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surreptitious (this is where we end)

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⸻ BEFORE

 

Alex took him through the graveyard.

Brendan said nothing as they drifted through weathered, gray gravestones. Triora in winter was a monochrome painting in motions, broad, proud straight strokes of gray and white and black. While Milan or Rome or Florence were brimming with Christmas celebrations, Triora burrowed into its deserted state. Time seemed to cease to exist here, and everything seemed to be blurry and fuzzy around the edges like wisps of smoke. The colours were bleaching away, leaving behind husks of festivity. The northern wind wandered through the empty space, lost and unfound.

Twigs, dried leaves and virgin snow broke underneath Alex and Brendan’s heels. The crisp, hollow noises amplified theirs controlled, slowed, even breathing, filling in between the stiff, carefully maintained distance between them. Their footsteps never quite matched, the disparate notes ricocheting against each other. 

“Thank you for coming with me,” Alex said, soft and ghastly. He was carrying daisy. The papery yellow flowers paled a dead, muted pastel colour in his white-knuckled grips. Over their head, the sky was a dense, ominous flat plane pressing down—cloudy and thick. Snow drifted down in sleets, casting a saturated screen over the landscape.

Brendan opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

Alex stopped at the end of the pathway, gazing back at Brendan, and Brendan almost stopped short at the forlorn hunched figure, looking faded and worn and lost like an old photograph. The false unspoken condolences grew into lumps of spikes, clogging Brendan’s windpipe. 

Branches framed Alex. The skinny, crooked limbs swayed, making it look as though Alex had unfurled tattered and drooping wings. Alex was so young, yet so old. His face was hooded, and Brendan didn’t try to read his expression as Alex held out a trembling palm. Brendan wordlessly intertwined their hands, enveloping his gloved-fingers around Alex’s bare, plump, calloused ones.

“It’s nothing, Alex.” Brendan said, eventually, looking at Alex’s set jaws instead of his intense, red-rimmed eyes, the lies tasted like lead on his tongue. He should be saying, I’ll always be there for you . He should say, I’m sorry for your loss. I know she’s important to you. But what could he say when he didn’t even know the dead girl’s name until today, much for the history between her and Alex. What could he say when asking Alex about it, about her , felt like re-tearing a tender, infectious wound. What could he say when he himself hadn’t and didn’t and couldn’t seem to perceive death the same way as Alex. What could he say when he had put off flying over to check-up on Alex as long as possible despite Alex’s hysterical breakdowns, already regretting his decision the moment the plane landed at Genoa and spotted Alex slumping against one of the waiting benches, puffy face and a literal wreckage?

It wasn’t nothing. It cost something to him. Metaphorically, physically. Both. He didn’t know. He had set his phone on Airplane Mode and pretended he forgot to charge his phone for days, unanswered calls and texts piled. He had five lectures to catch up, and hockey practices mere hours after he landed back in Canada. But he couldn't say that, could he? Couldn’t so rudely say that he couldn’t stay here for long. Alex called on him when he had exhausted everybody else, and the worst he could do was declaring Alex wasn’t worth a whole night.

The returning ticket folded and painstakingly slotted away in a compartment of his valise. A clock had already counting down.

Tick tick tick . Thirty-four hours left.

Alex looked up at him, blue eyes watery, and Brendan looked away, gently pulled Alex forward again. Alex followed, feet dragging.

It was like leading a ragdoll.

Brendan breathed in deep, holding the chilled air in his lungs, letting the aged wickedness writhed under his skin, feeling a part of himself writhing and crumbling like ashes. Brendan’s toes curled as the ice and fog on the ground seeped into the unfixed holes of his boots. Shacks and rubble loomed in the distance as indistinguishable shapes the further they trudged forward, things fading in and out of sight behind their back. Underground water whispering, rising and falling, an ancient insistent prayer. Gray, dilapidated, oxidized intricate satanic devil and angel statues towered over him, their hands arched toward him. Their eyes focused on him, judging . Their agonized, open gasps, snarling fangs and mouths, and inexpressive mournful stone faces simultaneously morphed to a singular disdainful sneer down at him. Thick, heavy tree boughs creaked. The char of burning flesh and rotten corpses hung in the air, suspended at the peripheral of his senses right at the thin line between reality and perception, where he couldn’t quite catch it but knew it was there. Flurry of black flickered, but when Brendan glanced over his shoulders, he wasn’t sure whether it was either ravens’ wings or dead girls’ ghosts taking off.

“It’s here,” Alex whispered, tugging at Brendan’s hand. He took a shaky breath, and knelt in front of the marker with thin serif letters and a floral symbol chiseled on it, his whole frame seemed to shake.

Charlotte Rose , the gravestone read.

“Hello, Lotte,” Alex murmured. The tremble didn’t stop, despite the cursory, wobbly smile Alex snapped on, and Brendan knew the smile was neither for his sake nor Alex’s.

It was more habitual. It was for whoever that lay here.

It was for Charlotte Rose. For Lotte .

The tightness in Alex’s body didn’t seem to disappear as he probed the bouquet forward and smoothed a hand down the cold, smooth stone. Brendan watched hunch forming between two points of Alex’s shoulder blades, the taunted corded knot of muscles bunching up. Brendan wanted to reach out and rub away the spot at his nape, but he feared if he touched Alex, the boy would break. Break apart, break apiece.

Alex began to sob. The lines of his body quivered. A breeze flitted across them, and Brendan watched red clawed up Alex’s ears and neck, across the blunt jawlines and broad back, knowing the blush wasn’t just from frostbite. Brendan dug his heels into the hard ground, their interlaced fingers a deathgrip on his side, suddenly being transported back to his fourteen-year-old self, standing beside his mother as the casket lowered to the ground again. He could feel himself hugging her, pressing so close to her, yet there was an unclosable distance between him and her, an incomprehensible surreality suffocating him. His mother never stopped grieving his uncle and aunt’s passings, yet he didn’t shed a single tear at their funeral, or feel a hole ripping through him at the missing space, or get nostalgic at the things they had touched and treasured. Brendan itched for something to hold on to, something to worry his fingertips and bite between his teeth. Something more destructive and figurative. Every muscle in his body was screaming to leave , to allow Alex privacy and silence, or just to do something . It was too painful to watch.

He could lie. He could feed Alex all those words, and tell him all the right things. But how could a lie be convinced if it still felt bold and false on his tongue.

He wanted to yank Alex up and gripped his shoulders and tell him just to get over it. That he should have seen the tumorous death from miles away, it wasn't an abrupt accident, more tears wouldn’t solve anything. He wanted Alex to stop mourning a death that should be easily accepted. He wanted Alex to know two weeks were more than enough, because if the girl was still alive, she wouldn’t want Alex to succumb to a vicious cycle of self-torture and self-blame. 

But he clamped his teeth. Just clenched his fingers tight between Alex’s in his coat’s pockets and stared upward, watching the wind and snow bent heaven.

He had been through this before. 

They needed space and support, not reminder that their feelings were ultimately meaningless , he told himself.

 

▪️

 

Alex pushed himself onto his feet.

Silently, they trudged back the way they came. Brendan tipped his head back, counting passing seconds. He walked slowly, letting the initial three feet distance between him and Alex stretched, little by little, yet, watching Alex reduced almost nothing but a slender shape bobbing further and further away, watching Alex half-running away, as though desperately wanting to get as far away from the graveyard as possible.

The black intricate finial gates swung behind their back, not quite shut, latches still undone. The rusted padlock creaking against the wind. He could hear it long after they walked down the mainroad, hearing the resounding metallic echo rattled after their muffled footsteps.

Alex grasped his hand, speeding up and didn’t bother to look at both sides when he tugged Brendan across the street. Something in his gait screamed pent-up anger and lethargy, the recklessness illy suited him. But it didn’t matter. Alex snuffled thickly, twisting Brendan’s fist painfully in his own. A car’s headlamps swooped across them, harsh yellow light cutting through the hail. Alex’s face was blotchy red, tears and snot streaked down his ruddy cheeks, his pupils were narrowed, flashed electric-bright like a wild animal’s when he pushed Brendan into a small alley and weaved through the catacomb. Brendan didn’t ask what was Alex going, what was Alex planning, but simply followed. 

Brendan remembered the ways. The summer memory resurfaced like a mirage at the forefront of his mind. The shut, sleepy shops, and alleys and places simmered with the ghost of insipid joys and carefree laughter. He could close his eyes and pinpoint the hidden opening that led to an open-topped balcony, where all houses seemed to be in one flat plane on an LCD screen, shimmering in colours and heat waves rising from the ground.

They passed the Square, passed by the exact same spot where he had first stood upon entering the town, where he had caught sight of Alex and called out Sei la mia guida? The exact same spot where they once drove a stake through witches’ hearts. A sense of deja vu struck Brendan as he thought about the unfinished The Shadow Over Innsmouth burying somewhere deep within the drawer by his childhood bedside back home. He thought about small misery towns, and evils that came in the form of slouched forms, sunken eyeballs and fishy frowns, or impressed in frescos of dismembered witches, demons and hobgoblin, unbaptized children cradled in hellish creatures’ bat wings, in the smeared murals of nightmares and infernos that towering and plastering on every twist and turn of the street labyrinth. 

The hills sloped gently and met his feet just as the correct time, his feet dragged along due to gravity, his muscles pulled and protested.

Everything brought back memories,and Brendan wasn’t sure if it was a good thing. He couldn’t help but compared to what they have, what they could have, what they should have. Feeling of guilt, which had been eating him inside out since the beginning of this bubbling up his throat again, hearing Alex’s voicemail echoing inside his brain like a sick loop he couldn’t get rid off, I’m so tired of everything. I want to go back in time, back when everything’s fine . Back when the summer thrill, the wanderlust and rosy colours of first feelings and serendipity was still plenty to cover up the cracks in the foundation of their relationships. The cracks within Brendan, within Alex, within each of themselves and each of their worlds.

It was an erosion that they both could have slowed, but they chose not to. Preoccupied, or overestimated. Alex was prioritized down the bottom of the list of his life the moment he returned back to Canada. Alex was just a ghost, a memory of summer and youth and freedom and fantasy, a sliver of existence he barely remembered. Everything just—kind of happened. They stopped texting, they stopped talking. Facetime became dutiful chores Brendan filed at the back of his mind, slipped and slid out of his mind—things he promised to do after his hockey practices, things he promised to do when he got back home, things he promised to do once he finished his homework and before he crashed.

He could blame it on the distance. The timezones. Blame it on whatever issues failed long-distance relationships always cycled back to. It was easier to say: Of course Brendan physically couldn’t drive Alex home when he discovered the young girl he had been taking care of had passed away. Of course Brendan couldn’t feed him and touch him and breath with him past the claustrophobic panic attacks. Of course Brendan wasn’t the first person Alex called for, wasn’t the first person to know a part of Alex’s life had fallen apiece.

He could blame it on a lot of things for what went wrong in their relationship. But Brendan has never liked lying, and especially not to himself.

They just didn’t work out. 

Some things were meant to end. Some things were meant to end sooner than later. 

It was supposed to be a fling. They never intended for it to go on.

If he was in a better mindset, would he be able to support Alex? He didn’t know, because it seemed like nothing mattered now. Everything felt like so long ago. He wondered if Alex could sense it too—sense the subtle change in him, the loss and the immolation for nothing. They were strangers again, he was meeting Alex for the first time again today. A siff distance between them, awkward navigation as though both of them were thrown back to the first days, when both were still sizing each other up, still determining whether they should trust each other. Only this time there was nothing but dry friction and exhausted charge. A void, an inreaction.

Everything about Italy, about Triora remained the same, only Brendan was different. Or, perhaps, it was the other way around—perhaps he was the one that remained the same. Him that was slowing down, lived life in preserved amber while time rushed by. He should pick up the pace, should run instead of floating through life, should dive instead of watching the hurricane crashes through him. But he had felt tired for a long time, and it felt like too much effort to invest in a dead end relationship.

Love wasn’t the right answer for either of them.

The places where they used to frequent, the places hallowed by their footsteps and laughter, the places where they once scaled and explored—everything turned into black spots dotting Brendan’s visions, holes burning through his chest. Something in him tightened, something like regret. Like remorse.

Brendan glanced at Alex’s profile, and he wondered if Alex was feeling the same thing.

 

▪️

 

Alex led him to a familiar set of stone stairs twisting upward, hidden between the alleys of a witch coven’s house and an old boutique shop. They climbed the flight and heaved themselves up a dilapidated balcony of sorts, shoulders brushed but not quite touching, despite the walls narrowed and compressed around them. They sat, close but deliberately not touching, watching the snow dusted the town.

“When are you leaving?” Alex asked. His breath curled from his mouth, the fog suspended for a second before dissipating into nothing.

“In thirty hours,” Brendan said. He was compelled to add a half-truth here, I’ve a few tests coming up , but he clamped his mouth.

“What time do you need to go to the airport tomorrow?”

“After noon a bit, I think.”

“We can stay in. Maybe my mum will be cooking something, she would love it if you drop by. I can give you a ride,” Alex said.

The last time they were here, sunlight was spreading across Triora like honey. The sky was blue, depthless and arching up high. The smell of flowers and charred ash had weaved in the atmosphere, palming their bare flesh. The green planes stretched from all sides, rolling as far as the eyes can see.

Now, though, it was like they were standing atop of a desolated wall, watching a civilization forgotten.

“Do you remember what I told you at the beginning?” Alex said, his voice ratcheted off the open air. His inhales resulted in mechanical jerks. He picked at his reddened nails, twisting and untwisting his fingers in complicated configurations. A faint of bitter smile etched at Alex’s lips. “They never know what exactly happened to the ones that were accused of witchcraft but never able to prove their innocence. Some said they got buried alive, some said they got sacrificed. Sometimes you can hear their screams echo from the basement of the Church, where they were imprisoned. Sometimes you can hear their screams echo from la fine dell'abisso .”

“I remembered the story.”

“That was Lotte’s favourite.”

A chill ran down Brendan’s spine.

“She didn’t believe in magic when she died,” Alex whispered. A single tear rolled down his cheek. “I saw her in my dreams. Over and over and over. I couldn’t save her.”

“You can’t save what is meant to end, Alex.”

“She thought witches could do anything. She thought the leyline could stop time, or make her stronger. She wants to be in the coven, one day, with me. Use magic and travel around the world and cure all the deadliest existing diseases. Go to Florence and Ponte Vecchio, swim in the Arno River. So many dreams. And I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth—” Alex laughed, tilting his head and staring heaven-ward. The notes acerbic-soured, and Brendan looked away, the sound grated against his eardrums. “I could hear Lotte calling my name since she died.”

The wind howled, pushing them closer and closer to the wrong said of the ledge. It was a twenty-four feet drop below them. Brendan thought of reaching out and took Alex’s bare hands and scuttled back. Back to safety, to warmth.

“She’s dead, Alex.” Bredan said. The squeaky, wary alert was foreign, not his. Alex turned to him, but his eyes flitted to the circumferential forest just beyond the town’s sloppy boundary, his exhale was slow and steady, the deep quiver was almost unnoticeable. 

“She would have loved to meet you,” Alex sighed. His pupils were glassy. 

 

▪️

 

They got back to Brendan’s shabby rented motel room as purple bruises blotched the horizons. Alex’s mouth found Brendan’s neck as soon as the door slammed shut, hands shoved down the waistband of his jeans and worked his shirt off, nails raked over the flesh of his back and buttocks. Brendan jerked back in surprise, almost wrenching away from Alex. But the other boy pressed harder forward, kisses were more like desperate bites and gasps of air as he blindly walked Brendan backward until they hit the bed and tumbled down on the crisp sheet.

“Alex,” Brendan sucked in a sharp breath, turning his face away from Alex until Alex stopped. “I don’t want you to regret it.”

“I want to do this,” Alex said. He was hovering above him, bracing himself on all four, thighs bracketing Brendan’s hips and hands rooted on either sides of Brendan’s head. Alex's face hovered above Brendan’s, sober, serious. And he repeated, enunciated each syllable. “I want it with you.”

Brendan felt his throat clogging up. Fear, or dread, or something else, he wasn’t completely sure. But he knew he couldn’t lead Alex on. He couldn’t set it up and infuse this already dead romance with false hope and tease Alex with the plausibility while knowing he wouldn’t keep up his promise, while knowing they would end if not today, then tomorrow. Just the way Alex was looking at him, thoroughly convinced and determined that terrified Brendan, that made the No on the tip of his tongue refused to be pushed out.

Brendan closed his eyes and pushed Alex away. “I don’t think you’re thinking straight.” When he opened his eyes again, Alex had sat back on the balls of his feet, his skin burnt a bright, frightful red. Brendan didn’t dare raise his gaze past Alex’s neck, interested in the way the freckles scattered across Alex’s collarbone seemed to be swallowed up by blooming patches of pink.

“What?” Alex asked, the single word contained both anger and betrayal. Brendan flinched. He rolled onto the other side of the bed, tugging down his sweaters. 

“I can’t—” Brendan said, twitching as though a million wasps stung his back, the pain penetrated his bones. Poison spread through his bloodstream, paralyzing him, He gritted his teeth, standing up abruptly and going to the bathroom. He left the door unclosed, and Alex followed, blocking the bathroom’s exit, his body language taunted and stiff. Alex’s reflection in the mirror staring at him, intense blue eyes cut into his soul, and the close confinement suddenly seemed to be strangling Brendan.

Brendan didn’t know whether to cry in upset or relief. So he turned on the tap and splashed water on his face. He blinked, watching the white foam rush swirled down the drain, breathing stuck in his throat.

The interior light was a dingy, filthy stained-white shade, humming listlessly above them. Low, irritating, persistent.

“It’s nothing. I’m just tired from the flight.” Brendan said, quiet compared to the gush of water.

Alex took a step into the bathroom and draped over Brendan’s back, reaching over and turning off the tap. His arms circled Brendan’s waist. Alex’s head rested on Brendan’s neck, heart beating against Brendan’s shoulder blades, his breath brushed over Brendan’s nape, chilled, faint. Their chest rose and fell in sync. Brendan held onto Alex’s forearms, feeling the emotion snarls coiled tighter in the pit of his stomach.

“You don’t love me anymore, is that it?” Alex murmured.

This is it. Tell him , Brendan told himself, Put a stop to this waiting game. Don’t drag it out, Brendan.

They would end, now. They would end today. It had already been happening. But he just didn’t know how to end it without hurting Alex, and maybe Alex didn’t, too. Maybe Alex was waiting for him to break it off. Both of them were just holding their breath, holding their chest, waiting for the other to make the move.

He took a deep breath, inhaling Alex’s soft pine scent, his heart ached like a gaping hole. His mind blanked. All he could think of was Alex’s gruff, scratchy, monotonous whisper in the voicemail, Dan. I’m so tired of everything. I want to go back in time, back when everything’s fine .

He felt like crying.

 

▪️

 

Brendan offered to go out and get them some food from downstairs. But Alex shook his head. They ended up putting on the TV, playing cards and drinking the bottle he had purchased at the duty-free shop at the Genoa Airport. The Italian droned on and on, the screen fuzzed with dotting gray and black static strips. The booze clawed up Brendan’s flesh, sensual, warm and sluggish. He felt full, but it was the empty kind of full—his stomach was bloated with blazing liquid, roiling and roiling like waves brewing before a storm, unsettling and made him squirm.

After the clock struck nine, Alex threw in his hands.

They turned off the lights and crawled into bed. The wind hammered the shutter windows, and cold slips of air slithered in, seeping through his pores, sinking into his lungs, solidifying in his chest. They weren’t touching, weren’t curling around one another or pressing their hands on each other’s heartbeat. He held himself still, burrowing into the duvet, yet restless energy thrummed through his veins.

“Did I ask you to come at the wrong time?” Alex said, a whisper.

The practiced words turned in Brendan’s mouth. “No.” He said. “No, Alex. I want to be here with you.”

“Are you?”

The dark pressed against Brendan’s skin, thick like cotton, and he watched inky black shifted and moved in distorted circles. “Yes.”




⸻ AFTER

 

Brendan didn’t know what heartbreak was supposed to feel like, but it hurt.

It was stupid, pathetic and unfair, given how long had he been bracing for it—how long had he been praying for it to happen. Yet the moment when he heard the voicemail from Alex, it was like he had his heart ripped out and jammed right back down his bleeding throat as the words methodically drew out. Whispery and steady but hollow, and so different from the familiar sultry, laughing tone of the Alex he once knew.

He thought he should feel relieved, getting rid of this situation already. But no. There was this hanging feeling. Like something is incompleted.

Because the person talking to him was the After-Alex, the one that lost his will to live. Not the Before-Alex, whose laughter rang in reverberated deep in the hollow of Brendan’s ribcage.

Hi, Dan. It’s Alex. Thank you for coming to see me. And thank you for all the memories you have given me. I’ll miss you.

It hurt, though he wasn’t sure if it was him hurting for himself or him hurting for Alex.

Brendan replayed the message over and over again.

He didn’t cry.