by N. Kaouthia
There’s a ghost living in Horace’s house. Horace isn’t surprised–he’s run into a few ghosts before, as far as he remembers–but this ghost . . . Horace can’t see him.
Horace knows it’s a ghost for sure, though. There are phantom handprints on the wall, and sometimes in the middle of boring office work, the TV will “magically” turn on. “Hey,” Horace says, the first time. “If you’re watching a good movie, come tell me.” He’s joking, but loud banging eventually does lure him into a good chick flick or two. The kind that makes tissue boxes float to the table and Horace mumble, “I just have some dust in my eye,” which just makes it worse.
The thought of Rhodre doesn’t make Horace cry anymore, but sometimes he still wakes up hoping to feel Rhodre’s warmth against his skin, his soft breathing, the rise and fall of his chest. Horace remembers – with a clarity that makes him shake – the very wrinkles that crinkled Rhodre’s face when he smiled.
But it’s in the past. Horace has put it behind him.
Unfortunately, tonight is one of those nights. Horace wakes up with Rhodre’s name on his lips, the sheets sticky, his body warm from the imagined brush of Rhodre’s hands. He cards a hand through his hair and reaches over to flick on the light.
For a moment, the light turns green. He groans and shields his eyes, moving them when the light flickers back to yellow. “Get out of my room,” he says. “I’m naked.”
The door opens and stays open. “Can’t you walk through walls?” Horace rolls his eyes. “And stop watching me sleep.”
Horace wishes the ghost would just show itself to him. It’s been two months. Horace knows what the ghost’s habits are, and Horace is pretty sure it’s seen him naked, too. There has been more than one incident where the water has “mysteriously” gone freezing.
He replaces the sheets with fresh ones and decides to take a quick shower. “No,” he says, out loud, walking down the hall to the bathroom. “A bath. A bubble bath.” Some self-indulgence won’t hurt, will it?
Horace examines himself in the mirror while the tub fills. He hasn’t changed much in the past forty years. He still looks thirty, thirty-five, maybe. His black hair barely brushes his neck, short in front. His eyes are still a brilliant gold, like starlight. “You’d still recognize me,” Horace murmurs.
He turns to the bath and adds the lavender bubble bath, and stirs the water gently with his arm to get the bubbles started. “Maybe I should go out . . .” He glances at the clock on the wall. Ten. Early. He can go out. But then the bubble bath–
Horace sighs and slides in the bath. Then again, maybe not. Horace sucks in a breath and stares at the ceiling. Going out requires an effort Horace doesn’t have.
When the light flickers green, Horace manages a smile. “Like what you see? Flicker once for yes, two for no.”
The light flickers green twice.
“Jerk,” Horace says. The light flickers green once. “Are you male?” Flicker. “Gay?” Flicker, flicker. “In denial?”
There’s no response. Horace laughs. “You know, silence is confirmation.” Flicker, flicker.
“This is the first time we’ve ever talked . . .” Horace frowns. “Don’t you get lonely sometimes because I can’t see you?” There’s a long pause. Horace thinks he might not answer until there’s one splash of green across his eyes. “Is it your fault I can’t see you?” Flicker, flicker. “Oh. Maybe I’m just getting old.”
The light flickers once. Horace smiles. He is getting old. He’d always been able to see things that people didn’t want to see, but now . . . if he couldn’t even see the ghost . . .
“How did you die?” Horace asks suddenly. This time, the lights don’t flicker. They dim briefly, and then Horace sighs. “Sorry, that was the wrong question to–” The door opens, and then there’s the sound of opening drawers and rustling paper.
The water shifts under Horace’s weight as he pulls himself up to get out, but then a pen and a notebook come floating into the room. The pen moves across the paper quickly, and then Horace sees:
Horace knows that he shouldn’t have gotten his hopes up. He knows that Rhodre is not the type of man who would come back from the dead. Horace feels like getting out and lying in his bed until time moves backwards, back before. Back before everything. “Rhodre was my–” Horace pauses. How could he even begin to explain–?
“He was everything,” Horace mumbles.
Oh, the paper says, and Horace sinks underneath the water of the shower. Is he still alive?
It takes a moment for Horace to respond. He tells himself, like a mantra, that it is in the past. He has put it behind him. “No.”
“It’s okay,” Horace says, and he closes his eyes and tries to imagine Rhodre’s face, blurry as it is, fuzzy around the edges. “It’s okay.” The pad and pen are laid on the toilet.
The ghost doesn’t do anything for the rest of the night.
Horace goes through the next week without any ghostly interference. That, or he doesn’t notice or hear anything. Sometimes the dishes are misplaced, the remote gone, the channels changed, whatever. But he doesn’t know if it’s the ghost or just his forgetfulness.
Horace stays increasingly late at work, burying himself in the accounts and records. The company doesn’t format them like the one he used to work for, but he’s already used to the numbers and accounts and all those technical details. He fills them out quickly, one by one, and stops only when one of his co-workers, Jonathan, taps him on the shoulder.
“Hey,” Horace says. “I thought I gave you an assignment a while back . . .? I don’t have anything for your skill level right now . . .” Jonathan is one of the better assassins of the company, and Horace gives him only the best jobs. The others are too simple for Jonathan.
“Oh, it’s fine,” Jonathan says, and he smiles. “I have a job right now, but I’m taking a break on it. You want to go out for dinner sometime? I know you’re always busy–”
“It’s fine,” Horace says. “Tonight?”
“Does it bother you?” Horace isn’t sure why he’s agreeing. He’s not supposed to mix business with pleasure. This is definitely mixing business with pleasure. Horace isn’t even sure if it’s a–
“No, it doesn’t,” Jonathan says, grinning now. “It’s a date. I’ll see you in an hour?”
“Sure,” Horace says, and then Jonathan’s gone down the hallway. Horace can hear him humming a little jingle, some old movie tune Horace doesn’t remember.
The next hour is painfully short. Jonathan swings by his desk all sunny hair and blue eyes, and Horace smiles weakly at him. “So where are you taking me to?”
“A special Italian restaurant.”
“Oh,” Horace says, without frowning. “Great.” He tries not to think of Rhodre or their first date.
Jonathan takes his hand. Horace closes his eyes and lets himself be led.
It’s not Rhodre, but he tells himself that he has to move on.
“How do you like it?”
“It looks good,” Horace says, because it’s true. But Horace feels like he is reliving a memory. “Do you know what to order? I’m not sure what I want . . .”
“Sure, I’ll order for you.” Jonathan smiles that pretty boy smile of his, and Horace wonders why Jonathan picked him. Horace knows Jonathan is popular among the company, as an assassin and as a person. It’s not that Horace doesn’t know he’s not attractive himself, but there are others who are more sociable, more outgoing . . . Horace is too quiet.
“No,” Horace says. “Sorry, I’m a little–tired, that’s all . . . It’s fine, don’t worry about me.” He smiles a bit. “How have you been, Jonathan? You’ve moved up through the ranks.”
“Yeah.” Jonathan leans back against his eat, open and confident. It’s a quality Horace is used to seeing in other assassins–that confidence. Rhodre didn’t have it, and Horace remembers how he sat–with a straight back and his head high, not because he was confident, but because he was comfortable.
Horace aches to touch him. Rhodre. To feel his hands again, to kiss his smile. To even say goodnight again, to thread his fingers through his hair.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” Horace says. “I’m sorry I’m so out of it.”
“Would you like me to take you home?” Jonathan smiles. “I can do that if you’d like–we can go on a date some other time.” He reaches over, and his hand brushes over Horace’s shoulder. “Come on.”
“We just arrived.” He wants to go home. Home is a safe place. But he doesn’t want to leave Jonathan hanging, even if it’s . . . it’s not the same. Horace doesn’t know why he can’t wrap his mind around someone else.
“It’s fine,” Jonathan says, and this time he leans over and brushes his lips against Horace’s, soft and gentle, like a butterfly.
Horace resigns himself to his fate. “Okay,” he murmurs, right against Jonathan’s lips, and then Jonathan is dragging him to the door.
He wants to say, I’m sorry. But he’s not. He wonders if he’ll be sorry when he’s in the car, but he’s not.
Then Jonathan asks, “Want to stay at my place tonight? Since your car’s at HQ . . .”
“Okay,” Horace says, and when Jonathan invites him into the bedroom and takes off his clothes, Horace lets it happen. He kisses back half-heartedly and tries not to think about Rhodre, tries not to think how much better this would be if Rhodre were here, kissing him, kissing Horace, kissing like they used to, tangled around each other like locks.
Horace is in a daze the next morning. Jonathan lets Horace borrow some clothes, and Horace sighs and puts them on. “Thanks,” he says to Jonathan, and Jonathan smiles at him.
“There’s an extra toothbrush in the bathroom.”
“Oh,” Horace says. “Jonathan, why did you ask me out?”
“You looked lonely,” Jonathan says.
Horace thinks: Was it always so obvious?
“There’s a Halloween party in a couple of days . . . a costume party of sorts . . . you want to go? It’s at the office. I’m thinkin’, I should be a zombie.”
“I think I’ll stay home and give out candy to the kids.” Horace doesn’t want to interact. He’s still not sure if he wants to talk to other people tonight, either, especially with Jonathan. Already, he feels a hollow feeling rise up in his chest, like a balloon expanding past its maximum capacity.
“Oh,” Jonathan says, looking disappointed.
Horace knows he shouldn’t. He knows, but–“You can come over. There’s no one in the house, and I’ll get lonely.”
Jonathan perks up right away. “That’s awesome,” he says. “I’ll dress up as a zombie and scare the kids for sure.”
Horace smiles for once. “I think I’m late for checking in.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jonathan says. “I called HQ already, they said it’s okay.” He leans in and kisses Horace on the mouth, and Horace reacts this time: he parts his lips for Jonathan, wraps his arms around his neck.
They part with a gasp. “We should still go, though,” Jonathan mumbles.
“Right,” Horace says, but he drags Jonathan down to bed first.
Jonathan apparently has the day off–or he doesn’t want to observe his target–so he hangs around Horace, asking him questions about his day, what he likes to do in his free time. Horace just smiles. Horace answers his questions the best he can without revealing too much–that he used to be with Rhodre, that he’s been around for a while . . . but Horace is sure that Jonathan knows. Even in a sneaking business such as an assassin’s company, there are few secrets among coworkers.
And Horace knows that his past is not exactly top secret. Among the assassins, he is one of the best, quiet and indispensable. Also, he knows a wide range of weaponry and the techniques of espionage.
Judging by how little Jonathan knows about him, though, maybe not. Like how long Horace has been living in the area. A very long time, Horace says.
“So have you changed your mind about the party?”
“No,” Horace says. “I’m staying home.”
Jonathan talks to him for the rest of the night until he goes off for his assignment, then Horace checks out and drives himself home.
His house is in shambles.
Photos are strewn everywhere on the floor, and half of Horace’s very expensive china collection has been shattered across the floor. The pieces gleam white in the moonlight shining in through the blinds.
At first, Horace thinks someone might have broken in. But the photo albums, he put in his room, in a box under the bed. Why would any thief throw those out?
Then he realizes, It’s the ghost. “Hey,” he says. “Hey, what’s wrong? Why did you–?” He starts to pick up the photos, smoothing out wrinkles in them. Many of them are of him and Rhodre, standing next to each other in foreign countries or amusement parks.
Horace frowns and turns on the light. There’s more photos leading to the bedroom, and Horace feels his heart pulse like a siren in his chest. Some of the photos are ripped in half. Some of them are tiny pieces on the ground. His feet move faster. He is gritting his teeth together. Horace’s hands ache to hold a gun.
“What the hell!” Horace almost pushes over the drawer. The photo albums are everywhere in his room. “My personal things and you–you went through them!? You’re lucky you’re a ghost and I can’t touch you or you’d be–”
And then he sees it. Taped on the wall, a message in marker.
Get over Rhodre.
His heart stops. “You don’t even know Rhodre.” He clenches his fists. “Rhodre was–it wasn’t fair. I had it for him. I had the Water of Life for him. We could have lived together . . .” Horace feels his eyes water. “He kept saying–he said, No, no, I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” Horace shakes. He stumbles over to the bed and sinks down. “Why not? Did he . . . did he . . .
“Did he not . . . not love me enough . . .?”
Horace fumbles for the phone. He dials a number he hasn’t dialed since Rhodre died.
A woman answers the line. “Hello, this is Lucille Ferrari.”
“Lucille,” Horace says.
There’s a long pause. “Horace? Is that you?”
“I’m sorry,” Horace says. “I thought someday your brother would come back.” He swallows and rubs his forehead with the palm of his free hand. “That’s why I didn’t say goodbye. I thought–but then–he hasn’t, and . . . it’s been . . .”
“Do you want to go out tomorrow?”
“There’s a ghost in my house,” Horace says. “It ripped up my photos of Rhodre and me and–”
The line cuts off. Or, rather, the phone is jerked from Horace’s hand and then flipped shut. Horace blindly swings a fist toward the ghost. His arm connects with air and he makes a noise, like a growl, a half-sob. “What are you doing?!”
The paper on the wall is thrust toward him. Get over Rhodre.
“Why do you care so much? You didn’t even know Rhodre–”
There’s a new note this time. You’ll stop hurting.
Horace doesn’t think it’ll ever stop hurting. “You ripped my photos.” He picks up two pieces off the bed, joining them together to form an image of Rhodre sleeping, his hair over his face, mouth open. The moonlight is pouring in from the window.
Horace thinks it could be real if the line wasn’t there, ripping the photo in half like a jagged scar. “Did you rip all the photos?” Horace can barely raise his voice above a whisper.
The lights flip on, and then they flicker green.
Horace closes his eyes. “Goodnight,” he says, and lies down on the bed.
Maybe this is for the best.
Horace wakes up early to clean up the mess in the house. When the lights dim or flicker green, he ignores it. Notes slapped up against the wall are ripped down without a second glance. He can’t find his phone anywhere.
Horace is tired.
When he meets Jonathan at work, Horace feels his day brighten a bit. It’s Jonathan. Jonathan has a wide smile and pretty blue eyes. Jonathan is safe. He’s on Horace’s side. He’s not an enemy. Jonathan is young and beautiful and Horace has learned his lesson.
Do not fall in love with a mortal.
So Horace feels safe when he sees Jonathan. He asks, casually, “Are you coming over tonight?”
“Yeah.” Jonathan laughs. “I’m dressing up as a wizard-zombie instead.”
Tonight should be a great night.
“I’m going to kiss you every time the doorbell rings,” Jonathan promises, as he watches Horace shake up the bowl of candy on the counter next to the door. “You know, just in case it might be the last time I see you . . . Those kids can be vicious.”
Horace rolls his eyes, turning to eye Jonathan, who is lounging on the couch like it’s his house. “I can take a couple of kids here and there.”
“You sure?” The doorbell rings, and Jonathan gets up off the couch. “Here’s your kiss,” he mumbles, leaning up to press his lips to Horace’s.
“You have to answer the door,” Horace says, and pushes Jonathan away. He wipes away the neon-green lipstick from his face, and Jonathan giggles.
“I’m going to go clean up in the bathroom.” Horace hears Jonathan shout BOO when he opens the door, and Horace smiles as the kids scream. He slips into the bathroom and slaps his face with water before sitting down on the toilet lid and closing his eyes.
He knows he should appreciate Jonathan more. He’s not alone tonight–and that should be good enough. Jonathan is more company than Horace has had for the past twenty years, give or take. He knows that he’s lucky to have someone.
“He’s not good for you.”
Horace opens his eyes. No one’s there, but Horace is sure he heard the voice, as quiet as it was. It almost throws him off–it sounded like a woman’s voice.
“Why should I listen to you?” Horace leaves the bathroom before the voice can say more, and opts instead to lie down on the couch and watch Jonathan greet the children.
“How long do you plan on staying?”
“Oh,” Jonathan says, closing the door and sidling over. “As long as you let me.” He leans down to kiss him. “You missed another one of my kisses.” He runs a hand underneath Horace’s shirt. “Do you work out often?”
Horace quirks an eyebrow. “Are you hitting on me?”
“Only if you’re letting me hit on you.”
Okay, Horace thinks. He pulls Jonathan down to kiss him again, smearing his makeup and his green skin with his fingers. He pushes them down his shirt and then he pulls away when the doorbell rings. “More kids.”
“How many more do you think there’ll be before we’re alone?” Jonathan kisses his jaw line slowly.
“A lot,” Horace says. “Answer the door.”
Horace sits up to watch Jonathan slink over to the door and shout BOO at the kids again, and he smiles. Jonathan isn’t that scary. The whole front of Horace’s house is dark, the insides of the house lit dimly by several candles. He knows that from the outside, it must look like a haunted house. Almost.
The thought makes Horace laugh. His house is haunted, by a ghost. Not exactly a friendly ghost, but . . . a ghost nonetheless. Horace wonders if he should move somewhere else, though. The ghost might further vandalize his things, and Horace doesn’t want to hear it anymore.
“A penny for your thoughts?”
Horace blinks. Jonathan is sitting next to him, an arm thrown lazily over the back of the couch. “I’m just thinking.”
“You can trust me,” Jonathan says, as if it’s an issue of trust.
“I’m just thinking about what we’ll do later,” Horace lies.
“We’ll be doing the horizontal tango, that’s what.” Jonathan waggles his eyebrows suggestively.
Horace starts to say something when he hears a crash in the kitchen. “I’ll go fix it,” he says. “Answer the door.” He winks. “Count the kisses you need to give me.”
Horace sighs when he sees the pieces of glass on the floor and grabs the trashcan. “Now that set’s ruined,” he mumbles, and he starts to bend over to pick up the pieces until he sees the message.
HE’LL KILL YOU.
Horace rolls his eyes. Ridiculous. Then again, the ghost probably doesn’t know that Horace is immortal, either. He carefully puts the glass into the trash bag, and then he takes a wet cloth to sweep up the tinier pieces. There’s still glass on the floor, he’s sure of it, but there’s nothing he can do about it now.
“Everything’s fine,” Horace says. “How many times did the doorbell ring?”
“Only that one time,” Jonathan says. “Do you want me to make you something to eat?”
“I’m not hungry–I’ll just drink some water.” Horace toes the trash can back over to its respective corner in the kitchen. “Would you like something? There’s nothing in the fridge really . . . I have some beer, but . . .” He takes out a bottle of water, and uncaps it, turning to Jonathan, who’s stroking the counter with the palm of his hand. “Jonathan?”
“Nah,” Jonathan says. “It’s fine. I don’t really want some water.” He pauses. “Hey, Horace?”
“How old are you? Really.”
“Very old,” Horace says, because he figures he has nothing to lose. “I don’t know how old. Why?”
“How did you get so old? I mean, how does it feel–to be–you know. Immortal. To live forever.”
He does know, then. Horace frowns. “It felt good for a while . . . to know that I was indestructible.” He sips at his water. “And then I outlived everybody . . . my friends. My family. The people I knew. I had to make new friends. I had to be somebody else every sixty years, when those friends died.”
“How did you–?”
“A witch.” Horace smiles, bitterly. He still remembers her hands, soft like flowers, but poisonous as snakes. “She said, ‘Catch me a thousand souls, and I will give you the Water of Life.'”
“How do you ‘catch’ souls?”
Horace doesn’t want to look at Jonathan. Instead, he looks at the insides of the fridge. He realizes, almost sadly, that Rhodre has never heard this story in whole before, only in bits and pieces; fragments of a story. “I killed people,” he says. “I killed them and caught their souls with a–an object. I don’t remember. Like a dream catcher . . . I stole people.”
Horace closes his eyes. He stole people’s lives, people’s lovers. Family. And then, in the end, the world took his family away from him, too. “She gave me the Water of Life, as promised, and here I am today.”
“If you could make a choice, I mean–” And Jonathan’s voice is near now, a soft brush of breath against his ear. “–would you go back? Would you not take the Water of Life?”
He has thought about this before. “No,” he says. “I’ve met too many good people to give up those memories.” Even though everything hurts, he thinks. It doesn’t matter. He met Rhodre and Lucille. Family. “But I wouldn’t tell you to do it yourself.” He turns, suddenly, to Jonathan. “You aren’t, are you?”
“No, no,” Jonathan says. He holds up his hands defensively. “Of course not. I don’t really–it’s immortality. Who wants to live forever?”
“Really stupid people,” Horace says. “They want to live forever for no reason. Do you know what it’s like? It’s–” He swallows. “People die, Jonathan. You don’t get to see them ever again.” He takes a deep breath and then he turns his head. “It’s painful. It’s a lonely existence.”
“I’m sorry,” Jonathan says.
“Do you want to lock up early for tonight?”
“You want to? Angry kids might teepee your house, you know. I’m sure it’s gotten around that your house is the coolest house in existence.”
Horace chuckles. “We can leave the candy bowl outside.”
“One kid might take all the candy.”
Horace smirks at Jonathan. “And you care about that?” He turns to face Jonathan and smirks. “We have bigger things to attend to . . . preferably, in the bedroom.”
Jonathan raises his eyebrows. “Well, if you’re sure . . .” He slides his hands up Horace’s back. “It’ll be fun.”
The doorbell rings multiple times. Jonathan sighs. “I might as well get that,” he mumbles. “You know, there’s nothing as anticlimactic as hearing the doorbell ring when you’re having fun.”
Horace laughs as Jonathan slumps away through the kitchen door. When he turns around, he almost steps on a piece of glass. What the–?
JON WEREWOLF WANTS WATER OF LIFE.
“You’re crazy,” Horace mumbles. As soon as he’s read the words, the pieces of glass shift to make new words. WITCHING HOUR.
“Those kids,” Horace says, turning to smile at Jonathan.
“There’s glass on the floor again,” Jonathan says. “Huh. Witching hour. You know, werewolves are weakest during witching hour. They’re all vulnerable from the transformation.”
“It’s funny that you mention werewolves,” Horace says. “Isn’t tonight a full moon?” He feels his heart stop when Jonathan raises his eyebrows.
“I completely forgot about that . . .” He scratches the back of his neck, and then he checks his watch. “It’s ten.”
Horace lets out a breath. He’s not sure. There’s not enough evidence, but . . . “Jonathan,” he says. “I’m a little hungry. Why don’t you set the table with some silverware?”
Jonathan shrugs. “Okay,” he says. He walks over to the drawers and picks out utensils carefully. Horace slowly walks over to the counter and opens another drawer. This one has a gun in it.
Jonathan sets the table and Horace watches his hands. He sets the forks first. Then the spoons. “Shit,” Jonathan mutters.
“Nothing,” Jonathan says, wiping his hands on his jeans. “It’s nothing. I just cut myself.” He smiles. “It’s no big deal, I’ll go clean it up.”
“Wait, I’ll do it.” Horace makes his way over to Jonathan. His breath catches in his throat.
It’s a long, red wound. That’s normal. But there’s a burn around it, on his fingers and hands, where he’s touched the silverware.
“I’ll get a towel to clean that.” Horace walks back over to the counter. He reaches in for the gun. “Just one thing though: You’re not a werewolf, are you?”
“I’ve never bitten you.” Jonathan sounds surprised.
Horace doesn’t know if the bullets are silver. He doesn’t know if he should even really consider shooting Jonathan. “You’re a werewolf,” Horace says, very slowly, and he clenches a hand around the gun.
Horace turns around and points the gun at Jonathan. “You’re not a werewolf,” Horace says. “Are you sure?”
“Go ahead and shoot me,” Jonathan says, frowning at Horace. He almost drops the gun. “If I die, am I a werewolf?”
Horace cocks the safety. “I just want the truth.”
Jonathan smiles. “The truth?” His eyes turn yellow, golden like sun, and Horace feels a sense of horror and disappointment fall over him. How could he have trusted Jonathan so easily–?
He pulls the trigger.
Horace’s eyes widen. He pulls the trigger again. Click. The gun is empty.
Jonathan laughs. “I unloaded the gun, Horace. This is the end of the line for you. You know, I was thinking that you’d be more a challenge . . . you are the great Horace Jin. But it was so easy.”
Jonathan’s faster than Horace. Before he can grab a knife, Jonathan’s hands are locked around Horace’s wrists, and his hips are pinning Horace to the counter. “Do you know what they told me when they sent me?”
How could he have been so stupid?
“They told me, ‘Be careful, Jonathan. He’s dangerous.'” Jonathan grins. “But really, you’re nothing more than a sad, cornered mouse.”
Horace doesn’t have time to react. Jonathan slams his head down onto the counter, and then the world spins into darkness.
Horace wakes up tied to a chair. He tries to tip it over, but it’s lined up against a couch. The house is quiet and gloomy, except for the moonlight pouring in between the slatted blinds.
“That was fast,” Jonathan murmurs, from nearby, and Horace tries to turn his head toward him. He can only catch a glimpse of Jonathan–clean of make-up and yellow eyes bright in the dark.
“What do you want?”
“The Water of Life,” Jonathan says.
“I don’t have any,” Horace says. “I told you, immortality–I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. You’ll have to get it yourself.”
“You’re lucky,” Jonathan says, coming into view. He’s changed into an all-black outfit, and in the dark he fades in and out of the shadows. “I could turn you into a werewolf, Horace. Right now. And then what? Then I’d stab you with a silver knife. Goodbye.”
He’s bluffing. “You’ll have to get the Water of Life yourself, if you want any.”
“I’ll tear your house up and down to get it.” Jonathan smiles smugly. “You know what? Maybe I’ll just burn everything down. You’ll burn with your house.”
“Then you’ll never get your Water of Life.”
“It’s here, isn’t it?” Jonathan’s smile widens.
“What time is it?”
“Five minutes to midnight,” Jonathan says. “You know, I’m a monster in my werewolf form.” He leans in close, so that his breath ghosts across Horace’s face. “I’ll rip you to shreds to get the Water of Life.”
Horace closes his eyes.
“Look at me,” Jonathan hisses, and Horace grimaces when Jonathan’s fists slams into his stomach. Jonathan’s much, much stronger than he looks, and the power of his hand catches Horace off guard.
Horace opens his eyes.
“Where is the Water of Life?”
“I told you that I don’t have–” Horace gasps. Blood seeps through his shirt, and he turns his head toward the knife in his left shoulder, Jonathan’s hand clenched around the handle.
“Don’t worry,” Jonathan says, easily. “I haven’t hit vitals. But if I twist the knife a little bit . . .”
Jonathan gives Horace a winning smile. He slowly plucks the knife out of Horace’s shoulder. “You know, your little ghost friend is a jackass.” He smiles. “Don’t you train your pets, Horace? You know, not to throw shit at people? Or is that your little lover? What’s his name? Rhodre?”
Horace clenches his hands into fists. “What are you talking about?”
“The one that died.”
The ghost can’t be Rhodre. But–but Jonathan knows his name. “How do you–”
“What, you don’t think I research my targets before I do my job?”
Horace opens his mouth. “I . . .” He blinks and lets out a breath. “What time is it?”
Jonathan cackles. “What, you think it matters? You won’t get a chance to do anything, tied up like that.” He smiles. “After I get the Water of Life, I’m going to eat you, and it’ll be a meal to remember.”
Horace’s tongue suddenly feels heavy. Conceivably, Jonathan can eat him. There’s nothing stopping him. Even immortality won’t save him then. His body can’t heal wounds like that fast enough to prevent it. If it happens, Horace will be stuck between worlds–this world and the afterlife.
“The Water of Life,” Horace says quietly. “I’ll tell you where to get it.” He feels an old ache rise in his chest, a pain dabbed with salt. “It’s in a white box.”
Horace blinks away the tears. He could have forced Rhodre to drink the water. He could have tied him down, made him live with Horace for the rest of his life. But the idea made–and still makes–Horace tired. Rhodre never let anyone keep him where he doesn’t want to be, and Horace never tried to be the first.
“Where’s the box?” Jonathan’s voice is soft now, patronizing, trying to coax the answer out of Horace. “Does it need a key?”
“It doesn’t need a key.”
“Horace,” Jonathan says, and he leans in close, pressing his lips to Horace’s. “Where is it? Tell me, and I’ll spare you.”
Horace hesitates. If Jonathan gets it, then Horace’s life will be over. “It’s in my room. In the drawers. Underneath the shirts.”
Jonathan peers deeply into Horace’s eyes, and then he smiles. “Good boy. I’ll spare you a couple extra minutes before I kill you.” He straightens, and then he starts down the hallway. “Maybe I’ll even make you feel good before you go.”
Any time now, Jonathan should start transforming. Horace knows. And when Jonathan comes out, he will have already taken the Water of Life. Think fast.
“Don’t move,” the ghost mumbles in Horace’s ear. “I moved the box.”
Horace lets out a sigh of relief, relaxing, and then there’s a roar from the bedroom. “Horace,” Jonathan growls. His voice has dropped octaves. “You lied to me!”
Horace shakes. “He’ll kill me.”
“It’s okay,” the ghost says. “Close your eyes.”
Horace resolves to watch until he hears a crash in the hallway. He closes his eyes immediately. Whatever the ghost does, it can’t be good.
“Stay away from him.” The ghost’s voice has taken more definition now, wavers less, and Horace realizes, almost startlingly, that it is Rhodre.
“Rhodre,” he says, and opens his eyes to see him in the hallway. He is dwarfed by a werewolf almost twice his size, drool dripping down from its sharp teeth and fervent, yellow eyes.
Jonathan growls. “Get out of my way.”
Rhodre seems unfazed. “It’s witching hour, Jon.”
Jonathan bellows in Rhodre’s face. He brings his claws down on Rhodre, but then Rhodre is gone, just a ghost once more. Horace shifts uncomfortably. It couldn’t have been an illusion–Jonathan saw him, but–
Jonathan turns to Horace. “I’ll kill you,” he howls. Jonathan jerks back violently, and then the blood drips to the floor. A knife is lodged in Jonathan’s shoulder.
Horace wants to close his eyes, but he can’t. Another knife digs its way into Jonathan’s neck, and a vein pops. The blood comes out of Jonathan’s neck in long, hard spurts, and Horace thinks, I’ll never get that out of the carpet.
Rhodre appears again, and Horace leans forward, as if to reach him. There’s a gun in Rhodre’s hands, and he has it aimed for Jonathan’s canine head. Horace hears the safety click, and then he turns his head and closes his eyes.
Horace has used a gun to kill others before. A gun is the modern weapon of destruction. Yet, in all his time with Rhodre, he’s never seen Rhodre pull a gun on someone else. Hearing the gun go off–a soft pop–makes Horace shudder, but then something wet hits his leg and there’s a thud and a soft, bubbly growl.
“Rhodre,” Horace breathes. Jonathan’s body, covered in blood, lies at his feet, the yellow eyes dull from death. “The carpet’s filthy.”
“You can worry about it later,” Rhodre says, bending down to untie Horace’s ankles from the chair. He turns it around to untie Horace’s wrists.
“Rhodre,” Horace says, and he reaches out to touch Rhodre’s shoulder, to squeeze it.
“Horace,” Rhodre says slowly. “You–” He takes a deep breath. “You look the same.”
“So do you,” Horace says. Rhodre is all shaggy hair, down to his shoulders, and dark orange eyes. He has broader shoulders than Horace and Horace almost smiles at his dress–black dress shirt and slacks. “You match in black, as always . . .” He slides his hand up to his neck, to cup his cheek, and Horace sighs because it’s really him, he’s really there.
“I don’t have your clothes to wear,” Rhodre mumbles, crossing his arms over his chest. Now he can’t meet Horace’s gaze anymore. “We should get your shoulder bandaged up.” He takes Horace’s hand, squeezing gently, and Horace blinks rapidly as Rhodre drags him around Jonathan’s body to the bathroom.
“You lied to me,” Horace whispers.
“I know,” Rhodre says. “I’m sorry I lied to you. I thought–I didn’t want to . . . I didn’t want you to think I was coming back.”
“But you did come back,” Horace mumbles. “You came back. You’re here now.” He can’t rub his eyes. Rhodre has his good hand and Horace doesn’t want to hurt his shoulder by using his arm. “Your voice . . . I haven’t heard your voice in . . . God . . .”
“Horace . . .” Rhodre stops in the hallway and turns to Horace. “Are you crying?” He reaches up with a hand and wipes away Horace’s tears with one hand. “Don’t cry.”
“Only real men cry,” Horace mumbles. He leans in to kiss Rhodre, and Rhodre responds, opens his mouth for Horace, and Horace moans before he can stop. “I thought about you for so long.”
“I know,” Rhodre says, voice thick. “I watched you. I thought–I thought you would get over me.”
“You were family.” Rhodre clutches his hand and tugs him to the bathroom, finally, and takes out the first aid kit. “You were–you were mine. And then you–and then you–you died, Rhodre. And I asked you, I asked you–”
“I couldn’t.” Rhodre carefully takes off Horace’s shirt. “It wasn’t about you, Horace.”
“How–how–” Horace takes a deep, shaky breath. “How can you say that–?” He moves forward, to pull Rhodre to him, but Rhodre pushes him back to wrap the bandage around his wound. “You left me.”
“Horace, everyone dies.”
“I won’t die.”
Rhodre sighs. “I know,” he says. “At least, not a natural death.”
Horace feels his hand clamp Rhodre’s with a vice. “Pneumonia is not natural.”
“It was almost natural,” Rhodre mumbles. “Your shoulder should be okay now, but . . . I mean, it’ll heal by tomorrow morning and all . . .” Horace frowns at him. “I’m only here until the end of witching hour, Horace.”
Horace feels his heart stop. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know. Twelve-fifteen? Twelve-thirty?”
Horace picks up Rhodre bridal style, slinging him to his body, clinging to his warmth.
“Put me down!” Rhodre squawks, punching Horace’s good shoulder. “You can’t do this to me!”
Horace ignores the pain in his shoulder and stalks to the bedroom. “We’ve lost so much time.”
“Put me–ow! I said put me down, not drop me!”
Horace pushes Rhodre down onto the bed and kisses him hard, prying his mouth open until Rhodre moans, bucking his hips up to Horace’s. Horace has to pull away to watch Rhodre’s face flush, his eyes dilate. And then he realizes: “You’re wearing buttons.”
“You don’t like buttons?”
“It’s twelve-sixteen.” He tugs Rhodre’s shirt up over his head, not stopping even when Rhodre protests that it’s his favorite shirt and the seams are coming apart. “You’ll get it again later. I want you right now.”
“Ssh,” Horace hisses, and kisses Rhodre’s neck.
“I’m dead, Horace,” Rhodre says.
Horace stops. He closes his eyes and inhales Rhodre’s scent, fall and autumn and crisp black uniform Rhodre wore to work all those years. Chlorine from the swimming pool. Coffee from the office. Home. “I sold the house,” Horace whispers. “I trashed your motorcycle.” His voice cracks. “I stopped talking to Lucille.”
Horace slowly begins to work on unbuttoning Rhodre’s shirt. “She looks so much like you.”
“I want you to talk to her more,” Rhodre says.
Horace wants to tell him so badly. Wants to whisper it in Rhodre’s ear until their time is up. Instead, he kisses the junction between his neck and shoulder. “Rhodre, do you know how much I missed you?”
“Do you really want to do this?”
“Have sex with me,” Rhodre says. “Like we used to. Because this is the last time, Horace. I won’t come back anymore. You have to move on. And–and it’s been so long, do you think this is a good idea–?”
Horace’s throat tightens. “Rhodre,” he murmurs.
“Is it worth it?” Rhodre whispers. “When I died, was I worth those twenty years? Am I still worth it?”
Horace closes his eyes. “Always. More than anyone else.” Horace kisses Rhodre’s skin, sucks until bruises swell up on his shoulder blades. I was here, he thinks. You’re mine. You’re still mine.
“Horace,” Rhodre breathes, like a summer breeze.
When they reach Rhodre’s pants, Horace’s hands shake. In all his fantasies, he’s imagined that he’d take Rhodre for however long he’d have him. Now Rhodre is here, and Horace’s hands fumble to remove Rhodre’s belt.
“It’s okay,” Rhodre says, and helps Horace instead. Rhodre flips Horace onto his back and unzips his pants himself. “It’s okay,” he repeats, and Horace relaxes, because it’s Rhodre.
It must really be okay, he thinks. Rhodre’s here. Rhodre’s here with you.
The only noise Horace can hear from Rhodre is his breathing, trembling in the dark. “Say something,” Horace says. “Say something so I know you’re real.”
“I’m real,” Rhodre says, as he closes his hand around Horace. “I’m real. I’m here. I’ve always been here.” Rhodre’s hand moves up in a slow, gentle rhythm, like the beat of his heart, and Horace pulls him down so that their lips touch, so that Horace is inhaling Rhodre. “You’re the only one I’ll be near,” Rhodre says, right against Horace’s lips.
Horace starts to say something when Rhodre shifts downward, between Horace’s thighs, and Horace muffles a groan into the pillow as Rhodre takes him in his mouth. “Too slow,” Horace gasps. “We’ll never–”
Oh god. Rhodre hums around him, and Horace bucks his hips up into Rhodre’s mouth. Rhodre doesn’t seem to mind, because he hums again, and Horace’s hands bury themselves in Rhodre’s hair.
Horace groans and twists underneath Rhodre until Rhodre has to push Horace’s hips down, humming gently as he withdraws himself. He says something, but his voice is low and thick, and the only thing Horace can do now is pull him in for a kiss, rolling Rhodre under him. , rolling Rhodre under. He grinds their hips together, and Rhodre traces all the old scars in Horace’s skin as Horace tries to relearn the curves of Rhodre’s body.
Horace licks a trail down Rhodre’s chest, nipping at his skin. Rhodre still moves the same as he used to–slow and easy, his voice quiet like butterfly wings, hands running over Horace’s back and shoulders as he keeps a grip on him. There’s still a scar on Rhodre’s thigh, a knife wound from days when Horace didn’t care enough to protect him.
“Hurry,” Rhodre says, face flushed pink. “There’s not enough time.”
There’s never enough time, Horace thinks, stroking Rhodre, and there will never be enough time to spend with Rhodre. He reaches over to the drawer and pulls out a tube of lubricant he’s been saving up for someone else, someone who isn’t Rhodre because Horace thought that maybe, eventually, he’d forget Rhodre, but here is Rhodre now, underneath him.
“I want this to last,” Horace says.
Rhodre leans up and Horace meets him halfway. They are skin-to-skin, and Horace can feel Rhodre’s heartbeat in his chest. He’s alive, Horace thinks, using a generous amount of lube on himself. He presses a finger to Rhodre, who groans.
“No,” Rhodre says, and he’s trying to move against Horace, to touch and kiss. “There’s not enough time.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You won’t. You won’t.”
Horace is careful to position himself against Rhodre and bites his lip. “Don’t worry,” Rhodre says, and then he leans up to whisper in Horace’s ear. “Horace, I love you.”
Horace slams into Rhodre with a groan, eyes shutting tightly. “Rhodre, Rhodre, Rhodre.” He gropes Rhodre’s body, stroking him everywhere he can touch, kissing anywhere he can reach, and he is trying not to remember that beyond this room is a world that will take Rhodre away, that there is a limit to love, and Rhodre is letting him forget: Rhodre is kissing him back, is sliding his hands into his hair and whispering things into his ear, sweet nothings because it will be everything later, when Rhodre is gone.
I need you, Rhodre whispers, and Horace says, right back in Rhodre’s ear, I’ll still love you in the morning.
The world stills and goes white. Horace’s ears are filled with Rhodre’s heart, beating in tandem with his own.
Horace collapses next to Rhodre, one arm pulling him tight to his body, and Rhodre strokes the hair on the back of his neck. “I won’t be here when you wake,” Rhodre says.
“I want to see you go,” Horace says.
“Rhodre,” Horace says.
“I’m sorry,” Rhodre mumbles. “I’m sorry I left you.”
“You can’t go. You can’t go. Stay. I’ll–what if you drink the Water–I can–” But Rhodre silences him with a finger to his lips.
“Isn’t it enough to have me now? You had me then. You were the only one I ever . . .” Rhodre closes his eyes. “Let’s just sleep.”
“I don’t want to miss you when you go.”
“You’ll miss me anyways.” Rhodre opens his eyes again. “Horace, I don’t want you to be lonely anymore. There’s Lucille.”
The world blurs into light. “Why aren’t you back to stay?”
“I came to save you from your stupidity,” Rhodre says affectionately, and wipes at Horace’s eyes. “I made sure you’d be okay. And I think you might be. If you don’t talk to strange werewolves again.”
“How did you . . .?”
“I followed him to a business meeting on your first date,” Rhodre explains. He smiles a bit. “I was kind of jealous, but . . . also because I thought he was straight and . . . well . . . they wanted the Water of Life. For their assassins.”
Horace closes his eyes. “Oh.”
“It’s not your fault you didn’t know. You can’t know everything, and, well . . . I think it might be time to go.”
Horace turns to the clock on the stand. Twelve-fifty-eight. “But I didn’t–all the things I never said to you–”
“Ssh,” Rhodre says, and he kisses Horace on the lips. “You don’t need to say them.”
Horace doesn’t remember saying goodbye. He just remembers seeing Rhodre’s smile, and then Horace is falling over the edge and the stars pass by, bright and glowing, as Rhodre becomes further and further out of reach, like a distant star.
When Horace wakes up, Rhodre isn’t there. Horace stays in bed and tries to imprint Rhodre’s scent onto his body, but Horace can only smell his detergent. There is no bandage on his arm, and no scar–no evidence of a wound.
It’s not a dream. Horace knows. A dream doesn’t feel real. A dream doesn’t tell you it loves you. A dream has never left the sheets on the floor, has never had a warmth that matched Rhodre’s warmth so exactly.
Horace finally rolls out of bed when the sunlight pours in through the windows, and he half-cries, half-laughs when he sees Rhodre’s shirt hung over the digital clock. He picks it up and hugs it to his chest, crinkles it in his arms, smells it until the tears fall out of his eyes and stains the shirt.
He almost doesn’t notice the note in the front pocket until it falls out. It’s wrinkled and the note is slightly smudged, but it’s definitely Rhodre’s writing.
When Horace reads it, he almost weeps. But, he tells himself, Rhodre is gone. He has been gone. There is nothing to cry about. You have to stop doing this to yourself.
He brushes his teeth and takes a shower. He changes the sheets. He puts on a jacket and a pair of shoes, brushes his hair. He calls his work place: Sorry, I quit.
When he goes out into the living room, there’s nothing there. The chairs are in place. There’s no carpet stains, no misplaced plates. The candy Horace didn’t use is still there, and his expensive china plates are in order. It almost seems as if everything is finally in place.
Except for one thing.
Horace locks the door behind him.
There’s only one more thing to fix.
Rhodre’s sister is beautiful. Where Rhodre is all hard lines and broad shoulders, she is more petite and feminine. She still carriers herself with her brother’s confidence, though, and she has her brother’s eyes and her brother’s smile.
She greets the door with a startled frown. “Horace?”
“Lucille,” he says. “I’m sorry. For cutting you off. And ignoring you, and–”
Lucille throws herself onto Horace. “I’ve missed you so much, Horace. I thought you were never going to talk to me again.” He returns her embrace, squeezing her tightly, and then he pulls away to stroke her cheek.
“I saw your brother last night,” Horace says. “During witching hour. And–and he left me a note this morning. I’ll tell you more in detail, but I just–I just wanted to let you know that I saw him.”
“Is everything okay?” Lucille frowns.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” Horace says, and this time, it’s the truth.
I know it’s not much. But I just wanted you to know: I’ve always been here. And I’ll still be here today. And tomorrow. And the next day.
I’ve always loved you. Night, day. The morning after.