There won't be a next time.
He repeated it like a mantra, letting the words roll off of his tongue and hang in the air as he turned over a pancake and pressed it into the pan. He moved in a steady rhythm, a careful flow of movements and words and sighs. He was like a haiku: short, sweet and to the point. That is how he was always described, as a haiku dropped beside a run-on sentence, but ever since James had left he had nothing left to describe.
The teapot began to whistle as the clock struck 8:00. Pushing his hair out of his face, he carefully reached over and turneed off the heat with one hand as he scooped pancakes onto a plate with the other. He moved to the cabinet, grabbing the only unpacked mug, and as he did so, he looked at the calendar. August 20, 1980. He repeated the date over and over again out loud, but he could not process it. He wondered if he was speaking the right language. He looked down at the dog and said it again, slower. The old dog whined and rested its head on the floor.
August 20, 1980. He said it again as he slumped in his chair and picked up the paper. The dog whined again. He absently scratched it behind its ears as he sipped his tea.
"You are not coming into the house like that," he frowned as he gestured to James' muddy boot, which was sitting between James' equally muddy hands on the windowsill.
"Luke," he sighed, half-exasperated. "It's just water. It won't kill you."
He stared for a moment, watching him in the window. He was soaked, his hair sticking to his face in clumps. A clump of hair fell into his eyes and Luke wanted so badly to move it, but remained where he was across the room from the window.
"Hello? Can I come in now?" James frowned, snapping Luke to attention.
"Fine," he sighed. "Let me get you a towel."
James crawled in through the window, his feet gently thudding as he stood up straight and crossed the room. Luke handed him the towels, his back turned to the window.
"Thanks," James grunted, taking the towels and wiping himself off.
Luke turned around slowly, watching him grasping the towels in one hand as he attempted to peel off his wet shirt with the other.
Luke never understood him. He was his opposite; a living run-on sentence, never pausing or stopping. He came and went as he pleased, and did whatever he wanted to without thinking of the consequences. He simply flowed, while Luke moved to an internal metronome, each movement punctuated and precise, everything executed because it had a purpose, an explanation. To put them together was to try to fit a square peg into a cylindrical hole-it couldn't be done, it didn't make sense. And yet, here they were, moving as one. One breathing mass of black and blonde, blue and grey, combat boots and sweater vests. Most of the time they were like oil and water, but when they flowed they thrashed and crashed in their own little glass, and Luke was always so afraid of spilling over. They would crash around and then they would separate again, the square peg would sit awkwardly on top, the haiku would end as the sentence continued on infinitely.
"How long are you staying?" Luke asked, taking James' wet shirt and boots, placing the shirt on top of a drying rack and the boots onto an old newspaper near the bedroom door.
"Dunno," James said, stretching, as he flopped onto the bed. "Good night." He rolled over, still in his wet jeans, and promptly fell asleep.
Luke left him there. There was nothing he could do now-he would have to question him in the morning. The same old routine they had gone through for the past two years. James would leave early in the morning and come back late at night; sometimes, he wouldn't come back for days. He would always come in through the bedroom window-almost always during a storm, Luke noticed-and crash on the bed. And in the morning Luke would make breakfast and ask where he'd been, what he was doing, how long he was staying. And James would just shrug like he always did, a peice of pancake hanging out of his mouth. And Luke would ask again and James would mutter an answer. And Luke would tell him that he was fed up and that he wasn't going to let him in next time. And James would just stand up and sit across Luke's lap and then they'd somehow wind up in bed, and immediately after, while Luke was too tired to think, James would get dressed and say he'd be back in a few and then not show up for days. And Luke would tell himself not to let James back in, but he always did.
The next morning, Luke was busy making blueberry pancakes-James' favorite-when James finally stumbled into the kitchen. He was in an old pair of jeans and his hair was wet from his shower. Luke could smell his body wash from across the kitchen. James smiled a good morning and gave him a hug from behind, but Luke remained cold and tense and did not move.
"So," Luke finally said, placing the pancakes on the table.
"So," James repeated, leaning back in his chair.
"What have you been up to?" Luke asked, knowing he wouldn't get an answer but asking anyway because that was the routine and he had to follow it.
"Oh, you know. Same old," James shrugged.
"How long are you staying for?" Luke asked, grabbing a pancake.
"Don't know. Depends."
Luke wanted to ask "On what?" but he knew it was pointless. It was like asking somebody why the sky was blue. So he stayed silent and swirled his tea around for a few minutes, waiting for James to finish his breakfast. And then they went through the rest of the motions. James pulled away almost immediately afterwards, crawling out of bed and sliding his boots on. He walked over to the window, muttering a "goodbye" over his shoulder, and crawled out. And Luke didn't stop him. And he left the window unlocked for the next month, convincing himself that James had to be coming back-he had nowhere else to go; his parents weren't going to take him back in, not after he left the way he did.
The first three years of their relationship had been a grand experiment; they didn't fit together at all, and yet they complimented each other. They pushed each other's limits and often broke each other, and yet they worked so well together. It was meant to be, Luke would explain. He told himself that James was his other half, and so they h ad to stay together.
The next two were a pattern of James being there and then leaving, of Luke promising to never let him back and then leaving the window open for him. It all seemed to work out nicely, until one day, when James finally came home, in August.
"I was wondering when you would be back," Luke said over his shoulder as he folded a shirt and tucked it into his dresser. He had heard a gentle thud from the window; he recognized it as the thud of James' boots meeting the carpet. A second thud followed the first, one he did not recognize. And he knew someting was wrong, something had thrown off the pattern. He turned slowly. He knew better than to ask what was going on; he wouldn't get an answer, if he was lucky, until the morning.
"This is Noah," he said, gesturing to the Second Thud. He had short, spiky black hair and honey-brown eyes. He was much taller than Luke. He was wearing an old pair of James' boots, ripped jeans, and an old shirt Luke recognized as one he had bought for James years before.
"Nice to meet you," Noah said, moving forward. "I've heard so much about you. You're a great brother, taking him in like this."
Luke shook his hand and left the room, going to put on tea. He knew better than to question James. He waited a few hours, and then came back upstairs. James was sprawled across the bed, sleeping. Noah was gone. Luke slept on the couch.
The next morning, Luke woke up to find James was gone. He couldn't go through the normal routine with him. He went downstairs and make a plate of blueberry pancakes and gave a small one to the dog. He drank tea on his own and read the paper. He asked the questions out loud and imagined James' answers. He crawled into bed and stayed there, staring at the ceiling, until he fell asleep. He didn't unlock the window. A voice in the back of his head told him there wouldn't be a next time. He stayed half-awake anyway, in case there was a knock.
Luke went through this routine for the next five years, barely sleeping as he waited and waited for a knock. It never came. He gorged on blueberry pancakes and drank tea, but never went to work or did anything but read the paper. He spent most of his time in bed, waiting for James, for some sign that he was alive and okay.
He hadn't heard from James in years. It was to be expected, he told himself. He would be back soon, Luke told himself, told the dog, told the man who delivered the paper.
The phone rang, snapping Luke back into the present. Shaking his head, he snatched it up, muttering a "hello" as he scratched the back of his neck.
"Luke," the voice breathed.
"I told you not to call anymore," he said stiffly, placing his mug on the counter.
"We need to talk about this. I need to come home," James begged.
"This isn't your home."
"It's our home."
"No it isn't. It never was," Luke said before hanging up. The dog whined again. Luke crossed to the door that led into the backyard and opened it, allowing the dog to slip out and roam the yard. He watched it through the kitchen window.
August 20, Luke thought. He was haunted by the date; he let it float around him, chilling him, the ghost roaming thorugh the house. It brushed up against him and he jumped away from it, grabbing his tea and sipping at it. He snatched up the paper, walking upstairs to the bedroom.
He picked up the paper and slouched in his seat. The dog jumped up into the open seat next to him. He scanned through it, taking it in in bits and peices. He stopped at the center. Tucked into the paper was a note from Noah, from the Second Thud, inviting Luke to his and James' housewarming party.
The phone rang again. Luke crossed the room to the phone, debating whether or not he should pick it up. After three rings, he decided to answer. Rubbing his temples, he listened to the voice on the other end.
"Look, I know you're angry," James started.
"I'd really appreciate it if you would stop calling," Luke said, cutting him off.
"Can we please talk about it?"
"I'd rather not," Luke sighed.
"Too bad. I'll be there in 10," he barked before hanging up.
Luke sighed as he lightly placed the phone down. Moving quickly, he grabbed a pen and paper. He ran back downstairs, nearly tripping as he crossed through the opening into the garage. He grabbed the large container of fluid and and old coil of rope from the tire swing. Running back into the house, he ran up to the bedroom, dragging the materials behind him. Crossing to the window, he opened it, stuck the note onto the outside, and closed it. Opening the container, he circled the bed, pouring the contents onto the rug. He jumped onto the mattress. Standing on his tiptoes and stretching his arms up towards the ceiling, he attached the coil of rope to a hook that once held a lighting fixture. He relaxed, resting on his heels and setting his arms at his sides. He looked out the window to see James crossing the lawn. He waited a moment, watching, until James' face appeared in the window. Eyes locked, Luke took out a match. Striking it, he dropped it as he jumped up and put his head through the noose.
James watched, horrified, as Luke's body became a pale ivory, glowing in the flames that surrounded the bed. He stared in disbelief. Out of the corner of his eye, the ntoe stared back, Luke's last words haunting him.
There won't be a next time.