This story is by Maddalena Di Gregorio and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Edwin is back on campus. It’s a gloriously sunny spring day. His favorite time of year when the promise of love is in the air. As he brushes his hands through his hair, he is instantly rejoiced at finding a whole head of silky hair. He feels light on his feet and his joints don’t ache. He’s a young man at the height of manhood again.
He spots a group of young men from his fraternity and eagerly swaggers his way toward them. There is a newcomer to the group, Patrick, who is striking in every sense of the word. Even in his dream state, Edwin re-experiences the powerful magnetic draw, pulling at his every limb and organ, urging him to merge with Patrick. This is exactly how he had felt when he had first set eyes on Patrick.
Edwin would do anything to live in this moment forever. If he could stop time, this would be his final destination. Patrick’s smile is blinding, erasing everyone and everything else surrounding Edwin, till only he and Patrick are left.
Patrick and the bright light disappear without warning as Edwin gets sucked in by a beastly dark matter clutching at him, plunging him deep into emptiness. His downward chute comes to an abrupt halt. He finds himself naked, in a dimly lit room. In the center of the cold and barren room sits an antique gilded wooden bed, with four posts.
A man is tied naked and spread eagle, to two of the bedposts, oddly resembling Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. A golden-colored silk rope is tightly twisted around the man’s neck.
Edwin moves closer to the bed, but can’t see the man’s face because the head is bent forward and to the side in an unnatural position.
Edwin is inching closer to the bed when he finds the rope in his hands, which a moment ago had been tightly strung around the hanging man’s neck. He hastily drops the rope, which is searing through his flesh like molten metal. The stench of his fear and burning flesh combined with that of death fills his nostrils.
“No, no, this can’t be happening again. A few more seconds is all I needed Patrick.” Edwin hurriedly starts to untie Patrick from the bedposts, all the while muttering to himself. “I never wanted this to happen, Patrick, you meant the world to me.”
The weight of Patrick’s dead body is proving difficult for Edwin to handle. The corpse falls forward, violently slamming Edwin to the floor.
Panic washes over Edwin as he scuffles and twists his way out from underneath the corpse. “This is just a dream, just a dream, nothing bad can happen to me here.”
“It was supposed to be a game. This was not supposed to happen, Patrick, believe me. I loved you, I’ve never loved anyone since you.”
In the ’70s, when Edwin met Patrick, the Fraternity initiation ceremonies had started to steer in many directions, and new grounds were being tested following the stonewall riots in 1969.
Edwin had swung both ways, at first. In retrospect, he realized he’d dated women so as not to stand out from the crowd. Homosexuality, per se, had been frowned upon by his fraternity members. They would refer to each other as faggots or poofters, in the locker room, in jovial camaraderie, but the underlying tension surrounding homosexuality was always present. There had been duplicity at work as most of the members were not averse to introducing elements of homosexuality in their initiation rituals. Often these acts were intended to be a form of humiliation.
Edwin had not been the only one in his fraternity to prefer his own sex, yet frequent the opposite sex, simply to keep up appearances on-campus and with family.
Edwin’s father would have stricken him from the family, at the mere hint of homosexuality. His father had been the sort of man who believed in perfection. He had been an example in the community. Reliable, organized, and prudent. A man who had compartmentalized life. These same traits had another side to them, they had made his father overly critical and demanding, conservative and judgmental. Unable to look at a person as a whole person. Edwin had often wondered what his mother had seen in his father, aside from his being highly reliable.
Young Edwin had followed in his father’s footsteps, studying medicine, although at the best of times it had felt more as though a shadow had been following him. Edwin had been driven by the uncompromising desire to be special, to experience something more than the ordinary. As a young man, he had considered himself an intellectual rebel, unlike his father.
“Stop your daydreaming and get moving Edwin. Can’t you see the corpse needs immediate attention?” Edwin looks up to find his father leaning over Patrick’s naked corpse. He is not comforted by this new twist, since his father has been dead for many years.
Edwin’s father moves around the young corpse. “After four to six hours, rigor mortis begins to spread throughout the body. The pooled blood stains the skin a blackish color. Give us a hand here Edwin,” he says as he deftly turns the body over onto its back.
“At six hours, muscles continue to spasm sporadically. Anaerobic processes, such as the liver’s breakdown of alcohol, continue. At eight hours, the body starts to rapidly cool. This is called algor mortis.” He stands and turns to Edwin who sits in a corner, terror-stricken, holding on to his twisted limbs.
“My guess Edwin is this young man has been dead longer than 24 hours. You know as well as I do that rigor mortis ends at the beginning of this stage and the body becomes pliable again, but there isn’t much time.”
“We need to move quickly in order for the body to be presentable. If we fail to do so, the undertaker will not be able to position the body for presentation at the funeral, fold his hands and such.”
“Come on, help me lift him onto this gurney.” A gurney magically appears, as often happens in dreams.
His father, it turns out, is as efficient in death and dreams as he had been in life.
“Please let this be over. I want to wake up now,” Edwin screams.
His deceased father pays no attention to Edwin’s outburst and begins to move the corpse.
“Stop, don’t you touch him, you hear me?” Edwin cries. “You can’t take him away from me!” Edwin starts a painful crawl, on all fours, desperately inching his way towards Patrick.
“At 24 to 72 hours, internal microbes putrefy the intestines and the pancreas begins to digest itself. This process liquefies the insides. Edwin, are you listening?”
“In three to five days, decay starts to produce large blisters all over the body. We must hurry, otherwise, it will most likely not be presentable for viewing at the funeral. If we wait much longer, a bloody froth will begin to trickle from the mouth and nose.”
Edwin is jolted awake, heaving and drenched in sweat and vomit. He bursts out of the dream pod, like a drowning man fighting for air. At first, he is disoriented, then relief washes over him. He’s back. His right hand unknowingly brushes his hair, or what is left of it. Yes, he’s back. He checks the timer on the dream pod and sees the program ran for exactly 15 minutes, as it had been set to run.
These had been the longest 15 minutes of Edwin’s life. Simply thinking of his father had been enough to conjure him up in the dream. A caricature of his father at best. Although Edwin is more shaken by his father’s appearance than having to relive Patrick’s deathday, which is always painful and terrifying when it does happen. His father’s rundown on the decomposition of Patrick’s corpse, with clinical precision, has left Edwin deeply shaken.
Since that fateful day, when Patrick ceased to be, Edwin has been in pursuit of atonement. Some way to pay for his unforgivable act of love.
The dream pod is Edwin’s golden chariot. The perfect vehicle to guide him towards redemption.
At first, the dreams had been devastating, but in time, Edwin had begun to enjoy the suffering and longings which the dreams unleashed in him. The threshold between pain and pleasure had long ago blurred for Edwin.
When he dreams of Patrick’s death, even with all of the gut-wrenching fear, pain, loss, and guilt, afterward Edwin feels lighter and serene, for a short while.