Two men in black suits exited a car in front of a small single story house. The thick clouds above them hid the moon and the stars. The man who had been driving looked down at his watch, barely able to make out the time with the porch light aiding him. Eleven o'clock. The day was almost over. He sighed and opened the door. "I guess that's it then." He said to the man standing behind him. "I doubt we'll see most of them again after this." The other man followed him into the house. "Probably not. The cemetery they picked out was so far away too. Jim didn't live anywhere near that place." "A lot of his older relatives are buried out there. The family used to live out that way." The first man tossed his keys into a dish. "I'm gonna change and take a shower. Are you tired?" "Yeah, why?" The other man rested on the couch. "Do you mind cooking something? If you're too tired, don't worry about it. I'll do it myself." "I'll do it." The man on the couch stretched. He looked over. "Hey Jesse, do you really think that was an accident?" Jesse went quiet for a moment. "Probably." The man on the couch touched his prosthetic leg. "Yeah, I guess." Jesse looked at the clock again. "Are you worried about that, Ethan?" "I don't know." Ethan let his hand fall to his side. "Maybe." "Nothing's going to come get you again. I won't let anything happen." Jesse said. "But how? If it comes back again, you..." Ethan's eyes were full of fear. He gazed at Jesse as if he had already foreseen some distant spectre strangling their shadows. "We haven't seen it since." "We never saw it. We heard it. I felt it. We don't know what it looks like." Ethan reminded him. Jesse turned away. "It was probably an accident. Don't worry about it. Besides, even if it wasn't, we know what we need to do. There's no reason to be afraid." Ethan sunk down on the sofa. "Poor Jim. Should we...have told him about what we figured out?" "I did. He didn't think it mattered for him." Jesse said. "Didn't seem like a whole lot mattered to him anymore." "What do you mean?" Ethan asked. "Don't worry about it. I'll be out in about twenty minutes." Jesse waved and walked toward the bedroom. He grabbed a pair of boxers and a shirt to wear after his shower. After turning on the shower, he cracked the bathroom window open slightly and waited for the room to fill with steam. Glancing back at the bathroom door, he pulled out a box from under the sink. Inside was a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Jesse lit a cigarette and tucked the box back away under the sink. He smoked in the direction of the window. The bathroom door opened. Jesse quickly turned around, the cigarette hidden behind his back in his left hand. Ethan peeked in. Ethan asked, "Hey, is a grilled chicken salad okay? We have some left over chicken from yesterday." "Yeah, that's fine." Ethan's eyes were sad. He smiled. "Love you." "Love you too." Ethan closed the door. Jesse waited a minute before he continued smoking. He faced the window and put his right hand against the wall. "Sorry." In the shower, Jesse tried to relax. His heart pounded loudly in his chest. The pounding was so loud it hurt. He took a deep breath. He assured himself Ethan didn't see anything. His mind wandered from there back to the funeral. It was a closed casket funeral. There was no way it could have been open casket. Jim's body, what was left of it, was too little to dress up into a presentable corpse. Halloween night, not long after he and Ethan had parted ways with their old friend Jim, Jim was involved in a freak accident at a construction site. He had been crushed, or half of him had been. The body, perfectly split in half vertically, was left in two sections: a flattened, mushy red, speckled with hard bits of white; and the other half, flung from its source with its contents spilling out in a trail from that crushed, concealed mess. Gorey details didn't usually sicken him. He saw gruesome things at work every day, in the living and the recently departed. He didn't see Jim's body in person either. But he knew Jim too closely. Jesse couldn't separate himself from the situation the way he could with patients. His stomach turned at the images his mind conjured of what likely was from all he had ever seen in person. Such a violent way to die, and one so horrid to view after the fact. Jesse knew very well most deaths were not beautiful. That was how reality was. Death was ugly. Death distorted and disfigured. Decay slipped into the body and rotted it all away, little by little, leaving bits sunken in and parts bloated over, discolored. In the grand scheme of things, though tragic and terrible, Jim's death was not particularly unusual. But he knew Jim, and as all humans did, he wanted Jim's body to be undefiled by violence in his final moments. His last sight of Jim would always be from that Halloween night before the accident. There would be no peaceful resting face in a wooden box. Perhaps, he thought, in some ways that might be better in the long run for his mind. While he currently wanted that perfect visual, he knew very well that every funeral he had ever attended with an open casket left him in confusion. The person in the coffin never looked right, so different he had to wonder if it was really the same person at all. Though he wished Jim had left the world under different circumstances, perhaps avoiding that kind of funeral wasn't as awful as he was initially thinking. He took another deep breath. His last words to Jim were already fading from his mind. Jesse wondered, if that accident had not happened, if he would have seen Jim after that night anyway. When they were in elementary school, Jim, Jesse, and Ethan had all been best friends. They remained that way through middle school and, he thought, through high school. Around tenth grade, he saw Jim less and less. Ethan was always at the hospital, and Jesse was there with him most afternoons. Jim rarely visited. They all moved from their childhood homes after high school. Jesse and Ethan moved to Paulding, Jim to Fulton. They weren't far from each other, but the distance between them grew every day. Secrets and unshared stories continued to build between them. Recently, though they could not legally get married, Jesse had proposed to Ethan. They planned on having a private wedding ceremony the following autumn, set for next Halloween. Jesse had wanted to tell Jim and invite him, but he hadn't yet told Jim they were together at all, or that either of them were bisexual. Some of the things Jim said to him made Jesse think he probably shouldn't reveal that to him. Jim was always clear about the things that disgusted him. He was completely intolerant of any bit of disgust. His words on that were ambiguous. Jesse was willing to take the risk to keep Jim involved in their lives at first. In his last few encounters with Jim this past October, he realized there was something else Jim was disgusted by that Jesse couldn't allow in their lives. He couldn't invite someone to his wedding who found the love of his life disgusting for having a disability. The revelation shocked Jesse, then saddened him. He told himself he shouldn't have been shocked. At the hospital, he watched many couples separate after one half of the pair was disabled, disfigured, or given the "wrong" kind of diagnosis. He watched many a lonely elder waste away in a hospital bed as their cancer spread through their body and their former spouse had already rushed off to the altar for someone healthier. Still, they had been friends for so long. Jesse had hoped, somehow, he could break through Jim's disgust and get him to see things differently, with empathy and kindness instead of bigotry. That window of time was over now. He would always be left with his last memories of Jim being of him exposing his hatred for the person Jesse loved most. That broken connection could never be mended. Jim was six feet underground now, in some field far from where any of them had ever lived. 'Did you do that?' He wondered in his mind, thinking of a certain thing from another Halloween. That thing had no name to them that they knew of, and he didn't want to name it. He feared calling its name would bring it to them. Jesse turned off the water. He got out of the shower and closed the window. It looked more opened than he remembered it being. He presumed he was misremembering. He joined Ethan at the kitchen table. Ethan had switched to his wheelchair and taken off his prosthetic leg. He was dressed in only a tank top and his underwear. The salad was already on the table. "Thanks for putting something together." Jesse picked up his fork. "It's just a salad. It took five minutes." Ethan ate his food. His eyes were watering. "I'm sorry." "What's wrong?" "I can't believe...he's really gone...to die like that..." Ethan blinked several times to hold back the tears. "It's like a bad dream. It doesn't feel real." "Death usually doesn't right after it happens." Jesse said. "Try not to think about what happened. It's better to think of happier memories of him than how he died." "I know, but...God, the way he died...I can't..." Ethan struggled to speak. The tears slipped through. His body shook. "How could he die like that?! It's so awful!" Jesse got up from the table. He went over to Ethan and hugged him. "Shh...Don't think about it. I know how he died is awful, but he probably didn't even feel it. It would've happened too fast for him to." "Really?" Ethan wiped his face. "Yeah. If he did feel anything, it would've been over in seconds." Ethan put his hand on Jesse's arm. "Sorry. I'm okay. It's just...really shocking. I never thought...I'd know someone who would die like that." "I know. It shocked me too. Let's not think about that. Jim's somewhere better now. He's not in pain, wherever he is." Jesse got back up and returned to his seat. "Yeah." Ethan continued eating. He looked down into his bowl as he spoke. "Hey, I was thinking...about getting a part-time job." "Really? Are you sure?" Jesse looked up. "I mean, I've got to start working some time. I'm able to manage just fine on my own with most things. It's not like I need to be home 'adjusting' to anything." Ethan said. "I know you can manage, but if you don't want to, you don't have to. I make enough to cover our bills." "I think I'm ready...to at least try, anyway." Ethan looked up at Jesse. "Not that I mind being home all the time." "Well, if you think you're ready. Don't push yourself too hard, okay?" "Okay." "And don't take it personally if..." Ethan cut him off, already knowing what Jesse was worried about. "I know. A lot of people are going to reject me. I'm ready for it." After dinner, the couple retired to the bedroom. Ethan fell asleep first, resting against Jesse's chest, holding Jesse's hand in his sleep underneath the blankets. Jesse struggled to sleep. He stared at the ceiling fan spinning around above them. The window curtains brushed against his right arm as the wind chimes sang outside. Jesse looked over. The bedroom window was cracked. He lightly moved Ethan aside and got up to close it. He didn't remember opening it. He presumed Ethan must've cracked it open earlier. Jesse closed and locked the window. He looked out. His neighbor's over-the-top Halloween decorations were still up. The front, sides, and back of the house were decorated. They were running the fog machine right now. Jesse didn't normally mind when people went all out like that for Halloween, and Ethan loved it, but the decorations their neighbors put up were especially gruesome and creepy. It was fun for Halloween night, but he hated seeing those figures out there every night since mid-September and now into early November. The realistic zombies with half exposed bones waved at him, illuminated by the orange, green, and purple lights strung up on the house, bushes, and trees. Skeletons sat in lawn chairs covered in blood. An old woman, face partially decayed, rested in the opposite direction of the skeletons in a chair facing towards his neighbors' house rather than his, but her face stared at him with an empty gaze. Her head was nearly detached from her body, hanging mostly over the back side of the chair upside down. One eye hung out of its socket, dangling in the wind. Her arms both fell over the sides of the chair, one arm hanging much lower than the other, almost fully disconnected at the elbow. Like a pine, it looked like it could snap off from a strong wind. Jesse pulled the blinds down. He didn't like Christmas much, but he hoped his neighbors would replace the decorations with Santa and tacky reindeer soon. He returned to bed, holding Ethan close. Ethan was deep in sleep. Jesse brushed his hand against Ethan's face. He got up and walked to the bathroom. From under the sink, he got a cigarette out of the hidden box and took the lighter with him. He left the master bathroom and walked down the hall to the guest bathroom. Jesse cracked that window open and turned on the vent before lighting the cigarette. The wind howled loudly. Jesse turned the vent off to listen. "A storm?" He finished his cigarette, closed the window, and went back to the room. Jesse turned the TV on, muted it, and turned on the closed captioning. He changed it to The Weather Channel. He waited for a segment with Jim Cantore to end for the Local on the 8s to air. Heavy wind, slight chance of rain for the rest of the week. He wondered how reliable that prediction was. The wind outside and the air this humid in early November reminded him of past fall seasons with unusual amounts of tornadic weather. Last October already had more tornadoes and severe thunderstorms than normal for their area. Jesse opened the top drawer of his night stand to check the main floor's emergency weather radio was where it should be. They had a second one in the basement, with their other emergency supplies. Jesse had been in a few tornadoes himself, once in a car. Ethan thought he was overly prepared, but didn't mind his over-preparedness. From all he had seen at work, Jesse couldn't help himself from always wanting to be prepared for emergencies. He knew very well what happened to people in situations like that when people didn't take things seriously. Even the most prepared person could be caught by surprise when it came to nature. It was better to be as alert as possible. Accidents of any kind happened far more often than most bothered to think about. Jesse's mind returned to Jim's death. Like Ethan, he too had wondered if that thing had caused Jim's death, but he knew the most likely answer was that it was simply an accident. Accidents on construction sites were typically quite brutal and often fatal. He didn't know why Jim was there that night. From what he understood, Jim wasn't supposed to be working at that time, and while he did work for a construction company, he worked in that company's office. He shouldn't have been on-site like that at all. Jesse could never know why he was there. Perhaps, he thought, Jim's boss had asked him to go out there to check out something and Jim happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. It didn't need to be anything more than that. 'In half.' Jesse couldn't shake that part from his mind. 'Perfectly in half.' He left the TV on as he rested his head on the pillow. Jesse glanced over at Ethan's lower half and the space left empty by what was missing. 'Half...' Jesse held both of his hands in the air. 'Will you take half of something from me too?' The humming of the fan merged with the wind. He sighed. Jesse reached back over to his night stand and took two sleeping pills. As Jesse started to drift off, he thought about his last few interactions with Jim. Jim had been strange. They were already going on divergent paths since midway through high school, but the Jim he had known in the last months of his life was very different. He seemed obsessed with time and money, zoned out when he wasn't lashing out, and the things he said to Jesse and Ethan were nasty and out of line with the person Jesse knew before. It reminded him of some of the patients who lashed out at him at work who had severe untreated psychological issues. Jesse wondered if Jim could've been helped by getting a psych evaluation, but he doubted he would've been able to convince Jim to go to one if he had lived. The last few times Jesse saw him, Jim was convinced his life was better than ever. 'Was there something I could've done?' Jesse asked himself. 'Would it have changed anything?' Jesse's heavy eyes finally closed. In his sleep, he wandered to the construction site. Jim was there, walking on the lowest floor of the building. Jesse called out to him, but Jim didn't answer. He walked slowly in a perfectly straight line, as if stuck on a track. Ethan rushed to him but the faster he ran, the farther away Jim was. He stopped. Jim somehow came closer to him despite walking away from him. The concrete slab hung above Jim, its shadow cast over the both of them. The chains holding up the slab snapped. Down it came, but Jim kept walking slowly on his designated path, unafraid, empty. Jesse couldn't move. His body froze. He could only watch. Everything moved in slow motion. Jim was so close to being out from underneath the slab. When the concrete made contact, Jim was half out. The other half of him was crushed instantly. Time moved forward to its normal pace. Jesse couldn't comprehend how ordinary it was to see Jim's body destroyed in a handful of seconds. By the laws of nature, this made sense. Gravity and mass were working against Jim's fragile body. But Jesse still expected there would be some resistance from Jim's body, something pushing back against that strong force. The concrete slab smashed down against him so quickly and with such force that no bone in Jim's body was strong enough to put up any fight. Everything was smooshed down into a bloody mess while the rest of the body violently fell and bounced away from its other half, organs spilling out along the way, many already half opened up. The slab had split Jim so perfectly down the middle that half of Jim's spine remained, visible from the side of it that disconnected from the crushed half. The half of a brain left behind fell out of Jim's skull, resting beside him. His heart was farther from his body than his brain. The half of Jim that wasn't crushed was covered in deep red, from the impact and from the pool of blood seeping out from under the concrete. Jesse's own body was half covered in that same shade. Everything was red, except for a black form walking across the concrete slab. The form gradually took shape, turning into a black dog. The dog hopped down from the slab and walked over to what remained of Jim's body. It snatched the heart and gobbled it up whole. Jesse didn't try to shoo away the dog. He still couldn't get himself to move. He didn't know why, but he felt like he had lost a game somehow. The dog turned its head and smiled at him with a human grin. Inside his mind, Jesse heard a voice. 'You walk slow, but I'll eat you in time. I'll eat everyone you know.' He blinked and now it was Ethan there on the floor. The building around them had changed to a hospital. Ethan was slightly younger. Both his lower legs were there, one rotting from the ankle to the knee. The dog reached down and ate at the rotting part, eating all the way up to the knee. The dog smiled again. Jesse heard the voice once more. 'When you lie, he lies. Then, I'll get to eat him soon too, all of him.' The dog's grin grew wider before he lunged at Ethan's chest and ripped it open. Jesse's eyes opened widely. He breathed heavily. The dog was gone. He was back in his room. Jesse looked over. There was no one next to him. His heart raced. He heard the shower was running. Jesse got up and went into the bathroom. He pulled back the curtain. Ethan was sitting on a shower stool washing himself. Ethan looked up. "Hey. Something wrong?" Jesse shook his head. "No. Ah, what did you want for breakfast? I'm cooking today." "Really?" "I took off today. Didn't really want to go into the hospital right after a funeral." "You don't have to cook. Just relax." "I want to. What do you want?" "Um, bacon, eggs, toast. Ah, and some apple cinnamon oatmeal. Oh...and orange juice." "You're hungry today." Jesse laughed. He tried to forget about the strange dream. "I didn't eat much yesterday." Ethan said. "Right." Jesse said. "Me either." Ethan looked away, then back at Jesse. "Hey, are you okay?" "Yeah, I just had a really weird dream. I'll tell you about it later." Jesse closed the curtain and went to the kitchen to cook. After cooking breakfast, he got the plates and bowls down. Jesse prepared the table. Outside, the wind and chimes sang together. He peeked out the small kitchen window above the sink to look at the clouds. The sky was dark. Many of the decorations next door had been knocked over. The creepy old lady's chair was up, but now turned toward Jesse and Ethan's house. The old lady's head was still facing them, having fallen forward and now resting partially in the sunken area of her rotting chest. If he didn't know that it was a decoration, he would think his neighbors had left a real decomposing corpse out amongst their Halloween props. She somehow looked more rotten than last night, but he knew that couldn't be possible. The dangling eye was gone. Jesse shut the curtains. He didn't want to see that thing while he was eating. Ethan sat down at the table. He started eating immediately. "You always make bacon so perfectly." "You think? I always worry I overcook it." Jesse sat down to eat. "No way. It's so good." Ethan shoveled the rest of his bacon in his mouth. "Is there any more left?" "Yeah, on the counter." Jesse motioned to a plate by the sink. Ethan nodded. He cut through one of the eggs on his plate. "So, what was your dream about?" "My dream? Oh...it was a nightmare." Jesse said. He picked at his plate. The wind grew louder outside. The kitchen back door's knob jangled from the force of the wind. A hard gust knocked the door open slightly. "What the hell?" "I'll get it." Ethan got up and closed the door. "Must not've shut it all the way. I went out back earlier to check on the greenhouse." "Was it alright?" "Yeah, it's fine. Some big tree limbs came down in the far back of the yard though, along the fence of the house behind us." Ethan sat back down. "You said you had a nightmare, huh? What was it about?" Jesse put his fork down. "It was about Jim. I watched him die. I couldn't do anything about it. And then this dog...this dog came out of nowhere and started...eating him. It said something to me...I forgot what it said...something about eating everyone...I think?" "It...talked to you?" Ethan raised his eyebrow. "I think...I think it was the dog. There wasn't anyone else around. I heard a voice in my head in the dream. I assumed it was the dog." Jesse said. Ethan's expression changed to fear. "Hey, you don't think...that dog..." "It was just a dream." Jesse quickly said. "I know, but...that thing...that thing that bit me and caused me to lose my leg...it felt like it was some kind of dog-like thing. Whatever it was. I lost my leg. Now, Jim's dead and you're dreaming about a dog eating him...Do you think that thing is going to come after us again?" Ethan's voice became more erratic. "No, I don't. We've gotten our curses and figured out what to do about them. I had a conversation with Jim about this before he died, about how I figured out what I needed to do." Jesse shut down that suggestion immediately. "Jim's death was very brutal. It could've been an accident...but if it was that thing, maybe he didn't figure out the rules of what he needed to do. Nothing bad has happened to us since we figured out our rules." "Yeah, but Jim didn't die until now...Are you saying he didn't start messing up his stuff until recently?" Ethan asked. "Could be. I nearly died in a lot of the accidents I was in. You nearly died too. Maybe he didn't sort out his riddle in time." Ethan glanced out the window. "Why do you think that thing came after us? Why us?" "I don't know. I can't know what its intentions were. I don't want to say I'm grateful for it...it cost you your leg and it may have taken Jim's life, but...if it weren't for that thing, we probably wouldn't be together right now. I doubt we'd be able to afford this place either. A blessing and a curse all at once." Jesse said. "What if it was only ever a curse?" Ethan asked. "I'm with you. Even if it was meant to only be a curse, it's blessing in spite of that." Jesse said. He reached across the table and took hold of Ethan's hand. "I'd lose it all for you." "I know, but I don't want anything bad to ever happen to you. If us being together somehow causes you to get hurt, then I..." "Don't say it." Jesse said. "Don't name it. I'm not going to let anything bad happen." "What if that monster comes after us again?" Ethan asked. "I won't let it get to you." Jesse said. 'Even if it kills me.' "But how...?" "Don't worry about it. We know the rules of our curses." Jesse said. "All I have to do is give away any free money I end up with. And all you have to do is say what you want and not lie about your feelings. That's been working for all this time." "Right." "Don't think about that. Yesterday was awful enough. I'm off today. Let's just relax at home. Why don't we watch those movies we rented for the weekend?" Jesse suggested. "What will we do for the weekend?" "We can take the tapes back and get something else later." "Alright..." Ethan dropped the subject. After breakfast, they went to the living room to watch a movie. Jesse put his arm around Ethan on the couch. He tried to keep his thoughts off Jim and focus on the movie, but he couldn't. His mind kept returning to the accident and another Halloween years before it. They rarely spoke of that incident. One Halloween afternoon, when they were too old to go out trick-or-treating but too young to be going to big parties or clubs, the three of them had gone on a walk to look at the Halloween decorations put up in their area. Ethan found a strange path off in the mostly empty neighborhood. When they went up that path, they came across a place the three of them never found again. On their way down from that strange place that shouldn't have existed, something came after them. None of them saw it, but they all heard it. An animalistic voice, absolutely not human in nature, was all around them, getting closer. Something got Ethan's ankle, but nothing appeared to be behind them. When they got back to Ethan's house, Ethan's ankle had bite marks on it. He was bleeding. As frightening as that afternoon was, none of them spoke of it for a while after that. They pretended nothing happened. Who could they tell about it? The path was gone, that place was gone, and they had no creature to describe as they saw nothing there. Jesse had started to think the whole thing was a strange dream he was misremembering as real. Around March of the following year, Ethan was taken to the hospital. The bite marks on his leg never healed properly. When Jesse visited him in the hospital, he revealed he had been seeing doctors on and off for months trying to sort out what was wrong with his leg. From the bite mark, an infection spread throughout his leg, all the way to his knee. The pain was excruciating. Parts of his skin were strangely colored, other parts cracked open. The lower half of his leg bruised from the slightest touch. He was feverish often and frequently dizzy from the pain. For those months, Ethan had did his best to hide his suffering from his friends and classmates. When he passed out from the pain at school, he couldn't hide it anymore. Jesse went to the hospital with him that day. Jim didn't visit, but he did call. That afternoon, Jesse and Ethan talked about that incident for the first time since that Halloween. He remembered the shock of seeing the state Ethan's leg was in, how pale his face was, and how wet his cheeks were. 'I'm going to die...That thing is going to kill me.' Ethan had told him then. 'No, there has to be a way...I won't let you die! I promise!' Jesse swore to him. He didn't know how he would help. He spoke then out of desperation, in hopes that somehow his very will would create the future he wanted. That day began Ethan's on and off stays at the hospital. Around then, Jesse's own life changed. He suddenly started winning contests he didn't know he entered, finding money and winning lottery tickets everywhere, and being gifted money from strangers for no reason. While Ethan was suffering, he seemed to be thriving for a while. It wasn't long before Jesse realized he was also cursed. Whenever he spent the money he won, an accident happened. From those "gifts", he'd totaled cars, broken a leg and an arm, nearly got run over several times, been nearly crushed to death, and had many other near death experiences. He became certain that he too was going to be killed by that thing, whatever it was. Then one morning, while standing beside a donation box, he had a revelation. What if he gave it away? Jesse started giving away the money he won to others to see what would happen. No one was hurt, as far as he knew. Then, he tried buying gifts for others. No bad luck. Danger only came lurking if he spent the mysterious money on himself. Once he was certain of that, he freely gave the money away and bought gifts for the people around him constantly. He could avoid his curse so long as he wasn't selfish. Jesse started to consider his curse to be a blessing. He paid off his parent's house for them, bought them new cars, bought his school new textbooks, and in amounts that embarrassed him at the time, he spent plenty on Ethan. Back then, he told himself it was because Ethan was one of his best friends and he was so ill. Ethan deserved more, he told himself, but Jesse was always red in the face when he gave Ethan something new. Back then, he didn't know why he was so embarrassed. He sorted that out later. After he deciphered what he needed to do, Jesse had a hunch that Ethan was under a similar type of curse. There had to be something Ethan needed to do, some kind of rule he needed to follow. When Ethan was at the hospital, Jesse was there nearly every afternoon. When he was home, Jesse stayed over night after night. He told himself at the time it was to help Ethan figure out the rules of his curse. And that must've been why, he thought then, his heart was always pounding--out of fear for Ethan's life and their time running out. That was there, of course, but not the main reason and certainly had nothing to do with why his face was always hot around Ethan and his palms were sweating. When his mind would get too close to the answer, he'd ask a girl out at school and avoid Ethan for a few days. Jim would question him about the time he spent with Ethan whenever he didn't visit for a few days. Jesse could tell what Jim was thinking. He'd changed the subject to that thing instead and Jim would quickly end their conversation. As Jesse and Ethan brainstormed together to sort out the rules for his curse, Jim refused to acknowledge he could be under one as well. He wouldn't discuss that Halloween with either of them. Up until the end, Jim still refused to entertain the idea. Now, out of the three of them, he was the only one dead. Jesse recalled something from his dream. 'When you lie, he lies.' 'What does that mean?' Jesse looked over at Ethan. 'Why would he lie because I'm lying? How would he know?' He tried to forget the words, but his mind would not allow it. To intentionally forget and ignore any signs of danger was against his nature. They had finally become so happy now after everything. Jim's death painted across that happiness with a deep, violent red. Mixing with that shade, a darker one was seeping in. Jesse could feel it, but he didn't want to acknowledge its presence. That being there was unfair. It was cruel to return after all this time. He disguised it with blinding white in his mind, and so his thoughts were split in two. One half of him sought to take his foresight from him, and the other half made the truth all the more obvious without it. For the moment, the denial won. He turned the TV up louder and held Ethan closer. Ethan gazed into his eyes at the shift in contact. Jesse forced a smile. Ethan did the same. In the afternoon, Ethan's mother called. The call was short. Before he knew it, the day was over. Jesse turned in early that night to give himself extra time to get ready in the morning. Tomorrow was back to their regular life. He'd go to work while Ethan kept up the house. Ethan fell asleep against him first. Jesse kissed him on the forehead. 'No one's coming to get you.' His eyes turned to the spinning fan above them. 'Half, in half...surely, it's my turn, not yours, if it's either of us.' A light hit his eyes. The moon peeked out from behind dark clouds. Beams fell across his half of the bed and his nightstand. His shell necklace, sitting beside his digital clock and his lamp, lit up in the dark. Absentmindedly, Jesse picked it up. His mind wandered to when Ethan gifted it to him in high school. It wasn't really his style, he thought back then, but he wore it most days. That necklace had been with him through many life events. He was wearing it the day they started dating and the day he proposed to Ethan. He was wearing it the day Jim died. The wind blew the sheer white curtains over the right side of his body as the chimes sang outside. Jesse looked at the window. It was cracked open. He got up and closed it. 'Ethan must've forgot to close it again.' Jesse looked outside to check the weather. It looked like another storm might be coming in the next few days. Their neighbor's Halloween decorations were more scattered about than that morning. The rotten old woman appeared to have moved closer to their yard. One of her legs was missing now. A heavy wind blew through, shaking the chimes into a distorted, pained tune. The decorations were moved by the wind depending on their weight. Some fell over, some bent sideways, and some only moved a little. The old woman's head lifted up in the wind and turned as if facing Jesse. Her remaining eye gazed dully ahead. For a second, Jesse thought he saw her blink. His heart stopped, then raced. Jesse looked more closely. Her eye was as dull as before. He presumed he was seeing things. Jesse locked the window and closed the blinds. He started walking back toward the bed when lightning flashed. Two shadows were cast on the wall--his own and another standing beside him. Jesse looked over, but no one was there. He waited. Thunder and then another flash. He saw the shadow was cast from the other side of the blinds. Someone was standing on the other side of the window. Quietly, Jesse stepped over to his night stand and took out a gun. He waited for another flash. The next lightning strike, there was no shadow there. Cautiously, Jesse looked through the blinds. He couldn't see anyone. He checked the lock on the window again, then locked the bedroom door. They had an active alarm system already. He knew he had set it before turning in. Jesse turned on the lamp beside the bed and the TV on low volume. He left the gun on his nightstand and got back in bed with Ethan, holding him closer than ever. After an hour of not hearing or seeing anything unusual, Jesse lulled himself to sleep with reasonable, non-frightening sources for the shadow. It could've been a drunk or someone on drugs. There were plenty of people like that in the area. A house one neighborhood over had recently went up in flames over a meth lab explosion. It could've been a teenager wandering around at night, possibly with friends, simply bored or passing through his backyard to somewhere else. Someone could've been walking their dog late at night and the dog got loose in his yard. There were any number of reasons someone might stumble into his yard and not mean him any harm and they were all more likely than what his mind feared most. His eyes closed as he watched the fan spinning around. A little disoriented from being so tired, the room itself seemed to spin and wobble with the old fan. When his eyes closed, he still felt like he was being moved around. The surface beneath him felt different. He opened his eyes and saw himself younger self looking down at him. 'It's going to be alright. I'm coming with you.' His younger self said. Jesse looked down at his body. It didn't appear to be his. One of his pant legs was stained with blood from the knee down. The blood dripped over the sides of the stretcher he was on. Behind his younger self, he saw a black dog smiling at him. The dog's eyes shifted between red and brown. No one noticed the dog there but him. The dog followed them into the ambulance. It got up on its hind legs and with human hands, grabbed hold of his bleeding leg. The dog bit down into it. Jesse screamed, but his voice was not his own. He recognized it as Ethan's. His younger self was on the verge of tears. 'It's going to be okay. I promise.' The dog ignored the younger Jesse and stared directly into the eyes of the older one inhabiting Ethan's body. Grinning widely, the dog said, 'Liar, liar.' Then, it bit down again into the injured leg. Jesse screamed so loud he woke himself and Ethan up. Ethan held his hand. "Hey, are you okay? You were yelling in your sleep." Jesse took a moment to catch his breath. "Y-yeah. Sorry. I had another weird dream. I'm okay." "Are you sure? What was the dream about?" Ethan asked. "Nothing. Don't worry about it. I'm sorry I woke you up." Jesse said. "It's fine. It's almost..." Ethan started to say as the alarm clock went off. "And now it's time for us to get up." Jesse looked at the clock. "Damn. Already?" He collapsed back on the bed. Today, he needed to go back to work. He didn't want to. Someone was going to ask him about the funeral. They were going to ask regardless of what day he returned, Jesse knew. The only choice was to get it over with to pass that uncomfortable ordeal. Ethan made them breakfast. Jesse tried to rush through getting ready, but his body was sluggish. He had never been good at rushing through much of anything. That was why he always made sure to get up earlier than most, to ensure he had plenty of time to do all the things others got through in ten minutes. It did have its advantages though. With Ethan also cooking breakfast, Jesse always had a nice meal before work and plenty of time to enjoy it. This morning, he struggled to eat his food. His stomach turned. The golden yolk on his plate drizzling out from the center of the egg he had cut into filled the outer parts of the plate, oozing from the cut in a disgustingly familiar display. His bowl of oatmeal, strawberries, and yogurt--a usual favorite of his--appeared strange, the texture wrong. His salad, soaking up the yellow, dripped out its own mess of chunky, near clear red pieces from the tomatoes concealed under the leaves. His recent nightmares came flooding through his thoughts, and with them, horrid memories of the past, of Ethan and of Jim. What rested in that unopened coffin. What was discarded on the operating table. What covered the floors of that construction building. What stained the tiles of their high school's main hallway. What would he be seeing in an hour, he wondered. A car accident victim. A dead child. Something sliced, something cut. A brilliant red pouring out. Jesse shook the thoughts from his mind and ate his breakfast. He couldn't waste food Ethan made him. While he finished getting ready, Ethan made him his lunch. They walked out to the car together. Since Ethan had become more confident in using his new leg, he had been driving Jesse to and from work. They currently only had one car, one that was in Jesse's name. He often thought about getting a second car, but Ethan seemed to enjoy all the driving. Jesse wondered if it made Ethan feel more useful or if he was trying to catch up on lost time. When they were in high school, Ethan did manage to get his driver's license, but he rarely was able to drive due to his leg. When they were teenagers and Ethan wasn't at the hospital, they often went on drives together with Ethan sitting in the front passenger seat. For so long, when he thought of driving, himself in that car with Ethan sitting beside him looking out the window was always what he saw. Now, their positions had swapped. The old car he picked out, a gift from his parents, was traded in for one he let Ethan pick out for the two of them to share. Jesse legally owned the car, but there was no stating in his mind that it belonged to one of them more than the other. Such an idea was ridiculous. He often thought about things like that, how the world seemed so determined to split everything down into singular ownership even when it made no sense to do so. If they had a second car, it would be both of theirs too. As he stared out the window, his mind traveling through the past, he saw their younger selves in the old car. 'I wish we could be old together.' He recalled Ethan saying one night on a drive down an old, cracked road. 'We will.' Jesse told him. Ethan in his memory turned up the radio and rolled down the window. Jesse could smell the summer night air from all those years ago. Ethan had wanted to say something to him, but all he managed to say was, 'I love you.' They went to the hospital again that night. Ethan's blood permanently stained the front passenger seat and floor of the car. "Jesse, we're here." "Huh?" Jesse looked around. They were at the hospital parking lot already. "Oh. We got here fast." "You okay?" Ethan asked. "Yeah, I'm fine. I'll see you tonight." Jesse grabbed his things and got out of the car. Ethan smiled and waved goodbye, driving off in their sea blue car. Jesse watched him leave until he was out of sight. He turned around to face the hospital. The collection of tall white buildings, normally a still part of the background of his daily life, appeared bigger and heavier today, cast in shadows that weren't there. The ground beneath his feet was spongy and unstable. He felt like he was sinking in. Jesse took a deep breath and walked in the building. As he expected, several of his coworkers asked him about the funeral and the details of Jim's death. This died down after the first two hours of work. Jesse snuck in a few minutes to smoke a cigarette after the first hour, and another few after the second. Around noon, Jesse was instructed to go to a specific room. He had been told to check on a patient that had been brought in while he was off. From what he was told, the young man shot himself with a gun, but it was unclear if it was intentional or not. The young man was in a stable condition, but hadn't regained consciousness yet. Last night, the young man was moved to the room of one of the longer term patients at the hospital, another young man. Jesse had spoken to that young man often since his arrival a year ago. Jesse knocked on the door before entering. "Hey, it's me." The long time patient was sitting in his bed. White hair, grey eyes, pale skin, the young man's appearance blended in with the white gown he wore, the white walls, and white sheets. He smiled brightly. "Hey, Jesse. You're back." "Yeah. How have you been?" Jesse asked the young man as he checked on the new roommate. The new patient rested in a deep sleep. Jesse pulled the blanket back some to check his bandages. The new patient had shot himself in the chest, the bullet missing his heart, lungs, ribs, and spine. He was found shortly after the shot, but still lost a lot of blood. The young man with white hair got out of the bed. He went over to Jesse and stood beside him. "Same as always. What about you? You went to a funeral, right?" "For an old friend, yeah." Jesse covered the man back up. "Sorry about your friend. Are you alright?" The young man asked. "I'm fairing about as well as I could be, given the situation." Jesse gave a roundabout answer. "I can tell you're still really sad." The young man put his hand on Jesse's shoulder. "Your eyes are full of pain." "I'll be alright." Jesse said. He hoped the young man would drop the subject soon. "Mourning takes time." "This world doesn't seem that concerned with waiting around for grief to take its leisurely course." The young man crossed his arms. "Well, the world can do what it wants. No one controls what's happening in my mind." Jesse took a look at the new patient's chart. "You have a roommate now." "He came in last night." The young man said. He asked. "What happened to him?" "Gunshot wound to the chest. Likely self-inflicted. We don't know if it was accidental or intentional, last I heard. Has he woken up since he's been in your room?" Jesse asked him. "No. He's been sleeping the whole time." The young man sat down in a chair near the new patient's bed. "Anthony Greene. What funny name. It tastes like emeralds tumbling around in water inside my mouth." "What? What kind of nonsense are you talking again? You..." Jesse was about to remind the young man to stop looking into other patients' things, but he couldn't remember the young man's name. "Ah, I forgot your name again. It keeps slipping my mind." "You're really terrible with names." The young man laughed. "And you're really nosy. Did you look through his chart?" Jesse narrowed his eyes. "Of course I did. I'm bored." The young man shrugged and grinned. "You shouldn't do that." Jesse sighed. "Your name? What was it again?" "How about Jesse?" The young man returned to his bed. "That's my name." "Anthony then." "That's his name. What is your name?" Jesse rolled his eyes. This patient was always like this. "Meh. It doesn't matter. It's only a name. Besides, my chart's right there." The young man pointed to his own documents. Jesse picked it up. The name listed was Chase Rodriguez, but he was certain that wasn't the name he remembered being there before. "Did you swap your chart with someone else's again?" "Now why would I do that?" The young man laughed. 'So you did.' Jesse sighed. "You're a lot of trouble. Please stop doing that." The young man looked out the window. "Suicide." "What?" "A suicide that was aborted too late." He clarified. Jesse looked back at the new patient, Anthony. "You think he was trying to kill himself, then changed his mind at the last second?" "But he'd already pulled the trigger. He's lucky he moved just enough that it went through him in a way he'd survive." The young man said. "How do you know that?" Jesse asked. "I can tell by the way he's dreaming. He's not afraid. His breathing is too slow. He's quite calm, and quite sad. There is so much loneliness inside him, and shame." The young man glanced over at Anthony. "How can you tell all that from watching him sleep?" Jesse tilted his head. "Oh, but when humans dream, they reveal everything about themselves." The young man rested back down on his bed. "You're definitely a strange one." Jesse looked back down at the chart to sort out what patient he needed to find in the hospital so he could swap the charts back. He tried to recall anyone named Chase, but as he glanced at the papers, the name at the top now read Connor Forrest. Jesse blinked several times. He was certain before it said Chase something or other, not Connor and definitely not Forrest as a last name. Aside from that, he was certain neither of those names were that young man's real name. Jesse held on to the chart. He must've misread it. He would ask another nurse what the patient's real name was after he attended to Anthony. The young man was likely right about Anthony, he thought. Jesse couldn't place why, but when he saw Anthony, he thought the same thing. This man had wanted to die. He might still want it. Jesse wondered what happened to that man to make him hurt so. He hoped the man's life would improve soon. He couldn't imagine wanting to die. The only thing, Jesse thought, that could make him consider dying, would be Ethan's death. Jesse would do anything to keep Ethan alive and happy. If he failed at that, he could see himself giving up. The white haired man got up and stood beside Jesse. "You're quite interesting." "What?" Jesse looked over at him. "You're not really happy here though. It's a shame." The white haired man said. "I get paid well." Jesse responded. He didn't want to get into his personal life with the patient. This particular patient was very good at getting people to say things they wouldn't normally reveal. "Mm. I get the feeling you don't really care that much about money." "I don't, but I have bills to pay." Jesse could sense the man was planning on digging deeper. He needed to cut their conversation short. "I'll be by again later. Please, don't mess with anything you aren't supposed to, okay?" "Oh, I've never messed with anything I wasn't supposed to." The young man grinned. "Riiight...Anyway, I'll be going now. Did you need anything?" Jesse rolled his eyes. The white haired man shook his head. "Okay." Jesse headed for the door. He stopped. "Oh, I know you really like playing your radio, but keep your headphones on today, alright? He needs his rest." The white haired man hopped back in his bed. He plugged his headphones into his small radio. "I won't wake him." "Thanks." Jesse walked back into the hallway. When he closed the door, the walls shifted. The path before him narrowed and the walls were suddenly taller. There was no one else in the hallway. Everything was silent, except for the distant noises of unseen machinery. Jesse walked slowly down the path, uncertain of where he was. The hospital looked familiar and unfamiliar. A figure walked through him. The person who passed him was Ethan, younger and before the amputation. Another person ran through him, his own younger self. Teenage Jesse caught up with teenage Ethan. He handed Ethan a stack of CDs and cassettes. 'I got them all.' His younger self said. 'All of them?!' Ethan blushed. 'You didn't have to do that.' 'Don't worry about it.' Jesse's younger self said. 'I had to do something with all that money I won.' Ethan looked down at the pile in his arms. His eyes were sad. 'What's wrong?' Jesse asked. Ethan shook his head. 'Thank you.' Jesse walked slowly behind his former self. He noticed now what he didn't catch back then. Ethan was limping after the gift. He had been smiling to distract from Jesse noticing. Ethan had been hiding something then, lying about his wants. His curse was snaking its way through his veins, contorting around him invisibly with unknown poison. When they were older, Ethan told him about how he always wanted to go to a concert, but didn't think he'd ever be able to. They'd been to forty concerts since then. It'd been half a year since they last went to one. Jesse felt guilty about that. He was busier with work than ever and was taking classes again wherever he could fit them in his schedule. He knew Ethan wanted to go out more again, but he hadn't said anything in a long time. 'Maybe he doesn't care about that anymore. Wouldn't he be hurting again?' Jesse wondered. The younger Ethan walking in front of him turned around and faced present Jesse. With empty eyes, he said, 'I'm not going to grow up, am I?' Jesse's heart stopped. He blinked and looked around. The figures were gone. The hallway was full of people rushing past him in both directions. A few hours later, Jesse asked to leave early. He called Ethan to come pick him up. While he waited for Ethan in the parking lot, he smoked three cigarettes. The sun had long set. The sky overhead was cloudy, leaving all the lights around him artificial ones. White light streaming down from the hospital windows, the lights of the parking lot, the headlights of the passing cars, they all felt empty in comfort and as useless in illuminating the darkness as his own shadow. The cigarette's glow, the only natural light underneath the thick, darkened clouds, only worked to expose his shame. Dense fog concealed the smoke drifting from him. The red lights of an ambulance screamed past him, the vehicle largely hidden by the night and fog. He was used to the loud noise. His mind drowned it out. It was no different to him than the wind blowing. A car stopped beside him. He quickly hid the cigarette he was smoking behind his back. Ethan rolled down the driver's side front window. "Hey. I'm here. Is something wrong?" Jesse dropped the cigarette behind his back and covertly stepped on it. "Nah, I'm just tired. That's all." "Okay." Ethan unlocked the doors. "I haven't made dinner yet. Did you want to pick up something?" Jesse got in the front passenger seat. "It's alright. We can eat at the usual time. I think I need a nap." Ethan reached over and put the back of his hand to Jesse's forehead. "You're a little hot." "Hmm...maybe I'm coming down with something." Jesse rolled down the window. He worried he smelled of smoke. "I'll make some hot tea when we get home." Ethan said. The humid air hit Jesse's face. Eyes heavy, he started to doze off. The sounds of the cars and people they passed on the road faded away from him. He dreamt of another place and time, a spring afternoon when they were still in high school. He was taking a walk around the neighborhood when he ran into Jim. Jesse had been at the hospital so often lately and with them in very different classes at school, they hadn't hung out in a while. They caught up on the trivial things in their life, but a thick tension existed in the space between them. When they were far from their homes down a road neither of them usually walked, Jim cut through to the vital point Jesse hoped to hide. 'Hey, be real with me. Are you and Ethan dating?' Jesse laughed nervously. He looked away, face red. 'No. Why?' 'Really?' 'Why did you think we were?' Jesse asked. 'You're just...always with him. It's kinda weird.' Jim cut him again with his words. 'I'm helping his family take care of him.' Jesse gave his usual excuse. 'I am going to be a nurse, remember?' 'That's kinda weird too. Why not be a doctor? You'd make more money.' Jim shrugged. 'Isn't being a nurse a thing girls do?' 'It's not about the money.' Jesse didn't want to bother arguing with the last thing Jim said. 'You never visit Ethan when he's in the hospital. You should come by some time.' 'I don't like hospitals. I'll visit him when he comes back.' Jim said coldly. 'I've called him before. Hey, I heard you broke up with Amanda. Is that true?' 'Uh, yeah.' Jesse glanced to the side again. 'It wasn't really working out.' Jim narrowed his eyes. 'You know, she's going around telling everyone you're gay.' 'Don't know why she's doing that.' Jesse's heart raced. 'People will believe whatever they want anyway.' 'Yeah, but if I were you, I'd visit Ethan less. It's pretty weird, don't you think? You practically live with his family now.' Jim said. 'Don't you sleep over there all the time?' 'So what?' 'All I'm saying is you can't really be surprised that people are saying what they're saying.' Jim put his hands in his pockets. He walked slightly away from Jesse. 'Are you sleeping with him?' 'Like in his bed?' Jesse had tried to redirect the question, but he knew very well what Jim meant. Jim stopped in front of him. 'You know what? Sure. Are you sleeping in his bed? That answers both questions.' Jesse's face went a deeper red. 'Why are you being so weird to me right now?' 'I just asked you a question.' Jesse walked past Jim. 'I'm not. Jeez.' 'I was just asking. You don't gotta be mad about it.' Jim caught up with him. 'It's not like I hate gay people or anything like that, but it's still weird, you know?' Sixteen year old Jesse held his tongue. His older self separated from him in the dream and faced Jim. 'If you don't hate me, then why are you shaming me? No one ever loved you anyway.' Jesse regretted his words as soon as he said them. It was a cruel thing to say, and untrue. Even now, he still loved Jim as a friend, and he knew Ethan loved him just as much, if not more. 'So? I never wanted any of that.' Jim responded to Jesse before he could apologize. His body split in two, half falling away to the ground. His organs tumbled out of the side still standing up, falling in and around the half on the ground. The brain left the body, discarded in dead grass near the road. His heart fell farther, tumbling down the hill behind his brain into the woods. 'We're only bodies, after all. We react the way we do because we're animals. Love isn't really real. It's only a byproduct of other goals. That's why you're strange. When you have money, you don't need to pretend to love. You can have anyone for your desire, and the children will eventually come out of it. My boss is going to promote me soon. One day, I'll have his job and then everything will be perfect. All I have to do is run past him.' Jesse stood still, the world turning quickly beneath his feet. Jim split again, into shadows of himself, each running ahead to nowhere while the body rotted away until all that remained was a red shadow. 'I'm going to have it all. I'll be richer than you can ever dream of. And you'll be here, losing everything for nothing making no one that matters happy.' The red shadow rambled on. 'I'm going to have it all. I'm going to have it all. I'm going to have it all. I'll be richer than you...I'll be richer...' The red shadow was split in two, now cut across horizontally. The shadow faded away. Behind the shadow stood a figure in a black cloak holding a long scythe. Jesse could not see the person's face. The hooded person's shadow morphed into a black jaguar and walked down the hill toward the woods. As the jaguar walked away, a canine figure approached toward Jesse. The black dog with a human grin showed him his death. Jesse glanced over to see what the hooded figure was doing, but the person was gone. When he looked back down the hill, the dog was now at the top of it, a heart in its teeth. 'Nothing left.' A deep voice said. The dog swallowed the heart. 'Tell me, Nurse, are you successful?' Jesse looked around for the source of the voice in his head. He only saw the dog before him. 'What do you mean by success?' Jesse asked the dog. 'Do you have all you need?' 'I...I think so?' Jesse wasn't sure what to say. He felt he was being tricked somehow. 'Then why are you trying to run backwards?' 'Backwards?' Jesse didn't understand. 'One who rushes through life runs to their death. One who never looks ahead misses everything but death.' The voice said. The dog shifted form, growing taller and more human-like. Before Jesse could get a look at the being's face, the being lunged for his arm and ripped it off. The arm was swallowed whole, rapidly decaying in the being's mouth before going down the throat. 'When you are not living, you are lying. When you lie, he lies. And then I feed.' A cigarette lit itself in Jesse's hand. The light at the end of the cigarette burned hotly, reducing the cigarette to nothing in seconds, then burning on through Jesse's fingers and through his arm. The arm disintegrated into ash, blowing away in the wind. With both arms gone, he screamed. The being lunged at him, diving into his chest and setting him on fire from within. Jesse could see through his own skin. He watched his lungs catch on fire and burn away. All the while, he screamed with all of his soul, as if somehow the agony of his voice would grant him a savior. He awoke to Ethan nudging him in the car. "Jesse, wake up. We're home." "Huh? Did I fall asleep?" Jesse rubbed his eyes. "Yeah. Right away. You should go ahead and get to the bed. Do you want me to wake you up for dinner?" "Yeah." Jesse yawned. "I can't believe I fell asleep like that." "Are you sure you're not working too many hours?" Ethan asked. "I'm fine." Ethan turned off the car. "I, uh, I put in some applications today." "Huh?" "For jobs. I put in four applications. It's just part-time work. I don't know if any of them will hire me." Ethan cleared his throat. "But if they did, maybe you could work a little less." Jesse went quiet for a moment. "Ah, you don't need to work if that's the reason. I'm fine, really." "But lately...you've been tired a lot." Ethan said. "It's not like I'm incapable of working." "I know you're not." Jesse put his hand on Ethan's. "I'm happy with how things are now. You don't have to take on any extra burdens. If you want to work, then do it, but don't do it if it's for me. I want you to have as much time as you can to do whatever you want." Ethan held his hand back tightly. Words stayed caught in his throat. "I know. I love you." Jesse took another nap inside the house. He dreamt again of something strange, but his dream was too hazy to recall properly when he woke. All he remembered were bits and pieces of lights and shadows dancing, warm air, and an open window. Ethan woke him up for dinner. Jesse had fallen asleep so quickly he didn't change out of his scrubs. Jesse opened his drawers to find something else to wear. He pulled out a blue shirt with a sea turtle on it. Ethan asked to get matching shirts the last time they went to Jekyll Island. Jesse put it on and a pair of denim shorts as it was still warm enough to wear them despite it being a November night. He greeted Ethan in the kitchen after changing clothes, desperate to forget anything he dreamt of. "Hey, it's pretty nice out. Do you want to go for a walk after dinner?" "Sure." Ethan's eyes lit up. "It's been a while since we've been able to go on one." "Sorry." Ethan kissed him on the cheek. "It's alright." After dinner, they walked through the neighborhood. There weren't many people out tonight. From the lights cast on the front yards they passed, most people around them were watching TV at this time. Jesse and Ethan walked out of reach of the lights. The air was warm that night, the kind of air one would expect in late spring or early summer before a big storm. Jesse looked up at the thick clouds above them. It was going to rain tonight, possibly within the next hour or so. He could smell it. "We shouldn't walk too long. It's gonna rain soon." Jesse said. Ethan looked up. "You always know when it's coming. Maybe you should be a meteorologist instead." "I'd want to be out in the field if I did that. But there's not many jobs in that and I already get paid really well." Jesse said. "I help a lot of people at my job." "Meteorologists help people too, just in different ways. You should know with you keeping a storm radio right by your side of the bed." Ethan laughed. "Well, yeah, of course they help people too." Jesse searched for a hint of the moon in the sky, but was unable to find her. He knew where she should be. "But that's not the kind of help I want to give people. People see me on their worst days. I want to make those days less bad." "I know why you want to, but sometimes I worry you don't take of yourself enough." Certain the trees cast enough shadow on them in the night, Ethan took hold of Jesse's hand. "I know your curse doesn't let you keep extra money you receive. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't gift yourself anything ever." "I don't need much." Jesse said. "You know, if I use money you gifted me on you, nothing happens." Ethan reminded him. "We tested it before. It doesn't count because the money became mine." "I'm fine, really." Jesse kissed him on the cheek. "You don't need to worry about me." "I just want to make sure...you're doing what you want. I spent so much of my life doing what other people wanted, especially my parents. You're the only person who really let me do what I wanted. I don't want you to become like I was." No light shone on them. Jesse could see the depths of fear in Ethan's eyes with ease. He hugged him. "You don't need to worry about me. I'll be alright." "You promise?" "Promise." Jesse answered. As he looked into Ethan's eyes, they both split from themselves. Younger versions of them held hands in another place overlapping the dark road. 'Are you sure it's okay? If you're just doing this to make me happy...' Younger Ethan said. 'I'm not. I want this.' Younger Jesse leaned in for a kiss. The scene faded away. Ethan didn't notice it. A bolt of lightning struck nearby. "Should we go back?" Ethan asked. Jesse nodded. "Let's go. We can watch the storm from the backyard." The couple hurried back to the house, missing the downpour by minutes. Jesse got the radio from the bedroom and the tiny, portable TV from the kitchen, and brought them out to the backyard. They watched the rain from underneath the covered wooden porch Jesse had added to the house. Ethan had always wanted a place outside that he could be at no matter the weather. Jesse turned The Weather Channel on low volume. Ethan watched the TV more closely than Jesse. "Looks like we're under a tornado watch. This late in the year..." "The weather feels right for one. Let's hope if there is one, it goes a different way." Sirens went off far from them. Jesse stood up. The weather man suddenly changed his report. The map focused in on Polk, Paulding, and Cobb county. A tornado was spotted in Cedartown. The map showed a likely path for the tornado. Those three counties were shifted from watch to warning. "Should we go inside?" Ethan asked. "Mm...looks like it's probably going to go above us." Jesse sat back down. "We'll go in if it looks like its shifting our way." Small pieces of hail fell down around them. Ethan pointed to one. "That's hail." "Yeah, okay...maybe we should go inside." Jesse sighed. He wanted to watch the storm more. They moved to the living room. Jesse turned the living room TV on the same channel. He put the mini portable TV back in the kitchen and glanced out the window. Bright Halloween lights caught his eyes. The neighbors still hadn't taken down their decorations. Some of them had traveled slightly into their yard. The hideous old, decaying woman was the farthest over. He was glad he didn't notice that when they were outside. Jesse got out a tub of chocolate ice cream and filled two bowls. He topped the ice cream with strawberry syrup and whipped cream. Jesse sat down on the couch and passed a bowl to Ethan. "Is this how we're spending tonight? Watching The Weather Channel and eating ice cream?" Ethan dug into his bowl. Jesse shrugged and laughed. "What did you want to do?" "Well, we can't do anything right now. But when it's over..." Ethan put his hand on Jesse's thigh and squeezed lightly. He grinned. Jesse understood the message quite clearly. The warning expired an hour later, going over them as Jesse predicted. The couple retired to bed not long after. Ethan fell asleep first, as he often did. Neither had bothered redressing for the night. Between the humidity outside and their last activity of the night, Jesse was too sweaty to sleep. He got up and turned on the fan. Jesse liked cuddling, but he felt too hot that night to stay close. He pulled back one of the blankets on his side. Jesse thought about cracking the window slightly, but he remembered that stranger coming into their yard and decided against that. Too uncomfortable still, he went to the master bathroom to get the cigarettes and smoked in the guest bathroom. He was too nervous to crack the window this time. The wind chimes rang loudly tonight. Jesse worried some of them might break from the strong wind. Though the tornado had gone a different way, the storm itself was still quite violent. Lightning brightened the sky every few minutes. Some of the strikes were dangerously close to the house. When Jesse finished his cigarette, he went back to bed. He crawled into bed. Instinctively, Ethan curled up against him. Jesse accepted he would likely sweat through the night. He closed his eyes. Jesse felt a light breeze over his skin. The sheer curtains of the window brushed against his face and chest. Jesse opened his eyes. He saw the window was wide open. Jesse tried to get up, but there was a heavy weight on his chest. He went to push Ethan off, but the texture of the hair was wrong. Jesse looked down. The old woman's one eye stared back at him blankly. Her rotten mouth twisted into a smile. Jesse screamed. He opened his eyes again, sitting straight up in bed. There was no one there. The window was shut. He checked that it was locked. Jesse took a sleeping pill and went back to bed. His body was still hot, but he held tight to Ethan anyway. In his sleep, Ethan wrapped an arm around Jesse. Jesse ran his fingers through Ethan's hair and kissed him on the forehead. Ethan's hand suddenly clawed against his back, then moved down to his knee of the leg the creature had once bit. Jesse's heart sunk. 'No, not this again. It can't be coming back. We figured out the rules.' Jesse told himself. 'It's a coincidence. It's not that. It can't be that.' Jesse held his beloved tightly. 'It can't be that.' The medicine kicked in quickly. Jesse hazily drifted off to sleep. His mind was full of memories of Ethan. He could see the blood pooling on the floor, seeping out through the leg of Ethan's pants. They were in the middle of changing classes. So many people saw them there. They stared with curiosity and disgust. Jesse had to flag Jim down to inform the office he would be bringing Ethan up there and they'd need to call an ambulance. Teachers were uninterested in helping him. He was only able to get a desk chair to wheel him up to the office after begging several teachers to borrow theirs. The blood dripped out down the main hallway. For some reason, they were never able to get the stains out of the tiles. Jesse rode with Ethan in the ambulance. He wasn't supposed to. He didn't care. That was in tenth grade. Jesse was fifteen at the time. He remembered that. The number fifteen in his mind was the same shade of red as those fresh pools on those old, cheap tiles. Ages had always been different in color than ordinary numbers. Twelve on a clock was a brick red for the one and a bright green for the two. Twelve as an age was one color, a burnt orange with a taste to match. Fifteen, that age, that color, he hated that shade most of all. In another year from then, Jesse would come to terms with his feelings for Ethan. Sixteen was a seafoam green. The truth had bubbled up to the surface, but he was intent on hiding it for most of that year. Jesse dated sixteen girls that year in an attempt to drown out those rushing feelings. He tried to convince himself he was straight, then once he accepted he was bi, that he could go on living without ever dating a guy. All his relationships failed. He spent evening after evening at the hospital, doing everything he could to make Ethan happy. For so long, he couldn't speak the words. If he said them, he was afraid that would destroy their friendship. He didn't want to lose Ethan, and he knew his other classmates were forgetting about him the longer he stayed at the hospital. Without Jesse, Ethan would be alone. He swallowed his feelings, hid the sweating of his palms, and ignored the burning heat in his body. Whatever would keep them both afloat, Jesse would do. As his seventeenth birthday approached, Ethan's condition took a turn for the worst. For a few weeks, Ethan was so ill the doctors thought he would die within a month or two. His body wouldn't respond to any treatments. He was sent home on hospice care. Jesse stayed over the night Ethan came home from the hospital. Ethan's mother informed him of what the doctors had told her. When they were behind closed doors, Ethan broke down in tears. 'What's wrong?' Jesse asked him. 'I'm gonna die. Nothing's working. It's gonna kill me. I don't want to die...' Ethan cried uncontrollably. Jesse had never seen him like that before. 'I'm pathetic. If I die now, I'll have died without doing anything.' Jesse didn't know what to say. He didn't know if the doctor of Ethan's parents had told him he might die soon, or if Ethan had come to that conclusion on his own. Jesse said the only thing he could think of. 'We're not going to let you die. We'll find a way.' 'You know, you're the only person who visits me. No one else at school cares. No one calls me anymore. No one sends cards. No one says anything.' Ethan wiped his face off, but the tears kept pouring out of him. 'I'm switching to a homeschooling program in a couple of weeks. If I live through the next couple of weeks...' 'You're going to survive this. You have to believe it. Are you switching because no one's visiting you?' Ethan shook his head. 'The school's threatening to hold me back a year for frequent absences. They don't care that I bring in doctor's notes from the hospital. They don't care that I turn in all my work and get A's and B's. I was going to try and fight it and keep going, but...what's the point if no one cares I'm there anyway?' 'I care about you.' Jesse said. 'You'll come to the hospital whether I'm at school or not. You'll come here. Or will you stop coming too now? Will my funeral be empty?' Ethan's crying got louder again. 'I'm not abandoning you.' Jesse hugged him. He tried to hold back the tears that were building up inside him. He knew the words he was about to speak were as empty of power as anything kind the doctor may have told Ethan. 'If this will make it easier for you to do schoolwork, then you should. Forget about them. It's only high school. You'll get better. Most adults aren't friends with people they were friends with in high school. You'll find more, better friends later.' 'Adults...if I make it to being an adult. Maybe I should drop out. I'm not going to make it. I'm going to die. That's why I'm home.' Ethan became more distraught. 'Everyone else will grow up but me.' 'You're not going to die.' Jesse said, mostly for himself. He didn't want to believe it. Someone he loved that much couldn't simply die in front of him so young, so slowly and painfully. It was too cruel a fate for a sixteen year old to endure. The tears slipped from Jesse's eyes. 'The doctors think I will die. I heard them talking with my parents. I'm here because nothing's working. They know I'm dying, but they didn't even bother telling me.' Ethan grabbed at his injured leg. 'That thing is going to kill me. It's going to come eat me.' 'We'll figure out the rules of your curse. I swear it. I won't let you die.' Jesse wiped Ethan's face off, forgetting his own tears. 'You can't promise me that.' Ethan pushed his hand away. 'I'm not gonna make it. I'll die alone, never having dated anyone, never having kissed anyone, never having done anything. I won't graduate high school. I won't go to college. I won't get a job. I won't get married. I won't grow up. I'll die, and if I don't die, I'll still be alone.' Ethan yelled in anger and agony. 'What do you mean you'd still be alone?' Jesse asked. Ethan pulled up the leg of his pant to show his infected leg. The discolored leg looked worse than Jesse had ever seen it before. It looked almost as if it were rotting off of him. 'Look at it. No one will want to touch me if they see this. I'm disgusting.' 'I'm not disgusted by it.' Jesse said. His heart sped up. 'What does that matter?' Ethan asked. The room went quiet. Jesse saw himself at the edge of a cliff. He could take a leap of faith or forever be stuck where he was now. Face red, he revealed his secret. 'Because I like you.' 'I know that.' Ethan's crying stopped. His cheeks flushed. Jesse's face went a deep red. 'No, I...I don't...I don't mean like that. I love you. I'm sorry. I didn't...want to say anything. I'll leave if you want me to. Unless you still want to be...friends?' Ethan's face now matched his. 'Are you just saying this to make me feel less...' 'No, I really do feel that way about you. I don't know when it started, but it's been this way for...a while. I'm sorry I kept it a secret from you. I didn't want to make anything awkward for you. You already have so much to deal with. I'm sorry I...' Ethan looked down at his hands. 'I like you too. Um...since we're being honest about everything. I have for...a while. But I thought...if I said anything, you'd finally abandon me and then I'd have...no one.' 'I'd never abandon you. Never.' Jesse said. One of them asked the other out during that conversation, but Jesse had long forgotten who was the one to ask. He remembered Ethan asked for a kiss after that. The kiss itself was unremarkable, long blurry in his mind, but he never forgot the order of the events of that night. Jesse had proudly declared after their first kiss, 'Well, you can't say you've never kissed or dated anyone before. If you feel up to it, let's go on a date soon.' 'Okay.' Ethan's attention turned to something else that night. For the first time since he was bitten, the pain in his leg stopped. 'Huh. It doesn't hurt right now. Do you think...I did something that caused that?' 'Maybe? What do you think it was?' Jesse asked. 'I don't know.' They were close to sorting out the answer then, but it took until the following morning for the two of them to realize what the rules of Ethan's curse were. Jesse watched the memory play out from above, sitting on the ceiling upside down. This night seemed so intense at the time. Everything felt like it was the most important thing in the world. Every thought, every word, every action felt like a string of fate rushing them along a path finally diverting from the hell they had been living in. Looking back, he found their conversations that night embarrassingly childish, the sort of things only teenagers concern themselves with. Ethan had many questions for him he didn't really want to answer then. His younger self stayed red the rest of the night. 'Have you done it before?' Ethan asked. 'Yeah.' Jesse admitted, though he wasn't really happy about it. 'Really?' 'A couple of times.' 'When was that?' Ethan asked. 'It was last year, with Samantha Smith. Do you remember her?' Jesse asked. He hadn't spoken to Samantha since their break-up. They never had any classes together again. At this point in his life, Jesse couldn't remember if they graduated high school together or if she transferred to another school. He couldn't remember her face at all. When it happened, he thought he was supposed to remember that moment for the rest of his life. It had long faded from his mind by the time he was twenty, reduced to only essential facts about the day without any visuals remaining. 'I don't think I met her.' 'Oh, yeah...I guess you probably didn't. She transferred to our school around the time...you stayed in the hospital for a few months. Sorry.' Jesse apologized. 'What happened with her?' Ethan asked. 'She broke up with me because I kept canceling on our dates.' Jesse said. They only went on three dates. The rest of their time spent together was him going over to her house for a couple of hours occasionally. 'Why were you...' Jesse smiled. 'To see you.' 'I'm sorry.' 'Why? It wasn't that serious. She was the one who wanted to do that. I was curious and decided to try it out.' Jesse said. He felt strange telling Ethan that then, and strange that he hadn't told him before. Jim knew, but only because Samantha told other people about it and Jim asked if it was true. She had told several of the people in their grade about his not so great performance and that he hadn't done that with anyone before. That followed him around for a few months. Looking back at that with adult eyes, it was an absurd thing for anyone to care about. Everyone back then was lying and hiding things about themselves, claiming ages and numbers both higher and lower than reality, skills and ignorance that were entirely untrue, and all other sorts of lies to avoid being outcast based on what they thought others would enjoy berating them over. He hadn't done those things before. How could he possibly be great at it? Adult Jesse laughed at the memories of then. Ethan, hungry for any morsel of experience at anything, asked more questions. 'What was it like?' 'It was okay...kind of awkward. I enjoyed it more the third and fourth time than the first two times. The first time was...uh, not that great.' 'Really? Why?' Jesse shrugged his shoulders. He tried to hide his embarrassment. 'I figured when I eventually did that I'd know what to do. I mean, I did know what I was supposed to do, but the actual...doing that part was not exactly how I pictured it in my head. I wouldn't say I was nervous...just really...awkward.' Covertly, Jesse wiped his sweaty hands off on his pants. His older self laughed watching his younger self so nervous over nothing. Ethan counted back. 'Huh. So you were...fifteen then?' 'Hmm...Yeah, I think it was before my last birthday. Yeah, the first time anyway.' 'Has there been anyone since?' Ethan asked. 'I had...some other girlfriends after that, but I didn't do anything with them. Those relationships lasted even less time. Two weeks or less. After that last girl, I gave up dating.' Jesse shifted the focus of the conversation. Back then, he was embarrassed by the number. 'I had more important things to worry about.' Ethan's eyes started tearing up again. 'I feel like I've messed up your life.' Jesse shook his head. 'No! I wanted to be there for you! It was around then I think, that I started...to see you different. There was a day at the hospital when I came to visit you on the weekend, and you were sitting by the window watching the rain. When you looked at me, I couldn't say anything. I don't know if I was into you before or not, but that was the first time I remember thinking you were the hottest person I'd ever seen in my life.' Adult Jesse laughed at his teenager self. 'Did I really say that? Oh god, I did. I definitely did.' Ethan's mood perked back up. 'You did not think that.' 'I did! You said something to me, and I completely blanked out. I don't remember what I said to you, but whatever it was had nothing to do with what you said to me. You looked at me all weird and were like, 'what the hell'. Haha, it was so embarrassing. I guess you don't remember that.' Jesse had been so embarrassed then to admit that. Adult Jesse wished he could remember what he actually said at the hospital that day. Like many of his other seemingly important memories from his teenage years, that one had long been forgotten entirely. 'No, I don't. Haha. I wish I did.' Ethan laughed. Jesse had been so happy to finally see Ethan happy again. He thought if Ethan was asking all those questions, that must be what Ethan wanted himself. If Jesse could give Ethan one more thing to scratch off on his list of things he felt he needed to do to "grow up", he'd gladly do that. 'Hey...um, did you want to do it?' 'Well...yeah. If you wanted to. I don't know...how many chances I'll get to try it.' At the time, he was absolutely certain he would never forget a single second of that night. He couldn't remember it now. It was unremarkable. They had much better sex when they were older and knew more. It felt special at the time though. He had lost the memories of that part of the night, but remembered looking back on it fondly at other parts in the remaining time of his teenage years. The next morning mattered far more than that night. When they woke up, both of them afraid they would somehow be found out and exposed for what they did then, Ethan noted his leg wasn't in any pain then either. He was pain free for most of the day. After Jesse went home, he got a call late in the evening from Ethan that the leg had started to hurt again and he'd solved the riddle. Ethan's leg hurt when he lied about or suppressed his real wants and feelings. If he expressed the truth, the pain went away. Once they sorted that out, they eventually came to find out that if Ethan expressed his real desires, fate would align so that he got exactly what he wanted. This led to some embarrassing moments every now and then, especially in bed. The scene beneath him shifted through time, to the sand colored number seventeen. Ethan was able to stay out of the hospital for longer periods of time now. He didn't die as the doctors expected, but the leg wouldn't fully heal up no matter what he asked for. There was still something they needed to sort out. It would take until after Ethan turned eighteen before they solved the last part. Ethan opened up to Jesse about his every desire, but he kept his mouth shut when it came to his parents. They made all his medical decisions for him even when he was an adult. Ethan trusted they must know better than he did about what he should do. He always defaulted to their wishes and their decisions would end with him back in a hospital bed. Jesse wasn't there for that moment. Ethan would tell him about it later that night. One night, when his leg was hurting and bleeding terribly, Ethan finally expressed everything he wanted to say to his parents. He told them he would be making his own medical decisions going forward, he wanted the infected part of his leg cut off, that he was bisexual, and that Jesse was his boyfriend who he wanted to move in with soon. They were initially shocked, but accepted everything. Jesse and Ethan got a place together not long after that, one Jesse ensured had plenty of modifications to it to make Ethan's life easier after the surgery. After the surgery, Ethan was worn out and dazed for a while, but the pain stopped. His body had a general tiredness to it for a while, from getting used to the wheelchair and then to using the leg. Ethan waited a few months before deciding on getting the new leg. He had become quite comfortable with his wheelchair, but eventually he decided he at least wanted to try and see what it was like. Ethan's body seemed to be gaining more strength the more time passed since the surgery, as did his ability to speak his wants. At the cost of his leg, Ethan was more alive than ever. They had settled into a quiet routine between them. Jesse worked at the hospital while Ethan took care of the house and the bills. Jesse felt lucky to be with Ethan. It hurt him to think Ethan sometimes thought of himself as some kind of burden to him. The leg didn't matter. The modifications to the house didn't matter. If they had to spent days seeing doctors again, he didn't care. Jesse only wanted Ethan. Whatever it took to keep him happy and alive, he would do. He'd had enough of watching living bodies decay and distort over time while the lovers of those people vanished out of disgust. He hated those people who could look at someone they swore a lifetime to and find ways to dehumanize them to such a degree they could excuse leaving them for dead. He would never be one of those people. The images beneath him finally caught up to the recent past. Jim sat across from him at a restaurant. He seemed out of it, his words coming out as if his mind were on auto-pilot. With no trace of emotion, Jim attacked them. 'It's gross to have a man buying so many things for another man. You're buying him jewelry, for Christ's sake.' Jim had said to him. He turned to Ethan. 'Aren't you ashamed of yourself for being like this? Are you content with being somebody's little bitch? Wearing rings some other guy bought you out in public...Why don't you get a job?' Jim didn't know then, because Jim never gave them a chance to explain anything, that the ring he was so disgusted by was an engagement ring. Jesse knew they may never be able to legally get married, but they planned on having a ceremony anyway and would have another one if it did become legal. They had planned their wedding for next October, once hoping to invite Jim. Whether Jim or anyone else would accept it, Jesse saw Ethan as his fiance, and he didn't plan on parting with him until death. Still, it pained him that Jim wouldn't be there next year at their wedding. Travelling through his memories, he could see now that Jim hadn't been a good friend to them in a long time. If Jim were alive now, he may want nothing to do with them if Jesse and Ethan came out to him. As much as they both hoped for it, his acceptance may never have come and that was something Jesse would have to accept himself. As far as he could tell, the way things were going, Jim wouldn't accept them for that and it would take even more effort to get Jim to get past his disgust of people with disabilities and illnesses. There was too much there to undo. Jim was gone and he wasn't coming back. He had already let go of so many other people he had known in his life that he once thought were important to him for some reason or another. There was no place for Jim in his life. Jim's death couldn't undo what Jim had become. It made it permanent. Wanted what ifs could never be. Jesse looked down at Jim's freshly dug grave and headstone. 'I wanted to keep you here. You were with us for so long, but maybe it was that way...because there wasn't much else. Wherever you are, I hope you're somewhere better even if you wouldn't wish that on me. This is goodbye, Jim.' The ground beneath him sunk down into a dark red, then it all shattered. Jesse floated in the emptiness of space, stars and planets moving around him. He drifted in darkness and stars until he fell beneath the sun to Earth. As he fell, the world flattened out, then inverted, catching him in a net that enveloped everything. All the world's colors bled out into strings and strands thinner than his hair. The strings were both sharp and soft against his skin. The texture of the strings kept him stuck in place. He glanced around and could see the colored strings blending into spaces and people from his memories. They seemed to move, yet stayed stuck in place in their own blocks of color. He was stuck in the middle of it all, writhing to free himself and run. The more he moved, the more the strings moved with him. With each touch, each color sang out a note unique to itself. Its sound bounced off in a light show matching its own color, exploding like tiny fireworks all around him. Jesse's heart raced faster with each bang. 'Don't struggle, my dear. You'll only make it worse.' A feminine voice spoke softly to him from above. Jesse looked up. At first, he saw a giant black widow spider, but the spider's shape shifted. The body became human-like, with a human face. The being's hair was golden sand that fell away, always replenishing itself. Six arms worked at once. One pair of arms worked together around the front of the being's abdomen spinning rainbow thread from nothing. Another pair of arms worked behind the back weaving strings together from the net below. The third pair of arms, resting above and off to the side of the lower sets strummed the strands from above and below, creating a melody that moved all the strings in all directions in gentle waves of reverberating color. The being's two legs were wrapped around a red thread the being used to descend down to Jesse. The upside-down creature had eyes like a human in a deep red. Black marks shaped like pincers decorated the being's cheeks beside the red lips of the mouth. The being's skin was golden towards the head and dark bronze toward the feet and hands. The legs and arms showed signs of tarnish that suggested skin made of metal, but Jesse could see the texture of the skin appeared too soft for that to be true. The abdomen itself was an hourglass full of golden sand matching the being's hair. One half of the hourglass had a red sheen to it and the other half, blue. The sand fell downward inside the glass. Jesse could see right through it. He couldn't understand how that was possible. It would mean there were no organs there. The six arms all wore red, fingerless gloves. On each glove, constellations were embroidered in impossibly fine thread. The bronze colored fingers ended with long, red fingernails, each nail containing spiraling galaxies. The legs were covered with ripped red stockings coated in far more stars than all of the gloves combined. Unlike the fingernails, the toenails were painted blue. The being wore no shoes. For the rest of the body, the being wore a dress. The top half was sleeveless and black. The breasts, glassy in appearance, resting inside the top were see-through in parts. There, darkness and stars were revealed where the golden-bronze color had faded away. No heart beat inside the being. On the lower half of the dress, there were two layers. The top layer was thick, ruffled, and poofy, stopping mid-thigh. The second layer of fabric was thinner, longer, and only covered the back side. Being upside-down, the back layer was partly flipped over as well. Both layers were black on the outside, same as the top half of the dress. The inner side of the longer part of the dress was covered in stars and darkness, red and blue lights pulsating here and there through the shifting universe. On the neck, a black choker trimmed with red lace covered a crack where another part of the skin's color had faded away. In the center of the choker was a snake breaking through a red egg. The snake's color shifted from red to blue the farther from the egg it was, and its skin replaced with bone at the bluest point. Jesse went still. 'Who are you?' The being smiled at him. 'I am what heals all that can be healed whenever you have no power.' 'When I have no power?' Jesse repeated the words. 'What power do I have?' The being descended down closer to him, hovering just above his body. The being used its set of arms that played music to tug at the threads in Jesse's clothes. He was shifted from his sleeping clothes to his scrubs. 'When medicine fails...?' Jesse thought about it. His eyes widened when his mind came to a solution. 'Time! Are you...Time?' The being smiled gently at him. 'I knew you would know me. Of course, I know how most things will inevitably be. There are few surprises. Oh, but how wonderful it is when there is one!' 'What do you mean by surprises? There are things you don't know?' Jesse asked the being. She changed the tune of her playing slightly. 'Yes. Most who are born have little they can change about their life, and most will take the path of least resistance. Their lives may have had three forks in them, or forty, but most will go down a straight line of emptiness. I weave and shift what I can within the universes, but it seems the desire for unremarkability is what is preferred by those with consciousness. Such is the fate of the experiment of free will.' 'I suppose that is easier, isn't it?' Jesse remarked. The being's appearance was frightening, but he sensed he didn't need to be afraid. He felt quite calm listening to the being speak. 'Yes, it's quite easy to live standing for nothing and risking nothing. The creator has been very disappointed to see most, when given free will, choose exceptionally bland conformity. Little excitement is born of that. It bores me too, but I keep weaving and hoping for those little unexpected ripples. They happen here and there. With how rare those souls are, I've come to cherish them deeply when they appear in my web.' 'Why have you come to speak to me? Is there something I'm supposed to do?' Jesse asked. 'Lately, I keep seeing all these moments from the past replaying. They won't stop. Do you know why?' The being laughed. 'You ask questions before waiting for any answers. My lover would be tempted to eat you for that sort of behavior.' 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. I got carried away. Please, forgive me.' Jesse apologized. Threads in hand, she patted Jesse on the head. 'Don't worry. I am not so bothered by such things the way he is. To your first question, I came to speak to you. The threads of your life are very colorful, but they are becoming dull. You'll be at a crossroads in your life soon. Your life could shift one way or the other, and once that has happened, it cannot unhappen.' 'What should I do?' Jesse asked. 'That is for you to decide. What you do will be your will and I will weave it into place once your voice gives it shape and color.' The being ascended up the red thread a few feet. 'What about the memories I keep seeing in my dreams and when I'm awake?' 'You see them because you want to see them. You've become a ghost in your life. Ghosts can do nothing but replay the past or wander on fixed paths going nowhere.' The being said to him. 'Then are most people ghosts?' He asked. The being turned upright, still attached to the red thread. 'You could say that many are. You weren't before. Soon, you will lose yourself and become a ghost in all ways. If you stay as you are, that is...' 'Why is that?' Jesse saw all the red on the being's body shift to blue, and all the blue to red. The sands in the hourglass began falling in the opposite direction as before. The being showed off large fangs. 'You have stopped racing. You stand in place. Some run fast toward their own demise, some walk slowly. You are not walking anymore, so the world will move under your feet and take you at its own pace to the end. When you stop moving, you die faster than when you run.' 'I'm dying?' Jesse looked down at his own body. 'But I'm not sick.' 'You are quite ill.' The being returned to being upside down and touched Jesse on the forehead. 'Your sickness is in here.' 'What should I do?' Jesse wanted to ask another question, but he remembered her words about asking another question before the first is answered. 'When you lie, he lies. When he dies, so will you. Two halves of a whole cannot exist as a whole when split.' The being rose higher above the web of strings. Jesse tried to stand up. The web moved with him, keeping him down. 'Why are you telling me this?' The being laughed. 'I find you interesting. I hope you don't disappoint me. Will you make my web more beautiful or will you stain it with a dull red?' 'Interesting...Me?' Jesse got to his knees. 'You said you have a beloved too. Who is your most important person?' The being kept rising higher, nearly out of sight. 'You have already met. He has gifted you greatly. Unlike me, he has a body and is in many bodies at all times. He is in yours right now, since the day you were born and began my race.' The being disappeared above the massive net of colors. Jesse looked out at the patchwork memories of his life. He saw glimpses into ones he had recalled just before the being brought him here and others from different points in time. He saw the day Ethan gifted him his shell necklace that he always wore on his off days and the day Jesse bought Ethan an engagement ring. The first night in their current house, the last time he spoke to Jim, the day he came out to his parents, the evening of the funeral; everything played out beneath him, moving in waves. Ahead of him, he saw two loose pieces of work, but space for only one to be sewn in. In one, he was rushing Ethan to the hospital. That patch was covered in deep reds and dusty browns. The other piece showed them sitting in a university class together. 'What does this mean?' Jesse asked aloud. There was no one there to answer him. The web underneath him ripped apart. Jesse fell through and back into his bed. He opened his eyes. Four in the morning. Jesse looked over. Ethan was fast asleep. The white curtain brushed against his skin. 'Am I still dreaming?' Jesse thought. He looked over. The window was cracked open. 'Maybe Ethan got hot and opened it.' Jesse approached the window, unsettled by his bizarre dream. He was afraid of looking down. Jesse told himself nothing was there. He closed the window and locked it. To prove to himself there was no reason to be afraid, he forced himself to see what was below the window. The old woman was against the outside wall of the house. Her chest and face were pressed against the area directly below the window. One arm was entirely gone now. The spine bent at a ninety degree angle with the upper half of the legs spread out. One leg was missing everything below the knee, the other was bent at the knee at another ninety degree angle. His heart pounded. 'It's just a decoration. It must've blown over in the rain.' The eye remaining in the rotting skull looked up at him. A crooked smile crept up the old woman's face as her arm reached up at the glass. Jesse jumped back. He closed the blinds and got his gun out of his nightstand. "I'm dreaming...I'm dreaming...This isn't real..." A light turned on behind him. Jesse quickly turned around. "Jesse?" Ethan spoke. "What's going on?" "Uh...there's...there's someone outside the window. Don't panic." Jesse aimed the gun away from Ethan. "Is someone trying to rob us?" Ethan whispered. "Should I call the police?" "No, not yet." Jesse's shoulders shook. 'This is a dream. It's a very realistic dream. That's all this is.' Ethan pulled the sheets up. He searched for his discarded boxers on the floor. "What should we do?" "I'm going to turn on all the lights. Turn the TV on high volume." Jesse grabbed a pair of sweatpants from his drawer. It wasn't until Ethan put something on that Jesse registered he was naked too. Jesse went from room to room, turning on all the lights, including the front and back outside lights. As he went through the rooms, he checked the locks of every door and window, then he went through the rooms again to check again. When he checked the kitchen for a second time, a flash of light showed him a shadowy figure through the glass of the backdoor. The door knob turned even though he could see it was locked. Jesse pointed his gun at the door. "This is a dream. I'm dreaming. This is another dream. I'm still in bed." Jesse muttered under his breath. "If that's how you want it." A voice boomed in his head. Jesse's vision blurred. He fell back into his bed, this time woken by his alarm clock. He looked over at the window. It was cloudy out. The window was closed. Jesse checked under the blanket. He was naked. "Is it over?" "Is what over?" Ethan sat up. "Ah, nothing. I had another really weird dream." Jesse put on a pair of pants. "Another nightmare?" Ethan asked. Jesse walked over to the window. The decoration of the old woman was in their yard, but much farther than in his dream. He closed the blinds. "Yeah." "You've been having a lot of nightmares lately. Are you okay?" Jesse peeked through the blinds to check the decoration didn't move. "I'm fine." Ethan didn't say anything else before heading off to make breakfast. Anxious from his dream, Jesse slipped into the bathroom to get his cigarettes. He pretended to take a shower while he smoked. He could already tell it was going to be a long day. After breakfast, Ethan dropped Jesse off at work. Jesse started the morning seeing a little girl who's father had likely raped and beaten her. The parents came in claiming the girl had an accident, but an examination of the girl revealed the truth quickly. They hadn't confirmed yet that the father was the culprit, but given the parents' story, it was likely him or another close relative. Seeing the small body, so badly injured, filled him with rage. He always tried hard to not get too emotionally involved with patients, but he couldn't help it in cases like this. The details he heard before he saw her already made him sick to his stomach. He bought the girl a teddy bear from the hospital gift shop. It wasn't enough to match the suffering she had endured, but he hoped it would give her some small comfort. While he checked on her, the parents were outside the room arguing with one of the other nurses when the father was asked to provide a DNA sample to test against what was found on the girl. "I'm sorry this happened to you. We're going to try to take care of everything now. Does it hurt anywhere?" Jesse asked her. She had been given strong pain killers earlier in the morning, from what he read. She shook her head. "Do I have to go home?" Jesse sat down beside her in a chair. "You don't want to?" She shook her head again. "We'll try to keep you here. The police will probably talk to your parents soon." Jesse said. "You didn't say who hurt you to the other nurses. Do you think you could tell me? Was it someone at home?" The little girl hugged the bear tightly. "Please don't make me go home." "I'll do what I can." Jesse said. "You don't have to say it. You can just nod or shake your head. Did your dad hurt you?" The little girl looked at the door to see if her parents were watching her. She nodded her head. "Did your mom hurt you?" The girl nodded her head again. Jesse was surprised by that. He assumed the mother was protecting the father, not that she participated in the abuse directly. "Was there anyone else?" She shook her head. "Did they hurt you in the same ways?" Jesse asked. The girl thought over that. "I'm not sure." "What was different?" He asked her. She contorted her face, struggling for words. "I don't know." The girl was only eight. Jesse realized she likely didn't have the vocabulary to describe what happened to her. "I see. I have to let you know the police will be here soon. They're going to ask you questions too. I have to tell them everything you said, but I won't tell your mom and dad. Try your best to explain to them what happened. It'll help them make sure you don't have to go back. Okay?" The girl nodded. "I won't have to go back?" "If you tell the truth, they'll try and take you somewhere safer." Jesse assured her. "If you need anything, press this button and someone will come help you. We won't let anything bad happen to you while you're here." "If I don't go back, can I take the teddy bear with me?" The girl asked. "Of course you can." The girl glanced out into the hall once more. "They did stuff like this before." "What do you mean by stuff?" He asked. She buried her face in the bear. "I don't know." Jesse couldn't get much more out of her. He spoke with the police thirty minutes later. The entire ordeal left him drained. At the very least, he was grateful she was alive. He'd seen children who came after being sexually assaulted at a similar age with injuries that brought them to the morgue not long after. He hoped the girl would be placed with a safer relative, but if there was not one to go to, she may end up back at the hospital for the same reason. So many wards of the state met with fates worse than the ones they left. Jesse prayed she would be one of the lucky ones and that her parents would soon be behind bars. After seeing her, Jesse took a smoke break then prepared himself to visit one of the problem patients at the hospital. An old woman with severe dementia and cancer regularly harassed the staff. She liked to grab things she shouldn't. Her cognitive functions had declined so heavily that she was beyond the point of being able to understand what she was doing. Last week, he heard her family was told she likely had three months or so left to live. Jesse saw her with another nurse accompanying him. The woman's family had accused staff before of staff taking advantage of the old woman sexually. Since then, at least two nurses saw her at a time. The old woman greeted them by slapping the other nurse on the butt. She flinched. "Ah, no. We don't do that. That's not okay. No touching." The old woman yelled at her, but her words were hard to understand. The muscles in her face had deteriorated to a point it made speaking difficult for the old woman. Jesse tried to keep his body at a distance as he fed her. The other nurse changed her sheets and diaper. "How are you feeling today?" Jesse asked. She smiled and made a motion with her hand mimicking pushing a button on a remote. "You want the TV on?" Jesse looked for the remote. With his guard down, the old woman misbehaved again. She pulled down Jesse's pants and underwear, then grabbed him up front. Jesse froze. The other nurse came over and pulled the old woman's hand away. "No, we don't touch other people like that." The old woman yelled at her again. Jesse pulled up his pants, face red. He let the other nurse handle everything while he watched. Afterwards, the two of them talked. "How hard did she grab you?" The other nurse asked. "Not hard. I don't think she could grab me all that hard if she wanted to." Jesse tried to force the image out of his mind. "Yesterday, she did the same thing to John. "The woman said. She sighed. "Ugh, I have to go to room 304 next." "What's so bad about that?" Jesse asked. "Isn't it just some guy with a broken leg?" "Didn't you know? That guy has AIDS. His boyfriend, ugh, came in yesterday too." The woman let her disgust show on her face. "If you ask me, some things we shouldn't interfere with. God gave him that for a reason." Jesse looked away in disappointment. He was on pretty good terms with this nurse, even considered her a friend. He hadn't seen this side of her before. "You know, not everyone who had AIDS is gay. Anyone can get it." "Yeah, drug addicts and people who sleep with bisexuals. No one normal gets it." Jesse bit his tongue. "Oh, that reminds me. That guy, Anthony Greene, they moved him and put him under surveillance. We got some records of his today. He's tried to kill himself before. He admitted to trying to do it again when he woke up late last night. I'll never get people like that." "Is he alright?" Jesse asked. "They're going to move him to another facility once he's recovered more." "I guess I won't be seeing him today. I'm going to see his old roommate now." Jesse said. "That weird guy? Can't stand him." She said. "Really? He's trouble sometimes, but I don't think he's a bad person." "He's crazy. I won't miss him when he's gone." She turned toward another hall. "Anyway, I'll see you later." Jesse waved at her. He sighed and walked on. The hallway became darker. White tiles transformed into white carpet. The walls were duller than before, decorated in family portraits and school achievements. He split from himself, a younger version of himself walked ahead before leaning against the wall. Jesse stopped with his younger self. He overheard his parents talking behind him. When he looked back, he saw the kitchen of his childhood home. 'He's become too American.' His father said. 'How could this happen...Our son, gay...' Jesse knew what moment in time this was. It was after he came out to his parents. When he told them, they spoke half-hearted, awkward words of acceptance to his face. They were always trying to be kind when he was in front of them. 'I think he is confused. He is confusing his friendship for love. I'm sure this will pass.' His mother said. His younger self bit his tongue. He had wanted to yell back that he was bisexual, not gay, but he knew the difference didn't matter to them. Both weren't what they wanted. If he married a woman and had children, they would relabel him regardless of what he called himself. 'Should we take him somewhere? To a priest?' His father paced around the kitchen. 'We must pray that god will protect him.' His mother said. 'He is such a kind boy. His heart is too big. That's all this is. We mustn't let him think we hate him.' 'What will we tell everyone else?' His father asked. 'Nothing. No one needs to know.' His father put his hands to his face. 'Oh god. Do you think he's...?' His mother shook her head. 'He is too pure a child. His love is born of kindness. Don't worry. I'm sure this will pass.' The scene faded away. His love did not fade in time. It only grew. Whenever he spoke with his parents about Ethan, they smiled as best they could. This was the best he could get out of them for now. It hurt, but he was content with that. At least, he thought, they didn't disown him or try to hurt him. They never said anything bad to him when they thought he could hear them. Over time, from words heard behind walls, the denial had shifted to at least calling him gay. The last time he spoke to his parents, they asked him if he wanted to adopt children with Ethan. Time was moving them to where he hoped, gradually. They both agreed to come to his wedding ceremony. That was enough for now. Jesse opened the door to the room he was looking for. Back to only one occupant, Jesse greeted the white haired young man. "Hello, there. How are you doing today?" "A little lonely. They took away my roommate." The white haired man said. "So I heard. I'm sure someone else will be put in here soon." The white haired man rested in bed. "You're tired." "Yeah. It's been...one of those kinds of days. What have you been up to?" Jesse asked. The white haired man faced the ceiling. "Not much. Watching people. Did I ever tell you about that time I turned into a bat recently?" Jesse didn't blink an eye at the patient's words. This sort of statement wasn't unusual for him. Jesse entertained him. "No, I think I'd remember that." "One time, when I was pretending to be a bat, I changed a bat into a human man and then talked with a unicorn who had been pretending to be a human for a while and an immortal human sorcerer who had just gotten back from breaking into a lab, in the guise of a woman but had changed back into a man, to cure a werewolf who got the disease through a virus that pretends to be a wolf and possesses worms and then there was a deer I talked to who..." The young man's words fell out of his mouth so fast Jesse could barely comprehend anything he said. "Not to stop you early, but I get the feeling this didn't happen." "Why do you always think I'm rambling nonsense? I could be telling the truth." The white haired man said. "Could be. I suppose anything's possible." Jesse checked the young man's chart. The name was different than he remembered. This time it listed "Darren White". Jesse shook his head. "What room did you take this from?" "I didn't take it from any room here." The white haired man pulled his blankets up higher. "Uh huh. I'll figure that out later." Jesse held on to the papers. "Transformed into a bat, huh? Can you transform me into something?" "I'll turn you into a meteorologist." The young man said. Jesse felt a chill down his spine. "Why that?" "I think it'd be interesting." The white haired man reached over at a vase on the table beside his bed. The vase was filled with sunflowers. The young man pulled two of them from the vase. "Oh, I got some flowers to brighten up the room. These two are for you." "Ah, thank you." Jesse took the flowers. "Why two?" "Two halves of a whole cannot be whole once split." The white haired young man said. Jesse's body went cold. "What did you say?" "Two halves cannot stay as one when fear and lies break through the cracks." "That isn't what you..." Jesse looked down at the flowers. There was only one in his hand now. "Is this a magic trick?" "I told you I could transform." The white haired man grinned. "What did you mean about the two halves?" Jesse asked. The white haired man yawned. He sunk down into the bed more. "I don't know what you're talking about. What halves?" Jesse's shoulders dropped. "Nothing. Don't worry about it." "Oh, I'm not. I usually don't worry about much of anything." The white haired man closed his eyes. "I'll transform you..." "Good night." Jesse said. He pulled the blanket up slightly higher. He whispered. "If you have any magic, could you make today the last day that thing comes after me?" "I can make anything..." The white haired man muttered in his sleep. "I made everything..." "You're a strange one, alright, but not in a bad way. Have a good nap, my friend." Jesse said, holding onto the sunflower. For the time he spent in that room, he was at ease. When he left, the draining power of the hospital returned at full force. An infant died in front of him shortly before lunch. The next patient violently refused treatment out of paranoid delusions and had to be restrained. An angry patient threw a bed pan at him. The patient after that bit him until he bled. The last demanded to see a real nurse after accusing him of being a janitor. By the time Ethan picked him up, he was so drained mentally his body struggled to move. Ethan asked him if he was alright in the car. Jesse lied, as he so often did, and told him he was fine. "Are you sure you're alright?" Ethan asked. "Yeah, I'm fine. Why?" Jesse asked back. Ethan shook his head. "It's nothing. I love you." "Love you too." Ethan winced. He gripped the steering wheel hard. The car swerved. Ethan pulled over onto the side of the road. He breathed heavily. Jesse put his hand on him. "What's wrong?" "My leg is..." "Is it..." Ethan quickly perked up. "I'm sorry...I'm just tired from using it so much lately. I don't think I can drive us back. I think I need to take it off for a while when we get home." "Oh, okay. Let's switch places. I'll take us home." Jesse unbuckled his seatbelt. He hoped Ethan was telling the truth. 'Are you lying too? Is it back?' He couldn't bring himself to ask. He was too afraid of what it could mean. Tonight, Jesse cooked dinner. Ethan went to shower immediately after dinner. Jesse cleaned up in the kitchen while Ethan showered. 'When I lie, he lies. Why would my lies make him lie too?' Jesse listened for the shower. He cracked the backdoor open and lit up a cigarette. A heavy guilt weighed on him. "I'm sorry." The backdoor opened more, creaking as it slowly moved. Jesse saw a figure on the other side of the door. He rushed to close the door shut. He was met with resistance on the other side of the door. With all his strength, Jesse pulled. A rotten hand reached around the door and grabbed hold of his wrist. The head of the old, rotting woman curled around the door. She grinned at him with worms for teeth. Jesse's eyes opened wide. He couldn't be dreaming. He wanted anything for this to be a dream. The old woman ripped the doorknob from his grasp with a firm swing backward. Jesse attempted to run toward the drawer with their bigger knives. The old woman tackled him before he could make it there. She laughed as she held him down with a strength that didn't match her appearance. "Stop it! Go away. Who are you?" Jesse fought to get her off. She was too strong. "Who am I? How I despise when humans ask questions they already know the answers to. You know very well who I am, Nurse. Always in my way, delaying the moment of satisfaction." The old woman's face changed to that of a man's. The body became canine-like except for the head and hands. Long, black hair wriggled over Jesse's face. Looking closer, he saw the strands were worms. A salamander crawled out of the empty eye socket on the face. "Who am I, Nurse?" Jesse shook his head. He didn't know how he knew. He was certain this was the same creature that bit Ethan all those years ago. This was the same being that haunted his nightmares and killed Jim. "Who...who are you?" "You know very well who I am." The being's eyes, a deep red that faded to a dull brown, dripped with blood. "I am your constant enemy, the thing that slips into the bodies of your patients at birth and steals their last breaths. I break down the flesh, I let the rot fester, I let the small, hungry beasts into every opening. I ensure your cuts never heal. I am what gifts you mortality. Say my name, Nurse." Afraid to not answer, Jesse named what he had always known the being to be. "Decay." "You would be able to name me so easily." The being's long fingers wrapped around Jesse's neck. "In this moment, you feel me within you. I am already wrapped around your organs, surging through your veins, pulsating in your brain. You are dying in this moment, as all who have been born are dying from their first breath. They choose to ignore me, but you know I am there." "Why have you come to see me?" Jesse recalled Time's words. One question, then wait for an answer. He tried to put on a show of indifference. His heart rang in his ears. "So confident in your demeanor. Are you not afraid of me, Nurse? I am your worst enemy." "You are not my enemy." Jesse said. The longer the being held him down, the less afraid he was. If this being was Time's lover, then this couldn't be an evil force, he thought. "You are an inevitability. I am not afraid of you." "Not one bit?" The being slipped a hand through Jesse's chest. He felt the fingers grab hold of his heart. He let out a cry of pain. "Not one bit? I can eat you now." A tear escaped each eye from the pain in his chest. Perhaps he was wrong. His heartbeat sped up. "I can't stop you. I can use any tool I have, but I can't stop you forever. No one can. If you kill me today or tomorrow, that's that. I can't stop the flow of time any more than I can stop you." "And yet you try every day, foolish thing." "Of course I do. I am human." Jesse replied. The pain was nearly unbearable. Jesse wondered if he would lose consciousness or die from it. "If I can give someone another day, I will. I can't keep someone alive forever, but I can try to make life as long as possible." Decay pulled the hand out of Jesse's chest. There was no blood on the fingers. Those clean, dying fingers slipped under the shell necklace Jesse was wearing and ripped it off. "What brings you to that desire? You shield so many for so little. Today, how many patients yelled at you? How many bit you? How many hit you?" Jesse watched the shells slide off one by one from the string and scatter onto the floor. He wondered if he would soon have a similar fate. "They may hurt me, but I'm still going to do my job and try to make them better anyway. Many of them are afraid." "What about that woman today? She reached in your pants and grabbed you, pulled them down. You had to tend to her after that. She didn't do that out of fear." "That woman had dementia. She didn't understand what she was doing at all." Jesse couldn't move. The weight of the body on him was far too great. He felt like he was being crushed by a boulder. "It doesn't change what she did." The being's head changed to a black dog's. "It changes how I view it." "What about that man today? He mistreated you for looking different than him." The canine being opened its mouth widely to show off sharp, brittle teeth. Moss grew along the back teeth along subtle cracks. The moss flourished and died, then grew again. "It's not my job to make him a good person. It's my job to help him, even if I don't think he deserves it. I can't refuse care because I don't like someone." Jesse said. 'Why is he asking me these things? Is this some sort of test? Did he do this to Jim?' "Why not? Plenty of your colleges do covertly. You know it too. You know there are those in your profession who would not give equal care to all patients. Some of them may let you die if they knew everything about your personal life." The being leaned down to whisper in Jesse's ear. "You learned today that one of your work friends would gladly like to see you sick and die. Would you truly treat her the same as others if she was in your care?" "What she does isn't going to change what I do." Jesse stated. He worked up the courage to ask another question. "Why are you asking me these things?" "Many humans claim they are good, but their hearts are hard as ice. What is in your heart?" The being asked. The rotting human hand slipped back inside Jesse's chest and around his heart. "Would you really risk it all for those people? All humans have limits. Most would cast aside even the ones they claim to love most." Jesse's eyes burned with anger. "I would never." "Oh? Is that so? What if I made you a deal? Tonight, I will take one of you. You can choose him or yourself. Will you die tonight so he may live?" Decay asked him. "Tonight?!" Jesse filled with fear, then sadness. He had many things he wanted to say to Ethan. They were supposed to have their wedding next October. His parents were visiting his grandparents in Panamá. He hadn't spoken to them in two weeks. They wouldn't be back for another week. What sort of body would Decay leave there for Ethan to discover? Jim was killed so violently. Jesse hated the thought of Ethan having to see something so gruesome. But if it had to be tonight, he thought, then there was no other choice. "Take me. Don't take Ethan. He's only now really starting to live again. Please, take me instead." "You? You would willingly die for him?" "Yes." "Are you sure?" Decay bit down into Jesse's shoulder. The grip on Jesse's heart was so tight he was struggling to stay awake. The room spun. Colors bled together. "You would die for him? Without you, he will suffer anyway. He is a burden to this world. They will make him suffer until he joins you in the grave young." "He's stronger than that." Jesse put his hand on the rotting arm of Decay's that held his heart. "Is he?" Decay asked. "Does he even care for you? You give him so much money. Perhaps, he would live a long time with someone else, someone richer." "That's not going to work on me." Jesse said. "You are certain of his love?" Decay pulled the heart against Jesse's ribs. "I don't think he is certain of yours." Jesse let go of the arm. "Why would you say that?" "He's hiding things from you again. You know it. That's why his leg is hurting. If he keeps on lying, I'll eat him soon too." The being pulled the heart through Jesse's chest and let it beat over his body. It was still connected to him somehow. A bloody, fragile mess in a dying palm beat in rhythm with the blurry clock above the kitchen telephone. "When you lie, he lies. The more you lie, the faster you kill him. I could leave you both alive tonight, and you will be his murderer. How much do you really love him?" "I...I'm not hiding things to hurt him!" Jesse defended himself. "I'm going to stop before anything bad happens. Work's just been more stressful than usual. I'll get through this." "They'll work you to the bone. You will only lie to him more the longer you work there, because those people don't care about you." Jesse reached for his own heart, unsure of how he would put it back in his body. "We're short staffed right now. They won't..." "They don't care that you've seen ten dead bodies yesterday. They don't care that you watched a little girl die without seeing her mother or father again. They don't care that her face was half gone. They don't care that the next hour an eight month pregnant woman come in with her belly all shot up from her ex-boyfriend and you couldn't save her or the baby. That man will sit in prison, but her body will rest in another cell, six feet under. No sentence will pull her body from my teeth. Will you smile for your patients tomorrow when you release some child home from surgery fifteen minutes after you stand beside a doctor telling a woman she has two months to live? Will you smile like the hospital director tells you to? Will you work overtime again because they all need you? How tired will your body be, your mind, when you are fifty? When you are forty? Thirty?" Decay rose the heart higher above his body. "You've hidden it from your beloved, but you've started smoking recently. He'll notice soon enough. Or maybe he already has? Do you know what you smell like? How strong are you? Will you take up drinking too, oh strong man?" Memories of other days at the hospital rushed into his mind. He watched them play out around them in the kitchen. Horrid injuries, painful deaths, cruel people. Jesse couldn't look away from them. Every where he looked, he saw another awful moment. "What does it matter if I smoke?" "Why are you hiding it?" Decay slipped the heart back into Jesse's body. "You're ashamed of yourself. You're ashamed of letting him see you like that. Aren't you interested in saving bodies? And here, you have invited me deeper into your body, straight into your lungs." "I can quit." Jesse said. "Why did you start?" Decay asked him. He gave an answer before Jesse could. "Because you hate them. You hate what it's doing to you. Admit it. You hate them all. If you didn't make as much money as you did, if you didn't invest so much money into going to school, you'd have already left. You hate it. You hate everyone there. Say it." "I don't hate it." "Then why are you so exhausted? Why are there bags under your eyes now? There didn't used to be." Decay's body transformed back into that of a man. A corpse flower bloomed out of his chest where his stomach should have been. "How much money do you need? He'll always be a burden. Will you work and work until it kills you so your burden can stay happy?" All the memories of terrible days fell down to the ground as muddy rain. What rose up from the water was a memory from another day. Jim stood behind the ancient being. Jesse saw the streets where they had last seen each other. Those were the last words Jim had spoken to him. The shadowy figure of Jim repeated them once more. "He'll always be a burden. Will you work and work until it kills you so your burden can stay happy?" Jesse answered with the same words he said to Jim them. "He's not a burden. Living beings aren't burdens." "It's not worth it. If you die first, no one will care for him. He'll live a miserable life once you're gone. It's better for everyone, don't you think, if he dies first. Imagine how much freer you could be." Decay merged with Jim's body, perfectly in half down the middle. "He'll be taken care of after I'm gone." "Oh, how are you so sure?" "Because of you." Jesse pointed to the side belonging to the one being. "You gifted me with money I can never have. You should already know every week I put more money into his bank account from all that you've given me. If I died today, he'd be set for decades at least. And I'm fine with that. I know this world is cruel. I know this country is awful. I know he wouldn't be taken care of the way he should be. You've given me the means to make sure he will be anyway. And I am grateful for that, eternally. if you killed me now, I would still be grateful to you." "Think of what could be yours that you can't have because all your money must go to someone else. Don't you resent me for me that? Don't you resent that he gets to enjoy those rewards instead of you?" The side that belonged to Jim spoke through the body. "No. Nothing makes me happier than seeing him happy." Jesse sat back up. "Whatever game you're trying to play on my mind, it won't work. I love him more than my life. You can kill me now. There's nothing you can say to me to make me hate him." "What about your patients? Those terrible people you work with?" Decay discarded Jim's form, letting the half fall apart from the body into a puddle of red. "There must be someone you hate." "Oh, I hate many of them. But I will do what I think is right, even if no one else is. Because that's who I am, and who I want to always be." Jesse stood up. The room stopped spinning, but the colors didn't return to their proper places. "You're the one that really made me see that about myself. I don't understand why you're trying to trick me into thinking something else now. Is this your form of entertainment?" The being cast aside all canine parts, appearing with only the features of a man. Decay looked at Jesse, eyes no longer shifting between red and brown. They had settled on the dull brown and the hair was simply black hair without any moving insects. All the parts of the body that had rotted, healed. Flowers bloomed from the skin, white lilies and blue roses intertwined where exposed bone once was. The salamander crawled up the face and stared out at Jesse with eyes of stars. "You are quite entertaining. I wanted to see, Nurse, the weight." "The weight?" Jesse asked. "The true weight of your heart. I was thinking I might eat another one of you, but your heart weighs less than a feather. It's weightless." Decay touched his face. His skin felt no different than any other human's to Jesse. "How rare a heart you have. I think I'll wait to savor that taste, if you can manage to keep it that weightless in the decades to come. Though, should you become a monster like your friend, Jim, I will gobble you up right away." Jesse looked into the being's eyes. He saw autumn in woods he didn't recognize. Ashes blew in the wind along the ground, mixing in with the dark soil and crushed leaves. he knew he was seeing himself in that being's eyes, but it did not frighten him. "If that's the criteria, I don't think I'll be seeing you for a long time." "Perhaps." The being bowed into a shadow and slipped across the floor toward the door. At the open door, the being returned to the form of a black dog with red eyes. "You..." Ethan walked into the kitchen. Upon seeing the being, he raced over to Jesse and got between them. He raised his arms out wide. "Please, please don't hurt him! You already took my leg, and Jim's life. If you want more, just eat the rest of me! Leave Jesse alone!" In that moment, Jesse saw their younger selves again. Split from Ethan, Jesse saw a teenage version of himself and split from his own body, he saw a teenage version of Ethan. The room was filled with a sea blue hue. "Ethan..." Jesse stood in awe of Ethan's display. He sensed a strength from him that rivaled the ancient one at their door. "Hmm. This one is weightless too. I suppose I will eat you both some other time." The black dog walked around Ethan once and took note of the prosthetic leg. "Oh, what things humans create to stall my hunger. It's quite a nice leg. Well, it is time for me to go. There's nothing for me here right now." The being sunk beneath the floor. When it was gone, the door closed on its own and locked. Ethan turned around. He put his hands on Jesse's face. "Are you hurt?" "No, I'm fine. It was a test. I think I passed. For now." Jesse put his hands over Ethan's. He smiled, noticing Ethan was wearing the turtle shirt they both got on their last vacation. "I'm sorry, but my necklace...the one you got me way back when, it broke." "We can get another one." Ethan hugged him. "Are you sure you're alright?" "I will be, but there's something we need to talk about. Could you meet me in the car? Let's drive around for a while." Jesse hugged him back. "Do you think you could drive?" "I think so. What did you want to talk about?" Ethan asked. "Something I've been hiding." Jesse felt the weight of the pack of cigarettes and disposable lighter in his pocket. They went out to the car. There was no destination in mind. Jesse told Ethan to drive around aimlessly for their trip. Ethan pulled out of their neighborhood. "What did you want to talk to me about?" Jesse pulled out the cigarettes. "This." Ethan glanced over. He didn't say anything. "I've been hiding this from you." Jesse said. "I know." Ethan kept his eyes forward. "You knew?" "I figured you weren't ready to tell me about it yet." "I'm sorry." Jesse apologized. "It's only been three months now." "You okay?" "I don't know." "Why did you start?" Ethan asked. Jesse stared out the window. He rolled it down to feel the night air. "You know, I see a lot of...messed up stuff at work. There's a lot I don't tell you. I don't want to bring that home. But I don't really have anyone to say it to. One day, I was already dealing with a lot that day...they brought in this family that had been in an accident. The mom and dad went straight to the morgue. I never saw them. The boy died about an hour in, but I didn't see him either. I only saw the girl..." Ethan turned into an abandoned parking lot. He stopped the car. "Why did you stop?" Jesse asked. "Because...I feel like I'll need to be able to reach you soon." Ethan looked around. There was nothing there but an empty lot, collapsing buildings, and rusted metal. They were alone. "This place should be alright, don't you think?" Jesse nodded. "Yeah." "What happened with the girl?" Ethan asked. "I've seen a lot of awful things...so many bodies so...destroyed...but usually when they're that bad, they're already dead. She was alive. Most of her body was gone. No one in the car was wearing a seatbelt. A drunk driver hit them from the side. She went through the window and got hit by another car. Most of her legs were gone. She had half of one arm left. A lot of her skin had been scraped off. Her face...most of it was gone...but she was alive then. We couldn't save her. She looked at me...before the doctor put her under...she looked right at me and we both knew she wouldn't live..." Ethan held Jesse's hand. "I...I couldn't do anything. We knew she wouldn't make it. And then after I went to wash my hands and I was told to go to another room and help with a newborn baby. I was told I needed to smile more. I need to smile. I kept smiling while I was with the new mom and her baby and I couldn't stop thinking about that girl. And then I was sent to another room and I had to keep smiling all day. When I finally had a break, I was...I was about ready to walk out." The events played out in Jesse's mind all too clearly. "Someone offered me a cigarette. They said it'd help calm me down. I was desperate for anything to work. I didn't want to come home and you see me like that. So I tried it. And then I wanted another. I'm sorry. I told myself each time, that one would be the last. But I've been smoking more each day. I'm sorry...I didn't want you to be stressed out too from hearing all the shit that happens at my job. I thought...this would help. I don't know." Ethan reached over and hugged him. Jesse held back tears. Ethan kissed him. "Jesse, it's okay if you tell me about stuff at work that bothers you. You don't need to hide it from me." "I just...you know, you've had to go through so much...and it felt like you've finally been able to relax more lately...I just didn't want to weigh any of that time down with my problems." "I know, but...you not telling me what's bothering you...and this..." Ethan took the pack from Jesse's hands. He held it up. "This worries me a lot more." "I'm sorry." "It's okay. I'm not...I'm not mad at you or anything." Ethan caressed Jesse's face. "Do you think you can quit?" "Yeah." Jesse gave him the lighter too. "Today. Here. You take them. If I want one, I'll have to ask you for it. That'll stop me from doing it." "What about at work?" "I'll take my breaks somewhere else than usual." "Are you sure you want to work there?" Ethan asked. "You know, you don't have to work at all." "What?" "I can pay the bills easily." Ethan lit one of the cigarettes. He put it to his mouth. "What are you doing?" Jesse's eyes widened. "I wanna know what you've been doing the last three months." Ethan inhaled. He coughed right after. "Oh god...that's...a lot worse than I expected...Three months?" "It is highly addictive." Jesse said. "I wish you'd told me sooner. It makes me sad this was your alternative to telling me." Ethan put the cigarette out. "I know you love helping people. It's really important to you, but maybe there's some other way you can help people that doesn't stress you out as much. Why don't you get a different job? I can cover everything until then. Or forever, if what you want to do doesn't involve money." "But...you get your money from me." Ethan shook his head. "No, I get my money from our dog friend. He passed it through you. Whether you work or not, you'll get money from him. You'll give it to me, and then I'll spend it on us." "But isn't that...that feels like it's cheating somehow." Jesse said. "Can't be. We tested that. It doesn't count if I spend it on you after you give it to me, because then it's my money, not yours." Ethan put his hand on Jesse's and brought it to his heart. "Don't go back there tomorrow morning. Wherever you want to go, I want to go with you. We left our old home. We don't have to stop here. This place can just be a brief stop on the way to somewhere else. The whole world is out there. Where do you want to go? Making that happen is what will make me happiest." Jesse's eyes watered. "I...I don't know. I...I'll need to think about it..." Above them, thunder rumbled. "It's going to rain again." Ethan said. "Maybe we should go back. I'm sure you want to get your radio." "No need." Jesse opened the glove compartment and took out a small hand cranked radio. "I keep one in the car too." They both laughed. "What should we do now?" Ethan asked. "I do want to go home. Let's watch the storm from the back." Jesse said. The couple returned home. Ethan had no problems with his leg on the drive back. They watched the thunderstorm well into the night. Jesse quit his job at the hospital in the morning and withdrew from his current classes. He couldn't give anyone a good enough reason for them to accept his leaving, but as he gave everyone canned answers, he realized he really didn't need to. After all, they really didn't care that much anyway. For the first time in his life, Jesse was ready to prioritize himself, and he knew anyone who mattered wouldn't mind.