There’s a unique feeling of catharsis that is reserved for the specific moment that you enter into a space that you once frequented each day, but after some time, has become foreign to the senses.
Anson can only compare it to the feeling he’d gotten from running into his favourite primary school teacher on the way to work one day. They’d both stood planted at a distance, in awe of how the years had matured and aged them to the emergence of a strong jaw and silvering hair. And yet, she’d recognised him in an instant, as though he were still only as tall as her waist, wearing the same carefully ironed grey shorts pulled up high on his waist and the plastic but practical Baby G watch hanging too loosely on his tiny wrist.
But unlike the warm, familiar smile his teacher had greeted him with, Edan’s stately shell of a home is still with a cold beyond the weather’s control. The man’s shoes—the same pair of faded sneakers he’d worn every day since the day they’d met—have been kicked to one side in the hallway, and what looks like the trails of a flu-ridden child scatter the living room sofa and coffee table with crumpled tissues and the baby-blue fleece blanket they would drape over their legs on nights in. The room is dimly lit by the television that still displays the spell-binding DVD logo bouncing ceaselessly from one edge of the screen to another; pink, yellow, blue, orange, white.
Only the kitchen appears completely untouched.
It remains so unmoved, in fact, that Anson can glimpse the coffee mug he’d used the morning they’d left together for work, still unwashed in its corner by the sink. His lip is almost chewed raw as he walks past, shivering at the sight of the two tall fridges filled with…well, come to think of it, he’d only ever found drinks and vegetables in there.
And the name tags.
How strange it would be if, in one’s lifetime, they penned in their will for their remains to be put in the hands—or stomach—of a cannibal. Anson himself had always imagined that when the time came, he would give himself over to scientific research; to the nurturing of future doctors’ minds. Not, certainly, to become the key ingredients to someone’s sinister smorgasbord.
You are the sweetest man I know, he hears his own naïve words echo from months before. Just how many of Edan’s supposed charms and wits had he so sorely misinterpreted? But, he supposes, he wouldn’t have stepped foot back within these walls if he didn’t still believe in his own claim.
He’d expected to hold more trepidation upon entering the bedroom, or at least to be holding his breath with caution. After all, with the knowledge that he has now, one would shudder to imagine the possibilities of what an anthropophagite being might do in the face of hunger. And yet, Anson had conjured up no wild, savage visions of his boyfriend whipping out an axe or ripping out chunks of his flesh with his bare teeth. Not only does the entire matter seem far too cinematic to be within the realm of reality, but more importantly, Anson has trouble associating Edan with any form of violence, especially when the man cowers behind a cushion even at scenes that are coloured a cooler hue or where the music thrums a touch too suspenseful.
Sure enough, as he stands in the open doorway of the bedroom, he feels only pity. The bedside lamp remains lit on his side of the bed, as though he’d merely gone to the bathroom in the wee hours of the night, yet to return. His faded black jeans are still draped over the back of the chair by the dressing table.
I’ll do a load this evening. Do you have any other darks to wash?
He’d not, of course, done any laundry. But what strikes his attention more than this particular fact, is that when he finally brings himself to look back at the bed, is that his pillow is gone from its usual spot. Instead, it’s tightly clutched within the grasp of longing arms.
Anson sucks in a breath.
The man looks near skeletal, the bones of his elbows and wrists practically jutting out of his paler skin. Once a shining knight in the eyes of all who looked upon him, the admirable doctor lies weak, curled up in a fetal position and tangled into a pile of blankets that bury his frail body under their weight. No, Anson thinks as a sharp pang emerges in his chest. This is not at all a man who could ever deliberately hurt anyone.
He shucks off his white coat, laying it carefully beside him as he slowly sinks his weight into the side of the mattress. There’s something child-like in Edan’s expression, his brows creased with tension and his breaths short with disquiet, as though dreaming vividly of a wild chase. Above his nose forms a line that Anson is tempted to gently smooth out with his thumb.
He doesn’t get the chance, though, as Edan shifts in his sleep with a quiet groan, slowly rolling over onto back and bumping gently against Anson’s hip. The soft collision startles him, though, and with a sharp inhale, his eyes, puffy and swollen, blink rapidly as he takes in his surroundings.
It takes a few moments, but when he finally realises that he’s not, in fact, hallucinating Anson’s presence, Edan sits up quickly, then scrambles to pull the covers up to his chin. If possible, he appears even smaller, eyes wide and trembling slightly in the dim glow of the bedside lamp. He averts Anson’s gaze, as though afraid that he might crumble into mush under it in the agonisingly long seconds that pass between them.
It’s Anson who finally breaks the silence, chewing at his own lip with apprehension.
There must be a joke in there somewhere.
A doctor and a cannibal walk into a bar. They fall in love and one day the bartender says—
No, that’s not it.
For a man who usually always knows the right things to say or the best joke to melt away the atmospheric tension, Edan now struggles to form any unique, coherent words that could possibly begin to convey his mind’s unrest.
“How…how are you?”
Anson says after another stretched-out silence, fingers toying with the quilt beneath him as though with a mind of their own. Indeed, he’d made the bold decision to even enter the house upon Denis’s persuasion, and yet now that he’s here, he has no agenda to serve as his lifebuoy.
“I… I’m fine.”
“You haven’t been at work all week,” Anson says, more as a matter of fact than as a counterpoint to Edan’s superficial claim. “Um…J-Jer said he misses you.”
He can feel the man’s gaze on him now, searching, searching. Then, he nods.
“And…I miss you, too.”
For the first time in almost ten days, they look at each other. Properly, because there is undoubtedly far more to Anson’s uncharacteristic confession than simply the words themselves. But the moment washes over when Anson’s own vision blurs with tears welling up in his eyes, one of them spilling hotly down his cheek. As though by reflex, a cold hand reaches up to wipe it away, and Anson shrinks away slightly in surprise at the sudden touch.
“Sorry,” Edan mumbles as he pulls his hand back. He gulps, then tucks his bony arm back under the blanket like a snake recoiling into its charmer’s basket. “I… didn’t know how to face you. Or even explain. After…what happened, I mean.”
Right. Most people ultimately discover somewhere along the line that their partner has a secret Keung To shrine in their closet with a statue moulded of candy wrappers, or god forbid, that they pour the milk before the cereal. And Anson, as luck would have it… he’s not certain he would get the same sort of sympathetic reaction from Joyce upon sharing his boyfriend’s particular quirk.
“I…well, Denis kind of gave me the gist of it.”
“Are you…you must think I’m completely barbaric.”
Edan meekly pulls the covers back up to his shoulders, lowering his head, but still watching for every minuscule change in Anson’s expression. A confirmation, an elaboration, an explanation…? Yet, he simply shakes his head.
“No,” Anson finally says after a pause. “But there’s a lot I don’t understand, you know? It’s not exactly something I ever imagined in my entire life that I would encounter. I at least know how to feel if you’re like, cheating, or ignoring me, or whatever. This is… I’m still…even now, I don’t even know if being here is a good idea.”
“I didn’t want to scare you. But I…I can’t control it. I’ve tried, but—”
“Is that why you’ve been starving yourself?”
Edan tenses under the blanket, suddenly hyperaware of his gaunt frame, now worryingly like the stark images of malnourished patients that one could find among the pages of his med school textbooks. The last time he’d grown this thin was at twelve years old, deliberately eating around the slivers of meat in his lunch box and dumping them in the bathroom trash can until his mother had cried at his bedside, begging him to make peace with his fate.
He can’t bear it, having the first person he’s loved in so many years see him in this state. But he doesn’t get much chance to hide, as Anson tugs the covers away from his body. Edan suddenly feels naked, and certainly not in the way he wants to be when it comes to being in Anson’s presence.
It’s about all that Anson manages to sputter out before any remaining words he might have had are muffled by a deep sniffle and a choked sob.
“No, no! Don’t cry, I’m fine—”
Edan’s concerned hand is promptly pushed away, and one muted, mostly painless smack after the other lands on his thigh in quick succession, which has him blinking rapidly and dodging the half-hearted attacks with confusion and alarm.
“You!” Smack. “Look like!” Smack. “A broomstick!” Smack. “You call this fine?! You’re not eating!”
Anson concludes his frankly adorable exertion of discontent with another few loud, exasperated sobs as if relieving himself of an emotional fever he’d been fostering for some time and filling his lungs with much-needed air.
“I’m sorry,” Edan says slowly, hesitantly. He can only watch, for what good would it do for him to try and offer comfort when he’s the very source of agony in the first place? “I’m so sorry,” he says again, because there’s nothing else that makes sense. Feeling helpless, he shifts forward in his seat, reaching to his right for a tissue before slowly, carefully wiping Anson’s wet cheeks, then holds the crumpled paper under his nose for him to blow into.
“Thanks,” Anson mumbles, gradually regaining his composure and steady breathing. He sniffs as Edan discards of the used tissue, his own nose red with both his crying and with mild embarrassment. He’d never broken down this way in front of anyone other than his own mother.
Edan sighs, then rubs his own eyes of any built-up crust from tears that had never quite made it out of the corners of his eyes, simply welling and idling as some sort of cruel mockery of his loneliness with which he’d had no one to share.
“You…you must have a lot of questions.”
“I don’t know what to believe from you anymore.”
“Yeah, of course. I wouldn’t expect you to trust me anymore, either.”
Even so, he holds a bony hand out, a pleading invitation to listen, at least for the last time. Anson stares at it for several long moments. He’d come all this way, and surely, after all this time, there must still be something left to love of the man he’d looked upon with rose-tinted glasses, now barren and stripped to the bone.
Gingerly, he places his own comparatively warm hand in Edan’s. There it is, the mnemonic trace of fluttering in his stomach akin to once more holding his childhood pillow.
“You have no reason to trust me, I know,” Edan says gently, tangling their fingers together like they’d done hundreds of times. “But if you’ll let me, I’d like to tell you everything. And if you still can’t stomach the thought, then…then you can report me. I won’t resist. What do you say?”
Frankly, the thought of reporting him had never even crossed Anson’s disturbed mind, despite the obviously illegal nature of Edan’s actions. Could there possibly be any justification for them? Could he still bring himself put aside all sensibilities to love a…cannibal?
His answer almost escapes the tip of his tongue when their watery exchange of glances is abruptly disturbed by the sudden ringing of the doorbell.
Twice in succession, followed by a brief pause before the third.