At the end, it wasn’t that he didn’t realize he had a problem, that he was in trouble. It was just that, even knowing that, he couldn’t stop himself—or believed he couldn’t, which amounted to the same thing.
Ray asked him once, in that sympathetic-but-detached way of his, with the unspoken disclaimer if you’re okay talking about it, but it’s no big deal if you’re not,
why he didn’t make a last-ditch effort to stop, go to rehab, ask for help.
“Honestly?” Gerard had replied, shrugging, “I didn’t think I’d survive that, either. And it seemed like going out that way would be a hell of a lot harder. It was like…” He’d paused, searching for a metaphor that fit. “It was like being in a river, getting carried toward a, a fucking waterfall or something, but the shore is all, like, jagged rocks and shit. You can take your chances on the rocks, and hope you don’t get ripped to pieces, or you can just…lay back and let the current do its work, y’know?”
The reality, of course, was a lot less poetic than any metaphor. Nothing poetic about it all, really—just pills and booze, and when that didn’t cut it anymore, cocaine. And then, at last, there was the final catastrophic bender, the one he never came out of.
Not alive, anyway.
The first thing to come back to him is his sense of smell.
He read somewhere once that it's the strongest, that you remember what you smell better than anything else. Whether that's true or not, he recognizes the scent instantly--salt water and clean air.
Feeling comes next--he's lying on something damp and smooth overall, but made up of tiny, hard grains. When sound joins in, it confirms his suspicions with the slow, steady rise and fall of waves rolling and breaking on a beach.
Sight only returns as far as a muted gray light, and he worries for a moment, until he realizes that's because his eyes are closed.
Gerard opens his eyes to see pretty much what he expects--sand and sky and water--except that all the colors are weirdly washed out, like an old, faded photograph. There are no signs of life anywhere around him, no other people, no birds or crabs or insects, and no sound but the noise of the waves. I've been here before,
Gerard thinks as he rolls into a sitting position. It's different with nothing here, but...I was seven and Mikey was four, and we spent a week here one summer. And every day, we tried to go as far out in the water as we could and still stand up. We never made it very far, because Mikey would always get scared, and I'd stay with him. But if I'd been on my own, I could've kept going--I could've—
“…could’ve gone as far out as I wanted,” he murmurs aloud.
He stumbles a little when he gets to his feet, but steadies himself, brushing damp sand from his palms, and moves forward. It never once occurs to him to wonder what he’s doing—it suddenly seems like both the easiest and most logical thing in the world to walk into the water, past his knees, past his waist, past his shoulders. When the waves close over his head, he holds his breath out of pure reflexive instinct, but only for a moment. The urge to struggle against the water passes like it was never there, and then he lets go, all the fight going out of him as he sinks further into welcoming darkness.
…And the next thing he knows, he’s standing in the middle of a field, not even damp. It’s twilight-dark, and the sky overhead is completely blank, with no sign of a moon or any stars. There’s a light breeze, and he’s only wearing a t-shirt, but he’s not that cold, so it’s okay.
Gerard turns in a circle, looking around. In three directions, he can’t even find the horizon—the dark, nondescript ground and the slightly lighter but equally nondescript sky just sort of blur together until he can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.
In the fourth direction, there’s a city.
Gerard’s never been a great judge of long distances, so he’s not sure exactly how far away the city is, but it seems pretty far. In the dark, at this distance, it’s all tall, crumbling spires, outlined darkly against the sky. As he stands there, looking, there’s a sudden flash of light, throwing the buildings into sharp relief for a moment, and a faint noise that sounds like it might be an explosion.
That makes Gerard hesitate—but there’s nothing around but
the city, so if he’s not gonna just stay where he is, he may as well head in that direction. See what it looks like from closer up, at least.
It’s hard to keep track of time with nothing but his footsteps to mark its passage by, but Gerard’s sort of used to having no idea what time it is. Consequence of spending so much of his time drunk or high. It stopped bothering him a long time ago.
Anyway, he doesn’t have any idea how long he’s been walking when he first sees the eyes.
they’re eyes, anyway, yellow and faintly luminous. That’s all he can tell at first, until maybe his
eyes adjust a little further, or maybe it gets a little lighter—for all he knows, this could be dawn instead of twilight, or maybe things like day or night have no meaning here and it gets darker or lighter based on some totally different system. Whichever it is, he can see a little more clearly now, and that’s when he notices that yeah, those are definitely eyes, and they belong to a pack of wolves.
There’s no panic in the realization; it’s just another piece of input, one more thing to factor in to his perception of this whole experience. Oh. Wolves. So that’s how it is.
At first, there’s just a few of them on either side, barely visible in Gerard’s peripheral vision. Then, when he looks again, there are more. He can hear them breathing, and the soft padding noises of their feet, but that’s the only sound that comes from them—until a low growl alerts Gerard that there are wolves behind him, as well.
Gerard keeps walking, a little faster but not running, because what the hell else
are you going to do when you’re unarmed in a strange place with wolves at your back?
One of the wolves behind him speeds up a little, gets close enough that Gerard feels hot breath on his back. That makes it more real, suddenly, and thus a lot more scary. Gerard’s first impulse is to freeze. His second is to break into a run. He clamps down on both and keeps walking at a steady pace.
“I just walked into an ocean and came out okay,” he says out loud, doing his best to keep his voice calm and steady. “Who says I need to be afraid of a bunch of wolves?”
A laugh comes from somewhere to his left—it sounds human, and it’s high-pitched, with an edge to it that might be hysteria. “Fair enough. But who says you don’t?”
Gerard turns his head. There’s a girl walking among the wolves, a hand resting on one’s back like it’s a pet. In the dim light, she looks totally monochrome—dark dress, white skin, dark hair and eyes.
“…Hi,” Gerard says. “Um. Are these your wolves?”
She laughs again at that. “In a sense, I suppose they are. But I didn’t send them here, and they don’t answer to me alone.”
“Oh.” So on the one hand, that might mean she can’t, like, sic the wolves on him, but on the other, it might mean she can’t call them off if they go for him on their own.
“You’ve done well not to run,” the girl continues sweetly. “They like to chase things that run.”
“It didn’t seem like the best idea,” Gerard replies, darting another glance around at the wolves.
The girl looks over at him and smiles widely, showing white teeth. “It’s unnerving, isn’t it? Not knowing whether or not they’re about to attack?”
“Don’t tease him, sister.”
The new voice comes from Gerard’s right, and when he turns, there’s another girl there. She looks almost exactly like the first, only where the other has a manic grin and a sharp, sweet voice, this one’s voice is low, and her expression is solemn, almost sad.
The other one makes a face at her, childishly petulant. “Spoil my fun, why don’t you. As usual.”
“It’s not my fault you get your fun from tormenting people,” the second girl says calmly, and then looks at Gerard. “They won’t harm you. And neither will we.”
“Okay,” Gerard says. “That’s…good to know. Thank you.”
One of the wolves growls, and the second girl turns her gaze on it, her melancholy look never changing. “You won’t,” she repeats simply. “He’s not for you.”
The wolf snarls at her, then breaks into a run. The others follow suit, and Gerard does freeze then, but not one of them touches him, the ones behind him veering to either side to run around him instead.
“There,” the second girl says. “Now we can talk.”
She turns to Gerard, and holds out both hands with an expectant look. Gerard hesitates a moment, and then puts his hands in hers. She smiles faintly, which doesn’t do much to counteract her air of sadness—it’s like the sadness is her default state, and any other emotions she shows are just getting laid over that, like a thin coat of paint that doesn’t really hide what’s beneath it.
“Do you know where you are?” she asks.
Gerard takes a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about that, actually.“
“And?” she prompts gently.
Gerard hesitates. Thinking while he walks along in this place has been one thing. Saying
it is another. Saying it will make it real.
“Well, the last thing I remember before the beach is getting pretty cosmically fucked-up. And since then, things have been like a really weird dream, but I feel more lucid than I have in…a long time actually.” Gerard looks down at their joined hands as he speaks; his skin looks almost as pale as hers, and feels almost as cold. “So I figure…either I’m having the trip of a lifetime, or.” He swallows hard, and finishes, “I’m dead?”
The girl gives him that sad smile again, and squeezes his hands gently. “It’s best when you realize it on your own, trust me. The ones who have to be told are always the saddest.”
There’s a dizzy, yawning sensation in the pit of Gerard’s stomach, like being on a roller coaster just before the first big drop. When he speaks, his own voice sounds distant, muted. “Overdose?”
The girl nods, and tilts her head to one side questioningly. “Did you mean to? It’s difficult to tell, sometimes.”
“No,” Gerard replies, though it doesn’t come out as certain as he means it to. “I mean, I wasn’t thinking about OD-ing. I wasn’t thinking about anything.”
“What if you had been?” she presses. “Would you have done it intentionally?”
“No,” Gerard says again, more firmly this time. “No, I wouldn’t have done that to—”
It crashes in on him then, the dreamlike state he’s been in broken by cold realization—he can’t say he would never do that to Mikey, because unless this is a trip or a dream, he did
He closes his eyes, gripping the girl’s hands, and whispers, “I can’t go back, can I?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” she replies softly. ”What’s done can’t be undone. But there’s something for you here, if you want it. Something you can be. I know you’ve wished for that, and you can have it, here.”
Gerard can’t bring himself to care about what there might be here, at the moment, can’t think of anything but what he’s done and what he left behind. All the same, those words resonate with him. They’re worth remembering, important somehow, even if he can’t tell why
, and he instinctively files them away to come back to later.
“What about Mikey?” he asks. “Will he be okay? Does…does he know yet?”
The girl shakes her head. “That’s not for me to say. I’m sorry.”
She sounds it—sounds as though she’s on the verge of tears, actually. Gerard looks at her, at her white, white skin and her dark, dark eyes and her expression of perpetual sadness. “Who are you?”
The girl leans in, kisses him on the cheek, and Gerard feels tears prick his eyes, sharp and sudden.
“Regret,” she whispers, close to his ear, and then draws back. “Now you need to talk to my sister. Try not to be afraid of her; she can’t help but be what she is.”
“Your sister?” Gerard echoes, turning. The first girl, the one with the sharp smile, is still there, looking faintly bored as she watches them.
“Still here,” she says, and holds out her own hands. “Come on, then. My turn.”
Gerard lets go of the other’s—Regret’s—hands, though he’s a bit reluctant to take her sister’s. When he does, his heartbeat—he still has one, interestingly enough—speeds up, and his mouth goes dry.
She smiles at him, all teeth. “And who do you suppose I am?”
Gerard swallows past the dryness, and answers steadily. “Fear?”
She nods. “Very good. As I said: the wolves are mine, in a sense.” She frees one hand to touch his chin, tilting his head from side to side as she studies him. “You don’t scare easy, do you? That’s good, you’ll need it.”
“I take it there’s things I should be afraid of here?” he asks, meeting her eyes. “The wolves?”
“And other things.” When Gerard gives her a questioning look, Fear shakes her head disapprovingly. “If I told you everything at once, it wouldn’t be any fun
Gerard considers asking who it’s supposed to be fun for, her or him, but he thinks he can guess the answer. “Is there anything else you will tell me?”
“Just this: fear exists for a reason. You can try to deny it, you can buckle under it—or you can use it. Trust your instincts, and remember that a wolf is more likely to give chase if you run from it.”
Like Regret, she leans in and kisses his cheek—the opposite one from her sister, and Gerard’s not as surprised by the little jolt of adrenaline that goes through him.
“What should I do?” he asks as she draws back.
“For a start?” Fear raises one arm, and points toward the horizon. “Head for the city.”
“You’ll find what you need there,” Regret adds, moving to stand beside her sister. “Or it will find you.”
Gerard glances toward the city on the horizon, at the distance between there and where he’s standing, and then back at the sisters, who are standing close together now, arms around each others’ waists.
“Will you come with me?” he asks.
Regret shakes her head. “Not us. But we can send someone to take you there, if you’ll wait.”
Gerard hesitates. “What if the wolves come back?”
“They won’t,” Fear says, but then adds unhelpfully, “Probably.”
“As I said, they won’t harm you,” Regret says, more reassuringly. “They have rules to follow, whether they like it or not.”
“All right.” Gerard looks back toward the city, squaring his shoulders resolutely. “All right. And, um, thank you both.”
No answer comes, and when he turns to look, there’s no sign of either girl.
“People come and go so quickly here,” Gerard mutters to himself—though, really, this isn’t much of a Wonderland so far.
So he waits. The sky gets light enough for him to see pretty clearly, but if this is sunrise, there’s no sign of the sun. It seems more like ambient light, coming from all around, and it’s bright but pale, the colors still washed out. Every so often there’s another flash of brighter light and another distant explosion from the direction of the city.
Gerard’s not sure how long he waits, but he feels pretty comfortable, not hungry or tired or anything. He also—and this takes a while for him to really be sure of—feels completely clearheaded and sober, and okay with that. For the first time in years, that constant itch under his skin, the feeling that he needs
a drink or something stronger…isn’t there. It feels like the addiction’s been taken out of him, somehow, like a wound being lanced until the blood runs clean again.
That hammers it all home: that he’s dead, that he’s left everything he knew behind and couldn’t go back if he wanted to. Whether he’d want to is a question he puts off for now; on the one hand, there’s everything he’s glad to leave behind, and on the other, there’s Mikey. When he realizes his hands are shaking, realizes there are tears running down his cheeks, he doesn’t bother trying to stop it or wipe the tears away—just waits for it to pass, and it does.
When the girl on the horse shows up, she startles him, appearing as quickly and quietly as Fear and Regret did. One moment he’s alone, and the next, there’s the sound of hoofbeats muffled by grass, and when Gerard turns his head, she’s there.
There’s a sword strapped to her hip, and both she and the horse wear armor, the metal dark but well-polished. She’s young-looking and thin, with short, dark hair and a certain boyishness—Gerard’s almost not sure she is a girl, except that intuition pushes him that way.
“Hello,” he says, and she looks at him in silence for a moment before replying.
“Hello,” she says, in a voice that pushes Gerard’s impression more strongly towards both female, and young. “You’re going to the city.”
“I can take you there,” she tells him, and pats the horse’s neck with a tiny smile. “He can bear us both.”
She holds out a hand, and Gerard walks over and takes it. He expects it to be work getting up there—he’s never been on a horse—but the girl pulls him up easily, with more strength than it seems like she should be capable of, and waits patiently until he gets settled.
“Hold on to me,” she says, and Gerard takes that as permission to put his hands on her waist (although it’s not like he could accidentally grope her or anything through a suit of armor, so maybe he doesn’t need to worry much about formality). “Ready?”
Gerard squirms a bit more in a vain attempt to get comfortable, then nods. “As I’ll ever be.”
The girl doesn’t speak once they start moving, and Gerard’s content to let the silence stay unbroken. He holds on to her and watches the city get closer, and when another bout of shakiness hits, he puts his head down and concentrates on breathing steadily, and if the girl notices, she doesn’t say anything.
Another flash of light and muffled explosion comes from the direction of the city, and Gerard looks up, lifting one hand to swipe at his eyes briefly before speaking.
“Is—is there fighting going on in the city?” he asks, and the girl shakes her head.
“Not within the city itself. It’s the soldiers in the trenches.”
“Soldiers?” Gerard echoes questioningly.
“The ones who die in battle,” the girl replies solemnly. “Sometimes they don’t want to lay down arms when they get here. Or don’t realize they can.”
“Oh,” Gerard says. “Doesn’t anyone tell them?”
“They don’t listen,” she says. “The only one who could make them stop is the Mother, and it suits her to let them fight.”
“The Mother?” From the way she says it, it sounds like some official title. “Who’s that?”
“You’ll meet her,” the girl says, and for the first time she sounds abrupt, terse. “Everyone does.” Without waiting for a reply, she raises a hand to point. “Do you see the hill west of the city, and the house there?”
Gerard looks, and nods. “Yeah.” It’s less of a house than a sprawling mansion, maybe two miles out.
“Don’t go there,” the girl says simply.
“In all the time I’ve been here—over five hundred years—no one who has gone into that house has been known to come out again.”
“…That’s a good reason,” Gerard agrees.
The grass they’ve been riding over turns abruptly to bare, hard-packed dirt as they near the outskirts of the city. The damage that Gerard could catch glimpses of before is clearer now—the place looks like a fucking war zone. Within another mile or so, the horse slows to a walk, picking its way carefully over rubble so high and dense it’s like a barricade in places. The girl steers them through it confidently, finding paths Gerard would never have seen.
“What happened here?” Gerard asks. “I thought you said the fighting wasn’t in the city?”
“It used to be,” the girl says. “The soldiers used to have free reign here, until they were exiled to the trenches almost a century ago, and the damage to the city left to stand as a reminder of why. Skirmish parties still cross into the city sometimes, but there’s a—I forget what they call it, a sound that lets people know to seek cover.”
“A siren,” Gerard supplies. “So…is it really safe for people to be here?”
She shrugs. “As safe as any place in this land. Between the soldiers and the wolves, many consider the soldiers the lesser danger.”
Eventually, the wreckage gets clearer, until there are just a few scattered piles of debris here and there. The girl reins the horse in, turning to look at Gerard. “For my own part, I don’t often go farther into the city than this—it and I are ill-suited to one another. Can you find your way from here?”
Gerard slides down, stumbles a little. “I’m…not sure where I’m going from here, really. I was told to head for the city, that’s it.”
The girl smiles sympathetically. “I see. You might try the House of Wolves. They’re kind to newcomers there.”
“Thanks,” Gerard says, and then, “Uh. The House of Wolves
“Don’t worry,” she says solemnly. “The only wolves there are in the name.”
Gerard nods, somewhat reassured. “Okay. Thank you for the ride. And everything you told me.”
“There’s much to learn here,” she says, looking down at him. “If we see one another again, and you have questions, I’ll answer them if I may.”
“Thanks,” he says again, with a faint smile. “Oh, and if we do see each other again—I’m Gerard.”
“I am Jeanne,” she says, and turns her horse, but looks back at him before she departs. “Go well, Gerard.”
The House of Wolves doesn't look like much when he finds it: it's small and dark, huddled in the shadow of taller buildings like it's trying to hide. The name is spelled out in lurid neon letters across the front, but several are shorted out, so that it actually says OUS F W LV S, with the S flickering ominously. There's also a figure outlined in twisted neon tubes--a wolf standing on his hind legs and wearing a suit, like the one from those old cartoons, that used to literally wolf-whistle at showgirls.
Gerard can hear music spilling out into the street; fast and heavy, with a jazzy, swinging sound to it--but it's just a little too fast, with something frantic and almost desperate about it.
Inside, it’s smoky, dim, and crowded. The bar takes up one whole wall, lit by flickering lights in brass sconces. In the middle are rickety wooden tables and chairs with cracked leather seats, and on the wall directly opposite the bar, there’s the stage.
The band is the sort of big jazz ensemble Gerard expected from what he could hear outside--guitars and drums, but also piano and horns and a big standing bass.
Sheer force of habit carries Gerard towards the bar, but when the bartender leans his way and calls "Get you anything, pal?", he blinks, caught off-guard.
"...Coffee?" he says after a moment, and the bartender produces a mug and fills it from a pot sitting on a burner nearby.
"Sure you don't want anything stronger?" he asks as he sets the mug in front of Gerard.
Gerard pauses, and then shakes his head. "No," he says, almost tentatively, sounding it out. It sounds right—a little weird, but right. "No, I'm good. Thanks. But, um, I don't have any--"
The bartender waves a hand at him dismissively. "Yeah, you and at least half the people who show up here. No one thinks they're gonna need money in the afterlife anymore. I'll start a tab. Name?"
The bartender scribbles it down on a pad, then holds out a hand. "Brian Schechter. Welcome to the House."
"Thanks," Gerard says, shaking. Brian's short, but with a bearing and a direct look that makes the shortness not seem to matter much. "So how's the tab thing work?"
"You find a way to pay me back," Brian tells him. "Or you don't, and eventually I cut you off, but it's not like turning a big profit is something I have to worry about here—no mortgage or taxes or anything like that."
Gerard sips his coffee. "So what sort of things do people do to pay you back?"
Brian shrugs. "Trade, if they've got anything worth trading. Labor if not--the staff and the band all use their jobs to pay off their tabs."
"Yeah?" Gerard turns to sit sideways, glancing at the band. One of the guitarists catches his eye—dark-haired, with tattoos visible on his neck and hands. He’s small but energetic, snapping his head back and forth to the beat and moving around as much as he can without stumbling into his fellow musicians.
The other guitarist, in contrast, is tall and broad-shouldered, standing with his feet planted apart. He's only in motion from the shoulders up, headbanging like he's playing heavy metal and not swing, a mass of curly, dark-red hair flying around his face.
“Yeah,” Brian says. “Hey—you’re pretty new, aren’t you? I don’t just mean here, I mean…”
Gerard nods, turning back toward him. “Fresh off the boat. Only there wasn’t any boat. Which I guess is good, because, like you said, I didn’t bring any money.”
Brian cracks a grin at that, but there’s no humor in his voice when he says, “You met the twins, I guess?”
“You mean Fear and Regret?” Gerard asks. “Do—do they talk to everyone?”
“Everyone I’ve ever asked about it,” Brian says.
“What about the wolf pack welcoming committee?” Gerard asks. “Everyone get that?”
Brian arches an eyebrow. “Depends. Are we talking seeing the wolves from a distance, or up close and personal?”
“Pretty fucking close,” Gerard says. “They followed me around for a while.”
“…Huh. Not everyone gets that.”
It’s Gerard’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Does it mean anything that I did?”
Brian shrugs. “Search me. People see ‘em on their way into the city all the time, but not usually up close. In any case, they don’t come into the city, but if you leave for any reason, I’d be careful. And stay away from the big house on the hill, they’ve have been known to hang around there.”
Gerard nods. “I got warned away from that place already. I caught a ride into the city with a girl—”
“Jeanne?” Brian guesses, with a faint smile. “She’s a good kid. Keeps to herself, but she helps newcomers out now and then.”
“She seemed nice,” Gerard says. “I’ve been wondering, though, between the wolves and the soldiers—”
“You can be hurt here, but not killed,” Brian says, obviously used to that question. “You get shot, you fall off a building—or, say, you get mauled by a wolf—you’ll feel it, and then you’ll heal. It’s slow and not fun.”
“…Okay,” Gerard replies. “I’ll, uh, try to avoid things like that, then.”
“Good plan. Like I said, the wolves stay out of the city—as for the soldiers, most buildings around here have shelters for when they cross the barricades. You hear a siren, just look for a line of people heading for the basement.”
“Sounds like fun,” Gerard says dryly.
“Buckets of it,” Brian replies, and then glances down the bar, spotting someone trying to catch his attention. “So, hey, you being new, I’d say the best thing for you to do right now is just sit for a while. Give yourself time to adjust, y’know? You need anything, I’ll be around.”
“Thanks,” Gerard says, and smiles a little. “Nice meeting you, Brian.”
He takes Brian’s advice, and he’s still sitting at the bar when the band breaks and most of them head that way. In the sudden press, Gerard turns at the wrong moment and catches an elbow in the chest from the smaller of the two guitarists, who's gesturing with both hands as he talks to the other one.
"Whoa, sorry, pal," he says, one hand landing on Gerard's shoulder. "You okay?"
"Fine," Gerard says a little weakly, rubbing his chest.
“He does that a lot,” the taller guitarist says, looking at Gerard right over the top of the shorter one’s head. “Just be glad you didn’t get it in the face, man.”
, Toro,” the other one protests with a glance over his shoulder, and then turns back to Gerard, shaking his head sadly. “You elbow a guy in the face once, on accident, and he never lets you forget it.”
“Well, I guess it is my own fault for having been sitting down at the time,” the taller one concedes. “Since that’s the only way you could reach
my face.” Leaning past the smaller one, he holds out a hand to Gerard. “Don’t mind Iero, here, he was born running his mouth. I’m Ray.”
“Gerard,” Gerard says, shaking, and then looks at the other one. “And you are?”
The shorter one grabs his hand and shakes enthusiastically enough that Gerard’s arm hurts a little afterwards. “Francis Anthony Iero, Jr., but call me Frank. And I am sorry about the elbow—can I buy you a drink to make up for it?”
“If you want.” The back-and-forth between the two guitarists makes Gerard feel a bit like a spectator at a verbal ping-pong match, but they both seem friendly, not to mention pretty normal, which is a refreshing change. “Coffee?”
Frank doesn’t wait for Brian to come their way, just leans over the bar and yells. “Hey, Schechter! Gin and tonic for me, coffee for the new guy, and—Toro, beer?—a beer for Toro.”
“Some day you’re gonna learn that I’ll serve you faster and more cheerfully if you order like a civilized person, Iero,” Brian calls back, staying where he is.
“You know you love it!” Frank returns.
“How’d you know I was new?” Gerard asks, and it’s Ray who answers, with a slight shrug.
“Between the two of us, we know pretty much everyone who comes here. Besides, you’ve got that look.”
“You got a place to stay yet?” Frank asks, having stopped harassing Brian.
“No,” Gerard says. “I haven’t been here very long, and this is the first place I’ve been since I got to the city.”
Frank looks at Ray, raises his eyebrows a little, and jerks his head toward Gerard. Ray raises his own eyebrows, makes a considering face, and then nods.
“We’ve got a couch, if you’re interested,” Frank says.
Frank and Ray live in a slightly shabby but moderately-sized two-bedroom apartment in a building right next door to the House of Wolves. It’s reached by a spiral metal staircase from the lobby, which creaks alarmingly but holds steady as the three of them make their way up. Every so often, with the noise of the club gone, Gerard can hear the crash and echo of another explosion.
“You’re sure this isn’t a problem?” Gerard asks Ray while Frank rummages in a closet for extra bedding.
“Not at all,” Ray says. “Best way to get along here is if people look out for each other. And this is how Frankie and I met, actually—I crashed with him when I first got here, and then just sort of stuck around.”
“Oh,” Gerard says. “So he…”
“I died first, yeah,” Frank says candidly, coming back with a blanket. “1938, and Toro here didn’t show up ‘til ‘79—sorry, man, couldn’t find a pillow anywhere.”
“That’s fine,” Gerard says. “Is it, um—”
“We don’t talk a lot about how or when we died, but it’s not, like, a forbidden subject,” Ray tells him. “Ask what you want. Worst case, you’ll get a ‘I’d rather not answer that’, but we won’t get upset with you for asking.”
“All right.” Gerard doesn’t ask any more for now, and doesn’t offer any information about his own death. If either of them asks about it, he’ll deal with it then.
Frank spreads the blanket out on the couch, then turns. “Okay, I’m gonna hit the sack. You need anything, I’m on the right, Ray’s on the left.”
He heads into his bedroom, and Gerard glances at Ray, who shrugs again. “I’m good for a while if you want to hang out.”
Gerard shakes his head. “I should probably try to get some sleep. It’s…been a long, weird day.”
“Yeah, I remember my first day here,” Ray says. “Like Frank said, anything you need. Night, man.”
On Gerard’s first night in the city, he has a nightmare.
Nightmares are nothing new for him, really, and at least it’s not the one where he sees people he loves dying, or the one where he can’t breathe, where he feels like he’s being choked. It seems like kind of a raw deal to be still having nightmares in the fucking afterlife, though.
He’s never had this one before. There’s fire, serious, no-fucking-around inferno
fire all around him but not touching him. There are certain things he knows, in the way you can know things in a dream without questioning how you know them. He’s supposed to be finding something, or doing something. There are other people here somewhere, lost amid the fire the same way he is, and if he can find them, they’ll help him. But no matter where he turns he can’t get away from it, can’t see or hear anything but roaring flame.
He finally gathers his courage and just runs
, hoping that he can make it through, come out on the other side in one piece.
He does. But on the other side, there’s nothing. Absolute nothing, just a vast, yawning void, the ground dropping away abruptly into darkness and emptiness. He teeters on the edge, trying to catch himself, find a balance—but there’s nothing, no safe ground to reach. Just the fire behind him and the darkness in front of him, and try as he might, the only way this is going to end is with him falling into one or the other.
He manages to stand for another moment, caught between the two, and then his foot slips and he closes his eyes, bracing himself for the fall.II.