Sunday, July 29, 2012

Short Story: Twisted Love

   Reluctantly, she knocked on the door. She had been standing on the porch for many minutes, quietly and slowly freezing in the chilled night air. Her knuckles stung as she rapped them against the door.
   There was no immediate answer, and her insides swelled with hope. But then the door opened and Richard peered out at her. Her heart sank, but she tried not to show it.
Richard stood there for a second, regarding her with an inscrutable expression, before saying, “Well, hello there.”
   She smiled, and between the cold and her anguish, it almost hurt, the smile. It was a fissure that had opened across her face, splitting it painfully. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.
Richard leaned back inside, the top half of his body disappearing behind the door. A light came on above her. She squinted at it, like a person dazed.
Richard straightened himself and looked at her with a pleasant enough expression, though his smile wasn’t as big or generous as it should have been, she thought. He put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the doorjamb. Her heart was racing.
Richard looked like he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words. He seemed more amused than frustrated by his inability to speak.
She started to explain again why she was there, repeating what she had told him on the phone. Her words were disjointed, tumbling out of her mouth all a-jumble. He started nodding in the way of inattentive people.
“Are you cold?” Richard said suddenly. Before she could say anything he reached out for her hands, which had been tucked under her arms. He grasped them and pulled them toward him. She let him. Richard brought them close to his face and made a show of inspecting them. “Mmm, they look positively frostbitten,” he murmured. He rubbed her hands, interlacing his fingers with hers and gently squeezing.
She wanted to maintain eye contact with him, but she couldn’t and instead looked down.
“Well, let’s get you inside,” Richard said, the slightest hint of impatience in his voice.
He led her inside the house. In the foyer, Richard offered to take her coat. She stretched one arm out and then the other as he tugged the sleeves off. There was little in the way of incidental contact between them as her coat was being removed, for which she was thankful.
They walked into the living room and Richard told her to sit on the couch. She eased herself down, worried that he would try to sit next to her. But he left the room without a word.
She stared straight ahead, still as stone, transfixed by an ornate statuette on the mantelpiece across the room that she wasn’t really looking at. She told herself she should leave, just get up and go, in that reassuring manner that people have when telling themselves they are free do something they know deep down is not an option.
Richard returned with two wine glasses half-filled with crimson libation. He handed her one of them. She obediently took it and brought it to her lap without taking a single sip. Oblivious to her reluctance, Richard walked across the room, taking a healthy swig from his glass. He sat down in an upholstered chair, and she felt a little more at ease.
But that modicum of comfort swiftly vanished when many long moments passed in silence and she realized that Richard had stationed himself in a spot where he was able to scrutinize her, which is what he was doing, openly, with startling assurance. She nervously turned away from his naked interest.
Richard cleared his throat and said, “So. How are you?”
She started to tell him how things were not so good, how she was in a bit of trouble and…. She trailed off when she heard Richard chuckling softly. She shot him a glance, both quizzical and indicting.
Richard held up his hands in mock defense. “I’m sorry,” he said, smirking. “Just so you know, the correct response to ‘How are you?’ is ‘I’m fine, how are you?’ That’s what you’re supposed to say, even when things aren’t fine. Especially when things aren’t fine. You’ve always had that problem, you know—taking the question at face value. One of the many things you never picked up. There’s always something wrong. It doesn’t mean people really want to hear about it.
“It’s also rude,” he added, “to let a proffered drink sit idly in your hands. What you have there is a vintage ’65. I opened it for this special occasion.”
She tightened her lips guiltily and took a few quick sips of the wine. Before she could tell him it was good, he darted over to the couch, next to her. She reflexively tried to scoot away but she was already flush against the armrest.
Richard reached out and started to rub her back. She managed not to flinch too much.
“You look tired,” he murmured.
She shrugged her shoulders, a frozen smile on her face.
He continued to trace slow circles on her back. “I can’t believe you’re finally here. After all this time,” he said. His voice was hushed, almost a whisper. She half-turned away from him, realizing too late that she was exposing even more of her back to him, which allowed Richard to place both of his hands on her.
She felt him shift on the couch, bridging what little gap was between them. She instantly leapt up and took a couple quick strides to the mantelpiece, feigning interest in the knick-knacks that were on the shelf. She could see Richard in the mirror on the wall, and she caught him rolling his eyes. But he remained on the couch, which was the important thing.
She picked up a glass figurine and started to ask him about it when she noticed that the couch was empty. She swiveled around, frantic. Then she saw him lighting candles around the room. He went from the coffee table to the glass stand next to the couch, leaving a trail of small flames in his wake. He made his way over to the mantelpiece, bringing the lighter up to the wick of the taper candle on the shelf. He settled there, next to her, like newly perched crow.
Richard gazed at her. She gave him a small, timid smile, then looked away. She took a few steps away from him, and he stayed where he was, allowing her to move farther away.
Richard stared up at the ceiling ruminatively. “You know, I used to think about how it’d play out. I thought about it a lot, endlessly,” he said in a solemn voice. “I would envision it happening, you coming here, how nervous we both would be, the initial awkwardness. There would be a fair amount of talking around the matter, a lot of beating around the bush, as it were. Are you familiar with that saying, Beating around the bush? Do they say that where you’re from? I never did find out where you’re from....”
She started to tell him but he stopped her with a dismissive wave.
“I’m sorry, Favia,” he said. “I don’t care. There was a time that I would’ve listened to you tell me all about where you grew up, your childhood stories and all that, but I just can’t even pretend to care right now.”
Richard drummed his fingers on the shelf for a moment, then continued: “I had a theory, back in the day. I thought that if I could somehow get you in my house—or, more specifically, get you in my bedroom—something would happen. Even if you had no intention of anything happening, even if you were sure that it’d be a simple friendly visit. You told me so many times that you’d do that: stop in for a nice, friendly visit. And I believed you for the longest time. But if you ever did, I was convinced that if I could somehow get you in my bedroom, the setting and situation would force something to happen. Like when you put a pot of water on the stove…it will boil over at some point. The components of you, me, and my bedroom would lead to inevitable events. I was sure of it.”
Richard furrowed his brow in remembrance. “It’s like these dreams I used to have,” he said. “They were awful. I would be zapped into a situation, without warning, without explanation. I’d be me but someone else, in that weird, obscure way that makes complete sense for the duration of the dream. The circumstances I was inserted into were horrible. I’ve forgotten most of them, but I do remember one where I was suddenly one of those old-time executioners. Like back in the Middle Ages. During a public execution in the town square with all the townspeople gathered around, the whole bit. There was this makeshift stage or platform so everyone could see, and the condemned person had his hands bound behind him and was bent over a block, his head hanging over a basket. And I had to kill him. It didn’t matter that I had no idea what the man had done or what had led to my being there. All I knew was that I had a huge axe in my hands and I was wearing a black hood. The crowd urging me on. I had to do it. The situation called for it. It made me realize that time and place dictates action more than anything. Not your will, or desire, or sense of right and wrong. Put someone in a certain situation and they are capable of doing anything.”
She wanted desperately to leave. She couldn’t stop trembling. Richard stood there, watching her. She put her hands on the shelf and sagged forward. She found herself face to face with the statuette she was inattentively staring at before. It was a sinister-looking gargoyle, its eyes demonically slanted, its maw contorted with hideous intent. She felt sick.
Richard moved closer to her, and she felt his arms start to wrap around her. With a choked sob, she tried to ask him a question, but her words came out in broken pieces, her voice trailed off into silence.
But something must have gotten through. She felt his hands halt their slow approach and slide away. Richard walked away from her. She quickly wiped her eyes, smearing her eyeliner all over her face.
Richard came up behind her. “Favia,” he said softly.
She turned around and her eyes were immediately drawn to the stack of bills Richard was holding out to her. She felt her spirits rise as she eagerly took the money from him. She briefly luxuriated in the weight of it in her hands before stuffing it into her pocket. She smiled at him gratefully.
“Of course I was going to give you that,” Richard said. “I’m happy to help you in any way I can.” He was not smiling; she didn’t notice.
She was somehow able to reach out and give his arm a pat. She then mumbled about needing to leave, assuring him that she’d be back again sometime.
Richard made a sound like a sigh. “Ok Favia, I understand. Always on the move. Always too busy, always calling and hanging up.” He displayed his teeth. “But before you go, there’s a favor I want to ask of you.”
Before her heart could start to race again, he said, “Look at me.”
She looked up.
“Just look at my face,” he directed, not unkindly.
She did. She looked right into Richard’s eyes for the first time.
“How do you think I look?” he asked.
She started to say that he looked great, how young he looked, how nice his eyes were, how he looked like he always had….
Richard stopped her, turning her toward the hanging mirror. “Let’s now look at you, and I’ll tell you what I see.” After a moment’s inspection: “You look old, Favia.”
She glanced at him, expecting to see a jocular expression on his face, but instead his mouth was a tight, serious line and his eyes reflected nothing but dark clouds. “Not older,” he clarified. “Just old. It’s been, what, twenty years since we met? And now you look old and I look the same…isn’t that strange?”
She twitched nervously, started to insist that she should be going….
“Wait, please,” Richard said. “I just need to tell you this one last thing, then you can go spend that money on your troubles.” He went to the couch and motioned for her to take seat. She reluctantly went to the couch, sitting as far away from him as possible.
Richard took a deep breath. A long exhalation. “I wish I wasn’t your last option,” he muttered, barely audible, as if he were talking to himself.
Richard looked up at her, and said, louder, in the nature of a formal address: “Favia, you won’t understand what I’m going to tell you. To be honest, you’ve never understood a single word that’s come out of my mouth. But I need to tell you this, I need you to hear this.
“Twenty years ago, a short while before I saw you for the first time, I discovered something. Something magical, beyond the scope of explanation, not that you’d understand if it were….Suffice it to say that it’s a concoction of sorts, made of constituent elements one would not consider imbibing separately.”
Richard looked into her blank eyes and shook his head sadly.
“There’s a drink, ok? When you drink it, you stop aging. You are frozen at your current age.”
Richard saw her subtly nudging her pocket, checking to see if the money was still there.
“When I met you, I hadn’t had it for very long,” he continued. “Just long enough to know that it worked. And I was just starting the process of deciding who to share it with. I knew I wanted to share this amazing thing with someone special, someone I could imagine spending eternity with. Then I saw you, like a vision….” His shoulders slumped. “Or maybe you were simply just another pretty girl. In any event, I found you attractive.”
She automatically thanked him for the compliment while eyeing the door. She wanted to leave. She wasn’t feeling well, a little light-headed and woozy.
Richard couldn’t stop himself from letting out a short laugh. “Yes, and I’ve made that abundantly clear to you throughout the years. But you seem to have a potion yourself that makes you immune to my blandishments.” The twinkle in his eye was quickly extinguished and he became somber again.
“There were a couple times when you seemed so close to coming over….I mean, why didn’t you? Don’t answer, I know why. All those men, lavishing you with attention…but they’re gone now, aren’t they? They’ve abandoned the old hag. But that’s not how you see yourself, is it?” He looked at her with renewed curiosity. “I wonder how similar your experience is to mine. That is: Can one’s conviction overpower reality? Can one believe in something so much that it doesn’t matter what is actually happening?”
Richard scoffed, his nostrils flaring contemptuously. “Bah, it’s academic at this point,” he said. “And that’s not exactly your strong suit, is it?”
She said nothing.
“Language is such a barrier for you, isn’t it? I wish there was a way to know if you are below-average intelligence even in your own country….” He was talking to himself again.
Though her desire to leave had intensified beyond all measure, she was feeling more and more sluggish, weighed down by something unseen.
“Anyway,” Richard said, refocusing his attention on her, “I know you haven’t asked but you might notice that I’m still alone. It’s still just me, it always has been, all this time. Maybe now you realize that finding someone was a much bigger decision for me than it is for most people. This was a life-altering decision, for two people, made even more momentous when the lives in question would last forever.”
He pondered quietly for a second. “Is it going to be forever? Am I to never die? Nothing I’ve experienced in the last twenty years leads me to believe that I will perish—not from so-called ‘natural causes’ at least—but what happens when the planet ceases to exist? Or the whole universe, even? A question not many face: Will I survive the end of the universe? Have you even heard of ‘heat death’?”
Her mouth felt like it was full of molasses, her head full of rocks.
“I could still have you join me,” Richard said quietly. “There’s no age limit. You just stop aging the first time you take it, whatever age you might be.” His eyes were sad and full of regret. “But this is a gift for the young. For someone older it would cease to be a blessing. Even if you haven’t come to terms with it yet, you are old, Favia. There’s no two ways about it. And I’m not sure I could bear looking at you like this for eternity.”
She couldn’t feel her arms or legs.
“You might ask—well, not you but someone else,” Richard said, “someone else might ask if there’s a catch to making this thing I’ve discovered, something, say, that complicates the creation of this magical elixir. And that person would be very acute indeed, because there is in fact a catch. There’s always a catch. Are you following me? This is the last bit….”
She was barely registering what he was saying. It took everything she had to take one shallow, ragged breath after another.
“There are two things,” he was saying. “One: this potion, elixir, whatever you want to call it—it needs to be taken every year. So I suppose it was misleading to say that one remains ageless forever, more like you remain that way for exactly one year. Then you start aging again, necessitating another draught of the concoction.
“The other thing is that it requires blood. A good-sized cup’s worth. There’s no way around it. And not just any blood, but the blood of someone 25 years older than the biological age of the imbiber. I’ll spare you the details of how I figured this out; it was basically a lot of trial and error.”
Her vision was gone. She could no longer discern anything around her. Everything was either light or darkness.
Richard’s voice droned on. “As far as caveats go, this one could not be more perfect. My profession afforded me easy access to the blood of elders…it was just a matter of siphoning off the necessary amount every year. Not enough to draw attention to what was happening. No one knew what was happening, not even the unwitting donors. I don’t need to take so much that they die, you see. Just enough for a healthy-sized drink.”
A roar was building in her ears, making it hard for her to hear anything.
“I was let go from my job three weeks ago,” Richard said. “A potential disaster. But I had a plan, a plan I’d been formulating for a couple years now.” He looked over at her. “You never told me your age, Favia. Sure, you told me different numbers now and then, but I could never get a handle on it, you were always so cagey about it, like all women of a certain age. But even by my most conservative estimates, I figure you must be 49, 50. Almost certainly older. Which makes you old enough.”
Richard picked up her hand and rubbed it. “I can see that what I slipped into your drink has been doing its job. It’ll all be over soon. Now: could I have found an old, doddering geriatric, devoid of faculties, to get what I needed? Or could I just get a similar job elsewhere? Probably. But this will take care of two problems at once. See, you’ve haunted me, Favia… all these years you’ve haunted me. I’ve waited twenty years for you, hoping you’d come around. I haven’t shared my amazing gift with anyone in all this time. There were times I considered it, some young thing would appear who I thought I could potentially share my life with. But every time that happened, I thought of you. And at a certain point, I realized I would never stop thinking of you.”
Tears were streaming down his face. “I need you out of the picture, Favia. Only then will I be able to find someone else. I need you to be gone. I need to be free of you,” he sobbed.
It took a few minutes for Richard to compose himself.  “In a way,” he sniffled, “you’ll live on, just as I will. I plan to extract all I can and preserve it, freeze it, so I won’t need any more for a couple decades, maybe. We’ll live together. It’ll be nice.”
By this time, Favia was lost in her own private oblivion.
It was only after the deed was done that Richard came to a horrible realization.

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