Some Enchanted Evening
It was a dreary place and the incessant rain only added to the feeling of gloom that covered the large house and grounds like a cold mist. Trees were borne down to the ground with mossy growth; flowering greenery, once part of elaborately maintained gardens, had long ago run wild and now trailed obscene blooms and an excess of seed through once open spaces. There was a dankness to the place even in summer, a kind of watchful, surly atmosphere of things forgotten, gone wrong. The house itself was badly in need of repair, the roof angled down in places and the mortar had visibly shifted, creating cracks between the huge, lichen covered stones that made up the outside walls. The ground beneath was dark, fetid and fertile, giving birth to tangled vines, bushes that choked less hardy flowers, and trees that grew crooked, as if uncertain of their welcome in the sun. All this surrounded the house, concealing it, wrapping it in darkness and humid greenery, an embrace that seemed to pull it down into the dark bosom of the earth.
A man made suddenly wealthy in dry goods had built it long ago, seeking to impress a bride far more highly born than his parents had expected him to capture. Somehow money had improved his features right along with his fortunes and capture her he did, then they settled in to the life he had always dreamed of, a house full of children and the best of everything. But the children, all but the lastborn, were lost to typhoid and scarlet fever, and the mid-nineties crash in the stock market dimmed the luxury of their daily lives. She became bitter; he became reclusive. The elaborate parties tapered off to the occasional supper and visitors were no longer so smartly dressed. Tradesmen began to ring the front door bell and demand immediate payment and the one surviving gardener, somewhat old and given to drink, stopped trimming back the trees and bushes that lined the drive.
Eventually, passage to the house became more difficult; a casual visitor's vision of the house became less welcoming, and even fewer callers appeared. The woman died in middle age, her heart broken by circumstance and loss, and the widower withdrew into the house to live out his last years poring over old ledgers, yellowed newspaper clippings and faded photographs of dead children. A lone housekeeper had the task of keeping things going and, as she had no time for the one child who did survive, he ran as wild as a rabbit through the grounds. He was never made to go to school and had not graced a doctor's office since his mother's death. The huge, moldering library was his teacher, as were the deer that came to drink in the stream behind the once formal gardens and the birds that he fed with breadcrumbs outside his attic bedroom window.
He was forgotten but he hardly knew it, happy as he was to wake up each day and fall asleep exhausted each night, sated with discovery and the peace of secret things. He did not know the house was poorly kept; to him it was an endless source of pleasure, the many private places to sit and read, the many interesting things that littered the dusty rooms. Friends, he had, in all the feathered and furred visitors who did not ring the bell, did not present their cards, but were everyday available for his attention, often returning it with wide eyes and open hearts. He learned to talk to all of them, often whispering and chattering to them in a way that made them feel at ease around him. To them, he hardly seemed human, a sort of faerie child with long uncombed auburn hair and the ability to sit silent for hours. Ill-fitting clothes found in old trunks covered his slender body, when he bothered, and his grace was the grace of the unselfconscious.
The year was 1910.
By age twelve he had read the classics, devouring them by the light of glass-globed oil lamps and by candlelight; he could read Greek and Latin both, not realizing that few boys his age could. He had found books on botany, so could name all the plants that ran wild, delighting in the knowledge. Books on birds told him the names of all his flighted friends and he often lectured them on their own history while they watched him with wild and avid avian eyes. They would light on his arm if he outstretched it, they would take food from his fingers. He did not know they should be afraid and so neither did they, thinking him a woodsprite and not a boy. He reached manhood alone, the housekeeper rarely bothering with him except to put out meals and the drunken gardener only noticing him to shoo him away from more dangerous areas of the decaying house and grounds. He would stay up at night in the wild and moonlit gardens, thinking thoughts he didn't fully understand and looking at the stars. All unknowing, he grew tall, he grew raggedly handsome, he grew thoughtful. He didn't know any better, so he was happy.
His name was Christian and he was sixteen years old the day the sky fell in.
He was reading on the ground beneath a wild rose tangle when the other boy walked into his world. Christian caught his breath and held very still, a practice as natural as respiration to a boy who had befriended animals as a toddler. He lay down the book, careful not to dirty the pages, and watched the other boy explore the garden behind the house. He had never known other boys, had never gone to school or scouts or sleepovers, so had no frame of reference for what he saw. And here is what Christian saw: a young god stepped down from Olympus and walked the earth, glowing gold from his halo of curls and shining blue light from his eyes. Christian almost forgot to breathe as he watched, motionless, ready to run if seen. The people in his world were not like this, did not move with a fox's grace, with the surety of a cat, the beauty of a deer. The boy seemed to Christian to glow with health, his tanned skin smooth, his eyes bright, his teeth flashing white when he smiled to himself, unaware he was being watched. The boy was picking flowers from the occasional blooms amid the madness of growth, and singing to himself. Christian thought that angels must sound like that, choirs of angels, but he had only read of such things and never thought to see one. Who was this boy?
The gardener came around the side of the house and called to the golden boy, who looked up and waved. Christian watched as he followed the old man and left the grounds proper, towards the small cottage where the gardener lived alone. As the boy left, his hand filled with a bouquet of colorful flowers, the light seemed to go along with him and dusk fell, or seemed to fall, hard and sudden. Christian sat for a moment in the darkening dusk, his thoughts a white noise of confusion. His heart was beating fast, his breath shallow and rapid, and there was something else. Another… feeling. One that he'd never had except when he was alone, a thrumming in his blood that sent electric zinging through his whole body. He had to see the boy again, had to know what he did with his days, with his nights. Who was this golden boy?
That night, Christian could hardly sleep for thinking of the newcomer. He lay with his eyes closed, painting the boy's portrait against his eyelids in golds and blues and pinks. The sound of the boy's singing followed Christian down into sleep and he dreamed of angels, of gods among us, of young Endymion and Adonis, of the unknown boy's lips against his white teeth as he sang. Christian was in love, but he didn't recognize it in himself, he only knew that his heart now had a star to steer by. Expecting nothing, he was fulfilled in just the sight of the boy and wanted only to have it happen again. To watch him, to drink him in like clear water, and to be happier in the seeing than he'd ever been before.
Christian woke early, at first forgetting why he was so excited and then remembering, with a blush and a smile, the vision he had seen last night. Was it a vision; was the boy real? There was only one way to know. He got up silently and dressed in the dark room, then crept down the stairs, more silent even than usual, and out of the house by the back door. The housekeeper was not up yet and nothing stirred but night birds, not yet gone to bed, and early day creatures coming out with the first light. Birds waited for breadcrumbs but he passed them by, forgetting them for the first time, as he followed the overgrown trail to the gardener's cottage at the back of the property. He had to see the boy, had to know he was real. Nothing else seemed possible and so he didn't think it. To see was all he wanted, confirmation that perfection walked the earth.
That his heart beat faster when he remembered seemed only natural; what should one do, after all, when presented with a young god but feel a thrill? Maybe he was not a godling but some kind of magical creature, something from old Celtic tales, seldom seen and quickly gone. Maybe he himself was under an enchantment, Christian thought with a smile, to feel this pull towards the unknown boy. Maybe the boy had cast a spell on him, all unknowing for Christian was sure he had not been seen. Maybe all who saw the boy fell under the magic cloak and were no longer able to think clearly, act rationally. Maybe the boy would take him away to a secret place, a place where they could be alone together. Knowing nothing else, that was Christian's deepest desire, to be alone with the boy, to watch him, to see him, to look into his eyes. That the other boy might look back at him was only at the edges of his thought, not really a possibility in his mind, so used to solitude. After all, what was there to look at in himself? Nothing, surely.
And so Christian crept up to the cottage, holding his breath, as the sun mounted the morning sky.
Like the house itself, the cottage was nearly silent and Christian's heart felt heavy. Was the boy even here? Disheartened, Christian sat down on the woodpile outside the back door; his head in his hands as he worried over the possibility that he'd imagined the other boy, had fallen asleep while reading and dreamed something amazing, a boy fallen out of the sky. Only the dream image of a boy; a firefly's flickering lantern, giving off light without heat, vision without substance. He felt his chest grow heavy and tears sting the backs of his eyelids. Not knowing that boys don't cry, he did, sitting there on the hewn logs in his ragged pants and plain shirt, looking like nothing so much as an angel fallen to earth and bereft, had he only known it or even known to think of himself and how he looked. Lacking self-scrutiny, he lacked vanity and therefore pride. He had lost something that he loved, something seen once but long enough to pierce his unwary heart with its unexpected beauty, and the tears felt natural. Christian hurt, and so he cried, uncaring, not silent, and his sobs brought out tiny woodland creatures who knew the boy but not the sound, to peer at him from the underbrush.
The sound of a door slamming brought his head up abruptly and the movement made the door slammer stop cold in his tracks to stare at the smudge faced, teary-eyed young man in ragged clothes atop the firewood. It was the boy who stared at Christian, his golden vision from last night, now freshly washed and out for his morning chores. He gleamed like a dewy flower, hair still damp but tidily brushed behind his ears, skin scrubbed pink and clean, shirt tucked neatly into his belt and boots laced precisely. He stood frozen midstep, halted in his progress by the unexpected visitor who now stared at him amazed.
The two boys gazed into each other's eyes in the new morning light, soft sounds of creatures stirring to life around them, birds beginning to call to each other, and the last rustles of trees in the night dying down for another day. They stared at one another, each taking in the other's face and form, dress and demeanor, as if ordinary courtesy did not apply out here in the wooded grounds, as if it were perfectly normal to simply look inside another person's soul in greeting. Of course, for Christian, it was normal, or, as normal as anything could be in this suddenly confusing world he'd woken up into. For the other boy, the shock was surely enough to explain it, the sudden specter of a boy outside his door, his gaze as pure and clear as a doe's at the hunter, inviting the bullet in its innocence.
He coughed, which made Christian jump. He had not thought of the boy as capable of speech, so far removed from mortality did he seem. The boy coughed again lightly, trying to regain a sense of propriety, of control over the moment. He felt unsure for the first time in his life.
“I'm Ian and this is my grandfather's house. Who're you?” The boy asked, gaining assurance as he spoke, needing for things to be in their proper place, happening in the proper ways.
Christian stared at him, dazed. `He spoke! He had a name! And he spoke it to me!' Christian's unfamiliarity with niceties, with common courtesies left him unaware that he was trespassing, that he was violating etiquette by staring, by failing to answer immediately. He watched the rising sun begin to bath Ian's face in a light that seemed at home there, as if the sun itself could only hope, then fail, to compete with the light inside the boy. The light inside Ian, Christian told himself, smiling at the name, at the knowledge of the name, at the vision in front of him that hardly seemed real. The boy, Ian, coughed again.
“Look, you, this is private property here. My grandfather is the grounds keeper and he doesn't like trespassers. Who are you and what are you doing here?” Ian demanded.
Christian smiled, hearing the sounds of the boy's voice but not the meaning, too caught up in watching him move, watching him talk, watching those blue eyes regard him. His heart was racing uphill, his breath coming fast, as he sat there smiling, never having felt this way before and not knowing what to do, what to say, for fear of shattering the illusion, of breaking the spell and making the boy disappear.
Ian frowned, and it was a dart flying from that furrowed brow straight to Christian's heart and he trembled. Was the boy angry? When Ian made to move closer, Christian started, a deer surprised by a noise, and he stood up fast, heart pounding against his ribcage. When Ian took a step closer, Christian fled, leaping up and running like a fleet footed foal back into the overgrown greenery between the trees. Christian was gone in an instant and Ian stood, astounded, staring at the spot where he had disappeared. The leaves and brambles settled back into place and it was as if the intruder, Christian, had never been there at all.
That evening, Christian sat in the midst of a clearing of flowers, feeding from his hand the little creatures that came to him. His raids on the kitchen were so much a normal part of the household that the housekeeper no longer thought of them as such and often left scraps and oddments out for him to take. What he did with them, she had no idea, but it was easier to simply cooperate with whatever the strange inhabitants of the house seemed to want than to question or complain. And so she did, and thought nothing of it. The creatures thought everything of it, and of Christian, and came up to him easily, with sure knowledge of safety in this familiar offering. Squirrels touched his fingertips as they took scraps and nuts, birds ate breadcrumbs at his feet and a solitary deer examined a piecrust with interest. All this was familiar and known to Christian. What was unknown was that he was being watched from the bushes, and not by any four footed scavenger but by Ian. Ian had looked for the other boy after his chores were done and only just found him. Now he held himself still in the underbrush, crouched down and curious about the peculiar boy he'd seen this morning. The problem was, of course, that Ian was far less used to holding still and keeping silent than Christian was. It was his boots that finally gave him away as he trod against a dead branch while trying to steady himself on his haunches. The snap of the dry wood sounded loud to his ears and the animals were instantly gone, vanishing into the cover without a sound, leaving Christian to turn wide-eyed and startled, to look for the source of the noise. Ian stood up, realizing he couldn't stay hidden any longer, and as he did, Christian's brown eyes grew even wider.
“Hello.” Ian said, smiling, trying to soften the effect of his sudden appearance. He watched Christian stand slowly, never taking his eyes from Ian.
“Hello.” Christian said, a little breathlessly. He felt a flush start at his neck and travel up to heat his face. Ian was beautiful, as perfect as a painting and framed by the trees around him, a portrait of young Apollo at the hunt, his yellow hair bright against the greens and browns behind him. Ian smiled at him and the sun came back out for a moment.
“What's your name?” Ian asked.
“Christian. My name's Christian.” Christian said, swallowing hard.
“You live here?” Ian asked, gesturing behind him toward the main house. Christian nodded, hesitant.
Ian smiled again, warming Christian deep inside.
“Well, I'm staying with my grandfather for the summer. What is there to do here?” Ian asked, his eyes lighting up playfully. Christian grinned back at him, biting his lip to contain his happiness.
The wonderful boy liked him. And he was here all summer, all never-ending glorious summer here in Christian's Eden, his secret place that he now wanted to share, something that had never occurred to him to want. The thought of sharing his world with the blond boy was more magical than anything with far away princes or potions that he had ever read. Christian was enchanted and his enchanter smiled at him, again, and beckoned. Christian followed him into the trees, ready to show Ian anything, everything, if he would only smile at him again.
And so the long-ago summer went, warm days softening into deep blue nights, time together spent in trees and under bushes, exploring through the old house and out into the far parts of the grounds where Christian rarely went. They found treasures in the library, old books with wonderful picture plates of far off places that they pored over. They discovered a hidden family of foxes and watched as the kits grew larger, rolling with each other like puppies in the soft grass while their mother looked on, bemused and indulgent. They skipped rocks in the stream and then waded in it, finally shucking clothing to swim in the shallow water, splashing each other like dolphins.
Christian showed Ian all his secret places, told him all his secret thoughts…all but one. There was one thought he kept locked away inside, one feeling that he never shared with his friend. The love he felt was so intense, so like fire and lightening in his heart, that he feared to let it loose for fear of scorching them both. Never thinking that it was wrong, he only thought that it was too much, too bright, too shining, too intense a light and so he kept it shuttered in all the days and nights he walked and talked with Ian, loving his closeness, loving his smile, his sky blue eyes, his scent on the air. Christian came to love the sound of Ian's voice calling for him, the sight of Ian appearing like a wood nymph from the trees, clad for hunting, and beckoning Christian to join him. He stole food from the kitchen, not deigning to ask the housekeeper, not wishing to discuss the young god with mere mortals, and packed picnics for them to share in their special places. He even said hello to the grandfather, the gardener, a thing he had never bothered to do before when his world was circumscribed by his own thoughts and secret wanderings. Other people were not a difficulty now and he had even considered taking Ian up to meet his father, but had thought better of it. His father was too strange even for Ian to accept and he was ashamed to introduce them. But this thought was a passing one, seldom clouding his happiness, and he lived and loved for Ian through every day of that glorious and glistening endless summer when each morning brought joy because it brought Ian.
Sometimes, at night, they would lay beside each other in Christian's attic room, the window open to the summer air, wrapped around each other for warmth as they talked or simply lay in companionable silence. Now and then, Ian would do that thing that Christian had thought of as a solitary pleasure, putting his hand inside Christian's bedclothes to stroke him with a sure hand. And he would pull Christian's willing hand to his own organ and they would bring each other sweet, intense feelings and a gasping relief that often left them both laughing, then finally falling asleep wound together like vines. Christian loved the feel of Ian, the smoothness and the hardness of him, the beauty of his face and the tenderness of his voice at such moments, and he knew he would someday have to tell his one secret to his friend. The love threatened to burst from him at times, like a penned animal prancing and dancing to be free, and he curled his heart around that secret; happy, waiting for the right moment to share it with Ian. For surely Ian would welcome the secret and he might, Christian thought in moments of wild abandon, even have a secret of his own to share. That a heart's love itself could spark love in another heart seemed as obvious as air to Christian, as likely as gravity and as harmless as a dove. His dreams were sweet that summer, sweetened with Ian himself and the soft days and nights they spent together. He was sixteen and he was in love. He had no room in his heart or mind for anything else.
The day Christian let go of his secret was as bright and warm as any other day, the sky no more or less blue, the grass as green. They were lying side by side on a nest of hay in the stable, silently together, drowsing in the summer warmth. Christian was watching Ian's eyes as he gazed upwards, his azure eyes following the birds that flew in and out of the sunbeams in the rafters. Christian laid his hand on Ian's chest and Ian smiled without looking.
“What?” Ian asked, his voice soft, relaxed. Christian leaned over him and smiled down at his friend. Ian raised his eyebrows, grinning.
“Yes?” Ian asked, playful. There was a hint of summer sun in his very voice, thought Christian, and the sounds of Ian were, to him, the sounds of happiness. Christian traced a finger down the side of Ian's face, marveling at the softness of his skin and the heat it gave off even now. He felt his secret pushing at the gates of his heart and he hesitated. But looking into Ian's blue eyes reassured him and he threw open the stronghold, letting in the sunshine.
Christian leaned down and kissed Ian on the lips gently but firmly, the softness of those lips sending shivers down his slender body. He was completely unprepared for what happened next, his heart entirely open and as vulnerable as a bird's egg.
Ian sat up, shoving Christian from him.
“What the hell are you doing?” Ian demanded in a tone unlike any he'd used before. Ian stood and Christian scrambled to stand before him, his shoes sinking down into the hay.
Christian's heart was beating wildly both from the kiss and from the shove, he couldn't think clearly, couldn't see anything in his mind but Ian's face before him.
“I…kissed you, Ian.” Christian said, his voice catching, uncertain.
“I know that. Why'd you do it?” Ian asked, his face darkening. Somehow the stable seemed dustier, more threatening to Christian, than it had a moment ago and the happy beams of sunlight were now gone. There was only Ian and the terrible expression on his face.
Christian studied Ian's beloved face for clues, for something he could take his bearings by, some guide, but found nothing. So he spoke hesitantly, his voice gone hoarse and low.
“Ian…I love you, Ian.” Christian said in a voice as light as air. He felt as if the ground itself were opening up beneath him, as if he were falling down a dark hole and that if he fell, he would never get up again. He reached out a hand to Ian, touching his chest lightly. Ian shoved him back again and Christian nearly fell.
“What are you, some kind of freak, some kind of deviate?” Ian demanded. In his fury he seemed to tower over Christian, who had trouble finding the breath to answer his friend.
“I don't know what that is, Ian, but…I mean, we love each other, we-” Christian began.
The sudden blow to his stomach knocked the air from his lungs and doubled him over, gasping. The knowledge that Ian had hit him, had hurt him on purpose, threatened to bring him to his knees far more than the physical pain itself. As he struggled for air, staring into the hay at their feet, he also struggled for meaning, but found none.
“They all said you were crazy, Christian, but I wouldn't believe them. Men don't love other men, don't kiss other men, and you'd know that if you weren't holed up in this run-down house all your life.” Ian spat out.
Christian straightened up and looked into Ian's face, finding nothing there that he could recognize, but still he searched, his eyes begging for an answer, an explanation, a reprieve. But there was none. And so he spoke in a whisper one last time.
“But…the things we did, the things we do, Ian, I thought you felt the same as I did, I thought-”
Ian's scowl was a rain cloud bursting.
“I'm no deviate!” Ian yelled into Christian's pale face.
And he was gone. The stable was empty save for the horses in the far stalls, shuffling their hooves against the hay and snorting. There was no sunlight and barely enough air for breathing; the walls seemed close and dirty, dank with old rain. Christian stood motionless, his heart had stopped beating and there was nothing in front of his eyes, nothing at all. He stared off into that nothingness and felt a coldness move through his body and take it over.
How long he stood there, he never knew, but at last he went back to the silent house and climbed the long, steep stairs to his garret. He lay down on the bed; his face pressed down into the quilt. He began to cry, softly at first, then harder until, unable to stop, his whole body shook and the sound seemed to fill his own ears. It was the sound of a broken heart; it was almost the sound of dying.
And everything changed, as if by magic. It was as if Ian no longer existed, in fact, he was gone, gone home, as the groundskeeper told Christian when he finally found the courage to knock on that door. The old man then slammed the door in Christian's face. Christian walked back to the main house, empty, his heart dragging in the dirt and leaves that littered his path. He did not see the creatures who looked for him, who followed him; he did not hear the birds calling back and forth about him. That day and the next, they went unfed, untouched, unwatched by human eyes and they wondered where their friend had gone. But he was a shell of himself, walking but wounded, empty of all thoughts but one. And that one thought was heartbreak.
When his father called him into his august presence, Christian knew it could be for nothing he would enjoy for his father never asked for him, seldom spoke to him, seldom spoke to anyone. When his father, without naming why, said he was to go away to military school, Christian forced himself to ask if he could just stay home, as he was. His father's resultant anger was something Christian had never seen before. His father knew everything, he said, everything, and military school would cure his son. Christian was his only son and he wasn't going to allow him to run wild any longer. Christian was going to learn how to act properly, how a gentlemen behaved, and there was nothing like the military for that, his father said. It was settled. Christian was leaving tomorrow. His heart covered in shadows, he crept away and hid from his father, from the housekeeper who suddenly had seemed anxious to know where Christian was at all times, from the darkness that seemed to menace him from every corner.
He had no home now, he was being sent away, he had no love now, he had been pushed away, he had no friends and nothing, nothing at all, to anchor him in the world. He could not remember sunlight; he could not remember laughter. He had fallen into that dark hole and he would never, ever climb out again. He hardly noticed when night fell except that they stopped calling for him and the house grew silent. He couldn't leave this house, it was all he knew and the emptiness in his heart gave him nothing else to cling to in his darkness.
In the dark center of the night, Christian went like a sleepwalker to his father's study, opened the polished mahogany gun case, took out a hunting rifle, put the barrel into his mouth and, without hesitation, pulled the trigger.
The sound of the shot echoed through the dusty house like the end of the world.
Christian would never leave his home now.
When the birds called to him, he knew their voices and opened his eyes.
Above him, a family of doves he'd watched for years circled, dipping down a wing each time they passed close as if in salute. He lay in the clearing beneath them; the deer beside him raised up its delicate head and looked at him with a clear, sad eye.
Behind him, the house loomed dark and forbidding, a place of shadows, of sharp sounds that cut through the night. Before him and around him were the clearing and the flowers and the creatures he knew. Above him was the sun, letting its bright sunlight fall from wide arms, generous with its gold. A fox kit peeked its face past a low thorny bush to smile a red foxy smile at the boy.
Being dead wasn't half as bad as he'd expected.
As the years went by, the house fell further into disrepair, the cottage was abandoned and the riot of green at last took charge. Local legend told of a ghost, a boy seldom seen, who would now and then walk the grounds in the company of deer and foxes and smaller creatures. Hunters learned to try their luck elsewhere, despite the profusion of wildlife on that property. They said that the ghost did not care for guns.
So, for decades, the house stood empty, falling in upon itself, the crumbling cottage and stables weathering away completely. No one went there or cared to; the growing things took over the land. Silence reigned over the days but sometimes, in the nights, you could hear voices if you listened carefully. Few went near enough to try.
That is, until the For Sale sign went up and the house was sold. To a fashionable young divorcee who had attained some success as a lawyer despite being a woman…and her teenage son.
The red sports car tore up the driveway like a tornado, radio blaring Connie Francis' Second Hand Love; the chassis jostling over broken pavement until the car braked to a screaming halt just in front of the house. . The driver, a young woman with shoulder length brown hair tied back with a white silk scarf wound around her head and neck, killed the engine. The music died abruptly, too, and the silence that followed echoed against the stone front of the old house. Trees hung over the steep roof, surrounding the house, hugging its vine-covered stone walls protectively while their roots pushed and prodded at the foundations, kissing the old mansion while they killed it.
The woman pulled off her sunglasses, unnecessary in the early evening but very chic, and peered up at the house, appraising, with a businesslike lack of expression on her face. Calculations, restorations and fabulous parties that advanced her career blossomed in her mind like exuberant hothouse flowers. Her son slouched down in the passenger seat, his long legs in the ubiquitous blue jeans that had always annoyed his teachers, his knees propped up against the dashboard. His eyes were closed, a transistor radio held against one ear as he tuned in Wolfman Jack on XERF and tuned out his mother.
He wasn't keen on this moving thing, it wasn't his idea, but he'd already voiced his opinion only to have it ignored. And he didn't have a lot of currency with his mother right now; he'd been arrested last month for the third time this year. Joy riding. Grand theft auto. He didn't know how to explain it to her, didn't himself know why he'd done it. It felt as if he'd been angry for years and he had, back in their old home, the holes in his bedroom wall to prove it.
All he knew for sure is that he hated school, hated his fair-weather friends and hated his mother. Most of all, he hated himself and his so called life. He opened the door and swung his feet out, his black boots (engineer style from Sears and Roebuck: they cost him $15.99 and a fight with his mother because nice boys don't wear them…which was the point) hitting the pavement with a thud. His mother called for him to help her with the bags but he ignored her, the radio mashed against his ear. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her opening the boot of the imported car and frowning. He closed his eyes, blotting her out with Chubby Checker's Slow Twistin'.
His name was Thomas and he was sixteen years old.
The year was 1962.
Christian moved through the old house without thought, glancing in rooms filled with cobwebs and covered furniture, at peace in the silence of the summer evening. Later, he would walk the grounds, the tangled gardens, followed by slinking feral cats, nodding to the night birds and then sitting with them in the moonlight. He loved the night, the long shadows cast by the moon, the strange scavengers crossing open spaces with a wary eye, and the dormant blooms that filled the night with scent. The house itself was no less interesting, mice scrabbled behind the walls, spiders spun elaborate webs, and it seemed a spotted owl had taken up residence in the kitchen chimney.
Christian stood awhile in his attic bedroom, his mind a confusion of memories as he ran his eyes across the quilt-covered bed, chewed by ancient moths and mice, the stacks of books beside it, their pages gone brittle, and the bookshelf crammed with boyhood treasures: bird's nests, a drawstring bag of marbles, arrowheads, a sun bleached turtle shell. Long ago, he had removed the spent shell casings and rusted antique revolver that once lay amid the clutter, the sight of firearms bothered him, they tickled an uncomfortable something in his memory. But, in the end, the room was just a room and he moved on, ready to complete his nightly circuit before joining the garden creatures.
It was in these depths of a sleepy summer night when Christian discovered the intruders.
There had been something in the air, Christian now realized, but he had ignored it, intent on his own wandering thoughts. Now he saw that things were out of place, in disarray, and a few of the upstairs rooms were filled with boxes. The blue bedroom, once the home of a long-dead brother whom Christian had never known, was scrubbed clean, leaving a lemony smell, the mirror over the dresser was sparkling and now showed his faint reflection in the silvered glass. Christian stopped a moment to contemplate that image, wondering at the earnest young man it showed him. He looked down at the things strewn across the top of the dresser: a blue plastic rectangle with a grilled front and a single metal insect antenna, two packs of cigarettes in cellophane wrappers, a worn paperback book, a wooden hairbrush. Christian touched his finger to the handle of the brush, thoughtful, and then traced a finger across the front of the book. Catcher in the Rye. He had never heard of the title but he liked the words, they reminded him of something.
A movement from the bed startled him and he whirled around. From atop the covers, an enormous dog lifted up its big, square head to gaze at him placidly, eye to eye. Christian smiled at the dog and it laid its huge head calmly back down on lion paws. Christian walked closer to the dog, curious and without caution, his hand outstretched. As he touched the fur between its knowing eyes, making it close them in gratitude, he saw the human head on the pillow and froze, astonished.
A naked boy lay under the covers, beneath the dog, his head on top of the pillow, both hands pushed under it. His shoulders gleamed white in the light from the window, his short hair was dark against the pale linens. As Christian watched, spell bound, the boy sighed and turned in his sleep, his face now visible. Christian stared at him, suddenly disoriented, suddenly confused. Who was this sleeping boy and how did he get here? It was as if that dead brother had come back to life, to his room…but no, this boy was dark haired and his features were unfamiliar, like nothing in any of the faded photographs Christian had seen. Mesmerized, Christian held out one trembling finger, hesitating, and then bent close to touch the boy's flesh, between his shoulder blades. Warm, almost hot. Definitely alive, his body rose and fell in slow respiration. Christian drew his finger upwards to trace the features, slack in slumber, marveling at the cheekbone, the jaw line, and the soft lips, parted to expel warm air. He was young, that much was clear, but who was he? Christian suddenly wanted to see those eyes open and know their color but he pulled back, kneeling down beside the bed to watch more closely. The dog occasionally lifted its head to look and then would settle back, content. Christian watched the boy sleep, watched the covers fall aside when he turned again, watched as brief expressions cross his face while he dreamed.
Christian remembered sleep, remembered mortal dreams, but now he knew a kind of waking slumber that never left him, an endless shimmering awareness, filled with visions, that let time pass unnoticed and made it hard to distinguish what might be real in the world. For instance, was he dreaming this apparition, the phantom of smooth limbs and gentle breathing who smelled so solidly of sleeping boy? Or had someone come to the house at last, someone else, someone alive, this boy and his dog that lay before him? For so long, the house had been empty, the occasional watchman walking through or a real estate agent who would take measurements and photographs, leaving quickly. Christian had grown accustomed to this; solitude was his element, as natural to him as water to a fish, air to a bird. But the boy sleeping before him stirred up thoughts long forgotten, memories of a single shining summer spent less lonely, days swimming in the stream and nights sharing secrets under the stars. He felt a pain, a heaviness in his chest, and he pulled back from the final destination of his thoughts. Some things were surely best forgotten.
The boy moaned in his sleep and turned again, murmuring, now on his back, arms flung wide, and the dog rearranged itself beside him after glancing again at Christian. The boy's eyes opened before Christian realized it, enraptured as he was by the features themselves, but it was too dark for him to see their color. They stared at one another, each caught in his own dreams and thoughts, bodies motionless. The boy seemed to study Christian in the moonlight, his eyes serious and steady, without expression. On impulse, Christian leaned down to brush his lips against the boy's forehead, tasting the warm and salty skin as he did. Looking up at him, the boy smiled, his features softening. Then his eyes closed again and he was gone. Christian watched him sleep for a time unmeasured, then softly slipped away into the shadows, a smile on his lips.
It felt, to Christian, as if he had suddenly woken up after a long and dream filled slumber.
Thomas sat at the kitchen table, transistor radio in his hand, blowing on the coffee his mother had handed him in a ceramic mug. The woman stood at the counter, buttering toast, the folded newspaper in front of her open to the business section. A radio stood atop the brand new refrigerator, Connie Francis' Everybody's Somebody's Fool playing, competing with the sharper, tinny sounds from her son's handheld machine. She lifted her head without looking as she spoke to him.
“Turn that thing off, Tommy, I can't hear myself think.”
He reached to adjust the volume without seeming to reduce the noise.
“Tommy.” She repeated, annoyed.
He sighed and lowered the volume, setting the radio down beside his plate so that he could drink the coffee. He watched his mother from beneath long lashes, his usual frown on his face.
“Mom,” He said finally, in an aggrieved tone, “Please don't call me Tommy.”
His mother ignored that and turned over the newspaper section. Thomas looked at her, feeling his resentment, a constant companion, creep up and sit down beside him. He couldn't believe she'd dragged him here, couldn't believe they had to live in this mausoleum, this rotten old house filled with dusty upholstery, endless rooms and dark corners. The outdoors wasn't so bad, he'd seen animals out there and it looked more like a jungle than a garden. His mother said she was going to get a landscaper in when the house was done but Thomas planned to enjoy as much as he could before that happened. His Kodak Brownie camera sat on the table beside the radio, he wanted to take a few rolls today while he was exploring. The box with his darkroom equipment was half unpacked already and laid out in his bathroom, ready for action. He drank the coffee impatiently, scorching the tip of his tongue as he did. He put the mug down a little roughly, splashing the contents.
“When are those workmen coming?” Thomas asked.
She made a disapproving noise, still reading, a glass of orange juice in her hand.
“Not for another three weeks, and even then, they can only work on weekdays. It'll take twice as long as I'd planned on. We might have to stay at a hotel. This place is a wreck, worse than I thought. I found mice in my closet this morning!”
Thomas chuckled then his face quickly became serious as his mother looked over at him, annoyed that he was amused. He stood, picking up the last slice of bacon from his plate and stuffing it into his mouth, then, taking his radio and camera, left the sunny kitchen with its smell of disinfectant. The many, empty dark-paneled rooms beckoned, long hallways, corners unexplored, secrets to find. After all, there was nothing else to do. He tucked his radio into his back pocket and held them camera up close, checking to see if the film was advanced and ready, if the flashbulb was fresh. In some things, things that mattered, Thomas could be very precise.
Later that morning, he sat in the library in a leather chair with cracks in the seat, his feet thrown over the arms, a lit Camel cigarette hanging from his lips. His radio rested on the marble topped table beside him, Bobby Vinton's blue and velvet voice rising up to the high ceiling where a chandelier hung, cobwebs gathered around the old gas jets. This room, like so many in the old house, had never been wired for electricity. His mother had insisted that the telephone company install a line before they arrived and it had taken workmen many days to run the cables up from the road. After that, she had given up her idea of fully electrifying the house, realizing that it would have to be redone again after the restorations, and so accepted that they would use only the more livable rooms, as she called them, in the interim. But the interim was what interested Thomas, time alone in the house with its odd, unexplained sounds that his mother said were the old house settling. It seemed already pretty settled already to Thomas; like an old man who, asked to bestir himself by the young, resented the intrusion deeply.
Thomas exhaled, watching the smoke waft upward and wreath around the tarnished brass arms of the chandelier high overhead. The bookshelves around him, lined to the top with leather bound volumes, held no interest; neither did the framed botanical drawings on the walls between them. No, what interested Thomas was his so-called future. Two more years of high school and he dreaded starting whatever passed for school out here in this place, dreaded being the new kid in a world he never meant to enter. Judging by this house, the kids here would be strange and boring and old fashioned; judging by the distance from what he considered civilization, he would slowly lose his mind. In fact, the only bright spot in all of this was the summer before him, the long days with nothing much to do and, hopefully, no one much to mind whether or not he did it. What he was going to do with this freedom was what he was having some difficulty deciding.
A movement in the corner, something changing in the shadows, lured his eyes from the ceiling…but there was nothing there. Spider webs on the wainscoting. He felt a chill on his skin and shivered, were the windows open? Surely the air outside was warm; surely the coolness was his imagination. He relaxed again into the wide back of the chair. A creaking sound, like a foot on a floorboard, made him turn his head again. Nothing, no one, he was alone. He closed his eyes and finished his cigarette.
Christian watched the boy from the corner, holding still as only he knew how to do, by reflex holding his breath when the boy looked over. The noise, the music, coming from the little machine intrigued him, it wasn't exactly good but neither was it bad. The sound reproduction left something to be desired but he found it interesting that the boy carried the source itself, turning it on and off at his pleasure. He watched the boy smoke, the machine-made cigarette loose between the tips of his slender fingers. Christian wondered what that felt like, to suck in smoke that way and pause, then release. The boy certainly seemed to enjoy it. Christian had only ever seen his father's pipes, cradled in neat rows on the pipe racks and looked over carefully before his father chose the one for that particular evening. Christian had sat many times, hidden under furniture, and seen his father tamp down the tobacco and carefully strike the match and hold the flame into the bowl while inhaling. The whole procedure struck his young self as very masculine, very gentlemanly, and he would sometimes, when his father was elsewhere, take the pipes to his nose and inhale, savoring the rich scents that clung to them. Watching the boy now, Christian remembered the pipes but this was different, terribly modern and far less romantic in effect. Still, he enjoyed seeing the boy's enjoyment, enjoyed examining the pale boy as he lay sprawled in the brown leather chair.
He seemed an age that was familiar to Christian, seemed a shape that struck chords of memory in the recesses of his wandering mind. Not many things anchored him the way the boy did, too often he found himself losing awareness and drifting, only to become alert again at some other time, in some other place. Things were different now and he had long ago accepted that but something about this boy pulled at him, inviting scrutiny, inviting closeness. And the boy's face, it seemed sad and that was a feeling that Christian knew well, though he could not say how it was that he knew it. Something sorrowful tickled his thoughts when he looked at certain things, like the bouquet of dried flowers that sat in a mason jar up in his attic room, or when he walked the path that used to lead to the gardener's cottage. Vague thoughts and feelings were what he had become accustomed to but somehow this boy solidified those thoughts, centered them on himself without, apparently, knowing that Christian was there. And he wondered about that, could the boy see him? When he trod on a board and heard it move, the boy darted a look into his corner, into his face, but then looked away, unruffled. No, the boy could not see him, it seemed, and for some reason, that made Christian feel lonelier than he ever had before.
Thereafter, day after day, Christian followed the boy as he moved through the house, seeing him pick up objects and cast them down again, watching him shoot rolls of film, hearing the music that he usually escaped from his radio, watching him smoke his packs of Camels. The boy seemed distracted and filled with a nervous energy. Now and then, Christian would purposefully make a noise or move suddenly, only to see the boy look past him, through him, and then away. He desperately wanted the boy to see him, to know him, perhaps to speak to him but in truth, he was content enough to watch, to walk where he walked, to sit beside him where he sat. Sometimes the dog, if it were there, would look right at Christian, eyes impassive, unfazed by its proximity to an invisible boy. And finally, one afternoon, they ended up back in the blue bedroom, the other boy pushing aside things on the dresser top as if looking for something. Christian stood behind him, smelling tobacco and the faint scent of flowers in the shampooed hair that stuck up bristly and brief atop his head.
Looking at the boy's face in the mirror, Christian decided that the boy was handsome, no, more than handsome, but he didn't seem to know it. He moved, careless of his person and without vanity of any kind. His clothes seemed rough, a workingman's clothes, denim pants and tight tee shirts. And those black boots, always the heavy black boots. Just now a fierce fire burned in those green eyes as they stared into his own reflection in the mirror. Or…was he looking behind him, was he frightened? Christian smiled at the boy's reflected face that looked right back into his own eyes and, for a moment, he thought he saw recognition there. But no, the boy looked down again at the clutter on the dresser top. The boy picked up a square brown box and adjusted something on it, turning a dial and peering into a hole as if looking for something in there. Seeming satisfied, he turned to face where only Christian knew he stood, his dark feline green eyes searching the air.
“Who are you?” The boy asked in a roughened whisper, his eyes moving back and forth, examining the empty space before him.
Christian was astonished, too astonished to speak in answer. The boy could see him? But no, surely not, or else why was he combing the air with his eyes as if trying to pull substance out of the very dust motes that hung there? Christian stood extremely still, not three feet in front of the boy, and stared into those emerald eyes, so filled with wary intelligence, so filled with life.
“I see you sometimes, or…I think I see you…in the shadows.” The boy told him, his voice gaining courage as he spoke.
“You…you're there, aren't you?”
Christian laughed, delighted, the sound a silvery shimmer in the small room. The boy caught his breath, seemed to listen and then exhaled hard, still looking at the air in front of him.
“My…name is Thomas. I…I'm from Philadelphia. We…I…” The boy's voice trailed off to silence as he, breathing harder, reached out a hand before him. His face was earnest; his eyes full of longing and his right hand trembled as he held it out. Looking into those eyes, Christian felt heat steal into the mists of his heart, warming and banishing the vagueness, quieting the sighs and whispers of long ago voices. Thomas' eyes seemed sad and filled with need, almost greedy with a blatant desire, so unexpected to Christian, for contact. An answering need rose up in Christian, he was suddenly overcome with the long lonely years that stretched out behind him, and he reached out carefully toward Thomas' outstretched hand.
Thomas stood motionless in his room, facing away from the mirror, breathing fast and trying to make sense of what he was feeling. He had seen something in the glass, a face, a boy's face, a thing that he had already seen, or thought he'd seen, once or twice in the days since his arrival at the old house. An image in the mirror, a solemn and serious something looking back at him, a boy with long hair framing an oval face, always before only briefly glimpsed and then gone, vanishing as if it had never been. When he turned just now, it was almost on instinct, almost as if responding to another presence, as if a person had walked up behind him, standing closer than one would expect, and quietly waited for his attention. He had almost thought he felt breath soft upon his bare neck. Now he stared into the room, into the empty air before him, and slowly extended his hand. Could he feel anything, was the air different here, colder, more damp? What was making him ever so slightly shiver, what was making his hand shake? The dog watched alertly from the bed, the great sad eyes were calm.
And then Thomas felt it, light as a feather, a brush of nothing on the hand he held out, almost as if he had thrust his arm into a mist that wasn't there. He shuddered and then spoke again. His hoarse voice held a note of entreaty.
“Let me see you…please…let me see you!”
And then he saw. The air wavered, like heat thrown off a sidewalk; and the air became thick with a blur of foxfire that slowly took shape. It was a boy, a boy standing there in front of him and reaching to touch his hand, a tentative touch, barely brushing the surface of the skin, an expression of wonder on his handsome face. Thomas smiled without thinking, the face looked so friendly, so open, so deeply interested in Thomas himself that he couldn't help it. The boy smiled back at him, suddenly radiant, suddenly as solid and real as Thomas himself. Thomas grasped the hand that touched his and felt, for just an instant, fingers and bone and flesh against his.
And then it was gone, there was nothing, the air and his hand were both empty. Thomas began to shake, his breathing ragged, and he wrapped both arms around himself tightly, still staring open-mouthed at the place where the boy had stood. The dog raised its head from its paws and barked once, sharply.
His name was Christian. Somehow, some way, Thomas knew that the phantom of a boy was named Christian.
The rest of that afternoon and into the evening, Thomas stalked the house in search of Christian, the huge rottweiler at his heels, eliciting the occasional complaint from his preoccupied mother. He poked his head into each and every abandoned room, he walked the halls up and down; he peered into mirrors and windows, looking for a face in the depths of the dust. Finding nothing, deeply disheartened, he finally found himself at the foot of stairs he'd never before taken. Looking up, he realized that he must be at the top of the house, that these steps must lead to an attic and so, thinking an attic the perfect place to seek a shade, he climbed them two at a time, his black boots thumping hard on the old boards.
Arriving at the top, he stood in front of a closed door with a brass fitted glass knob. Turning the knob, anxious, he found it locked. Thomas let out a frustrated hiss and jiggled the knob, then laid his head against the door and closed his eyes. He felt a sadness deep inside him, a lonely longing that he couldn't explain, had never before felt, and that seemed to eat up his years of anger and turn them into unhappy hope. Whatever it was that he had felt, whatever it was that he had seen earlier, it was a good thing, a thing that touched him deep inside and warmed secret places long accustomed to cold. Whoever Christian was, Thomas wanted to find him, to see him again, to know that he was near. To talk to the empty air and yet feel himself not to be alone. Alone, ah, but Thomas was alone here at a locked door at the summit of the house and surely he had only imagined that touch, the solid hand in his, the smiling phantasm in his bedroom mirror. If he had imagined it, did that make him insane? He slumped against the door, dejected, defeated, fighting back tears.
There was a click and the knob turned in Thomas' hand. The door fell open slightly, as if a breeze had pressed against it, but Thomas knew that it had been locked only a moment before. And so he pushed gently, letting the door swing wide into a little room he had never entered.
There was no one there, no one behind the door who could have unlocked it. The room was silent, small, and littered with objects difficult to see in the gloomy light that came from the single uncurtained window. As Thomas' eyes adjusted, he began to make out furniture: a bed against the wall and a bookcase just past it, filled with a clutter of things that drew him closer. Peering down, he saw several clusters of twigs, a lumpy cotton bag, a group of arrowheads laid out in rows, all somehow free of dust. He picked a large arrowhead up and held it to the faint light.
“Do you like it?” Came the whisper in his ear.
Thomas whirled, clutching the worked stone, to find no one behind him, no one in the room at all but himself. Still, there was something, like the feeling you get when someone sneaks up on you and the hairs at the nape of your neck rise up, expectant, even though you are unaware. Thomas felt this now, and looked hard into the empty air, frowning. Something, yes, something was there.
“I can't see you.” Thomas complained, his voice a quiet outrush of air. He concentrated on the space in front of him. He heard a light laugh, something like a sigh.
Thomas swallowed, and then spoke again. “Christian?”
And there he was, as if summoned from a genie's bottle, standing only a foot in front of Thomas and smiling faintly. That he had not been there a moment before seemed impossible, he looked so real, so solid, so full of life as he gave Thomas a dreamy smile.
“Hello.” Thomas said, and then blushed at the peculiarity of exchanging proper greetings in these circumstances. But Christian's smile deepened, lengthened, and his brown eyes seemed to suddenly glow with happy light.
“Hello.” Christian said, his voice just above a whisper, like a sigh in the night.
Thomas stood there, unable to think of what to do or say next, he had been so caught up in finding Christian that he had not thought of what he would do should he locate him. And…it was almost enough, to stand there and look at Christian, at his baggy old-fashioned shirt, his loose pants that seemed, somehow, to have a tear in them, but how could a ghost rip his clothing? Christian's face, so sad the first few times he'd glimpsed it, was now suffused with happiness, his smile heartfelt as he returned Thomas' gaze. Thomas could not remember when last someone had looked at him that way, had seen him and been pleased with what they saw. Thomas realized that he had had no friends, perhaps for years, and that, despite the strangeness, or perhaps because of it, he desperately wanted Christian to be his friend. With Christian, he felt less angry than he could ever remember feeling. And with that thought, Thomas reached up his hand and then hesitated; unsure of himself, unsure of the welcome he might receive.
But Christian saw; he saw the boy, saw the gesture and somehow must have seen the heart because he opened wide his arms to Thomas. Astonished, and feeling himself near tears again, Thomas moved closer and into the circle of those arms. As he felt them close around him, solid and warm, enfolding him into Christian's body, Thomas felt something tight loosen in his chest and come unglued, releasing whatever it was that he had kept balled up inside for so long. And so he did cry, his crew cut head on Christian's shoulder, up in the moonlit garret of the unkempt house. He cried, as he had needed to cry for so long, free at last to do so without censure, without criticism, without questions as to why he did so. He simply cried against Christian's neck, warm in that tight embrace, feeling his tears hot on the other boy's skin. And Christian held him, soothing him with stroking on his back as if he were a wild animal, murmuring nothing against Thomas' ear for the long minutes until it was over. When Thomas finished, sniffling as he raised his head up, Christian smiled into those green eyes so near his own. Thomas smiled back, at first uncertain, then gaining surety as he gazed deep into Christian's dark eyes, so filled with compassion, so filled with something that seemed close to love.
And just as Thomas had that thought, Christian leaned closer and pressed his lips to Thomas' cheek. The touch of those lips, the skin warm and filled with life, sent a shuddering pleasure through Thomas and he looked again at Christian, astonished.
But he was gone. Just like that, ignis fatuus, Christian was not there, the air was once again empty.
Even so, Thomas smiled to himself as he lowered the arms he'd had wrapped around Christian's waist a moment ago. He replaced the arrowhead in its neat row on the bookshelf and left the attic room, glancing around once to make certain it was indeed empty and drawing the door closed behind him.
As Thomas went down the steep stairs, he heard a click above him, the snick of a lock, and he shook his head, laughing softly as he continued downward. He understood completely, he had no idea how he'd manage if he didn't have a lock on his own bedroom door. Sometimes a young man simply needed to hide himself away. Thomas had the certain feeling that he would be welcome there again, nonetheless.
In the days and nights that followed, Thomas often felt a shiver of recognition, like walking coatless through a mist, as he explored the house and grounds, he often felt a familiar closeness at his side that made him smile. Now and then, he would turn to find Christian there, regarding him with amusement, looking like nothing so much as a real, live boy filled with pumping blood and solid bone. They would sometimes hold hands as children did, in innocence and friendship, in those moments of clarity when Christian and Thomas seemed so much the same. Other times, Thomas would simply know that Christian was there, hovering close, the occasional brush felt against his skin, as if to remind him of the other boy should he happen to forget as he lay in the tangled gardens or prone upon a lacquered floor.
Thomas noticed that when he was in those gardens and wild woods, little animals would often come out to peek at him, birds would light close by and watch him, evaluating this new boy. A doe once walked right up to him, unafraid, and laid her dainty head upon his knee as he sat cross-legged in the grass, and looked at him with knowing eyes. Another day, three doves touched down alongside his foot and he held still, afraid to frighten them, only to see Christian's slender hand extended towards the birds, the boy suddenly and solidly present beside him. As he touched the birds, Christian turned to smile at Thomas, his brown eyes radiant with affection and somehow relaxed, dreamy, and at peace. Those moments became an anchor for Thomas, a thing to remember when his blood ran hot and angry and he felt frightened, or alone, or a failure. He no longer thought about school in the fall, he no longer thought about his old home, this was his home now and he never wanted to leave it, never wanted to see the last of the old mansion that he had so despised.
In the depths of night, Thomas would sometimes crush the pillow to his chest and fight off tears, feeling bereft in the dark and far lonelier without his friend. As these nights passed, Thomas sometimes became aware of Christian in the room with him, unseen but kindly and concerned. Then one night, as he lay pressed facedown into his pillow, the rottweiler asleep at his side, Thomas felt a gentle touch on his cheek. He turned over in the bed and looked up to see Christian leaning over him. The sight of the other boy, in a moment when he felt vulnerable as an open oyster, stirred awake a warmth deep inside him. Without thinking, Thomas lifted the bedcovers in invitation and, with a surprised look that quickly became a blush, Christian slid in against the heat of his friend's body. The covers layered over them like fallen snow, their bodies were warm and safe beneath, nested and snug. Christian wrapped himself around Thomas unselfconsciously, soothing the tension of the other boy with the selfless certainty of his embrace. Thomas could not remember ever feeling so secure, so peaceful, so relaxed. Nestled in Christian's arms, he let the nearness of the other boy draw him down into the depths of sleep. Christian began joining him often in the nights, appearing like a sudden moonrise, sitting on the side of the bed or sliding between the covers, sometimes trading kisses and caresses, warming Thomas with his body and his gentle heart. Thomas began to sleep more soundly than he ever had before and his dreams would leave a smile that lingered on his face when he awoke.
Thomas did not know when he first thought the word `love' but he surely had pushed it aside many times before taking it up to examine more rigorously. He had never loved another boy and never thought to do so but, then again, he had perhaps never loved anyone at all. His life before seemed so sterile to him now, so barren of friendship and so filled with angry moments that he could hardly believe that he had endured it. And to think that he had dreaded coming to this house, despaired of living here, of spending his days and nights in this old and wonderful place, so beloved by Christian. And it was Christian who made it livable, who made it lovable, who shared the grounds and house with him, showing Thomas secret places, taking his hand and leading him through the woods, through the hallways and endless rooms, proudly opening the rare and fragile books that filled the library, teaching Thomas to hold carefully still so that a wild-eyed rabbit might take something from his hand.
And the nights, those long luxurious nights spent with Christian beside him, lying like spoons, Christian's arms around his chest as he found the gateway to sleep, were like nothing Thomas had ever known. Even to think of Christian, as Thomas was now doing, brought a flush to his face and quickened the beats of his heart. What an odd and inexplicable thing it was, to depend so dearly on someone who was surely not alive, someone who did not need air and food and sunlight to survive. And yet, knowing Christian, it seemed no less natural for Thomas to love him than for flowers to grow from seeds or for tiny birds to spring forth from eggshells. Christian was part of the fabric of this place, woven through like bright threads in a tapestry, enlivening and giving meaning to the whole. And so Thomas took the word, `love', and wrapped it in bright paper and ribbons and tucked it deep inside the secret clefts of his heart, waiting for a perfect, private moment to make his offering.
Thomas' mother saw the changes in him but only in passing, for she was caught up in her new job, in gaining hard-won advancement in a world dominated by graying, married men educated at the best schools. She was glad for the peace that a quiet son brought but seldom thought to question why it had arrived and had anyone suggested the real reason, she would never have believed them; for she was a serious person, grounded in what she could see and touch, and had never been much given to fancy, even as a young girl. Now, a single mother working among wolves in Saville Row suits with a lean and hungry look to them, she had no inclination to change. She was busy and that was that, she loved her son but trusted in inoculations, school schedules and a kind of parental fatalism to see herself through to her son's full maturity. She had no time to question, even had she imagined that her questions would be answered. Her son had never shown a need to confide in his mother, or in any adult, and she so she only rarely took readings on that teenage barometer, those moods that rose and fell inexplicably were what she had come to expect. That he had not been arrested this summer was a blessing and a surprise to her, that he had found things to occupy and satisfy his days was sheer relief. That the brand new and very expensive RCA Color console unit sat unwatched in the living room did not concern her, she had never thought of television as a positive influence. More, she did not require as she had never been the sort of parent to poke and pry, well remembering the agonizing, intrusive interrogations of her own mother when she was that age. And so she let the days of her son's summer go past her unremarked, rising each morning to busy herself with work only to fall asleep exhausted, deep in the night.
When the workmen came, the days were suddenly noisy and piles of refuse were now outside the front door, and Thomas was angry. Christian said that it was fine, long overdue, and harmless really, to repair the old house and could Thomas not be patient? Christian's tones were so reasonable that Thomas relented and sometimes even watched them working while he smoked a Camel. The workmen, all men from town, would often see the young man watch them, dressed in his blue jeans and boots like a street thug, and they would tell each other that they could always see a shadowed something standing just behind the boy. Since they had all heard the stories, they knew, without saying, that it was the ghost, the horrible, spectral thing that drove hunters from the grounds and haunted the hallways of the old house. Had it been their own son, they would have kept him safe but as the mother was an outsider, and a career woman besides, they said nothing, simply leaving immediately after the day's work was done and never dawdling, none of them ever seen on the property after sundown.
And so the summer went, the days lazing bright in the warm sun, the nights bringing a chill that encouraged closeness, whispers, and nesting under covers. The boy, with the hulking dog beside him, would walk the grounds, a ghostly something wreathed around and between them, all delighting in the birds that always came to look for Christian and the small animals who slowly learned that a rottweiler, shadowing its master, was not a hunter of tiny prey. Thomas was happy and his heart opened up like the beak of a baby bird, ever hungry, sated yet never fully satisfied. He could not get enough of his new life, this house and its beloved and loving guardian, of quiet days and the nights spent wrapped together like puppies, crushed close and cherished. Thomas did not want this summer to end, he did not want to go to school, he did not want to ever leave this place, this old, unlovely house and unkempt grounds where he had finally found his heart…and that heart's desire.
And thus it was when their world detonated like an atomic bomb, with Thomas at point zero.
His mother called him in to her study one evening, after dinner, and the look on her face was one of resignation. Thomas took a seat in the overstuffed chair beside her desk, slouching down out of habit, his legs thrust out long in front of him, hands deep in his pockets. He stared at the intricate patterns on the Oriental rug at his feet, awkward and uncomfortable with the summons. His mother held a letter in her hands and wore her reading glasses, which always managed to make her look a little dowdy, despite her careful dress. She looked at Thomas over the tops of her glasses and sighed.
“Thomas, your father has been in contact with my lawyers.” She began and Thomas' heart sank, he didn't want to hear about his father now, didn't want to feel that anger again, but she continued. “Your father…has remarried.” Her voice was flat, emotionless, but Thomas wondered how she could feel nothing at this news. He looked up into her face but could read nothing there.
“So? What's that got to go with me, with us? I mean…he doesn't want me to go to the wedding, does he?” Thomas asked, indignant.
She shook her head. “No, Thomas, they're already married. He wrote because…well, because he thinks that…well, that a young boy should have two parents, and his wife agrees. They want you to come live with them in Boston.” She watched her son as she spoke.
Thomas felt cold suddenly, a panic that began in his stomach and moved outward, upward, until it engulfed him totally. He stared at his mother, his heart racing, thumping in his chest.
“No.” He said simply, harshly. “I don't want to. I don't want to leave, I don't want to live with them, Mom.”
She sighed again, pinching the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger as she adjusted her glasses. She looked weary and a little old.
“Thomas, we…you and I, we don't have a say in it, really. My lawyers tell me that I should go along with it because I'd lose even more in a court battle. Juries always want to see kids in families, families with two parents and a mother who stays at home. There's just no way that I can keep you against his will, there's nothing I can do…and I'm sorry. I don't like it but that's how it is.”
Thomas sat back in the chair, his face frozen and without expression.
“What are you saying, Mom, that I have to go? That I have to…leave?” She nodded, sad. “Why? Why can't you do anything about it? I thought you were some goddamn hotshot lawyer!”
She shook her head. “I'm not that kind of lawyer. I'm in corporate law, not family practice. And even if I were, I don't-”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Thomas yelled, suddenly furious, and leapt up to stand, panting, over the desk. She looked away, hurt in her eyes, but he ignored it. “I hate you! I hate you; I hate you! I wish I'd never been born!” He dashed his arms across the desk and swept all the papers, correspondence and legal folders off and onto the floor in a great flurry of white dancing paper.
Before it settled, Thomas was gone, leaving his mother hunched over in her chair and trying not to cry.
And just like that, the magic spell was broken.
Forgetting everything, forgetting love, forgetting Christian, Thomas went to the library with his radio and a pack of Camel cigarettes, his mind blank, his heart empty of everything but a furious anger that set off fireworks again and again inside him. He hated his mother with every atom of his being, he loathed and despised her, he wished she were dead. He wouldn't be sorry, either. It would be good if his father were dead, too, and he damn sure wouldn't be sorry about that. He sat smoking Camel after Camel, the radio on loud, Soldier Boy by the Shirelles segueing into Let Me In by the Sensations. He thought of his mother's handgun in her bedside drawer, thought of taking it, somehow, and shooting his father in front of his stupid new wife. The thought brought a painful smile to Thomas' face, but then he hung his head, cradling it in his arms, and began to cry. The sobs grew louder, shaking his shoulders as he gave vent to all the pent up hurt that was struggling free.
He could not leave this house, it was the only bright thing in his whole entire life, he could not go live with his father, a man who didn't love him, had seldom spoken to him and surely now had another life, another wife, and no use at all for Thomas. But the unacknowledged center of each and every thought was Christian's shining face, the touch of his hand in the dark, the sound of his voice like a whisper on the wind. That Thomas could not leave was self-evident to him, as true and provable as gravity or that the earth revolved around the sun. He just simply…could not go. Before, perhaps, he would not have known better but now, having tasted a kind of paradise in life, a centered world that made sense at last to him, he could settle for nothing else, could not live with less. And to live without Christian was simply and plainly impossible. Sitting alone, he could not remember the sunlight itself, it all seemed dim in his memory, and he could not remember the sound of his own laughter. He hated them, he hated them all, but most of all, he hated himself and that old hate boiled up like ants from a kicked anthill, exploding outward in a mass of vicious, insect fury that threatened to eat him alive, leaving only the bones of who he had been. And he sat there, gnawing on his own heart, crying until nothing more would come, on into the depths of the dark summer night.
Long past midnight, after the katydids and crickets had gone to sleep, Thomas finally stood. He padded softly, stealthy as a thief, to his mother's bedroom and slid open the drawer beside her bed, taking out the .38 nickel plated revolver and, cuddling it to his chest like a child, he left the room as silently as he had entered it. He went down the long hallways to the unused back stairway and walked up it slowly but surely, taking careful, even steps, until he reached the door of the attic bedroom. He tried the knob and, finding it locked, he paused then held onto the steel rail that ran alongside and kicked once, hard, just beneath the doorknob with his boot. The door flew inward with a scream of tortured metal and wood, slamming against the wall and bouncing partway back.
Thomas stopped in the center of the room, breathing hard, and then knelt down to the wooden floor with his prize. He sat there for a moment, and then lifted the revolver to his temple, placed his finger in the trigger and squeezed.
The bullet blew a hole in the mattress of the bed that sent feathers flying through the small room. The gun lay at Thomas' feet, he stood unharmed but shaking, above it. In front of him was Christian, furious and very solid, his reddened face testifying to blood that wasn't there, his rapid breathing to lungs that were nothing more than illusion. Thomas stared at him, astonished, simply unable to think at all.
“You…you pushed me!” Thomas said, confused and stating the very obvious.
“Of course I did, I can't let you do that!” Christian said, his angry voice stronger and steadier than Thomas had ever heard it.
“You don't understand; they're making me leave!” Thomas told him in a rush of words, feeling the tears begin to sting his eyes.
But Christian was shaking his head. “I do understand. But…I love you, Thomas. I don't want you to be like me. I want you to be alive, alive for a long time.” Christian's words were more sad than angry and his face slowly lost some of its color. He was seeing with unexpected clarity a long ago August night and the sound of a gunshot, a noise that ripped the world apart forever. He now remembered, but for just a moment, why he hated guns and why he could never let Thomas do what he had meant to do. Even as Christian stood there looking at Thomas, the sounds and smells of that long ago night were fading, disappearing into the wisps and shadows of his mind, leaving him once again alone with Thomas in a room that was just a room, up at the top of a lonely old house.
“Christian,” Thomas said slowly. “They want me to leave…to go to Boston and live with my Dad.” Tears were now sliding down his cheeks. Thomas waited, expecting an answer but none came. Christian looked at him, confused, his eyes searching the room as if he had just arrived there, and so Thomas went to him, wrapping his arms around his friend's waist and pulling him close. Distraught as Thomas was, his heart was beginning to remember how much he loved Christian and, seeing him sad and lost like this was terrible. Thomas held him there for a long moment, feeling the heart that couldn't be real beating strong against his own. He whispered into the soft auburn hair over Christian's ear. “I can't leave you, Christian, I…I love you.” And Christian turned his head and met Thomas' lips with his own.
“You'll come back to me someday.” Christian said; his tired voice like a faint and far-away sound carried on the wind.
And he was gone.
The circle of Thomas' arms was empty, the heart inside Thomas' chest half-broken. But that thought, that he might one day find Christian waiting, let him summon up the strength to answer his mother's voice, calling anxiously for him downstairs. She had not heard the shot exactly, having woken to a sound that she could not identify, but some ancient instinct had sent her through the house in the dead of night to find her only son. When she saw him, walking heavy up the hallway toward his room, she grabbed him up and hugged him close, as if she had dreamt that he were gone from her forever. And perhaps she had, motherhood is a strange thing.
And so Thomas moved like a sleepwalker through the days that followed, packing up his belongings and ignoring the hurt in his heart. He did not see Christian again and did not look for him; he only did as he was told, the sad-eyed rottweiler ever at his heels. And when the day came to go to the airport, he did not argue, he did not yell, he did not cry. With dry eyes, he boarded the plane, a duffel bag in his hand, and took the seat over the wing that the smiling stewardess led him to. As the plane took off, he looked out the window at the clear sky and clean clouds, and desperately wished that life did not bite so hard. But he could wait; he could be patient, or pretend to be, as long as he knew that Christian was waiting at that house, that peaceful old unlovable house that Thomas had come to love. The entire world seemed centered on those old grounds, turning on an axis that was Christian, only and always Christian. Thomas stared out the window but saw only that ghostly, smiling, loving face as the plane launched into the air.
And when the plane went down, three engines failing and the other on fire from a faulty wire, Thomas was not frightened. In the midst of the terrible screams and smoke and shrieking children, after the pilot had prayed through the speakers in a shaken voice, and the lady beside him had clutched his hand to her breast in raw terror, Thomas saw only Christian's face, suspended above his own in a halo of light.
The force of the crash drove the plane into the earth, and then dragged it two hundred feet, littering the ground with luggage and torn metal and blackened bodies. There were no survivors.
When the doves called to him, Thomas knew their voices and opened his eyes. He lay on his back at the entrance of the old house, under a bright cerulean sky, and the doves dipped their wings to him as they passed him, one by one. He stood carefully but nothing was broken and he seemed fine, which surprised him in a vague and careless kind of way. Something tickled in his memory but didn't surface. Then he smiled, nodding once at the doves, opened the unlocked door of the house and went inside.
“Christian!” Thomas called.
And there Christian was, as if summoned by magic. He smiled at Thomas…and held open his arms.
Later that month, on a certain August night, an elderly man with blue eyes drove up to the front of the house, got out of his car and laid a white rose on the doorstep, just as he had done every year on that very same night. He stood for a long moment, looking up at the top of the house, then got back into his car and silently drove away.