Adin Swift was always a bit inclined toward melancholy in the winter. Not crippling depression, but spirits that sank as the leaden cloud-cover lowered. His seasonal mood change was especially noticeable when he lived up north in Woodbine. The winter sky’s expanse of grayness seemed more oppressive in the country—a dreary, heavy half-light that threatened to seep into the snow like dirty water.
Being in a city made winter more tolerable. After dark, streetlights spilled pools of simulated warmth on the ground, and neighbors’ houses glowed invitingly. Traffic moved down mostly-clear roadways. People moved down mostly-clear sidewalks. Silence never reigned long enough to become deafening. Cities had light and sound and movement. And this city had extra appeal.
As Adin turned away from the front windows of his apartment, the line of his gaze seemed predetermined: it went straight to the kitchen and dining area beyond the living room, where Jackson’s long legs angled out of the open cabinet beneath the sink.
Normally, Adin’s reaction to the sight would’ve also felt predetermined. He would’ve smiled and thought, Nice arrangement this, having a spouse who doubles as my landlord. Keeping separate residences in the same duplex worked well for them. Then Adin would’ve maybe approached his personal plumber and asked, “Do you need a hand? I’m good at holding a flashlight.” Jackson would’ve chuckled and answered, “Thanks, baby, but I’ve got it covered. You just save that hand for later.” And Adin would’ve smiled again. Oh, you bet I will.
Being with the love of his life had proved far more transformative than being back in a city; it made winter a season of heightened intimacy rather than grim endurance.
Only…things weren’t normal now. During the past week, something had driven an icy wedge between Adin and the love of his life. Blaming winter would’ve been disingenuous. Human nature, not nature, was to blame.
They’d been fighting. Intimacy eluded them. Cuddling on a couch, eating breakfast and dinner together, sleeping in the same bed, even using each other for fast and filthy sex had been out of the question.
“Is it still snowing?” Jackson asked without inflection, his deep voice muffled by the small space into which he’d slid his upper body.
“Hard to tell. The wind could just be blowing the existing snow around.” Today it was a blustery northwest wind that repeatedly swung to the south and then to the east, making for a chaotic ballet of flakes.
“You know, you don’t have to hang around and be bored.” Metal ground against metal. “Why don’t you go somewhere?”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“I’m too busy to have a preference, Adin.”
“Then I’m staying. I’ve got things to do too. And it looks colder than a Republican’s crotch out there.”
The landlord/handyman/lover-on-hold shifted position. Tools clinked. “Suit yourself.”
“I’d do that regardless of your preferences, Jackson.”
A particularly loud thump came from his workspace. “Like I fuckin’ need to be reminded.”
That was how things had been going between them. After the igniting incident, whatever it had been, their tempers were set to a steady simmer. A kind of stubborn self-righteousness gripped Jackson when he was pissed off. Adin’s natural sarcasm, usually playful, sharpened wickedly. Jackson brooded. Adin snarked. Blandly civil exchanges turned bitter in an instant.
The standoff was juvenile and exhausting, governed by some perverse form of male pride. If Adin was smart enough to realize that, Jackson was certainly smart enough to realize it too. Yet neither of them would either turn off the heat or turn it up.
Adin scanned the laden shelves that covered one wall of his living room. He decided to rid himself of books he’d never read again (why on earth had he kept Valley of the Dolls?) and tchotchkes that had been stripped of sentimental or even entertaining value as they’d been dragged through the punishing mill of time. Like the souvenir toothpick holder from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which he’d bought (and dutifully filled with toothpicks) to amuse certain old acquaintances. Like a slim, self-published volume of bad poetry from some admirer he’d long since forgotten.
Adin didn’t need or want reminders of his past. After centuries of creeping along the margins of society, he finally felt like a normal man in every way, in spite of two uncommon biographical facts. One, he’d spent the vast majority of his life as a vampire, but he’d reverted to mortality after killing a member of his particular breed. Two, he’d subsequently wed his fortunes to a powerful wizard. As a result, he sometimes had his doors of perception ripped off their hinges.
Few people, and none of their neighbors, knew about his and Jackson’s shadow lives. They were ordinary men, for the most part, who held down jobs and paid bills and enjoyed the company of friends. So why upset folks with blab about creatures of the night (Adin had, in fact, been diurnal) and magic? They lived in a plainer-than-plain corner of the world where nobody bothered to contemplate supernatural wonders aside from the ones their churches and TV sets fed them.
The wizard continued to toil beneath the sink. The former vampire continued to lighten his bookshelves. Trying to ignore each other’s presence, neither spoke.
After he’d filled a large Amazon box with castoffs for donation, Adin reached for a hand-carved chest from Poland that sat at one end of the highest shelf. Dust thinly coated its lid. He sank into one of the easychairs flanking an end table and rested the chest on his lap. He hadn’t gone through it in a while.
Water ran in the kitchen sink. Jackson had emerged from his small man-cave. Was his project finished? Would he be leaving soon? Regardless of their current hostilities, the thought of him retreating downstairs to his own apartment made Adin glum.
He glanced up. Jackson sat on the kitchen floor, his back against the cabinets, and fiddled with some piece of hardware. His longish hair, tousled, fell over his forehead and around his face. His threadbare T-shirt was soiled. Adin couldn’t help smiling. Marlon Brando's voice rang through his mind: “Stella!”
He was more in love than he’d ever thought possible, but the thickening wedge between him and Jackson caused his fond smile to go unnoticed. If that chunk of ice didn’t melt soon, his love would go unnoticed as well. Or so he feared.
He wanted their cozy contentment back but didn’t know how to go about getting it. Mentioning the insanity of their feud seemed only to lead to more sniping. Hell, just thinking about it made Adin cranky. Two parties were usually responsible for a rift, so two parties should contribute to a reconciliation. Jackson, however, showed no signs of softening. If he couldn’t give a little, why should Adin?
Jesus. We’ve become the fucking Hatfields and McCoys.
The apartment’s windows rattled in the gusting wind. A draft snaked through the air. Cold outdoors, cooling indoors.
And the forecast calls for pain.
Adin considered playing that Robert Cray song to send Jackson a message, get him thinking. But it would likely be a wasted effort. Jackson didn’t listen to lyrics unless he was in the mood for listening to lyrics. He didn’t have the soul of a poet.
Adin turned his attention back to the wooden chest. Within seconds of lifting its lid, he altered his assessment of Jackson’s soul.
A Yeats volume lay on the bottom. Jackson had given it to him—or rather, had surreptitiously sent it home with him—the weekend Adin had traveled here unannounced from Woodbine and confessed his feelings. He hadn’t been able to pretend anymore. He couldn’t keep up the platonic charade.
The weekend had been intense. After a noble show of resistance, Jackson had abandoned himself to their longstanding physical attraction. Emotional surrender proved much harder for him. He couldn’t bring himself to declare his love for another seven or eight months. Except through a poem written by someone else.
After gently burrowing beneath his other mementoes, all of which were related to the man on whom his new life centered, Adin lifted the book and opened it to the page Jackson had marked over two years earlier. The line he'd drawn in pencil beside the second stanza was still visible.
WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
They could not allow love to flee. Not again. They’d struggled too hard, for too long, to secure it. And to chase it away with petty rancor they’d allowed to become toxic? Unacceptable.
“What’re you doing?”
The question startled Adin away from the brink of tears. He cleared his throat. “Right now, reading. Before that, decluttering.” He pointed at the box still sitting in front of the bookshelves.
“You must’ve done a lot of that in your life.”
“Not too much. Vampires don’t tend to be hoarders.”
“That’s not the impression I got from that vampire movie with Tom Huddlebum.”
“Hiddleston. That was set decoration, Jackson. Junk makes for visual interest in movies. No actual vampire wants to be saddled with that much crap.”
Jackson’s expression hardened. Tension filled the room, as if the air between him and Adin had been pulled as taut as a tug-of-war rope. “Thanks for enlightening me. I appreciate the condescension.”
Again, Adin had said the wrong thing. The two of them were always saying the wrong thing lately. Stung, he tried to protest: “That’s not what I—” But Jackson didn’t appear to be listening. Adin looked down at the wooden chest, muttered, “Fuck it. What’s the point?” and the brief conversation ended.
The rope slackened, but only by a hair.
Same old shit. If they couldn’t figure out the right things to say or balked at saying them, they’d end up hating each other.
Jackson resumed doing whatever he was doing. Sighing, Adin lifted the photograph that lay on top of the other treasures in the chest.
The photo was a close-up of him alone. It took Adin a moment to realize why he’d saved it. The other pictures he had were of Jackson, or him and Jackson, sometimes with friends, and they were carefully arranged in an album.
He had no likenesses of himself that predated his reversion—vampires couldn’t be photographed—and he’d burned the miniature portrait a smitten youth named Augustín had painted a long, long time ago in Prague. Other men and women had also asked him to sit for them, but Adin couldn’t be bothered tearing himself away from his other pursuits. No amount of money, sex, or flattery could persuade him to pose blank-faced and motionless for hours on end. Vampires were restless creatures.
Besides, Adin had never quite understood why people collected images of themselves. The practice struck him as vain, unless the images were being held for safekeeping until they could be passed along to one’s children. Memories and mirrors made self-portraits unnecessary.
Memories and mirrors…
“Stop for a minute and look at this.”
“Can’t it wait? I’m almost finished installing the sprayer.”
“No, it can’t wait.”
A muffled curse. “Just leave me alone, would you?”
“I’m sick of us leaving each other alone!” Adin bolted off the chair and strode into the kitchen area. “Goddammit, take a vitamin D supplement. Smoke a joint. Fuck a bowl of Jell-o. I don’t care. Just lose the attitude and do this one thing for me.”
Frowning, Jackson backed out of the sink space. He sat on a throw rug, forearms resting on his raised knees, and looked up at Adin. Although his face was impassive, he maintained eye contact—the first time he’d done so in days.
Adin held out the photo. “What’s your first thought when you see this?”
Jackson’s eyebrows crept up.“Is that you?”
“Yes. Can’t you tell?”
“It took me a while. I’ve never seen you like that. Beard, mustache, long hair. When was it taken?”
“Sometime between your first and second visits to Woodbine, so definitely before my birthday party. Yeah, that birthday party. The one where I propositioned you and you told me to fuck off.”
“I didn’t tell you to fuck off. I told you I didn’t want to sleep with you and your girlfriend.” Jackson paused, no doubt for dramatic effect. “Remember?” he said archly. His gaze slid from Adin’s face back to the photograph. “I suppose Celia’s the one who took it.”
“Yes. We were sitting in the backyard.” Adin dropped to his knees so he’d be level with Jackson. “Do you know what she said when I started growing all that extra hair?”
The slightest hint of a smile appeared on Jackson’s lips. “‘Ravish me, pirate beast’?”
Adin snorted. “Before that.”
Jackson rolled his head back. “For shit’s sake, Adin, don’t try to coax compliments out of me. You’ve known since, like, 13-aught-9 how fucking gorgeous you are.”
“Wrong. I wasn’t born until 1320. Or thereabouts.”
“Whatever. Can we get to the point, please?”
Adin cupped a hand over one of Jackson’s forearms to regain his attention. “Celia said, ‘What’s with the new appearance? Are you trying to emulate Mr. Spey?’ She was kidding, more or less. But you know what? That was exactly what I was doing.”
Brows knit, Jackson met Adin’s gaze. “Why?”
“Remember when you first came to Woodbine, to Celia’s old house?”
“How could I forget?” It was a rhetorical question, bloated with implication. Adin could hardly forget either.
“Okay, just put all the…unexpected occurrences out of your mind for a minute. Do you remember when I walked into the kitchen and got my first eyeful of you the night you arrived? We hadn’t seen each other in months. We’d only talked on the phone.”
The answer came quietly. “I remember.”
“I was almost delirious, I was so happy. Even Celia noticed. When we hugged I almost kissed you. And I mean passionately. It seemed natural, as if we were lovers who’d been apart too long. That’s kind of what we were, don’t you think? Not physical lovers—we hadn’t reached that stage yet—but lovers in spirit.”
Jackson lowered his eyes. He nodded almost imperceptibly.
“I loved you then. Even then. I’d probably loved you since shortly after we met. I wanted you so much, Jackson. You can’t imagine.”
“Oh yes I can,” he whispered.
Adin took one of Jackson’s hands. It remained limp for the briefest moment before his fingers closed around Adin’s.
“After you left Woodbine, I missed you like crazy. But I felt guilty about it, because I was supposed to be starting a life with Celia. Somehow it didn’t matter. Weeks went by and those feelings wouldn't ebb.” Adin flapped the picture. “This is the result. I made myself over to look like the one person I craved the sight of. ‘Cause that meant every time I stood in front of a mirror, at least I’d get a glimpse of that person, of you, for a split second before my own face took shape.”
“So you did this intentionally?”
Adin couldn’t tell if Jackson was bewildered or incredulous or appalled. “I don’t know if it was intentional or subconscious or half of each. All I know is, I’d been wishing desperately I had a picture of you.”
Jackson glanced once more at the photograph. “I’ve never in my life been that fucking pretty, Adin.”
“That’s not the point! I missed you, damn it. I missed feasting my eyes on you.”
“Or just feasting on me.” The statement was wry but not snide. Teasing, actually. Because Adin, still a vamp then, had fed from Jackson in the course of that visit.
“I won’t confirm or deny that,” he answered in the same tone. “And no, this isn’t where I start singing ‘You Are So Beautiful to Me’.”
A genuine, unrestrained smile appeared on Jackson’s not-pretty-but-stunning face. “Aw, come on. Be a sport. I think I’d enjoy it.”
Adin rose from the floor. “If I can’t pull off resembling a hot guy in his thirties, how am I supposed to mimic Joe Cocker?”
Wired with anticipation, the kind stemming from hope, he walked back to his chair and tossed the picture into his treasure chest. Before he had a chance to close the lid, a pair of arms twined around his waist from behind and, simultaneously, a chin rested on his shoulder.
The arms and chin did seem disembodied at first, because a small eternity had passed since Jackson had touched him.
Gratefully, Adin settled into the embrace.
“‘How many loved your moments of glad grace,” Jackson murmured, “And loved your beauty with love false or true. But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you…’”
“I guess you saw the book.”
“Yeah. I’m glad you didn’t throw it in that junk box.”
“I’d never do that. Never. It’s the most precious thing I own.”
Jackson nuzzled Adin’s hair. “Here’s something you don’t know, smartypants. I memorized that poem right around the time you were giving yourself a make-over. It felt like it'd been written for us.” He kissed Adin’s neck. “I’m so sorry, baby. I’m sorry I’ve been such a dick. God, I’ve been lonely not having you near me.”
Adin turned in his arms so they could hold each other, seal their bodies together. “I’m sorry too. We can’t let this happen again.”
Jackson wasn’t the only one who’d felt desolate for the past week. Loneliness, not anger, had also been Adin’s overriding emotion. Just as it had been his overriding emotion back in Woodbine, and neither Celia nor anybody else—his bearded, mustachioed, long-haired self included—could serve as a substitute for the man he loved.
“Do you remember what started it?”Jackson asked. “All our bitchiness, I mean.”
“I’m not sure.” Did one of them have a bad day? Or was it an ill-chosen word? Or a refusal to do something? “And I’m not going to hazard a guess,” Adin added, “because that might rev the whole thing up again.”
Jackson stroked his hair, his back. “I can’t pinpoint what started it either. It’s kind of like someone shitting in a clean outhouse, and as the days go by, more shit gets added to the first shit until all the shit swirls together to make shit soup, and that original shit gets lost and becomes indistinguishable from all the subsequent shits.”
Adin slipped out of Jackson’s arms, he was laughing so hard.
Jackson feigned umbrage. “What, you don’t approve of my analogy? Not literary enough for you?”
“Your analogy is perfect.” Adin sniffled and wiped his eyes. “Oh, Christ, I love you so much.”
“So you’re not going to blame me for—”
Adin clapped a hand over Jackson’s mouth. The facial hair that framed it felt so much better than his own had felt. “Nobody’s going to blame anybody for anything.” He warmly kissed Jackson on the lips. “Now let me help you. I’ll hold your flashlight.”
Grinning, the landlord dropped a hand to his zipper.
Love hadn't fled.
~ THE END ~