It’s time to let go of them.”
“Then what happens to us?” asked Harry.
“That’s up to you. You can pass on too, if you’re ready. Continue through to a place where you’ll never be separated again.”
“We’d be together forever?” Anneke put her hand over Harry’s and gave it a squeeze. “Might we, darling? I’d like that.”
He brushed her temple with his lips. “Then let’s.”
Peter knew exactly when the door opened, because Duncan’s expression blossomed as if something precious and lost had appeared before his eyes. He could tell when it closed, too. The colour dropped from Duncan’s face, and he swayed, then sat down heavily in the chair and put his head between his knees.
“Dude, no, get right down, if you pass out like that you’re going to land on your head,” Peter said. He put his hand on the back of Duncan’s neck and helped him crawl onto the floor.
Graham had his phone out. “Should I call nine-one-one?”
Duncan said something consisting entirely of vowels. “No, it’s cool, the work takes it out of him sometimes and he’s been sick all week,” Peter said. He jumped as Duncan’s hand clenched around his bare wrist.
Suze appeared in the doorway. “Did I just feel someone pass over?” Her eyes widened at the sight of Duncan on the vinyl tiles. “I guess so. What do you need?”
“Nothing, we’re good. Just some privacy,” Peter said. Suze shrugged and disappeared.
“Should we go?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah, sorry, I know it’s kind of an anti-climax but I’m pretty sure your problem’s taken care of. I’ll let you know the details later if you want. Right now, Duncan just needs to get some rest.”
They quietly filed out of the room. “Please shut the door,” Peter said to Sylvia’s retreating back, and she pulled it to soundlessly.
Peter lay down behind Duncan and fitted himself around him, sliding his hands up under Duncan’s shirt and pressing his cheek to the side of Duncan’s chin. Duncan was shivering.
“Hang in there,” Peter said. He worked the back of Duncan’s shirt out of his jeans and pulled up his own, pressing skin to skin. “Argh, dammit, this floor is cold.” Duncan hitched out a breathy laugh. “You with me? Duncan, you in there?”
Duncan made a sound consisting entirely of consonants, and pushed back against Peter.
“I hear you. It’s okay. First some skin time, and then we’ll get you home.”
Duncan was awakened by a noise downstairs. It was morning, sunny in the south-facing room. He wriggled his feet and stretched. He felt…better than he had in days, actually. Maybe he was finally getting over this cold. Possibly the energy from beyond the door had had something to do with that–Duncan had been rawly sensitive to it this time around–though feeling himself cut off from it when the door closed had been awful, like being sucked down a drain. He couldn’t remember much about the previous night after that, though he was pretty sure Peter had crawled into bed with him and plastered himself against Duncan at some point, giving Duncan the touch he craved after using his power. He hoped for Peter’s sake that he wasn’t still contagious.
Peter’s footsteps sounded on the narrow stairs, strangely slow. Then there was a soft tapping on Duncan’s door. “Hey, sleepyhead, you back in the land of the living?”
“Yeah, come on in.”
His door swung open. A large cone of coloured cellophane floated into the room.
Duncan sat up in bed. “What is that?”
“That is possibly…” Peter put it on the floor, where it reached to his hip. “…the largest fruit basket I have ever seen, and as a guy who works in long-term care, I know from fruit baskets.”
“You mean with actual fruit?” He’d always thought that was a Hollywood myth, like Christmas bonuses.
“Yeah. You know. Fruit. In a basket.” Peter nudged it, and the cellophane rattled. “Open it! Can I open it?”
“Go ahead,” said Duncan, who had experienced Peter faced with Christmas presents and was only surprised that the cellophane had lasted this long.
“Awesome. Oh, here, you read the card.”
“From Sylvia and Graham with our deepest thanks and wishes for your renewed good health,” Duncan read out loud.
“Wow,” Peter said, casting the cellophane aside.
“Is that a whole pineapple?”
“Yep. Have you ever carved a pineapple?”
“No. Where I come from, pineapple comes out of a can.”
“Me either. We’ll have to google it.”
“And that’s a papaya, I think. I’ve never had fresh papaya.” Only the chewy, sugary orange cubes that came in convenience store trail mix.
“Kiwis. Clementines. Ooh, dried cherries. We are living large.” Duncan’s stomach rumbled, and Peter laughed. “Would you like me to peel you a grape?”
Duncan’s phone chimed, and he glanced at it. A notification of an email from Sarah hovered on his screen.
“Trouble?” Peter asked.
“I hope not.”
Last night was quiet, Duncan read when he pulled the email up. Thanks so much for your help. I hope you’re feeling better. I know you said you don’t charge, but…. She and Mikey had made a donation in his name to the West End LGBT Youth Centre.
“Nice,” Peter said when Duncan showed him. Duncan smiled and texted back a thanks. He could guess how much Sarah and Mikey’s twenty dollars had meant to them.
“And a pomegranate!” Peter hitched himself onto the bed at Duncan’s feet and dug his thumbnails into the red fruit. “How are you feeling?”
“A lot better.”
“Could you hand me a couple of kleenexes?” Duncan pulled a few from the box on the bedside table and passed them to Peter, who spread them on his lap. “You up to anything today?”
“I’ve got work in the afternoon. You?”
The pomegranate’s rind gave way with a sound like tearing cloth. Ruby seeds scattered across the duvet. Peter collected them into the tissues on his lap, then held out a segment to Duncan, scarlet teardrops in a honeycomb of white pith.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had one of these either,” Duncan asked, as one of the seeds tumbled into his cupped hand.
“Babcia loved them.” Peter crunched down on a seed. “What about this morning?”
“I might just stay in bed and read for a while.” Though it was Thursday, it felt oddly like a lazy weekend morning.
“I’m here for that.” Peter gathered up his makeshift napkin and scooted to the head of the bed, where he flopped beside Duncan. “What are you reading?” Duncan retrieved his latest cozy mystery from the bedside table so Peter could see the cover. “Oh, does she do the ones with the dogs too?”
“Yeah. What are you reading?”
“The whole thing?”
Peter snorted and elbowed Duncan. He put the pomegranate on the duvet and took his phone out of his pocket. Duncan folded back the cover of his paperback, and they settled into an easy silence, the sunlight through the windows lengthening towards them, the red pomegranate open between them like a rose in bloom.