I crouch in the hallway, not wanting to touch anything. Noises crawl under and through the thin apartment doors: the hollow, metallic reports of cooking; raised voices that make me shudder; fucking. After a while, I cross my legs under me and fall asleep, leaning over my legs, my back curled forward.
When a hand touches my shoulder, I lurch away, trying to get to my feet.
“Easy there, kid,” Jacob says. He’s making noises like laughter, but his cheeks aren’t pushing up around the lower edges of his eyes. “What’s got you so spooked?”
“Can I stay here?”
His eyebrows push together and his lips flatten out before he nods. “Sure, why not.” He pulls his keys out of his pocket, fits one into the lock on the door. It doesn’t turn. “Shit,” he says.
I cross my arms and pull my shoulders forward, swelling the sides of my neck like a frog's throat as he finds the right key and pushes the door open.
“After you,” he says, leaning on the frame.
I walk inside. My shirt sticks to my back, and some color must be showing through. I keep my eyes down, focus on the warped boards on the floor. Jacob closes the door behind us and flips on the light. It flickers a couple of times before it fills the room with dim yellow.
Caleb is passed out on his side on the stained mattress in the corner. Jacob sighs and walks over to him, kicks the mattress a couple times. Caleb breathes in hard and his eyes flutter for a moment, but he doesn’t move or say anything.
“There’s beer in the fridge,” Jacob says. “Grab us a couple.”
I walk into the kitchen, flip the light switch. Nothing happens. Behind me, I hear Jacob picking things up off the floor – hollow metal, plastic, paper or tinfoil. I kick something light and hollow in the dark, and it skitters metallically across the floor until it meets the wall.
The fridge, when its light comes on, holds two cases of Bud Light, a carton of milk, and some questionably colored off-brand sliced ham product. I pull out two cans of the beer and walk back to the main room. Jacob has piled his brother’s belongings on the table – a Braves cap with a fraying brim folded crooked and bleach spots on the crown, two long, slim syringes (one with a cap, one with a bent needle), a thick cigarette lighter with a screw-off bottom and a metal plate with a picture of skull glued to one side, a deck of cards falling out of its box, a thin beat-metal ashtray with a burnt-black undercarriage and a couple drops of something stubborn clinging to the top.
“Don’t mind the mess,” Jacob says. He laughs without smiling, twice, things that could almost be coughs twitching from his throat and sliding out through his teeth. “My brother never could keep a clean house.”
He holds out his hand, and I give him one of the beers. He gestures towards an empty chair. “Sit,” he says.
I sit, stiff and upright, my spine straight and not touching the chair’s back.
Jacob slouches in his chair, his legs splayed in front of him, his hands in his lap. There’s a crack and a hiss, and he lifts the beer to his mouth. I watch him swallow for long seconds, lower the can, lick his lips, work them against each other, and finally look across the table at me.
“This is about your daddy again,” he says. “Isn’t it.” It’s not a question.
I open my can. My fingers aren’t used to metal tabs, so it takes me a few tries to get it popped. I venture a sip of the beer and cough a little at the sour carbonation. My head shakes slowly.
“No,” I say. I take another sip, realize I haven’t had anything to eat or drink since yesterday. The beer curls up, cold and heavy, in my gut. Jacob is looking at me. “I just needed a change of scenery.” I think I say it convincingly, but Jacob doesn’t look away. He breathes a couple of times, then sighs and takes another drink, tilting the can up almost delicately, holding my eye the entire time.
“Don’t bother, David,” he says. He stares at the space between my back and the chair, not for long, but he makes sure I catch him.
“If you already know, why do I have to say it?” There’s a fist or a candle filling the back of my throat, burning, cracking, shattering, dry and bloody at the same time. I pull the drink up to my mouth too hard and too fast, and it knocks against my lips and teeth. Beer slaps against my mouth, drips down my chin, lands cold on my chest.
“Jesus fuck!” I say, jerking back. I wipe my mouth with the collar of my shirt, swallow until the can is empty. The metal crinkles in my hand, twisting in until my fingers meet. I set the can down on the table, stare at it. When I look up, breathing in through an open mouth, Jacob is still looking at me.
He’s got big, watery, dark gray eyes, so dark they’re almost black. When he goes out into the sun, he’s forever blinking away tears.
His beer makes a hollow noise when he sets the empty can on the table. He leans forward and gets up. He walks to the kitchen. I stay in my seat, don’t turn to watch him. The fridge opens, then closes. He walks back with two more beers in his right hand. His free hand picks at the corner of his mouth as he sits; he pulls his hand away and flicks something from a fingertip. He hands me a beer. I open it and have a sip. His face, or my sight, wobbles. He follows my lead.
“Your daddy,” he finally says, “has been beating the hell out of you.”
I decide that his voice is beautiful. He adds vowels to words – hell has two syllables the way he puts an emphasis on it – and nothing is hurried. I wonder if he’s capable of sounding rushed.
He continues. “It’s been happening since you moved here, probably since before then, and now you’ve run off in the middle of the night to stay with a piece of white trash and his junkie brother.”
He says it straightforward, like it’s the simplest thing in the world, like it all makes perfect logical sense. We both drink, both swallow, and I nod.
“So why now, is the question I’m thinking on,” he says. “Why’d you run off tonight? Why not a year ago, or, hell, why run off at all, if you’ve been able to take it until now?”
I hadn’t thought about this. I drink more, my tongue playing with the sharp edge of the can’s opening, and turn my head to the right. I push my chin into the front of my shoulder, feel the slow release of tension from the muscles there, the stretch of tendons along my spine. The base of my neck cracks, and I feel a couple of scabs pull loose across my back.
There is a wince backwards, a twisting of my mouth and narrowing of my right eye that leaves me sitting silently with half my face tight and turned into myself, away from the question. Into an answer. Silently. This time, for the first time, the only noise was breath and impact. My father’s breath. Hissing between clenched teeth. His hand coming down. Exhale. His hand coming up. Inhale. My breath. Inarticulate gasps through a clenched throat. Impact. Exhale, almost surprised. Almost ecstatic. The opening of my mouth to gulp in air. I emptied my lungs every time. By the end, black dots edged in silver flew like gnats around my head. My father’s belt. The buckle clicking against itself. The leather hissing through the thick air. The buckle slapping against my back. The buckle slapping against my shoulders.
This afternoon was the first time I’d been in a room quiet enough to hear these things. Every time before, they’d been shouted down by sobs, explanations, apologies, promises, prayers, oh god forgive me forgive me.
I turn my head back to Jacob and the room swims into focus. “Before this,” I say, setting my beer down for emphasis, startled by the clank of metal against the tabletop, “I wasn’t able to take it.” I lean forward, gripping the edges of my seat and half-lifting myself up. “I was weak, I was a child. Children cry.” I raise a hand and point decisively at Jacob. “But now I have put away childish things.” My hand lowers, and I nod twice.
Jacob laughs, and it's almost genuine this time. “You’re drunk,” he says. He finishes his beer and sets the can on the table. “Damn, that was quick.” There is a grease stain on the back of his hand, a black spot that glistens hypnotically in the overhead light. It tries to swallow me until I wrench myself away and meet Jacob’s eyes, which are almost as dark, but stare back.
“Yes,” I say, “but I’m right.” When I stand up to get another beer from the kitchen, my stomach and head remind me that I haven’t eaten. I lean on the table with my right hand. “It makes sense.”
“Whoa, there, kid” Jacob says. “Slow up a little bit. Let me get you some water.”
This seems like a good decision. I sit and watch him walk to the kitchen. He takes big, wide, careless steps, his shoulders shifting with each one, his hips turning, throwing his long legs out in front of him.
A cabinet complains open and closed, water runs, the fridge opens and closes. In the corner, Caleb shifts, muttering something I can’t quite make out. Caleb’s voice is unlike his brother’s, careful and pinched where Jacob’s is open and broad.
“It’s getting late,” Jacob says, walking back with a can of beer and a plastic cup of water. “We should start getting you cleaned up and to bed. Drink this.” He hands me the cup and I take a long sip.
“But you understand, right?” I say. “You get it. Before, I couldn’t take it, but this time I could. It didn’t matter, which was why I could leave.”
“Sure,” Jacob says. He opens his beer and lifts it in salute. “Drink up.”
I do, slowly pouring the water down my throat, and set the cup down on the table. His careful eyes are still staring at me, and when I look up and catch them, something hot happens beneath the skin of my cheeks. I stand up again, slower this time, cautiously, giving my balance time to catch up to my body, and Jacob walks past me, towards the bathroom. “Come on,” he says. “Let's take a look at your back.”
I walk into the bathroom as Jacob turns on the light. The counter next to the sink is cracked white porcelain covered in a layer of grit. Only the cracks shine. A half-bar of soap and a small bottle of lube sit on the flat edge of the tub. Discarded clothes cover the linoleum floor; one edge of a brown rug pokes out, a disconcertingly direct edge. Jacob swings the mirror open, and the hinges whine; I catch my reflection for a moment, wobbling, with a rust-edged crack through my face. He pulls out a plastic bottle of rubbing alcohol, uncaps it, sets it on the counter, and leans over to pluck a washcloth out of the pile on the floor.
“Take off your shirt,” he says while he turns on the faucet. It coughs and splutters before the stream steadies out. He puts the washcloth under the water, squeezing and twisting it.
My right hand plucks gingerly at the back of my collar, teasing the fabric away from my skin. I pull my shoulders back to create space between myself and the shirt, then slide the cloth up and over my head. My wince is gone before the light hits my face again.
“Come stand over here, lean on the counter,” he says, still looking at the cloth in his hands. When I do, he turns the water off and straightens to look at me. Something that's not quite a whistle snakes through his teeth.
Jacob sets the washcloth on the counter and traces what must be an angry red line across my left shoulderblade. My breath flattens as I control it, and my shoulders tense involuntarily, and my pulse throbs in my wrists, and I'm not sure why. I stare at the counter, begging it to stay still as I anchor myself to it.
He follows the lines across my back; his touch is unexpectedly gentle. My breath follows the pattern of his fingertips. When he removes his hand, I turn to my left, and the room turns with me. My arms are less controlled than they could be. My right hand stops on his forearm, his skin turning white under my grip. He balances me, holds me up, looks down at me, and I look up at him, and I kiss him.
He pulls his head away, but doesn't let me go.
He makes a noise like something's choking him, a bitter code that I can't decipher through the sudden noise of the room spinning and the desperate lump in my throat.
He kisses me.
One of his hands weaves into my hair, holding my head in place as his tongue forces its way through my lips, insistent and wet and rougher than I expect. The other, he plants firmly in the center of my back, and I gasp around his tongue at the sudden, sharp, biting pain of his flesh pressing against mine. My mouth opens, my eyes widen, and my left hand finds that his cock is already hardening in his jeans. He grunts, or coos, something that isn't a word, and the tremor of it vibrates in my throat.
My right arm hooks under his shoulder and across his back, and his weight pushes me back a step; I feel the smooth line of the counter across my buttocks supporting me, and the ragged cotton of his shirt is damp with sweat against my belly and my chest until he steps back and pulls it off.
The sudden lack of pressure pulls me forward. I kneel in front of him. I fumble at his belt. He unbuckles it. He unbuttons himself. I pull his trousers down, and he steps out of them. I wrap my right hand around his cock. I feel his pulse in the veins of it. I lick the head. It tastes of salt. He smells of sweat. He exhales. I feel his shoulders sag; it changes the shape of his torso, the shape of his hips, the slant of his cock. He leans back against the wall. He puts his hand on the back of my head. He pushes my mouth onto his cock. I gag. I pull back. I gasp for breath. I choke. I cough. He pushes forward. I gag. Something slick burns high in my chest. My eyes water. There's something sharp-tasting and bitter behind my nose as I try to inhale. My nose runs. He pushes against my cheek and my tongue. I move my tongue. His skin is smooth and slick. He groans. His fingers tighten in my hair. He pulls my head forward. I gag. He pulls my head back. He pulls my mouth away.
He helps me stand, by my hair and my shoulders, and he kisses me again. He turns me. I look at his reflection in the mirror, standing behind me, with his mouth a slit and his teeth a shadow, with his jaw thrust forward. His hands grab at my chest. His hands grab at my hips. He pulls me back towards him. I feel his cock against the fabric of my pants. He presses against me. His hands shift forward. He grabs at my crotch. He undoes my belt. He pulls my pants down.
He moves away for a moment, and I turn to look at him, and my feet catch, and the room wobbles, and I grab the counter to hold myself up. He picks up the lubricant from the edge of the tub and squeezes some into his hand, then rubs that onto his cock.
When he grabs my hip, his hand is slick and wet, and he digs his fingers into my flesh to hold me in place. He pulls my legs back. He pushes my torso forward. I lean over the sink. The room spins past me. The porcelain is cold against my belly. I can't find a place to put my arms. My palms slip. I pitch forward. He holds me up. He presses against me. His cock slides between my buttocks. It is slick against the damp of my sweat. I feel cold. My breath tightens my chest. He pushes into me.
It doesn't hurt like I expect. It's not a sharp pain, it's not a cutting, it's not a burning. It's an ache that I can't remember ever not being there, that keeps me from remembering anything else. It swallows me. I shudder. He pushes. He exhales. In the mirror, his head coming up. He pulls. He inhales. I empty my lungs. Black dots twist in the edges of my vision. I cannot find my breath. My ribs are jagged leather straps. They buckle tight at the center of my chest. He pushes. He exhales. Slick breathy slap of his skin against mine. He pulls my hair. My head twists back. I meet his eyes. My breath makes him disappear. The damp of my air shrinks away. He returns in the cracked glass. He talks, mutters, hisses, whispers, spits, something that I can't make out. His eyes are big as a rain-streaked windshield, shiny reflections stretched taut above his open mouth.
I hold myself up on the counter, close my eyes, focus on breath. I am not here. I am not breathing. These lungs are someone else's. The air that moves through me belongs to someone else. When I was a child, I thought as children do. A change of scenery. The wordless noise in my throat is not mine. The hands that brace against the cold are not mine. The cold they feel is not mine. This is a story. This is safe. This is a place to stay. I will sleep here. I will never leave here. I am not here. These gasps are not mine. This back is not mine. These thin legs pressed against the counter are not mine. These calves that strain upwards are not mine. This small, soft cock wedged against the edge of the cold porcelain is not mine. These shoulders shaking with the breaths I cannot gather are not mine. This heavy skull is not mine, for all the drumbeat pulse around it that shouts it is.
When he cums, his arms soften around me, become less insistent, more gentle. His hands rest on my skin, rather than pulling me back. He leans into me, and I feel the ragged, absurd sagging out and sucking in of his belly. The salt dripping from his skin stings where it touches my back, and I drape forward against the sink. His hips shift, and his cock slips out of me, resting slick and soft against my buttocks. He controls me until our breathing has slowed, then pulls up his pants, buttons them, and picks up the washcloth from the sink.
At some point while he cleans my back, perhaps during one of the moments when I have my eyes closed against the sting of the alcohol and the unexpected burning of tears in my eyes, the wondering, thoughtful gasp of his mouth disappears, replaced by tight lips and a jaw that sets and resets itself like a metronome, or concrete, or a broken arm
He methodically works his way down my back, stopping every few minutes to wring out the cloth, rinse it in the sink, and apply new antiseptic. The ones right after he moistens the cloth are the worst, before the alcohol is diluted by blood and sweat.
When he’s done, he rinses out the washcloth, wrings it dry, then drapes it over the faucet with what could be neatness or carelessness and walks back into the other room. I hear a beer can open, then silence.
This is the first time I’ve had sex. Too clinical, or maybe clinical is appropriate. Fucked. Been fucked. I pull up my pants, fingers fumbling at the zipper and button, and let out a long breath too measured to be a sigh. In the streaked mirror, rust lining the cracks, I don’t look any different. I’d thought it would be some fumbling, whispered night in the back of a car, or the night I was married to the girl my parents had chosen for me, but not this.
I realize that I am crying. Does this happen to everyone, the first time? I wipe my face with the washcloth, and the alcohol stings the corners of my closed eyes, and the smell of it is everywhere, and I can’t breathe, and my back feels like fire, and it is cold in this small room by myself with no shirt, and I can’t breathe.
When I walk out of the bathroom, he’s sitting at the table, staring at the wall. He hears me come towards the main room, but doesn’t look up.
“I’m not gay,” he says before I make it through the entrance.
I stop and lean on the frame. “Okay.”
“Can I stay here?”
“Sure.” He motions towards the mattress. “Long’s you’re all right sharing a bed with me and Caleb.”
Caleb is still asleep. A line of drool ties the right side of his mouth to the mattress beneath him.
“Okay,” I say. “Thanks.”
I take a careful step at a time towards the mattress, move over Caleb with straight-backed caution, lie down on my side next to the wall.
“I’ve gotta get some air,” Jacob says.
“Okay.” I push up on one elbow.
“I’ll be back in a while.” He pushes his chair back; the legs stutter across the floor. He opens the door, turns out the light, walks through, and the closing door erases his silhouette.
I let myself down onto my shoulder, my arm, my ribs, my hip, and count my breaths in the darkness.
Some time later, he comes back. When he lies down between me and Caleb, he faces away from me. I put my hand on his belly, and he doesn't move it away. I feel the thin lines of muscle under his skin rise, fall, rise.
Mike Hodges has been a teaching assistant and doctoral student in the English Department of the University of Washington in Seattle, where he has lived since 2009. He also works for CascadiaNow, a Pacific Northwest bioregionalist organization, and competes as a slam poet in Seattle and national competitions, including a victory in the 2013 Rain City Slam championship. His fiction has previously appeared in Lamplit Underground.