This story was originally published in Conjunctions.
He told again the story of Bates, and then the one about himself—Jansen — and then about Gerhardie. Stacks just sat as always with his chin resting on the head of his cane, listening, sometimes grunting a bit. He told like beads Bates with that leg and rest of him you could put a knife right into and not feel a thing. He told of himself, Jansen, who had crept up to slit a disloyal throat mostly out of curiosity, damn the risk. And he told Gerhardie, goddam handsome bastard who had done fine, not a flicker of doubt through the whole struggle. The handsome, in Jansen's opinion, tended to be like that. But then two months later the car crash and Gerhardie thrown out, the ground breaking his neck and the asphalt scraping the skin all off an already dead face. Ayeh, responded Stacks, his head hiccoughing atop the cane, Ayeh. And Jansen told Bates crossing the parking lot alone late at night and being attacked. The numb bastard walked three miles home with a knife stuck deep in his back, not feeling a thing, not even knowing the knife was there until he tried to shuck his clothes at home and found the shirt wouldn't come free. Didn't even call the police, Bates, just laid down on the bed on his stomach and bled to death.
You and me, said Jansen to Stack, sorry pair, the only ones still drawing breath. Jansen always claimed he was still alive because he had remained curious, because he took anything at all that life threw at him and worked it back in. Nothing could touch him. Stack just nodded, as he did to everything. What about you, Stack? What was it kept you alive? Stack just sat there, his chin on the cane and eyes rheumy, saying nothing at all. Which perhaps was an answer in its own way.
So Jansen told on, told about the fifth and last of them, Stockwell, who was what you would refer to as a creeper, had a way about him, and then he had died too, like the others, how was it exactly he had died, Stack?
"Never was a Stockwell," said Stack.
Jansen stared and then said, no, there goddam was a Stockwell, there were five all told. Jansen, Stack, Gerhardie, Bates, Stockwell. He could recall them all now plain as day.
"No Stockwell," said Stack.
No Stockwell? But he had been telling Stockwell for years now. Stack had never said no Stockwell up to now.
"Never had to," said Stack finally lifting his chin from his cane. He pushed himself off the chair and slowly stood. "Today's the first time you ever mentioned a Stockwell. Nobody by that name ever was alive."
Lunch and then dinner, a slow round from cafeteria to bedroom and back, and, between, the slow journey out the door and to the grounds, around the paths. Stack there on the bench awaiting him but Jansen passing the traitor by. Stack seemed not to notice. Jansen kept on, right down the garden path. What about you? What was it kept you alive? he asked of himself, and knew the reply he always gave, curiosity and working it all back in, nothing can touch me, but it had been more than that: he had Stockwell to thank, he thought, the creeper. There was a certain dogged persistence to the man that Jansen had stolen for his own. But here was Stack who never said anything now saying no, there was no Stockwell, just the four of them, no one further. It was not to be believed, he thought. But there, too, in the photograph he kept in the dresser beside his bed, only four of them: Jansen, Stack, Gerhardie, Bates. And in Stack's pictures as well, no sign of Stockwell. Yet he was certain there had been a Stockwell, Stockwell had been there. What about you, Stockwell? he wondered, What was it killed you dead? Was the answer that Stockwell was dead now because he had never been alive in the first place?
The slow sound of the generator dying down, the light above him slowly fading and then flickering as he marked his book by folding the page back. It was the moment he hated most, that slow vanishing of light. Then the light went out altogether and he hated that even more.
If there was a moon, he would turn his chair windoward and continue reading, stumbling on until he fell asleep in the chair, woke stiff and aching a few hours later, stumbled to his bed. If no moon, as tonight, then lying there for hours, the stories springing into his head again, but more vividly this time. He played their lives out again, thrashing against the sheets. Gerhardie: sliding along the asphalt, perhaps hearing the sound of his skull rubbing the pavement. Bates: lying in bed, dying, sheets growing wet with his own blood.
But where was Stockwell? After Bates, every night until this night, had come Stockwell.
And then Stack: not as he had been when they were all loyal together, but as he was now, chin resting on his cane, listening to stories, nearly wordless himself.
And there he was, he himself, Jansen, first seeing the man he planned to kill and then slowly moving forward. Inches from him now, then directly behind. Knife jabbed through the throat, a strange gurgle as the flesh opened warm over his hand and then air hissing out bloodflecked as the man continued to try to breathe, finally going limp. In bed, he saw himself laying the body down, but doing it poorly so that the body rolled face up and he could not help but see the face.
But tonight there was more. Tonight he saw, above the gash, Stockwell's pale face. Thrashing in bed, he was not certain if the face was there because that was how it had happened — that he had killed some unknown man that he later christened Stockwell so as to work him back in with the alive and loyal — or because there was now merely no other place for Stockwell's face to go.
I will make it to morning, Jansen told himself, staring into the slit throat. Nothing can touch me. I will wake up into light and I will put on clothing. I will go out and make the world over again. I will never sleep again.