A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara)

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IT WAS JB who decided that Willem and Jude should host a New Year’s Eve party at their apartment. This was resolved at Christmas, which was a three-part affair: Christmas Eve was held at JB’s mother’s place in Fort Greene, and Christmas dinner itself (a formal, organized event, at which suits and ties were required) was at Malcolm’s house, and succeeded a casual lunch at JB’s aunts’ house. They had always followed this ritual—four years ago, they had added Thanksgiving at Jude’s friends Harold and Julia’s house in Cambridge to the lineup—but New Year’s Eve had never been assigned. The previous year, the first post-school-life New Year’s that they had all been in the same city at the same time, they had all ended up separate and miserable—JB lodged at some lame party at Ezra’s, Malcolm stuck at his parents’ friends’ dinner uptown, Willem trapped by Findlay into a holiday shift at Ortolan, Jude mired in bed with the flu at Lispenard Street—and had resolved to actually make plans for the next year. But they hadn’t, and hadn’t, and then it was December and they still hadn’t done anything.

So they didn’t mind JB deciding for them, not in this case. They figured they could accommodate twenty-five people comfortably, or forty uncomfortably. “So make it forty,” said JB, promptly, as they’d known he would, but later, back at their apartment, they wrote up a list of just twenty, and only their and Malcolm’s friends, knowing that JB would invite more people than were allotted him, extending invitations to friends and friends of friends and not-even friends and colleagues and bartenders and shop clerks, until the place grew so dense with bodies that they could open all the windows to the night air and still not dispel the fog of heat and smoke that would inevitably accumulate.

“Don’t make this complicated,” was the other thing JB had said, but Willem and Malcolm knew that was a caution meant solely for Jude, who had a tendency to make things more elaborate than was necessary, to spend nights making batches of gougères when everyone would have been content with pizza, to actually clean the place beforehand, as if anyone would care if the floors were crunchy with grit and the sink was scummed with dried soap stains and flecks of previous days’ breakfasts.

The night before the party was unseasonably warm, warm enough that Willem walked the two miles from Ortolan to the apartment, which was so thick with its rich butter scents of cheese and dough and fennel that it made him feel he had never left work at all. He stood in the kitchen for a while, pinching the little tumoric blobs of pastry off their cooling racks to keep them from sticking, looking at the stack of plastic containers with their herbed shortbreads and cornmeal gingersnaps and feeling slightly sad—the same sadness he felt when he noticed that Jude had cleaned after all—because he knew they would be devoured mindlessly, swallowed whole with beer, and that they would begin the New Year finding crumbs of those beautiful cookies everywhere, trampled and stamped into the tiles. In the bedroom, Jude was already asleep, and the window was cracked open, and the heavy air made Willem dream of spring, and trees afuzz with yellow flowers, and a flock of blackbirds, their wings lacquered as if with oil, gliding soundlessly across a sea-colored sky.

When he woke, though, the weather had turned again, and it took him a moment to realize that he had been shivering, and that the sounds in his dream had been of wind, and that he was being shaken awake, and that his name was being repeated, not by birds but by a human voice: “Willem, Willem.”

He turned over and propped himself up on his elbows, but was able to register Jude only in segments: his face first, and then the fact that he was holding his left arm before him with his right hand, and that he had cocooned it with something—his towel, he realized—which was so white in the gloom that it seemed a source of light itself, and he stared at it, transfixed.

“Willem, I’m sorry,” said Jude, and his voice was so calm that for a few seconds, he thought it was a dream, and stopped listening, and Jude had to repeat himself. “There’s been an accident, Willem; I’m sorry. I need you to take me to Andy’s.”

Finally he woke. “What kind of accident?”

“I cut myself. It was an accident.” He paused. “Will you take me?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said, but he was still confused, still asleep, and it was without understanding that he fumblingly dressed, and joined Jude in the hallway, where he was waiting, and then walked with him up to Canal, where he turned for the subway before Jude pulled him back: “I think we need a cab.”

In the taxi—Jude giving the driver the address in that same crushed, muted voice—he at last gave in to consciousness, and saw that Jude was still holding the towel. “Why did you bring your towel?” he asked.

“I told you—I cut myself.”

“But—is it bad?”

Jude shrugged, and Willem noticed for the first time that his lips had gone a strange color, a not-color, although maybe that was the streetlights, which slapped and slid across his face, bruising it yellow and ocher and a sickly larval white as the cab pushed north. Jude leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes, and it was then that Willem felt the beginnings of nausea, of fear, although he was unable to articulate why, only that he was in a cab heading uptown and something had happened, and he didn’t know what but that it was something bad, that he wasn’t comprehending something important and vital, and that the damp warmth of a few hours ago had vanished and the world had reverted to its icy harshness, its raw end-of-year cruelty.

Andy’s office was on Seventy-eighth and Park, near Malcolm’s parents’ house, and it was only once they were inside, in the true light, that Willem saw that the dark pattern on Jude’s shirt was blood, and that the towel had become sticky with it, almost varnished, its tiny loops of cotton matted down like wet fur. “I’m sorry,” Jude said to Andy, who had opened the door to let them in, and when Andy unwrapped the towel, all Willem saw was what looked like a choking of blood, as if Jude’s arm had grown a mouth and was vomiting blood from it, and with such avidity that it was forming little frothy bubbles that popped and spat as if in excitement.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Jude,” said Andy, and steered him back to the examining room, and Willem sat down to wait. Oh god, he thought, oh god. But it was as if his mind was a bit of machinery caught uselessly in a groove, and he couldn’t think beyond those two words. It was too bright in the waiting room, and he tried to relax, but he couldn’t for the phrase beating its rhythm like a heartbeat, thudding through his body like a second pulse: Oh god. Oh god. Oh god.

He waited a long hour before Andy called his name. Andy was eight years older than he, and they had known him since their sophomore year, when Jude had had an episode so sustained that the three of them had finally decided to take him to the hospital connected with the university, where Andy had been the resident on call. He had been the only doctor Jude agreed to see again, and now, even though Andy was an orthopedic surgeon, he still treated Jude for anything that went wrong, from his back to his legs to flu and colds. They all liked Andy, and trusted him, too.

“You can take him home,” Andy said. He was angry. With a snap, he peeled off his gloves, which were crusty with blood, and pushed back his stool. On the floor was a long, messy paint-swipe streak of red, as if someone had tried to clean up something sloshed and had given up in exasperation. The walls had red on them as well, and Andy’s sweater was stiff with it. Jude sat on the table, looking slumped and miserable and holding a glass bottle of orange juice. His hair was glued together in clumps, and his shirt appeared hard and shellacked, as if it was made not from cloth but from metal. “Jude, go to the waiting room,” Andy instructed, and Jude did, meekly.

Once he was gone, Andy shut the door and looked at Willem. “Has he seemed suicidal to you?”

“What? No.” He felt himself grow very still. “Is that what he was trying to do?”

Andy sighed. “He says he wasn’t. But—I don’t know. No. I don’t know; I can’t tell.” He went over to the sink and began to scrub violently at his hands. “On the other hand, if he had gone to the ER—which you guys really should’ve fucking done, you know—they most likely would’ve hospitalized him. Which is why he probably didn’t.” Now he was speaking aloud to himself. He pumped a small lake of soap onto his hands and washed them again. “You know he cuts himself, don’t you?”

For a while, he couldn’t answer. “No,” he said.

Andy turned back around and stared at Willem, wiping each finger dry slowly. “He hasn’t seemed depressed?” he asked. “Is he eating regularly, sleeping? Does he seem listless, out of sorts?”

“He’s seemed fine,” Willem said, although the truth was that he didn’t know. Had Jude been eating? Had he been sleeping? Should he have noticed? Should he have been paying more attention? “I mean, he’s seemed the same as he always is.”

“Well,” said Andy. He looked deflated for a moment, and the two of them stood quietly, facing but not looking at each other. “I’m going to take his word for it this time,” he said. “I just saw him a week ago, and I agree, nothing seemed unusual. But if he starts behaving strangely at all—I mean it, Willem—you call me right away.”

“I promise,” he said. He had seen Andy a few times over the years, and had always sensed his frustration, which often seemed directed toward many people at once: at himself, at Jude, and especially at Jude’s friends, none of whom, Andy always managed to suggest (without ever saying it aloud), were doing a good enough job taking care of him. He liked this about Andy, his sense of outrage over Jude, even as he feared his disapproval and also thought it somewhat unfair.

And then, as it often did once he had finished rebuking them, Andy’s voice changed and became almost tender. “I know you will,” he said. “It’s late. Go home. Make sure you give him something to eat when he wakes up. Happy New Year.”

———

They rode home in silence. The driver had taken a single, long look at Jude and said, “I need an extra twenty dollars on the fare.”

“Fine,” Willem had said.

The sky was almost light, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep. In the taxi, Jude had turned away from Willem and looked out of the window, and back at the apartment, he stumbled at the doorway and walked slowly toward the bathroom, where Willem knew he would start trying to clean up.

“Don’t,” he told him. “Go to bed,” and Jude, obedient for once, changed direction and shuffled into the bedroom, where he fell asleep almost immediately.

Willem sat on his own bed and watched him. He was aware, suddenly, of his every joint and muscle and bone, and this made him feel very, very old, and for several minutes he simply sat staring.

“Jude,” he called, and then again more insistently, and when Jude didn’t answer, he went over to his bed and nudged him onto his back and, after a moment’s hesitation, pushed up the right sleeve of his shirt. Under his hands, the fabric didn’t so much yield as it did bend and crease, like cardboard, and although he was only able to fold it to the inside of Jude’s elbow, it was enough to see the three columns of neat white scars, each about an inch wide and slightly raised, laddering up his arm. He tucked his finger under the sleeve, and felt the tracks continuing onto the upper arm, but stopped when he reached the bicep, unwilling to explore more, and withdrew his hand. He wasn’t able to examine the left arm—Andy had cut back the sleeve on that one, and Jude’s entire forearm and hand were wrapped with white gauze—but he knew he would find the same thing there.

He had been lying when he told Andy he hadn’t known Jude cut himself. Or rather, he hadn’t known for certain, but that was only a technicality: he knew, and he had known for a long time. When they were at Malcolm’s house the summer after Hemming died, he and Malcolm had gotten drunk one afternoon, and as they sat and watched JB and Jude, back from their walk to the dunes, fling sand at each other, Malcolm had asked, “Have you ever noticed how Jude always wears long sleeves?”

He’d grunted in response. He had, of course—it was difficult not to, especially on hot days—but he had never let himself wonder why. Much of his friendship with Jude, it often seemed, was not letting himself ask the questions he knew he ought to, because he was afraid of the answers.

There had been a silence then, and the two of them had watched as JB, drunk himself, fell backward into the sand and Jude limped over and begun burying him.

“Flora had a friend who always wore long sleeves,” Malcolm continued. “Her name was Maryam. She used to cut herself.”

He let the silence pull between them until he imagined he could hear it come alive. There had been a girl in their dorm who had cut herself as well. She had been with them freshman year, but, he realized, he hadn’t seen her at all this past year.

“Why?” he asked Malcolm. On the sand, Jude had worked up to JB’s waist. JB was singing something meandering and tuneless.

“I don’t know,” Malcolm said. “She had a lot of problems.”

He waited, but it seemed Malcolm had nothing more to say. “What happened to her?”

“I don’t know. They lost touch when Flora went to college; she never spoke about her again.”

They were quiet again. Somewhere along the way, he knew, it had been silently decided among the three of them that he would be primarily responsible for Jude, and this, he recognized, was Malcolm’s way of presenting him with a difficulty that needed a solution, although what, exactly, the problem was—or what the answer might be—he wasn’t certain, and he was willing to bet that Malcolm didn’t know, either.

For the next few days he avoided Jude, because he knew if he were alone with him, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from having a conversation with him, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to, or what that conversation would be. It wasn’t hard to do: in the daytime, they were together as a group, and at night, they were each in their own rooms. But one evening, Malcolm and JB left together to pick up the lobsters, and he and Jude were left on their own in the kitchen, slicing tomatoes and washing lettuce. It had been a long, sunny, sleepy day, and Jude was in one of his light moods, when he was almost carefree, and even as he asked, Willem experienced a predictive melancholy at ruining such a perfect moment, one in which everything—the pink-bled sky above them and the way the knife sliced so cleanly through the vegetables beneath them—had conspired to work so well, only to have him upset it.

“Don’t you want to borrow one of my T-shirts?” he asked Jude.

He didn’t answer until he had finished coring the tomato before him, and then gave Willem a steady, blank gaze. “No.”

“Aren’t you hot?”

Jude smiled at him, faintly, warningly. “It’s going to be cold any minute now.” And it was true. When the last daub of sun vanished, it would be chilly, and Willem himself would have to go back to his room for a sweater.

“But”—and he heard in advance how absurd he would sound, how the confrontation had wriggled out of his control, catlike, as soon as he had initiated it—“you’re going to get lobster all over your sleeves.”

At this, Jude made a noise, a funny kind of squawk, too loud and too barky to be a real laugh, and turned back to the cutting board. “I think I can handle it, Willem,” he said, and although his voice was mild, Willem saw how tightly he was holding the knife’s handle, almost squeezing it, so that the bunch of his knuckles tinged a suety yellow.

They were lucky then, both of them, that Malcolm and JB returned before they had to continue talking, but not before Willem heard Jude begin to ask “Why are—” And although he never finished his sentence (and indeed, didn’t speak to Willem once throughout dinner, through which he kept his sleeves perfectly neat), Willem knew that his question would not have been “Why are you asking me this?” but “Why are you asking me this?” because Willem had always been careful not to express too much interest in exploring the many cupboarded cabinet in which Jude had secreted himself.

If it had been anyone else, he told himself, he wouldn’t have hesitated. He would have demanded answers, he would have called mutual friends, he would have sat him down and yelled and pleaded and threatened until a confession was extracted. But this was part of the deal when you were friends with Jude: he knew it, Andy knew it, they all knew it. You let things slide that your instincts told you not to, you scooted around the edges of your suspicions. You understood that proof of your friendship lay in keeping your distance, in accepting what was told you, in turning and walking away when the door was shut in your face instead of trying to force it open again. The war-room discussions the four of them had had about other people—about Black Henry Young, when they thought the girl he was dating was cheating on him and were trying to decide how to tell him; about Ezra, when they knew the girl he was dating was cheating on him and were trying to decide how to tell him—they would never have about Jude. He would consider it a betrayal, and it wouldn’t help, anyway.

For the rest of the night, they avoided each other, but on his way to bed, he found himself standing outside Jude’s room, his hand hovering above the door, ready to knock, before he returned to himself: What would he say? What did he want to hear? And so he left, continued on, and the next day, when Jude made no mention of the previous evening’s almost-conversation, he didn’t either, and soon that day turned to night, and then another, and another, and they moved further and further from his ever trying, however ineffectively, to make Jude answer a question he couldn’t bring himself to ask.

But it was always there, that question, and in unexpected moments it would muscle its way into his consciousness, positioning itself stubbornly at the forefront of his mind, as immovable as a troll. Four years ago, he and JB were sharing an apartment and attending graduate school, and Jude, who had remained in Boston for law school, had come down to visit them. It had been night then, too, and there had been a locked bathroom door, and him banging on it, abruptly, inexplicably terrified, and Jude answering it, looking irritated but also (or was he imagining this?) strangely guilty, and asking him “What, Willem?” and he once again being unable to answer, but knowing that something was amiss. Inside the room had smelled sharply tannic, the rusted-metal scent of blood, and he had even picked through the trash can and found a curl of a bandage wrapper, but was that from dinner, when JB had cut himself with a knife while trying to chop a carrot in his hand (Willem suspected he exaggerated his incompetency in the kitchen in order to avoid having to do any prep work), or was it from Jude’s nighttime punishments? But again (again!), he did nothing, and when he passed Jude (feigning sleep or actually asleep?) on the sofa in the living room, he said nothing, and the next day, he again said nothing, and the days unfurled before him as clean as paper, and with each day he said nothing, and nothing, and nothing.

And now there was this. If he had done something (what?) three years ago, eight years ago, would this have happened? And what exactly was this?

But this time he would say something, because this time he had proof. This time, to let Jude slip away and evade him would mean that he himself would be culpable if anything happened.

After he had resolved this, he felt the fatigue overwhelm him, felt it erase the worry and anxiety and frustration of the night. It was the last day of the year, and as he lay down on his bed and closed his eyes, the last thing he remembered feeling was surprise that he should be falling asleep so fast.

———

It was almost two in the afternoon when Willem finally woke, and the first thing he remembered was his resolve from earlier that morning. Certainly things had been realigned to discourage his sense of initiative: Jude’s bed was clean. Jude was not in it. The bathroom, when he visited it, smelled eggily of bleach. And at the card table, there was Jude himself, stamping circles into dough with a stoicism that made Willem both annoyed and relieved. If he was to confront Jude, it seemed, it would be without the benefit of disarray, of evidence of disaster.

He slouched into the chair across from him. “What’re you doing?”

Jude didn’t look up. “Making more gougères,” he said, calmly. “One of the batches I made yesterday isn’t quite right.”

“No one’s going to fucking care, Jude,” he said meanly, and then, barreling helplessly forward, “We could just give them cheese sticks and it’d be the same thing.”

Jude shrugged, and Willem felt his annoyance quicken into anger. Here Jude sat after what was, he could now admit, a terrifying night, acting as if nothing had happened, even as his bandage-wrapped hand lay uselessly on the table. He was about to speak when Jude put down the water glass he’d been using as a pastry cutter and looked at him. “I’m really sorry, Willem,” he said, so softly that Willem almost couldn’t hear him. He saw Willem looking at his hand and pulled it into his lap. “I should never—” He paused. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me.”

His anger dissolved. “Jude,” he asked, “what were you doing?”

“Not what you think. I promise you, Willem.”

Years later, Willem would recount this conversation—its contours, if not its actual, literal content—for Malcolm as proof of his own incompetence, his own failure. How might things have been different if he spoke only one sentence? And that sentence could have been “Jude, are you trying to kill yourself?” or “Jude, you need to tell me what’s going on,” or “Jude, why do you do this to yourself?” Any of those would have been acceptable; any of those would have led to a larger conversation that would have been reparative, or at the very least preventative.

Wouldn’t it?

But there, in the moment, he instead only mumbled, “Okay.”

They sat in silence for what felt like a long time, listening to the murmur of one of their neighbors’ televisions, and it was only much later that Willem would wonder whether Jude had been saddened or relieved that he had been so readily believed.

Are you mad at me?”

“No.” He cleared his throat. And he wasn’t. Or, at least, mad was not the word he would have chosen, but he couldn’t then articulate what word would be correct. “But we obviously have to cancel the party.”

At this, Jude looked alarmed. “Why?”

Why? Are you kidding me?”

“Willem,” Jude said, adopting what Willem thought of as his litigatory tone, “we can’t cancel. People are going to be showing up in seven hours—less. And we really have no clue who JB’s invited. They’re going to show up anyway, even if we let everyone else know. And besides”—he inhaled sharply, as if he’d had a lung infection and was trying to prove it had resolved itself—“I’m perfectly fine. It’ll be more difficult if we cancel than if we just go forward.”

Oh, how and why did he always listen to Jude? But he did, once again, and soon it was eight, and the windows were once again open, and the kitchen was once again hot with pastry—as if the previous night had never happened, as if those hours had been an illusion—and Malcolm and JB were arriving. Willem stood in the door of their bedroom, buttoning up his shirt and listening to Jude tell them that he had burned his arm baking the gougères, and that Andy had had to apply a salve.

“I told you not to make those fucking gougères,” he could hear JB say, happily. He loved Jude’s baking.

He was overcome, then, with a powerful sensation: he could close the door, and go to sleep, and when he woke, it would be a new year, and everything would be wiped fresh, and he wouldn’t feel that deep, writhing discomfort inside of him. The thought of seeing Malcolm and JB, of interacting with them and smiling and joking, seemed suddenly excruciating.

But, of course, see them he did, and when JB demanded they all go up to the roof so he could get some fresh air and have a smoke, he let Malcolm complain uselessly and halfheartedly about how cold it was without joining in, before resignedly following the three of them up the narrow staircase that led to the tar-papered roof.

He knew that he was sulking, and he removed himself to the back of the building, letting the others talk without him. Above him, the sky was already completely dark, midnight dark. If he faced north, he could see directly beneath him the art-supply store where JB had been working part-time since quitting the magazine a month ago, and in the distance, the Empire State Building’s gaudy, graceless bulk, its tower aglow with a garish blue light that made him think of gas stations, and the long drive back to his parents’ house from Hemming’s hospital bed so many years ago.

“Guys,” he called over to the others, “it’s cold.” He wasn’t wearing his coat; none of them were. “Let’s go.” But when he went to the door that opened into the building’s stairwell, the handle wouldn’t turn. He tried it again—it wouldn’t budge. They were locked out. “Fuck!” he shouted. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

“Jesus, Willem,” said Malcolm, startled, because Willem rarely got angry. “Jude? Do you have the key?”

But Jude didn’t. “Fuck!” He couldn’t help himself. Everything felt so wrong. He couldn’t look at Jude. He blamed him, which was unfair. He blamed himself, which was more fair but which made him feel worse. “Who’s got their phone?” But idiotically, no one had his phone: they were down in the apartment, where they themselves should have been, were it not for fucking JB, and for fucking Malcolm, who so unquestioningly followed everything JB said, every stupid, half-formed idea, and for fucking Jude as well, for last night, for the past nine years, for hurting himself, for not letting himself be helped, for frightening and unnerving him, for making him feel so useless: for everything.

For a while they screamed; they pounded their feet on the rooftop in the hopes that someone beneath them, one of their three neighbors whom they’d still never met, might hear them. Malcolm suggested throwing something at the windows of one of the neighboring buildings, but they had nothing to throw (even their wallets were downstairs, tucked cozily into their coat pockets), and all the windows were dark besides.

“Listen,” Jude said at last, even though the last thing Willem wanted to do was listen to Jude, “I have an idea. Lower me down to the fire escape and I’ll break in through the bedroom window.”

The idea was so stupid that he initially couldn’t respond: it sounded like something that JB would imagine, not Jude. “No,” he said, flatly. “That’s crazy.”

“Why?” asked JB. “I think it’s a great plan.” The fire escape was an unreliable, ill-conceived, and mostly useless object, a rusted metal skeleton affixed to the front of the building between the fifth and third floors like a particularly ugly bit of decoration—from the roof, it was a drop of about nine feet to the landing, which ran half the width of their living room; even if they could safely get Jude down to it without triggering one of his episodes or having him break his leg, he’d have to crane over its edge in order to reach the bedroom window.

“Absolutely not,” he told JB, and the two of them argued for a bit until Willem realized, with a growing sense of dismay, that it was the only possible solution. “But not Jude,” he said. “I will.”

“You can’t.”

“Why? We won’t need to break in through the bedroom, anyway; I’ll just go in through one of the living-room windows.” The living-room windows were barred, but one of them was missing, and Willem thought he might be able to squeeze between the remaining two bars, just. Anyway, he’d have to.

“I closed the windows before we came up here,” Jude admitted in a small voice, and Willem knew that meant he’d also locked them, because he locked anything that could be: doors, windows, closets. It was reflexive for him. The bedroom window’s lock was broken, however, so Jude had fashioned a mechanism—a complex, blocky thing made from bolts and wire—that he claimed secured it completely.

He had always been mystified by Jude’s hyper-preparedness, his dedication to finding disaster everywhere—he had long ago noticed Jude’s habit of, upon entering any new room or space, searching for the nearest exit and then standing close to it, which had initially been funny and then, somehow, became less so—and his equal dedication to implementing preventative measures whenever he could. One night, the two of them had been awake late in their bedroom, talking, and Jude had told him (quietly, as if he was confessing something precious) that the bedroom window’s mechanism could in fact be opened from the outside, but that he was the only one who knew how to unjam it.

“Why are you telling me this?” he’d asked.

“Because,” Jude had said, “I think we should get it fixed, properly.”

“But if you’re the only one who knows how to open it, why does it matter?” They didn’t have extra money for a locksmith, not to come fix a problem that wasn’t a problem. They couldn’t ask the superintendent: After they had moved in, Annika had admitted that she technically wasn’t allowed to sublet the apartment, but as long as they didn’t cause any problems, she thought the landlord wouldn’t bother them. And so they tried not to cause problems: they made their own repairs, they patched their own walls, they fixed the plumbing themselves.

“Just in case,” Jude had said. “I just want to know we’re safe.”

“Jude,” he’d said. “We’re going to be safe. Nothing’s going to happen. No one’s going to break in.” And then, when Jude was silent, he sighed, gave up. “I’ll call the locksmith tomorrow,” he’d said.

“Thank you, Willem,” Jude had said.

But in the end, he’d never called.

That had been two months ago, and now they were standing in the cold on their roof, and that window was their only hope. “Fuck, fuck,” he groaned. His head hurt. “Just tell me how to do it, and I’ll open it.”

“It’s too difficult,” Jude said. By now they had forgotten Malcolm and JB were standing there, watching them, JB quiet for once. “I won’t be able to explain it.”

“Yeah, I know you think I’m a fucking moron, but I can figure it out if you only use small words,” he snapped.

“Willem,” said Jude, surprised, and there was a silence. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” he said. “Sorry. I know.” He took a deep breath. “Even if we were to do this, though—and I don’t think we should—how would we even lower you down?”

Jude walked to the edge of the roof, which was bordered on each side by a flat-topped shin-high wall, and peered over it. “I’ll sit on the wall looking out, directly above the fire escape,” he said. “Then you and JB should both sit by it. Each of you hold one of my hands with both of your own, and then you’ll lower me down. Once you can’t reach anymore, you’ll let go and I’ll drop the rest of the way.”

He laughed, it was so risky and dumb. “And if we did this, how would you reach the bedroom window?”

Jude looked at him. “You’re going to have to trust I can do it.”

“This is stupid.”

JB stopped him. “This is the only plan, Willem. It’s fucking freezing out here.”

And it was; only his rage was keeping him warm. “Have you not noticed his whole fucking arm is completely bandaged up, JB?”

“But I’m fine, Willem,” said Jude, before JB could respond.

It was ten more minutes of the two of them bickering until Jude finally marched back over to the edge. “If you won’t help me, Willem, Malcolm will,” he said, although Malcolm looked terrified as well.

“No,” he said, “I will.” And so he and JB knelt and pressed themselves against the wall, each holding one of Jude’s hands with both of their own. By now it was so cold that he could barely feel his fingers close around Jude’s palm. He had Jude’s left hand, and all he could sense anyway was its cushion of gauze. As he squeezed it, an image of Andy’s face floated before him, and he was sick with guilt.

Jude pushed off the side of the ledge, and Malcolm gave a little moan that ended in a squeak. Willem and JB leaned over as far as they could, until they were in danger of tipping over the edge themselves, and when Jude called to them to let go, they did, and watched him land in a clatter on the slat-floored fire escape beneath them.

JB cheered, and Willem wanted to smack him. “I’m fine!” Jude shouted up to them, and waved his bandaged hand in the air like a flag, before moving over to the edge of the fire escape, where he pulled himself up onto its railing so he could start untangling the implement. He had his legs twined around one of the railing’s iron spindles, but his position was precarious, and Willem watched him sway a little, trying to keep his balance, his fingers moving slowly from numbness and cold.

“Get me down there,” he said to Malcolm and JB, ignoring Malcolm’s fluttery protests, and then he went over the edge himself, calling down to Jude before he did so his arrival wouldn’t upset his equilibrium.

The drop was scarier, and the landing harder, than he had thought it would be, but he made himself recover quickly and went over to where Jude was and wrapped his arms around his waist, tucking his leg around a spindle to brace himself. “I’ve got you,” he said, and Jude leaned out over the edge of the railing, farther than he could have done on his own, and Willem held on to him so tightly that he could feel the knuckles of Jude’s spine through his sweater, could feel his stomach sink and rise as he breathed, could feel the echo of his fingers’ movements through his muscles as he twisted and unkinked the twigs of wire that were fastening the window into its stile. And when it was done, Willem climbed onto the railing and into the bedroom first, and then reached out again to pull Jude in by his arms, careful to avoid his bandages.

They stood back on the inside, panting from the effort, and looked at each other. It was so deliciously warm inside this room, even with the cold air gusting in, that he at last let himself feel weak with relief. They were safe, they had been spared. Jude grinned at him then, and he grinned back—if it had been JB before him, he would’ve hugged him out of sheer stupid giddiness, but Jude wasn’t a hugger and so he didn’t. But then Jude raised his hand to brush some of the rust flakes out of his hair, and Willem saw that on the inside of his wrist his bandage was stained with a deep-burgundy splotch, and recognized, belatedly, that the rapidity of Jude’s breathing was not just from exertion but from pain. He watched as Jude sat heavily on his bed, his white-wrapped hand reaching behind him to make sure he would land on something solid.

Willem crouched beside him. His elation was gone, replaced by something else. He felt himself weirdly close to tears, although he couldn’t have said why.

“Jude,” he began, but he didn’t know how to continue.

“You’d better get them,” Jude said, and although each word came out as a gasp, he smiled at Willem again.

“Fuck ’em,” he said, “I’ll stay here with you,” and Jude laughed a little, although he winced as he did so, and carefully tipped himself backward until he was lying on his side, and Willem helped lift his legs up onto the bed. His sweater was freckled with more flecks of rust, and Willem picked some of them off of him. He sat on the bed next to him, unsure where to begin. “Jude,” he tried again.

“Go,” Jude said, and closed his eyes, although he was still smiling, and Willem reluctantly stood, shutting the window and turning off the bedroom light as he left, closing the door behind him, heading for the stairwell to save Malcolm and JB, while far beneath him, he could hear the buzzer reverberating through the staircase, announcing the arrival of the evening’s first guests.

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  • 22. 3. 2024