Please go and read, show your support for the story.
Doctor Harrison took his spectacles off and gazed at me.
‘I’m so sorry, Sidney.’
Six months, otherwise.
The receptionist was kind. Sat in the front seat, tears streaming and fists beating against the dashboard until it was time to drive home made sense for me.
Home. The gates were plate steel, the kind you see in those post-apocalypse movies where a group of kind people gather to remain safe from the monsters or the bandits. Here, it’s just me. Everything gets locked up, then a check on the cameras and drive the rest of the way.
It is not paranoia if someone is really after you.
The humming, cramped joy of Sidney King sang in Dominic’s blood how fillings in your teeth could pick up radio signals. Breathing in cold, stale air whilst a greasy cheap pizza sat in the pit of his stomach. The basement window needed fixing, and it rattled hard whenever the wind picked up. It was all so far away as he sat there, looking for any missed details. The photographs, the blog posts that reported sightings of her and the maps that he had pushed pins into, building up a pattern of her movements. Looking at photographs.
Aching at how beautiful she was.
The doorbell rang. Getting up the stairs was difficult. He had been training, running late at night until his vision blurred and his knees throbbed like rotten teeth so he was sore all the time. Dominic snatched the package from the courier and went back downstairs.
He tore open the box. A greedy child on their birthday. His fingers shook, as he took slow, deliberate care to lift away the lid of the case.
A closed knife is a thing of terrible, beautiful potential.
This one was special, sacred to me because we have ordered it for one purpose.
He unclasped it slowly and held the blade up to the light. A tooled steel blade with a serrated edge that caught the light and made it like butterfly wings. He imagined the vibration that would travel through his arm as it went into her. A hot, seething burst of arousal exploded through him like an abscess and his other hand was rooting in my sweatpants, plucking and tugging until he was squirting all over my fingers. Grunting how he would stick her and fuck her and stick her again. Imagining her breathy pleas, her cries and how she would twitch as he did it. Being the one who got to her. Stabbing her then, running the edge across her throat, watching the blood pour down her front, soaking and glueing her clothes to her chest.
Each day made the anticipation twist in him like a need. The mask was on the table, watching, goading him when he grew doubtful. He looked into the eyeholes as he wiped himself off.
It was like looking in a mirror and seeing his soul looking back at him.
My security measures were everywhere. The digging and carpentry kept me trim. I learned how to weld at the community college, working amongst thick fingered boys who kept looking at me as though I were famous.
I said I was in a sex tape.
I was sixteen when we drove up to Lake Brattigan. Eight of us, all friends and one of them who hoped that the weekend might make us more than friends. Ethan.
I was the only one who made it out alive.
That first time.
The car broke down on the way home from graduation and we stopped at the farmhouse. The idiot son, stinking of animal fat and draped in treated skins, swinging the chainsaw and hooting as he ran at me. My friends hung on hooks inside his workshop. I slumped his parents over in their parlour after I had shot them both. They allowed him his interests and were awfully keen for me to stay and provide them with a grandchild to carry on the family tradition.
After the second time, I wondered if they cursed me.
By the third or fourth time, it got old.
I showered when I got indoors. There, safe beneath the water, I wept for myself but by the time I got out, my eyes were dry and my head was clear.
Pills would be good. I had enough of them. A lifetime of near-misses left injuries that meant surgeries, complications and prescriptions. The scars you can see don’t hurt as much as the ones that you cannot.
I had guns. I could take or leave the second amendment but experience had made me comfortable to have them and not needing them.
People talk about me. There are two subreddits and hashtags. Someone telling the world that they will rape and murder me is not as bad as someone not telling the world that they will rape and murder me.
The serial killers with their masks and puritan victim selection had fans. Decapitating, disembowelling and burning horny teenagers draws a certain crowd and those people congregated online.
They draw in others like flies and soon they’re all talking to one another.
Goading. Encouraging. Setting challenges.
With me as the grand prize.
The fan boys rarely did more than posture. Living and dying alone was not so bad, but it should be my decision.
I could decide how much pain I would allow myself to experience.
I took a Percocet for maintenance. A dress rehearsal for the last performance, but it meant that I could walk around without crying.
I made a peanut butter and banana sandwich, ate half at the counter and looked out into the woods. My decision afforded me a measure of peace.
Which was when the alarm screamed.
You don’t find my place by accident. It’s fenced off, signposted and I’ve got friends at the lodge who warn people off. They tell people an eccentric millionaire lives there who likes to shoot first and then shoot later. I checked the panel and saw that it was close to the house. I slipped on the Kevlar vest and pulled the 12-gauge from the locker. I laced up my boots and tucked my hair up under a hat before I locked the house up. The shutters dropped as I walked down the hill.
The punji sticks protruded through his right thigh and left shoulder; the points were visible through the material of his overalls where he had fallen onto them. His mask, an omelette with eyeholes, hung from around his neck.
They’re always so young, with fat cheeks and patchy beards. He’s screaming for me to get him out of here and I stand at the edge of the pit with the shotgun aimed right at him.
‘Did you miss the sign at the gate? The one that says ‘no visitors’.’
He talks so fast that his words come out as a twitching, high-pitched rush. He begged me to help him.
‘I’m supposed to see that knife on your hip and that fucking awful mask, and what? Think you’re here to deliver fucking pizza?’
He tried to raise his head. There was a wet, ripping sound, and he sobbed.
“Please. Help me out, it really fucking hurts.”
I stepped towards the edge of the pit, lowered the shotgun and looked down on him.
“I don’t think you know what pain is.”
He started sobbing again. He brought his right hand across his face, and a slight stab of pity went through me.
“Please, I’m sorry, just help me out and I’ll just go. I will, I promise.”
He had his phone strapped to his right arm. I saw the canister on his hip where he had rolled onto one side. Pepper spray. Blinding me so he could control me. My throat grew tight with anger. I breathed in the warm, afternoon air, caught the wet penny scent of his blood on the wind. He looked like a fat, blue grub, writhing under a magnifying glass.
‘Hello,’ I said.
“What? Please, no, it wasn’t like that.” he said.
I raised the barrel of the 12-gauge and rested my finger against the trigger.
I saw the phone strapped to his upper arm and asked him to toss it to me. He had a pathetic smile on his face. That maybe this was my goodness, my mercy coming out and that he had hope of getting out.
He told me what he would do to me. My finger grazed the trigger. I blinked away tears, but I kept my breathing under control. I kept tasting the air, hoping for something good to clear away his stink.
“Wow, lot of effort there,” I said.
He wept. A squeeze of the trigger would shred the parts he wanted to stick into me. A surge of anger thundered through me.
“Toss me the knife and the phone. I’ll give helping you some thought.”
He threw them to me. It made him cry out to do it, but I enjoyed that. When this twisted little boy told me what he had planned to do, it allowed me some measure of perspective. I had dealt with monsters, and boys pretending to be monsters.
He started screaming when I filmed him. I paid for good coverage out here and he had saved all his account details, considerate of him. When a man is dying, it was gauche to ask for his password.
Another six months of this shit. Growing weaker, vomiting and losing weight, losing my hair. Bedridden until some mewling fuck with skimmed milk in his veins came and fucked me with a bread knife because I had the dubious honour of surviving horrible events.
Pills and a quick exit. No one would discover me out here. If I put the shutters down, it would be a neat tomb for me.
“Repeat what you just said. It’s the only way you’re getting out of here alive.”
I stared at him and it was not so hard to hear it again. It made for good video, and he understood his role, writhing and pleading with me, giving his name, telling me where he was and most of it was audible.
A search online would fill out the rest of the details.
I had two choices that were immediate. I played back the video, and the third came to me, an unexpected and final idea that had gravity and a measure of comfort within it.
I attached the GPS information to the video and sent it to the subreddit.
I recorded a second video. He had lapsed into unconsciousness and I stood with his sagging body in the background, made for a solid, dramatic backdrop.
If this sack of shit is the best of you, then you’re wasting your time. He came here to do to me what you all dream of doing and now he’s at the bottom of a pit, begging for his life. I’ve attached my location to this video.
If you get to me, I will scream, I will beg just as good as you imagined me doing. Don’t be a pussy.
Come and get me.
I repeated my address and sent it. I slipped his phone into the long pocket on my thigh. I would add it to the collection.
He woke up.
“Will you help me now? Please, I’ve done what you asked.”
I slipped the knife into my pocket.
“The knife is lovely. Once I know it’s sent, I must dispose of the phone. It’s not like anyone will miss you,”
He cried with so much effort that it forced the sticks deeper into his bicep and the meat of his back.
“Oh please, help me, these really fucking hurt.”
I picked up the 12-gauge and held it in my hands.
“Oh, that’s not the worst of it. I treated those sticks with something special..”
“They’re painted with dogshit. It makes a wound all nice and infected. So, even if I pulled you out, your blood is turning to sludge, anyway. At least here, you’ll get an enjoyable view of the sky.”
He wept until he could not breathe. I left him to it.
A surge of strength added momentum to my steps back to the house. There was work to do.
I wondered if it would be cool to make a mask for the occasion.
My reflection betrayed nothing in the pocket mirror, checking one last check before he arrived. It was my armour, my war paint. It was only eight a.m and already the heat had plucked at my reserve, gathering damp patches at the small of my back and underarms. He welcomed it, rubbing his bearded cheek against me when we made love. The thought tested me like the tropical heat.
Mateo’s car pulled up across the street, and one of his men came out and opened it. He stood up, adjusted the peak of his cap and glanced around him before he strode over whilst his man shut the door and stood by the side of the car. Mateo wore a light tan suit and white shirt, tailored to mask the bulge of the holster under his jacket. A man’s posture cannot hide who he is. A lightness came to his steps as he drew closer. His face, a stoic mask, broke into a warm, gentle smile when he saw me.
‘Cara Mia.’ he said.
My hands went to his face, fingers running through his beard before our lips met. He smelled of fresh coffee and coconut oil.
His eyes narrowed as he ran his fingers against my left wrist.I shuddered, betraying myself with a simple touch. I gave a slight cry, and his hand encircled my wrist. It excited and appalled me how small I felt in his presence. Not diminished but small, nestled against his broad, furred chest as he slept with his palm on my breast. During the night, he would reach between my thighs and cup me without stirring.
‘Tell me.’ he said.
He was sometimes clumsy. Once, he entertained purchasing a motorcycle and my appalled rejection of the idea wounded him, but he hid it well. There were moments of grace with him, but he’d also drop glasses and miss spots where he shaved his head. Yet, for his endearing clumsiness and earnestness, it would have been stupid to assume it was a weakness.
‘Please sit down.’
A waiter approached. Mateo ordered tea for me and an espresso for him. When the waiter left, his attention returned patient but implacable. It was difficult to breathe. He leaned forward, took my hand and turned it over, pressed his fingers to my wrist and looked at me.
‘You’re agitated but trying to control it. With some success, I might add, Esther.’ he said.
It was difficult to meet his gaze. My news would change things between us, forever. There was the possibility it meant my never leaving this cafe, but there was a gentle light in his eyes with me. If my betrayal dimmed it, then it would justify his wrath.
There were stories about him. He would never speak of his work beyond generalities.
‘To speak of my work is to relive it.’ he said.
Each breath burned in my chest. The heat needled me, and when the waiter brought our order, Mateo poured me a glass of ice water from the carafe between us. He spoke through his actions, and the care, the attention he paid me came home to roost as we sat there.
Waiting for me to talk to him.
‘At three a.m, covert action teams will mount simultaneous strikes against tactical targets all over the city.’
Mateo picked up his espresso and looked at me over the rims of his spectacles, nodded for me to go on.
I shuddered, revolted and relieved as I picked up my glass and gulped down half in one go. My mouth was arid and sore, but the water soothed me enough to continue. There was a faint mineral taste to it, but it was pleasant. A first act of the new government was investment in infink nowrastructure, private funding in return for preferential tax breaks for future industrial sites.
The barracks at Costa Verde.
The Presidential Palace.
Casa De Secretos.
It was our name for it. He grimaced and closed his eyes as he set his cup down. He retrieved a cigarette case and lit one with a lighter which had FUCK COMMUNISM painted on it. It had been his father’s; he told me. A veteran of Vietnam before he met his wife, Mateo’s mother and they moved to her homeland, away from a country spoiled and venal.
‘Cara Mia. This news troubles me.’
He exhaled a slow plume of smoke and took my hand across the table.
‘But it is not unexpected.’ he said.
He squeezed my fingers, showing strength without violence.
‘What do you mean?’
He took off his spectacles and peered into my eyes.
‘Tell me what you see there, Esther. I know it is your real first name. They have advised you to mix them up, but it’s a tough habit to break because you shared concerns about a loss of identity to Dr Snyder back in April.’
It took an impressive deal of control to remain calm.
The relief of confession had masked a seething nest of revelations, a misinterpretation of the situation which terrified me.
‘Do you know my mother’s profession, Esther?’ he said
She was a veterinarian.
Mateo nodded as he unbuttoned his jacket.
‘She taught me lessons which ran parallel with my father’s instructions. Their beliefs informed my perspectives on the world. A place free from the tyranny of kings and clergy, free and prosperous with the grace to stop and enjoy the fruits of its labours. ‘
He paused to smooth his beard with his fingertips, a gesture somewhere between contemplation and grooming.
‘Which was always my goal. My mother’s lesson was in understanding the principles of animal husbandry. My innovation was to apply it as a macro-political exercise. Neutering when necessary, keeping the organism healthy and secure from all threats, foreign and domestic.’
He smiled, but it did not reach his eyes.
I am not a monster. My aim is to take my country to the pinnacle of its achievements, then disappear and enjoy it in the time left. I’ve done things to protect it and have prepared for such an event as this.
My thighs and stomach were taut with the effort to rein in my feelings. His voice was quiet, a little above a smooth whisper, but he had my attention without effort.
‘You don’t have the penetration into our operation, Mateo. We’ve been able to establish supply chains, flown in military advisers to train the militia.’ I said.
My voice sounded sharp, a smashed glass at a wake which drew everyone’s attention.
‘Because, Esther, I allowed you to.’ he said
He pointed up at the sky.
‘That is C-7623, piloted on this shift by Private Cole Wilkins, 115th Engineers of Terre Haute. He enjoys his work, but he’s hoping to launch missiles when the opportunity arises. Some of his reports concern me, Esther, but you won’t have seen them.’
My disbelief fell on me like a roll of quarters swung against the back of my head. He smiled and gestured around him.
‘I planned against the worst scenarios. I imagined the ultimate enemy and how my country could survive it. Weak men have taken your country, but they will not take mine.’
The first time I learned about Mateo Costas was at an event-shielded briefing before we flew into the country.
They committed nothing to paper, no recording devices to ensure freedom of discussion and opinion.
‘This is the guy. Mateo Costa.’
‘Native Mother. Attended Oxford University on a scholarship then signed up for the US Navy followed by SEAL training which is where it got interesting,’ Ellis said.
Ellis was on secondment from MI5, with the florid build of someone punished for every second in a country more than a few degrees above a tepid English spring. People wondered if this was a punishment for a previous failure, but he was an encyclopedia of the country’s politics and economy. He clapped his hands together.
‘Costas took part in two SEAL missions. Notable ones. The rescue of Captain Phillips and then Operation Neptune Spear. Which is?’
I put my hand up.
Ellis shot me with finger guns before he clapped his hands together.
‘Now, he’s too dignified to confirm this, which means when it leaks, he looks stoic and humble. Now he returns home, joins the Crypteia and in three years, he’s running the entire operation.’
King, a former Delta Force operator who made the move into intelligence, put his hand up.
‘I’ve read Keller’s report from last year, and he claims it was a committee which voted on supply requests.’ he said.
Ellis winked at him.
‘ He requested investigatory powers, went through whatever police and career military survived the coup and trained them into his own unit. On paper, they’re civil servants or clerks, but they had commissariat authority. He turned it into a Tardis.’
‘Bigger on the inside than the outside.’ I said.
Ellis chuckled and shot me a wink.
‘Democratic Socialism got a turn at the bat, Mateo came back after the coup, created his own little squad of trained and well-armed soldiers then -‘ he gestured to all of us.
King leaned forwards before addressing the room.
‘He brings down the central committee in one night, held office for one year and then resigned before open elections in return for his old post with the Crypteia.’ he said.
‘They disbanded it before he took office and didn’t exist on record at all. Like this meeting.’ I said.
Ellis whistled under his breath and opened a bottle of water. His short-sleeved shirt hung from his thin shoulders like a damp flag.
‘So, he de-stabilised a socialist government, didn’t stay in office long enough to steal anything. Now he runs the secret service of a capitalist democratic government. It runs in secret, without oversight, and although the deputy director thinks his altruism is neutered, I think he presents a clear and present danger to our long-term economic interests.’
I put my hand up.
‘Aren’t they our buds now?’ I said.
Ellis chuckled and scratched the back of his neck.
‘Facebook moved their HQ down here. Bezos has been here six times in the last year and there’s been fawning articles in the Washington Post about it. But they’re also not responding to the left about the atrocity claims, or the president’s comments about diversity. So there are optics to consider and the economic impact.’ he said.
We were talking about overthrowing a country because it did a better job of being American than America did.
Ellis worked in Psychological Operations, had embedded himself into the country’s social media and combed through metadata to establish a profile of a target as intimate and complete as a splendid marriage.
‘ We’ve got candidates who favour a better deal with us.’ King said.
Ellis shook his head.
‘He’s a righteous guy, tough and plain-spoken, but he’s not the man behind the wheel. Mr Costas, I believe and so does the Director, is the linchpin of his country’s government and development.’
What I said next, in a room shielded from observation or betrayal, came back to haunt me as I sat there looking into Mateo’s eyes, waiting to have my instinct and experience proved wrong.
‘Then he’d need eliminating alongside whatever strategic sites you’ve accounted for at the same time.’ I said.
Ellis frowned and ran the tip of his tongue against the philtrum of his upper lip.
‘How do you suggest we do that, Esther?’ he said.
We met at a bookstore. It was one place where he spent his free time, casual and unrecognised. His recommendation of Olive Kitteridge surprised me, but he said his grandparents had the same stoicism of character and came from the book’s setting. He introduced himself without announcing his position and invited me to join him for coffee.
When we met, his presence was electrifying. He had power without being stunted or calcified by it. It didn’t sit well with what they had told me about the efforts he took to keep his country from returning to a socialist government. Professional concerns drove my actions, then later it came to stymie them. Ellis had told me, in his capacity as my handler, to accept dinner if he offered. Which he did. He did not instruct me to sleep with him, which was my choice. Perfect men bored me, and Mateo’s flaws were as embraceable as the rest of him. It did not blind me to the dangers of loving such a man, but there were reasons beyond the torrid rush of attraction. Now, I saw the myth of him, the secret policeman who kept things in order.
‘Were you sent to kill me?’ he said.
I shook my head.
‘No, I was to gather information on you. Relay it back for analysis.’
‘Was Ellis your handler?’ he said.
A jolt of fear and surprise shot through me. He passed me the cigarette case and I took one. He lit it for me and watched me until I nodded.
‘How did you know his name?’ I said.
‘He was from British Intelligence. Seconded to your CIA after eight years with psychological operations and a further five working for Deputy Director Prentiss. Wallace came to you from Delta Force. He has a fiancee. Her name is Shonda, and she’s eight weeks pregnant, but he doesn’t know yet.;
His voice was soft, slow and conversational but he scattered his knowledge like he was sowing salt to kill the soil of my reality.
‘What about me?’ I said.
He knew what connected the quinceanera of Don Rezillos niece and the attendant case of food poisoning caused by mal carne with the supply chains of the insurgents fighting along the coast. His men were shadows, which rose and dragged people into the darkness. They disappeared, or had deaths explained by choice or random fate. I didn’t know which one faced me, but I hoped it would be quick.
He asked the waiter to bring us more drinks. He looked at me and continued.
‘When I arrived, infant mortality had gone up three hundred percent. People were shooting at farmers to steal their cattle. Their professors became their oppressors and turned my home into a fiefdom. My country, Esther, neutered and corrupted by those who believed they knew best. All under the baleful gaze of a government who saw everything and enriched themselves first,’ he said.
Passion rose within him, lending his tone of voice a gruff thickness I found interesting.
‘Why wouldn’t I seek to do something about it? I’d read enough of the literature to speak the language, repeat the narrative and make myself useful without appearing to hold any personal ambitions. What surprised me was the level of incompetence in charge. None of them saw me coming until it was too late.’
‘My country is not a place where children scream in the night. Our immigration controls, our trade deals are to protect and advance our interests. We always played ball with your country, Esther, but we grew too good at it, didn’t we?’
‘Much like Hussein, Gadaffi, Jung Un, we’ll be the latest enemy. I pulled the trigger on your country’s greatest enemies and when I did actual work; they sent you to betray me.’
I went to shake my head, but he raised his hand and I looked down at the table, ashamed and afraid.
‘It doesn’t matter, cara mia. I accounted for such things. A man can never give the truth of his heart to his woman, not if he wants her to stay.’ he said.
‘You never told me anything.’
He smiled and nodded.
‘To discuss it is to relive it. My villa is a Faraday cage and no, I was frank about not discussing work with you. I didn’t give you the exact reason.’
I asked for another cigarette. He offered it and then lit another for himself. My eyes fell on the lighter and he smiled.
‘What we must discuss is where you stand. Or rather, sit.’
My eyelids were heavy. The curls of grey smoke rose from the end of the cigarette. It was fragile and beautiful before it dissipated. A beam of sunlight struck through the carafe, fracturing the light into a rainbow of colours. The world took a deep, slow breath and my thoughts slowed down to a crawl.
‘You’ve drugged me.’ I said.
Intoxication mauled the words as they left my mouth. Mateo plucked the cigarette from my fingers and placed his hands over mine.
‘Cara Mia, you cannot choose between your heart and your duty. It is enthralling to practice tradecraft and strategy in matters of the heart. I honour our arrangement.’ he said.
His voice was soft, gruff and melancholic as someone took my arms and helped me out of the chair as my legs went out from under me.
My tongue was a bloated slug in the cave of my mouth. Sunlight whipped across my eyes. I brought my hand up, felt the give of the lounger beneath me and sat up. The sea was blue, elegant and primal as I heard the crash of the waves. I stood up, saw I was on a platform overlooking the South Pacific, and turned to look at the villa.
It was elegant, with white adobe walls and warm wood beneath my feet. A small table had a carafe of ice water, a glass wrapped in a napkin and a small padded envelope. I looked down at myself, still wearing my clothes from the morning. I poured a glass of water and opened the envelope. A single sheet of paper, my phone and a small envelope. I unfolded the paper and read the note.
You have a choice.
Your phone is as you left it. If you switch it on, you will reconnect with your team and involve yourself in the outcome. By the time you read this, they have decided things, one way or the other, but it is your choice. I would not stop you from leaving.
My other suggestion is in the second envelope.
Neither of these choices is simple. You will see when you open the second envelope.
There were other choices, but my heart spoke its truth, and so I give you space to consider how you would like to spend the rest of your life.
I turned the second envelope over. It was thick, and I felt a blunt edge at the ball of my thumb before I set it down. My phone sat there, its black screen capturing the planes of my face, like it were something emerging from the void, pale and sculpted.
It was a passport, proof of citizenship, with my name and face. A credit card, in my name and a ring made from tropical wood, finished to a high shine.
This is how I will deal with you.
I looked out towards the ocean, playing with the ring but unable to avoid glancing at the phone. My head throbbed with the aftereffects of the sedative, but the dilemma had dug claws into my scalp.
He knew everything and spared me. I knew anyone else in the field would not be so fortunate. The militia were gathering eight miles from here, and as I picked up the phone, I heard the sharp rush of missiles.
I tossed the phone into the ocean. I had slipped the ring onto my finger and it rested there, rich and dark against the skin. A perfect fit, but it was no surprise. I watched the sea for a minute before the booming roar of artillery made me go inside.
It was cool and dark inside. There was the click of the front door and I closed my eyes when Mateo said my name.
‘No, not anymore.’ I said.
Waiting for you, passing the time with a cup of coffee and a book. The words rise to meet me, but seeing you is tangible anticipation. We catch one another’s eye across the street and you grin with a naughtiness which makes me swell with want.
You wear the chosen clothes. There were several lazy afternoons where you showed me the contents of your wardrobe and from those a soft, pink sweater which fell off your shoulders with your hair worn up at the back and a short skirt with tights. Your lips are the instructed shade of pink. Already, the idle daydream of how it will look smeared your cheek with the ball of my thumb. You’re wearing the red pumps with the half inch heel. My eyes wander upwards, teased by what your clothes suggest and hide, the full curves of you and the strength in your hips and thighs.
My hands move to your hips as we step into one another’s space.
My baby girl.
We play with one another on many levels. In public, we use our given names where it’s appropriate, but often we are playing out our adventures. We pretend to be spies or thieves, child-like with our feverish imaginations. We look at one another and our eyes offer promises or costs we would account for later.
Our lips brush over one another, feeling you soften in my hands as we release a drop of the vibe into the world. It is tender, making me shudder to not be crude with it. The control exercised is gentle,, but it is strong and violent.
You smile at the book as we walk over and order coffee. We complement one another and we’re talking about the things we’ve been watching.
‘So, I can’t believe how the interview went. I wanted to punch the screen.’ you said.
I grinned and shook my head as I ordered for us. Tea for you, and Americano for me.
‘She didn’t do yourself any favours with it. It was funny, did you watch the video I sent?’
You always do, but I enjoy asking. Baby girl responded to little rewards. But your eyes were bright with mischief today, and I thought about when we would be alone and in private.
We take our drinks back to the table and chat. There are no nerves between us but there is excitement and the control of it heightens every sensation.
The rich, black coffee. The cigarettes we smoke on the way and the kisses we steal when we get into the car, a preview of the world we inhabit when we are together like this. It is not an effort for either of us, the exchange of gifts as warm as Christmas.
You talk about the stories you’re writing. There is a notebook to hand at all times, where you write ideas, often based on conversations we are having about the things going on around us. It reflects the mercurial grace of your intelligence in you writing, and we talk about the craft as much as anything else. I rest my hand on your left thigh as we drive and give an appreciative squeeze. My hands feel powerful, confident in their knowledge of you and what you respond to.
We park and you unlock the front door. My heart is thumping in my chest as I look at your bum in the skirt and my mouth goes dry with want. You turn your head and grin at me as I smile and follow you inside.
My fingers close around your jaw as I pull you close. We kiss, and there is hunger in it. A playful but intent desire to taste and feel one another. You nuzzle against me as I guide you to the wall and press myself against you.
‘Oh Daddy Bear.’
Your voice is a heavy sigh before we kiss. I retreat and advance, taking your bottom lip between my teeth and biting down hard enough to make you sigh. I take my hand from your jaw and slide my fingers through the hair on the back of your head and make a fist. You groan and kiss me back hard.
I pull back and look at you. My upper lip curls up and I growl at you to get upstairs. You ask permission to take your shoes off and I nod.
‘My good girl.’
You smile and I stand back as you unbuckle them and takes them off. She walks up the stairs and I stand there, watching how your bum moves and the sight of you makes me throb as I walk up after you.
I tell you to wait as I walk through to the bedroom and prepare for us both.
I have blanket fort construction down to a fine art. I suspended the rectangular frame from the ceiling by chains and threw over the sheets we kept as materials. The frame has fairy lights wound around it. I throw pillows onto the bed and take off my shoes before I open the door and tell you you can come inside.
You squeal and put your arms out as I take you into my arms. My hand strokes up and down your back, palming and squeezing your bum through the skirt. I rub my bearded cheek against you, like I’m marking you as mine.
You moan and open your thighs as you ask permission to touch me.
I nod and grunt as your fingers unbutton my shirt. You pull it free of my jeans and press yourself against my bare chest. Your mouth goes to my ear as I nuzzle your neck and grab your bum hard. The strength in my hands serves us both. There is the honeyed silk of your skin beneath you clothes, and I ache to touch and taste it. I pull your hair and you run your fingers over my chest, stroking my nipples to make me groan with want.
I bring my hand around from your bum and slide my fingers inside the waistband of your skirt, through your tights and over your panties. I stare into your eyes and revel in your expression. Your eyes are black with arousal and you face is flushed as you look back at me, lost to your feelings.
‘Whose pussy is this?’
I massage you through your panties for emphasis.
You smile as you lean back. My fingers slip under the material as my fingertips graze over the ripe swell of my pussy.
‘Yours, Daddy. It’s your pussy.’
I kiss you as I draw my index finger down an inch and you shudder as I brush in a small circle and you reach out to rest your hand on my forearm to draw me closer.
I part you with my fingers and slide my hand down, letting the warm sweet oil of your arousal anoint me as you arch your back and I stroke around your clit with the care it takes to pick a lock. Such gentle actions explode within you, and it is the gulf between attention and want which I leap across each time I touch you.
I let go of your hair and close my fingers on the arteries either side of your neck and I squeeze for a second as you moan and close your eyes. My hold lasts a second before I ease off and kiss you again as I dip my finger inside you. You soften and I circle my finger slow inside you, savouring the warm, wet tension of you. I kiss you as I close my eyes and surrender to my instincts.
My fingers recite a poem to you, each line and verse builds upon the last, and I feel your responses, increasing or decreasing the pressure and speed in line with what you need. The understanding is unspoken in this moment we share.
You buck against me and draw back from the kiss as you look deep into my eyes.
‘Daddy, that feels so fucking good.’
I give a slight smile and stroke your clit, which makes your eyelids grow heavy as you moan with pleasure. I continue the rhythm, keeping my face still as I watch your expressions as the sensations build and you gain urgency and agency from the tumult of touches I cast into you.
You grip my arms and stares into my eyes with raw want.
‘Please, can I come, Daddy?’
I shake my head and you whimper, closing your eyes and bracing yourself against the slow wave of sensation building within you. We give off waves of heat in our embrace, and we move with one another, without losing the rhythm of the moment.
You ask me again, breathless, and I shake my head. You whimper and lower your head, but I tell you to look at me and you do as another spasm of release dances through you. Your heat drenches my palm and fingers, and the friction makes you lean forwards and cry out as you stare into my eyes.
‘Please, Daddy, let me come. Please?’
I look at you and shake my head. The denial does not stop my hand from where it strokes my pussy into the start of a prohibited activity. I am forcing you to accept my authority and you clutch at me as you cry out you will come.
You buck against me as your fingers bite into my arms and I squeeze your neck to enhance the experience, your eyes shine with tears as you shudder through an orgasm hard as a cramp before you sag against me.
I do not stop stroking you and you whimper, whispering in my ear.
‘Oh Daddy, I‘m going to come again. Can I come?’
I tell you you can, and you are there, crying out as you ride the sensation down and collapse against me. My arms throb with the action but I feel immune to everything but my authority over you as you come all over my hand before you straighten up, surprised by the riot of you nerves as you tell me you want to come again. I don’t refuse you and you curl over me, grinding against my fingers as you pulse and undulate into a tight knot of tension which you undo with a loud cry and your arms coming around me.
Your breath, soft and ragged, makes the hairs on my neck stand up as I press my palm against my pussy and tell you you’re safe. You collapse against me and rub your cheek against mine as I slip my fingers from between your thighs.
I bring my fingers up and smear them across your lips. You grin and kisses me before my arms come around you and pull you close. We hold the embrace until you suggest we have a cigarette and I agree with a smile.
You take off your tights and we dive into the blanket fort together. We roll cigarettes and light them, and we lay there, smoking and kissing, talking in soft whispers because my voice carries through to the neighbours.
When we’ve finished, we stare into one another’s eyes and move towards one another.
I unbuckle my belt with one hand as I grab your hair and push you down into the bed as I straddle you. You reach inside my jeans and stroke my cock through my underwear. There is a red insistent pressure behind my eyes, the blazing libido honed into a point of perfect focus as I lift off and you reach out to push my jeans and underwear down my thighs. You reach out and stroke down the length of my cock as you look up at me.
‘Can I kiss it Daddy?’
I nod, my throat too tight with arousal to speak as you tilt your head to one side and give a smile which makes me clench as you close your lips to the underside of my cock before you lick me with a giggle in the back of your throat. I sigh and close my eyes, reaching for your hair as you stroke me with both hands as you guide me into you mouth. When I open my eyes, you are looking up at me, electrified with desire as your lips close over me and you suckle me with a slow pressure which goes to my head.
I feel every nuance, breathing with the pleasure of your lips as I pull you hair and tell you how good it fucking feels. I accept it and you murmur with pleasure as my cock stiffens in your mouth.
Between your hands and mouth, I am clenching in slow, deep spasms of impending release. We speak a language of our own, seamless and silent as breath. I break it by telling you I will come and you continue as I take a tight grip on you hair and let go.
It is flight without leaving the ground, a sensation which comes from everywhere and channelled into the music two people can make if they play in the same key. I feel the rush of everything as I spasm onto your tongue and you gulp me down as I shiver with power.
I pull you up and kiss you, tasting the salt of my come as you wrap yourself around me. I push you onto the bed and you turn your head to one side.
You smile at me and whisper.
I reach down and touch your face, but you turn your head and scowl. I turn your face back towards me, keeping my fingers tight on your jaw. You try to pull away but I hold you down firm as I shake my head and grin.
‘You can’t get away, baby girl. I take what I want from you.’
My cock stirs against my thigh as I grab your wrist with one hand and push it down onto the bed. You kick against me, but I laugh and grab your other hand as I press my chest against you and kick your legs apart with my feet. She breaks character and grin before you put on your grimace again and I smile, with a bellyful of lust fuelling my strength.
You lift your hips up as I bring my mouth to your ear.
‘I don’t know why you’re fighting, baby girl. I’m stronger than you.’
You grunt and try to push me off but I hold on and the head of my cock rubbed between the lips of my pussy. You bend your leg at the knee as you bite your bottom lip.
‘Are you going to fight Daddy anymore?’
I make my voice hard and you lift your hips to draw me in but I pull back and shake my head.
I shake my head.
‘Are you going to fight Daddy more?’
You sigh and shake your head.
‘Are you going to take this like a good girl?’
You ask me to kiss you. I lean over you, with your wrists still in my hands, dominating you as my tongue steals between your lips and you relax in my grip as I ease my hips forward as I let the head of my cock move back and forth as you gasp and lift your legs higher to take me in.
‘Please fuck me Daddy.’
I tease you with it, slow rocking motions where the head of my cock gleams with your come and I feel the muscles in your stomach tighten as you express your need for depth and intention. I thrust into you with one deep stroke and you gasp. I lean forward and inhale you, the musk of sex, the wild honey and coconut oil you use. Touching you is a contemplation on beauty, but right now I am reduced and elevated to a wild animal of need.
I fuck you in slow strokes. My need makes me urgent and propulsive, and you breathe in rapid spurts as you close your eyes and moan beneath the delicious expression of my desire. I raise up and put my fingers on your throat as I squeeze. Your eyelids flutter and you buck against me as my pussy floods with arousal and you ask me for permission to come.
I squeeze your neck again and fuck you with a lust akin to brutality, tender and terrifying in its openness before I let go and you ask me if you can come.
Your eyes are damp, and your skin is flushed and glowing. There is a delicacy to you which makes dominating you feel such a rare pleasure and the valid proposition of it pools in my crotch as I tell you to wait for me. I lean forward and kiss you, tell you to let me know when you‘re going to come.
Animal and spirit, a primal polarity which creates a cosmic, theatrical tension where we play with deadly seriousness in safety.
You ask me to fuck you harder. Your voice is tight and you’re close, as I feel another throbbing rush of arousal flood my pussy and we lock into a perfect cycle of want as you tell me you‘re going to come.
I speed up, releasing the control I’ve held onto as I pound into you, looking into your eyes as my head swims with the rush of impending release. You clench around me and I let go, the ache transforming into a sweet, unstoppable wave of liberation. We find one another in the beatific blindness of the moment, kissing to gain wisdom of our primal selves.
You pull me close and I wrap you in my arms, tight so you can feel what is within me, too important to hide but at a point where my words would be too fragile to contain it. You sigh and we lay there, seeing one another before you draw me down into another kiss and we work ourselves into another puzzle of intimacy. Another game.
Tomorrow would have been a day of splendid heraldry.
Five years to the day.
We had picked out every detail, lost in the tremendous, anxious excitement of a day celebrating our love.
The start of everything.
That last evening was full of mundane details in which tragedy lent a mythic resonance
I had undercooked the spaghetti.
You complained for forty minutes about your job, then started work on a spreadsheet.
The headache was down to stress; you said. We kissed, your eyes were dull with fatigue but you whispered for me to wake you in an hour and cupped my crotch.
I still feel the squeeze of your fingers against me.
You did not wake up and the world ended. If the devil had come and asked me to trade places, I would have in a heartbeat.
The flat became unbearable. Selling it was like chewing a limb off to escape a trap, and it hurt as much.
I could recite the memories, large and small, but I need to say this without crying.
Let me have my stoicism. Just once.
A smaller apartment. Your family became feral in their grief, but I asserted my primal, mourning authority and was the first to take the share of the treasures your passing made of simple things.
They are in the spare room. Boxed up with the lids unsealed so I can torture myself and mourn in one visit.
Lying there last night, I had left a light on. Which I don’t do, do I?
It used to irritate you how I would turn off the lights when we were not in the room. My way of showing you I had your security in mind. I figured you knew, but it got lost in translation.
The light came from the spare room. I had spent the evening reading the blizzard of post-it notes you left around the place. An oversight, but I got out of bed and check.
I opened the door, expecting to turn off the light, see all I had left of you and go back to bed, wounded and feverish.
Lights strung along the ceiling. Bunches of willow branches dusted with glitter hung on the walls. Throw pillows piled in the corner.
It brought me to my knees and I laid there, fetal and sobbing until my pills kicked in.
In the grey light of morning, it had all gone. Wiping my eyes did not make it any better.
The lights still coiled into a wreath. Pillows mummified into a vacuum-sealed bag. Branches resting in a pool of glitter.
Madness would be a relief. I could discount it as my imagination. The gesture, though, baby, it’s you.
I am seeing the doctor later. I wanted to run it by you first before I say anything.
Are there rules over there? Are you twiddling the dials on a celestial radio, looking for a song you need to hear?
Sitting here talking to a lump of Italian marble with your name carved into it makes as much sense as anything else these days. It all boils down to a binary decision.
Pills or poltergeist?
I will leave the things where they are tonight.
I hope it’s you rather than me.
OK, got to go. I love you.
I will look for you, baby.
‘If we lived in a world where women were murdering men en masse and men genuinely had reason to fear they might be murdered in their beds by a gang of marauding feminists, I would agree with your concern,’
We found it hiding underneath the bleachers.
Anita had gotten a righteous shot in with the crossbow, punched through the right thigh before it broke off into a loping, awkward run into the corridors of the high school. It left a trail of blood which we followed, shaking with fear and excitement as its cries echoed off the walls.
Karen cradled her baseball bat close to her chest as she glanced at us, grinning with anticipation.
‘This is the last one, girls, then we’re clear.’ she said.
I looked outside, saw the younger girls dragging bodies onto the smouldering bonfire as their songs and cheers of victory reached us.
The element of surprise had guaranteed us a head start. They were stronger than us, faster and adapted for violence at a genetic level.
We moved into the gym, heard it pleading from the corner as the four of us spread out to cover the exits. Karen turned the bat over in her hands and tightened her grip as she walked towards the bleachers.
‘Come out and we’ll make it quick.’ she said.
One thing I admired about the harder ones, they never gave up. Wounded or mutilated, they fought to their last breath and some of them would look you in the eye as you came for them. They had been in our homes, our schools and places of work forever, but still they fought hard to live.
After the first one, it got easier for me to do it. I made it quick with the machete, aiming for the head or the neck wherever possible. Anita liked the crossbow because it lent a sense of theatre to proceedings, she said, but I knew she enjoyed the pursuit, heightened until the last blow landed. One night, she confided in me how it made her wet when she killed one. I said nothing, but ever since; I looked at her with detachment and questioned her motives.
I did not do this in public. Apostates got demoted to support our infrastructure. Repeated infractions were a ticket to Central Processing, which no one spoke of aloud.
Karen and Anita moved to either side of the bleachers. I guarded the entrance, gun in my hand as I flipped off the safety and waited for the signal.
The sharp twang of the crossbow followed by a guttural scream was my cue to move in.
It clutched at the bolt in its stomach, eyes streaming tears as it gasped and pleaded for life. Blood pooled and soaked through the ragged, stained t-shirt as its hands grew slick. Karen walked forwards and smacked the bat down into its face. She swung the bat down twice before she stepped back and reviewed her work with a grim nod of satisfaction. They both looked at me with an unspoken question in her eyes. I tucked the gun into the back of my jeans and I pulled it out, cocked the hammer and levelled it at it.
They had always been a threat, hadn’t they?, something happened. I remembered Tommy floating in the pool whilst Mom waded out of the water. Dad had been in the study, with his throat opened in a thick, red line. It was us or them, and yet as I looked at Karen and Anita, I wondered who we were.
The gun was heavy in my hand as I aimed down the front sight. At least, I told myself; I was offering mercy as I pulled the trigger. It looked me in the eyes and held my gaze until the shot snapped its head back and it slumped like a puppet with its strings cut.
Karen and Anita dragged it to the bonfire. I noticed the class ring had come off its finger, caught on the edge of the door frame, and I pocketed it before either of them saw it.
The cries of women rose in the air as I slipped the ring into my pocket and followed them outside, grateful they were not looking at my face.
It had asked me out last summer.
Anita said it was disgusting and I was too ready out with the likes of something so base and toxic. It took the hint and left me alone but would exchange hopeful glances with me in the corridors until Principal James ordered them to avoid direct eye contact in the halls under the micro-aggression policies.
Today had been the first time we’d seen one another.
It looked up at me as the others dragged it through, but I couldn’t hold the gaze. The smell of burning meat wafted over and my mouth watered as the bell rang for lunch. It was easier to pretend this was all fine, so I did.
Did it used to have a purpose? Talking about it gets you wrote up, and when I think about it, my head hurts and I go away for a little while.
I walked away from the bonfire and walked inside, found the drinking fountain which used to look tall to me, but now I have to squat in front of it and strain my neck to reach the spout. The water doesn’t taste as good, although we’re told it’s safe.
It is safe now, isn’t it?
The wig made his scalp itch like an addiction, and the lipstick tasted of something extracted from a marine life form, but Heath looked up at the gold statuette with its mother-goddess curves and blank face and bit back a shudder of vulgar joy. He would get away with this, he thought, as he followed the media people down into the auditorium.
He had practiced with heels, but they had delivered their punishment by instalments. Walking the length of the laboratory had been one thing, but hours spent waiting to get in whilst the nominees and celebrities stood for photos and interviews with the press. He wouldn’t risk talking to one of them, although it would be quite something to ask Melissa McCarthy about playing Winifred Churchill in Her Darkest Hour or Mercedes Carrera as Connie The Barbarian.
Heath loved the cinema of this world the way God loves: from afar.
Security ushered them to their seats. Heath sat down in a way which appeared feminine but he felt awkward, already sweating under his arms and at the small of his back. There are whoops and cries from the audience, a hubbub of chatter which swells like an orchestra before the lights fall down and the presenter comes out. Something pinched the back of his ankle and he cursed the shoes he had chosen, but he wanted to fit in with the beautiful people.
It was controversial this year because a man was hosting, which made Heath chortle when he read about it, but as Michael Gyllenhaal walked towards the microphone, Heath felt a foreboding bubble in the pit of his stomach.
They were the only men in the building. He wished there weren’t restrictions on sharing his work. They enforced the department guidelines on contact and interaction with a rigour which verged on the pathological. A Latin woman, in a black suit walked down the aisle, shot Heath a look which raised gooseflesh before she moved down the aisle. Michael made a few jokes about men, and the audience cackled with a fierce glee. He was playing to the crowd, Heath thought, and good on him. Men had it tough in this parallel universe, but the politics didn’t interest him because he was here for the culture, which was always upriver of politics, anyway. His throat was dry and he rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth to generate saliva.
The first guest hosts were the stars of Bitch, Where’s My Car?, stunning despite the goofy smiles and snapback hats, heavy bracelets and midriffs carved from wood, scarred with tattoos which made Heath stir in his seat. He had taped everything back and had to take a deep breath to control his reaction. When they announced the winner as a supporting actress in Thora Gump, Heath tutted and shook his head. An elderly woman shot him a look, and when Heath uncrossed his legs, she scowled with a cautious suspicion before she returned her attention to the show. His mouth was like the skin of a baked potato and he had a headache building at his temples.
Thora Gump was awful. Heath suspected Zemeckis knew enough story structure to adapt the best parts of the book, and Hanks was subtle enough to avoid parody, which he’d been saying long before Tropic Thunder came out, but here Jodie Foster had suffered under Nora Ephron’s affectations to create a saccharine clown show which felt like a cheap satire of the original.
Heath loved the cinema of this world. For every Thora Gump, there was a Saving Private Rachel. Joan Allen was amazing as the determined school teacher and Greta Gerwig as Rachel provided an intense, but brief introduction in the last act. Their failures and successes held the same allure for Heath, but here he was indulging his appetite for novelty and risking his life to do it.
His money was on The Running Woman, Karyn Kusama had done an amazing job on the direction and Saoirse Ronan had proven a ballistic and credible lead. He rated Frances McDormand’s role as Killian the equal of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, but he couldn’t share it with them. He shook with pain as his mouth cracked and bled with thirst.
The speeches. The tearful calls for action to the faithful. He needed the bathroom but his legs had gone numb and his calves were hot coals grafted to his bones as he struggled to his feet. The old woman scowled at him and he avoided her piercing gaze as he staggered from his seat. The Latin woman looked at him with frank interest as she walked towards him.
His leg shook and he remembered the pinch on his ankle. A subtle display of tradecraft as good as anyone in the department. Culture was upriver of politics, but as he pitched forward onto his knees and watched the Latin security guard walk towards him, he marvelled how his story had turned out.
Small but capable hands lifted him to his feet.
He knew where he was going. A room outside any jurisdiction. He hadn’t come to watch The Olivias as his work, but his passion. As he focused on the blank, beautiful faces, his knees bumped against the step as they loaded him into the van and shut the door. He wanted to tell him how much he loved this world, its achievements and tragedies, how terrible and beautiful a world of women was, but they lowered the hood over his face and someone thrust a fist into his trachea before throwing him to the floor of the van as it sped away from the auditorium.
Bette stood at the counter, stretching out her aching calf muscles, stiff from the lengthy drive. A weekend with her sister and her family was exhausting and the hours on the road made everything from the soles of her feet to the top of her headache if she stayed in one position for too long. The meagre relief of a covert stretch and a large mochachino would make up for the pleasant yet melancholic weekend with Rose, Harvey and Timmy.
She ordered, paid and moved to the right as she felt a pinch at the top of her right hamstring. Bette winced but kept moving. These days, she worried about becoming a miscellany of aches over being alone.
It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling; she told Rose whilst they watched Harvey and Timmy play catch in the garden. The last embers of the barbecue glowed slowly whilst plates sat there, heaped with wilted salad leaves and ragged lumps of meat and fat commas of condiments. It was a problem for tomorrow, as Bette and Rose sat there, finishing the last of the Pimms, holding court on Bette being single.
She heard her name being called as she blinked with surprise. As she took her drink out to the car, a removal van pulled out of the parking lot. Her house was perfect, she decided, but the terrible allure of change was inviting in its awfulness.
Bette saw her phone sparkling with notifications. A dating app which was attempting to get her interacting with it again, reminding her of all the single men she was missing out on. She stopped, cleared the notifications and deleted the app. There were dates, but they were half-lived experiences, boys wanting to be men and even then wanting to be a sibling over a parent. No one she thought to bring home. She put her phone away, lifted the lid of her cup and blew across the surface. Her eyes blurred and she knuckled the tears away, told herself she was tired and her back hurt from the drive. Endless piggybacks for Auntie Bette with Timmy.
The removal van was next door. Katie and Phil had moved back to her parents in Arizona. They had been pleasant but self-obsessed people, and although they tried to be friends, it was awkward and they gave up.
Bette recalled Phil’s hungry eyes when she mowed the front lawn in a bikini top and cut-offs. Katie catching him doing it, how she bent over like she had a slight stomach cramp and a wounded, informed look in her eye which Bette wondered was the motive for the move away.
Bette sucked down the last of the mochachino, which was too thick to do much with beyond sucking it through her teeth. A voodoo logic made her believe the sugar and caffeine would do something for her headache, but all she tasted was the granular bitterness of the coffee grounds and the metallic tang of the pain which had travelled up to do Feng Shui in her head.
He walked towards her, hand raised in greeting as he grinned at her. The smile was open, gregarious in a way which made something shift in her chest just as she realised she was meeting him with a headache and teeth stained with mochachino.
Her attention went to the pair of massive dogs walking with him, to heel, a jet black mastiff with a blunt, shark’s muzzle and a lean, lupine Shepherd with its tongue flapping from its mouth but with eyes alert for a challenge. Her head throbbed as she returned her attention to the man.
A wash of grey flooded over her vision as the heat of the day weighed down on her, and judging his black t-shirt clung to his chest and shoulders, it had left its mark on him too. He had wraparound sunglasses on, and a shaved head gleaming with oil. As he came closer, she saw the glitter of close-shaved blonde beard and his Roman nose, red with a tinge of sunburn.
Rose would have run inside and locked the door. Said he looked like a serial killer. Bette would have pointed out most serial killers looked like Phil or Harvey, her husband. She watched the flare of his quads against his dirty jeans and his battered but polished boots.
Bette swept her tongue over her teeth, almost gagged against the bitterness as her head throbbed with pain. She swallowed the mess over spitting in front of him.
And you wonder why you’re still single, she thought, as she gulped it down.
‘Hi,’ she said.
Her voice sounded faint to her ears.
‘Ma’am, thought I should introduce myself, seeing as we will be neighbours. I’m Jack,’ he gestured to the dogs either side of him,’This is Thorne and Rose.’
Bette snickered and got a fresh, disorientating burst of pain which whipped around her skull. The honeyed drawl of his accent intrigued her and when he took off his shades, she peered through the haze of pain, into a pair of piercing grey eyes. His smile flickered with concern.
‘Bette,’ she said.
He repeated her name, testing its pronunciation.
‘Well, it’s good to meet you. Thought I’d get the dogs to say hi. They’re obedient dogs, though, but didn’t want you to worry,’ he said.
She tried to smile, but her head was leaden and tight with pain. A sharp pain started at the nape and she staggered like something had stung her. Another wave of grey washed over her and took everything with it.
A nail is in my forehead, she thought, judging by the pain Bette felt as she came to. The skirting boards needed a good dusting as her vision came into focus.
‘Stay still’ Jack said.
She ran her tongue over her teeth, tasted the granules of coffee and dislodged one was between her front teeth. She sighed and rubbed her face.
‘Would you help me up?’ she said.
He smelled of salt and leather as his hand cupped the back of her head and she put some tentative weight on her left hand to support herself.
‘I’ve got you, just breathe,’ he said.
She sat up by degrees, at a pace which felt glacial, but Jack stayed with her. Sitting upright helped and the pressure in her back and neck had gone. Bette gasped with relief as Ben stood up and looked down at her.
‘Thank you, Jack. I hope this isn’t an omen of our being neighbours,’ she said.
He smiled and shook his head.
‘Nothing to it. Is there anyone I can call?’ he said.
She had slept on a couch at her sisters and the lengthy drive hadn’t helped. Bette went on, despite the pain and exhaustion which had dogged her steps since she left Rose. Jack helped her to her feet and she enjoyed holding onto his thick, vascular forearm. He lifted her with no effort.
She bumped into his chest, but he did not flinch. He chuckled before he stepped backwards. Bette looked into his eyes and fought the uncoiling warmth which started in the seat of her pelvis.
‘Are the dogs here?’
He smiled and shook his head.
‘No, they went back outside.’
He glanced outside, squinting against the late afternoon sun. Bette enjoyed the mingling alleviation of her pain and the tentative stabs of arousal Jack evoked with a gesture. She thanked him and said she would see him later.
‘I look forward to it,’ he said.
Bette watched him walk back to his house, his thick arms swinging by his sides as he strode back.
She ran a bath, hot and caked with Epsom salts. These were the points she enjoyed being alone, but when she closed her eyes, the profile of Jack as he looked outside came to her attention and rose gooseflesh as it insinuated itself into her attentions.
It was dark when she awoke, and the water was lukewarm. She got out of the tub, feeling clean and refreshed. Her stomach growled with hunger and she went with the adolescent impulse to order a pizza.
Bette brushed her teeth, then ordered the pie and made tea. The thought of coffee made her nauseous, and she was appreciating the fragile pleasure of feeling well again.
She was watching television when the doorbell rang.
Jack had changed into a clean t-shirt and jeans. His skin smelled of coal tar soap , masculine and warm.
‘I thought I’d look in on you,’ he said.
Bette flushed and considered the pyjamas and robe she had on.
‘Thank you. More embarrassed than anything serious. I was lucky you were here,’ she said.
‘I’m just glad you’re on your feet,’ he said.
Bette grinned and asked him if the dogs were here. He shook his head but she made a play of peeking past his shoulder.
‘I’ve got pizza coming, it’ll be too much for me to eat alone, so do you want to come in, and erm, have some?’
Jack’s smile widened into a grin which made the muscles in her thighs flutter.
‘Sure, I settled the dogs in for the night,’ he said.
Bette tittered and opened the door, asked him if he wanted a drink. Water was fine, and she remembered how she hadn’t cleaned up since before she left to go to Rose’s house.
‘Sorry about the mess. I don’t have the excuse of saying I’ve moved in,’ she said.
He chuckled as he sat down on the couch.
‘I don’t have a lot of stuff, so it’s easy to keep neat,’ he said.
They chatted as she boiled the kettle for a fresh cup of tea. He came from the Ozarks via a stint in the USMC, a tour of Afghanistan as a dog handler, working with a Belgian Malinois. Bette remembered the mastiff and smiled.
‘She’s your war buddy, that’s beautiful.
‘What about the Shepherd?’’
Jack’s eyes glanced downwards.
‘He was my buddy’s. Stayed in after I did my last tour, got taken out and so I applied to take his dog on,’ he said.
Bette swallowed, touched by the quiet way he shared this part of himself with her. She spoke, but the whistle of the kettle made her get up and make tea.
When she returned, he stood up, looking at her bookshelves. She leaned towards thrillers and true crime, and reference material for work, but he was scanning the spines with open interest.
‘Did you ever hear the John Waters quote?’ Bette said.
Her voice sounded pitched and nervous to her ears, but he smiled and looked at her as he shook his head.
‘If you go home with someone and they don’t have books on their shelves, don’t fuck them,’ she said.
Jack stared at her, hard and unflinching for a moment, which made her throat close before his facade cracked and he chuckled, putting his hand over his mouth as he closed his eyes with delight. Bette’s relief made her join in a moment later as she came towards him.
Hack’s chuckle was rough and deep, as they moved towards one another. Bette set her cup down on the coffee table as she wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.
They stared at one another, and Bette felt every inch of skin poised for something when he moved his face towards her, a hand raising with care to cup her cheek. She whimpered as he brushed them over hers, tentative and sweet as they closed her eyes.
Which was when the doorbell rang.
Jack folded his arms and chuckled as Bette swore under her breath and went to collect the pizza.
She took the box and gave the driver a ten-dollar tip to get him away without offending him. When she went back, Jack stood there with his hands by his sides.
‘I hope it didn’t get weird,’ he said.
She set the pizza box on the table and stood up.
‘I’m in my pyjamas and I’ve already passed out in front of you. Weird was two stops ago,’ she said.
He bought his hand to her cheek again as she gazed at him. A slight whimper escaped her lips as he ran his tongue over his lips. They moved towards one another, giving in to the tension between them.
They bumped noses and chins at first, kissing in orchestral stabs as they found accommodation with one another. Bette put his hands on her breasts through her pyjama top as she guided him to the couch. The silence and song had been wonderful, but an older part of her was in charge here.
It was hungry.
Jack pulled off his t-shirt and Bette sighed at the hard plates of muscle, the golden curls of hair on his chest and stomach and the tattoos on his upper arms. There were some pitted scars across his chest, flecks of white against his honeyed skin.
He took off his shoes and socks, then knelt before her on the couch. Lust made some men clumsy, but Jack descended to her like a wild, primal angel and she welcomed him.
Bette surrendered to his slow hands. He squeezed her ass, her hips and breasts with a firm, hungry and appreciative touch which made her moan against his mouth. She wrapped her lips around his tongue and suckled, which made him groan with pleasure. They wrestled like tide and shore, a muted crash of beautiful violence and all of it made in a spirit of honeyed, wild awareness.
Bette awoke to each caress, a rough magic which fed her hunger for touch even as it expanded to demand more of him.
His mouth kissed down her neck and a need to show him more of her raged through her as she pushed herself against him, stroking him as his washcloth tongue painted the canvas of her skin.
She slipped down the couch as Jack moved back onto his heels, straddling her as he unbuttoned her top and smoothed it from her shoulders. He grinned at her before he resumed exploring her chest with his lips and tongue. She tugged down her pyjama bottoms, grateful for having had a bath as his lips painted mandalas against her breasts. She went to speak, but he took one of her aching nipples in his mouth and suckled on it which made her moan with pleasure.
The suckling ache dived downwards and his mouth moved to suckle her other nipple. She kicked her pyjama bottoms off as he parted her thighs and moved between her quivering thighs, kissing the soft planes of her stomach. Each kiss was electric, making her moan soft vowel sounds into the night air like music.
Jack crouched between her open thighs and smiled, murmuring with appreciation.
Bette touched his face, drunk with appreciation as he dipped downwards, slipping his hands under her buttocks to take a grip as he licked between her labia in one delicious stroke which went all the way to the top of her head. She shuddered, relaxing into the febrile waves of joy his tongue unleashed within her.
His tongue danced against her tender flesh, vertical and horizontal strokes grazing fresh stars into her sky. When he rested the tip of his index finger at her pussy, she felt an insistent flood of arousal.
Bette fell back against the couch as she shuddered with wonder. Jack’s fingers splayed over the cradle of her pelvis as he pressed his tongue against her clit and suckled. She exploded after an eternal, perfect moment.
All she was went upwards and outwards, like a firework before returning to herself, familiar and alien with potential and sensation. Jack came up, his lips shining with her juices and she reached out, undoing his jeans as she reached for his cock. A moment of friction passed and he was inside her, pumping and urgent as she clutched him close and felt him tighten up within her. The raging burst of his release made her come again with him, breathing hard and wrapped around him as she cried out before they collapsed together, a damp tangle of limbs and sighs.
They laid there, waiting until they could speak again. He raised himself on his elbows and stroked her face. She smelled the faint mineral scent of herself on his fingers as she looked at him.
‘Hey neighbour,’ she said.
He smiled and looked towards the pizza box, raising an eyebrow. She grinned and pulled it towards them.
‘God yes, you read my mind,’ she said.
She stopped, realising she wasn’t in any pain. All the aches wiped clean and whatever recent ones , they were the kind which made a life with people in it palatable, even pleasurable.
The evening went on.
As the days passed, they walked his dogs and found quiet accommodation with one another. She still had her mornings with the birds, but she never lacked for company.
3 INSTEAD OF E
My left foot kept spinning the pedals, a rattling, harsh percussion that cut through Hazel’s buzz. It was Wednesday, school was out because a senior had shot himself in front of his parents. Hazel kept sucking on the joint before giving out the little morsels of information that she had picked up.
‘He was wearing one of his mom’s dresses when he did it.‘
‘That’s fucked up,’ I said.
He should have transitioned. They would have given him the world.
Hazel blinked and offered the joint. I shook my head and Hazel shrugged her shoulders. I looked into her heavy-lidded eyes, platinum curls that fell around her face like a halo and fought the urge to tell her how pretty she was.
‘Sure is. Hey, I’m thinking of changing my name.’
I frowned and stopped kicking the pedals backwards. I set the bike down and sat on the kerb next to me. I had the prettier name, but in the mirror, stained skin, a lumpy nose that was a family inheritance, a stocky frame that would run to fat if I didn’t cycle everywhere.
‘What’s wrong with Hazel?’
Hazel exhaled and watched a Pontiac circling the lot without stopping. It reminded me of how a shark or a killer whale would swim around its prey but, then Hazel turned to me, and the thought evaporated.
‘I’m dropping the L.No surname.’
She nodded, grinning in the lazy way that made every boy in town goofy with lust.
‘Yeah, like Ke$ha or Madonna or Lady Gaga.’
Lady was an honorific.
‘That’s cool. You could substitute the e for a 3 when you wrote it out.’
Hazel stuck the joint in the corner of her mouth and pulled me in for a side-hug. I shut my eyes, committed the contact to memory and hugged her back. The soft crush of Hazel’s body thrilled me.
‘Damn, you’re so fucking smart.’
Being smart was not a gift. Intelligence was seldom kind and on balance, I would have traded with her in a hot minute.
‘So, are you still working on your songs?’
Hazel took a puff on the joint and pulled her phone from inside her bra. The shorts were too tight for pockets, and I envied that her legs were coltish and tan. She queued up the recording app and played me what she had been working on.
I looked down at my feet, hoping that Hazel would mistake it for contemplation, rather than discomfort. Hazel stopped the app and offered the joint to me.
I took it with a smile.
‘It’s great, you’ve got a magnificent voice.’
Hazel’s smile made it bearable and I took a slight drag on the joint, just to be polite. My head grew heavy on my shoulders and I wanted to tell her something heartfelt, something meaningful.
Which was when the Pontiac pulled up alongside us. The driver’s side window rolled down and a cloud of smoke drifted out. The driver stuck his head out and grinned with the teeth life had left available to him. His face was a blunt triangle turned upside down, patchy brown beard and a thick ring through his right eyebrow. The black tattoo on his neck looked like a burn. I swallowed, my skin tingling with nerves. The stereo throbbed with low, nasty rap, harsh voices and bass that resonated in the pit of my stomach.
‘Hey girls, what’s up?’
I passed the joint back to Hazel. She took a puff on it Norma Jean with me, but a boy would sweep into view and she would go full Marilyn.
‘Nothing. What’s up with you?’
Hazel had made her voice a touch breathier than before. My back teeth ached with an unnamed tension.
My knees drew up to my chest and I studied at the tarmac with an intensity that surprised me. I shut down, fearing that my life was one platonic loop of the same experiences. Haunting a parking lot as a ghost in a shroud of ugly, desperate meat.
I looked up. The car stood by Hazel.A pair of sunglasses glinted from the back seat. My heart pounded so hard that I registered it in her eardrums.
‘Are you in?’
Hazel’s eyes shone with expectation, her thumbs hooked into the loops of her shorts. I swallowed and gestured to her bicycle. She shook her head.
Hazel rolled her eyes and splayed her fingers.
‘Yeah, I mean, it’s cool.’
I wanted to plead with her, to stay here in the lot. We could go to mine, make brownies.. Little girl things and Hazel would have laughed at me.
She told me she would see me later. She meant it too.
She got in the back, her giggle rising like carbonate bubbles in soda.
The Pontiac sped off. I picked up my bicycle. It was a slow ride home, difficult to see through the tears.
After dinner when Hazel’s parents called.
Dark when the police arrived.
I told them they had left me in the parking lot. An adolescent girl gets in a car, it’s one thing that gets drilled into you but no one ever offers advice to the ugly girls.
You get to walk away.
I made sure that the reporters spelled her name with a 3.
She had been squalling all day. A quiet irritation and restlessness had lent an edge to her demeanour. He had noticed it as he put the cup of tea down on the table that it would build and burn her out, then exhaust her. He could ignore it, but he saw how it hurt her and wanted to do something about it.
The responsibility stirred him. She picked up the pencil and continued to sketch. Another issue of their comic book, working from his script but her pencils and inks. Last month, they had gone to the movie premiere and laughed at how surreal it felt to see the late-night conversations come alive on the screen. He loved her work and had finished the script for the next issue, then sat at the kitchen table and watched her work as he rolled another cigarette.
She caught him looking at her.
‘What?’ she said.
Her voice was sharp.
He watched her face as he lit his cigarette and sat back in his chair.
‘You’ve been restless all morning.’ he said.
She rolled her eyes and shook her head.
‘I’m not looking to define it but just acknowledging it is there.’ he said.
She huffed and returned her attention to the page. He picked up his coffee and drank, then took a puff on his cigarette, which made his head swim with nicotine as he watched her. He could have gone home, which was a gordian knot approach to take, but he enjoyed her. She was a test as much as a celebration. Most of the time, he watched her like the weather and dressed his soul according to what the sky of her predicted.
It looked like rain this afternoon.
He put the cigarette out and went to the sink, washed his hands and dried them as he turned and looked at her.
‘I think you’re being a brat.’ he said.
There was a playfulness to his voice which made her look up and pout. Her eyes narrowed and she set the pencil down.
‘No, I’m not. I just get like this sometimes. It’s not you.’
He walked over to her and shook his head.
‘I know it’s not. But I know it needs addressing.’ he said.
She fought the slight smile which burst on her lips like a sunrise. He tamped down his own pleasure in seeing the unspoken assertion of her playing along. Her depths were something he enjoyed, and no matter what else was going on between them, they played well together.
‘Oh, does it now?’ she said.
‘Yes, it does. Now I have a responsibility to deal with it,’ he said.
She turned her head and pouted. He reached his right hand, palmed her jaw and splayed his fingers across her cheek. He felt her smile vibrate down into his hand as he turned her head towards him. There was no force in it, but there was power, easy and calm as she looked at him, pouting with a playful irritation.
She grunted and tried to turn her head but he held her firm, grimacing as he put his other hand at the back of her head and gripped her hair hard enough to make her draw breath.
‘Stand up.’ he said.
She pushed the chair back and he pulled her hair again, made her gasp before she pouted and tried to pull away.
‘I’ve been good, haven’t I?.’ she said.
He shook his head and squeezed her jaw between his fingers as he stared at her.
‘I decide that.’ he said.
She smiled, breaking character for a moment, and he grinned before returning to an expression of brooding imperiousness. The delicacy of the pleasure he took was in its control. His heart thumped in his chest as he let go of her and took her left arm by the wrist.
He walked her to the living room and let go.
‘I want you to stand in the corner and think about how you’ve behaved.’ he said.
She rewarded his attention with watching the delicious micro-conflict. The missed notes played often enough to become phrases in the symphony of her. She shuddered with delight as she lowered her head.
‘That’s not fair.’ she said.
He sighed and pointed towards the corner.
‘Do as you’re told.’ he said.
She snarled and turned away. He reached out and took her by the wrist and walked her to the corner, then put his hand on the small of her back, underneath her sweater and guided her into the corner.
‘How long for?’ she said.
He leaned over and whispered in her ear.
‘Every time you ask, it gets longer.’ he said.
She giggled and straightened up, put her hands by her side and pouted.
‘OK.’ she said.
He got his coffee and brought through an ashtray and his pouch of tobacco, sat on the couch and rolled a cigarette. The air sung with tension but he absorbed it, letting the incipient vibration gather strength in the pit of his stomach. Looking at her was a pleasure and she moved her hips from side to side, knowing the thrill it gave them both.
‘Don’t fidget.’ he said.
He lit the cigarette and made her wait for the time it took him to smoke it.
‘I’m not.’ she said.
He chuckled and watched her. The burn in his lungs from the cigarette mingled with the slow build of his arousal. She stood in the corner, trembling in silence, and when he crushed the cigarette out in the ashtray, he stood up and walked over to her.
She turned around, but he told her to stay still. His voice was thick, a growl from his belly. They spoke a language of playful restraint and tension, and for all its art, it was a primal state of grace between them.
He walked over to her and brought his arms around her from behind. His right hand rested on her stomach whilst his left hand came up and cupped her chin in his hand. She pressed back against him, found him hard and ready as she pushed her backside into his crotch, revelling in the hot squeeze of his arms around her. His breath was warm against her cheek.
‘Have I been good?’ she said.
He grunted and slipped his right hand under the waistband of her cotton pants and stroked the crotch of her panties. There was a warmth seeping through the cloth and he petted it with his fingertips. She sighed and pushed back again. He grunted and turned her head, brushed his lips against hers which made her give a small moan from the back of her throat.
He plucked her underwear to one side and opened her with his fingers. She sighed as he pressed his index finger into the liquid heat of her, testing the unspoken assertion of her mood with a small circle which made her groan.
Their lips danced and played with one another as he stroked her in small circles. She brought her arm around behind her, urged him closer as though she could push him into her. He bucked back and she softened. He came forward, keeping the rhythm of his fingers constant and focused as her arousal soaked his fingertips. Each stroke expressed delicious, deliberate friction, and they built upon one another. She pulled her mouth away from his, and her eyes were heavy-lidded with pleasure.
‘Can I come?’ she said.
He smiled and shook his head. His fingers found a spot which made her gasp and lean forward, palms to the wall as she squeezed out a plea for permission.
‘No.’ he said.
She shuddered and whimpered as she pulsed over his fingers. She pleaded with him and he denied her, knowing the anticipation was becoming unbearable and revelling in the power of being able to test her through his actions and their consequences.
After her third request, he put his mouth to her ear and made her ask him again. She babbled through it, shaking with the war she was fighting, on the tightrope of an ecstasy which he took as his due. His fingers were a silken magic trick between her thighs and it was all she could do to hold on.
He told her yes, and she cried out as she clutched for him. She pressed herself against him as she hollered through the pulsing spasms of propulsive delight, her skin alive with the crackling wonder of her orgasm. She felt, rather than thought, went into the place within where his hands and body, his words spun her into playful paroxysms of feeling. When the spasms subsided, they held one another in the corner. She kissed him all over his face, gasping and sighing as he enjoyed the febrile waves of heat coming off her. He petted her between her thighs, painting up her navel with her own juices as they kissed and murmured to one another.
‘I feel so much better now.’ she said.
He kissed her on the forehead.
‘Good.’ he said.
She glanced up at him and smiled as she stroked his face.
‘Thank you. I will get those pages finished. You can get the washing in.’ she said.
He grimaced and asked her why. She smiled and kissed him again.
‘It looks like rain.’ she said.