Graham is gone.
Graham is gone and James doesn’t even get the chance to properly bury him. His eulogy becomes sir John’s, the words ill-fitting in Crozier’s mouth and misconstrued for a story that will never fit.
Our bright captain, Sir John. (Our bright brother, lieutenant Graham Gore).
The invisible world of spirits, though unseen, was present for Jacob. Not future, not distant, but present. And it is now, and it is here, among us, if we open our eyes and see his truth amongst us.
He doesn’t open his eyes—he can’t. Something moves beside his bed, on his bed, the rustling noise of sheets but the mattress doesn’t dip with weight. And it is here, among us.
Hoar knocks half an hour later, or that’s what it feels like to James anyway, eyes screwed shut the entire time but he can feel the tears burning behind his eyelids. His heart feels like it’s going to burst out of his chest—he can’t open his eyes.
No one is there when he opens his eyes, the door half-open, Hoar’s worried face peeking through it. A choked sob wrangles itself out of his throat and he’s far too late to hide the tears that struggle out.
“Are you okay, sir?” Hoar opens the door further, ready to attend to James’ needs.
Words stuck under his tongue, James merely nods, it’s nothing to dwell on after all, Graham is gone. He is gone and can’t be on the ship.
The noise returns the next night. And the night after. Someone sits on the end of his bed, often silent, sometimes humming a song that Graham used to sing when he was in a good mood. (James pictures him smiling, the night before the lead party left, his eyes shimmering, even in the low cabin light.)
“I miss you,” James whispers one night, a couple of weeks after everything started. He’s tired of pretending the ghost—the hallucination, whatever it ends up being—isn’t in the room with him. He’s tired of faking sleep and assuming that one day, he’ll be left alone.
The sheets rustle again, as they always do, across James’ legs now. A gust of wind blows over his exposed fingers, like a touch, cold to the point of freezing but gentle and when the same gust caresses his hair, he knows he’s done for. Then open your eyes and see his truth, for it is here.
Graham is gone. And Graham is there. And James doesn’t screech at the thing—the person—in front of him. It’s Graham, it’s undoubtedly Graham. It’s his slobs, mittens still dangling from them the way they did when James mocked him for it.
But it’s not—blue eyes dull and fogged over, his mouth unable to close, blood trickling out of it with every movement he makes. On closer look, the slobs are barely on him, torn and shred by the claws of some monster he can’t imagine. Graham moves and foot stays behind, but he doesn’t turn to it, he doesn’t even seem to notice.
There’s blood everywhere, on his clothes, his skin. It’s matted in his hair and when James finally reaches out for him, the smell spread itself throughout the cabin, like it requires an actual living being to acknowledge it all before it can exist.
Graham pulls back and settles himself, not bothered by a clearly dislocated knee and shoulder, across James’ lower legs. There is no weight, no rustling of the sheets, no bones digging into his skin. He seems to want to speak, but when his throat starts the motions, nothing but blood spills out. he chokes and retches but no words happen.
James stops himself, unsure of how to continue. How does one even talk to something that isn’t there? Something that looks like your lover, acts like your lover, yet is everything but. He can see the pain in Graham’s contorted face, ever present and there’s so much to say that they can’t.
So they sit. in silence, James fighting the tiredness clawing at him as he watches Graham fall apart in front of him. He wishes he could reach out, could touch Graham, despite the abject horror of the slops falling towards the sheets and disappearing in thin air as they no longer form a part of his entireness, revealing nothing but bones and rotting skin, ribs portruding from bandages that no longer hide anything.
James points at them and Graham looks at his flat chest, a lopsided, sad smile on his broken mouth. And James notices—it’s not Graham. The beard, or what’s left of it, is too long, much longer than Graham would ever be able to grow. His jaw is more set, His eyebrows harder. His shoulders, now uncovered, are broad and his hands are bigger than they ever used to be.
It’s not Graham. James closes his eyes again but the presence doesn’t leave until Hoar knocks in the morning.
Graham doesn’t come the next night.
It’s several weeks before the thing shows again. Several weeks in which James overanalyses every part of Graham, both real and spiritual, that he can remember. His dreams are filled with the Graham he remembers, bright and adventurous, a continuous twinkle in his eyes and his laughter fills the room as dream-world James tells him about the time a cheetah got loose.
(It’s the second story ever that he tells Graham, after which he gets treated to the time a gun exploded in Graham’s hand. He runs his fingers over the scar and kisses it many times over.)
His eyes fly open. Graham is there, blood all over his chin from the effort of talking. He’s tucked in the corner, his foot attached again and his knee back in the position it should be. There is no smell of blood anymore but Graham is still not the man he so fondly remembers.
The slops have gone entirely, the uniform tattered underneath. Sometimes he wonders if it is Graham, if by some miracle he crawled his way back from King William Land to Erebus, but then it all clicks.
“Graham—” he swallows hard and somehow, it’s like Graham mimics the emotion, coming out of the shadows slightly. “I know this is not you, my love.”
He tries to reach out again, sitting up, but Graham scuttles back into his corner. The close up of Graham’s face is not one he wants—decayed flesh colorless in the weak light that seeps through the door’s shutters. He seems defeated and tired, no pain legible on his face and James is desperate to touch him even if it’s not Graham.
Graham’s eyes are unfocused, managing to stare both straight at James and right past him. They wobble around in their sockets as Graham tilts his head and James can’t help but wonder if Graham can even see him.
“This isn’t you.” And for once, the presence disappears.
He doesn’t open his eyes, tired to the point of exhaustion. He wants to see Graham, to hold Graham. His Graham—not the monstrosity that sits on his bed and speaks in Graham’s voice as blood spills from its mouth.
And like the thing can sense what has happened, the sheets rustle yet they don’t. the familiar gust of wind blows past his cheek and a sob gets stuck in James’ throat. How he wants this, how he’s dying for that touch to be skin, warm and soft and alive. How desperate he is to wrap his arms around Graham—how he needs him as the world falls apart and a hundred men depend on him.
“Please leave.” You’re dead, but he doesn’t add it.
The more Graham appears to him, the more he seems to change, slowly turning into a version that James recognises—that he loves. Frostbite appears on his cheeks, almost making him look alive and his eyes no longer roll around unfocused in their sockets. He’ll sit in the lamp light, still smiling sadly whenever James tries to reach other for him and blood dripping from between his teeth when he talks.
So they don’t talk—they sit, they lie. James tells him jokes and stories, desperately trying to ignore the ways Graham isn’t his Graham. He falls asleep mid-sentence and when he wakes up, Graham is gone again, not a sign in the entire cabin that he’d ever been there.
Scurvy happens. Carnival happens. And that night, Graham is back. The blood is still in his hair, streaks of it across his shirt, tattered across torn-up body. He doesn’t know why Graham loses clothes the more he appears—it is not for Graham to decide how he looks. James collapses into the bed.
“James—” Graham doesn’t choke on blood this time and James cries, aggressive sobs that settle against the roof of his mouth, lost on their way out; tears that struggle down his cheeks as he shakes beneath the blankets. He wants to see Graham, ruined as he is, and to hold him, to kiss him and let the blood in Graham’s mouth wash the ash from between his teeth.
Graham lays down next to him as he always does, arm tucked underneath his head like a pillow and legs carefully stretched out against the wall.
“Do not fear me, my love.” (and see his truth amongst us.) believe.
But James doesn’t believe—he can’t believe. He looks at Graham’s upper body and knows that Graham isn’t there, that he’ll never be there. Everything is a vile trick of his brain, of the illness that creeps through his body and fills his mind with thoughts he never wants to imagine.
“I have to.”
I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places, wherever thou goest; for I will not leave thee.
The remnants of Graham’s shirt fall off his chest the night before they start walking, carelessly as he twists his shoulder to change position. He looks tired, more tired than James, fingers poking at the ribs that protrude from gaping claw marks and blood streaming into the blankets, where it all disappears again.
“This isn’t you,” James whispers for the first time in far too long and his eyes are focused on two scars, so much like his own, on Graham’s chest. They’re covered in blood, nothing like the gaping wounds the monster had left, and very much not Graham’s—they’re James’ own, like a mirror reflection on the body of a dead man.
“Am I not remade in your perfection?” Graham whispers and his voice is an freezing chill across James’ neck. The stench of blood fills the cabin. James closes his eyes. No, you are not.
For I will not leave thee.
And Graham doesn’t. He travels with them, appearing in the cold tent at night, and settling himself in the corner. His slops are back, bloody but no longer torn, a blanket of near-normality as Graham twists into a shape that James is much fonder of recalling.
“I miss you,” Graham echoes James’ earlier words. There is an omen in them that James refuses to address.
The scurvy gets worse, settling into his joints and taste of blood ever-present between his teeth. He tries to keep up appearances, for everyone, but mostly for Graham. Graham who stops having blood on his uniform when James’ old scars reopen.
That afternoon, they know it’s over—Jacob’s invisible kingdom is the only one left for them. Graham appears beside him, looking exactly like he had before he departed for King William Land—his eyes alive, a slight worry lurking in the depths of them; slops pristine and James can imagine the feel of bandages beneath them, like he felt them as they kissed one last time in Graham’s cabin.
He kisses him then, with rattling breath and blood pooling in the back of his mouth as he wishes for the pain to end. It’s nothing more than a brush of wind but Graham is so close to him, his hands a freezing cold on the sides of James’ face. Graham is there—his Graham.
And it is now, and it is here, among us.