by Patricia Esposito
I held neither hammer nor nail. I just brought the victim.
“Nail it.” One quick, dull thud. Jake screamed out, but the sound was immediately swallowed by Physician’s white hand, the scream shooting back down Jake’s throat. His head raised and banged back down on the wooden cross—soft thick beams laid across our silver, satin bed. And in our chrome and black penthouse suite, the three of us drew back and stared.
Last Tuesday, Jake had taken my hand, pulling me from the Garden Gate pub. First time, he reached for me, without invitation. I’d said “Where to?” and he’d laughed, the first I’d heard him laugh, at least a real laugh, without sarcasm. “The night, just the night.” We’d sat on a park bench and the stars had trickled down my throat, tickled in my stomach all night long.
“Okay, same here.” The nail between corpuscles. The hammer raised again, Marcus’s eyes large and shining with the upswing, falling with the down. This time Physician immediately suffocated Jake’s scream. I saw his body convulse.
Then we all three moved off the bed.
Two floodlights were directed at the hands, the blood bright against the gray now flooding away. Another light on his eyes, that warm brown tunneling into blackness. I couldn’t look at him.
Garden Gate pub, the waterfront shops, that ferry ride over glittering water. I had told him I was a leper, a diseased demon, licking his wounds to salve my own. He’d put a finger to his mouth and said, Taste this, and he mouthed in my mouth, You’re forgiven.
If he hadn’t laughed then, I’d have believed him.
Betrayal was my role now. I’d told Marcus and Physician that I’d found a boy, a boy who was a piece of beauty, God’s perfection. And a martyr, too? Physician had asked. No, I thought, no. But really I didn’t know what to make of Jake. I’d waited three weeks to bring him home.
I stared now at the blood welling in his hands, the holes that widened as he struggled. “Don’t fight it,” I said. “He’s a doctor. He knows what he’s doing. We won’t kill you.”
“Fuckin’ holes in my hands,” he spit back at me.
“Two thousand bucks,” Physician reminded him.
Then Jake drew in a breath, sucking it up, taking anything we did or were about to do down deep. “Let’s get this done,” he whispered.
“A real pro,” Marcus said with a small laugh. But none of us moved to take the first drink. Like we needed his invitation, the tilting of his neck to us, the way I had seen him that first night at the pub, guiding a man’s kisses from neck to shoulder, eyeing the other bar patrons, running his thumb on the amber glass of beer, but somehow, leaving that man no escape. And I had thought then that I could subdue him, that I could master this boy, humble him.
“The whole world is designed for temptation,” I said. Why was anyone made as beautifully as Jake? Were we to live in righteous deprivation or succu-lent submission? “Are you our path to hell or redemption?”
“Either way, the path is laid out,” Physician said. I glanced at him staring down with a reticent cold, then at Marcus leaning forward a little, a lusty smile in his eyes.
With my index finger, I pulled at Jake’s shirt’s center, the small black buttons popping to the bed, like small eyes floating around us. His eyes reflected the lights, glittery now with stars. I had told him once that I saw starlight in his eyes, and he had laughed. He had said if I paid him enough he’d show me heaven in them, too.
He deserved this blasphemous act; he was more godless than the three of us together.
My sharpened nail scratched his chest, a line of blood opening along his ribs.
Then Physician pushed me aside. “The stoic bleeds,” he said. “Tonight your pride turns humble.” He licked the line of blood. “There is no heaven, lover,” he was whispering, his mouth on Jake’s mouth, painting Jake’s lips red.
Jake turned his head away. And then I saw it. The crease tightening between his eyes, his smooth throat struggling to swallow. He was going to cry. Jake. Jake who had taken my money so flippantly each night, who had brazenly turned my spiked bracelet to his own arm, who had dared me to slice his neck, thrusting his sweetened margarita tongue in my dead mouth.
Who had given me his hand.
“I don’t think—” I started, but Marcus had come around the bed, and he was pushing my face to Jake’s bleeding wound. The smell, the beautiful red, my mouth turned hot with it, and I kissed his hand, the sweetness of blood, the bitterness of the metal. His head was turned, eyes open on me.
“Just take it,” he mouthed. “Doesn’t matter.”
Beside me Physician was moaning with greedy pleasure, and Marcus had cut a new hole at Jake’s hip.
My face was wet with blood. It didn’t matter, that’s what he said. What was that, some sort of benediction? The forgiveness he’d promised before? This blood, smooth and warm on my tongue, a gift he was saying. I could almost hear the words, something given, but maybe that was the sound of my own drunken heart. It was too late for salvation. Too late. I fell asleep drinking, listening to our moans turn into the darkest lullaby.
I slept until out the window, in the early black morning, the starlings began to caw.
The thin five a.m. light was stifled behind black blinds. I woke on the black-tiled floor, and over me I heard tape being pulled.
“You need to clean the wounds two to three times daily and keep them wrapped,” Physician was saying. From the corner of my eye, I saw bandages tossed over the bed. There was a bloody bandage hanging from the billowing silver blanket.
Sitting up, I saw Jake against the pillows, one hand already bandaged and abandoned. Physician was dressed, his lavender shirt, gray pants, hair slicked back, teeth white and smelling minty. Marcus was on the edge of the chair, his hand flipping locks of hair across Jake’s forehead. “Beauty, beauty, beauty,” he was saying. “Let’s have you again, sweet one.”
Jake didn’t seem to hear him. His jaw was clenched I could see, and he was watching the bandage go around and around his hand.
Did he look at this as a job, just another bit of nightly work? His body was rigid, eyes fierce on the work being done. There was pain in his eyes, but it was distant. It seemed to have nothing to do with us anymore.
Then he turned to me. “You’re crying,” he said.
“What?” I wiped my nose and got to my feet. It didn’t feel like I was crying. I mean I couldn’t say I felt any real pain, not physically.
“All night, you didn’t stop.”
That wasn’t true. He’d mistaken my ecstatic moaning for cries. Marcus laughed, throwing himself back in the chair.
“Our friend here thought he was in love with you,” Physician said.
I glared at him but there was nothing to say. One didn’t fight Physician.
“Do you need water or something?” I said to Jake. Best to be practical. Best to escape to the bathroom, past Marcus, who slouched in the cold chrome chair. God, my legs were trembling. I could trace my awkward movement in the rise and fall of Marcus’s eyes. At the bathroom sink, I could barely stand. My hands were veined purple and pink like the marble basin that held me up.
I ran cold water and put my hands in it, wiped my face. When I turned it off, I heard Physician. “You’ll heal faster if you do what I said. There’s no damage. I know what I’m doing. There are more stories I’d like to reenact, when you’re healed. Be in touch.” His medical bag snapped closed.
Avoiding the mirror, I stood there, cold hands on the colder sink. I couldn’t see Jake; I didn’t hear him say a word, but suddenly I knew what he was thinking. I understood the look in his eyes. He could kill Physician. That was something Physician didn’t understand.
There’s no damage. I could hear Physician saying it, but Jake was out there on the bed with holes through his hands and I was on the floor crossing my arms over my eyes, wishing it could get so dark I could leave and never see him. We had walked the streets together, nuzzled under lamplight; I’d fallen dreamily into his white night smile.
There was something done here that shouldn’t have been done.
Then Jake called me. “Julian.”
Fuck. In those sweet weeks, I’d never told him my name. How did he know it? I reached for the silver cup at the edge of the sink, water spilling over my hand. I’d have to hold it to his mouth. He had no hands.
“You are beautiful,” Marcus was saying to Jake. I glanced around. Physician was gone. “Don’t look so betrayed. What did he give you? Two grand?”
It wasn’t betrayal I saw in his eyes, more like he was sorting things in his head. Like the way he’d look at me when he’d take the money at the end of our nights. I never knew if I’d turned something real into a business transaction, or if he only wanted a promise of more.
A stack of bills was fanned out over the black nightstand, but I didn’t see how Jake could even pick them up because his hands were fat with bandages.
“I warned you,” I said, surprising myself with my own defensive tone. I wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but last night had stripped him of control, and I wasn’t sure what he’d do now to get it back.
He looked at me, but with nearly a dismissive stare, condemnation, I guess. What had he gone through in life to be condemning me? We were the malcontents, the hungry, feeding, the same as him.
“What’s the other one’s name, the one you call Physician?” Jake asked. “Where does he live?”
Marcus started laughing. “Don’t bother, sweet. He’ll be back for you when he wants you, and you can’t—”
“You let him put holes in my hand,” Jake said, his voice cold enough that I started feeling a little scared.
“They’ll heal,” Marcus said.
Jake turned from Marcus to me. “Do you know where he lives, where he works?”
Nodding, I found my mouth turning pasty. I stretched my arm out with the water cup shaking, spilling. He waved it off. Those hands should be paws, I thought, stumps, but he was using them like it was nothing, like he had full control.
“Where?” he asked again. Exquisite, the steady patience in his voice. Like we were idiots, standing here, Marcus and me, puppets.
“That’s privileged knowledge,” I said. Immediately I knew the words meant nothing. The truth was that I wanted to tell him; the truth was that I wouldn’t have minded seeing Physician dead. That I kept wondering, what if I could taste Jake’s skin, without the blood, what if…
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
His eyes fixed on me, his stare neither cold nor threatening, narrowing a bit, a look of curiosity almost. The place. He wanted the place. “That corner mansion, you know the one at Court Square.”
As Jake nodded, I realized I’d condemned Physician.
“Now, you never mind about that, little sweet,” Marcus was saying to Jake. “Pretty…” He touched Jake’s cheek, a white finger tracing beneath the smooth cheekbone, flicking the lip, needling in, into Jake’s mouth. “You were paid well. Besides, you can’t get near his home. You don’t want us to have to kill you, do you?”
Jake bit down on the finger, holding onto it. “Fuck,” Marcus said, wincing, then a smile turned his red mouth large and happy. Jake released him and got up from the bed.
It seemed that was it. One finger bite and Marcus was going to let Jake walk.
Fine then. This was between the Physician and his victim.
I was about to leave when he called me. “Julian, I need your help.” At first I thought he was asking for me to help him fit the shoe to his foot, but I saw he’d already slid his foot in. He was dressing as if nothing had happened. As he leaned for the other shoe, morning light widened softly through the blinds, catching his shining hair, lighting his cheek. With each minute the sun moved, our bodies accelerated toward ash, I was thinking. I wanted his to stay this earthy silk. I could wear him like a cloak, wash in him.
“I can give you an hour,” I said.
Pulling on his jacket, Jake flinched when his hand pushed through the sleeve. “I gotta hide this,” he said. “There’s someone who can’t know about this.” My first thought was Jake’s owner. Stupid, but that’s what I thought, that he wasn’t real. “I have to cover the holes. Fuckin’ holes in my hands. How the hell do I explain that?”
This was all he cared about. The blasphemy, the horror, the history behind what we’d done here—none of it mattered. He was godless, I thought, worse than us. At least we acted out the stories, at least the stories drove us mad, at least they mattered.
“Break them and cast them, maybe,” Marcus said, but he was at the door already, hand pressed to his mouth, thrown to us in an extravagant farewell.
Jake shook his head. “No, I don’t want to mess up my hands permanently. Too risky.”
“Burns,” Marcus said then, and I saw Jake’s jaw tighten, the muscles flinch, and then he nodded slowly.
The room darkened again, Marcus closing the door.
“You can’t do what I think you’re saying.” My throat tightened and my nose filled again.
“There’s someone I love more than last night’s two thousand bucks.” He was heading toward the door. I didn’t want to follow. “C’mon. I can use this basement flat, just fifteen minutes from here.”
Someone he loved. Christ, that hurt more than it should.
“That’s all you care about? Covering up? You were nailed to a cross. We drank your blood.”
He stood there, car keys dangling from the tip of his exposed finger.
Someone he loved.
For a moment, at the door, he looked at me, his eyes darkening again. “I know what was done to me,” he said. “I can live with that. Someone else I know can’t.”
And what was done would lie there, somewhere deep inside him, nestling there among a hundred other things done to him perhaps.
“You’re going to burn your hands?”
A hard clenching, cheek, jaw, neck muscles taut. “Yeah.”
On the way to the car, following him, nearly chasing after him, I finally asked. “Who do you love so much?”
He clicked open the passenger door and dropped the keys in my hands. “You drive.”
Out of the parking garage, I felt the lightening sky, the weak rays pushing over the earth. He didn’t talk, mostly pointing out the street turns with that bandaged hand.
“How’d you know my name?” I finally asked.
“You’re part of Physician’s crew. Stories go around. You’re into blood. Never killed anyone, just think you’re vampires.”
I laughed a second. “Just because I was easy on you, doesn’t mean I couldn’t kill you. You got lucky.”
“I’m not feeling lucky.”
My laugh stuck. No. How would someone feel who was about to burn his own hands?
“In there,” he pointed. I pulled into a close alley, between two six-story, brick buildings. “Just park here. We won’t be long.” And he was out of the car, down a cold flight of stairs, a good place, I was thinking, cold, dank, dark.
Maybe I could stay awhile with him. Maybe we could just lie together in dreamy sleep.
I’ll take care of you, I almost said. But he was pulling a bag of ice from a freezer, smashing it onto the floor, dumping it into a bucket. Then from a shelf full of cleaners and chemicals, between bandaged hands, he lifted a can of kerosene.
“Is this a janitor’s flat or something? This where you work?” I asked.
“I don’t work,” he said. Kerosene splashed into a paint pan. He began unwinding the bandages.
“When I light them, I’m gonna need you to pound it out. The flames. The burns are a disguise, that’s all. Got it? I’m supposed to be keeping clean while he’s away, behaving, doing good deeds or something.” The sarcasm fell flat. I don’t think he had enough energy to pretend this was anything but bad.
“You could tell him we forced you, that you were an unsuspecting victim.”
He threw a box of matches at me. “I don’t know how to be a victim.”
“But you were, don’t you see? We nailed you to a cross.” I pulled a match from the box and walked over. “Are you going to kill him? Physician? Are you going to kill all of us? Or should I kill you instead?”
Jake dipped his hands in the kerosene, then threw two blue rags at me.
He was just looking at me, staring, until finally his shoulders slumped. “Look—” he said. “I’ve never been burned. D’you suppose it’s bad? Do you know how much it hurts?”
A first true moment of humility, I thought. His eyes were moist, but I doubted he’d let a tear fall.
“I might faint or something. Go into shock,” he said.
He was asking me to help him, to get him through this insane act. “God, you just set yourself in motion and don’t know when to stop. If you’re in love, if this someone cares about you so much, why’re you doing all of this?”
He raised both wet hands before me. Face, posture closed against an answer.
“Fine. This is out of my hands.” I struck the match, balled up the towels in one hand. The match was shaking so much I thought it would go out before I touched his skin. “You shouldn’t love someone who would expect this from you.”
Whoosh. And his face was bright orange with the light, his eyes fiery. There was no black and silver, hidden night here, no swallowed screams. His hands flew out. Flames winging.
The towels. I had to gather him up, catch this flying fire, wrap it, hold it down.
“Jake, Jake,” I was screaming. And then suddenly it was out and the room was a still, gray wash again, concrete, wet stone.
It was done. We did it. I raised my head, a breath of relief expelled.
But he was whiter than me, sweat on his forehead; he sank to the floor.
“The water, the ice,” he was whispering. “The water.”
Water, yes. I’d brought water before. “Dammit,” he said, kicking his leg out at me. “The ice…”
Shit, this was no idle prayer. He needed to get his hands in water.
Letting the spigot run over the ice, I was thinking this was crazy, but the splashing water felt good on my hands. And as I carried the bucket to him, I realized it was the second time I was bringing him water. That I’d keep bringing it to him if he’d let me. He plunged his hands in through the ice. His eyes were closed, his breathing paced, like he was counting.
“Okay,” he whispered finally. “Okay. You can go now.”
“No—” I started, but for him it was that simple. He was done with me. There’d be no redemption here, not for him or for me.
I stood there looking down at him, but he wouldn’t look back up.
“Jake?” I said.
He was nodding a little. He wiped his face on his sleeve. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “Go on. I’m okay.”
Finally, I stepped out into the shadowed alley, and closed the door. A brisk wind swept through the alley, bringing the smell of street dust, car fumes, and rising pastry or bread. Weak orange sunlight was making a large streak at the alley’s end, and out in the street where the cars moved now, people passed carrying bags, swinging their arms to the day’s momentum, the rising sun.
I stood there seeing the nails and the fire and Jake’s eyes so set on completion that he could see no way of coming back. At one time I had believed in possibility. There were always ways, weren’t there, means for salvation? I started down the alley, my hands free along the building, and the brick wall cool and soothing on my palms.
The sun was splitting bright now in an even triangle at the alley’s end. Who would burn his own hands? I didn’t know if it was pride or humility that drove Jake, stubborn will or unwavering forgiveness. But I wanted neither.
My feet were at the edge of sunlight, and at the street, a black railing was making a sturdy cross for me to lean on. I stopped there and let the warming sky drift down.
A man, in passing, smiled at me, a morning kind of smile. I must not have looked so deadly dark in this tired morning. Maybe not the savage, feeding vampire, or the horned Lucifer ready to kill. Maybe I just looked like a guy watching the morning spread its colored feast.
Jake could have been here with me. I could have nursed his wounded hands. But he chose fire instead. And now he was sitting down there devising stories to pass along, stories to get him through another day, while I was here, my heart and mind wide open, watching the day begin.
Published in Not One of Us #34, September 2005