"Il Palazzo" by Jae Gecko

The narrow sidewalk snakes along an even narrower cobblestone street, and your feet shuffle two paces behind Peter's purposeful step. A steady hum of Italian voices surrounds you, the fat yellow sun pressing down on you like a heavy coat. It's a scene ripped from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Gondoliers," but through the Old World charm it's still a fairy tale without a hero.

"Dickie."

You glance up automatically, and a chill shudders through you as you remember that Peter can't possibly mean you. You're not wearing that name now. But his eyes are unfocused, his brow knitted tight with thoughtful wrinkles. He's saying the name of a lost friend, not trying to get your attention.

You relax a little. "What about him?" Your Dickie days are over, but sometimes when you look in the mirror, you still see blue eyes instead of brown.

"He's the shadow over this day," Peter says, his pace quickening. "The sun is shining, we're steps away from the Grand Canal, we've each got perfectly scintillating conversation partners. And yet here we both are, moping about like a pair of old leather boots left out in the rain."

His English reserve keeps him from touching you in front of God and half of Venice, but he's walking just a little too close beside you. You slip your hands into your pockets and shrink further into your trench coat. It's Dickie he's drawn to; you're just the shell. "He's our friend," you say. "And we don't know if he's gone, or if he might not be a--" Your feet grind to a halt. You can't quite wrap your mouth around the word 'murderer.'

Peter spins around, his two hands splayed wide in front of him. "Okay. How's this for a proposition?"

You look at him. The corner of his mouth is curling up now, and his head is tilted toward you, a shock of dark hair hanging in his eyes. You shrug.

"No more talk about Dickie. Not for the rest of the day. Tomorrow we can droop and shuffle about the place, but we take the rest of today off. What do you say?"

Your face stretches into a smile. It's Tom's smile, goofier than Dickie's, and rusty with disuse. "It's a deal."

Peter reaches into his pocket and pulls out a slip of paper. He squints up at the palazzo. It's an ordinary brick-gray building, but the tall windows curve into arches, and a musty, mossy smell hangs in the air, betraying just how close you are to the canal. It isn't Dickie's place in Rome, but it's still more than a step up from the rat-infested hole you left behind in New York.

"This should be the one." Peter creases the piece of paper carefully down the center and slides it back into his pocket. He shoves a loose stone aside with his foot and heads down the alley.

You follow him, a ripple of affection flowing through you. "This really is swell of you, Peter."

"Not at all." Peter gives his head a dismissive toss. "I'm going to be very popular with the Contessa. No one's renting anything. And if they won't let you leave Venice -- which is ridiculous -- then you may as well be comfortable." A set of keys jingles in his hand, and the lock clicks open. He cracks the door, tossing you a glance over his shoulder with a playful quirk of an eyebrow. "I have to warn you, it's probably damp. And camp. All Venetian palazzi are of the damp and camp variety."

Peter strides inside, knocking the heavy wooden door the rest of the way open, but you hesitate in the doorway. The interior hall is dark and empty, and splotches of water form muddy puddles along the chipped tile. It's really not the Palazzo Gioia, but a strange sense of belonging settles in your chest. All it needs is a bucket, a mop, and a little bit of floor cleaner to let the sun in and wash away the stains.

Peter steps across one of the larger puddles and slides a key into the interior door. "In this case, very damp." He takes one look at the apartment and glances back at you, motioning for you to come in.

You take a cautious step inside, and the sliver you can see from there draws you in the rest of the way. Once-white sheets are draped across the couch and the armchair, and the coffee table is coated by an inch of dust, but the ceiling is a mile high and a single perfect crystal chandelier hovers over the center of the room. The windows are taller than you are, and rays of sun peek through the cracks in the shutters, painting landscapes across the floor. A little attention, and this place could shine by its own light. You rest your hand on the back of the couch, claiming it. "It's wonderful."

"It will be," Peter says, nodding. "Just needs a bit of sorting out."

Your gaze travels along the walls. You'll move the couch along that far wall and put a low table opposite it, with an Oriental rug underneath it. No bar in the corner; that would be too Dickie. Instead you'll put in a china cabinet. Peter will come to visit, and you'll serve him afternoon tea out of bone china teacups while he plays your piano. A grin spreads across your face. It's yours this time, all yours.

Peter tugs at one of the shutters, and a cloud of dust billows into the room, followed by a burst of sunlight and a view of the Piazza San Marco from across the Grand Canal. "Well!" he says, rubbing a clean spot into the glass with his handkerchief. "That *is* wonderful!"

The view is a crown on the head of a king. You walk over to stand with Peter, and together you watch a pair of gondolas slide down the canal. The square is framed by centuries-old buildings, and suddenly you're so overwhelmed by beauty that you suck in a breath with an audible gasp. Peter rocks back, reassuring, and now you really are almost touching. You want to pull away, but you anchor your feet to the floor and let your eyes fall shut, the sun hot on your face. A jolt of energy courses through you like a bare hand on a electric wire, a ripple of fear. You press down on the breath in your throat, holding it.

"I don't believe that letter. The one the police found." Peter's voice is soft, but his words are a knife slicing through you. "Do you?"

You take a step back. The sun sears your eyes as you open them. "I thought we weren't supposed to talk about Dickie."

Peter's face is tight with something that looks a little like anger, but he's still staring out the window. "I mean, do you really believe a man like Dickie Greenleaf could have killed himself?"

Your eyes drop to the floor. You don't answer.

"What is it that you see in him?" His voice is a little curious, a little jealous. He lets go of a chuckle, but it's hollow in his throat. "I shouldn't be asking. We all fell for it. So easy to love, so hard to like."

You try to swallow, but you can't quite manage it. "I thought you and Dickie were friends?"

"We are." He peers down at you. "I thought *you* and Dickie were lovers. At least according to Marge."

The inspector's angry questions shudder through your mind, followed by your own lies. A fist clenches around your lungs. "And the police." You turn away.

Peter sniffs. "Well, she'd have them arrest you for stealing Dickie away from her. As if anybody could make Dickie do anything."

The fist tightens around your lungs and shifts upward toward your heart. You squeeze your eyes shut, but the scene is still running in a continuous loop on the inside of your eyelids. Dickie's voice mocking, taunting. Your hand white around the oar, cold fury biting into your words. A line of blood, and then a fountain, a human face splitting and peeling like a slice into an overripe orange. A roar from his throat, the weight of him writhing on you, his angry hands on your neck, clumsy as his own blood blinds him. The boat swerving, heaving, you're losing your grip, and then you've got the oar again. It lands with a dull thud, again, again, again. Shocks of red staining the oar, your face, your clothes, your hands. Dickie's body limp, then stiff beneath your touch. The sun glistening on the waves, rocking, rocking. Quiet. Calm.

The other shutter creaks open. The sound is far away, like an echo on the other side of a thick wall. "So, will you take the place?" Peter asks.

A noise somewhere between a sob and a snort rips through the room, and it's a moment before you realize it came from your own throat. You steal a look at Peter. His eyes are wide with shock. Your knees buckle beneath you, and you collapse into the armchair. You draw the sheet across you, covering yourself with it. It doesn't work. You're still there.

"Oh, Lord," Peter says. "I'm sorry."

You shake your head. Your face is wet, hot tears clouding your eyes. "I miss him," you blurt. "He's dead. I miss him."

Peter steps toward you, rushing to your side like a sentry. "We don't know that for sure." A clumsy hand inches up your arm and rests on your shoulder.

You shake your head again, this time more vehemently. "I know. *I* know." Peter strokes your arm, his hand burning through your corduroy jacket and into your flesh. You jerk away, tossing a glance around the room. You watch the low table and the Oriental rug shrivel and disappear, hear the bone china teacups shatter into a million pieces. You draw your legs up to your chest, pulling the sheet taut around you, smudging dust against your turtleneck, against your jacket. Tom's jacket.

"I know you loved him," Peter says quietly.

You squint your eyes shut, a fresh sob shuddering through you. You didn't love Dickie. You could never love anything that was so much a part of yourself.

"And I'm sure that he loved you too, in his own insufferable way ..."

You rise to your feet. The afternoon sun's pouring into the room from behind you, but the corner is still dark, dark enough to swallow Tom Ripley whole. You back him into it, toss a sheet over him, tie it down. It's Dickie who gets to stay, Dickie who deserves to live far more than Tom ever did. You shrug your shoulders back, puffing out your chest. You smooth the wrinkles out of your jacket, rubbing away the worst of the dust. You inhale a calming breath and feel your sobs first slow, then stop.

Peter's standing behind you now, and you can feel him breathing, close by but not daring to touch. But Dickie feeds on that forbidden energy, and you stand taller. Dickie deserves someone like Peter, a light with a brightness to equal his own.

You reach down, rubbing at the pinky finger of your left hand. The weight of Dickie's ring is still there, its fat green jewel sticking out between your knuckles. You left it behind in Rome, in the little metal box resting on top of his passport and the letter for Tom, but right now it's here, at least as real as you are.

You turn around, look at Peter. His face is lined with worry. You smile at him, and this time it's Dickie's smile. "Yes," you say.

The worry fades from Peter's face, edged out by confusion. "Yes?"

You lift your nose in the air, give the place one last haughty once-over. That corner, that's where you'll put the bar. You slap a hand against Peter's arm and let it rest there. "I'm saying yes. I'll take it."

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