Arthur Quinn dies on a Thursday.
It is a sunny and bright Thursday filled with the freshness of Spring in the air, a welcome and needed release from a long, cold Winter.
The way he dies is unexpected, sharp and quick – just like Arthur himself. No glorified, heroic death. Exactly the way he’s said he’d like to die someday. Eames used to tease him that he’d die saving the world or starving children or at least fluffy kittens – mostly because that had been one of Arthur’s biggest fears.
Oddly, Eames wishes that was the way Arthur died, instead of in this meaningless and hollow and absolutely mundane way. Arthur was none of those things; he deserved a better way to go, Eames is sure.
The following week, during the funeral, Cobb says the same after leaving white lilies on Arthur’s coffin.
Arthur hated white lilies. Cobb knows that.
Eames can’t help the twitch of his lips, and he blinks away tears. The coffin is sleek black with silver inlay on the sides and it reminds Eames of one of Arthur’s suits, the one pinstriped in silver.
The wake is quiet and stilled and Eames can hear the ticking grandfather clock on the wall of the funeral home like it is the loudest noise in the world. The silver-framed picture of Arthur is half-smiling on the side table next to the buffet. Eames feels ill.
You don’t get to run, a voice says in his head – just like Arthur’s voice not so long ago. You don’t get to run, Eames.
Now Eames is the one left behind.
The news comes to him while he’s emailing Yusuf. His phone rings, a shrill tone Arthur had picked out for him.
(“So that you might actually wake up for once if someone is trying to reach you,” Arthur had said.
Eames had just smiled.)
He picks up the phone and instantly knows something is wrong. Instead of Arthur – it’s a gentle-toned woman, asking who’s on the line. Eames doesn’t answer; he asks how she’s using that specific phone. And that’s when the words hit. Unable to do anything. Tried the best we could. Family. See him. Collect his things. So sorry. He stares at the blurred lines of the text on the screen until he has to close his eyes.
(“Doing a milk run,” Arthur had said. “You want something specific?”
And Eames had answered, “Sure.”
And Arthur had smiled knowingly. “You want those apricot-filled pastries again, don’t you?”
Eames had reached out and reeled Arthur closer, kissing the side of his smooth, recently shaved cheek, said, “I love it when you read my mind.”
And Arthur had scoffed, “Took me few years too many to learn.”
And Eames had acted surprised. “Are you saying I was the biggest challenge of your life?”
Arthur had smiled mischievously. “You still are, Eames. You still are.” And then Arthur had kissed him for the last time. “Be right back.”)
Eames doesn’t know how he makes it to the hospital, he doesn’t know. All he knows is that Arthur is pale, too pale and clammy and cool when he slides his fingers against Arthur’s temple, when he cups Arthur’s face. Drops of blood decorate Arthur’s neck, haphazardly cleaned up.
Eames walks into the toilet and wets a few paper towels. Arthur likes to be clean. Arthur likes to be collected and presentable. Arthur likes to be respectable.
So Eames sits back down next to Arthur, so still under the sheet, and runs the wet towel over the almost-black spots. The spots turn into a red-tinged mask over Arthur’s skin. Eames gets more towels and cleans and cleans until Arthur is spotless.
The email never gets sent. Instead there is a phone call a few days later – Eames drunk and out of his mind with grief, Yusuf calm and sad and knocking on Eames and Arthur’s door the next morning. They say nothing; their silence speaks volumes. When Yusuf takes a step closer and gets an arm around Eames, Eames holds on tightly.
“It’s pointless to say I’m sorry,” Yusuf says later, after glasses of clear liquid that still burns down Eames’s throat, “But for what it’s worth, I am. So very sorry.”
Eames stifles something between a laugh and a sob, says, “Me too, mate.” He fills their glasses to the brim.
Maybe in another life, in another time, Arthur would have ended up sharing his life with someone else and be still alive. Maybe all it took was to have a life with Eames.
Three weeks after that Thursday he gets a postcard. There are palm trees and a serene-looking beach on it. He turns the card over. Mr and Mrs Quinn. Eames blinks. His hand shakes. It’s a joke of Ariadne’s, has been straight from the start, straight from their start. Now they’ve ended and Ariadne doesn’t even know because she got swallowed by the earth a week before that day.
Eames sets the card on the table near the door, next to Arthur’s car keys gathering dust.
He makes his way to the bedroom, where the air is stale and heavy. He still hasn’t changed the sheets even when Arthur’s smell is barely traceable in the too-smooth, well-worn linens. Arthur’s pillow finds its way half under Eames and half under his arm. He clutches it until he trembles.
Sleep is a long way coming, just as on every night since.
He doesn’t dream. Arthur doesn’t dream – didn’t dream. They used to dream together, used to build dreamscapes together. They used to build towns, cities, countries together. They used to build their lives together in dreams, different scenarios to take place in the future – the future that isn’t any more.
Months after that Thursday he reaches inside their closet and his fingers find the familiar, cold handle of a case. He pulls the device out and stares at the shiny surface of the metal.
The snap of the locks is loud in the stillness. He flinches. Lifting the cover open, he methodically checks all the parts. He powers up the device and takes a cannula in his hand.
(“We’re done,” Arthur said with wide eyes. “Do you hear me? We’re done. Jesus Christ, Eames, we almost didn’t—”
Eames nodded, said, “Yes, we’re done.” Then again, “We are done.”)
Taking a deep breath, he inserts the cannula into his wrist. He doesn’t even feel the needles. His hand hovers over the large button. It’s time to break empty promises. He presses down and feels the rush.
“We could live here. You could live here. With me,” Arthur says. Just like he always says, every single time Eames sees him. His eyes are smiling and there are dimples on his cheeks and Eames wants to lick them – so he does. He dips his tongue into Arthur’s dimple and kisses the skin.
“Eames,” Arthur says. “You know that’s perverse, right?” And Eames knows, he knows because that’s what Arthur has said before as well.
“You taste so good,” Eames says and moves to suckle on Arthur’s neck. “Oh god, I’ve missed you so.”
“Hey,” Arthur says and there are strong hands lifting Eames’ head. Sharp eyes stare at him. “I’m right here.”
Eames tries very hard not to sob.
“I’ve been here all along. And I’ll be here as long as you want me to be,” Arthur smiles. There are laugh lines on the corners of his eyes.
“I know,” Eames says. Closing his eyes, he buries his face in Arthur’s hair. “I know.”
He wakes up to Yusuf standing next to the bed. His head is full of Arthur’s laugh and he can feel the phantom touch of Arthur’s palm on his thigh. The bedroom is a chaos – he isn’t sure when he last did the laundry. Or the dishes, when he walks into the kitchen to grab a bottle of water. He isn’t even sure when he last ate. There’s snow on the ground when he glances in the direction of the window. He isn’t sure when that happened.
Yusuf sits gingerly on the stool and stares at the table top. Eames drinks water like he’s starving for it. He probably is. The zip lock bag full of Arthur’s personal effects – his clothes, phone, wristwatch – is still abandoned on the corner of the table. Right there where Eames left it when he came home on that Thursday. It looks like Arthur’s watch has stopped.
“You look like shit,” Yusuf says suddenly into the silence. His voice is sad.
“You look good,” Eames replies. The watch has stopped, he’s sure. It bothers him in an unreasonable way.
Yusuf finds his gaze. “Stop this,” he pleads.
Eames doesn’t answer. Instead he says, “What brings you here?”
“Oh?” Eames says, surprised but not really. Time tends to fluctuate, Arthur used to say.
Eames agrees. It’s all relative.
“You shouldn’t be alone. No one should be.” Yusuf says, pained.
Eames says nothing.
There is a thick coating of snow on the ground.
“This isn’t life, Eames.”
Eames takes another gulp from the bottle and thinks about how Arthur claimed he used to hate Christmas. But every time the holiday came nearer and nearer, he started fretting about the stupid lights and the bloody presents for the Cobblets and Eames remembers watching Arthur making list after another for list of possible gifts.
He remembers Arthur hanging multi-coloured lights on around the backyard, red-cheeked and cold-lipped and Eames would join him with two cups of rum-laced hot chocolate. Arthur would smile at him then, slow and beatific and Eames would feel the luckiest person alive.
He would also say that out loud and Arthur would duck his head and bite his lip in the maddening way that would make Eames’ heart beat faster and blood running south. They would stumble inside, make their way to the bed and the lights would be forgotten on the footprint-ruined snow.
The backyard’s snow is pristine. The box of chocolate powder stands untouched in the cabinet. The bed is empty.
Eames closes his eyes and learns to breathe again.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
Yusuf hears him nonetheless and nods.
Forty-three days after that Thursday their doorbell rings. It’s a delivery man with their new couch. Arthur picked the damn thing, white of all colours. Eames had liked their old couch with stains and lighter patches but Arthur insisted they get a new one. So they did.
The delivery man stands awkwardly by the door when Eames says nothing. He just stares as his heart beats painfully in his chest. His eyes fall on the furniture and the men holding it in the air, ready to carry it inside.
Eames blinks twice and gestures at them to set the couch down somewhere in the living room. When the men leave, he closes the door quietly and leans his back against it. His vision blurs and from the mirror on the other side of the wall he can see himself looking miserable. His lower lip trembles and his fists are white-knuckled against his hips. He can barely breathe, can barely stand.
And then he can’t and he slides down to the floor.
He stares at his reflection and doesn’t recognize himself. It’s as if he’s missing a piece of himself. A defining piece.
“You could stay here,” Arthur says.
Eames knows this.
“We could go below and stay under.”
Eames knows this as well. “I think—”
“Or we could just build more, all the mountains and the stairs to the moon and all the best tricks we’ve ever—“
“Arthur.” Eames says. Arthur stops and looks at him, puzzled. “I think I shouldn’t come here anymore.”
Arthur stares at him. “Why?”
Eames swallows. “Because,” he says, “you died.”
Arthur frowns. “But I’m right here. See?”
And Eames sees Arthur standing in their kitchen. He sees the unopened bottle of milk and the box of apricot-filled pastries. He sees Arthur’s neck free of red spots. Reaching out he touches Arthur’s arm, his neck, curves his palm against Arthur’s cheek. Arthur feels real, soft, sinewy, warm. But he isn’t any of those things, he isn’t.
Eames has lots of regrets. That he never told Arthur he loves him even if Arthur must have known it. That he never took Arthur to the Azores islands even when they had talked about it for months. That he didn’t fix the fix the backyard fence when it was his turn. That he didn’t kiss Arthur hard enough the last time. That he let Arthur go alone.
“I miss you,” he says. His throat is dry. “And I’m sorry. But I can’t come back anymore.”
“I’m right here,” Arthur says again. This time, he smiles.
Eames closes his eyes.
Thirty-seven days after that Thursday Eames finds himself holding a box made of wood. It’s finely shaped and has golden lacing on the edges. Eames’s hands are sure and unnaturally steady as he carries the box, one foot in front of the other.
There is a hole in the ground, ready for the box. The cemetery is quiet and eerily still. Storm clouds are gathering in the sky and the air is filled with electricity. The wind whips the lapels of his jacket against his cheek.
The clergyman says, “Do you wish to say something?”
Eames shakes his head.
He’s shown how to lower the urn and the strings burn his palms as the box drops deeper, all the way to the bottom. This is it, he thinks. This is Arthur. He blinks rapidly and holds his breath. For what, he isn’t sure.
Rain trickles through the dusk as he shovels the dirt over the box. The clergyman watches quietly.
(“There’s this place,” Arthur said.
Eames turned to face Arthur, punched his pillow a few times and listened.
“Go on,” he said and Arthur nodded.
“Just, you know, in case something happens one day.”
Eames swallowed. “All right.”
Arthur stared at the ceiling. “It’s near where I was born, this stupid town in the middle of nowhere. But the thing is, I used to have family there. Blood relatives, that is,” Arthur clarified.
Eames’s hand found Arthur’s and held on.
“I know I didn’t have the healthiest relationship with my parents, but I’m sure, despite all the pride and—” Arthur made a face, “misunderstandings, they still cared for me. I was their only kid, after all.”
“I understand, believe me, I do,” Eames said.
“I know you do, and that’s why I’m telling you this,” Arthur said and glanced at Eames briefly. “So, there’s this place and in case something happens one day, I’d like you to—” He paused, considered his words. “Take me back there.”
Eames didn’t want to think about a world without Arthur, an Arthurless world. But he also knew this was important. “All right,” he said and squeezed Arthur’s hand.
Arthur turned to face him, eyes intent and grateful. “All right.”)
When he’s done, he hands over the shovel and stands. Staring at the darker patch in the ground, his fingers find the shape of the candle in his pocket. He lights the glass-covered candle and places it next to the grave. The lid should keep it burning for three days.
That’s as long as Eames can stay away – three days. Then he’ll light another. And another. And another.
“I think I should move out,” he tells after a year. Yusuf is back in Mombasa and the long-distance call will cost a fortune. Eames doesn’t care.
“Is this a new thing?” Yusuf asks. Eames can hear the distant sound of purring on in the back ground. Maybe he should get a cat, too, he thinks. Something to think about later.
“No,” he says and sits down on the couch. The protective plastic sheet he never took off rustles under him. “It’s high time, isn’t it?”
Yusuf makes an appreciative hum. “You thinking about that odd little town back in the country?”
Eames bites his lip. “Feels the right thing to do.”
“Then that’s what you’ll do,” Yusuf says, confident. “Need a helping hand?”
“Don’t be silly, you’ve hardly been home at all this year,” Eames says but there’s a small smile forcing its way onto his face. The picture of Arthur smiles back at him from the opposite wall.
Yusuf huffs. “That might be true. But it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t come.”
“I think I can manage,” Eames replies. His hand finds its way under the plastic. The material of the couch is soft against his palm.
“Uh,” Yusuf says. “I never thanked you for the device.”
Eames’ heart throbs painfully for a moment and he holds onto the phone a bit more tightly. “There’s no need. It was due,” he says.
Yusuf is quiet for a beat, and then says, “Nonetheless, thank you.”
“You should thank Arthur,” Eames says. “It was his.”
“I’ll pour one for him next time I’m at it,” Yusuf says and Eames can hear the sadness there, still.
It’s the same sadness that he feels in his blood, in his bones, everywhere in him. He’s learned to live with it, though. It’s part of who he is.
“Better make sure it’s the good kind,” he says. “You know how Arthur hated the cheap drinks, don’t you?”
“Of course. I have this twenty-year-old single malt I’m eyeing right now,” Yusuf says. “It’s calling my name.”
Eames laughs at that and he’s surprised to realise it doesn’t hurt that much anymore. There’s no pain mingled with it, just a punch of discomfort. As if he’s wondering whether he’s allowed to laugh or not. “Right,” he says, “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
Yusuf clears his throat. “Are you positive you’re fine? I mean it’s no problem for me to—”
“Really. I’m sure.” Eames stops. His hand keeps drawing circles under the plastic.
“All right, then,” Yusuf says. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“As if that would ever happen,” Eames replies. He swallows painfully. “Take care,” he says.
“You too, mate,” Yusuf says. There’s an awkward, long pause before Eames hears the line disconnect.
There are flowers in the backyard. Flowers that were Arthur’s pride. They're in harmony with each other late in the spring. Eames sits on the porch and turns his face toward the warm rays of sun. The bottle of beer in his hands is sweating.
Almost everything is packed – there are still some clothes of his left as well as one of Arthur’s suits. The suit is pinstriped. Eames likes it best. He thinks he’s going to take it with him.
“I found a bottle of soda in the fridge.” Ariadne’s voice is loud from the kitchen.
“It’s drinkable,” Eames half-shouts back. There are footsteps coming closer and then it’s quiet again. Eames enjoys the warm weather. “Sit down, love,” he says and pats the space next to him.
“Okay,” Ariadne says, “but you’re going to have to pull me up.” And it doesn’t matter that she’s put on some weight – lots of it – because she’s still graceful in the way she moves. “So,” she says after a beat. “I was thinking.”
Eames quirks his eyebrow and doesn’t bother opening his eyes.
“Right,” Ariadne says and it’s as if she’s steeling herself for something. A loud inhale, loud exhale. “So here’s the thing,” she says determinedly. “I’m going to name the gremlin after Arthur.”
There is a heavy silence. Eames doesn’t know what to say. “Uh,” he tries.
“I know, I know— he would hate it, he would downright despise the idea,” Ariadne says and Eames thinks, No, no he wouldn’t, he would be thrilled, “but I’ve made my decision.”
Eames blinks rapidly and turns to look at her. “Ariadne,” he says quietly. It sounds dry and painful and desperate. And then she wraps her tiny arms around him, the swell of her stomach pressing against Eames’ side. “I think that’s a wonderful idea,” he says after a while, and kisses the top of her hair.
“You should also dig up some flowers to take with you. Give them a home,” he says. “I can’t take them all with me and I’m not too keen on leaving them here.”
“And what am I supposed to do with a boring geranium that was Arthur’s love and pride?” Ariadne snorts, but when Eames looks at her, she seems wistful. “Alright,” she says. “But I want that yellow one. And the orange next to it – I don’t know what they are but there’s no way I’m taking anything pink with me.”
Eames smiles at that and goes in search of tools to dig up plants.
Ariadne ends up taking a pink one as well. It was Arthur’s favorite flower after all.
The gravesite is peaceful under the summer sun. Eames makes his way over and kneels next to it. He swipes his hand over the stone and leaves it there. It’s warm to the touch.
“It’s been a long time,” he says. “But I’m here for good, now.”
Birds sing and fly from one tree to another. Eames licks his lips.
“Ariadne had a boy a week ago,” he says conversationally. “He has a strong grip and lots of hair. He’s quite tall as well, I’ve been informed.” Eames can still feel the baby grip his finger,holding on tightly, miniature fingers white with the pressure. “He, uh,” he continues, “he was named as well. Arthur. That’s his name, Arthur."There's a heavy pause.
“I think you would have liked him,” Eames says. “As much as one can like a baby, that is.” He bites his lip. “All right, so, look, I brought you this,” he says and lifts the plant from the bag. There are bits of dirt on the petals and he cleans them up. “I thought I could give it a new home here. You always liked the pink ones—” And he goes on and on and on, until the sky darkens and his throat hurts. But it’s Arthur. Arthur who was brave and snarky and breath-taking and Eames’. Arthur is worth it.
It’s getting rapidly dark when Eames stands up and swipes the dirt off his knees. There are bird singing, again, in the distance and he turns to look up. He can’t see anything other than stars twinkling in the deep blue sky and purple sea of clouds down the horizon. He thinks about lighting a candle for Arthur. He doesn’t.
He takes a deep breath of the earthy air and thinks he’s all right. That he’ll be all right, given time.
He’ll light a candle later, when he visits again. Til the next time, darling, he thinks and casts a long look at the gravestone. The gentle breeze tickles the skin of his cheek.