Warning: Contains some disturbing language
I am no hero. I mean, I'm really, really not. It's not in my nature. Besides, I learned a long time ago that no matter how nice you are to others, no matter how much they tell you what they'd do for you or how much they love you or need you, in a crisis or a moment of panic, it's every man for himself.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not a kick-the-puppy kind of guy, or a walk-past-a-man-on-fire person. I just don't go out of my way to get involved if I can avoid it. And I usually can. Avoid it, that is.
I stepped back, farther into the shadows, and cocked an ear towards what had been, seconds ago, a nice quiet refuge from the obnoxiously pounding music of the club. I'd seen the kid wander past the mouth of the alleyway and yes, I allowed myself a moment of hope to think he had followed me out of the bar.
He was cute, damn cute: perfect pale skin, dark hair, sporting one of those pretty-enough-to-be-on-a-billboard smirks. Kind of young too, the assumption based more so on the studded belt wrapped twice around his waist and the jeans so tight they had to be cutting off circulation, than from the un-jaded bounce in his step.
Age. It's destructive. Not just in the physical sense of things either. Sure, it messes with your skin and your hair. But it's the mind games that make it hardest. It's the way people under fifty stop looking at you; the way they stop talking to you. At least when you're young people looked in your eyes. They smiled. Even if it was for no other reason than to try and talk you into coming home with them.
As time goes on though, nobody bothers to try. It's like from the age of thirty to forty-nine you cease to exist just another face in the crowd, just another one of the horde. I don't know if it's the same for straight men, but thirty-five for a gay man might as well be ninety. Twenty-five or fifty-five, isn't that the rule?
We'd passed each other a couple of glances over the bar. Glances that I'd let myself fantasize were actually something other than him looking past me. I'd nursed my drinks to the self-indulgence that had the music not made conversation impossible, or the dance floor not been as packed, I'd might have considered going over and starting something up.
It was a pipe-dream, and I knew it, so I didn't beat myself up over it. I wasn't there to pick anyone up anyway. I was there to enjoy a couple of apple-tinis and people watch that was it. No matter how pretty he was. No matter how blue his eyes were.
When it gets hard, sometimes it's easier to stop trying altogether. No one likes to hear no, even if it's said nicely. And God knows, an eyeball roll or a half-caught laugh can just about kill a person. A decade of lonely is easier on the soul than a moment of humiliation.
It wasn't his casual footsteps that had me on alert though. It was the other sounds: the voices, the hushed trying-to-be-quiet laughing, the scuffing feet as one body 'playfully' pushed another body roughly.
I flicked my cigarette and watched the white tube fly through dark air to land with an extinguishing hiss in a puddle of God only knew what. I could now remain in the shadows without the telltale red circle or wandering plume of smoke giving away my hiding place.
"Come on," I whispered into my collar, as though sharing a wireless contact between me and the young black-haired man, "step lightly. Get out of here, already." And I almost thought, just for a split second that he was going to. He'd taken a long look down the dark alley and turned away. Only thing was, he turned back and looked again. And he paused. Just long enough to be too long. His next look flashed to the left. Towards the sound of the new voices.
I have never been a great friend. I grew up in a small town, in a small school and was quite literally the only one of 'my kind'. As a young person I was bullied, teased or ignored. I learned to make do on my own, and I did it damn well. By the time everyone got older, and a bit more tolerant, I had put up enough walls and wired in enough defence mechanisms that it was just easier to keep to myself. Boyfriends came, but inevitably went. Friendships that tried to solidify faded.
I think that's where most of my generalized loathing came from. If I could learn to live on my own, why couldn't everyone else? If I didn't need you, then you shouldn't need me. Men and women alike I didn't want their attention or their help... so don't ask for mine. Squash your own bugs, pump your own gas, and pick out your own damn shoes.
The ringleader there was always one of those stepped into the halo of the street light before anyone else. Tall, cocky, not quite attractive, he oozed redneck charm like sludge from a broken barrel. I twisted my body into the rough brick of the little alcove and, even hidden, tried to disappear into the surface. I knew his kind. Behind him, his two buddies crept out of the shadows like approaching coyotes.
It's not like I have never loved because I have. Fiercely. It may take me a long time to commit to something but when I do, I do it with conviction. But contrary to popular belief, broken hearts don't get stronger with time. They become feeble. They become frightened. They retreat.
"Looky, looky, looky," Mr. Tough Guy said, walking slowly around Pretty Boy. "What have we here?" Mr. Tough Guy flashed a look at Lemming #1, and waited impatiently for the requisite reply.
"I think it's the homo from the club," Lemming #1 provided without hesitation, nodding at Lemming #2.
"Ya," Lemming #2 drawled, "it's the fag."
You have to love the amount of inflection that can be inserted into that one little three-letter word.
Pretty Boy smiled as nicely as I imagine he could, given the circumstances. "I don't want any trouble guys." He held up his hands in the traditional submissive pose.
"He don't want no trouble," Lemming #2 mocked.
Lemming #1 laughed out loud. "We ain't trouble are we, Jess?"
Mr. Tough Guy, Jess I assume, (Jessie, Jessop, Jesimiel?) chuckled at L#1 before turning his attention back to Pretty Boy. "What you out here looking for fag? You meeting your boyfriend out here or something?"
Oh, oh. Instinct had my legs tensing and my guts crawling. 'Run,' I thought. 'Run like the wind.'
Being on the taking side of the fist of a hater is not something that most sane folks would relish. Hate seems to make people stronger, meaner... feral. Hate is the difference between a black eye and a week's stay in the hospital. Anger will get you some loose teeth hate will get you a ruptured kidney.
Pretty Boy stepped back. 'Not this way,' I wanted to scream. 'Not into the alley you idiot!'
"Look," his voice was timid in his throat. Too timid. "I haven't done anything to you guys so..."
"He ain't done anything to us guys," L#2 repeated. The mockingbird of the group. There was always one of them too.
"Oh, he ain't, ain't he?" Mr. Tough Guy smirked at L#1. L#1 turned to Mr. TG with a big grin. "Gates, weren't you just saying this homo was giving you the eye? Back in the club?"
A confused look fell over L#1's face. "I did?"
Mr. TG growled. "Yes, dumbass! Remember?" He shot L#1 a look that wasn't even subtle about the way it shouted 'just go along with this!'
Pretty Boy took another step back and I groaned at the direction of his retreat. Not only would his movement bring him farther away from civilization and deeper into the dark, thereby increasing his risk tenfold, it was also going to bring him closer to me.
L#2 reached out and shoved L#1 by the shoulder. "Ya, dumbass. Remember?"
Understanding dawned so sluggishly on L#1's face that it was like watching it happen in slow motion. "Oh ya, I remember now!"
Mr. Tough Guy's expression twisted on his face.
I had a dog once a Labrador Retriever. Best damn dog a boy could ever have. I was six when I got it. That dog could leap fences in a single bound and outrun a deer when it got to a full run. I had him for damn near eight years. Seven years and 11 months of perfect bliss.
Something... changed... in its eyes, its mouth, even the way he stood, about a month before he died. I don't know if it was illness, if something broke inside its mind, or if he just knew he was dying. The dog went crazy. Mean crazy. Big brown puppy eyes turned into deep black pits. You could tell just by looking that something wasn't right.
Just by looking in his eyes.
Pretty Boy was shaking his head, his feet continuing the path towards irreparable separation from all things trustworthy. "I didn't mean to offend any of you in any way. I swear. I wasn't looking at your friend..."
"Gates," Mr. TG's voice dropped low and dangerous, "this here fag is calling you a liar."
The slap came out of nowhere: hard, fast, and accurate as all hell. I flinched in empathy while Pretty Boy's hand flew to his cheek in surprise. Fear had already started to register in those shining blue eyes, but just how out of control this could get, well that, that was finally starting to sink in.
Mr. TG leaned in real close to the stunned young man. "I don't take kindly to people calling my friends liars."
I'm not the kind of person who looks back on their life and laments about what has been and how they wish they could change this, that, or the other thing. I don't feel guilty about my lack of concern when it comes to other people. I know it goes both ways. I don't whine about how I deserve to be loved and how unfair it is that I'm not. Things happen. Shit isn't always pretty. If something beautiful gets broken, then it gets broken. Nothing you can do about it. That's just life.
I saw the look and I recognized it for what it was way, way before Pretty Boy did. Mr. TG flashed it to L#1, then L#2, and you could all but see their non-existent hackles rising and their imaginary tails switch to life. The hunt was on. The pack had caught the scent of rabbit and this was going to be an easy kill.
My fingers tightened into fists against my leg. I pressed my back straighter against the brick wall. I resisted the urge to light a cigarette out of nervousness. 'Come on,' I thought, praying the words in my mind would magically alight in the air and swish out towards some kind of telepathic soul. 'Where's a damn cop when you need one?' Although at that point I would have settled for a tough-ass taxi driver. Hell, a group of gay-loving fangirls might have worked.
It wasn't that I cared. For the most part. I mean, he was pretty. Damn pretty. Too pretty for stitches and scars. It was just that the more I thought about the looks he'd been tossing across the bar, the more I was starting to worry that he actually had followed me outside. While that in itself was a most thrilling thought, it was, surprisingly, kind of guilt inspiring.
They were circling, edging him farther into the darkness of the alley.
I can't change who I am. I can't suddenly make myself a better person. There is no magic switch in my mind or my heart that flips on the love-o-meter. I can live alone. I've got quite used to it. It doesn't affect my life because I don't let it. If people are meek enough to let themselves get hurt or get walked over, if people are going to let others take advantage of them, who am I to say it shouldn't happen? Maybe a little bit of pain and suffering make you into a better person.
"Please," Pretty Boy was begging now. That wasn't a good sign. "I didn't do anything to you. Just leave me alone."
L#1 suddenly got brave. Grinning, leering, he stepped up and slammed two solid palms into Pretty Boy's chest. They hit like anvils. Pretty Boy stumbled, struggling to keep his footing, gasping air into suddenly empty lungs.
Mr. Tough Guy smirked at Pretty Boy's distress. "So wrong, fag; you're so wrong. You do something just by existing." TG's hand shot out like a rocket. He grabbed a handful of that sexy black hair and yanked. With a whimper the kid was wrenched forward and all but fell against TG's chest. "Want to know what that is?"
It was hard to tell what exactly the movement was with the grip as tight as it appeared to be, but I was sure Pretty Boy shook his head no. "Too fucking bad," TG hissed. "You make me sick, that's what you do. You make me want to throw the hell up. You disgusting little fag. You friggin' abomination."
'Bravo,' I thought sarcastically. 'You just look that word up today?'
TG twisted his grip, earning himself a pained cry from the boy below him. He turned Pretty Boy towards his minions. "Gates, Shane, how 'bout you?"
I've always held a special admiration for those of us that can hold court. Those people that always had followers; those who always had others tripping over themselves to serve, serve, serve. Power. Strength. Manipulation.
No one appreciates supremacy quite as much as the powerless.
L#2 stepped up first, but then it's easy to formulate sentences when you're not doing anything more clever than parroting the previous ones. "Sick," his lip curled at Pretty Boy's tear-filled expression. "Friggin' gross."
I couldn't help but think that 'abomination' had been too many syllables for his mind to have retained.
I watched L#1 reach out and fist Pretty Boy's shirt and I knew this was where it was going to start to get ugly. He yanked the boy forward, in direct contravention to the hold TG still had in Pretty Boy's hair, and once again the kid cried out. L#1 leaned in, dragged breath through his nose and throat in that disgusting way that only the best of red-necks can, and spat in Pretty Boy's face. It landed; wet, sloppy and I heard the boy choke back a strangled sob even from where I stood. I flinched worse than with the slap.
Then he went flying. Pretty Boy's feet literally left the ground. Mr. Tough Guy didn't just push him, he tossed the man. The sound of knees and palms hitting concrete was raw enough to make you grit your teeth. Pretty Boy's first reaction was to try and scramble up but TG was way too quick for that. His heavy boot came down on the young man's back like it was the righteous hand of God. A sick crack of forehead meeting roadway and a pained howl echoed through the alley.
I know what it feels like to want to hurt something. I don't crave it, I don't do it, but I think there's something inside all of us that wants to lash out with destruction. It hits on the same level as our compulsion to create. Primal? Perhaps. Instinctual? Probably. Most of us can fight it. The rest... Be it a need to subjugate, or a repulsion of weakness, some people just need to see other people hurt.
Pretty Boy rolled over, pleading quietly. So quiet, in fact, that not only could I not hear what he begged but I seriously doubted any of his tormentors could. Considering the round of high-fives and momentary lack of interest in their toy, I could only assume that was the case anyway. Blood ran from the boy's nose, but to his credit, that appeared to be the worst of it. For now.
He struggled to sit up. When his movement caught Mr. Tough Guy's eye, Pretty Boy's reaction was instantaneous. He extended his arm, palm out, 'stop'. "Please," the young man begged, "don't. Please. I haven't done anything wrong."
"The fact you exist is wrong," TG growled and stepped forward.
Pretty Boy was not quite as quick at cutting off the sob this time. He tried again, arm still held defensively in front of him. "Please..."
"Ah," Mr. TG replied, his voice dropping to something far too close to husky, far too... interested. I closed my eyes in the dark and shook my head. "You like to beg, fag?" He hooked his thumbs in his jeans and snapped his attention back to his entourage. "Get him on his knees."
We all have secrets urges that we hide from one another, desires that we keep behind closed doors. Those dirty things we hunt the Internet for, that we'll offer up three dollars and fifty cents a minute to watch or have whispered in our ear. I don't blame anyone for having a compulsion. I have my own fair share of them, trust me.
Pretty Boy struggled against the body that slipped behind to pin him on his knees and hold both his arms back. "Shane," TG snapped. "Get his hair and keep his damn head still."
The thing is, I've known I was gay ever since I understood what my dick was for. And I have fought for that right ever since. I am proud of the fact that I am strong enough to know where to look for love I need, even if I haven't been able to find it. And I know I've suffered for it. To be the person that I needed to be, I have no doubts that I lost a little bit of the person that I could have been.
Tears streaked Pretty Boy's face as he fought against the hold, lips clamped, and eyes closed tight. Mr. Tough Guy pulled down his zipper and stepped forward.
I was willing to make the concessions that I had to make. It was never a choice, not for me, but I still had to make the effort to ensure I could have it. I suppose there are people who can ignore it. I suspect, however, that most of those who do end up as angry, bitter, frustrated individuals.
TG was grinning like the Cheshire cat. He was getting off on what he was about to do like it was his right. Lemming #2...
... held onto Pretty Boy's hair with the tenacity of a fresh-water leech. He practically bounced with glee as he watched Mr. Tough Guy...
... smack the boy's jaw with his body. Spittle and snot bubbled from the young man's nose as he sobbed without opening his mouth. Behind, immobilizing the smaller frame against his own, Lemming #1...
... ground his hips against the thrashing, wriggling body.
I am no hero. But at least I have the balls to be who I am.
I sighed and eyed the alleyway.
I have suffered and I have lived a quiet, mostly lonely existence for it. But I have never denied it.
With an almost casual move, I pulled out my cigarettes and tapped one free. I placed it between my lips and flicked open my Zippo. The flame danced, illuminating, warming, painting the dark alcove with orange and yellow and red. The paper caught, and I inhaled.
I am not a great friend. I am not a great man. But I won't steer into anything on the middle of the road either.
Lemming #1 cocked his head in confusion at the light that filled the hidden space. He opened his mouth to say something at the exact instant that I stepped out. I reached for a piece of 2x4 that lay beside a half-broken down skid.
Grade eight... gym class. Two strikes in, and me, standing on the plate. Bases loaded. Boys against girls. Guess I'd been playing on the wrong team. And yes, the pun is intended. The resulting humiliation with the third strike was not only merciless, it was relentless. Like I'd needed another reason for the guys at school to hate me. But it was the last time I ever struck out in baseball again. I practiced swinging that bat and cracking baseballs until my arms shook and my back ached. Every night. Every lunch. Every weekend. Until I was perfect.
If the look on L#1's face didn't give me away, the sound of tumbling boards did. TG turned, L#2 lifted his head, and in surprised unison, the three men stared at me.
What did I wait for? I waited for him, of course. Clenched blue eyes opened timidly and I saw recognition, relief, and even a little bit of awe flash through them. 'Hi there,' I thought. And something registered in his face that my mind translated as, 'Hello there, yourself'.
I hefted the 2x4 and sucked smoke through my cigarette.
The only look that's ever rivalled the one my dying dog wore was one I saw on a painting when I went to visit my Great Aunt Carole. She was a devout Christian. One of those faithful few who actually listened to gospel, watched TV evangelists for pleasure, and considered the phrase 'oh my goodness' to be a curse. Spread-eagled Jesus' on roughly hewn crosses sat on every shelf; paintings of the good Lord himself covered every wall. And my favourite, my very, very favourite one was not the one of the sweet-faced man beside the cherry-cheeked children, or the one where he sat stroking the humbled lion that lay beside the adoring lamb. It was a much more virtuous JC that called to me. It was the Christ from the book of Luke, furiously removing the merchants from the temple. That face was perfect. That face was more than frightening, it was righteous! It was enraged and magnificent and it was an expression that said 'I'm right and I know it'.
I spoke around my cigarette. "Which line do you want, boys? The one about being a punk? Or the one about making my day?"
Pretty Boy's hands fell to the pavement with a smack as his arms were dropped. The clutch on his hair was released. Like the sneaky predators they were, the two lemmings sought each other in the dark alley. They slunk protectively, moving as if one unit, towards the opposite wall. I started at Mr. Tough Guy and he stared at me.
"Come on over here," I said, cupping my free hand open and closed to catch Pretty Boy's attention. Losing eye contact with the beast was not in my plan of action at the moment.
The young man made to move, to scuttle towards me and I stopped him. "No." I lifted my hand like a drawbridge. "Stand. Stand and walk."
Like a manno, not even like a human being.
His legs were shaky, but I couldn't fault him for that. The knees were torn out of his jeans, blood and snot covered his face and dirty tear tracks trailed his cheeks. His beautiful black hair was a disaster. But he watched my face, heard my words, and lifted his chin when he walked over. Atta' boy.
He stopped beside me, pausing for a minute, and I would have loved to look over and catch those pretty blues in a long, heated gaze. I, however, remained in constant vigil with Mr. Tough Guy who still hadn't made a move to tuck in, zip up or walk away. I felt the look though. The same warm, sweet stare I now realised he had been sending my way in the bar. When he stepped behind me his body was close.
"C'mon, Jess," L#1 hissed. "Let's get out of here."
TG's eyes narrowed. I smirked. But I stayed on guard.
Have you ever cornered a mouse? You'd be damned surprised how something so weak and small can become a vicious little bastard.
Mr. Tough Guy's expression softened to a mere sneer. "Fuck you, faggots."
I smiled coldly. "Not on your luckiest day."
Was it wrong to find it amusing that Mr. Tough Guy failed to zip his pants? Was that a childish reaction? Ah well, sillier thoughts had passed through this brain of mine than that.
I turned to Pretty Boy when the three jerks were gone, and dug through my jacket to locate some scoffed bar napkins. He took them with an expression that bordered on radiant. "Hi," he said, around sniffles and wipes. "I'm Kevin." He looked up, smiling, wide-eyed. "And you must be Superman."
I snorted. "No, Kevin. I'm..."
I'm no hero.
"Can I buy you a drink, Tracy?"
No-one likes to hear no.
"I guess so. If you want to, I mean."
"Yes, I would. I would love to. Get to know you. I mean... you know. I'd love to buy you a drink and get to know you. I... saw you in the bar," Kevin shrugged nervously. "And thought I saw you come out for a smoke so I... came out..."
I have never been a good friend.
"I'd like that."
Kevin lifted his head and grinned.
It's not like I have never loved.
His eyes were stunning up close. I knew I was going to like those eyes of his. There's a lot of things you can tell about a person...
Just by looking in his eyes.
"Apple-tini, right?" Kevin's grin deepened.
I took the napkin out of his hand and reached up with it to wipe at a smear of blood that he'd missed on his forehead. He closed his eyes when I touched him. "Yep," I agreed. "Apple-tini. And more napkins. Lots more napkins."