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lost boy’s limbo

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On the second Friday after Gerard Keay broke the news to Michael he’d found Michael again in the stairwell near the back of the school and set an old, golden, still-in-its-jewel-case CD down beside him as gently as you would set an offering to a minor god down on its roadside altar. In ordinary circumstances Michael would have been displeased to be snuck up on like this (he can’t be snuck up on, but he doesn’t like when people try). He was not displeased, on account of being preoccupied with the words felt-tipped onto the surface of the CD in very familiar curls of ink. His own hand, many years ago, said Think of me. M. Beside the initial was a dainty marker-ink heart. Michael was tempted first to laugh out loud, then to burst into tears. He did neither. To compensate for the wretched, unexpressed emotions he was feeling he tessellated his sharp edges into patterns that could not be looked at without hurting your brain.

“Come to gloat?” he said.

“What? No,” said Gerard Keay. “You think you’re some kind of incarcerated mob boss? Come to gloat.

“Yes,” Michael said sourly. “You are the strapping gumshoe who put me in here. My son will exact my revenge.”

Gerry sat down beside Michael uninvited, the CD between them. Michael reached over and balanced it on its side such that it separated them like a partition between two different people’s groceries. “I can live with that,” Gerry said. “But there is seriously nothing for me to gloat about here. I thought you might want to hear this again.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then I leave you in this staircase and go hang out with the other Michael.”

Michael made a noise that could be called acquiescence and could be called a fractal in an auditory jacket. The CD, it turned out, was just for theatrics, or maybe sentiment. Gerry produced a tangle of black wire and his mobile phone from the pockets of his uniform and plugged them together; he passed Michael an earbud so that he could plug that together with his ear. “I didn’t want to bring an entire CD player to school,” Gerry explained to an insouciant Michael, “so I reconstructed the track-list on Spotify. Some of the songs are remastered.”

“Don’t think that I care either way,” Michael replied. He brushed an infinitely curling bit of hair away from his ear and made his ear an ear enough to fit the bud in it. Very briefly he focused on resolving the workings of his ear canal, sweeping away the spirals that always seemed to cluster near his cochlea, their queen. Gerry hit play on the screen of his phone. The first song was something embarrassingly dream-poppy that Michael didn’t care to try and recall the name of. They sat together, listening in silence.

“Too bad you made this before 1997,” Gerry snarked at the end of the second. “You could have put My Heart Will Go On on it.”

“You are sooooo funny,” Michael told him. Michael had never heard My Heart Will Go On, and he imagined it was as maudlin as it sounded. Gerry snorted in a manner that said that this was the response he had been shooting for. By the window high on the wall of the stairwell, dust motes floated in the sunlight.

The familiar strains of another, more mortifying love song commenced, and Gerry asked, quieter, “Did he like it?” When Michael didn’t answer right away, he added, “When you gave it to him.”

I don’t care if Monday’s blue, asserted the man in the earbud in Michael’s ear. The boy that still lived inside Michael wanted to howl the lyrics down to every cloying weekday. “I don’t know,” said the Michael that remained. “He never said.”

“But he kept the CD.” Gerry was tracing the grouted lines between the tiles of the staircase with his pointer. “And pretty well. It’s not scratched or anything. I checked.”

“It’s hard to scratch something you never take out of the case.”

“Don’t be cynical.”

“I think I’ve earned the right to be cynical,” Michael said. “Michael put his heart into that CD. Your father barely noticed when Michael died.” Tuesday, Wednesday, break my heart!

“I hate it when you talk in third person,” said Gerry. “And you’re not dead,” he pointed out. “You’re just here.”

“I’m not dead,” Michael agreed. “Michael is.”

Gerry said, reproachfully, “You are impossible to talk to.”

But Friday, never hesitate. Oh, the joy of absurd pop songs. “You do it anyway.”

Gerry propped his elbow on a knee and put his mouth to his fist to cover whatever expression was on his face. He reasoned, “Because you’re like, my stepfather now.”

“I am not like your stepfather now,” Michael said with abject disgust, crystallised as he was as a teenaged boy, albeit the most primordially fucked-up of teenaged boys. The only thing worse than being sixteen is being sixteen forever.

“You are,” Gerry objected. “You’re like his widower. I don’t know anybody who knew him except my mum. And she killed him for funsies.”

“One of the better things to kill someone for,” Michael said, knowing he was being cruel and not wanting to not be. “In my opinion.”

Gerry didn’t look hurt. He was an expert at stabbing back. “I thought you loved him. Breathed him.” There he went, using Michael’s own words, him with the unforgiving memory.

“Michael did,” said Michael. “I’m not the loving kind nowadays.” Nowadays was a meaningless thing, Michael mused to himself. For him, time had turned circular the day he’d became, bearing down on itself like an ouroboros, or, if he was being cliche, a spiral. Now became back then became future. All fixed like a knife in the body of the same instant of his life. He was not a fly in Jurassic amber, it was hardly that merciful. He was Sisyphus pushing the boulder in the underworld. He had listened to the same mathematics syllabus in the same classroom for twenty-five years.

“He’s gone, anyway.” Gerry let his hand drop, curled his arms around his knees. “And we’re both here.”

It was cute, in a stupid sort of way, that Gerard so willingly lumped himself in with Michael. “You not for long.”

Gerry grinned as if cheered by this accusation. Michael mimicked it, and it was only slightly horrifying. They sat, grinning, but not at each other, the ending chords of The Cure fading in their ears. “I’ll send you postcards when I finish school.”

Michael was too distorted to be taunted. “And will you send me postcards when you die and I’m still in Year 11?”

“Of course. I don’t know if there’s any circle of hell that photographs well enough to be printed, though.”

“A letter will do,” Michael said, reaching to untangle the knots in Gerry’s earphone wires. Before he could start his fingers had other ideas and tangled themselves in mimicry.

Gerry considered this. He put one hand to the back of his hideous mullet-adjacent haircut and said, “When is a door not a door?”

This sounded like exactly the type of riddle that Michael could get behind. He tried, “All the time,” with breezy confidence, because in his geometrically-unsound heart he knew it to be true, or untrue, it was complicated like that.

“When it’s ajar,” said Gerry. Michael let the punchline hang in stony silence. In their ears another song from a more honest life began, slower and better than anything that would come after it.

 

Proof that Michael’s time spins in circles: he’s had this same conversation with way more people than Gerard. Once—the other Michael, as Gerry had christened him so affectionately.

It was during a band-related argument. Michael remembers this because he’d been astounded at the time that he still had the capacity to be provoked by something so deeply frivolous. Sometimes things surprise him; and then again he’s surprised that he can still be surprised. He’d been surprised when the band showed him that he was wicked on a keyboard. (His reach is way wider than any natural human’s.)

Mike Crew had not taken kindly to Michael’s tendency to stop playing halfway through a song, not because he’d forgotten how to, but evidently for the hell of it. Michael doesn’t remember exactly why he did it. It does seem like something he would do, though. “Knock it off,” Crew’d said.

“Why?” said Michael. If he’d been Crew, he would have punched him.

“We can’t play if you’re being a twit.”

Michael, six insults later: “I will be here long after you die.” This was said with both verve and venom. “I will be alive and studying Year 11 when your bones are powder.”

Crew shot back, “I’m never going to die.”

Michael had laughed at that. A laugh like falling down a spiral staircase. “You are a fool,” he said. “Death would be a blessing.”

Crew’s mouth thinned. He said, “You are too blond to be this emo.”

“Quit bantering,” said Mikaele Salesa from where he was sitting on his amp. “Let’s play.”

His time is circular in other ways. In a recent September his geography teacher had seen his face among the new batch of students and said, delighted, “Michael! You’re with us again!”

This was more awareness than he’d expected. Usually he needed to introduce himself anew every semester he repeated. In a rush of seconds Michael saw memories spin behind his teacher’s eyes, dissolving even as they rose up. Like a bathtub of bubbles. He tried one more time. “Michael.” Weakly. Like he knew it was about to leave him. Then it was gone. “You’re...”

Michael, maybe out of spite, has never been much of a big eater. Gertrude Robinson made him a monster; being a monster, he doesn’t have to play ball if he doesn’t want to. His appetite is mostly necessity.

And sometimes disappointment. He had a new geography teacher the next time around. The previous is still teaching geography to mind-bending wallpaper. Michael has eaten a couple of students; maybe he’s teaching them geography on loop in the same yellow corridor. One of these days he’ll pop in and check.

 

When your time is circular, memory is only nuisance. Nostalgia is tiresome. Michael does it anyway, because, like Gerry, he is a master of doing things anyway. Remember that baseball game that you broke your arm at? How’d that happen? Remember that book you studied for class? Of course you do, you study it every year. Remember that boy you loved, decades ago? Sometimes he doesn’t. That’s mercy, if he ever knew it.

So it doesn’t help that to a knowing observer, Gerard Keay is near the spitting image of his father. Down to the shape of his eyes and the way he will sometimes touch the hair at the nape of his neck self-consciously, as if he’s checking that it’s still there. Michael has never met Mary Keay. If he had, he might be able to connect dots where he can’t now. (That smile transforms him. It’s all Keay.) But he hasn’t, so to him, Gerry is a Delano through and through.

The first time he looked, really looked, it was a horrendous surprise. He’d wondered if the past two decades had been one very long fever dream. He’d wondered if his entity had spat out a reincarnation of Eric especially for him. That week Michael had to eat a vice-principal to relax. But the boy was taller; his haircut was worse, and finally it dawned on him: Eric’d had a son.

This realisation was simultaneously disgusting and devastating to him. He’d been tempted to eat another vice-principal, but the school was all out and the man Jonah Magnus was wearing would come looking for him if he started to overindulge. So he seethed quietly over his memories.

For example. That face in its first significance—opening a paled-green locker door and reintroducing Michael Shelley to light. It was 1995. Eric seemed stupefied.

“I thought this only happened in American movies,” he said.

Michael, who had thought the same until thirty minutes prior, when a duo of classmates had shown him otherwise, said from where he was scrunched-up inside the locker, “Me too.”

Eric extended a hand. Michael took it and grunted to his feet inelegantly. “Why did...why did they do it?” Eager for the gossip, Michael thought.

“Thanks. And I don’t know,” said Michael. “I didn’t ask them.” But he thought maybe he had some idea. He was still in a sulk he doubted he would ever recover from. In fact, on the contrary, he would recover from it eleven minutes from that moment, when Eric would lean over to muss his blond hair with a playful hand.

“Novel, at least,” Eric said lightly. “You’re Michael, right? We have physics together.”

“Yeah,” Michael said, young enough then to be shy. “And you’re...” he trailed off. It was a farce. He knew Eric’s name.

“Eric.”

“Thanks for saving me.”

Eric did the thing that Gerry does now sometimes and touched a hand to the top of his neck. It was wildly endearing on him. Already Michael could feel the sulk slogging off. “It was nothing. I couldn’t just leave you there, banging on the inside of the door, could I?”

When Michael remembers this conversation in his present day, he always grins at this bit. In the intervening years Michael has gotten very good at leaving people in places where they bang on the insides of doors. In 1995 Michael Shelley said, “Still.” He addressed something else he’d noticed. “How’d you get the door open?”

“Guessed the combination,” Eric said.

“You’re joking.” Now that he was out, Michael checked the lock. It had a preposterous six digits.

“I’m a good guesser.” Then, because Eric Delano had many things, and one of them was a one-track mind, he asked, “Do you skate?”

Later, watching Eric do turns on a small half-pipe in his school uniform, Michael felt belatedly touched that Eric had thought him cool enough to possibly know how to skateboard. Eric’s green Magnus jumper was bundled in a soft pile beside Michael. It smelled like it was a hundred years old, but in a good way. Michael’s stomach was doing very weird flips. Eric grew tired of the half-pipe and began to do the same.

He executed one particularly weird flip and promptly wiped out on the ground in front of Michael. Michael shot to a half-stand, panicked, but Eric managed an “I’m fine,” from the ground, where he had landed on his front. He propped himself up on an elbow. A swathe of black hair flopped over his forehead as he looked up, the way it would flop over his son’s forehead in decades to come. He pushed it away; it assimilated back into his haircut.

“You’re good at this,” Michael said. He didn’t mean it to be sarcastic, and realised too late it couldn’t sound like anything other than.

Eric’s skateboard had landed some feet away, trucks up, wheels still spinning leisurely to a stop. The bottom of the board was spray-painted with a series of closed eyes, just semicircles with lines for eyelashes. “Hard to believe you when I just ate shit.”

Michael was starting to suspect that he was here because Eric had wanted to show off to a newbie. “Means you’re good enough to fall.”

“Deep,” said Eric. He pulled himself up to sit. “Wanna learn? I can teach you.”

Michael doesn’t remember swooning, but he must have, because he doesn’t remember ever learning how to skateboard either. Maybe he dicked around on the board until it became clear he would never amount to anything other than going forward. Probably that. He remembers, vaguely, Eric holding his hand to keep him stable. Memory is always a nuisance.

Eric had his own friends, but, like his son, was in the habit of picking up strays. Though Michael looks back with disdain, it’s evident that a stray was what he was. And not even a tough stray. Some soft, unintelligent wheat-yellow puppy. If you stepped on Michael Shelley you probably could have killed him. He wore his mother’s blouses and cried at movies where love interests died and wore a headband with sequins on it when he slept so he wouldn’t get forehead acne. Apart from his height, he was so easily shoved into a locker that Michael was surprised nobody had tried earlier. He didn’t even have the cunning to harden himself around Eric’s friends, but they were nice enough not to mind when he made prolonged squealing noises at larger-than-average insects or waited outside at fun-fair haunted houses.

These days Michael is closer to a larger-than-average insect or a haunted house than to that naive boy. Perhaps that’s too apt. He’s the house—he’s the haunting. He’s all the howling windows and all the pangs of memory. His every door creaks and honestly at this point someone should really call an exorcist, it’s getting kind of tedious. Additionally: people enter him and never come back out. What is Michael, if not a haunted house? What is a haunted house, if not a set of patterns circling back on themselves? Memories turned malevolent with grief?

Eric used to talk about how much he wanted to start Year 11. For the tie. He would say, with joking vanity, “I’m going to look so good in it.” While Michael Shelley strangled in silent agreement. Year 11, for Eric, would be one of the happier times of his life. For Michael Year 11 would be his crucifixion. It was also, more importantly, the year the Spice Girls released Wannabe. (Eric, draped on a class desk: “Did you hear? The Spice Girls have names now.”

“Did they not have names in the first place?”

“No, it’s like nicknames. Emma is Baby Spice. Mel C is Sporty Spice. Mel B is Scary Spice...”

“That’s cute.”

“Victoria Adams is Posh Spice.” Eric’s face glassed over. “She’s my favourite.”

Michael Shelley’s favourite Spice Girl, to no one’s surprise, was Baby Spice. “Uh huh,” he said.

Eric added, “She’s wicked fit.”

“Yeah,” said Michael, who was looking at Eric.)

Also in 1996: Eric saying, “This doesn’t have to be a thing if you don’t want it to be.”

“I want it to be,” said Michael, below him, who hadn’t kissed a boy before then but had thought about it so often it could have been religion. Eric’s friends were downstairs, probably playing cards or something, Michael hadn’t cared. Eric’s bed smelled as fresh as the inside of Michael’s chest felt. The duvet was soft.

“OK,” said Eric, and kissed him again.

Sometimes Michael thinks he should have eaten Eric Delano when he had the chance. It would have been easy. He has all the tricks in the book—swap a classroom door out for one of his own, make something cry little wracking sobs from behind a new door. He’s a gourmet. What better offering to his god than something he loved? What better meal? But it would have been pathetic. Like keeping a firefly in a jar. Or savouring a piece of candy long gone sharp and tasteless.

Even newly monstrous, he knew this, and instead let Eric grow out and never think about Michael again. That’s mercy, if Michael ever showed it.

 

After the last song played to its end on the second Friday after Gerard Keay told Michael that Eric was dead, Gerry asked, “Are you ever going to get over him?”

Michael, sixteen, forty-one, unforgivable, infinite, said, “Maybe next century.”