In the time between coming home from their respective jobs and going to sleep in their respective beds, Ovrid and Devrom spent some time engaged in separate leisure activities in the same room. “A healthy amount of independence and separation is key,” Devrom said from time to time, and Ovrid agreed: “Key.” One night, as Devrom worked on a large puzzle in one corner of the room, Ovrid watched a horror movie on the old TV. The movie started with the protagonist’s face in close-up, grainy and saturated as he whispered this in a fluorescent interrogation room: “No one cares about your fear, not until they’re scared too.” The movie went on, flashing back now to a cottage where a group of smiling teenagers unzipped their duffel bags, unaware of their gory and imminent fates. But Ovrid’s mind stayed frozen, the protagonist’s first line scraping along the inside of his skull.
It’s true, Ovrid thought. No one cares.
That was why horror movies drew him, repelled him, and lingered in him. The bleeding-eyed ghost or the animated corpse or the monster with rows of teeth, he could shake off easily. What needled at the itch in his mind was all the oblivious people who doubted the first witness. The first witness was left to flail in his or her own terror, while family, friends, and lovers refused to shorten their stay at the vacation home, to sit by their bed through the night, to not leave the car, to do whatever small thing this person was begging and begging them to do.
That night Ovrid looked at the slope of Devrom’s sleeping body in the bed next to him. There was only a wrist-sized space between the beds, and if Ovrid reached, he could touch Devrom’s shoulder.
“Devrom, are you sleeping?” he asked, knowing that Devrom was asleep and that the question would wake him. Even in the darkness, he could see the whites of Devrom’s eyes catching the light that came in through the blinds.
“Ovrid? What is it?”
The conversation Ovrid had intended to have went like this:
Ovrid: If I said there is a rabid monster under this bed, or the spirit of a murderous orphan in the attic, or tiny, evil people living in the walls, would you believe me?
Devrom: Are you afraid, because of the movie you watched? If you want, I can move the beds closer, and we could hold hands through the night.
Ovrid: I am not afraid. But I want to know if you would believe me.
Devrom: I would believe you.
Ovrid: And would you do what I thought was necessary? Would you help me convince others? Would you be willing to leave immediately, leaving everything behind? Would you burn down the house, if that’s what I asked?
Devrom: Yes, of course. Of course, of course, of course.
Of course. That is how Devrom was. And that is how they all were, these skeptics in the movies, until they were tested, and instead of believing as they promised, they told their loved one to get some sleep, to quit lying, to go see a psychiatrist. And so, on the spot, Ovrid devised a different plan.
“Devrom, do you remember when we went hiking, and we got lost?”
“Remember how I wanted to go to the beach, but you said it would be a short hike, and we would have time for the beach afterwards?”
“Yes. But I was wrong, there was no time afterwards.” Devrom started to yawn, then stifled it. “Are you angry about it again, after all these years?”
“There was no time because we got lost,” Ovrid continued, speaking quicker now. “And when we were the most lost – dehydrated, and becoming truly afraid – you saw a path that you thought might lead us back to town. You told me to sit in the shade while you followed it down. But when you came back, there were flies all around you, because—?”
Ovrid prompted him again. “There were flies swarming you because?”
“Because there was a dead horse down there.”
“Yes,” said Ovrid. “Though I never saw it. The dead horse.”
“I didn’t want you to see it.” Devrom sounded fully awake now. “I was afraid it would lower your morale. And my morale was already lowered by seeing it, so I needed you to keep hoping.”
There was silence.
“Good night, Devrom,” said Ovrid.
“Why do you bring that up now?” asked Devrom, but Ovrid did not answer. And although Devrom knew that Ovrid was still awake, he did not ask the question again.
All the next day, Ovrid thought through his plan. What had last night been an impulsive and half-formed thing was beginning to take shape in his mind, to collect meat and muscle on its bones. He hoped he had planted some kind of seed in Devrom’s mind when he brought up the dead horse, a seed he could nurture and manipulate until it grew into a sort of maze for Devrom to walk through.
Ovrid counted the years: Eight had passed since Ovrid and Devrom had pledged cohabitation till death. Now they lived together in this house, a small, secluded little place with a low ceiling that kept down the heating bill in winter. There was a stretch of peace behind them and, Ovrid felt certain, a stretch of peace ahead of them – an infinite, smooth curve on the horizon. But now, in between, now was the time for a test.
When Ovrid came home from work, he made a sweet pastry and ate his piece. When Devrom came home, he reheated the remaining pastry for him. Then they enjoyed their solitary activities in the same room. Ovrid waited till the sun went down, until their neighborhood was submerged in a suburban night silence.
He approached Devrom, who was reading in their one rocking chair.
“I think the boiler is making a funny noise,” Ovrid said. “Do you hear it?”
Devrom sat still a while, straining. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so. But you are more sensitive.”
“More sensitive,” Ovrid repeated, feeling the words pull through his ears. Already, he was irritated—what did Devrom mean by sensitive? But then Devrom rocked forward in the chair, in a motion to get up. He was good like that, quick to help out, quick to fix.
“No, it’s fine,” Ovrid said, putting his hand firmly on Devrom’s shoulder and pressing him back into his seat. “Maybe I’m hearing things. Maybe it’s me.”
Devrom picked up his book again. He was good like that, too, quick to acquiesce. In their years together, had Devrom ever raised his voice, or even denied a favor? Never. But perhaps that was because Ovrid asked for so little.
We’ll see how giving he is when I ask for more, Ovrid thought.
He gently squeezed Devrom’s shoulder, momentarily overwhelmed by a sweet, sharp pity.
The next day, when Ovrid was unscrewing the lightbulbs in the boiler room and the hallway that led to it, it occurred to him for the first time that he could be taking things too far. What if Devrom became convinced that Ovrid was insane? That he was a danger to himself and others? At that point, even if Ovrid told him that it had all been a joke, or not a joke exactly, but a test, a trust-fall, one that was meant to cause a brief whooshing sensation in Devrom’s stomach before Ovrid would catch him—and he would catch him—would Devrom believe? Or might Devrom suspect Ovrid to be lying to avoid the loony bin, abandonment, or imprisonment—whatever course of action Devrom was planning to take?
Ovrid got out a scrap of paper and wrote: Devrom– I do not believe that there is anything out of the ordinary happening in our house. I just wanted to know that you would believe me, even in absurd situations. If I am showing this to you, it is because you do believe me. I intended to relieve you, in the end, all along. Remember how relieved we were when we got down from that mountain? Remember how we almost kissed then, how nearly dying and then not dying made us almost kiss? Though I understand that this exercise caused you anguish, I hope you will agree that it has brought us closer together. Love, Ovrid.
Ovrid folded the paper in half, and carefully glued the edges of the paper together. Then he placed this note in a watertight plastic bag and put the bag in the cabinet above the toilet, along with the unscrewed lightbulbs.
The following evening, Ovrid baked a savory pastry, though in his excitement for what was happening later in the night, he forgot to rotate the pan midway through. He ate the burnt end and saved the tender side for Devrom.
This time it was Ovrid’s turn on their one rocking chair. He pretended to read for only a moment before getting up.
“Devrom, it’s that sound again.”
Devrom looked up from the floor, where he was carving a little statue of himself from wood. “What sound?”
“That sound, from yesterday. It’s from the boiler room.” Ovrid snapped his book shut and got up decisively before Devrom could respond. “I’ll go check. Maybe something’s leaking.”
Ovrid walked to the kitchen where the little boiler room was, slapping his bare feet loudly against the hardwood. He opened the door. He gasped. And then, thinking that perhaps the first gasp was too quiet for Devrom to hear, he gasped again, louder. Then he quickly made his way back to Devrom. Don’t run, he reminded himself. Running was too hysterical at this early stage. Running came later. He held his breath on his way back in hopes that it would make him look a little paler.
Devrom was looking toward the door but had not gotten up.
“What is it? Is there a leak?”
Ovrid stared at Devrom wordlessly, continuing to hold his breath.
“Is it bad? Should we call someone?”
Ovrid took a shuddering breath.
“There was something in there,” he said, pausing between words for effect. “Something big.”
Devrom raised an eyebrow. “Like a boiler? Was there a boiler in the boiler room?”
“No,” Ovrid said, a little angrily, “something bigger than a boiler. But on its side, on the floor. It was dark, I couldn’t see very well, but I thought I saw it move.”
Devrom stood up then and came to Ovrid’s side. He peered at Ovrid’s face.
“What could you possibly mean?” he asked.
“I mean,” said Ovrid, becoming genuinely frustrated, “that I saw what I said I saw. There was something large and moving in the boiler room.”
“Well what could that be? You mean that parts connected to the boiler were moving? Like a pipe, or a dial?”
“No, moving like something alive,” Ovrid said.
He let the words linger a moment, watching Devrom’s face. Was it concern? And if it was concern, then was it concern that something terrible was in the boiler room, or concern for Ovrid’s sanity?
At least, Ovrid thought, it isn’t anger. At least he doesn’t think I’m lying.
“Anyway,” Ovrid said, shaking his head and sitting back down on the chair, falling away from Devrom’s grasp, “it must have been my mind playing tricks. It’s dark in there.”
Devrom stood there a while, his arms stretched forward, hands vaguely holding the negative space where Ovrid’s shoulders had been. Ovrid opened his book again and pretended to read. He peeked now and then, watching Devrom’s face cloud over, with confusion and worry it seemed, and then something darker, something Ovrid couldn’t quite place. Then it cleared.
“Yes,” Devrom said, carefully folding himself back down to the ground to resume carving his figurine, “the dark. That must have been it.”
That night Ovrid kept himself awake by pinching himself along the soft part of his thighs any time he felt he was nodding off. At first, staying awake had been easy, giddy as he had been to advance his plan. But after 2 a.m., he found himself checking the alarm clock nearly every minute, hoping that more time had passed than it had. Finally, at 3 a.m., Ovrid leaned over and shook Devrom. He didn’t stir. He shook him more violently. Devrom groaned.
“Sorry,” Ovrid whispered, “I didn’t mean to wake you. I was just readjusting the covers.”
Devrom was silent, perhaps having gone back to sleep. Ovrid raised his voice and continued: “Something woke me up. The same sound as before, but clearer now. It sounded like… it sounded like a whinny.”
Ovrid waited, afraid that Devrom would catch on at this point, connecting Ovrid’s behavior over the past few days with the mention of the dead horse, and become angry at him for the prank. But instead, Devrom whispered back in the darkness, his voice urgent: “A whinny? Like a horse?” Then Devrom whinnied with great accuracy, as though he had been practicing.
“Exactly like that,” Ovrid said, startled, though he’d heard nothing.
Devrom swung his legs off of the bed. “We’ll check,” he said, getting out of bed. He pulled on his robes decisively, strode to the door, and then stopped. “Ovrid? Come with me?”
Ovrid had not expected this. He didn’t want Devrom to look in the boiler room with him. It would, of course, be empty, and this would tip the delicate balance of plausibility too far, making it impossible for Devrom to take his fear seriously. But Ovrid couldn’t, in the moment, think of a reason to say no, so he got up and pulled on his robe too, taking his time, stalling a little.
Well, we’ll see that it is empty, he thought to himself. But later, tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll go on my own, and I’ll tell him I saw the dead horse.
Ovrid and Devrom crept down the hallway as though they were guests trying not to wake their host. When they got to the boiler room, Devrom put his hand on the doorknob, then retracted it and put it instead in Ovrid’s hand. Ovrid squeezed it.
He takes my concern seriously, Ovrid thought in awe, a little geyser of love cracking open inside of him.
Ovrid used his free hand to open the door and stepped into the room first. Though he knew his show of bravery was false, he felt brave anyway. Even if he did think there was some kind of ghost horse in the boiler room, he would’ve opened the door to spare Devrom the task. He was almost certain that that was the kind of roommate he was.
Ovrid heard Devrom’s hand rasp dryly against the wall as Devrom felt for the light switch. The switch made its distinctive ticking sound as it flipped, though, as planned, no lights turned on.
“I guess the bulb went out,” Ovrid whispered to Devrom.
Devrom didn’t reply. Ovrid could hear Devrom’s heartbeat growing louder and faster.
Like a stampede, Ovrid thought. Like hooves.
“Devrom?” Ovrid said. “Devrom, are you alright?”
Ovrid reached out and touched Devrom’s shoulder. Devrom screamed—like a horse, Ovrid thought—and then Ovrid felt his hand being grasped, his body being roughly pulled out of the boiler room, down the hall, and back to their shared bedroom.
“There’s a dead horse in there,” Devrom said, once he could breathe steadily enough to talk.
“There’s a dead horse. Just like in the mountains. I felt it. It touched me. It’s after us. Or maybe just me.”
Ovrid stared at his pale, pale friend.
The test has gone far enough, Ovrid thought.
“Devrom,” Ovrid said, “That was my hand. I touched you.” Ovrid reached out and touched Devrom’s shoulder again, as if to offer proof.
“No,” Devrom said, vehemently shaking his head. A little foam had gathered at the corner of his mouth. “No, it was a dead horse’s touch.”
Ovrid stared, at a loss, and then broke out laughing.
“Devrom!” he said. “Devrom, you figured it out, didn’t you! You saw through me. You knew I was setting this up!”
Of course! Devrom had somehow found the little piece of paper where Ovrid had written his confession. And Devrom was now pranking him back, giving him a little taste of his own medicine. Clever Devrom!
Devrom stared blankly at Ovrid. The color had not returned to his face.
“Keeping up the act, I see,” Ovrid said, heading to the cabinet. He opened the bottom drawer and tossed the lightbulbs onto the carpet. At the bottom was the plastic bag, the note inside. He opened the bag. The note was still glued together. Clever Devrom! Even thinking to glue the note back together after reading it! But when Ovrid tore the note open, he saw that there was no trace of the note having been torn apart before, no tell-tale shreds of paper or a second line of glue.
Uncertainty crept into Ovrid’s voice. “Okay,” he said, looking from the note to Devrom, “Okay, so you didn’t read this. But you knew, somehow, or… Or I was too convincing, and now you’re frightened.”
Oh poor, frightened Devrom! Ovrid felt his vision blur with tears. What had he done to Devrom? What had he been trying to prove? He rushed over and put his arms around Devrom, who remained rigid.
“Devrom, look,” Ovrid said, opening the note. He read it to him aloud slowly, so that Devrom might be able to digest it in his disturbed state, one finger tracing along each word.
“I hope you will agree that it has brought us closer together. Love, Ovrid.”
He peered into Devrom’s face.
Whatever anger is there, Ovrid thought, I deserve it. I will face up to it and I will beg for forgiveness.
Devrom, confused, looked from the note to Ovrid.
“What does this have to do with the dead horse?” he asked. “Why are you bringing up things that don’t matter at a time like this? We have to leave. We have to leave this house.” He took the note out of Ovrid’s hands and crumpled it.
“Devrom, the note says there is no dead horse!” Ovrid cried. “How could a dead horse have gotten into our boiler room?” Ovrid hesitated to say the next part, feeling that he was sinking, somehow, down to some realm of insanity, but when he said it anyway, he said it with emphasis: “Dead horses don’t whinny!”
“This is no ordinary dead horse,” Devrom replied.
Ovrid leaped out of bed and began gathering the lightbulbs on the floor.
“I took these out, for effect. But I’ll screw these back in, and we’ll turn on the light, and then you’ll see–”
“No!” said Devrom, also leaping out of bed. He knocked the light bulbs from Ovrid’s arms and began to crush them on the floor with his bare feet. Ovrid stared as little speckles of blood stained the cream carpet. As Devrom moved to crush the last one, Ovrid’s body unfroze just in time to snatch it from the floor.
“You’ll see,” he said, bolting down the hall with the last lightbulb. “There’s nothing in the room! I’ll turn on the lights and you’ll see!”
Ovrid’s blood rang in his ears. He put out one arm against the wall to steady himself as he screwed in the lightbulb with his opposite hand. The light came on. For a moment, as his eyes adjusted, Ovrid was frightened. Could there be—? But of course, the boiler room was empty.
“Devrom, come look,” he shouted. “There’s nothing here!”
There was no response. He jogged back down the hall.
“Devrom,” he said cheerfully, “I just checked, it’s just our normal boiler room. No dead horse.”
Devrom began to weep. “You’ve seen it,” he said. “You’ve seen the dead horse, and now you’ve lost all hope. You’ve lost all hope of getting out of here alive.”
“What horse!” Ovrid cried. “No one’s getting out of here. This is our home, Devrom!”
Then, with strength he didn’t realize he had, Ovrid lifted Devrom off his feet, and began tottering down the hall.
Devrom’s weeping crescendoed, the sound coming from above and behind Ovrid’s shoulders as Ovrid carried him toward the boiler room.
“If I see it again, I will lose all hope. And then we’ll be doomed.”
“Devrom, you’ll see that there is nothing to see.”
Ovrid opened the door to the boiler room and set Devrom down, but Devrom’s hands flew to his face to cover his eyes.
“Open your eyes,” Ovrid coaxed, gently prying Devrom’s hands away.
“If you try to make me open my eyes, Ovrid, I will pull them out of my head.”
Devrom curled the tips of his fingers into little scoops and pressed them against his eye sockets. Ovrid let go of his arm. Then Devrom began walking, feeling the space in front of him with his elbows while he kept his hands tight against his face.
“Follow me,” Devrom said. “I’ve seen nothing. There’s hope. I’ll lead us out.” He maneuvered down the hall in small, careful steps as Ovrid watched, rooted to the spot.
“We are almost out of the woods now, Ovrid,” Devrom said, as he opened the front door and stumbled out into the darkness that swallowed him. “Ovrid, I feel hopeful. I feel that we’ll make it, the both of us, together.”
Hedgie Choi is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers. She co-translated Hysteria by Kim Yideum, which won the 2020 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize and the 2020 National Translation Award in poetry. Her translation of Pillar of Books by Moon Bo Young is forthcoming with Black Ocean in 2021. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review Online, Washington Square Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, West Branch, and The Journal.