Jared had just come home with the groceries, when he slipped and caught his sleeve on a coat hook. A bullet shell rolled across the floor. He stood there for a moment, listening, and when his grandmother coughed in the next room he breathed out and examined his sleeve, where a long tear ran from his elbow to the button hole. It was his only work coat. How would he pay for it?
He bent down to examine the shell. A Greek immigrant from Long Island, his grandmother saw axe murderers behind every lamp post, and, besides keeping all the lights on at night, was in the habit of borrowing a gun from the neighbor and then forgetting where she put it. A box of .38 rounds spilled out from where a mouse had chewed the lid. He would have to sweep them later, the ice cream was melting.
She sat in her wheelchair, her nazarlik necklace, a blue iris meant to shield her from evil, glittering in the light of the kitchen TV.
(Note: If you are reading this aloud, put the stress on the second syllable of nazarlik, as if you have been correcting white people's pronunciation all your life.)
"Did you hear about that shooter up in Montreal? They're still lookin' for the guy. Five thousand dollars if you know anything."
The gun had to be somewhere in the kitchen, possibly the bedroom, but he'd have to wait until she was asleep for that. He moved cans around the pantry, eyeing the mail next to her spotted hand. The corner of a hand-written return address peaked out from the bills. "You shouldn't watch the news."
Her voice rose a little, upset that he wasn't upset. "He killed an old woman for her social security check. He thought she had a lot of money. But she didn't have any friends, so they might not have found her at all if the power company hadn't had an appointment with her."
"The nearest house is three miles, you're more likely to die hitting your head in the shower."
She cleared her throat. "The girls are coming soon, it's my turn to host bridge."
He stared at the bottom of the paper bag. The letters he'd exchanged over the last year had been full of interesting insight, at least from his penpal's side, whereas all Jared could offer was small town desperation and occasional progress on a missing person's case. When had he last eaten something other than popcorn? He'd have to get a second job. "Okay, well, I'm gonna walk to the office."
She twisted around in her chair. "Oh please take the car, there's crazy people out there."
He was about to make some joke about her bridge partners, when he opened the silverware drawer and found the gun. He smiled. And here he thought he'd have nothing to write back about. "Yeah, you're right," he said, stuffing it in his waistband beneath his jacket, "I'll be back for dinner, say hi to everyone for me."
"Take my winter coat," she said, eyeing his torn sleeve, "You're dressed like a peasant."
Seeing as he was early, Jared stopped at the library, his back to the clerk as she typed in his requests. Exhaust plumed out the back of his car. He didn't like to leave it running, but his alternator had been on the fritz all week, and home was eight miles in the snow if the engine didn't turn. He almost pulled out the letter, but didn't.
(Note: If you are reading this aloud, say the name of the person you miss most but know you will never meet in person. Make up any name you like.)
She picked up the phone. "We moved all the maps upstairs, I'll call and have them brought down."
He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, then remembered his keys were still in the ignition. "I'm kind of in a hurry."
She held up a finger, nodding at the voice on the other end of the line, then replaced it in cradle. "You can go on up. He's with another client right now, but the media center's unlocked."
He checked his watch. The story had to be in by five if it were going to make the evening paper, and it would be thin enough without the landowner records. Unsolved cases always made the front page. He took the stairs two at a time, pausing only to glance out the window, the trees unfreezing and transforming into car thieves the moment he looked away.
Budget cuts meant that city hall had merged with the local library to save on space, so the second floor was a box maze of green file cabinets waiting to be claimed. He waved at two shadows in the distance, and the tallest made a go-ahead motion toward the viewing room. Running his fingers over microfiche labeled by zip code, Jared found the one he needed and sank into a plastic chair.
Several people had gone missing over time, mostly drifters, and the police had discarded the usual conspiracy theories of domestic terrorist cells. Sometimes he lay in bed, wondering if this whole case was a joke, if none of the murders were connected, and he was seeing patterns like a kid spotting elephants in the clouds.
The client was a short woman, and Jared watched the V of the assistant's back as he stretched for the top shelf to get her something. He touched the letter inside his coat, then pulled his hand away. Normally he'd relish this privacy, the consequence of a relative who regularly searched his room for pornography, but he didn't want to rush it. Opening a notepad, he began scanning for the addresses in the police report.
"Finding everything you need?"
Jared was about to say yes, when he saw the man's reflection in the computer screen and turned around. "Yeah, just...checking something."
(Note: If you are reading this aloud, say the last line quietly as if you have revealed a secret.)
The assistant nodded. He had square white teeth and steel-rimmed glasses, so that his face shone when he smiled, and Jared could not help but feel a kinship when he noticed the stain on his collar. Second-hand, it had to be. "Are you working on a paper?"
Jared had rehearsed this in the mirror. "Some developers are interested in storefront property on the county line, wanted to check the maps before I go out and take pictures."
But Jared had only to look at the screen for a second to realize how fake that sounded. The murder site in question was hemmed in on both sides by train tracks, the nearest utility road snaking two miles east and the paved roads laying further still. Even coyotes didn't venture that far out.
"Well then I'll leave you to work," said the assistant, "I just wanted to say, well, I stand behind you."
He pointed to the woollen collar of Jared's coat. Grandmother's coat. Grandmother's ubiquitous nazarlik pinned to the coat. The man tapped it three times, as though it were an old friend.
"More folks ought to take pride in their convictions."
Jared smiled. You couldn't not smile at such a handsome face, especially in a small town when one man's good luck charm might be mistaken for another's banner of racial purity. Did the assistant harbor knowledge of an underground society? Were they brothers in some secret order that might point to a detail Jared had overlooked in his case? Or maybe the man's family was Greek too, either way.
"Thanks," said Jared, holding out his hand, "Name's Jared."
"Jensen," said the young man, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, "I get off around eight, doing anything tonight?"
Jared remembered his car, and frantically thought of any places that sold coffee near his house. "There's a gas station near the Taylor farm, I know the cook if you're hungry. Eight thirty?"
Jensen pressed a warm hand on Jared's, bright green eyes fixing him in his seat. "I'll be there."
Work is a church basement with three desks and a hand-cranked apparatus for folding the newspapers, a stack of music programs in the corner for next week's Christmas show. Sales were same as last year, though more pages were devoted to car ads. His co-worker Daryl watched a video, wrapped in a green sleeping bag with one skinny arm extended on the keyboard, like an addict who'd tried pupating into a journalist but stopped halfway.
"Hey J, check this out, I got a beheading."
Jared looked away, then looked up. The hotel room in the video could have anywhere. A man in black was bent down out of frame, right shoulder pumping. How long did it take to cut off someone's head?
Daryl sipped his coffee. "I got friends in the Bay area working for a search engine, all they do is delete crap like this. I got eight more, you wanna see them?"
"The boss know you're using his computer?"
"Hell, this ain't for print, Channel 2 asked me to send a few clips for the eleven o'clock slot."
Jared laid out the maps he'd copied from the library, locations circled and numbered with sticky labels, a rusty paperclip beside his name. The video zoomed in, so that the killer's eyes filled the screen. In a few hours he'd come home to find his grandmother weeping at the bad man on the TV, wrinkled face pressed against his chest asking him to sell the house and move back east, and he didn't know if he could do that.
"You can't show that kinda thing on TV."
Daryl leered at him. "You know how much they're paying me? You know how much they're gonna pay as soon as I get more footage?"
Jared walked to his car in the dark, propping open the hood with a length of pipe to check the antifreeze. His mind was a twig in the wind, not settling on anything. Once the car warmed up, he switched on the cab light and pulled out the letter, careful not to tear the return address.
It's snowing where you are. I can smell it. My thumb is behind your ear. It takes me eight seconds to trace the line of your jaw. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. I do this over and over until I have you memorized. You are walking down the main drag, to the first blank wall where no one is parked. Draw some flowers. They can be any kind. If it gets too dark, I will draw them for you."
They were full of little puzzles like this, less a love letter and more as if his penpal were casting him in a movie. Should he mention his meeting with Jensen? Digging under the seat for a can of spray paint, he did as he was told and ventured into the night air.
The wind had picked up, and people only stepped outside long enough to hurry into the next building. He slid past dumpsters, where a bartender was pulvarizing wood pallets with a sledgehammer, though to Jared it was breaking down his grandmother's door, and he was hurrying to the kitchen.
(Note: If you are reading this aloud, tuck a gun into your jacket and then pretend everyone in the room has one too. They will. I've checked.)
The flowers looked more like shamrocks when he stepped back, so he circled over the centers and added two triangles for leaves. It was dumb, but if his friend liked it, who was he to ask questions? The letters were intimate, educated, with a weight of refinement that Jared's upbringing had not prepared him for. Wasn't that what everyone fantasized about, to be wanted by a lordly stranger?
He thought of Jensen, and turned to squint into the shadows, as if he might be hiding behind a mailbox. There was no one there, and even the bartender had left the remaining pallets for the morning shift. Jared wiped paint off his thumb on the bricks and headed back to the car.
Jared watched fish dart beneath the lake and thought about John Doe, or Captain One Eye as the coroner had joked. According to the report, a drifter was found a half mile from shore, frozen, his left eye dangling from its' socket and nails broken like he'd been digging into the ice in order to get away from whatever was chasing him. No other wounds, no signs of a struggle, no idea why he'd be traveling so far from the road.
But Jared couldn't put that in a letter. It was just another sound bite, dead of exposure with one eye dried to the side of his cheek like a unpicked raisin, another obituary for him to linger over and wonder if Captain One Eye had been his pen pal. If any of them had been his friend.
Back in the car, sunset turned the snow red and he put the finishing touches on a pencil sketch he'd thought of after painting those flowers. He often included art when he had nothing worthwhile to write, an interesting doorway, a sloping garden path. This time, a wooden staircase stretched into shadows, Jared's clothes-jacket, shirt, shoes, pants, underwear-lying on the steps in descending order. Above it ran the question, "Meet you up top?"
He bit his lip and ran a finger over the steering wheel. Here would be the collarbone, there, on the seat, would be the swell of his thigh, at first tracing the man in the letter with his pencil and then secretly with his hands. But he soon shied away, giving his friend a respectful distance, and turned to thoughts of Jensen instead.
He tried to keep it real. They'd have coffee at the gas station and find they'd read the same books, maybe later meet on the weekends for a movie or beers on the porch, not really saying much, just content to have someone around. But his imagination went further, they'd drive back in a blizzard and have to pull off into a field where Jensen would make a pass at him. It could happen. Probably not, but there's no harm in daydreams, and better to objectify a pretty stranger than cheapen the idea of someone he really cared about.
He glanced in the rearview mirror. A wolf stalked nearby, but otherwise he was alone. Five minutes was all he needed, surely it was better to get this out of the way rather than thinking about it the rest of the night. The backseat was warm and worn smooth from previous owners, and he lay down with one hand balanced on the window as though it were a headboard and the car was a four poster bed. He thought about a hundred different ways Jensen might be convinced to fall into bed with him, always circling back to a hesitant version of the man, shy, closeted, never been kissed. In need of instruction.
He pulled up his shirt right before he came, and dozed in the jizzfog for a few minutes before hunting his pockets for napkins. Sliding back into the driver's seat, his headlights caught the wolf on the opposite shore, its' green eyes glued to the water. He backed out slowly, but it paid him no mind, intent on some prey far below the surface.
Some wire in the fuel line must have rotted, because his engine stalled when he tried making that last hard right. He sat atop a hill, coasting toward the gas station with one hand on the emergency brake in case an animal darted out, and thankfully stopped beneath the glow of a street lamp. It was 8:34. Smoke poured out the back of the restaurant and he recognized all the cars in the parking lot. Had Jensen walked here?
"What'll you have?"
Jared stared at the menu, a line of hungry truck drivers behind him. "Water for now, I'm waiting for someone."
(Note: If you are reading this aloud, stand over a plate of food for fifteen minutes, then throw it away.)
A plastic cup landed beside his hand and he made his way to the soda fountain in the back, fondling a bag of chips that had been marked down. Maybe Jensen wouldn't mind eating in the car. Maybe they'd skip dinner and Jared could pin him in the backseat. The girl at the register was away and all the costumers were watching satellite wrestling. He pulled the chips toward his coat pocket.
"Hey, sorry, I thought you'd be out front."
Jared shoved the chips back and hitched a smile. Jensen wore a gray jacket with matching gloves and a lot of white silk wrapped around his neck. The faintest color pinked his mouth, so unlike other mens', like a rose dropped into snow, and Jared tried not to stare. "I didn't know what you might want to eat, the sandwiches are pretty good here-"
But Jensen cut him off. "If someone had to die, tonight, who would it be?"
Jared said nothing. Did he hear right? For a moment Jensen was so still that he might have been a prop. Any second now the walls would pull apart and a camera crew would reveal itself, that this was all an act. But the meat sizzled and the TV blared in the background, miles away, and if he found Jensen's question shocking he didn't show it. "What's it for?"
Jensen glanced at the nazarlik on Jared's coat, then at the pay phone out front. "Call them. Your car needs a jump."
"How do you know that?"
Jensen turned back. "Did you do as I asked earlier?"
Jared searched his memory of their brief conversation in the library. Then, on an impulse, he held up his hand, the one with spray paint on his thumb, and asked, "Do I know you?"
Jensen smiled impishly and turned on his heel for Jared to follow. Into the dark, where the bodies go. Jared could have stayed, could have gone back in his car and driven home and started looking at rental listings in New Jersey, but his curiosity far, far outweighed his fear, and it pulled his feet forward like an unholy riptide.
He rested his hand on the receiver, stalling, but he knew who to call. Did that make him a murderer? What was worse, one man's death or the thousand million horrors inflicted by cable news every day? He called Daryl and begged him to come down, half hoping he wouldn't.
"He's on his way," said Jared, hanging up, "Are you going to...do it outside?"
Jensen did not answer. He studied a woman's footprint and buried it under the snow with his shoe. "We should move the car further down."
(Note: If you are reading this aloud, take a knife and cut the person sitting next to you. They had it coming.)
Jared figured he had at least an hour to talk Jensen out of his plan, but headlights swung around the corner soon after he placed the call, and Jensen brought a cinderblock down on Daryl's head before he was all the way out the driver's side door. Together they levered the body into Jared's trunk while Jensen stuck a note reading BRAKES OUT, WAITING FOR A TOW on the dashboard inside.
Jensen's street was the last turn before the state line, forty miles north. Had he been sleeping in the library? All the other houses were occupied, Christmas trees in the windows,green bins neatly lined up on the curb for trash pick-up. Jensen pushed a key in the front lock and kept his hand there, like a teenager trying to decide if she should invite her date inside or not.
"You're not gonna tell anyone about this, right?"
Jared swallowed. "Of course not."
The question charged between them, as if the wrong answer might ignite the air. "I promise."
He seemed satisfied with this and turned the lock. The door opened on a set of carpeted stairs, and, beyond that, a darkened hallway with a strip of light at the end. Jared took a long look at the stars as if it were his last, then hooked his arms under Daryl and dragged him indoors.
They dropped him in an unfinished room with bars on the window, and Jared was about to leave when Jensen called out to him."You haven't seen the rest of the house."
Jared turned. Jensen stood at the top of the stairs, face lost in shadow save for the glint of his steel-rimmed glasses. "You killed all those people?"
"No. I didn't kill them."
"Where are they?"
Jensen tapped the banister and then moved out of sight. Jared listened to Daryl struggle for several seconds, tried forming the report he'd give the police, but his promise to Jensen sealed his lips and the words turned to sand. And so what if he got his big story? Those drifters would still be dead, death by friendlessness, death by chance, death by his cowardice if he didn't act. He touched the gun inside his coat and raced up the stairs.
Houses take on the personalities of their masters, and this one was no less adept at misdirection. When Jared stepped into the private library, the first thing that struck him was, not that someone was about to die in there, but that anyone could own so many books. Shelves climbed past the firelight, possibly higher than he could have seen with a lantern, each book hardbound and ordered by author. Jensen sat in one of two leather armchairs, on a good rug with a tasteful arrangement of art that neither crowded the walls nor detracted from the impressive book collection. It spoke only of comfort and welcome.
Daryl lay handcuffed on the floor, and when he squealed Jensen peered down as if at the underside of a beetle, and pressed Daryl's face into the carpet with his shoe.
"Do me a favor, see that blue volume where I'm pointing?"
Jared followed his hand, to an old collection of poetry. He plucked it from the shelf.
"Turn to a page. Any page you like. Read to me."
Jared turned to the end and read a few lines. Compared birds to stars and stars to distant women. Daryl's chest caved in and out, eyes pleading on some silent frequency, but there was a wide gulf between them now and Jared could not cross it.
"Good. Read another for me."
The next one was a spy novel, the front jacket torn away and spotted with mold. Jared stopped mid-sentence when he saw the next page was missing, but Jensen waved this away and requested another book.
"What is this for?"
For explanation, Jensen took the third book from him, adjusted his glasses, and began to read the tragic tale of two friends who'd shot each other in a duel. He had a deep, rolling voice that Jared recognized, though he couldn't place where.
(Note: If you're reading this aloud, use the voice you hear when reading a love letter to yourself. There's only one.)
"I don't get it."
"Don't you see?" said Jensen, pointing at the first poem, "How the poet longs for flight. The way a bird moves. How the air would sting him. And here, in the novel, the night behind the city like a great mouth. But, ah here, in that tender friendship between two men, you find the core of all their heroes."
Jensen looked up. "Me," he said, the whole room warping in the concave reflection of his glasses, "And, more importantly, you."
Jared looked at the book in his hands and then searched the shelves, but searching for what? The pattern Jensen so desperately needed him to believe in? That decades of dimestore literature had shaped themselves to Jensen's likeness, had pointed to this moment, this house, this standoff over an ex-junkie bleeding on the rug?
Jared pulled out the gun. He may as well have aimed a finger at Jensen for all the good it did him. "Tell me where you put the others."
Jensen opened his hand, as if to say 'elsewhere'. "They're not far."
Jared listened hard, and for a moment the walls seemed to bend toward him, the books he couldn't see leaning in from their darkened parapet, whispering about him.
Jensen stood up and the room contracted, pulling them together. "Your letters meant a lot to me. I read them over and over until I saw you everywhere, in the books, in the stones, in the language of birds."
He was very close, his breath hot on Jared's mouth. "Right away I knew what our home would look like. But it takes, oh, buckets of people to make a proper house."
The gun was heavy, too heavy for him to bear. Jensen pushed it down, his fingers locked on Jared's wrist.
"You can't keep them prisoner." said Jared.
"It's not a prison. It's an escape."
Jensen's glasses fall to the carpet. Jared didn't remember pinning him to the bookshelf, big brown hands balled up in his shirt and teeth bared like a startled cat, but suddenly his knee pressed against Jensen's leg, warm, suggestive, and all the meanness dropped out of him when Jensen asked:
"Do you want to leave?"
It was a fair question. Jared thought of the letters, so recently cherished and now as useless to him as a pencil sketch of water to a dying man, and the hunger he had not recognized until now gnawed at him.
A black fire burned in the back of Jensen's eyes, like he's come from the Devil. "What do you want?"
Jared had not meant to say it, afraid mere words would cheapen his love, but he leaned in to Jensen's ear and told him, told him everything he meant to give to him, the words smearing on Jensen's skin as Jared breathed hot into his throat and his hands found their way around Jensen's waist, pulling their hips together until they were nearly standing on each other. Jensen closed his eyes, letting his head fall against the books.
"You don't see it. I didn't at first. But you will," said Jensen, "Let me show you."
They joined hands, the gun on the floor. Jared found he trusted him and who wouldn't? He smelled like new paper and his eyes were a brilliant green that looked nowhere but at him.
Soon Daryl was ductaped to a folding chair with Jensen beside him on one knee, fingers forcing open his eyelids. He spoke with the caution of one handling a poisonous snake. "It's in the eye. That's where the power comes from. You can't bite down, you can't cut it out, you have to do it quickly or it won't work."
Daryl pleaded, but what could Jared do? Bullets wouldn't stop Jensen and anyone who tried would be ground beneath his chariot wheels. Jared sat by the fire, forcing himself to watch, not making a break for it until Jensen tilted Daryl's face in both hands and pressed his mouth to one eye socket as if to kiss him.
The highway was mercifully free of traffic as Jared sped toward his house, tears scrolling down his cheeks. He drove for what seemed like hours, but the town wasn't there. He doubled back and tried to get his bearings, but the town wasn't there. The sun was a soft-boiled egg forever resting on the lip of the horizon, and as the trees turned into the missing drifters and his car became a dying horse, he knew it would always be twilight, would always be magic hour.
The horse collapsed at the foot of a great manor, strewn with the same childish flowers Jared had painted only hours before. Pulling out his grandmother's gun he pressed the muzzle to the creature's head, and when several minutes passed and he still couldn't do it, he felt Jensen's hand trail along his arm and take aim for him.
"Where are we?"
Jensen ushered him inside and closed the door behind them, forever.
"We're in a book."