Shatterproof

Shatterproof by Xen Sanders
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-459-6
eBook release: 
Sep 5, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-460-2
Print release: 
Sep 5, 2016
Word count: 
61,300
Page count: 
224
Type: 
Cover by: 
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Saint’s afraid to die. Grey can’t stand to live.

Grey Jean-Marcelin wants to die. He thought painting his passion—vivid portrayals of Haitian life and vodou faith—would be enough to anchor him to this world. But it isn’t. And when the mysterious man known only as Saint saves Grey from a suicide attempt, it’s more curse than blessing—until Grey discovers that Saint isn’t just an EMT. He’s a banished fae, and can only survive by draining the lives of those he loves.

All Saint needed was a simple bargain: one life willingly given for another. But as Saint’s feelings for Grey grow deeper, centuries of guilt leave him desperate to save a man who doesn’t want salvation, even if Grey’s life means Saint’s death.

When Grey’s depression consumes him, only he can decide if living is worth the struggle. Yet his choice may come too late to save his life . . . or Saint’s soul. And whatever choice he makes, it may shatter them both. 

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

suicide attempts

1

“My name is Saint,” he said, “and I kill everyone I love.”

Saint stared down at the digital recorder in his palm. Seconds ticked by on the screen. His black-polished fingernail underscored the blocky numbers, accusing with every moment he stared, silent in the sluggish, slow heat of the balmy Georgia night. He was supposed to be telling his story. Recording the things he knew, so he could piece together the things he didn’t.

This was pointless.

He lifted the device to his lips again, hesitated, exhaled. “I call myself Saint, but I . . . I don’t know my real name. I don’t know where I came from. As far as I can tell, I’m over two hundred years old. I haven’t aged a day in that time. But sometimes . . .” He wet his lips. “Sometimes I start to fall apart. Sometimes I grow weak, faint. Until . . .” His heart rolled over, a heavy thing weighted with pain. “. . . until I fall in love. I’ve loved . . . God, too many. Calen. Michael. Remy. Dorian. Philippe. Arturo. Victor. Jake.”

He closed his eyes. Jake. Jake and his grass-green eyes; Jake and the way he’d breathed Saint, Saint as if the name was a prayer to save him. It had been eighteen years, and still he remembered the way Jake’s hands had spanned his hips, and how those hands had been so emaciated and feeble when his eyes glazed over and his body just . . . deflated, like there was nothing inside to hold it up anymore. He’d been the last. Saint wanted him to be the last.

He couldn’t stand to do this again.

“They always die,” he whispered, then pressed his mouth to the recorder, the little stipples over the speaker scraping against his lips. “It’s always the creative types. Artists. Musicians. Painters. Authors. Poets. They’re brilliant. They’re beautiful. They’re the only ones who can make me feel. Everyone else is monochrome, but for me they’re all the colors in the world and even when I want to resist, I can’t.”

He swallowed, thick and rough. “But then . . . something happens. This fire goes off inside them, and they become . . . God, I don’t know how to describe it.”

He opened his eyes and stared blankly across the room, his dark little warren of odds and ends collected over the decades. Then he looked at his arm, touched his chilled skin, traced his fingers over the patterns marked on his flesh in shimmer-dark ink. Right there—the firebird, brilliant in its sparks, coiling from his wrist to his elbow. That was Jake, burned forever into his skin.

“Transcendent,” he said. “Like a phoenix, just before it dies . . . only they never rise again. It’s like they’re burning apart from the inside out. Like their souls come alight and they’re bleeding them out through their art. And I . . . I think it’s my fault. I don’t know what I am. Some kind of incubus, maybe. I’ve never met anyone like me. But because of me, they burn out. They die. And for a little while, I don’t feel so weak anymore.”

He swore softly under his breath. Each word was a noose, tightening around his throat.

“Every time, I hope it will be different. Every time, I . . . I become a murderer all over again. I can’t believe it’s not because of me. I’ve been in denial for too long. It’s like I’m being punished for loving, but I—I just want to figure out what’s causing this.” His grip tightened on the recorder; the plastic cut into his palms, the heat of the battery warming his hands through the casing.

“So I can figure out how to stop.”

He paused the recording and hit Rewind. The track skipped back to 00:00, then started to play. His own voice lilted out, crackling faintly, racked with things he wished he knew how to stop feeling when every time broke him all over again.

My name is Saint, and I kill everyone I love.

What would happen, he wondered, if he never fell in love again?

He stopped the audio. Erased the track, tap-tap-confirm, yes, absolutely sure. Started again, pressing his mouth to the recorder and feeling its plastic slickness against his lips like a dead, mechanical kiss.

“My name is Saint,” he said, “and I can’t remember who I am.”

He shut the recorder off, pitched it on the table, and walked away.

 

2

Grey wondered who had found him.

He’d thought he planned it better than this. Quiet and alone in his apartment, the pulsing throb of gut-deep, grinding music drowning out any sounds he might make: the noise of the gunshot, his cries, the low quiet whisper of the loa come to take him through Bawon Samedi’s gates.

It hadn’t been an easy choice, though it had felt increasingly like an inevitable one. As if a road that once branched in many directions had narrowed down to a single path, one walked by many feet before his, one that drew him along step by step until he couldn’t have turned back if he wanted to. And he hadn’t. Wanted to, that is. No. No, he’d wanted this.

And then he’d fucked it up.

He’d considered more silent methods at first. Something less absolute and terrifying than the rifle in the mouth, angled just so, to make sure there’d be nothing left of his brain, the top of his head completely gone. Quieter methods were more likely to fail. He might get one wrist slit the right way and not have the strength to slit the other, waking up later in a pool of his own blood but still waking up. His body might force him to vomit up pills. Hanging, both the rope and the chair might slip at the wrong moment. A pistol to the temple could graze, miss, come out the other side.

But the Hemingway solution . . .

Brutal. So beautifully brutal; so very effective. His last work of art, splattered in blood and flesh over a canvas of gleaming floorboards.

That was how it worked, when you really wanted it. You didn’t advertise it. You didn’t broadcast it to anyone who might stop you. You held it close, a precious little secret clutched to your chest, and planned it out so nothing could go wrong.

Only something had.

He remembered pain, blinding and hot. The wavering disc of the overhead light cut in chop-chop-chop streams by the blades of the ceiling fan, strobing in and out. The wet feeling of blood pooling, and the sad, quiet thought of:

I hadn’t wanted to feel this.

I hadn’t wanted to feel anything ever again.

Then a scream he didn’t recognize, heavy footsteps, the clatter of equipment, the jumble of sirens, his body moved about like a lifeless sack while he felt like he was floating outside it, watching while deft, capable hands took his vitals, staunched the flow of blood, eased something soft under his head. The ambulance jouncing around him. And a pale figure next to him, in an EMT’s blues.

He struggled to focus. The lights inside the ambulance were too bright, everything blurring in and out in a haze of white. Strange eyes. Strange eyes like the rose color of sunset just before twilight, as if they wanted to be violet but something inside had bled out crimson to taint their color. Dusk, he thought dimly. They were the color of dusk, flecked with motes of sunlight, set against a white, sullen face framed in a messy thatch of black. A delicate face, grim with a sort of quiet, constant fear that lined his angled eyes and set the line of his jaw just so. He didn’t look old enough, Grey mused with a sort of detached clarity. He didn’t look old enough for those slim pale ghosts of hands to be touching Grey’s body, piecing him back together, saving his life.

Stop, he wanted to say, but his tongue was leaden and bloated and filling his mouth. Don’t. Don’t bring me back. Just let me go.

But first, tell me what you’re so afraid of.

Those hard, angry dusk eyes flicked to him as if the pale man had heard him. He studied Grey intently, while the siren shrieked a high keening wail and the ambulance careened around a corner hard enough to make everything inside jerk and rattle.

“Why’d you do it?” he asked, so soft Grey almost didn’t hear him.

He swallowed thickly, forced his tongue to move. His voice struggled to come up, a cold and unmoving lump in the bottom of his throat. “Does i-it . . . does it matter?”

“Yes.” The pale man lowered his eyes. His hands rested on Grey’s chest, the wings of white doves, feathers tipped in black. Black-painted nails, chipped and gleaming and throwing back reflections of those pensive, pensive eyes. “It always matters.”

You’re wrong, he wanted to say, but his voice still wouldn’t work. He closed his eyes, fighting past the dull throb of pain to find thought, find reason, find anything other than an overwhelming sense of failure.

But against the backs of his eyelids he saw strange sunset eyes, and felt the warmth of hands resting quiet and sweet just over his heart.

“What . . .” He choked, coughed, his mouth a desert. “W-what’s your name?”

A low laugh answered, oddly melodious. “I thought we were talking about questions that mattered.”

It matters, Grey thought. It matters to me.

But he couldn’t get the words out. The dark was coming fast.

And when it swallowed him down he went willingly, and hated that on the other side waited a blinding and damning light that shone too bright to let him hide from anything.

Even himself.

 

3

Saint looked down at the man on the stretcher as his pale, coyote-gold eyes sank closed. Thick, dark lashes swept to the high planes of ebonwood cheeks. Blood smeared down the side of his face, leaking from the bandaged wound that had carved a furrow in his scalp and even now spread crimson on the gauze, the bright red of an arterial bleed. Blood loss left an ashen undertone beneath dark skin, blood loss and strain—but Saint thought he would be all right.

He wondered why the unconscious man had done it. So often he wondered why, when so many of his late-night calls were suicides. Suicides or drunks, and in both cases usually by the time he arrived, there was nothing he could do. Every once in a while, though, he found one like this. One who’d done it wrong, or changed his mind, or gained some grace or curse of divine intervention.

What would this man call it if he were awake?

A blessing, or a curse?

His driver’s license, fished from his back pocket, said Grey Jean-Marcelin. Thirty-seven. Even in his license photo he had a sort of melancholy beauty, cut in the articulated hollows of his cheekbones and the precise, full shapes of his lips and the stark angles of his eyes. His name sounded familiar, but Saint couldn’t remember where he’d heard it. He tended to dip in and out of the pulse of Savannah every twenty years or so, going to ground until anyone who might remember him—who might remember that his face hadn’t changed in decades and the people he dated tended to end up shriveled, desiccated echoes of themselves, sealed away in body bags—had moved on.

At least there’d be no body bag for this one. Not tonight. He’d have an impressive scar, cutting a channel down the tight, close-cropped burr of his prematurely white hair, but he’d live.

“Hey,” Nuo said from across the stretcher. “Xav.”

It took a moment for his alias to sink in. He was still getting used to being Xav, and not Saint or Dominic or Ambrose or any of the other names he’d used over the years. This time, he was Xav Cascia. The name had made him laugh when he’d come up with it, printing it onto a fake ID and laminating it with a little machine that made false identities easier than ever in an age when verifiable information was harder and harder to lie about. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and St. Rita of Cascia. He always took his fake names from Catholic patron saints, and this time he’d chosen the patron saints of impossible causes.

Nuo snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Xav. You okay?”

He shook himself, tearing his eyes from Grey’s unconscious face, and looked up into the lines of exhaustion etched under the creases of his partner’s dark brown eyes, her pointed chin nearly disappearing into the high collar of her oversize EMT uniform. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You always get mopey over the suicide squad.”

He scowled and carefully slid another folded towel under Grey’s head to elevate his skull. There wasn’t much more he could do for him other than bandaging and compression, now that he was sure Grey wouldn’t bleed out. He was just the ferryman, fording the river between life and death over and over again. In a few minutes, Grey would be the ER nurses’ problem. Stitch him up, bring in the shrinks for a psych eval, make sure he was safe to go home under his own recognizance. After tonight Saint would never have to see him again; would never know the answer to that burning question of why.

“I just don’t get it,” he murmured, and dabbed a trickle of blood from Grey’s cheek. “I don’t get why people wouldn’t do anything and everything they can to live.”

“You can’t know what’s going on in his life.” She leaned over to check his pulse. “Whether it’s personal or chemical, people have their reasons. Maybe he lost someone. Maybe he couldn’t get over a failure. Or maybe he’s just another artist who glorifies it as dramatic and poetic, and doesn’t quite get that it’s real.”

Saint stilled, a feeling popping in his chest like globules of bursting sickness, knuckles curled against Grey’s cheek. He was so cool, as if already dead, and his stubble had the texture of volcanic stone against Saint’s skin. Every sensation was more real than real, a heightened awareness deeper even than the adrenaline rush of that critical moment between life and death. It prickled on his skin—a whisper, a promise unfulfilled and only waiting for him to speak the other half of a terrible vow.

“Artist?” he choked out.

“You haven’t seen the flyers around the Market?” She snorted. “God, you need to get out more. They call him ‘the Grey.’ There’s a Gandalf joke in there somewhere, but he’s a painter. Got an installation down at the Savannah Gallery. Really dark, gritty stuff. Haunting. You’d probably like it.”

“Yeah,” he said, his lips numb. He stared at Grey, really seeing him, the vividness of him, and his tongue dried to the roof of his mouth; dread recognition wrapped barbed-wire coils around his heart. “Yeah, I probably would.”

 

4

Bon dieu, he hated answering questions.

Grey picked at the cold, congealed lump of hospital Jell-O, but the tinny flavor of artificial strawberry couldn’t wipe away the sour aftertaste of the questions the psychiatrist had asked him, or the bitter taste of defeat. His hands shook, blood loss making his fingers clumsy and numb—and the morphine residuals weren’t helping, though the nurse had shut off the drip hours ago. He wouldn’t be holding a brush again for a while.

For a while.

Did that mean, then, he was back to thinking in terms of days, weeks, months, years . . . instead of in terms of minutes?

That was what the psychiatrist had asked him. If he could think about tomorrow. If he could see tomorrow, instead of just an empty nothing cut short by a line of red.

What kind of question is that? he’d demanded.

The only kind of question there is, the psychiatrist had answered. The only one that matters. Think about tomorrow, Grey. Think about what tomorrow could be for.

The only thing tomorrow is for is getting out of here.

We’ll see, Grey. We’ll see.

He wondered how long they’d keep him here, feeding him Jell-O the same color as the blood he’d spilled all over his floor. How long they even could keep him here legally, when at this very moment a nurse or orderly or shrink was likely watching his every move and reading some arcane symbolism into how clumsy his fingers were on the spoon. Some message he didn’t know he was giving off, that said instead of going home he’d be on his way to Memorial Health in the back of a padded truck.

He closed his eyes. I’m not crazy. That’s the worst part.

It was just the sanest choice I could have made.

The door creaked open, the hinges squeaking. Grey lifted his head, opening his eyes, and set the unappetizing Jell-O cup down. A short, slim man stepped into the room. He moved like someone who made an art of not being seen, Grey thought. Someone who didn’t like to be noticed. He pictured the man hiding in the brush with the dapples of leaf-light falling over his fey, fragile features, and wondered why he looked so familiar.

The EMT.

Recognition clicked. The EMT from last night. Those soft dove-hands on his chest, a throatily accented voice that sounded Irish and yet was just off enough that he couldn’t place it, dusk eyes that burned with a question he didn’t know how to answer—almost accusatory against the backdrop of sulky, petulant beauty that seemed too young for someone old enough to pull him back from the banks of the Acheron.

He’d almost thought he’d imagined him. Some fever dream of blood loss and despair.

Yet even now he felt the echo of his touch, handprints branded on his chest in phantom warmth.

The man pulled out a chair from beneath the window, slipped out of his jacket, tossed it over the table, and sank into the seat. Dark art played down his bare arms in rolling lines, chasing each other through flowing tangles of black ink and singing against his skin like musical notations. Grey caught himself lingering on the tattoos, on the faint shimmer of them—as if the ink had been drawn in silver and shadow. But when he lifted his gaze . . .

The man was watching him, steady and intent. Waiting.

As if he wanted something.

Grey frowned. “Are you just going to sit there and stare at me?”

The man shrugged one shoulder and folded his arms over his chest, slouching down in the chair, slender frame sprawled with artless grace. “You’re not supposed to be alone.”

“I’m not?”

“They say the first few hours after a suicide attempt are the most crucial.” That soft accent lilted, beguiled, husky and strangely knowing. “Or the first few hours after you wake, at least. You were out for quite a while.”

Cold realization sank in Grey’s gut. “You’re here to make sure I don’t try it again.”

“Unless you have someone you’d like me to call.”

He flinched. That cold, sinking feeling froze into a solid block of ice. “No.” Not anymore. Who would . . . I don’t . . . “There’s no one.”

“Then you’re stuck with me.”

“I didn’t know suicide watch was in an EMT’s job description.”

“I’m on break.”

He narrowed his eyes. “That’s not the real reason you’re here.”

“Ah,” the man said, both brows rising, that lyrical accent rolling and sweet. “He’s a clever one, he is.”

“What do you want?”

Another of those shrugs. Insouciant, taunting, as taunting as the peak of slim brows and the steady, pinning stare of half-lidded eyes. “Maybe I’d still like to know why. Why the renowned painter Grey Jean-Marcelin wanted to take his own life.”

“I didn’t tell the headshrinker. What makes you think I’d tell you?”

“Because I’m not going to judge.”

“That’s what they all say.”

No answer but silence. Searching, expectant, wanting an answer he couldn’t stand to say, waiting for him to turn his gaze inward and see the things he’d blinded himself to for so long. The air felt too thick to swallow, and he dragged in a struggling breath, looking away, looking for anything but a weighted gaze that just wanted a simple answer.

He landed on the jacket, and the name tag clipped to the breast pocket. “Xav?”

The man smirked, a pretty thing of pouting, full lips that seemed made for sighing breaths. “That’s one thing they call me.”

“Implying it’s not your real name.”

“Why would I need a fake one?”

“You tell me.”

Xav—or the man calling himself Xav—tilted his head to one side; his wild mess of hair drifted across his face, a few inky black strands curling their tips against his parted lips. “An answer for an answer.”

Grey clenched his jaw. “Is this a game to you?”

“No,” Xav said softly. “I need to know why you want to die.”

“Shouldn’t you be asking if want has become wanted?”

Xav parted his lips, then stopped. Something flickered in his eyes, something doubting and soft and hurt. Something that Grey thought might just be the first hint of the real person underneath this coyly mocking facade, the same person who had glared at him so angrily in the ambulance last night, as if what he’d done to himself had personally hurt the other man.

“I think I’m afraid to know,” Xav said.

“Why?”

“Because if you want to do it . . .” He exhaled heavily. “I can help you.”

“How?” Grey demanded, but Xav only avoided his eyes, looking blankly at curtains turned luminous by the glow of afternoon light. “How?”

“You want to find out?” Xav stood, picked up his jacket, and slung it over his shoulder. Sparking eyes fixed on Grey again, still so sharp, so accusing. “Stay alive long enough to get out of here.”

Then he turned and walked out, leaving Grey with more questions than answers . . . and no idea what to think.

The door banged closed. The last Grey saw of him was a toss of dark hair. Then he was gone, while the silence of the room resonated with the one thing Grey couldn’t stand to ask himself:

How badly do you want to die?

 

5

Still wet from his shower, Saint curled up in his papasan chair, burrowed into his nest of blankets, and wondered why he’d done it.

Offering like that. He’d sensed Grey’s attraction; the man looked at him like he was all colors and symmetry, itching through Grey’s fingertips and waiting to be bled onto canvas. He knew that look. He knew what it would lead to. And he’d thought about it for the rest of his shift, through the walk home, through a shower that could never quite scrub off the medicinal smell of the ambulance. He’d gone in there like some kind of knowing seducer, offering Grey not his body but a ticket out the door Grey had already kicked open for himself.

Wrong. Sick. Stupid. Dangerous. He wasn’t just playing with fire. He was playing with his own life, teasing at a mortal man who hadn’t a clue what he’d stumbled into, hinting he could help him die. All it would take was one wrong word to turn too many eyes his way and transform his quiet, secret unlife into a public spectacle.

Murderer, the headlines would say. Vampire. Incubus. Monster. Freak.

Hiding among us in plain sight, and using love to kill.

He felt like a sick vulture, hovering and circling while death came by slow inches.

Did that make what he’d done any better? Just because Grey Jean-Marcelin wanted to die, that made it perfectly acceptable to prey on the man’s life to save his own?

Biting his lip, he traced a fingertip over the tattoo coiled on his left wrist. A gecko in blocky Aztec patterns, thick geometric lines. Arturo, tail looping onto the back of his hand. What shape would Grey take? A coyote, to match those tawny eyes?

Those eyes. There was so much desperation in them, but the light behind them wasn’t dead yet. Even pallid and covered in his own blood, Grey had been beautiful: full of a fire waiting to be stoked—smoldering embers that could, if ignited, send him up in the most brilliant flames of passion. There was a heart inside him starving for touch, almost as hungry as Saint’s own. He could feel it, that click waiting to happen, a rightness that said they could fit together in a gestalt greater than they were apart.

And in dying, Grey would become immortal.

God, Saint was really thinking about this, wasn’t he? He’d never done it on purpose before. Not openly, not consciously, even if it had always been in the back of his mind with the others. A wall of denial making him think this time it wouldn’t happen again. This time that rush was just the first vibrant bloom of new love, and not the sickness inside him. This time it would be all right. This time he wouldn’t end up alone again. This time he could keep someone, or at the very least let them go safely. He’d hoped he could find a way around it, hoped it would stop if he recognized the signs and left, but he’d never said, Here, now, is someone who can answer my need.

A life thrown away willingly isn’t really taken, is it?

He stared down at his shaking fingers. His veins made blue branches in the troughs between his knuckles, marking the valleys of his tendons. Valleys that sank a little deeper than they had just a few days ago, that pulled a little harder, until it made a quiet, deep ache shoot up the bones of his arm when he did something as simple as clench his fist. It was starting already. He’d tried to wait. Tried to hold out. Eighteen years. Eighteen years of pretending he was normal, of burying his guilt, of trying to forget the quiet acceptance in Jake’s eyes as he’d faded away.

He tilted his head back against the edge of the chair and watched the sky lighten outside the window of his little tower home, the sun reaching up over the city to swallow the stars and the night into its hungry burning mouth. Shivering, he wrapped himself tighter in the blankets’ protective cocoon and pressed the recorder to his lips, and thought of that soft, full, deeply rich mouth asking, “Does i-it . . . does it matter?”

It mattered.

It mattered more than anything.

“I don’t want to kill him,” he whispered. “But god . . . I don’t want to die.”

 

6

Grey waited over a week before he finally broke.

They’d kept him in the hospital for four more days. Four more days of IV fluids and tepid Jell-O; four more days of giving the shrink all the right answers to make her think he was sane, safe. He’d made an error in judgment, and his brush with death had scared him back onto the straight and narrow. He wanted to live, he’d told her with just the right choke in his voice. He’d wanted to live the moment that muzzle flash had burst in his face, shocked through him with the terrifying reality of what he was doing. He must have flinched, he’d said. He must have flinched, changing his mind at the last minute, saving his life. He’d lived. Praise the loa, he’d lived.

He’d always hated lying. But in so many ways everything about his life and career was a lie; this really wasn’t any different.

So he’d told his lies. He’d slept. He’d recovered. He’d let people poke and prod at him, and endured the pitying looks of the nurses when days passed without a single visitor. Not even the downstairs neighbor, who’d apparently heard the shot and called it in instead of leaving him to bleed out.

Who would come for me? he’d thought, staring at the ceiling bitterly. I climbed so high into my ivory tower that no one could reach. I shut myself away where nothing could hurt.

He couldn’t remember the name, the face, of the last person he’d called friend. She was just a ghost of soft brown skin and remembered laughter, and the way she used to shove his shoulder and tell him to snap out of it when he’d start brooding. That had been in the early days, back when it was just brooding and not this consuming mire that sucked out . . . everything. Memories. Faces. Names.

Aminata. Her name had been Aminata, with her gentle Wolof accent and the scar on her hand where she’d scraped herself open on a broken two-by-four at the summer construction job where they’d met, in uni.

He couldn’t remember how many years it had been since she called. He didn’t know if her number was even in his phone anymore, or if she’d pick up if he called. She’d been the one who’d bought him champagne for his first gallery showing, who’d asked him to hold her hand in the moments before her first big interview at that downtown architectural design firm, who’d burned his rejection letters and thrown her own out the window and stood on the edge of night with him to say, Fuck it. Fuck this world if it don’t know us, if it don’t need us.

Until the day she’d said, You’ve changed, Grey. You’ve changed, and I don’t know you anymore.

He’d smiled, thin and bitter. No one knows me. Everyone knows who I am, but no one knows me.

Yet Xav had looked at him as if he did. As if he could see right through him, and understand something Grey couldn’t quite articulate himself. Each day, he’d hoped to see those strange, dusk-colored eyes. When he’d tried to sleep, he saw them: looking down at him with such fury, snapping and wild. Watching him, lit bright as fire by the sun shafts through the window, as if he could see into the heart of Grey and know everything wrong with him, even as he murmured his name with such red, mocking lips.

Touching him, and tugging at something dark and heavy and needy in the pit of his stomach.

He paced his apartment for the hundredth time in five days since they’d let him out, following a path of wood worn dull, the finish eroded away practically in the shapes of his footsteps. He’d done almost nothing but pace. His answering machine blinked, demanding he listen to the voices of his agent, the reporters, everyone asking questions he couldn’t deal with, shouting into nothing after he’d let his cell phone die and unplugged the landline’s receiver. The veve hanging over the hearth went untouched, the candles and incense unlit. Food tasted like sawdust. His paints looked too dull, the colors gone. He couldn’t sleep. He didn’t know how to just pick up and start again like it hadn’t happened, like he didn’t still want it.

He was stuck. In limbo. Purgatory. Reaching for heaven or hell, he didn’t know, but he needed someone to grasp his hand and pull him either way.

This was insane. He couldn’t be such a goddamned failure that he was thinking about—about turning to some pretty, pale Dr. Kevorkian. About letting someone kill him.

But the police had confiscated his shotgun, a condition of not being drawn up on charges for the most ridiculous law on the books, when actually committing the crime of suicide put the criminal beyond reach of prosecution. He’d been put on some list. He’d never pass a background check to buy another gun, and he didn’t know who to ask about buying one illegally. If he couldn’t even manage the most foolproof way to die—though he still couldn’t figure out how he’d missed—then he’d botch another method too.

He fingered the line of stitches running in a sharp diagonal line from just above his ear to the curve of his skull, worrying at it fretfully. Fucking hell.

He needed help.

You could just . . . live, a voice whispered inside him. A long time ago, that voice had been louder. Stronger. Firmer. Full of hope. It had sounded like Aminata, with her sardonic laughter.

But now, it was so quiet he could hardly hear it at all.

He snagged his keys and headed down to the lot before he could talk himself out of it. His hands shook as he tried to fit the key into the ignition of his truck, and he swore before jamming the key in, flicking the headlights on, and starting the engine. Maybe Xav wouldn’t be there. Just because he’d been on graveyard shift when Grey was picked up didn’t mean he would be now. Or that Grey would even catch him, if he was out on calls.

Stop. Stop overthinking it and just . . . drive.

So he drove, with the streetlamps leading him on like halos and the trees lining the close-hemmed roads leaning over him as if they were herding him, the long fingers of Spanish moss ushering him on his way. The thick Georgia darkness was a choking blanket smothering him in its heat, oppressive and trying to strangle the life from him. He almost wished it would. Save him from doing this. Whatever this was.

I’m falling for some kind of sick joke. I must be.

The lights of the hospital shone bright ahead. To most they were a beacon of hope, safety, promise; to Grey they were the sterile medicinal scent of bland gray walls and the feeling of being trapped, bound in shackles made of someone else’s thoughts about his mental health. He stopped on the verge of the curving drop-off lane that looped in front of the emergency room entrance; he kept the engine running, fingers hard against the steering wheel, leather sweat-slick against his palms, foot hovering over the gas. Any second now. Any second now he’d talk himself out of this ridiculous idea, floor it, and drive away from this completely stupid, completely illegal situation. There was no way in hell anyone with even remotely trustworthy motives would offer to just . . . help people commit suicide.

Maybe he’s as crazy as you are.

Maybe he wasn’t even there. A few people loitered outside the sliding glass doors, orderlies and nurses on cigarette breaks, holding their smokes between two fingers with that practiced air of veteran smokers. An ambulance was parked off to one side, out of the way, the back doors open. He couldn’t just walk in and ask for Xav, could he? He—

A young woman slipped from the back of the ambulance. Tiny, Chinese, her hair clipped back messily and drifting into her face, a few tendrils catching on the shoulders of her uniform jacket. He remembered her: the other face hovering over him, her fingers on his throat, his pulse, her dark eyes seeming to mark streaking trails on the air in his wavering vision. She settled to sit with her legs dangling over the edge, brushing against the rear fender, and plunked an insulated nylon lunch bag into her lap. A moment later Xav joined her, ducking the low roof of the ambulance and swinging out with lithe grace before slouching next to her with a cellophane bag dangling from his fingers.

Grey’s nails dug into the steering wheel. He’d never given a face to Bawon Samedi, the vodou loa of the dead, but right now Samedi was a pretty waif of a man with a jaw as delicate and fine as misted glass. He looked . . . tired, Grey thought with a sort of surreal, distant numbness. As if something had been sucked out of him since Grey had last seen him, leaving just a little less weight inside the lovely shell holding him together. His lips were paler; reddish-dark shadows circled his eyes, made only starker by the slim dashes of eyeliner framing his lashes.

An unexpected stab of concern, spearing up behind his ribs, forced Grey to tear his gaze away, looking fixedly out into the street. He didn’t know that man from Adam or the devil, and considering what he was about to walk into, there was no room for . . . whatever this was he was feeling. This pull. Either he was going to do this, or he might as well go home and figure out what to do with himself. Figure out if he could live the rest of his life painting empty things with no soul, because the voice that kept whispering Do it had cut the soul from him and eaten the pieces.

And figure out if he’d ever find the courage to try again, on his own.

Neg di san fe, his granmé would have said. Bondye fe san di.

People talk and don’t act. God acts and doesn’t talk.

So if he was going to act, he had to act now.

He sucked in his breath as if he could swell out his chest with bravery instead of a strange mixture of terror and anticipation, then killed the engine and stepped from the truck, locking it behind. He felt like a damned zonbi, shuffling awkwardly up the drive with his hands stuffed into his pockets, trying to look casual. He almost turned around and walked away, but that would be even more obvious.

The two were engrossed in conversation over their food. As he drew closer, Grey could make out the label on the bag in Xav’s hand: a bag of dried apple crisps. He picked up on the tail end of their conversation, their voices low and close.

“—but is it helping?” the young woman—her name tag said Nuo—asked.

Xav shrugged and twirled a crisp between his fingers. “I keep deleting the recordings and starting over again.”

“You can’t do that, stupid.” She flicked his arm, and was rewarded with a wan smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Seriously, it helps. My therapist said for amnesia cases, repetition and reinforcement therapy can—” She broke off, Saran-wrapped sandwich halfway to her mouth, as Grey stopped a few feet away. She blinked owlishly up at him. “Sir? Are you lost?” Her eyes widened. “Hey— Wait, you’re—”

“You came.” Xav’s cool, smooth voice stopped her short. Guarded dusk eyes flicked over Grey. “You’re looking better.”

“I don’t feel better.”

Nuo took a huge bite of her sandwich, her wide eyes darting between them. “Xav?” she mumbled around swallowing her mouthful, but he only stood, shaking his head.

“It’s all right. I’ll be back.”

from Night Owl Reviews

[R]eally well written. . . . [U]niquely done.

from Publishers Weekly

[C]athartic and pleasurable.

from That's What I'm Talking About

Unique and evocative. . . . [A] wonderful story.