Graham found Shant making his bed. “Excuse me, do you do turn-down service, too?”
“God, your bed’s thrashed.” Shant tossed a pillow at him. “So, which one of ‘em did you bang?”
Graham gave Shant’s rear a swat with the pillow. “Both, if you must know.”
Graham smiled unapologetically. “I’m just me.”
Shant gave Graham a look. “You don’t think that’s kind of taking advantage of them?”
Graham helped Shant finish the bed. “It just happened with Ian. Jonny, the little horned toad, he literally asked for it. So…”
“Fucking doesn’t ‘just happen’, boyfriend.”
“Are you yelling at me?”
“Did I raise my voice?”
“You’re yelling at me. Look, I’m sorry, but-”
Shant put up his hands. “Forget it.”
Graham knew Shant wouldn’t. He was playing by his beloved Christian’s rules. Well, Graham said to himself, I’m not him. Miles sounded a lot more like Graham’s speed. He pulled out a fancy department store bag from inside his backpack and handed it to Shant. “Here, I got these for you.”
Shant held up a new polo shirt with a wide grin. “Now I have a purple one to go with my pink, just in case anyone wonders if I’m into guys.”
“Let’s see you in the trunks, homo.”
Graham made no effort to hide his inspection of Shant’s body as he undressed. Shant giggled. He was used to it. “Gold? What, no leopard prints?”
Graham hummed lustily. “It matches your lovely olive skin. I got emerald green for Ian, which look nice with his blonde hair, and jet black, like opals, for glum little Jonny. Does this red look good on me?”
Shant adjusted his silky waistband. “I thought we were supposed to save our money.”
Graham re-adjusted Shant’s trunks to his own satisfaction. “No, that’s what Ned said. And he’s right, I know. But everyone needed a pair, so I went and got them. The shirts were on sale. I like to buy people gifts, OK?”
Shant looked around Graham’s bedroom. There were flower prints on the bedspread, on the curtains, on the bedside lamps, and actual flowers on one of the nightstands, but to Shant it still felt vaguely masculine. He loved that about Graham. He might come across as the biggest queen in the area code and yet deep down he was still all-man. “I missed you.”
Graham gave Shant a quick kiss on the forehead. “Boyfriend, you don’t even want to know how fucking badly I missed you.”
“And my lovely olive skin.”
“That, too.” Graham rubbed his hands over his face and let out a long sigh. “There’s like a thousand things blowing around in my mind I should try and tell you, but I don’t know where to start.”
“Since when are you tongue-tied about anything?” Shant exclaimed. “Especially with me. That hurts.”
“I’m trying to be serious.”
“Jesus, that’s another first for you.”
Graham twisted one of Shant’s nipples, making him yelp. They chuckled and sat down together on the old-fashioned carpet. “Can I say something a little strange without you making me feel like an ass?”
“You want to feel my ass again?”
Graham scowled. “Remember the time you told me about how Christian made you feel, what was it, protected?” Shant nodded slowly. “A couple of days ago, I was watching Ian sleep and all I could do was picture him in that leash, getting slapped and shit. But then I looked at him again and it was like a wave had hit me or something. All I wanted to do was, you know, protect him.”
Shant thought back to the first time he cried himself to sleep in Christian’s arms. It annoyed him he couldn’t recall how long ago it had been. “That’s not weird at all. That’s cool, man, way cool.”
“It was the same as the first spoonful of hot soup pouring into an empty stomach. I could feel it all over.” Graham paused. “I love him, Shant.” His voice wound down to almost nothing. “I love him.”
Shant felt a tiny glass reed snap inside of him. He took a deep stuttering breath. “Are you sure you don’t just feel sorry for him?”
Graham croaked, “And you don’t?”
“Yeah, I feel sorry for Ian. I’m the one who got between him and that bastard hitting him, remember? God knows what happened to him afterwards. But I feel sorry for Jonny, too. He told me some shit just now that would blow your mind. I can’t believe he survived it. Hell, I can’t believe he told me. He’s known me for, what, half a day?”
“Maybe he likes your smile,” Graham sniffled.
“And maybe he thinks there’s nobody else in the world who’ll listen to him. Remember what that feels like?” Shant did. He could still feel the blade of it. “I feel sorry for Rose and Zeke. They work like dogs in lousy jobs and go nowhere backwards because they’re Mexicans, so they have to crash in a half-ass shelter for stray fags and anyone else who has to fuck to eat.”
“We’re not fags,” Graham said emptily.
Shant’s tone was savage. “No, you’re right. We’re just homos. We only fuck for fun now, not for food.” Graham went to get up but Shant held him where he sat. “I feel sorry for us, too. Want to know why? You remember the night we met? How we fucked each other silly until the sun came up, took a nap, and then fucked some more until the sun went back down?”
“Stop it,” Graham wept.
“We were so stupid, Graham. We were so God-awful fucked up all we could do to make up for it was go fuck and then cry about it afterwards. Well, boo-hoo on us. But we both had money. We could’ve left. We could’ve run somewhere and started over. But we didn’t, and I’m sorry for it. I’m sorry for us.”
Graham couldn’t remember feeling worse since forever. “You wouldn’t have gone. You couldn’t leave all that’s left of Miles and Christian.”
Shant took the blow and smiled grimly for it. “You’re wrong. There’s the manuscript, too.”
“Wonderful! Chalk up another ghost for your collection, boyfriend!”
Shant’s voice now quavered. “We’re more than boyfriends, Graham.”
“Oh no, Shant, we’re less than that, way less. I love you more than I can even comprehend. I thought of you every fucking second I was away, helping care for our latest strays.” Graham spat his last words. “But I’ll never have all of you, and I need every inch, every ounce. Maybe Ned can do better.” Shant choked back a response. Graham felt a surge of triumph. “Or do you feel sorry for him, too? For loving someone you think is a throwaway faggot?”
The silence howled like the edge of the ionosphere, where Shant and Graham felt suspended even as they sat unmoving next to one another. Crouched around the corner on the wooden stairwell, Ian found he could not move, either. He had heard their every word and was torn between creeping away and eavesdropping some more. He swore at himself for choosing to overhear something so beautiful tear itself apart. On tip-toes, he went up to Graham’s room, put on the clothes Graham had brought him, and slipped back out of the house.
Shant brought Jonny up to his corner bedroom, where he had set up a rollaway opposite his own bed. The other unoccupied bedrooms were in various states of renovation or disrepair, depending on how keen the beholder’s eye was for carpentry. Jonny eyed Shant suspiciously, who just smiled back. “Graham told me you have nightmares, pretty bad ones. I have a hard time sleeping at night, so it won’t bother me so much.”
Jonny was unsettled by Shant’s ease with him. The mansion was twice the size of any place he’d seen back home. He had never seen such a large garden either, or one so plainly weird. Everyone here treated him like a friend – maybe not a very close one, but still, a friend. Jonny always had trouble making friends, but he found it even tougher to have people make him their friend unbidden.
Jonny glanced over Shant’s bedroom warily. He had never been in one so nice. “Is it OK if I sit down here?”
“Feel free. It’s yours, now.”
Jonny looked so befuddled Shant wondered if he wasn’t about to pass out. “Will you sit with me for a minute?”
Shant took a chance and sat very close to Jonny, putting his arm around his small shoulders nonchalantly. The withdrawn teen didn’t seem to mind, he just stared into space. Shant knew from that mute dread. He couldn’t help but laugh to himself. He’d been just as freaked out by Christian’s no-questions-asked welcome. Shant paused; he felt Christian there in the room with them.
Then, out of the blue, Jonny rasped, “Something happened to me.”
Jonny had been confined in his box-like room at the reformatory for less than an hour before three uniformed guards stormed in on him. The first slapped Jonny almost unconscious. The others dragged him onto the cold tile and tore his clothes off. “Try and run off now, you little bastard.” After they were gone, Jonny wrapped the flimsy bed’s soiled mattress around him and sat down in the corner, refusing to cry.
The guard who’d slapped him came back hours later, demanding Jonny come to dinner. “Give me back my clothes,” Jonny replied bravely. In response, the guard pulled the mattress out of Jonny’s hands and dragged him by his ankle down a corridor that echoed with his screams into the cramped mess hall. Gales of vicious laughter and jeers met Jonny and followed him to the food line, where the guard dumped him. Somehow Jonny found the will to stand up and get a skimpy tray full of food while the derisive chorus went on unabated. Then, no one would make a place for him on the benches. One hooting kid reached out and pulled at his dick. Jonny overturned the tray above the kid’s head then slapped him out of his seat with it.
Before Jonny could run, he was swarmed by half a dozen others, who hauled him down a long flight of steps into a dank cellar below the main building. Half-unconscious from fright, Jonny was tied to a radiator, with his face lying sideways in a puddle as the others lined up to have him. After the stabs and jolts became a searing blur, one of the attackers reached under Jonny’s bleeding cheeks and felt his erection. “Look! He’s enjoying it!” he cried. Jonny was concussed into the radiator before he could comprehend much more of the beating that followed.
Shant hung his head, seeing it all very clearly. Jonny had given his awful account matter-of-factly, as if it had happened to someone else and he was just relating the events. His high, raspy voice never wavered. He neither slowed down nor sped up. He just droned on like a recording, beginning with the first time he ran away right up until his first day at the reformatory, the gang rape, and blacking out before it was over.
“A lot of people would cry like hell telling a story like that.”
“That’s their problem.”
“I don’t like to cry, either,” Shant admitted. “It makes me feel weaker than I already am.”
Jonny ran his eyes over Shant. “You don’t seem so weak.”
Shant made a muscle and felt his own bicep. “Don’t be fooled.”
Jonny began to fiddle with the bedding under them. “Can I take a little nap? I didn’t sleep so good last night.”
“Sure, of course.” Shant stood up. “Don’t worry about missing lunch.”
Jonny looked up at Shant with filling eyes. “The first guy was done quick. The second one, too. He pushed in real far. The next guy, he was huge. It really hurt. I didn’t know I was bleeding. I couldn’t tell. The last guy’s balls kept hitting me while he pumped. That’s when I got hard, and they beat me up for it.”
Shant moved on his feet. “I…understand.”
It took Shant more than a few times getting fucked for a couple of days’ food before he realized it wasn’t always supposed to hurt like hell. He was just naturally tight. ‘Relaxing’ comes hard to anyone when you’re kneeling on concrete, standing beside a dumpster, or being shoved up against a car door. One trick had a droopy ball sack that slapped up Shant’s own when he got going. It turned Shant on, too. The guy beat Shant off where he knelt, finished, and threw his money below Shant’s face, like it was a scrap from his table. But at least Shant didn’t end up in an infirmary for it afterwards.
“Yeah, I really do.”
Jonny laid back and rolled away from Shant.
Much later that night, Graham found Shant out on the front porch. He’d been rehearsing different opening lines since before dinner, but now he had no idea what to say. Neither did Shant.
Shant took the plunge first. “Ned told me to thank you for dinner. You just missed him. He went home to get some writing done. That’s what he said, anyway. I wanted to go with, but he didn’t ask me to.”
“How come you didn’t ask yourself?”
“I was afraid he’d say no.”
Minutes went by before Graham wrapped his arms around Shant from behind. Shant held him tight. Neither wanted to let the other one go. Graham finally sat down opposite Shant, who then leaned sideways and put his head in Graham’s lap. Shant trembled as Graham ran his fingers through the thick waves of his hair. Graham caught a tear on Shant’s cheek and wiped it over his full lips. “You cried first. I win.” Shant tugged Graham down into a frenzied kiss that outlasted their erections and left both as good as spent.
From the nape of Graham’s neck, Shant wondered, “Does Ian love you?”
“He said he did.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Graham thought it over. “I think so.”
Shant waited. “Aren’t you going to ask if Ned loves me?”
“I already know he does.”
“Reveal thy secrets, o wise one.”
“He could’ve had any of us the whole time we were at his place, but he didn’t lift a finger, or anything else.” Graham shook his head slowly. “He was the perfect gentleman, what I always imagined a real dad would be like. Whenever he was in the room, he made us seem special. No matter what he said to any of us, all I felt from him was…love.”
“But why didn’t he ask me to help, too?” Shant whispered.
“You were watching the house and keeping an eye on Roque, too. And what if a new stray came by? Can you see Zeke rolling out the welcome mat for them? Besides, you’re helping now.”
“By fighting with you?”
“We’re not fighting anymore. We’ll never have another fight as long as we live.”
Shant beamed in the street-lit dark. “We can still go, you know. It’s not too late. We’ve got a little money.”
“We do,” Graham sighed wistfully.
“We can be on a flight before anyone wakes up.”
“There’s a midnight red-eye to Miami.”
“We’ll find a cheap little room there, buy a mattress, open a lemonade stand, and maybe become lifeguards. I’ll finish high school so we can go to college together-”
“And we’ll buy a house, have some kids, dogs, cats, and a white picket fence to keep ‘em all in.”
“Do they have fences like that in Miami?”
“Let’s go and find out.”
“We can, Graham. Right now, just the two of us.”
Fighting more unwelcome tears, Graham looked up beyond the porch’s canopy toward the night sky. “Yes, my love, we should. But think of all the hearts we’d break: Roque, your little old dog, Ian probably, and Ned for sure. Hell, we’d probably break our own hearts in the process.”
Distinctly enunciating each word to their shared amusement, Shant added, “It would be a very expensive ‘should’.”
Graham chuckled darkly. “And Ned would hunt our asses down like a wolf.”
…from the novel Shant
coming from Hammer & Anvil Books Tue 8 Aug.
Adam Henry Carrière is an online habitué specializing in letters, publishing design, and instruction. A former NPR broadcaster, he holds a BA in Film & Video from Columbia College and an MA in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. He has taught writing at both his alma mater and for the United States Navy across the Pacific. Born on the South Side of Chicago, Adam is presently domiciled in Las Vegas, where he has won the Nevada Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry. He styles as Verleger / Herausgeber of Danse Macabre, Nevada’s first online literary magazine, and DM du Jour, its daily gazette. He is the author of the novel Miles (2013) and the poetry collection Faschingslieder (2014).