The shorter man looked up at him apprehensively, nervous as if he might say something like, Well, I'm going to have to kill you and eat you now! Sorry, buddy!
Being able to stay in his room while Gerard went to work during the day was another freedom Frank was having no trouble getting accustomed to. And while he had never actually "enjoyed" spending seven or so hours a day in an old, cramped closet, it had sort of become a part of him. He even found a small amount of security in it. But the new space of the bedroom was like learning exhaling dust and inhaling forest air. He couldn't have thanked Gerard enough if he wanted to.
Gerard had left right on time on the next Monday morning, letting Frank out to quickly use the restroom to shower, having a quick breakfast while the two of them squished together in order to glance over semi-interesting stories in the newspaper about bears wandering into cities and some Christian extremists blowing up something they disagreed with, then working briefly on their massive puzzle before saying goodbye and locking the door to his room. Frank made his bed, unmade it when he decided to try and get back to sleep, then made it again when decided, screw it, he wasn't getting back to sleep. The sun started to come up over the patch of trees.
The room was practically bare and Frank wished Gerard had at least given him some Windex or something since nearly every surface was covered in dust. He didn't know whether to be relieved or concerned that the place hadn't been occupied in some time.
He opened up the white night stand, hoping for maybe an old book, but found nothing but the flashlight and box of Kleenex, remembering the first day he'd woken up in there. For lack of anything better to do, he picked up the thin flashlight and rolled it around in his hands. It was small, about the length of his hand from the tip of his middle finger to the heel of his hand, and metal. The button to turn it on was a soft flap of rubber over the metal piece that turned the bulb in the gadget on. He pressed it and nothing happened.
Bored, he shook it, hoping that maybe the light would flicker alive suddenly and something amazing and entertaining would happen until Gerard came home. Something rattled around inside it and he unlatched the compartment that held the batteries in search of the problem. Apparently, the battery had come loose and was knocking against the piece of plastic holding it in place. He placed he battery back in, feeling mildly and pointlessly accomplished. It was probably the most productive thing he’d ever heard of anyone doing in an almost entirely empty room. He pressed the button and a circle of light appeared on the pale yellow wall before flickering and dying completely. Whacking at the metal with his hand, he squinted at through the plastic circle in the head of the flashlight, checking to see if the bulb had come loose.
Light burst into his eye and he felt a sudden explosion of adrenaline. The light was pale yellow and engulfed him, for about half a second devouring him alive like a toothless monster. He remembered the light, could see it coming and going, and he remembered the voice that came with it, slurring things in his ear and tasting him with a tongue that felt like worms. The flashlight slipped out of his grip and hit the floor. He let it roll away and sit there for a moment.
Gerard had been shining a light in his eyes. Dilating his pupils, maybe. Frank had had it done to him before, although not in such a shocking or surprising way. It had been a long time beforehand, during his last annual doctor's visit, and the doctor took the same tiny, sharp light and stared into his eyes while the dots of black expanded and contracted. He picked up the flashlight and put it away. It was making his head hurt.
The window was nailed shut, just like it had been in Gerard's room. The nails were crooked, hammered in sideways. Frank tried to jiggle the window at the handle, hoping a few nails might give a little, or maybe come loose completely, but nothing budged. Gerard wasn't a carpenter, but when he meant for Frank to stay in the house, he obviously meant it. With his middle finger and thumb, Frank pinched the bent head of the nail closest to the end of the window and wriggled it in the wood. There was a small amount of give, just enough so that he could barely feel it move beneath his finger. He kneeled down, looking at it at eye level, and tried to pry it out, holding onto the wooden ledge for support and hopefully some extra leverage. The head slipped between his forefinger's nail and he gasped and cursed, waving his hand around in the air. Blood made a little bubble on the tip of his finger and he put the appendage in his mouth to suck it off.
There were at least a dozen nails, possibly more, from what he could see. Even if he had managed to get one loose, after tugging and twisting, it would have taken hours of time and two tons of patience he didn't have. He didn't recognize the outside. He couldn't have gone anywhere.
Blood made a copper taste in his mouth. And the thought of Gerard coming home to the empty house was painful. Sucking on his finger he thought, why leave now and risk pain when staying could mean easier freedom? Someone would find him. Someone would notice he was gone. They'd come looking. As soon as the next rent was due, the landlord would make his way right up to Frank's door and break his way in. They'd send a search party, notify papers, call old friends and question neighbors. He'd be found within the week and Gerard would be hauled off to the loony bin. At some point, the story would probably reach Oprah and she'd call him up asking for an interview. He made you live in a closet? How did you survive? Well, he's locked up now, right? Yeah, everybody give him a round of applause for his bravery in the face of danger!
The sun clawed its way over the green oaks and maples. Yes, they would find him, eventually. Yes.
"Ummm...Well, I have an announcement to make," Gerard said hesitantly as he opened the door to Frank's room. The shorter man looked up at him apprehensively, nervous as if he might say something like, Well, I'm going to have to kill you and eat you now! Sorry, buddy! He asked what and prayed it wasn't something painful. Gerard scratched above his cheekbone with his index finger, smiling, but looking oddly humble. "We're officially out of food."
Relief swept though Frank like a tidal wave and he felt a little bit silly for assuming that he was going to be eaten. Then he thought about it again and decided, no, it was probably okay to assume that. He replied with, "Well...uh...what should we do?"
Looking around the room as if someone might appear and hold up a sign with the answer, Gerard squinted and rubbed his upper lip with the side of his finger, making a pseudo-intellectual Hmmm thinking sound. "Well, I'm thinking we should probably go to the store. We have like, a Jewel. I don't know if you've ever been there, but it's kind of like Target...but with like, food."
Frank paused and repeated, "We? I can go with you?"
Gerard was in the middle of opening his mouth to speak when he stopped to smile and laugh through his nose, blowing air out through his nasal passages and giggling soundlessly. "Ah, well...Yeah." He blinked cutely.
Walking past the taller man into the hallway, towards the direction of the bathroom which the pressure in his bladder was screaming for, he asked, "You sure? 'Cause I can stay here if you need me to." Not that he wanted to. His head felt too tight and he needed to decompress it.
Gerard waved his hand in a dismissing motion and shoved the other one in the pocket of his dark, loose jeans. "No, no, really. I...I don't know, I think you deserve it. See the world and all!" He stopped, then corrected himself. "Or Jewel. World's a little big, I think."
Frank stopped in the doorway of the bathroom, one foot on the tile and one hand gripping the wood of the doorway. Puppet strings pulled the corners of his mouth up. “Thanks, man, I, uh, could really use the time out, ya know?” Drumming his fingers against the wood and watching Gerard shrug back simply at him he added, “I appreciate it.”
"No problem," Gerard said, cheery and bright. He seemed happy. Relatively normal. "Anything for you."
Frank closed the door to the bathroom and vaguely wondered what he meant.
Gerard's car was a small, silver sedan, littered with old wrappers, paper coffee cups, and probably important yellow forms, dusted with the thick smell of old cigarettes. It didn't look much different from any other car belonging to a young guy in their age group he'd ever been in and Frank assumed that messiness was a universal trait among the sane and insane. The concrete driveway led out to a grey street that desperately needed to be paved. It seemed like one hit on a pothole and Gerard's tiny car would flip over, resulting in their fiery crash and imminent deaths.
The houses were severely spaced apart, almost cruelly so; it would be, at the very least, a pain to walk (or even drive) to a neighbor's house and ask for a favor in good weather, never mind when the late fall and winter months came. There was at least a good two hundred yards or so between houses on the same side of the street, separated by either a thick clump of various, thick trees or just an empty patch of grass. Before they hit a steady flow of buildings, there were hardly any houses at all; maybe only a dozen, or less. Frank felt a pulse of concern. The distances between place made him worry. If he needed to run somewhere, he could be out driven. If he needed to call for help, he'd be muffled by batches of miniature forest.
The town they drove into was about two miles away and it occurred to Frank that he must have been farther from home that he thought because he recognized absolutely none of it. The Jewel- which Frank had discerned from Gerard's description was like a supermarket- was across the street from a gas station that Gerard said they'd stop at afterward since his car was just about running on empty. There were grocery carts in the parking lot. They pulled into an empty spot and Gerard kept the door locked.
" Don't leave my sight. Don't go anywhere unless I tell you you can. I'll be right next to you. If you try anything, I'll see."
Frank nodded, said okay. He kept his hand on the handle. He wanted to get out. The door unlocked.
Gerard had been more or less right about how to describe Jewel. Near Frank's apartment, they had several small, local shops where he usually stocked up on instant ramen and bought materials for sandwiches in bulk. But Jewel, which was, indeed, a supermarket, was exactly like Target with food and Walmart without the incest. Above the automated doors on the inside of the store was a screen showing the security footage. Probably an attempt to ward off shoplifters. Frank imagined holding up a sign that said, Save me! I've been kidnapped! But like anyone even watched those things, he thought pessimistically.
With his hands shoved down his pockets, Gerard asked, "Okay, where should we go first? There's virtually nothing in the house and I got paid on Sunday so anything is fair game."
Frank looked up and down unfamiliar aisles and leaned forward to begin towards a random one. "Um, this aisle looks okay..." His voice trailed away. Something cold was against his lower back, a chilly little circle shape, and the blood rushed to his extremities. There was a metallic click.
"Careful how far you go," Gerard warned in a quiet voice, keeping his volume below that of the rumble of voices around them. He pressed the gun a little firmer into Frank's skin and Frank could hear Gerard's thumb cock back the hammer.
"You wouldn't," he whispered. There were people in line for the cash registers on the other end of the store and people in the aisles in front of them. No one behind or close enough to the side and see Gerard holding the gun under the back of Frank's shirt. Gerard suddenly pressed his body against Frank's back, his hips against the other man's backside, concealing the gun between them, the metal riding up all the way to the center of Frank's back. One of Gerard's hands slithered around to Frank's front and grasped onto his hand, holding it delicately and intimately.
His mouth against the back of Frank's ear, opening and closing in minuscule movements, he purred, "Oh, you wish."
He did. Frank did wish.
They must have looked like lovers, standing there with Gerard grinding his hips into Frank’s back, gently swaying from side to side. In a slick, snake-like movement, Gerard slid his hand down from on top of Frank’s and pressed his fingers just above his inner thigh. The fingers pressing through his jeans felt personal and violating and everything inside of Frank just dissolved; his vertebral column seemed to evaporate inside him and the sole sturdiness of Gerard’s upper body kept him supported.
Maybe out of curiosity and maybe out of terror he suddenly wondered what it would be like if they were lovers; if by some odd chance Gerard wasn’t pretending and he wasn’t pretending, would this be what it was like? Would he spend every day walking on the tips of his toes around Gerard’s eggshells so he might not offend, so he mind not provoke violence? Or would the opposite happen; the eagerness to leave, the anxiety, the discomfort, would it completely disappear? Maybe all the hostility would disintegrate; smothering to death like a fire stomped out with a blanket. Or maybe Gerard would just be the textbook example of an abusive lover. Were people watching? Did they see them, much too close?
No. They didn’t. They were out buying things for dinner and stocking up on after school snacks for their children. Nobody saw them.
They slid apart, Gerard sliding the gun deep into the pocket of his jeans. The pockets were loose, away from his body enough so that the gun wasn't visible through the fabric.
"There are people in here," Frank said in a weak voice. He felt as if he might pass out. "Not in here." Gerard put his hand on Frank's shoulder and he jumped, twitched inside his own skin, his sight slightly blurred over. The taller man leaned back into Frank's ear, like a lover, like someone so much closer than he was.
"Yeah," he snapped, and it was a little angry, a little irritated, as if negativity were welling up inside him like molted lava or boiling lava. "There are. And I'd shoot you, and then I'd shoot myself. Everybody fucking wins." He patted Frank hard on his backside and gestured for him to follow with his fingers as he strolled down the aisle in front of them. "You're just a sucker for civilians, aren't you, Frankie?"
Frank was nearly stepping on Gerard's heels in order to keep up with him. He felt itchy about leaving him now, not just afraid that Gerard might just change his mind and decide to finish the both of them there, among cans of condensed soup and boxes of green tea so some helpless janitor would have to scrub their brains off packages of candy, but paranoid that he might fall too far behind. He might slip up. And that would be the end of it.
Gerard picked out boxes of junk food, bags of potato chips and packages of Oreos, all seemingly at random, as if he really didn't care what they brought home, and with a strange sort of aggression. It seemed like he was determined to release some of his anger on something so the crap food section was the one taking all the heat. Frank couldn't even imagine Gerard eating anything like he was picking out; he was so thin that it was hard to imagine he ate anything at all.
"Come on, Frank," he called back, his walk quick and furious. "You gotta keep up, Sugar, wouldn't want anything to happen to ya." They looped around to the front of the store and Gerard threw their foodstuffs in an abandoned cart, jumping onto the back, holding onto the red handle with both hands, and kicking it forward. All at once he was horridly angry and hyperactive. Frank tried to keep his walk at a little less than a slow jog, but Gerard had carted himself ahead.
He called out, "Yo, Gerard! Slow down!" It should have been funny, watching him wheel himself around like that, but it wasn't. Frank’s heart threatened to burst, to spew a cocktail of fear and blood and regret on the supermarket tiles.
"Why?" Gerard asked in a teasing, childish voice, kicking the floor to propel himself ahead about five feet. He laughed and it seemed almost cruel. Catch me if you fucking can.
He suddenly hopped off the cart, letting it slide down to the end of one of the aisles where it hit the wall of packaged goods and stopped. Gerard quickly turned around, several yards ahead of Frank, and smirked at him. He paused for only a second, maybe two, before stepping away. Giving a small wave, his long fingers wriggling mock playfully, he walked backwards around the corner and disappeared.
Frank slowed down and stopped in the middle of the aisle. The cart sat abandoned. The first thing Gerard had said to him was Don’t leave my sight and then he’d pressed a gun against his back for stepping ahead of him. He watched for Gerard, waiting for him to reappear at the end of the aisle, to giggle at him and yell that he was just kidding, everything’s okay, let’s go, Frankie, we came here to get groceries, remember?
He didn’t. And Frank didn't know if he should hide or run somewhere or call for help. He stood in between a rack of potato chips and a shelf full of instant soup. Grocery store lights screamed down harshly and the rusty wheels of carts squeaked out, Please die. Please die. Please die. as they were rolled through the meat section by busy housewives, making sounds like excited birds that perched outside of the closed window in the room where Frank currently slept.
He took a step backward and his back gently bumped into whatever was behind him. He didn't turn because he knew it was Gerard, and he nearly fell onto the tiles.
"...Woah, you okay?" And it wasn't Gerard's voice. It was deeper. Frank spun around, feeling secure for a moment, and looked up at the stranger. It was someone he'd never seen; the stranger wasn't very old, mid-thirties, maybe. Elegantly aged looking. He probably had a wife, and maybe a couple of kids. There was just something about the way he held himself that told Frank so.
Frank sniffled and rubbed his nose on the back of his hand, aware that he may have been crying, but wasn't quite sure. "Um...yeah, I'm fine. Sorry." It felt awkward looking up so far at the man, but he was over six feet tall.
The stranger furrowed his eyebrows, tanned skin wrinkling and giving him an oddly welcoming expression. "Everything okay?"
If there was something he could say, Frank would have said it. But Gerard could hear everything; he probably put tiny microphones under Frank's shirts so he could hear everything he said. "No...I mean, yeah." Frank rubbed his forehead and clenched his eyes shut, trying to fight a coherent thought through the fog in his brain. "...Yeah, I'm cool."
The man seemed the check behind himself, then leaned in slightly and half-whispered, "Ya know, I saw you with that guy." Frank perked up and said Yeah. The man raised an eyebrow, a questioning expression. "He's not the greatest fella to...be around. Doesn't have many friends, doesn't get out much."
Frank said, mostly murmuring, "Oh, really." It came out with a soft breath, as if he already knew, and his eyes drifted.
"Yeah," the man continued. "...It's not like he gives people a lot of trouble it's just...We keep the kids away, we tell people needing a place to stay not to go to his house, stuff like that. I think he has something wrong with him."
A tiny, sad chuckle rumbled in Frank's throat and despite the risk he was taking, he allowed the sound to let the stranger know that he did know. The positive side was that he wasn't the only one who thought Gerard was insane. It was also the negative side. He wanted to leave; not just the store and not just out of Gerard's reach, but everything. If he could have taken a giant leap off the face of the Earth, he'd have done it. He'd get a running start on North America, take a few small leaps down Central America, and by the time he'd kicked off of Brazil, he'd be flying. The stranger leaned back sharply and looked off somewhere in the store, as if he could see through the shelves.
He pointed over the shelf to their right and said loudly, "The poultry's over there."
Standing on his tiptoes, confused, Frank attempted to look over the shelf, seeing nothing but salt and vinegar chips. A hand slapped down onto his shoulder, knocking him back down onto flat feet, and he turned to look up at Gerard. The man behind him grinned like a jackal.
Frank turned back to the stranger as if to plea for help but the man just looked back at him and said, "It was nice talking to you." He left.
Gerard tapped his fingers on Frank's shoulder, seemingly innocuously. "What was that about?" he asked, and he seemed ready to jump, to snarl, if Frank even gave him a sliver of an excuse to do it.
Wanting to move the hand but too afraid to do it, Frank replied with, "I asked him where the poultry section was. I thought that's where you might have gone. I dunno why." He'd hoped he covered all the bases; covered all suspicion. The air was as thick as cotton, then,
"Okay." Gerard did a little hop and Frank was utterly bewildered. "Well, we haven't bought like...anything." He giggled. "So we should probably get on that shit like, now."
Frank wasn't sure whether to say, Oh, okay or to scream and claw at him and do everything in his power to get the gun away so he could shoot right through the top of his head, or to just break down into a thousand-million shards of glass. Gerard was absolutely shameless, spontaneous and vicious. His audacity knew no bounds. It wasn't as if he went to sulk in a corner for ten minutes or punch a wall or scream into a pillow. Something was wrong with him, and it was deeper than just the obvious. If Gerard didn't get help, at some point he finally would hurt somebody. Frank flexed his fingers and the joints ached. As if he already hadn't.
And although their relationship was only really a pseudo-relationship (the small and fragile tether between captive and captor; where days riddled with violence and different cries of profanities and pleas for one’s life should have assumedly been as expected as rain in April and flowers in May), there was still this abstract, open place where Frank felt as if he could slip in and try to make things better. He shouldn't have wanted to, not only because it was dangerous territory, like stepping on small, volcanic rocks that floated across a seat of newly spewed molten lava, but because it was simply ridiculous. Sympathy was rare enough in normal human life, cheap flowers only coming when someone died or when someone got hitched and apologies and empathy as rare as small miracles, but in Frank's situation, it should have been non-existent. And yet it wasn't. He massaged the area around his wrist and thought, yes, maybe Gerard is a little out of his mind. No, maybe he's really out of his mind. But at some point, he's going to have to get better. Nobody can be that horridly bi-polar (if that's even what he was) and still function.
Another part of him said, Who do you think you're kidding? He's functioned for over twenty years and without you.So keep him appeased, smile and nod, and get out when his back is turned.
He turned back to Gerard, who was bouncing on the balls of his feet, his teeth on his lip and little strands of hair bouncing around his eyes. Harmless as a puppy. So Frank joined his side as they grabbed the cart that Gerard had pushed into the shelf (the taller man looked at the object a little disdainfully, as if it held memories of bad things and people he didn't like) and they exited the aisle like two friends, or two somewhat distant lovers.
Frank wanted to slip into that awkward space he felt between them, no larger than the space between one's arm and underarm, and ask Gerard where he went, what was wrong. But he felt like if he tried to squeeze in that space that he would be crushed. Holding onto the metal side of the cart, sliding his fingers through the metal holes, he wanted to make things better, for the both of them. And he wasn't quite sure why.
"I think we bought too much food," Frank speculated. Gerard glanced back into the back of he car.
"Pffft. Whatever," he replied, turning back to the wheel. Miscellaneous boxes of cereal in a plastic bag with the store's name on it in red letters sat between them. Behind them, bags of random foodstuffs possessed nearly all of Gerard's car. Not nearly all of it had fit inside the trunk. "At least we won't have to go back for a while."
Frank could have groaned to himself. It meant a couple more weeks of being confined to the house. The sun felt nice, like a perpetual blanket of contentment and warmth; and he wasn't feeling it through a window. He hopefully wondered if Gerard would ever need to do any other errands- dry-cleaning, heading to the bank, killing hookers or something that might get him out of there. Kicking around at a can of french fried onions that had rolled onto the car floor and around his feet, Frank regretfully wished they hadn't bought so much food so that he might be able to go out again.
Carrying the bags inside, even with the both of them slinging several over each arm, took around a dozen trips. And since they couldn't put the bags on the kitchen table with their puzzle (now a little more than a sixth complete; it was started to become more obvious what the image was instead of just a menagerie of mismatched, colorless tones) they had to lug them all the way to the island countertop. Sorting all the food into different places, playfully arguing about what went where, took a little less than a half an hour, and by then it was so late that the both of them were hungry and they had to find something to take out again. Somewhat irritable, they decided on soup, which took the least amount of effort.
Waiting for the liquids to get hot in a metal pan, Gerard leaned his elbows on the linoleum countertop, his hips out and his eyes looking miles away. Frank sat at the kitchen table, poking around puzzle pieces and wanting to say something to Gerard, but just not sure of what. There was something about the way that he was leaning on the counter that Frank liked, something so attractive that it almost hurt. Gerard's thin sweatshirt had ridden up slightly and his pale, pale skin between his pant line and the sweatshirt on his hips was visible. He wanted to touch it, and forced himself to turn away.
Spit felt heavy and thick, like half-dried Elmer's glue, against the back of his throat. I need to get away from here, he thought, and even the voice in his head was starting to panic.
No you don't. You want to stay. You like it here. You like him because you're both fucking freaks.
He picked up two pieces of grey off the table and fit them together, the minor accomplishment getting lost in the rainstorm in his head. No, I don't. I hate him. He grit his teeth.
Part of the piece in his hand bent down against his thumb, the part jutting out in order to fit with another, and he didn't care. He's insane.
Yeah, well, maybe it's catching. Do your fucking puzzle, there's no hope for you.
The soup started to bubble in the pot behind him and he could hear the soft shushing sounds of moving clothes as Gerard moved to stir it. With his thumb and forefinger he bent the twisted puzzle piece back into place, thinking only about small pieces of pale, visible skin.