Part II: I've Got You Under My Skin

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Let the Long Night End
Part II
I’ve Got You Under My Skin

I’ve got you under my skin
I’ve got you deep in the heart of me
So deep in my heart
That you’re really a part of me
I’ve got you under my skin.

“In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, but death will escape them.” – Revelation 9:6

LEVI
1982, June 6th (Nightfall)
Shenandoah Park, West Virginia

A young man sloughs through the forest, naked save for the travelling bag he kept secure on his shoulders. His breath heavy and fogged even in the only lightly cool air, and although his skin was scratched by branches and fed off by mosquitos he did not deter from his course. The tissue was all but dead anyways, and he wouldn’t need it for much longer. The last light of the horizon was growing dimmer and dimmer, and soon it would be dark. He did not fear the dark, nor what lurked within it. But he did fear what this night’s darkness would bring.

The heavy snowfall did little to throw him off-course, despite the lack of visible footpaths or trails that he could take advantage of to guide him in warmer times. His senses were sharp, now, and he could smell the places where he had passed through before on the same arduous journey. Soon the trees will emerge into a small clearing, he thought. And at the center of the clearing...home. For tonight.

Indeed, he reached the top of the hill and found himself looking down on a small patch of forest unmarked by trees – he’d cut them down years ago, to better mark the place. Pointless in hindsight, now that he realized his senses were more than powerful enough to guide him where he needed to be. Looking at the beautiful, waving greases ahead of him, he’s filled with a bitter parody of childish whimsy and decides to roll down the hill.

Pressing onward, the naked man moves to the center of the clearing, where a patch grass and weeds sits higher than the level ground around it. Slipping off his bag, the traveler lets it fall unceremoniously to the ground reaches into the pile, brushing the build-up aside with deft strokes. It exposes a wooden plank, which he slides off as well to peer into the depths. An old well, long since abandoned, dug deep into the earth, a classic bucket-and-rope design that had been stripped of the bucket and upgraded with heavy duty steel chain that extended all the way to the bottom.

The traveler mournfully looks back, heart panging nervously as he realizes he cannot see the sun anymore.

But then, why would the sun want to shine on something like me?

A steady inhale. A shaky exhale. His fingers tremble, and his eyes sting. I don’t want to. I don’t…

He whimpers, to his shame, as he grasps the chain and steadily climbs down into the darkness. Eventually, his feet and ankles sink into frigid water – he’d reached the bottom. Down here, with the only source of light slipping away faster and faster above, he can barely see. But he can still smell, and the scent doubles him over, gagging. He can feel his soles stepping and squishing into the remains of a mess he is very grateful he doesn’t have to look at, and presses himself against the well walls, trying to hold his breath.

The stench was appalling, rancid and vulgar. Worse than a skunk. Worse than shit. An ungodly smell, that’s what it was. Un-Godly.

All that was left now was to wait. He promises himself that he will not break this time. He won’t cry. He won’t beg. This night, he will keep his dignity even to the bitter end of it all, even when he ceases to know the meaning of the word – ceases to be himself at all. And he’ll keep his dignity after, when he relearns himself – and his history.

But already it is as before: the darkness, the knowledge of what was piled all around him in this pit, the awful smell…his hands shake ever more fiercely in anticipation of the horror to come.

It’s too hot down here.

The cold of exposure and the evening breeze had kept him balanced, but in the depths of the well there was not enough of either, no wind to cool his burning form, nothing save for the bitter cold of the water. He itched all over, and bit his lip and clenched his hands, resisting the impulse to scratch and tear away the loose skin.

He was molting – like a spider. The thought churned in his stomach, and bile exploded out from between his lips, hot and stinging. Coughing raggedly, the man can taste the iron on his tongue and knows he vomited more than stomach acids. His skin no longer itches: it sears, and he can’t help the hot tears that slip between clenched eyelids and roll down his cheeks.

”Daddy…” he sobs, curling into a ball, trembling. He can feel his ear pressing against something hard – a piece of bone. “Daddy. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t want to. Please-!”

He screams in anguish as the convulsions begin, and his hands move to a will not his own. Fingers lengthened into claws, they dig into the loose shroud of flesh wrapped to his torso and begin to peel it away, exposing blood-matted black hairs. The sound is dry, almost like a wrapper removed from candy, but the pain is impossible to describe.

The boy, no longer able to pass as a man, screams and sobs, choking on his howls when the claws finally reach up to rip away his face. The tatters of his flesh join their older cousins in floating atop the water, fresh and sticky and steaming in the evening air.

- - - - - - -

1982, June 7th (Daybreak)

The next morning, the sun shines down into the cold black depths of the well, a few flakes of snow drifting down to melt into the waters. Something shifts inside a black mass of tangled hairs and blood, and the imprint of a hand appears against the mass' stomach. The dead thing convulses, and its belly splits open, hands flailing for purchase against slick black blood until they grasp the edges of the tear and pry them open. A naked, gagging boy slides out of the corpse into the befouled waters, hairless across his body and shivering.

Stomach burning, he doubles over and vomits a wad of hair, blood, and something fouler. Then vomits again when his sense of himself clears enough to recognize his predicament. Although he shakes violently, he is still possessed of enough strength - or perhaps determination - to pull himself up the well chain and out into the cold breeze of the morning.

Fishing in the grass, the filthy boy discovers and hastily unzips his travelling bag. First, he unscrews the jug of soap-water and dumps the contents all over his nude form, heedless of the chill. Next, he reaches into the bag and wraps himself in a red towel, vigorously scrubbing at his skin until it stings.

He throws on his underwear, pants, and shoes before slipping into a thin, sleeveless red wife-beater. A silver wrist-watch is tightly secured to his right wrist. Within the minute, he feels reasonably warm once more, and more importantly clean, and gathers up his things to begin his walk back to civilization. He checks his watch: he had two hours to get back to town. Good enough - a run would settle him back into his own skin again.

He makes it back to Waynesboro with ten minutes to spare, and crosses the threshold of St. Peter's just in time for the first routines of assembly.

MILTON
1982, June 7th (Morning)
Waynesboro, West Virginia
Church of St. Peter

"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." Father Milton said in his gruff voice, trying his best to make the words, repeated so many times, sound new and meaningful for a dwindling flock.

"And also with you," the congregation replied in a low monotone, a practice so routine that quite a few had dreamed of this exact exchange in the dark hours of many mornings. Milton noted that there were only about half as many of his attendants as there had been just the previous week.

Eyes drifting, his chips of dark brown meet a familiar face among the crowd. What he sees in that face makes his heart sink. It was that bad, wasn’t it?

He clears his throat, realizing he had been silent for too long. "Our Lord, our Savior, Jesus Christ was born for a special mission, one whose end he could foresee, even in the manger," Milton paused, glancing at the boy as he entered into the sanctuary. He wasn't sure why the boy kept coming back to this place, but he was glad to have at least one more pair of ears listening. "Even at his lowliest point, in a bed of hay in a manger, which he experienced out of the greatest and purest love for us, his creation."

The boy's features looked off - and it didn't take the Father long to notice why: he was missing his eyebrows, and his uncovered head was bald, devoid of any black hairs. All that made him recognizable was the thin, tan contours of his face. And those tired, tired green eyes.

Among a crowd of elderly part-time believers and monthly young adults, the sight of a young boy devoutly praying among the congregation was almost surreal. It was enough to make an old, tired preacher weep. However, Milton simply inhaled and continued with his quick message before the next rite, leading his flock through the introductions and liturgies before passing off.

Most will probably forget about it by the next morning, he simmered bitterly, then scolded himself for the uncharitable thought.

And then it was time for the final rite, one he had performed many times but still held a kernel of special meaning in his heart... Communion. Sure, it was unconventional given the day, but Levi had been unable to attend yesterday’s Mass, and Milton knew of the boy’s strange fixation on that rite. The preist broke the bread over the boy’s head, "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper."

"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed," the congregation intoned in response, rising from their pews and lining up in the corridor before the priest. A few hand-picked members of the congregation helped him with this rite.

"The body of Christ, broken for you,” he told each member of the congregation, handed them a small, tasteless wafer, and they responded in reverent tones, "Amen."

"The blood of Christ, shed for you," an attendant said as they dipped that wafer into deep red wine and devoured both, muttering a quick prayer to God and crossing themselves. Milton stared into the distance, repeating the words over and over, ad nauseam. It helped him, he felt. He liked being able to bring these people a moment of... peace. A moment where they felt in spiritual connection to a tradition of men and women spanning the centuries, all seeking out the same mysterious God.

Milton watched as the bald, tired boy took his own communion, slipping the wafer into his mouth and letting it sit, eyes closed as he crossed himself. Slowly, he swallowed his own portion of body and blood.

- - - - - - -

Two Years Ago…

A bright-eyed boy looks down at the tray of wafers, eyes far away. The church is empty now, save for the two of them. Milton continues his process of cleaning up the cathedral, pausing when he realizes that he has been spoken to. “I’m sorry. What was that?”

The boy stared down at his shoes. “I asked: if I ate enough of these, do you think God would forgive me? If I ate enough. If I prayed enough. Would He forgive me?”

The pastor pursed his lips. “Forgive you for what, Levi?”

“For what I did. To deserve…this,” the boy gestured toward himself vaguely, still staring at the floor. “I had to do something to deserve it. Right? So maybe if I prove that I’m sorry, I can be forgiven. Then…” his voice hitched and he refused to speak further.

Milton opened his mouth. Closed it. Weighed the merits of honesty versus compassion.

“Why don’t we finish off that tray and see for ourselves?”

He knew he made the right choice when the child met his eyes and graced him with a small, hesitant smile. Milton smiled back, just as tentative but also deeply relieved – how could he not be?

It was the first human expression Levi had made his father’s death.

- - - - - - -

1982, June 7th (Morning)
Church of St. Peter

“Some coffee to pick you up?”

The boy shook his head. Paused. Nodded slowly. Milton went about filling two cups, adding sugar to his own brew, and stirring it into the dark liquid. He watched the heat curl up beyond the cups, curling and growing like ghostly fingers.

There was a draft in the chapel that couldn’t be placed. Milton had spent multiple summers and winters seeking out and repairing every spot of the structure he could, but despite his efforts there always seemed to be something somewhere he was missing. In the summers, it would become too hot, and all the bodies of church-going folk pressed together in a single space would fill the air with the scent of heat and repressed aggravation.

In winter, everyone had to dress warmly even in-doors, and on the coldest days no number of candles burning or electrical heating would prevent one from noticing the pastor’s breath condensing with every word before their eyes. Only the most dedicated would bother coming to Mass on those days – and there were many of them – and those dedicated were fewer and fewer each year.

It made him grateful for Levi’s consistent attendance. The bitter reality of what drove the boy didn’t dissuade Milton of that gratitude. Who was he, after all, to turn up a nose at a soul seeking God out of desperation more than faith?

Milton takes his seat at the table across from Levi, sliding the boy’s drink over. He cups his own in his hands for a moment, relishing the warmth it brought, then takes a long gulp. Levi sips once from his cup, then sets it back down. Milton lets the silence persist, letting his next drink sit in his mouth, savoring the flavor. Levi would talk when he was ready.

“You’ve started smoking again,” the boy observes, looking somewhere to Milton’s right.

“Mmmhm.”

“Why?”

“Relaxes me, I suppose. Takes my mind off things.”

Levi frowns, but doesn’t directly face Milton. “You’re burning up your years. It’ll kill you eventually.”

The pastor scoffs, shaking his head. “Time will kill me eventually. A cigarette a day makes life a little smoother until then. Quality over quantity.”

Milton takes a long drink from his mug, already almost empty. “On the subject of dangerous habits, you might want to think about dressing a little less conspicuously. Clean yourself up a little more. You’ll catch someone’s notice you keep showing up looking like death warmed over. Especially if you wear that color,” he waves at the boy’s bright red garb. “Jeez. You look like Little Red Riding Hood, minus the eyebrows.”

Levi barks a short, surprised laugh. “Yeah, I guess I do…” his smile slips. “Red Riding Hood and the big bad wolf, all in one.”

Damn it. Milton cursed himself. He hadn’t even thought of the implications, or the road that Levi would inevitably take it down.

“Does that make you the Woodsman then, Father?”

“I’m not about to take an axe to you, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No. I guess you wouldn’t.”

Milton lifts his mug to his lips and frowns when he sees it is empty. Before he can rise to refill it, Levi slides his still full cup over.

“Thought you wanted some,” Milton grunts, settling back down.

Levi shakes his head. “No. Just wanted to save you a trip.”

Milton tastes the sugarless coffee, grimaces a little. “Never did like my coffee just black. Too bitter.”

“Sorry.”

“Forget it,” Milton shakes his head, sighing wearily. “Do you want to talk about last night?”

The boy looks down. “What’s there to talk about? It was…a night. Like all the other ones.”

“No.”

Levi looks up, frowning. “No?”

Milton meets his frown evenly. “No. We agreed not to bullshit each other. You look like hell-“

“I always do,” the boy protests.

“- And you came slinking in with your tail between your legs, acting like you tore up the carpet,” he continues calmly, undeterred. “So out with it. You didn’t come here to talk about my smoking habits or to save me a trip to the coffee-pot.”

Milton hoped he sounded sterner, calmer than he felt. He prayed that Levi wasn’t about to tell him someone had died.

“I…broke a promise I made,” Levi clenches his jaw and his fists, forcing the words out.

“What promise?”

Milton holds his breath, waiting.

“I…” Levi sighs, closing his eyes. “I promised that I wouldn’t cry. I wouldn’t…beg. I swore to God, to dad, and to me. And I couldn’t do it.”

“You already know it’s not your fault,” Milton began tentatively, wondering to himself if this really was what was eating at the kid. “What happens to you…it’s impossible. Nobody could take that. Even Christ himself wept on the cross; cried out to God, asking why he had been forsaken.”

Levi sighs again, shoulders trembling. “I know,” he whispers. “That wasn’t it. It was…after. When I woke up again. While I was on my way here.”

Ah. Understanding dawned on the pastor. There it is.

Milton couldn’t fathom how the boy could endure that kind of agony. Not the physical torments – that he could’ve imagined easily enough even if he hadn’t witnessed the process firsthand. He had seen more than his share of suffering; been responsible for some of it. Some of them could be considered to have had it as bad as Levi – flesh flayed off, innards exposed, limbs missing. That was war.

It was the constant ticking of the clock that the pastor couldn’t dream of anyone bearing. The dreadful wait. Those men he had seen suffer, most of them, were lucky enough to die shortly after. Most of them. Their pain was a blink in the eye compared to the breadth of life they had lived, and even they faced the punctuation mark of death their story would still be defined by what had come before. Rewarded with the grace of death, and the peace of the afterlife promised in life’s absence.

Levi enjoyed the promise of life’s return – and the return of that same suffering, sure as the sunset. Eternal rest was denied to him. Over and over again.

What do you want me to say? He interrogated silently. We both know there’s only one way our of what you’re dealing with.

Levi wouldn’t look at him. Milton didn’t need to hear the words to know what he was thinking. You want me to give you permission to die. Is that it?

A spark of anger bloomed in his chest, hotter and more bitter than the coffee he’d taken into his body. “So, what, you want to quit now? Is this…” he waves a hand. “Whatever the hell this is – supposed to be your own little goodbye? Just shoot the shit, then go shoot yourself? Talk to me about not burning up my life when you’re going to go throw it all away?”

The boy stiffened, swallowing. He still wouldn’t look up. “It…hurts. Every time. Every month. Not just when I change, but the week before and the week after. I can always feel it writhing in me. Under my skin. Waiting, pacing around. I can feel it coming closer every day.”

Milton sighs impatiently. “I know that, but you-“

“And then it’s done, and I’m out on the other side again,” Levi looks up, voice rising. “I forget everything when it happens, you know. I forget my name. I forget words. I forget…”

The boy clenches his fists. “Everything,” he repeats. “And then I wake up after and I remember. Do you understand? I remember it.” Levi shudders, eyes glistening. “Everything at once.”

The anger in Milton’s chest breaks and slips away, as quick as it came. What the hell are you doing?

Raking this boy over the coals for…for the crime of despair? Wanting to escape suffering? Who the hell do you think you are? He rises, moving to console the suffering child before him.

Milton lets his hands rest on Levi’s shoulders, rubbing them and murmuring comforting nothings as the boy weeps. “I’m sorry, son. I’m just…sorry.”

LEVI
1982, June 14th (Dawn)
Waynesboro, West Virginia

The morning air was stagnant and cool, the district as quiet as could be expected with most of its denizens sleep or in-doors. Levi couldn’t sleep; he’d spent the better part of his evening pacing from one end of his apartment to the other, growing steadily more agitated as he fought the urge to get out of the confined space. Out of himself. This had persisted for three days, and wasn’t likely to stop for another week at the least.

The halved state of the moon was enough to prohibit a total loss of control, but he could feel the beast inside knawing at the bones of his ribs, eager to get out. It refused to let him sleep, denied him peace as retribution for his denial of its savage instincts. Still, he controlled himself. It wouldn’t be wise to go out at night, not the way he was: better to wait until morning, when the sun made the creature retreat into the shadows of its cage.

Skin feeling uncomfortably tight, Levi rolls his shoulders and neck irritably, staring out his living room window to gaze at the orange wave rising on the horizon. He checks his clock: nearly seven o’clock.

Good enough.

He throws some light clothing on, reluctantly slipping a thin red windbreaker over his shoulders to give some pretense of being affected by the cold, and ventures forth onto the streets. The still air and absence of too many passersby comforted him as he began his rounds, breathing in through his nose and out his mouth in heavy clouds. Too many strong living scents excited the beast, and he wanted to enjoy his run instead of worrying about picking a route with too many people crowded around.

He always enjoyed running as a child, and that pleasure stayed with him into adolescence. As he grew older, he enjoyed taking things at a slower pace, stretching out the times between when his pace picked up and when it slowed. He’d even cajoled his father into going on a few runs with him through the inner-city or a trip to a local park, memories he prized. It makes him smile.

The smile curdles steadily, and his pace quickens from a steady jog into a mild sprint. The first time we ran, we passed an ice cream parlor. I was so hungry I ate a triple-scoop.

His lips peel back, teeth bared. I skinned my knee bad when I slipped on some ice that one winter. Cried like a baby, people thought papa was kidnapping me when he carried me home.

Levi quickens, taking longer and faster strides until he has progressed to a flat-out run. He imagines those happy images of a boy and his father fading behind him, left in the snow kicked-up by his shoes. The boy runs faster, and faster still, not caring for once if any onlookers saw him speed by. He runs and runs until the past finds itself distant once again.

MILTON
1982, June 21st (After Midnight)

Milton presses a damp cloth against the shaking boy’s forehead, his face a mask of fatigued resolve. Levi’s eyes roll aimlessly in the candlelight, wide and unseeing. A churning noise builds ominously in the boy’s southern quarters, and Milton quickly moves to remove the cloth gag from the boy’s mouth.

Not a second later, Levi seizes against the restraints at his ankles and wrists, the bedframe groaning threateningly at the strain, and belches out another mouthful of black bile. The pastor does not flinch as some of it lands against his cheek, calmly wiping away the excess first from his patient’s body and then from himself. Levi does not react, now laying limply in place, eyes fixed on the ceiling.

He considers wiping away the vomit around the boy’s mouth and neck and replacing the gag while the lethargy lasted, but decides against it. Levi could resume his episode at any moment, and he didn’t want any part of him near those teeth that glittered in the dark with deadly purpose.

Instead, he checks the restraints for signs of wear, and feels his heart quicken as he notices a hairline fracture along a link of the chain binding his ward’s left leg. Cursing, he throws himself back with a start as Levi abruptly begins to thrash with renewed strength, howling loud enough that Milton’s ears sting with pain.

No choice now; if it had just been more seizures, Milton would’ve let him stay ungagged. But the screams were too loud, and even in the relative isolation of the pastor’s basement beneath the chapel there was no guarantee someone wouldn’t hear the noise.

He had to take the risk. “Levi – Levi, listen to me!”

Milton draws near with the wad of cloth, the child still howling to the moonless night. The weary man wondered if they were loud enough that God might take notice for a change. “Son,” Milton leans near, ready to jump back at a moment’s notice. “Can you hear me?”

Levi’s eyes snap with laser focus on the pastor, and Milton feels a chill run down his spine. Against the light of the candles, the boy’s eyes shined.

Tapetum lucidum, thought the pastor dimly. The eyes of the beast.

Summoning his courage, he draws nearer to Levi, who simply stares blankly back, slack-jawed and slick with sweat. “That’s it…” Milton encourages softly, trying to soothe him. “Just stay still. Relax. I’m not gonna hurt you.”

Levi cocks his head to the side, eyes still aglow. “…Papa?”

Milton freezes.

Levi continues to stare, head tilting one way and then the other. “Papa,” he repeats, words muddled by the mouthful of fangs. “Can we go…outside? I wanna to see the stars. Stars. Papa?”

Milton swallows thickly, and with sudden force shoves the gag down into the werewolf’s throat.

Hands trembling, he takes his seat in the opposite corner of the small room and finds his place in the thick black book he had brought with him into this den of darkness. Levi’s confusion at the actions of his ‘father’ bleeds away before long, and he howls ineffectually, still impressively loud but dulled enough that Milton’s own voice, steady and low, can be heard in the spaces between the beginning of the screams and their end.

“The centurion replied, ‘Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed...’

LEVI
1982, June 28th (Morning)

Another run. The moon was waxing, and with it Levi’s anxiety. He ran nearly every day for hours now, ran and ran until he could run no more and the pressing heat in his head was blanketed by the comfort of fatigue.

He couldn’t outrun the memories this time. He could hear his father’s slightly wheezy breathes, the product of a smoking habit leaving its mark. The wheezes grew longer and wetter, until they turned into choked gargles that he had to cover his ears to blot out.

Slowing his steps as he spies a vacant park bench, the boy alters course and settles down onto the thin metal frame. He folds his hands, hot and grimacing: the warmth generated by his cardio was cooking him in his clothes. It always worst in the summer, when it was nearly impossible for him to go out without carrying an impractical amount of water and dressing as absolutely lightly as he could get away with. Winter had its own share of problems, but at least he didn’t boil the way he did in the Virginia heat. No matter what season of the year, he was never truly comfortable.

Maybe I ought to move to one of those nudist colonies when I turn eighteen. He’d fit in fine there, and nobody would have to know about the cloak of fur always thickening beneath his skin. The ridiculousness of a skin-changer hiding among the skin-bearers made him laugh a little despite himself.

As if he would ever fit in, anywhere.

The restlessness had retreated for a time – it never really vanished, not during this stage of the lunar cycle – and in its absence Levi decided he didn’t really feel like resuming his run. I’ll just sit here a while… he decides, eyes drooping. Stay nice…and cool…

- - - - - - -

Insistent prodding. Something was poking him. Levi growls – and really, there was little that could describe the sound he made better – and cracks his eyes open. “What do you want,” he grunts, sitting up. “If this is a mugging, I don’t have anything to take.”

The blonde boy made a puzzled face, looking somewhat unnerved. Levi supposed that was natural. He’s probably trying to convince himself that a human can growl like that. Whoops.

Still, the young skin-changer finds himself surprised when the other boy doesn’t retreat. Instead, he extends a small and pale hand, green slips of paper between his thumb and forefinger. Benjamins.

Now the one to be bemused, Levi blinks rapidly. “Uh.”

“You can have it,” comes the words, spoken softly and with an accent Levi struggles to place. “If you need it. Get into somewhere safe for a little while.”

Oh. Oh. That’s what this was.

Levi wants to laugh, wants it so badly he clenches his jaw and chews on his tongue to prevent the mirthless glee from bubbling out. Of course I look like a bum. I’m barely dressed, I stink, and I’m napping on a public bench.

The stranger – who looked and smelled a little familiar, actually – seems to take his silence as refusal or perhaps anger, and withdraws his hand. “I just wanted to help. I saw you before a few times, and…

He trails off with a mild shrug. “If you don’t want it, or if I made a mistake, that’s fine. I’ll leave you alone.”

Oh. That’s why this kid smelled familiar. Levi never paid much attention to his surroundings when he went on his marathons down the local trails. Indeed, he actively sought to block out as much as the static noises, sights, and smells that he could manage, keeping his thoughts studiously blank. But there some things got through, if he experienced them repeatedly enough: the clean waft of water, the salt and smoke scent of a fire, the mouth-wetting copper and dirt scent of deer, a few others who frequented the same paths he did. This kid was a familiar scent. They must have crossed paths a few times.

“Sorry,” Levi begins quickly, deciding he may as well be civil. “I just, uh, was surprised. That’s a lot of money to just be handing out to a stranger. You carrying that kind of cash on you all time? Because that could bring you trouble in the wrong neighborhoods.”

The boy, bafflingly, smiles as if enjoying some private joke at Levi’s expense. “I don’t. But I can take care of myself, anyway. I’m used to trouble.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Levi eyes the boy skeptically; scrawny, definitely had some height to him but wasn’t especially tall by any means. Probably mid-teens, looked like an immigrant. Maybe his parents were rich. All in all there wasn’t anything especially threatening to Levi’s eye, but those sharp blue eyes and something about the kid told him there was a surprise under that placid surface.

Levi didn’t need another surprise in his life. “Well, thanks but no thanks. I’ve got a place of my own, though I guess I don’t really look the part. Keep your cash, kid.”

The kid bristles a little at being called ‘kid’, but nods, pocketing the bills. Levi almost wishes he’d accepted the offer anyway; that was a neat little sum, and it wasn’t like he had a steady income. But if the kid wanted to be charitable, he ought to direct it to someone really in need.

And someone who could be helped.

“You live around here?” Levi asks, more for the sake of…the sake…than any real interest.

The other boy nods, hands in his coat pockets. “Yeah, sort of,” he replies vaguely. “You?”

“Yeah. Sort of.”

A pause.

“Well, I’m Oskar.” The boy extends his hand again.

Another pause. The kid seems to be waiting for something, and Levi isn’t sure he knows what it is.

Oh, he realizes dully. My name. He wants to know my name.

This was a pointless conversation; stopping to hand some money to a vagrant was one thing, chatting him up after being told otherwise was another. He ought to have given some polite conversational exit phrases and then been on his way. Levi had nothing to offer that this ‘Oskar’ could or should want.

The expectant look in the kid’s eyes wilts when Levi persists in his silence, and he quickly looks away. “Well…see you around, I guess.”

“Right.”

Levi watches as the boy – Oskar – trods off, flecks of rain beginning to slip from the sky. Something in Levi wants to call out, shout his name. Wait! I’m Levi. Just so you know. So someone knows.

Instead, he keeps his silence, and before long Oskar vanishes into the increasingly heavy blanket of precipitation. An aching hollowness grows inside his chest, and suddenly Levi feels alone again. Completely alone.

He should’ve told the kid his name. Should’ve at least tried to reciprocate the kindness offered. Instead, he’d coldly shut it down and let Oskar walk away, disheartened.

You met a Samaritan and swatted his hand away. Milton would be disappointed in you. Again.

He should’ve tried to…explain. To voice why the gesture was pointless. Wasted. This Oskar, whoever he was, didn’t want to know Levi Matthews. That was an empty road that led only to a well of darkness. What lurked in that dark, nobody deserved to glimpse.

Levi Matthews was dead. His body just hadn’t caught up with his spirit yet.

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