Ryan was already standing outside the house rifling through a slim, black leather folder when the uber pulled up to the front. A man got out of the back seat. He was very... well everything was perfectly normal on the surface, but it seemed to take a long time for the guy to get out of the car on account of him having to unfold from the back seat like a magic trick must have been performed to fit him in there and on account of the fact that Ryan kinda couldn’t stop himself from checking the guy out. Long legs, a pale grey button up that fit. He had a denim jacket under one arm and the kind of eyes that definitely got all scrunched up when he laughed.
“Mr Madej?” Ryan asked.
“Shane’s fine,” the guy said, holding out his hand to shake.
“Great,” Ryan said, taking the offered hand. Shane’s hands were soft but his grip was sure. “I’m Ryan Bergara. I’ll be your main contact with the office. I’ve brought your pre-approval paperwork over with me and a few other documents to sign, but I thought we could just do that inside so we could get started on the viewings right away.”
“Sure thing,” the guy said. He was squinting a little disapprovingly at the For Sale sign Ryan had been leaning against when the uber had pulled up. “What exactly do you mean by that?” he asked, gesturing to the red-lettered placard dangling off the bottom of the sign.
“What?” Ryan said, turning on one heel. “Oh,” he said. “It means what it says?” he said, letting a tiny bit of derision into the fleeting edge of his tone. “This property isn’t haunted.”
“Right,” Shane said. “As opposed to the other properties you have available. Which... are...?”
“Well, it’s Savannah,” Ryan answered, a little affronted. “I mean, civil war ghosts alone have got their spindly little ectoplasmic fingers in pretty much every available pie.”
Shane let out a surprised little half-laugh at that. There, Ryan thought, I knew he had crinkly eyes. “Well,” Shane said, offhandedly, “I think you guys are pretty stupid hanging ‘Not Haunted’ signs on things. I mean, don’t you think that’s basically like putting up a ‘free office space for ghoulies’ sign, isn’t it? Like - look here boys, high ceilings, period features and no other murder friends to compete with. This baby’ll be haunted right up in a week. If the streets are lousy with see-through soldiers like you say, surely they’re chomping at the bit to get a look-in on a nice three bedroom like this one.”
“That’s not really how hauntings work,” Ryan said, peevishly. He fussed a bit with the sign, checking there were enough flyers in the box bolted onto the back of it. There was some trash stuffed in there. Ryan took it out with a sigh and put it in his pocket.
“Wait, wait,” Shane carried on. He was chuckling to himself, now. “Do they ever call you up? I mean, are they ever like, leaving crackly messages on your answering machine, like ‘Hi this is Agnes Ghoulington. I’ve been dead since 1938 and I’m looking for a property with garage space for my ghost-mobile--”
He was doing an insufferable little voice for the supposed ghost. Ryan was equal parts irritated and finding it hard to stop a little smile from sneaking its way onto his own face. “Umm--” Ryan started to say, “Maybe we should be careful--”
“And then she’s like--” he was full on laughing now. “And then she’s like... my budget is $120 dollars, cause of inflation, right, like she’s a ghost, so she’s got no fucking clue. And her money is ghost money, right. All spectral and blue--”
“I don’t think you could buy a house with a garage in the historic district of Savannah for $120 even in 1938,” Ryan pointed out.
“Oh yeah,” Shane said. “Cause that’s the flaw in this logic.”
“Ghosts are nearly always geo-locked to either the place they were killed or somewhere that was exceptionally meaningful to them in life,” Ryan said. He put on his best I’m-a-professional voice on in an effort to regain control of the situation. They were off on the wrong foot here. “So it’s not really something you or I need to worry about,” he explained patiently. “Ghosts don’t just move into empty houses.”
“Ghosts don’t just--” Shane stuttered. “Wait, are you serious?” He said, catching his breath. “Do people really not want to be shown haunted houses?”
“Of course they don’t want to be shown haunted houses, they don’t want to be killed in their beds.”
“Oh my god,” Shane said.
“It’s one of our agency’s specialities - we offer a detailed historical background on every house we list, it’s made us very popular in--”
“I’m going to kill her!”
“This is Jen’s idea of a hilarious joke.”
“My friend recommended you - she said you were highly respected realtors.”
“Uh,” Ryan was not really sure how to respond to that. “We are highly respected realtors?”
“What, so you’re telling me that people around here expect their houses... I don’t even know... exorcised before they sign on the dotted line? This is just unbelievable. I’m calling that Uber right back here, absolutely ridiculous.”
“Look maybe in hollywood or wherever, you can just move into your shiny new build or your flat packed tiny home with chrome accents or whatever, but in this town, people want to know what they’re dealing with because there’s a lot of shit to... to fucking... deal with!”
“How dare you,” Shane said. He leaned right up into Ryan’s personal space and flicked the ruffled pink pocket square in his blazer jacket. “You’ve got California all over you. I know a west coast accent when I hear one. I’m from Illinois and ate big agro’s corn for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day growing up like a good boy.”
“I can tell!” Ryan scoffed.
“I was gonna pay you my own good money to ghost hunt for me! This city! Why did I move here?!”
Anxiety was brewing under Ryan’s breastbone. The conversation was way too far off track. This was not what usually happened at a first viewing. Usually they’d been in the house for at least ten minutes by now and Ryan would be comfortably busy trying to convince a nice middle aged couple that paint colour wasn’t really a valid reason to reject a property - especially when the ghost free ones were few and far between. Shane was still too close and Ryan flicked his eyes to meet Shane’s. It was a long way up. Ryan swallowed involuntarily. There was something in Shane’s expression, a kind of twist in the corner of his mouth.
Ryan narrowed his eyes. “Wait, are you fucking with me?”
Shane gave him this huge, slightly unhinged smile and then burst into laughter. “Sorry man, sorry. Yeah, I’m fucking with you. My friend Jen knows Steven from your office. She really did recommend you guys but I knew there was gonna be a thing about haunted houses. Apparently they’re all the rage out here? Who knew!? I certainly didn’t before a week ago. Anyway, it’s chill. I don’t really care.”
“Is that how you knew I’m from LA?” Ryan asked. “From Steven?
Shane raised one eyebrow and flicked Ryan’s coiff. He paused for an insulting second. “No,” he said. Then he drew himself away, unfolding upwards, back to his full height and he started up the brick herringbone walkway. “Right,” he said, airily. “Let me at it. This prime real estate isn’t gonna buy itself.”
Ryan took a big breath. He hadn’t realised he’d been holding it the whole time Shane had been looming over him.
Shane marched right up into the screened porch, giving the swing some curious attention. “It’s a shame it’s not haunted,” he said. He gave the swing a little prod and it creaked loudly as it laboriously rocked back and forth twice. “Listen to that. That’d give you a good little shiver after dark.”
Ryan followed him hesitantly, feeling dazed. “I’m sure a little WD40 would fix that right up,” he said faintly. He shuffled through the keys in his pocket till he found the right one and unlocked the front door.
“After you?” he said, gesturing for Shane to go in.
“Certainly,” Shane said magnanimously, ducking a little as he went in. “Just to be clear, you don’t really believe in ghosts, right? It’s just a thing you do for the... I dunno, the unsuspecting masses. Like either they’re gonna jump on a house cause it’s not haunted or because it is haunted and either way you’ve closed the deal, right?”
“Uh... no,” Ryan said.
“You don’t believe in ghosts?”
“No, that’s not what we do at Solved Estate. I really do believe in ghosts. I moved across the country to work in Savannah because I’m a house history specialist, which is a highly valued skill here.”
“Huh,” Shane said. “Well, full disclosure. It’s all bullshit.”
“You can’t just say that like it makes it true.”
Shane spun on his heel. They hadn’t turned the lights on, so he was lit mostly from behind, by the diffused white haze of daylight coming from the kitchen window through the archway behind him. His face was mostly in shadow, but Ryan could see that he was smiling, crinkled. “This is funny,” he said, quietly, thinking to himself. “This is gonna be really funny to me.”
“Just - you,” he paused and turned toward the archway, looking away from Ryan, into the light and Ryan noticed suddenly that at this angle Shane’s eyes were the colour of malt whisky. “You should show me the... you know... the absolute worst houses. The ones that no one else will buy. Because I do not give a fuck.”
“Are you...? Are you kidding? Do you have a death wish?”
“Well, ghosts aren’t real, so, no.”
“Oh my god,” Ryan said, putting his face in his hands. “I think you might be the worst.”
“I’m just saying,” Shane carried on. Ryan could hear his delight at the distress in Ryan’s voice. “If I don’t get the garage and the extra bedroom and the open plan kitchen-diner and the home cinema - you know - if I don’t get all my wishlist items, and I could’ve had them but they were too haunted up to show anyone, I, for one, will not be a happy customer. No five-star trust pilot review for you.”
“You won’t show me a haunted house?”
“No, you can’t put a freaking home cinema on your wishlist. They’re stupid.”
“Okay,” Shane said, laughing. “You got me there.”
“So how did it go?”
Steven was waiting expectantly by Ryan’s desk when he got back to the office that afternoon.
“I can’t believe you guys,” Ryan said. He felt drained. It was the kind of tired he used to feel back at uni after he’d cram written a paper hours before it was due. Or maybe it was the kind of tired he might feel after a date, where he’d tried to turn his charm up to eleven for too long.
“Did you hate him?” Steven asked. “Did he hate you?”
“What?” Ryan said, a little taken aback.
“Hold on, I gotta text Jen and tell her you’re back. We’ve been talking about how funny it would be when you guys finally met for ages.”
“Wait... wait... you thought I’d hate him?” This was a way of looking at things that completely turned everything on its head. To be honest, a tiny part of him had thought that maybe Steven and Jen were trying to set them up.
“Yeah, so, Jen was telling me about her friend who’s this really laid back guy, like super chilled out, but he’s also an intense sceptic. We all hung out a few times last month. He was basically your polar opposite human and I thought, you know wouldn’t it be funny to make you show him round a haunted house. Cause of how freaked you get, obviously. And how much he wouldn’t care.”
“I wouldn’t really say he was ‘super chilled out’,” Ryan replied. He thought of Shane saying ‘it’s all bullshit’. It wasn’t that he’d been forceful or pushy. He’d just been so sure of himself, making it hard for Ryan to maintain his balance.
“Well compared to you, Mr. High Strung.”
“Mr. High Strung?”
“I dunno, come on man, we just thought it would be hilarious. You guys are like chalk and cheese.”
“Do people actually use that expression in the modern world? Chalk and cheese.”
“But did you get into it, though? About ghosts? Did you freak out showing him around?”
“Both the places I took him weren’t even haunted,” Ryan said. “And you know, I am a professional who has held down this job for three years. If I flipped out every time I did a viewing in a haunted house, I would be basically useless.”
“Uh uh,” Steven argued. “I have seen you, you know. Twitchy as fuck.”
“Shut up. Whatever.”
“But did you hate him and was it hilarious?” Steven pushed. He shook his head in disappointment. “I can’t believe the house wasn’t haunted. I should’ve figured out a way to tag along, at least. If only I hadn’t booked the Owen’s key handover today. My loss.”
“You know what,” Ryan said, sitting heavily down in his desk chair and waking up his computer with a huff. He tried to keep his reply light, but it came out with an edge. He couldn’t help but think that Shane must have showed up thinking Ryan was a real idiot. He didn’t like the idea that Shane had been sitting in that uber, driving across town and thinking bad things about Ryan before he’d even met him, expecting him to be some nut job conspiracy theorist. He wasn’t a nut job. He was a cool conspiracy theorist. The kind that had credentials. The kind that got paid money by a real job to believe in and care about these things. “It is your loss.” Ryan bit out, “Because I didn’t hate him. I thought he was fucking hilarious. And he laughed at all my jokes, too. And we only talked about ghosts for about ten minutes at the start and we spent the rest of the time ridiculing people’s interior design choices with fucking... aplomb. So there. Eat that.”
“Woah,” Steven said, holding up his hands in front of himself in mock defense. “Sorry, man. I get it. No meddling.”
Ryan took a breath. He sounded like... he didn’t know what, but it wasn’t a good look on him, he was pretty sure. “Sorry man, whatever. It doesn’t matter. I mean... what did you say about me, to him? Before?”
“I don’t know, Ryan. I guess Jen probably just gave him a run down of whatever I’ve told her about you. I’ve only met him once or twice and I certainly didn’t say anything about you. Nothing weird, anyway. Did he say something?”
“No, no,” Ryan said, tipping back in his chair and looking up at the ceiling with a feeling he didn’t yet want to name settling too-heavy on his chest. “Nothing like that,” he said. He was thinking of Shane in the half-light of the kitchen, his whisky eyes.
“What did you think of him?” Steven asked, with maybe the tiniest sliver of suspicion inching its way into his tone of voice.
“What?” Ryan said, absently. “Oh. Nothing.” He thought of the moment when Shane had been too much in his space, leaning right over him, tugging at his pocket square, with that wry, considering grin. “He was tall, I guess.” Ryan said.
“Wow,” Steven said, flat. “Will the revelations never cease.”
Ryan didn’t say anything. He logged into the Solved property database and then flipped open his leather file to the notes he’d taken on Shane’s needs and wants list. Two to three bedrooms, within three miles of the historic district, period features, garden space, off-street parking or garage space and... he hesitated the cursor for a long minute over the last tick box. Finally, like pulling a trigger, he breathed out and - there, it was done. Haunted - checked.
“You know,” Steven said. He was back in his seat and looking at Ryan over their two monitors with an arch expression. “You should hang with us. Jen and Shane and me. I think we’re gonna go to the Distillery this weekend. I mean, if you guys got along so well?”
“Sure,” Ryan said, distantly. He was scrolling through the available properties. There weren’t so many in the right price range, but the ones that were... whoo boy some of them were doozies. Ryan’s throat was swallowing nervously just imagining setting foot in them. Yeah... that was exactly why his mouth felt suddenly so very dry.
Ryan woke up earlier than usual on Saturday morning with a feeling like he’d dreamed something important, but he couldn’t remember what. He was sweating under his duvet. It was edging over from spring to summer and when he opened the windows in the kitchen. Humidity unfurled into the room like a flower blooming. He stood on his balcony and watched the morning dew steam off the grass in the green square outside. The air smelled like imminent rain.
He had some paperwork to finish for a purchase that had gone through on Friday with some anxious homeowners stuck in a chain. He wanted to finish it before Monday morning when he’d have to chase the seller’s lawyers, but it was honestly too boring to face with the strange feeling that had been swimming under his skin for the last few days, like he’d permanently drunk too much coffee.
After an hour of scrolling through twitter and half-watching a game he’d recorded, he was antsy and fed up with his own company. Steven texted him to confirm the invite for drinks later and Ryan replied with one foot out the door. That set him off thinking about Shane. Once he started thinking about him, he realised he’d been trying not to think about him earlier. Ryan wiped his palms on his shorts.
They’d talked on the phone yesterday to arrange some viewings next week. Ryan had mainly meant to ask him about locations. Shane had said he’d wanted to be near the historical district since he’d moved to Savannah for a job curating a joint exhibition between SCAD and the history museum. The short-lease apartment he was living in now was on the opposite side of town and the commute was apparently driving him crazy, but looking at places solely in the old town was upping prices ridiculously.
Instead of getting into a very sensible discussion about price and compromise, they’d had an increasingly heated argument about the phrase ‘card-carrying historian’ that lasted forty five minutes and might have gone on indefinitely if Ryan’s boss hadn’t come out of her office and given him a Look.
“I hope you don’t harrague all your clients like this,” Shane had said. His voice sounded kind of sleepy and scratchy over the phone. Ryan’s brain had supplied him with a sudden and vivid image of Shane waking up, stretching out, long-limbed, lithe and cat-like, yawning in some imagined bed with sun streaming in through half-open curtains.
“Who uses the word harrague?” Ryan said, breathing out a half laugh and blinking desperately.
Shane ignored that comment. “Because not everyone’s as resilient as I am, you know. You’ll get a reputation.”
“No,” Ryan had said.
“No? No, you won’t get a reputation?”
“No, I don’t treat all my clients like you,” Ryan had said.
“Right,” Shane had said. Ryan could hear him releasing a held breath, long and slow.
“I’ll email you the details for Tuesday, 4 pm, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Shane said. “Okay, bye.”
“See you then,” Ryan said. He was on his head-set so he didn’t bother to hang up the phone. He could hear Shane still breathing on the other end for a good thirty seconds before finally the line clicked and there was dead silence.
This little exchange was circling viciously in Ryan’s head as he walked towards town. It was a long way from his apartment in the Starland District, but the activity felt good and he stopped off as he went to do a few walk-bys on properties to show to Shane. He didn’t really make a habit out of working much on the weekends, but something about finding a house haunted enough that Shane Madej wouldn’t want it was a lot more like a passion project than work.
There were a few out near him and a few more to look at as he meandered through the Victorian District. There were nice apartments in eerie old buildings that he couldn’t really get a read on. There was a converted stable that had been attached to a veritable mansion, which was now split into smaller properties. He liked the look of it. It was on the edge of a park and there was a hot, green smell all around it.
The last house he looked at was in the best location for Shane. Ryan vaguely remembered that it was also potentially the most haunted. It had been vacant a long time. The street was quiet and tree-lined. He was surprised to find, walking up to the property, that the front was well kept with concentric semi-circles of tulips and irises under the front window. The cladded wood exterior was painted a pale olive green and the trim was dark navy. There was a little shabbiness to the faded window sashes that only served to compliment the historical feel of the place. A huge live oak around the back of the house had put a few loving branches over the top of the house. They were maybe something to be concerned about in a bad storm, but so picturesque it almost seemed worth it to suffer a future insurance claim. Ryan walked the stone path up to the porch to peer in through the windows. He couldn’t see much, but there were beautiful hardwood floors - probably original.
Ryan put his hand on the handle of the screen door. “Come in, Ryan,” a woman’s voice said, just on the other side. Ryan stumbled back from the door in shock.
“Hello?” he said. “Who was that?” His heart was in his throat and his stomach had dropped. It had sounded completely normal, like a person was just behind the door, waiting for him to swing it open. The hairs on the back of his neck were on end. No one answered him.
“I heard a voice. Who spoke?”
Silence. At the end of the street, a car drove by a little too fast. The squeal in the tires made Ryan jump. Ryan swallowed thickly. He made himself take two steps back to the door, to stand in the same position he’d been in before. Eyes scrunched shut, like that would somehow protect him, he put his hand on the door handle again. Nothing happened.
“I heard you,” Ryan said, frustrated.
The street was still and not even in a strange way he could make mean something. A bird twittered in a tree. A warm, ineffectual breeze brushed against his skin. Unadulterated normality.
He left and walked more quickly after that, like he needed to put some distance between himself and the house. He made it out towards the waterfront and the Municipal Archives in record time. He checked in with his researcher card and was knee deep in the microfiche before he’d really even decided what he was doing.
He researched back through each of the properties he’d seen. There were a few standouts - an apartment in a building that had been a yellow fever hospital. He thought the creepiness of that one might get to even the most staunch skeptics because there were period details left over from the building’s previous use - an original sink with a dent where a nurse had fallen and hit her head after succumbing to exhaustion. Supposedly the taps turned on and off by themselves. Imagine doing dishes in that. Was that creepy to normal people? Even to Ryan, it was a little bit funny. Shane might like it anyway - just the concept of having a haunted sink.
The stable house turned out to have a good long history right through from the revolutionary war to the civil war to a murder that had been committed there in the twenties over the inheritance of the big mansion. There were lots of supposed apparitions, a garden and ghost horses. Ryan checked the square footage on the ipad he was balancing on his knees. A decent size - must be a lot of ghost horses. What wasn’t there to like?
Without exactly meaning to, he saved the worst till last. On the internet, there were the usual articles describing soldier hauntings and one sort of trustworthy news article he’d found suggesting the little olive green house might have been a speakeasy in the twenties. He found a chat board that mentioned something about a witch and a supposed ritual gone wrong, which sounded like the rumour he’d half-remembered before. He went back to the news paper articles, scanning at speed for anything relevant.
Outside, the sky was darkening, heavy with clouds. The light filtering down from the arched windows high up above the main reading room was grey and thin. Ryan was scribbling occasional notes on the back of Shane’s property file. He barely noticed the change, but the darkness was sitting oppressively over his shoulders, making him hunch in close to the microfiche screen, squinting at the grainy black and white photo of the family who’d lived in the house at the time the witch rumours had started.
It was exactly the kind of layered and grisly story he’d been hoping and dreading he’d find. There was a pastor, his wife and their two older daughters. At some point the wife died, though he couldn’t find an obituary stating how. The eldest daughter had some connection to ‘unsavory characters’. Was that the witchcraft link? Then something happened to the younger sister - possibly she’d run away, possibly gotten married. He did find a wedding announcement for a woman of the same name, but the dates seemed slightly wrong. Finally, an article detailing an arrest on the property. The older daughter had been interrupted part way through some kind of mysterious ritual by her irate father and a gaggle of police officers. Whatever workings she’d begun, whatever avenues of communication she’d opened, she had not been allowed to finish or fully close--
Something tapped Ryan’s shoulder.
“Fuck!” he yelped, leaping to his feet and spinning around.
“Sorry, man!” Unexpectedly, it was Shane. He was laughing, scratching his chin sheepishly. It felt just like seeing a ghost. He’d been occupying Ryan’s thoughts so diligently it seemed like a break with reality for him to be suddenly here, towering expectantly over Ryan in a floral button-down and kind of tight chino shorts.
“Jesus Christ!” Ryan said, panting. “I nearly had a fucking heart attack. I was reading the creepiest article, damn.” He leaned over, putting his hands on his knees to catch his breath. Shane’s socks, Ryan noticed, with an absent fondness, did not match.
“What are you doing here?” Shane asked. “You know this is where they keep the real people facts.”
“Yes! I’m - god - I’m doing my job! Which involves mostly real facts, thank you very much.”
“Aha! So you admit that some of them are fake facts!”
“No--” Ryan straightened back up to glare at Shane’s smug face. “You know what I meant. I just meant there are facts and then... I dunno, theories! There’s no such thing as a fake fact. That’s an oxymoron.”
“Uhh... those definitely are a thing,” Shane said, raising one eyebrow dubiously. “I’m thinking of some pretty worrying current events--”
“Okay, I’m not a fucking corrupt politician. You’re changing the context. That’s completely different.”
Shane held up his hands, relenting. He was still laughing at Ryan, who still hadn’t fully caught his breath. “What are you doing here?” Ryan asked, accusatory.
“I’m doing my job,” he said. He held up the book he was holding in one hand. It was a thick, leather-bound volume that said ‘Savannah: A Local History’ down the spine.
“That looks like the prop they’d give to a history professor in a film,” Ryan said, laughing.
“Sorry to be so predictable,” Shane said. “Don’t worry, I’ve got some really dusty, obscure tomes back on my desk over there that would get even your blood racing.”
“I dunno,” Ryan said, thoughtfully. Now he was imagining Shane dressed up like a scholar from the eighteen hundreds, in a black gown and an inkwell on the desk in front of him. “Maybe that actually makes it worse.”
There was a flash of lightning at that moment, which lit the room with a fierce, clean glow. Quite abruptly, it was raining, a slanted deluge audible even through the thick stone walls of the library, tapping insistently at the distant windows. “Spooky,” Shane said, catching Ryan’s gaze. Ryan liked the way he said it, like he was inviting Ryan to stand on Shane’s side of the joke with him even though it was at Ryan’s expense.
Shane leaned in, so close that Ryan instinctively leaned back and his brain short-circuited in confusion. “What--?” he stated to mutter, but then Shane had reached right past him and turned on the green lamp attached to the microfiche desk Ryan was leaning against.
“There you go,” he said, smiling that unexpectedly wide grin.
“Thanks,” Ryan said, breathless. “I was gonna go pretty soon, before it started raining.”
“Are you coming out with Jen and Steven and me tonight?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ryan said. “I was - I am.”
“Cool,” Shane said. “We can go over together after we’ve finished up here... if you want?”
“What time is it?” Ryan said.
“Five thirty?” Shane said, glancing at his watch
“Damn! I hadn’t meant to be here all day--” Ryan glanced at his own watch in surprise. He’d been absorbed in research for nearly five hours.
“If you’ve got other plans--”
“No, it’s fine. I mean, it sounds good, it’s just... I’m kind of hungry, I didn’t eat any lunch. I’ll get totally trashed if I go out drinking without any dinner.”
“Do you wanna...” Shane paused, he flicked his gaze upwards, not meeting Ryan’s eyes. Maybe he was trying to judge the weather out the window. “We could go for dinner first?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Yeah, cool.” He looked down at himself to see with no small amount of disappointment that he was wearing an old basketball jersey, cut-offs that were just on the edge of too short and too frayed and possibly his worst shoes. “Oh damn,” he said, more to himself than to Shane. “Maybe I need to go home and change.”
“You look fine,” Shane said, flippantly.
“No, no,” Ryan said. “This is basically what was on the floor next to my bed this morning.”
Shane paused and then he looked Ryan up and down seriously. His assessing gaze made the back of Ryan’s neck feel suddenly hot, but it was a very impartial kind of examination - thoughtful and shrewd. He plucked at Ryan’s jersey. “I mean... sports,” He grimaced to indicate what he thought of that. “But on the other hand you’re kinda ripped. I did not get that vibe off you the other day and I stand corrected.”
Ryan huffed out a laugh. That prickle of heat across the back of his neck went shivering right down his spine. “What kind of vibe did you get?”
“I don’t know,” he waved his hand around as if this would somehow mean something to Shane. “Not so much this.” He gestured to Ryan’s outfit.
“Well, I’m a complex man,” Ryan said.
“Evidently,” Shane agreed. “What kind of vibe did you get from me?”
Ryan’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. God. Where did he start? There were just a lot of half-formed thoughts swimming on the surface of a deep pool that he was not ready to dip into yet. “Umm. I thought that you talked about hot dogs for a surprisingly long time.”
This caused Shane to burst out laughing. “Yeah...!” he paused to catch his breath. “You pretty much got me down in one.”
“Shhh,” a woman a few tables away from them gave them a good glare when they both darted glances at her.
“Whoops!” They both spoke at the same time, which made them giggle a little more.
“Right,” Shane said. “Well, you look fine, but I’ve got about a half an hour more work to do, so if you want you could go and come back? Maybe that’s too much trouble?”
“Nah,” Ryan said. “It’s cool. I wanna finish up too, so that works for me. I’ve got two more years to look through.”
Ryan sat back down at the desk and shuffled the papers round, sticking his ipad in his bag since he didn’t think he’d have anything else to look up anyway.
“You look like you’re in nineties tv show about catching a killer,” Shane said, he leaned over Ryan’s shoulder to fiddle with the rotation knob on the machine.
“Yeah, that’s pretty much what I feel like, too,” Ryan said, smiling up at him. “You’ve never used one of these, Mr Card-Carrying-Historian?”
Shane scoffed. “Not to read articles about witch covens, I haven’t.”
“Whatever,” Ryan said. “Go look at your dusty tomes.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Shane replied, and his warm shadow disappeared from Ryan’s space.
Ryan gave it a good long minute and then turned around to see if he could spot where Shane had been sitting. He was sheltered in the pool of light cast by his own green lamp on the other side of the room. He had his head down over a book and his fringe was falling across his forehead as he leaned over the book. He was chewing thoughtfully on the end of his pen. When he moved to turn the page, the warm glow of the lamp caught the movement of bones and muscles in his forearm, his fine wrist. Ryan had to tear his gaze away.
He looked dazedly at his notes on the table and then back at Shane again. There were papers spread all across the table in front of him and even piled up onto his half open laptop. He must’ve been there for a while before he’d come over and tapped Ryan on the shoulder. He wondered what Shane thought when he’d first seen Ryan and how long he’d waited between noticing him and deciding to come speak to him.
He didn’t get much done in that last half-hour. Every few minutes, he felt the magnetic pull of Shane’s lean form folded neatly into the heavy wooden desk chair and he had no choice but to look. Once, he glanced up and Shane was already looking at him and they smiled at each other. Ryan’s stomach flipped over. Shit. He thought and he did not let himself dwell on it any more than that.
It had stopped raining by the time they went out onto the street and near twilight. The storm had sucked up some of the humidity, so the air no longer had that unbearable bathwater quality and the streets were all washed clean by the downpour.
Shane was taking deep breaths and looking around himself like he’d never seen the world before. “Even a cynic like me has to admit that it’s beautiful,” he said. He was looking up at the live oaks, which were spilling their boughs of grey spanish moss towards the ground, softening sound and making the night feel close and still around them.
They agreed to go to Boomys to eat, since neither of them wanted to risk walking all the way out to the Distillery with the threat of a second wave of rain still in the cool wind, but it was too nice a night to be on a bus or in an uber. Shane texted Jen and Ryan texted Steven so they could meet there instead. Ryan led them up Congress Street so they could go through the squares.
“Have you been around Savannah much, since you moved?” Ryan asked.
“No,” Shane said, his expression was smooth and far away as he contemplated the statue at the centre of the square. “I didn’t really know if I’d like it, but it’s definitely growing on me.”
“Why’d you leave LA? If that’s not too personal,” Ryan asked.
“Why did you leave LA?”
“No way are you gonna so shamelessly turn that around on me! That’s the second time you’ve done that!”
“I know, I know,” he said, with a little half-smile. “I don’t have any deep reasons to offer you. I didn’t really have any reason not to go so I suddenly felt like I had to go.”
“Yeah, got it in one,” Ryan said.
Shane spoke very quietly, but Ryan knew he was meant to hear. “You know when you look around yourself and you think, this could go on indefinitely and I’d be... fine. But also you think, if things go on like this indefinitely, I might become some other, less good person, who’s not really me.” Abruptly, he crouched down. His back was turned. “Hey there, little guy.”
Ryan stared dumbfounded at this spectacle for a few long seconds and then Shane stood back up and turned to him, so Ryan could see that he had a toad on his palm. “It was a kind of loneliness, I think.” Shane said, holding the toad up close to his face so he could inspect it. “A bad loneliness. But one I didn’t think about often, till I decided I was just done with it. He’s cute.”
“You’re kind of a weird guy,” Ryan said.
The toad toad gave a little warning twitch and Shane quickly stooped down so the toad could jump off, back into the grass. “I think it was a Fowler’s toad,” he said. “They had them out at the lake I used to go to during the summers when I was a kid.”
Ryan couldn’t help himself. “And now?” he said. “Are you lonely now?”
“We’ll see,” Shane said. “It’s still early days.” For the first time Ryan got a little of what Steven had meant when he’d called Shane laid back. Somehow, even though it was too unbearably intimate to talk about this, Shane just... was, not like it was nothing to him, but like his own loneliness was something outside himself that he could pick up in his hands and examine from all angles. It was absolutely the opposite to Ryan, whose emotions were so a part of his body that he sometimes imagined all the fear and love and trust and anger inside him was running like a second circulatory system under the too-thin surface of his skin. He couldn’t help but envy Shane a little, even though he recognised that it must also be terrible at times, to hold your own heart in your hands and know it, because then maybe it was a choice, whether or not to put it back inside your chest and let it keep beating.
They were silent for a little while, just the sound of cars passing and their footsteps on the brick paths through the square, under the sodium glow of the antique street lamps. Ryan hadn’t thought that Shane was a person he could be silent with but it felt easy.
When the quiet finally broke, it was as light as a soap bubble popping. Shane asked Ryan something about one of the historical plaques and the rest of the way they talked about local history, which might have been a safe topic between two other people, but Shane kept Ryan on his toes the whole time, taunting. Ryan liked to think he was giving as good as he got, but he couldn’t be sure, and it made everything Shane said both funnier and sharp.
By the time Jen and Steven got to Boomys, Ryan and Shane had basically eaten their body weight in pho and were onto the subject of food, where they had a lot of undeniable common ground.
“So apparently my master plan backfired and you’ve got a new bud now instead of the arch nemesis I wanted for you.” Jen said, coming up behind them and slinging her arm around Shane’s shoulders.
Shane laughed and exchanged a little glance with Ryan that said something like, can’t I be both. So apparently silent communication was a thing they were doing now.
“Couldn’t have dressed up for me, huh?” Steven said, tugging Ryan’s basketball jersey.
“Rude,” Ryan said, but he didn’t take it to heart, because probably nothing was ever going to make him worry about his appearance again after Shane had given him that scientifically ruthless once over and pronounced him ripped.
Jen got them a round of drinks and after that Ryan stopped thinking so hard.
Ryan woke up slowly. There was something very wrong. The light was in the wrong place. The door to his bedroom was in the wrong place. He squinted in confusion at the hazy ceiling. His contacts felt awful, bone dry and sticking to his eyelids. “Fuuuck,” he said. There was an orange juicer clamped around his head pressing and pressing. He put his hands over his face and sat up slowly.
The wrongness was half because he was lying the wrong way round in his bed and on top of the covers and half because Shane Madej was under the covers, the right way up and snoring very loudly into Ryan’s favourite pillow.
It took a good minute of rubbing his eyes a little too hard and some deep thinking his brain was not one-hundred percent on board with to remember enough of what had happened the night before. Jen and Steven had left the bar before them and then Shane had said he should probably get going too but he had hilariously forgotten his address, which Ryan had ridiculed him harshly about. Then things got a little hazy for a while, because they’d ordered another few rounds.
Ryan had been getting to that too-drunk-to-get-home-safely place so Shane had declared that he’d take Ryan back and use Ryan’s phone charger so he could get an uber. Ryan vaguely remembered they’d decided to walk back to Ryan’s, even though it was about a forty minute walk. He’d been sobering up a little towards the end, maybe. Had they been talking about roller coasters? Then when they’d got into Ryan’s there’d been a bottle of wine in the fridge and after that he had nothing.
Shane was sleeping on his side with his knees curled right up, hugging the duvet to his chest. There was a dark shadow of stubble across his jaw, his eyelashes were fluttering a little, like maybe he was dreaming. Ryan watched him for too long, thinking about whether he should wake Shane up, and if he was going to, how he should do it. His very muddled brain was supplying him with a lot of images of running his fingertips along Shane’s bare shoulders, where they were exposed by the sheets.
Before too long, Shane started to kind of shift around and then the choice was out of Ryan’s hands because Shane’s eyes blinked open. He rolled onto his back and threw an arm over his face, groaning. “Were you watching me sleep?” he said, half amusement and half pain. His voice was gravel.
“No!” Ryan said, too defensively. “I was just trying to decide if I should wake you up or if I should leave you be!”
“Well, your creepily insistent stare raised me from the dead.”
“Jesus Christ,” Ryan grumbled. “It’s too early for this.”
“It’s probably not even early,” Shane said, yawning hugely. “I can’t tell if I’m hungry or if I’m gonna throw up.”
Ryan rolled onto his side and found his phone on the floor next to his shoes and socks. Shane was right - it was past eleven. He had two missed calls from Steven and then finally a text from a number he didn’t recognise that said ‘Hey, it’s Jen, let one of us know you guys didn’t get kidnapped or whatever. I assume your phones just died but Steven wants to know you’re all safe in bed.’ Ryan replied to the text and sent one to Steven just for good measure.
“FYI, I’m not going to be able to provide you with the brunch of your dreams,” Ryan said. “I’m pretty sure my fridge has one bottle of sriracha in it and possibly some milk, if we’re very lucky.”
“I’m way too old for this,” Shane said, in a voice of defeat, still muffled under his arm.
“Well, I’m way too young to have a hangover this bad,” Ryan said. “Do you wanna get breakfast? There’s a place down the street.”
“Yeah,” Shane said, rolling over onto his side again so he could give Ryan a squinty look. He was flushed and had circles under his eyes. His hair sticking up at odd angles. Ryan wanted suddenly and desperately to slide his hand around the back of Shane’s neck and lean forward and-- “Let me just compose myself,” Shane said, with another full body yawn.
“Ye-es,” Ryan said, getting out of bed quickly and turning to face the wall. “Same. I’m gonna jump in the shower.” Even though there was a wave of dizziness rolling over him that threatened to capsize him like a ship in a storm he made for the bedroom door at speed and into the blessed emptiness of the hallway.
He closed the bathroom door behind himself and leaned against it. What are you so fucking afraid of, Ryan? He let his head thunk back against the door. God damn it. He diligently avoided looking at his dick as he peeled off his clothes and luckily he felt hungover enough that by the time he’d stood in almost too cold water for three bracing minutes, he wasn’t straining not to touch himself anymore. He soaped up perfunctorily, staring at the white and blue patterned tiles like they might have some answers.
As he got out of the shower it occurred to him that he could now either put back on the clothes he’d been wearing since yesterday morning at nine am, which sounded about as good as dying, or he could go back into his bedroom, where Shane Madej was in his bed and where all his clean clothes were, wearing only a towel.
It turned out that in his desperation to not jerk off, he’d failed to pull the shower curtain all the way shut and his clothes were now soaking up a lake on the floor, so that was decided for him. He cleaned up the rest of the water with the bath mat and then hung it over the towel rack and threw a big hand towel on the ground for Shane to use as a rug. Then he wrapped the towel as securely around his middle as he ever had in his life and trudged back down the hallway.
Shane was sitting up in the bed, looking at his phone. He glanced up as Ryan came in the room and then right back down at his phone as though Ryan’s state of undress hadn’t even registered. “Hey, I realise none of your tiny doll pants will fit me, but do you have a shirt I could borrow?” He didn’t look up as he spoke, scrolling at a leisurely pace.
“Sure,” Ryan said as he ducked his head into his closet, grabbing a t-shirt off a folded pile and throwing it onto the bed behind him. He changed what hand was holding the towel up so he could flick through the hanging clothes properly and the towel slipped a quarter of an inch. Shane made an audible sound of surprise - a little gasp.
“What?” Ryan said, before he could help himself.
“Oh! Uhh...” There was a long pause. “Did you know that today is National Cheese Souffle Day?” he said finally.
“Huh?” Ryan said, turning to look at Shane, baffled. There was a split second where he thought maybe... had Shane just quickly looked back down at his phone right as Ryan had turned around?
“Yep. Cheese Souffle day!” Shane said brightly. “I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. We better think about that at breakfast.”
“I do like cheese souffle?” Ryan said, as if this was somehow a normal thing to be conversing about.
“Am I ok to grab a shower? Shane asked.
“Yeah, of course,” Ryan said, busying himself with his closet again. “Do you want coffee before we go, or do you want to wait for the cafe?”
“I could drink a cup here,” Shane said, absently. Ryan could hear him rustling about, climbing out from under the covers. It had absolutely not escaped his notice earlier that Shane hadn’t been wearing a shirt. It took every inch of control he had not to turn around to watch Shane getting out of his bed in a state of semi-undress.
“Great, I’ll be in the kitchen by the time you get out, then.”
“Thanks, buddy,” Shane said, his voice coming from the hall.
“No problem,” Ryan said, probably too quietly for Shane to hear. He put his face between two clean shirts in his closet and breathed in the cool scent of cotton in deep lungfuls. He was an adult for God’s sake. If he wanted something, he should just grow up and use his words. “Fuck.” he whispered to his shirts. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Ryan got into work early Monday morning so he could finish the paperwork he’d been meaning to do all weekend. He’d ended up hanging out with Shane until after dinner yesterday, when Shane had finally declared that he had to go home so he could function at work the next day. They’d laid around in Ryan’s living room playing video games and eating snacks for most of the afternoon and Ryan had felt like the whole thing was happening to someone else. He’d kept waiting for Shane to get bored of him but it never happened.
By ten, he had the sale nearly finalised. He mowed through a good amount of his to-do list and made some necessary phone calls. Kristin had e-mailed him confirmation for a viewing with some new clients that afternoon. She’d changed the subject line from the usual auto calendar response to “looks like your cup of tea”.
Coincidentally (or not, some secret part of his mind whispered), the couple were expressing an interest in the olive green house he’d intended to show to Shane. Well, he couldn’t very well claim that Shane had any kind of dibs on it at this point in the process. Plus, a part of him didn’t want Shane to want the definitely haunted witch-demon house. Maybe it was for the best. He confirmed the appointment and went out to lunch with Steven, who basically grilled him about his weekend with Shane until Ryan was forced to let some real emotion into his voice and say “I don’t fucking know what I’m doing, so you’re gonna have to lay off and let me think about things.”
“Well,” Steven said, without a single inch of sympathy. “You know my friend Andrew, who lives out on Tybee Island?”
“Sure,” Ryan said, vaguely. Mostly all he knew about Steven’s friend Andrew was that the word ‘friend’ was probably putting things very lightly.
“He’s offered for us to come out there next weekend, if the weather’s good. He said to bring whoever, and since we’ve all been getting along so swimmingly, I was gonna invite you, Shane and Jen again.”
“For the whole weekend?”
“Come on, Ryan,” Steven said. “It’ll give you a chance to figure this out.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said faintly, thinking that’s exactly what I’m most afraid of.
“Awesome!” Steven said.
Ryan put his hand over his eyes. “Have I ever told you that you’re the worst?”
Ryan met the couple in front of the house at three o’clock. The storms over the weekend had eaten up a lot of the humidity, but they’d also swept every available cloud well out to sea, and it was hot enough for the tarmac to feel sticky under his shoes. Ryan had abandoned his blazer back at the office, but there was still sweat rolling down the back of his neck. He did his best to think about absolutely nothing as he went up the stone path and opened up the screen door and then the internal door. Nothing happened. Inside, the the air was stuffy and sweltering, since the house had been completely shut up in the months the house had been on the market.
“I’ll just get a breeze going in here,” Ryan said as he led them into the living room. He went over to the the large sash windows that faced out onto the street. They were beautiful, with original period shutters and high, peaked arches at the top. The window was nearly stuck shut, he had to really jiggle it hard to get it free. When it finally came up with a jerk, a rush of icy wind burst into the room. Ryan had to choke down a little shout of fear. It was about as hot outside as inside. Where had the cold air come from?
“Well, it’s a good size,” the man was saying to his wife as he inspected the fireplace.
Ryan switched the lights on as they went out into the hallway. They flickered a little as they came on with an audible pop. Was that his imagination? Or had the bulb glowed red for just a second?
“Do you...” Ryan began, a little hesitant, “...know much about the history of this house?”
“We know it’s infested with Satan’s creatures, if that’s what you’re asking,” the man said, gruffly. Ryan blinked in surprise.
“We’re good Christians,” the woman supplied, as if that was explanation enough.
“We mean to do the Lord’s work here and send the sinful beasts back to whence they came.” The man spoke with the confidence of practise.
“Oh,” Ryan said, not really sure how to respond. “I... yes. Great. Too many beautiful old houses are overlooked because--”
“People aren’t willing to do what needs to be done,” the man said. “The kitchen isn’t very modern, is it?”
“Well,” Ryan said, glad to be back on familiar territory. “A lot of the features in here are really telling you the story of the house through time. The sink is original, as is wooden countertop on the central island. This range is actually from the turn of the century, if you can believe that. It’s quite a selling point. They’re all in good working order, as well and pretty likely to outlive you and me, so no need to worry about the resale value.”
The man flicked the old copper tea kettle sitting out on the stove. “It’s shit like this that gives Satan’s power something to hold on to,” he said. “It would all have to go, I reckon.”
“Robert!” the woman said, aghast.
“Excuse my French,” Robert said, nodding to Ryan. Susan was appeased by this - apparently it had been the swearing and not the thought of destroying near-priceless antiques that had got to her.
“Uhh...” Ryan said, uncomfortably. “I’m sure you could make a good bit of money selling some of those pieces on.”
“It’ll all have to be destroyed,” Robert said, turning his back on Ryan and his wife, going back out into the hall to start up the stairs, which left the two of them no real choice but to hurry after him. “I’m not some kind of amatuer, boy.”
Boy? Ryan thought. He really wanted to say something, but he was so on edge he was worried the situation would escalate too quickly. He had a strange feeling, a dizzy pressure had opened up inside his skull and was sitting just behind his eyes. The air was too thick. Ryan could feel sweat rolling down his back between his shoulder blades.
He swallowed nervously and darted a look behind him as they went up the stairs. Of course there was no one behind him, but there was a strange echo in his footsteps, like someone was trying to step at exactly the same time he stepped to keep him from noticing another presence.
The second floor was a long hallway with the bedrooms and bathrooms all behind identical doors. Architecturally, it was creepy enough. In terms of the feel of the place, Ryan had to put his hands in his pockets so the clients wouldn’t notice them shaking. Of course, there was a huge antique, gilt mirror on one wall between two of the bedrooms, abandoned by the previous owners. Oxidation had drawn strange constellations across the silver-backed surface. As they passed the mirror, a flickering shadow caught Ryan’s eye: a split-second after-image of a dim shape hovering over his left shoulder. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to stop himself from uttering a tiny gasp.
“Let there be no room in your heart for Satan, Susan,” Robert said to his wife, low-voiced.
A moment of tense silence passed and then Susan began whispering something under her breath. Ryan drew up close behind her to figure out what she was saying. It was the Lord’s Prayer, repeated with the hushed, fervent enthusiasm of a high school production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’. Great. That didn’t add to the terror at all. What about my heart, Robert, Ryan thought.
Ryan went ahead of them to open the window at the end of the hall and let some air in up here. He tugged at it, equal parts terrified of a repeat experience of the mysterious freezing wind and curious to see if it might be consistent. The window was stuck shut.
“A trap,” said Robert. Ryan had had about enough of Robert and Susan. He’d thought there wasn’t anything creepier than walking around a potentially demonic house alone, but he’d been wrong.
“Why don’t I give you a little space to look around the property and discuss your thoughts on it with each other,” Ryan said. “I’m just going to do a walk through to check that there’s no damage from remaining vacant. You know, look for damp and what not. Company policy and it’s to help you if you’re interested in purchasing in the long run.”
He put on his most plastic smile, swung the door open to the smallest bedroom and said “This would make a great nursery. Once you’d dealt with the ghosts obviously. Ha!” Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and went in the other direction down the hall. There was another window at that end. Maybe he could get some more air into the building after all.
“Okay, demons,” Ryan whispered as he pushed at the window. “Let’s not make this weird.”
For a moment, it seemed as stuck as the other one and then it came suddenly open with a whoosh of - yep - absolutely glacial wind. The humidity in the air condensed so quickly a rime of ice formed on the sill. Ryan had to let go of the two lifts on the bottom of the sash because the metal had gone so cold it hurt his hands. The window slammed shut.
“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Ryan said, he voice high and quivering. He let out a little terrified laugh.
He looked down the hall, expecting Robert and Susan to come see what had happened but they didn't. He could distantly hear them discussing the hellish villainy of the claw foot tub in the bathroom.
“I guess I’m on my own,” Ryan said, a little breathless with fear. “I hope I’m on my own...” For a passing moment, he suddenly wished Shane were here with him. He couldn’t think of no better antidote to the fear crawling in his throat than Shane’s sloping form leaning against the wall next to him and laughing at him, saying it was all in his imagination. Ryan examined his stinging fingers. They were wet with condensation and too white at the tips.
It’s the pressure, he thought dubiously. The pressure from pulling up so hard. And sweat.
He went into the master bedroom next. There was a bed still here. It was bigger than king size - a wooden sleigh bed, with scrolling vines and flowers carved into the headboard. A treasured thing, it probably cost a fortune but he guessed there was no way to get it out the door. Some of these old houses had furniture that had been built in the rooms and would never leave unless someone sawed them to pieces. If left to Robert and Susan, Ryan could bet that would be the fate of this old beauty.
If anyone had been there to ask, Ryan wouldn’t have been able to explain how he felt about it, or what he’d do if he’d suddenly become the owner of this terrible house and this uncanny bed and mirror and shining tea kettle. He loved these old, creaking, haunted houses with his whole heart and yet every minute he spent in them, his every hair stood on end. It was a whole body feeling in the exact middle of the no man’s land between sickness and desire. This strange bed, with its inexplicably gleaming red wood was a perfect symbol for the feeling, both the best and the worst thing he would have imagined finding in this room. It was the definition of awful in an older, perhaps truer usage of the word.
There was a soft click behind him. Ryan spun around with a little cry of terror. The door had closed on its own. There was another mirror on the back of the door. Ryan blinked. In the reflection, the bed was made up with white lace trimmings. Thick downy pillows were stacked three high against the headboard. It was dark in the room and a free-standing candelabra was next to the bed, lighting the scene with honeyed warmth. A woman, or a girl, was sitting in the middle of the bed in an old-fashioned nightgown with blue ribbons at the throat and wrists. He couldn’t see her face.
Ryan blinked again. It was daytime now, in the reflection, but still another world. The bed was made up, but there was something distinctly modern about the dressings, which were slate grey and neat. There were two bedside tables, each with a mismatched tiffany lamp and overflowing stacks of books. On one, an abandoned glass half-filled with water and Ryan’s alarm clock - the same one that was on his bedside table at home. On the other, a pair of glasses Ryan half-recognised from somewhere balancing on the lamp stand. The image of himself staring back in the mirror was perhaps the strangest part. His haircut was a little different, the fringe styled in a way he’d never had it before and he had a t-shirt on that he’d never seen. His face was... not exactly the same. He couldn’t tell what made it different. He blinked again. The ancient mattress was bare, the room empty, his face was normal again, the only thing of interest about it was his terrified expression.
Ryan was frozen in place. His heart was beating a hundred miles an hour. In the hallway, Susan screamed. The door rattled once and then it burst open. Robert was panting on the other side, grey-faced.
“Get out,” Robert gasped. “It said “Get out!”. It’s attacked Susan!”
“What?” Ryan said. He felt like Robert was very far away, like he was looking at him from deep under water.
“We must leave this place,” Robert said, frantically. “The infestation is too strong.” He didn’t wait for Ryan to follow him, just left the door open and Ryan could hear two sets of footsteps retreating down the stairs.
“Okay,” Ryan said, feeling his limbs begin to obey him again. “Yeah, fuck this. Fuck this shit.” The elation of escape was filling up his lungs and he sprinted down the stairs after them. He pulled the front door shut behind him, nearly slamming it and then stood hugging himself for a minute on the porch, breathing hard.
Robert and Susan were standing next to the car, muttering to each other in heated conversation. Susan had her head down, her dishwater blond hair falling into her face and obscuring her eyes. Robert’s hand was hard on the back of her neck. Ryan hoped he was just praying over her, because the look of it wasn’t good - uncomfortable. He thought of how Susan had barely said two words the whole time they’d been inside to Ryan and it made him want to go over there and ask if she was okay.
Ryan went round to the living room windows from the outside, doing his best not to step on the flowers planted there out of an automatic politeness. He pulled the window closed, checking it at least looked secure enough. As far as he could remember, it hadn’t been latched before anyway.
“I suppose you won’t be wanting a brochure with more information,” Ryan said, as he went over to Robert and Susan. He tried to catch Susan’s eye but she kept her gaze downcast. Her hands were clasped tightly around her handbag, knuckles white.
Robert glared at him. “Pure evil lurks in that house. It pulled Susan’s hair and whispered into my mind.”
“Soo...” Ryan said. He felt high.
“As God as my witness, I am a humble man and I know when the Lord’s work is more than I can do. I will speak with my congregation, but the malevolence is too terrible and the task too great at this time.”
Ryan considered this. On the one hand, that was definitely the most significant evidence he’d ever experienced. He was going to have to go home and hide in his bed while his brain melted out of his ears. On the other hand, when he’d stood in the bedroom staring into the mirror, unable to step away or move, he hadn’t... he hadn’t felt afraid. He’d felt almost peaceful.
“Thanks for coming out anyway. I understand completely,” Ryan said, knowing as the words came out of his mouth that, on this occasion, they weren’t true. Even though, despite commission and success, he’d advised a hundred other couples not to buy a house that felt strange or uncomfortable to them because in a few months, for all he knew, it could turn into creepy summoning circles in the kid’s bedrooms and pets going missing in terrible ways, he didn’t think the right word was evil. All he could think about was his clock radio on the bedside table with the tiffany lamp and someone else’s glasses on the other side of the bed.
“I can’t say it was a pleasure, I’m afraid,” Robert said. “But we may be back in contact if we find another property that I feel I can handle. I am only a vessel. Though God is powerful in all ways, us mortal men are not. Isn’t that right, Susan.”
“We can only do His work.” She spoke quietly to her handbag.
“Yep,” Ryan said, letting the ‘p’ pop a little. “Totally agree. Let me give you my card.” Even though Robert had already half stuck his hand out, Ryan gave it straight to Susan and did his best to telepathically communicate to her that if she was in a cult and didn’t want to be she should call him and he’d try to figure out what could be done in that situation. At least she looked up at him finally and gave him something that lived next door to a smile.
Ryan got back in the car. He waited until Robert and Susan had pulled away from the curb before he let his head fall forward onto the steering wheel. He was half-waiting for the panic attack to set in, but his breathing stayed normal and his palms were dry and cool against his thighs. He put the air conditioner on. The radio was tuned to some inoffensive classical music station which he tended to leave on during business hours in case he had a client in the car. He closed his eyes and thought through each strange thing that had happened, trying to be as objective as he possibly could, examining from all angles. He tried to think like he imagined Shane would - distantly assessing.
Ryan had only just started in on considering the possibilities of the cold wind, which, despite the actual hallucinations in the mirror, was probably the most compelling proof, when his pocket vibrated. “Hello, Solved Estate, this is Ryan Bergara.” He answered his phone. His voice sounded empty to his own ears.
“Hey, Ryan.” It was Shane, of course.
“Hi,” Ryan said. He let out a long, slow breath. He’d known Shane would make him feel better. It was that nonchalance that did it. It made a nearly subconscious part of Ryan’s brain remember how big the universe was and how nothing that had ever happened to Ryan or ever would could even scratch the surface of the truly enormous.
“Are you ok?” Shane said.
“I just had a fucking crazy house viewing,” Ryan said. “I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”
“Ah,” Shane said. “Is it funny? Like the one you told me about before, with the horse whisperer.”
Ryan laughed. “Nothing will ever be as funny as the horse whisperer.”
“So, tomorrow at four, right? Where’s the first house? On West Duffy?”
“Yep - you got it. The other one’s further south, in the Starland District” Ryan said. “Is that why you called?”
“Oh, no.” Shane paused. “Are you coming? On the trip out to Tybee Island?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Steven just asked me earlier. I’m not doing anything else, so...”
“Cool,” Shane said. “I’ll be there too, then.”
Ryan felt himself smiling unconsciously. There was a moment where they were both just breathing down the line. “Hey,” Ryan said, finally. “What do your glasses look like? You weren’t wearing them at the weekend. I can’t remember.”
“Uhh... is this somehow part of your big plan to murder me?”
“No, idiot. I just... just remind me.”
“They’re clear. Some hipster bullshit. Pretty slick, if I do say so myself.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said, sucking air in through his teeth to push the panic back down into his stomach. “I thought maybe that was them.”
Ryan emailed Kristin and Steven to tell the boss that he’s had to leave the office early to do research and drove straight back to the Municipal Archives. He pulled everything he could find to do with the house and the surrounding area. He started with the article he’d been half-way through reading when Shane had interrupted him and methodically worked his way through every inch of it till he practically had it memorised.
Eventually, he managed to find some records from the eldest daughter’s trial. It was worse than he’d imagined. The daughter had said her father had killed her mother. Her sister spoke on her behalf, but her testimony was thrown out for some legal reason Ryan didn’t quite follow. The girl, who was only ever named in the legal proceedings by the initials E. J., claimed she’d only been trying to contact her mother’s spirit. Her father said that the ritual was part of a plan to murder him.
It seemed obvious to read it now that he’d just been accusing E.J. to cover up his own crimes, but the witchcraft aspect, which was never denied by anyone involved, had turned the jury against her. In the end, the father won and E. J. had been carted off to prison where she’d died in bizarre circumstances a mere year later. Her father had then died only shortly after that, from a supposed heart attack while at home alone.
He was flicking through the court documents one last time, checking to make sure there wasn’t anything he’d missed when he paused on a photograph he didn’t remember seeing before. The caption said, ‘Personal items of E. J. - returned to sister’s care after prisoner declared deceased.’ The picture was grainy black and white, subjects laid out clinically on a bare metal table. There was a small wooden carving of a rabbit, a white leather communion bible, three sketches of wildflowers and, folded once in half, an old-fashioned nightgown with pale ribbons at the throat and wrists. Ryan stared at it along time, examining every detail until his eyes were watering with the strain.
With every second he studied the photograph, the water level in the well of doubt in Ryan’s mind grew lower and lower.
That night, Ryan dreamed he was in the sleigh bed. He was laying on his back and his eyes opened slowly. He reached up behind him and touched the headboard where a dragonfly was carved. It was a gesture his fingertips knew - something he’d done a thousand times. He stared up at the ceiling and remembered where he was. Though Ryan didn’t think he’d ever looked at the ceiling of the olive green house, in the dream, he recognised it instantly. It was achingly familiar. He rolled onto his side and adjusted the pillow under his head, yawning. Shane was asleep next to him, breathing deep and even. Ryan put his hand on Shane’s bare waist, under the covers and Shane stirred only to make a sleepy little sound of contentment.
When he woke in his own bed, he kept his eyes closed for a long time, holding tightly on to the dream, still feeling Shane’s skin and the cool pillows half there as long as he didn’t let himself know that he wasn’t really sleeping anymore. Finally, the morning sun streaming in through the blinds was too much and he had to open his eyes. The dream slipped away, water running through his fingers. His chest hurt with the loss.
Shane turned up at the Solved Estate office at three thirty the next day with two cups of coffee in to-go cups and some stupid sunglasses Ryan both hoped and feared would make an appearance that weekend at Tybee Island. Steven wiggled his eyebrows across the desk at Ryan and then laughed when Ryan took too long to look away from Shane. Ryan scowled.
“I thought I could get you to drive me over there,” Shane said as Ryan collected the keys from the temporary key safe behind reception. “I really need to buy a car, but I just keep not doing it and the universe keeps providing.”
“Isn’t half the reason you’re house hunting to cut down on your absurd commute?” Ryan collected his coffee and peered under the lid to check it had a milk and no sugar. Shane must have remembered from when they’d gone for breakfast at that cafe.
“The universe, through your capable hands...” here Shane paused to dramatically lift up his sunglasses and wink. “Will provide me with a home I can probably at least bike from. It’s better for the environment!”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Okay, big guy,” he said. “Let’s hit the road.”
Shane disapproved of the classical station and fiddled with the radio until he’d found a suitable whiny singer songwriter, which Ryan pointed out was exactly as white-bread nonsense as the previous choice had been. Shane just laughed like, fine, he’d been caught red-handed and cooly rolled his window down. He looked like a big nerd. Ryan wanted to tell him that, suddenly. He wanted to say, You’re just a big nerd, you don’t fool me. The breeze ruffled Shane’s hair. His sleeves were rolled up, exposing his forearms to the dappled light filtering through the trees as they sailed down the street. Ryan had to look away. He suddenly remembered the imagined feeling of Shane’s bare waist under his hand and he felt like he should apologise, but he didn’t even know if that had been his fantasy or some kind of haunting side-effect.
“So, tell me about this viewing from hell, yesterday,” Shane said, making conversation.
Ryan shook his head. “I better wait till we get through at least the first of these actual haunted houses out the way or I’ll get too freaked out.”
“So it involves ghosts?” Shane asked, interest piqued.
“Very much so,” Ryan said. “And an old-fashioned tale of woe.”
“Intriguing,” Shane said, steepling his fingers sarcastically.
Ryan laughed. “I can already tell you’re gonna be a bitch about it.”
“Little old me?” Shane said. Ryan suspected he might be fluttering his eyelashes behind those stupid sunglasses.
The first place was in the apartment building née yellow fever hospital. “Great building,” Shane said, taking in the majestic art deco chandeliers in the lobby. “Not got the creeps, yet.”
“Give it thirty seconds, why don’t you.”
There was a receptionist listening to a podcast at the security desk who let them into the elevator. Inside, the apartment was pretty nice - clean and spacious. The owners had hired a company to dress it, so there was furniture placed not quite realistically everywhere and a lot of pristine sheepskin rugs.
“Even I have to say,” Ryan admitted. “It’s not that freaky in the day time.”
The faux-vintage style, straight out of an interior design magazine, did not really lend itself to haunting. “Mmm,” Shane said, dubiously tapping the edison light-bulb cluster hanging from the living room ceiling. “Delicious gentrification.”
“Maybe all this “industrial” piping is somehow preventing the ghosts from communicating with us,” Ryan said as they inspected the kitchen and its fancy copper taps.
“You are bullshitting me, right now,” Shane said.
Ryan turned to look at him, eyes wide and innocent. “You know, like iron and fairies. Isn’t that a thing?”
Shane stared down at him, mouth half open like he didn’t even know what to say to that. After a long few seconds had past, Ryan could hold a straight face anymore and cracked up into laughter.
“Jesus Christ,” Shane said. “You had me going, there. I thought I was gonna have to leave.”
Ryan shrugged. “If someone showed me the right evidence, I’d probably believe it.”
“You know that’s what it means to be a skeptic, right? I’m actually on your side with that statement.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Shut up and tell me whether you can ‘really imagine yourself living here’.”
“Ah,” Shane said. “I don’t even know.” He looked a little mournful suddenly. “Right, I know you’re gonna laugh at me, but I think I do actually want to get some magical feeling when I find the right house. I feel like I’ve had enough of living in places where it was just somewhere I put all my shit and slept.”
“You know that finding you a home is my literal job that I’m paid money for, right?”
Shane gave him a funny look, sort of surprised and evaluative. “You know, I’d almost forgotten that,” he said.
“Come on,” Ryan said. “Let me show you the weird sink.”
“The what?” Shane asked.
“There’s a weird sink,” Ryan explained. “A nurse hit her head on it - she haunts the hallway and the bathroom.”
“There’s a sink that makes ghosts,” Shane said, laughing. “You should market that.”
Ryan shook his head with amused exasperation. “It doesn’t make ghosts.”
“Live forever - die by slipping against THIS once in a lifetime offer. That’s the tagline, for you.”
Ryan just crowed Shane into the bathroom. There was a tub with a fancy copper rainfall shower-head and the sink in question - a big ceramic basin that did indeed have a strangely-shaped chip out of the corner.
“You know something,” Shane said. “I bet what actually happened was that when they were redoing the house they bought this vintage sink off ebay and it arrived damaged and they were all--” Here Shane began to do the voice of a persnickety midwestern woman Ryan suspected might also be the impression Shane did of his mother to any potential siblings. “I know what we’ll do, Bill. We’ll say there’s been a ghost in here. We’ll say the sink is haunted. That’ll get some interest, let me tell ya!”
“I’ll have you know this sink comes with documentation,” Ryan said, defensively.
“You’re telling me this sink has a pedigree?” Shane asked. “This sink could win best in show.”
“Basically,” Ryan said, laughing.
“You know,” Shane said. “Us making a huge racket in here is really unlikely to be good for inviting all the little ghoulies out to play.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “I’m kind of banking on that.”
“No, no, you promised me your finest selection of haunted property. You’ve got to do it properly. Here,” Shane said, pushing Ryan to the side and pulling the blind down over the bathroom window. “I’ve got an idea.”
“What are you doing?”
“Turn out the light, go out in the hallway and close the door behind you. I’ll tell you if I see or hear anything weird.”
“What is this, a paranormal investigation?”
“Come on, nothing is gonna happen and then you can move on with your life.”
Ryan shook his head, but he did as Shane had said anyway and went out into the hallway. He felt weird as he pulled the door closed behind him. “Still there?” he asked as soon as it had closed. Shane laughed just on the other side of the door.
“Where do you think I’m gonna go, buddy?”
“I’m giving you three minutes,” Ryan said, half-embarrassed and half not caring that there was a waver in his voice.
For a minute, Shane was quiet. Then he said, “Is there anyone here who’d like to speak with me? My name is Shane. Is there a nurse, maybe?”
Nothing seemed to answer him, as far as Ryan could tell without being in the room. He felt unexpectedly cold and alone in the hallway. The light was dim since they hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on and there weren’t any windows. The only light was coming from the living room windows at the far end of the hall. “I don’t like this,” Ryan whispered to himself.
“Damn,” Shane said. “I think I just heard a whisper!”
“No,” Ryan said, voice cracking. “Sorry, that was me. Right, your time is up now anyway.”
Shane came out. “Nada,” he said. Then a cheery: “Your turn!”
“What?!” Ryan said. His heartbeat sped up so dramatically Ryan was shocked Shane didn’t comment on it. “That was not part of the deal.”
“In you go!” Shane announced with that wide, unbearable grin.
“Oh god,” Ryan panted. “Oh fuck, I hate this.”
Shane was a little surprised at the look of terror on Ryan’s face. “You’re not kidding about this shit are you? You really think something’s going to hurt you in there?”
“Probably not hurt me, but what if I really see--”
“I’ll be right out here,” Shane said.
“Fucking...fine!” Ryan said darkly and marched into the room, pulling the door closed behind himself with a firm tug, before someone or something else could do it for him. There was a rim of yellow light around the bathroom blind, but it was surprisingly dark. He had to blink for a minute to give his eyes time to adjust. It was very quiet. “Is anyone--” Ryan’s voice squeaked. He coughed and tried again. “Is anyone here?”
There was a tapping noise. Ryan let out a very reasonable and appropriate scream. Shane burst through the door. “What happened?”
“Shhh!” Ryan said. The tapping continued.
Shane started laughing.
“The faucet is dripping,” Shane leaned past Ryan to the sink behind him and tightened the handle. Ryan sucked in a breath as the buttons from Shane’s shirt brushed Ryan’s bare arm. The noise ceased.
“Jesus Christ,” Ryan said, swallowing hard. “You know, it could have still been ghosts.”
“It wasn’t dripping. Then I said ‘Is anyone here?’ and it started dripping.”
Shane laughed so hard he had to put his hand over his face to calm himself down. Ryan folded his arms protectively across his chest. “Oh fuck you,” he said. Shane caught his eye, coming up for air and his stupid, weird looking face, all scrunched up with laughter was just too much for Ryan to bear and he started laughing too and they were both standing in a bathroom with a haunted sink and weirdly fancy hand-towels that no one would ever use laughing. For one second, Ryan had this glorious feeling that maybe he’d never be afraid again.
It didn’t last, of course. The stable house was next. It was totally empty, the air thick with dust and a strange, sweet smell that Shane suggested might be hay from when it had been a stable. By then, the sun was lower in the sky and the shadows coming in through the windows were decades long, trailing across the floor with an almost thoughtful animism.
“Don’t you think that’s evidence of ghost horses if it still smells like hay?”
“You think it’s more likely that there’s such a thing as ghost smells than that the ancient wood that this place is made out of just happens to permanently smell like the thing that was probably stored here for half a century, especially after it’s been all locked up with no air moving around for months.”
Ryan explained the story of the house to Shane and by the time they went looking round the bedrooms, he was jumping at every creak and flicker of movement out of the corner of his eyes.
“You’re okay,” Shane said, a note of genuine concern in his voice.
“Yeah,” Ryan breathed out. A part of him wanted to be irritated at Shane for pitying him and and even bigger part was just glad he wasn’t alone. “Honestly,” Ryan said. “I’m not usually this jumpy, but that viewing the other day did a number on me. That place was seriously... seriously...”
“Pretty much,” Ryan said.
“You haven’t told me about it yet.”
“Oh yeah,” Ryan said, vaguely. He aimed for casual but it was hard when all he could think about was how intrinsically tied up Shane was in the haunting and the house and the dream afterward. Shane was the person Ryan most wanted to talk to about it, yet it felt like very dangerous territory. What exactly was Ryan supposed to say? Well, Shane, it was the most intense supernatural experience of my life, but I honestly don’t know if it was evil spirits or I’ve finally cracked and have just been having a series of hallucinations about how much I apparently want to shack up with you, a man I met one and a half weeks ago.
“I said, do you want to go grab a drink and tell me about it somewhere else? Since this place is giving you the creeps?”
“Oh,” Ryan said. “Sorry, I was thinking. What about this house, though? Potential?”
Shane scratched thoughtfully at his chin. “I wouldn't rule it out. I like it better than the last place anyway. The garden was cool.”
Ryan didn’t push for more than that, ready to be done with being physically inside haunted property for the day. “Alright,” Ryan said. “You definitely owe me a beer, anyway.”
“How exactly do you figure that?”
“Think about how close I might have come to being disemboweled by a ghost horse.”
“Mmm... I think you’re gonna have to work a bit harder to convince me on this one. Better tell me your spooky story first, ghoul boy.”
Ryan did tell him a slightly edited version of the viewing with Robert and Susan as they walked to a nearby bar. Shane believed what Ryan told him but he had his own explanations for each of the events. Particularly the mirror girl in the bed. “You were reading an article about her in the library the other day and you don’t think it’s even slightly possible that you just imagined her there?”
“But what about the nightgown?”
“I don’t rate the nightgown,” Shane said. “All those old timey pyjamas look the same. You saw a girl in a nightgown and then later, in your research, you found out that this girl from 1905 or whenever actually had a nightgown and I’m supposed to say that’s not just an obvious thought anyone could have had?”
“You still haven’t said anything about the weirdly cold windows, though,” Ryan said.
Shane shrugged. “Okay, I’ll admit that is a little weird.”
“Ha!” Ryan said, victorious.
“You know what I’m going to say,” Shane said, smug.
“What?” Ryan genuinely did not know.
“Take me to this terrifying ‘olive green house’. I told you before. I want to see the evidence with my own two eyes. And I want to see the most haunted property available.”
“I do not want to do that,” Ryan said. “Did you hear when I told you it pulled the woman’s hair?”
“I’m a bit suspicious of Robert and Susan’s ‘testimonies’. Anyway, you’re telling me you’ve got a house that you are one hundred percent sure is haunted - not a shadow of a doubt in your mind - and this is the moment you say, ‘nah, I’m not gonna subject Shane to that. It might alarm him’.”
“God,” Ryan said. “You win.”
“I want to go at night,” Shane said.
“Come on, are you trying to kill me?”
“Maybe,” Shane said, wiggling his eyebrows. “Or maybe it’s the ghosts!”
“You’re the worst,” Ryan said, nudging Shane a little in the side. Shane glanced down at him, surprised by the touch. Ryan just looked back up at him, wide, dark eyes shining in the sinking evening sun. “Take your sunglasses off,” Ryan said. He’d meant it to be a joke chastisement because it was too dark to be wearing sunglasses outside now, but it came out too soft and somehow wanting. Shane didn’t even hesitate and then they were just looking at each other, walking a little too slow because they weren’t paying attention to where they were going.
“I think we went past it,” Shane said after a long moment, in a hushed voice.
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “We should go back.”
Jen picked Ryan up from outside his apartment at eight a.m. on Saturday morning. Shane was already in the front seat, Steven in the back. Shane handed him off a coffee over the central console as Ryan climbed into the car. “You look like you need it, buddy,” Shane said. Ryan yawned and gave an avoidant little laugh.
He didn’t exactly want to tell Shane that he hadn’t slept properly the last three nights because he kept dreaming of sleeping in bed with Shane in a haunted house and then had to stare at the ceiling for several hours thereafter, absolutely not longing for anything.
Last night, he’d finally given up and jerked off, face turned to the side and eyes tightly closed. For about five seconds, he’d tried not to think of Shane and then he’d remembered Shane turning off the tap and the buttons of his shirt pressed for a split-second against Ryan’s bare arm, which in turn made him think of Shane looking him up and down in the library, deciding whether he looked good enough, which in turn spun out into an involved fantasy of Shane fucking Ryan while holding him flat against one of those big oak library desks and telling him how hot he looked.
Once in the car, Ryan put his head against the window and let the others’ conversation wash over him. He watched the half-inch of Shane’s face he could see in the sliver of space between the headrest and the car door. He was wearing sunglasses again and he had more stubble than he’d had earlier in the week. The tips of his hair under his ears were still wet from the shower or washing his face.
It was good to see him in real life again. They’d talked on Thursday, ostensibly about visiting the olive green house sometime next week, but in practise, it had been a rambling conversation that had gone all over the place. They’d texted, mostly film opinions. Somehow, all the interaction without Shane’s actual physical presence had just served to send Ryan spiralling deeper into infatuation. Now, looking at his too long limbs folded slightly awkwardly into Jen’s tiny car made Ryan remember that Shane was just a person.
Steven nudged Ryan with his knee. Ryan looked up an met his gaze. Steven nodded his head at Shane and tilted his head, as if to say, So, where are things at?
Ryan just shrugged. He let a tiny bit of the over-wrought fear that was stewing under his breast-bone come into his expression.
“You’re seriously overthinking this, Ryan,” Steven whispered.
“I know. That’s basically my MO,” Ryan replied, under his breath. “I can’t help it.”
Steven shook his head pityingly. Jen flicked her head to the side, eyeing them suspiciously, “No secrets from the driver,” she announced. “What are you back their gossiping about?”
“Ryan wants breakfast,” Steven announced. “I want pancakes.”
“There’s a waffle house in a few miles,” Shane said, inspecting the map on his phone as he’d been delegated the task of navigation.
The waffle house was unexpectedly packed. Nearly every table had a cheery family drenched in sunscreen. As it turned out, they weren’t the only people making the great exodus to the coast on the first truly hot weekend of the year. They squeezed into a weirdly small orange leather booth, which was probably the only one empty because it had apparently been made for one and a half people to sit on each side.
Steven slid in immediately next to Jen, which meant Ryan had to crowd up next to Shane. Steven gave him a gleefully triumphant look over the top of his menu.
After flipping idly though the menu, Shane draped his arm across the back of the booth. Ryan swore he could feel a line of heat across the middle of his back where Shane was just barely brushing against him. Ryan sucked down his second cup of coffee in record time, tension winching him upwards into the best posture of his life. Pushed up close like this, Shane’s extra height took on a visceral certainty.
“Breathe, why don’t you,” Shane said quietly to Ryan while Steven and Jen were busy quarreling about how much food it was acceptable to order.
“Huh?” Ryan said, playing dumb.
“You’re practically vibrating. What’s got you so twisted up?”
You! Ryan wanted to shout. You, you, you! Suddenly it’s all about you!
Instead he said, “It’s probably the coffee.”
“Hmm,” Shane said. “Sure.”
Once the food came, Ryan was thoroughly distracted, because watching Shane eat waffles was basically the same as watching a professional sport. Shane was both passionate and highly competent in regards to waffles. He had a lot of theories about how exactly to consume them in the best possible way, which he shared at length with the table. Ryan was filled up with unbearable fondness.
He let himself relax finally into Shane’s side and it was absolutely fine, just some friendly intimacy. Ryan realised that before, he’d been backing himself into a mental panic room where all the walls were a pressing terror that he was only one ill-judged gesture away from jumping Shane and making a complete fool of himself. In fact, the situation was much more dire. Ryan wasn’t afraid of making a fool of himself at all. He was much more afraid that he and Shane already had something too good to lose by fucking it up with this question of more.
Eventually they’d all had their fill of waffles and waddled, stuffed, back to the car. Jen and Steven switched who was driving, which put Shane into the back seat. They hit bad traffic and Shane fell asleep, head lolling onto Ryan’s shoulder.
“Of course,” Ryan whispered to himself. “Give an inch.”
They got to the house just after nine thirty. It was a sprawling bungalow on stilts with a huge, screened wrap-around porch. Andrew was asleep on an outdoor daybed around the side of the house with a newspaper over his face. He ushered them all inside sleepily, shaking hands and making appropriate noises. He kept gifting Steven with these little wry, private smiles and casually touching him. Steven followed after the scattered flashes of affection like a flower chasing the sun.
“Cute,” Jen pronounced.
Ryan had to force himself to act normal. He was afraid Andrew or Jen or even Shane, might think he was weirded out instead of the truth, which was that he was mildly jealous.
Andrew showed them around the place. Jen dropped her bag into one of the spare bedrooms and shut the door on it with the finality of a woman who had decided she needed some personal space. Steven put his bag into Andrew’s bedroom without even asking, like he’d done it a dozens of times before. Ryan felt slightly guilty. He and Steven were pretty close friends. Maybe he should know more about the state of Andrew-and-Steven.
That left Ryan and Shane to share since there were only three rooms. Ryan was feeling some things about that but he was probably better off not examining it too closely. Ryan sat on one of the two single beds, cross-legged, digging through his bag to find his sunscreen and swim trunks.
“What do you think?” Shane asked. He was holding up a hawaiian shirt to his chest, showing it off. He had a hat on already - a sort of straw boater situation with little tassels.
“I think I’m gonna walk five steps ahead of you so people don’t know we’re together.” Ryan mentally winced at the way he’d phrased that but Shane didn’t seem to think anything of it, just smiled jauntily at him like that was the response he’d been hoping for.
“You’re gonna have to be my sunscreen buddy,” Shane said.
“What’s that?” Ryan asked.
“Look at this milky skin. You know it’s going to go badly wrong for me if someone doesn’t slather me down with factor fifty every hour, on the hour.”
“Oh god.” Ryan did his very best to make sure the terror in his voice sounded deadpan and sarcastic.
The beach was less than a half a mile from the house. Andrew and Jen loaded up the back seats of her car with umbrellas and boogie boards and chairs and drove it down while the rest of them walked. Jen was waiting for them near the showers at south beach with all the stuff piled up next to her by the time they got there. Andrew had driven his car back to park at his own house since the lot was packed out. Luckily, once they dragged the stuff onto the beach, it was clear that there was plenty of space.
They set off trudging through the sand away from the boardwalk and the busier spots that were in easy walking distance to the toilets. They threw up the chairs and the umbrellas and then collapsed like a load of exhausted sea lions in to shaded circles of sand.
“Come on,” Shane said. “I was absolutely not kidding.”
Ryan rubbed sunscreen all over Shane’s back. He wasn’t fifteen. He could handle it. He followed the smooth planes, slid his hands up Shane’s silken sides. Whatever. It was just a human being’s back. He put his hands round Shane’s waist, fit his thumbs on either side of Shane’s spine. Shane had a few little freckles on his shoulder blades which were painfully kissable. Whatever, he thought loudly to himself, over and over. He tried to make himself go back to that place he’d been in the waffle house only a few hours ago, when he’d felt the peace of wanting friendship and feeling that that was enough. It sort of worked.
He laid down flat on his stomach in the sand after, putting his face right on the ground and pretending to doze.
“Do you want me to do yours?” Shane asked. It occurred to Ryan that it might look very weird to silently finish applying sunscreen to someone’s back and then lay straight down and close your eyes but it was too late now.
“Yes, please,” Ryan said in a monotone, because he’d turned off all his human emotions. Since Tuesday, the dark certainty of his enormous crush on Shane had settled over his shoulders like a too-long cloak that he might trip over the second he forgot to stop sweeping it out of his way. He’d tried to play the trick on his brain where he told himself that the scenarios he was making up in his head were, by design, a hundred times worse than anything that could happen in the real world, but on this occasion his most tangled worry-desires were being played out right before him.
Shane kneeled over him. Ryan could feel the difference in temperature where Shane was blocking the sun. He started in the small of Ryan’s back, sweeping his fingertips just underneath the waistband of his swim trunks, then up past his ribs, making Ryan squirm a little with sensitivity.
“You’ve got great skin,” Shane said, finishing off Ryan’s shoulder with a cheery little squeeze to his biceps.
“You sound like a serial killer,” Ryan said, only a little squeakily.
“Takes one to know one,” Shane said. “Do you have anything in here besides sport magazines?” He’d put the sunscreen away and was now rifling around in Ryan’s bag of assorted beach stuff. “Aha!” he said, answering his own question as he emerged with a crumpled Economist.
“That’s like, two years out of date,” Ryan said, squinting at the folded magazine as he tilted his head up. Shane smiled fondly down at him.
“You have sand all on your face,” he said, strangely quietly, like he was talking to himself more than to Ryan.
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “That’s what happens when you put your face in the sand.”
“You don’t get annoyed with sand?”
“I grew up on the beach,” Ryan said.
“Oh yeah,” Shane replied. His right hand made a funny abortive gesture towards Ryan’s face, like maybe he wanted to brush him off. Ryan wondered why he didn’t just do it. “The pacific’s different than this,” Shane said, looking out towards the shoreline. “It looks like a big lake out there.”
Ryan leaned up onto his elbows and brushed a bit at the sand with his own hands. “It’s better than nothing,” he said.
“I’ve never been in the Atlantic,” Shane said.
“What?!” Ryan said. “Well come on, then.” He climbed to his feet and then kicked Shane into action with his bare toes. Jen and Steven were playing paddle ball, but close enough to keep and eye on things. “We’re going in,” he shouted. “Shane’s never been in the atlantic!”
“Get that boy wet!” Jen shouted. Shane laughed. In only his swim trunks, Ryan could see the laughter roll across his whole body, down his long limbs, loose and relaxed.
“Race you,” Ryan said, because he was over it for the minute but he was only a man and he couldn’t look too long at the sun. Shane took off. The race between actual physical fitness and the natural gift of ridiculously long legs ended with them crashing into the water at the same time, splashing like kids. The water was bracingly cold, still so early in the year. Ryan felt so entirely awake. Shane caught his eyes and Ryan knew without him saying anything that he felt exactly the same. They were breathing hard with exertion, the waves coming up frothing around their hips.
They kept wading forwards, cold sea swirling to their waists and then Shane submerged himself and went swimming off under the water. Ryan dove under a wave to chase him. He came up on the other side of the break in a wash of foam and Shane was still nowhere to be found, till something grabbed Ryan’s leg, making him scream. Shane burst upwards, gasping, his hair sticking to his forehead, eyelashes spiked with salt water, laughing. “You’re so easy!” Shane said. Ryan rolled his eyes, grinning.
They’d covered some distance, farther out in the water than almost anyone else, abruptly alone despite being in a public place. Shane stopped, making Ryan turn to see what was wrong. His expression was strange and complicated. “Ryan,” he said. “I’ve been trying to figure out...” He trailed off.
“What?” Ryan asked. Shane hesitated too long. Ryan was suddenly sure he was going to change the subject from whatever he’d wanted to ask. “Tell me,” Ryan insisted. Shane stepped right up into his space till Ryan had to tilt his head up to look at him. He felt his pulse jump. Droplets of water were slipping down Shane’s neck, spilling over his chest. Ryan started to step back, but Shane’s hands were suddenly on his hips, thumbs on his bare skin under the water.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Shane said and Ryan waited for one breathless second for Shane to say what he might be wrong about and then Shane was kissing him. It was a gentle kiss, but Shane used his whole body, one hand slipping around to the small of Ryan’s back, right where his first touch on the sand had been earlier. The other hand slid right up Ryan’s spine, till Shane’s long fingers were sifting through the fine, wet hairs at the back of Ryan’s neck, tipping his head. He knew how to use his height. The water was making Ryan buoyant and he came up off his feet, floating and pinned up against Shane’s body. Ryan was kissing him back now, their mouths soft and sweet against each other. A wave crested and broke against their bodies, surprising them apart.
Shane spluttered, pushing his wet hair out of his eyes. He seemed surprised at himself. Ryan could see he was trying to formulate something to say.
“You’re not wrong,” Ryan said, saving Shane the effort.
“Okay,” Shane said blowing out a long, nervy breath. “Fuck, I want to--”
Ryan went for him again, the waves lifting him up as he moved so Shane had to physically catch him and half-instinctive, half-purposeful, Ryan was wrapping his legs around Shane’s waist. Shane gripped him under his thighs and this time it was Ryan cupping Shane’s head in his hands, bringing their mouths together, hot and open, gasping as the waves pushed insistently around their hips. Ryan was biting into Shane’s mouth and god, it was so good, better than anything he’d imagined and urgent and happening the way all the faded dreams of Shane sleeping peacefully in the bed next to him never were. Another wave came over their heads - they’d drifted deeper, so even little waves were washing up to their shoulders and Shane pulled him under the water, everything was skin and blue-green light and salt and blinking eyes. Ryan pushed back, coming up for air gasping and laughing.
“Come on,” Ryan said. “Come on, someone is gonna see us out here, what do you want to do?”
“Do you want to go back to the house?” Shane asked, shaking his head like a dog.
“Yeah,” Ryan said. He could feel his pulse in his throat. “Yeah, let’s do that.” Now that it was happening, Ryan felt need slamming hot against all his physical edges, swirling insistently, like blood through veins, like the sea, making his skin shivery and over sensitive and his fingertips itch.
They swam back, Ryan was faster than Shane but they were both going for it, half body-surfing and letting the tide carry them forward. They didn’t talk again till they got up to the umbrellas. Steven was dozing on his stomach and Andrew and Jen were chatting to each other over covers of battered beach reads. Ryan was desperately thankful that Steven was asleep because he was the only one of the three who knew Ryan well enough to tell that he was freaking out.
“Ryan wants a hat he left back at the house,” Shane said, turning his casual up to full force. “We’re gonna walk back and grab it.”
“Sure,” Andrew said. “There’s a spare set of keys under the begonia.”
“Cool,” Ryan said. “Thanks, man.”
Jen was looking at Shane suspiciously, like she was trying to figure something out. He did a big, exaggerated wink. Well, that was one way to avert suspicion. Fight fire with fire. They set back up the boardwalk towards the car park. A strange tension slid over them.
Shane took a deep breath and said. “So when do you want to look at that other house, the really haunted one?”
Ryan stopped himself from letting out an audible sigh of relief. He’d been terrified that Shane would try to talk for real. That was the last thing that Ryan could handle right now. He was afraid Shane might say something that would make Ryan have to stop this from happening. He was afraid Shane might say something that would make Ryan fall a little deeper.
“When are you free next week?” Ryan asked.
Somehow, they had an everyday conversation about schedules and work. The streets were too busy with harried looking parents and children dripping ice cream all over themselves. After the first few blocks, the edgy tension had run its course and Shane got right into Ryan’s space so their arms brushed as they walked. It was easy like that. The number of people thinned as they got back into the residential neighbourhood and Ryan put his hand on Shane’s back, just under his shirt, leading him a little and gave Shane a look that made Shane’s ears turn pink. All the doubt ran straight out of Ryan’s head and suddenly all he could think about was what he wanted to do to Shane.
By the time they got to the house, they weren’t talking anymore and the tension between them was entirely different, a live wire running from body to body that made Shane fumble as he tried to unlock the door. Ryan crowded right up behind him while he scrambled to get the right key and pushed his hips into Shane’s ass, pinning him against the door frame. Ryan put his mouth against the juncture between Shane’s shoulders and his neck and nipped. He had to go on his tiptoes to do it, which was somehow really hot.
“Fuck,” Shane gasped, tipping his head back and narrowly missing knocking into Ryan’s nose. Ryan laughed and relented, letting Shane get the door open, finally. It was cool and dim inside the house. As soon as the door closed, Ryan flipped them around bodily, so Shane’s back was pressed against the door and Ryan was holding him against it, hips to hips, chest to chest. Shane leaned down and kissed him again, all gentleness gone now, making out desperately. They were both hard and it was nearly impossible to think of why they shouldn’t just stay here, rutting.
“Wait, wait,” Ryan said, pulling back, totally breathless. “Come on, what if someone comes in?”
“Yeah, okay,” Shane said hazily, but he went in for another kiss anyway, and his hips stuttered and slid against Ryan’s cock at a particularly good angle and it was a good two minutes before Ryan silently pulled back in earnest and pushed Shane ahead of him towards their bedroom. Ryan shoved his suitcase onto the floor and the duvet with it and by the time he’d turned around Shane was naked, which made Ryan laugh and then have to say, “Sorry, sorry!” to Shane’s affronted look. “It was like a comedy quick change.”
“Yeah, that winning dialogue is how you get all the boys, huh?” Shane said.
“Come here,” Ryan said, apologetically. “Help me get this off.” He started to unbutton his shirt and Shane just watched him, his hands in the air like he’d forgotten what they were for and his mouth a little open, his breathing irregular. Ryan went to him, slowly, letting the drama of the moment build and as Ryan slipped his shirt off, Shane’s hands came up and settled on his shoulders and then slid down his arms to gently grasp his wrists.
“When you came into your bedroom last weekend all wet, in that goddamn towel, I thought I was going to die,” Shane murmured and he kissed Ryan again, sweeter than all the other times combined. Then he sank straight down to his knees, yanked Ryan’s swim trunks to his ankles, and put his mouth right around Ryan’s cock.
“Jesus christ!” Ryan said. “Shane!” He nearly fell over and he had to steady himself with one hand on the back of Shane’s head. He felt so fucking hard and huge and wet, his dick sliding against the roof of Shane’s mouth and one of Shane’s hands wrapped around the base, a little dry but so, so good. It was taking every single inch of Ryan’s willpower not to fuck into Shane’s throat and Shane was making these desperate noises. Ryan glanced down, but it looked way too hot so he had to squeeze his eyes shut instead and just breathe.
Eventually, it was too much and Ryan had to push a little, saying, “I can’t- I can’t...” Shane leaned back, lips red, wet and shining and his eyes overly bright. He was unbearably beautiful in such a strange way, unfolded across the floor and brittle with need, entirely unselfconscious. A completely unique feeling came over Ryan: all at once he wanted to hold Shane’s hips down against the edge of the bed and fuck him until he cried and he wanted to wrap Shane up in a clean white duvet and make him breakfast and Ryan wanted to be the held-down one, the tucked in one, all of it at once and so much.
“I can see you thinking,” Shane said. His voice was shot.
“What are you gonna do about that?” Ryan said, because that was all there was to say. Shane pushed himself to his feet and backed Ryan up against the bed, pushing him down with one hand and crawling up his body till he was straddling Ryan’s hips. Shane looked him over with that now-familiar sweeping consideration. Ryan felt laid completely bare. The look on Shane’s face made Ryan’s breath come short and fast. There was something ridiculously intimate about that sleepy smile layered over with such an authoritative focus.
“You are so fucking hot, Ryan,” Shane said, in this way he had, a kind of arrogance, that made Ryan’s attractiveness sound like a fact of the universe and not Shane’s opinion. Shane wrapped his hand around both their leaking cocks, pressed together, and stroked and Ryan’s hips would have come off the bed if Shane hadn’t been sitting on them. Somehow that halted movement made it all the better cause he could really strain against Shane’s weight, gasping and uncontrolled and Shane just held him there, insistent, leaning over him, kissing him open-mouthed, panting into Ryan’s neck, biting at his nipples.
Ryan twisted out of Shane’s grasp and flipped them over. Now he was locking Shane against the bed, his hands bruising on Shane’s wrists and Shane wriggled for a second and realised that Ryan was strong enough to keep him there as long as he wanted. Shane’s eyes went wide with the halfway point between fear and desire, the feeling that Ryan lived in and he felt powerful, suddenly, having put Shane there instead.
“Do you want me to let you go?” Ryan asked.
Shane grit out a “No.” and threw his head back on the pillows, like it was too much to expect him to speak any more. Ryan bent down and sucked the head of Shane’s dick into his mouth, licking and licking. He made himself be patient about it, working his way down slowly. Shane was whining continuously and Ryan had to sit back on Shane’s legs to keep him still, which made him louder. Then, right as Shane said, “If you don’t stop, I’m gonna-” Ryan leaned back, crawled up Shane’s body to kiss him again and wrapped his hand around both of their wet cocks, slick and velvet-hard against each other. Shane’s hand was there too and they were both crying out into each other’s necks, gasping as they came.
It was only a single bed, so they couldn’t really roll away from each other, but they maneuvered till they were squished in side-by-side on their backs, lined up neatly.
“Damn,” Shane said. He had hold of Ryan’s arm and he was kind of idly mouthing at Ryan’s wrist. “You’re so salty,” he said, curiously.
“The sea water,” Ryan said.
Shane laughed. “I had honestly somehow forgotten that we were just swimming,” he said. “We should probably go back soon. We’ll have to rain check this post-coital cuddle, I guess.”
“I better find a hat,” Ryan said. “I don’t know if I even brought one with me.”
“I have hats,” Shane promised.
They made it back to the beach with what seemed to be not too much suspicion from anyone and then there was ice cream eating on the boardwalk and then they came back to the house and took luxuriously long showers and Andrew barbecued and they drank wine on the porch for hours and then everyone went to bed and Ryan fucked Shane into the two single mattresses pulled onto the floor with his hand over Shane’s mouth like they were in college and then they slept for thirteen solid hours.
Ryan woke up slowly, he’d dreamed the dream again, though it hadn’t woken him. Now it was all the worse, somehow because Shane really was in bed with him but the circumstances were entirely different. Ryan refused to let any strange nostalgia for something that hadn’t even happened ruin the moment. He leaned up on one elbow and watched the sun laying in butter rectangles across the white sheets and Shane’s sleep-soft body, the shadows Shane’s eyelashes drew on his face.
The door burst open. Ryan slammed his eyes shut.
“To think I actually took your word for it,” Jen crowed, presumably taking in the scene of debauchery before her. “when you told me ‘oh, nothing’s going to happen, Jen, he’s not into me, Jen, I don’t think he even likes me, like, ‘as a person’, Jen’. I am disappointed in you, Shane Madej!”
Ryan squinted one eye open and caught site of Shane sitting up blearily, sheets falling down to his waist, looking up at Jen with a look of utterly horrified embarrassment on his face. “Jen!” he whisper-shouted. “I said that in confidence!”
Ryan snapped his eye back shut and then rolled over with an exaggerated yawn, pretending to wake up, stretching. “Oh!” he said, with what he thought was pretty good feigned surprise as he saw Jen standing, arms crossed, surveying them. “Uhh...” he said. “It’s... not what it looks like?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jen asked.
“Yes,” Ryan said. “I just always wondered what it would be like to say that.”
Shane lay back down beside him, laughing.
Steven and Andrew made them all breakfast together and they went back down to the beach for a few hours. Everyone was a little on the hungover side, so they mostly just lay around drinking iced tea out of the cooler and complaining to each other. Jen drove them all home. They pulled into Savannah at about five and when she went to let Ryan out, Shane got out too. Ryan didn’t question it, just let him, like it was something they’d planned.
They went upstairs and Shane fucked Ryan in his bed, slow and languid unlike the previous two times had been, taking him apart piece by piece till he was begging into the pillows. Shane was unfazed, just cooly working himself in and out of Ryan, one big hand firm and demanding on the back of Ryan’s neck and the other wrapped loosely around Ryan’s dick, balancing perfectly on the knife’s edge between too much and not enough.
Ryan fell asleep after and when he woke up later, in the middle of the night, Shane was gone. There was a note on his bedside table that said, “See you on Wednesday at the spook house!”
Ryan stared at the ceiling in the dark for a long time. The bed was a little sandy underneath him. They probably should have showered after they come in. He brushed his fingers over the grit and thought about Shane laying on him on the beach that afternoon, his head resting on Ryan’s thighs while he complained to Jen about some troublesome student he was working with at the museum and Ryan read a back issue of Men’s Fitness and sifted his hand through Shane’s hair. He couldn’t think of the last time he’d felt so happy.
The first thing Steven said to him the next morning when he saw him was, “Are you okay?”
“That’s comforting,” Ryan said. “I’m absolutely fine, thanks.”
“Your face,” Steven said, worriedly gesturing at him.
“Wow, making me feel better and better!” Ryan said, layering the sarcasm on thick.
“You look like you haven’t slept in a decade. You looked fine yesterday.”
“I don’t know,” Ryan said. “I was up last night. Thinking a lot.”
“You’re not going to try to break up with Shane already, are you?”
“We’d have to be actually together for me to make a visit to that panic station.”
“Did you not talk to each other?”
Steven, goddamn him, actually seemed to find that funny. “You know what,” he said. “I should have realised this would happen. Both of you guys are such chronic over thinkers. Like, you’re coming at it from opposite directions but god forbid either of you just say, ‘I like you, let’s date’. You’ve probably planned out a hundred million possible scenarios for your future to see if there’s any hope for you like fucking Doctor Strange. And he’s probably deconstructed every tiny thing you’ve ever said to him down to dust. You actually deserve each other.”
Really, Ryan should have just told Steven to fuck off and called Shane right then.
Instead he waited two and a half days, let himself get worked up into an absolute state and turned up on the front steps of the olive green house for their slightly illegal after-dark house viewing feeling like he might throw up. It was nine p.m. and Ryan had, against his will, somehow dressed himself like he was going on a date. He also had several flashlights and a camera, just in case he saw anything really good... or bad, depending on how you looked at it.
Shane turned up at nine o’ five. He smelled really good. Ryan told him so and Shane kissed him, just like that. About half of the tension went right out of Ryan’s body.
“Are you okay?” Shane asked.
“I’m pretty fucking terrified, actually,” Ryan replied. Shane seemed to assume Ryan had meant in reference to the haunted house, which he had - ninety five percent of him, anyway.
It was still swelteringly hot inside, which felt even weirder than it had last time, since it was night and the weather this week wasn’t nearly as intense as it had been last week. Ryan flicked on the lights in the hallway. “So I figure, I’ll show you around like a normal house viewing and then we can do another round in the dark after, if we want to.”
“Cool,” Shane said. “What was the name of the girl who you think you saw?”
“I’ve only got initials,” Ryan replied. “E. J.”
“Hey, EJ!” Shane said, loudly into the open door of the living room. “Just checking things out! You’ve got a nice house here and I’m in the market.”
“Don’t fucking antagonise her!” Ryan whispered harshly.
“I’m not being rude!” Shane defended himself. “Come on, do your shpiel. I wanna know the deal with the place anyway. It’s pretty nice, to be honest. I kinda actually do like it, at first glance.”
“And don’t you think it’s weird that a house that’s been unoccupied for eight months looks this nice? You know before that it was just short term tenants for literal years! They aren’t really known for care-taking.”
“You want me to be freaked out because the ghost likes its house to look nice?”
“Hansel and Gretel, anyone? There is a long tradition of creatures luring people in with good appearances.”
“Well she didn’t really seem to lure Robert and Susan very well.”
Ryan through his hands up in the air. “You won’t listen to reason!”
“Uh huh,” Shane said, with an infuriatingly amused expression. “Reason. That’s exactly what I’m missing.”
Ryan sighed in bemusement and led Shane into the living room where they admired the period fireplace and the hardwood floors. Ryan made Shane open the window but he said the air coming in had been the normal warm, summery temperature. They went into the kitchen where Shane was absolutely delighted by the turn of the century range.
“Do you know how rare these things are!” he said, opening all the different little oven doors and examining the stovetop and kettle with delight.
“Yes,” Ryan said, impatiently. “I am a real estate agent.”
“Okay, sorry, that’s a fair point,” Shane admitted.
“I can’t believe it has an original kettle just sitting here, right on it. This is basically a museum piece.”
Ryan had to be a little charmed by how excited Shane was. They went in the backyard, which was as neatly kept as the front. Shane tried to tell him that the property’s current owners were probably paying a gardner and Ryan insisted he would have been told if that was the case.
There was a big dining room lined with bookshelves that Ryan hadn’t even been into with Robert and Susan. “This would make a good study,” Shane said, peering at the wall sconces on either side of the big sash windows that looked out over the garden with a suddenly introspective look.
“Oh my god,” Ryan said.
“You’re doing buying signals! You can’t buy this place!”
“Why not?” Shane said. “I can’t believe it’s in my budget.”
“It’s in your budget because it’s too haunted and horrible for anyone to want! I was asking Kristin from work about it and she said she showed it to some people earlier this year and they rejected it because it would need too much work. Kristin said it was mess when she came in and there was a fucking hole in the roof. How do you explain that?”
“She confused it with a different place? Owners spruced it up?”
“How many times do I have to say, if the owners had done anything, it would be in the file I’m holding right now in my hands!”
Shane shrugged and Ryan narrowed his eyes, saying, “I’ve never met anyone that’s so fine with just stopping an argument halfway through - whether you’re winning or not, you don’t even care!”
Shane just shrugged again, but this time he added a stupid, bashful little smile on the end, so Ryan knew he was acquiescing.
“Let’s bite the bullet and go upstairs,” Shane said.
Ryan got the same creepy feeling he’d had last time looking at the mirror at the top of the stairs but he didn’t think he saw any unexpected shadows. Ryan took a photo of it anyway. Maybe something would show up. Shane liked the mirror, of course. He said it had a very authentic feel and said maybe it was worth something, but that it was too beautiful to sell. Shane was also wildly impressed by the ‘hellish’ bathtub. Even Ryan had to admit it was quite handsome.
“I mean,” Shane said as they toured the larger of the two spare bedrooms, giving the plaster crown molding a good look. “This is basically the absolutely perfect mix of move-in ready with some good restoration projects to sink your teeth into. I’m not trying to fuck with you when I say I really like this house.”
They went into the master bedroom last. Ryan left the door wide open as they went in and Shane went right over to the bed, inspecting it with delighted interest. “This must have given you a big spook,” he said, running his fingers proprietarily over the carvings. Ryan startled a little to see Shane’s fingers brush over the dragonfly just above where a person’s head would lie on the left side of the bed.
Without meaning too, Ryan went over to him, and put his hand over the dragonfly. “I dreamed this,” he said, faintly. It felt familiar - almost warm to the touch. Shane didn’t move away as Ryan approached, and suddenly they were closer than they had been since Shane had dropped that brief, almost-absent minded kiss on Ryan’s lips outside.
“Hey,” Shane said softly, looking down at him.
“Hey,” Ryan said, back, looking up. Shane brushed his fingers over Ryan’s cheek and Ryan knew he was putting his fingers exactly where he’d wanted to brush the sand off Ryan’s face on Saturday morning and he knew also, somehow, that Shane had been thinking of touching him there since he’d held himself back, even though it was five days ago now and everything else had shifted between them. Shane leaned in, just about to--
The door slammed shut.
“Fuck!” Ryan shouted, jumping about a foot in the air. As he reacted the overhead light cut out.
Shane’s eyes went wide. “It was just the wind,” he said, but Ryan could see that he was surprised. He went over to the door to look in the hall.
“Huh,” Shane said.
“What?” Ryan asked. His pulse was still slamming in his chest. He swallowed thickly.
“The door is stuck,” Shane said.
“No,” Ryan said. “No way, no it’s not. I’m gonna freak the fuck out.”
“It slammed shut pretty hard,” Shane said. “It’s a old house. Something probably just jammed.”
“Look in the mirror,” Ryan said suddenly. As he spoke, the light flickered back on.
“What?” Shane asked.
“The mirror on the back of the door, look into it.” He was suddenly desperate for Shane to do what he’d asked as quickly as possible.
“Okay, okay,” Shane said.
Ryan moved out of the way, into the corner of the room so that he wouldn’t be in the reflection. He felt like somehow it wouldn’t work if he was there, intruding on the scene.
Shane stood still, taking a deep breath. Ryan could see he really was trying. He stared straight ahead, into the mirror, waiting. Ryan could see Shane’s face, not perfectly still but close enough. It was strange to see someone else looking so intently at their reflection, an odd intimacy he’d never experienced before. He could see that Shane was thinking, could almost see the internal conversation happening, but he didn’t know what Shane was saying to himself.
A long few minutes passed. Some distant part of Ryan almost started to grow bored. He was surprised by how patient Shane was.
“No,” Shane said finally. “No, I don’t think anything is happening.”
“Okay,” Ryan said, relenting, accepting it even. “Thanks for trying.”
“You should try again,” Shane said.
Ryan didn’t want to. He’d almost convinced himself that the whole thing was in his head, and he was half-certain he preferred it that way. “Ohh-kay,” he said with a bit of a shaky sigh.
“I’m right here,” Shane said, and the uncharacteristic kindness in his voice made everything worse.
Ryan stood in front of the mirror, putting his feet just where he had before. The room was still. Shane had obligingly taken himself out of the reflection. Ryan stared intently at himself, the bed behind him, ancient, bare, striped mattress. The room was darker of course, the light maybe a little dim and strange compared to how it had been when they’d first put it on, but it wasn’t enough that he thought it would be worthwhile to ask Shane about.
“I feel kind of weird,” he said. His head swirled woozily. Maybe it was just the terror?
“Weird how?” Shane asked. He had his analytical voice on. Ryan glanced over at him to roll his eyes and as he looked towards Shane, his peripheral vision caught a strange shift in colour, something sleek and grey, a flash of warm light, the suggestion of leaded glass flowers. He whipped his head back. His vision swam greyly for a second. Nothing. The same bare bed, the same searching face.
“You saw it?” Shane said.
“I thought...” Ryan shook his head. This time when he turned to look at Shane, he didn’t see anything. “I don’t know.” Ryan said. “I’m pretty dizzy though. Can we just try to get out of here now?”
Ryan tried the door, like Shane had, but it was stuck fast. Then both of them pulled on the handle, jiggled it around, pushed, pulled, it didn’t budge. “It doesn’t even feel like it’s stuck,” Ryan said. “It’s just... not opening. It’s not rattling around in the frame when we pull it.”
Shane was looking increasingly anxious. Validating though it was, Ryan found it was just making him feel worse.
“EJ?” he asked, finally. “Will you let us out?”
This time, Ryan was sure he saw something in the mirror, a flicker of white eyelet and blue. “I saw her!” he said.
“Seriously,” Shane said. “Right now? Where?”
“There was something in the mirror,” Ryan insisted. He could hear how the panic in his voice was making him sound irrational, but it was panic. He couldn’t do anything to stop it.
“Okay,” Shane said. He put his hand on Ryan’s shoulder and Ryan knew he was being calmed like a skittish horse.
“Look,” Ryan said. “If you don’t believe me at all, I’m gonna have a melt down. I get that you didn’t see it, but maybe it’s not trying to communicate with you.”
“Okay,” Shane said. “But you have to see this from my perspective. I honestly haven’t seen or felt anything weird since we’ve been in here, except, I guess the door closing and the light flickering, but that really could have just been wind and faulty wiring. It’s funny watching you freak out, but now we’re stuck in this room and you look like you’re gonna pass out. I want some rational help.”
Ryan took a deep breath. “You’re right, you’re right.” He took his phone out of his pocket. “We shouldn’t really be in this house right now, so I’m kind of hesitant to call work, but if it’s that or getting murked by ghosts, I know where I stand.”
“Could Steven get us out?”
“Good idea,” Ryan said. “We didn’t even lock the front door behind us. He could just drive over here and let us out.”
Ryan woke his phone up and then stared at it, dumbstruck. “No service.”
Shane fumbled his phone out of his pocket, a little too quick to be casual about it. “Mines... out of battery apparently,” he said. “I’ll admit that can go as number three on the weird things that have happened list.”
Ryan tried to call, but it wasn’t a fluke. Nothing went through. They fought with the door for another twenty minutes. They even went so far as to run at it, hoping maybe they could just crack it off the hinges. All to no avail. Then they set to work on the window. It was facing onto the backyard, unfortunately. They got it pushed up about an inch before it, too, mysteriously became stuck. As least there was some fresh air leaking into the room now.
That tiny victory settled Ryan - proof that the outside world was still there. He’d been concerned about either one of them jumping down from the second story anyway. Maybe it would be fine, maybe they’d break both legs and die three months from now from complications. Fear of things going badly wrong also halted the plan to break the glass in the window. They tried shouting through the crack for help for a little while but that got boring after nothing stirred. The huge live oak in the yard sheltered the back of the house from any direct views.
“Well, I guess it’s nice to know it really is a very private garden,” Shane said, turning away from the window and sliding down the wall to sit on the floor, his long legs kicked forlornly out in front of him. “Selling point.”
“I hope you’re joking,” Ryan said.
“I would actually buy this house,” Shane declared. “I realise I’m developing some trauma memories right now that might make me change my mind in the near future but... I’m just saying. I mean, look at that bed. It’s the most gorgeous piece of furniture I’ve ever seen. It must be at least a hundred years old. The history it’s seen!”
“And the dead bodies,” Ryan said, darkly.
“Now who’s antagonising the ghosts,” Shane replied a little snidely. He looked frustrated and done in. Ryan felt bad suddenly, like maybe he’d been treating Shane like he wasn’t feeling anything at all because he wasn’t afraid they were going to be murdered by the supernatural, but of course it wasn’t a great situation any way you looked at it.
“I’m hungry,” Ryan complained, aiming for a commiserating tone. “I was nervous earlier. I haven’t eaten anything all day.” He slid down next to Shane, close but not touching.
“Because of the ghosts?” Shane asked.
“Yeah--” Ryan said, hesitating. “And seeing you again.”
“Yeah.” Shane released a long sigh. “We didn’t really leave things crystal clear, did we.”
Ryan made himself look up towards Shane. Shane was looking at his own feet and he didn’t turn to meet Ryan’s gaze though he must’ve sensed the movement.
“Why did you tell Jen you though I didn’t like you as a person?”
“I don’t know,” Shane said, uncomfortably. “I know I’m kind of a dick.”
“I’m kind of a dick.”
“Yeah, but in a funny way.”
“You don’t think you’re funny?”
“I do, but--” he stopped talking. It didn’t seem like he had an end to the sentence.
“Well, I really like you, Shane,” Ryan said.
Shane’s gaze flew up. He flushed a little. “I really like you, back,” he said. “Wow, that felt pretty middle school.”
“Shane!” Ryan said, laughing and shoving him. “Jesus!”
Shane grinned and shook his head at himself. “I’m sorry. I’m fucking terrible, I know. I can’t-- This is one-hundred percent what’s wrong with me, I basically physically incapable of true sincerity, but I swear I... I swear I don’t mean it. Or I do mean it. Fuck--”
“Don’t hurt yourself, there.” Ryan shook his head, smiling up at Shane. He scooted closer till their legs were touching and Shane leaned right in so they were tucked up against each other.
“I’m not done, anyway,” Ryan said. “So you might want to reserve your verdict.”
Shane raised a curious eyebrow.
“I’ve been dreaming about you,” Ryan said. “About us, I guess. For the last week. Since I first came to the house.
“What kind of dreams?” There was a hint of lasciviousness in his voice.
“Not like that,” Ryan said. “They’re... weird. It’s basically just one recurring dream. We’re in bed together - not like that! - just asleep. Specifically in this bed,” Ryan pointed at the red-wood sleigh bed across from them. “And I wake up and sort of cuddle you a bit and then usually I fall back asleep in the dream or I just wake up.”
“Huh,” Shane said.
“There’s more.” Ryan said. “When I was in the house last week I didn’t just see EJ in the mirror. I saw--”
“Don’t fucking tell me I was trapped in the mirror!”
“No, no,” Ryan said. “I don’t know how to explain, exactly. I can only tell you my theory, which was that it was a possible future.”
“I was in the reflection, but I was wearing different clothes that I’ve never owned and my hair was different and the room was clearly lived in by modern people. There were grey sheets on the bed and two tiffany lamps and my stuff was on one bedside table and... your stuff was on the other one.”
Shane’s tone of voice and expression were unreadable. “How did you know it was my stuff?”
“I remember you asking about them.”
“Yep,” Ryan offered. He’d moved beyond feeling nervous or conflicted into some new place where he felt like he was floating above himself, just calmly waiting for Shane to pass his judgement on whether Ryan was insane or not. Maybe this was what Shane felt like all the time.
“What t-shirt were you wearing?”
“It was navy blue,” Ryan said. “It said Chicago in red letters on the front.”
“Uh-huh,” Shane said. “Yeah, that’s my shirt.”
Ryan sucked in a sharp breath. “Seriously?”
“Ye-ah,” Shane said, slowly, visibly processing.
Ryan tried to be patient but after an excruciatingly long minute and a half of watching Shane think, he said, desperately. “Well?”
“I don’t know,” Shane said. He said it with some kind of finality. Like that was a real answer.
“You don’t know?!”
“It’s really weird. You don’t seem crazy to me. You seem pretty on the level. But... I do feel a lot about you. So maybe you feel a lot about me back. And we haven’t known each other long, so maybe this is your brain’s way of processing that. The shirt thing is weird, but it could be a coincidence - you did know I was from Illinois, already... I just don’t know.”
“That’s it,” Shane said. “I don’t know. I can’t know. There’s not enough information. Some puzzles can’t be solved.”
Ryan couldn’t imagine being satisfied with that, but he didn’t have to be. He knew what he believed. Maybe it was enough that Shane wasn’t against him, looking through the bars of a fence that separated them, but standing in an open gate.
“You should try sleeping here,” Shane said after a thoughtful minute of silence had passed.
“Uh... what?” Ryan said, sharply.
“All the weird dreams you’ve been having - maybe they’ll be jazzed up by you being in the house.”
“...jazzed up?” Ryan looked at Shane like he was crazy. “I’m not going to be able to fall asleep here.”
“We might as well try,” Shane said. “It’s past eleven now. If no one’s heard us from the backyard so far, they’re not likely to till the morning. I told Jen we were doing this, so when you don’t show up to work in the morning, Steven will probably gossip to Jen about it and they might think to come look here when neither one of them can get a hold of us.”
“I guess if I were asleep I wouldn’t be thinking about how fucking freaked out I am.... Or how hungry I am,” Ryan admitted. “I honestly think I’ll just lay awake staring in horror at the ceiling though.”
Shane pulled himself to his feet and went over to the ancient bed, inspecting it suspiciously. “Next time you take me on a hot over-nighter, Bergara, it better be someplace that provides fucking sheets.”
“Oh, yeah,” Ryan said. “Cause this is all my fault.” His tone didn’t have any bite. If anything, it came out with a long-suffering fondness he wasn’t sure he’d yet earned.
Shane sat down on the bed and bounced up and down a few times. “It’s not even dusty, really,” he said. “Definitely could be worse.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of...” Ryan said, but he pushed himself up to his feet too and went over to Shane. Without thinking too much about it, he went to stand in the open ‘v’ between Shane’s legs. Shane let himself be immediately distracted from the bed inspection and looked up at Ryan, settling his hands on Ryan’s waist.
“I hope I’m not tempting fate when I say this can’t possibly go worse than last time,” Ryan said and he leaned down to kiss Shane, sweet and long, letting Shane lick into his mouth, bite gently at his lower lip. Shane let go of a little sigh, that sounded almost like relief and slid his hands up Ryan’s body all the way till he was cupping Ryan’s face in his hands.
Ryan was smiling into the kiss despite himself. He leaned further into it, making Shane slide back, putting his elbows back on the bed to hold up his weight and then Ryan was on his lap, straddling him and the kiss was deep, making it hard to think. Ryan put one hand on the mattress to hold himself up and pushed the other into Shane’s hair, stroking. Shane made an unabashed noise of pleasure that went straight to Ryan’s dick. Ryan made himself lean back, gasping.
“We should maybe cool it,” he said, laughing a little to himself.
“Yeah,” Shane said, sounding as breathless as Ryan felt. “Yeah. I did not bring any of the appropriate sex-having things here with me, because I am a normal man.”
“Well that’s definitely debatable.”
Shane smiled knowingly. “That’s fair,” he said. “At least, I’m a man who didn’t think he was going to have sex in a haunted bed.”
“If we end up needing emergency services to get out of here, I’d rather they not think this was some kind of kink thing gone wrong.”
“You know they’re gonna think that no matter what we look like,” Shane said. There was a mischievous glint in his eye.
“Well then,” Ryan said, deadpan. “You could at least give me a blow-job.”
For the record, Ryan had not meant that seriously. Shane did it anyway. There was something absolutely depraved about it. Maybe it was the bare mattress or the fact that he watched the whole thing in the mirror on the back of the door - his own flushed face, hooded eyes and heaving chest. Shane glanced up and saw where he was looking and then kept looking at him, meeting his eyes in the mirror as he swallowed around Ryan’s cock. Ryan did not last.
Afterwards, Ryan really meant to reciprocate but Shane slid back up onto the bed where Ryan was sprawled and whispered that if Ryan was gonna sleep he’d probably have the best chance at doing it now and curled up around him. Ryan wasn’t usually one to sleep cuddle, but the circumstances called for it. He dozed off wondering vaguely if it was wrong to have sex in front of a ghost and decided that for once, he didn’t care if there were any ghosts thinking anything about him at all.
Ryan woke up slowly. Sun was streaming through a thin crack in the curtains. There was a slight chill in the air. Ryan pulled the duvet up around his chin, turning his face into the pillow as he yawned. He fumbled blindly at the bedside table for his glasses, trying to be at least a bit quiet about it, since he could feel Shane’s warm body all along his back, breathing deep and even and he didn’t want to wake him. Even as he was having the thought about not waking Shane, he was simultaneously realising that everything was all wrong. He sat bolt upright.
Smooth, slate grey sheets pooled around his waist. Ryan’s glasses were on the bedside table, next to the lamp, his pile of books, his alarm clock, his headphones, cable trailing onto the floor. With his glasses on, details sprang into sharp focus. The curtains were pale blue, with a pattern of little yellow triangles. There was a big pine wardrobe in the corner by the window, with one door slightly ajar. A white button down shirt was hanging over the door. The details seemed too much, but Ryan wasn’t prone to lucid dreaming, so perhaps this was what dreams were like when you were still in them.
Shane was still sleeping heavily, turned onto his stomach, face pillow creased, mouth a little open. A feeling crept up from under Ryan’s breast bone, a sharp almost-pain that rang in his chest like a struck bell. He took a long minute to identify it as love. Not falling in love, like maybe he was in the waking world, but being in love, staying in love. It was too much - the conscious Ryan hadn’t earned that feeling yet. How strange to dream a feeling he didn’t yet know.
“Thank you,” a voice behind him spoke. Ryan flung himself around. EJ was sitting in a wingback armchair in the corner of the room. He recognised the chair as one he’d been eyeing at Ikea but didn’t have space for in his apartment. She looked incongruous against the cheery yellow upholstery - either the chair was over-saturated or she was under-saturated. She was wearing the white eyelet nightgown with the pale blue ribbons. Her hair was in braids. He could both see her face and not see it at the same time, like a mirage was obscuring his vision if he dared to settle his gaze on her too long.
“Shane,” he said, desperately, shoving at the prone body beside him. Even if he was only the dream version of himself, it seemed wrong that he should sleep through this. Shane reacted but only to turn over. He settled quickly and began to snore. Ryan looked between the girl and Shane in desperation.
“He won’t wake,” she said. Her voice was hollow and strange, as though it was rising up from the bottom of a well. “He’s too far away for me to pull him here.”
“What does that mean?”
“He won’t look at me and I can’t make him or his ilk turn their heads.”
“Uh-huh,” Ryan said. “Why did you say ‘thank you’?”
“For coming near,” she intoned.
“What do you want from us? Why did you lock us in the house?”
“I loved this house,” she whispered. “I loved it with my whole heart. I was born here, I wish I had died here. I wish I had lived here in joy my whole life as my mother’s mother did and as my mother tried to for so few years till my father--” She flickered as candle would, caught in a breeze. Her voice fell away to a faint itch at the back of his head like a sound he knew he must be imagining because a silence was too complete. “I cannot stand to see it empty.”
“If you want someone to live here, have you thought about not making it so obvious that you’re haunting this place? It’s a little hostile.”
“I have never been hostile to you!” She solidified again, stronger even than before. Her face was almost clear to him - wide brown eyes, a sharp nose, colour high on her cheeks. “I cannot watch hate seethe in my house. I have let others stay before you. I will let others stay after. But I must choose who is right!”
“And... you want Shane to stay?”
She let out a sound of frustration, like he was an idiot. “I want you both to live here. I want to be glimpsed by you, so I know that I am real. I want to be doubted by him, so that I can rest. I want the children’s laughter in the garden ten years from now. I want the sound of glasses clinking together and the pages of books being turned and for the roof never to leak and cave in. I want to lay still in my attic and feel love seeping up through the insulation. I have shown you! Rarely have I ever found such contentment to bring back. Yet you feared it! How could you fear what futures I sent to you? ”
Ryan opened his mouth, but nothing came out. That was the question. That was the question. She stared at him, wavering and he said nothing, looking at his hands, subtly callused in unfamiliar ways and at Shane’s sleeping form, at the thick wool rug on the floor, the casually shared wardrobe. God, he wanted.
“What if it’s not real?” he whispered.
A tenderness came over her, and he saw, suddenly, that EJ was not alone, that the palest shade of her mother stood behind her, the barest impression on the surface of reality, just the idea of a haunting layered over a haunting, layered over the dream of a house. “Many have ruined themselves asking that,” she said softly. “Please,” she whispered. “Forget this and take what I am offering to you.”
Ryan woke up. This time, consciousness came to him like a brick through a window. He sat up painfully. His neck ached from sleeping without a pillow. His clothes felt sweaty and awful, twisted up around his stomach and pinching him. Shane’s eyes blinked open at the movement of the bed and relief swept over Ryan in a cool wash.
“Something happened?” Shane said. It was barely a question. He knew.
“I dreamed her,” Ryan said. “We talked.”
“What did she say?”
“She said you should buy this house.”
A funny look came over Shane’s face. Ryan would have been hard pressed to describe the emotion Shane seemed to be experiencing.
“Ryan,” Shane said. His voice was calm and low, the sleepy scratchiness falling away as he spoke. “Please, please, please tell me that this has not been one long, extremely involved plot to sell me a house. If this is a bizarre marketing gimmick, I will actually--”
Ryan interrupted him with a pained cry as his chest constricted abruptly with a panicked hysteria and then he was laughing so hard he nearly fell off the bed. He laughed so hard he stopped making sound. Shane stared at him for a minute and then put his face in his hands and started giggling. It took them both a long time to calm down.
Ryan sat up against the headboard and Shane scooted back so they were shoulder to shoulder. “Do you want to tell me any more?” he said.
Ryan shrugged. “It was about you and me, mostly,” he said. “But it was maybe... a lot, for me to try to say out loud to you right now. I’m not saying I think you’re gonna run out the door if you find out what twisted things I dreamed, but--”
Shane gestured to the firmly closed bedroom door. “Well, I think you’ve got that base covered, regardless.”
Ryan smiled sheepishly. “Maybe this was all a hoax.”
“My skeptic brain says ‘yes’,” Shane said. “My heart says ‘no’.”
Ryan looked up at Shane fondly. It was still mostly dark - his eyes were all shine and no colour in the dim room. Shane looked... shy somehow, under Ryan’s intent gaze. A feeling took gentle hold, just under his sternum. It was an echo of that long-felt and lived-in love that had swallowed him up in the dream.
“This jist,” Ryan said. “Wild as this sounds, is that the ghost wants us to move into this house together, because she thinks we make a good couple. It was, like, way more emotional than that, and I feel like I’ve seen some deep truths of the universe now, but, yeah. That was pretty much the deal.”
“How come I don’t get to see any deep truths of the universe?” Shane asked, a little petulant.
“She said you were too far. That you weren’t looking at her.”
“Of course,” Shane said, sighing. “That... sounds about right.”
“So, what do you think?”
Shane looked away, towards the window where the headlights of a distant car flashed past.
“I wish I believed you. It would be really... cool, for lack of a better word, if our love was so deep and powerful that it meant something important to a spirit who’s been dead for a hundred years and it could make a dilapidated house whole just by existing.”
“But only about eight percent of me buys that. And let me tell you, eight percent is pretty fucking high for ol’ Shane Madej. I can’t deny some freaky stuff has gone down.”
Ryan blew out a held breath. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll take eight percent. What about the other...you know, the other ninety-two percent? Does the rest of you think I’m nuts and that it’s really weird I dreamed up this whole future with you, because I get it and I can just... I mean, now that we’ve talked it out, I’ll shut up about it and we can pretend it didn’t happen if you give me a chance to--”
“Shhh,” Shane hushing him, finally looking back at him. His eyes were all scrunched up with his smile. He looked so affectionate that Ryan almost had to close his eyes against it. “The other ninety-two percent of me thinks maybe we should give it at least a few months before we move in together. Just in case. The other ninety-two percent of me thinks this house is a great fucking deal and thank god people are idiots cause I’m gonna get this place for way less than it’s worth.”
Across the room, there was a click and the door creaked slowly open.
“Mmm...” Shane said. “Let’s make that eleven percent to your side.”
“Slowly but surely,” Ryan said.
Shane slipped his fingers between Ryan’s and hand-in-hand, they went out into the hallway, where a warm yellow lamp was lighting the staircase. They went down the stairs and got it Ryan’s car and Ryan put his forehead against the steering wheel, breathing too fast while Shane rubbed his back, soothingly and Ryan said, “I’ve never felt like this before.”
Shane said, “Me neither,” and they were both talking about too many things at once.
Ryan imagined telling this all to Steven years from now, when it would feel like a funny getting together story and the sharp edges of all the emotions would finally be sanded down with having so often been taken out and turned over and remembered. He imagined Steven saying, “Overthinkers,” and shaking his head with indulgent dismay.
“That’s basically our MO,” Ryan would say. “I guess we deserve each other.” And it would be true.
“Ah, fuck!” Shane said.
Ryan froze, spinning to look at Shane with concern. “What’s wrong?”
Shane had frozen too, hands out in front of him like he was going to catch something falling.
“My contact just fell out,” he said.
“Oh,” Ryan said, relieved. “I thought you’d cut yourself.
“I am capable of slicing bread, thanks very much.”
“All the cooking on your beloved, hundred-million year old oven came out too well, and now I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Ryan said.
Jen appeared in the doorway leading in from the living room. “We heard scary noises. Are the canapes ok? The assembled masses are concerned for the safety of their stuffed mushrooms.”
Shane was on all fours observing the three feet of space underneath him with great care.
“He dropped a contact,” Ryan said to Jen, and then to Shane, said. “That would probably be a lot easier if you could actually see.”
“Another thrilling revelation from Detective Bergara,” Shane jibed.
Ryan scoffed down at him. “‘Ryan, darling, could you please get my glasses from upstairs for me.’ the blinded man said kindly to his beloved boyfriend.”
Jen cackled as Shane scowled at the tiled floor, squinting his left eye closed and clearly experiencing a severe lack of depth perception.
Ryan watched this for a bemused moment, and then took pity on Shane and went out into the hall. The comfortable chatter of their hugely belated housewarming party simmered away as Ryan took the stairs up to the bedroom two at a time. Ryan glanced in mild irritation at the piles of books overflowing from both their bedside tables as he went into the bedroom. They’d managed to keep things so neat the first few months of living together, but since a little before they’d hit the one year mark, things had begun to veer off course and now life was a lightly martialled chaos. In truth, Ryan couldn’t bring himself to mind, but it had been nice, when everything was new and carefully arranged and dust hadn’t yet settled into permanent homes under unbothered sofas and wardrobes.
Ryan spotted Shane’s glasses balancing precariously on the base of the lamp and a sense of deja vu so strong he was almost dizzy from it swept over him. He pushed the bedroom door slowly closed behind him. The mirror was still there. It had seemed wrong to take it down, like closing a window without asking. If he’d tried to explain to anyone else, it might have seemed like allowing an invasion but it never felt that way to Ryan and Shane didn’t care, maybe even liked that it gave him an opening to provoke Ryan.
He made himself face the mirror straight on and stand perfectly still. There it was. He hadn’t even thought twice when he’d pulled Shane’s shirt on from the top of the laundry pile this morning. His hair was subtly different after he’d changed barbers. His face was subtly different with whatever it was that made a face change in a year. The sun coming through the window, Ryan’s alarm clock titled just so, the grey bed set Ryan’s mother had gotten them as a housewarming present, the lamps Ryan had made Shane order without asking him about them, just to see, just to test, and of course Shane’s glasses, right where he’d left them carelessly last night.
A sudden, awful fear seized him, that he might look away and see the bed, with the old striped mattress, the bare window, the sun too low in the sky. Before he could let himself spiral down into that horrible thought, he tore his gaze away from the mirror. The relief that washed over him felt as physical as a wave of water, making the hairs rise up on the back of his neck. He grabbed the glasses and practically ran back downstairs. There was a little aftershock of relief as he saw Shane, still fumbling around on the ground. Jen was gone - she must’ve gone back into the living room.
“Here you are,” Ryan said, trying to sound normal and failing awfully.
Despite his present state, Shane saw right through him. “What happened?” he said, drawing himself to his feet. He pinched the other contact out and slipped his glasses on, breathing a little sigh of relief. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“Next best thing,” Ryan said, barely sure how to explain. “I saw... Do you remember...? Ugh. Look at the shirt I’m wearing. Anything familiar about it?”
“Well, it’s mine,” Shane said, with a half-interested smile and then realisation rolled over his face like a storm. “Holy shit!” he said. “Did you just have the future moment you saw last year?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “I’m freaking out.”
“Hey,” Shane said, coming straight to him and folding him into his arms, tucking Ryan’s face into his neck and speaking soft, just into the space between them. “Don’t freak out. It’s okay. We’re really here.”
“Yeah,” Ryan whispered.
They stood pressed close like that for a long minute and Ryan felt the shock ease up in his chest. Shane seemed to sense that he’d calmed down and leaned away from him to look at Ryan’s face. “So, how are we doing?” he asked. “I mean, I know you. You must have extrapolated a whole complex life out of those little details. How do we look now, in comparison. Living up to your dreams?”
Ryan laughed. “You’re never afraid to ask the big questions are you,” Ryan replied.
“That’s me. Shane ‘Big Questions’ Madej.”
“Honestly?” Ryan said. He knew what he wanted to say, but-- “Don’t get a big head from this. Or a bigger head, anyway.”
“Little old me?” Shane demurred.
“You heathen,” Ryan said and then took a deep breath and said, “I didn’t dare to imagine it this good.”
“Oh,” Shane said. His cheeks went pink. He picked up a tray of cheese and crackers to distract himself and Ryan put his hands over Shane’s and leaned up to kiss him. As he moved, a flash of colour caught his eye, a pale blue reflection just at the edge of his vision, shining off the glimpsed copper kettle.
“Shall we go out,” Ryan whispered.
“Stay for a minute,” Shane said.