The Red Room
Understanding – comprehension – sympathetic of or to; realization or knowledge of
By the end of this relationship you will know everything you should have done differently. Every word, every gesture. Every assumption.
By the end of this relationship you will also be dead, so none of that matters.
(It is not so cliché as to be a heart snapped in two. You will bleed out of your body – beginning with your nose, your mouth. Then your ears, then eyes, until finally you’re bleeding from your skin. Perhaps that, though, is just a variation of a broken heart.)
Of course, when you start – when you kiss him – you don’t know anything. All you know is that he feels soft, and his breath tastes like mint because he eats gum obsessively. He goes impossibly still when you touch him. You lean away, surprised to see he kept his eyes open. His hands rise, slow, and then he tugs you close and kisses the air out of you.
You finish your coffee together before saying goodbye. Like countless times before, except – you kissed him. You confessed with your body what words won’t convey. And Aletheia, calm unflinching Aletheia, kissed you back.
It’s the most expressive he’s ever been, and you skip down the street as you walk home.
Tuesdays are your days with him. It was an accident really. You stumble into him after picking up your coffee and in true fateful romantic style, the iced drink spills down the front of his shirt. You curse, immediately grabbing napkins to help your stranger. The rest of the café is staring. You’re blushing.
He asks, “Can I get you a new coffee?”
That’s when you look up at him, bent over as you mop away the dark liquid, and he is glowing and gold and beautiful.
You laugh, unsure of what else to do. “Shouldn’t I be buying you coffee? As an apology?” you say. His eyes are literally golden colored. His stare is solid and unwavering, and his mouth is a straight line. You gulp.
He gently take the napkins from your hands and throws them away.
The café slowly fills with the usual chatter, some communal breath exhaled. Aletheia introduces himself and buys you coffee. He assures you his black sweater is fine, and you want to believe him, but –
his voice is a void.
No emotion scratches it. You want to say it is a perfect monotone, but that’s not quite right. When he speaks his voice is like a hole, spaces where sound should fall apart. You’re only vaguely aware that he is saying words. He’s like a robot repeating command prompts. You have to focus, let his words process a few moments later.
(You may also be more focused on his face, his eyes, his hair, his legs, his wrists – his everything. And his eyes, dear gods, gold eyes, exactly as emotionless as his voice.)
It starts on Tuesday, and every Tuesday after that you see each other. Those first weeks, you just wave hello and Aletheia nods back. He squishes himself into a corner booth and spends hours tinkering with clocks and mechanical toys. You try not to watch. But who could blame you for watching as a clockwork bird takes flight and sings a song to each patron of the café?
How could you not watch as Aletheia toils away, his fingers pricked with red as he twists tiny metal into perfect form?
One day he asks to sit next to you while he works. You agree, too eager. Your voice is too loud and sharp compared to his quiet. For a while, you keep up the pretense of reading while Aletheia works away beside you. But no story, no fiction can compare to his eyes as they focus on a pocket watch. No words can catch is face as he sets the gears in motion. It is as close as he gets to expression.
He catches you watching him and gives you the watch. Then, he stands and leaves, not even offering a goodbye.
A month later you kiss him.
The week after, you’re running late to your coffee date. It’s only as you pant, trying to sprint through the crowded streets, that you realize you don’t have his phone number. Or any number. Or anything other than ‘Aletheia’. You gulp air once you finally make it to the café, an entire hour later than usual. But Aletheia is still there, sitting at your table, bending wires to shape.
Two coffee cups sit on the table, one still full.
“You bought my coffee?” you ask as you sit. He nods, silent. You smile. “Thank you. I’m sorry I was late.”
He finishes fitting the copper wire. “It’s fine. Work was busy.”
He means it as a question, but it sounds like a statement. You smile wider and lift your mug to him.
Your body tingles. He leans forward, just slightly, and you kiss him again. He goes perfectly still, like the first time. You put your hand on his knee and that’s when he turns away.
“I was wondering,” you start, realizing your cheeks hurt with how much you’ve been smiling, “If I could have your number.”
That flat, unnerving stare you’ve grown fond of falls on you. Aletheia doesn’t react beyond that for a few seconds, but he eventually slips out a piece of paper and scribbles down a smattering of digits.
You pocket the paper. Your cheeks throb.
“So…” you say.
Aletheia fiddles with his latest project. Only the sounds of the café fill your pause.
“…so I was thinking we could go on a date,” you prompt.
Aletheia stops fiddling.
“…I already know I enjoy your company,” he replies. “Our time would be better spent privately. Not on a movie date or in some restaurant.”
Your smile falls enough for the pressure in your cheeks to abate. You meet his gaze as evenly as you can, and it’s only when you’re opening your mouth to respond that you comprehend his meaning.
“You want me to go home with you?” you squawk.
“Well, yes,” he says. Your face flushes. “Or we could stay here. I simply thought – “
“I’d love to,” you interrupt, standing. You chug your drink, the tingles from earlier turning into definitely arousal. “I’d love to see your place.”
For the first time, Aletheia’s eyes widen in surprise and pleasure, but the movement is so brief you almost miss it. You almost think you imagined it. But you don’t miss it, and you wouldn’t imagine something like that, and your cheeks are back to aching when you reach for his hand as you walk toward his apartment.
Cold, minty air slams into you as you walk inside, and heavy curtains keep the room in darkness until Aletheia flicks on a light. Rather, a string of lights, little lanterns strung on the walls. The colored lanterns splash attractive patterns across the room, and the couch is appealing.
Aletheia joins you, sitting close enough that your thigh’s touch. Mint and metal fills your nose. You’re about to ask why he makes clocks and tinker-toys when he kisses you.
Here in the privacy of his apartment, he kisses you very differently. His teeth nip your lips. He strokes his tongue against yours. He straddles you, for gods’ sake. You’re breathless and panting as hard as when you ran to the café, but he isn’t even mildly winded.
You become very conscious of your hands on his chest, and you ask, “Are you even breathing at all?”
His movements are so firm, so smooth, flowing as if from code. The way he turns his head, the way his eyes narrow, the way his fingers clench your shoulders with a soft click as the gears inside adjust. All so very perfect.
“You think something like me needs to breathe?” he asks.
Gold eyes, gold tears on his cheeks, mint, metal and blood – Aletheia is beyond human. The stories were true, the tales of otherworldly lovers and strange not-men, and if he is full of clockwork rather than flowers, well, that’s just progress, right?
You kiss him as an answer.
The next morning as you stumble about the apartment, Aletheia still asleep in the bedroom, you toss open the drapes. Your stomach plummets straight to your feet. The dawn sun paints the apartment delicately, but even that cannot hide the sterility of the space. You fell unclean in a way you’ve never known. You could wash your hands raw and still be dirty.
This space is for the not-human, and you are so very human.
The feeling passes when you catch sight of a miniature sculpture of a dog on the side table. Delicately, aware of its fragility, you pick the trinket up.
Aletheia sung so beautifully last night. The strangeness of the feeling is just morning after nerves, you assure yourself. Just adjusting to the reality of clockwork and steel forming the foundation of your lover.
Still, next time you are together, you spend the night at your cluttered apartment. You make love to him in your bed and in the shower and everywhere you can think of. His voice, usually so plain, becomes a symphony during those times.
Every day is your day, and Tuesday coffee meets are replaced with lazy sex and late dinners. The days blend. The weeks flow. Before you know it, Aletheia’s little trinkets are hiding in every corner of your house.
You tell him you love him the day you find a mechanical cat purring on your bathroom counter.
Aletheia just stares at you. You’re used to his quiet, his stares, his emotionless expression. You have learned his silent moods, his subtle shifts. And so you think his silent response will not bother you, but it does. Your smile falters.
“Why?” he asks.
“Well,” you laugh, “because.”
His stare demands a better answer. You stand up straight.
“Because I…enjoy being around you. I like your quiet. I like the way you look when you make breakfast at an ungodly hour. I like the way you look when you wake up next to me.” You cough. “I want you in my life. Always.”
“…then come to my house,” he says. And you thought you forgot, you thought you moved on, but the memory of those empty walls at dawn has your legs trembling. You look at Aletheia and know he won’t hurt you, though. He may speak with a voice that leeches all emotion, but he feels. His emotions are buried, just waiting for you to find them. That house is a part of him. You need to find what lays inside. You need to uncover everything about him.
So you say yes.
This is a mistake.
Don’t say yes. Tell him no. Don’t do this. Go back. Don’t sleep with him. Don’t fuck him into your bed. Don’t kiss him. Don’t spill your coffee on him. Don’t go to the café.
But if time worked that way, you’d have already told him no. Instead, you drive to his apartment. You say yes. You kiss him and trust him. You follow when he says he has to show you something.
He turns to you, hands on a door you don’t remember from your first trip here, and asks, “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” you breathe.
He opens the door, its hinges creaking and groaning, and that’s when he kills you.
Not obviously. Not quickly. But that room is full and angry. It buzzes and clicks, and the hum that fills the room is so sharp and loud it is a scream. Copper, gold, and brass line the walls in wires and intricate designs. The smell of metal is sickening, but more than that is the smell of blood and flesh and fire.
Because, between the hearts of gold and diamond on the walls lay a hundred human hearts. You gag, and you actually puke when Aletheia pulls an awful mechanical heart from his chest.
Of course, theoretically, intellectually, you knew he had it, but seeing it – especially in this room of singing, screaming metal – makes it real. It doesn’t beat. It glow with red light, whirs and clicks like all of Aletheia’s clockwork, and staring at your lover, you know.
That boy is code and gold and steel and gears. There’s no point mourning this love. Because something like that – it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t feel, it doesn’t love.
“Would you like to hold this?” Aletheia offers, holding out its heart. You stumble away.
That’s when your nose starts bleeding.
Aletheia closes its eyes and sews its heart back in place. “I guess not.” It walks to you, but you’re bleeding from your mouth now. The clicking in the room, the pressure of the sound is destroying you. You fall down, choking on your own blood.
Aletheia squats down next to you, its gold eyes focusing like a camera lens as you splutter and cough.
“Some of you get out alive,” it says. “But I guess you’re not one of the lucky ones.”
What happens next – well, you know blood is starting to seep out of your pores. You know you’re dying. That pain is nothing. This pain is nothing. Because fire you can’t see and a love you can’t comprehend is eating you alive. Turn away, you think before thought gets chewed up. You shouldn’t look at a love you don’t understand.
You can’t look away from the clocks, from the hearts, from the walls of the room.
You’re dying, you’re dead, you’re not going to make it –
Aletheia leaves you to bleed out on the floor, not even saying goodbye.