Skid Marks

The house was too dark, too quiet, too empty. A near-perfect parallel to the way Clayton "Bear" Piatt was feeling inside. He sat on the leather couch in the living room, drinking vodka straight out of the bottle, with all the lights off and the curtains drawn. He wasn't sure he would be able to stand looking at the walls, which were covered in photos he had taken over the last several years. Most of them were of his boyfriend, Daniel Rodgers - the man from whose funereal he had just returned.

The days after Dan's death - a hit-and-run caused by a drunk driver - had passed by in a blur, the moments flowing into one another like scenes in a foreign film without subtitles. Time was sucked into a swirl of confusion, until it lost all meaning. But this was one film that wouldn't end.

The funeral had been the second-worst part so far. It seemed too long, but too short at the same time. Who could limit saying goodbye to the space of a single hour? He did what was required of him, however, dropping a flower onto the casket and saying a cursory farewell when Dan's family was around. He handled the funeral well enough, having said his real goodbyes at the morgue, when he had been called upon to identify Daniel's body. Bear was his emergency contact, after all.

That was the worst part. He had been bloody and bruised and cut up, dozens of his bones broken. Breaks that Bear was just now coming to realize would never heal. His dark hair was a mess, (a moving vehicle crashing into you would do that to a person), the green tips flying every which way, rather than being meticulously straightened, like they were usually, and one of the two piercings that decorated either side of his lower lip had been brutally ripped out when he went flying and landed hard on the asphalt of the road. One of his corneas had also been severely scratched, the coroner said, and, had he lived, he may very well have ended up partially blind. He bit part of his tongue off, as well, a shock-induced reaction to being hit by the car. At first glance, it appeared as though they had taken the time to clean the blood off his lips.

But Bear wasn't able to get a very good second look - as the coroner spoke of Dan biting his own tongue off, the man's vision began to swim and blur, the small amounts of color in the silver and off-white room blending together, until Bear passed out, and everything faded away.

He woke up in a hospital bed, a pretty young nurse attaching an IV to his arm. He had a vague memory of pushing her away, disconnecting the IV, and leaving, mumbling something about not needing medical attention. They tried to keep him, but he refused, saying that his mental faculties were fine and, as such, they had no grounds under which to hold him.

With the exception of the funeral, Bear hadn't spoken to anyone since Dan's death. His cellphone rang and rang and rang, but he never answered. Friends stopped by, but he wouldn't open the door. He simply sat on the couch, drinking, vomiting occasionally, and doing everything in his power to keep from looking at the pictures on the walls.

Ignoring the photos made no difference, though - Dan was in his head. Always would be. He could hear him in the house, brewing black coffee in the morning. Taking a shower. Waking up at the ungodly hour of five AM, insomniac that he was, to wander around aimlessly.

Whenever Bear made an attempt to fall asleep, just as he began to doze, he swore he could feel Dan's breath on the back of his neck, startling him awake. Passing out was easier - there were no thoughts, no feelings, nothing to deal with. The blackness outside was a welcome respite from the blackness inside.

Three weeks into Dan's death - three weeks into Bear's drinking binge - something unsettling began to happen: Bear began to not only hear Dan walking around, doing things, but also speaking to him. A week after that, the man - or apparition, as the case may have been - started to appear in his physical form, looking as he did in the photos on the walls, not as he had on the table in the morgue. The diamond ring Bear had given him ages ago (which had gotten lost in the accident) was still hanging from the length of black cord around his neck. His eyes were dark brown and perfectly intact, skin pale and free of marks, and his piercings were where they should have been, both occupying a space of his lower lip.

All he said at first was a simple "hello", his voice sounding just as it always had: high in pitch, with a pleasant sort of speech impediment lacing itself throughout the word. Dan had hated his lisp, but Bear loved it, and made that known to him on many different occasions. The last thing he ever wanted was for Dan to feel bad about himself, because he was perfect, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. What was there to feel bad about?

The next time he spoke, he asked why Bear was drinking alone, in the dark. Bear answered him this time, slurring his words, his inebriated mind finding nothing wrong with speaking aloud to a dead man,

"It wasn't dark when I started."

The third time, Bear had been half out of his mind. He had taken all the photos off the walls and put them on the floor, then opened himself a fresh bottle of vodka, walked into the bathroom and grabbed a bottle of pain pills that were left over from the time Dan had had an infection deep in his gum, and the offending tooth had to be extracted, in order to drain it.

Bear lay down on the bed he and Dan used to share, clumsily took a few pills from the bottle and popped them into his mouth, washing them down with the new vodka.

"You know," Dan spoke, materializing suddenly, "mixing those pills with alcohol is a really bad idea." He sounded like a pragmatic child trying to talk an over-imaginative friend out of jumping off the roof with a pair of homemade wings.

"Not if you're trying to die."

That was the last thing Bear remembered before he ended this night just as he had ended so many other ones recently - by passing out.

The morning-after hangover was vicious, and Bear almost didn't even make it to the bathroom in time to spill his guts into the toilet bowl. Dan had been cleaning this exact toilet with a scrub brush and a pair of rubber gloves on the day Bear had given him the ring.

Fragments of the pills Bear had taken were somehow expelled along with the booze and vomit, and he found himself thinking that maybe God was looking out for him. He had always been religious - raised as a devout Christian, despite his sexual orientation - and times like these were when people were supposed to turn to the Lord, right?

But then an image of Dan lying dead on the long, silver table filled his mind, he wretched once more, and all thoughts of God's mercy were gone.

He lay with his head on the toilet seat long after he finished vomiting, and briefly debated getting drunk once more, but his stomach twisted at the thought, voting "no" to this idea. Vehemently.

Once he was able to successfully stand up and walk a straight line, he considered what to do next. Drinking was out of the question, he wasn't tired, so there was no point in going back to bed, and although he hadn't eaten in God knew how long, even imagining cooking something was nauseating.

Finally, a thought came to him. It floated into his mind quietly and easily, like a gentle breeze against the wings of a butterfly: you have a gun. Use it.

It was true - Bear was a gun owner. He had several in a safe in the bedroom. His father had taught him how to handle a firearm at fourteen, and the knowledge had never left him. Shooting was just a hobby, though - nothing more.

Until now.

The thought - which would be frightening under normal circumstances - seemed appealing now. Seductive. It would be easy. Pull the trigger, forget everything. Ideally, maybe even get Dan back. Who was he to say what God's plan was?

His mind made up, he went into the bedroom, unlocked the safe, and took out his handgun. He loaded it without thinking, so used to the movements required that he didn't even remember doing it later. "Know your weapon," his father had told him, "respect it."

The gun loaded, Bear walked into the living room, sat the firearm down, and went about lining up the pictures he had put on the floor. His irrational mind wanted Daniel to see this; wanted him to see what he had been driven to.

He simply stared at the gun for a long time. He didn't know how long, exactly. Time meant nothing to him anymore. But it was long enough for the sun to go down outside.

He looked at the photos on the floor - Dan blowing out candles on a birthday cake, Dan in the middle of a burst of laughter, brown eyes sparkling, Dan with an uncharacteristically bright grin on his face, (seeing as he was normally shy when it came to his smile), the latter half of which was covered in bushy black hair. That picture was taken in November, when he had decided to participate in the ritual of not shaving for an entire month - something Bear had never understood the point of.

Dan was dead, gone forever. And there was really only one thing left to do.

Bear picked up the gun, feeling calm for the first time in what felt like an eternity. He turned it over in his hands a few times, cocked it, then brought it upwards and pressed the barrel to his temple. It felt cool against his heated skin.

He started counting down from ten without any real reason for doing so - it just felt like the right thing to do in the moment.

Ten - he thought back to the first time he and Dan had met, the first time he ever caught sight of the bright, shy smile that he would eventually fall in love with.

Nine - he remembered the time Dan had revealed to him that he could play the piano, and how the two spent the entire night together, doing nothing but talking about music.

Eight - he recalled the sweetness of Dan's laugh after he pulled away, following their first kiss.

Seven - he heard Dan's voice calling him by his real name the first time they made love. The only person (besides his parents) to ever do so.

Six - he thought of when he asked Dan to move in with him, then of the house they eventually bought together. This house.

Five - he reminisced about Dan's night owl habits, and how he just couldn't seem to stay asleep past five AM, no matter how tired he had been the night before.

Four - he recollected Dan's tendency to jokingly flip him the bird when Bear took his picture without permission.

Three - he almost smiled at the image of Dan dancing around the living room to Queen when he thought no one was watching, and then, after Bear inevitably caught him, how he had explained that the band was a guilty pleasure for him.

Two - he had a flash of the skid marks that were likely on the stretch of highway where Dan had been killed.

One - he saw Daniel mouth the words "I love you". The last time he would have ever done so, had Bear have gotten the chance to see him before he died.

He closed his eyes, gave a light squeeze to the trigger, and -

"Stop."

Bear's eyes shot open on reflex. He knew that voice. That saccharine, though somehow still manly, voice, with just a hint of a lisp.

Dan was standing in front of him, features as perfect as he remembered, ring sparkling from where it hung on the cord around his neck. His eyes showed concern, and he was frowning.

"What are you doing?" He asked. "You know this isn't right, Clay."

His real name. Dan was saying his real name.

Bear dropped the weapon to the floor - gun safety his absolute last concern in that moment. It didn't go off, and whether that small miracle was performed by God, or Daniel, Bear didn't know.

"I miss you," Bear said in a whisper, a tear falling down his cheek for the first time. "I can't do this without you."

"You can. I know you can. Because you don't have a choice."

"I - I don't - I can't -" Bear stuttered, before finally breaking down into tears. His eyes were shut tight, and his sobs sounded absolutely heartbroken, and if he had had the presence of mind, he would have been concerned that the neighbors might call the cops.

"I love you." Dan's voice was like a puff of air in his ear - he felt it as it was happening, but had no way of knowing, mere seconds later, whether he had actually felt it, or just imagined he did.

When Bear was finally able to force his teary eyes to stay open, Dan was gone. And, somehow, so was the gun.