Eli thought bitterly.
God help me, I did
by that time Bryce had already decreed it would be best for them to separate
and live apart ‘at least for a while.’ But it had still hurt that Ca
den had not
even paused to ask about him. And after ten days of keeping it to himself, the
rancor had finally spilled out of Eli.
could have just said no,” Ca
den said. His voice was stripped of all emotions. His
eyes were blank as he stood and considered Eli for a moment. “You could still
say no now. Call Lana. Tell her you’ve had enough. She’ll find someone else,
and you can live your life free of me. Just change your phone number and you
won’t even get those messages whenever I wake up and think I’ve missed our
den marched away, his back ramrod straight. His feet struck the
staircase with enough force that each step echoed behind him.
was only with great difficulty that Eli managed not to throw his glass at the
wall. Closing his eyes tightly shut, he took a few deep breaths, but it did
little to help him clear his mind. He felt a little unsteady when he stood and
went to the upstairs bathroom, intending to wash up before turning in for the
night. But when he splashed cold water on his face and looked at himself in the
mirror, his stomach twisted, and it had nothing to do with the alcohol he’d
it,” he murmured.
hadn’t meant to rant at Ca
den, not like that. Some of it was true—and whatever Ca
den said, Eli
refused to believe Ca
den hadn’t guessed his marriage was doomed, not when
he’d heard about Bryce’s first marriage—but for the most part it was unfair to
dump this on Ca
den. Maybe he could have helped, but Eli had hardly
made anything better every time he’d answered Ca
den’s messages in the middle of
dinner or even late at night. And like Ca
den had pointed out, Eli could have said no. He just hadn’t
wanted to. He’d imagined Ca
den in a recovery house, with strangers who knew
nothing about him, his habits, or what made him happy or sent him into sullen
strops, and the thought had been unbearable.
had chosen this, and he’d known exactly what he was getting into when he
agreed. He’d known they’d have the same conversation over and over. He’d known
he’d be all but tied to Ca
den. And he’d known exactly who Ca
den was. Who
he’d always be: the same man he’d been the morning of June
anything different was lunacy.
stared at himself a little longer in the mirror and, deciding he was sober
enough, made himself a promise. This was it. This was the last time he blamed Ca
den for any of
it. He hadn’t chosen his illness or its consequences. What he’d done was
entrust himself into Eli’s care, even after Eli had failed him by not figuring
out right away what was wrong with him. Eli refused to betray that trust again.
He hadn’t put up much of a fight to save his
He couldn’t lose Ca
den on top of
dried his face, then his hands, and went to knock on Ca
den? Can I come
in? I need to talk to you.”
lack of response wasn’t exactly a surprise.
coming in now,” he announced, and when Ca
den didn’t object, he pushed the door open.
den was curled
up on the bed, his back to Eli, still in his dressing gown. He hadn’t even
under the covers.
sorry,” Eli offered, feeling a little awkward at talking to the back of Ca
den’s head. “It
, I’m the one who let it fall apart, and it’s unfair
for me to blame you. I know it’s not like you’ll be able to hold me to this,
but I promise I won’t repeat this outburst. It was uncalled for, and I
paused, then, waiting for Ca
den to lash out with a particularly cutting bit of
den remained silent.
not going to go away,” Eli added, more quietly now. “I said I’d be there for
you, and I will. It’ll get easier. I mean, it’s hard to see you like this. It’s
hard to know you’re not going to get better. But if you and I think it through,
if we make up… I don’t know, a script or something that’ll make it easier for
you whenever you wake up, maybe you can find some sort of normality. And I
think it’d make it easier for me too if I don’t have to see you upset day after
didn’t answer. Sighing, Eli stepped up to the bed.
he muttered, tugging the bunched up blanket over Ca
“Just pretend you can’t hear me, it’s not like…”
words caught in his throat when he noticed the pill bottle in Ca
den’s hand. He
reached for it, and Ca
den didn’t try to hold on to it, nor did he stir when Eli
pressed on his shoulder until he rolled onto his back. His eyes were closed,
his mouth parted, and a tiny snore rose from his throat with each breath.
hand shook a little when he opened the bottle and emptied it in his palm to
count the pills. Two were missing. No more than two, thankfully. Ca
den hadn’t been
trying to make sure he wouldn’t wake ever again. He’d just made sure he’d
forget this conversation as soon as it had happened.
fair,” Eli mumbled, brushing the hair off Ca
den’s forehead. “How can I say I’m sorry if you don’t
even remember what I’m sorry for?”
den, of course,
was a long time before Eli left the room. When he did, it was with the repeated
promise that things would get easier if not better. They had to. If they
didn’t, what was the point of it all?
only a guess that brings Calden to a small tattoo parlor on the west side
of town. The
a soldier until he lost a leg to the
demons, was a friend of Riley’s
Riley was one of his first paying customers, demanding
that a sword be inked on the inside of her left arm
. Calden was there with her, though at the time he
wouldn’t have dreamed of marking his skin in a permanent manner. Today, though…
Necessity changes things.
pushes the door open and walks inside, his eyes sweeping the shop. The tattoo
artist—Leon—is at work in the back, bent over the arm of a client. He stops for
a second to wipe off the excess ink, glancing up at Calden and smiling.
Doc. Nice to see you again. Another one?”
he know? Apparently not. He seems to be assuming that Calden remembers his last
visit. Irrelevant. He knows why Calden is here; that’s all that matters.
you have time to do it tonight?” he asks, peeking from afar at the tattoo in
progress. A bird? No, a dragon. It has to be tonight. Calden isn’t
hallucinating yet. It’s only been three days, but he is tired, and if he’s not
working or busy, it’s hard not to let sleep claim him.
fifteen minutes, half an hour tops,” Leon says, already back at work. “We’re
almost done with this beauty. There’s paper on the desk, just go ahead and
write what you want this time.”
finds paper and a wide marker. He knew at the very second Eli slammed the front
door behind him which lesson was to be remembered today, but it still feels odd
to see the words written out, black on white.
better or Eli will leave you.
thought of writing ‘good’ rather than ‘better’, but
‘good’ isn’t enough. He has
to be better than his normal self. He
has to try harder. He could
avoid doing those things that make Eli’s lips turn to
a thin, angry line, like
soldiers as though they’re little more than pawns in Lana’s hands. He could
for Eli instead of always
waiting for Eli to make it for him, even though
made by Eli always tastes
inexplicably better. Mostly, he must avoid references to drugs and suicide.
that last one should be a given. He truly knows better. He learned
the topic is not one to be treated lightly in front of Eli. But today Calden
was annoyed at some
, and the words came out of their own accord. He
didn’t mean to argue with Eli. He certainly didn’t mean to anger him, or send
him striding from the
for ‘some fresh air.’ And it all happened anyway.
reaction is not unexpected. It’s not the first time he’s walked out because Calden
did or said something that upset him. The thing is, Calden has no idea how many
times it has happened since they’ve become more than friends. For all he knows,
it happens once a week, and every time Eli has more and more trouble finding a
reason to come back. It’s even possible it’s always the same argument.
a normal relationship—not that Calden ever had one of those, but he can infer
from observation—the parties involved in an argument either learn to compromise,
one of them changes their position to satisfy the other, or they run the risk
of antagonizing each other until the relationship dissolves. But how is Calden
supposed to compromise or change when he can’t
likes to think he knows Eli and what makes him tick. But the truth is, he knows
who Eli was back in early June: his best friend, a
, a field surgeon
who was injured on the front line and doesn’t trust himself to hold a scalpel
anymore. But that isn’t
who Eli is
anymore, as Calden started to realize when they woke up in the same bed three
days ago. Lover rather than friend, divorced, back in the operating room at
Calden’s side as an observer… What else is different? Calden could write entire
notebooks about Eli, but Eli asked him not to write anything at all, and so Calden
only has a few short notes in his diary. That, and the words on his skin. It’s
frustrating how little he knows.
thing is obvious: if Eli left, Calden would be lost. So he’ll have to do his
best not to make him leave.
Eli comes back tonight, and that thought is enough to render Calden deeply
half hour feels like ten times longer, but finally Leon’s customer stops
exclaiming how happy she is with the dragon now curling around her forearm and
leaves. Leon gives Calden a slight frown when he first reads the words, but
thankfully he doesn’t ask about them. With any luck, he won’t ask while he’s
working, the way he chatted with the customer who just left.
where are we putting this one?” he asks as he starts tracing the letters.
strokes his chest absently with two fingers. He’s noticed he’s been doing that
a lot in the past three days.
And inverted, like the others.”
few more minutes, and Leon has the stencil ready. The letters transfer easily
to Calden’s skin. Settling down in the tattoo chair feels absolutely foreign to
Calden, and he eyes the tattoo gun with something akin to wariness, his body
tensing against the first assault of the needle.
sensation is sharper, more intense than he expected… and yet, it immediately
feels familiar. Calden doesn’t remember getting his previous tattoos, but his
body, it seems, does, and soon relaxes into the flowing lines Leon draws on his
skin. It’s odd and somehow comforting to realize that, yes, he can remember new
things—just not with his mind.
a weird customer,” Leon says after a few minutes of work, never breaking his
rhythm. “You and your boyfriend both. Just words, with you two. Nothing fancy.
Not much fun for me.”
closes his eyes and doesn’t answer.
opens them again after only a second. It’s unlikely he’d fall asleep while
getting a tattoo, but better not to tempt fate. Waking up as a blank slate in a
tattoo chair he wouldn’t remember getting in doesn’t sound like it’d be all
that fun—especially for Leon.
you sure I can’t tempt you in making it a bit cooler?” Leon insists. “Some nice
shading? Small designs between the letters?”
would defeat the purpose of having it in my handwriting. I wouldn’t put decorations
on there, so I can’t have them. It’s that simple.”
gives him a look like Calden isn’t making sense, but he doesn’t argue the point
Leon is finally done and Calden looks at the new line of text in the mirror,
some of the worry nagging him abates a little. Eli won’t leave. Not this time.
And not ever, not if Calden has any say in it.
you remember how to take care of it?” Leon asks as he tapes a bandage over the
lies and says he does. He can look it
later, or, more probably, Eli will remind him.
out into the street, Calden rolls his eyes at the
waiting by the sidewalk. He hasn’t been in contact with Lana since
waking up, but he’s not surprised she would keep an eye on him. The diary
warned him that
his mother is
as annoying as ever, if not more.
gives him a questioning look, Calden considers
not getting in, but the alternative is going home and worrying if Eli
hasn’t come back. A few more minutes of distraction will be welcome.
climbs in, and crosses his arms over his chest before remembering the fresh
tattoo. He can’t hide a grimace
from the pain and from giving himself away to Lana. Then again
, seeing what establishment
walked out of,
there isn’t much mystery
what does this one say?” Lana asks, foregoing greetings.
my mother is a pain’,” Calden
, eyeing her sideways. “Do you
really have nothing better to do?
there’s no attack going on, you always like
pretend you’re in charge of everything
eyes remain firmly on the road.
comforting to know you’ll always be such a warm
. There are so few things in
life one can count on.”
himself, Calden feels the beginning of a smile pushing at his lips, so he turns
his face to the window. If
coddled him about his condition, it would be
absolutely unbearable. But this? This feels right. This feels normal. And
normal is the very thing Calden needs.
reason for the car ride?” he asks. “I am quite capable of
haven’t forgotten how to do that.”
sure,” Lana drawls. “Can’t I just want to see you?”
snorts. “Eli called you, didn’t he?”
doesn’t even try to deny it.
is part of our arrangement. We try not to leave you alone. Especially when
you’ve been awake for
back the protest that he needs no minder, least of all Lana,
Calden watches the city
on the other side of the glass. For him, days ago it was spring; now
the city is firmly settled into fall
with autumn leaves swirling everywhere. It’s
often do you swoop in when he can’t stand me anymore?” he asks after a little
as often as one would think.” Lana’s reflection in the window starts to reach
out for Calden’s shoulder, but apparently she thinks better of it and lowers her
hand again. “Certainly not as often as I expected when we sat down and talked
it out back in June.”
Lana says. Who is covered by that word?
I there?” Calden asks.
course you were there.” She snorts quietly. “It was about your life, wasn’t it?”
doesn’t sound like she’s lying or obfuscating, but Calden turns to her anyway,
looking at her properly since the first time he climbed into the car. She looks
older than her six decades. Or maybe she’s just tired.
maybe Calden is projecting.
the contingency plan?”
raises an eyebrow at him. “The contingency plan?”
play with me. What’s the plan for the day Eli tires of all of this? I know you,
and I know myself. There’s a contingency plan.”
odd smile tugs at Lana’s lips. “Maybe it’s Eli you don’t know as well as you
Calden demands, frowning.
he insisted there was no reason to plan for that eventuality. He was quite
convinced of it, even back in June, Calden. Right in the middle of a messy
separation, he was certain he wouldn’t leave your side. It was very telling.”
throat tightens. He can’t help but raise a hand to his chest. Even covered, it
hurts when he brushes his fingers against the tattoo, but the pain is welcome
and helps clear his mind.
a contingency plan,” he says, pushing the words out so they
sound a little rough. “I’m guessing Eli left the room at some point, and you
plans, yes,” Lana cuts in smoothly. “Of course.”
stops there, as infuriating as ever.
Calden asks, annoyed.
gives him a surprised look. “What? You want to know? Why? It’s not as though
you need that information now. The man needed a moment to himself, Calden.
That’s hardly anything surprising. Anyone living with you would at some point.”
grinds his teeth. “Just tell me.”
wouldn’t live with me
, obviously,” Lana
said. “I’m quite aware how you’d feel about that. Besides,
I’m rarely home. So, familiar
surroundings. Your grandparents’
grandparents’ house… The place where he and Riley spent their summers and every
school vacation when they were growing up. Out in the hills, far from
everything—including demons—with a garden and orchard, although they must need
some serious tending after all this time.
his head to clear his mind from childhood memories, he asks, “What does that