the mark left on a table left by a cold glass
Just like every late night out, the next morning Brandon vowed to never drink again. He felt like he was on a rollercoaster- spinning and diving and twisting, his internal organs colliding with each other as his stomach took another nose-dive. There was a heavy metal concert going on inside his head- the hammering of feet and scream of instruments reverberating like a battering-ram against the inside of his skull. Yup; he was not drinking again. Ever.
The bed was far more comfortable than the one he was used to: the mattress was far softer and there weren't springs threatening to impale him if he rolled over onto his front. There were two pillows instead of one, and the duvet didn't have cigarette smoke clinging to it like an over-enthusiast leech.
Cracking open an eyelid and desperately trying to ignore the barrage of blinding light that tumbled through the closed curtains and assaulted his retinas, he cautiously slid out of the bed. He was one of the Action Men dolls he used to have when he was a little kid- plastic limbs and plastic joints, stiff and immovable- and it required almost all of his concentration to remain standing.
He could hear someone humming to themself, the gentle hum of a coffee machine, staining the aftershave-and-lemongrass scent of the bedroom with the smell of an average weekday morning.
Of course. Of course he was at Sam's place. Now he'd finally figured out the puzzle, pieced together the complete jigsaw, it was obvious. This was his bedroom, that was his computer. The place even smelled like him- that fresh, soapy smell that followed him everywhere like a puppy and managed to lift your spirits just by being near him. He would have smiled if he wasn't about to projectile-vomit over the hard-earned furniture. The last time he'd checked, Sam had been working two jobs- one was every evening at a dirty Chinese takeaway down the road, throwing down orders in his cash doctor's handwriting that sprawled over the notepads like the wreckage of a car crash, the kind that was indecipherable to all but the lucky few. The second job was only at the weekends, but Sam dragged himself to the kind of pub where safety regulations lay in the dust with the alcoholics and homeless outside the heavy doors, spending five hours both days washing dishes to be rewarded with the minimum wage and a free lunch. So Sam was really
"So, you're awake." Brandon could hear the smirk that coated Sam's voice like sugar, the smugness that rolled off his shoulders in waves, even as he sagged onto a seat and flopped head-first onto the counter with all the grace of a decapitated ballerina. "You hungry?" Brandon grunted.
"So I'm pretty sure that you're aware that hangovers are just caused by severe dehydration, right?" Sam sat down next to him and pushed a litre glass filled to the brim with cool, clear, still water over the counter. The glass nudged against his arm like a kitten searching for attention but not exactly sure if it'd found the right place yet, and Brandon wanted to shrink down to the size of a flea, clamber in and submerge himself in that liquid heaven for all eternity. "So you're going to drink this- all of it- before I fill it up twice more and you drink it all again." He pushed a packet of painkillers after the water. "And then you're gonna take three of these and not complain once, alright?"
Sam tottered around the kitchen as he inhaled the water- pouring steaming coffee for himself and leaving the toast too long so that when he finally did pull it out of the toaster, it was about as black and unappetising as his coffee. The scraping of butter onto the bread grated against Brandon's ears like sandpaper, rough and dry and painful.
He did watch him take the painkillers, though: fingers flexing timidly around his mug, almost as if he were clenching it so tightly the china was about to shatter into a million pieces between his fingers, tearing his skin to bloody shreds with a destructive vengeance. His eyes never left Brandon's, almost as if he was afraid that he could turn back around to find that Brandon had swallowed each and every one.
"So, how did I even end up here, then?" Brandon asked as he took another casual sip of water. His head still felt like a construction site, an animalistic roar of noise accompanying bestial metal claws. The water seemed to have settled his stomach slightly- or maybe that was just the whole placebo-effect- but otherwise, he was still feeling just as awful as he had when he woke up this morning with the taste of dead skunk in his mouth. At least the water had washed that out.
Sam sighed wearily, and it was only then that Brandon noticed how the winter sunlight streamed through the small window like water, blending into the shadows beneath his eyes and cheekbones and dripping like ice water onto the floor. "You don't remember anything?" he frowned, fingers tapping a hesitant march against his mug.
Brandon shrugged. How much was there? The last night was in flashes, a safari trip of photographs, collected into a photo album but left unlabelled. There'd be the club- noise and spears of light seeking him out at the bar and making his eardrums rattle. Then there'd been the face in the sea of heads and swaying bodies, their expression friendly, helpful, and even in the choking, crushing ocean of rainbow light, Brandon could recognise the too-large pupils; wide, excited eyes that washed over him with their offers and drowned him in them, black, hollow pits that led to the bottom of the Earth and deeper still, into the dead-end alley filled with rain and lonely shadows.
Then there'd been a voice, smooth as silken noose and soft as death's kiss. It was fuzzy- disjointed- as if they'd been speaking to him through a tin can on a cord. It had stolen up to him through the shadows, a golden light among the ashes, pushing the darkness aside like sheep. He'd been crushed; unable to move, stone limbs cemented to the ground. He'd barely been able to breathe- any of the air he could inhale rattled uncomfortably inside his lungs like a caged animal. The blackness surrounding him was a smothering shroud of thundercloud, and when he tried to scream, the wordless, shrill wail reverberated from the tumultuous waves of ink and smashed against him with all the force and ferocity of a hurricane.
But the voice had been there the entire time, it was entirely foreign yet as familiar as his own face- whispering to him like a summer breeze before drifting away like a childhood memory. It had been utterly impossible to cling to: filtering between his fingers like sand before finally drifting away like a pleasant dream.
There was a final page of memories, back in Sam's apartment, when he was having his hair toweled dry with blanket after he refused to shower at quarter to five in the morning, the cramped bathroom with only a shower, sink and toilet resulting in them being pressed far too close together for Brandon's liking, forced to look up into the tar black eyes set deep into the dark chocolate skin and fine-boned features as the lighting curled around his shoulders like a silver scarf. The world had been lit up by that that point, set alight by tongues of fire that lapped hungrily at the corners of his peripheral vision, the dust mites glimmering like shooting stars. Whatever he'd ingested had taken effect by then- pawing clearly at his mind until it developed a kaleidoscope of colours and images before his eyes like a shoddily-developed film, but back then- perched on the edge of the toilet seat like a juvenile bird about to test its wings for the very first time- he didn't realise that, and continued to smile emptily at the light show, even as Sam helped him change into dry clothes that hung from his frame as they would a scarecrow.
But Brandon's head was spinning, throwing itself headlong over the precipice of a hundred-foot tall roller-coaster, so instead of telling Sam everything, to let the words spill from his tongue as easily as he remembered they did last night, he shrugged, looked down at his water. "Nothing really," he said.
Sam felt the bite of irritation rear its ugly head like a cobra scenting its prey, but didn't say anything either. Not at first, anyway. Brandon had always been an awful liar, always giving himself away with a nervous flexing his hands, a suspicious lack of blinking when he talked. Or maybe Sam was just used to recognising the signs, picking the false-sayers out from the crowd. Maybe he should have trained to be a police officer rather than a surgeon.
"Brandon, we need to talk, about everything you said last night."
Those words were still bouncing around inside his head- reflecting from one side of his skull to another, and then back again, and then back again, almost as if the Greek nymph Echo was living inside his head, repeating Brandon's words over and over again until they'd seared into his brain. And there were questions, too; questions that kept his eyes open and his brain alert even when he'd rearranged himself on the sofa a hundred, two hundred times. What if he hadn't have picked Brandon up off the street? What if he hadn't even answered the phone?
And there'd been the darker, more selfish questions, the ones that Sam pushed away and bound up nice and tight in the darkest crevices of his mind- what would he have done if Brandon had been to sick to move? If he'd... God forbid it, but this was London, remember, and people have died for less than being alone and vulnerable, with alcohol and drugs soaking their thoughts with fog.... what if he'd died? What would Sam have done? If his best friend had gone, what would have happened then?
And there'd been the questions coated with curiosity- and fear, if he could be honest with himself, that dusted them like frost- like, for example, who was the man? And how the hell did he know Sam's name?
Brandon let out a sigh, and with the carbon dioxide he exhaled, Sam imagined went the finally dregs of inebriation with it, dispersing into the air like a flock of startled doves. "Seriously, Sam... don't do this chick-flick thing again, where we talk about our feelings and our pasts how we're coping now our boyfriends have gone gay for each other. I'm fine. I was out of it last night, but I'm fine."
'So you do remember something from last night,' Sam wanted to snap, but instead he swallowed a breath and said: "are you sure you're happy at university?"
"Brandon." Sam snapped, his lack of sleep sharpening his words to needlepoint. He almost felt guilty when Brandon slumped back into the table, defeat crushing him like rainclouds.
"I don't know anymore," he buried his head in his hands as a gesture of defeat, and his next words are muffled by his own palms. "I mean, sometimes it's great... I'm great, y'know, but sometimes it completely sucks, and I just want to... to run, to get away from it all for a while." He looked so small, with his unbrushed hair, dark fringe hanging low over his forehead. "I mean, not everything people say when they're drunk is what they actually mean, right?"
Sam grinned at a memory as Brandon straightened again, a distant one, when Brandon had called him from a Green Day concert, the music and Brandon's slurred speech grating against his ears. The poor guy had practically been choking on his own tongue back there. "Like the time you told me that you loved me?"
Brandon didn't have anything to say to that, scratching lazily at an old stain on the counter. Maybe it was from a spilt coffee, a dropped ice cream or a murder that took place in his own kitchen. It was unlikely- he couldn't stand ice cream.
"Brandon, just do what makes you happy. Don't go to university just because you think you should, because you know that's not gonna work out. Just think about it. I'm your friend and I'm not going anywhere, but it doesn't mean that I'll be able to drop everything every single night, you know?"
"I said no chick-flick moments, idiot," Brandon said, but his eyes were smirking. Brandon's eyes were always a puzzle- blue one moment, grey the next and then green before flickering back to blue. It obviously had something to do with the lighting, but Sam couldn't help almost falling into fixation with them every time he had chance to look into them. "Oh... there was a jacket on the foot of your bed, with the rest of my other clothes. I was wondering if you knew who's it was."
And Sam stopped smiling.
Eyes as cold as a coroner's and dead as a corpse's. Iris of brown and green and gold and pupils filled to the brim with steaming, bubbling tar. A voice as slippery as snakes' scales and dripping with honey. The apartment suddenly felt as cold as the outside world- packed with an inch of snow and ice, people scurrying past like ants, crushed in their extra layers of clothing. Sam almost didn't want to tell him.
But he did.
"So what you're saying," Brandon frowned, once Sam had finished, face crumpling into a confused frown, "is that some mysterious stranger walked up to me whilst I was passed out in an unattractive lump on the floor, worked out the locking code on my phone, went through my contacts and chose to call the one person I would actually want to see when I was the way I was. And then, when you actually met him, he very kindly left me his jacket and gave you the heebie-jeebies because he knew your full name even though your contact only refers to you as 'Sammy'. Is that correct?"
Sam shrugged and swilled the final dregs of his third coffee around at the bottom of the cup. "Pretty much, yeah."
Brandon leant back in the stool and stretched, lean tendons and muscle working beneath the hoodie Sam had lent him. He'd always been slim- wiry and strong beneath whatever band t-shirt he was wearing at the time, despite Sam having to restock his fridge whenever Brandon had been round for more than a few hours. He claimed it was due to his high metabolism. Sam had a pretty good idea that it really had something to do with witchcraft. "Well, I think that you're overreacting," he said slowly, measuring out his words with a teaspoon of sugar and a tablespoon of salt. "Whoever he was, didn't need to do what he did, and I'm actually pretty damn grateful." Brandon stood up, joints cracking protestingly in the cool silence of the apartment. "And I'm going to call him. You don't wear a suit jacket that expensive and not have a business card in one of the pockets."
He staggered out of the room slowly, leaning heavily on whatever he could that was nearby, as if his legs were made of paper and ready to fold out beneath him. Sam waited for a minute, scratching idly at the marble breakfast island before puttering around the kitchen like an old housewife. He made himself a fourth coffee to quench the burning desire to slump down on the floor and pass out and tried desperately to ignore the conversation that filtered beneath the door like river water during a flood.
"I'm going out." Brandon poked his head through the door the instant he finished on his phone and shot him quick grin, the kind of smile reserved for school photos- tight lips and no teeth.
Brandon scratched the back of his head. "I was thinking that first I should call Cat back- see if I could make it up to her somehow. She's still not happy about me forgetting her birthday, but I figure I could get her some pizza to apologise or something. And second-" his smile became far more genuine, burning with the childish excitement of a boy on Christmas Eve- "the guy from earlier- get this, his name's Michael, and he sounds like one on those rich people you'd see on TV- has asked to meet me, to get his jacket back."
"His name is Michael?" Sam flinched, flicking a snarl across the table. "Michael?" It sounded familiar somehow, as if the name had been plastered over news programs like boyband posters on a teenage girl's bedroom wall. He wanted to shake his best friend, his brother, and scream at him not to go. He wanted to claw his way into his own brain and pluck out the perfect words to explain why that man had been so incredibly wrong, so inhuman in a way that made him shudder every time he tried not to think about it. He wanted to curl up into a ball and cry every time he pictured those eyes again, felt about that voice licking against his ear like fire. He wanted to keep Brandon away from the man that was so stunningly perverse, that reeked of shadows and darkness and insanity, shrouded in a cool, expressionless psychopathy that made Sam want to run and run and run and never ever stop.
Brandon shrugged. "I think it's pretty cool, actually. And his surname is Brewster or something like that. He owns this big jewellery shop somewhere or something, but it's big. Really big, actually. It's pretty cool. Anyhow, I'll be going now. "
But by the time he'd finally tugged the fragments of of sense back together, Brandon was gone, having flicked a casual promise of getting a taxi and coming round to see him later over his shoulder like an afterthought, Sam frozen in a stunned, terrified silence as he left.
It took hours for Brandon to call him.
He'd tried to subdue the bottomless rhumba of rattlesnakes writhing in his stomach with everything he could think of; he'd watched as much daytime TV as he could survive in a day and one of the main characters in his book was killed tragically by the bad guy at the end of the fifteenth chapter just as the world was beginning to look their way.
He tried desperately to get at least an hour of sleep before giving in and finally finishing his essay- checking and re-checking before reading the whole thing backwards in search of any spelling mistakes lurking between the lines.
He'd cancelled work under the excuse that there'd been so much snow piling outside his apartment door that he could barely escape, and the roads were far too treacherous for his feeble beetle of a car. The bartender hadn't exactly agreed- there'd been a irritable hum of disinterest down the phone line- but then Sam had heard a high-pitched shriek of terror and a shatter of glass, and the phone had been thrown down on him.
When his phone finally did begin to buzz- just as it had twelve hours earlier- he snatched it up immediately, catching his thumb on the corner of the table in impatience as he did. "Brandon?" he said breathlessly, "are you okay? Do you need help? Shall I pick you up?"
There was a laugh down the other end of the line- soft and carefree, like hangovers barely even existed. "Sam, hey, I'm great, I'm awesome, actually. You okay?"
Sam almost choked in relief. "Are you sure?"
"Seriously, I'm great. I mean, I talked to Cat, and basically apologised my ass off for about an hour, so she said she'd call me tomorrow. That's probably the best I could get from her, anyway, you know?"
Sam scratched idly at the kitchen counter. "That guy... Michael? Did you speak to him?"
From Brandon's voice, he sounds incredibly excited- probably bouncing on the balls of his feet, phone clutched to his ear in a grip so tight that Sam warned wondered if he was going to end up breaking the screen. "I did. He was awesome, Sam, totally awesome. He was really interesting. And..." Brandon's breath hitched in his throat, the excitement almost choking him, "He offered me a job, Sam, well, some internship at this jewellery store. He said he liked me, liked my attitude. Me, Sam, me. I was thinking about what you were saying earlier, about university, and... Well... I said yes, obviously."
"Brandon. You can't."
Sam had these moments when reality seems to shift, to drop from beneath him while he floats, effortlessly, away from his body, a kind of spectator to his own actions. His voice sounds distant, foreign to his own ears, and sometimes he wonders if he's actually dreaming. It was happening now, when he was consumed by the image of reptilian eyes.
Brandon's voice dropped to the sound of winter: cold and harsh and unrelenting and brutal, packed with freezing nights, suffocating snowdrifts, and snowstorms that people could wander unwittingly into and never be seen again. "I can't, Sam? What the hell do you mean that I can't?"
How was he meant to explain himself? How was he meant to explain this feeling- this basic instinct- that this whole thing was so very, very wrong? How was someone found drinking themselves out of consciousness one day and then an employee of a shop selling undoubtedly highly expensive designer items the next?
How did Brandon not understand that there was something very, very wrong?
"Seriously, Sam, what is wrong with you? Whoever this Michael Brewster guy is, he probably saved my damn life by calling you, and now you're acting like the guy tried to kill me! He's a nice guy, Sam."
Sam didn't say anything. He couldn't. His words, all his excuses were wound up into a noose and choking him, rendering him immobile. It was all he could do to continue to hold the phone against his ear as Brandon began to shout.
"Why is it so bloody difficult for you to be happy for me? I'm not a kid, and I can make my own big boy decisions! But it's always 'do this, Brandon' or 'I'm going to be a brilliant doctor soon, so do what I say'!" And then he stopped shouting, his voice smoothing, manifesting into something unrecognizable and alien. "Well do you know what, Samuel Farah? You can keep that bloody t-shirt. I hated it anyway."
And then Brandon hung up, and Sam felt about as empty as his coffee cup and as useless as his essay.