2.21: Temptations

Henry stood paralyzed in the hallway, staring down the unblinking gaze of Mathas Bernard. The man’s eyes, he could now see, were not quite right. They were filmy, and unfocused. Yellowed. And there was dirt in them, clumping along the ridge of the eyelids.

Niles waved to get his attention. “In here!” he mouthed.

He beckoned Into the living room, which would require Henry to approach Mathas. But even as he pondered the thought, the man’s head turned away, once more resuming what looked like a blind search of the counter-tops.

Henry took a deep breath, steeled himself, and darted across the hallway into the living room. To enter, he had to vault over a sort of barricade which had been set up. The armchair sat toppled on its side, blocking the entrance. A few boxes had been piled on top, for weight. He sat with his back against it, waiting for the inevitable sound of the dead man’s approaching footfalls. It did not come.

Bruce lay huddled in the corner, soundlessly whimpering. Niles sat on the floor behind the couch, clearly trying to decide whether it was worth the effort to add it to the barricade. Sweat poured down his face. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “I mean, obviously I believed Jenny, and you, but I didn’t believe, you know? Now he’s here.”

“We have to get out of the house.”

“No,” Niles snapped. A rare hardness entered his voice. “No, he’s not kicking me out of my own house.”

Henry peered over the top of the armchair. From his angle, he could only see the faint reflection of movement. Mathas was still safe in the kitchen. “What happened?

“I didn’t realize anything was off until Bruce started whining. I thought he was sick, at first, but he kept nipping at my heels and staring off at the kitchen. I walked in there, Henry.” He shuddered.

“What was he doing?”

Niles covered his face with his hands. “I don’t know.”

He wanted nothing more than to crawl over to the couch, and take the man by the shoulders. But he stayed where he was. That would be too much. “Did he come in through the front?”

“No, through the back. I had the door open. I was baking a cake, and I wanted to air the place out.”

That settled into Henry’s mind. “You were baking a cake?”

“Yes. What does that matter?”

“Where is it now?”

Niles drew his hands away from his face. “I think he ate it.”

And he’d stayed in the kitchen since, looking for more. “You used to bake cakes for his birthdays, right? How often did you do that?”

“Every year. And more, besides. The man had a sweet tooth.” 

“I think he still does.”

Niles’ eyes widened in understanding. “He’s looking for the things he used to love.”

“Which explains why he was caught circling his old house.” Henry leaned over and pulled the bookmark out of the ratty paperback copy of The Alpha Aliens Save Jupiter… Again! A photograph, featuring a slighter younger Mathas Bernard standing in a crowd of people. Most notably amongst them was his wife. Beth Brihte beamed out of that photo as Henry had never known her to in real life. He stood, and whistled.

“What are you doing?” Niles hissed, but the trick had worked. Mathas looked again into the stove-top mirror, and saw when he did the photograph which Henry held above the barricade.

In this way they lured the man out of the house. He moved with a limping gate, but a surprising speed, once he was focused on a target. There was a single-mindedness to it which recalled a cat, or a toddler.

“Now what?” Niles asked, when they had moved a good distance down the road. They kept a comfortable pace ahead of Mathas. There was no longer any possible way that the man could still see the photograph, but it did not appear to matter.

“The Anderson,” Henry said. They could hold the man there. Lock him in one of the back rooms, and call the sheriff to come see. He smiled at the thought of Leia Thao coming face to face with the reality of the dead man walking. But it turned out to be a premature fantasy.

On the corner of Fuller, where the road curved away from the forest border to connect Tortus Bay’s northernmost neighborhood to the rest of village proper, there came a scuffling from the grass. It was a substantial noise, like a deer jumping up from where it had settled or a flock of birds scattering from a bush. Either way, Mathas turned at the commotion, and stepped off of the road into the obscuring night.

“Get him back!” Niles said.

Henry raised the photograph further above his head, and whistled. “Mathas! Hey, Mathas!”

By the time they jogged over to where the man had stepped off the trail, there was no sign of him. Not a sprig of displaced grass nor a depression in the damp earth—at least, not that they had the ability to see. He had disappeared into the trees. Henry looked out after him. Pale yellow fingers of light streaked over the sky, the herald of a cold morning approaching, but it was not yet bright enough for him to see anything. Not by far. “What’s out there that he’s more interested in than Beth Brihte?”

“A picture of Beth Brihte,” Niles corrected. “Maybe he was trying to stay out of the sun.”

“Maybe. Was he a hunter?”

“People around here need the support of a dedicated club just to set foot in the forest. No, he wasn’t a hunter.”

The two of them lapsed into silence, looking out over the cusp of the forest into the coming dawn. Adrenaline drained out of Henry’s body. Exhaustion did not rush in to fill the void, as he expected. As it deserved to. He found it nearly impossible to feel tired, while standing out in fresh air, watching the birth of a new day. 

Instead he was overcome with the desire to turn, grab Niles by the shoulder, and spin the man into his embrace. To kiss him. To run his hands over the nape of his neck, the small of his back. In that moment it felt like the most natural and correct thing in the world, like it had before their first kiss in the trees, and like it did in his dreams. But Henry mastered himself, and simply looked on in silence—until Niles cleared his throat. “You can walk me home.”

“That’s fine. I’ll probably head off. I’m already halfway back to the Anderson.”

“Sorry, I meant… will you walk me home?”

Henry nodded, and they turned back at a leisurely pace. Perhaps they were more tired than either of them were willing to let on. Perhaps it was the dread of the arrival. “I looked for you at the exhibition,” Niles said. “Thought for sure you’d be there.”

“I was meant to be.” He gave the whole story: Howard, the fight, his parents, Ray, and Greenfield.

Niles gasped and groaned at all the appropriate moments. He cheered, at the part of the retelling when Henry punched Howard. Then, naturally, he chose to focus on the least pleasant aspect of the entire ordeal. “Who is Ray?”

There wasn’t much to say about that. Infatuation and passion, followed by zero commitment and inevitable heartbreak. Like everybody else’s first love story. By the time Henry was through telling it, they were walking through Niles’ front door and setting to work righting his belongings. 

The armchair had to be flipped over and set back in its intended position. Scattered paperbacks had to be collected and returned to the coffee table. The kitchen was a mess. Mathas may indeed have consumed a sizable portion of the cake, but more than that had been smeared on the counter-top and across the cupboards. They coaxed Bruce out of his hiding spot with treats, and kept up with pets and encouraging voices until he became comfortable loafing around all of the rooms of the house. Immediately after performing such a loop, he curled up on the couch and fell asleep.

Niles ran a hand through his hopelessly ruffled hair. “Listen, what I was trying to say earlier is that I’m sorry about -”

Henry took him, then, and pulled him close. Ninety percent, and then he let Niles close the gap. It no longer felt right. It felt necessary. There was a balloon expanding between them, whose vibrating tension needed to be punctured. Their lips met with a delayed electricity, like the heartbeat between lightning and its thunder. “I’m sorry, too,” Henry said, stepping back. “I don’t want to be the thing that makes your life difficult. I don’t know, because I’ve never had to live it, but I can imagine the reactions you’d get in a place like Tortus Bay.”

“Anybody who matters, knows. Everybody else could guess. I’m sure they already have. But I’ve done a lot, to make myself comfortable on my own. I’ve never tried it any other way.” Niles paused, and looked around the room—at the slightly off-kilter furniture, and hastily re-arranged books. “Nothing is going to be the same, no matter what I do, will it?”

“I don’t think so.”

He breathed. “I can’t tell you exactly what I want. I don’t know if I know exactly what I want. I like being around you. And I like kissing you.”

Henry took another step back, and looked into those warm eyes. How easy it would be, to give in. To give him everything he needed. Whatever he wanted. But Henry had been down that path before. “I don’t think I’m comfortable with that.”

Niles smiled, then, in a mischievous sort of way. “What if I told you that I have a lead on tracking Mathas down, and a great story for this newspaper of yours to boot?”

The sun had fully risen. Its warmth blanketed the small, comfortable living room. “Then I’d say that you have my continued attention.”

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