The chill of fall surrounded him. It was late October now. Halloween was in a few days. Most of the neighborhood was decorated, and the stores were already bringing out winter decorations beside the spooky ones. Eric's parents were on vacation for the next few weeks. His older brother, Idris, was staying over for the time being to keep an eye on him. It wasn't really necessary. He was already in twelfth grade. He could manage on his own. For the weekend, he planned on spending it with his boyfriend, Alex. After school, he stopped by his house to get his bike.
Idris was already home from work. He was fixing himself something to eat. He asked. "Going out?"
Eric nodded. "I'm going over to Alex's for a while. He's staying over tonight. We'll be back around seven or eight."
"Okay. Where are you going?" Idris asked.
"We're gonna ride on the trail for a while, then get something to eat." Eric said.
"Is Zack going with you guys? Or is this a date?" Idris teased him.
"It might be a date." Eric grinned. "Anyway, I gotta go. I told him I'd meet him right after school."
"Have fun." Idris waved goodbye to him.
Eric waved back. He rode his bike to Alex's house. The air was filled with the smell of burning leaves and cinnamon. Most of the trees were nearly empty now. His bike created a path of crushed leaves down the road. Some of his neighbors were out raking up the leaves. Other houses had trash bags already full of them waiting on the curb to be collected up. Eric was a little sad to see all the leaves put away. When he was younger, he used to have fun jumping in piles of leaves. These days, he noticed most adults seemed to be preoccupied with getting rid of those leaves as quickly as possible and keeping yards empty.
Alex was already outside waiting for him. Eric greeted him with a kiss.
"Hey." He said.
Alex kissed him. "Hey. Are you ready?"
"Yeah." Eric said.
They rode through Alex's backyard until they reached the creek. They followed along it to a shallow, narrow portion and rode through. A little ways further and they reached the Silver Comet Trail. There were a lot of people walking and riding today. The wind was chilly, but it was still relatively warm out.
"Do you wanna go down one of the bike trails?" Alex asked.
"Sure." Eric said. He followed Alex down one of the bike trails nearby that went through the woods along the trail. Since it was late in the day, they didn't need to worry as much about spider webs. By now, some other person had already ran through any built that day. He preferred going off the main trail. Less people were on it, but they weren't too deep into the woods either.
"Idris is staying over, right?" Alex asked.
"Yeah. My parents won't be back until the end of November." Eric said.
"Did he bring his girlfriend over?" Alex asked.
"Sarah? No, she's busy with work." Eric said. "She'll probably stop by at some point, but they're more likely to go off together somewhere. Why?"
"What about tonight? Do you think he'll be staying all night?"
"I don't know. Probably. Why?"
"I dunno. I was hoping there might some days where it's only you." Alex stopped his bike near the end of the trail.
Eric stopped beside him. He nudged Alex. "Why do you want me alone?"
"Just, you know. I thought it might be nice to practice for the future." Alex said. He waited for a group to pass by before he said. "Idris won't bother us tonight, right?"
"No. He won't bother us." Eric grinned.
Alex put his hand to Eric's face. He ran his fingers through Eric's hair. "Do you want to go somewhere else?"
"Like where?" Eric asked.
"We could go deeper into the woods." Alex said.
"Is that safe? A lot of this area is private property." Eric said.
"Not here. We need to get to a more remote area."
Eric shook his head. "If you want to make out, I'd rather do that back at your house. Last time we did that, a tick crawled into my pocket."
Alex laughed loudly. "Okay. How about by the creek back at my house?"
The two boys turned back and crossed the creek at the same place. They stopped at the part of the creek where it went just behind the edge of Alex's backyard. They wasted no time in getting to what they came there for. No one typically came by that way. The space there was essentially private despite being outdoors. The longer they kissed, the more Eric wanted to move their plans for tonight to the present. That train of thought was interrupted by them both getting a text message at the same time. They each looked at their phones. It was a group message sent to them both by their friend, Zack.
The message read: "Hey, you know that house that burned down? They're gonna build a new one over it soon. Wanna explore it before they bulldoze everything?"
Eric and Alex looked at each other.
Alex asked. "What do you think?"
"I dunno. I'll ask him." Alex texted Zack asking when he wanted to explore the property.
Zack responded that he meant that night.
"Hmm...How late do you think he'll want to do that at?" Eric asked.
"I don't know. Are you scared?" Alex teased him.
"No, but I don't want to be out too late." Eric said.
"Why's that? It's a weekend." Alex said.
"Because..." Eric leaned down and whispered in Alex's ear. "I don't want to be too tired when we get back."
Alex put his arm around Eric's waist. "If we go later, we could just do that now."
Eric smirked. "Good idea."
Eric texted Zack back saying they would go and asked him what time he wanted to meet up at. They chose to meet up around sunset. Eric called Idris to let him know there was a change of plans. Idris told him to have fun. His girlfriend ended up leaving work early and they were planning on going out for a while anyway. Eric hoped Idris and Sarah would stay out really late. When it was time, Eric and Alex met with Zack at the start of the driveway of the house that burned down. The house burned down a long time ago, but Eric couldn't remember exactly when that happened. A metal fence marked off the property. For some reason, the fence seemed out of place, but Eric couldn't figure out why. He hadn't been down that part of the neighborhood in a long time now. He assumed he was misremembering which house had the fence. Zack picked the lock and opened the gate to let them in.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Eric asked.
"Yeah, no one watches this property. It's fine." Zack reassured him. He walked up the driveway ahead of them. "Y'all brought flashlights, right?"
Alex turned his on and off to show he had one. Eric held up his. They followed Zack up the driveway. Eric didn't remember this house being so far uphill.
"Didn't a witch used to live here?" Zack asked.
"Yeah, from what I heard." Alex said.
"Really?" Eric asked. He didn't remember that. "Like is that a local legend or was this like The Craft kind of witch?"
"The latter." Alex answered. "But she moved away before it burned down. I don't know who was living in it then."
They kept walking up. The road was getting farther and farther away. Eric was certain the house shouldn't have been that far away.
"How far back is this house?" Eric asked.
"Just a little farther." Zack said.
Eric looked around. Nothing looked quite right. To his right, he could see an industrial building of some kind through the woods. On his left side, he saw apartments on the other side of the property. Neither of those should have been there, he was sure. The more he looked around, the closer and higher the metal fence got. Something wasn't right. This place was wrong. None of it should be here, he thought. Everything was right until they crossed through that fence he was now certain shouldn't have been there in the first place.
"I think we should head back. This place doesn't feel right." Eric said.
Zack gave him a strange look. "Awe, come on, Eric. Don't be like that. Nothing's gonna happen."
Alex held his hand. "We'll be okay. Don't worry."
At the top of the driveway, they finally reached the house. Or rather, what was left of it. The remains of the burned house were tinged with the red of the setting sun. Everything fell into the center, filling up what was once the basement. From what he could remember when he visited this house years ago as a kid on Halloween nights, the house was originally two stories. Back then, the lady who owned the house always went overboard with decorating the house, sometimes to the point of being outright terrifying for him as a child. She did give out the best candy though, so Eric always went to her house when he did go trick-or-treating. Eric never knew the people who lived there later, nor did he see the house burn down. He only heard about it at school one day when some other kids in his neighborhood brought it up. He wondered if anyone was living in the house when it burned up, and if they were, what happened to those people. Did they all get out alive? He couldn't remember the details anymore.
Eric looked down from the top of driveway. They were so high up now it looked more like they were on a mountain than a hill. He was the only one bothered by this. The sun set quickly on them. Everyone turned on their flashlights.
Zack stepped down into the hole before them, carefully climbing down one of the boards. "Come on. Let's go in."
Alex followed right behind him. Eric hesitated. He didn't want to go down into the hole. The boards didn't look stable and he couldn't see how deep it was.
"Come on, Eric." Alex offered him his hand.
"I don't know." Eric stayed near the edge.
"It's okay. I'll hold onto you. We'll go down together." Alex said.
Eric was unsure, but he went in anyway. Alex helped him down. The boards creaked under their weight. One of the boards Zack was on broke. He fell down to the bottom.
Eric called out to him. "Zack?!"
"I'm okay. It's not that deep." Zack responded. He yelled back at Eric. "I lost my flashlight though."
"I don't see it anywhere." Alex said. "Must've knocked the batteries out when it hit the ground. We'll be there in a sec."
As they climbed down, the boards underneath them broke apart. Eric and Alex fell down, slipping out of each other's grasp. Eric landed on hard concrete and water. His flashlight fell a foot away from him. Eric reached for the light. He shined it around himself. "Alex?"
The house was gone. Every direction he pointed the light in, he only saw dark water. "Alex? Zack? Hello?!"
No one answered him.
Eric stood up. He looked for signs of anything familiar. "Guys, where are you? This isn't funny."
Something hit against his ankle. Eric shined the light down to see what it was. A hand floated partially above the water. Eric reached down to see if one of them had fallen into a deeper part of the water. He pulled the hand up. It wasn't attached to anything. Eric dropped the cold hand back into the water. He shined the light near where the hand was. Body parts floated all around him. Eric stepped back, his heart ringing in his ears. With each step he made, the water turned a bright blue. The color vanished shortly after he moved farther away. Eric turned and ran.
"Alex! Zack!" Eric called out to them. All he heard was the sound of the water splashing and his own heartbeat. The blue decorated his legs as he ran. "Please! Please, answer me!"
Eric tripped and fell into the water. The concrete beneath him vanished. He fell straight through, fully submerged into the blue. He struggled to reach the surface. Eric swam in the direction he thought the surface was in, but couldn't get any closer. He wondered if he was swimming in the wrong direction, but he couldn't tell. There was nothing to use as a reference. It was too dark. All he saw was blue, then red. His body relaxed. He floated in the red liquid, hungry. He wanted so badly to eat something.
Another body brushed against his. Alex was struggling beside him to get out of the water. Where he was, the water was still blue. Alex noticed Eric beside him. He reached out to Eric for help. Eric pulled him closer and put his teeth against Alex's neck. Somehow, he could hear Alex's heartbeat too. Alex pushed him back and tried to get them both to the surface. Eric pulled at Alex's arm, bringing them both back down. Every speck of blue turned to red except what was clinging to Alex's skin. Alex swam closer to him and tied a rope around his wrists. He kissed him and pulled them both below the water down to a field. The water turned to the night sky, starry and infinite.
Alex took the ropes off. The strange hunger in Eric subsided. His body felt weak. Alex held him up. He brushed back Eric's bangs and asked. "Will you walk with me here?"
"Here?" Eric asked. He looked around at the field. It looked familiar, but he couldn't remember where he had seen it before or who he saw it with.
The air was cold and the moon full. He was certain something was wrong with this place too, but he didn't know what.
Eric looked around. "Where's Zack?"
Alex didn't answer him.
"I need to tell Idris where I am." Eric said.
"What for?" Alex asked.
"I'm going to be late coming home." Eric said.
"We'll make it." Alex said.
Eric reached in his pocket for his phone. He hoped it would still work after being in the water. He searched for Idris's phone number in his contacts. His brother wasn't there. Sarah's number was gone. His parents weren't there either. Alex's number was, but when he tried to read the numbers, he forgot them as soon as he read over them.
"Alex, I..." Eric looked up from his phone. No one was there. "Alex?"
The wind swept through the field. Eric was alone with the tall grass and the night sky. In the distance, he saw the silhouette of a radio tower. Its red lights flashed in rhythm with his heartbeat. He stared at the distant lights, soon forgetting about his phone and how cold he was.
Eric opened his eyes, then quickly closed them as the sun hit his face. He rolled over in his bed. The thin sheets made him feel exposed. It wasn't cold. The temperature inside his apartment was always twenty-one degrees Celsius no matter what time of year it was. All the apartments were required to be at that temperature. He got up from the bed and walked over to the sliding door of his balcony. Eric propped it open some to let in a little of the summer heat. He walked to the kitchen to make himself coffee.
He fixed a cup of instant coffee. It smelled nice enough, better than the energy drinks they were given with lunch, but it didn't compare to the smell of the coffee the higher ups drank.
As he stirred, he sighed. "Another dream. Who were those people?"
Today was Sunday, his only off day. His tablet was already notifying him he had required reading to do before coming in tomorrow. Eric quickly forgot about the dream and those strange, familiar people. Everyone had dreams about people they didn't remember. The names went first, then the faces. Everything faded until there was nothing. According to the medical staff, the dreams weren't real memories, but pieces of different memories scrambled together alongside dream nonsense. If he took his medicine regularly, the dreams would eventually stop.
Eric opened up his bottle of Aequa. He was supposed to take a pill three times a day, in the morning, at lunch, and before going to bed. He held the white pill in his palm and his coffee mug in the other hand. He took a sip of the coffee. He flushed the pill down the toilet before heading out to the balcony.
Most mornings, he had no time to watch the sunrise or lounge around like this. To get to work on time, he needed to be up by five and out the door by five-thirty. Most days, he left in darkness, then came back home in darkness. There were no windows in the lab. The only days he really got to enjoy the sun were on his off day. He stayed in the tank top and boxers he slept in. Shorts and tank tops weren't allowed at work any time of the year. He wanted to feel as much of the sun on his skin as he could get. The early morning air swept over his skin, a little chillier than the rest of the air around him. He almost remembered something, a memory from a very long time ago somewhere with a lot of water and sand under a similarly warm summer morning. It was too vague for him to see it clearly. Eric leaned over the side of the railing. He placed his mug on the small metal table beside him.
The morning air was filled with distance. A few people shuffling around out of sight, on the other side of the building; cars leaving and trucks coming in with a shipment of goods; doors opening, propped open the same as his to capture a moment of warmth--Sunday mornings in summer were always like this. His mind told him there were noises missing. An aching chill colder than the breeze passing through clutched his chest in longing for their return. He wished he could remember what it was he forgot, but it was gone for now. Perhaps, it might return to him in a dream, and it likely already had, but it would be forgotten again as quickly as he remembered it.
The door to the balcony beside his opened. His neighbor, the man who was his supervisor at work, walked out as undressed as he was with a mug of coffee. He wore boxers and a short sleeved button-down shirt left unbuttoned. His feet were bare, same as Eric's. Eric knew the texture he was seeking by doing so, a cold shock against the warm heat beaming down on them. By noon, the concrete would be too hot to walk around like that. For now, they could let their feet touch the ground below them outside. It was the only way to get close to what it might be outside the fence. Everything green grew out there. There was no grass on their side of the fence. Concrete, asphalt, metal, these were all they were allotted and there was no lingering around on the other side of the fence. Once they left their respective balconies, all other matters outside would need to be done in their clothes assigned for work even on their off days.
He watched his neighbor take in the morning. The wind revealed much of what his shirt normally kept hidden. Their bodies were both pale from their work schedule. He couldn't remember it, but he was certain his skin would normally be darker during this part of the year. If he could leave this place and didn't have to go to work for all those long hours, he would spend his days in the sun all day. Staying outside on off days was discouraged. There was reading to be done, write-ups to work on, and supplies to get. Lounging around in the sun was a waste of time.
The man beside him turned to him and said. "Good morning, Eric."
Eric straightened up. "Good morning, Dr. Linwood."
"You don't need to be so formal. I've only had that title for a month." Linwood laughed under his breath. "You never use anyone's first name."
"It helps me follow the guidelines better for behavior." Eric lied. He didn't want to get close to anyone there, but he had a very different reason for not using Linwood's first name.
Linwood smiled. "Is that so?"
The sun danced on them through the swaying pines beyond the fence and the kudzu creeping up and over their artificial barrier. The purple flowers dangling down and through the links of metal would soon be cut away by the staff, then replaced again by another batch. In winter, the long, empty vines blended in with the barb wire at the top of the fence. For now, they created a wall of green and purple over the gray, weighing it down. The solution to the vines was like everything else there. Cut away at what crept up and what parts could be seen. The roots of the vines flourished down below, over ten feet deep. Like his memories flourished when he was deep in sleep, the morning came and cut them away, but it remained buried in him. No medicine or treatment they gave him could cut that deep. He was quite like that foreign plant. An invasive parasite to anyone within the fence, anyone bound to their ways and rules. He didn't belong here. His very existence cast him as inherently misplaced. The man beside him was similarly unwanted inside their little walled garden. In his earliest memories of being here, bamboo used to grow outside the fence beside the pines and kudzu, but each plant was systematically removed. Ridding away the pines was already underway. They were weak trees, easily snapped by a strong wind or heavy rainstorm. They would strip away the kudzu if they could, but the plants were too stubborn to vanish. Each year, a little more surrounded them, mocking the upper staff's attempts to tame the land.
Eric wondered when the two of them might be removed as they trimmed down their population towards 'perfection'. Would he be like the kudzu and survive? Or would he break in the wind like a pine?
"Did you sleep well?" Linwood asked.
Eric glanced over, caught off guard by the question. "I suppose."
Linwood moved closer to him. Their two balconies were built as one, with a metal divider between them. He climbed up on that metal piece and sat on it, his legs dangling down on Eric's side of the balcony. He often did this in the morning when he wanted to talk with Eric. Eric wasn't one for conversation, but he never avoided him either.
"What about dreams? Did you remember anything?" Linwood asked.
Eric moved closer to him, facing him directly. "You shouldn't sit up there. You might fall."
"Are you scared?" Linwood grinned. He leaned forward slightly.
Eric unconsciously grabbed him and pulled him down onto his side of the balcony out of fear he might fall. Linwood nearly dropped his coffee. Eric apologized. "I'm sorry...I..."
"Did I scare you?" Linwood stared into his eyes.
Eric saw something for a moment. He recalled the warmth of holding someone's hand.
It vanished as quickly as it came.
Linwood put his hand on Eric's face. He felt down Eric's cheek. "You have a scratch here. Did something happen?"
Eric wanted to put his hand on Linwood's, to see how it felt, but he didn't dare raise his hands. "I fell last night."
"Are you alright?" Linwood asked.
Eric nodded. "I'm fine."
Linwood pulled away from him. He walked over to the small table and put his mug down there. He picked up Eric's. "Yours is instant, right?"
Linwood put the mug to his lips and took a drink. He looked disgusted afterwards. "Mm...can't say I like the taste."
"What does yours taste like?" Eric asked.
Linwood handed him his mug.
"Am I allowed to?" Eric asked. He was forbidden from purchasing something like this at the store. He didn't have that kind of importance.
Linwood put his hand on the bottom of the mug and pushed it closer to Eric's face. "Does it matter? I know you want to taste mine. You're always asking about my food."
Eric hesitated. He didn't want to get in trouble. Sometimes, the upper staff tested the lower ranked employees to see who they could cast aside. This could be a test.
He lost his thoughts in Linwood's eyes. The scent of the coffee lingered in the air, as warm as Linwood's hand had been against his skin and the sunbeams that slipped through the pines beyond the fence. He put the cup to his mouth and drank. It tasted much better than his. He drank more than he knew he should before handing it back. Linwood laughed and drank some right after Eric.
"Liked it?" He asked.
Eric nodded. The taste stayed on his tongue and his lips. Eric wanted more. Did that flavor stay on Linwood's tongue too? He wanted to taste that.
The wind blew. Linwood put his mug down. He took his glasses off and cleaned them with his shirt. "It smells like rain."
Eric sniffed the air. He caught the scent Linwood was referring to. "Do you think it'll rain soon?"
"Tomorrow. It won't be today, but it's coming." Linwood put his glasses back on. He stared out at the pines beyond the fence. "Did you dream anything?"
"Huh?" Eric picked up his mug. The taste of his coffee sparked nothing in him. "I did, but I can't remember."
"I dreamt I went somewhere with a boy, but I can't remember his face." Linwood said.
Eric joined him in watching the trees. "Where did you go?"
"Some place with a lot of water. It was night. I remember there were a lot of stars and the water lit up this blue color." Linwood said.
"Do you think that really happened once?" Eric asked.
Linwood shook his head. "No, our dreams are never real memories. They're only parts of different ones thrown together. I think I knew the boy, and I think I went to a place like that once, but I don't think the boy was there when I went. I don't know. Water that lights up? That can't be right. That was probably just my mind making something up that seemed nice. What about you? Who do you dream of?"
Eric shifted his gaze from trees to the fence. He wanted to say something, but he couldn't say it. "I don't know. I never remember."
"That's a shame." Linwood said. He leaned a little closer to Eric. "I'm sure your dreams are beautiful."
"I don't know." Eric wanted to move closer, but his body froze. He watched the wind move around the man standing beside him. He couldn't tell Linwood that everything about him stayed in his mind. The shape of his face, the color of his eyes, the sound of his voice--all of them hit him like lightning. Flashing for a moment, a hint of something from long ago bubbled up to the forefront of his mind. As with his dreams, they always faded. Right then, another scene played out in his mind that he couldn't tell a soul. He watched it over the world before his eyes. With all the other bits and pieces, this memories would vanish too. For now, he watched and let his heart break. 'Didn't I love you once?'