Chapter Twenty One
Brandon opened his eyes slowly, feeling groggy and disoriented. For a moment he just stared up at the familiar white ceiling above him, squinting in the bar of sunlight that lay across his face, then pushed himself up and looked around his bedroom. His head hurt and his mouth felt full of sand, and when he reached up to rub at his eyes he found the muscles in his forearms had gone stiff and painful. Wondering what he’d been doing the night before—and if he’d blacked out from getting drunk—he heaved himself to his feet and went down the hall to the bathroom.
He felt better after washing his face and drinking a glass of water, enough to go down to the kitchen and think about making something to eat. The light coming in through the window looked strange; the deep orange of sunset, shot through with bloody red streaks, its glow somehow ominous. He shivered and turned his back on it, shoving a couple of waffles into the toaster for something to quiet his stomach.
A sudden knock on the door sent a chill up his back, though he didn’t understand why. He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment then shook himself and went to answer it, smiling and relaxing when he saw it was only Alejandro. Stepping back, he made an expansive gesture of welcome and got a smirk in return as Alejandro passed him, crowding him a little even in the small space of the hall. Brandon led the way into the kitchen and was on the verge of offering to stick more waffles in the toaster when Alejandro suddenly caught him by both arms and shoved him up against the wall hard enough to rebound his skull off the unforgiving plaster.
He barely got his mouth open to protest before Alejandro covered it with his own, kissing him with bruising force. A jolt of sudden lust went through him, centering in his lower belly, and he tangled his fingers in the front of Alejandro’s shirt, opening his mouth to Alejandro’s tongue. Alejandro bit his lower lip hard enough to sting, hands sliding up under his shirt and stroking across bare skin before catching the hem and pulling it up over his head. In the brief space between them Brandon tried to catch his breath, so turned on his head was spinning and he could barely manage to think straight.
“Leandro...” He inhaled sharply as Alejandro’s hands slid down to the waistband of his sweatpants. “Jesus.”
“Got it right the first time.” Alejandro paused just long enough to give him a wicked grin before leaning in again and nipping at the sensitive spot just under Brandon’s ear, hard enough that Brandon grunted through gritted teeth.
“Not... not what I meant.” Through the haze he wondered if he’d had something other than alcohol the night before; if he’d smoked or taken something stronger that was still affecting him now.
“Give in,” Alejandro murmured in his ear. “You want me, don’t you?”
“Apparently.” Brandon managed a breathless laugh. “Never been so turned on in my life, fuck.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Alejandro kissed the hollow of his throat, moving down to lay a trail of kisses from his collarbone to his stomach, sliding onto his knees.
“Wait, just wait a minute.” Brandon forced himself to twist reluctantly away, bracing himself with one hand against the wall. “What about Ciaran?”
Alejandro looked up at him, head slightly tilted in a way that was disturbingly predatory. “What about him? He’s not here. You are and I am.”
Brandon stared for a moment then took another step away. “What’s gotten into you? You’d never dismiss Ciaran like that. The whole reason we even left... our world...” He stumbled over the words, flinching at a sudden pain in his head like a bolt of lightning. “This isn’t right. None of it is. We’re not sixteen anymore and I don’t... We’re just supposed to be friends.”
Alejandro looked him up and down, arching one eyebrow. “You weren’t exactly being platonic a few minutes ago.”
“Shoving me up against the wall and trying to swallow my tonsils isn’t all that conducive to straight thinking, okay?” Brandon rubbed at his arms, watching Alejandro warily. Around him the orange-red light of the sunset painted the walls and stung at his eyes, turning a wide swath of the floor as red as blood.
Alejandro picked himself up with negligent ease, stretching his fingertips up to the ceiling so that his shirt rose and bared a few inches of skin. Forcing himself to look away, Brandon pinched his own arm hard enough to bruise, willing himself to wake up. Nothing happened except that he got a good look at his wrists, where bloody half-moons cut deep into his skin. He saw dark eyes suddenly, looking into his with terror and hatred, as the life slowly faded out of them.
“No,” he said out loud, shaking his head and pressing himself into the wall behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut and when he opened them again, Alejandro was gone; in his place Brandon saw himself at 17, arrogant and desperate for love and attention.
“You’re so pathetic,” his younger self said. “You’ve always been pathetic. Even your own mother didn’t want you, and your dad only cared as long as you were getting good grades in school.”
“That’s not true, he cares,” Brandon mumbled through numb lips. The orange light had faded and a chill was beginning to creep in, bringing up goosebumps on his bare skin. The walls of his apartment fell silently away and he saw he was standing on a high plateau under the velvet-dark night sky. The stars twinkled coldly above him, distant and unfriendly.
“Bullshit. I’m you, remember? I know your deepest, darkest thoughts. I know how he tried to force you into college when you wanted to go sing with that band, and I know that he thinks you’re a worthless waste of oxygen. A drug addict, a drunk, fucks anything that walks.” His younger self grinned and blew overlong hair—he’d dyed it blue when he was seventeen, the first time he’d changed his appearance—out of his eyes. “He wishes you were never born.”
“Well, I guess that makes two of us then.” Brandon bared his teeth in what was more a snarl than a smile. For a moment he thought he saw uncertainty in his younger self’s eyes, as though he’d diverged from some sort of pre-written script. Taking a deep breath, he walked to the edge of the plateau, trying not to sway at the dizzying drop onto rock and scrub below. “Maybe I should just jump off this and make it easier on both of us.”
“Or I could give you what you want.”
Brandon kicked at the edge of the plateau, watching a chunk of earth break off and smash on the rocks. “Oh yeah? What do I want?”
“You could be a singer. Or just rich. I could give you Alejandro, or anyone else you wanted. Name it and it would be yours.”
“I kinda like it when my lovers have minds of their own and aren’t just robots acting like slaves to my whim. If I wanted that, I’d just buy a sex doll.” He turned around to face his younger self. “The whole Father of Lies, I-can-give-you-anything-you-want is seriously boring. I might not be the brightest bulb, but I’m not a complete idiot.”
His younger self just smiled. “No? Then remember.”
Brandon blinked and found himself standing in Lake Ontario again, Alejandro on his right and Nabila on his left, their hands clasped together. Gradually the lake around them faded into desert and he saw Shoshanna and Alejandro go down at almost the same instant, collapsing bonelessly into the sand. He tried to go to them but his body ignored his commands, instead sliding down onto its knees as his hands came up to press hard into his temples. He watched helplessly, trapped inside his own mind, as Nabila crouched beside Shoshanna and rolled her over, then felt his body get up and move towards both women.
The force controlling his body hauled Nabila to her feet by one wrist and then headbutted her in the face, knocking her to the sand. Brandon fought to regain control, screaming silently, as his hands wrapped around Nabila’s neck, choking off her air. She clawed at his wrists but his body only pressed harder, leaning over her so they were staring into each other’s eyes as the light in hers began to fade. His hands squeezed until she went limp, blood running dark from her nose, then they let her go to slump lifelessly into a heap.
He came back to himself on the starlit plateau, down on his knees and screaming, his voice cracking with the force of his horror. When he closed his eyes he saw Nabila staring at him accusingly, the imprint of his hands black and red around her throat. Fingers touched his hair and he jerked aside, whimpering, tears running hot down his cheeks.
“Still don’t think I can give you anything?” his younger self asked, crouching down beside him. “I’ve played nice, Brandon. That ends here. How many more do you think I can make you kill? Ciaran? Alejandro?”
“It’s not real.” His voice was thick with tears and barely audible even to himself. “You’re fucking with me, it isn’t real.”
“No?” His younger self grabbed his wrist with one hand and his chin with the other, forcing him to look at the crescent wounds in his flesh. “You think those aren’t real? She left you with those to mark you, to show you that you killed her.”
“You killed her!”
“They were your hands.” His younger self shoved him away, forcing him to catch himself awkwardly so he wouldn’t fall over. “How do you think the witch and Alejandro will see it? They woke to find her dead and you gone.”
“I’d never hurt anyone and Alejandro knows it.”
“Too bad he’s slated for execution then.” His younger self grabbed his hair and jerked his head back, forcing him to look up again.
The air in front of him shimmered and cleared into a tall wooden platform in the center of a town square. A pair of guards pushed Alejandro into view and forced him up the steps to the middle of the platform, where a huge man carrying an axe waited patiently beside a chopping block. Brandon moaned low in his throat as the guards forced Alejandro down onto his knees and pushed him over the block, sweeping his hair aside to bare the back of his neck. Around the platform a crowd watched silently, their faces hard with anger and fear. The man with the axe brought it gently down to just barely kiss the back of Alejandro’s neck, then raised it high and brought it down again with one swift sure stroke.
Brandon screamed, a wordless cry of loss and pain, tasting blood in the back of his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut, fighting to draw breath through what felt like a vice gripping his chest, and willed it all to go away, to let him wake up in his own bed in a world that made sense.
“You have no one,” his younger self said in his ear. “You are no one. Ask me to take the pain away, Brandon. Ask me to save him.”
“I... can’t.” He forced the words out through sobs so hard he was almost hyperventilating. “Whatever you want... I’m not letting you have it.”
“You really are a stubborn son of a bitch, aren’t you?” His younger self laughed, settling a cool hand on the back of Brandon’s neck. “How long do you think you can hold out? It might take longer, but I’ll take you by force if I have to. I just don’t like to expend the effort.”
Brandon only shook his head wordlessly, hunching in on himself. He sensed his younger self stand up and take a step away, and risked opening one eye just enough to watch his younger self pace along the edge of the plateau. Taking a deep breath, he judged the distance and launched himself at his younger self, the force of his charge taking them both over the edge of the plateau and down towards the killing rocks far below.
He landed so hard he bounced, rolling over and over through rocky sands until he came to a breathless stop on his stomach, his ribs on fire and the taste of blood in his mouth. For long moments he just lay there, panting for breath, before gingerly pushing himself up onto his hands and knees. Blood dripped from his mouth, where he’d bitten clean through his bottom lip, and his right arm was a raw scraped mess, trembling with the strain of helping to hold his weight up. He carefully shifted back onto his knees, favouring his injured side, and looked towards the rocks only a few feet away.
His younger self lay crumpled in the midst of the rocks, staining them with blood that looked black under the moonlight. He watched for a long time but the body didn’t move, and when he finally managed to get his feet under him and limp towards it, he saw only lifeless green eyes staring up at the dark sky with an expression of surprise. He still cautiously leaned down and pressed two trembling fingers to the body’s throat, trying not to recoil at the thought that he was touching a corpse, especially one wearing his own teenage face, but there was no movement beneath his fingers.
He spat blood onto the rocks and turned away, limping slowly across the sands, hoping to find shelter and people before the sun rose and turned the desert into an oven.