Sonofabitch, it was still snowing. Jesse stared out the window, head pressed against the wooden frame. His stomach growled, and his body trembled. It was taking all the effort he could muster just to stay upright. He knew he needed food, but he could hear Ryker moving around the cabin, and every time he stepped toward the door, terror overtook him. Ryker was way too big, like Troy, towering over him, dark, looming, and he couldn’t separate the two. He’d gotten as far as touching the doorknob before he’d ended up on his knees, gasping, reminded of the feel of fingers around his neck, the pain of being shaken, and the words hurled at him, making him feel dirty, worthless, and completely pathetic. He’d nearly passed out beside the door, finally dragging himself away and back toward the bed to stretch out on the floor lacking the motivation to climb up.
He dozed there a little while, restless, attempting to play his guitar, but his brain was foggy, like wading through cotton candy , all sticky and weighing him down, and the notes, typically so calming, left him tense and twitchy. The words and notes were there, but he couldn’t string them together into anything coherent. His fingers fumbled for the cords, and he swayed, curling tighter around the guitar, hugging it close to him before laying it back in its case, closing his eyes, letting himself drift away again.
He wasn’t able to sleep for long, between dreams and anxiety and those moments when his stomach growled so hard he gagged. He woke hoping to find the snow had stopped and he could dig out his truck, but all he saw were fat, fluffy flakes continuing to fall thickly. Another wave of dizziness nearly brought him to his knees, and he wretched, his stomach so empty it was trying to force him to throw up stomach acid. Stumbling, he staggered to his door and fumbled with the lock, barely getting it open before crashing across the hall to fall on the bathroom floor.
He kicked the door shut, braced his feet against it, and pressed his face to the tiles, shaking.
“Hey, you okay in there?”
“Go away,” Jesse begged.
“Jesse? Are you okay?”
“F-fine! Now l-l-leave me t-t-the fuck a-alone!” He hiccupped and dry-heaved again.
“You don’t sound fine. You sound like maybe you drank too much. I can mix you up a hangover cure if you want.”
“D-d-don’t you fuckin’ start w-with that bullshit too!”
“Look, I’m only trying to help,” Ryker called back, still jiggling the knob and pushing at the door. One particularly hard shove dislodged Jesse’s feet for a second, and worried eyes peered in at him.
“Shit. You look like death. Scoot out of the way, and let me in.”
Jesse growled and kicked at the door, wishing he’d fuck off and go away. A firm hand gripped his ankle and gave a tug, sending a jolt of panic through Jesse’s soul the moment he was touched. Thrashing, he wiggled away, breath coming in harsh pants as he curled into a tight ball and trembled.
Fingers brushed his shoulder, and he let out a cry before he could stop himself, whimpering and begging. “Please don’t. Please don’t.”
“Don’t what, Jesse?”
Don’t touch. Don’t hit. Don’t hurt me, he wanted to yell as insistent hands tried to coax him from the ball he’d folded himself into.
Jesse lashed out with his foot, desperate, relieved when it connected with a solid thud, and those fingers moved away.
“Ow, fuck, what the hell!’
“Go away. Go away. Go away! Leave. Me. Alone!” Jesse screamed, panic making him feel bold or maybe it was the knowledge that he’d retreated as far as he could, and there was no place left to run to if he didn’t stop Troy here and make him go away.
It took all his remaining energy, and he was grateful to hear feet retreating from beside the door.
Closing his eyes, Jesse lay there, letting the cool of the tiles calm his frayed nerves. Only when he could breathe without choking did it dawn on him that it hadn’t been Troy in the bathroom with him. Shame washed over him then, and he let the tears flow, convinced he was so profoundly screwed up that nothing was ever going to be right again.
Time slipped away—how long, he wasn’t sure—just that his whole side was numb by the time he gained full awareness of his surroundings again. Jesse tried to access his condition, determining that the numbness was from the floor, not getting his ass kicked, and the weakness and dizziness were the result of not having eaten. Gradually, he sat up, splashed cold water from the tub tap on his face and over his head. He used the sink to haul himself to his feet and promptly fell right back down again. The side of his head clipped the tub, and he cried out and curled back in a ball, tears welling up in his eyes once again.
He lay there, hating his life, head throbbing, until he felt capable of another attempt at sitting up. There was blood on the floor. He was grateful it wasn’t a lot, so he wiped it away with the hem of his shirt before very carefully climbing to his feet again. This time, he gripped the sink as tightly as he could until he was steady; then one foot in front of the other, hand braced against the wall, he made his way to the kitchen.
Fortunately, it was empty.
Still, he didn’t want to risk lingering long, so he grabbed a spoon and a pull-top can of pasta and meatballs and made the slow trek back to his room, nearly slamming face-first into Ryker’s chest.
He dropped the can and staggered trying to retrieve it. Only Ryker’s hand on his arm saved him from pitching headlong onto the floor.
“Easy, whoa, you really don’t look good.”
“Mm fine,” Jesse slurred as Ryker picked up the can and handed it back.
“You don’t look fine,” Ryker replied as Jesse nearly dropped the can again. “I’m pretty sure you hurt yourself.”
Jesse said nothing, just clutched the can to his chest, flinching back when Ryker reached a hand toward his face, no doubt to examine the cut on the side of his head. Jaw clenched, Ryker let his hand fall to his side and finally moved. Jesse hoped the man wasn’t watching his unsteady movements as he made his way back to his room. Maybe tonight, once the place was quiet, he could retrieve anything that didn’t need to be refrigerated and haul it back to his room, lock himself in until he could separate the ghost from the flesh and blood man sharing the cabin with him.
Ryker watched Jesse go, a prickle of unease running through him. Jesse smelled like sweat and blood, and Ryker had almost been certain he saw a red rust smear against the side of his neck. Clearly, sleep hadn’t improved his mood or his willingness to share space, and Ryker had no idea what to do to open a channel of communication between them.
The cabin was too quiet now. He’d looked for a radio and been unable to find one, and then realized the space it should have occupied was empty. He was certain Jesse had taken it to his room. Not like he’d expected to find a working station with the weather the way it was. In all likelihood, Jesse had CDs back there that he could play on it, which was why he’d procured it.
Restless, Ryker stoked the fire in the fireplace and added more wood, glad it was stacked on the porch so he didn’t have to be out in the cold too long to grab it. Winter had always been his favorite season, for the fresh powder and the snowboarding, the snowmobiles and how much fun it had always been to play paintball in snowshoes and watch the landscape dotted with colors by the time they were done.
At least in those skirmishes, everyone walked away unscathed save for the occasional bruises. His arm ached and his back twinged, but it was the echo of memories in his head that kept him pacing, rummaging for a distraction to occupy his time. He came up with a deck of cards and absolutely no desire for playing solitaire, so he tossed them back in the drawer. There was a TV with no movies, and a video game console with no games. A quick search of the bookcase shelf beside the window yielded several old favorites though, so he snatched up a collection of Poe’s poetry and dropped into a chair.
Less than an hour later, he was restless again and pacing.
The words hadn’t helped settle him—if anything they’d been too dark, full of loss and pain, ushering in more ghosts, leaving him straining to hear every sound, wondering if there was something sinister attached to them. Hands rubbing together, he looked for a way to ground himself, as the sounds warped, shifted, began the ghostly echo of a moment he had no desire to remember. His heart was hammering, and he no longer cared if Jesse wanted him to stay away, he was going down the hall and beating on the door if only to fight with the other man for a little while and take his mind off the crash of memories trampling through his brain.
Only, music reached him as he approached, and a honey smooth voice singing made him shiver and think back on all those times he’d put in the CDs Kyle sent and lost himself in his cousin’s music at the end of a long, dirty, dusty, and sometimes bloody day. He paused, hand raised, prepared to knock, when the words smashed into him.
“I can’t fight these demons closing in. These lonely nights—they never seem to end. If I could bleed all my fears into the dust and shake this hollow husk, I’d be free again. But there’s no end from this pain I cannot voice, from the hate I feel, and the rage I fight, and the nights I long to die. How can you save me when I can’t save myself? How can you see me, when my colors bleed, and the light inside me fades to gray? Have mercy, please; pierce me with your blade; kiss me gently. Let me go.”
It wasn’t one of the band’s songs he’d ever heard before; in fact, when Jesse sang it again a few of the words changed, and he realized then this was something he was creating, something that maybe was a raw honesty he’d never shared with anyone else.
He knew what it was like to plead for something. Not death—he’d fought too damn hard to survive to ever want to give in to that. But the peace that eluded him was something he’d plead for. A break from memories and guilt—a day, or better still, a night when his mistakes didn’t play over and over in his head.
He should have done more. Should have seen the signs. Should have been faster. Should have saved them.
Ryker stared at the closed door, listening to the soft guitar chords drifting out into the hall. Lingering echoes of his nightmare jackknifed through his mind in bright flashes and metal tossed so high it obscured the sun. Gritting his teeth, he tried not to brush his hands down his arms, seeking the phantom dirt and blood his mind insistently screamed was clinging to his skin.
You’re not there anymore. You’re here. You’re safe.
He whispered it over and over, a mantra, a prayer for peace that fell into rhythm with the heartbreakingly haunting notes Jesse was wringing from the guitar. He wished he could shove the door open, crawl across the floor, press his front to Jesse’s back, wrap his arms around his body, bury his nose in Jesse’s hair, and breathe in his scent. Anything to ground himself.
After Jesse’s shower last night, the bathroom had smelled like rain in the forest: woody, earthy, taking Ryker back to a time before he’d left Vermont. Home. Jesse smelled like home, and all Ryker wanted in that moment was to get closer. Replace the guitar in Jesse’s lap with his head and cling there until the last of the nightmares were gone.
Instead, he slid down the wall, fingers gripping his hair so tightly he could feel his fingertips pressing into his scalp. In the back of his mind, everyone was still screaming, he was still screaming into the com, ineffable horrors taking place around him. Squeezing his eyes shut, he willed the visions away. Told himself to focus on the music and the soft tenor of Jesse’s voice accompanying it.
You’re not there anymore. You’re here. You’re safe.
Jesse’s lilting voice rose above the chaos crashing through his mind, wrapping around him, helping him to keep his breathing even.
“I don’t wanna fight these demons closing in. This one last night, I pray that it’s the end. I wanna bleed my fears into the dust, shake this hollow husk, be free again. From this pain I cannot voice, from the ghosts I fear to trust, from the hate I feel, and the rage I fight, and the nights I long to die. How can you save me when I will not save myself? How can you see me when all my colors bleed, when the light inside me fades, when hopes dies, and dreams burn, and still I lie and say I’m good, all good? Have mercy, please; pierce me with your blade; kiss me gently. Let me go.”
So different that time, from breaking to completely ruined. Ryker wondered if that’s what he was going for, if that was what he felt, what had driven him to the mountains and made him hide inside his room. Secrets, grief, regrets, in those words Jesse sang, Ryker saw a reflection of himself in his lowest moments when he’d come so close to giving up.
Resting his head against the door, he focused on Jesse singing, wishing he was on the other side where it wasn’t so lonely and cold. Wishing Jesse would sing something a little brighter, something with a shred of hope to chase away the storm before it drowned them both.
Date Published: January 27, 2020