Donny had seen the face of Hell, and it was a Gestetner 300-series mimeograph machine.
It was, in theory, a simple process, and sitting down to do the dirty work himself was supposed to be far easier than trying to find a print house who’d run a fanzine for anything less than a small fortune, but theory was theory and reality was, in this case, trying to figure out what in the world had gotten sucked up into the ink drum. Or proofreading the copies of each story and letter he’d been sent, meticulously cutting out stencils one page at a time on his typewriter, proofreading that, and then still finding errors after he’d already printed up a hundred copies. Or whatever the heck was going on with his attempts to transfer the rather nice artwork someone had contributed for the cover, and why said attempts only ever managed to yield a blurry purple smear. Donny was pretty sure he was getting a buzz off the smelly correction fluid he painted across each mistyped master page. Would the cops accept “printing amateur science fiction” as a valid excuse for being high as a kite?
More important than his criminal record was how he was going to get everything collated, bound, and triple-checked by next week, because you just didn’t show up at the 7th annual Farley Fan Festival without new books to sell or trade, at least not if you were Donny Tweed of Tweed Suit Press (established 1981 in the living room). So many of his contributors were Farley Point locals that they’d surely call for his head on Salome’s platter if he didn’t have zines to show off to their friends on the first day of the con.
He looked at the messy stacks of aubergine-inked pages that were devouring the carpet and sighed. Like it or not, he was going to need a collaborator.
An hour later Donny was the proud owner of a tension headache. If the phone book had bothered to include a section for useless jerks he would’ve filed all of his friends directly into it, as they were all mysteriously sick, or doing con prep of their own, or just generically “busy” the instant he brought up needing an extra set of hands to turn the wood-pulp snowdrift consuming his house into a finished issue. He felt like the Little Red Hen: Who will help me bind my zine? Maybe he should’ve called the farm down past the power station instead.
There was exactly one name left he could call in the entire blasted directory, but he’d left it for last for a reason, that reason being that it belonged to Tyler Eustace Wolff. Tyler had been a macho soccer star all during high school before he’d gone off to college to study whatever it was he majored in and come back with an earring and a significantly more colorful wardrobe; neither version of Tyler was the sort of guy Donny knew how to handle at all. He definitely seemed the kind of guy who had better things to do than check the reproduction fidelity on stories about spaceship adventures. Donny hadn’t thought about Tyler at all up until a few months ago, when a broken tape deck had brought him into the appliance repair place where Donny worked, and while Tyler hadn’t been unpleasant or anything, Donny had spent that entire afternoon worrying about how he came off to people who’d known him as a kid; he’d worked extra hard to make sure that tape deck worked flawlessly. It was pointless calling, but if Donny didn’t dial he couldn’t honestly tell people he’d done everything he could when the inevitable fic-starved mob came for him, and that was how he found himself telephoning the most intimidating person he knew.
Ring. This was a bad idea.
Ring. They barely even knew each other, it wasn’t like they were friends.
Ring. Tyler probably didn’t even remember him.
Ring. Maybe he wasn’t home?
Ring. This was pointless, he might as well— “Yeah, this is Ty.”
“Tyler Wolff?” said Donny, even though he recognized the voice. If he was going to be asking favors of almost-strangers he could at least make sure he was bothering the right almost-stranger.
“That’s me. Who’s this?” Was he eating? It sounded like he was eating. Donny hadn’t known that people like Tyler still answered the phone around a mouthful of food. That brief twinkle of everyday-Joeness was enough to get him over the first stressful hill of cold-calling old classmates.
“Donovan Tweed. From high school? We had a few subjects together.”
Tyler made another food noise and swallowed loudly. “Oh yeah, I remember you. Black hair, glasses, did that one biology project about sharks? The one with the puppet?”
Donny still had that shark puppet and the thrift-store Barbie doll he’d used as a demonstration. It had been very important to him to talk about the factual inaccuracies in Jaws that year. He’d gotten an A and a trip to the principal’s office for that one. “Right.”
“Long time no see, I guess. What’s up?”
“I know this is out of nowhere, but I kind of have a favor to ask.” He paused to take a deep breath. Tyler didn’t hang up on him, so he had to continue. “I’m trying to get a project together for an upcoming get-together. It’s a small press kind of thing. I’ve got a lot of the printing done, but it’s not enough and I still have to get all the pages in order and there’s some transfer stuff I have to do and that doesn’t even cover the binding and I’ve got a deadline coming up and nobody else will help me and are you free at all this week? Please?” Now that all the cards were on the table, Tyler could properly refuse him and Donny could go back to wondering how viable it was to live in a cave in the woods.
“I said sure. I’m bored and I have nothing to do tomorrow. So long as it gets me out of the house I figure I can at least show up for a few hours.”
Donny was not at risk of dropping the phone in shock, but he was very glad nobody was around to see his gobsmacked expression. “That’s, uh, that’s great! Fantastic! Thank you! I can get some takeout for lunch or something, my treat. Least I can do. You’re a big time lifesaver.” He leaned against the wall and sagged with relief. “Do you need directions to my place?”
The answer was yes, and once Tyler had found a pen to take notes they discovered it was only a handful of turns between them. Donny tiptoed around the fact that the “small press fiction anthology” they’d be working on was entirely dedicated to fanfic about a certain zero-budget sci-fi series that was making the rounds on the UHF stations. Tyler would find out one way or another, of course, especially with the loving rendition of Captain Ralfalcon and First Mate Urrsh (a really good one this time, with one of those exploding planets the actual show mentioned often but never actually showed) that was slated to adorn the still-not-transferring-right cover, but maybe he’d be less inclined to change his mind if he’d already driven out to Donny’s house by the time he figured out he was hip-deep in nerd cruft. Maybe Tyler watched Vertigo Galaxy himself and would want his own copy! Maybe that was too much to ask.
“So do I need to bring anything?” asked Tyler.
“Not really,” said Donny as he scanned his warren of supplies. They had ink and paper in spades, even if they had to completely reprint the entire run twice over, and you could’ve built a fort out of his stacks of cover stock. He’d learned to overprepare the hard way. “Lots and lots of patience helps, though. Expect for things to smell really strange. And don’t wear anything you don’t mind getting weird-colored ink all over.”
Tyler laughed. “I can do that. Sounds like it’ll be a real experience.”
Donny was so flustered from his good fortune he nearly forgot his manners. “Thank you so much, Tyler.”
“The name’s Ty. And sure. See you tomorrow.”
Tyler showed up at 9:00 sharp in painter’s jeans and perfect hair. His earring—just the one, in his right ear, and Donny had heard what that meant—was bright in the murky springtime sun. Donny wasn’t really sure what men like Tyler looked for in each other, but whatever it was Tyler was probably pulling it off in his own way; Donny tried not to let his intimidation show. He waved Tyler inside.
“You can kick your shoes off here by the door if you want.” Tyler did so, leaving his boots next to the loafers, house slippers, and single pair of old tennis shoes Donny kept for yard work. “I figure this morning it’ll be mostly showing you what all I’ve got and talking about what we’re trying to do. I can show you how the equipment works and stuff. Then maybe a review of the material itself, put lunch in there somewhere, and the rest of the day is proofreading. The war room’s this way.”
Donny led and Tyler followed, though once they reached the living room Tyler had to stop in the doorway to take in the scene. The stack of boxed paper reams was nearly up to Tyler’s chin. “You weren’t kidding about how big of a project this was,” he said.
“Yeah, it really is,” said Donny. He hunched his shoulders and tucked his hands in his pockets. “If you want to back out now, that’s okay.”
“Nah. Like I said, I’m getting an experience out of it.” Tyler carefully picked his way through the living room towards one of the few chairs that didn’t have a pile of stuff on it, then sat down in it like he owned the place. He leaned over to read the top page on one of the sheaves of paper closest to him. “So you said this was a limited run anthology kind of thing, right? There a theme here or is it just pick ‘n mix?”
The moment of truth had arrived far sooner than Donny had planned, but if Tyler was already seated that was half the battle won already. How could he phrase this properly? “Do you ever watch channel 63?” Tyler shrugged, so Donny opted for the CliffsNotes version. “They air a lot of oddball stuff, like Doctor Who and Trek reruns and foreign cartoons. One of their shows is this sci-fi thing called Vertigo Galaxy. It’s made on money they fished out of the couch cushions but the writing is really good. If you’ve ever seen Blake’s 7…?” This earned another blank look from Tyler. “Well, um, it doesn’t matter. There’s a show and people write stories about it, and that’s what this is. It’s for a convention next week.”
“Huh. Neat.” The high school version of Tyler had been a lot more brazen when insulting people, so Donny chose to take the comment at face value.
“I’ve got everything more or less organized and I’ve typed up a hundred sixty-eight pages of text, but I keep finding typos and stuff and I don’t have any of the pages with art on them finished. Our job, over the next however many days there’s an ‘our’ working on this, is to somehow clean up all of this” —Donny waved at the towering stacks— “into something like this.” He tapped his fingers on one of the comb-bound collections sitting on his shelf like so many cookbooks. It might’ve passed for a cookbook, too, if the words “Vertigo Universe #3” and “Tweed Suit Press” hadn’t been written on the spine in silver paint pen. “I have experience with all the moving parts but I only have two hands to work them, you know?”
Tyler folded his arms across his chest. “Lucky for you I did well in English comp. Do I need to know how the thing on the table works or do you want me to go straight to the corrections?”
Donny dug up a set of pages that was mostly completed: everything was in the right order, the pages were numbered and printed on both sides (and thankfully were not bleeding through this time, unlike the disastrous first run of issue #1), and he’d put large sticky notes on any pages that were supposed to have pictures on them. He’d even already organized the poetry and letters of comment sections, since it’d been a lot more appealing to type up the table of contents and story summaries the previous night than anything else. The zine was skeletal but serviceable. In its current state he might even have risked asking for a dollar or two a copy.
He nodded to a hole punch and three-ring binder on the side table next to Tyler as he made a big deal about the efficiency of proofing everything at once so no editorial momentum was lost. A lot of it was just basic spelling and grammar checking on the sample copies, but that dragon, consistency, had to be part of it all, too. There was also the matter of making sure all the names were spelled right, which to the layman was a hopeless case given how many episodes had involved the planet Qr’ti-o’qqh and similar dropped-the-Scrabble-bag names, and Donny was very proud of himself for writing up a guide to as many common (and not so common) show-specific words as he could think of well ahead of his first desperate phone call. Summoning that list from his typewriter’s clattering keys had been one of Donny’s better ideas, if he could say so himself.
Not a small amount of time was spent assuring Tyler that an encyclopedic knowledge of the show wasn’t necessary, as a man of Donny’s temperament and fan club membership was far more suited to the task than that one guy who’d given him the stink-eye during gym class volleyball. He made sure to bring up his collection of cassette tapes—each captured directly from the airwaves to his VCR and meticulously re-recorded until his collection was in chronological, as opposed to broadcast, order—and not-so-subtly mentioned just how many zines he’d collected over the years that had at least one Vertigo Galaxy story; it was very important that Tyler know he was working with an expert in the field, since otherwise how would he be confident that all the fact-checking was correct?
They ended up skipping how the “thing on the table” worked, since Donny had no desire to mimeo more pages until he knew he hadn’t fumble-fingered any more keys, so once Tyler had settled in with a red pen and a mission Donny turned his attention to the illustrations once more.
Oh, the illustrations. He just didn’t have the tools, or money, to run the fancy graphite ones you saw in the bigger-name zines for bigger-name shows, which was such a shame given the very nice pieces Missy Calcot submitted to the con’s art show each year. What he did get in the mail was a guaranteed handful of handsome pieces and quite a few more very nice tries (he didn’t have the heart to call them scribbles), all of them done up in the bold, cartoony pen and ink that was a necessity of the format. Personal honor demanded he eat the cost of heading down to see the vultures at the copy shop to get some photocopies made of each submission; sure, most artists were fire-and-forget types who were just happy to get their free contributor’s copy to show their friends, but he’d be drawn and quartered before he allowed any harm to befall the originals.
As for what harm could befall said art, it was a common thread running through the entire zine assembly process and usually mimeo purple. There was also the hair-raising process that was carving it into something the Gestetner could read. He had a light box, an X-Acto #10 blade, and steady hands, but just like every prior attempt at duplicating the picture of Science Officer Jaz in a more flattering version of her usual onesie, it felt like he might as well have been working with a piece of packing foam.
“This’d be easier if I had an electropen,” he muttered to himself.
“A what?” said a voice from outside his field of vision.
Donny nearly jumped; he’d managed to forget Tyler was there in the space of a single stencil. “It’s a thing for burning the stencils. You hold them like a pen and just draw where you want the ink to go later. They’re a lot easier to use than knives.”
“So it’s like when we made prints in art class?” Donny had entirely forgotten they ever shared an art class, but no, that had been sophomore year, one semester before he’d switched his focus over to A/V club. He still had the linocut he made of Superman’s S somewhere up in the attic. Donny nodded, and heard more than saw Tyler stand up, shuffle through the paper pillars, and lean on the back of his chair. “Can I see that?” Tyler asked. He pointed at Donny’s X-Acto. Donny flipped the knife around in his hand until the point was facing away from Tyler and passed it up.
Jocks who knew about very sharp craft knives were the sort of thing that would’ve given a teenage Donny trouble sleeping, but teenage Donny had honestly been a bit of a wiener. There was no need to be weird at someone who just wanted to help. He instead waited for Tyler to finish whatever it was he needed.
“Where’s the spare blades?” Tyler asked.
“There should be a little plastic thing with extra blades in it. Looks like this one’s just gone dull. The handle’s pretty worn, so I’m guessing it’s just been longer than you thought since you replaced it last.”
“I just whet the edge when I need to,” said Donny. He’d taken apart a knife-sharpening kit and set up a tiny little grindstone for that exact purpose.
“You don’t replace the…? You really don’t swap the heads out, do you.” Tyler scrunched his face up like he’d just bitten into a raw grapefruit. He held it that way for a second before his features smoothed out again into their usual clean-shaven disinterest. “You’re killing me, Donovan.”
“I’m not going to buy a new one every time the tip gets a little blunt,” said Donny. He didn’t want to make a scene with so much work to go and so little of that day’s share finished, but who was this, this guy to tell him how to use his own supplies?
“Yeah, no, not saying you should do that. Did it come with a little black plastic thing?”
“The branded pencil sharpener or whatever? I have it here somewhere.” He poked around in his coffee can of supplies and passed a small box with the metal bit on one side to Tyler, who promptly flicked out the metal part without so much as asking. Donny was about to protest when Tyler unscrewed a gizmo on the X-Acto’s handle and slid the blade out like it’d been designed to do that. It turned out the pencil sharpener’s edge fit neatly into the space where the old blade had been. After marking on the side of the old blade with a permanent marker he shoved it into a slot in the side of the black box.
Tyler twisted the gizmo back in place and thumbed the edge of the knife. “Try that,” he said, and handed it back.
The swapped out blade cut like a dream with just the slightest amount of pressure. Donny tooled around with the sheet he was going to be scrapping and marveled at the way he didn’t have to fight the page to trace each groove and divot. This was probably the way you were supposed to do it, not by building a tiny blacksmithing station that you spent a quarter hour in every time you needed to make a fine cut. He felt his palms sweating. It wasn’t even lunchtime and he’d already made a jackass of himself in front of company.
“My dad and uncle build a lot of model kits,” said Tyler, who surprisingly wasn’t being mean about it. “I grew up watching them put together boats and planes. That’s where I learned how to handle cutting tools like that.” He shrugged. “Not the end of the world that you were doing it weird, though. It’s like saying a word wrong because you’ve only seen it in print.”
Donny didn’t have anything to say to that outside of an awkward, mumbled thank-you. Tyler shrugged again and returned to his editor’s chair.
Midday rolled around to a much more productive, if still slightly awkward, atmosphere. The fresh knife edge not only meant Donny’s cuts were cleaner but that he worked faster, too, and the pile of annotated pages at Tyler’s side (stacked upside-down for order’s sake) had started outstripping the size of the unedited sheets. Donny put the final touches of traced patterns on the picture he’d been converting, put down his knife, and leaned back in his chair with a satisfied grunt. Maybe that deadline wouldn’t be so horrible after all.
He ruffled through the pages of the phone book until his thumb rested on the first entry for take-out food. “You got any requests for lunch? There’s a good number of delivery places around here.”
Tyler looked up and made a curious noise through his nose. “Anything’s good, I guess.”
Donny knew he had a coupon on the fridge for a local pizza place. Being a good host meant springing for a large, especially if you could get a dollar off delivery. Said dollar could go right back into the pizza jockey’s tip. “How do you feel about black olives?”
“They’re fine. I’ll eat whatever. You need money for it?”
Donny had already dialed the number, so he shook his head and fanned a fistful of ones instead. Nonverbal communication was so underrated. Once the pizza business was settled he made a detour through the kitchen to grab the coupon, tucked it in his wallet with the rest of his folding money, and returned to the living room with two beers and a bottle opener. Tyler put his papers to the side before gratefully accepting the bottle offered to him.
“How’s the art going?” he asked.
“Pretty good. I think I’ll have everything but the covers ready for print by this afternoon.” Donny sipped his beer and felt very pleased with himself for having invested in such a comfortable couch, even if there was only barely enough room for him to sit on it at the moment. “How’s hunting for typos?”
What he’d expected was a “fine” or a “terrible” or something at either end of the scale, not for Tyler to waggle a hand uncertainly. “It’s pretty straightforward. Most pages don’t have any corrections, which is good. I’m just having trouble absorbing all the, uh, setting-ness? There’s all these huge sweeping paragraphs about something that just reads like white noise to me.”
Normally that would have been Donny’s cue to sweep in with a homemade episode tasting menu like one of the Four Horsemen of the Betamax, complete with a quick reference guide to fill in some of the gaps in the information available, but normally Donny was not talking to people like Tyler, who presumably were too busy with people-like-Tyler things (whatever that meant) to have time for serialized space adventure-dramas that only aired at the far end of the dial. Donny tried his hardest to curb his enthusiasm as he composed the most accessible summary of his most dearly beloved program he could.
“Well, you probably already figured out that it’s a science fiction thing with a central ship and how most of the recurring cast is crew of said ship. It starts out just being about exploration, but as the series goes on you see more of a bigger plot with lots of intrigue and betrayal. They start focusing on that more in later seasons.” Said creative decision was almost certainly because there wasn’t enough money to do much else, but Donny wasn’t about to bring that up. “It gets a lot darker than your usual pulpy sci-fi thing, like this is to Trek what Empire Strikes Back is to the original Star Wars.” Maybe he should’ve mentioned Return of the Jedi instead, since it was newer, but that risked muddling the analogy.
“I’ll take your word for it,” said Tyler, who seemed very interested in his beer bottle label.
“Anyway, most of the stories that go around are either filling in the cracks in the narrative, like things happening between episodes, or try to expand on the world itself. They mention Captain Ralfalcon’s childhood a few times but never more than a line here or a reference there, right? Writing up the what-if part of the equation is pretty fun. Sometimes people write AUs, that’s Alternate Universes, so you get stories about what if Ralfalcon was an alien or what would happen if the Hazzax Alliance met Ming the Merciless. There’s even some people who made up their own ship and crew and write about them instead of anybody on the Dazzling 42.”
Tyler half-smirked. “What happened to the other forty-one?”
“Well, see, it’s a clever reference! There’s this one British series called The Hitchhiker’s Guide—”
“I’m sure it’s very interesting,” said Tyler, quickly, “but you were telling me about the show the anthology’s about first.” He ran his fingers through his bleach-tipped hair. “So the deal is that it’s a bunch of people flying around on an adventure in outer space, right up until it turns into a political thriller in outer space?”
Donny would have used different words, but Tyler wasn’t Donny, after all. “That’s more or less it.”
“Neat.” You could do far worse than a “neat,” at least when dealing with people who’d probably never so much as stepped inside a hobby shop before.
The pizza was still approximately twenty minutes out, so Donny braved the wilds of conversation with unfamiliar parties once again. “Thanks again for coming over to help on such a short notice. I mean, I’d planned to have more time than the week before to get everything done, but work got real busy out of nowhere and my free time all vanished overnight, you know?”
“It’s fine,” said Tyler. “I’d probably never think to get involved with this kind of work without someone asking me first. Not my thing, but I wouldn’t be who I am today without giving ‘not my things’ a shot now and again.” He didn’t elaborate on that further, but maybe that was how he’d tweaked to the whole gay thing, whenever that had happened. Had he figured it out during high school and it just hadn’t been as obvious then? Donny’s social graces were developing in the sense that a tadpole is a frog that’s developing, but he still had the good sense to know you didn’t just ask people that sort of thing when the most social contact you’d had with them in years was when they’d offered to do you a solid out of the blue.
The conversation limped around in fits and starts for a while until the doorbell rang. Donny handed off the coupon and extra-heavy tip with probably a bit too much gusto before retreating to the kitchen to plate their lunches. Tyler looked pretty okay with being handed two steaming slices of veggie-laden supreme; not having an argument about toppings already made their impromptu meeting a great deal less stressful than the usual day-long shindigs Donny would get up to with his friends.
Lunch itself was pretty quiet, save for the occasional return to the kitchen for another slice or a fresh bottle of Schlitz. Donny reviewed his schedule in his head: they’d need him at the shop Monday through Thursday as usual, but since he had Friday off he might be able to sneak in some extra working time before the con got started that evening. Assuming Tyler finished the proofreading before he left that day they might be able to finish more printing and even collate a bit, which would mean that Sunday and Donny’s coming weeknights would be a crunch time hell, but everything felt just a little more doable.
He was yanked out of his thoughts when Tyler asked him, apropos of nothing, “So you’ve got tapes of this show, right?”
“Yeah, I’ve got everything right on the shelf over there. Why?”
“I’m not going to mark papers with pizza grease all over my hands. We might as well watch an episode of this thing.”
Donny could’ve wept with joy. “Sure, we can do that.”
The Betamax whirred to life as the living room was bathed in the glow of Donny’s TV set. The familiar triumphant synth tones of the show’s theme warbled through the air as the intro credits—which surely had taken a healthy bite out of the budget—rolled past clips that would artfully freeze-frame on each actor in turn. A heartless viewer might have said it set expectations unfairly high for the humble show it framed, but Donny was no such man; instead, he drank in the experience of introducing a new person to Vertigo Galaxy and the infectiously earnest nature of the whole production. It hadn’t inspired dozens of authors for nothing!
It took effort not to keep glancing over at Tyler to see if he was having a good time. Tyler didn’t say anything at all throughout most of the episode, save for the time he asked for a napkin, but he wasn’t not paying attention, which was something. Donny felt like he was going to explode if he couldn’t get a bead on how his guest felt about his favorite show soon.
During the second commercial break—Donny had grabbed one of his first recordings out of habit, not one of the tapes he’d edited the ads out of—Tyler turned to him and asked, “So why do all the aliens look like normal people who just got in from a drag show?”
Now there was a great newbie question for you. Donny had the answer in a flash: “It’s a side-effect of the interpretation implants people get when they do a lot of interstellar travel! The II makes the human brain see other aliens as humans and filters their body language and stuff into something a human could more easily understand, and the makeup is color-coding so you know you’re not really dealing with a human and shouldn’t make human-centric guesses. It’s mentioned in some episodes that aliens with IIs see humans as their own kind with similar markings, too.”
“Sounds like a cheap way to save on costumes to me.” Tyler took a thoughtful bite of his last remaining crust and washed it down with the dregs of his second beer. “How do they explain everyone’s uniforms fitting and not looking like a starfish or whatever?”
Another excellent question, how wonderful! “Nanomachines,” he said, confidently.
“Oh. Of course.”
They watched two whole episodes before Donny’s beer buzz wore off and he grudgingly admitted they should get back to work. He busied himself with cleanup while he made sure he was in the proper state to tackle the cover, and once he was able to sit down and make himself do the work it felt like it was done in no time at all. Now to actually test how well his stencils had cut.
He’d gotten the mimeo machine secondhand from someone who had ended up moving to Australia, so while there could’ve been more bells and whistles (it was, after all, a very good brand) it was durable as all get out. The purple ink was a bit of an affectation from his earlier days as a fan, since the big metal beast would run black just fine, but it just didn’t feel right if he brought in something that looked the same as everything else. He’d also bought a tremendous supply of the stuff back when he was still using cruder methods; the idea of throwing it all away just because he’d upgraded one part of the process was horrifying. Tweed Suit Press had a reputation that heavily involved that garish violet and how each copy was guaranteed to be assembled with love. What better way to discourage people passing off copies as originals than to add color to the mix?
Getting the stencils on and off the mimeograph drums wasn’t much fun, since one wrong move could damage the drum or the stencil or both; “not fun” was trumped by “not wanting to reprint hundreds of pages again,” however, so one by one he cranked out copies to make sure the transfers had gone properly. The lines came out crisp and everything looked like the originals the artists had sent him when he’d first put out the call for submissions via an ad in the fan club’s newsletter. There wasn’t even any bleed this time beyond the slight blurriness you got from the porousness of the paper. It all looked like it was going right for a change.
He was so engrossed with his work that he yelped when Tyler cleared his throat a little ways behind him. Grabbing at his chest might have been a bit much, but you didn’t grow up watching Sanford and Son reruns without picking up a few habits.
“Sorry,” said Tyler. He cocked his thumb at the completed stack of papers that sat next to the now vacant chair. “I finished up the parts you gave me and double-checked everything. Do you need me any longer today, or should I be going? It’s getting late.”
Donny glanced out the window to find that, sure enough, the sky was going dark while the streetlights glowed like lightning bug tails. Daylight Savings Time was the bane of his existence. “Well, I was hoping we could get those corrections you made live, or some of the pictures, or something. Is there any way I can get you to stick around a little more?” It wasn’t like he couldn’t do everything himself if he worked himself to the bone, and it definitely wasn’t like he hadn’t done everything solo before, but that second pair of hands had been a godsend.
Tyler shrugged. Tyler shrugged a lot, it felt like. “If you’re going to feed me dinner, yeah, okay. I didn’t really have any plans for tonight.”
This had been the best bad idea Donny had ever dreamed up. “How do you feel about home cooking…?”
One meal of reheated shepherd’s pie and two more episodes later they were back at work: Donny had reviewed which pages didn’t need further edits and had shown Tyler how to load and run the infernal machine, leaving Donny himself to hunch over the text stencils one at a time to apply the vile-smelling correction fluid to each before they went back in the typewriter for updates. It was very slow going. Once again that second pair of hands was a pocket-sized miracle, though, since by the time even Donny couldn’t justify keeping Tyler over any later Tyler had run every copy he possibly could. He’d even put pieces of colored paper between each page stack like Donny had asked.
“I owe you so much,” said Donny as Tyler laced his boots back up. “I think I actually have a shot at getting this done by the con, this is just…just great, you know?” He wrung his hands. “I really shouldn’t ask this, but is there any other time you’re free this week to help?”
“I can show up tomorrow, sure. Just don’t expect me to be bright-eyed or bushy-tailed, or for me to call to say I’m heading over before noon. The Wild Swan’s still open and I need to stretch my legs.” A day of zine assistance followed by a night of clubbing? Some people led the most interesting lives. Just being around Tyler was giving Donny plenty of secondhand stories to share the next time his game group met.
Donny waited until Tyler’s car was well out of sight before slipping back into the house. He felt exhausted from being around someone unfamiliar for so long, but it was a good kind of exhausted, like when he used to ride his bike up and down the hiking trails in the park near the library. He wasn’t so tired he wanted to collapse in bed, however, and the Coke he’d treated himself to during dinner was enough to keep him alert until well past midnight. Not the best place to be for the enterprising young publisher who needed to do more organizing tomorrow. This was not the time to indulge in his constant low-grade urge to pop in some shows and indulge in imaginary worlds until morning’s light.
He paced, carefully, in the living room. His expected crunch was now much less so, to the extent that he might not have to do anything on Friday save for loading up the zines and driving himself to the hotel hosting the convention. They were ahead of schedule and his head was buzzing with ideas, so why not indulge himself a little? It wasn’t like he’d risk sleeping through a phone call. Besides, he had a project of his own that he’d been sorely neglecting with all the con prep he’d been up to, and what better time to work on it than late at night after a long day of being responsible?
He sat at his rolling desk, threaded the ink ribbon back through his typewriter, shuffled some blank paper into place, and spent the rest of his evening working on a very personal opus.
The phone rang at half past noon, and even though Donny had been up and working for hours he still felt like he was getting a call unreasonably early in the morning. There was just something about Sundays that filled him with lethargy ever since he got his job down at the shop. He wiped his purple-stained hands on a rag before tucking the receiver against his shoulder. “Donovan Tweed speaking.”
Unsurprisingly, it was Tyler on the other end. “Hey, it’s Ty,” he said. He didn’t sound any different from the day before; his voice still had that twinge of amused boredom that seemed to underscore everything he said. “I’m not hungover and I still have today free so I wanted to know if you still needed me to shuffle books around?”
Donny side-eyed the stacks of unbound fiction. “Yeah, I’d like that, thank you.”
When Tyler returned to the doorstep a little while later he was greeted by a sheaf of papers held together with bulldog clips thrust into his hands. He leafed through it without being prompted. “Let me guess,” he said as he flipped from section to section, “this is the way it’s supposed to look without the covers?”
“Right,” said Donny. “I was able to get almost everything that needed corrections reprinted already. What I need you to do is make sure nothing’s upside down or anything, then start getting the pages in order. Let me know if we’re short copies of anything.” He grinned awkwardly. “It’s going to be a lot more mindless busy work than yesterday was.”
“That’s fine,” said Tyler with one of his now-usual shrugs. Off came the boots and on went a pair of the house shoes Donny kept by the door for guests. His thumb paused on a pale green sheet tucked among the white pages; there were a few others interspersed throughout the stack. “So are the colored pages dividers or something?”
“Right. I spent all morning printing those up. They’ve got page numbers on them like everything else, but that sample set you’ve got should clear up any questions about how they fit in. I’ll be working on getting the covers printed, and once you’ve got some fully collated sets for me I’ll be binding them.” Donny adjusted the roll of his sweater sleeves, though no amount of rolling could protect them from the violet menace that was his mimeo’s printing fluid. “Let me know if anything looks wrong, okay?”
“Yeah, got it.”
It really was remarkable how much more efficient the process was with more than one person working on it. There were only a few errors that he’d missed and Tyler caught all of them; fixing those was trivial once he dug up the master stencils, so most of Donny’s time actually went into the task on which he’d planned to spend it. By four in the afternoon he’d done enough printing, and Tyler had done enough shuffling pages from separate piles into completed sets, that they had fifteen issues already comb-bound and ready for his paint pen.
He was halfway through punching the holes for issue number sixteen when Tyler cleared his throat and asked, “So what do I do if it looks like a different project got mixed in by mistake?”
Donny brushed some paper punch-outs from his clothes but didn’t look up from the comb press. “Oh, did some back issue stuff end up in there?”
“Something did,” said Tyler. “I thought you said this was a general-audiences kind of thing?”
“Well, we make exceptions for a bit of language or violence so long as it’s within the spirit of the show. Is that one of Valerie Huff’s works? Her stuff skews a little blue at times.”
Tyler cleared his throat and read aloud: “‘The sun was low by the time the captain returned to the safety of the pod. Golden eyes flashed as his first mate scanned him with the last of their medi-tools, clawed hands bound the wounds with fond gentleness despite Urrsh having so little experience with a fragile human body. “You are reckless,” he scolded, though his damaged implants made his words sound strange to the human’s ears. “I’m not reckless, I’m just determined,” Ralfalcon declared with a devilish smirk. If they had not known each other for so long its importance would have been lost on the varnak, as they were not a smirking people. If he had not been so close to his captain he would never have understood the human’s countless mannerisms. “You did not have to save me,” murmured Urrsh. He turned many grateful colors. “I cannot repay you.” “You don’t owe me anything for that!” laughed Ralfalcon. Sapphire eyes smouldered. “But there is something we’ve owed each other for a long time, isn’t there?” The captain took a step forward, then another, and the varnak couldn’t bear to turn away from that handsome, hungry gaze.’ …And it basically goes on like that, except a lot more Penthouse letters section.”
Donny paled. He knew exactly what the next lines were because he’d written them himself not twenty-four hours ago. Was it too late to dig a hole and hide in it until the fall of civilization? He could have sworn he’d put the previous night’s work somewhere safe, but “somewhere safe” had been his rolling desk, and he’d gone and shuffled it into the inserts he’d printed up that morning, hadn’t he. It was time to have a conversation he’d never, ever wanted to have with anyone, ever.
“I think some of my personal work got mixed up in there,” he said in his smallest voice.
Tyler picked up a new page and continued reading. “Bit pornographic, isn’t it?” he asked.
“It wasn’t supposed to go public.”
“Didn’t think so.” He turned the page over and read further. “It doesn’t read like a joke story, either, so that’s interesting. I didn’t take you for a friend of Dorothy, Donovan. Shows what I know.”
Donny didn’t know any Dorothys. A second later, though, something clicked in his head. He wanted to spontaneously combust just to get out of having to say anything else. “I like girls, though….” It was true. He’d even had sex with girls a few times, and enjoyed it; if you brushed your hair and changed your shirt and weren’t a creep to the ladies who showed up for wargame nights at the hobby store you could meet some very agreeable people. He sometimes had very detailed daydreams about Science Officer Jaz. You didn’t think about boobs all the time if you were a queer, did you?
Tyler shrugged. “Some people like both. That does happen.” That answered that. He made it sound so casual that he might as well have been talking about how the Broncos’ next season was shaping up.
“I don’t even know what’s going on with me,” said Donny as he slumped into one of the chairs that had been freed up by Tyler’s sorting efforts. “I mean, I’m not a college kid anymore, and other guys have never really been my thing, but ever since I saw that Fire and Ice thing last year my head’s been all messed up about the guy in the fur boots. The princess, too, but I expected that, you know? I thought I knew what I was in for when I saw that movie.” He let out a long, slow breath. “Jeez, I hope they release it on laserdisc someday.”
Tyler stacked up the pages of tell-tale tawdriness, clipped them together, and set them to the side. He went back to sorting as if nothing had even happened. “You can’t just circle a date on the calendar and decide you’re going to have your boner sorted out by then. I know some guys, for them they basically knew forever. Others didn’t figure it out until years later, sometimes not even after a failed marriage or two. It’s not like we come from a tube.” He sounded like he’d given this same talk a few times before. Tyler Wolff’s life was no doubt a complicated and interesting one.
“You’re being awfully nice about this,” said Donny, still slouching.
The grin Tyler wore went all the way up to his eyes. “I remember when I was still fumbling around in the closet and how much it meant when I found a mentor who walked me through the steps of getting my head on straight. Or not-straight. You know what I mean. I’m just paying it forward.” He put another finished stack to the side. “You think you have a type yet?”
“Uh.” He did, but putting words to it was tricky. “You familiar with any art by Frank Frazetta?” Tyler shook his head. That made things even trickier. “He’s this painter, right, and everyone he does looks like they just got back from the gym and the tanning studio at once. It’s really, uh. Iconic? Like normal people don’t look like that, bodybuilders and Greek gods do. So I guess I like really athletic guys? It’s…neat.” Donny tried to hide behind his bangs and ignore how much “athletic” could still accurately describe the no-longer-on-the-soccer-team version of Tyler.
This confession earned him a Look that was somewhere between amused and incredulous. “That’s a lot less exotic than I expected from a guy who writes paragraphs upon paragraphs of alien sex,” said Tyler.
“That’s different, I mean, they’ve got such a rapport built up over the seasons and everything. Urrsh is with Ralfalcon, not me, anyway.”
“Uh-huh.” Tyler fussed with two pages that had gotten stuck together, checked their orientation and numbering, and continued collating. “So if you could experiment with anyone in the world, and not a painting, and you knew they’d say yes, who would you pick?”
“I guess you,” said Donny without thinking. There wasn’t really any way for him to feel worse than he already did, so why not be honest? He could smother himself with a pillow after the zines were done.
“I mean, you’ve…nature’s been pretty kind to you, and you’re kind of the closest real-life thing I’d get to my type without having to go for some roided-out jerk, okay? And you’d probably be nice about it. How I wouldn’t know what I was doing, I mean. Because I wouldn’t. I only kind of know what the options are because I went home with a Kirk/Spock fic collection one year by mistake.”
Another finished issue’s worth of clipped-together pages was added to the stack. Donny could feel Tyler looking at him but wasn’t about to try and meet his gaze. “Tell you what,” said Tyler in the same why-not tone of voice he’d used when he first agreed over the phone, “let’s get the binding taken care of and everything in boxes or whatever. If by Thursday you still have an interest in meeting my dick, well, you can. If not, or if you change your mind after I’ve come over, we can, I don’t know, watch more of this Vertigo thing instead. You don’t owe me anything either way.”
“Are you sure…?”
“Like I said, I’m just trying to do unto others as was done unto me. Better you figure things out somewhere safe where you can always back out, right?”
Donny couldn’t argue with that logic. “Yeah. Okay. That sounds good.”
From there Tyler steered the conversation towards what Donny planned to do at the con, which was a topic Donny could talk about at length, and it almost wasn’t as weird anymore.
The weekdays leading up to Thursday night were equal parts slow as molasses and a frantic blur: the days spent repairing other people’s toasters and reel-to-reel projectors dragged on into infinity, while the nights of con prep felt like they were over as soon as they’d begun. Donny’s dreams were fitful and sometimes featured Tyler. On Monday he felt starved for sex—not a usual state for him, as the Tweed clan was a very reserved lot by nature—while on Tuesday he couldn’t stand the idea, and the closer Thursday night got the faster he kept switching between the two states. He was close to flipping a coin to decide for him when the phone rang.
“Donovan Tweed speaking,” said Donny, though he was pretty sure he knew who it was.
“It’s me,” said Tyler. “I’m heading over. You think you want to show me more of those tapes?”
The volleyball was on Donny’s side of the court, and this time he wasn’t going to let it smack him in the face or bounce harmlessly on the ground next to him. “Sure. Maybe that other thing we talked about on Sunday, too. My car’s all loaded for the drive tomorrow.” And there it was: he’d agreed to it. Tyler had said he could always back out, but Donny was determined to see things through no matter how badly they went.
“Yeah? Okay. I’ll bring my stuff. See you in a bit.” The line clicked and Donny was left talking to a dial tone.
After the third time Donny had to accept he’d combed his hair as much as he possibly could. He paced restlessly in his now-clean living room, the mimeograph and its accoutrements once more entombed in the craft nook, and sucked fiercely on a mint. He’d already pulled the blinds and made sure there weren’t any stray cans or snack wrappers roaming the carpet like tumbleweeds, so there was that much less to fidget with as he slowly condensed into one big ball of nerves. When the doorbell rang he nearly jumped out of his skin.
It was—of course—Tyler, and he had a small bag with It’s a Party! written on the side in big, cheery letters. The top of a bottle of Jim Beam poked out between the handles. “I figured it couldn’t hurt to bring some liquid courage if you wanted it,” he said. “I keep this thing around the house for cocktails.”
“Maybe later,” said Donny as he waited for Tyler to get his boots off again. He couldn’t tell a pair of designer footwear from somebody’s old clodhoppers, but if Tyler was wearing them they were probably quite fashionable, indeed. If it turned out Donny was into other flesh-and-blood men and not just oil paintings he’d probably have to start paying attention to that sort of thing. “I was thinking we’d do…stuff…in the living room…? I don’t think I’m up for anything that’d need a bed.”
“Works for me.” Tyler set the bag of bottled booze down on the coffee table (it clinked a bit extra when he did so; he must have brought glasses in there, too) and put his hands on his hips. “So I don’t know about you, but I’ve got some ground rules. You don’t like them, that’s fine, it just means we’re watching TV instead of having sex. Got it?”
Donny nodded. Rules were good. Rules gave him an idea of where he should even start.
“Whatever we end up doing, someone’s going to wrap his crap,” said Tyler. A foil package appeared between his fingers like a magician’s card trick, and Donny wasn’t so sheltered he couldn’t recognize a condom wrapper, even without any familiar branding on the front. “You seem like a nice guy but I am not about to take any chances in this day and age, and you really don’t know where I’ve been, either.
“Secondly,” he said, holding up two fingers, “if I say stop, you stop, and if you say stop, I stop. I don’t plan on doing anything kinky so it should be pretty straightforward, right? If you ignore that I’m packing up and leaving, I don’t care if I have to call a cab to do it. I don’t have time for guys who don’t respect me enough to listen to me instead of their dicks.
“Thirdly, and this is important, I’m here to help. No question is too stupid and I don’t care if you’re any good at what you’re doing. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re terrible and focus more on seeing if you like it and want to get better.” He rubbed his chin. “Also? If you want to brag about your adventures I couldn’t care less, but unless you say so I won’t go outing you to other people, not even the guys at the Swan. It’s hard knowing if you’re going tell anyone you don’t want to hit on. I get it.”
Donny’s head was swimming. At least he didn’t have to worry about taking steps to keep from getting anyone pregnant this time around. “Is that everything?”
“Yeah, aside from asking what you had in mind. Lucky for you, I’m a switch.”
Switch? What on earth was a switch? He’d have to ask for a vocabulary lesson later. For now, Donny returned to the fantasy he’d first dwelled on: “I’d like to…suck you off? While you’re standing? Especially if you’re naked? If you don’t mind, I mean. I can turn up the heater if it’s too cold.”
Tyler replied by stripping in the most economical, matter-of-fact way Donny had ever seen, and Donny had seen a lot of stag movies in his time. His clothes were on and then they weren’t. Maybe he wasn’t as aggressively chiseled as some of the art prints Donny had been reevaluating over the past few months, but he was more than good enough for the evening’s purposes. Tyler was toned, shaved like a swim team captain, impeccably manicured, and had a small leering devil’s head tattooed under his left collarbone. It was trivial to imagine him in a loincloth and dinosaur-tooth necklace, or maybe half of a spaceman’s flight suit with the fasteners all coyly undone.
Then there was the whole issue with the penis.
Being the owner and operator of his own, Donny had been around a penis before, and miserable times in the locker room showers had put him around other people’s on occasion, but this was the first time he’d been so close to someone else’s when either of them were expecting him to do anything with it. Tyler wasn’t cut and Donny was, so the foreskin thing was new and mysterious. Watching someone else get hard was a lot different from watching your own underwear distend whenever your mind lingered too long on a movie you’d seen recently. At least Tyler had said it was okay to take his time.
Donny settled down on his knees and placed his hands flat against the tops of his thighs. “Is it okay if I touch you?”
“Sure, you can touch. Just tell me when I should wrap up.”
Holding someone else by the shaft was even stranger than just looking at them. For one, the angles were all different. For two, he couldn’t actually feel what he was doing outside of the sensation of Tyler’s warm, dry skin against his, though the infrequent murmur of approval was nice to hear. For three, Donny’s testicular situation had always been the sort that made wearing boxers risky without a lot of cautious adjustments, while Tyler’s balls were as compact as a little coin purse with just the hint of a divot running up the middle to remind the viewer that yes, there were two in there. That probably made getting dressed a lot easier.
When his upward strokes started to coax out little beads of moisture from Tyler’s tip Donny decided it was time to get down to business. He reached for the condom packet only to have Tyler stop him with a gesture of his own. Donny frowned in confusion. Tyler cracked his knuckles, then tore the packet open and slipped it on with the kind of confidence that only came from regular practice. It was a nice reminder that Donny was being supervised by a pro.
The condom itself was a tacky bright orange and was scented like an aggressively artificial fruit. Donny, who would never forsake his love of banana-flavored candy no matter how weird the aftertaste, was fine with this. He gave Tyler’s traffic-cone nightmare dong a tentative lick: it tasted like rubber and chemical sweetener and something else he guessed might have been lubricant, but it didn’t taste bad. He hated to admit that had been one of his biggest concerns. Thus emboldened, he tried licking it again, and then again. The fake fruit taste was already starting to wear away by the time he gathered enough nerve to take Tyler’s head in his mouth, but by then he was doing well enough that he didn’t miss it.
Porno movies made sucking dick look easy. Donny learned the hard way that this was not necessarily the case when he slammed hard against his gag reflex, though thankfully nothing happened beyond a very undignified noise and a coughing fit. Going slower and more carefully worked better. He could feel the warmth of Tyler’s body through the condom and how the firmness of Tyler’s shaft pushed his mouth open the more he took in. He had to brace himself against Tyler with his hands after the first few bobs of his head, but that was also pretty neat. The memory of that alone would go a long way towards spicing up that guilty recurring fantasy of subjugating himself to his new barbarian king (or, alternately, the one where there were very friendly visitors from a far-off galactic exploration organization).
He couldn’t go very deep but he could definitely go faster, and so faster he went. He heard Tyler growl something about coming, followed by a shuddering against his tongue, a general spreading softness to the dick in his mouth, and then a pair of hands very gently pulling him away. Donny looked up into Tyler’s happily distant expression and was struck by the fact that he had officially done something pretty gay, and that he was officially pretty alright with it.
Tyler smiled down at him like he’d just caught his first fish. “So, how’d it go for you?”
“I have a boner,” said Donny. This was an understatement: it made the zipper of his jeans strain lewdly against its contents. It wasn’t very comfortable. “Will you be mad if I take care of this in the bathroom?”
This earned him a reassuring thump on the shoulder. “Nah. Go jerk off, we can talk more after.”
A few minutes later Donny wobbled out of the bathroom with all the grace of a newborn deer and a new lease on life. He crumpled on the couch next to Tyler. “I think I like giving head,” he said, rubbing the last of the appropriated hand lotion into his palms. Tyler, who hadn’t bothered to dress but had been polite enough to put down a towel from his party kit first, passed him a shot glass of whiskey. Donny drank it eagerly. “I think I know what I can improve on for the next time I try that with somebody. Whenever that is.” He pursed his lips as a thought crossed his mind. “This doesn’t mean we’re dating now, does it?”
“Uh, no. It means you gave me a BJ. If it meant anything else then I’d be ‘dating’ half the people in my Intro to Theater Lighting class.”
“Okay. That’s good, actually. I don’t think I want to date anybody right now.” He cradled the glass in his hands; he didn’t want more yet, though it might make watching some of the more questionable Vertigo episodes more fun, but it felt less awkward to have something to roll between his fingers. “I’d be fine with practicing that again every now and then, though. If you wouldn’t mind.”
Tyler poured himself another shot but didn’t drink more than a sip of it. “Yeah? You trade me some new nerd thing to do and I’ll give it some thought. When’s your next zine deadline?”
Donny reviewed dates in his head. “Not for a year, but, uh, I’m sure I can think of something sooner. There any other ‘nerd things’ you ever wanted to try?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t tried that Dungeons and Dragons thing they keep freaking out about on the news, maybe you can teach me how it works?”
“We don’t play D&D, we play Champions with some house rules,” said Donny, who couldn’t quite keep the offense out of his voice. What did Tyler take him for, a teen with toy wizards all over his room? Donny’s private quarters were tastefully accented with replica spacecraft, thank you very much. “But if you think you’ve got what it takes to join the Power League and fight the nefarious forces of encroaching supervillainy, I guess we’re always looking for more heroes for our team.”
“Might as well give it a shot next time I’m not doing anything,” said Tyler, toasting him with his glass, and that was the second-best news Donny had heard all week.