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Troubled Waters

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I was halfway through the process of cataloguing and archiving a donation when Miss Coburn knocked at the door. The donation in question being a set of a hundred and sixty-two poorly-labeled personal journals, and the donator not having taken much care to pack them in order, I was not sorry to be interrupted.

I assumed it must be on a matter of museum business, until I saw through the opening door that there was a stranger following at Miss Coburn's shoulder. The urge to flee was almost overpowering. However, my height being what it is, the shelves nearest me were inadequate to the task of concealing me from view. I reluctantly remained where I was.

"There you are, Booth," Miss Coburn said, and then turned to the man behind her. "Teddy, this is our archivist, Kyle Murchison Booth. Booth, this is my cousin, Theodore Coburn."

"Theo, please," the man said instantly, sounding so much like Miss Coburn—Claudia, Booth, really—that I could not doubt the relation. "Nobody's called me Teddy since I was about six, except my dear Cloddy Claudia, here. Pleasure to meet you. I hope you'll excuse me; Claudia's letting me tag along today, but only if I don't touch anything—"

"I didn't mean you couldn't shake hands with people, Teddy, you nitwit," Miss Coburn said, exasperated and fond at once. He grinned at her and then turned to me and, bafflingly, winked.

He shared not only his tone of voice but also the color and curliness of his hair with Miss Coburn—but that was the extent of the resemblance. Where Claudia was tan and fit, he was narrow and pale but for wild swathes of freckles, and he had nothing of Claudia's brisk, no-nonsense air. He was possessed instead of a fervent continuous energy that seemed only barely contained, fidgeting and tapping his fingers against one another, and generally looking as though he might at any moment break into a jig. If indeed Miss Coburn had managed to get him to promise not to touch anything, I thought, it had been sensible of her to do so.

The overall impression made by his presence was such that I might never have noticed the cane if Mr. Browne hadn't come in. The sound of footsteps caught all our attention, and Theo and Miss Coburn had to turn to look at the door. I imagine it was the shift in weight that did it. But at the time I knew nothing except that Theo Coburn had suddenly faltered, one leg giving way beneath him, and there was a clatter and a scrape and then Miss Coburn caught him by the elbow.

She did not chide him, nor exclaim. She did not even look concerned—only businesslike, matter-of-fact.

It did not matter. Theo reacted as though she had: his expression turned dark and he jerked out of her grip, snapping, "Let go," in a hard voice. He nearly sent himself to the floor all over again with the violence of it, and only prevented it by throwing a hand out to catch the edge of the desk I'd been working at. This sent the cane, which had been in that hand, toppling out of his reach. I stooped without thinking and caught it, and then froze when Theo looked at me.

We remained that way for a breath: Miss Coburn reaching, Theo crumpled against the edge of the desk, and me awkwardly clutching the cane. Mr. Browne stood in the doorway and blinked at this tableau before clearing his throat. "Miss Coburn, if I might borrow you for a moment?"

"Of course," Miss Coburn said. She touched Theo's shoulder lightly, and then caught my eye over it before she turned and went out.

The door closed behind her, and then I was alone with Theo Coburn.

I held the cane and stood there. I did not know what to do. If Theo had not liked Miss Coburn coming to his aid, I could not imagine he would accept any assistance from me. But he would need his cane back, surely, and so I could not leave, nor ignore him and return to work.

After that one fierce glance that had stopped me in my tracks, he had looked away again. I could not help following the direction of his attention down to his leg.

It was clearly his right that troubled him: he was gripping it and muttering what might have been prayers but I suspected were more likely curses. There was nothing obviously amiss. It did not end at the knee, nor was his foot disfigured or twisted. But I could see, once I was looking for it, that his trousers hung differently upon the right leg as compared to the left, that the line of them was not the same.

The cursing trailed away into silence. He stood there a moment longer, looking down at himself and grimacing as he eased his weight carefully back onto the troublesome leg—and loosening his grip on my desk by degrees. And then he looked up, straight at me, and gave me a thin, rueful smile.

"You must think me a beast," he said, "snapping at Claudia like that. It is just," and then he sighed and looked away again. "It is just this damn leg. They tell me it will improve with time, but some days it is hard to believe it."

If he had been a ghost, I could not have seen him more clearly: he felt himself different, damaged on a fundamental level, and perhaps no longer quite fit for the company of men who were hale and whole. I knew the feeling—I lived it. But I could not work out how to say so. I could only look at him, like a dummy without a ventriloquist, rendered speechless with understanding.

He raised his eyebrows at me, and I realized I was still holding onto his cane.

"Oh, I—I apologize," I said, and held it out.

He took it, still looking at me, and tilted his head. "What, no platitudes? No reassurances? No kind insistence that I must only be patient?"

"Some things do not get better," I said, and then winced. "I do hope your leg is not one of them—"

My clumsiness should have bothered him much more than Miss Coburn's care. But he only laughed. "Well, as do I. But you are right," he added more soberly. "You are right. We should all tell ourselves the truth now and then, Mr. Booth. It is good for us."

I did not know how to answer, so perhaps it was for the best that Miss Coburn reopened the door at that moment. "Back to the salt mines, Teddy," she said, with a tilt of her head toward the hallway.

"So soon?" Theo gave her a look of exaggerated distress.

Miss Coburn was unmoved. "You are strong drink. I should think Booth has had his fill of you for a morning."

"Ah—when you put it that way, I'm sure you are right." Theo turned and inclined his head to me. "I hope I will see you again very soon, Mr. Booth, though not any sooner than you wish it."

"I do wish it," I said, and though I felt myself flush, it was not because I had lied.


*


As it happened, we did see each other again. Miss Coburn returned later that same day and related to me the circumstances: Theo's visit would last months at least. He had been sent to stay with Miss Coburn for his health, though Miss Coburn's expression when she said this indicated that it was a feeble excuse—that it was perhaps more likely that her aunt and uncle had wished to be rid of him, and whatever incident had damaged Theo's leg had simply given them the means to that end. "I have quite a few male cousins on the Coburn side," she added after a moment, "but—well, Teddy is the only one of them who would ever willingly come and stay with me, if you see what I mean. And the only one I would permit to, for that matter."

Even I could imagine how ill Theo would take to being left to his own devices at Miss Coburn's. So it was not a surprise that he came to the Parrington most days. He seemed at times almost too vibrant to belong in it, wandering that vast dim space like a will-o'-the-wisp: a single point of light, meandering through the dark. But Theo's mind worked upon the same principles as his body—it hated to be still. The Parrington was full of things for him to look at and information for him to absorb.

And he pursued it all perhaps a little too eagerly. Despite his promise to Miss Coburn, I often caught him absently picking up potsherds or cylinder seals, tossing them idly from hand to hand; and when he encountered tidbits he found interesting amongst the Parrington's archives and papers, he liked to declaim them aloud to whoever was nearest.

Whoever was nearest was sometimes me, but more often Miss Coburn. Which is perhaps why one day she burst into my office, dragging a repentant-looking Theo behind her, and said, "Take him away, Booth, I mean it."

"I—"

"I shall wring his neck," she warned me.

Theo winced and looked at me.

"Just—go for a walk, Teddy," Miss Coburn said to him, a little more calmly. "You know very well you are meant to exercise that leg as regularly as possible."

For a moment, a hint of thunder shadowed Theo's brow, as it so often did at any mention of his leg. But then he sighed and nodded his head.

I was about to protest that surely he could walk himself about the city, there was no need to drag me into it—and then Miss Coburn caught my eye over Theo's shoulder, and I realized at once why she did not wish to send him out alone. And, of course, that she did not want to say so.

I could not refuse once I understood. And so, within minutes, I found myself on the street outside the Parrington next to Theo Coburn.

It was a fair enough day—overcast, but not cold, and little true threat of rain. I feared awkwardness, but Theo seemed unperturbed by our shared silence. The book he must have been irritating Claudia with was still in his hand, and he tapped it idly against his good hip as we walked but did not open it.

We began at a good pace. For short stretches, it was difficult to tell that Theo had suffered any injury at all, except for the constant tap-tap-tap of the cane. But after a few blocks Theo slowed a bit. Further, and he began to grimace now and then; and at last, outside one of the city's little parks, he stopped.

"I think I had better give this damn thing a rest before we turn back," he admitted.

I followed him mutely to the nearest bench—but he passed it and lowered himself down upon the grass, newly greening after a chilly dour spring.

"Come, Mr. Booth," he said.

I came, and sat.

He set the cane down between us, and turned the book he had taken over in his hands. He shot me a quick sideways glance, and then cleared his throat. "Will you read to me a little?" he said, and held it out.

I stared at him. If he had asked me to converse with him, to entertain him in any other way, I would have refused reflexively and ungracefully. We would have walked back to the Parrington in yet more silence, and then I am sure I would never have seen him again.

But to read to him? It was the only request he could have made of me that I felt anywhere near equal to fulfilling.

Surely, I told myself, it was simply that he fancied being read to. There was no way he was aware of the kindness he did me. And yet, thinking back upon the memory of his face, his warm eyes, the way he smiled at me, I think perhaps I did him too little credit.


*


After that day we walked together often, for the sake of exercising Theo's leg. We began at the Parrington every time, but that was the only point of consistency—Theo never wished to take the same route twice. He commonly came to my office clutching one book or another he had found, and I never refused when he asked me to read to him. It was so much to be preferred to talking to him myself. The words in the books would not lead him to set aside my company.

But he began to ask me things, a bit at a time. About the books, at first: whether I had ever read them before, whether the topic related to my work, what else I knew about the subject. And then, by slow degrees, about my work itself—about the Parrington, about my friendship with Miss Coburn, about how I had become an archivist at all.

I did not tell him everything. I could not. There could be nothing farther from my liminal and unsettling Murchison existence than the bright, sunny aliveness of Theo Coburn. But nevertheless the day came when I realized Theo had carried his chosen book from and back to the Parrington without either of us ever actually opening it.

The day after that, Theo found the lake.






The lake was not large, nor often-visited. It lay out of the normal way of traffic in the small park where it was placed, and the park itself was set back inconveniently behind an ill-tended hedge, little-used.

Theo and I happened across it entirely by accident. Theo's wide-roving attention tended to catch upon interesting things at one side or another of the street, so I did not think it unusual that he noticed the little brass gate. We chose to cross to examine it further, and Theo stepped out into the road immediately—and was nearly struck by a vehicle, neither quiet nor dull-colored, that he claimed not to have noticed. This was the moment at which my skin began to crawl.

The gate—tarnished, intricate, shadowed by the hedge to either side—looked more ominous to me the closer we came to it. By the time we stood beside it, my revulsion toward it was so strong that I could not bring myself to touch it.

Theo seemed impervious to any such sensation, and reached out. Despite my prayers to the contrary, it was not locked.

Theo liked to explore—I was well acquainted with his inclinations in that direction. But from the moment we stepped within the boundary marked by the gate, he seemed odd. His expression was driven, focused. He did not wander in his usual manner, looking around for whatever might catch his eye, but rather went directly toward what would turn out to be the path to the lake.

The way was paved, and wound through the trees and down a slope in a manner that prevented us from seeing its end until we were nearly there. The desire to escape did not leave me. Indeed, it grew more pressing. We were in a park, there was space between the trees, the path had no railings; but nevertheless "escape" is the only word I can use, as though ordinary exit were somehow impossible.

By the time we reached it, I could not even force myself to look directly at the water. It was a sunny day and the lake was not in shadow. But my impressions were of intense cold, of darkness. The water's stillness seemed to me almost malevolent, not as though it were at peace but as though all living things had learned better than to disturb it—or as though none remained to do so.

But Theo was enthralled. I did not want to look at the water, so I looked at him. And he stood there in uncharacteristic silence, perfect stillness—even his tapping fingers were quiet.

"How lovely," he said, half to himself. "How very lovely and calm it all is, Booth."

I could not bring myself to disagree aloud—as though something might hear if I did, and take note. But I swore to myself at that moment, looking at Theo's rapt face, that I would not let him come back there again.


*


That vow was not one I was able to keep. Theo insisted thereafter on returning to the lake regularly. Though, as ever, he refused to go the same way twice, we nevertheless continued to find ourselves outside that small brass gate, and every time Theo went in. And I—if I could not keep him away from the lake, at least I would not let him go to it alone.

The sense of looming dread never lessened, and the quiet horror I felt upon looking at the lake never faded. Sometimes it consumed my attention, if not quite the same way it consumed Theo's, and twice I only just managed to catch Theo before he could wade in. Both times he looked faintly bewildered; both times he laughed and shook his head and apologized, and for a moment his attention was on me instead of the lake.

"I do not know what I was thinking," he said once, a little abashed. "It just looked so very cool and pleasant."

I glanced at him and then away. For a moment I thought I could almost see what Theo saw when he looked at the lake. The water was calm, still, a silver mirror; the nearby willows draped their branches down toward it in poetic arches, and beyond them it almost did not matter what the sky did—whether it was gray or blue, dim and flat or riotous with sunset, any of these simply served to make the scene a different flavor of picturesque.

But I could not put aside the sensation that beneath the surface of all of it there was something waiting, something dark and cold and patient.

Something that wished, perhaps, to draw Theo to its heart, to have that brightness for itself—and I could not blame it. I fully understood the sentiment. But neither could I allow it to succeed, if indeed it lay within my power to prevent it.

So I swallowed the bitter dread in my throat and turned us back toward the Parrington.


*


Theo's leg did not get worse. But it also did not get better, not in the way he clearly hoped it might. I gained something of a sense for the days when it pained him most, and I hated those days intensely. When he was hurting more than usual, he was very obvious about it, loud and frustrated and cross—but when it was the worst, it made him quiet, and the irritation that was more typical for him gave way to a deep persistent melancholy.

Miss Coburn and I both tried to be more attentive to him on those days, and could often keep him from brooding too darkly. So I will always hold a grudge against the archived collection history of the British Museum's Egyptian department for arriving on one such day, and thereby preventing me from noticing until it was too late to stop him.

The documents were sent to the Parrington for the purpose of cross-referencing several artifacts of uncertain provenance. It was only done as a favor to Dr. Starkweather, who therefore felt obliged to be there to receive the package and to hover about afterward as I began to go through the files, even though he could be of no actual use. At one point I am certain I caught sight of someone by the door. But when I looked there was no one there. I cannot help supposing that perhaps it was Dr. Starkweather's presence that prevented the intrusion, and so I wish doubly hard he had retreated back to his office that day.

Miss Coburn, however, was less shy. I looked up when she opened the door and saw the way she was frowning, and even then, I think, a part of me already knew what had happened.

"Sorry to interrupt," she said, "but have you seen Theo anywhere?"

I stood even before she had finished the question.

"Mr. Booth," Dr. Starkweather began.

"I—very sorry, sir, but I must—"

"Mr. Booth!" Dr. Starkweather cried; but I was already in the hall.

I hurried along that well-loathed route, the same way Theo and I had walked the very first day we had found the lake. I pushed open the gate with one elbow—I still could not bring myself to touch it barehanded—and rushed along the winding path that led down to the water.

By the time I reached the shore, Theo was in up to his knees.

He was not alone: there was a vague shining presence, hovering over the water, and though it was not so very far away, I could not make out its features. And that lovely glimmering creation was, surely, what Theo saw.

But my eyes also perceived something else. Behind the shining thing that beckoned to Theo, there was a great deep shadow extending down into the water. And Theo's face—Theo's face was as calm as I have ever seen it. It might perhaps have seemed appropriate to describe him as peaceful. But all his animation, his kindness and his temper and his sharp wry humor—all of that was gone, and to me what remained had the slack placidity of a corpse.

"Theo," I said, far too softly. He was in up to his waist now, and that thing had him firmly. There was little hope. I knew that. But to think that he would walk into the water and never come out—that he would drown alone down there in that endless cold quiet—

The idea was unbearable. And so I cried "Theo!" again.

Helplessly, I thought. But at this second cry, miraculously, I saw his head turn.

Theo swears to this day that it was nothing less than the full archetypal power of true love—that even at that early hour in our acquaintance, there could be no better name by which to refer to the sentiments he held toward me. This is utter nonsense, of course, though I will admit that it is sweet to hear him say it. But whatever quality it was in my voice or bearing or manner that did manage to catch his half-bewitched attention at that critical instant, I have no words to say how grateful I was, and still am, for it.

He looked past me, almost unseeing, and then at me. The terrible empty quiet of his face gave way to a frown of confusion. And then he blinked twice and said, "Booth?"

The bright figure beyond him faltered. Perhaps it was because of the sudden loss of Theo's attention; perhaps it was because it had noticed me at last. It wavered and then moved closer in a sudden smooth rush. It was taller than I had thought, and I caught a glimpse of something—a face, in rough outlines, and a flash of pale hair—before it reached out for Theo's shoulder.

Theo turned before it could touch him and caught full sight of it. I do not know what he saw, and he has never told me. But he flinched back and cried, "Dear God!"

He had not needed his cane to walk into the lake. But he still had it in his hand; and he lifted it up and struck out at the thing.

If he had tried it before, I do not think he would have hurt it. But it had made itself somehow more real, I suspect, in order to have any hope of grasping Theo's shoulder. So when Theo swung the cane, he hit something.

The shining thing vanished. But the movement lost Theo his balance. He stumbled back, and then his injured leg gave way beneath him and sent him splashing down into the shallows. I rushed forward and grabbed for his arms, his shoulders, and then we struggled back together toward the shore.

I do not exaggerate. It was a struggle. There was a sucking reluctance to the water—it splashed more than it should have, grasping at us, and lent a dragging weight to our clothes. It was much more difficult than it should have been to pull Theo out of so little water.

But it was very little water. If he had gone deeper, perhaps the lake would have won in the end. As it was, we managed to crawl free of it; and then we lay on the grass, still gripping each other's arms, until Theo was able to form words.

"My God," he said. "My God. Booth—what was that?"

"I do not know," I said. It was the truth, though I could venture several unpleasant guesses.

"My God," he said again, and then shook himself.

I helped him sit up, and he looked past me at the lake and then shuddered.

"I wanted to," he murmured. "I—God help me, Booth, I wanted to. I saw—" and he glanced at me and then away and shook his head. "I thought the water looked pleasant. I wanted to wade in it for a moment. I thought the cold might soothe my leg. And then I—I couldn't stop. I couldn't stop thinking about it." He laughed a little, empty and unamused, and I saw with a spike of dread that his face turned calm and still after, that his gaze had gone faraway. His tone had become soft, a murmur. "How quiet it was. How peaceful. How it all might just—stop. And that thing—it thought so, too. It knew, and it agreed."

He fell silent and stayed like that for a moment, and I sat there mutely beside him, not knowing what words might call him back. But then all at once the distance left him again. He flashed me a smile, though it did not reach his eyes, and shrugged.

"I am glad you did not go with it," I said.

Theo's gaze flickered to me—and then as quickly away, and he let out another of those empty little laughs and said briskly, "Yes, well—so am I, hmm?"

As though it were a joke, as though it did not matter. As though the longing that thing had touched in him had not been so deep and so strong that Theo had almost drowned himself for the soothing of it. It was abruptly vile to me that he should talk about it in such a way, and perhaps the strength of that revulsion was what made me bold enough to clasp his wrist in my hand.

"I am glad you did not go with it," I said again. The words felt feeble compared to the sentiments that moved me to speak them. But I had no others. Eloquence is not a gift to which I lay claim.

Theo looked at our hands, and then at me. I felt my face go ferociously hot and turned away. I let go of him—I meant to, that is, but he caught my hand before it got far and kept it where it was.

"I would have," he said after a moment, very low, "if it had not been for you."

I met his eyes without meaning to, startled by the intensity with which he'd said it. As a rule, the pale, weedy, and unsociably awkward are not the sort who typically inspire intensity of any kind. I do not think anyone had ever before spoken to me, about me, with such strength of feeling as Theo at that moment. (Nor has anyone since, I may add, except he.) Even Ivo at his best could only have been considered a rough approximation of it.

And the thought of Ivo, perhaps, is what did me in. For I looked at Theo; and then, in a damning moment of weakness, at his mouth. As soon as I caught myself I tore my gaze away and cursed inwardly. Theo was not nearly as oblivious as my old friend Blaine had been, and even less inclined to let a matter rest.

But he did not throw off my grip or put me away from him. I dared to hope he might not have noticed my lapse, but the next glance I snuck at his face made me certain that he had. And yet all he did, after a moment's torturously silent contemplation of my face, was grin at me and raise his eyebrows. "Help me up?" he said.

I did, and also fetched his cane for him from where it had fallen, half out of the water. When I gave it to him, he leaned upon it gratefully—and then took advantage of my nearness to wrap a hand around my elbow.

"To Cousin Claudia's," he said, "and dry clothes! For both of us, my friend." This he added with a nod of his head toward my sleeves, which were still dripping where they had flopped into the water as I'd grabbed for him.

"I shouldn't impose—"

He frowned at me briefly and then swayed—as though perhaps his leg had weakened under him. At the time I thought it must be so, though in hindsight it is obvious to me that he had other motives. The effect was to press his whole left side against me, and, as a corollary, to wet me thoroughly.

"Perhaps by the time we arrive there, you will change your mind," he said, tone conversational in the extreme. "And then stay long enough for a scotch, perhaps?"

I detest alcohol. I could have said so, and he would not have pressed me further.

But even if I refused the scotch in the end, what the invitation truly meant was that I might spend a little more time with him. And we must all tell the truth now and then. It is good for us.

"Yes," I said. "I would like that."