Carrying Harry

Estelle rested on a soft, mossy patch of green by the brook, listening to its nonsense babblings. The sun warmed her shoulders, glinted on the crystalline water as it broke over the rocks into prisms, splashing into a pool at the bottom of a little waterfall. Peace washed over her, tension drained away. She felt rooted to the earth, yet at the same time weightless.

“Estelle… this thing’s getting full. Would you mind?”

She opened her eyes, took a moment to slip back into reality. She sat in her blue swivel rocker a couple feet from Harry in his recliner. He brought his hand out from beneath the fleece blanket across his legs and lap, clutching the urinal he’d been given upon discharge from the hospital. He didn’t look at it, not at her.

“Sure.” She rose from her chair and took the urinal from him, headed to the bathroom to empty it.

“I’m a bit chilled. Think you could put up water for some tea?”

“I’ll do that. You want a hot water bottle, too?”

“No, just the tea, thanks.”

Estelle emptied the urinal in the toilet, swished it out with a little water and hung it on the towel rack before washing her hands. Then she went and put the kettle on for tea. She made a stop in the laundry room, wrung out the ace bandages soaking in the sink and hung them up to drip dry. Harry’s voice came to her from the other side of the house. She couldn’t make out what he was saying. She dried her hands and stepped back into the kitchen. “What was that, Harry? I couldn’t hear you. I was in the laundry room.”

“We got any of those tea biscuits left?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Would you mind making me some toast?”

Estelle drew in a calming breath. “Sure. What do you want on it?”

“Just butter. Maybe a slice of cheese.”

“Okay.” She put bread in the toaster and decided to make a whole pot of tea. As she took the tea from the shelf, she pushed back the black feelings that threatened to override the peace she was trying so hard to hold on to. So hard… everything was so hard. Yes, she’d known thirty years ago when she married Harry that it was “for richer and poorer; in sickness and in health,” but these last few years had made the vow a heavy load, crushing hope and joy. First it was Harry’s heart attack and bypass surgery, with its long recovery and worry over bills. Neither of them had ever been very good with money, and they didn’t have much of a nest egg. And then this, the accident.

It was hard for her to rouse compassion. The accident had been Harry’s fault. What fool would burn leaves and yard waste on a breezy day? Wearing coveralls splashed with lawnmower gas? Every time someone from the neighborhood asked her about Harry, asked how it happened, how he burned his legs and hands, she cringed inside, her face warmed with shame. The kindest comments, were, “Oh, something like that could happen to anyone.” But it didn’t happen to anyone, it happened to Harry. The worst comments were accompanied by a smile and head-shake. “Well, I’ll bet he doesn’t do that again.” I married a fool, she’d think, and all the other resentments of three decades would come crowding forward: the fact that there was no savings to fall back on, and here he was out of work again, at an age when he might have trouble finding work. The fact that now that the kids were grown and out from under their roof, they had little to talk about. She took little interest in fishing and politics, and he showed no real interest in her painting. The fact that she’d raised three kids to adulthood with very little input from him, helped raise two grandkids when Sophie returned home during her divorce and went back to school for two years, and now, now that she felt as though there might be a little time for her to pursue some of her own passions, she found herself taking care of Harry–not once, but twice in as many years.

Estelle put the plate of cheese toast and a mug of tea on a tray and brought it out. Harry groaned loudly, winced as he put the recliner in an upright position. Estelle rested the tray over his lap. “It’s probably about time for your pain meds. You take them now, we can do the bandages just before lunch.”

He nodded, his face white and pinched with pain, his upper torso rigid. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Was it selfish of her, when he was in this much pain, to resent the fact that it was always someone else who needed caring for, never her? She knew she should be glad that she was 58 and so fit. She worked at it–ate healthy, took her supplements, drank enough water, exercised. But she did resent it. Everyone always inquiring “How are the kids doing? How’s Harry?” Michelle, who taught painting down at the library, when Estelle called to ask if her course fee could be refunded or applied to a future class, had asked, “And how are you doing, Estelle?” and she had to fight herself to not to burst into tears.

Harry sat on the plastic chair in the tub, the bathroom tropically hot. Estelle ignored the strain in her back as she leaned over to snip the bandages on his far leg. First through the gauze, then through the yellow, non-stick Xeroform. She used the hand shower to soak the bandages off, squeezed them out as well as she could with one hand, and dumped them into a plastic bucket lined with a trash bag. The raw, red burns, some covered by a lattice of skin grafts, had to be gently washed with liquid soap. She ran the hand shower on gentle pressure over his legs, and clots of blood dropped from the backs of his thighs into the tub like bits of raw liver, leaving pink trails as they slid toward the drain. She tugged at the front of her shirt to unstick it from her chest.

It had been nine days since his release from the hospital, and he’d had a followup appointment the day before yesterday. His doctor said that everything was looking fine, said Estelle was doing a good job of wound care. But to her, Harry’s legs still looked like so much mangled flesh, and sometimes she wished they’d have prescribed her pain meds as well.

Harry sucked in air through gritted teeth as she gently patted his legs dry with old towels. She draped a large one over his shoulders, and put the walker beside the tub. Harry climbed out, naked and groaning, hobbled into the bedroom, eased himself back onto the bed she’d covered with one of the bed-sized disposable pads the hospital had given her. She covered him with a blanket from neck to thigh, and turned on the portable heater.

He was only two years her senior, but aging much faster. He’d never been able to make himself walk when he could drive, work when he could nap. Like a child, he ate what he liked because he liked it, and to hell with the sodium, saturated fat and high fructose corn syrup. Since his bypass surgery, she’d prepared heart-healthy meals for him and herself, only to discover gutted Doritos bags and Snickers wrappers in his truck. She wavered between anger at his lack of appreciation for her efforts, and apathy, wondering whether her life might not actually improve were he to put himself in an early grave. What she dreaded was the thought of him becoming a permanent invalid, the rest of her years spent caring for him until she was too old to do it herself and too old to do anything for herself.

It wasn’t enough that she’d cleaned up the urine, feces, blood and vomit of three children; she’d done it for Harry, too, over the years. She recalled the time, early in their marriage, when he’d gotten bombed at a neighborhood backyard cookout. He never could hold his liquor. She’d left before him, walked home with their firstborn, a toddler at the time. He’d staggered in a few hours later, incoherent, promptly vomited the evening’s beer, sour mash whiskey, barbequed pork and coleslaw all over their bedroom, and passed out.

Estelle smeared antibiotic ointment on the Xeroform and applied the yellow strips to his legs, feeling heat rise to her face as she remembered standing on their deck, hosing chunks of sour-smelling, regurgitated food from the bedsheets, fighting back angry tears, cursing him, hating him. She’d taken the Super-8 video camera and filmed Harry, unconscious, covered in his own vomit, planning to make him view it when he was sober. But then she had second thoughts, decided it was too cruel a thing to do. She’d erased the tape. There were times she’d regretted doing that, felt he might have benefitted from a little humiliation, or at least she’d have felt better with him sharing her own.

“Ow.” Harry winced. “Careful there.”


Estelle finished wrapping his legs with the ace bandage, the third, last layer. Then she gathered the legs of his pajama bottoms, eased them over one foot and then the other, as she’d done for her three babies. She pulled the waistband up to his rear and let him lift his hips and pull them up to his waist.

She noticed the age spots already developing on the backs of his hands. He’s getting old, she thought, and then corrected herself: We are getting old. And it suddenly dawned on her why she felt so angry at him, so resentful, even though she had known from the start that marrying anyone would be a lifetime commitment. She was angry because she married a man she considered a rock, a champion she could lean on, someone to take care of her. And in the last few years, it was she who took care of him. She was the rock, the strong one, the one supporting everyone’s weight on her shoulders.

She thought about this, how his weakness had made her strong, had enabled her in ways she’d have never thought possible thirty years ago. She realized that this was actually preferable to it being the other way around, better to be the crutch rather than to need one.

“Do you want me to fix you some lunch?” she asked him.

“No, I’m not really hungry right now.”

“Is there anything I can get you?”

“No. I’m actually a little sleepy. Must be the painkillers. I think I might just close my eyes a bit before lunchtime.” He pulled the blanket up to his chin.

Estelle grabbed the trash bag of wet bandages, tied a knot in it. “I’ll fix you something to eat when you’re ready.” She turned on the baby monitor by the bed, the one Sophie had left behind. “Just holler if you need anything.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Harry closed his eyes and sighed.

She closed the door quietly and dropped the bag in the kitchen trash. She carried the receiver for the monitor into the living room and settled into her chair. Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep breath, held it, exhaled. She pictured in her mind a mossy bank and a small, sparkling waterfall. The sun was warm on her shoulders, the ground soft beneath her. This time Harry sat nearby, dangling his legs into the stream. She smiled as he splashed his feet in the water.


A Christmas Gift

         A content warning: Although it is not graphic,  this short story deals with child sexual abuse. Child abuse and child sexual abuse are topics that are close to my heart. I’ve close friends who endured it, and it leaves terrible, if unseen, scars.

          I’ll also note that there’s some non-politically-correct language in here. It is in no way the language I use, being parent to a queer transgender son. But using my own voice wouldn’t be right for the protagonist of this story. I apologize if it offends–my intention is authenticity, not offence.


          Tommy picked up a tray and joined the chow line, head tipped down, shoulders rounded. He tongued his cut lip, could feel the swelling by his eye every time he blinked. He didn’t have much of an appetite, but hadn’t eaten since yesterday and didn’t want to give those fucking bastards the satisfaction of thinking they had him beat.

          Choice of canned ham or turkey loaf, soggy bread stuffing, slightly grayish corn, limp green beans and reconstituted mashed potatoes with runny gravy. A square of dry-looking gingerbread. Christmas dinner. Tommy mused that last years’ hadn’t been much better, but at least the dumpster-gleaned meal had been devoured in freedom. He closed his eyes, let the pain of that lost freedom pass through his rib cage.

          A nudge between his shoulder blades startled him and he gasped.

          “Yo, better wake up an’ move yo’ skinny cracker punk-ass.”

          “Sorry.” Tommy let the older con step ahead of him in line.

           “Yeah you are, pussy.”

          Tommy went for the ham and passed on the watery potatoes and gravy. He shuffled to his usual spot at the end of a table of cons who didn’t harass him too much, and eased onto the hard bench, jaw clenched, refusing to let on to anyone how much it hurt to sit. With his head low, he ate his meal in silence, filtering out the loud, boisterous shit bouncing between the tables. It wasn’t as noisy as usual. A number of cons were missing from the mess, having received extra commissary from family for the holiday. They were cooking up chow in their cells. Others were subdued by thoughts of home, of Christmases past with people they loved.

          Tommy had no family, none he was in touch with, anyway. Hadn’t seen his dad since age five, nor his mom since she’d handed over her parental rights to the state when he was fifteen. She chose that fucking lowlife sponging boyfriend over him. The last time he’d seen her was that night Stan punched him in the face, knocked a dent into the living room drywall with Tommy’s head. She’d screamed. Told Tommy to get the hell out, to leave. And he had.

          Tommy took a few bites, then let Cowboy have the rest of his ham. The stuffing was so bad, nobody wanted it, not even Jenkins, who was upwards of three hundred pounds and would generally take anyone’s leftover anything. “You gonna eat that gingerbread?” he asked.

          “Nah.” Tommy pushed his tray across the table, watched Jenkins open the top of his carton of low-fat milk and crumble the brown cube into it. He picked up a spoon, wagged his eyebrows at Tommy and tucked into it with a grin. Tommy smiled, shook his head and stood, sucking his sore lip as he did.

          “Dude, merry Christmas,” Jenkins said.

          Tommy shrugged. “Yeah, whatever. Merry Christmas.”

          He left the mess. Passed McKenzie, a guard known to be a real bastard unless you had means for paying him off. Tommy didn’t have the means, would never have the means. He kept his head low in passing, was buzzed into his pod.

          There was a recreation area where a handful of prisoners were watching Scrooged on the wall-mounted TV, and playing cards or checkers. A black prisoner wearing a do-rag and makeup made from whatever was handy sat crocheting something with garish yellow yarn. He looked up at Tommy as he passed. “Hey there, Baby-Cakes. You doin’ awright?”

          Tommy threw him a quick glance. He’d been told by another punk that it wasn’t a good idea to mix with fags and trannies. It would taint your rep by association. And as a newbie, a fish, your rep was shit to start with. “Fuck you,” Tommy muttered as he passed.

          Miss DeeDee–that was the trannie’s handle–blew out a puff of air and smiled. “Okay, little hot-stuff. Be that way. But I remember my first Christmas bein’ in the pen, an’ Santy Claus din’t leave me nothin’ good.”

           This Christmas sucked for sure. But it wasn’t the worst he’d known, not by far. The worst was one he’d pushed from his mind for a decade, and only allowed entry to now in order to avoid a one-man pity-party.

          He was ten years old, and it involved another of his “uncles,” men who blew through his and his mother’s life and their house like so much windblown trash.

          “Uncle” Wade had gone out Christmas Eve to replenish what was needed for the celebration. It had started to snow while he was out, and Tommy sat by the window in PJs, eating a Pop Tart and watching the fat flakes fall in the street-light’s beam.

          Wade’s battered car pulled up in front of the house. He climbed out and treaded up the cracked walkway cradling a brown bag in one arm, a gift-wrapped box tucked under the other. Hope gave Tommy’s heart a squeeze, though he realized how unlikely it was that the gift would be for him.

          “Wade’s back,” he shouted to his mom.

         She didn’t look away from the TV, but leaned forward to lift an empty beer can from the coffee table and give it a side-to-side shake. “About time. Damn, where the hell’s he been?”

         Tommy shoved the rest of the Pop-Tart in his mouth and ran to open the door.

        Wade shook snowflakes from his hair and stepped inside. “Hey, dude. I picked something up for you. Look in the bag.”

         Tommy’s hope sagged as he took the bag handed to him and put it down on the kitchen table. He took out a box of snack cakes shaped like Christmas trees, green icing and red and white sprinkles.  The other items in the bag were Doritos and a bottle of Jack Daniels. “Thanks, Wade.” He tried not to sound disappointed. It was better than nothing.

           “Geezus, Wade,” his mother called from the other room. “Didja bring something to drink or not?”

           “Comin’ up.” Wade put the wrapped box down on the table. Drops of water that had been snowflakes a moment before glinted like glass beads on his mustache. “This is for you, too, buddy.”

          The air in Tommy’s lungs seemed to turn to helium, lifting his heart. His smile betrayed his eagerness. “Thanks, Wade.” He reached out for the box and Wade put his large, cold hand on top of his, pinned it to the gift.

          “Whoa. For Christmas. Go stick it under the tree.”

        Tommy nodded. He could wait. He wasn’t a five year-old, after all. He picked up the box and took it into the living room, discreetly weighing it in his hands. Not too heavy.

          “What’s that?” his mother asked, glancing up from the TV. Wade tossed the bag of Doritos into her lap, put the JD on the coffee table.

          “Wade got me a Christmas present.” Tommy put it under the tree with a few other hastily-wrapped packages. He already knew what was in them without having shake them or peel back the wrinkled wrappings. He’d been with his mother at the dollar store when she got them. An out-of-season t-shirt on clearance. A Nerf Gun knock-off. A fleece blanket with SpiderMan on it. A Pirates of the Caribbean insulated cup. Cheap tennis shoes.

          She smiled as he arranged the items under the tree. “Isn’t that nice of him? Whatja get me, Wade?”

          “You’re lookin’ at it, baby.” He struck a pose. She laughed and opened the whiskey.

          Towards the end of both the bottle of Jack and It’s a Wonderful Life, Tommy’s mom passed out. Wade plucked the burning cigarette from between her fingers, mashed it out, then  bumped his leg against hers. “Hey, Sleeping Beauty, time to go to bed.” He hauled her to her feet. She groaned and struggled to get her eyes open.

           “‘Night, mom,” Tommy said.

           She mumbled something, and Wade half guided, half carried her to the bedroom.

          Tommy shook the Doritos crumbs from the bag into his cupped hand and licked them off his palm, then took the bag and some other trash from the coffee table to the kitchen garbage. He stood looking out the window a few minutes. The snow was now a soft, bluish blanket covering the yard. It made the dirty, rundown street and houses look clean and beautiful.

          He yawned, thought he might try to stay up to the end of the movie, then go to bed. Wade and his mom would probably sleep in, and he’d have to wait til they were up to open the gifts anyway. He thought about whether he should try to carefully peel back the tape on Wade’s gift. Taking a knife from a drawer–the better to lift the Scotch tape with–Tommy went to the living room.

          He stopped short in the doorway. Wade was on the sofa, taking a hit from a glass pipe. He exhaled, and Tommy caught a whiff of the smoke, smelling something like a foggy morning, and a little like the public pool he’d gone to last summer. He hid the knife against his pajama bottoms.

          Wade’s head tipped back, eyes closed. He sighed, and opened them again, saw Tommy standing there in the doorway. He lowered the pipe to his lap and smiled. “Hey, little man. Wassup?”

          “I just… ” Tommy’s face warmed, sure that Wade could read the guilt on it, see that he was about to take a look at what was under the wrapping paper on that present.

          “C’mere. Sit down with me.” He put the pipe and lighter on the coffee table and patted the sofa beside him. “Christmas Eve, huh? You excited?”

       Tommy nodded, took small, slow steps to the sofa, his palm sweating around the plastic handle of the knife. He sat down and quietly slipped it between the cushions.

          Wade smiled at him. He had crooked teeth, a gap on the top left of his mouth where one was missing. He stretched an arm out and put it around Tommy’s shoulders, gave him a light squeeze. “Hey,” he said, “Loosen up a bit, kid. You’re tense as shit. You need a drink?” He laughed.

          Yeah, Tommy was tense. His shoulders and neck were so tight they ached. His throat felt like someone’s hands were around it. The tension went up another notch when Wade put his other hand over the fly of his jeans and began rubbing himself.

          Tommy made a move to rise, but Wade’s grip around his shoulders tightened. He cocked his head, raised his eyebrows. “Just chill, Tommy. Calm down.”

          Calm down? Tommy’s heart slammed against his ribcage like it was going to bust through. He couldn’t control his breathing, and panted quietly, tears welling up in his eyes.

          Wade lifted his hips to get to the button on his jeans. Tommy slid his trembling hand over the sofa, slipped it between the cushions, retrieving the knife. His fingers curled around the handle and gripped it tight. Wade picked up Tommy’s other hand and rested it on his cock, now free of his jeans.

          Tommy gasped, swung the knife in an arc, hoping to stick it in Wade’s chest. Working against him were a dull blade, an awkward angle, and his own lack of strength.

          Wade let out a yell, and put the boy into a headlock, held Tommy’s head tight against his chest. His other hand squeezed Tommy’s wrist til he dropped the knife. “You little bastard,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “You tried to cut me. You little motherfucker.”

          Tommy’s breath was cut off. His head felt like a balloon about to burst. Wade rose from the sofa still gripping Tommy in a chokehold and shoved him face-down on it, then threw himself on top of him. Tommy tried to suck in a breath, but Wade’s weight on him wouldn’t permit it. The man slapped a hand over Tommy’s mouth, his thumb and forefinger pinched the boy’s nose. Tommy felt his pajama bottoms yanked down. He squeezed his eyes shut. I’m gonna die. I can’t breathe, and I’m gonna die.

          On the edge of unconsciousness, he was jerked back by searing pain. His lungs attempted a gasp, but came up short; his eyes threatened to pop out of his skull, and he blacked out.

         Christmas morning, Tommy woke up in his bed. His body hurt. His ass hurt.

         He had to pee. He bit his lip to keep from crying as he got out of bed to go to the bathroom. The house was quiet and chilly. He shivered and shuffled slowly, painfully, to the bathroom.

         As he stood peeing into the toilet, he felt something wet and warm trickle down the inside of his thigh. He was bleeding.

         Tommy cleaned up as best he could and stuffed a wad of toilet paper in his underpants. He went back to his room and curled up on his bed. After a while, his mother knocked on his door.                     

          “Tommy, it’s Christmas! What the hell’s wrong with you? Don’t you wanna open your presents?”

          He swallowed back tears, pushed words from a tight throat. “I’m sick. I’ll do it later.”

          His door opened. His mother stood there, a hand on her hip. “Hey, Wade got you something. Don’t you think you oughta go out and open it?”

          “I’m sick,” Tommy said. He pulled the blanket over his head.

          “You were fine last night. You just stayed up too late, you ungrateful little shit.” She closed the door.

          Tommy stayed in bed all morning. A couple times his mother opened the door to check on him. He pretended to be sleeping. One time she felt his forehead. “You okay?” she asked. She looked concerned.

          “I don’t feel good. I’ll be okay. I just wanna sleep,” he told her.

          “Alright. Me and Wade are going out for a bit. Call me on the cell if you need me, okay?”

          “Yeah, okay.”

           “Merry Christmas, baby.” She kissed his forehead. And she left.

          When Tommy was sure they’d gone, he got up. He shuffled to the tree in the living room and eased down onto his knees. He picked up Wade’s gift and slowly tore off the paper. It was a shoe box. He peeled tape from the lid and opened it, pulled off a wad of crumpled newspaper. In the box was a Nintendo DS. It was used, a couple years old, but he’d been wanting one since it had come out. He lifted it from the box and turned it over in his hands a couple times. Tears streamed down his cheeks, not from pain or self-pity. These were hot tears of anger. Rage seethed inside him.

          Tommy clutched the Nintendo and bashed it against the floor, screaming from the deepest part of him as he did. He kept screaming and slamming it down again and again, until he’d screamed himself hoarse and exhausted himself.

          He went back to bed, pajamas sticking to his sweat-drenched body.

          He was filled with hatred. He hated Wade. He hated his mother. He hated Christmas.

          Tommy found himself in front of his cell, so lost in the past, it took him a moment to figure out why his feet had stopped moving. He raised his eyes and saw something that hadn’t been there when he’d left for dinner. On the metal door was a sheet of paper that read “Merry Christmas” in fancy writing. A hole had been put through the paper, and dangling from it was a star, a star crocheted from garish yellow yarn.

           Tommy snatched it off his cell door. He went in, lay down, held it to his chest.

          There were worse Christmases than this. This year, he even got a gift. The hatred had dissipated, disappeared.

          Someone banged on his cell door as they passed. “Merry Christmas, Baby-Cakes.”

          Tommy sniffed, swiped the back of his hand across his runny nose. “Merry Christmas, DeeDee. Thanks.”

The Borderland


My cell phone vibrated in my pocket. Wren called at sunset, give or take a few minutes, nearly every evening. When she didn’t, it was a bad night. I thumbed the talk button and put the phone to my ear. “Yeah?”

“You comin’ out?”

Hunger hit me like a punch to the gut. A Pavlov’s Dog reaction to her familiar, gravelly voice. “What do you think?”

She laughed. “I got two. Don’t take too long.”

I lifted a window blind and scanned the street. It was busy with cars and pedestrians, but the streetlights had flicked on, and the sky was growing darker.

In the kitchen, I opened the fridge, took out a red and yellow can of espresso and pulled off the lid. Inside were little paper packets, each one stamped with a tiny set of puckered lips in red ink and the words “Kiss Me” beneath them. I pocketed a couple bundles. With hunger gnawing at my insides, I left the apartment.

I stepped out into the balmy night, joining the flow of pedestrians, the natives walking with sure strides, the tourists ambling along, staring into shop windows, gawking at the transvestites, punk kids and homeless sitting on stoops and in doorways. Music blared from the tattoo shop, becoming a cacophony halfway between it and the dude with a banjo and harmonica on the corner. There had been a time when music was my life. Now it was merely one more reminder of what I’d become and how much I’d changed.

I strode through the throngs of people holding my breath, eyes on the pavement. I didn’t want to hone my hunger to too keen an edge by raising them. So much skin, such easy access. I turned down a quieter street. Car and foot traffic thinned, the streets were narrower and less well-lit, the noise distant and muted. A small park was up ahead, our regular meeting spot. I crossed the street and entered it at the corner.

Wren was sitting on the back of a bench. Her bleached blonde hair was pulled back in a sloppy ponytail, and she wore cutoff denim shorts and a pink sports bra. I saw her throw back her head, heard her raucous laughter shatter the quiet.Two figures stood with her. She looked in my direction, teeth and hair bright against the growing darkness, and waved.

I nodded and approached the trio. “What’s up, girl?”

“Hey, Drake!” Wren propelled herself off the bench and threw her arms around my neck, nearly knocking me off balance. Her warmth and scent made me almost faint with hunger.

“Don’t fucking touch me,” I hissed into her ear and pushed her back to arm’s length. Even as I said it, I knew the warning would have no effect. Wren was nuts, and nothing I did or said would change that. Finding another to replace her, though, would be difficult if not impossible.

She poked a shiny black fingernail into my sternum. “Oh Drake, you’d be so perfect if your dick worked.” She gave me a coy smile, put the finger between her pursed lips.

I ignored it. “Who’re your friends?”

“This is Rick.” She looped her arm through his and pulled him over to meet me. He was tall and lanky, in his forties maybe, although it can be pretty hard to tell with these types. Drug addiction and living rough have a way of carving sharp angles into a face and making cadavers of living flesh and bone. His t-shirt clung to a sunken chest, tattoos and scabs covered his thin arms. He nodded his greeting and pushed a greasy lock of hair behind one ear. “And this is Luca.” This one looked much more savory. Much. Early twenties and not yet ravaged by years of shooting junk. He was clean and beautiful, his dark eyes clear, but full of fear, pain and anticipation.

I clenched my jaw and inhaled his scent. Warm and earthy, with the salty tang of sweat. I swallowed the saliva pooling in my mouth. “Hi, Luca. What can we do for you tonight?” He didn’t say anything, but gave me a smile that didn’t quite mask the pain of withdrawal. “Need me to fix you guys up?”

Rick nodded. “Your friend here said you don’t step on your product.”

The lure of pure, unadulterated heroin reeled them in. “That’s right. It’s kind of a promotional for new clients.”

The long, unshaven face creased into a smile. “Hook me up, man.”

Wren grinned, bounced on the balls of her feet like some trashy, insane cheerleader.

I shot a glance from Rick to Luca and nodded. They were hungry, too. “Okay.” I saw the bills palmed in Rick’s hand. “But not here.”

I started walking and Wren stuck her arm through mine, bobbed her head against my shoulder.

“Where we goin’, Drake?” she asked. “To the rocks?”

About halfway through the park was a pond, and near it, a wooded area on a hillside. There were some boulders there among the trees. It made for a good private spot to set up a fix or hang out and drink, but because of that, it was popular with the drunks and heads. Not that I ever found them a problem. “Yes, to the rocks.” She squeezed my arm.

I picked up a scent before I saw anyone there. I smelled alcohol-warmed blood, stale sweat, the dank, doglike must of damp wool, and the reek of unwashed hair. It attacked my nostrils like a sharp, aged cheese and took a bit of the edge off my hunger.

I stopped, and my little party almost ran into me.

“What? What’s up?” Rick wanted to know.

“Somebody’s there,” Wren said too loudly.

I shook her arm from mine. “Quiet. Stay here. I’ll see if I can get him to move.” I stepped from the concrete walk onto the soft ground, moved up the hillside using the trees to steady myself. I was able to see the vagrant perfectly well, a crumpled mass under a heavy coat, tucked into the shadow of a small outcropping of rock. The waxing moon was nearly full, but its light fell only in lacy patches through the trees.

I got up close, nudged the heap with the toe of my shoe. Nothing. “Hey, wake up.” Still nothing. I crouched low, rested a hand on his shoulder. He stirred beneath it and moaned. Then he rolled onto his back, turned his gray-bearded face to mine and looked at me.

I don’t know what he saw, but I felt a transformation, something going on with my senses. Even in the dappled moonlight I could see the sweat beading on his brow, could hear his raspy breath as if panted into my ear by a lover. I heard, almost felt, his heartbeat as it quickened.Time slowed, was expanded.

“Would you mind relocating, Grandpa? I kinda need this spot.”

A half-choked whimper escaped his throat, and he rolled onto all fours and scrambled from me with amazing agility for an old derelict. He was upright within a few feet and made his way down the hill, bouncing from tree to tree, almost running into my little group below. They parted for him and we watched him go stumbling along the path, whimpering and muttering unintelligibly.

Luca looked up towards me. “You didn’t hurt him, did you?” He sounded concerned.

I found myself taken aback by that. Concern for others was no longer something I gave much thought to. All those who had been dear to me were long dead, and now humanity was mainly…my vineyard. I was moved for the first time in a very, very long time.

“No, I didn’t. I think he just got spooked. Come on up.”

Rick was eager. He pushed ahead, and was up beside me in a moment, nimble as a mountain goat, but winded by the short climb. Luca was more cautious, holding onto the trees and picking his way with care. Wren cleared her throat loudly, and he turned to her. She put out a hand for him to help her up. He clasped it and she flashed me a demure smile, batted her lashes theatrically.

I shook my head. “Shit, Wren, you’ve been up here a hundred times in the dark.”

“New shoes. I don’t wanna mess them up.” She seated herself on one of the large, flat boulders and pulled up her legs, wrapped her arms around her knees. Luca sat down beside her. He was tense, breathing fast, fidgeting and wiping his nose with the back of his hand. He hadn’t been doing junk long, I could tell. His skin was still so fine, so unblemished. And he smelled so good…

“I got my kit.” Rick pulled out a Ziploc bag with a stub of candle, a cooker, lighter and a couple sharps. He squatted down, dumped the contents out on the rock. I looked over to Luca. He was unfolding a large leather wallet. He pulled out his rig and laid each item out, like it was a Chinese tea ceremony.

“Um…you boys forgetting something? What exactly do you intend to shoot up?” They looked up at me at the same time. I couldn’t help but smile. Rick fumbled for his cash and held the wad up to me like an homage. I pocketed it without even looking at it. It would make him feel good that I didn’t bother to count the money, make him feel like he was trusted. The truth was, I didn’t trust him past the length of my arm, but it didn’t matter, since money wasn’t really my object.

I turned to Luca. He counted out bills and chewed his lip. “For a bundle, right? That’s what Wren said.” He held out the money and I clasped his hand in mine. Again, time seemed to almost stand still. I could feel his pulse against my palm, and hunger, a terrible, gnawing hunger. I felt almost weak with it.

But there was something more, something different. Longing. Like I had for my lost mortality. Like I could somehow taste my former life through this beautiful, vulnerable being. I didn’t only want his blood, I wanted everything, his body, his soul.

“That’s what Wren said,” he repeated. “Is that okay?”

I smiled, nodded and released his hand. “Yeah, that’s right.” I took the money, sorry that I had to let go of him. Wren was watching me with more concentration than I thought her capable of.  I returned her hard stare for a moment, then reached into my inside pocket for the heroin and handed Rick and Luca a bundle each. “There you go, friends. Pristine dope. Pure as the Mother of God.”

I stood by watching them cook the dope and fill the syringes. Then Luca pushed up his sleeve–he had beautiful veins–and wrapped an earbud cord around his arm. I turned away, fighting ferocious hunger and the impulse to feed with all my strength. I focused my attention on the moonlight through the trees. Then I glanced down at Wren.

Her eyes were on me, fingernail between her teeth. “Hungry?” she asked.

My resolve fell apart. I could no longer keep from thinking about Luca, the blood in his veins, warm and comforting, what it would taste like flowing into my mouth, going down and easing the agonizing emptiness in me; and the heroin flowing through him, how it would envelope me in peace, allowing me to dream like a mortal again for a little while.

The hunger was so bad, it wasn’t funny, but I forced a smile. “I could go for a bite.”

She slapped her bare thigh and laughed.

Rick moaned. I listened, heard the change in his respiration, his heartbeat. He slumped over, greasy hair hanging almost to his lap. His dirty cargo pants were open and a needle was hanging out of a vein a few inches southeast of his navel. I figured his other veins were all blown.

Luca pulled down his sleeve and tried to coil up the earbuds. He couldn’t finish the job and dropped them in his lap. Then he leaned back against the rock and sighed. His eyes closed, his mouth fell open, and he was adrift on Morphia’s gentle waves.

I crouched down beside him and breathed him in. So good. So clean and vital. I was starving, my craving amplified by the hunger for heroin, but I didn’t want to rush this one. This one was more than a meal. I reached out a hand and touched his hair. He opened his eyes for a moment and smiled, then closed them again.

“Now,” Wren said, glassy-eyed with anticipation. “Take him, Drake. Take him.” Her payment for reeling in my One-Time-Only clients was that I sometimes allowed her to watch me dispatch them. It was our unwritten contract, sparing me the trouble of finding addicts myself.

“Shut up.” My tongue danced along the edge of my teeth. I touched Luca’s dark curls, ran my fingers along the side of his face to his neck. I felt his blood coursing beneath my fingertips, under his skin. In this body of mine where so many things no longer functioned, my salivary glands were over-active, and I swallowed.

“Drake,” Wren whined, “take him!”

I felt that same change in me I’d felt with the old man. I whipped my head around and fixed my eyes on her with all intensity, bared my teeth.

Any normal person would have been quaking. This was Wren, however, and the Sanity ship had long ago left the harbor without her on board. She scowled at me, then pouted. “Geezus, Drake. He’s just a yummy blood bag.”

I threw out an arm and backhanded her. Her head snapped to the side and she flew backward off the rock. I couldn’t be bothered by it. I was in agony, consumed by hunger, and I couldn’t hold back any longer. My whole body was under siege. I was assaulted by a hailstorm of pinpricks.

I descended on Luca, his eyes closed, peaceful as a sleeping child. I put a hand on his cheek, slid it slowly around to the back of his head, his silky curls slipping between my fingers. His head was heavy in my hand, his face close enough to mine that I could feel his breath. Not since my very first victim had I felt such hesitation. And that had ended with my first taste of blood and the relief it offered.

At my back, Rick coughed, moaned and cleared his throat. “Hey, man, what are y–”

I slipped my hand out from behind Luca’s head and spun around. I didn’t give Rick time to finish his question, or to formulate any others. I was on top of him in an instant, pinning him like flat of cinder block. I shoved a hand beneath his bony jaw and pushed back his head.

The long wait had made me lose all propriety, if a predator is capable of such. I tore into him, straight into his carotid artery, hot blood pulsing at the back of my throat so fast I had to gulp to keep up. It only took seconds for him to quit any resistance and for the flow to slow down.

I crawled back from him, leaned against a boulder beside Luca, who slept on. I closed my eyes.

Rick had shot up a walloping hit of heroin, as drug-tolerant as his long-term usage had made him. I felt a beautiful peace descending—or rather, come crashing down on me like a two-ton pleasant dream. How long had it been since I’d dreamed? The hunger was appeased, the agony and agitation abated. It didn’t matter anymore that the blood had an unpleasant aftertaste, was tainted with compounds I couldn’t identify, and which could have an unexpected effect on me. For a little while I could forget this cursed existence.

I opened my eyes and turned to look at Luca. I was no longer hungry, but I still felt a sense of longing. I was sure that what ran through his veins was a most wonderful vintage, wished I could taste it. And yet I was glad that he was still breathing.

“So you got this cream-puff here, but you’re eating out of dumpsters?”  Wren had climbed back up onto the rock while I was in my post-binge stupor. She stood above me with her arms crossed over her chest. Her bare legs were dirty, bits of  organic debris decorated her hair, and a her cheek bore a patch of livid pink that was swelling. I felt a little ashamed.

“Sorry I hit you, Wren. But you got no place telling me who to take or when.” We both looked at Rick’s corpse. His eyes were wide open, staring at the starless sky through the foliage. “He was watching me, startled me. I was moved by instinct.”

She was quiet for a moment. It was a rare thing. “What are you gonna do with him?”

“Just leave the body here.”

“No, I mean Cream-Puff. Put him on the shelf and save him for a special occasion?”

“Wren, can you just shut up? I’ll get him outta here. Let him go for now. He’ll be checking in with you in a couple days, if not sooner.” I hoped he would be anyway.

“And you?”

I was bathed in warmth and feeling pretty good. Good enough to spend the hours before dawn walking around, pretending I was human again. Plenty to do in the city at night. I smiled. “I dunno. Maybe I’ll go home. Whip up a casserole or something.”

That crazy laugh of hers. “Lemme come with you. I like you when you’re fed.”

Music came back to me like a lost love. I beat-boxed a few seconds, slapped out a rhythm on my thighs.

“I like you when you’re fed,

“It’s cool that you are dead,

“I’d like to get inside your head

“Wanna climb into your bed.”

She laughed again. “Lotta good that would do me.”  She sat and sidled up next to me, put her head on my shoulder, slipped her hand up under my shirt. She ran a fingernail around my nipple. “We could get you a strap-on,” she purred into my ear.

The dope was making me giddy, and I found the comment funny rather than sad or frustrating, and I chuckled. “Go away, Wren. Go find yourself a live one. We really need to get outta here.” I nodded at Rick.

Wren sighed. “Yeah, we do.”

I looked over at Luca. His eyelids were fluttering. “Girl…you better go now. I’ll clean up.”


I maneuvered a hand into my pocket and pulled out the cash from Luca and Rick. I pressed it into Wren’s hand. “You’ll call me tomorrow, right?”

“I don’t want money.”

“Hey, buy yourself something pretty. You show me tomorrow.”

She thought about it for a moment. A smile stretched across her face. “Like what?”

“I dunno. Surprise me.”

Wren stood up and brushed herself off. Picked bits of leaves out of her hair and tugged her shorts down over her butt. She tipped her chin at Luca. “He’s up.”

I got to my feet fast, I had to take advantage of Luca’s high and the darkness, get him out of here before he saw Rick’s corpse. Wren moved to block his view.

“So,” I said to him as he began to come out of his nod, “Good shit?”

For a moment he looked disoriented. Then he broke into a charming, dopey smile, eyelids still at half-mast. “I feel great.”

Wren bent and grabbed his arm, helped him to his feet. “Come along, my little cream-puff. Let’s see what trouble we can get into tonight.” She guided him down the hill. I pulled the needle out of Rick’s groin and tossed it, grabbed the unused bags of heroin. Then I shoved his body under the little overhang where the old man had been, and followed.


It was foolishness from the start. The idea that I could somehow hang on to Luca, keep him near me and savor his beauty, borrow his warmth. Like a fox keeping a pet chicken. But fool that I am, I was determined to give it my best shot. I waited, pretty certain he’d be back for more clean heroin. Two nights after our last meet-up I still hadn’t gotten a call from Wren, and she wasn’t answering mine. I started to worry that something had happened to her.

I hunted on my own. I didn’t like it, didn’t want to be seen much, or earn any kind of street rep as a dealer. I didn’t want junkies connecting me with their missing compadres. So I went without the heroin, just feeding on whatever was most convenient, whatever could be taken without notice. But I was getting pretty agitated. I’d tried snorting, even eating smack in the past, but knew that without the blood, I’d be dry-heaving over a toilet.

On the third night Wren called. The moment I saw her name on my phone, the hunger and restlessness intensified. I was ready to spit venom at her by then, but managed to get a hold on myself. I couldn’t risk having her hang up on me.

“Hey, girl, where you been?”

“You hungry?”

“Famished. You got something for–”

“Meet me at the park.” She hung up.

I left the apartment right away.

Wren was there on the bench. With Luca. My chest tightened. I couldn’t tell if it was the joy of seeing him again, or the dreadful fact that there was no other with him to feed on. In my eagerness, I approached with all the speed and stealth my kind are capable of. I was there beside them before they’d seen me coming.

Wren gasped seeing me suddenly there. Luca jumped, too. “Wow,” he said. “Where did you come from?”

“I’m sneaky like that,” I said. “Good to see you again, Luca.” That hardly described what I felt. Something like adoration battled with hunger in me. I wanted to touch and stroke him, to breath him in, taste his skin, his blood, but I also wanted to satiate my appetite, drain him of every last drop.

Wren’s hair was in two braids, and she played with one as she held me in her gaze.

“My only client tonight?” I asked.

“Yep,” she said. “Whatever will you do?” The theatrical lash-batting again.

Luca was pale, edgy. “Rick…I heard he’s dead.”

I turned my eyes from his throat. “Oh yeah? Well, you know, I sold you both quite a bit of pure stuff. Maybe he got a little too eager. He didn’t look like he was in good shape anyway.”

“I heard he might have been attacked by something.”

“You mean someone.”

“No, I mean something. This guy Aquila said he was in the back of a patrol car, heard the cops talking. They said it looked like an animal went for his throat.”

The memory of all that blood and heroin gushing into my mouth made me feel faint with hunger again. “Think maybe a  wild dog went after him?”

“I dunno.”

“I’ll bet it was a wolf,” Wren interjected. “Definitely a wolf.”

I snorted. “Yeah, sure, Wren; in New York City.”

“Weirder things happen.” She gave me a pointed look.

I let it blow past me, turned back to Luca. “Were you and Rick homies?”

“No. I never met him before the other night.”

Wren gave him a little pat on the back. “Well, maybe you’ll meet again some day.”

I needed to feed. This dagger-sharp hunger could goad me into doing something reckless, and I couldn’t afford that. “Listen, Luca, I only got a couple hits on me now. I’m supposed to get some more tomorrow. I’ll give you what I got, and if you want more, I can hook up with you tomorrow evening. I’ll give you my cell number. That okay?”

“What are you–” Wren started, but I gave her a glance that took the heat off her tongue. She shut her mouth.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Luca said.

I reached into my jacket and came out with the dope and a pen. I palmed the packets. “Got something to write on?” He didn’t, so I took his hand, felt a jolt like electricity course up my arm. My mouth watered. I wrote my number on his wrist, then slipped the heroin to him. “Don’t give that number out to anyone, right? I mean it. Just consider this a little gratis.”

He looked at me slack-jawed, like he didn’t understand what I was saying.

“A gift. Because I think you’ll be a good client. I give perks to good clients. You okay with that?”

Luca smiled, seemed to relax. He nodded. “Yeah, I’m okay with that. Thanks.”

Wren looked about to burst, wringing the hem of her t-shirt, opening her mouth, then shutting it. I was holding back a tidal wave myself, the salt and musk scent of skin with its undercurrent of blood was almost overpowering. “Go on, Luca. You call me tomorrow evening.” I watched him go. Then I went the opposite direction.

Wren trotted to keep up with my long strides. “What the hell are you doing, Drake? I call you, I bring you a meal, you season it and feed. That’s the game. Why you letting the cream-puff go? Did you already have something? Guzzle a pizza delivery boy in your building maybe?”

“No, I’m starving. But I’m not ready to take Luca out yet.” I stopped and waited at the corner for a break in the traffic.

“What do you plan to do with him? Are you gonna keep him? Just because he’s a cute little cream-puff? I’m the one who does everything for you! I’m the one who deserves to–”

“To what?” I spun to face her. “To what, Wren? To be damned like me?  No, I don’t wanna do that to him. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, ’cause there’s nobody I hate that much. That’s not the plan.”

“What is the plan?”

“I don’t know. But I sure as hell don’t have to consult with you or get your approval.”

We crossed. “Where you going now, Drake?”

“Get a bite to eat.”



“Why won’t you change me over? I’ll keep you company. I won’t miss the sun. I sleep most of the day anyway. It wouldn’t bother me to kill anybody.”

It probably wouldn’t, because she was a few quarts shy of a full pint. But the thought of killing had been, once upon a time, repugnant to me. In a sense, it still was. I used every euphemism in the book to keep from thinking about the fact that I drank the blood of my own kind. But then I’d find myself hunched over a body, warm blood washing past teeth and tongue, and my old self would claw his way to the surface and ask, “What kind of monster have you become?” I had to admit that I was not their kind any longer.

“Hey, Drake…”

“What is it?”

“Wanna see what I got with the money?”

“Wren, not right now; I need a drink, know what I mean?” We were back to where people thronged the sidewalks.

“Can I come watch?”

“No. The ones you bring in. That’s the deal.”

“Drake, look!”

She’d stopped and pulled her t-shirt up over her head. She turned sideways and held her arms aloft. On her side was a fresh tattoo, an artistic rendering of the late, great Bela Lugosi in his legendary role. Wren beamed, bounced on her toes. Pedestrians flowed around us.

“Like it, Drake?”

I smiled. “Yeah, Wren. Nice.”

Pure heroin is a powerful lure for a junkie. Free heroin is a chain through a nose ring. I was sure Luca would be back.

The night I gave him the couple bags, I went to Bed-Stuy and took out some little wanna-be gansta. No heroin in him, kid was just chillin’ on lean. Never could get a taste for that stuff. But it took a little of the edge off my need.

Luca called the next evening. Actually, he called several times, but I wasn’t up yet. By the time I picked up the phone, as soon as the streetlights flickered on, he was wound pretty tight.

“I’ve been trying to reach you,” he said. “I called a few times.”

“Yeah, sorry ’bout that. I was in the shower.”

“For two hours?”

“My phone was in my jacket with the ringer off. I took a nap,” I lied. I got a second call beeping in. It was Wren. I thought about whether or not I should answer it. “Luca, can you hang on a sec? I got another call.”

Wren. I was hoping she found me some take-out. I didn’t want to be hungry when I saw Luca. “Hey girl, what’s going on?”

“Can you come out and play?”

“What, you got something for me?” I swallowed back my saliva.

“Come see.” She hung up.

“Dammit.” I switched back to Luca. “Hey, you there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

My skin prickled at the sound of his voice. “I got something I gotta do. I’ll have to hook up with you a little later.”

“How much later?”

“Gimme an hour. Look, I’ll tell you where I live. You meet me here, at my place.” That came out of my mouth before I really knew what I was saying. What was it about this guy that turned my brain to shit, made me take risks I’d never taken before? I had never given out my address to anyone, never had a soul up to my apartment. But here I was, giving it out to Luca. If I didn’t intend to make a meal of him, I’d be better off not meeting with him alone.

I made my way to the park to see Wren. She was perched on the back of the bench where I usually met her. She was alone.

The part of me that was pure animal instinct thrilled at the sight of lone prey so easily taken. Only Wren wasn’t prey. For whatever reason she’d taken it upon herself to provide me with a fairly steady stream of addicts to feed on, and I’d grown somewhat dependent on her aid. This right now was a bad situation; I was hungry, and she was vulnerable. Furthermore, she never knew where to draw the line–she flirted with me, flirted with death, continually.

My whole body tingled. I came up on her fast, stood behind her, leaned toward her ear. “You all alone?”

She started, nearly lost her balance. “Geezus, Drake! Don’t do that!”

“Why are you alone, Wren? Why’d you call me out?”

She took a moment to compose herself. “Aw, Drake…I just wanted to get a little time with you. You know, a little private time. Just you and me.”

Without consciously doing anything, I could feel that shift in my perception. Even in the dim light, everything was in high definition. Time lagged and all my senses sharpened. Wren saw something, too. She stopped playing coy and hopped off the bench, stepped toward me like she wanted to get a better look at me. I stepped back from her. “Wren, you dumb little bitch, I’m gonna go now. Don’t fuck with me like this again.”  It took some force of will, but I walked away from her.

“No, listen…I’m not afraid. I want you to turn me. I want to be like you, Drake. A nighttime hunter. Beautiful and deadly.”

I laughed, but there was no humor in it. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, you nutcase.”  I turned to face her again, breathing through my mouth to avoid taking in her sweat-and-dollar-store-perfume scent. “You think it’s just a change in diet and circadian rhythm, and you become strong and undying? It’s so much more than that. It’s not just  your human nature that dies. Everything you love about being alive dies, too. Sunrises and sunsets. Food. Glittering frost on autumn leaves. Watching kids play in the park. Relationships. Making love. It all dies.” The litany upset me, moved me, like Luca’s beauty moved me, fooled me into thinking that maybe I actually still had a beating, human heart. But no, I’m a borderland dweller, neither here nor there.

I turned from her, my mouth watering, acute pain stabbing at my stomach. “Go home, Wren. No way am I ever gonna do that to you or anyone else.” I started to walk away, fast. I didn’t think I could hold out much longer.

“Drake!” I heard her steps behind me, and then I felt her hand on my arm. “Drake, you have to! You owe me! You’re lying… you’re gonna change Luca, aren’t you? Why him? I’m the one who does everything for you!”

I lost control of myself. I tasted blood in my mouth even before I turned around. When I did, she gasped, too shocked to scream. We were still close to the footpath, so I dragged her over to the shadow of a nearby oak. Wren only made whimpering sounds, like a small animal.

“This is what you want, right? This is what you want to be,” I snarled.

Her face was white with fear. She stammered, “Drake, no…I love you.”

“You can’t love this!” I reached behind her head and grabbed her by the hair, jerked her head back so savagely, I heard her neck snap, and she went limp. I held her up pressing her rag-doll body against the tree with my own, sank my teeth into her salty skin. Any passerby might have mistaken us for lovers. A shudder of relief and pleasure ran through me.

Breaking her neck in my haste to feed was a mistake. The flow was tapering off as her blood pressure rapidly dropped. It only took the edge off my appetite before I found myself having to suck in order to draw blood.

With the edge off my hunger, I could think more clearly.

Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. I held Wren, told her I was sorry. She may have been off kilter, but she’d been the nearest thing to a friend I’d had in decades. She was a confidante. She knew what I was, and somehow, in her own way, she cared for me.

Her head flopped back. I saw the small wound surrounded by a bruise the size of my palm, from trying to draw her blood before it stagnated in her veins. I left her seated beneath the tree, her chin touching her collarbone at a sickening angle.

I couldn’t go home yet, knowing that Luca might be there. I was still too hungry to trust myself. I headed downtown, walked the streets until I picked up a scent. Guy with dirty auburn hair and jailhouse tattoos. His dead eyes and track marks, the runny nose and twitchiness told me he was in need of a fix. I approached, asked if he’d work for trade. He said, “Depends.” I took a bag of smack from my pocket and in a long-practiced gesture that looked like nothing more than a handshake, I passed it off. The caution was for nothing. He opened it right there and dipped his little finger into it, tasted it and nodded.

A  couple minutes later I followed him into an alley that reeked of piss and sour garbage. There, beside a dumpster, he laid out his rig and shot it up. I couldn’t wait, just took him there, left the body where it sat.

I staggered to my feet and leaned against the building for a minute or so. Blood and heroin soothed me, slowed my brain, made me think like a human again, made me face what I’d done to Wren. She’d said she loved me. There was no one else who did in this world, and I had removed her from it. My act was its own punishment, and it wrapped me in a blanket of self-loathing.

All these human thoughts brought me back to Luca. It had been more than two hours since I’d told him to meet me at my place. Something light and delicate fluttered in my dead heart upon seeing him. He was leaning on a car in front of my building.His face was pinched with tension. He pushed off the car and stepped up to me. “I was gonna give you a few more minutes and then leave.”

“Sorry. My connection took his time about getting to business. Couldn’t be helped.”

His expression relaxed. “Yeah, well…that’s understandable, I guess.”

“I’m here now,” I said, and patted my pocket. “C’mon up.”

He followed me up the stairs to the third floor and I invited him in.


Like I said, it was foolishness to think I could keep him around and have some kind of human relationship with him. He created such conflict in me. On the one hand, I wanted to gaze at him and admire his beauty, as one might a beautiful painting. I also wanted to feed on him, taste him, draw life from him. And I wanted to ravish him, which was a physical impossibility. The newness of these feelings, the novelty of what I was doing, inviting a living, warm-blooded human being into my home without the intention of feeding, it was exciting. I felt thrilled as I hadn’t been in decades.

I opened the door and stepped into my apartment. “C’mon in, Luca. I don’t have a lot of visitors, so–” I turned around and he was still on the threshold. “Hey, you wanna come in? Don’t worry, I don’t bite,” I lied.

“You gonna turn on a light?”

I wasn’t used to turning on the light. In fact, a couple lamps in the place didn’t even have bulbs in them. “Sorry.” I flipped on the switch by the door. “I know my way around the furniture, so I don’t always turn them on.” I smiled, made a sweeping motion with my arm. “Won’t you please come in?”

He did, although he hesitated. As he looked around my living/dining area, I noticed for the first time how sparse it was. It was a space with a few props, lacking the details. No pictures on the walls or anywhere else. No books or magazines lying around. Dust on most of the horizontal surfaces. An abandoned stage.

I turned on another light. “I–don’t spend a lot of time here. Just sleep and change clothes, really.”

“So… you live alone?”

“Yeah.” I could see he was in bad shape, dope sick. The chit-chat could wait. “Can I fix you up, Luca? I’ll sell you a bundle if you want, but this fix is on me. For making you wait.”

Some of the tension left his face. “That’s good of you. Thanks.”

He set up at the coffee table that had never had anything on its surface but dust. He took off his jacket and pushed up a sleeve. When he tied his earbud cord around his arm, I had to look away.

“You squeamish about needles?” There was amusement in his tone.

“A little.”

“I used to be,” he said. “But you get over it pretty quickly when you get hooked.”

“Yeah, I imagine you would.” I heard him suck in air just a bit as he stuck the needle in. I tried to not think about the heroin entering his bloodstream. Tried to not think about his blood at all. Instead I thought about the fact that he was here, in my apartment, and I did not intend to kill him. I wondered if any others of my kind had ever had a human companion. I wondered if Luca would even want to keep company with me if there wasn’t the draw of pure product. I thought again of Wren, who loved me, but whose company I shunned. Sure, she was nuts, but what’s that next to being a murderous, bloodthirsty monster?

Luca made a sound halfway between a sigh and a moan. He was leaning back on the sofa, smiling at me. It took the breath from my lungs.

“Damn…that’s some wonderful stuff there.”

“Uh huh. Luca, where do you live?”

“In Jersey City with my folks until a couple months ago. My father found my gear, threw me out. Didn’t want me around my younger siblings.”

“So where you staying?”

“With whoever takes me home.” His dark eyes closed, but the smile remained. It was the closest I’d come to feeling joy since I’d lost the daylight. I stood and paced around the apartment, too restless to stay still. It suddenly seemed as though I was standing in beams of sunshine, warm and golden. I felt weightless, I felt alive.

My mind was racing. How could I keep him here without making him a prisoner? I didn’t want a hostage, I wanted Luca to want to be here with me.

Food. He would need to eat, and I had nothing on hand. I sat down on the sofa beside him. Dark-lashed eyes opened to slits and he looked at me and smiled. I wanted so much to touch him, run my fingers through his wavy hair. “Hey, I’m thinking about going out to grab some food. I’m worse off than Old Mother Hubbard here. I can pick up some stuff at the bodega. Or get some take out from the Chinese place across the street.”

“Chinese sounds good.”

“Will you be okay here? I’ll be back in maybe twenty minutes.”

“Sure. I’ll just kick back.” He grabbed my sleeve as I stood to go. “Hey, thanks, Drake. You’re real decent. I’m glad Wren hooked us up.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

I didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to risk coming back to an empty apartment. But I figured I had a better chance of keeping him around if I had some provisions. I hit the Chinese takeout and ordered what looked good. Then I picked up some sodas, cookies, milk and cereal at the bodega.

I stood before my apartment door, multiple bags hanging from my wrist, hesitating before turning the key in the lock, afraid he’d fled.

I went in. Luca wasn’t on the sofa. I closed the door quietly, took in a deep breath through my nose. I smelled the pungent, sweet odor of weed. And his scent. He was still here. “Luca?”

He came out of the bathroom, remainder of a joint in hand. “You weren’t kidding about not spending much time here. There’s dust in the tub. Water in the toilet was just about evaporated.” He closed the bathroom door and leaned on it, held out the roach to me.

“No, thanks. What were you doing?”

He laughed. “I had to take a leak. What, you want me to use the kitchen sink?”

I might have blushed if I still had the ability to do so. “I—I brought some food.” I put it on the coffee table and started unpacking the bags. He spotted the Cokes and opened one, drank half of it down. I watched. His head tipped back, throat exposed like an offering. I moved from him, retreated to the kitchen. “I think I have some bowls…”

I stood by the never-used stove trembling. I’d fed, but in this incarnation hunger and lust were bound together. Trying to separate the desire to fondle and kiss from the desire to feed and kill was like attempting to divide blood from heroin after they’ve mingled. I closed my eyes and tried to steady myself, drum up my willpower.

In the living room, Luca knelt by the coffee table and sampled from the cartons of Chinese food. He looked up at me, grinning. “Drake, man…you gotta try this Lo Mein.” He used the disposable bamboo chopsticks with skill, picked up a mess of noodles and ate. I enjoyed the sight of him devouring food, but felt no craving for it myself. I knew that it would make it only halfway down before coming up on me again. He gestured for me to sit. “Don’t you like Chinese?”

“Sure I do. I’m just not in the mood for it right now.” I sat down on the sofa.

Luca picked up a napkin and wiped his mouth. He got up from the floor, sat down close to me. Too close. “Maybe you’re more in the mood for Italian.”

I shifted over a few inches. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“You’ve been nice to me. Y’know…the dope, dinner. I’m just trying to return the favor.”

“How exactly?” Hunger began chewing at the edge of my willpower.

“It’s not like I don’t have money to buy the dope. I do. I just thought you seemed to be into me.” The palm of his left hand brushed over his right nipple in lazy circles. His dark eyes locked onto mine.

“You think that I want sex from you? Is that what you think? That the dope and dinner is all about me wanting sex?”

“No, I don’t think that.” He turned his whole body to face me. “I think maybe you want my blood.”

A shitstorm of pinpricks broke out all over me. My mouth went dry. “Tell me what you mean by that.”

“I saw what you did to Rick.”

“You…saw.” What card did he think he was playing?  Even with my superior strength, I suddenly felt vulnerable.

“Yeah, I was pretty fucked up, figured I was just tripping. But after I heard about Rick maybe having been attacked by something, I started thinking hard about it. And it seems to me that I wasn’t tripping balls after all.”

I rose from the sofa, went to the window and lifted the blinds, looked out at the street. He’d seen me tear into Rick’s throat, and yet here he was, flirting with me, coming on to me. That could only mean he was nuts, into some kinky shit. “Why are you here?” I asked, not looking at him. “I’m either an insane murderer who drinks blood and thinks he’s a vampire, or–”

“Or you’re really a vampire. I think evidence sort of points to the latter. And there’s a shitload of evidence, actually.”

“You should be terrified.” I dropped the blinds and faced him.

“I was.” He stood, picked up his drink, and came toward me. “You’ve had more than one opportunity to end my life. But I’m still here. I think perhaps you want me alive.” He stopped just in front of me, close enough that his warmth and scent made my mouth water. Close enough that I felt a very human urge to kiss him, to press my body up against his, have his warm skin take the chill from mine.

“I do. I want you alive. But it takes a lot of self-control to be around you and not permit the predator in me to surface. And frankly–” I ran my trembling fingers from his cheekbone down along the side of his neck, feeling rushing blood beneath them, “Frankly, I don’t know that I have the willpower.”

He smiled, took my hand, held it to his chest where his pulse beat against my palm. “The thing is, you can’t have me alive.”

“Why is that?”  I felt almost dizzy.

“Because I’m dying.”

I withdrew my hand. It took a moment for the words to wax meaningful. “You’re dying?”

“Leukemia. I had it as a kid, and it was in remission. But it’s back now. And I am not going back to hospitalizations, endless blood tests and chemotherapy. If I have to choose between that and death, I’ll take death. At least I don’t have to go into rehab in order to die.”

“Are you saying you want to die?”

“I’m saying I thought chemo or death were my only choices. Then you came along.” He smiled. “And I saw that there was another option.”

“And that is…?”

“I think you know.”

The hair stood at the back of my neck. “No. No, that’s something I’ll never do. I won’t be responsible for spreading this disease. You have no idea what the trade-off is.”

He looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues. Then his face flushed. “My alternative is death.  Are you telling me that you’d rather have me eaten by cancer, and then by worms and decay? I’m young. I’m not ready for the grave. I’ll die if I have to, but I don’t have to, do I?”

He was so lovely. His sable eyes and shining dark hair, his beautiful bone structure. I hated to think of him taken by death in his prime. But to banish him to the night, to a diet of human blood, to the existence of a solitary hunter…

“You don’t know what it’s like. How lonely it is.”

“It doesn’t have to be. Drake, I thought maybe you felt something for me.”

“I do. Hunger. Bloodlust.”

“Something else.”

“I don’t know.” It had been so long since I’d felt love as a living being; it was so intermingled with primal urges, I couldn’t be sure that what I felt was anything like love.

“If you’re not willing to share your gift–”

“Stop! It is not a gift! It’s not life, it’s not death. It’s the In-Between, not day or night, but shadow–”

“If you’re not willing,” he repeated, “I’ll accept my death, but I’ll do it my way. I’ll just shoot up a few bags and leave this world before the cancer takes me out of it. But if you are…if you are, I’ll consider you my family. I’ll belong to you. You won’t have to be alone anymore.”

Luca stepped close to me. I saw him wince, then smile. He raised the hand holding the Coke can. He’d pressed his thumb into the opening, along the sharp aluminum, and had cut it. He put the can on the window sill, ran his bleeding thumb over my bottom lip and slid it into my mouth. It was as though every cell in my dead body came alive, like a power-surge. I wanted Luca—his blood, his flesh, his soul.

I’m sure he sensed it. He held my face between his hands. “Are you willing? Do you want me? Will you save me?”

I couldn’t shed tears, but it seemed like my eyes were being assaulted by shards of glass.

“Yes. Yes, I’ll save you.”

He kissed me on the mouth. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d been kissed. It was wonderful, so wonderful to touch him. If I live a full millennium, I’ll never forget it. Luca tipped his head back in a gesture of total surrender, gave me access to his throat. He closed his eyes, shuddered as my tongue traced the path of his jugular. I found his wrists and held them, danced him a hundred eighty degrees to put his back against the wall, and I took him.


On the lower west side of the city, where there were once docks and warehouses—I worked here when I was still mortal and young—there is a bar now called The Borderland, although it’s had several names throughout its history. It is a members-only bar, and as far as I know, no member has ever invited a guest. I received membership over a century ago. None of us are regular patrons, but all of us come in at one time or another.

I sit up at the bar with Axel, who is much older than me. I am drinking  from a glass–harvested blood spiked with alcohol, and I recall the first time I sat on this stool and ordered the same, how amusing I found it. Now I find it sort of sad—a sad facsimile of what we had in life, when we were living, loving, marrying, fucking, procreating and dying. It’s a pathetic imitation.

Axel is Old World. He’s lived on every continent. He speaks more languages than God. He smoked filterless Camel cigarettes in life, and still smokes them.

“One of them got to you,” he says. His accent is still slightly Germanic, even after all these centuries. “You feel guilt, yes?”

I don’t feel like talking, so I nod.

“I know. I know the feeling. What’s easy is killing, seeing in the dark. Moving swiftly and almost invisibly. Everything else is hard.”

Luca knew I had to take him to the brink of death, then return his blood by feeding it back to him. This is what he wanted.

I sank my teeth into his neck, never intending to do what he wanted. I knew I couldn’t keep him with me in his human form, knew I hadn’t the willpower for such a thing. But it wasn’t for lack of self-restraint that I continued to drink until his heart ceased to beat, all the while screaming inwardly at myself, Monster! Murderer! I could have kept Luca with me, but it would not have been the Luca I loved.


The Dog That Bit You

       A theme old as dirt…

        The day had started so right. How could it have gone wrong so quickly?
        Danny’s eyes teared, only in part from the scalding mouthful of burnt coffee, black and bitter as his mood had become.
        Susan put the empty coffee pot in the sink. “You’re angry, and it’s my fault. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let things take the direction they did last night. I don’t want to hurt you.”
        He forced a weak smile. Too late. “No, I’m fine.”
        “You sure? I mean, it would be uncomfortable. With us being neighbors. You know.”
        “Yeah, sure.”
        “Okay, then.” She smiled, gave him a peck on the cheek. “Friends?”
        Danny bit down on his burned tongue. He wanted to shove Susan onto the kitchen floor and make love to her again, wanted to throw a tantrum, like a toddler who’d just been told he couldn’t have that thing he wanted in the checkout line. He felt his face reddening, realized he needed to leave now. “Uh, yeah.” He patted his pockets to locate his keys and smokes, flashed an insincere smile and went for the door. “I’ll see you ’round.” She didn’t even see him out.
        Downstairs in his apartment he popped a couple of Paxil so as not to vomit his breakfast of coffee and crushing humiliation. And he lay on his bed, still in jacket and boots, smoked a cigarette and stared hard at the ceiling. His eyes burned holes through it, into Susan’s bedroom, where last night he’d made love to her as he’d never made love in his life.
        Involuntary tears spilled from his eyes. He sat up and crushed out his smoke. He had to get out, find something to distract him, to loosen this knot in the pit of his stomach. He hauled himself to his feet and made his way to the door to leave the apartment.
        Just outside his door, a girl stood with one hand on her shoulder bag, the other poised to knock. She had chin-length blond hair sticking out from beneath a knit cap, a denim jacket, and the face of a child lost at a mall, a barely-concealed panic.
        “Whaddya want?” he snarled. He pulled the door shut behind him, and she backed up a couple feet to give him space. Smart girl. He had no desire to interact with females. Not today, maybe never.
        “Um…can you tell me if Jacob Sanders lives here?” The words came out shaky.
        Danny sucked in a long breath, let it out slow. “Yeah. He’s my roomie. He’s spending a few weeks in the Hamptons with his fiancée.” It seemed to take a moment for his words to register. “And no, I don’t have his number,” he added. He shrugged, walked past her and started down the stairs.
        “Bastard,” he heard her mutter.
        Danny felt the word like a light blow to the chest. He stopped. “Beg pardon?”
        She stepped up to the railing, looked down at him. “Oh, not you. Him. Jacob. But maybe you’re a bastard, too. Most men are, from what I’ve heard.”
        Any other day, Danny would have laughed, blown it off and gone on his way. But there was a nest of vipers twisting in his rib-cage, just waiting to spit venom. He spun on a heel and stomped back up the stairs glaring daggers. The blonde’s face went white and she retreated a few steps, looking ready to scream for help. He jabbed a finger in her direction. “Listen, you…I don’t know what the deal was between you and Jake, maybe he was a bastard, maybe you got what you had coming to you. Think you need balls to be a dick?  I’ve had high heels ground into my heart more times than I care to remember. I been baited and bludgeoned senseless by beautiful bitches who had nothing in mind for me but a paid dinner and maybe a good fucking. Next day I’m as done as last night’s condom. I’ve bitten into so much fruit that looked sweet and tasted like vinegar, I figure I must have some kinda invisible tattoo that says ‘sucker’ on my forehead that women can see a mile away. So sorry, you won’t find a whole lotta sympathy here.”
        She stared at him, clutching her bag to her chest, eyes brimming.
        Danny rolled his shoulders to let go of the tension in his neck and traps. He felt tight as a hanged man’s noose. “Look, I’m sorry. Just…not a good morning.”
        “No,” she agreed. Water spilled down her cheeks. “It’s not. I’m sorry, too.”
        He snorted. “For what?”
        “I’m sorry you’ve been hurt a lot.”
        Danny’s mind jumped back to his first heartbreak. Cecilia, seven years ago, he was fifteen. Man, that one still stung. He thought at the time that he’d never get over it, that he’d never fall hard for a girl again. But he had. Again and again.
        The girl swiped at the tears and ran the back of her hand under her nose, sniffled.              Geez, she looked pretty young. “How old are you?”
        “Eighteen. Why do you want to know?”
        He felt a sympathetic smile pull at the corners of his mouth despite the pain in his chest. “You know you got a lot more shit like this ahead of you, right?”
        “I hope not.”
        “It always hurts, but you get over it quicker as time goes on.” He said the words before even considering whether they were true. He thought maybe they were.
        “Yeah. I think so.”
        A door closed upstairs. The clack of boot heels on laminate floors, and then down the stairs. Susan. Danny could feel his pulse in his ears. Susan glanced at him, then at the girl and stopped in her tracks for just a second. Danny noted the quick, forced smile, the piercing look she gave this girl. She cleared her throat as she passed between them. “Good morning,” she said, and went down the stairs. Her eyes rose for one more furtive glance.
        Danny took a deep breath and let it out. He assessed his mental state. He felt a little shaky, but not too bad.
        The girl watched Susan for a moment, then turned to Danny. Her eyes fired a question at him. He ignored it.
        “What’s your name?” he asked.
        “Christine. Tina.”
        “Tina. Whatcha gonna do now?”
        “I don’t really know…I’d planned to…” She looked like she might start crying again.
        “I mean, Jacob’s history, right? You’re not gonna waste your time trying to hunt him down, right? Because it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. You got taken in.” Tina threw an angry glance at him. Danny shrugged. “Right? I mean, you’re not alone. I know something about that.”
        Hint of a smile. Tina looked at him from beneath long lashes. “That one? The one who just passed?”
        Danny rubbed his nose, thought a moment about how much he should admit to. What the hell. She’s nobody to me. “Among others. Like I said, I don’t seem to catch on really quick. I’m not a moron, but I’m a little–I dunno, a little–”
        “That mean thick-headed?”
        “Uh-huh.” She smiled.
        It was a nice smile. Danny noticed she had a few freckles on her nose. And she was smart, too. “Yeah, I’m a little obtuse.”
        “And I’m an ingenue.”
        Danny smiled back, decided not to ask what that was. “I was just about to go grab some breakfast. My fridge is empty. Could I…you wanna…” Blue eyes locked onto his, waited for him to finish. “You hungry? You wanna go grab a breakfast or cup of coffee somewhere?”


        Danny turned his head on the pillow to look at Tina, napping beside him. He carefully pushed back the bed cover and sat up, put his feet on the floor, reached for his cigarettes on the nightstand. Damn, that had moved quick. Probably because she was feeling shitty and insecure, having just found out about Jacob. Danny himself was feeling a lot better than he had this morning. The saying, “the hair of the dog that bit you,” came to mind.
        He hadn’t had to do much. Buy her breakfast. Listen to her talk. Nod and smile while he wondered whether she wore bikinis or a thong, what her tits looked like. What had gone on between her and Jake. He didn’t ask.
        He lit a cigarette and smiled. Turned out they were pretty nice tits. But not exactly worth the trouble of putting up with her. She was sort of annoying. Talked too much about too many things he had no interest in. Her family. Her art studies. Her ex-boyfriends.
        Danny glanced back over his shoulder at her, then at his watch. Half past five. He thought about heading downtown, grabbing some pizza and then hitting a club or two. It was Saturday evening, after all. But this chick in his bed…damn. How did Susan do it? Oh yeah: “I have a very full agenda today, so if you wouldn’t mind getting your things together…I need to get out of here in a little while.”
        He he’d managed to keep it together in front of Susan, but he bet Tina wouldn’t. He thought about leaving a note and telling her to lock the door behind her when she left, but then worried that she might trash the place. She seemed immature enough for that.
        He sighed. Then he twisted around and grabbed her shoulder, shook it a little. “Yo, Tina…I need to get out of here in a bit. Think you could get dressed now?”
        She looked at him, sleepy, confused.
        Shit. He’d have to lie to get her to leave without a scene. “I’m supposed to hook up with some friends this evening. I…we’re helping one of our buddies move.” Okay, that didn’t sound too bad for being off the cuff.
        She smiled, twirled a lock of hair between her fingers. “I could hang out here…wait for you. Be here when you get back. I could pick up some things…cook dinner. You know, to pay you back for breakfast this morning.”
        Danny felt a panicky rush. No. No, he couldn’t let her into his life just to save her feelings. Jacob was a player, had this shit down. So did Susan. He could do this.
        He shook his head. “No, you can’t.” Look her in the eye, man. You got this. “Look, Tina, today was real nice, and I had a great time, but that’s what it was. We both kinda needed to be with somebody, and found each other for a day, y’know? I shouldn’ta let things go as far as they did. Sorry about that.”
        The tears he expected, but her face reddened. With anger. “You bastard,” she said, and bit her lip, tossed the covers back, got out of bed. “So that’s how it is.” She plucked a pair of pink bikini panties from the floor and pulled them on. “Just one more bastard in a long line of bastards. This is what I’m supposed to get used to? I don’t think so.”
        “I’m sorry,” Danny said. He was. Not for trying to brush her off, not for trying to lie to her. Sorry he couldn’t get her out of his apartment without a scene.
        She yanked her jeans up and finger-combed her hair back from her face. “So Susan fucks you over, and you get back at her by fucking me over? Oh, you’re a real prize, just like Jacob.”
        Danny stood frozen, the ash on his cigarette growing long. He almost didn’t recognize her as the same girl who stood in front of his door this morning, pale and teary-eyed. Her face was livid, her jaw set like a steel trap as she glared at him. Any features he’d found attractive in her had fled. She snatched her bag from the floor, rummaged through it and pulled out a handkerchief.
        Who the hell still uses handkerchiefs?
        It was wrapped around a .22. She pointed it at him. “I was hoping to meet Jacob here this morning, but I don’t think he’ll mind if you take a message.”

The Filling of Empty Spaces

Sean stood in the scalding spray, wishing the hot water could wash away the crap inside of him as well as the reek of sweat and sex. No, he thought. For that I’ll need vodka. Maybe check the medicine cabinet, see if she’s got anything good. The buzz he’d had going when she’d picked him up at the club was ancient history.

He turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. A thick, pink, Turkish towel had been left on the vanity for him. He tossed it over his head to dry his hair, toweled off his body and let it fall to the floor. He leaned into the mirror, finger-combed his dark hair.

There was a tentative knock at the door and it opened. Sean’s skin tightened at the air-conditioned draft, his junk retreating like a turtle into its shell. The old lady, in a silky, flowered dressing gown, held his clothes in a tidy pile. Raccoon smudges of mascara encircled her dewy eyes. She smiled a shy-schoolgirl kind of smile in spite of the fact that she was twice his age and then some. “Your things,” she said, holding out the pile.

“Thanks.” He took it and dropped it on the vanity, grabbed his boxers off the top and climbed into them without looking at her.

She made no move to leave, and it wasn’t his place to ask her to, but he wished she would.

“You really are a very handsome young man.”

Please…please go away. “Thanks.”

“Would you like something to eat? Are you hungry?”

He pulled up his jeans, shook his head. He tried to smile, but couldn’t make it work. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”

“Oh dear, I’m a mess,” she said. Sean looked up. She was gazing at herself in the bathroom mirror. She reached for a tissue, wet it on the tip of her tongue and wiped beneath her eyes. She saw Sean looking at her and it seemed she might tear up again. She fought it with another forced smile. “I was very pretty once. Not beautiful, but nice enough to catch a wealthy husband. A good husband.”

Sean pulled on his t-shirt and tried to even his breathing. “Um…I gotta go.” He sat on the closed toilet and stuck his feet into the deck shoes, then stood.

“Of course. Let me call a cab for you.”

She sat on the barely rumpled bed and picked up the phone. As she gave the dispatcher her address, phone tucked between ear and shoulder, she replaced her wedding band on her ring finger. When she’d taken it off, before she’d even undressed, Sean had thought it hysterically funny. Husband’s been worm food for five fuckin’ years…Now it made his chest hurt to think about it.

She pulled open the nightstand drawer, took out an envelope. From it, she counted out five hundred-dollar bills. She replaced the envelope, stood and held out the money to him. “Here you are, Sean. Thank you.”

Despite the air-conditioner blowing hard enough to move the heavy drapes, Sean was sweating. “Um, you know, two would be fine.”

“No, you said five hundred, and I agreed. Take it. I’m sure you could use it.”

Sure. More booze. More dope. “I dunno, I–”

She took his hand, pressed the folded bills into his palm. “Hush.”

Minutes later, a cab pulled into the driveway beside her parked Jaguar. She walked Sean to the door. “Forgive me for not seeing you out.” She smoothed her penny-red salon job. “I don’t look fit to go outside.”

He thought it would have been a nice gesture if he bent to kiss her forehead, told her she looked just fine, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.


“Five hundred dollars!” Raul exclaimed. “Five. Hundred. Fucking. Dollars. Drinks are on my man Sean tonight!”

Gregory laughed. “What did she want you to do for it? She was old, right? You have to eat her? Was she all shriveled up?”

Sean felt his blood rise. “Fuck you both. She was just lonely.” The laughter died to a few chuckles. Straight sex. That’s all he’d done. Missionary position. And she’d wanted him to hold her. She cried quietly the whole time, and he thought maybe he was hurting her, but she said no. She clung to him long afterward.

Fuck the money. It wasn’t worth it. He’d rather have two dozen casual meet-ups for a Jackson apiece than have to do this again. “Tell you what,” Sean said. “I ain’t doing it again.”

Jacob, stretched out on the sofa with a spliff, craned his neck to look at Sean and smiled. “Ah…so you do have a soul, Sean. Afraid you might find your humanity and lose your living, huh?”

Sean’s face warmed. “I didn’t get into this to be somebody’s therapist. I just want to make a buck, y’know?

He could still feel her hands holding onto his arms, still hear her sobbing quietly into his shoulder. It was what made him resolve to never love anyone, to never grow old.

What It Takes

I slouched in the passenger seat of Ricky’s shitty-looking Chevy Cavalier and cracked my knuckles. We were parked across the street from the place I had to go. I knew the building, knew the whole ‘hood pretty well, growing up on the edge of the projects like I did, like Ricky did, like all our crew did. The good feeling from the blunt me and Ricky shared earlier was fading fast, replaced by a nest of writhing snakes in my gut.

A gray-haired old woman in a blue and green flowered mu-mu crossed in front of the car without raising her eyes. She pulled one of them fold-up grocery carts behind her. I thought, if Ricky smacks the horn right now, she’ll probably have a heart attack. She wasn’t fat, but had ankles like tree trunks above her white sneakers. She tugged the cart up over the curb and limped along the cracked walk to the building.

“Hey, you goin’, hijo?” Ricky asked. He flicked his cigarette out the window. The sun had just dropped down below the buildings and the long shadows had disappeared like ghosts in daylight.

“Yeah, gimme a minute.” I wiped my clammy palms on my shorts, took a deep breath. It came back out in a long, stuttering sigh.

“You want a popper? I got a couple amyls in my pocket. Do one, then knock on the door. Give you some cojones, bro.”

I sat up, glared at him. “What, you saying I don’t got the nerve? Fuck you and your amyls. I don’t need no damn drugs to bust a cap in some asshole’s head.” I reached under the seat and grabbed the Glock, then leaned back and shoved it into the waistband of my shorts, pulled my shirt down over it. The salt in my sweat made the day-old tattoo on my chest sting.

Ricky smiled all cool. “That’s m’man.” He put out a fist. I bumped mine on it and slid out of the car. “Party with the homeboys tonight, you do this thing, Leo.”

The building was eight stories of brown brick, surrounded by a black iron gate. There was a couple short lampposts by the front stoop, but only one threw out a weak, yellow light. Some kids were playing on the steps, a little girl jumped rope on the walk.

I went round the front of the car and started across the street, wiped my hands on my ribs. Shit, they were slick with sweat again.

“Yo, perrito,” Ricky called.

“Yeah, what?”

He motioned me to him, so I came back to the car.

“You know the dude, right? Apartment 4D.”

“Yeah, Bones pointed him out to me.” I started back toward the building.



“Make sure you take it off safety first, perrito.” He grinned.

“Man, fuck you…”

Like at fourteen I’m still a “puppy.” My older brother Diego was a daddy at fourteen. His babymama Adriana was two years older. I don’t think pulling a trigger is any harder than making babies. Both take cajones, but you don’t gotta be grown-up to do either one.

I looked up at the row of windows on the fourth floor and crossed the street. Music came from one of them on an upper floor, but the hum and rattle of the dripping air conditioners in most of the others nearly drowned it out.

The little girl jumping rope stopped and smiled up at me, front teeth missing. The girls on the steps only threw glances at me as I went into the building.

I decided to take the stairs up. It would give me time to think, which maybe wasn’t such a good thing. I could feel my whole body vibrating. It wasn’t I was shaking, but more like everything in me was buzzing like a power line.

I pulled the gun from my waist and flicked off the safety. Then I stuck it in the back of my shorts and climbed the stairs. When I got up to the fourth floor, I peeked through the strip of wired glass in the metal emergency door. I couldn’t see shit. I wiped my face with the hem of my shirt and pushed the door open, looked down the hallway before stepping into it. It stank of cat piss.

The hall went off to my left. I followed it past the elevators. The grime was so thick on the cracked linoleum floor, I couldn’t tell what color it was supposed to be. Most of the walls had graffiti on them, some in spray paint, a lot in pencil and Sharpie. I could hear music, and people talking. A TV blared some game show from behind one of the doors I passed.

I came to 4D. The door was painted a gross pale yellow, a rotten-egg-yellow, and looked like some little kid had smeared shit all over the bottom half. I looked up and down the hall. Nobody. I tried to pray a Padre Nuestro real quick, but couldn’t remember the words after the first few lines. I tried again. I knew the damn prayer but the words wouldn’t come to me. God probably didn’t want to hear my prayer right before shooting the brains out of some dude I don’t even know.

Get it done and they gonna throw me a party. Get drunk, get laid. And Diego, he’ll know that I’ma be okay, I can take care of Mama and Adriana and little Roberto. I know he’s been worried. A few months ago when me and Mama went to visit him, he said, “Leo, you gotta be the man while I’m locked up. You gotta look after them. You’re young, but not too young to be a man.”

I took out the gun but kept my hand behind my back. Sweat was stinging my eyes, scorching the spot on my chest. I knocked on the door. A little dog started to yip behind it. I heard steps coming up to it and prayed again, this time that I wouldn’t piss myself.

The door opened. It was the old woman with the tree-trunk ankles, varicose veins wrapped around them like vines. She had on glasses with thick lenses, one of them scratched up. The little dog, same frizzy gray as her hair, looked up with black bead eyes and growled, about as scary as a teddy bear. The smell of bacon, and of arroz y frijoles wafted out into the hall like perfume, covering the stink.

“Si?” Behind her, sitting at a table, eating and watching a TV was Tomaso, the dude I was to take out. He didn’t seem to notice that someone was at the door, kept eating and watching TV. He looked a little bit like my brother Diego, but older, maybe three, four years. Old lady musta been his abuela.

When Ricky first told me what it would take to come into the gang, I was ready. I knew from Diego how it would go down. I got through being jumped in, no problem. I felt I’d been dragged over a demolition site after, took weeks for some of the bruises to go away. But it felt good, too, on the inside, knowing I took it like a man. This here was my final test. I could pop the old lady and get Tomaso, too. Or I could just knock her out of the way and get up close to Tomaso before he could even get up from the table. I was ready. But Tomaso was eating, watching TV. He wasn’t coming at me, was holding a fork, not a gun. If I shouted his name, he might come at me. Then I’d have reason to pop him.

Something didn’t seem right. The fear left me, but so did my reason for being here. It didn’t make sense no more. I was confused.

The old woman brushed away a fly that landed on her face. Then she looked back to me. She smiled. “Que pasa, mijo? You look for somebody?”

I swallowed. “Yeah. I’m looking for…Freddy.”

“Lo siento. No Freddy. No Freddy live here.”

I nodded and she closed the door. I flipped the safety back on the Glock, slipped it back into my waistband and took the elevator down. I didn’t think my Jell-O knees could handle the stairs. But the nest of serpents was gone.

I came out of the building into the growing darkness. Ricky had moved to this side of the street and had the engine running. His eyes were wide, questioning me. I shrugged and got into the car.

“Well, Leo?”

I put the gun back under the seat. “He wasn’t there. Just an old lady and her dog.”

I felt more like a man than I ever had.