It started like any other day. Justin had promised Deb
he’d do an early shift at the diner because they were short-handed while Kiki
was off recovering from The Operation, so he slid out of bed as quietly as he
could so as not to wake his current (but, Justin suspected, soon-to-be-ex)
boyfriend, dressed in the dark and forced himself out into the pre-dawn dankness
of a bitterly cold Pittsburgh morning. He hated the cold, he hated leaving a
warm bed and freezing his ass off waiting for a bus that was always either late
or fucking early, and most of all he hated going to work in the dark.
To his disgust he just missed his normal bus, which was early again because the fucking driver liked to give himself time to race into the Liberty Diner and get a coffee, so he had to catch the one that dropped him off two blocks over from the Diner. Then he had the choice of taking the main streets, which meant walking about twice as far, or cutting through a couple of back alleys, which was shorter but kind of scary in the early morning dark, with no one around. The vicious, sleety rain which started to fall just as he got off the bus decided him, and he turned into the first alley.
It was when he crossed the road and moved into the alley that ran behind the diner and would take him to the back door that day turned freaky.
He was hurrying, head down and hood pulled tight against the wind blowing the freezing rain into his face, and wasn’t aware of anyone near him until he crashed into someone. Or something.
At first he naturally thought it was some other poor bastard out in the cold, and his worst fear was that it was a mugger, but as he stumbled, and fought to keep his feet on the slippery flagstones, his hood fell back and he got a shocked glimpse of just what he’d crashed into. His artist’s eye caught, and never forgot, could never forget, a glimpse of a stick thin figure with a face out of childhood nightmares. Desiccated skin barely covered bones that seemed stripped of any flesh or muscle tissue; a hand like a talon stretched towards him, momentarily clasping his arm as the figure struggled to find its own balance. Then the claw-like appendage was hurriedly withdrawn and before Justin could even take a breath to scream, the figure was moving away, awkwardly, but with surprising speed.
Justin stood for a moment, shaking, and then found himself lurching into a stumbling run towards the warm safety of the diner.
He crashed in through the back door to find Debbie already there. She gave him a shocked look as he burst in, but uncharacteristically didn’t demand to know what the fuck was wrong with him, just told Tony in the kitchen to get a fucking move on, waved a coffee pot at Justin and asked with one raised eyebrow if he wanted a cup. He nodded, and once it was poured, clutched it gratefully.
His first instinct had been to blurt out what he’d seen, call the police, alert the Feds … something, anything. But safe now in the diner, he had time to think, to consider what the likely reaction would be. He realized that no one would believe him. He wouldn’t himself, if someone came to him with such a ridiculous story. And anyway, it’s not like the … thing … had done anything to him. In fact, it had appeared every bit as scared as he was. Aside from the horror of its looks, it hadn’t offered any kind of threat. So what would be the point? He’d just make himself look stupid for nothing. And if anyone was crazy enough to believe him, they’d just start hunting down some poor creature who probably wasn’t any threat to anyone. After all, it was bigger than he was, and its momentary grip on his arm had been strong enough to keep them both upright, so if it had wanted to attack him, it could have, and almost certainly could have strangled him or something.
No, Justin thought. I just won’t say anything. It’s crazy anyway. It was probably just a trick of the light or something.
In his heart of hearts, he knew that wasn’t true. But some kind of instinct made him very reluctant to disclose what he’d seen. Quite apart from the fear of appearing totally ridiculous, the more he considered it, the more he felt some sort of … protective urge towards the creature he’d glimpsed only for a moment; the sense of horror he’d originally felt was still there, but it was becoming tinged with something gentler … compassion maybe. So he finished his cup of coffee and got ready for work.
He was in the back room, tying the sash of his apron when Debbie came in. She stood for a moment uncharacteristically silent, and then said in not quite her normal tone, “So … are you okay, Sunshine? You looked like shit when you came in. Like you’d seen a ghost or something.”
Some quality in her voice … some touch of … anxiety, of nervous tension, made Justin look at her. Their eyes met and held for a moment and he had the sudden notion that she knew exactly what he’d seen. He held her gaze and said slowly, “I thought I had. At least … not a ghost, exactly. More like a monster.”
She bristled. “He’s not a fucking monster!” she snapped.
Justin stared at her, and she stared back, obviously startled by what she’d unintentionally revealed.
“Just don’t say anything to anyone else,” she said, turning on her heels. “If you want to come over for dinner tonight, we can talk about what you think you saw then.”
Justin spent the day torn between curiosity and a strange reluctance to have any sort of confirmation about what he’d seen … imagined … it had to have been his imagination. He didn’t want to know that it wasn’t, that the thing he’d seen could possibly have been real. But despite his misgivings, he found himself climbing the familiar steps to Debbie’s door.
She’d obviously been waiting for him, and opened it before he’d even had the chance to knock. “Come in, then,” she’d sighed, in a resigned voice, quite unlike Deb’s usual vibrancy.
As always, coming into the kitchen, Justin was aware of a sense of loss; even after all these months, he still missed Vic’s familiar presence. Deb ushered him to a seat at the table, and placed a heaped plate of linguine in front of him. Justin sniffed the marinara sauce appreciatively. Living with Daphne had its advantages, but he still missed home cooked meals.
He started to eat and Debbie sat and watched him fondly for a few moments, before she said quietly, “You saw him, didn’t you? You must have. He left just before you rushed in like all the hounds of Hell were after you.”
Justin took a moment to maneuver the strands of pasta from his fork to his mouth, and then to chew and swallow.
This was it, the moment he’d been both looking forward to and dreading all day.
He nodded, swallowed again, and said carefully, “Well, I saw something. Or thought I did. I was running because of the rain, and I crashed into …”
“You bumped into him?” Debbie sounded alarmed. “Was he alright?”
Justin stared at her. There was no mistaking the concern in her voice, and it wasn’t for the fright he’d received. It was the … whatever it was … that she was worried about.
“He was fucking fine. He took off okay, anyway,” he said tartly.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” she sighed. “He must have been scared out of his fucking mind. I hope it doesn’t make him too scared to come back tomorrow.”
“Deb,” Justin broke in on her anxious maunderings. “Debbie … what is he? I mean …”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know his story at all. He’s just a poor soul who … well, who doesn’t have it easy. I try to make sure that he gets at least one meal a day, anyway.”
“Sunshine … he didn’t hurt you, did he?”
Slowly, feeling as if he were in a dream, Justin shook his head.
“He’d never hurt anyone. He just … he’s just scared. He knows if people saw him around they’d call the cops or something, just because he looks a bit different.”
Justin stared at her. “A bit fucking different!” he protested at her understatement.
“I found him one morning, going through the bins for scraps. Scared the fucking pants off me. But I soon realized he was a shit load more scared than I was. So I told him to wait and I’d get him some food. I grabbed a plate of something and brought it out to him, and he just … fell on it. Like he was starving.
“Since then he comes by most mornings when I’m working and I give him something. Days when I’m not on the early shift, I worry about him. I’ve tried to get him to come at night when I’m working the late shift, but he never does. I guess there are always too many people around, except in the very early morning.”
“But … where does he live?” Justin asked.
She shrugged. “I dunno, Sunshine. He never talks. Just sometimes he gives me these little smiles. Once he even patted my arm. But I wasn’t expecting it, and his hand … well, it gave me a bit of a fucking shock, and he must have seen because he’s never done it again.”
Justin remembered the hand so much like a taloned claw that had clutched his arm so strongly, and understood Debbie’s reaction.
He sighed, and twisted his fork, twining another mouthful of the pasta around it thoughtfully. “I guess I could take something out for him … on the mornings you’re not working, I mean.”
She beamed at him. “That’d be fucking great!” she said happily.
“But don’t the cooks wonder what you do with the food?” he asked.
She shrugged. “If they want to tell me that I’m not entitled to the occasional free meal after all the fucking extra work I do in that place, let ‘em try. I know where all their fucking bones are buried, and they really don’t want to cross me. Don’t worry, Sunshine, I’ll make sure they don’t ask any questions about what you’re up to either.”
Justin wondered what he’d gotten himself into.
He wondered even more three mornings later when he found himself out in the alley, clutching a covered plate of eggs, bacon and toast and calling softly into the darkness, “Ah … hi … um … I’m Justin. Debbie isn’t working this morning, but she asked me if I’d bring you some breakfast.”
He felt stupid, and was afraid that the food was going to get cold long before his “guest” showed up, but suddenly he was aware of movement in the shadows, and a gaunt figure moved towards him slowly and tentatively, clearly poised to run if startled.
Justin did his best to smile at him. “Hi. It’s bacon and eggs - oh, and some tomato - Debbie said you liked that. And toast..”
The figure stopped a few feet away, and stood still poised for flight. Justin made to step towards it, and the figure backed up a little. Justin felt like he was trying to deal with a stray dog. He sighed.
“Look, I’ll just put the plate down here, okay? When you’ve finished, just leave it there and I’ll get it later.”
He put the plate down and moved back towards the door. The figure darted forward and snatched up the plate. It stopped for a moment then, and raised that terrible face to Justin. For just a moment, a smile of such sweetness that it took Justin’s breath away, crossed those desiccated features, and then it turned away, hunching over the food, as it withdrew once more into the shadows.
Shakily, Justin went back into the diner, no longer wondering why Debbie felt so compelled to help this strange creature who lived its whole life apparently in the shadows.
He found himself juggling his shifts to ensure that he was on the early shift as often as possible. Especially when Debbie wasn’t on. The thought of that gentle creature going hungry was unbearable to him.
It was about three days later, just before another early morning rendezvous with this strange creature, that he had the brilliant idea. He visited his local supermarket and got the things he needed. Then next morning he arrived early for his shift and cajoled Tony the cook into making up an early batch of soup. He carefully poured two cups into one of the flasks he'd bought the night before, filled another with coffee, and grabbed up a couple of rolls and two lemon bars. He put all of these into a carrier bag, and then picked up the usual breakfast plate and went outside into the cold darkness. This time he didn’t have to call, the creature was waiting for him, and came forward as soon as he was out the door.
He smiled at it, and held out the bag. The creature stared at him, clearly puzzled.
“I put some soup into a flask,” he said. “And there’s some rolls, and a couple of lemon bars, oh, and some coffee. I thought you could take them with you and have them later in the day. You can bring back the flasks tomorrow.”
Seemingly stunned, the creature took the bag and peered into it for a moment. Then he looked up at Justin, and for a moment the dry, reddened eyes seemed to shimmer with tears.
Justin felt like crying himself. To stop that, he held out the plate. “And here’s your breakfast,” he said.
The creature hesitated for a long moment, and then slid the handles of the carrier bag carefully over one bony wrist, and carefully took the plate.
Just as Justin was turning away, blinking back tears for some weird fucked up reason, he heard a voice, dry and rusty with disuse, croak “Thank you.”
Astonished, he turned back to face the creature, but it was already moving away.
Inside, he burrowed into his wallet, and put money in the till for the extra food. He didn’t want to rock the boat - one plate of food was one thing, but a whole day’s worth, that was different. But the smile on his face as he worked the shift earned him more tips than usual and more than paid for the extra food.
After that, he tried to make absolutely sure that either he or Debbie were always on the morning shift. The first morning that he wasn’t on, he left Debbie a note and some empty flasks, asking her to fill them, and including some cash to pay for the extra. She was still working when he arrived later in the day for his own shift, and she gave him a hug. “Sunshine, you’re a fucking genius!” she said exuberantly.
That night, just before he knocked off, she turned up with a huge tub of puttanesca and two insulated food flasks.
“You take that home and put it in the freezer,” she instructed. “You can get some out every morning and nuke it and put it in one of the flasks.”
Then she handed over an enormous apple pie.
“It won’t matter if he eats that cold, it’ll still taste okay,” she assured him.
The next morning, the creature was waiting for him at the door. Justin smiled and handed over the carrier bag. Seeing the puzzled look occasioned by the larger flask, he grinned. “It’s some of Debbie’s home made pasta,” he said. “It’s really good. I think you’ll like it.”
Again, the creature’s eyes filled with moisture, and for a moment they shone an amazing hazel-green. Almost immediately, however, the moisture seemed to evaporate leaving them once more dry and red. Justin stared at him, startled by the beauty he’d seen for that fleeting moment. The creature looked away.
Suddenly Justin didn’t want him to go. Not yet. If he could get him to stay for just a moment …
“I’m Justin,” he said. “Do you … um … what …”
He broke off, not knowing exactly how to ask his question. What if the poor thing didn’t even have a name? Or if it was for some reason reluctant to tell him? He didn’t want to pressure it into anything it wasn’t comfortable with.
For a moment the creature stood there, and then … “Bri-an”, it croaked.
“Brian,” Justin repeated softly.
The creature flashed one of those sad sweet smiles at him, and then turned to go.
“I’ll see you later, Brian,” Justin said.
Brian paused for a moment and then shuffled away. Justin barely heard the rasped “Later” which drifted back to him.
For weeks, these meetings went on.
Aside from the occasional ‘thank you’ or soft farewell, the creature didn’t speak; but somehow Justin was coming to know and understand it, even without words. Anyway, he chattered enough for both of them. He found himself telling Brian all about his life, his hopes, his dreams. How his father had thrown a major hissy fit when he found out he was gay, and how he’d left home soon after. How he’d been lucky enough to see an ad in the diner window for a vacancy, and that had led to him meeting Debbie. How she and Vic had taken him in when life at home had become impossible, and how his mother had made sure that her divorce settlement included his father picking up the tab for his college fees. How he was attending PIFA and hoped to find work as a commercial artist - maybe an illustrator, or in animation. But how he still wanted to have time to work on his own stuff.
He even found himself telling Brian about the disaster that had been his first real relationship, with that bastard Ethan, and about how fucking impossible it seemed to find one decent guy among all the trolls that he seemed to attract like flies. And he swore that Brian understood, he felt the sympathy that Brian offered him … even though Brian must be more fucking lonely than Justin could even dream of being in his worst nightmare.
Justin found some deep sense of comfort in the silent companionship that Brian offered him. A sense of support and friendship that was somehow different to that provided by anyone else in his life. And he was irresistibly drawn to those meetings. Even on mornings when he wasn’t working, he’d find himself leaving his warm bed to brave the bus ride and the dark cold streets to be sure to be in that alley in time to meet with his strange friend.
Inspired by Debbie’s example, he’d pestered his mother for recipes for some of his favorite foods, and to Daphne’s amazement, started cooking almost nightly. He made sure there were always lots of left-overs, and would shyly present them to Brian, with a shrug and a word of warning that “I made this one, so it’s probably not going to be as good as Debbie’s”.
He wondered if it was his imagination that Brian always seemed particularly grateful on those mornings.
Daphne was beginning to wonder what on earth was going on. She knew Justin; knew that he was anything but a morning person. And yet here he was, heading off before daybreak every day of the week, and spending the rest of the time with a strange glow of happiness about him that was new to her.
She finally tackled him on it one evening as he was heading off to bed - early as usual so that he wouldn’t oversleep.
“You’re not, like, in love, or something are you?” she asked.
He stared at her.
“Why the fuck would you think that?”
“Well, you head off out of here every morning like you’re going on holiday or something, and that is so not like you. And the rest of the time you wander around in a kind of daze, like your mind is somewhere else, with someone else. So I just wondered.”
He shook his head in denial. “No … that’s … really, that’s just … No.”
She shrugged. “Okay. No biggie. I just thought I’d ask.”
But that night, lying sleepless for once, he thought over what she’d said. And realized that there was a grain of truth in it.
Not that he was in love with Brian, exactly. After all, how could he be? Brian was … well … there was no kind of physical attraction. That was just a disgusting thought. But … Justin turned over and sighed. If Brian had been anything like a normal … well … human, really … Even if he’d been a woman … or even a really ugly guy … then maybe … Because it was true that he loved spending time with Brian, looked forward to their all too brief morning meetings.. Spent the whole day planning for the next one.
And it’s fucking stupid, he told himself. I mean, he probably only listens to you for the sake of the food. You think you’ve got some kind of amazing connection, and he probably just thinks you’re a complete idiot. What did my grandmother used to call it when the cats came purring around her ankles? Oh, yeah. Cupboard love. That was it. That’s all that’s going on here. If you didn’t bring food, he wouldn’t even turn up.
But in his heart, he knew it wasn’t true. Knew that they did share some kind of connection. It was there in the fact that in all the time Debbie had been bringing him food, he’d never spoken to her. But with Justin, he’d even told him his name.
It was there in the gentle way Brian had touched his shoulder when Justin had been telling him about what a bastard Craig had turned into the moment his golden boy had told him he liked taking it up the ass. And most of all it was there in Brian’s sad smiles, and in the glimpses Justin had had of the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen.
He had no idea what Brian’s story was. He sensed that talking wasn't just difficult for Brian, that it was actually physically painful, as if he had a permanently dry raspy sore throat. So he didn’t ever press him to talk, just tried to let him know that whatever his story was, it didn’t really matter to Justin.
Because it didn’t. Whatever had happened to dry up his flesh and desiccate his skin, he was still Brian. And Brian was …
And Justin was in love with him.
Which was … disastrous. Disgusting, even.
How the fuck could that ever work?
Justin couldn’t even imagine actually touching him. Really touching him. Let alone … God, kissing him would just be …
But … he was still the person Justin most wanted to spend time with. He’d been trying to work out for ages how he could find out how Brian lived, where he lived. If somehow they could work out a way to …
Live together … Justin realized. He’d been trying to figure out a way that they could live together.
Just … without sex.
Without touching, really.
God! What a mess he’d gotten himself into.
He’d fallen in love with a monster.
And he didn’t have a fucking clue what to do about it.
He was still stewing about it when he went to meet Brian the next morning.
But this time, there was something different about the figure waiting for him.
Usually, Brian’s withered hands held yesterday’s carrier bags, with their empty flasks. But today, he shyly offered another bag to Justin.
Puzzled, he took it and peered inside. It held a small, beautifully arranged posy of flowers, and a hand made card.
His hands shaking, Justin opened the card. And remembered, maybe too late, that it was Valentine’s Day.
The front of the card had only a single pressed white carnation. Inside, it had been carefully inscribed in a shaky hand, “To Justin, with love and thanks, for all your kindness, Brian”.
Justin felt his eyes fill with tears. How fucking unfair was this? After going through all the fucking evil trolls on the planet, he’d finally met the perfect guy … and he wasn’t a guy. Well, not really, he was …
Justin looked up, and found Brian surprisingly close to him.
He stared mesmerized into those red, seared eyes, and didn’t flinch as Brian’s clawed fingers gently cupped his face.
It was only when bone dry lips touched his, and a tongue dry as a lizard’s forced its way into his mouth that he gave a gasp of horror …
… and, with a violent start, he woke up.
Beside him, Brian mumbled a sleepy protest, and burrowed further down into the bed clothes.
Knowing that he'd just had some weird-assed dream, but still feeling kind of freaked, Justin slid out of bed, and headed for the bathroom.
He bent over the sink to splash water on his face, and saw the tube of Brian’s expensive French face cream.
He remembered getting home from Babylon's Halloween extravaganza all hot and horny and the tussle he’d had with his lover because he was too impatient to wait for Brian to go through his fucking beauty ritual; how he’d dragged Brian protesting all the way, out of the bathroom and back to the bed before he’d had the chance to use the stuff.
Giggling with relief, he promised himself that he’d never again interfere with Brian’s moisturizing routine.
After all, he didn’t want his lover’s skin to dry out and for him to turn into some kind of monster, did he?
Especially on Halloween.
Still giggling to himself, Justin made his way back to bed, sighing in happy relief when Brian opened one beautiful hazel eye to grunt at him “You okay?”
He grinned at his partner and nodded, sliding closer and allowing his arm to drape across the smooth skin of his lover’s back.
The eye peered at him a moment longer, and then closed, and soon they had both fallen back into sleep.
This time, all their dreams were sweet ones.
Author’s Notes: The title comes from a line from Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" - "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind".
And, according to at least one book on flowers, the white carnation represents "Pure love, sweet love, innocence"
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