By Steve Berman
Dedicated to Dave Pinto
The old stairs creaked underneath him. Dave shifted the paper bag of canned goods into his other arm and gripped the long banister. Just one more flight until his floor. He paused to look at one apartment door to wonder if there was anyone left inside. And if there was, were they the sort to break in to another tenant's place and steal something precious?
On his hall the bulb had broken yet again. He stepped around the circular pattern the shards of glass had made on the industrial carpet. The lock on his door was shiny and new. The key to it was monstrous, all jagged and teethed. He hated both but after last month when he woke up in the middle of the night and found his place a mess, things taken, and the front door unlocked and wide open, he needed the security.
Inside the studio apartment, he was greeted by static from the radio on the coffee table. He set his package down and tried to find a station. How many were still broadcasting? At last he found a weak voice describing those areas of the city that had Fallen. So far his neighborhood was not listed. But he had his doubts.
His desk was a mess of papers. He pushed aside some ancient sketches and uncovered last month's rent check. No one had knocked on his door for it, and he had not seen another tenant in over two weeks. They must have all departed for safer zones. He picked up the check and tore it in half; the money in his account had already been spent so it little mattered.
He wanted to have the urge to go into the other side of his studio apartment, to where he kept all his art supplies and do something with his hands. But he had been dry of inspiration for so long and still felt nothing other than the urge to sleep and listen for the radio spitting dread news. The bedsheets were open, perhaps still a bit warm from this morning. He sighed and went to them.
Dave wondered if this was truly his dream. He lay on his stomach on a wide bed. The other boy was there, the one that made his breath catch and his heart ache. He was lightly dipping a paintbrush into a bucket of dark water. As the brush lifted over Dave, a few drops hit his bare arm. Each was bitterly cold, and if the other was not holding him down he would have twisted out of the way. The rough bristles lightly touched the skin around his shoulder blade. A tap. Another wet, chilled tap.
"I remember you once mentioned in front of the mirror how you'd like a tattoo here." The other boy breathed out deeply, perhaps a sigh. "I loved the idea. Let me help."
Dave woke sudden, felt his heart pounding. Always these days he would find dreams of him. Maddening, alluring, just too damn much for any artist. Was this all he could do? Dream of someone so warm and close, like a forbidden brother, yet while awake he'd stare at blank paper and canvas?
He rose up and went to the bathroom. In the mirror the face that had been called adorable or beautiful on occasion seemed totally unwholesome. The eyes seemed sunken, the jaw haggard. He looked older than twenty. Was that from lack of sleep the past few nights or simply because he had stopped caring about anything anymore, now that he could not work?
He closed his eyes a bit, blurring the reflection. It now reminded him of someone else. But he chased away thoughts of his dream and of the arms of the other boy. He needed to be awake, at least for another day.
So he turned the taps, heard the water groan out and hit the old porcelain. He splashed his face again and again, turning fierce, so that it was more like a wet slap that fell down his shoulders and neck. Finally he exhausted himself and groped and turned off the taps.
He could not tell if what dripped down off his face into the sink was the water or tears.
The last thing he had drawn was gone. With it some clothes and cash, but that had been enough to break his spirit. He had spent days on the drawing, sometimes moving the pencil so finely his eyes ached following his hand. What had started as a self-portrait had evolved into something different. Shorter hair, no scar marring the forehead from that car accident. Lips that were thinner, more apt to smile. Someone he would want to see. To hold and even to kiss.
It had won last year. The Haddon Township Art Show. Won only a blue ribbon, but that had been enough to keep him elated for days. He had not wanted to draw again for a while, just simply ride the high and see where it had led him.
And then came the Fall and an obsession to see where that would lead to also. Dread and worry kept him from his charcoals and pencils and paint. Pinned to the upper edge of his desk were newspaper clippings about the Fall. The one he most stared at was dated two months ago. A photograph of a city block, perhaps only a mile from here. Reality had fled and left a building's facade to peel away like bad rind and reveal a skeleton of fossil wood. What would the Fall bring to this building? What would happen to him? It always left him with the edge of panic keeping the breath in his chest tight.
He was sitting in one of those old-fashioned loveseats, thickly upholstered with lace on the armrests. He wasn't alone. He never was when he dreamt anymore. The other boy was there and it was so comforting even though they were not holding hands. Yet. In front of them hung a mirror, suspended in mid-air, unframed, a razor sheet of glass. One reflection, but Dave was not sure which one of them it was.
The other boy turned to him, bent closer and started to whisper and lick Dave's ear. He couldn't catch the words, but they were something wonderful he was sure.
"Oh wake up."
Sitting on the window ledge was a young man. Black jeans and ash-gray T-shirt made his skin seem stark white in comparison. His dyed-black hair was thick and wavy and unruly. He lifted and stretched out a leg, making his seat precarious with the open window and three-story fall. No shoes or socks, just pale feet. The face was interesting enough to notice twice.
"Who the fuck are you?" The words came out slow and weak. He was still reeling from his dream.
"Nice mouth. I'm Caleb." He said it like his name was almost obvious. Or infamous.
Dave wiped a hand across his face and muttered. This was insane.
A chuckle from the boy as he slipped down from the window ledge. He headed towards the open closet door. "Interesting floor you picked to live on. Down the hall there's an apartment that they rent out every three weeks because the tenants disappear regularly. Your next door neighbor has something growing under his bed. And you had Haddon."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Dave sat up in bed. How had this nut managed the treacherous climb to come through an open window?
"Relax. I just want to have a little talk." There was a slight edge to the words. "And grab the photograph."
The stranger casually walked around, stopping at the closet where he leaned against the door.
Dave crawled out of the bed. He wore only the boxers from yesterday. He saw how Caleb looked him over appreciatively. It made him reach for the jeans and sweatshirt on the floor.
"Like father like son."
"I don't understand anything you're saying." A thought suddenly occurred to him. That this Caleb must have been the one that robbed him before and must be so desperate that he returned again. Anger began to flare up, coupled with unease. He couldn't help but be nasty. "So, what are you going to swipe this time?"
One blackened eyebrow rose. "Fine words from someone trying to steal my boyfriend."
Dave shut his mouth. That was certainly not the response he had expected. Boyfriend? It had been months since he had been out socially. Perhaps longer since he had last dated, hell even slept with another boy. This Caleb must have been walking in a Fallen area and had his brains spindled.
"Don't look so innocent. I came here and caught you with him. In bed." He pointed towards the tangled sheets.
Caleb nodded. He took a few steps closer to where Dave stood. "At least Haddon has good taste."
"This is all impossible "
"Please. I said you were living in a Fallen area. What did you expect to happen?" He paused for a moment but Dave just stood there feeling lost. "You just can't know! No one ever knows what might happen."
His anger returned anew. "Who the fuck is Haddon?"
Caleb sighed. He turned around and the closet door swung open of its own accord. Inside was a mixture of hanging clothes and wrapped packages and taped boxes.
"He was in there."
Dave watched as Caleb grabbed the nearest thing. The brown paper unfolded at his touch, leaving naked a white board filled with charcoal musings. "Not bad, but he was your best piece. He likes to wear blue, cause of the ribbon he earned."
Understanding was a harsh blow to Dave. He even clutched his stomach as if punched. He stepped back and back until his shins struck the bed. What this boy was talking about, it could only be his last drawing, but could be talking insanity. Unless of course he truly was living in someplace where everything was wrong.
Caleb smirked at Dave's reaction. He held a shoebox. The lid slipped off without being handled. He dumped all of the little slips of memories onto the floor in a rain of papers.
"Where's the photograph?"
Dave stared at the pile on the floor. Glimpses of cars and spheres and other assignments from school waited to be scooped up and protected from stranger's eyes. He barely heard Caleb. "What?"
"The picture of yourself you used to make Haddon."
"Why do you want it?"
"Maybe it will sever the link you share." He rubbed a hand through his hair and for a moment looked so tired that he might collapse any moment. "You never know how jealous you can be until you wake up next to your love and see that he's still sleeping and he's harder for his dreams than he ever was with you."
"Maybe you're not the one for him." He said it softly, more to himself than to Caleb.
"Nice fucking incestuous image you're thinking." Caleb turned around and kneeled down to the floor and began touching everything in the closet, his hands brushing against everything. Wrappings pulled loose, clothes unbuttoned, boxes flew open and sprayed out their contents.
Dave inwardly grimaced at what was being done, but he didn't trust that he could stop Caleb from hunting. "Guess Haddon didn't pick you for your attitude." Still he caught himself looking at the boy's ass wondering if it was smooth and pale like the parts he could see.
"Damnit!" Caleb turned over until he was laying on the floor, his upper body still inside the closet. He shut his eyes tight. "It's not in here is it?"
"You like your dreams with him." He almost stuttered to get the sentence out.
"I guess. It's all strange. Everything he does moves me. So yeah, I do."
"Fuck." Caleb stamped the hardwood floor with both feet. "I've waited too long to find someone like him." He eased himself up on his shoulders and looked up at Dave. He held out a hand. "Help me up."
Dave considered for a moment, then offered his hand. When Caleb grasped it, he pulled and felt how light the boy was. He must be only skin and bones under that T-shirt.
They were inches apart and Caleb was staring deeply at him. Dave averted his eyes unexpectedly.
"Your a handsome son-of-a-bitch. I can see some of Haddon in you." He slowly lifted up a hand and went to touch Dave's cheek.
Dave turned his head and felt the hand fall upon the back of his head. The fingers lightly played in his long hair. "Wrong. It's the other way around. Some of me in Haddon."
Caleb shrugged. "Perhaps." He stepped back and glanced about the room. "The photograph. Open up to me."
Something took hold of Dave's throat. Nothing painful but he found himself forced to speak, as if coaxed by a power. Words came out rough and raw, not in a voice he liked. "The dresser."
"Much better." Caleb turned back. His face was long, almost as if he were upset with himself.
All the dresser doors slid open as he approached. The top one was filled with motley things, memories attached to each one. He slipped his hand inside and pulled out the photo. A black and white shot of Dave, taken two years ago. The face had lines of ink, altering it, but there was still enough there to see the resemblance.
Caleb spent a few moments looking it over. He glanced back at Dave and tapped the edge of the picture to his chin. "I prefer you with the shorter hair." He then took the photo in both hands and tore it in half.
Dave felt like his own insides were torn. Was that it? Were all those wondrous dreams, the ones he had feared but now wanted, over?
"I suppose you think me quite the bastard now?" Caleb tore each half apart until there was nothing left but checkered droppings that he let lay on the floor.
Dave nodded. He could not express to himself how he felt, let alone would he spare any words for Caleb.
"I don't always play well with others." He headed for the bathroom door. "Some advice. No, I suppose I'm simply telling you. All this," he raised his arms and motioned about him, "is nothing compared to the rest of the Fallen City. You wouldn't last a day there. So don't give any thought to finding out if Haddon is any better in real life."
The bathroom door which opened for him even though he was two steps away. Beyond was different. Not the room with its cracked tiles and rusted drains. But someplace else. Dave turned away; he was sorry enough for everything that this last sight, Caleb walking away the victor was too much to have stored in his memory. He heard the door close gently.
He woke to the radio giving static. No more local broadcast. Everything must have been swallowed up. His dreams had been like the static: annoying and empty. He thought about his drawing, somehow flesh. What did it look like? Like the other in his dreams?
He started to grow hard as he pictured this Haddon naked in bed, perhaps his own bed. The mental image widened to let in Caleb; he welcomed the picture, guided it through as dark clothes were thrown aside to make for naked twistings and tumblings. He was distractingly hard now.
Dave did not stay in bed long. Instead he went to the corner of the studio where he kept his materials. He soon found the roll of pristine white paper and began to sketch like he had not done perhaps ever. He let his hand have total control at a maddening pace. Some details were already fading. Had the eyes been so dark? The nose so sharp? He almost stopped. But then he realized this need not be perfect. Just as he had done with his own photo, he needed only the resemblance of Caleb to work. When he stopped because his fingers ached there was still much to be done. He sat back and wondered where his suitcase might be. He'd pack tonight, then finish the drawing where everything had Fallen. What he would end up with he wasn't sure, but that was all right. Caleb could use some competition after all.
Steve lives in New Jersey and can be reached at email@example.com