by Martha Taylor, email@example.com
Arthur was numb with the irritations of travel by the time his plane landed in Chattanooga. On the flight from Los Angeles to Nashville he'd ended up sitting just in front of the emergency exit, crammed into the notorious window seat with the back that didn't recline. The commuter flight to Chattanooga had been delayed for two hours, and when it finally departed, a baby in the row behind him had cried for the duration of the twenty-minute flight, while its mother had done nothing but insist with infuriating monotony, "There there, honey pie. There there."
When the plane taxied up to the gate, he snatched up his bags and managed to be one of the first people off, stalking right past his parents.
He turned. April and Frank Drake were standing side by side, his mother in a dress and his father wearing a tie.
"Mom. Dad." Arthur dropped his bags and embraced them.
"Oh, honey," His mother kissed him. "My goodness, let me look at you."
"All those years in L.A., you'd think you would at least have a tan," his father said cheerfully.
Arthur had last seen his parents more than a year ago, when they had met in Honolulu to spend Christmas together. He had thought they would seem much older now, or maybe he had simply hoped that they would no longer be such vital, unopposable forces. But his mother was still brisk and bossy, like the well-bred Southern lady she was. Tennis and golf at the club had kept her ankles trim. His father still affected his good ole boy persona, and he was evidently still having his suits made by the tailor out in Red Bank who hadn't updated his patterns since 1958. Just being in their presence made Arthur feel as though he were twelve years old again. He was surprised to discover that he did not really mind.
"I didn't expect you to meet me at the airport. I was planning on renting a car."
"It was no trouble," his mother said. "We called ahead so we knew your flight was going to be late."
"Besides, the place has changed so much you'd probably get lost," his father announced confidently. "You won't believe all the new subdivisions that have gone up. You remember Donnelly's pasture where you used to ride horses? There's a shopping mall there now. A shopping mall."
"Actually, it's rather nice." April tucked her arm around her son's waist and Frank took his bags. "There's a J.C. Penney and a Miller's. I don't have to drive all the way up to Chattanooga now."
From the back seat of the eight-year-old Cadillac, Arthur watched the lights of the convenience stores and fireworks stands on the Tennessee border give way to the long, dark expanses of North Georgia's pastures and farmland. The nearer they got to home the more Arthur expected the return of his childhood dread, but it never came.
The last leg of the trip home was down the two-lane highway that cut across the top of Sickle Ridge. Seventy-five years ago his grandmother had taken the money from her dead husband's share of the coal mining interests and built the house here that she hoped her progeny would inhabit forever. To Arthur's eyes, the surrounding countryside did not seem to have changed nearly so much as his father had threatened. The lights of a few gaudy subdivisions cut into the pine forests, but the Drake House still stood all alone on the back side of the ridge, the nearest neighbors more than a mile away.
In honor of his son's homecoming, Frank drove the car around to the front door. Arthur climbed out of the back seat and looked up at the house, waiting.
April came up beside him and took his hand. "How does it feel to be here again?"
Arthur tilted his head back and looked up at the night sky. He hadn't seen so many stars in years. They were clustered so thickly he almost thought he could see the band of the Milky Way. He told his mother, "I'm glad to be home."
Getting ready for bed later, Arthur realized that someone, most probably his mother, had seen to it that his old bedroom had night lights. Her thoughtfulness moved him, but there had been no need. The house was quiet and still for him.
He awoke very early the next morning, got up and went to the window. Though the sun was shining, clouds were massing in the west, and the quality of the light itself was somehow liquid and thick, intensifying the green of the lawn and the new spring growth in the woods. Arthur wanted to go walking across that beautiful lawn and into the lush, shadowy places under the trees.
He dressed and ran downstairs, intending to plunge outside into the beautiful morning, but when he reached the kitchen he stopped and made himself a cup of coffee first and took it with him on his stroll through the grounds.
His mother's kitchen garden had been freshly tilled and weeded. The soil was black around the stems of the new seedlings, so tender and young that Arthur thought they must have been set out from the greenhouse only days before. He passed the carriage house and skirted the edge of the old cement patio that overlooked the stream running through the property. The creek was noisy and swollen with spring rains, and Arthur had to follow its banks all the way down to the little stone bridge before he could cross to the other side. As a child, he had played Three Billy Goats Gruff here, crouching on one of the wide, flat river stones under the bridge and imagining he was the troll who waited in the darkness. Then one sunny afternoon he had looked over his shoulder and seen, in the shadows where the bridge met the bank, that something else waited in the darkness with him.
He would not think about those things now.
Beyond the stream stretched another three acres of rhododendron and shade trees. He was sorry to see that the dogwoods were almost all gone. His mother had told him that the blight was taking them in spite of all her efforts.
Arthur ended up at last in the apple orchard in the very back of the property.The neglected trees were twisted and broken by decades of winter ice storms. No one had bothered to maintain the wall that bordered the property behind the orchard, and the ground on both sides was littered with stones which had fallen as the cement crumbled. Arthur set his coffee cup down on a flat place on top of the wall and pulled himself up. Behind the orchard was an access road, little more than twin tracks through the underbrush. The woods stretched off beyond.
He looked back towards the house. Just the roof and top floor were visible over the slight rise. The storm clouds were closer now, but a few rays of sunlight still reflected on the green tile roof and picked out the gilt arcade above the third story. Seeing the house haloed like that in the morning light, Arthur was rather taken aback. He always remembered how overwhelming and dark the place had seemed to him as a child. He had forgotten that it was magnificent as well.
Some of the apple trees were blooming despite their neglect. The air seemed thick and still, waiting for the rain, and heavy with the scent of mountain laurels and sassafras in the woods beyond the road.
The roar of an engine disturbed the morning quiet. A few minutes later a pickup truck came jouncing down the road, a big, wide-bodied American model that had seen years of use. Branches slapped against the cab from both sides of the narrow track. Arthur caught a glimpse of the driver's broad, sunburned face as he went past.
At a bend in the road the truck suddenly stopped, slammed into reverse and came tearing back up the road. Arthur climbed off the wall as the driver braked sharply, jumped down out of the cab and came around towards him. He was a big man, arms straining at the sleeves of his shirt, jeans stretched tight over his stomach. Even his John Deere cap was too small for his head, and he had to wear it pushed far back on his brow. The ponytail hanging down his back was as red as his beard. "I don't believe it," he said. "The lord of the fucking manor has come home again."
He smacked Arthur on the shoulder hard enough to rock him on his feet, then embraced him. "If you aren't a sight for sore eyes. Sweet Jesus. When I saw you in the rear view mirror there I thought I was seeing a ghost."
"It's been a long time," Arthur said, his heart full. "It's good to see you too."
"Long time? It's been twelve, fifteen years. Tell me the truth. You didn't even know who I was, did you?"
Arthur smiled and admitted, "You've changed some."
Charlie laughed. "You mean I got fat. Diplomatic as ever, Arthur. There was a line in the society pages about you coming home, but I didn't believe it."
"What are you talking about?"
"The rightful heir returns to claim his throne? Of course it made the papers. I just didn't believe it is all. You always said you'd never come back."
Arthur shrugged. "Well, here I am. It's just for a couple of weeks."
"I love it." Charlie spread his arms wide and addressed the lowering heavens. "No one sees hide nor hair of you for fifteen years, and then all of a sudden here you are without a word of explanation, just sitting under the apple trees with the storm at your back. Jeezus. You always did love acting like the heroine of a fucking gothic novel."
"You're showing your age, Charlie. No one reads gothics anymore."
"Hey, you're no spring chicken yourself." He walloped Arthur on the shoulder again. "So what've you been doing with yourself? Last I heard you were still in L.A."
"I'm still there."
"Your folks are always pretty vague about what you're actually up to. Contributing to the delinquency of minors, I expect."
"What about you? I can't believe you're still working for TVA with all that hair on your face."
"I'm a project manager now. I could come to work in Fruit-of-the-Looms and a space helmet if I wanted to."
"So you finally got a position where your unique sense of style is appreciated. Congratulations. Does your dad still have his farm out here?"
"Yeah. I'm living up in Fort Oglethorpe now, but I come out down weekends to give him a hand. Man, Arthur, I just can't believe I'm really standing here talking to you."
Thunder rumbled in the distance. A sudden breeze blew through the woods, rustling the leaves in the trees.
"We're about to get rained on," Arthur said. "You want to come up to the house for a cup of coffee? Have you had breakfast yet?"
"Does it matter?" Charlie grinned. "Come on, jump in the truck and I'll drive us around."
As he turned to open the door on the passenger's side, Arthur reached out and touched the back of Charlie's hand. He just wanted to feel the pulse beating under that freckled, sunburned flesh.
Charlie grunted as though the breath had been knocked out of him. He spun around, grabbed Arthur by his shirt sleeves and slammed him hard up against the side of the truck. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
The door handle caught Arthur between the shoulder blades, and a sharp white pain flashed down his spine.
"Did you really expect to come back here after all this time and just pick up where you left off?"
Arthur squirmed, trying to relieve the excruciating pressure at his back. Charlie's huge hands gripped his shoulders, pulling him forward and then slamming him back again, this time avoiding the door handle. Then he cupped Arthur's face with both hands, the weight of his solid round gut keeping him pinned to the side of the cab. "You heartless son of a bitch. I cried for days after you went away."
Arthur didn't say anything. The pain between his shoulders had begun to dissipate into a spreading warmth that would probably be sore as hell tomorrow.
"And don't look at me like that, or I'll beat the crap out of you."
Arthur tried to laugh, but it hurt and instead he gasped out, "I don't know what you mean."
"You know damn well what I'm talking about. Don't you dare give me that slutty, doe-eyed look of yours."
"It's been a long time, Charlie."
"Goddamnit," Charlie growled, his arms going around Arthur. He held him fiercely, then pulled him down to the grass beside the road and tucked his head into the hollow of Arthur's throat. His breath was hot on Arthur's chest.
Arthur began to tremble. Charlie's leg was draped over him, his belt buckle digging into Arthur's hip. The grass prickled and felt thick and cool under his back. He had become so accustomed to Marc's impatience that he was almost overwhelmed by the sweetness of simply lying in the circle of Charlie's arms. He shifted a little and managed to get his own arms around Charlie's big shoulders. He pulled him close enough to feel Charlie's heart beating against his own, and they lay there holding each other until the rain finally began. Fat raindrops spattered down slowly around them in the grass, and Arthur started to get up. "We can get in the truck."
Charlie pulled him down and breathed into his ear, "If you try to leave again, I'll knock your head off." The air had become sweet with the smell of the rain.
Then Charlie was above him, holding his head and kissing him. His lips were on Arthur's throat, on the hinges of his jaw, on his cheekbones and eyelids. Only when Arthur groaned and began to move beneath him did Charlie kiss his mouth.
Arthur's back arched up against Charlie's weight and his eyes opened wide to the rain. The thunder was a long, constant growl in the distance. Charlie moved his hand down between them and tugged at Arthur's belt. "You probably didn't bring any rubbers down with you, did you?"
"Sorry--wasn't thinking that far ahead--" Arthur's voice came out in a croak, "All I brought was a cup of coffee."
"Same old Arthur," Charlie muttered, his fist closing around him, "Never the right tools for the job."
Arthur tried to reach for him in turn, but Charlie knocked his hands away. "Just hold on and enjoy the ride, you heartless bastard, and try to keep your eyes open. I wanna see that look on your face."
Arthur hooked his arms under Charlie's shoulders and pressed both his hands flat against his broad back. The muscles under Charlie's right shoulder flexed and relaxed more quickly. His face was very close to Arthur's, and although the set of his mouth was still hard and unforgiving, his eyes were beautiful. His pupils had dilated into wide black pools, edged by the intense green of the iris.
A sweet, intolerable cramp began to knot the muscles in Arthur's left hip and thigh. He tried to draw his knees up to relieve the ache, but his heels skidded uselessly in the wet grass and he couldn't brace himself. "Please--"
And Charlie finally laughed, a soft chuckle that was more urgent even than his moving fist. Arthur's head dropped back until he was staring wide-eyed up into the falling rain. The apple tree branches made a jagged black silhouette against the gray sky, and the top of the stone wall spun vertiginously into sight as his head rolled.
A face was looking down at them from over the wall.
Arthur cried out and pushed Charlie away, just as his orgasm clamped down like a vise. "Somebody's there--" he gasped, "In the orchard--"
"Christ." Charlie stumbled to his feet, ran to the wall and hoisted himself over it. Arthur wrapped his arms around his knees and tucked his head down. The rain was falling steady and hard now, and lightning flashed very close, splitting the sky and imprinting itself on Arthur's closed eyelids.
Charlie's hand was on his shoulder.
"Arthur, there's nobody there. There's not a soul here but us."
Arthur sat up slowly. "I know." His teeth were chattering.
Charlie hugged him. "You're shaking like a leaf. C'mon, let's get out of the rain."
He got Arthur to his feet, supporting him without a word when Arthur's knees buckled. He pulled open the passenger side door and pushed him up into the cab. Charlie climbed up on the other side, turned the key in the ignition and switched the heater on full blast. Then he pulled Arthur close. The rain beat down noisily on the truck.
"Did you hear me, man? There was nobody there."
Arthur rested his head against Charlie's broad chest. "I heard."
"So what's the matter with you?" Charlie's voice was gentle.
"I did see something."
"I told you there wasn't--" He broke off. "Oh. You mean that kind of something." His arms tightened around Arthur. "That fucking house. What did you see?"
"I'm not sure," Arthur said slowly. "Just a white face, watching us."
"Lord." Charlie began kneading the back of Arthur's bent neck. "This really does remind me of old times. What a fucked up little kid you were. You'd come to school with those big dark circles under your eyes, and as soon as you walked into homeroom I could tell that you'd been up all night fighting ghosts. These days they'd probably have your parents in for child abuse."
Arthur kept his head pressed to Charlie's chest. Comforted by his presence and by the sound of his voice, he tried to remember what he had seen looking over the orchard wall.
The rain had been falling in his face, and he had been aware of the sky and the wall and the apple trees all through the haze of passion, sights that reached his brain without interpretation or sense while he was more urgently occupied by the tightening pleasure in his groin. The white face over the wall was pale and featureless in his memory now, but there had been something more.
He sat up straight beside Charlie. The truck cab was becoming stiflingly hot, and the windows were steamed over. "The eyes. It was looking down at us, but I think there was something wrong about the eyes."
Shivers were still running down his spine, but the heat in the cab was starting to make him feel a little sick. He leaned over and rolled the window down a few inches.
Charlie prompted gently, "The eyes?"
"I don't know. I just can't remember."
"Okay. That's probably best." Charlie pushed Arthur's wet hair out of his face. "You're a really fun date. Anyone ever tell you that?"
Arthur was surprised into laughter, but the expression on Charlie's face was serious. "I've got an idea," Charlie said. "Why don't you get the hell away from this house. We could drive straight back to my place and you could stay with me till your plane leaves."
"Thanks but no, I'm all right."
"You don't even have to stay with me. That's not what I meant. I'm sure my dad would be happy to put you up. Just so you're not here."
"It's all right. It's not like when I was a kid."
"Oh no? Five minutes ago you were coming on to me like such a cocky bastard I felt like smacking your head off. Look at you now. Your old family horror show trots out one of its little surprises, and you fall apart."
"I'm all right now. I was just surprised."
"Yeah, me too."
"Charlie, this is what I do now. I investigate paranormal phenomena. The apparitions associated with this house are a gold mine. They could keep an entire team busy for years."
"Oh man, Arthur." Charlie sat back. "Oh, man. Isn't there a word for this kind of thing?"
"After a childhood like yours, growing up to become some kind of professional ghost hunter sounds a little pathological to me."
"No, you don't understand, Charlie. I've been involved in paranormal research for more than ten years now. I met a psychic who was investigating haunted houses back when I was trying to finish my dissertation on urban folklore, and it seemed a lot more interesting than grad school. One thing just led to another."
"Is that supposed to be a reasonable explanation?" Charlie asked, smiling a little.
"No. Not really. Do you want to come up to the house for breakfast or not?"
Charlie turned off the truck heater. "Are your parents in?"
"Well, call me old-fashioned, but I don't want to walk in and say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Drake and then try to explain the grass stains on my knees."
"You slipped in the rain."
"And grass stains on your butt?"
"I slipped too."
Charlie patted his cheek. "And your face looks like you've been using sandpaper on it."
Arthur tugged gently on Charlie's beard. "Well, if you can't have breakfast, why don't you come back and have dinner tonight? I owe you."
"You owe me a lot more than dinner. Besides, I was planning on watching the Braves trounce the Dodgers tonight."
A flash of lightning illuminated the intense green of the woods around the truck. The rain began falling with fresh violence, spattering the windshield in volleys.
"We can watch it over here."
"Since when did you become a sports fan?"
"The fun was always in watching you watch the game."
Thunder crackled overhead, so loud and sudden that both men flinched.
"All right, all right," Charlie gave in. "How can I pass up dinner and a game at Castle Dracula? Do you want me to drop you off around front?"
Arthur's hand was on the door. "No, I'll walk back. I like the rain."
Charlie snorted. "Suit yourself. Eight o'clock okay? You rich folks always eat dinner so late."
Arthur was standing in the rain, about to close the door of the cab when Charlie said in an odd tone of voice, "It's good to see you again, Arthur. But I still think you're a fucked-up little shit."
Arthur slammed the door, and the truck went lumbering off through the woods. Arthur turned and saw Charlie's John Deere cap lying forgotten in the grass. He picked it up and after considering for a little while, left it on the orchard wall. He found his coffee cup half-full of rain water.
The downpour continued as he walked back to the house. He tried to get in through the french windows in the sun room, but they were locked, so he had to go through the kitchen instead. His mother was there, eating a soft boiled egg and a slice of dry toast at the butcher block table.
"Oh, honey," she exclaimed when she saw him, "Stop right there. If you come through the kitchen like that, Cindy will have to mop the whole floor on Monday."
She jumped up and pushed her way through the swinging kitchen doors. She reappeared a few moments later, her arms laden with a stack of tremendous white bath towels. Arthur slipped off his shoes and socks and wrapped one of the towels around himself. He didn't know what his mother expected him to do with all the other towels, so he just held them.
April was shaking her head at him. "I thought you were still asleep upstairs. What on earth were you doing out in this weather?"
"I just wanted to walk around the grounds. I got caught in the rain."
"You certainly did. Sometimes you still act like you don't have the sense you were born with." She was smiling.
"I saw Charlie Johnson while I was out. He was driving up to his Dad's farm this morning."
"Oh how nice. Your father sees him in town occasionally, and he says that Charlie always asks about you."
"I invited him to dinner tonight. I hope that's all right."
"Of course. What a nice idea. I just wish--"
"What is it?"
"I'm just trying to think what we have. I'd hate to have to go out shopping in this weather."
"Don't be ridiculous, Mom. You don't have to do anything. I'll just thaw out some steaks."
"Well, that would be good. And there may still be some butter beans from last year's garden in the freezer." She stood in the middle of that vast, extravagantly stocked kitchen, worrying that there was nothing in it for dinner. Arthur only smiled at her as she went on, "And I suppose I could make up a little dessert--maybe an English Trifle, that's easy--"
She looked up at Arthur. "Don't just stand there listening to me yack. Get out of those wet clothes and take yourself a nice hot bath before you catch your death of cold."
"And don't you take that tone with me young man," April teased. "Dear heart--"
He stepped back through the swinging doors. "Yes?"
"It's nice to have you home."
Arthur took his bath in the tremendous, footed tub in a seldom-used bathroom at the end of the second floor hall. He turned on the taps full blast, then stole a handful of dried lavender from a potpourri basket and tossed it into the tub. Steam curled up to the ceiling as the bathtub filled. Arthur peeled off his wet clothes and lowered himself in carefully, gasping when the hot water reached the scraped, tender place between his shoulders.
He rested his head against the back of the tub, draped his arms along the sides and gazed up at the plaster ceiling. The scent of the floating petals filled his head, and the rain blew against the bathroom window in gusts, rattling the window panes. He was more than half asleep when he heard the footsteps coming down the hall. They stopped outside the bathroom door.
Drowsily, Arthur sat up in the tub. "Is that you, Mom? What is it?"
His only answer was a fresh spatter of rain against the windows.
Much more quietly Arthur asked, "Is someone there?"
The footsteps retreated down the hall, and Arthur sank down again into the bathtub. So the house was still alive after all. It had simply been asleep for fifteen years, and its awakening now was slow.
Mid-afternoon, and the rain was still falling. Water ran down the outside of the library windows, making strange, liquid shadows along the walnut shelves and down the length of the Persian rug, where the arabesque dragons seemed to writhe in the curious light. Arthur was in the library with his father, and he was thinking that it was unlikely that either of his parents had read any of the books here in forty years. At least they had kept them dusted.
"I've had a couple of appraisers up here," Frank Drake said. "They weren't encouraging. We would be lucky to find a dealer who'd even pay enough to cover the cost of shipping them all out."
Arthur wasn't surprised. His grandmother had been a voracious reader of the minor and bizarre Victorian novelists, preferring Bulwer-Lytton to Charles Dickens, Mrs. Riddell to George Eliot. She had spent a lifetime filling her library with their forgotten achievements.
"I guess we'll just sell them lock, stock and barrel with the house," Frank continued, looking sideways at Arthur. "Anyone who buys an old showplace like this will probably be glad to get the library already stocked. Save them the trouble of raiding the antique bookstores for enough sets to fill these shelves."
Arthur ran his fingers along the spines of a set of the collected Wilkie Collins. His grandmother had had them extravagantly and rather ridiculously bound in green leather.
"When you were a boy, your mother and I used to think it was a mistake to let you spend so much time in here. Some of Mother's books were pretty strong stuff for a child. You used to have the worst nightmares. Do you remember?"
"Sometimes I wonder whether you'd be doing what you're doing now if it hadn't been for these books." Frank's voice was wistful.
"I loved these books, Dad. And I feel very lucky to be able to follow the career I've chosen. If Grandmother's books had anything to do with it, then I'm grateful."
Frank interrupted. "The funny thing is, the only books the appraiser said were worth anything were the ghost stories."
His father wasn't being intentionally rude, Arthur knew. He was simply incapable of listening to things that he didn't want to hear. "The collected le Fanu on the top shelf there, the Bram Stokers, that set of Arthur Machen novels--it turns out those are the only books anyone wants, and it seems like a sad comment on the state of the world to me. People are more interested in the workings of the devil than they are in the workings of the Lord."
"Well, Dad--" Arthur spread his hands helplessly.
"That's all right. We just won't talk about it. So how's your business partner doing--Lillian, is it? She seemed like a nice lady when we met that one time. Maybe a little bit old for you, but I don't think anyone really cares about that sort of thing anymore."
Arthur wandered over to the window. He heard the change rattling in Frank's pocket as his father came up behind him, and for a few moments the two of them stood together watching the rain. Then Arthur realized that his was the only reflection on the window panes, and he whirled around. His father was on the other side of the library.
"What's the matter with you, Arthur?"
"It's nothing, Dad. I thought I heard something. It's nothing."
Frank smiled. "You're not going to start jumping at your own shadow again are you?"
Arthur found an answering smile from somewhere. "You know me, Dad. Some things never change."
Arthur didn't realize his mother had gotten to the kitchen before him until the smells of cooking began to creep through the house. He found her standing over the stove, carefully stirring something in a copper-bottomed aluminum pot.
"Mother, what are you doing? I said I would cook dinner tonight."
"I know dear." She smiled apologetically at him. "But English Trifle's so simple, and I started thinking about those last winter pears we have in the pantry, and how good they'd be poached in a little vanilla syrup."
"It sounds wonderful." Arthur came up beside her and looked into the pot she was stirring. The long, dark pod of the vanilla bean twisted slowly in the dissolving sugar syrup, and the smell was indescribably pure and sweet.
And that was the way the last of the afternoon went. April fretted that the steaks would be tough, and so she spent half an hour assembling a complicated marinade out of three different vinegars, olive oil, grated lemon peel and most of the spice rack. Then, although the butter beans were all right, she was afraid a single vegetable seemed paltry, and she decided to fix a casserole of escalloped potatoes as well. Arthur found himself slicing mounds of waxy white potatoes while April carefully stirred the butter and flour together over a double boiler for the roux.
Finally it occurred to April that a tomato soup would be the crowning touch on such a bleak, rainy evening, and she set Arthur to work scalding, peeling and seeding an entire quart of tomatoes. It was seven-thirty before everything was assembled and either in the stove or waiting in the refrigerator.
Jet lag had caught up with Arthur, and he was standing at the counter in a half-dreaming state, tearing romaine lettuce into strips for the salad when April announced briskly, "Off you go now. I'll finish here. You need to get ready for dinner."
Arthur had been away from home so long that he didn't know what she meant. "Everything's about ready, isn't it?"
"Not the food, silly-you. I bet you haven't ironed any of your things yet."
"I wasn't really planning on dressing up for dinner," he protested wearily.
She didn't say anything, but her mouth twisted into a disappointed little frown. Arthur dropped the rest of the lettuce into the crystal salad bowl and went upstairs to change.
When he met Charlie at the door half an hour later, he was grateful for his mother's insistence that he should dress. Charlie knew the conventions of a Saturday evening dinner better than Arthur did, and he was resplendent in a blazer and tie, a sharp pleat in his pants and tasseled loafers on his feet. He stood on the veranda under the porch light, shaking the rain off his umbrella and grinning a little sheepishly at Arthur. His hair was freshly washed. Wispy, fine strands escaped from his ponytail and floated around his face, gleaming in the yellow light.
"Don't say a word," Charlie threatened. "Not one word. I'm warning you."
Arthur looked back over his shoulder to be sure that neither Frank nor April were behind him in the foyer, then he kissed Charlie's mouth. His beard was very soft. "I wouldn't dream of it. But you look like an angel."
They had dinner in the formal dining room, and for Arthur it was a very strange affair. The silverware felt heavy and unfamiliar in his hands, and Charlie and his parents spent most of dinner gossiping about people Arthur hadn't seen in fifteen years. They ate by candlelight, and Arthur caught himself watching the flickering shadows in the dark corners of the rooms.
"Has Arthur told you we're going to be selling the place?" April asked when she served the pears.
"No, he didn't." Charlie glanced across the table at him. "I can hardly believe it. No Drakes living in the Drake house anymore?"
"Doesn't seem right, does it?" Frank said.
April leaned over and patted Charlie's arm and said in a conspiratorial tone, "We hoped that Arthur might consider coming back, but I guess he feels like his life is in California now."
Charlie whispered back in the same tone of voice, "He's sitting right across the table. Maybe you should just ask him what he feels like."
April giggled and swatted Charlie playfully. "You're still a caution, Charlie Johnson. You always were."
"Seriously, Charles, you should talk to Arthur here," Frank said. "You understand how important it is for a place like this to stay in the family. Just talk to him. He'll listen to you."
Charlie smiled across the table at Arthur with wide-eyed innocence. "What do you say, Arthur? Since when have you ever listened to me?"
Arthur smiled weakly in return.
"Well," Frank pushed himself away from the table. "I understand Charles wants to see the Braves game tonight, and I believe I just may have a little ole bottle of Kentucky bourbon stashed somewhere around here. Shall we gentlemen retire to watch the game?"
His mother shooed Arthur away when he tried to help her clear the dinner dishes. "Go entertain your guest. I don't need any help."
"Dinner was wonderful. Thank you."
"Oh, you saw that it was no trouble at all. Now scat or you're going to miss your game."
He walked back through the house to the conservatory and took a seat next to Charlie on the old couch that was upholstered in maroon leather like an artifact from a steakhouse. Frank's rifles hung on two racks over the television set, and a buck's head stared morosely down at them from over the door. Frank handed Arthur a highball glass with two fingers of bourbon in it, and Arthur settled back and listened to Charlie and his father discuss the Braves' chances for the pennant and the unrelenting awfulness of the Dodgers this year.
Arthur finished his drink midway through the first inning and immediately fell asleep.
When he awoke much later, his head was resting on Charlie's thigh. He sighed comfortably before he remembered where he was. Then he sat up with a jolt.
"Relax," Charlie said. "Your dad went to bed an hour ago."
Arthur stretched. "Who won the game?"
"What do you care?"
"I don't. Sorry to be such a rotten host."
Charlie ran his hand through Arthur's sleep-rumpled hair. "I don't mind. I've been taking obscene liberties while you slept."
"Oh. Well, don't stop now," Arthur mumbled, still a little dull with sleep. He curled up close to Charlie, kissing his face and sliding one hand down to his crotch. "Can you stay?"
Charlie half turned on the sofa so he could get both arms around Arthur. "Your dad told me that the guest bedroom next to yours was made up in case I didn't want to drive home in the rain. He also said I was welcome to get up and go to church with you all tomorrow morning."
They stumbled to their feet together, and Charlie threatened cheerfully, "You're going to need church after I get through with you."
This evening, Arthur was glad for the yellow glow of the nightlights. He and Charlie were lying side by side, Charlie's chest warm and solid against Arthur's back. The soft lighting shone on the dark wood of the bedstead and picked out the short red hairs on Charlie's bulky forearms, one of which was clamped tightly across Arthur's chest. They had kicked the quilt down to the foot of the bed. The cotton sheets were worn as soft as silk after decades of laundering, and it was still raining.
For all his size and bluster, Charlie was a meticulously gentle lover. Unaccustomed to such long, slow yielding, Arthur began to thrash in his arms, but Charlie was patient, holding him still and murmuring, "Easy does it, easy does it now," until they were moving together.
Arthur rolled back against Charlie's thighs, his hands clutching at the sheets. His breath came in time with Charlie's thrusts, and he felt an exaggerated awareness of everything, the sheets wrinkled and bunched under his side, the warmth of Charlie's belly and thighs, and most of all, the exquisite, continuing release. Arthur felt himself dropping open like a rose, petals falling suddenly away from the center. He thought of the white roses outside Marty's apartment just as Charlie stopped cold and whispered, "Oh, my god."
Arthur raised his eyes and saw Marty in the corner of his room.
She was naked, and she stood simply looking at the two of them on the bed. Her pale blonde hair was floating up around her, uncovering the swell of her breasts. Her skin was soft and dead and white. Her belly sagged and her thighs were bunched together above her round knees.
Charlie whimpered softly, and his arms tightened convulsively around Arthur.
Marty's head dropped back. The holes where her ears had been pierced were shockingly dark against her white skin. When her head came down again her eyes were closed. Arthur felt his heart pounding in his chest, and Charlie buried his face between Arthur's neck and shoulder.
Then Marty's eyelids popped open. Arthur moaned in horror, sagging back against Charlie's warm bulk. Marty covered her mouth with her hands, fixed Arthur with the ice that glittered where her eyes should have been, and then she was gone.
"It's over," Arthur said in a shaky voice. "It's okay. It's all over."
Charlie was still holding him tight, but he lifted his head up from Arthur's shoulder. "Jesus, Arthur, sweet Jesus."
"Are you all right?"
"No I'm not all right. Christ. Was that the same thing you saw looking at us this morning?"
"I'm not sure. I think so."
"Oh my god, Arthur," Charlie's voice broke. "Did you know this was going to happen?"
Arthur rolled over so that he was facing him. Charlie's face was very white under the red beard and freckled cheeks. "I didn't know for sure. But when I first got here last night, this house seemed safe and quiet to me. Then I ran into you this morning, and all of sudden the ghosts were back."
There was no reason to tell Charlie how unexpected and personal this apparition was.
"Goddamn you. Goddamn you." Charlie smashed his fist into the pillow beside Arthur's head. "You had no right to do this. No right in the world. Did you need me to raise the ghost, or what?"
"No--" Arthur reached out for Charlie. "It wasn't like that at all."
"Why did you ask me to spend the night if you thought this was going to happen?" Charlie was shaking.
"I asked because I wanted to make love to you on this bed again." He touched Charlie's trembling lips. "I never dreamed that you would see anything. No one else has ever seen anything in this house but me. I always thought I was the only one."
Charlie laughed unsteadily. "I wish you were still the only one. Christ."
Arthur wrapped his arms around Charlie's neck and kissed his face. "I'm so sorry."
To his relief, Charlie kissed him back. "Is this going to happen every time we fuck?"
"No," Arthur said, and then, more truthfully, "I hope not."
"I'm sorry," Charlie pulled back. "I can't stay. Looking up and seeing that woman--that thing--with her hair all floating up--my heart's still going like a piston engine. I'm not a kid anymore. I honestly don't know if I could survive seeing something like that again."
Arthur ran his fingers through Charlie's baby-fine hair. "But it's the middle of the night, and it's pouring down rain outside."
"Better rain than monsters."
Arthur reached down between Charlie's legs and gently peeled off the wrinkled, drying condom, then cradled him with both hands. "Is the rain better than me too?"
Charlie groaned and stretched on the bed, but he didn't push Arthur's hands away. "Jesus, you're as spooky as this house."
"You're probably right," Arthur agreed. He pressed his face to Charlie's belly and tasted the sheen of his nervous sweat.
"Aw, shit," Charlie sighed at last. "Can we at least turn on some more lights?"
"The better to see you with." Arthur got up and switched on the bedside lamp.
"No shadows at all," Charlie demanded, and Arthur turned on the overhead light and the floor lamp as well. When he came back, Charlie grabbed his shoulders and pushed him face down onto the bed, then knelt between his legs. Foil crinkled and Charlie grumbled, "You wanna see ghosts? Let's see if we can raise the devil."
The tenderness was gone. Arthur bit down on the pillow as Charlie drove into him. And by the time Charlie finished with him and rolled away, the brief fantasy of a life here together had faded for good. There weren't enough old books in the library, there would never be enough Saturday night baseball games to overcome the influence of this house. Arthur could still see the glitter of Marty's terrible eyes. If this house was dark and powerful enough to catalyze ghosts that ought to have been laid to rest thousands of miles away, then Marc and Charlie were both right. The best thing for him to do was to simply get away.
Charlie's breathing became deep and regular, the last of his anger and fear burned away, and after a while, Arthur slept too.
He awoke several hours later. It was not yet dawn, but the rain had stopped. The stark brightness in the room at this hour of the night was uncomfortable and strange. Arthur would have gotten up and turned off the overhead light if he could have done it without disturbing Charlie. Since he couldn't, he lay in bed taking what bleak comfort he could from the weight of Charlie's arm, flung carelessly over his back in his sleep.
When he awoke again, sunlight was streaming in through the windows, and his mother was rapping on the door. "Arthur, honey? Do you want to get up and come to church with us?"
Charlie started to wakefulness beside him. Arthur covered Charlie's mouth with his hand and called back, "No, I'm sorry. I really don't feel up to it."
"Oh." The disappointment in her voice wrenched at Arthur. "There's a lot of people who'd love to see you again, hon."
"I know, Mother. I'm sorry. I'll go next week."
"Oh well. All right, then." A thought struck her. "Did Charlie stay over?"
Charlie's eyes widened in amusement. Arthur said. "Yes, he did."
"Do you think he'd like to get up and go with us?"
"I don't think so. I asked him last night before he went to bed. He thought he'd rather sleep late instead."
"Oh dear," April's voice dropped to a stage whisper. "I hope I haven't already woken him up. We'll see you when we get back from services, dear."
"All right, Mom. Goodbye."
At long last her heels went clicking down the hall. Arthur's head dropped back. "This makes me feel like I'm sixteen years old again."
"How do you think it makes me feel?" Charlie yawned and stretched. "Did I ever tell you that my dad knew about us all along?"
Arthur was astonished. "How could he have known?"
Charlie sat up in bed and swung his feet around to the floor. "If he hadn't already guessed, me crying my eyes out when you went away to college might have tipped him off. But I think he'd always known. After you left, he finally sat me down one day and told me that there were lots of other boys in the world, so it was high time I should pull myself together. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Back then I still thought I wasn't really a faggot, you know--I was just crazy in love with you." Charlie laughed sadly.
Frank's Cadillac pulled around the driveway, and they both listened to the sound of the engine growing fainter.
"Well," Charlie said, "I better get up and get a move on. I told Dad if the rain stopped I'd come back out today and help him work on the tractor."
"Sure. Charlie, about last night--"
"It kind of seems like a dream now. Just don't stay here longer than you have to. This place is a nut house. Maybe you could convince your folks to bulldoze it for a shopping mall or something. I don't know what else it's good for."
"I'll pass the suggestion along."
Charlie left after showering and having a cup of coffee in the kitchen with Arthur. When he had gone, Arthur pulled the sheets off both his bed and the bed in the guest bedroom where Charlie was supposed to have spent the night, and threw them all in the wash. Then he poured himself another cup of coffee and wandered aimlessly from room to room, missing Marc, missing L.A. He despised the silence and the Sunday morning stillness. He wanted a real bagel, and all he could find in the kitchen were the frozen supermarket variety. In a pique of homesickness, he finally dialed his own answering machine.
Three messages were waiting for him. The first was from Lil. "Hello Arthur," she said, the tape capturing her usual crisp tone. "This is Lil. I hope you're enjoying your trip home. I just wanted to let you know that another case has come up, and I thought you might be interested in it when you come back to L.A. If you come back to L.A. Anyway, this comes by way of a friend of Peter's who's an apartment manager. He's having trouble with a unit that's supposed to be haunted. There's more of a back story than we usually get--a tenant really did commit suicide in the unit a few years ago, and since then there have been reports of strange lights, bad smells, even an apparition or two. It might be interesting. Give me a call when you get back into town and we'll talk about it.
"Oh, and you might like to know you were right about the videotapes from Teague's office. I watched them. Nothing on them. Well, say hello to your parents for me. I'll see you when you get back."
The second message was from a woman Arthur did not know. "Hello, yes. This message is for Arthur Drake. My name is Linda Young, and my phone number is 555-6872. That's the three-ten area code."
Arthur automatically noted the name and number down on one of his mother's flowered message pads, but the pen slipped from his fingers as he listened to the rest of the message. "You don't know me, but I want to ask a favor of you. Marty Young was my sister, and I understand that you saw her the day before she died. It would mean a lot to me if we could talk about what she might have said to you. So, I would very much appreciate it if you could give me a call back. Thank you."
Just listening to the message made Arthur feel flushed and uncomfortable. He crumpled Linda Young's name and phone number up without thinking about what he was doing, but caught himself and smoothed the paper out again before listening to his last message.
"Hi, this is Rob, Marc's roommate. I know it was a little weird when I saw you that last time. Sorry about that. Look, the reason I'm calling is something happened that you probably oughtta know about. Marc got beat up pretty bad a few days ago. Some creep jumped him behind the library while he was waiting for the shuttle. He's back home now, and he's going to be okay, but he's asked about you a coupla times and I think he'd like to see you if you're not still pissed at him. If you wanna just stop by, he's here all the time--he's supposed to stay in bed and take it easy for another week--I'm sure you know how much he likes that. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know what was happening. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings and all that, but Marc really is going to be okay. That's all I guess. Bye."
Arthur's hands shook as he dialed Marc's number. The phone rang over and over again, and he finally put down the receiver, thinking he must have misdialed. He punched in the numbers a second time with exaggerated care, then sat at the desk where his mother kept the household accounts, and listened to the ringing of a phone on the other side of the country for nearly ten minutes before he gave up and tried to call Lil. It was no comfort when he got her answering machine.
"Lil, it's Arthur. If you're there, please pick up. I need to talk to you." After a moment of silence he put down the receiver.
He could feel his pulse thudding at his temples, and a sick, cold flush burned in his cheeks. He rested his head in his hands, trying to steady his nerves. It was so still that the only sound was the trilling of a mockingbird outside, and Arthur could not remember a time since childhood when he had ever felt so helpless. The house seemed like a tremendous, ornate trap which might shut up around him at any moment. He had a sudden impulse to get up and run outside.
Instead, he sat at his mother's desk and began calling airlines until he found one that could get him to Los Angeles that afternoon. He was giving the Delta phone representative his American Express number when a door slammed somewhere upstairs.
Arthur's knuckles whitened on the receiver.
"I'm sorry, I didn't understand you," the woman on the phone said. "What's the expiration date on your card?"
Arthur told her, then scrawled down the information about his flight. Finally, he called Marc's number again and let it ring until his parents came home from church.
He was surprised by how easy it was for him to meet his mother's look of bewilderment and hurt. "But dear," she protested, disbelieving, "You just got here."
"I'm sorry. Marc needs me."
"Who is this Marc fellow?" Frank covered his own hurt feelings with his usual gruffness. "I've never even heard you mention him."
Arthur met his father's gaze levelly. "He's my friend."
"Surely he has other friends in Los Angeles," April said. "Why does it have to be you? This is your first time home in so long, and soon it won't even be your home anymore--" She trailed off pathetically, her hands fluttering. She sounded as though she were on the verge of tears.
Arthur embraced her, then stepped back. "I'm sorry. There isn't any other way."
"Seems damned strange to me," his father complained. "I'm sorry for your friend's misfortune, but some things have priority."
"I know. That's why I have to go home. If you can't drive me to the airport I'll give Charlie a call."
"Of course we'll drive you," April assured him, sniffling.
Frank turned away. "And here I was thinking you'd finally grown up a little. I've known nigger farmhands with more sense of responsibility."
Arthur's plane landed in Los Angeles at five p.m. He took a cab straight to Marc's apartment, dropped his bags and pounded violently on the door, half-thinking that he might break it down if no one answered.
But Robert came to the door after only a moment or two. He was still wearing his usual gray sweats. "Hey, Arthur! Good to see you."
"What the hell's the matter with your phone?" Arthur pushed past him into the living room. "I've been trying to call since this morning."
"Oh. Sorry about that." Robert trailed behind Arthur as he stalked down the hall to Marc's room. "I turned down the ringer so it wouldn't bother Marc while he was sleeping. I must have forgot to turn it up again."
Arthur found Marc propped up in bed, surrounded by school books. His head was down, reading, but he looked up as Arthur came in.
"Oh, baby," Arthur breathed, hardly able to speak, "What have you done?"
One side of Marc's face was smeared with bruises, darkest around his eye and the edge of his mouth. Cutting through his flesh was a puckered red line held together with tiny knots of black surgical thread. He was able to smile at Arthur, even though he had to cradle his bruised cheek in one hand.
"I don't believe it," Marc said, having to mumble a little," What are you doing here?"
Robert said, "Sorry, man. Me and Bill didn't want to get stuck with babying you. We thought maybe we could sucker Art into taking you off our hands."
Arthur sat down on the bed and gently took Marc's shoulders, forcing himself to look into the dreadfully battered face. The stitches began at the corner of his eye and staggered down across his cheek almost to the earlobe. "Look at you. Oh baby, why didn't you call me?"
"Um, Arthur, this is my mom. I don't guess you two have met before."
Arthur turned. A woman was sitting on the straight-backed chair in the corner of the room, a paperback of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind open on her knees. She was lovely in blue jeans and a carefully ironed white camp shirt, and the expression on her face was exquisitely controlled.
"Mrs. James. It's a pleasure to meet you."
She reached up and shook his outstretched hand. "Call me Billie, please. Marc's told me so much about you. I'm sorry we have to meet under such dreadful circumstances." She got up. "Marc, I think I'll be driving back to Santa Barbara tonight after all."
"It's late, Mom. I thought you were going to go back tomorrow morning."
Arthur stepped aside as Billie came to the bed and kissed Marc lightly on the forehead. "You know to call us if you need anything."
"Sure Mom. I'll be fine."
She smiled beautifully at Arthur and said, "It's been a pleasure," and then swept out of the room.
Robert saw her to the door as Marc said softly, "Handled like a pro, Arthur."
Robert leaned back around the door frame. "She's gone. I'm sorry about that, you guys. I guess I should have warned you. But you'd been talking about Arthur to your mom all week and I thought it was cool."
"It's okay. Mom's trying."
"Yeah, well, whatever. Hang in there, Art." Robert left, pulling the bedroom door shut behind himself.
"Aren't you supposed to be in Georgia?" Marc said.
"I came back."
"You came back for me?"
It seemed painfully surreal to Arthur, chatting about trivialities while Marc lay there with his face stitched up with thread. He crawled onto the bed beside him and stroked his unbruised cheek. "Of course I did. Oh god, look at you."
"What did you tell your folks?"
"With some significant omissions, I bet."
Arthur was surprised into anger. "Is this what honesty gets you? Your head bashed in? You self-righteous little brat, you think it's worth it? What about the people who love you?"
Marc's eyes widened. "What the hell is this? Are you trying to say you love me?"
"How could you not know that?" It was frustrating not to be able to pull Marc into his arms. Arthur tried awkwardly to hold him, but Marc winced.
"Watch it. I'm mostly off limits. You really think this is love?"
"That must be why I feel like killing you right now."
"Wait a minute, this is not my fault. I've got a right to walk across campus without ending up in the hospital--hey, are you crying, man?"
Arthur wiped the tears away with the back of his hand. "How long were you in the hospital?"
"Don't look so scared. It was just a couple of nights, for observation, or whatever they call it, because of the concussion."
"But I'm going to be fine, I promise."
"Did they catch the bastard?"
"No. He ran off."
"When did this happen?"
"Let's see, it was just before my bio-chem exam. Last Monday night."
"A week ago?" Arthur felt as though the floor had dropped out from under his feet. "Before I'd even left for Georgia? And you didn't let me know?"
"Give me credit for having a little dignity. I didn't want you to think I was using this as an excuse to come crawling back to you."
"How selfish can you be?" Arthur was suddenly angry all over again. "Did you think for one minute what I would feel like when I finally found out?"
"Cut me some slack here. You can't expect me to be totally logical after nearly having my brains knocked out."
He saw the look on Arthur's face and broke off. "I'm kidding. I'm kidding. It wasn't that bad."
"How did this happen?"
"The whole thing was so stupid. What makes me mad now is that I knew there was someone behind me, but I didn't even turn around to see who it was. I mean, it was only ten o'clock at night, it was the middle of exam week and there were people all around. I just didn't give it a thought. I had an idea that he was an older guy, but now I don't know why I thought that. Maybe I saw some gray hair out of the corner of my eye or something, I really don't know." Marc smiled his careful, lopsided smile. "Or maybe I was daydreaming about you and just had old guys on the brain.
"Anyway, I was cutting through the parking lot to the shuttle stop, when out of the blue, he knocks me on the back of the head with something and wham! I was on the pavement just like that.
"I don't know what he hit me with. The cops told me later it might have been a gun butt, but I don't know, I never saw it. So I'm face down on the pavement, right? And the only thing I could think was that it was some kind of mistake. A total stranger is trying to bash my head in, and I thought it was an accident." Marc laughed ruefully, but his eyes looked very young.
"It wasn't like in the movies, you know? Someone gets hit on the back of the head and he's out. Not me. I was all curled up on the ground and he's still wailing away at me, and it hurt so fucking much I started to hope I would pass out."
Marc's voice changed. "Finally he must have decided I wasn't going to fight back--like I'd put up such a big struggle to begin with, right? He rolled me over on my back and I was so glad that he wasn't hitting me anymore that I just let him do it."
Marc touched the stitches on the side of his face. "So he bent down over me and pushed my eyelid back with his thumb. My head felt like it was splitting open, and the streetlight was right behind him, and I could hardly breathe, and he was just this big dark bulk looming over me. I couldn't even describe him to the cops afterward." Marc's voice had dropped to a whisper.
"Sorry," he said, so quietly that Arthur had to lean forward to hear him, "You probably didn't know I was such a wimp."
Arthur kissed the corner of his mouth. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
"It's okay. I think it's better if I do." Marc took a deep breath. "That was the very worst thing. It was like being raped, somehow, having that guy touching my eye. I jerked away and that's when I got this--" Marc indicated the stitches down his cheek. "I didn't see it, but he must have had a knife or something in his hand. Guess I'm lucky he didn't put my eye out."
Arthur felt his stomach muscles contract sharply, and bile flooded his mouth. Marc saw the way his face twisted and said nervously, "But it's okay. I'm going to be okay."
Arthur just nodded. His shirt was soaked with a sudden sweat. In a moment of appalled recognition, he remembered the comic book Marc had dropped in the midst of the tarot cards, the night he and Lil had sat up in Teague's office. And now, just for an instant, Arthur saw the shining thread running through a month of confusion and happenstance. But Marc was too near, Arthur's concern for him was too urgent, and it all spun away from him before he even knew what he had seen.
"So who's the wimp?" Arthur smiled with an effort. "I'm going to pieces just hearing you talk about it."
"Well, you can relax now. That's the end of the story. A car pulled into the parking lot and the guy just got up and ran off. So here I am, the newest campus safety poster boy."
Arthur took both of Marc's hands and held them in his own. "When I got Robert's message on my machine this morning, I almost went out of my mind. Thinking of you hurt--like this--I couldn't stand it. I didn't ever want to let you out of my sight again."
"That's not love, Arthur, that's wanting to be a surrogate parent."
Arthur kissed him tenderly. "And how about this?"
"Okay, an incestuous parent."
"Can you come back with me tonight?"
"To my place. Now that I've driven your mother off, someone's got to take care of you."
"I won't be any fun. I'm still on codeine, and when I'm not asleep, I have to study. I missed two exams because of this, and I don't wanna let too much time go by before I make them up."
"I'm not asking you for your entertainment value."
"Well, thanks, but this is more convenient for me. I'm closer to school."
"I'll drive you to school."
"Rob and Bill have been picking up stuff from the library for me."
"I can get books out of the library for you."
"You don't have a library card."
"So I'll buy a card. Marc, please. What do I have to do? Call up my parents in front of you and announce to them that their son's queer as a three dollar bill?"
"Hmm. That'd be something to see. Would you do it?" Marc's blue eyes were shining out of the wreck of his beautiful face.
"All right," Arthur said after a long silence. "If that's really what you need from me."
"You're a real asshole, Arthur," Marc snapped back, shaken and angry. "Did anyone ever tell you that?"
Arthur didn't say anything, and after another moment Marc said, "All right, all right. We'll go to your place. You have to pack my stuff up, though. I've got a headache just from seeing you again."
Arthur woke up not knowing for an instant where he was, nor who was curled up in bed next to him. It wasn't until he reached out and touched a smooth face that he remembered he was in Los Angeles with Marc. Arthur spread his hand across Marc's cheek and felt tears, and realized he had been awakened by the sound of his weeping.
Arthur wrapped his arms gently around Marc's shoulders, pulling him closer. Marc pressed his head down against Arthur's chest as the sobs finally tore out of him, his body heaving with the force of them.
Arthur said quietly over and over again, "It's all right. It's all right," until Marc finally grew calmer. The top of his head, tucked under Arthur's chin, felt damp and hot as a baby's.
"Sorry," Marc was finally able to whisper hoarsely, "I didn't mean to wake you up."
"Hush. It's all right."
Marc took a few deep breaths and finally said, "I was dreaming about it again. Every fucking night. How long is this going to go on?" His voice quavered on the edge of tears again and Arthur tightened his grip around his shoulders.
Marc sighed and pressed closer. "Nights have been hell. I'd been going to bed with the lights on, but Bill or Rob or my mother would always turn them out after I fell asleep. It's been so awful waking up in the dark by myself." His voice sounded muffled and very young after weeping.
"I know," Arthur said. "Do you need anything? Some water?"
"Just you. I can't believe you flew back just because of me. I'm sorry I was such a shit before."
"Don't say things you'll regret later," Arthur said, gently stroking Marc's back.
"I can't stop playing it over in my head. Talking to the cops was almost as bad as getting beat up, did I tell you that? They didn't think it was a bashing. They kept saying that because the guy was by himself, he was more likely to be a jealous boyfriend or some crap like that. They wanted to know if I'd had a fight with an old lover lately." Marc laughed a little. "Don't worry. I didn't tell them about you."
"Thoughtful of you."
"That would be a hell of a way to out you, wouldn't it? Getting you arrested on suspicion of cutting up your boyfriend. What would they say about that back in Georgia? Oh god, I can't believe I'm joking about this." A shiver ran down the length of Marc's body. "My head's killing me."
"You need your pills?"
"No. I'm okay." Marc shifted on the bed, gingerly adjusting the pillow under his head.
"Yeah, I'm sure. I just want to get some sleep. No more nightmares. I'm sick of this shit."
But neither of them were able to sleep. Marc tossed and turned with exaggerated care, trying not to disturb Arthur, but finally, hours later, when he realized that Arthur was still awake beside him he whispered, "I'm sorry. I warned you I wasn't going to be much fun. Why don't I go sleep on the couch."
Marc sounded exhausted, and Arthur felt a wave of cold, sick hatred for the faceless stranger who had done this to him. It was a debilitating anger because he had nowhere to direct it; it simply twisted in his gut and made him feel afraid. So much damage had been wreaked so quickly. He draped one arm across Marc's chest, and his sense of the terrifying fragility of his lover's life and happiness was almost more than he could bear.
Maybe Marc was right, and this fierce desire to hold him and keep him safe from everything wasn't really love. It didn't matter, though. It was as overwhelming as any emotion Arthur had ever felt for anyone. He whispered into Marc's ear, "After going to this much trouble to get you back in my bed, you think I'm going to let you go so easily?"
Marc managed a soft laugh. His skin felt flushed and damp after hours of turning restlessly under the sheets. "Oh my aching head. I'm sorry, Arthur. Do you know what we did with the bottle of codeine?"
"It's in the kitchen. Hold on. I'll get it for you."
Arthur got up and padded through the darkness of the condominium. After two nights in Georgia, he was a little astonished by the distant roar of the traffic even at this hour of the night. But he was grateful for the noise. After being in his parents' house again, he had begun to think that peace and quiet were seriously overrated.
And then, for no reason at all that Arthur could tell, as he sat down on the side of the bed again and handed Marc a tablet and a glass of water, he was reminded of Brownley, the night watchman at Teague's building. For a man who was afraid that the building he worked in was haunted, he had said an odd thing about darkness and silence.
Marc swallowed the tablet and gave the glass back to Arthur. "Thanks. I think this'll help."
Arthur set the glass aside on a bedside table and stretched out beside Marc again. Brownley had believed that it was safer to be alone in the building at night. Only now did Arthur realize that he was quite right. It was much easier for something to sneak up on you when you were in the midst of a crowd. That was how Marc's assailant had gotten so close. Surrounded by the noise and bustle of campus, it had never occurred to Marc to look over his shoulder.
The following afternoon Arthur washed Marc's hair in the kitchen sink. Marc was sitting on one of the high kitchen chairs, his neck on a stack of towels and his head tilted back under the faucet. He closed his eyes and smiled a little as Arthur began rinsing the shampoo out of his hair with a gentle stream of water. Looking at him this closely, Arthur could see that the bruises were beginning to fade to yellow and green, but with his wet hair washed back from his face, he looked very young, the damage done to him even more obscene.
Arthur stopped that train of thought by asking, "So when do the stitches come out?"
Marc didn't answer. His mouth had dropped open a little, and Arthur realized he had fallen asleep.
Smiling, Arthur kept the warm spray of water running through his hair long after the last shampoo suds had run down the drain. Finally, worried that Marc would get a cramp in his neck from lying back so long in an awkward position, he shut off the faucet and wrapped a towel around his head.
Marc made a soft, contented sound. "Thanks. That felt great."
"How would you know? You were sound asleep." He braced one hand carefully against the back of Marc's head. "Gently now. Let's sit up."
Marc looked up drowsily. "If you say so."
Arthur smiled down at him. Marc's head was still tilted back, and he had opened his eyes very wide to see Arthur standing over him.
And then it hit again. Arthur heard the ungainly choking sound he made as the room spun around him and his knees buckled. He pulled Marc up too sharply, making him grunt in surprise and pain, and for a moment Arthur was afraid that they were both going to end up on the floor. But Marc was able to brace himself, and Arthur released him and staggered back, clutching at his own forehead.
"Christ, Arthur, you nearly wrenched my head off."
Arthur didn't hear him. For just a moment, while looking down into Marc's eyes, he had thought he was on the verge of comprehending the stranger who'd attacked him. Cutting Marc's face had been a mistake. The stranger had intended something very different, at once simpler and far more profound.
But in the end, Arthur couldn't make himself understand it. He moaned with both frustration and relief as it slipped away from him, then he groped his way to one of the kitchen chairs and sat down hard, his head in his hands.
"Hey. What the hell's the matter with you?" Marc had pulled up his chair beside Arthur and sat looking quizzically at him, the towel around his shoulders and his wet hair dripping.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said heavily. "Are you all right?"
"I'll live. What happened to you?"
"I don't know. I'm not sure." He reached out and gently touched Marc's damp face. "Maybe this has shaken me up more than I realized."
"You're shook up? How do you think I feel? And you called me selfish."
"I'm sorry. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I was kidding, Arthur. This isn't one of those spooky psychic deals, is it?"
"I think so," Arthur admitted.
"Oh man, I knew it." Marc looked rather pleased. "Is it about me?"
Arthur nodded slowly.
"Was it about what happened? The guy who jumped me?"
"It seemed to be."
"Well, great. Maybe we can catch the son of a bitch. I'm not holding my breath for campus security to do it. I don't guess you had a vision of anything helpful, like his name or home phone number, did you?"
"No. It doesn't seem to work that way."
"You realize this is why psychics don't get any respect. Except for Lil, maybe. I can't see her grunting and stumbling around like you do when she gets a vision. Maybe she could give you lessons in poise or something."
"She's been trying to teach me some discipline for years. It doesn't seem to do much good."
"Discipline, huh? Maybe I could help with that."
Arthur finally grinned. "In your dreams."
Marc held his bruised cheek with both hands. "Ow. Don't make me laugh."
The second night was easier. Arthur awoke only once to feel Marc twitching and trembling beside him. He draped his arm over his shoulder and pulled him closer, and Marc settled down again without waking up.
When Arthur got out of the shower the next morning, a cup of coffee was waiting for him on the counter beside the bathroom sink. Touched by the unexpected gesture, Arthur pulled on a robe and walked out into the living room. Marc was in his old place on the sofa, his notes and textbooks scattered all over the coffee table. MTV was blaring, and his own coffee mug was perched precariously on the arm of the sofa.
"It's called a coffee table for a reason," Arthur said mildly. It was so good to see Marc there that he couldn't muster too much concern for his upholstery.
Marc looked up. "And good morning to you too. Lil called while you were in the shower. Apparently you left some cryptic message on her answering machine a couple of days ago. I said you could meet her for lunch after you dropped me off at school this morning. She'll be in front of that creole stand at Farmer's Market at noon. Don't be late because she has to be back at the office at one on the dot."
Arthur moved Marc's cup to the coffee table. "And what are my plans for the rest of the day?"
"What do I look like, your social secretary? But since you ask, I've got a doctor's appointment at three and god knows how long that will take, so you need to be home by at least three-thirty or four so I can call when I need you to pick me up."
Lil had managed to snag one of the few tables in the shade at the south end of Farmer's Market, and when she spotted Arthur she smiled and waved him over.
"So what are you doing back in L.A?"
"It's a long story."
"Am I wrong to think it has something to do with Marc answering the phone this morning?" Apparently not trusting Arthur's punctuality, she had already bought herself a bowl of red beans and rice and a basket of cornbread muffins. "Go get something to eat," she commanded, smiling. "Then I want to hear all about it."
The Market was already busy with the early lunchtime crowd. Arthur stood in line for his own tray of gumbo and white rice. Shrimp, sausage and okra swam together in the oily red broth that lapped over the edges of the bowl as he made his way back to Lil. The metal table rocked on the uneven cement floor when he set his tray down, and Lil steadied the table with both hands while Arthur took a seat across from her.
"I love Farmers Market," Arthur said. "All the inconveniences of eating outside with none of the amenities."
Lil was picking apart one of the cornbread muffins, eating little bites at a time. "If you didn't want to meet here, you should have suggested somewhere else."
"Matters were already decided by the time I got out of the shower."
"Well, you should keep Marc more carefully apprised of your dining preferences."
"We'll have a serious talk about it." Arthur dumped his rice into the gumbo and took a bite. "Never mind, I take it all back. This is wonderful."
"Of course it is," Lil said. "I'm always right, I don't know why you continue to struggle against the inevitable. Now what was that message you left on my machine Sunday afternoon? You sounded like you'd just lost your best friend. Were you still in Georgia when you called?"
"Yes, I was." Arthur laid down his fork, remembering how panicked and helpless he had felt when he had tried to call Lil that day.
"I'm sorry," Lil said suddenly. "This is serious, isn't it?"
"Is that your psychic intuition?"
"It's more the look on your face. Is everything all right? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. It's Marc. He got beat up on campus last week."
"I just found out about it Sunday. When I couldn't get through to him I tried to call you. I don't know what I thought you could do. I was scared and wanted someone to talk to."
"Oh, Arthur. I'm so sorry. How is he? He sounded fine on the phone this morning."
"He's doing better. He looks like hell, stitches across his face--" Arthur ran his finger down his own cheek. "And he's still having headaches and nightmares. But he's getting his sense of humor back, I think. I'm trying to."
"What a terrible thing. Poor Marc. And this happened at school?"
"Yes. He was on his way to the bus stop from the library."
"That makes it even worse somehow. I want to think of the university as a last bastion of enlightenment. It's naive of me, I know. Who did it? Students?"
"They don't know. It was one man. He got away."
Lil pushed her tray aside and leaned forward. Concern hardened her already-severe features, making her look suddenly older than she was. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine. I'm not the one who got my face cut open."
Lil didn't say anything.
"No. I'm sorry. There is something else." Arthur took a deep breath. "I think I had a premonition of this weeks ago, the night we sat up in Morgan Teague's office. You remember I'd laid out the tarot cards before we went out?"
"When I got home that morning I wanted to look at them again, to see if they read differently after what happened."
"And did they?"
"I'll never know. The cards were all messed up. Marc had come in and dropped a stack of his comic books right in the middle of the table."
"Fate intervenes," Lil smiled.
"But there was a moment when I didn't realize what had happened. I was standing there looking at this one comic book with a ghastly cover--someone about to get his eye stabbed out-and I had one of those moments of perfect clarity. We've talked about this before. It's as though you've just woken up from a dream where everything fits together and makes complete sense."
"But it never lasts."
"No, it doesn't," Arthur said ruefully. "You wake up a little bit more, and most of it just slips away."
"And you're never sure if the bits and pieces you manage to hang onto are the important part or not," Lil said, sympathetically.
"They weren't this time. I thought it was just an aftershock from the headache I got in Morgan Teague's office. It wasn't until Marc was telling me about the man who attacked him that I finally realized the real reason the cover of that comic book had scared the hell out of me." Arthur drew the back of his hand across his brow, wiping away sweat. It was hot for the middle of May, and their table was no longer in the shade.
"The man who attacked Marc had a knife, and when he cut Marc's face, he just missed his eye. When I saw the comic book that morning, I knew then what was going to happen to Marc. I've known for a month now, but it didn't keep me from being on the other side of the country, and not doing a damn thing to--"
"So you felt a little of the disruption and pain before it actually happened," Lil interrupted. "That doesn't mean you could have prevented it."
"I know, Lil. Believe me, this isn't just another of my bouts of maudlin self pity." Arthur smiled thinly. "Well, it may be at that. But there is something more. I'm still having flashes about the attack."
Lil's eyes narrowed. "Why do you think that? What's happening?"
"Yesterday afternoon I was just looking at Marc when something hit me like a Mack Truck. It nearly knocked me off my feet, and suddenly I knew that this wasn't just some random, brutal accident. It wasn't just a matter of Marc's being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was purpose, intention behind it. I felt it as clearly as I can feel this table."
He grabbed the edges of table and shook it a little for emphasis, spilling broth over the side of his bowl in the process.
"So what is it?"
"That's just it," Arthur ground out, frustrated and angry. "I don't remember now. If I could have held onto a little more, I think I could be helping Marc now--maybe even finding the bastard who did this to him. But I couldn't concentrate. In fac,t it felt so ugly and wrong that I didn't want to concentrate on it. I think I must have pushed it away."
"I hope you don't feel guilty for that. It sounds like a perfectly sane response to me."
Arthur stirred the bowl of gumbo with his spoon. "At least I'm trying to put the guilt where it belongs. I do know that there's probably nothing I could have done to prevent Marc's being hurt. But then I got another chance--a chance to do something after the fact, anyway, and I botched it again because I didn't have enough control to hang on.
"Lil," he went on, pleading now, "I know this is the kind of work you used to do with the Houston PD. Please help me with this. I've got to know how you were able to hang on to impressions long enough to do anything with them."
Lil steepled her fingers together and frowned at him. "I usually didn't. The few times I remembered enough to actually ID a face or lead the cops to a site, it was only because something absolutely atrocious had happened. I told you they used to call me the angel of death behind my back." She smiled bleakly. "And they were right. When I was on my mark, there was usually a body count. So if I were you, I'd be relieved that the impressions you're getting about Marc are murky and difficult to read." Her smile faded. "Believe me, dear, the alternative is much worse."
Arthur sat back in the rickety folding metal chair. "I think I knew you were going to tell me something like that. But last night Marc woke up crying, and it made me feel like I'd sell my soul to be able to help him."
"But of course you're helping him. You're with him now. That must be the most important thing. Does he even know about the rest of it?"
"Some. He thinks it's exciting."
"Well, I guess he's right. Otherwise we'd both have dreary nine-to-five office jobs, instead of just me." Lil glanced down at her watch. "Speaking of which, I need to get back in a few minutes. Can Marc have visitors? I'll drop by some evening if you think he's well enough."
"Of course. He's young and strong. He's on campus studying today."
"The miracle of youth." She waved Arthur away when he started to get up with her. "You stay and finish your gumbo."
"I think I'll be going too. It's too warm to sit in the sun eating hot food."
Lil and Arthur pushed their way through the Market, busy now with the later lunch crowd. The narrow aisles were crowded with tourists wearing t-shirts from the Hard Rock, industry people in rumpled linen jackets and hundred-dollar blue jeans, and the shriveled, obstreperous elderly from the surrounding neighborhood who blocked the path between the booths to complain about the price of the dried fruit trays. Arthur stopped at one of the produce stands and paid far too much money for half a pint of beautiful, fat strawberries.
"For Marc," he admitted, in response to Lil's raised eyebrow.
They had reached Lil's little green Karman Ghia when she suddenly said, "I completely forgot the reason I wanted to see you today. How would you feel about starting another investigation?"
"You mentioned it on my answering machine. Of course I'm interested. This is the apartment building?"
"One unit, actually. The manager is an old Navy buddy of Peter's, and he's been hearing stories from a whole string of tenants. Hard to tell how much is an urban legend in the making and how much is real, but it sounds intriguing either way."
"When can we go look at the place?"
"I'll be seeing Peter tonight, and I'll set up something then. Are you doing anything this weekend? Maybe we could go over on Saturday or Sunday."
"Either day's fine."
"Okay. I'll let you know." Lil had gotten her key out and opened the car door, wincing a little at the hot air. She tossed her purse across the seat to the passenger's side and got in. "Give Marc my love."
"I will." Arthur started to close the door for her, then stopped. "I didn't tell you I got a message on my machine from Marty's sister. She wants to meet with me to talk about Marty."
Sweat had begun to bead on Lil's forehead from sitting in the hot car, but she made no move to turn on the ignition. "Oh boy. Are you going to do it?"
"I haven't called her back yet. But it seems like the least I can do."
"Are you sure you want to talk to her?"
"Yes I am, actually," Arthur was a little surprised to realize that he was telling the truth. "It will be a way to bring some sort of closure to all this. In fact, maybe you could bring over the videotapes from Teague's office when you think about it. I know there's nothing on them, but I should at least look at them."
Lil finally turned the key in the ignition. Hot air blew out of the vents until she reached forward and turned off the fan. "Of course, if you like. I'll give you a call when I've set up a time to see the apartment."
She tugged at the door handle. Arthur released his hold on the edge of the door. "Lil, thanks."
She shrugged. "For what? The lunch you couldn't eat? I'll call you." And she slammed the car door.
Arthur picked Marc up on the circle drive in back of the university hospital. Marc dumped his backpack in the back seat and sat down heavily in front.
"How'd it go?"
"Not so good. The doctor says I'm not supposed to drive for another week. She claims I'm still at risk for seizures or blackouts or something. I told her, you know, that if anything like that was going to happen I think it would have shown up by now."
"I don't mind driving you."
"Sure, you say that now, but can I really count on this kinder, gentler Arthur lasting another whole week?"
"Well, that's true. The ogre might reappear at any minute."
"My point exactly. Then the doctor finally told me that this was going to scar, and that I'd probably need plastic surgery to cover it up." Marc indicated the stitches across his cheek. "I kept asking them about it in the emergency room, but they wouldn't give me a straight answer then. And of course, my student health insurance is not going to cover cosmetic surgery."
"Marc, if money's a problem--"
"No way. I'm not letting you pay for my face. I'd never get away from you then. Naw, I'll stick it to my parents. They'll fork it over to put the roses back in the cheeks of their blue-eyed boy. That's better than having to explain the scar to the neighbors, I bet."
Marc grinned, thinking about it. "In fact, maybe I should try to pay a visit home while I still look like something Dr. Frankenstein just patched together."
"You'd go all the way up to Santa Barbara just to make your parents uncomfortable?"
It was five thirty, and the southbound traffic on Westwood Boulevard was at a standstill. Arthur watched with resignation as three RTD buses nosed into traffic half a block ahead of him.
"Nah, I guess not. Besides, they'd probably just tell their friends that I got attacked by one of those roving bands of hooligans left over from the riot."
"Roving bands of hooligans?"
"My folks think of L.A. as a cross between the Road Warrior movies and Night of the Living Dead. Motorcycle gangs and flesh-eating zombies prowling the streets, presumably looking for red blooded American boys to gobble up. My mom even asked me if I would consider transferring up to UC Santa Barbara. Can you imagine?"
"Yes, actually. That's where you belong. Sunning your lovely self on the beach without a care in the world."
"So that's the way you think of me. Just another pretty surfer boy. Well, god knows what you see in me now."
Arthur glanced over at him. "Even black and blue, you're still the loveliest thing I've ever had the pleasure of chauffeuring around Westwood."
Marc pushed his own seat back down until he was lying almost flat, then laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes. "At the rate traffic's moving, we'd be home faster if you'd picked me up in a rickshaw."
"Right." Marc took a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his tone was studied and casual, "I walked through that parking lot behind the library this morning."
A cold finger touched Arthur's spine, but he kept his eyes on the road. He'd been waiting five minutes for the left turn light onto Wilshire. "You did."
"Uh huh. Bill and Robert and some other guys went up last night and did a chalk outline on the asphalt where it happened. It looks good. Pretty eerie, actually. Like a shadow of myself that got left behind."
Arthur ventured carefully, "I'm not sure I see what good that does."
"Jesus, Arthur. When are you going to crawl out from under that rock of yours?" Marc sounded more exasperated than angry with him. "It's to remind people of what happened, and of what's still happening all around them. So they can't pretend their precious university is some sort of safe haven. This is the real world, and out here you can get your head bashed in for no reason at all, just for being queer."
Arthur had finally made the turn onto Wilshire, and traffic was moving much faster now. They covered the last half mile in silence.
Marc eventually rolled his head to the side to look at him. "Now what's the matter with you?"
"Do you expect me to be happy at the thought of you dead on the pavement?" Arthur pulled into the turn lane in front of his condominium and waited, watching the three lanes of oncoming traffic.
"It's just a symbol, man. I survived. I'm right here beside you."
Arthur would have reached out and touched him, but at that moment a break came in the traffic, so he turned the wheel hard to the left and shot across the lanes of oncoming cars and down the steep garage driveway.
After dinner Arthur turned on the computer in his office and finally began typing up his notes from Teague's case. While it had been a disappointing investigation, Arthur still found himself fascinated by the conspiracy of circumstances that had led them all to believe they were experiencing a haunting. Even though he and Lil had realized very early that Marty might well be the perpetrator, the two of them had continued to treat the manifestations as genuine, on no firmer basis than Arthur's sensation of psychic force on the first night of the investigation.
But in the end it had all turned out to be due to nothing more than Marty's instability and the unfortunate coincidence of Morgan Teague's having employed a manic-depressive some years before. If nothing else, the case was an object lesson on how not to investigate presumed paranormal phenomena.
Arthur did not include Marty's appearance to him and Charlie that night in Georgia. He felt certain that the apparition had been due to the baleful influence of his parents' house, and had had nothing to do with Morgan Teague's office. Should he ever write a case history of the Drake House, he would include it there.
It was past eleven by the time he stopped working. He got up and stretched, feeling the satisfaction of having done some writing for the first time in weeks, and went into the living room to find Marc, who was still bent over his books.
"Don't push yourself too hard."
Marc didn't look up. "I won't."
Arthur picked up the TV Guide off the top of the television set. "It Conquered the World is on now," he told Marc hopefully. "Beverly Garland, Peter Graves. Why don't you call it a night?"
"No, I can't. I'm still behind in this English class, and I really want to make up the exam next week. You go ahead." Marc gathered up his books and trooped back to the bedroom, leaving Arthur standing alone in the living room with the TV Guide in his hand.
Arthur poured himself a drink from the vodka bottle in the freezer and watched the first half hour or so of the movie by himself. It wasn't much fun without Marc, though, and eventually he turned off the set and went back to the bedroom. Marc was sitting up in bed reading a dog-eared paperback of Absalom, Absalom. The yellow and black Cliff Notes guide was open on his knees, and he gave Arthur a smile when he saw him standing in the doorway.
"Just the man I wanted to see. I was going to ask you if you had wisteria vines on your house back in Georgia."
"I don't even know what wisteria looks like. I think there was some kudzu growing back in the woods. Does that count?"
"You know, even though you're practically as neurotic as the people in this book, you're still a sorry excuse for a Southern aristocrat."
Arthur pulled the paperback out of Marc's hands. "I'm starting to get tired of the way you read me into Poe and Faulkner. Why don't you ever ask me these sorts of questions when you're reading Hemingway?"
"I can't imagine," Marc smirked. "And after all your exploits in the company of manly men--the bullfights in Spain, the safaris on the Serengeti--"
"We can talk about manly men if you like." Arthur sat down next to Marc and kissed his bare shoulder.
Marc gently pushed his head away. "I'm sorry. Let's stick to wisteria blossoms tonight."
Arthur sat back, concern on his face. "You're still having headaches?"
"Oh please, is that what I sound like? 'Not tonight dear, I have a headache'?"
"I'd understand if you do. Did you tell the doctor that you're still having them?"
"Arthur, listen to me. I do not have a headache. I'm fine."
"I'm glad, then." He handed the book back to Marc.
"Don't be angry."
Arthur smiled. "How could I be angry with you?"
"Maybe you should get mad occasionally."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know." Marc shrugged. "I'm sorry. Maybe I'm just trying to pick a fight so I can quit studying."
Once again Arthur lifted the book out of Marc's hand. Then he took away the Cliff Notes and notebook as well, and set them all down on the dresser on the other side of the room. Marc watched bemusedly. Arthur came back and stood beside the bed, looking down at him. "There. Now you can't study anymore."
"OK. But now you really are going to get mad."
"I've been thinking that tomorrow I'd like to go back to the apartment in Westwood."
Arthur sat down heavily on the end of the bed. "Why?"
"I don't know. I just think I'd be more comfortable. All my things are there."
"I'll bring you anything you need."
"It's not like that."
"Then what is it? You don't usually make me play these guessing games."
Marc smiled a little. "No, that's your specialty. OK, then." He looked away from Arthur. "The truth is, I don't see why you want me around right now."
"I love you," Arthur said flatly.
Marc went on as though he hadn't spoken. "I don't do anything around here but mess up your place and eat your food. I look like a freak and I'm no good in bed." He brushed the stitches in his cheek. "I'm a bundle of nerves. I can't sleep at night. I don't know how long this is going to go on, and it doesn't seem fair to put you through it."
"Marc, I love you. Why is that so hard for you to understand?"
"I don't know what that means," Marc burst out, sounding angry and scared. "I don't know if I love you back. I'm sorry, but I really don't have any idea. And I hate the idea of just using you while I figure things out."
"You don't have to figure anything out. It makes me happy to have you here, that's all. That's all I want from you."
Arthur caught Marc's hands and held them. "There isn't any 'why.' It's just the way it is."
Marc simply looked at him, his expression still sullen and defiant.
"Look, you're reading Faulkner," Arthur said. "Just think of me as the product of a eccentric Southern family. So if I happen to get off on watching you lounge around on my furniture and clean out my refrigerator, why can't you just indulge me?"
Marc shook his head, exasperated. "You're crazy."
"I've admitted it, haven't I?"
"It's impossible to have a serious conversation with you."
"Marc, if you want to go back to your apartment, I'll take you back. I'll do it right now, if you need to get away from me that badly. But this really scared me." He brushed Marc's bruised cheek with his fingertips. "It still terrifies me to realize how close I might have come to losing you. And right now it comforts me more than I can tell you just to have you close. I know I can't protect you from the big bad world. But if you can stand having me around for a while, it's nice to pretend that maybe I could."
"I've got a father back in Santa Barbara. I don't need one down here too."
Marc finally shrugged. "It's starting to piss me off, the way you always seem to win all the arguments."
"Have we been arguing?"
"Ah, fuck it. Let's watch the rest of the movie." Marc got up. "Anyway, I love the part where Beverly Garland fights the monster in the cave."
"And comes to a bad end, no doubt."
"Of course. The monster always kills the bitchy blondes in these movies."
Arthur ran his hand through Marc's short blonde hair. "Good thing we're not in a movie."
Marc smacked his hand away. "Watch it. I may be weak and helpless now, but I'll make you pay for that when I get my strength back."