Your business is to paint the souls of men—
Man's soul, and it's a fire, smoke . . . no, it's not . . .
It's vapour done up like a new-born babe—
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It's . . . well, what matters talking, it's the soul!
Give us no more of body than shows soul!
Robert Browning, "Fra Lippo Lippi"
While Andrew Minyard was in juvie, he spent three hours every week in a workshop called Therapy through Art, hosted by a woman named Betsy Dobson. Andrew naturally distrusted anyone whose name in this day and age was Betsy, and moreover, anyone who could smile at a room full of young offenders like that, all the time, like she meant it.
But Betsy never raised her voice, and she always brought sweets, and when Andrew left his canvases blank (what the fuck did it mean to ‘give shape to his emotions’ anyway?) she didn’t look disappointed. For that, Andrew liked her a little better – or at least disliked her a little less.
One day she brought in clay. Andrew subjected himself to the indignity of wearing a smock and took a seat. While the others in the workshop started on misshapen mugs and bowls, Andrew stared at the clay, and then at Betsy. She smiled her usual smile. Andrew looked back at the clay. When he touched it, it was equal parts gross and enjoyable, wet and resistant beneath his fingers. He was unsure how he felt about the reconciliation of these two things in one object.
Over the first half-hour he shaped a vague head, one with a square jaw and stick-out ears. As he was depressing eyes with his thumbs he thought, unbidden, of Drake. It was like being gutted; it hollowed him.
To keep his hands from shaking, he dug his thumbs into the clay. He imagined puncturing the cornea, the iris; the spill of blood. He imagined Drake, blinded, never having laid eyes on him.
After, he stared through the holes he’d made. Then smashed the entire thing into the table and started again.
Betsy stopped him on his way out an hour later. “Andrew,” she said, her face so open and soft that Andrew wanted to smash her too. “Did you like it?”
Andrew, in that moment, did not have it in him to lie. He said, “Yes.”
“So it starts with a smoky, sixty-second saxophone solo,” said Nicky, and mimed playing a saxophone for a full minute, complete with noises Nicky probably thought mimicked a saxophone, but were in fact much closer to a fart being forced through a clenched anus. “That ends and you’re like, oh, I guess it was just a smoky, sixty-second saxophone solo—but then the electric guitar cuts in! And there’s crazy laser music and epilepsy violin that’s like wee-ah, wee-ah, wee-ah! You know what I mean?”
“No,” replied Andrew, and refilled his coffee cup.
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” said Aaron.
Nicky made a wounded noise. “I’m talking about my theme song,” he said. “For my final? The one I’ve been talking about for weeks?” He dropped into the chair across from Aaron at the kitchen table. “You two are the literal worst.”
“Huh,” said Aaron. Andrew remained silent.
This was, in fact, unremarkable breakfast conversation. Nicky was deeply invested in all of his projects, and even more deeply invested in his own image. The blending of these two things as part of his musical production final meant it often took the threat of violence to get him to shut up about it, and even then the peace and quiet was unlikely to last for more than seven minutes.
“Are you coming to the showcase today?” Nicky asked, after taking a moment to pout.
It was unclear as to which of the twins he was addressing, but Andrew suspected it was himself, as he was the one with an actual piece on display. Aaron, living as he did in the cold, unloving clutch of the architecture department, had no time to make supplementary art. (Technically, neither did Andrew, but something about his instructors pressuring him to do coursework filled him with divine inspiration.)
“Don’t you want to see your piece?” said Nicky.
“Why?” said Andrew. “I know what it looks like. I made it.”
Nicky rolled his eyes. “Then, don’t you want to see other people see it? That’s the best part! Getting everyone’s reactions.”
Aaron flicked his fingers dismissively. “No, Andrew’s an artiste,” he said. “He creates art for the sake of art.” He lifted his eyebrows and looked to Andrew. “No?”
“Of course,” Andrew drawled. “It’s about the process. ‘I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.’ Macklemore said that.”
Nicky groaned again and kicked the leg of Andrew’s chair. “Well, I’m going,” he said. “There’s free food, and Kevin will be there. I’m going to stand in earshot of him and use all his fancy-pants art terms wrong.”
Aaron snorted. Kevin Day majored in animation, minored in fine arts, and lived his life in a perpetual state of near-breakdown. Harassing him was one of the few joys in Andrew’s life.
“I’m only going so I can drink mimosas on the university’s dime,” Aaron said, clearing his breakfast plate and putting it in the sink. The stack of dirty dishes was turning precarious, which meant soon they would have to play Mario Party to see who had to do them. (This, in turn, meant soon Nicky would be doing the dishes.)
“There’ll be a cash bar, too,” said Nicky, now openly appealing to Andrew’s taste for liquor that burned on the way down and distaste for Kevin in equal measure.
Andrew was quiet for so long that Aaron left to shower, came back, and made a fresh pot of coffee.
Eventually, Andrew drew a circle in the air with his finger and said, “I’ll think about it.”
Nicky smiled like he’d won something. Andrew went out onto the patio for a smoke.
The gallery was crowded with staff, students and guests by the time the cousins arrived late in the afternoon. The sound of Elton John floated above the ruckus of conversation. The art here was not for sale, but showings like this were good networking opportunities. Curators and buyers often came to scout new talent.
Andrew spotted Kevin standing in front of some mixed media piece dripping thread and beads in a way Andrew guessed was meant to mimic water. His expression was equal parts furious and exasperated, and Andrew could imagine him saying something like, “What the hell, this shit looks like silly string. Are these beads from Dollarama? God.”
Nicky went over to Kevin immediately. “Kevin!” he said. “My good man, it’s great to see you! Have you tried the hors d’oeuvres? Ooh, I just love this piece. The plastic beads capture the light in such a unique way.”
Kevin opened his mouth to explain, in excrutiating detail, exactly how wrong Nicky was. Nicky cut him off.
“Anyway, who’s your friend?”
“Neil Josten,” said Kevin, disgruntled. “We went to high school together.”
This was interesting information for a variety of reasons. First of all, Kevin never talked about his time in high school. Andrew had never actually asked what had happened, but he knew a victim when he saw one. Secondly, if Neil had known Kevin in high school and was hanging out with him now, that meant they were friends – or something like it. Kevin was a huge pain in the ass, so Neil was either a saint (unlikely, going by his wary expression) or the same type of pain in the ass as Kevin.
“So nice to meet you, Neil,” said Nicky, in that slimy, I’m-trying-to-get-in-your-pants way of his. He put his hand out for Neil to shake, which he did, only to let go as quickly as possible and surreptitiously wipe his hand on his jeans. “I’m Nicky. These sourpusses are my cousins, Andrew and Aaron.”
“Don’t make it sound like we’re your posse,” said Aaron. He turned to face Neil, squinted, said, “You smell like a taxicab,” and then he wandered off to investigate the cheese plate.
“Uh,” said Neil.
“Sorry, he just woke up,” explained Nicky.
“It’s four in the afternoon,” said Kevin.
“Well, he actually woke up at ten,” said Nicky.
“That was six hours ago. That’s not ‘just waking up.’”
“Hm,” Nicky said, and shrugged.
A muscle in Kevin’s jaw jumped and his fingers flexed by his sides.
Nicky clapped his hands and smiled before Kevin could slap his eyeballs out of his head. “So, what are you studying, Neil?”
“Fine arts,” replied Neil. He looked baffled by what had just happened, which was not an unusual response to Nicky’s Nickyness, or was perhaps still reeling from the fact Aaron had told him he smelled like a cab (which was true, and judging by Neil’s rumpled appearance, it was not impossible that he lived in one). “I’m doing a concentration in painting.”
“Oh, do you have something on display?”
Neil opened his mouth, hesitated, and in that second, Kevin swooped in. “That reminds me,” he said to Andrew, “you have something here, don’t you? Where is it?”
Kevin seemed to be under the impression that Andrew had some great, hidden talent, and, moreover, that he was completely wasting it in sculpture. Andrew was aware, of course, that no one bought sculpture anymore, and that he’d probably be juggling part-time jobs for the rest of his life. But he liked the dimensionality of his chosen medium. Wymack, who was the head of the department, had once described it as the Rubik’s cube of the fine arts, and Andrew found that particularly apt. In any case, he had no interest in driving himself mad in animation like Kevin (who would surely be employed by Disney or Dreamworks post-graduation), or comparing rulers with the architecture students like Aaron.
“Here,” Andrew replied, flapping his hand about, “or there. Or somewhere. Maybe it’s invisible, and you walked right by it. That’d be avant-garde, don’t you think?”
Kevin scowled and pointed at him. “I almost forgot how insufferable you are.”
“I never forget how insufferable you are,” replied Andrew.
Neil failed miserably at turning a laugh into a cough, and said something in swift, low French to Kevin. The only French Andrew knew was “merde,” but fortunately the language of mockery was universal, and even had it not been, the way Kevin’s face pinched was telling.
Andrew’s said, “It’s rude to speak in a language not everyone understands.”
Neil turned and faced Andrew directly. His eyes were pale and very blue. He bared his teeth in a mockery of a smile, and said, “Mais c’est pas tellement polis d’être si petit que les cous se contractent pour tout le monde qui te regarde, hein?”
Andrew’s eyebrows lifted a fraction. Something that might have been interest or might have been rage rose up in him. He crushed it down. “Let’s go, Nicky.”
They found Aaron towards the back of the gallery, staring at a painting with his arms folded and lips pressed thin. When Andrew saw it, he stopped so suddenly Nicky nearly ran him over.
“Oh, Jesus,” Nicky said.
Andrew didn’t know jack shit about painting, but he could tell, in the way everyone could tell, when he saw something good. This painting was good.
It was also of Andrew. The artist had perfectly captured the strange cut of his cheekbones, the line of his jaw, the slight unevenness of his nose from a past breaking, and made them almost lovely.
Had Andrew still been on his meds, he might have laughed. He might have laughed himself sick. But he was not on his meds, and his skin itched. He felt watched. He wanted to break something.
“I think it’s nice,” said Nicky quickly, hands out like he was trying to talk Andrew down off a ledge. “You have a secret admirer!”
“More like a stalker,” said Aaron.
“Who’s the artist?” Nicky asked. His voice was frantic. Andrew could not parse what he was trying to accomplish by asking this question.
“Anonymous,” replied Aaron. There was something hard in his voice, and he was watching Andrew warily from the corner of his eye. Aaron knew, after all, that Andrew did not attract the kind of people who wrote sonnets and sent flowers. No, no, no. Andrew attracted the Drake Spears of the world.
“We’re leaving,” said Andrew. The words left his mouth cool and even, but they sounded very far away in his own ears.
“Andrew,” he heard Nicky say, “it’s not that bad! Aaron was kidding.”
“I wasn’t kidding,” Aaron replied.
Andrew hated to repeat himself, so he turned and headed out of the building. If his family didn’t follow, they could walk back to the house.
“Why didn’t you tell Andrew about your painting?” Kevin asked Neil.
Although it was nearly nine o’clock in the evening and Neil wanted nothing more than to zone out in front of the television, he put on a pot of coffee. He had an art history report due in the morning that he hadn’t even started.
“What do you mean?” Neil said. “You cut me off before I could say anything. And then he left.”
In truth, Neil had been grateful for that. When he’d seen Andrew smoking in the quad some weeks ago, he’d been taken by the fey, knifing angles of his face, and the way the autumn sun turned his hair to a bright halo. He’d snapped a photo on his phone almost without thinking. Up close and in person, however, Andrew’s flat stare had unnerved him and, uncharacteristically, Neil had balked.
Kevin clicked his tongue as if Neil were being difficult on purpose. Neil rolled his eyes. Living with Kevin was not terrible, but it wasn’t excellent either. This largely had to do with Kevin being the world’s biggest nag. Other contributing factors included his trashy taste in music and enthusiasm for kale.
The percolator burbled.
“How do you know him anyway?” Neil asked. “Andrew, I mean.”
“We were in Understanding the Renaissance together,” Kevin replied.
“Oh, how was that? I have to take it next semester.”
“I had it with Monaghan, and it sucked. Completely shallow. No nuance.”
Neil pointed at Kevin. “That’s because there’s nothing nuanced about the Renaissance. It’s all Catholicism and portraiture.”
“I don’t want to hear that from you.”
Neil pulled a face, but Kevin wasn’t wrong. Neil had made something of a name for himself – at least amongst his classmates – for his portraiture. His portfolio had been entirely portraits, something administrators did not necessarily like to see. They tended to prefer applicants who showed breadth.
But Neil had no interest in landscapes or, God forbid, animal art. He had no talent for the character designs and clever 3D renderings Kevin did for his animation courses. He disliked working digitally.
Frequently, Neil’s instructors had pushed him to expand his horizons. Neil’s horizons, as they all soon learned, were akin to a brick wall.
“Don’t you get bored?” Neil’s old roommate, Matt, had asked him once. “There’s only so many iterations of the human face.”
Neil had just shrugged. “Maybe, but there’s at least eight billion. I’ll die before I get through all of them.” The thought had and continued to please him.
Nonetheless, it was not something he found easy to explain, no matter how many times people asked. Part of it was physical: the interaction between flesh and bone; the texture of hair; light and depth and colour. Mostly, though, he wanted to find the difference between a painting of a person and a painting of a person. The introduction of humanness, animalness, livingness. The thought of it, and the ever present possibility that his work may at any moment teeter into the realm of the uncanny, dogged him.
“Want coffee?” Neil asked, pouring himself a cup.
Kevin looked like Neil had just spat in his protein shake. “Do you know what time it is? Go fuck yourself.”
“You could have just said no.”
“Yeah,” agreed Kevin. And then, “Don’t burn yourself out.”
“Go fuck yourself,” parroted Neil without heat.
The corner of Kevin’s mouth twitched, which would have been a grin on anyone else, and Neil settled in at the kitchen table to write his paper.
Andrew had been unable to sit still since the gallery showing. At times like this, he felt haunted, hunted, by Drake and all his predecessors. By the pills that had twisted him all up. He wanted to hear something break. Glass, maybe. Bone.
“I’m going out,” said Andrew, spinning the keys to the GS around his index finger.
Aaron paused his video game and turned to look at Andrew, a crease between his brows. “Where?” he asked.
Andrew simply shrugged in response, and watched the corners of Aaron’s mouth tighten.
After the events of last Easter, the space between Andrew and Aaron had shrunk, but it had become no less unnavigable.
Aaron did not regret killing Drake, Andrew knew, nor had he wasted a single second thinking Drake might not have deserved it. Drake had killed Andrew first, after all, killed him a hundred-thousand times, before the twins even knew each other existed.
(Andrew knew, also, that Aaron had nightmares. Woke up gasping, sometimes crying. That he would pad, so quietly – a skill the twins had both learned young – and open the door to Andrew’s bedroom just a sliver, and check to see that Andrew was still there. That he had not, in fact, killed Andrew instead of Drake.)
The issue was that Aaron no longer trusted Andrew to take care of himself. He saw Andrew as suddenly, wretchedly vulnerable, and that Andrew could not abide. He bucked under Aaron’s cephalopodic attention at every opportunity.
When the silence stretched from one minute to two, Aaron scoffed. “Whatever,” he said. “Don’t get arrested.”
Andrew, in that moment, considered getting arrested simply out of spite.
He took the car to campus, and parked outside the fine arts building, deliberately taking up two spots. Although it was a Sunday, Kevin would inevitably be around, working himself to death over one project or another. Andrew found it therapeutic to harass him. Kevin was so fantastically selfish Andrew could not help, sometimes, but get caught in the orbit of his self-interest. It took him out of his own head.
The painting studios were in the basement, where the sun couldn’t damage anything. Andrew disliked basements. In one of his first foster homes, his bedroom had been in the basement. A windowless concrete square with a single lamp, the light of which could not touch all the corners. Andrew had slept very little in that house.
Kevin liked the studio at the end of the hall, where they had recently replaced the old filament lights with fluorescent ones. The door was closed, but unlocked. Andrew didn’t bother knocking.
Instead of Kevin, however, he found Neil Josten.
Neil startled badly when the door opened, seizing, nonsensically, a palette knife. His eyes, wide with alarm, were very blue. He didn’t relax at all when he saw Andrew, which Andrew found pleasing. He hoped his presence never caused another person to relax.
“It’s you,” Neil said. He lowered the palette knife, but didn’t set it down. The line of his shoulders was taut as a bowstring. He looked very much like something Andrew could smash into a thousand pieces, if he were so inclined. “Kevin’s friend. Andrew.”
Andrew waved the words away. “Kevin and I,” he said, “are not friends.”
“You took Understanding the Renaissance together.” Neil seemed to think this contradicted Andrew’s statement, and he looked so earnest about it that Andrew could barely stand to look at him.
Instead, he checked over Neil’s painting: a half-completed recreation of a John Singer Sargent. Neil had not quite failed and not quite succeeded in replicating Sargent’s unique application of colour and soft, obvious brushstrokes.
When Andrew remained silent, Neil turned back to his canvas. “He talks about you like you’re friends,” he said.
“Kevin doesn’t have any friends.”
Andrew expected Neil to say he was Kevin’s friend, but he just shrugged. “Then he respects you. Though I can’t imagine why. Did your mother never teach you to knock?”
“My mother’s dead.”
Andrew wanted Neil to flush and stutter and look away the way anyone else would, but he just said, “Mine too,” with his chin up, voice cool. Andrew could imagine the line of his jaw cut in marble. “But she still taught me manners. What’s your excuse?”
Andrew tipped his head. “I don’t care.”
Neil laughed, a sharp, unamused sound. “Get out of my studio.”
“Is it yours? I don’t see your name on it.”
“Oh, my apologies. Get the hell out of my studio.”
Had he still been medicated, Andrew might have laughed. As it were, he simply stared. Neil stared back, arm folded, mouth pressed thin. Finally, Andrew stuck a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and tapped to fingers to his forehead in mocking salute. He left, lighting his cigarette as soon he was out of doors.
He did not go home straight away.
Instead, he drove, manoeuvring the GS onto the highway and pressing his foot to the gas pedal until the engine groaned. He imagined the pavement peeling up like the top of a can beneath the wheels.
“Hey,” said Nicky when Andrew returned some hours later. “You were gone for ages, so we ordered pizza. There’s leftovers in the fridge if you want.”
Andrew tipped his head in acknowledgement. As promised, there were half a dozen slices of a pineapple-jalapeno on the top shelf, a combination everyone but Nicky and the twins seemed to find revolting.
“We should take him to Eden’s,” said Nicky, delighted by the prospect. Andrew highly doubted Neil would agree, but he didn’t dislike the idea of seeing Neil in something other than faded t-shirts and ill-fitting jeans.
Nicky clapped his hands. “Kevin can come too. We’ll see if we can un-wedge the stick up his ass a half-inch, hm?”
Andrew ignored him and headed straight to his room. Nicky, used to this sort of treatment, just laughed.
After that, Andrew could not stop seeing Neil Josten. He was everywhere. In the coffee shop where Andrew bought his caramel lattes (decaf, because he slept very little as it was), and staring quite stupidly at his art history textbooks in the library, and dashing across the quad with those big-ass bags the painterly types always seemed to carry. He was rarely with other people, but when he was there was a group of them, all yelling and laughing, with Neil watching them fondly on the periphery.
Sometimes Neil would see him back, and return Andrew’s two-fingered salute. Each time it turned something over inside Andrew, something too bright and ugly to look at. It made Andrew want to drive so fast the whole world turned to blur.
Briefly, Andrew considered trying to avoid Neil, if only so he wouldn’t have to look at his blue, blue eyes or his finely cut jawline, and in the end decided against it. He was not the sort to run away from his problems, most of all when they stood before him, ready to be dealt with.
It took him a week to corner Neil, in the same studio he’d found him in the first time. This time, however, Neil did not point a palette knife at him. Andrew was a little disappointed.
“Still no manners, I see,” said Neil dryly. Andrew supposed he had finished the Singer Sargent recreation, because he was working on something else now. Andrew recognized Allison Reynolds’s face, even in its rough stages. No one else on campus – perhaps in South Carolina, America, the world – had such a divinely crafted visage. Full mouth, razor sharp cheekbones.
Andrew had not an ounce of heterosexuality in him, but he could still see the appeal. He wondered how Neil knew Allison, who was in the theatre department.
“Recycling topics of conversation?” Andrew replied with even greater flatness. “How very Kevin-like of you.”
Neil barked that sharp, unhappy laugh of his. Andrew disliked to hear it.
“Bothering me when I don’t want to be bothered?” He sneered. “How very Kevin-like of you.”
Even more than that tragic laugh, Andrew decided he disliked to hear Neil throw his own words back at him. He rapped his knuckles sharply against the doorframe.
“We’re going out this Friday,” he said. “You’re coming. Kevin, too.”
“I’d rather not,” said Neil.
“Noted and discarded,” Andrew told him. “Maybe don’t dress like you get your meals from a soup kitchen.”
Neil looked down at himself. Andrew left before he could say anything else.
As promised, Andrew showed up at Neil and Kevin’s apartment on Friday evening. Or rather, Andrew showed up and waited in the car smoking while he sent Nicky up to get them.
“Neil, so good to see you again,” Nicky said. He passed a bag through the threshold. “These are for you.”
“Uh,” said Neil.
Nicky laughed. He had the kind of laugh that invited others to join in. Neil did not join in. “Relax, they’re just clothes. Andrew won’t let you into the car wearing that. Not that it doesn’t work for you. But, where we’re going, the holes in your jeans have to be there on purpose, you know?”
“Uh,” said Neil again.
“Just put them on,” Kevin said, emerging from the kitchen. He squinted at Nicky.
Nicky squinted back. “Have you been pre-gaming?”
“Obviously,” Kevin said imperiously. “You think I’m going to deal with you assholes sober? No thanks. Neil, get dressed.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my clothes,” Neil said. This was true. Kevin had forced him to buy new jeans just the other week.
“Oh, honey,” said Nicky.
“Neil,” said Kevin, desperately.
Neil scowled, took the bag from Nicky and went to his bedroom to change. He was used to working to blend in. Any undue attention from his teachers, his classmates, anyone, would inevitably reach his father’s ears, and it was his father’s attention he wanted to avoid most of all.
He stepped into the jeans Nicky had brought. They were tighter than he preferred, and he needed to work a little to get them over his thighs, but they fit well around his hips. Similarly, the shirt clung to his chest and arms. He cursed whichever one of the cousins had guessed his size so accurately. Nonetheless, he was covered from wrist to ankle, and did not feel overly exposed.
Nicky beamed when Neil emerged. “Oh, that's so much better! You clean up nice, Neil. Really, you do. Shall we go?”
Andrew and Aaron were waiting for them, the GS idling by the curb. Andrew’s limp wrist dangled out the driver’s side window, a cigarette between two fingers. He hardly acknowledged Neil and Kevin, just looked at them out of the corner of his eye.
“You have paint on your chin,” he said flatly.
Neil put his hand to his face.
“He’s fucking with you,” Aaron told him, opening his door and shoving over to the other side. “Get in.”
Neil ended up squished between Kevin’s sprawling limbs and Aaron’s surprisingly broad shoulders. Andrew turned on some truly awful music that Nicky seemed to know all the words to.
It was twenty minutes from Kevin and Neil’s apartment in suburban Colombia to the club downtown. Andrew pulled the GS up to the curb and flicked his fingers at Nicky. Nicky got out, exchanged a long and complicated handshake with the bouncer, and received a tag, which Andrew hung on the rear view mirror.
Andrew parked the car and they all skipped the line. Once again there was an exchanging of improbable handshakes. The bouncer eyed Neil curiously, and Kevin less so. Neil knew Kevin and Andrew had hung out a little, but the club really didn't seem like Kevin's scene; Kevin preferred to drink alone.
The club was dark and noisy. Neil huddled against Kevin’s back to avoid being jostled, as Andrew parted the crowd ahead of him with his shoulders and elbows. Aaron darted ahead to find them a table, and the rest lined up at the bar.
“What are you having?” the bartender asked Neil.
“Just soda,” Neil said.
Andrew cut him a look. “Too good to drink with us?”
“No,” Neil replied, but he made sure to say it like he meant yes. “I just don’t drink.”
“Opposed to having fun?”
“Yes,” said Neil.
The bartender laughed, and slid two shots across the counter. Kevin knocked them back immediately.
Roland set up a tray with more shots, a scotch on the rocks, and an unopened can of soda. Andrew took it and levelled it with his shoulder expertly. With his free hand he shoved people aside.
Aaron had scoped a table near the dancefloor. Perched on the stool and glowering at anyone who looked like they might come over and ask to borrow a chair, he made an intimidating gargoyle. At least until you looked down and realized his feet did not reach the rung, and dangled childishly. Imagining Andrew’s legs doing the same thing caused a brief coughing fit as Neil tried to swallow his laugh.
“Good fucking grief,” Aaron said. “You’re a disaster.” Like Kevin, he drank two shots in quick succession before going to dance.
“Amateurs,” Nicky whispered in Neil’s ear in a conspiratorial dance. His hand slid from its place on Neil’s shoulder until his fingertips brushed the waistband of his jeans. “They need booze to dance. Not us. Right Neil?”
Neil stepped away from Nicky. Andrew was watching them hawkishly.
“I don’t dance,” Neil said.
Nicky pouted, but touched the tips of his thumbs together to form a W. “Whatever, Debby Downer,” he said. He stuck his hand out, managed to fit into someone’s back pocket, and was immediately pulled into the fray. Neil was almost impressed. He took the seat next to Andrew, so his back was to the wall and not the crowd.
“Kevin, shoo,” said Andrew. He pointed towards the dancefloor, as if Kevin were a disobedient dog.
“What?” Kevin said. “No. Why?”
Kevin had a little army of shot glass soldiers in the circle of his arms. Kevin deserved a break more than anyone Neil knew, but Neil thought there had to be more enjoyable ways to unwind.
“I want to get to know Neil a little better.” He said get to know like he had meant to say eviscerate, and had swapped it out at the last second.
Kevin looked suspiciously between Neil and Andrew. Andrew stared at him implacably until Kevin finally scowled, drank another shot, and lurched onto the dancefloor. Like Nicky, he was pulled in by a thousand hands instantaneously.
Neil popped the tab on his soda. Andrew sipped his scotch.
Neil had only ever lost fights before, so he did not know what it was like to be in a stalemate, but he thought this had to be close.
“I want to play a game,” Andrew said. “It’s easy, so even an idiot like you can do it.”
Neil frowned. “You know, you shouldn’t insult the people you want to do things for you.”
“Most people,” Andrew told him, “know to just do what I say.”
Neil pursed his lips. When he had painted Andrew for the student compilation gallery, he had imagined someone remote and wistful. Or perhaps someone intensely, urgently present, alive with creative impulse. The real Andrew was neither.
“Fine,” Neil said. “How do we play?”
“You tell me a truth,” Andrew said, “and then I tell you one. We’ll take turns.”
“That’s it.” Andrew took another sip of his drink. His eyes were narrowed over the rim of his glass. “How do you know Kevin?” he asked.
“We went to high school together,” Neil said.
“Wrong. Tell me something I don’t know.”
Neil pressed his lips together. He disliked thinking about his time in high school even more than Kevin himself did. “Our fathers are business partners.”
“Kevin’s family is adoptive,” said Andrew. “He’s estranged from them. How did you end up here, with him, then?”
“We have similar situations." Neil's mouth twisted into a smile that was not a smile. "My family won’t speak to me either.”
Andrew nodded, but didn’t press. It wasn’t his turn anymore.
Neil asked, “Why did Aaron kill your foster brother?”
“Drake,” said Andrew, and then paused. His body was very still. Neil doubted Andrew was seeing him. Neil doubted Andrew was seeing anything in this room.
After a moment, a muscle in Andrew’s jaw jumped. He began again, “Drake raped me. Had been raping me. Before Aaron and I even knew about each other. The rest you can read in the paper.”
Now, Andrew watched Neil’s face closely. In the moving shadows of the club, his eyes looked black. Neil thought he must be looking for pity or disgust. But all Neil felt was rage, a hungry cavern in his belly. He felt restless and toothsome. He wondered, briefly, if this was how his father felt all the time.
“How’d your mother die?” Andrew asked. Neil supposed he was satisfied with whatever he had seen in Neil’s expression.
“Car accident. There was fire. By the time help arrived there was hardly anything of her left.” Neil’s soda was beginning to go warm between his palms. “Why did you invite me here?”
More than with Drake, Andrew seemed to mull his answer over. “There is a possibility,” he said at length, “that you might be interesting.”
Neil bared his teeth. His smile was real this time, but it was not any more pleasant. He felt strangely vindicated. “I’ve never been called boring before.”
“No,” agreed Andrew. Neil wanted to paint him again, this time in all these dark colours. “Perhaps you haven’t.”
Eventually, Andrew rounded up Aaron, Nicky and Kevin, each drunker than the last. He drove Neil and Kevin home. Neil needed Andrew’s help to get Kevin up to their apartment, as their elevator was out of service.
“This asshole,” Neil griped. “Who gave him the right to be so fucking tall? Christ. You hear me Kevin? Your fat ass is going to give me back problems.”
Andrew took Kevin’s weight while Neil wrestled his keys out of his pocket. Andrew couldn’t stop thinking of the fury on Neil’s face after hearing about Drake.
“Christ,” Neil said again. “There we go. We’ll just dump him on the couch.”
They did. Kevin groaned. Neil disappeared into another room and came back dragging a comforter behind him. He tossed it over Kevin’s sprawled body.
“Thanks for the help. I’ll walk you out.”
Andrew lifted a brow. “Do I strike you as some fair maiden, Josten? Go take a shower. You smell like club.”
Neil scowled. “Whose fault is that?”
Andrew stepped over the threshold. It was better like that, with a clear delineation. Neil’s space; his space.
“I saw your sculpture, by the way,” Neil said. His fingers drummed against the doorframe. “At the student gallery. You’re amazing.” His gaze slid sideways. “That’s all I wanted to say. Good night.”
He closed the door. Andrew sped all the way back to the house, taking the turns so sharply his family begged for mercy.
It was shockingly easy to spend time with Neil after that. Neil seemed to have preternatural sense for when to talk and when to remain silent. His only transgression was that he stole Andrew’s cigarettes and didn’t even smoke them. But the way the smoke blurred and softened all his sharp edges, filled Andrew with something that felt akin to forgiveness.
“I want to paint you,” Neil said suddenly.
Andrew paused in lighting his cigarette. “What.”
They were sitting on the roof of the sculpture and ceramics building, legs dangling over the edge. Neil, fool creature, had come out in only a t-shirt. He hunched against the late autumn wind.
“Your portrait, I mean.” Neil’s knee bounced an uneven rhythm. “I’m doing a gallery showing at the end of the semester. I need two dozen portraits. At least. I want yours to be one of them. Or more than one of them. If that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be. You can say no.”
“I know I can,” Andrew replied immediately. And then, “Paint Kevin. Or Aaron. Ha.”
Neil did not seem to find this very funny. “They’re not you,” he said. “I want to paint you.”
There it was again, that bright, ugly thing Andrew hated to see. His brain felt like tires skidding uselessly in the mud.
“Do whatever you want,” he said.
Neil put his head down, tipped it away. Perhaps he knew Andrew didn’t want to see the delight and relief on his face. Certainly he had thought Andrew would say no. Andrew could have said no.
“I’m going to kiss you,” Andrew decided. “But only if you want me to.”
Neil looked up at him. Andrew could imagine thumbing the shape of his nose out of clay.
"I want you to," Neil said.
So Andrew kissed him. Somewhere, a match was struck.
“What are you doing?” Andrew asked, more of an accusation than a question.
Neil looked down to where he was sitting on his own hands. “Oh,” he said, “I just thought you wouldn’t like it. If I touched you without asking first.”
“I hate you,” Andrew said.
Neil’s mouth turned up at one corner. “Do you, though?”
“With every fibre of my being.”
Now Neil was really smiling. “That’s not a lot of fibres.”
So Andrew kissed him again, and this time he took one of Neil’s wrists and guided his hand to the side of Andrew’s neck. Neil’s palm was rough and dry and warm where it pressed against Andrew’s pulse. Andrew wanted to rip his own heart out, just to keep it from beating the way it was, so treacherously fast.
“Again?” Neil asked, when Andrew pulled away. He sounded like he’d been gutted, like Andrew had cracked him open and spilled him out. It made Andrew want to push him over the edge, but Neil had his fingers tucked into the collar of Andrew’s shirt; they’d both go over. “Please?”
“No,” said Andrew, and Neil recoiled like he’d been electrocuted. Andrew felt something essential within himself groan and give under the weight of it. “I hate that word. Almost as much as I hate you. Now go away.”
Neil stared at him for a moment. He didn’t look hurt. He just looked – Andrew did not know how Neil Josten looked.
“Okay,” Neil said finally. “Thanks for the cigarette.” And then he left.
Andrew thought of Neil’s blue, blue eyes, his thin, finely shaped mouth, and put two fingers to his pulse. This, he knew, was how people ruined each other. Andrew had smashed himself to pieces against the fantasy of a life with Cass, and he was not the kind of man to make the same mistake twice.
“This,” he said aloud, “will not end well.”
The wind, chill and scentless, whipped the words away. Andrew stepped away from the ledge and went back inside.
Aaron caught Neil on his way out of the Powell Building the following day.
At first Neil thought it was Andrew, and smiled, until he saw the fierce scowl, the kind Andrew didn’t care enough to wear. He stomped towards Neil, shouldering people rudely out of his way as he went. Aaron was more slender than Andrew, but was still frighteningly strong, and he pinned Neil easily to the wall with one hand fisted in Neil’s collar. Neil could feel the fine tremor in his arm.
“What are you doing with my brother?” Aaron snarled, but didn’t give Neil any time to reply.“You get off on that? Preying on people who are all fucked up and recovering from shit—”
Neil lashed out, felt the crack of Aaron’s nose under his fist. It wasn’t as satisfying as he’d thought it would be.
"You don't anything about me," he said. "You don't know shit."
Aaron still hadn't let him go. Blood dripped from both nostrils and filled the line of his mouth. In that moment, he looked unbearably like Andrew. He said, “I killed the last person who hurt Andrew. And I’ll kill you too.”
Neil pulled at Aaron’s thumb until he was forced to release his hold on Neil’s shirt or risk a broken bone. “I hear you,” he said. “Now get the hell out of my face.”
Aaron stepped off, spat at Neil’s feet, and left, pinching the bridge of his nose. A few people tried to approach him to help, but he snarled at them. Neil watched him go.
Some hours later, Neil found Andrew on the roof of the sculpture and ceramics building, legs dangling over the edge, body tipped precariously forward. He held out cigarette, already lit, without looking away from the ground when Neil took the place next to him. Neil accepted it without letting his fingers brush Andrew’s.
“Did,” said Andrew after a long minute, “you hit my brother?”
“He was talking shit,” Neil said.
“That’s not an answer.”
“Then yes, I hit him.”
“Don’t do it again.”
“That depends on him, not me.”
Finally, Andrew looked at him. Despite the strain of the conversation, Neil delighted in it. It was a foreign feeling, to want to be seen by another. How often had he tried to make himself invisible, hide himself from his father’s eyes, his mother’s overprotective scrutiny?
Neil shifted closer until their thighs were flush, knee to hip. “Yes or no?”
“Your attempts at distraction are desperate and pathetic,” Andrew said.
He kissed Neil anyway, and it was good.
Andrew had never been painted before, and he found it to be a pain in the ass, quite literally. Neil had him sitting on an uncomfortable wooden stool, a studio light directed right into his face.
“Can’t you take a picture?” he said. An ache that had been developing for the past hour radiated from his lower back. “This is boring.”
“I’d rather not,” Neil told him, but didn’t explain as to why.
“Entertain me, then.”
Neil’s nose wrinkled with irritation. Andrew wanted to slap the look off his face.
“How? I’m working.”
“Tell me a story.”
“I’m not a good storyteller.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible, considering you never know when to keep your mouth shut.”
Neil scowled at him over the top of his canvas. “Do you want me to tell you a story or not? Jesus.”
Andrew mimed zipping his lips closed. This made Neil scowl even harder. Andrew felt vindicated.
“Fine, God,” said Neil. “But you better hold fucking still.”
Andrew was good at stillness, when he wanted to be. Still things were more easily passed over. Nobody chased a thing that didn’t run.
Neil took a moment to gather his thoughts. “My mom’s name was Mary,” he began. “She was born in a town called, uh, Marley. Marlowe. Something like that. It’s just outside of London. I don’t know how she met my father, or why she married him. I used to think I came first. That it was, you know, a shotgun wedding. But it wasn’t. All the photos are dated four or five years before I was born.
“I don’t think she loved my dad anymore by the time I was born, if she ever did. She didn’t like me being around him. He didn’t like me being around her, even though he wasn’t even home that often. He always in New York and places on business. I don’t know. I guess they wanted different things from me.
“Anyway, my mom. She liked to paint. She’d gone to art school in England. She was the one who bought my first set of acrylics, and then oils. She taught me the colour wheel. She liked Van Gogh, even though he was a racist. I just thought it was cool he’d cut off his own ear, even though that’s not cool at all.
“Once we went on vacation, and spent ten days in Paris. She took me to the Louvre every day, and we’d spend that day in just one room.” Here Neil paused to apply more paint to his palette. Yellow ochre, terracotta. Andrew didn’t think he deserved such warm tones.
Neil continued, “I actually don’t give much of a shit about the Mona Lisa; it’s not the most interesting thing he’s done. But they have a Caravaggio there, The Fortune Teller, the second version. I thought the boy in that painting looked like a real person. I thought he might turn and talk to me any second. I wanted to make art like that.
“When I told my mom, she was happy, and then she was angry, and then she was sad. My father wouldn’t pay for art school, she knew. When I was in my senior year, she helped me apply for loans in secret. She helped me put my portfolio together.
“And then she died. That’s it.”
Andrew felt almost as if he were waking from a long sleep, the kind he could not get in reality. He shifted on the stool. His ass really was sore now, where his pelvis had sat against the wood.
“That,” he told Neil, “was a shit story.”
“Yeah, it was,” Neil said, and laughed. It was a hollow laugh, mean and amused, with all the meanness and amusement directed inward.
“So, what?” Andrew asked him. “This gallery showing is for her?” His lip curled. “Her memory?”
Finally, Neil looked up from his canvas. In this hard overhead lighting, his eyes looked colourless, his face sharp and hollow and strange. He looked very much like a boy who had visited the Louvre ten days in a row.
Bewildered, Neil said, “No, it’s for me.”
Andrew was relieved. He did not want to examine why he was relieved, so he crushed the feeling down, until he was quiet and empty again inside. He spent the rest of the session in silence, imagining Neil’s face cut from ice, from a wood so fine and pale it looked fake.
Andrew returned to the house to find Aaron sitting at the kitchen table, notebooks spread out around him. He looked up at the sound of the door closing.
“Have fun?” Aaron asked, his expression curiously unreadable. He stood, took a glass from the cabinet and poured a cup of water.
“Oh, lots,” replied Andrew, his voice as dead flat as he could make it. “Just a smashing good time all around.”
Aaron didn’t flinch at all. Like Nicky, he was too used to Andrew. “With that guy,” he said. “Josten.”
And here, Andrew paused. In general, Aaron’s thought processes were exceedingly simple, but Andrew found he could not parse what was on his twin’s mind. It unsettled him. Or perhaps unsettled was too strong a word.
“Obliqueness is not a good look for you,” Andrew said.
“Nor you,” said Aaron. “Are you dating him?”
Andrew made a sound that might have been a laugh but was closer to a snarl. Dating! As if Andrew were capable of such a normal, unbarbed thing.
“We are not dating.”
“So you just spend all your time with him. Look at him like fucking that.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Neither do you! You don’t even know him!” Aaron shouted, and Andrew found himself surprised.
His memory was perfect, and perhaps that was why he could not see Aaron as more than the boy that had let his mother beat him and beat him and beat him, because he thought he deserved it. But Aaron was also the man that had killed his brother’s rapist without a second’s hesitation.
How deeply he disliked to be surprised.
“It’s not your business,” Andrew told him coldly.
Aaron set his glass down so hard water sloshed over the edge. “Yes, it is! He could be just like Drake! He could—”
Andrew stuck his hand in Aaron’s face. “What, rape me?”
And all at once, all the anger went out of Aaron like air from a popped balloon. He shut his mouth hard enough for his teeth to clack. “Yes,” he said, sounding defeated. “How do you know he’s not like that?”
“I don’t,” Andrew replied, although he thought maybe he did. In his mind, he could see and feel Neil’s hand on his collar, just until Andrew said no. How that was all it took. He turned this image over and over, like a talisman. “But do not think I will ever let myself be taken advantage of like that again. Look me. Aaron, I said, look at me.”
Aaron did. His face was familiar, alien. It was like looking in a mirror Andrew both did and did not want to break.
“Never again,” Andrew said. “Do you understand?”
“No,” Aaron replied. “But I believe you.”
It was not a distinction anyone else would have made. Andrew took it for what it was.
Andrew liked that Neil seemed more comfortable in Eden’s Twilight. He knew why he liked it, but refused to say it, refused to even think about it. It made him feel exposed, cracked open.
“Here,” said Andrew, and slid a few bills to Neil. “Go get another round. Roland knows what we like.”
Neil rolled his eyes. “I’m not your damn henchman,” he said, but took the money anyway and began shoulder his way towards the bar.
Kevin edged his way out of the crush of bodies on the dance floor. “Where’s Neil?” he asked.
“Getting more drinks.” There was a smudge of lipstick on the corner of his mouth. Andrew was a little disgusted to see it.
“Oh, thank God. It’s hot as hell in here.”
Andrew wondered if Kevin knew that he should drink water, not booze, if he wanted to hydrate. Perhaps it was a non sequitur, although Kevin didn’t really have the sense of humour for that sort of thing.
“It’s just. It comes full circle, you know? Isn’t it crazy how it comes full circle?” Kevin delivered this line sullenly, with the earnestness of the inebriated. He slouched against the table, and then tipped his head back like he was looking for someone in the crowd. Maybe Neil, returned with drinks.
“You’re chatty today,” Andrew said.
“Mm,” Kevin replied. And then, again, “Isn’t it crazy?”
“I doubt it,” said Andrew dryly. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Kevin looked startled, in a way he never did when he was sober. Kevin hated surprises. “I mean you and Neil.”
Now Andrew’s interest was piqued. He lifted an eyebrow, a signal for Kevin to continue.
Kevin sat down properly and put his hands flat on the table, as if he were about to impart great news. “He was so scared when he saw you at the student gallery,” he explained. “Because he painted the big fucking portrait of you. I told him not to, you know. I told him to do another Singer Sargent recreation. Or Caravaggio. He fucking loves Caravaggio.”
Kevin carried on, talking about how annoying and furtive Neil had been as he worked on his secret portrait. Andrew had already stopped listening. All he could think about was the portrait of him. The surge of rage and fear he had felt when he’d seen it.
Watched, he’d thought then.
Andrew realized he had already known. His memory was perfect. He thought of all the hours he had wasted watching Neil paint. The way he applied paint in such thick layers, to show texture and depth even as he suffused everything with light.
Why hadn’t he confronted Neil about it?
No. He knew why. He just hadn’t wanted to look at it, for the same reason he sometimes could not bring himself to look at Aaron. It was disgustingly uncharacteristic of him to turn away from something so obvious. It was like Neil had been unmaking him. He wanted to tear out of his own skin.
Neil returned with a tray of drinks. He set it down with much less ease than Nicky or the twins. Some of the drinks spilled a little.
“Shit, sorry,” said Neil.
Kevin knocked back two shots and disappeared back onto the dance floor.
“In October,” said Andrew, which was when the student gallery showing had been.
“What about it?” Neil asked.
Andrew eyed the tendon in his neck. He imagined a creature made of wire, cable, held together only by its own tension. “I was just thinking. I saw such a pretty picture there. It looked just like one of yours.”
“Passive-aggressivity doesn’t suit you.”
Aaron had said nearly the same thing. Andrew might have laughed, if he could have. His guts had all been rearranged. His heart felt like it was somewhere in his throat; he could feel it beating. His pulse was a drumbeat in his ears.
“Lying, unfortunately, seems to suit you.”
Now Neil’s head dropped. “I didn’t lie.” He said it like someone tied to the tracks said the train would not come.
Andrew’s lip curled. “It’s a lie by omission.”
“Andrew, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
Andrew stuck his hand in Neil’s face, and then immediately withdrew it when he saw it was trembling. “If you think your good intentions are worth anything, you are sorely mistaken.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t want,” said Andrew, “you to say anything. I want you to get out of my sight.”
Neil opened his mouth, closed it. For once he was at loss for words. Andrew found he could not relish it.
“Okay,” he said, finally. “Okay. But I am sorry. I just didn’t want to lose you.”
It was the worst possible thing he could have said. He slithered off his stool and disappeared into the crush of bodies as he headed towards the door.
“Andrew,” said Nicky, “where’s Neil?”
Andrew was not sure how much time had passed, but all the ice in his drink had melted. “I told him to leave.”
“To leave? How’s he going to get home?”
Andrew shrugged, and tossed the rest of his drink back. It was watery and gross.
Nicky looked horrified. “Andrew, his apartment’s over an hour’s walk from here.”
“Maybe he took a cab. Ha.”
Nicky, predictably, did not see the humour of this comment. He tugged at his own clothes the way he wanted to tug at Andrew’s, to shake some sense into him, but didn’t dare. “Jesus fucking Christ, Andrew,” he said at last. He sounded disappointed, resigned. “I thought you liked him.”
Andrew set his empty glass down and stared at it. After a long moment, he pushed it off the table. It exploded on the floor into a thousand crystal shards, each sharp enough to cut. It did not make Andrew feel any better.
But then again, he hadn’t expected it to.
Neil threw himself into preparing for his gallery showing. The intensity with which he wanted to succeed, at least in this, was therapeutic. He hardly slept as he put the finishing touches on his portraits of Matt, Allison and Kevin. He hadn’t touched his portraits of Andrew since their fight at Eden’s.
He didn’t want to show them anymore. It felt wrong, like the permission Andrew had given him had been rescinded. But Neil’s instructors had been adamant.
“You can’t have a gallery showing with only a dozen paintings,” they told him with thinning patience. “This is a big opportunity. I called some curator friends from Florida for you. Don’t waste this chance.”
What they really meant was for Neil not to embarrass them in front of their curator friends from Florida. Neil, for once, allowed this to go unchallenged. He had his portraits of Andrew framed and transported to the campus gallery too.
He arranged his portraits carefully. Originally he had thought he might like to have all his Andrews in one place. Now he didn’t. He put an Andrew between a Kevin and Nicky, because that seemed correct, and then interspersed the rest. It felt like hiding, which was a familiar sensation if nothing else.
Neil’s portraits would be up for two weeks, but on the first night there was a little party which he was forced to attend. Personally, he thought it would be more artistic not to go. Something about identity. Surrounded by portraits, the artist is invisible. Andrew would have understood.
Unfortunately, such was not an option, so he met all his instructors’ curator friends from Florida and North Carolina and even one woman with huge glasses from DC. His old roommate Matt came, and he brought his friends, most of whom Neil had already met, and who were featured in the gallery.
“This is sick, man,” said Matt. “Congrats.”
“Thanks,” replied Neil. He received smiles and pats on the back from everyone but Seth, who just flipped him the bird, although with less vitriol than usual, and went to harass a caterer into bringing him something stronger than champagne.
The party had begun at eight, and around nine Nicky showed up.
“Neil,” he said. His hands fluttered all over the place. “This is amazing!”
“Thank you,” Neil said. “Is Andrew…?”
Nicky’s expression turned immediately guilty. “Oh, no. Sorry. He’s in a mood. Been in a mood. He’s insufferable. Ha-ha.”
“Oh,” said Neil.
“Listen,” Nicky said. He put one hand on Neil’s shoulder. “I’m really sorry about the other night, at Eden’s. That was totally shitty of Andrew, even if you guys had a fight or whatever.”
Neil did not want to talk about this. “We didn't fight. It’s fine.”
“No, it’s not. Like, I don’t know what’s going on between you two—”
“Nothing,” said Neil. Nicky ignored him.
“But it’s not cool for him to treat you badly. You don’t deserve it.”
In fact, Neil did deserve it. Andrew had trusted him not to keep secrets, and Neil had broken that trust. He didn’t think Nicky would get it.
“Anyway,” Nicky continued, “this is all great. Seriously. I’m not just saying it because I’m a nice person. I have to go now. The twins don’t know I’m here. I told them I was going to get takeout.”
“Oh,” Neil said again.
“Try and talk to Andrew, okay? He’s difficult, I know, but he’s not—He does like you. I promise.”
Nicky pulled Neil into a hug. It was shocking. Neil could not remember the last time someone had hugged him. Mary had, maybe, when he was younger. Nathan had only touched him to pin him down, twist his arm, yank on his hair.
“I’m not letting go until you hug me back,” Nicky whispered.
So Neil did. Nicky patted him twice between the shoulder blades, before leaving the gallery, waving until he rounded the corner and was gone from sight.
Neil held himself together until ten o’clock, when finally everyone started to leave. His instructors clapped him on the shoulder and told him they were proud, with varying degrees of sincerity. The caterers began clearing the buffet table.
“Thank you for coming,” Neil said, over and over. “Thank you for coming.”
It was at this time that Nathan Wesninski arrived.
Nathan was not a large man, but he carried himself like he was. “Junior,” he said, and the word was a nail in Neil’s coffin. “It’s great to see you.” He grabbed Neil’s shoulder with a hand like a bear trap and pulled him into a hug. “You,” he whispered into Neil’s ear, “are going to be fucking sorry you ran.”
Neil remembered the whip-crack sting of his mother’s palm across his cheek, and how she had hugged him immediately afterward.
“Don’t make your father angry,” she had told him, kissing the tears from his face in apology. “Please, Abram, don’t make your father angry.”
Distance had dulled the fear Neil had felt then, and had felt every day until he’d moved away from Baltimore, but it returned now. It rose in him like a tumour, cancerous, ripe to bursting. He felt sick with.
Nathaniel closed his eyes.
He was already sorry.
“Darling,” Lola said when his father released him, and drew Nathaniel into an embrace as well. Her mouth was painted red as a warning. Her skin was cool and powdery with makeup, and she smelled strongly of rose perfume. Nathaniel’s skin crawled.
Lola had been Nathan’s administrative assistant for years. The two of them had been married just eight months after Mary’s death. Nathaniel had not been invited to the wedding.
“Are all these lovely pictures yours?” asked Lola.
“Yes,” Nathaniel replied. His voice sounded distant in his own ears.
“I see there’s a recurring theme,” she said. She linked her arm through Nathaniel’s, digging her fingers into his upper arm, and leaned in to look one of the paintings of Andrew. Nathaniel wished she wouldn’t. He didn’t want Lola or his father to see Andrew at all. “What a handsome boy. Is he a friend of yours?”
When she said friend, she did not mean friend.
“No,” Nathaniel told her flatly. “Just someone I know.”
“You do have talent,” Nathan said. It was not a compliment. “But is there a market for this kind of thing? How are you going to make money? Pay off those student loans your mother helped you get?” He turned to face Nathaniel, looking delighted to ask these questions.
The worst was that Nathaniel did not have any answers, and Nathan knew it. His smile widened.
“Come back to Baltimore,” he said. “Finish school in Maryland. We do miss you.”
Liar, Nathaniel thought, and then remembered that he was a liar too. Every inch his father’s son.
And then he thought about Andrew, who had told him to get out of his sight, who surely would not want to see him, even from a distance. Even from the corner of his eye.
Nathaniel weighed the pros and cons. There was no love in Nathan’s house. There wasn’t even loyalty, or duty. Nathan asking Nathaniel back was a matter of control and a matter of pride. If Nathaniel went back, it would be Nathan saying, Look. Look how I have leashed my wily runaway son. If he stayed, on the other hand, there would be no escaping the ghost of Andrew’s hands, of Andrew’s mouth on Nathaniel’s mouth.
Nathaniel was used to fearing his father. He was used to being hit. He was not used to having an almost.
He said, “I’ll see about transferring to MICA next semester.”
For a brief moment, Nathan’s true smile showed through. It was thin and sharp and cruel as a blade. Lola shrieked with delight.
“We’ll email you a ticket,” Nathan said. “You’ll come home for Christmas. Settle in.” It was an order.
And then he and Lola left, because they had not come to see Nathaniel’s art at all.
Kevin and Neil lived in a low-rise apartment building with a crumbling brick façade and a fire-escape that looked ten time more hazardous than any fire could ever hope to be. Their apartment was on the top floor, the fifth. Andrew took the stairs there, too impatient and restless to wait for the piece of shit elevator. It had been weeks since he and Neil had fought at Eden's Twilight.
He tried the door to the apartment, and, because Kevin was a fool and Neil even more so, found it unlocked. He let himself in.
Kevin was sitting on the sofa with his tablet in his lap, going through storyboards. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw Andrew.
“Jesus fuck!” he said. “Did anyone ever teach you to knock?”
Andrew was reminded of the first time he had spoken to Neil in that studio, as Neil slaved over his Singer Sargent recreation, when really his own style was so much better.
“Where is Neil?”
“What do you mean?” Kevin said. “Neil’s in Baltimore.”
Kevin’s brows arched. The circles beneath his eyes were darker than usual. “He’s transferring to MICA next semester. I thought you knew.”
“If I knew,” Andrew said, “then I wouldn’t have asked. Why has he gone to Baltimore?”
“His father,” Kevin said, and then hesitated.
“What about his father?” As far as Andrew knew, Neil was estranged from his surviving family. After their game in Eden’s Twilight, Neil had not mentioned them again.
“It’s really not my place.”
Andrew’s hand shot out and he seized Kevin’s face in a bruising grip, forcing his mouth to purse. Kevin made a pained sound.
“Consider this me making it your place,” Andrew said voice so low and cold he hardly sounded like himself. “Tell me now.” He loosened his grip just enough for Kevin to speak.
“It’s a long story.”
“Make it short.”
“Let me go, first.” After a moment, Andrew did. Kevin rubbed at the reddening fingerprints Andrew had left on his jaw. “Neil and I went to high school together, in Virginia. My adoptive father and Nathan – that’s Neil’s dad – they’re business partners. I’ve only met him, like, three times, but Nathan is not…not a good person. Neil never confirmed it aloud, but I’m pretty sure Nathan hits him.”
Andrew couldn’t stop seeing the way Neil flinched when any man got too close, moved too suddenly. Andrew had been the same, just until juvie, where flinching every time someone moved was good as asking to be struck. His knuckles ached with how tightly his fists were clenched.
“Nathan wanted Neil to go to business school at his alma mater. Wouldn’t pay for anything else. I think Neil’s mom helped him take out student loans. He changed his name and came here. I think because he knew I’d come here too. And then his mom died. That’s it.”
“Did Neil’s father kill her?”
Kevin flinched, as if the very thought were a physical blow against him, but he said, “I don’t know. Maybe. Neil said it was an accident.”
Tilda had died similarly, crushed against the steering wheel, her hair – the same colour as Andrew and Aaron’s – streaked with so much blood. That hadn’t been an accident, no matter how much it had seemed like one.
Andrew’s jaw worked. He knew everything Kevin had just told him already. But it was different from hearing it from someone other than Neil, who treated his own suffering so casually it was as though he hadn’t suffered at all.
“Get out,” said Andrew, kicking the sofa, and then Kevin’s shin.
“I live here,” said Kevin indignantly.
“Then go take a shower. I don’t give a shit.”
“Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Kevin opened his mouth. His expression was pitying, and Andrew thought he might have to hit him for real. Then sighed hugely and left the kitchen. A moment later, Andrew heard the bedroom door slam closed. Andrew pulled his phone out of his pocket. He scrolled through to the fourth number on his speed dial.
It rang for several minutes, before going to voicemail. Andrew dialled again, three times, before someone finally picked up.
“Neil,” Andrew said.
There was a long pause during which Andrew could hear nothing but the staticy sound of Neil’s breathing.
Eventually: “Andrew. What do you want?”
“Care to tell me why Kevin seems to be under the impression that you’re in Baltimore right now?”
Another pause. “Because I am in Baltimore. I’m finishing school at MICA. It’s a better program.”
“Is that what you want? Or is it what your father wants?”
“It’s a better program,” Neil said again, helplessly. Andrew’s grip on his phone was so tight he could feel the plastic creak.
“Neil,” said Andrew, “tell me what you want.”
“I want to come home.”
“Then come home.”
Neil inhaled sharply, and how well did Andrew know that sound, that rattling inward breath? The wretched marker of someone trying not to cry. It was unfamiliar and awful to hear it come from someone other than himself.
“I can’t,” Neil said. “My father—”
Andrew cut him off. “Enough,” he said. “I’m coming to get you.”
“Andrew, you can’t.”
Andrew, who had no interest in being told what he could or couldn’t do, hung up. He put his phone into his pocket, and then checked Kevin’s freezer. Predictably, there was nothing even remotely edible. He rummaged through it until he found a pint of frozen yogurt. A disgusting substitute for ice cream, but he tucked it under his arm nonetheless.
He banged on Kevin’s door. “I’m leaving,” he said, “and I’m taking your frozen yogurt.”
“Hey!” said Kevin. His door swung open, but Andrew was already gone.
Andrew sat in the GS for several long minutes, eating the frozen yogurt with a spoon he had also stolen. It wasn’t as good as proper ice cream, but it was sweet and so cold it hurt his teeth. Andrew ate all of it, and then pulled his phone out again. Nathan Wesninski, he discovered, was surprisingly easy to find. His house was listed in the yellow pages.
It was a little under eight hours driving from Colombia to Baltimore, but that was for people who thought speed limits were actual limits. Andrew checked his watch. He figured he could to it in less than seven.
He stopped for gas before he got on the interstate. As he was standing at the pump, he called Aaron, who picked up after less than a single ring.
“What happened?” Aaron said.
“Nothing. I’m going out,” Andrew said, and then added, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“I figured,” he said after a long pause. He didn’t even sound resentful about it. He just sighed, softly. “Whatever. Don’t get arrested.”
“Yeah,” said Andrew. Then he paid the station attendant, and left.
Nathaniel was not surprised to find that every trace of Mary had been removed from the house. Nathan liked his trophies as much as any rich man, but he would not have considered Mary – and all the products of that union – to be anything more than failure, a demerit on his incredible record of success.
Since Nathaniel’s leaving, Lola had taken over all of Mary’s spaces, eradicated all of her influence. The walls, which had been blue, were now red. It made the rooms feel smaller and somehow less escapable. All of Mary’s carefully cultivated antiques had been thrown away or sold, replaced with unforgiving modern furniture and appliances.
Nathaniel’s old bedroom, too, had been stripped and turned into a little library, although all the books had a fine layer of dust upon them. Nathaniel checked the closet where he had once kept his art supplies, and found it full of spare rolls of toilet paper.
“So sorry, Darling,” Lola had said without any attempt at sincerity. “You’ll have to be in the guest room for now. Perhaps we’ll go furniture shopping sometime next week?”
And then she’d laughed. Clearly the thought of parading her miserable stepson around an IKEA or Homesense appealed greatly to her sense of humour. Nathaniel could imagine it. Lola would ask, loudly, whether Nathaniel liked this bedspread or that wall-hanging. She would force Nathaniel to answer. And then she would immediately rebut any opinion he thought to offer.
Nathaniel set his bags down on the guest room floor, already drained, and unzipped them. He stared at the things he had accumulated over his time in South Carolina. The sweater he’d received from Matt Boyd the Christmas they’d been roommates, and the jeans Kevin had forced him to buy because his old ones had a hole in the crotch. At the bottom of the bag were the clothes Andrew had given him to go to Eden’s Twilight.
Nathaniel had told Andrew he wanted to go home. But where was home? Surely not Baltimore. Anywhere with Nathan and his procession of cruel, beautiful administrative assistants-turned-wives would never be home.
Nathaniel tucked his hands against his belly. All the places his father had struck him ached like burning.
“Welcome back, Junior,” Nathan had said, twisting Nathaniel’s arm up behind his back, grip tight enough to leave a ring of purple-yellow-black around Nathaniel’s wrist like a stamp. This is where you come from.
Nathaniel closed his eyes. Where was home? Where was home? The crappy little apartment he shared with Kevin and Kevin’s kale. The fine arts building; the studio with the new fluorescent lights. The roof, any roof, so long as he was on it with—
There was a banging on the door.
“Get that, Junior,” Nathan called from his study.
Nathaniel did, taking the stairs down to the foyer stiffly. His knee ached where Nathan had kicked him.
When he opened the door, he was expecting one of Lola’s innumerable society friends, or perhaps a business partner of his father’s. He was not expecting Andrew.
“Oh,” Nathaniel breathed, delighted, horrified. “You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have come.”
Andrew put on the face he always wore when he thought Nathaniel was being especially stupid or difficult. He was looking at Nathaniel’s feet, how he kept all of his weight on one foot. “I said I would.”
“I know. But I didn’t think you really…”
“I said I would,” Andrew repeated, this time with vehemence.
“Who’s this, Junior?” Nathan had appeared at the top of the stairs. Hair tousled, hands in his pockets, he was the picture of casualty. Except for his eyes. It always came back to the eyes.
“No one,” Nathaniel told him at the same time Andrew said, “Andrew Minyard.”
“Andrew Minyard,” Nathan repeated. “I saw all those paintings of you. What a delight to meet you in person. Come in. Yes, come in. To my study. Let’s have a chat.”
“He won’t stay here. He’s coming back with me,” said Andrew, his hand heavy as a warning on the back of Nathaniel’s neck, and Nathaniel wanted to cry.
Nathan tapped his finger against the table top. He smiled, thin and sharp as a blade, and then pointed at Andrew. “Say please.”
Nathaniel felt Andrew go stiff next to him. His fingers were digging into Nathaniel’s neck hard enough to sting.
“Don’t,” said Nathaniel, softly, urgently. “Andrew, don’t. It’s not worth it.”
Andrew said, “Please.”
The word came out of him like a bone snapping. It was like being hit. It was worse than being hit. Nathaniel would have preferred to be hit. This, he thought, was not what he had wanted, not at all, when he said he wanted to go home.
Nathan clearly saw the wretchedness in his son, even if Andrew was stone-faced, because he said, “Great. Again, now. This time with feeling.”
“Please,” Andrew said again. “Please let him come home with me.”
Nathan laughed. It was a cold sound, and there was amusement in it, although it was the kind of amusement that reduced wives and sons to tears, to runaways. “Don’t ask for a thing,” he said at length, and rapped his knuckles on his desk for emphasis. “Don’t ask for a fucking thing. Not a second of my time. Not a penny.”
Nathaniel’s mouth twisted. He would have been happy to never see Nathan again. He would have been happy to never think of his time as Nathaniel Wesninski, to just live, softly and quietly, as Neil Josten.
He did not say this aloud. He did not want his father to change his mind.
“I really raised an ungrateful son,” Nathan said with great drama, as if he had raised Neil at all. “Now get the hell out.”
Andrew and Nathaniel got the hell out and, as he stepped over the threshold and saw the GS gleaming on the curb, Nathaniel felt unbearably light, like he was shedding an old, ill-fitting skin. He had been outside early that day, but still he tipped his face sunward.
“You are a dumb piece of shit,” Andrew said.
“Yeah,” Neil agreed, “but you came for me anyway.”
Andrew put his hand tenderly to the side of Neil’s head, and then shoved him towards the car. “Get in,” he said, “before I leave you here to rot.”
Neil, laughing, did as he was told.
They were an hour outside of the city when Neil said, “I forgot all my clothes.”
“We’ll get you new ones,” Andrew told him.
Neil looked down at his lap to hide his smile. It was just what he had wanted to hear. He wanted to be a snake, shedding every bit of skin that had come in contact with Nathan Wesninski. “Cool,” he said, feigning casualty. “I needed to go to Walmart anyway.”
“I will kill us both before I shop at Walmart.”
Neil laughed again. He laughed and laughed and laughed. Andrew stared at the road ahead. The engine of the GS snarled.
“Yes or no?” Neil asked.
“Yes,” said Andrew after a beat.
Neil leaned across the console, and pressed his forehead to Andrew’s shoulder. He felt the muscle tense against him in surprise, and then loosen a second later. Andrew smelled like soap and cigarettes.
Neil did not think he would be able to capture such a moment as this in a painting. He did not think he would even want to try.