The Man Who Sold the World
The last thing Mick wanted to see upon arriving home that night was a flat full of hot chicks. But when Josef Konstantin is your unlikely roommate, you consider yourself lucky if the head count is under a dozen.
"Mick! Welcome back, my friend. I'd like you to meet Shelly and Dolores and which one of you was Tina?"
Mick tossed off his coat and dropped his bags by the front door as if the butler would soon arrive and pushed his way past the mini-rave and up the stairs for a shower and a date with cold storage. It had been a monotonous trip to Monterey, tracking down a deadbeat dad playing 18 holes overlooking the surf and sand while his three kids by two prior marriages spent the holidays in trailer parks, toasting gingerbread men over hibachis. Quick as he could be, Mick didn't get the bathroom door closed in time to avoid Josef's well-placed foot.
"Hey, look, if you're not in the mood..."
"When am I ever in the mood?"
Josef quirked a brow. "Good point. I'll ask them to leave, except for the red-head. I think there's some potential there."
"All of them gone, or yourself as well."
"Simmer...you didn't call. Or write. I had no clue you'd be back tonight. Not your scene, I get that."
"Do you? Good. Now let me shower in peace."
Josef held up his hands and backed out of the doorway. "Missed you, too."
Josef was seated on the couch, nursing a glass of wine and his sour mood when Mick emerged, towel about his waist, to come downstairs and try to relocate his bags in the babe-free foyer.
"They're in the freezer room. I hung up your coat."
"You're welcome. Glad to help."
Mick studied the row of dirty glasses on his kitchen counter. Close, but not quite making it into the dishwasher. "Josef..."
"Trip was that good, huh?"
"A thrill," he said, sniffing an empty bottle. "Was this the last of my Riesling?"
"Hm? Couldn't say. It's the only thing I could find in this shanty fit to drink since you shooed my supper away."
"We had a deal. As long as you're staying here, you stick to what's in the fridge."
"Yes, Dad. Sorry, Dad."
Mick sighed and opened the dishwasher. "Thought you were looking around for a rental."
"I was. I got bored."
"What about that space near Griffith's?"
"A fortune. One I don't have anymore."
Mick turned around. "You had 50 grand in cash last month."
Josef sipped his wine.
"Don't tell me that's dried up."
"Never ask a man his worth, Mick. It's bad manners."
"Great. That's great..." he said, ignoring the sulking vampire and turning to his kitchen to rummage up dinner. All he had wanted was to come home, relax, have a quiet meal, drink himself into a numbed daze and lock himself in the icebox until next spring. But now there was Josef. And who knew what could be done about that. "Where's my goddamn blood?"
"Oh, that. You're out."
Josef shrugged and downed his glass with a satisfied smack of his lips. "Left a note to that effect on the dry-erase board."
Despite himself, he looked. On it read: 'Mick's to do list: hang thicker drapes, order Spice channel, buy blood, get reality checked.' All in Josef's hand.
"Is this a joke?"
Josef kept his eyes on the fire. "I don't know. You tell me. I added the last one while you were in the shower."
Mick fought the urge to leap over the counter and smack the living shit out of his best friend. "I'm...going to bed."
"Good. That's a fine way to put it. Since there isn't one in this whole establishment. I even kept one, you know, for...guests."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"It means sleeping on the couch with all the windows open to let in a little cold air is getting old. I was rather enjoying the change of pace last week but now..."
Mick grinned. "Ah, I get it. I'm home now so you've got to give up the box and the girls again for a while and that pisses you off."
"Yeah, it pisses me off. Right along with the rest of your sanctimonious bullshit restrictions."
"They're not bullshit, they're..."
"Human?" Josef got up and smoothed down his tie. "It's been real, kiddo, but I'm gonna blow this taco stand. Adios." He went for the door with a look of resolution that made Mick's blood run colder.
"Where're you going?"
Josef stopped with his hand on the door handle. "Home."
"Home? It's a bit blown up, remember?"
"Not that home. Home."
Mick shook his head. "What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Home as in homeland. Mother-country, place of origin. Ponimaete?
"You're leaving the country? Why?"
Josef smirked. "'Why?' he asks. Because this one's all gone to shit, is why. I've got no home, no money and no means. A man of my age, that's pathetic. And regrettably not the first time I've hit bottom. You're talking to a repeat offender, does that surprise you? Just about very quarter century or so. I fuck up. I shake it off. I go home. It's what I do."
Mick stood speechless for a moment. He hadn't expected this. "Where's your home? You've never told me."
Josef released the door slowly. "Rakovnik, if you must know. Well, not Rakovnik precisely--a little hamlet a few miles southwest in a quaint little valley with a quaint little name even I can't pronounce anymore. There's a lot of sheep."
"Rakovnik? Where the hell is that? Russia?"
"It was still Czech, last I Googled it. Your mileage may vary."
"But...Eastern Europe? For how long?"
Josef shrugged. "Not long. A few decades or so. I'll be back before the tricentennial. I'm sentimental that way. I'll look you up."
Mick smiled. "You expect me to believe this? That you're just gonna walk out of here tonight, right now, with the shirt on your back. And that's it?"
"Yeah, that's about it. Isn't that what you want? Your domicile back?"
Mick shook his head. "No, not like this. Not without you saying a word."
"I did say a word. I said goodbye. In Spanish. Was going to tell you two weeks ago, but..."
"But what? What stopped you?"
Josef looked at his polished, Italian leather wingtips. "Wanted to make sure you were all right first."
"All right? Yeah, I'm fucking fantastic," Mick said. "Been a hell of a month. Let's see. My ex-wife came back from the undead to play mind games with me, my girl left me to go move in with her very-much-alive boyfriend, and my best friend went and got himself all burnt to shit--"
Josef's eyes were on him. "Well, you were wrong about that last one."
"I thought you were dead. You have any idea, at all, what that felt like?"
Josef looked away, ashamed maybe. "Yeah, I do. Lola, remember? And I've got you to thank for it, too."
"She was killing us."
A wicked little grin crossed his lips. "It's what we do, Mick."
"No. No, we don't have to."
"And that's where we fundamentally differ. I thought it was a phase. I hoped it was a phase--this self-loathing. We all go through it. It's cute, in a way. But with you, I think the human stain is permanent." He opened the door. "Pity, you could have really been something."
Mick moved and hit him before he even realized his hand had formed a fist. The blow knocked Josef to the floor. The act shocked him more than any threat Mick had ever made on his own kind. Josef. His fury flew up to mask it. "You're never going to change, are you?"
Josef stayed where he fell, licking the fresh blood off his lip. He ran a fingertip through it, looked at it--his blood. "Are you done?"
Mick was breathing hard still. "Yeah. Maybe. I don't know."
There was a rush of air and something akin to a bulldozer threw Mick across the room and slammed him against the wall, pinning him under a hard, penetrating gaze. "All I've done is change for you. Bent myself inside out and backwards just to keep balance--keep step with you. But you...you don't even notice."
Mick struggled to turn away from the pain he saw there, for once unmasked. In Josef's eyes were centuries of disillusionment and anguish winding back for ages. He had no idea. His feet no longer reached the floor.
"You're at a very precarious age, Mick. You're at the watermark. You see it all around you--your world dying, fading, going up in one flaming hotel after another. Rooms filled with memories no one shares with you anymore. No one cares. No one's left who understands your thoughts, your values--it's all a wasted effort, all those years of trying to become someone, someone else might respect. This is when it all falls apart. It did for me around 1674 or so. I've seen it happen a thousand times. I don't care to see it happen again."
Mick fell to the floor as Josef released him. His towel draped across his knees as he felt Josef's phantom grip still burning around his throat where he'd been suspended like a sack of straw. They'd never laid hands on each other. Not like this. It was all coming up now, every nightmare and fear he'd been burying since the day he'd said 'I do.' Leaving? Not leaving. Anything but that.
"Beth's marrying him," Mick said. "She told me today. Texted the news while I was driving home. Gave me the URL to their wedding site. They're registered at Macy's...fucking God..." He wanted to hit the wall, himself, anything but Josef who knelt beside him, fury gone and replaced by not sympathy—no; it was remembrance. One of hundreds, maybe--a commiseration for every occasion.
"Geeze, that sucks."
Mick laughed again--that sick, desperate laughter that keeps you just on the edge of blowing the fuck all to bits. He reached and gripped Josef's hand for all he was worth. Josef came to him slowly, took him in his arms, all around him like the roots of an oak and just stayed with him, in that moment, and all through the shuddering, incoherent, misery that followed--he stayed.
The crisis ebbed and when Mick came back to himself, Josef was still there. Ancient, asinine, Josef--steady and damp at the shoulder. Mick raised his head because he thought he ought to--give a guy a break from all the mothering. But it wasn't a mother's love he saw looking back. Far from it.
"You're wrong, Josef. I've noticed," Mick said quietly as he reached for that boyish, ageless face. "Trust me, I have."
He'd expected to get thrown again, halfway to Rakovnik—but when the kiss ended, that firm, reassuring press of lip to lip--the glimmer in the eyes he'd long admired and the hint of a smile working the corners of Josef's mouth sent Mick reeling in an different, yet not completely unexpected, direction.
"How long?" Josef asked, enthralled as Mick had ever known him to be with another being, living or dead.
"Christ, does it matter?"
Josef's grin broadened as he smoothed back Mick's still-damp hair. "No. It doesn't. Come here."
Making love with a man, Mick had never thought about it. It had never entered his mind. Not like this. This wasn't merely a clash of mouths and bodies, grappling about on the floor rug in a fit of lust--it was a manifestation of every hope and expectation he'd been harboring for half a century for this man, all surging out of him in kiss after ardent kiss. And Josef--wise, loving, terrifying, Josef--kept his wits wound tight about him, letting the 'kiddo' he'd called him, twist and thrash his way through unfamiliar territory. Where to touch, what to touch, how much—nothing he didn't already know—but was uncertain how to express nevertheless. Was this born out of panic? Desperation? Would he come to his senses and laugh this all off as he sent Josef out the door tomorrow with a knowing nod? God, he hoped not.
"Stay with me," he heard himself say just at the point of bursting in Josef's sure, steady hand. And there was a smile Mick saw, rare and real, answering--a flicker of joy in a world of darkness, bought and sold by this man, until the world reared up and threw him down again. He would break the cycle and Josef would stay this time. Yes, stay.
Afterwards--exhausted, wrung out with bliss, he let Josef take him by the hand upstairs where he opened the glass lid and stepped in, inviting Mick to share in his own bed of ice. Mick froze, numbed by the memory of the fire, of a grand home he once knew destroyed by time and inevitability--and the endless miles ahead, alone.
"It's going to be okay, Mick," Josef said, holding out a hand. "You'll have to trust me on this."
"Nothing lasts, does it?" he said, shivering with anticipation of the delicious cold the box promised.
Josef paused, looking back over centuries for a contradiction. "No, but that doesn't mean it can't last a very long time. And time, my friend, is all that we have."
"I believe you. I'll always believe you."
The vampire grinned. "That, is where you'll always go wrong."
Mick took his hand and once settled in close beside his savior, let the lid fall shut.