A New Novel in the Making
I'm working on a new novel. Here's the 25th chapter of it. Let me know what you think about it. You find a Facebook comment form below the text. I post each new chapter when it is completed. The first chapter is here: Chapter One
Just Kids Playing
Caroline enters her brother's room and turns on the light. It still looks exactly the same, with the immaculately made bed and the closed curtains. She starts searching the room, looking through the closet, inspecting the bookshelf and the drawers of the desk, even checking under the bed.
Fred enters the room quietly and observes her in silence for a while. He is nervous, his voice unusually weak.
"What are you looking for?"
Caroline replies without stopping her search for a second.
"There's something you're holding out on me, both you and Reuben. I've listened to the unspoken words between you. I have to make sure."
"Sure of what?" Fred asks, getting increasingly uncomfortable.
Caroline stops searching for a moment.
"I can't say. I think I know, but I'm not going to say. Not until I have it confirmed. I think you understand why."
Fred's shoulders slope, and he becomes tired. He leans against the wall, crossing his arms as well as his legs.
"Okay," he says. His voice is dejected, spoken as if there is no more air in his lungs. "Well, if it was in plain view, don't you think that your mother would have found it?"
Caroline gives him an irritated glance and then restarts her search, beginning with the drawers of the desk. She is much more careful this time around, turning every object in every drawer. From deep inside the bottom drawer, she picks up a Polaroid camera and shows it to Fred.
"Why would Thomas put his camera way in there?" she asks. "I've seen him use it a hundred times. We all did."
She turns it around in her hand, examining it. The color is dark gray, except for a red line surrounding it and the gold text on the front: 'Polaroid' on one side and the word 'Impulse' on the other. She finds the switch to turn it on, aims it at Fred and takes a picture. The flash makes Fred twitch and blink. The photo exits the camera at the front with a gnawing sound. Caroline holds it up, waiting for the image to appear.
"Dad gave it to him when he had been diagnosed. That's seven months ago. It was to comfort him, I guess. It wasn't cheap, not to mention the film."
She inspects the photo, which is getting sharper and clearer in colors by the second.
"You look frightened," she says. "Want to see?"
Fred shakes his head. Caroline drops the photo on the desk. Her eyes stay for a while on the clean surface of the desk. Then she takes a quick look around the walls.
"Thomas took a lot of photos with this camera," she says, lingering on the words. "So where are they?"
She doesn't expect any answer from Fred and doesn't get one.
"He stuck the camera away in that bottom drawer, as if hiding it," Caroline continues thoughtfully. "So he probably did the same with the photos."
She goes through the drawers again, but not as carefully as the last time. Then she glances at the closet.
"I already went through that mess," she mumbles. "I'm not sure I want to do it again."
Instead, she focuses on the bookshelf. Books occupy the three upper shelves. The others are half-empty, containing some memorabilia: souvenirs from past family vacations, a few sports trophies, none of them that grand, a couple of model airplanes, not very meticulously assembled, a pair of sunglasses with a cracked lens. A torn teddy-bear hulks sadly where it sits on the bottom shelf.
"I thought he had thrown that one away," Caroline comments.
She spots an old colorful biscuit tin can on the same shelf and hurries to pick it up. There is not much inside. A few batteries, coins, a toy sheriff's badge, a small and not that advanced Swiss army knife, and a Batman watch still in its cover.
"I remember when he bought it. He liked the movie. He never wore it?"
"He didn't dare to," Fred says. "He thought people would laugh. Probably they would."
Caroline closes the tin box and continues her search. The only things left to examine are the books. They are not that many, but she lets go of a little sigh before she begins by picking up the first one and opening it. It is a pocket book edition of Stephen King's Pet Sematary. She quickly leafs through it before putting it back on the shelf. The books are in no obvious order. The next one is a middle school math book. The pages are full of scribbling - some notes but mostly simple drawings and circular patterns of no apparent meaning.
"This would take forever," Caroline complains.
She takes a step back and glances through the shelves. On the third shelf from the top - the last one with books - her eyes stick to the back of the biggest one, which is an illustrated family bible.
"I have one, too," she mumbles as she pulls it out of the shelf. "Christmas presents from grandma last year, probably to equip us for Confirmation. We had a hard time smiling when we thanked her."
"I know the feeling," Fred murmurs.
When she opens it in the middle, something falls out and lands on the floor. It is a Polaroid photo, which lands face down.
"Aha!" Caroline exclaims and hurries to pick it up.
When she does so, another photo falls from the book. So she turns the book upside down and shakes it. Several photos fall to the floor, until there is a small pile of them.
"I don't even know where my bible is," Caroline says, shaking the book again. "A safe hiding place. Who'd be looking in this book?"
Two more photos fall from it, but that is it. She shakes it again, so hard that the book makes a creaking noise, but no more photos appear. As she brushes the photos on the floor into a neat bundle, like playing cards, Fred squirms and his breathing speeds up. Caroline notices it, but says nothing.
She starts examining the Polaroid photos, one after the other. The first one is a close-up on Fred, so near that his face is rounded in a grotesque way. It looks like a balloon. So is the next one, then there is one of him and Thomas sticking out their tongues. What's visible of Thomas' arms reveals that he held the camera. His eyes are bloodshot, surrounded by wrinkles, and his face is pale. His cheeks are thin.
Caroline stops, looking at the photo for quite some time. She opens her mouth as if to say something, but no words come. She blinks hard as she puts the card last in the bundle.
"Oh!" escapes her half-opened mouth as she sees the next photo.
Fred leans his head back until it is stopped by the wall. He holds his breath.
The photo Caroline looks at is also one with Fred and Thomas. Fred still sticks his tongue out, while Thomas kisses him on the cheek. On the next one they kiss on the lips. Also on the one following.
Caroline stops browsing through the photos and turns to Fred.
"You let him kiss you?"
"I let him take pictures of it," Fred replies.
Caroline goes through several photos, all showing the same. The boys kiss with closed eyes and rosy cheeks. Even Thomas' pale skin has gotten some color. On one, they are back to facing the camera, with big grins and wide open eyes. Then more pictures of them kissing.
Caroline quickly glances through the rest of the photos. More kissing, and a few where they make faces or just laugh, and some of only Fred, seeming both bothered and amused.
"I didn't really want to do it," Fred explains while Caroline goes through the remaining photos. "But how could I refuse? He was dying." He points to the camera. "And it was with the Polaroid. Nobody else could see."
"Weren't you afraid to catch it?"
Fred digs his hands deep down the pockets of his pants. Blinking frequently, he looks at the bundle of photos in Caroline's hands.
"I preferred to do other things. More things. But he never got enough of kissing."
Caroline stares right into Fred's eyes.
"You were lovers!"
They are both silent for a moment. Fred stretches his neck to try to get a glimpse of the photo on top of the bundle, partially covered by her hands.
"How long?" Caroline asks.
Fred shrugs his shoulders.
"A couple of years, maybe three. Or four. In the beginning, it was more like a game. Kids' stuff... Then we moved on. It wasn't anything we thought about. It just happened. Well, we were heading that way, even before we knew what it was. We were just having fun, really. He needed the distraction. And the comfort. I needed the thrill. Oh, how I needed it!"
Fred gets lost in his thoughts. Caroline waits, but he makes no sign of intending to speak again. She opens her mouth, but changes her mind and closes it. Fred stares at the ceiling as if a movie is playing there. Caroline opens her mouth again.
"Did you have sex, too?" she asks very softly.
"We had everything!" he replies immediately, still staring at the ceiling. Hi face cracks up in a wide smile, showing most of his teeth.
"But then you may have caught it, too," Caroline interrupts. "Have you had yourself tested?"
Fred's smile disappears. His head drops and turns to the side, away from her.
"I didn't need to."
"Of course you need to! There is medication, and the earlier they set it in, the more likely it is that you survive. It's new, but they say it might be working. That's why Thomas died. It was too late. Even if you've been infected you don't need to end like him."
Caroline stares at the back of his head, as if trying to see into his brain. He takes a deep breath, raising his shoulders. When he exhales, they drop even lower than they were before.
"We didn't think about it. We started so long ago. Just kids playing. When it changed, gradually, we weren't really aware of it. And when I got around, it had nothing to do with what we did, what we had. It never crossed our minds. What we did was so personal - how could it be affected by what I was doing out there?"
He waves towards the curtain covered window.
"And what was that?" Caroline inquires with a sharpening tone of voice.
"Making money," Fred mumbles. "Well, that and getting out of the church that my dad calls home. Way out. Would he ever explode, if he knew what I was doing, when he thought I was sleeping in my bed!"
He turns his head to look at her shortly, and tries a smile. It doesn't last. He looks away again.
"I learned things, too. Things we could use in our... games. And I got money for it. It never crossed our minds that I would get something else."
Caroline gnaws her teeth as she stares at Fred, then the bed, the bundle of photos in her hands, then Fred again. Fred peeks at her, still with his back to her. She clenches her fists, closes her eyes hard, takes a deep breath, and swallows.
Then she turns back to the photos in her hands, and watches some of them again. She continues to watch photos, as she speaks with a low voice, softened by sadness.
"He never told anyone how he might have gotten it. I think the doctors must have checked his arms for needle marks, but what else they checked, I don't know. He never said a word, not even to me. I asked him once, and he looked at me in silence - no particular expression, like daydreaming, like he wasn't there. I never asked again."
There is sort of a gurgle from Fred, and Caroline turns to him. He is crying silently.
"He really loved me. He really did. I always shrugged it off when he said so, but he spoke from the heart. Me. This lost soul. This outcast. I thought that nobody ever would."
They are silent for quite a while, before Caroline asks mildly, like a prayer:
Fred wraps his arms around his chest and inhales audibly, struggling to get the air in.
"I... think... so."
Caroline slowly walks over to Fred and gently puts her arms around him. He weeps, struggling to keep it in.
Outside the door, which is slightly ajar, Reuben watches them. Aaron is behind him, peeking over his shoulder.
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