“Remembering the Days that Hurt Us” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert
Here, a man seated at a table in the corner. Three heavy glasses — ale nesting the bottoms. His leg jogs away without him and the uneven table rocks. The light behind his unseeing eyes throbs, swelling out his corners in time to the heartbeat of the sky.
His name is Doe now. His name is Guy and Buddy and Mister. His name is Hey-You and totally, forgivably unimportant.
The small ocean in his glass crashes in his ears. He drinks to stop the salt from drying on his tongue, caking closed his lips. Some great tragedy waits behind him on a distant shore.
He’s been lost a long time before this moment. But the sounds are nice, the suggestion of bodies marking hot bubbles above rubber soles stuck to the vinyl floor, and here and there around him people laugh too loudly. Their barks remind him of hyenas, the smell of cold ozone in a new crater. For all the good it does him, Doe closes his eyes.
The chair opposite his clatters backwards along the floor, a hollow wooden sound like broken tree limbs and bloodied teeth. Blue fire suckles his fingers, a wall of go away — please, god, not again. He casts a spell. He opens his eyes.
A boy blinks back at him, hardly old enough for booze, with a kindness in his face that almost hurts to look at. Young, so young. Both eyes and no scars, no rippling burns from broken wards or bad hexes — had he known they still made boys like this anymore?
But there are rules for people, Doe remembers abruptly. Things to say. He’s not drunk enough to forget how to…to be — not by the glasses on the table, but maybe by the bottles back at home, because it’s slipped out his cracks again.
“What?” he tries and trails off, lost between do I do? and do you want?
The boy smiles, a flash of crooked teeth. Sloughing ice down his hand, he reaches out to touch the blue flame. Doe has the belated presence of mind to crush his fire out. “This seat taken?”
The ocean roars obscenities in his ears. Doe shakes his head. He thinks if he opens his mouth, all the fish and crabs and octopi left in the pits between the dirt might come tumbling out.
But the boy doesn’t make him speak. He sits with his beer held between his fingers like a taut string. When he brings the bottle to his lips, there’s no spell-burn there. They are chapped, not charred. In contrast, Doe feels the places where his broken mouth tugs too smooth, pebbled scars marking a path down the devastated forest of his jaw.
“Thomas,” the boy says. He holds out a hand, but Doe can’t reach it over the swell of the earth and tide and empty glasses. He nods instead.
“How’d you get in? Shouldn’t someone be holding your hand through here, yet?”
Again, that smile. It’s like heart-break; he’s had enough of those to know. A thousand beautiful, burnt-out eyes in the sand. “You offering?”
“Yeah.” The boy smiles. “You are.” And then, gently, he shuts up.
Things get easier after that.
Doe thinks maybe he knew him. Then. During. Maybe. But he’s so pristine, so still. Like the swollen belly of far distant shore. Or an iceberg, something cold and sweet to press his aching, empty eyes against.
And Doe knows better, he knows not to stare, but it’s so nice just to put his eyes on something that doesn’t — doesn’t hurt like all the marks and unbalanced, empty places.
The boy doesn’t seem to mind. He drinks his liquor without the scars to need it. And over his shoulder, the televisions blare news stories above a bar full of bottles, shouting numbers that don’t match faces and names — numbers that might match little iron tags the magic can’t usually melt.
Abruptly, Doe stands up.
The world dances.
(Thomas. Aramaic for twin. The Gemini. Judas Thomas.)
Green eyes, no smile. “You need help getting home?”
“I — don’t…” have one, he thinks, but he does. A whole house to himself, with all the bits to go in it, all the clutter and detritus he sells off one at a time so the little paper checks have each other for company, when he doesn’t have anyone —
“You want I should walk you?”
Doe bares his teeth — no, smiles. Probably. “What, hold my hand?”
The boy laughs. “I could.”
If he does, Doe thinks — if he does, it’ll come right off, and the thought shakes him all the way down to his coal. The tremors start up again. Doe fists his hands in the deep pockets of his coat, hunches up and hopes to not —
To just not.
“I‘m fine,” he grunts and staggers out.
Doe gnashes his teeth so the lay lines flare in torrid carnival colors, closes his eyes.
And walking the light, he follows the reddest line home.
His house is full of things that people need when they’re not dying. Athenian Orbs and Devastatinine Baubles, vorpal blades, blood diamonds, ash wands with phoenix teeth and puddles of ambrosia. Things the Lady in the Lake wore when the fish couldn’t bear the sight of her. Things Snow White might have used to carve her heart out.
His house is full of things. The noise they make collecting dust is deafening.
Doe bears it as long as he can before the sun winks out and the world scatters to ash. He slips out to the pub when the streetlights flicker on and when the cool glass meets his palm, Thomas is already there. He is at the table — Doe’s last table — and though Doe will sit in any shadow that puts his back against the wall, the boy hits him like a habit already begun.
He sits without asking. The shadows find his face and breathe.
Thomas smiles like he’s been waiting. “Hey.”
Doe is almost sober. It doesn’t feel good. The noise is too loud, too many edges — reminds him of wand-break and explosions and the kind of praying that happens when gods go deaf.
He tightens his hold on the mug in his hand. His hands are roped, knotted up with scars. They hurt when the clouds roll in and they’ll burn tonight when the shakes wake him. In the morning, he’ll have to scrub scorch marks out of the mattress. Doe doesn’t have many sheets left.
But the hands around the other handle — he’s known those before. Closing eyelids. Sweet, needful hands. Gentle punctuation.
(Thomas Aquinas, chasing away women with a burning stick.)
“You all right?” the boy asks.
Doe nods, drinks his — pale ale, today. The barman’s changing things around on him.
(Because the angels whispered, because they held him in his sleep.)
Doe can’t see the smile this time, but he feels it, tiny blue-lit sparks dotting the air between them like fairy lights on a dim dimensional barrier.
“It’s not really the same thing,” Thomas says.
The air here smells of spilt alcohol settling into sticky puddles, a Bourbon Street that singed someone’s hair. Three different perfumes — rose, astringent peach, something spicy Doe met first in Marseille. Behind that, something mild, domestic, with nothing at all to do with magic. Fabric softener, maybe. The mundanity hurts. Or it would, if he hadn’t been drinking.
A plastic package rustles, hisses forward across the table.
“Smoked salmon?” the boy offers. It isn’t the question Doe expected. Mundanity, again — right in the damn solar plexus.
He almost smiles. His fingers shake as he reaches into the package. Thin slices. Doe misses the color, succulent pink like a welcome mouth. Has to crack open his scars again to eat it, and the unwilling flesh, the pain, the taste —
Burning, salted agony. Sweat on a fire. Rancid, oily smoke pummeling his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Burning. Mason screaming and launching forward. Choking. Mason screaming. Searing pain, stench, light, and then, blind — gone, everything, the colors taken and only shapes left, the magic lines still sketched in the air and —
— them singing, like everyone else, weeks before. Singing,
Whose body parts are these?
Whose body parts are these?
One for a double or two at the knees,
Whose body parts are these?
Singing and not knowing, to drown out the other voices — to keep from knowing what they already —
” — knew you weren’t all right, you damn stubborn bastard,” Thomas’ voice filters back to him, patient but irritated. Through his haze, Doe finds he cannot move his arms. “Easy, there. Okay? You good now?”
Doe swallows. The ashy salmon melts from his tongue. Gently, the coiled strips of medic mage bind loosen.
“Thanks,” he croaks. “Grange said — said I’d better not. Not in his bar again.”
The last of the residue falls away, but not before he feels Thomas nod. “I find sobriety takes the edge off. I’m afraid if I ever start drinking, the walls’ll come down, and it’ll just be me, screaming, bashing my head in a padded corner.”
“You’re drinking now.”
“Cider. Non-alcoholic. My secret safe with you?”
“I,” Doe wants to answer. Instead, he stumbles into the truth, “I can’t sleep at night. Not if I’m dreaming.”
“I can make you something for that.”
“Won’t work. We had to…build up tolerances. Make sure they couldn’t drug us, catch us.”
“Wring out answers.”
“They caught my brother.”
Doe looks up, for all the good it does. “Yeah?”
“He wasn’t…he wasn’t right, after. They said — ” Thomas bites the word short with a half twist of bitter magic. Doe sees the lines, sees his snarl. “He wasn’t right.”
“That’s why?” Doe asks, gesturing towards the lines of cool, healer’s magic drifting in exhausted spirals from the backs of his arms.
“That’s why,” the boy agrees.
“Why do you come to a bar, to not-drink, sit around broken tin soldiers?”
Thomas is quiet. And then, “I like the company.” It sounds like a defense.
It sounds like burnt mattresses, ruined sheets.
Doe waits. Thomas does not ask about his eyes.
They drink in peace. At closing, he follows the lay lines home.
There are nights, regardless. Nights with burning, tangled sheets and bad dreams and the scent of living bodies rotting. Nights spent hunched over a bottle, or a mug, or a glass, or an empty, sharp-edged table. Regardless, there are nights. But sometimes Thomas is there.
“How did it happen?” he asks — a sharp needle through an old boil, burn and relief. “Did they at least catch the bastard?”
Just like that. Fast and simple and the whole clotted story spurts out like pus. Doe swallows.
“We weren’t — they had one of ours.” His voice belongs to another man. “We were just trying to get him the hell out of there, didn’t think — but he’d been…and he panicked. Broke. Throwing off curses like — and our standard wards couldn’t handle it. Not Mason at his worst. I…I should have known better. But I led the team, so I got it. I — trapped it, got him battened down. Too late, but Huwir only lost half his jaw. It could have been worse.”
Belatedly, he adds, “We got Mason out. He’d already…killed them. When he snapped. So yeah, guess he got the bastard.”
“Can you still see — anything?”
“Oh, so you can still…”
Doe nods, slugs back the wine in front of him. “It could have been worse.” And then, driven by some urge he can’t name, some hand in the dark searching the mattress for the bodies that aren’t beside him. “I see you. Usually. Your eyes. They’re green.”
He feels Thomas smile.
“Neat trick, that.”
He thinks maybe that’s what he had been aiming for.
The day the St. Tiresias people come to check up on him, Doe is furious and aching for a drink. Only, he’s not presentable when he drinks, so he paces instead — but they had better send somebody this time, somebody who knew better than to ask the wrong damn questions, because the last girl, they tell him she meant well, just trying to get a feel for her patient, but he’s not anybody’s goddamned poster boy sob story.
Anyway, he gets along fine by himself.
So Doe paces. He lopes through the house in circles, ignoring the traitorous ache in old injuries, and the fire ants in his bones. Throughout his rooms and hallways, the objects caking every available surface glow soft with magic. They’ve been in their places long enough for residue and cast-off to seep into the walls — enough for Doe to see everything, everything down to the lines of the floorboards, the magnets on his fridge, the damn television set and he hates it here, because it’s like he’s not blind. Like nothing happened. And he knows better. He can see his scars with his eyes closed — har fucking har.
The doorbell rings, searing new lines of warning spells down his ceilings. Doe pads after it.
And outside his door, it’s Thomas. Doe can’t see him, but he feels him, the pressure of his aura a steady thrum against the chill. Doe rears back as if struck, teeth bared, fisting magic low between them.
“How’d you find me?” Doe snarls, teeth worn sharp from a thousand curses. “You follow me home? What, think I need a goddamned — ”
“I’m from St. Tiresias’,” Thomas blurts, urgent. Doe hears his worn trainers edging backwards on the pavement outside, and he hasn’t seen his own face in years, but thinks he’s probably terrifying these days. “Oh god, I’m sorry. If I’d known… oh fuck, what a mess. I had no idea, I swear — I didn’t know your name until today. If this is a problem, I can go back, get someone else for you? The last thing I want is to — to make you uncomfortable.”
Doe’s fire shudders out, like the words rotting on his tongue. The last thing, he finds himself wondering. Before his night terrors and not-right brother, Thomas wants this…the tiny, passing humiliation of a broken stranger, last?
“St. Tiresias?” he asks, feeling small somehow, a distant ocean of insects in his ears.
Thomas shifts on his doorstop. “St. Tiresias. Honest. I’m really sorry about this. I can see you’re… Somebody else can get here within the hour, if you want. Or if you’d rather. I wouldn’t — I don’t want to overstep any — ” He cuts the head from his stumbling thought and finishes quietly, “I had no idea.”
Doe comes away with the impression of slumped shoulders, green eyes slanting away, and he doesn’t like it.
“It’s okay,” he says.
Abruptly, Doe realizes the sound isn’t yet another ocean in his ears — it’s raining — and he jerks back from the door, from Thomas with a steady drizzle dripping down his shoulders, standing in the rain on his doorstep and apologizing for — for not being a goddamned third eye.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” he snaps. Not a retreat. “Get in. Before you…catch sick, or something.”
Doe doesn’t know what to say. He clamps his mouth shut, waiting in the hall with his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and everything tense. Only, in a brief flare of magic, he sees Thomas smile and that smile… He thinks maybe the kid lit up on purpose, just so he could see him, and that’s not so bad, he thinks. Coming from him, somehow it’s nothing like pity.
Thomas steps inside, shucks off his coat. Nudged by a hip, the door closes. “All right. Where do you normally do this? Though I hear you chew through your medics like candy.”
Doe wants to smile. He thinks he should. But his chest feels like a spell about to go off.
“Kitchen.” He swallows and turns his back, but nothing changes, and the boulders stay in his throat. “Take your shoes off. You track mud and I’ll hex you.”
“Sure thing. Not a problem.” Another grin like a spotlight, like the kind of spells that don’t hurt, and Doe feels…strange — he feels strange, he feels not himself at all, he feels old as ashes. “I heard about what you did to Marce for tracking. You’re a damn legend now.”
Almost to the kitchen, Doe stops. He glances back, though he knows better, his shoulder on the doorframe. For a second, he sees him, a flash of a grinning boy in shirt-sleeves and stocking feet, looking so painfully like he belongs.
Doe swallows again and he walks into the kitchen without a word.
They sit at the table like they sit at the bar — Doe with his back to the wall, Thomas with his back to the world. There’s a tiny flashlight involved. And then a will-o-wisp, one of the patented creatures the medics carry, called Will-Orbs or something strange and bewildering. The second light he tracks just fine, pupils dilating, moving, while the magic seeps down the hand that carries it, up the arm and into the boy’s face. Big green eyes with some kind of question; is this okay, are you okay, can I please…?
He doesn’t know what the kid wants. Doe swallows again, doesn’t know what he wants, feeling fingers on his jaw.
“Nasty scar,” Thomas murmurs.
“Curse casting. The words…”
“Burn, I know.”
His fingers are still there. Doe reaches up, grabs his hand. The boy’s ears burn enough for him to see. He takes his searching fingers back abruptly. “Sorry. I — that was rude of me. Won’t happen again.”
That wasn’t what he meant. Wasn’t what he wanted, what he wants, but he can’t — doesn’t even know how to begin.
“I don’t — ” he tries.
“No, it’s — I keep apologizing. I should probably stop being an idiot in the first place, see where that gets me.” He feels Thomas shaking his head. “I was inappropriate. We’re not…at Grange’s.”
And then his professional face snaps on, and the Will-Orb is working, but more or less useless. The magic still drips over his skin, catching on the ethereal, curly hairs of his forearms, on his shoulders, on the planes of his face. But Doe can’t see him. Not with the mask on. He sees yet another nurse, another battlefield of open pity.
Blind-eyed, same as all the others, Thomas barrels through the script. Bloody hell, they see less than he does. No discernible progress, they say again, through Thomas, yet another Greek chorus. Not to get discouraged, eyes badly damaged but magic sensory intact — so, promising — and he’ll be back next Tuesday to check for progress. Thomas gets to the door and his shoes on already before Doe wakes, loathing, and staggers to catch up.
He used to be quick, once.
“Will you?” he asks, ignoring the bit about the hospital, about being professional — existing somewhere else, outside this impossible sphere of two strangers colliding in a dull, persistent, blinding agony, and Doe wants to reach out but he can’t — he can’t.
“What?” Thomas stops, one arm through his coat and his face is still there in the residue of the Will-Orb. Something like hope, maybe. Doe used to have that, too.
He still can’t feel his fingers. “Be at Grange’s?”
For a moment, for the lump in his throat, he thinks maybe used to wasn’t so long ago.
Thomas smiles — beams — and the lump wedges further down, behind his breastbone.
“Yeah,” he says. “Of course. I’ll be there.”
So Doe stands at the door and watches him go, the idiot boy diving out into the rain without an umbrella. Ten feet and Doe loses him, but he can almost see the space where he should be, his feet leaving imprints on the lay lines. Doe flicks numb fingers, casting a half forgotten charm. Something small to keep the water off.
He shuts the door and goes back to the kitchen.
It’s the first spell (since then) that hasn’t hurt.
He still carries his wards like a battlement, a bastion and battery around him. Like a castle shouldering through the street, head down, Doe walks to Grange’s. He orders his usual, which somehow is never the same. Grange peers at him over the bar, stranger liquors casting a glow on his scowled cheeks that Doe can see. Most days Grange purses his lips, gives Doe something weak and watered down and tells him not to push his luck. Today, Grange’s look is not something Doe can parse.
He pulls him a beer.
Doe sits in his shadows, his back to the wall, and waits, the ocean swelling at his ears and his fumbling, useless fucking eyes. He works his way through a straight wizard’s dozen, heads on into vodka and something that lights up his glass, pale against the scars of his hand.
After closing, after lock-in, he staggers home, his stomach roiling in the gutters.
Sometimes it’s the little things that hurt the most.
An empty beer can sits on the back of his toilet tank, half tipped against the wall. It’s been there so long. Long enough that all the seeping magic, from all the artifacts and weapons he can no longer use, has crept inside — past tin of all things — so that it fills the shape, settling in the half-bent crevices, and Doe can see it again.
Another dead solider, someone long lost sniggers from the far reaches of his memories, drunk off his ass, and for all the comfort that singed mattress can bring him, Doe goes back to bed.
Some days, he thinks — with a bottle broken on the floor and him unable to find all the glass — that there is no end to this. That there will never be an end to this.
He’s still, still fighting.
It’s raining, again. It’s always raining here. Or maybe it’s the same day. The Tuesday that just won’t end. Doe does not get out of bed.
It’s not so unusual. He’s already out-paced the clean white professionals who’d tell him this is a step backwards. That he needs to keep busy. Get out. Meet people. Living people. Wouldn’t his friends want him to be happy?
Doe tips the whiskey bottle up. Obligingly, it burns him down.
Because he knows — behind all these damn smiles, the medals of honor and ribbons pinned on the empty breasts of stone monuments, there is nothing there to want anymore. Not for him, not for maggots in the earth. So much fuss, but magic rots, same as anything.
Doe closes his eyes.
The doorbell surges through his ceiling, a flare of color along the dusty plaster. It’s flaking, he sees. Off in the corner, beginning to crack. He’ll have to fix that. Have to work out a way. Or maybe he’ll leave it, let it all rot down around his ears until it’s raining and still Tuesday for the millionth time and he won’t dare roll out of his rubble pile in the morning, because he knows the world will be too cold on his bare feet.
The doorbell screams again, a finger holding the buzzer so the note makes it all the way down off the ceiling and into his shoulder.
And again. And again. Eventually, it stops.
And then resumes again under his window. He hears someone shouting. And he ignores it. Until eventually, the voice sorts itself, and he hears Thomas outside threatening, “Don’t make me climb the side of your house like a goddamned fairy tale, you fucking princess. Stick your head out and let me apologize, damn it.”
It’s the right thing — it’s just the right thing, like an iceberg to the head, to pull Doe out of his drunken wallow. And he is very drunk. He sways to his knees and nearly falls off the bed. It takes him an inordinate amount of time to get his limbs sorted enough to kneel on the scarred mattress without prodding himself on the busted-through spring. Takes him even longer to undo the lock on the window and fiddle it open, though there’s magic all through this, too, and he can damn well see the latch.
He can’t see outside. There are nothing but lay lines and trees, and here and there, the vague suggestion of fences.
Doe means to be dignified. He means to be. He means to be a lot of things.
Thomas is on the lawn. Doe can see his eyes, a ridiculous, shaking apology in a Cheshire grin.
(Thomas. Judge Thomas Danforth, human bonfires in the streets of Salem)
“Thank god. What the hell, Max? I thought you were…I don’t know, dead or something. Jesus.”
Doe very nearly throws up. He slams the window shut and retreats into the toilet. Outside, he hears, “oh for fuck’s sake.”
But he is not — he hasn’t been — not since, not since — and just because it says that on the files, just because the checks and the auctions and the things he sells because he can’t use them, because he’ll never use them again, because the only goddamned good they do is making fucking nightlights for the goddamned blind — because they call him that, the man with curses splattering his jaw, Thomas thinks he can just, just…
Doe wrenches up the lid and says goodbye to a bottle.
And then his front door is open. There are feet on the stairs, then a hand on his back and Thomas at his side, rubbing restless circles.
“How’d you get in?” Doe asks, addressing the toilet.
“A really grievous abuse of Emergency Privileges. It’s a thing, in the home-care contract. You can get me fired if you want.”
Still, the stroking. Doe’s arms shake on the edges of the bowl.
“You weren’t at the bar.”
“I know. Max, I’m sorry. There was — well, HIPAA, I can’t talk about it. But something happened, I got called in to work. Believe me, I wasn’t thrilled either, finding myself in the middle of a surprise 20-hour shift.”
“Don’t…that name. Just,” he shakes his head, can’t heave up any more words or liquor. “Don’t call me that.”
“But — it’s…” Thomas trails off, shakes his head and doesn’t understand, but he tries, so that’s something. His hand slips from Doe’s shoulder. “What would you rather?”
His voice says this is something he’ll have to report. Delusions, maybe. Multiple personalities — magic does that sometimes, severs bits off, clean like sashimi, and loses them in a honeycomb of neat compartments.
“Or John. If you want.”
“Oh, for — ” Thomas strangles the words out, spinning off, doing something angry with his hands. And then, wheeling back, too close with sharp breathing. “Jesus Christ. You’re not fucking dead, Max. You made it out.”
His fist slamming into the side of Thomas’ jaw feels unusually delicious. Doe hears his back hit the doorframe like a spell-crack, a wheezed grunt of shock.
“Get out,” he snarls.
Thomas’ magic flares. Doe thinks maybe he’ll get a fight. He thinks maybe he’ll burn his mouth raw. He thinks maybe his knuckles will bleed and he’ll spend another week over the toilet, shaking with fear and nightmares and regret.
But the boy — man — straightens, puts himself to rights. Shoulders squared, he spins on a heel and disappears.
Doe hears the front door shut and hunches over the bowl again.
He is not a nice man.
Eventually, Doe ends up at the bar again. He holds his shoulders like knives, curled over some weak-as-piss beer and the scarred wooden table. A coil of magic passes him. Cool, like spring sky, promising summer, promising a whole lot of nagging and probably a sleeping tonic. It tugs at the wounded, jagged spirals of his magic, but his magic isn’t very well behaved these days. It snarls, slavering like a dog on a too-short chain. Part of it latches on to the lingering spiral trailing by and tears it off, stealing it, taking it around back the metaphorical shed to gnaw and roll in.
It has to hurt, but the owner keeps walking, returns five minutes later. Non-alcoholic cider, probably. The chair scrapes back. Thomas sits.
“Not supposed to drink on these pills,” Doe snaps, goading. “I’m still shitfaced. Always. Go out of my way to avoid sobriety.”
Thomas hums without commitment. “Sounds expensive.”
“Merlin Corps pays for it. Apparently they don’t mind — they keep sending the checks.”
“For your eyes.”
“Yeah. A toast to my goddamned eyes.”
“All right,” he says easily. “To John Doe’s eyes, may they continue to avoid the obvious.”
“Fuck you.” A pause. And then, “I smoke.”
“No, you don’t.”
Doe tears at his pocket, slams a battered pack on the table.
“Those are older than I am,” Thomas points out. He’s probably right. Bastard.
“Nicotine and magic. Should see the fumes. I’m hoping it’ll kill me.”
Another goddamned hum, the echo of a nose in a glass.
“I set things on fire for the hell of it.”
Thomas shrugs. “I know.”
A pause, a sneaky coil of magic to better gauge his opponent. “I set myself on fire.”
The boy hisses a sigh between his teeth. His mug hits the table.
“Doe,” he says. “It’s not Tuesday.”
That makes him stop. Doe holds very still, waiting, waiting for the boot to fall, the spell to cast, the curse to spit, but nothing else comes beyond the soft noise Thomas makes picking up his glass again. In the silence between them, fat red lines cordon off all the Tuesdays from the calendar in his head.
He thinks he might have broken something. Inadvertently.
“Did you — ” Doe coughs and tries again, softer. “You catch the Ravens’ game?”
Thomas grimaces with his whole body. “Bastards charmed their damn cleats.”
It’s not Tuesday.
He can’t see the boy across from him, but he knows…he’s not sure what he knows.
Doe sinks back into their habit like a penny in the ocean, marveling at how easily the water closes overhead. There will, he thinks, be other Tuesdays. There will be other days to scream and rave and cuss the sky and the policemen around these parts all know his name, and there are special people they call to come get him, because the cops here are not mage-proof.
And all the special people will have their perfectly sad faces, with their sideways looks, with their goddamned dragon hide kid-gloves and the pity — the fucking pity — from a bunch of mages who never got shipped across the world on scavenger hunts for magical artifacts to keep the sky from falling, who never had to break dead-god curses, who never saw their partners shatter and scream as the spells ate them from the inside out, never felt the curses burning through every goddamned blackened fiber, who never snapped a neck or spat an evil, who never, who never, who never-not-ever —
There will be other days to light himself aflame. But today is not Tuesday.
Doe relaxes as much as he ever does and drinks his weak-as-piss beer across the table from a man he thinks might possibly, against all odds, be his friend.
There are days he shouldn’t leave the house. Doe can feel them coming like a storm for some time before they arrive, blistering his fingers and toes with intermittent nightmares and insomnia — sometimes both at once, depending on how long he avoids the burns on the mattress. Some days, his hallucinations are the only things that move him. He watches their soap opera dramas with his back to the floor, spiders crawling up his walls and arms while faces leer from mirrors in which he will never see a reflection.
To be fair, some of the mirrors came that way.
But fair — fair, ha. There’s a joke in that somewhere. Fair, fairest — he doesn’t remember the punch line. Just the same, he’s still got a fucking circus on his walls — mirrors from dead djinn, mirrors from ancient witches, evil queens, portraits that paint the viewer, portraits that talk, fairy tales warped into their real and distant truths. Somewhere in the house is an apple that won’t rot. He still doesn’t know what it does, but he’s eaten it more than once.
There are days (the same days) when he shouldn’t be left alone.
When he careens through the bar’s heavy oak doors, Grange takes one look at him and does his civic duty to pull a menace in off the streets, passing him the strongest paint thinner he’s got over the lip of the bar. Doe takes it. People scatter as he blasts away towards his shadows and that’s the thing — the thing about people. He scares the shit out of them.
Except Thomas. Not Thomas. Thomas — his Gemini, his Judas of Aquino, his judge.
Doe slams down into a chair hard enough to rock it against the wall and reaches out like a viper to catch the hand across the table. He hadn’t known it’d be there, but where else would it be, who else would it be, who would possibly — who wouldn’t exist when he needed…he needed —
Stabbing a finger into the vein beneath the man’s wrist, he anchors himself like a leech to the magic there, runs vitriol through his veins until the man’s body lights up in an ant farm of magic and vague distaste.
Doe is perverse today, and he knows it.
Thomas frowns — he sees him, sees his muscles do it — and takes his hand back. The magic dissipates, melting through his layers, into his skin. For a moment, he sees Thomas sitting across from him. Thomas with no last name. Thomas the mystery, the ghost who follows him from St. Tiresias to peer at his eyes and think oh, poor baby, how sweet. Beautiful Thomas with his elegant network of bloodlines and calm magic that doesn’t bite when provoked, pretty green eyes without monsters and demons.
“Knock it off,” Thomas says, his voice low. Hurt.
Hurt, how awful. Hurt. But what did he expect — what did he fucking expect from the raving lunatic, the psychotic phoenix waking up in flames every goddamned morning because of the monsters under his bed — the monsters in his head — the memories.
Doe grins (bears his teeth) and leans over the table, his elbows a wide bridge. “What do they say in my file?”
Thomas is a saint. Very patient. He sits stiff and still on his side of the table with a perpetual frown tightening the corners of his mouth, and he says, “What the fuck, Doe?” Very gently, Doe thinks.
“My file. With you. With…” he tries to think of the word. There isn’t a word. He waggles his fingers instead.
“Drink your vodka.”
“Is that what this is?”
Thomas shrugs. He knows because he hears it, over the sound of the hyenas (wary hyenas, they see him hunting here), the scraping chairs and shifting bodies. They could all be having sex for all he knows. Quiet, awful sex — slow corpses. If Thomas isn’t speaking, it’s because he’s making a point. The point that says if you’re going to be like that, good luck finding me.
Well, fuck him.
“What, Thomas?” he drawls, very deliberately.
“You’re in a way tonight.” So careful. So fucking careful with something already so fucking broken. And oh god, oh — oh, here it comes. There’s the thunder on the horizon, the mood’ll shift soon — crying jags maybe. He hasn’t sobbed himself stupid in a while, lost amidst the bodies of friends and lovers that have to be burned — have to be totally destroyed, not even a lock of hair left, just the little iron tag because these days — these days, my boys, necromancy is such a very real threat.
“What,” his voice cracks (here it comes). He has to try again, “what do they say? What is this?”
“Oh.” Doe hears it like a breath, the catch in Thomas’ voice. Because just then, just then the kid gets it. He understands. For once, for once. He hears another sound, the missing, empty space where Max would have gone.
Doe hides from it. He tips the bottle back and swallows, swallows and burns.
“It’s not Tuesday,” Thomas whispers.
Doe snorts. He scrubs a hand over his eyes. He wonders what they look like. They used to be blue. “It’s always Tuesday.”
Thomas spans the distance between them, takes the hand that holds the bottle and somehow the bottle gets left behind in the tangle of fingers.
“Come on,” he says and tugs, rising.
For a moment, Doe sits there, dumb and blind and so, so achingly scared. But Thomas smiles — he feels it through his fingers — and tugs again.
“Come on,” he says. “We’re going home.”
Doe swallows, stands.
They sit side by side on his bed, backs tight against the wall. He thinks they should be drinking, like this, with Thomas pressed against the length of his right leg. He feels every old break in those bones. He feels like a river, bashing against a stone. But Thomas’ shoulder is warm; the fingers on his own a gentle anchor, a promise, a question, a hope — so he leans his head against the wall and tries not to shatter.
“The file isn’t anything like you. Obviously, I mean, I’d been drinking with you for weeks before I — well, before, anyway — and I didn’t know it’d be you they sent me to see. It starts off, patient information, yeah? You’ve got copies of that, somewhere. I remember they had to work out renewing enchantments so you could read them.”
He hadn’t known that. The fact wriggles under his skin, just between his shoulder blades.
“I just leave them in the wash room, does the same thing.”
“The wash room?”
“I’ve got a talking shrunken head in there.”
“I think that breaks a whole sack of new laws.”
Doe shrugs. “Maybe. Got it at a…tourist thing, you know? When we were…god, I can’t remember where we were.”
“Swamp or desert?”
“They’re all swamps or deserts.”
Silence, for a moment. And heat like a tide against his shoulder. Doe feels impossibly small. He feels like a crab, tossed up from the bottom and caught in the surf. Like a jellyfish hugging the sand.
“They give your height, weight, hair color,” Thomas murmurs. “There’s no picture. I think they tried — there’s usually a picture — but something about your eyes…”
He breathes. It almost feels like laughing. “So ugly I break the camera?”
“No!” Thomas snaps and amends, softer, “no. It’s just — your eyes. I don’t know how to… They’re strange, Doe.”
“What — what do they look like? Are they still…?”
“When I met you, it looked like…like deep water, I don’t know. They’re black. How’s that?” He feels Thomas shake his head. “They’re always black. But sometimes it’s — different. A different black.”
“You didn’t know?”
“Curse breakers told me — at the hospital. When they couldn’t…”
Thomas squeezes his hand. For some time, he doesn’t speak. When he does, his voice is soft, hesitant. “The files…say you’re anti-social — PTSD, mostly. A whole slew of other things — ”
“What other things?”
“Depends on the week. Most of your diagnoses…they’re like skittles. Party tricks.” He shrugs, heat shifting in a new pattern on Doe’s shoulder, feels like blunt determination. “You’re scared. You should be. You saw humanity shit itself a new kind of horrible. Doe, it’s bad out there.”
He does laugh then, a surprised huff that swells the knot behind his breastbone and makes it hard to speak. “You’re supposed to tell me it’s nice.”
Thomas smiles through his fingers. Doe feels him close his eyes. “It’s not Tuesday.”
“No,” he agrees. “But you’re here. It can’t all be nightmares.”
“Yeah?” Thomas lifts his head. Until that moment, Doe hadn’t realized how close it’d been to resting on his shoulder. “That’s nice.”
Doe swallows. He wants to say it’s supposed to be nice — the world. This. Them. It’s supposed to be okay. But he doesn’t, because it’s not — it’s not okay. They’re two different kinds of broken, either one, and the world is fucked.
So instead he presses their palms together, Thomas’ sleepy magic coiling up his arm.
“Would you have done it differently?” the boy asks. “If you’d known everything, would you still have joined the corps?”
For what good it does, Doe shuts his eyes. All they’d accomplished…
They do not speak. They sit with their backs to the wall, shoulder to shoulder, eyes on the distant, blackened shrine-stone of hope — rejects from a crushed velvet temple. They took his eyes and it still doesn’t stop him from seeing all the utter fucking bullshit masquerading as cure-all and curse. Doe wonders if he shouldn’t send the boy home. He is not…he is not a nice man. At no point in his life had he ever chased good dreams or happy ambition — even as a child, he’d carried candy packs of hexes in his pocket. And now, with the war over and done, the last broken fragments swept under the carpet…nothing has changed.
He is still a badly tethered monster. He still wakes in the night spitting curses. He spins in the grave he has yet to finish, dark earth under his nails as he screams and screams and breaks and he is far more dangerous for experience and the ragged rope end of his tolerance.
He is not a nice man. He is hardly a man at all, these days. He went from child to nightmare without a moment’s pause between, and he knows all the places a curse can be made to writhe through a ward. He knows how to snap a neck with a nasty spell — he knows how to twist when he only has his hands. He knows how to fly and how to fight, how to plot and ward and walk the lines. He knows how to kill.
He knows how to raise the dead. He knows laws are always left at the edges of swamps and deserts. He knows the faces of the families of the bodies he sent slogging back through the marshes, dead for dead for an endless fucking war. He had reasons. So many pretty justifications and necessities, and if he hadn’t gotten his hands dirty, if he hadn’t been their martyr, their bloodied black lamb…
They’d given him a medal, in the end. Their very highest honors for all those days and months and years and lives — they’d all been very careful not to ask him any questions.
“Doe?” Thomas whispers and he startles. He’d forgotten. He still doesn’t know where to begin.
“It’s Tuesday, now.” He sounds amused.
“It’s always fucking Tuesday, now.”
“You’ve set the bed alight.”
Doe looks down at their hands. Indeed, a messy puddle of flame spans the tight crevice between their bodies. The spell lights the whole of Thomas’ face and frame for the first time — and he is not beautiful, not really. His features are disjointed, slightly misplaced. He is a poor facsimile of a human — bits of him too sharp, too predatory, though his eyes are always sorry. A mix-breed, then. Another exotic, unhappy freak — ugly and unspectacular. Doe swallows, but the lump in his chest still won’t go away.
“I might have mentioned I do that.”
Thomas grins. He really looks a terror. The stuff of nightmares. Goblin, Doe thinks. Changeling, maybe. He tries to remember to breathe, and Thomas kisses him. Doe’s teeth are too sharp anymore for pleasantries; he tastes blood. But still, their mouths press and fight, hungry, desperate, searching. Doe clings to him like a drowning man and takes Thomas with him, two rough hands fisted in the collar of his truly ancient threadbare shirt, a new tongue in his mouth, new hands on his skin.
Doe shatters. The ocean in his ears throbs against the inside of his skull and he worries about the fish in his mouth, thinks of crabs and sardines and octopi tumbling out to fill the singed trenches in his mattress. Thomas cradles his jaw like it might crumble, tracing scars with gentle fingers. Doe’s hands search the small of his back, his hips, his eyes, the shell of his ear (listen for the tide), the ticklish cushion behind his knees. They break into each other, touching, tasting, testing, building —
And it’s Tuesday.
It’s Tuesday — but Doe laughs.
|Crystal Lynn Hilbert lives in the forgotten backwaters of Western Pennsylvania. A fan of things magical and mechanical, her stories tend towards a peculiar blend of science and spell work. These stories have appeared in such magazines as Scape Zine (“Take Apart Their Nightmares,” March 2011) and Menda City Review (“5¢ Buys the Future,” Summer 2012). Coming up in 2013, her novella “Dead on Arrival” will be available in e-book format from Eggplant Literary Productions. She can be reached at C.L_Hilbert@yahoo.com.|