written and illustrated by Imouto (芋うと)
He raises the missing half-inches: five incomplete fingers, an incomplete greeting.
I stare, wondering if I’ve finally cracked and shattered, if the shards carved him into the freezing air of my doorstep. I have half a mind to reach out, touch him, grab that coat by the lapels and tear him into the house, throw him to the steps like a rag doll and drag him to where he’ll never leave. The other half wants to shut the door.
So I stare.
I cannot remember the last time I saw him. His face is hard like granite, gently treated with a burin pick for his eyes, his lips. His hair is tar, the curls matted with oil and dust from days of neglected wash. His eyes are the color of a sky smeared with mud. A flash of memory: I see his face three years younger, three ashen countries divided by borders of tears. Now he is clear-faced, shadows buried deep in the eyes.
I step back. He steps forward. The door stays open, a window to a world lost and terrifying. I lead him to the table. He walks like a whipped dog, shuffling now to the opposite side so we are diametric. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have someone, and figure that even a delusion might like a cup. But he’s not a delusion, not with those eyes.
In the kitchen I brew tea while contemplating what could and did not happen. I spill half the liquid at the table until he takes the kettle with his stubbed hands.
“It’s gotten worse,” he says.
My hands shake rebelliously in consent. “How are you?” I manage to ask.
“Could be better.” He grimaces.
“Why haven’t you visited?” He looks down.
“I am now.”
We sit in clattering silence. The china chatters with the wooden table and the metal spoon. He sighs, looks up with steel eyes and says, “I came here for something.”
He unbandages his hands; the white gauze curls like flayed flesh. I take his outstretched limbs. They are stiff stones turned in hesitant investigation. I see marks of torture engraved in missing skin. It is obvious that the nails were removed first. Then the tips, dissected, pulled in pieces, removed completely—revealing stark bone, which was ground to a flat surface. Amputation to sever the hangings. I release his hands. My own quake like bouncing steps.
“Who did this to you?” emerges thinly from my mouth. He turns away, stands, browses the room. He picks up the violin bow. “Can you still play?” The question drops heavy from my lips.
“No,”—he flexes his decapitated fingers—”the strings cut into them.” His voice is a drowned man’s. My hands continue shaking, shaking. He can’t play anymore. All that talent fallen into the dimple of fate’s sneer.
“Why would someone do that?” It is impossible to hide the dismay in my voice. He doesn’t turn around, even when he says: “That’s what I wanted to find out.” I hear the metal shine in those words. My hands knock over the tea; the cup shatters on the ground. The piercing shriek sounds like the voice of all broken things. Dark liquid trails like blood splatter. There is a rain of dripping silence, and then he asks in a voice like a burial: “So, why?”
“Do you think you can save me?”
Carl’s head jerks away like he’s the one who was slapped. I laugh, sharp and ragged; it’s the sound of the violin strings snapping and biting my flesh with their rejection. There aren’t any paths left for me. If I were a God-fearing man I would say this was punishment for my sins, but I have never loved or feared God.
I only hate him.
“Don’t—don’t do this, Mitch,” Carl says, sad-eyed and stepping forward hesitantly. I glare at him, the trail of my eyes a burning whip. He flinches, so like a puppy which foolishly approaches the owner who abandoned it. My lips pull tight in a sneer. I turn away.
He doesn’t. He moves closer, stepping over the shattered remains of a vase and the corpses of its residents.
“I told you to leave!” I twist around, fumble for the lamp to toss it at his stupid, pitying head. My useless hands knock it to the ground and it breaks, adding to the sea of shards scattered about me.
“Mitch!” He lunges at me, desperate, as I flail for something else to grab and shatter. “Stop it! Stop! Please!”
I snarl and beat my hands on his shoulders and chest, struggling to break free. It’s sickly satisfying to see him shake, too, each time my fists meet his fat lump of a body.
“God,” he says, tremulously. “God, stop it, please.” He’s choked up, sobbing into my chest and holding me tight against him. He’s cold and vulnerable, and it’s only too easy to press my shaking hands around his neck.
“I didn’t,” I start to say, but the words flash like searing pain and whatever I meant to say had run off too far for me to capture. So I swallow, the empty sentence clawing my throat like a ball of needles. “I… I don’t…”
His gaze bores into me, a great pickaxe cleaving the dirt and dust piled high on the dim corners of my memory. God, stop it, please, I think, but I’ve never asked God for anything. I feel like I’ve just grasped the tail end of a distant thread.
I let it go.
His face contorts, hard lines carved into the portrait of fury. His eyes hold some unnamable emotion and he hisses a breath from his teeth. His shortened fingers flex, like those of a man seconds from gripping them around another’s neck. And he is that man. He takes the neck of my broken violin and dashes it to the ground, the splinter and crack of wood a thunder to the prior silence. I can only watch as the rage bleeds from his face and crumbles into the shock and despair of someone who has just realized they’d broken something precious and irreplaceable.
I have half a mind to comfort him. Everything here is already broken, I might say. But the other half revels in his anguish, so I stay silent, even as he stumbles out the door into the cold, burning air.
I didn’t expect to see him again, but I didn’t expect him last time, either. I stare at him from the doorway until he is shivering, then step back. He steps forward, and it will be a ritual, I’m sure, if he comes by a third time. But I make a change: I close the door behind him and can almost taste the spike of fear. Ignoring the halves of regret and pleasure, I make my way back to the table. There will be no tea this time.
When he enters the dining room, he stops and stares at the fragments of the violin he destroyed weeks ago. He almost seems like he’ll turn around and march back out the door, but he doesn’t. He shuffles to the corner seat, and we are diametric.
“How are you?” I ask, laying my hands on the table. We are calm with a façade of control, a full contrast to his panic, his jerking fingers and twitching limbs.
“Fine,” he says.
And so we return to silence.
He fidgets, glances at the violin’s corpse, looks away, shrinks into himself. He’s fascinating, especially now that his face has lost roundness and shows better the stretch of his frown. Finally he flattens his hands on the table, body rigid, face severe.
“Why? Why is it—what did you want me to do?” He searches my eyes for answers I don’t have. I shrug, observing the remains of the violin.
“Leave it alone,” I say. His expression twists.
“You can’t just leave it there. It’s—” It’s making a mess, are the words he stops himself from saying. He shuts his mouth and rubs a hand across his face. “I can’t just leave it.” He drags the words out by the hooks of his regrets. “Just—let me—let me try to fix it.”
“It can’t be fixed,” I say calmly. And it can’t; it’s shattered, wood pieces bursting like thorns from a bastardization of what it used to be.
His eyes continue searching for ghosts. He asks, in a voice like the falling snow, “Doesn’t it matter to you?”
Half of me wants to laugh. I compromise with an almost-smile, a tilt which makes him tense and glance to the side, to the door. But I don’t move. I only say, “It was already broken. There’s no harm in breaking it even more.”
When he leaves, it’s with white-knuckled fists and primal fear—not of me, but of himself.
Before the recital Carl pulls me to the side, in a small corner of shielding curtains and stifling cloth. His body blocks the sliver of an opening. He holds my arm tight, his mouth a thin grim line, as his gaze pierces through me. I try to not struggle, to not show any acknowledgement of his accusation. His normally jovial face darkens as if taking in the shadows of our surroundings. His grip tightens.
“I know you’re hiding something, Mitch,” he hisses. “Just tell me. If something’s wrong—if, if you have some kind of trouble, I’ll help you. Just—” He breaks off, takes a deep breath. He was never meant to suffer the worst parts of people, and it shows in the shine of his naïve hope.
“Just tell me.”
I say nothing.
He watches me, his hope dimming, his delusions of friendship snapping apart with each second of silence.
“Don’t you trust me?” he asks.
I start to shake, not for any reason but nervousness. I tell myself this is normal three times before I smile, brilliantly and exhilaratingly, because if I don’t he will see the burning and blazing hatred clawing from my eyes.
All he sees is what he wants to see, so he lets go, defeated but hopeful. “I hope you’ll tell me someday,” he whispers. “I swear—I swear, Mitch, I’ll do anything for you.”
I say nothing in response. I simply take my violin case from the floor and walk to the stage.
It’s been a month. He holds something in his hands—a gift, clumsily wrapped and decorated with a skewed bow. I look past him to the neighboring houses, observe the inflated plastic and garish lights and realize only my house is bare, white and frozen.
“Happy Holidays,” he says.
I nod and step back. He steps forward. Through the threshold yet again, but now the dining room is an old game so I lead him to the lounge. He looks at the years-old sea of broken glass and porcelain and says, “It hasn’t changed.”
I hold my hand out to take the package. He hesitates, and I stare.
“It’s delicate,” he says.
My hand drops. I sit on a sofa and gesture for him to do the same. He sits on the one opposite mine and slides the gift onto the table in between. His hands linger above it.
He coughs, glances away. “Should I—open it for you?” he asks.
“It’s best if you do.”
He nods, prying apart the wrapping with his too-short fingers, and I imagine the twitching of his missing fingertips as he sinks his hands through the creases. The red ribbon unravels, the paper unfurls. There is an intricate wooden box, carved and painted by hand to resemble a Beaux-Arts mansion. He lifts the roof and there, nestled in swathes of velvet, is a faux-Fabergé egg.
He takes it in hand and holds it out to me. “Can you…?” I relax my hands, form a loose cup shape with them, and nod. The gilded egg rolls into my barely-trembling palms. I form a cradle on my lap and trace the metalwork with a shivering thumb. It’s a beautiful rendition of waves and vineyards arching around a golden surface. A finger dips into a groove at the top, and I freeze. A wail rises from the waves, siren-like, meant to lure me to suffocation.
It’s the sound of a violin.
His hands wrap around mine before the egg can fall. My chest heaves. My expression pulls tight and pinched, and I only now realize how soft it was before. I shake off his hands, gripping the egg in a vise so tight it cuts into my skin, and drop it in the velvet box. I stand. I can’t bear to look at him. I turn away, towards the kitchen.
Walking is a simple process: one foot forward, then the other. Talking is also simple. “How about some tea?” I ask. Halfway to the kitchen, I hear him stand. I hurry my pace.
“Tea’s not good for you,” he says. Somehow he’s behind me, stubbed hand heavy like a manacle on my wrist. His breath is ragged, and it’s not all from exertion. I flinch, try to break away. He’s a spider, his silk unbreakable. It makes me want to sob, half from despair, half from hilarity.
“No,” I say. The tremors wrack my body and my voice quavers. Breathing hurts, harsh and rough air breaking from my lungs and rushing out in a harried rhythm. I shake my head. “I, I’m not…”
He pulls me against him. I don’t resist. He’s hard, the heat of his body like a searing brand from a fire. He desperately mouths the back of my neck like a dog.
“I remembered,” he says, hushed and heated. “I remembered when you said—you, you like this stuff, don’t you? You looked so happy, so beautiful. God.” He grinds harder against my backside. His hands trail across my body, the stubbed fingers foreign like wriggling worms. A whimper escapes my throat and he smiles against the back of my neck.
His hands dip down past my navel, tracing the hem of my pants. He whispers, “Love you, love you.” And the hand drifts down.
When his decapitated fingers reach my soft organ, he stops his movements entirely. Three seconds we’re frozen together, him with his arms and hands around me and me, shaking and trembling.
But he pulls away with a hurt sound, a cry of confusion and disbelief. He spins me around. When he sees my deadened expression face twists in the most beautiful manner, pain and anger and betrayal all mixed in a mélange of despair. He’s broken in the deepest way, his heart almost audibly shattering.
And then he bursts.
His fury erupts through his face like lava. He snarls and throws me to the wall, slams his weight onto my limp body. I can barely breathe with the unforgiving cold of the wall to my chest and the violent heat of his anger, his arousal, to my back.
He presses hard against me. He hisses, “You just never—you can never admit it, what you want—”
He breaks off with a growl. My pants have been loosened, dropped to my knees. He works his own open so he can press his bare flesh against mine. When his erection is freed he shoves me back against the wall. He rubs and grinds into my bottom for his own sick pleasure, tracing his tip against the opening and smearing it with fluid.
“Beg me,” he says, voice hushed and frenzied. “Beg me to stop. Or I’ll take you, ruin you and break you!” He roars the final words. The silence after is sharp, punctuated by his fast breaths.
There is nothing I can do.
His fingers clench. Slowly his weight disappears. I hear the sound of rustling, a zipper pulled up, a half-choked noise of defeat. I half turn back towards him and pull up my pants, slowly, slowly. I raise my emptied gaze to him, to his face where the shadows have spilled and stained every wrinkle and contour.
We stare at each other as if for eternity.
When he speaks, it’s as if he dragged the sound through the battlefield in his soul.
“I’m the violin,” I say.
He shakes his head, gaze never leaving mine. He backs away, eyelids shuttering closed, the bridge of his brows wrinkling as the anguish overtakes him. With a hand pressed to his face he sobs, bending and overcome with emotion, and just barely chokes out “I’m sorry” before running away.
I stand there until the room is dark, dying rays of the sun extinguished. The moon sheds cold light onto the scene of my play, and I wander to the table where the box and the egg lie. The tremors return when I reach out. The egg, delicate and beautiful, slips from my fingers and falls with a cry like the voice of all broken things.
The tremors started the day after. I thought they were a product of nervousness, maybe of some temporary and ridiculous heartsickness. I ignored it, buried it deep, so deep I would never think of it. But the tremors didn’t stop and they are an earthquake, shaking apart the very foundations of all the lies I tell so I will never have to face my dirty, sinful shames. He finds me crying but I run from him, like I do every time I see his eyes light up with his smile, every time I feel the warmth of his hand on my shoulder.
I can’t bear it.
He knows it. Behind his dumpy, fumbling exterior is the sharp mind of a man who plays the dark horse. There is the man whose music is like the voices of angels crying for wayward souls, the man whose music can bring the audience to tears.
And what am I to him but a foil?
Just one last show, I tell myself. I can take my fall gracefully, bow out one more time before resigning myself to my failure. I stare at my traitorous hands and their calm stillness as they lay on my lap. The noises of the café are a low buzz, the clinks of silverware almost relaxing. I raise one hand to take the glass in front of me. My fingers jerk; the glass tips over. Water spills across the table. The waiter looks aghast and rushes over, mopping up the mess and asking if I am all right.
I can only smile.
The year passes in the world beyond my window. I hear the neighbors shout for their new beginnings, their fledgling resolutions, and can almost believe in change.
Time comes and goes. My cells are dying, and new ones are born to take their place. But they will die, too, and soon enough the deaths will outweigh the births. I am deteriorating, my iron rusting from his brief touch. I will be nothing but particles and dust, a half-man of half-truths in a citadel of buried lies.
As I lay on the divan I ponder the meaning of existence while tracing the form of the broken egg. It is in halves, and no matter how many times I push it together it only breaks more, never to become whole. The missing pieces are scattered on my stomach, across the floor, on the table between the sofas. I find them in my bed, digging into my back and sides as I search for a mindless sleep. I find them in the kitchen by the bags of tea I no longer use, and I find them in the dining room around the slowly rotting, sinking corpse of the violin.
When I rub a finger in the split groove at the top, I imagine I can hear the melody of angels, and the sound is enough to bring me to tears.
“Hey, Mitch! Mind if I join you?” Carl sidles over, his smile bright and his olive face colored with red. His performance during practice went far beyond imagination; whatever misgivings the others had about him were now cleared by the proof of his God-given talent.
“I don’t,” I say, and return to studying my sheets. From the corner of my eye I see him freeze in shock for a split second before he all but flies into the seat opposite mine. A quick glance upwards rewards me a vision of his beaming face, like I’d just given him a diamond. I allow my amusement to show, a wry smile gracing my lips.
He laughs nervously, pulling one of his curls. “Sorry, I’m just… You never let anyone sit with you. I’m just kind of…” He looks up with something bright and hopeful in his eyes.
I shrug, returning my gaze to them music sheets. It’s difficult to focus when he’s fidgeting in the corners of my vision, anxious to strike up conversation. I set down the papers, figuring I can indulge him for the moment. With the contents of the papers now visible, he glances at them and asks, “You’re, ah, reading music?” as if it weren’t obvious.
He bites his lip, smiles nervously. “Can I ask why? I, I mean, you’re always reading here by yourself. You don’t get bored?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, shrugging. “And I don’t get bored. Music is beautiful, whether performed or written.”
“Oh,” he says quietly. “Sorry for—do you mind that I’m intruding?”
“I said I didn’t.”
A smile splits his face, his bright teeth matching his bright eyes. “You’re the only one I don’t mind,” I find myself saying, and just like that, the rest of his tension bleeds away. He laughs, the sound sparkling and happy like a wind chime. It’s strange but not unpleasant, much like the rest of him. When he quiets, the sparkle remains in his eyes.
“I’m glad for that,” he says, “though you probably shouldn’t say that around others. They’re all nice people, and I’m sure they want to get to know you better, too.” I raise my eyebrows at this; the other musicians are prideful and snobbish, for the most part, and watch Carl as if he plans to smuggle their wallets and purses into his violin case.
But I don’t contradict him. I shrug and say, “That doesn’t matter. Their beauty is far too lacking to be fit for my company.”
He looks shocked by my brazen declaration.
“Huh. That’s, uh, huh.” He blinks, runs his hand through his mussed hair as he turns my words in his head. “That’s an interesting way of choosing friends. But,” Carl says, chuckling anxiously, “well, you know, I’m not exactly pretty, either.” His face flushes after he says this and he watches, waiting for my reply with nervous eyes.
I take in his features: bulging eyes, a severe nose, a round face. He is short and fat and clumsy; his hair is a wild bird’s nest and he dresses as if he has never set foot in a proper clothes store. Yet I can’t help but see him as he pulled the bow across the violin, eyes closed and face beaming pure exhilaration as his skin shone with the sweat of his concentration, and I don’t think I would ever see something more breathtaking in the rest of my life.
I don’t tell him this. Instead, I say, “But your music is.”
And that’s enough for him. Carl smiles, and the world rights itself.
Later he asks, “So when you say beautiful, what kinds of things do you think about?”
You. I smile and begin listing odd trinkets and architectural styles, explaining their appeal as he listens with wide eyes and flushed cheeks.
I hold a shard up to the sunlight. The rest lays scattered across me, the fragments of eggshell torn and sharp.
Something was born within this metal egg. Now it is free to haunt, its prison smashed by my cursed hands. It sits on my chest, heavy, angry, its rancid breath cloying my lungs. I pretend not to see it, raise my gaze to the blinding sunlight filtering in from the distant window.
It is easy to ignore. It is easy to forget. I have spent years letting go of these threads around me, allowing them to fall at my feet and disintegrate. Now I am the one disintegrating. I let my hand fall.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t let go.
The egg’s prisoner rumbles and eases from my chest. It offers a single shining thread to me, and I hesitantly take it by the tail end.
At the edge of the darkness from which the thread comes are the outlines of ragged memories. My hands, no longer shaking, pull them towards me.
He doesn’t fight me when I choke him. He stares, sad and desperate, and sobs with crushed groans.
When he goes limp in my quaking hands I nearly throw him down to join the rest of the broken trash around me. Instead I drag him upstairs, to my study. There is a table in the center. I place his body on it. He looks like an offering, an innocent and naïve lamb. A sacrifice for me.
When the thought takes root it goes deep. The urge to make him sacrifice himself makes me giddy with crazed euphoria. He can be just like me: useless, never good enough, such a fucking piece of shit why the fuck didn’t I kill you and it’s somehow so wonderful to me that I smile, then grin, then laugh aloud until my sides ache. I can take away half of his soul and he will fit perfectly with me, and wouldn’t that be so beautiful. The laughter trickles out of me in giggles, washing away my anger.
I’ve found the perfect solution, the way to make all these shards come together.
I make my way downstairs to find the tools necessary. Pliers, tweezers, a butcher knife and a steak knife. Scissors? No, useless to me now. Towels and bandages make the bottom of the pile I bring back up with me. I lay them next to his unconscious body and smile.
As I work through the procedure I hear a violin duet playing somewhere in front of me. A violin string snaps with a piercing shriek each time I cut away one of the fingertips, and the beautiful melody distorts into an almost crying sound. When the last finger is cut away the music dies with a shrill wail, and the silence that follows is heavy with a distant and shadowed sorrow.
I bandage him carefully. At the end I look up and his eyes burn me, their darkness stabbing me, the emptiness an echo the music died, the music died, the music died and Carlos Mendoza died there is shadow and blue eyes brown the bloodstains from shards breaking skin
burst from my heart I can see Oh God, I couldn’t I could never have done this to
Why did I?
–you always screw up at the end, I can’t help but see him as he pulled the bow across the violin and the music screams out you fucking waste of one last show, I told myself I could take my fall gracefully, bow out one more time before resigning myself to my failure but look what happened he was never meant to suffer the worst parts of people and SEE WHAT YOU DID TO HIM God, stop it, please, I cry into my hands and dig my nails into the skin of my forehead, my cheeks.
I stumble onto my feet and tear my way up the stairs to the study, but Carl is already gone. There is just me, the dead and decaying half festering and poisoning the other half, the one that loved but could never admit it because it was afraid of breaking.
Everything’s in pieces. I fall to my knees and let the tears fall with me.
He raises the missing half-inches: five incomplete fingers, an incomplete greeting. I begin to weep at the sight of them.
“I’m the one who should be sorry,” I whisper, voice breaking on the last word. He doesn’t move, doesn’t react, until I step back. He steps forward and half of me desperately wants to wrap my arms tight around him. The other half tells me to push him away before he can step into this house of shards and glass and broken minds, and in the end, neither side wins.
I shut the door. We stand in the foyer and I have no desire to show him more of my shattered remains. He stares at me as I weep, his face tired and weary.
“It can’t go on like this,” he says, finally.
He’s right; it can’t.
He walks to the lounge and I follow. He pauses at the sight of the box still on the table, and when he approaches he pauses again when he sees that the egg is broken.
He tenderly picks up the pieces.
“What happened?” he asks, shifting the shards in his hands.
I can barely speak through my heaving sobs. “I, I tried… tried to put it back together, but it…’s broken,” I wail, covering my eyes with my shaking, broken hands.
I hear him step closer. He pulls one of my hands down and looks at my face. I am ugly now, blotchy-faced, broken and cruel. I look away. He grabs me by the chin and turns my face to him. I close my eyes, still sobbing quietly.
“Michel,” he says, and my heart leaps. “I want you to look at me.”
I open my eyes. Everything is blurry from the tears, and I can’t tell what expression he wears. It might be for the best. I couldn’t bear it if he looked at me with disgust or hatred.
But his stubbed fingers are gentle, and his half-thumb strokes the side of my chin with a strange tenderness. When the rest of my tears fall I see him clearly. His eyes are bright, his face no longer like hard stone but smoother.
“Michel,” he says, “I want you to answer my question.”
“I love you,” I whisper, and his eyes flicker with blue fire.
He leans in, tilting my face down so he can press his lips against mine. It lasts for only a few seconds before he breaks away. He strokes my cheek with the hands I loved and destroyed.
“I’ll come back,” he says. He leaves with the shards of the egg.
You would never tell from looking at him that he is one of the best musicians of our time. He stutters and mumbles when he introduces himself. He doesn’t believe he has a right to be here, and the group feels exactly the same.
The situation doesn’t improve in the following weeks. His skills are decent, but he doesn’t shine like he did the first time I saw him. His performance is marred by his nerves. He makes more mistakes, can’t follow the pace of the group. It only worsens when he’s given a solo for the next recital.
I observe this from a distance. It is not rare for new members to simply not mesh with the others, and until now I never cared. But the sound of his music haunts me, and that is why I approach him in the empty hall where he sits, head in his hands, defeated.
He looks up, and his face is wet with tears. He looks resigned, as if waiting for me to insult him like the others have.
Something in that expression makes my chest clench and I kneel down and grasp his hand. It’s damp with his tears. He looks faintly surprised, but still wary.
“I think your music is beautiful,” I tell him. I smile, the unfamiliar expression tugging at my cheeks.
It’s one of the worst attempts at providing comfort ever made. Even so, Carl smiles, softly, hesitantly, and the world rights itself.
When I wake he is there. He smiles nervously, rising from the opposite sofa. He holds out the egg. Still bleary-eyed from sleep, I don’t notice its deformity until I take it in my quaking hands. It’s a patchwork laced with milky spider web scars.
“It’s hideous,” I say, turning it in my hands. It’s not whole. There are parts missing, and it seems that at the slightest push it would crumble.
He sits beside me, holding up my shaking hands with his own. “It doesn’t have to be pretty to be beautiful.”
I smile through the tears.
We set the egg in its velvet nest and sit there, pressed side-to-side. He wraps an arm around my shoulder and I lay my head against his. We are warmth, our soft breaths mingling in the shell of stars. Our eyes gaze forward past the walls of my house to the open space beyond, into the distant and hazy future.
He makes a soft noise. I turn to find him staring at me, his gaze warm, his eyes the color of river and honey. I lean forward, brush a shaking hand against his rough cheek, and say aloud again the words I’ve felt for the past five years.
“I love you.”
He swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. His gaze flickers across my face, searching it for some indication of what I want, what I need him to do. We’re close now, breath mingling, hearts pounding. I press my lips against his, reveling in their chapped texture. My hand seeks his like how a man lost in the ocean clings to driftwood.
I stand and lead him to my bedroom. Walking is easy, but remembering to breathe is not. He pushes me to sit on the bed and kneels so his face is level with mine. He strokes my hair, strokes my cheek with his stubbed and beautiful fingers, until I am calm. Then he smiles.
A rush of desire washes over me. I desperately seize it to pull myself from my cowardice. I grab him by his coat lapels, tearing it off and running my quivering hands under his shirt. This is all right. This is—this is what supposed to have happened, but never did. I feel the contours and curves of his body as I surge up and kiss him, violently pressing and sucking his thin lips, his sweet mouth. He moans into me and I shiver.
He licks his lips and carefully undoes the buttons of my shirt, strips the cloth away as if unwrapping a treasure. His eyes light up, his gaze roaming and tracing my form. There is nothing but pure awe in his face, nothing but tenderness he should not but does feel for me.
He bends down and kisses my jaw, trails his lips down my throat. His hands sweep down my shoulders to my nipples, hesitantly brushing them. I arch up into his touch, panting, writhing as he gains confidence and pinches them, rubs them with his squared, soft fingertips. His hips press down and I rub against him wantonly, legs parting, body aching for more of his touch, for more of him and his beautiful skin and beautiful moans and beautiful imperfection.
“Carl.” I gasp as he rocks forward. His hands rub across the front of my pants, caressing my full erection, and I cry out. He grins and watches me writhe, his face openly showing avid pleasure and reverence. He easily slides my pants down, exposing me. I fumble for the front of his jeans, desperately trying to work my quivering fingers, but it’s no use. I start to sob from frustration.
“Carl, Carl, I need you to…” He smiles crookedly, rubs his fingers across my hipbones before working off his jeans. I yank down his boxers and nearly cry out when I see his flushed erection, dark and glistening at the tip. I skim my fingers shakily across its length and he hisses, eyes drawing closed in pleasure. A thrill runs through me at the sight, and I reach up and grab him by the hair, pull him down for a frenzied kiss. “Mitch,” he groans, and the sound sends shivers through my body.
He reaches down and grabs my erection. I whimper, breaking away from his mouth, but he chases my lips and sucks on them, bites them gently and teasingly. Every stroke of his hand is an electric current sending my body into shivers, every lick of his tongue a fire feeding into my arousal. I can feel myself slipping away into the rush of euphoria, so overloaded with rising pleasure that I can only just barely remember to touch him. My hand wraps around his thick hardness and now, the two of us stroke each other, riding the waves in a symphony of pants and breaths and the slide of skin on skin.
I come in a flash of white, the dual violins playing side by side, the egg shattering and reforming anew, the roar of waves crashing over me and pulling my weight away until the tides vanish and only the warmth and light remains.
Vaguely I feel Carl twitch in my hand, hear his hoarse cry as he spends himself on my stomach. Our seed mixes together and becomes one pool of white. He collapses beside me, panting, eyes closed, mouth smiling. I press a kiss against his beautiful lips and feel complete.
The man holds out his hand. I glance at it but make no move to take it. Irritation flashes across his face—This stuck-up bastard, I’m sure he must be thinking—but he quickly masks it with a polite smile.
I nod and say, “I’m here to see the performance.”
He takes me to the auditorium. There is a decent size audience tonight, but it is not nearly as large as the organizers had hoped. I take my seat at the front and wait.
I was sent to gauge the hopeful new member. Our leader loves him, and he thinks I will, too. “His music’s like nothing you’ve ever heard,” he’d said, eyes wide like he’d witnessed a miracle.
The man who walks on stage is far from whom I’d expect. He looks rather like a hamster with the way he curls into himself, round and small and utterly spooked by the crowd. He smoothens out his wrinkled, ill-fitting suit, fumbles his violin into position, and begins to play.
For the first time in years I feel the urge to cry.
After the performance I meet him backstage. “Michel Strauss,” I introduce myself, and extend a hand to him. He panics for a second, wipes his palms against his pants and nervously accepts my greeting with a weak shake.
“Carlos Mendoza,” he says. “Call me Carl.”
I nod and pull away. “I enjoyed your performance.” I hesitate before adding, “It’s one of the best I’ve heard in a long time.”
He smiles brightly, lighting up like a blossoming flower. I almost laugh at that thought, but manage to maintain my neutral expression with only a slight quirk of my lips.
“I’m glad, very glad for that, Mr. Strauss,” he says, his eyes twinkling with his relief. “If I can ask, does that mean…?” He trails off.
I nod. “I think you’d do well. And please, call me Michel.”
His smile spreads to a grin. “Thank you. Thank you, Michel.” He has a slight accent, and from his mouth the name sounds more like Mitchelle. It’s strange, but not unpleasant, and I find I don’t mind.
“I look forward to working with you,” I say, and am rewarded with a laugh like wind chimes.
We spend the rest of the day tidying our messes. The scattered shards of the egg are stowed in a bowl and placed to the side of the box, on the table. Carl lifts the broken violin, sadness etched on his face.
“It’s all right,” I say, and smile. He tentatively smiles back, a flicker of half-guilt half-determination and his face is wiped clean, the shadows hidden. I take the battered violin from him and put it back on the pedestal, next to the dusty and long-unused bow.
At night we lay in bed together, arms wrapped around each other. It’s an awkward fit, our bodies not quite slotting against each other and our limbs poking in uncomfortable places. Our broken halves fit together imperfectly, the chasms of uncertainty stretching like oceans across the gaps where we don’t quite meet. I can only cling to him with my arms across his back and my forehead pressed against his.
“I want to stay with you,” he says.
“Then stay. Please.”
His brilliant smile stretches across his tired face, and like a bursting dam all the words he held away come flowing as promises for the future.
“I’ll take care of you. I’ll button your clothes when you’re shaking, and I’ll cook you breakfast—omelettes, with green peppers, the way you like them. I’ll hold your hand when we take walks outside, and when the snow melts, we can sit by the lake and watch the stars…”
He rubs circles on the small of my back as he speaks. I smile and draw closer to him. His voice sinks into the gaps between us. He fills in the missing pieces, one by one, with the caress of his stubbed hands and the patience of a man with the heart of angels. He is a spider, and he wraps me in his silvery web to keep me from breaking apart. I take the final missing piece and offer it to him. I kiss him, take his hand and place it over my beating heart, and say, “Yours.”
The cold fire in his eyes blazes. He smiles, softly and beautifully, and the world is righted.