Class let out at three and Erwin knew the tea-maker wouldn’t stop by until after five, assured that all the students would be long gone. He was a solitary type after all, tending to his tea plants across the lake and having little interaction with many other townspeople aside from that necessary for buying and selling at the market.
And aside from talking to Erwin.
In the meantime, Erwin graded a few of his students’ papers and planned what he would teach the next day, and spent the last half-hour before the tea-maker’s arrival reading a novel.
The knock at the door was always quiet.
“Come in,” Erwin called. It was a familiar routine. The tea-maker, Levi, would knock, Erwin would call him in, and they would make their exchange. Levi would give Erwin tea and Erwin would lend him books from his personal library, which also doubled as the school’s library.
“How’d you find it this time round?” Erwin asked, taking the book Levi held out to him. It was a very old, very worn copy of the Iliad. Levi added a little x to the back cover every time he finished it; there were six little crosses there now.
“I underlined a couple of my favourite lines,” Levi said by way of reply. “I hope you don’t mind. I know you’ve read it plenty too, but I thought you might like to read those parts again. If you’ve got the time.”
Erwin smiled. “Of course. Thank you, Levi. What’ll it be this week?”
Levi crossed the room to the bookshelves that lined the opposite side. Erwin always liked this part, because when he was thinking Levi would run his finger along all the spines and mutter the names of the books to himself. He pulled faces at the ones he thought looked terrible and slid some potential candidates out before pushing them back in again. The inevitable question came at last: “Any recommendations?”
Erwin crossed the room to join him, and then went to the “L” section. “Here,” he said, pulling a hefty book free and putting it in Levi’s waiting hands. “It’s very long, but it’s very good. I’ve read it twice. I think I might have actually left a few notes in the margins last time. You’ll like it, I think.”
Levi thanked him and went back to Erwin’s desk so he could set it down, and pulled two boxes out of the bag he’d brought with him. One had Green written on it, the other Black. “It’s been mistier lately, which is good,” he said, putting the little boxes on Erwin’s desk next to the book. “And I processed the leaves slightly differently this time. I think the taste should be better, but let me know what you think.”
Erwin went to thank him in return, but coughed instead. They had no fireplace to warm the schoolhouse, and arriving early in the morning when it was still frosty out hadn’t been good for his health lately.
After looking at him for a moment with concern, Levi dug into his bag again and pulled out a little jar, adding it to the boxes of tea. “It’s medicine I made from my tea plants,” he explained. “Have a little in the morning and evenings. It’ll clear that cough right up. And you’ll probably live to be at least a-hundred if you take it for long enough.”
“Got anything in there to help me sleep better too?” Erwin asked jokingly, nodding towards Levi’s bag.
Levi gave a small smile. Erwin liked how Levi managed to put so much into such a tiny expression. “It’ll help with that too. It’s the only way I manage to get more than a couple of hours.”
Erwin’s fingers ran over the boxes. They were handmade by Levi, little wooden things that he collected back off Erwin when he started to run low.
Erwin used to only drink one cup of tea in the evenings after dinner. He wasn’t sure exactly when the change had occurred, but these days he seemed to be going through at least five cups a day, if not more. Whether that was a result of an acquired taste for the tea or for the person who made it was equally a mystery.
Erwin always felt a certain disappointment when Levi left.
After Levi was gone, he flipped the Iliad open to find the pages he had marked. Levi had put little crosses beside the underlined passages. They made Erwin smile.
Wind had been howling all day, making the old schoolhouse creak and groan. Rain pounded against the roof and leaked through, pooling for a while on the floor before Erwin found a bucket to catch it. For the rest of the day he watched on helplessly as the children shivered from the cold, turning purple and red as the brisk outdoor air forced its way in.
It was a Tuesday, and Levi arrived shortly after five as he always did. Tuesdays were their exchange days, a week giving Levi enough time to devour the latest book he had borrowed and Erwin to finish all the tea he had ordered.
The latest book was returned and Levi scoured the shelves for a while before finally asking for a recommendation, and tucked the book Erwin offered him into his bag, wrapping his arms over it protectively to keep the rain out once he stepped back outside.
It was at this point that he gave his attention to the nearly-full bucket sitting on the floor. The rain had been plinking into it non-stop since his arrival. “I can fix that,” he said, nodding to the place in the ceiling where the water was seeping in.
Erwin looked up at the leak too. “You can?” he asked. “The children are freezing with the rain and wind getting in.”
Levi stepped closer to the hole, peering up at it. “It won’t take me long.”
“What would you like in return? I’m afraid the school doesn’t get much funding—I couldn’t afford to pay you.”
“A book?” Levi said after a moment. “I don’t own any of my own.”
“Three books,” Erwin said. He smiled at Levi. “Any three. Your choice.”
“Three books,” Levi agreed. “I’ll come back tomorrow morning with my tools.”
Despite Levi’s promise to come in the morning, Erwin didn’t think he would come until late in the afternoon again, once the students were gone.
But class was only an hour in when the quiet knock came at the door, and Levi stepped inside wearing a tool-belt filled with an odd assortment of tools and a bandana around his neck. He seemed a little off-put by all the eyes turning to stare at him, but visibly relaxed when he caught sight of Erwin. He held the bag he was carrying up in a silent question, and Erwin nodded at him, resuming his lesson while he watched Levi make his way over to the leak from the corner of his eye. After inspecting the inside of the ceiling, Levi disappeared back out through the door. Erwin heard the sound of a ladder being leant against the schoolhouse and footsteps on the roof moments later. Hammering and movement above went on throughout his morning lesson.
The children poured outside for their lunchbreak and Erwin finally had a chance to go out and ask Levi how it was all going.
“I’ve just finished up, actually,” Levi answered, stepping down off the ladder he’d brought with him. He pulled down the bandana covering his mouth and picked up a cloth to wipe his hands on.
“And the books you’d like?”
Levi seemed hesitant.
“I promised you any three you wanted,” Erwin reassured him. “And I don’t like backing out of promises, so you’re going to have to choose them.”
“The Iliad?” Levi said after a moment. “Would that be okay?”
Erwin went to retrieve it for him, and Levi selected one he had read and enjoyed before and one he hadn’t read yet. They only had a few minutes left before the children would return for the afternoon lesson.
“You know,” Erwin said, “the door has been jamming lately. The younger children struggle to open it sometimes.”
“I can fix that.”
Class finished and Levi stepped aside from the door, watching on as the children pushed it open effortlessly and shoved at each other to get out first.
When they were all gone, Erwin went up to Levi with a book in hand. “As promised,” he said, smiling as he passed it to him. “You know, the legs of my desk are uneven. It wobbles when I’m marking papers.”
“I can fix that.”
It was late in the evening, dark outside. Erwin helped Levi turn his desk back up the right way, the legs sanded down to an even length. He told Levi he didn’t need to help him reorganise his desk, but Levi was adamant that it was part of the job.
They worked in silence for a while, refilling the draws and setting Erwin’s papers and books back in their place. When they both reached for a folder at the same time and their hands touched, neither pulled away immediately.
Levi’s gaze lifted for a moment to meet his.
Then Levi took up the folder and moved away, putting his back to Erwin while he set it on the desk.
Another book was selected and passed into Levi’s hands. He was starting to grow his own collection.
“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll work for free,” he said, holding the book back out to Erwin. “I don’t want to ruin your library.”
Erwin’s hand curled over Levi’s, pushing the book still in his grasp back towards him. Levi’s hands were cold. “I’ve got plenty, Levi. Books are meant to be read and shared. And they’re all I have to offer you.”
Their eyes met again.
“That’s not true,” Levi said quietly. But he took the book and turned for the door.
It wasn’t until he reached it, about to leave, that Erwin burst out, “The window! It’s starting to warm up, and the window won’t open anymore. We could do with a breeze once it gets hot.”
Levi nodded. “I can fix that.”
Erwin stood in the doorway and watched Levi’s small frame disappear into the darkness, book clutched close to his chest.
On Thursday evenings Erwin taught an adult class. Levi had started on the window during the day but had forgotten a tool he needed, and promised to return and finish the job in the evening.
He worked quietly to the side while Erwin gave his lesson; so quiet that Erwin might have forgotten he was there, were it not for the fact that his gaze kept sliding—seemingly of its own accord—back to him.
Eventually the clock tower struck eight o’clock, the end of class.
“My father just bought a new boat,” Marie said to Erwin, sidling up to him. She was one of his brightest adult students, beautiful too. Years earlier, when they were both teenagers, Erwin had sworn he would marry her someday. Funny how things change. Leaning on his desk, Marie ran a distracted finger along it. “Maybe you’d like to take a ride out on it with me sometime?”
Erwin’s answer was gentle but firm. “I appreciate the offer, Marie, but no thank you.”
She seemed put-out, but only for a moment. “We could go out across the lake. This spring weather’s been so lovely lately. Don’t you think that would be fun, Erwin?”
“I’m afraid my work keeps me too busy for such pleasantries.” He wanted Marie to go away. Some part of him acknowledged that Levi had stopped working and seemed to be listening in on them.
“You deserve a break,” Marie pressed. “One afternoon couldn’t hurt?”
He added just a little more impatience to his voice. “As I said, I appreciate the offer, but no thank you.”
She took the hint, pushing herself off Erwin’s desk with a little huff of annoyance.
As she passed by Levi, Erwin caught the look exchanged between them. The only other person left in the schoolhouse was Nile Dok, who glared at Erwin before following Marie out the door.
Over the following weeks the schoolhouse was painted, a garden was planted around it, a new pathway to the door was laid down. Erwin started helping Levi, the two of them working side-by-side in the afternoons when classes were over.
“I’ve never seen a finer schoolhouse,” Erwin said one day, admiring their work. The sun was shining down on them, warm and pleasant. “Thank you, Levi.”
“Anything else I can help you with?”
Erwin looked over the schoolhouse. His eyes searched for any flaw, any small thing he could ask Levi back for. “One of the shelves is loose inside,” he said at last. “Too many books sitting on it for too long. I think it might collapse soon.” It was something he could fix himself, just like he could have fixed the roof, or the desk, or the window, or the door by himself. He was pretty sure Levi knew that.
Levi nodded. “I can fix that.”
Levi nodded again.
Erwin didn’t cry often, but certain books . . . He hadn’t read this one before. He would have to tell Levi about it. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
He was so engrossed, he heard the door open and the footsteps crossing the floor without really comprehending them.
Levi’s hand touched his chin, his cheek. Erwin looked up at him from his desk, blinking, hoping the tears would disappear.
“I can fix that,” Levi said softly. And he kissed him.
It was raining gently, tapping on the roof. It was probably cold inside the schoolhouse but Erwin wasn’t aware of anything now except for Levi leaning into him from across his desk.
The light inside made it impossible to see anything out the window. Not that either of them were looking anyway. They didn’t see Nile Dok on his horse out in the rain, watching them.
When Levi left he was still out there. Erwin stood in the doorway of the schoolhouse looking out, and for a moment their eyes met. Then Dok turned his horse and galloped away.
The flames roared, eating at the old wood of the schoolhouse and licking high into the sky.
There was nothing Erwin could do but stand and watch it burn. He could go to fetch water but who would help him? The rumours had spread as fast as the flames were now. He
had been caught kissing another man. As far as the townspeople were concerned, he and Levi had signed their own death certificates.
He caught sight of Marie standing at a distance, tears streaming down her cheeks. She looked at him and must have seen the question in his eyes, because she shook her head. I didn’t do this. I didn’t want this.
Then he saw Nile Dok. Memories flashed through his head as quick and painful as the flickering flames, a boyhood together. He remembered the day Nile told him he was in love with Marie.
Was that really fuel enough? Jealousy over a relationship that didn’t even exist?
Yes. But it needed to be disguised under something else. Something like a man kissing another man in a town where God’s eyes peered from every surface and every soul, ready to judge.
Dok held his gaze and Erwin knew that even if he hadn’t lit the fire himself, he had done as much as he could to fan the flames.
Fury welled in him. He stormed into the sheriff’s office and the smell of whiskey slapped him in the face. He had been prepared to demand justice but the words died on his lips. “You’re drunk,” he said instead, accusation, anger, disgust heavy in those two words.
The sheriff swayed as he turned to face him, giving a horrid smile and leering in too close. “I always get drunk before a hanging,” he drawled. “I’ve got men rowing across the lake right now to collect the tea-maker.”
“If you hang him,” Erwin said, “then you better hang me too. Because I kissed him back.”
The sheriff threw his head back to laugh and Erwin wished there was a knife close enough to swipe across that perfectly exposed throat. “Don’t worry, Mister Smith,” the sheriff said at last. “They’re setting up two nooses in the town square.”
Erwin pushed his way out through the growing crowd, ignoring the shouts that followed him: “There he is! Hope you like the feeling of rope around your neck, Mister Smith! You got nowhere to run!”
“Levi!” Erwin shouted, forcing his legs to move faster towards the shore. “Levi!”
He saw the other boat first, the one the sheriff had sent. It was a motorboat, moving quickly in the direction of the only other boat on the lake.
Levi had to row. Levi was strong, but he didn’t stand a chance.
“Levi!” Erwin shouted—screamed—one more time.
The gunshot made him jump.
Levi and his boat were just a silhouette against the water.
And then there was just the boat and the water, the dark shape of a body slumping down and out of sight.
“Levi,” Erwin said again, but the shout died down to nothing before it was even finished. Tears stung his eyes. The boat bobbed aimlessly, unmanned.
If fortune was on their side, maybe Levi had only been hit in the shoulder or arm. Maybe he had fallen and stayed put, knowing it was safer to let them think the shot was fatal. Maybe he was still breathing and Erwin would stitch the wound for him later.
But the ache in Erwin’s chest and the way his lungs didn’t seem to know how to take in air anymore told him that fortune had never been their ally.
Levi had read the Iliad seven times before it happened. Erwin flicked through the copy he had given to him and counted the crosses on the back cover, noting that a new one had been added.
Honour and glory.
Was it honourable to let Levi lie unavenged in an unmarked grave because he had dared to love Erwin?
Erwin’s father had left him an old pistol that he hadn’t touched in over a decade. It had felt unbalanced before, too heavy and cold in his hand.
When he took it up now, it felt as if it had been made to be used by him. Funny how things change.
Erwin took the book and the pistol. And he ran.
The sheriff first. The sheriff because he had sent those men out in the boat, the sheriff because he was supposed to oversee justice in the town and nothing about what happened to Levi and Erwin was just.
Exhilarating. Addictive. Satisfying—but in an empty, insatiable way.
He shot the sheriff through the heart before the sheriff could even talk, and then leaned in to press a kiss to the sheriff’s cheek. There was no kind of mark left behind and Erwin didn’t like that, so he took a knife and carved a little x in the same place.
Levi died for kissing a man.
The last thing his executors would experience while their bodies were still warm was the kiss of that same man.
The deputies were picked off one-by-one. He didn’t know at first which one had pulled the trigger in the motorboat. It didn’t matter. They all would have been glad of it and they all helped set up those nooses.
The first one begged him not to do it. A kiss and an x on the cheek.
The second one laughed in his face and said he had never enjoyed pulling a trigger more in his life. So that answered the question of which had done it. Erwin shot him through both ankles before shooting him through the heart. A kiss and an x on the cheek.
The third knew Erwin was coming for him—he was the only one left, after all—and didn’t say anything, just let it happen. A kiss and an x on the cheek.
None of it made Erwin feel any better about what had happened.
Grief blurred time. He couldn’t remember when he picked up Hanji and Mike—it felt like they had always been there, extensions of himself. They had their own vendettas, but that suited him just fine. Somewhere along the way they lost track of why they were doing any of it anyway.
Well, not entirely. He always knew it was for Levi. For the injustice of his death, for the grief and hurt it caused Erwin, for the anger. But vengeance killings became other things, bank-robberies and train heists, murders that had nothing to do with Levi or the bigoted town that had destroyed him.
Hanji did it for her family, she divulged one day. Or rather, for the fact that her family had disowned her when she was just a child because girls had no business being intelligent, and they were willing to beat the ambition out of her if necessary.
Mike did it for his little half-brother, dead for a decade because the boy’s father had been black and his mother was white.
But they got caught up in the thrill of it, the sense of power in taking back what oppressors had taken from them and taken from the people they loved. It didn’t matter anymore to Erwin that the sheriff and all his deputies were dead now, others too, or that Nile and Marie were the only ones remaining that had been involved in Levi’s death. It didn’t matter because the sheriff and his deputies were just different versions of all the other awful people out there.
So he charged through towns on horseback and left death and little carved crosses in his wake.
But all things come to an end.
Mike and Hanji slipped from his life as effortlessly as they had entered, Mike killed first, shot down, and Hanji later, drowned. It should have hurt him but it didn’t, because he was pretty sure he had been numb since Levi’s death and he had promised himself he wouldn’t care again anyway, it wasn’t worth it.
He was rich. He had never had money in his life, barely managing to keep the school running and himself fed. His library was mostly inherited and was all he had of worth.
Now he had enough money to buy the entire town if he wanted to.
He didn’t want to. He didn’t want any of it. No amount of gold could ever be worth Levi’s life. He buried it six-feet beneath the lake he had come to hate because seeing all that wealth sickened him.
When Nile and Marie came for him he was back where it had all happened, leaning upon the boat Levi had lived and died in. The lake was long gone, dried up under too many hot suns. Even now the sun bore down on him, the heat overwhelming.
He could see Levi clearly. He was crouching down at Erwin’s side, his bandana pulled down around his neck as if he had just finished working.
"It’s so hot, Levi . . .” Erwin murmured to him. “But I feel so cold.”
"I can fix that.” Levi’s voice was clear, firm. He would fix it. He would fix everything. He had come back. Did that mean this was a dream? Erwin reached out to touch his face, but before his fingers could brush his cheek—
“Where’d you bury it, Erwin?”
Erwin closed his eyes. When he opened them, Levi was gone.
He turned his head to see Nile and Marie. He pulled his gun on them, enjoying the way they both flinched. “I’m not going to kill you,” he said, lowering the gun again. “You know it hasn’t rained here since the day Levi died? Why is that?”
Nile had his own gun. His hands trembled as he aimed it at Erwin’s heart. His eyes were wide, frightened. “We were friends once,” he said. The tremble was in his voice, too.
“We were,” Erwin agreed. “And then a few years passed and you set my schoolhouse on fire and supported the murder of the man I loved. Funny how things change.”
“We didn’t do anything to Levi!” Marie cut in. “Please, Erwin. Just tell us where you buried the money. We’re desperate.”
“Why? Why are you desperate?”
“Two kids already.” Marie put a hand to her stomach. “Third on the way. The lake seemed to take everything else with it when it dried up. There’s no money left to be made.”
“I suspect you saw to that, Erwin,” Nile added.
“I suppose I did. You can search for the gold, if you like. The lake goes on for miles.”
“Just tell us,” Nile said. He moved his gun, reminding Erwin that it was still there. “Tell us before someone else comes along. I don’t want to hurt you, Erwin. We were friends. But others—others won’t be like me. You’ll wish you were dead by the time they’re done with you.”
Erwin let out a small, empty laugh. “I’ve been wishing I was dead for a long time. And there’s nobody else to come for me. I killed them all.” He turned his head back to look at Nile and Marie. “You, your children, and your children’s children can dig for the next hundred years, and you’ll never find my money.”
A snake slithered out from beneath Levi’s old boat. Erwin grabbed it just behind the head and held it close to his wrist.
“Start digging, Nile.”
The snake’s fangs clamped into his skin.
The venom burns, Levi. I don’t want to feel it anymore.
“I can fix that.”