by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色 墨) and Tougyo (闘魚)
I didn’t die. That was the worst part.
I didn’t cross the street. That was it. I don’t remember why, it was some small thing, some little thing, like maybe there was someone scary on the other side, or the line at the Jamba Juice was really long, or something. Something. Something. And then I thought it was a good thing, because then a car ran the light and I would have died, and then I thought, I should have died. Because after that, I wasn’t me anymore, I didn’t exist, and I saw the future in their eyes, because once you’re dead you can see the future. The future doesn’t do you any good if you’re dead; that’s why they give it to you.
But I couldn’t see my future, no matter how hard I stared in the mirror, and that was the worst part, because I didn’t know how to die.
BART, though, now BART makes it easy. You get good money, and there’s cover if it rains, and they chase you away but you can always come back when they’re gone. Save up some coins, go somewhere else; two bucks can get you a different sidewalk and a different sky and maybe a hot dog that a pigeon hasn’t eaten first. And you can sleep on the train. People do it all the time. We do it all the time. I do it all the time.
So I’m at MacArthur, right, that is, MacArthur station, and this guy comes out of the gates (hiss hiss squeak) and he actually looks at me (without looking away afterward or pretending like he didn’t see me), and I see him too and it’s like
there’s a mirror in the bathroom and behind it there are pills and
And he’s crossing the street (I wish I could cross the street). . . he’s going. . . where? home but not where the heart is, not where anything is, just where the pills are, but pills don’t kill you, I tried that once, I was young (still young always young), didn’t know–
“Hey,” I say, and then I can’t say anything more because I don’t know who that is, that voice, it’s coming from so close. “Hey,” I say again, because now I know it’s me, and now the guy looks at me. He has green eyes and brown hair, kinda short, normal guy, normal tall, normal clothes. “It’s not worth it. I tried it once.”
He stares at me now, all scared, thinking I read his mind (I read his mind), and he tries to walk away, except I say, “Hey, can you help me cross the street?”
He stops. “What?”
“I can’t cross the street,” I say. “Buy me a donut?”
He looks at me, and I look at him, and he’s thinking, he’s thinking what does it matter, I go home and I die, or I help this guy and he mugs me and I die, it’s the same, and if I die here he takes my money and he gets a fix or a donut or a whore and hell yeah, why not, hell why not, and the future scrambles, the pills aren’t there anymore, and now I can’t see it because I can’t see myself, and he’s in myself, in my view.
“Sure,” he says.
“I’m Jared,” I say, because it’s the polite thing to do.
Fuck, I hate crossing the street.
It’s three o’ clock.
“Unlucky,” I say. “It’s unlucky, unlucky. We’ll cross at 3:15. Yeah. 3:15. Yeah.”
“You said two o’ clock was unlucky, and then 2:15, and then 2:30, and then 2:43,” Mason says, and he’s trying to be patient, he’s thinking about those pills, and–no, it’s gone, I can’t see it anymore. It’s nice, the quiet is nice. “It’s not that big, dude, the cars will stop.”
I’m thinking about that big black truck on Bancroft, the one that didn’t stop, the one that would’ve hit me, turned me into red pulp and bone under the wheels, flung me into the gutter like a fly-buzzing cat. But I didn’t cross the street. I didn’t die. But it didn’t stop, didn’t stop, didn’t stop didn’t stop didn’t stop didn’t stop didn’t stop didn’t stop didn’t stop
“Shut up and cross the fucking street!” Mason yells, and he pushes me.
My feet hit the street. I can’t move, I’m so scared I’m gonna puke–
Mason grabs my arm and pulls. He’s okay. He makes me feel okay. I can cross the street when there’s lots of people around, cars won’t hit you when there’s another person there, they don’t wanna kill, they don’t wanna kill more than two, more than four, more than five–
We’re across the street, and I can’t stop shaking. I lean against the bus stop, the metal’s cold and smells like rust and sweat and piss, and I press my lips to it because it’s nice, it’s real, it’s here.
“That’s gross,” Mason says, and yanks me away. “C’mon, this way.”
He buys me a donut. It has powdered sugar on it.
I drop the donut when we cross the street again, and I can see it under the wheels of a red Volvo. If it were a jelly donut, it would have had purple guts. Mason says he’ll buy me another one, he’ll buy me fried chicken, he’ll buy me a fucking meal at the fucking French fucking Laundry if I’ll just fucking cross the fucking street.
The next one, the last one, it’s small, and Mason holds my arm the entire time. He’s warm and smells like clean and gum. It’s nice, kind of like the end of prom. I’m supposed to be drunk and wobbling in my heels because my feet hurt, and my hair’s fallen down. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. Ha. Ha. I’m laughing when we get to the apartment.
It’s a hole, like the kind a rat lives in, or a hobbit, or the inside of a pumpkin. Mason doesn’t hit the ceiling, but he’s close. I can put both my hands flat against the ceiling, and I do, and then I stare at the ceiling until all the blood rushes to behind my eyes. I haven’t been inside in a long time. The street is out there, but I’m not out there. I can’t hear the cars. I want to stay here forever. I wonder if he’ll let me stay here forever, if he’ll buy me more donuts for saving his life. I’ll flush the pills down the toilet.
“Sit down,” Mason says. There’s a couch, an ugly orange and blue one with branches and flowers and birds on it. It’s at the foot of the bed. There’s a bed in his living room. I can see the kitchen through the doorway next to this bed. I don’t think this hole has a bedroom. Maybe he’s a hobbit.
“Are you a hobbit?” I ask.
“What?” Mason says. “Jesus, you’re fucking crazy.”
I nod, because you should do that when people tell the truth. “Don’t die,” I tell him.
He stares at me, like who are you to be the judge of that? but he’s scared, too. You don’t need to die to know how to tell when people are scared.
“Take a shower,” he says. “You can wear some of my clothes. They’ll be too big, but I have a feeling you won’t care.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll flush the pills down the toilet,” I add, because I’m trying to be helpful.
“Don’t you fucking dare,” he says, and he grabs me by the arm, shuttles me through the kitchen, and into the bathroom. He takes the pills out of the medicine cabinet before he shuts the door.
There’s something wrong with the cold water in his shower, but I don’t mind because I want a really, really hot shower. I steal his shampoo and his conditioner and his loofah (what kind of man uses a loofah, anyway?) and scrub and scrub and scrub until I turn into a lobster (but not a fish). Mason knocks and leaves me clothes and a towel, an ugly stripey one. Hobbits don’t use towels.
He’s staring into the fridge when I’m done, dressed in a pair of his sweats and a t-shirt. (I’m wearing his clothes, of course. I mean, of course he’s wearing his clothes. I’m the one in the sweatpants and t-shirt.)
(He didn’t give me his underwear.)
“I don’t have much food,” he says with a rictus. I mean, grimace.
“Of course not,” I say. “You were gonna kill yourself. Dead guys don’t need food.”
He slams the fridge shut. “Stop it,” he says, kinda loud. He’s shaking like a leaf, like a tree in the wind, like a snake’s rattle. “How did you know that? How the fuck did you know that.”
“‘Cause I’m dead,” I say, and his shirt’s all twisted up in my hands now, and I look at my hands. “Except I’m not dead, obviously, because I’m here. The car didn’t hit me.”
“Obviously,” Mason says, like I’m crazy, which I am. Dying makes you crazy. Not dying makes you crazy. What a shitty deal.
“So now I can see,” I explain.
“What can you see?” Mason demands. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You,” I answer. “What you’ll do. How you die. I can see how everyone dies except me.”
“That’s a shitty superpower,” he says, and then he starts laughing. He laughs until he can’t stand anymore, and then he sits on the floor, and I sit next to him because I don’t like standing when other people are sitting down, I never did, even when I was alive (more alive, I mean). Then he starts talking about how he brought home a fucking crazy because the crazy guy knew about the pills and the dying except really he was just crazy, and why isn’t he dead yet?
“You wouldn’t have died,” I said. “You would’ve just been sick.”
“The hell do you know?” he says, but then his lips kinda twitch and he laughs again, but it’s sick and weak like an old dog. “Of course you know,” he says, like he’s getting it, only he’s kidding.
“If you don’t die,” I say, “you turn into me, and nobody wants to be me, because that sucks.”
“But I didn’t die,” he says. “You stopped me. So am I like you now?”
“No,” I say. “You’d know, if you were like me.”
I wake up inside, and that’s the best part of the day, even though there’s crazy beeping going on nearby and the couch is too short and I only have one blanket and the hole is cold. If I’m inside, I’m not near the street. “It’s good to be back in the Shire,” I say, and pull the blanket over my head. I hear Mason roll out of bed and some loud banging, and the beeping finally stops. He stumbles into the kitchen, and I fall back asleep.
I wake back up because I’m shaking. Earthquake, whatever, they happen sometimes in California.
“Jesus, how did you manage to sleep through all that?” Mason says. “Sorry, but I have to kick you out now. You can keep the clothes. I’ve probably got a jacket you can have, too.”
“Giving away possessions is the fourth sign of suicide.” I try to go back to sleep.
“Dude, I’m not leaving a crazy homeless guy in my apartment,” he says.
“Why do you care?” I say into the couch arm. “You’re going to kill yourself anyway.”
Mason is a pretty strong guy.
“You should be on American Gladiators,” I tell him outside. He did give me a jacket. That’s nice of him. It’s green. Like the Shire. He also gives me five dollars, which is probably the most money I’ve had since last April, when I found a 20 dollar bill on the ground. It took me a whole week to spend it.
“Whatever,” he says, and walks away.
I can hear cars out here. I hate cars. I sit down on Mason’s front step, which is actually a stump, and try to go back to sleep. But I can hear the cars (I can hear the cars). I want to go back to BART, but that’s three streets away.
“I’m waiting for Mason,” I explain.
“What, you know this guy?” says Oscar.
“He helped me cross the street,” I say. “That was a nice thing for him to do.”
Oscar just looks away. Oscar is not a very polite listener. But he is orange, which is nice. I like orange. That’s why I like Mason’s apartment. It’s orange inside, and the door is orange. It says 5 on it. Mason doesn’t seem very orange, though.
“You should at least move to the Telegraph side of the block,” Oscar tells me, when he decides to notice me again. “Homeless guys don’t hang out in residential areas.”
“But I can hear the cars,” I whine. It’s quieter in the driveway, next to Mason’s door. Which is orange, but not like Oscar.
Oscar ignores me and starts licking his butt. Stupid cat.
“She’s not ready for marriage,” I tell the mailman. “And anyway, she’ll want you to go back to school.”
He runs away.
Goldfish goldfish gold fish.
“The hell are you still doing here?”
I open my eyes. The sun’s out there. So are the frogs, but I can’t see them right now. It was hot earlier, but it isn’t anymore. A guy kicked me, earlier, when he wanted to get his bike out of the garage, but it wasn’t his fault because he didn’t see me. Also, he was stoned and his girlfriend was moving out, and he was upset. He didn’t see me.
“Jesus,” Mason says. “Did you get crazier while I was out or something?”
Oh, I guess I was talking. I should talk about things that are actually important, then. “I’m thirsty,” I inform him.
Mason sighs and steps over me. He talks something out of his pocket. A parrot! No, keys. They’re shiny and smell like loose change. “I’ll get you something to drink,” he says.
The ceiling is still really low. I crawl in on my back, like a snake, and then slither up on the couch on my stomach, like a lizard. Mason brings me a glass of water. I have opposable thumbs! I drink the water and think about polar bears, because the ice caps are melting and reducing their natural habitat. But I don’t think about walruses much.
“Thank you,” I say. “How was work?”
“Shitty,” he says, shedding his jacket and hanging it up in the closet, which is very large and probably actually the size of a hobbit hole, or at least a raccoon den. “But not as shitty as yesterday.” He’s tired. His mind is tired and gray inside.
I nod. “That’s why you were going to kill yourself yesterday.”
“Will you stop saying that? It’s freaking me out.” He runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah, yesterday was a really shittastic day in a spectacularly horrible series of days in a really awful line of weeks in a tremendously terrible set of months.”
I think about this a little bit, and then tell him I lost track of what he was saying (somewhere around the butterflies, but I don’t tell him that).
Mason sighs again–he does that a lot–and sits down on the couch next to me. “This isn’t how I wanted my life to turn out,” he says, like I’m his therapist, which is really funny, so I laugh.
“It’s okay,” I say. “This isn’t how I wanted my life to turn out, either.”
I sleep on Mason’s couch again, and in the morning he doesn’t put me out like a cat.
“Touch anything and I’ll break your hands,” he tells me as he puts on his jacket, which is the same jacket as yesterday and maybe smells, and maybe that’s why everyone at his job hates him, which is why he hates his job.
“Can I touch the floor?” I ask. I don’t think I can float the whole day.
“You can touch the floor,” he says.
“And the toilet?” I ask. I can pee out the window, maybe. Or in the back yard. Does this place have a yard? Homeless guys get used to peeing in lots of different places. You could take a walking tour of places I’ve peed in the East Bay.
“You can touch the toilet,” he says.
“And the couch?” I ask, because I’m touching the couch right now.
“Just don’t steal anything, okay?” Mason says, and he leaves, because he’s going to be late if he doesn’t leave now, even though he hates his job and wishes he could quit, except he needs the money. (I didn’t read his mind, that time. It’s hard to read his mind now; it’s all tangled up like honey and twine.)
“Why would I steal anything, anyway?” I ask. “It’s not like I’m going to leave.”
Mason brings home a French twist, a glazed old-fashioned, and a chocolate cake donut with shredded coconut on top.
“I hate coconut,” I tell him.
“But you’re eating it right now,” he points out.
“Yeah, ’cause I hate it,” I say.
Mason looks like he doesn’t know what to say, so he wanders off into the bathroom instead.
“What the hell did I do with your pills?” I say, at the same time as Mason says, “What the hell did you do with my Tylenol?”
“I got rid of it,” I suggest. “Also, I hid your razor,” I say, since he’s going to ask about that next. “And your knives.”
Mason comes out of the bathroom and gesticulates wildly, much like a crazy person, or a street performer. “I’m not going to kill myself.”
“Not around other people,” I agree. I do count as other people, I’m pretty sure.
“Just–please tell me you didn’t actually chuck anything. I’m poor, I can’t afford to replace that much stuff.” He glares at me.
I look at him, and then I look at him some more, and then I forget what I was thinking about and start thinking about something else instead, because one thought is as good as another. I end up thinking about Aesop’s fables. There was one about the country mouse and the town mouse. . . no, wait, that’s not the one. Maybe I was thinking about the horse and the stag. There’s always a stag, in these things. No, no, I was thinking about the old man and the bundle of sticks.
Mason’s looked away from me by now. He looks unhappy, but he always looks unhappy.
“Why did you let me stay?” I ask.
“Well, you obviously weren’t going to leave,” he growls. “And I’m not letting a homeless guy camp out in my driveway.”
“You could’ve called the cops,” I say. “They would’ve taken me away, and you would’ve gotten peace and quiet to kill yourself, and I would’ve had a nice night in jail, and not on the street. And maybe they would have put me in an institution.” I think about this for a second. “Maybe you should still call the cops. They’ll keep the streets away.”
Mason presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. “What is it with you and streets, anyway? Why the hell can’t you cross a fucking street?”
“Because the car didn’t hit me,” I say, and I eat the French twist next, because the glazed old-fashioned is my favorite, but not as favorite as buttermilk.
“Hey, you have a chess set!” I yell from Mason’s closet. It’s black and white and small and square.
Mason comes into the living room, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Someone gave me that as a present, a while back.” He looks uncomfortable when he says it, and there’s a picture of a girl in his head. Oh. I don’t ask.
“Can we play?” I ask. I like chess. “Can you teach me?”
“Uh, sure, I guess,” Mason says. “Set up on the floor, since I don’t really have a table in this place.”
So we sit on the hardwood floor. Heh. Hard wood. Hahahaha. Mason kinda gives me a weird look, but he doesn’t say anything and just sets up the board instead. I watch him place the pawns, ticking through his head how all the pieces move. He hasn’t played in a while, but he’s just teaching, so it’ll be okay, he thinks.
“Okay,” Mason says, and I make like I’m paying attention. “I’ll explain how the pieces move. You’ll probably forget, but that’s okay, I’ll remind you. Chess isn’t about remembering how the pieces move, anyway. Well, it is, but in the sense of being able to read ahead and anticipate your opponent’s moves.” He’s already thinking about which piece he’s going to move first. I don’t listen at all as he explains how the pieces move.
“Here,” he says. “You can go first.”
I move a pawn, because at least I can remember how those go. Mason moves a pawn, too. Then I move another pawn, because I still don’t know what I’m doing, and here Mason sits and thinks for a while. Pictures flicker through his head: he can move a pawn here, or he can move a knight there, or he can move this pawn here. He’ll do that, he decides, because then in the next move he can do this, and the only way I can negate him is if I do en passant, which I don’t know on account of my being a n00b.
So I take his pawn on the next move, with en passant, whatever that is.
“Hey,” Mason objects. “Hey hey hey. That’s not–”
“It is too,” I say.
He gives me a suspicious narrow-eyed look. “That’s not what I was gonna say. You play before?”
“I read stuff,” I lie.
He doesn’t say anything, just looks at the board again. Scenarios play out in his head, pieces flickering here, there, sometimes too fast for me to really tell what’s going on. Finally, he settles for moving out a knight. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do here, so I just stick out another pawn, far away from his knight so that he can’t get it. Mason raises an eyebrow, and the board in his head changes. “Don’t do that,” he says. “You don’t remember how a piece moves, you ask me. See, you put your pawn here,” and he points, “I could take it with this guy here,” and he taps his other knight.
“Oh,” I say. “Okay.”
“Unless, of course, you’re laying a trap,” he says. “I take your pawn here, yeah, and boom! Suddenly, your queen could eat ‘im.”
The board in his head flickers and snaps, like one of those time-lapse photos or videos or whatever, the stars suddenly changing place in the sky, traffic turning into long bright worms on the street.
“Okay,” I say, and follow the pictures in his head.
A few moves later, I sacrifice my queen, because the picture in Mason’s head said I could stop him that way. He picks it up in his hand and stops, and he’s giving me a mad look. “There’s no way,” he says. “There’s no way. That’s no rookie move, sacrificing a queen. Nobody does that without a good reason.”
“I had a good reason,” I burble.
“Yeah, let’s hear it!” he says, his eyebrows getting down real low.
I can’t help myself. I laugh. “HELLO,” I say. “MY NAME IS JARED, AND I CAN READ MINDS.” And I fall over backward, laughing.
Mason stares for a second, all bug-eyed like: 8O, and he puts down the queen. For a second I think he’s gonna be mad, he’s gonna punch me, but instead he grins and then he laughs too, and it’s a great sound, and I think I haven’t heard him laugh since I got here, I don’t know that I’ve even seen him smile.
“Fine,” he says. “Fine. I’m the ass here, for forgetting that I’m playing chess against a mind-reader. Jesus Christ, I’m an idiot.” But he says it like he doesn’t mean it.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” Mason says. “You’re going to cross the street, and when you cross the street, you get a donut. Like a reward.”
“Woof,” I say.
“I, uh,” says Mason.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not offended or anything.” And I’m not, really, because I like donuts. Donuts are great, and Lee’s Donuts has the best donut holes.
“Okay, then,” Mason says. “Let’s go.”
Okay, here is the thing, and the thing is that I like the outside. It smells nice outside, like there’s fresh air and things, and also there are bugs, which are not so nice, but the bzz bzz bzz sounds nice. I can pretend that everything’s bees, like the cars and things, except I hate cars, I’m afraid of cars, and I’m afraid of bicycles too, but mostly because I’m embarrassed, like what if I get hit by a bicycle and break my arm and then have to explain that I was hit by a bicycle. Laaaaaaaame.
Mason holds my hand as we go up the street, like he thinks I might run away, or maybe like we’re boyfriends, which makes me laugh. Mason gives me a weird look, but he smiles too, and I hit him and yell, “Slugbug!”
“Fuck off,” he says, but he doesn’t let go of my hand.
We have to cross Mason’s street, which is not very big, but it’s still a street and there are still cars, and sometimes cars speed, even when there are speed bumps that’ll mess up the undercarriage, and also–but Mason puts his hand over my eyes.
“Should’ve brought a fucking blindfold,” he says. “Look, I’m holding your hand, okay? It’s okay. Just, I don’t know, listen to my voice or something. I’ll keep talking, you keep walking. So, uh, okay. I guess I should’ve had a story prepared or something. Maybe about hobbits or something, you seem really obsessed with those for some reason.”
“It’s because you live in a hole,” I say.
“Hey, that’s no way to talk about your host,” he says.
“Well, you do,” I say.
He takes his hand away from my eyes. We’re on the other side of the street.
“It was a small street,” I inform him, in case he gets any ideas, which he will, because he’s Mason.
“How the hell have you been living, if you’re afraid to cross the street?” he says. “No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”
I don’t tell him. He lets go of my hand. We walk on the sidewalk. There are a lot of cars. Maybe one of them will come up on the sidewalk and kill me. I decide I want to sit down.
“Hey hey hey,” Mason says. “What’re you doing?”
Maybe Mason is crazy too, if he doesn’t know what I’m doing. “I’m sitting,” I say.
Mason grabs my wrist and yanks. Dude’s pretty strong, but I think I said that earlier, up there in the scene where Mason woke me up and tossed me out the front door with one of his jackets, which by the way I am still wearing. It fits pretty nice. Anyway, I stand up, because otherwise Mason will dislocate my shoulder, and then he will feel terrible.
“We’re gonna cross at the light,” he says.
“No,” I say, and plant my feet, like in that one movie with Whoopi Goldberg and the basketballs.
“Think of the donuts,” Mason says. “I’ll buy you a glazed old-fashioned. A chocolate-glazed old-fashioned. No, a maple-glazed old-fashioned. I’ll buy you a buttermilk donut.”
“Get thee behind me, demon!” I yell, and close my eyes so that I don’t see him, except that makes the cars louder, so I open them again. Mason’s got both hands on mine, now, and he’s pulling, like we’re kids playing tug of war, and I think that if I stopped resisting we’d both fall over, and then I think about penguins, and the one that falls into the water and gets eaten by a leopard seal, except in my head the leopard seals look like busses and the penguin is me.
A bus slows down and starts pulling up and oh god it’s coming toward the sidewalk it’s going to eat me it’s going to eat me I’m going to be crushed squished like a strawberry all red on the sidewalk
I stop pulling against Mason, and yeah, we fall over, like on a sit-com, and I land on Mason’s legs, which are really very bony. I scramble to my hands and knees, ready to run away, except I remember Mason and I don’t want him to get squished by the bus either, he’s been so nice to me, but Mason is still lying on his back on the sidewalk and the bus is, the bus is stopped at the curb. At the bus stop.
I crawl back to Mason. “Don’t look now,” I whisper, “but I think the people at the bus stop are staring at us.”
Mason actually has a lot of movies, even though his entertainment center’s very small, so the movies kinda spill in stacks around it and on top of the TV and even on his desk. I didn’t look at them much at first because he had so many they kind of overwhelmed me, and also I spent the first few days sleeping and cleaning, because Mason is actually a pretty dirty guy.
Funny thing about such a dirty guy, though: his movies are alphabetized. And organized by genre, except most of them are very serious movies (like Memento and A Beautiful Mind) and some of them I haven’t even heard of (like Coffee and Cigarettes) and there are lots of foreign films, like In the Mood for Love and Run Lola Run). Lots of Woody Allen, lots and lots of old movies, like the kind that’re in black and white. Most of them are VHS.
I pick a movie called The Seventh Seal because the back of the box says it’s about death and I’m into that, seeing as how I’m dead only not really. The movie turns out to be in Swedish or Finnish or Norwegian or something, and it’s been so long since I read subtitles that I almost forgot how, and I have to rewind a lot. But I keep watching, because this movie is okay, even though I don’t know what’s going on, much. But it’s not like I know what’s going on, like, ever.
Mason comes home at the part where they’re burning the witch at the stake. I’m sitting on the floor with my back against the coffee table and my knees up against my chest, chewing on my thumb like I used to when I was a kid. I don’t like this scene. It reminds me of a scary movie I once saw, with a guy with a pyramid for a head.
Mason closes the door behind him and takes off his shoes, and then he sits down on the couch and watches the movie with me. I crawl up on the couch with him and lean against his arm. He’s warm and smells like office supplies. He doesn’t know why I’m touching him.
“She’s crazy,” I inform him.
“You’d know,” he says. His mouth is twitching. He’s trying not to smile.
“Yeah, well,” I say, frowning. But I don’t have anything clever to say back, so I watch the movie again. The knight and his–friends? companions? ragtag band of adventurers? I don’t have a clue, not that I had one to begin with–ride away from the lady tied to a ladder tied to a tree in the middle of a bunch of fire. “What is this movie about?” I ask.
“A lot of things,” he says.
“The back of the box said it was about death,” I say.
“Well, he’s been playing chess with Death,” he says.
“I noticed,” I say. “But, I mean, there’s all this stuff with the plague, and I don’t get it, and didn’t the Crusades and the plague happen in different centuries?”
“Yeah,” Mason says. “The anachronism was deliberate.”
“Oh,” I say, and watch the movie some more. “Does the knight lose?” I ask.
“Eventually,” he says. “Everyone loses eventually.”
“I won’t,” I declare. “I just won’t cross the street. Ever.”
“What if a piano falls on your head or something?” he says.
“But I was supposed to die when a car hit me,” I say. It’s obvious, right? I’m not gonna die ‘cept in the way I was supposed to die. That’s the way it works.
Mason shakes his head. “You’re crazy,” he says. He says that a lot. “I mean,” he goes on, “I mean, from where I’m sitting, your life kinda sucks. You’re homeless and crazy. I mean, why bother?”
“Why not?” I say, watching the knight and his gang, his entourage, his whatever, arrive at the castle.
Mason looks at me, and the pictures in his head are weird and mixed up so that I can’t really tell what’s going on. There’s arms with white scars on them, and pills, and a man with an angry face, and a desk, and a girl, and I don’t know what else. So I lean harder, until he says, “Hey, get your own pillow,” and I put my hand on his hand, and he doesn’t move it away.
There’s a wall that’s a different color from the other walls. I wonder why I didn’t notice before. Okay, it’s a color that’s almost like the other colors, only it’s kinda yellow instead of kinda orange. And it’s not ugly or anything. It’s an–it’s a–whatchamacallit, an “accent wall.” Yeah. That’s Mason’s excuse. I’ll let him know, as soon as he gets back. He’ll be back any second now, and that’s good, because I’m bored and I’m sick of watching good movies, I gotta get Mason to go to Blockbuster or something and rent a trashy Adam Sandler comedy. He’ll love Click.
I don’t open the door or anything, because I figure Mason’s got a key, that’s what’s making that sound, right? But today, when Mason gets back, it takes him longer to open the door than usual, and then he doesn’t look at me, he doesn’t say hi or what’s up or you freak or anything, he just sits down on the step and takes off his shoes, which he never does, he never sits down to take off his shoes, he just kicks them off in the middle of the doorway so you step on them when you want to go outside, which is okay for me because I never go outside anyway. There are cars out there, and cars will hit you.
Finally, Mason stands up, and then he looks at me, and he still doesn’t say anything, and he shuts the door and then he goes into the kitchen.
I get a feeling like a spider’s walking across my brain. Dark thoughts dark thoughts but not dark thoughts. I get off the couch and amble into the kitchen, but Mason’s gone into the bathroom and shut the door.
“Mason,” I say, “are you killing yourself?”
“No,” Mason says. “Can’t you tell, Mr. Psychic Mind-Reader?”
“I can’t do Jedi mind tricks when I can’t see you,” I inform him. “It’s a really shitty superpower,” I add.
“Great,” Mason says. “Then go away.”
I open the door because Mason’s crappy bathroom door doesn’t have a lock on it. He’s sitting on the toilet with all his clothes on and his elbows on his knees, and he gives me one of those looks that can kill you, if looks could kill, which they can’t. That’s a good thing, otherwise I’d be dead now, and I would have been paranoid about crossing streets for no reason.
“Are you gonna kill yourself with all your clothes on?” I ask. “You might want to change into more comfortable ones.”
“I’m not going to kill myself,” he says, but he sounds tired and sad. He punches the wall then, so loud it makes me jump, and he yells, “Fuck!” Then he yells “Fuck!” again and grabs his deodorant and throws it at me so it misses and hits the wall behind me instead. “Go away!” he screams.
“Why are you mad at me?” I ask.
“I’m not,” he says, but he sounds mad.
“You should be mad at your work,” I tell him. “Why do you work there, if they make you mad?”
“Need the money,” he says, and suddenly he looks sad. “Fuck,” he says, and I’d be really rich now if I had a dollar for every time he said that.
“I don’t get it,” I say. “I’m dead but I don’t wanna die, and you’re alive but you wanna die. That’s D-U-M dumb. We should switch lives.”
“Yeah, we should,” he says. “I mean, no. I don’t, I don’t mean that. Or maybe I do.” He sighs, like he does a lot. “I just want to, I dunno, start over or something. I got no friends, no family, no one who gives a rat’s ass about me. My job is shit, my apartment’s a hole, and my whole life is shit.”
“I technically don’t exist,” I suggest.
He drops his head so I can’t see him smile, but I know he’s doing it anyway, and maybe he knows, too. “Yeah,” he says. “Could always be worse.”
I watch him for a second. The pictures in his head are milky and gray and tired. He’s thinking about how tomorrow he’s going to have to get up and go to work, and how people are gonna look at him, and how he’s going to do it again and again and again–
“Quit your job,” I suggest.
“Like there’s so many people out there who wanna hire a loser like me,” Mason says, rubbing his eyes. “I never even went to college.”
“Okay, then you can keep being sad,” I say. “I’m gonna go take a nap.”
“Okay,” Mason says. He keeps looking at his hands. I grab one. “What?” he says.
“Take a nap with me,” I say. “You’ll feel better.”
“You’re crazy,” he says, like he usually does, but he says it with affection.
“C’mon,” I say. I pull him up, and he lets me.
I’m lying on my couch (yeah, it’s my couch, I like my couch, it has character) and listening to how there’s a wall between me and the street, and a roof between me and the sky, and I’m thinking about how nice this is. I like it here.
“I think we oughta try the whole crossing the street thing again,” Mason’s saying from the kitchen. He’s doing the dishes. There’s a sound like a waterfall, but a small one, the hiss of the water coming up through the pipes. “It’s ridiculous that you can’t even cross 41st by yourself; the street’s fucking tiny, and there’s speed bumps like every two inches. No way a car’s gonna mow you down here.”
“Mmhmm,” I say.
“And maybe I’ll want you to go to 7-11 or something for some groceries sometime. Like, oh hey, Jared, we’re almost out of tuna; can you go and grab some from the store while I’m at work? You know. You might as well pull your weight around here, if you’re gonna stick around.”
“Mmhmm,” I say.
Mason comes out of the kitchen and stands behind me, where I can’t see, because I’m staring at the cracks on the ceiling and thinking that one of them looks like a dragon. “You’re not even listening,” he says, but he doesn’t sound angry, just amused.
“Not gonna cross the street,” I say.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he says, thoughtfully, and goes back into the kitchen. Whatever.
He drops something in the sink. I hear it shatter. “Ow,” he says, then “Fuck.” I put another dollar in my imaginary jar. “Jesus Christ,” he says, which is another thing he says a lot. “Shit.” Then nothing.
Then nothing and nothing and nothing for so long that I have to sit up and say, “Mason?”
“How did,” he says. His voice is shaking, and I’ve never heard that before. I don’t like new things; I don’t like change. I sit up. “How did–you know?” he asks.
“Know what?” I ask, and I get up from the couch.
“That you were supposed to be dead.”
No. Shit. No no no no no no no no no. I don’t go any farther. Mason’s still in the kitchen. I can’t see him, I can’t see what’s in his head, I don’t want to know I don’t want to know I don’t want to know
Mason comes out of the kitchen. He stares at me, and I can see. It’s like that first day I saw him, with the pills and the vomit and his head against the toilet, eyes closed and sweat drying on his forehead, wishing he was dead but not actually dead, just sick, but they’re his pictures, they’re the one he sees–
“No,” I say. “You weren’t supposed to die. You didn’t die. I wouldn’t have stopped you, you would’ve been like me–”
“You said I’d know,” Mason says.
I hold my head. “Yes yes yes yes yes–”
“Yeah, well, I know.” He grabs my arms. “You were right, you were right, the pills didn’t kill me, but that doesn’t mean a week later–”
“No!” I yell, and grab my hands away, take a step back. I can’t look at him. “No, then it’s my fault, I did this, I stayed–”
“No, Jared,” he says, and I can see he’s going to grab me, keep me here, so I run.
I run out the door and out the driveway and down the street down the street down the street into the street the street the street and the cars scream and they stop and they howl and whine but they don’t touch me, they don’t bite me don’t claw me, their masters have them on short leashes, so that they just bark instead. WHOOOOOOOONK, like that. WHOOOOOOOONK.
“Jared!” I hear Mason yell behind me, far away. The cars bark at him, too. I keep running, my feet hit the ground one two one two one two one two, and then up to the sidewalk and around the corner. I don’t know where to go here, I haven’t been outside, I don’t know how to lose Mason or how to make him stop chasing me. So I go to BART, because that’s all I know, BART’s always been good. You get good money, and there’s shelter if it rains, and you save up some coins and go somewhere else somewhere else somewhere else
WHY DON’T THE CARS HIT ME
I jump over the gates into the station and the blue shirt yells at me “Excuse me, sir!” and I don’t listen I don’t stop I’m not dumb and I run up the escalator as the train rumbles overhead. But she stops Mason because he’s not as good at jumping over the gate and I can hear him yelling, “Fuck, can’t you tell he’s getting away?!” and they’re arguing but I can’t hear, I’m up up up up up the walking staircase the black waterfall the salmon ladder and I am the salmon, I am gone. I am gone. I’m in the train and I turn around and see Mason coming up the stairs and the train pulls away and I am gone.
I’m in Berkeley, and I’m walking down the street.
I’m in Berkeley, and there are Cal kids everywhere. Always someone to cross the street, always someone to stop the cars. I can’t die here I can’t die here I can’t die here I want to die here.
Shorter to go across campus. It’s nice, nice picnic place, there are squirrels and red trees and squirrels. They have big bushy tails and they like peanut butter. They look soft.
I’m still wearing Mason’s jacket.
Mason Mason Mason Mason Mason I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so sorry so sorry you have to believe me
I didn’t know
I didn’t know
I didn’t know
I should have known
Would I have let him die? Did I let him die? Now he’s not dead is it better than dying? No no no no no no no no no no no no no
The pigeons in my head are too loud. I stop in the middle of the sidewalk and hit myself on the head to make the thoughts stop.
“You’re going to get a venereal disease!” I blurt to a Cal kid who tries to hand me a flyer. He says “ooookay” and backs away and gives his flyer to someone else.
Bancroft and Telegraph. Telegraph is near where Mason lives. Mason is all alone now Mason went home Mason didn’t follow me because he didn’t get on the train. Mason is dead but he’s not dead and it’s all my fault and now he will be afraid of the world like me like me like me like me like me
I’m standing on the street corner mumbling “like me” over and over again to myself. Even the homeless people think I’m crazy.
I’m going to cross the street. I’m going to cross the street and that big black truck will come and it will kill me, it will mow me down and fling me into the gutter and that one girl over there is going to scream and her friend is going to faint and there will be blood, and my legs will come off at the joints and one of them will hit that homeless man over there and he will throw up–
I scream and almost fall into the street, but Mason catches me.
“Jesus,” he says.
“How did you find me?” I yell into his face, so close he can probably smell my breath but I don’t care, I don’t care, I’m scared and he won’t let me go, he won’t let me die, I’m going to miss the truck again–
“I saw you,” he says. “When you looked at me on the train, I could see where you were going to go. I thought I wasn’t gonna get here in time,” he adds.
“Was I going to die?” I ask.
He doesn’t say anything at first, and I want to scream or cry or push him, but then he smiles and says, “No.”
I sag against him. “You saw me.”
“Yeah,” he says.
“I wasn’t going to die,” I say.
“You can see,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, and he hugs me, and he’s warm and not dead and not mad at me and not sad and I don’t get it, I don’t understand, but he says “Yeah” into my hair, and it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
“So what I figure,” says Mason as we ride BART back to MacArthur, “is that I can read your mind, and you can read mine, right?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“So maybe we can, I don’t know, look out for each other,” Mason says.
“Okay,” I say. I’m still shocked. My head is full of TV snow and cotton balls but I can feel that Mason’s is full of sunrises.
“Hey,” he says, and he puts his hand on my leg. I stare at the octopus, then up at him. “It’ll be okay,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
He takes my hand when we come to the street. I look at him, I’m so scared I wanna puke, but he just says, “It’s okay. A car’s not gonna come.” And a car doesn’t come.
When we come to the next street, the big street, he says, “Don’t worry. You’re not gonna die here.” And everyone stops, and no one runs the red light, and we make it across the street.
The orange-red door that says 5 on it is closed, but not locked, but everything inside is there. But it doesn’t matter, anyway, because Mason is dead and this isn’t his place anymore, he’s dead dead dead dead dead dead and not mad. Why isn’t he mad?
“Why aren’t you mad?” I ask.
Mason tilts his head and thinks, too fast or me to see. I see him reach out a hand on my shoulder, I see him dropping the glass in the sink, I see him seeing him dying. “I don’t know,” he says, and then I’m looking at mushrooms. “I just feel like–I feel like this is what I wanted, the whole time. I wanted to die without dying. I just wanted to start over.” He looks at me. “Am I going to go crazy, like you?”
“No,” I say, and I’m sure, and I’m looking in his eyes and I can see, I can see him, and he’s smiling and unafraid and everything that I never was. “I went crazy because I could see how everyone dies except me.”
“But now I can see it,” he says, and he puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Yeah,” I say. “And I can see you.” And then, because I know what’s going to happen, because I can see it, I lean up and kiss him.
He’s not surprised; he saw this coming, too. He puts his hand in my hair and scratches, he puts his tongue in my mouth and licks. I can see his joy and gratitude in colors, pink and orange and glee, in the dark behind my eyes, and I laugh. And he laughs too, we laugh into one another’s teeth, and it’s warm and wrong and good.
I see us twisted up in the sheets, skin to skin. I see him on top, then on his side, his arms tangled with someone else’s (mine).
I see him kiss my face, my mouth, my neck, my chest, my stomach, my cock. I see him smiling and afraid and smiling and happy, and I suck in a breath when I see him take that cock in his hand and pull, gentle, up and down and up and down, and I’m getting hard, I’m so hard, hard here and in that future-picture in my head. It feels good, I haven’t been hard in so long, too scared to be aroused and no one to play with, and I can’t see so good the parts that are my future are twisted up and fuzzy, but I can see his future and his future and mine are the same now, right now, right now right now it’s all right now.
“What do you see?” he says in my ear, so soft and gentle it’s mostly air, and I know he’s hard too, I can see it in bright red and black.
“Us,” I say. “You.”
I know what he wants I know what he wants. He wants me to suck his cock on my knees with him on the bed, his fingers in my hair. He won’t pull on my hair, he promises, he won’t use my ears to fuck my mouth. But I want him to fuck my mouth, I want him to kiss the inside of my thigh, and I feel him gasp beside me because hello, his name his Mason and he can read minds.
What do you see? I ask.
He sees the same thing I see. He sees us naked, he sees us touching each other, he sees me take his fingers into my mouth and suck, and watch as his eyes go dark and cloudy. He sees his hand against my pale chest, he sees his hand against my thigh, he sees his hand on my backside. He sees me kiss his wrist, his knuckles, his knee, everywhere except my cock, where he wants me to kiss; he sees me tease him, not because I’m cruel but because I love the democratic touch. He sees me laugh, and to him it’s beautiful, even when it doesn’t make sense, and he sees me finally touch his cock, just a light brush of fingers, like I’ve never seen one in my life and I don’t know what it’ll do.
And then it gets all twisted up, him and me and us and we, and we’re fucking with the lights on, so everything is orange and gold and autumn, and he’s inside me or I’m inside him, it’s hard to tell, with hands on our cocks and tongues on each other’s skin, and the mattress is squeaking and the bed is groaning as we fuck, we fuck ourselves, we fuck each other into oblivion, and we know what he wants, we know what we want, and what we want is to 69, our mouths on each other and our fingers up each other’s asses, what we want is to ride each other, what we want is to look at each other’s faces as we fuck, what we want is to fuck all day and not give a shit about the world anymore, what we want is to come and feel the other person coming too, because we can do that now–
“Ah, Christ,” Mason says into my shoulder as he comes, a dark patch spreading across the front of his pants.
I blink, and the porno movie in my head stops, colored at the edges by dark embarrassment. “Did you just come?”
“Yeah, well, so did you,” he points out.
I look down. Oh, I did. It probably felt good.
He laughs and kisses me again. “Come on,” he says against my mouth. “Let’s make the future happen.”
The lights are still on when I open my eyes, and I squint at the alarm clock on the bedside table. It’s three o’ clock, but I can’t tell if it’s daytime or nighttime, and I can’t quite bring myself to care enough to sit up and look out the window. Mason’s still asleep next to me–or is he? I study his face.
“Stop looking at me,” he says.
“Why?” I ask. I’ve never felt so good in my entire life, not that I can remember much of it before I died. Or failed to die. But I’m pretty sure that I never felt this happy, or this fucked out.
“Because it’s weirding me out,” he says, and opens his eyes. I grin and feel under the sheets, between his legs. He frowns at me, but in his head he’s smiling.
“What are we going to do now?” I ask. “Besides have more sex,” I add, because I can see that in a moment, he’s going to kiss me, and then he’s going to push me down and rub his cock against mine until he comes.
“Have more sex,” he says. “And then. . . go to Mexico, I guess.”
“Mexico?” I repeat. There are pictures of dolphins in his head, and whales.
“It’s where I was going to go when I died,” he says. “Only now you can keep me from dying.”
“How did you die?” I ask, distracted. A picture blooms in his head, white on blue. “A plane crash? What are the chances? More people die from getting stung by bees.”
“Yeah, well, how many people d’you think get hit by cars?” he says.
“A lot,” I maintain, stubbornly. I think of that big black truck, but somehow, it’s no longer frightening.