Zephan and Jero

On the dresser was a picture of two young boys. The one on the left was scrawny and pale, with long red scrapes on his elbows and knees, with dark hair cropped down to a bare fringe in an attempt to get it under control. There was a wildness and a cheer about him that seemed multiplied a hundred fold by the way pale green eyes were locked on the face of his friend; by the way he clutched at one lean, long arm and laughed up into the taller boy’s face.

The one on the right was very different. His hair was a white blond that fell in waves about his face and shoulders, exposed limbs smooth and slim and unmarred, fingers thin and bony, something about them making the observer feel like a thousand little creatures were crawling up and down his spine. And while this boy was also smiling, it was a sideways, distant expression, as if standing a head taller than anyone else his age gave him an outsider’s point of view, the ability to look in on the workings of these inferior humans and shake his head despairingly. His eyes were unhuman except for the love and the hope that was cast down toward his clinging friend.

Zephan, who had gone out into the other room to gather some more blankets and another pillow, slipped quietly back into the bedroom and froze when he saw what Jerolin was examining. His own closed-off eyes flickered from the worn photograph to the questioning expression on his guest’s face. For a moment, he looked like he was drowning - but he quickly gathered himself, dropping blankets and pillow down onto the foot of the bed and crossing to stand beside Jerolin. Shoulders curled in, posture slumped, head bowed slightly, and he was still an inch or two taller than the man.

"That’s me," he whispered, a spidery finger tapping the glass over the runt, the animated, dark-haired boy. Perhaps he expected a shout or surprise, an arched eyebrow, a widening of the other’s blue eyes. He seemed almost disappointed when Jerolin merely nodded his understanding, and there was a long pause before he tapped at the other boy’s face.

"That’s Thomas. We’re almost fifteen in this picture, freshmen in high school. He was my best friend." There was something almost bitter and angry about his voice at this last statement, an unhealed hurt mixed with lingering love and adoration. His eyes were locked fiercely on the distant young boy, his fingers shifted as if he could still feel the crook of a strong arm beneath them. A vague and unreadable expression crept up onto his face: lips curling up into a sideways smile, head cocked to one side, sage eyes taking on the color of absinthe and beginning to swirl madly. It was terrifying, and Jerolin could not look away. It reminded him of the unhuman calm on Thomas’s face, in that picture.

"I don’t know what it was about him," Zephan’s voice turned dreamy again, as if he was a million miles [or nearly fifteen years] away. Still watching Thomas in the picture, as if expecting him to jump out, or move, or say something reassuring, or apologize.

"We had a club, just the two of us. There was this beaten-down kind of forest behind my house, where trees had fallen to obscure paths or form uncomfortable little hollows that could serve as meeting halls. Deer used to parade around, eating all the flowers and occasionally leaving a perfect footprint in half-decomposed leaves for us to try to follow. Squirrels, grey and red and black, used to chase each other twisting up magnolia trees, chattering and raining nuts down on the ground.

"His parents fancied themselves magicians or witches, they had a hundred black books with pentagrams on their covers, with names like The Ever Flowing Earth. He used to snatch books from the shelf and bring them with him, hidden under his shirt so that my parents wouldn’t see. Then we’d run out into one of our hollows in the woods as it was turning dark and flip through it in search of some spell or another that we could do before the sky turned fully black."

Slowly, unblinking absinthe eyes were turned on the attentive Jerolin, catching him and holding him. Zephan’s soft voice had taken on a musical, lilting tone - it was easy to listen to, hypnotic, other worldly. It became abundantly clear that there was something else to him, besides the quiet and distant editor who sat in cluttered cyber cafes and watched the people tap away at their laptops. That same sideways smile tugged at his mouth. It was meant to be comforting.

"Thomas liked to summon spiders, and he could do it. The book called for reparation and incantation, but he would sit at the edge of a hollow and do something with his hand…and they would come in a neat line up to his feet, like an army falling in before him."

Zephan’s left hand rested on the smooth glass that protected the surface of the dresser. Fingers started to move, jerkily at first, then more smoothly: his hand became a spider, long legs moving carefully in a careful, instinctive rhythm, creeping its way across the dresser toward Jerolin’s arm. Joints weren’t supposed to bend like that, and somehow five fingers managed to look and move like eight. Jero shuddered and jerked his arm away, and this seemed to jar Zephan back into what he’d been saying.

"He said that he wanted to prove that we were brothers forever and that we loved each other, so he found a blood bonding spell, meant to make us share everything. He conducted the spell, and all I had to do was hold my hand out, let him slash a smooth like across my palm, mash my bloodied hand against his." Here that scuttling hand came up, revealing a deep scar that sliced neatly across his lifeline. Beneath that, it seemed to fork, skew off wildly in two very different directions.

"I turned fifteen three months later," he murmured, dragging open the top drawer of his dresser and pulling out a neatly bundled stack of photos. The one on top was obviously of the same two boys - but Zephan, on the right, was a good four inches taller than he’d been, looking thin and pale and stretched out, with some of that childish light gone from his eyes. Long fingers snapped the rubber band from the pile of photographs, pointing almost furiously into Thomas’s face. The fair-haired boy looked somehow more connected, more real, more wild.

"He and I celebrated my birthday, alone, in one of our secret places in the woods. My mother tried to invite neighborhood kids, and when I told her I just wanted sandwiches for the two of us she seemed upset but gave in.

"That afternoon, he set up a magnifying glass and we summoned spiders into the charring path of a beam of sunlight. He showed me how to do it, how to play captain to their army, and they came running to their cruel and ruthless deaths: but clouds came in before we could set any alight. Thomas looked frightened and called it a sign, sweeping up the glass and his books and turning nervous eyes in my direction.

"Rain came down in sheets. There’s an old superstition that says killing a spider will make it rain; we hadn’t killed any of them, not yet, but the rain soaked us all the same and we sought out the relatively dry comfort of one of our hollowed tree forts."

A long moment of silence, as Zephan flipped through his stack of photographs. Most of them were of him and Thomas in a scattered, messy backyard. Some of them had an older boy in them too, someone who looked on with disapproving dark eyes. Some had a small, plump girl who wore the roundest glasses ever designed - she might as well have stuck Coke bottles in front of her eyes.

Jerolin leaned closer and Zephan blinked suddenly up at him. Lips moving quickly, there had been an edge of desperation to his voice as if this was the last change he’d get to tell this story [he was afraid that the look Jero was giving him was bored, uninterested], but now he spoke more and more softly, gradually more alive and more human and hurt.

"We were soaked, cramped in close quarters, and it was hot. We pulled off our shirts and crammed, shivering wet, into a familiar corner. I could feel him breathing against me in short pants, could see his eyes still wide and glittering, terrified by this strange storm. I could almost taste him. And he was beautiful."

For a breath, he searched his guest’s face, looking for understanding or some sign that Jero could imagine what it was like. But Jerolin was frozen, watching the wild, violent blazing of those mad eyes, so much different from Zephan’s usual, detached calm. He could sense something looming beneath the pale skin, could imagine lumps crawling on the backs of bony hands, like spiders moving through thick veins. He wanted to see it finish, this story needed to end.

"I kissed him. He fought at first, but it was mostly out of surprise, and we were cramped so closely together that he couldn’t pull away. So he gave up fighting and crammed me back into my corner, lips on mine and hands wandering -" Zephan sounded breathy and out of control, supremely human for the first time since they’d met. Creeping fingers brushed against Jerolin’s arm, the touch making the man shiver, then they wrapped tightly about his shoulders and that animated mouth clamped down on his for a drunken kind of kiss, a fifteen year old kiss, hungry and wild...