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The Road Not Taken

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

***

 

The world has grown too big, or maybe it’s Hal who’s shrunk to the point of being unrecognizable. If you drink much from a bottle marked 'poison', it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later. Whatever the case, agoraphobia creeps its way through his system as he drives away from that accursed house, gazing ahead numbly and gripping the steering wheel a little too tightly. His suitcases rattle inside of the boot like old, dry bones.

 

Something stirs at the back of Hal’s mind, an insistent knocking before an intruder breaks in and enters uninvited. It’s a stray thought, nothing more. Only when Broad Street is about to split in two Hal admits to himself he was heading towards the docks.

 

He pulls up on the kerb, surrounded by other parked cars. The street is thankfully empty of people but the neon sign boards stare him down silently. It’s Leo’s car. Hal’s got no business riding off into the bloody sunset in this car (sunrise, to be more precise; it’s already dark).

 

Hal looks up and reaches out, running his thumb over the yellow star-shaped toy hanging from the rear view window. Hal hasn’t taken it down, hasn’t changed a single thing in the car. He lets out a bitter chuckle, his lower lip trembling. Only now he gets the joke: visited by the three wise men, following a star. His cheeks might be wet, but what does it matter?

 

Hal can’t go back. Not to Southend, not to the B&B and not to the man he used to be. He’s too tired for another aimless spin of the wheel. There’s a stake sitting at the bottom of the smaller suitcase. If only he were so brave. He needs to get out of the car and just do it. How hard can it possibly be?

 

A frantic knocking on the side window takes the choice out of Hal’s hands. For a moment, Hal almost convinces himself it’s Tom and everything’s going to be alright. But, as Hal’s luck would have it, somebody else stares at Hal through the glass in shell-shock.

 

Cutler?” Hal can’t quite believe what he’s seeing either. “What are you doing here?” It doesn’t occur to him to roll down the window.

 

Cutler’s face lights up, he mumbles something indecipherable and circles around the bonnet. It’s not too late to press on the gas, Hal thinks idly. Cutler opens the door for himself (Hal could have locked it) and climbs into the passenger seat like he belongs there. Hal winces. It’s Leo’s car and Cutler reeks of blood. Hal will never be able to wash the smell out of the upholstery.

 

“It’s really you!” Cutler exclaims in awe. ”I can’t believe it! And you were right there, around the corner. Talk about hiding in plain sight!” He digs his fingers into Hal’s shoulder, as if to make sure, and Hal pries them off, one by one, turning away distractedly.

 

Leo wasn’t the only one who wanted that big, fat, ordinary life. Cutler is another ghost of the past Hal isn’t prepared to face.

 

“Hal?” Cutler waves his hands to attract Hal’s attention. Hal swats them away on autopilot.

 

“How have you been? Where are you going?” Cutler adds, after a pause, “Why did you leave?”

 

Leo and Pearl moved on. Hal should have known it was too good to last forever. He did know, but he wasn’t prepared to be left behind.

 

“So how’s it working out for you, whatever is it that you’re up to?”

 

Annie showed Hal the door as though he were a troublesome pet who’d soiled the carpet too many times. Hal had made his sacrifices, and yet they didn’t appreciate it. In that house, they treated him with no respect. There’s only so much a man can take.

 

“Not too well, is it?” Cutler leans forward and wraps his arms around Hal, who doesn't react, clenching his jaw in his internal ravings.

 

Hal deserved better than that. They all betrayed him.

 

Cutler clicks his fingers in front of Hal’s nose. “Oh, for god’s sake, Hal, are you in some kind of coma? Snap out of it already!”

 

Hal jumps up in his seat. He's almost forgotten Cutler was there in the first place. What on Earth is Cutler doing in Leo´s car?

 

“My god!” Cutler’s always made it sound so unnervingly literal. “What happened to you?” Cutler examines Hal closely, concerned, worried even. He touches Hal’s cheek and Hal’s eyes widen in alarm. Cutler looks profoundly disturbed by the sorry sight. Hal would be too. Hal wants to run.

 

Cutler takes out his handkerchief (Hal used to steal Cutler’s handkerchiefs all the time and stain them with blood) and dabs at Hal’s cheeks until they’re dry, Cutler’s face unreadable now. Then Cutler leans forward and presses a soft kiss to Hal’s temple, his eyes almost tender.

 

Hal’s head is resting on Cutler’s shoulder and Hal hasn’t got the slightest idea why it’s there. Cutler stiffens for a moment  then relaxes and starts stroking Hal’s hair with his free hand. “There, there, it’s alright. You’re Hal Yorke.”

 

Hal closes his eyes. Perhaps, he should say something... nice, something like a ‘thank you’, but he made Cutler -- Cutler is his property -- so why should he feel grateful for what he’s entitled to?

 

(A small measure of comfort wasn’t too much to ask and yet they didn’t even offer him that.)

 

“You’re in no condition to drive,” Cutler says matter-of-factly. “Come on, let’s switch.”

 

Hal blinks. Cutler sighs and somehow Hal gets a lapful of Cutler, his arms snaking around Hal’s neck possessively. Hal places his hands on Cutler’s hips to dislodge him. Cutler grins knowingly -- what does he know, ignorant brat -- and kisses Hal, hard enough to bruise, all tongue and teeth.

 

Hal doesn’t remember Cutler ever showing this much initiative. The years apart must have been good for him. Hal’s lips part and his mind blanks out. He can’t think of a single reason to push Cutler away. He tightens his grip around Cutler’s waist, pressing him closer and chasing after the taste of blood in the kiss. Hal’s eyes flutter shut. He needs this.

 

Hal flinches into awareness when he’s abruptly pushed out of the driver’s seat.

 

(Hal taught him well.)

 

Cutler starts the engine, talking excitedly, as though nothing. “I’ll take you to the Stocker’s, then.” Like they’re going on a bloody date. Cutler snorts. “Silly name, isn’t it? Griffin and the likes of him thought it was sodding clever. But that’s where all the good stuff is these days.”

 

“No,” Hal says curtly. He wipes at his forehead, feeling trapped, and stares at Cutler’s throat, the shirt conveniently unbuttoned at the top. Cutler has that well-fed air about him, no longer a starved fledgeling. Hal could have effortlessly seen through it if he wasn’t so lost in himself.

 

Cutler raises his eyebrows. “Why not?”

 

Hal’s gaze shifts to Cutler’s face. “You live somewhere. Right?”

 

Cutler snorts again, an amused twinkle in his eyes. It riles Hal up. “Well, obviously not in the ditch over there, no matter how tempting it looks.” Cutler tries to pat Hal’s shoulder and Hal evades it. “You’re right, though, let’s drive to my flat now and you’ll make a proper entrance tomorrow. I can’t wait to introduce you to the chaps!”

 

Cutler pauses, chewing on his lower lip. “I was merely worried about... the supplies. I think I’ve got a bottle left somewhere but it’s a bit beneath your usual standards. Not exactly fresh.” His tone is apologetic.

 

Hal’s mouth goes dry. He doesn't want to think about it. Back in the old days, the things Hal would do to Cutler for offering him blood from the fridge. Hal doesn’t want to remember those things. He’s convinced he doesn’t want to.

 

Cutler won’t stop blabbering and Hal catches only bits and pieces of it, fiddling restlessly with his domino piece. Hal wants his life back into order, one way or another.

 

“You know, never would have thought I’d say this but it’s a shame about Fergus. I wasn’t his biggest fan but the prick was your recruit -- he knew how to get the job done. Now it’s all a bit...” Cutler purses his lips, a flicker of fear in his eyes. “Messy.” Cutler squeezes Hal’s shoulder again. “Not that I’m saying I can’t handle it all on my own! Don’t you worry, we’ll sort it out in no time!”

 

Hal feels too tired to even comment on that. His thumb grazes against the crack on the domino piece. The world is circling down the drain.

 

Cutler unlocks the door to his flat, smiling like Hal’s a welcome guest and saying needlessly, “Come on in, Hal.”

 

Hal looks around in a huffish manner. Messy indeed. And -- because some things never change -- too few books. Hal stifles the urge to begin cleaning up -- those layers of dust look like they’re about to grow fur -- and straightens out a stack of magazines on the coffee table instead. There is a mismatched pair of dirty socks under it.

 

Cutler returns, carrying Hal’s suitcases. Hal’s displeased face prompts him to ask, “Or did you want to leave them in the car?”

 

Hal takes off his coat and sits down on the sofa, having checked that it’s relatively clean.

 

“Alright, then, I’ll go fetch you a snack,” Cutler says in a deliberately cheerful tone.

 

Hal startles. “Don’t!”

 

Cutler blinks in astonishment. “Are you sure? I mean, it’s no problem at all -- I can do it! Will be back before you even notice I’m out.”

 

“Cutler,” Hal says through gritted teeth.

 

Cutler backs away. “Alright, alright.” He scurries away to rummage in his fridge, making awfully lot of noise. “Where the hell is the damned bottle? I swear I’ve seen it this very morning. Shit.”

 

Hal reminds himself he doesn’t want to rip Cutler’s throat out. Or does he? “Cutler, stop fussing, it’s irritating.”

 

Cutler emerges before Hal, raising his hands. “I give up. What do you want, Hal?”

 

“To change my clothes,” Hal announces without lifting a finger.

 

Cutler’s lips twitch. “Well, no one’s keeping you from that.” His tone turns sly. “Or do you need my help?”

 

Under the force of Hal’s withering glare, Cutler retreats into the bedroom. Hal opens his suitcase, taking out the stake. Cutler brings a set of clean towels, placing them on the sofa apprehensively. And then he notices what’s in Hal’s hands and takes an instinctive step back.

 

“Hal, what are you doing?” Cutler looks like he’s about to flee in terror and Hal can’t have that.

 

Hal turns the pointy end towards his own chest and offers the stake to Cutler, meeting his eyes and saying solemnly, “I have a favour to ask of you, Cutler.”

 

“Sorry, what? Hal, if this is some kind of a joke, it’s not funny!” Cutler frowns. “Oh, I see: it’s a test, isn’t it?” Cutler takes a deep breath and says in an urgent tone, “Hal, you know I’d never do it, right? Right?”

 

“I’m serious.” Hal is shaking, torn between quiet despair and boiling anger. “I don’t have anyone else to ask.”

 

Cutler opens his mouth and closes it again, gaping like a fish out of the water.

 

Hal sinks to his knees, “Cutler, please.”

 

It’s Cutler’s turn to lash out. “Hal, quit this nonsense, seriously!” There’s a vein popping out on Cutler’s forehead. He grabs Hal by the fabric of his shirt and pulls him up to his feet. “You’re not in your right mind.”

 

Hal presses on, “You don’t need me anymore, Cutler. You’d only be disappointed. You already are.”

 

Cutler stays silent, holding onto Hal and searching his face.

 

“There was a time when we were friends,” Hal says. “I’m asking this of you as a friend, Nick.”

 

“That’s all twee, really.” There’s a steely edge to Cutler’s voice. “By the way, do you mean before or after you killed my wife?”

 

Hal flinches -- clearly not a reaction Cutler expected.

 

Cutler bursts into hysterical laughter. “Oh, relax, I’m just taking the piss. You should have seen the look on your face.” He lets go and circles around Hal like he’s a curious new specimen.

 

Hal snarls. “Bloody do it. Settle the score, avenge your fucking wife and whatever else is there on the list!” He turns around and shoves the stake into Cutler’s hands. ”You’ve just effectively demonstrated you’ve got more than one good reason to hate me.” The stake clatters to the floor. Cutler nudges it with his foot and sends it rolling under the sofa.

 

“Fucking hell, Cutler, why don’t you ever do what I tell you?” Hal grabs Cutler by his throat.

 

Cutler wheezes out, “Hal, would you just stop and listen to yourself for a moment?”

 

Hal’s grip tightens. “I’m not who you think I am anymore.”

 

Cutler snorts. “Funny. You don’t seem all that different to me right now.”

 

Hal releases him, staggering away. Cutler wraps his arms around Hal to steady him and Hal bucks. Cutler persists, even if he’s no match for Hal in physical strength. After a brief and idiotic struggle for god knows what, they both lose their balance and tumble onto the coffee table. It breaks down under the combined weight.

 

“Fuck.” Hal looks up at the ceiling, searching for the answers that aren’t anywhere.

 

“Sodding IKEA,” Cutler grumbles, lying on top of Hal and wriggling experimentally. “Oh, good, all the bones intact.”

 

Hal pushes Cutler off himself.

 

“Hey, know what? The stake is under the sofa, so it was definitely you happy to see me.”

 

Hal asks himself why he didn’t tear out Cutler’s tongue while he still could. He lunges forward and pins Cutler to the floor. Cutler smirks, his palm pressing against the front of Hal’s trousers. This is not the message Hal intended to send.

 

Hal growls and bites Cutler’s neck, the taste insipid but not acrid, the things he’s denied himself for so long rushing back to him. Cutler moans, writhing against him, feverish and ecstatic like a bloody teenager. Hal’s thirst and arousal drown out the part of his mind screaming at him to get away.

 

Hal attacks Cutler’s shirt like it’s his personal enemy, rending it to pieces. Cutler protests against the treatment and Hal silences him with an aggressive kiss, biting through his lower lip.

Cutler fingers close around Hal’s cock, stroking him harshly, his other hand on Hal’s arse. Hal pulls away, licking his lips, and tugs Cutler’s trousers and underwear down. Cutler’s eyes glint.

 

Hal penetrates him roughly, making Cutler wince in pain. Hal smirks, lifting Cutler’s hips off the floor. A tiny  panicked sound escapes Cutler’s lips, his limbs flailing -- it goes straight to Hal’s cock. Hal has missed this so badly: being the one in control, being casually cruel -- and, what the hell, just screwing Cutler. The thing Hal never fully understood was why Cutler always -- or almost always -- shared the enthusiasm.

 

Hal’s pent-up energy carries him through the better part of the night, his ears all but ringing from Cutler cries and pleas. They don’t break any more furniture but the carpet is beyond salvation and so are Cutler’s clothes.

 

Apparently, Cutler’s never worn out enough not to open his mouth. ”Not feeling peckish yet? A weeny bit?”

 

“Don’t mock me.”

 

Cutler grins. “That’s more like it. I remember that tone. Do it again.”

 

“I’m not a circus monkey.”

 

“Prove it.”

 

Hal almost takes the bait. “I’ve got nothing to prove to you.”

 

Cutler’s happy glow gets disturbing fast.

 

Cutler’s lips ghost over Hal’s ear. “Whoever you think you are now, there’s always room for you in my life. That’s more than anyone else is willing to offer, isn't it?”

 

How does he know? Hal sits up, itching for a shower.

 

Cutler watches him go unapologetically. “It could have been worse. You could have changed your name and stalked vampire slayers.”

 

Hal doesn’t want to know.

 

“Say, do you have a Twitter account?”

 

Hal barricades himself in Cutler’s bedroom, hoping to sleep the nightmare off.

 

***

 

Hal jolts awake to the unmistakable sound of blood pumping through a living body. He’s able to hear it even through the door. He pushes it open, dressed only his underwear, and freezes on the spot, mesmerised.

 

There’s a girl tied to a chair. A fresh, plump, delicious-looking girl, straining against the ropes, her lovely brown eyes brimming with terror.

 

“Good morning, Hal.” Cutler grins, pleased with himself. The girl whimpers into the gag and Cutler pats her on the head. “Your full English breakfast.”

 

Hal swallows down his saliva, gripping the doorjamb.

 

Cutler twiddles a knife in his hand before making a shallow cut on her throat and licking the blade clean.

 

“You don’t want to do this,” Hal says, not very convincing even to own ears. Especially to his own ears. He thinks of the last night.

 

“Don’t I?” Cutler rolls up her skirt, pushing her legs further apart and putting her milky thighs on display. He makes another cut, a deeper one.

 

“No.”

 

“Yes.”

 

Hal staggers backwards, wishing he could feel sick about this.

 

Cutler smirks and methodically cuts the ropes, whispering sweetly, “Run.”

 

The girl obeys.

 

Hal has always loved the chase. He catches up with the girl by the front door and grabs her by the shoulders, burying his teeth in her neck. He drinks in quick, greedy gulps, and discards the body when he’s finished.

 

“Do you want a taste, Cutler?” Hal smears the blood over Cutler’s lips. Cutler’s tongue darts out to lick at Hal’s fingers.

 

***

 

Cutler rolls up his sleeves calmly. “Brings back old memories, doesn’t it?”

 

Hal takes off his shirt, hanging it over the back of the driver’s seat, and wrestles the shovel out of Cutler’s hands.

 

“You don’t have to do that,” Cutler says.

 

Hal doesn’t deign a reply, marching ahead and looking for a good spot. He breaks up, turns over and removes the earth. He hasn’t done it for 55 years.

 

“You’ve been working out,” Cutler comments approvingly.

 

Hal grits his teeth, digging.

 

Cutler decides this is somehow the right moment to resume babbling about his plans. Hal tunes it out.

 

“We’ll watch the dawn break over the new world. Drink from the veins of history, like in the Muse song. How does it sound?”

 

Like a hodgepodge of pompous gibberish Hal used to be so fond of spouting and pointless pop culture references that are entirely Cutler.

 

Hal asks without turning around. “And who’s the werewolf?”

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

Robert Frost. “The Road Not Taken”.