Early Evening Soul
by Kel Coleman
Issue 13: QTPOC | 5,261 words
Abstract Character by Willy (A.B.O. Comix)
Munro entered the world gasping. Every time he stepped out of the thruway, the bombardment of scents and sights threw him into a panic. He cursed, wasting shallow breaths, and rubbed the soft leather bracelet around his wrist. Collect yourself, Munro. Pick out details.
Dusty, early evening light and the orchestral swells of humans commuting home squeezed through a window with sagging blinds. On the other side of the room, the oven churned out effluvia of what might’ve once been something drizzled with honey, now turned to charcoal. The body…
The body was sprawled amongst cardboard boxes, each one open like a yawning mouth. The eyes were also open, fixed on the ceiling.
Munro looked away, blinking. There was no time for sudden unease. He turned off the oven, conceding that this job might run longer than he wanted, at least longer than the time it would take for the widowed dish to set off the fire alarm. Then he crossed back to the office, a quadrant in a room that also held a living room, bedroom, and kitchen.
He shouldn’t have, but he knelt and closed the body’s eyes before standing and turning to the soul.
It was sitting in the swivel chair, a washed-out version of its shell, watching him silently. It moved like a flipbook animation. Here, not here, there, not there.
“Hi, Dominic,” he said, trying for a regretful smile, a ‘sorry to bother you’ smile. “My name is Munro, and I help souls that are having issues with their thruways. Have you tried entering yours yet?”
Munro didn’t understand why people always said, about cases like this, “They were too young to die,” and groaned and shook their heads. One was never too young to die. Exposure, a house fire, an inattentive motorist, a maladaptive gene…
And personally, he found the twenty- and thirty-somethings annoying. They were always so shocked, their lives had just begun, they were on the cusp of something, on the verge of something.
He grabbed the soul by its upper arm, which stopped flickering at his touch, and yanked it to its feet. “Dominic, do you see that dark-purple cloud floating by your entertainment center?” Munro knew it was generous to call the laptop propped on a box an entertainment center; and it was euphemistic to call the thruway a cloud when it was more like the herald of a storm, meant to put entering souls on their guard. It had always made him uneasy too but—
“Hey!” The soul had shrugged him off to sit back down.
Munro narrowed his eyes, wishing—not for the first time—that a soul could be forced into a thruway. But it had to be willing, so he cleared his expression and colored his tone with understanding. “I know it looks foreboding, but I promise it’s safe.” How many times had he said this? Exhausting just to think about it.
The soul didn’t respond, flitting in and out of non-existence with a mopey expression.
“You need to go, Dominic.”
Fuck. He hadn’t meant to do that, hadn’t meant to fill the name with power. Because with the power, the soul became more. The sketch was replaced with sure strokes, detail and color returning to its—his—face. A scar across the bridge of his nose. Brown skin. Short, glossy curls and a fresh fade. Lips forming an eloquent frown.
The man blinked, and when he saw Munro, really saw him, he blinked some more, like he thought Munro would disappear if he could simply clear his eyes. When that didn’t happen, he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“What are you supposed to be? An angel?”
Munro considered his appearance. Two-strand twists loose around his shoulders, gray t-shirt under a black jacket with subtle embroidery, dark jeans, black boots. He had rolled his sleeves up to show off his tattoos and his leather bracelet—two of its strands the same warm brown as his skin, the third shining cobalt.
He frowned. “What makes you think I’m such an entity?”
“I’m… ya know.” The man uncrossed his arms, sitting straighter, his eyes darting to the body and back. “And now you here, ain’t you?”
“I’m not an angel. But I am here to help you.” Munro came forward and reached for his shoulder.
The other man jerked away, then blinked completely out of existence.
Munro cursed. He just wanted to wrap this up, send the soul on its way, and spend a little time in the city before he was missed.
He felt Dominic reappear and turned to find him sitting on the bed.
“I just moved, man.” He spoke to the worn carpeting. “I was s’posed to be starting over. But then I had this headache. It was the worst I ever had in my life.” He met Munro’s gaze, tearing up. “Look, I know I don’t always take care of myself, but is there any way you could give me more time? Just a little more time?”
“No,” Munro said firmly, as much to himself as to the soul. “THAT”—he pointed at the thruway—“isn’t going to be here forever.” And every second he wasted feeling sorry for the man, pandering to him, was a risk. No two thruways behaved the same, and though they usually lasted several hours, he wasn’t keen to test it.
“I haven’t even unpacked yet. I can’t find my books.” And now he wept, burying his face in his hands, his body shuddering, his already tenuous grasp on corporeality slipping.
A second “no” was on Munro’s lips, to be followed by assurance that it was for the man’s own good, but then came a tattered, muffled, “Please.”
Munro’s eyes rolled up to the ceiling. His job had been easy once, simpler. He opened and closed his mouth several times, on the edge of saying something harsh to distance himself, to try and force Dominic to face reality. But that might fade him entirely, and really, he just looked so sad… They always did.
“Name a restaurant,” said Munro, immediately regretting it.
“Any restaurant in a 10-mile radius. What’s one you wanted to give a try once you got settled in?”
“I mean, I didn’t have any places in mi– –ind. Heard the sushi’s good around here.”
He’d cut out again, but recovered quickly, which meant Munro wouldn’t have any trouble getting him to the thruway on time. He was on his phone by the time the other man finished his sentence. Another few seconds and he’d found a suitable restaurant. “Can I treat you to dinner?”
He looked up to see Dominic had finally gotten to his feet.
“Excellent. You should go get changed.”
Dominic paused in drying his tears to look down at himself. He wore the sweatpants and slippers he’d died in. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“You take those clothes off and put new ones on.”
Dominic frowned, then took a few steps to casually knock the lamp off the desk. The actual lamp didn’t move and the ghostly copy evaporated before it hit the floor.
“Right,” said Munro. “Well, you need to keep hold of anything you don’t want to disappear.”
The other man looked doubtful, but he started rummaging through one of the boxes near the kitchen and hurried out of the room with an armful of clothing.
When the bathroom door clicked shut, Munro moved quickly, removing from his jacket pocket a bundle of white gossamer cloth embroidered with electric blue thread. He shook it out and let it flutter down, then tucked it in around the body, careful not to upset the crowd of boxes.
Dominic returned when he was almost done and lurked nearby. Out of the corner of his eye, Munro saw he was newly dressed in a light, floral, short-sleeved shirt, buttoned up to the neck and paired with jeans.
Munro’s knee nudged a box. It wasn’t good to disturb the scene, so he turned his full attention back to his work. When he finished, the body and the cloth vanished.
The other man stood straighter. “It’ll come back, right?”
“It’s not really gone. It’s closer to invisible and in stasis.” It was also sort of gone. “Now, why don’t we catch a cab.”
On the ride over to the Japanese restaurant, with the taxi driver shooting looks at him in the rearview, Munro explained that it was his job to ease Dominic’s passage into the thruway and that it was vital that happen sooner than later. He also explained that the reason it wasn’t good for a soul to linger was because this world was inhospitable, like the deep sea to a living human; if Dominic went into the thruway faded from his time here, he risked attracting entities that preyed on souls there.
Dominic was quiet after that, staring out the cab window as the older, brick buildings of his neighborhood became steel beams and glass facades that mirrored more than they revealed. Shaking off a frisson of déjà vu, Munro showed him the menu for the restaurant they were headed to, in an attempt to cheer him up. But the other man soon went back to watching his never-would-be city pass by, his sorrow heavy in the confines of the car.
Munro, who usually loved taking in the sights from the sensory bubble of a vehicle, felt only the dread born from experience.
The restaurant was small but exuberantly decorated, and the smell of grilling vegetables and meat made Munro’s mouth water.
The major drawback was the thruway, which had followed Dominic here and was now throbbing against the back wall leading to the restrooms and the kitchen. It was an ever-present reminder to Munro where he came from, his responsibilities, and the chasm of time between the first soul he’d visited and this one.
Another, much smaller irritation was that the server seemed, as much as possible, to be avoiding their table, practically flicking the plates from a distance like skipping rocks. He suspected their apprehension was due to the way he kept ordering food which he then refused to eat, sliding it to the other side of the table and having them take it away after a while. Or maybe it was his insistence on talking directly to Dominic, whom no one else could see.
As they drank beer and ate the latest dishes ring tossed onto their table, Munro prodded Dominic with questions about where he’d moved from and what he would miss most about the place. These topics could be comfortably discussed in the past tense. The banter put more color into Dominic’s cheeks, and he asked a few questions of his own.
“Why did you make me change if no one was gonna see me?”
“Pajamas are undignified in public.” Also, new clothes, not whatever they died in, made souls more here, more themselves. As did talking about themselves.
“How come I can taste food?” He’d eaten his last phantasmal piece of salmon nigiri, and the plate appeared untouched in front of him.
“Could be for any number of reasons,” said Munro.
“How come you can touch me?”
“Because I want to?” He gave the other man’s foot a quick tap with his own.
Dominic sipped his beer to hide some quirk to his lips, then asked, “What about the cab? How come I didn’t fly out?”
“I’m really no expert on metaphysics.”
“Ain’t it like, your job to know this stuff?”
“Maybe I’m not very good at my job.” Before Dominic could ask another question, he said, “So, you mentioned books earlier. Are you a big reader?”
Dominic flickered. “It’s a long story.”
Munro had put a square of sponge cake into his mouth. He swallowed it with an audible gulp. “Try me.”
Dominic exhaled, his nostrils flaring. “The first time I landed in a hospital—you know about that?”
“Why would I?”
The man narrowed his eyes but continued, “I was fourteen, so I didn’t have a say. They thought I was suicidal, but I was just trying to relieve the pressure. I never really wanted to die…” He didn’t seem aware that his fingers were forming a manacle around his wrist. “Know what? Never mind. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”
“Because I asked, or maybe because I’m the only person you can talk to?”
“I guess.” He bit into his mochi ice cream. His face softened. “Yo, this is good.”
Munro thought the man’s delight was genuine, though he was savoring each bite so long it was clear he was stalling. If Munro were a nicer entity, he might’ve changed the subject.
“You were telling me about your time in the hospital?”
Dominic set his spoon down hard on the plate, the sound sharp. “A’ight, so… I’m in there for a few weeks, and ain’t much to do but watch the same crappy sitcoms or read. So, I find out I like reading, even though the books are crusty as hell, and one of my doctors tells me I should set myself a reading challenge. He said it could ‘hold me accountable to the future.’ I still do it every year.”
Munro leaned forward. “And this is why the books are so important.”
Dominic nodded. “I know it’s a small thing—”
Munro shook his head. “Not small. What kinds of books do you read?”
Dominic surprised him with a small smile, the first since he’d met him. “All kinds. But my favorite is memoirs. You get to see how people see themselves. Oh, and mysteries. I like trying to guess the endings.”
“So,” said Munro, trying to ignore Dominic’s smile, “were you searching for your books earlier, when you—”
“Yeah,” he cut in, “anyway…”
Munro was feeling sympathetic now, far more than was helpful, but he felt the thruway reaching from across the restaurant, desperate. “Say it,” he insisted. “When you what?”
Dominic stared him down. Not angry, but defiant, almost pleading.
“When you died,” said Munro, mercilessly. He wiped his mouth with a napkin. “It’s time.”
The man flickered, and Munro reached across the table, taking his hand. “There are whole worlds for you, waiting on the other side. But there is nothing for you in this one anymore.” He knew as soon as it left his lips… “I’m sorry, that was—”
But his hand held air. Dominic was gone.
Out on the street, Munro found himself stumbling under the cacophony of vehicles zipping by and hawking exhaust—a live violinist somewhere?—pedestrians talking to one another, talking on their phones—
He rubbed his bracelet and focused on the city lights reflected off the clouds cross-hatched across the black sky; his boots hitting the pavement with an arrhythmic drumbeat, somehow audible over the choking noise; an acidic and savory scent drifting from a Cuban sandwich stall on his right; two children—wasn’t it past their bedtime?—shouting random colors at one another while their parents looked at their phones.
Munro was almost sorry to miss the next volley in their repartee as he ran to hail a cab.
He had too much time to think on the ride back to the apartment. About how poorly this job was going, about Dominic…
The man had made a promise to himself to read books every year. For pleasure, yes, but also to keep himself alive. He’d been daring enough to move to a new city, to start a new life, all on his own.
He deserved more than what Munro could offer him.
Dominic wasn’t home. Munro felt that as soon as he entered the apartment.
“Okay, Munro,” he said aloud to fill the terrible silence of the multipurpose room. “What kind of soul doesn’t go home?
“The kind that’s between homes maybe?
“Where would he go? Scratch that. How do you find him?
“Hmm… okay… yeah, I think I can come up with something.”
He hunted through each room, looking for a suitable material. Checking the boxes in the living room, on top of and under the bathroom sink, the kitchen cabinets, and a few office supplies that had migrated to the desk. He settled on sheets of soft paper that he tore into strips and braided with long strands of his own power. Without the thruway here, he couldn’t know how much time he had left. His hands blurred at their work, but it still took too long.
When it was finished, he fashioned a simple buckle and brought the two ends together. Before he could reconsider what he was doing or why, he pulled the braided belt through the loops on his jeans, buckled it, and…
… a riot of voices clamored, a hundred voices, one over another, shouting and cackling, lights stabbing him in the eyes. He tried to focus, tried to pick out one sensation, but his skin felt like it was full of stars, burning, burning, and someone bumped into him and so did someone else and he tried to find his way out—
A hand gripped Munro’s shoulder, and he was too hot and too overwhelmed to tell them off, so he allowed himself to be guided into a corner. Not quiet but quieter. Quiet enough he was able to take in the fact that his rescuer was Dominic, insubstantial again. He was a jagged outline against the wall of people pulsing under black lights and a turgid flood of techno music.
Automatically, Munro pressed a warm palm against Dominic’s cooling arm, steadying him. When he let go, the man faded again and Munro tried to shout that they had to find the thruway, but his words were caught in a crescendo in the music that felt like it was trying to crack open his ribcage note by note.
Dominic pressed suddenly close, startling Munro, his breath hot on his ear. “I didn’t mean to leave.”
“I know,” said Munro, unsure of what to do with his hands. Touch, don’t touch, hold him, drag him to the thruway? “Why do you think you came here?”
“This’s been my spot every time I visit. One of those places where I don’t stand out, but I feel like I belong, ya know?”
Munro didn’t know.
Dominic reached out. “You wanna dance?”
He stared down at the offered hand, and then Dominic ran the hand up his arm, saying, “No one else’ll dance with me.”
Munro argued with himself some more about right and wrong and want and need. He put some space between them, took off the belt, and tucked it coiled into his jacket pocket.
Dominic’s brown eyes were colorless again, watching him like they had when he first arrived in the apartment. Had that been today? The other man was already so faded. It was worse now that he’d removed the belt, dissolved the bond between them. What a selfish, selfish thing it had been to steal that source of strength so he could ask, “Are you sure?” and know if the answer was true.
And they spilled out across the floor, through the crowd, to the center of it where the light pulsed most acutely and the noise was four walls closing in to crush Munro and there was only the man in his arms to hold it all at bay.
He knew it was terribly wrong, this. He should’ve found the thruway and talked Dominic into it, but he had been spending too much time in this world—something was turning over inside him and it hungered. For what, he wasn’t sure. What he could wrap his head around was how much he enjoyed draping himself over this man, who was warming and vibrating under his touch and warming Munro in turn. It felt like a wave rushing to shore, like nighttime in this city—swollen with potential.
Munro had already broken more promises than he’d made, what was one more? He bent his head down to speak into Dominic’s ear. “Would you like to come back to my place?”
He’d started renting an apartment in the city a few months ago, had justified it by taking more jobs here. He hadn’t imagined it might serve this purpose, and he prepared himself for the “no,” hoped for it really, hoped he’d be forced to back off.
Dominic looked over his shoulder, his expression the least inscrutable it had been all evening, and nodded.
“Are you sure? The thruway—”
Munro’s words were muffled by Dominic’s fingers on his lips.
“Just a little more time.”
So Munro pulled him back to the corner, down the hallway, to the bathroom, into a stall. The frenzied music was trapped outside, so Dominic’s breathing was loud in the tight space.
He wasn’t sure if it was merciful or terrible to cover those heaving lips with his own. So he did it because he wanted to, the guiding light of his entire fucked up day.
One of his hands found its way to the back of Dominic’s head, running fingers through the soft curls while his other hand unclasped his leather bracelet.
The bracelet had inspired the belt, but it led to his home instead of a person. He wrapped it around Dominic’s wrist. “I’ll be there in a moment.”
The man vanished, and with the belt Munro pulled from his pocket, he followed closely behind.
For Munro, this experience would hunt him across ages of hard decisions and their consequences; it would come in flashes, unexpected, like subliminal messaging.
Dominic limned in moonlight, tattooed with shadow from the massive window frame.
Something velvet against Munro’s cheek.
Biting his own lip too hard, giddiness swelling inside him.
Dropping kisses on a switchback trail of scars along the inside of one wrist.
The other man’s voice. Eager, instructive, hushed.
On the vaulted ceiling, the thruway thrashing and gasping in its death throes.
Darkness as Munro squeezed his eyes shut, surrendering to his choices.
The first thing Munro was aware of was the sunlight; the loft-style apartment was lavish with it.
Stark white sheets were tangled around him, and he reached for Dominic because he must’ve rolled away after they fell asleep, but his hand stroked cold mist.
He rushed to cover the man with his body, kissing apologies and power into his skin.
When Dominic had become solid enough to sit up, the first thing he asked for was a bath. So they were sitting opposite one another in a behemoth of a tub, limbs tangled, water up to their chests, when the other man asked, “How’d I die?”
The question was sudden and unexpected, and Munro wished he had a better answer. “I don’t know.”
Dominic looked skeptical.
“I would tell you if I did.” Because he owed him that at least.
He tried to bring up the thruway—which was gone—and Dominic’s options—which were limited. The other man splashed him, though the spectral droplets didn’t make it far. “I don’t wanna know, not yet. Any good breakfast places around here?”
Wound up by Dominic’s casual, unconcerned tone and a desperate need to spill the truth, Munro surged to his feet, water cascading down his body. He had no particular plan except to move and vent this uncomfortable energy.
And Dominic—untethered—made no ripples as he sank.
Munro lunged to touch him, barely catching him before he was lost to the water. “Fuck. I’m sorry. That was careless.” He was kneeling now, though he was only distantly aware of the throbbing in his knees from the sudden impact. Dominic was cold in his arms, but he was solid for now. Their chests heaved against one another, slowing as the panicked moment passed. “I’m sorry,” he said again and felt the other man nod against his shoulder.
He whispered, “You need to know what I really am and what I’ve done and what comes next.”
Dominic gently untangled himself to meet his gaze. “Is anything gonna drastically change over the next, like forty-five minutes?”
He shook his head.
“Then I want food to go with all this talk.”
Munro sighed and swallowed his confession because another hour or so really wouldn’t change the man’s circumstances. But he drowned in his guilt while they soaked and talked about nothing important, when he helped Dominic out of the tub and toweled him off, could hardly breathe realizing that, contrary to all his best intentions, he had done his job, his real job…
He hadn’t been lying about there being entities who visited with souls who ignored their thruway for too long. He, however, wasn’t one of them.
Using a reticent soul’s own thruway, he’d arrive in their world. From there, he just had to distract them—all the while finding reasons to bind his power to them—until their thruway closed. Then he’d offer an alternative, a special thruway just for them, and just for his client.
He’d promised himself this time would be different. But doing things differently meant changing, and changing meant he was still getting his bearings, questioning every decision he made until he was too overwhelmed to question any of them.
On the rooftop, they sat at a round six-seater, its metal legs heavy enough to anchor it on windy days. It was perfect right now, warm and a little cloudy.
Munro had known of a good breakfast place, but he hadn’t wanted to risk Dominic getting separated from him out on the street. So he’d put in an order for delivery, straight to the roof in exchange for a huge tip.
Though their knees touched under the table, Dominic wasn’t holding color. He also wouldn’t touch any of the food, but he told Munro to “lighten up” when he expressed concern. So, having been coaxed into drinking both mimosas, Munro found himself talking about home. He left a lot out, focusing on his personal realm within an entanglement of realms. It was a secluded place, concealed from the distant, rigid gazes of other entities by a shifting, gray vapor. Sometimes, when he felt brave or bored, he’d reach into the creatures of his realm and played at evolution.
When they weren’t talking, the other man stared out at the city beyond the roof, and Munro couldn’t help staring with him, taking in the clash of structures and people and institutions below, in constant struggle, in constant flux, nothing like home, nothing like the arc of existing there, a flatline leading from same to same.
Afterwards, they leaned against the railing, elbows pressed together. Without looking away from the view, the other man said, “Tell me the rest.”
Munro knew what he meant and began explaining. What he was, what he’d done, what he’d meant to do.
He’d only taken the job to visit the city, intending to encourage whatever soul was waiting to take the thruway immediately, do the job he’d been pretending to do up until now. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to put you in this situation.”
Dominic nodded slowly, not like he was agreeing, but like he was thinking. “I knew you was too rude to be an angel.”
Something in Munro unfurled and escaped as a very startled laugh. The joke hadn’t been that funny, but the attempt at a joke made him effervescent, and Dominic was still pressing more of his body against him than he had to.
Munro knew he didn’t deserve it, and if he were a nicer entity, he wouldn’t accept it. He wrapped himself around Dominic, dropping a kiss on the top of his head.
They were sitting in bed and Munro was preparing Dominic for his solo trip.
He had made it clear he would go with him if the other man asked him to. He didn’t say that he didn’t want to go, didn’t want to leave this world right away, didn’t want to have to take another job just to come back, especially since this one was already going to cost him.
But Dominic had shaken his head. “You didn’t make me miss my thruway. I wasn’t ready. Still not really ready, but the way you talk about the place… It sounds interesting. Like, if I can’t start fresh here, maybe I can start fresh there, ya know?”
Munro had been unable to articulate the right and wrongness of these statements, didn’t have the vocabulary for it.
So instead, he wove him a simple bag that closed with a cinch and would survive crossing worlds. He gathered a few accessories that wouldn’t work until Dominic was in the thruway, including the belt. He taught him how to untwist the braid and how to use the strands of power. The other material, the paper, was inert on its own, so he told him he could do whatever he wanted with it.
“I suppose you could read it once you undo it all and put the strips in order…”
“Wh—” Dominic was elusive at this point, his words swinging in and out.
“Oh, I found your books under the sink. In a box marked ‘Bathroom’—I assumed that was an error.” He shrugged. “It’s the first few chapters of—What? I needed something you’d bonded with, and it’s not like you can take them with you.”
Not long after this, they both had to admit it was time.
Munro called his thruway.
He would’ve removed the teeth if he could, the snares if he could, but he couldn’t. So he’d given Dominic a radar of sorts in the form of an earring that he would sorely miss.
Munro knelt by the thruway. It was an inviting pinwheel of hazy blue and yellow so bright it hurt to look at—his inspiration had been a field of cornflowers he’d once seen at sunset. He secured the bag to the man and spoke quietly, so only souls could hear. “Be careful who or what you trust in there, mind the signs but trust your—”
Dominic was snatched by the thruway’s current, and Munro automatically reached… reached… but he was gone.
He collapsed the thruway. The apartment was quiet. He rubbed his eyes.
Munro knew of tears, had allowed countless souls to dampen his shirt with them, but these tears… they were his first. He was strangely grateful for them.
Munro went back to the soul’s apartment to retrieve his cloth. He didn’t watch his hands at their work.
Although it had never before bothered him to look at a body, he thought it might this time. He also thought he owed it to someone, maybe himself, to look and be bothered, that it would teach him something. But he reasoned that was self-serving bullshit, so he finished untucking the cloth with his eyes fixed on the blank wall. When he was done, he gathered his things, turned the oven back on, and left.
Out on the street, he took a moment to look up at the sky. Early evening again. He thought of going back to the club to dance. Alone or with somebody, he didn’t know, and the thought of all the lights and noise made him instantly weary. So he walked in the direction of his apartment, occasionally repositioning the awkwardly shaped box in his arms, the one incorrectly marked “Bathroom.”
He was part of the crowd surging home, and for the first time in his existence, he thought he understood what it meant to be on the verge of something, on the cusp of something.
Kel Coleman is a mom, editor, and Ignyte-nominated author. Their fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Anathema: Spec from the Margins, Apparition Lit, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2022, and others. Though Kel is a Marylander at heart, they currently reside in Pennsylvania with their husband, tiny human, and stuffed dragon named Pen. They can be found at kelcoleman.com and on Twitter at @kcolemanwrites.