by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Reed hovered in the darkened doorway and wondered why he’d thought it would be a fun idea to spend his day off pissing himself with fear on national TV. The two candles on the mantelpiece cast just enough juddering light that he could see the darker gloom of the bed, against the left wall, and the wardrobe, in the corner. The far wall was entirely concealed by floor-length curtains.
Reed sidled in, keeping his back to the wall. He considered picking up one of the candles, but having the light that close in front of him would mess with his night vision, or at least as much of it as was left after the lighting flashes on the stairs. His left sneaker squelched coldly with what he hoped was fake blood; the kitchen had been a slaughterhouse.
Bed, wardrobe, curtains. Where would they put it? Wardrobe? Under the bed? He didn’t know if he had it in him to look under the bed.
The wardrobe was certainly big enough for someone to be hiding in it. Reed approached it, still sliding along the wall, trying to keep both the door and the opposite curtains in his line of sight.
He could do this. He could do this. Reed extended a shaking hand to the door of the wardrobe and heard himself whimper. There didn’t need to be anyone in there; by this point he was so wound up the sound of his own breathing was freaking him out.
He grabbed the handle and yanked the door open.
Something tumbled out at him. Reed shrieked and jumped back.
The thing on the floor didn’t move. Reed held the wardrobe door open to let the meagre light seep in and illuminate the shelves. They were stuffed with cloth–lace, he found, poking at one. Filthy, rotting lace.
This was familiar, though–there’d been a gem in the rats’ nest of shredded newspaper and human hair in the cellar. He quickly shook out the clumps of dusty fabric, dumping them on the floor. On the third shelf, a low gleam caught his eye, and he grabbed for it.
“Got it!” The gem’s clear faceted plastic glowed bluely from within. The–ninth? Tenth? The clock must be winding down. He shoved it into his pocket and glanced around the room for the clue about where to go next.
No picture on the walls that might be a hint. Nothing on the mantelpiece. The hearth was empty.
He crossed the room in a bound and reached the safety of a new wall at his back. Now he could see the black stain on the bare mattress beside him. The darkness under the bed was solid, and the sight raised the hairs along his arms and the back of his neck.
“There’s nothing under there,” he whispered to himself, to the mic clipped to the neckline of his shirt. “There’s nothing under the bed.” His voice wavered, and he swallowed. He’d been fifteen years old before he’d been able to get out of bed at night without turning on his bedside lamp first. “There’s nothing under the bed.”
He meant to only bend down, but his legs trembled so badly that he ended up landing on his knees beside the bed and extending his clawed hands in defense while he ducked his head down to look.
There was nothing under the bed.
Reed took a few gulps of air and staggered as he stood up. When a light flared on the bed, he gasped so deeply he coughed on his own spit.
It flashed again, a bar of light on the bed. On the crusted, greasy, rusty-red stain on the bed.
“I have to lie down on that?” he asked when he could speak.
The light flashed again.
Reed wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and immediately thought of all the things his hands had smeared through over the past two hours-slash-eternity. “Seriously,” he said, “you guys are assholes.”
Nothing under the bed, he reminded himself, and rolled into the centre of the bed in a convulsion of courage.
At least the stain was dry. Reed stared up at the cracked ceiling. Was there some hint up there? Was this just an excuse to get him into a vulnerable position? If something came out from behind those curtains–
Light dissolved onto the ceiling and formed a shape. A house. This house, a turreted paper silhouette, little cut-out windows glowing cheerily yellow. Then orange. Then red. In the highest window, a lone rectangle under the roof peak, something moved. A rocking chair. Rocking empty and alone as the other windows went ashen and black.
“The attic?” Reed said, and his voice squeaked. “Oh, fuck me.”
Several things happened at once. A cold wind gusted, flaring and then killing the candles. The darkness was like something solid rushing into the room. A shock of electricity jolted through Reed, shooting through his bones, stinging over his skin. He choked on a shout that didn’t make it past his throat. Then, vibrating from hidden speakers, a long, low gong sounded.
His time was up.
Reed knew where the door was, and he flung himself towards it, rounding the doorframe so fast his shoulder rebounded off the opposite wall. There was a string of red Christmas lights along the baseboard that hadn’t been on before, casting just enough light that he could see the doorways and, ahead of him, the stairs. Shit, they were blocked by the splintered coffins; he’d never be able to clamber back over them fast enough. The back stairs were an extended switchback, leading him into the maze of cellars.
Reed wasted a paralyzed second in indecision before he remembered the secret passageway. He pelted down the hallway and into another empty bedroom. The switch that released the catch to the hidden panel door was in the decorative frieze of acorns ringing the fireplace. He pressed it at a run and tore down the stairs. Swags of cobwebs wrapped around his face and clung to his hair. He fumbled open the bookshelf door at the other end and nearly clotheslined himself on one of the garlands of crime scene photographs crisscrossing the library. He took the room at a running crouch, and then he was in the main hallway and there was only the gallery of luminescent green family portraits following him with their eyes as he burst out of the front door and into the night, bolting for the glow of electrical lights at the main gate.
Gravel slid under his feet. His lungs heaved. He was on the verge of falling headlong for the entire length of the driveway, kept upright by panic and sheer momentum, and when he passed the gates, control of his limbs entirely deserted him and he flailed forward to land on his hands and knees, gasping and trying not to puke in front of the cameras as an alarm bell rattled above him and was abruptly cut off.
Voices sounded around him, How the hell did he get out? and Is he okay? and Holy shit. Reed sat back on his heels, hoping he’d be able to breathe at some point in the future. Vic Chander crouched in front of him.
“All right there, Reed?” she asked.
He nodded and gasped out, “Yeah.”
“Brilliant. My, you’re a sight, aren’t you?” Her hand brushed at his hair and came away clotted with cobwebs. “That’s the real thing, that. You gave us a turn, disappearing like that. How on earth did you manage to get out without using the staircases?”
He shook his head. It was all a frantic blur. “Did I make it?”
“You did indeed. Beat the bell by a good two seconds, which means you get to keep your loot! Let’s get you up.” She tugged on his arm, and he gained his feet, wavering a little. “Let’s see how many gems you managed to scavenge from the mad scientist’s haunted mansion before you ran for your life!”
Reed turned out his bulging pockets. The plastic gems made a luminous heap in his hands as Vic theatrically counted them, her voice becoming louder with each number.
“Nine! Ten! ELEVEN! Eleven gems, tying our highest record ever. That is absolutely brilliant, mate. You should be well proud of yourself.”
Reed swallowed. His throat felt coated with moss, and everything ached in an indistinguishable throb. “That’s eleven thousand dollars, right?”
“It certainly is. How do you feel?”
Reed felt himself start to grin. “I just won eleven thousand dollars.”
“Got any plans for that kind of dosh?”
“I, uh…” His face felt like it was splitting into a manic smile. “I really want a shower, actually.”
She laughed. “I think we can manage that. Won’t even charge you more than a couple thou.”
“Oh my God, I did it.” Euphoria was rising in him like scalding steam.
“Truth, now, Reed. Were you really scared?”
“Vic, I was absolutely fucking terrified.”
She laughed again and put her arm around his shoulders, angling him to face the camera. “That’s what we like to hear. Reed here made it out alive, but will our next contestants be so lucky? Find out during the next frightful episode of Run For Your Life!”
There were more questions after the cameras were turned off, initially from a grizzled old guy with a clipboard. How had he known the concealed staircase was there? Had he ever been in the house before? Had someone told him about it? Then a woman wearing a long camel hair coat that was probably worth more than Reed’s last car arrived. She handed him a cardboard cup of cooked-tasting coffee with too much sugar in it, and he would have promised her his firstborn if he’d known what to say, but he didn’t have an answer for her. It was close to midnight and he was starting to shake, with adrenaline or cold. Around them, the crew was reeling in extension cords and stowing things in trailers.
They had a purple-haired young woman drive him in a van back to the motel. He stripped as soon as he locked the door of his room behind him, and scrubbed himself under the weak but steaming shower spray until all of the gummy, crusty, sticky residues that smeared his skin and hair had been washed down the drain.
Eleven fucking thousand fucking dollars. He could own a car again, and not have to waste so much time on the damn bus. He could replace his unyielding old futon with a cushy mattress. He could slay his credit card balance and put a respectable dent in his student loan. That alone would give him breathing space and let him sleep better at night.
Maybe, Reed admitted as he towelled himself dry, Gabe was right: he didn’t really know what he wanted out of life. Achieve something that a–admittedly pretty niche–fanbase had declared impossible and win a huge wad of cash, and all he could think about was buying boring furniture and paying off debts? No seventy-inch TV and shiny new gaming console, no blowout party, no once-in-a-lifetime world trip?
To be honest, his current TV was fine, he already had a small stack of games he didn’t have time to finish, parties weren’t his thing, and he’d never really wanted to travel. Any dreams he’d had as a kid were long gone, sanded away by the daily rasp of reality. Mostly, he guessed, what he wanted was to not have to work fifty-hour weeks at two and a half crap jobs. Adulting sucked.
He couldn’t stop yawning as he pulled on pyjama pants and a T-shirt. No surprise; normally he’d have been asleep for a couple of hours by this time, and it had been a long day. Pushing away a sense of anti-climax, he slid under the thick duvet and switched off the lamp on the headboard.
He lasted about thirty seconds before he had to turn the light back on. The lamp, angled for reading, shone down into his eyes. He got up and turned on the floor lamp in the corner instead. Back in bed, he turned on his side with his back to it, trying not to imagine sinister shapes in the lumpy shadow his body made on the wall.
Half an hour later, he was still awake. The sheets felt worn and rough at the same time, and he couldn’t punch the pillow into quite the right shape; his hair smelled funny from the hotel shampoo, and the highway sounds were coming from the wrong direction. His mind spun replays of the evening every time he closed his eyes: rats skittering over his shoes in the cellars, bones and splintered coffins illuminated by strobe flashes on the main staircase. And to top it all off, he was weirdly horny.
It must have been the adrenaline, or the fear, or the novelty of an unfamiliar bed. Sex had kind of fallen by the wayside for Reed over the last few years. Except that his dry spell was apparently ending now.
He flopped over onto his back, pushing his bare feet into the cooler sheets at the corners of the bed. Something about that spread-legged position got his dick super interested. Reed reached under the sheet and pushed his pyjama pants down over his hips. He cupped his dick, rubbing his thumb slowly along the upper side. With his spare hand he gently squeezed his balls, something he’d never particularly liked before, but it turned out to work for him now. He tried a firmer grip on his cock. Normally he liked a light touch, but right now it was all systems go and full speed ahead, apparently.
Both hands working, Reed bent his his legs and let them fall to either side. He arched his back a little, imagining a man above him reaching down to push his thighs apart. He circled his thumb over the slickening head of his cock. With one finger, he stroked the sensitive skin behind his balls, and a tingle ran down his spine. He was close to coming already. He flicked through fantasies, pictures of imagined and half-remembered men, sweat, force, ecstasy, until he fastened onto an old fancy: Phillip bending him over the table in the senior common room and–
–and Reed groaned as he came, louder than he’d ever been as pleasure clenched and released through him. Any remaining tension dissolved in the aftershocks, and Reed rolled over onto the clean side of the bed, sleep already drifting down onto him like a blanket of snow, whiting out the day. His last conscious thought was, Who the hell is Phillip?
Although the show described this season’s haunted house as “in the middle of desolate nowhere,” the production company van with the black-painted windows took less than half an hour to drop Reed off at his apartment in Kingston. He was a little muzzy from the late night, and his shabby life seemed to close back over his head as he got ready for his afternoon shift at the big box hardware store. Lunch was cold cereal and ibuprofen; he felt like he’d been beaten with a sack of oranges. He had the closing shift at the coffee shop, too, which meant he didn’t hang out with Gabe until the following evening.
“How was your thing?” Gabe asked when Reed responded to his knock. Asking Gabe to text before he walked from his end of the hallway to Reed’s was futile. Gabe lived like it was the Seventies. He was probably the last human under forty to still have a landline. He bought books. The only reason he tolerated a laptop was so he could quarrel on forums with people who shared his diverse, niche, and frankly weird interests.
“Oh my God, it was the worst, it was amazing, I fucking won eleven thousand dollars,” Reed burst out, and winced. “Oh, crap, you can’t tell anyone. I was supposed to keep it to myself until the episode aired.” He was usually better than this at keeping secrets.
“Nice. Good job,” Gabe said. He sauntered in and parked himself on the ratty velour couch the two of them had rescued from the curb a few years ago. “What’re you going to do with it?”
Gabe’s own lifestyle was absentmindedly threadbare, but even so, Reed balked at admitting that the most exciting thing he could think of to do with a windfall was getting out of debt. “I, uh…I was thinking of sprucing the place up,” he heard pop out of his mouth.
Gabe made a finger gesture that encompassed the junior one-bedroom’s general decor. “This place?”
Reed looked around, noticing as if for the first time the storage made out of stacked milk crates and the upholstery mended with duct tape. He kept it reasonably clean, but the scratched parquet and plywood kitchen cabinets had seen better days. “I mean, it’s pretty dire.”
“Knock-off modernism has not aged well.”
“I don’t think the architecture is the problem.” Reed flopped onto the couch beside Gabe. “What would you do with it?”
“That’s a lot of money. I don’t know, I have everything I need. Wait until I really wanted something. Save it for a rainy day.”
Reed fished among the detritus on the peeling laminate coffee table until he unearthed a ballpoint pen and a pad of paper with a local garden centre’s logo on each sheet. “Don’t you sometimes think the rainy day’s already here?”
Gabe considered. “‘Learn to live on lentils and you won’t have to be subservient to the king.'”
“What if I have to live on lentils and kiss the king’s ass?” Reed circled the pen until the ink ran smoothly, then flipped to a clean sheet.
“What if we’re all vaporized in a nuclear conflagration tomorrow?”
“Yeah, great, thank you, what’s your point?”
“What do you want to do?
The tip of the pen skated over the paper. “God, I don’t know. Being on the show, that was the most interesting thing I’ve done in forever. It was a challenge, you know? I swear it felt more real than my actual life.” He crosshatched blue ink shadows. “Now it’s over, and now what? I won a shit-ton of money, and I feel like I should be more excited about that, and to be honest? I don’t know why I said I wanted to fix this place up. The only thing I can think of is paying off my debts, and that’s not anything fun or satisfying, it’s like the financial equivalent of flossing.” He tossed the pen and pad down in frustration. “No wonder my life’s so boring. I’m boring.”
Gabe leaned over and picked up the pad. “I never knew you could draw. Maybe you’re looking for creative purpose. Have you ever thought of working on your art seriously?”
“What are you talking about?”
Gabe turned the pad towards him. Reed stared at the ballpoint sketch. Even considering the medium, it captured Gabe’s shaggy stoner hair and the intelligence behind his laid-back calm.
“Wow.” Reed looked at the smudge of blue ink on his middle finger. “I was just doodling. I bet I couldn’t do that again if I tried.”
“You didn’t have any dreams of being an artist when you were a kid? It’s not something you gave up in your teens, or anything like that?”
“No.” He’d gone through the usual roster of what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up: astronaut, fireman, wizard, marine biologist. It had all disappeared long before he’d entered the generic swirl of a general arts degree. Reed pulled out his phone. “You know what I do want? A pizza. You interested? I’m buying.”
Reed’s third job only took place on weekends and was winding down for the season anyway. Today it was cloudy and a little cool for late September, and only one older couple was braving the open top level of the double decker tour bus. On the last go-round of the day, Reed was mumbling into the mic about Kingston Penitentiary when he abruptly had had enough. The script was so hackneyed that some of the jokes had been old back when there’d been a queen on the throne. What kind of introduction to the finest city in the province was that? Reed shoved the dog-eared script under his seat.
“I’m sure you all remember the great escape of ‘Red’ Ryan, just a few years ago,” he said, “nineteen twenty-three, twenty-four, what was it?” and launched into the story of Ryan’s flight from prison. When they passed City Hall, he described the twelve stained glass windows commemorating those who had died in the Great War. “May we never see a time like that again,” he said, and heard the strain in his voice. Then he gave them a vivid account of what it had felt like crossing the rickety old Penny Bridge over the river before the La Salle Causeway had opened in 1917, and finished up with some mildly scurrilous gossip about certain local artists and actors of his own acquaintance.
“I could tell when you got your second wind,” the grey-haired woman said as she was leaving, pressing a toonie into his hand. “I do so enjoy first-person interpretation. I really believed you’d been across that bridge!”
Reed fastened the velvet rope behind her to block the open door of the bus, and turned to find Jane leaning on her steering wheel and regarding him speculatively. “Reed, I don’t know why you hid your light under a bushel all summer, but that was the most entertained I’ve been on this bus since the drag queen hers ‘n’ hers bachelorette party.”
“I guess I just wanted to try something different.” He must have remembered more than he’d thought from listening to Gabe, who’d lived in Kingston all his life.
“You certainly did that.” She glanced in her sideview mirror. “Do you want me to drop you off home?”
“I think I’ll walk around for a bit.” He was in a weird mood, fizzing with energy.
“Right-o. See you tomorrow.”
Reed had spent more time downtown when he’d been at Queen’s, but downtown was really for students and tourists and people with money. He wandered down Ontario, between brick and limestone pubs and ice cream stores and places selling T-shirts with Mounties and Canadian flags on them, past hotels and condos and parking lots. The waterfront was parkland now. It had all been railroad tracks and coal sheds and grain elevators in his day, a smoky, grimy din.
He didn’t need maple toffee or a baseball hat with a moose on it, but the mannequin in the window of a haberdasher’s caught his attention. He didn’t know why a man would wear a stocking cap with a slim jacket and buttoned vest, and no tie to boot, but the cut of the clothes was good.
The clerk leaning on the wooden counter at the cash looked as tired as Reed usually was at the end of a Saturday shift; they nodded to each other and silently agreed to leave each other alone. Reed wandered through the racks of shirts and jackets. He owned one suit, dark grey and conservative, several years old, acceptable for job interviews and weddings. He didn’t have any of those coming up. There wasn’t much in his closet between that and jeans. He needed some clothes fit for an adult to leave the house in.
Twenty minutes later, he found himself at the cash with two shirts, a pair of decent woollen trousers, and a shawl-collared sweater. One of the shirts alone was a hundred and forty-nine dollars, which was one digit more than he’d ever paid for a shirt in his life, and possibly the first he’d ever bought where the sizes were numbers and not letters. But–eleven thousand dollars. Gabe was right; you never knew what was coming. Why not splurge on something to enjoy while he could?
The new clothes looked out of place hanging in his closet next to his spare pair of wrinkled work chinos and the polo shirts with the tour company and the big box hardware store logos. Reed took one of his new shirts off its hanger again and tried it on, wondering why he’d bought it. He went into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. The shirt had wide stripes of purple and grey and black set off with a thread of acid green, and for some reason it made him look kind of elegant and confident and other things he wasn’t.
He pushed his overlong, nondescript hair back off his forehead. It was a start.
It was the haircut that really threw him.
“I think I’m having a, a, some kind of crisis,” he said to Gabe. He could still smell the pomade that the guy at the hipster barber place had put in his hair–and sold him a jar of–even though he’d washed it out with his own bargain shampoo when he came home.
“What kind of crisis?”
“I have no idea.” He was too old for a quarter-life crisis, too young for a midlife one. “But I mean, look at me. I’m buying new clothes. I’m getting haircuts.”
“That’s not so strange. People do that.” Which was a bit out of line for a guy who had hair halfway down his back and wore Birkenstocks throughout a Kingston winter, but Gabe ignored the look Reed gave him. “Is that all?”
“Yesterday I stopped at the fancy tea place and bought some loose tea. Darjeeling, whatever that is. I don’t even have a tea strainer thing!” Weirder still had been how delighted he’d been at the grocery store to find fresh lemons to squeeze into it.
“You’ve never liked tea before?”
“No. Okay, I used to drink it with my granddad, though I think he gave me more milk and sugar than tea, but I haven’t had it in years.”
“Hmm. What else?”
“Well…stuff.” Reed helped himself to another spoonful of Kraft dinner with peas and tuna mixed in, avoiding Gabe’s eyes.
The truth was, he was wildly horny. He was jerking off practically every night now before he could go to sleep, and sometimes, if he had time between shifts, in the middle of the afternoon. He’d never been much into watching porn, but now suddenly the entire internet seemed to be spread open and beckoning to him. He’d somehow developed a fascination for men who were elaborately inked, garlands of flowers and arches of ribboned letters, much more intricate than the flags and anchors on the soldiers and sailors he’d known. One of his favourite actors had charcoal wings unfurling over his back; the feathers seemed to flutter against his skin as he held a man down and fucked him in a rhythm that Reed matched with his hand as he watched, spending as the man below writhed and pleaded in pleasure. Another had spikes of black like abstract thorns across his torso, and Reed’s mouth went dry as he watched another man trace them, tongue swirling around nipples and inked points, down to where he slid his lips around a ready prick and took it deep.
And some of his fantasies, where he could direct every aspect to his entire satisfaction, got more intense than that. Not violent, exactly, just way more… forceful than he was used to. Hands clutching his hair, gripping his wrists, forcing him to his willing knees; muscular bodies bending him over and kicking his feet apart. And comprehensively buggering him, which Reed had only tried a few times and had never really been into, but just the thought of it sent a ripple of anticipation over his skin. He swallowed and took a long drink of ginger ale.
“When did it all start?”
“About a week ago? Right after I was on the show, actually.”
Gabe steepled his fingers together and tapped them against his lips. “It sounds as though the experience of the show affected you profoundly. You were challenged and afraid, and yet you triumphed. Do you think that you’re now feeling more comfortable in bringing that authority to other aspects of your life?”
“Seriously, it weirds me out when you go all Freud like that.”
“Sorry.” Gabe shrugged. “You survived having the shit scared out of you. Even if the fear was of something imaginary, that kind of thing can change people.”
“It sure didn’t feel imaginary when I was in it. I was actually kind of certain I was going to die. The stuff they’re coming up with this season is incredible. Have you watched any it?”
“You know it’s not a serious inquiry into the paranormal.”
“Oh my God, it’s so good.” He’d been trying to get Gabe into the show ever since they’d met. He’d thought it would be right up Gabe’s alley. “You’re going to watch my episode with me when it airs, right?”
Gabe sighed. “Fine, I will watch you be psychologically tortured on your depraved Roman circus of a reality show.”
“Look, just go onto the show’s website and watch the trailer for this season, okay? It’s set in an old house, you might actually like it.”
Friday night found Reed off work and at loose ends. Gabe was shut in his apartment writing, and nothing on Netflix appealed. Reed tried two different games and shut both down after being killed pretty much instantly.
It was pathetic, really. Friday night at nine-thirty and he was bored to distraction, mired alone in this dismal apartment–
He glanced again at the glowing green numbers on the stove. Nine-thirty, was that all? Things would be just getting started.
He’d wear his new shirt, of course. He rummaged in his battered chest of drawers and pulled out the skinny jeans that had gotten a little too snug over the last couple of years. He managed to slither into them, and evaluated the result by standing on a chair in front of the bathroom mirror. He was rather pleased by the effect. They showcased his assets admirably, and who knew that a good shirt could look so appealing when worn with dungarees? He combed his hair back from his forehead and applied a little pomade to keep it in place. No one was going to swoon at his feet, but he did well enough with what he had.
The Rum Runner was a low-key place with a few local craft beers on tap and a stage about the size of a double bed at one end, popular with a clientele that didn’t want to risk hearing loss or dehydration when they were in the mood to hang out or hook up. Reed got a beer and leaned on the bar while the man with the guitar at the back of the room sang sweetly about rain and lost chances. At the tables, men gathered in pools of lamplight. Along the walls and around the support beams they stood in shadow, faces or bodies emerging into detail when they moved. A stocky young man with a beard and a baseball cap, softness over muscle. A pale, slim figure whose hair showed candy-floss pink when he leaned into the light. Dark skin gleaming on sinewy forearms beneath turned-back shirtsleeves. A trail of intricate ink curling up to an ear and down beneath the neckline of a jersey. Reed’s fingers twitched for a stick of charcoal to draw them, in all their fascination and complexity. His body droned with anticipation as he imagined tasting that inked skin, being touched by those wiry dark hands, coming together with men so different and the same, all of them uniquely faceted and sharing one common need.
The musician was applauded and left the stage. The bar grew crowded, and Reed stepped away to find another space. The man with the pink hair rose from his seat and met Reed’s gaze as if he’d felt it on him.
A different band took the stage. Reed carried his empty bottle to the bar.
“Can I get you another?” asked someone at his elbow, voice a tickle against Reed’s ear as he leaned close to be heard over the keen of a steel guitar. Reed turned. The pink-haired man glimmered at him, silver studs on eyebrow and lip and nostril gleaming like moonlight on water.
He gleamed in other places too, Reed found later, naked in a narrow room in student digs, the pulse of music drifting in from parts unknown.
“You’re so tight,” the man whispered, hand moving slickly. “Are you sure you want it like this?”
Reed nodded and pushed back against the intrusion, fighting impatience, waiting for his body to do his will and welcome it. Despite the preparation, penetration did hurt at first, and he breathed into the tension as his companion slowly filled Reed up with his cock. Down on his elbows on the mattress, Reed sank into the delicious pleasure of being done to, and the man with the pink hair angled his hips and started fucking Reed like he meant it, and there it was, there it was, all his perceptions dissolving into glitter and spangles as another man possessed him and lit him up from the inside.
Reed woke to sunlight flaring over the top of the curtains, turning his bedroom golden. He rolled over onto his back and stretched, unfurling himself out to the edges of the mattress. His muscles twinged with luxurious soreness. He could feel every nub and crease of the sheets underneath him.
After a few languorous minutes he rolled out of bed, wrapped himself in his new quilted dressing gown–internet shopping was marvellous–and padded barefoot to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
The tea was steeping when he heard the knock. He yawned, and let Gabe in.
“Did I wake you? I thought you’d be up by now. I’m sorry, are you sick?”
“I had a late night.” Reed hitched the dressing gown back up over his bare shoulder.
“I went out.”
“You went out?” Gabe frowned. “You? Went out?”
“Yes, Gabe, it was a Friday night. I went to the Rum Runner and then got quite thoroughly rogered by a delightful young man with very interesting piercings.” He raised an eyebrow at Gabe’s expression. “You know I’m gay, right?”
“Sure, but you don’t–you’re not usually–you know what, let’s stop talking about the details of your sex life.” Gabe waved a book at him. “Why didn’t you tell me your creepy reality show was shot at the George Lewin estate?”
The timer on the stove beeped. Reed poured the tea from its mug into another, leaving the dregs behind, and reached into the icebox for a slice of lemon.
“I recognized it as soon as I saw the trailer. It’s a local legend. George Lewin made a fortune in the stock boom after World War I, and he poured it into building his country mansion. The parties he held there were renowned. Apparently he was quite the womanizer–”
Reed snorted. “It’s amazing what people will believe.”
“–and there were rumours of all kinds of scandal, but never anything definite. Then the crash happened, and he lost everything. He hanged himself from a beam in the attic.”
Reed sipped his tea. Hot and sweet and tart, just the way he’d always preferred it.
“The house remained abandoned until the government expropriated it during World War II. After the war they sold the property again, but no one lived in it for long–”
Gabe was a dear, but he did go on. Reed checked the clock on the stove and calculated how long he had before he had to leave for work. He severely needed a shower.
“Doors banging open, lights turning on in the middle of the night, shouting in rooms when no one was there–”
“Wait,” Reed said. “You’re telling me the haunted house is an actual haunted house?”
Gabe took a deep breath. “I think we have to consider the possibility.”
Reed tilted the book towards him so he could read the title. “Really? Because your primary source material is a book that looks like it was self-published in the Eighties by someone with access to too many display fonts.”
“The experiences we call hauntings have been observed across all regions and cultures. Just because we don’t know for sure what they are doesn’t mean they’re not real.” Gabe looked serious. “Reed, did anything… bad happen while you were there?”
“I had to eat fish eyes and stick my hand into a goat’s skull filled with maggots, so yeah.”
“No blackouts? No unexplained voices?”
“I don’t know, Gabe, they had the entire place wired with hidden cameras and sound effects and lights and crap; there could have been the Headless Horseman in there and I wouldn’t have been able to tell. Why are you suddenly interested in this?”
Gabe kept looking at him in that searching way. “How is your… crisis going?”
“Oh. Oh.” He got it now. “You think I’m–what, possessed or something?”
“There are documented instances where someone exposed to paranormal events begins exhibiting unusual characteristics, as if influenced by a different personality–”
Gabe’s view of the world was out there, all right, but he didn’t normally indulge in reefer this early in the day. “You’re sounding a little unusual yourself. Look, I know I was freaked out, but I’ve had some time to think about it, and it’s just what you said. It was an intense experience that made me reevaluate things, think about what I really wanted. I’ve been in this holding pattern, kind of just existing from day to day, and now… now I feel like I’m waking up.” He couldn’t suppress a smile. “I feel good. Better than I have in a long time.”
“Okay. Okay.” Gabe tapped the book against his mouth and looked at Reed over it. “I believe you. But–if I come to you later and tell you I’m worried about you, will you listen?”
“Of course I will. Now you’re going to have to run along, darling, I have to get dressed for work.”
The final two weeks of the tour bus season were Halloween themed. Reed didn’t bother even paying lip service to the pun-laden script. Instead he went into the details of some of nineteenth-century Kingston’s more sensational murders, and ended with a first-person account of how the police had raided the October fancy dress party at Miller’s speakeasy and the subsequent blackmail on all sides.
On Reed’s second-last tour, as the group was leaving the bus, one of the tourists handed him a business card. “I’m putting together a historical escape room series in the old Grant’s Inn. We’re casting for our limited Christmas run in a few weeks, and opening full-time in the spring. If you’re interested, give me a call.”
Three days and an entertaining conversation later, Reed had a December job lined up. He’d always enjoyed theatricals–actually, no, he’d never been in any, but he was pretty sure it was going to be a jolly time, he thought, wandering around to kill an hour before his shift at the coffee shop. Mr. Gagnon seemed like a good egg, and it was bound to be more interesting than helping people find the right size of lightbulbs.
He wasn’t really paying attention to the familiar buildings he was passing, so when the window display in the narrow limestone shop gave him a jolt of covetousness it took him a moment to realize why. Pastels were so dear, never mind the paper….
Eleven–well, ten and change–thousand dollars, he reminded himself, and headed into the art supply store.
It was like entering an alchemist’s workshop, everything arcane and semi-familiar and designed for specific purposes he could only vaguely imagine. Aisles of tubes and spray cans, a million kinds of paper, erasers that looked like plasticine and leadless pencils made out of cardboard, what was up with that? Yet his eyes and his hands knew what he wanted when he came across it. Not the smoothest paper, not the sleekest sketchbooks. A very particular sort of pencil. Sticks of pigment in colours like boiled sweets that made his mouth water.
He sat at one of the tables in Market Square and scribbled a charcoal pencil against the first pages of his sketchbook, dulling the manufacturer’s point to his favoured bluntness and then making circles, loops, shadings, straight and bending lines, testing the parameters of something half-remembered as if groping his way through his cluttered and darkened home.
“I’m worried,” Gabe said.
“Hmm?” Reed looked up at him and blinked; he’d answered the door in a haze of half-broken concentration and gone straight back to pondering which of the lines he’d made was wrong.
“This isn’t you, Reed.”
Reed examined Gabe’s face, noticing the fine lines at the corners of his eyes, the faded white scar on the side of his jaw, as if he’d never seen him before. In fact, Reed felt that he’d never looked properly at anything before now. Texture, light, edges and contrast shone for his attention as though a gauze curtain between him and the rest of the world had been drawn back. Faces and bodies promised stories he’d never before been able to read.
“I don’t mean your art. I’m glad you’ve found a purpose.”
Found, or perhaps reconstructed, stroke by stroke. It was as if he’d been injured and was learning to walk again, building a muscle memory for the second time. Frustrating, but also essential. A pilot light somewhere in him had been lit and was warming every part of him with its heat; his working days were overlain with thoughts of colour, and as he steamed milk and tried to remember what aisle the plumber’s tape was in, it was with the knowledge that something that fed his soul awaited him when he got home.
Gabe looked around at the table and the kitchen counters, strewn with tea mugs and takeout boxes. “It’s this, and your… late nights.”
The late nights were the best of all. Sometimes he took his sketchbook to the Rum Runner and sat at one of the spindly tables at the back, working out contour and perspective through the curve of men’s lips, how their fingers wrapped around beer bottles, the tautness of cloth over their thighs and hips and knees. Sometimes he went to one of the livelier places, where there were no quiet corners, where the pulsing of music and the flashing of lights over a crowd moving in the dark sparked a different kind of abandon.
Later there would be a bedroom, or a car, or a shadowed alleyway. Every night and every man was unique, and Reed delighted in the many paths that led to the same shared goal. Some men wanted kissing, mouths bitter with hops or sweet with cider, clutching at Reed as their cocks slid against one another or through the tunnel of their slicked hands. Often Reed ended up on his knees, thrilling to a man’s private scent, the salty taste of arousal, the intimacy of taking another man’s cock into his mouth and making him helplessly shake and moan. And then there was the thing he adored the most, spreading open to let a man enter him, feeling held and covered and pierced and possessed, stripped down to the essence of need and filled back up again, both taken by a man and given back to himself in the same act of ecstasy.
“And…” Gabe gestured to the cardboard boxes by the door, which Reed hadn’t yet gotten around to opening. It was really quite remarkable what you could pay people to deliver to you. “I thought you were going to pay off your debts.”
“I changed my mind. What are they going to do, seize my assets?”
“Reed. You said you’d listen to me if I said I was worried.”
“I’m listening, I am, but I’m not worried.” Reed gestured with colour-layered fingers. “I’m learning how to do something I love. I actually want to get out of bed in the morning, for a change. Honestly, Gabe, after everything I’ve been through, do you really think I can’t tell what matters?”
Gabe blew out a breath and rubbed his chin. “Okay. Okay. Uh, the reason I came over was to ask you if you wanted to, uh, come out to a thing with me tonight.”
Reed wiped his fingers on his T-shirt. “What kind of a thing?”
“A party? And on a Monday night? Gabe, are you sure you’re all right?”
“Tuesday, Reed, it’s Tuesday night.”
“Is it?” If it was Tuesday, that probably meant he’d been fired from his job at the big box hardware store. Whoopsie.
“I, uh, I really want you to come. Please?”
Reed looked down at the pastel sketch that was just not working out the way he could see it in his head. His concentration was shattered anyway. “Well, if it’s a party. Give me ten minutes to get cleaned up.”
They got into the old rustbucket jalopy that Gabe had borrowed from a friend and headed north-east on Highway 38. It didn’t take too long out of Kingston for the landscape to become pasture and scrub, with the occasional works yard or church complex lit up like Cape Canaveral.
Gabe seemed to be in a weird mood, not at all like someone looking forward to enjoying himself. Reed turned the radio on and scrolled through country-western and classic rock and static. The headlights illuminated two narrow lanes, until they took a turn-off and two became one, gravel gritting under their tires and the occasional stalk of dried goldenrod or milkweed angling out to scrape against the doors.
“How far out does your friend live?” Getting away from it all in an off-the-grid shack was more common among Gabe’s acquaintances than among the general population, but you didn’t have to be a long way away from the city to do that. A lot of farmland around here had gone back to forest and rock.
A few minutes later, they pulled into a driveway. The headlights skittered over No trespassing signs and crooked wrought iron gates. It took him a searing second to realize why they were familiar.
“Gabe, what the hell? Is this some kind of twist ending? Are you working with the producers? Are you the one who told them about my under-the-bed thing? Not cool, Gabe, that is not cool.”
Gabe pulled to the side of the driveway and parked. The headlights went out, leaving them in solid darkness. “Come on.”
The last time there had been spotlights, trailers, flashing arrows. The landscape in front of him was black. “Jeez, Gabe, this is really creeping me out.”
Gabe got out of the car and ducked so he could look at Reed through the open door. “It’s going to be okay, Reed. But you have to go back into the house.”
Crap. Reed wiped his hands on the thighs of his jeans. But that was what the show was about, really, wasn’t it–facing your fears? Forcing yourself to go farther and deeper, to pull more out of yourself than you ever thought you could?
He slid out of the car. Details were beginning to resolve themselves in the dark, overgrown trees against overcast sky.
The gate was fastened by heavy chains, but there was enough give that they could squeeze through the gap. Gravel crunched beneath their shoes. Ahead of them, the roofline of the house was all angles and points against the grey of the clouds. Reed searched for a clue–a lit window, a buzzing tangle of neon–but there was nothing.
He wasn’t sure how this was playing on the infrared cameras that were undoubtedly surrounding them. The show generally went big and loud with its scares. But his every nerve was wound up like a watch spring; all they had to do now was strike a match or creak open a door and he’d leap ten feet into the air.
The front door of the house had been held closed with a padlock. The clasp hung twisted from its hinges. Gabe rummaged in the day pack he’d slung over one shoulder, and took out a flashlight big enough to be used as a defensive weapon.
“At least this time they let us come prepared,” Reed said.
“Yeah.” Gabe nudged the door open with his foot and shone the light inside. “After you.”
They’d cleaned the house up. Gone were the family portraits, the splintered coffins and bones on the stairs. The walls had been stripped back to ragged wallpaper and disintegrating plaster. The floors were bare, stained with dark liquids and grainy with dried mud. Wires hung where there had been chandeliers of dead flowers.
The stark ruin and the smell of damp made Reed shiver. It had been so lively, once.
“There are some questions you have to answer,” Gabe said, pointing the flashlight down so they stood in an oasis of illumination.
“Fine.” Reed turned in a circle, finding no hints. The feeling of being watched crawled across the back of his neck. “Let’s do this.”
“Take me to the most important room in the house.”
“That’s easy,” Reed said, and led him up to the room where he’d found the last gem.
There was nothing in it, no bed, no wardrobe, save a forgotten roll of gaffer’s tape by the hearth. The flashlight turned the windows, denuded of curtains, lustrous and opaque.
“Why’s it important?”
Reed looked down at the spot where there had been a bed, once. A mattress soaked through with a dark, clotting stain.
“Close your eyes. Tell me what happened.”
“I was on the bed…”
He could hear Gabe moving around him. Paper being unfolded, then Gabe’s voice, over by the fireplace now, clumsily pronouncing a dead language. Something about peace; a command–to go? It had been a long time since high school Latin.
Reed opened his eyes and looked down. Around his feet was a granular white circle, the occasional crystal facet glinting as the wash of the flashlight, mostly trained on Gabe’s paper, wavered over it.
“I’m sorry, George.” Gabe’s voice was almost steady.
“George?” Reed said indignantly.
Gabe swallowed and continued the litany.
“You’ve got it wrong. Georgie was the one who did it to me,” Reed said.
Gabe fumbled the flashlight, and the circle of illumination swung wildly around the room. “What?”
“It seems someone told him about my obliging young man. I was being discreet. It wasn’t as though he didn’t have every willing boy in Kingston. Apparently what was sauce for the gander wasn’t sauce for the goose, alas.”
Gabe licked his lips. “What–what did he do?”
He couldn’t remember it, for which he was grateful, but he knew. “Oh, if he couldn’t have me, no one could, et cetera and so on. He had a knife. It was all rather unpleasant. Over quickly, though. I suppose that was a blessing.” Reed stepped over the perimeter of salt. “This has nothing to do with the show, does it?”
The paper rattled in Gabe’s hand. “D-don’t come any closer.”
“Oh, darling, what do you think I’m going to do to you? You’re my friend.”
Gabe’s hand flashed up. Moisture smacked Reed in the face and splatted down onto the grimy floor. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his jacket. “Was that–are you seriously throwing holy water at me? I thought you were an agnostic. Look, it’s getting late and I’m cold. Can we just go home?”
“Fight him, Reed,” Gabe said, teeth clenched. “If we work together, we can get you free.”
“Free? If this is what being possessed is like, dear boy, I don’t think I want to be free. I’m not saying it’s not weird, but when my best friend isn’t dragging me into abandoned houses under false pretenses, I feel great.”
Gabe dug into the pocket of his army surplus jacket and flung a handful of something in Reed’s face. Agony stabbed his left eye. Reed shouted and doubled over, clapping both hands over his eye socket.
“Oh, shit, are you okay?” Gabe asked.
Reed straightened, one hand still cupped over his streaming eye. “You hit my eyeball with a chunk of fucking rock salt, what do you think?”
“I’m sorry, I’ve never done this for real.”
“Maybe exorcism or whatever isn’t something you learn out of a bloody book!”
“Just give me a minute.” Gabe directed the light back to the paper and began to speed through mispronounced Latin. Reed looked back at where the bed had been. He was really looking forward to getting out of here. He’d dressed for a party, and November nights got cold fast. He could see frost forming on the floorboards–
The flashlight dimmed and went out.
Over the ringing in his ears, Reed could hear Gabe’s breathing, fast and harsh in the darkness. “Gabe? Did you do that on purpose?”
A loud, dull thud sounded above them, as if something heavy had dropped to the floor of the attic. Then a footstep. Another.
Cold dread clawed up Reed’s spine. “We have to get out of here.”
“I–I can’t see. The flashlight’s not working.”
Implacable footsteps reached the attic stairs.
Reed reached out for Gabe’s arm. Gabe flinched and recoiled. “Gabe, we need to go now.”
Gabe clutched at the sleeve of Reed’s jacket. “What’s the closest way out?”
“The way we came in. Down the hall, down the stairs, out the front door.” Reed shuffled forward in the impenetrable dark, Gabe trailing him, and groped through the bedroom doorway.
Behind them, at the end of the hallway, the door to the attic crashed open against the wall.
“Faster,” Reed gritted, terror sharp in his chest like a knife plunged through his heart. They stumbled towards the front of the house, the entry hall emerging dark grey on black in front of them.
The first step surprised him and he nearly pitched down the staircase, saving himself only with a flail and grab for the bannister, which swayed and creaked. The footfalls behind them seemed to echo through the floorboards.
Reed had no idea how he stayed on his feet. His knees were like water, the impact of every stair tread threatening to drop him. The front door was open, and he focused on that, the finish line, the sanctuary, get out of the house and Georgie couldn’t touch them–
Gabe tripped on the last step and hit the floor full-length with a force that belied his skinny frame. He gave a shocked grunt of pain, stunned.
Reed swiveled to help him, and froze.
It massed at the top of the stairs, a coal-black cloud against darkness, a seething raging thing that was no longer a man.
Gabe lurched to his knees. “Reed. Reed.” He yanked at the hem of Reed’s jacket. Reed jumped wildly. “Let’s go.”
Thrall broken, Reed got a hand under Gabe’s arm and hauled him up and forward. Gabe floundered to his feet, and together they stumbled down the hall and through the doorway. Adrenaline boosted them down the driveway. The hem of Reed’s jacket snagged on the gate as he scraped through, and he heard himself make a jagged sound of panic as he tore it free. They threw themselves into the car and slammed the doors behind them. The metallic clink as Gabe fumbled and dropped his keys nearly ended Reed. Finally the car rumbled to life, and Gabe peeled out of the driveway, weeds clutching at the sides of the car as he bolted away down the unpaved country sideroad.
They hadn’t reached the main road yet when Gabe slid into the wide entrance to another driveway and threw the car into park. He leaned his forehead against the top of the steering wheel, panting. “Oh my God. Oh my God. What was that?”
“Georgie, I think. George Lewin.” Reed took a deep breath. “What was left of him.”
“Holy shit.” Gabe slouched in his seat and stared into the night.
“Are you all right? You fell pretty hard.”
“I think I might have fucked up my wrist.” Gabe circled his left hand and winced.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, and then Gabe started the car up again and they headed towards the highway.
It wasn’t until they were well into in the city’s safely paved-over industrial outskirts that Gabe said, “If that was George Lewin, who are you?”
“Reed Dawkins, Gabe, it’s Reed.” After a moment he added, “And Archie Weeks.”
Gabe jerked so badly the car swerved.
“But it’s still me. Listen. You and I met in the laundry room when you told me about that one washer that works with only two quarters. Last summer we binge-watched that UFO documentary series on Netflix together. In March you slept on my couch while your apartment was being fumigated. I’m still me, and I’m fine. I told you, I feel good about this,” Reed said. “I think–I think I’m actually happy, Gabe.”
“Ah. So, uh.” Gabe wet his lips. “Who’s Archie Weeks?”
“Oh, no one of note, really. Kingston born and bred. My father was a banker. I was to be a banker too, until I fell in with some invert artists, who I am delighted to say were the ruin of me.”
They stopped for a red light, four lanes of night-time street stretching out around them in a sulphurous yellow glow.
“Reed, are you–are you really okay with this?”
“I really am.”
Gabe glanced over at him. “I know it was Amateur Night in there, and I’m sorry, I guess practical application isn’t really my forte, but I know where to find people who know how to do things right. If you ever change your mind–if Archie ever hurts you or gives you any trouble–just say the word.”
“That’s cool of you, Gabe, thanks. Though I must say, darling, that if you ever again promise me a party and give me something like that instead, we are going to have words.”
“And there is one thing I would like to ask your help with.”
“I think that house might need to be accidentally burned to the ground one of these days. Will you come with?”
Gabe rubbed his wrist. “No argument here. As long as it happens in broad daylight.”
The light switched to green. Reed stretched his arms out and rolled his tight shoulders. Just as it had the last time he’d escaped the house, a sense of elation was rising in him. Then, he’d had possibility in his pocket; this time, he was returning home to it. His creative work; a diverting new job; a second chance at the life that had been stolen from him, and all the pleasure he’d refused himself. Reed grinned at the strip malls and drive-thru restaurants spooling by. He had a future again. As Vic would say, it was going to be brilliant.