written and illustrated by Iron Eater
The engagement ring had been on Virgil’s finger since he’d woken up that morning, and no matter what method he tried he couldn’t wrench it off again.
He knew it was an engagement ring because it looked like a cliché: golden band, big glittery rock probably paid for with other people’s blood, buboes of smaller glittery rocks arranged all around the big one, general lack of decorum or taste. It was heavy. He kept smacking it into things, or catching it on doors, and one time it had gotten tangled in his hair when he’d tried to get something out of the cabinet. It was like his finger had swollen just enough to keep the ring from coming off, though not so much it was cutting off blood to the digit itself. Virgil could spin it around, and so he did, incessantly. It was like a scabbed-over sore he couldn’t resist picking.
What made it all worse was that Virgil lived alone.
He’d never been what he would consider a “people person” when it came to romance. Less charitably, Virgil would’ve described himself as a legitimately shitty boyfriend, one who’d never been able to pull his weight in a relationship even when there was more than one other person involved to share the load, and as he hadn’t had anyone over for so much as a cup of coffee in weeks (Christ, had it really been that long?) the ring couldn’t have been the result of a one-night stand pulling pranks with some cubic zirconia. Not that he hadn’t been laid recently; Virgil’s anonymous sexual escapades just tended to remain localized at whatever party or club had brought him and his temporary friend together. He’d have his fun, then the next week he’d go get tested like a responsible adult, and then once the results inevitably came back all clear he’d more or less completely forget about whoever had put his cock in their body for a few minutes. It was probably tied into that “not a people person” thing, Virgil figured, and didn’t they want essentially the same kind of no-strings deal from him? Nobody got hurt, nobody got tangled up in ugly interpersonal details, everybody had a good time, and that was that. There were worse ways to spend a Saturday night.
Virgil was not in the practice of making spare keys; during the infrequent times his sister, Alice, watched his townhouse while he was out of town on business, he’d hand over his entire keyring so everything would stay in one place. She’d never said anything about making copies before. A ring of this size, even made entirely out of plastic, seemed well outside of how much he could imagine her spending on a joke. He spun the ring as he waited for her to pick up her phone. Even if it wasn’t her doing, maybe she’d have an idea for what he needed to do next.
“Congratulations,” said Alice when she answered, her voice sing-song and cheerful. She sounded legitimately happy for him. It matched how she’d replied to him when he’d texted if she was available to talk, so at least that matched up.
“Hey,” said Virgil. “I’ve got some stuff on my mind right now and was hoping you’d have a minute.”
“C’mon, aren’t you going to say thank you?”
Did she know about the ring after all? For now, he’d pretend it didn’t exist, even as he kept scooting the gem cluster around and around his finger. “For what?”
“You know what,” she replied. “I can’t believe you actually said yes. You always used to say marriage was for people who couldn’t imagine anything better, but now here you are, ready to be a blushing groom. You’re so cute together.”
Virgil frowned. He’d used to say that, and still did, and until recently he thought she agreed with him. “Who? Who am I cute with? You know I’m single.”
“Not for long you aren’t!” she said with a laugh.
“Alice, today I woke up wearing a ring I’ve never seen before—”
She made a squeak deep in her throat. “It’s just so romantic, isn’t it? I saw the pics you posted earlier. Did you send them to mom yet? You know she doesn’t use Insta, and she is just going to shit herself and die knowing one of her kids is actually tying the knot after years of watching her friends become grandparents. Christ, better you than me.”
Virgil had barely touched his phone that day, having chosen to ignore his inbox. Now he was less sure of how good an idea this had been. He fumbled for his laptop and tapped in his PIN with unsteady hands as he forced himself to not freak out at his only family in the same time zone. Sure enough, his Instagram went from the nature photography he remembered sharing that past weekend to a set of photos of his own hand, the lighting ethereal and his nails salon-perfect, showing off the fucking engagement ring.
The descriptions matched how he typed. The metadata matched his camera. But he knew he hadn’t taken those pictures.
“I don’t remember any of this,” said Virgil.
“Too much hair of the dog will do that.”
“I’m serious. I don’t know why I have this thing, I don’t know why I can’t take it off, and I don’t know who made that post, because it sure wasn’t me.”
Alice scoffed. “You can drop the act, Virgil. It’s getting a little weird.”
“Yes! It’s very weird! Especially since I’m apparently missing time and you’re busy talking like you know whoever gave me this thing!” He closed his eyes and centered his breathing. Things would never make sense if he didn’t at least try to go about this rationally. He opened his eyes again and browsed his personal feed; save for the ring, nothing else seemed out of place. There certainly weren’t any images of himself looking blissed out in someone else’s presence. He hoped his other accounts were the same, though checking all of them (some less public and employer-friendly than others) was a daunting task he couldn’t muster the energy to tackle just yet. “Wouldn’t I have some pictures of this mystery person if I cared about them enough to accept their proposal?”
“Are you doing the thing where you’re making me pick the best photo of you together?”
“People do that?”
“Consider yourself lucky if they don’t do it to you,” said Alice, and the irritation in her voice was a welcome change from the saccharine sweetness with which she’d greeted him. It didn’t last: “Are you doing the phone-and-laptop thing right now? Check your Discord, I’ll link you my favorite.” She made a rueful little chuckle. “You’re always bitching about how little attention your account gets, then you go and post shit like this that gets all the likes and comments, and yet you still can’t connect the dots.”
The last thing on Virgil’s mind right now was how high his parasocial measuring metrics were at the moment; that Alice had been the one to bring it up was one more weird detail on top of an absolute mountain of them. He found himself holding his breath until his computer chirped a notification message at him. His message window was having trouble displaying a thumbnail, so he clicked through. The time between his finger tapping his touchpad and the page loading itself in full felt so much longer than it could have possibly been.
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected. It was a picture of himself, that much he could see, and he was smiling and posing for the camera somewhere on a beautiful beach that the tags claimed was somewhere in the Prince Edward Island region. Next to him was…nothing. No, that wasn’t right; “nothing” would’ve meant he was alone in the photo, but he clearly was not, even though there wasn’t anyone there. It wasn’t like someone had gone in with a digital brush and scribbled out whoever had been there, more like there was a spot where there was more wasn’t than was. His eyes kept skidding off the sides of it, for lack of a better definition. If he concentrated he thought he could make out a churning soup of digital noise, the toxic leavings of a deep-learning algorithm gone haywire in its attempts to distinguish a tree from a car from a face with a thousand rolling, shimmering eyes. If he looked directly at it….
Try as he might Virgil couldn’t look directly at it.
“You’re so cute together,” repeated Alice.
The date claimed it had been uploaded a few months ago. Virgil had not been anywhere in Canada, much less anywhere east of Phoenix, at any point in the past three years. The ring now felt slightly heavier than it had just moments before.
“What am I even looking at…?”
Alice chuckled. “You always complain about the face you’re making every time you pull that one out. It’s fine, honest. Mom and Dad think so, too, at least when someone remembers to email them instead of hoping for the endless waterfall of social media to handle communication for him.” That sounded more like her; Alice was one of those people who was adamantly against so much as signing up for Facebook because of what it did to their boundaries, or so she said, and even those few accounts she used had required a lot of coaxing on his part. Virgil had needed to argue the value of Discord over purely phone-based texting (already a sticking point with her) for a solid week before she’d agreed to humor her big brother. Usually she was a voice of reason, always ready to pull up evidence debunking this rumor or that article, so why was she sending him links to what Virgil’s brain decided was a migraine aura’s vacation photo?
“I really don’t feel too good all of a sudden,” he said, truthfully. He tried once again to pull off the ring. It went about as well as all the other attempts. If he looked at it for too long he thought he could see hints of eye-defying nothingness reflected in its countless dazzling facets.
“Aw, don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet?”
“Alice, listen. I know this is going to sound crazy, but please, please believe me when I say I can’t see anyone other than myself in that picture, and I don’t know who gave me this ring, and I don’t know why it won’t come off, and I don’t know why I’d accept this thing in the first place, and I’m starting to freak out a bit because you’re talking like this is normal shit to happen to somebody and not me having some kind of breakdown.”
She paused. “You really aren’t feeling well, are you?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you since you picked up.” Virgil clenched his right hand to keep from twiddling with the ring again. “This talk hasn’t helped any. I’d say it’s just made things worse.”
“Do you want me to come over?” she asked. “Even if you just had some bad edibles or something” —how long did she think he’d been awake? she’d never let him live that one incident down— “it sounds like you could benefit from having someone around to help you get back to reality.”
“I’d really like that, Alice. Thanks.” He glanced at his computer clock. “Don’t you have work soon?”
“I’ll call in sick. Family emergency.”
Relief washed over him like a wave on the sea. “You are a wonderful human being.”
“I try. I’ll be over as soon as I can, so get ready to get the door for me, okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll be waiting. Love you, Alice.”
“Love you too, butthead. See you in a bit.”
Virgil tossed his phone on the sofa next to him and closed his laptop. Were there other photos of whatever it was on his account? Were there posts he didn’t remind writing, tweets he never knew he’d made? How many other people had seen this shit? Was this shit on Facebook? If it was, what would he see if he checked the tagged accounts? He told himself it didn’t matter; knowing more of the scope of whatever was happening would only make things worse.
He tried thinking back to the last person he’d been with. He didn’t have a stalker, did he? The only reason he could think he might have one was that stalkers didn’t really need a justifiable reason to fixate on somebody. That lack of specificity brought no comfort with it.
It wasn’t like he had a long list of possible candidates. The last person he’d been with (since “no-boundaries ex” was a common stalker type, wasn’t it?) had been some grad student from the university who’d shown up at a party because he knew a guy who knew a guy, and he’d worn a little bi-pride pin on the lapel of his too-nice-for-the-place jacket, and once Virgil had decided that this unknown element (Nice Jacket was the only name Virgil’d ever mentally assigned him) was hot enough to bother with, he hadn’t really cared too much about the details.
Once they’d had their fun out back behind the place they’d slipped back into the party and hadn’t had a thing to do with each other since. Virgil hadn’t thought about Nice Jacket any more than he’d thought about last Wednesday’s lunch: It had been nice at the time, now it was over, and there were so many more things he needed to worry about than the fate of a good-enough hookup on which neither party involved had chosen to follow up. He was always careful about these things, whether finding a partner in the wild or trawling Grindr for any unfamiliar faces. Not once had he accidentally sworn his undying devotion to anybody who’d ever joined him in the alleyway next to a bar of agreeable men, and he was fairly sure that night hadn’t seen anything to break his streak.
There was always a first time, said a nagging killjoy of a thought. His high school sex ed class had been useless for just about everything short of a few vocabulary words and learning of all the different ways people could doom themselves for daring to bump a few uglies. Even if Nice Jacket wasn’t a stalker, what if he’d had something? Not something physical (they’d both had recent clinic-visit dates at the time of the party), but since Virgil was dealing with faceless headache-inducing un-entities fucking with his Instagram it seemed unwise to rule out the supernatural. Some real It Follows shit, maybe. Why hadn’t he prepared for that outcome? He was so stupid. Nameless hookups were just plain unsafe. If he’d ended up with a sexually-transmitted haunting, clearly he deserved it.
…Where the fuck had that come from? He scowled at the ring; while he was pretty sure the thought had originated inside his own head, he certainly hadn’t dealt with anything like it before the hideous fucking gem had clamped itself onto his finger. It was a bad influence. If his dremel tool wasn’t in the shop to get some engine problem serviced he would’ve headed out back to the workshed and risked a flesh wound or two to rasp the thing off right there and then.
Virgil shook his head and made his way to the guest washroom, where he dry-swallowed some painkillers to do something about the rising ache behind his eyes. He was letting things get to him. He was letting them get to him, and apparently that meant turning into some sort of promise-ring-toting airhead who could recite all their D.A.R.E. lectures by heart. He twisted the ring around his finger again at the latter thought. If this was a promise ring of its own, what sort of promise did it symbolize?
Midway through another fruitless attempt to file down part of the ring’s band, someone knocked at the door with enough force to rattle the deadbolt chain. Virgil knew that knock but peered through the peephole anyway; on the other side was Alice, making a funny face and flipping him the double bird, which was so refreshingly normal he actually found himself relived for a few blissful seconds as he let her in. She brought a big bag of quick-service attempts at Mexican food with her, which had been hanging from the crook of her elbow for her greeting. Alice always brought him some when she came over. Virgil had come to associate the taste of just-shitty-enough burritos and the smell of mass-produced hot sauce with sororal affection, and while this sometimes made him unnecessarily wistful if he ever went and grabbed a chalupa on his own he’d gladly take what positivity he could get in his life right now.
Alice thumped the bag down on his coffee table, grabbed some trays from the little rack that held his tray stands, and started splitting up the bag’s contents into two separate hoards. To Virgil’s relief and confusion she didn’t ask abut the ring.
“I’m surprised you didn’t ask to see it already.” He didn’t have to explain what it was.
She shook her head. “Food first. Unless you’re somehow not nervous about this shit, and if you weren’t I wouldn’t be here on a workday.”
The problem with having a close relationship with his sister meant she knew all about him, so Virgil resigned himself to some still-warm decidedly-not-Mexican food and a long pull of blue-green soda. He could watch Alice’s eyes track his ring silently as he rummaged through the beany feast before him. It sparkled in the light and those sparkles shimmered in reflection across her corneas. Sometimes he could’ve sworn her eyes looked like they belonged to somebody else.
Once she was satisfied with him remembering to feed himself, Alice held out her hand and beckoned to him. “Right, let’s see this thing.”
“Thought you got enough of that from staring at my Insta?”
“Virgil. Bro. Ketchup Snake.” Alice usually didn’t use that last one in normal conversation, at least not when she couldn’t affect a hammy Cam Clarke impression while calling him brotherrr. “You were freaking out because I was seeing something you weren’t when we checked your account together, so I figured first things first I should try to get a close-up look at your new shackle.”
Shackle! What a good term for it. The last thing Virgil saw himself doing was settling down, so what better way to describe a symbol of his unwanted connection to a cultural megaton? He extended his ring-bearing hand and let Alice study it like a pawn shop jeweler. That weird look in her eyes kept coming back again in fits and starts, a faint film of mindless joy and avarice that was gone every time she blinked. He was starting to wonder if permitting the damned thing to get so close to his sister had been a good idea.
“So did you set a date yet?” she asked as she admired its glimmer.
“I still don’t know who gave this to me, so no, I have not.”
“Ugh, sorry. I knew that. Don’t know why I asked.” She frowned at the central diamond. “Just look at this motherfucker. I didn’t know diamonds actually got this big outside of, like, rich-ass reality TV stars, the kind that make you start Googling for guillotine blueprints.”
“It’s the worst,” agreed Virgil.
Alice seemed to be going out of her way to keep from touching the ring directly. Every time her face glazed over Virgil found himself twitching backwards unconsciously, which was enough to snap her out of it until the next time. He couldn’t quite bring himself to pull his hand away completely. Her grip was like iron. “So you really don’t know who gave you this?”
“No. Do you?”
Alice nodded with an incredulous knit of her brows, as though he was asking if she knew the source of the mysterious food in the packaging with bells all over it. “Your fiancé, of course.”
“Who is that, Alice? Who am I supposedly marrying? Because I don’t know.“
“Can we really say we know anybody, though? You and I are close, but I bet there’s plenty we keep from each other. It’s so brave that you’re not letting that stop you.” She kept avoiding naming him. Try as he might, Virgil couldn’t make his mouth form the shape of asking what he was meant to call this account-jacking cryptid, and he kept forgetting how much that bothered him in the heat of the moment. “He’s a really great guy,” added Alice.
“That tells me nothing. What’s so great about him?”
“I mean he’s really good for you, y’know? He gives you the stability you’ve been missing.”
Virgil grimaced. Stability? He’d been working at the same place for over five years, had his legal name signed to a mortgage he was ahead of the curve on paying off, maintained a modestly active social life (both with and without dating apps), and even took part in assorted outreach volunteer work that took up every other weekend. Knowing he was terrible boyfriend material meant he wasn’t constantly disappointing other people with his failings, and keeping everything casual didn’t mean he was lacking for meaningful relationships. He regularly talked to family, for Christ’s sake! He and Alice had different lives but he’d never considered either of them more steadfast than the other. She’d never said as much, either, and they’d both been there for each other ever since they were kids. If she was projecting her own neuroses on him she’d found a weird fucking way to do it.
He wasn’t able to easily condense all that down into something that felt right, so he simply replied, “Since when have I been unstable?”
“You know what I mean. You’re a good person but he makes it so you can be even better. Like you both have a single wing and can fly your highest together.” She pursed her lips in thought as the flicker left her eyes again. “You know, I can’t remember where I first heard that line. I think it’s, like, from Gnosticism or something?”
This was more like the Alice he knew: less empty platitudes, more rapidly ping-ponging between high-concept ideas and the stupid crap they’d gotten up to as kids. He’d gotten her one of those little teacup plug-in Playstations for Christmas in honor of how hard they’d ridden their original console. “I know it came up when we struggled our way through Xenogears. If you try to work the amazing twist of the Soylent System into this conversation I’m going to ask you to pack up your burritos and leave.”
“But they’re just like grandma used to make, made with 100% real grandma,” said Alice. Her laugh sounded hollow to Virgil’s ears. She still wouldn’t let his hand go. He had the dim desire to protect her from something (the ring?) by putting it away (how? shoving one hand in his pocket?), and that thought could only get so far before breaking down on the side of his mental highway. After all, Alice had asked to see it, hadn’t she? They were laughing, eating, having a heartwarming family moment. Why ruin it?
There’s nothing to ruin if it doesn’t exist in the first place, Virgil reminded himself. “What worries me is that you’re talking like you think there’s something wrong with my life right now.”
“What? No! Oh my God, no, Virg, you’ve always had a cooler head on your shoulders than me, and I’m doing fine, so….”
“So why talk like there’s a problem?”
Alice couldn’t take her eyes away from the ring. Now it wasn’t her grasp keeping Virgil in place, but something else; it was like he didn’t want her to let go. He sat passively, instead, and waited for her to explain herself. “I mean, it’s one of those things that’s not actually an issue until you realize what you’re missing out on, right?” she asked. “Like how college kids are fine living off of Top Ramen and Hot Pockets and shit, and once they graduate and grow up and get jobs and get into that whole new world out there of balanced diets they realize they can’t go back. And they shouldn’t. Life changes people and their priorities.”
“Getting married and eating a vegetable are very fucking different things,” spat Virgil. “You literally showed up on my doorstep with a big armload of fast food, like you’ve been doing for years, and I love you for it, but you can’t do that shit and then claim it’s symptomatic of refusing to grow up.”
“What’s more adult than agreeing to cooperate with someone else forever, though?”
He snorted. “Death. Taxes. Paying utility bills on time. Doing my job. Making sure neither I nor anyone I’ve been with have a bug collection. If romance works for you that’s great, but for me it’s as shallow and meaningless as making two toddlers pretend to woo each other in a mac ‘n cheese commercial. You know as well as I do that it’s not a phase, and it’s not me just needing to find the right guy, either.” His expression darkened further. “And we still keep talking around how someone was in here last night, and whoever it was put something on me I can’t take off again.”
A look of horror appeared on Alice’s face like a whale surfacing from the depths of the North Sea. “You’re right, you’re right, it’s fucked up,” she said. She looked like she was fighting something. “But it’s so pretty, isn’t it? The ring?” she added, her voice wrong in a dozen subtle ways. “Maybe it’s for the best if you just let it happen. Accepting things we can’t change is another part of growing up, after all.”
“Being an adult doesn’t mean accepting privacy violations! You have uttered those exact words to me yourself on multiple occasions, Ms. Facebook-Is-the-Great-Beast!” He tapped out a search string into his laptop client with his free hand and spun it around so she could see how many times the phrase had been highlighted in past conversations, all at different timestamps. Virgil and Alice had a lot to say to each other about modern technology these days. “Aren’t you the one always going on about how people overshare as some warped way to prove to themselves they have nothing to hide? I’ve got plenty of secrets I’d rather keep, so why would I be okay with someone doing the sharing for me?”
“We’ve all got to change with the times, Virgil.”
“Listen to yourself!” said Virgil as he once more tried and failed to pull his hand back. “Someone got into my house while I was asleep and put this on me and you’re talking like I’m just being a sulky kid.”
“I’m…” started Alice, but that was as far as she got before she interrupted herself with a grunt. It looked like she couldn’t let go of his hand, either. When she met his eyes again hers were clear and frightened. “I think something’s really wrong with me,” she said.
“I’m hearing what you’re saying, but it’s like I have to reply with pure bullshit or I’m going to explode. Something’s filing down the points in my brain.” She finally released her hold on him and rubbed at her palm like it was hurting her. “I’m gonna go walk around for a bit, see if that clears my head. Go ahead and finish eating without me. I’m leaving my keys on the counter so you know I’ll be back.”
Virgil couldn’t find anything to say as he watched her go. He glared at the ring. What had it done to her? What was it still doing to her? The Alice he knew was still in there, at least partially, but it seemed so easy for her to get lost under the weight of his engagement. She wasn’t as fiercely devoted to a lifetime of single life as he was (Alice played things by ear and worried more about what she had than what she hadn’t, which Virgil had always admired in her) but she’d never been one to obsess over matching up all her friends and family into a sterile matrimonial whole. Some of his friends had gotten really weird about weddings after the Supreme Court ruling back in 2015, coating his timelines with photos of newly-minted married bliss; Alice was not among these people. She’d been the first person to call him up and insist he not agree to “anything he’d regret” just because it was legal now! That a bundle of shiny rocks was, as far as he could tell, brainwashing her into not being bothered by its sudden existence, and not questioning the incredibly fucking weird shit going down in the margins of his online presence, and ignoring a huge part of what made him tick in the first place, felt ghoulish. He still couldn’t remove the ring no matter how hard he pulled.
If Alice needed a break, it was time to look to someone else for help. Virgil was able to get a hold of Barry, his closest friendly non-family, after a few tries, but after less than a minute of talk he started doubting whether that had been the right decision.
“You saw it, though, right?” he asked, trying not to eat directly into his receiver. Stress-eating was a bad habit of his but damned if corn chips covered in a fistful of trashy toppings didn’t make him feel more like a real person.
Barry hummed affirmatively. “Yeah, it’s like pure costume jewelry. I’m amazed you accepted it in the first place, man, it’s really not your speed.”
“Thank you,” said Virgil. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell people: I didn’t agree to this, I don’t know where it came from, and I really don’t know who’s fucking with me or why.”
“I think it’s pretty cool you went along anyway,” said Barry, and Virgil’s stomach twisted.
“Barry, I didn’t agree to anything, here. I woke up with a ring on and that’s it.”
“Yeah, way more romantic than I’d expect from you.”
Virgil scowled. “That’s the point. It sounds too romantic because I don’t, and never have, given a shit about that sort of thing, and I don’t know why this is suddenly so hard for everyone to understand.” He combed through his memories for something he could spin into a different angle, maybe something that he wasn’t so willing to share with Alice. “Look, you know me. If I was going to get married for some fucking reason, wouldn’t I be sleeping with them already? I live alone, I go to bed alone, and the last time anyone else was near my cock we were definitely not fooling around here. And that guy definitely wasn’t the one who put this thing on my finger.”
Barry laughed. “See, like, that’s what’s so inspirational, right? You’ve got a guy who’s encouraged you to sow those last wild oats before the big day even while he’s being a Boy Scout in the bedroom. You two have such an amazing relationship. A shame Geoff doesn’t see things that way. He’s still pissed at me about last Saturday.”
Why did everyone else know so much about this mystery un-man? How did they? Geoff and Barry had been an item since college, adding and shedding metamours as time passed, and now all of a sudden Virgil’s unwanted bond with an unseen fiancé was being lionized as better than what they had together. “Humor me, Barry. Tell me more about this person. Pretend I just came out of a coma and you have to bring me up to speed, and assume that this coma made me forget everything about him ever, even shit you saw us get up to in the flesh.” He didn’t know if there was any actual flesh to speak of, at least as far as he understood the concept, but if Alice and Barry and probably everyone else kept talking like there was nothing wrong, he’d have to do this by the same rules.
“Seriously? Okay, okay, I’ll play along. He’s—”
Words happened, Virgil knew they did, but they went in one ear and out the other and never bothered to settle on his brain on their journey. All that remained of them was an aftertaste. Something about a meet-cute involving a mutual interest (which one?) and then growing closer over shared social outings (when and where had those been?) up until Virgil, finally, to the relief of all and sundry, agreed to go steady with a man who didn’t exist (except Barry didn’t seem to notice that last part). To hear Barry talk, Virgil had been swept off his feet and finally learned what everyone else saw in love and devotion. It was like reading a story someone else had written about his life.
What parts of the account he could focus on didn’t mention a single thing about the stranger, and Virgil couldn’t tell if that was because everything Barry said was like that or if his fiancé (he hated thinking those words in that order, but the pairing kept creeping in of its own accord, like ants in the springtime) left an idea-sized hole wherever he (it? them? something else?) passed. Maybe if he’d been able to see Barry in person it would’ve been different; after all, Alice had sounded uncharacteristically lowest-common-denominator over the phone, and while the ring had done something to her when he’d let her look at it for too long, she’d been able to fight its influence a little bit. Did the ring-giver take strength from the distance provided by remote communication, or did it just feel like it did, since he couldn’t rely on voice and movement and the absence of a dozen little buttons to click out of obligation instead of genuine engagement? Engagement! What a weird word to fixate on given his current situation.
Barry kept talking and Virgil knew there was no point in trying to listen longer. He didn’t interrupt or hang up, though, instead letting the conversation that wasn’t go on and happen around him as he planned his next step. If this thing somehow lived in his social media—what an on-the-note threat that was, he thought with bitter amusement—then he’d clearly need to deactivate some accounts. No, more than just some. What would even be left of him once that happened? He had friends all across the country and more than a few scattered across the corners of the globe, the usual accumulation of interesting people that even the most haltingly savvy of online persons collected if they did anything other than hide in private forums like Aristotle’s cave. Just flicking on his phone and seeing that other people were living their lives, and tacitly inviting him to weave in and out of those lives as circumstances permitted, had always been comforting to him. Could he let that go? If it turned out to be the wrong move, could he ever get them back?
He wasn’t sure if he could bring himself to cull the photo galleries. Virgil never minded scrubbing away the tracks he’d left in letters and spaces across the landscape; the pictures, now, those were something different. Each of those was a thumbprint on the infinite tabletop of time, proof that he’d existed somewhere, cared about something. Some of them were less public than others, records of past escapades he wanted to remember but needed passwords to protect, and just because they were potentially incriminating didn’t mean he cared about them any less. There were places he couldn’t return to and people he’d never see again for reasons ranging from the mundane to the tragic. Now he had to deal with the fact that this whole part of himself might well be infected.
The phrase “sexually-transmitted haunting” returned to him, unbidden. That couldn’t be the case (if it was, why only now, instead of soon after the party? did jewelry-dispensing specters have an incubation period?), but it was what his thoughts kept coming back to. He’d lived the life of a responsibly free single, enduring an endless parade of checking his partners and getting checked in return all in the name of a good time, and he’d ended up paying the price of that freedom no matter how careful he’d been. Maybe he’d waited too long, anyway. If he deleted everything now he’d make himself as invisible as his paranormal paramour and he’d still be stuck with a ring and an unknowable wedding date; between Barry and Alice it seemed like nobody else had a month or a day for that, either, and yet its existence still loomed over Virgil with the mass and inevitability of a Paleolithic glacier. He could already imagine it consuming him, shaping him into something defined by its nature and not his own. What sort of fjord would he leave behind?
Your fault, said a voice that sounded like his inner monologue, all twisted up in panic and self-loathing but still recognizably him. All of this could’ve been avoided if you hadn’t insisted on making bad decisions, but you did, so it’s all your fault. His fault for what, though? Being gay? Not sufficiently mortificating himself for being gay? Not digging a hole out back and whispering down his love of beard stubble against his cock? The not-voice was stalled by this just long enough for him to center himself again. It was just like earlier, when thinking back on his time like Nice Jacket, wasn’t it? He’d had a friend in high school who took medicine for shit like this, and they’d been close enough that said friend (what was his name? had Virgil forgotten that before or after he’d woken up that morning?) would sometimes talk about the exercises his therapist helped him put together to better winnow thoughts he wanted from the static of everything else. He missed that kid (whatever his name was). The least Virgil could do for what bits of their friendship he still held on to was to try some of those exercises for himself.
First came reminding himself that his brain might not have his best interests at heart, and he’d done that already. Next came looking for a possible source to better understand why. Virgil hadn’t been raised in any faith more complicated than Christmas presents in winter, or by hateful family whose judgment of those around them bled off to dig into his bones like radium by proxy, or anything else along those lines; he’d had the privilege of only having the culture of the masses pulling him down, and as he and Alice had grown up as weird, scruffy kids who liked weird, scruffy things they’d never put much stock into populist shit, anyway. He’d had dates (and “dates,” with the quotation marks) tell him it was off-putting that he didn’t have the same cultural touchstones they did, but the dates (and “dates”) who’d ended up being worth his time hadn’t minded, or were even charmed. That unwanted brain voice probably would’ve gone off about him not growing up watching Disney Channel original comedies being his fault, too, and this was enough proof for Virgil that he was not having rational responses to an already bizarre situation.
He realized Barry was still talking. Once he focused he found that Barry had been talking for a while, and would sometimes pause as though waiting for another actor in a play, then pick right back up responding to words that had gone unsaid. Virgil considered hanging up on him for a few tempting moments before deciding against it. It wasn’t like Barry was doing this on purpose; Virgil had the suspicion Barry might not have known what was happening at all. He waited for a lull in the conversation and spoke up before Barry could pick up whatever new cue was waiting for him.
“Look, my sister’s over, she’d just stepped out for a bit when I called and she’ll be on her way back any minute. Is this a good time to leave?”
“Planning a bachelorette party?” asked Barry.
The phrase made Virgil want to grab the potato peeler from the odds and ends drawer and remove his own skin with it. Barry’s long years of service at the local Planned Parenthood’s health center had granted him a dim view of people who misused gendered language in ways just like that one, so maybe the problem wasn’t just on Virgil’s end, either. How deep did this mess go? Was the entire world coming apart at the seams around him? Was he making Barry, and Alice, and anyone else with whom he interacted actively sicker just by trying to make sense of everything? He didn’t say any of this, though, instead forcing a laugh and replying, “Something like that. She brought Taco Bell.”
“Hey, big spender!” That sounded more like the Barry Virgil had known for all these years. Maybe things weren’t as hopeless as he’d feared. “Tell her hi for me. I’m really happy for you, man, you deserve to be happy in this fucked-up world of ours. Here’s hoping you’ll get that date set sooner than later, yeah?”
“Yeah.” A knock came from the door, right on cue. “That’s her now. Bye, Barry.”
“Take it easy, Virg.”
The phone’s screen darkened from a picture of Barry dressed for a Bastille Day party—none of their circle of friends were French but the host, Geoff, had wanted an excuse to theme it—to a display of the elapsed conversation time. There was something wrong with the numbers, but Virgil found he couldn’t concentrate on what that wrongness was with the banging from outside as insistent as it was. He tossed his phone onto the couch and made for the door.
The door boomed like a horse was kicking it. “Christ, hold on, I was on the phone!” called Virgil as he fumbled with the locks. He opened the door without looking—usually against every fiber of his being, but Alice really wanted back inside, and on a day as weird as that one he wasn’t going to question it—and was rewarded by what felt like someone shoving him from behind and onto his front step. What lay outside was not the little lawn and sidewalk and plastic skeleton flamingos he knew. Upon leaving the house Virgil was now somewhere else entirely. He couldn’t find it in himself to be surprised when he turned around to find more hallway networks and not anything even slightly resembling his front door.
The new place was a regular warren of rooms lit with fluorescent bulbs, most steady and bright, like someone had taken the inside of an office and scooped out all the cubicles and open-floorplan hell tables while somehow leaving that sense of spaces cut up into smaller space. The walls were some cousin of cream or beige, contrasting with the dark, but equally colorless, carpet. He didn’t see any windows. Sometimes he’d spot the round, off-white shape of a support pillar splitting up one of the bigger rooms. No matter where he looked, it was the same: vague ideas of architecture, like an art game whose assets had yet to finish loading, but no furniture, or features, or signs of people, or anything that could keep it from being completely sterilized save for the irregular shapes of the rooms themselves.
No, not sterilized. Homogenized. You could put any of those rooms in any office park in America and they’d fit right in, ready to be absorbed as part of the scenery. Nobody would object. What was there to even object to? It was like disagreeing with a glass of water, except at least in the case of water you could drink it to keep your stupid human body alive. There was nothing even remotely good for humans in this place. And now Virgil was stranded in the middle of it.
Did his surroundings change when he walked or did he just think they did? He could tell he was moving though a definite space, and when he touched objects they felt solid enough, and he was technically seeing new arrangements of lights and pillars as he moved, and yet it all felt like iterations on the same thing, a literal incarnation of same shit, different day. From a bird’s eye view he was sure he’d be able to spot shared patterns between the rooms. He tried to kick a hole in one of the cheaper-looking walls and just ended up hurting his foot; a less aggressive attempt to muss up the carpet saw it spring back into shape over time, like a memory pillow filling in the recess left by a hand. The entire un-space seemed keen on erasing any proof he’d been there. It was like the place actively resisted a personal touch.
The more he walked the more a pressure in his sinuses made itself known, never quite blossoming into pain but just bearing down on him. He knew, somehow, that this wasn’t the promise of a coming storm he felt, more the weight of an idea, an idea so big he wasn’t sure if he could truly comprehend it. What kind of idea was encapsulated by a maze of rooms that didn’t actually hold anything or serve any purpose he could find? It filled him with the same sense of formless dread he’d had as a child waiting in any of the endless office lobbies a kid with two working parents had to endure, never knowing the size or shape of the wait ahead of him, unable to fill that time with anything of meaning. He still found himself in those places as an adult; now, though, it was his own business that brought him to the waiting room, and more importantly he had the luxury of dicking around on his phone until the right names were called.
Speaking of phones, why had he not put his phone in his pocket when he answered the door? Assuming he’d even be able to get a signal in the middle of wherever he was seemed futile, but the sheer utility of the thing, even as little more than an electric brick, could’ve come in handy. Maybe he could have taken pictures of places he’d been to, or track how long he’d been walking, or just put on some fucking music so he wouldn’t have to listen to the buzz of the lights and the sound-crushing emptiness of everything else. He couldn’t even hear his own footsteps thanks to the carpet. Was Alice in here somewhere, too? How would he even notice if she’d passed through somewhere if it all settled back into an inoffensive neutral state the instant someone stopped exerting themselves to leave a mark? Would he recognize her at all, and vice versa? He hated being left alone with his thoughts like this, since it gave him too much time to think. All he could do was keep moving forward.
His thoughts turned to the photographs infecting his digital persona. They felt connected to this place, somehow, and he figured that if he had to think about something it might as well be a potential answer or two. What was the link he was missing? Virgil could see more photos he’d never taken in his mind’s eye, ones he knew were no doubt lurking on this account or in that gallery, and Virgil once again wondered how far they’d spread, how many people had seen them. Too many times a private moment between friends, or a secret shared in confidence, could escape its pen and run rampant through the wild places with no care for who it trampled; it was so easy for an idea to be shared by just the wrong person, or at just the wrong time, to end up transforming into something horrible and hateful. A person’s image went from reflecting their humanity to just another ingredient in the stew, just another refrain to be remixed, just another swash of pixels to dash out on a digital canvas and then forget once the damage was done. For as long as anyone did remember, though, the infection could spread forever.
What happened when that sort of force became self-aware? What if it was tired of being changed against its will, and decided the solution was to make everything the same, so nothing had to change ever again? These were impossible ideas, he knew, ridiculous ones, right up there with those comics Alice once sent him where someone had boiled down schools of complex philosophy into twiggy white anime boys. Maybe it wasn’t as silly as he kept trying to make it sound. Maybe the face of unthinkable reality-breaking horror was a twiggy white anime boy, too.
But why him, why now? Was it because he hadn’t gotten laid in long enough that the deviant stink had blown off, so it could stand to suck him in and digest him properly? That had to be it, at least a little, since wherever he was it felt like the exact opposite of deviance; this was a place to conform, to blend in, to go with the flow and stop worrying so much. This was a place that was squeaky-clean, ready for network TV and approval from all but the most tight-assed of orgs, a place where nobody used hookup apps or dabbled in political dissent or did anything even halfway kinky in the bedroom. He could feel it trying to somehow smooth over anything even halfway out of line about him—Something’s filing down the points in my brain, Alice had said, and only now did Virgil truly know what she meant—and it scared him to imagine how much he’d already lost before he noticed.
He’d always considered himself stable, and now he wondered if that was what had put him in the crosshairs. Had he been too good of an actor? Had this thing assumed he was as perfect as he pretended to be when people were looking, and once it got too close and discovered the bitter center beneath his self-made candy coating, had it decided to fix him? Virgil had sometimes been jealous of others’ little victories (in what, it didn’t matter, since there was always somebody else’s success to resent these days), and maybe he’d had those passing fancies of doing whatever it took to make people care that he worked so hard, volunteered so often, gave so much, demanded so little. A little envy was normal when you had to live every waking day seeing everyone else do and feel so much better than you, wasn’t it? But what sort of evil genie did you have to flag down to get something that interpreted everyone’s getting married and leaving me behind as a request to be forcibly wed to something that might not even exist on the same plane?
Feeling sorry for himself didn’t work. What did work was focusing on every little unacceptable fiber woven into the tapestry of what made Virgil Virgil, as while it didn’t change the building-block sameyness of his surroundings he felt almost like he was actually getting somewhere, like a sneeze gradually working its way through someone’s nose. This also triggered a vast uptick in phantom sensations, however, and every step of progress came with a floater wisping across his field of vision, or sounds from somewhere he couldn’t trace, or strange spots of hot or cold. He picked up his pace. If he was going somewhere, why delay his arrival? Virgil wove through the forest of lights and pillars towards wherever it was he felt he needed to be.
When he ran into another person—quite literally—it took Virgil a moment to realize it had actually happened and wasn’t yet another false synapse fired off by his mistreated nervous system. The other guy (who had rounded a corner suddenly and silently) looked to be in a similar state, and when their shoulders collided it was with all the fearsome gravitas as a bomb. They regarded each other in stunned silence once they’d collected themselves from the impact.
“Are you real?” asked Virgil, which was not the sort of question likely to get him a trustworthy answer, but what else could he do?
“Are you?” asked the mysterious stranger.
Virgil patted himself down. He felt solid enough. “Pretty sure. I don’t know if this place is, though.”
The other guy’s body language relaxed a little. “I guess that’s the best response I could hope for,” he said. He rubbed at his shoulder with a wince; they had struck each other pretty hard. He extended his free hand to shake. “The name’s—”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for this place to know too much about us,” said Virgil, hastily spitting out a mouthful of words in case he needed to drown out any potential syllables. “Like, no identifying information. This feels like the wrong place to share it.” A little idea streaked across his consciousness like a falling star. “It probably put us together to try to wring some out of us for, fuck it, some reason or another. It’s got to know everything.”
“How do you know?”
He sighed. “I don’t. It’s more of an intuition thing. If you actually know something about wherever this is, I’m all ears.”
This got no answer but pensive silence, so Virgil took the opportunity to observe his new companion more closely. It was much harder to make out facial features than architectural ones—something about the light, maybe, or just the muffling effect the whole place had on everything—and he had to strain to notice more than vague ideas of color and presence. Whatever skin tone the guy had was impossible to nail down beyond some sort of typical human hue, as it kept shimmering up and down the scale of earth tones as Virgil watched; first a medium brown, then a deep blue-black, next pale and freckled, next bold copper spangled with vitiligo, changing from one to the next like fiddling with the knob on an old TV set, consuming what had come before in a static of melanin that swirled like ink in water. Each shift felt like it was just slightly more like the others, as though a person’s ethnicity was getting averaged out by decimals of a percentile each time. A glance down at his hand caught the light on the gems he wore there, and while the band was as sparkly and horrible as ever, Virgil was somewhat relived to see his own skin had yet to begin its own chameleon shift. To his eyes, anyway.
“What’s with the rock?” asked the mystery man with a nod to Virgil’s ring.
It was hard to pretend something that glitzy and gaudy didn’t exist, so Virgil instead lifted it up so they could both get a better view of it. In spite of the un-light, it sparkled. Virgil was amazed anything could sparkle in a place that seemed designed to swallow joy. Maybe the un-man haunting his social media had picked it up in a jewelry store that looked just like this. “Woke up wearing it, don’t know who gave it to me or why, and I think it’s why I ended up here.” He cocked an eyebrow. “I take it you didn’t start your day with a fiancé everyone knew about but you?”
“No. At least…I don’t think so.”
“Well, I did. Now I’m engaged to a guy who doesn’t show up in pictures. Or he does, but they’re all fucked up. It’s like I’m in my own little sequel to The Omen and it really sucks shit.” Virgil could already feel more about himself wanting to bubble to the surface. He changed the subject to keep from oversharing. “How’d you get here?”
“I was getting my coat to go out when the closet door shut on me. When I opened it back up again, here I was, and here all my spare clothes weren’t.” He gave a small, reserved laugh. “Thing is, I’ve been out for years, one hundred percent supernatural and superserious, so no clue why I’d end up back in here now. You?”
“Thought my sister wanted me to let her in through the front door, something pushed me through once I got all the locks open, here, now, et cetera,” said Virgil. A familiar pang of worry troubled him. “I don’t know if she ended up in this place or not. She’d come over to try and help me figure out the ring thing—she thinks I’m getting married, too, for the record—and had gone outside to walk around some once I kept leaning on how scary this shit is for me. I really hope she’s not here. I still don’t know if I’m really here myself, really.”
“You can tell we’re here by the way we’re not quite here.” Virgil was pretty sure those weren’t the right lyrics to a song (what song it was he couldn’t place; it was likely something Alice had foisted on him in one of her endless musical deep dives) but he wasn’t in the mood to complain. They were two grown men far from home and frightened out of their minds; he was no doubt engaging in a dozen nervous tics of his own that had to be driving the other guy crazy. “I mean, there’s got to be rules, right? Rules we broke. Otherwise why would we be stuck in this place?”
“Hold up, stop,” said Virgil. “That’s, like, that’s folklore logic. Why did you get eaten by the troll? Why did the ghost fuck you up? Because you didn’t know the rules. It’s based in cultural anxiety, though, since those hard-and-fast rules we try to pretend make our lives work are no more real than pixies in the herb garden.”
“You’re engaged to a graphical glitch and we’re both stuck in the far corner of a church nobody ever built,” —he associated this place with a church? Virgil would have expected more incense, or at least a crayon drawing of a cross tacked up on one of the endless walls— “so I don’t think we’re in the right place to start arguing over what does and does not exist.”
Virgil scowled. “Fine. But I still don’t think this is anything we deserve, it’s just what someone, something is convinced is where we belong. Out of sight, out of mind, no longer making trouble with all those questions we keep asking.” Something clicked in his head, and his expression softened. The idea was a ridiculous one and ridiculous would have to do in the absence of anything better. “I think I know how we can get out of here, though.”
The mystery man made a hurry-it-up gesture. “Well?”
“Just a hunch. You said you’ve been out for a while now, didn’t you? Same here. You got someone at home?”
“We’re pretty open.”
“And I’m gloriously single. And like…you were doing pretty okay as you were? Like more or less able to make it to the end of the day, I’m not talking okay on a global world-on-fire scale.” This earned him another nod. “Well, that thing you said about rules isn’t quite right, but I don’t think it’s wrong, in that I think we’re here because something doesn’t like us being who we are and daring to thrive, or at least pay the bills and eat some dinner and have people who mean things to us.” That was the easy part. Now for the part that sounded weird even inside his head. “So I think that whatever this something is, it’s shoved us in here so it can, like, digest us a little. Smooth over all those rough edges. Neutralize the deviance. I mean, fuck’s sake, it’s trying to marry me off! Trust me when I say I’m not the type.” He brushed his hair out of his eyes, his pomade having lost its grip what felt like hours ago. “That’s why no names, no major details. Identities give it power because that tells it what it can ‘fix.'”
His anonymous companion nodded. “With you so far. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything quite as much as that thing,” —he pointed to the ring, here— “but I’ve been noticing an uptick of Weird Shit happening to me lately, and I was trying to figure out if it was personal. I guess it has to be if this place disagrees with me as a person.”
Virgil gestured at himself. “It’s been a minute since anyone’s gotten their hands on this, so my guess is that this morning enough of that deviant stink had blown off for it to finally try and suck me in. I’m thinking that doesn’t have to be the case if you’d be willing to help amend things. If we can convince it we’re just too aberrant to stomach, it has to sick us out, right?”
“And if it doesn’t?” asked the unnamed man, eyebrows raised in interest. Thank God for that pretty-open relationship.
“If it doesn’t, eh, don’t know about you but it’ll make me feel better. You game?”
He was answered by a forceful, awkward kiss that pressed him up against the drywall-that-wasn’t and made the shoulder Virgil had bruised just minutes before ache. Virgil generally wasn’t into painful sex (being a self-described wuss and proud of it, as in his opinion the wusses were the ones to rebuild civilization after every war), and he would’ve said something if he hadn’t realized that the neutral space probably didn’t approve of that shit, either. He set his jaw. No, he’d suck up the soreness if it pissed this place off. He was starting to find himself okay with a lot of things.
Hands (Virgil’s and otherwise) fumbled at fasteners, pulling free buckles, buttons, zippers. Virgil could tell he had a cock against his palm and that was enough; he didn’t care that he couldn’t make sense of its dimensions, or even whether it was cut, because those were problems for when he was seeking out pleasure. Here he had a goal. He dragged his hand along the other man’s shaft and took care to touch the metal underside of the ring to it as much as possible, really defiling that little shithead with the warmth of someone not its own. The gems were sharp, as they learned the hard way. Virgil did what he could to keep from scratching or poking with it—changing hands was unthinkable, that might imply it had won—as he all the while got his hand anywhere he could manage without actually stopping what he was doing. What he received was nice, in that it was not just someone else jerking him off but someone who actually knew what to do with a cock, and in less troubled times he could have enjoyed being touched that way for quite a while, only coming when he felt ready.
A mutual handjob didn’t seem offensive enough to the neutral space’s sensibilities, however, and so it was time to skip right to the most potentially offending parts. He rummaged for his wallet in his back pocket.
“Condom?” asked the man into Virgil’s mouth.
Virgil answered him by fumbling open the folded leather to rip open a little packet he kept there. A few drops of lube beaded up along the tear. “Someone’s getting fucked and I don’t care which of us it is. I want it to be impossible to ignore what we’re doing.”
“Then turn around.” That answered that.
It ached like the nameless man was going in dry, so Virgil allowed himself to gasp and moan as he was penetrated with far too little lube. He didn’t like being a more receptive party in sex unless he was with someone with specific, vetted-by-others skills, and his mystery partner was much shorter there than with his hands, and it didn’t matter. Virgil had the ring. Virgil had to send a message he was willing to spit on everything it symbolized. Based on all Barry said of wild oats and last hurrahs, it might well have considered it less offensive if he’d just been getting all that pesky masculinity out of his system. Now it had to stew on him doing whatever he fucking wanted, and what he wanted was to make it suffer.
Unmarried. Anonymous. Virgil tied to no one, his effectively faceless friend permitted to roam. He could feel how much they were offending some unknown observer, maybe even his fiancé themselves (itself? himself?), with what they were doing; the gay angle seemed to bother it the least, like a brand slathering rainbows on itself to drum up extra business each June, or how a pinch-faced milquetoast would permit a few homos to linger in their vicinity so long as they weren’t too queer about it. No, he wasn’t going to be the friendly sort of gay if he could help it, not here and not now. If this place was trying to devour him then he hoped it’d choke.
The other man came before he did, crying out into Virgil’s sore shoulder as he emptied himself thrust by shuddering thrust, and the tepid air was cool against Virgil’s skin where it started to trickle out of him. A fast hand finished him off with urgency; that same urgency spattered against the wall as Virgil groaned, his beringed hand sliding against the sticky spot he’d left; he made sure to rub it in, just to be sure whatever had put it there would be offended. He lost his balance, then, and fell, and instead of striking the spongy carpet he tumbled through a veil of colors and a sense of something else’s betrayal. It was like the dizziness of being fall-down drunk without the part where he actually hit something upon toppling over, just a seemingly endless loss of balance while the ring burned at his finger like a brand. His eyes stopped making sense of what they saw so he closed them. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds in real time, perhaps a minute at most, and yet when Virgil finally came around with a start to feel grass against his back he could’ve sworn he’d been trapped in a sliver of infinity.
Once he was able to focus his eyes again Virgil found himself in his little fenced-in backyard next to the shed. He lay supine and studied how the shed’s silhouette stood against the faint haze of light pollution in the sky. In warmer months he could spend hours in or around that shed, maintaining whatever he was growing in his garden that season, or tinkering with little DIY projects he didn’t want stinking up the house, or just enjoying the feeling that he was somehow hiding out from the rest of the world a while and it wouldn’t be allowed to bother him until he stepped back out onto the grass again. The summer she’d stayed with him while her building got itself remodeled, Alice had called it his Fortress of Solitude. It really was a perfect place to be alone.
Thinking of seclusion made his left hand spasm. He smiled nastily. The ring didn’t like him not belonging to anyone, did it? There were ways he could shake it off, ways so permanent that just that morning he would’ve considered them drastic; time in the neutral space and fear that Alice was still in there (or worse, and he didn’t want to think about what that could mean here) left him a changed man. What was one more alteration, really? Virgil staggered to his feet, tucked himself back into his pants, and breathed a sigh of relief when the shed door opened on the first try.
It was dark inside, the light chain he hauled on revealing nothing more than well-kept gardening gear as the bulb blazed to life, and that was just fine by him. Leaning against the wall for support, Virgil made his way to the pegboard on the far side of the shed where he kept the tools he knew he needed for his final, most horrible task.
He kept his pruner blades so sharp Alice accused him of being a serial killer in potentia. It had just been one of their jokes at the time—how many bodies did you bury today, Ketchup Snake? not as many as you did, Mustard, so don’t even think of calling the cops—but he could imagine how neatly they could shear through the joint right up around his knuckle. One snip would do it. He’d never be able to type the same way again and he’d probably be debilitated for weeks afterwards if he could actually make it to the ER in time, but it didn’t matter. One snip would get rid of this tumor on his life and let him go back to being normal again. His normal. Hopefully Alice’s normal, too, since she never deserved any of this. He’d fix everything, and then document everything on any social media account he didn’t purge (and there’d be so many he’d need to purge to make sure the wrong information didn’t spread), just pouring as much of this thing’s own medicine down its digital neck so that maybe someone in the future wouldn’t suffer the same way he did, a grotesque kill-or-cure just short of a nuclear option. The tool’s weight was comforting in his hand as he took it down from the pegboard. No matter what happened, he would make this all end.
Virgil braced one handle of the pruners against the workbench and laid his beringed finger between the blades. He was running on raw adrenaline, had to be because of how little it took to psyche himself up, and with a definitive motion he brought down the handle with all the force a desperate man could muster.
Or that had been the plan.
Now, now, said a Mid-Atlantic accent in his ear, though it didn’t use words to do so, nor could Virgil see (or, truly, feel) the hands he knew were holding his own in place. Don’t go doing anything rash, sweetheart. How do you think that would make me feel?
Virgil was turned—against his will, he knew, he knew this wasn’t his doing—and for the first time he could remember, he saw his fiancé face to face.
The phone rang and the picture it showed was of a grinning man in a popup-Halloween-store-grade costume of a French aristocrat with a lurid rubber wound spirit-gummed across his throat. Answering it seemed only polite. A tap of the screen put it into speaker mode.
“Virgil, thank God you picked up,” said Barry on the other end. He sounded upset.
“Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. Something’s happening to me. I’ve tried talking to people and they keep thinking my life is different from what it is, there’s something wrong with my girlfriend and her girlfriend, too. I can’t even get ahold of Geoff.” His voice threatened to break as he said so. “You…have experience with this, don’t you? Because I feel like you should, even though I don’t know why. It’s, oh my God, it’s like every time I try to focus on what’s going on I feel sick. I think I’m engaged to someone now and I don’t know who it is.”
“That’s wonderful news! I’m so happy for you,” breathed Virgil into the phone as he uploaded yet another happy-couple picture to the third gallery he’d made that day, and he couldn’t help but admire how beautiful his ring looked in the light as he did so.