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All Our Instincts

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There were many shadows in Gene’s house.

On a flat spit of sand, in a brightly painted house full of windows, surrounded by sunlight and ocean on all sides, one might have thought the Otto family was safer than most. But every house has its shadows, and Robert suspected he was not the first monster to find his way in, between the looming china cabinets and dark high-backed chairs.

By the time Robert slipped through from the shadow dimension and first laid eyes on him, Gene was eight years old. His two siblings had been dead for five years.

Gene was a fair-haired boy who remained pale even in this land of beaches and palm trees, possibly because his parents rarely let him outside, and never without one of them. He had his life planned out ahead of him, and they clung to him with a frightened intensity that was evident long before Robert learned the reason for it.

The reason emerged when they visited the graves. Gene had spent his life in the shadow of the death of two children he had never met. His sister had drowned on an outing to the beach in a half a foot of water. His brother had died suddenly in his crib not a year later.

There was never any way to know for sure, but Robert had seen enough of how it worked, in his years of roaming the shadow dimension, to suspect that their monsters had caught up with them.

It only made sense that Gene's parents were so protective of him.

Unfortunately for them, all that fear wafting around Gene only made him more appealing. Robert had never known exactly what he was looking for in his hunt for his human, but as soon as he saw Gene, he knew. Robert was so captivated by the sensation, the feeling of looking at yet another human and feeling something, anything, other than indifference, that he didn't remember to scuttle back to the shadows when Gene looked up to see him. That was how Gene came to put down the pencil he'd been drawing with, and pick him up.

If anyone wondered where Robert had come from, it was simply assumed that someone else in the house, or one of the relatives who were always sending gifts from abroad, had bought him for Gene. With his smart sailor suit and his lock of fair hair, he seemed like the perfect gift. Gene loved the sea, though his parents had seen to it that he never went near it. But that first night, after Gene picked Robert up, the two of them sailed together on Gene’s bed as captain and first mate. They journeyed to faraway lands, fighting off pirates and braving storms. If Robert enjoyed it as much as Gene did, he assumed it meant nothing more than that he had found his human.

Robert had every intention of killing him that night.

But he had liked the day they had had together. And more than anything, he was curious about this boy. Robert had always wondered what kind of human could possibly have him as their deepest fear. What kind of human, when faced with every terror that afflicts humanity and haunts their nightmares, conjured a simple doll in sailor's clothing? And why, if Gene had, had he embraced Robert as a friend when he saw him?

As Gene clung to him that night, Robert realized he couldn’t kill him yet. He had questions. And when Gene yawned and asked him if he liked the name Robert, Robert answered, honestly enough, that he did.

Gene was young enough, or perhaps just strange enough, that he did not seem to think there was anything alarming in his doll talking to him. They would pass hours in conversation with each other in Gene’s room, or exploring the house, creeping through the attic or entering the sealed-off nursery. Every night, Robert contemplated killing him, and every night, the thought came to seem a little more difficult. He liked Gene, this strange boy who would rather talk to him than other humans his own age. He like being part of a private world shared only by them.

As Gene got older he came to realize there was something strange about their relationship.

“What are you really?” he asked one day, lounging in the backyard, the two of them nestled together between the roots of a kapok tree, shiftless in the midday sun.

Robert didn’t have a good answer to that. Gene had once read aloud a book about voodoo, so Robert told him a story about a voodoo queen in Haiti who had cursed him to life. It was the first time he had ever lied to Gene.

Gene looked sidelong at Robert, his eyes searching, like he was trying to size up if he believed him. “I guess I don't really care what you are. I just want to know that you’re real. I don't want to be crazy.”

Robert touched his hand, which seemed to steady Gene. “You have nothing to worry about then. I'm as real as you are.”

Once Gene got older, that didn’t comfort him anymore. To his parents' despair, he could still be overheard speaking to his doll at all hours of the night. But schooling and art took up more of his time, and Gene was given a little more freedom. The more Gene got a taste of the world beyond his door, the more Robert could sense him slipping away.

When Gene was sixteen and still talked to Robert, his parents sent him away to a doctor for a week. When he got back, Gene spent three days ignoring Robert. He would stomp past him with his eyes set straight ahead, avoiding Robert’s gaze. In those days, Robert would try to accommodate him, and remain silent, not moving at all for days on end.

In the end though, Gene ended up sitting in front of him, his arms draped over the back of his chair, straddling the seat and turned to face Robert; his gray eyes studying Robert’s face. Whenever Gene focused so intently on him and only him, it was all Robert could do to stay still.

“Are you still there?” Gene asked, so softly it could barely be heard above the breeze outside. The fear and longing in Gene's eyes whetted something primal and hungry in him. Gene twitched like he was gathering up his courage, then stretched out his hand to his friend's face. The touch felt light as a leaf falling against Robert's face, but there was something in it that was different this time; it went through Robert like lightning. 

“I’m still here."

Gene jerked his hand back, and looked to the door like he was afraid he was being watched. Then he buried his face in his hands. Then he managed a small smile at Robert. A handsome, crooked smile that belonged to a man now. “I knew you were still there. You wouldn't leave me.”

But Gene would leave him soon, for art school, smiling sadly and asking if he’d be all right alone.

Robert was at first, but after he kept terrifying the housekeepers by moving around Gene's room, Gene's mother sent him up to the attic.

Robert never did slip back into the shadow dimensions in those times, even though he easily could have. He wasn’t sure why. Something kept him there. Defiance, maybe, and the thought that he wanted to be there when Gene returned.

Gene always came back.

He would brings friends back with him a few times. Other boys at first, and then girls.

Robert always hated them, especially the way Gene would look at some of them sometimes, like he looked at Robert when they were alone. Robert couldn’t abide them, not even when Gene pleaded with him too. Rumors spread through town of a creature that roamed through the house at night, banging doors and pushing furniture over, of voices echoing up the drain pipes at night. Friendships fell away, and extended family stopped visiting.

Gene went back to his final year of art school without saying goodbye to Robert, and this time, he stayed through the summer and fall too. When he finally returned,  it was just before Christmas.

He pulled up in a cab with a woman by his side. A fellow art student, a sculptor. They would be married in the spring, and after that, they could move away. Her father had a position opening up for him in his publishing company. Gene could finally paint for a living, support himself by his art.

The engagement did not last.

She finally fled the house in terror, her hair loose and streaming, half-moon shapes cut into her palms. The housekeepers reported that the room she had stayed in was in a state of violent disarray when she fled, with every piece of furniture overturned and broken. Gene ran after her into the street, trying to reassure her, but she turned on him.

"You knew what that thing was and still you left it free in our house. To come after me. To hurt others."

When Gene returned to the house, he was silent. He didn't respond to anything Robert said to him as he picked him up and took Robert up in the attic. Robert couldn’t say that he blamed him, but when he tried to feel sorry he'd done it, he found he couldn't.

Robert had come to understand at some point over the years what Gene was most afraid of, and it was indeed of Robert. He understood why the image of a pliable little boy, immobile and locked in a permanent state of childhood, was the form Gene's deepest fear had taken. A doll on a shelf in a sealed-off room. Never to be taken away from the house, to have family and a life of his own.

Robert had understood the significance of his own form for years. For the first time, as Gene looked at Robert before he closed the door, he suspected that Gene was coming to understand it himself.

When Gene returned, it was much later. He looked around the attic, and found Robert sitting forlornly on the floor beside a broken clock, limp and lifeless, like he intended to be just a real doll from now on.

“You don’t have to pretend anymore. I know you’re real, and I know what you are. I won't ask you to be anything else.” He spoke with a soft voice, thinned out and beaten. "She's right. I could have gotten rid of you, I could have kept you away, but I didn't want to. I still don't want to."

He lifted Robert up and took him to the studio, to that bright studio at the top of the house with windows on three walls overlooking the ocean, where Gene always painted.

Where they could look out on the sea together.

That night, he wrapped his arms around Robert and fell asleep with him on the sofa. Robert felt his breath against his face, ragged with pain and need, and trembled. He tried to not want it, to not savor the feelings wafting off Gene, but it was impossibly appetizing.

Gene stopped dreaming of leaving the home of his birth after that. Stopped bringing home women, or men, for that matter. He withdrew, deeper and deeper into his paintings and his time with Robert. The years that passed were happy ones, of a sort.

Robert had him. All of him, and all to himself. 

What little of Gene he didn't pour into Robert, he poured into his paintings.

His last painting was one of the open sea, and a boat tossed on the waves.

“You recognize it, I assume,” Gene said. 

“Yes.”

It was the ship they had sailed in all those years ago, together on Gene’s bed, when Gene was just a child. Gene had described it so vividly in those days, drawn it so many times, a boy in love with the sea and all things maritime, that it was impossible to forget, even now.

“I couldn’t forget. It’s incredible.”

Gene shifted and ran his hand through his hair, still shy of praise all these years later.

“It’s a work of art,” said Robert.

“Just a silly nautical scene. Sentimental, predictable, and full of empty nostalgia,” Gene said, a harsh smile twisting his face. “I’ve read what the critics have to say about my work. This is no different.”

But if they ever did say that, they would have been fools. Anyone could see the pain and longing on the canvas, and for all the warm colors in the sails and the serene blue of the water, there was something sinister in the undertones of the scene. Perhaps a yellow cast to the sky, or a hint of black clouds on the horizon. An unease permeated it.

All the adventure he’d never had. The life he’d never lived.

“Well anyway, there it is.” Gene finished cleaning his brushes, with the same care he always used.

“I think I’m done,” he said softly, with a certainty that was unsettling. 

“You’ve said that before. You can’t stay away from art.”

“No.” He sank to the sofa. “This is it for me. I have nothing left to say.”

Robert didn’t respond. He could smell the despair on Gene, that despair that he could hold in check while he worked on a painting. This time it smelled sickly sweet and intense, like nothing Robert had ever sensed on Gene before, though he’d felt it growing all these years. This too was appetizing.

He saw, with a detached clarity, that Gene could not live like this much longer, and he had a sudden vision, something he could never have thought himself capable of imagining before. Robert could let him go. He could picture Gene as he stepped out into the sunlight. Stepping onto an airplane or onto a boat, touching the riggings he had only seen from a distance before. Gene would revive, live out his days, find new friends and lovers.

It unsettled him, how vividly he could see it and how certain he was, for a moment, that it was the right thing to do. But the impulse passed. Robert didn’t have it in him to be selfless. It went against all his instincts.

“I know what you are,” Gene said softly, looking at him. “I mean, I don't know. But I know you're something more than a voodooienne's curse, something more than a ghost or a delusion. I know if I ask you to end this for me, you will. You're all I have left, my only friend. More than a friend, and you owe me that much." A twist of anger in his voice at the end there, a hint of the ocean of rage he'd buried or numbed all these years.

It was frightening.

"Not now," Robert asked, knowing he had no right to ask anything. He just hadn't been prepared to lose him today. Not like this. 

The anger faded from Gene's face as he said it. He touched the lock of hair beneath Robert's sailor hat fondly. "Please. Will you do it now? While I’m ready for it? Before it gets worse?”

He didn’t have it in him to let Gene go free, but he did have it in him to give Gene this. And there was also this: the hunger he’d held in check for decades was impossible to deny. 

“Is this what you’ve wanted all along?” Gene asked, seeming to notice the instinct in his eyes.

Robert considered the question, trying hard to answer completely and honestly. He felt he at least owed Gene that much.

“I’ve only wanted you all along,” Robert said simply.

Gene nodded. He looked frightened, but he didn’t flinch away as Robert stepped towards Gene. When his small hands closed around Gene’s neck, Gene did tremble, but he leaned forward, into the touch.

Gene took a last deep, shuddering breath. He seemed to sense the deceptive, impossible strength in what looked like doll’s hands, and some animal instinct towards survival made him try to flinch back, but he held himself in check.

Robert waited a moment while Gene brushed a thumb against his face.

They kept their eyes on each other, even as Robert’s hands tightened around his neck, even as Gene started to struggle and writhe, even after he was gone.

 

_

 

Years later. A lifetime later.

An immortal lifetime later.

Endless fog, impenetrable and curling. Solid ground, perhaps, and the sound of water lapping nearby. Then, the bow of a boat clipping through the fog, and a black-robed figure coming into focus.

“Who dares cross the eternal River Styx?”

“Hello, Charon.”

The figure in black paused.

“Oh, hey. Robert, right?” The figure pushed his hood down, revealing a boy, or something that looked like it, on a tall chair. “This is why I don't want Fugue calling me. If you've seen me before, it sucks the mystique out of the experience when you actually die.”

“I could pretend I've never seen you before, if you like.”

“Nah, it’s fine. Truth be told, it’s been a long night, ferrying most of humanity to the afterlife in a single night." He paused. "So, sorry about the wait.”

“That’s all right. It gave me time to think.”

Charon looked down at Robert, like he was putting something together. “Oh, jeez, did Fugue get you killed sending you on that quest?”

“It needed to be done. It was the only way Mona could survive. She'll be able to rescue the heir now.”

Charon looked at him with what he thought looked suspiciously like pity. Then he nodded. “I saw her earlier this evening. No, don’t worry, she’s alive. I just gave her a pep-talk while she hung between life and death for a minute. You... you did save her.”

Charon looked away, a look that suggested that wasn’t all to the story. Not by a lot. Robert made a mental note to ask about that, but later. Not just yet.

“I didn’t even know that monsters went to the afterlife,” he said, looking down at the coin in his hand. “I never felt like I had a soul.”

“Well, surprise. Now get onboard.”

On the boat, they sank into a silence that was almost companionable. Robert didn't intend to say more, but it came out anyway. “I suppose you can’t tell me anything about what’s on the other side of the river?”

“Nah, I’m just the ferryman. Beyond the river is beyond my territory. You’ll find out soon enough.”

“I suppose I will.” He paused. “But you must know if you’re ferrying us to the same place our humans will be?”

He looked at Robert with that pitying look again, and softened. “Robert, I'm sorry, but no. It’d be way too awkward, sending the humans and the monsters that killed them to the exact same afterlife.”

Robert nodded, looking out on the water. “You know, I’ve never been on a boat before. Neither had he. I’m glad he got to do this at least once.”

Charon looked at him, seemed to consider that comment, and what it meant. “Look, you’re not the first monster to ask. You think you’re the first human and monster to have a complicated relationship?"

Robert considered that, looking out at the fog, where there was nothing at all to see. “It's for the best. I’ve already ruined one life for him. He doesn’t need me ruining this one for him either.”

Charon took his glasses off and cleaned them. “Well, that’s a level of maturity a lot of monsters never get to. Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”

Robert wasn’t so sure he’d earned that. Still, he felt like the night with Mona had changed things. And he'd thought about what she'd said, about whether there was any chance of things being better between humans and monsters, now that humans and monsters both knew about each other. His last night alive had shaken some of the things he'd held most certain. Things he thought he'd always known about how the world operated. About his own nature.

Perhaps following his train of thought, Charon looked at him, and sighed. "Look, I'm not supposed to tell you this, but when I say you don't go to the same afterlife, I mean like how humans and monsters don’t go to the same life. They're in separate worlds, running on parallel tracks. And there’s thin places between them you can slip through, sometimes.

“There’s stories that a monster and their human can only find each other again in the afterlife if they both want to. Take that for what it's worth. It doesn't happen often, but it can. And it does.”

Robert looked out at the water, and considered that as he watched strands of fog curling and uncurling around them. He listened to the sound of oars dipping steadily into the water, and as invisible oarsmen rowed them onward to the far shore, he hoped.