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Half in the Shadows, Half Burned in Flames

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The soft tap at the door rouses Marty from his daydreaming. Naomi smiles as she pops her head round, like she’s convinced the news she's about to give will cheer the counselor up, but the words sink into his gut like a bad ache.

“It's Aaron Stampler.”

The button on his phone flashes red, like a siren. He pictures Aaron on the other end, a grubby black payphone pressed against his ear in the corridor of the Elgin Institute.

Only it isn't Aaron.

Marty swallows. “Tell him I'm busy. I'll call him back later.”

Naomi frowns, but she doesn't ask.

 


 

The second time “Aaron” rings, Marty almost predicts it before Naomi calls through to him. He jumps up from his chair and grabs his coat.

Walking with a sense of false purpose, he shakes his head at her. “I'm on my way to an appointment, I'll call him back.”

This time she questions it. “There's nothing in your diary, Marty.”

He shrugs, and behind her gaze is a bigger question that she doesn't ask. “He said you didn't call him back last time.”

“I'll call him back this time, I promise.” And he leaves before she can protest any further.

 


 

Marty knows he can't ignore him again; there's already a mood shift in the air.

So, when the call comes in, Marty's heart races as he answers it. He isn't nervous, but he's curious as to who's going to be on the other end of the line. Which mask will “Aaron” be wearing today? Do the Elgin’s doctors ever listen to his calls?

“M...Mister Vail?”

Marty feels his breath catch in his throat. He didn't realize hearing that voice would affect him as much as it does. He hangs up, throwing the receiver down like it's a ticking time bomb.

 


 

This time, Marty thinks he's ready for it. The phone rings loudly as it's transferred, and Marty picks up without answering.

“Good morning, Counselor.”

He says nothing, just listens to the boy he doesn't know, yet haunts him nightly.

“You been ignorin' my calls, but it's okay. Breaking up is hard, I know.”

Marty licks his lips.

“But the truth is I miss you, Marty. Don't you miss me?”

He doesn't quite whisper it, the words come out straight and clear, but there's a shake in his voice when Marty finally speaks. “I don't want you to call me again.”

 


 

He calls again, but this time it's late and there's no one to screen it, so Marty answers.

“Working late, Counselor?”

Marty's back stiffens, and he sits up. His head spins, but that could be the third whiskey he's nursing.

“I thought I told you not to call here again.”

“Sure you did. You told me not to call again. You wanna speak to him though, don't you Marty?”

Marty tries to bring some moisture into his mouth, because it's true. But “Aaron” isn't true, and that's the fucking problem, isn’t it?

Marty sighs. “I'm not playing this game.”

 


 

The ringing sounds Marty awake like an alarm. Hands numb from sleep, he reaches for the phone.

“Martin Vail.”

“You sound groggy Marty. I hope you're alone in that bed of yours.”

Marty snaps up, fully awake. He looks over at the clock as it reads 5:00AM. Elgin must be slack with their rules if they let their patients make calls at such hours. But that's the least of his worries now.

“How did you get this number?”

“Come on, Marty, don't be like that. You don't gotta go to Harvard to know how to track a phone number.”

 


 

“I want to speak to Aaron,” Marty says.

There's a pause on the other end of the line and Marty almost finds a warped sense of comfort in just hearing the boy breathe.

“You know Marty, for a lawyer, you sure can be pretty darn stupid sometimes.”

There's another, longer pause, and Marty can visualize it as clear as day, like he was back in that jail cell reliving it all over again: Roy transforming back into Aaron, the darkness ebbing away like a beast retreating into hibernation. None of it is real, but at this point, it doesn’t matter.

 


 

Janet was almost accurate in her estimation. Aaron Stampler is released from Elgin State Hospital forty-five days after the bench trial declared him guilty by reason of insanity. Marty thinks about him back out in the wild, on the streets of Chicago, free to manipulate and work his way back into the heart of some other poor sucker just like him.

The phone calls stop. Marty never received house calls much before anyway, but now they feel even more like a rare commodity.

For weeks after Aaron's release, Marty sits by the phone and waits, but the calls never come.

 


 

“Where the hell have you been?”

“My, my, Marty. Have you been worried about me?”

“You're still on probation. One wrong move and they'll throw you straight back into that mental home and strap you to your bed.”

“Oh, you'd like that wouldn't you, Marty? You’d like to see me restrained, all helpless, like poor little Aaron. Do you think that you can cast out my demons just like Archbishop Rushman did his?”

“I'm nothing like Rushman.”

“No. He believed there was some good in everybody. Even himself. But you don't believe that anymore do you, Counselor?”

“No. I don't.”

 


 

Love hurts, Marty.

And boy, does it. If this is what love feels like, it sure as hell sucks. Though, maybe he deserves it. Maybe it’s punishment for all the bad deeds he's committed over the years, all the evil he's let roam free.

Who knew his judgment would come in the form of a pale-skinned, blue-eyed boy?

“You miss Aaron, don't you? You don't talk to me like you talked to him, Marty.”

Marty sighs, pressing the receiver against his ear.

“Are you in bed?” the boy asks, voice soft.

And what the hell, they've come this far.

“Yes.”

 


 

The call comes through late, but Marty picks it up straight away. The wind howls against his window; the pitter patter of raindrops hit the glass.

“It's mighty cold out here, Marty. Why don't you let me in?”

When he hangs up, Marty goes to the window and looks down onto the street below.

This time, the ring that echoes through his quiet apartment is the one at his door and not the one of his phone’s.

Has the kid come here to fuck him or to kill him? Perhaps it’s both. Regardless, Marty is almost curious to find out.