The winter was holding on so long and persistently we had already established a long line of fimbulwinter references and inside jokes. I was half-expecting to come across a Mara or other nightmarish mythical creature as I was dragging myself through the frozen grey streets towards Emory’s place. There were no cars at this early hour, and except for some dog-walkers or the occasional brave jogger, hardly any people either. Everything was bathed in the harsh grey light of dawn, so that edges jumped out at me, and oblique shadows seemed to be trying to trip me up. I felt numb and anxious at the same time. A painful, dull pressure was swelling in my chest, pushing at my ribs and breast bone. It was hard to breathe. Nevertheless, I lit a cigarette, although more out of reflex than anything else. A woman in a beige coat stumbled by, less walking than being dragged forward by the weight of the two shopping bags she was gripping. I put my lighter back in my pocket where it clicked against Emory’s keys. I slowed my pace down, even though my back was cramping up from the cold.
A call from the police had woken me up just past four a.m. They couldn’t have waited until morning. How weird of me to think that. I would have thrown a fit if they had. Not that it would have made any difference. When I got down to the central station, I didn’t enter the morgue right away. I dawdled, went back out to have a smoke, didn’t want to see what was inside. But when a young, pale, moustachioed officer told me they had found the body at a lookout near the harbour, after someone had reported a small fire up there, I knew I wouldn’t even have to take a look. It could only have been Emory. Where else would he have wanted to die? He’d gone up there late at night and lit a small bonfire. He’d probably been looking out to sea for a while, and at the stars overhead, while putting on the modified breathing mask and hooking it up to the nitrogen tank. Weirdly enough, the first thing I felt that I could name at all was an intense pang of frustrated anger at Emory. Why hadn’t he told me anything? He’d just shut himself away for a couple of weeks, like he would do sometimes, and I’d been waiting for him to contact me again. Now I felt insulted. Why hadn’t he let me know? What had been going on? The officer must have misread my expression. Before leading me through the morgue door, he explained to me that my friend hadn’t been in any pain, that when you breathe nitrogen, you exhale carbon dioxide but don’t resupply oxygen. Some people even experience euphoria before losing consciousness. Death by cardiac arrest, he said. They’d found a suicide note, he said. Just a scrap of paper he’d had in his pocket, actually. It had my name and number. “Call Henry.” That’s all it had said about me.
The closer I got to Emory’s place, the slower I was walking. I was bombarded with memories at every corner; it was like walking through molasses. I had lived in this quarter too, for a year or a little bit more, and Emory and I had often taken the same bus in from work. We’d get off at the same stop, and most times we’d end up at his place for a couple of beers or a whisky before I’d finally stumble off to mine to fall into bed. On the nights we separated at the bus stop, mostly because we’d already been drinking somewhere else, we’d share our little private jokes. “Well, I’m off to Ravenclaw”, I’d say. “Sleep well over there in Hufflepuff.” Or he’d say, “Get home safe. Don’t run into any axe murderers.” Once we spent a whole evening just discussing various theories about neighbourhood axe murderers. Which sounds silly now. Maybe you had to be there to get it. To get us.
Of course you can dawdle all you like, at one point you will have reached your goal. I was standing in the hallway in front of Emory’s door, and boy, did I not want to go in. I was still shaken up by everything that had happened in the last couple hours, and I wished I could just go home, barricade myself inside my flat with a few bottles of hard booze, process reality, and then drink myself into oblivion. However, I could not do that, not right then. My conscience forbade me. I had promised Emory, in fact we’d promised each other, that if something should ever happen to one of us, the other one would go through all of his stuff and get rid of anything that any relatives and loved ones had better not see. Emory’s key was shaking in my hand, making the keychain jingle. From inside, I heard a thump, accompanied by the tell-tale “murr” of Emory’s black and white cat Webster jumping to the floor from somewhere high up. I had to go in to get the cat. I would have to go through with the other stuff anyway, so why not get it over with.
The moment I entered the flat I was immersed in its smell. I had never managed to work out what exactly it smelled like, but that wasn‘t the point. Of course it must have been a mixture of everything that had ever gone on in here – Emory’s laundry and cooking and books and coffee and aftershave, and the cat, and visitors, and quite possibly sex, and beer and cigarette smoke and every bad dream and every bout of influenza and every sleepless night. None of that mattered, even though its ghosts were still lingering. The point was I would recognize Emory’s place drunk and blindfolded. You know how every house has its “family smell”? Emory was my family. He was, he had been, my best friend. And now he wasn’t there anymore. And together with the familiarity and the instant feeling of safety that went with it, that realisation hit me like a fist in the face. I hadn’t felt like that in the morgue; what they’d shown me hadn’t been him, just an empty shell. Now my numbness gave way and everything I hadn’t felt up to then welled up inside me and washed over me. I let myself slide down along the door until I was sitting on the linoleum, my head tipped back, my eyes squeezed shut and my head spinning. Time passed. Only when I felt a warm scraping on my right hand did I open my eyes again. “Hey buddy,” I said to the cat, my voice sounding raspy. I cleared my throat, which made him jump back. After a couple of deep breaths I got to my feet again and went into the kitchen to look for cat food. Webster ran ahead as if he could read my mind. To him the floor seemed perfectly even, but everything was still swaying in front of my eyes.
I steadied myself on the kitchen counter and decided it was time to find some booze. A shot or two would make the room behave again, and maybe dumb down the pressure in my chest that wouldn’t go away. While rummaging around the cupboards looking for cat food, I found a half-full bottle of single malt whisky. That would do nicely, even though I would have made do with bottom-shelf tequila, like Dos Dados or something. I tipped some intense-smelling gunk into a bowl for the cat, who had been meowing and trying to reach up to the counter, and took the whisky bottle and a tumbler into the main room with me, the one that had served Emory as a bed- and living room, study, library, you name it. It was like some sort of storage room for all his things, including himself when he was home. And I was here to find, or fail to find, a skeleton in this closet.
At first I didn’t look at anything. I sat down on the ratty sofa, its loud 80s pattern covered by a black blanket as usual. Emory used to say that nobody should ever have to look at that print pattern, because if they did they would surely contract eye cancer, and he didn’t want to be responsible for anything like that. My hands shaking, I poured myself a large whisky and drank most of it off, trying to drown the echoes that came surging at me out of the furniture (the upholstery against my buttocks and my back and legs, the shelves holding Emory’s mementoes all around me, the pillow on the bed still bearing an imprint of Emory’s head), the books (Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith), the posters on the walls (Army of Darkness, Brazil). I concentrated on the warm glow of the whisky, traced it from my throat down to my belly, past that place that still felt tight and heavy as if bound with iron, felt it spread through the hollowness within me. It left a smoky residue in my mouth that made me crave another cigarette. Fumbling for the pack in my jacket pocket, I thought, I sure smoked a lot of cigarettes in here; their ghosts are probably still hanging around the corners. Slowly, my surroundings started to seep back into my consciousness. When I put the glass down and shrugged off my jacket, something inside me gave a loud crack, and I had to think of Iron Henry, my fairytale namesake. “No, master, it is not the carriage. It is a band from my heart, which was put there in my great pain when you were a frog and imprisoned in the well.” That’s what he said in my book of Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales – but in the version my German grandmother had told me as a kid, he had never even known about his master’s transformation. He’d said, “It is but one of the iron bands that I had forged around my heart so that it wouldn’t break from sorrow over you.”
I don’t know how much time I let pass this way, but I smoked that cigarette slowly, pensively, while I drank the rest of that first whisky, then poured myself another glass and surveyed the room. The cat’s transport cage and a rucksack were sitting out on the rug in front of the closet. I strolled over and picked up the rucksack. It was empty. There was a folded blanket inside the transport cage. I ran my hand over it. It came away free of cat hair. Not too big a surprise, considering Webster had always associated the cage with trips to the vet and would never voluntarily get inside. But why was it there? What had Emory been doing? There was something so weird, so wrong about all of this, as if I was dreaming it all. It felt unconnected to the world I lived in, and to the friend I knew. I had to solve this mystery. I took another swig of whisky, swished it around in my mouth before swallowing. What else was there, what had I missed so far for fear of looking? What had he been preparing for? Why did he call for me?
Slowly I turned and looked around the room. There was Emory’s bed, unmade, covered in heaps of dirty laundry and dog-eared paperbacks, most of them probably half-read. He was always reading several books at once. I could never do that; it’s hard enough for me to concentrate on any one thing. But he loved it. He’d find cross-references everywhere. He’d copy out passages into his notebooks and mark the things he found significant in coloured pen. He’d read bits and pieces to me too, whenever he was captivated by some common underlying theme he thought he had unearthed. His notes hardly ever made any sense to me, but I enjoyed listening to him, his voice shaky with giddiness and enthusiasm. I loved to see his eyes light up when he was talking about the things that fascinated him. I swallowed hard, put the glass down, wiped my sleeve across my eyes. I would have to drink slower if I was to go through with this. And I couldn’t expect to find anything, to notice anything, if I kept getting stuck at the first item I looked at, if I kept drowning in my memories, and other things… What do you call a memory that you never made, that doesn’t refer to any actual event, but that keeps haunting you nonetheless?
Okay. What else was there? Shelves and shelves of Emory’s accumulated stuff. Books, mostly, but also folders and notebooks and stacks of photocopied resources – what Emory called his research, even though I thought that most of it was just disjointed ramblings of fantasy worlds, never anything to base even a half-hearted pulp novel on, let alone an actual thesis. All wedged between boxes of old photographs, little souvenirs and oddities he couldn’t part with: stones collected on various mountains and beaches, a woodcutting of a bear, a plastic figurine that looked like a rabbit from one angle – turn it upside down and it was transformed into a little fat cook. I realised that even though this room was so familiar, and even though every little thing called out to me with memory, the absence of its inhabitant turned everything in this place to meaningless junk. Maybe I was here because I could fill some of these items with meaning? Recognize something others couldn’t? I ran my fingers over the edges of the shelves, the spines of Emory’s books. Everything was covered with dust. There was a single picture of Valerie, Emory’s long-time ex-girlfriend, in a green wooden frame, that too covered in dust. She was sitting under a tree in summer, her face speckled with leaf-shadows, her eyes scrunched up against the glare, her nose crinkly like that of a cartoon lion, laughing at the camera. I couldn’t remember if that had been Emory behind the camera or me. Valerie and I had liked each other all right. She’d insisted that as Emory’s best friend I should come along on all their hikes and trips to festivals and stuff. I’d been out of the house a lot more during the time those two had been dating. It had been fun, too. And they’d certainly been happy for some time, and I had been happy for them. Maybe I kind of had a crush on their crush, if you know what I mean. But well, things happen, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do. I certainly hadn’t found a remedy yet for the things that were crushing me.
I put the picture back on the shelf, leaving clear fingerprints on the dusty glass and frame. What was there to find and take away? There must be something. But there were no hidden spaces under or behind anything. Everything was laid out for the world to see. I circled the room, trailing my hand along the wall. No hidden stash of porn mags, no sex toys, no weapons. What could he have meant? Pulling things out of the shelves would be of no use; I knew there was nothing hidden there. I went and opened all the drawers of Emory’s desk. I found bills, pens, paperclips, a pack of chewing gum petrified with age, a red stapler, some old picture postcards from the seaside, dust and tobacco crumbs, a handful of pebbles, a stack of empty notebooks, an unidentifiable black plastic part, and a blue bottle cap adorned with a white heraldic panther. And no dark secrets. I sat down in the swivel chair, put my elbows on the desk, and rested my head in my hands, eyes closed. I wouldn’t search his laptop. Not now. I’d take that home and look at it another time, after I’d done all the things I’d promised myself. Like rinse my mind with alcohol, then sleep for a million years. I almost smiled then. The thought had reminded me of the poster on the wall and the alternative ending of Army of Darkness, in which Ash travels too far into the future and ends up being the last human being alive, on a ruined earth where everything was covered in cobwebs and dust.
That’s when it hit me. Scales, eyes, everything, the works. Nothing in this room had been touched in weeks, maybe as long as I hadn’t seen Emory. Everything was covered in dust. Except for two items that were sitting on his desk, a notebook and a sphere of glass, right in front of me. As if put there carefully, for me to find them. To have them? I picked up the glass globe that was weighing down the notebook. It looked like one of those snowstorms, so I shook it, but nothing happened. No white plastic flakes, no glittery bits of tiny confetti tumbling around. It wasn’t even filled with water – it seemed to be solid glass. I squinted my eyes and peered inside. It contained a miniature city. It looked like a model of London, but I couldn’t be sure. Most major landmarks were missing or askew, the streets a twisted labyrinth. History seemed jumbled up as well, and high buildings were connected by a system of bridges, some of them made from metal girders, others of rope and wooden boards. Maybe it was just some Steampunk collectible. I put it aside and opened the notebook. At first I was glad I was already sitting. It was the weirdest thing. The first pages were covered in what looked like convoluted maps, but not one of them was finished and all of them were crossed out, violently scribbled over. I could feel the deep imprints from the pen when I moved my fingertips over the paper. There were notations too, tiny symbols that were hard to make out, and equally tiny writing that was illegible to me. It must have been code or a foreign alphabet. After the maps came pages and pages of Emory’s tidy handwriting, which actually got my hopes up on finding an explanation. But he had either been working on a fantasy novel, or he’d been seriously hallucinating. It seemed to be some sort of travel journal, but nothing made sense, and half of it was written in that weird code again. He must have been on some heavy shit. Why hadn’t he called me? Had it been some sort of secret art project? Had he still been tripping when he went down to the harbour? I flicked through page after page, but I didn’t come upon any clues, or any messages to me. There were only manic, detailed descriptions of buildings, of food, of people, of weather phenomena and cloud formations even, that seemed disturbing and hallucinatory to me. Names were repeated occasionally, but I didn’t recognize any of them, and they seemed to be spelled differently each time. Variants flowed into each other until I didn’t recognize the one he’d started out with.
At this point I broke down. Even though the light hadn’t changed, I felt blinded. The walls were closing in on me, and the floor was buckling under my feet again. A heat rose to my face, and I felt angry tears sting my eyes. I almost threw the glass globe at the wall. Instead, I ended up clutching it tighter, as if I could break it, or maybe use it as a weapon. But there was no tangible target, nothing to fight against. I wished I could hit something hard. Then I realized that I’d only been fighting myself, and all because of Emory. Something deep inside me gave another crack. “Why are you doing this to me?” I screamed. “Why did you keep this a secret from me? What the fuck do you want?!”
Which was unfair, because I had been keeping a secret from Emory too. For years. I forced myself to breathe deeply until the sudden rage and vertigo had eased their grip on me. “Okay,” I said, like an afterthought. “I never told you. I was trying to save us both.”
I’d never told Emory my secret. It would have broken his heart to know and being unable to do anything about it. It might also have broken our friendship. So I’d decided to let only my heart bear it, and I’d carried the secret like iron bands in my chest. Oh, I’d wanted to tell him a million times, but I never did. It wouldn’t have achieved anything. If anything, it might well have made matters so much worse. One time, one time only, he’d asked me why I wasn’t with anyone. I’d been on the verge of telling him then. And now I couldn’t be mad at him, and I couldn’t even mourn him, because the face that I saw all around me, even though there wasn’t a single photograph of him anywhere, it was not the face of the thing I’d seen at the morgue that morning, that empty husk. No. It was Emory’s face as I’d last seen it, right there, when I’d said goodnight and goodbye to him a couple weeks earlier, off-handedly because I hadn’t known I would never get to say it again. And I hung my head and continued to breathe deeply, feeling that the pressure in my chest had receded another bit.
A mewling noise from outside startled me out of my trance, echoing in the stairwell. I realized I hadn’t seen the cat since I’d fed it. “Webster?” I called. “Webster!” The mewling continued. No cat. “Shit!” I said and ran out into the hall. The door to the stairwell was open a crack, although I remembered closing it. I stumbled out, looking left and right for the cat. I thought I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye, something black and white swishing downstairs, so I followed it. I ran on and on, and it was always faster than me. I could only ever see something like the tip of a tail vanish around the next corner. At some point I had the impression that I was running down more steps than I’d climbed up, but I put that down to the whisky I’d had. When I reached the ground floor, there was nothing there. “Webster?” I repeated, tentatively. Nothing. Just the dented post boxes and the front door, firmly closed. There was a square pane of security glass in the upper panel of that door, and for half a second there I thought that it was a stained-glass window, even though I knew that old door so well. It was the quality of the light that fell through the glass, painting another square on the floor tiles in a burnt yellow, that made me walk up to the door and step outside.
That yellow light suffused everything, and I was suddenly hot in my shirt-sleeves. Blinking, I stood in front of Emory’s house, and I didn’t recognise the street I’d walked up and down uncounted times. I looked up at the street sign, and I found I couldn’t read the writing anymore. Crossing an unfamiliar courtyard, my footsteps muffled by the ivy-covered walls surrounding it, I followed the sound of a plucked string instrument through an archway, not caring any longer about getting lost, wondering when the last iron ring would break and set me free.