Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
—T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Henry was in a coma for several weeks. Camilla, Francis, and I sat with him in rotating shifts along with his mother, who stayed at the Albermarle in 2-A, exactly one floor below where the incident had occurred. On the recommendation of Francis’ mother, Charles was checked into the Betty Ford Clinic, after five days in jail and a hefty fine for wrecking Mr. Hatch’s truck. For all his rage, he said nothing to the police about Bunny’s murder. His life had not, in fact, been ruined.
My own bullet wound was surprisingly unremarkable. The bullet went straight through me without piercing any integral organs and I was more or less given a couple bandages and a tap on the head for my trouble.
Henry, however, had a rougher go of it. He would spend a few days on the upswing, then back down again. One day we were told he would pull through, the next, he could go at any moment. Camilla, like in the aftermath of the Bacchanal, went mute. Francis spoke enough for the both of them. He threw money at his feelings, started wearing garish silk cravats. I can hardly remember it now, those long days in and out of the hospital, emotional chaos of daily wellness news, except in flashes of routine: tepid coffee in styrofoam cups, wilted spinach from the hospital cafeteria, the bland silences of Camilla and the vapid chattering of Francis. I would sit beside Henry’s bed and tilt the chair back until it threatened to tip backward, then crash down to the tile hoping the noise would jar him awake.
When visiting hours closed, I would take Henry’s car and drive Camilla home. After the first few weeks I had given up expecting return conversation. I had even stopped assuming she was paying attention. Mostly we listened to the radio but sometimes I would tell her things, stupid anecdotes, thoughts I'd had in the shower that day, entire plots of movies she had probably already seen. At her apartment, I put the car in park and walked her to the door, hoping she would invite me in, wanting to offer her some level or manner of comfort — physically, of course, but I’d have taken anything. I would have slept on the couch if I thought she’d enjoy seeing me when she awoke. It strikes me now what had seemed so altruistic at the time was actually self-serving: I had in fact been seeking her comfort. Henry’s limbo had left me confused and afraid. Confused because of my heart-brokenness, the ease with which I related to Camilla’s grief, and what that said about my feelings toward Henry. Afraid for either inevitable conclusion: Henry would die and I’d lose a dear friend, perhaps the dearest friend I’d ever had; he would live and Charles would turn him in for the murders of Bunny and the Vermonter, and go to prison for a long time. Either way, his absence would shatter the already ragged foundation of our group. I would lose what I had come to know as the only family I really had.
A couple weeks after the incident, as Camilla was unlocking her front door, I asked, “Can I please come in tonight?”
She looked at me then, eye contact for the first time in weeks, as if she had just realized I was there and speaking to her. Then she looked down again and shook her head. I touched her chin and lifted it, eager to see her eyes once more.
“You shouldn’t have to be alone,” I said.
Her hand was still on the knob. Then she turned it and entered, and left it open for me to follow. The place was different than I had seen it last, immaculately clean. She had replaced the broken mirror, taken the glass out of the fireplace. In Charles’ bedroom the bed had been stripped of linens and a new set of sheets sat folded atop the mattress.
“I wish you’d speak to me,” I said as I followed her into the kitchen, where she poured me a glass of whiskey in Charles’ favorite tumbler. “We’re friends, right? We’re still friends.”
She held the bottle in one hand and the glass in the other, frozen as if thinking. Then she nodded once.
“Good,” I said, relieved.
She handed me the drink. Outside the sun was setting. Spring would soon turn to summer and I would be left again to find my own housing, though darkly I assumed I would stay in Henry’s apartment, not wanting to take the Brooklyn house-sitting job and be away from Henry should he awaken.
In the living room we sat and watched the sun elongate shadows of furniture. Though Camilla said nothing I began to think my presence was unwelcome. I had finished my drink and it became clear to me that she had only offered me inside because I had, for the first time, asked outright and she was just being polite. The thought of being alone sent me reeling. A sense of vague horror hung over my head telling me that if I left now, I would not make it through the night.
When the sun had finally crossed the line of the horizon, Camilla sat closer to me on the sofa. She wore a skirt that day, her knee bare against mine. She took the empty glass from my hand and set it on the table, then held my hand in hers and threaded our fingers together. Her touch tethered me; the vague horror dissipated, and she rested her head on my shoulder. We sat in silence until the room grew completely dark. I don’t know if I slipped into sleep or a grief-induced hallucinatory state, but I kept catching glimpses of Henry’s figure in the armchair — the dwindling cherry of his cigarette, the moonlight glinting against his glasses.
Henry awoke from his coma in mid-May. His mother and Camilla were with him. Francis was probably shopping somewhere. I was at the library making up my incomplete work so I would not have to retake the semester. It went without saying that I changed my major to English literature, as did Camilla. Francis went on a sabbatical from which he never returned.
When I arrived at the hospital later that evening, Henry was awake and sitting up in bed. He wore a new pair of glasses his mother must have brought with her, his old ones having shattered with the blast. These were large, clunky, crooked, made Henry look boyish and young — which, I realized then, he was. We all were. It struck me, too, how I had lifted him to an otherworldly pedestal, and now that the pedestal had toppled, what remained was my simple and unyielding love for him.
Henry stared upward at a spot on the wall which had no notable mark or movement, but he was inspecting it with the same focus I had seen him poring over ancient texts. His mother explained to me that he was in the clear now, but it would likely take months of rehabilitation to return to full health, if at all. He had nerve damage in his left side. It was likely he would live with some symptoms the rest of his life: impaired memory, depressive episodes, speech troubles. She would be taking him home, she said. At the moment he couldn’t speak, but she assured us he would be able to soon.
I looked to Camilla, whose eyebrows were knit with concern. She was sitting at the edge of the bed holding Henry’s hand. A silent thought passed between us — the police would not return. Henry would go free. Initially the local police had come to ask if I wanted to press charges, and when I said no, they went on their way. I hesitated to believe we were in the clear, but at that moment, with Henry dazed but awake, gauze wrapped around his head and glasses nearly falling off his nose, I had hope.
When Henry was well enough, Mrs. Winter had him transferred to a hospital in Missouri. Camilla went with them. Francis returned to Boston and I received a single nod from Henry indicating I could stay at his apartment until the lease ran out in June. The last time I saw him in Hampden he was well enough to eat on his own — right-handed only, his left still lifeless on the bed. I had spoken to him briefly about mundane things, the state of his garden mostly, that it was flourishing and I was tending it near-daily for him, that I had gotten his car washed. I veered away from topics I thought might upset him: Julian’s disappearance, school in general. I told him about Francis’ hideous cravats and that Judy Poovey had set off the fire alarm after trying to heat up a can of soup on a contraband hotplate.
“Is that so,” he said, speaking slowly as if choosing each word from a list, shaping their sound like he’d never said them aloud before.
I did not get to say goodbye to him, but I helped Camilla pack her and Charles’ belongings into boxes which she stacked near the door for movers to pick up later. She would be storing most of their things at her grandmother’s house. The muteness had lifted, though she mostly remained quiet, speaking only out of necessity. She packed two suitcases for herself. I had helped her pack a third for Henry, then load it all into Henry’s car which she would be driving to Missouri. We said goodbye in front of Henry’s garden, and she reached up and wrapped her arms around my neck, kissed my cheek.
“Thank you, Richard,” she said. “I’m sorry Charles shot you.”
I was afraid to ask what would happen next, if we would stay in touch, if this was goodbye forever, or just for a very long time. If she would mind if I called once in a while, or visited, or if she’d be back next semester. She had not yet driven out of my sight when I felt the sharp drop of her absence — Henry, Francis, Charles, Bunny, and Julian, too. These people who had entered the dull palate of my life and lit it with bursts of neon. Returning to Henry’s apartment only exaggerated the feeling. I slept that night, and each night in the weeks that followed, in Henry’s bed, his sheets mussed and dirty, stenching of smoke, bedside ashtray full, books stacked on every surface and some even scattered on the floor. I lay awake naked and imagined Henry’s body taking up this space, imagined him comfortable and sleepy. I wondered if he slept on his back or side or stomach, if he dreamed in black and white. Things I never asked him because he wouldn’t care for the question enough to answer it; the knowledge would be useless, a waste of time to even utter. All those things he would find tedious to even consider were all the things I suddenly needed to know, that which made him human and real and alive. I remembered how often I heard him awaken in the middle of the night for a glass of water, sleep-addled clearing of his throat while the faucet ran. The flush of the toilet and the creaking springs as he returned to bed. I had thought nothing of it at the time; if anything, the noise had mildly irritated me, but now I yearned for it. The comfort of his quiet presence in this dark empty place. The safety and assuredness I had always felt around him, despite knowing intimately his violent potential.
By June I had fallen into a lethargic slump wherein I could scarcely leave Henry’s apartment. Every day I awoke with the full intention of finding a new place to live when the lease was up on the fifteenth, and every night I went to bed having forgotten to assess the single item on my to-do list. I was unconsciously banking on Henry’s landlord, whom I didn’t know but whose phone number was scrawled at the top of Henry’s address book, would forget about the apartment. No one had come to get Henry’s things as Mrs. Winter said they would; the apartment was mostly empty and unfurnished already, but there were several boxes worth of books that Henry would surely want brought home. I didn’t even know if the furniture and dishware were his.
On the fourteenth, I called the number Mrs. Winter had given me, what I assumed was their home phone number. Camilla answered.
“Richard, it’s good to hear from you,” she said.
“How is Henry doing?”
“Better. He was discharged a couple days ago. He’s home now.”
“Fine. Are you just calling to check in?”
“Well, no. Henry’s lease is up tomorrow but all his things are still here.”
“Oh. Have you heard from Francis?”
“He sent me a postcard a couple weeks ago.”
“I’m sure he sent me one, too, but mail forwarding seems to take forever, don’t you think?”
“Camilla, what do I do with Henry’s apartment?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t either.”
“Well —” A voice in the background. Henry’s, maybe. “Hold on,” Camilla said. The voice continued, and I heard Camilla say, “Are you sure?” She returned to the line. “Henry says he’ll rent you a car and you can bring his things and stay here for the summer, and be sure to drop off the keys with the landlord, and don’t forget the books under the bed.”
It sounded as if Henry’s health had improved dramatically in the weeks he’d been gone. I imagined Mr. Winter had thrown as much money as possible at rehabilitation efforts.
“I don’t want to be a nuisance,” I said, though I was suddenly eager to hang up the phone and start driving. My foggy lethargy had already begun to lift at the mere thought of seeing Henry and Camilla again.
“You won’t be,” she said. “We’re happy to have you.”
I wanted to believe her but I wasn’t sure I did. They had finally found a semblance of peace with each other, and my presence seemed to me a risk that, were I in their position, I wouldn’t take. A quiet voice in my head thought perhaps they loved me as much as I loved them, but I quickly silenced it.
“I can be there in a couple days,” I said.
All the energy I had lost in the days I spent alone returned at once. In just a few hours after my phone call with Camilla, I had managed to pack Henry’s things and my own, clean the apartment as best I could, pick up and pack the car, and return the keys to the landlord, who had a drop box outside his office. Henry had rented me a new-looking Honda Accord with plenty of trunk space. Despite this, Henry’s things took up the entire trunk, back seat, and passenger seat. I left at seven that evening and drove all through the night, only stopping near three in the morning to sleep for a few hours with the driver’s seat tilted back as far as I could take it. I arrived in St. Louis around six in the evening the next day, and was surprised to check the map where I had stopped for dinner to find Henry did not actually live in St. Louis proper, but a town a couple hundred miles out called Mansfield, which I had wrongly assumed was a suburb of the city. He had told me to call once I had reached St. Louis and now I understood why. Outside the diner, I found a payphone and called him, and he gave me directions which I wrote down quickly on the back of my receipt. When he was done, he tried to hang up, but I said, “How are you doing?”
His silence led me to believe he was taken aback by the question. “Fine. Why?”
“You shot yourself in the head.”
“So? Are you recovering? Or fully recovered? You sound like nothing happened. You’re speaking just fine.”
“I don’t think this is the right time to be discussing this, Richard.”
Though I wanted to continue questioning him, I knew I’d have the opportunity once I arrived, if not to speak with him about it then at least see his progress physically. We said our goodbyes and I drove what felt like the longest leg of the whole trip, off major highways on long stretches of country road that alternated passing lanes, every fifteen miles having to slow down to pass through a town with names like Cabool and Licking and Edgar Springs. Mansfield, when I arrived, was scarcely different — a Town & Country market, an ancient-looking bank, town square with a single gazebo and an abandoned train station, a dollar store called Bills. A sign had informed me that the town’s single claim to fame was the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum, which included the house where Wilder wrote her popular Little House on the Prairie novels.
It was hard to believe a man like Henry could hail from a place like this, and yet, it seemed to suit him in a way I couldn’t articulate. I turned onto a gravel road between two trees, marked by a broken street sign I had almost missed. I drove for nearly five miles in complete darkness through twists and turns in the forest, uphill, hardly going over twenty miles an hour. I finally reached a clearing, and to my left, an etched stone that read HAVEN in front of an iron gate which swung open immediately when I approached it. From there I continued driving up a steeper incline, paved now, until I came upon a wide carport, and beyond it, an enormous modern-looking house, not quite a mansion, looking over a vast expanse of Ozark hills.
I parked and got out of the car and stretched. I couldn’t tell where the front door was, but I didn’t need to — the garage opened and Camilla padded out barefoot, which would have concerned me had I not noticed that the carport was paved with smooth granite instead of cement.
She looked pleased to see me, as beautiful as she always did, pale cheeks reddened as if sunburnt, and wrapped me up in a hug which immediately dispelled all the tension I’d been holding in my time alone.
“How was the drive?” she asked as she pulled away.
“All right,” I said. “Boring. How is Henry?”
“Fine. He’s downstairs.”
I took my suitcase from the footwell in the back seat and guessed someone would be out to get the rest of Henry’s things later. Camilla led me into the garage, which had two doors: one I assumed belonged to the main living area, and a second, which led down a short flight of steps into an apartment, complete with a small kitchenette attached to a living room, the sliding-glass windows of which looked out over the cliff. Henry was sitting on a long leather couch, oddly enough watching television — a canned-laughter sitcom, of all things — and, not oddly at all, smoking a cigarette. He wore the same crooked pair of glasses he did at the hospital, and a bathrobe, but the gauze around his head was gone, the only remainder of the bullet a small bald patch over his ear combed over by his hair.
“Hello, Henry,” I said.
He looked over slowly and it seemed to take him a fraction of a second to recognize me, though I had only last seen him a couples weeks ago, and spoke to him just hours before. “Richard,” he said somewhat cheerfully, and reached for a cane propped beside him, used it to leverage himself to standing. He relied on it heavily as he walked over, though I couldn’t discern a limp of any kind and wondered if he were in pain or what, exactly, was causing the necessity of the aid. To my surprise he hugged me tightly, offered a rough pat on the back. I had forgotten the smell of him: cigarettes and aftershave, sweat-worn wool. He hung on for a couple seconds and I allowed myself to feel the firmness of his muscles under my hand, hardened and frightening like petting a large beast outside of a cage.
He did not smile, but he did look me up and down in appraisal, as if he hadn’t seen me in years. “I’m glad you came,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”
I was so taken aback by this admission that I couldn’t think of a response, but Camilla chimed in: “We can show you your room if you like.”
The apartment looked newly renovated and outfitted with modern track lighting in the ceiling. The air conditioning blew noisily through vents. There was not a single book in sight. They led me down a short hallway and into a small bedroom which looked nearly like a hotel room — full-size bed, white sheets, gaudy floral duvet. The furnishings were sparse but compared to what I had endured the prior winter seemed more than adequate for my needs. I set my suitcase by the bed. They showed me the bathroom across the hall: large, with a jacuzzi bath and a stall shower with two heads, the entire room tiled in sparkling white. The third door in the hallway was left unspoken, their bedroom, the two of them now apparently an established couple.
We returned to the living room where I sat in a reclining chair and Camilla asked if I’d like a drink. I said yes and then told Henry, “You’ve got a nice place here.”
Henry settled himself back on the couch, slowly, face pinched as if attempting not to wince in pain. He rested his cane on his thigh. The TV continued to blare at a high volume. “My parents built it as a guest house of sorts, for when family friends or my father’s clients come to visit. There’s no hotel in town.”
“What does your father do?”
“He owns an oil drilling company. I’m sure you passed it on your way in.”
I had, though I hadn’t paid it much mind. It was a large warehouse-looking building with cranes and machinery out front.
Henry continued: “In a sense this is the best thing that could have happened to my father. He wants me to take over the business, and now that it seems I’ll be unable to return to school, his wish has more or less been granted, if my recovery stays on track.”
“Why can’t you return to school?”
“Words,” Henry said, trailing off as if he’d lost the thought. “They don’t come clearly on the page anymore.”
“So you can’t read.”
Camilla handed me my drink and sat on the couch beside Henry, sides pressed together with her hand on his knee, much like the position she and I had sat in while Henry had been in the hospital. I felt a bright flare of jealousy, though I wasn’t sure to whom it was directed — Camilla, for the ease with which she expressed physical intimacy with Henry, who seemed to ward off the very notion with this cold presence; or Henry, for possessing Camilla’s attention, affection, and loyalty, all of which were often scattered and shrouded in her elusive self-motivations.
“It’s coming back,” Camilla said.
“Slowly,” Henry added. “Though I’ll likely be unable to digest information to the breadth and depth I used to. Traffic signs, forms, maybe newspaper articles. But whether I’ll ever again have the ability to attend to an actual book remains to be seen.”
The silence that followed spoke for all three of us. Prison would have been a more desirable outcome. Probably even death. I could hardly imagine a version of Henry that existed without books. A Henry who, lacking literacy, adopts his father’s business, remains a small-town staple in a big house on a hill. And Camilla by his side, a housewife, perhaps, both of them knowing the potential their lives once held, taken from them in karmic punishment.
In the mornings, Henry went to “work,” his mother called it. Rehabilitation at a hospital in Mount Grove which lasted from eight in the morning to two in the afternoon. He came home irritable and tired, slept until dinner in the evening, prepared by the maid whose presence was evident but whom I hadn’t once seen, in part because she did not clean the apartment and I only went to the main house proper when invited. I had also not yet met Henry’s father, who was away on business. I got along well with Mrs. Winter, who possessed all of Henry’s intensity but none of his disinterest, which is to say I felt exposed around her but immediately accepted, even celebrated, which in turn led to my wanting her attention whenever I could get it, following her around in the guise of trying to be helpful but actually basking in her praise. When we were apart, I would play conversations in my head of the things I wanted to tell her about myself and my life, things which I had no desire to tell Henry or Camilla or Charles or Francis because they would find it all petty and uninteresting, but to which Mrs. Winter would gasp or laugh at all the right moments. She was the type to put a hand to her chest and say, “No,” or, “Oh my god,” in response to a good and unbelievable anecdote. She asked probing, difficult questions. She laughed loudly and easily. She did not immediately refer back to herself when I was done speaking, nor did she drop the names of several authors or noteworthy figures with which I should familiarize myself, as if — as Henry often viewed it — all conversation were only a means of requesting additional historical context about a given topic. Her entire wardrobe consisted of large men’s t-shirts with various corporate logos paired with capri stretch pants and flip-flops. She walked around the house carrying a Big Gulp-size jug of water in one hand and a fly swatter in the other.
I spent a significant amount of time with Camilla also, who read only when Henry was away or asleep, novels she checked out from the Mansfield public library. We sat on the patio in adirondack chairs under a wide umbrella. Occasionally we would read lines aloud to each other, or have hushed conversations about our books. I grew fond of Henry James, and Camilla became attached to Sebald. Literature felt so small and trivial compared to the kind of studying we did with Julian, yet, while I missed the sense of elitism and community the class offered, I didn’t miss the subject itself. I found myself enjoying discussions with Camilla in a way I hadn’t when we were always preoccupied with Greek. She held the strange belief that consciousness didn’t exist and so it couldn’t be written, only experience mattered, and I would metaphorically wave the entirety of modernism in front of her, and she would quote Wittgenstein, whom I’d never read: “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” But she said it in German, and by the time I had translated it, I had forgotten my own argument.
Time quickly departed from the numeric and became defined by the spaces between meals — after breakfast, around lunch, before dinner. I wondered if this was what life was like in the midwest, existence revolving entirely around, not just food, but the moments of coming-together that mealtimes offered. Mansfield held a kind of peace that felt monkish; being able to see so far into the distance, to be surrounded by the beauty of nature untouched by man. Nothing seemed to matter but the familial intimacy of a shared home.
At night the three of us watched television before bed. Though my room shared a wall with Henry and Camilla’s, I never heard them have sex. After the first few days I began to wonder if they did at all, or if perhaps they possessed a romantic intimacy without a physical component. Or, merely a platonic intimacy that looked and acted like a dedicated relationship. When I thought about it too deeply, it was hard for me to imagine Camilla truly loving Henry, as opposed to using him as an escape from Charles, though the longer I spent with them, the more I noticed their compatibility. They had an uncanny ability to make eye contact at the exact same time, hold each other’s gaze as if speaking between minds, a trait I imagine they forcibly squashed when their relationship had been a secret. Henry, I noticed, made a habit of asking for her consent about the smallest of things. Rather than taking her hand, for example, he would hold his palm out in invitation. When he changed the channel, he asked, “Is this all right?” and if she said no, he would change it back. He rarely touched her without her reaching out to him first. It occurred to me that, to someone like Camilla, whose body was more or less tethered to another person her entire life — and that person being aggressive, demanding, unhinged at times — finding someone who allowed her the agency of individual being was probably a profound relief.
On the morning of Independence Day, I awoke a little after four for a glass of water and found Henry smoking on the patio. I went out and took a seat beside him. His cane was leaning against his leg. He offered me a cigarette and I lit it and we sat in silence for several minutes.
“I miss Julian,” he said.
“I do too.”
Henry had begun making jarring emotional statements, what I had first assumed was a symptom of brain damage but actually may have been from all the therapy and rehabilitation, his understanding of emotional expression being grandiose declarations as if to rally his troops for war.
“I don’t think you understand,” he said. “I miss him. I think about him constantly. I speak to him in my head — what’s left of it. I hurt, Richard. I hurt, and I hurt, and it doesn’t go away. None of it was worth it. None of it was worth losing him.”
Killing two men in cold blood, and Henry’s only regret was losing his mentor. I said what I thought Mrs. Winter might say: “You didn’t know.”
I imagined Henry didn’t find as much comfort or validation in Mrs. Winter's platitudes as I did. He took a long drag from his cigarette and flicked the ash off with his thumb. “We had something of an illicit relationship, Julian and I.”
He said it so casually I nearly missed it. “Illicit?” I asked.
“Sexual. I initiated it, though given his lack of surprise toward my advances, I assume I wasn’t the first.”
“Does Camilla know?”
“I never told her but she picks up on nearly everything. She knows the signs and symptoms of secret relationships, having been in one herself. It’s partially, I think, why we get along so well.”
I wanted to know more about Henry and Julian but I was eager now that the topic was breached to discuss his relationship with Camilla. “Are you two...together? In an official capacity?”
He made a thoughtful noise. “We haven’t talked about that, either.”
“What do you talk about?”
“We don’t, really.”
They didn’t talk, they didn’t have sex, and they didn’t know if they were really together. Their companionship was one of dire circumstance and I was beginning to question whether that was enough to build a relationship with.
“I do love her,” Henry said. “Deeply. In a way I didn’t — couldn’t — love Julian.”
“I loved Julian for the man he was, regardless of his feelings for or treatment of me. I see now he didn’t love me in the same way. He only loved being loved, admired. He loved being seen the way I saw him. Anyone could give him what I gave him: a promising mind, a dedicated hand. I hesitate to use the term ‘schoolboy crush’ but that’s exactly what it was, though it didn’t seem so simple at the time.”
“And with Camilla?”
“We have a balance. I protect her from Charles, she offers me the same loyalty and dedication she had once offered him.” He blew plumes of smoke through his nostrils. “It’s a bonus, really, not having to explain the murders. I don’t imagine any of us will ever feel closeness again. Each of us will carry our secret like a ward against intimacy.”
His mention of the murders felt just as it did that day in his garden, when he had spoken of them so easily, with such a cavalier air. I had reacted then as I did now: a distinct discomfort, overbearing shame, coupled with a frightening thrill like sitting alone in the theater of a horror film.
“Do you think Charles will tell anyone?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Henry said. “But I’m not concerned.”
He twisted his cigarette out in the marble ashtray at his side. “I’ll shoot myself again.”
Mr. Winter came home that afternoon with several business associates, though I couldn’t figure out which of the three men standing in the kitchen were Henry’s father. I spent the day helping Mrs. Winter prepare for a Fourth of July party — long tables situated in a half-circle in the garage, red-checkered tablecloths blowing in the hot breeze, dish after dish of food that Mrs. Winter had “just thrown together” she said, though I couldn’t figure out when or how she would have had time for such a thing. The rehabilitation center was closed today so Henry helped out as well. I was surprised to see him come out of the bedroom that morning wearing a white t-shirt tucked into a pair of trousers, suspenders hanging loose at his hips. A folded crease bisected the shirt. It fit tightly at the chest and arms, which were normally covered in well-tailored long-sleeved shirts, so, while it was hard to miss his overall size, it was easy to miss his distinct build: barrel chest, thick arms.
“Henry,” I said as I looked him up and down. I had trouble swallowing; my throat had gone dry.
“It’s hot outside,” he said defensively.
Camilla, even, was wearing a shorter skirt than usual and a slim tanktop. We met her upstairs in the garage where she was arranging plastic cutlery. Henry swiped her hair — which had grown long — off her bare shoulder and kissed a spot below her ear. He whispered something to her I couldn’t hear. I watched as his hand slid down and rested lightly, possessively at the small of her back. I straightened a casserole dish that held small, bacon-wrapped hot dogs. The tablecloths were held in place by mason jars filled with sparkly rocks, an American flag planted in each one.
“We can go,” Henry told me. He handed me his keys.
We got into the car, which was waiting in the carport, and he directed me into town, not knowing I’d been coming here frequently with Camilla to go to the library and ice cream shop and dollar store, to pass the time while Henry was asleep or at the hospital. When we hit a long stretch of country road, Henry reached forward and began fiddling with the radio, stopping at a jazz station. Trumpet music — Miles Davis, I thought. I’d never known Henry to listen to music in the car.
As if reading my mind, he said, “I can’t bear silence anymore. I hear it all the time, the recoil of the gun, like it stretches out forever.” After a few more bars — Kind of Blue, I was certain now — Henry added, “You know, there is one good thing to come of all this.”
“I don’t get headaches anymore.”
Mrs. Winter had given us five hundred dollars with which to purchase fireworks for the evening’s entertainment. They were stacked in an enormous tent in the parking lot of an abandoned department store. Henry followed me around leaning on a rusty grocery cart, his cane hooked on his arm, while I picked out fireworks that had names like Green Dragon, Cosmic Surge, and American Allegience, misspelled and all. I put one called Whoa Baby! in the cart and Henry said, “Get two of those.” Soon our cart was full and the total came out to an ungodly amount, a couple hundred more than what Mrs. Winter had given us, but Henry pulled out his wallet and split the difference.
In the car, the fireworks made me nervous. I found myself talking more than usual to dispel my anxiety, and while my go-to conversation topic with Henry often involved Greek, given that he hadn’t mentioned it once since he awoke from his coma, it felt like it had become an unwelcome topic.
“Do you remember last winter?” I asked instead.
“I do,” Henry replied. The passenger window was down and his arm hung out the side. I noticed his skin tanned easily; his evenings spent outside on the porch had given him a sort of glow. Considering this was his home, I was led to believe Hampden’s murky winters had drained something from him, some integral lifeforce that I now understood.
“I was almost dead.”
“You saved me.”
“I never really thanked you for that.”
“You didn’t have to, you know.”
He didn’t respond. I glanced over to see him staring at me. “What is it you think of me, Richard?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think I’m the kind of man who would let my friends suffer?”
“Of course not. I just — I haven’t had many friends, let alone ones who would worry about me, or sit with me in the hospital as I got better, or invite me into their home so as not to freeze to death, or — I don’t know. Care about me at all.”
I could see him nod to himself in my peripheral vision. “It makes sense, then.”
“Every single thing about you has surprised me. You’re smarter than I expected, kinder than I expected, more loyal than anyone I’ve ever met. Even Camilla, I think, has her limits, would leave me sooner than you. Her loyalty lies with Charles, I know that for certain. Once he’s sober I’m sure she’ll return to him. You, though. I don’t think there’s anything I could say or do to shake you.”
I couldn’t tell if it was a compliment. I’d never considered myself loyal, though I suddenly understood Henry’s perspective: I had led a dear friend of mine to his death to protect Henry and the others. In every situation, I chose Henry. I continued to do so now, when I could have been in Brooklyn having a peaceful summer, yet here I was in rural Missouri, driving a car full of explosives and drowning in jealousy, for no real reason other than it felt like the right place to be. Beside Henry always felt like the right place to be.
“I see the way you see me,” he continued, looking out the window now. The wind blew his hair, which had grown curly at the ends in the humidity. Coupled with his outfit, he looked like a farm boy from the early twentieth century. An slight accent had crept into his voice, a drawl, adding an unnecessary R-sound so words like wash became warsh, and he blew out his Ws so wind became whind. “Your acute attention, your observations. I don’t think you know how good it feels to be seen by you. Drives men like me to amazing and sometimes terrifying feats.”
“Like plotting a murder and surviving a gunshot wound to the head?” I asked, somewhat flippantly, but Henry took it seriously.
“You can’t possibly think I’m the reason you survived.”
“I don’t think it. I know it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Of course it does.” Here he would normally provide some ancient reference, a parallel Grecian circumstance. I could feel it, the example on his tongue. But he only said, “Love is the greatest mystery of mankind. Its presence — your presence — is more curative for me than any medicine.”
We had been directed to park on the stretch of gravel at the bottom of the hill so the carport could be used for the party. I looped five bags of fireworks on each arm, and Henry took the four remaining in one of his, in the other hand his cane, and as he began to struggle up the hill, I said, “Why don’t I drive you back up, we can drop these off, and I’ll come back down.”
“It’s fine,” he said, though the pallor that had come over him said otherwise.
I still didn’t understand why he needed the cane. “Are you in pain?”
We continued up the hill. At the halfway point, where I could just hear the early-arriving partygoers, Henry said, “Nerve damage.”
“You keep giving me that look. That ‘why do you have a cane when your leg didn’t get injured’ look. It’s nerve damage. My entire left side is nearly immobile.”
“You can ask me things, Richard. You don’t have to keep everything in your head.”
I snorted a laugh.
“What?” he asked.
“Hypocritical of you.”
He pursed his lips as if to stifle a smile, even despite the sheen of sweat that had gathered on his brow. “I see your point. Maybe we should both make an effort to be more forthright.”
“You should start now, by telling me how much trouble you’re having.”
Now he did smile, and looked away as though embarrassed by it. “I do get frustrated that I’m unable to accomplish the smallest of tasks. And though I’m not in pain, I’d almost rather be. Pain would be easier to endure than — malfunction.”
“You’re not a machine, Henry.”
“Aren’t I, though? Isn’t that what we all are? Thinking machines.” I wanted to disagree but nothing was coming to mind, then he added, “It’s your turn.”
I was beginning too to struggle up the hill. The incline was steep, the gravel making it difficult to gain a proper footing. I suppose the physical distraction was why the first and strongest thought in my head found its way to my mouth: “I’m jealous of your relationship with Camilla.”
Henry appeared to consider it. Then he said, “I knew you were in love with her. I sensed it early on, but some childish part of me thought, ‘I found her first,’ which is I guess why I never bothered to clear the air.”
Before I could correct him, we reached the top of the hill where Camilla and Mrs. Winter were waiting to help us with the bags. About a dozen people had already arrived, people I assumed were the upper-middle class sort who had mansions in the thick of the Ozarks. They wore t-shirts with American flags on them and jeans, paired with gaudy costume jewelry, wide-brimmed sun hats, and polarized sunglasses that wrapped around their tan, wrinkled faces. They held paper plates in hand and daintily pierced pieces of broccoli with plastic forks.
Quickly Henry was shuffled into a throng of middle-aged men. I assumed the man with his hand on Henry’s shoulder was his father. He had the kind of face you forgot the instant you looked away: gray hair at the temples, false smile, a blue button-up tucked into his slacks and a Budweiser in hand. He wore small oval glasses that made his eyes look small.
I went to help Camilla refill the chip bowls, something to busy my hands with. She bumped shoulders with me and said, “Good country people, huh,” and I laughed — it was a reference to a Flannery O’Connor story we’d read a few days ago. “C’mon,” she said, “let’s get a plate of food before it’s all gone.”
Henry’s father and his friends took the bags of fireworks, and, laughing like young boys, climbed down the cliff’s edge to an outcropping. The sun had just set and Mrs. Winter had lit citronella candles around the yard, arranged folding chairs out toward the hills. She was drunk now, standing with a trio of women around her age, fireflies lighting up around their ankles. I was sitting beside Henry and Camilla on one of the folding chairs, waiting for the fireworks to start, my fifth beer in hand. I felt buzzed and full and dehydrated, and found myself glancing repeatedly at Henry’s arm slung around Camilla’s shoulders, Camilla leaning into his embrace. I wondered when, or if, I should clarify the statement I’d made earlier.
Down the side of the cliff, I could hear rather than see Mr. Winter and his buddies, their loud jarring laughter, harsh smoker’s voices indistinguishable from one another.
I was imagining what would happen if I asked Henry to put his arm around me too — jokingly, of course, but also very deeply earnestly — when the first firework seared through the sky and cracked into brightness, a series of white explosions that branched into orange embers and slipped slowly downward.
“Henry,” Camilla said.
I looked over and Henry was breathing rapidly, eyes wide toward the sky, face as pale as it had been when we were climbing the hill earlier.
“Henry, are you all right?” Camilla asked. When she received no response, she added, “Henry, say something.”
A second firework went off, this one with only two pops, and Henry looked like he was hyperventilating. I got up and pulled him to standing, and said to Camilla, “Get his cane. I’m taking him into the basement.”
Henry went willingly. I got my wish: he put his arm around me to steady himself as I led him through the labyrinth of food tables, flies buzzing above the remaining dishes, and down the basement steps. No one seemed to notice us, everyone too drunk and occupied by colors in the sky. I steered him into his bedroom, the room furthest from the commotion, and sat him on the edge of the mattress.
Outside, another crack; he squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. Camilla sat beside him and rubbed a consoling hand on his thigh. His arm was still around me and I was afraid to pull away. His body was overheated and his lower back damp with sweat, muscles tensed under my palm. I glanced across him to see Camilla giving me a knowing look, both of us now understanding what was transpiring, both completely unaware how to proceed.
“Camilla,” Henry said calmly, despite the tremor that ran through his body, “please go into the bathroom and bring me the pills in the green bottle and a glass of water.”
Camilla hurried away, and I said, “I’ll go —”
Henry pulled me closer to him, put his other arm on mine, his grip nearly painful. “Stay.”
“Okay,” I said.
Camilla returned with the pill bottle and water. Henry let go of me to take the glass from her. I watched the water shake within it. She opened the bottle and poured two small white pills into her palm, and placed them in Henry’s hand. He tossed them back and chased them down with the water.
Camilla sat once more beside him, and put her arm around him, and I did the same, and we held him until his body went loose and still, and his breathing returned to normal, and the fireworks finally ran out.
“I’d like to apologize for last night,” Henry said. He folded onto the adirondack beside me. I quickly dropped my book between my legs so he wouldn’t see. He caught the movement. “I know you and Camilla enjoy reading utter garbage behind my back. It’s fine. You don’t have to hide it.”
“It’s Faulkner. Faulkner’s not garbage.”
Henry snorted indignantly. “‘My mother is a fish.’”
“I think he’s genius.”
“A bored farmer at his typewriter in the middle of the night is hardly a genius. Every story worth telling was told before the seventeenth century. Modern literature is like a television show in syndication, a rehash of the same plots and conflicts that have already been perfected, touted like they’re new.”
“I thought you came to apologize.”
“I did, and you interrupted me with your poor taste.”
He looked better than he did last night, if a bit tired. Normally he went right to bed after “work” but here he was, mid-afternoon, cane propped between his knees and an unlit cigarette between his fingers, with no seeming intention to light it.
“I didn’t mean to — lose control like I did. I didn’t know that would happen. It was as if reality had split in two, and in one half I was with you and Camilla at the party, and the other half, at the Albermarle. I didn’t know what was real anymore. I thought I was dying again.”
“There’s nothing you have to apologize for,” I said. “I’m glad I could help.”
“You always help, whether you realize it or not.” He looked out past the cliff, where a train was winding through the hills, its whistle an echo over the breeze. “May I be forthright with you again?”
“Sometimes I think about you with Camilla and it doesn’t bother me.”
“What do you mean by ‘with Camilla’?”
“Generally speaking. I see you two together and how well you get along. I think you’d be happy together. I don’t want you to be jealous.”
This was my opportunity to expound on what I’d told him, but I couldn’t find the words. I was too busy parsing through what he was suggesting, and came up empty.
“If she were amenable, which I think she would be, I wouldn’t mind at all if you two were together,” Henry said.
“I wouldn’t want to disturb what you have with her.”
“You wouldn’t. Nothing would have to change, really. I would be with Camilla, and you would be with Camilla, or however you chose to see it, and maybe together we could keep her away from Charles.”
“I don’t think anything could keep her away from Charles except Charles.”
He made a thoughtful noise. “True. Let’s hope he continues to make poor life choices on the other side of the country.” He looked over and smiled at me, and I felt something between us shift, then, a nearly imperceptible crack through which the promise of something new shone. He took his cane and stood gracefully but with concerted effort. “Perhaps I never made it quite clear, Richard, but in all fairness I didn’t think I had to. I find both monogamy and heterosexuality quite boring.” Then he circled back inside and slid the door shut behind him.
That night, we dined with Mr. Winter for the first time. When he spoke, my eyes slipped away from him and I found my thoughts drifting elsewhere. By the end of dinner, I knew he had spoken at length about some gossip in town, but I couldn’t remember a word he had said. I did, however, find it surprising that he hadn’t seen his son since the injury and seemed to ignore it entirely. Even Henry’s cane, which normally hung at the corner of the dining table, rested on his thigh, out of sight. It occurred to me that the incident appeared not as a coerced suicide to keep us all out of prison, but a regular suicide, and that Mr. Winter had perhaps taken it as weakness, an embarrassment to the family, and I suddenly felt deeply sad for Henry, who had not only lost a mentor, a dear friend, and his future in academia, but he would also never be able to tell his father the truth.
I excused myself from the table and helped clear away the empty dishes. Camilla helped me, and together we scraped off the plates and piled them in the sink. The maid had taken off for the holiday. Camilla filled the sink with water and washed the dishes, while I rinsed them and put them in the dishwasher. In the dining room, I could hear Mr. Winter continue lecturing in a dull monotone about gas prices.
“Henry said something interesting today,” I said.
“What’s that?” Camilla asked.
“He said —” I stopped, unsure if I should make something up, having been rejected by Camilla once already, but, I reasoned, that was before I knew about Charles and his possessiveness. “He said he wouldn’t mind if we were to — be together.”
“Oh, I know.”
“We’ve discussed it.”
She handed me a ceramic mug. “It’s fine with me.”
“I think I need a bit more enthusiasm than that to proceed.”
“What can I say, Richard? You know how I feel about you.”
“I absolutely don’t.”
She shut off the faucet and looked at me directly, her wet hands dripping over the edge of the sink. “I like you a lot. I always have.”
“What kind of like?”
“You know what kind of like.”
“Then why did you choose Henry?”
“Say you have an alcoholic brother who is violently in love with you. Your options for protection are a waify gay boy in a cravat, a pretty Californian with such low emotional affect no one ever knows what he’s thinking or feeling, or a six-foot-five sociopath who has never had the attention of a girl in his life.”
“You think I’m pretty?”
“That’s not the point I’m trying to make.”
“It sounds like you’re using Henry. You don’t love him.”
“I do love him, but yes, our relationship is mutually beneficial.”
“Will you ever love anyone as much as you love Charles?”
“No," she said simply and without hesitation.
“So you’re just waiting for him to get better. For things to go back to the way they used to be with him. And then you’re going to go back to him.”
She picked up another plate and scrubbed it aggressively. “We don’t know that. Please understand, it’s been difficult for me to be away from Charles, and we’ve always had an unhealthy relationship, and I’m working hard to understand it so that when he comes for me — and I’m certain he will — I’ll be able to handle the situation.”
At the time I remember feeling nothing but sympathy and concern for her, though in retrospect I realize nearly everything she said and did was a manipulative ploy to serve her own interests, her highest interest being herself, and second highest being Charles.
We continued washing dishes in silence until Henry limped into the kitchen looking frustrated, which I could tell by the slight purse of his lips. “Nightcap?” he asked, and we finished up and followed him into the basement, where he uncapped a bottle of rye and poured it into three glasses. He cheersed us and shot his glass back in one swallow, then poured himself another.
Somehow, despite living in close quarters, it was rare the three of us spent time together. After our first couple drinks we relocated to the couches, me on one and Henry on the other, and Camilla, surprisingly, chose to sit beside me. Her face had grown a little pink, either from the summer heat that had seeped into the room or the wine we’d had with dinner coupled with the liquor. She had begun talking animatedly about Charles when he was a child, and all the stupid things he used to do.
“He never knew the difference between his right and left shoe. He wore them on opposite feet until he was twelve.”
Henry snorted a derisive laugh into his glass and it surprised me. Spurred by his reaction, Camilla continued with a story about a time when Charles jumped off the top of the staircase in a game of increasing dares which he accomplished solely to impress her. He broke his ankle, she said, but was still quite proud of his feat. Though I didn’t think it was terribly funny, Henry was outright laughing now, so hard tears came to his eyes and he had to lift his glasses and wipe them away. I wondered if this was a result of the brain damage or just what he was like at home — easy-going, relaxed. Perhaps Hampden had instilled in him a severity he didn’t carry elsewhere. He continued drinking and listening to Camilla’s stories, and even when he wasn’t smiling or laughing, he still looked pleased. Happy, even. Occasionally he would dart a glance at me. It was a look of curiosity and courtesy, as if to ask if I was having a good time, if I felt at home and welcome here, in his home. And I did, I really did, and I didn’t know how I could ever relay such a feeling to him other than by always staying with him.
Camilla had, in her storytelling, inched closer to me, nearly curled up at my side. When I noticed, I spared a look to Henry and then put my arm across the back of the sofa in invitation, which she quickly took by pressing against me. Her glass was empty and discarded on the table, and she rested a hand on my stomach, and perhaps I was a bit drunk too because it all felt perfectly normal, even Henry’s reaction to it, which was no reaction at all, but I thought I sensed a spark of encouragement in him, a manic glee reminiscent of the Bacchanal days. For him — and me too, I suppose — this dynamic was something new, something different to be explored.
At this point I wasn’t really listening anymore, thinking as I was about how to get this started, if I should have another drink, if we should discuss it first or dive right in, if I should invite Camilla to my bedroom so Henry wouldn’t have to bear witness, or if perhaps Henry was a voyeur, and that thought was so heady a bolt of desire ran through me and I had to subtly adjust myself. Then Camilla said, “Richard,” and I turned my head toward her and she pressed her mouth against mine. It was a small, emotionless kiss, a dry peck of lips I wasn’t prepared for. I realized then the only other time I’d been kissed — as opposed to doing the kissing, always wondering if it was really wanted, or just being tolerated for the sake of politeness — was with Francis. The kiss reminded me of Francis, too, in that I felt nothing, really, except a kind of baseline desire that comes with certain kinds of affection. She pulled away and looked to Henry, as if she had asked some question she was expecting him to answer.
“Go on,” Henry said blandly.
So she kissed me again, this time harder, literally harder as if in smashing her face against mine we would arrive at the desired outcome of whatever this was, and it was then I realized Camilla wasn’t attracted to me sexually, nor probably Henry, and perhaps she had only ever been attracted to Charles, which was both glaringly narcissistic and also, somehow, hot.
I took her face in my hands and directed the kiss in a more reasonable fashion, parting her lips with my tongue and softening her hold on me, hoping she would relax a bit and perhaps close her eyes and think of her brother. In turn I found myself only thinking of Henry. I tucked Camilla’s hair behind her ear so he could get a better view, bit and sucked her bottom lip, tried as best as I could to put on a good show. I wondered if Henry ever looked at pornography, ever masturbated. It was difficult to think of him as a sexual being and simultaneously that was all he was. He pretended to be so cerebral, yet everything he said and did had a kind of Freudian drive toward the profane: his apprenticeship with Julian, the Bacchanal, even Bunny’s murder had a sexual bent to it, though not in the strictest of terms. Henry was a man pulled by such a strong and inexplicable libidinous force that he hid it behind research and justified it with logic.
“Camilla,” Henry said.
She broke away and turned her attention to him. I had turned her lips an obscene red, and followed the movement of her head by ducking under her chin and kissing her neck. I felt her pulse against my mouth. It beat slowly, as steady as the sea at low tide.
“Would you like to blow him?” Henry asked, casually like asking if she’d like another drink.
“I would,” Camilla said.
I swallowed heavily, and though Henry’s voice was perfectly normal, mine had become thick and ragged. “Yes.”
Camilla slid to the floor between my legs easily, since she had mostly been on my lap anyway, and unbuckled my belt, unbuttoned my fly. I wanted to help her but she seemed to be doing fine on her own, her movements confident and purposeful. She pulled my cock out and put her mouth on it at once, but Henry said, “Not yet. Your hand, first.”
She rolled her eyes, her position making it so only I could see, a conspiratorial glance as if we’d both been chastised by our father and were obligated to comply. She jerked my hand in her fist quickly and tightly, so that it nearly hurt, an act which seemed intentional, because Henry said, as if scolding her, “Slowly, Camilla.”
She slowed down, pursing her lips to hide a smile. I couldn’t tell how much of this was an act of some sort, pretending to be bad at sex in order to receive commands from Henry, or if perhaps in her lack of attraction and apparent tipsiness she just didn’t care. She wasn’t trying at all to be sexy, but playful and petulant, and it was working for me, either because it was Camilla or the setup of the situation overall.
“Now your mouth,” Henry said.
Camilla leaned forward and took me between her lips, careful with her teeth, sucking lightly on the head. I threaded my fingers through her hair, unsure if such an act was allowed, but Henry said nothing of it.
Instead he said, “Take it as far as you can go.”
She took me deeper into her mouth until I could feel the back of her throat, and stayed there, still, waiting for the next instruction. She swallowed and her throat squeezed around me, and it was then I let out a low moan. Henry seemed to enjoy it, though I was afraid to look at him, afraid of what I might find, like climbing a tall structure and refusing to look down.
“Good girl,” Henry said, and then I heard it — desire threaded in his voice, which had dipped lower. He sounded greedy and demanding, and it was then I risked a look at him. His hands were on his cane which stood between his legs, one over top of the other, looking on with what appeared to be simple curious interest, but what also to me seemed like lust, his lips slightly parted, a red tinge on his cheeks. Camilla bobbed her head up and down and my eyes met Henry’s and I let out a pitiful sounding exhale.
“Henry,” I said, strained, unsure what kind of permission I was asking for, but I was asking for something, my hips twitching, breath heavy.
“Close already?” Henry asked, his disappointment feigned, an undercurrent of delight.
“And you’d like to come?”
No one had spoken a single rule to this game yet I was determined to win it. Camilla was sucking me off with a fervor and noises were escaping my throat I could no longer control. Henry leaned back, legs spread. When and how had this game begun? Why were Camilla and I so eager to follow Henry’s command? What was the consequence of disobedience? We had been following his orders from the very beginning of all this a year ago, and it was then I realized he had understood the entire time the role he really played.
“Henry,” I said more urgently. Below, Camilla was doing me no favors. I had never held myself on the brink this long, had never needed to. My toes curled in the carpet, my fist in Camilla’s hair. Every muscle in my body had tensed, nearly painfully so.
Henry laughed then, a single sadistic bark from his throat that sent a surge through me and almost toppled me over — that he was deriving his own pleasure from this was too much to bear. That he enjoyed watching me suffer offered me a sense of unspeakable satisfaction.
“Richard,” Henry said. “Look at me.”
I did. He held my gaze but I felt I could barely see him, overcome as I was with the need to let go. I could no longer form words, only plead with my eyes. He had trapped me here, under his gaze like a bug in a mason jar.
Finally, finally he said, “Go ahead.”
I took a single breath as if preparing to dive into a pool. Camilla had hiked her skirt up and was touching herself over her underwear. The air conditioning kicked on and a light breeze fell from the vents above. Outside, the train whistled as it ran through the hills. I came in Camilla’s mouth, so aggressively I felt as if I had left my own body, looked down on the three of us from above: Henry subtly readjusting himself, a small movement of his hand on his crotch; Camilla swallowing around me, lifting off me while another dollop of come swelled at the head of my cock which she then smeared down the base; me making desperate sounds I’d never heard from myself, hips rising fractionally from the sofa, attempting vainly to catch my breath.
“Come here, sweetheart,” Henry said softly. In my haze I thought he was speaking to me, but Camilla smoothed her skirt down and stood up gracefully, her knees speckled with reddened indents of carpet, and she went over to Henry who had set his cane to the side and opened his arms. She climbed onto his lap and he took her face in his hand and kissed her. My jealousy returned with a force that felt like a physical punch until I realized Henry could taste me on Camilla’s tongue. I tucked myself back into my pants and buttoned my fly, but stayed seated waiting for another command.
Henry gripped Camilla’s hips. She ground down onto his clothed groin, gasped once. Her fingers were tangled in his hair. Henry reached between them and thumbed open his fly. With Camilla’s skirt blocking my view, I could only see rough movements, make assumptions, wonder if I had died maybe, and living in Missouri were some kind of purgatory for people who aided in homicide but didn’t commit it.
Henry whispered something to Camilla and she nodded. Some adjusting between them, a moment of fumbling. Then she lowered herself onto him with a slow exhale, rested her head on his shoulder while she rocked on top of him. Over her, Henry was staring at me again, passive expression, glasses glinting in the light, his reddening face the only indication of his pleasure. He lifted the back of Camilla’s skirt, bunched it past her hips. Her underwear, bleach-white, had been pushed to the side, and Henry was inside her, so wide I couldn’t help but wonder if it had hurt at first, surprised it could fit inside her at all, and as she lifted up I watched the drag of her lips on his cock and the wet smear they left behind. She lowered herself back down. They were silent together; no wonder I had never heard them.
I was glad for having come already because otherwise I would have been crawling out of my skin; as it was, I still wanted to switch couches, kiss Camilla while she fucked Henry, put my hands or mouth anywhere it might have been welcome. But without an order, I stayed seated, watching as Henry’s hips met Camilla’s movements, his hands guiding her onto him faster and faster, until there came a rhythmic series of wet slapping sounds between them.
“Henry,” Camilla whispered, so low and girlish I barely recognized her voice.
“Any time,” he replied, and kissed her temple paternally, moved down her cheek and caught her lips once more.
She gasped as she came, her body stilled as Henry thrusted up into her in shallow, rapid movements. He followed shortly after, completely silent, the throb of his cock the only sign he had come. Camilla lifted up slightly and a large stream of his seed flowed downward onto his pants. More continued dripping out of her as she let go of him entirely and shifted her panties back where they belonged. Henry let go of her skirt and my view was once more encumbered.
She reached to the side table and handed him a tissue. Her movement seemed to break the spell that had been binding me to the moment. Suddenly everything felt too real.
Camilla came over and kissed me on the cheek. “Goodnight, Richard. This was fun. We should do it again.”
“Okay,” I said, still for some reason waiting for Henry to tell me what to do, but he said nothing, stood leaning on his cane looking stoic despite his messy hair and reddened cheeks and lips. Then they went to bed.
In retrospect, the days that followed were some of the best in my life, but at the time it felt like a strange, new form of emotional torture. I had intended to confront Henry about what happened immediately, but he had some kind of flare-up that made him unbearably tired during the day, so he slept until nightfall and stayed awake most of the night on the porch, smoking and watching the train pass.
Camilla had a nearly opposite schedule, so I spent my days with her, reading and running errands Mrs. Winter had given us. Now that the metaphorical door had opened, Camilla was eager to come and go as she pleased, which happened to be quite often. She kissed me on the mouth hello and held my hand at the grocery and crawled into bed with me in the morning for a sleepy morning fuck, and in my tired haze I would smell Henry on her and think of him and get harder than I thought possible. Meanwhile Henry, the few hours a day I saw him, was unreadable. He didn’t mention what had transpired between us and so I was hesitant to do the same, wondering what, if anything, he was waiting for, or if he was just enjoying the wait itself. If maybe his silence was a slow tease of anticipation. I wondered if he had done the same to Camilla in the beginning, if he had kept her guessing and pining and confused.
Camilla and I were at Bills, wasting time while waiting for Henry to get done with his physical therapy, when I asked her: “When did you and Henry first get together?”
She was playing with one of those cups with a ball on a string, flicking it to get the ball inside. “The Bacchanal was the first time, but I don’t think that counts since everyone was involved.”
She put the toy down and continued down the aisle. I followed. “What about after that?”
“It took a while. I kept expecting him to chase after me, but he was having his thing with Julian so I think he felt beholden to him for some reason, so we didn’t really do anything about it until Julian left.”
“So who initiated?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She picked up a Hot Wheels car and trailed it over a shelf. “It was after Charles lost his marbles, and I had called Henry to come over because I didn’t know what else to do, and he saw the state of the apartment and of me and I’d never seen him like that.”
“Angry. Charles is jealous and possessive, but Henry is protective, and I’d never felt that before, and it was nice. And that was when I realized he was kind of in love with me, in a different way than he was in love with Julian, and it had confused him so he did nothing about it. I kissed him so he would stop thinking so much, and it kind of went from there. I enjoyed being with him. He was kind to me, and asked me what I wanted and how I wanted it, and when I told him I didn’t want to make any decisions, he was happy to take over, on the condition I’d let him know right away if I wasn’t having a good time.” She had led me all the way to the back of the store where she looked at the price of laundry detergent. “That’s why he’s — you know, how he was with us the other day. I asked him to be like that. I think he enjoys it too. Did you enjoy it?”
“Of course I did.”
“Good. I’m sure he’d like to do it again. I know I would. We’ve been waiting to see how you’d react.”
A woman passed us carrying an empty red basket, seeming to have no awareness of the context of our conversation, but it made me nervous regardless.
“How am I supposed to react?” I asked.
“I don’t know. You have to actually tell us what you want, Richard.”
“What if I don’t know what I want?”
“Well, do you know what you don’t want?”
I didn’t want to be excluded from their relationship. I didn’t want to go back to Hampden. I didn’t want Charles to return. I didn’t want Francis to know about my attraction to Henry and call me a hypocrite. I didn’t want time to move forward at all, just hover here for eternity in this place of food and beauty and simplicity.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m very aware of what I don’t want.”
That night in the short interval after dinner, while Henry was awake and right before Camilla went to sleep, it happened again, this time in their bedroom, a bit drunker than last time and therefore more clothes were taken off. Camilla and I were completely naked and Henry was shirtless, a stunning sight — I didn’t know if it was all the physical therapy or if his physique was always so sculpted. It was an image I’ll never forget, Henry propped against the headboard, slacks open, stroking himself lightly over his boxers. My face was buried between Camilla’s legs, as Henry had ordered me to do, and he directed me through it — how many fingers, how quickly or slowly, what to do with my tongue. He knew exactly how to get Camilla off and so his instructions veered to the opposite of that, only the things that teased her until she was begging him, not me, to let her come. Occasionally he would ask if I was doing all right, if I needed a break, and I would give him a thumbs-up. When he finally allowed her to come, my jaw in agony, she nearly screamed, and he clapped a hand over her mouth while she arched off the bed, her wetness flowing onto my wrist, the bed. I’d have to wash the sheets tomorrow, I thought.
Henry told me to fuck her, then, which was a task because I knew he wanted me to go for a long time and I knew I couldn’t, especially when he had Camilla get on her hands and knees over him while I fucked her from behind and he kissed her gently, and she leaned down and took his cock in her mouth, and when my eyes met his again, I had to slow down and grasp the base of myself to keep from coming. It was all too much, Henry getting blown by Camilla while I fucked her. I ran my hand up her back, cradled her neck, and Henry put his hand over mine, picked it up and brought it to his mouth. He sucked my fingers between his lips.
I started moving again, orgasm building rapidly in me, pounding into Camilla while Henry watched and sucked at my fingers, his mouth big, teeth sharp. I came with a cry I couldn’t hold back, and Henry, to my surprise and maybe his too, inhaled sharply, nearly a gasp. My fingers fell from his mouth. He gripped Camilla’s hair and stilled her movements, came, I thought, down her throat. I couldn’t believe I had witnessed such a thing, Henry losing control like that, as brief as it was, because of me, or so I hoped. It was a feeling I would never forget.
I knew it couldn’t last. I knew Camilla wasn’t as dedicated to Henry as I was. I knew Charles couldn’t stay in the Betty Ford Clinic forever.
He called on a Tuesday afternoon while Henry was asleep. Mrs. Winter came outside where Camilla and I sat reading and said, “The phone is for you.” I felt a sinking feeling but by the time I thought to say anything, Camilla had gone inside and picked up the phone. I couldn’t hear their conversation, couldn’t even see her face, only the fall of her shoulders, the lowering of her head, huddling closer to the receiver like a child making a secret call. Their conversation only lasted a few minutes, and after Camilla hung up, she kept her hand on the phone for a long moment. Then she came back outside and sat next to me.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“My grandmother.” I knew she was lying; she looked too shaken, but in her special Camilla way, which was to look even more relaxed and apathetic than usual.
“Is she all right?”
I wanted to believe her. I thought maybe if I let the conversation drop, things would go back to normal. Instead I asked, “It was him, wasn’t it?”
A pause. Then she nodded.
“And he wants you to come home.”
She nodded again.
I didn’t want to be the one to tell Henry. I didn’t even want to be around when he found out.
“It’s not as bad as it seems,” she said. “He sounds better. Like he used to. He said if I didn’t come home that he’d find me, and I don’t want him around Henry, and I also don’t want to give him any cause to go to the police. If I do what he says, everyone will be safe.”
“Did he threaten you?”
“He didn’t need to.”
“But what if he hurts you?”
She stared into the distance placidly, her expression completely blank. “He’s already hurt me.”
I drove Camilla to the Springfield airport the next morning. Henry sat in the back. Hot summer wind whipped through the car. We listened to the jazz station in silence. We arrived and I pulled up in front of the departures, then went around to the back of the car to get Camilla’s suitcases. When I came back around, Henry was kissing her urgently, both arms wrapped around her. His cane was on the ground. She gripped his hair tightly. I knew that Henry didn’t believe he’d ever see her again. Charles had them in a bind: if Camilla ran away from him, he’d go to the police. And if he went to the police, Henry would kill himself.
Henry let go of her and held her face between his hands. I expected him to whisper something to her like he usually did, but instead he spoke clearly, in Greek: “Δεν σου ανήκει. Η καρδιά σου ανήκει σε μένα.”
He does not own you. Your heart belongs to me.
She nodded and pulled away from him, her eyes glassy and afraid. When she looked down a tear had gotten caught in her eyelashes.
I handed her the suitcase.
“Goodbye, Richard,” she said, and tilted up on her toes to kiss my cheek. Without looking back at either of us, she entered the airport, and we were left staring after her, not knowing if this was the beginning of the true end of our story.
The drive home was just as silent, and when we arrived home, Henry went immediately to his room and shut the door. He did not come out until well after nightfall. I was on the couch watching television, and he went upstairs to — based on the ding I heard from the microwave — reheat some leftovers. I muted the television so I could hear his jagged footsteps above me, silence as he ate, and when I heard him come back down I unmuted the television. I wondered if Camilla had made it back to Charles yet. I wondered what he was doing to her. I held slim hope that she was safe around her grandmother, and that perhaps Charles had turned a new leaf. I wondered also if Charles had called Francis yet, if maybe Francis was with them fielding damage control.
Henry sat next to me, so close that his knee brushed mine. He watched the television for a few seconds and then said, “I don’t want to be alone.”
“You’re not alone. I’m here.”
He took my hand and held it between both of his. They were big and hard and warm.
“I know,” he said.
That morning as the sun was rising, Henry came into my room and crawled under the covers with me. When I awoke, startled, he said, “Is this all right?”
I nodded. He draped his arm over my stomach, curled around my back. He was naked except for a pair of boxer shorts. I felt his heart beat against me, strong and fast, like he was nervous. It was hard to imagine him nervous or scared of anything, but I remembered how the FBI agents had reacted to him, treated him like some strange pretentious kid. The way he looked at the Corcorans’ with all the people and the screaming children, drowning in his own guilt and fear. He was just a human, not a god, but part of me refused to believe it.
His feet were cold. He tucked one between my ankles, rubbed his chin across my shoulder, his mouth against the nape of my neck. He ran his thumb over my stomach, near the bullet-shaped scar.
He was asleep when I awoke for the day just a few hours later. I managed to escape his grasp without waking him. I watched him for a long time — messy hair, no glasses, lips slightly parted as he breathed deeply. His brow was furrowed slightly as if, even in sleep, he was thinking through some intricate puzzle.
Though I missed Camilla deeply and the house felt empty without her, I nevertheless carried a sense of anticipation around with me that day, wondering what would happen at night when Henry was awake and it was just the two of us.
I was antsy all day, and Mrs. Winters had gone into town for something, and Henry was still asleep so I was completely alone. I decided to wander the upstairs by myself, a place I didn’t often feel welcome unless Mrs. Winter was dragging me in tow. I walked up and down the long hallway looking at all the framed photographs that hung on the walls. Some of them included people I didn’t know, but Henry was easily recognizable, even as a child. He had glasses and a severe expression. He never smiled, even in the school pictures. In one of them, he looked to be seven or eight, and he was standing on a chair peering down at a large old tome, studying it with interest, an expression I hadn’t seen on him since we left Hampden. There were pictures of Henry with oil rigs, on tractors, holding a baseball bat. In all of them, he was alone. I wondered if the five of us had been his very first friends. If small town life had alienated him from anyone with whom he could find common ground.
I opened all the doors in the hallway and peeked in. The master bedroom was gaudy with a lot of unnecessary chrome and mauve. The bathroom spacious and recently renovated. Then I opened what I immediately knew was Henry’s childhood bedroom. Like his apartment, it was sparse and neat. All the boxes I’d brought with me were stacked in a corner. I went inside. The bed had a flannel bedspread, the desk across had a typewriter in which a blank sheet of paper lay. I sat in the chair and opened the drawer. Inside were three fountain pens with empty cartridges and several loose pieces of paper. I combed through looking for something interesting but found nothing. I relished in these small signs of life from him — white rings of condensation etched into the wood, marks of ink, the figures that were worn off on the typewriter: E, I, S, return. I opened a different drawer and found a leather-bound volume of Milton. I opened it and in the front cover was a note written in slanted cursive:
For Henry —
Remember: Even Homer was just a man. As fun as the past can be, do try to stay in the present. Enjoy your time at Hampden. Dr. Morrow will be lucky to have you.
I put the book back and went and laid in his bed and stared up at the ceiling. From the window I could see the woods, the hills, the clouds drifting above. When was the last time Henry had been in here? I imagined him waking up, catching me in the act, this small trespass. Punishing me, maybe. Right here, on his old bed. I closed my eyes and thought of him on top of me, kissing me the way I’d seen him kiss Camilla, the way that belied his cold exterior. I was so eager to feel more of the warmth underneath, the kind I had felt as he held me just a few hours before.
I heard the garage open and quickly darted out of Henry’s room and back into the apartment. There I decided to call Francis. His mother picked up and told me he was staying at the Macaulays’, so I called Charles and Camilla. Charles picked up.
“Macaulay residence,” he said. His words were sharp, not slurred.
I hesitated to answer.
“It’s Richard,” I said.
“How have you been?”
“Fine,” he said, more cordially than I expected. “Just got out of rehab. I’ve been sober for a hundred days.”
It was hard to believe this was the man threatening the people I loved, then again a sober Charles had always been a peacekeeper, the most charismatic of all of us. I’d once heard Francis say he could sell a record player to a deaf man. “That’s good. I’m happy for you.”
A short silence followed, and Charles said, “What about you? Where are you staying these days?”
Camilla had not told him I was with Henry. I thanked her in my head. “I went to visit some family.”
“Is that so? Where?”
I couldn’t say Missouri. “Ohio. I have an aunt here.”
It seemed to appease him. “Will you be coming back to Hampden in the fall?”
“I’m not sure yet. Probably. What about you?”
“I don’t think so. It’s not a good environment for me there. Francis and I were thinking about traveling somewhere. What was it you were calling about?”
“I was trying to get hold of Francis, actually.”
“Oh, he’s right here, hold on.”
I heard Charles call Francis’ name and then some rustling and Francis was on the line. “It’s been months, Richard.”
“I know. I should have called sooner. How are things there?”
“Oh, just fine.”
“Are you only saying that because Charles is in the room?”
“Mhm,” he said cheerily.
“He still hasn’t apologized for shooting me.”
“That’s lovely to hear.”
“Do you think he's really okay?”
“Is Camilla in any danger?”
“Has he mentioned anything about going to the police?”
He laughed as if I’d dropped a clever quip into a long story. He was terrible at this. It was like talking to a Magic Eight Ball. “I’d think not.”
I realized he probably wanted to ask about Henry but couldn’t, so I said, “Henry is fine. He’s doing better. Still kind of — off, but, you know, in a Henry way.”
“I do know, yes.”
“Okay, well,” I said, “I just wanted to make sure things were okay.”
“As good as they can be, I think.”
“I’ll try to call again soon.”
We said our goodbyes. I wished I could have confided in Francis about my relationship with Henry, asked some advice maybe, but the risk was too high of Charles overhearing, and I didn’t want to hurt Francis’ feelings. I was being honest when I said I wasn’t attracted to him, though it had nothing to do with his gender and everything to do with the fact Francis was roughly my size, and I’d only ever been interested in people smaller than me, like Camilla, or larger like Henry, though even a few months prior I wouldn’t have been able to articulate such a thing.
Henry awoke in time for dinner. We sat with Mr. and Mrs. Winter at the dining table. I’d been here for nearly two months and Mr. Winter still had yet to directly address me. It was as if he didn’t know I was there. Occasionally, when he dragged on for long enough, Mrs. Winter would catch my eye and wink at me, a gesture I took to mean, Men, huh? even though I was one. Every once in a while it hit me how strange it was that these two completely normal people had raised a man like Henry.
When we finished eating and Henry and Mr. Winter were trading monologues that seemed to have nothing to do with each other, I took our plates to the kitchen and began washing them. I was nearly done when I heard an uneven gait approach me from behind, then Henry was standing very close to me, his hand on the small of my back. I found it both thrilling and disconcerting — was I just a replacement for Camilla? If so, did I care?
Henry said, “Join me downstairs,” as if I had anywhere else to go, but it was the way he phrased it, an order, that sunk me immediately into a space of relaxed compliance. I dried my hands and followed him down. He fixed us both a drink and we sat down on the couch as we had the night prior. I took a sip of my drink and spun the glass between my palms. “I found something today,” I said.
“Your book of poems. Milton.”
“You went into my room.” He didn’t sound angry, just a statement of fact.
“I did. Who is D.V.?”
“Daisy Valentine. My high school English teacher.”
“She seemed to like you a lot.”
“More than I deserved." Henry settled back on the couch, he seemed comfortable if a little sad, a cigarette between two of his fingers that he wasn't paying much attention to. "I was very bored for a long time and had a tendency to act out. My parents and my other teachers had come to dismiss me, but Daisy understood it for what it was: a gifted child being deprived of his gifts. We had to read the Odyssey for class and she enjoyed my thoughts on it — in retrospect they were childish and ill-conceived. I don’t even want to think about them. At the time actually I didn’t enjoy the book at all. I thought it was boring. In fact I fell asleep in class and Daisy gave me a detention, which was a punishment far out of proportion to the crime, but later I came to recognize if she had simply offered to mentor me, I would have slighted her. So I went to detention and she made me repeat my thoughts on Homer, and then she started asking me questions, forced me to think through and support my own positions. Every other teacher stood in front of a room and lectured at me. I can’t learn that way. I have to be engaged. So she engaged me, and by the time detention was over, I asked if I could come back. She said I could if I read Paradise Lost and wrote down my thoughts on it. That was my sophomore year, and by the time I was a senior, she had introduced me to Julian and I was headed to Hampden to work with him.”
“Did you love her like you loved Julian?”
“If you’re asking if I had an affair with her, no. But I was very devoted to her. I admired her greatly. She moved to St. Louis a few years ago. We still write occasionally.”
Henry had put his hand on my knee and was rubbing his thumb back and forth across it.
“I have another question," I said.
“How many times have you been in love?”
He took a drag from his cigarette. “You know, the Greeks didn’t have our modern perception of romantic love. They had eros and ludus. They also had mania, which was obsessive love, and it was a reflection on the obsessor’s lack of self-worth, their need for belonging and being desired.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“That’s because you’re not asking what you want to ask.”
“What is it I want to ask?”
“You want to know how I feel about you, and how that compares to Camilla and Julian.”
He snubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray and tilted my chin toward him. “You really have to learn to say what you mean, Richard. It’s the only way you’ll get what you want.” He leaned in and pressed a light kiss to my lips. “I admired Julian.” He kissed me again. “I adore Camilla.” He kissed me a third time, longer, deeper, hand resting heavy on the back of my neck. He pulled away and said, “But I trust you, and that is something I’ve never felt before.”
Our lips met again. Henry controlled the kiss the way he controlled everything — never letting me do anything he didn’t exactly want me to do. I tried to let go and trail down his neck, but he brought me back up. He tasted like whiskey and cigarettes, not at all in a bad way, and his mouth was large. He kissed so differently than girls did, than even Francis did. Everyone I’d kissed had been needy about it, but Henry was thoughtful, deliberate. Kissing him felt like being slowly and lovingly devoured.
He took me into his bedroom where he told me to get undressed and watched as I did it. When I crawled into bed he turned off the light and undressed himself. He met me under the covers where we continued kissing until we each grew hard. I pressed my hips against his and felt his cock slide against mine. Then he took us both in hand and stroked slowly, kissed slowly, everything slow and it was as infuriating as it was arousing.
I thought about how much Camilla would have enjoyed being with us. I missed her, and I knew Henry did too. I hoped Charles was treating her well, and that Francis could stay with them until school started and Camilla and I would return to Hampden. Part of me wished that Henry would return with us but I knew he wouldn’t, knew he would be stuck in Mansfield for the foreseeable future. Maybe the rest of his life.
I pressed my forehead against Henry’s and squeezed my eyes shut. I was ready to come already. He slowed down a little. Above us, footsteps crossed up and down the hallway — Mr. and Mrs. Winter getting ready for bed. Outside, cicadas were rattling and bullfrogs sang. Tomorrow Henry would go to physical therapy and I would go to the library to pick out a new book and maybe call Camilla to see if she was okay. At night Henry and I would come together again like this, and I would not let myself think about our time running out, the semester beginning, the inevitability of leaving Henry’s side.
I began to tremble with need, sweaty and panting, holding onto him as if I were about to fall from some great height. He brushed a kiss to my lips and told me to let go. I did, and came, warm wetness slicking our bodies, a low groan from my throat. Henry followed after, silent, but I could feel the tension of his muscles, the shudder that ran through him, raging heat like a furnace under his skin. I felt sure, then, that he was a god sentenced to a life among men. And so he was destined to suffer, just as I was destined to worship him.