Berlin, 1903. Outside a cafe a well-groomed young man leans back in his chair and surveys the pleasant sky easily. The sun is shining and the coffee before him steams gently as it cools; all around him, people pass and do not look twice, seeing only a gentlemen with his life thoroughly together – a student, it would seem, but most certainly an intellectual.
He practically exudes confidence. The way that he raises his hands to fold them behind his head is unhurried, the way he crosses his legs at the ankle suggests a peace with the world that is rare, even here. Only when he accidentally meets the gaze of the interested young woman across the square and drops his eyes, flushing, does he break character for a moment. Because he is looking away, he has no way of telling, but the girl hides her mouth behind her hand to giggle at the gesture: even his apparent inexperience and hesitance in the face of the opposite sex is charming.
She’s pretty, whispers a voice in his ear. He does not react, doesn’t so much as glance surreptitiously up to check who is speaking. Who else could it be, after all?
This new Melchior Gabor – why lie, why change his name, when the tiny village that gave him birth wants about as much to do with him as he with it – has very little in common with the boy who once poured out his heart into an essay for a friend that he was too late to save. He’s an orphan, he tells people when they ask, or as good as. If his family was to find him, they would barely recognise him: his mass of curly hair has been tamed into a still wild but more manageable mane; any baby fat has gone and left the lines of his face chiselled; the rage bubbling, barely contained beneath the surface of the schoolboy desperate to overturn the system has dissipated piece by piece, soothed by the others around him who seek knowledge just the same.
But he is haunted by the same shades who dragged the pistol from his desperate fingers in that damned churchyard.
Before, when he was a child consuming all and every book he was given, he would wonder why people in novels always seemed so terrified when met with the ghosts of those they’d known. Why not delighted? Why not proclaiming their gladness, for company, for a chance to make things right with their friends?
The things that trail him on his arms are not his friends, not quite. Not in form or intent. He would hesitate to even call them human – when he dares to scribble about them in his writings, he addresses them only as ‘the shades’. Although they seem to experience some sorts of emotions, there’s not any kind of full spectra: they rage and scream, occasionally, accusing him of all kinds of things; they are melancholy and sigh as they watch him age, trapped forever at seventeen; they catch hold of his hands and laugh with a lightness he cannot really recall hearing from them in life, dancing. But he rarely manages discussions. Their thoughts are scattered between this world and the next, and it takes him almost forever to decipher the non-linear and rambling whispers of what once were Moritz and Wendla.
The purpose is far simpler to understand. They guide him, but that’s their choice, and they nurture him through only some misplaced affection. The real reason the linger here behind him? Punishment. The blame – not the entire blame, he tells himself fervently on bad days, not when the schoolmaster expelled Moritz, not when his father disowned him, not when it was Moritz’s own finger on the trigger, or when Wendla’s mother deceived her and the abortionist’s knife was her demise – is on his shoulders and for that he cannot be free of their ghosts. They’re here to remind him of what his actions can lead to.
Melchior doesn’t believe that they fully understand that purpose, though. Sometimes the shades are little more than creatures of darkness that hiss his guilt to him, keep him up all hours of the night – sometimes, though, they’re fully lucid. It would seem that today is a good day in more than just the weather.
The girl, Wendla repeats again in his ear. She’s pretty. You should speak to her. She’s interested, too.
“I don’t care.” he breathes, calmly lifting his coffee to his lips to disguise the words. It’s not like he hasn’t thought about... girls, boys, since – since everything. But – they watch. And it hurts to know they’re watching.
We’re not your whole life, Melchie, Moritz insists. Moritz’s voice isn’t nearly so fragile as it used to be, drifting towards Melchior as though carried by the strong westward breeze. Blue wind, thinks Melchior, and wonders absently what happened to Ilse, in the end.
Most likely nothing. She had her chance to escape when she was just a hurting little girl and she chose to stay as close as possible to the home that rejected her. Melchior can’t imagine that she’d ever move very far.
It’s alright. agrees Wendla. He feels the soft, strange pressure of her touch on his shoulder, glancing up to see her semi-corporeal and flickering beside his shoulder. Her unblinking gaze remains fixed on the pretty girl across the square with something worryingly like hunger. There’s blood dripping from the hem of her dress again, staining the white and disappearing before it hits the ground.
Melchior doesn’t dare to glance to his left. The sight of Moritz’s wound is not a pleasant one, and it’s been long enough since he last glimpsed it that he doesn’t think he could keep up his composed veneer now.
“I don’t want to.” he smiles quietly. It’s a flimsy attempt to dismiss them, and not one that he particularly means: he knows by now the tenacity of their resolve.
Don’t lie, half-laughs Moritz. You want to, just not with us there.
Wendla hesitates slightly, glances visibly towards her companion. We could... go?
“No!” cries Melchior, before he can even think, and disguises it as a cough. The pleasant air seems stifling all of a sudden: he winces as he downs the coffee all at once and stands to hurry away, conscious of the girl’s eyes lingering on him with concern.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispers to the conspicuously empty air by his hunched shoulders, his expression harrowed. “Please – just, don’t, I couldn’t-”
We’ll never let you go, promise Moritz and Wendla’s voices, not quite in tandem.
Surely it shouldn’t sound like as much of a threat as it does.
Life continues as it has for over a year. Two nights that week he wakes to Wendla’s eyes staring into his, unnerving, and is uncomfortably aware that she has likely been watching him like this for a matter of hours. Moritz, flickering in and out of reality, trails him to his classes.
No one at college knows, of course. Who would he tell? The few friends that he has made – acquaintances, really – are kind enough to him, but aware that he is different to them, alone in the world and essentially penniless but for the grants that the university has offered him, the cupboard of the apartment above a little shop. They keep their relative distance. And that is how it should be, for there is no doubt in Melchior’s mind that if he was to confess to them the truth he would be immediately institutionalised again – a circumstance he is desperate to avoid.
Melchior prefers to study than sleep, if only for fear of the nightmares, and so he is at his desk when Moritz’s inflectionless voice finds him one night.
Do you know what they say about you?
“No,” he replies absently. “Why? What do they say?”
The shade materialises on his desktop, sending papers flying about the room. Melchior jots down a reminder to purchase paperweights.
They say that you’re strange. That there’s more to you than meets the eye, no matter how smart you are. No matter how neat. Some say they almost expect the police to burst in in the middle of a lecture and haul you away.
He laughs at that, and bends to retrieve his notes, shaking his head.
“Hardly, Mori. Only you would say that.”
I was paraphrasing.
Get to the point, urges Wendla, gently. Tell him. Tell him.
That, in itself, is enough to warn him. The smile wanes from his lips.
Melchior, they think you’re hiding. And what reason would you have to hide? Why would a man as intelligent as you flee his family?
“They think I’m queer?”
Moritz’s dark eyes meet his own, and when he shrugs apologetically it is a gesture of so very much himself that it hurts. How many times did he see Moritz, the living boy, the human being, shrug that way?
“Well, they wouldn’t be wrong.”
Wendla laughs, like the ringing of distant bells in the wind. Moritz stares down at his perpetually-bitten nails in worry, then turns his big, sad eyes on Melchior again.
It’s not funny.
“It’s slightly funny.”
The shade’s voice grows cold.
Lukas, in your history class. Quiet boy; pale hair, pale face. He was arrested, Melchie, he could have been killed. The other boy was. His family paid stupid money to get him out, Melchie. You don’t have any money. You don’t have any family. You’ve got the scholarship and the old man downstairs who complains about your screaming all hours of the night.
“Fuck, Mori.” The nickname, the mentions of the nightmares – those are low blows, and Melchior, foolishly, allows himself to rise to them in anger. “Is this why you wanted me to talk to that stupid girl-”
He hears his mistake almost the second that it’s passed his lips, but that isn’t quite quick enough to stop it, or to stop what comes after. What once was Wendla appears with her dress soaked in blood – more blood than ever possible, Melchior knows that, the epicentre where her heart is and not the wound that killed her – and her expression twisted into darkness and fury, and the half of Moritz’s face that hasn’t been blown away wearing the same expression.
Perhaps if I wasn’t dead, hisses Wendla with such venom that he flinches, you wouldn’t have to.
Perhaps if I wasn’t dead, agrees Mortiz in a growl. You wouldn’t have had the chance.
But we are!
Their voices are hellish shrieks as they accuse him over and over; he collapses after a few minutes, the shadows of the room growing into a creeping dark that seems to swallow him whole as the shades howl their rage at him, squeezes his eyes tight and holds himself.
He has no idea how much time passes in that way. But at some point there is silence in the place of voices, filled with a wretched sort of sobbing that he realises, gradually, is coming from him, and an unsynchronised thumping that is half his wild heartbeat on his ribs and half the occasional angry banging of a broom handle against downstairs’ ceiling.
“-mean, what the hell is Herr Müller even talking about? Huh – Gabor?”
Clicking. In front of his face.
“Good god, man. Sleep at all last night?”
Melchior blinks until his vision clears and he can focus on the sight of his classmate’s face, who just happens to be perched about four inches away from him on top of a lecture bench, and appears to be rifling through Melchior’s notes for what he must have missed.
“Not really.” he confesses, tone dismissive, as though that and the most wicked smile he can muster can chase away the insidious concern of the student. “Why?”
“You’re goddamn relentless. Look at this! How the hell’d you find the time for ladies and still do this kind of work? Huh?”
The young man reaches into his front pocket and extracts a cigar as Melchior shrugs: he’s perfectly pleasant, even if the snub nose and broken capillaries in his cheeks speak to a certain degree of aristocratic inbreeding, and Melchior finds himself inclined to stay in his good books. If Mortiz wasn’t just bluffing to frighten him last night – because God, or more probably Lucifer, only knows why the shades do as they do sometimes – this guy isn’t one of the students ruminating on his preferences. There’s no memory of a name to put to the somewhat-familiar face, although he’s sure he knows it.
“Mind if I smoke?”
It’s against the university rules to do so in the lecture halls. He feels a waft of disapproval that doubtless comes from Wendla.
“No, of course not.”
But if the young man doesn’t care, neither, Melchior decides, does he.
“You hear the latest in the cafeteria?” says the young man, and only glances at where his companion has reclined slightly in his seat as he blows smoke the other way. It’s still enough for Melchior to notice the glint in his eye.
“I’m too busy to spend any time there, clearly. Anything really good, though?”
The young man makes a non-committal humming noise, noticeably stalling. “I guess that depends. I mean, you wouldn’t care much about Luis’s latest conquests, if you haven’t been keeping up with that ridiculous saga from the off.”
He snorts amicably.
“Oh, but Lukas is getting married. There’s that.”
When Melchior’s eyebrows quirk up in surprise he sees, almost certainly because the unsubtle bastard was watching for it, and chokes slightly as he laughs around a mouthful of smoke.
“I know! Hard to swallow, but it’s true; he’s got a photograph of himself and the lucky girl to prove it and everything. And a ring, of course.”
So unless Moritz was lying out of his ass...
“Who would have thought it.” Melchior says, not bothering to disguise how carefully he chooses his words, and waits for the young man’s reaction.
The sly look aimed his way makes him think he may have underestimated him. Everywhere you go, apparently, there are Hanschens.
“It seems there’s hope for everyone.”
It’s not hard to spot Lukas. Even if Mortiz hadn’t materialised just to point like a macabre signpost, the poor fuck is surrounded by a whole gaggle of other students laughing uproariously and making lewd comments as they slap him on the back. He’s frail, lightly built, just as pale as Moritz had described, and he’s doing a remarkably good job of pretending to be happy.
All Melchior has to do to get to him is allow the boys’ momentum to carry him close to where Lukas is being crushed, wait for some of them to disperse. He throws his arm over the other man’s shoulder like they’ve been friends all their lives and ignores the way Lukas jumps; that is enough for the last remaining students to realise they have better things to do and wander away.
“Come on,” he tells him quietly, voice uncoloured with anything but a little ironic amusement. “Let’s go loose ourselves in a bottle.”
“Who – I’m sorry, who are you?”
That’s noticeably not a negative answer, Melchior thinks cheerfully.
“Melchior. Melchior Gabor, nice to meet you, we’ve been in the same class for several years and apparently we’ve never talked, you need to get too drunk to see.”
He glances over his shoulder to make sure that no one’s watching and sees nothing but Wendla and her mournful eyes alone amongst the neat tables of the cafeteria.
“I’m so sorry.” Melchior whispers, gripping his shoulder tight and allowing his expression that melt back into sincerity and deep sadness. “Really, I am. And the poor girl doesn’t know, does she?”
Lukas stiffens under his arm.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t play dumb.” It’s cruel, perhaps, but effective; it scares Lukas enough to make him babble in a panicked, frantic half-excuses and apologies and a name, again and again, like his first instinct is to blame the other man but he wants with all his heart not to have to.
“-and, I mean, Franz and I hadn’t even known each other very long and...”
He trails off the moment he glances nervously up to Melchior’s face; the eyes there are neither accusatory nor smug, instead filled with gentle pity.
“Y-You don’t know who Franz is – was. Do you?”
“Nope. But a little bird tipped me off in regards to your, uh... general circumstances. And I thought you might appreciate the opportunity to forget it all for a while.”
“Oh god,” Lukas murmurs, staring, and then buries his face in his hands and limply follows as Melchior begins to walk him in the direction of a club he knows all too well. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“That’s alright. Me neither.”
Lukas, halfway into his second mug of beer, still isn’t talking. He doesn’t look like he’s about to start, either. Do something for him, whispers Wendla in Melchior’s ear. For heaven’s sake help him.
“You can trust me, you know.”
A flash of hopeless eyes.
“Where I come from,” he begins again, and tries not to grimace at the thought of the little town, the little houses and the stupid little people and their stupid little lives. “No one dared question how you were meant to live – not the children, anyway, and I was only really a child. I suppose that if you stay there to be an adult you aren’t the kind of man to challenge anything. Or the kind of wife.”
But your mother was kind, says Moritz from his left shoulder. The shade doesn’t seem quite lucid, swaying slightly with his eyes flickering sightlessly from thing to thing. She was always kind, and she would have let you fly away one day, if not for-
“If not for Wendla and you.” Melchior whispers, more to himself than anything else.
Lukas, watching now, raises his eyebrows in a silent and undemanding query.
“If not for Wendla and Moritz, I would have stayed there.” he covers quickly, and leans forward on his elbows across the dirty wooden table in the corner they’re all but hiding in. “Moritz and I never- we didn’t even speak of it, I don’t think we knew how to speak of it-”
You still don’t, Melchie.
“But he started to have these dreams that he was afraid of; of, of, a woman’s legs, he said,” And Melchior chokes out a bitter little laugh at the now-tainted memory. “And he didn’t know why. So I told him. I thought I knew about the world from books, that I could teach him everything, and when he came to me to speak about it, we almost... Kissed.”
He takes a deep and shaky breath.
“We almost kissed. I wouldn’t have if he didn’t want – Moritz, he wanted to, I knew he did. But he panicked, grabbed his stuff and ran.”
“What happened?” Lukas asks, keeping his voice quiet and unobtrusive, almost as though he’s afraid to interrupt the hesitant tale.
“He killed himself.”
Lukas flinches at the bluntness of such a statement spoken point-blank.
“Not because of me, I think- I hope.” Melchior shakes his head, trying to clear it of the image he’s seen over and over again in his dreams: Moritz’s shaking form huddled against the roots of a tree somewhere deep in the woods, sobbing with regret and the realisation of deep, true loneliness as he stares at his own corpse, gun in hand and missing half its skull. “His father had disowned him because he failed his examinations, and he had nowhere to go. No one to turn to. I didn’t even see it, I was blinded by this girl, Wendla. She wanted things to change too, and she wasn’t afraid like Moritz, and. And she died, too. I was a stupid child and I got her pregnant and it killed her. When I ran away I came here, eventually.”
He brushes the tears away from his eyes roughly; it’s Lukas’s turn to show pity.
“They follow, don’t they?” whispers Lukas. “They don’t go away.”
No one else would even notice the way that the other man startles infinitesimally and shoots his eyes up to just behind him and back. But Melchior does, and he realises all of a sudden that perhaps he is not the only one with unpleasant, unnatural shadows.
“I only met Franz at university.” Strangely, Lukas’s voice is gaining steadiness as he goes along; the memory of his young man is fond, no matter how painful it may also be. “He was nice... he was a sculptor, and he was studying art here, and he was just nice. Kind, to everyone, but especially to me. At home people sort of knew – I mean, no one said it out loud, but we had servants and things and I didn’t yet realise that it was- that to be, like me, like you, was not okay. So I suppose people sort of knew. I never felt for women like you did for your Wendla, but, you know, you learn to keep quiet...”
Lukas drops his gaze to the plain gold band of an engagement ring around his finger and twists it guiltily for a moment.
“But Franz and I were stupid. We didn’t think that anyone would notice the way that we felt about each other, even though we didn’t even try and hide; he kissed me one day, just on the forehead, in front of his artist friends. They called themselves free thinkers, Bohemian spirits, but that? That was far too free thinking for them.”
“Someone told the police.” Melchior says, filling in the gap. “And your family bailed you out.”
“And bribed the court.”
“But they wouldn’t help Franz?”
Lukas shakes his head mutely and takes a fortifying swig of his beer. “They had him hanged.”
The moon is a pale brand burned into the deep dark velvet of the sky by the time two young men stumble out of a club and onto the streets, their arms companionably around each other’s shoulders and their voices loud as they hurl cheerfully angry obscenities into the night.
“Fuck it all!” yells the shorter one, his pale face flushed scarlet. The blonde hair on his head is in disarray, as though he has been running his hands through it in some great distress.
“Just... fuck off.” agrees the other, whose eyes are blearily but who otherwise appears to be a little more sober, and makes a disgusted noise at nothing immediately perceptible. “Stupid world!”
“Melchior, Melchior,” laughs the first young man exhaustedly. “Where are we going?”
“Oh, hell if I know.”
Melchior spins on his heel a little way, carrying his companion with him, and begins despite his protested nonchalance rather determinedly toward his own meagre apartment. Around them are young people of their own ilk enjoying themselves, a handful of old men with handlebar moustaches who regard them with amusement and vague disgust, and groups of women who hurry past them. Melchior’s heart sinks a little as he takes it all in.
“Listen, Lukas. You and I, we... We...” Words fall short, and he feels Moritz’s hand slip encouragingly into his own.
You’re both lonely, but it’s dangerous for you.
“We’re both lonely, but it’s dangerous. For us. You know?”
Lukas stops dead, jerking Melchior to a halt with him, fixes him with a look of despair and betrayal, and says, “You’re going to leave me alone with my fiancé.”
To his drunk mind, this is – unfortunately – incredibly funny.
“Sorry,” Melchior giggles. “But no one else would say that quite like their life was ending.”
Don’t be ridiculous, Moritz says calmly. Be compassionate to him. Say sorry properly.
“I don’t mean to be silly, please forgive me. I’m intoxicated. But, there are rumours, about both of us...”
And if my past is investigated there will be trouble.
“And I can’t have people digging up my life before Berlin, Lukas, I can’t.”
He squeezes the shade’s hand and tightens his arm around Lukas’s shoulder simultaneously, afraid without real reason that either of them will leave him suddenly. His entire being reacts suddenly, tangibly against the fear of being alone after so long in the constant company of Mortiz and Wendla, and he thinks safety be damned and makes a turn completely on his head.
“You know what, never – never mind, forget I said that.” he babbles to Lukas, plaintive. “Come home with me. Please.”
You know you can’t do that, Melchie.
“Just for tea. Or a place to sleep, if you want away from...”
Lukas nods weakly, exhausted by the conversation, and stares at him again. But this time, he doesn’t simply allow Melchior to wander away with him.
“I don’t get you, Gabor. I mean, every time so far I think I’ve understood you, the real you, some other version surfaces.” Lukas narrows his strangely perceptive eyes behind thick spectacles. “It’s like there’s three separate people in your soul.”
Melchior could almost laugh.
Instead, he feels the blood drain from his face as he offers a frail, hysterical smile, and pulls himself loose of the other man’s grip to fall to his knees on the pavement.
He vomits violently. The lingering discomfort of the night before, the constant terror of being found out, the alcohol, and talking frankly for the first time of what had occurred in his hometown combines into a toxic cocktail of emotions that is only made more intense by the concerned touch of both of the shades and Lukas on his back and shoulders.
“Come on,” murmurs a voice so human that Melchior allows himself to shudder in relief. “I’ll take you home, and I’ll go back to Greta. That’s what you want, right?”
Greta. That must be the name of the girl he’s being forced to marry; he hasn’t mentioned it yet.
Wendla seems to catch onto Melchior’s vague interest. The woman, is she a bad person? she asks, putting words into his mouth again. Rather than trying to deny her will, he helplessly parrots them.
Lukas seems surprised at the question.
“N-No – I don’t think so.”
A proper young lady, raised well by her family, taught nothing of the facts of life? continues Wendla craftily. Melchior finally understands, with a stab of ice-cold guilt through his heart at the reminder of Wendla’s innocence when she died, and relays the message more gently to Lukas.
“Would Greta know anything, Lukas? Anything at all about...” He hesitates, feeling like a boy whispering in an empty classroom again, then shakes it off. They’re adults. No one cares if they’re being polite: they’re drunk in the street. “Marriage, sex, procreation.”
“Because most young ladies really don’t.”
Lukas’s eyebrows crease and Melchior nods matter-of-factly, something in the way that they’re back to discussing women lending him confidence.
“No, really, they don’t. They’re told too late or-” Or not at all. “-not at all. Chances are she’s going to want to about as much as you do, so don’t feel so bad about it.”
For a moment, the night is quiet and clear. Melchior glances up at the burning moon and scowls, then allows himself to be swept away by the tide of nervous, still half-drunk conversation.
In the morning, life will go on. He and Lukas will lock eyes in their classes once or twice, and not dare to stare for too long or speak to each other for fear of being noticed; he will sit down at the sunny cafe again, at the same table at the pretty young woman and smile at her charmingly, swallowing his pride; the shades will remain as eerie and silent as ever, watching and waiting for him to slip so that they can hound him.
But it is not morning yet, and watching the two ridiculous young men stumble away, two figures stand swaying in the almost imperceptible breeze. Moritz reaches out his arm to Wendla, and she to him: were they to extend their hands, their fingertips would meet.
They do not smile, but their eyes are glad.