“Hello, Mince-pie,” Eugene says, sitting down for breakfast.
They pause, though they recover faster this morning. Cecily wipes the tears from her face. “Eugie! We thought you were...”
Cecily rubs at her forehead. “Honestly, we must be going quite mad. Here you are, right as rain!”
“Yes,” says Eugene. “Right as rain. Fanny, I was meaning to ask you—Mr. Frank Stallard, your wedding guest. I couldn't find him anywhere, but I'm quite certain he stayed overnight after the reception.”
Fanny doesn't look at him. “What on earth do you want with the poor man?”
This is not how your story ends.
“Well,” says Eugene, “I'm almost certain he was in my bedchamber the night before last, and I really have to thank him for what he did for me.”
The napkin rebounds from her water glass, which spills, dousing the table. “If you're going to be like that, Eugie...”
He is left with the cousins, staring out of the window. It's curious, he thinks, how the grounds look from here. Almost as if they are a painting outside the window, rather than real lawns and trees.
Perhaps the man in colour was only a dream, he thinks, and starts to believe it.
There is no trace of mud on the hang-rope, nor indeed any sign of its sojourn in the garden. He opens the window and peers out—the flowerbeds are empty. Someone must have retrieved the rope and returned it to his room. This in itself is odd, but not completely unlikely. More sinister is that whoever has seen fit to bring the rope back to his room has also hung it from the light fitting with the noose ready and waiting.
He pulls the dressing stool to the centre of the room and climbs up.
“You should do it, you know.”
Fanny is in the doorway, in her dressing gown. She glares at him from beneath long lashes.
“Shouldn't you be on your honeymoon by now?” says Eugene. “It's been two days.”
She blinks in confusion, and looks left and right. For the prompter, Eugene thinks. “You should do it, you know,” she repeats, and it isn't only the words that are the same, but every inflection.
Eugene sighs. “Do what?”
Her lip curls. “Hang yourself. It's the only decent thing. Everyone knows people like you can't be happy. You have to kill yourself, it's the only thing, isn't it? That's what mother says.”
“And that wouldn't trouble you?”
She clutches her chest. “Of course it would trouble me, dear bakewell tart. I would be heartbroken for the rest of my life! But surely you understand—there isn't any other ending?”
Eugene feels his nasty little problem wriggle—after the glorious days without a movement, he almost faints. He sits down on the stool. “These aren't your words, Fanny.” It occurs to him to notice for the first time that everything in the house, so recently dedicated to the purposes of marrying off his sisters, seems to have united with the common aim of placing a noose around his neck.
She shrugs. “You should do it, you know,” she repeats for a third time, and leaves.
Eugene waits, inspecting his nails.
“You should do it, you know.”
“Hello, mother.” Eugene does not look at the doorway. “Do what?”
Her lip curls. “Hang yourself. It's the only decent thing. Everyone knows people's like you can't be happy. You have to kill yourself, it's the only thing, isn't it? That's what your sister says.”
“Well, if it's quite alright by you, I'm not going to do that.”
His mother freezes—at first long enough that it appears she is merely thinking of the next thing to say, and then longer until Eugene realises she is neither blinking, nor breathing. She has become a still photograph, unmoving.
It is then he notices the men. There are two of them. They wear black suits, and black bowler hats, and Eugene realises they have been standing in the room the whole time without him noticing.
“Perhaps you were right,” says one.
“I'm always right,” says the other.
Eugene grips the stool. “Who are you?”
The tall one smiles. His teeth glint silver, sharp, like scalpels. “How rude of me. My name is Mr. Text, and this—” he indicates his shorter companion “—is my brother, Mr. Subtext.”
Mr. Subtext clenches his jaw, and looms.
“Now, it seems to me,” says Mr. Text, “that we have a problem here. You see, the thing is, you've gone off script.”
“Off script, Mr. Watkins. You were meant to hang yourself two nights ago. The night of your sister's wedding, no less—very melodramatic.” Mr. Text tuts to himself; his teeth clack together. “The script allows for no deviations. No improvisations. We can't have one of your sort gallivanting around the place being happy, can we? Your ending has already been written. The Code demands a moral punishment for immoral characters.”
Eugene loosens his cravat. “Immoral?” he says. “I have never committed a crime in my life.”
Mr. Text steps forward. His shadow falls across Eugene. “The Code convers indecency as much as larceny. Frankly, you have received an abnormal amount of latitude already. A happy ending is denied.”
“I don't see...?”
Mr. Subtext cracks his knuckles. “You're a queer,” he says.
Mr. Text winces. “My brother is rather blunt, but he does have a knack for getting to the truth of things. Myself, I prefer rather less direct terminology, but nonetheless: whether you are boarding-school afternooner, an evening botanist or a gentleman of the piers, my brother has cut to the heart of the problem, Mr. Watkins: you are a homosexual and thus your ending has been decided already. The Whitehouse Institute is very firm on the matter.”
“You're a queer,” repeats Mr. Subtext, for clarity.
“I had thought to simply nudge you in the right direction,” says Mr. Text. “My brother thought you were made of sterner stuff. Still: I am a gentleman, if nothing else. I would like to offer you one more chance to co-operate.”
“And what if I don't... co-operate? What if I don't hang myself?”
Mr. Text smiles and the scalpel teeth reflect the light; Eugene thinks of sharks, with their razor teeth and dead eyes. “Then we will cut you, Mr. Watkins.”
An interpretation by Mr. Subtext is unnecessary, but he provides one anyway.
At breakfast, Eugene can think only of the rope hanging in his bedroom. In the back of his head, his nasty little problem is in a bilious mood. He does not speak to the girls at breakfast; they pause as he is accustomed to, then wipe away their tears at his believed suicide and continue on. Fanny watches him reproachfully over a salmon tureen, but says nothing.
A happy ending is not permitted for you, says the shadow of the rope, and when he tries to push the thought away it snaps at his fingers and says, you should do it, you know. His nasty little problem chatters its teeth in agreement.
Yesterday's daring has been punctured; today he doesn't even have the courage to look for Frank Stallard. He plays tennis with Cecily, but he finds himself unable to enjoy the game and loses by several sets.
Ascending the stairs he looks around, hoping Stallard will appear, like a gallows reprieve, but the hall is silent ant still. Not even Fanny appears to argue with him.
The rope hangs as it always has. Eugene drags the stool to the middle of the room.
He holds the loop in his hand. I'm not doing this for you, he tells his nasty little problem. I'm doing it because they say I have to. I don't have a choice. His nasty little problem licks its greasy lips, and curls tighter. ###i/i###, it replies.
Eugene puts the loop around his neck.
“Good boy.” His mother is standing at the door with Fanny beside her. “We'll miss you terribly, Bakewell Tart,” they say in turn. “But it's the only ending.”
He kicks away the stool.
At first there is pain, then there is black, then there is white, and finally there is colour. “I'm sorry,” says someone, “I'm so, so sorry.” There are arms around Eugene, embracing him. Eugene sags against them, feels himself caught, and held. He sobs like a child. He opens his eyes to blonde hair, and the face of Frank Stallard inches from his, weeping technicolour tears.
Eventually he is laid on the bed. Frank lies beside him. He traces a finger over the bruises blooming on Eugene's neck. “The Censors came,” he whispers. “I'm so, so sorry.” Frank closes his eyes. “I wanted more for you. I wanted me—you—to be happy, but they won't let me.”
Eugene runs his hand over Frank's cheeks; they are pink and flushed. He is young, Eugene realises—only a few years older than Eugene. In fact, they look similar, if one squinted. “Who are you?” he asks.
Frank opens his eyes. “What a complicated question, coming from you,” he says. “Tell me—do you frequent the moving pictures?”
Eugene waves him away. “Oh, I know all that: you're Frank Stallard, the film director. I've made inquiries.”
Frank looks at him; his eyes are an impossible green, as if someone has painted them. “I'm not just a Director,” he says, “I'm your Director.” As if that explains everything.
“I see,” says Eugene, and he thinks he does.
“I wanted a different story for you,” says Frank. “I truly did. I thought I could this time. But the Institute disagreed. And so it seems they've sent the Censors... for that I'm truly sorry.”
Eugene lay back. “They said I had gone off-script.”
Frank's fingers are on his chest. “Indeed. Perhaps you should find solace in the fact that in that, you are not alone.”
Eugene shivers at his touch. Looking down at his chest, he fancies for a second he saw colour spreading from Frank's fingertips across his skin: a burst of pink flesh, a shocking red nipple. He turns his face towards Frank, and their lips meet.
The room slides—the bed, the dressing table, the stool fall sideways, until all that can be seen is the open fire, the flames drawing closer as everything begins to fade—
“—no,” says Frank, and suddenly it is he that fills Eugene's vision. “I will not permit them to turn away—no pan, no fade. If they will not permit the ending to be happy, they can at least not look away."
Red No. 2 is the fiction section of Harlot Media, serializing one story per month. New installments are published every Friday. We focus on queer, intersectional, #ownvoices fiction with an eye for the strange and beautiful. Submit to us through this form.