stolen fruit [fic]

An Unhitched-inspired side-fic …

This fic concept was inspired by a few of my fellow Fannibals asking quite mightily for the little number below to make an appearance as a hitchhiker in my 1970s Hannibal trucker AU, Unhitched.

I couldn’t put him in Unhitched canon, so I did a couple spin-offs with him as a little side piece for Hopper (the narrator of this story and Will Graham’s character). This Dancy on Dancy action has been unofficially coined Gramcest, though technically Hopper’s last name is still unknown and this kid is not a Will Graham iteration. He is something entirely different.

The basic gist of the below fic was originally posted on AO3 entitled my blue karass in April 2017. [View the original.] I have since removed it from the site in April 2018 for personal reasons, but due to the grumbling of a few friends, I have decided to repost it here, where I feel I have more control over it. It is not nearly as polished as Unhitched, nor is in the Unhitched timeline. It’s for fun, so keep that in mind before publicly sharing your disappointment with the quality of the story or writing. I understand how Hopper’s behavior could be construed as out-of-character, but seeing as how Hopper is less Will Graham and more my own OC at this point, I give it a pass for entertainment purposes.

I did end up editing this fic a lot from its previous version on AO3. That editing put this fic in line with a few future projects, mainly a continuation of my American Gods/Hannibal Extended Universe AU (or whatever you want to call it) where I put Mads and Hugh in the American Gods universe as OCs, good old St. Nick (inspired by Flying Rotten’s Santa Mads) and Bill, a sniveling Big Pharmaceutical God. If you want to read that Gaiman-inspired holiday fic, it’s called ‘Tis the Season and is, surprisingly, still posted on AO3.

What’s all that have to do with stolen fruit? Well, nothing if you don’t care about American Gods. If you do, I summed up the idea at the bottom of the fic.

All that said, meet my original Hugh Dancy character, the sweet-hearted numen of mead and merriment, Blue!

UPDATE: A wonderful, amazing, incredible person commissioned a couple of chibis to be made of Blue boy. 😍 Aren’t they incredible!

Rated: E

Tags: everyone’s drinking, penetrative sex, oral sex, technically a 4000 year age gap

word count: 13491 (original fic: 7394)

Nothing I’ve ever said to him has had any bearing on the man’s actions – not my questioning of his ethical code, not my insistence that we take a few months off to recuperate, not even my benign suggestion that he take a shit when I had – at the last station – when it was convenient.

To the great and powerful Butcher of Men, my words are but the foamy spittle that drips endlessly from Garm’s jowls. I’m just another beast shuffling behind him catching scraps, not a sentient human being with somewhat swell ideas when it comes to toilet habits.

The Butcher of Men is an insufferable toddler.

After he started complaining about the pressure building in his ass, I pointed out his ability to shit out of the truck window. I was even willing to hold the wheel if he asked nicely. We could’ve pulled over, of course, as he often does for me when my stomach can’t take the grisly aftermath of an encounter. Had we pulled over, I’m sure Garm could have directed him to a great spot to defecate after a thorough forty-five-minute search through the snow.

He refused my suggestions like he always does, and we pulled off the interstate to park at some hole-in-the-wall literal strip mall.

He didn’t just have to shit. I should have known. This was about the other unmentionables he was hauling – the ones rotting in the log pile behind us.

I’m not normally amenable to just tossing body parts in dumpsters – I think it’s disrespectful and crude, not to mention illegal – but Butcher was insistent that the smell in the back was both overwhelming and conspicuous. It smells like nothing to me, the damn thing’s half frozen, but I placated him and agreed to let him toss the remains in the trash rather than giving them a proper burial as I have insisted we do in the past. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I like to think my bones will rest well underground one day and feel the urge to do the same for my fallen comrades, despite what fell them.

The days are getting shorter as winter takes hold of Wyoming. Trees are brown, barren claws reaching from the frozen earth, and the world is filled with a dull greyness covered in icy snowbanks. It’s nearing sunset, and I’m getting hungry, but this “rest” stop only houses a small motel and what appears to be an adult novelty shop with a strip joint selling Tall Boys tacked on the back. I know Butch is going to want to scope out dinner in there, but I refuse to eat whatever diseased meat’s hanging out in a shit hole like that.

I’m leaning on the truck, snacking on a wad of half-melted then refrozen chocolate raisins I found in the back and waiting for Butch to finish taking a dump and tossing whatever needs to be tossed behind the building when a Chevelle slows at the far end of the lot. A young man gets out of the passenger side and flops down his seat, hauling some girl out of the back and throwing her onto the slush-covered asphalt. The man rips a backpack out of the backseat and chucks it at her before getting back in the car – a pretty disrespectful roughhousing if I ever saw one.

Then the Chevelle hauls ass just leaving her there, surrounded by the shit that burst from the bag when it slapped her face.

She stands and takes a few tentative steps toward the car’s exhaust plume but gives up. I can’t imagine she’d want to follow them after that manhandling, and she evidently agrees with me, scooping up her bag and belongings, then starting to hoof it toward the building next to me.

She’s young, skinny and shapeless, and wearing clothes not fit for the sub-freezing temperatures of a Wyoming winter: just a jean jacket over a bright green tee-shirt with The Mangy Moose Saloon scrawled across it. Her jeans are ripped to hell at the knees, and now bloody, probably from the tumble she just took across the pavement, and she has a messy mop of brown hair almost to her shoulders.

It’s when I see her face that I realize it’s not a girl at all. The kid’s a boy, and he’s got the face of a twelve-year-old with clear blue eyes like a husky. He throws his brown backpack over his shoulder and I suddenly realize he’s headed right toward me, waving like he knows me.

Jesus fucking Christ; I don’t know this kid from Adam and I plan to keep it that way.

Butcher’s, of course, a wisp on the frozen wind again, but we have to get the hell out of here before I’m expected to socialize with this giant child.

“Hey, man!” His breath fogs the air behind him as he jogs over.

There is literally no one around so I can’t ignore him. “Yeah?”

“This your truck?”

“Nope.” I didn’t lie. It’s not my truck.

He frowns as he comes to a stop next to the trailer. “You know who’s truck it is then?”

“I might. Who’s asking?”

His face lights up, and he stretches out his chapped hand. “My friends call me Blue!”

Go figure.

I briefly shake his hand before his frigid fingers get tucked back in his jacket pockets.

“Welcome to Wyoming, Blue.” I don’t plan on ever seeing this boy again, so he can carry on his merry way without my name.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

Jesus Christ.

I quickly light a smoke to keep warm and take a peek behind the building. No luck.

“You can call me Hopper,” I finally say, turning back to the kid.

“Hopper?! What kind of name is that?!” he laughs.

“What the hell kind of name is Blue?”

“My eyes are blue!”

I noticed.

“It’s short for Hopper-dropper,” I say, “It’s a type of lure–”

“I know,” he says, all matter-of-factly. “It’s a fly fishing rig.”

“How’d you know–?”

“I know my way around nymphs, Hopper-Drop. Nice way to land trout.”

I am suddenly finding myself a tad more interested than before, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve got bigger fish to fry and that fish probably just finished wiping his ass and is about to round that corner as we speak.

He peers behind the building for something and says, “You have any food you can part with? Maybe know of a place to grab some grub around here? Looks like I landed in no man’s land.”

“No grub to spare unless you’re from Punxsutawney,” I say around my smoke, and I point to the trailer full of logs.

“Phil’s not a beaver,” he snaps, “he’s an oversized rat who doesn’t know his ass from the hole they yank him from every year.” He’s suddenly getting way overheated for someone having a conversation about a groundhog a thousand miles away. “It’s been four years, you know that? Four years since that weasel predicted an early spring. And look!” He gestures at the dead trees and slushy, trash-filled parking lot. “A frozen mess. But next year’s it. February 2nd, 1975 his reign is over, and we’ll all finally stop having to suffering with this goddamn snow ‘til the Ides.”

I have to laugh at his tirade because he’s serious as hell, and he huffs as he shoves his cold hands under his arms.

As much as I might actually like to keep talking to this kid – maybe get his take on the tooth fairy – I know I have to ditch him so I point across the street. “That motel probably has heat, maybe a vending machine, that titty bar probably has a phone. I suggest you use it to call a couple of friends who won’t ditch you in the middle of nowhere to freeze your ass off.”

“Those guys weren’t my friends,” he says. “Just a couple of chumps pretending to be literate in the ways of cross country travel. They didn’t know shit, like most people around here.”

I smile at his sudden bitterness again, but all that couldn’t be more inconsequential. “Still. There’s a motel, maybe sleep off that cynicism … and there’s a bar, get a drink to warm up. And a payphone.” I hand him a dime. “Watch your back and stay out of trouble.” I turn away and open the truck door, hoping to slip inside the cab while little boy Blue wanders away, but as soon as the latch opens, Garm bursts out of the truck and knocks the kid to the ground.

“Garm!” I yell. “No! Leave him! Tssk! Tssssk!” She never listens to me …

I thought she was attacking him at first until I hear his laughter. She’s licking his face, and he’s giggling like a schoolgirl.

“Sweet dog!” he chuckles, scratching her neck. “I love puppies! Her name’s Garm?”

“Yeah. And she needs to get her ass back in the truck!” I try to get her to listen, but she ignores me so she can bathe this jackass with her tongue. “Garm, no! In the truck!”

She growls and now I’m getting pissed. I can feel my face turning red over the obstinance of that damn dog when Blue pushes her away and stands up. He brushes off his wet knees and clears his throat, obviously sensing my anger building – good for him. He better watch himself; I’m in no mood for his, Garm’s, or Butcher’s steaming pile of shit.

“So, this isn’t your truck?” he wonders, but I’m not repeating myself. “It’s getting dark and those guys were supposed to drop me in Billings.”

“There’s a payphone right over there, boy. Call someone who cares.”

He’s not giving up.

“Are you heading that way, though? Toward Billings? I don’t have any money … except a dime,” he says with a smile, “but once we get there, I can get you cash for gas. I have weed, too, if you want that … or, I gotta bottle of wine …”

Wine? What kind of kid carries wine?

“Payphone,” I snap and smack Garm’s haunch. She finally hops back in the truck.

If that asshole behind the motel’s hunting or picking berries or some such shit, heads are going to roll.

“Come on, man, please, you seem cool,” he begs. “I’ll get down on my knees if I have to. Just give me a lift – a couple miles. It’s freezing out here.” The kid stares at the porn shop over his shoulder. “I just can’t do that right now … and you seem like a way nicer person than what I’m going to find in there.”

That’s a fairly odd statement coming from a young man. He’d rather beg a stranger like me for a ride than set foot in a strip joint and call a friend. I think I can relate to both that fear and disgust.

Now, I’m not a nice person like he thinks, and I know nothing about this kid except he’s cold, down on his luck, and vulnerable out here in the wild, none of which is my problem, but there’s something about him – something oddly compelling about his face and his boyishly confident demeanor … and if he actually has a bottle of wine on him, I might have a bargaining chip to use with a certain someone …

This is stupid, and I know I’m going to catch hell for it, but I nod to the cab, and Blue grins like an idiot as he clambers inside.

He knows his place and scrambles over the console between the front seats to sit with Garm on the bed, still shining with glee at his luck at finding such a nice cab to ride in. I thought that at one time, too.

I hop in behind him and as I get settled, I hear his teeth chattering in the back. A quick crank of the engine and the heat blasts as I glance back to find him shivering with the wool blanket draped over his head like the Sweet Mother of Mercy herself.

As we wait, I pull out my nearly ruined snack from earlier. His eyes stare pitifully at the box and he gives me an embarrassed grin, so I resign myself to another hungry night and hand the blessed virgin my raisins.

The box is immediately emptied into his mouth, chewed and gulped like a desperate animal, then he grows still, flushed, and gingerly examines the crumpled box.

“Hungry?” I ask.

“Been a few days,” he says meekly, turning the box in his hands. “The guys said we were getting hamburgers soon … we never did.” He’s avoiding my eyes, studying the lines on the box like his life depends on it. “Seedless,” he reads, “poor grapes.”

Poor grapes.

Then the driver door swings wide and Butch climbs up.

“What the hell took so long?” I ask.

“The dumpster was full so I figured I’d do it the old-fashioned way, but the goddamn ground’s frozen. Had to make a cairn,” he snickers, slamming his door and huffing into his hands. “The bastard won’t be pissing on my tires anytime soon … I even gave him a special headstone – a big old pile of shit so he remembers to defecate in the woods like the animal he is. Thought you’d like that.”

I scoff and wait patiently for him to notice anything odd.

His gaze snaps to the back and he’s suddenly boring holes into the kid.

Blue’s eyes are now wide and his grin gone.

“Who’s your friend, Hopper?”

“He calls himself Blue, Butcher.”

Butcher’s eyes narrow as he scours the kid’s body. Up and down. Up and down.

No, I didn’t find our dinner, you asshole. “Billings,” I say. “He doesn’t have a lot of friends. Thought you’d appreciate that.”

His jaw clenches but his eyes keep flicking between me and Blue like he’s reading the same story written across both our faces. He slowly turns back to the wheel, his dismissive tongue clicking away, and cranks the engine.

“Welcome aboard, Blue,” he says, sneering at this apparently interesting new development. “It’s getting a little cramped in here; hope you don’t mind riding with a dog and a couple of old-timers.”

I’m not old …

“I don’t mind!” says Blue, all chipper. “And there’s plenty of room! You got a whole bed back here!” He cozies up under the blanket again, wrapping it around both him and Garm.

“That we certainly do,” says Butcher, and he pulls back out on the icy road.

Suddenly Blue’s serious, his voice dropping an octave and solemn-like. “I appreciate the ride, Mr. Butch, uh, Butcher … I don’t know which way your headed, but I can get you gas money if you drop me in Billings, Montana. More than gas money, actually – for your trouble.”

Butcher looks over at me, and I can’t stop the smile creeping across my face. The kid’s got manners. Whatcha gonna to do now, big man?

Butch peeks at Blue in the rearview. “You keep your nose clean, son?”

“Yes, sir,” he says with a shit-eating grin. “No trouble at all.”

“You ever kill a man, Blue?”

“Just last Saturday,” he says. “I normally take the weekends off, ‘cause of the sacrament and all, but the man was asking for it bogarting my blunt like that; it’s unconscionable not to mention rude.”

He’s joking, but Butcher’s not laughing.

“You hunt?” he asks the kid.

“Yes, sir, with my uncle every fall … except for the last few years …”

“You fish?” I wonder.

“I’m from Montana,” he snickers. “Ice fishing’s all I do in the winter back home. I bet I’m a better fisherman than you.”

Damn. This is a sassy kid. I can’t help but wonder what’s reeling through Butcher’s head at the moment.

“You dress your own kills?” he asks the kid.

Blue laughs and nods. “Yep. Been doing that since I was eight. I grew up on a cattle farm. I know my way around a Buck knife.”

Well, well, well. “I’m glad we could give you a lift, Blue,” I say. “You sound like a good kid.”

“Thanks.” He laughs and despite the gray gloom outside, his grin brightens his whole face and the cab right along with it. “I’m not a kid though,” he continues, “I’m actually eighteen – birthday was last weekend.”

Good God, he doesn’t even look like he’s hit puberty yet.

Butcher snickers at my obvious shock and reaches under his seat, pulling out a bottle of Four Roses. He hands it back to Blue and says, “Happy Birthday then.”

I recognize that bottle of rotgut immediately. “Is that from my father’s cabinet?! The one by his old chair?!”

“Neither that greasy chair nor your old man had any plan to finish it, Hop, and with how banged up you like to get, we needed a fresh antiseptic.”

He and I are going to have some words about this goddamn thieving of his.

You can hear Blue’s hesitation at receiving such an unwarranted gift when he mumbles a thank you, sir and takes the bottle.

“When we stop, we’ll drink to you,” says Butcher, his red eyes flashing in the mirrors again, “until then, let’s just stay quiet as a church mouse. Dangerous to distract a driver with inane twaddle.”

At Butcher’s bizarrely threatening insistence, we drive in silence for about an hour before Blue finally warms up and lies down in the sleeper with Garm curled up beside him. The blankets are a twisted mess – a nest of scrawny arms and wool, and his torn up knees are bent and leaning against the back wall. As the truck rocks, his chest slowly rises and falls, slow and steady and peaceful.

“He’s out,” I say, and Butch nods to the bag on the bed. I carefully tug it away from Blue’s shoes and rifle through it while Butcher fingers the pockets of the kid’s jacket.

“He’s a damn hippie,” I say, digging through the backpack, “Old clothes, bag of weed, a mug, a flute?” I hold up a labelless wine bottle which looks untouched but has a cork sticking half out of the neck. “Looks like a cheap red.” He wasn’t joking about that.

Butcher yanks the bottle out of my hand before I go back to my rooting. At the bottom is a softly crumpled paper bag of candy. “Atomic Fireballs … You got anything?”

“Receipts and a ticket to a film festival in Montreal.” He tosses me the bottle and drops the jacket with a huff, returning his attention to the road.

Something has gone unnoticed in the front pocket of the jacket – something about the size of a paperback, so I put the wine away and lift the pocket flap, pulling out a tattered book.

“Cat’s Cradle?”

The kid reads Vonnegut.

“Apparently,” he says.

Yet another very interesting development. I wonder why Butcher intended to not mention it.

I tuck the book back in the jacket. “Kid’s a little shit but clean, Butch. No dice.”

“I know that, dumbass. Your Blueboy will live to pester someone else tomorrow,” he says, and I find that hard to believe.

“Not hungry? Conscience getting the best of you?”

“You know as well as I do why he’s untouchable. You’re not so foolish to think I wouldn’t notice.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. “You’ll have to share your concerns with the class, Butcher. As always, us dumbasses can’t follow the logic of you arcademic types.”

“He’s your spitting image,” he finally says. “And he’s hiding something.”

What the hell’s he smoking? “No he isn’t.” I peek back at Blue’s face. “He has brown hair, that’s it. And what would he be hiding? A fake ID? The answers to a geometry test?”

“He smells like you.” Then he eyes me suspiciously. “You sure you’ve never been to Montana?”

He knows I’ve never been to Montana. “I wanted to go fish the Bitterroot but you wouldn’t take me! And he smells like cheap cinnamon and pot. Is that what I smell like to you?”

“He has your damn face, Hopper.”

“Bullshit.” I lean back and look at him again. We have a few similarities, I guess. His hair is kind of curly like mine, and he has the makings of stubble on his baby cheeks, but nothing like my mustache. He still looks twelve to me.

“He has your blues,” says Butch, and he tries to light a smoke to calm down, but drops his Zippo between his knees.

“Blue eyes aren’t uncommon,” I say, handing him my lit butt.

He lights his smoke and shakes his head, then goes back to staring at the wet road cutting through the woods, completely rattled now.

“Should we have left him at the grave? What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“I said he looks like you, smells like you. Sounds like you. Can’t trust him.”

“You can’t trust him, but you can trust me, right? I said he could ride along. That should be enough to set your mind at ease Butch; I’m not a greenhorn here.”

“You lack refined sensitivity,” he says. “You tromp and squeal like a baby elephant on fire.”

That’s not very nice.

“I dance,” he continues. “I know where to place my feet so I don’t tread through piles of shit like you.”

“’You don’t know shit from Shinola,” I scoff. “What’s any of this have to do with Blue?”

“That boy is a liability. You let him in the cab without a plan. And that was a mistake, Hopper. Remember those? You get three, I told you that. This is strike two.”

“You think all your dancing – twirling and whirling like a fancy boy – keeps your eyes on everyone in the room. But you want to know the truth? All that spinning does is scramble you goddamn brains.”

“He’s hiding something.”

“So are we!” I snap. “And at present, that child is sleeping like a baby while you’re belly aching and shaking like a leaf.”

He scratches his neck and ashes out the window. “I’m fine.”

He sure as shit isn’t fine. I can’t believe he’s bothered by this kid sort of looking like me.

We’ve lost the light, but even so, as he drives, he continues glancing over his shoulder when he thinks I’m not watching. He keeps straining to see the kid’s bent knees, then his eyes skim my lap like he’s seeing double and about to witness us merge into a single blurry beast.

“Maybe we should call it a night,” I say. “I think you need some sleep. You’re losing it, old man.”

We’ve been on the road for hours and it’s clearly showing as he rubs the dark bags under his eyes and finishes his smoke, flicking the butt out the crack in the window. “I’ll pull off before we get on 90.”

Forty-five more minutes of watching Butcher nervously sniff his nose and chain smoking has me anxious but also sort of sadistically entertained. I’ve never seen him so bizarrely riled up, and I’m starting to fear for Blue a little bit. I’ve watched what Butch is capable of, and he will not show mercy once he starts scratching those itches that keep his belly full. If that kid is the reason he’s sweating so much, he’s going to feel compelled to stop that agitation at all costs.

We finally pull over and as Butch kills the engine, Garm whines, begging to be let out. I open my door and she hops down, running off to maul a couple rabbits in the woods next to the truck. Despite trying to close the door softly, Blue stirs at the click and sits up, scratching his sweaty head.

He asks through a yawn, “We get to the highway yet?”

I flick on the dome light to find Butcher incapable of even talking now. He’s just sucking down cigs and staring into the clear, cold, twinkling twilight hovering over us.

“Highway’s just up there,” I say, “We’re stopping for the night though.”

He nods and lifts the whiskey, shaking it between the seats with a half-cocked grin. “You still want a drink? I said I had wine if you’d rather–” He’s looking for his bag when he realizes it’s at my feet. “I guess you found it.”

“No hard feelings. Just making sure you’re as good of a boy as you claim to be.” That invasion of privacy doesn’t seem to faze him, so I toss his gear over the seat.

He catches it. “You don’t think I am who I say I am?”

“I don’t think I know who you claim to be, other than a lost boy. Butcher seems to think you’re bad news–”

“Bad news?” Blue repeats. “I come bearing only the best news. Fun times and music.” He leans between the seats and flicks on the radio, cranking it as An American Band blasts through the speakers.

If I’m being honest, as I am apt to be, I agree with him. I think he’s funny and frivolous in a way that could bring some serious joy to the weighted drudgery that only I seem to be burdened by, but Butch is still not feeling it.

He immediately turns off the music.

The kid tried, I’ll give him that, but he’s not yet lapping at Butcher’s godly teat just yet.

He tries another appeasement, pulling out the wine and waving the whiskey bottle again like an invitation, and we all finally agree to partake in the off-chance it will settle all of our nerves before we pass out.

Blue twists open the whiskey and takes a long swig, then practically blasts it over the windshield when he coughs. I remember that first swig of whiskey as a kid. It looks about as bad as I remember.

He wipes his mouth. “I never got a taste for liquor,” he says, hissing through his teeth as he reads the label again. “I prefer my vino.”

The kid has standards, imagine that. “Butcher here also prefers the juice of the vine. It’s gotten him in trouble on more than one occasion, ain’t that right Butch?”

“I could say the same of you,” he grumbles.

The kid bites the cork and with a quick pull and a jerk, pops open the bottle – a real summertime sommelier. “There is truth in wine, Butcher,” he mumbles, spitting out the cork. “And you look like a man who devours the truth. Maybe you should imbibe with us a little.”

That gets his attention alright, and Butch holds out his hand into which the wine bottle drops. He swigs, Blue swigs, and I’m passed the dregs, but I’m neither an oenophile nor a vintner. I’m a malted barley man.

I tip back my father’s pilfered hooch, letting the nasty burn flow down my throat, then say, “Happy birthday, kid. It’s a big year, eighteen. You’re a man now and you can legally be an alcoholic, too.”

He finds that hilarious, laughing between huge gulps of wine. “The man hasn’t stopped me yet,” he says. “Nothing could stop me from enjoying the thirstier parts of living.”

That captured Butch’s heartier laugh, and I have to say the kid certainly has a captivating aura.

Blue’s cheeks are a nice piggy pink now. “So you said you go by Hopper-Dropper, you ever been trout fishing in Montana?”

I’m about to tell him all about my dropper rigs when Butcher clears the last of his pleasantness from his throat. “I think it’s time we rest our bones and our flapping jaws,” he interrupts. “I’ve spent all day listening to Hopper prattle on, I don’t need little Hopper prattling the same. Hopper gets the bunk. Blueboy’s up here with me.”

There is no way in hell I’m leaving the kid alone with him. I’d like a hot breakfast tomorrow morning just as much as Butch, but not at the expense of little boy Blue. I’m kind of starting to like him.

“I think Blue should keep the bunk,” I say. “Consider himself a guest.” I’m hoping my stern and unwavering eyes end this without much hassle.

Blue seems to pick up on it and nods a thank you, but he’s hedging. “I’m just not … never mind.”

“What?”

“I’m just not tired yet … but I can read for a while.” He snatches his book from his jacket and falls back on the bed like he owns the place.

His love of Vonnegut has me wondering, “You ever read Sirens of Titan, Blue?”

“Empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death,” he snickers, “those are a few of my favorite things.”

My eyes widen, but Butcher’s face is much less impressed than mine. I pull Sirens out of the box still at my feet. “We’ll be reading,” I say, nodding to Blue, and Butch scowls as I trade places with Gram, squeezing through the seats to wedge myself next to the kid.

Blue shows me his tattered copy of Cat’s Cradle scrawled with ivy and cocks and big hairy balls along the edges of the inside cover, and he flips through Sirens, admiring the paragraphs on the dog-eared pages and wondering about the blood-stained cover. I say it was an unfortunate accident, and he doesn’t press it.

“I remember liking this one,” he says, returning Sirens to me. “Humanity is pointless, right? We’re just some useless civilization used for alien communication. Just an elaborate telephone to say hi.”

“Not exactly, more like an elaborate telephone to say greetings,” I say.

I find that innocent little giggle of his far more charming than Butcher’s guttural guffaw. Plus, I don’t have to work for Blue’s attention, and when I have it, it’s refreshingly sweet, not festering as it probes my innards like a vulture.

“What about the crash on Mercury?” I ask. “Do you remember that?”

“Oh, the spaceship?!” He takes a swig of wine and laughs again, “When they can’t figure out how to flip the spaceship so they just bust out of the caves upside down–”

“And the Martian war?” I’m chuckling just remembering that bloody pointless battle when Blue snatches the book from my hand and starts flipping through it in a desperate search for something.

“Here, here!” he laughs, then reads in his sweet mid-western voice, “The off button was connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off!”

We’re both laughing like drunkards when Butcher finally pipes up. “Are you going to cackle all night?”

Blue covers his wine-stained lips.

“Don’t listen to him. He’s mad because he doesn’t understand this.” I tap Cat’s Cradle, and Blue suppresses another giggle.

“Turn off the light,” he snaps from the front seat.

“The dark lord can’t sleep with any light …,” I whisper.

Blue smirks and rolls his eyes, and I suddenly realize I’m not the crazy one in need of discipline and a solid moral code. Butcher is, in fact, a giant child, and Blue, the literal giant child agrees with me.

I can hear him angrily shifting in his seat, but ignore him. I finally found someone who’s normal – just an average Joe who likes to read and go fishing, and Butcher would be eating him right now if he didn’t have curly brown hair and a taste for sweet red wines.

Well, not today, dear Butcher. I’m finally having a nice time, and no one’s going to ruin it for the sake of destroying my joy.

I partake of the seemingly endless wine again and ask, in a slightly lowered tone to avoid waking the dear babe up front, “So what’s your story, Blueboy? Who were your chump less-than-admirers in the Chevelle back there?”

He takes another swig and a deep breath. “They promised me a ride about thirty miles before you picked me up. Said I could party with them and that I wouldn’t have to keep my half of the bargain until we hit the state line. Then they reneged on that promise because they were a bunch of jerks. When I said no deal, they kicked me out.”

“I wonder what your half of the bargain was.”

Another gulp. “Twenty bucks just to ride along.”

“Whew! That must have been quite a taxi service.”

“They were drunk and up for some fun, what can I say? I like to party.”

Must have been one hell of a party to shell out twenty bucks for it. “Do you always pay to party? Doesn’t seem like finding a good time would be that hard for a young man like yourself.”

“Depends on the party and the company, I guess. I like to get people drunk. Makes them talk. Lots of people means lots of drinks.” He gulps another long swig and the bobbing at his throat makes my skin break out in a prickly heat. The bottle drops and he shifts around until he can look up at me from where his head drunkenly rocks on his folded arms. “There is no serum better at finding those deep dark truths,” he says. “And I kind of like that. People are funny, misguided and sometimes cruel, but I find that interesting.”

“Sometimes people are a little too interesting for my taste.”

He hums a little and licks his foxy lips. “You’re interesting,” he says.

“You always such a bad judge of character?” I say. “I’m not that interesting and those party boys were pretty rough with you.”

It’s been all day since either of us last ate, and as much as I wish it could, a bottle of wine doesn’t make a meal. That fact is already bringing sweat to my brow and rosying Blueboy’s cherubic face.

“Sometimes the need to talk,” he says, “the need be around other people makes me sort of forget how much of a fuck up I am. I overlook a lot of stuff … like those guys. They were assholes – even said so to my face. They took my other bag of weed and kept calling me names … I look past it because at their hearts, people don’t mean to be assholes. They just live in a world that rewards that kind of behavior. You can’t blame a scared dog for biting you. It’s what they do.”

“People are scared dogs then?”

“People are animals, whether they want to think it or not,” he says, “But that’s not a bad thing. Animals are pure. Animals want to survive, sure, but what sets people apart is our desire to have fun while while doing it.”

“I guess that’s Blue then: the boy who wants to have fun.”

“I just don’t want to dissolve from this mortal coil having not enjoyed anything. That seems like such a waste, and I figure, If I’m going to all this trouble to grow and learn and carve a nice place for myself, I might as well invite a few friends to join me. Party ‘til we piss ourselves.”

Well, that’s sad and yet hopeful, mainly because he’s right. And I hear him loud and clear, from understanding fully that painful need to be seen and spoken to, to wanting not to die a useless mass of meat.

“I actually like being around people,” he admits, and I found our first divisive trait, “but I guess I take things to an extreme. That why I’m out here, lost. Supposed to be soul searching, you know? Gather myself and maybe a few new friends on the road.”

Eighteen years old and he’s been caught by the misrepresented romance of the road, paying for the company of strangers. Oh, the admonitions I could share with this young buck. We’ll do some pretty damning things to find ourselves.

“All that aside,” I say, “where’d a boy like you get such expendable income? Traveling the good ol’ US of A and buying friends seems expensive, not to mention both nefarious and dangerous.”

“Old money,” he says with a purple grin.

Now, I like a good mystery as much as the next Nero Wolfe, but I’m starting to sense that uneasiness Butcher was bitching about. Something’s not adding up here.

“So you promised the Chevelle boys cash you didn’t have … yet you have old money. And you also said you have nothing to give our dear chauffeur up there … Come to think of it, Blue-eyes, I’ve never heard of old money being stashed in a cattle farm.”

“We bury it in coffee cans,” he jokes. Then he bites his wine-stained lip and plays with the shaggy hair at the nape of his neck like a little preening is going to distract me the mountain of untruths he’s building. It wouldn’t take a genius to realize this kid’s hiding more than just a few white lies.

But what of it? I have my own secrets I don’t plan to divulge.

He, however, suddenly shrugs and starts spilling his guts. “The ranch is my aunt and uncle’s,” he starts. Might be a lie, might not be. “I worked it to earn my keep since they hated my mom … there was an orchard, but it’s dead now. I can’t stand it there. It’s all work and no one to talk to. Nothing to do all winter but wither and die like everything else. I hate the cold …”

My pause has him anxious for some reason.

“My mom slept around,” he continues spilling, “my dad didn’t stick around after I was born, blah, blah, blah– I’m not a charity case or a sobstory, though.”

“Never said you were–”

“Even though I’ve never met him,” he blathers, unprompted I might add, “my dad made sure I was always comfortable. Drove my uncle crazy because he almost lost the farm once while I was sitting on a gold mine. Didn’t make him treat me any better though.”

“Why didn’t you help him out?”

“Dad sent me a letter. Said the money was for my future, not his ex’s POS brother. His words not mine.” Then he taps the wine. “He told me he wanted me to spend that money however I chose to, so I choose to spend it on the road.”

“A boy your age should see the world, but don’t you think you should go to school?”

“School is for the fools who can’t take care of themselves,” he claims. “They need to be taught how to think because they can’t do it on their own.”

Is that right?

I shake my head and glance at Butcher to see if he heard that. “You and I do not share that school of thought.”

When I look back at Blue, his grin’s just a weak smile and his eyes have gone soft and boozy. “College couldn’t teach me anything a guy like you couldn’t.”

Now he’s just fishing for a slap.

He falteringly points at the dome light. “Should we turn off the–”

Butcher sounds asleep, but you can never tell with him.

But Blue’s right, it’s late, we’re tired, and the long, snowy road stretches under us so I flick off the light and lay back down on the messy bed.

I can barely make out his face in the darkness, but he doesn’t seem bothered by the night we’ve been plunged into. With that darkness comes the cold leaking through the window seals and somehow burrowing up from the chassis. I hear his teeth chatter, then he shakes.

The bed’s a wild twist of sheets from Garm tearing up front, so I take a minute to straighten what I can, covering Blue with the blanket so he stops shivering.

He’s still bleary eyed, not as tired as he is contemplative.

I lower my voice again, “If you feel so inclined after the morning crests, I have Dante’s Inferno and a French copy of Le Petit Prince–” He doesn’t respond except to wiggle around until his cold belly’s pressed against mine. “And, uh, for some reason, Butch has Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and Treatise of Light, if you’re into that–,” I continue.

He sighs – not bored or ticked off, just calm – and I note how cold his breath feels against my face. I wrap my arm around him. “It’s a small library,” I whisper, tucking the blanket under his back, “but the road to self discovery is long if you want something new to read.”

I’m not certain he’s still listening to me. He’s staring at my lips, his eyes half-closed and his smile completely gone now. It’s not until I watch him gently bite his tongue that I realize what the hell’s going on between our bodies.

I clear my throat just enough to say stop it now and pick up the books still stacked between our faces, tossing them into my empty seat. They flop over Garm.

Butch huffs at her growl, but I brush it off because I’m much more interested in finding out what Blue’s fingers are doing messing with the zipper on my jeans.

I slowly shake my head but his eyes do not seem willing to listen.

If there was a scenario for which Butcher might dool out a “go straight to jail” card, this would be it. No one would get to pass Go and you sure as hell wouldn’t collect $200. If he heard us doing anything, Butcher would mercilessly destroy this kid in ways that have yet to be imagined by even the most heinous of criminals. Someone in Dallas kissed me during a pretty grotesque and sweat-stained gathering at a factory warehouse club downtown. I punched the asshole in retaliation – knocked the drink out of his hand and broke his nose – but Butcher … Butcher and his Buck found him behind the building taking a piss and took his jaw – the whole damn bone – but thankfully, let the nice man watch us walk away.

Tooth for a tooth, I guess.

For some reason, though, despite my better judgment, my fingers decide to work their way under Blue’s shirt anyway. Maybe I’m just curious, maybe I’m drunk, maybe it feels nice to look into a pair of eyes I feel like getting lost in, rather than a pair I can’t help but feel trapped by.

Blue’s still cold, and gasps when my hand slides up his smooth back, so I stop and retreat, shaking my head again, my finger meeting my lips.

He can’t be loud; that’s a surefire way to get himself gored.

Of course, he doesn’t know any of that, but I have a feeling if I divulge this information prematurely, he might just stop pressing his groin against my leg, and I’m fairly certain neither of us wants that …

Now, I’m not a pervert, let’s get that cleared up right now. I’m also not a kiddie diddler.

I have my wants and needs like any red-blooded man, and thankfully, this beautiful country of ours has set boundaries and limitations to protect our youth from predators. That boundary just happens to be fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years of age or what have you depending on your whereabouts, so you can rest assured that Baby Boy Blue is not a baby anymore. He’s an adult, free to make his own bad choices like the rest of us, and at the present time, he’s choosing to hump my knee like the teenager his nearly isn’t.

My suggestion to stay quiet finally reaches his inebriated brain and he nods as he swallows back another sigh.

I fear my admonition might not be fully understood, so I lean into him and brush his cheek with mine until my lips hover over his ear. “You’ll be quiet,” I whisper, “or there will be hell to pay.”

He nods against the stubble on my cheek, then goes silent and still like a white bunny with a hawk overhead.

An older man would’ve taken that threat and fled, choosing to live another day to fuck someone else. Young bucks like this kid like to live a little more dangerously, thinking they’re capable of sneaking some tail right out from underneath fate’s nose.

Hell, I guess I’m counting on that myself.

When I unbutton his pants, his hormones surge again and suddenly he’s fearless, grabbing a fistful of my hair. He jerks back my head as he hugs his chest against mine. It’s only when I reach up and do the same to him, that I realize what the hell Butcher was mouthing off about.

He has my hair.

It feels identical between my fingers, though his isn’t nearly as coarse, nor is his scalp covered in healing wounds from cracking his head against tools and truck doors in the dark.

He lets go and slides his hand down my neck, his eager little mouth searching for my lips, and when it finds them, he lets out a whimper.

It’s a sound I don’t think I could forget – a little excited, a little overwhelmed, a bit rushed and hungry. It’s almost like those lips are restless and nervous, panicking about what comes next – am I going to bite him? Am I going to let him invade my mouth with his? Or am I going to tut tut this poor boy and kick him out, telling him desperation looks good on no one?

The truth is that desperation looks good on everyone in the right light – moonlight specifically – and the late hour and the buzz in my head makes his youthful excitement that much more intoxicating. It feels good to be able to make another person this aroused for doing absolutely nothing to them.

I make him work a little more – I’m no slut – taking a swig of his sickeningly sweet wine and teasing his mouth with a brush of my wet lips. He makes more of those whimpering noises when my mustache nuzzle his cheek and they huff cinnamon-tinged puffs of air across my chin. I want to gobble this little boy up.

The booze has loosened his courage enough that it finally breaks free, and his tongue pries open my lips.

I get to taste him: honey and beeswax, red wine and fireballs … a dreamy, creamy palette of youth and lust and inexperience.

He has soft wet lips, not rough and chapped from months of self-inflicted starvation. He’s also unconcerned with pretense, slobbering all over me in his haste. But the excitement in his hands and grinding hips seem to make up for it. Younger guys are all bumbling fingers and hungry tongues and it’s what makes them so much more endearing.

He doesn’t seem to falter with the zipper on my pants and after tugging open my fly, works them down my thighs with ease. Despite Butcher’s best efforts, he can’t keep fat on my bones so my clothes barely fit anymore. Blue on the other hand, like all these young kids, wears jeans that are practically painted on his body. I can pull them open but that’s where my access stops. If I didn’t know better, I might assume these little tests of my patience were to help guide me back to my moral highground, but I don’t believe in that nonsense anymore.

I wrench on his jeans so hard his lips are yanked from mine, and he finally gets the hint, squirming around until they’re halfway to his knees. After a couple tugs, The Mangy Moose is yanked over his head and forgotten at our feet. Now I’m faced with an expanse of white skin – mostly nude from the knee up – and he’s staring back at me, chewing on his lip. This egregious abuse of power he wields over me cannot stand, so I shove him onto his back.

It’s only with him splayed out below me that I finally open my eyes and see. He’s got my scrawny ribs and pale skin, but his upper arms are covered in bruises, deep and long. He has my smooth chest and neck, brown hair under his arms, and long fingers that can’t stop tracing the seams over my shoulders.

I don’t think he sees what I see, at least not yet. If he did, he’d be hightailing it out of here, freaked by my paternal looking chin and eyes. But he’s too busy trying to keep his breath under control and bumbling with the buttons on my flannel.

While he’s pulling it off my shoulders, I attack that perfect skin of his chest, tasting all the undamaged parts of his body.

His ribs are tender and sweet, and the ticklish little shit squirms under me while I bite each one. I’m starting to understand Butcher’s draw to my stomach now. This kid’s belly is soft too, and I trail my lips and tongue all the way down to the waist of his underwear which he’s still struggling to peel off.

I finally hook the waistband myself, but as I’m pulling them down, I realize a red creature’s gaze is staring back at me from his waist: Spiderman’s big black eyes.

I glance judgingly up at him, he said eighteen, but Blue’s not embarrassed or even fazed by my discovery. It’s not a discovery to him. He’s sweaty and breathless, not ashamed. His only concern is feeling himself be freed.

His pelvis is so close to my face, I know he’s anxious enough to not notice my hesitation, so I smile and ignore the adolescence of him not yet buying his own underwear.

He’s starting to get antsy – gulping more wine and shoving it in my face, and when I knock back another endless chug, he touches my throat and moans a breathy bellow.

I do tut him this time, with a drizzle of wine to the face. He gasps and stifles a cough, then stifles a laugh so I bite to his lip to keep him muffled. He can moan or giggle into my mouth all he wants, but if he can’t take me kissing his belly, I’ve got no hope of teasing whatever’s between his legs.

I come up for air. He chews my ear, still groping the bed for the bottle. Everything’s wet, his lips, the bed, my cheeks, his nose, stained pink in the bright moonlight bouncing off the snow outside.

This being, writhing and squirming like a worm on a hook, is either way too drunk to be doing this or severely starved for attention. Each time I pull away to go for his neck, his eyes damn near scream his undying adoration, and it’s making my heart skip – I can almost hear it when he exhales.

We share another tip of the bottle, wine dripping down my throat and his unconcerned chin, and his pale eyes go glassy again. He keeps tugging, pulling, gripping my back like he’s terrified he’ll fall if he lets go.

I know that feeling he’s grappling with; I’ve lived with it for years, so I strip off my shirt and worm my arm under his neck, holding him for a bit while we kiss.

He’s warm now, alcohol burning through his skin, lust burning through his groin, his little whimpers now heartbreaking, and when I kiss his wine-ruddied face, I realize he’s crying. But what gets me like a knife to the gut is when he pulls away and holds my face in his hands.

“Will you make love with me?” he whispers, and I feel like a thief – a cretin – a devil who doesn’t deserve to walk this earth.

I want to laugh – the kind of nervous, sick laughter that only the guilt-stricken can muster – but I don’t. I just stare at him, now having to make the hardest decision. Do I give this lovesick kid what he wants right now, or do I stop all this before I do something far worse to him?

The side of my face is suddenly hot, burning with indignation, and I recognize immediately where that heat’s coming from. I turn to see Butch staring at us with those empty wells, his gaze igniting my face from his perch, straddling the console between the seats.

His cigarette glows like a red-eyed cyclops lurking in the darkness and his head’s tipped back, looking down his nose at me, just waiting for my response.

I was expecting his hand to be fingering his knife, moments from ripping the kid out of bed – but it’s not. His hand’s laying over his lap, occasionally trailing down the inner seam of his jeans.

When I meet his eyes, his face is shrouded in a puff of moonlit smoke, then he nods to the kid.

Blue sees him and recoils from that red eye, trying to scramble into the corner of the cab.

“You’re fine,” I say, pinning him back to the mattress. His eyes dart between me and Butch. “You keep looking at me now.”

He hesitates, then nods, but when I continue kissing his neck, I can tell his eyes – his attention – his worry and fear is still focused on Butcher. And why wouldn’t it? He is a sight to behold.

This won’t do, all of us waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it might be considered cruel in hindsight, but I whisper it anyway, “I want to make love with you, Blueboy. Kiss you, touch you, revel in your sweet breath.”

He moans out the saddest, wine-soaked groan, and yanks me back to him.

We’ll deal with all this in the morning. Right now, this sad and lonely boy is far more important to me than that future, heartbroken one, or whatever one Butcher intends to turn him into – an example, a stew, maybe a folded paper heart.

It might be wrong, but as history has shown, I’m rarely, if ever, right.

Another swig. Sweet and fresh. The bottle rolls out of my fingers into his. Slurping and sucking, his sweaty hair clings to his temples like a leafy, autumnal crown. He smiles again, not nervous but jovial, that fearless youth returning with every mind-numbing swig, then the bottle’s passed to someone else.

While I nibble away, enjoying my fill of Blueboy’s giggles, that someone flicks the radio to life and we’re joined by a tender female voice, filling the cab, our stuffy heads, and aching chests – a guitar gently plucked by a melodic, lyrical voice that somehow further sweetens the oversaturated air. You are in my blood, my holy wine, she says. So bitter … so sweet … part of you pours out of me.

My head drops to Blue’s shoulder, dazed and dizzy as he squirms out of his jeans and underwear, kicking them to the foot of the bed. His hands are on me, all over me. They’re thumbing my cheeks as we kiss when I feel my pants being dragged down my legs.

Butcher’s tugging them off, huffing clouds over us until he’s satisfied and sits back on the console, eyeing our naked bodies as we consume each other in the back of his darkened cab.

“Have you done this before?” I whisper, not for privacy, but to allow that female voice to drift unmarred for just a little longer.

He nods, thankfully, so I don’t have to be a total creep, teaching him anything new. But when his fingers immediately pop to his wet mouth, I shake my head. “You don’t have to do it to yourself.” He stops and nods again, wiping his wet fingers on the sheet.

He leans into my ear, barely audible, “Can I have another drink?”

“You don’t have to stay quiet anymore, either,” I say against his cheek. “And don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

He’s smiling when he proclaims, “There’s never enough.”

“It’s not an analgesic,” I say. “And I won’t hurt you anyway. I’ve lived though enough bad experiences with older–”

“He didn’t ask for your life story, Hopper.” Butcher whacks my arm with the heel of the bottle. “Give the boy his goddamn wine.”

I rip the bottle out of his disrespectful hand and pass it to Blue.

He’s sheepishly ignoring the exchange and takes a meager sip – there can’t be anything but the dregs left – then he yanks my lips to his and passes the warm mouthful to me. Sweet honey and grapes then suddenly a bitter crunch.

I chew through more grit, and pull away, “What is the hell is this?!”

Butcher’s laughing to himself.

Blue’s smiling and gawking up at me. “Wine diamonds. You like ’em?”

“No. You just spit a bunch of sour rocks in my mouth.”

Butch’s red eye is still bobbing in the dark as he laughs. “Won’t hurt you.”

Regardless of whatever secretive-bullshit hilarious exchange they’re having, I’m still running this damn show.

I bite Blue’s nipple and he squawks through a drunken snort, but it seems like the whole truck relaxes a bit. No one’s brandishing knives or sharp tongues at anyone but me, so I go back to the task at hand and kiss a snaking line down Blue’s chest. We were about to upgrade this little tryst from sweetness to sinful and I’d hate to lose that immoral momentum.

Blue’s eyes close as he sinks into the mattress with another exhausted sigh. He’s as peaceful and picturesque as a painted Roman youth – reclined and relaxing on a gilded bed, draped in a white cloth as he fingers his lover’s skin.

I don’t want to disturb him and wreck this fruitful composition, so I glance at Butcher to see if he happens to be catching the same glorious view I’m witnessing.

His cigarette is still pulsing with every breath and beat of his heart and despite the soft tunes still floating around us, I can hear the faint rhythmic sound of skin on skin.

Maybe Butcher’s fly’s open. Maybe he’s shuffling cards. Maybe he’s oiling up the leather sheath on his knife, one can never know.

He drops whatever he’s clutching and grabs my wrist, drawing my hand to his mouth. Out pops his smoke and he licks two of my fingers, tonguing and sucking, thoroughly soaking them from the tip to the knuckle.

I smell a heat in the air, spices. It burns my nose and the cuts around my nails.

“Are you eating a fireball?” I ask, and Blue’s eye snap open.

“I borrowed one,” says Butch.

“Borrowing implies that you’re going to give it back.”

He nods to my spitty hand, “I intend to.”

The man exudes the charm of a pit viper.

I yank my hand away and suck his spit off my fingers until I can taste nothing but the wine we’ve been marinating in, then I return to Blue who’s nervously staring at my hand, probably hoping to not be penetrated by Butcher’s spicy retributive spit.

I know Butcher’s not taken with the kid, not like I am anyway. He’s not warming up or enjoying this in jest or with an open and welcoming mind; he’s tolerating my whims for the sake of the blue eyes and brown hair that are apparently tugging at his sense of personal commitment. Inconvenient compassion, he called it once right before abandoning me in the Arizona desert to sleep off my audacity for a few very hot then very cold days. He tells me it’s his inconvenient compassion that keeps getting him in trouble, yet I’m always the warm body that ends up both inconvenienced and troubled by it.

The young and delicate version of myself is still spread like a map under me and gleefully impatient now, using the leverage of his grip on my hips to buck his groin against mine. I’m not in a rush here, though; I like to take my time, especially when we have nowhere to go and my coordination is so sweetly compromised.

I bend his knee, kissing down his burning hot thigh, a gentleman who intends to enjoy every inch, but the impatiently handsy Butcher, wrenches up Blue’s other leg, unnecessarily urging me on.

The kid hisses at Butcher’s touch, and I refuse to allow him to suffer a second manhandling in a day.

“Would you not touch him?” I snap, and Butcher, still somehow shocked when I bark at him, hesitates, then holds up his hands. “You can ogle and grope me to your meager heart’s content,” I say, “but not him. No debate. That’s the rule. This is not Omaha. This is not Cleveland, thank God. We are not under a bridge fucking up the townies like goddamn trolls. This is a good kid who deserves respect and to be doted on, not roughed up and left like trash on the side of the road.”

Butcher finds my diatribe humorous in some way. I do not. “You’re the boss, Hop,” he chuckles, then looks down at Blue. “Do I make you nervous, son?”

Blue’s grin is back, as is that damn bottle. “I was nervous,” he bravely admits, taking another swig, “but I think I just earned a little of that reverence Hop’s been reserving just for you, so I’m not worried in the least anymore.”

I laugh at that. Blue takes another drink.

Butcher laughs, too. I imbibe a little.

Even Blue drunkenly giggles, but something tells me we are not all laughing at the same thing.

Refusing to allow this conversation to steal another second of our time, I crawl up Blue’s body and kiss him, drawing out those long, unforgettable whimpers until I’m sure we’re all on the same page again, then I happily return to his soft white thighs.

I find it inordinately pleasurable to be licking skin and tasting flesh that’s been washed in the last week. And he smells good, too – bold like woodsmoke and cedar – that feeling you get when you’re alone in the woods. It makes me want to bury my face in him until he promises to take me to that magical place.

When I finally do bury my face, pressing my mouth against his groin, Butcher’s gruff exhale at the sight overwhelms the radio and the sound of Blue’s blissful moans.

I work my way between his legs until I can tongue my intention since my wet fingers dried minutes ago. His whole body relaxes, his panting growing thicker with every flick of my tongue.

I rewet my fingers and play with him, my eyes locked on Butcher’s suddenly serious face. His eyes are black, though his mouth and cheeks periodically glow pink when he inhales through his fresh smoke.

The kid’s growing more and more excited, and I’m enjoying his hips pushing hard against my cheek. His ass is something else – not just a nice mouthful you want to smack on occasion, but a creamy white idol you want to worship. If Butcher wasn’t gawking only a few feet from us, I’d flip him over to get a better look.

When Blue’s eyes close again, his whimpers starting to uptick and his hands pawing at nothing, I slide my belly back over him and tease him a little.

Like me, this kid likes to kiss, I will say that. He likes to chew on ears and rub his nose against my cheek like a puppy, and it’s the most adorable and addicting sensation. When that impatience comes back and he starts humping my belly, I slide into him and wait for that inevitable hiss that gives me a chill of sympathetic pain and yet an ungodly amount of pleasure.

I’m a little shocked that I get all the way in without any hesitation on his part, and I smile. “Not your first time at all,” I say.

“Not tight enough for you?” he snickers as he rocks his stomach into mine.

“Vonnegut, a bag full of candy and wine, your very accepting ass,” I say as I reach back to grope his thigh. “I’m suddenly finding you more than just very interesting.”

His fingers comb through my hair and his face relaxes the more I thrust.

“I think I want to know the rest of Blue’s story,” I say, and he barely cracks his eyelids. “Why are you heading back to your much-hated hometown?”

“My money’s tied up in a bank back home,” he says through a coy grin, “and it’s getting too cold … gotta keep moving, go home, or die in a snowbank.” He shivers at the thought, so I kiss his cheek making him huff out more of that wine-soaked pleasure. “And you gotta do what you gotta do, right? Even if you don’t like it,” he nervously snickers. “Fuck or freeze. My pockets are empty, so it’s this until Billings.”

This?

I stop moving.

Fuck or freeze?

His smile falls away.

This until he gets to Billings? That can’t be what he means. He’s a good kid … nobody would use him like that, especially not me – not for a damn ride home when the world is a frozen, barren wasteland.

“I need a break from the road,” he continues, and I think he’s trying to placate me, “you know, rest my sorry ass.” He’s snickering like that makes it better. “So I have to go home, even if I don’t like being trapped there either.” With that, his lips return to my neck.

No, not this kid. Not this good kid. The world wouldn’t be that cruel to this kid, making him surrender his dignity just to get where he needs to go … This boy’s too much like me and it’s disgusting …

“Why’re you stopping?” he whispers.

I take a breath, and I feel his sweet voice get caught in my chest, swirling around like it’s lost.

I rehear every word he’s already said to me, replaying like a record on an endless loop, and I watch flickering images of him in my mind – getting thrown down in the parking lot, refusing to go into the strip joint, that look of pained relief when a stranger agrees to touch him like this and not with a bruising smack.

I feel sick.

He looks worried, and I realize he’s returned to pawing my back, trying to draw me out of my own head and back to the apparent reverie.

“Hopper?” he asks, then he gropes the bed until he finds the bottle. “You don’t have to stop. I want to keep going. Have another drink.”

He can’t know what he wants, and I don’t need anymore alcohol making a monster out of me.

“Please don’t stop,” he mumbles, and there is such a twinge of hopelessness in his voice, even Butcher shifts uncomfortably like his moral compass might have unexpectedly twitched at the sorry sound.

“I’m not stopping,” I finally say, and bury my face into his hair. I will continue exploring his insides as requested … He’s a man, after all … he can make his own choices … he’s not a victim, here … he’s not a kid.

He’s going to drop out of this cab in Billings, Montana – no better or worse than he is right now. He’s going to wave goodbye. He’s going to turn around, bottle in hand, bag on his shoulder, and hoof it up the long dirt path to his home as God intended, safe and sound, and I have to remember that.

He’ll be fine.

He’s a good boy.

He’ll be fine …

His nails dig into my shoulders, and he blows against my cheek with every push. The longer we stay together, the more heated tension builds between our rubbing chests, and I don’t know if it’s my anger, or frustration, or just the newness of occupying the same space as a person so different from our red-eyed sentinel.

He nudges my temple again, and I go back to letting him sloppily kiss me with his overly ambitious tongue.

He pulls away, sweaty and still red-cheeked. “You can come whenever you want,” he huffs. Then he flinches when a drop lands on his cheek. I reach up to thumb it off his face, but I’m wiping the wrong face.

I sniff my nose and look away, but all I see are the dark patches on his upper arms.

Blue seems unfazed by it all, though, his hand still lazily wandering up and down my back. He wipes my face for me and kisses me again, then barely arcs his back, a new angle to speed me along.

I’m torn. So torn that I stop again, hell-bent on convincing myself not to take advantage of this lost and lonely child.

He recognizes my hesitation and leans to my ear. “The worst thing that could happen to anybody,” he whispers, “would be to not be used for anything by anybody.”

I’m breathless.

His wet lips meet mine again, his fingers gripping my hair, and he tightly hugs me until I finally do come, tangled and wrapped up in this sweet, sweaty, younger me.

A deeper, hungrier moan escapes him when I pull out and now I get to enjoy a little more freedom to do to him what I’ve been trying to do since I hopped in the bed: show him a proper good time …

Down I kiss, teasing his nipples with the tip of my tongue and blowing my cool breath over his wet skin until the truck is filled with his infectious giggle. His beaming face, however, is too precious to leave alone, so I’m drawn back to it to taste his syrupy laughter instead.

My hand is strumming his ribs, drawing more sweet sounds from him when I hear, “For the love of God, Hopper, if you don’t finish him, I will.”

Blue and I both glare at Butcher who’s still silently waiting on the console, probably holding himself and the wine bottle now, having polished off the rotgut just to get through this.

“Hey, I’m the one doing all the goddamn work,” I argue.

“You’re also the only one with a limp dick,” he replies.

And I am the barbaric rube.

He gets no say in this, so I go back to chewing on Blue’s delicious ear, making him snicker again, but then – since I am still a gentleman and want to satisfy both my tenuous and my tactless lovers – as requested, I slide down Blue’s body to take him in my mouth again.

That clean, drifting, woodsy smell of his body fills my nose and mouth and I’m dropped back to the forest floor like a skipped stone.

Glistening leaf litter and spongy moss, damp with fog. Mushrooms and long trails that open breathlessly into a valley of sky blue lakes at the foot of ancient, greying mountain.

He tastes like the Montana skyline – a Rocky Mountain sunset – a clear night filled with the smell of woodsmoke and sweet breath.

His hands are tangled in my hair – rubbing, gripping, tugging me with his rocking hips – and he moans when he pushes himself against my lips.

After only a few minutes of this, I hear another breath – low and deep this time – catch and release … It’s not my young lover, not my Rocky Mountain sunset …

A twinge of guilt pipes up from a well deep inside me. It shakes it’s finger and reminds me of another damp forest floor, muddy and vicious, bloody and cold, hotter skin, a booming voice that gave me purpose as it coaxed me into a different yet similarly warm and eager den …

I forfeit a moment of bliss with my Blueboy, because I know that’s all it will take, and crawl back to the center console, back to the lap of my lonely devil. He drops the bottle and drinks my skin with his hands, taking my Blue-tinged lips with his own, then finishes his solitary conquest over my devoted tongue.

The bottle tips as Blue calls me back to him with another plunk, another slosh, another gulp, and his hand draws my chin to his body.

He’s so close, so deliciously teetering on the very edge, I can smell him.

My tongue follows the inside of his thigh, then I sit up to check on his pretty little face.

He’s still smiling – angelic and half asleep – peeking down at me and waiting so sweetly for my return to him, so I quicken just slightly, my fingers wandering again. I play with him a little until his thighs stiffen, and he comes, thrusting into my mouth.

My lips meanders over his belly, and my mustache gets him laughing again which is a chorus to my ears.

He’s hot but satisfied, and I have to push him aside to lie down next to him. He rolls over, cuddling up close and draped over my body, and rests his head on my chest. It feels so unexpectedly gratifying to hold him, give him a little peace of mind, safety, and comfort all wrapped up with me.

The grinding pop of Butcher’s zippo echoes through the cab, then his hand reaches behind his seat to offer me a lit cigarette. Before I can even chastise him for not offering our guest a smoke, he hands him one, and Blue accepts it with an embarrassed grin.

I don’t know what to make of this either.

With a click and a whack, Butcher cracks the tiny window over us, letting a rush of winter blanket our red, wet faces.

I haven’t felt pleasure like this in a long time. Our chests finally stop heaving, and Blue cuddles into my side as the closeness and the breeze across our wet skin makes us both shiver.

Butcher’s door creaks and his feet crunch in hard packed snow. Then slam, and we’re alone.

I now get to enjoy the peace and solitude of the empty cab with a kid who seems to look, talk, and think just like me.

“Home is Billings,” I say again, and he nods, taking a long drag, then ashing out the chilly crack above us. “How long have you been on the road?”

“Three years,” he says, blowing smoke over our heads.

Since he was fifteen.

“Where’s home to you?” he asks.

“You’re lying in it.”

He takes a moment to survey the truck cab, though you can’t see much by the light of two cigarettes and the moon.

“Do you get lonely?” he asks.

“I have Butcher,” I say.

“Is that his name?”

“Nope,” I say. “Is Blue yours?”

“No.”

“Do you get lonely out here?”

We both take long, contemplative drags.

“Yes,” he admits, and it makes my heart ache in places it has no business aching. “What’s going to happen when we get to the state line?”

Another drag as we think.

“You’re going to tell me where you need to go, and we’ll take you all the way to the Blue family front door.”

“I meant when I have to leave the truck,” he says.

I settle back onto the pillow and reach down to pull his thigh over my legs and he nuzzles my chest like a puppy getting comfortable.

“When we get there, you’re going to be happy to be in a place that’s familiar to you, even if you secretly know it’s going to be boring and disappointing for a while. For the last thirty minutes of the drive, you’re going to be all smiles and telling us who used to live in what rundown shack, and how the whole town’s changed in the last three years.”

“Oh yeah?” he wonders, peeking up at me.

“Without a doubt. Then we’re going to park on a muddy street near your house, probably a crossroad at the end of your lane. Barren, snow-covered fields in every direction.”

He’s silent.

“Then you’re going to pet Garm and call her a good girl.”

“She is a good girl.”

“I agree,” I snicker. “Butcher won’t say a word, but I’ll hop out of the truck with you.”

“I don’t think I’m going to like this next part.”

“It won’t be too bad, I don’t think. You’ll give me a hug and a sloppy wet kiss,” I say.

He chuckles and kisses my chest. “That’s not so bad.”

“This is the tricky part, though, at least it will be for me,” I say. “I think I’m going to tell you something stupid, something I’ve only ever said to my ex-wife, and even then, I didn’t mean it.”

He hesitates and drops his cigarette butt out the window, worry drifting over his face. “Not even Butcher? I thought he was like your sin-wat or something. Beyond buddies … like your heart’s personal sentry.”

I chuckle because that’s not untrue

“Oh he is,” I say, “But we’ve seen a lot … done a lot, he’s as much me as I am him at this point. When you find someone like that, it’s kind of like talking to a mirror … nothing said is all that shocking anymore, no confession is unexpected. You just know.”

“You don’t seem anything like him.”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” I say. “He’s out in the cold right now, probably freezing his nuts off just so I can talk to you.”

“That was nice of him …,” he says.

The hour’s catching up so we roll over to face each other, his running nose nearly touching the tip of mine.

He sniffs, then yawns. “So after you say the thing, do you want me to say it back?”

“You say whatever you want to say, Blueboy. I just have a feeling you probably don’t hear those words enough.”

I can only feel his breath on my chin when I’m suddenly overtaken by my own desperation for more of him, so I run my hand up his naked back, memorizing this moment and his skin under my fingertips. Then I swallow back any and all hesitation so I can muster the strength to say, “Then I’m going to give you Sirens.”

His eyes widen. He’s speechless but not because of my gift to him. “I don’t think I can give you Cat’s,” he worries.

That’s even sweeter than his breath.

“I don’t need it,” I say, kissing his hair. “You keep ‘em both.”

The next day, we woke up at a truck stop where Butcher treated the kid to a hot breakfast – biscuits and gravy, toast and jelly, juice, eggs, bacon, and anything else he wanted, unnecessarily delaying our trip by a few hours, for which I silently thanked him.

We rolled into Billings around noon and Butch and I got a first-hand account of who used to live by the railroad tracks and whose daughter used to sleep with the principal of the old high school. We found out which family bred hunting dogs and where Blue’s very first puppy came from. He told us how many kids fell off the water tower when he was in high school – three – and that if we really wanted to do some fly fishing we needed to keep heading west until we got to Depuy Spring Creek.

Everything happened just as I said it would. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy; maybe it was meant to be.

The road was icy, not muddy like I thought, but the lane up to the farm house off in the distance was long and lonely.

Blue took Sirens, hugged me, and patted my back like an old friend after a long and sloppy kiss.

He waited for a while, waving from the end of his driveway until we were out of sight.

We drove on forever – a thousands of miles of road, hundreds of years flying under the truck – in utter silence.

We had nowhere in mind as always, just a mutual understanding that wherever we went would be where we needed to be … as always.

It wasn’t until we hit the Washington state line that Cat’s Cradle lands in my lap.

“He said to give it to you after we left Montana,” says Butch. “He was afraid you’d try to give it back.”

I smile and hide the mist in my eyes.

Its pages are still loose, still yellowing. It smells like spicy dirt. It makes me want to laugh, but I can’t.

I was about to lay it to rest in the box at my feet – my box, in Siren’s old familiar home among the trappings of another life – but I open it instead.

Inside the cover, surrounded by doodles of cocks and twisted sticks wrapped in squiggles of ivy, it says: I love you too, Hopper. Truly yours, Bluebird

Thanks for reading!

A few notes:

Joni Mitchell’s song A Case of You is what’s playing on the radio when Butcher turns it on. It’s from her most famous album, Blue, produced in 1971. 🙂

Lyrics for A Case of You
Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star and I said,
Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice

Oh you are in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter
And so sweet oh
I could drink a case of you darling and I would
Still be on my feet
Oh I would still be on my feet

Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid
I remember that time that you told me, you said
“Love is touching souls”
Surely you touched mine ’cause
Part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time

Oh you are in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter
And so sweet oh
I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
I would still be on my feet

I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours, she knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds and she said
“Go to him
stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed”
Oh but you are in my blood you’re my holy wine
You’re so bitter
bitter and so sweet oh
I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
I would still be on my feet
hmm

Blue whispers to Hopper, “The worst thing that could happen to anybody, would be to not be used for anything by anybody,” which is a line from Sirens of Titan, if you all remember chapter 10 of Unhitched.

A sin-wat is a person who wants all of somebody’s love for him/herself. Its a Vonnegutism from Cat’s Cradle.

If you aren’t into American Gods, this is where we part ways. Thanks for reading and I hope you comment if you liked it!

If you are familiar with American Gods I have a little more to say …

Little Boy Blue is clearly an iteration of the Greek god Dionysus. I mean, I can’t make it more glaringly obvious with all the wine. As the god of wine and merriment, he relies on people worshiping him with drunken parties and orgies to stay relevant, since all the gods require some sort of reverence to continue existing. Dionysus is celebrated in the summer and fall (growth and harvest seasons for grapes) but dies back and becomes sullen in the winter. This is why Blue’s ending his long journey across the US by heading home for the winter (already forced to pay or sleep with people just to get them to drink with him) which is when he’s picked up by Hop and Butcher.

There are a lot of Dionysus origin stories, so I won’t get into them, but essentially he’s the son of Zeus and a mortal, and never lived on Mount Olympus. He was secretly raised by an aunt and uncle (avoiding Hera’s constant wrath). He was a wanderer, a lover of humans, of drinking, and a maker of music, and he bestowed the gift of wine and the knowledge of its production to the people. He often made humans go “mad” and was followed by a procession of the marginalized folks of society – criminals and women – as well as perpetually erect satyrs, the wild women of the woods called maenads, and other woodland creatures.

He’s also a god associated with rebirth as he was nearly killed in utero by Zeus’ perpetually pissed wife, Hera. He was saved by Zeus who delivered the fetus from Dionysus’ dead mother, then stitched the baby into his own scrotum (or thigh), only to “give birth” to him when Dionysus was fully developed. So he was born twice, and this “rebirth” created a cult following. There’s more to that story, but it will all probably come up later when I continue Blue’s story in future fics … and yes, those future fics include Santa Claus and the god of big Pharma.

“You ever kill a man, Blue?

Just last Saturday,” he says. “I normally take the weekends off, ‘cause of the sacrament and all, but the man was asking for it bogarting the blunt like that; it’s unconscionable not to mention rude …”

In the above quote, Blue refers to Saturday as a holy day because it’s named after the Roman god Saturn, who in Greek mythology was Cronus, Dionysus’ grandfather. In one myth, Dionysus defeats Cronus in battle, yada, yada, but then is killed, blah, blah, and his father, Zeus, inherits all the lands.

In the AG universe, I made him the feminine male youth he was claimed to be in folklore. His genitals are ambiguous (no cock or balls mentioned) because I’m the writer here and also because it’s Hugh DancyFeel free to imagine Blue with whatever genitals you see fit, since all are welcome here. I might give him a cock later, or I might dress him in a fancy strap-on harness. I haven’t decided yet.

The Dionysian symbolism is damn near obnoxious, sorry about that. I got carried away. Blue’s magical wine bottle holds the dregs of his draining influence over his followers, by the way. Never empty, always sweet, it contains the last vestiges of his summertime glory to get him through the winter until the following spring.

I hope you enjoyed and thanks for reading! I still can’t bring myself to put this on AO3 – it just doesn’t feel right – but feel free to let me know if you liked it!

the wyrm [short story]

I’m not particularly proud of this story as I don’t find it particularly enticing. It is merely a prompt fill for a challenge I partook in. It is my first attempt at anything fantasy oriented and not Hannibal related at all. It is just here for posterity at this point.

I realize now what kinds of voices I prefer in stories. As I write novels like Charm City and Scarwood, I’m beginning to appreciate a slightly different kind of world-building.

Original short story challenge from Writers Write:

Prompt: Desperate times | Word Count: 1000

For three thousand years, the little girl’s ancestors had housed a wyrm nestled in a small box, clutching a gold coin. They had called the wyrm a maðkur, but the little girl refused to think of it as a maggot, so her father proposed she name their family talisman herself. At seven, though she had never seen the creature, she named it Sváfnir.

She was a quiet girl, sickly and friendless, but a lover of flora and fauna. She fed the elk that wandered by their farm and set out bones for the serpents at night.

She’d been told that their wyrm had remained locked in its box for years – her family unwilling to be bitten or poisoned by its tail. Over generations, its kind had morphed into beasts the size of wild dogs.

No longer tucked in caves, hoarding treasure, they now dug through piles of refuse and bothered farmers when they swooped from the sky to pluck lambs from the fields.

Long ago, men had dug gold from the earth and pressed it. The wyrms had a taste for the soft yellow ore. They waited patiently until smiths and kings had filled the villages with currency, then slaughtered the men and hoarded that gold, consuming troves which gilded their backs and bellies. With their newfound strength and splendor, they burned fields and poisoned lakes. And when the creatures grew tired from their glut, they wallowed with each other and laid hundreds of eggs before they slept.

With great feasts comes great famine, and after that age, men grew wise. They bartered and coins were no longer pressed. Those old serpents died, refusing to eat anything but gold. Their offspring had grown dull and listless, scattering to the mountainside to hoard what measly coins they could find, until the creatures starved.

The remaining wyrms adapted, turning brown and feeding on scraps, not treasure. The creatures remained gaunt and manageable – their clutches small in number – and the villagers paid them no mind.

Coins became unheard of. If they were uncovered, they were buried or tossed into rivers. The mystical men, however, protected what few remained as there was something magical about the control they had over the wyrms.

It was well-meaning of the girl’s father to show her Sváfnir one night. It was cold, she was lonely, motherless, and he had nothing else to offer.

That night, under the cover of darkness, her father brought the box to her bedside and opened it. The little wyrm hissed, the girl jumped, and her father almost clapped the lid. She stopped him, however, her eyes fixed upon the blue beads staring back.

The creature clutched the chewed coin and its head twisted to view the curious gaze which faced it after hundreds of years of solitude. She smiled and called it by its new name.
It hissed and she giggled. It then rolled, showing off it’s diamond-crusted belly, hissing again. She laughed and felt its jagged scales, her father holding his breath as he watched. Her father told her of a time when gold had once filled their family’s pockets, food had toppled from plates, and their forge had never grown cold. The wyrm was thought to protect their family, so they were charged with protecting him in kind. Her father closed the box and put it away, happy to see a smile on his daughter’s once somber face.

Her curiosity over Sváfnir did not flounder. Her father was shocked to find the wyrm in her apron pocket one morning. He was furious to see her in the fields with him, tossing and catching the mangled coin, but over time, the pair became inseparable. He was kept hidden in her dress or at the nape of her neck for years. They grew a fierce and tangible love, never apart and no longer alone.

The girl had become a woman when a bitter wind swept the valley. Crops failed and the feral wyrms chewed the wool off the sheep and the flesh from the remaining elk. Sváfnir spent his days gripping his coin while the weak woman grew white and lame.

With neither food in storage nor goods to trade, her father feared for her life. He sought help from a mystical man and a tonic of herbs and milk brought color to his ill daughter’s cheeks.
Weeks passed and she asked of Sváfnir. She was told that he was sleeping soundly on his treasure. When she was able to walk again, she was eager to see her dear companion and retrieved the box to peer inside.

She opened the lid and found her friend waiting – his eyes and body weak. He hissed and crawled to rest in the woman’s cool palm. His coin was gone, now lining the pocket of a mystic, and with it went his gilded scales and gem-encrusted belly. His eyes had yellowed and skin browned, but when she spoke his name – her voice sullen and heartbroken – he hissed as he always had.

Wyrms don’t live through the ages as they did when the mines were open and prosperous. Without gold, Sváfnir’s bones grew brittle and his wings sagged. When he became too sickly to move, the girl spent weeks keeping him warm until the spring thaw brought lamb and fish to their table. The wyrm’s taste for gold never wavered, however, and he refused all the food she offered.

By the summer, she’d lost her precious Sváfnir and laid him to rest in the fields where they’d played when she was just a girl. The next winter took her father, and the next her home when she could no longer care for her land.

On her deathbed, still alone and frail, the women remembered those year spent with her sweet Sváfnir. She had loved her family’s treasured protector, been comforted by his enduring companionship, and that friendship had been worth far more to her than all the gold in the land.

the living doll [boot tread]

Part of Unhitched’s prompt collection, Boot Tread

Prompt from AO3:

I can’t help but send you yet another prompt: Hannigram based on The Twilight Zone ep. The Living Doll

CoralQueen

Now the prompt says Hannigram, but I can’t do that. The original airdate for this Twilight Zone episode was November 1, 1963. That was a very interesting year in Hopper’s life, so I couldn’t ignore it. Hop would’ve been about a year into his failed marriage, so I decided to challenge myself in a completely new way.

I could’ve done a “Twilight Zone” themed chapter with weird aliens or supernatural events, and called it a demonic dream or a hallucination, but I didn’t because that’s cheating. For my own edification and for the purpose of this exercise, I want to shy away from tropes and try something new. Plus, I’m taking prompts for Unhitched side-fics and super weird dolls that are alive wouldn’t really fit into normal physics.

If you want to, watch the thirty-minute Twilight Zone episode, The Living Doll, before reading.

7373 words

Rated: T

“If your life is so miserable, honey, why did you marry him?”

She paused as she conjured up an answer that wouldn’t disgrace herself or disappoint her mother. “I think I felt trapped. You and Dad were so proud when the Golden Child moved away … I didn’t want to be the biggest failure in our family.”

“Now that’s unfair, young lady; don’t compare yourself to your sister. And you know your brother will always be the biggest failure in our family. Let’s not forget that you were the one who wanted to get married so fast, not us.” Her mother paused. “He’s not actually slow is he?”

“No, Mom, Jesus! He’s not dumb, he’s just … different. He gets a little nervous around other people.”

“Honey, you’ve always been a social butterfly, what in God’s name did you even find attractive about him? All he does is mope around reading, and he ignores the whole family when we get together. There is something not right about him. He doesn’t talk about normal things.”

Her husband wasn’t a monster. He wasn’t crass or cruel. He was always respectful, even when she found herself behaving less than considerate towards him. He didn’t seem to care about her checkered past and when he did, it was to celebrate it. He overlooked her vulgar language and “progressive” thoughts when the world said no decent man would. And that’s exactly what she thought of him: he was decent. And that decency was good enough to marry.

She twisted the phone cord and plopped down on a kitchen chair, staring at the pile of breakfast dishes still teetering by the sink. “Mom, have you ever felt like if people knew who you really were, that they’d never want to have anything to do with you? Like one bad decision could follow you forever and there is no way to get past it … so you just … hide it.” She sighed, waiting for a response, but the phone had gone eerily silent.

“I’ve felt that, honey … Did you feel like you had to marry him? Because if that’s why you did it, you can say it, sweetheart. Lord knows I can’t judge you for a damn thing. We’ve all been a little reckless at times.”

She bit her lip and took a deep breath. “He’s a good guy, Mom. He’s a little weird and sometimes he gets upset for no reason, but he’s always been sweet to me. I mean, he’s a little strange, but just saying that makes me feel like a jerk. So what if he is a little odd?!”

“Strange can be fun, sweetheart, until you’re stuck with it forever. Then all those cute quirks make you want to scream. Your father goes to sleep with his socks on. I thought it was the cutest damn thing I ever saw, until I married him. Then I found eighteen pairs wadded up at the foot of the bed. We hadn’t even been married for eighteen days yet! Now, I just want to kill him for it.”

She snickered and leaned back, righting the upturned salt and pepper shakers and dusting the spilled grit to the floor. “For us it’s not something silly like socks. He’s weird in a different way. Sometimes he won’t even look at me, or when he does, it’s like he’s looking straight through me. And we never talk. I thought after we got married he’d want to share everything with me, but it’s like we said our vows and he just clammed up. He talks about being a freshman sometimes, but everything before and after that never happened. And Jesus, he bites my head off over the weirdest shit. I can’t bring newspapers home anymore; did Dad tell you that? And I told you what happened this morning … He just stormed out after making a mess of the kitchen because I set out his breakfast while he was still in the shower. I never know what’s going to set him off. He’s a damn powder keg that smokes two packs a day.” She stood and paced as she collected her thoughts and organized the stack of dirty plates from smallest to largest.

“He doesn’t talk about anything? Really? What about his students or other teachers?”

“I guess he complains about his job sometimes, but he never talks about his parents or his friends–”

“Does he have any friends?”

“Not that I know of. He only ever talks about the superintendent, and I’ve met the man; he’s an idiot.”

“You know, you never answered my question about why you actually married him.”

She set a skillet in the sink to soak and cleared her throat. A year ago, her reasons for getting married seemed to overflowed her heart. He was perfect and gentle and would do anything to make her happy. Her life had been split between “growing up” – a time for friends and frivolity – and “being an adult,” after he’d made his incredibly generous proposal. She was tired of being thought of as a careless child and was ready to raise her own foolish brood with the help of a man eager to share her life. Her expectations were that he’d share his as well, and when he didn’t, and their pre-made family fell through her fingers and from her body, she’d forgotten what it felt like to be so in love. It now took concentrated thought to remember those butterflies and coy smiles because those memories seemed to slowly trickle through the cracks that had formed around her broken heart.

“When I first talked to him, it was like I was looking in this beautiful mirror, but it wasn’t me looking back, or it wasn’t him … I don’t know. That sounds so stupid. He was charming and innocent. And God, he knew exactly what to say like he’d studied every inch of me, you know?”

“Hadn’t he?”

“Mom!”

“I know you slept with him the first night you met him. Your sister told me everything.”

“Are you serious? I’m gonna kill her!”

Her mother’s chuckle echoed through the phone. “Don’t say that about your sister … and, honey, I don’t blame you. The boy’s easy on the eyes, I will give him that, but the first night? Couldn’t you have waited a little? Teased him a bit? Your father and I waited–” She suddenly paused. “That’s a bad example. Your Aunt Chloe – she waited until they were married two whole years! Of course, he was in the navy, so it wasn’t as hard …”

A laugh relaxed her and she leaned back on the table. Within the often coarse or God-flecked commentary of her mother’s daily phone calls, were shining nuggets of good, solid advice, and she appreciated finding a few to help her through the week. That day had been a particularly rough morning, and after sweeping up the broken plate and meticulously folding his shirts and underwear, she’d spent the last two hours on the phone, attempting to see the world through the eyes of a man she couldn’t understand.

“He was so cute, Mom, and nervous … He kept dropping stuff and forgetting what to say. Normally when a guy doesn’t stop calling me pretty, he’s a creep and I tell him to get lost. This was different. Every time he said it, he looked like his heart was breaking, like he couldn’t believe that I was even talking to him. And Mom, he asked if he could kiss me on the cheek! Not even the lips,” she chuckled, “And then–” She suddenly stopped, thinking better of her next comment, “Nevermind.”

“People used to ask for things like that, you know. We didn’t just wander around, sucking on whatever we wanted like catfish. What’s it say about your father and I that an honest-to-God gentleman is blowing my daughter’s mind?! Good lord … And what were you going to say? You know if you don’t tell me, I’ll just pester your sister for the rest.”

She scoffed and hummed, debating if she should continue when she glanced at the Lucky Strike Lanes calendar hanging over the key hooks. “It’s about S-E-X, Mom, you still want me to keep going?”

“You already married him, honey. It’s not news to me.”

“Well, first off, your other daughter is a liar. I didn’t sleep with him the day I met him – I just wanted to clear that up right now. Second thing: he likes going really slow in that department, and I thought that was weird. It kind of made me look at him differently.”

“What kind of fast-moving bastards have you been dating?!”

“What?” she laughed, “It’s not like I’ve never gone slow, but we were sort of …” She grumbled under her breath as she paced. “I don’t think you want to hear this.”

“Don’t make me call your sister. I really don’t want to talk about wallpaper for forty-five minutes just to find out what you and he were up to.”

“Okay, so the first time we were together was down at the bowling alley.”

“The first time you met him was down at that bowling alley.”

“Yeah, this was that day, but we didn’t have sex.”

“Lord. Go on … but don’t make me spend the rest of my weekend in church, trying to save your fiendish soul.”

“You told me to keep going, so I’m just going to tell you the honest-to-God truth.”

“Don’t bring God into this, you heathen,” her mother laughed. “Go on then. Give your poor old mother a heart attack.”

She smiled and brushed her hair behind her ear as she remembered. “He was being really cute, fidgeting with his glasses and biting his lip while he pretended to play pinball. I knew he was looking at me, but when I said hi, he wouldn’t even look me in the eye, he was so nervous. He kept checking the door like he was waiting for someone to tell him he wasn’t allowed to talk to me, and that just made everything so much funnier. He was skinny as a rail and clean-shaven then, you remember?”

“A real baby face, if I recall. Now he has that ugly push broom.”

“I like his mustache. Reminds me of Dad.”

“I’ll tell him you said that.”

She snickered and continued, “And you know how much I love blue eyes … Every time I looked into his eyes, his face got all red. It was the cutest damn thing. But his small talk was ridiculous. He just rattled on about the weather, and books, and different arcade games, just the biggest nerd.”

“Well, nerd or not, he charmed the pants off you.”

“Uh, no, actually …”

A soft chuckle filled her ear.

“So, he got us a couple Cokes and we were watching all my friends bowl, but he wasn’t playing for some reason. Actually, I have no idea what he was doing there. He didn’t even have bowling shoes …” She stopped and wrinkled her forehead. The details of a day nearly a year and a half ago should have been harder to recall. But the more she imagined the first time she saw her young soon-to-be husband watching her from the far end of the bowling alley, the clearer it all became. “Anyway, they were all hooting and hollering about some score, and I thought that he and I could, you know, make out a little.” The silence from the other end of the line, had her shaking her head. “Are you crossing yourself, Mom?”

“Nope. Go on.”

She suddenly blushed and blurted, “I took him to the ladies room–“

“… dear God Almighty…”

“I took him to the ladies room,” she repeated quickly, “And you should’ve seen his face. He was white like a ghost and sweating so bad his glasses kept slipping down his nose.”

“He probably thought you were going to rob him.”

“He did not!”

“I would have.”

“Robbed him?!”

“No! I’d have thought you were some pickpocketing harlot out to steal my wallet! He’s a poor southern boy who can’t hold a conversation to save his life, and you took advantage of him!”

“I did like hell!”

“So, you were making out with the boy in a toilet stall like the good girl I raised you to be … continue.”

“Well, I mean you know what happens after a while …”

“I can assure you, I do not know what you are referring to.”

“He got excited, Mom.”

“I’m zipping my lip.”

“No, you are not. And I’m not even going to be able to tell the next part because you’re going to call me a slut.”

“I wonder why I’d call you that?”

“I used my mouth on him.”

“Why, dear God, why?! That’s why he married you, isn’t it? You have no shame! And boys can smell a floozy. They love bagging themselves a whore, but jokes on them, they cheat!”

“Mom!” she laughed. “I know for a fact that whores are not the only people to use their mouths.”

“I certainly never did. The good Lord gave you a mouth for eating food and nothing else. He gave you other bits for that. Why use your mouth?! It’s filthy!”

“It is not filthy. That’s insane. I sort of feel bad for Dad now, though.”

“Oh hush, don’t feel bad for that bastard. I wait on him hand and foot and that’s as good a sex to him.”

She cringed and flopped back down at the kitchen table to continue, “I felt him through his pants and told him I could use my mouth … but, you know, I offered to do it. I didn’t just go at him like a piece of meat or something.”

“Good thinking. Don’t want to seem too eager.”

“I can hear your eyes rolling.”

“Your father bought a new telephone. Picks up every sound. You should get one.”

She ignored her mother and moved on. “So he agreed and I unzipped his pants. Now, I’m not gonna to be able to explain why this next part is weird because you have no idea what it’s like normally.”

“I’m imagining you not being able to breathe, and then him yelling a bunch of profanities.”

Her hand flew to her mouth, holding back her burst of laughter. “That’s not far off, but no,” she chuckled, “I got down on my knees and was, you know, sucking on him, and normally they just say stupid shit like ‘you like that’ or ‘ you’re really good at this.’”

“Well of course … and then you’d say, ‘you’re so big’ or ‘this is my first time’.”

She laughed and clapped her thigh. “Mom, you’d be a natural!” she chuckled, “But he didn’t say any of that. In fact, he was completely silent like he always is. But – and this is the weird part – he wanted to hold my hand while I did it.” She grimaced again and leaned on the table, waiting for her mother’s reply. “Did you hear me?”

“He wanted to hold your hand? What do they normally do, bend over and grope for your chest?”

She shook her head and snickered under her breath. “Sometimes they touch your hair or just stare at you like a dog. They don’t normally ask to hold hands.”

“What do you think he was trying to do? Check for a ring?”

“I don’t think so. It was weird because he pressed my hand against his mouth and closed his eyes.” Her lip curled as she thought about the awkward exchange. “I was on my knees in that white and green dress you got me for Christmas. But I was freaking out because he yanked up my arm so far that I was sure he was going to tear out the zipper. And I love that dress! I want another one for Christmas.”

Her mother hollered out a laugh. “Woolworth, honey, but would you rather have a calf-length to protect your knees next time? They have a blue one that would match his eyes!”

They both broke into a fit of hysterics until her mother finally caught her breath. “You have no idea how wonderful it is to hear you laughing again. I feel like it’s been months.”

She wiped tears from her eyes and calmed herself with a sigh. “We laugh, Mom. We really do. He can be fun sometimes.”

“You called me in quite a tizzy this morning though. Not laughing then.”

“He just scared me, Mom, it was nothing.”

“You were crying so much I didn’t recognize your voice, and when I figured it out, I damn near drove straight over and got you.”

“Don’t say that. I was being dramatic; that’s all. I just wish I knew what sets him off. He’s so serious about everything.”

“He’s always seemed a little ‘sensitive’ to me.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Honey, he spent your entire wedding day in tears. The only person that could calm him down was your Uncle Ronny, and we all know about Uncle Ronny.”

“What’s wrong with Uncle Ronny?!”

“When your father and I started dating, your Uncle Ronny was about twelve. I’d been invited over for your Grandmother’s birthday to meet the whole family. Ronny spent the entire time in the kitchen making this ugly three-tiered cake for his mother while all the other brothers were out in the yard, playing football. When the whole thing went tits up, he cried for hours over that cake. He and I sat in his room for the rest of the party until he stopped crying and then we spent an hour just pouring over his bottle cap collection. Any of that sound familiar? He was ‘sensitive’, too.”

“Hey, I don’t mind talking about shells, and Kev’s not sensitive, Mom!”

“You’re still calling him Kevin?! Lord have mercy. Doesn’t that piss him off?”

“I don’t think so. He always laughs … I mean, I called him Kevin for weeks, but that wasn’t my fault. He never corrected me. How was I supposed to know?!”

“You two are a match made in heaven, I swear to God. Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumbass.”

She laughed and covered her face until her head snapped up when the front door rattled and pushed open. “Mom, I gotta go. I think he’s home. Love you.” She hung up and stood, fixing her blouse and hair and leaned out the kitchen doorway to find her husband pulling his satchel over his shoulder.

“Hello, hotshot,” he said, cocking a half-grin. He glanced around the messy house, dishes still sitting on the counter, and their bed unmade at the end of the long hall. “I’m sorry I’m home early.”

“Why are you sorry?”

He shrugged, hung his bag by the door, and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. “Did you make dinner?”

“I thought maybe we could go out tonight, just for fun. What do you think? Want to take your old ball-and-chain out dancing?” She smiled and spun on her heels.

He pushed past her on his way into the kitchen. “I’m hungry and you know I don’t dance.”

She rolled her eyes and turned to find him digging through a low cabinet. “Well, what are your plans this evening then?”

He stood and sighed, wrenching open the refrigerator door. “Well, right now, I have to cook us dinner because it’s not going to cook itself. Then, I’ll probably mow the lawn, unless you want to do either of those things yourself.” He grabbed a bag of bologna, closed the fridge door, and waited for her answer.

“The lawn looks fine to me, and I’d really like to go out.”

He ripped open a kitchen cupboard and pulled out a bag of bread and a can of tomato soup, pushing aside a stack of bowls to make room on the counter. “We’re at an impasse then, perfect. Go out. Have fun. In fact, have too much fun.” He scoffed as he turned away, pulling two slices of bread from the bag and dropping them onto the dirty counter. “I’ll be here, eating the food I already paid for and watching TV.”

She nodded and her shoulders fell. His reply was certainly not atypical. Her desires to get out of their suburban prison perpetually fell on deaf and disregarding ears. Unfortunately, a little burst of hope endured at the very edge of her heart. It remained there, blissfully imagining her husband grinning like a fool and brushing his hand across her face as they spoke. It would picture him playfully sneaking up behind her and kissing her neck. It would remain hopeful that he’d want to take her dancing or relive their first date at the bowling alley, but it was always crushed.

“Then can I join you for bologna and TV?” she asked, nodding to the bread in his hands.

He peered at her, and she was troubled by how he studied her as though her words were hiding a cryptic message that he was working furiously to decode. “I said go out and have fun,” he repeated. “Why would you want to stay in?”

“Because this is the longest conversation we’ve had in months and I thought maybe by the grace of God it could last another twenty minutes.”

He quickly glanced around the room, searching for an invisible someone or something in the empty kitchen. “Have you been talking to your mother,” he said, his eyes narrowing. He lowered his voice. “Dear God, is she in the house right now. Don’t say anything, just nod if she is.”

She smiled, suppressing her laughter which she had no intention of letting bubble out, but failed as always. “She’s not here, but I did talk to her.”

He scoffed and continued making his dinner, which now included two bologna sandwiches. “And what pearls of wisdom did she share this time? No, stop. Let me guess. You’re brother’s the stain on the family, your sister’s a stick-in-the-mud, she hates your father … and I’m a temperamental piece of shit who is slowly destroying your life and probably the world. Please, tell me I’m close; I’m just dying to know.”

“You’re not far off. But she also called you ‘sensitive’.”

He laughed, his forehead wrinkling. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Sensitive like my Uncle Ronny.”

She watched him grind his teeth as he wrenched the can opener around the edge of the soup can and then plop the content in a pot on the stove. “Which one’s he?”

“The guy you cried all over at the wedding.”

“Ah. I thought his name was Reginald.”

“It is.”

He huffed, and as he stirred the soup, she slowly approached and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her chest to his back. “Why did you cry so much at the wedding?”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Would you have married me if you’d known what was going to happen to the baby?”

“Nope,” he said, but suddenly hemmed and hawed at his callous answer. “I would have waited, probably. Gone back to school first.”

“You didn’t hurt my feelings,” she said. “I wouldn’t have married you either.”

“Well that’s a disappointing relief,” he said, “Dinner’s ready.”

She smiled and the pair plodded through the monotony of the evening, beginning with a hastily eaten dinner at the messy counter. He was still convinced that their half-inch tall lawn was in need of a trim, so while he spent an hour alone, meticulously mowing their small patch of crispy weeds, she cleaned the kitchen and then returned to the phone.

“Mom, he’s sort of making jokes; what do I do?!”

“Crack him on the head so you’ll always have these beautiful memories to cherish.”

She laughed and cradled her eyes. “No really. I’m supposed to watch TV with him tonight. I don’t know what to do with him.”

“I never watch TV with your father. He picks the worst programs and then laughs at every commercial like it’s part of the show. I hate it.”

“You’re not going to help me, are you?”

“I don’t know what you young girls do anymore. Just use your mouth on him; that’s how you won him, right?”

“Mom! Stop it you gross old woman!”

“You’re right, no mouth. Use your other bits – the God-given ones meant for this sort of situation. I want a granddaughter – I’m good with little girls. The boys … they’re harder to work with.”

“He’s not going to want to have sex, now, Mom; I just need some talking points.”

“Why would you want to talk to him? Just take off your shirt, shut him up, and then watch whatever you want to watch; it always works for me. Or just start randomly talking about sex. That freaks them out. And why wouldn’t your husband want to sleep with you? That’s probably both of your damn problems. You kids give it all away before marriage so you have nothing left to give each other after the wedding. Or wait … is it the slow thing? Is he too slow? I swear he looks like a minute-man, but maybe that’s just me.”

“He’s not … I mean, he is sometimes, I guess … I’m not discussing this either.”

“I’m calling your sister.”

“Go ahead, I haven’t told her anything.”

“Where is he now, and what made you call me back?”

She peeked out the open kitchen window to find him crouched by the mower, attempting to restart it. “He’s out mowing the lawn, and I don’t know why I called. I think I’m nervous. He doesn’t normally talk to me when he gets home … and he called me hotshot.”

“Okay. That is a weird pet name. Why, hotshot? Is he calling you spicy or is he just not right in the head?”

“He eats the candy a lot – he has a thing for cinnamon, but normally, he only calls me that when he’s, you know … ready for bed.”

“Oh, Lordy. See? He does want sex. And do you really need to consult me over every little bit of trouble? I already do this with your brother and sister. You know your brother’s new fling, The braless wonder? I told her not to let the door hit her in the hippie ass, and she’s still hanging around; can you believe that? If she didn’t keep pilfering his drugs right out from under his nose, I’d tell him to kick her to the curb, but at this point, I think it’s better that she hangs around.”

“Mom, I want your honest opinion. Did I make a huge mistake marrying him?”

The line grew quiet and contemplative. “Honey, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think there was a better man out there for you – one with a spark, who wants to take you out on the town and show you off. You found someone with a good job, a pretty face, and he’s polite, but, sweetheart – and I’m only saying this because you asked – he’s just … lifeless. Do you know what I mean?”

Her eyes drifted to the floor and she nodded to herself. “He’s really angry, Mom, but he hides it, and he won’t tell me why. Sometimes I piss him off on purpose because if he didn’t get angry about stuff, it would be like I was living with a dead man. And he really scared me this morning … ”

“Oh, honey.” Her mother sighed into the phone. “I’m so sorry. But be careful pulling stunts like that. Things are already sounding rocky, you don’t need to make it worse.”

“Is this just it, though? Is my life just going to be tiptoeing around him until he decides to talk to me? I don’t think I want to live like that, Mom. It feels wrong.”

“Give it another couple years. You two will warm up to each other and you might find that distance between you is sort of nice. It’ll give you something to re-explore together. A little concern, a little doubt, it just keeps everyone on their toes. Wouldn’t want to grow complacent, that’s how you lose the passion, and then you might start hating him. I’m sure everything will be fine, sweetheart. It’ll get better. Just stick it out …”

She nodded and quickly said her goodbyes before hanging up and rushing to the bathroom. She brushed her long blonde hair and by the time she returned to the kitchen, he was lining up his grass-stained shoes by the door. Without a word, he ducked around her to make his way to the bathroom to shower.

Twenty minutes turned to thirty, then sixty, and she sat on the couch, resting her eyes. She jolted awake when a hand tapped her shoulder.

“Why don’t you just go to bed?” he said, plopping beside her on the couch.

She sat up and watched the television flicker and glow as it warmed up. The sun had set, and the time read ten o’clock. On a weekday, he would be in bed by that hour, but it was Friday, and his favorite show was about to air – a show that gave her the creeps with its stories of sinister ghosts and unnatural phenomenon. She typically refused to watch it.

“Why do you love this show so much?” she asked.

“It delves into the deepest parts of the imagination,” he said, tapping his temple. “The scary parts no one likes to think about.”

“It’s just a bunch of crazy horror stories. Isn’t real life horrible enough?”

He snickered, and it sounded far too strained to make her comfortable. “You are quite a peach this evening,” he said.

“Why’d you call me hotshot?”

His face fell slack as he stared at her, and she stared back, unblinking.

“No reason,” he said, and the familiar twangy tune of the show’s introduction drew his attention back to the television set. “Do you want to watch something else? I know you hate this show.”

“This is fine, but you might have to explain it since I’ll probably cover my eyes for most of it.”

He nodded. “Does an active imagination scare you that badly?”

“Sometimes. I don’t like stories where people are killed or just disappear.”

“Okay, well, I’m here, and I can turn it off whenever you want.”

She nodded slowly and for some reason his pale skin, sunken eyes, and white tee-shirt made him look like a ghost. She brushed her hand down the soft cotton of his shirt just to be sure he wasn’t.

He watched her fingers trail down his shoulder and nodded to the arm of the couch behind her. “Hand me the afghan and an ashtray.”

She did as requested, tossing the bright blue and green blanket over him and the glass ashtray in his lap. He lit a cigarette and held up his arm, motioned for her to come closer to him. She slid along the cushion until she was pressed snuggly under the crook of his arm and he draped the blanket over them both.

“Better?” he wondered. She nodded as the screen opened on a mother and daughter showing a brand new Talky Tina doll to a very disgruntled father.

“Why can’t the father just be happy that his little girl loves her new doll?” she wondered, nuzzling against her husband.

“Maybe because the wife just spent a ridiculous amount of money to buy a toy the little girl doesn’t need.”

“But his daughter’s happy. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“He probably had to work sixteen hours to pay for it. Does that seem fair? That’s straight wages, not even taxed. And I’m not counting the cost to feed his whole family for those two days, or the mortgage on that huge damn house, or the maintenance and gasoline in that car they just parked out front. Does the Dad count at all, or are the wife and daughter the only …” He trailed off as he watched the father yell at the doll and throw it across the room. “Okay, he doesn’t need to break the damn doll … who throws shit when they’re angry? This guy needs to grow up.”

A loud unintentional scoff burst from her lungs though she tried to stifle it with the edge of the afghan.

“What?” he snapped. “You have something to say to me?” She shook her head so he cleared his throat and insisted, “I didn’t throw the plate this morning.”

“You must have a very active imagination if you think the plate smashed itself on the floor.”

He nodded and took a long drag. “I’m sorry I scared you. I’m not a violent person.”

“Except when you’re breakfast is cold, right?” She felt her lip quiver so she covered her mouth and buried her face in the blanket. If she knew what caused his eyes to glaze over or his teeth to grit and temper flare she could skirt around those issues, but it was a random occurrence that left her emotions reeling and her life far more stressful than she had envisioned.

His arm eventually wrapped around her as she composed herself and they both resumed their half-hearted viewing of whatever bizarre episode this would turn out to be.

The little girl’s dolly on the show was beginning to spout threats when she felt him leaned over and nuzzle her temple.

“I’m not violent,” he repeated. “I wouldn’t hurt a fly because that’s just not me. I don’t want you to worry about me like that.”

“Apparently a little concern is good for a relationship,” she scoffed, “Keeps the passion alive.”

“Are we thanking your mother for that fantasy? Talk about lying to yourself … the woman’s delusional.” He settled back into the couch, still puffing on his cigarette while she tried to relax and enjoy the show.

When the television father began receiving threatening phone calls from the doll, she let out a groan. “Is the doll going to kill him? I can’t watch this if the doll’s going kill him.”

“Talky Tina is definitely going to kill him, but the question is how?”

She looked up at him, curiously eyeing his gaze which was fixed on the television. “How? What’s it matter how?”

“Well, you have a doll up against a full-grown man. Tina has certain skills or tools at her disposal – a voice box to speak over the phone, she can move apparently and has the trust of the little girl and the mother. Now the father, he’s tried to destroy Tina, but he keeps failing, so the doll obviously has more up her sleeve than just a plastic arm. The trick is to figure out how Tina could kill him before it actually happens … What do you think she’s going to do?” He sat up and leaned away to better view her face.

“I … don’t think,” she said, wearily watching her husband’s peculiar excitement over such a silly show.

He nodded and cleared his throat. “Yeah, but … but think anyway. She could set the house on fire, but I don’t think her fingers move well enough to strike a match.”

“A knife, maybe? Or a gun?”

“Too conventional, and she’d need to be more dexterous than she is.”

“Poison?” she wondered.

“That’s good, but she could accidentally poison the girl, and I don’t see her wanting to do that. Tina’s protecting the girl. She’s designed a plan to take the asshole dad out of the picture and she’ll do it with only the skills she possesses and with minimal interference. She doesn’t care about being heard, but she cares about being seen. How would you murder someone if you were a doll?”

“You have a very criminal mind, you know that?” she snickered.

He visibly bristled and shoved his glasses up his nose. “Think of it like her game. How does she design it so that the asshole dad always loses?”

“Do you think she’s strong enough to suffocate him?”

“That’s a good point,” he said studying the television again. “Probably not with a pillow, though, and don’t forget that the wife’s in the same room. Tina would be more discreet. Separate the herd and pick them off when they’re at their weakest.”

“The dad’s leaving the bedroom!” she suddenly squeaked. “The doll’s going to kill him now!” She curled up under the blanket hiding her face against him.

“Think!” he chuckled, wrapping his arm around her. “You’re doing good! It’s almost over. What about a void or something; maybe she can conjure magic.”

“Magic?!” she laughed from under the blanket. “It’s a doll, not a witch. Oh! Oh!” She ripped the blanket off her face. “He’s at the top of the stairs! What if she tripped him?! Doesn’t someone die like that in Psycho?”

“When did you see Psycho?!” he scoffed. “And the guy in Psycho had already been stabbed in the face …” They both turned to the television, holding their breaths as the father’s foot landed on the doll and he slipped, plummeting down the stairs to his death. He landed hard at the bottom, the doll tumbling to a stop, directly across from his face.

“He tripped!” she hollered, throwing her hands into the air. “I was right!” He laughed against her neck as she wrapped her arms around him. “I did it! I beat that stupid doll!” They both laughed, embracing on the couch until she pulled back, grinning ear to ear to have a look at the man beaming in her arms.

His sunken eyes now looked exhausted and lost, but his ghostly appearance had faded to reveal his warm pinking cheeks. He resembled his old self for a moment, anxious but excited, young and hopelessly naive. His mouth grinned, but his eyes refused to join them in that fleeting moment of merriment, so he remained a sad picture of unrest. 

“What do you want to do now?” he asked, fidgeting with the strands of blonde hair clinging to her wet lips.

She casually shrugged and smiled. “We could talk.”

He sighed, but to her, it wasn’t lonesome or bored or disappointed. It just felt tired and yet relieved. “Tell me about your day.”

“I talked to my Mom,” she said, and he hummed in response. “I told her about how much I love that white and green dress she bought me a couple years ago.”

He raised his eyebrow. “And what did she say?”

“She said she got it at Woolworth and that they have a pretty blue one that matches your eyes.”

He gasped. “But then what did you say?”

“I said that my husband is a jackass and that I should make him wear the damn dress.”

He snickered and chewed his lip, patting her knee under the blanket. “Good talk.”

To avoid the conversation being closed completely, she slid her hand over his. “Want to talk about fucking?”

“I’m not certain that’s a good idea.”

“Well, we don’t have to talk about it … hotshot.”

His gaze immediately fell to the floor, and he huffed an anxious snicker that reminded her of their first nervous conversation. “You’re on to me, I see.”

She softly kissed his neck and then stood, letting the blanket fall to the floor. When he remained motionless, she tugged his shirt until he finally rose and followed her back to the unmade bed in their pitch-black bedroom.

She undressed, dropping her clothes in the pile at the foot of the bed and crawled over the sheets, waiting for him. Six weeks – perhaps seven – had elapsed since they had last been intimate, although their new definition of intimate left something to be desired.

The bed dipped when he joined her. He crawled between her legs until their faces were inches apart, yet still hidden from one another in the darkness. It had become a ritual – a solemn series of actions performed in the very specific order he’d laid out mouths before. It never changed, and she wasn’t fully convinced that she wanted it to.

He made love to her in the same way she imagined other husbands attempting to please their wives – panting through clenched teeth, eyes closed and lost in thought. Her world and bed rocked with the sway of his hips and she found herself at peace, knowing at that moment, there was nothing more she could do for him. Her hands only rested on his back, never his naked shoulders, and the lights would remain darkened to hide sullen faces, full breasts, and the healing scars that gashed under navels and over hearts.

When his duty had been completed to the best of his ability, she rolled onto her stomach and waited to be taken from behind. He never kissed her, nor did she attempt to kiss him. She knew the very real physical limits a body might impose upon itself and she respected them. It might reject the confining squeeze of a hug or an invasive and unwarranted tongue. It might jerk if an old injury is exposed or probed. He had given her body space when she needed it most, so she wholeheartedly returned the favor when he so easily became overwhelmed by his own skin.

He always finished at her back. He always breathed against her ear. And when either of them felt the crest and fall of physical relief, it was without spoken warning or any other sweet nothings.

Out shopping or with friends, she was still treated as a newlywed. She was still fawned over and there were family and neighbors who had yet to congratulate her. Whenever stopped on the street to be embraced and have her ring inspected, she smiled through the pain as was expected of such a young beautiful bride. She had a home, a garden to tend, an educated and handsome husband, and a youthful figure, and each was more barren than the last.

When his whimpers turned breathy, fading into her hair and his body finally slowed to a stop, he rolled them both to their sides to fall asleep. Though his heart beat against her back, his hands remained motionless, refusing to explore her soft skin, so she laid with her companion in solitude.

“What would you have done if I’d left you alone this evening?” she asked.

He brushed her hair from his face and sighed. “Exactly what I just did.”

“How would we have made love if I wasn’t here?”

“I would have masturbated in the shower.”

“Why didn’t you tonight?”

“I heard what you said … about not knowing what to do with me … like I’m a bad dog you aren’t allowed to put down.”

She clenched her eyes, a burning heat spreading over her cheeks. “I’m sorry you heard that,” she whispered. The warmth of his body receded and she groped for the cold sheets to cover herself.

His voice, now bitter, hissed from behind her. “How could you say that I’m dead inside?”

She gasped and covered her mouth to hold back the inadequate apology threatening to gush from her lips. There was no response capable of soothing a wound that cruelly or casually inflicted. If she knew of only one facet of her husband, it was that he became heavily perturbed when referred to as cowardly, crazy, or devoid of life. She quickly felt behind her until she found his hand and pulled it to her face, kissing his palm.

He withdrew his hand as rapidly as she had taken it, his chest stuttering with each choking breath. “I’m not dead inside,” he hissed.

She cradled her eyes as she felt him weep only inches from her bare skin. They were not the long bellowing tremors of a man hurt or heartbroken. These sobs were short and quick, and full of new forms of frustration and agony. He claimed to not be dead inside, but they both would remain staunchly unconvinced.

the great red dagon [boot tread]

Prompt from a comment on AO3:

How about a prompt based off of this: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagon_(film)?

CoralQueen

Now, this is an interesting prompt. The link takes you to the 2001 Spanish movie based on the H.P. Lovecraft novella, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, but the title is also the name of a short story which the movie is not based on, Dagon.

For this prompt, I went with the short story, Dagon, which you can all read here. It’s only 2200 words. I went outside the box for this prompt. I hope you all enjoy it.

This ficlet was originally posted on Archive of Our Own (AO3) as a short story written by one of my reoccurring fictional characters, Hopper. At the time, it was an essay he had written for his creative writing class in 1956  (complete with several errors).

1627 words

Cristobal Diaz | OCEANA

No one believed me by the time we had reached the shore. I was mad. They called me “touched by the sea,” but had no idea of the horrors I had witnessed. They hauled me inland as per my request and gave me an unlimited supply of sedatives. I did not argue, and this is why.

We were halfway to Alaska, netting the mighty blue, when we were caught in a deluge that rivaled The Great Flood. Sheets pummeled us, drowning out orders and warnings, and the mighty wind cracked against us, tipping the vessel to its side. Even our great mass was not heavy enough to stabilize the hull. The stern let out a holler that put the lightning to shame, and we were suddenly in two pieces and drowning.

I floundered and tread until I hauled myself into a small lifeless boat, already filled with water and nearly sinking. I bailed what I could, and by the time only an inch of brine was left under my heels, the storm had vanished, and with it went my ship, the crew, and the choppy waters.

The sea was suddenly glass. No breeze rippled it or moved my boat. I was soaked and now dead in the water. I feared to reach over the side, as the sea seemed to cut my boat like a knife. I was set on a mirror that reflected the blinding sun, scorching my skin as I waited for someone or something to find me.

I never thought I would wish for a pistol to turn upon myself, but by day two, when I had not drifted a discernible distance or wetted my cracking lips, I yearned for a bullet to end it. That yearning was just as palpable on day three when they finally found me. They were not Americans on large vessels, or Inuits in dugout canoes. They did not glide across the glass to me, nor did they soar overhead and spot me from a trans-pacific flight. They came from below.

Black webbed fingers crept over the edge of my boat, two at first, and then three. Three hands turned to six and I scrambled to the stern. In a matter of seconds, the boat was flipped and the bright open sky bubbled above me. I thrashed but grew weak and those webbed fingers gripped my ankles and hauled me down until the bubbling sky was an abyss miles above.

They took me where the sun no longer feeds the sea plants.  They took me to a place where schools of fish refuse to hide and the mighty sharks won’t hunt. They took me to the bottom of a great chasm cut into the earth like a scar on the face of the sea floor. They took me to a stone chamber where I was left to choke and writhe on the lung-filling icy liquids of the deep, begging for death, though it never came.

Days are not days without the sun. Nights are not nights without the filling moon. Time is unending at the bottom, and the pain in my chest was ceaseless. If given the chance, however, I would relive those freshly inflicted pains until the earth collapsed upon itself. I would live again through every burning, aching false breath and the agony of my newly frozen eyes. I would welcome once more, my numb fingers and empty gut until the universe exploded, just to avoid reliving what would happen next.

He came one day or night, I know not which. He did not rap or call to me. I was hauled out and presented to him, tied with ropes to a cross made of metal pipes from my own ship.

White globes encircled and cast us in an eerie, bewitching light. He was not a man but a beast of the depths. His body was gray, cut from stone and covered in fleshy scales. His arms were that of a titan, bulging and brutal and at the ends he bore black webbed fingers. His head was more like a honed skull than a human face. Thick pouting lips covered the fangs that protruded from his jaw and golden eyes pierced me as I wrenched against my bone-chilling restraints. As he hovered in front of me, studying me as one might a rotting corpse that washed ashore, I finally saw the rest of him.

At his hip were not legs, but a long undulating silver tail. It shone like a mirror as it flicked below his body, reflecting the orbs that circled us. An icy chill radiated from it, and though I was already numb, the cold plowed through me and I shook.

A glint caught my eye and I saw in his hand what I will never forget. He held a knife, bowed like a raptor’s claw. I couldn’t yell through the water which perpetually filled my mouth, nor thrash against my crucifix. I was stuck and waiting to be gutted like a fish.

Just below my ribs, I felt the knife slide into my body. My mouth grew agape but no shriek echoed through my watery prison. I swallowed my tongue in agonizing pain as I watched the creature disappear in a cloud of vibrant red.

My body burned and writhed and another rosy murk pulsed from below. I was twisted and yanked and was again consumed by another throb of crimson fog. When the attack suddenly ceased and the water began to clear, I felt my chest slowly rise as I floated from my lower half. Then two sharp gashes cut my wrists from my hands and consequentially my restraints, and I was left adrift.

When I awoke I had been returned to my stone cave at the bottom of the endless chasm. My body had been massacred and I shook with shock and misery. I dared not touch myself, for I knew no hands remained. When my torment grew too great, I finally pawed at my phantom legs with what was left of my frozen stumps. What I found were tingling fingers sliding down a slimy tail. Over my gut were coarse and crudely-stitched cords, laced between my soft flesh and the cold silvery tail of my captor.

In the glow of the single orb that lit my cell, I could see in its moonlight my black webbed hands. They did not move like my hands, they ached with each flick of my wrist. They trembled and pulsed, sending long black veins up my now naked arms.

I dared not look upon my tail. It was grotesque and unnatural and I was fearful of it. I could move around my cell with ease and grace, but the sheer magnitude of its strength terrified me. It had razors down its spine, and in its silver scales, I could see the outline of my face. I’d looked once, and what I saw was ungodly so I never looked again.

I was neither fed nor clothed, but left for an eternity to rot. Over time, my skin bloated and softened like a dead fish and chunks were nibbled away by passing crabs. I gradually covered in a slippery mucous by the fungus that grew on the walls of my craggy hole.

I begged for sweet death to come and rescue me, since my heart had stopped beating years before, but that cruel witch never came. Perhaps she was as scared of him as I was.

He returned not long after I’d given up. I’d burrowed beneath the sandy bottom when I felt fingers grasp my gritty hair. I was ripped from the ground and twisted to face him, his golden eyes furious at what his glorious tail had become. It hung loose and pathetic from my abdomen, the cords pulling and gaping below my navel. My white skin stretched and tore from the mighty girth hanging from it, and a lack of use had caused my long black fingers to twist into ebony claws.

He bared his silvery fangs, bubbles erupting from his nose and mouth. I had laid unmoving on the seabed, allowing the bottom dwellers to pick at my skin and my sanity, and he was furious at this disrespect I showed him. The knife glinted again and I closed my eyes this time, as it tore into me with an even greater and more ferocious fervor. We were plunged again into a great red plume that devoured us both, and then some. I waited for more, but there was only one crimson tide before the creature, and the depths, took my consciousness from me.

When I awoke on my back, surrounded by merchants ordering me to breathe, they were certain it was a nightmare I had witnessed. The men yelled and screamed and demanded to know who I was and from where I had come. I spoke of a creature who gave me black hands and I showed them. They scoffed at my lily-white fingers. I pleaded for their faith that a creature sewed a tail to me, but when I kicked my legs, they laughed.

I was mad. I was locked away where I begged for sedation. Instead, they plunged me into twilight sleep, though I had already lived through a decade of that at the bottom of the great ocean. They left me to flounder in a forgotten room in a long-abandoned building. They left me weak and comatose, waiting yet again for death, and this punishment was fair and just. They said I had been “touched by the sea,” and would never know how right they truly were. The sea had given me a rare gift, and I wasted it.

gitche gumee [short story]

This was created in January 2018 for the 12 Short Stories writing challenge. The title is pronounced “git-chee goo-mee.”

1200 words.

Topeka Capital Journal

I first saw Cookie while I was being shoved against a dumpster behind a shitty bar in Duluth. Cook hated that name about as much as I hated my own. My head was ringing and I was left crawling around, hiding from an unpaid tab that had left me fucked up and bleeding from the nose. He’d watched his buddy deck me and drag me outside, and then Cook flipped a coin. He helped me after that, because, apparently, it was my lucky day.

I remember his deep voice yelling at me to stay on the ground while his buddy paced, looking for a reason to finish me. I could barely tell what he was saying through his thick accent and the shaggy gray beard covering his lips. His buddy walked away like a good man. Cook did not.

I was too lost to care and too drunk to notice where I was being led, or by who, so when I woke up in a motel room, sore and still bleeding, there was no shock to be had.

Cook was a chef, a good one, and he fed me that morning and the next. He’d worked for twenty-five years in a boatyard – a familiar haunt for me, seeing as I grew up on one just off the Gulf. We ended up smoking and drinking and sharing more than just a bed for a few nights. We shared memories.

I was a kid during the war, thank God. He’d served and said he loved every bloody minute of it. I’d always wanted to be a cop when I grew up. He laughed because he’d never been anything but a cook and a crook.

When it came time to share the deeper, darker parts of me, I choked, but there was something in his lonely eyes that egged me on. I told him who I was and from where I’d run, and he listened with such rapt attention that I thought I might be speaking the words of God. When I described how I’d snapped and killed them all, he didn’t look at me like I should be thrown in the clink or a nuthouse. He just nodded and said welcome to the club.

He got me a job on his boat – the big one, according to the locals. I had nowhere to go and the earth was burning my feet, so I figured the sea might just wash away some of my sins.

It was a clear day in November when we set off hauling ore from some mill in northern Wisconsin. We were part of the twenty-eight-man crew plus the captain. He was a good captain – well-seasoned, as Cook called him – who stayed on the bridge, piping music through the intercom. The crew fucking loved it; hell, every port loved it. They were a treasured attraction on Superior. People came from miles away just to watch them dock: a salty, drunken family that danced and sang across the deck.

After what I had done, I had a hard time believing life could be as happy-go-lucky as a clear blue sky and careless merriment on a barge. I’d been branded a hero. They gave me the key to the city and a hefty raise without knowing the truth. They cocked eyebrows and shook heads when I turned in my badge and gun the next week. They said I was out of my mind to leave my post. They offered me more money and a better position – in an office rather than patrolling cells – but I couldn’t go back. They thought I had saved my boys, and I had. But I was also who’d started the fire.

They burned for days but screamed for what felt like longer. They smoldered and smoked – tall black plumes reaching for the heavens – until all that was left was a big brick box filled with a hundred locked coffins. It was declared an act of God, and maybe they were right. God does have a penchant for watching his children burn.

When people heard my name, they beamed and wanted to shake my hand – the hand that had chained doors, flushed keys, and sloshed gasoline across the floor. I was apparently made in God’s vengeful image, but no one was the wiser. I left town after that.

The lake afforded smooth sailing for my maiden voyage, and I felt free for the first time in years. The solid ground had carried too much weight for my taste, but the water and the breeze gave me life. I could’ve learned to love that.

Cook took me on deck and told me of the ports, kitchen, and who onboard had new wives or new babies waiting for them in Detroit. He didn’t care, but he knew. He called me a clever boy and a good friend. When my eyes glazed and my attention waned, he clapped my back and told me murder was a relative term used only by men. We were not men there. We were something different. We were divine, but caught between the devil and the deep blue.

That evening brought with it gray clouds and a dangerous wind. Cook called the gales a bad air. The gusts picked up, and the waves beat their fury on the sides of the boat. We rocked and the great hull bellowed into the night. The crew battened down but the good captain forged on despite the warnings. I, the coward, prayed like a child in Cook’s bunk. He didn’t like it, but he let me.

God came knocking on that boat, throwing our bodies and teasing the hungry water. We could hear him in the bones of the ship. We could see him in the flickering bulbs and the panicked faces of the crew. We could feel his wrath when he pelted us with an icy rain and twisted her so far that she finally cracked open.

A pitch black void howled above and a damp doom laid beneath, and no coin would let us pick which direction we preferred. That night we were all left drowning.

I could hear the tears and the frantic calls of dying men locked in their fate. I was one of them this time, and I welcomed the dark waters into my mouth and lungs, because you cannot play or battle God and expect a fair fight.

Days passed, and when I peeled open my eyes, I was staring at the hazy light filtering through the window of Cook’s motel room. My chest burned and my body shook, and he was studying me from the corner, smoke pouring from his broken nose like a serpent.

He didn’t smile or scoff, or tell me why my face was bloodied and my hair gritty with sand. He just helped me redress, tucked a map and his wallet in my back pocket, and said fortune favors the bold. He donned a pack, lit me a smoke, and opened the motel door. The room was flooded with the healing fire of the mid-morning sun and the gongs of a church ringing through the streets. Twenty-nine bells of mourning rang through Detroit, and I’ve yet to hear a sweeter sound.