02: A Deep Dark Place
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Eben paints in the living room by the windows, the early morning sunlight filtering through the closed blinds, edging his small frame in gold. He does not notice Liam enter the room, his dry mouth pursed and a small, thin brush held in midair by a long-fingered hand, eyes not quite fixed on the canvas but gazing at a spot in the air.
Liam does not greet his roommate, nor does he expect a greeting. Liam tiptoes through the living room and in the adjoining kitchen nook, careful not to make any noise. He takes a piece of bread and sits gingerly on their moth-eaten couch, feeling the metal springs on his back through the cheap upholstery.
Liam recognizes one of Eben’s geometric landscapes beginning to form on the canvas, precise red and black lines crisscrossing over solid white to form a minimalistic cityscape of odd towers and stout buildings. The upper half is a swirl of turquoise, green and blue, the beginnings of a sky in tumult. Eben leans toward the canvas, paints a long thin red line in a single smooth motion, hand steady and mouth frowning deeply. Liam watches the brush move upwards, then shift downwards, then toward the right, as if Eben follows a marked path on the layer of white that only he can see. A tower forms, long and lean, from the solitary line, and Liam can’t help but shake his head in amazement. The most art Liam ever managed to produce was a handful of lewd stick figures in the tenth grade.
With a muted sigh of unhappiness and relief, Eben puts the brush in a cup of water and leans back in his chair to stretch, rubbing his hand in his dark curls. He doesn’t stretch very far, his body built far smaller and more delicately than Joe’s or even Liam’s. Yet people often confide to Liam that Eben is the most intimidating of the three friends. Eben’s gray eyes are owlish and penetrating on his round face. People are hard-pressed to meet his gaze. Liam has never told Eben this.
Eben turns slowly in his seat and blinks, only now realizing that someone is in the room with him. His dark hair sticks up in odd places. The spell is broken now and so Liam can ask, “What kind of paint are you using?”
“Egg tempera,” Eben says, “which is not what you think it is.” His voice is husky and dreamily slow. He yawns, his round face widening.
“Did you sleep?” Liam asks, though he already knows the answer. The walls of their bedrooms and the living room all have paintings hanging on them, products of Eben’s insomnia. When he cannot sleep, he paints. One day, Liam suspects, his friend will either have to get an Ambien prescription or rent a storage space for his canvases.
As expected, Eben only shrugs.
Liam leaves the apartment without telling anyone where is going, mainly because he finds it hard to explain where he is going. He rides his skateboard, the sun making the brick and mortar buildings a brighter red. People chat loudly with each other on the sidewalks, barely acknowledging Liam as he zooms by, and the lines of people rising and sinking into the subway stations creates a steady hum of noise. The air smells hot and sticky. None of the people notice the tattered black banner fading in the sun, declaring one of the dusty storefronts as the Pneuma Chocolatiers. Even when Liam stops his board to open the door to the shop, the people walking behind him merely step around him and continue on their way.
A rush of cool air and a tinkling bell greet him as Liam enters the shop, scented of chocolate and chopped fruits and the musty sour smell typical of Pneuma. The tables running along the cream-colored sides of the store are heaped with pastel-wrapped chocolates, and the place is empty and quiet. He leaves his skateboard by the door, then stands awkwardly at the polished wood counter toward the back of the store. Should he call for someone? He can see his darkened reflection on the polished counter, his light hair falling in to his eyes, mouth pressed thinly.
A tall man staggers through the open doorway behind the counter. The blue beaded curtain over the doorway separates to let him through then clashes together discordantly, a thousand tiny plastic cymbals that ring through the quiet shop. The thin man heaves the large cardboard box onto the counter with a grunt, a cloud of dust flying into the air at the impact. He steps back to smooth his black hair and inspect his pressed white shirt and black slacks for any damage. The man is in his early thirties, handsome and oddly untouched, his long fingers adjusting hair of which not one strand is misplaced.
“Dorian,” Liam greets.
“Oh yes, hello,” Dorian says absently. He finds gray dust on his fingertips and makes a face in disgust. “You haven’t got one of those disinfectant lotions on you, would you? I hate manual labor.”
Dorian fumbles for something beneath the counter, pulling out a dark green, slightly worn apron. He tosses it to Liam, mumbling to put it in on in a hurry.
“Voila,” Dorian intones, as Liam ties the frayed green strings around his thin middle. “You are now a part-time employee of Pneuma Chocolatiers. By putting on this apron you have agreed to several rules.” He holds up a dusty, manicured finger. “One: You will not to sell or give away chocolates without our permission.” He raises a second finger to join the first. “Two: You will not invite people into the shop. They come when they must without your prodding. Three: You’ll do what we say, no matter how obnoxious the task, and even if it involves some late hours. You break any of these rules and you’re fired. Any questions?”
“Shouldn’t you have given me this speech before I put the apron on?”
Dorian opens the dusty box, the cardboard soft as paper. The box is full of cleaning materials: window cleaners, wood cleaners, floor wax, rags and soaps. Some of them have never been opened, and many are half-full. The interior smells musty and strongly of artificial lemon. Liam pulls away from the box to sneeze.
“Have a ball, go for it, hog-wild and all that,” Dorian says. He wipes his dusty fingers thoroughly on Liam’s apron. “Stay out of the kitchen – that’s Dora’s domain. And don’t throw anything out, not even the fish tank.”
He makes the mistake of beginning with the bathroom. The bathroom’s single toilet and sink are moldy, the air thick and yellow-smelling and the tiles coated in grime, and Liam retches when he first turns on the naked bulb. When Liam climbs down the rickety stairs to the basement he nearly trips over a loose square of carpet. Carpet samples quilt the basement floor like a peeling discotheque. The walls are lined with shelves piled high with cloudy mason jars. Everywhere else sit sealed cardboard and plastic boxes, bits of rope and twine, bundles of ribbon, a stuffed rocking horse, scattered birdfeed, empty birdcages and a lone fish tank that, judging by the scent of its interior, has never held a fish. Even in the main shop cobwebs hang from the corners of the windows and the ceilings; the cream-colored walls need repainting and there are streaks of dust on the hardwood floors.
This would horrify Liam if it weren’t for the chocolates. Dust collects under and around the tables where the large baskets of chocolate rest, but the wicker baskets and their contents are always clean. The shelves behind the counter loaded with boxes of truffles need no extra polish, and Dora and Dorian keep the stainless steel kitchen so particularly organized that Liam dares not set foot in it for even a cursory sweep with a broom.
As the morning passes Liam’s hands grow dry from disinfectants and rags and his back aches from reaching into corners. But the grating lemon scent is masked by the soothing aura of chocolate that permeates the shop and mingles with Dorian’s spicy cologne. The man himself slumps on a stool by the counter, fiddling with a piece of dirty white string.
Dora hums tunelessly from behind the beaded curtain, coating orange slices in dark chocolate. And somehow Liam is purposeful and calm, as if there is something worthwhile in sweeping the floor while Dora hums and Dorian knots his hands with string.
Dorian and Liam are in the middle of a game of Cat’s Cradle when the beaded curtain parts and Dora steps through, curves barely contained within her green apron and short blue dress. A gold paper box dangles from her hand and she waves it at Liam. The boy untangles his hands from the string quickly and tosses it down on the counter, embarrassed. Dorian makes a mournful sound.
Dora cocks her head at him, long dark hair flowing over a bronzed shoulder. “That’s not how you transform the Knitting Needles.” As Liam flushes and stutters she shakes the box and a piece of paper with an address on it impatiently. “This goes to 86th and 4th. It’s been prepaid.”
Liam takes the box. It’s heavier than he expected and surprisingly plain, made of unlabeled oak tag and smelling of dried apricots and dark chocolate. “Who do I give this to?”
“You’ll know him when you see him,” says Dora. She takes the white string from the counter and ties it loosely around Liam’s bony left wrist. When Liam raises an eyebrow she says lightly, “It looks better that way.”
He takes a bus to Bay Ridge though it takes longer than the train, preferring to be above ground in the summer. Still air, like the air trapped in the subway, heightens his already-sharp sense of smell, and waiting for a train in the summer is like standing in a boiler. As the bus rumbles down the streets and swings ponderously around corners, Liam watches the streets change outside the windows.
The squat brick storefronts and townhouses lined with trees remain consistent as the bus drives through the streets. It is the signs in front of them that transform subtly instead. One minute Liam can read a sign for a Laundromat in English and the next he cannot, the lines of familiar letters scrambled into figures he cannot identify beyond general pronouncements: That sign is in Spanish, that is Russian, that is Chinese. The changes are seamless, hopping from one continent to the next every few blocks.
When he gets off he’s in the middle of the expanded Chinatown. It’s a weekday afternoon; delivery trucks are double-parked and the sidewalks are packed with dozens of Asians, with a smattering of other ethnicities thrown in. Storefronts are labeled in both English and Chinese, and the sidewalks smell of fresh fish, savory foods and green leafy things. Kids ride graffitied mechanical dolphins or sit on townhouse steps with their parents, eating ice pops and jumping rope. Liam weaves through crowds with his box and stops at an outdoor market to check the produce.
He nearly passes the corner noodle shop where he’s supposed to make the drop-off, but he checks building numbers and doubles back. “Best Noodles,” the sign reads in English, in red paintbrush-like strokes. When he enters a blast of cool air assaults him. It’s a small shop, the walls so close together that if Liam stretches his arms wide he might touch the sides of the restaurant. The chef works near the lone window, the sweat on his brow glistening in the midday sun beneath his chef’s hat, as he flips egg noodles in a wok in his sparse kitchen. The chef chats in Chinese to one of the customers that sit at an adjacent counter on bar stools. The bar stools are the only seats in the shop. The place is tropical-themed, bamboo slats on the walls and fake palms tucked into corners.
Breathing in the smells, Liam remembers he hasn’t had lunch yet. As if reading his mind, the chef tosses a menu to Liam with one hand and a wink. After placing his order Liam scrutinizes his fellow diners. Who is he supposed to deliver this chocolate to? A fat white man, brown hair thinning at the temples, slurps at a bowl of what smells like rice noodles and vegetables in soy sauce. An old Chinese man spins on his stool and chats with the chef. Neither patron glances at Liam when he sits or seems to recognize the gold paper box when he places it on the linoleum countertop.
Liam watches the chef add noodles to a pot of boiling water. He is a Chinese man in his early forties, red-faced with the heat from the kitchen, with laugh lines around his dark almond eyes and full mouth. His hands are weathered but steady on the hot pans, and his stained apron fits snugly around his wide waist. Liam recognizes the steadfastness, the characteristics of a man who has worked the same job for twenty years, a man for whom capricious midlife crises have never struck and never will.
The old man on the stool speaks sharply in Mandarin and jerks his chopsticks toward the single large window, pointing at a boy staring at the sidewalk. The chef turns to look outside at a small Chinese boy with unkempt black hair and blue terrycloth shorts, standing in the middle of the sidewalk and staring at a green metal garbage can with such intensity Liam is amazed the can hasn’t caught fire. The crowds maneuver around him on the sidewalk like water diverting around a pebble in the riverbed.
With a roar that reverberates off the bamboo slats the chef ducks under the partition and bangs out of the restaurant. The old man cackles, looking around for someone to share his mirth, but there is only the fat white man and the thin white college student, and the joke goes unexplained. Liam gazes over the counter and out the window, the thick chef scooping up the child in stiff arms, the boy’s eyes never leaving the can. The noodles are boiling over when they enter the shop together.
The chef deposits the boy on the stool beside Liam, and cautions him to sit still with an admonishing flourish. The boy ducks his head and picks at a scab on his knee. The chef rescues the pot of noodles, cursing.
“Your order will take a little extra time,” the chef tells Liam with the barest trace of an accent, his voice gruff. “The noodles are ruined, thanks to my son.”
“Take your time,” Liam says, watching the boy chase shadows with his eyes. “How old are you?” he asks.
The boy does not hear him, brow furrowed and small mouth pursed as he looks at nothing. His expression is familiar though Liam cannot place where he has seen it before. When the chef barks at the boy he snaps to attention with a start. He’s eight years old.
“Good age,” Liam praises.
“It’s the age when children must start growing up and stop pretending.” The chef stirs a vigorous amount of oyster sauce in the second batch of noodles. “He pretends too much. People will think he’s dim.” He shoots the old man a nasty look at this statement; the old man misses it completely, twining a long noodle around his chopsticks.
“Imagination’s good,” Liam offers.
“Your box,” the boy says. His knee is shiny with new skin. “It’s orange.”
“It’s gold,” the father says sternly, adding peppers and chicken to the pan. “And his things are none of your business.”
“It’s got bright orange,” the boy insists. “All around it.”
The box of chocolate languishes on the counter, neglected. Liam squints; it’s an ordinary box, made of unmarked gold oaktag and wrapped with a blue ribbon. He focuses his eyes, unfocuses them, stares until he can’t see anything but the gold lines of the box and the greenish-brown of the bamboo walls behind it, but there isn’t any orange Liam can see. He sniffs the box, the same old rusted smell.
“Some metals turn red-orange when they rust,” Liam recalls.
“The box is red-orange.” The boy nods gratefully, hopefully. “You get it now.”
But he doesn’t. The old man and the fat man rise from their stools and leave, leaving the small noodle shop empty but for Liam, the boy and the chef. The chef sets a steaming plate of noodles with chicken and summer vegetables before Liam. The noodles are savory and rich, and Liam digs in with gusto and doesn’t look up again until he’s finished.
Liam pushes the box of chocolate across the counter toward the chef. “This is for you.” He wipes his mouth with a napkin and lays down his chopsticks. “From Dora and Dorian,” he adds, unsure how specific he can be.
But the chef’s red face is blank, his black hair flat against his forehead. “I didn’t order anything.”
“It’s chocolate,” Liam presses.
“You’re not paying me in chocolate,” the chef says. With his thick arms crossed over his aproned chest, the words are a promise rather than a question.
Liam pays in cash and leaves the small restaurant, flummoxed. The sun is high overhead and he breaks into a sweat the moment he steps outside. The box of chocolate heavy in his hands and he spares a thought for the chocolate that is probably melting inside. This is his first delivery; how the hell did he manage to screw it up? He squints in the afternoon heat, watching kids eat runny ice cream and old Asian women totter by under parasols.
The little boy comes outside to stand beside him, scuffing his toe on the weeds growing in the cracked sidewalk. Liam double-checks the address Dora gave him. It matches the noodle shop.
“You wouldn’t know if there’s another place with this address nearby?” he asks the boy.
The question is in vain; the boy has returned to his earlier task, watching the garbage can like a soldier guarding a post. Liam waves a hand in front of his face. No dice.
“What is the big deal about that garbage can?” Liam demands.
The boy starts and turns his face up to Liam’s, squinting in the sunlight. He looks at Liam as if the older boy is the most obtuse thing he’s ever encountered. “There’s a cave in it.”
Liam looks at the can again, squinting. The bin is round, three feet high and made of metal mesh painted forest green, the same as every other garbage bin planted by the city government. It’s half full of discarded takeout containers, empty soda cans and tied plastic bags, a cloud of gnats hovering over the mess. There aren’t any holes nearby or any dark spaces. He turns to the little boy to disagree and finds him watching the bin with a faraway expression, both aware of Liam yet looking at something Liam doesn’t see. It strikes Liam at last, where this sense of familiarity stems from. The Chinese boy’s expression is the same one Eben wears when he paints.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
The boy sighs. It’s a sound of exhaustion from such a young face, and the effect is disconcerting. “Jianguo.”
“Jianguo, if you say there’s a cave in the garbage can I’ll believe you.”
The boy shoots him a disgusted glare, his almost-black eyes narrowing. “You don’t. You don’t see a thing, and you’ll go back in the restaurant and tell my dad I’m crazy.”
“No,” Liam says impatiently. “Maybe somebody else did that but not me. Look,” he insists, when Jianguo rolls his eyes, “I know somebody who’s got a big imagination like you. He paints things I can’t even think up.”
“It’s not imagination, it’s the truth.” Jianguo rubs his hand in his black hair until the ends stand up and scratches the skin near the waistband of his terrycloth shorts. He takes Liam’s sleeve and pulls him a few cautious steps toward the garbage bin. “You don’t want to fall in,” he explains.
Liam feels like an idiot, tiptoeing around a smelly garbage can. Pedestrians give the two of them odd looks as the duo minces past. He’s all right with kid’s games usually but time is flying by and he has a delivery to make. “Look, I’m going to leave this box with your dad –” he starts. He takes a step forward toward the garbage can and finds himself falling.
The change is so abrupt, from standing on the sidewalk to falling in inky blackness, that at first Liam doesn’t even yell. At first he thinks it’s vertigo. But wind is whipping past his ears and gravity is yanking him down stomach-first, and he cannot see a thing. There is only the feeling of falling, of himself plummeting with the box of chocolate strangely light in his weakening grip and his arms and legs flailing, and he can’t see walls or a bottom. There is just him in the air.
When he opens his mouth to give a terrifying shout, he hits the bottom chest-first. The impact knocks the wind out of him and he feels his ribs and elbows bruise; he lets out a groan that quickly vanishes in the blank expanse. It takes him several tries before he can sit up without feeling like he’s about to throw up. When he does, for a horrifying moment he thinks he’s gone blind. There is nothing but the hard-packed dirt beneath him and blackness around him. He waves a hand in front of his face. Nothing. He clasps his hands together, makes sure they’re both still there, makes sure he’s really here.
He feels in his pockets for his cell phone and his wallet. The wallet is there, tucked in his back pocket, but his cell phone is gone. He feels around on the ground for it, crawling on all fours to no avail. Instead his groping finds the box of chocolate not far away, battered but still intact. His fingers run along the bent corners and he sends up a silent prayer that the chocolate inside hasn’t broken into a million small pieces. His hands run along the top of the box and feel the bumps of raised letters on the oaktag, an F and what might be an O and either a P or an R before he gives into the terror of the blackness and nearly jams his fingers in his eyes to make them see something. His whole body hurts. Finally he sits, the box of chocolate beside him, identifying his stiff joints by Latin name. He waits until he’s tired of waiting.
He’s not usually afraid of the dark, cannot recall the last time he was spooked by a bump in the night. He’s never needed a night-light or checked for monsters in the closet at bedtime. But this is total blackness, primal and endless. He puts his hands in his thick hair and tugs hard. The pain steadies him a little. Liam coughs, clears his throat, and shouts with all his strength, “Hello!”
There’s no answer. There isn’t even an echo. And that freaks him out more than the darkness; that means this place he’s fallen into is huge. Jianguo called it a cave. Where was a cave hiding in the middle of Chinatown? Belatedly Liam realizes that the small boy probably has a gift, a heightened sense of vision like Liam’s heightened sense of smell. Cursing himself for his stupidity (how was he supposed to guess there were others like him out there?) he stands up. Box of chocolate in his right hand, he tries to pick a direction… but there isn’t an east or west, and if he turns around or loses his footing there isn’t a left or right either. He breathes deeply, hoping to pick out a scent that might provide a clue, but the air is still and earthy. With a sigh he trudges forward, the only direction available.
He walks for hours. He can’t be sure for how long exactly. At first it’s sort of pleasant, the air cooler than on the city streets and the padding of his sneakers creating a soothing rhythm. Then it becomes a light workout, and he swings the box of chocolate on his arm like a dumbbell. But there is no sign that he is making any sort of progress or walking toward anything at all, and the entire act of walking turns from a productive and reasonable solution into a monotonous trial without end. He’s walked for miles and nothing has changed. All he hears are the sounds of his own footsteps, all he can smell is the dry earth and he isn’t getting anywhere and he isn’t getting out.
Liam sits heavily on the ground, his legs and feet aching and panic rising in his belly. He’s going to die here. Or worse he’ll turn into one of those mole people from the comic books that eat dirt and think sunlight is nothing more than an urban legend of their underground mole metropolis. He bites his lip and accepts that he may not be thinking very clearly. He wrings his hands and presses the palms of his hands into his eyeballs until colors break up the monotony of blackness. He should yell some more, he thinks, but he can’t even force himself to. The helplessness is paralyzing, deadening, and he lies down on the cool packed earth in limp acquiescence. There’s nothing better to do. Liam lies down with the box beside him and waits for nothing, waits for the things that come after nothing.
He falls into an unsteady sleep, uncomfortable but exhausted and dreaming of cages and flashlights. When he wakes he feels groggy and thirsty and can’t remember where he is; then the memory returns and he groans in misery. The tugging on his wrist is so feather-light it feels like an itch; when he stands up he scratches his wrist and rubs dirt into his hair and the wriggly feather-touches on his wrist stop.
“If I get out of here,” Liam says aloud, “I am buying a watch.” His stomach rumbles. “After I eat,” he amends.
Then something tugs on his wrist so strongly he nearly falls over; he stumbles forward for a few steps as he’s yanked to the left, until the pulling stops as abruptly as it started. He tries to pull his hand away but meets resistance. Liam curses and reaches forward in the dark for whoever’s got a grip on him – and his fingertips find a taut cotton line at chest level. Baffled, Liam traces his fingertips along the invisible line. The cotton thread stretches away from him further than his arm can reach, and the other end ties in a loop around his left wrist.
Liam follows the string, feeling for the cotton thread with his fingertips. Sometimes the string stops pulling and the length of thread slackens, and Liam yanks his end of the string until the line goes taut again. After an hour of this he can see in the distance the barest pinprick of light. The light, the lightest sky blue, gets bigger and closer until Liam has to close his eyes at its brightness.
The light is so bright that he keeps his eyes shut, and the scents of garbage rotting in the sun, sticky street tar and savory foods assail his nostrils. Having grown accustomed to smelling and seeing nothing but dark earth for hours, Liam doubles over coughing, his head already aching, and nearly drops the box of chocolate he still carries. When he reaches to cover his eyes and his nose, he notices the string around his wrist has vanished.
When his eyes finally adjust to the midday light, Jianguo stands before him, staring up at him with wide eyes. Liam stands shakily on the sidewalk in front of the Best Noodles shop in Chinatown. The sun is hot and high overhead, the full garbage can to his left and Jianguo to his right. Disoriented he takes a step back and trips off the curb and onto the street. A truck’s horn blares and he leaps back onto the concrete.
Through dry lips he demands, “What day is it? How long was I gone?”
The questions are too complicated for an eight year old. The boy hangs his head and shrugs. “You fell in the cave,” Jianguo hazards, “I told you to be careful.”
Liam inhales deeply, the scents of people and food and buildings rooting him and calming him. He rephrases the question. “After I fell in, did you eat dinner?”
“It didn’t get dark and you didn’t sleep?”
Now Jianguo is confused. He picks at the scab on his knee. “I just had lunch. I saw you eat lunch, then you came outside and you fell in the cave. Then I waited and you came back.” And he twists in his hands the other end of the white string.
“Where did you get that string?”
Jianguo shrugs again, defiant now. “I found it on the floor after you fell. I like it; it kept moving away from me but I didn’t let go.”
Liam can’t decide between laughing or punching something. He understands the young boy better now, sort of understands what’s happened to him in a vague way that he can’t quite explain to others yet. Soon, he senses, he’ll understand it truly, but for now he’s going to follow his instincts.
He stretches his arms up and out, shakes his head forcefully. He sighs and bends down to Jianguo’s eye level. The boy, wary as always, hops back a step. “Thank you,” Liam says sincerely. “Thank you for getting me out. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to your warning.”
Liam holds out the box of chocolate to the boy, the gold oaktag still shiny in the sunlight despite the beating its taken today. He cannot see the letters that he felt with his fingertips in the dark, but he knows that they’re there and he knows what they spell out.
Jianguo stares blankly at him. “That’s mine?”
“Yes,” Liam says, and he knows that he’s right. “Can you read what it says on the box?”
Jianguo’s mouth twists as he tries to sound the word out, able to see the letters Liam can only feel. He sounds out the F and the O and the R before he gives up. Liam smiles.
“It’s fortitude,” Liam explains. “That means, when things get hard and a person gets discouraged, that person can get back up again and not give up.” At the confusion that remains on Jianguo’s face, Liam puts the box in the boy’s hands and adds, “You’re not crazy, even if other people say you are. And if that gets hard to remember, these chocolates will help.”
Jianguo’s face screws up in concentration, taking in Liam’s words and memorizing them and thinking them through. Slowly the confusion gives way to relief, like a curtain parting.
“My dad,” he says.
“He’s a good guy,” Liam says. “He’ll see it eventually. Mine did.”
He leaves the box with the young boy and takes the bus back to the shop. The bus driver raises an eyebrow at his dirt-streaked face and clothing, but Liam smiles cheerily. He returns to the empty shop without incident, the cool air in the shop chilling the sweat on his face and the smells of chocolate and spells erasing the garbage and car exhaust. Dora stands behind the counter, filling a box with milk chocolate truffles.
“Did you have a nice lunch?” she asks. She holds a truffle to her dark eye for examination, and her mouth curls slightly at a minute flaw. She separates it from the other truffles. “You’ve been gone for more than two hours.”
“I did,” Liam says, “though it felt like days.” He hesitates then barges ahead: when she lifts another truffle for inspection he lightly touches her wrist. She blinks at him, surprised, but doesn’t scold him. Her skin is cool. “Thanks.”
All business, Dora scoffs and adds the truffle to the box. “For your employment? Don’t thank me yet.”
“For the string,” he says. “Was it in case I got lost?”
She closes the half-filled box of chocolate with irritation. “Nonsense. Finish cleaning the basement.”
She disappears behind the beaded curtain and does not emerge again. Liam cleans the store for the rest of his shift, until Dorian enters the shop at sunset with several bags of groceries and allows him to go home. Reeking of dirt, lemon cleaner and sweat, Liam makes the trip to the apartment quickly, taking the flights of stairs two at a time and praying that no one is in the shower. When he opens the front door Eben sits in the living room, painting in the exact same position as he did in the morning, the light fading through the window rather than growing. Liam wonders if his friend has eaten today.
Liam is too tired to beat around the bush. Rather than wait for a proper moment to speak, he simply says loudly, “Are you planning on sleeping tonight?”
Eben starts, a bead of blue paint on the tip of his brush wobbling in surprise before he stills it. When he realizes that it’s Liam speaking he returns his eyes to the canvas. “I don’t know yet.” With an effort Eben lowers his brush, taking in at last Liam’s haggard appearance. “You all right?”
“I fell into a cave today,” Liam explains.
Eben’s mouth quirks, his gray eyes amused. “So that’s the dirt.”
“What’s it like when you paint?” It’s not the exact question Liam wants to ask, but it’s the closest possible.
Eben blinks and purses his lips, looking away to stare at a point in the doorway. The pause is so long that Liam turns to leave, rebuffed, but then Eben speaks.
“It’s like finding yourself in a deep dark place,” Eben says to the door. He slowly dabs the brush on the palette and smiles at his words, the smile he uses when he believes he’s come to the truth of something and no one understands what that truth means but him. It’s a satisfied, cryptic smile that Liam realizes he uses a lot.
Liam nods. He stands in the doorway and watches Eben trace paths on the canvas one stroke at a time. Soon he’ll shower and wash the dirt of the cave out of his hair and skin. I’ve also been in deep dark places, he doesn’t say, I know where you are. He gets it now. The painting is a map. The paintbrush is a white string, tugging his friend out of the dark.