Chapter 4.1

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After that things were different. He'd lost all interest in Downstairs. If I brought it up he'd change the subject; if folks were hanging out down there he wouldn't come. When I finally asked him directly about this, he shook his head.

"I don't think it's a good idea to be down there, that's all." He tried to play it off casually, but his jaw was set.

Something about him had changed. His wardrobe turned straight-laced. He went back to calling himself Nick. He watched a lot of sports on TV. And things were strange between us. Our conversations didn't go quite right, didn't fit in their familiar grooves. We'd get derailed, trail off. We started talking less. I couldn't point to something specific that had changed, but the usual pleasurable tension between us, the taut bond of connection we'd had since the accident, was gone. He didn't seem to need me any more. He seemed like just a dude. Just a Nick. Not mine.

I worked up my courage and did a few of my own solo expeditions Downstairs, without telling him, but I couldn't convince myself to go very far. I hallucinated strange noises around corners: floorboards creaking, whispered sighs. I knew I was only scaring myself, but didn't have it in me to stay down there for long.

I lay on my bed a lot and listened to records through my headphones. My dad's old headphones: huge bulky black things with a coiled cord like old telephones. Sometimes I held my breath while I did it. This was an old technique of mine to shut the world out. After a while outside sounds would slowly slip away, and the thrum of blood and music would fill my ears, become my entire universe. As a kid I could hold my breath for three minutes. Enough sometimes to make it through a whole song without breathing.

I fell asleep one night doing this, headphones on, and dreamed about Niko, which happened now and then whether I wanted it to or not. In the dream I was at the hallway junction again, looking down into the shadows at the figure at its end. Only this time it wasn't me down there, it was him, walking toward me. Not hesitant but confident, smiling, happy to see me. I grinned back, thrilling at the reciprocity between us, a bond that felt in that moment tinged with something else, something more primal.

But then I faltered, because I realized I wasn't sure quite what that meant. There are a lot of primal emotions.

There were so many things that smile could mean.

I took a step back, afraid, but there was nothing but empty space behind me. I was standing at the lip of a drop-off.

He came right up to me, Niko, my Niko, looking into my eyes with something I was certain now was love, and the fear faded as he reached up to touch my cheek, and the warmth of it and the smell of him and the look on his face fused inside me into need so intense it parted my lips, as if for oxygen, just as he bent down with hunger to kiss them.

It was a beatific kiss, velvet, brain-melting, the kind you sometimes get in real life if you're lucky but I'd only ever had in dreams, sweet and lingering and seraphic. Everything I'd ever wanted flowed through me into him and I imagined I could feel the same from him to me, echoed and amplified, conjoined. It went on and on and on. He pressed against me, arms wrapped around my back, holding me, and mine were maybe around him too but only limply, subconsciously, the kiss and its indescribable tangibility, its dream-forgotten trueness the only thing, the only thing. The only thing.

It wasn't until I'd broken it, pulled back to look up at him, that I realized I was leaning back over the edge behind me, his arms holding me there, my toes the only thing still touching the lip of the drop-off.

I couldn't read his expression. Had no idea what it meant at all.

I didn't even know who he was.

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