by Kim Chee (沈菜)
illustrated by keelain
1. ONCE UPON A TIME
October felt like it would never end. In the rainy late-afternoon haze, it was hard to distinguish the ponchos from the ghost costumes, the umbrellas from the vampire capes. Tom kept a firm grip on Howie’s sticky hand. Whenever they came across a wide puddle, he would give Howie arm a little tug, and Howie would float over the puddle before landing toes-first on his shiny new rain boots.
The usually peaceful bookstore was now jam-packed with adults and children alike in a flurry of colorful Halloween costumes. Near the main entrance, several young women wearing dresses made of realistic flowers giggled and took pictures of each other next to a poster on a wooden stand, until the security guard shooed them away to make room for more people.
Meet Brennan Stone, the poster read. Hear Brennan read his latest book and join us for an evening of fun and games—face-painting, Croon checkers, make your own pop-up page, and more! Don’t forget to buy a raffle ticket for a chance to win a giant stuffed Buttermumsy! All proceeds will be donated to our Free Books for Children Fund. There was a picture of a man with dark curly hair and clear blue eyes—a perfectly ordinary young man at first glance, handsome by most standards—but there was something atypical about his appearance. On a closer look, his whimsical smile seemed both impish and wise, and he could have been any age between twenty and forty years old.
There was a crowd at the back of the bookstore where the event was taking place, but the frosted glass doors were already closed. Howie’s hand squirmed in Tom’s grasp, but Tom gave him a stern look, refusing to let go.
“Please quiet down!” came the raspy voice of the bookstore employee, who sat upon a high stool next to the double doors. Tom recognized her as one of his previous students. “We are not letting any more people in. I’m sorry, that’s all the space we have.”
Some adults groaned and left. Others lingered near the room entrance to get a peek at what was going on side. Tom looked around, trying to find the easiest way through the crowd. To his surprise, he was one of the only adults there who had a small child with him, and certainly the only man among all the women. A few of them smiled at him and Howie while others just stared.
He knelt down beside Howie, shielding him from the flow of people. “It’s very crowded in there,” he said. “Do you still want to go in?”
Howie nodded, trying to shrug Tom’s hands off his shoulders.
“All right, then. Come on.” Tom picked him up by the waist and propped Howie in the crook of his arm, feeling a familiar pang of worry at how small and light Howie still was at his age. Howie kicked his legs in the air and pounded Tom on the chest with his little fists, but Tom pretended not to notice and continued to make his way toward the event entrance.
The bookstore employee looked up from her clipboard with an exasperated sigh. Then her eyes widened. “Professor Furst! Wow, I would never expect to see you here!”
“I didn’t expect to see you either,” said Tom, restraining Howie by the wrists with one hand. “Could you do us a favor? My son is a fan of Mr. Stone’s books. Is there any way you could let us in?”
“Oh, he’s so cute,” Jenny crooned, wiggling a finger at Howie, who scrunched up his nose and barred his teeth. “Here you go.” She opened one of the doors for them, and Tom slipped in with Howie in his arms.
The door closed silently behind them. They were inside.
At least two hundred people had been squeezed into the same room. Most of them were standing, although some were sitting in the few chairs that had been set up for the event. A group of children around Howie’s age caught Tom’s attention. They were all sitting on a large fuzzy rug in the center of the room.
“Why don’t you join the kids over there?” said Tom. He lowered Howie and released him, expecting Howie to slide off his arm, but Howie clung to Tom’s sleeves with both hands, lifting his legs so that his feet wouldn’t touch the floor.
“No,” he whimpered, climbing up Tom’s leg, digging with his boots and leaving streaks of mud on Tom’s pants. “No-o-o!”
“Shhh!” hissed a tall woman in front of them.
Howie shrank away from her, wrapping his skinny arms around Tom’s waist. It took all of Tom’s effort to hold back the wistful joy bubbling inside him as he picked Howie up again. “Don’t do this here,” he whispered through his teeth, “or we’re going home.”
When Howie settled down again, Tom swung him onto his shoulder so that the boy could look over all the heads at whatever was supposed to be so interesting.
That was when Tom first heard a voice—deep and powerful—in the middle of reading a passage from a story Tom had heard somewhere else before. A distant memory flashed in his mind: Howie curled up on a creamy leather couch next to an older bearded man, who held a giant pop-up book in his lap. The pop-up page featured an exquisitely-crafted paper castle, with what seemed like hundreds of see-through windows and tiny life-like figures, also made of paper. The man read the story in a quiet voice while Howie used his pinkie to jiggle one of the little people inside the castle.
Tom glanced up to see if Howie had felt him tremble, but Howie was looking straight ahead, his large gray eyes unmoving, focused on someone in the very back of the room whom Tom had failed to notice earlier.
The man speaking was the same man from the poster. Tom could catch a glimpse of his dark hair whenever the tall woman in front of him tilted her head to the right. After a while, he gave up trying to see and just listened, letting that warm rich voice lull him into a world of knights and castles and Buttermumsies.
– – –
After the reading was over, the doors opened up again and several large tables were brought out for different activities. All the youngest kids flocked over to the face-painting station, while another long line formed for those waiting to get a copy of their book signed.
Tom followed Howie over to the table which had a taped handwritten sign that said Make Your Own Pop-Up Page! A bored employee sat cupping her face in one hand, gazing at the people coming in and going out through the door. Two other girls, a few years older than Howie, also joined the table. They were already talking to each other in hushed voices, so Tom didn’t bother introducing Howie to them.
Some plastic scissors and pre-illustrated pages had been laid out on the table for anyone to take, and a handout provided simple diagrams for how to put the page together. “Do you want the Red Fortress, the Bee House, or the Buttermumsy?” said Tom, spreading the options in front of Howie.
Howie grabbed the sheet closest to him—the Bee House—and turned it over so that the blank side was facing him. Then he rummaged through the marker basket until he found a working black marker and began to draw. The two girls stopped talking to each other began to watch Howie draw with some interest.
“How old is he?” one of them asked Tom.
“He’ll be nine in December.”
“Oh. He draws really well.”
At this, Howie slid further away, shielding his drawing from view with his free hand.
Tom felt a surge of kindness toward these two girls. He talked to them for a while and asked where they went to school and what subjects they were interested in. A few minutes later, they explained that some friends were still waiting for them and left the table. After they were gone, Tom flipped over the half-colored page they left behind and kept himself busy by coming up with elaborate new problems for his astronomy course.
Several younger kids sat down where the girls had been sitting. The kids’ mothers kept smiling at Tom in that sort of way which suggested they were being a little too friendly, but Tom didn’t feel like speaking to them. He folded up the paper he was writing on and scooted closer to Howie so he might catch another glimpse of Howie’s drawing.
From the tiny crack between Howie’s face and his hand, Tom could see a dark shapeless creature with many arms—at least twenty arms—shaded to look as if they were protruding from the page. Each arm held something that looked suspiciously like bloody flesh to Tom. A few of the larger objects even had a sinewy texture, with shiny red beads hanging from their surface.
“Do you still want to get your book signed?” whispered Tom. He gave Howie shoulder a little shake, but Howie ignored him. “The line is gone.”
“That’s because I snuck over here,” said someone behind them.
Tom’s heart skipped a beat. He must have jumped too, because when he turned around, the man was laughing.
“Oh, Mr. Stone—”
“Brennan,” Tom repeated, shaking hands with the celebrity hovering over him. He couldn’t help but notice Brennan’s fingers, long and elegant, as if they were meant only for making the most intricate pieces of art.
“And you are…?”
“Can I sit with you?” asked Brennan, pulling out the empty chair next to Howie.
Tom thought the question was directed at him, but the two mothers sitting across from them answered enthusiastically and introduced themselves. He must have been wrong, since Brennan didn’t seem bothered at all by this and began to talk to the women. Tom turned his attention back to Howie, who was still drawing.
“It’s Brennan Stone, Howie. Don’t you want to meet him?”
Howie still didn’t respond, his face still half-hidden behind his hand.
“Look at me,” Tom muttered, trying to pry Howie’s hand from the paper. “You told me you wanted to meet Brennan Stone. Well, he’s right next to you.” He began to worry, hoping that Brennan wouldn’t leave before Howie got a chance to speak to him. But just as he was about to point out Howie to Brennan, Brennan excused himself from the ladies’ conversation.
“A heart-stealing monster,” said Brennan quietly, propping his chin in one hand as he watched Howie draw from the other side. “Interesting.”
“It’s going to steal your heart too,” said Howie, not looking up. “It’s doing that right now.”
Tom frowned, wondering how on earth Brennan could have known Howie’s creation was a heart-stealing monster, of all possible things.
“What’s its name?” asked Brennan.
“It doesn’t have one.”
“What’s your name?”
There was a long pause before Howie finally told him.
“I’m Brennan,” said Brennan, also after a pause.
“He loves your books,” Tom added on Howie’s behalf, hoping that Brennan wouldn’t think Howie was unimpressed. “We have all of them at home. I haven’t read them, but they’re beautiful.”
To Tom’s surprise, Brennan seemed genuinely pleased—even flustered—by Tom’s opinion of his books, although he must have heard the same praise more than a thousand times before. “Thank you,” he said. “That means a lot to me, especially coming from someone like you.”
Tom raised an eyebrow. “Someone like me?”
Brennan chewed his lip thoughtfully. “That wasn’t meant to suggest anything offensive. It’s just… I assume you don’t read fiction at all?”
The uncanny way Brennan had guessed such a specific fact about him made Tom both uneasy and giddy at once. He was like a fish on a hook, and Brennan’s pale blue gaze was the cord drawing him in. “No, I don’t.”
“Well, I’m flattered .” Brennan picked up his chair and moved it behind Howie, so that he was closer to Tom. “So are you a professor?”
“Yes,” said Tom. This time, he was not surprised at all that Brennan knew: there were three universities in town and chances were that if you dressed like an academic, you probably were one. He excused himself and rummaged through the files in his briefcase, finally pulling out a thick colorful book.
“You want me to sign that?”
Tom glanced at Howie, who still didn’t look up. “Please.” Then in a lower voice, he added, “Make it for Howie, obviously.”
Brennan grinned and pulled out a Sharpie from his breast pocket. “Is Howie an only child?” he asked.
He was writing a longer message than usual. Tom caught the words drawing and talented. “Yes,” he said as Brennan closed the book and handed it back to him, thinking that Brennan might leave now and Howie would be satisfied enough with his generous dedication.
But Brennan wasn’t about to go anywhere. “Just out of curiosity, where’s Howie’s mother?”
Tom took a deep breath and clenched his teeth, struggling to come up with an appropriate answer without having to lie. He began stuffing the signed book back into his briefcase.
“I’m adopted,” said Howie unexpectedly. “I don’t have a mother.” He held up his finished drawing—a skillful illustration of his nightmare vision—showing it to Brennan. “Look, that’s your heart,” he said, pointing to one of the flesh-like chunks. “And this one is Theo’s. And that’s Sammy’s and Kyle’s and Mandy’s and Mrs. Jackson’s…”
Everyone around them had their eyes on Howie and his gory drawing. A few mothers even shook their heads and led their kids away.
“…Sarah’s and Yasha’s and Ashley’s—”
“You’re very lucky to have a dad like yours,” Brennan interrupted, perhaps to amend the situation.
“Tom’s not my dad,” said Howie. “Theo’s my dad.”
“Is Theo a friend?” asked Brennan, turning to Tom.
“It’s… hard to explain,” said Tom, looking past Brennan so that he could avoid Brennan’s eyes. He placed a hand on Howie’s shoulder. “It’s time to go, Howie. Come on.”
Howie looked at Brennan, then at Tom. Then he lowered his head, and slipped his hand into Tom’s grasp, following him to the exit.
“You forgot your drawing!” Brennan called, picking it up.
Howie didn’t go back for it. People gave them funny looks as they left, but Tom pretended not to notice. Only when they were outside the bookstore did Tom loosen his grip on Howie’s hand. He took his umbrella out of his bag and popped it open, tucked in Howie’s sweater for him, and headed for the parking lot.
“Theo,” murmured Howie, his head still lowered. He was shaking, despite the warmth of his sweater. “Theo. Theotheotheo—Ow!”
Howie had perhaps been expecting Tom to squeeze his arm, but Tom only grabbed him lightly. He gave Howie another pull and felt a little better as he watched Howie soar over a particularly deep puddle on the sidewalk. That was when he realized someone was following them. He had a feeling he knew who it was, but didn’t bother turning around to check. The idea that Brennan would follow them out of a store full of adoring fans right in the middle of an event was preposterous.
“Tom, wait.” Strangely enough, it was Brennan, wearing a blue windbreaker, soaking wet and out of breath.
Tom waited. He tightened his hold on Howie’s arm, looking down to make sure Howie was all right, but he couldn’t read Howie’s expression.
Brennan reached into his coat and pulled out a roll of paper, which he handed to Howie under the umbrella. “Your drawing. It’s breathtaking.”
There was also something breathtaking about the way Brennan was kneeling in front of Howie. Tom could see how the droplets of rainwater left thin trails down the sides of Brennan’s face, where a five o’clock shadow was barely visible, and the way a few stray curls of his dark hair stuck to his forehead as if they were drawn in ink. Some of the droplets came to a rest on his thickly-curved eyelashes before falling to the ground.
“Say ‘thank you,’ Howie,” Tom chided, giving Howie a nudge.
Howie crumpled up the roll of paper and slipped it into his pocket. Brennan stood and frowned, shutting his mouth as soon as he opened it, as if searching for the right words. He was a couple of inches taller than Tom and a lot more famous, but for some reason, Tom was not intimidated by him. Perhaps it was Brennan’s awkward lack of discretion, or the inappropriateness of his presence at the moment, which put them on equal grounds.
“Tom, I know this might sound weird,” Brennan began, “but I’d like to offer Howie a chance to collaborate with me. I’m starting a new project this year, and his monster is just the kind of character I was looking for.”
“Oh.” Tom gripped Howie a little harder. “Wow.”
“Of course, we can talk about how he’ll be compensated and credited for his idea. He could even be my co-author or artist.”
Before Tom let himself get carried away by the idea, he searched Brennan’s expression for any sign that this was a joke, but Brennan’s sharp gaze remained unwavering. Whether or not the offer was sincere, Brennan still had him trapped—he had no good reason to believe Brennan was lying, or refuse such an amazing opportunity for Howie.
“Howie, what do you say to that?”
At first, Howie didn’t respond. Then he drew out the crumpled drawing from his pocket. The cheap marker ink was already running, turning the dark monster into blots of little rainbows, but he smoothed out the paper anyway and held it out to Brennan. “Can you make it real?” he whispered, watching Brennan with large anxious eyes.
Brennan nodded solemnly. “Yes, and I’ll show you how.”
Twice a week, on Friday and Sunday afternoons, Brennan Stone visited their house to work with Howie on his new book. Those were the only afternoons Tom could be home. In the past few months, he spent those afternoons trying to get Howie to tell him about his friends and schoolwork, following the advice of his many parenting and self-help books. But now he just graded problem sets in his study while occasionally eavesdropping on Howie and Brennan’s progress, justifying his disgraceful actions in his head with silly reasons. He could never hear much of what was going on anyway, although he suspected—with a grateful and somewhat jealous sense of relief—that Brennan was giving Howie unofficial art lessons on top of their big project.
Where Brennan himself lived remained a mystery, although Tom never asked him. He kept a safe distance from Brennan, rarely answering his questions with more than few words at once, despite Brennan’s almost nervous enthusiasm whenever Tom was around. The main reason they didn’t see much of each other, however, was that Howie spoke openly to Brennan while Tom was out of sight, but refused to talk while Tom was in the same room.
“I have to be honest with you, Tom,” his friend and colleague from the astronomy department, Jeff, said to him one day while they were having lunch in Jeff’s office. “You look awful these days. Brighten up, or at least make an effort to look a little happier.”
That was a hint that Tom’s tenure review decision was coming up in the spring.
“Thank you for pointing out the obvious,” Tom snapped, packing up his half-eaten lunch for later. He had lost fifteen pounds in the last two years and food continued to taste like chalk in his mouth. “You think I’m not trying?”
Jeff shrugged. “You should go out and have fun—be young and carefree like any normal person your age.”
“Since when are people my age young and carefree? I have my career to worry about, not to mention my own son hates me.”
“Howie doesn’t hate you. He’s just stubborn and reserved, kind of like you.”
“He’s not autistic. I’m sure of it.”
“I didn’t say he was.” Jeff paused. “Have you bought him a computer yet?”
“No. He’s eight years old. He’ll just get addicted to the internet.”
“See, this is your problem,” said Jeff, scratching his gray beard. “You need to get that boy something awesome, and I don’t mean more books. If he doesn’t like planets and stars, stop forcing it on him. Some boys like sharks instead, or dinosaurs. Or cute flower-loving monsters, whatever that new book series is about. What’s the artist’s name? Brendan Stone, or something? Anyway, they just made a new video game out of his books. My grandkids are nuts about it.”
Tom tried to smile. “That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to tell you some good news.” He paused, regretting his words the moment they left his lips, but it was too late to take them back. “So actually, on Halloween, I ended up taking Howie to Brennan Stone’s book-signing event.”
“You met him?”
“No, even better,” said Tom with a sinking heart, hating himself for not being more excited about this. “He liked Howie’s drawing so much that he asked Howie to collaborate with him on his next project.”
Jeff’s mouth fell open in the middle of a bite and he lowered his sandwich, gaping at Tom. “You’ve been hiding this from me for almost a month.” It wasn’t a question. “Get out of my office. We’re not friends anymore.”
Tom raised an eyebrow. “That’s a joke, right?”
“Yes, but you still need to get out. I have three more exams to grade and I promised I’d give them all back this afternoon and the last thing I need is to be distracted by your incredible story, which I’ll hear from you later anyway and decide if I think it’s true. Now scram.”
– – –
For Howie’s ninth birthday in early December, the first birthday Howie would be spending in his new home, Tom decided to take Jeff’s advice and buy him a computer. As usual, he left for work that morning before Howie woke up. But on that same afternoon, Tom drove to Howie’s school before the bus came to pick up Howie from his afterschool. He caught Howie’s attention at the door of his chess class, but Howie only frowned and turned back to the board. Tom watched him deliberate on his next move for about a minute before he remembered that some kids found it embarrassing when their parents showed up in front of their friends, so he tiptoed away and waited for Howie in the school lobby instead.
While he waited, he kept going over what he wanted to say when Howie came out. He might have said: Today is a special day; or: Do you remember what day it is?
But when Howie came out with the rest of the kids and Tom tried to say what he repeated a hundred times to himself in his head, the words stuck to his throat like little grains of sand.
“Hi,” said Howie. He didn’t seem that surprised to see Tom.
“Hey.” Tom took his hand and led him to the car.
They drove home in silence. Tom decided he would avoid scolding Howie today for putting his feet up on the car seat, but for the first time, Howie sat with both feet planted on the floor for the entire trip. Once they got home, Tom went into the closet and brought out the package he had wrapped two days earlier and a handwritten card covered in fuzzy monster stickers.
Howie gave the package a sideways glance. “Do I have to open it now?”
Tom pursed his lips. “Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”
“Well, all right,” said Tom with some difficulty. His vision blurred, even though Howie wasn’t moving at all. “You can open it later.”
Tom watched as Howie scampered into his room without his present, closing the door behind him. He stood in the living room for a long time and stared at Howie’s door. Then he felt his knees grow weak and lowered himself onto the carpet, sitting on his own legs, wishing he could curl up into a ball in that same spot. But as soon as he realized Howie might come out at any moment and see him like this, he got up, went to his own room, and locked the door.
He was supposed to finish writing the final exam for his introductory astronomy class that afternoon. Instead, he took off all his clothes, sat down on the bed, and began to bundle up the comforter, taking particular care to fluff out the middle, even laying a kiss there at one point. It didn’t matter how childish and illogical his behavior was—he needed this too much. When he was satisfied with the shape of the comforter, he sank into its plushy folds, hugging it tightly and closing his eyes.
The comforter was warm and soft and enveloped him like a pair of loving arms.
“I miss you,” he murmured, pressing his lips to his pillow. His cheeks were wet but he didn’t bother wiping them. Something else felt wet too and he sighed, sliding a hand between himself and the comforter.
When he awoke, it was already past dinnertime. He threw his clothes back on and hurried to the kitchen to make potatoes and cauliflower, but found the peanut butter and jelly already sitting next to an empty plate with bread crumbs on the table. One of the tall stools had been moved below the open countertop cabinet.
Tom checked to see if Howie had opened his present, but the package remained untouched on the couch.
“Howie?” he called, tapping Howie’s door. When Howie didn’t respond, he tried the knob and found it locked. “Come out, Howie. Do you still want dinner?”
Still no answer.
“Have you finished your homework yet?” Tom knocked again, pressing his ear against the door and cursing himself for not taking out the lock on Howie’s door earlier. It was too late now—taking it out would only make Howie hate him more. “Come out and show me your homework.”
A disturbing idea came to him and he got on his hands and knees and peeked under the door. Howie was standing only a few inches away. Tom could even see his toes wiggling inside his socks. Up and down, up and down.
Tom held his breath, rising slowly so that Howie wouldn’t hear him and realize what he was doing. He made his way over to the table and sat down. How could anyone love a man who spied on his son, who forgot to make dinner because he had fallen asleep after masturbating in his room? No wonder Howie hated him.
The long bread knife on the empty plate caught Tom’s attention and he watched it gleam next to a twitchy tendon in his wrist. He put the two jars back in the jar cabinet, where everything was stored in an apparently random but actually complex system, according to usage frequency and ingredients. Then he washed the dish and knife and squeezed all of the soap out of the sponge before putting it back in its holder, wondering if this was how people ended up going crazy.
He knew it was immature and unreasonable, but Tom couldn’t help thinking that Brennan was stealing Howie from him, even though Tom had never managed to become close with Howie in the first place. Brennan was just a more lovable guy—artistic and gentle and easygoing—whereas Tom had always been morose and withdrawn, no matter how hard he tried to act otherwise. Not to mention, Brennan gave millions of dollars to children’s charities and attended fundraising events when he wasn’t working. He was already rich and famous—why did he have to go and be extra nice to everyone too? Whenever Tom saw Brennan with Howie, he could never completely suppress his resentment, and the satisfaction of knowing that his cool indifference toward Brennan made the young artist uncomfortable around him.
Brennan came as usual the following Friday afternoon, wearing an plaid button-down shirt and carrying his toolbox, and as usual, Tom made him and Howie some hot cocoa and headed for his study to work on a poster presentation with a January deadline. Howie’s unopened birthday gift now sat on the floor next to the foot of Tom’s desk, waiting to be returned, but Tom tried not to think about it. For one peaceful hour, he edited the PowerPoint, feeling rather pleased with himself for not having the urge to eavesdrop at all in the past two weeks, until he heard a haunting and bittersweet song drift in from the piano in the living room.
Tom opened the door a crack, letting the familiar tune cover him like a warm blanket. The first time he heard the same song had also been close to Christmas, a few years ago, long before Howie came to live in this very house. The electricity had gone out from an earlier storm, so he lit candles in the dark and found some thick woolen blankets that had been kept in storage boxes since the late fifties, almost fifteen years before Tom was even born. Tom could still remember how he had stripped naked that evening and straddled that warm inviting lap, sandwiched between the piano and the only man he ever trusted, rubbing, kissing, pulling the musty blankets around them both and falling asleep to that tune. It would start, then stop, then start again; and each time, it grew a little longer, until it became a song.
But now something was off, as if the blankets were made of nylon instead of wool.
When Tom stepped into the living room, Howie was lying on his stomach on the couch with a pencil in hand, his nose inches away from the drawing pad. He didn’t look up as Tom walked past him, but shielded the page as usual.
“So you found some music,” said Tom, leaning on the wall next to Brennan, where he used to stand all the time. He fixed his eyes on the music sheets—which had previously been hidden in a shallow compartment inside the piano bench—and pretended not to notice as Howie’s head jerked up when he spoke.
“Not really,” said Brennan. He smiled and lifted his hand from the keys. Tom almost expected the music to continue on its own, but the house became silent as the last note slipped through Brennan’s fingers. “I used to play when I was younger. Do you mind? It’s a beautiful song.”
Tom shrugged. “Isn’t it?”
“Where is it from?” Brennan touched the upper right corner of the page, where someone had written in elegant cursive letters:
For Thomas J. Furst, the love of my life. I finally found you.
When Tom didn’t answer, Brennan sighed. His hand dropped back into his lap. “Did Theo write it?” he whispered.
“I don’t recall mentioning him to you,” said Tom coldly. He glanced at Howie, who appeared not to have heard. He knew it was wrong to snap at Brennan in front of Howie, but he didn’t care at the moment, especially since he was already angry at Howie for telling Brennan something Brennan had no business knowing. Besides, there had been no reason for Brennan to lay his hands on the piano in the first place, except to show off. Tom still could not get over how strange and wrong it was to see an attractive young man sitting in the pianist seat.
Brennan gave Tom a long hard look, as if he were going to respond. Instead, he got up from the piano bench, and joined Howie on the couch. They sat very close together. Tom touched his own thigh, where Brennan’s leg was in contact with Howie’s. Then he strode past them and locked himself in his study, even though he knew neither of them would have wanted to go in.
He spent most of the day after Christmas drunk, passed out on Jeff’s couch while Jeff’s wife went out for an entire day of after-Christmas shopping. Howie had gone out with Brennan earlier to meet his editor and Tom decided not to tag along despite Brennan’s insistence because he was certain Howie still wouldn’t talk if he was there, and he doubted Howie would miss his presence at all.
“You are an awful human being.” Jeff handed Tom another glass of whiskey just as he was beginning to sober up again. He had just asked Brennan over the phone, at Tom’s request, to keep Howie entertained for another few hours. “Although thanks to you, now I can tell everyone I spoke to Brennan Stone on the phone while I was drunk. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Tom was still stargazing in Jeff’s backyard, lounging on the cheap sun chair despite the below-freezing temperatures and the sheet of melting ice under his butt.
“Anyway,” said Jeff, “I brought some fireworks.” He speared a few rockets into the hardened snow and sat down on the edge of the sun chair.
“Great.” Tom slammed his glass down on the plastic cocktail table so that some warm whiskey splashed onto his stiff fingers. He stared as the fireworks showered and fell behind some bare trees, covering the sky with a flashy display of colors and shielding the stars from view. The crackle woke him up a little and he rubbed his forehead. “What time is it?”
“Already?” said Tom, but made no move to get up. “You’re right. I’m an awful human being.”
“You should see yourself right now.”
Tom sighed, watching the smoke in the sky clear away. “You know, Jeff, he died because of me. He was looking forward to a nice peaceful retirement, and then I came along.”
“You know that’s not true. He loved you to death.”
“That’s what I just said.”
“Oh, that’s not what I—” Jeff laughed, shaking his head. “You know, maybe you did kill him. I should kill you for that, you little bastard.”
Tom tried to sit up, but ended up just rolling over and plopping into the snow. Some snow got under his glasses and he tried to rub it off, but the week-old ice cut into his skin. His nose and fingers were cold and stiff and itchy and all he could think of was that big and warm body, those large hands cupping his face, drying his cheeks.
Instead, a pair of awkward bony arms lifted him out of the puddle he had just made by his armpits. “Get up, you oaf. Stop scratching your face like that—you’re bleeding. Emma is going to come home any minute now and find us out here like this, and she’s not going to be nice about it.”
“I fucked up,” Tom murmured, once he found himself back in the chair. “None of this ever would have happened if I hadn’t insisted, if I had just focused on my career like I always thought I would.”
“Look, you fell in love,” said Jeff, patting Tom’s face with an old crumpled napkin he found in his pocket. “It happens to most people at some point, even heartless assholes like you. Stop beating yourself up over it. Besides, you can’t control everything. That’s your problem, Tom—you think everything can be helped. Just take it easy, all right? If it makes you feel any better, you’re gonna get tenured.”
Jeff rolled his eyes. “Not supposed to tell you that. Now come on, let’s go inside before you freeze to death.” He threw Tom’s arm around his shoulder and dragged him back into the house. Then he dropped Tom in a chair and propped him against the dining table before heading into the kitchen.
Tom awoke to a splash of boiling hot water against his lower lip. It dribbled down his chin and he wiped it away with his sleeve, lifting his face from the table. “He likes me,” he said out of the blue, realizing that he had been thinking of Brennan since Jeff brought him inside from the cold. “Why does he like me?”
“Who likes you?”
“Brennan Stone. Or maybe he hates me. I don’t know—I just have this feeling. I said feeling, haha.”
Jeff laughed too, tipping the mug so that Tom could get another sip. “You are really drunk. Completely drunk.”
“He knitted matching scarves for me and Howie.”
“And he’s always wants to talk to me. Alone. But I won’t let him.”
“Why the hell not?”
Jeff set the mug down on the table, cupping his chin with one hand. “You know, he would have cheated on you with Brennan Stone any day, or else I would’ve made him do it. Not that Brennan Stone would find him even half as attractive as you.”
Tom wanted to lift an eyebrow, but he was too drunk and tired. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would. He’s famous, for fuck’s sake. Even as a straight man, I would cheat on my own wife just to say I had sex with someone like Brennan Stone, even though I’ve never read a single book of his, and I’m sure my family would eventually forgive me.”
“I’d never forgive you,” said Tom, although he had no idea what he was talking about.
Jeff shrugged. “Well, your loss.”
Spring came and Tom found himself swarmed with new courses and papers and interviews. Especially the interviews, where he had to act like a perfectly mature and intelligent adult, while smiling like an idiot and pretending to like the interviewer. Within a one-month period, he had already met with the chair of the physics department, the two leaders of the science board, and five members of the tenure committee—including the president of the institute, plus the entire committee all at once—who grilled him about his research, his teaching methods, new additions to his resume, and even his personal life. For each hour he spoke to someone, he needed at least a few days to completely recover the lost energy.
But he was glad for it. It took his mind off other things.
And fortunately, it seemed as if everyone else in his life had finally taken pity on him. His regular students stopped arguing with him about their grades and the research students brought him hot tea every day and frequented the observatory—now to collect and analyze data rather than take a nap on the library couch. Jeff would go out by himself and bring back lunch for the both of them, and the two other old tenured professors, usually bookish and aloof toward everyone they passed, gave Tom an occasional smile and a word of greeting.
Even Howie was speaking to him more often and did his homework without being told. At one point, he asked Tom about a problem on his math homework, and Tom became so excited that he had to ask Howie to repeat the question.
One afternoon, Tom came home a bit late and found Brennan and Howie already at work, putting together a paper model of Howie’s monster on the living room table, with hundreds of tangled legs and arms. It was a frightening and exquisite creation, although the fleshy hearts that hung from the arms of the original monster had been modified to look like symbolic heart shapes, and the thin red strings coming out of them had been arranged in a pattern that was synthetic and organic at once.
“That’s beautiful—” Tom started to say, but he was afraid to ruin the moment. Brennan, however, already noticed him coming in and stepped aside so Tom could get a better look. Up close, Tom could see that the arms were crafted from many layers of black paper in the base that had been carved into thin spiraling curls and folded up to create the three-dimensional monster. It really was beautiful, in a solitary and sinister kind of way. Tom could almost see its arms growing, expanding outward until they filled the entire room with inky darkness. “What is it?”
When Howie didn’t respond, Brennan bent over and whispered something in his ear.
“It’s not done yet,” murmured Howie, as if to himself. He continued to cut out little red heart shapes from the glossy card stock. “It steals people’s hearts and collects them because it doesn’t have one, but it can never have enough to fill the emptiness inside.”
“It was all Howie’s idea,” said Brennan.
Tom didn’t hear. He was still feeling the effect of Howie’s words to him. Or at least he wanted to believe that they were spoken to him in particular.
Brennan smiled, as though he understood Tom’s temporary daze. “Anyway, Howie wanted some hot cocoa and I tried to make it for him, but he won’t drink mine. He says you make it better.”
Tom looked from Howie to Brennan, then back to Howie. “I-I’ll go make some now,” he croaked, and headed for the kitchen, still wearing his shoes and carrying his briefcase.
While the cocoa simmered on the stove, Tom walked over to the window near the dining table and adjusted the blinds to let in more light. He opened the window a crack for some fresh air, then sat down and closed his eyes, playing Brennan’s words over and over in his head until he became unsure if he had heard them correctly.
When he came back out with the hot cocoa, both Howie and Brennan were grinning at him.
“Does someone want to clue me in?” asked Tom, unable to hold back a smile as he handed them each a mug. “What’s going on?”
“So we have a request,” said Brennan, casting a sideways glance at Howie. “Do you have some free time right now?”
“It depends, I guess.”
Howie’s grin grew wider. “We need you to model a character!” he blurted out.
Tom found himself speechless for the third time in a single afternoon. “I-I don’t know what to say. Sure, yes, of course. What do I need to do?”
“Well,” said Brennan, his eyes glinting, “we picked out a costume and some props for you to use.” He lowered his mug and drew out from a large travel bag on the floor a sword attached to a wide leather belt and several articles of clothing.
“Is that chain mail?” Tom hesitated, but one look at Howie’s delighted expression and his mind was set.
“Yes. And be careful. That’s a real sword.”
The sword felt heavy and awkward in Tom’s hand, and he managed to catch it by the belt just before he could drop it on his own foot. It was still in its elaborately-woven leather scabbard, but just the weight alone would have been enough to crack a few bones. He shook his head, chuckling to himself and wondering where on earth Brennan could have gotten chain mail and a sword. Then again, thought Tom, if you’re Brennan Stone, you could probably get away with anything.
Minutes later, Tom found himself in his bedroom, wearing an outfit that made him look like a character straight out of a fantasy movie. The embroidered maroon vest was made of luxurious silk and the snug tights were surprisingly comfortable—a contrast to the bulky chain mail, which seemed to serve no purpose except to weigh down his shoulders. He examined himself and lifted an eyebrow, then watched as the bespectacled man in the dresser mirror laughed at his own attempt to appear like a dashing prince.
As he came back out, Howie saw him first and smiled, almost shyly, and tugged on Brennan’s sleeve.
“Should I take off my glasses?” asked Tom.
Brennan’s mouth fell open a little when he saw Tom. “Um… no. You can leave them on.”
He had Tom stand relaxed for a while as he taught Howie how to make a quick ‘gesture drawing’ of a figure, then asked Tom to strike a few random five-minute poses so Howie could get used to the way fabric conformed to the body. Tom licked his lips and kept his eyes on random objects in the room—the piano, a lamp, a sock—in order to avoid having to look at Brennan or Howie as they observed him in various positions. Not looking at them made it easier for him to keep completely still and not worry about whether his arm was too low or his knee was too bent, and he made it his goal for the afternoon to be the best statue he could be.
“And now,” said Brennan, once Howie finished sketching the last pose, “you’re a handsome and courageous prince. Can you take the sword off your belt?”
Tom fumbled with the clasp, feeling no closer to being a prince than when he first tried on the outfit.
“Hold it up against the floor and just lean on it lightly—yes, like that—and puff out your chest a little more.”
“Now you’re just slouching,” said Brennan. It was impossible to tell if his frown was serious or not. “Come on, look manlier. Grrr!”
Howie shook with laughter, clutching his sides. For some reason, seeing Howie this way gave Tom the sudden urge to also collapse onto the floor laughing; but he didn’t want to disappoint anyone, so he remained in his spot, puffing out his chest as told. “I feel silly.”
“You’re a courageous prince. Courageous princes don’t feel silly.”
“Well, this one does.”
For the next twenty minutes, he stood in the same position until his back and shoulders started to ache from the chain mail and yet he continued to stand, wishing Howie would tilt his drawing pad just a bit so Tom could see what he was working on. Howie’s previous ink drawings of Tom were scattered all over the room for Tom to admire—Brennan had literally snatched them out of Howie’s hands one-by-one after each quick pose and tossed them onto the floor so Howie wouldn’t fixate on the little details—like teasing glimpses into the larger maze of Howie’s mind. Tom noticed with a warm tingle in his stomach that there was something bold and poetic about Howie’s drawings, which Howie usually managed to hide from his prying eyes.
At some point, Brennan told him, “You can move around now,” and Tom relaxed but didn’t move much. He wanted to keep posing forever, waiting for Howie to look in his direction one more time so he could strike the same pose again. But Howie only continued to color with a purple pencil as Brennan pointed to various areas of the drawing. Tom counted to thirty in his head, then continued until he reached sixty, remaining in place with his hands tucked under his arms.
“Can I see it?” he finally asked.
Howie appeared to have not heard him, but as soon as Tom took a step in his direction, he clutched the drawing pad to his chest and stared at his lap.
Tom sucked in his breath and tried to shrug, but it was too late—Brennan already saw him flinch, and Howie still wasn’t looking at him.
Brennan gave Howie’s shoulder a squeeze. I’m sorry, he mouthed to Tom.
But Tom didn’t care. All he saw was how Howie didn’t jerk away at Brennan’s touch, how he had actually leaned closer to Brennan. Then he looked away and went into his room, shut the door, and tried take off the ridiculous outfit. His hands shook as he fumbled with the belt and he struggled to regain control over them. He balled his hands into fists, clawing at his own palms, and he had the sudden desire to physically tear something out. Anything. It was the strangest urge, but it passed—fleeting, dreamlike. He rushed over to his mirror and touched his own face. It was still him; he was still awake.
He managed to remove the belt and maroon vest and flung them across the room. The sword hit the corner of his dresser with a thump and clattered to the floor. A few inches slid out of the scabbard, revealing part of the blade.
Someone knocked. “Tom?”
“Wait,” called Tom. He sheathed up the sword, made sure the scabbard was undamaged, and propped it against the wall. Then he threw the chain mail over his head, yanked off the shoes and tights, and began to calmly put on the clothes he had been wearing earlier.
When Tom unlocked the door, Brennan’s gaze first fell upon the sword by the dresser, then the other costume pieces on the floor. “Can I talk to you?” He slipped inside before Tom could answer and closed the door.
“What’s Howie doing?”
“He’s still drawing,” said Brennan. He spoke faster than usual. “He really admires you, even if it isn’t obvious to you. I just thought you should know that.”
“It’s all right. I don’t need you to tell me that to make me feel better.”
Brennan frowned. “I’m not trying to. Howie’s a great kid. He’s smart, intuitive, emotional… One day, he’ll realize how much you love him. And how much he loves you. You just need to be a little more open with him.”
For some reason, Brennan’s pale solemn eyes reminded Tom of twilight, of being enchanted as a child by the spinning of the earth, of waiting for the sun to disappear. “More open?” he repeated softly. “Do you have children?”
“I’ve been trying to adopt,” said Brennan with a shrug. “It’s hard as a single man. I’m… also gay. You probably already knew that.”
“Well, you’re pretty famous,” said Tom, wishing Brennan would leave. “I’m sure you can find someone.”
“Actually—” Brennan winced and folded his beautiful hands. “—my partner and I split up two years ago. He didn’t want kids and he didn’t like that I was famous, since he always wanted a cozy and private relationship. We had been together since the beginning of high school, so I couldn’t really imagine being with anyone else.”
What’s your point? Tom wanted to say, but he held it back. It occurred to him that Brennan just wanted to talk to someone who could relate to his loss, but Tom was feeling far from sympathetic at the moment. Brennan’s self-pity actually bothered him. It was like the finishing touch to his perfection: a handsome successful writer, gentle and compassionate, with a tragic past.
Brennan bit his lip and looked away. “Then I met you and Howie and—I don’t know. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m attracted to you, and that gives me hope, even though I know you don’t feel the same way about me. Your loss was more recent and much worse than mine, but I feel like you should be hopeful too. I’m almost certain things will get better for you. Howie is such a sweet and talented kid, and you’re so lucky to have him.”
Tom did not respond. Of course, he was lucky to have Howie—he wasn’t sure why Brennan was telling him that. At this point, he guessed he was supposed to be touched by Brennan’s simple confession, but he felt even more annoyed; he didn’t understand why Brennan couldn’t have revealed his feelings some other way. Maybe with a pop-up illustration or a little fairytale—something less direct that Tom could laugh off easily.
“Tom? I probably shouldn’t have told you that, but I’m not sorry that I did. You must be thinking, ‘Who the hell does this guy think he is?’ Well, I’m not trying to be anyone special. I just… wish I could help.”
It was so ironic to hear Brennan say he wasn’t trying to be anyone special that Tom almost laughed out loud. “You can’t,” he said, although he wasn’t sure what possessed him to say it. The sound of his own voice made his blood run cold.
For a moment, Brennan seemed taken aback. Then his expression softened. “I know,” he said, laying a gentle hand on Tom’s shoulder before leaving the room.
Tom began to have nightmares. He never used to dream—or if he did, he hadn’t been aware of it—but now whenever he closed his eyes, he was pulling on a red rope that continued into infinity. Sometimes it stretched or resisted, sometimes long segments shot toward him with a light tug and clustered around his feet; sometimes it cut into his skin like tweed and sometimes it left slippery threads between his fingers. In each dream, he would also be in a different location at a different time of day, but he was always alone.
During the day, he had other things to worry about, like writing and grading problem sets and exams, squeezing in another potential publication before April, and making sure Howie would pass fourth grade. So when Jeff invited Howie to his granddaughter’s birthday party, Tom was reluctant.
“It’s on a Friday afternoon,” Jeff insisted. “And since when did you care if he doesn’t want to be somewhere? Make him go. It will be good for both kids—you know, learning to sort out differences. Besides, the boy can’t possibly be doing homework on a Friday afternoon.”
No, he couldn’t. That was when Howie had to work on his book with Brennan.
“I’ll see if I can convince him,” said Tom.
Jeff sighed. “Tom, there are things in this world you can’t control, and things you can. You can make your son go to a birthday party and let him thank you later. Mandy’s a great girl. I’m sure they’ll become friends pretty quickly, once Howie warms up to her.”
Of course, Jeff would blame it on Howie. Because Mandy was the perfect little girl everyone adored. Tom knew Jeff was just bitter that Howie was the first kid to not want to be her best friend. She, in turn, would turn up her nose whenever she was forced to play with him. Tom expected it might be different now, since she found out from Jeff and his big mouth that Howie was working on a book with Brennan Stone.
“Speaking of things you can’t control, you tenure review decision comes in this Friday,” Jeff reminded Tom. “Whatever happens, I want you to stay calm, okay? I’m really hoping you’ll come through.”
Tom frowned. “I thought you knew the decision already.”
“I do?” said Jeff. He appeared genuinely baffled. “What did I say?”
“The day after Christmas, I was at your house—Never mind.” Tom shook his head and rubbed his eyes with one hand, squeezing his eyes shut so that everything turned red. “I was drunk and upset. Maybe I dreamt it.”
“You probably did. And I was drunk too; I could’ve said anything.”
“Right.” Tom stood, setting his briefcase on the chair and leaning against it. “I’ll bring Howie on Friday. Four o’clock? Where’s the party?”
Jeff looked up in surprise. “Oh, you don’t have to come. My daughter can stop by Howie’s school on the way to pick up the other kids. And I suspect you’ll be, you know… busy.”
Tom could have sworn he saw Jeff wink.
– – –
On Friday afternoon, he stepped out of his office to admire the decorations one last time. By Monday, the streamers and balloons would be gone, taken down by the janitor to allow students to pass. But the print-outs and construction paper letters would remain on his door for the rest of the semester, including the sign above the door that said Congratulations, Tom! The word Tom had been filled in with large scandalous flecks of rainbow glitter that would inevitably shower on whoever opened the door. Below that, every inch of the door was covered in embarrassing cell phone photos of Tom’s gestures and facial expressions during lecture, some of his quotes made to sound really vicious or perverted when taken out of context, and cartoons of his antics (with particular attention to eyebrow-raising).
There was only a handful of people walking around in the main research building when Tom went to pick up his mail. Most of them had gone home to their families, were already on their way to town to party away the entire night, or still in lab. Two biology professors who had just returned from a trip to the vending machines congratulated Tom with grimy handshakes as he passed their labs, before shuffling back to tend their bugs and plants.
It was cloudy outside, but the good kind of cloudy—Tom’s favorite kind: chilly and quiet. He strolled across the campus, remember his first visit to the institute. Jeff had recruited him from a small but decent state university lab in the middle of nowhere, where Tom received his doctorate in astrophysics. Tom would never admit it, but back then, he had been intimidated by the idea of teaching at such a prestigious institute.
He passed the Confocal Lounge, a small pub on the edge of campus run by university students. They were just getting ready to close. Through the window, he recognized the bartender—a boyish young woman sporting a black baseball cap—as Cory, the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance. He had given a few research talks for the club in the past, although the students made it clear that they were much more interested in his personal life. In the past year, they had stopped asking him to give talks, and Tom suspected he had not been voted one of the more popular speakers. After all, if they wanted to learn about his research, all they had to do was look him up online or attend his lab presentations at the beginning and end of each semester.
Actually, Tom knew very well who their favorite professor was. Had been.
Cory looked up as he passed and waved for him to come inside. Tom hesitated, then pushed open the glass door and was instantly glad he did. He had almost forgotten how brilliant the decorations were—including a chandelier with lens-shaped crystals that hung from the ceiling, rickety bookshelves full of outdated science textbooks, and a row of bar stools that looked like blown-up microscopes.
“How’s it going?” Cory greeted. “Want a drink?”
“No, I’m good,” said Tom, sitting down on one of the microscopes. “How are you?”
He ended up having four drinks while Cory swept every little corner of the lounge and behind the counter. She had to keep interrupting her cleaning to make him another one. He had just finished his fourth when she emptied the dustpan. Then she came back around the counter and propped her elbows against the glass.
“So?” she asked. “What happened today?”
“I just found out that I’m tenured.”
“Oh,” said Cory. She lifted her arms from the counter and took a step back to examine Tom. “Congratulations. But you don’t look too thrilled.”
Tom shrugged. “I’m glad.”
“Just having a nostalgic moment?”
“You could put it that way.”
“So how are you going to celebrate?”
Tom hadn’t really thought about it. At the moment, Howie was watching a movie with Mandy and her friends. They would have pizza and go bowling later, then head over to the local ice cream place to get giant sundae bucket. Jeff had gone home to his wife and would be taking the kids bowling later, and there wasn’t another professor whom Tom knew well enough to celebrate with.
“Professor Furst?” Cory reached out, as if to touch Tom’s shoulder, then withdrew her hand. “I’m sorry.” She sounded like she meant it.
“It’s all right,” said Tom, staring at his own reflection in the counter. He tried imagine himself forty years later—about to retire, with thin graying hair and bags under his eyes—still sitting in the same spot and still very much alone, but he could only picture someone else he knew.
“You know, if I weren’t already going out with some friends tonight, I swear I would take you out to a gay club and we’d get drunk like idiots, and I would only let the nice guys hit on you because let’s face it—everyone thinks you’re hot. You don’t have a clue, do you?”
Tom raised an eyebrow.
“I mean, you act all cool and shit but you always seemed to have a certain… vulnerability. People like that—it’s kind of sexy. I know biology majors who sit through hours of your particle and anti-matter bullshit they don’t even understand, just to be tortured by you for a semester.”
“‘Anti-matter bullshit’? Is that what they call it?”
“No, that’s what I call it.” Cory put out her hand again, and this time she did give Tom’s shoulder a firm shake. “You’ll be okay.”
– – –
He walked her to the bus stop and watched her get on the bus before heading for the parking lot. By the time he reached his car, he was starting to feel more than a bit tipsy. There weren’t a lot of other cars around, so he sat down on the curb by the grass and closed his eyes.
Then, feeling like he needed to do something, he pulled out his phone and called the first entry on his list of recent calls: Brennan. The phone rang twice before Tom hung up. He knew he was still intoxicated, but somehow, hanging up on Brennan Stone made him feel better. He called again, this time disconnecting just as Brennan picked up.
Half a minute later, Brennan called him back. Tom stared at the name flashing on his phone, waiting until the last possible moment to answer.
“Hi, you called? Or was it a mistake?”
“Yeah, I just wanted to…” Tom wet his lips. “…to make sure you didn’t come over today. Howie’s at a birthday party. But then I remembered I told you already.” His smugness about his quick lie had just begun to set in when Brennan’s voice came through the receiver again.
“Are you drunk?”
“No—Yes, a little,” said Tom, almost adding in his own defense that he got tenured. Instead, he fell silent.
There was a long pause on the other line before Brennan spoke again. “Where are you? Are you with someone?”
Tom told Brennan where he was.
There was another pause. “Are you okay, Tom? Should I come get you?”
Brennan sounded so worried about him that Tom wanted to laugh, but the moment he tried to, he thought he might cry instead. “I’m okay, don’t—”
“I’m less than ten minutes from the campus. Wait for me. Don’t try to drive on your own.”
Tom couldn’t remember what happened in those next ten minutes, but ten minutes later, he was lying in the passenger seat of his own car with Brennan’s bike stuffed into the half-open trunk behind him and Brennan was driving him home. For a second, Tom caught Brennan watching him in the rear-view mirror and recalled what Cory had said about his ‘vulnerability’ and her hypothetical offer, wondering if Brennan would classify as a ‘nice guy.’ Most likely.
He didn’t even notice as they pulled up to his driveway, but soon Brennan was shaking him awake and asking him for the keys. Tom reached into his pocket and pulled out a chain of jingling keys, but he couldn’t see clearly enough to pick out the one for the front door. Brennan took the chain from him, tried a couple of them, and dragged Tom into the house.
“No,” he murmured, turning away as Brennan tried to shove something dry and salty into his mouth. Brennan then pulled a jacket over his shoulders, but Tom flung it away. It was too hot.
Soon he was pulling on the red rope again. It felt smooth and elastic, and he had to sink his nails into it to keep a good grip. He was standing at the foot of a dune in a desert, and a flaming red sun burned overhead. He wanted to wipe away the sweat that dripped down the sides of his face, but he couldn’t let go or the rope would slip.
He awoke some time later and found himself staring at the ceiling of his own living room. A light fixture hung over his head, forming the familiar crescent-shaped shadow Tom hadn’t noticed for at least two years. Like the sun and the moon. He sat up and reached for his glasses on the table—which were lying next to an open box of saltine crackers—still trying to figure out what had happened. His face felt numb and he needed to piss pretty badly.
He nearly wet himself as he saw Brennan peeking at him from behind a child’s wooden easel, the same one Brennan had given Howie for Christmas as part of a paint set.
“What are you doing?” he hissed.
“Just painting a quick picture,” Brennan replied. “I hope Howie doesn’t mind if I borrowed some of his paints.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t,” said Tom as he realized why Brennan was in his house. “How long have I been out?”
“About thirty minutes.”
“I’m sorry, Brennan.” He wasn’t. Not yet anyway.
Brennan shrugged. “It’s not like I had anything better to do today.” He swirled his brush in the plastic cup and left it there. “So? Do you feel better now?”
Something was wrong, although Tom couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Perhaps he was still drunk, he thought. He would figure it out later. “I’m okay,” he said, getting up from the couch. His head felt strangely light compared to before, when he was lying in the car. He headed for the bathroom in the hallway behind Brennan and noticed Brennan was silent as he approached, following Tom with his eyes in an unsettling way.
Tom raised an eyebrow as Brennan held his gaze, wondering if Brennan was trying to tell him something without actually saying it.
“Where are you going?” asked Brennan.
“Just… to the bathroom,” said Tom, frowning. As his eyes flickered to the back of the easel, he thought he saw Brennan lean forward. “Can I see your painting?”
“It’s not finished.”
Tom came around to the other side to look at it, and felt a slight thrill when Brennan hurried to block the entire canvas with his body. “I’m sure it’s better than anything I can do,” said Tom, smiling a little at how much Brennan reminded him of Howie. “What is it?”
“It’s, um…” Brennan bit his lip and looked at the floor. “It’s you.”
“Let me see it,” Tom insisted, unable to contain his curiosity, the toilet forgotten.
Brennan did not move away from the painting. “Please don’t look. I feel uncomfortable showing unfinished work. I promise to show you when I’m done.”
But despite Brennan’s protest, Tom reached around his shoulder and plucked the thin paint board off the easel, and he instantly understood why Brennan had not wanted him to see it. In the painting, Tom was lying on the same couch in the same room, sound asleep and in the exact same position he woke up in.
Except he was naked—penis and all.
“It’s actually quite accurate,” commented Tom, surprised he could sound so calm while his hands were trembling so hard that they threatened to drop the painting. “I didn’t realize one could so easily imagine all this underneath my clothing, although I don’t think I’m quite as fit as the man in the picture.”
Brennan’s nostrils flared. “What part of ‘don’t look’ do you not understand?” he said, biting down on each word. He crossed his arms under his chest, clutching his own elbows.
“You’re painting me naked without my permission,” said Tom, setting the board back on the easel with a casual plop. “I think I have the right to look.”
“Really?” Brennan whispered. “And what if I think about fucking you when I masturbate? Do I need to tell you that too?”
“Do you? Think of me when you masturbate?”
Brennan took a deep breath and released it. “I’m leaving.” He started to put the paint tubes back in the toolbox, shoving them into their little compartments in the same order Howie always arranged them, from reds to purples. “You’re right—I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you as a model like that.”
He began to fold up the painting, but Tom grabbed it from him before the wet paint could smudge. He tried to straighten it out, but a permanent groove had already across the center of the board. “Don’t you want to finish it?” asked Tom, holding it at arm’s length for Brennan to see.
“No, it’s kind of making me feel like a sick bastard right now. And so are you.”
“That’s how I tend to make people feel.” Tom continued to stare at the naked sleeping man in the painting. Did he really look like that? It was a beautiful scene, not sick or distasteful at all. The Brennan had managed to capture a sensual and almost carefree mood, as opposed to Tom’s actual drunkenness; the creamy leather couch appeared soft and cloud-like, and the gray afternoon light reflected off his smooth skin with just a tinge of gold. Tom put the warped painting on the easel, taking his time to make sure it was balanced.
When Brennan did not respond, Tom began to unbutton his shirt. He was definitely still drunk, he decided, but knowing this only made him wish even more that he could become that sleeping angelic man in the picture. Brennan was watching him with his jaw hanging open. After Tom let his shirt slide to the floor, he started removing his belt.
“What are you doing?” said Brennan hoarsely. “Oh, God. Oh, my God.” But he couldn’t tear his gaze away.
Tom proceeded to unzip his pants and shove them past his hip and down to his ankles, along with his underwear. He stepped out of them, walked over to the couch, and arranged his body as closely as he could to his original position. But this was just lewd, unlike the quiet purity of the original painting. It wasn’t until Tom had stopped moving and the cold leather refused to enveloped him that he realized how hideously exposed he was. His bare cock hung down the side of his thigh, dark and warm against pale cool skin of his inner leg, and he shivered. “Finish the painting,” he demanded softly.
Brennan was having a moment of insanity as he grabbed a fistful of his own hair and a strangled sound escaped the back of his throat. When he finally got his senses back, he managed to choke out something about Tom putting his clothes back on, but Tom didn’t move. Brennan started to pick up the articles of clothing on the floor, hesitating before grabbing Tom’s underwear in a bundle with his pants. Tom could see the tent in Brennan’s jeans, his stiff movements, how he fought back a grimace as he held out Tom’s clothes. “Come on, I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t think you’d wake up anytime soon. Can we just forget it ever happened?”
He tossed the clothes to Tom, but Tom swiped them off his lap.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” said Brennan. His voice cracked.
Tom smiled, even though he felt sick to the stomach. He wanted to take it back, to walk past Brennan’s painting without even noticing it was there. He was shaking so hard that he thought he might pass out again, and he still needed to urinate. “Finish it.”
Their eyes met again, but Brennan’s gaze dropped, lower and lower down the rest of Tom’s body, like a caress. “You want me to finish it? Fine.”
He stepped behind the easel, in the same spot where he had been sitting when Tom woke up. Tom could see him observing every little angle and detail of his body, but never once did Brennan glance at the painting or reach for the toolbox. Instead, he just took in all of Tom with his eyes, with an expression of intense focus. Tom wondered if Brennan could see how tense he was, how he was clenching his jaw and fighting back the urge to empty his bladder on himself.
Brennan was moving again. Tom watched his arms, pale and sinewy and freckled, but he couldn’t see what Brennan’s hands were doing behind the painting on the easel. Then he heard the sound of a zipper coming undone and Brennan drew something out—something that was quite stiff and long. Brennan’s chest was heaving now, his breath coming out in short gasps as he fucked his own hands in a deliberate vulgar rhythm.
Tom’s groin tingled with arousal. A sheen of cold sweat clung to him, but it burned wherever his skin was in contact with the couch. His cock no longer rested against his thigh, and something hot collected at the tip and trickled down his shaft. He didn’t dare to check if it was pre-ejaculate or urine. Whatever it was, he was sure Brennan saw it.
Brennan was close. Ringlets of dark hair clung to his forehead and blue eyes peeked out at Tom underneath dark lashes, reminding Tom of the first time they met five months ago, in the rain. The movement of Brennan’s hips and arms were now timed erratically. He hissed and bit his lip, grunted a few times, pumping hard, shuddering. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of his cheek. As he wiped it away with the back of his wrist, Tom noticed a few strands of pearly white fluid on his long graceful fingers. Breathtaking.
Only then did Brennan look down at the painting. He re-zipped his fly and wiped his hands on the legs of his jeans, along the hundreds of existing paint marks.
Tom didn’t move. Brennan kept his eyes lowered, picked up his messenger bag, and threw it over his shoulder. He left the painting where it was and didn’t look at it again. Tom watched him disappear into the hallway and waited for the door to close before walking over to the easel.
The painting was now covered in Brennan’s thick dripping semen, which took with it some of the paint underneath. It was no longer beautiful, but monstrous, as if the man in it were swelling and bursting all over, leaving behind large globs of putrid flesh.
Tom ran to the bathroom, lifted the seat cover, and vomited into the toilet. He flushed the toilet again and again, disgusted by the filth that had been hidden inside him, that would always be inside him regardless of how he tried to get rid of it. He tried to piss standing, then sitting, then he tried masturbating until the ache became too painful and it felt as if streams of foul liquid would burst from him. Like the man in the painting. Like the dirty, selfish, pathetic creature he was.
He stopped coming home early on Friday, choosing instead to go out for a few drinks and sit in his car until the alcohol wore off. Then he would spend most of Sunday working and locked up in his study, not even bothering to come out when Brennan came. Brennan didn’t ask to see him either, which wasn’t surprising. As for the painting of him, Tom destroyed it: he had stuck it under a running faucet for hours and scraped off the layer of paint with a razor, before he folded the soggy leftover cardboard several times and jammed it into the bottom of a trash can.
To Tom’s relief, the book was almost finished, or so it seemed. Brennan had taken Howie to meet with his editor two more times in the past few weeks, and Howie didn’t seem to be drawing as often anymore. But as the book neared completion, Tom’s self-loathing also grew exponentially. He could only hope—not without asleep-depriving amount of guilt and anger—that it would all be over soon.
Howie would have his name on the cover of a bestseller. He had waited almost eight years to be adopted. Tom remembered seeing his profile: a sickly and cheerless boy, with wispy hair and an autism diagnosis (which they later discovered had been misdiagnosed). Now everyone would wish he could be their son.
Besides Brennan, there was another new person in Howie’s life. According to Jeff, Howie and Mandy were ‘friends’ now, but Tom didn’t quite realize the extent of their friendship until the little girl called one evening and asked to speak to Howie.
“Who’s calling?” Tom had asked, a bit more harshly than he intended. He hadn’t heard her voice over the phone for years. It was just as perky as confident as Tom remembered, but more mature now than when she used to call the house, asking for a certain man who could always make her smile.
Mandy told him who she was, then repeated her request.
Howie scrambled to get the mobile phone, waited for Tom to hang up on his side, then ran off with the phone into his room.
Tom watched his door close and went back to making dinner, reminding himself that he wasn’t going to let anything bother him anymore. He had become cautious and submissive in the past six months, and that wasn’t who he was meant to be. And if he was to avoid post-tenure slump for the remainder of the semester, he would have to take Jeff’s advice and stop worrying about the things he couldn’t control.
But only as he thought of this, Howie appeared again. “Can Mandy come over tomorrow after school?”
“Don’t you need to do homework?”
Howie sucked in his lips. “What if I finish early?”
Tom tested the soup on the stove, pretending not to hear. Somehow, he knew this was not one of those times he should ignore his son, but he wasn’t in a reasonable mood. When Howie didn’t say more, Tom turned around to check if he had gone back into his room and found him still standing at the doorway, staring at his feet, his cheeks flushed pink. Besides the fact that Howie was nearly a grade behind in math, there was another reason why Tom didn’t want Mandy in the house with Howie, but he could never consciously admit this to anyone. Not even himself.
The silence was irritating. Tom imagined it like a string, stretching longer and thinner with each passing second. “All right, she can come,” he said. “But you both need to finish your homework and show me before you can play.”
Sure enough, the moment Mandy stepped into the house the following afternoon, she was like a little ghost, zooming around the house gleefully and taking Howie with her. They caused so much noise in the living room and kitchen that Tom had to come out of his study to make sure they were doing homework.
“This is homework,” said Mandy. She stood up a little taller, clutching a ruler and a large clipboard in her tiny hands, while Howie hid in her shadow. “I’m helping Howie find geometric shapes in the house so he can calculate the area.”
“Why don’t you calculate the area of the living room floor?” Tom suggested.
This activity kept them busy and quiet for a long time. Almost too quiet. Tom opened the door a crack and peeked outside, but he would regret it. Mandy’s voice came from the living room in a low but sharp whisper.
“Theo used to keep marshmallows and graham crackers under this table for me because I couldn’t reach the top, but he was always out of chocolate. Look, I can reach now.”
A few minutes later…
“Grandpa used to sit here and Theo sat there when we came to visit. They used to bet on whose lap I would sit in.”
Theo… used to… used to… Theo… used to…
“That used to be Theo’s room.”
They were standing in front of Tom’s bedroom.
Tom closed the study door again before they could turn around and see him eavesdropping.
Only a few minutes later, he heard a note coming from the piano. Then another. Then two notes next to each other clashed, as if the finger pressing them down had missed its mark. Strung together, the notes made a vaguely familiar tune, but individually they sounded too awful for Tom to hear beyond the ruckus. He strode into the living room and the noise stopped. Mandy sat at the piano and Howie was nowhere to be seen.
“Come,” Tom said to Mandy, nodding in the direction of the kitchen. “Bring your books.” She grabbed her backpack and clipboard and followed Tom into the kitchen, where they found Howie hiding under the table. “Sit down, both of you, and take out all your assignments. I’m going to watch you do your homework.”
They both complied, watching Tom with wide fearful eyes, laying out out their homework on the table. Once they were settled, Tom brought out his laptop and sat down to work with them.
Any stranger who saw the three of them now might have mistaken Tom to be the sweet and caring father of two lovely children, taking the time to help them with their homework. But despite the sudden peace and quiet, there was nothing peaceful about the way Tom felt at the moment. The silence was like a big gaping hole. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could wait before it engulfed him.
In fourth grade, Tom’s favorite word had been cruel. He loved the sound of it, the way he could pucker his lips and roll his tongue as he whispered it to himself. Brutal was another one of those words. Ruthless. They all meant the same thing and felt the same in his mouth.
When he wasn’t muttering to himself, he was thinking about outer space. Not that Star Wars nonsense that most boys were obsessed about, but actual stars and black holes and other cosmic bodies, far away from Earth and people. His teachers liked him because he never caused any trouble in class and did well on quizzes and assignments. Extremely well. So well that they considered letting him skip a grade.
Instead, he was put into a class of special students, where a young therapist would force them to look into each other’s eyes and respond to what the other person said. She also made them act out dramatic and often ridiculous scenarios, and worst of all, talk about their feelings… whatever those were. Many of the kids never seemed to change, but it worked for Tom. It was so effective, in fact, that the therapists poured all their hope and energy into him; and one day, he became normal.
He was never much of a trend-follower, but he played sports in high school, had his own circle of friends, and maintained perfect grades. In college, he rediscovered his love for astronomy and was accepted into the university’s astrophysics graduate program. None of his professors suspected he was attending wild drinking parties on the weekends with his fraternity friends, and none of his friends expected him to do so well in school. At the age of twenty-eight, he became a professor, thinking he could finally dedicate the rest of his life to his obsession without drawing any negative attention to himself. Then, something happened to him that was so normal to the point of cliché that he never even saw it coming: he became obsessed with a person. Suddenly, the possibility of marriage and children was no longer as unlikely to him as a violation of the Pauli Exclusion Principle.
But there had always been something not quite right about him, no matter how normal he appeared or felt.
Once, several years ago, he overheard a student call one of his exams brutal, and he thought of the word again as he finished grading the latest problem set. The average grade was just above a 70. Admittedly, it was the hardest problem set Tom had ever written, and from the timestamps on his emails, he knew many of the student pulled all-nighters and were still unable to finish. Brutal. He repeated the word silently, feeling it settle back on his tongue. Yes, he was brutal now. He didn’t care anymore that the less serious students were failing his classes, nor did it bother him that he was one of the only professors who didn’t grade on a curve. If the students wanted better grades, they could study harder to earn them.
He stopped tucking Howie into bed at night. Not like it ever made a difference anyway.
“I know who you are,” said Howie to him one Saturday, his eyes round and solemn, before Tom’s final week of classes. “Brennan told me.” It was well past his bedtime, and he had somehow snuck into Tom’s study without making a noise.
Tom looked up from his computer screen with a lifted eyebrow. “Go to bed. Brennan’s just feeding you fairytales.”
“It’s not a fairytale.” Howie shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “It’s based on real life. Don’t you want to know the story?”
“To be honest, Howie, I’m not that interested.”
Howie frowned and stood there for a long time after Tom had gone back to work. Tom could see in the corner of his eye that Howie was examining him, but he pretended not to notice. The boy was so strange and beautiful: small and helpless, with his flaxen hair and large gray eyes. Was he lost? What was he doing here? Wasn’t he afraid?
Suddenly, the boy spoke. “That’s because you already know part of the story,” he said, “but it’s not over yet.” His voice was sweet and soothing. Then he was gone as quickly as he came.
That same night, after Tom fell asleep, he drew out a dagger and cut the rope. It happened so quickly that he wasn’t even sure if the blade had made contact, or if the rope just knew when to snap. Warm pungent blood began to flow out of the open ends, pooling around his bare feet, which felt like iron. He tried kicking off the ground, tipping himself from side to side, lifting his leg with his hands, but it was no use. The blood continued to rise, above his knees, waist, neck. It sloshed around and choked him, bitter and metallic, and he spat it back out again and again until he was forced to swallow all of it.
He closed his eyes. Everything was dark, but to his surprise, he wasn’t suffocating—he didn’t need to breathe anymore. Something warm and soft encircled him, restraining him, even though he was barely struggling.
He could rest now. It would be over soon.
After his third glass of Scotch, Tom was feeling warm and excited. Brennan and Howie had gone out to dinner Brennan’s editor, and they wouldn’t be back until late in the evening. After they left, Tom pulled down all the shades and dimmed the lights, and for the first time more than a year, he could walk around the house completely naked.
He spent a few hours tidying up the house before remembering what he was supposed to do. It was two weeks earlier than the ideal day, but he couldn’t let a perfect opportunity go to waste.
He entered his study and made sure everything was in place, checking each drawer and bookshelf. Then he turned the lights off and left the room, closing the door behind him. In the kitchen, he looked through all the cabinets, making minute adjustments to the various objects.
After Tom was satisfied with the way things were, he sat down on a stool at the counter and drew out each knife from the knife holder, laying them down side-by-side in size order. The slender boning knife, which he used maybe only once or twice in the past, caught his attention. He picked it up and examined the blade, running it along his finger. Although he barely felt anything, it had left a mark: a shallow but neat incision.
If I could go back and change things, I would have found a partner and raised a child with him, but it’s too late now. You don’t want that to happen to you.
Tom put the rest of the knives back and brought the boning knife with him into his bedroom. He locked the door and sighed, hardly able to bite back a grin. He had never been so excited for anything before, except for maybe the first time he had sex with a man, just over five years ago. In fact, it was the exact same feeling—the feeling that nothing could go wrong, yet there was an infinite number of ways things could go right.
He went into the bathroom and filled the tub with warm water, balancing the knife on the tub’s edge. As he watched the steam rise, he decided to lock the bathroom door as well before climbing in. He picked up the knife again and dipped it into the water, watching the ripples distort the blade.
He’s is not the right person for you. He can’t stop you, and even if he could, he wouldn’t. Please, just let this go before you get in too deep. I stood up for him all through college and I will do it again. If you do anything to hurt him—
He dug the blade into his chest. It sank it about half an inch before the pain became unbearable and he loosened his grip. A familiar bitter taste pooled in his mouth and he jolted, but it was just a bit of blood from biting on his own tongue.
It’s exhausting for him, running around all the time, getting excited about doing fun things and going new places. He won’t admit it, but his heart isn’t used to it anymore. You have to stop this.
He took a few deep breaths, staring at the blade partially hidden inside him. The pain had subsided a little, replaced by a tingling sensation. A small red flower had begun to form in the water, growing larger and brighter. It surprised Tom with its tenderness. As it disappeared, a new one appeared, just as beautiful and fragile as the last.
With a groan, Tom dragged the blade across his chest, and the flower bloomed.
Tom, I’m sixty-four years old. I’m old and fat and useless. I don’t have a lot of money. And you’re making me cry.
He flung the bloody knife aside, screaming and shuddering, clutching sides of the tub and tearing at his arms and his face—anything he could hold onto. Tears burned his eyes, but he wanted to laugh. The job was done. Now all he had to do was wait.
When he could hold his hands still again, he cupped the blossom that had just risen out of his chest. It slipped through his fingers and he tried to catch the next one, laughing delightfully as that one escaped him too.
He lifted the pink puddle out of the tub and held it out in front of him. Water trickled down his arms.
For God’s sake, Tom, you’re too young and too beautiful for an old geezer like me. Sometimes it breaks my heart just to see you here, when you could be with someone else.
He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, just watching the blood flow from the wound in his chest. It poured out of him in strings and strings, curling around him, around themselves.
There was an old bearded man with a mop of colorless sitting across from Tom in the tub, his face ashen and his eyes closed. He was dead. But as the tub filled with Tom’s blood, the color gradually returned to the man’s face and his chest began to move up and down as he breathed again. His eyes fluttered open, as clear and blue as Tom remembered them. When he saw Tom, he smiled and held out his arms.
Tom crawled over to him, but he wasn’t there anymore. Instead, Tom was kneeling waist-deep in water and alone, the blood from his chest dribbling down in little streams.
– – –
He woke up to a banging noise and found himself still in the tub, but the water was now lukewarm and visibly tinged with pink. Were Howie and Brennan back yet? It was only six o’clock when Tom left the kitchen—it couldn’t have been ten already.
The banging had stopped. Tom closed his eyes again and sank deeper into the water so that it grazed his chin. Then he heard it again—louder and closer—this time against the bathroom door.
“Tom! Open the door!” It was Brennan. But how did he get into the bedroom?
Tom held his breath and slid down a bit further so that water filled his ears. If this was part of his dream, it couldn’t hurt him. He wouldn’t need to breathe at all. Everything would become dark and peaceful. But the shouting and banging only grew louder, distracting him.
“Answer me, Tom! Open this damn thing!”
Tom breathed in and choked, pushing his head back out of the water, gasping and sputtering. Then he heard the unmistakable sound of something plastic being shoved between the door and the frame.
“Fuck!” shouted Brennan, giving the door a few solid kicks. “I can’t get this through! Open the fucking door!” The door shook so hard that Tom was afraid it might come off the hinge.
Howie, he thought.
He clambered out of the tub, leaving puddles of pink water everywhere, staining the rug and floor. His glasses were sitting next to the tub and he fumbled to put them back on. The knife! He grabbed it off the floor, lifted the heavy toilet tank lid, and threw the knife into the darkness. It hit the water at the bottom of the tank with a dull thunk.
“Tom? Is that you?”
As Tom leaned over the sink to get the gauze pads from the cabinet, his blood dripped all over the counter. It smeared even more when he tried to wipe it off with toilet paper. He turned on the faucet to rinse away the blood, unraveling armfuls of toilet paper to stanch the bleeding, thinking he could just flush them down the toilet, but he couldn’t catch some of the ribbons in time and they landed around him on the floor.
Brennan’s voice came again, weaker and more timid than before. “I’m coming in, okay? Hang on.”
There were blood stains everywhere—on the cabinet mirror, the sink, the tiles, the rug—and the tub was only half-drained. Tom could see the twisted edge of a credit card jammed in the doorframe, sawing in and out, searching for a glitch in the lock. Left with no choice, he grabbed his white towel off the rack. Then something clicked, and the door opened.
One look at Brennan’s expression and Tom knew that Brennan’s worst fears were confirmed.
“What the fuck, Tom! What the fuck!”
Tom clutched the towel to his chest, shivering. “It’s not what it looks like.”
“Do you need help? Should I call the police?”
“No, I’ll be all right. Is Howie with you?”
“He’s scared. He was so scared. I told him not to come in.”
Tom nearly collapsed in relief. He sat down on the cool edge of the tub, still hugging the towel, while Brennan went out to check on Howie. A few minutes later, Brennan came back with some paper towels and a glass of water. He handed Tom the glass and made sure Tom took a few sips before he calmly began to wipe the blood off the sink.
“Did you know this would happen?” whispered Tom. He set the glass down by his feet.
“I’m not sure I know what happened. Are you hurt?”
Tom lowered his towel and touched his chest. He put his fingers on the slit and felt the skin part, soft and slippery. The pain was so blinding that his legs grew weak and he fell backwards into the tub.
“Stop that!” Brennan dropped the paper towel he was holding and pulled Tom back out by the wrists. “How did you—Never mind, I don’t want to know. Keep holding that towel there, okay? We’re going to get you cleaned up.”
He grabbed the box of gauze pads—the one Tom had been reaching for earlier—and ripped open the packages three at a time. Tom watched as he drew out each pad and unfolded them, stacking the squares on a dry spot on the counter. Watching the repetitive movement of Brennan’s hand comforted him a little.
Brennan removed the towel for him and started to layer the unfolded sheets over the bloody chasm. It had stopped bleeding, but it was wide enough to see the shiny red tissue underneath. “You need stitches,” Brennan observed, “but this should do for now.” He finished covering up the wound and helped Tom tie a fresh towel around his chest. Tom could see him in the mirror, knotting the towel with care and folding down the top edge so that it would remain secure.
He noticed Brennan was looking at him too. “Do you still find me attractive like this?” he asked.
“I wish I didn’t.”
Tom turned around cupped Brennan’s face with his blood-encrusted hands. When Brennan didn’t move away, Tom kissed him softly.
Brennan didn’t even flinch, nor did he kiss back; he only continued to stare at Tom with those knowing eyes. Tom noticed for the first time that they were the same blue color as the eyes of someone else he knew.
“I killed him,” said Tom. “I killed Theo.”
“Howie told me he died in his sleep.”
“That was the story, but I watched him die that morning. For two years, he would cry every time I touched him, although I couldn’t understand why. Then we got married and he started reaching for me at night, just to make sure I was still there.” He traced the shadow of Brennan’s jaw. “He always thought I would leave him for someone else.”
Brennan swallowed. “Did you love him?”
“He’s dead,” said Tom. “He’s been dead for almost a year. But Howie likes you too, doesn’t he? You’re like a father to him.” He leaned in for another kiss, but this time, Brennan took a step back.
“Did you love Theo?” he asked again.
“Why does that matter?”
“Because it makes all the difference in the world to Howie. I’m sorry, I wish I could tell you, but—” Brennan touched Tom’s chest, where the towel was thickest.
Tom looked down, where Brennan had touched him. “You. You did this. You turned me into this.”
“Come on, wash your hands and put on some clothes. I’ll drive you to the hospital.”
“No!” Tom seized Brennan’s arm. “I can’t… I can’t go to the hospital.”
Brennan bit his lip. “All right,” he finally said. “I’ll see what I can find at the drugstore. Howie’s waiting for you in the living room. He had something to show you…”
10. THE END
Tom didn’t know, but he had been waiting his entire life for this moment.
“Will you be okay?” asked Howie, clinging to Tom on the couch as they waited for Brennan to return. “Will you?”
“Yes,” whispered Tom, hardly daring to believe that this affectionate little boy was his own son. Howie was at least two inches taller than last year, and come to think of it, he spoke more often now. His hair had gotten longer too, reminding Tom that he should probably take Howie for a haircut. Tom stroked the light golden strands, soft and cool between his fingers, and vaguely remembered that Howie was supposed to show him something.
Howie sighed, turning his head in Tom’s lap so he could look at Tom. He didn’t ask where Brennan had gone, nor did he ask about the bulging towel under Tom’s shirt. All he did was reach up and trace little spirals on Tom’s chest with his finger, watching Tom through unblinking half-lidded eyes, like he was waiting for Tom to speak.
Tom looked down at the warm little hand on his chest and covered it with his own, almost expecting Howie to shrink away. Instead, Howie closed his hand, bunching up a square of Tom’s shirt and the towel underneath.
“Tell me a story,” he murmured.
“I can’t. I’m not good at telling stories.”
“Tell me about Theo.”
Tom sucked in his breath, brushing a few strands of hair from Howie’s face. “What do you want to know?”
“What was he like?”
“Well, he had blue eyes and gray hair, but his hair used to be light brown. He was twenty pounds overweight and he liked to wear button-down shirts in solid colors—”
“I know that,” interrupted Howie. “What was his personality like?”
“He was…” Tom stopped and cleared his throat. He couldn’t do it. Howie would just have to be disappointed once again; he would have to live with Tom, a mentally-unstable stranger who was supposed to be one of his two fathers, knowing that the only man he ever called ‘Dad’ was never coming back. “He was kind,” said Tom, putting into words the first thing that came to mind. “He was gentle. Generous. He could play at least fourteen instruments and compose symphonies, but he was too shy to admit it.”
Had Theo been shy? Was that really why he didn’t like to talk about his musical talent?
“What else?” Howie drew his knees into his chest so that his feet weren’t touching the couch anymore, wiggling his toes under his socks.
“I-I don’t know. He was a bit absent-minded, I guess. He never thought of himself and didn’t know what to do with his leftover money, so he gave most of it away to the same children’s hospital—the one that kept sending him little stickers with children’s drawings, even though he never used the stickers.”
Did Theo ever think of himself? Whenever he received his paycheck, he would ask if Tom needed some extra money, even though the answer was always no, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t sure what to do with all of it. And he must have thought of himself at least once before.
“Was he a good teacher?” asked Howie.
“I never watched him teach a class, but I don’t think so. His students made fun of him because he was old and eccentric. Most of them only took music for a good grade. They made him sad, even though he liked them a lot. They liked him too. He could always make them laugh, although I doubt they learned much in his class.”
Theo never told Tom that his students made him sad, nor did Tom ever hear any of his students call him old and eccentric, and Tom himself certainly didn’t think Theo had been eccentric at all.
“I met him through Jeff,” Tom continued, wondering what he could say that was true. “They were best friends.”
“I know. Mandy told me.”
Tom smiled. “What else do you want to know?”
“Why did you marry him?”
Tom recalled a time when he worked sixteen hours a day at his new teaching job, hoping to impress the senior faculty, and the old music professor would come into his lab at ten in the evening with homemade Pad Thai and tell him anecdotes from his younger days until Tom laughed so hard that tears came to his eyes. “There was… something about him that made me want to be with him all the time. Remember when he used to read to you?”
Howie nodded, his eyes wide.
“He had a quiet but powerful presence.” Tom felt his face grow warm at these words and he looked away. “What else? He had been in love exactly eleven times, but he never told those the first ten people. He didn’t think anyone could love him back.”
“But you did.”
Did you love him?
“Yes,” said Tom quietly. “I loved him.”
Howie sat up and straddled Tom’s lap, peering into Tom’s eyes. Tom noticed for the first time that Howie’s gray eyes were tinged with brown, like his own, or perhaps it was just a reflection. Howie’s face was so close that Tom could feel Howie’s breath against his nose, warm and sweet.
“How did he die?”
Tom leaned forward so that their foreheads touched and closed his eyes, wishing he could somehow show Howie what happened so he wouldn’t have to say it. “H-He had a bad heart.” It was coming out all wrong, but he had to explain. “Not because he was a bad person, but because he was old and overweight and the blood vessels carrying blood to his heart were clogged. When a person’s heart doesn’t get enough blood, it stops beating.”
“So a monster didn’t steal it?”
Tom pursed his lips. “Maybe it did,” he said earnestly, a few seconds later.
“And it tried to steal yours too. But it couldn’t.”
At this point, Tom realized Howie’s hand had been resting over his chest the entire time. “No, it couldn’t,” he agreed. “I had you to protect me.”
For a long time, Howie was silent, staring at the outline of the towel. Tom almost expected to see the blood soaking through, but when he looked down, his shirt was still dry. Then Howie began to tremble, and Tom lifted his face and found it covered in tears.
“I’m sorry,” Howie sobbed. “I’m sorry I—I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you earlier.”
Tom caught a tear on Howie’s cheek between his lips. “No, Howie, I’m sorry.”
– – –
The doorbell rang and Howie hopped off Tom’s lap, sniffling and brushing his tears away with his sleeve as he hurried to answer the door. “It’s true!” Tom heard him telling Brennan. “The story is true!”
Then Howie ran past Tom and disappeared into his room, but left the door open. Tom looked up as Brennan walked in, too dazed and tired to greet him properly. It didn’t matter anyway, he realized, since Brennan had seen him naked twice and didn’t seem to have any regard for formalities either.
“I got you a new box of gauze pads, some bandages, and saline wash.” Brennan set the bag down at the foot of the couch, out of sight. “Promise you’ll take care of yourself.”
“So what did you think of the book?” said Brennan, this time in a louder voice.
“Howie didn’t show you?”
Howie’s voice suddenly came through the open door of his room. “I forgot!” he called. “I’m getting it now! But Tom knew the story already! He knows how it ends!”
“You do?” asked Brennan, but Tom only shrugged. Maybe he did. In any case, he didn’t want to ruin the moment.
Howie came back out with a large red folder that was at least six inches thick, containing six months of imagination and hard work, and set it all down on the living room table. On the cover was a realistic painting of the victorious prince—with an expression at once of coolness and fear and elation—standing over the dark tangled carcass of his monster. Tom instantly recognized it as the drawing of himself that he never saw, for which he had posed faithfully for thirty minutes, only to lock himself in his room like an angry child when Howie refused to show him the unfinished picture.
“Well, of course, he knows the story!” Howie exclaimed. “He’s the prince!”