"Das, you can't keep doing this."
He knew that.
Das hadn't meant to keep going after he had finally escaped his childhood home. It had just been something to take his eyes away from the bruises on his wrists, the pain of a family gone wrong.
"Das, the smoke--"
It was intoxicating. It swirled into the air and dissipated, so beautifully ephemeral. He wished he could disappear into it, let it cloud his senses until it was just him and the cigarette. What was life but in and out and fade to nothingness?
"--or I'll leave you."
He flicked his eyes to Alex's face, twisted in desperation. Pity flashed in him--Alex didn't deserve this. He didn't deserve Alex. And yet, Alex would come back, as always, and their cycle would continue.
The door slammed behind him, echoing through their small apartment. He closed his eyes and inhaled again, letting himself hide under a cloud of smoke.
Although he had his brushes in his coat pocket, as always, he hadn't taken his paints with him. The thought struck Alex as he stepped into the chill November air, the glow of his phone lighting up the darkness. Maybe that was for the better. His paintings were gruesome, and they wouldn't fetch a substantial price. And anyway, all he painted was Das, and that would only hurt him now.
As he walked, he gazed at the couples strolling past him, holding hands and wearing blushes. It was like something out of a movie, with the snow settling softly in their hair. Movie actors always had scripted lines and a purpose, he thought bitterly. What was his? Was he destined to forever chase after an ideal version of Das that didn't exist?
You can't put broken pieces back together. So why did he try so hard to fix Das?
Fix. He stepped over a slush of snow, remembering how that word had shaken something in Das. There had been one day after a fight, the kind that ended in broken dishes, when Alex had spoken up quietly.
“How do you see yourself?”
“I don’t. Saves me some trouble.”
“You think that smoking can make your problems disappear, but it can't." Alex had gestured at the glass and porcelain shards scattered around them. "It only makes more. Why won't you stop? Why won't you try?"
“If you had the chance to take away the pain, wouldn't you?” Das had flicked his eyes to Alex’s face. “Nothing you say can change my mind. Stop trying."
"I can't just stop caring. I paint these pictures of you because I want you to see what I see. You're destroying yourself, Das. Tell me how to fix you--"
Faster than he could blink, Das was standing in front of him, his eyes blazing with foreign anger. The cigarette was a burning stub in his hand. "I'm not broken," he hissed. "So you can take your self-righteous bullshit and shove it--"
Alex wasn't listening. His eyes were fixated on Das's, at the emotion there. Stay that way, he wanted to beg, but all he did was watch Das's face. Please. His eyes flicked to Das's lips, just for a second--
A careful rearrangement of features, and before Alex could cry out, Das's face was carefully blank again. As always. The disappointment in him squeezed the air from his lungs. The room felt too tight.
Too shocked, too devastated to say anything, Alex had left.
He realized he'd been standing in the same position for a while, and he quickly began moving along the street again, to the puzzled stares of several strangers. The memory still stung like a fresh wound, but... Alex had left. For good. He couldn't come crawling back to Das forever, and it was time Das realized that.
He looked up to the stars splashed across the sky and breathed.
It was the last painting Alex had done before he left. Das stared at it, fighting the nausea swelling in his gut.
Alex's works were straight out of a nightmare--ribs jutting from broken flesh, faces contorted into gaping screams, bodies bloated beyond recognition. Perhaps what was scarier was that Das was the one getting mangled in all of them. He barely realized it was him, but he took one look at the cigarette butts littering the bottom of the paintings and knew. For all Alex would preach about a healthy life, his paintings were grisly contradictions.
Now, a week after Alex had left and hadn't come back, Das had smashed every one of his canvases except one. He wasn't quite sure why he kept it, but he couldn't take his eyes off it. He went so far as to drive a rusted nail into a cracked wall and hang it up. When he woke from their small, sagging bed and stumbled to the mirror, he looked at his reflection with bloodshot eyes and saw the painting staring back.
Maybe it was a hallucination, but at this point, he couldn't tell the difference.
Everywhere he went, he saw the painting staring back at him in windows and mirrors. Its gaping smile stretched wider with every sighting, a promise of what he'd become. One time, after he saw himself in the stained glass of the microwave door, he'd slammed it so hard it cracked.
It was growing out of control. As he brushed away the cigarette butts scattered on a chair and sat down, he found himself staring at his phone. It would be so easy to call Alex and beg him to come back. To suddenly make it someone else's problem. Every inch of him wanted to dial Alex's number, but he forced himself out of the chair and into their bedroom, a lighter already in his hands.
Even Alex couldn't help him now.
He was staying at a friend’s house for now, and he’d found work in a grocery store down the street. Eventually, he could earn enough money to buy his own home. He could forget about the fights, the tears, the haze of smoke. Better that he was on his own now, Alex thought, gazing at a rack of cigarettes near the front of the store.
His phone rang, startling him. He slipped it out of his pocket, and his brow furrowed. A call from Das's phone... but it wasn't Das. Something stirred in his gut, but he put the device to his ear.
"Is this Alex?"
"I'm really sorry about this, but Das had you as his number one contact. He died with his finger on your name."
He was frozen. His ears were ringing. The caller was saying something--I'm sorry, or another phrase that didn't matter--but Alex couldn't hear it.
Interesting that his first thought was I did this to him.
Oh, God. Maybe the paintings he'd left had done their job too well. Maybe he'd been too harsh on Das. Maybe--
With a start, he realized the man was still calling. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I--could you say that again?"
"Alex, this is your landlord. According to the paramedics, Das has been dead for three days. I found him lying in shattered glass--I think he broke the mirror. His hand was all bloody. The paramedics said it was a stroke, probably because of the smoking. There were cigarette butts everywhere. How long have you been gone?"
It was too much, all at once. Das, dead. The mirror broken, most likely by Das's hand, but why? A stroke because of smoking. He had known that Das's days were numbered. If he'd been there, he could have called 911 and maybe even prevented Das's death.
But he had left. Left Das's problems behind him like they were nothing. Das had died wanting him to come back.
His finger on your name.
By the time his landlord ended the call, he was already running out of the store.
Later, he lay in bed thinking of death and how it sometimes came for the people who wanted it and often for the people who didn’t. He wondered which one Das was. He burned his paints and stomped his easel into jagged pieces. He had screamed until he grew hoarse, and afterward, he'd cried until his lungs burned. He couldn't bear looking in a mirror, not when his reflection reminded him of how he had failed Das in all the ways that mattered.
He understood why Das had lain down in those glass shards, his fist bloody. It was all he could do to look in the mirror when he woke up in the morning. He couldn't even look at a paint bottle without feeling nauseous.
Every night, when he went to sleep, he didn't want to wake up.
Where had he gone wrong?
He had probably been too harsh on Das, for one, he thought, as he picked up a tube of burnt orange paint. Against his better judgment, this morning, he found himself buying more painting materials. He wasn't quite sure why; there was a high possibility he would just end up crying again. But he didn't think he could ever get rid of that part of him that yearned for color, for life on a canvas.
So, against his better judgment, he was here trying to satisfy some stupid part of him that should have died long ago.
"Fourteen dollars, thirty cents. Will that be cash or credit?"
Without a word, Alex handed him twenty dollars. Twenty dollars wasted. He wasn't even sure if he'd be able to use them. What would he even paint? Rainbows and sunshine?
He walked into his friend's house and sat himself down at the kitchen table, spreading his purchases onto the stained tablecloth. Along with the paints, he had bought a blank white canvas. Now, it stared back up at him, mocking him.
Glaring at its empty surface, Alex squeezed a dollop of turquoise onto a sheet of plastic he had found and pulled out a brush from his coat pocket. He dipped the bristles into the paint and lowered it to the canvas, waiting for inspiration to strike him.
He thought about the happiest things he could--baby animals, sunshine, paychecks--but the canvas remained horribly, unmistakably blank.
Throwing the brush down onto the plastic, he fought the urge to scream and stormed to the guest bedroom.
A wooden casket. Fresh flowers. Tatted suit. In death, Das only looked worse.
Alex had barely been able to give a half-hearted eulogy. Eulogies were supposed to paint the deceased in a glorified light, make them seem better like they really were. He had tried, but every time he tried to write something, all he could think about was the fights. The smoking. Stop trying. Leave.
In the end, no one was around to care. Das had few family members who hadn't disowned him by now. It was a pitifully small reception, but he left the funeral feeling lighter.
When he got home, his friend was waiting for him. She was leaning back on the kitchen counter, sipping a warm drink, and looking at him with a sad smile.
"I'm fine, Jenna," he said, partially out of habit, and shrugged off his coat.
"I'm sure you are, but before you can hide in your room, can we please talk?"
"I don't hide--"
"Then sit down and have some tea, maybe even a civilized conversation if you're willing," she shot back drily, heading for the kettle.
Alex rolled his eyes, but he sat down. Jenna returned with a mug and sat down beside him. "I want you to know it's not your fault that Das died." The words rushed out of her in one breath, a manner of speaking reserved for something she'd been waiting to say. "I know you tried your hardest to change him, but he was determined to die."
"His determination shouldn't have worked, Jenna. If I had just stuck around--"
"It would have killed you, too," she insisted. "I didn't want to say it, but it's true. Your relationship was toxic. Neither of you were benefitting from it. Love shouldn't be about hurting each other. Das was hurting you by smoking, and you were hurting him by treating him like some basket case of problems--like something broken."
"He was broken, Jenna. You didn't see him like I did. Every day we just fought and fought and every time, he shut down. Emotionless. How could one person be so detached?"
They were both quiet for a moment, sipping at their tea. "You're right. I didn't see him. But I saw you, Alex. You could be so much more than a personal therapist for someone who constantly hurt you. All I want is for you to realize that too."
She left him drinking cold tea, staring at his own hands.
The next morning, he was staring at a blank canvas once again. He had dreamt of growing--flowers burgeoning from crumbling earth, roots burrowing into the ground, leaves unfurling beneath a golden sun. He had stumbled out of bed and spread out his painting supplies before he could change his mind. And now, with a brush in one hand, his other hand clenched in a fist, he lowered the brush to the canvas and began to paint.