The spirit of my dead boyfriend is haunting me.
At least, that’s what others might claim.
I can’t be so sure.
It doesn’t seem real.
It feels like a dream.
He comes to me every night, but he is not a ghost. Upon his back are two wings the color of a raven’s feathers—stark blue, reflecting their hidden color only when the light reflects off their surfaces—and his smooth, alabaster skin is far too fair to be any semblance of what John used to look like. His form is stretched, his posture bent forward. The most terrifying and unsettling thing, though, are his eyes—they’re black. There is no sclera—just darkness—and his lips are not stained with color. Instead, they are white—a color which, in life, would have never afflicted his flesh. He was too perfect, too real for any apparition to come in a form that was unlike him. Maybe that’s why I can never look him straight in the face when I dream. Maybe that’s why I wake up crying.
My friends think I’m crazy. My therapist says I need to be on medication. The priest said I’m gay and that my boyfriend would’ve never went to Heaven. Instead, he said, John went to hell—a place that, though seemingly connected only with the real world, is said to exist below.
Sometimes, when I think about how it happened, I feel like he’s there right beside me—standing, watching, waiting for me.
When that happens, I can’t help but wonder.
Did John really go to Heaven… or did he go to Hell?
The accident happened one month ago.
It was simple, really. We’d planned it for months. Our trip to Florida—it was supposed to be something of a going-away party before John and I started a new life together, a cross-country jaunt across the United States to prepare our weary souls for the storm that was supposed to come ahead. We were to travel along the east coast until we hit the sunshine state, then go see the Everglades before skipping along the west—where, in New Orleans, we would attend Mardi Gras, see the sights and look at a few houses that were for sale in the area. It’d been our dream to live in the French quarter, or at least near it, so for us to think that anything would have gone wrong at all would have been ridiculous.
For weeks before we left, I watched the weather and would warn John about anything that was about to go on.
The day before we were supposed to leave, a cold front blew in and brought with it rain. John, I’d said. Are you sure we should be going now?
We’ll be fine, he’d replied.
If only that had been true.
If only he were still alive.
It comes in flashes now. The pain, the agony, the sorrow, the frustration, the complete and utter need to push yourselfself over the edge when you’ve suffered the most horrific tragedy that you’ve ever experienced in your entire life—it’s all been present in my life even though it’s only been a month since the accident. It’s like a cancer, slowly-spreading and eating me alive. But unlike cancer, and unlike any kind of debilitating illness, it does not wear on me physically. It does not weaken my joints, sallow in my knees, sweat blood or bring about the pains that only the most severe forms of distress have upon the heart. Rather, it consumes my mind, my heart, my feelings. It drives away each and every form of happiness I’ve been lucky to have since the accident and delivers me to a place that I would not wish upon even my worst of enemies.
For people to look me in the eyes and say that I got lucky is almost an insult too unimaginable to take.
I got lucky? I ask.
No, I then reply. I didn’t. I just didn’t get hurt. When I lay in bed at night, I struggle to sleep for fear that the moment will return to me. Each night since I have returned home to our tiny nook in New York I have dreamed of the experience.
Raw, visceral, lucid to the point where I can feel the rain on my arms and smell the gasoline in my nose—there’s no greater form of torture than reliving the most horrific moment of your life over and over again.
If the FBI could bottle this form of distress, world peace would occur in but a few short days—that much I can almost be sure of.
Outside the lightning flashes and the silhouette appears once again. Tall, lean, with the flutter of black wings—he hasn’t missed a night for the past three weeks, but every time I see it I can’t help but wonder whether or not it’s real or if I’m truly going crazy.
Of course it’s real, my conscience begs to differ. What else could it be?
An illusion, a mirage, a hallucination caused by the most grief-stricken of minds or even a visage created from the idolized iconography of the churches that border the side of the city where John and I once made a calm and idyllic life together—it’s not uncommon for those who have suffered terrible losses to see loved ones who have recently passed, and it would definitely not be out of the world of possibilities to see angels, or angel-like things. It is, as my Catholic upbringing would like to say, an occurrence—a message, the priests would proclaim, from the world beyond, though only the most kind of fathers would have said that it was merely my dead boyfriend coming back to check on me.
Whenever they say that though, I can’t help but wonder.
If he really was what I think he is, would he even be able to step on consecrated ground? To avoid the sight of the figure that perches outside the apartment on the looming building beside me, I roll onto my side and stare at the darkened, whitewashed wall. That gives me no solace. Each and every time the lightning strikes I can see shadow—there, embossed upon the wall, unmoving and shifting only when it seems the wind comes up.
In the moments of silence that follow, during which the onslaught of rain lightens to just a slight drizzle and the thunder does not growl, I think that everything will be fine.
The lightning flashes.
The figure is revealed.
Quite contrary to the popular belief that monsters come into the lives of living men only to wreak harm and physical havoc upon their lives, during which they first torture them with their presence and then savagely murder them within but a few days’ time, the figure that perches on the building across from me has not yet made any kind of contact. It would have seemed far too benevolent for such a thing to happen, as any form of contact, calm or not, would have at least sated parts of my fears. For reasons I do not know, though, and for purposes which I feel are supposed to protect me, he has not set foot inside the house, nor has he ever attempted to try and breach the confines of the apartment. This couldn’t be because of any holy relics, if he is truly in fact a demon, because I have not had a cross in my presence for the years, and any form of supposed witchcraft that could have protected me from even minor ghosts I have no clue of, as my slight and minor fascination with the occult was quickly snuffed out when a friend who’d tampered in Satanism went missing and then turned up a week later with his guts ripped out and wrapped around his neck. While this reality is somewhat-settling, if only because it secures the belief that I am at least somewhat protected, it only contributes to the paranoia that grows within my mind, as with each subtle attempt his presence is slowly driving me insane.
When the lightning strikes three more times and reveals to me during each of their intervals the figure that has been haunting me since the accident, I find I can take it no more.
After throwing the covers off my body and pushing my feet over the side of the bed, I rise, wrap the shawl my mother made me around my naked upper body, then make my way out of the bedroom and out into the hall that connects to the living room.
Here, in the sunroom, where there are only three windows to my right and none to my left, I stand and try to determine just what it is that I will do in order to calm my rattled conscience. My first inclination is to just draw the curtains over the windows and try to sleep on the couch, as out here the privacy is better and much more reserved than the building who on its thirteenth floor has no windows. Instead, though, my fractured conscience leads me to the kitchen—where, in front of the refrigerator, I pull from its confines the gallon of milk before setting it on the counter.
My mother used to say that warm milk would ease any weary soul.
It’s the one thing that has been keeping me sane each and every night.
When the milk is done warming in the microwave, and when I feel the cup is not too hot to bear, I retreat to the couch and settle down, but not without turning on the LED candles that run along the center of the coffee table.
John, I think.
Lightning lights the room, but with it no silhouette comes. This, I know, is because he is not here, but on the porch outside the bedroom, waiting for me to return to my most sacred of places.
I lift the cup of milk to my lips and drink.
It is in that moment that the memory starts coming back anew.
We’d left at 4:30 AM to try and beat the usual New York traffic that comes with rush hour. Wrapped in hoodies, the heater on full blast, we drove through the city intent on traveling along interstate 478 until we were down in Brooklyn and taking interstate 278. While I had anticipated a cold front coming in, what we hadn’t expected was rain.
It’s going to be fine, John had said, even when the rain thickened to the point where it fell in sheets and we could barely see the road in front of us. It’s just a little rain.
We can’t see anything, I’d replied. Maybe we should just pull over and—
It was in that moment that John gave me one of his cursed looks out the side of his eyes. Even though there was no full eye contact, his expression was enough. His eyes darkened and his lip curled up into a snarl as his breath expelled out through his nose like a bull’s—the look was enough to silence me instantly, and it was there that I realized, rain or not, we would keep driving.
This trip, he’d continued on when I didn’t speak up, is going to go just fine. We don’t need to waste any more money than we have to.
There had been a discussion, though slight, about the cost of the trip, but with our scant few belongings in the back of the SUV, there wasn’t much else I could say. We were leaving New York to go south and then house hunting further west—there’d be costs, yes, but at least we would be having fun, which I thought would make it worthwhile.
So early in the morning, and on the outer skirts of town, there were few people to be seen. Stupid as we were to be out in the rain, we had the road almost to ourselves, save for the occasional vehicle we passed who drifted along like a ghost in the limelight. With that lack of traffic we made good time, and by the time we got on the interstate the worst of my fears would be gone.
At least there, I had thought, we wouldn’t have to worry about heavy traffic.
Boy had I been wrong.
Almost immediately upon merging onto the highway, the state of the road became clear. The interstate, flooded with semi-trucks, appeared like a racing lane, and the rain, coming down in sheets, made almost everything disappear. We hydroplaned immediately after we cleared the on-ramp and then shortly after John had the vehicle under control.
We need to stop, I’d said, though in my current state I was practically yelling it at the top of my lungs.
We’ll be fine, John had replied. We—
Whatever he had planned to say afterward was immediately cut off by the sound of screeching tires.
A truck beside us lost control.
My heart stopped beating.
I had but one thought: we’re going to crash.
Next I knew, the scream of metal entered my ears.
What felt like minutes of horrific agony were likely only seconds as the truck that had tried to pass the semis in front of us slammed into the driver’s side of the SUV and sent us spinning. Whether or not John had been injured I couldn’t be sure, but with the combined force of two extremely-heavy vehicles crashing into each other and the rain slicking the road, the SUV immediately hydroplaned and spun out of control. The truck who crashed into us rebounded onto the interstate while our vehicle spun. I screamed for John to tap the break, but by that point it was too late. In what felt like moments we hit the concrete wall and stalled right then and there.
I smacked my head into the dash and lost consciousness.
By the time I woke up, I had a hand on my shoulder and someone talking in my ear.
John? I’d asked.
Sir, the man had replied. Are you all right?
It was at that moment that I saw the red and blue police car lights in the rearview mirror, and when I realized it was not John’s hand on my shoulder, but a paramedic’s, I panicked. The man’s words were almost instantly lost to me as I turned my head to see whether or not my partner of five years had survived.
Immediately upon looking at John, I realized he was dead.
His throat, restrained by the seatbelt, had kept him from flying out the windshield, but had broken his neck instead.
For the first few moments, I could only stare. My mind lost, my heart beating a thousand times over in my chest, I reached forward, took John’s shoulder, then squeezed and shook it.
Shortly thereafter, the reality of the situation set in.
My partner was dead—and I, with a gash running along my head, had survived.
It was supposed to have been the trip of a lifetime.
John was dead.
I wake the following morning to dappled sunlight streaming through the living room windows. My body spread out along the couch, my eyes raw and burning with tears, I push myself up into a sitting position and once more welcome the reality that comes every morning—that John is dead, and that he will never come back.
Once my initial melancholy following the realization passes, I allow my eyes to trail across the living room until they fell to the clock hanging above the stove. 7:45 shows pure and strong upon its surface, and though the numbers mean nothing symbolically to me, it wouldn’t be much longer before I would have to take the bus and head down to Dr. Burns’ office for one of my bi-weekly therapy sessions.
What’s it going to change? I think vaguely, much like I do every time.
Though I know it would likely not be much, I understand that I have to go.
Upon my first wellness evaluation, I’d been placed on suicide watch and had been treated in the psychiatric ward for three days.
If I wanted to live, the doctors had said, I had to do this.
With that thought firmly in mind, I stood and began to make my way back to the bedroom—toward where, once upon a time, the two of us had slept.
“Tristan,” Dr. Burns says. “How are you feeling today?”
“I’m… fine,” I say, then blink, trying to adjust to the early-morning light.
“Oh. Pardon me. I didn’t realize the sun was in your eyes.”
“It’s fine, sir.”
Burns stands and walks the short distance to the window before sliding the shades into place. Once finished, he turns, offers me a smile, then returns to his desk, where he sits down and, as always, flips open the slowly-building encyclopedia that is my overall mental health.
“You appear troubled,” Dr. Burns says. “Did you have a bad night?”
“Bad couldn’t describe it,” I say, then laugh, though the sound is hollow and without intent.
“Would you care to tell me what happened?”
I never want to tell him anything. It’s not that he’s conceited or that I’m unwilling to share—it’s just that every time I even begin to speak about what I’m seeing, Burns immediately becomes skeptical. That may in part be due to the fact that he is a mental health professional and likely sees his patients through a predetermined lens, but it does nothing to help me when I’m feeling at my lowest.
To tell him, I think, or to not tell him.
Every time this has happened we end up saying nothing. Sometimes we go for ten minutes without talking—his eyes kind, his mouth set and firm. While I realize it’s most likely a method used to inspire a response out of me, it does little for my overall level of comfort.
Shifting in my seat, I let out a slight sigh, then bow my head, still debating as to whether or not I should say that I saw the thing outside my window again.
It’s not going to do you any good to keep it to yourself, my conscience says.
But, I wonder, is it even worth it to tell him?
“I’m sorry to see that you’re in such a state,” Burns says, instantaneously drawing my eyes back up and at him. “Would you like something?”
“Would you like something? There’s a portable fridge down here. There’s water, iced coffee—“
“Something to eat would be nice, actually. I haven’t eaten breakfast.”
“You haven’t?” Burns asks, to which I answer with a nod. “Tristan… are you not feeding yourself?”
“I just find it hard to work up the urge to cook.”
“I’ve noticed you looked… leaner than usual,” the psychiatrist says. “If you’re having trouble cooking for yourself… or are worried about paying for your rent… you could always go to the church. I’m sure they’d be willing to help.”
“Just because you’re something they may not approve of doesn’t mean they’ll turn you away.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“What about a food bank, or a soup kitchen? They’d be more than willing to feed you.”
“Again, sir: I’ll take my chances.”
Burns frowns. He lifts a pocketbook at his side and flips through it until he seems to find what he’s looking for. “Not to play the broken record,” he says, “but have you tried a homeless shelter?”
“Don’t you actually have to be homeless to eat at one?”
“Your circumstances are quite severe. I don’t see why they would turn you away.”
“Not many people want to help me,” I offer. “Well… other than you.”
“What about your parents? Do they know?”
“My father disowned me when I came out at eighteen. My mother, she… she sends me money, but it’s not a lot.”
“Have you been back to work yet?”
“They want a letter of recommendation.”
“I see.” The doctor frowns, places both hands on the table, then lifts a finger and presses it on his phone. “Cindy,” he says.
“Could you go down to the kitchen and bring me up a burger with fries?”
“A burger and fries?” the receptionist laughs. “What are you—“
“It’s not for me. It’s for my patient.”
“Oh.” Cindy pauses. “Yes, I can go. Just give me a few minutes to get down there.”
“Thank you, Cindy.” Burns pulls his finger off his phone and looks back up at me. “Would you be interested in some water now?”
I take the water he offers and swallow a hearty mouthful of it before I place the bottle on the desk. There, it sits between us, a testament to the art that I have long since lost, sweating with precipitation and the doubt that exists within the room. The act itself is kind in nature, but the magnitude of its purpose only continues to confirm what it is I’m afraid of.
It’s ok, I think, attempting to try and calm myself. Everything’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be ok.
I begin the process of taking long, deep breaths through my nose and then expelling them out my mouth, a driving purpose meant to try and calm my nerves. It’s not a subtle action, and when I hear Doctor Burns begin to drum his fingers along his desk, my heart begins to beat similarly to the staccato of his undetermined tune.
“Tristan,” Dr. Burns says, the sound of his voice drawing my attention back to his face. “Are you sure you’re—“
A knock comes at the doors and silences Burns. A short moment later, the door opens and the pretty blonde receptionist walks in with a paper plate, atop which are the burger and fries that the doctor specifically requested for me.
“Thank you, Cindy,” the psychiatrist says, pushing the plate in my direction.
“You didn’t have to do this,” I reply, waiting until the receptionist crosses the room and closes the door before I raise my head.
I give him a precursory glance through the length of my slowly-growing fringe before I reach forward and take the food into my hands.
Oh well, I thought, my stomach rumbling—likely not in hunger, but unease. Here goes nothing.
I bide my time while I eat the food this man has given me to both appease him and keep from having to say anything. A fry lifted, then inserted into my mouth; the pack of ketchup torn open, then squeezed out between my burger; the salt added generously to the food when I find it lacking in flavor and my tongue tingling at the spices they’ve added—all are a part of a process which symbolizes not only my own inner suffering, but the inability for me to even feed myself.
When was the last time I ate? I think vaguely. The fact that I can’t even remember confirms my own suspicion—that it wasn’t today, it wasn’t yesterday, and it might not have even been the day before.
When the realization begins to set in, and when finally my stomach can take no more and I fear I may throw up, I set the other half of the hamburger down and take only one more fry before I decide I’m done. “Thank you,” I say.
“Do you not have any way to get to the store?” the doctor asks.
“I don’t have a car.”
“What about a friend? Can they take you?”
Maybe, I think, but am unsure what to say.
The doctor sighs. “Tristan,” he says, his voice filled with apprehension and even what sounds like the smallest bit of disappointment. “I don’t like seeing you in this state.”
“Neither do I,” I reply almost fondly.
“Maybe you should consider having a family member come stay with you, or at least a friend.”
“No one wants to come.”
“Have you tried?”
I blink. “No,” I say.
“I hate to say it, Tristan, but you’re in a state where you’re becoming apathetic to your own needs. That’s dangerous, especially to someone who’s dealing with the loss of a loved one.”
“What are you saying, sir?”
No, I think, the bad seed planted, the roots beginning to grow. He isn’t—
“Are you,” I start, then swallow a lump in my throat, “suggesting I—“
“I can’t put you in a psychiatric ward, though if I’d’ve had my way you would’ve never been released from the hospital as early as you were.”
“Your grief is consuming you. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep. By God, Tristan—you’ve even been hallucinating things.”
“He’s real,” I whisper, my voice small and once again childlike.
“I said he’s real,” I say, turning my head up to look at him. “I know he’s real.”
“All right,” Burns says, crossing his arms over his chest. “Let’s just say, for the point of this discussion, that your partner has come back from the dead—that even though it seems impossible, some residual part of him has transcended death and returned to the Earth.”
“He doesn’t speak to you, he doesn’t attempt to reach out to you, and he hasn’t entered your apartment once since you’ve started seeing him… what? Three weeks ago?” he asks. I nod in response. “Ok. With that being said, I can’t help but ask: what’s the real story behind this?”
“You’ve told me for the past three weeks you haven’t been able to sleep because he’s been… watching you—that you’ve been too scared to leave your windows open even though you’re on the thirteenth floor and that you can’t even be in your bedroom unless the curtains are drawn.”
“Yeah. I did.”
“That’s what I don’t understand, Tristan.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your story doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why do you say—“
“You think John came back from the dead.”
“And you haven’t been able to sleep because you’re so afraid of him?”
“You don’t think he’s an angel, obviously, because from what you’ve told me you don’t believe angels haunt the persons they love, and from what I understand he’s most likely not a ghost. I also have reason to believe, given your history of faith, that you do not fear a haunting would be occurring in your home. Am I right?”
I haven’t touched a cross in years, I thought, but nod anyway rather than give into a potential argument.
“With that being said, we have to look at the reality of the situation. He just… appears… on your porch or the roof of the building directly beside you. He, again, says nothing, and does nothing other than watch you. Am I right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “You’re right, but I don’t understand why you’re asking me this though.”
“What are you not telling me, Tristan?”
What am I not telling him? I think, my lips curling down into a frown. Why is he—
“I get the impression you’re keeping something from me,” the doctor continued, sprawling his hands out and along his desk.
“I’m not holding anything back from you, sir.”
“Yes you are.”
Why does he think I’m lying? I think, the bundles of nerves swimming up and down my spine. Why does he—
Doctor Burns let out a soft sigh when he looked up and at his clock. “Though I’d love to continue this conversation with you,” he says, “I’m afraid we’re running out of time.”
“All right,” I reply, standing.
“You think about what you want to tell me before you come in for our next session,” he says, extending his arm to shake my hand. “Ok?”
“Oh… Ok,” I say.
I can barely stand to touch his hand.
The moment I’m out the building, I start to tremble.
What’s happening to me? I think.
I have no time to wonder.
The bus pulls up alongside the road and the driver waves me over.
He’s closer this time.
Standing directly outside with one hand splayed across the glass doors that lead out onto the porch, the figure of my late boyfriend watches me with eyes I cannot see. His silhouette darkened, his presence almost invisible, his impact and mark upon the world can only be determined by the occasional shift of the wings that now frame his back.
Outside, the rain continues to fall—a slight drizzle compared to the previous night’s storm from hell. It does not, however, appear to deter him. Rather, it seems to only further his attempt of making himself known by slicking his hands with rain and creating with each moment an impression upon the world at hand.
Please, I think. Just go away.
He paws at the window like a cat. One hand first, then the second, then the other, followed by the first again—the sound of what should have been flesh touching glass forces miniature squeaks throughout the bedroom which bounce off the walls over and over again. Even when I roll over so my back is facing him he continues the process—lovingly, desperately, longingly. It’s not hard to understand what he wants, but in thinking about it, and in knowing that what used to be John wants in, I can’t help but shiver even though the space heater has made it warm in here.
The severity of his actions rises to a crescendo when he not only paws at the door, but slaps his hands into it full force. The first time it happens I jump, thinking it’s thunder, while after the second I merely lay in bed, numb to all emotional turmoil. It only continues to get worse as it goes along, and when the force of his strikes begin to rattle the glass doors, tears snake out of my eyes and onto the pillow beneath me.
“Why?” I whisper.
The force of his assault is now so bad that with each strike I think he is throwing something substantial into the doors. I half-expect them to break, the glass raining down and the cold rain descending, as with each passing moment his assault only seems to grow worse. I wonder briefly whether or not I’m the only person who can hear what’s going on or if the flat across from me can also hear, but that question is soon erased when, for no apparent reason, all noise ceases to exist.
“John?” I ask.
Don’t give him a voice, my conscience says, rattling the inside of my head as if I am a toddler with shaken-baby syndrome. Don’t you dare give him any more power than he already has!
A low moan begins to sound from within the room.
“Please,” I whisper, closing my eyes once more. “Leave me alone.”
The sound transfigures into something more definite when outside the rain begins to lighten. Though not an actual word yet, the syllables are beginning to come together—first the reckless T, then the Tris. Before I can even accept it or John can even begin to start with the last and final tin, I throw myself out of bed, bolt out of the bedroom and then stand in the kitchen.
Breathless, crying, and heart beating so fast in my chest it hurts, I double over and let out a long, low sob that echoes throughout the kitchen and right back into my ears.
On the floor, and on my knees, I cradle my face in my hands as once again the earsplitting rain begins once again.
“Why can’t you just leave me alone?” I sob. “Why?”
A shadow passes across the room.
I can’t even bear to look up.
Nothing has been disturbed. No windows have been broken, no doors have been opened, and no entryway has been provided for anything to get in, so to see a shadow pass along the walls and know that I am safe is a relief worth its weight in gold.
I raise my eyes to look at the wall.
I expect something—anything—to look back at me, or at least be there to mark its presence.
When I see nothing on the wall, I let out a slight sob and stand.
Outside, the rain continues on.
Maybe this time he will be gone.
Earlier this orning, I called and requested that my ex-military friend Armand come over.
“What’s wrong?” he’d asked while I cried on the phone. “Tristan, why are you—“
“I just need you to come over here,” I’d replied. “Now.”
Little more than forty minutes later, Armand stepped through the door and greeted me with his presence.
We sit in the living room drinking tea and eating biscuits Armand has brought from home. The dialogue nonexistent, the apartment quiet, I try desperately to control my emotions, but with each and every moment they flood forward—striking my personal barrier. It is the coastline of my impenetrable heart that is wearing away as the minutes pass by—that, under the pressure of wind and waves, is being carved out. I could’ve taken a knife and stabbed myself in the chest to parody the pain, as the feeling is far too real to be something imagined, but even that seems worthless, as directly across from me is a man who has been my friend for far too many years to count.
You came before John, I think. Before everything.
Armand’s eyes narrow in confusion and his lips curl down into a frown as the moments continue to pass by. His eyes darkening, his full bottom lip now quivering, it is obvious he knows that something is wrong, though to what extent he understands I don’t know. The only person I’ve ever told about John was Doctor Burns, and even that hadn’t helped my conscience much.
“You look better,” Armand finally says, setting his cup of tea down before leaning forward and running one of his large, black hands over the place where my flesh wound is only just now healing. “Now sound… that’s a different story entirely.”
“I’m sorry I called you over here,” I reply, reaching up to wipe away tears fresh and new and also to push his hand away. “I know I shouldn’t have, but I just couldn’t… I couldn’t—“
“Hey—don’t worry about it. I’m here for ya.”
“What’s going on, Tristan? I mean, beyond what happened to John?”
The way the words slide from his mouth like velvet across a fair thing’s skin immediately impresses upon me a terror that I can’t control. My body begins to shake, my lip starts to quiver—I lose control over the flow of tears in my eyes and moisture comes spilling forth and down my face. I probably would’ve even started sobbing had I lacked control, but somehow I’m able to keep from that and instead bow my head so we don’t have to look at each other.
Does he know? I wonder. Does he?
I keep repeating to myself in my head that I have not told anyone other than Doctor Burns. To most people, it would be seen as an illusion—a hallucination caused by the grief of losing a loved one—while to others it could’ve been seen as a disease. There’s a reason schizophrenics often don’t tell people what they see or hear, as labels are much easier to place than they are to fold into intricate pieces that can be examined and transcribed into legible cohesion. In this moment, though, I can’t help but wonder if my best friend has seen through me and realized something more sinister was at work.
“You wouldn’t believe me,” I finally say, forcing myself to look up and at the man sitting directly across from me.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Armand asks, reaching down to place his massive hand over mine.
“Because I’m not even sure if I believe it.”
Neither of us say anything for some time. A frown strikes his face, his eyes fall to the floor, his lip once more begins to quiver and his nostrils flare at nothing—even his hand, large and strong, begins to tremble over mine, and to stop it he curls his fingers around my fist: an act of patronage from the most nervous of souls.
When finally the silence becomes too much to bear, Armand sighs and leans forward. He then says, “Tell me what’s going on.”
It seems almost impossible that I could just willingly open my mouth and allow the past three weeks of hell to come spewing forward, but when it does I’m shocked and can hardly believe what is happening. It begins at the start of it all—when, one week after John’s death, a figure appeared on the roof of the building beside me to watch me through the window, then of its malicious intent. I tell him of its forward advances, of it occasionally following me from window to window and of it standing on the porch. Finally, when I come to the night before and tell Armand not only of the figure pawing at the glass doors, but of it trying to voice the syllables of my name together, tears stream down my face in full force and the first sob that I’ve had today tries to echo forth.
“I,” I start to say, then lose my breath. “I… I don’t… I can’t—“
“It’s ok,” Armand says, tightening his hold on my hand. “It’s ok, Tristan. Don’t cry.”
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I never said—”
“You don’t believe in that kind of stuff,” I continue, cutting him off. “You never have, never will.”
“I never said I didn’t believe you.”
“But you were—“
“Going to? No. No I wasn’t, Tristan. Don’t think that for a goddamned minute.” He pauses as he seems to consider his words. “Sorry. Wrong choice of words to use in front of a Catholic guy.”
I take the moment of clarity that follows to wipe my eyes and take a deep breath. When I’m finally able to see clearly again, I look directly into Armand’s eyes and find not the skepticism that is often there, but enlightenment and concern.
“You… you believe me?”
“I believe you’re going through something, yes.”
“Then you don’t believe me,” I sigh. “All right. That’s cool.”
“I don’t get this bandwagon you’re jumping up on. I never said I didn’t believe you.”
“You said that I was ‘going through something.’”
“Since when has that meant that I don’t believe you?”
“It’s always meant that, Armand—or, at least, it has for a while.”
Standing, I force myself to walk to the series of three windows on the eastern wall and sigh as I look out at the city and its awe-inspiring heights. It is this that is real—the buildings, the cars, the world, the people. My problem, though… I can’t help but wonder.
When I hear the sound of footsteps behind me, I sigh and bow my head.
A pair of arms wrap around my shoulders. “Tristan,” Armand whispers.
“You need to tell your therapist about what he did to you.”
“Why do you think that’s important?”
Armand doesn’t reply.
I close my eyes.
It takes me but a moment for it all to sink in.
Has it really come down to this?
“Tristan,” Doctor Burns says when I walk into his office the following day. “You’re here earlier than I expected.”
“Sorry,” I say, reaching back to grip the doorknob. “Do you want me to—“
“No, sit. You wouldn’t be here unless you had something to tell me.”
How true that is, I think, then close the door behind me.
I cross the distance between me and the desk and settle into the plush seat that sits opposite Doctor Burns. His green eyes intent, his beard fine and trimmed, he watches me for a few short moments before reaching down for my file. “How’ve you been?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say.
“Have you gotten yourself to the store yet?”
“My friend Armand is staying with me. He went out and picked up some groceries.”
“I’m happy to hear that,” Burns replies, leaning back in his seat. He drums his fingers along the edge of his desk and watches me with calm, calculating eyes.
He expects it, I think. He knows it.
Of course he did. What psychiatrist wouldn’t notice that something was wrong or at least unsettling upon looking at his or her patient?
Rather than keep the charade going, I sigh and take a deep breath.
Here goes nothing.
“Doctor Burns,” I say. “Can I… can I talk to you about something?”
“Of course you can,” he says. “Why, that’s the whole point of being here, isn’t it? For us to discuss what’s going on in your life?”
“I… I guess.”
“Take your time, Tristan. Tell me whenever you’re ready.”
With that thought in mind, I bow my head, take a deep breath, then expel it before returning my attention to the man in front of me. “Doctor Burns,” I say. “There’s… there’s something I haven’t told you. About me and John, I mean. About… about what it was like when he was alive.”
“You’ve never mentioned how day-to-day life with him was,” Burns remarks, then leans forward.
“That’s…” I pause. I watch his green eyes flicker with interest and take another deep breath.
“Take your time, Tristan.”
“I’ve never told you anything about me and John because I didn’t want to… well… sully his memory, I guess.”
“John was… he was a good guy. I can say that honestly. It’s just… near the end… we had… times.”
“Like every relationship does.”
“Yeah, but… they weren’t us just arguing with each other over stupid stuff like bills or the car. He… he…”
Damn you, I think, tears burning in my eyes. Goddamn you John.
“Tristan?” Doctor Burns asks.
“He… he didn’t mean it when we’d get into arguments.”
“Didn’t mean what?”
“He didn’t mean to hit me.”
Doctor Burns remains silent. His hand doesn’t even stray to the pen and folder that he has all my most intimate of secrets in.
“He… he started hitting me,” I say, “when he’d get really mad, when he was angry about something, when he was stressed out. You know how it was. His job didn’t really allow much in the way of relaxation.”
“Such is the curse of working in the police department,” Burns remarks. “So… I have to ask, since you brought it up: how often did this happen?”
“Only near the end of his life. It was… we…”
“Yeah. Really bad.”
“How often did this happen before he died?”
“We got into a fight about us leaving New York and moving down to New Orleans a few weeks before we left. We couldn’t really talk about it much because we were both working, and since he was going through so much shit trying to get transferred down to the New Orleans PD he was almost always in a bad mood, especially since he’d get home from the midnight shift just as I was getting up in the morning.” I let out a breath. “He started hitting me every other week when it started, then every day during the week we were planning to leave.”
“What were your fights about?”
“What we were taking, what we were selling, getting out of the apartment before the lease ran out—it just seemed like everything made him angry near the end of it all. I mean, I know he loved me, because throughout it all he’d apologize after he’d calmed down, but it… it just… I don’t know.”
“I’m sure you’re already aware of this,” Doctor Burns says, “and I hate to bring it up, but you are aware that men and women who are abused by their significant others are often conditioned to accept the abuse without a second thought.”
“I… I know.”
“He loves me,” Burns says. “It was an accident. He didn’t mean it. He’s a good man. We’re going to stop and get help. We—“
“He didn’t mean to hit me,” I say, stopping Burns before he can continue on his tirade. “It’s just… he was brought up that way.”
“He himself was abused in the past?”
“His fucking dad—goddamn him for fucking him up.”
“It’s not surprising that he would repeat the cycle of abuse. You become accustomed to that when you grow up or live with it for extended periods of time.”
“I’d like to ask, now that you’ve brought this up. If I may.”
“What brought this to your attention? I mean, telling me about the abuse. You’ve said before that you didn’t want to ‘sully’ his memory, but why tell me what happened now, after you’ve been seeing me twice a week for nearly a month?”
“Armand said I should tell you.”
“Why did he think it was important?”
“Probably because I was so messed up over it just after he died. I thought…” I pause. Tears begin to fill my eyes once again. “I thought there was something I could’ve done to help him. He wasn’t a bad man all the time, Doctor Burns. It’s just…”
“It’s just… what?”
“I think he was sick before he died.”
“What do you mean?”
“He didn’t start acting like this until a few months ago. Before we were fine. We got along great, we did all the things we’d normally do together, we’d go out, eat, drink, have fun with friends. I… I noticed his job was starting to get bad and I told him he needed to get counseling, help, something to keep his mind occupied and his conscience healthy, but he wouldn’t listen to me. That’s when he started getting mean, but it wasn’t just physical at first—just verbal.”
“What did he tell you?”
“He’d say I wasn’t bringing in enough money, that I wasn’t keeping the house clean, that I needed to cook more often because he was exhausted when he came home every morning and during the nights when his schedule would suddenly change. I mean… I know his job was stressful—it is New York, after all, but…” I sigh. I allow myself a few moments to compose myself both by wiping the tears from my eyes before I look up at my doctor. “I thought I could fix it. Fix me. Fix him.”
“Was this why you stayed with him even through the abuse?” Burns asks, drumming his fingers along his desk. “Because you believed he was suffering from an illness?”
“Yes sir. I was.”
“And it never crossed your mind to break up with him, if only just to scare him into getting help?”
“I loved him too much to break up with him, even if it was only temporary. As to the help, it’s just… I thought he’d come around, that he’d see through the film over his eyes and realize that what he was doing was hurting us, hurting me.”
“But that never happened.”
“No, sir. It didn’t.”
“And you didn’t suggest going in for help? Not even together?”
“I told him I wouldn’t move to New Orleans with him unless he got help. He promised me he’d go get help after we made the trip across the country.”
“And that was when the accident happened,” the doctor nods.
I’m unable to respond.
“There’s little one can do to help fix another if they don’t help themselves,” Burns says, as if the words he’s saying are meant to be comforting rather than hurtful. “Tristan… I know we’ve discussed this before, and I know the few times we’ve ever made progress you’ve refused to consider it, but… have you reconsidered trying antidepressants? At least for a little while, to see how they work?”
“They won’t work for me.”
“Why do you say that?”
Because my problem’s not in the past, I think. It’s in the present.
“That… that thing.”
“You’re still seeing it?”
“Sir, it… whatever it was… it was trying to get into my apartment last night.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Because the NYPD aren’t going to respond to a call from someone who says there’s a monster breaking into their home.”
“They might not if you say it’s a monster,” Burns says, “but if you say it’s a person—“
“I’m on the thirteenth floor. How’s someone supposed to get up and onto the porch?”
At this, Burns has no reply. Instead, he opens his file on me and begins to write, with feverish haste, what I have just told him. To combat the nerves that come with such a sight, I cross my arms over my chest and think back to how things will be when I get back to the apartment—where, within the closed confines of four walls, Armand will be making dinner for the two of us.
Everything will be just fine, I think. He’s just writing down what you told him because he has to have it on record that—
Burns stops writing.
I frown. “Sir?” I ask.
“I know for a fact that I can help you with the emotional fallout from the abuse you’ve suffered, and from the trauma of losing your partner. That’s part of my job description. That’s what I’m trained to do. But helping you with this… this thing you keep seeing… I can’t do anything.”
“What do you suggest I do then?”
“Honestly, I don’t know, Tristan. You refuse to take medication, so we can’t know if it’s a hallucination, and if you can’t call the police department to report a potential break in we don’t know where or not this ‘figure’ is a real person.”
“You’re not… turning me away, are you?”
“No. I’m not.”
“Then what are you—“
Burns slides a single piece of paper across the table. “If you think this is something beyond the realm of your control,” he says, “and if you’re convinced that for some reason your partner is haunting you from beyond the grave, you should consider looking for resources that deal with that sort of thing.”
I lift the piece of paper and hold it before my eyes.
Joseph’s Home for the Brave.
“A church?” I ask.
“You did say you had a Catholic upbringing,” Burns replies, “and so far as I know, that’s the closest church you have to your area of town.”
“Out of time? Yes. We are.” Burns reaches across the table and holds his hand open. “Good luck, Tristan.”
“Thank you, sir,” I say, shaking his hand in turn.
I rise and begin to make my way to the door.
Even before I touch the doorknob I can’t help but wonder if this is the end of it all.
“You think it’s over?” Armand asks.
“I’m not sure,” I say.
We stand in the kitchen while Armand cooks. His attention set mostly on the food, but drawn to me, his eyes linger cautiously over the soup he has painstakingly rolled noodles for. I want to say something to set his mind at ease, but with my own thoughts running rampant inside my head, I can’t help but wonder if I’m even capable of such a thing.
It doesn’t matter anyway, I thought. You already know he’s not going to be able to help you.
The piece of paper in my pocket is trapped within my balled fist, its sharp edges kissing the palm of my hand and its soft ones whispering carefully to me. It’s as though at any moment I will be damaged of the world’s accord and by the paper’s intense might, as upon its surface the words Joseph’s Home for the Brave are spelled fine and pure. I still haven’t decided whether or not I’m going. I haven’t even broached the subject with Armand yet.
“So,” my friend says, lifting his eyes once more. “I assume you told him then?”
“He agreed that whatever John was going through at the time could have caused his behavior, or at least influenced it.”
“Which is definitely a possibility.”
“What did you think of John when he started acting… weird?”
“I thought there was something wrong,” Armand says. “You could tell there was something bothering him, whether it was something about his job or about the way his life was going. There was something in his eyes, Tristan. I don’t know if you noticed it, but… it scared me. It was like he was crying out for help but couldn’t ask for it himself.” He sighs and shakes his head. “I just tried to stay out of it, even though I wanted to step in and say something.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I thought the two of you were just going through a phase. You did talk about going to couples counseling. Remember?” I nod. “I don’t like to get into other people’s business, Tristan. It’s bad enough when you’ve got two people going at each other, but when you throw a third person in? That’s just asking for trouble.”
“But you thought about doing it—I mean, calling John out.”
“I wanted to, yeah, but anytime I was going to try you told me not to.”
“I—” I pause at the end, unsure what to say.
It was true. There was no denying the fact that I had protected John—probably more than I should have, now that I think about it—but the past is the past. There’s nothing I can do to fix the situation now that everything’s set in stone.
Armand adds more spice to the broth, stirs the contents within, then turns the burner off before sliding his potholders over his hands and lifting the tub of soup to an unoccupied place on the stove. He stares at it for several long, intense minutes before he looks up and offers me one of his impeccable white smiles.
“Thank you for doing this,” I say, stepping forward and wrapping my arms around him.
“You don’t have to thank me,” Armand said, pressing one hand against the small of my back and the other on the middle of my spine. “You know I’m here for you.”
“I guess the question I should be asking is how long you want me to stay here with you.”
“You’re off work,” I say. “Right?”
“No. I’m not. But I can bring my laptop and do it from home… well, here, anyway. I just don’t want to intrude on you.”
“And I don’t want to keep you from your job,” I reply, though the words are nothing more than lies, as I want more than anything else in the world for him to stay.
“Well,” Armand says, “if that’s the case, then I’ll run home after we eat dinner, then come right back. You have wi-fi, right?”
“Yeah,” I say, watching as he leans down to check the crescent rolls in the oven. “How much food did you make?”
“Soup, bread bowls—“
“Uh huh. Soup, bread bowls, crescent rolls—I can make more if you like.”
“I’m sure that’ll be more than enough,” I laugh.
Armand smiles and pulls the rolls out of the oven. “All right,” he says. “Let’s just let these cool off and then we’ll get to eating.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I sit in the silence of the darkened apartment as outside another storm threatens to loom in. Wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the couch, drinking a diet cola and trying to keep my attention on things other than the clouds outside, I stare at the television screen standing opposite me and immediately am flooded with his presence.
All our shows, I thought, we were supposed to watch.
It’d been a general thing, really—a ritual that we would perform three times a week. Him on the couch, legs spread out; my leg over his, his feet against my toes; me leaning against him, his arm wrapped around me; our hands pressed against one another, his on my abdomen and mine on his wrist—in life, John and I had gotten along, and despite the occasional spells of violence conceived and delivered from the stress of work near the end of his life those times had always been the best. On those Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights, during which time John specifically did not work the midnight hour, we would curl up with one another on the couch and lose ourselves to fake realities and each other, two men in love without a care in the world. Just the realization that such a thing would never happen again has haunted me since the day he died, and now, sitting here, in his—our—apartment, I’m almost on the verge of tears.
“It’s ok,” I whisper. “Deep breaths, Tristan. Deep breaths. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
It is with those words that his presence becomes tangible—that, in spite of the world and all its laws, it presses itself to the glass separating the two of us from the inside and outside worlds. It grows, mutates, shifts into something concrete. I see it first as only a flicker of movement from the corner of my eye, like a shadow playing across my retinas, then as a monolith as it continues to morph into a more powerful entity. The rain begins to fall and outside, thunder rolls forward. Despite that, though, it is not until the night’s first lightning strikes that the figure becomes real.
Tris, it says, tan.
I shiver at the word and wrap myself deeper into the blanket to avoid making direct eye contact with it, though in this moment I seriously doubt I could see his eyes even if I wanted to.
Just be quiet, I thought. Don’t look at it, don’t talk to it, don’t acknowledge it.
Did they not say that the conception of our greatest fears begins within our own consciences?
Rather than think about the probability of it all, I stand, adjust the blanket across my shoulders, then wander into the kitchen. I pull from the cabinets above the stove a bowl and fill it with the soup that’s still simmering on one of the burners, but instead of going back to the window I seat myself along the bar and begin to eat in silence.
On the stove’s LED display, I watch as the minute number changes from two to three.
How long could it possibly take for Armand to return?
Sighing, I bow my head and turn my eyes down to the soup in front of me, though at that moment I could care less about whether or not I’ll end up eating it.
A sound begins on the far side of the room.
I close my eyes.
He’s pawing at the windows again.
“Please,” I whisper. “Just… just go away.”
The sound of laughter echoes into the apartment and rebounds off the walls before it enters my ears.
Sunshine, warm days, long walks around the neighborhood, trips to Times Square via the metropolitan subway system, his arm around my shoulder, mine wrapped around his waist, our fingers interlaced and our breaths shared from one to the other—all enter my mind in that moment when, outside, the thing that used to be my partner continues to try and get in.
Tears fall from my eyes.
I bow my head.
I’m somehow able to refrain from sobbing even though the memories of it all are flooding forward, breaching the levees of my mind and the barriers of my consciousness as if it is a hurricane destroying along the coast of a city grand and historical one of the few things that keeps it safe.
To my left the doorknob begins to rattle.
No, I think. Please, just leave me—
“Tristan?” Armand asks, then knocks on the door. “Did you lock me out?”
“No,” I reply, standing. A quick look in the direction of the windows shows that the figure is gone. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
After crossing the brief distance between us, I sigh, open the door, then allow Armand inside with a simple wave of the hand.
When he is fully in the apartment, his laptop snug under his arm and a peculiar look on his face, I close my eyes and sigh.
“Tristan,” he says. “Are you—”
“Will you sleep in my room tonight?”
“No. I heard you. It’s just… I don’t understand.”
“Please,” I say.
“Did he… come back?” Armand asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I say, then look past him to view the row of windows along the wall. “I won’t ask you again.”
“Will you sleep in my room tonight?”
“Yes,” Armand says. “I will.”
Armand sleeps on the floor while in my bed I lay awake. The sheet wrapped within my fist, my body prone and vulnerable atop the mattress, I stare at the wall and try to drown out my thoughts by listening to the sound of rain, which sounds like innocence on a long and cold day.
Don’t get your hopes up, I think. It could get worse at any moment.
Though not yet fierce, and while still somewhat far away, that does not mean it will be sated by a night cold and alone and with the company of a friend at my side.
I listen to the sound of Armand’s breathing on the floor beneath me as I cry to regulate my own uneven breaths alongside with it. A deep inhale, a quick exhale, a cough, a brief start and then a short mumble beneath his breath—these are the things that enter my ears as I concentrate on the world below and the things that ultimately make me miss having someone in my own bed. There’d been a short quarrel between the two of us when it came to sleeping positions, and upon saying that he could sleep in the bed with me, Armand had refused, replying with a simple, “It’s not the bed I made” before he accepted a pillow and a quilt from the clothing closet.
It’s not the bed I made, I think as the rain continues to fall and a man continues to breathe. It’s not the bed I made.
Closing my eyes, I begin the breathing ritual once more.
The pitter-patter of the drizzle is melody to my mind.
The heater kicks on.
The breath of winter draws forth.
Something begins to knock on the sliding glass door.
“Just ignore it,” I whisper, drawing the blankets tighter around me. “Just ignore it and it will go away.”
But will it, though? I have willed whatever the thing that comes to my apartment is away several times and yet with each attempt it has returned. I have no allies, save for my friend, and I bear no sword with which I could cast the creature away. Instead, I merely have my sanity—which, with each meeting with the creature, is slowly slipping away.
Armand mumbles something below my bed.
“Armand?” I ask. “Are you awake?”
The knock at the outside door ceases to exist.
“What’s wrong?” Armand asks, jarring me out of my reverie just in time to see his face appear over the side of the bed.
“Did you hear that?”
“I was fast asleep. Sorry.”
“It’s… it’s all right. Don’t worry about it.”
“What was I supposed to hear?”
Probably nothing, I think. Instead of saying that, however, I simply say, “Go back to bed.”
I settle back down into the mattress and close my eyes.
It is no sooner than Armand’s breathing falls back into a pattern that the knocking begins again.
I wake the following morning to an empty room that is devoid of not only any bad feelings, but also Armand’s presence.
“Armand?” I ask, pushing myself up on one elbow to peer over the side of the bed. “Are you here?”
I do not find my friend. Instead, I discover a sticky note posted to the bedside lamp that says, Went to get us breakfast. Be back soon.
“Oh well,” I sigh. “At least he cares about you.”
And was willing to stay overnight.
Not many people in my life had been willing to help me in my time of need. John’s friends had been distant—police officers who, though respectful of John’s private life, were likely not willing to help me. My friends, on the other hand, had flocked to my side, almost to the point where I couldn’t even take it anymore. The grief, and the anger that had come along with it, had ultimately driven people away, though through the thick of it all one person had remained.
To think that I could have a friend as good as him was almost impossible. Considering what all I’d done—all the names I had called, all the blows I had thrown, all the hate I had delivered and all the ill will I ultimately inspired—I shouldn’t even have any friends, much less ones that would care enough to stay with me. Armand, though, he’d been special—always had, always would. Nothing in the world could ever change that.
“And here I am,” I say, “using him as a crutch.”
I gather a fresh set of clothes from about the room and then make my way into the bathroom—where, once inside, and with the door closed to but a crack, the mystery of everything begins to deepen.
It takes but a few moments for the initial, jarring thought to enter my mind.
Beneath the showerhead, and within the midst of it all, I’m almost unable to think.
The water strikes my body.
My skin crawls.
I let out a slight cry of surprise.
Only one question enters my mind.
Why had the figure stopped knocking when I’d woken Armand?
It was just a coincidence, I think, drawing away from the showerhead while waiting for the water to heat up. That’s all it was. Nothing more, nothing less.
If that were true, though, and if Armand’s presence had been enough to deter the creature, what could that mean for me—the victim of it all and the last, dying savior of my own mental wellbeing?
“You shouldn’t worry about it,” I whisper, sinking into the water as it heats to a comfortable, lukewarm temperature. “You shouldn’t—“
The front door opens, then closes in the kitchen. “Tristan?” Armand calls out. “Are you awake?”
“I’m in the shower!” I call back. “Give me a minute!”
“Hurry up! Don’t want the food going cold.”
No, I think. We don’t.
“Armand,” I say, lifting my head to look over the spread of sausage and egg muffins, the coffee and the cinnamon rolls before us.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“Do you… uh… remember anything that happened last night?”
“Like… me waking you up.”
“No,” Armand says, biting into one of the muffins. “Why? Somethin’ happen?”
Armand’s complexion darkens a shade. He finishes chewing what he has in his mouth, takes a drink of coffee, then swallows that down before frowning and saying, “What?”
“What happened,” he replied. “You know… last night.”
“I was probably just imagining things.”
“Tell me what’s on your mind, Tris.”
“Like I said, it was probably just—“
“He was here again, wasn’t he?”
It is a stunning accusation that is true in every way, shape and form—that, without regret, and without any form of material filter, strikes me hard and inspires within my chest a heat doctors had once described as anxiety. The voice is lost in my throat, a child long gone to bed. My appetite wanes and suddenly, for no reason at all, I feel like throwing up. It’s as though I’ve just been given a poisonous cocktail in which the olive has gone sour.
What do I say? I think.
I didn’t expect Armand to remember just what I had said, much less take it into consideration as a real and concrete thing. My friend had always been a man of logic, even when it came down to what some expressed as truth. There was, he once said, ‘no life beyond,’ and when faced with the reality of John’s death and my distress, he’d merely added that ‘humans were energy’ and that we ‘never truly disappeared from the world.’ At that point I’d been keen to tell him that John hadn’t disappeared—that, instead of vanishing into thin air, he was in a morgue and waiting to be put six feet under—but the intensity of the situation had quelled my desire. Now, though, in the brink of it all, when Armand was sitting directly across from me and staring at my face with eyes so dark and intense I thought I would cry, I couldn’t help but wonder if John’s death had triggered something in him.
Maybe he opened his mind, I think. Maybe—
Armand drums his fingers along the table. “Tris?” he asks. “You still there?”
“Uh huh,” I managed, looking down at the coffee cup my hands are wrapped around.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I didn’t think you’d believe me,” I said. “I thought you didn’t.”
“I never said I didn’t believe you, so don’t go thinking that.”
“So… what happened last night? Before you woke me up?”
“I heard what I usually do when I’m trying to go to bed.”
“A knock on the door.”
“How long does this go on for?”
“Hours, maybe. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I eventually fall asleep.”
“Ok. So you hear him knocking at the door.”
“I don’t like to call it… him.”
“Because it’s not John.”
“Then what is it?” Armand asks.
“It’s,” I start, then falter halfway through. “It’s…”
“Take your time, Tristan. Don’t think you have to blurt it out all at once.”
“It’s an interpretation of him,” I said, raising my eyes to look at Armand.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like someone’s pulled pieces of him out of a hat and tried to put him back together.”
“Do you mean that in just the metaphorical sense, or—”
“No. I’ve seen him up close. It doesn’t look anything like him.”
“Then how do you know it’s him?”
“I just know.” I pause. Armand’s demeanor, though serious, shifts, as if he’s just been dealt a card he doesn’t know how to play. “I don’t know how to explain it,” I continue, lifting and then sipping my coffee. “I guess the best way to describe it is… well… like knowing how home smells. You know it’s home, because you know how it smells… because you’ve grown up with it your entire life.”
“And you’re saying this… well… thing… is a part of John?”
“It has parts of him, but it isn’t really him.”
“What do you think it wants?”
“What makes you think that?”
“It wants me,” I say. “It wants me to know that it has parts of him in it.”
“But what kind of thing would want to take parts of John and put him back together again?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Tristan… I know I’m an Atheist and all, and I know that you’re Catholic and you had trouble growing up with it, but… well… have you considered looking to the church for help?”
“That’s what my psychiatrist said,” I laughed.
I point to a note posted on the refrigerator. “Joseph’s Home for the Brave,” I say, then laugh, almost unable to believe the absurdity of the situation. “Yeah. I know what you’re thinking. A psychiatrist—a man of medicine and logic—telling me to go to the church instead of a psych ward.”
“I’ve heard of it before,” Armand says, seemingly disregarding the part about the psych ward completely. He stares at the paper for several long moments before turning and asking, “Have you looked into it?”
“I haven’t gone, no.”
“But you think they’ll be able to help you.”
“He does,” I say. “I don’t know.”
“Well… anything’s worth a shot, right?”
“I… I guess.”
Armand took another bite out of his sausage muffin. “Let’s finish eating,” he says, “then I’ll go with you.”
“You will go with me to a church?”
“I’m fairly sure the roof’s not going to cave in on us,” Armand laughs. “What’ve we got to lose?”
“I guess nothing,” I reply.
“Then it’s settled. We’ll go to Joseph’s Home for the Brave and see if we can get this situation sorted out.”
While I can appreciate Armand’s proposition, I can’t help but wonder if it will even be worth it.
Some said John was going to Hell because he was gay, I think.
Oh well. That was a different church at a different time.
Maybe this will be different.
Armand and I walk side-by-side for several blocks until we come to the district where the church stands. It is a looming figure in the distance, a religious icon that bears on the top of its structure a cross. What appears to be an angel rests upon it—arms raised, its legs slack and its wings delivering all the effort—and though what seems to be an air of peace surrounds this place, the reality that I am returning to a church for the first time since John died unsettles me to no end.
“Hey,” Armand says, pressing a hand to my shoulder. “You ok?”
“I’m fine,” I lie. “Don’t worry about me.”
Truth be told, I’m nervous as hell about even stepping near a church, but I decide to keep that to myself and instead push forward, sliding my hands into the belly pocket of my hoodie and keeping my attention set straight ahead. At my side, Armand’s demeanor stiffens, but he makes no move to question me any further.
The only thing I need is to be rattled before I go to seek help of the holy matter.
As we progress up the street, taking into consideration the streams of water that run up and down the sidewalks like miniature fairytale rivers from this morning’s rain, I raise my head and look upon the ingenious wonders of the natural world. Here skyscrapers soar high, birthed on the wings of metal skeletons, and here glass windows shine as in the west the sun begins to fall. The sky seems small, the space distorted, the roads almost nonexistent as upon them traffic travels—to say that this was a land of great and marvelous ingenuity would have been to diminish some four-hundred years of history, and for that I can’t help but feel small in the presence of it all.
Are my problems, I wonder, nothing compared to this?
Had my situation been of the natural world, I would have gone through the process. The shock, the denial, the pain, the guilt, the anger, bargaining, depression, reflection, loneliness and, at the end of that long tunnel, the hope—I would have suffered as anyone else would in my situation, but yet here I am walking the streets of New York with a friend who may not believe me and a church who may condemn my actions as sin. Does this make me weak, I wonder. Natural? Strong? Or is this whole fiasco yet one final attempt to try and free my tortured soul from the agony it rests within?
At my side, Armand lets out a sigh.
“Something wrong?” I ask, struggling to turn my head up to look at my friend.
“I’m really worried about you, Tris.”
“I’ll be fine. Don’t—“
“Worry? I can’t. I am, Tris. God—you know how bad it fucking sucks to see your best friend going through so much shit?”
“I can imagine,” I mumble.
Armand stops walking. I would’ve passed him had I not been paying attention. “Armand?” I ask.
“I know you’re doubting my support. You’d have to be, considering what all I’ve ever said to you.”
“I’m sorry I ever insinuated that there wasn’t anything beyond life, that there wasn’t a new beginning after the eventual end. Fuck, Tristan—I told you we turned into energy and that we never faded away. You know how fucked up that sounds, especially after your best friend’s boyfriend just died?”
“Don’t worry, Armand. I wasn’t—”
“You were so. I just wasn’t able to see it until now.”
“Why are you getting so upset about this?” I ask.
“Because you’re suffering and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
"What do you think you’re supposed to do about it?”
“I dunno… believe, maybe?”
“How are you going to believe in something you don’t think is even real?”
“I… I don’t—”
“Seriously, Armand—don’t worry about it. It’s a lot for you to think about, believer or not.”
“It is, which is also why I’m feeling like a really shitty friend.”
“Armand.” I turn and take a few steps. Once in front of him, I reach forward and grip his upper arms. “You wanna know something?”
“You’re the only one who has come around in the past two weeks.”
“The others? I don’t know. Maybe my grief pushed them away, or maybe it was because I got so angry and frustrated that no one wanted to help me. You, though—you’re staying with me. You’re going to a church to help me find an answer even though you’re an Atheist.”
“I’d never leave you to suffer this alone.”
Leaning forward, I wrap my arms around Armand’s broad torso and sigh when the moment of it all seems to set in when he returns the gesture in kind.
He’s here, I think.
Is that enough?
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go. We still have a ways to walk.”
We enter the church to find that inside it is empty. No people, no worship, no moments of clarity or even the guiding hand of a priest—even the presence of what I used to consider as ‘God’ is devoid in this room, almost as if I have damned myself to Hell just by stepping on consecrated ground.
You’re fine, I think. There’s nothing for you to worry about.
While that may be true, it doesn’t help alleviate my burden any.
“What do you know,” Armand says. “The roof didn’t fall in on us.”
The sound of footsteps echoes throughout the church.
“Sorry,” Armand says.
“Don’t worry,” I reply. “Wait here.”
“Where are you going?”
“To see if anyone’s here.”
With a short shrug, Armand seats himself at the back of the nave and crosses his arms over his chest, leaving me to my own devices and problems.
I walk between the rows of benches and try my hardest to dissuade any memories that come back, but instantly a vision takes me through the varying stages of my life over the course of several seconds. My birth, which I could not have experienced and remembered; my childhood, when at the age of five I was first brought into the church; my teenage years and when, at only fourteen, I began to realize that I was not as spiritually whole as I felt I should be—all flash before my eyes and reveal within my troubled psyche a weakness that I can’t help but feels comes from previous rejection.
Father, I had asked one time, whilst seated within a confessional trying my hardest night to cry.
Yes, my son? a man had replied right after.
My boyfriend just died and I don’t know what to do.
To Hell John had been condemned, and to Hell I would also go if I kept walking the road of sin.
I approach the front of the nave, near where the altar stands. “Hello?” I ask.
The footsteps begin to echo throughout the church once more.
There’s someone here, I think. They’re just walking through the church and they’ll be out in any—
Before I can finish my thought, a tall, snow-haired man in a white robe comes forward. “Hello,” he said. “Welcome to Joseph’s Home for the Brave.”
“Thank you, sir,” I say, stepping forward. I ground myself in place before I can get any further and turn my head up to look at him. “Father?”
“How can I help you?”
You’re just going to have to face it, I think. That’s all you’re going to have to do.
“Father,” I say once more. “It… it isn’t a sin I want to confess.”
“As I can see,” the priest says, raising his head to acknowledge the confessional on the far side of the room. “If not a sin, what is it?”
“I… I’m being haunted by the spirit of my best friend.”
He appears in but a moment. Before my conscience, across from my bed, standing on the porch with wings that shift and shiver as rain falls and lightning cracks overhead—had I reason to believe it, I would have fully accepted that what I think is only a fragment of John has appeared to me, but since I do not, I only sigh and bow my head.
“You are… seeing an apparition?” the priest asks.
“Yes sir. I am.”
The father raises his hand to regard the nave and the lack of people in it. “Is that—“
“A friend? Yes.”
“Come with me.”
The father does not take my hand as he leads me around the stage and toward a hideaway entrance that rests on the far western side of the room. It is there we slide into it, take a left, then follow a long corridor to the right before we stand in an office. The priest takes a moment to close the door and gestures me to sit before he settles himself into the chair across from me.
“It isn’t often that I hear of young men and women facing apparitions,” the priest says, leaning forward to view my face. “Tell me: what is it you see when you see your best friend?”
“A man,” I say, “Standing in the rain, outside my window, with a pair of wings.”
“Like an angel’s, my son?”
“It’s not an angel. It… it has black wings.”
The priest does not reply.
What can he be thinking? I wonder.
That I’m crazy, that I’m insane, that I’m someone who has committed a sin so unreal that from God an angel of mercy has been delivered to haunt my ever-so-sinful life—these are the things that run across the surface of my vision like memories from a long and disturbed past to reveal an image of sanctity that I should be practicing. I should, I think, be a man of God, even though the men who serve Him well have condemned me in the past, and I should, I know, be a regular, adult, straight man—a man whom, at night, sleeps with a woman, and whom, in her womb, harbors a child of its God-loving parents. Since I am neither of those things, and since I’m lost for words or actions, I merely sit there and wait for my penance, as it won’t be much longer before the priest replies.
“My son,” the father says.
“Do you have reason to believe that the thing that haunts you is one of the Fallen?”
The Fallen? I think. Did I really just hear him say that?
“I’m still here,” I say.
“Did you hear my question?”
“I don’t know what he is,” I say. “He just… just…”
“Wants in what?”
“My apartment. Where we lived together.”
“And he is denied by… what? Whom?”
“I don’t know. He just… he paws at my window when he wants in, and every time it rains he’s outside on my porch or on the roof of the building next to us. He… he makes it rain, Father, and he makes me feel so cold that I’m not even sure it’s him.”
“Has he attempted to harm you?”
“And he has not displayed supernatural abilities, other than just existing?”
“No sir. He hasn’t.”
The priest sighs. He shifts in his seat and the groan from the chair reverberates throughout my ears. I’m almost convinced he’s about to leave, but when he clears his throat and sighs once more, I come to the conclusion that he’s here with me for the long haul.
“What should I do, Father?”
“If he is truly a friend of yours,” the priest says, “who has either come back from the grave of his own accord or has lingered away from the light, then you should be able to send him away.”
“Send him away?” I frown. “What are you—“
“You have to send him back to whence he came. Only then will you be free of this problem.”
“There’s something more you’re not telling me,” I say. “Father… what if he isn’t back of his own accord?”
“If something has seized his spirit and taken into its body the essence of a mortal, then it is surely a demon.”
“What must I do?”
“You are strong in your love of God, otherwise you would not have come here.”
“That’s right,” I say, though my love of God has been slim for the past several years.
“So if you are strong in your love of God, you should be strong in your love of life. Are you not?”
“I am, sir.”
“God has given us these gifts to ensure that we remain devoted to Him. Sometimes, though, we are not protected from the things that we would rather not see, which is why through the power of faith and the sacrifice of Christ we are able to stand on our own two feet.” The priest pauses. I’m almost ready to ask something before he clears his throat. “To you, my son, I say this—face him head on. Do not be afraid, do not show fear, and do not allow this thing that presents itself as your friend to sway you in any way, shape or form. The Devil is all around us, young man, and His servants are many, but His influence can only extend for as long as you allow it.”
“And if I can’t face him head on?” I ask. “Or if he tries to attack me?”
“Then he is truly insufferable and can only be removed by a proper exorcism.” The priest stands. I’m almost about to do the same when he turns, takes my hand, then begins to lead me out and into the church.
“Father?” I ask. “Where are we—“
He points. “The font.”
“But what am I—“
Before I can finish, the father slides a vial into my hand. “The water has been blessed in the name of God and his son, Jesus Christ. I offer it to you for your protection.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Go light, my son, and use your gift. I will pray for you and the soul of your friend.”
I’m only able to wave Armand to his feet as I begin to make my way toward the font, the vial in hand.
“Do you think it’ll work?” Armand asks.
“It has to,” I say, looking down at the vial of holy water. “Otherwise I’m going to have to have a priest come and perform an exorcism.”
Or I’m going to have to live with it for the rest of my life, I think, then sigh. I never did take into consideration that this Catholic church may be no different than the others. Besides—did exorcisms even work for gay people?
With a shake of my head, I stand, then turn away from the windows to find Armand standing in the bathroom’s threshold—freshly-showered and wearing little more than his underwear. “Uh…”
“Oh. Sorry,” Armand says, then begins to retreat back into the bedroom. “I saw you sitting there and I thought I’d see if you were all right.”
“I’m fine, Armand. Don’t worry about me.”
“You know I will anyway,” he replies.
While waiting for my friend to dress, and while standing halfway between my bed and the door leading out into the living room, I begin to play in my head one of many scenarios that could take place when the thing that at least resembles John in presence returns. The first is that I could simply banish him away—that, with my words, and my faith in God, I can tell him to leave without regret: to go to the light and be free of the burdens of the physical world. The second follows a similar route, and the third rings true with answers and acknowledgement. The fourth, and most unsettling of the notions, is the idea that whatever this is will try and strike back at me—using, what I can only imagine, is the fear that courses through my body.
Do not be afraid, the priest had said. Do not show fear.
“And do not allow this thing that presents itself as your friend to sway you,” I whisper.
The bathroom door opens. Armand peeks out and offers a smile. “Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I reply.
In but one moment my friend steps forward, slaps an arm around my shoulders, then pulls me into his side, offering a one-armed bear hug that radiates with compassion.
“Thank you,” I say.
“You don’t have to thank me,” Armand replies. “Seriously—I’m here for you.”
“That means a lot to me.”
“I know.” Armand straightens his posture and looks out the glass doors. A frown crosses his face soon after.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“There’s another storm coming in,” he says.
I turn my head.
In the distance, storm clouds threaten to come forward.
“Tristan,” Armand says.
“Yeah?” I ask.
“Are you ready for tonight?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
The plan was to have Armand sleep out in the living room and only come in if and when I called him. Dressed in boxers and a T-shirt, worrying desperately that my attempts to lure him would fail and unsure of just what I should do, I stand, look in the bedroom mirror, and try to understand just what will happen tonight.
I have you, I think, fingering the cork in the vial of holy water, and I have you, Armand.
All I really needed was my own personal faith.
With a sigh, I tighten my hold around the vial and prepare for the worse.
I wait for him until it is dark and when from the north a storm rolls in.
New York isn’t necessarily known for its blackouts. The traditional recollection is that it’s a thriving city—a mecca of everything the state and maybe even the country was founded upon—so when the blackout begins on the far side of the city I am shocked and unsure of what to think. The lights blink off slowly—dying like fireflies in the night, almost to the point where most anyone looking on the sight would have described it as a domino effect. There is no sound, no thought, no appearance of what could have caused it, save the notorious lightning that echoes across the sky, nor is there any purpose in the matter.
When it hits our part of the city, the sound of the power going off builds to a screaming pitch, then dies down like a low groan.
The lamp I’ve left on for Armand goes dark in the kitchen.
The A/C whimpers before dying a slow eath.
The whispered growl of thunder echoes overhead.
The clouds shadow the moon.
The rain begins to fall.
My room goes dark.
It is in that moment—standing there, holding the holy water in my one hand and my thought and heart in the other—that I begin to panic. What, I wonder, if it doesn’t work? If he’s invulnerable? If he’s even susceptible to such a thing?
I have little time to thought before it appears on the building directly across from us.
“Stay calm,” I whisper. “Do not be afraid, do not show fear.”
Lightning cracks the skyline in two.
A figure is visible on the porch railing for but a moment.
The world grows dark.
My bravery falters.
Convinced, in but a second, that I should turn and run, I hold my ground and wait for the spell to dissipate.
The room grows quiet.
The rain continues.
The knowledge that I am here in this room alone becomes painfully-obvious.
Come on, I think. Show yourself now before I—
Lightning flashes again.
The figure is now standing on the porch.
“John?” I ask.
It begins anew. The pawing, the trembling, the whispered voice of something that cannot speak and the reality that it is now here—the thing that I feel so truthfully is John asks to be let in not with a voice, but an action.
It’s not going to hurt me, I think. I won’t let it.
I step forward.
The pawing continues.
I stand before the door.
Lightning flashes overhead.
The figure and I are separated now by no more than a sheet of glass.
“Please,” I whisper. “Don’t… don’t hurt me.”
A warmth I cannot decipher comes forth and radiates across my chest.
I reach forward to unlock the door.
The outside world is lit once again.
The thing’s hand is pressed to the glass—fingers spread, arm trembling.
I take the lock that holds the door in hand, then reach up to press my hand on the spot where the figure’s fingers are spread apart.
This is it.
“It’s time to see if you are what I really think you are.”
I undo the lock, then reach down and take the plastic handle in hand.
I slide the door out of place.
The Child of God comes in.
I shiver—trembling, I know, not from the cold, but the simple fact of what I am doing.
When the door is fully open—when there is no space between myself and the thing that has haunted me for nearly one month—I raise my eyes and look directly at its face.
Even though there is no discernable light within the room or outside, I can see its outline against the darkness—defined, visibly, by the rain that cascades upon and around his form. His wings shift, his head tilts to the side, his shoulders rise, then fall—I am so severely tempted to touch the thing across from me that I lift and extend my hand. The moment it touches the rain, however, I am shocked back to the reality of the moment.
As outside the rain continues to fall, and in my heart a storm of reckoning begins, I raise my head once more and look at its face.
“John,” I say.
The warmth begins to snake across my chest once more.
The figure takes one step forward.
I take a step back.
It bridges the distance between the porch and the white carpet beneath us in one short moment.
But one word is said.
I shiver at the memory of his voice and nearly begin to cry. Its rough hue, its tangible source, its heightened twang that comes from what I know is a past in the south for a boy who dreamed of going to New York and who, at the age of eighteen, accomplished such a thing—the vibrato that transcends the imaginary world and becomes one with the physical enters my ears like bells and instantly I am relieved.
“It is you,” I say.
Lightning strikes, revealing his form for but a moment.
I see now that his skin is not white, but instead tan, and I look up to see that its eyes are not black, but a fabled remnant of hazel.
Tristan, it says again.
“It’s you,” I reply, tempted to reach forward but not sure if I should. “That’s you, isn’t it? John?”
A light so small I can only see it because of the darkness begins to shine at his chest. It starts, shortly, then begins to grow, extending across the space in front of us until I can see everything. His broad shoulders, his lean body, his naked form that in life I had been conjoined with far too many times to count—this is the man I fell in love with and who, for five years, I had shared everything with. It is undeniable, and when the light rises to hover between the two of us and explodes to light the whole room, I can’t help but cry.
“John,” I say, the tears now coursing hard and thick along my face. “I’m so sorry.”
Why are you apologizing? the man whom I’d loved more than anyone in my life asked.
“I… I couldn’t save you.”
Not even I could have saved myself, Tristan.
“That’s not true,” I say. “I could’ve taken you to the doctor. I could’ve helped you, saved you, made you better, but I—“
My death was not your fault.
I bow my head and close my eyes as in my mind the memory begins to play out. Us, arguing, on the night before we were supposed to leave; us, the following morning, sitting in the SUV; us, no more than a few moments thereafter, driving through New York and heading toward the interstate—I had kept my silence during that time to avoid making him angry, because God knew I was just as afraid as he was of change and what it was that would happen come our arrival in New Orleans, but in those moments following the accident I couldn’t help but think. What, I had wondered, could I have done differently? Could I have said a word, delivered a prayer, told John to pull over until the rain let up and so the traffic around us would die down, or could I have done anything at all? To stand here, in this moment, face-to-face with the man whom I loved in life, whom in death I mourned and who near the end of it all I could not save, is almost enough to break me down, but when a presence similar to a pair of arms wrapping around me crosses my shoulders I can’t help but look up. There I find John—standing in the same spot, unmoving, eyes watching. It takes little to realize what all has happened, and when for the first time since he’s appeared I begin to cry, I hear something stirring in the other room.
“John,” I say. “Please—“
He is here for you.
At first I’m unsure just what he means, but when I turn to find Armand in the threshold—naked, save for his underwear—a sense of relief shrouds the entirety of my being.
“John,” Armand says.
My time here is done, John says, his body now moving, his arms extending to take me into them.
“No,” I say, reaching up to touch what I feel is real, solid flesh. “Please, you can’t… I can’t live without you.”
You are stronger than you have ever believed, John replies, his swimming arms and his deteriorating form shimmering before my body. Do not mourn me, my love, but do not forget me. Know that you are the most important person who has ever touched me and the only one who ever healed my heart.
“Don’t leave. Please.”
My time on this Earth is done. Know this—there is another who loves you just as I have.
“Ah…Armand?” I ask.
John offers a smile that does the one thing it has always done—break my heart.
Goodbye Tristan. We will meet again.
“I love you,” I whisper.
And I you.
John’s form fades into the air before me.
Outside, lightning breaks the sky, then makes way for a glorious moon that shines even brighter than I have ever seen it before.
Defeated, I collapse. “He’s gone,” I say.
“Know that he loved you,” Armand says.
I am enveloped in his arms.
Bowing my head, I close my eyes.
But one sob comes from my being.
Only one thought comes to mind.
He was free.
No longer would John be bound to the world that had created him.
“Tristan,” Armand whispers.
“Yeah?” I ask.
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Outside, the storm begins to cease.
In its wake, I see but one thing.