I realized while I was writing this that I've got characters crying two weeks in a row. I feel another unintended theme coming on. Go, me.
When it starts
To fall apart
It really falls apart
Like boots or hearts
When they start
They really fall apart
(Here is an obligatory link to brigits_flame.)
Gloria was already in the apartment when Charles finally got home, though the only sign of her was her coat and scarf--the one hung up haphazardly by its hood on the door, the other in a crumpled heap over her boots, as if she'd just dropped it--and the smell of cigarette smoke.
"Gloria?" Charles called as he shook the snow off his boots and put them on the mat next to hers. He carefully balled her scarf up and put it on the arm of the couch so it wouldn't get wet or salt-stained. "Are you in the bathroom?"
There was a muffled, "Fuck off!" hollered through the closed door of his bedroom. Charles grimaced at the idea of her smoking in his room again, but she sounded really upset, like she'd been crying.
"Gloria? What's wrong?" Charles asked as he hung up his jacket. He shivered a little after he took it off, rubbing his hands together. He'd worn three layers of clothes to work that afternoon, but he had the late shift and had spent most of the time on the loading dock. He'd been wearing mittens, but his hands still felt mostly frozen.
"Nothing!" Gloria yelled again. "I told you to fuck off! Leave me alone!" She made a noise that Charles was pretty sure was a sob. He tried to open the door but it was locked.
"You're in my room," Charles said reasonably. "I kind of want to change clothes." He was wearing his work shirt over the long-sleeved one, and it was smeared with part of a rotten peach that had somehow gotten into the shipment. He really wanted to get the shirt off.
There was no answer.
"Gloria, come on," Charles sighed. "I promise I'll leave you alone, okay? Just open the door so I can at least get a different shirt, please?"
He heard her crossing the room, and sighed inwardly in weary triumph. The handle rattled, then Gloria yanked the door open. She stood there belligerently, glaring at him with black-smeared eyelids. Her face was pretty red. She stood aside so Charles could go in without saying anything.
"What happened?" Charles asked her, though he made sure to be in inside the room in case she decided to slam the door again. "Did you have another bad day at work?" Gloria never seemed to not have bad days at work, but Charles had never seen her quite so upset about it.
She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. Her eyes were still leaking. "I got fired."
"Oh, wow," Charles said, blinking. "That really sucks." He thought about hugging her, then remembered that his t-shirt still had mushy peach on it, so he yanked it off, trying not to get any of it in his hair. He threw the green shirt into the corner with the other laundry. Then he tried to hug her, but Gloria pushed him away.
"I'm fine, okay?" she snarled. "I just want to be alone."
"Oh. Right." Charles said, hurt. He stepped back, then gestured at the rest of the apartment beyond the door. "Sure. I'll, uh, just be in the living room, then."
Gloria nodded. "Great. Thanks." She stepped back into the room and shut the door again.
Charles didn't really know what he wanted to do with himself, so he sat down on his armchair. He'd been thinking of ordering pizza for dinner--he'd deposited his paycheck in an ATM on the way home and actually had some cash--but he couldn't remember what Gloria liked on hers, and it didn't seem right to just order it without asking.
He thought about turning on the TV. He was still thinking about that, eyes on the dusty black screen, when Joshua came sailing through the door.
"Hey!" he said happily when he saw Charles. "I didn't know you were home!" He shrugged off his Ryerson Polytechnic University backpack and let it thump to the floor next to the boot mat, then bent to untie his black military-issue boots. "I have had a fantastic day," he said, speaking loudly because his mouth was near the floor. He straightened up grinning, leaning against the door while he toed off his boots, still talking. "Get this--my electrical lab paper got the best mark in the entire fucking class! The best! And, if that wasn't fantastic enough," he added, then trailed off, grinning even more widely.
"Yeah?" Charles asked, because he really was curious, even if Josh's theatrics got on his nerves sometimes.
"I got the scholarship!" Josh exclaimed. "I got the fucking scholarship!" He whooped and jumped in the air.
"No way!" Charles got up to congratulate him. Joshua had been really scared about being able to keep affording tuition, so this news was excellent.
"I got the scholarship!" Joshua yelled to the ceiling, then he did a victory lap around the couch, fists thrust up like an Olympic athlete. Charles laughed, then grunted in surprise when Joshua yanked him into a hug and gave him a quick, hard kiss on the lips.
"I am awesome," Joshua said. He stepped back, letting Charles go. "So," he said, much more casually, though Charles could still hear the happiness in his voice, "Where' s Gloria?" He stretched elaborately, making his t-shirt ride up. His belt was thin and silver and very sparkly, like something a girl would wear. "I thought she was coming over tonight. I want her to finally admit she totally has to bow down to my awesomeness."
"She's in my room," Charles said. "She's had a really bad day, though--you maybe shouldn't bother her."
Joshua looked disappointed for a second, then his face cleared and he shrugged. "Hey, Gloria!" he hollered at Charles' door. "I got the scholarship!"
Gloria pulled Charles' door open. She didn't look like she was still crying, but her face was still puffy and tear-streaked. "You did?" she asked Josh. "Hey, that's great." She smiled weakly at him.
Joshua was just about to reply when all of a sudden Gloria's face screwed up with rage. "Hey--that's my belt!" She came out of the room, stalking towards Josh. "That's my belt, you asshole! Give it back!"
"You left it here!" Josh protested. "Finders keepers, remember?" He was laughing.
"You fucking asshole! Give it back!" Gloria was really screaming now. She swung at Joshua, who grabbed her wrist before she could hit him, but then he grunted in pain as her other fist hit him in the stomach.
"Ow!" Joshua let go of her, backpedaling and bending over with his arms crossed over his stomach. "You cunt! That really hurt!"
"Drop dead," Gloria spat at him, then whirled and all but ran into the tiny bathroom. Charles winced at how loudly she slammed the door behind her.
"Uh, you okay?" he asked Josh, who hadn't straightened up yet.
"Fuck, that really hurts," Joshua said. He straightened slowly, arms still pressed to his stomach. He looked at Charles, scowling. "What the hell was that for?"
"She got fired," Charles said. "You shouldn't have taken her stuff."
"It's just a fucking belt," Joshua said. He walked over to his room and leaned on the doorframe, rubbing his stomach. "God, I can't believe she can hit that hard."
"She was really angry," Charles said.
Joshua nodded. "No fucking kidding."
"You should give her belt back," Charles said. "And you need to apologize."
Joshua looked at him. "What the hell do I need to apologize for? She hit me!"
"You took her belt," Charles said. "And you called her a cunt."
Joshua let out a breath. He ran his fingers through his short hair. "So what?" he scowled. "I was angry. She calls me a fag all the time."
"She doesn't anymore," Charles said. He shrugged. "She had a really bad day. I think seeing you with her belt just kind of set her off."
Joshua looked down at the belt, fingering the buckle absently. "I was going to wear it clubbing tonight," he said.
"Come on, Josh," Charles said.
Joshua let out an explosive sigh. "All right," he said. "Fine. Fuck." He undid the belt angrily. He'd had to wear it on the loosest notch to get it around his waist, so it wasn't very hard for him to yank it through of the belt loops on his jeans. It sounded like a zipper as he pulled it.
"Did she say who fired her?" he asked when the belt was free of his pants. "Was it Skanklon? Because he's a total shit--she probably didn't deserve it."
"I don't know if it was Scanlon," Charles said. He'd heard a bit about the people Gloria had as supervisors at the Jones Avenue Starbucks, so he knew most of them sucked, but Joshua had actually worked there before he went back to school, so he'd met them.
"It probably was Scanlon," Joshua said disgustedly. "He hates anyone with piercings." His mouth tipped in a smirk. "You can have my condoms if I don't come back." He turned and went to pound on the bathroom door, Gloria's belt dangling from his fist like a sparkly snake.
"Hey, Gloria!" He yelled, still pounding. "You can have your stupid belt back, okay? And I'm sorry I called you a cunt. Charles has informed me that it was thoughtless and insensitive. And Skanklon's an asshole. If he fired you, then you're just lucky that you don't have to work with that dick anymore."
"Fuck off," Gloria said.
Joshua stopped pounding on the door. He looked at Charles, shrugging.
Charles just tilted his chin towards the door.
Joshua rolled his eyes, but he turned back to the door, leaning closer to the fake wood. "I really am sorry, okay?" he said. "I didn't know that you got fired."
The bathroom door clicked open. Charles watched as Joshua slid inside.
Charles sighed loudly and sank onto the couch, leaning back with his eyes closed and his fingers in his hair.
Sometimes he hated his friends. He really, really hated them.
He let his hands drop into his lap, and just sat there with his eyes closed, sort of dozing. Maybe ten minutes later, he heard the bathroom door bang open then Gloria and Joshua walking out. They both went into Joshua's room for some reason. They were sniggering.
He wasn't sure what suddenly made him sit up again and open his eyes, but Charles realized he was shivering, like the temperature in the building had just dropped, or he'd gotten a fever again.
Joshua was standing in front of him, which was kind of weird, especially since he wasn't saying anything.
"What?" Charles asked, rubbing one eye with his hand. But Joshua didn't answer him. "Did you hurt yourself?" Because Joshua wasn't wearing a shirt anymore, and his body was covered with bruises.
And then Charles realized that Joshua was dead. He was standing in the living room in front of Charles' crappy TV, but it was obvious he was dead; Charles was looking at his friend's dead body, or his ghost. But this Joshua wasn't alive.
He'd been beaten--kicked to death--that much was obvious. Without a shirt, it was easy to see all the bruises: boot-shaped bruises on his chest and stomach, so many they overlapped like a design. Charles could see the perfect impression of the boot treads, like someone had stamped them onto Joshua's body. His hands were broken, knuckles bleeding like he'd fought back, and it looked like one arm had been broken as well, because of how Joshua's right hand was turned at a weird angle away from his body. His jeans were open, buttons popped at the fly, like someone had tried to yank them off him. Maybe whomever had done it had wanted Joshua to be found naked. There were bruises all over Joshua's shoulders and face, another shoe print mashing his nose. His teeth were shards. One of his earrings had been ripped out.
There was no blood, though. Just the bruising. The body was very clean, like someone had washed him. Joshua's eyes were still dark blue, startling above the wreck of his face. He looked resigned, somehow, like he'd only expected that this would happen.
Charles felt his mouth moving, but he didn't speak. He couldn't speak. All the words were trapped inside him, racing frantic around his brain. What happened? he wanted to ask. Who's going to do this to you? When will you die? But he couldn't say anything.
Joshua's door opened like a gunshot, and Charles jumped, cried out, whirled to stare at his friends who had come tumbling out of the room. Joshua was blinking at him, his grin tilting in his confusion. He was fine.
When Charles looked back the other Joshua was gone.
Joshua and Gloria were dressed for clubbing--Charles had no idea how long he'd been on the couch, staring at his dead friend, while they were giggling in Joshua's room. Josh was wearing a bright pink woman's t-shirt with the word 'Princess' stenciled on it in silver rhinestones. It was short enough that it barely came under his ribcage. He was wearing some kind of tight black mesh thing underneath that went down to the top of his jeans and shimmered when he moved. He'd gelled his hair to make it spikier than usual, and it looked almost black instead of dark brown. He was wearing a thick silver hoop in each ear.
He looked kind of stupid, and mostly wonderful because he was standing there at all, and Charles couldn't stop looking at him because he wasn't broken and half-naked and covered with the marks of the boots that had killed him. He was fine. He was just fine.
"What?" Joshua asked, blinking. "Hey, are you crying?"
"Huh?" Charles blinked, realized his eyesight was blurry, then that his face was wet. He wiped the tears off quickly, feeling stupid and ashamed. "It…it's uh…." He swallowed. He could feel a sob lodged in his throat, and he wasn't sure he could speak and contain it. "I think I'm going crazy," he said finally.
He'd thought he'd said it like a joke, but Gloria and Joshua were looking at him like he'd meant it. Maybe he had.
"Are you okay?" Gloria asked, even though Charles knew he really, really wasn't. Her voice was gentle for once, no pretense of snarling irritation. She had a nice voice. Her black-dyed hair was down, the pink streaks almost hidden. Her face was Goth pale, the way she always did her makeup when she was going out, big gold ring in her nose. She was wearing one of Joshua's t-shirts--black of course--pulled up and fastened somehow so that it showed off her midriff and cleavage. She was also wearing a pair of black pants Joshua had got from the army surplus store on Dundas. They were rolled to her knees, and hung on the jutting bones of her hips. Her sparkly belt was keeping them up.
She pushed by Joshua to come kneel in front of Charles, and cupped his face with her hands. She brushed back what was left of his tears with her thumbs. "What happened, honey? Can you tell us?"
"Did you fall asleep out here?" Joshua asked. He had gone to Charles as well, but was standing behind Gloria, looking awkward and uncertain. His hands were shoved deep in his pockets like he didn't know what to do with them. "Have a nightmare?"
"Yeah." Charles nodded quickly. He sniffed, swallowed, then forced his mouth into as close a smile as he could manage, gently moving Gloria's hands. "It was pretty bad."
"Looks like it," Joshua agreed. He smiled uncomfortably in return, and Charles tried very hard not to imagine boot prints on his face. "Um…." He gestured vaguely at himself and Gloria, who had stood up again, then at the apartment door. "We were going to ask you...we were going to grab something to eat, then hit the club district." His smile widened. "OSAP's buying."
"Thanks," Charles said. He wiped his eyes again, quickly as if that would keep his friends from noticing, then swallowed one more time. "I don't really go clubbing." Joshua and Gloria knew this already, since Charles had never gone with them before. He wondered if they had really been going to ask him before they found him bawling on the couch.
"Do you want us to stay here?" Gloria asked. She darted a quick glare at Joshua when his eyes widened. "We could rent movies or something." She shrugged. "I don't care."
"I do!" Joshua said loudly. He nudged Charles' socked foot with his toe. "Come on," he said. "You'll forget the bad dream faster if you're not here by yourself." He grinned. "And if ugly guys try to pick me up, I can say you're my boyfriend."
Charles was trying to remember if dead Joshua had been wearing the same jeans as the real one. Maybe he should tell Joshua and Gloria he wanted them to stay. Joshua would be really, really angry, but he'd do it, if only to show Gloria up. But Charles didn't know if that was good enough, if that would protect him. Maybe he was going to be attacked another night; maybe nothing Joshua did would make a difference. Or maybe he really was going crazy, and nothing was going to happen to Joshua at all.
He made himself laugh in response to what Joshua said. "I'd never go out with a guy who wore a pink shirt with 'princess' on it."
"You don't know what you're missing," Joshua said. "Come on," he said again, and held out his hand.
Charles took a breath, He looked up at Joshua's face, took his wrist, but he didn't let Joshua pull him up. "Promise me you won't get into a fight tonight," he said.
Joshua frowned. "It's not like I fight every time I go out."
"Right." Gloria rolled her black-outlined eyes. "Just, like, nine times out of ten."
Joshua scowled at her, but he shrugged. "Fine. No fights, promise. Are you coming with us or not?"
"Okay," Charles said. "Let's go." He let Joshua haul him to his feet.
Gloria made a happily childish squeal, then darted in to kiss Charles on the cheek. Joshua kissed him on the other one, as if it were some kind of competition. He looked Charles up and down. They were still holding onto each other's wrists. "You need to change," he said. "Your work clothes suck."
"Oh," Charles said. He hadn't thought about that. "I think I've got a clean t-shirt."
"I doubt it," Gloria said. She took Charles' other wrist, started marching back to Joshua's room. "How about your dark blue button-down shirt?" she asked Joshua over her shoulder, speaking across Charles' body. "Over that black one he has? With the skull on it?"
"That skull shirt's mine," Joshua said. "Hey, are you going to let go of me anytime soon?"
"No," Charles said, and he pulled Joshua after him into the room.