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A River in Winter

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It is late November and sleet raps daily against the hospital window. All around him, through the walls and down endless corridors, it robs sleep from the other patients in his ward. But he has long tired of their dreams, and he has nearly died of his own.

Moira is his only visitor. For weeks she has handed him books just out of his reach and she sits at the side of his bed keeping their secrets. Her pity is easiest to look at, and she is the only one he allows. The rest he has barred, though he knows the nursing staff and handful of security will be no obstacle for the two now furthest from him. If they find out, there will be nowhere for him to hide.

But they don't find out.

And they don't come.


Coming home makes it real. The time for spontaneous regeneration and unexpected recovery is long past, and he is returned to his life with little fuss, folded neatly back into where he left off. No one is much concerned anymore. Moira is no longer piteous. Voices are no longer kept low. It's as though he's always been this way.

In some of the rooms there are small depressions in the thick carpets where the furniture used to be. A few of his favorite things remain on the tall shelves where he last set them. Upstairs, Charles learns, there are two bedrooms closed up until further notice. The house keeps this record when no one else will. The whiskey, though, leaves no trace. He's careful of that.

There is a telephone on a separate line tucked into the corner of the library. Four days after his arrival it rings, and Charles stares at it until it is silent again.


Permanence only proves itself with time. In his study there is a calendar no one has touched. Its corners have begun to curl around the days of October, but though he reaches toward it he cannot bring himself to turn it forward.


It's January when the first letter arrives. Charles sits at the desk in his study when Moira knocks and enters, holding in her hand an envelope whose unwritten sender she already suspects. Charles knows this because he makes it his business to know. If someone means to turn on him he'd rather know it before that day.

She sets it before him delicately and moves to retreat, but he stops her.

"My response won't take long," he says.

The letter inside is lined cleanly with familiar script. The hooks and flourishes are under tight control, and so is he.

He reads every word, and he memorizes the return address written very clearly above his name, though it's likely to be good for only one turn. Beside him he takes a sheet of parchment and pushes the tip of his pen across its face. He folds it, seals it inside a matching envelope, and addresses it. He gives it to Moira to take away.

She's not his servant but it's what everyone is still eager to be. Sometimes the only kindness he has is to give in.

Sometimes he doesn't even have that.

Don't come, he has written.

It isn't even signed.


If he comes, it won't be alone. Charles monitors the grounds outside so closely he sometimes doesn't notice the person in front of him. He looks up.

"More applicants," says Moira, a note of repetition in her tone. She holds the pages out to him, down to him, and he takes them, turns them around.

He reads through the profiles and his mouth slides easily into the lines of his frown.

"I don't know that I can teach children," he says. They are young. Too young for parents to be rid of.

Moira smiles, ever fondly. She begins straightening up the room, returning books to their shelves.

"You're a good person, Charles. They'll respond to that."

He watches her, silent behind his desk. She finally turns back to look at him and he lifts his pen, affixing his signature to the bottom of each page.

'Charles, the Good,' it could read.

The world could not survive any other.


Charles is stubborn. He is not in a wheelchair when he dreams.

Not yet.


Sean is in the library when the telephone rings the second time. It's in his hand before Charles can say otherwise and the quiet that creeps back into the room is charged with his mistake.

Charles takes it from him and gently sends him out. He lowers the receiver toward its cradle again.


The voice is small. Weak, Charles thinks, though it reaches him with the permeating roll of the earth devouring itself.

He turns the phone with a glacier's hurry and holds it to his ear.


There is silence. Charles' eyes are fixed on the dial. There's nothing in this room to remind him, not anymore, but his eyes are fixed.

A hiss of static adds urgency to the line.

"Let me speak to you."

Charles breathes. 'Speak, then,' he thinks. "We had a plan," he says.

"I know. Let me see you."

"I can't do that."

"I'm sorry, Charles--"

Charles hangs up the phone.

A minute later he still hasn't let go of it. Both hands cover it like a moth he's trapped in the grass.

If I were him, I'd tell Erik what he did, Sean confesses.

Charles isn't that vengeful, Moira says.

He laughs weakly into his sleeve and stifles the rest.


Charles is never once the fool, only twice.

While others stumble through life in innocence, he is Eve at Life's Tree, where the hearts of men split themselves open in his hands. There is no misdeed he cannot prepare for. He has no excuse for surprise, and he has no more need of trust.

Moira brings the tray of tea to the table. Sunlight burns it red in his cup, and it is warm in the curl of his hands.

He thanks her, calls her Darling as she sits beside him.

Timing is the only choice left.


The months crawl one to the next. He no longer remembers the feel of the things he's lost. He no longer remembers the absence of anger.

Winter finally breaks, but not for him.


In the end, Erik does come alone.

It's late. The ground floor of the mansion always belongs to Charles alone at this hour, but tonight he shares it with uncertain footsteps in the hall.

In the study, Charles keeps very still, and very quiet, as though he were the trespasser. But the lamp beside him is on and the door is open and there's nowhere for him to go. There's nowhere for him to hide, not even behind his tricks.

The footsteps approach. He finds the steel rims of the wheels on his chair and grips them--not for comfort, not for anchor, but to prove to himself he is not dreaming.

Erik stops outside the door. He is concealed, as Charles is yet blessedly concealed from him. But it will only take another step.

"I don't want you here," he pleads.

It's his last bid for control, if not of his life then of this room, of even such a tiny space as this. "I don't want you here."

"Are we never to speak again?" Erik says. "I cannot believe you would want that."

"I told you not to come." But why would you ever listen to me?

We had a plan. And you couldn't follow it.

"Charles, please--"

"What is it you want from me?" His voice feels raw in his throat. It is difficult to lift from the depths. "Pretend it never happened? Go back?"


Charles' hands tighten around the steel rims. The room seems darker; it is the color of his potential, of all the things Erik would never believe he wanted.

Erik steps into the room. Charles isn't looking, but there is a falter to Erik's movement.

Charles closes his eyes.

Perhaps Erik will listen, now. "Please go."

"Tell me I didn't do that."

Charles looks. From such a figure, Erik's voice sounds small, like it did on the telephone. The only static now is his troubled breathing. "Tell me I didn't."

But Charles can't. And when he can't, Erik lifts his hands to the helmet like it's suffocating him.

"Do that now," says Charles, softly, "and I'm afraid you will not leave here."

Erik hears him. Charles can see it in his eyes. He used to be so fond of their color; now he cannot tell what it is.

Erik hears him, but why should he listen.

He lifts the helmet and drops it at his feet.


Charles was never a cruel boy. Most of the time, the moths flew away unharmed.

Still, he knew sometimes they wouldn't.