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The Vector

by T.F. Grognon

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/342492.html)

Perched on his back steps like enormous carrion birds, heads tipped together in consultation, the Jays are waiting for Rashard when he gets home.

He stayed late at work again, then took his time at the grocery store, so it has been dark for a while now. When his headlights sweep over them, as one, they turn to watch him park, juggle the grocery bags, and approach them.

They’re sharing a clove cigarette. God, he does not miss that smell; it used to get into Aaron’s hair, the weave of his clothes, the pits of his pores.

“You are quite late,” Jeremy informs him; Jean-Luc nods, looking impressed with his partner’s powers of observation.

“I’m pretty sure I can come and go from my own home at any time of the day or night,” Rashard replies.

He pushes the heaviest bag into Jean-Luc’s hands, just to make him drop the stupid cigarette, and slips between them to jog up the stairs.

“We’ve been waiting for almost an hour,” Jean-Luc calls.

“Well, you’re here now, come on up.” He manages to get the door unlocked and open without dropping keys or groceries. He hates how self-conscious these guys make him; he’s usually a fairly steady person, but get him around any of Aaron’s artsy friends, and Rashard starts feeling like half-circus geek, half-malfunctioning robot.

Add this feeling to “things he does not miss”.

He drops the bags on the kitchen table and feeds Lupita Bonita before her head explodes in a fireball of feline rage. He silently promises her to stop lingering at work and dawdling on errands before coming home. She’s not taking well to all the changes around here lately.

The Jays are standing there, just inside the screen door. Their doubled gaze is somehow more unsettling by the moment.

No one’s been in the apartment with him and the cat for a while now. Rashard’s suddenly aware of the space, its angles and heights, in a new way: both Jays are tall, one skinny as a willow switch, the other gym-bunny-broad from neck to waist.

“There’s beer… I think,” he tells them. “In the fridge, help yourself.”

Why is he being nice to them? He’d like to be thought of as a decent guy, that’s all, someone who takes the high road post-breakup. If it should get back to Aaron (and it will, this clique breathes gossip), so much the better.

“Richard,” Jeremy says.

“Rashard, man, it’s not that hard to say.”

“Rashard, we –”

He shakes his head. “Let me just grab his stuff, there’s not much.”

He packed up Aaron’s things only after several days, when it became clear that he wasn’t coming back. Maybe he should have done it right away; he probably should have done it right away. That way, if Aaron had come crawling back, Rashard could have shoved the box into his arms, all the while gazing with equal parts sorrow and resolve deep into his eyes, before slowly closing the door in Aaron’s face.

That was a nice daydream. But Aaron hadn’t come back, or called, or texted, or Skyped, and Rashard procrastinated on packing his stuff.

Finally, on a windy Saturday night, he put Etta James on shuffle-repeat, turned up the volume, and opened a bottle of Maker’s Mark he’d received from a secret Santa years ago. He proceeded to get sloppy, sad, and loud.

Aaron’s stuff comprised, in the end, a very skimpy collection. Several T-shirts, one leather driving glove, a sheepskin-lined corduroy trucker jacket Rashard really wanted to keep (if only he were two sizes smaller), X-Box controller, Brecht on Theatre (unread, but one of Aaron’s favorite props: “why, yeah, as a matter of fact, I am an actor…”), and Obadiah, his favorite stuffed animal from childhood. Obadiah is a generic brown-and-white dog, with floppy ears, floppier limbs, and big plastic crossed eyes. Pound Puppies, Rashard remembers these toys were called. His older cousin Lisa had several in her room even when she was a teenager. They were a slightly more realistic adoption scenario than Cabbage Patch Kids. There is a red heart on one flank to match the big red collar around its neck.

Aaron, like Rashard, was too young to have had Obadiah during the toys’ heyday. Rashard always suspected this was either a hand-me-down or a thrift-store purchase. Aaron, however, didn’t like talking about his childhood.

Rashard found Obadiah stuck between the box spring and the wall. He didn’t remember Aaron bringing it over; he didn’t know how long it had been there. He was drunk enough by then that he wailed, clutching the dog to his chest, tears and snot sliding down his face.

Obadiah is on top of the box, staring blankly out, as Rashard totes it back to the Jays in the kitchen.

Lupita Bonita is on the table, face in one of the grocery bags as she tears open a package of bread with her teeth. The Jays haven’t seemed to notice. They’re standing exactly where he left them, wearing the same sour expression.

“Get outta there, baby, come on!” Rashard drops the box and pulls Lupita Bonita, howling and spitting plastic and bits of bread, out of the bag. When he drops her on the floor, she spits delicately and stalks away. “Sorry, she’s got blood sugar issues.”

He shouldn’t apologize. These guys are the worst.

“You persist in a misunderstanding,” Jeremy announces. Sometimes he sounds like Max von Sydow; other times, like that Monty Python guy who does travel documentaries now.

“No misunderstanding. Here’s his shit, please give him my love, hope to see you around.” Most of that is a rank lie. Rashard is no actor, but he thinks his line delivery was solid there.

“We–” Jean-Luc says, stops, and looks at Jeremy. Their jaws tighten as they frown in tandem.

“I couldn’t possibly take him back!” Rashard says as jocularly as he can. “You just tell Mister Aaron to come over and do his own courting, you hear?”

“Aaron is gone,” Jeremy says.

Jean-Luc nods.

“What?” Rashard grasps the chipped edge of the table. He grins, widely, absurdly, before catching himself and scowling. “The hell are you talking about?”

“The Vector has taken him.”

*

The first time they hooked up, Rashard said afterward, while orgasm was still buzzing at his extremities and influencing him to make very poor life decisions, “I was wondering if –”

“Yeah,” Aaron said, nodding as he sank back down onto the edge of the bed.

I was wondering if you wanted my number, Rashard had been about to say. He was grateful for the interruption, because on second thought, that phrasing sounded terrible. Here’s my number, what’s yours? was much better.

“Yeah, I am,” Aaron continued. He ran his hand lightly up and down Rashard’s chest, tickling around his nipples, dancing through the semen splattered farther down. His smile was sleepy and fond as he leaned in to kiss Rashard.

He kissed so well, all melting sugar spiked with sharp little cinnamon bites.

“You are what?”

That Aaron.” He glanced away, brows knitting together. Later, Rashard would come to learn that this, both bashful and earnest, was one of Aaron’s stock expressions. At the time, however, he was every bit as charmed by it as he was supposed to be. “From The Vector.”

Rashard was thoroughly charmed but equally baffled, because he had no idea what Aaron was talking about.

He didn’t watch a lot — or any — horror movies, let alone amateur YouTube series. Over the coming months, he found himself having to explain and defend this to many, many people. The rejoinder he eventually developed went something like: You know what tends to happen to the Black dude in those movies? Yeah. Why would I willingly watch some white nerd’s snuff fantasy?

But The Vector was different, everyone claimed, starting with Aaron, all the way back to that predawn, post-coital conversation. It was a new kind of story, one that brought together Blair Witch-style found footage with Truffaut’s humane aesthetic (sometimes, especially from the Jays, Truffaut was swapped out for Wes Anderson; more rarely, Paul Thomas Anderson) and the real-time anxiety of social media.

None of that told Rashard very much at all, so he changed the subject back to getting Aaron’s number and, eventually, to round three. They were both spent by then, so it was more lazy makeout than athletic screwing, but all the sweeter for that. It’d been a couple years, at least, since Rashard had had the chance to just relax into this feeling, where time fizzled away, leaving only expanses of sweaty skin and numb, tingling lips.

*

“See, that’s interesting,” Rashard tells the Jays, “considering there’s no such fucking thing as the Vector.”

“He is not a thing,” Jeremy protests. “He is a phenomenon.”

“Oh, cool, you came to my place to tell me some PR shit I’ve heard a thousand times at, what is it, nine at night?”

“Aaron needs you,” Jean-Luc says.

*

Rashard looked up The Vector several hours later after parting from Aaron. He’d come home, slept off the night’s shenanigans, then cooked his favorite hangover breakfast.

It was when he caught himself daydreaming about cooking breakfast for Aaron that Rashard realized he was already in well over his head. There was something sad around the guy’s eyes, a hunger that he kept, for the most part, under wraps, that Rashard thought he was responding to. He could see Aaron, shirtless, shaking the hair out of his eyes and grinning as he dug into the banana pancakes. His shoulder blades would be sticking up like the roots of wings; he’d have one leg drawn up, folded against his chest.

The Vector, he learned, was considered both a piece of episodic cinema and an augmented-reality experiment. He wasn’t entirely sure what either of those terms meant, but he pressed on.

It had been running for three years at that point, drawing at first more viewers with each installment. There were at least four associated twitter accounts. Someone had recently discovered a MySpace poster trying to contact the characters, or the crew, for help. The line between fiction and reality was blurry, many articles and interviews admitted.

That blur was the main selling point, so far as Rashard could tell. The show blended postmodern winkiness at the genre-savvy audience with plausible deniability should things ever get too serious. Rashard came to believe that the distinction of fiction simply didn’t exist, both for the convenience of the producer-directors — the Jays — and the fans.

Sometimes, for example, Aaron posted to his longstanding Facebook in character as “Aaron”, the next-to-last survivor of a school shooting who was convinced he’d seen the real perpetrator.

“It’s all fake,” he told Rashard. “Brand-building as storytelling.”

The Jays were, of course, much more circumspect. “None of us can control fiction. It takes on a life of its own.” Then they’d fix their stare on you, make you wait a bit before adding, “sometimes quite literally.”

The show broke from subcultural phenomenon to national attention when one of the actors, Valerie, turned up dead in the backyard of a family who shared a surname with her recurring character.

All this was before Rashard ever met Aaron. By then, the hype had long since begun to die down. While the series updated occasionally, viewership kept dropping. Aaron claimed that he was more than happy with the decline in attention. It allowed him to refocus on “real” acting, which appeared to encompass a local cable ad for a mattress warehouse as well as a short run in a dinner theatre murder mystery as Chip the Bellhop.

Three months after The Vector had hit the big time, Aaron had been flown to New York for a meeting with film auteur Terence Malick. There was also talk of him doing some Off-Broadway work, possibly at The Public Theatre. Last Rashard heard, Aaron was still waiting for Malick, the Public, or anyone else, to follow up.

*

“Show him the Vine,” Jeremy says.

Jean-Luc passes Rashard his phone. Big and new and fancy, of course it is. “Some kids posted this a couple hours ago.”

“Sure they did,” Rashard says but hits play. Two girls are fake-wrestling, pretending to pull each other’s hair, on a rickety picnic table. The person filming it — sounds like a guy from the laughter — snorts, then says, “The fuck is that dude doing?”

The girls and the camera swing over to the edge of a parking lot, bordered by woods. It’s an ordinary stand of trees, pines and oaks by the looks of it, the kind that fill open stretches all over the area.

“Who?” one of the girls asks.

“That dude, look–”

A man in a black suit paces back and forth in front of the woods, the way someone might on a street while looking for a specific number. He halts about a third of the way across the screen, toes off one shoe, then the other, and walks forward into the woods.

“Hey!” the guy holding the camera yells. “Hey, man, what are you doing?”

The figure in black glances over his shoulder. It is Aaron. Rashard would know that profile anywhere. He’s seen it up close, from afar, every distance in between. Traced the nearly indiscernible bump at the bridge of Aaron’s nose, kissed the swell of lower lip.

Then he turns away and keeps going, disappearing between the trunks and bare branches.

“It’s like so cold,” the other girl says.

“Should we go after him?”

The guy with the camera starts to say something but the footage cuts off.

“Weird.” Rashard hands the camera back. “So useful how they just happened to be there, then you just happened to see this.”

“It was posted on one of the forums,” Jeremy says.

“Convenient.” Rashard doesn’t want to think about Aaron. He doesn’t want to think about their stupid series and pranks and set-ups.

But the calm, just about empty expression on Aaron’s face when he looked back sticks with him. Maybe that wasn’t acting. Aaron’s acting was usually big, unmistakably emotional, featuring a lot of scrunched-up expressions and whinnying sniffles.

“You don’t think I’m any good,” Aaron claimed during one of their last fights. “Just fucking say so!”

They’d been arguing about so much, a gross tumor cluster of problems and misunderstandings and boundary-violations that Rashard had to stop and think. “Any good at what? Like, as a person? Of course I–”

Aaron looked at him, stricken, so pale under his olive skin that he looked sick. “You don’t.”

Rashard didn’t think Aaron was that great an actor, but on the other hand, what did he know? His favorite movie was Dog Day Afternoon but mostly because young Pacino was so dreamy. (And also E.T., because he isn’t heartless, no matter what Aaron accused him of by the end.)

“You don’t believe us,” Jean-Luc says now, swiping his phone off and stowing it in his jacket pocket.

“I really don’t,” Rashard replies. He almost adds, “I’m sorry”, except he isn’t, not in the least.

“You are so foolish,” Jeremy says. Rashard has to stop himself from saying it back to him mockingly. If only the asshole could hear what he sounds like.

No, he probably knows full well what he sounds like and likes that.

“Look,” Rashard says, “I don’t know, I don’t care, what you’re up to. But if Aaron is hurt or –”

“You can make sure that doesn’t happen,” Jean-Luc replies.

“You are the only one who can do that,” Jeremy adds.

He works his jaw, thinking it over. Lupita Bonita winds around his legs. It’s tempting, and flattering, to think that he could help. Of course, there’s probably no help needed, because this is all bullshit.

Does he really want to take that risk?

His phone sounds and he fishes it out from the pile of grocery bags. “Excuse me.”

He has a text from an unknown number. He’s about to ignore it when Jeremy says, “My God.”

Rashard pulls up the text. The screen on his phone flickers into negative reversal, white text on patchy charcoal and black: help me i ♥ u plzzz

Jean-Luc says quietly, like the air being let out of a tire, “Fuck.”

“Rashard,” Jeremy says, finally getting the name right. He holds up his own phone, the screen of which is alive with swarming pixels. “Please, come with us.”

Of course you’re good, Rashard should have said. Tried to say. He should have put his arms around Aaron and pulled him close, rested his cheek against the crown of Aaron’s skull, let Aaron’s loose, silky curls tickle his face. You’re so good. Very good.

“Lead the way,” he tells the Jays.

*

On their first anniversary, Aaron had to work. He was filling in as Inspector De Pym in the murder mystery dinner theatre; the guy who usually played him had contracted hantavirus.

“You understand, right?” he asked for the four hundredth time over breakfast. “It’s good money and if I show that I can play ball, that’s good for me, my reputation –”

“Play ball?” Rashard asked, then pulsed the blender for Aaron’s smoothie. “I thought you were an actor, haha.”

“Dumbass,” Aaron said sweetly, slipping his arm around Rashard’s waist and resting his head on Rashard’s shoulder. This was early for him; he usually didn’t get in from the theatre until after midnight, sometimes one. Then he’d sleep until mid-morning.

But this morning he’d dragged himself out of bed, insisting on hanging out while Rashard got ready for work. Anniversaries, he said, are important.

“You’re like a double threat,” Rashard said, pouring the smoothie and handing it to him. He checked the state of the cat’s food bowl, then picked up his coffee. “Ball and acting.”

Aaron grinned at him, neglecting to wipe the smoothie-mustache from over his lip. “I have lots of talents, actually.”

Rashard set down his coffee and checked the time. At least half an hour to spare; Aaron didn’t actually know Rashard’s morning schedule. He’d woken them up much earlier than necessary. “You don’t say.”

“Mm-hmm.” Aaron bit his lower lip and absently scratched his leg. He wore just the tee and boxer briefs he’d slept in; his hair was a matted snarl. Beard shadow lay heavy as coal along his sharp jaw. When he got close again, Rashard had a moment to inhale the strong, warm scent of him, sleepy and tangy and heady, before Aaron was kissing him, hand closing on the nape of Rashard’s neck, hauling him in and pinning him against the counter.

“Christ, right now?” Rashard asked, thrilled and worried in equal parts. His hands settled low on Aaron’s hips, tugging down the elastic waistband, his nails scraping lightly across the swell of Aaron’s ass.

“We could stop, sure.” Aaron tipped back his head and looked Rashard over through heavy-lidded, thick-lashed eyes. “But we haven’t even really started.”

Sometimes Rashard told himself that Aaron was a bad influence. He was too cute, too hot, far too irresponsible. He encouraged Rashard to make dumb, even stupid, decisions.

That in itself was a terrible excuse.

Rashard wanted everything Aaron suggested, even more than that. He was just no good at finding the way to ask.

“Do you want to stop, babe?” Aaron asked as he ground against Rashard’s leg and crotch. Rashard groaned, one hand clutching at Aaron’s ass, the other fumbling beside him to find a hold. “Most of you says no.”

“Don’t stop,” he said.

Aaron cocked his head, frowning slightly. “Don’t stop what? This?” He switched his hips back and forth, dragging his erection over Rashard’s sensible khakis, building the friction of fabric slowly, irresistibly. “Or maybe this?” He leaned in, kissing the side of Rashard’s neck as he thrust back into Rashard’s hand, wiggling a little, helping Rashard’s fingertips graze his crack.

Rashard’s grunts built fast and spilled rough. He kissed Aaron’s mouth open all the way, jaw cracking, teeth banging, and spun him around until Aaron was pressed against the stove, Rashard blanketing him, nudging his legs apart.

“I want your mouth on me,” Aaron said, nails digging deep into Rashard’s neck.

“Good.” Rashard grasped Aaron’s hip, dragging his t-shirt up his chest as his mouth skated down, found a nipple before bouncing the rest of the way, until he was on his knees, hauling one of Aaron’s legs over his shoulder. He suckled at the wet spot on Aaron’s briefs for a good long time, tracing the outline of cockhead and shaft. He looked up, waited until Aaron’s hips were pushing up, seeking more contact. “Stay still.”

“Fuck you,” Aaron said, grinning loonily, clutching at Rashard’s arms. “Sexy fucking asshole.”

Rashard clucked his tongue, flipped his tie over his other shoulder, and leaned in, peeling Aaron’s briefs down just far enough. He bounced his face up and down on the blunt, sticky head of Aaron’s dick, pushing it against the back of his throat, willing himself to open all the way. The heat and weight of it were familiar, of course, but somehow more exciting for that than the first time he’d done this. When he succeeded, swallowing hard around Aaron’s shaft as it scraped and filled his throat, Aaron shouted and didn’t stop. He banged his fist on the counter, his hips jerking.

Rashard breathed through his nose, not very well, trying to look up the whole time. He needed to watch. Aaron was most beautiful like this, lost to himself, unself-conscious, transported. A flush spilled down his chest, across his face. He’d worked his fist into his mouth and he was whimpering, wheezing, as Rashard worked his lips back up the shaft to nip at the underside of his cockhead, the flare and ridge, two forking veins.

“Baby, I’m going–” Aaron’s arms were roped with muscle as he held himself up on one foot, fucking back into Rashard’s throat.

Rashard tried to make encouraging noises, but who knew if they were audible. The muscles in Aaron’s thighs jumped under his palms as he choked and kept going.

He went to work that day with a smile on his face and four mints in his mouth. That morning, at least, Aaron wasn’t a bad influence. Far from it; Aaron was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

*

They’re still in transit, but Rashard is already having second thoughts. Timed texts, maybe some kind of operating-system exploit to make the screen go shaky and freaky: that kind of thing has to be pretty easy to do, right?

They’re fucking with him and he’s letting them.

Rashard is folded up in the back of the Jays’ dumb Italian car, knees up near his chin. Two crates of equipment are piled next to him, banging into him at every turn, each acceleration. Jean-Luc drives like a maniac; by the time they get wherever it is they’re going, Rashard expects he’ll be thoroughly bruised.

He’s using this painful ride to build an unshakeable argument.

“This is stupid,” he tells them when the car pulls into a parking lot to the side of a suburban high school. That’s his argument, that’s what he’s managed to come up with. “The Vector can’t have Aaron, because there’s no such thing.”

“Creature,” Jeremy says. “It is a humanoid of some kind.”

“Thought it was a phenomenon.” Rashard rolls his eyes. “It’s a humanoid and-or phenomenon that doesn’t exist.”

“Grab that crate, would you?” Jean-Luc helps Rashard out of the car. “Please.”

This is the first time in over two years of uncomfortable acquaintance that either of the Jays has been polite. Rashard pauses for a second before complying. The crate has wires sprouting out of it and it’s surprisingly heavy.

“Thank you,” Jean-Luc murmurs.

It’s chilly out here, and dark. Most of the streetlights ringing the lot are off; just three are lit, and those are all the way across the empty lot. Rashard crosses his arms, rubbing his palms up and down to chafe some warmth back in.

“This is stupid,” he says again.

“Here, take this.” Jean-Luc’s holding out a blue hoodie. When Rashard pulls it on, he gets a strong whiff of clove smoke. His eyes water.

His back to Rashard, Jean-Luc crouches before his crates, plugging things in, sorting through gadgets.

Jeremy paces around the car, swinging his arms before him, clapping, then behind him. The rhythm is jerky, incredibly annoying.

“The Vector isn’t real,” Rashard tells him. “This is stupid.”

“An interesting position,” Jeremy says, jabbing Rashard’s shoulder, “which is why you’re the only man for the job.”

At that, Jean-Luc snorts, but when they both turn to look at him, he’s peering intently into the bottom of one crate.

“I thought I was the man for the job because of Aaron.”

Jeremy inclines his head slightly. “That, too, I suppose. One might say.”

“Come the fuck on, dude, are you allergic to talking like a normal person? Sharing information? Communicating? Give it a try, it’s the hot new thing.”

“The Vector appears to derive some of its…energy, let us call it, from the belief of its victims.”

Appears, huh? You two wrote the script, so does it or doesn’t it?”

“Very soon after launch,” Jeremy says, gazing past Rashard, over his head, “we were forced to accept that the story was far larger than any of us.”

Rashard laughs at him. “That’s in your press kit, isn’t it?”

“Far larger and so much older,” Jeremy continues, “than our small, brave band. We had stumbled on a sickening truth. Brought something out into the open that didn’t want to be known.”

Rashard keeps laughing, but it’s a little harder now. He feels like a dick, honestly. As much as he dislikes and distrusts this guy, it’s a jerk move to laugh in his face. Even if he is lying through his teeth.

“We are continuing to suffer the consequences of that ignorance,” Jeremy finishes. “As the last arc amply demonstrated–”

“What happened in the last arc?” Rashard asks.

Jeremy turns his gaze on Rashard so slowly, so precisely, that the motion is more reminiscent of a predator, some sharp-beaked bird, than a fellow human being. “You still have not watched?”

“No,” Rashard says. “I hate that kind of–”

“–white nerd snuff fantasy, yes,” Jeremy finishes for him. “So you have said, many times. However does Aaron tolerate you?”

“Hey, fuck you, man. How come no one’s ever asked why he didn’t, didn’t, um.” He shakes his head and fights for calm. “Attend municipal planning consultations with me? Or take an interest in zoning variances, huh?”

Jeremy’s grin is toothy and insincere. Rashard plunges his fists into the kangaroo pocket on the hoodie and turns away.

“Because your life is quite boring,” Jeremy says quietly. “He makes you interesting.”

“Whatever,” Rashard mutters, balancing on a railroad tie that serves as parking space marker as if it’s a gymnast’s beam. “Get it right. We broke up, so it’s past tense. He’s past tense. He made me–” He stops at the end of the tie, twirls, and paces back. “Fuck. You know what I mean.”

Jeremy lifts one white-blond eyebrow and doesn’t say anything.

“We’re good to go,” Jean-Luc calls, rounding the car’s hood with gear in his arms.

Rashard hops off the tie. “What’s all that?”

“Just a GoPro rig for your head and–”

Rashard steps back, holding up his hands. “I’m not filming this for you.”

Jean-Luc glances at Jeremy, who places his hand on Jean-Luc’s shoulder. “In case something happens to you,” he says, “we’ll be watching.”

“Do I get paid? Residuals? I don’t have a union card, is that going to be a problem?” Rashard crosses his arms. “I’m not one of your actors. You want me to–”

“Rescue Aaron,” the Jays say together. “You’re the only one who can.”

They keep saying that. Rashard recrosses his arms and tries to look fierce and determined. He’s probably coming off as even more of a goof than usual, but it’s worth a try. “Guys, this is stupid. This is beyond stupid.”

“You do not believe,” Jeremy says.

“And you love him,” Jean-Luc adds.

“Hey, I never said I–” Something gives way, just a little, inside Rashard and tension seeps out of him. Not all of it, but enough that he reaches for the head-rig and fits on under the hood. “Let’s get this over with. Am I good to go?”

“Take this,” Jean-Luc says and hands him a heavy flashlight.

“Can I just–” Rashard shrugs and gives up.

“Before you go, look at this.” Jean-Luc gives Rashard his phone again.

“I’m going, okay? You don’t need to freak me out with Aaron being all damsel in distress again.”

Jean-Luc shakes his head. “That’s where we are.”

He’s looking at a Google Maps screen: there’s the school, Robinson-Schapira Junior-Senior, with the strip mall across the street. Hainan Hideout restaurant and tiki bar is marked with three stars. He went there once with Aaron; the chicken rice was fantastic.

“The woods aren’t big at all,” Jean-Luc says.

Rashard moves the screen, traveling over the small green brick that represents the forest. If things are to scale, the woods are bigger than the high school but smaller than the strip mall when the parking lot is included.

Rashard hands the phone back and switches the flashlight to his dominant hand. “All right,” he says. “I’m going now.”

Before Rashard can turn to go, Jeremy moves in and takes him by the shoulders. His big, bony hands move up to cup Rashard’s cheeks.

“Do not feel scared,” he says. His smile is even more ghastly up close, teeth that seem from this angle the size of piano keys. “After all, this is probably just a publicity stunt, right?”

*

The Vector team gets very upset when anyone compares their project to Slenderman.

“We were on YouTube for three months before the first Slenderman manips were posted on Something Awful. That was four months before Marble Hornets,” Jeremy will say.

Surely it’s just a really strange coincidence that glimpses of the Vector resembled the preternaturally tall, attenuated figure in a black suit. An even stranger coincidence that both Slenderman and the Vector seem to attack children or those who first saw them when they were children.

“Endangering minors is hardly a copyrightable idea,” Jeremy has gone on record as saying. “It is a hallmark of folklore for millennia. I suppose the Brothers Grimm were quote-unquote ‘ripping off’, preposterously, the Slenderman?”

“The entire Slenderman schtick is messy, lowest-common-denominator story-spewing,” Jean-Luc will add whenever the topic is raised. He then sniffs meaningfully before continuing. “Spewing, not sharing. Nothing like our work.”

“I dunno, maybe there was something in the zeitgeist, churning around out there, that brought all these different angles on the same story together?” Aaron said in an interview once. It was part of a documentary on the Vice channel.

Rashard did watch that one. He thought Aaron came off well, though the framing of his comments was a lot more mocking than seemed at all fair.

“Maybe we need to accept that we won’t understand everything,” Aaron said in the last clip. “Like there are more things under the earth than are dreamt of, all that.”

The voiceover snidely corrected the quotation before switching to the interview with the guy from Something Awful.

All Rashard knows about Something Awful is that it was a hive of memes and villainy, trolls and low-level intelligence assets. He’d always been more of an LJ guy.

*

The flashlight’s beam reduces his surroundings to a binary: bone-white trunks and lunging branches or flat, depthless black. He keeps kicking up leaves, the toes of his sneakers catching clumps and shallows. They aren’t the crisp, picturesque leaves he remembers from childhood and TV commercials, but shreds and fragments, broken and gnawed away. Some are torn; others are reduced to the lacework of veins. If he kicks hard enough, he brings up lumps from a damper layer, knots of decay studded with pebbles.

There isn’t a trail in here; this is all roughly open space. The trees are spread out, with very little undergrowth between the trunks. He tries to cover some breadth, back and forth, as well as making forward progress. His cheeks are hot with the remnants of anger and frustration — fucking Jeremy and his pointlessly obnoxious pretentiousness — and, soon enough, with exertion. Alertness.

He is determined not to jump at every rustle in the trees, each snapped branch or spooky bird call, but all the same, he doesn’t belong here. The dark presses up against his back and squeezes around the cone of light.

Noises like water, like sighs, filter in from up ahead. He strains to hear. Maybe he should call Aaron’s name.

His toe catches an exposed root, wrenching him off-balance. He falls hard on one knee and palm, the flashlight bounces away, and his chin hits the dirt.

He’s face to face with a skull.

A tiny one, a bird’s by the looks of it, but, still. A skull, picked perfectly clean, with deep empty eye sockets.

He pushes up onto his knees, the one still barking. He’s broken a ring of skulls — bird, something about the same size but mammalian, maybe feline? — and several smaller, rodent ones. All are clean white bone, bone that rattles as he flails back, then stumbles up to his feet.

Before he broke the circle, the skulls ringed a charred flat rock, piled with burned chunks. He doesn’t know what the chunks used to be; they’re greasy and black and that’s all he’s ever going to know because no way in hell is he touching them again. He could swear, just for a moment, that his fingertips throb like they were caught in a grater.

He finds the flashlight and switches it back on. The light is dimmer, but it’s better than nothing.

When he was a kid, woods like this in every town in America were said to be crawling with Satan-worshipping teenagers. Apparently, there are some holdouts, or second-generation losers; the beam picks out a crude pentagram gouged into the bark of the tree above the skulls, then a few lopsided anarchy symbols spray-painted along a stretch of glacial bedrock.

“Hail Satan,” Rashard says. “Fuck the man, take the skinheads bowling. And so forth.”

He keeps walking, hoping his limp will sort itself out.

*

“Publicity stunt,” Rashard mutters as he plods onward. “Fucking hell.”

He should never have come. He should have a lot more respect for himself and his personal safety. He should stop being a romantic dumbass who wants desperately to believe that maybe this time, with this kind of grand gesture, things can be different.

“Local civic planner dies of exposure a hundred yards from safety,” he says aloud, testing out various headlines. “Boring straight-arrow breaks neck on sapling; not found till spring.”

He used to be a fairly sensible person. Sure, he spent too much on comics most weeks, and he got a little too deep into the game Dwarf Fortress there for a while, but on balance, he was one of the most stable people he knew.

Stable, boring, it was actually kind of a toss-up.

Things with Aaron were rarely stable or boring. It was exhausting and exasperating, but it wasn’t ever boring. He’d give Rashard that grin, tilt his head, squeeze Rashard’s hand or knee, and off they’d go, like they were little kids rushing headlong into a world full of adventure

Even the quiet moments, the slept-in weekend mornings and the well-past-closing-time pre-dawn makeouts, were adventurous. Rashard doesn’t quite have the words to describe how that was the case. He just had this ever-present sense of momentum, always, something accelerating when they were together.

*

In retrospect, the black suit should have been a tip-off. Rashard came home one Thursday evening a few months ago, sweat sticking his shirt to his back and chest.

“Sorry, sorry,” he called as he let himself in the apartment. “I biked home, I stink, I’ll be right there.”

Only Lupita Bonita answered him. With a sleepy yowl, she glanced up from the couch, then curled back up, one paw over her face.

“Where’s Aaron?” he asked her as he peeled himself out of his shirt and slacks, making for the bathroom. “Did he remember to give you your meds? Of course he didn’t.”

In the bedroom, there was a black suit hanging off the back of the closet door. He’d never seen it before; it didn’t seem like it would fit Aaron, given how long the sleeves and legs were. It looked well-tailored, made from good heavy wool flannel. The lapels were broad, unfashionably so. Too nice and new-looking to be something from the costume shop, but so old-fashioned it couldn’t be anything but a costume.

When he got out of the shower, the suit was gone and Aaron was on the deck sunning himself.

“What suit?” he asked, shading his eyes to look up at Rashard. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

*

He should have come out the other side of the woods a while ago. He’s been walking for hours. The flashlight is so dim it’s more hindrance and source of confusion than help. Skitterings in the branches above him, through the dead leaves behind him.

Gay urban planner lost in patch of trees; survived by diabetic cat, homophobic mother

‘He was so boring,’ says ex-boyfriend. ‘Made a heck of a smoothie, though. Always covered my tab, too.’

“Tell my mom she can have my archive of Sean Cody videos,” he says aloud. “If you’re still watching, which you probably are, you fucking weirdos. My friend Fiona at City Hall should take Lupita.”

His hurt knee is stiff, puffy under the rip in his cords. It’s scraped raw and studded with twigs and pebbles. He should rest a little. He should pause to clean out the abrasion, but with what? They gave him a GoPro, not a first aid kit.

Their priorities are, as ever, truly impressive.

Every time he thinks about stopping to tend to it, he walks a little faster. He’s not scared, not in any sense he’s ever felt before. To be scared, you have to be scared of something. There’s nothing here, nothing. He’s impelled.

The flashlight finally dies, switching off with a click that is almost audible. Rashard looks behind him, shakes the flashlight, and walks right into a stream, choked with dead leaves and icy slush. He takes out his phone to use its light for however long that lasts.

“You guys owe me new pants, by the way,” he says. “And shoes, now. Fuck.”

Aaron was barefoot when he came in here. The thought coils at the back of Rashard’s throat, in the pit of his stomach and right behind his eyes. Bare skin, tender, probably pedicured if he knows Aaron.

“Oh, fuck,” he says under his breath.

His phone vibrates in his hand, emits a burst of static harsh enough to empty marrow out of bones, and starts to smoke.

Rashard drops it. He tears the rig off his head, sees smoke pouring from it, too, and throws it as hard as he can, far away from himself. He’s half-running now, feet wet and cold, knee pounding, tears streaming, breath jolting out his open mouth.

*

Rashard couldn’t say when the nightmares began. He thinks now that they had long been loitering around, harassing Aaron on and off. In the last year, however, they definitely accelerated. He attributed it to stress, to Aaron refusing to deal with professional and personal insecurities, all the usual pop-psych stuff.

“Hey, hey,” he said one night, rubbing Aaron’s back as Aaron sat up and shook off the nightmare and into consciousness. “It’s all right. You’re okay.”

“I’m not, I’m really not.” Aaron sagged against him all too briefly, clammy skin and soft hair, before pulling in on himself. He took several deep breaths, then looked up. It was dark in the bedroom, but Aaron’s eyes seemed both flat and glittery. “Something needs to change. Has to.”

Rashard remembers going cold at that, remembers how Aaron’s words found precisely what he was most afraid of and made it possible.

“With us?” he managed to ask. Then he nodded. “With us.”

Aaron let out another long breath. “With everything. With me. With…all of it.”

Maybe that was just stress talking.

Out here, his fingers numb with cold and breath whistling out his chapped lips, Rashard is inclined to analyze the situation somewhat more literally.

Aaron said he wasn’t okay. He needed Rashard to believe he was good.

He’d been asking, Rashard realizes, for months — for God knows how long — for help. And each time, Rashard had misunderstood, hadn’t heard a goddamn thing, had treated Aaron like a moody jerk.

He quickens his pace, shoving through the branches, letting them snap back against his face and arms. He deserves the pain.

The wind picks up. Through the leaves, the dry twigs, all the fallen things, it mumbles and gasps.

He runs blindly, one arm up over his face.

A dog is barking; the dark is starting to lift, going grainy, admitting a little more texture.

He stumbles past the last tree into a mound of dirt. For half a hysterical second, he thinks he has run right up to his own grave. There are wisps of fog hanging over the dim, grayed-out landscape. Tiny flags flap on the surveyor’s lines marking off lots in a new subdivision.

Not his grave, just the start to yet another overbalanced, underfinanced townhouse.

“Maybe the real horrors were the development decisions we tolerated along the way,” he says. He needs to reassure himself that, yes, his voice works. He’s out of the woods. He’s going to be okay.

The dog barking is getting closer. Louder.

Rashard wipes the sweat and tears off his face and peers around. Everything is raw, exposed dirt and clawed-out trenches. Keeping the weight off his hurt knee as best he can — now that the adrenaline is draining away, it hurts more than ever — he shuffles around.

The dog is standing between him and the woods. Splotched brown and white, it is starving, each rib visible and the tendons between them just as sharp. It bares yellow fangs in lurid red gums when he holds out his hand to it, then barks more frantically.

Its red collar hangs off its skinny neck like a woman’s necklace.

“Hey,” Rashard says softly. This is the first living thing he’s seen. “Hey, buddy, it’s okay, I’m your friend –”

The dog whirls around, its hipbone jutting up. An open wound on its flank catches light from somewhere, dazzling him and making him blink.

When he can see clearly again, the dog is gone.

Aaron is standing just inside the woods. He has one hand on a low branch. The suit hangs off him. Psycho killer, Rashard thinks despite himself, can’t stop picturing him as a negative image of David Byrne. Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Static fills Rashard’s skull, drowning his thoughts and leaking palpably out his ears, down his neck. He can taste it, bitter and in constant motion, as it drips down his throat. When he tries to speak, it comes out his mouth, incoherent, dense as a swarm of gnats.

“It’s all right,” Aaron whispers. He’s too far for Rashard to be able to hear, yet, although his voice is uncharacteristically hoarse, it is perfectly audible. He’s standing next to Rashard now. The bare trees surround them. “It’s over now.”

 

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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