"I was born," the Mouse said. "I must die. I am suffering. Help me. There, I just wrote your book for you."
Samuel R. Delany, Nova
Otto Shaughnessy had never felt anything but lonely. And lonely...wasn't even an emotion, not a real one. He knew that's what anyone would tell him, if he asked. So, Otto kept to himself, mostly. Quiet kids got away with thinking whatever.
But he couldn't sleep. This late at night, when he'd been trying for almost two hours. Or at least what felt like two hours. Even though only an orange glow slithered in around the curtains, leaving the rest of the room dark, and only occasional traffic interrupted perfect silence.
Something squeezed his heart. It felt like a nothing, a slimy, slithery hagfish of nothing that wound around his insides and made his chest tight.
He crawled forward until he could look out the window at the foot of the bed, pulled aside a curtain which was just for show anyways, and gazed out at the street. A car slid past, made a frantic U-turn and sped back the way it came.
Otto sighed. Sleep would settle on him eventually, if he lay on his bed with his arms outstretched. If he had enough surface area, if he waited long enough, sleep would fall on him like dust in an attic.
He shut his eyes and went to the brown nothingness inside his head. Sometimes, waiting for unconsciousness this way, with an aching body and a buzzing head, Otto imagined his mind as a bright marble floating in his brain. The trick to sleeping was getting that marble to fall all the way to the bottom of the brown nothingness. Get it to spiral, disintegrate, tumble, wither, melt and you had your respite.
But no. The marble remained, hard and bright and buzzing in the middle of his head, steadfast in its refusal to die. The insomnia had worsened in the last few days. He could never remember falling asleep, and he never felt awake.
Maybe he was trying too hard. He should tire himself out and let the sleep come naturally. Tire himself out with...what, exactly?
Otto sat up. His room what little he could see of it didn't offer much. His laptop, on the desk, or a pile of old books he'd been meaning to read. Only the golden letters on their spines were visible; they shimmered in the dark. Glittered like they had something to prove.
Twisting his lips to the side, he cast his eyes around the other half of the room before lighting on the cell on his bedside table.
He picked up his phone and flipped it open. No new messages. Duh. After a few seconds of futile deliberation, he punched in a number he knew by heart.
Holding the phone away from his ear (turning down the volume occurred to him, but didn't appeal), he stuffed a sudden panic back down his throat. Who did he think he was, calling someone at three in the morning? He didn't have a good reason for it. He hadn't been abandoned on a highway, or stuck at a party with no sober ride home; he just felt a little woozy and depressed. Nothing new there. Only now he had somebody to bother with it.
"...hello?" Van's voice was sleepy and thick; he sounded like his throat had been sandpapered.
"Hi. Uh. Van?" Well, too late to change his mind now. He'd already woken the guy up.
"Are you actually calling me at the butt crack of dawn, or am I having another one of those weird dreams?"
Otto paused. As silence bubbled up between them, he could only watch it grow.
"Why're you calling, anyway? I know my Otto Shaughnessy. There's no way you're cool enough to stay up 'til three AM."
Otto laughed, but he didn't say anything. The guy had a point; Otto had no pressing need for conversation, or interesting event to process. Nothing to analyze or think over. Maybe he could make something up he was good at that, at lying or sounding dramatic. The television had provided him with a full set of morals and facial expressions, supplied mostly by gruff detectives and hyperemotional surgeons. People who always had a monologue to back up what they were doing.
Jesus, though, why did he need a reason for doing something? Why did you always need to have a reason?
"Sorry. Nothing. It's nothing."
"Doesn't sound like nothing."
Otto sighed, and licked the crack in his dry lips. "....I think I think too much," he said, more to the floor than to Van.
"I'll say. Are you okay?" Otto must've sounded really messed up if even Van was worried about him.
"I'm fine! I'm fine. Sorry for calling you, I didn't mean to wake you up "
"It's...it's no problem. I could use the distraction." The possibility of a topic change perked Otto up a little. He hopped up onto the window ledge, crossing his legs and staring at the street below. Traffic had plastered a squirrel to the asphalt; only part of its tail had escaped the onslaught of cars. A loose breeze tickled the fur.
"Distraction?" Otto said. "Why? Did something happen?"
Van sighed. The sound was so breathy, so heavy and laden, Otto could feel it through the phone. A good few seconds passed by before he spoke. "Nothing...new. I told you about my dad dying a couple days ago, didn't I?"
Otto said nothing. Something stuck in his throat, like a marble or a big mushroom, and the sickness in his stomach sunk lower. They left an empty space in his torso.
"No," he said. "You didn't."
He wasn't stupid. He knew people's dads died. It just hadn't seemed...real. It had seemed like something that happened to other people, on the news.
"Oh." That's all Van said. 'Oh.' Like his father's death was as important as a math midyear. But Otto couldn't think of a thing to tell him, a small comfort or a consolation he'd never known anyone whose dad had died, not really. Maybe Van's nonchalance was normal, or he'd made peace with the idea already. But...still.
"Vincent, I "
"What?" Van laughed. "You calling me by my real name now?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't know." He stumbled over the words in his mouth, as if a stampede of tragic politeness was thundering through his brain. Stupid, stupid, stupid. "Um, how "
"Heart attack, I guess. You don't have to feel bad. My parents divorced when I was a kid; I hardly knew the guy." His voice hardly matched his words. It quivered, and sank, and became nearly inaudible.
Otto tried to imagine losing one of his parents forever, losing anyone forever. He couldn't. It seemed too impossible to hurt; dead parents happened to downtrodden orphans in cheesy adventure movies. Not in real life.
There was a horrible part of him, if you dug down, a nasty disconnected part that whispered 'How glamorous how worldly, knowing someone whose father has died. You're a bit less sheltered now. Silver lining, right?'
"Van, I didn't...mean to...you know. If I'd known, I wouldn't have called "
"I keep telling you I don't mind. I'm not that upset. I'm...not about that, at least. You can't miss somebody you never really...knew."
Otto looked back at the squirrel, the street lamp's sodium glow like a spotlight, casting an orange halo around the remaining fur. Cars had flattened out the body to a smooth mass of gore, slowly sinking into the pavement, and hardly recognizable. The nastiness faded, but he thought he might know what Van meant.
"What are you upset about, then?" he said.
"...I don't know."
It was funny, Otto mused, that he was the one pushing for information now. He'd always hated when Van wouldn't drop a topic that made him uncomfortable, and here he was doing just that.
"He just had this dog, that's all. He left us this dog. It's ugly as fuck, it looks like somebody ironed its face. I think it's part bulldog, but it's a little bigger and skinnier than a normal bulldog, you know?"
Otto laughed. Laughing was all he could think to do. He was useless but he could laugh.
"Yeah, you laugh, but try walking it."
"So you just have this new responsibility?" Clearing his throat, Otto peeled the phone off his ear. Cool air rushed in to fill its place, and he shivered before raising the phone again.
"No, I don't really mind. I like dogs. The..." Van kept stopping and starting, or fading in and out, as if it hurt him to talk. "The thing that...gets me. The thing that absolutely kills me, is that this dog doesn't know he's dead. You know? It's not like I can sit down and tell him his owner died. As far as the mutt knows, my dad's just off on a business trip..."
Without jumping in, Otto waited for Van to continue.
A short, nervous puff of laughter. "This is so fucking stupid."
"Just tell me."
"It's just...every time somebody comes home. Every time someone opens the door, he jumps up and down and runs around and barks and wags his tail. And he's...so happy, you know? For a few seconds, until the person opens the door? And I think he thinks it's my dad coming back, every time. And when it isn't he just goes and sits by the door again and waits for the next person to come home.
"Every freaking time."
Outside, a car rumbled past Otto's window, right over the squirrel. It made no difference.
"It just sucks. That's all that's upsetting me. It sucks, because every time somebody comes home, he thinks his owner's back, and nobody can tell the dog that he's dead, and he's never coming back ever. And he might go the rest of his life sitting in front of that door waiting for my dad. It's this constant fucking reminder."
Van probably wasn't done, but Otto got in a quick "I'm sorry."
He blew past it. "Ots, I just...you should see his face. Like my mom's face when my uncle told her over the phone. I have to watch that over and over on this stupid dog. It's killing me. I can't sleep. Why did you call, again?"
Otto could imagine Van, lying belly-up in bed with his phone against his ear, blindly staring at the ceiling.
"It's weird for me to be giving you advice," he said, "But you should go back to sleep, you really should. It'll seem better in the morning. I'm sorry for waking you up."
"Wait. Actually, don't hang up," Van said, slurred words lending a kind of quiet desperation to his voice.
Pause. Otto counted the seconds: three, four, five...
"Can you come over? Not now, but...you know, at a reasonable time."
He laughed, and wondered if Van even knew what he was saying. Otto could just imagine him gnawing the dead skin off his lip, not thinking about consequences.
"Sorry, but shouldn't you be talking to your girlfriend? Girls are way better suited to this weird emotional crap."
</i>"Katya dumped me at the start of vacation. And that, I didn't tell you because I just didn't care. She said I didn't want a girlfriend, I wanted an audience to stand around telling me how smart I am,"</i> Van said.
"Damn. She saw right through you."
Snorting, followed by what had to be the opening of a fridge door or a pantry. "Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. Dad dies and all I can do is talk about myself. I dunno. Should I be more upset?"
Finally, maybe because of all this talking, or the revelation or the dead squirrel, or a spider he'd noticed creeping down the wall, Otto felt fatigue start soaking his mind. But he couldn't stop now, could he? With Van like this, he couldn't stop now. Vincent Conway who had girlfriends and went to parties and got drunk, spilling his guts to Otto Shaughnessy, whose freakin' name couldn't decide where he came from. When did that happen?
The thing the thing about Otto Shaughnessy was that his best friend had best friends who weren't him. So even if this conversation was horrible and depressing, at least he could be of some use to this boy who understood life.
"...I wouldn't know. I've never had my estranged father die."
"Right." Laughter. "Yeah, obviously. I..."
"You want I should come over? The trains start running at around seven "
"No, I...I mean you called 'cause you were bored and couldn't sleep. I'm just dumping this shit on you. I'm sorry, man, I didn't mean to. I'll be fine on my own. Like I said, I'm not that upset over it. He was just some guy, you know?"
That halo of light around the road kill, the black bird that tried to peck at it before flying away. And here came that spider, inching leg by leg down the wall as if it expected land mines. Otto resolved to coax it onto his hand, and then into the closet or somewhere safe, as soon as he hung up.
"You keep saying that," he said.
"I know. I realize. Anyways, you don't have to come over, I'm sorry I asked I mean you can if you want 'cause I'm not doing anything today, but...Otto?"
"Hm. I forgot what I was gonna say." Which was an obvious lie, but he didn't call Van out on it.
They sat with silence stretched thin between their phones, but eventually Van initiated the good night pleasantries, and they said their goodbyes.
Otto tossed the phone onto his bed, where it landed with a whump, and he pulled his hand through his hair. That sick feeling remained, stuck in his gut and his throat, and the hagfish squeezed his heart.
Van's house stood at the top of a hill. Stucco slathered over brick, with a glass door (in front of which Otto always avoided seeing his reflection) and an antique stone lion (whose head Otto always tapped for good luck).
He shifted his weight from foot to foot, glancing at the halfway-visible sun. Maybe he should've waited until a little later in the day, instead of coming so early. He considered waiting on the porch for a couple of hours. Just listen to music, or read, or waste time somehow, so he didn't look like a paranoid loser who came running at Van's every beck and call.
The decision was made for him. The door creaked, followed by "What're you doing just standing there, stupid?" Otto shot his head back around and winced.
Van looked awful. His hair, normally tight dark curls, stuck up in funny places; frizz fanned out around his head. His face had been drained of color, though underneath his eyes the skin was sunken and purple. Just looking at him made Otto feel tired. It may have been the weekend, but Van still looked like he'd tried to pull an all-nighter. He could barely keep his head up. There was a looseness to his motions, a dragging when he shut the door, like wading through sludge.
"Did you even go back to sleep?" Van asked, clapping Otto on the shoulder. Otto suppressed a flinch.
"Not really. You?"
He shrugged. Stuck his hands in his pockets. "If that counts as sleep. I just don't wanna go back to school Monday."
Ah hm. That came out wrong; his voice sounded wrong. He hadn't meant to sound so...disbelieving.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Van said. Of course he'd pick up on it; he'd always been so perceptive.
"Nothing, sorry," Otto said. He was just like that, he always said the wrong things, like it was a pre-wired impulse in the reptilian part of his brain that kept him from being important to people. It made him feel like melting into the wallpaper. "Y-you've just had a bad week, that's all. I mean your girlfriend dumps you and your dad dies and you get this manic depressive dog. That'll um, that'll ruin anybody's sleep." He was navigating a mine field when he spoke. Fully awake, now, not sleepy and wrapped up in his thoughts at three in the morning he felt like that spider, walking so carefully down the wall. What scared a bug? What did it have to be afraid of? It wasn't like Otto, meek and helpless in the face of a drowning friend.
Van, oblivious as ever, shrugged and nodded to the staircase. "Can we go to my room? My sister and my mom are probably still asleep."
"Yeah. Sorry about "
"It's no problem," he said, thundering up the stairs two at a time (so much for being quiet). "You're always apologizing, you know that? You'd apologize for your own shadow. It's like you're sorry you even exist." He halted at the top of the staircase, panting a little, to wait for Otto to catch up.
But Otto stopped halfway with his hand tight around the banister, tilted his head, and stared at Van. How was he supposed to take that? The words held some truth, plastered as they were to his body language of hunching or staring at the floor. Saying it out loud, though. It didn't seem like something that should be said out loud, point-blank to his face.
Van raised his eyebrows. "Well? You coming?"
They padded silently to Van's room at the end of the hall. The light always seemed yellow in this room, the way it seemed blue in his basement and white in the laundry room maybe it was the color of the walls, or the positions of the lamps and the windows.
Once they closed the door, Otto broke the quiet. "Where's this dog?"
His friend winced and rubbed the back of his head. "We put him in the basement," he said. "He just wouldn't stop barking, at cars, or whatever pisses him off. We couldn't sleep. I guess he stopped."
Otto nodded. Now that he'd arrived, he wasn't too sure what to do sit, talk, play videogames, offer to buy coffee. Otto Shaughnessy knew he was kind of useless, when it came to making people feel better.
"Can I see it? Uh, him," he asked.
Van smiled, but it was more of a grimace than anything else. "Sure. Hang on a sec."
He ran back down the stairs, leaving Otto to stand and cast about for something to do for a few minutes until he came back up, the dog trotting behind him on a leash.
Van's description of the thing as an "ugly as fuck skinny bulldog" struck Otto as a little unfair. Short, thick brown fur covered it from stiff tail to pointed ears. True, its face was square, and it had a yawning mouth full of yellow teeth, but he didn't see anything menacing or pitiful about it. It was just a dog. While it stood there, it whined, sat down and scratched its ear with a back foot.
"What's its name?" Otto squatted and held out a hand for the dog to sniff, which it did. Van dropped the leash and closed the door.
"Something stupid. Rocinante, I think? We call him Rozzy."
"Hey, Rozzy," he said, voice leaping an octave. He placed his hand on the side of the dog's face and scratched its ear, rubbed his thumb over its temple. Rocinante whimpered. It wagged his tail, but it didn't do much else. None of this jumping and barking that Van had mentioned.
"He was asleep," Van explained. "I don't think he heard the door open, so he knew it wasn't " his words cut off, he stared blindly at the wall.
"Oh." Otto sat on the floor and folded his legs. "Rozzy," he said, patting the carpet next to him, "C'mere, Roz." Rocinante circled the spot wearily before lying down, head on its paws. His paws. He trained his eyes on the door.
Otto focused on petting him, running his hands through the coarse fur of the dog's neck like being scratched by bristles. "He doesn't seem so hyper," he said.
"Not right now, no." Chewing at his lower lip, Van stretched out his legs and sunk his head into his pillow. "But, Jesus, you should hear him. He won't shut the fuck up. It's the worst thing."
"Well, you've gotta give him time." Otto moved to rub circles on his belly, where the fur was softer, thinner. "You said he's only had a few days."
"It's not gonna go away in a few more," said Van. "I can just tell, you know? I mean look at him." He did, though Van himself just looked at the ceiling.
Rocinante had lifted up one leg to allow easier access to his stomach. His eyes were still trained on the door. And Otto could almost understand, when he looked at the dog, could see that patient expectation in the tenseness of his limbs. It wasn't heartbreaking, not really, though it aggravated the tightness in his chest.
"Dogs don't like change...just give him time. They get adopted from shelters, right? So at least some of them have more than one owner. They seem okay." Otto sighed. Unhappiness was a spider in your stomach, setting its eight delicate feet against your insides. Tick-tick-tick-tick. Tick-tick-tick-tick.
A loud fwump yanked his attention back to the bed, where Van had kicked his covers off. "Maybe I should just shoot him. Put the thing out of its misery."
Otto looked at the dog, who had put his head on his paws again, hind legs sprawled out behind him. He watched the outline of Rocinante's ribs as his chest rose and fell, and wondered if this dog, too, had a spider in his stomach or a hagfish around his heart.
Van must have been in some mood, to be acting this way. Saying that about Otto and now threatening Rocinante. What a fucking wreck.
"I can't believe you," Otto said, voice flat.
"What?" He sat up and rubbed the side of his head.
"I don't care if you're joking, Van; that isn't funny." Because maybe, maybe right now just for a little while, Otto wasn't sure if he was serious. Because maybe he'd never seen someone like this, not somebody like Van who never had a hair out of place.
"What? Shooting it?" A pillow shot toward the animal, though it fell shy a few inches. "It's not supposed to be funny. I mean it."
"Shut up! God! What the fuck do you want from me?" he cried, jumping out of the bed.
Rocinante whined and lifted his head. Otto stayed him with a hand behind his ear, scratching until the dog lay down again. "Don't talk about killing him just because he's a little sad right now," he said. "Give him a while. Rozzy's probably got another decade until you should start thinking about putting him to sleep."
"You want me to put up with this miserable little shit for ten years? Fuck you, Otto," he spat. Van's eyes burned, red-rimmed, as he stormed forward two steps.
"Hey. I came over here because I was worried "
"So what." It wasn't a growl or a shout or a whisper, but when Van spoke he hissed, slithery rumbling that shook Otto in the spine and the eyes.
"Everybody dies, Otto. Everybody." He glared, glared right through him with his fists bunched up and his face tight. "What makes you so fucking special, huh, princess? What makes that stupid fucking dog so stupid fucking special?"
Otto didn't talk. He stood up, shoved his hands in his pockets, and met his friend's glare with a blank face. Van pinched his lips together, so hard they turned white and his jaw shook, then he blinked real fast and ran his hand over his face. He tripped forward, looked at the ground, gripped Otto's shoulder.
An agitated Rocinante stood, keening and prancing his paws; he butted his head against Van's thigh.
But Otto only waited, with his hands in his pockets and a blank face, not flinching when Van squeezed.
"I am so sick," he whispered. "Of people giving me their sad little smiles. And apologies. Like it's their fault he died and like I should care so much. ...What the hell's that gonna do, huh? Telling me you're sorry? I don't care if you're sorry, that doesn't fix anything. Just bury him and move on. 'I'm sorry' doesn't help anybody."
Out of the corner of his eye, all Otto could see was the hair that hung over the side of Van's downturned face. Van, who had a girlfriend and a chosen college major and constant advice for poor Otto Shaughnessy, just barely getting the hang of life.
"I know," he said. He raised a hand to touch the one on his shoulder. "Life goes on, Vince."
"Yeah." Van's voice shook. "That..." A laugh, insincere but there. "Oh, God. I think that's the only thing anyone's said to me in two days that's made any sense."
Otto stroked his thumb over the bony joints in Van's fingers, navigating that same minefield with that brittle stomach spider, trying to find something better to say. "You'll feel better."
"That's so condescending," Van said offhandedly. He didn't sound angry about it. Only...underwhelmed.
Boys don't cry.
But Otto sat at the front of the bed, Van sat at the end, Rocinante settled himself between them (silent, staring at the door). Nobody spoke. After a few minutes Van got a tissue, wiped his face and blew his nose.
Otto Shaughnessy slept just fine that night.