Hal counted out six-thousand, two-hundred and eighty-three grains of rice before Tom flopped down in the chair next to him, kicking the leg of the table and sending Hal’s perfect pile skittering across the surface.
“I was gonna eat that,” Tom said, nodding to the empty packet of Uncle Ben’s and folding his arms.
“No, you weren’t,” Hal said, gathering up the grains to begin counting again. “They were eight months out of date. They’d probably been in that cupboard since George and Nina were here.”
Tom shrugged. “Fair enough,” he said. “Why are yer counting rice, anyway?”
“I would usually be tending to Eve at this time.” An uncomfortable silence hung in the air for a moment.
“Come down to t’café,” Tom said. “There’s loads for you to do there.”
“No, thank you.”
“Well, yer could always help Alex find her body,” Tom suggested, “she’s back at the club now.”
“Honestly, Tom,” Hal admitted, “I don’t think I’m ready to leave the house yet.”
Tom rose from his seat. “Alrigh’. I’m off to work. I’ll bring home food.”
“You gonna be alrigh’? I can get the restraints.”
“No,” Hal said, and he counted the rice again.
Since being released from his restraints, Hal began to lose his grasp on the concept of time. Hours could pass in what seemed like minutes as he cleaned, stacked his dominos, read or listened to the radio. But other times, like when he caught himself heading up to Eve’s room, then sat in silence on the stairs as the realisation hit him, because decades of sorrow, regret, desperation and hunger.
With Alex focused on her unfinished business, and Tom needing to work, Hal was left to create tasks for himself. First, he set about making Alex’s room as comfortable as possible, though purposely filling it with things she’d hate (like flowers from the garden, the furthest he’d ventured outside) on the first day, just so that getting rid of them would give him something to do on the next. After that, he’d taken up drawing; first crude doodles while watching Antiques Roadshow with Tom, until the skill for art he’d developed in the 1700s was a little less rusty.
One day, he went into Annie’s room. He wasn’t sure how long it had been, but it was long enough to know with certainty that she’d crossed over. He was happy for her, truly, but wished Tom could have seen her go. They never spoke of it, but he felt that Tom thought she’d be back. Like she was last time.
In Annie’s bedroom, Hal found a badge. It was for a Bristol hospital, bearing the name ‘John Mitchell’ and a tiny black-and-white photograph. Hal had met Mitchell once. Ivan had introduced him to Herrick, hoping they could work together, but Hal disapproved of Herrick’s methods. Daisy sat in a corner, eyes locked on Ivan as the three men talked, while metres away, Mitchell stood with the still broken and traumatised Cutler. Whenever Hal had glanced over at Cutler, ensuring he wouldn’t embarrass himself, he saw a flash of something in Mitchell’s eyes. Only after meeting Leo and Pearl would he recognise it as remorse.
Hal spent three days on the drawing of Mitchell, desperate to perfect those haunted eyes that so accurately reflected his own. He lay it down on Annie’s bed and closed the door. They wouldn’t be disturbed.
The nights were the hardest. Tom still needed his rest, and while Alex could stay awake with him, he didn’t want to expose her to the demons that waited for him in the shadows. She’d suffered enough because of him.
Lying awake at night, Hal shivered, one hand clutching the burn on his arm, the other gripping the frame of his bed. He stared into the darkest corner of the room, waiting for reminders of his sins to emerge from the blackness and suffocate him.
These were the good nights. On the nights he slept, his dreams were invaded by faces and memories, tempting him, awakening his hunger. Some nights, he saw the faces of men and women he’d killed. Others, it was Mr Snow, enthralling Hal with just the inflection of his speech. But most, it was Nick Cutler. He dreamt that he lay in his bed at Honolulu Heights, the wife – Rachel – dead and bleeding beside him. He filled his mouth with her blood, and fed it to Cutler through a kiss. He dreams of a timid, nervous Cutler, curled naked and shivering by his side because Lord Henry had filled his belly but still had desires. He dreamt of the new, bitter Cutler, dipping his fingers into the terrible wound on Alex’s neck, and of himself desperately sucking on those fingers while Tom tore apart hundreds of innocent clubbers upstairs.
In the mornings, he awoke, hard and ashamed, to Alex sat on the edge of his bed. She’d be reading one of Hal’s books, and upon his awakening would tell him not to worry, the noises he was making in his sleep didn’t wake up Tom. Hal couldn’t look her in the eye.
On the afternoon of the next full moon, Hal sat on the sofa, folding Tom’s clothes and humming an old disco tune that Alex had never heard to himself. Tom slammed the front door closed, locking it behind himself, and set the two shopping bags containing raw chicken on the counter.
“Are you all ready for tonight?” Hal asked, not looking up from the laundry basket. Tom moved to stand before him.
“Annie in’t coming back, is she?” he asked.
Hal sighed. “No, Tom. I don’t think she is.”
Tom sat down next to him on the sofa. “She’ll be okay, though? She won’t have just dislocated ‘cause Eve’s gone?”
Disintegrated, Hal corrected in his head, but thought better of saying it aloud.
“I believe that she found her door, and that she and Eve have been reunited with her friends,” Hal said. “And that we shouldn’t mourn her, but feel happy for her.”
Tom rested his head on Hal’s shoulder and closed his eyes, and that was something new. “We’re allowed to miss her though, yeah?”
“Yes, Tom,” Hal said, closing his own eyes. “We are.”
Hal convinced Tom to transform in the basement that night. He had a number of reasons for doing so. First, he knew Milo was still out there. He’d disappeared as soon as the blast happened, and Hal had no idea what would happen if he and Tom met while changed. Secondly, he wanted Alex to experience it, to make sure she fully understood what Tom went through on those nights. Finally, after that afternoon, Hal simply didn’t want him to leave.
He waited, back against the wall and flipping a domino between his fingers, outside the basement door for Alex. She’d gone down there to witness the transformation, but as soon as Tom had gone full wolf, she was to Rentaghost out of there.
The house filled with Tom’s screams of pain and Hal slammed his head back against the wall, closing his eyes, biting his lower lip and willing away the hunger rising inside him at those sounds. When he opened his eyes again, Alex was sat beside him.
“Wow,” Alex gasped. After a moment, she added, “Tom looks good naked.”
“That wasn’t the point of this,” Hal said, “and please don’t tell Tom that. You’ll make him feel awkward.”
“Why?” she asked. “It’s not like I’m the only girl to see it.”
Hal remained silent.
“Oh my god,” Alex giggled. “Tom’s a… no! What about Allison?”
“We are not discussing this,” Hal said. “It is his personal business.”
They sat in silence, listening to the wolf padding around below them. Tom was calm tonight.
“Can I ask you a question?” Alex said, eventually. “What the hell was the deal with you and the guy who killed me?”
“I told you,” Hal said quietly. “We used to be friends.”
“So you weren’t in love with him? Because what I saw, that wasn’t just old friendship.”
“No, but I don’t doubt that he loved me, for a time.”
“And you…” Alex began.
“We were intimate, yes,” Hal met her eyes. “Cutler is a reminder of how cruel I could be. I tricked him into drinking his wife’s blood, destroyed his morality, took him for a lover because I could and then I abandoned him. I don’t blame him for wanting his revenge. I just wish you hadn’t been the catalyst.”
Alex grinned. “So, does this mean you’re gay?”
Hal laughed lightly. “When you’ve lived the life I have, when all that’s on your mind is either drinking blood or resisting it, gender and sexuality hardly seem important. But no, I have had female lovers.”
“You’re bisexual, then.”
“If that’s how you want to think of it, then fine,” Hal said, and turned his gaze back to the basement door.
Alex had left a pile of clothes at the top of the basement stairs, and at sunrise, the door opened and a groggy, fully-clothed Tom stepped out. Alex had been passing the time by teaching Hal how to play Cat’s Cradle, and Hal struggled to his feet with his fingers twisted up in string.
“Weren’t too loud, was I?” Tom asked, rubbing a sleepy eye with the heel of his palm.
“Not at all,” Hal said, smiling.
“Tea?” Alex offered warily. The last time she had put the kettle on, Tom had muttered that tea was Annie’s thing, and stomped into the back garden. This time, he smiled politely at her.
“Think I’ll just go to bed,” he said. “Later.”
“Okay,” Alex said, and she untangled the string from Hal’s fingers. “I’m going to go back to the police station. I’ve left a big pile of dishes for you, Hal.” She gave them both a little wave, and Rentaghosted away.
That day’s cleaning music had been the Bee Gees and Sister Sledge, and Hal relished the opportunity to sing and dance along without getting caught, although he kept the volume down for Tom’s sake. His night of distraction had done him wonders, and he celebrated the day without the lingering temptations of his dreams plaguing him.
After his chores, Hal slipped quietly into Tom’s room and took a photograph from his drawer. It wasn’t a forgotten image from Tom’s wall collage, but a single, tatty polaroid of a man with deep scratches and battle scars. Annie had shown him George, in a photograph of him and the woman he was told was Nina on the day of Eve’s birth. So this could only be McNair.
He pulled out the sketchbook he’d hidden behind Tom’s wardrobe and settled down in the corner of Tom’s room to work. He’d been working on this drawing since before the portrait of Mitchell, bit by bit when he knew Tom and Alex weren’t around. When it was finished, as it nearly was, he planned to give it to Tom as a belated birthday present. Next, he’d draw Cutler for Alex, so that she could destroy it in any way she liked. But not by burning it. Just knowing how Cutler met his end made Hal sick with pity.
Completing the last bit of shading on McNair’s neck, Hal signed the bottom corner:
It was simple, but Hal didn’t know what else to write. Sorry I let the ghost of a murderer ruin your actual birthday didn’t seem appropriate after everything that had happened. He’d just torn the page from the sketchbook, and replaced the polaroid in the drawer next to Allison’s Blue Peter badge, when Tom dragged himself awake.
“What’s up?” he asked, voice muffled by the pillow his face was still half-pressed into.
“I have something for you,” Hal said, suddenly nervous. Tom sat up in the bed, and Hal sat beside him. “I hope you don’t see this as an invasion of privacy,” Hal began, “I found the photograph by mistake, and drawing has become a part of my routine. And I never did anything for your birthday…”
“Hal, stop being a wally and tell me what yer on about.”
Hal handed over the drawing and waited, looking out of the window. He hadn’t felt the wind on his face since Eve’s death. The only time he’d gone into the garden had been too mild for wind.
His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden, crushing hug from Tom, who’d carefully lay the drawing down then dived across the bed for him. Hal stiffened at the contact, his hands hovering uselessly behind Tom’s back, until it was clear that Tom wasn’t letting go and he relaxed into the embrace. Tom’s bicep pressed against the burn on Hal’s arm. Hal ran a soothing hand over Tom’s back.
That night, Tom let Alex make tea, and they all sat down together to watch the television. Hal sat in the middle, with Alex’s toes tucked under his thigh and a still-sleepy Tom resting his weight against Hal’s side. This continued every night that Tom didn’t work, or wasn’t a full moon, until it eventually became just as big a part of Hal’s routine as anything else. The contact wasn’t dangerous, it was comforting and safe. In fact, Hal felt his most ill-at-ease when he couldn’t feel Tom’s head on his shoulder, his breath tickling Hal’s neck.
The dreams had improved too, the faces of Cutler and Mr Snow giving way to memories of Leo and Pearl, and on those nights the nightmares returned (usually when Tom had been working), Alex would already be there when he woke up.
He returned to work too. Tom and Alex still only trusted him there during the day, but Hal had the sneaking suspicion that Tom had let cleanliness fall by the wayside just to keep Hal entertained when he came back. At quiet moment, which was most of the day, Hal would go through the list of tasks Tom had set him for the day, and Tom would read aloud from one of Hal’s books. He’d been in touch with Allison again, and while they’d realised they were better off apart, they talked daily, and Tom’s determination to better his education had only increased with it.
Three months after Annie and Eve went away, and two days after the last full moon, Alex interrupted the routine. She stood in front of the television, just as Hal was explaining to Tom why that vase had been grossly overpriced, and folded her arms.
“I’ve had enough of this,” she said, exasperated. “When will you two admit that you love each other?”
“Well, yeah,” Tom said, “he’s me best mate.”
“Not like that!” Alex growled. “You’re in love with each other, but you’re both too stupid to admit it!” And with that, she Rentaghosted out of the room.
“The novelty of Rentaghosting hasn’t worn off yet,” Hal said, in an effort to break the tension.
“I’m not stupid,” Tom muttered.
Hal chewed at his lip, suddenly all too aware of the weight pressed against him. “Yes, we are. Would you look at the way we’re sitting? You’re practically on my lap.”
“’Cause you’re comfy,” Tom argued.
“And because it feels safe,” Hal said. “When I’m around you, I don’t feel like a monster. Maybe that’s what love is, feeling completely safe with someone.”
“So, we’re in love then?” Tom asked.
“Maybe,” Hal said. He flicked his eyes down to Tom, whose head was still nestled against Hal’s shoulder. “We could try kissing.”
Tom considered for a moment. “Alrigh’. If you think it’d help.”
“Only if you’re sure.”
“Just kiss him!” came Alex’s voice from the kitchen.
Hal sucked in a breath, and raised a hand to cup Tom’s cheek. Tom lifted his head, and Hal looked into his eyes for a moment. They were terrified, but eager, and Hal couldn’t deny it any longer. He leaned in, lightly brushing his lips over Tom’s, and waited to gage his reaction. Tom pushed forwards, his nose affectionately nudging Hal’s, and Hal let his eyes fall closed as he captured Tom’s lips again. Tom’s bottom lip was rough and chapped, and Hal ran his tongue along it, tracing every bump and groove. Tom’s hand came to rest against Hal’s chest, and he parted his lips to allow Hal’s tongue entrance. Hal pulled Tom closer, so that he was almost entirely on his lap, and heard Alex, closer now – she must have Rentaghosted again – proclaim “I knew it!”
Tom pulled away, breathless and grinning, but not daring to move more than a few centimetres away from Hal’s lips.
“I hate it when she’s right,” Hal muttered, watching Alex disappear from the corner of his eye.
“Me too,” Tom said, closing the gap between them.