Whoever said the answer could be found in a shot of whisky was utterly wrong.
Theodore swirls the amber liquid, watching the ripples extend from the center to the outer edges of the glass. They’re thick, like folds of expensive velvet and even more inviting. He takes a drink, then another, feeling the heat of the alcohol descend down his throat and into his core. It is comforting, familiar. Few things are quite so warm as the whisky. He’d had a need for warmth ever since the war, ever since the winter came. It reminded him that he was still alive, still breathing. Even if Anatole wasn’t.
It is snowing outside. Large, wet snowflakes flutter to the ground, sparkling as they fall, pretending to be the stars that can’t be seen because of the thick clouds. Theodore wanders outside without a coat, still cradling the half empty bottle to his chest. The cold wind whips through his hair and barrels through the thin fabric of his shirt. He hisses and takes in a sharp breath as his nerves burn from the sudden contrast of stuffy, indoor warmth replaced by biting cold. He puts the bottle to his lips and drinks. The whisky gurgles a laugh. He laughs too. At himself.
It had snowed like this back in 1811, the night Anatole had tried to elope with the Rostov girl. Theodore closes his eyes against the memory, kneeling in the soft snow and gathering it up in one bare hand. It freezes his fingers instantly. His entire soul had felt like this back then, as he watched Anatole pack, humming happily to himself, muttering nonsense in French – frozen over with a thick layer of ice. Freezing hurt. It stung and bit and tore at everything inside him. But the only other thing to do would have been to fall apart.
Or let go.
He had never been able to let go of Anatole. With everyone else it was easier. The rule was simple and Theodore knew if better than any other lesson he’d been taught, by tutor or by life. If he held on too hard, for too long, he would only end up hurting, burned or frozen. No difference. Pain is pain, after all. Everyone causes pain, in the end. In the end, everyone who matters leaves. Theodore knows the pattern like he knows his multiplications tables. So he plays by the rules. The easiest thing is to never get attached, never hold on for a moment longer than is wise. Which is not long at all.
He falls onto his back into a bank of virginally white snow. The last of the whisky is gone. His mind wonders, the wild whirlwind of snowflakes confuses his vision and his conscience paints silver silhouettes against the mulberry-tinted winter sky. He can almost make out a familiar figure, familiar features, a familiar smile. Almost. The silver sparkles and fades, nothing more than a figment of his imagination.
Anatole had been no different than the others, of course. It was no use pretending that he had been. He had slept around, he had lied, he had taken. He had left. Theodore had known back in 1811 that it was inevitable. The elopement was a disaster, but he was not young or foolish enough to believe that having been able to take off once, Anatole would have any more reservations about leaving him behind next time. Lying in the snow all alone, freezing, is only more proof that he had been right. Anatole was gone. Perhaps not by his own choosing, but that did not change the fact that Theodore was alone, cold and hardly able to breath through each day since the casualty lists had come into his possession in the heat-fraught afternoon of a late-August day in 1812.
Of course, that had been the catch with Anatole. Theodore could never let go of him because letting go of Anatole would be the equivalent of letting go of life. He would rather burn and freeze and chafe than let go. The bottle tumbles from his numb fingers and what is left of the whisky spills across the snow, staining it a sick, brick-brown hue. The color of dried blood. He gags and tries to look away but something about the rivulet has riveted him to the spot, stopped his mind. It’s the color, the memory. Theodore shuts his eyes against the ghosts that, instead, scream in his ears. The Devil with it. He throws snow over the whisky but he can still see the brown through the white. The dark always infiltrates the light, the dirt always stains the pure. It is a fact of life.
Just like every other “fact” that he had disregarded in favor of holding on to Anatole. In favor of the feather-light touches and the sunny smiles. Because life is pain and Anatole was life. So Theodore bore the pain for the moments of utter, complete happiness. Now, there is no Anatole, no pain – it is frozen, chipped away with frostbite – and no life. Not really. The rivulets of whisky trickle down the snow bank and onto the path. Theodore watches, mesmerized, as they form the semblance of two letters – A K.