by Bara Akai (薔薇・赤い)
illustrated by llyse
“What was it like?” Michael turned on the bed to face Drew, his heavy eyes darkened to pits in the low lighting that filtered in from the hallway almost five feet away. He and Drew were two heavy bodies draped against the blue satin sheets on Michael’s bed. Their limbs were lanky and weighted from too-long sleeps and the chill they shared at the heart. They settled themselves around each other, wrists and ankles like felled tree branches after a storm — tangled and too big, too full of rain water, to move. It was the beginning of fall but felt like the beginning of winter as the smell of snow crept down from the Appalachian Mountains and into the outskirts of their North Carolina college town.
“What was what like?” Drew looked down at Michael, his weight shifted onto his elbow as he sat up halfway. His lips were blue and purple on the side where his blood had settled in their lethargy. It hadn’t had time to shift with his weight and he looked bruised, mottled as an overripe peach, over dusky brown skin that stretched precariously over dried bones.
Michael moved so he could cover the loaded side of Drew’s face with one pale white hand and then took the glasses from Drew’s nose. He reached over Drew’s shoulder to place them on the nightstand before answering. “What was it like when you returned?”
Andrew woke to darkness. It was an instant of nothingness, and then a startling vein of clarity that was punctuated with too little air and too much resistance. There was no up or down, just heaving, gasping panic with air that fought and burned his lungs and throat as he let out a startled yell. He was trapped.
His feet met resistance as he kicked out. The walls were padded but firm under his shoes. His elbows hit the same obstruction and his hands groped forward to crush the faux-silk that was inches from his nose. “Michael!”
He knocked his glasses askew and thought of small blessings — like being alive and cushioned — as the air burned and pooled, cold and dead in his lungs. He screamed once, twice, and prayed for small favors: a passing stranger, a familiar face. He was going to die.
He had already died.
Trapped. His hands shook. He still couldn’t tell if he was lying flat or standing but he clawed and screamed until his mind was blanketed by a single concept: he had to get out.
Andrew didn’t remember getting out of the casket. He had splinters in his palms and arms and gashes down his legs. He remembered, later, the taste of cold dirt in his mouth, the feel of old leaves scraping down his skin as he scrambled out of a half-filled burial plot. He remembered how his fingers dug into the hard earth and how dirt covered his hands, his mouth, his hair. He remembered the desperate skittering scrape, scrape, scrape of his dress shoes on the rocks and roots that he used to pull himself out with.
He remembered being reborn.
There was an empty oak tree over his burial plot and no headstone. He grabbed his knees and keened with the acute feeling of loss. He was cold and the fresh air burned his eyes and tongue as the sun rose above him.
Michael was not there. The birds sang and burst from tree branches. Drew was in Bethany cemetery, twenty miles from home, and no one knew he was dead except Michael.
“They caught me digging up your grave,” Michael started as Drew finished. “I had almost reached your casket when the police arrived. The church thought I was a prowler.”
Drew snorted and ducked his head back down into Michael’s pillows. “If the image fits.”
“Mmhm,” Michael chuckled, curling his hands into Drew’s dreads. He twisted his fingers about them as if to roll them tighter. Maintaining dreads was almost as alien a concept to him as tap-dancing and Michael had no idea if he was helping or destroying them. “Old man dressed in black carrying a shovel and a family Bible?”
“Yeah, okay.” Drew sucked down resentment and stared towards the bedroom door instead, bemused. “You looked like a grave robber.”
Michael said nothing of that and they settled into silence as Michael rubbed his thumbs into Drew’s hair and pressed his pale lips into a thin line. Michael hated to be nettled, and Drew was so good at doing just that.
Drew broke the peace between them, still turned stubbornly away with his hands fisting the sheets. “I didn’t know, you know. I thought. . .”
Drew’s admission had Michael parting his lips with a sigh. “That I’d just — left you to suffocate.”
A nod. “Yeah.”
“I know that now.”
“You were so angry, Andrew.” Michael shut his eyes as Drew turned around in bed and placed his thumbs over Michael’s eyelids.
It was nine a.m. and Michael’s coffee had been steadily growing colder for more than an hour. He had poured it out of habit and then settled himself in the front room of the department, just waiting for someone else to come in and breathe some life into the building. He needed the little sounds of grumbling professors and heckled young adults to survive the day, but so far there had been nothing but silence.
He had arrived three hours early for a normal work day, but today was Saturday.
Michael thought it was Friday. He expected his coworkers to come in grinning, not knowing that Drew had passed away three days before. Drew, a lively graduate student, resident TA, and avid debater on all social concepts, was still alive and well to them. Drew had simply gone up north to visit family after he and Michael took a personal day. That was all.
Michael hadn’t seen a problem with the lies; he had been sure that Drew would be back to work, back to school, by Monday. Lying was only a problem if Andrew was dead, and Michael had been certain that was a fixable ailment.
Monday, Michael had fantasized, they would stage an argument in the front room next to the heavy old banisters and bricked-in fireplace. He would be red in the face to Drew’s calm assertions and they’d circle each other the way two wolves circled fresh meat. Both the other TAs and Michael’s co-workers would laugh at them; they always did, and he and Andrew would excuse themselves to Michael’s office.
That had been their normal pattern. They had followed it every day for two years. Michael was sure it would never happen again.
Michael put the mug to his lips — #1 Jackass, Drew had given it to him on April Fools — and let the sludge formerly known as coffee slide over his tongue. He had read every transcript, every cultural variation, and every notion of every herb that could be used to revive someone…and it had all been for nothing. He had been wrong. Mystical hand waving, hard science with electricity and the right medicinal plant or mixture… nothing. There was no magic number, no Fibonacci.
Drew was gone. Simply gone.
Michael rubbed his eyes with his hand, feeling older and more brittle than he would have thought possible at forty. All the hope and excitement had dulled into the cool ache of failure, and now he was stuck in an empty department building with a cooling cup of coffee in his hands and a police write up on grave desecration in his back pocket.
The front door slammed open and Michael nearly had a heart attack when his head jerked up and he saw Drew. Drew was in the doorway, angry and rather manic-looking with fevered brown eyes, alive. “Drew!”
“What did you do?” Drew stalked forward, trailing grave dirt from his shoes and the old work clothes he had died in.
Michael couldn’t find the air, the consciousness, to respond. His wide eyes skimmed the brittle image of a young man he thought should be dead, was dead, and buried. His mouth gaped, “Drew — you’re — ”
“What did you do?” Drew’s hands were concrete as they slammed into Michael’s shoulders. He grappled with the air, his fingers feeling alien and disconnected. They were stiff, hard to use, not connected right. Drew scrambled, fought his hands frantically until he had them under Michael’s arms. He hoisted the older man up by the shoulders and shoved him from the front room.
No one was there, but someone could always come in. All professors had a key to the department, and there were Saturday classes. Michael’s coffee cup tumbled from his fingers and shattered on the old stone tiles.
“Tell me! What did you do?”
Michael gaped soundlessly and kept staring at the dark spots on Drew’s face, the congealed blood under his skin. He reached up to cup Drew’s jaw between his palms — he had been right. It had worked. Which recipe and system, Michael didn’t know. Andrew was so cold.
“I was dead, you old fuck. I still feel dead!”
Michael didn’t realize they were in his office until he bumped into his desk and stumbled into the heavy oak desk chair he favored.
Drew didn’t say anything and Michael kept his eyes closed against the gentle pressure of the younger man’s fingerprints. “You had a reason for being angry.”
“I should have listened — ”
” — You were upset — ”
” — With the world — ”
” — With me.” Michael sighed again and pushed Drew’s hands away. He blinked away the black spots that covered his vision, but when he looked at Drew he saw only darkness and felt only the deep ache of rot. “You thought. . .”
Drew ground his teeth and pushed their foreheads together, the sign of an old argument that had long gone stale. “It doesn’t matter what I thought, old man, I didn’t ask.”
“You wouldn’t have listened then anyway.” Michael felt a smile at the corners of his lips as Drew reached out to trace the wrinkles from the corner of his eyes. “You always have to find things out by yourself. It’s that part of you that I love.”
Drew bound Michael the way he felt bound. Hands to feet, feet to hands, and then gagged to keep pretty little lies from spilling past his perfectly formed teeth.
Drew shivered in the front room, graveyard dirt and wood rot on his breath. He was cold, so cold, and it helped him learn to hate desperately and without regard.
He had learned to love the same way. Hours with Michael’s papers. Hours at the front desk: drinking coffee, laughing.
Drew tapped out Michael’s name with two fingers on the front desk. This was Michael’s fault, his and all his books’. He had done this to him, revived him. Drew scanned copies of Michael’s work as he waited. Michael had written papers upon papers on cultural views on death and revival. How they worked. Why. Some of the papers were relatively new, others were old favorites Drew had read a hundred times. This time he read them with new eyes and pulled out all of Michael’s theories and plans.
Revival was paint by numbers. Start with a dead body. Pump it with blood thinners; pump it with life, with special words, and prayers. Here was the equation. It was beautiful in its simplicity.
It was only half-done.
Michael had left him in the ground to rot without a name, without life, without a family to mourn him. Drew had woken up in a town twenty miles from his apartment on South Street. He had had to beg rides and try not to look too frightening as he shivered, blue faced, in the passenger seat of tractor-trailer trucks.
Four professors came in that day because of Saturday classes or leftover work from the week. They greeted him like an old friend. Drew smiled at them and waited, counted down the seconds and dreamed about the feel of wet heat and the smell of Michael sweating in fear.
Michael’s sweat, his act of living, would burn him. Drew fantasized about feeling warm, about the thrum of life under his hands and hope in the pit between his ribs. Michael, the old bastard, had loved him before strangling him. It’s the greatest high, Andrew. Drew thought it only fitting to let Michael feel that same high… and low. Let go. Have I ever let you down?
“I sent all your students away. I hope you don’t mind.” Drew shut the door behind him and leaned against it, palms flat against the old wood paneling. “Don’t look at me like that, it’s after five.”
Five o’clock: the end of the workday. Drew let out a slow breath and stepped forward to circle the width of the office with careful, measured steps, trailing his fingers across bookshelves, the desk, and the flaking window ledge. He needed to be calm, to be aware. The world was spinning out of control but this — this he could control.
The window by the desk opened to an alleyway floor and another building’s cement wall. It was so low to the ground that the light that squeezed through was weak and dusk-ridden at midday. Now that light painted blue shadows on Michael’s pale skin until Drew flipped the desk lamp on and covered the room in yellow.
Drew stepped over old articles, stacks of half-graded papers and water-stained books while Michael watched him with thinly-hooded resentment. He had been left trapped on the heavy desk chair in the far back right corner of the office for hours. He ground his teeth against the makeshift gag and jerked back as Drew approached.
“Besides, you were waiting all afternoon for this, weren’t you? Pervert.” Three feet away became two and Drew raked Michael’s body with his eyes. He prowled forward until his knees pressed into the space between Michael’s legs. “Where were you, Michael?”
Michael narrowed his eyes and shook his head, arching his neck wilfully. It was the best he could do by way of protest. His curly blond hair flipped up, then tumbled back into his eyes and Drew smiled at it, his hand ghosting over the edge of Michael’s knee.
He wanted this so much. It wasn’t so much revenge as need. The chill in his bones, the slowing of his blood — he needed something warm, something alive.
Michael jerked, rattling the heavy metal wheels on his chair and forcing the ropes around his wrists and legs to draw tight across his skin. Drew reached under the chair to feel the knots, drawing his fingers over the two red-and-black patterned ties that held Michael’s hands and the thin cotton ropes that linked his wrists and ankles together.
Michael had been so fucking proud of that chair. He had gotten it from his father who had salvaged it from a bank in the 1970’s. It was heavy wood, lacquered and painted green, and held together by sturdy metal supports. There was no breaking a chair like that, Michael had boasted.
Drew pulled his fingertips lightly over Michael’s eyelids and then down across the gag. Stable. He grinned as he leaned in so that he was eye to eye with the other man, “You’re slouching.”
He had caused that, too. He had bound Michael’s feet so they crisscrossed behind the legs of the chair, pulling his hips forward and forcing him to curve along its lower back. It had to be uncomfortable, but Drew liked the look of it. He had enjoyed bringing Michael cups of coffee and stacks of papers all day under the pretense of assisting the professor with grading. He had joined Michael for lunch, lounging on the older man’s desk and spending the hour just staring at the curve of Michael’s hips against the heavy old wood. Michael’s muscles had to be cramping, but the man hadn’t murmured one whimper of protest. Drew was impressed.
“What? No ‘welcome back, Drew’?” Drew kneeled in front of Michael and rested his chin on the other man’s knee. Drew had well-kept dreads that were pulled back into a loose ponytail and light rectangle glasses. While Michael was approaching forty, Drew was only twenty-six and carried his youth around with the obligatory tattoos and counter-culture clothes — at least when he wasn’t dressed for work in tight blue vests and suit pants. “Or are you not surprised that I’m back?”
He jammed his hand past Michael’s waistline, curling his fingers under it slow and deliberate, and then he pulled. The button popped and hit the desk. The zipper locked for a long moment as Drew pulled Michael’s hips up off the seat one inch at a time until, finally, the metal teeth tore apart. Michael grunted as he slumped back against the hard chair back.
“Are you really that concerned about your pants?” Drew was laughing against Michael’s thigh, sliding his hand up and over the other man’s now exposed crotch. “Commando, again? Doesn’t that chafe?”
Michael’s jaw tensed and he turned his green eyes on Drew with a look of smoldering irritation. His blunt fingernails scratched impudently at the air and Drew hid a smirk as he turned his attention back to Michael’s hips.
Michael was warm, too warm, and sweat beaded down his chest to slip out from under his white button up work shirt. Drew liked feeling the heat, loved running his fingers through the tight blond curls that started at the hem of Michael’s shirt and wound their way across the older man’s building erection.
Warm. Drew couldn’t get enough of it. Michael’s groin was somewhat sweaty from being tied down too long and from nerves and it was all Drew could do not to press his chilled cheek to Michael’s thigh and just breathe it in.
Michael had been trapped for hours, imagining that at any minute a student could have walked in and found him there. Every possible escape was less than two feet away, and he could neither yell for help nor grab the resources that lay scattered across his desk. He had used his research on cross-cultural death rites and rituals to revive Andrew; surely it could also show a way to calm him, neutralize him, until Michael could explain.
The knowledge was heady and thrilling and Drew wished he could have chanced it and done something earlier. It would have been nice to hear Michael struggle to muffle his voice — so worried a student, a co-worker, a visitor, would hear him and force their way inside the office. But there were too many dangers to that. Drew hated to be interrupted.
“Should I take off the gag? What do you think?” Drew licked his lips, dark and stained asphyxiation blue, and rubbed his thumb along the back of the other man’s cock, drawing a straight line up the back and then down around the head. “Do you want to talk to me, Professor?”
“You love the part of me that kidnapped you?” Derision. Michael smiled; it was Drew’s way of showing disbelief or concern.
“I love all of you, Andrew.” Michael palmed Drew’s chest, his hand pasty white and freckled against solid brown. They both were tinged with blue. “I wouldn’t have done this for any else.”
“Liar.” It was impossible to know if he was serious. Michael didn’t try to dissect it. “You did it for science.”
“I’m proud of you.”
Drew laughed in his face. “Proud of me?”
“Yes.” Michael closed his eyes again, blocking out the sight of Drew’s darkened silhouette framed in a halo of light from the hallway. “You’ve learned so much. You have always been my best student.”
The gag was more for function than decoration and the knots were basic, right over left, simple and efficient. Drew’s fingers ripped through the knots as he leaned forward, bit down where the silk buckled against Michael’s jaw, and pulled it out. Michael tensed, his mouth clinching down on the gag he had rebelled against that morning.
Drew ripped the gag from Michael’s lips with his teeth. Michael sputtered, spitting a startled, “Andrew. I…Fuck — You… ”
A moment later, he was writhing against the ropes again and lurching forward. He was back where he started less than a moment later, hissing and spitting. It was useless. Drew watched him jerk once, twice, three times and then subside against the chair with a huff. The tie slipped from Drew’s lips and puddled on the floor.
“Don’t worry, Michael, you are going to fuck me.” His smile was vicious with the taste of victory as his legs dangled across Michael’s, his loafers testing the knots holding the older man down with careful prods. Michael half growled under his breath, the sound of a trapped animal, and Drew grabbed him by the back of the head again and jerked his head back until it almost touched his shoulders: a parody of submission that they both knew was little more than a ploy. “You are, and I’m going to love it.”
The kiss that followed was more teeth than lips, and Drew moaned into Michael’s mouth, grinding his hips down against his teacher’s until they both gasped and panted, rock hard under pressed dress pants.
“Stop it, Andrew.” Michael snapped his teeth, nearly catching Drew’s tongue as the younger man darted back. “You’re confused — I haven’t expl — ”
“What? Explained?” Drew grinned. His fingers were still in Michael’s hair, threaded in between matted curls, and he jerked the older man’s head back again. Michael whined against the whiplash. “How can you explain waking up after being buried alive?”
“I — ”
“You started this.” Drew trailed his free hand down Michael’s face, dragging his dirty nails in front of Michael’s wide eyes. The dirt looked wrong there, somehow. Drew was always dressed in pressed shirts and business casual shoes. He was the type of man that had everything arranged, settled, cleaned. He complained about Michael’s dirt and chaos that cluttered his office.
Drew leaned forward again, ghosting their bruised lips together. “You like kissing me.”
“Not when you’re angry — confused.” Michael recoiled, attempting to back-pedal as fast as he could when he still couldn’t move from the chair. The chair back creaked as he pressed more heavily against it.
“I think you’re the one who’s confused.” Drew leaned his weight back on Michael’s thighs. There was space between them again and suddenly Michael felt like he could breathe. He took in gasping mouthfuls, as though that would help settle the world around him. His eyes closed for a second as he frantically tried to gather his bearings. If he could just think for a moment he could talk Drew out of this, they could walk out together.
Drew narrowed his eyes at the calm that settled over the older man, hissing icy air between his teeth before he shuddered and thrust his fingers violently into Michael’s mouth. “Does this seem confusing to you?”
Michael’s eyes flew open in shock and he gagged, writhing against the taste of cold salt and earth. Drew ripped his hand back as Michael bit down, surprised by the pain, and then regarded Michael with heavy eyes. “I’m not confused.”
“Okay, okay.” Michael gasped and sputtered, his eyes watering. “You’re not.”
“I’m not blind either.” Andrew soothed Michael’s throat with a hand, rubbing lightly on the tendons that tensed under his fingertips. “You left your notes all over the desk.”
Michael glanced over Drew’s shoulder, tilting his head further to try to see just what he might have left for anyone to find. “I didn’t know it would work.”
“It did.” Drew leaned forward and bit Michael’s lip again, half looming over Michael from his position in the other man’s lap. He drew back a moment later, licking blood from his lips and watched Michael squirm again. “But it’s not enough.”
“Drew, what was it like to die?” Michael pressed his face against the back of Andrew’s neck. His breath was as cold as his body and more vividly blue than Drew’s and his latest question curled between them like a block of ice. He gripped Andrew’s shoulder with a limp hand, not certain if he wanted to hold on but unwilling to let go.
Michael was not surprised by the answer. Drew laughed and shook his head so that his dreads brushed across Michael’s crooked nose.
“What was it like when you died?”
Drew watched surprise cover Michael’s face as he was released from the chair and shoved against the desk, chest forward. Drew’s frantic words had already started to spiral into near incoherent tangents so that even he wasn’t sure what he was saying anymore. At that moment, though, there was nothing more important to him than the sound of Michael’s pulse and the heat of his breath. “You left me there. You’ve left me in this half-Hell.”
“Drew, Drew, wait. I don’t understand. . .”
“What is there to understand? I’m not alive.” He stripped Michael’s Dockers from his legs, palmed his hip, his ass. Michael breathed through his nose as he braced himself shakily across the wood, gritting his teeth against the angry retorts he had resting on his tongue. Drew would never listen; he wasn’t thinking clearly. “I’m not dead.”
Drew bent and retrieved one of the ties on the dirt office floor and placed it across Michael’s right shoulder. “I don’t feel right, Michael.”
“I’m cold. Cold and alone.” Drew pressed himself against Michael’s back, cold to warm. He was about a head taller than Michael, but Michael was broader — all shoulders and chest. Drew wrapped Michael in his arms, rubbing down his shoulders and sides until his lean fingers dropped down to Michael’s thighs, Michael’s cock. He rubbed his own body up and down across the older man’s back, sending pleasure down his spine even as he bit out his confusion. “I woke up twenty miles away. Where was my tombstone?”
“I was going to — ” Michael choked back a moan and it came out strangled and high.
“Excuses.” Drew pressed the word into his ear, one hand wrapped around the front of Michael’s waist as the other reached between them to press his fingers between the other man’s asscheeks. “I lied, you know. I’m going to fuck you. I’m going to fuck you over all those fucking papers — Tibetan hymns and hoodoo spells.”
“Andrew — ”
Andrew found the lubricant in a desk drawer and tipped the bottle open sideways so that lubricant spread all over the news print and photocopied documents. He covered his hands until they gleamed in the low lamplight and then teased two fingers inside the older man. Michael bucked back as though to dislodge him and Drew laughed, curving his fingers inside, drawing them deeper in, then pulling out. He added a third almost as an afterthought and thrust them in and out until the older man trembled and writhed against him. Michael’s face was flushed with life and heat, and Drew moaned despite himself, pressing his face hard against Michael’s back. In and out, Andrew drew his face up Michael’s spine murmuring a litany of Michael, Michael, Michael until his lips pressed against the man’s pale white neck.
The tie that Drew had retrieved had found its way onto the ground again, and Drew bent to grab it, scissoring his fingers and then thrusting them forward so that Michael moaned with the motion. “You’re such a whore, Professor. Did you think I was a whore a few days ago? Begging for more.”
Drew straightened his glasses with his free hand and pressed a kiss to the back of Michael’s neck. “Don’t worry.”
Michael opened his mouth, gasping raggedly and spitting out desperate little noises instead of the words his mind clawed over. Drew withdrew his fingers from Michael’s ass with a schuck sound and used his two free hands to wrap the red and black fabric around Michael’s neck without ceremony.
“Andrew — don’t.”
Drew ignored him and twisted the tie tight against Michael’s neck, pressing it hard against his airway and holding it there with one hand. His other hand went back to the older man’s ass, twisting and fingering his hole before thrusting back inside. “You were fucking me. You said: ‘this will make it better, Andrew. Do you trust me?'”
Michael was hot — scalding, and all Drew could think of was stealing that warmth and taking it from him. He twisted the tie further with one hand, watching the red and black tighten over Michael’s skin, and thrust into his soft body with his cold fingers. Michael thrashed and clawed at the tie. It did nothing.
“Don’t worry. I’ll bring you back.” Drew rumbled against Michael’s cheek, pressed so close that every desperate movement sent bolts of warmth down Drew’s spine. “Do you trust me, Michael?”
“Oh,” Michael laughed out of the corners of his mouth as his blood settled and congealed on the left side of his face, milk white and blue black. He hadn’t thought their two experiences would be the same. Michael had been frightened. Michael wanted to believe that Andrew had been at the height of pleasure. He weighed his responses and pressed his fingers along the younger man’s Adam’s apple, where his own belt had been only days before.
“It was the same,” Drew asserted, drawing his fingers along the side of Michael’s throat and then back until he reached the beginning again. A noose. “Only yours was at night.”