Frank froze, his foot halfway off the ledge.
“Don’t you move, boy–"
Frank half-turned to look over his shoulder, wind whipping his hair into his eyes. It was too dark inside the train car to catch the man's face, and almost too loud to hear, but Frank didn’t need much light to recognize the glint of a badge on the man's shirt and the gun in his hand.
“Don’t–" the man started, taking a step, but the rest was lost when Frank heaved his weight forward and out of the open door into the night.
For one brief moment he was flying, suspended with the tree line. He hit the ground hard, knocking dirt into his lungs and kicking up dust the whole way to the bottom. He didn’t stop when he hit the ditch - just used the momentum to stagger to his feet and into the underbrush as fast as he could. He didn’t stop running until every sound of the passing train had been muffled by the thick wall of trees at his back.
Frank jogged about half a mile in the dark before he had to stop from the sharp stitch in his side. There was a small, lank stream bent around an outcropping of rocks at the bottom of the slope before him, and Frank quietly made his way down and seated himself uneasily on the bank, careful of his bones.
He rolled his shoulders, cracking the ache in his neck, and pressed three fingers to the sore spots on his ribs and hips. He pulled up the hem of his shirt to check for blood where it ached the most, but there was nothing. Bruised, but not broken, and the dark smear of blood on his leg where he’d rolled over a rock seemed shallow enough not to worry.
Frank washed his face in the stream, scrubbed his hands and fingernails with a chipped, slate-smooth rock from the bank, and patted out the dirt from his clothes the best that he could. He poured cool water over the cuts on his leg and knuckles and used the rest to slick his hair back off of his face, brushing it neat with his small, snapped comb.
He leaned back against the largest of the rocks, angling himself towards the slight lightening of the sky on the horizon, and lit up the second to last cigarette from the tin in his pocket. It was almost too hot to enjoy the smoke, oddly sweltering even midway through October, but he sat on the bank with his bare feet in the water and smoked it down until his fingertips burned.
"Fuck it," Frank said to no one.
An owl hooted at him from somewhere overhead, annoyed at his presence.
"You and everyone else," Frank muttered, and flicked the last of the burned cigarette paper into the stream as he pushed himself up to his feet. He tipped his hand towards the owl as he passed, the vaguest of niceties, but the owl was silent, just two bright eyes in the dark.
Moving through the woods quietly was a fucking mess. It was almost impossible to see anything in the pitch black of the woods, and he didn't dare light up a match that close to town. You never knew who could be watching. As he approached the outskirts he could hear the slowly swelling noise of the factories beyond, and the light from it started to ease his way. It was still early enough in the night that the late shift workers would be making their way home, which meant people, which meant people Frank didn't want to see.
He was pretty sure most people didn't want to see him, either.
Frank stuck to the shadows as he crossed behind the Square, slipping down the alley behind the blacksmith's stables. The horses shuffled as he passed, eyeing him through the gate, but he moved silently past and into the other quarter. He was almost through the main thoroughfare of the town, was just starting to relax, when -
"Iero!" a voice called out, and Frank froze. Shit.
"Iero, you son of a bitch!" Frank turned, his hand hovering over the handle of his switch deep in his pocket, but immediately paused as recognition set in.
"Dewees?" Frank asked, aghast. Holy shit.
Dewees whooped and jogged towards him, immediately pulling Frank into an embrace. Even with Dewees's hand around his forearm Frank could feel the strength - he was tan, too, with new lines on his face and a good few more inches on Frank.
"You look like you saw a ghost."
"Just your face," Frank managed. "What the hell'd you do to it?"
"Grew into it," Dewees laughed, squeezing his arm again before letting go. "Where the hell you been, man?"
Frank glanced over Dewees' shoulder but he didn't recognize anyone else in the street. He couldn't figure out how to angle them away from the main square, but he shifted his footing enough to clear a view behind Dewees' shoulder, just in case.
"Around," Frank answered, shrugging. "You? You working?"
"Making roads for the WPA. Other shit, sometimes," Dewees said, still grinning, mouth uneven as ever. "I didn't think you'd ever make it back to this shithole."
"Well, you know," Frank replied, but trailed off. He didn't know. Frank didn't think he'd make it back either. He hadn't wanted to.
"When'd you get in?"
"Tonight," Frank said. "Took the train."
"Good, that's good," Dewees said, nodding along. "Listen, I gotta run some errands for my girl, but me and Eddie - you remember Eddie, from the baseball games? And that anthill thing? - Eddie's back from a run and me and him are gonna head out to the old beaver dam tonight to do some, uh–" he leant forward a bit, darting a glance to both sides before continuing, "relaxing. You interested?"
"Absolutely," Frank said. He grinned. He'd take the perks where he could get them.
Dewees nodded, pleased. “A little bit past the last bell of McCarver's shift. Don’t trip on your way down.”
When Frank rounded the corner on the eighth street of the east quarter he was almost disappointed to see that the little old house was still there. It leaned significantly more into the one beside it than before, and the shutters had finally rusted off. The whole thing looked like it'd just paused, mid-sigh, and given up.
Most of the other houses on the street were dark, doors shut tight, but Frank could see a small, fragile light shining through the thin lace curtains of the house.
The place where he’d carved a small F into the frame of the front door with his knife, hip-high, was still there, and he briefly ran his thumb over it before raising his hand to knock.
His mother opened the door so quickly Frank wondered if she'd been waiting just behind it. He immediately felt small in a way he never did around other people, and forced himself to stay in place. He was glad he'd combed his hair.
“Hi, ma,” Frank said, quiet.
Her face was hard, mouth a dry thin line, and she stared at him with her hand still firm on the door. “I prayed for you every night,” she said, voice tight.
Frank stiffened. “Thanks, ma,” he managed.
"You look thin," she frowned. "Have you eaten?"
Frank's gut was empty but he was pretty sure he would've choked on anything she'd put in front of him. "Ate on the way here. He around?" he asked, voice dropping on the question.
"Around," she replied. He couldn't read her.
The hollow knot in Frank's gut tightened but he swallowed it down. "Smoke?"
She nodded, finally stepping back from the door so he could pass in front of her and into the house. The space was strange, so different than what he remembered. There were fewer pieces of furniture, but it all felt so small, so cramped, like if he turned without looking he'd knock something over.
He eased into the wooden chair by the table, his mother taking the other, and passed over his last cigarette.
His mother lit it off the candle and took a long drag, still watching him.
"Why are you here?" she asked. She crossed her arms over her chest and slouched back into the seat, but she didn't sound angry. "You didn't write."
"I wanted to see you," Frank said.
She frowned. "Frank."
Frank sighed. He rubbed at the space between his eyebrows with his thumb, but it didn't help. "I'm looking for work. Thought there might be some here."
"Plenty of better places to look for work than here," his mother said, taking a short, terse drag on the cigarette. "You running from something?"
Frank sat back in his chair, mimicking her position. "Isn't everybody?" He just had more reasons than most people, was all.
She looked eerily the same as he remembered, same thin wrists, tense mouth. He wondered how different he looked to her, if he did at all. "What's he doing?" Frank asked, changing the subject. His fingers played with the edge of his cigarette tin. She didn't look him in the eye when she answered, focusing on a point over his shoulder.
"He's looking too," she said.
Ah - there it was. She wasn't mad. She was embarrassed. "What happened to the lumber yard?" Frank asked, keeping his voice even.
"The foreman didn't like him," she said. She ashed quickly onto the floor and took another drag, making sure to tamp the ash with her foot.
"How are you getting by?" Frank asked.
His mother smiled, then, just a little. "We manage."
Frank forced himself to release the tight grip around the tin, moving his hands to hide them in his lap.
There was a loud noise from outside, a heavy boot on the porch, and Frank tensed, half out of his seat by the time his pa came in through the front door. Frank could smell him where he stood, coppery and drunk.
His pa blinked at him, focusing slowly, then pushed off the doorframe and into the room. Shoulders broad as ever. He looked like he fit into the house less than Frank did. His arms dangled down by his sides, limp, and his face was red.
"Well look who decided to come back." He stared at Frank, hard.
Frank stayed silent.
"Don't you give him nothing," his pa said, sliding his eyes over to his mother. "Better not find out you did."
"Not askin' for nothing," Frank managed.
His pa lurched forward and Frank instinctively moved back, knocking the chair a little. His pa grinned, triumphant, as Frank bit back the shame of flinching first.
"S'what I thought," his pa said.
Frank kept his fists clenched by his side until his pa passed through the room and into the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. When Frank turned back his mother was frozen in the same spot, cigarette in her hand untouched and burned down to the ash between her fingers.
Frank didn't even shut the front door behind him as he rushed back into the dark night, where he could breathe again.
“Frankie!” Eddie hollered, raising a dark bottle towards him in salute. “I could’ve sworn Dewees was lying to me about you being back, but looks like the son of a bitch was right.”
“For once,” Frank said, smiling as he hopped down off the felled tree trunk and into a patch of ankle-deep mud.
“Watch out for the mud,” Dewees said casually, lighting up a cigarette, and Frank flicked him off before he pulled himself up to join them on the side of the dam. The dirt was already caked around his pant legs and underneath his fingernails, ground into his palms, but it still smelled cleaner out there, away from the town.
Eddie passed over the bottle and Frank took a long swig, wincing. "Where'd you get this shit, man?" he asked through the grimace. "You could burn down the woods with this."
"I've been running it for the Saporta boys," Eddie said, taking the bottle back from Frank. "They let me skim one off the top if I make it through and none of them get broke before I get there."
"The pay good?" Frank asked, leaning back against a branch.
Eddie shrugged. "Used to be. Heard they might not need it much longer, though. Might get turned over, if the law goes through."
"They've been saying that for years," Dewees said. "I'll believe it when I see it."
"Or when I don't have to sit on a fucking dam in the middle of fucking nowhere to drink it," Frank said, pulling the bottle back out of Dewees' hands.
"Not like you guys are working something better," Eddie said, sounding a little defensive.
Frank shrugged. "Bad business, is all. Can't trust anybody, can you?"
Eddie frowned. "Yeah, because you guys are elegant fucks."
"I'm a god damned elegant fuck," Dewees slurred, taking a drag on his cigarette. "I am progress and I am its inevitable end."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Frank asked. "How fucking drunk are you?"
Eddie rolled his eyes. "He thinks he's hot shit because he's on the government's tit with that WPA shit and digs graves at night. Liquor him up enough and he'll start talking 'bout the honor in it all."
"It is honorable," Dewees said, leaning back against the log. "People can say all the shit they want and make the hand motions and say the prayers but I'm the fucker that actually lays you to rest. Be nice to me, Eddie, or I'll make sure you spend your afterlife face-first in that hole."
"Grave digging?" Frank asked. "For serious?"
"You interested?" Dewees asked.
"What? C'mon, man, I asked you if they had spots a week ago," Eddie interrupted.
"They didn't have a spot weeks ago. Besides, you got a job," Dewees said, waving him off. "Frankie, you want in? 'Cause last I heard Frank Iero was more interested in fillin' graves than diggin' them out."
Frank paused, the bottle halfway to his mouth.
"What?" Eddie asked, leaning back on his seat and assessing Frank. "What's he mean? You kill people in the carnival?"
"What carnival?" Frank asked, finally taking the drink.
"That's what Lucy said, said you took up with some carnies, that's why you left for so long," Eddie replied.
Frank couldn't hold back the laugh. "You guys got nothing better to do than sit around and tell shitty stories to pass the time?"
"Not really," Dewees said, shrugging. "Tell me, that bearded lady - she got that going all over?"
Frank rolled his eyes, but Eddie just leaned forward, entranced. "Does she?"
He reached for the bottle but Frank pulled it back to take another shot first, let the liquor roll around his teeth a bit before swallowing. "I never tell a lady's secrets," he finally said, and closed his eyes sincerely. It was hitting him faster on an empty stomach than normal, but he didn't care.
"Was this before or after you helped the mermaid escape?" Dewees asked with concern. "I heard she taught you to breathe underwater, so you could visit. They were gonna make you king."
"It's true," Frank said, nodding along.
"Mermaids?" Eddie asked, but frowned as realization set in. "Fuck you, I'm taking my bottle back," he said, grabbing it out of Frank's hands. "Always were full of shit."
"Not my fault you make it so easy," Frank laughed. Eddie didn't join, but he was already so blurry around the edges from the drink he softened again eventually.
"Well if you don't have stories about mermaids, least you can do is tell some stories about something good," Dewees said, rolling another cigarette between his fingers. "Consider it payment for the liquor."
Frank settled back against the log and rubbed under his eyes. His cheeks were already warm from the bottle. "Fine. You ever hear the story about the guy who went to sleep a man and woke up a giant beetle?"
"Fuck you," Eddie said.
"It happened to a guy's cousin I knew in California," Frank said. "You ever been to California?"
"No," Eddie answered, reluctantly.
"Good, 'cause it's fucking gross," Frank said. "Now shut up and listen."
Frank could hear Dewees groaning from somewhere off to his side but couldn't see him. If he opened his eyes too much the night sky above him started to spin around his head, making the stars blur into bright circles that pounded against his eyes.
"Jimmy," he heard Eddie say. "Jimmy, buddy, we gotta get back."
"Shut up," Dewees slurred. "Too loud."
"My ma will kill me," Eddie said. "C'mon, man, I promised her I'd be back before my grandma came over in the morning for church."
Dewees groaned. "Frankie. We gotta get back. You coming?"
"No," Frank grunted, face against the cool ground. "'m gonna stay here." He didn't want to go back, didn't want to move from that spot ever again, and wasn't sure if he could physically pull it off, anyway.
There were sounds of shuffling leaves on the other side of the log but Frank kept his eyes closed.
"Alright, man," Dewees said, groaning a little as he stood. "Find me about the - the job, thing, when you get back. I'll see what I can do."
"M'kay," Frank slurred, and tucked his arms tighter into his chest. It was all he could manage.
Frank opened his eyes carefully and the world was still slanted, if slightly less painful than before. He sat up and brushed a leaf from his face before pushing himself all the way up - well, vaguely up, since he had to stop to lean against the edge of the dam for a minute.
His gut rolled with the movement, but he was good enough to keep going in one direction, if not all that fast. He stopped to look over his shoulder, frowning. Which way was it back to town? He'd come from the east side of town. Right? That seemed right.
It was dark, black as tar under the canopy of the trees, and the small amount of moonlight was just enough to occasionally help him pick his way across the tree roots. He fell twice, slicing his palm on the bark of a tree as he tried to stop himself, and cursed out loud.
Frank righted himself and realized, looking around, that he was at the top of a ridge. He tried to catch his breath. His sense of time was fucked but he was sure he would've hit the edges of the town by then. Had he gone the wrong way? Fuck.
It certainly felt colder, wherever he was, and he didn't recognize anything from his way down to the dam. He lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat and mud off his face but paused, cloth to his cheek, when he realized what was really throwing him off.
It was silent. The only thing he could hear was his own breathing, his own shifting feet on the dead leaves. There was a breeze, cold against his face, but the trees around him didn't even move. Nothing made a noise. No night birds, no animals, nothing.
The back of his neck prickled. It was like the woods was holding its breath, waiting for something.
The woods shifted behind him, swelling in a pattering noise, and Frank swiveled, looking for animals in the underbrush before he realized that it was the first few drops of rain. Shit.
He needed a place to wait out the rain - he was drunk, but not drunk enough to warm him in this weather. He glanced around and saw some huge, overarching branches peek out from over a ridge in the distance, with greener, thicker leaves than anywhere else around him. It’d at least be some kind of cover.
He took off at a slow jog towards them - it was hard to keep his feet steady on the uneven ground and slowed him up - but spurred on by the growing ferociousness of the storm. He stopped in his tracks when he crossed over the top of the ridge. A wall stood in his way. A huge, dense green wall.
"The fuck?" Frank asked, aghast.
He jogged towards it, feet already sinking in the mud. It was absolutely unlike anything he'd ever seen. It wasn't a wall - it was a hedge, with gnarled, green leaves as far as he could see in either direction. When he pressed his palms against it the branches were twined so thick they barely moved under his weight.
The thunder cracked again, lightning flashing across the sky, and Frank flicked his wet hair out of his face. The wall - hedge, whatever it was - wouldn't give him any cover, he should move on, but he couldn't just leave it, not now that he'd found it. He followed the edge of it, palm against the leaves, to try and find a way in, but there was nothing. It was solid as brick underneath.
He was cold and soaked through, his clothes sticking everywhere, and he ignored the way his head was pounding from the leftover drink and the sharp drop in temperature. But he still couldn’t leave it now, not this. This thing didn't just grow in the middle of the forest naturally. Someone had made this in the middle of nowhere. He wanted to know who.
The wall in front of him shuddered, like a ripple. Frank stepped back, startled, and saw where the blood from his scratched palm had smeared on some of the leaves. They looked like they were - shaking? - he couldn't tell, not from the pounding of the rain and the wind, but it seemed off. He took a step back towards it, curious, and a slit in the wall opened. Just wide to fit him if he squeezed.
What? No, that - he hesitated, looking around the forest for someone who might be watching. He was alone.
Hesitation started to creep into his thoughts. He really shouldn’t go in. He was still hours away from town - if he didn't get lost again - and something about the whole thing wasn't sitting right. The only sound around him was the rain, but even that still seemed muted.
He took a step to move away - one pace, another - but then - oh, fuck it - he turned and jumped through the hole in the wall to the other side of the hedge.
The branches yanked on his skin and clothes like sharp fingernails holding him back. Something was slick on his face and he didn't know if was rain or blood from the thorns, but he ignored it and moved on.
It wasn't a hedge. It wasn't just a hedge. He looked around and all he saw was green. Green on all sides, towering mirrors of the wall at his back. A gap in front of him showed that even further ahead was more of the same, with breaks in the walls splintering into all directions. It wasn't a hedge. It was a maze. He'd seen drawings of them before, in old storybooks, but never in person.
Frank exhaled shakily. This was different than when it was just a hedge in his way. The first rule was that you always had to know your escape routes; this was a disaster. Never play when someone else set the rules. He stumbled back towards the hole in the wall, palms outstretched, but the thin slip of a hole that had been there before was gone like it had never been.
The sun rose slowly, barely glinting over the tips of the leaves at the upper edge, dim through the thick, low clouds of the storm. Frank stumbled forward, dread rising in his stomach. This was a terrible idea. He needed to leave.
Something moved behind him.
He turned quickly, body tensed, but there was nothing. He stayed frozen in place, not even breathing.
He took a few steps back, still facing the way of the rustling, but nothing moved, nothing he could see through the waves of the storm. Frank stepped back quietly, carefully, and then he was off - half-jogging, half-walking, trying to find another break in the outer wall, but there was nothing. Still nothing.
What was he going to do? Who knew how huge this maze was, he could be stuck in it for hours. No one would know he'd even been lost.
He rounded a corner and froze immediately. There was a junction in the maze with paths leading farther in, away from the outer wall, but there was also - something - something huge in front of him, in the shadows cast by the hedge and the thick, gnarled tree cover overhead.
Frank couldn’t breathe.
It was a hound. But not a hound. It was huge, at least twice the size of the dogs in town, if not more. And it was staring at Frank, snarling, and it had teeth, it had so many fucking teeth.
The hound saw him and its whole body jerked immediately around - a terrifying, unnatural motion - with the sounds of bones cracking, popping in their joints. Frank didn't stay to watch.
He bolted, skidding in the mud, but shoved himself up and forward as fast as he could. The hound snapped at his heels, howled when Frank turned a corner. He could hear it crashing against the walls of the hedges when it rounded the corners, throwing its whole weight into running after him. He could hear it breathing, panting, the sick pounding of its huge paws hitting the ground hard to chase him down.
Another turn, another - a dead end. Frank panicked, trying to reverse, but it was too late. The hound grabbed Frank's leg in his jaws and yanked, immediately jerking him off his feet.
Frank cried out in pain but the hound didn't stop, just started dragging him down the path by Frank's ankle. Frank felt things ripping - flesh or fabric, he couldn't tell, he couldn't focus, didn't know what was his anymore. He yelled again, repeatedly kicking it firmly in the jaw with his free foot, and when that didn't work he aimed a heel right for its black eyes. The hound released him with a jerk and Frank was up again, running as fast as he could with blood running down his leg and an ankle that could barely hold him upright.
It felt like hours. Frank couldn't breathe and the stitch in his side was so sharp he almost doubled in pain. His ankle was wobbling, aching and hot, and he wasn't going to make it out alive.
There. Oh, Jesus -
The break in the wall.
Frank's heart pounded as he turned the corner, still stumbling, and he could hear the sound of the hound behind him again. It had found him. It was too late.
Frank was out - no - he wasn't out, he was in the middle, he was in the middle of the maze - and there was a house in front of him, up on the mild slope of a hill.
"Help!" Frank hollered. "Someone help!"
He made it to the porch, stumbling up the steps, and threw his body against the door.
"Help!" he cried again, beating the door with his fist. The hound was out of the maze, running across the lawn, and when Frank looked back all he could see was teeth -
Someone grabbed his shirt and yanked him forward, hard, and his cheek smacked against wooden floorboards. There was a loud slam, deadbolts sliding, and Frank only had the briefest chance to see two wide eyes, bright in the dark of the house, before he passed out completely.
Frank jerked awake. The pounding in his head sent him falling back into the cushions beneath him immediately and he hissed at the pain. But - wait - cushions? He kept one hand over his eyes and moved the other beside him and - yes. Cushions. He cracked open an eyelid enough to get a glimpse of the room around him and confirmed that not only was he still alive, but apparently he was still inside the house, as well.
He was dry, too, and clean, with a thick, soft bandage wrapped carefully around his ankle, the loose edges tucked in neatly.
"Hello?" Frank called out, pushing himself up a little bit more. He took it gently this time. "Anyone there?"
No one answered. He moved off the sofa - slowly, so slowly - and tested his leg with the slightest amount of weight against it. The pain made him wince, his ankle shuddering, but Frank just gritted his teeth and hopped slowly over to the door.
The door was locked. Panic prickled across his skin.
"Hey!" Frank called out. "Hello!"
"Anyone there? I'm up!" he called, practically pressing his mouth to the seam of the door.
Still nothing. Frank jiggled the door handle and ran his fingers around the metal but there wasn't even a lock on his side.
"The fuck," Frank said, yanking on it again for good measure. He turned to survey his surroundings but there was nothing that could help him. No windows to the outside, nothing big enough to break down the door. He was too weak to kick it through.
It was a strange room, sparsely furnished, barely anything in it besides the thin chaise and wide, bare fireplace. The faded wallpaper was cleanly laid, if old, and the rug beneath his feet obviously expensive.
A small, round table offset the chaise with a delicate china plate centered on top, glass of water in the middle. His whole mouth was dry. He hopped back over to the sofa and collapsed back into the cushions, grabbing the glass as he did.
It wasn't water - it clung sluggishly to the sides of the glass like syrup. He sniffed the contents and paused. He knew that smell from more than a few trips to the doctor when he was young, the thick cloth soaked with it over his face. It'd knock him out in a second. Not enough to kill him, but enough to put him out for hours. He sniffed it again warily and then tossed the entire contents of the glass into the empty, cold fireplace, soaking the brick.
Frank placed the empty glass back on the table and folded himself back onto the couch, closing his eyes, and steadied his breathing the best he could, even with his heart still racing.
He didn't sleep. He had no concept of how much time passed since he'd closed his eyes to try. An hour? Two? A day? It blurred together in one tense, unending moment as he fought to hold himself still, unmoving.
There was a creak of the door. Frank held his body stiff in place, eyes shut, keeping his breathing steady, easy.
A click as the latch on the door closed again. Footsteps approached - hesitant and halting, as though they took a step back for every step they took towards him. A pause - oh God, did they know, what were they going to do to him - and then a gentle touch at his ankle.
Frank kicked out, rolling over and grabbing the hand that touched his leg.
"Watch yourself," he said, teeth gritted tight, grip firm.
It was a boy. No, not a boy - boyish - but at least a few years older than Frank. Pale and thin as a blade. His eyes were wide, staring at Frank from behind round, thick glasses, and messy, unslicked hair. His wrist was thin under Frank's grip but he still held firm to the roll of bandages in his hands.
"Where am I?" Frank asked. The boy looked startled, like he couldn't understand what Frank was saying. He hadn't tried to pull away.
"Where am I?" Frank repeated, starting to feel brutish and silly. He was still rattled enough to keep going.
"Here," the boy finally said. His voice was surprisingly rough, like he hadn't used it in a long time, or was coming off an illness.
"Not helpful," Frank said.
The boy was still silent, watching his face. He wasn't scared of Frank, wasn't trembling or worried, but he stared at him like Frank was the strange one. It suddenly reminded Frank of the time they'd had a bat in the kitchen when he was younger, and his mother had shoved him behind her, moving quietly, not looking away from it, trying not to startle it.
Frank felt awkward, unsteady with the slow realization that he'd judged the situation too quickly and too harshly, and was now completely without a defense. He let go of the boy's wrist, leaning back slightly.
The boy watched him for another moment, then quietly moved to unwrap the bandages around Frank's ankle. His fingers were so light Frank could barely feel the pressure. Frank winced when the final layer came off and he could see the wound - bruised around the bone, in mottled shades of black and green, and a long gash in the skin.
"Broken?" Frank asked.
The boy shook his head.
"That's some fucking guard dog you have," Frank said.
The boy didn't respond, but produced a small glass jar from the pocket of his waistcoat. When he unscrewed the top Frank could immediately smell the herbal, sharp edge of the medicinal paste inside. The boy used two fingers to pull out a small portion of it and drop it gently to Frank's ankle, using the lightest touch to spread it over the skin and wound.
Frank hissed at the contact, but the pain in his ankle immediately lessened, fading to a dull ache.
"Thanks," Frank started, awkwardly, as the boy rebandaged his ankle, not looking back up at him. He rose from the sofa, pocketing the small glass vial, and crossed back over to the door.
"You got a name?" Frank asked, but the question was cut off by the sound of the boy closing the door behind him, the key turning heavy in the lock.
When Frank woke up again it was night - or at least he assumed it was. The room was pitch black without windows but there wasn't any light coming from the small crack underneath the door, and it took him long minutes to be able to adjust enough to pick out shapes in the dark.
His gut rumbled, empty, mouth dry. He hadn't eaten since before he'd hit Sulphur and that felt like weeks ago.
"Hello?" Frank tried, but it came out quiet. "You there?"
No one answered. The dark was stifling, almost thick, like a blanket muffling everything. Frank turned his head and there were two small pinpricks of light in the dark behind him. He jerked away, shoving back on the chaise, but then they were gone, snuffed out.
Frank didn't sleep again. Exhaustion and hunger pulled at him, making him feel dull and cracked, but he couldn't let his guard down. He tried for what felt like hours until he couldn't fight it anymore and gave in.
When he woke again the room still empty but - he paused. The door to the room was cracked open, the latch caught on the inside of the frame. He practically jumped from the cushions to the door. When he put weight on his ankle most of the ache was gone, but there was still a twinge in his foot that made him wary.
He pushed through the door and into the hallway, stopping to peer both ways before venturing out. It seemed strange that the boy would have left the door unlocked after taking such care to keep him inside, but the medicine and bandages didn't seem to be the work of someone looking to harm him. At least not entirely. They could have given him some water that wasn't fucking drugged, at least.
The sitting room the boy had kept Frank in was apparently a parlor off of the main hallway on the first floor of the house - a house that was gigantic. Frank hadn't managed to get a good look when he'd been running towards it, but it was obviously even larger than he'd thought.
Paintings hung too crowded on the walls, filling whole stretches of hallway where the frames or bare edges of the canvases touched one another like an eerie kind of quilt. In some places paintings had obviously been removed, creating lighter blotches on the wallpaper. There were some landscapes and strange, muddled compositions, but the majority of them were portraits of people staring straight ahead. Frank's neck prickled with so many eyes on him.
The sparseness of the parlor hadn't prepared Frank for the rest of the house. Every surface was covered - every wall and desk and shelf and tabletop - with things.
Stacks of canvases lay against the frame of a large, tall-windowed sitting room he passed on the way. Books littered every surface, some stacks organized and others piled without pretense, and stacks upon stacks of paper, tied in bundles with bits of string or braided cracked grass or faded leather. An entire shelf of coiled, rusted pieces that looked like they'd been pulled out of a piano. A dish of buttons, needles without threads. A jar of teeth, too small and pointed to be human. A box of black, oily feathers.
He paused at a small table by the bottom of the large carved wooden staircase in the main hall. It was covered in a crowd of strange, intricate little wooden figurines, each with a different expression painted carefully on the face plate. One of them had a delicate gold chain wrapped around it; when he ran it through his fingers the clasp and charm on the end - a heavy gold cross - caught on his palm. Frank stared at it. It had to be worth a fortune.
Frank had never seen anything like it - had only been in a house even close to this size once, and that'd been back in Tennessee. He'd never been inside the actual house, though, had just busted the lock on the cellar to steal some tools. There weren't places like this anywhere in Sulphur, wasn't money like this anywhere in Sulphur. How did they have so many things? How come he'd never heard of them?
A gust of wind blew a tree branch against the house and the noise startled him enough to look up. The front door. It was right there. He tried his foot again, and - not perfect, but it would do. He chanced another glance over his shoulder before quietly slipping the figurine and necklace into the pocket of his pants.
It was a strange door - so much of the house was ornate, carved out - but the door was flat and rusted around the bolts, like the original one had been broken before and hastily patched up from the inside. Frank had definitely come in this way the night before, though, when he supposed the boy in the glasses had pulled him in.
It was locked.
"Fuck," Frank said, jiggling the handle. He pulled on it, angry, and the handle fell off in his hands, like useless metal.
"Fuck!" he said again, slamming his hand against the front door. It didn't even shudder under his weight.
Fuck this place. They had no right to keep him here. He'd left his mother without even saying he'd be back, she wouldn't think he needed looking for - and the possible job with Dewees, who knows how long they'd hold it for him, if they held it at all - but - what if the boy with the glasses was just holding him there until the police showed up to drag him away? A trespasser. Fuck trespassing, they had more than that to lock him up - fuck.
His mind raced, edging on panic, and he chucked the doorknob in his hand at one of the smaller, low-set windows at the base of the staircase. It bounced off the glass without even leaving a scratch, skidding across the floor to rest against his feet.
Claustrophobia choked him. Frank ran up the stairs of the house, trying every window he found, but they were all locked, sealed tight, old paint crusting them shut. Three flights of stairs and he was having trouble keeping it together. But there - a ladder, at the end of the hall, to an opened hole in the ceiling. Frank stumbled towards it, pulling himself up - an attic, crammed full of dirty sheet-covered objects, more canvases - but a path through the dust cut through the space, leading to a door on the wall.
He yanked on it hard and it miraculously opened under his hands. It lead out to a long, flat, exposed part of the roof, mostly hidden by the peaks of the attic. He could see the layout of the grounds in front of him, although he had to shade his eyes from the glare of the bright, low sun.
The maze. A maze carved from the hedges, intricate and twisted, that stretched out on all sides from the house, in every direction. Jesus.
"Lost?" a voice said behind him, and Frank whipped around to find the boy in the glasses standing a few paces behind him, holding a pair of dirt-caked shears.
"Stay the fuck away from me," Frank said, and pulled the switch from his pocket, flipping out the blade with a quick motion.
The boy stared at the blade, then up at Frank's face, but remained expressionless.
"How do I get out of here?" Frank asked, raising his arm higher to point between the boy's eyes.
The boy was silent.
"Answer me, you shit!" Frank said, gritting his teeth. "Did you send for the cops?"
The boy still remained silent, and anger coiled hot in Frank's stomach. He tightened his grip on the knife.
"Fuck you," Frank spat, backing away from him. "I'll let myself out."
He stopped when his calf hit the bricked edge of the patio and turned quickly, glancing over the side. There was a slight drop from the eaves of the house to the floor below - enough to get his feet on the ledge, he could see, if he landed it right.
Frank glanced back at the boy but he hadn't moved any closer, just watched him with his head slightly cocked to the side. Frank slipped the knife between his teeth and heaved himself over the small railing and down off the eaves, arms vibrating with the effort to hold him steady.
He'd misjudged the distance and his own exhaustion. He knew he was slipping before it actually happened, but it didn't make the impact against the tiled shingles below him any gentler. He grasped at the eaves but slid off the side, only managing to halt his fall briefly before the rotting wood crumbled under his fingers like pulp and he tumbled down again.
The ground underneath him was wet, grass slick and cold from the rain the night before, and he scrambled to push himself up as his hands slipped, grabbing the knife from where it'd fallen a few feet beside him.
There was a howl from within the maze, loud and long, and Frank panicked, sprinting for the gap in the wall of the hedge. It sounded like the hound was on the other side of the garden but Frank had no doubt it was gunning for him. He pushed through, ankle throbbing, taking it on a sprint.
A dead-end. Another. A howl, closer. Sweat poured down Frank's back as he rounded another corner, and another, and another. It felt like it stretched on for miles. He couldn't even see any part of the house to use as a guide, either, and the walls loomed too large for him to get his bearings from the shadows.
Frank made a sharp left and whooped - there! The tip of a branch from the woods extending over the row the next one over. If he could just -
Something slammed into him, heavy and hot, and it knocked him off his feet and to the ground. The hound - Frank didn't have time to look, time to think - he shoved the blade of his knife keep into the hound's shoulder, kicking it hard in the chest as it howled in pain.
Frank lunged for the ivy wall and pulled himself up, dragging himself up on the vines until he was at the top, scrambling for the edge of the tree branch. He only glanced back once, but the dog was gone, the maze silent - a smear of blood on the ground the only evidence it had been there at all.
Frank swung up on the branch and slid down the trunk, hands fumbling on the rain-soaked wood, and when he hit the ground he didn't stop running until the land leveled out and he could smell the outskirts of the town. He'd never been so relieved for the stench.
Blood smeared on his shirt as he wiped his face, cursing. "Fuck."
Frank hadn't even realized he was injured until he'd stopped running from the pain in his lungs, right past the first ring of empty factories, and bent over to catch his breath with his hands on his knees. They left red handprints on the fabric.
His forearms and hands were sliced from the thorns in the vines, and his knees and neck were scratched to shit from the dog. The damp, foamed streaks of spit made his skin itch, like a rash. He couldn't catch his breath - he was still panicking, and it was hard to think. He slid down a tree and put his head between his knees, hands fisted in his hair until he calmed.
Fuck. He couldn't go back to his mother's house like that. Most of it had already dried. He didn't have any other clothes to wear, and at this point it was too late in the morning for him to avoid the workers heading out for him to steal anything without getting noticed.
Where the fuck was he supposed to go?
"No fucking way," Kitty said, leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over her chest.
"Hey to you too," Frank said. "Can I come in?"
"No," Kitty answered.
Frank darted a look over his shoulder but the back alley was still clear. "Seriously?" he asked, voice dropping.
"My ma's on her way back from the kitchens, if she sees you here she'll make me wash the porch again." Kitty said. "I just washed it yesterday."
"You hurt my heart," Frank said, hand on his chest.
"You're lucky I don't hurt worse," Kitty said, eyebrows rising.
Frank sighed. "Fine. You got soap?"
"Pretty sure soap won't get the stink off you," Kitty said.
"Not the stink I'm worried about," he said. "Look - I'm stayin' with my ma for a bit, and I don't have any other clothes, and these ones are–"
"Bloody?" Kitty asked. "I got eyes."
"Yeah, well, she hasn't seen yet," Frank said. "But she will. C'mon, girl, I just need a little, I'll take it down to the stream."
"You hurt someone?" Kitty asked, serious.
"No," Frank said. He raised his hands to show her the scratches down his forearm. "It's all mine."
Kitty stared at him, hard.
"I promise," Frank said.
"Admit the real reason you're begging it off of me instead of pinching it from the store is 'cause you missed me," she shot back.
"C'mon, you serious?"
Frank sighed, grinding the heel of his hand into his eye. "I missed you. I was a shitty fucking human being, I'm sorry I left without saying goodbye, can I have the fucking soap?"
Kitty watched his face, arms still folded. "Wait here," she said, finally, before closing the door firmly in his face. When she opened it back up a few minutes later she had three small bars, all a mellow, pale cream in her hands.
"This one's for your clothes," Kitty said, holding up the first before passing it over. "This one's for your ma, because she's a decent woman who deserves better than a son like you, and this one," she said, holding up the third, "is to clean that shitty fucking mouth of yours."
"You're the best," Frank said, slipping them into his pockets.
"Fuck off," she said, rolling her eyes, but it wasn't entirely angry this time.
He took the little path behind Kitty's mother's place down to the stream, and followed the rocky bank back a while until he couldn't smell or hear the town much anymore. It was slow going, especially with his banged up ankle, but he was careful and didn't put weight on it on any ground that looked less than firm.
He stopped when he got to a little pool made by a felled tree in the river. He carefully unwrapped his ankle, laying the cloth bandage over a branch, and stripped down, emptying his pockets. There wasn't much. An empty tin of cigarettes, the last few coins he'd managed to keep, his snapped half of a comb, a few matches, and the small figurine he'd taken from the house in the maze, the thin gold chain still wrapped firmly around its neck.
He paused, rolling the figurine over in his hand. He'd never doubted the house was real or thought that the strange boy was just a whiskey dream, but holding the little wooden piece in his hand made the whole thing settle oddly in his chest. The painted face was delicate, but worn down, as though the piece had been picked up often. The expression on the face was sad, half-hidden by dark, chipped black hair.
He hid the figurine along with the necklace and the contents of his pockets on a rock out of the way of the river and out of sight of anyone who might find him.
It took a good bit of scrubbing to get the blood to foam up pink and wash out of his shirt and pants, but eventually it was clean enough to pass - cleaner, actually, since he hadn't washed them in a while. He hadn't exactly had time to grab his things on the way out of town.
He hung the clothes over the same low branch as the bandage, and focused on cleaning himself. The chill of the winter seemed to finally be settling in, if slowly, and the water was brisk and cold. He palmed it and rinsed his face, scrubbed the soap over his scalp and over the back of his neck where the dirt had made rings. He sucked as many of the splinters out of his palm as he could, letting the skin get soft in the cold water. He needed a good shave, too, but had traded his razor for a meal a few stops before Sulphur.
He closed his eyes, exhausted, and methodically poured palmfuls of water over his head, washing away the rest of the soap.
The strange boy, and the hound, and the house with the windows that wouldn't break, and that hedge maze. He'd never seen anything like it, outside of the picture books of fairy tales they'd kept at the church when he was younger.
The boy's family must have been loaded. It took money to keep up a garden like that. He rubbed at his shoulder, trying to loosen the ache from where he'd twisted it falling from the eaves.
He stayed out in the sun until he was dry, hair unruly, before redressing himself. He left the bandage off his ankle and rolled his pant leg down enough to hide the mottled skin - whatever cream the boy had used, it'd closed the wound almost overnight. He ripped the bandage in strips - half to wrap around the remaining soap, and the rest to fold gently around the small figurine and necklace, now warmed by the sun.
He only saw a few workers on his way back to his mother's house. He slipped in, quiet, but the house was dark. His mother was out - down at the church, maybe? No, it was days past Sunday. He crept through the house as quietly as possible, more out of habit than anything, and slipped into the room where his old bed was still pushed against the far wall.
He crawled under the sheets, still dressed, and finally - for what felt like the first time in weeks - slept.
Frank woke to his mother shaking his shoulder, hand firm.
"Frankie, wake up," she said.
He blinked up at her, his brain still foggy. It was bright and he had to squint through the daylight to see the outline of her face against the window, but she looked concerned.
"What's wrong?" he mumbled.
"You're here," she said, obviously surprised.
"Here," Frank repeated, and his mind flashed back to the strange boy in the house, how his voice was so rough, and Frank sat up in the bed immediately. His mother kept her hand on his shoulder.
"Thought you'd gone again," she said. Guilt settled in his belly.
"I wouldn't leave without telling you, ma," he said, but they both knew it was a lie.
She dropped her hand from his shoulder to rest limply in her lap. "You were gone for a while," she said. "You good?"
He opened his mouth to explain, tell her about everything, but something stopped him. The story died in his throat. "Good," he managed. "I got you some soap. On the dresser," he said, nodding towards it.
He tried not to notice how she looked so surprised. She carefully unwrapped the soap from the bandages, cradling them in her palms. She raised one of the bars to her nose, inhaling with eyes closed, a slight smile.
"Kitty?" she asked, over her shoulder, and Frank shrugged, noncommittal.
"Maybe," he said. She'd always liked Kitty, but he didn't really feel like answering the inevitable questions about her, especially since she wouldn't like the answers.
His mother smiled again, and Frank relaxed just the slightest bit back into the bed. She rarely looked so relaxed, and never in recent memory. His pa must be out.
They shared a cup of coffee at the little table and a cigarette she rolled herself. Frank waved off her offered breakfast from her already too-sparse pan. He'd figure something else out.
"I think I got a lead on a job," Frank said, swirling around the last of the coffee in the mug. It was bitter and burnt on his tongue but he didn't much care. "With Dewees."
"Really?" his mother asked, fork pausing mid-air. "That's great."
"Yeah, digging holes and shit, mostly," Frank said, shrugging. He left out the part about the potential gravesite location, though. At least over breakfast.
His mother smiled, genuine. "You're a good boy," she said, putting down her fork and covering his hand with her own. Frank didn't know if she was trying to reassure him or herself. "And an Iero. We always manage."
"That we do," Frank said, and pushed the rest of the mug over to her.
"Where the hell'd you find this thing?" the pawn broker asked, turning the gold necklace over in his hands, letting the cross catch the light from the window.
"Why do you care?" Frank asked, leaning against the counter.
"I don't take stolen shit," the broker said.
"It's my ma's," Frank said. "She said I could have it."
"Sure she did," the broker said, and ran a thumb over the small jewel pressed into the gold.
It did look like something his mother would wear, if they'd had the money. It was beautiful, but nothing too fancy. He'd thought about giving it to her, briefly, but he'd never have been able to explain where he'd found it, and she'd never have accepted it from him. Wouldn't have trusted it from him, not yet.
"Five's my final offer," the broker said. "You won't find better."
Frank scoffed. "Bet I could."
"Not in this town," the broker said. "Five, or nothing."
They shook on it, firm.
"Your mother has anything else she feels like she can part with," the broker said, meticulously filling out the claims form and looping it around the clasp of the necklace, "you feel free to send it my way."
Frank nodded, folding up the tiny pawn ticket and bills into his pocket as he left. The sun was bright, harsh in his eyes as he stepped off the porch of the shop. With five whole bucks burning in his pocket. He ran his hand over the edges, stopping slightly when his thumb met the smooth face of the little wooden figurine.
There'd been a whole table of them in the house in the maze. Not of necklaces, but there had to be more like that - other things, better things, more expensive things. So many things they wouldn't even notice it was gone, all crammed in that house.
Five dollars was good. More would be better.
He turned, facing out towards the rim of the forest. He knew the way. He'd prepare this time.
We manage, his mother's voice reminded him. "That I fucking do," Frank said under his breath, and whistled the whole way back to the main square.
He arrived at the green wall at night that time, instead of dawn, and in the black of the woods the twisted vines of the hedge almost faded into the trees around it. Even though Frank was able to find his way back to the house - the key was to go north when he hit the dam, instead of east, and go up creek instead of down - he almost didn't find the outside of the hedge maze until he was only a few feet away from it. It blended in eerily well.
Like it didn't want to be found, Frank thought. Too late for that, though.
He'd learned from his mistakes with the maze the last time; the key wasn't to try and go through the maze, but over it. He took the coils of rope off his back and tied a thick, heavy knot around the loop of the horseshoe, cinching them together. It was a good weight. Easy to throw, but heavy enough to balance off the rope.
There were plenty of trees around and several that had branches that stretched out over the edge of the maze. Frank wandered around the outside until he found one that looked sturdy and long enough to hold him. He wasn't exactly huge, but he'd scaled enough trees to know most of them weren't going to actively try to keep you up.
He threw the end of the rope with the horseshoe over the branch, leveling it out so it stayed well enough in place, and then left it hanging to climb the trunk of the tree himself. His ankle twinged in protest but there were enough knots and branches to pull himself up without having to lean on it too much, though his shoulders ached. He inched out onto the branch and looped the rope through a hook in one of the branches, using it as a pulley to raise the planks of plywood he'd tied to the other end.
It'd been painful and unwieldy to carry them through the woods on his shoulders - even more of a pain than it'd been to steal them from the back side of the stable without anybody noticing him - but he doubted they'd notice the actual boards were missing, at least until morning.
He bound the planks together side by side with the extra spool of rope he'd slung over his shoulder, yanking the knots tight. This would work.
Wind rustled through the maze, shifting the leaves around him, but Frank ignored the building anxiety. It would work. It would.
He used the rope to lower the bound planks in place to the edge of the outer hedge as gently as he could before sliding down after them to the top of the wall. It was strangely solid at the top, although the branches sunk under his weight, covering his knees when he knelt. It wasn't wide or sturdy enough for him to stand but it stayed upright, and Frank worked quickly to position the planks. One edge of the planks stayed between his knees, the other he levered out so they slid to rest on the top of the hedge the next row inward.
He'd guessed the distance properly; they made it the entire way across. Frank grinned.
The hound didn't catch wind of him until he had crossed almost entirely over the top of the maze. It was fruitless, though - by the time the hound howled at him, furiously trying to scale the green walls, Frank had already shifted the planks again, allowing him to skip over the path while the hound fought to find a way around.
"Don't mess with me, you stupid dog," Frank muttered, as the thing threw itself against the hedge, barely making it move. "I won this time."
There wasn't a way for him to skip over anything when he got to the inside of the hedge and saw the house on the hill, however, but he'd prepared for that too - at least mentally. Avoid the front door. The way inside was over, not through.
He dropped to the ground and took off at a run, making for the tall, gnarled apple tree on the other side of the house, right by where he'd fallen the first time. The branches stretched high, and he jumped and pulled himself up right as he heard the sound of the hound breaking through the gap in the hedge. It was too late - he was already halfway up the tree, and after that it was a few easy maneuvers between eaves and up the rotting trellis on the side to the patio on the roof.
It was deserted, but the attic door was unlocked. Of course. Frank wanted to laugh. They never fucking learned.
The inside of the house was different at night. As soon as Frank entered the smile dropped off his face and he had to hold his hands out to steady himself. Nothing made a sound, not even the house settling. He couldn't even hear the hound anymore.
The ladder was still by the trap door and Frank quietly slid down the outside rails to the ground of the next level. Most of the doors on the hallway were closed, which Frank expected - it was a huge house, a huge family probably lived here. He didn't want to wake anyone.
He took the steps of the main staircase one at a time, carefully checking over his shoulder at even the smallest sigh of the wood. Still nothing.
The table at the bottom of the stairs was exactly the same - he was right, they hadn't even noticed the first piece was missing. He checked over the rest of the figurines but none of the others had any jewelry on them. Nothing of value on the top of the piano, either, just faint watercolors of flowers, the edges tainted brown, and a small hand-held music box that Frank didn't dare try but was too rusted to take anyway. He tapped his two fingers against his mouth, thinking. He didn't really want to go prying into the closed bedrooms, not when he wasn't sure who would be sleeping or not.
Oh - the other parlor. Yes - he'd passed it the first time he'd been in the house. There had been trinkets and things everywhere in there, and no one would be in a sitting room at this time of night. Frank turned to head down the hall and immediately slammed into something - someone, and almost hit the floor.
"Jesus!" Frank hissed, scrambling back as his heart pounded. The other person quickly skidded across the hall, back against the wallpaper and hands up.
It wasn't the boy in glasses from before, but another man dressed similarly, with even stranger, twisted dark hair about his face.
Frank panted, trying to regain his footing. Shit. Shit. He could - he could knock him out. The guy was a little taller but he looked terrified of him, Frank could totally take him - but that would probably wake the rest of the household, and he'd be completely outnumbered.
No. Another way.
Frank dropped his hands. "I'm - so sorry," he faltered. "I didn't mean to scare you, I was just - looking for–"
The man stared at him, seemingly paralyzed to the spot, and remained silent except for quick, shallow breaths. He didn't seem to be able to hold his focus in any one place - he kept looking at Frank, and then darting glances away, like he was waiting for someone else to appear.
"I don't think we met before," Frank said, aiming for friendly. "I'm Frank."
"I'm not here to hurt you," Frank continued, slowly. "I just had to talk to your...brother?" he asked, voice rising at the end in question. Yes - he could see it now, in the face. They looked too close in age to be father and son, but too young to be the heads of the family.
The man's hands twitched, just slightly, like Frank had pricked him.
"Your brother." It was less of a question. Yes, certainly. He wanted to flee but he was too far into it now - the only way out was to talk his way out, try and smooth things into a better story.
The man watched him for a long moment, then nodded.
"Is he around?"
The man shook his head. Frank tried to tamp down his frustration. He was, after all, the one who'd crawled back into their house in the middle of the night.
"Is it alright if I wait for him?" Frank finally asked. "To...apologize?" Sure. That could be a reason. He could see the man regard him differently though - appraising.
The man detached himself from the wall so quickly Frank thought he was trying to flee, but when he got to the corner of the hallway and Frank hadn't followed him he stopped, staring at Frank. His eyes were huge, practically shining in the dark, and Frank swallowed.
Frank followed him carefully, trying not to show his hesitation. It was pitch black in the hallway; the man wasn't even carrying a candle, and the only light came from moonlight around the edges of the heavy curtains they passed. He didn't seem to have any problem navigating the tight turns and crowded hallways; Frank had to keep one hand trailing on the dusty wallpaper just to keep himself from falling.
They crossed the doorway of one of the parlors that had been abandoned the first time Frank had tried to escape, and the strange brightness of the candle in the darkness almost made him recoil. He had time to see a desk covered in papers; wax from the candle on the desk dripped off the side to the floor in a warped, grotesque pile.
Frank cleared his throat. "I'm sorry if I disturbed you," he attempted, but the man didn't even acknowledge he'd heard Frank speak. Jesus, this was weird. Was he fucking mute?
The man showed him into a bedroom on the exterior wall of the house, with a large window across from the four poster bed. The sill was stacked with books and the surfaces were slightly cluttered, but for the most part it was clean, and only a little dusty. It was, at the least, a definite step-up from the windowless parlor and single chaise of before.
"Well, thanks–" Frank started, but the man had already disappeared back through the door, closing it behind him. The sound of a key in the lock was heavy, and Frank sighed. He should have expected that.
Frank woke up the next morning when the sun cut in through the gap of the curtains, warming his face. He blinked at the light, shifting in the sheets, and startled fully awake at the sight of the boy in the glasses sitting in the thick chair in the corner, reading a book pulled from the line on the windowsill.
Frank stared at him, and the boy stared back, rigid in the chair, like he'd been there all night.
"Frank," the boy finally said, like he was trying it out. "Is that short for Franklin?"
Frank shook his head. The boy nodded, closing the book in his lap, but kept his finger tucked in the page.
"Michael," he finally said, sitting back slightly in the chair. "I must say I wasn't expecting to see you again. At least not without a knife."
He spoke so readily to him, now, as if the heavy silences of before were forgotten. "Yeah," Frank said, body cold. "About that–"
"We do what we must," Michael said, rather matter-of-factly. Frank closed his mouth.
Michael nodded at something to the side of Frank, and he followed the gaze to the side table. There was one of the delicate white china plates piled with some kind of cooked bird he didn't recognize, two apples laid on a folded white linen square beside it.
Frank's gut growled and he reached for it without even looking back at Michael. It was a little cooled, under-salted, but it was the best thing Frank had eaten in months. He tried to ignore how Michael pointedly hadn't given him a knife and tore into the meat with his fingers instead.
"You're not eating?" Frank asked, looking momentarily up from his plate, pausing in his chewing. He figured Michael wasn't expecting many manners, here.
"I'm afraid I've already eaten," Michael said. "But continue."
Frank sucked on a bone, piling it on the side of the dish, and dug into the flesh of the apple, not even caring as juice slicked his hands. He hadn't even gotten out of the bed but Michael didn't seem to care.
"I think I scared the shit out of your brother," Frank said between bites.
"My brother," Michael repeated, in a strange tone. "You spoke to him?"
"Sorta," Frank said, shrugging. "I ran into him last night when I came in. Looked like he'd seen a ghost." Frank glanced up and Michael had a distant, unfocused look on his face, finger pressed against his mouth.
"He around?" Frank asked, when Michael remained silent.
Michael shook his head, like he was clearing a thought away, and continued to watch Frank eat.
"He coming back later?" Frank asked, prompting.
Michael shook his head again. "Gerard works in another town, unfortunately, and doesn't return home until late," he said after a pause.
Gerard. Frank filed that one away, although he was strangely disappointed. What a strange pair they were. He cracked the bone in his hand in half and sucked out the marrow, ignoring how he probably looked like an animal. He couldn't care, not when his belly was full for the first time in months. He stared down at the empty plate in his hands, forlorn.
"How did you get past the gardens?" Michael asked. The question was light enough, almost conversational, but Frank could sense the tenseness of the words. His finger paused where he'd dragged it through a bit of juice on the plate from the bird.
"Easier than the first time," Frank said, meeting his eye.
"Show me," Michael said, and Frank almost grinned at the challenge.
"There," Frank said, pointing out towards the hedge. "And then I used the tree, and the trellis."
"Fascinating," Michael said.
"Not bad," Frank said. The day was cooler than expected, with a breeze, but the sun on the roof patio was bright enough to make him shade his eyes with his hand. Michael didn't even squint.
"Why did you return?"
Frank shrugged. "I felt bad, for how I left last time."
"Gracefully, you mean."
Frank almost huffed out a laugh. "You did have a pair of shears," Frank said, trying to play along.
Michael didn't move, just looked past Frank to the hedge, where Frank's wrapped planks of plywood were just a dark blotch on the edge of the unending wall of green.
"I garden," Michael said.
"I figured," Frank said, nodding at the hedge.
"That's not mine," Michael said, shaking his head. "I work up here." He took a step away from the edge to pass behind Frank, and for the first time Frank noticed how the patio curved around the slant of the roof to a whole other area. Small pots lined the top of the wall with larger ones holding things that smelled medicinal, earthy. Plants in glass jars were everywhere, and it seemed as though Michael had even let the ivy grow over the top of the attic to make a green curtain. A greenhouse - small, with a low ceiling - was pressed up against the other side, the insides full of thick, swaying fronds.
"Wow," Frank whistled. "You do this?"
"Nah," Frank said, rubbing his thumb and forefinger on a leaf from one of the larger pots. It came away lemon scented and waxy. Familiar.
"Good for cuts," Michael said. "And bad ankles."
"I am sorry about that," Frank said.
"It was our - my - dog that did it to you in the first place," Michael said. "We don't get many visitors. I'm afraid he's quite protective."
"I noticed. You got a problem with unwanted visitors?" Frank smirked.
"Do I?" Michael asked. It was in the same tone of voice as the rest of the conversation - easy, casual, but Frank's whole body tensed, and he fought the instinct to shift on his feet.
Michael brushed a thumb gently over a strange, tubular flower in one of the small pots. It was strange, with upturned white, solid bulbs, but long thorns on the vines. "Do you live in town?" he asked, finally, when Frank didn't answer.
"Why are you there now?"
"I'm looking for a job."
"Do you want one?" Michael looked up from the flower and watched Frank.
"What are you offering?" Frank asked. The wooden figurine was still in his pocket, against his thigh. It was stupid not to leave it at home.
"I'm afraid my duties at the house prevent me from being able to make it to town," Michael said. "But there are things that I need."
"Seeds," Michael said. "Ink. Canvas. Things like that."
Frank hadn't expected that. People didn't usually ask him to deal in art supplies.
"That's easy," Frank said, relaxing a little. "You got money to pay?"
"I have some items you can trade. Can you do that?"
"You can keep the rest, after you've procured the items on the list I provide," Michael said, and delicately began removing thorns from the vine with his thumb.
"What makes you think I won't just keep all of it?"
"You could," Michael said. "But I'll need other things. You'll make more money if you don't."
"That's your reason?"
Michael was quiet a moment, snapping off the last of the thorns. "It's the one I prefer, yes."
Frank watched Michael snip the flower off the branch, spinning it carefully between his long fingers. Frank was still. He knew that flower. Ophelia's Lily, his mother's voice said. The bulbs hold water, like they're drowning.
"Beautiful, if you don't get too close," Michael said, lifting the flower to his nose to smell. "Deadly if you do. A shame, really - they last forever in the house."
Frank was silent, watching a bead of milky water run from the bulb down Michael's finger to his knuckle. Michael didn't wipe it away. "Do we have a deal?" he asked.
"Absolutely," Frank answered, and was glad when Michael didn't extend his hand to shake.
"This one come from your ma, too?" the pawn broker asked, looking at him over his glasses.
"Nah, my aunt," Frank said, fists in his pockets. "How much?"
The broker rolled his neck from side to side, considering. The metal figurine in his hands was tarnished, but Michael had shown Frank how easy it could wipe clean. "Six."
"Deal," Frank said, and shook his hand.
"Where'd you get this, Frankie?" his mother asked, staring at the unwrapped ham he'd brought home and dumped on the table.
"Payday," Frank said, grinning as he slid into the chair beside her. "You hungry?"
She stared at it in complete disbelief before turning to look at him. "You got the job?"
"I got the job," Frank grinned. "I'll grab some plates."
"Where the fuck did that come from?" his pa slurred behind him. Frank glanced over his shoulder to where his pa stood in the open door, but didn't stop from pulling the plates out of the cabinet.
"Frankie got a job," his mother said, carefully.
"Doing what?" his pa asked.
"WPA work," Frankie said.
"I know someone on the crew," Frank said, laying the plates out around the edges of the butcher paper. "He got me in." It was mostly true. He hadn't seen Dewees since he'd gotten back from the house - since the night at the dam, actually - but it was close enough, and hell if he was going to give them more than that.
"They don't pay like that," his pa said. "I know men on those crews, know they don't pay like that."
"They do when you don't drink it all," Frank said, gritting his teeth.
His pa took a step towards him, and Frank froze, just as his mother raised her hands between them.
"Let's just–" she started, then halted. "Let's just - eat."
Frank's knuckles were white around the edges of the plates.
"You eat it," his pa spat. "I'm not touching it."
He slammed the door behind him so hard it bounced back open, loose in the hinges.
"Your father means well," his mother said, quietly. "He's just - frustrated. Still waiting to hear back from one of the factories."
"He doesn't mean well," Frank said. "And you don't have to defend him."
"I defend you," his mother said. She looked down at the table, where the ham still rested in the paper, untouched.
Frank wasn't hungry. He passed a plate over, forcing a smile. "C'mon," he said. "Before the neighbors smell it and come over."
The thunder cracked loud enough to make Frank jerk awake, just in time to catch the flash of lightning across the sky. It seemed like it hit close. The rain was loud and metallic against the patches in the roof and Frank sighed, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hand. He'd been dreaming about something, but couldn't remember now.
He didn't hear anyone else moving in the house; his pa had always been a heavy sleeper, especially on nights he came home smelling like the bottle. Frank pulled his jacket back on and crossed to the window, cracking it open wide enough so he could watch the storm, feel the edges of it on his face.
He smoked and watched the rain, counted the seconds between the thunder and lightning on instinct.
Why're you counting, he'd asked, once, when he was little. Because, his pa'd said, you gotta learn if it's coming towards you. So you know which way to run.
It was still drizzling when Frank woke up early the next morning. He folded up a couple of pieces of ham in the grease paper and slid it into his sack before shouldering it; he'd eat on the way. He wanted to head out before the town started moving.
He was halfway down the ridge behind the last factory when something moved in the trees to his left. He froze, hand tense on a tree, and didn't breathe.
It was big. Big enough to snap twigs under its feet.
Behind him, now. Frankie wanted to turn but he didn't want to give himself away if he hadn't been seen. If he could just get a bearing on where -
"Frankie!" a voice called out.
Eddie. It was fucking Eddie. Frank exhaled and turned just as Eddie pushed a thick branch out of his way. Eddie was smiling, pleased, and Frank reminded himself it probably wouldn't be a good idea to punch him in the teeth.
"What're you doing out at this time of morning?" Eddie asked. He has a pack slung over his back, like Frank, but when he shifted it sounded like glass.
"Just, you know. Wandering," Frank said, shrugging a little. His pack was already cutting into his shoulders, and he had a long way to carry it.
"Yeah, yeah, me too," Eddie said, nodding. "Left some inventory down by the dam and wanted to make sure it didn't get washed away last night." He seemed to be going for casual but his hands were rigid on his hips, planted firm, but awkwardly so. "I think me and Dewees are going to go down there later, if you're interested."
"Maybe," Frank said, noncommital. "I gotta go take care of something first."
"Yeah?" Eddie asked. "So - listen - ah. I heard you were seeing Kitty again."
Jesus. Of course. "I saw Kitty," Frank said, flat. "I'm not seeing Kitty."
"Oh?" Eddie replied, like he didn't care, and Frank wanted to roll his eyes at him. What were they, fucking ten years old? He had other things to do.
"Yeah, man. Look I gotta–" Frank started, gesturing over his shoulder behind him, back towards the town.
"Yeah, yeah," Eddie said, nodding a little nervously. "Let me know if you get any more openings on the crew with Dewees, though, yeah? I think he's pissed I keep asking."
"Sure thing," Frank lied, already starting to walk backwards.
"See you around," Eddie said, waving a little, but Frank was already past the next ridge and didn't look back. It took him a half-hour to circle back and skirt the edge of the town, hitting the woods from another angle. He avoided the dam completely.
Frank picked at the inside of the fig with his teeth, avoiding the oily skin. His fingers were sticky, coated in the innards of the fruit, and it smelled ripe and thick on his hands. He tossed the empty carcasses off the side of the house.
"These are amazing," Michael said, sitting beside him on the edge of the roof. He had far better manners than Frank, ripping everything into small little pieces with his fingers before actually eating it.
"You could grow 'em easy," Frank said, pulling another from his bag. "You got the land."
Michael didn't answer, just split the pulp open with his thumb. "Could you bring more back?"
"Sure," Frank said. "What else you want?"
Michael stared at him. "What can you get?"
Frank shrugged. "Whatever you can pay for." And extra for me. "Apples from that one tree gotta get boring after a while."
"Yes," Michael said. "I'm afraid I've lost my taste for them."
"I might need to sell something else." Frank tossed another skin off the rooftop. "Whatever you want, as long as I can carry it up that tree. No chance you could get that dog to like me?"
"Not after you put a knife in him, no," Michael said. "He's quite good at holding grudges. And ruining the front door."
"I have some things in the parlor you could sell," Michael said, wiping his hands on his handkerchief and refolding it carefully. "Come, I need to get rid of them anyway."
It was strange, being allowed - practically invited - inside the house by Michael. It wasn't the first time, but Frank hadn't quite settled into it as normal, not just yet. Nothing about the situation was normal.
Michael seemed to prefer the roof patio to the rest of the house, anyway. They usually spent most of their time by the greenhouse, picking through the last of the fruit Frank had been able to buy (or steal, pocketing the extra money) from town.
Frank had worked on land a little farther west and Michael was delighted to discover his skills - Frank didn't know the exotic stuff, but he knew the basics - and there was a strange sort of satisfaction in seeing Michael actually hint at a smile whenever Frank expressed some knowledge about plants.
"What about these paintings?" Frank asked, flipping through a couple of canvases in a stack against the parlor wall. "You could probably make a fortune."
"Really?" Michael asked, not turning to look at them, busy pulling some woven baskets off the top of an armoire. He looked displeased at whatever was inside.
"Definitely," Frank said. "You ever sold any?"
Michael pulled a small hair comb out of the basket, sliding it back onto the shelf. The comb was about the size of his palm with round, blue stones. Frank's mouth went dry.
"I've never tried. They're Gerard's. He's - not good at giving things up."
"Me either," Frank said. "But I'm good at selling things off. You sure he knows the difference?"
Michael almost smiled. "I'm sure."
Frank had the comb in his pack - firmly and carefully wrapped in soft cloth by Michael, as well as the new list of things to get for him in town - when the rain started again. It hit like a wave, soaking his feet immediately when he opened the door to the roof patio.
"Fuck no," Frank said immediately, and shut the door again.
Michael was in the parlor writing at the desk underneath the window when Frank made it back downstairs.
"Frank," Michael said, surprised - and a little disdainful at Frank's wet shoes on the carpet. "I thought–"
Frank nodded at the storm outside. "I was."
"Ah," Michael said. He leaned back in his seat, tapping the quill against the paper in front of him. "Yes, that would be a problem."
Frank waited as Michael watched him, considering something.
"You can stay," Michael said finally. "Until the morning."
Frank nodded, relieved. He'd had enough experience navigating the maze in a storm the first time. He was pretty much set.
"There are rules, however. Do you agree?" Michael asked.
"Your house, your rules," Frank replied.
It seemed to satisfy. "Follow me, then."
Michael led him to the same room he'd woken in before, although the bed had been made since, the chinaware removed.
"You can stay here," Michael said, hand on the doorknob. "But you have to stay here."
"Where - in this room?" Frank asked, suddenly annoyed.
"Yes," Michael said. "No arguments."
Frank's mouth tightened. "Fine."
"Good," Michael said. "I retire early. My brother doesn't like to be disturbed. Do you need anything?"
"I'm good," Frank said, terse.
Michael nodded and left, locking the door behind him. The room was already cast into shadow by the evening light, made darker by the deep storm outside. Frank angrily threw his pack into the thick chair by the window. It's not like he'd thought he and Michael were friends, exactly, but he was getting pretty god damned tired of getting stuck behind locked doors.
"I manage," Frank muttered, and pulled the lock-picking kit from the bottom of his pack. "I will fucking manage."
He waited until it was completely dark outside, long after Michael would have gone to bed, to use them on the keyhole. The storm covered the sound of his picks in the lock - it was an old lock, with pretty simple mechanics - and the old door's hinges creaking open. Frank quietly slid through the gap, leaving the deadbolt on so the door wouldn't shut completely behind him.
He hadn't been able to look on some of the higher shelves in the parlor with Michael there, but if he had more items like that comb, he'd be set - forget being an errand boy, he'd have enough to blow out of Sulphur completely. Trying to lock him into rooms, like he wasn't trustworthy, he would fucking show him -
A noise. Frank froze. Familiar, though - the sound of a chair being pushed back on wooden floors, as if in fear. Shit. Should he retreat? They'd already heard something. They'd be listening for footsteps. The lock was faulty. He was just looking for some water.
Frank pocketed the lock picks and smoothed the front of his wrinkled shirt with his hand before taking the final steps around the corner to the parlor. It wasn't Michael, though, but the other boy in the seat at the writing desk - Gerard.
"Sorry," Frank said, quietly, so as not to startle. "I was just - looking for some water."
Gerard remained frozen in place, watching him. The room was barely lit except for the same dripping candle at the head of the desk. Gerard was pale, almost eerily so.
"I'll leave you alone," Frank said, beginning to retreat.
"Don't–" Gerard said, and they both froze. He was hunched so strangely it made Frank's shoulders ache. Not a mute, then - with a different, higher voice than Michael's. That was unexpected.
Frank paused, unsure - but he didn't want Gerard telling Michael he was snooping around, and being unkind was probably the wrong way to go about it.
Frank took a few more steps into the room, still standing by the edge of the sofa. Gerard had the quill in his hand and Frank could see that there was a long splatter of ink up his thumb, black against the pale.
"What are you writing?" Frank asked, but Gerard didn't reply. He just - watched him, like he hadn't heard Frank at all.
Frank shifted, uncomfortable.
"I should go–" Frank said.
"Don't," Gerard said again, frowning a little at him. Frank was pinned in place. He looked around the room for an idea, but had nothing, and eventually just sank slowly to the edge of the couch.
There was a small, well-worn footstool in front of him and Frank put his feet up, making sure with a glance to Gerard that it was okay. Gerard wasn't looking at him, though, had gone back to writing, tip of his quill moving furiously.
Great. He'd just - sit here, then. That was the plan. Fantastic.
He watched Gerard, instead. He was dressed differently than Michael - less polished, and the buttons on his vest were incorrectly matched. Wherever he worked obviously didn't care about his appearance and still obviously paid him well enough to keep up this house. They must be an old family, Frank figured. Some people just had a name that'd let them get away with anything.
Gerard didn't seem nearly as inclined to make conversation as his brother, either. Frank sighed and settled back into the seat, closing his eyes. The only sound in the room besides the storm outside was the constant scratching of Gerard's quill on the paper. A quill. Who still used quills? What a strange pair they were.
When Frank woke it was dawn. He was still leaning against the back of the sofa but there was a thick, woven blanket over his lap, sliding off a little from when he'd turned. He looked around, sleepy and dazed, but Gerard was gone. Frank scrambled as quietly as he could back down the hallway and into the room at the end, closing and relocking the door behind him. He slid into the bed and pulled the covers up to his ears, wrapping himself up like a cocoon.
It was a few more hours before Michael returned, unlocking the door quietly. "Sleep well?" he asked. There didn't seem to be anything behind the question, any accusation, but Frank couldn't read him well enough to be sure.
"Too well," Frank smiled, and reshouldered his pack as Michael held open the door.
Twelve for the hair comb. It'd taken everything Frank had not to show how excited he was, how surprised, and kept his handshake casual as ever. He shoved the money and the claims ticket into his pocket as he stepped out of the pawn broker's shop, jumping the last two steps into the dirt. He paused when his hand hit the little wooden figurine in his pocket.
He pulled it out, letting it roll over in his palm. It wasn't worth anything. Too worn, just a trinket. No money in it. He wondered if the broker would buy it anyway. He ran a finger over the face again. Nah. It looked more like a children's toy than anything else.
There was something familiar about it, though, and Frank turned it over again so it lay face-up in his hand. Oh. The hair was the same - the identical dark, swirling mess almost covering its eyes, just two deep dots of black on the pale wood. Gerard was a painter. He'd done all of the canvases scattered around the house, Michael'd said. Hundreds of them, maybe, had never sold a one. The toy was Gerard's. It was Gerard. The small, hair-thin stripes on the vest were even the same, under mismatched buttons.
He pocketed it again, letting it settle against his leg. Interesting.
"Again?" Michael asked, looking up from his writing.
Frank shrugged. "It's getting dark. It's hard to travel in the dark. Besides, you have a better bed here. I can sleep all spread-eagle."
Michael sighed. "Fine. Come on."
"So what do you do?" Frank asked, perched again on the sofa, bare feet under the cushion. "For a job?"
Gerard looked up at him, then back down to his paper.
"If you don't start talking to me I'm going to leave," Frank sing-songed, and stretched out his legs, crossing his arms behind his head.
Gerard stared at him, exhaling deeply, like Frank was doing him a disservice. Whatever. Frank had questions, and if Gerard thought Frank was just going to sit quietly because Gerard had told him to, he was dead wrong.
A long moment passed. Frank tightened the grip of his hands on the back of his neck. "I write," Gerard said, finally, right when Frank was about to push himself up from the couch.
Frank grinned. There we go. Gerard's voice was quiet, and even rougher than Michael's had been the first time they'd met. It felt like a victory. Frank preened a little.
"Write what? For the papers?" he asked.
"On paper," Gerard said.
"No, like the newspapers."
"Ah," Gerard said. "No. Stories."
"You're a writer?"
Gerard did a strange flick of the hand, like the question was a moth around his face. "You're a reader?"
"Not really," Frank said.
Gerard stared at him, apparently stunned. "...Can you read?"
Frank bristled, narrowing his eyes. "Yes," he said, terse. He wasn't stupid.
Gerard looked away from Frank and back down at his paper, beginning to shut off again.
"I mean–" Frank blurted, sitting up a little. Shit, this was not going well, he was fucking this up. "I can, I just - don't - very often. Or - all that well. I like stories, though. We just didn't have a lot of books, you know?"
Gerard stared at him. They were surrounded by books. Of course he didn't know.
"You like books?" Frank tried.
Gerard seemed to soften again, just slightly. "Yes," he said, and for the first time Frank heard the warmth in his voice. He wanted that again.
"Like what kind?" Frank asked.
Gerard was quiet, as if considering something. He stood up from the desk and crossed to the shelf and Frank finally got a good look at him - still in the same misbuttoned vest, shirt sleeves pushed up to his elbows, pale, bare feet on the dark carpet.
Gerard didn't notice Frank watching; he ran his fingers over the shelves, stopping on a faded blue spine. He pulled it out and brought it to Frank, holding it at arm's length. Frank took it, flipping it over to read the deep set type on the cover, but he didn't recognize the faded name.
"It's good," Gerard said.
It was thick in Frank's hand, heavy. Full of words, no doubt. "Sure," Frank said, not totally confident. "Why not."
Gerard went back to writing and Frank curled up on the sofa across from him, book in his lap. Sure. He'd read. No problem. If it'd get Gerard to like him, he'd do it.
Michael obviously wasn't going to try and convince Gerard to sell his paintings. Frank would. The frames alone would net them more than all of the hair combs in the house put together. He'd do it. Right after the fucking book.
It was slow-going - the book was old and full of words Frank had to stop and sound out in his head, fingers under each letter on the page, some he had to skip entirely. But it wasn't totally boring - it actually reminded Frank a bit of the penny comics he used to get, without any of the pictures. There was a bit about a jealous old witch who lived in a castle, and young lovers torn apart - but the really interesting part came when he turned a page, and found a flower.
"What's this?" Frank asked, holding the spread of the book up towards Gerard. The flower was pressed flat, almost brittle against his hand.
"Oh–" Gerard said, surprised. "That's Mikey's."
"Mikey's?" Frank asked, but realized immediately. Michael.
Gerard looked back down at the page, writing again. "His flowers close at night," he said. "I don't get to see them, so he saves some for me."
Frank brushed a finger over the pressed, dry petals. There were some words scribbled in the margins of the book, as well, and Frank carefully moved the flower to see.
The prince is boring, it said, in a small, cramped script. She should run off with the sea monster.
Agreed was written under it, in a different hand. I'm hoping it eats him. Frank kept his thumb in the crease and flipped forward in the book and, yes, there - again, the different sets of writing, scattered through the margins - underlined passages, circled words, random questions and commentary on the state of affairs of the characters in the book.
Gerard continued to write away, oblivious, but Frank stared down at the ink on the page. It was like eavesdropping into someone else's conversation - but Gerard had given him the book, he must not have cared - but he'd also forgotten about the pressed flower inside, who was to say he remembered the notes? Unless it truly didn't matter if Frank saw.
What must it be like, Frank wondered, to have family that cared like that, that knew you well enough to make jokes like that, like it was just how it was, like that was the natural state of things.
He flipped quietly to the front cover to check, and yes, there it was. The handwriting again. This book belongs to Gerard Arthur Way, it said. Michael James Way may borrow it when he returns my favorite jacket.
Never, scribbled underneath, in the other hand. It fits me too well.
"I'm off to bed," Frank said, closing the book tightly. "I'm tired." He laid the book on the sofa and stood up, strangely off-balance.
Gerard didn't say anything, just smiled down at whatever he was writing, and nodded to note that he'd heard.
It took Frank forever to fall asleep, and when he finally did he dreamt of drowning in flowers, pulling the choking petals out of his throat, and thorns around his wrists, like teeth.
"I need some of these gardening tools," Frank said, flipping through the oily catalogue on the counter. "Definitely some new shears. You sell seeds?"
"Depends on the seed," the shop owner said, placing one of the trowels on the counter next to Frank.
Frank frowned down at the page. The delicate illustrations weren't helpful at all. "Anything that blooms at night?"
"I had moon flowers once," the shop owner nodded. "Big white petals, like a star."
"I want those," Frank said.
The shop owner shook his head. "That's fancier than you'll get around here. You'll have to send away for 'em special."
"How long'd it take to order them?" Frank asked.
"Few weeks at least, I'd think," the shop owner answered. "Maybe longer, depending where they're coming from. You wouldn't have time to plant them before the snow, though. They like it warm."
"That's alright," Frank said. "Order 'em anyway, I'll save them for the new year."
"Flowers, Iero?" a voice said from behind him. "I didn't see you as the type."
Frank fought the urge to roll his eyes.
“Who’s the lucky lady?” Eddie asked. He was carrying two heavy spools of rope over each shoulder, half-hunched under the weight.
“No lady,” Frank said.
“Never thought Iero’d grow up to be shy about it,” Eddie said, talking to the shop owner over Frank's shoulder. “Way he usually talks you’d think he’d spill all the beans.”
“Let me know when those seeds are in,” Frank said, passing over the money for the garden tools and loading them up in his sack.
“Will do. Thank you, sir,” the shop owner said, and without even looking him in the eye Frank couldn’t miss the sour look on Eddie’s face as he passed. Whatever. His fucking problem, not Frank's.
Frank leaned against the wall, holding the cup of cider close to his chest. It was so warm inside the gathering hall of the church that even the cold temperatures outside couldn't stop the glass from sweating in his hand.
"I hate these things," Dewees said.
"You're the one who invited me," Frank said.
"I needed someone to suffer with," Dewees shot back. "Share in my pain."
They watched as Lucy danced out on the floor with one of the small children, spinning him around to the music.
"Her dad's the pastor," Dewees said.
"You're fucked." Frank took another swig. Thank God for Dewees' flask. At least there was food, even if it was shitty and thin.
"So fucked," Dewees agreed, but Frank had to admit he didn't sound too bothered by it, especially not when Lucy was smiling so bright.
Frank's mother stood over in the corner with a group of the other mothers, all smiling a little forced at one another. It was late already, and the heat inside was sapping everybody early.
"You wanna go back outside?" Frank asked.
"Fuck yes," Dewees said, and followed him out to the back alley. They passed the flask back and forth, taking turns rolling cigarettes until Frank's head was light and hands were warm.
"Are you dating Kitty again?" Dewees asked, taking a draw.
"Jesus Christ," Frank said, hitting his head back against the brick. "She tell you that?"
Dewees smiled. "'Course not. She knows she's too good for you. Too smart, too. Eddie's 'bout to shit his pants about it, though."
"What is his deal?" Frank asked, taking a swig.
Dewees shrugged. "You're back, is all."
"Not forever," Frank said. "And what does that matter, anyway?"
Frank huffed out a laugh.
Dewees furrowed his eyes at him a little, a little unsteady on his feet from drinking. "It does."
Frank shrugged. He didn't like this conversation. He didn't want to talk about Eddie or Kitty or this stupid fucking town.
"Might not matter to you," Dewees said. "But you're here. Gotta stop pretending like you aren't."
Frank smoked the rest of the cigarette down without passing it back over, grinding the last of it underneath his boot. He was too drunk to talk about this and it was making him angry.
"I'm well aware I'm in this shithole," Frank said. "It's other people knowing that I don't like." Other people. Certain people.
"Bullshit," Dewees said. "Even when we were kids you acted like you belonged somewhere else."
"You sound like my fucking mother," Frank shot back.
"Your mom doesn't say this shit to you, worried she'll run you off again. I'm telling you as a friend," Dewees said. "You gotta–"
"What, fucking listen to you?" Frank asked. "You think that just 'cause you got a girl, and a job, and–"
"A fucking life?" Dewees asked. "I got a fucking life here, Frankie. A good one. You could have one too."
"What makes you think I want it?"
"I think you don't know what the fuck you want," Dewees said. "But you're not going to find it blowing off and not telling anybody where you go for days. For years."
Frank was quiet, seething.
"Look," Dewees said, his shoulders dropping a little. "I just–"
"Fuck off," Frank snarled, shoving forward from the brick wall. "I'm out."
He left Dewees in the alley but stopped when he got around the corner, hand on the wall to steady himself. There was a crowd by the front of the church, with the pastor and some of the other men, and his pa was there, standing - no, swaying, gesturing towards the party inside. The pastor had his hand on his pa's chest, holding him in place.
What a fucking embarrassment. His mother was probably inside, quietly mortified as usual, the space between her and the other women growing.
Fuck it. Fuck it all. He turned the other way, avoiding the scene, and it wasn't until he was halfway to the woods he realized he still had Dewees' flask in his hands. Fuck them all.
He was fine until it came to making it down the staircase, overestimating the distance and slipping the last two. He cursed as he fell, landing right on his back on the bottom step.
"Motherfucker!" he said, rolling to the floor.
"Frank?" a voice asked, and there was a hand on his arm. Gerard, looking down at him, terrified. It was so much easier to see his face from this angle. His eyes were huge.
"Hey Gee," Frank said, a little more slurred than he'd meant. "Surprise."
"Are you hurt?" He sounded so concerned. How sweet.
Frank shook his head. "Nope, feeling good, all good."
"Did you - climb the tree like this?"
"I flapped my arms and flew," Frank said, waving it off.
Gerard frowned. “Frank."
“I think I broke something. It might have been me. I don't know. It made a noise."
"Let's get you up," Gerard said.
He helped Frank up from the stairs and into the sitting room, where Frank folded into the chaise next to Gerard. It was so close that they were practically pressed together; Gerard quietly cleared his throat and moved a few inches back.
“What happened?” Gerard asked, keeping his hand on Frank’s shoulder. “Are you ill?”
“Drunk,” Frank said. “Well, I was when I left, now I just hurt a bit.”
Gerard blinked at him. “Drunk?”
“Yeah, you know,” Frank said, making a cup motion with his hands.
“I know what drunk means,” Gerard said, a little petulantly. “Those stairs are dangerous. You should be more careful."
Frank shrugged. He was annoyed that Gerard was lecturing him, like some kind of parent. Everybody wanted to lecture him. Fucking Dewees in the alley, trying to tell him how to do shit as if Dewees wasn't the one who'd taught him to take what he wanted in the first place. Frank scowled.
“I think we should get you to lie down,” Gerard said.
“Do you want any?” Frank asked, ignoring him.
“Liquor,” Frank said.
Gerard paused. “You…have some?”
Frank pulled the flask out of the pocket of his jacket. “Sulphur’s finest.”
Gerard hesitated. “I…don’t know. It’s been a long time.”
“C’mon,” Frank said. “Can’t have been that long.” He worked out the cork, passing it over. Gerard took it, carefully, sniffing lightly at the opening.
“Wretched,” Gerard said.
“Smells better than it tastes,” Frank said.
Gerard frowned at the bottle, then took a small sip, almost immediately coughing until his face went pink. Frank grinned.
"You want another?" Frank asked, rolling another cigarette and leaning over to light it off the candle Gerard had moved to the table.
Gerard palmed at his face, shoving his messy hair back. "It's bad for the books."
Frank shrugged and took another draw, blowing smoke towards the ceiling. He was laid out on the sofa, knees up, cold feet against Gerard's thigh. Gerard had shifted to the other end of the sofa but hadn't left to go sit anywhere else, either.
"It's fucking dark," Frank said.
"It's night," Gerard said, like Frank was stupid, but instead of making him angry Frank just laughed.
"No, I mean," he said, shifting a little bit more down the couch so his socked feet were planted more firmly, "you keep it so dark in here. You got any more lights?"
"Oh," Gerard said, glancing around. "I don't notice much anymore. We had a lamp, but it broke, and I never got it fixed."
"I will buy you a lamp," Frank said, determined.
Gerard smiled at him, a little ruefully. It was a good look on him - his hair pushed back out of his face, cheeks pink, slouched into the other end of the couch. Almost relaxed, not quite. He should ask Gerard about the paintings, now. It was a good time.
"I'm serious," Frank said instead, smoking again. "A million lamps. It'll be like daytime forever in here."
"How will you get a million lamps over the hedge?" Gerard asked, in a serious voice.
"Magic," Frank said. "I am magic."
"I'd suspected as much," Gerard said.
"Don't tell Mikey," Frank said, gesturing with the cigarette.
"I won't tell Mikey," Gerard said, and his voice was oddly quiet. Sad. Frank couldn't tell why, though, and he didn't feel like asking.
"Good," Frank said, and closed his eyes. His head pounded. It was a stupid idea to climb the hedge, but he didn't regret it. Gerard was quiet at his end of the sofa, and when Frank opened his eyes again minutes later Gerard was still there, smoking Frank's cigarette. He hadn't even noticed him taking it.
The candle on the desk had burnt out; the only light in the room was from the faint cherry on the end of the cigarette, lighting up his skin just the slightest every time he took a draw. Gerard looked pensive, like he was mulling hard on something, but Frank had had enough of questions and didn't feel like asking anybody else anything either. You were allowed to keep some shit to yourself.
When he woke again it was almost dawn. Gerard was gone, of course, disappeared off to work, and Frank scrambled as fast as he could back up the stairs, taking them almost two at a time. He was halfway down the tree when he heard the howl, and the hangover made him slow, more sluggish than usual.
He barely made it up his rope ladder on the inner rim of the hedge before the hound was there, howling and snapping at his heels. It got a bit of the fabric of his hem, almost yanking him down, but Frank kicked it off and swung himself over the top of the hedge, straddling both sides.
"I win again," Frank said, wiping a bit of sweat from his neck as he reshifted the planks to walk across. He paused to look back at the house behind him. No lights on in any of the windows, not even a candle. It looked abandoned, really, from this far away, no sign at all of the people inside.
"You redecorating, Iero?"
"Maybe," Frank said, smiling a little but not turning around.
"That's a little fancier than your usual style." Kitty stepped next to him in the aisle, basket over her arm. Frank turned the bulb of the lamp over in his hands, fingers wide on the blown glass. It was nice. Classic. It looked like it'd fit in their strange old house.
"It's for a friend," he said.
"You're buying someone a present?" Kitty asked, amused. "Since when?"
Kitty laughed. "Is she pretty?"
Frank opened his mouth to reply but froze - he thought of Gerard's strange, hunched shoulders, wide eyes. His pale forearm as he held the book to Frank, thin fingers around the cigarette.
"I'll take that as a yes," Kitty said, amused. "If you're looking for Dewees, by the way, he's sulking by the stables."
Frank paused. "Why would I be looking for Dewees?"
Kitty huffed out a long breath, mouth closed. She took a small step forward, leaning into his space. He could smell the soap on her - not the sweet stuff, but the sharp scent of lye still stuck on her clothes.
"Y'know, it's rare enough we find people in this place to care," she said. "You want to keep somebody around, try letting people know you mean what you say."
"I don't–" Frank started.
"You playing dumb never fooled anybody" Kitty said. "So stop trying so hard."
Frank was quiet. Kitty leaned back out of his space, and it was like the sounds of the store around them became audible again.
"I'll see you around," Kitty said. "Tell your ma I said she's welcome anytime." She disappeared down the aisle towards the front counter. Frank waited until she'd made her purchases before he approached the front counter himself, still holding the lamp carefully in his arms.
Frank scraped the manure off the bottom of his shoes on the rung of the stall. The horse in front of him twitched, eyeing him warily, and Frank stretched out a hand. It didn't move closer, however, and only flared its nostrils slightly.
"I hear they can always tell the bad eggs," Dewees said from behind him.
"Fuck you," Frank said, not turning around. "This horse loves me."
"That horse is waiting for you to look away so it can bite your fingers off, would be my guess," he said, moving to stand next to Frank at the edge of the stall, his boot on the lower rung. He reached into his pocket and pulled out half of a carrot, extending it out. The horse moved close enough to chew on it, working its thick tongue around the food.
"Didn't expect to see you around," Dewees said, after a minute.
Frank pressed hard against the stall so the wood shoved right under his ribs. "Heard a rumor you'd probably be here," Frank said. "Didn't realize this was Lucy's ma's family place. Think you'll get one of these as a marriage present?"
Dewees barked out a laugh and let the carrot fall from his hand to the bottom of the stall. "Hardly. Her parents hate me, but I'll win 'em over soon enough."
"Look at you," Frank said. "You did grow up a gentleman."
"Shut it," Dewees said. "You'll give her ideas. Expectations."
They watched the horse mouth at the carrot, flicking its tail back and forth. "What about you?" Dewees asked, after a beat. "We all grew up some kinda way. Who'd you turn out to be?"
"I'll let you know," Frank said. He rocked back on the beam. "In the meantime, though - I'm still someone lookin' for a job."
Dewees turned to look him over, eyes not giving anything away. Like he was waiting for Frank to say something else. "WPA's on hold 'cause of the ground frost, but they always need gravediggers."
"People die every day," Frank said.
"That they do," Dewees agreed. He still seemed like he was waiting for something. Oh.
"Sorry," Frank said. "For being a dick, before."
Dewees was quiet, but he nodded a little as he lit up a cigarette. Frank pulled the flask out of his pocket and passed it back - empty, after the night at Gerard's - and Dewees slowly tipped it over in his hands, looking at Frank with raised eyebrows.
"How bad does your head fucking hurt today?" Dewees asked.
"So fucking bad, Jesus," Frank said, covering his eyes with his hand, and Dewees barked out a laugh loud enough to startle the horse one over.
He slapped Frank on the back and Frank couldn't help but join in, laughing too. "Son of a bitch," Dewees said. "I'm impressed."
"My only goal in life," Frank said, deadpan.
"Fine. Let's see what you can do. Meet me in front of the church around ten," Dewees said. And just like that, he was forgiven, like it was nothing.
Frank grinned, and began backing out of the stables. "You won't regret it."
"Already do!" Dewees called out after him.
Excellent. Two birds with one stone - Dewees was back on his side, and he had a legitimate way to cover for the money in his pocket without having to admit to anything. The fewer people looking his way, the better.
It worked out surprisingly well. The church didn't need them to dig every night - the town wasn't that big - just a couple of times a week, as preparation, and on call for special occasions. It was shitty work, hard on his back and hands, and his ma had to help him lance more than a few blisters. But it paid. It paid shit, but it paid, and that was all anybody ever noticed.
A couple of nights a week Lucy would sneak out to meet them with hot thermoses of black coffee under her arm. She and Dewees would disappear together into the woods for a bit; Frank pointedly didn't listen. Sometimes Kitty stopped by as well, to Frank's complete surprise, and sometimes Eddie and Dewees' buddy Ray and a couple of the other runners would come by with their leftover bottles and they'd make a fire in the thrush to warm their hands.
The guys told stories about running routes, dodging cops, and they'd pass a bottle. The girls had good ones, too - Kitty had one about Mr. Wilson's son that made Ray's ears go pink. Dewees had a whole stock about his summer spent splitting rails the next town over, under some crazy foreman named LaRue who'd been shot in the hand by his ex-wife and talked about nothing else. Frank usually told a couple too - mostly bullshit ones, which were pretty obvious, but eventually a couple of true ones, too - like the time he dislocated his shoulder jumping a train in Charlotte, and had to pay a kid help him set it right, or the time he'd woken once to find a scorpion on his neck, sleeping like Frank was comfortable as anything.
It was good. He liked it.
There was one night, too, when they were sitting around the fire like usual and Kitty caught his eye. She smiled a little, and did a quick nod of her head. Frank's mouth went dry. The rest of them were drunk - except for Ray, sleeping against a headstone - and singing that war song Frank hated.
Kitty got up quietly and disappeared into the woods; Frank managed about twenty seconds before he followed. He had to step over Eddie's leg as he did, but Eddie's eyes were closed, humming along, and he didn't notice a thing.
She was waiting behind an oak on the first slope. She tasted like he remembered, sharp from the liquor on her tongue, and her mouth was warm and hands were cold when she shoved them down the front of his pants.
"Jesus," Frank hissed.
"Shh," she hushed him, kissing him harder to swallow his noises.
"They won't hear," Frank whispered, pulling away just enough. She'd already undone the top buttons on her dress; it didn't take much to pull the rest apart and cup her breasts in his hands, nipples cold and hard against his palms.
"They say these woods are haunted," she gasped. "You never know who's watching."
Her hair was already fucked from sliding back on the bark. Frank kept one hand on her breast, rucking up her skirt with his other to push his fingers inside of her. It was tight, and hotter than anything, and when she came it was hard, unexpected, and she bit his lip hard enough to bleed.
It didn't take much for him to follow, hot in her hand, and when they were done she kissed him almost sweet - almost, Frank's lip still stung - and buttoned herself back up. He let her head back first; he needed a couple of minutes to get the flush out of his checks anyway.
A breeze blew through the woods, curling the leaves around his feet. Fingers grazed the back of his neck, running through the hair on his nape.
Frank spun quickly, but there was no one there. Just low branches dipping back and forth in the wind, and his own hair in his face. He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and headed back out towards the fire - the group was oblivious as anything and still singing, but this time it was some popular song he didn't know from the radio.
He sat back in his place in the circle, stretching out his shoes towards the fire to get the chill out.
"You got something–" Eddie said to him, gesturing a little with the bottle in his hands. Frank wiped at his mouth and his finger came away red. Blood. Kitty was laughing about something with Lucy, not paying attention, but when Eddie passed Frank the bottle his smile was tight. Frank took it with a nod and kept his eyes off Eddie's face.
When he came in the house in the morning his mother was at the window, wiping under her eyes.
Frank froze. "Ma?"
"Frankie, hey," she said, quickly dropping her hands, but her voice was still wet.
"Everything okay?" Frank asked.
She nodded and turned back to the stove. "Everything's fine. You work all night? You look tired. Do you want some coffee?"
"I'm good," he said.
He could hear the sounds of an axe outside, off-rhythm chopping as his pa hacked at a pile of wood. There was a string of muttered curses, and the loud thump of a log hitting the ground. He was supposed to hear back from the new factory today. A waste, again.
Frank couldn't stay in that room, pretending he didn't see his mother's red eyes. Waiting around for his pa to come inside, especially when Frank probably stunk just like him.
"I'll be back later," Frank said, and left. He went out to the woods and dug up his tin can with his bare hands, fingers freezing in the cold dirt. There was a good bit in there. Almost enough to set him up proper somewhere else. He ran his thumb over the president's face on the paper and it smeared dirty from his skin. Almost.
He reburied the tin, carefully shifting the log to recover the fresh earth. There was a small enclave about twenty yards away where he wouldn't be seen by anyone entering the woods from the direction of the town. It was there he curled up and slept, finally, away from everyone, arms crossed tight across his chest and face against the moss.
"Haven't seen you in a while," Michael said. "I thought maybe our hound had got you after all."
"Been busy," Frank shrugged, standing next to him in the hallway. Michael had several canvases at his feet, leaning against the wall in front of him. He seemed to be trying to decide which one to fit into the space actually left over by the other frames.
"You guys sure have a lot of paintings up," Frank said.
"Yes," Michael said, still assessing the wall in front of him. "If I didn't hang them, Gerard never would."
Frank still hadn't had a chance to bring up selling the paintings. He kept his hands fisted in his pockets, and watched Michael work.
One of the paintings was a portrait - someone Frank didn't recognize - with an odd hairstyle, a skull in her lap. The other was of Michael. Frank was stunned at the resemblance.
"Did you sit for that?" Frank asked, awed.
Michael shook his head. "I don't have the time. He remembers everything."
"I'd say that one, then," Frank said. "Definitely."
Michael nodded, and hung the portrait in the empty space. He paused, a moment, fingertips light on the canvas, and the look on his face was so pained Frank immediately felt like an intruder.
He cleared his throat, and Michael stepped back, dropping his hand.
"You guys are really close, huh," Frank said.
"We're family," Michael said, like it was obvious, like it was simple, like people just - were that. Frank held back a laugh. He wasn't sure how it would sound, if Michael would be able to hear the edge.
"Gerard," Frank called out around the doorframe. "You there?"
"Frank?" Gerard answered.
"Stay there. I got something for you," Frank said. It was pitch black in the hallway and he had to fumble a little to light the lamp, but he cranked it as high as he could before he came around the corner.
"I told you I'd - Gerard?" Frank started, then stopped. Gerard was in the corner of the room, backed up, hand up in front of his eyes. Like the first time Frank had snuck in and scared him speechless.
"What's the matter?" Frank asked, lowering the lamp.
"What–" Gerard asked, voice tense.
"It's just the lamp, Gee," Frank said, turning the light down a little. He felt embarrassed, suddenly; he should have known it was a stupid idea.
Gerard dropped his hand slightly, blinking at him. "That's the lamp?" he asked, sounding more like himself.
"Just how long have you been working by candlelight?" Frank laughed a little.
"I just–" Gerard started, then stopped. "I don't remember it being like that." He dropped his hand completely down to his side but was still holding himself tense - not scared anymore, but fascinated.
Frank lifted the lamp again, letting the warm glow creep up the walls. It was the first time he'd seen Gerard properly, in actual light, although the corners of the room were still dim.
Is she pretty?, Kitty's voice said in his head. Frank cleared his throat and brought the lamp closer, leaving it on the top of Gerard's writing desk.
"There," he said, wiping his hands on his pants. "Practically like daylight all the time, right? What'd I say."
"Yes," Gerard agreed, still watching the lamp. "Thank you."
Gerard sat quietly back down at the desk, although his seat was still pushed back from the edge, from where he'd stood up so suddenly. He seemed dazed. When Frank looked back he'd stopped staring at the lamp, and was looking at him instead.
He'd be able to see Frank properly too. Frank's face was warm - he felt embarrassed again, for some reason. It's not like he ever cleaned up proper before climbing the hedge, but he was suddenly quite aware of his busted old boots and dirty hands. His fingers itched for his comb.
A soft, gentle tapping against the window broke the silence. Frank jerked a little, surprised, but -
"Look - it's snowing," Frank said.
"It snows every year," Gerard replied. "Quite regularly, actually."
"But only once for the first time every year," Frank said. He'd honestly never been too crazy about snow as a kid - it usually meant he'd be sick within the week - but he knew he was glad for a reason to change the subject, break the stare.
It was hard to see through the warped old glass of the windows, but Frank could tell it was already almost entirely white outside. Nothing like the snow in Sulphur, which seemed to turn brown as soon as it hit the rooftops. "C'mon," Frank said, and turned from the windows to head towards the staircase.
"What?" Gerard asked, but Frank was already in the foyer.
"C'mon!" he called back.
By the time Frank made it outside the roof was a solid, flat sheet of snow, just light enough that it still left black footsteps behind him on the patio tiles. The hedge maze looked amazing, dusted in white, like flat mountains in the distance.
"Wow," Frank said quietly. A noise behind him - he turned to see Gerard hovering by the doorframe, still mostly hidden inside.
"C'mon," Frank said, gesturing.
"I–" Gerard hesitated, but Frank rolled his eyes and walked back to him, forcing him out on the patio with a yank on his arm.
"Just look at that," Frank said, gesturing out to the hedge, to where the huge, low moon hung in the sky, blurred slightly around the edges by the falling snow. "That's really something."
"Yes," Gerard said, but it was quiet. Frank turned and Gerard was watching him again. Frank had to look away; he never knew what he was supposed to do, if he was supposed to say something. Gerard didn't seem to be waiting for anything.
Frank was startled when Gerard reached out and gently touched Frank's bare wrist. Frank didn't move, didn't breathe.
"You're going to get cold," Gerard said, and dropped his hand. "You should go back inside."
"Alright," Frank said, dumbly. His hand felt warm. All of him felt warm. Gerard was gone, already disappeared back inside the dark of the house.
By the time they crawled down the ladder to the third floor the snow had melted into his clothes, and Frank finally shivered.
"Do you have any clothes I could borrow?" Frank asked. "Keeping these on is probably a bad idea."
Gerard nodded. "Why don't you go back to your - the guest room - and I'll bring you some things."
He disappeared towards the other end of the house - where was his bedroom, anyway? Frank had never seen it, certainly never asked - and left Frank to make his way to his adopted bedroom. It felt good to be alone, if only for a moment.
He pressed a hand to his cheeks and they were still warmer than usual, but his forehead was cool as anything, and there wasn't any familiar twinge in his lungs. He wasn't sick, and now that he was away from the roof and Gerard's hand on his wrist it was hard to remember exactly how he'd felt so unsteady.
"Better not be coming down with something," he muttered, yanking his wet shirt over his head and tossing it over the top of the bedpost. Gerard knocked quietly, then, and entered, although he paused and stepped back a little almost immediately.
"Oh good, thanks," Frank said, taking the bundle from Gerard's arms and laying it out on the bed. It was simple clothing - new pants, a new shirt, and even a jacket all clean and folded neatly. They had creases across the front like they'd been in a trunk for a while, as well as that strange cedar chest smell, but Frank was so relieved to be in something warm and dry he truly couldn't care. He shook out the shirt and immediately pulled his arms through.
"Where - did you get those?" Gerard asked, and Frank had to pause and look down to realize Gerard meant the inked birds on his hips.
"Oh - long time ago," Frank said, yanking the shirt over his head. "Right after I left Sulphur."
"I thought you lived in Sulphur," Gerard said, still hovering by the door.
Frank shrugged and shoved his hair back from where it'd gotten fucked up from the shirt. "Nah. I grew up there, but got out as soon as I could. Hate to stay there forever."
"Yes," Gerard said, sort of distant. "Of course."
"You and Michael ever live in Sulphur?" Frank asked, undoing his belt.
"We grew up there," Gerard said. "I don't remember it very well."
"Well, don't worry, it's still the same shithole," Frank said. "Probably just smells worse."
Frank paused, belt looped around his hand, suddenly unsure about changing in front of Gerard. He wasn't shy about - well, anything, really, but for some reason he stopped, awkward. Gerard came from money, had manners - when he remembered to use them - and maybe it wasn't the same. It hadn't mattered before, but now it did - did Gerard care? Was he supposed to wait?
"Uhm," he started, fucking eloquent.
"Oh, yes – goodnight,” Gerard said, as if he suddenly realized the situation himself. He backed out of the room quickly, closing the door quietly behind him, and Frank pressed his hand to his cheeks again. Burning.
"This coffee is terrible," Michael said the next morning, not looking up from his book as Frank came into the room. "I liked the other kind better."
"Duly noted," Frank said, reshouldering his pack. "Anything else for the list?"
"More of those strange little cakes you had last time," Michael said. He darted a look up at Frank and then froze, mug in his hand suspended mid-air to his mouth. "What are you wearing?"
Frank looked down at himself. He was still in the clothes Gerard had given him to sleep in, his other clothing tucked firmly into his pack. He hadn't even thought about changing. He was in Gerard's clothes. Shit.
"Did you steal them?" Michael asked, setting the mug firmly down on the table.
"No, I–" Frank started. He what? He found them? Where? Gerard probably took them right out of his own room, there was no explanation for why Frank would have been in there.
"Gerard gave them to me," he said, finally.
Michael stared at him. "He what?"
"He was doing me a favor, mine got wet in the snow last night," Frank rambled. "I'll bring them back."
"He gave them to you?" Michael asked. He didn't sound mad anymore just - surprised, mostly. He stared at Frank, hard. "How did you get out?"
Frank shrugged. "Easier than the first time."
Michael didn't smile. He got up from his chair and crossed to Gerard's writing desk, immediately flipping quickly back through the stack of Gerard's papers.
"Go, please," Michael said, terse, as he pulled out a quill. "Before I throw you out the front door."
"How's work going?" his mother asked.
Frank shrugged, rubbing at the calluses on his hands. "Fine."
His mother was quiet, slowly stirring at something on the stove. His pa was on the bed in the other room, snoring deeply, boots still on. It was a strange sort of calm for their house.
"How's James?" she asked. "He and Lucy set a date yet?"
"I dunno," Frank said, leaning forward to rest his head on his crossed arms on the table. It'd been almost two weeks since he'd been back at the house in the woods, unsure of his welcome. The night shifts at the cemetery had worn him out, but at least it was still paying. He hadn't had to dig into his tin in the woods just yet.
"Frankie," his mom said, and Frank wanted to burrow his head into his arms at the tone. Just - let him be.
"I won't ask," she said, quietly. "But you can tell me."
Frank rolled his head a little to look up at her. She'd stopped stirring. "Okay," he managed.
She nodded and went back to ladling soup into small bowls. They ate in silence, the only sound the snow gently tapping against the windowpane. He watched it and thought of Gerard on the roof, snow in his hair, reaching out for Frank's wrist.
He was out behind the house chopping firewood a few nights later when he felt it, like a whisper, a gentle palm against his face to turn him. Frank paused, lowering the axe, and looked out toward the woods behind their house.
Everything was silent, frozen. A cold wind blew from between the trees, across his cheeks, and Frank pulled his jacket tighter across his chest. Gerard’s jacket.
His gut still felt empty, even with his ma's food inside.
“I’m going to see Dewees,” Frank said, leaning around the front door. His mother nodded at him from her place by the fire, sewing a button back onto the front of her dress.
“Be good,” she said.
“Always,” he answered, and shut the door tight behind him. He cut immediately through the woods and towards the Way’s house, taking the shortcut through the cemetery. Dewees wouldn’t be working tonight – they were both off, actually – so it should have been silent all the way through.
He stopped as soon as he got to the outer fence of the cemetery. Someone was inside; he could hear the snow crunching under boots. Frank backed up and quietly followed the outside of the wrought iron fence, keeping his head down, and peered back once he’d made it past the older tombs.
It was his pa. Frank froze. He’d never seen his pa in the cemetery – they didn’t have any family in this one – the rest of them were all buried back up near Newark. He could almost feel it again, like soft fingers pulling at the edge of his hem, towards the woods, but he stopped and watched.
He couldn’t see his pa’s face. Just his hunched back, the same worn hat he always wore, the collar of his coat flipped up. His pa was over in the section away from the regular tombs, where Frank usually worked.
The soldiers’ markers. Oh, Frank realized, and it was like ice in his throat.
He only watched for another moment; the thought of being caught intruding made him retreat quickly back into the shadows and back into the woods, taking the long way around in the snow.
It was eerie, climbing the dead, frozen limbs of the tree next to the house. He hadn't seen the hound at all - just occasional paw prints in the snow, disappearing into nothing - and that almost unsettled him more than anything.
The greenhouse was locked tight, most of the plants either placed inside or the empty, brittle ones moved inside the attic. The attic door was still unlocked, and Frank let out the tense breath he'd been holding. It wouldn't have stopped him, exactly - he still had the picks in his pocket - but at least they weren't totally forcing him out.
The house was freezing inside, too; he could see his breath as he crept down the dark staircase, and there was frost edging the corners of the windowpanes.
He saw the light from the lamp in the parlor before he even made it down the staircase. He peered around the doorframe to see Gerard - not at his writing desk, like usual, but curled up on the ledge by the window. He wasn't even wearing a jacket, just his familiar vest and rolled-up shirtsleeves. He was watching the snow, hands in his lap, and he was so still that if his eyes weren't open Frank would have thought he was sleeping.
"Gee," Frank whispered, and Gerard startled.
"Frank?" he asked, surprised.
"Can I come in?"
"Yes, I–" Gerard started, turning to put his feet back on the floor. "I didn't think you were coming back."
"I thought Michael was mad at me," Frank admitted, still hovering by the door frame.
Gerard's shoulders slumped. "He was mad at me."
Frank frowned. He couldn't imagine that at all, not the way Michael talked about him. "Why–"
"I know you picked the lock," Gerard said. "I knew the first night."
Frank was stunned. "You - did? Why–"
Gerard shrugged a little with one shoulder, looking down at his hands. "I didn't care."
"Oh." Frank didn't know what to think. He hadn't cared? He'd known Frank was breaking Michael's rules the entire time, and he just - let him?
"How mad was he?" Frank asked.
Gerard smiled a little ruefully. "He never stays mad at me long. Even when he should."
Frank stepped a little further into the room. It was so fucking cold in there.
"Why are you here?" Gerard asked, finally looking up at him.
"I–" Frank started. "I - don't know." He didn't, not exactly. He just - hadn't been able to stop thinking about the house. Michael's greenhouse, Gerard's books, the shelves packed with delicate, crafted things, strange items that didn't seem to belong to either of them, the way Gerard watched him like he was interesting, his pale hands and every wall filled with paintings -
Frank shifted on his feet. "Gee," he said. "Can you show me some of your paintings?"
Gerard watched him for a moment, and nodded.
"Wow," Frank said, stepping close to another in the hall. Gerard had hundreds of paintings. Hundreds and hundreds of paintings, even, of all sizes. The hallway that led off the eerily still back rooms - complete with pianos covered in sheets "too out of tune to save," Gerard had said, sadly - had paintings practically hung stacked on top of one another, and when Frank had stepped closer he'd realized there was artwork underneath, too, painted right onto the wall.
"I was out of canvas," Gerard said quietly. Frank ran his fingers over where the wallpaper had cracked and split, right down the face of a man with too-large eyes.
The other painting Michael had been deliberating on hanging was down at the end, with the woman and the skull in her lap. Frank held up the lamp to see it better.
She had large eyes, too, but they seemed to fit more naturally with her oval face. Dark hair, with thick rolls of it tied loosely at her neck, right at the collar of a stiff dress.
"Who's this?" Frank asked.
Gerard didn't answer, and when Frank looked over his shoulder Gerard had practically melted into the dark of the shadows, leaning heavily against the other wall.
"My mother," Gerard said, cutting him off.
Frank turned back to look at the painting. "She's very pretty."
"She was," Gerard replied.
Her hands in the painting seemed strangely intense, fingers pressed tight to the bone of the skull, compared to the serene placidity of her face. Frank stepped closer again.
The gold cross necklace. The one he'd pawned. She was wearing it in the painting, just the smallest of brush strokes indicating the shape against her collarbone. Frank felt like he had a rock in his stomach, sinking it down to his toes.
"It's freezing in here," Frank said, which was true, and hopefully helped cover the fact that his hand was shaking around the base of the lamp. "Let's head back."
He barely remembered the walk back to the parlor, or Gerard taking the lamp out of his hands, moving it to the writing desk again.
"Frank," Gerard said, and he had a hand on Frank's face - he could barely feel it, both of them were so cold. "Do you want to stay?"
"Yes," Frank said. He wanted to apologize, or explain, or - something, but he was so tired, and he was afraid Gerard wouldn't ask him that again if he'd known what Frank had done.
Frank curled up on his end of the sofa, kicking his boots off onto the carpet. Gerard pulled blankets out of the old chest against the window and laid them over Frank before settling into the other end, still seemingly not cold at all.
Gerard picked up the book Frank had left on the table weeks ago - the one with the notes scribbled inside, the small pressed flower between the pages. Frank bet every book in the room was like that, if he was to flip through - marked all over with that conversation he couldn't understand.
"Do you love your family?" Frank asked.
Gerard was quiet a moment. "More than anything."
"That must be nice," Frank said. It sounded so strange - not even angry, or with the bitter envy of before. Just tired.
Gerard was silent, but he didn't turn any more pages in his book, and hadn't by the time Frank finally drifted off to sleep.
When Frank woke Gerard was gone and Michael was sitting at Gerard's desk, slowly writing something with the long, bent quill.
"Good morning," Michael said. "Sleep well?"
Frank was quiet.
"You know," Michael continued, obviously not waiting for an answer. "I haven't given you a new list in weeks. And yet it seems more often than not I wake and you are here."
Frank shifted. He sensed it wasn't a good time to interrupt.
"I felt the service you provided to us was a mutually beneficial one," Michael said. He dipped the quill into the ink and underlined something on the page several times, forcefully. "But I am beginning to wonder what truly is in it for you. Surely it isn't the food," he continued. "Or warmth from the cold. A certain fondness for antiques, perhaps. God knows the house is full of them."
"Mikey–" Frank finally started, but stopped when Michael froze at the nickname, looking up at him. Frank fell silent.
"I enjoy your company, Frank," Michael said, not dropping his gaze. "But if you are here to bring harm on this family, you will regret it. Do you understand?"
Frank felt foolish - still covered in blankets, hair sticking straight up off the back of his head. But he still felt the need to explain, even though he wasn't completely sure himself.
"I wouldn't," Frank said. It was the truth. "I like your family."
Michael watched him, but it was like the edges of him softened, just the slightest. "Don't you have one that misses you?"
Frank pulled a tassel from the edge of the blanket through his fingers. He shrugged. "Can't say I ever gave them a reason to."
"Gerard told me he told you who was in that painting," Michael said.
Frank nodded. "What happened to her?"
"She died," Michael said. "During the war. Right after my father."
A connection. "My pa was in the war, too," Frank said. "Fucked him up real bad. Don't think my father was, though."
Michael frowned. "I thought - your father–"
"Pa raised me, but he's not my father," Frank said. "I don't know that guy. My mom knew him, but she married my pa right before he went and joined the Army - came home from the war all fucked up to a kid that looked like someone else."
Michael's eyebrows rose. Frank was surprised as anything - he'd never talked about it to anyone, not even his mother, not since the first time he'd asked why they looked so different and she'd gotten furious at him.
He'd walked past the framed photograph from the church groundbreaking in the narthex hundreds of times, but it was only when he was old enough - and tall enough - to actually look at it properly did he recognize the face of a man in the crowd as his own. He'd never seen him before, but there he was in the photo, elbow propped on a shovel and smiling. His pa was four men down, standing right next to his mother, hand around her waist and grinning too. They'd all looked so young.
"Don't think she ever admitted it to him, but he never believed her. Stayed married to her, though." Frank laughed. "Guess I'm thankful for that. I coulda been a real bastard, instead of just a secret one."
"He stayed?" Michael asked, curious.
"He stayed because he's a drunk who cares what people would say about him if he left," Frank said. "Not because he cared about us, about my ma. He'd rather stay miserable forever than go where they couldn't say it to his face."
"And what about you?" Michael asked.
"I learned how to cut my losses," Frank said.
"As did I." Michael said. It felt like a compromise. Frank didn't relax.
"I need help fixing the greenhouse," Michael said, finally, putting the quill back in its pot. "The ice last night cracked some of the glass."
"I'm in," Frank said.
"I know," Michael said, and smiled a little, like at a joke Frank didn't know.
Frank stomped off the slush from his boots on the porch, but paused, hand on the doorknob. It was freezing, too fucking cold, and he could see from the light in the window that his ma had a good fire going. He couldn't wait to get out of the fucking snow, but he could hear the axe going behind the house.
Frank flexed his hand, tapping a finger against the doorknob.
He stepped off the porch and went around the side to the back, where his pa was chopping more firewood, breath thick and white in the cold.
"Hey," Frank said, hands shoved into his pockets. His pa didn't look up at him, just threw the sliced pieces onto the pile behind him and moved another log into its place. "You need any help?"
His pa swung the axe, splitting the log right down the middle. "No," he said, still not looking up.
"You sure? I can–" Frank started, but his pa cut him off.
"I don't need your help," he said, tossing the pieces behind him. "Saw what you did before. Had to rechop half of 'em where you fucked 'em up."
Frank shut his mouth.
His pa took another swing, and the axe wedged in deep. So much for that. Frank turned and went back around to the front of the house, kicking the slush off of his boots on the porch again. His ma was inside at the stove, pink-faced from the steam of the pot.
"There you are," she said, smiling at him a little. "You hungry?"
"Starved," Frank said, and forced himself to smile back.
“Dewees!” Frank called, jogging over. “Wait up a sec!”
Dewees stopped on the bottom steps of the church, hands in his pockets. He looked so funny in his one fine suit, hair slicked self-consciously back. Lucy’s dad stood at the top, greeting exiting churchgoers.
“Come to confess your sins?” Dewees smiled.
“You’d be here ‘till next Sunday,” Frank replied. “Listen, is it okay if I miss–"
“The shift tonight?” Dewees finished for him.
Frank sighed. “Yes.”
Dewees stared at him a minute, rocking back on his heels. “I can’t believe you’re asking. Are you actually asking for permission?”
Frank shrugged. “You’re weak. I wasn't sure if you could handle it alone.”
"You never ask," Dewees said. He sounded suspicious.
"Fine, then, I'll be sure to forget next time."
“Something’s gotten into you,” Dewees said. “Or someone.” His eyes widened. “Or have you gotten into–"
“We are on actual hallowed ground,” Frank hissed at him. “What is wrong with you?”
“What is wrong with you? Who is it?” Dewees said, taking the step down to get closer in Frank’s face. “You have to tell me.”
“Fuck you,” Frank said.
“Hallowed ground!” Dewees hissed back.
Frank mouthed fuck you and almost lost it when he glanced up and caught Lucy’s dad frowning down at him from over the butcher’s shoulder.
“Shit, I gotta go,” Frank said, already backing away.
“Still hallowed ground!” Dewees called out after him, but Frank didn’t answer as he disappeared around the corner to the alley.
He had a strange knot in his gut the whole way back to the house in the woods. He was freezing, having to fight the snow, and his hands were icy and numb already, but he found he didn't care. It was always strange heading back to the house - nothing about it ever felt routine, there was never anything boring about the Ways - but this was a different kind of strange. Anticipation, down to his bones, for something.
Frank slid down the ladder from the attic to the floor with a soft thump, kicking up a bit of dust out of the carpet. It hovered in the orange light by the window, delicate, but the rest of the house was silent.
“Hello?” Frank called out, moving down the hallway. He didn’t have to pretend to be locked up in any guest rooms anymore. That was nice. He smiled a little, trailing a hand along the edge of a table in the hall, covered in small, rusted keys, placed in touching intricate patterns.
“Gerard?” Frank called out again, but got no answer. Gerard might not be back from work yet. “Michael?”
Frank paused at the top of the staircase, leaning a bit over the railing. “Mikey?” he tried, louder, sure that if nothing else the nickname would get a rise. Still nothing.
Were they both out? Frank looked around him, surprised. Oh. Huh. The house to himself, for the very first time. You shouldn't, a small voice said, but he ignored it and went to find a candle.
Frank lit one of the little ones off his cigarette matches, and followed the light back down the hall. He’d actually never really snooped around before, not properly - Michael accompanied him almost constantly when he was around (keeping him from getting into anything, undoubtedly) and the draw of Gerard in the parlor usually prevented Frank from wandering when he spent the night. Gerard had shown him most of the paintings on the first floor, but nothing up to the third, and Frank was curious.
Frank carefully maneuvered around another table covered both on top and underneath by stacks of the folded, tied-off papers. Paintings hung on every wall, like on every other floor of the house. He wouldn’t be able to sell any of those without Michael or Gerard noticing, he thought idly. He left them be.
Every door in the hallway was locked. Frank frowned. He glanced back over his shoulder to the table full of keys back by the staircase, but he wouldn’t even know where to start. What did they keep in there? You only locked up the stuff you really wanted to keep safe.
Frank went back over to the table to look again at the keys, but tripped just slightly on the carpet – some wax dripped onto his knuckles, fuck – and when he put his hand out to catch himself on the wall the wallpaper shifted under his hands, brittle and thin.
“Oh, fuck,” Frank said, fumbling to keep it from peeling off, but it was no use, he was going to have to explain that somehow–
Frank froze. Underneath the wallpaper, on the bare, stained wall, were words. What? Frank stepped closer, holding the candle up again.
He couldn’t read them – they were in some language he didn’t understand, in a twitching, frantic hand that had left ink bursts all over the wall. They covered the space underneath the wallpaper completely, sometimes crossing back on themselves until they didn’t look like any language at all, just pits of black. The edges disappeared underneath the wallpaper on both sides and Frank picked at it with his nail, digging at the seam and pulling it up to see.
More. It went on, and on. How long had this been here? Who the fuck did this–
“Hello,” Gerard said behind him, and Frank startled so bad he dropped the candle, had to stomp at it so it wouldn’t catch the carpet.
“Gee,” Frank said, flustered. “There’s – I fell, and I saw, look, there’s writing everywhere–"
“Oh?” Gerard asked, stepping closer and looking over Frank’s shoulder. “So there is,” he said. He didn’t sound surprised at all.
Frank’s neck was sweating.
“We should go downstairs,” Gerard said, smiling a little, and pulled gently on Frank’s wrist to guide him towards the staircase. “It always gets too cold up here.”
“But who would write those things?” Frank asked, sprawled out on the sofa. Gerard was in his familiar place at the desk by the window, the lamp turned up bright.
“I don’t know,” Gerard said.
“It looked like it’s been there a long time,” Frank said, trying to get more answers out of him. He didn’t want Gerard to shut down because of his questioning, but he wanted to know. Gerard didn’t seem fazed.
“It probably has,” Gerard said.
“Aren’t you curious?” Frank asked.
Gerard continued writing away at his papers, quill not even pausing on the page. “I used to be,” he admitted. “But wanting to know doesn't mean you actually get answers, sometimes.”
Frank sighed, staring up at the ceiling. “What are you writing?”
“What kind of story?” Frank asked.
“A good one,” Gerard said. “There’s a boy who gets eaten by a goblin when he asks too many questions.”
“How many questions is too many questions?” Frank asked, letting his leg sway off the cushions.
“We will have to see,” Gerard said, but he didn’t sound annoyed. He was smiling a little, actually, relaxed.
Frank was quiet, running his hands gently together, pensive. “You should come with me next time,” he said.
“The cemetery,” Frank said.
Gerard froze. “Why would I do that?”
“I work there,” Frank said. “But I have to work more now and can’t get off to visit as much. You should come visit me.”
“I don’t know,” Gerard said, turning a page over slowly. He was still writing but it was slower, dragging.
“I don’t know,” Gerard replied.
Frank rolled his head to stare at him.
“I work a lot,” Gerard said.
“Not at night,” Frank said. “You mostly hang out with me. It’s fun. They’re fun.”
“Some of the town kids,” Frank said. “Dewees, Lucy, Kitty, Eddie, Ray, whoever. I think you’d like them.”
“Do you like them?”
“I do,” Frank said, and was a little surprised to find it was true.
Gerard was quiet for another moment, still not writing, not looking up at Frank. “My grandfather dug graves,” he said, finally.
“In Sulphur? Seriously?” Frank asked, pushing up on his elbows. “That’s great. He could probably give me some pointers.”
Gerard smile wryly. “Yes, he probably could.”
He was quieter after that, losing focus on Frank like he sometimes did. Frank didn’t really mind, though, now that he’d figured not to take it personally – it was so different than the scared, twitching Gerard he’d met the first night, or even when he seemed to close down defensively. Frank figured it was almost like he was finally comfortable enough to forget Frank was there.
Too bad for him, Frank thought, but it was mostly out of habit, and even he could tell it was hollow. Frank settled back into the cushions, laying his palms over his chest, and closed his eyes to sleep.
"What do you have for me this week?" the pawn broker asked.
Frank tapped his hands against the wood of the counter, one two. "I need something back."
"We all need something back," the broker said. "Can you afford to, is the question."
Frank's palm was sweating against the roll of cash in his pockets, making the bills stick to his palm. He was going to regret this. Wasn't he?
"Hey, Frankie," his mother said, peering around the doorframe of his bedroom. "I'm heading over to the church to help with some things. Are you working tonight?"
"Yeah, about to head out," he said. "I'll see you later."
"I will," she said, and smiled a little. She'd stopped looking so surprised when she came in his room and he was still there. "Be good."
"Always." He waited until she'd left, shutting the front door behind her, to pull the gold necklace out of his pocket. The cross looked smaller than he'd remembered. Gerard had painted it perfectly.
Frank ran his thumb over the little stone in the middle. How would this go? He'd give it back, and Gerard would know he'd stolen it. What was Frank going to say? Some part of him had known it was precious when he'd taken it and pawned it anyway.
He ran a hand through his hair. He could just - put it back, maybe. Pretend like it'd never been gone. Act like he'd found it, like it'd fallen to the floor, and he'd just happened to pick it up. Gerard would thank him for finding it, maybe smile like he sometimes did at Frank. Trusting.
The idea made him feel dirty, small. Frank didn't like it. He pocketed the necklace again, lacing up his boots quickly. This was why he'd given up feeling guilty for shit years ago, he thought angrily as he pulled on his gloves. It was so much god damn easier.
Frank spit on the ground before licking the edge of the paper, quickly rolling the cigarette paper between his fingers. It was fucking freezing.
"You'd think people would have the decency to wait until spring to die," Dewees grunted, shoving his shovel harder into the ground. "Hurry up with that cigarette."
"Dig faster," Frank said. He cupped his hands to light the end of it, a small brightness trapped between his palms, and inhaled.
"Your turn," Dewees said, passing the shovel over as he sat down on the headstone next to Frank.
Frank took the shovel and passed the cigarette. "You're welcome."
"My hands are numb," Dewees said. "No pity."
Frank huffed out a laugh, and their breaths mirrored each other in the cold. Dewees angled the lamp, turning up the flame, and the shadows around them were dark and thick.
"Lucy coming out tonight?" Frank asked.
"She's home and warm in bed," Dewees said. "Probably under blankets. A million blankets. Where it's warm and smells good and not like dead shit."
"So that's a no," Frank said.
Dewees just muttered around the cigarette, hands shoved deep in his armpits.
"Dewees," Frank paused. "I gotta ask you something."
Dewees nodded and uncapped the flask from his pocket. "Hit me."
"You ever go back into these woods? Behind Sulphur?"
"Sure, as a kid," Dewees said. He took a drink and stopped, wincing on an exhale. "There's a stream with some pretty good fishing back about half a mile, and a swimming hole we used to sneak off to instead of chores. Never really went much past that way."
Frank was silent. The ground was cold, but if he worked with the shovel he could get it to chip away at a decent rate.
"Why, man?" Dewees asked.
"Just wondering," Frank said, not looking up.
"They did use to say the woods were haunted," Dewees said, like he'd just remembered. "Oh, yeah, yeah. Dead kids, or something. You know how it goes."
"Yeah," Frank said, finally glancing up, but something froze him in the spot. His mind raced, heart tight.
"What is it?" Dewees asked. "You alright?"
"Move," Frank said urgently. "Off the headstone, move."
"What the hell, man," Dewees said, but Frank shoved at his legs until they were no longer obscuring the names on the headstone.
Gerard Arthur Way. 1842 - 1865.
"No," Frank said.
Michael James Way. 1845 - 1865.
"No way," Frank said, hushed. The names of their parents - what had Michael said, their father died in the war - there he was, too, his name above theirs, right beside their mother's. 1865.
"What the hell, man," Dewees asked. "You know those dudes?"
"Distant relatives," Frank heard himself say, but it sounded like an echo. "I gotta go, man, I'm sorry–"
"What?" Dewees said, but Frank was already taking off at a run towards the woods. "We still have three graves to dig!"
Frank was sprinting past the church when someone grabbed him by the arm, stopping him in his tracks.
"Frankie, hey–" Eddie, fucking Eddie, Frank did not have time for this - "I was actually coming to find you. I gotta talk to you about–"
"I gotta go, man," Frank said, pulling his arm away. "Find me later–"
"Not later," Eddie said, voice hardening. "Where are you going, anyway - aren't you supposed to be working? Dewees let you off again?"
"How is that any of your fucking business, Eddie?" Frank snapped, turning back to him.
"Because that should have been my fucking job," Eddie said. He seemed surprised he'd said it out loud.
"Freaking out now your gig is over?" Frank asked, stepping closer. "Heard they don't need runners like you anymore, not that you can get it legal as anything."
"You think you're set?" Eddie shot back. "What are you going to do when people wise up and stop giving you second chances?"
"I don't have time for your insecure bullshit," Frank said. "I got things to do–"
"Jesus Christ," Frank said, hands up by his face. "If you want to ask her out, just fucking ask her out instead of circling me like a fucking mosquito all the time, save us all the trouble."
Eddie fumed. "You better watch yourself, Iero. You don't have everybody fooled."
"But at least I don't have to try so fucking hard to do it," Frank said. "I have shit to do. Get out of my way."
He left Eddie standing on the corner by the church, hands hanging limp by his sides. He'd have to deal with that later, but he couldn't stop now, he had to get back to the house.
Adrenaline made him sloppy - he scraped his arms up to his elbows on the vines climbing the hedge, and he was too loud, breathing too hard to escape notice. The hound caught him at the apple tree, grabbing his foot, and Frank had to kick him off before pulling himself up the branches to the roof again.
He didn't even bother sneaking in. "Gerard!" he yelled as soon as his feet hit the floor at the bottom of the ladder. "Gerard!"
Gerard was already at the bottom of the stairs looking terrified as soon as Frank ran to the landing. He had a long ink spill on his shirt where he'd apparently knocked the bottle over. "What's wrong?" he asked, face pale. "Are you alright?"
"When did your parents die?" Frank asked, taking the steps two at a time to end up in Gerard's space. He stayed a step above so they were eye-to-eye.
Gerard blanched. "What?"
"When did your parents die?"
"The war. They died in the war."
"Which war," Frank said, not letting it slide. "What year."
"The last one," Gerard said. "Why do you care, what's wrong–" he stopped, finally seeing the blood on Frank's pant leg. "Are you hurt?"
"Gee, listen," Frank said. "You need to tell me."
Frank was panting hard, sweat soaking the collar of his shirt even as the cold of the house made his breath fog. Gerard didn't seem to be listening to him, though - he seemed far away, dazed.
He pressed a palm against Frank's chest, where it was soaked through, fingers splayed wide. Frank was so shocked he went speechless.
"Look at you," Gerard said, awed.
Frank pushed Gerard's hand off his chest. Gerard didn't even seem to notice - he was glazed over, almost, looking up and down Frank.
"How do you do that?" Gerard asked.
"Do what," Frank said, still breathing hard. He'd lost control of the conversation. He didn't even know what they were talking about.
"Burn," Gerard said. He reached out and touched Frank's face, gently, and when he pulled his hand away there was a smear of red on Gerard's thumb. Frank must have cut his face when he was scaling the hedge - he'd been moving so fast, he hadn't even noticed.
"Gerard," Frank said, and he was angry - angry at himself, because he wanted to let it drop, wanted to forget he'd seen the tombstone, angry at Gerard because he wasn't answering him, angry because for the first time, truly, Frank realized he didn't know the first thing about what he'd gotten himself into.
"Did you take their names?" Frank asked.
"Who?" Gerard asked.
"Gerard Arthur Way. Michael James Way."
Gerard's eyes went wide, like he'd been shocked. He wasn't dazed anymore. He turned, looking over his shoulder to the window to where dawn was beginning to break in the east. "What time is it?"
"What does that matter," Frank said, slightly desperate, but Gerard was already turning away to head towards the back of the house.
"Don't you run away!" Frank yelled, following him down the staircase. "Gerard!"
"Stop asking," Gerard said, almost pleading, moving quickly down the still-dark halls. Frank followed close, hands dragging on the wallpaper to feel his way, trying to keep up.
"You can tell me," Frank said.
"I can't," Gerard said. "But I want to, and that's worse."
"Why? What are you scared of?"
"Did you take their names?" Frank asked again, following him through the kitchen. "Did you lie? Is this even your house? Why would you take the names of dead people you don't know?"
"You can," Frank cut him off, getting angry. "Don't bullshit me, Gerard, I've made a living on it."
Gerard turned on his heel and moved towards Frank, forcing him to take two steps back until he was pressed up against the wooden slab of the cutting board on the table. He was close, closer than he'd ever been, inches away from touching Frank head to toe. His breath was hot on Frank's face.
"Did you ever stop and think," Gerard said, and his voice was strange, stretched-out, intense and sharp, "that Mikey wasn't keeping you from me - he was keeping me from you."
"What?" Frank said, stunned.
Gerard glanced over Frank's shoulder to the window. "I have to go," he said, and he sounded scared - truly terrified - as he backed up from Frank and turned to hurry down the back hall.
"Where?" Frank asked, taking a step after him. He couldn't stop, not now, not when there were answers right in front of him, and all the questions he'd never asked were spilling out. "Where do you go, you go to work every morning but you can't go to town with me? Won't go to town?"
Gerard stopped, shoulders hunched.
"Why don't you sell your paintings?" Frank asked. "You're brilliant. Everything in this house is brilliant. So why do you live like this? Just tell me something," Frank pleaded.
Gerard didn't move, back still to Frank.
"Gerard," Frank said, and stepped forward to turn him around to look him in the eye. "Gee, c'mon," he said. Gerard looked up at him and it was like a hook in his spine jerked him away - away from Gerard's eyes - his pooled, black eyes, like two empty holes in his face.
"Jesus Christ," Frank said, stumbling to the other side of the chopping block. Gerard didn't say a word, just took off running through the storage hallways in the other direction. It took Frank a minute to recover but he sprinted after Gerard, even as most of his mind yelled at him to turn the fuck around. He wanted to know. He wanted to know. He had to know.
He rounded the last corner and found himself in a hallway with only one door at the end. He grabbed the handle, yanking it open, and at the same time he went to throw himself through and beyond he was grabbed by a pair of arms behind him, yanking him back.
What the -
"Mikey!" Frank yelled, but not before the hound was there, lunging at him from inside the other room. Frank got a glance and he could see the glint of sunlight behind the dog, framing its body, the first time he'd actually seen the thing, instead of just running the other way. Michael kicked at the door - it wasn't enough, Frank had to frantically kick too, slamming its muzzle against the frame - and shutting it closed, but not before it got a good, long scratch in on Michael's leg, sending blood down his pant leg.
The moment was frenzied, blurred, but Frank had finally seen its face. He was wrong. He'd been wrong the whole time. It wasn't a hound. It was a beast. Too many teeth in that long, wide mouth, and distorted, bent limbs - less like fur than sharp bristles, and two black holes for eyes. It wasn't a hound. It was Gerard.
"Get the fuck away from me!" Frank yelled, running back through the halls.
"Wait!" Michael called out. He caught up to Frank in the front hall, at the bottom of the staircase, and had to grab him around the waist to drag Frank down to the floor. He looked frantic, hair completely out of place, his glasses missing, lost in the fight.
"Get the fuck off of me," Frank said, trying to kick at him, but Michael held him in place.
"Listen to me," Michael said. "Frank, just listen–"
"No," Frank said, but failed again at throwing him off. "You live with a fucking monster–"
"And Gerard lives with one too," Michael cut him off, and Frank stopped, panting hard.
"He wanders at day," Michael said, tense. "I wander at night."
Frank couldn't breathe. His chest hurt. "I don't understand," he said, but he did. "Do you - you're like him?"
"Yes," Michael said. Broken.
Frank panted, rolling his head from side to side.
"Why," Frank asked, and it was cracked, small. Michael let go of his wrists and slid off of him, bracing himself at the bottom of the staircase with his back to the wall. Frank didn't move - couldn't move - except to cover his face with his hands so he wouldn't have to see it. He was going insane, he was - drunk, or hallucinating, it was exhaustion, something that actually made sense, something that fit into his world instead of Gerard's black eyes.
"Because," Michael said, breathing hard, exhausted. "Curses don't forgive."
Frank kept his hands over his face. "I saw the tombstone," he said. "He wouldn't say what war."
Michael didn't answer.
Finally Frank sat up, pulling himself up a little by the bannister, until he was facing Michael, weak on his hands and knees. "Why did you let me stay," Frank began, but trailed off. "I could have told somebody. I could have told everybody."
Michael closed his eyes. "I haven't seen another person for years," he said, hushed like a confession. Frank had never heard anyone sound so defeated. "I don't think I would have minded if you'd brought the cavalry, just as long as I could have seen their faces."
Michael didn't stop him, didn't even try - he was still sitting back against the wall when Frank ran up the steps - didn't even open his eyes, didn't even act surprised. Frank practically ran along the top of the maze, sloppy and lopsided and heavy with fear and a tightness in his chest. The hound - the monster - Gerard was in there - followed him the whole time, whipping itself into a frenzy when it couldn't reach him, scrabbling at the green walls. Its mouth dripped with spit, pink with blood on the edges from Michael's leg, eyes still black as tar.
Frank didn't even stop in Sulphur when he ran away from the house, taking the long way around the outskirts and pausing only long enough to drink rainwater from the catches or steal a few apples to slide into his pockets on the way. He ran to his spot in the woods and unearthed the tin with both hands, shoving the leftover cash into his pockets and leaving the rest of it behind. He'd kept the little wooden figurine of Gerard in the tin, too - unwilling to return it, for some reason, but worried if they'd ever found it on his person - but he took it out, now, and hurled it as far into the woods as he could.
He still had the gold necklace, too. He pulled it out of his pocket, not even sparing it a glance, and threw it in the opposite direction like it had burned him.
By the time he reached the train tracks his legs were aching, body shaking with adrenaline, and the stitch in his side made it almost impossible to breathe. There was a 5:44 out of the station every day, and if he'd timed it right he should have been right about on time to hop it.
The light was fading around him fast, settling into evening, and Frank couldn't stop thinking about them, about Gerard waking up to an empty house, no sign of where he'd gone, and Michael, now with two holes for eyes, wandering the maze alone.
A howl broke him from his thoughts but it was just the howl of the train engine, and Frank crouched down low in the underbrush, waiting for it to slow enough to jump.
He woke in Baltimore, again in Raleigh. He had to switch off in Atlanta when they threatened to bring him in, and he spent two days on the coast staring out at the water but not touching the waves. It'd be freezing, anyway, and the beaches were too rocky and grey to be appealing. He thought about going to Chicago but it was too cold, worse than Jersey that time of year, and he finally bought himself a new coat in Birmingham with a few bills off the roll in his pocket.
He got new shoes in Jackson - real ones, with proper soles he hadn't cobbled back together himself, that didn't soak his feet in the snow, and a hat he could pull down proper. He got a job splitting rails there, just for a few weeks, and it was freezing and miserable and he thought of his pa, pissed off and chopping wood behind their little house. It didn't last long.
He got a new tattoo in New Orleans, raw and sore down his arm, and a mouth that tasted like the girl working the tables at the bar who'd smiled when she'd asked his name. She'd gripped his bandaged arm when she moaned, holding his head and tongue against her, and the pain made him come hard, his knees digging in the slush.
She'd bought him a drink, too, at his hotel, but when he woke up in the morning she was gone, and Frank rolled onto his back on the bed aching all over. He felt wrung out. It was good, though - if he kept going there wasn't room for anything else, and if he was too tired he didn't remember the dreams in the morning.
He refused to think about Sulphur, about the house in the woods, about his mom, about his pa, about Dewees, probably still waiting for him to show for another shift - about how he'd almost had them all fooled - about how Eddie had been right about him all along.
The coffee at the Lake Charles station was terrible, weak and bitter, but it was warm in his hand. He read the board again, taking a sip. He could do Sacramento, maybe. Take it up the coast, go to San Francisco, see what he could find. He sighed. He fucking hated California. At least it'd be warmer.
Do you want to stay?
A train whistle blew behind him and Frank turned to watch the crowd surge, angling himself out of the way. There was a young woman behind him, wrapped up tight in her coat, bouncing up and down on her toes to see over the crowd. She cried out happily at the sight of someone on the other side, rushing off to meet them - family, a lover, a friend. It didn't matter.
Frank's coffee was cold in his hands, too bitter to drink anymore.
He hopped off the train a few miles outside Sulphur and walked the rest of the way, hands deep in his pockets. He didn't want to see anyone at the train station, didn't want to see anyone at all until he was good and ready, but he was starving enough to try and slip into the line at one of the spots on the outside of town where a lot of the workers stopped on their way home. He kept his hat pulled down tight, eyes on his feet as he made his way through the line.
He was outside, unwrapping the small packet of cold meat to eat as he walked, when he looked up and saw Eddie. Frank froze. Eddie was watching him - looked him up and down, took in Frank's new coat, new hat, new boots - mouth in a tight, pinched line.
Eddie disappeared down the alley, headed back in the direction of town, and Frank backed up and went around the back of the deli, taking the long way to enter the woods. He ate the rest of his cold meat and bread sitting on a soaked log a few hundred yards off the path.
It would be easier to travel now, while there was still a little bit of daylight left. But he didn't want to be spotted again, not before he was ready. Not when he didn't have a plan. It felt like years ago he'd taken this same path back to Sulphur, months before there were strange houses in hedge mazes and brothers with black holes for eyes and all the rest of it.
An owl hooted overhead, and Frank tipped his hat to it as he moved on, following the light of the town to take him around the outskirts and down to the cemetery.
Frank ran a hand over the names on the tombstone. The more time that had passed the more he'd almost had himself convinced he'd read it incorrectly, but there it was, right under his palm. He'd seen the headstone almost every shift with Dewees but only read it once, the last time. Right there. Gerard and Michael's full names and death dates, etched forever into the rock.
It just didn't make any sense. Their whole family. Michael'd said their parents had died in the war - no, in the war, or during the war? - what had he said? Frank couldn't remember. Were they all dead? They were listed on the stone above Michael and Gerard. Where were they? Actually under his feet, or in one of those locked rooms on the upper floors? The thought made his gut flip.
He'd touched both of the brothers at some point or another - Michael had touched his ankle that morning, healing the bite. Frank had grabbed Gerard's arm to pull him into the snow. His feet, pressed against Gerard's thigh while he lay on the couch. Gerard's palm, warm and flat against his chest. They were flesh and blood. It didn't make sense.
"What's the matter, Iero - run out of living people to fuck over? Thinking about working on the dead, too?"
Frank's whole body went cold, and then warm in a swelling rush of anger. He turned.
A man, about fifteen feet from him, with hands shoved deep in his pockets. Frank hadn't even heard him walk up, muffled by the new snow. Hadn't heard any of them - he knew there had to be at least three of his guys flanking him, probably already off to the sides out of view.
"Barker," Frank said, voice dry. "I hoped you were dead."
"I hoped you were alive," Barker grinned. "Just to see the look on your face."
"Is there a problem?" Frank asked, taking his hands out of his pockets, still fighting to stay casual.
"Yeah," Barker said, wryly. "There's a problem."
Frank assessed. He was faster than most of Barker's crew, and he knew the land better - Barker and his boys ran out of Newark, he'd never seen them in Sulphur before - but he couldn't risk them going into town with him, knowing where he lived. His mother. On the other hand, a crowd would be better cover than thin, bare trees, still dead from winter.
"Don't even try it," Barker said. "I've been looking for you for too god damned long." Even as he spoke Frank heard the tell-tale shuffle behind him which meant another one - Lewster, by the sound of it - was already stationed just off into the shadows.
"I heard you've been working here, shoveling for the dead," Barker said. "Heard you've been working somewhere else, too, but won't say where. Pay well?"
Frank was silent.
"Looks like it does. Love the hat. But the question is - does it pay enough to replace the money that you stole from me?" Barker asked. "Or do you steal from them, too."
"I didn't steal," Frank said.
"Like fuck you didn't," Barker snapped. "You stole for me. As a job. And then you stole from me."
"That was my cut," Frank spat.
Barker took another step closer, tensing up. Frank grit his teeth. "You get paid if the job is done. You didn't finish the job."
"I did my job. I finished my share. The cops rolled in. You expected me to stay for the party?"
"You fled," Barker said. "You ran, with more than just your share, too, don't play like you didn't. You were a good runner, Iero, but you picked the wrong time to run away from me."
Frank tried to make a dash for it before he'd even finished the sentence - it was always best to let them get a little smug before you broke out, after all, and Barker was sitting lazy with his hands in his pockets, but Frank didn't get four steps before thick arms pulled him to the ground.
His head cracked against a headstone as he fell and the world swam around him, dizzying and sick.
"Made a lot of enemies, Iero," Barker said, as Lewster dragged him through the dirty snow.
"No," Frank said, slurred. It hurt, he hurt, he couldn't concentrate -
"Yes," Barker tutted. "You should watch out who you piss off sometimes. Your buddy practically gagged at the chance to say where you were, once he knew you were a runner too, and a wanted one at that."
Eddie. Frank dry heaved, spots in his eyes.
"You know what your problem is, Iero?" Barker asked, but Frank just lolled his head from side to side. There was blood in his eyes so he closed them, but that only made him feel worse, like he was suspended while everything spun around him. "Your problem is that you always think you're better than what you actually are. You gotta learn your place."
Someone roughly rolled him onto his stomach and stripped off his coat and jacket, leaving his shirt sleeves to soak up the freezing mud.
"You have done well for yourself," Barker said, Frank's money in his hand. "But not enough."
Frank gagged again, retching into the ice.
"Boys, let's help Iero here learn his place."
"With pleasure," Lewster said - Frank had always hated him, he spoke like he didn't have the breath for it - but then he was being dragged again, and then dropped - no - oh, Jesus -
His shoulder cracked against the freezing cold dirt floor of the grave - no, no - and all the breath left his lungs. He pushed helplessly with his feet against the sides, but he was alone.
"Much better," Barker said, and he sounded like he was so far away, like he was speaking through a radio. Frank thought of the song the others had been singing that night around the fire, the song from the radio, the one he didn't know. He wondered if Lucy's family had ever given Dewees one of the horses.
It took him a few minutes to black out. It was before the freezing dirt they shoveled in covered up his face completely, filled up his mouth, that much he knew. It was easier this way, after all - wasn't it? His head throbbed, and he kept his eyes closed in the futile hope that that would help. He was so tired, though, so exhausted, so cold and aching, and soon he was drifting off, only barely noticing the muted patter of dirt as it rained onto him from above.
The grass was brittle and it cracked like glass under his bare feet, warmed from the summer sun. Cicadas droned thick in the trees and Frank shielded his eyes against the horizon. He'd been waiting a long time. He knew because his skin was so warm, tanning already. But someone was calling his name - his mother? No, that wasn't right, she wasn't here, it was someone else. He turned, trying to pinpoint the location of the voice, and -
Frank woke, gasping, rolling on the snowy ground. He staggered and half-landed against a tree, but slid face-first to the dirt. He was alive.
No one grabbed at him, no one dragged him back. Everything around him was silent. He looked around, head still spinning, and realized, with an uneasy feeling, that he was at least thirty feet from the grave, with dirt from the hole scattered all around. It must have snowed after Barker left - Jesus, how long was he out, how long had he been out - because there wasn't a single footprint on the scene.
Frank turned back and forth quickly, ignoring how his head throbbed.
There was no one. He stumbled forward again, off-balance, and went to his knees in the snow. His hand landed on something hard, sending a shock through his palm, and he swiped at it to see what it was.
The little wooden figurine he'd stolen the first time he'd been in the house in the woods. The one that looked like Gerard, that he'd thrown in the complete opposite direction before he'd left town weeks ago. How was it here? He turned it over, hands shaking, to see that the little face had been carved out, as if gouged by a knife. Frank looked down for the first time at himself and his blood went cold - there were two red handprints in the front of his shirt, like they were fisted in the fabric, and they reeked of blood.
"Gerard!" Frank yelled, whipping around. "Gerard!"
Frank pushed himself up off the ground and took off as fast as he could for the house, still gripping firmly to the figurine in his hands. He had to stop a few times to retch into the snow, his head still spinning, and it came out black, like wet earth.
It took him forever to actually reach the house - by the time he arrived it was already halfway through the night and his body was freezing, shuddering in the frost. It was one of the most difficult climbs he'd ever had to get into the house, and the moment he stepped inside he realized something was wrong.
The house had always been cluttered, stuffed with artwork, covered in the small bits and pieces and parts on every surface. This, however, wasn't cluttered - this was destroyed.
Tables lay sideways on the floor, the contents of their tabletops scattered and smashed across the wood floor. Paintings had been knocked from the wall, some slashed, and stacks of the carefully arranged paper had been tossed around, the loose pages covering the floor like crumpled carpet.
Frank couldn't breathe, was sweating so hard his shirt was soaked through. He tried to move as quickly as he could - what had happened, what had happened here, where was Gerard, he was so scared of what he would find - but froze as soon as he turned the corner into the front parlor.
"Gee?" Frank asked, in a tiny voice.
Gerard was sitting in the corner - human, as human as he could be - hunched in the darkness out of the faint light from the moon slanting through the windowpanes. He had his knees up, head down, hands crossed in his lap, and even from across the room Frank could see that they dripped red.
"Frankie?" Gerard asked, a little slurred, blinking up at him.
Frank rushed over, immediately going to his knees in front of him and gripping Gerard's hands in his. The palms were slashed, once on each side, but it looked as though they had mostly stopped bleeding, though they still stained Frank's fingers red.
"What happened?" Frank asked, panting. His hands shook around Gerard's.
"You're alive," Gerard said, curling his fingers in towards his palms. "I thought you'd died."
"I think I almost did," Frank said, hushed. "Did you do that?"
Gerard was quiet. He nodded, barely, and closed his eyes.
"You saved me," Frank said, awed. "I knew it. I knew it. Look - I found this –" he said, fumbling the figurine out of his pocket and showing it to Gerard. "I knew it was you."
He leaned in and pulled Gerard into a hug - a real hug, arms around Gerard's neck while Gerard awkwardly wrapped his arms around Frank's back. He smelled like the house, like old paint and varnished wood and like flesh and blood and real. His skin was warm, practically hot where it was pressed to Frank's own cheek, and Frank held on.
"What happened to the house?" Frank asked.
Gerard didn't answer for a moment, but he could feel the way Gerard's hands twitched on his back, how his head tucked tighter into Frank's neck.
"I thought you'd died," Gerard said, finally. Like a secret.
Frank held on to Gerard like an anchor as the floor dropped beneath him. What did that mean - why would he care, why would he care so much -
"Are you alright?" Gerard said, starting to pull away so they were face-to-face again. "It's been a long time since I - since I did one of those, I didn't know if it worked, Jesus, Frankie, you're so cold–"
"I don't feel a thing," Frank said, numb - but that wasn't true, he just didn't feel cold - and leaned in. He hesitated a moment, unsure, and Gerard didn't move. They were so close Frank was practically in his lap, only a few inches between them.
Frank wasn't sure - he didn't know if this was right, if this was what he was supposed to be doing, how - but Gerard leaned in to him, pressing his lips to Frank's, and Frank closed his eyes and let him.
It was chaste, at first, a little strange with Gerard's wrecked hands and Frank filthy and freezing and covered in blood, but Gerard was warm and soft and when he pulled away his eyes were wide - a little scared - and nothing like the black holes Frank had imagined for weeks.
"Okay," Frank exhaled, in a small voice. Gerard started to draw back, but Frank kept him in place, arms still around his neck.
"Frank–" Gerard started, but Frank cut him off.
"Okay, okay, okay–" Frank said, both reassuring and a revelation and - oh - and he pulled Gerard back to him for another kiss. He moved his hand to Gerard's jaw to keep him in place, to feel the warmth of him there. Gerard shifted under him a little, settling, and Frank was wrong, he knew how to do this - not this this, not all of this, not everything happening around him, between them, but this moment, he could do this. He knew how to do this.
He opened his mouth for Gerard, pushing closer, and when Gerard made a little noise Frank felt his face flush. He pulled back, then, still keeping a hand on Gerard's face. He hadn't even thought of any of this before now, but now it just seemed obvious, rounding out the corners of the questions he'd never asked himself.
"Okay," Gerard said, dazed.
"Yeah," Frank said, and he sounded the same.
"So it's true?" Frank asked. They were sitting pressed hip-to-knee together on the carpet of the parlor, backs up against the wall, curled up close. Frank was so exhausted he could barely think straight, but everything was rattling around inside him so fast he didn't know if it'd be worth it to even try. Not when this was happening - whatever this was - and Gerard was sitting next to him, looking at him like that, gently brushing the dirty hair out of his face.
"It's true," Gerard said. "I wander by day, he wanders by night."
"Do you - remember anything? When you're out?"
Gerard shook his head, tugging on a loose thread from the carpet, then paused and reached over to grab something from where it'd fallen under the chair beside them. It was a knife, with blood still on the blade - from Gerard's hands, shit - but it was Frank's knife, the one he'd lost in the hedge maze so many months ago.
"My knife," Frank said dumbly. "How did you–"
"I woke up that morning with it in my shoulder. I had to wait until I was human again to actually be able to pull it out," Gerard said, with a sad little smile. He pulled down the collar of his shirt and there - Frank could see it, now - a long, sharp scar just under his collar bone, near his shoulder.
"Jesus," Frank said. Guilt washed over him like a wave. "I didn't know–"
"It's okay," Gerard said. "Neither did Mikey. I didn't tell him. I was the reason you ran away, anyway." He turned the knife handle over in his hands. "Mikey wrote that we had a visitor, and not to disturb you. We never had visitors. I just wanted to see you."
Frank remembered the first night he'd spent at the house - barely sleeping on the cramped chaise in the back parlor. Two bright pinpricks of light in the dark, the door accidentally left unlocked the next morning.
"I'm sorry that I hurt you," Frank said.
"I tried to eat you," Gerard said. He handed the knife back over to Frank. "Repeatedly. It's understandable."
Frank wiped the blade clean on his shirt and turned it over a few times in his hands. He'd loved it, once, treasured it more than most things, but he found he didn't care much for it anymore.
"How did you know that I needed help?" Frank asked.
"I - I have a hard time letting things go," Gerard said. He touched the back of Frank's hand, so cautiously Frank barely felt it. "I don't let things go."
Frank turned his hand so Gerard's fingers were light on his palm, tracing his life line. "I heard you," Gerard said. "And I knew."
Frank kissed him first, this time. It caught Gerard off-guard, but he opened for it almost immediately, raising his arms to pull Frank into his lap. There was a different kind of intensity to it - Frank shifted, positioning over Gerard's lap so they wouldn't be so twisted, so they'd fit together without his foot hitting the chair. Gerard fisted his hands in the back of Frank's shirt, desperate like Frank might bolt at any moment.
It was different than - anything, anything ever, anything Frank had ever done - and Gerard seemed to know better how to pull him into place, how to bend back so Frank fit closer against his hips.
Frank rutted against him - already almost hard, Jesus - and he could feel Gerard underneath him, the same. There were too many layers between them but Frank wasn't going to stop to do anything about it, not when things were moving so fast, building so hot and tight in his gut. Not when he wasn't sure if he could stop, or what would happen if he did.
Gerard rocked up beneath him, thighs tense, and when Frank pushed in to kiss him harder his head hit solidly against the wall behind him.
"Sorry," Frank mumbled, breaking the kiss.
"'mnot," Gerard said, pulling him in again, and moved his hand to palm at Frank's cock.
"Jesus," Frank hissed, and came, just like that, faster than he'd come in years. Frank mouthed at the side of Gerard's neck, digging his hands deep into his hair, rolling against his hips and Gerard came with a cry, too, muffled by Frank's mouth.
Exhaustion hit Frank like a train, almost making him dizzy, and he braced himself still in Gerard's lap with two hands on the wall on other side of his head until he could catch his breath.
"I need to sleep," Frank said.
"I don't sleep," Gerard said, a little dazed.
"I don't care," Frank said. "You have a bed?"
Gerard nodded. His face was flushed - the most color Frank had seen in it, ever, and he let Frank pull him to his feet. His palms were practically healed although there were thick scars across the skin.
"Wow," Frank said, turning them over.
"Curses have some positives, I suppose," Gerard replied, resigned. His hair was insane. Frank had had his hands in it, had come with Gerard's hand on his dick. He felt like laughing.
Frank reached out and took Gerard's hand so he'd stop looking at the scars, mostly, but then just - didn't let go. He'd never held hands with anyone, not even girls back in town. He felt a little strange, but there was no one to tell him he looked silly, or was doing it wrong, or shouldn't be doing it at all, so he just held tight to Gerard's hand, feeling the scar against his palm.
Gerard led him up the staircase to the second floor, down a back hallway Frank had never seen before. It seemed less cluttered than the rest of the house - more forgotten, with heavy dust in the windowsills. There were plenty of paintings on the walls but none of them looked like Gerard's.
"Who are they?" Frank asked, pausing in front of a large portrait hanging just off one of the windows. He recognized Gerard's mother - painted in a more classical, strict hand than Gerard preferred, with a more severe, displeased expression.
"My family," Gerard said.
"Are they here?" Frank asked, looking up at Gerard. "Like you?"
Gerard just looked at the portrait and shook his head. "They're dead. It's just us."
A man stood next to his mother in the painting, off to the side, holding a rifle. He looked like Michael, mostly.
"She never got it," Gerard said, looking at the portrait. "My grandmother had it, and I had it, but she didn't - she said she hated it, hated what we could do, but I think she was just scared for us. Scared for me, for Mikey, although he never showed he could. Jealous that she couldn't."
"Couldn't what?" Frank asked.
"Hear it," Gerard said. "If you can hear it, you can get it to listen, and then you can do anything."
Frank was at a loss. It was all so surreal, so unlike his other life, he had no idea what to do except keep holding on. "What happened?"
"She found us in the woods with our grandmother," Gerard said. "Mikey had a cat - I brought it back, and my grandmother helped, and my mother saw. I was just - learning. I thought I was doing good."
"What happened after?" Frank asked, in a whisper.
"They moved us here," Gerard said. "Away from them. My father made the maze. We thought it was to entertain us, but it was mostly to make sure we wouldn't stray." His voice was distant. "They died during the war."
"And your grandparents?" Frank asked.
"I never saw them again once we moved," Gerard said. "We don't even have any portraits of them."
"You take after her," Frank said, but Gerard's eyes were sad, and he moved to continue on down the hallway, away from the portrait.
"I don't think so," he said, sounding far away.
"Why not?" Frank asked.
"My grandmother could make anything grow," Gerard said. "Mikey gets that from her. I can't. I never could. I could only help when they're dead."
It felt like someone kicked Frank in the back of the knees. He stumbled, a little, but kept walking.
"So who do you take after?" he heard himself say, dazed.
"My grandfather," Gerard said. "He could hear it louder than anyone."
The gravedigger. Frank's gut was cold, mouth dry, but held tight to Gerard's hand as he guided him through the dark.
Gerard's room was practically barren compared to the rest of the house - there were a few empty canvases stacked in the corner, the air slightly stale, but that was mostly it, besides the sparse furniture and tall paneled windows behind the headboard.
It was obvious to see how the parlor had been Gerard's real room all long. The bed wasn't that large, although it was fine enough, and smelled clean with white, folded down sheets.
A strange sort of hysteria swelled in Frank's gut, giddy and sharp. The bed was so neat and unmussed. Frank still had dried blood in the creases under his eyes, dried dirt caked up the back of his calves. And Gerard didn't even care at all, Gerard wanted him - wanted him like this, wanted him here, didn't care what he'd ruin.
Frank pulled his shirt off quickly, belt, pants, and underwear following until he was completely bare, before he lost the nerve. His skin prickled with goosebumps in the cold. When he turned Gerard was standing behind him, still fully dressed, hands paused on the buttons of his waistcoat.
He was staring at Frank again; Frank recognized it as the same look he'd had when Frank had given him the lamp, turned up the light between them. He didn't know how he'd missed that it was desire.
"C'mere," Frank said, and that was all the invitation Gerard needed to press against him, tongue in his mouth and hands tight in his hair against his scalp. It was so good, so deep and hot and overwhelming it made Frank forget about the other things, the other questions, the portrait in the hallway. He only broke the kiss to yank Gerard's waistcoat off his shoulders, his long shirt following next.
Gerard pushed them back until Frank's knees hit the edge of the mattress and they both stumbled, falling so Gerard straddled Frank's waist. He was hard in his pants, and the fabric of it was rough friction on Frank's dick.
"These need to go," Frank said, rolling them over and pulling sharply at the waist of Gerard's pants, skimming them down off his thighs and kicking them off the side of the bed. He wanted to feel Gerard - wanted to feel all of him, wanted to feel him warm and alive and real.
Frank exhaled shakily at the sight of Gerard, all laid out on the pale sheets. He practically matched them. Frank crawled back over him and hissed in Gerard's mouth as their cocks slid together, free from anything else between.
"Fucking - fuck," Frank moaned, and Gerard bit down on Frank's lip in the kiss.
"I like when you say that," Gerard gasped.
"Fuck, Gerard," Frank said, writhing against him, trying so hard to build some kind of rhythm - it was hard when he didn't want to slow down, couldn't stop. Gerard bucked beneath him, rolling them over - Frank almost whined at the loss of friction, but Gerard just shoved them higher on the bed, using the leverage to get a better angle and wrapping his hand around both of their cocks.
The feel of his cock against Gerard's - both of them in Gerard's hand, hot and tight on all sides - made Frank's whole body jerk, heat pooling in his belly. It wasn't like fucking girls at all; he felt like he was teetering on a ledge trying to keep himself steady and failing - wanting to fall.
"Keep - yes," he managed. He was already leaking over Gerard's hand, the wet of it sliding down his knuckles, making his palm slick. "Fuck."
"Want to see your face," Gerard said. "I want to see what you look like, see if I was right -"
Gerard had thought about this - had wanted this, wanted Frank, wanted Frank so much he'd imagined it with his own hand on his cock, and it was like a wave rolled over Frank, shaking him down to his toes.
"Yes," Gerard panted, "let me see -"
"Fuck!" Frank gasped, and came so hard it felt like a blow, like he was dizzy from it, eyes screwed tight against the feeling.
Gerard was still going, still touching himself, and Frank pulled himself together enough to cover Gerard's hand, push it out of the way so his hand was the only one on Gerard's dick, jacking him hard as Gerard hovered over him. His hand was twisted - it was the wrong angle for his wrist, but he knew what he liked, knew how good Gerard had made him feel, and just kept on trying to make Gerard make those sharp, pained breaths above him.
"Ahh, Frankie -" Gerard cried, but Frank pulled him back down and into a kiss so he couldn't move away, so when he came it hit hot on the skin of Frank's chest and belly, dripping down his ribs.
He kissed Gerard through it, both hands in his hair, not even caring how sticky and gross they were pressed together, how sweaty. How Gerard had a smear of dirt on his jaw from sliding against Frank's body. He was real. This was real. He tasted like Frank and Frank had never in his life known so succinctly what it felt like to want and then to have, not like this, not like Gerard.
"Gee?" Frank asked, after, when they'd curled up close under the sheets to stay warm, arm slung over Gerard's chest to keep him near. Gerard made a noise that he'd heard against Frank's hair.
"Did I die?" Frank asked, barely above a whisper. "Was I dead?"
Gerard was quiet. "I don't know," he said, after a while.
Frank fell into silence, letting it settle in his chest.
"What was it like?" Gerard asked.
Frank traced a small circle on Gerard's chest, right over his heart. Gerard was covered in scars. Mostly little ones - from the thorns in the hedge, probably - over his chest and shoulders, only a few that looked like they'd once been as thick as the one from Frank's knife. "Nicer than I thought I'd get," Frank said, truthfully. "Or probably deserved."
Gerard turned both of them over again, so Frank was on his back and held firmly in place by Gerard's solid weight.
"Nothing bad will happen to you," Gerard said. "I won't let it." Frank could see it now, how Gerard's eyes reflected in the dark, with a flat sheen that wasn't quite normal, wasn't quite human.
"I know," Frank said, and he did. Gerard buried his nose in Frank's hair, wrapping his arms around Frank's chest. Frank listened to him breathe, focused on the feel of him holding him in place, and finally fell into sleep, and didn't dream at all.
When Frank woke Gerard was gone, the bed beside him cold. Michael was sitting in a chair in the corner, a book in his lap. It was so eerily similar to their first encounter that Frank had to blink at the room a few times to reassure himself that he was actually in Gerard's room, and not the guest room downstairs.
"So you know," Michael said, hands folded calmly in his lap. "And yet you still came back."
"Yeah," Frank said, a little defensively, pushing himself up a bit on the bed.
Michael was silent. "Did he tell you?"
"Yeah," Frank said. "Did he tell you what happened?"
"Yes," Michael said.
They were both quiet a moment, watching the other.
"Will you show me something?" Frank asked.
"It depends," Michael said. "But at least you're asking."
"So all of these stacks of papers...these are all just letters back and forth between the two of you," Frank said, in awe. The stack in his hand was thick, brittle and brown with age.
"Yes," Michael said, flipping the page on Gerard's writing desk. "There usually isn't much to update each other on, so they're often just stories. He's much better at it than I am. I don't know how he does it."
"There must be hundreds of these stacks around," Frank said, leafing through the one in his hand. "Hundreds and hundreds."
"Sounds about right," Michael said, turning over a new page. "This, you see - ah, yes - this is the night you arrived."
He pointed to a paragraph in a different handwriting than the rest - it must have been Michael's hand. Frank recognized it from the pages of the novel Gerard had lent him. Gerard's handwriting was sprawling, compared to Michael's tight script, and he could see how it grew even more illegible whenever the content got more exciting.
Don't disturb him, G. Michael's scrawl said. I don't trust him.
"Fair enough," Frank said, and Michael flipped through more of the pages. Frank caught a glimpse of one of the sheets in Gerard's handwriting - first snow last night, Mikey. It was extraordinary. - and he felt warm.
"Did he ever tell you - about - I mean, did you know?" Frank asked. "About–"
"About how he felt about you? He didn't tell me, but I knew," Michael said, flipping another page in the ledger. Instead of the usual words that crammed every page, most of the bottom of the spread was taken up by a careful ink drawing of Frank, from one of the nights he'd fallen asleep on the couch. Frank flushed.
"He's never been good at hiding how he feels," Michael said. "Especially from me."
Frank was quiet. He still didn't know what he was feeling. They made him feel so young, raw around the edges again, like he hadn't in years. He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck, where he knew there was a bruise from Gerard's mouth behind his ear.
"What if you came to town with me?" Frank asked.
"I thought you hated town," Michael said.
"It's growing on me," Frank replied. "Besides - I could get you set up proper - we could sell a few more things, get a place with, I don't know, a really nice basement and lock on the door."
Michael smiled, a little wistfully. "A garden."
"Not a hedge maze in sight," Frank said, leaning forward on the desk. "This doesn't have to be your life."
"It does," Michael said, not looking up at Frank.
Frank sighed. "Both of you, seriously - would it kill you to –"
"Yes," Michael said, cutting him off. "It would."
Frank shut his mouth.
Michael paused from where he was turning over pages to meet his eyes. "What did Gerard tell you about the curse?"
"You wander at night, he wanders at day," Frank repeated.
"He told me about the cat," Frank said, suddenly feeling nervous again. He wished Gerard was there. "He told me that your parents didn't approve of what he could do."
"My parents threatened to have Gerard exorcised if he ever did it again," Michael said. "And yet he still tried to bring her back, even thinking he'd burn in hell for it."
"Who?" Frank asked.
"Our mother," Michael said. "She fell down the staircase and broke her neck right in front of him. Not a week after our father got shot in the heart fighting in Virginia."
Frank clutched hard to the desk in front of him, his knuckles white on the wood.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Michael said, finally, restacking the pile of papers on the desk.
"No, I want to know," Frank said.
"I know you don't believe me," Michael said. "But I do actually have your best interests at heart."
"What about your brother's?" Frank snapped.
"His more than anyone's," Michael shot back.
"Then why are you worried?" Frank asked. "He said he wouldn't let anything happen to me."
"That's the problem," Michael said.
"Why?" Frank asked, frustrated.
"Because that's why we're here," Michael said, sharp.
Frank froze. It was starting to dawn on him, spiraling into dread. You only locked up the stuff you really wanted to keep safe.
"Gerard has a good heart," Michael said, kindly. "If he has a fault, it's that he has too much, sometimes. That was always the problem - the thing about having the gift, about being able to hear it, is that you have to be able to listen. That means listening when it's time to let go."
Two red handprints in the front of Frank's shirt, pulling him back.
Michael sighed. He lifted up the quill from the desk between his fingers, letting it tilt gently back and forth. "There's a balance. A give and take."
"It tried to make him listen, but he wouldn't," Michael said, letting it sway even more. "He tried to save my mother and it refused, and Gerard lashed out in anger."
Michael broke the quill in half. "It snapped back."
"On both of you."
"Always and forever," Michael said, dropping the broken quill to the table. "He was angry and scared and furious and grieving, still believing everything my parents had told him about how he was cursed, still trying so hard to stop the people he loved from being taken away. You can't make it happen with that at the base. It always snaps back."
Frank's face was hot. "It's not his fault," he heard himself say. "He didn't mean–"
"It's not," Michael said. "And I don't blame him for it. But if Gerard really wants to protect you, then you need to know."
I can't let go.
"Know what?" Frank asked.
"There's always a price," Michael said. "And it always collects."
Frank ran his hands over the top of the desk, looking down at the pages and pages of Gerard's curled, looping hand, trying to stop everything in his head from rattling around. What did that mean?
"Why do you stay?" Frank asked, looking back up at Michael. "You could go, you don't have to stay–"
"I could," Michael said. "But it would cost Gerard his life. The same for me, if he left. Everything in balance."
"So you just–"
"Stay," Michael said. "Always and forever."
"There has to be a way to break it," Frank said. "I mean - Gerard knows this stuff, right? There has to be a way."
"Curses don't forgive," Michael repeated.
"There has to be something," Frank said, desperate. "Did Gerard ever write you anything about it? Did he ever–"
"Sometimes there just isn't an answer."
"Bullshit," Frank said. "Bullshit. You just stopped asking."
"So that's your job, then?" Michael asked, almost amused.
"Of course it fucking is," Frank said. "I haven't stopped yet."
Michael exhaled, resigned. "Fine. Follow me," he said, and left the parlor towards the main staircase.
They ended up back in the attic, in the corner where Michael kept the most rusted and useless of his gardening tools. He pulled an old box out of the bottom, wrapped in a sheet, and pried it open.
He pulled out a single sheet of paper, crumpled and charred around the edges.
"I saved this from the fireplace years ago," Michael said. "Gerard tried to find a way around it for years. He'd write all sorts of things, mostly just ideas to himself, things he'd cobbled together from the few books he'd managed to keep of our grandmother's. He burned most of them."
Frank held the paper carefully in his hands. It felt brittle enough to break into ash. He recognized Gerard's handwriting scribbled all over - like the walls, like the walls of the hallway underneath the wallpaper. Had that been him trying to break it? Trying and failing, for decades, until he couldn't see any other future than being trapped in shadows forever.
There was only one part of the writing that he could read clearly - a passage in quotations underneath a language he didn't know, as if translated from it.
burns like sulphur - a heart aflame
Frank peered at it. That was it. Just the one disjointed phrase, with the end of it underlined so hard Frank could see where the quill had ripped the page. "That's it?"
"That's it," Michael said, sighing. "That's all I have. Whenever I asked him about it he ignored the question."
"Well," Frank smiled. "That's certainly where I have an advantage."
"I don't like being ignored."
Frank was waiting in the kitchen, sitting on the cutting block, when Gerard came in from the back hall. Michael had shown him how the whole system worked, the weighted traps they'd rigged so the hound couldn't get out until the other had unlocked it from the other side of the house, already back safe inside. They'd tried locking it up in the back room at first, Michael'd said, but it had just tried to rip itself to pieces. Frank carefully didn't think of the scars on Gerard's shoulders.
Gerard was rumpled, shoving up his shirt sleeves, and seemed completely surprised by Frank's appearance.
"Hi," Frank said, smiling casually. "How was work?"
"Oh, you know," Gerard said, "boring as usual."
"I can only imagine."
Gerard stopped when he was only an inch from Frank's knees; Frank opened them and leaned forward, hooking a finger in Gerard's vest.
"Hi," he said again, and pulled him in for a kiss. Gerard tasted earthy, warm, and his skin was burning hotter than he'd ever noticed before. He wrapped his arms around Frank immediately, pushing into him, and Frank readily crossed his ankles around the back of Gerard's thighs.
There wasn't a single thing about it that was normal. Frank still didn't care.
"Good day?" Gerard asked, pulling back a bit.
"Informative," Frank said, smiling a little. Gerard seemed to pause, fingers wrapped in the hair by Frank's ears.
"How so?" he asked, hesitantly.
Frank bit his lip, leaning back slightly. He pulled the piece of paper from out of his pocket and flipped it over. As soon as he did Gerard jerked back like he'd been stung, but Frank kept him in place with his legs and a hand on his belt.
"How did you–"
"I get it," Frank said, cutting him off. "I know what it means. Knew it right off."
Gerard shook his head but Frank pulled at the buttons on his shirt to open up his collar, shoving it to the side. Right there, on his chest, right above his heart - the little flame tattoo he'd gotten years ago, on a stop back from California, miserable and alone but determined to see it through.
"Like in the passage," Frank said, letting go of Gerard's belt to hold up the paper again.
"That was written years ago," Gerard said. "Before you were even born. Before your parents were born, Frankie."
Frank shook his head. "I think it means I - I can help. I think it means I'm meant to help."
"No," Gerard said, finally pushing back from the table. "You can't get mixed up in all of this - I - you can't let me pull you into all of this."
"I already am," Frank said, leaning back, stretching out his arms. "I want to be."
"Because Michael told me everything and it doesn't change a god damned thing," Frank said. "I don't want to be anywhere else."
Gerard was quiet, looking a little stunned. Frank's whole body was on pins, but as soon as he'd said it, he knew it was true.
"Don't tell me you don't think I could," Frank said.
"I think you could do anything you want," Gerard said, "and I'm terrified what the price could be, and how easily I would pay it."
Frank pulled Gerard in the same moment Gerard stepped forward, tugging him into an embrace, kissing him so hard it hurt. Frank wrapped his legs around Gerard's waist even tighter, and he could feel him hard against the front of his pants.
"C'mon," Frank said, sliding off the table and grabbing him by the hand to drag him upstairs. Gerard pulled him back, though, and they ended up going to the runner in the hallway outside the kitchen, Gerard on top.
It was too dark to really see, the curve of the hallway blocking most of the light from the sunset, but when Gerard sat back, weight heavy on Frank's hips, it made his face and hair glow like something unnatural.
"Fuck," Frank said, and Gerard pushed back off his hips, keeping his thighs in place as he yanked at the front of Frank's pants, pulling them down Frank's thighs until they were taut across his knees
Gerard's mouth was hot, fast and frantic, and Frank's heels crumpled the rug when he kicked out. Gerard didn't stop, though, just kept working on his cock with his tongue, digging bruises into his hips. His other hand moved from working the base of Frank's cock down between his legs and oh, oh fuck and in the brief moment before his mind whited out completely Frank realized he didn't have to be quiet for anyone - they were all alone, after all, the only things doing the haunting were them - and laughed loud, hitching on a hard moan when he came.
"Have you ever heard of Theseus?" Gerard asked against Frank's neck. Frank turned on the chaise a little so he could see Gerard's face better. He looked almost sleepy, even if he wouldn't. That had to be terrible, Frank thought as he stretched out a little. Sleep was great.
"No. Did he get pushed around for having a dumb name?" Frank yawned.
"No," Gerard said, tracing a thumb against Frank's pulse in his neck. "I think you would have liked him."
"He didn't know his father either," Gerard said quietly. "But it turned out it was a god. Had a lot of adventures. Slayed his enemies."
"Sounds good to me," Frank said, curling up tighter. It was still so cold in there, even with all of the blankets from the chest piled up on top, both of them fully dressed.
"He navigated the labyrinth and defeated the minotaur inside, when no other warrior could," Gerard continued.
"Mm. What's a minotaur?" Frank asked, hovering on the edge of sleep.
"Sounds charming. How'd he get out?" Frank said.
Gerard was quiet, a moment, until Frank wasn't actually sure he heard him at all.
"He had help."
When Frank woke in the morning Gerard was gone again, the blankets still warm beside him. There was a small box on the table with a note underneath - to help, was all it said - and when Frank opened it he was surprised to find a ball of string inside, like the kind his mother kept in a drawer in the kitchen.
He turned it over in his palm but that was all it was. He didn't understand, but pocketed it anyway, smiling a little. He took the note with him too, folded up in the bottom of his pocket carefully, like a secret.
Frank practically hummed the entire way back to town, even trying out a couple of refrains from hymns he remembered. He wasn't caught up enough on the current song. Maybe he'd buy his ma a radio.
It was slow going, with the thick snow impeding his progress, but he felt warm and good and when he shoved his hands deep enough in his pockets he could feel the bruises Gerard had left behind on his hips.
Michael'd given him a few more things to pawn off, and another list. Fuck if Frank wasn't buying them some proper blankets, too. Who cared if they couldn't feel the cold. If Frank was going to be spending time there - which he was - he was going to sleep warm.
The thought almost made him giddy. It was going to be okay. He knew it. There was only so much Gerard and Michael could do still trapped in that house, but that was where Frank came in. He could get things for them. Maybe more books. There had to be other people out there like Gerard who could help. He'd find them. He'd find a way to break the curse.
He could take the time to really rig up an easier way for him to cross the hedge maze. His back was starting to kill him having to shuffle the planks of wood back and forth across every hedge gap every time. He could save up, get some hammer and nails, make a proper go of it. Maybe even sturdy and safe enough that his mother could visit. He'd like them to meet her.
Barker's crew thought he was dead, frozen solid under six feet of dirt and ice. They'd never look for him again, never believe he'd survived anyway. He looked up into the hazy, winter sun and laughed again. He'd never tell Gerard, but there was a certain sense of freedom that came when people thought that you were dead.
"Ma!" Frank called, hopping up the final stair to the house and opening the front door. "Good news, ma –"
He froze where he was, hand still on the doorknob.
His mother stared back at him, hand on her face, hair sticking to her red cheeks. His father was across the room with a gun. His cheeks were red, too, but from drink. Frank could smell him where he stood.
"What's going on?" Frank asked, stunned.
His mother choked back a noise.
"Well look who decided to show up," his pa slurred, grinning unevenly.
"I think you should put that down," Frank said, as calm as he could manage.
"Or what?" his pa asked. Sloppy and mean. Worse than he'd ever seen him. Frank's gut boiled.
"Or bad things are going to happen," Frank said. "Least of all to you."
"Bad things always happen," he spat back.
Frank tried to edge into the room, keep his pa's focus trained on him instead of his mother, but his pa just raised the gun, blearily waving it between them.
"Think you can boss me around," his pa said, rough. "Think you can run this house?"
Frank was silent.
"Think you're better than me? You're nothing. You're a fucking lie, the both of you."
Frank gritted his teeth, but stayed silent. His mother was still too far away for him to get between them, and he didn't want to put too much distance between them and the front door.
"Everybody thinks it's all my fault," his pa continued. He looked worse than Frank had seen him in ages, barely standing upright. "I did the right thing. I followed the rules. You're nothing, haven't done shit except fuck up and you still think you're better than me."
His mother was trembling beside him, biting her lip to stay quiet. Maybe he'd just give up, get tired, go away -
"Where'd you get the money, boy?" his pa said. "And don't you fucking tell me it was WPA shit, because I been down to the office four times this week and they're still closed with the frost."
"Gravedigging," Frank said, strained.
"That don't pay what you've been wearing," his pa slurred, gesturing at him.
Frank's hands were clammy. His mother wasn't making a sound, but had backed up as far as she could against the wall.
"Why don't we just go outside," Frank said, trying again so hard to stay calm, not raise his voice, "and we can talk about this. I'll tell you all about where the money came from."
His pa paused. "You will?"
"I will," Frank said. "You can have it all."
"What's the catch?"
"You put the fucking gun down," Frank said. His pa gestured with the barrel of it towards the front door and Frank went out, quickly swiping the empty bottle off the table on the porch out of view.
He had just enough time to mouth the word run at his mother before hurling the bottle as hard as he could at his pa. It hit him square in the jaw, shattering on impact, spilling blood from his mouth. Frank waited only long enough to see his mother taking off in the other direction - towards the police station, good - before he ran the other way, his father hollering in pain and right on his heels.
Frank sprinted as quick as he could but his shoes slipped on the softening snow in the roads. He kept running as soon as he hit the tree line, hoping for cover in the shadows.
"You little fucker!" A shot fired.
Frank was on the ground, pain hitting him like a hammer behind the eyes. His shoulder. He'd been hit. He writhed against the ground, trying to force himself up, but it was no use, he couldn't sprint. He held his arm close and hurried as fast as he could, hunched over, keeping as many trees as he could between him and the sound of his father's footsteps. It didn't sound like he knew Frank had been hit.
Frank backed up against the trunk of a tree, wheezing. His sleeve was already soaked through, hand red and slick with blood where he'd tried to staunch it.
"I see you, you fucking piece of shit," his pa hissed from somewhere off behind him. Frank looked down and realized with a dawning horror that even though much of the snow this close to town had melted, it wouldn't do any good - there was a smear of red on the snow beneath his feet. He'd be able to see the trail.
Frank looked around desperately for a way to hide, mask his path, but had nothing. There wasn't time to staunch it, he could hear his pa behind him, tearing through the underbrush towards his tree.
Frank took off on a run, hoping beyond anything that his pa was too drunk to fire straight again. He felt like he ran forever, darting in and out between the trees at a diagonal. He wasn't even paying attention, not really, not to anything that wasn't his pa's footsteps.
He ran over the ridge and froze, tried to back up and run back the way he came, but it was too late. The green wall was at his back. He'd led him right to the house, following the way out of habit, out of shitty fucking luck.
Frank ran down the wall, hoping to circle back around, maybe trick his pa into following him in a circle.
"Is this it, Frankie?" his pa yelled, obviously finally seeing the wall. "This your little secret?"
"It's this way!" Frank hollered, staggering a little from the weight in his arm. Come on, back this way, come on, come on -
Frank breathed deep from behind the trunk of a tree, desperately trying not to let his body slump into the snow. Blood dripped off his fingertips.
"This where it's been coming from, hm, Frankie? Little Frankie? Is this it?" his pa yelled, but from the sound of it it seemed he was turning as he spoke, which meant he didn't know where Frank was. Frank closed his eyes, gritting his teeth. "Well then let's see what your friends have today, eh?" his pa said, and Frank's eyes shot open. No. No, no, no.
He glanced from behind the tree but his father was gone. Into the maze. Oh God, no -
Frank had no choice. He couldn't climb the tree to get to his plank bridge, not with his arm shot up the way it was. There wasn't time to make it back to town to get help.
He was fucked. They were all fucked.
Frank reached out to the maze, and as soon as the blood from his palm smeared against the leaves it crumpled open, like the very first time, like all it wanted was the invitation.
Months of scrambling over the top of the maze instead of walking through it meant that Frank had absolutely no idea which way to turn. It was all just unending, overwhelming walls of green on every side.
Every once in while he could hear his pa yell again - not from the hound, but yelling in anger at Frank, at the maze, at everything - he didn't know how to be quiet, didn't know that he should be quiet.
A left, a right, another right, a dead end. A right, a dead end, a reverse, a left, another left, another, another. Frank's arm ached and he stumbled often, gripping the walls for support so often it ripped his palms bloody.
He hit the freezing ground again. "Gerard!" Frank hollered, desperate. "Gerard!"
A shuffling, then the pounding of feet.
Frank took off in the other direction, sprinting as fast as he could. He rounded another corner and came face to face with the beast - Michael. It roared at him, sharp paws digging into the frozen ground as it chased him down. He rounded a few more corners, and the sound of the beast disappeared - it must have turned down a different path.
"Gerard!" Frank called out again, wheezing. He wasn't going to make it.
Suddenly - the break in the wall. Yes.
Frank sprinted for it but barely felt like he was moving at all, he was dragging so slow, limbs not moving like they should. He heard a noise behind him, someone or something sprinting across the grass, and Frank jumped the last two steps to the porch and threw himself against the front door.
"Gerard!" he hollered. He slammed against the front door with his fist, his other arm hanging limp and bloody by his side. As soon as Frank went to turn, brace himself against the inevitable attack, the door opened and he fell through and into the house.
He was in. Not safe, not yet - Gerard was shoving his body against the door, trying to close it, but - oh God, no - his pa shoved back, overpowering Gerard almost immediately, knocking him back a few steps and raising the gun.
"You," his pa wheezed, red-faced and sweaty. "You, it's you, you're the one–"
Gerard panted, terrified, staring down at the gun.
"Now, listen," his pa said, getting a better grip, voice hard. "Nothing funny. We're just here for the money."
Gerard shot Frank a panicked look.
"Don't listen to him, Gee," Frank said, trying to push himself up. "He's crazy, he'll–"
"Don't make me turn this to you again," his pa said, snapping at Frank. Gerard's face went pale and flat as stone.
"Did you do that?" Gerard asked. "Did you hurt him?"
It made Frank want to back away, every hair on his neck prickling in the sharp air.
His pa seemed to feel it too, looking back and forth between them a little nervously, shifting the gun in his hands. Frank kept his face blank, his body as steady as he could even with his hands shaking uncontrollably.
"Did you hurt him?" Gerard repeated.
The inside of the house smelled acrid, metallic, like blood.
For the first time, in as long as Frank could remember, his pa looked terrified.
Gerard stepped close enough to his pa, close enough the barrel of the gun was pressed against his chest. His pa was frozen to the spot.
"Don't move," Gerard said, every word heavy, like someone spoke with him.
Frank didn't see the hound until it was in the house, sinking its teeth into his pa's neck, pulling him off his feet and down to the ground as he cried out, wet and thick, as the hound flung him around like he was nothing.
"Go!" Gerard yelled at Frank, but Frank grabbed Gerard's outstretched hand to pull him with him. There was a clash of glass behind them as they ran down the hall, and the hiss of fire - the lamp - and Frank's gut sank. No, no, no.
"What do we do?" Frank asked, voice ragged.
"Trust me," Gerard said, not looking back. He half-carried, half-dragged Frank through the winding halls of the back of the house, through the kitchen and back down the hallway to the end room. Frank could still hear the noises - awful noises - tearing and fighting and crying out cut by the howling - and swelling above that, the cracking of wood from fire and heat coming from the front of the house.
"I can't," Frank said, limping. He was too weak, too exhausted. Too bloody. "Gee, I don't think I can–"
"I got you," Gerard said, strangely calm. He led Frank through the door and into the end room - the walls were scratched to shit, long clawed gashes digging into the wallpaper - and flipped a lever, prying open the back door. The same door Frank had seen the beast come through for the first time, when he'd realized what they truly were.
"Hold on to me," Gerard said, and pulled them out into the night.
The ground was white, slick with snow, and halfway across the lawn to the maze Frank fell, knees crumbling, and couldn't push himself back up. He felt sick, thick and nauseated and weak, and his cramping, freezing legs betrayed him.
"I got you," he heard Gerard say again, but everything was blurry, hard to grasp, and Frank felt like he was floating, in so much pain it almost made him go numb.
He blearily recognized the green walls of the hedge maze, but not the sharp turns and odd angles of before - there was a straight path cut through to the outside, and Gerard was carrying him.
"I got you," Gerard repeated, when Frank began to protest. "Almost there."
The stars were so much brighter out in the woods, even away from the few factories in Sulphur. The sky was lighter than it should have been for that time of the night, all grey around the corners, and when Frank turned his head warm ash stuck to his cheek.
"No," Frank slurred, but the house burned on, flames already blowing out the bottom windows, shattering all the glass.
And then it was gone, they were too far into the maze to see anything but the smoke billowing above.
He was floating again - no, he was on the ground - no, he was lying on the plywood planks from his makeshift walkway. Gerard had pulled it down from the outer line of the hedge and rolled Frank onto it, shoving him out of the hedge maze on the slight slope, past the line of the property.
"No," Frank cried, and tried to roll off, but could barely move, body already stiff from the pain and the cold. If he craned and shifted, he could face Gerard, still crouched in an open arch of the hedge maze, like the branches were bending around him, vibrating with unseen tension.
Frank outstretched an arm, gesturing for Gerard. "Come," he managed, voice cracking. "Come on."
"You know I can't, Frankie," Gerard answered. He was on his knees, hands pulled in close to his chest, smile tight and sad.
The house burned huge behind him, a glow around his head, and a howl rang out on the other side of the maze. Gerard turned, listening for the sound, and then shifted back to face Frank.
"No," Frank said, breaking, gesturing again. "Why?"
Gerard's pupils were blown out in the dark, black and huge. "One of us has to stay so the other can leave."
Frank shook his head. No.
"Mikey will take care of you, when he wakes," Gerard said, almost as if to soothe him. "Will you take care of Mikey?"
Frank ached. All of him, every bone, every part of him hurt. His eyes prickled from the ash. He curled his hand towards Gerard, still trying to pull him in, but he couldn't feel it moving anymore.
"I know what I have to do," Gerard said. "You're going to be okay."
Frank shook his head, eyes wet.
Gerard smiled. It was calm, but sad, so deeply, intensely sad, and Frank couldn't watch anymore, had to close his eyes.
When he opened them again Gerard was gone, and the hedge maze was burning high. There was a howl, and a shattering of glass as the roof of the house collapsed in upon itself, and Frank could do nothing but watch it burn.
When he woke again the sky was pink - dawn - and Michael was above him, cradling Frank's face in his hands, his own skin ash-soaked and filthy.
"I'm here," Michael said, voice raw. "I've got you."
"He's gone," Frank managed, and Michael's face was pained, pinched tight.
"I know," Michael said.
Frank couldn't say anything. He just closed his eyes again.
Frank didn't remember Michael carrying him most of the way back to Sulphur. They couldn't even stay to watch the house burn, not with Frank bleeding out over the forest floor. It took hours, with Frank eventually waking up enough to stumble beside him, when Michael couldn't hold him up anymore.
His house was empty when Michael pushed them through the door. They both had to hold to the walls to keep themselves upright.
"Ma," Frank gasped.
His ma had taken his advice. She'd run. Good.
"Where's the doctor?" Michael asked, still holding Frank up as best he could. "Do you have a doctor?"
Frank shook his head. He couldn't remember. He hadn't had to go since he was a kid, never since he'd been back. "Stables," he managed. "Follow - the horses. Ask Dewees."
Dewees would know. He knew things. He was a good guy.
Frank passed out again, crumpling to the floor, and didn't wake up until they were digging the bullet out of his shoulder, a wooden spoon between his teeth. There were voices, a harsh word, and then a cloth over his face - it smelled like the plants from Michael's greenhouse, and he let it smother him down.
He never could get rid of the ache, even when the wound had mostly healed over. It'd gone through right about where Gerard had his scar from Frank's knife. Frank avoided looking at it when he could.
It was raining outside, still cold, but just warm enough to really start to turn the ice to slush in the streets. Frank watched from his window. He slept most of the rest of it away.
"Your friends are here to see you, Frankie," his mom said, gently pushing the hair out of his face.
Frank closed his eyes. He couldn't. "Later, mama."
She nodded, gently running a thumb under his eye, and left.
Michael was on his side facing away from Frank in the bed, covered with all the blankets they'd been able to find. She hadn't even questioned the strange new boy staying with them, not since he was the one who'd brought Frank back - nearly dead, but alive enough. They slept - Michael slept, too, finally, slept like the dead - slept like he hadn't in years, which only Frank knew was true.
Michael hadn't slept for days after he'd brought Frank back. His mother found him on the porch every night, looking up at the sky. I missed them, he'd said, but she hadn't known what he meant, just that he watched until dawn, when the sun washed out the stars.
They were still alive. All human. What good that did both of them, Frank still didn't know.
"Have you been back?" Frank asked late one night, a few weeks later. The storm overhead drowned out their voices, he knew, rain loud on the tin chimney. Michael curled up on the bed next to him, his knees pulled up. He looked young, like that - like he was supposed to.
Michael nodded, sad. "It's a circle of ash. There's nothing."
Frank felt sick, nauseated at the words. "I'm sorry," he said, hiding how his voice was wet.
"It didn't work," he said, hushed.
"What didn't work?" Michael whispered.
"I thought I could save him." Frank closed his eyes. "I thought I could do it. I couldn't. I couldn't do anything. I just made it worse."
"I thought I could do it too," Michael said quietly. "I never stopped thinking I could."
Frank was glad for the dark, was glad for Michael, who didn't lie and say that it would be okay, who knew even better than he did, more than he ever would - what the weight of it all felt like, choking and stuck in his throat. Like someone had reached in and carved him out without his permission, taking anything good inside with it, leaving just a husk behind.
Frank sat on the back porch smoking a cigarette, staring out at the woods. It looked the same as ever, if just the slightest bit greener. He'd stopped wanting to crush every bud under his shoe, grind it into the dirt to punish it for growing, how dare it, how dare it, like nothing had happened. Now he just felt hollow. There wasn't much left of him inside to care.
A small noise by his feet caught his attention and Frank looked down to find a small cat crawling up over the front steps of the porch, fur sticking up in clumps from the rain.
It purred, rubbing against his shin, and Frank let his hand drop to run through the fur on its arched back and behind its ears.
Frank moved off the chair to sit down on the porch, back against the banister, and dug in his pocket for the ball of twine Gerard had given him weeks before. There wasn't anything special about it, in the end - just a ball of twine, useless as anything they'd had in their house, useless as Frank - but he picked the end out from where he'd tied it and let it roll across the porch.
The cat pounced, scrambling for it, practically tripping over itself to bat it down.
Michael came out of the house, sitting down beside him. Frank passed over his cigarette and they watched the cat together, in silence.
"What ever happened to the minotaur?" Frank asked.
Michael took a long drag, exhaling through his nose. "It died."
Michael passed over the cigarette. "Theseus killed it."
Frank took another drag. "How'd he get out of the maze?"
"He used a roll of string to mark his path," Michael said. "Given to him by a friend."
The cat rolled, tangling its claws in the thread, meowing angrily.
"Nice to have friends to help you out," Frank said.
Michael was quiet a moment, toeing the ball of string so it rolled the other way. "Yes," he said, eventually. "I suppose it is."
Four weeks after the fire they returned to the woods together. Frank's shoulder was still bandaged, weak, but it had mostly healed closed. The snow had almost melted off the trees and it was easier to cross through the forest without sliding into ice.
He'd been imagining the scene for weeks, dreamt about it almost constantly when his eyes closed, but his breath still caught when they crossed past the treeline and into the glen. They'd arrived at night - more to avoid questions from Frank's mother than anything - but the stillness of the forest and the bright pinpricks of stars above made the landscape eerie, unreal.
The weeks of diminishing snow had coated everything in a soft, fading white, but their footprints made black, ashy footprints in the smooth blanket behind them. The black husk of the house stood before them, charred and dark, the old, solid support beams crushed in towards each other so they pointed in all mismatched directions, like claws.
They looked through the debris half-heartedly, using the toes of their boots to sift through the piles of ash and dirt at their feet. Frank couldn't understand the loss. It was too overwhelming, too smothering, and if he focused too tightly his chest started going tight.
There were pieces of paper scattered about, waterlogged and smoke-charred, and Frank couldn't look at them. He didn't want to know if he'd be able to read any of the handwritten words.
Michael was still picking around the back of the house, where the larger pieces of the attic greenhouse had shattered, while Frank circled around to the front on the other side. It was where Gerard's parlor used to be, and the huge, beautiful bay windows smashed and crumpled under his feet.
He'd turned back to find Michael again when he saw it, half-hidden by a fallen beam from the second floor and some of the tumbled, empty bookshelves.
Flowers. A strange patch of them, growing up through the debris, slightly crushed by the edge of a desk, and when Frank approached them the realization was like a punch in the throat.
Moon flowers. The ones he'd ordered for Gerard months ago. He'd never had a chance to give him the seeds. They were fully bloomed in the darkness, too, white waxy petals spread wide. Gerard would have loved them.
There was something else, too - a pale, thick growth between them. He thought it was a younger stem, at first, just a part of the flowers, but no - oh, Jesus - it was a finger. No, more than than - fingers, Gerard's fingers.
"Oh my God," Frank said and fell to the ground, frantically digging with both of his hands, practically ripping the flowers out of the earth to shove them out of the way.
He brushed his hand across and uncovered a cheek, pale as the petals, hair black like the ash and the earth.
Gerard. Gerard, coated in ash, molded to his face like old bark that crumbled under Frank's hands. He frantically dug at the ash until he'd uncovered most of him - he was there, he was all there, all in one piece. He looked perfect, almost - preserved - except for how he wasn't breathing.
"Gerard," Frank cried, grabbing him by the shoulders, and Gerard opened his eyes, startled. Frank nearly choked on the relief, shaking so hard from how desperately he wanted it to be real.
He looked dazed - like Frank had just woken him up from sleeping, and then confused as to why Frank was even there - but Frank just lunged forward and hugged him, pulling him close.
Frank pressed a kiss to his face, his smoky, filthy hair, his mouth, which tasted like fire.
"Frankie?" Gerard asked, more like a question, and then "Frankie," like a realization, and fisted his hands in the back of Frank's jacket. Frank just rocked them back and forth.
"I think I found some things we can bring back. Did you find–" Michael said behind them, and they both froze as Michael came around the corner.
Frank immediately pulled back. Michael was stopped dead in place, staring straight past him to Gerard.
"Hey, Mikey Way," Gerard said, quiet but Michael couldn't say anything - just fell to the ground by Gerard's side, pulling him into a hug and burying his face in Gerard's hair, the filth from it leaving dark streaks all over his face.
Frank sat back on his heels, palms of his hands pressed to his face. Unbelievable. One of the moon flowers was crushed underneath his knee and he moved to the side to save it, right it back in its place in the dirt.
"I didn't realize I'd break it by staying," Gerard said, as Frank poured a pitcher of water over his hair. The water around his knees in the tub was black and they'd already drained it twice. Frank lathered up the soap from Kitty in his palms and dug his fingers into Gerard's scalp, getting all the dirt out. "I thought I was just helping you and Mikey escape."
"Don't do that again, by the way," Michael said where he was folded up in the chair in the corner, knees drawn up like Gerard's.
"You let go," Frank said, pouring another pitcher over his head. Gerard nodded and pushed the hair out of his face, black strands of it still sticking messily to his cheeks. He didn't even have the scars anymore - the place where Frank's knife had gone through was smooth as the rest of him. Frank ran a hand through the back of Gerard's hair, untangling it with his fingers.
"Did you find the gold?" Gerard asked, looking up at Michael.
Frank looked at Michael. "The what?"
"Buried in the basement, safe as always," Michael said. "We'll need a couple of shovels."
"Gold?" Frank asked, turning on his knees beside the tub. "What gold."
"The family gold," Michael said, like Frank was being dense.
"How much family gold?" Frank asked, accidentally splashing water down the front of his shirt.
"A good bit, I think," Gerard answered.
"Why the hell did you make me sell that shit for you if you had family gold in the basement?" Frank cried.
Michael shrugged. "Seemed more fun that way."
Frank fumed. Gerard laughed, actually laughed at him, and Frank shoved him so hard he overbalanced and slipped back in the water again.
"I hate both of you," Frank said, but didn't protest when Gerard pulled him half into the tub for a kiss, leaving ash on his lips.
The band was better this time, Frank could admit. He stood against the back table by the cake and sipped at his punch, smiling a little.
Dewees was dancing with Lucy in the middle, Lucy's parents off to the side. She was beautiful; they'd never looked so proud. Frank knew Dewees get that horse eventually. Dewees caught his eye as they spun and grinned, absolutely thrilled, and Frank raised his glass to him.
"They look so happy," Gerard said from beside him. He cleaned up well - new suit, clean shirt, pressed, pinned tie, and a waistcoat with the right buttons and everything. Out of everything they'd bought since the fire - since returning from the woods with heavy, dirt-covered sacks - a new wardrobe seemed to delight him more than anything.
"They are," Frank answered. "Looks like Mikey will be, too."
Lucy's cousin Alicia was in town for the wedding and she hadn't stopped staring Mikey down since they'd entered the reception hall. Mikey was still hovering by the band, talking to Ray, but he kept glancing back, too. He looked a little bit terrified, but Frank doubted anyone else would be able to tell.
"God I hope she asks him to dance," Gerard sighed. "I'd pay to see it."
They were quiet a moment, watching the others spin to the music. Frank knew he should be jealous, maybe. He hated dancing, though, and Gerard was standing so close Frank could feel the warmth from him. He couldn't be jealous, not when Frank still tasted like him, not when he knew Gerard had a bruise right under his starched collar from Frank's teeth.
Gerard hummed, lighting up a cigarette. "That guy by the door keeps staring at you," he said under his breath. "Should I worry?"
Frank turned. It was Eddie. Half-hidden behind the group of parents standing by the piano watching the others dance, looking scared to shit.
"Hold on a sec," Frank said, passing Gerard his cup. "Be right back."
Eddie looked primed to bolt when Frank approached. "Nice wedding, right?" Frank asked.
Eddie was silent, pained, not looking at him.
"A couple of my friends just moved to town, and they're looking for some builders to help out building a house," Frank said, casual. "You interested?"
Eddie stared at him. "Are you serious?"
Eddie cracked, hand going tight around the cup in his hand. "Frank, I swear, I didn't know, they just said they were looking –"
"It's fine," Frank said, cutting him off with a hand on his shoulder. "We're starting on Tuesday. I'll save you a shovel."
"Kitty said - she told me what happened," Eddie blurted. "I'm sorry, I mean - about your dad."
"I'm not," Frank said. "But thanks. See you Tuesday."
Eddie just watched him leave, stunned.
"What was that about?" Gerard asked, passing the cup back over. He'd helped himself to plenty.
"Just fixing something," Frank said, frowning down at it. He took Gerard's cigarette in retaliation. He knew Gerard had enough for the both of them - real ones, ones he didn't even have to roll himself - but they always shared, anyway. He liked the filter still damp from Gerard's mouth.
They watched the dancers move around the reception hall - loud, laughing, sweaty in the summer air, and passed the cigarette back and forth.
"Mikey's dancing," Frank said, nudging him a little and watching as Alicia made him do slow circles around the corner while Ray and Dewees silently cheered.
"So's your mother," Gerard said, nodding to the other side of the dance floor.
"She is?" Frank asked, and craned his neck. She was. Wait - was that the police chief? Jesus, he was fucked. She looked good, though. Color back in her cheeks, and wearing the dress Frank had bought her a few weeks ago.
She'd never asked about what had really happened in the woods. She knew his statement to the chief had more holes in it than anything, but she'd signed her name to it without a question. Sometimes people didn't want the answers, and that was alright too.
"You ready to go?" Frank asked. Gerard nodded.
"Mikey'll meet us at home. I don't think he needs our help here," Gerard said. They slipped quietly out the back of the church and took the way out towards the woods instead of back into the heart of the town.
They were all still technically staying at his ma's place, but not for long. When they were far enough away from the lights of the town Frank reached out and took Gerard's hand. They moved quietly through the woods - Gerard was still eerily silent in the trees, like he wasn't even touching the ground - stopping only a few times to kiss against an oak, and one time for Frank to go down to his knees, Gerard's hand in his hair, the other still holding the cigarette.
The meadow they'd chosen was a good spot, all told - close enough to town to be convenient, far away enough to be hidden by a half-mile of trees. The cleared area would be plenty enough.
"Greenhouse, over there," Frank pointed towards the southeast corner. "And the garden, from there to there."
Gerard stood behind him, arms wrapped around his middle. Frank leaned back into him.
"Parlor will be there," Frank said. "Mikey's room over there. My room down by the kitchen, and your room up on the second floor, by the library." He motioned with his hand, outlining the shapes in the dark.
"Your room," Gerard asked. "Is that what we're calling it?"
"Guest room," Frank said. "Where I will keep my things, if anybody asks."
"I like that better."
Frank was quiet a moment, letting his hand settle in his pocket. "I have something for you," he said.
"Something else?" Gerard asked, teasing a little. "I-"
He stopped when Frank pulled out his hand, opening his fist to show the little gold cross and chain.
Gerard exhaled against his neck, deep and steady; his arms around Frank's waist tightened like he was holding him in place.
"I thought I'd lost it," Gerard said, quietly, reaching out to take it from Frank's palm.
"I lost it," Frank said. "Took me a long time to find it again." He'd spent forever in stolen hours out in the woods behind where he'd buried the tin, down on his hands and knees digging through the soft mud. And then yesterday - there it was, like it was just waiting for Frank, patient as ever.
He'd always gotten more chances than he deserved.
Gerard kissed the side of Frank's neck, fisting the necklace in his hand and pressing it back against Frank's stomach. Frank covered them with his own, feeling the chain still warm against his palm.
"Thank you, Frankie," Gerard whispered; Frank could feel Gerard's smile on the back of his neck. The summer breeze was warm, bending the green grass around their ankles.
Gerard hadn't said anything since he'd woken up in the ash about being to hear it anymore; Frank didn't think he'd tried, worried about pushing his luck. For the first time in his life Frank could practically feel the possibilities of a future open in front of him, like a razed forest ready to grow.
It was good. It would be even better.
Always and forever, he heard, but Gerard was quiet, still humming happily into his skin. Frank closed his eyes, hands still covering Gerard's, and listened.