One of the first nights they spent together, just as Erik was beginning to fall asleep, Charles whispered, “There’s something I want to say to you. Now, at the start, so this is always clear between us.”
Erik opened his eyes. Charles was still naked from their lovemaking, his hair as rumpled as the sheets they lay in, and yet something of the priest remained in him. (Eventually Erik learned that it would always remain, that it was as much a part of Charles as his flesh.) “All right.”
“If you ever wanted to marry again – to have more children – I wouldn’t try to hold you back. I’d understand.”
All Erik could do was stare.
Resolutely, Charles continued, “It’s the one thing I can’t give you. So – it’s important that you know – if you ever feel you must leave me to pursue that, I’ll accept it.” His voice shook just from the pain of even thinking about the possibility, and yet he clearly meant every word. “I’d never keep you from the joy of having a family again if that’s what you wanted.”
Quickly Erik took Charles’ hand. “That’s not a consideration.”
In Charles’ blue eyes he saw that uncanny flicker of awareness, the sense that Charles suddenly understood far more than he had been told. “Erik – ”
“Stop making up melodramas in which I leave you. I’m not going anywhere.” Erik rolled closer, slung his arm around Charles’ waist. “So is your next career going to be as a playwright? Specializing in Greek tragedies?”
“Hush.” Charles had the most delightful smile. He hadn’t been teased enough in his life, or kissed enough either; having made up slightly for one, Erik began making up for the other.
Kissing Charles also changed the subject.
It had been ten years since the fire. Though Erik owned almost nothing from that time, occasionally he imagined that he could still smell the smoke, that the skin of his hands still bore traces of the grime.
He’d run straight to the smoldering ruin that had been his home – throwing off everyone who tried to hold him back. The wood smoked; the bricks glowed with heat. Yet he pawed through them, tried to shove the wreckage aside, convinced that somehow beneath it all he would find Magda and Anya still alive, frightened but waiting for him. Where were you, where were you? We were so scared. Thank God you’re home.
Erik’s hands had blistered, strips of skin peeling away, by the time he pulled back the board that showed him what was left of Magda. Half of her face had been burnt down to the bone. He saw his beloved wife’s skull, her lidless eye. The sight had lanced him – true physical pain cutting through him from sternum to groin, as true as any blade. Erik had doubled over, gagged and nearly fallen into the ash beside her. It felt as though his heart and lungs would simply shut down and let him leave this useless world.
But he didn’t die, only because he wasn’t the one who uncovered Anya. If he had –
Where were you, where were you?
He had not believed in God for several years by then, but still he mostly followed the customs of his family and his people. So by rights there were rituals he should have followed. He ought to have sat shiva for them. Covered the mirrors. Ritually torn his clothing and said that he accepted God had taken their lives, that God was and would always be the only true judge, the only one with the right to say that a life should now end.
But he could not sit shiva when he had no house. Could not cover mirrors already covered with rubble and soot. Erik might have torn his clothing, shredded and filthy though it already was. But he didn’t.
If Hell existed, Erik would rather have gone there than worship a God who would kill his daughter when she was only eight months old.
The morning everything began to change, Erik awoke in a four-poster bed that was large enough to sleep six people if they got on well. On the wall hung an ornately carved teak panel inlaid with mother-of-pearl, one of the many exotic souvenirs Charles’ grandfather had brought back from his various world travels. Windows that stretched from floor to the 14-foot ceiling provided a view of the grounds that stretched out for a hundred acres on every side.
Erik did not value material things for their own sake any more than Charles did. Nonetheless, he appreciated this in its warmth, and its safety, and perhaps above all because it was so utterly different from anything he’d known before.
As usual, Charles had risen first for his devotions; despite the early spring coolness, he would probably be in the gardens. He almost always prayed there, unless the weather was violent to the point of being unsafe. Erik had found Charles out there in rain, in snow, in oppressive heat. Nature had taken the place of Charles’ lost cathedrals.
Erik went to the window. As he’d thought, Charles sat on a bench beneath a bower just beginning to turn green again, too distant for Erik to see any details. But he knew that Charles would be clasping his rosary; his eyes would be shut, and his mouth would be turned upward in a smile.
Three years since Charles had left the priesthood, three years since the church had effectively turned its back on him – and yet Charles remained so utterly faithful. Erik was not surprised. The depth and profundity of Charles’ belief shone from him, as it always had. Ironically it was one of the things Erik loved most about him, this conviction he could never share.
If only, Erik thought, there were a God worthy of Charles’ faith.
So Erik made breakfast. He’d learned the sorts of things Americans expected and liked. Ever since they’d moved in together two years earlier, Charles kept the kitchen kosher in deference to Erik, giving up his beloved morning bacon with only a sigh. At least there was a veal sausage they both liked, and scrambled eggs, toast and jam. And mercifully they were neither of them Mormons, so there could be coffee. By the time Charles came in, smelling of new-mown grass, everything was almost ready.
“You are a wonder,” Charles said as he came to Erik. “Good morning.”
They kissed as if it were the first month, even the first day. Perhaps because of Charles’ long abstinence, the passion between them continued to burn brightly. Charles took such delight in every kiss. Each touch. Impossible not to respond in turn.
Once they’d kissed nearly long enough to burn the sausage, they sat down to breakfast. Although Erik knew Charles missed his sister, he couldn’t help being glad she’d decided to spend a little time in Paris. It was nice, once in a while, for it to be just him and Charles.
“You’ve got that meeting today, haven’t you?” Charles scraped butter along his bread. “Don’t be nervous.”
Charles gave him the I-know-better look, which would have been infuriating if he hadn’t been right.
“Not too nervous,” Erik qualified. “They should come through. Now, distract me so I don’t worry.”
The moment of hesitation that followed made Erik grin from ear to ear. It had taken Charles the longest time to develop any sense of humor about the erotic – and to see him even considering a dirty joke was an unexpected delight.
“We haven’t time for me to distract you properly,” Charles said, which was hardly a joke, much less dirty, but it was the thought that counted. His fair skin blushed beautifully. “You have your meeting, and I have a counseling session this morning that I’m – concerned about.”
After leaving the priesthood, Charles had refused to lead a life of idle wealth, though he certainly had the funds to do so. He volunteered five days a week – two at Immigrant Outreach, with Erik, and three at a counseling center. Although he was not licensed, the staff had quickly learned what Erik already knew: Charles had an uncanny ability to reach people. Unfortunately, this meant that he was always given the most difficult cases. Sometimes Charles came home shadowed with their pain.
“Can you tell me anything about it?” Erik asked. Charles took confidentiality seriously, but it was sometimes all right to talk in general terms.
“A young widower. His wife died suddenly. He has a little girl who needs him, and yet he keeps digging himself in deeper. Drinking far too much. Refusing to face the world.”
“It’s shameful,” Erik said.
Charles gave him a sharp look. “It’s regrettable, but he’s in mourning.”
“He has a daughter to live for. If that’s not enough reason for him, he’s a fool.”
When Charles’ hand closed over his, Erik allowed the touch only as long as necessary to keep Charles from saying anything. Then he stood to go. “I’ll be back late, I think.”
“I’ll have something warm in the oven waiting for you.”
They kissed again. But Charles’ eyes were searching, unsure. All the more reason for Erik to hurry out the door.
In the days and weeks after the deaths of his wife and child, Erik had nothing.
Erik did not possess the soundness of his own mind; he couldn’t even think afterward, so profound was the sorrow and shock. He had to be guided though the most mundane daily tasks. He forgot the way to the friend’s house where he stayed then, forgot which day of the week it was, forgot to eat. When he was small, his mother had always said the greatest comfort was in reading, so Erik borrowed what books he could get. But he would simply sit there holding a novel in his tender, bandaged hands, going over the same page time and again, without a single word ever sinking in. Grief made him stupid. It robbed him of himself.
He felt other lacks too, starting as early as the next morning when he numbly thought he should at least wash himself, then realized he didn’t own clothing to change into. Erik didn’t have another pair of shoes. He didn’t have clean underwear. The smoke-stained, ragged garments he still wore were all that remained of his former possessions.
Even a few days before, he’d thought of himself as a poor man. A two-room house with no indoor plumbing, a third- or fourth-hand cradle by the bed all he could offer his tiny daughter, barely enough wages to earn food for Magda to cook: That was what they’d had in those rough years after the war, when every city was devastated, every Jewish family in Europe torn asunder, and a better future was the last article of faith he subscribed to.
They’d placed the cradle close enough for him to sleepily stretch his leg and rock it back and forth with his foot.
Erik hadn’t known then what wealth truly was.
The morning was ordinary enough, all hurried meeting preparation, until Erik walked out into the front office at Immigrant Outreach and found one of the secretaries talking happily with a young couple who had come in. In her arms she held a boy perhaps three years of age.
“Mr. Lehnsherr!” Donna smiled brightly at him. “This is Mr. and Mrs. Gospodinov – and little Rayko, say hi, Rayko!”
The child grinned. He had a thick shock of black hair.
“They’re just here – their first week in the country – and we’re getting them set up with housing assistance.”
Both mother and father gave him polite nods. They looked frightened, exhausted, everything else he was used to seeing from refugees from the Eastern Bloc. Erik usually felt so protective of them that it was everything his staff could do to let them handle the cases on their own without him taking every single person under his wing.
But not today. Not today.
The little boy’s smile – his coal-black hair –
“You’re in good hands,” Erik managed to say to the Gospodinovs. “Donna, I want to review our numbers before the meeting. Make sure I’m not disturbed for the next hour, all right?”
“Of course.” Donna obviously knew something else was wrong, and just as obviously didn’t intend to pry. She was a smart woman.
Erik went back into his office, closed the door and locked it.
Where were you, where were you?
He slid down the door to the carpet, where he sat, his briefcase still in his hand. How utterly absurd he must look. Like something broken.
Years ago he had learned that the best thing to do at these moments was to refuse to think. Erik forced his awareness wholly into his body. He made himself aware of the folds of his clothes, the indentation of his belt against his belly, the churning in his stomach. Inhaled, exhaled, slow and deep, paying attention to the flare of his nostrils and the air in his throat and the rise and fall of his chest. For a few minutes he was nothing but a body, and in that state his body could calm, and bring his mind with it.
When he trusted himself to think again, he felt ridiculous. It wasn’t as though he had a panic attack every single time he saw a small child. Many families came to Immigrant Outreach, and over the years, Erik had even gotten to the point where he could talk to them easily, at least for a few minutes. He could walk past a playground in the park without even pausing. A baby’s cry from a carriage had lost the power to stop him in his tracks years ago.
But today – something about that child, different as he had been, a boy, older and chubbier and with all that dark hair – today everything had come rushing back.
Anya had hardly any hair. He and Magda had laughed about it –
Yes, think about Magda, that’s safer, that’s easier, bad as it was at least she got to have something of a life –
--Magda would stroke her fingers over the tiny bald head and say that she got this from his side of the family, and Erik would protest. He remembered leaning over them both as Anya was nursing, the primal smells of milk and sweat, the way Anya would gaze up at him –
Think about Magda. You have to think about Magda now.
But he couldn’t. Anya was in his mind again, in his heart, demanding her due.
She would have turned 11 this year. 11! Erik tried to imagine her at that age, but couldn’t. He could come up with a theoretical 11-year-old girl – as tall as his chest, joking and laughing, demanding Beatles records or a new hairband – but she was a fiction. Her voice was unimaginable, her face a pale blur. And he never had learned whether Anya had inherited Magda’s hair or his own.
Anya was a blank page. Erik would never know what might have been written there, what story she would have chosen for herself.
He sat on the floor for the better part of an hour. At no point did he cry. Erik kept swallowing the lump in his throat and trying to think of anyone, anything, else.
The only other people who could claim anything like the same hold on his heart were Charles and Magda, so he thought of their faces in turn, shifting from joy to pain and back again. Those were more familiar emotions, a more familiar track for his heart, a labyrinth that drew him further within himself, and farther away from the memories that had unmanned him.
Charles was nothing like Magda.
That was one of the reasons it was so easy to love him. Only one of them, of course. Erik found it impossible to believe that he wouldn’t have loved Charles no matter when or how they had met.
But the differences were a blessing, just the same. The fact that Charles was a man was perhaps the most obvious one – and yet the least significant.
He’d first been attracted to Charles’ patience – the way he calmly waited out all of Erik’s storms, how he never responded in anger, always said what he meant to say and no more. Few people had such fortitude. Charles had simply taken him for all in all, from the very first day.
(Magda had matched him storm for storm, rage for rage. They’d thrown things around their little house, stalked out, screamed. After they became parents, they had controlled themselves somewhat better, with silences as deep and dark as crevasses replacing the curses. Yet Erik had liked that there was one person who could rival his own hot temper, who always responded to a challenge in kind. And they had always made up afterward with equal passion.)
Next he’d noticed Charles’ beauty. Perhaps that was a strange word to apply to any man, much less one who went around in the plainest black ecclesiastical garb, but it was no less than the truth. Erik had been unable to stop thinking about the vivid, placid blue of Charles’ eyes – the fullness and darkness of his mouth – his long-fingered hands – pale, freckled skin that flushed with every emotion – how there was something ascetic about him that was nonetheless romantic –
Erik had memorized him, never thinking he’d be able to touch, believing the vision in his head was all he would ever have of Charles.
(Magda had been dark and given to curves, growing more voluptuous as the enforced famine of their childhoods receded into the past. Every line of her body had been strong rather than delicate; her hair had curled thick and coarse, so that Erik could bury his face in it. They’d made love within a week of meeting – in that time just after the war, everyone who had survived seized the moment, seized life, if they continued to value it at all. Erik and Magda had claimed each other on the riverbank, still half-dressed, panting and swearing and smiling all the time.)
Charles had come clear to him so very slowly. It had taken weeks for Erik to trust him, more for him to realize how rare and true a person Charles really was. Erik tended to distrust optimism in general, optimists in particular, but Charles’ belief in a better world was utterly sincere and far less naïve than Erik would ever have dreamed possible. His joy in other people was rooted in the moment, in the possibilities, not in illusion. Charles’ hope was as infectious as his smile.
(Magda had been even more saturnine than Erik himself. At the time he’d thought nothing of it. They were both concentration camp survivors. They were both trying to make a life in harsh country, among people who seemed convinced that the end of one war was no reason not to start another. Her moods, and his, had seemed less like gloom and more like realism.
Late at night she would lie awake, staring up at the ceiling. He’d never questioned it. But later Erik wondered if Magda had seen her future coming, seen death and devastation headed toward her with all the unstoppable velocity of a freight train.
Given what they’d already lived through, what they’d come to expect, Erik could believe that she never tried to escape her fate. That she just faced it down, without blinking, unsurprised that the end of her life would be as much a tragedy as the beginning.
He could never forget the stare of her lidless, lifeless eye.)
By lunchtime, Erik had fully recovered himself. Walls had been rebuilt and breaches forgotten. As such, the meeting went well; Immigrant Outreach was guaranteed another two years of funding.
(Charles, of course, had offered to make up any shortfall out of the apparently limitless Xavier family funds. Erik had refused to consider it as anything but a last resort. He wasn’t going to turn down the occasional check, but his organization needed to be more than a single man’s charity project, even if the man were as loyal as Charles.)
The Roman Catholic Church had withdrawn its partnership the year after Charles left the priesthood; this was primarily because Charles had been the organization’s main advocate. However, Erik suspected it was also because Charles had continued on as a volunteer. Former parishioners who helped out got to talk to him then. This was something the church wanted very much to avoid.
Some of them still came, though, including even a handful of priests and nuns. Erik had slowly realized that Charles continued to minister, in his way, to a small, informal, self-chosen congregation. He did not pry into it, and Charles did not enforce the knowledge upon him.
The new funding, though, was good news they could share. Erik came home in fine spirits, but instead of finding Charles cheerfully waiting with the promised warm dinner, he returned to a house utterly silent.
“Charles?” He walked the entirety of the first floor and found it empty. But Charles’ car was in the driveway. Erik began to have visions of Charles slumped unconscious in the bathtub or sick in bed, and he took the steps to the second floor two at a time. “Charles?”
“I’m here,” came the reply, too faint, from the study.
Erik burst in, expecting to find Charles seriously ill. The sight that greeted him was far more shocking: Charles with a glass of whisky in his hand, drinking alone.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Charles said without even turning around. How did he always know? “Please forgive me. I’m upset, and I lost track of the time.”
“John Gr – excuse me. The man I was counseling, the one I told you about. He drove his car into a tree. He’s dead.”
Erik came to sit beside Charles on the broad sofa, its leather cracked with age. He ran one hand through Charles’ thinning hair. “Was it a suicide?”
“Impossible to say. According to the police, he was so thoroughly drunk that he probably couldn’t have formed any coherent plans. But he still had that much to drink by midday, and set out in his car. Maybe it wasn’t a conscious suicide, but a – surrender to fate. I know that God will provide solace, that John will be forgiven, but … such irresponsibility. So filled with hatred for himself, with no thought for others. Mercifully he harmed no one else in the wreck. If he had, I could never forgive myself.”
The anger that spiked within Erik was as sharp as it was startling. He’d never spoken to this anonymous dead person, had never even seen him except perhaps as one of the faces at the counseling center where Charles worked. All he knew of the man was that he’d let his despair take him away from his child. It was more than enough reason for contempt.
“It’s not your fault,” Erik murmured.
“I was his counselor. I knew the depthless pain he suffered – felt it as though it were my own – and I still didn’t see this coming. We’d even talked about his going to dry out at a rehabilitation center for a few weeks. I was foolish enough to believe I was helping. But I didn’t actually reach him at all. How horribly alone he must have felt.”
“You did your best, and your best is damned good. But not even you can save everyone.”
“He died so far from grace.”
“Grace. Was that the child?”
“No. Not a name. I mean the grace of God.”
Erik kept his face very still.
Charles was undeceived. “I’m not talking about miracles, or white doves swooping down. Actual grace is simpler than that. It’s – it’s the moment when another person’s suffering is as real to you as your own. The moment when you are inspired to act, when you become gentler and kinder and better than your everyday self. That’s the moment when God is most fully present in us. When we respond to him, and when he creates goodness in the world through us. When he gives us the capacity to love.” Sighing heavily, he finished, “John was cut off even from his love for his daughter. The poor little girl has nothing now.”
“She has family, surely.” The alternative didn’t bear thinking about.
“I don’t even know.”
This path would only lead Charles deeper into despair. Briskly Erik reached out and took the whisky. “How much have you had?”
“I’m afraid this is my second glass.”
It was still mostly full. Only Charles would consider this a bender.
Erik put the whisky on the far table and came back to gather Charles in his arms. “Listen to me. All right?”
Charles nodded, and Erik steeled himself. He spoke of this so rarely – but if it would help Charles, then it had to be done.
“The grief after a loss like that – it’s a desolate place. You’re not yourself after a thing like that, not for a very long time.”
The quality of Charles’ stillness changed. Erik had not so much refused to speak of his past grief so much as he had avoided it. First he had congratulated himself on working around the subject so well; only later had he realized that Charles allowed him his silence. But obviously he had been waiting to hear.
And perhaps, at last, Erik was ready to speak.
“Charles, the man you knew was only a shadow of the real person. A fragment. That kind of devastation takes you away from everything you ever knew, everything you were. You couldn’t understand where he was, not unless you’d been there yourself. So I hope you’ll never understand it. I wish I didn’t. And even having endured it myself, I doubt I could have reached him. He was … somewhere else. Someone else.”
But this man had still had his daughter, had still had every reason in the world to go on living, and he had given up – the cowardice, the rank ingratitude –
Stop, Erik told himself. There was no point in heaping anger on a man no longer in this world.
Quietly Charles said, “Did you contemplate suicide after your family died?”
“Oh, Erik.” Already Charles was changing from the comforted to the one offering comfort; it was a more natural role to him, and Erik thought it might do him some good. But that meant he had to stay in this moment, no matter how much it hurt. “What kept you here?”
“I ought to say something profound, I suppose. But those first few days – honestly, I wanted to die, but I wasn’t competent enough to make the plans, much less carry them out. If anyone had been stupid enough to hand me a loaded gun, I would have used it.” Erik wished he hadn’t set the whisky so far away; Charles didn’t need any more, but he might. “Once I was back to myself a little, I thought about walking into the river to drown – or the house I was staying in had exposed rafters, and I could easily have found a spare bit of rope. Five feet, I decided; that would have been more than enough. I never thought once about what it would be like for the people who’d taken me in to come home and find me hanging dead. But then one day I looked down at this.”
He put his hand over his own sleeve; there was no need to roll it back. By now Charles knew Erik’s tattoo as well as Erik did.
Erik tried to smile then, though he suspected it was a grim effort. “I decided – damned if I’d finish the Nazis’ work for them.”
Charles took his hand. “You’re the bravest man I know.”
“I survived. That’s all.”
“Yes,” Charles said, as though he hadn’t been contradicted.
They kissed each other then – and surely they both intended it only as comfort. But Erik felt a surprising rush of heat. He clutched Charles closer, until he could feel the beating of Charles’ heart against his own.
Alive, he thought. Still alive.
When their mouths parted, Charles whispered, “Perhaps we should go out for dinner.” Their eyes met. “A late dinner.”
“In an hour.”
He didn’t have to explain to Charles why it was right for them to go to bed now, why it was the natural response to the world’s death and despair.
Maybe that was the only thing Charles and Magda ever had in common, besides loving him. They seized the moment.
At first sex with Charles had been both awful and wonderful at once.
Awful, because when they first made love, Charles was as utterly inexperienced as it was possible for an adult man to be. He’d never so much as kissed anyone before Erik, had obeyed the antiquated, unnatural requirements of his church so faithfully that he’d hardly even touched himself. This meant he had no knowledge of his body whatsoever, no physical control, hardly any idea of what he wanted or liked. Erik had had to be patient and slow with him, not just the first time but most of the first few months too. And Charles was so nervous, so self-conscious. Although he quickly became comfortable being naked in Erik’s presence, he second-guessed every movement and touch in bed for a long time. It had been a good while before Erik had felt more like Charles’ lover than his tutor.
Wonderful, because Erik was in love again, and because Charles took such relish in the discovery of sex. His desire to please Erik was even stronger than his own needs, and he was so astonished, so overjoyed with every leap they took that Erik couldn’t help but delight in it with him. Erik had taught Charles how to kiss, how to masturbate; oh, how hard Charles had found it to be watched, until he realized how erotic that was for Erik. That first blow job Charles had given him – it had been sloppy, awkward, and yet the sheer longing Charles brought to it, the contrast between his innocence and his deep need to make Erik come – that alone had made it one of the sexiest moments of Erik’s life. And Charles was so guilelessly enthusiastic about it all. Erik knew he’d never forget the night, early on, when Charles had looked up at him, hopeful and shy at once, and said, “We haven’t yet tried sodomy. Would you like to?”
Now, though, they knew one another, and Charles knew himself. And the sex had become … extraordinary.
Always, as they began, Charles would draw Erik close and just hold him – his eyes shut – as if he were cherishing him anew. “What are you doing?” Erik had whispered once.
Charles had murmured, “Listening.”
As Charles did that now, his temple resting against Erik’s forehead as they sat on the bed, Charles’ legs straddling his – Erik thought he understood this need to “listen” as little as he ever had. All he could comprehend of it was the radiance that infused Charles’ smile, and the way he started to move.
Somehow Charles knew. Once he’d become truly comfortable with sex, he’d become almost eerily good at understanding precisely what Erik wanted and how he wanted it.
It turned out that the former ascetic was a sensualist at heart.
Charles brought his hands up along the planes of Erik’s back as they kissed, long and deep. Massaged his shoulders, his thighs, kissing and stroking every inch of Erik, turning every movement into both caress and tease. Against his skin Erik could feel the softness of Charles’ breath as he even inhaled Erik’s scent.
For Charles, discovering sex had not been an abandonment of the sacred. He’d fused the two, turned them into one.
Two of Charles’ fingers found the pulse at the femoral vein deep in Erik’s thigh. He paused there, and their eyes met. “Sometimes I think this is why I was born,” Charles whispered. “Why I’m alive. So I could love you.”
Erik pulled Charles against his body, closed his eyes as they kissed, and for a moment could almost believe that the world was good.
The next day at work, Erik received two phone messages from Charles.
One, mid-morning, said only that he would be unable to come in to Immigrant Outreach that day. Erik had stared down at the scribbled words on the pink paper for a few seconds, wondering whether the latest volunteer secretary had somehow gotten it wrong. Charles never missed a day unless he was deathly ill.
But he hadn’t ridden in with Erik because he had to follow up on matters with the dead man from the counseling center. Probably that had been more complicated than Charles planned. He might be making travel arrangements for the daughter, or bundling up clothes for the Goodwill, something like that. It made sense. So Erik didn’t worry.
Then, mid-afternoon, another message slip appeared on the desk, reading only, CALL CHARLES @ HOME.
Erik dialed the next moment he had a chance, but the phone rang and rang, with no answer.
It didn’t necessarily mean anything. The mansion was huge, and yet there was only the one phone line, with a mere three telephones for a house with four floors.
All the same, Erik called back on the half hour, and was relieved when this time Charles picked up. “Erik. That was you before, wasn’t it? Sorry. A diaper needed changing.”
Erik paused. “What?”
“Jean. Her father – he’s the one I told you about yesterday. Well, she’s here with me.”
“Oh.” He reminded himself that Charles’ generous nature was one of the things Erik loved most about him, and it was honestly a wonder that this generosity hadn’t expressed itself as babysitting long ago.
“We’ll talk about it later, of course, but I wanted to give you a heads-up about the sleepless night that no doubt lies ahead.” Only Charles could sound so pleased about the prospect of exhaustion. “And tell you to pick up some Nice-Paks at the store. And some milk. Oh! And baby powder.”
Erik wanted to argue, but it was pointless. The child’s relatives no doubt could not yet take her – perhaps coming from far away – and Charles wouldn’t want to leave her in a home, even for a night. His impulse was as natural as it was kindly. Fighting Charles on it would only reveal … too much.
Besides, it was one night. He could take it.
“All right,” Erik said. “And perhaps I should pick up dinner. Chinese?”
“Good idea.” Something in the distance clanged. “Oh, Jean, don’t pull out all the pans! You – I have to go.”
“Go. I’ll see you tonight.” Erik hung up before he could hear the sounds of child’s play again.
He braced himself as best he could. Bought the Nice-Paks (which turned out to be some sort of wet wipe you could toss away), baby powder and milk at the store. Brought home a big sack of egg drop soup and sweet and sour chicken. By the time he’d reached the house, Erik thought he was in a calm, reasonable state of mind. Maybe he really was.
But it all collapsed the moment he looked into the living room and saw the baby girl looking back.
Anya, his heart said. Not because this child was like her. Because she was nothing like her.
The child stared up at him, clearly unsure. She had red hair, unusually thick for her age, which he guessed to be just over one year. Her hands were clasped around a Raggedy Ann, and she sat very still.
Erik could only stare back.
“Now, what did I just hear – ” Charles’ voice trailed off as he emerged, wild-haired and rumpled, a beatific smile on his face. “Erik! You’re home.”
“I’m – ” His throat tightened around the words. “Yes, I’m back.”
“Erik, this is Jean.” Charles scooped the child up in his arms, a little too quickly; she turned her head from Erik, burying her face against Charles’ shoulder. “Oh, Jean, don’t be shy. This is Erik. He lives here too.”
This was no doubt Erik’s cue to say something soothing to the child, or something affectionate to Charles. Instead he simply stood there, bags in hand, staring like some sort of fool.
Charles patted Jean’s back; Raggedy Ann’s arm stretched across his neck as if it were hugging him. “Don’t worry. She’s settling in.”
Finally Charles’ attention shifted away from the little girl. “Erik – are you all right?”
“I’ll put these in the kitchen. Then I should head upstairs.” All Erik knew was that he had to get away from this scene, this moment, this child, immediately.
He hurried to their room, shut the door behind him and considered turning the lock – though he had never locked Charles out before, had never even dreamed of doing so. But Charles wouldn’t come after him. He would be watching over the little girl. Keeping her safe. Which was the least Erik would expect of him, and yet –
He wasn’t going to melt down again. Not like he had yesterday. He could do this – of course he could –
But dealing with children at Immigrant Outreach was an occasional struggle, no more. This had been coming to his home, to find a little girl in the arms of the person he loved. It was too close to everything he had lost.
One night, Erik reminded himself. For both their sakes, you can handle it for one night.
So within the hour, he came down the stairs in jeans and a T-shirt, back to himself, more or less. By now the television set had been turned on; the little girl sat in front of it, raptly absorbing the adventures of the Flintstones. Charles rose from his place on the sofa. “Are you okay? I can heat up your dinner.”
“Not hungry just yet.” He kept his face turned toward Charles; this made the child no more than a flickering silhouette at the corner of his vision. “Sorry about before. Didn’t mean to overreact.”
“I should have prepared you better.” Charles’ fingers brushed gently through Erik’s hair. “Last night brought up some painful memories. No wonder you were upset.”
“It’s over,” Erik said, and it came out easy and calm.
The smile faded as Charles said, “No, it’s not.”
“What do you mean?”
Charles glanced over his shoulder, but the girl – Jean – remained mesmerized. As he drew Erik toward the hallway, he murmured, “I know this troubles you, and I know you have good reasons. But we have a chance to – oh, Erik. Promise me you’ll think this through.”
“Think what through?”
Suddenly, astonishingly, a smile dawned on Charles’ face. “Jean’s father had met with an attorney. He really was planning on going into the treatment facility. He’d started making legal preparations.”
“It wasn’t a suicide after all, then.” So that was why Charles was so relieved. Wasn’t it?
“One of the papers he drew up was a legal guardianship, for Jean. He wanted me to have her during the weeks he’d be away. Obviously he ought to have asked me – I assume he had intended to – never mind. What matters is that for now, I have legal custody.”
The words came slowly. “For now.”
“Yes.” Charles took Erik’s hands, and everything that came after was just noise; at the moment Charles squeezed tightly, love and hope and uncertainty in his eyes, Erik knew what was coming. “But the lawyer says – without any other living family – that puts me in a very strong position if I want to adopt Jean. And I do.”
The one thing he’d thought he’d never, ever have to face with Charles as his lover and companion – here it was.
“I know this is a lot to take in so quickly. It is for me too, in some ways, though I realize it’s so much different for you. All I know is that – that my heart went out to Jean the first moment I saw her. This dream I’ve always had for my life – the one I thought was impossible – it’s here, and it’s real, and we can make it happen. Even though it will be hard, we can do it if we want to.”
It was as flat and harsh as a slap. Charles paused, considered, tried again: “Just think it over.”
“There’s no need to think it over. My decision won’t change. I’m not going to be any part of this.”
For a long moment they just stared at one another. Charles’ words, when they came, were halting and unsure: “You won’t even try?”
“If you understood one tenth as much about me as you claim to, you’d know better than to ask,” Erik snapped. “No. That’s the only answer. Absolutely not.”
Then he turned and went upstairs, the better to be far away from the child, and the man whose heart he knew he’d just broken.
Erik holed up in the study, mostly because that was where they kept the bar. At first he was dreading Charles knocking on the door to have some deep, meaningful talk; then he became frustrated that Charles hadn’t come up yet to get it over with.
By the time the door finally opened, Erik was so drunk he hadn’t been thinking about the confrontation, or anything else coherent, for a while.
“There you are,” he said. He set his glass down on the nearest table, too heavily. Whisky sloshed slightly over the rim, numbing his fingertips; he’d just poured yet another.
Charles cast a glance at the half-empty bottle. “Obviously you’ve been busy.”
“This is how you go on a bender, Charles.” Erik grinned. It was his fiercest expression. “You have to drink like you mean it.”
“You need to stop.” Charles sounded prim and distant, more like the teacher at a Catholic school than a lover. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“How much worse can I be hurt? I don’t think there’s much blank canvas left for new scars. Do you?”
After a deep breath, Charles came and sat by Erik’s side; he was himself again. Erik was not, and he did not intend to be. “I knew this would be difficult for you to consider, but I never realized you’d be this … shaken.”
Shaken. The word suggested weakness, infirmity, vulnerability. Erik could have spat it back at him. “You tried to replace my daughter and you didn’t think I’d mind.”
“Erik. No. I realize we could never replace Anya – ”
“You just want to put another little girl in our house, in our lives, and have me pretend to be a father, like I used to be. Of course. That’s entirely different. How could I have missed it?”
No one was worse at arguing than Charles. He longed for compromise, understanding, warm feelings all around – sometimes Erik thought, in despair, that it was like trying to fight with a sunbeam. Even now Charles struggled for words that would make this situation better. He had no idea that there was no getting around this fight, none at all. Whether he’d meant to or not, he’d cornered Erik, and Erik knew what to do when he was cornered.
“I know that you still grieve for Anya. That you always will,” Charles began. “That doesn’t mean you can’t love another child.”
Erik laughed. It was a terrible sound, even to him. “You think you know what grief is, but you don’t.”
“You don’t. You lost your parents, and I of all people know how deeply that cuts, but that’s nothing compared to losing a child.”
“I realize – ”
“I know, you claim you can feel what’s in people’s hearts, your God gives you that, but let’s say that’s true, hmm? You can feel it for a moment or a minute. That doesn’t tell you one damned thing about what it feels like in an hour or a day or a decade.” Pushing himself up from the sofa, Erik wanted to pace the floor, but his knees weaved and wobbled under him. He staggered toward the mantel to catch himself. “You can’t even imagine, Charles. How it goes on forever. How you can’t bear it one second more, and yet you do because there’s no way out. My heart – my heart calls for someone who will never come back, and yet it calls and calls and waits and waits – and I can’t stop the calling. I can’t stop the waiting. But she can never come back.”
Charles closed his eyes. In that moment, for all his denials, Erik could almost believe Charles really did feel what he felt. “Oh, Erik.”
“Maybe you think – because I love you, because I love you more than I ever loved Magda, worthless wretch though I am to say it – maybe you think I could replace Anya the same way. It’s not like that. Not when you lose a child. Something of you dies with them.”
“You’re still alive. Not just in the literal sense. Your heart – your courage, your commitment to the people you help – and your soul, Erik. You’re more alive than almost anyone I’ve ever known.”
The poor bastard had chosen the exact wrong word. Erik could almost have pitied him if he weren’t so blindingly angry. “My soul. You’re worried about my soul. Of course, of course, it all comes back to God. The same God who cast you out to wander in the desert. The same God who left me lost in the howling dark. Still you want to praise him.”
To Erik’s surprise, Charles stood, his jaw set. “You don’t have to believe what I believe, but don’t think for one second that I’m naïve. That I haven’t thought about this as much or more than you. I’m not a child who hasn’t figured out the truth about Santa Claus.”
Erik shrugged. Steadier now, he dared to step back toward his glass and take another swig. “Let’s talk about it on your terms, then. Let’s say God is real. He’s watching us all the time. He could do anything and yet he leaves us to writhe on the spit of mortality. He left Anya to burn to death. He sent me out that day so I couldn’t die with her, so I had to watch them pull what was left of her from the rubble. What divine purpose did that serve? Tell me, Charles. Tell me that.”
“I want to be here for you, but it’s hard when you’re attacking me.”
It would have been less infuriating if, just once in his entire pacifist God-loving life, Charles had had the decency to get angry like a normal person. “You don’t have any answers? Well, I have answers for you, answers you should hear. This God you worship from your exile, the one you put your faith in – he’ll rip the heart from your chest and watch it stop beating. He’ll burn your home. He’ll burn your child. He will flood the world.”
“I know,” Charles said, and then he left.