To Whom It May Concern:
The following testimony, along with the included documents, was found in the ruins of the now infamous Elsinore Mansion in the city of Chicago last Wednesday. As is well known, the mansion was destroyed by a fire this last September, the cause of which has never been discovered. The causes of the well-publicized deaths of the Denmark family and others have also never been found; though common sense would suggest that the family had died in the fire, autopsies later found that the burns had not been the cause of death.
Elsinore Mansion has fallen into a state of disrepair, and the area surrounding it has slipped into the destruction that pervades Chicago. The bricks are scattered on the street corners. Young boys with baseball caps and wide angry eyes plot for the future.
These are the parts of the country where it is always winter. These are the parts of the country where all of the people are witches. These are the parts of the country where the world is darker, where space curves like a road, where heartbeats run to the rhythm of stories and time moves like a faltering heartbeat itself. The moon has not been seen in months. The sky is streaked with grey.
Reader, make your own judgments.
If I were you, I suppose I would dedicate this to anyone who has ever missed someone. If I were you I would say, I understand; if I were you, I would tell the reader about sorrow, or loss, or grief—
I miss you.
I miss you because I still see your face at night. I miss you because the road is still long, and the clouds still stream out over the sky like forgotten dust trails. I miss you because you are, and always will be, locked in my memory, H, like fast cars and cloudy days, like cities, like summer.
You know I was never the sentimental type. You’d laugh at me for writing this to you, if you ever read it, or perhaps you’d sigh, and look at me as if you didn’t understand me, didn’t understand anything I was talking about, didn’t understand what I could be thinking—I miss you, H, like I miss air, worse, and it does not help that the only reason I can write this letter is still that I know you will never read it.
Oh, if I were you, H, I would dedicate this book to all of mankind. You always did believe you understood other people.
But you will never read any of this, of course, and so I must dedicate it to you.
Horatio does not believe in ghosts.
The air bites at his cheeks, the cold Chicago wind burrowing in between the layers of his jackets, and he hisses out a plume of steam into the air. Next to him, Bernardo is fingering his gun. Horatio wishes he would stop; he’s only been in Chicago a week, after all. He’s not used to how things work, here.
Their footsteps click along the sidewalk. It glitters in the streetlights, like stars have been scattered on the ground, and Horatio thinks of home, of Fifth Avenue, of Times Square strung out with city lights and rivers of taillights pouring down the avenues. Back at Columbia, his dormitory room is waiting for him, his things shoved under his bed hastily, his bookshelf half-empty. On the other side of the room, the bed is neatly made, the closet empty of clothes, the floor spotless.
The difference between them, of course, is that Horatio does not expect to be gone very long.
“Who’s there,” hisses a voice through the darkness, and Bernardo startles next to him. Horatio twitches. He doesn’t believe in startling when your hand is on a gun.
“A friend,” he says, when Bernardo doesn’t reply.
“Horatio?” asks the voice, and now Horatio recognizes it; it’s Marcellus, a man who’d come to see the two of them in New York once. He’d bought the two of them expensive coffees, asked unsubtly about their personal lives—if they’d been drinking, how much money they’d been spending, if Hamlet was interested in any girls. They’d invited him to go to the theater with them, but he’d smiled and declined. Horatio had understood; duty only goes so far.
“Marcellus,” he says. “Yes, I am. Bernardo is with me.”
Marcellus appears out of the darkness, dressed in a smooth black suit and with a long scar down his cheek; the scar suits him better than the suit. “You’ve come to see the damned thing, then,” he says.
“He’ll tell you he’s come to see nothing at all,” says Bernardo, jerking a thumb at Horatio. “Says it’s something we’ve made up to frighten him.”
Marcellus raises his eyebrows at Horatio, and Horatio mirrors him. “It is the twentieth century, gentlemen,” he says. “I trust more in Newton and Darwin than two men out on a cold night. No offense meant.”
Marcellus purses his lips. “Watch for yourself, then,” he says. “If you don’t see what we’ve seen, I’ll buy you dinner.”
“I don’t understand why we are out here on a cold night,” Bernardo grumbles, and he and Marcellus fall into step on each side of Horatio. They seem to do it naturally, without thought, but Horatio sees their hands on their guns, the set of their shoulders, and understands, and does not fault them for it. “Since the death of that old-”
Marcellus hisses sharply and reaches across Horatio to smack Bernardo’s shoulder. Bernardo glares, but Marcellus jerks his head slightly up and to the left. Horatio looks and sees a hole in the wall of the mansion, and a gleam of glass through it.
They turn the corner, and Marcellus’s shoulders relax. “This is the camera’s blind spot,” he says, “fool. Go on.”
“Since the death of the mayor,” says Bernardo, a sharp, sarcastic drawl, “I’ve been on twice my usual watch. Graveyard shift three times a week, four weeks straight. ’S not normal.”
“He had more than a few enemies,” Horatio offers. “The family has more than a few enemies. With the gap at the top, I don’t doubt they’ll want to move in.”
“There’s no gap at the top,” says Bernardo. It falls flat in the air.
“Look,” says Marcellus, gestures towards the mansion. They all look; the windows that span the long walls are aglitter with lights, and as they watch, a door slams open. The silhouette of a woman staggers outside, leans against the building, laughing hysterically. A few moments later, another follows, and presses the first up against the side of the building, kisses her with enthusiasm.
“It was a close election,” says Bernardo.
Marcellus laughs hollowly. Horatio says, “No, it wasn’t.”
“We’re moving out of the blind spot,” says Marcellus.
Horatio coughs. “Whatever you say,” he says, “I still don’t think we’ll see this—apparition.”
“I’m sure over at Columbia they teach you all about this,” says Bernardo, sarcastic.
“Actually—” Horatio’s beginning, when Marcellus makes a quiet sound and stops dead.
“It’s here,” he says.
Horatio turns toward the place he points.
The ghost seems, at first, little more than an optical illusion. It’s formed from the edges of bricks, from the sparkling stones in the sidewalk, from the wind as it ruffles the sharp edges of the green lawn. It’s only an illusion that there’s the outline of a man, tall and well-muscled, leaning against the side of the skyscraper on the other side of the street.
Then Horatio blinks, and he’s there: a white man with a handsome face lined with age, his hair dark and perfect, dressed in a suit more expensive than any Horatio’s ever seen. His hat is tipped low over his face, and Horatio can’t see his eyes. But his body is unearthly, inhuman; it seems to waver with the wind, like an image on the television about to dissolve into static, and though he does not know why, Horatio feels his skin prickle, his hairs stand on end.
“You see it, Horatio?” says Bernardo, beside him, and Horatio nods without taking his gaze off of the ghost.
“It looks like him,” hisses Marcellus, at his back. “The dead mayor, you can’t deny it.”
There’s a long pause. The other two are staring at him. Marcellus gestures at him frantically. “Say something.”
Horatio takes a step forward, and the ghost raises its head. Now Horatio can see its face plainly: it’s a face he’s seen a thousand times on television, grainy and in black and white; it’s a face he’s seen in a photograph, propped up on the bedside table across from his.
“You,” he says, “you look like a man who has been dead for a month. What are you? What are you doing in Chicago?”
The ghost says nothing.
“If you’re a—a goblin,” says Horatio, “or some other demon, tell me.”
The ghost stares at him. Its face is blank.
“If you know anything of that dead man whose face you’re wearing, then tell me,” says Horatio, desperate.
The ghost makes no reply, but turns, begins to walk away.
Horatio steps forward again. “If you have any message for your son,” he says, desperate, “tell me!”
The ghost pauses for a moment, and its lips twitch. Then it tucks its hands into the pockets of its suit and walks forward, turns some corner that Horatio cannot quite see, disappears.
Horatio feels the breath rush out of him. The lawn in front of the mansion is rustling in the morning breeze. Somewhere in the distance, a bird has begun to sing.
“We’ll tell the mayor,” says Bernardo.
“We won’t tell the mayor,” says Horatio absently, before he quite realizes it.
Marcellus coughs deliberately, jerks a head; they amble naturally back into the camera’s blind spot. Marcellus narrows his eyes. “Explain,” he says.
Horatio rubs at the back of his head, tilts his head up. The sky is beginning to lighten. “Leave this to me,” he says.
“This concerns more people than you,” says Marcellus.
“Yes,” says Horatio, and for the first time in a very long time, he smiles. “I’ll tell someone who it does concern, then, all right?”
“Who?” asks Marcellus, but his eyebrows are rising, and Horatio thinks he knows.
“Come with me, then,” says Horatio, “if you think I can’t be trusted.”
The room is scattered with tables, covered with tablecloths of black silk. Everyone in it is wearing a suit. Horatio, who’s hovering at the back with Marcellus, hasn’t ever seen a display of formality this obvious before, or a display of luxury so ostentatious. White-dressed waiters drift through the room, bearing trays of sparkling drinks; one of them catches Horatio's eye, lifts his eyebrows, and nods. Horatio nods back. He doesn't think he's met the man before, but still.
At the front, a man stands up. He’s in his mid-forties; he bears a stunning resemblance to the ghost, except that his eyes are older, and colder.
On his left is an aging woman, her hair blonde and piled up on top of her head, her lipstick bright red, her hands bony and shaking. There’s a martini glass balanced between her fingers. She smiles at the man; she’s wearing cat’s-eye glasses, and the lights catch the lenses, hiding her eyes.
Horatio’s seen these two before; he saw the man for the first time a month ago, along with the rest of the United States, when the cameras first zoomed in on his face, but the face of the woman has been appearing on his television as long as he can remember.
The man- Claudius- taps the side of his glass with a fork, and the room quiets, except for the hum of the news cameras. “As you know,” he says, “it has been one month since the death of our dear brother, Hamlet.”
He bows his head for a moment. “With the hasty election already marring our mourning,” he says, “we sought not to destroy the rightful period of grief any more than it already had been destroyed; but so far our discretion has fought with our natures. And so, with enough grief and joy, we have taken this lovely woman, Gertrude, as our wife.”
There’s applause from around the room, and Horatio joins in, his eyes narrowing. Something disturbs him about how Claudius is speaking, but he can’t quite put his finger on it.
The wedding was a week ago; Horatio had seen it on television, and the photographs in the newspapers afterwards had been flourishes of color. The bride was—well, he won’t call it radiant, but she had been wearing white, and the groom black, and the news cameras had covered everything. He’d looked for a friendly face at the family’s table, but hadn’t seen anything but the back of a familiar dark head.
“Some may believe,” Claudius continues, his face serene, “that because of the recent death of our brother, the government of this city is in disarray. Some may believe that we do not constitute the head of the state; some may believe that the people of Chicago have not chosen aright.”
Horatio’s eyes flick involuntarily to Marcellus beside him. Marcellus’ hand is on his gun, and though his eyes are hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, Horatio thinks he sees his eyebrows furrow slightly.
“But, unlike our enemies,” says Claudius, “we believe in the democratic process. We believe in the ability of Chicago to recover from such a tragic accident as our brother’s death, and we believe that this city can continue,” and he’s continuing but Horatio can’t hear him any more over the ringing in his ears because that’s it, Horatio can put his finger on it, he understands what’s bothering him about the way Claudius is speaking, he knew it from the moment the man said democratic. Claudius hasn’t said “I” once in this speech. He’s using the royal we.
The speech has dissolved, and the party guests are mingling with each other. A few have slipped out the door, having heard what they had wanted to hear; Horatio guesses that they were undercover journalists. The news cameras have already shut down. He slips closer to the front of the room, where Claudius is turning away from Laertes, a friend of the family around Hamlet’s age who Horatio knows attends Harvard, and arrives in time just to hear-
“And now!” says Claudius, brightly. “Our friend and our son, Hamlet!”
Hamlet looks up.
Horatio is behind him, so he only sees the back of Hamlet’s head, but for a long moment he can’t breathe nevertheless. He hasn’t seen Hamlet outside of a television screen in months.
Claudius takes Hamlet’s shoulder, shakes it sturdily. “You didn’t need to wear black, Hamlet,” he says, “it’s after Labor Day.”
“I find myself too much in the sun,” says Hamlet, his voice dry. His hands are shoved deep into his pockets, and he’s slouching like a boy of fourteen.
“Hamlet,” says Gertrude, sharp.
“Yes, ma’am,” says Hamlet, and melodramatically snaps to attention.
Gertrude’s smiling, but she leans close to Hamlet to speak to him, and Horatio barely catches it: “You know that we all felt pain at your father’s death. Everyone dies, Hamlet. Why are you acting as if this is particular to you?”
Hamlet’s head tilts to the side; Horatio imagines that he’s smiling, all teeth. “Perhaps I don’t act,” he says.
Claudius clears his throat. “Hamlet,” he says, “we have been thinking,” and Horatio can feel Hamlet’s wince without seeing it. “We’ve heard your desire to return to New York City,” he says. “Hamlet—son—we’re not sure if this is quite the time. We do have many enemies, son, and you understand, don’t you? At this time, we need to appear united.” He claps a hand on Hamlet’s shoulder again. “And, of course, we’d like to spend more time with you. As a family.”
“As a family,” says Hamlet. He’s gone very still.
Gertrude smiles a smile that crinkles the corners of her eyes, like a dying apple. “I’ve been so hoping to see you again, Hamlet,” she says. “I can’t imagine why you want to spend all that time so far away. Home is always best, isn’t it?”
Hamlet bows, very slightly, to her. “Home is always best,” he echoes with no inflection.
“We’re very glad,” says Claudius, but Hamlet’s moving away, through the crowd. Without another thought, Horatio follows.
Hamlet slips through the door of a single men’s room, and Horatio makes his way over, presses his ear against the crack, closes his eyes, and listens to his best friend weep as if his heart is breaking.
Horatio isn’t rich. His neighborhood’s filled with empty storefronts and rattling trains; his father is a tall cloud-faced man who never speaks unless it's through his trumpet, and his mother spends half her time at work and the other half playing the neighborhood lotteries, hoping desperately for a smile from God. His ticket into Columbia hasn’t been bought, but been earned with work, and talent, and the grace of a stubborn teacher who'd left Harlem years ago, and come back, and who'd sat patiently in their front hall with his mother, running the scholarship numbers over and over again. He tilts his chin up as he walks through the hallways, holds his head high, and believes as hard as he can that he has a right to.
His first roommate is a white boy from downtown, and he doesn’t take kindly to a student like Horatio using the same washroom as he does. Hamlet’s first roommate is a wide-eyed sycophant with curly red hair who can’t stop talking about how much he admires Hamlet’s father’s politics. It only takes a month for the two of them to be rooming together, and a day before they’re staggering drunk together through the streets of New York City, laughing over something neither of them will ever remember.
Hamlet is majoring in Classics, and idles away his time by being smarter than his professors. Horatio is majoring in Physics, and spends half his free time with Hamlet and the other half in the library. They while away hours doing nothing but riding back and forth on the subway, talking: the library to the Battery to the university, round and round again, like a carousel.
Horatio’s family hadn’t ever owned a television—they’d crowded into a neighbor’s to see one a little while before he’d left for university, huddling around the grainy set to peer at Walter Cronkite’s face—so Horatio is the only person at Columbia University who doesn’t recognize Hamlet on sight. He’s heard of Hamlet before, of course; who hasn’t? But when they first meet, he does nothing but introduce himself, his eyes narrowed, watching the white boy to see his reaction. It’s only later he realizes Hamlet is watching him to see his reaction, too.
It’s only much, much later that he realizes Hamlet is always watching every person around him to see their reaction.
Hamlet’s speaking to himself in the bathroom. Horatio can only hear parts of it, the way it echoes wetly around the linoleum and mirrors; nonetheless, he listens carefully. There’s something about Claudius, and Gertrude, and how sick Hamlet feels, and how soon they’d married—but midway through Hamlet stops dead and hiccups, a tiny little sob, and Horatio’s hands curl into fists, and he tilts his head back to look at the vaulted ceiling of the party.
The guests are filing out of the doors; even Claudius has disappeared into the back with his smiling wife. Horatio hears Hamlet clearing his throat, and then a flush, and jumps back just in time for the door to open and Hamlet to exit.
Hamlet’s just as handsome as Horatio remembers him, just like his father: dark hair cropped close to his skull, dark eyes, high cheekbones, pale skin. But the bags under Hamlet’s eyes are darker than Horatio remembers, and he’s thinner, the bones almost showing under his skin. He slips past Horatio without looking at him; Horatio can’t stop disappointment from settling low in his stomach, but he follows Hamlet to the front of the room.
It’s empty now. Hamlet’s pouring himself a drink—Horatio thinks it’s vodka—from the bar in the corner, ignoring the guard at the door. Horatio jerks his head at Marcellus by the door, and he peels off from the door and paces forward, closer to Hamlet.
Hamlet turns, finally, and sees him, and drops his drink.
“Horatio,” he says, and Horatio doesn’t have a moment to reply before he’s being hugged tighter than he can ever remember, Hamlet’s face pressed into his shoulder. Horatio staggers backward for a moment before his arms fold around Hamlet; he really is too thin, all skin and bone under the jacket of his suit, and not warm enough.
They pull apart, finally. Hamlet takes an awkward step back, holds out his hand to shake, his face going red. Horatio shakes it; it can’t hurt. “Good to see you, Mr. Denmark,” he says.
“Mr. Denmark,” says Hamlet, a tinge of manic disbelief in his voice, “friend, Horatio, I’ll call you that.” Horatio tucks his hands into the pockets of his suit, suppresses a smile.
“But what are you doing away from Columbia?” says Hamlet, and the warmth is back in his voice for the first time that Horatio’s heard it tonight. “How did you—wait—you didn't. The car? At last?"
Horatio nods; he can feel Marcellus's gaze on his back, and his face grows warm. He's been saving for the car for years now; when he'd first tried to buy it, the bank teller had laughed aloud when he had gone to apply for the loan. Hamlet had watched Horatio absorb it—that quiet, pointless humiliation—and said nothing; but he had let Horatio buy him two rounds of drinks, after, and sat with him on the bank watching the Hudson pebble up with the cool spring rain.
"I'm glad," says Hamlet, smiling into his face. "I'm glad, Horatio. It should have been months ago—but I'm glad. But—you drove here? Don’t tell me you wanted to spend summer in this godforsaken city.”
Horatio half-smiles. “To see your father’s funeral,” he says, and it hangs in the air, funeral. Horatio can’t imagine anything heavier. The funeral had been a public event; Horatio had been a face in the crowd. He’d seen Hamlet at the front of the procession, his face tight, his lips pressed together.
“To see my mother’s wedding,” says Hamlet, and if Horatio had thought the word funeral had been heavy—well, there it is.
“They were closer together than any of us expected,” says Horatio. Hamlet’s standing a few feet away from him now, his hands in his pockets, and there’s something too-guarded in his eyes. Horatio’s never seen him like this before; even in their first days together at Columbia, Hamlet was more open than this. There would be times he’d stop speaking in the middle of a sentence, for no reason at all, and tilt his head and shoulders back, and stare at the New York City sky as if it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
Hamlet’s shoulders are forward, now, and he’s watching Horatio out of the corner of his eye. “It saves money, doesn’t it?” he says, and smiles at Horatio, tight and hard and quick. “They even used the same tablecloths.”
Horatio reaches out to touch him, instinctively. Hamlet’s arm is too cold, and too thin, and Hamlet looks up sharply, his dark, hard gaze meeting Horatio’s. It’s a long moment before something in Hamlet’s eyes softens, almost involuntarily, and his hand comes up to cover Horatio’s.
Behind them, Marcellus clears his throat, and Hamlet stills again, moves back. “Marcellus,” he says, “isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” says Marcellus.
“I don’t suppose-” Hamlet begins, but Horatio holds up a hand to stop him.
“He isn’t here to—” he says, and then, “Does this room have cameras?”
Hamlet’s eyebrows climb slowly up his face, but he blinks, an affirmative, and then glances towards the door to the bathroom. Horatio nods, and they move towards it.
“All right,” says Hamlet, shutting the door behind them, “why the need for secrecy?”
“Mr. Denmark, sir,” says Horatio, and Hamlet narrows his eyes but appears to let it go, “I saw your father.”
Hamlet goes dead white. Horatio catches his elbow when he stumbles, steadies him; Hamlet says, “You saw my father.”
Horatio looks at Marcellus. Marcellus says, “Sir, both Bernardo and I have seen it. Another guard,” he explains, when Hamlet looks blank. “On patrol these last five nights. A shape just like the mayor that’s dead. It’s the same face—the same clothes, even. Sir.”
Hamlet glances at Horatio, who nods to confirm it. “I saw your father in the newspapers,” he says, “on television, once when he came to New York City. This—thing—could not be more like him than my hands to each other.”
“Let me see him,” says Hamlet; it’s half a plea and half an order. Horatio’s hand is still on his elbow, and Hamlet shrugs it off, tilts his chin up. “Let me see him,” he says again, and this time it’s only a demand.
“Sir,” says Marcellus, and “sir,” says Horatio.
Hamlet looks panicked for a moment, purely afraid. He glances between the two of them before he pushes open the door of the bathroom and slams it behind him; Marcellus catches it before it closes, and the two of them follow into the main room.
Horatio catches up to Hamlet in one of the halls; Hamlet’s walking fast, stalking past doors, not looking where he’s going. Horatio can tell Hamlet knows he’s there by the way his shoulders slump; he catches Hamlet’s hand, and Hamlet slows, winds his fingers through Horatio’s, pulls them both through a door and into a bedroom.
It’s a child’s room; the shelves are stacked with teddy bears. There must be more than twenty of them. Horatio can’t imagine what a child would do with five teddy bears, let alone twenty.
Hamlet catches him staring and rolls his eyes. “Lay off,” he says, “my mother never throws anything away.”
“This is your bedroom,” says Horatio.
“Go on, rub it in,” says Hamlet, and throws himself down on the bed. It’s enormous, big enough for three to fit comfortably, and the quilt is the finest Horatio’s ever seen. He can only imagine how long it took to make.
“It’s different from our room at Columbia,” he says. It’s an understatement. Hamlet had taken pains to keep his side of the dormitory plain, almost Spartan in its sparseness. There had been his schoolbooks, his clothes, and a single chest buried under his bed, always locked. Here the walls are papered with posters and calendars, the carpet is almost inhumanly expensive, and the curtains are embroidered with what Horatio is suspecting is gold wire.
“I wouldn’t mind burning it all down,” says Hamlet. Horatio’s not sure if he’s joking.
“You’ll be back in New York City soon enough,” he offers.
Hamlet laughs, dry and dusty. “Don’t mock me, Horatio; we both know I’ll never go back to New York City. I’ll be here in the mansion until Claudius retires, and then I’ll be mayor.”
“Lose the election,” says Horatio.
“Denmarks don’t lose elections,” says Hamlet, “we seem to have forgotten how,” and he rolls off the bed, pads to a door, throws it open to reveal bottles and bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey, beer, stacked on top of each other. “You have no idea how long I’ve been stocking up for today,” he says. “What would you like?”
“I’ll pass,” says Horatio.
Hamlet glances at him, sighs, and closes the door. “You’re right,” he says. “Christ, Horatio, I hate Chicago.”
Horatio finds Hamlet’s desk chair, pulls it out, and sits down. “How are the others?” he asks. “Laertes?”
“Returning to Harvard,” says Hamlet, “with my uncle’s permission, and his father’s. He’ll be mayor of Boston in less than ten years. His flight leaves in another half hour.”
“Polonius?” says Horatio.
Hamlet rolls his eyes, sinks down on the bed again. “The same as I told you in New York. Old, interfering, logorrhea-laden.” He flops down on his back, stretches his arms above his head. “Have a drink with me, Horatio,” he says, and there’s a little too much pleading in his voice.
“All right,” says Horatio, startled, “just a beer, thanks,” and Hamlet’s up in a moment, tossing him a beer and pouring a whiskey for himself. Horatio takes a sip, scratches at the back of his neck, and says it, finally: “Ophelia?”
“No idea,” says Hamlet, shortly. “Haven’t seen her in days.”
Horatio raises his eyebrows. Hamlet sits down again, tosses his whiskey down in a single swallow, sets the glass on the bedside table, purses his lips. “No, I don’t know why,” he says. “Things to do, I expect. Places to be. She’s cancelled her application to Wellesley; she’s staying here in Chicago as well.” In the dim light of his bedside lamp his face is full of shadows.
They sit in silence; the lamplight flickers. Hamlet says, “You said you’d seen my father, once.”
“He was a good mayor,” says Horatio, and it’s as much as he can say without giving away the lie.
Hamlet smiles, and it’s too bitter. He says, “And my uncle? A good mayor as well?”
Horatio glances up at the ceiling. There’s a hole in it, and as he shifts in his chair, he sees the flash of a reflection off a lens.
“Yes, sir,” he says.
Hamlet follows his gaze; Horatio can see the moment when he spots the camera. His eyelids drift shut. “How much more time,” he says.
Horatio checks his wristwatch. “We could leave now,” he says.
“No, we couldn’t,” says Hamlet, and smiles at the hole in the ceiling. “We never could.”
The following is a transcript of a conversation recorded in the rooms of Laertes Polonius, a close friend of the Denmark family. The speakers are unknown. Voices could not be differentiated between. The conversation has been set down as it was spoken. It is not known if the speakers knew they were being recorded.
I don’t see why you have to leave so soon.
Call it restlessness. I want to get back to school.
I don’t remember you being so enthusiastic about school last year.
Last year- look, you wouldn’t understand, all right? It’s different now.
It’s all different now.
Yes. It is.
I know what you’re going to tell me.
Oh, do you?
I’m not as stupid as Father makes me out to be, you know.
Father doesn’t make you out to be stupid.
Of course he doesn’t. And Mother left because she wanted to see the world.
What are you implying?
Look, I don’t want to- ruin your fun, or whatever it is you think I want to do. I’m not Father. Don’t treat me like I am.
Oh? Then what do you want to do?
I want to warn you! It’s not the same for us as it is for other people! Or had you not noticed yet?
I saw the election results same as anyone. What the hell does it have to do with me?
Don’t say that.
What, hell? Are you afraid of it?
I’m not afraid of hell. I’m afraid of people. Don’t tell me you didn’t see the cameras!
Fine. Fine, why is it not the same for us as it is for other people?
These are our lives. Everyone’s watching. If we mess up-
What’s that supposed to mean?
I mean everyone’s watching, all right? I don’t know what you learn at school, but I don’t like it. Ladies aren’t supposed to act this way.
You are one, you know, whether you like it or not. And that means people are watching you, closer than they’re watching me, or- him.
Hamlet, you mean.
I mean there are some words people call ladies- look, he can do what he likes, up to a point. You can’t. Not under this roof, anyway.
Can you do what you like, then?
Don’t say I didn’t warn you, because I’m warning you now.
I hear footsteps.
The opening and closing of a door.
I’m very proud of you, you know.
Here’s this for you. Your airplane leaves in half an hour!
I know! I’m ready, I’m going-
Listen to me, it’s hard out there in Boston. The winters are cold. You know the winters are cold?
We have cold winters here, Dad.
I know! I know we have cold winters here. Son, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want you to take care of yourself there.
I took care of myself last year well enough.
I’m sure you did! I just care about you, son.
Your plane’s going to leave.
I’m leaving, I’m leaving!
Remember what I said?
Won’t forget a word.
A door slamming. A car engine starting.
…what I said?
Nothing. Something about Hamlet.
Ha! Hamlet! Is it just me, or have you two been spending a little time together?
I haven’t seen him much since he came back from New York City.
You don’t have to lie to me! If you can’t trust your father, who can you trust?
He did write me letters.
Write you letters? Are you a child? I know what you young folks get up to nowadays, can’t put the slip on me. Seems to me you’ve been doing a little more than sending letters.
Seems to me you shouldn’t be seeing too much of each other!
What, you too?
Oh, don’t look at me like that! I’m not some kind of evil wizard from your storybooks, you know. I just want what’s best for you.
Well, I’m not sure if you do! I’m just glad you’re staying here instead of going off to that university so far away. I can’t imagine what might happen to you, a slip of a girl like you.
You understand what I’m telling you?
Yes! Yes, I understand.
It’s a colder night than the last. Horatio doesn’t understand it; he’s been to Chicago before, when he was a teenager, and he knows summer nights in Chicago don’t feel like this. There should be fireflies, warm winds, children laughing; instead the air bites under his coat, and his breath huffs out in clouds that crystallize for a moment in the air and then dissolve. Next to him, Hamlet shivers, and presses closer to Horatio almost unconsciously for warmth.
“A few more minutes,” says Marcellus. Bernardo is gone tonight, off on some futile mission, at Hamlet’s insistence.
They turn a corner of the building. “If we don’t see what you saw,” Hamlet begins.
“If we do?” says Horatio.
Hamlet ducks his head, shoves his hands deep into his pockets. His eyes are glittering strangely in the light of the street lamps. “Then we do,” he says, “all right, okay.”
The street stretches out before them. On the left is Elsinore, brick stretching as high as the eye can see, casting its shadow behind itself, wavering and fourfold. On the right are skyscrapers, filled with thousands of empty windows. Horatio can see a dark alleyway beyond one of them; there’s a boy lounging against one of the walls, tossing a baseball from one hand to the other, his cap tipped low over his forehead, and Horatio almost smiles.
Beside him, Hamlet stops.
The ghost doesn’t choose, this time, to fade in from the Chicago that surrounds it. Instead it’s simply there, as if it had been there along, its chin tilted up, looking straight into Hamlet’s eyes. It’s on the opposite side of the street from Elsinore, again, and its hands are shoved deep into its pockets.
“Mayor?” says Hamlet. The ghost takes a step forward, and Hamlet dashes forward to meet it, stopping just before he leaves the sidewalk; they stare at each other from opposite sides of the street, a long river of darkness that leads into some unknown alley at the end.
“Father,” says Hamlet, and his voice cracks.
The ghost jerks a head down the long and empty street. When Hamlet doesn’t move, it gestures again, more forcefully, and turns, and begins to walk.
“It wants to speak with you alone,” says Marcellus.
“Don’t go,” says Horatio.
“Why not?” says Hamlet. Horatio glances at his face; his eyes are alive for the first time in days, burning with a manic fire.
“If it’s a demon,” says Horatio, “a goblin, some kind of devil? This isn’t Columbia. There are dangerous people here.”
“I know,” says Hamlet, and steps forward, after the ghost’s flickering shape.
Horatio catches his arm. “If it has something to say it can say it here,” he says.
“I’ll follow it,” says Hamlet, trying to wrench his arm away. At Horatio’s look, Marcellus catches his other elbow, and Hamlet begins to struggle in earnest, his face alight. “I’ll follow it,” he shouts, “let me go, for God’s sake, let me go,” and aims a vicious kick at Horatio’s knee.
Horatio stumbles back and falls, more from surprise than pain. Hamlet’s never hurt him before—has even fought tooth and nail against those who tried. But there’s no time to think; Hamlet’s shouting down the street after the ghost, running as fast as his legs will take him, disappearing into the darkness.
Marcellus reaches down a hand. Horatio takes it gratefully, pushing himself to his feet. He stares down the street; Hamlet’s long gone.
“I’m afraid,” says Marcellus, after a long moment, and Horatio ducks his head, says nothing.
Marcellus glances at him. “Should we follow?”
“Of course,” says Horatio. His head’s aching. He shoves his hands in his pockets and strides down the street, listening for the sound of footsteps where Hamlet has been.
The following was written on a scrap of yellow paper.
I don’t know what it told you. I’m glad I don’t. I wish I did.
By the time they arrive, Hamlet’s alone.
His face is tilted up to the empty sky. His coat’s gone, a pile of cloth in the corner of the lot they’ve found themselves in, but he isn’t shivering; instead, he’s smiling, so wide that it looks as if his face will split open.
“Sir,” says Horatio, uncertain.
“I will tell you this, though,” says Hamlet, and his voice is carefree, light as the breeze, “it’s an honest ghost.”
“An honest ghost,” says Horatio.
Hamlet nods. “It told me, here’s what it told me: it told me that there isn’t a man in Chicago that isn’t a liar.”
“Sir, we didn’t need a ghost to tell us that,” says Horatio before he can stop himself.
Hamlet’s gaze snaps to him, and Horatio finds himself suddenly, unaccountably afraid. There’s something in Hamlet’s eyes that he’s never seen before in another person, some kind of frightening determination, an eldritch joy that isn’t quite human.
It’s there for only a moment before it fades, and Hamlet takes a step back, shaking his head as if he has water in his ears.
“It’s an honest ghost,” he repeats, scrubbing at his eyes, and then opens them. “It’s an honest ghost.”
Marcellus clears his throat. His hand’s on his gun, and Horatio finds himself moving towards him. He’s never seen Hamlet like this.
Hamlet smiles, pained. “Gentlemen,” he says. “There’s a chance I may be acting strange soon.”
“Strange,” repeats Marcellus, dry.
“And I want you not to breathe a word of it to anyone,” says Hamlet, his eyes narrowed. He takes a step toward them, and Horatio can’t help but step back. Hamlet winces, but continues: “Or of the ghost, or of anything you’ve seen tonight. Not a word, not even a hint, gentlemen, swear it.”
“I’ll swear,” says Marcellus, and Horatio nods.
“You swear?” says Hamlet. “On your lives?”
“I’ve already sworn,” says Horatio.
“Swear on your lives,” says Hamlet, and the manic fire’s back in him, sharp and strange, alive and frightening, and then his head snaps back and a creaking, terrible voice erupts from the ground: “Swear.”
Marcellus falls to his knees. Horatio can’t blame him. He stares at Hamlet, paralyzed.
“Well?” says Hamlet, grinning bright and terrible. “You heard it. Will you swear?”
“Swear!” hisses the voice again, and now it’s from the sky, the brick, the air, everything around them.
Hamlet laughs unnaturally high. “What,” he says, “a rat in one of these alleys? You heard it, boys, swear!” And then his body shakes, from tip to toe, and his head lolls back and his eyes roll into their sockets, and a voice erupts from the center of his stomach, too deep to be his own—swear. The earth is shaking now, the air quivering, every part of the world flickering from one space to the next, and Horatio stumbles, struggles to gain his footing.
A moment later, he’s back. “I understand!” he screams, “rest, old ghost, rest,” and the ground quiets.
“I swear,” says Horatio; it’s startled out of him, a gut reaction, like fear of the dark. Next to him, Marcellus croaks, “I swear.”
Hamlet’s eyelids slide shut. When he opens them again, he’s looking at Horatio, and he looks tired, and sadder than anything Horatio’s ever seen.
He says, “We’d better go back to Elsinore.”
The following is a scrap from the front page of a local gossip rag, and appears to have been crumpled many times.
LOCAL CELEBRITY GONE CRACKERS? READ OUR EXPOSÉ ON HAMLET DENMARK AND HIS DESCENT INTO INSANITY!!!
“My uncle killed my father,” says Hamlet.
Horatio sits in silence for a while. Then he says, “I think you need another coffee.”
“I need something stronger than that,” says Hamlet, but he struggles to his feet and shoves a few crumpled bills at the cashier, accepts the steaming mug he’s given in return. He returns to the table and slumps into his chair, running a hand through his dark hair. “I mean it, you know.”
“I believe you,” says Horatio.
Hamlet closes his eyes and smiles, tired and pained. “He told me. My father, I mean. When we spoke last night. You wouldn’t believe what kinds of things I heard from him, Horatio.” He rubs at his face, and Horatio watches him steadily. He’s calling the ghost “him”, now. Not “it.”
“Christ,” says Hamlet. “My mother—I don’t know how much she betrayed him, I don’t know what she did or how much she knew, but can you imagine it? My uncle sleeps in my father’s bed next to her. Those sheets—it’s like they’re—” He shakes his head. “You’ve seen the papers?”
“I’ve seen the papers,” says Horatio.
“Hope they don’t fry you for this back in New York City,” says Hamlet. “Tell me what they say when you get back, won’t you?” His head jerks up. “You’re going back soon, aren’t you?”
Horatio stills. “Do you want me to?”
They look at each other from across the table, gazes locked, and then Hamlet laughs. “I don’t know what I would do without you,” he says, in lieu of a response.
Horatio wraps his hand around Hamlet’s, impulsively. Hamlet is still too cold, too much bone and not enough flesh, but his fingers tangle with Horatio’s, and he’s smiling, an exhausted and quiet smile, and at this moment Horatio wouldn’t trade him for anyone else in the world.
Then Hamlet shakes his head, and the moment is gone. “I have to take revenge,” he says. “My father ordered me.”
“Revenge?” says Horatio, and there’s a cold feeling in his stomach.
“Killing my uncle,” says Hamlet.
Horatio sits with his hands wrapped around Hamlet’s for a long, long time.
He finds, on Hamlet’s bedside table, the chest that Hamlet had kept under his bed in New York City. It’s not locked; a piece of paper is on the top, tossed there carelessly.
Horatio picks the chest up and sets it on his lap. It’s not heavy, but it’s covered with what he suspects are real gold flakes, and when he gently pushes back the lid, the inside is lined with velvet.
It’s filled with letters. They take up every inch of space from the bottom to the top, and there are others shoved in alongside. Half of them are written in an unfamiliar hand, curly and purple; the other half are in handwriting that Horatio knows as well as he knows his own, cramped and dark, barely readable.
He picks up the letter that had been on top of the chest. It, too, is covered in Hamlet’s handwriting, and Horatio half-smiles and begins to read.
Doubt that the stars are fire,
Doubt that the planets move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
For a long moment Horatio cannot breathe.
There’s something hard and fierce in his chest, and he cannot identify it; the only words that will come to his mind to describe it are protectiveness, or sympathy, or, of all things, missing someone, and he cannot imagine what they have to do with each other, or the letter, or the thing in his chest that burns as steady as Hamlet’s bedside lamp.
He folds the letter and tucks it into his pocket, and then gently shuts the lid of the chest and replaces it on Hamlet’s bedside table. He stands; it’s time to find Hamlet.
Hamlet’s given him directions through Elsinore; it’s not as big as it seems. The hallways wind for only a few minutes before he’s in a corner of one of the sitting rooms, where Hamlet sits, accompanied by two people Horatio’s never seen before.
They’re both white. One of them is a woman, red-haired and lovely, in a short grey skirt; the other is a man with close-cropped blond hair and darting eyes. The woman’s leaning forward, her face tilted up to Hamlet’s.
Hamlet has his tie knotted around his head, and one of his shoes worn on his hand like a glove. Horatio’s lips twitch.
The man does not even glance his way; the woman does, but dismisses him with a flick of her eyes, assuming him to be one of the ever-present, invisible servants. Hamlet sees him, but his face is carefully blank; Horatio settles in a chair in a corner and unfolds the letter from his pocket, watching the trio from over its edge.
“It’s been a month since your father died,” says the man bluntly, and Horatio can see the woman twitch with annoyance.
“A whole month?” says Hamlet. “Christ, what are we doing with his burial grounds, dig them up! Let some of the deserving poor use them, for God’s sake!”
“What Rosencrantz means is that we do care about you, Hamlet,” says the woman, leaning even closer forward, and Horatio knows, suddenly, who they are: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s closest childhood friends.
“I care about you too!” says Hamlet, and there’s an all-too familiar look in his eyes: hunted, wary.
“The wedding came so fast,” says Guildenstern, leaning back. Her face is all sympathy. “I’d have been surprised as well. Did anyone tell you that your uncle was going to be mayor?”
Hamlet shrugs. “They told me he was running.”
Guildenstern’s eyebrows draw up and together; she presses Hamlet’s hand. “Do you remember when we were children?” she asks. “On the beaches of the lake, when we built sand castles? You were always the king of the castle when we played, weren’t you?”
There’s a half-smile on Hamlet’s lips. “I seem to remember you fought for that office more than a few times.”
“But I never did win,” says Guildenstern. “Hamlet, we do care about you. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know that,” says Hamlet, and rubs at his eyes, and in that split second Horatio sees it: a glance between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, alight, triumphant.
“You can trust us,” says Guildenstern. “How long have we known you?”
Hamlet smiles. “A long time.”
“Why are you being crazy?” blurts Rosencrantz.
Hamlet looks up, startled, and Horatio catches his gaze. There’s pure shock, at first, and then Hamlet blinks, and in that moment Horatio thinks Hamlet looks more tired than Horatio has ever seen him before.
Hamlet says, “You never told me why you two came back to Elsinore.”
Guildenstern leans back. Her face is sharper, now, and her eyes are not quite as warm. “Your mother was marrying, Hamlet. We needed to pay our respects.”
“You didn’t come here until this morning,” says Hamlet. He’s not smiling now. “She wouldn’t have turned you away from the wedding.”
“We wanted to see you,” says Guildenstern. “It’s so lonely at the university for Rosencrantz, and you’re so far away in New York City, and the post is so slow across the country.”
“How slow is the post from one part of Chicago to another?” asks Hamlet.
Rosencrantz looks blank. Guildenstern says, “I’m sorry?”
“From, say, Elsinore to the University,” says Hamlet. “How long would it take a letter to go from here to there?”
Guildenstern’s face is still. Rosencrantz’s eyes light up. He says, “Oh, really fast, only half a day if it’s marked URGENT and someone goes to the post office to say—” Then he falls silent.
Hamlet smiles, big and expansive. It doesn’t reach his eyes. He says, “I’m sorry! I don’t know what came over me. What were we speaking about?”
Guildenstern clears her throat. Rosencrantz’s face is red.
“Oh, yes!” says Hamlet. “How I’ve been acting!” He laughs, and rubs at the tie tied around his forehead. “Friends, you have to understand, I’m only insane when I want to be! When the wind is blowing from Lake Michigan, I know a hawk from a hand-saw.”
Then something settles over him; his eyes go clear and he rubs at the back of his neck. “I have, lately,” he says, “lost all my happiness. Things that delighted me have no effect any more. Things that made me passionate are… gone. I’ve studied the best teachers, Philosophy and Physics and Literature and the Sciences; I understand people.” He laughs. “You should see how they speak about men! The apex of nature, the greatest of animals, Darwin’s triumph—what are men? At worst, beasts; at best, dust. Mankind has no pleasure for me.”
Guildenstern is smiling, uncomfortable. Hamlet says, “Not womankind, either,” and scowls at her.
“It was nothing,” says Guildenstern, hasty. “I had just thought of a joke.”
Hamlet stands. “I trust you have what you need,” he says, and stalks from the room, leaving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern staring at each other. Horatio folds the letter again and walks after him.
He finds Hamlet in the corridor, sobbing as if his heart will break.
Horatio folds Hamlet in his arms, lets Hamlet press himself against him, lets him weep into his chest. Hamlet feels like nothing but bones under his jacket, but he rests his head against Horatio’s shoulder, squeezes his arm. Horatio stays still, holds on.
There’s a balcony on the other side of the windows in Hamlet’s rooms, where the cameras can’t see. Hamlet’s on its edge, leaning over the railing, staring down into the rush of cars and people and city. “Do you ever wonder,” he says.
“Wonder what?” asks Horatio.
“What it would be like to leave,” says Hamlet.
“I don’t have to wonder,” says Horatio gently, and he knows from Hamlet’s wince that it hurts, but it’s true, and Horatio’s never known how to lie to him.
Hamlet pushes himself up so he’s sitting on the railing of the balcony, his legs dangling down. “I think even you wonder,” he says, his eyes fixed on some point on the ground that Horatio can’t see. “Don’t we all wonder? What it’d be like to leave forever?”
Horatio puts a hand on his arm. Hamlet turns and looks at him, and for a long, terrible second Horatio thinks he doesn’t even see anything, just looks straight through him; then he sighs, and maneuvers himself carefully back onto the balcony.
Horatio says, though he knows it’s not a good idea, “I parked the car nearby.”
Hamlet looks up. His eyes are grey and dead. “Did you?”
“I did,” says Horatio, and pulls the keys out of his pocket, and raises his eyebrows at Hamlet.
Hamlet stares at him for a few frozen seconds before Horatio finds himself almost bowled over in a tight embrace, warm and hard, and Hamlet is saying, “Yes, yes, yes, Christ, Horatio, yes,” and the hard, fierce thing in Horatio’s chest is glowing with the light of a hundred suns.
Hamlet pulls back, rubs at the bridge of his nose, brushes at his shoulders. His face is red, and Horatio feels a half-smile on his lips. “But—I need to take my father’s revenge first,” Hamlet says. “I need to stay in Chicago until I can do what needs to be done.”
“You haven’t done it yet,” says Horatio.
Hamlet glances down to where the cars speed by on the pavement. “No,” he says. “I haven’t.”
In the newspaper the next day there’s another exposé on Hamlet; the Enquirer, the Star, even the Sun all have explanations, theories, exclusive interviews. Hamlet laughs reading them on his bed, kicking his feet like a teenage girl. “Listen,” he says, “this one’s interviewed me—apparently I said it was a genetic disorder. Wait, no, that’s a metaphor for politics. I think I might be running for president.”
“Do you know what your uncle thinks?” asks Horatio.
“My uncle thinks a lot of things,” says Hamlet. “Listen, do you want a drink?” He laughs, high and bright. “We’re going to drink Elsinore out of house and home, Christ, the worst unwanted guests. Well, I’m unwanted, anyway, and you’re a guest, so if we pool our talents together we ought to be able to drink enough alcohol to fill up Lake Michigan nicely.”
“It’s nine in the morning,” says Horatio.
“Let’s go down to see a film,” says Hamlet. “I haven’t seen one since I came here from New York City, it’s outrageous, Horatio, do you remember films back in New York City?”
“Yes,” Horatio says. He can’t imagine forgetting. Columbia had offered a class on filmmaking, one of the few of its type. He’s seen more of Hamlet’s artistic endeavors than he could possibly count.
Hamlet rolls onto his back. “It has been ages since I saw one,” he says, “literally ages, whole civilizations have risen and fallen. I hear there’s a new movie out by that director, you know the one,” he mentions a man Horatio’s never heard of, “the dramatic one, with the special effects.”
“Can you get away?” asks Horatio.
Hamlet laughs. “I can do it fast, faster than you can believe,” he says, and then, “I want to ask Ophelia to come. I haven’t seen her in days.”
“Days,” says Horatio, raising his eyebrows.
Hamlet shrugs evasively. “She hasn’t been at dinners,” he says. “I know she’s not at college.”
Horatio glances to Hamlet’s bedside table; it’s empty. “Hamlet, you know the chest underneath your bed?” he says.
Hamlet sits up, his eyes suddenly guarded. “Yes,” he says. “What about it?”
“Have you opened it since you came here?” asks Horatio.
“No,” says Hamlet.
Horatio digs in his pocket and produces the letter. “I found it open on that table the other day,” he says. “This letter was on the top.”
Hamlet’s hands are shaking, Horatio notices, when he takes the letter from Horatio. He unfolds it, and his face goes still when he recognizes his own handwriting. Horatio sees him mouth the words: doubt that the stars are fire, doubt that the planets move, doubt truth to be a liar.
He doesn’t say the last line.
Hamlet looks at Horatio, and his eyes are wide and frightened. Horatio says nothing, just watches him, and in a moment Hamlet’s up and moving, pulling the curtains on the windows, shutting the door to the balcony, shutting the door to his own bedroom.
He pulls the chair out from under his desk and grabs a pencil from on top of the desk itself, and then drags the chair to the center of the room, where he climbs on top. It’s only when he’s poking the pencil into the hole in his ceiling that Horatio realizes what he’s doing, and by then it’s too late. There’s a tinkle of glass, and a crunch; Hamlet steps down from the chair, his eyes hard.
“You didn’t want to make it look like an accident?” says Horatio.
“They’re not bothering to make what they’re doing look like an accident,” says Hamlet, “my mother isn’t bothering to make her marriage to my uncle look like an accident, I don’t see where accidents come into any of it any more.” He smiles, overly bright. “We’ll keep the curtains closed from now on, then? I’m sure my uncle has a man watching in every window in the building over. If we’re lucky they’ll put it down to my insanity.” He rubs at his face. “Christ, it’s my fault, isn’t it? When we were speaking out on the balcony. I should have known there were cameras, we’re lucky I didn’t shout out my father was murdered in front of the whole world.”
“What are you going to do?” asks Horatio.
Hamlet smiles again, and this time it’s half-vicious. “We’re going to find Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz. And then we’re going to see a movie.”
“Tell me all about New York City,” says Guildenstern. She’s pressing Horatio’s hand, smiling politely at him as if she’s never seen him before. “I’ve never been there. It’s true that the streets are paved with gold, I suppose?”
“I wish, ma’am,” says Horatio.
She laughs. It’s pretty. “Do you think you like it more than Chicago?”
“I couldn’t possibly say so, ma’am,” says Horatio, truthfully.
Guildenstern laughs again. “See, Hamlet! Chicago isn’t as bad as all that. There’s Lake Michigan, after all, that’s a Great Lake, isn’t it? What could be bigger than that? And the skyscrapers are so high! If Horatio likes it, can’t you?”
“We do have something bigger than Lake Michigan in New York City, Guildenstern,” says Hamlet. “It’s the Atlantic Ocean.”
“Well, aren’t you clever,” says Guildenstern. “I’m just trying to let you know that the city isn’t as small as you think.”
Hamlet shoves his hands deep into his pockets, ducks his head, and says, “I could be bound up in a nutshell and call myself the king of infinite space.”
“Well, that’s a positive way to look at things,” says Guildenstern.
“I could,” Hamlet continues, disregarding her, “if it weren’t that I have bad dreams.”
“Oh!” says Guildenstern, and “Ah,” and then she coughs. “So! Horatio! How did you end up rooming with, ah—someone like Hamlet?”
Horatio glances at Hamlet; Hamlet clears his throat. “Horatio rescued me from a terrible dragon,” he says. “Absolute monster. Hated everything about me, always left the toilet seat up, you know how it is.”
The roommate had, according to Hamlet’s testimony to Horatio the first night they’d met, taken one look at him and not picked his jaw up from the floor for the next week. He’d spent all his time asking Hamlet about his father’s politics, business practices, home life; wherever Hamlet went, there the boy would be. “If I hadn’t left him for you,” Hamlet had explained to Horatio, waving the hand that wasn’t wrapped around his drink, “we would have been wetted in another day. Wecked. Wedded! Oh, married, you know what I mean.”
Guildenstern frowns. “How awful! You should have written for help, Hamlet, I’m sure someone would have been able to deal with him.”
“Someone was able to deal with him,” says Hamlet. “Me. I dealt with him.”
Guildenstern coughs, embarrassed; Rosencrantz looks confused. “I’m so glad that we cleared up our tussle the other day,” says Guildenstern, “it’s so nice to be friends again, isn’t it?”
“What tussle?” says Hamlet, his face utterly blank.
They’re silent for the next block.
At the end of it, Hamlet stops and claps his hands. “A theater!” he says. “Thank God! What on Earth is playing?”
It’s a film by the director Hamlet had mentioned, and as promised, there is both drama and special effects. The theater is filled with young couples, mostly teenagers, their arms around each other; it’s only when they’re about three-quarters of the way through the movie that the kissing begins in earnest.
Horatio glances around. A good majority of the viewers in the theater are kissing whoever they’ve brought with them, their hands in each others’ hair. He shifts in his seat, and looks at Hamlet; Hamlet’s eyes are fixed on the screen.
On Horatio’s left, Rosencrantz yawns, stretches his arms out to the side, and slides one hand around Guildenstern’s shoulders. Guildenstern smiles, very tightly, and removes it. Rosencrantz scratches at the back of his neck and slumps down in his seat. He doesn’t look particularly surprised.
They stumble out of the theater into the bright sunlight. Hamlet says, “That was extraordinary—did you see the scene with the mother, did you see the cinematography, Christ, and the lighting, that was some of the most extraordinary filmmaking I’ve ever seen.”
“Have you ever tried making your own films, Hamlet?” asks Guildenstern.
Horatio glances at Hamlet; Hamlet glances back, just for a moment. “Well, I can’t say I’ve ever done more than dabble,” he says airily.
“Perhaps there’s a class somewhere here in Chicago!” says Guildenstern. “Wouldn’t that be nice, taking a class? You could learn all about the art.”
“Actually,” says Hamlet, his voice tight, “I have taken a class. Back in New York City, at Columbia.”
They walk in silence for a few tense moments, before Rosencrantz offers, “I think they make a lot of movies in Los Angeles.”
Hamlet claps him on the back, hard enough to send him stumbling almost off the curb. “I have absolutely no idea what I would do without you two,” he says. “No idea at all.”
As he’s letting himself out of Elsinore that evening, the sun reflecting red and glorious off the windows of the skyscrapers in the opposite buildings, Horatio finds himself stopped at the front door by a white man with salt-and-pepper hair and a wide smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. His face is familiar in a way that Horatio can’t quite identify. “Horatio, isn’t it?” says the man.
“Yes, sir,” says Horatio, reaches out a hand to shake. The man ignores it, but Horatio can’t say he expected anything else.
“I’m glad I can finally meet you!” says the man. “I’ve heard so much about you from Hamlet. I do always say, to meet a man in person is to know his true worth, don’t you agree? But it doesn’t matter, I suppose. Now, I believe in honesty; I believe it’s important to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as they say in the courts, you know. And so I’ll be honest, Horatio: I was sent to speak to you by Claudius Denmark. I’m Mr. Polonius.”
Now Horatio can place him: Polonius, one of the Denmark family’s closest allies. His great-grandfather had arrived from the South a few years before the Civil War had begun, and the riches he’d arrived with had earned the family a permanent place in Chicago’s highest circles.
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” Horatio says.
“Horatio,” says Polonius, “we’ve been seeing you spending a lot of time with Hamlet lately—we being Mr. and Mrs. Denmark and I, of course. We can’t help but wonder, where exactly are you staying in the city?”
Startled, Horatio names the hotel where he’s staying, a few miles south of here. He regrets it the moment he says it; Polonius will know exactly what neighborhood it's in, and exactly what that means.
Polonius laughs, big and expansive. “Horatio, Horatio, Horatio! You can’t really be staying in a place like that! Any friend of Hamlet’s is a friend of ours, and as the old philosophers say, there’s just no place like home, is there? No, there’s no place like home, indeed.” He claps Horatio on the shoulder. “You can move in tonight.”
“I couldn’t possibly, sir,” says Horatio, alarmed.
“You most certainly could,” says Polonius, “and once we’ve cleared out a guest room, you most certainly will. We’ll send Bernardo over to pick up your luggage. There’s no reason that you should have to make the trip all the way down here every day. This way you’ll be just a room away from anyone who needs you.”
He smiles, and it’s so close to sincere that Horatio’s almost impressed. Then he’s gone, and it’s left to Horatio to turn around, make his way back up the stairs, and tell Hamlet.
Hamlet stares at him for a few moments. Then he’s hugging Horatio tightly. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and pulls away, rubbing frantically at his eyes. “I’m so goddamn sorry, Horatio, I’m so sorry.”
“What do you have to be sorry for?” Horatio says.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Hamlet says. “You should be in New York. Christ, our dorm room’s probably getting dusty, Horatio, you should be there.”
“It’ll survive without me,” says Horatio, calm.
“You don’t get it,” says Hamlet. “You think you can leave Chicago, now? You think they won’t—you don’t know what they can do. What we can do. What my family can do. And if you’d never come back here, if I’d just sent you back to New York City after we saw my father like any sensible person would have done—” He’s crying, genuinely crying, his hand squeezing so tight on Horatio’s arm that Horatio thinks the blood flow will be cut off. “If I hadn’t let you get involved in all of this—”
Horatio hesitates for a long moment, then he puts his arm around Hamlet, lets the boy sob into his shoulder. He says, “It’s all right.”
“You don’t understand,” Hamlet tells him.
“I understand,” says Horatio. He puts a hand on Hamlet’s cheek, tilts his chin up so Hamlet’s looking into his eyes. “There is nowhere in the world I would rather be than here.”
Hamlet stares at him, for a long moment uncomprehending. Then the side of his mouth twitches. He says, “Jesus, Horatio,” and there’s something so, so warm in his voice.
There’s a light knock on Hamlet’s door. Hamlet shoves himself back, hastily wiping his eyes, and Horatio goes to answer the door. It’s Marcellus, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, with Horatio’s luggage. He says, “Your room’s just to the right of this one.”
Horatio takes the luggage, and Marcellus gives him a salute; it’s a quick, two-fingered thing, but it’s there nonetheless. “Enjoy your stay,” he says, and he’s gone.
“I’d better take these to my new room,” says Horatio.
“Don’t,” says Hamlet. He’s facing the curtained windows; his back is to Horatio. “Stay here.”
“They’re sure to have a camera in my room,” Horatio points out. “They’ll wonder where I am.”
“Let them wonder, then,” says Hamlet. “I know where you are. That ought to be good enough for anyone.”
The bed’s big enough to fit four, but that night it only has two of them. Hamlet’s sprawled out snoring with his face pressed into his pillow; Horatio’s on his back, hands under his head, staring at the hole in the ceiling where the camera used to be. “Good night,” he says, and knows that Hamlet’s already asleep.
The next morning dawns bright and clear. When Horatio wakes, Hamlet is pressed against him; he gently extricates himself and goes to wash his face in Hamlet’s bathroom.
“Horatio?” says Hamlet, behind him. Horatio looks up into the mirror; he can see Hamlet’s reflection, leaning against the side of the door.
“Yes?” he says.
“What if it was a demon?” says Hamlet. “Or something else, something that was lying, something that was trying to confuse me.”
“You think it wasn’t your father?” asks Horatio.
“No!” says Hamlet, startled, and then rubs at his eyes. “Yes. I don’t know. It had to have been my father. I don’t understand how it could have been anything else.”
“But it might have been lying,” says Horatio.
“It might have been lying,” concedes Hamlet. “Maybe my uncle didn’t kill my father. Maybe my mother didn’t even betray him. Maybe—” He sighs. “I don’t know.”
“You have a plan,” says Horatio, turning to face him.
Hamlet smiles, tentative. He says, “How do you feel about a trip downtown?”
“I think that costs a little more than you can afford,” says the man, peering at Hamlet.
“I can pay,” says Hamlet. His face is hidden by enormous sunglasses, and he’s wrapped in a coat and thick scarf. Horatio’s been steadily not looking at him all the way downtown.
“I’m sure you can,” says the man dryly. He’s young and white, dressed in an old sweatshirt and jeans. They’re the first pair of jeans that Horatio has seen close-up since he came to Chicago. “How old are you, nineteen?”
Hamlet’s face goes red. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” he says.
“I’m sure you don’t,” the man says. “Kid, I don’t know how you found my address, but take a piece of advice. If you can really pay enough to hire me, you can pay enough to buy your own damn camera. Film it yourself.”
“I can’t find actors,” says Hamlet furiously.
The man rolls his eyes. “I wonder why.”
Hamlet bites his lip; Horatio can see his brows furrow. “I don’t look familiar at all, do I?” he says.
“Look, kid, I have things to do,” says the man. “Am I supposed to know who you are?”
Hamlet pulls off his sunglasses, tilts his face up at the man. “Hamlet Denmark,” he says. “Pleased to meet you.”
The man goes as white as a sheet.
“That was harsh,” says Horatio as they exit the man’s apartment, one script lighter.
“I can’t help who I am,” Hamlet says, sharp. “My father would have done the same thing.”
“You’re right,” says Horatio, “he would have.”
He can see Hamlet glance at him over his sunglasses. “Horatio, am I doing the right thing?” he asks, and sounds suddenly and terribly afraid.
Horatio considers it for a long, long time. Hamlet doesn’t turn his gaze away from Horatio; that terrible fear is still in his eyes. “You know I’m not going to leave you,” says Horatio, eventually.
Hamlet tucks his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. “What about when I’m mayor of Chicago? What then?”
“Then you’ll be mayor of Chicago,” says Horatio, “and I’ll be in New York City, and we’ll visit each other as much as we can.”
“I could make you mayor of New York City,” says Hamlet.
Horatio laughs aloud.
Hamlet looks briefly outraged. “Maybe not for a while," he says, "maybe not for decades, but once I have my power established, once I’ve been mayor long enough and have enough experience—”
“I wouldn't want it anyway,” says Horatio.
Hamlet looks confused. “You wouldn't?” he says.
“Do you?” says Horatio.
Hamlet pushes his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose, sighs out long and tired. “Here’s what I want,” he says. “I want to be in classes at Columbia right now. I want to be at the lake in Central Park, feeding the ducks. I want to be with you, drunk out of our minds in Times Square. I want to leave in the middle of the night with you and drive and drive and drive until this godforsaken city is so far out of sight I’ve forgotten it entirely. I want to see Wyoming and Los Angeles and New Orleans. I want to touch the Pacific Ocean. I want to read poetry in crowded coffee shops. I want to listen to jazz on the radio. I want my father back, Horatio.”
“I don’t want that,” says Horatio, quiet, and only means the last one.
Hamlet’s silent for a while. Then he laughs and laughs and laughs, as if his heart is breaking. “I know. You think I don’t know? Christ.”
Horatio says, “You still haven’t told me the plan.”
The following is a summary of the camera footage found in the security cameras for one of the dining rooms in the Elsinore Mansion.
A young woman, her hair up in a pale bun, enters, followed by two middle-aged men. These are presumed to be Ophelia Polonius, her father, and Mayor Claudius Denmark. Ophelia is holding a box under her arm.
Ophelia appears to be arguing with Polonius, who is waving his hands frantically. Mayor Denmark does not appear to speak until several minutes into the video, at which point he says something that causes Ophelia to look first irritated, then afraid, then resigned. She lowers her head and says something. Polonius claps her on the back and hands her a novel, at which point he and Mayor Denmark leave the room.
Ophelia sits in one of the chairs at the table and opens the book to a random page. She does not appear to be concentrating on what she is reading.
After a few moments, a young man with dark hair in a Columbia sweatshirt enters the view of the camera. It is assumed that this is Hamlet Denmark. He does not appear to notice Ophelia. Instead, he sinks into one of the chairs at the dining room table and picks up a steak knife from his place. He traces patterns into the tablecloth with the point of the knife; at one point he stops and lays the flat of the blade alongside his cheekbone.
Ophelia does not acknowledge Hamlet, though she does watch him over her book. Hamlet, in turn, remains unaware that Ophelia is in the room for roughly five minutes, at which point he appears to startle badly, clapping the knife to the table with such force that it tears the tablecloth.
Ophelia presents the box she is carrying to Hamlet; he looks first confused, then begins to frantically wipe at his eyes. When she attempts to leave, he blocks her at the door and speaks to her forcefully. Ophelia retorts. This pattern continues for a few minutes, but throughout the conversation, Ophelia avoids eye contact more and more, lowers her head more and more, and glances repeatedly towards one of the mirrors in the dining room.
At one point both Ophelia and Hamlet jump, as if startled by a noise. After this Hamlet goes to the mirror and taps it repeatedly. He then turns and stares directly into the camera.
Here the camera glitches for approximately a minute.
When the footage returns, Ophelia is curled up in her chair. Her face is not visible. Claudius and Polonius enter the room once again, talking excitedly to each other. Ophelia attempts to speak to them, but is ignored; eventually, she tugs on her father’s sleeve. Polonius turns to her. Her face is streaked with tears, and she looks more uncertain than she ever has before.
The camera footage after this point is lost.
Horatio sleeps in the same bed as Hamlet again that night.
Hamlet still isn’t warm enough, but he isn’t cold with the same frightening chill that Horatio felt in the first few weeks he was here. He sleeps on his stomach, limbs sprawled out in every direction; sometimes he smiles in his sleep, but more often he’s tossing from side to side, wrapping himself up in the sheets, rolling until he’s almost falling off the bed. The second time he wakes up that night without any covers on him, Horatio sighs and rolls off the other side of the mattress.
He heads to the bathroom, and when he comes back, the covers are spread out neatly on the bed. Hamlet’s arms are wrapped around his pillow, and he’s facing the wall.
“It’s all right,” says Horatio.
“I’m sorry,’ says Hamlet. “I didn’t realize.”
“It’s all right,” Horatio repeats, and climbs back into bed.
Hamlet turns over, next to him, and a long sigh hisses out into the darkness. “Horatio,” he says, “Christ, you have no idea how lucky I am to have you.”
“Likewise,” says Horatio.
Hamlet laughs, soft. “No, you’re not,” he says.
Horatio looks sidelong at him, can’t see a thing in the pressing black. “When’s the film coming out?” he asks.
“Another week,” says Hamlet. “It was low-budget, limited release. He didn’t need very much time. I think he just hired actors off the street.”
Horatio turns over and stares at the ceiling. “We can still leave,” he says.
Hamlet says, “They’re sending me to California.”
Horatio sits up. “California?” he says, incredulous.
“They’re worried about me,” says Hamlet. His tone is perfectly peaceful. “My mother is worried about me, anyway. I’m glad she worries about something. My uncle thinks I’m dangerous.”
Horatio sinks down into the sheets again. “Is this going to be your chance to leave Chicago?” he says.
Hamlet laughs, soft. “They’re sending me by train,” he says. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are coming with me, can you imagine that? They’ve always wanted a chance to see the Pacific Ocean. They’ve been dreaming about it since they were children. So Guildenstern says, anyway. It might even be true, Horatio. Chicago is never going to leave me.”
“What’s going to happen to you when you arrive?” says Horatio.
There’s the noise of shifting sheets; Hamlet is shrugging in the darkness. “Handed off to the mayor of Los Angeles, probably, or San Francisco, whichever one my uncle owns this week. Encouraged to settle down somewhere quiet. Become a businessman, or a banker. Anything but politics. Marry Guildenstern, probably. Don’t come back.”
He’s so matter-of-fact, so calm, that Horatio can’t help but reach out a hand to touch his face. His fingers come away wet.
“What about your revenge?” he says.
Hamlet says, “The film is tomorrow.”
Included next in the testimony are several scraps from local and national newspapers. The earliest of them is dated years before Hamlet’s birth, and the latest a month before the events of this narrative; in light of this, it is unknown why they were put in this sequence, instead of at the beginning of the testimony. Nevertheless, the apparent wishes of the person who had compiled this collection have been respected, and the documents have been recorded here.
VOTE DENMARK! HE’S THE MAN FOR YOU!
DENMARK ELECTED IN LANDSLIDE!
Hamlet Denmark was elected mayor of Chicago last night by a record margin. Denmark, whose father was also Chicago’s mayor, denied rumors that there was any connection between his father’s immense popularity and his own.
“The good people of Chicago have chosen,” says Denmark, “and they have chosen aright, or so I hope.”
In his second landslide, Hamlet Denmark once again was elected to the post of mayor of Chicago last night.
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM FOR DENMARK
DENMARK IS MAYOR
ELECTION HOLDS RECORD LOW TURNOUT
“I’m afraid that the good people of Chicago are losing faith in the political process,” said Hamlet Denmark, Chicago’s mayor. “And it’s my goal to change that by showing them how much passion and thought can go into a political post.”
DENMARK RUNS UNOPPOSED?
HAMLET DENMARK DEAD OF SNAKEBITE!!!
CLAUDIUS DENMARK ANNOUNCES CANDIDACY
A recording of a television advertisement: a pan of the Chicago skyline, and then a close-up on a smiling family.
Claudius Denmark knows the importance of family. And since the tragic loss of his brother, Hamlet, he’s believed that family is more important than ever.
A shot of Claudius and Gertrude Denmark, waving to a cheering crowd.
Claudius Denmark. Family. Chicago.
A scrap of newspaper:
DENMARK IS MAYOR
“Horatio,” says Hamlet, and wraps his arms around him, tight. “Where the hell have you been?”
“At the library,” says Horatio.
Hamlet brushes at his coat impatiently. “Thank god you’re dressed nicely enough— today’s the day, Horatio! The day of the film, he came and gave it to me last night while you were out, I’ve convinced the local theater to play it just for my family- do you think they’ll guess that I wrote it? They must guess that I wrote it.”
“Are we leaving now?” says Horatio.
“Yes, of course we’re leaving now,” says Hamlet. “We have to be at the theater in half an hour.” He clasps Horatio’s hand, his gaze wide and adoring and fixed. “Horatio, I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“Or I you,” says Horatio, startled.
“No, but honestly,” says Hamlet, “I mean it. Christ, what I wouldn’t give to be you. You can’t imagine what it’s like—I just spoke to Polonius, you understand. At least he’s sometimes honest with you.”
“He’s not,” says Horatio, raising his eyebrows at Hamlet.
Hamlet half-smiles. “At least you’re sometimes honest with me,” he says. “You don’t know how much I’d like to be you. You don’t startle, you don’t let things hurt you. You just take what fortune gives you. If I were you,” and then he smiles, big and full. “Can you imagine living together, Horatio?”
“Yes,” says Horatio, “I think I can. Somehow.”
“I don’t mean in the dorms,” says Hamlet impatiently. “I mean living together, properly living together. In a car, maybe, driving around America, like you said. Or just settled down. With a house, somewhere far away.” His hands are tangled with Horatio’s; he’s smiling into Horatio’s eyes.
“Yes,” says Horatio, and doesn’t know quite what he’s agreeing to, but knows nevertheless that his answer is the same.
Hamlet’s smiling at him, his face close to Horatio’s; then he blinks, and coughs, and steps back. “Something too much of this,” he says, and turns away. “You’ll help me watch my uncle, won’t you? To see what happens?”
“Of course,” says Horatio.
“I’ll be busy,” says Hamlet, “well, I mean I won’t be able to sit with you. I have to sit with my mother, you know how it is. I’ll watch her, I suppose. And I have to sit by my uncle. And Ophelia—” His face goes dark, for a long moment. “Well. Ophelia. Yes, I’ll sit by Ophelia.”
Horatio glances up warningly. They’re in the entrance hall, and there are three cameras here alone.
“Hamlet!” says a sweet voice behind them, and Guildenstern sweeps into view, Rosencrantz behind her. “I’ve heard you have a film for us?”
Hamlet looks utterly panicked for a split second before his face smooths over. “Well,” he says, “I wouldn’t say I have a film, I’ve just discovered it. There’s a director who lives downtown, do you know him,” and he names the man they’d gone to see the other week. “I personally believe he’s a diamond in the rough. Worthy of more attention.”
“How wonderful,” says Guildenstern. “It’s so nice to see that you’re taking an interest in the local populace. Someday you may be able to invest Chicago’s money in film yourself! Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
Hamlet smiles too-brightly at her and offers his arm. Guildenstern ducks her head and takes it. “What a gentleman,” she says, and they proceed down the entrance hall and into the street, Horatio and Rosencrantz following.
They go to the theater they’d seen the film at the other day; Marcellus is posted at the door, and Horatio notices the telltale bulge of a gun under his jacket. He flicks his eyes to Hamlet, but Hamlet’s talking animatedly with Guildenstern. There’s a sort of wildfire in his eyes that’s becoming uncomfortably familiar to Horatio.
The theater’s filled with people. Horatio half-recognizes some of them from newspapers and television, and others from the party at which he had told Hamlet about the ghost; they’re all either active in Chicago politics or media, and all of them have, in some ways, ties or debts to Claudius Denmark. Claudius himself and Gertrude are already seated in the front, their heads bent together, whispering. Horatio sees Gertrude look up, startled, when Hamlet enters the room. She smiles. “Come and sit by me, darling.”
“Best of my love, mother, I’d be glad to,” says Hamlet, smiling sweet at her, “and the lovely company you keep.” He yanks his arm out of Guildenstern’s and dashes down the steps of the movie theater, throwing himself into one of the seats near his mother. In the seat next to him, looking terrified, is a white girl of seventeen or eighteen with long blonde hair. Horatio recognizes her from a photo on Hamlet’s bedside table in their dorm room at Columbia: it’s Ophelia Polonius.
“Shall I sit upon your lap?” asks Hamlet, and winds his arm around Ophelia’s shoulders. At the back of the theater, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are seating themselves, two rows behind Hamlet. Horatio sinks into a seat at the far end of the aisle from the family.
“No, thank you,” says Ophelia. She’s very pale.
“I mean my head upon your lap,” says Hamlet, and proceeds to swing up his feet and lounge himself across his seat so he is doing exactly that.
Ophelia looks sick. She glances towards her father; he meets her eyes and raises his eyebrows. Horatio can’t read the message written in his face.
“Yes, thank you,” says Ophelia, and looks down.
The lights in the theater dim, and a spotlight blinks into life, wavers, and settles on the projection screen. A white man in a suit strides onto the small stage. It takes Horatio a few moments to recognize him: he’s the director they’d gone to downtown.
The room’s clapping, and Horatio joins in, hastily. The director bows. “Thank you!” he says. “Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed mayor, what we present to you today is a film that I conceived some time ago. It is a tale of betrayal, love, and murder; it is a tale that, we hope, resonates in the hearts of each and every one of you today. Though some have called it The Murder of Gonzago, we hope the message that each of you takes is more than murder.”
He exits, and the spotlight fades, the theater fills with applause, again. Horatio hears Gertrude whisper, “He didn’t say what the title of the film really was.”
“It’s called the Mousetrap,” says Hamlet, and the projector crackles to life.
The camera swoops over a city. It’s not Chicago, not quite; the familiar shapes of the buildings are there, but distorted, the time out of joint. The camera soars, then dives, suddenly, down the side of a skyscraper and through one of the windows, where a white man is sitting at his kitchen table, reading a newspaper. On the other side of the room is a white woman with cats-eye glasses, washing plates in the sink. The woman has her hair up in a beehive, and the man looks gruff and professional: the perfect picture of an American family.
“Mother!” says a voice from off-camera, and a little white boy with dark hair runs into the kitchen. “Mother, may I go out to play?”
“Of course, darling,” says the woman, lifts the boy up, and kisses him on the cheek. The boy smiles at her, apple-cheeked, and dashes out of the kitchen.
“You sure do love that boy, Elaine,” says the man.
The woman smiles at him. “Almost as much as I love you.”
The man pushes back his chair, crosses the kitchen, and sweeps the woman into a long kiss. When they pull back, the woman looks star-struck.
“Elaine, I’ve been thinking,” says the man.
“What a surprise!” says the woman. “What’s the occasion?” The audience laughs.
“I’ve been wondering what would happen,” says the man, and wraps her hands in his, “if I died.”
The woman gasps. “Harold, don’t even say such a thing! You’re making me frightened!”
“I have to say such a thing,” says the man. “I know neither of us want to discuss it, but I’m a very powerful man, Elaine.”
“But you’re so well-loved,” says the woman, “and by no one more than me.” They share another long, lingering kiss. “Who could possibly want to kill you? They would have to be an utter monster.”
“Well, I think so!” says the man. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to think about the possibility.” He looks deep into her eyes. “Elaine, I want you to know that if I die, you don’t have to remain a widow forever.”
“What are you saying?” says the woman.
“You can find love again,” say the man, “a husband, to help you, so you can take care of the boy.”
“Harold, if you ever—God forbid—died,” says the woman, “marrying another man would be the last thing I would do. Any woman who remarries is just killing her husband a second time! How could I ever kiss another man knowing I had kissed you? How could I ever let another man into my bed in your place?”
There’s some clearing of throats at the word “bed”, and some uncomfortable shifting in seats. Horatio glances at Hamlet; he’s sitting upright, rapt.
The man kisses her. “I cannot imagine a better wife than you.”
“The best wives are faithful,” says the woman. “I want nothing more than to be faithful to you to the end of my days. Harold, if you died, I would mourn for the rest of my life. I can’t imagine letting another man touch me like you’ve touched me; it would be a betrayal of everything I vowed to you when we married.”
The audience is in a flurry of coughing. Horatio’s eyebrows are raised as high as they will go. Meanwhile, onscreen, the man and woman kiss for a very, very long time.
“Well, with the best of luck, no such monster is going to come after me,” says the man. “Meanwhile, I am married to the best wife any man could ask for.”
“I am not the best,” says the woman, “just as devoted as any woman should be, dear husband. No other man will ever see of me what you have seen.”
“The lady protests too much, I think,” Gertrude whispers. The rest of the theater seems to agree; there’s some whispering, loud coughing and clearing of throats, and Horatio sees one woman slip out the back of the theater, accompanied by her husband.
“Ah,” says Hamlet, his head back in Ophelia’s lap, “but she’ll keep her word. It’s a rare quality in women.”
The camera pulls out from the kitchen into the streets of the strange city that isn’t quite Chicago; it stops on a platform on which the man waves, surrounded by cheering crowds; it stops at the dark-haired little boy, playing baseball with friends; then it flies up and out, across fields and plains, until it stops at a hotel and pans in through the window.
The man is sleeping in the hotel bed alone. He looks peaceful, innocent, lying on his side in the darkness.
A long sliver of light is thrown upon the bed, and there’s a creak. Then there’s another creak, and the light disappears. A shadow appears, before the camera spins and focuses on its face. It’s the dead image of the man sleeping on the bed, except that the eyes are colder, and the face more lined. He’s wearing a long black coat.
From the inside of his coat, the shadowy man pulls out a glass bottle and holds it up. The camera zooms in; it’s filled with suspiciously bubbling liquid, and the label on it reads POISON!!!
Slowly, the man advances on the bed. He unscrews the cap from the bottle and tilts it to the sleeping man’s ear; the bubbling liquid slides, viscous, down the side of the bottle and through the man’s ear canal, into his head.
When the bottle is empty, the shadowy man screws the cap back on and tiptoes out of the room, as stealthily as he had come. On the bed, the man is peaceful for another long, long moment; then his eyes fly open, and he begins to shudder and shake, as if he is having a fit. His skin is growing darker, and it doesn’t appear that he can breathe. He hits the bed, tries to cough, tries to gasp for air. The camera remains on his throes, unmoving, recording every twitch and turn of his body. Horatio hears a gasp from the audience; another woman slips out the back.
Eventually the man collapses, staring straight into the camera lens. His eyes are wide in death.
Claudius rises to his feet. “Lights!” he bellows, loud enough to bring down the ceiling. “For God’s sake, give me more lights!”
The audience erupts into chaos. People are rushing out the doors; the lights flicker, then blaze out, strong. Gertrude is sitting in her chair; she doesn’t appear to be moving.
Horatio looks at Hamlet. The boy is smiling.
The theater is empty before too long; Marcellus and Bernardo escort Gertrude and Claudius out the doors. Hamlet’s still smiling. When he notices Horatio’s gaze on him, he turns the brightness of that smile straight at him; Horatio is almost overwhelmed by the light.
“You saw his face?” Hamlet says. “You saw what he did, Horatio?”
“I saw,” says Horatio slowly.
Hamlet tilts his head back, stares at the ceiling. The grin is still locked onto his face. “It’s an honest ghost,” he says. “My father is honest.”
Horatio looks at him, his head tilted to the side. Hamlet’s eyes have slid shut, but he’s still grinning, like a rictus. His dark hair is falling loose and messy over his forehead, and he looks thinner than ever. The hollows around his eyes are too dark; Horatio feels the hard, fierce thing in his chest flare to life.
“Hamlet,” he says.
“My dear father,” says Hamlet, still not opening his eyes. “King of Chicago. Christ, Horatio, and the script; did you hear them gasp? I’d like to hear them gasp again.” He doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying.
“Hamlet,” says Horatio again, more firmly.
Hamlet’s eyes fly open. “Horatio,” he says.
“I think it’s time to leave,” says Horatio.
Hamlet’s head snaps up. “Now?”
Horatio touches his arm. “What do you have to stay for?”
Hamlet glances around the theater, seems to see it for the first time: the seats covered with red velvet, the rippling projection screen, the dust on the carpets in the aisles. He blinks, slowly, and looks across at the doors; they’re ajar, and the sunlight is pouring into small pools near the entrance.
Then he laughs. “Where are Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern?” he says. “They’ve gone back to Elsinore already, haven’t they?”
“They all have,” says Horatio.
Hamlet blinks again and rubs a hand across his face. Then he says, “Do you have your keys?”
Horatio looks at his tired face, thinks for the first time he can put a name to the aching thing in his chest, doesn’t dare to.
They stop by Elsinore first. The moment they’re in through the door, Hamlet is talking animatedly about a trip down to Lake Michigan for lunch, to walk on the beach and collect stones. Horatio does his best to play along, but it’s hard to explain away taking half of his luggage with him for a day trip down to Lake Michigan, and it’s hard to explain away the money that he tucks into his wallet.
He glances at the camera that blinks quietly on the ceiling of the room they’d assigned him. He hasn’t slept in this room even once; every night has been spent with Hamlet.
Hamlet exits his rooms with a bulging bag and pockets stuffed full; Horatio knows for a fact the cash he’s brought is ten times as much money as Horatio will ever have. Hamlet smiles at him, and for the first time since Horatio came to Chicago, it seems genuine. “Let me take your bags,” he says.
On their way to the front door, they’re stopped by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Guildenstern is smiling a lemon’s smile, pinched and too-sour, and Rosencrantz looks as if he’s been slapped. Guildenstern says, “Hamlet, dear, your mother wants to see you in her rooms.”
“I’ll be there in just a moment,” says Hamlet, “I only have to put these things in Horatio’s car.”
“He has a car!” says Guildenstern. “How lovely! Borrowed from some professor?”
"His," says Hamlet, very sweetly. "He bought it."
Guildenstern looks politely disbelieving. "What a curiosity," she says. "You must let us see it."
“No,” says Hamlet, “we mustn’t,” and sweeps past them and down the hall.
Horatio is parked a few blocks away from Elsinore Mansion. His car isn’t a fancy one, though he's taken care of it as well as he can; it’s just a red Chevy Impala, and with a little work, the roof rolls down to make it a convertible. He tells this to Hamlet, who startles out a surprised laugh and promptly fiddles with the roof until it slides down. Then he hops into the passenger seat and tosses his bag in the back. “Home, Jeeves,” he says, and Horatio climbs in the door, turns the keys in the engine, and presses his foot to the gas pedal, and they’re going, going, gone.
They leave Chicago behind.
Hamlet turns on the radio once they’re outside of city limits, twirls the dial until he finds a song he knows; Elvis, maybe, or another of the rock ‘n’ rollers that they’d listened to at Columbia. Horatio’s head feels clearer than it’s been for the past month. There’s so much sunlight pouring out of the sky, lighting up the road, and it runs straight and clear and into the plains as far as either of them can see.
“Where shall we go first?” says Hamlet, delighted.
“Everywhere,” says Horatio. “Anywhere you want.”
Hamlet stretches out in his seat. The wind’s blowing through his dark hair, and it’s a mess of strands pulled every which way; he’s never been someone who could be a model for a car company, and it makes the fierce thing in Horatio’s chest feel warm, and light as air.
“Let’s go down to Texas,” he says, “I’ve never been.”
“Where have you been?” asks Horatio.
Hamlet laughs, barely audible over the rush of wind. “Chicago,” he says. “New York City.”
“What about when your father was traveling?” asks Horatio, surprised. “I know he came to visit us in New York City more than a few times, years ago, and I know he took his wife. Your mother. You would have just been a child.”
“I stayed in Chicago,” says Hamlet. “With Rosencrantz’s parents, sometimes, or Guildenstern’s. He was first elected mayor just after the end of the war, you know.”
“I know,” says Horatio. “It’s history. We learned it in school.”
“Really,” says Hamlet.
“What did you learn in school?” says Horatio, raising his eyebrows.
“Well,” says Hamlet, “we learned how to cross ourselves properly. It was Catholic, you see. And we learned Latin, and I learned some Greek, and French. And Mathematics, and Physics, and how to paint, and play the piano and the violin. And we read Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift, and some of Emerson and Thoreau, but that was only for a day or two before they made the teacher stop.”
“You are astonishing,” says Horatio. “What about amateur filmmaking?”
“I don’t believe that was covered,” says Hamlet, with a straight face.
“You are a Classics major,” Horatio marvels.
Hamlet laughs. “With an education like that, dear Horatio, how could I not become a Classics major? It was that or major in Theology and become a priest, and that’s for youngest sons, not eldest.”
“Your father was the eldest of four, wasn’t he?” says Horatio.
“That’s why he became mayor instead of them,” says Hamlet, simple and unapologetic.
They drive in silence for a while. Horatio says, “Did you want to become mayor of Chicago?”
Hamlet says, “Do you mean after my father died, or after my uncle dies?”
“Either,” says Horatio. “Both.”
Hamlet’s silent, considering. He sighs, eventually. “Do you remember when I heard my father was dead?”
Horatio does, all too well. It had been early in the morning, in the very first days of June, and he and Hamlet had been awake all night studying for their final exams. The room had smelled of coffee and insomnia; Hamlet had been laughingly giving Horatio a dramatic reading of a passage in the Iliad, about Achilles and Patroclus, and Horatio had been so tired that all he could quite comprehend was that Hamlet had the softest hair he had ever seen.
There had been a knock on the door. Horatio had gotten up to open it; the white man at the door had ignored him, said, “Hamlet Denmark, sir? It’s urgent that I speak to you.”
“Well, come in,” Hamlet had said.
The white man had glanced at Horatio. “Alone, sir.”
Horatio had done his best to focus his bleary eyes on his textbook for the next ten minutes as their voices murmured outside in the hall, but it was no use; the words had gone in through his eyes and out through his ears. He’d looked back up eagerly when Hamlet had returned to the room, and gone still in shock. Though Hamlet’s eyes had been red-rimmed and sleepy before, they hadn’t ever looked quite so hollow.
They haven’t stopped looking so hollow since. “I remember,” says Horatio.
“The man there told me,” says Hamlet, and closes his eyes in remembrance, “‘I’m so sorry to have to inform you of this.’ And he looked sorry—he really did. And then I found out in the newspaper two days later that he’d become police commissioner just after my uncle was elected.”
“How many people knew?” asks Horatio. “Did you ever find out?” It’s the first time he’s asked what the ghost told Hamlet; the memory of the violence in Hamlet’s eyes frightens him, still.
Hamlet shakes his head. “My father only said that it had been given out that he had died of snakebite. He didn’t say who knew it was poison.”
“How did he know?” asks Horatio.
Hamlet blinks in surprise. “Know what?”
“What your uncle had said about how he had died,” says Horatio. “Does he—where had he been? Was he in… this world, all that time?”
Hamlet shakes his head. “No,” he says. “He hasn’t been. He can only come to this world at night,” and he looks so haunted that Horatio doesn’t have the heart to press on.
“But,” says Hamlet, and rubs at his eyes, “there was something he said after that. He said,” and he turns and looks at Horatio, “the king is dead. Long live the king.”
“Long live the king,” echoes Horatio.
The wind rushes past them, as if it has somewhere important to go. Hamlet tilts his face up to the sky. “Horatio?” he says.
“Yes,” says Horatio.
“You said you didn’t want to be mayor of New York City,” says Hamlet. “But you never really told me why.”
Horatio considers it for a long, long time. Then he says, “Your family is going to be chasing us.”
“That’s not an answer,” says Hamlet.
“Hold off a while and listen,” says Horatio. He looks out at the road unrolling under their wheels, the curve of the landscape, the endless sun and sky; he wants to find the right words for this. “When I say your family, I don’t just mean your mother and your uncle. Polonius will be coming, too, and Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz. They might bring Laertes back from Boston to find what he can. And Marcellus, and Bernardo, and Francesco, and everyone else in the world they can find.”
“But that’s just because I have enemies,” says Hamlet, “that doesn’t come with the territory of being mayor, if the mayor of San Francisco’s son went on a road trip they wouldn’t be happy, but they wouldn’t chase him down like they’re doing to me.”
“Listen,” says Horatio. “It’s not about being elected mayor, Hamlet.”
“But that’s exactly what it’s about—” says Hamlet, before Horatio turns his head and looks at him, calm and sad. He subsides. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not about being elected mayor,” says Horatio. “The mayor of San Francisco was elected, and his family doesn’t act like your family; if his son went on a road trip without their permission, they wouldn’t be happy, but they wouldn’t chase him down, because he doesn’t have power like you have power.”
“I don’t understand,” says Hamlet.
“The name Denmark means something, Hamlet,” says Horatio, quiet. “It doesn’t mean something because your family is good at campaigning. It doesn’t mean something because you’re popular with the people. It means something because your family has won every election for the last seventy years, and every politician from Los Angeles to New York City knows what that means, even if they won’t say it to journalists. It means something, and that means you have power. Not because you’ve earned it; not because you’ve done great deeds, or been a prodigy. You have power because you were born to the right parents.”
Hamlet’s silent for a long time. Then he says, “You could be mayor of New York City without being that. You wouldn’t have to pass it on to your children, or your relatives. You could just keep it to yourself.”
“You don’t understand,” says Horatio. “I’m not refusing to be mayor of New York City because I don’t want to be mayor of New York City. I’m refusing to be mayor of New York City because you offered it to me.”
“I don’t know what I would do without you, Horatio,” says Hamlet, and it’s soft, desperate.
Despite himself, Horatio smiles. “I don’t know what I would do without you, either, he says.
“You do,” says Hamlet. “You know just what you would do without me. You’d go back home and find a new roommate to get drunk with, and actually get your studies done, and get a PhD in something useful, and you wouldn’t be forced to live anywhere, or run away with anyone, or get involved in any of this.”
“I don’t want to do that,” says Horatio patiently.
“Yes, you do,” says Hamlet.
“Not without you,” says Horatio, because it’s true.
The road unrolls under their wheels, and the radio hums around them. They drive on, away from Chicago, a car against the wind, boats against the current.
The sun sets before either of them were expecting. They find a town to spend the night in; it’s not big, but Horatio doesn’t think Hamlet minds. There’s a motel, and a bookstore, and two restaurants, and no movie theater.
The two restaurants are a diner and a bar. They choose the diner without much discussion; neither of them particularly want to be in a bar tonight.
The woman who runs the diner is fat, smiling, and is wearing a spectacularly bright red dress; she looks almost like Horatio’s mother, and there’s a sharp spike of homesickness for his family in Horatio’s chest. He shoves it down.
“We don’t often see strangers around here,” she says to Horatio. “You here to stay, or just to visit?”
“Just to visit, ma’am,” says Horatio. “We sure appreciate your hospitality here, though.”
The woman beams. “I love a boy who’s polite. What’ll you have?”
“What’s your special, ma’am?” says Horatio.
“We-ell, the cook’s made up a soup he’s proud of,” says the woman, “but just between you and me, boys, I’d ask for the grilled cheese, or the pork sandwich. He ain’t at top form.”
“How’s the pie?” asks Horatio.
“I make the pie,” says the woman, and laughs, big and expansive. “So I sure think it’s better than any other around.”
“Then I’ll have a grilled cheese with side of French fries,” says Horatio, “and a Coke. And a slice of your blueberry pie, if it ain’t too much trouble, ma’am.”
“It ain’t,” says the woman, smiling at him. She turns to Hamlet. “And for you, sir?”
“The same, thanks,” says Hamlet. He’s staring at Horatio as if he’s not sure who he’s seeing.
“Thank you, ma’am,” says Horatio to the woman. She beams at him and bustles away.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak like that before,” says Hamlet. His voice isn’t quite warm. “Is that your natural accent?”
“No,” says Horatio. “If I used my natural accent here, I’d be laughed out.”
Hamlet frowns. “But I’m not laughed out. Am I?”
“Of course you’re not,” says Horatio. “No one’s going to laugh you out of anywhere. You know that."
"No one here knows who I am," says Hamlet. It's unsettled, almost a question.
"No," says Horatio, patiently. "They don't have to."
Hamlet takes that in; Horatio watches him do it. “But she spoke to you first,” he says, eventually. “Not me. She asked you what you wanted.”
“Sure,” says Horatio. “I look like I belong here.”
Hamlet leans forward. “If you had spoken in your natural accent,” he says, “would you have been laughed out because you sound like me?”
“No,” says Horatio.
“Do you sound like me?” says Hamlet, after a pause.
Horatio looks at him for a while. “No,” he says at last.
“What is your accent?” says Hamlet, sitting back. He’s looking at Horatio like he’s never seen him before.
Horatio tilts his head to the side, looks Hamlet in the eye. “Hey,” he says, “you ain’t worried about me lyin’ to you or nothing? I ain’t the type, you know me. I won’t put nothing past you.”
Now Hamlet really is looking at Horatio as if he hasn’t ever seen him before. “That isn’t how you talk,” he says, flatly.
“Of course it's not,” says Horatio. “No one who talks like that studies at Columbia.”
“But you do talk like that,” says Hamlet, narrowing his eyes. “You have talked like that. That’s how you would speak if you weren’t spending time around me. When you think, that’s what the voice inside your head sounds like.”
Horatio shrugs. “Sometimes,” he says. “Sometimes it isn't. I always speak to you in exactly the voice I think.”
“What was the voice were you thinking in when you were speaking to this woman?” asks Hamlet, and he looks fascinated at last.
“I was thinking in the accent you’re hearing right now,” says Horatio.
Hamlet purses his lips. “When did you start to speak like—like me?”
“You never met my first roommate at Columbia,” says Horatio, “did you?”
“Never,” says Hamlet, but his eyes are narrow again. He knows Horatio’s roommate well enough from what Horatio has told him of his first month spent with the man.
“That’s when I started speaking like you,” says Horatio.
Hamlet half-laughs, outraged. “But he couldn’t possibly have had an accent like me. He was from the Upper East Side, for God’s sake. They don't sound at all like me there.”
Horatio hesitates. "You sound," he begins, and then stops. "You listen to the radio, don't you? You've seen films."
"Of course," says Hamlet. "But I never learned to talk like—like that waitress from the radio."
"I don't think anyone does," says Horatio, slowly, trying to feel out the words. "But if you—if I pay attention, and I listen closely, I can learn to do—something. I can learn to speak in one voice sometimes, and another voice at other times. I can learn to think in both voices at once." He pushes his napkin across his plate, embarrassed. "I'm not the only one. Almost anybody can do it, I think. Most people do. If they have to. If you—if we—if we hear one voice in our heads, and another voice on the radio."
“You are astounding,” says Hamlet, with real feeling. He’s staring at Horatio with such admiration that Horatio can’t quite meet his gaze.
"I'm not trying to be astounding," he says to Hamlet. "I just hope you understand me."
“Here’s your food, boys,” says the woman, and drops two plates heaping with French fries in front of them. Horatio spots a sandwich dripping with melted cheese, but it’s barely visible, buried somewhere underneath the mountain of fries.
The woman slides two slices of blueberry pie across the bar at them, and then two glass bottles of Coke, a curl of steam rising up from the neck. “Sure hope you enjoy,” she says.
“Thanks, ma’am,” says Horatio. Next to him, Hamlet’s unfolding his napkin and spreading it out on his lap.
“Thank you,” says Hamlet to the woman and to Horatio both.
Horatio eats his food; Hamlet nibbles on his French fries, looking pensive. It’s only when they arrive at the blueberry pie that he perks up, and digs in as if he’s never tasted a pie before.
But the thoughtful, almost melancholy look returns to his face as they make their way down the avenue to the motel. There are trees spread out above them, branches reaching out to make a perfect arch; far above, stars glimmer. It’s one of those quiet towns where the lights aren’t bright enough to drown out anything but the faintest of stars. The Milky Way spills in a line above them like a river of headlights, bright and brilliant, and the moon is a golden sickle above the trees.
“What was the point?” says Hamlet.
“I’m sorry?” says Horatio.
“My father spent time and energy and money to make sure I had the greatest education he could imagine,” says Hamlet, “sent me to New York City for it, and what was the point? I don’t know how to act. I don’t even know how to speak. All I can do is jump hoops like a trained dog, like some thing that knows one trick and can’t even do that right. Everything I’ve been taught is useless compared to what you know, Horatio, and I can’t even learn it again. All I can do is be as useless as I was brought up to be.”
Their footsteps click on the sidewalk. The night is cooling fast; Horatio’s breath crystallizes in clouds in front of him, a white trail leading him forward into the darkness. He slides his hands into his pockets and looks up, at the glowing constellations winding their ways across the black.
“When I first began to room with you,” he says, “I never spoke in the voice that I thought in. I sounded like a stage-show puppet, when I tried. I can’t just begin to think as if I were from Chicago, or the Upper East Side, or somewhere else; I’ve thought in this voice for a long, long time. It’s part of who I am, now.”
He looks ahead. “The boy who I had roomed with before you didn’t mind me so much when I spoke like him. He ignored me, but it was better than before. And I’d had enough practice by the end of my first month at Columbia that by the time I met you, I could imitate the way you spoke exactly.”
“You ain’t the type to lie or nothing,” says Hamlet flatly.
“I can’t put on an accent when I’m drunk,” says Horatio.
Hamlet looks at him sideways.
“You didn’t care,” says Horatio, “when I met you. So I stopped trying, and that was when I found I didn’t have to try. I could just speak to you, and it came out the way that you spoke.”
“I changed the inside of your head,” says Hamlet, and he sounds sick.
“It wasn’t you,” says Horatio, “it was me. I couldn’t have gone on speaking like a Harlem boy at Columbia. I wasn’t going to.”
Hamlet says, “All that—the inside of your head for a boy from Seventy-Second?”
“It wasn’t only him who paid attention, you know,” says Horatio, and it’s a little sharp.
Hamlet brushes him off, impatient. “You think I believe you care what the other students thought of you? I know you too well for that one to slip past me.”
“Not the students,” says Horatio. “The professors.”
Hamlet shoves his hands into his pockets. “You should have told me,” he says. “I would have spoken to them, Horatio, I would have, you have to believe me. If I had known the boy from the Upper East Side when you were still living with him, you can’t imagine what I would have done, Horatio. Believe me, I would have ruined their careers, I would have made sure he never saw the fraternity he wanted to rush again.”
“I know,” says Horatio, and smiles into the starry sky.
The bed’s smaller than they’re used to, at the motel, and when Horatio wakes up in the middle of the night Hamlet’s limbs are tangled with his, his hair pressed to Horatio’s cheek. Horatio closes his eyes.
By noon the next day they’ve made it into Missouri. They’re switching off driving daily now, the sun beating heavy on their faces. The towns are farther and farther apart; they’ve gone whole hours without seeing anything but collections of trailers and tires, clustered together like people huddling for warmth.
But not long after crossing the Missouri border, the buildings begin to come faster and taller; the road is crossed by first a few other roads, and then more and more, so that by the time the sign comes reading You Are Now Entering St. Louis, they’ve been in it for half an hour already. Horatio shares a glance with Hamlet; Hamlet raises his eyebrows. “Do you want to stay in Missouri long?” he says.
“The road goes through Missouri for a while,” says Horatio. “I don’t think we have a choice.”
“I suppose you can do this accent, too,” says Hamlet, sounding resigned.
“They may not take as well to it,” says Horatio.
Hamlet frowns. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe it’s better if we’re both from Chicago,” says Horatio.
Hamlet’s eyebrows lift. “It’s better to both be from Chicago than from you to be from here and me to be a foreigner,” he says. “If I could learn to do the Missouri accent in the next ten minutes, that might be more viable—”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” says Horatio.
“You’re laughing at me,” Hamlet accuses him. “Laughing at an innocent boy for the skills he was deprived of as a child.”
“Yes,” says Horatio.
Hamlet sticks his tongue out at him. Horatio elbows him in the side, and from then it’s a flurry of motion: Hamlet trying to get at Horatio, Horatio trying to fend him off and drive at the same time. Eventually Hamlet subsides into his seat and sets his feet up on the dashboard. “Fine,” he says. “Fine, you may be that way, and I will track mud onto your windshield.”
“Clean it off, then,” says Horatio. They’re in the city proper now, tall buildings and people walking back and forth on the road. They’re mostly men in business suits; one casts the two of them a dirty look, and Horatio realizes, suddenly, how they must appear, the two of them in days-old clothes, Horatio behind the wheel and Hamlet in the passenger seat.
“I think we should put the roof up,” he says.
“I think we should leave the roof down,” says Hamlet. “It feels so lovely and free in my hair.”
“I’m not joking,” says Horatio. “We look like beatniks.” He doesn’t say what else they look like.
Hamlet sighs. “Maybe I’d like to be a beatnik,” he says. “Maybe I would like to snap my fingers along to the beat of a saxophonist in a smoky jazz club. Can you play the saxophone, Horatio? I ask because if you do not, you certainly need to learn.”
“Lean back and tug it over,” says Horatio. Hamlet leans back and tugs the roof over.
“Pull over,” he says, “find a parking spot. I want to see if I can find a newspaper.”
There’s a newspaper stand nearby; Hamlet purchases a copy of a local paper and a more far-ranging one, then shoves his hands in his pockets and contemplates the stand. “Should I take up smoking, Horatio?” he says.
“If you want to smoke inside my car, no,” says Horatio.
“You ruin all of my fun and are terrible,” says Hamlet. He doesn’t seem to be watching the words that come out of his mouth; instead, he’s walking back to the car, opening up the local tabloid—owned by his family, Horatio suspects, like most of the newspapers in this part of the world—and paging through.
It’s not long before he huffs and tosses it in the backseat of the car, where the wind promptly snatches it away and down the road. Then he opens the one with the wider coverage, turns to the second page, and swears in a tone of admiration.
“Listen to this,” he says. “Nutty Nephew of Denmark Disappears. That’s about as inspired as it gets.”
“Hamlet,” says Horatio.
“No, listen,” says Hamlet. “Hamlet Denmark, nephew of Mayor Claudius Denmark of Chicago and son of Chicago’s former mayor, disappeared last night. However, as this newspaper has recently learned, this disappearance was not out of the blue. Hamlet has been known for some time to be struggling with insanity after the tragic death of his father. ‘Recently known’,” he mocks, “how recent is that, a month ago, two? I think the newspapers in Australia picked it up last week.”
“Hamlet, don’t do this,” says Horatio.
“There’s more,” says Hamlet, sounding positively delighted. “‘In what this paper suspects to be a bout of his insanity, Hamlet reportedly said that he was ‘taking a trip’ to downtown Chicago yesterday afternoon; however, he never returned from this trip, and witnesses on the street said that they saw him entering a red convertible.’ And then it has a picture of me. This is positively fantastic, Horatio, this is incredible.”
Horatio swears, very quietly. Hamlet turns to him. “Horatio!” he says, delighted. “I didn’t think you had it in you!”
“We’ll stop at a restroom,” says Horatio, grim. “Did you pack scissors?”
“Of course I packed scissors,” says Hamlet, “I’m not barbaric. Why, do you need a pair?”
They pull off at a restaurant, and slip into their bathroom. It’s patterned with red tile, its mirrors gleaming, and the electric lights flash bright off the scissors. Horatio lowers his arm, peers at Hamlet’s head in the mirror.
Hamlet runs a gentle hand over his head. “It feels light as air,” he says. “How much longer?”
“Just a few more minutes,” says Horatio. “I don’t suppose you’re willing to grow a beard or mustache.”
“I don’t think I can,” says Hamlet, half-laughing.
“Well,” says Horatio, “we’ll see if we can find some bleach. It won’t be perfect, but it’ll be better than having you look like you do now.”
“You aren’t cutting all your hair off,” says Hamlet.
“I wasn’t mentioned in the article,” says Horatio. “There aren’t any pictures of me circulating newspapers and television.”
“Hm,” says Hamlet, and runs a hand over his hair again. “I’m glad.”
“I don’t understand why not,” says Horatio. “You left with me.”
“They must know I’m with you,” says Hamlet, frowning. “They must not know it’s your car, though.”
“But Guildenstern knows I own my own car,” says Horatio, “and the last time anyone saw us was when we were going to it.”
“They must think I abandoned you,” says Hamlet, “or that I stole the car and took off. They don’t think you’re with me.”
“Why can’t I be with you?” says Horatio, snipping at the sides of Hamlet’s head with the scissors.
Hamlet glances up at him. “You don’t know my family,” he says, amused. “They wouldn’t believe that you could come up with an idea like this, and they can’t imagine keeping anyone with them who isn’t useful to them. It’s a family value.”
“A family value?” says Horatio, raising his eyebrows.
“A family trait,” says Hamlet. “We leave behind anything that we don’t need.”
“You said we,” says Horatio. “You were saying them, earlier.”
“Oh—” says Hamlet. Horatio can see his face go red in the mirror. “My family doesn’t believe in keeping anyone who isn’t useful. I don’t believe in keeping anyone who I don’t need.”
“That must be a very cold way to look at things,” says Horatio, moving with the scissors to the other side of Hamlet’s head.
“Not any more,” says Hamlet.
Horatio raises his eyebrows and continues to snip. Hamlet sticks his tongue out at him. “You don’t have to look at things that way,” he says. “You’re not going to be mayor of Chicago.”
“I should think a mayor needs everyone,” says Horatio.
“Well, obviously popular support,” says Hamlet, “up to a point. You know my family.”
“I know your family,” says Horatio.
“We have more enemies than friends,” says Hamlet. “Well, my family does. My father didn’t have enemies. Except one, I suppose, but he didn’t exactly know about that. Either way, we learn to do what we have to. If someone isn’t useful, my family needs to be able to betray them if that’s what it takes. It’s the way it works.”
Horatio catches the edge of Hamlet’s ear with the scissors; Hamlet jerks away. “Too close.”
“You could just take the keys and drive away,” says Horatio. “No one really minds if you speak like you do at a diner. I’m not useful to you.”
"I don't care whether you're useful,” says Hamlet. “I need you. Are you almost done?”
“Yes,” says Horatio.
They stop for lunch on the outskirts of St. Louis, and then spend the rest of the day driving on and on, through Missouri. The landscape is very beautiful, and very green; gleaming rivers wind their way by the road and then depart, and the buildings are small and quaint.
“Can you pull over, Horatio?” says Hamlet. “I see a plaque by the side of the road, I want to read it.”
“I don’t think so,” says Horatio.
Hamlet frowns at him. “Yes, you can. Why can’t you pull over?”
“I’m afraid your family is catching up,” says Horatio, grimly.
The following is an article clipped out of a national newspaper, this time dated from what appears to be the time this narrative takes place.
MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF DENMARK CHILD DRAWS ATTENTION
Hamlet Denmark, son of Chicago’s former mayor, disappeared last week.
His uncle, Mayor Claudius Denmark, declined to comment, saying that Hamlet’s failure to return to Elsinore Mansion after a trip downtown last week was not as troubling to them as it might appear. “Hamlet has been dealing with some tough times since the death of his father,” he said. “We know he will return when he’s ready to be a part of the family again, and we’re ready to welcome him with open arms when he does.”
His wife, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude Denmark, agreed.
“Hamlet is going through a phase,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll be back when he comes to his senses.”
However, Hamlet’s best friend, University of Chicago attendee Rosencrantz, seemed more worried.
“He was pretty mad,” said Rosencrantz. “I think he might have gone back to New York City. It seemed like he missed it a lot.”
Though Claudius and Gertrude Denmark do not appear to be worrying about Hamlet’s whereabouts, they have begun a campaign of advertising in New York City for his return. The city has been papered with flyers stamped with a photograph of Hamlet for a few days now.
“I don’t know who that boy is,” said a New York resident, “but it seems like his parents sure do want him back. If I see him around, I’ll be sure to report it.”
After hearing of Hamlet’s disappearance, the resident seemed more concerned.
“Well, a celebrity is a different thing,” he said. “Everyone in this city knows his face now. They’ll know what to do with him if they find him.”
Mayor Vincent Impellitteri is working with Mayor Denmark on this matter.
“Mr. Denmark and I are good friends,” said Impellitteri. “Anyone who works for the city spotting Hamlet around will bring him directly to me, and I’ll deliver him to Mr. Denmark. Hamlet Denmark will have no
Here the end of the article has been torn off, with some force. The last word has been lost.
“So we don’t have a choice,” says Horatio. “We have to head west.”
“We have a choice,” says Hamlet. “We can choose to go home, and be yanked back to Chicago before we can breathe. Or we can head as far away from New York City as we can go.”
“They want you back very badly,” says Horatio.
“They want me back very badly,” Hamlet confirms. His mouth twists into a smirk. “My uncle wants me back very badly, anyway. I’m a loose cannon out here. Who knows what I’ll say, or to whom?”
“He doesn’t know what you know,” says Horatio.
“He has a good idea,” says Hamlet. “Christ, did you hear him in the theater? ‘Give me more light, give me more light!’ Like that was going to help him.”
Horatio tilts his head. “You showed your cards.”
“Not entirely,” says Hamlet. “He might have still thought it was coincidence, for a while. It probably took some time to track down the director and ask him where he got the script, and more time to bribe him with more money than we bribed him with to get him to say who wrote it.”
“How long?” says Horatio.
Hamlet shrugs. “Check the date on the newspaper.”
“So they’re coming after us,” says Horatio.
“No,” says Hamlet, “they’re not. Because they think I’ve been heading across Indiana and Ohio and Pennsylvania, to New York, and they think once I read this article I’m going to turn around and come back to Elsinore. So my uncle will have people all along the major roads from those places back to Chicago.”
“Why won’t he just wait for you to come home?” says Horatio.
“Because the director told him who wrote the script,” says Hamlet. “And now he knows that I know what he did to my father.”
“You can play that off,” says Horatio. “Say that someone else told you to write it, an enemy of his. Make it look like you were just a pawn of some greater scheme. He’ll believe it.”
“You think he’s going to wait around to ask me questions?” says Hamlet.
Horatio looks at him across the table. “He is coming for you, then,” he says.
Hamlet rubs at a spot with his finger, looks down. “Now’s the time to leave,” he says, quiet.
“I’m not leaving,” says Horatio. “I’m planning. How long will it be before they realize that you didn’t try to go to New York?”
Hamlet shakes his head. “God knows.”
“And how long before they realize which way you are going?” says Horatio.
Hamlet shakes his head, again. “It all depends.”
“On what?” says Horatio.
“On whether or not my uncle has to be secretive about this,” says Hamlet. “Whether or not he has to hide it from my mother.”
“Your mother,” says Horatio.
“My mother might be expecting me to come home,” says Hamlet. “Or she might be working with my uncle on making sure I don’t. It depends on how much she knows about what happened to my father.”
“You think she was in on it?” says Horatio, raising his eyebrows.
“No,” says Hamlet, and “Yes,” and, “I don’t know. Listen.” He reads from the newspaper again again: “‘Hamlet is going through a phase. I’m sure he’ll be back when he comes to his senses.’ What is that supposed to mean? Look, there's nothing written here my uncle didn't want me to read. ‘We’ll welcome him with open arms’, yes, I’m sure.” He rubs at his forehead. “Maybe he’s known I knew what he did to my father this whole time. He’s been—dangling New York in front of me, like bait on a hook. Waiting for me to get as close as possible before he jerks it out of reach.”
“How did he get to Mayor Impellitteri?” asks Horatio.
Hamlet tilts his head. “He’s always had Impellitteri. Our whole family’s always had Impellitteri. O’Dwyer before him, too. Whoever was mayor before that.”
“Don’t tell me they owe your family a favor,” says Horatio, suddenly tired.
“I won’t tell you anything you don’t want to hear,” Hamlet promises him. Somehow it’s not reassuring.
Horatio pulls the newspaper back across the table. “I’m sure he’ll be back when he comes to his senses,” he repeats. “Is that supposed to be a threat?”
“Of course not,” says Hamlet, “there’s no power behind it. Well, except her disapproval, and I’m a big boy, I’ll be just fine if my mother doesn’t like what I’m doing.”
“The same as your uncle?” Horatio suggests. “A way to pressure you into returning to Chicago?”
“Unnecessary,” says Hamlet, “and repetitive, and redundant.”
Horatio sighs and leans back in his chair. “Well,” he says, “maybe she meant it.”
Hamlet looks at him sidelong. “You really believe that, don’t you?” he says.
“Your family doesn’t do that sort of thing?” says Horatio.
“Not unless we have to,” says Hamlet.
“You're extraordinary,” says Horatio, and when Hamlet says, “What?” he says, “Nothing. Do we leave the country, then?”
Hamlet narrows his eyes. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to run away.”
“It’s that or be captured,” Horatio points out, “and then killed. You might not have a choice.”
“Where on Earth would I go?” says Hamlet. The hollows beneath his eyes are as dark as they’ve ever been.
“Mexico,” says Horatio. “Canada. Argentina. Cuba. Australia. The Soviet Union, for God’s sake.” Hamlet’s not responding; his eyes are vacant, his gaze blank, and Horatio reaches across the table, takes his wrist. It’s light as air, too fragile and too cold, like bird bones. Hollow. “Hamlet?” he says, soft.
Hamlet looks at him; looks through him, more. He’s seeing something Horatio isn’t, on the wall behind him, in another world. “Hamlet?” says Horatio again, and winds his fingers through Hamlet’s, presses his thumbs to the back of Hamlet’s hands.
Hamlet looks at him, suddenly, tired and ancient and cold. “Horatio,” he says.
The summer seems, suddenly, to be changed; not gone, entirely, but warped beyond recognition. The sunlight winding its way down from the sky is watered down, pale. Horatio presses his foot down to the gas pedal in an effort to choke some energy out of the world, wonders if this is how Hamlet feels all the time.
They stay in motels and dirty hotels, awake in tangles of limbs and body heat at three hours past midnight, pull themselves apart and bury themselves in their pillows. They show fake identification at any bar that'll have them both, get as drunk as they've ever been, get drunker, get tossed out on the street at aching hours of the morning. They sleep in worn-out beds, in the car, on carpets sticky with cigarette residue and things they’ve never had cause to name; they let the road open up before them, cut through the landscape like a knife, grey asphalt and yellow plains and greyer sky, on and on, horizon without end.
Horatio loses track of the days—they’ve lost the habit of looking at newspapers. So he’s not entirely sure how long they’ve been on the road, how long they’ve been sleeping in the same bed, when he begins to dream of Hamlet.
In the dream they’re in New York again, New York City at night, and the cars are pouring down Broadway like a river of milk and honey, all headlights and taillights. Horatio knows, in the dream, that he’s never been this high above the city in real life, that he’ll never be this high, that the only people who reach this height have a hundred times more money than he will ever earn; but the view is perfect in every detail, nevertheless, and he drinks it in.
He’s standing by a window. It’s an enormous window, and the glass stretches from the top of the wall to the bottom. Horatio’s not afraid of heights, he never has been. He presses his hands to the glass, stares out over the city.
“You could have it,” says a voice behind him, and Horatio turns to see Hamlet. It’s not Hamlet as he appears now, though, all shaking hands and a face like a skull. It’s Hamlet as he knew him in the heart of their days at Columbia, his eyes alight and brilliant. He’s dressed in an impeccable dark suit, and he’s playing with one of his cuffs. His eyes are fixed on Horatio.
“I don’t want it,” says Horatio, patient.
“Of course you do,” says Hamlet, and in the way of dreams, it’s less than a moment before he’s behind Horatio, pressed to his back, his hands curling around Horatio’s wrists. “Look; there’s the Empire State Building.”
“Look,” says Horatio, and guides Hamlet’s finger to the harbor. Liberty’s crown is gleaming with reflected light.
“What do you want, Horatio?” says Hamlet, and he’s in front of Horatio, in the way of dreams, between him and the city, still pressed against Horatio’s body.
Horatio says, “You know what I want.”
And, as always in these dreams, Hamlet says, “Of course I do,” and winds his fingers through Horatio’s hair, leans in.
Horatio opens his eyes.
Hamlet’s wrapped around him as usual; they seem to draw near each other, even when they don’t intend to. Horatio swears to God they begin each night on separate sides of the bed.
It’s a cold night, and the motel they’re staying in apparently charges extra for heating. Horatio curls tighter around Hamlet’s body and tries to pretend to himself for a few moments that he’s just doing it for the warmth, then gives up. The curse of honesty is that it becomes increasingly difficult to lie to yourself.
The thing in his chest is tight and hot and burning like a candle flame, and Horatio closes his eyes, still does not dare to put a name to it but lets it fill him with its glow. Hamlet is too cold beneath him, and his bones still too fragile and too light.
They return to reality somewhere just across the border of Oklahoma, where the grasses are long and yellow and a summer storm sweeps across the sky in the blink of an eye. They’re screaming at the sky, trying to drag the roof back over the car in the middle of driving, and halfway in between thunderclaps Hamlet begins to laugh, and it’s as if a dam has burst; Horatio is laughing, for the first time in a very, very long time, and Hamlet has his feet on top of the dashboard for the first time since the opening days of their trip, and the rain is pouring down hard enough to start a flash flood, or a revolution, and the lightning smacks the sky above them like a warning.
That evening, when they pull into a town that looks like it’s quiet enough for them to stay the night in, Hamlet catches Horatio’s wrist. “Let’s see a film,” he says.
“A film,” says Horatio.
Hamlet looks down and to the side. “I know,” he says, “we don’t have the money,” and they don’t. They’ve known they’re going to run out of funds eventually since they read the newspaper cutting them off from New York City. There’s no way to get more, after all. If they get a job, there’ll be a paper trail leading Claudius’ men to their front door; if they stay anywhere for longer than a few nights, there’ll be someone who tells someone who tells someone else, and Claudius’ men will be chasing them down faster than ever.
So the money they’ve brought with them is all the money they can get; it is, most likely, all the money they will ever have. They’ve been doing their best to spend frugally, but Horatio’s been watching it run down like a ticking clock, an hourglass, slow and painful and inevitable.
But Hamlet looks old again, like he hadn’t this afternoon, and Horatio finds himself saying, “Yes, of course. Let’s see a film.” And Hamlet looks happy, and it’s cut their lifespan down by days, but it doesn’t matter; it’s enough.
It’s a political noir thriller of some type. Horatio can’t quite parse it. There’s a man in a well-cut suit and a battered old fedora with a cigarette constantly dangling between his lips, and a femme fatale with a slit in her dress that goes all the way up to her hip and a cigarette just permanent as the man’s, and gunshots, and rain. The hero wanders his way through the dark streets of some city or another; for a long few minutes Horatio is convinced that it’s Chicago, and finds that he isn’t able to breathe properly.
Hamlet’s attention is on the film as usual, and Horatio recalls the film they saw with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so long ago. The theater’s not full of teenagers and young people this time. In fact, it’s almost empty; the only other people in it besides them are an old man nodding off in the front row and his wife, blinking slowly at the screen.
Horatio wonders, in a single terrifying second, what would happen if he were to lean over and kiss Hamlet right at this moment, without warning. He allows himself to picture the idea—whether Hamlet’s lips would be soft or chapped and rough, whether he would kiss back with energy or let himself be kissed, what his tongue would feel like, his hands, his hair.
But onscreen the villain has slipped a pinch of white powder into the femme fatale’s drink, and she hasn’t noticed. She lifts it to her lips and downs it in one swallow, runs her tongue around the corners of her mouth, and pronounces it delicious, and Horatio realizes Hamlet isn’t breathing.
He presses closer to Hamlet, lets his hand rest on top of the other boy’s. Hamlet’s frozen; every muscle in his body is as tense as can be. His fingers are gripping the armrest of the chair as if his life depends on it.
Horatio slips an arm around Hamlet’s back, presses him gently up. Hamlet follows his lead willingly, all the way out of the exit aisle and into the freezing Oklahoma night.
“I’m sorry for wasting your money,” says Hamlet dully when they’re halfway back to the hotel.
“None of that was my money,” says Horatio, because it’s true, and because there’s nothing else to say.
Hamlet sinks down on the bed, and he looks so lost, like a child much younger than he is. He says, “Horatio?”
“Yes?” says Horatio.
“Can you tell me a story?” says Hamlet, and his voice is a child’s voice, and the hot, tight thing in Horatio’s chest hurts worse than anything else he’s ever felt.
“Hamlet,” he says.
“I want to hear about something that isn’t spies,” says Hamlet, “or guns, or poison. Can you tell me about that?”
“I can try,” says Horatio.
“I was hoping,” says Hamlet, and for a brief moment Horatio allows his heart to leap, “I was hoping those things weren’t still real. Are they, Horatio?”
“Look,” says Horatio, and draws back the curtain on the hotel bedroom. The stars are scattered across the sky, and outside, the concrete is bare and the road stretches from one side of the window to the other, no farther. The wind’s hissing against their windows. “There’s nothing out there.”
“If there’s nothing out there?” says Hamlet, “then what was that noise?” And before Horatio can reply, he seizes Horatio’s wrist. “Horatio. Tell me a story.”
Again, the documents that follow are not chronologically located here; instead, the creator of the testimony chose to include them in this position for what must be reasons of his own.
The documents themselves appear to be dated from almost exactly one year ago, the previous summer.
Finally home! The Windy City, the Second City, the Devil’s City, you know how it is. Father insisted on me returning home for the summer—suspect he has been Influenced by maternal sources, cannot say more.
Dreadfully boring here without you. Dreadfully happier here without you. (An utter lie.) Am sure you are happier without me; do not care. How are the Other Half living? (This is a joke. Am not sure if certain people in this house are aware that this is a joke. Family: not recommended.)
I woke this morning and the sun was not even pouring through my curtains. Can you imagine missing our ridiculous old threadbare curtains? I certainly doubt it, H, you were never the storyteller of us two. (Look at me speaking as if you were in the past tense!) Well, I do miss them, and so there! They at least awoke us at a reasonable hour. Yes, yes, I also miss waking before noon, I know I am ridiculous, I can see you shaking your head from a thousand miles away and I do not find it acceptable.
Anyhow. I woke this morning at half past twelve; no one had bothered to slam through the door and demand I start the day. Think they may be more afraid of me than they will admit. Mother, Father and Uncle busy, anyway, and the rest sycophants.
Except Ophelia, of course. Ophelia still just as lovely as I described her to you. How does one tell when they are in love, H? Do not answer that; I can see you rolling your eyes, too. All right, I am nineteen, I am not in love, I will give you that.
But back to my narrative. Awoke at half past twelve and wandered downstairs in my pajamas. (Also miss those patched old pajamas of yours, no matter how I mocked you for them each morning. Please tell me you have not tossed them in a trashcan as they rightfully deserve, my heart would be forever broken.) Found that lunch had been made for me, as usual, and did not eat it. Food here tastes better than at university and has less heart. Yes, yes, I know Soviet children are weeping for want, I will certainly send all of this heartless food to them.
Father returned from his important business, whatever it was. (Suspect there was slightly more posing for cameras to be done than there was important business, but I do not begrudge Father a thing and never shall.) Kiss kiss hug hug, et cetera, or whatever the emotionless equivalent is for magnificently reticent paternal figures; anyway, H, he offered to take me with him when he departs for the Capitol this next month! Enormously exciting. (Also—would be closer to you. Worth considering.)
Told him I of course needed more time to think, because he appreciates deep thought; resolved immediately to contact you for advice. Have never been to Washington; hear that it is very very hot in the summer. Worse than New York? Would not know, never having been in New York in the summer. (Hint hint, H. (Also a joke. I am fully aware of the reasons that I could not stay with you this summer, even if I resent you enormously for them. (Still a joke.)))
Reading all the time! Reading rather too much, I think; Bernardo has, on behalf of probably either Father or Uncle, offered to teach me to shoot. I think Father is afraid that I am not manly enough; he is right, of course. Agreed to take him up on it. Practiced in a special room for what seemed like years and years yesterday, and was utterly miserable at it. I can see exactly what your face may look like at this moment, H. No, I shall not give up at it, whatever you might think!
I may give up at it. Honestly, H. More civilized age, and all that. Twentieth century. (Two world wars already. I laugh at the term “more civilized age”, though I suspect that certain Others may not.)
So! Two questions. Firstly, ought I to go to the Capitol with Father? And secondly, dear H, how are you?
Sarcastic as ever, I see. I have indeed missed that sharp tone berating me from noon until night. (Joke.)
Well, I shall go to the Capitol, and spite you! No, I don’t do it just to spite you, don’t worry. As it turns out Father’s impatience is slightly more than I had judged; it seems to me that in our time at university both you and I have quite forgotten how to interact with humans who are not each other. I have ruminated and discovered a perfectly good solution: go and live together for the rest of our natural lives, never allow others to intrude on our perfect harmony. (Also joke, mostly.)
I digress. I was saying: Father, it seems, meant the offer to accompany him to the Capitol to be less of an “offer” and more of a “request”, and when I still did not understand what he meant, made it clear that it was less “request” and more “demand”. I dare you to have a hotter summer than I, Horatio; at least your chosen city was not built on a godforsaken swamp.
Excited, truly, despite your direst warnings. (I do adore your direst warnings; they are like a voice coming from my past, a reminder of Brighter Days.) May in fact meet the President. Have never met the President, despite what half of campus seems to believe of me. (In truth: do not look forward to meeting the President. Do not feel comfortable with his stances on foreign policy. Know little to nothing about foreign policy compared to him and so will be completely unable to debate him on it. Actually, come to that, will be completely unable to debate him on anything due to Father. C’est la vie.)
You remember I mentioned earlier that we seem to have both forgotten how to interact with others? (Pleased to hear of your mishaps, by the way; good to know that you are human, and not a robot from a more than usually poor science fiction film. I had been beginning to wonder. (Also joke.))
Well! The brave Laertes, brother to the nymph, faery, girl of all girls, flower crown and summer day Ophelia, felt it was his Duty to confront me in my room today. At quite close quarters, actually; at one point I began to wonder if—but that is quite irrelevant. Laertes demanded to know the relationship I had with his sister; I made a number of outrageous and definitely implausible innuendos and completely failed to explicitly communicate the truth, which is that I have not laid a hand on the fair maiden since we were both too small to understand what it meant.
You would have understood my meaning, Horatio. Dauntless Laertes is far more literal than we erudite philosophes. Such is the price of academia. Dear reader, beware!
I believe Laertes plays football at Harvard? Or baseball, or perhaps polo; I could honestly not tell you to save my life. Anyway, I was terrified for a long few moments that he was about to challenge me to a duel for the maid’s honor, which I would have lost handily, never having touched a sword in my life. (Would not surprise me at all if dearest Laertes was in fact a fencer. He does seem the type, by which I mean too rich to be a boxer and too thick to play chess. Good Christ, but we have grown snobbish from each other, haven’t we? Oh, don’t flatter, H, I know it’s just me. You could not be snobbish if you tried. I rather adore you for it.)
Lucky for us all Laertes managed to calm his Adonis-esque rage and we were able to work out the fate of his sister between us. It was all very medieval, H; I suppose you would have despised it.
I continue. Laertes and I decided I would not deign to touch Ophelia until she was married. Notably, he did not think to specify that I could not touch her until she was married to me; it must have slipped his mind. Pity, that. I do hope he is not studying to be a lawyer. His faith in what I believe he assumes to be basic principles of human decency will bite him in days to come.
It is difficult, though, H. Ophelia is the loveliest creature you have laid eyes on since eyes were invented (by whom? do not answer that, I know you have an answer ready and I know I will not like it). I want nothing more than to sweep her into an alcove like we would one of our New York girls and kiss every inch of her from top to bottom. You must understand.
Please tell me you have found a delightful romantic liaison with which to pass the summer, H? I could not bear it if we were both utterly without luck for these whole three months. We may have to find each other and make do. (Joke.)
You are utterly ridiculous, and I hope you know this.
You will doubtless have noticed from the postmark on this letter (perceptive, H, likely the hallmark of a brilliant physicist or chemist or alchemist or whatever it is you study) that I have arrived in Washington, the District of Columbia, and it is utterly and frightfully hot, as you predicted. Will make a bet with you: whichever of us melts first will be bought the first round of drinks back at home. No cheating!
Your news—or lack of news, I suppose—regarding romance troubles me deeply. What on Earth could our summer be without girls (or women) for illicit trysts in the greenery? (Is there any greenery left in your portion of that dreadful city we call paradise, or have we managed to burn it all away? Perhaps that is why we cannot find girls; we are lacking in the nymphs that once ran through the beloved lands of old America. Don’t laugh, I dare you.)
The Capitol is the loveliest city I have ever laid eyes on, excluding Chicago and New York City. Yes, do the math in your own head, H, show me that brain is good for something. It is swelteringly hot, I am rather disgusting, you would love it.
Luckily Ophelia’s Dearest Brother did not accompany us to this accursed city; unluckily, neither did the maid herself. (Is she a maid? Cannot imagine she is not.) Who did accompany us: Mother, Uncle, Polonius, and Francesco, who has taken over the duty of teaching me to shoot. Still hopeless. Do not intend to improve. Buried myself in the Greeks for roughly twenty hours during the trip here; not entirely sure if father approves. When I am mayor of Chicago, I intend to implement a mandatory study of the Greeks for every citizen. (Joke, H.)
Polonius as wonderfully unctuous as ever. Have found myself bullied into a hundred different restaurants and publicity stunts and meetings without my knowledge, and we have only been here a few days. Cannot imagine all I will have done by the end of the week.
Polonius I have no picture of to show you—I will sketch his likeness below. He is a dreadful old man, and neither Father nor Mother nor even Uncle likes him much, I believe. No idea how he has become so powerful. Suspect it has much to do with what these bourgeoisie pigs call “money”. Suspect it ought to be abolished. (In case any of Senator McCarthy’s estimable men are floating around the stratosphere and reading this letter: joke, joke, joke.)
Here a likeness is drawn of Mr. Polonius. It is surprisingly true to life, with the exceptions of Polonius’ age being exaggerated greatly and his eyes much more beady and calculating than one might expect.
Observe, reader: is this the face of an honest man? Well! I do believe learning to tell honesty from the face is one of the most valuable skills men like me could possibly learn. Might help you as well, H, in the world I seem to have dragged you into. Apologies.
Ye gods, H, what a life we lead here in the Capitol. Have been to more dinners in this time than I had in the whole of our time at university; notably, have drunk far less beer. The wealthy have all the wrong priorities.
Have not met the President. Have met at least thirteen senators, and am currently wondering which of them will betray me. Suspect all of them; I have been kissed on the cheek by ambitious men more often than in all my years combined. (Lies and slander; I have been kissed not at all. Utterly outrageous. May demand a refund on birth certificate.) Would happily be sold to the Romans for gold if it meant never having to choke down another wine eked out of the Dust Bowl with a smile plastered to my lips. (Have never enjoyed lying as much as you seemed to believe of me. One never enjoys what is necessary as much as one must pretend, H.)
Am not entirely sure what I have toasted. Suspect it may be the downfall of civilization. Would not entirely mind.
I am joking, dear H, whatever you may believe of me. It’s strange—though you’re closer than you ever were when I was trapped in dreadful shining Chicago, I can no longer picture your face as clearly. Could it be I am losing my memory? Perhaps Polonius has been slipping things in my drink. Would not put it past the old bastard.
Tell me everything about your life.
Tell me about New York City in the summer. I remember Central Park covered with snow, and the flight of the ducks over the buildings and away; I want to know what things are like when the ducks are still home, and the children run about shoeless and coatless. (Feel free to tell me how hot it is again. I shan’t mind at all.) What colors are Empire State Building in the summer? Is it lovelier than in the winter? Everything must be lovelier when it’s not winter.
I miss the city, H. Can you tell? I certainly hope you can’t, it’ll ruin my manly reputation. (Hah.)
Went on an Excursion with Mother today. Think she misses me; this is of course only to be expected, I would miss me too, I am an utterly singular child. We wandered down to some shopping district she had discovered, and she bought me terrible champagne, which she drank glass after glass of, and watched the tourists walk past on the avenues. Asked me if I liked the champagne. Pretended innocence of all alcohol, now and forever. Am fairly certain she believed me, the fool.
In the evening we attended some horrific socialite’s ball. Was introduced to roughly a thousand eligible bachelorettes (bachelorinas? bacheloresses?) at the event, some of whom were, according to Mother, far more eligible than others. One was actually the granddaughter of a Supreme Court justice, can you believe it? Of course you can’t, I cannot believe it and I witnessed it with my own eyes.
Took one fair-haired menace out behind some aesthetically putrid marble pillars as the night wore on. She returned to the party with her lipstick smeared all over; did not bother to tell her so. In retrospect, possibly a mistake; she was flung with some force out of the back double doors by her outraged mother a few minutes later, and she looked nearly as furious herself. Made an executive decision to hide in the shrubbery. We were in a quite large indoor garden, but there was an enormous window that stretched from floor to ceiling and I feared very much for my life.
Eventually the girl was forced to walk back through the party and, doubtless, exit via the elevator in utter disgrace. She was not even a very good kisser, H, sloppy and without any technique. Without any experience either, I believe, since an experienced girl would have known to check her lipstick in a hand mirror afterwards. I have seen them do it a dozen times.
While hiding in the shrubbery, though, I had some time to contemplate my place in the universe. As one does. I am sure Thoreau would have been proud of me.
I will admit it, H; you were right. (Yes, gloat.) The Capitol has been utter hell and has always been utter hell and will always be utter hell. I will take Father’s admonition for not studying political science for a thousand dollars over the chance of becoming trapped in this inferno for eternity. At least the Greeks and Romans possessed the basic courtesy to stab each other to their faces. (Mention Caesar, H, go on, I dare you.) This city sucks at my soul. They tend to, H, all except dear dreadful New York. Are you aware of what good fortune Fate bestowed upon you when she placed your soul in that city? Of course you aren’t, you old skeptic.
Do you ever get the sense that things are repeating themselves? No? (Ah, at last I can picture your face with a more vivid clarity.) There are more things in this world than your philosophes and alchemists and Jazz Age dreamers can hope to dream of, H. Yes, go on, disbelieve me, the power of your denial is the bedrock upon which my faith in the future rests.
I digress—I hid in the shrubbery for a good half hour before deciding it was an optimal time to re-enter the fray; dearest Mother did not appear to have noticed my absence, having been imbibing cocktails as if there were no tomorrow, or at least no tomorrow that did not contain more cocktails. No idea what she would do without Father. As it is, she has proved herself a rather admirable drinker, and showed few ill effects from the night’s revels. (I suppose I inherit my lightweight streak from Father’s side of the family, then, though I do not enjoy the thought.) We were driven home with all pomp and circumstance, and I was not questioned further about my misadventures or disappearance.
Disappearance is a funny word—so many meanings, H. I disappeared at the party but did not manage to disappear from Mother’s mind; she interrogated me as fiercely as a Bolshevik spy on which girls I had met and how I had liked each of them all the way back to the hotel. Do not feel to have disappeared in this godforsaken hellhole of a city; as exposed as daylight, wherever I am. The trouble with a city like the Capitol is that everyone reads the news.
Have I insulted your delicate sensibilities with my constant complaints, dear H? I can perceive your pinched expression from all the way down the Atlantic coast. All apologies. Say the word and I will redeem myself in whatever way you see fit.
This city makes me bitter. (A lie; I was already bitter.) I am too clever for it and not wicked enough- yes, a city that even I am not wicked enough for. Well, here is the unvarnished truth of it: I am aching to touch New York again. If I cannot return I will simply lay my head down and die. This is a practical solution, yes? They taught us well at university.
Come and rescue me.
Yours, yours, always yours,
Is there no way you could force yourself to Philadelphia, at least? Word from Father is that he may sanction a trip to the City of Brotherly (hah) Love if he believes it is for a Good Cause, viz., my political ascension. No idea how a visit to Pennsylvania opens up my chances in Chicago; suspect that Father is planning a run for President in my future. Not sure whether Democratic or Republican platform. Not sure if even Father can orchestrate national elections with any sort of precision.
Conspire with me. What are all the possible ways in which two innocent schoolboys (are we still schoolboys, or have we progressed into full-on Scholars? Perhaps even Academics) may find their way to each other?
I speak like we are arranging secret trysts in the garden, Pyramus and Thisbe á la nineteen-fifty-eight, I can hear you telling me so. Well that is quite beside the point. The point being: can you arrange it or can you not? I was under the impression that you were quite trustworthy as a worker of miracles; if this trust is broken I will be suitably disappointed. (Unless of course you are a master manipulator and this is exactly what you intended me to believe, in which case I will be heartbroken but impressed. Choose for yourself, of course.)
I do wish I could tell you more of my adventures in the Capitol but the charm wears thin, H, for me as well as for you. (Yes, yes, I can read between the perfectly penned lines you write me, don’t act so surprised.) There have been no more girls belied by unfortunate lipstick; there have been no more illicit shrubbery dives; there have been endless, endless dinners at which I am expected to be impressed by terrible wines and boring, boring dinner guests. Everyone in the world except you is boring, H. You have ruined me for other people. (Lies and slander. I proudly claim the mantle of ruination in mine own life, so far as I deserve it.)
The summer wears on. Independence Day passed; there were fireworks and pies and celebration and utterly glorious strong drink. (I am so very bored, H.) How was it in New York? Brilliant, I suspect, but thank you for not telling me so. I am withering without you as it is and of course have no need for further reminders of what I miss without you in my life.
Arrange for transportation on your end? Will arrange it on mine.
Am strongly tempted to make some sort of dreadful threat out of a terrible Hollywood noir flick at the end of this: that I will see you soon or never see you, I suppose. I utterly adore terrible Hollywood noir flicks. See one with me.
For my sins, yours.
H STOP TIME AND PLACE WORK FOR ME STOP BUY YOU ALL THE DRINKS IN PHILADELPHIA STOP BRING DANCING GIRLS STOP JOKE STOP H FULL STOP
Well is it my fault you can’t read signs? Of course not. Your dear darling mother clearly never taught you adequate navigational skills as a child; this obviously explains multitudes about your character. (No idea why you haven’t simply slit my throat in my sleep. God knows I would have.)
Dearest and darling and most beloved Mother has sent for Ophelia from Chicago. Looking immensely forward to her arrival as you can no doubt imagine. (Christ I must have bored you in Philadelphia.)
I have a thought: let’s make a plan. Yes, I know there’ve been too many plans already, I’ve gathered that from the fiasco in the pub. I don’t mean a plan for a visit or an adventure—well, I suppose I do mean a plan for an adventure, if it comes to that. A Great Adventure. Perhaps the Greatest.
Look at it this way, H: the bombs are falling all over the world and you and I both know this country’ll be a radioactive wasteland before the century is out. Oh, don’t give me that look; you know I’m right, and, oh—do you ever think sometimes that you can feel the curve of the world? Not the Earth, I mean, just the universe, or the stars, or perhaps even Time. I can feel an ending coming, and it is coming soon. I know in my heart I will not live to see the new millennium, and for God’s sake, if I can’t see it I demand that you not see it either. Drawing a line here. Of course that’s selfish, my friend; you knew I was selfish a long, long time ago.
I mean what I say about an Adventure, H. There’s an ending coming and I want to see everything before it catches up to me. Besides, where are we supposed to go once the world has ended? I mean to see the universe, and I mean you to come with me.
Let’s be honest, it’ll be me coming with you. You always were the practical of us dreamers. Oh, I’m speaking about you as if you’re in the past tense again.
This letter is rambling and nonsensical. I should give it all up and tear it apart but I can’t quite bear for some reason to destroy what I’ve written. Egotistical or sentimental? You draw the line.
Well, let’s aim for some hope of salvation before I close. I’m sitting at my desk in my hotel room in Washington. There’s a surprising amount of stars for a metropolis; I’d expected all the human lights would drown them out, as they so often do. Perhaps that’s the problem.
Did we ever stargaze in New York? What am I saying, how could we have? I will have you know I am a champion stargazer, H. From here I can see how Venus blinks at me like a warning light; you know better than anyone how poor I am at heeding warnings.
The energy’s gone out of me all of a sudden. Wish I could visit the ocean. Wish I could walk with you by the harbor and look out at Liberty, or by the Battery. Miss the cold sea.
Occurs to me that perhaps I cannot actually see your face and have just been making it up this whole time. Can you see mine?
The moon’s like a coin tonight, H, all gold and shining down on this godforsaken city. I suppose I could learn to love it if I had to. I am stone-cold sober and tired and I believe I could learn to love anything if I had to, Washington or Chicago or even this beautiful spinning doomed Earth, but H, I don’t want to have to.
Could fit the moon in the palm of my hand tonight. Look at me getting sentimental in my old age. I turn twenty the September we return to university, you know. Imagine—another September and I will be able to buy you drinks without having to bat my eyelashes at the bartender like a prostitute. (Will also be able to vote. Polonius etc. very excited for this day, as you can no doubt imagine. Will be Adding My Voice to American Democracy. Hah.) Expect me to be calling you “kid” and hating that newfangled Rock And Roll. (Have always wondered: what does it mean to be fangled? Can one fangle? Does one need a license? Mysteries abound.)
Miss the New York ocean. Tell me all about it.
Yours, yours, yours,
No, still not recovered my old energy. Perhaps for the best.
One more month! And then I can see your face in person. (Thank you for the lie that you could see mine, by the by. I can imagine you admirably now.)
Ophelia Is Here. A week ago it was that Ophelia Had Arrived. Soon it will be that Ophelia Is Leaving. I am no poet, my friend, but I think you see my point. Meant to thoroughly ignore her brother’s dire threat, possibly for hours at a time, only to find that Laertes has apparently gotten to my mother. Ophelia kidnapped into the mysterious world known as Women. Disappears with my mother into strange shopping districts and comes out laughing. Puts makeup on in the morning. What happened to the innocent girl I knew, I ask you?
When I left her for you she was sixteen and innocent as a flower. (Probably a lie.) Now she has been seventeen since May and goes about powdering her face and trying on dresses. Explain Women to me, H; I know you have sisters, I know you must know all of their secrets.
Anyway—no excuse to escape from parties into shrubbery now. Pity. Parties are interminable and become even less terminable as the summer wears on. Expected to be fascinated by my delightful escort all the time. Sometimes the escort is Ophelia; much of the time it is not. Many ladies apparently under the impression that I am the most eligible bachelor in the United States. Treating them with the utmost disdain, of course; one should always take the opportunity to be Byronic.
Come and be my Shelley, H, and escape with me to some castle out in the middle of nowhere to drink and laze about and be the talk of the town. Don’t care what the neighbors say. Don’t care what you say, of course. How on Earth am I supposed to survive another summer without running away with you? Fully intend to ignore your direst warnings as well as Laertes’. (Don’t make that face, darling, you knew I was impossible when you married me.)
Taken to long walks on the beach. Ocean is incredible and immense and impressive, even if it is not quite New York. One wonders what it might be like to sink into it. How many dread pirates’ bones float in the deepest trenches, and how many shipwrecked sailors? Would the weight of your clothes sink you down or buoy you up? What would the water feel like in your lungs?
I must admit that the thought of sinking into the oceans’ depths frightens me like nothing else. The thought of continuing on—oh, this is blasphemy, H, be sure not to report me to a priest—but the thought of an eternal soul is terrifying. I don’t wish to go on without my body; I don’t wish for resurrection. I wish for an end, if anything. A cessation. A silence.
I am sure everything that has occurred to you this summer is fascinating and brilliant and adventuresome and that you have simply been withholding it so as not to make me jealous. I find it necessary to thank you deeply but explain that this is unnecessary; I am already more jealous of anyone who has seen your face over this last week than any jilted cuckold could hope to be.
Moon still too bright. Some days can feel your hands in mine; other days cannot even remember what your face looks like. This may be what insanity feels like. If so, be sure to take notes for Posterity.
I miss you.
Yours as always,
Last letter either of us will have time for. How long until I see you again? Another week?
The family and I have returned to Chicago to spend the rest of our summer here. Ophelia and Mother have retreated from their relentless campaign to become the terrors of any dress shop within a hundred miles. Must confess myself relieved to have Ophelia her old self again. She wanders the mansion, pores over awful romance novels, and speaks with excitement of attending a girls’ college in the East. Seems to be the only thing she lives for.
Rather hope she does come East, in fact. (Could introduce you two to each other, and then I’d never hear the end of it.)
Nothing to say but that this week seems very long already.
Yours, yours, who else but yours,
“A story,” says Horatio, and rubs the bridge of his nose. “Hamlet, you know I was never the storyteller of us two.” And Hamlet looks tired, but not death-tired, not tired in the way that he’s looked for too long. His eyelids are drifting down, and the corners of his eyes are smoothing over.
“Come on,” says Horatio. “Let’s go to bed.”
They’re both under the covers before Hamlet says, almost asleep, “You know I can sleep on the floor if you want me to.”
“It’s all right,” says Horatio.
“It’s not all right,” Hamlet insists, around a yawn. “I’ve imposed on you enough, for God’s sake. Just say the word.”
“It’s all right,” says Horatio again, quiet, and when Hamlet makes a sleepy noise of protest, loops an arm around him. It’s the first time they’ve really, truly touched outside the small hours of the morning. Horatio’s woken up in the middle of the night and found Hamlet pressed against his side, has stretched out alongside Hamlet sometime between midnight and dawn, but they’ve never acknowledged it outside of the quiet hours before sunrise.
Horatio glances at Hamlet, for a moment uncertain, but Hamlet’s eyes have already slid shut. The room is dark; outside, the moon gleams down like a coin.
Horatio lets sleep swallow him whole.
They’re almost into Texas when Horatio says, “Tell me about Ophelia.”
“Ophelia,” says Hamlet. “Pretty. Blonde. Polonius’ daughter. Nearly went to college in the East. Didn’t.”
“Hamlet,” says Horatio, gently.
“Hm?” says Hamlet, bright and innocent.
“Tell me when you’ve stopped trusting me,” says Horatio.
Hamlet blinks, and then sighs, and shakes his head. “I never will stop,” he says. “For my sins.”
Horatio says, “Then tell me about Ophelia.”
Hamlet half-smiles, a quick slash of pain on his face gone as soon as it arrives. “What do you want to hear, Horatio? What she said the first time I gave her flowers, when we were young? What I said to make her trust me again when I came back from New York this summer? What she looks like naked?”
Horatio is quiet.
“I would tell you the last,” says Hamlet, and it feels different than it should, open and stripped and bare. “If you wanted me to.”
“You can start with the second one,” says Horatio.
Hamlet laughs. “Christ, what did I say to make her trust me again? I can’t even remember. It must have been good, though. Do you know, I never wrote her from university? Not even once. A whole childhood together, and not a single letter.”
“You didn’t write Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, either,” says Horatio.
“They expected it,” says Hamlet. “They always knew it wasn’t going to be that way between us, I think. Ophelia was different. Polonius’ daughter. She was allowed to feel that way about me. She was allowed to be hurt.”
“Is anyone else allowed to feel that way about you?” asks Horatio. It’s an honest question.
“From my family’s point of view?” says Hamlet. “Mother. Uncle, now, I suppose. Sometimes Polonius.”
Horatio lets himself focus on the road. “Go on about Ophelia,” he says.
“I wrote her poems,” says Hamlet. “You knew I wrote her poems. You read one, I think.” Horatio doesn’t bother to deny it, and Hamlet flashes a half-smile at him again. “Christ,” he says. “I must have written her a hundred poems. They never taught us how to do that at university, and not before university either. It’s like wading through a river upstream, trying to get the words to do what you want.”
“And she liked them?” says Horatio.
“You remember her brother spoke to me,” says Hamlet, “about whether or not I was allowed to touch her before she was married.”
“I remember,” says Horatio, quiet.
“It was only flirting for a very long time,” says Hamlet. “Through my mother’s wedding, for sure. I think we were still only flirting by the time you arrived in Chicago. I think we were still only flirting by the time I saw my father again.”
“You think?” asks Horatio.
“There’s a lot I don’t remember clearly,” Hamlet says. “Especially about Chicago. There’s whole parts of that time that are just—gone from my memory. Like I was drunk.” The breath hisses out of his lungs. “I won’t say I wasn’t drunk for a lot of them,” he says, “but there are times when I was sober that I can’t remember. Won’t, maybe.”
“But you remember her,” says Horatio.
Hamlet laughs again, and it looks as if the sound pains him. “Yes. Yes, I remember everything about her.”
Horatio can see him lean back in his seat, stretch his arms over his head. The landscape rushing past them has become dryer by the day; no more the overhanging trees and suburbs of Missouri. The dry grasses and bare-bones hills of the Oklahoma roads have spanned the horizon for what seems like years.
“Whenever it was,” he says, “no, it was after Laertes had left again for Harvard. It must have been, because that was when she began avoiding me. I didn’t understand. I asked after her, tried to find her, just to discover some kind of explanation. If she just didn’t want to see me, I’d let her go, but you have to understand, what she was doing was out of character.”
He stares straight ahead. “We did meet again. She looked angry, and I don’t know why. You’d gone home for the day. The people in the mansion that weren’t in bed were downstairs, at one of Uncle’s parties, you know his parties—”
“You were alone,” says Horatio.
“I asked her why she was avoiding me,” says Hamlet. “She never did answer me.”
There’s a long silence. The sun streaks down the cloudless sky.
“She’s beautiful,” says Hamlet. “More beautiful than you can imagine.” He looks at Horatio, all thoughtful dark eyes. Then he says, “Horatio, do you like girls?”
The heat’s rising off the ground in quivering waves. Horatio says, “No,” because he doesn’t see any point in lying. It’s not as if he’s ever been good at it, though if anyone else in the world had asked—
“If you’d seen Ophelia, then,” says Hamlet, and then he laughs, a cracked sound, and then he’s sobbing into the dusty air. “Christ,” he says, “Christ. Christ, Christ, Horatio, what a pair we are, you and I.”
“You don’t like girls either,” Horatio says, slowly.
“I like them,” says Hamlet, and laughs, again. “I liked her. I loved her.”
“But?” says Horatio.
“But,” says Hamlet, and sighs, a long hiss.
The dry wind whips by. Horatio says, “What happened next?”
“Do you want the details?” says Hamlet. It’s an honest offer, but Horatio shakes his head.
“All right,” says Hamlet. “After we—well. The night after that was the night my family bullied you into staying with me, I think. You know I never really saw her again after that. And then you told me that you’d found my box of letters open on my bedside drawer, unless that was before you moved in. I can’t remember, Horatio.”
“So you didn’t spend any time together again after that,” says Horatio.
Hamlet says, “Once.”
“When?” says Horatio.
“Before the film,” says Hamlet. “It wasn’t—in the way you’re thinking. I didn’t touch her. Well, I didn’t touch her like that.”
Horatio glances at him. Hamlet’s staring straight ahead, and his eyes are very far away. He says, “Whenever I talk to you about trust, you never seem to understand what I mean.”
“I know you trust me,” says Horatio.
Hamlet laughs. “Christ, Horatio. You don’t even know what that means.”
“I know what it means well enough,” says Horatio, stung.
Hamlet turns to face him, his eyes wide. “I didn’t mean—You can’t think I meant that you were, I don’t know, ignorant. I didn’t. I don’t.” His face is so imploring that Horatio relents instantly, and Hamlet must see it in his face; he relaxes into a soft smile. “When I say I trust you,” he says, and rubs at his face. “God. She had—there’s a hundred things from the world I can stand, but the hundred and first, Horatio, and from her—”
Horatio reaches out instinctively to touch his arm. Hamlet’s face is too blank, and he says, “There’s another storm coming, you know.”
Horatio looks ahead. Sure enough, far ahead, there are dark grey clouds massing like armies on the horizon. He can see lightning snap down from the sky.
“Something’s going to happen,” says Hamlet, and it’s more weighted with hopelessness than anything Horatio’s heard since he arrived in Chicago.
“Something’s going to happen,” says Horatio, and pushes his foot to the gas pedal, and speeds toward the rain.
They cross the Texas border somewhere in the middle of the tempest. There’s lightning cracking all around, and Horatio pulls to the side of the road in the middle of a tiny town where the streets are empty and the river is more mud than concrete. They stumble out of the car; Hamlet hasn’t bothered to drag the roof up, and Horatio can’t quite say he wants to be dry.
The diner’s full of people. None of them are white, and Horatio feels relief coil low in his stomach. They’re staring at Hamlet with too-blank eyes, of course, but Horatio slings a dripping arm around his shoulders and guides him to the counter.
“Can you tell us if there’s anywhere to stay here?” he asks the man there.
The man frowns, pinched. “Northerner?” he says.
Hamlet glances at Horatio, his eyes wide. Horatio blinks, frozen, and Hamlet coughs. “Not far north,” he says. “Just Colorado, or thereabouts. We have family down here.”
“Both of you,” says the man.
“Well, he has his family,” says Hamlet, “and I have mine, and they’ve known each other forever. And his dear Uncle Jim has just had a baby with Aunt Marianne, and so they’ve told us to come down here to see it.”
The man at the counter looks minimally less tight around the jaw. “I’m supposin’ you’ll want to see a menu, then,” he says.
“Well, we’d be happy to know what the special for the day is,” says Horatio, recovering his voice.
“Tomato soup and grilled cheese,” says the man.
“Is it any good?” asks Horatio.
“Everything I cook is good,” says the man, staring him down.
“Very pleased to hear that,” says Hamlet. “We’ll have two of those and two Cokes, thanks.” The man nods a fraction at them and turns to the other customers at the bar, and Hamlet leans over to hiss into Horatio’s ear. “No accent today?”
“Never learned it,” Horatio hisses back. “No one to learn it from.”
“So there's something you can't do," Hamlet murmurs, half-laughingly.
"There's plenty I can't do," says Horatio. "Just not—when it comes to you."
Hamlet stares at him for a moment. Then he says, “I'll be in the bathroom.”
He pushes himself off his stool, weaves his way through the tables and chairs over the black-and-white patterned floor, and then he’s through the door of the bathroom and gone.
Horatio hears a cough behind him, and turns. It's the man at the counter; his face is still stony, but different—more intent.
"Son," he says quietly, "are you all right? Do you need any help?"
Horatio nearly laughs. He manages to stop himself in time, and says, "No," and amends it: "No, sir. Thank you. I'm just fine."
The man at the counter looks no less skeptical, but he purses his lips. "You let me know if you change your mind," he says quietly, and moves away. Horatio’s left staring at the door of the bathroom, where Hamlet disappeared.
Then he remembers: his first night back, a party a little like this, and his first glimpse of Hamlet’s face in months. He slides off his stool, makes his way over to the bathroom door, and leans on the wall by the door. Somewhere behind him, inside the bathroom, there’s Hamlet.
He moves closer, absently, and puts his ear to the crack in the door. Then he pushes it open, slips inside, and lets the door swing shut behind him.
The bathroom’s defiantly clean: white floor, white walls, white sinks. Hamlet’s staring at himself in the cracked mirror, and Horatio lets himself look at Hamlet’s face, not just the hollows under his eyes or the paleness of his skin but the fire in his eyes, and how soft what’s left of his hair looks like, and thinks, I’m so in love with you, and for the first time it doesn’t feel painful.
“You learn the rules, at Elsinore,” says Hamlet. He’s still looking at himself in the mirror, and his voice is quiet, contemplative. “Well, I did. From my father. Never let anyone know what you’re thinking, that was first. Never ally yourself with someone you can’t betray, that was another. And never give anything to someone who can’t repay you.”
Horatio tucks his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. They’re both still dripping from the rain, the electric lights of the bathroom glimmering off of the puddles they’re making on the floor. Somewhere in the diner outside, the music is playing: maybe millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view. I only have eyes for you.
“I don’t think,” says Hamlet, “I’d ever met someone who told the truth before I met you.”
He rubs at his face, says, “I know you’re the only person I trust.”
Horatio takes a step closer to him. Hamlet turns his head and meets his eyes, and for the first time in too long, he smiles, genuine and warm, and steps forward and kisses him.
Horatio’s arms are around Hamlet before he knows what’s happening, and he kisses him back, gentle and firm. Hamlet’s cupping his face with one hand, the other planted on his chest, and Horatio takes a step back so they’re pressed against the door of the bathroom and so that Hamlet can push up into him, slide a leg in between his, kiss Horatio and kiss him and kiss him until they break apart to gasp for air and Hamlet smiles up at Horatio, half-hesitant, and Horatio can’t help himself, has to lean down to kiss him again.
“Do you think our food’s ready,” says Hamlet, as simple as that.
“I’ll check,” says Horatio. “Follow me in a minute or two?” Hamlet nods, and Horatio pushes his way out the door and makes his way back through the tables and chairs to the counter, where the soup and sandwiches arrive at almost the same time as Hamlet, slow walk and crooked smile, and the light from the ceiling lamps dancing in his eyes.
Dinner passes in what seems to be a dream. They climb back in the car afterwards; the storm has blown over, and the air smells of ozone and lightning, and they meander through the town until they find a motel. It’s cheap and smells of must, but Hamlet’s looking at Horatio out the corner of his eye, and that’s enough to make Horatio float through, and in a blink they’re in the bedroom.
He glances at Hamlet. Their clothes are still soaked; suddenly shy, he begins to undo the top buttons of his shirt before Hamlet smiles at him and says, “Here, let me,” and then his mouth is on Horatio’s, and his fingers are unbuttoning Horatio’s shirt and sliding it off of his shoulders. Horatio’s only frozen for a moment before he’s doing the same.
It’s not as if they haven’t seen each other naked before; for God’s sake, they’ve shared a room for two straight years now. But at this moment Hamlet’s body, pale and skinny, seems barer to Horatio than anything he’s seen before. He kisses Hamlet, deep, and Hamlet kisses back. His fingers are running through Horatio’s hair, his thumbs stroking along Horatio’s cheekbones, and Horatio can feel Hamlet’s heartbeat against his chest, can feel the movement of his lungs inside his ribcage.
“Let’s go to bed,” he says, and they do.
The curtains are threadbare. The sunlight pours in through them, and outside the birds sing, clear and bright and brilliant. The room’s cold and the air still, and it feels like the finest palace bedroom any king could hope for, and in his sleep Hamlet stirs and curls deeper into Horatio instinctively. One of his thighs is shoved in between Horatio’s, and his arm is slung loosely around Horatio’s torso. Horatio wraps his arms around Hamlet’s waist, tucks his chin on top of Hamlet’s head, and lets the quilt weigh heavy on top of them.
The sun is rising in a hundred thousand colors: red, gold, peach, mauve. Hamlet’s eyelids quiver on Horatio’s neck, soft and tickling, and he stirs.
“Good morning,” says Horatio.
“Good morning,” says Hamlet, and pulls his head out from under Horatio’s chin, and smiles at him again. There’s never been anything quite like Hamlet’s smiles. Horatio had forgotten what they’re like, in the time they’d spent at Elsinore.
“We’d better get up,” he says. “New Mexico is waiting for us this week.”
Hamlet hums into his chest. “We’ll make it there?”
“I hope so,” says Horatio, and gently pulls away from him. They don’t have much money left. It might be enough to make it out of Texas; it might not be. Either way, they’re not going to be moving much longer.
“All right,” says Hamlet, yawns, and rubs at his eyes. He’s too beautiful in the morning light to Horatio’s eyes, all angles and shadows, like a figure from a fairy tale. “Let’s get breakfast, then. Maybe a newspaper.”
“A newspaper?” says Horatio carefully. They haven’t read a newspaper for days, not since a while after he cut Hamlet’s hair. Hamlet winces when he looks at the front covers.
“Yes,” says Hamlet, “a newspaper. How on Earth will I know the baseball scores without one?” But his voice is quavering. Horatio instinctively leans over to kiss him, and he feels Hamlet’s lips move into a smile.
“All right,” he says. “Let’s find out what kind of newspapers they have in Texas.”
They dress and drive to the diner. It hasn’t escaped Horatio’s notice that their clothes have become progressively more rumpled, the shadows of their stubble darker, the looks in their eyes when he catches glimpses in reflections more and more different from what they had been in Chicago—though different in what way, he couldn’t say. If Hamlet were to return to Chicago, he doesn’t know what kind of person he would be.
Hamlet unfolds the newspaper on the counter of the diner, next to his eggs. “The Cubs are losing,” he remarks, “no surprise. So are the White Sox. My money’s on the Giants.”
Horatio raises his eyebrows at him, and Hamlet huffs out a laugh. “Fine,” he says, and turns to the front page of the paper. “Look.” There’s nothing on the front page, or any of the other pages, not until Hamlet closes the newspaper and shrugs. “Nothing,” he says. “We’re out of sight, out of mind.”
“I might be,” says Horatio. “I’m not sure about you.”
“What’s to be not sure about?” says Hamlet, half-laughing. “Dear Uncle’s given up hope. I’m a lost fugitive in the wilds of the West. America’s a great country and I’ve gone to ground in it. He must think that I’ve just decided to escape and not do anything about my father’s murder. Must think I’m too scared.”
“Hamlet,” says Horatio cautiously.
“You’re wondering what I am going to do about my father’s murder,” says Hamlet flatly. “I’m going to kill my uncle. In case you were wondering.”
“I know that,” says Horatio. “I was wondering when.”
Hamlet sits very still, and then he sinks his head into his hands. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know why I didn't do it then.” In an instant Horatio’s hand is on his back, but Hamlet shrugs it off; “I will,” he says. “I will.”
“I believe you,” says Horatio carefully.
Hamlet slides off his stool. “I’m not hungry,” he says. “I’m going to wait in the car.”
Horatio knows better than to follow him out of the diner.
Texas is bigger than it appears, even in the route they’re taking across it. The plains are giving way into a desert that stretches out, empty and barren and strangely beautiful: the mesas rise and fall around them, the horizon stretches out like an unreachable ending, the green of the world peters out and fades, the sky closes in above them, so blue they can’t quite see it. The wind smells of rust. It’s hot through their hair, and the dust stings their faces and their eyes until they can’t see. The world presses in around them; it pulls the moisture out of their bodies until their fingers are wrinkled and their skin dry.
When Horatio strokes a hand down Hamlet’s cheek, he feels nothing but dry skin. Hamlet presses in close to him, his body too hot, as if feverish. They move together under cool sheets and in dusty rooms, their lips chapped, their hands rough on each others’ bodies. Their faces become wind-burned and sunburned things, tired and aching, dark-eyed, smiles curling the corners of their mouths. The sun gleams sharp off of their cheekbones.
By the side of the road one day they find a trickling river that pours into a swimming hole, a miracle at this time of the year, bright and glittering in the sunlight. At the brush of Hamlet’s hand Horatio pulls over to the side of the road, and they climb out of the car. Hamlet pulls his clothes off and leaps into the swimming hole, whooping; Horatio follows close after him. The water is as cold as ice, and Hamlet catches Horatio by the wrist and pulls him close. Horatio follows willingly, and finds himself dunked deep into the water; he comes up spluttering and pushes Hamlet down into the lake, and soon they’re laughing and splashing each other, their numb legs winding around each other underneath the surface.
Independence Day comes a little after Amarillo. They spend that night in the car, sitting in the backseat with the window down, watching the fireworks in the small town a few miles down the road burst in blue and red and gold through the stars, and the smoke-ghosts they leave behind like echoes. After the finale Hamlet tugs the roof up over, and they curl together in the backseat, in the freezing night desert air, and kiss and kiss, each others’ mouths wet and warm.
The money runs, and runs, and runs. They spend it on food and motel rooms and movies and everything else, because Horatio can’t remember how to resist Hamlet’s smile and because Hamlet doesn’t seem to care any more, because the desert wind never stops and the future is rushing up at them at the same speed as the horizon, flying closer and closer, at the same speed as the sun rushing across the sky.
In a motel room at the edge of Texas one morning Horatio wakes before Hamlet again. Hamlet’s pulled away from Horatio during the night. Most of the sheets are wound around him; he still tosses and turns during the night. He’s sprawled across the mattress, his back tanned from sun and his hair growing out dark at the roots, and Horatio kisses him quick and dry on the cheek and goes to extricate his limbs from the sheets.
There are no more mentions of either of them in the newspapers; they check every day. Hamlet glances at Horatio with shining eyes, and Horatio rubs a hand up and down the knobs of his spine and smiles at him and doesn’t believe a word of it. The candidates for president are two people Hamlet hasn’t ever heard of before, and for a few sunny hours, Horatio dares to hope.
“They think we’ve gone to ground,” says Hamlet to Horatio one day, as the sun beats down on their faces. “They think we’re not coming back. They think we’re not a threat any more.”
“No, they don’t,” says Horatio, because it’s the truth.
Hamlet tilts his head back. The burning coin of the sun glimmers in his eyes. “They don’t,” he says. “But they haven’t reached us yet, have they?”
“No,” says Horatio. “They haven’t.”
They run out of enough money to keep going a little just before they hit the end of Texas.
Horatio counts out everything they have left on their bed in the motel, each dollar and coin, for the third time. “I’m sorry,” he says, quiet. “We should have brought more. We should have brought things to sell—I never should have taken you out here.”
“It’s all right,” says Hamlet, and his face is too bright. He cups Horatio’s cheek with one hand, kisses him. “Thank you.”
“What are we going to do now?” says Horatio.
Hamlet says, “Wait.”
There isn’t enough money left to keep staying in the motel, but there’s just enough for regular meals, still. They sleep in the car, parked a little ways outside the town, and walk through the streets with their hands clasped. In the bathroom of the local diner they kiss each other, and wait, and wait.
On the evening the third day they leave the diner, their lips bitten and red from each other, and Guildenstern is waiting for them on the sidewalk outside.
Hamlet closes his eyes, smiles. “Of all the people,” he says, “I never thought it would be you,” and he leans his head back to bare his neck, spreads his arms wide.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Guildenstern. Her voice is tighter, less polite, than Horatio’s ever heard it before. “You think I can fit a gun under this shirt?”
Hamlet opens his eyes.
“I remember telling you that your mother wanted to talk to you,” says Guildenstern.
“It’s been about a month since then,” says Horatio dryly.
Guildenstern doesn’t even glance at him. She raises her eyebrows at Hamlet. “How quietly are you intending to come?” she asks.
“Quietly,” says Hamlet, and shoves his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. His eyes are narrowed. “Who else is here?”
“Rosencrantz,” says Guildenstern, “of course. He’s got your car. It’d be nice if you’d hand over the keys now, by the way.” Hamlet glances at Horatio and nods.
Horatio hesitates, though. He's never been the type to stand when he's being pushed; he says yes, when it's asked for, and please, and thank you. He says sir. It's only—he's been driving this car for weeks. He's driven nearly across the whole country in this car. He's kissed Hamlet in this car.
"It's my car," he says.
"Is it?" says Guildenstern. "You mean to say there haven't been any stolen cars around here lately? That doesn't sound likely. Should I ask a policeman?"
Horatio bites his tongue, hard, and digs the keys out of his pocket and throws them to Guildenstern. She catches them easily and drops them in the pocket of her skirt, and nods. “And your mother’s in one of those awful motel rooms, waiting for you. And we brought some of the guards, of course. But no one’s here to hurt you, Hamlet.” The veneer of sweetness is sliding back over her voice again, like sugar on something rotting. “Why on Earth would you think that?”
Hamlet tilts his head to the side, and it’s the old feeling again, the one where there are gears turning behind his eyes too quickly for Horatio to follow. “No reason,” he says. “No reason at all.”
“I should hope not!” says Guildenstern.
“What’s the number of the room in the motel?” Hamlet asks. Guildenstern tells him, and he nods. “Come on, Horatio.”
“I don’t see why your—friend is necessary,” says Guildenstern, her eyebrows high. “Surely he’d be better accommodated away from all these little domestic disputes?”
Hamlet smiles at her, tight, like a tiger. “Keeping him away from domestic disputes was my intention a long time ago, but it appears that was never quite an option. I’d prefer him with me.”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” says Guildenstern pleasantly, and smiles at him.
Hamlet glances to Horatio. Horatio looks back, calm, steady; there are a hundred emotions at war within him, and he can’t show a single one, not if he wants Hamlet to stay stable. “It’s all right,” he says.
“You hear that, Hamlet?” says Guildenstern. “It’s all right.”
“If you’re sure,” says Hamlet, and he himself sounds too unsure, too weak. Horatio wants to lean over and kiss him like he’s been doing for the past week, but instead he smiles at him.
“I’m sure,” he says.
Hamlet hesitates. Then he steps forward and wraps his arms around Horatio, tight and warm. Horatio is startled; Hamlet lets go before he can hug back.
Hamlet tucks his hands into his pockets and turns to Guildenstern. “All right,” he says. “Care to lead me to where my mother waits?”
“Of course,” says Guildenstern. She looks at Horatio—or looks through him, rather, her eyes cold. “Wait here,” she says, and tucks her arm through Hamlet’s. They disappear around the corner of the street.
Horatio’s still staring after them when he feels a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turns; it’s Marcellus. In his other hand is a gun, pointed subtly but surely at Horatio.
“Are you going to tell me we’re going to take a little trip?” says Horatio. He feels strangely light.
“We’re taking you back to Chicago,” says Marcellus. His face is almost apologetic.
“I’ve never been on an airplane,” says Horatio, and smiles. Somewhere in the distance is Hamlet, disappearing but alive, and the desert wind blows hot and dry. Chicago is a long way off from here.
A scrap of a newspaper article, presumably from a few days after these events.
CHICAGO SOCIALITE MURDERED BY MAYOR’S SON!
Last Wednesday the police were informed that the well-known Chicago socialite Mr. Polonius had been murdered in a small town in west Texas. The current head suspect for the crime is heir to the mayoral seat of Chicago, Hamlet Denmark.
According to police, Denmark was engaged in a verbal altercation with his mother, wife of Chicago’s mayor, Gertrude Denmark. Police report that Polonius then burst in through the door, alerted by noise from the conversation. Hamlet turned and shot Polonius.
Polonius’ body has not been found. However, Hamlet has confessed to his murder.
Due to a recent regulation passed only last week in Chicago law, Hamlet will not stand trial. However, due to the same regulation, he will be forced to return to Chicago, where he will remain until further notice.
When asked about the events leading to the death of Polonius, Gertrude Denmark confirmed police speculation. “Hamlet has been so different lately,” she said. “It broke my heart to see him do this.”
Hamlet Denmark recently disappeared from his home in Chicago after a period of mental instability. Sources have confirmed that during this time, he stole a car and made his way to Texas alone.
“I was so scared for him,” said Gertrude Denmark, “but I’m glad he’s home now. It’s clear that he isn’t safe on his own.”
Hamlet’s stepfather, Chicago mayor Claudius Denmark, agreed.
“We will do our best to make sure that Hamlet receives the mental care he needs,” he said. “We are trying to find the best possible institution in the country for him.”
Meanwhile, the Polonius family is devastated.
Laertes Polonius Jr., Polonius’ son, had not been informed of his father’s death until this paper came to interview him.
“I’m stunned and shocked,” he said, “and furious. How the h--l could my father have been murdered? How the h--l could he have been let near a psychopath like that?”
Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia Polonius, could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, Chicago society has be
Here the newspaper is cut off. The edge is ragged and crumpled, as if torn with great force.
Horatio’s always thought there’s a strong family resemblance among the Denmark family. In some ways, Hamlet looks very much like his father: the dark hair, the strong cheekbones, the handsome face.
But Hamlet’s eyes are dark and warm, while his uncle’s are pale, and cold as ice. And Hamlet’s fake smile is strained and sarcastic, while Claudius’ is wide, bright, and nearly flawless in its sincerity, except when you look at his eyes. His hands are folded neatly on top of each other on the table, and he’s dressed in an immaculate suit.
“We think you had better tell us everything,” he says.
“What do you want to know?” says Horatio.
“Did you know our son was going to kill Polonius?” says Claudius.
“No,” says Horatio. “How did it happen?”
“We’re sure you’ve read the newspapers,” says Claudius. He’s looking at Horatio as if he’s something something very small; Horatio is reminded of a lion he’d seen once at the Bronx Zoo.
"I've read the newspapers," says Horatio, and swallows. “Where is Hamlet?”
“Where is Polonius’ body?” says Claudius.
“I don’t know,” says Horatio.
Claudius nods at someone behind Horatio. Horatio turns to see who it is and finds himself slapped across the face so hard that his ears ring. He raises a disbelieving hand to his cheek, expecting his fingers to come away sticky with blood. They’re clean, but his whole face is throbbing.
“Where is Polonius’ body?” says Claudius.
“I haven’t spoken to Hamlet since Guildenstern found us in Texas,” says Horatio. Claudius purses his lips, and Horatio ducks his head automatically, holds up his hands. “I haven’t, sir! Marcellus took me straight to the car, and from there to the airplane.”
Claudius lifts his eyebrows, his gaze directed behind Horatio. “It’s true, sir,” says Marcellus’ voice; he must have been the one who had slapped Horatio.
“All right,” says Claudius. “Tell us where you went.”
“We took Route 66 the entire way,” says Horatio. “From Chicago to St. Louis to Oklahoma City to Amarillo.”
“And where did you steal the car from?” says Claudius.
“The car is mine,” says Horatio. “I bought it. It has my papers in it. I drove it from New York to here to see Hamlet. Sir.”
Claudius raises his eyebrows. “You own a car," he says, politely disbelieving. "And lent it to our nephew?”
“Sir,” says Horatio, and swallows, “leaving Chicago was my idea.”
Claudius blinks. Then he says, “You’re an accomplished liar. If you speak to Hamlet again, tell him he’s taught you well. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will get the whole story out of him on the way to California.”
“Sir?” says Horatio, uncertain.
“Where in New York did you say you were from, again?” says Claudius.
“Harlem,” says Horatio, “sir.”
“You speak very well,” says Claudius.
“I can stop speaking well if you want, sir,” says Horatio.
Claudius stares at him, flat. Then he says, “You’re from Harlem—” his tone is clear— “and yet you attended Columbia.”
“I earned my way in, sir,” says Horatio. “I worked to earn the money to pay for it, and so did my mother and father.”
“You’re proud,” says Claudius.
“I am,” says Horatio. “Sir.”
“And you don’t like calling us sir,” says Claudius. “That’s interesting.”
“No, sir,” says Horatio.
“Why not?” says Claudius. He looks distantly amused, as a cat playing with a ball of yarn. “We are the mayor.”
Horatio feels very light, very suddenly. He’ll either say it now or never say it at all. Hamlet is gone; his ears are still ringing. It’s not as if he has anything to lose. “Sir, I don’t like calling you sir because you’re not the mayor.”
“What are we, then?” says Claudius.
“You’re a gangster,” says Horatio. “Sir.”
In a moment he’s knocked from his chair, an arm pressed against his windpipe so tight that he can’t breathe. He struggles for a moment, but Marcellus’ grip is too tight; he relaxes, hoping to gain some space for his lungs. It’s barely any use.
“What do you want me to do to him, sir?” he hears Marcellus say, dimly. Bright spots are bursting in front of his vision.
“Let him go,” says Claudius’ voice, and Horatio is released. He gasps for air.
“That wasn’t a smart thing to say,” says Claudius. He sounds genuinely fascinated.
“I’m not a good liar, sir,” says Horatio, and coughs.
“We see,” says Claudius. “Well, Horatio who’s not a good liar, tell us this. You say we're a gangster. That we aren't mayor of Chicago.”
“Yes, sir,” says Horatio.
“But you do call us sir,” says Claudius, “and obey our laws.”
“I do, sir,” says Horatio.
Claudius hums. “How much?”
“How much what?” says Horatio, looking up from the floor for the first time. He moves to push himself up, but Claudius waves a hand, and Marcellus presses down on his shoulder. Horatio goes still.
“How much to work for us,” says Claudius, “of course.”
Horatio goes very still. “Sir,” he says cautiously, “I’m not a good liar, and I can’t shoot a gun. I don’t even live here.”
Claudius snorts. “Those can be taught,” he says, “and changed. Unless you want to continue to live in New York. We can make life very easy for you there.” Horatio blinks, and Claudius smiles. “Is that what you want?” he says. “Money? We can buy you all the clothes and beer you might ask for. We can buy you a club. Is that what you want?”
Horatio can’t speak. Claudius pushes back from the chair, strolls around the table, his hands tucked into the pockets of his suit jacket. “Or you can simply stay in Chicago,” he says. “It’s not a bad place. We like it well enough, after all.” Horatio doesn’t say anything; Claudius taps on the table, impatient. “Well?” he says. “What is it? How much money? What will it take?”
“Sir, with all due respect,” says Horatio carefully, “I would rather die.”
Claudius blinks. “I see,” he says.
Marcellus coughs, behind them. “Is there anything you would like me to do to him, sir?”
Claudius sighs and rubs at the bridge of his nose. With his eyes closed, he could be the identical twin of the ghost Horatio had seen on that cold summer night those months ago. “No,” he says. “Well. Don’t kill him. Put him in handcuffs. We’ll see if there’s a use for him yet.”
The handcuffs on his wrist are cold against his skin. “Stand up,” says Claudius, and Horatio stands and follows him out the door of the room. Behind him he can hear Marcellus’ footsteps clicking on the cold tile.
They make their way down a corridor that’s vaguely familiar to Horatio’s eyes. It’s part of Elsinore Mansion, but not in a part of it that he’s seen before. He supposes it must be the mayoral offices, the parts of the mansion always guarded. He’s never been interested in them before; now he wonders who else has been interrogated there, kept there for who knows how long.
It’s strange to be back in Elsinore, after all this time. For a moment he thinks he can feel what Hamlet must feel every day: the walls close in, the ceiling presses down, and the aching familiarity of his surroundings is painful enough that for a long moment he can’t breathe. He misses the freedom of the open road, the easiness of constantly moving, of only ever recognizing one face he sees. Then he thinks of Hamlet, and how he must be feeling back in this house, and closes his eyes.
They finally arrive at what Horatio recognizes as one of Elsinore’s sitting rooms. Hamlet’s waiting there for them, his legs kicked over the back of one of the impossibly expensive couches. His head is dangling towards the ground. The fire in his eyes is brighter than Horatio’s ever seen it before. Rosencrantz is on one side of him, and Guildenstern on the other, her mouth downturned and tight. “Well,” says Hamlet, “and a good morning to you too, Uncle dear.”
“Where is Polonius’ body?” says Claudius.
“You’re a bit far away from Texas, now,” says Hamlet.
“We have men there,” says Claudius, and waves a radio at Hamlet. “We’re prepared, believe it. Now tell us: where is Polonius’ body?”
“At dinner,” says Hamlet, and laughs and laughs. At their blank looks, he elucidates: “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten.”
“It would be to your benefit if you would tell us directly,” says Claudius calmly.
“You don’t understand,” says Hamlet. His face is turning red from the blood rushing to it, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ve been trying to explain this to you. A man with a hundred million dollars is in the ground and is eaten by worms. A fisherman digs up the worm, and fishes in the Rio Grande with it, where he catches a fish. He eats the fish for his dinner, and so the rich man is eaten by the king. You see?”
“I don’t think there are any fish left in the Rio Grande,” says Rosencrantz slowly.
Hamlet falls off the couch, gently. “Of course there aren’t,” he says from the floor. “Only desperate immigrants. People who want more than they’ll ever have. The opposite of the rich man, who has more than he’ll ever want. That’s my point.”
“Will you tell us directly where Polonius’ body is?” says Claudius, and his voice is almost sweet.
“In hell,” says Hamlet brightly, unfolding himself and settling back on the couch. “If you want to see him so badly, go there yourself.”
Claudius nods to Marcellus, and Horatio hears the distinctive sound of a gun being cocked behind him. Claudius pins him with a look, and finally he understands the point of their conversation in the room, understands what he is meant to do, and he sinks to his knees and bows his head. He can feel the gun trained on his back.
He dares to glance up for a second. Hamlet’s eyes are wide and shocked and so, so scared, and his face is pale, and Horatio feels a surge of love for him sweep through his chest. Then he feels the prod of the gun on his spine, and ducks his head again. All he can see are Claudius’ boots, polished and gleaming, and it frightens him for a reason he cannot explain.
“If you cannot find him in hell,” says Hamlet quickly, “you might smell him as you go up the stairs into the lobby of the hotel.”
“Go find him there,” says Claudius, presumably into the radio. There’s a rustle of static and the sound of running footsteps; Hamlet says, “He won’t run away, you know!” and laughs, high and frightened.
“Good boy,” says Claudius, scornful.
“I do my best,” says Hamlet. His voice is empty, now, and Horatio dares to look up, to meet his gaze. Hamlet’s eyes are so frightened, but when he sees Horatio, they soften. Horatio looks at him with everything he can’t say: it’s all right, it’s going to be all right, you’ve done the right thing, it’s going to be all right. I love you.
“Your things are packed,” says Claudius. There’s a noise behind Horatio; he turns to look. There’s Bernardo, lugging an enormous suitcase into the room. “Guildenstern, Rosencrantz, you’re ready to go?”
The press of the gun at Horatio’s back disappears, suddenly, and he scrambles away, stands up a little to the side of the couch. “Yes, sir,” says Guildenstern, and “Yes, sir,” says Rosencrantz.
Hamlet tilts his chin up. “All right,” he says. “Give me my suitcase.” Bernardo crosses the room with the suitcase, and Hamlet stands up and takes it from him. It’s obviously heavy, but Hamlet narrows his eyes, meets Claudius’ gaze without flinching.
“Look at it this way,” says Claudius. “You’ll finally have a chance to get out of the city. See something of the world.”
“I’m sure,” says Hamlet. “Come on, Horatio.”
Horatio’s moving to meet him at the door when he’s arrested by a firm grip on his shoulder. There’s an uncomfortably familiar prickling on the side of his head, and he turns his gaze to stare straight down the barrel of Marcellus’ gun.
“We think you have quite enough people accompanying you to California as it is,” says Claudius. “Do you really need your—friend?”
“Who the hell is ‘we’, for Christ’s sake?” snaps Hamlet. “You and my mother?”
“You know she’s agreed to this arrangement,” says Claudius, calm. “We only want what’s best for you, Hamlet.”
Guildenstern lays a hand on Hamlet’s arm, and Rosencrantz pats him on the back, heavy. Hamlet looks from one to the other, then straight at Horatio. Horatio wants to run across the room, to take him in his arms and kiss him, to tell him that it’s all right, because the look in Hamlet’s eyes is everything from fearful to furious to heartbroken, but Marcellus’ hand is tight on his shoulder and the gun barrel is trained on his head and he can’t move a muscle.
“Horatio,” says Hamlet, and Horatio stares at him, nods, hopes he can convey everything he wants to tell Hamlet through his gaze alone and knows he can’t.
Hamlet’s still for another moment. Then he says, “Fine,” and turns, and walks through the doorway, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern following close behind, Bernardo at their heels. The door slams behind them.
Claudius looks at Horatio. His eyes are cold and calculating—a snake now, not a lion. Horatio does his best to stare back, unafraid, but it’s not very long before he has to look away.
“Our offer is still open,” says Claudius.
“My answer is the same,” says Horatio, “sir.”
Claudius sighs. “We’re sure someone will find some use for you,” he says, “there’s always a use for people like you. In the meantime—Marcellus?”
There’s a tug on the handcuffs. Horatio follows Marcellus out the door of the sitting room. He dares to look back before it shuts behind him; Claudius is deep in thought, and his eyes are colder than ever.
They put Horatio back in his old room.
“I wouldn’t smash these cameras,” says Marcellus gruffly. His eyes are sad; Horatio recognizes the warning in them, and the apology, and nods.
“Thank you,” he says.
“Don’t thank me,” says Marcellus.
“What is he paying you?” says Horatio. Marcellus flicks a warning glance up at the camera in the ceiling of the room, but Horatio coughs, says, “I haven’t discarded the possibility.” The lie is heavy and awkward on his tongue; can the cameras tell?
“I was born in Chicago,” says Marcellus, and shrugs. “He doesn’t have to pay me anything special. I worked for his brother, too.”
“Hamlet’s father,” says Horatio.
Marcellus shrugs, looking uncomfortable. “Yes,” he says.
“What am I meant to do here?” says Horatio.
“You’re smart,” says Marcellus gently. “You must be. I’m sure you can figure out why you’re still here.”
Horatio doesn’t quite understand, but he tucks it away in his brain for later. “No,” he says, “I mean, what am I meant to do here? Who should I interact with? Am I allowed to leave the mansion, or speak to people?”
“I wouldn’t leave the mansion unless they tell you upfront you can,” says Marcellus. “But there’s nothing wrong with speaking to people in the household—as long,” and he casts another warning glance at the cameras, “as long as you’re not trying to stir up trouble.”
The mansion’s walls seem to press in tighter than ever. Horatio says, “Can I write to Hamlet?”
“You can write anything you like,” says Marcellus, but his eyes flick to the cameras again, and he raises his eyebrows. Horatio understands the message: whatever you write will be read, whatever you say will be heard, and whatever you do will be observed.
“Thank you,” he says sincerely.
“I told you not to thank me,” says Marcellus. He unlocks Horatio’s cuffs, and Horatio shakes out his wrists, the blood returning to his fingers a welcome feeling. “Mr. Denmark might have more to tell you. I’d stay in the room for the rest of the day, if I were you.”
“I understand,” says Horatio, and Marcellus nods at him, leaves the room without another word.
Horatio rubs at his wrists and scans his bedroom. It’s not the Spartan accommodations he’d enjoyed at Columbia University—like Hamlet, he’s growing to miss their threadbare curtains—but it’s not the gaudy, ostentatious mess of Hamlet’s bedroom. The carpet is warm and fine beneath his feet, and the curtains look expensive. On a hunch, he runs his hand over the sheets of the bed; they’re silk.
So there’s been no expense spared for him; they plainly mean him to stay. But why keep him here, if Hamlet is going to California? Why not let him go back to New York City, if all they want is for him not to interact with Hamlet any more?
Marcellus’ words return to him: you’re smart, you must be, I’m sure you can figure out why you’re here. Horatio closes his eyes—and it comes to him.
Nothing’s changed from when he was kneeling in the sitting room, a gun trained on his back. He’s still here for one reason and one reason only: as a hostage. By keeping him here, Claudius is telling Hamlet that if he makes any trouble on the way to California, his best friend will be killed.
But they intend Horatio to stay, and stay for some time. From everything Horatio has seen, Gertrude appears to care for her son; she must want him to return from California at some point. If Hamlet’s meant to go to California only to get him out of the way, then why—
Unless Hamlet’s not meant to return from California.
Horatio feels the breath rush out of him. Hamlet will never return to Chicago, or to Columbia. He doesn’t think Gertrude will allow Hamlet to be killed, but Claudius means him to go to California and stay there for the rest of his life, however long that might be. And if he makes any trouble while he’s there, Horatio will be killed.
But Horatio is collateral in this bargain that Claudius has forced. And that means that Horatio will never be allowed to leave Chicago. He will never be able to return to New York City, to see his family again. And since Hamlet has been forced to California permanently, he will never see Hamlet again.
Horatio’s fingers have curled into a fist without his realizing, digging sharp crescents into his palm. He uncurls his hands, places them flat on the bed, shuts his eyes.
Well. What can be done?
He can’t escape, that much is clear. If Hamlet escapes, he’ll be killed, but if Horatio escapes, there’s no reason for them not to do the same to Hamlet. They’re trapped together, tied to each other, unable to tug free.
He can pretend to Claudius that he had agreed to work for him, and use his position to influence Hamlet’s situation for the better. He doesn’t know if he’s a good enough liar to sustain that; he suspects he’s not.
And, finally, he can’t resist by force. He isn’t strong physically, he knows that; and besides, any violence he might try would be bringing a knife to a gunfight. Besides, does he even have the stomach to hurt, or even kill, any of the guards, or Claudius himself? The memory of Polonius’ death at Hamlet’s hands flashes before his eyes; he pushes it down.
The only option seems to be the one currently before him: do as Claudius says. Keep quiet, don’t leave the mansion without permission, and don’t stir up trouble. Speak only when spoken to, he thinks, and feels suddenly, achingly sad.
The door to the bedroom clicks open. Claudius is there, his gaze critical.
“Marcellus tells us you have some questions,” he says.
“Sir,” says Horatio. “What are the rules about leaving the mansion, sir?”
“For now?” says Claudius. “We would suggest you stay within it unless you have permission. It’s a dangerous city out there.” His tone is entirely sincere, but his eyes have a dark humor that sends unpleasant shivers up and down Horatio’s spine.
“For now, sir?” he says.
“We’ll see what privileges you might earn,” says Claudius, and that is unpleasant, sending a ripple of sickness straight to Horatio’s stomach.
“Sir,” he says, trying to keep his voice calm. “What about writing letters to Hamlet? Is that allowed?”
“Of course it is,” says Claudius. “We imagine that he would be thrilled to receive correspondence from his friend.” Now the mask is complete: both his voice and his eyes are entirely sincere.
“Is there anything else I need to know, sir?” says Horatio.
Claudius smiles wide. “We imagine that it is exactly that kind of attitude that will get you far in your stay here,” he says, and leaves the room.
Horatio crosses to where the balcony was on Hamlet’s room and pulls back the curtains on the windows; sure enough, he has a balcony of his own. He steps out onto it and gulps great breaths of the fresh air, lets the wind rush past his ears. After Claudius, he feels as if he needs to be cleaned from the inside out.
It’s only a few minutes later, staring out over the cars speeding past on the street below, that he realizes Claudius never answered his last question.
He doesn’t know how to get food, he realizes around dinnertime. There’s no one to ask; his quarters are far away from all activity. It’s a long, humiliating, hungry search before he arrives at the kitchens, filled with noise, light, and laughter.
He scans the faces, and coughs; the room quiets instantly. “Excuse me,” he says. “I was wondering where I could grab a bite?”
A man in an apron looks him up and down. “Eat with us, no trouble,” he says, after a moment of consideration. “There's enough for everybody.”
“Haven't I seen you around before?” says a light-skinned woman, a little coolly. “Couple of months back?”
Horatio lets his eyes flick naturally around the room; there it is, the telltale blink of a camera in a hole in the ceiling. “I was a guest,” he says, “couple of months back, yeah. But I'm nobody special now.” The woman's face relaxes, fractionally, and he adds, “What’s for dinner?”
“Swordfish,” says the man in the apron, and a skinny woman by the door across the room says, “or that’s what we tell ‘em, anyway,” and there’s laughter. Horatio joins in with enthusiasm; it’s a necessity.
The fish tastes of cigarette ash and salt, but Horatio’s hungry enough to eat anything. He thanks the kitchen staff kindly for it and slips out of the kitchen and back through the corridors.
In the dark, though, it’s a hundred times easier to lose himself. He finds himself turning corners he’s never turned before, opening doors he’s never seen before in his life, and before he knows it he’s in a part of the mansion that he’s never been near before. He rubs at the bridge of his nose and tucks his hands into the pockets of his coat, wonders if, should Claudius look for him in his room and can’t find him, he’ll be punished for trying to run away. It doesn’t seem beyond the bounds of possibility.
The door he just came through swings open, and a pale face peeks through; it takes Horatio a moment to recognize Ophelia Polonius, and another to jump to attention. “Miss?” he says.
“I thought I heard a noise down here,” says Ophelia.
“You did, miss,” says Horatio. “I’m sorry, I’m lost. I didn’t mean to go where I wasn’t wanted—”
“Ophelia is fine, really,” says Ophelia, and smiles at him. “You’re Hamlet’s friend.”
“Yes,” says Horatio, and feels a blush start in his cheeks. He’s lucky it’s dark. Hamlet’s words come back to him: she is beautiful, more beautiful than you can imagine, and Horatio thinks of the planes of Hamlet’s hipbones and coughs.
“I’m sorry about your father,” he offers. He hasn’t thought about Polonius yet, not properly thought about him, not let it sink into his bones that Hamlet killed him. He’s not sure if he ever will. He’s not sure if he can.
Ophelia meets his gaze for the first time. Her eyes are light, like Claudius’, but where Claudius’ are cold and calculating, hers are almost disturbingly clear. “It wasn’t your fault,” she says.
“All the same,” says Horatio, ducking his head. “He was a good man.” If he’s going to learn to lie, he’d better begin now.
“Your room is next to Hamlet’s bedroom, isn’t it?” says Ophelia.
“Yes,” says Horatio.
“I can take you there,” says Ophelia. “I know the way.” She smiles at him, and Horatio gives her a half-smile back, uneasy. He doesn't like this at all. Ophelia doesn't know any better—those strange, blank eyes, they keep catching his gaze—but he does; this is dangerous for him. If anyone should stumble in on the two of them talking, alone—
I remember everything about her, says Hamlet's voice in his mind. “Thank you,” he says. “That would be very kind.”
“You and Hamlet are good friends, aren’t you?” says Ophelia as they make their way down a corridor.
“We’re roommates,” says Horatio. “We were roommates, at Columbia.”
“That must be wonderful,” says Ophelia. “How is he to live with?”
“Well,” says Horatio, and then stops. They’re passing through a room full of mirrors that line the walls, and Ophelia’s face has gone absolutely still, as if frozen.
“Well,” he says again, carefully, “you must know. Aren’t you and he close?”
Ophelia laughs, high and bright and frightened, and it reminds Horatio so much of Hamlet’s laugh back in the sitting room that his heart almost stops. “Close!” she says, “what’s close? Look,” and she reaches out, grips Horatio’s arm hard enough to bruise, “there’s close, you and I are close. If I’m close to him and I’m close to you, do I bridge the gap between you? What other gaps can I bridge, do you think? Between this life and the next? Or maybe just the space over a river?”
“I was only asking,” says Horatio, startled.
Ophelia blinks and seems to subside. She looks around her as if she hasn’t seen anything in the room before. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I missed what you just said, I was lost in thought. You must think I’m a terrible host.”
“I don’t think you’re anything of the sort,” says Horatio cautiously. They’ve reached the end of the room, and he opens the door for her; she smiles graciously at him and passes through, as regal as any queen.
“Well, tell me about New York City, then,” she says.
Horatio tucks his hands into his pockets. “It’s beautiful,” he says, honestly. “Not beautiful in the usual sense, maybe. It doesn’t have rolling landscapes, or fields of flowers, or orchards full of apple trees. But the sunrise by the Battery is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Really!” says Ophelia, and laughs. “You certainly do love it.”
“I do my best,” says Horatio. They’ve reached a part of the mansion that he recognizes, now, and he clears his throat.
“Tell me,” says Ophelia, “why is Hamlet gone?”
“Excuse me?” says Horatio.
“Why did they send him away?” says Ophelia. Her voice is bright and high, and when Horatio glances at her, her face is blanker than it was before.
“Ma’am,” says Horatio gently. “Hamlet killed your father.”
“My father?” says Ophelia, and she sounds just like a child. She stops dead in the corridor.
“Ma’am?” says Horatio. Ophelia isn’t moving, her face arrested in an expression of utter emptiness. He stares at her for a few moments. “Ma’am?” he says again, but there’s no response.
He puts a hand on her arm, and she seems to startle, to break out of a dream. She stares at the hand on her arm; he lets go of it as if it’s red-hot.
“I can find my own way from here, ma’am,” he says.
“All right, then,” she says. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he says. “Thank you very much for showing me the way.”
She smiles at him, then, and for a split second he can understand why Hamlet loved her. It’s as if the sun has come out from behind a cloud; her entire face lights up with it. “You’re very welcome,” she says, and turns to go.
Horatio’s bed is cold, and without Hamlet’s body next to him, it feels very empty. He lies with his eyes wide open in the darkness, listens to the sound of his own heartbeat, thinks he hears it echo.
He wakes up late the next morning. There’s no clock in his room, but from the color of the light seeping under his curtains and the pulse of his internal clock he can tell that it’s almost noon.
The bed’s still empty. He stares at the sliver of light that the curtains let through, stretches out an arm along the sheets, as if feeling for ghosts. There’s nothing there.
He turns over to stare at the ceiling. All right, then. It’s time to assess.
They’ve let him sleep in, so there’s nothing they need him for, at least not urgently. Is there anything at all they need him for? It’s not likely—but he remembers what Claudius said, about earning privileges, and narrows his eyes.
Leaving the mansion is a privilege, then. And it’s a privilege that needs to be earned.
His encounter with Ophelia the night before swirls up from his thoughts; he groans aloud and rubs at his eyes. It stirs up another memory, though: Hamlet, talking about trust, and what it means to the Denmark family.
Trust. What if Claudius trusts him?
His eyes fly open. Well. It might change a lot of things, if Claudius trusted him. Not only would he have freedom of the city, but he might be able to leave it. He might be able to write letters to Hamlet without them being read. He might even be allowed to see Hamlet again.
He knows he’s still no liar. He’ll never be able to tell Claudius truthfully that he wants to work with him against Hamlet’s interests; what Hamlet wants will always come first, as it always has.
But does Claudius want him for more than an in to Hamlet? Does the offer still stand, even though Horatio isn’t much more than a hostage at the moment? Horatio narrows his eyes at the ceiling. Whether Claudius wants him for an employee or not, it can’t hurt to ask.
He climbs out of bed, acutely aware of the blinking light of the camera in the ceiling. He’s down to his boxers, and his clothes from the road trip have disappeared. But in the closet he discovers an entire array of neatly pressed suits, more expensive than anything he’s ever worn before. He pulls them on, his back to the camera, and straightens his tie.
Well. It’s time to face the world.
The kitchen staff are having lunch early, by a stroke of luck; Horatio grabs a turkey sandwich, makes his greetings and noises of friendliness, and moves on. He was right about the time. The sun’s bleeding deep gold through the windows. It must be a beautiful day on the outside.
He finds his way to the main room of the mansion more easily this time. Claudius is there, along with Gertrude and a flock of people that Horatio doesn’t recognize, all of them white. They’re chattering eagerly, all of them except for Claudius, who’s smiling beatifically at the group. Horatio notices that Gertrude’s smile is just a hair wider and tighter than the rest. He wonders: was she scared, when her son shot Polonius in front of her eyes? Or has she seen murder before?
He presses himself into the wall by the door and fades into the background. It’s not difficult. There are other men who look like him drifting along the walls, some of them with the distinctive shapes of guns beneath their suits and Horatio wonders what, exactly, this meeting is for.
After some time the white people begin to leave, trickling out in couples and bunches. Gertrude accompanies the last out the door, a chattering woman with grey growing out beneath her auburn roots, and Claudius’ eyes focus on Horatio. He’s been aware of his presence the entire time, Horatio realizes.
“We trust you’ve thought about our conversation?” says Claudius. He remains sitting across the room, and Horatio wants badly to stay where he is, to make Claudius come to him, before he remembers why he’s here.
He crosses the room to stand a respectful distance from Claudius. “Yes, sir.”
Claudius tilts his head to the side, his snake’s gaze fixed on Horatio. Horatio gulps and goes on: “Sir, I’m still not willing to betray Hamlet.”
“But?” says Claudius, one eyebrow raised, and every ounce of willpower in Horatio’s body is fixed on staying absolutely still, no sign of fury showing on his face.
“But I have reconsidered your offer,” he says. “Sir.”
Claudius blinks, slow and lazy. “What did you have in mind?”
Horatio swallows, glances around the room. The men on the walls have faded into the background as best as they can, but he sees flickers of interest in their faces, nevertheless. “I’ll work for you,” he says, “I’ll kill who you want, I’ll obey whatever orders you give. Sir. As long as it doesn’t involve Hamlet.”
“That’s a good answer,” says Claudius. “And your price?”
Horatio’s frozen for a long moment. Then he says, “Keep him safe.”
Claudius says, “I’m afraid that’s not going to be possible.”
The world shivers, shakes, wavers from one point of Horatio’s vision to another. There’s a steady ringing in his ears, and black spots bursting in front of his eyes, and he thinks for a moment that he’s going to faint. He takes a deep breath in.
His thoughts are spinning: what about Gertrude? Has she truly agreed to—whatever it is that Claudius has planned for Hamlet? Has he overruled her on it? Does she even know it’s going to happen?
Trust. He has to remember trust. If Claudius trusts him, he’ll be able to get a letter to Hamlet. Whatever Claudius has planned for him, he’ll be able to warn him. He has to stay upright; he has to keep himself together.
He shuts his eyes; Hamlet’s face is imprinted on the inside of his skull. He’s never felt more like a child.
“If you’ve chosen to reject our offer,” says Claudius, and he sounds amused. Horatio forces his eyes open.
“I’m simply reconsidering my options,” he says, “sir.”
Claudius spreads his hands. “Enlighten us.”
“The freedom to travel where I like in the city, sir,” says Horatio.
“That’s acceptable,” says Claudius. There’s a half-smirk on his lips; Horatio chants to himself inside his head, Hamlet, Hamlet, all of this is for Hamlet. He wishes, suddenly, that he were on the train to California; no matter where it’s really going, or what’s really meant to happen, he wants nothing more than to see it with Hamlet.
“You say you can’t shoot a gun?” says Claudius, startling Horatio back to reality.
“No, sir,” he says.
“That can be taught,” says Claudius. “Marcellus?” A man peels off from the wall. “I think you two know each other. There must be somewhere you can go to teach this enterprising young man the basics.”
“Yes, sir,” says Marcellus. He crosses the room quickly and nods at Horatio. “Let’s go.”
They make their way to a part of the mansion Horatio’s never seen before. Every time he thinks he understands the building, it reveals something new that he hadn’t expected. He can’t say he likes it.
This is an indoor shooting range, a line of targets hanging in front of a long line of guns. “There’s no audio on the cameras in here,” says Marcellus shortly. “The noise is too loud.”
“Thank you,” says Horatio.
Marcellus is busy on the other side of the room, pulling earmuffs out of cabinets. “So,” he says. “Someone’s had a change of heart.”
Trust, says Hamlet’s warning voice inside Horatio’s head. “Yes,” he says. “Someone has.”
“Any word on why?” says Marcellus.
“It pays to be practical,” says Horatio. “As long as I’m here, I may as well make myself useful.”
“Useful,” says Marcellus flatly, bringing the earmuffs over. He catches Horatio’s gaze with his own skeptical one. “Put these over your ears. I’m going to demonstrate.”
He does demonstrate, and Horatio pays close attention, noting Marcellus’ steady hands and steady gaze—clear focus, fire on the exhale. Marcellus jerks his head at Horatio: your turn. Horatio crouches in front of the gun, takes a deep breath, and fires the gun.
It catches the paper; not within the outlined body that represent the target, but near it. Marcellus nods at Horatio, approving, and mouths not bad. Horatio feels a glow of warmth start up within him, and hates himself for it.
The practice goes on; the shooting becomes easier. By the end, Horatio is able to consistently hit somewhere within the outlined body for about nine of ten shots, his legs are aching from the endless crouching and rising, and despite the earmuffs, his ears are ringing. Marcellus takes off his own earmuffs, and Horatio copies him, hopeful.
“We’re done for the day,” says Marcellus. “It is a pity.”
“What is?” says Horatio.
“If the old man’s son had stayed in Chicago,” says Marcellus, busy at the other end of the room with the cabinet, “you’d have been his right-hand man, wouldn’t you?”
Horatio says nothing.
Marcellus says, “You would have been a good one.”
“Thank you,” says Horatio, and feels sick.
After another week of late mornings and weapons practice, he gets a letter from Hamlet.
Dear Horatio, it begins, and Horatio stills.
All continues as well as it has been continuing, it goes on. The train ride is lovely, and the company all a young man could ask for. Though I initially was fearful about this trip, I’ve grown to see the merits of it. It is, after all, designed to keep my loved ones safe. I suppose my dear uncle would like me to thank him for sending me on it. Well, I will thank him when I see him next.
Do you remember the last time we spoke alone, in Texas? The conversation then was very stimulating; I hope to continue it.
Horatio blinks for a few moments. Then he almost laughs; it’s not even a difficult code to interpret, just a code that only he can understand.
Dear Horatio—Hamlet never begins letters that way. It’s always a simple H—, dashed off with the sort of manic energy that only Hamlet can convey. Here, though, it’s neat, carefully written. A warning: everything in this letter has been carefully chosen.
All continues as well as it has been continuing. Not well, then. The train ride is lovely, and the company all a young man could ask for; Hamlet knows as well as Horatio that he is not a typical young man.
Then Hamlet says, Though I initially was fearful about this trip, I’ve grown to see the merits of it. It is, after all, designed to keep my loved ones safe. Horatio frowns at the paper; Hamlet can’t mean that he’s acquiesced to the idea that he needs to be removed from Chicago. What could he—
He means Horatio, of course. He’s saying that he knows his continued cooperation is what keeps Horatio safe from Claudius, that he’s a hostage.
I suppose my dear uncle would like me to thank him for sending me on it, says Hamlet; there’s the hint of anger that makes Horatio smile. Well, Hamlet continues, I will thank him when I see him next, and the smile turns bitter. Hamlet knows he is meant to never return to Chicago, then. He knows he will never see Claudius to thank him.
Do you remember the last time we spoke alone, in Texas? Hamlet says. The conversation then was very stimulating; I hope to continue it. Horatio remembers the last time he and Hamlet were alone, and feels a blush start; the memory of Hamlet’s tongue inside his mouth is still vivid in his mind’s eye.
He folds the letter neatly and tucks it into the drawer of the bedside dresser they’ve given him. The fierce thing in his chest is warm and content. He thinks of Hamlet’s face, of Hamlet’s hand writing these words, and smiles.
The next day he’s sent out into the city on a job for Claudius.
He’s not alone. Marcellus is with him, tight-lipped and taciturn. They’re meant to accompany Claudius and Gertrude to a state dinner uptown, nothing fancy; Horatio can feel Claudius’ casual distrust of him, and understands it.
They stay by Claudius’ side the whole night. Horatio stays as unnoticeable as he can; he’s learned the trick by now. He watches Claudius smile at some and laugh at others, pays close attention to whom he talks and whom he ignores, notes which of his smiles reach his eyes and which do not.
Most do not. He lies awake in his room afterwards, thinks of Hamlet, does not remember falling asleep.
The days pass, one after another. He begins to lose track. He is not allowed to write a letter back to Hamlet, but he stares at what stars he can see out the window in his bedroom, wonders if Hamlet is looking at the same stars.
His aim with a gun improves. He learns how to stay quiet and move quietly, how to fade into the background as well as any ghost, how to make himself noticeable when he’s needed and unnoticeable when he’s not.
He notices that he’s becoming more muscled, more fit. When he asks Marcellus about it, Marcellus says it’s because he’s standing and moving and carrying a gun all day; all Horatio knows is that now he has to use half the force he used to, that he feels as if his presence in the world is bigger, that when he walks down the street people shy away in a way that they did not before.
And he does walk down the street. After some time Claudius gives him freedom of the city, up to a point; he is required to report wherever he is going and why he’s going there to another guard or to Claudius himself. Claudius sends him on errands, as well, to deliver messages, or to pick up mysterious packages that Horatio delivers directly to him.
He does it well. He doesn’t make trouble. He works efficiently, and quickly, and with skill.
After a few weeks, he receives another letter from Hamlet.
H, it reads.
No word on why it’s taking so long to get to California. We seem to be stopping in every tiny town in between here and the west coast. R and G very confused. For R this is normal; for G, less so.
Not exactly complaining.
I have written you this letter exactly as it is and expect that you will be able to write me one similar in return.
Horatio blinks at it, narrows his eyes. A mix between Hamlet’s usual carefree, manic style and the carefully chosen words of the last letter; Hamlet thinks he’s being read on his own end, but—Horatio scans the last paragraph—that Horatio will not be. And the train is traveling slowly enough that he believes Horatio will be able to get a letter to him.
Moving slowly so as not to excite himself overmuch, he sits down at his desk, pulls out a pen from one of his drawers, and begins to write.
All continues well here. More than usually well, in fact; I have spoken to your uncle and received certain privileges in return for certain duties. Nothing that conflicts with any heretofore made arrangements, no worries; just enough for me to be able to send you this letter. I think you may be aware of this.
Have been thinking very much about the last conversation we had alone. Horatio feels himself blush. Long for nothing more than to continue it. You brought up several points that I would like to explore in depth.
Your city is beautiful but more hazardous than I had expected. I am taking all necessary precautions to keep myself safe.
Here Horatio hesitates. Then he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and writes:
I highly suggest you do the same. There may be dangers both on your journey and at your destination that you had not anticipated. Do not worry about me; I am able to take care of myself as well as you are.
I hope to see you again, preferably before the summer is out. But I would rather see you safe, or not see you at all, than see you in danger.
If Hamlet is right, Claudius will not read this letter. Despite these past months—despite everything—Horatio trusts Hamlet, cannot help but trust what Hamlet says. If he gives the letter to Marcellus or Bernardo, they will convey it to wherever Hamlet may be without having to show it to a higher authority. But whoever reads Hamlet’s letters on the way to California will certainly be suspicious, and perhaps they, too, know about the plot to make sure Hamlet never returns to Chicago.
Without knowing any of the facts, and with the awareness that what he writes will be watched, the most Horatio can convey is a vague but urgent warning. It chafes at him, but it’s better than not warning Hamlet at all. Isn’t it?
He gives the letter to Marcellus and hopes like hell that he’s done the right thing.
They’ve moved into a heavy, humid August when one day he’s attending on Claudius and Gertrude as they go about their daily dinner. He eats all his meals with the kitchen staff, these days; he has no idea where the other guards eat. Today, he stands by the door as Claudius and Gertrude smile at each other over some kind of impossibly expensive food, feels the heavy shape of the gun beneath his clothing, fades into the background.
There’s a heavy knock on the door; Horatio glances at Claudius, who nods at him. He pulls the door open and lets in a tall, thin white man in a suit, his hat in his hands.
“Yes?” says Claudius, his voice flat.
“Sir,” says the man, and “ma’am,” and bows to both of them. “We’ve met before. I’m the, ah, the caretaker of-”
“We know who you are,” says Claudius. Gertrude has gone pale. “What we don’t understand is why you feel it necessary to interrupt our dinner.”
“Ma’am,” says the man directly to Gertrude, “she’s demanding to see you.”
Gertrude goes even paler. “I will not,” she says.
“She’s asking very urgently, ma’am,” says the man. “If I may, it would be an act of compassion to speak to her. She needs a touch of compassion, ma’am, a woman’s touch. With all due respect.”
“What on Earth can she want?” says Gertrude. Her voice is haughty and high, but she’s gripping the edges of the table so hard her knuckles are white.
“She speaks of her father, ma’am,” says the man. “She says everyone in the world is a liar, begging your pardon. She hits herself, sometimes, or pulls out her own hair. She speaks in nonsense. There’s no meaning in it, but if you were to listen, perhaps you could parse something. Perhaps that’s why she wants to see you.”
Gertrude looks hesitant. Horatio clears his throat. “If I may, ma’am,” he says.
“Yes?” says Gertrude, looking at him with a tinge of desperation. Claudius turns to look at him as well, but there’s no malice or suspicion in his gaze, just curiosity.
“I don’t know this girl,” says Horatio carefully, “but it seems to me that it would be good if she were spoken with. If only to prevent dangerous conjectures being made in the minds of those who heard her. Weak minds, I mean, ma’am.”
He can tell from Gertrude’s face he’s struck the correct nerve. “Let her come in,” she says, and shoves her plate away.
“Fetch her, Horatio,” says Claudius, and jerks his head at the door. Horatio slips through the door.
It’s Ophelia on the other side. He’s not really sure what he was expecting.
Her lovely ice-blonde hair is too shiny with grease, now; she hasn’t washed in a long while. It’s tangled and matted around her shoulders, and she’s become too thin. She’s dressed in a tattered white dress, its edges ragged and dirty. She’s barefoot. The hollows under her eyes are dark and wide, and when he reaches out to take her hand, her skin is hot to the touch. She’s a ghost of who she was.
“Miss Polonius?” he says, uncertain.
Ophelia’s eyes snap to him, and they’re the most frightening thing he’s ever seen. There’s nothing there. Just blue.
“I know you,” she says.
“I know you too, ma’am,” says Horatio gently. “We spoke a few weeks ago. You led me back to my room when I was lost. Do you remember?”
“Lost?” says Ophelia, and Horatio’s about to nod before she smiles at him, huge and empty. “Little Miss Muffet lost her tuffet. Lost it under a bridge in a room in a hole at the bottom of the sea. Have you ever been there?”
“No, ma’am,” says Horatio.
“Yes, you have,” says Ophelia. There’s something that’s almost cunning in her empty eyes. “Don’t lie; you’re no good at it, you know. Of course you’ve been there. He’s very handsome, isn’t he? Under a bridge in a room in a hole at the bottom of the sea.”
“Ma’am, you need to come with me,” says Horatio cautiously. Her words he tucks away in his mind; she can’t possibly know about him and Hamlet. She’s speaking nonsense.
“Of course I’ll come with you,” she says, and giggles. “Come, ladies, the brave knight Sir Lancelot has a quest for us. What is your quest, Lancelot?”
“Come into the room, ma’am,” says Horatio. “Mrs. Denmark is ready to see you.”
Ophelia goes very still. “The queen?” she says.
“Yes, ma’am,” says Horatio. “The queen.”
She takes his hand. “Lead on, brave knight,” she says, and he pulls her gently through the door.
Gertrude stands when she sees them. “Miss Polonius,” she says.
“My lady?” says Ophelia, her voice very small.
Gertrude’s face softens, for a split second. “Ophelia,” she says, and it’s almost a whisper.
“Little Miss Muffet lost her tuffet,” says Ophelia, and before Horatio can stop her, she runs across the room, her bare feet slapping on the linoleum, and grips Gertrude’s wrist tight. “Little Miss Muffet lost her tuffet, but you know how that is, don’t you, lady? To lose the thing that you need the most? The thing they told you not to lose?”
Gertrude pulls away. “Ophelia,” she says, and her voice is shaking. “Ophelia, you need help. You’re not well.”
“Something is rotten, lady,” says Ophelia, and smiles at her. “But you knew that. Threshold of revelation. Remember?”
“Ophelia,” says Gertrude, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Ophelia takes a step back. Her face is a child’s, uncomprehending, before it collapses into what isn’t quite tears. “I know you know, lady, I know you know, the world was ending, they said, keep what’s yours to yourself, they said.”
Horatio feels an awful suspicion uncurl in his stomach. Ophelia turns, glances wildly around the room. “But he was so sweet,” she says, her voice high. “I said, is it really losing? If all you’re doing is finding, is it really losing?” She turns back, squeezes Gertrude’s pale arm with both hands. “Not like you, lady, you truly lost, but then you found again, and can that really be so bad?”
She sings, high and trembling. “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Remember me to one who lives there—”
He once was a true love of mine, Horatio says under his breath. But Ophelia’s frozen, staring at Gertrude.
Abruptly, she falls to the ground. Horatio rushes forward, too late to catch her.
“She speaks of her father,” says Claudius, his voice pitched at a curious tone. “She mourns his loss.”
“She does,” says Gertrude, and her hands are shaking. “She must miss him very much.”
Horatio kneels by Ophelia’s side. She’s still unmoving, but her eyes are wide and very blue. Abruptly, she blinks, smiles, and crooks a finger at him. “I have a secret,” she says, “let me tell your ear.”
Horatio bends his ear to Ophelia’s mouth, and hears her whisper, almost so quiet he can’t make it out, “He loves you, you know.”
The air seems to waver around Horatio for a moment, the same as it did when Claudius told him of his plans for Hamlet. He says in a voice he doesn’t recognize, “I did know that already, ma’am, but thank you very much.”
“What did she say?” says Claudius.
“That she wasn’t feeling well,” says Horatio. The lie comes out surprisingly smooth.
“Then we must get her away,” says Claudius, standing up. “Horatio, accompany her to her former residence. Perhaps she can join Hamlet in his facility in California.”
“Yes, sir,” says Horatio, and takes Ophelia’s hand. She smiles up at him; for a brief moment he thinks he sees lucidity in her eyes, and such sadness that it takes his breath away.
The door shuts behind them. Ophelia wiggles her eyebrows at him and waves a hand to the door. “There are still secrets for your ears, good knight,” she says.
“Thank you, ma’am,” says Horatio, and presses his ear to the crack in the door.
“Tragedy strikes in armies,” Claudius’ deep voice comes through. “There’s a poison in this family, Gertrude.”
“A poison,” echoes Gertrude.
“We’re not coming back to this tired topic again,” says Claudius.
“What on Earth did my son mean?” says Gertrude, her voice very small and very scared. “Why did he make that film, Claudius?”
“He is insane,” says Claudius, patient. “He needs help. He needs care that only experts can give him.”
“Why did you have Polonius hide behind the curtain in my hotel room?” says Gertrude.
There’s a silence. Then Claudius says, “For your protection, Gertrude, you know that.”
“You could have given me a gun,” says Gertrude, soft.
There’s a pause. “There are some things,” says Claudius, “that are husband’s jobs. We would have been remiss in our duties if we’d left you alone with a madman.”
“Your duties as a husband,” says Gertrude.
“You’re not worried that we’re underperforming,” says Claudius, and there’s a giggle, and the sound of a kiss.
“Not at all,” says Gertrude. “I’m thinking of the duties of a wife.”
“Oh,” says Claudius, “we don’t think you’re underperforming in those, either,” and there’s another giggle, and more kissing.
“I suppose you’re right,” says Gertrude’s voice, eventually. “I suppose I’m worrying over nothing.” Her voice is flat.
“It’s your job,” says Claudius, his voice muffled by something. Horatio thinks it’s Gertrude’s hair. “And it’s our job to quiet those worries, however we can.”
“However you can,” Gertrude repeats, and there’s the sound of more kissing. Horatio pulls his ear away from the door.
“Little pitchers have big ears,” says Ophelia, “but big men can listen, too.” She smiles at him. “Where are we going, good sir knight, and what is it that we’re doing next?”
“I don’t know,” says Horatio, and means it.
He eventually drops Ophelia off with the doctor who’d announced her presence in the first place and retires for the evening. There are a hundred things to think about, but what he keeps returning to, again and again, are Ophelia’s words in his ear: He loves you, you know.
Horatio has a collection of letters from Hamlet in his dorm room at Columbia. If he closes his eyes he can still see Hamlet’s messy scrawl in his mind, the sheaves of paper black with spots from Hamlet’s ink, the signatures: yours, yours, always yours, eternally yours, for my sins yours, yours.
He dreams of Hamlet that night.
They’re on the bank of a river that stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. Horatio’s barefoot, and shirtless as well. The pebbles of the bank are cool under the soles of his feet, and the wind is gentle on his skin. The sun beats down. It’s a blisteringly hot day.
Hamlet’s lying down on the bank next to him, as if sleeping. He’s barefoot and shirtless as well, and the sun gleams on his chest. Horatio kneels down, and Hamlet opens his eyes, smiles at him.
“You’re not here,” says Horatio. “You’re on a train to California, hundreds of miles away. You’re nowhere near me.”
“Of course I am,” says Hamlet. He sits up and reaches out to brush his fingers over Horatio’s cheek. Horatio can’t help but close his eyes at that touch, can’t help but let the feeling of Hamlet’s skin on his linger.
“Ophelia said you loved me,” he says.
“Ophelia,” says Hamlet, and leans back, stares straight into the sun. “She always was a perspicacious girl, or so I remember. It’s a pity they never let her go to college. Imagine who she might have met.”
“Was she right?” says Horatio.
“It depends,” says Hamlet. “Will you trust what a figment of your imagination has to tell you?”
“I’ll always trust you,” says Horatio, simple and bare.
Hamlet smiles, sweet and naked and true. He reaches out to Horatio again, and Horatio closes his eyes and kisses back when Hamlet kisses him. Hamlet’s hands are cool on his shoulders, and when Hamlet lets go of him it’s as if a cloud has passed over the sun. Horatio opens his eyes, an unaccountable disappointment low in his stomach.
“My Horatio,” says Hamlet, warm. “What on Earth would I do without you? Of course I love you.”
“You’re a dream,” says Horatio.
“That’s true, too,” says Hamlet, and kisses him. Horatio’s eyes slide shut again, without his volition. “They’ll try to tell you all sorts of things, Horatio. That truth is objective, maybe, or that there’s only one way to find it, or that two opposing things can’t be true at the same time.”
“But that’s right,” says Horatio.
“Of course it’s right,” says Hamlet, laughing. “Of course that’s what’s right. But who are you going to believe, the truth or me?”
“You,” says Horatio, his eyes still closed. “Always you.”
“See,” says Hamlet, “I knew you loved me too,” and kisses him, his fingers cool on Horatio’s cheeks. “Lie down.”
Horatio moves to lie down, and Hamlet’s on top of him in a moment, straddling his hips. “Christ, I miss you on my way to California,” he says in between kisses. “I think of you every night, you know. Every night, but there’s nothing like you. I miss you, Horatio, I miss you, I need you with me, I need you—”
Horatio wakes, and the bed is empty and cold.
“We’re on special duty,” says Marcellus to him the next day at the gun range.
“Why?” says Horatio, his head snapping up. “What’s happening?”
“No official explanation,” says Marcellus, “but,” he glances around, as if afraid someone is hiding behind the targets, “word on the street says Laertes Polonius is coming back to town.”
“Laertes Polonius?” says Horatio. “Ophelia’s brother?”
“Old Polonius’ son, more like,” says Marcellus. “He’s not happy about his father.”
“He can’t possibly blame Claudius for it,” says Horatio.
Marcellus shrugs. “Grief does funny things to people. Makes them think that all sorts of things are true that aren’t. The bottom line is, we’re keeping an extra eye out today. Sticking a little closer to Mr. Denmark than we have in the past.”
“Do you think Laertes has men inside the mansion?” says Horatio.
Marcellus snorts. “Sorry,” he says at Horatio’s startled look, “just—I’ve known Laertes since he was a kid. If anyone has men inside the mansion, it’s not Laertes. Someone he met in Boston, maybe. Harvard big men with an eye on the Chicago scene. We can handle those well enough, we’ve handled them before.”
“Is that a possibility?” says Horatio.
“It’s not likely,” says Marcellus. “More of a chance that Laertes pulled a bunch of friends together and got ‘em to pay off some men to show up in front of the castle. A mob, maybe, disguised as a labor strike. Don’t know if he’s smart enough to do even that.”
“When is he coming?” says Horatio.
Marcellus shrugs. “Anytime between noon and midnight. So keep an eye out for him—you know what he looks like, I think?”
“I do,” says Horatio. “Will Mr. Denmark tell us any of this?”
“Maybe he will,” says Marcellus, “and maybe he won’t. Either way, it’s better to be prepared.”
Claudius does call Horatio into the main room- what Horatio still can’t help but think of as the throne room- later that day. “We have been wondering,” he says, “where your loyalties lie.”
“With you, sir,” says Horatio. Lying becomes easier with every passing day.
“Is there any circumstance that would cause you to leave our service?” says Claudius, his eyes sharp.
Horatio hesitates. Then he says, “No, sir.”
“Tell us why we should believe you,” says Claudius.
“I’ve been in your employ for the past month, sir,” says Horatio, “and in all that time I’ve been loyal and trustworthy. If I were working against you, sir, I’d have had a hundred opportunities to betray you already.”
Claudius blinks, slow and lazy. He says, “Acceptable. We assume the staff members have been as full of gossip as usual.”
“Sir?” says Horatio, his face blank.
“You know Laertes Polonius is coming,” says Claudius.
“Sir,” says Horatio politely.
Claudius narrows his ice-pale eyes at him. “Tell your friends that Laertes is not to be killed,” he says, “or injured in any significant way. Or his friends killed, either. And when you catch him, bring him to me.”
“I’ll keep it in mind, sir,” says Horatio. “And I’ll tell the other members of security.”
“Your loyalty is appreciated, Horatio,” says Claudius, folding his hands in his lap. Horatio tries, for a moment, to see Hamlet in his face. There’s a similarity there, of structure and character, but there’s a simple cruelty in Claudius’ gaze that Horatio’s never seen in Hamlet. There’s anger in Hamlet, always, and pain, but never the cold, mechanical look of malice that Horatio sees every time he looks at Claudius.
Claudius says, “You are dismissed,” and Horatio ducks his heads and goes.
Laertes comes at nine o’clock that night.
There’s no fanfare, no mysterious protest under the banner of a strike. There’s just a knock on the door, and when Marcellus, who Horatio’s on guard duty with, goes to answer it, Laertes is there alone, a gun clenched in his fist, his face a picture of fury.
“Take me to Claudius,” he says.
Marcellus glances at Horatio. Horatio says, “Why do you need to see Mr. Denmark today?”
“So I can kill him,” says Laertes.
Horatio and Marcellus exchange glances again; Marcellus raises a sardonic eyebrow. Horatio blinks and says, “I think you’d better come with me, sir.”
Laertes stalks after him through the corridors of Elsinore Mansion; after all this time, it doesn’t take Horatio long to lead him to the main room, He knocks on the door, calls in, “Laertes Polonius is here to see you, sir.”
“And who with him?” calls Claudius’ voice back.
“No one, sir,” says Horatio. “It’s just Laertes.” There’s silence, and he offers, “He does have a gun, sir.”
“Let him in,” says Claudius, and Horatio pushes the door open.
Laertes is rushing through it in a moment, his gun at the ready, but Claudius is standing with his hands up in a gesture of peace. “Laertes,” he says. “We were so sorry to hear about your father’s death.”
“I bet you were sorry,” Laertes snarls, “didn’t stop you from sending him in there alone, huh, you weren’t sorry enough to keep him safe?”
Claudius spreads his hands, helpless. “We’re sure your father spoke to you about this, Laertes. There are choices men like us have to make. Sometimes we don’t always know if they’re the right ones until after their consequences hit. We live a difficult life. Didn’t your father say?”
“Why would he have said?” says Laertes. His gun is still up, his eyes still narrowed, but his hands have begun to quiver.
Claudius takes a step forward. “Laertes. We thought you knew. He wanted us to train you for this job. You were always next in line to be mayor of this city.”
The lie is so enormous that it takes Horatio’s breath away, but Laertes blinks. “I was?” he says, his voice small.
“Of course you were,” says Claudius. “Who else could be better for the job?”
“I can think of someone,” says Laertes, his eyes narrowing again.
“You mean our nephew,” says Claudius, and closes his eyes, sorrowful. “We can’t say we ever trusted him as much as you may have believed we did, Laertes, and for that we apologize. Hamlet always was a strange child. We never intended his actions to go as far as they did.”
“Yeah, well, seems like your intentions didn’t exactly have much effect,” says Laertes, but his voice is less confident than it was.
“You must be going through so much, Laertes,” says Claudius, and takes another step forward. “Are you angry?”
“I’m angry,” says Laertes, latching on. “You can’t imagine how angry I am.”
“Laertes,” says Claudius, “we didn’t kill your father.” He pauses. “You know who did.”
“But,” says Laertes, and blinks, as if he’s forgotten what he’s going to say.
“Tell us,” says Claudius. “Who should you be pointing that gun at?”
There’s a knock on the door. Claudius says, “Come in.”
“Mister King?” says a faint, trembling voice, and Horatio feels, suddenly, very sick.
Laertes spins, says, “Ophelia?”
“Brother!” says Ophelia, her face a picture of delight. She’s thinner than ever, almost a skeleton, and her hair hangs thin and matted around her too-pale face. Her dress hangs loosely off her bones. Horatio thinks of his own sisters at home, and has to close his eyes for a moment. “What a delight to see you! And we thought you were in Fairyland.”
“Ophelia,” says Laertes, his voice shaking, “what has happened to you?”
Ophelia takes a few shaking steps towards him. Horatio frowns, tries to remember: where had Ophelia gone, after the last time he had seen her? Hadn’t a man taken her away? Hadn’t Claudius said she needed the same good care as Hamlet?
So how has she gotten back to the mansion?
“I’ve lost something, brother,” says Ophelia. “I’ve lost it and I can’t find it. I’ve lost it and I can’t find it. I can’t find it. I can’t find it.”
Laertes crosses to her, takes her hands. “Christ,” he says, “you’re burning up! You must have a fever in the hundreds, that’s why you’re not feeling well, we have to get you to a doctor at once—”
“No,” says Ophelia, and presses a hand to his cheek. “You’re cold, from the world out there. It’s cold, cold, dear brother. I’m how I am. I’m how I should be. We don’t stay dead long,” and she kisses him on the cheek. “You see?”
“How did this happen?” demands Laertes, whirling on Claudius. “When I left she was, she was angry, but she wasn’t like this. She’s never been like this. How could she become like this?”
Claudius spreads his hands again: helplessness. “We are afraid we cannot divine the mysteries of the female mind, Laertes. Perhaps there is something you may know about her state of hysteria that we do not. What was the last thing you spoke about with her?”
There’s a flicker of something in Claudius’ eyes, too knowing for his innocent, questioning tone. Laertes is lost in thought, but Horatio glances up to where the security cameras blink in the ceiling, feels the sick thing in his stomach burn.
There’s a sudden gasp from Laertes. “Yes?” says Claudius, his voice full of nothing but simple curiosity. “Have you anything for us?”
“Nothing,” says Laertes, sounding as ill as Horatio feels. “Nothing at all.”
“Stay a moment, Horatio,” says Claudius, when Laertes and Ophelia have gone, a maid leading him up to his old rooms and a doctor showing her to hers. His eyes are unsettlingly sharp.
“Sir,” says Horatio.
“You asked us a month ago if your price for your service to us could be Hamlet’s safety,” says Claudius.
“Sir,” says Horatio again, and bobs his head.
“At which point we told you that wasn’t going to be possible,” says Claudius.
“Sir,” says Horatio. He can’t quite keep the shake from his voice when he says, “I assumed that was because Hamlet was never going to return from California. Sir.”
“That was the intention, Horatio,” says Claudius. His hands are folded in his lap and his face is very still. His eyes won’t move from Horatio’s face.
“Sir?” says Horatio, startled.
Claudius says, “It would appear that young Mr. Denmark has left the custody of his friends.”
The blood roars in Horatio’s ears. He can’t move for a few rushing heartbeats; then the breath returns to his lungs. “What are you going to do to me, sir?” he says, trying to keep his voice steady.
Claudius shakes his head. “Don’t trouble yourself, Horatio. Much to our surprise, it appears that Hamlet did not leave of his own volition. He was, in fact, kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped?” says Horatio. The color that had been beginning to return to the world leeches out again. He thinks he might fall without assistance; he can’t imagine how pale his face has gone.
“He hasn’t been harmed,” says Claudius. He’s still watching Horatio unblinkingly. “His captors appear to have released him as soon as they knew who he was. We should all be so lucky.”
“We should all be so lucky,” echoes Horatio. There’s a pain in his hand, and he realizes in a kind of dull surprise that his fingernails have dug so hard into his palm they’ve drawn blood.
“We received mail from him,” says Claudius, “postmarked from Oklahoma. He says he’s returning to Chicago.” He pauses. “A pity, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” says Horatio, mechanical. “A pity.”
When he returns to his rooms that night he smashes the camera in his ceiling, methodically, with a pencil. Then he digs in the back of his closet, looking for a suitcase. There’s nothing. He slips out of his room and, for the first time during his stay at Elsinore Mansion working for Claudius, crosses to Hamlet’s door.
It’s been unoccupied the entire time he’s been there. He pushes gently on the door, and it swings open.
It smells of dust and cold, and he remembers the motel room where they first kissed, feels a pang go through his chest. Hamlet’s closet is deeper than his, bigger, and it takes him longer to dig through it before he eventually pulls out a bright red knapsack. It’s not going to be big enough to fit more than a few days’ worth of clothes and food, but he takes it anyway. It’s all he can find.
He moves downstairs, silently as a ghost. The mansion’s dead at this hour, except for the security guards patrolling outside. There’s only one guard by the room he wants, though.
It’s Marcellus. Horatio says, “I owe you so much.”
“You surely do,” says Marcellus. His hands are shoved in his pockets, and his face shows no emotion.
Horatio says, “I’m about to have to owe you one thing more.”
Marcellus’ hand comes up from his pocket and opens. Horatio has to close his eyes, briefly. There's a hundred things competing for his attention, but this one swells up, overwhelms the rest: the sight of his own car keys, gleaming at him from that warm brown palm.
He says, “Make that two things.”
The sun rises behind him.
He drives for sixteen hours straight. The mansion won’t have as many hesitations about coming after him as they had when he was escaping with Hamlet. Then, they’d had an excuse, had made their departure as quietly and subtly as they could manage. Now, one of their security guards is gone, and several hundred dollars in cash has been emptied from their personal bank. It’s not difficult to guess the story.
He makes it back into the middle of Missouri by the end of the afternoon and figures that’s far enough, pulls the key out of the engine, hoists his knapsack out of the trunk and begins to walk. The sun beats down, but he keeps moving, keeps moving.
Sometime around seven o’ clock he spots a figure wavering in the distance. Here the road is straight and long, and he hasn’t seen a car on it for a good half hour. This figure is a human being, and as it draws closer, he narrows his eyes and makes out close-cropped dark hair, a pale face…
He drops his pack and begins to run.
Hamlet’s face is wet with tears, but his lips are warm.
They make it back to the car by nine o’clock, around the time that Horatio intended. Hamlet wrinkles his nose at it. “God,” he says, “it can’t be yours, can it? What is that hideous color, chartreuse?”
“Repainted,” says Horatio, raising an eyebrow at him as they climb in. "Your uncle must have ordered it. I think they meant to resell it."
Hamlet’s eyes widen comically. “This is absurd,” he says. “What aesthetic crime. I disinherit my family. Everything belonging to me now belongs to you. Make a note of it, Horatio.”
“Will do,” says Horatio, laughing.
“That’s will do, sir,” says Hamlet, mocking. “Come on, say it. Call me sir, you were so eager a few months ago.” There’s a brief silence; he says, “Horatio?”
“There’s something you should know,” says Horatio.
Hamlet listens to it all in silence: how Horatio decided to work for Claudius, the price he had asked, Claudius’ reply. “I don’t know if you got that from my letter,” says Horatio, his voice heavy, “but I believe Claudius was planning to kill you before you ever reached California.”
“No,” says Hamlet, “he was plotting to kill me when I reached California. Exactly when I reached California, in fact.”
Horatio turns. “You knew?”
“Not at first,” says Hamlet, and scratches at the back of his head. “Well, I won’t say I didn’t suspect. If you were the mayor of Chicago and I was your problem, what would you do with me?”
Horatio says, “Something legal.”
Hamlet kisses him, sweet and quick. “Of course you would,” he says. “Anyway—I had my suspicions, but I didn’t have anything confirmed until we had made it all the way into Nevada. That was when the train broke down, the first time.”
“The first time,” says Horatio.
“Well,” says Hamlet, and sighs, and curls his body into Horatio’s. “Guildenstern slithered out of the compartment to go see what was wrong. Rosencrantz followed her, of course. So I took the opportunity to go through their bags.”
He looks very far away. Horatio rubs a quick, comforting hand up and down his back. “And?” he says.
Hamlet digs in his pocket and pulls out an envelope. It’s already been opened, but Horatio can see the evidence of some very official stationery on what remains of the seal. There’s a folded paper inside, only one sheet thick.
“Read it,” says Hamlet.
To the Esteemed Mayor of San Francisco.
We are sure that your memory of our last meeting is as fresh as your minds as it is in ours. Our respect for you has risen greatly since that encounter; we will admit, as one man to another, that beforehand we had been afraid that you had not quite understood the workings of politics in this most exceptional of countries.
We trust that you remember the event that sparked our newfound faith in you. Indeed, were you to forget it, we would be both shocked and very unhappy. A kind and intelligent man such as yourself would surely take every pain to avoid making a man such as me unhappy.
As you may have been alerted to by various media sources, our nephew and our son has sadly been weighted with some mental affliction whose cause we cannot diagnose. Having heard nothing but praise of the facilities designed to improve mental health in your city, we have deemed it necessary to send this poor young man into your tender care.
However, having made up our mind to send him, we find ourselves lost in that introspection so characteristic of men of our power and character. We find ourselves, in fact, meditating on the notion of dogs.
We are unsure as to whether you have ever owned a dog, my esteemed colleague, but we are quite sure that very few men in your position have long owned a dog who is stricken with the affliction that scientists call rabies but the poor of our country call “madness”. The reason that we are sure you have not long owned such a dog, of course, is that these dogs are dangerous to those around them. They are easily identified by their unstable behavior, but even this early diagnosis cannot cure them.
As any farmer could tell you, Mr. Mayor, once a dog has been deemed mad there is only one solution left to its owner. No matter how precious the dog had once been, it is now necessary to, in the crudest of terms, take it out behind the woodshed and shoot it in the head.
We trust that your wife is as well as she was at our last meeting.
Mayor Claudius Denmark, Chicago
“Really it’s not the instructions to kill me that gets me,” says Hamlet. “It’s the comparison that does it, I think. Do you happen to have anything to drink in that ridiculous knapsack of yours?”
Horatio does, of course; it’s a bottle of wine from Claudius’ cellars, rich and fine and probably more expensive than the rest of the pack put together. He’d felt a grim satisfaction at taking it, thinking of his mother and his sisters, trapped in their tiny apartment in New York City. There’s a good chance he may never see them again.
Hamlet looks critically at the label, twists on the cork, and tips it to his lips. A moment later he’s pulling back, surprised. “Christ, Horatio. This is good wine.”
“I know,” says Horatio.
“No, you don’t,” says Hamlet, “really, this is good wine, hold still,” and he tips the bottle to Horatio’s lips. Horatio closes his eyes and lets the wine trickle past his lips, but it’s the brush of Hamlet’s fingers on his cheek that catches all of his attention, like a burst of sunlight behind his eyelids.
“Good wine?” says Hamlet, smiling into his gaze.
“Good wine,” Horatio agrees, and tilts his head. Hamlet laughs, leans forward to lick it off his lips.
“And then?” says Horatio a few minutes later. Hamlet’s arms are around him, and it’s becoming hard to concentrate.
Hamlet nuzzles at his neck. “Hm?”
“What did you do after you—ah—after you found the letter?” says Horatio, leaning into his touch.
Hamlet pulls back, leans into the window of the car. His eyes are blank, staring out the window. “Well,” he says, “at first I thought I would just escape. Then I thought of you, of course.”
Horatio puts his hand on Hamlet’s arm. Hamlet half-smiles, but he shrugs it off. “I’m sure that was the only solution my uncle had anticipated,” he says, his voice mocking. “If he’d been me, he would have just fled and let you take what came.”
“Thank you,” says Horatio.
“Well,” says Hamlet, and rolls back to face him. “I dug around some more in Rosencrantz and Guildensterns’ things and found a whole package of official seals. Like you see on the flap of that thing,” and he waves the envelope. “And envelopes, and of course I had my own writing equipment. Finally, a stroke of Fate, hm?”
“What did you write?” says Horatio. There’s something very cold in Hamlet’s eyes, something that he’s never seen before, and it frightens him.
Hamlet laughs, and Horatio feels even sicker. “To the esteemed mayor of San Francisco,” he says, “et cetera, et cetera, reminder that I own you, sycophantic compliments. You will no doubt have heard that my godforsaken nephew is as crazy as it comes, so I’m—sorry, we’re—sending him to your city, have fun with him. Meanwhile there’s a couple of goons coming along with him, boy and girl, joined at the hip however little she wants to admit it. Do me a bit of a favor and knock them off, would you? Thinly veiled threat, et cetera et cetera, sincerely, Hamlet’s Uncle.”
“You killed them,” says Horatio.
“Technically,” says Hamlet, “the mayor of San Francisco is going to kill them.”
“Well, for God’s sake, we all know technicalities are important,” says Horatio. His vision is going faint.
Hamlet turns to him. “Horatio?” he says. “Are you all right?”
“Hamlet,” says Horatio, and can’t speak for a moment. He rubs at his eyes, takes a breath. “You know I love you?”
“Of course,” says Hamlet, his gaze intent. He takes Horatio’s hands. “I love you, too, Horatio, you know I love you more than anything.”
“And you’re going to kill Claudius,” says Horatio.
“Yes,” says Hamlet, and his eyes are very sad. “Yes, I am.”
“That frightens me,” says Horatio, without fare. “Murder frightens me.”
Hamlet leans back, tilts his chin up. “You worked for my uncle without making this fuss, I assume.”
“If I’d made this fuss with your uncle, he’d have killed me, too,” says Horatio, “and it’s not just that. I worked for Claudius. I was his guard and his messenger and his goddamn chauffeur, and in return for that he paid me with the freedom of the city—and the only reason he paid me with that is because he wouldn’t pay me with your safety. I worked to earn his trust, but I never trusted him. The only reason I ever treated him with anything more than fury is because I thought working for him would make it easier to help you.”
“And?” says Hamlet quizzically. His head’s tilted on his side.
“I trust you,” says Horatio. “After spending a month in your city, I trust you. And I love you.”
“And you want to make sure you can keep loving me,” says Hamlet. There’s a guard up in his eyes.
Horatio rubs at his forehead. “No,” he says. “Christ, no. I want to make sure the man I love now is someone I won’t have a bad conscience loving.”
“And if I do give you a bad conscience?” says Hamlet.
Horatio bites at his lip. “I’ll love you.”
The guard on Hamlet’s eyes relaxes, and his face breaks into a smile. “I’m sorry, Horatio,” he says, and his eyes are imploring. “You know why I have to kill Claudius, though. You saw the ghost, too.”
“I saw the ghost, too,” Horatio confirms. He shuts his eyes. “Was it necessary to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?”
“What would they have done once I kill my uncle?” says Hamlet. “They accepted his money, Horatio. They sold me for a few coins. What place could they possibly have had in the city after he’s gone?”
“But so did Marcellus,” says Horatio, “and Bernardo, and Francesco. I accepted Claudius’ work, even if I refused to do anything that hurt you. Will you kill everyone who once worked for him?”
“They betrayed me,” says Hamlet. He looks very like a child, suddenly, and very sad.
“Give me the wine,” says Horatio. Hamlet hands it over, and Horatio takes a deep drink. It is good wine, after all, full of flavor and sweetness, like the last, dying days of summer.
He says, “Let’s go.”
They stay at a hotel that night. It’s not one of the cheap motels they’d haggled over with their paltry sums of money in June and July. Horatio’s taken enough money from Claudius’ treasury to know they can spend it however they like, now.
“It was a test, you know,” says Hamlet against Horatio’s chest, once they’re curled together on the bed.
“What was?” says Horatio, startled.
“When my uncle told you where I was,” says Hamlet, “and that I’d escaped. He was testing your loyalty to him.”
“Well, I suppose I failed,” says Horatio, dry.
Hamlet smiles at him, reaches over to squeeze his hand.
A newspaper article, from what is presumed to be the next morning.
DAUGHTER OF CHICAGO SOCIALITE FOUND DEAD!
Chicago, IL – The Polonius family has been stricken with tragedy once again, as Ophelia Polonius, daughter of well-known Chicago personality Mr. Polonius, was found drowned this morning in the Main Branch of the Chicago River.
Only a few weeks ago, Mr. Polonius was shot by Hamlet Denmark, stepson of Chicago’s mayor. Now his daughter, too, has passed on.
Sources suggest that Ophelia tripped and fell while crossing one of Chicago’s bridges. “She didn’t intend to fall at all,” says Mayor Denmark’s wife, Gertrude Denmark, who was at the scene. “She was carrying flowers across the bridge. She had bought them at a flower shop on the other side. It was her favorite bridge in the city, I think. It was the oldest.”
Ophelia shared an abiding love of the city of Chicago with her father. Earlier in the year, she decided not to apply to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, opting instead to remain in Chicago, with her family.
“We were so very glad she was staying,” says Gertrude. “Ophelia was such a delight to all of us.”
According to Mrs. Denmark, Ophelia was standing at the edge of the bridge when she tripped and fell.
“She was wearing a white dress,” says Gertrude, “a very thick one. The flowers fluttered up in the air as she fell, pansies and daisies and violets, they were. When she hit the water the current overtook her, and her dress bore her down. The last I saw of her was that white skirt moving with the current. Then just the petals, drifting downstream.”
Ophelia’s body was discovered later that night. Her funeral is expected to occur in a few days, near
Here the article has been neatly snipped off.
Horatio folds the newspaper, tucks it deep into his bag. Hamlet is still asleep in the hotel bed, the sheets wrapped around his bare body, his face pressed into the pillow, and Horatio can’t quite bear to wake him up yet.
He sips his coffee and makes a face; it’s terrible, too bitter and too flat. The breakfast he’s collected for them downstairs in the lobby steams on the table, waffles and two pastries, and he surreptitiously lifts Hamlet’s coffee from beside it and slides it into the garbage can.
“Horatio?” says Hamlet’s fuzzy voice. Horatio sets down his coffee and goes to the bed, smiles at him, kisses him; Hamlet pulls back and makes a face. “You taste terrible,” he says.
“Coffee,” says Horatio. “Don’t start flattering me, though. I’ll start thinking you like me.”
“I love you,” says Hamlet, and leans forward to kiss him again. “What’s new in the world? Breakfast?”
Horatio’s eyes flick to the newspaper in his bag. “Yes,” he says, “breakfast. We’d better leave early. Do you still want to go to Chicago?”
Hamlet pushes himself up in bed, rubs at his eyes. “I do,” he says. “Duty, honor, the usual. You know.” His eyes are very tired, like they’ve been since May, and Horatio wants to reach inside Hamlet and find the part of him that aches like this, bring it out and show it the sunlight, and it hurts.
“You never finished telling me about everything that went on at court, by the way,” says Hamlet, his voice suddenly bright. “How are the delightful characters in our novella?”
“Laertes is back,” says Horatio.
Hamlet’s eyes widen. “No! Laertes Polonius? Didn’t he have ladies to woo at Harvard?”
“He came back because he blamed your uncle for his father’s death,” says Horatio.
Hamlet is silent for a few moments. “My uncle must have loved that,” he says. “Was he gunned down at the door, then?”
“Claudius told us not to hurt him,” says Horatio.
“Not to—” says Hamlet, his brows furrowed, and then his face clears. “Ah. He wanted to speak with him, I suppose.”
Horatio huffs out a parody of a laugh. “He did speak to him.”
“It’s cleverer than I would have given him credit for,” says Hamlet, pursing his lips. “I would have done the same. Can we expect that the good Laertes is out to see justice done upon me, then?”
“More than justice, I think,” says Horatio. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he were out for your blood.”
Hamlet climbs unhurriedly out of the bed, the sheets wrapped loosely around his middle. “He can stand in line,” he says. “Those waffles smell delicious. No coffee?”
“I seem to remember you insulting that coffee a few seconds ago,” says Horatio. “You want to make it yourself?”
“God, no,” says Hamlet, “what am I, some kind of proletariat,” and smiles at Horatio, steals the plastic knife and fork out from under his fingers, digs in. It’s so easy to fall back into the familiar banter with him—too easy, perhaps. Horatio remembers the look in Hamlet’s eyes when he’d said Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were going to die, and there’s something sick, still, in his stomach.
But Hamlet’s looking up at him, his eyes dark as blackbirds, and Horatio never could help himself. Not for this. Never for this.
They reach the outskirts of Chicago in two days. It’s a little while before Horatio intended, but that’s all right.
There’s no announcement in the paper that they’ve gone, no nationwide campaign to locate the missing prince of Chicago. “My uncle knows where we are,” says Hamlet to Horatio, and Horatio nods, reaches for his hand.
When the highway begins to plunge into Chicago proper, Horatio takes the exit out. “Where are we going?” says Hamlet, with interest.
“There’s something you should see,” says Horatio.
“That sounds ominous,” says Hamlet. “Are you going to take me out behind the woodshed and shoot me?”
“Hamlet,” says Horatio, despairing, and Hamlet kisses his cheek, quick and dry.
“Joke,” he says. “Is this to be mysterious and enigmatic, then? I can do mysterious and enigmatic, if you only tell me to. I’ve always loved Gothic novels.”
“There’s no mystery,” says Horatio. “But you should see this,” and he pulls to the side of the road by the wrought-iron gates of the graveyard, hopes like hell he’s doing the right thing.
Summer is dying. It’s not a secret any more. The ground is scattered in patches with leaves colored firework red and sunset gold, and the grass is curled and brown and dead. Their boots crunch on it; the sun is setting behind them, and Horatio’s breath comes out in white curls to show his path forward.
Hamlet’s silent, uncharacteristically. Horatio glances at his face. It’s more peaceful than he’s ever seen it before.
There had been a night back in New York, in the spring of their freshman year at Columbia. It had been April, and the fog had curled around buildings and drifted up from the cracks in the city streets. Hamlet had appeared in the library where Horatio had been studying, waved a bottle of wine at him, ignoring the librarian’s furious stare.
They’d gone out walking by the Hudson. The night had been cold, and Horatio fancied he could smell the salt spray of the Atlantic Ocean from here, see the silhouette of Liberty from here. Hamlet had been trailing his hand on the railing separating them from the river. He’d stopped and leaned the top half of his body over, stared down into the waters below them.
Horatio had stood back, his hand curling around the neck of the bottle in his coat. Hamlet’s eyes had been closed, and every line in his face gone. The wind had pushed his hair back from his forehead, and it’s only with the clear sight of memory that Horatio can mark that as the moment when he had first loved Hamlet: watching him on the bank, as if witnessing something holy.
Hamlet looks like that now. The wind stirs up leaves from the ground, makes them dance in the air around them, and Hamlet closes his eyes, his eyelashes long on his cheeks.
They reach the center of the graveyard. There’s a man there, digging a grave. Horatio slips his hand into Hamlet’s, and Hamlet opens his eyes as if startled.
The man looks up from the grave. “Hello, then,” he says, “what the hell are you doing here? The funeral isn’t for another half-hour.”
“We’re not here for the funeral,” says Hamlet, “I don’t think, anyway. Who’s to be buried here?”
“A body,” says the gravedigger, and shoves his spade into the earth.
“What body?” says Hamlet, half-laughing.
“The body of one who was living,” says the gravedigger, patient, “but who’s now dead.”
“Well, I understood that,” says Hamlet, “but who was living and is now dead?”
“Oh, all sorts,” says the gravedigger. “The old mayor Denmark, for one. Myself, in a year or two. A word of advice, boy: don’t become a gravedigger. It’s hard on the back.”
“Your back won’t kill you,” says Hamlet.
“No,” says the gravedigger, “but the drinking to make the back easier will, won’t it? Make no mistake about it, it’s a hard life. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“That old mayor Denmark you spoke of,” says Hamlet, deceptively casual. “Was he a good mayor, then?”
The gravedigger shrugs. “Couldn’t say. His son Hamlet, though, he’s a right mad one.”
“Is he,” says Hamlet. He’s watching the gravedigger sidelong; the gravedigger’s stopped in his work and now leans on his spade, his lips twitching.
“He is, indeed,” he says. “Eck-cen-tric, I should say, being as how he’s rich. Heard he’s running loose now, you know. Heard he could do just about anything.”
Hamlet smiles, suddenly, and the gravedigger smiles back. Horatio glances from one to the other, struck abruptly by the sensation that he’s missed a joke.
“Tell me more about who’s buried here,” says Hamlet. “A man or a woman?”
“A girl, more like,” says the gravedigger, bending to shovel dirt again. “Drowned on accident, or so they say.”
“So they say?” says Hamlet. “Was it murder?”
The gravedigger snorts. “Sure, it was accident and murder like young Hamlet is eck-cen-tric. Every man, woman, and child in the city of Chicago knows the girl jumped, don’t they? But it ain’t a pretty story, and she’s too pretty of a girl to have that burden laid on her after death. Too pretty and too rich, I think.”
“Really,” murmurs Hamlet, “a suicide,” and crouches down by the grave. He picks up a pinch of it in his fingers, rolls it around until it tumbles away. “The dirt doesn’t feel any different from what you feel when you’re out in the woods,” he says, his voice very far away.
“It’s no special kind of dirt,” says the gravedigger. “It’s all just dirt and bones out here. There’s nothing more to it.”
“Is there,” says Hamlet.
There’s a noise from behind them. Hamlet spins and goes dead white, says, “Christ, Horatio, that’s my mother,” and breaks into a sprint. Horatio follows after him, leaping over the fence of the graveyard and ducking down behind a bush so he’s crouching next to Hamlet.
“It’s a whole procession,” Hamlet hisses in his ear. “You didn’t tell me anyone had died while you were there, for God’s sake.”
“No one died while I was there,” whispers Horatio. “This is what I wanted you to see.”
There’s a priest at the head of them, black-robed and somber-faced. He clears his throat. “We are gathered here today,” he says, “to mourn the death of a girl who was taken from us too soon. It is our duty as always to remember the word of our Lord at all times, and follow His will in every way we can. Let us pray.” He bows his head.
“That’s all?” says a clear, carrying voice.
The priest’s head snaps up. “For a funeral of this delicate nature,” he says, his voice pinched, “yes. That is all.”
“Delicate nature,” says the voice, and Laertes comes into sight from their vantage point behind the bushes, his finger in the priest’s face. “Delicate nature, huh? You think that because she wasn’t some kind of saint she doesn’t deserve a proper funeral? You think she doesn’t deserve ten hours of eulogy and mourning, the kind of weeping the godforsaken Irish do, huh, with a wake and a day of national grief? You think if you just dash off a few words and tell us to pray for her eternal soul she’s just going to take it?”
“I was the only one of this parish who would agree to officiate this service at all,” says the priest, his tone very cold.
“Well, you can officiate it from hell,” says Laertes, “because when you’re rotting there my sister is going to be a goddamn saint—”
Hamlet leaps over the wall of the graveyard.
It’s a moment before Horatio realizes what’s happened, and another before he can push himself over the gates and run after Hamlet. He’s almost too late; he catches Hamlet in his arms a split second before he’s going to throw himself at Laertes. “It’s not worth it,” he hisses in his ear, “it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it.”
“You didn’t tell me it was Ophelia!” shrieks Hamlet, struggling in Horatio’s grip. “You didn’t tell me they’d killed Ophelia!”
“We’d killed Ophelia?” bellows Laertes, his face red. “Let me tell you who killed my sister, you bastard, it was you, you killed her when you shot my father dead—”
“You never loved her!” shouts Hamlet. “You left her behind when you went to Harvard and you never spared a second thought for her, just left her in that nest of vipers that you were so goddamn happy to escape—”
“Like you did anything different?” roars Laertes. “Leaving for New York City, huh, without even telling anyone goodbye, running away from Chicago and running away from your family and running away from the train ride that would take you to the prison for psychopaths and murderers where you belong—”
In a last frenzy, Hamlet breaks free of Horatio’s arms and goes for Laertes’ throat. Horatio moves for them; on the other side, he can see Marcellus doing the same thing, and Gertrude with her hands over her mouth, and Claudius watching with interest. Laertes is punching Hamlet in the stomach and Hamlet’s tearing at his face; one of them takes a wrong step, and they stumble and fall into the grave, landing with a hard thump on what must be the coffin.
The fall seems to jolt them both to their senses. “Hamlet!” calls Horatio down after them, and reaches out a hand. Hamlet takes fast hold on what seems to be instinct, and Horatio hauls him out of the grave.
“He is out of his mind, Laertes,” says Claudius, smooth, as Marcellus offers the same hand to Laertes. “He does not know what he’s doing. You do—it’s what makes you better than him.”
“What makes me better than him is not being a goddamn murderer,” snarls Laertes.
Hamlet tilts his chin up. “I’d rather be a murderer than a liar,” he says, “and I’d rather murder an enemy than someone in my own family.” And with that, he spins and flees from the graveyard, the crunches of his boots on the dead leaves disappearing. Horatio dashes after him.
Hamlet stops him outside the car. “You knew,” he says. “You knew Ophelia had killed herself, and you didn’t tell me.”
“I didn’t know she killed herself,” says Horatio honestly. “I knew she had died.”
The anger seems to be sliding away from Hamlet, replaced by a kind of numbness. His eyes are closed. “Ophelia is dead,” he says, his voice blank. “Ophelia committed suicide.”
Horatio bends to kiss him, not caring who sees. The wind has grown colder. He says, “What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to kill my uncle,” says Hamlet. “I’m going to kill Claudius.” He opens his eyes. “Come on, Horatio. Let’s go back to Elsinore. We have work to do.”
They’re partway into Chicago when Horatio says, “Do we have to go back tonight?”
It comes out more childlike than he had intended. “We can do whatever you want to do,” says Hamlet, his hand covering Horatio’s. His voice is unexpectedly kind. “What did you have in mind?”
“We have extra money,” says Horatio. “We can stay in a hotel for the night—for a few nights, if we want to. We can stay away from the mansion. Just for now.”
“Of course we can,” says Hamlet, and kisses him on the cheek, warm and dry, and Horatio knows that he loves Hamlet more than he’s ever loved anyone before, more than he’s ever loved anything in his life, more than he will ever love again, and Hamlet’s hand stays on his as they make their way off the highway and down, down into the city.
The hotel is expensive. It takes up all the money they have left, and by the time they’ve gone up to their room it’s ten o’clock at night. There’s a balcony on the outside of their room, just as there was in Hamlet’s bedroom, and Horatio unlocks the doors and pushes them open so the cold night wind of the city winds in.
“It’s September tomorrow,” he says.
“Already?” says Hamlet. “Don’t remember summer even saying goodbye.”
“Come out to look at the stars,” says Horatio.
Hamlet’s body is warm next to him in the brisk air. It’s the same kind of night as the night Horatio saw the ghost for the first time; he closes his eyes and tries to picture its face again, to hold its image in his mind. It slips away as quickly as candle smoke.
“What are you thinking about?” says Hamlet.
“Your father,” says Horatio.
Hamlet’s silent for a long time, looking out into the lights of the city around them. He says, “I know I don’t act rationally sometimes, Horatio.”
Horatio is silent.
Hamlet says, “It might be that they were right to say I was mad. I am mad, I think. But I can’t help that any more than I can help loving my father,” he rubs at his face, “or Ophelia, or you. And it’s not mad to say that Claudius is hurting my family. It’s not mad to say that my family is hurting me. It’s not mad to say that I need to leave this city. It’s the truth.”
He sighs, a long rush of air. “I don’t always know what I’m doing,” he says, “or what I’m thinking. I wish I did. But—”
He closes his eyes. “I used to have this fascination with water,” he says, “when I was a child. Ophelia and I used to spend hours by the bank of the Chicago River. Rivers are still fascinating to me; they move in such interesting ways. You’re majoring in Physics, Horatio, you must understand this.”
“I’m studying aeronautical science,” says Horatio, dry.
Hamlet half-smiles. “Send me to the moon, then won’t you?”
“I will,” says Horatio, pressing closer in to his body. “I promise.”
“But you still understand, don’t you,” says Hamlet, “how everything is determined before you begin it? You drop a penny, and the time it hits the ground and at what angle isn’t up to you. It’s determined from the start, from all the laws of gravity and resistance that the universe laid down before you even knew what a penny was.”
He stares out into the darkness. “The river has whirlpools,” he says. “You can see bubbles of foam from all the way upstream; you can watch them drift closer and closer, and you know that they’re going to spin down those holes. Some of them dissolve, of course, before they reach it; their shape changes, or they grow larger or smaller, and that alters how they move in the river, and maybe they’re not going to go down the whirlpool after all.”
He props his chin on his fists. “The question isn’t, can the foam avoid spinning down the whirlpool,” he says. “The question is, can it avoid the whirlpool while still remaining itself? And the answer is no, of course. The answer was always no.”
The stars are glimmering above, faint in comparison to the lights of the city. Down below, the cars rush from place to place, as if they have somewhere important to go.
“Come to bed,” says Horatio.
Hamlet closes his eyes and smiles, sweet and sad and small. “All right,” he says, and tangles his fingers through Horatio’s.
They close the door of the balcony behind them, but the smell of the city is in the room now, full of exhaust and the sharp smell of autumn coming. Hamlet stands at the edge of the bed, kissing Horatio, his fingers woven through Horatio’s hair. Horatio closes his eyes when Hamlet pulls back; it’s as if the sun has disappeared from the sky. But Hamlet’s crawling back onto the bed, pulling Horatio with him, kissing his lips and his jaw and his neck.
Horatio eases Hamlet’s shirt off its shoulders. It’s a polo shirt, tight and strangely fit; Hamlet’s been wearing it for a day or two, most likely, walking straight back from the kidnappers to Oklahoma. His pants are next, simple blue jeans, then his boxers, and Horatio kneels by the end of the bed, unlaces Hamlet’s shoes, slides off his socks.
He’s so intent on his work that he doesn’t notice until he looks up the expression on Hamlet’s face, at once tender and possessive and sad. “Come here,” he says, and Horatio obeys, moving up Hamlet’s body to kiss him.
Hamlet’s pulling Horatio’s clothes off now with more urgency than with which Horatio had undressed him, and Horatio helps him, moving with Hamlet’s actions until both he and Hamlet are pressed skin to skin.
“I love you,” says Hamlet, and kisses him, “Christ, Horatio, I owe you so much.”
Horatio beckons to him, and they move so Hamlet is sitting on the edge of the bed. Horatio sinks to his knees.
He sucks Hamlet off slow and careful; Hamlet’s very still on the bed, his legs spread apart, his hips rocking up only slightly into Horatio’s mouth. Horatio peers up at him through his eyelashes; Hamlet’s eyes are screwed up, and his lips are pressed into a slash. He has a fistful of the sheets in each hand, and his chest is heaving with the effort of silence.
When he comes it’s with a gasp; Horatio thinks he hears the beginning of his own name before it’s bitten off, and Hamlet opens his eyes, wet and dark and warm. He tugs Horatio up, presses him down on the bed, kisses and bites at his lips and jerks him off until Horatio is spilling into his hand, his groan muffled by Hamlet’s mouth.
Hamlet falls asleep first, his face smooth and peaceful; Horatio keeps his eyes wide open, staring at the darkness. The longer he stays awake, the more of this moment he can have; the longer he stays awake, the more of this he’ll be able to remember, Hamlet in his arms, Hamlet at peace. The longer he stays awake—
The next morning comes too soon.
The sun spills across the sheets like honey on bread, golden and alive. Hamlet is beautiful, the sheets twisted around him, his sleeping face almost peaceful. Horatio props himself up on his elbow to watch him, lets his fingernails trail along one of Hamlet’s cheekbones, bends to kiss the place where his eyelashes lay long on his face.
“I’m awake,” says Hamlet, without opening his eyes.
“Come outside,” says Horatio, soft. “It’s a beautiful day.”
They lean on the balcony. The wind is blowing through the city, all the way down the alleys of the streets, and it lifts Hamlet’s hair into a halo. Horatio reaches for his hand.
It’s not far from the hotel to Elsinore Mansion. Horatio stops at the garage and watches the door lift for the car, drives in through, lets it shut behind.
“It was a good car, after all,” says Hamlet, and gives it an absent pat. “I didn’t mean half of what I said about it. You think it knows that?”
“There’s still some wine left,” says Horatio, lifts it out of his knapsack, offers it to his friend. Hamlet smiles at him and tilts it all the way back. Horatio watches the last drops slide through his lips.
When they walk into the sitting room Claudius is there, sitting in the chair facing the door, his eyes staring at them with the mechanical calculation of a predator. “And now,” he says, “our friend and our son. Hamlet.”
“Uncle,” says Hamlet, nods at him.
“Your mother is very glad you’ve returned,” says Claudius. “She was devastated, you know.”
“I know,” says Hamlet.
“Sometimes we wonder,” says Claudius, “whether you’ve thought about what it means to be a man, Hamlet.”
“I’ve thought about it,” says Hamlet, his chin up, insolent.
“Being a man is about more than age, you know,” says Claudius, calm. “It’s about power, and self-control, and responsibility. Do you know what that entails?”
Hamlet tilts his head, begins an answer, but Claudius tilts his head at him. “We’re not sure if you’ve earned the privilege of choosing when to speak and when to hold your tongue,” he says, and if Horatio thought he had been cold and calculating and cruel before, it’s nothing compared to how he sounds now.
Hamlet stares at him. There’s enough pain in his face that Horatio can’t help but brush their hands together, a wordless comfort.
“Being a man entails responsibility,” says Claudius. “Would a real man abandon his family? Would a real man leave those who care most about him? Would a real man discard those who need him to the whims of fate?”
Hamlet’s hands are balled up into fists, but his eyes are too bright. “We are sure that an intelligent boy such as you can meditate on the consequences of his actions,” says Claudius. “In the meantime, we suggest that you retire to your rooms to do so.”
“Horatio is coming with me,” says Hamlet, sudden, bright, defiant.
Claudius blinks, slow. Then he says, “Yes, we suppose he is.”
Hamlet seizes Horatio’s hand. “I’ll be back,” he says, but Claudius’ gaze burns a hole in their backs all the way out of the room and through the corridors of the mansion.
A series of photographs.
Image: a boxing glove, bright red.
Image: a close-up on the fist of that boxing glove. At this distance, it is possible to make out some bright spots on the glove that are not entirely due to light refraction.
Image: a further close-up. Now it is possible to see that the bright spots are in fact shaped like spikes, such as those of a dagger or sword.
Image: a photocopy of a diagram of a plant with yellow flowers on its top and an arrangement of leaves up and down its stem. A label reads Hyoscyamus niger.
There’s a knock on the door of Hamlet’s room. Hamlet jerks back from Horatio and goes to the door, quickly enough that Horatio’s eyes are still closed when it opens.
“Sir,” says Marcellus’ voice, gruff, and Horatio snaps to attention.
“Marcellus,” says Hamlet, suspicious, “isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” says Marcellus. His eyes flick to Horatio through the gap of the door, and Horatio gives him a brief nod.
Hamlet sees it, purses his lips. “You’d better come in,” he says.
“With all due respect, sir, that won’t be possible,” says Marcellus. “I am not permitted to enter any room without fully operational cameras, sir.”
Horatio stares for a moment—why on Earth would Marcellus not be allowed to- before it hits him. He says, “I’m sorry,” and it falls flat in the air.
Marcellus ignores him. “I’ve been sent to bring a message, sir,” he says, directly to Hamlet. “Your mother is thrilled and delighted to have you home, and so has requested a contest between you and Laertes, as entertainment for the mansion.”
“A contest?” says Hamlet.
“She says you learned to box as a child, sir,” says Marcellus. “She suggests that you and Mr. Polonius show your skills in front of the court.”
“Boxing?” says Hamlet, his voice a sharp note of mocking disbelief.
“She said,” says Marcellus, and here he clears his throat, looks uncomfortable, “that it was one of the more manly sports. Sir.”
Hamlet’s eyes clear. “I see,” he says. “Tell my mother and her husband that I will be down to the lobby directly. They already have the ring set up, I assume?”
“Yes, sir,” says Marcellus. His eyes flick from Hamlet and Horatio, and for the briefest of moments they’re wide, almost frightened. He closes the door. Horatio stares at the wood blankly for a second, and then he’s on his feet.
“You don’t have to go,” he says, urgent.
Hamlet’s still facing the door. “Don’t I?” he says, his voice curiously light.
“You don’t have to go,” repeats Horatio. “If there’s anything that you’re afraid of, anything that seems off to you, don’t do it. Stay here.”
“But they asked for me,” says Hamlet, and he’s half-laughing.
Horatio puts a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t do this,” he says. “Don’t treat me like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I’m not them. Tell me the truth.”
Hamlet turns to face him, finally. There’s something very far away in his eyes, something almost happy. He blinks, and they clear. “You remember what I told you last night?” he says. “About how rivers spin into whirlpools?”
“You can avoid this!” says Horatio. “You can move!”
Hamlet smiles properly, huge and sweet and warm. “Not without changing,” he says. “You know how this goes, Horatio. You know how the story ends.”
“This isn’t a story,” says Horatio, desperate, but the words sound curiously hollow.
Hamlet’s still smiling at him. “I am so glad,” he says, “that you played the part you did,” and he kisses Horatio, his hand on Horatio’s cheek, soft and gentle, over too soon. When he pulls back, Horatio winces; it hurts.
Hamlet says, “Are you coming?”
Of course he is.
“The usual rules apply, of course,” says Claudius, looking as coolly amused as he ever has. “We assume you two know them. If Hamlet hits Laertes three times before Laertes hits him once, the match goes to Hamlet; if Laertes hits him once before the third, the match goes to Laertes.”
“I am, as ever, touched by your faith in me,” says Hamlet, smiles wide and bright at him. He’s stripped to the waist, wearing a pair of athletic shorts that look worryingly expensive. They have the logo of the New York Yankees on the side; Horatio thinks he remembers Hamlet buying them, once, when they were very drunk. Laertes is dressed similarly, but his shorts have Harvard College written up their side.
“Your father and I are very proud of you,” says Gertrude from the sideline, smiles at him with red-painted lips. The table has been decorated with candles, although it’s a little after the middle of the day, and the tablecloth is black silk. It looks familiar to Horatio’s eyes, though he can’t quite place it.
Hamlet freezes, narrows his eyes. “My father?” he says.
Gertrude blinks. “Your stepfather, darling. Your uncle. Did I say your father? I’m sorry; you know it’s been a trying few days.” There’s a martini glass balanced in her fingers.
“I understand everything, Mother,” says Hamlet, but his face is perturbed.
“Additionally,” says Claudius, “as it has been pointed out to us, this is a celebration of Hamlet’s return to the city.” His face is very blank. “In lieu of this, we offer an acknowledgement of this celebratory air. We have located the finest bottle of wine in our cellar, and will offer a toast to Hamlet if he gains the first hit.” He raises a fine crystal glass; the wine has already been poured.
Hamlet’s eyes flick to Horatio, and Horatio nods fractionally; it’s not the finest bottle of wine in Claudius’ cellar. They drank that bottle’s last drops earlier today.
“Ready yourselves,” says Claudius, his voice hovering on the edge of boredom. Laertes raises his fists, his face dark; Hamlet does the same. Claudius clears his throat. “Three. Two. One.”
Laertes isn’t quite twice Hamlet’s size, but he’s close enough. Hamlet’s faster than he is, though, ducking punches and sliding through Laertes’ jabs as if they’re air. Horatio’s own hands are curled into fists. The sun’s beating in through the window of the mansion, and there’s something hovering in the air that isn’t just the tension of the fight.
There’s a solid smack. Laertes staggers back. “A hit!” he says.
“A very palpable hit,” agrees Hamlet, sliding off his boxing glove and shaking out his fingers.
“A rest from the fighting,” says Claudius, “and a toast.” He lifts the glass. “The first drink to you, we think, Hamlet?”
Hamlet leans against the ropes of the ring, lifts his eyebrows at Hamlet. “All thanks for the offer, uncle,” he says, dry, “but I’m not thirsty.”
“We’ll toast your health, nevertheless,” says Claudius, and lifts the glass, sets it down untouched. “Shall you continue in the second round?”
A flurry of fists, quick movements. Laertes is almost chasing Hamlet around the ring; it’s only Hamlet’s footwork, so fast Horatio can’t quite follow it, that saves him. Meanwhile he’s aiming low and hard now, not powerful but difficult to avoid.
The way they move together is almost like dancing. The sunlight plays around the floor of the lobby, throws shards of light up into the air; Horatio catches one in his eyes, squints. In the moment just before a cloud passes over the sun, there’s another heavy smack.
“Are you thirsty yet, nephew?” says Claudius, his smile too polite. “We poured a bottle just for you. One might not want to appear ungrateful.”
“I’ll drink in my son’s stead,” says Gertrude, and laughs, lifts the glass from Claudius’ fingers. Claudius turns to her. He looks uncertain for a moment, but Gertrude smiles at him, drains it to the dregs.
“How lovely,” she says. “A wine from the summer, I think?”
“Indeed,” says Claudius. He’s very pale.
“Well, don’t stop on my account,” says Gertrude, flapping a hand. “Go on, boys. I’d love to see who wins this one.”
Hamlet glances at Horatio, again, and this time his eyes are wide, frightened, heartbroken. Horatio doesn’t understand, but glancing from Claudius’ face to Horatio’s, the bottom begins to sink from his stomach. Gertrude is smiling. She looks very peaceful.
The fight begins in earnest, now. Laertes and Hamlet move as if wedded to each other, as if they know each other’s bodies and movements better than they have any right to. Even Laertes looks dimly shocked, as if he doesn’t understand what’s happening.
He lands a hit in Hamlet’s stomach. Hamlet winces, and his face twitches. He looks more surprised than he should, and his hand drifts down to where the boxing glove landed, his expression questioning and curious.
“One more round?” he says to Laertes. The room is utterly silent.
Laertes is staring at him, and in his expression Horatio sees disbelief and a deep uneasiness. “One more round,” he echoes dumbly.
They fight in silence now, with no tricks, no fancy footwork, no drifting sunlight. They aim, dodge, jab, together in the center of the ring; they barely move at all. It’s almost a surprise when a random movement from Hamlet twists their bodies together, knocks them both down, and their boxing gloves roll out onto the outskirts of the ring.
Hamlet’s up in a moment, dashing to the edges of the ring. He picks up one boxing glove, tosses the other to Laertes, who catches it easily. “Come on,” he says, “this is not the end.”
When he lands a hit on Laertes, there’s a crash.
Horatio spins. It’s Gertrude, on the ground. She looks surprised, but not shocked.
There’s a peculiar feeling in the air. Horatio feels for a moment as if they are actors in a play; they all look at each other at the same time, and Hamlet leaps the ropes at the same time as Laertes. Claudius doesn’t move at all. His face is petrified.
A letter. It appears to be dated from the same time that the earlier letters from Hamlet are dated; however, as in accordance with the wishes of the compiler of this testimony, it has been included here.
Of course I’m never going to send this letter, which is why it’s easier to write it.
Look, I’ve written you a hundred thousand of these and I’ll send ten of them; what do you think I do all day, anyway? Think about you, of course. Probably in love with Ophelia; more in love with you.
How many of these damn letters have I burned? Maybe I’ll keep this one. (Joke.)
The days are very bright outside but it’s dark inside, and it gets harder most days to open the windows and go outside. I miss you. I miss you. I miss you.
I can’t rid myself of the idea that we’re not meant to be here. That we were designed for a different time, a different place; that there’s some far-off universe, some planet I’ve never seen, some distant star, where we’re happy. Where I’m happy.
So tell me there’s hope, H. Come here and tell me that place exists. I want to see your face when you do. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to disbelieve someone who’s telling the truth.
I miss the city and I miss Central Park. I miss thinking about you in the night. I miss waking up next to you. I miss being drunk with you. I miss being sober with you.
I don’t know what’s happening to me; I care about less and less, and the days seem longer and longer, and all the same. Come back to me, Horatio. There’s a city that needs us and I need you.
“Mother,” says Hamlet, going down to one knee beside her. Horatio doesn’t think he’s ever seen him look so frightened, or quite so much like a boy.
“She faints to see you fight,” says Claudius. His face is very grey, and very pale. “You know how she is; women aren’t meant to see—”
Gertrude makes a noise, high and keening; it’s a wail, half of pain and half of grief. Hamlet seizes her hand. “Mother,” he says, “Mother, Mother,” and Gertrude’s face is going a deep red, her hands flexing, her veins standing out on her arms. The red of her skin deepens to purple, then to blue, and then she’s still.
“Lock the door to the lobby,” he says, and Horatio moves to lock it. Claudius is still frozen. “Treachery,” says Hamlet, mild. “Villainy. Shall we seek it out?”
“You won’t have to seek far,” says Laertes, and Hamlet spins. Laertes is leaning back on the ropes of the ring, and he looks very pale. He says, “You’re going to die.”
Hamlet’s face goes smooth, calm. “Now?” he says.
“Thirty minutes,” says Laertes, “less,” and staggers, almost falls. “Your boxing glove. It was my boxing glove when we started fighting. There are needles in it, tiny ones. Anesthetic on them, too, to numb the pain, so you wouldn’t feel them when we fought. He said they didn’t have to be big.” He smiles, and it’s more of a grimace. “He was right, I suppose.”
“What?” says Hamlet, and looks at the boxing glove on his hand, “this poisoned, too?” and whirls, and punches his uncle in the face.
Claudius staggers back, clutching at his face, but he’s still standing. “Defend me!” he says, glancing to Marcellus, “I’m only hurt.”
Horatio looks at Marcellus. The other guard nods, steady, tucks his hands into his pockets, moves to the door that leads to the outside world, and exits, shutting it behind him.
“Here,” says Hamlet, grim, “is the whole bottle poisoned? What a waste of good wine,” and he seizes the bottle from the table, tips it to Claudius’ lips, squeezes at his face and throat until Claudius swallows, swallows, swallows. His hands are flailing, his legs kicking, but Hamlet is relentless, and Claudius jerks to the left; the poison splashes across his face and into his ear before he collapses to the ground.
Hamlet looks at the bodies of his mother and uncle. His face is very calm. “Laertes?” he says. “Have you died already?”
“Not yet,” says Laertes. He’s moved to sit on the ground, and his breaths are shaking, labored.
Hamlet closes his eyes. “I truly didn’t mean to kill your father,” he says. “And I am sorry.”
Laertes coughs, dry and dusty. “I know that,” he says.
“I didn’t mean to kill your sister,” says Hamlet, quieter.
Laertes coughs again. “Sir?” he says.
“Yes?” says Hamlet, and turns to look at him. Laertes’ eyes are wordless and pleading; Hamlet crosses to him and moves to kneel, but staggers in the middle of his movement, slides to the ground beside Laertes.
“I’m sorry,” says Laertes. His voice is faint. “Forgive me.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” says Hamlet. “If I could have been more like you were—”
“If I could have been you,” says Laertes, and his eyes slide shut.
Hamlet stares at him for a few long moments. Then he says, “Horatio?”
Horatio’s moving like lightning, across the room. Hamlet tries to struggle to his feet, falls; Horatio catches him in his arms.
“The last pages are approaching,” says Hamlet, his voice soft. “The reader’s almost ready to close the book. Do you think they’ll weep for me?”
“You’re not a novel,” says Horatio. “You’re not a book. You don’t have a story, you have a life—”
Hamlet laughs, his eyes bright. “I don’t think I’ll have either,” he says, “soon,” and then he coughs, and his lungs sound so empty.
“Hamlet,” says Horatio, and closes his eyes.
“No!” says Hamlet, and reaches up, brushes at his eyelids. “Horatio—Horatio, you have to see this. How much of my story have you seen?” He smiles, pained. “Too much, I think. Oh, Christ, Horatio, I’ve asked too much of you already.”
“Ask anything,” says Horatio, blinking his eyes open. He can’t quite see.
“Tell it,” says Hamlet. “Tell what happened, from the ghost to this moment. Tell the truth, Horatio; don’t cover anything, don’t tell any lies.” His mouth stretches into what might be a smile, again. “You were never very good at that anyway, were you?”
Horatio tries to swallow, and can’t. “Not to you,” he says. “Never to you.”
“Do you remember the first night we met?” says Hamlet. He’s staring straight into Horatio’s eyes.
“I remember,” says Horatio.
“Tell New York City I miss her,” says Hamlet. “Say goodbye to Central Park, won’t you? And to our professors—mine, anyway. You never took Classics, I think. You were never meant for tragedies.”
Horatio glances around; there’s the bottle, dropped on the ground by Claudius’ body. There’s still a few drops left. “I can love them well enough,” he says, and snags it with one hand, lifts it to his lips.
Hamlet catches his hand. “No,” he says.
“I want to go with you,” says Horatio, and his vision blurs. “They took you away from me twice, already. Don’t leave me behind.”
“No,” Hamlet repeats, and tugs the bottle gently out of Horatio’s hand.
“The city isn’t the city when you’re not in it,” says Horatio. Something hot and wet trickles down his cheek. “I don’t want to say goodbye to Central Park alone. I can’t do it for you. I can’t do it without you.”
“Tell my story,” says Hamlet, and sighs. It feels as if half the breath has left his body. “Tell my story,” he repeats, “from beginning to end. Oh, God, Horatio,” and he smiles, “what a wounded name. If you love me, don’t follow me just yet. You still have one last task to do.”
His eyes snap open, almost surprised. He says, “It’s silence.”
The first night they’d slept in the same bed—months ago, now—Horatio had woken up in the middle of the night with Hamlet in his arms. They’d pressed up against each other in sleep, Hamlet curling unconsciously into Horatio’s body. Horatio had lain awake in the dark, unmoving, until the morning light had spilled in through the curtains.
“Good night, sweet prince,” he says, and brushes his lips across Hamlet’s forehead. “Sleep well. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The sun slants in through the windows. It alights for a moment on Hamlet’s face; he looks so peaceful in death.
Horatio stands, lets his friend slip out of his arms. Gertrude and Claudius are splayed on the ground, fingers almost touching, like an awful S shape. Laertes is curled into himself by the boxing ring. The candles burn down on the table, flickering from one place to another, impossible to see
Of all things, Horatio thinks of the first day he’d seen Horatio’s bedroom. He sees Hamlet’s face, gaunt and too-cold, and remembers what Hamlet had said: I wouldn’t mind burning the whole thing down.
“Just one last task for me?” says Horatio to the air. “You always were a better liar than I was.”
He books a flight to New York with the money he takes from the mansion. He'll come back for his car one day. Hamlet would want him to. Not now, though. Not for a long time.
On the edge of Central Park and 110th he stops walking, sits down on a bench facing out. New York is alive, a hundred people moving through its streets like blood in arteries. Less than a mile away, his family is waiting, his father's trumpet and his mother's warm hands. Between there and here, Columbia waits for him, too, as patiently and coldly as it has waited for the last two hundred years. So many homes he's left behind him; so much to be homesick for. The birds sing in the trees; a child rings his bicycle as he pedals down the street, the sound bright and harsh in the autumn air.
The grass of the park behind him is scattered with leaves in every color. Summer is over. Perhaps it’s been over for a long time.
A newspaper flutters along the street, the discard of some over-busy commuter. Horatio thinks of taking it, seeing what the headlines say, but a bright red car rolls over it in a moment, and then another car, and another. After a few moments it’s pulp, whatever it has to tell ground into the street’s bones.
The air smells of smoke and autumn, and something else, something that he hasn’t smelled in months. If Hamlet had put a name to it, it would have been freedom, most likely. Or perhaps he would have just called it the end of the story.
The birds whirl in the sky, aimlessly, from place to place. The cars rush along the streets, and the buildings etch out their mark against the horizon. There’s a shape to the city that Horatio’s never quite seen before, a curve to the buildings and streets, a kind of life to it all, like dark eyes, like half-smiles, like a ghost he saw, once.
The streets are waiting for him. Horatio turns to say goodbye.