by Yamanashi Moe (山梨もえ)
illustrated by carbonidiot
Someone once told Tam that there was nothing sadder in the world than a celibate incubus. He can’t remember who said it, or when. He can’t remember much at all, now. All he has are flashes: he bought a ticket to Vancouver, he was on the plane, he checked into a hotel… and then what? It doesn’t matter.
He might be dying.
He tries to think of Alex but can’t even remember his face. Maybe that’s ironic, but probably not. In the end, this wasn’t even about Alex. He was just so tired of everything. But he never meant for things to go this far.
Usually he’s good at keeping track of the places where the human world and the spirit world overlap, like everyone who travels regularly between the two. If he could only cross over, he could find help, or at least someone who would understand what he’s suffering. But he’s too weak now to cross over now even if he could sense a pathway.
Of course, he’s lived in the human world his whole adult life. It’s appropriate that he die here.
“Hey, um, are you okay? …Can you answer me? …Hey!”
His hold on consciousness is tentative; he keeps greying out. A few seconds ago he was lying on the sidewalk, smelling cigarette butts and old urine, but now he’s being half-carried, half-dragged up a carpeted stairway.
“Hold on, I just have to open the door…”
They stop. He hears the jingling of keys and then he’s pulled through a doorway and onto a hardwood floor.
He’s too tired to open his eyes. Even the beating of his heart is a slow, erratic thunk. He guesses that should worry him.
“Okay, I’m gonna do it.” A kind of throaty voice, probably a woman’s.
“Are you sure this is the only way?” Another voice, nervous, almost certainly a man’s.
“At this stage, yeah. Dude’s running on empty. He needs energy, and he’s not going to go get it himself, so we’re going to give it to him.”
“And this works?”
“I’ve had to do it a few times and it’s worked then. I mean, it’s pretty fucking skeevy, but it’s sure better than letting him die.” Someone – the woman, he guesses – pokes him hard in the chest. “Hey, can you hear me? You want to live, right?”
He can’t speak, but with everything he has left, he forces his head up and down in a nod.
“Good enough. Here goes.”
A pair of hands pull down his jeans and grab his hips on either side. He can hear the woman murmuring nonsense words under her breath. His body starts to tingle like a foot that’s fallen asleep. Suddenly he’s rock-hard, and then an instant later he comes. It’s like getting hit with a defibrillator: a painful, exhilarating jolt of sensation that scrapes his nerves raw. Maybe he screams.
“That’ll do it for now,” says the woman, and she takes her hands away from his hips. “You got a washcloth?”
“Oh, yeah,” stutters the man, sounding even more nervous than before. After some vague noises in the distance, someone begins wiping him clean with a wet towel. It feels good, soothing; his cock twitches once or twice like it means to get hard again but can’t find the strength.
“Sorry,” whispers the man.
Tam wants to say that he has nothing to be sorry about, maybe ask if they can continue this sometime when he knows what the fuck is going on. But he still can’t find the strength to talk, and pretty soon he falls into a deep, peaceful sleep.
Waking up the next time feels like coming back to life. For a few seconds he thinks he’s back in Toronto again, in his own home – their home – like nothing ever happened. It takes him time to remember the events of the last six months. The whole mess feels like it happened to someone else. He feels tired, and sad, and maybe a little angry, but mostly just impossibly stupid.
His body hurts all over, but that’s a good sign. For the last month or so of celibacy he barely felt anything, let alone pain.
Through the window he can hear the noise of traffic and see buildings rising up against a grey-clouded sky. He’s still in the human world, in a small, perfectly normal cream-coloured bedroom. The walls are hung with movie posters and, opposite the bed, a framed print of the sun rising over a cemetery.
On the dresser there’s a terrarium, but when he tries to get up to see what’s it in, a fresh wave of pain hits his muscles and he collapses back onto the bed.
There’s a knock on the door. “Are you up?” It sounds like the man from before.
“Yeah,” he calls.
“Awesome! I’m coming in. Would you just close your eyes, please?”
“Okay,” he replies, and does as he’s told.
He hears the door opening. “I’ve brought you some food,” says his visitor. He has a nice voice when he’s not nervous, warm and soothing. “Jade said you didn’t really need it, but I thought it might do you some good. You looked pretty bad yesterday.” He pauses briefly. “You seem much better now, though. I guess the magic worked after all.”
“How long have I been here?” A moment later, he realizes there’s a more pertinent question to ask. “Actually, where are we?”
“My apartment, on Richards. Downtown? In Vancouver?” A tray is set on his lap. “I found you on the sidewalk beside Cathedral Square yesterday morning. You were…” He hesitates. “Well, I think you would have died, if not for Jade.”
“Was that the other person from earlier?”
“Oh, you remember? Yeah. I assumed you were an incubus because of your horns and tail, and she’s a succubus, so I called her when I found you. She helped me bring you up here, and then she transferred some of her energy to you, I guess.”
Tam nods. “That explains why I’m not dead. Lucky it was you who found me and not a human.” He pauses to think about that. “Well, I assume you’re not human. Can I open my eyes now?”
“Um, only if you don’t look at me.”
“…Okay.” He looks down at the tray. There’s a mug of black tea and a bowl of chicken noodle soup. “Mind if I ask why?”
“I just don’t want you to freak out.” He sounds apologetic. “My people sort of keep to ourselves, so I doubt you’ve seen someone who looks like me before, and, um, it’s probably not something you want to see when you’re still recovering. I’d rather not wear a glamour in my own place, so sorry, but for now I think this is the best way.”
“Alright,” says Tam with a little shrug of his shoulders. He’s curious, but not enough to pry. “If you say so.” He picks up the mug of tea and takes a long sip – it’s so hot it nearly burns his tongue, but drinking it feels comfortingly normal. The soup is similarly hot, and he blows on the spoonful before putting in his mouth. “Thanks for the food.”
He eats in silence for a while, until the man speaks again.
“Um, for what it’s worth, sorry you didn’t really have a say in any of this. I mean, coming here and stuff.”
Tam shakes his head. “Don’t be. I’m not. I’d rather be alive than dead.” He drains the mug of tea and thumps it down onto the tray with a wry smile. “Although from the way I’ve been acting, I guess anyone would assume otherwise.”
“Right! I totally forgot – do you need to call anyone, or email? I can go grab my laptop really quick if you want–”
“No, I’m good.” He doesn’t even need to think about that. There are a few people he’ll email at some point, but he hasn’t been in regular contact with anyone for at least a month. All his friends were Alex’s friends, and he was perfectly happy for things to stay that way after the breakup. “I just got here from Toronto. I don’t know anyone in town, and nobody back east will notice I’m gone.”
There’s an awkward pause, as if the man is unsure how to respond to that. “Oh,” he says, finally. “Okay. Well, a friend of mine is bringing some clothes over later today, so you can change out of what you’re wearing.”
“That sounds fantastic.” He can’t remember the last time he got changed. It might have been back in Toronto. Just thinking about it grosses him out. “I hope all this stuff isn’t too much of a hassle for you.”
“No, not at all!” Now his host sounds flustered. “I’m just so glad you’re feeling better now.” He sees the briefest glimpse of a bone-white hand as the guy pulls the tray off his lap. “I’m just… I’m gonna go call Jade. She said to tell her when you woke up, she wants to talk to you. Can I get you anything? A book? Or you could watch a movie on my laptop, or…”
“No thanks.” Halfway through ‘thanks’ he finds himself yawning. “Honestly, I’m still really tired, so I’m just going to rest some more.” He pauses for a second, then realizes he hasn’t introduced himself. “I’m Tam, by the way. Thanks for saving me.”
“You’re welcome, Tam. I’m Altair.”
His host closes the bedroom door behind him, and Tam is left alone again. With nothing else to do, he lies back in the bed and falls asleep.
Altair’s succubus friend comes over late that night. Tam pulls himself out of bed to meet her, walking jerkily into the main room of the apartment, ignoring the persistent ache of his muscles. It’s the first time he’s been conscious outside of the bedroom, but he wasn’t missing anything before. It’s a tiny old city apartment like the hundreds he’s seen before, with a partitioned kitchenette where Altair is probably hiding from him.
Jade is nothing like what he expected: a tiny butch in ripped jeans and a pleather jacket, vaguely Asian-looking, with a pierced lip and a short, asymmetrical haircut. Most of the succubi he’s met over the years were tall, voluptuous women: more like a straight human man’s fantasy of a sex demon than anyone you’d expect to meet in real life. Maybe that was just glamour. It’s pretty clear that straight human men aren’t the demographic Jade aims to attract.
As she steps into the apartment, her glamour fades away, revealing her horns: short and straight, like a young goat’s. Her tail is about as long as his, but a little lighter in colour, matching her skin tone. She regards him with an even gaze, as if sizing him up.
“So I hear you saved my life,” says Tam, extending his hand. “Much appreciated.”
“Oh, well, Alt was the one who found you.” Jade’s handshake is quick and firm. “I just helped a little.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Jade, I couldn’t even get him up the stairs,” says Altair from behind him. “You’re the one who did most of the work. I mean, the whole, um, sex magic thing.”
Jade looks beyond Tam towards Altair with obvious affection. “And you’re the one running around like a chicken with your head cut off finding food and clothing.”
“Am not,” replies Altair, sounding embarrassed. “But, um, yeah. I know you guys probably want to talk alone, so I’m just gonna go for a walk around town. …If you don’t mind?”
Tam nods and closes his eyes. “Alright, I’m not looking.” He hears a pair of sneaker-clad feet walk past him. When the door to the apartment slams shut, he opens his eyes again to look at Jade. “No offense, but is this really necessary? I mean… what does he look like?”
It might just be his imagination, but her gaze seems to get a little cooler. “I’m not going to tell you anything about Alt that he won’t show you,” she says. “He’s really self-conscious, but believe me, he has good reason to be that way. He’s had some bad experiences in the past.”
“No, that’s cool,” says Tam with a nod. “I respect that. I’m not going to look at him without his permission.” He gestures to the room around them. “I mean, he’s putting me up, and I would be dead without him, so it’s kind of the least I can do.”
Jade relaxes slightly. “Glad to hear you feel that way. Did he tell you what I want to talk about?”
“We need to have a chat about what you did. Or rather, what you didn’t do, I guess. Because considering the state you were in, you need more help than just an energy boost.”
Tam sighs. He was afraid something like this would come up. “Yeah. I… don’t want to talk about it. I mean, not right now. I’m still pretty exhausted, and,” he pauses, trying to think of a tactful way to say what he wants to say, “I mean, we don’t know each other very well yet. I’m sure it’s a good idea for me to let it all out and stuff, but can it wait?”
“No, not really,” responds Jade. “You should do this while you’re still recovering. Just so you know where you’re going from here. Look, I know I’m a total stranger to you, but…” She shrugs her shoulders. “I do a lot of peer counselling with sex demons around town. I’ve lived in the human world for a pretty long time now, so I have some perspective on this shit.”
“You know what I mean. Life as a sex demon may seem like a big party from the outside, but you and I know firsthand that sometimes it sucks a lot. And it’s important to deal with that. But most of the time you can’t find a human therapist who you can talk with honestly.”
Tam nods – this is true. He did think of going to see a couples counsellor once or twice, when things got bad with Alex, but he could never think of a good enough way to explain their problems without bringing the supernatural element of their relationship into it.
“So you’re going to tell me what’s been going on with you, and maybe we can figure things out a bit.”
“Okay,” concedes Tam, partially because he’s come to realize that she’s not going to take no for an answer, and partially because this is the longest he’s been on his feet for a while and he’s getting seriously dizzy. “Fair enough. Let’s talk.”
Coming into the apartment, Jade takes a seat at the kitchen table. Tam weaves back and forth a bit on the way across the room to join her, but Jade graciously pretends not to notice, and he feels better as soon as he sits down.
“Do I,” he says, knowing exactly how awkward he sounds, “do I have to be specific? I mean, name names and all that?”
“Not if you don’t want to.”
“I was with someone for a while,” he starts, tentatively. Then he decides that if he’s going to do this, he might as well just do it all the way. “Two years. His name was Alex, and he was a human. We started out casual, but it got pretty serious.”
“By serious, I’m going to assume you mean exclusive.”
Tam nods. “That, and we moved in together. Both of those things were my ideas. I wanted to… settle down, I guess. Be a stable, monogamous couple, like real adults.” He laughs humourlessly. “That didn’t go so well.”
Jade nods. “Did you cheat on him?” Her tone is non-judgemental.
“No, that’s the stupid thing. It was fine until he started doing construction work in Nunavut. He’d be away for a couple weeks at a time, but I refused to fuck anyone else.” He swallows. “Normally, I need more energy after a few days, so after two weeks I was pretty much a wreck. Alex hated it. He wanted me to see other people while he was gone. But I just… I don’t know. I guess I was too stubborn.”
For a second, he thinks Jade is going to say something, but she only nods, her mouth tightening. He continues.
“Finally we had this huge fight about it. He said that he couldn’t handle what I was doing to myself, and that if being with him was going to hurt me, it would be better if we just broke up. So I said fine, and we did.” He swallows. “It was hard. I felt like a total failure, I didn’t even want to talk to anyone, let alone fuck them.”
“And that’s when you decided to stop having sex.”
“I didn’t totally stop!” protests Tam, even though he knows it’s a weak line. “I was depressed, not suicidal. I just kept it to a minimum. You know, like every week.”
Jade clearly doesn’t buy it. “If you’d stuck with once a week, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Yeah,” says Tam, with a sigh, “I admit I got carried away. I started testing myself, seeing how long I could go without it. I just…” He realizes he’s stalling to think of a good excuse, and stops. “Yeah. I got carried away.”
“Did you still want it?”
“Well, physically I did, of course. But mentally? Emotionally? No. I was sick and tired of the whole thing. Going to clubs and hooking up with strangers night after night…” He pauses, searching for the right words. “It used to be fun. But it wasn’t fun anymore, it was like a chore to me. I resented that even though I’d just gone through this breakup, my body wouldn’t even give me time to get over Alex before I had to go out and fuck someone else.” He sighs. “So I tried to give it up. Just for a while.”
“And?” prompts Jade.
“…I got sick.” He doesn’t want to dwell on that: weeks of a hunger so intense he could no longer take it, and the numbness that came after, when he thought he had conquered his own nature. Sitting here at Altair’s kitchen table, it seems like a nightmare. “And I came here. And you guys found me.”
Jade looks slightly uncomfortable. “Were you… trying to hurt yourself?” she asks, more quietly than she asked her other questions. “I mean, intentionally. Were you punishing yourself for what happened with Alex? Or something else?”
He has to think seriously about that, but finally, he shakes his head. “No, not really. The hunger and the pain and stuff weren’t the point. It was more that I wanted to take a break from other people. Life must be so much simpler when you don’t have to think about sex and relationships all the time. And I guess I thought… I don’t know. That if I was strong enough, I could live that way.”
“But you can’t,” says Jade quietly. “Okay, I want you to look at me. Right in the eyes.” He does as she says, and her gaze is passionate, almost angry. “This is not a question of willpower. Nothing in the world is going to change the fact that if you don’t have sex, you will die. You know that, right?”
“Yeah.” He thinks about lying on the sidewalk and feeling the last of his life’s energy slipping away. He knows that even at his lowest, he never wanted that. “…Yeah, I do.”
Jade seems relieved. “Good. Okay.” She stops for a while, as if trying to phrase something delicately. “So here’s what I think. I don’t mean to trivialize your feelings, but many incubi and succubi go through what you’ve just gone through. You’re in your… thirties? Forties?”
Tam nods. “I’m thirty-nine.”
“Right. So basically, coming out of your adolescence. You’ve fooled around a lot, you’ve had tons of sex, and that’s been fun. But when you decide to try a serious relationship – or rather, what fits with the idea of a serious relationship you’ve seen in human culture – you run up against all these problems you have no control over. One part of your life is over, but you don’t know how to make the rest of your life work.”
“So this is all just some phase that happens to everybody?” asks Tam, somewhat irritated by the idea. “I’m just going to outgrow it?”
“No,” Jade says quickly, “Not at all. Some sex demons never even think about this stuff. And everybody’s problems are unique to them, of course. But you’re not alone, and you’re not going to feel like shit forever. You’re learning to live in a different way. It takes time, and you just need to trust that things will be okay.”
This isn’t exactly what he wanted to hear. Then again, he doesn’t know what he wanted to hear. “Right.”
“I know it’s not easy. It’s true what you said earlier – relationships are hard. It’s equally true for pretty much everyone, not just us. I mean, Altair, for instance…”
“Yeah?” prompts Tam, when she trails off. “What about him?”
Jade ignores his attempt to learn more about Altair, and continues as though she didn’t mention him at all. “You can’t just tell yourself you’re going to have a stable, monogamous relationship and make it work through willpower. In order to be with someone, you’re both going to have to make compromises. I mean, I’ve been with someone now for a while, and honestly, it’s been rocky. But hey, we keep going.”
“So what are you suggesting I do?”
“Oh, I’m not suggesting anything. Obviously you need to find your own way to balance these things. I can’t tell you how to do it. What I *can* tell you is that you need to have sex again within the week.”
Tam nods. “Sure thing.” He’s tempted to add “ma’am” but thinks better of it. Despite the fact she’s spent the last half hour making him tell her about his personal issues, he finds that he likes Jade. Clearly she’s concerned about his well-being, unlike most sex demons he’s met, who only think about themselves. “Okay. I’ll do that.”
“For your sake, you’d better.” Jade offers him an almost begrudging smile. “Okay, I’m sure you’ve had enough of this shit. Peer counselling session officially over.” She pulls her cellphone from the pocket of her jeans and presses what he presumes to be Altair’s speed-dial. “Hey, Alt? We’ve finished talking if you want to come on back… Cool. See you in a second.”
“So when did you have your mid-youth crisis?”
She grimaces. “Nineteen twenty-five. I was living in Berlin. In hindsight, a terrible time and place not to be fucking. You’ve seen Cabaret?”
Tam thinks back. “I’ve… heard of it?”
“Kids these days,” says Jade, shaking her fist with a mock-frown. “You need to brush up on your camp classics, young man. Actually, I think Alt might have a copy – speak of the devil…”
As she says that last sentence, the apartment door opens, and Tam has to force himself to turn his head away so he doesn’t see Altair coming back in. “Hi, guys!” exclaims his voice from the doorway. “I bought some cream puffs, if you’re hungry!”
“Aw, Alt,” Jade calls back, getting up from the kitchen table. “Of course you did! That’s why I love you!”
Tam declines the offer of a cream puff and heads into the bedroom while Jade and Altair chat for a while. He feels left out, but there’s not much he can do – they’re clearly close friends and he barely knows either of them. He doesn’t want to intrude.
When Jade leaves, Altair comes to the bedroom and stands outside the door. “How’d it go?”
Tam shrugs his shoulders. “Not too bad.”
“Good.” Altair sounds happy. “I love Jade. She was the first friend I made when I moved here. What did you guys talk about?” He pauses. “No, sorry, you don’t have to answer that.”
Tam starts to shake his head before he realizes that Altair can’t see him. “No, it’s not a big deal. The short version is that I was really stupid after I broke up with my boyfriend, and I nearly died because of it, and that’s why you had to drag me up three flights of stairs.”
“It’s fine. It was a while ago.” If he’s going to be honest, he might as well admit to himself that until now, time didn’t seem to make any difference. Jade probably had the right idea. “I guess it’s good to talk about it. Get it off my chest and stuff.”
“Yeah.” There’s a brief pause. “Hey, um, can I ask you something?”
“Your boyfriend… what did he look like?”
Tam pictures Alex. It’s been nearly a year, but the figure in his mind is clear. “Like an average human, I guess,” he responds, trying to think of what exactly defined his appearance. “Brown hair, blue eyes, pink skin. His family was Norwegian. About my height… kind of plain, but I found him handsome.”
“…I see,” Altair replies. It might be his imagination, but he sounds strange, a little melancholy. “Now, um, sorry, but could you close your eyes? I just need to grab something really quick.”
Over the next few days he tries to figure out what kind of being his host actually is. He’s met a pretty wide variety of demons, spirits and monsters in his life, but never anyone so adverse to being seen. Altair won’t enter a room unless Tam has closed his eyes or is looking away, and he’s fairly adept at answering questions about his life without giving any clues.
For instance, he asks about Altair’s work one morning while browsing Craigslist Vancouver. Of course, it’s just curiosity for now: he’s in no condition to even apply for a job. But he wants to be prepared for when he’s well enough.
“Are they hiring at your job?”
“I’m not sure,” replies Altair from the direction of the couch. He must be lying down – Tam can’t even see the back of his head. “I work at a few different places. Some voice work in commercials and movies and stuff, and some temp jobs. Oh, and there’s this art house theatre a couple blocks away, I’m a projectionist there on weekends.”
Tam raises his eyebrows, impressed but sceptical. “And you can afford rent downtown on that?”
“Only because my living expenses are pretty minimal.”
“Yeah, you don’t eat human food, do you?”
“Depends.” He stops there, and once again Tam is left to wonder what his host is hiding from him.
He’s thought of a few species Altair could belong to, but none seem to fit. At first he thought maybe Altair was an ogre or a troll – both were famous for being ugly – but looking through his closet revealed that Altair is short and rail-thin, which rules both options out.
This little guessing game keeps him occupied when he feels crazy from being cooped up inside. Not that he’s being kept from leaving the apartment in any way – Altair has left him a set of keys – but although he feels his strength returning day by day, he doesn’t feel up to even the most basic glamour to hide his horns. It’s all he can do to walk around Altair’s little third-story apartment with its one bedroom and bathroom.
The bathroom is spartan, with barely enough room to stand up in outside of the shower stall. There’s a wire box on the floor stacked with moisturizers, soaps and sunscreen, but no shampoo or conditioner – he had to ask Altair to pick some up for him. Standing up long enough to take a shower proves difficult, but he can’t stand how gross he feels after not washing his hair for what seems like weeks.
In the main room there’s a loveseat, a TV, and a bookshelf taken up almost entirely with DVDs. He looks through them: not much there that he’s actually heard of, except for a few classics. There’s a lot of art house and experimental films, and a lot of horror. He starts watching a few, but he always dozes off partway through. He’s never really been that into movies.
The kitchenette to one side of the main room is interesting mostly in how bare it is. There’s no coffee maker, no breadbox, not even salt and pepper shakers. The fridge is filled with plastic-wrapped rib eye steaks and tupperware containers filled with something that looks suspiciously like mold.
On the kitchen counter are a few jars of bugs. Presumably they’re for Altair’s pet toad, which is what the animal in the terrarium turned out to be. The toad is large and brown
“His name is Wadi,” says Altair, from the other side of the bedroom door, when he asks about it one morning. “I brought him with me when I moved here.”
“Is he sentient?”
Altair laughs. “Oh, no, he’s just a normal Fowler’s toad. Friendlier than some, but that’s not saying a lot.”
“Cool.” Tam’s always felt a bit more comfortable around non-sentient living creatures. Their needs are so much more straightforward, their lives mostly uncomplicated by all the junk people accumulate in their minds. “He’s cute,” he says, watching Wadi gulp down a pillbug.
“I’m glad you think so.” Altair sounds a little bit surprised and very pleased. “Um, I guess most people think they’re ugly.”
Tam shakes his head. “No, I love toads and snakes and stuff. I used to work at a pet shop in Toronto, the herps were always my favourites.” He carefully picks Wadi up out of his terrarium and scratches his back gently with his pointer finger. Wadi leans up into his touch. “He seems like a great pet.”
“Yeah, he is.”
He does get around to emailing a few people: his old boss and a couple friends of Alex’s he saw once or twice after the breakup. He doesn’t tell them what happened to him, just that he’s living in Vancouver and doing okay. Even this feels weird. Before Alex, he was in the habit of drifting from place to place without keeping in touch with anyone. But hopefully they’ll let Alex know he’s okay.
There is nothing in the world that freaks him out more than the idea of contacting Alex directly.
He starts to find it more and more irritating that he’s no closer to figuring out what Altair is. Finally he feels that he has to ask.
“You know,” he says one mid-afternoon, sitting on the couch while Altair is folding laundry at the kitchen table, “it’s really hard to talk to you when I have to stare at my feet all the time.”
“Sorry,” says Altair, and he does sound apologetic about it, but doesn’t add anything.
Tam tries again. “I really don’t think this is as big a deal as you’re making it,” he says. “I mean, I’ve met some pretty odd-looking people over the years. Besides, I’ve pretty much recovered, so it’s not like I’ll have a heart attack or something if you do turn out to be some kind of grotesque monster.”
“Well, considering that I’ve had people use those exact words to refer to me…” He sighs. “It’s not that I’m really worried you’ll react badly. I mean, I was at first, but you’re not… I think you’ll be good about it. I guess I just wanted to put off the inevitable. I hate having people see me for the first time – it’s always so awkward.”
“Delaying it won’t make it any better, right?” he says, trying his best not to put on too much pressure. “Why don’t we just get it over with?”
“All right,” says Altair, hesitantly. “I guess now’s as good a time as any.” Tam hears his footsteps as he walks towards him. “But I warned you, okay?”
Tam starts to laugh, but then he opens his eyes and finds nothing to laugh at.
Altair looks like a nightmare. His skin, white mottled with green, is cracked in places and oozes milky fluid. In places Tam is half-convinced he can see bones shadowed in the crevices. His body is skeletal, with dark hollows under his collar bone and cheeks and a large, bald head. His face is the most disturbing aspect of his appearance: asymmetrical, it seems to droop towards the left side of his chin, as if melting. His nostrils are slits in the centre of his face, his mouth a badly-healing gash. One of his eyes is bulging out of its socket like the yolk of a fried egg.
“Hi,” he says, quietly.
Tam can’t think of what to say. Careful to keep any trace of disgust from his expression, he thinks back, desperately trying to place the figure standing in front of him. Finally he thinks he might have the answer to his guessing game.
“Are you… a ghoul?”
A cheerful smile spreads across Altair’s horrific face. “Got it in one!”
“Wow. That’s… cool.” The yes makes him feel a little better. Altair isn’t some tragic aberration who has to hide himself from everyone. To Tam he may look unsettling, but to other ghouls he is a perfectly normal-looking man. No wonder Tam couldn’t figure out what he was until now, though. “I’ve never even heard of a ghoul living in the human world. I barely know anything about you guys.”
“I’m the only one in town.” Sitting down on the other end of the couch from Tam, Altair pauses for a moment, as if to think about something. “Quite possibly the only one in *any* town. Like I said before, my people keep to ourselves. You know the Amish, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“We’re like that, except in cemeteries. Or, well, under them, sort of.” He makes a twisting, burrowing gesture with his hands. “You know what I mean.”
Tam nods at this – the interaction of human world and spirit world geography is too complicated to explain verbally, and most people don’t bother trying. “Yeah.”
“Anyway, most ghouls live in the Middle East or eastern Europe, but some of us emigrated to North America in the eighteen hundreds. I was born in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montreal. It’s the biggest necropolis in North America, I think.”
Tam has to think about that one for a second. “A necropolis is a ghoul city, right?” He only vaguely remembers hearing the word before. He hasn’t played this kind of question-and-answer game with someone since he was fresh out of the spirit world. On the other hand, it’s true what he said – his knowledge of ghouls is practically non-existent.
“Yeah!” Altair’s smile grows so wide it literally seems like his face might split apart. “I’m surprised that you know that! Um, but it’s nothing like a human city. More like an ant hive. Or catacombs, I guess. Ghouls are big on tradition, so we have a pretty simple lifestyle. Lots of communal goods, not much furniture, no electronics or recent human inventions.” He pauses. “I’m not saying it’s a bad way of life. There are things I love about it. It just wasn’t my style.”
“Fair enough. Can’t say it sounds like my style either.” He’s travelled around the world enough to know that he needs the anonymity of cities, and the endless supply of sexual partners a large one offers. Living in a small community would be impossible for him.
Altair nods. “Growing up, I was always fascinated by the human world. When I was little I collected, things like film posters and picture books from kids movies, and I… um… I wanted to be a movie star.” He blushes slightly – or at least Tam thinks that’s what it is when the colour of his cheeks changes from white to light purple. “Okay, obviously I had some weird ideas.”
“I don’t think that’s weird,” says Tam with a shrug. “I mean, you could audition for that guy, what’s his name – the guy who makes all those psychological horror movies? And that TV show with the dancing midget?”
“Oh, David Lynch?” Altair smiles again, seeming pleased by the suggestion. “If I ever find out that he knows about us, I will.” By ‘us’ he means all non-human sentient peoples, the majority of whom follow a strict code of secrecy. Tam wouldn’t be surprised if ghouls were stricter about it than most. “But yeah, long story short, I ended up leaving home.”
“I didn’t even know that ghouls could leave.”
“It’s unusual for ghouls to live outside of the necropolis, sure, but it’s not like there are rules against it. I mean, I’m not really designed for life in the human world, but…” He trails off, looking sheepish.
Tam offers him a smile. “If this is where you wanted to be, than that’s cool. But why Vancouver and not Montreal?”
“All part of my plan to break into show business. They don’t call it the Hollywood of the North for nothing!” Immediately he shakes his head. “No, I’m kidding. It’s just that I wanted to make a clean break. I mean, if I was closer to home, it would be too tempting to go back whenever things got tough, right?”
“Yeah, I see your point. It can’t be easy being the only ghoul here.” Judging from his interactions with Altair so far, in fact, it must be worryingly difficult.
Altair doesn’t seem overly distressed by the topic. “It’s… well, yeah. I’ve kind of had ups and downs.”
“You never think about going back?”
“No.” There is no hesitation in his voice. “I love it here. There’s so much to see! Obviously the movies, but even walking down the street, and all the stores and restaurants, and the art gallery, and all the different people…” He trails off with a look of peaceful happiness. “Now that I know what it’s like up here, I can’t go back underground. Sure, it’s not perfect, but I would rather be here than anywhere else.”
Tam has to smile at Altair’s expression. The more he sees of him, the less disturbed he is by his appearance. In fact, the contrast between his undead looks and his lively, cheerful personality is kind of charming.
“Well, I’m glad you feel that way,” he says, with a laugh. “I mean, if you hadn’t been here, I would have been out of luck.”
Altair shrugs his bony shoulders. “Yeah,” he replies softly. “Maybe so.”
A couple of days later, Tam realizes that he’s recovered enough to leave the apartment. He’d gotten so used to feeling cooped up he’d forgotten that he could chose to go outside any time.
“Hey, uh, Altair?”
Altair pokes his head out of the bathroom, moisturizer shining on his face and neck. He does this several times a day – apparently ghouls are highly sensitive to light, and if his skin gets too dry it starts to crack and peel more than it already does. Just the thought of it makes Tam a little queasy.
“I was thinking of taking a walk. You wanna come show me around?”
Altair beams. “I’d love to! Just one second!”
Sure enough, by the time Tam has his ratty old shoes on, Altair is out of the bathroom and at the apartment door. “Can you do your glamour again?” he asks anxiously. “Because I think there’s a toque in the closet that’ll fit you if you need to hide your–”
“No, I’m good.” Tam smiles reassuringly, and starts mumbling his incantation. He was taught to use glamour by an older incubus who mentored him when he was fresh from the spirit world. The words themselves don’t really matter – it’s just a simple way of accessing his natural abilities. “See?”
Altair looks over him thoughtfully. “You look weird without horns.”
He shrugs his shoulders and steps out of the apartment door. “I guess. I don’t think about it much anymore.”
“Okay, two seconds,” says Altair as he follows after and locks the door behind them. He too murmurs something under his breath in what sounds vaguely like Arabic. The air around him grows foggy, and then clears again. “There we go!”
In glamour, Altair is a sallow and ugly human, with an upturned nose, sunken cheeks, and dark hollows under his too-big eyes. He looks like a dying man. Tam is a surprised at his own reaction. Now that he’s getting used to Altair’s appearance, the sight of him like this is almost more disturbing. Ghouls are supposed to look like Altair, at least as far as he knows, whereas to see a human so sick-looking makes him feel like he should be calling an ambulance.
“Wow,” he says, finally, “Talk about looking weird.”
Altair grimaces. “I hate doing this,” he says, gesturing to his new appearance. “Pretending to be human. I mean, it’s one thing to hide myself completely, but this… it just feels like a lie to me. So I try to be as accurate as possible.” He grins, but it feels forced. “Sorry it’s so ugly.”
Tam realizes he’s said the wrong thing. “No, it’s not that. I just… I don’t know.” He shrugs. “I think you look better the way you really are.”
Altair flushes and looks away. “Well, thanks,” he says, quietly, and starts down the stairs.
Following him, Tam decides to change the subject slightly. “Who taught you to use a glamour? I wouldn’t think it’s a common skill for ghouls.”
Altair holds open the door for him as they reach the street entrance. “It’s not common, exactly, but no necropolis is totally self-contained. There are a few people who have to go out and do business with humans. My mother was one, so she knew glamour, and she taught me once I managed to convince her I was really leaving home.”
They start off down the street. “So do you still talk to your parents?” asks Tam, paying more attention to Altair than to their surroundings.
“Of course!” Altair looks surprised at the question. “They weren’t thrilled that I left, but they wouldn’t cut me off. We exchange letters. And Mom calls sometimes from a payphone. One time she convinced my dad to come too, which was pretty funny, because he’d never left home before…” He stops, looking sheepish. “Sorry, this must be pretty boring for you.”
“No, not at all.” Tam is half-surprised that he’s telling the truth. “It’s interesting.”
“What about you? Do you talk to your parents?”
He shakes his head. “Incubi don’t have family. Well, we sort of do, but… It’s complicated.”
“Don’t worry about it,” says Altair, probably sensing his discomfort with the subject. “So, uh, what do you think of the city so far?”
It’s his first time seeing downtown Vancouver in anything approaching a normal state of mind. The streets are a lot quieter than they were in Toronto. The air seems clearer, too, but maybe it’s just that he feels so much better now than he did during his last few months there. He can smell the ocean on the breeze.
“I like it,” he says, after a bit. “It seems cool. What’s the spirit world like around here?”
Altair pauses to think. “Villages,” he says, “and forest.” He gestures to the buildings around them with an uncomfortable expression. “After the European occupation of the land, some people who had travelled freely between the human world and the spirit world decided to spend most of their time living over there. For immigrants, it’s more respectful to cross over if someone invites you.”
“Huh.” Tam thinks back to his time in Toronto. A lot of the spirit world there was city. “I see.”
They walk along Robson and Altair points out the places he frequents: a candy store that sells chipotle crickets, a coffee shop where Jade used to work, a boutique of eco-friendly clothing by local designers.
“They have some great stuff,” says Altair, slowing for a second to gaze longingly at the window display of the last. “Totally out of my price range, but still.”
Tam nods. He doesn’t pay much attention to clothing, but the stuff in the window looks like quality, and he would have been surprised if it weren’t expensive.
After a few blocks they head down a side street to a quieter part of downtown. Sandwiched between two apartment buildings is what looks like a pet shop. The sign above the door says ‘Lee’s Fins and Scales.’ Altair stops here and gestures for Tam to follow him inside. “Here, I need to talk to Mr. Lee about some stuff.”
The inside of the store is dark, and it takes his eyes a second to adjust. There’s an elderly Asian man behind the counter who smiles at Altair when they come in. “Altair! You got any moths for me today?”
“Sorry, not today,” says Altair with a little grimace. “I’m afraid I’ve been a little busy. I’ll try going out tomorrow night, and if I get a good haul, you’ll be the first to know.”
Tam takes a second to survey the shop. Most of the floor space is taken up with food and toys, with some fish and lizards in the glass containers stacked against the walls. Each is labelled with the name of the species and what looks like a little blurb about the care they require. His job in Toronto taught him a lot about what makes a pet shop good or bad, and he thinks Mr. Lee’s seems ethically sound.
“No problem,” says Mr. Lee in response to Altair’s apology. “By next week is fine.”
“Hey, you don’t have a new assistant yet, do you?”
“No, not yet. Jessica comes in to help after school, but I need someone who can work during the day. I keep meaning to ask around, but…” He gestures around the shop. “Now I have to be here all the time.”
Altair nods. “Okay, well, I have a suggestion.” He looks over to Tam. “This guy actually used to work at a pet shop in Toronto. He just moved to town and he’s looking for a job. He’s a really nice guy, and I think he could really help you out.”
Tam wasn’t expecting this. He tries to look professional, despite feeling like a mess – he didn’t even brush his hair this morning. “I don’t have a resume ready at the moment, but if you give me a few days I can put something together…”
Mr. Lee shakes his head. “No, no resume. Just give me the number for the pet shop you worked at before. I’ll call them and see.” He smiles conspiratorially as Tam hands him a post-it with the number scribbled on it. “Besides, your resume is very short, am I right? No school, no references, no SIN number…?”
Altair nods. “He’s one of us.”
“I did graduate from high school, actually,” offers Tam awkwardly. If Altair is comfortable saying something like that, then he figures it’s best to be honest. “But yeah, it was a long-distance program from about thirty years ago. …I’m an incubus.”
Mr. Lee looks pleased by this revelation. “Excellent! I’m sure you’ll bring in many customers.”
“Are you, um…?”
Mr. Lee shakes his head, but doesn’t seem offended. “My wife is a fox,” he says with a smile. “When we were married, a friend forged all her papers for us. Back then it was simple. No computers, much easier to create a new identity. It’s harder for the young people now, so I do my best to help you along.”
“Thank you so much,” says Tam fervently.
“No, no, no trouble,” says Mr. Lee, shaking his hands. He seems a little embarrassed by Tam’s response. “I’ll call Altair and let you know.”
“Sorry I didn’t prepare you for that,” says Altair as they walk back to the apartment. “I honestly forgot that he was hiring until I walked in. I just wanted to apologize for not getting him a delivery he asked for a couple of weeks ago.”
Tam smiles at him. “No, don’t worry about it. Hey, I might get a job out of it. So you’re a bug catcher?”
“Oh yeah, that’s one of my jobs. I catch moths and roaches and stuff for a few pet shops.” Altair grins sheepishly. “Ghouls need a lot of protein, so we catch bugs to eat. I was always good at it.” He laughs. “It’s my transferable job skill from home.”
“I think that’s cool. My only real job skill is being a hot guy.”
If Altair had eyebrows, he would be raising one right now. “Sounds okay to me.”
“Sorry,” he says, “I don’t mean that like…”
“No, don’t worry about it.”
They stop by a shoe store on the way back and Altair lends him money for a new pair of loafers – “in honour of your new job prospects.” Tam wears them out of the store, and puts his ratty old shoes on the sidewalk next to a garbage can in case someone wants them.
When they get back to the apartment, he borrows Altair’s cellphone and calls Jade.
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Oh hey,” she answers, “what’s up? Are you ready to go for it? I have some guy friends I can set you up with.”
“Uh, no, not exactly.” There’s a brief uncomfortable silence while he works out what to say. “Actually, I was kind of wondering if we could do the sexual energy transfer thing one more time…”
Jade must have been drinking something, because a spluttering sound comes through the speaker. “You’re kidding, right? Do you even remember what that felt like? You looked like you were having a seizure! You would seriously rather do that than just go get a blowjob?”
“Right now, yeah, I kind of would.”
“Have you learned anything?”
“I have! Seriously, I will get out there again. Just… not now.” He can’t describe specifically why he feels this way. It has something to do with hanging out with Altair today, and how comfortable he felt, how relaxed. It’s been a long time since he’s felt that way. “I think I just need more time. Please.”
There’s a deep sigh on the other end, and immediately Tam knows she’s given in. “I guess one more time is okay. I’ll swing by tonight. But just one more time, all right?”
Tam doesn’t realize that Altair is sleeping on the couch until a week or so later, when he wakes up and comes into the main room of the apartment to find that Altair’s fallen onto the floor in the night.
When he does, he feels amazingly self-centred: he’d assumed that Altair was sleeping different times than him, or at someone else’s place. It’s typical incubus behaviour to forget about the comfort of others. He realizes too late that he’s been an idiot. No wonder Altair hasn’t brought anyone over since he’s been staying here.
So when Altair comes home from work the next evening, he asks about it.
“Am I bothering you, being here?”
“Not at all.”
“I mean… am I getting in the way?” He gestures awkwardly to the bedroom, trying to hint at what he means. “You know?”
Altair looks confused. Then, after a second or two, he bursts into laughter. “Hardly,” he says . “I don’t… uh, have a love life. Or, you know, any of the stuff that comes with it.”
“Oh,” says Tam, feeling more awkward now than ever. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s fine. Um, I guess as an incubus, you probably just assume…” He laughs again, and this time Tam can tell it’s a nervous response. “But, no, I’m good. Really. I mean, I’ve never even, uh, you know.”
For a second, he doesn’t even realize what Altair is trying to say. When he does, he’s too surprised to be tactful. “You’ve never had sex?”
Altair sort of winces. “Um, no. No, I haven’t. I was too young to mate when I left Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, and I wasn’t really sure about a bunch of things, I guess because ghoul culture is kind of ambivalent about homosexuality.” He says this in one breath. It sounds like he’s given this little talk many times before and is trying to get it all out as quickly as possible. “I want my first time to be with someone I love and trust, and as you can imagine, it’s hard to date in this city when you look like a zombie.”
Tam nods, still processing. He’s a little embarrassed at his initial reaction – it’s true what Altair said, sex demons tend to assume everyone that around them is sexually active. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” Then the first part of the little speech finds its way to his brain. “Wait, so you’re gay?”
“Yeah,” responds Altair, and for the first time Tam can hear a trace of bitterness in his voice. “Surprising, I know.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I didn’t assume you were straight, I just–” When he realizes he was about to say that he just hadn’t thought of Altair that way, he stops dead in his tracks, ashamed of himself. “Okay, that’s… fuck, I’m really sorry. That’s completely ridiculous. I feel like a jackass.”
As he speaks, the expression on Altair’s face turns from frustrated to distressed. “No, no, I’m sorry,” he says, putting his hands up as if to physically stop Tam from apologizing. “I’m not trying to make you feel bad. That’s not… I can understand why you wouldn’t think about it. That part’s okay. It’s not like I have a right to force other people to be attracted to me.” He shrugs his shoulders. “I just kind of wish I could find someone in this city who didn’t, um, find me, you know…”
“Ugly?” suggests Tam, as gently as he possibly can.
“It’s that bad?”
Altair nods. “My parents warned me,” he says, kind of wistfully. “There’s a reason why not a lot of ghouls leave the cemetery. But I thought they were just old-fashioned. I really didn’t understand.” He looks down at himself. “I mean, at home, everyone looked like this.” When his gaze returns to Tam he’s smiling, but it’s painfully obvious that he’s only trying to lessen the impact of what he’s saying. “And then I came here and all of a sudden I was a monster.”
Unable to think of the right response, Tam manages to say only “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s cool.” Altair’s smile seems a little more genuine after he says it. “I mean, I don’t really even think about it much anymore. It’s frustrating when it comes up, but I’ve found my own ways of dealing with it.”
“You shouldn’t have to deal with it! That’s bullshit!”
Altair looks startled, and Tam realizes he’s almost shouting.
“I mean,” he continues, moderating his voice, “there’s no difference between you and me. To humans, we should both be monsters. But because of they way we look, I get a free pass and you ask people to close their eyes around you when you meet them. That’s disgusting.”
“That’s life.” Altair shrugs his shoulders. “I mean, yes, I know it’s unfair, but talking about it doesn’t change things. And it’s not all bad. Not everyone avoids me because of my looks. I mean, Jade doesn’t.” Shyly, he raises his eyes to meet Tam’s. “You don’t.”
His expression makes Tam feels better. “Guess not.”
“Oh,” says Altair, looking at the clock on the wall, “speaking of Jade, you’d better get ready to head out.”
“Are we going somewhere?”
“Well, you are.” Altair’s smile turns apologetic, as if he’s worried about Tam’s response to this news. “She called like half an hour ago. She’s going to take you on, um, a sex outing.” He flushes. “Her words, not mine.”
Tam has to work to keep from frowning. “Yeah. Okay.” He’s not exactly pleased, but he’s not going to fight it, either. After Jade transferred energy to him the last time, he was awake to see how much it took out of her, and he can understand why she wouldn’t want to do it again. Besides, he’s had more than enough time to relax. If he’s going to live a normal life, he has to be sexually active again, and he might as well start now. “Excuse me for a sec?”
In the bedroom he pulls on the cleanest outfit he can from the clothes available to him. He never dresses up for clubbing – he doesn’t need to – but he wants to look nice, at the very least. When he comes back out, Altair is getting his butterfly net and a hole-punched jar out of the kitchen cabinet.
“You’re going bug-catching tonight?”
“Yup.” Altair comes out of the kitchenette to join him in the main room. “I’m a popular guy. Gotta catch up with the demand.”
“So I guess clubs aren’t really your thing, huh.”
“No, but I hope you two have fun!”
“…You’ve really never had sex?”
“I’ve really never had sex.” Altair rolls his eyes. It’s strange and a little worrisome to watch what Tam thinks of as his bad eyeball swivel around the rim of his eye, as if at any second it might just fall out of its socket. “Is that so hard to believe?”
“Kind of?” If Altair meant that as a dig at himself, Tam refuses to acknowledge it. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I mean…” He’s having trouble articulating this. “You never… um… looked for anyone?”
“I used to, a little,” says Altair, not meeting his eyes. “I tried online dating for a while. On a speciality site. It was Jade’s idea and it didn’t work.”
“You didn’t get any responses?”
“Oh, I got responses, all right.” Altair’s expression turns grim. “Just not the kind I wanted.”
“Like what? They were all fetishists?”
“No, I wish.” Altair pauses, clearly thinking about the right words. “I wouldn’t have minded if it was just my appearance they were interested in. I mean, that would be sort of flattering, I think. But they all had this idea of me as a scary monster looking for a victim.” He grimaces. “They wanted me to be menacing and sadistic, or… debase them, I guess? They weren’t looking for a romantic relationship. So when they found out what I was really like, they just left.”
The thought of Altair debasing anyone is so impossible it makes Tam want to laugh, but at the same time, he’s upset. It’s sickening that people would assume the worst of Altair’s personality because of his appearance. “That’s horrible.”
Altair shrugs. “Good riddance, I guess. I’m still waiting on my Prince Charming.” There’s a knock on the door. “Okay, that must be Jade, and that’s enough about my non-existent love life.”
Tam gets the door. He’s pleased to see that Jade is wearing her usual outfit. “I told you that was the last time, and I meant it,” she says, sounding proud of herself, which probably means she’s been having second thoughts. “You’re gonna go get laid tonight!”
“Yeah, okay,” responds Tam evenly. He gets the feeling that she’s been pre-drinking. “Where are you taking me exactly?”
“Well, where are you most comfortable with?” Jade looks at her hand as if she’s counting options on her fingers. “We can go to Stanley Park, if you like. I mean, I think cruising is irresponsible and unpleasant, but hey, tonight’s all about you.”
Tam shakes his head. “No, I don’t do that. Is there a place in town for people like us?”
The room is silent for a second. Jade grimaces but doesn’t say anything. Finally, Altair speaks up. “Hex.”
“We can go there if you want,” says Jade, haltingly, “but it’s a pretty lousy club…”
When it becomes apparent she isn’t going to say anything more, Altair speaks up again. “She tried to take me there once. After ten minutes or so they asked me to leave.” His expression is a little too calm. “I mean, they were polite about it. Considering.”
“Okay, no way are we going there,” says Tam fiercely. It’s the closest he feels he can get to an expression of sympathy without making Altair feel self-conscious.
Jade nods. “Human club it is, then.”
They walk five blocks or so to a gay bar where, according to Jade, “they don’t care if you fuck in the bathroom.” Once there, she holds out a condom to him.
“I kind of assumed you were a lesbian,” says Tam dryly.
“Yeah, well,” says Jade with a shrug, “Dental dams are expensive, and as long as I have a pair of scissors… Plus, I like to make sure everyone practices safe sex.” She’s still holding out the condom. “Come on, take it.”
Tam pulls one out from his back pocket. “I have my own, thanks.”
Instantly, Jade’s expression becomes delighted. “You’re a good guy, Tam,” she says, warmly. “I’m so glad you’re not one of those assholes who thinks it’s okay to bareback because we can’t get STIs.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” replies Tam, “the responsible adult. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a random dude and have anonymous sex.”
“Go for it, tiger.”
He always turns heads out in public, and it really bothers him. He’s a good looking guy, and incubi have a kind of charismatic aura that draws people towards them regardless of their actual physical appearance. The attention he attracts just walking through the room makes him severely uncomfortable, but he’s used to it enough that he doesn’t let it show.
Scanning the crowd, his gaze settles on a nervous-looking guy in the corner of the room. “Hey,” he says, walking over. “Buy you a drink?”
The guy says yes, as he thought he would. Things progress routinely from there. They dance for a bit – or rather, Tam shifts his weight from side to side awkwardly as his partner proves to actually be a good dancer – and then after another drink and some small talk, Tam asks him if he wants a blowjob and they head over to the washroom.
Tam always feels alienated in clubs. He used to enjoy himself, but gradually he came to realize that his physical dependence on sex makes clubbing kind of pathetic for him. Everyone else is here to have a good time – he’s here to get laid so that he doesn’t die. Tonight he feels extra weird, thinking about his conversation with Altair earlier.
Even if he took off his glamour in front of the whole place, he could easily explain that he had just come from a costume party. In fact, most humans wouldn’t think to ask. But if Altair did the same thing, he’d probably clear the club in an instant. It’s not fair.
He’s always known that his appearance is a form of privilege, but he’s never felt the truth of that as sharply as he does right now.
The bathroom is empty, which he appreciates. He brings the guy into the only stall and sits down. The guy hesitantly unbuttons his fly and pulls down his jeans, revealing his cock.
Taking the condom out of his pocket, Tam opens it and puts in on with his mouth. He taught himself this trick mostly as a way of making sex more challenging for himself, but it has the added benefit of making the guy moan and shudder.
Actually sucking cock isn’t bad – the guy is considerate and clearly very appreciative. Tam would be probably be having fun if Altair’s words about being a monster here didn’t keep going through his head. Even when the guy is whimpering and fucking his mouth he can’t help but think of Altair, sitting at home, gazing out the window into the heart of a city which will never accept him.
Altair never asks him to move out, and Tam never suggests it, and after a while he starts leaving an envelope of cash on the kitchen table every month to pay for half the rent. Without talking about it, they settle into a routine together.
Tam’s never actually had a roommate. Before Alex, he always lived in kind of a transitory way, either couch-surfing with acquaintances or spending the night in a stranger’s bed. He finds that he enjoys the experience of living with a friend.
Summer in Vancouver is hot, but not intolerable. The apartment is too old to have air conditioning, so Tam and Altair make do with fans set up everywhere in the apartment, but much of the time it’s still uncomfortably hot. The pet shop is worse.
His job, though, is ideal. Mr. Lee shows him the ropes, but the majority of his responsibilities are the same as at his old workplace. The pay is fairly good for a retail job, and Tam enjoys the work. He’s good at figuring out if someone will be a responsible pet owner, and under Mr. Lee’s policies, he doesn’t sell anyone an animal unless he’s confident that they will be.
He starts out as a part-timer working a few days a week, but gradually gets more hours. “It’s nice to have more time to spend with my grandchildren,” says Mr. Lee when Tam asks. “Besides, I’m going to have to retire one of these days.” There’s a twinkle in his eye. “Who knows? Work hard, and you may find yourself replacing me.”
Tam doesn’t even know how to respond to that.
Since Altair still works more hours than he does, he takes over the household chores, and pretty soon he’s shopping for groceries and laundry soap every other week. Slowly he starts to accumulate the trappings of a regular life: a bank account, a cell phone, his own clothes. The fridge fills up with his food, the bathroom with his shampoo.
He tries not to think about sex. Finding energy is the one part of his life he doesn’t thoroughly enjoy. He goes out two or three times a week, sometimes with Jade and sometimes alone, and usually finds himself either bored or outright resentful. Everything stays as casual and anonymous as possible. A few times he goes home with someone, if they aren’t willing to have sex in the washroom, but he tries to avoid it. Some nights he goes without sex because of his refusal to bring guys home to the apartment.
Normally the first thing he would do in a new city is check out the non-human side of the local social scene, but hearing about how Altair was treated at Hex, he couldn’t care less if he never sets foot in there. He has Altair, and Jade, and a couple of friends they’ve introduced him to. That’s more than enough for him.
After a day of work at the pet shop, he comes home one Friday to find that as usual, Altair is watching a movie. Wadi is perched on his shoulder like a featherless, misshapen parrot.
“Hey,” he says.
“Oh, hey!” says Altair. He pauses the film just as the camera zooms in on a fresh but disgusting-looking zombie. “Welcome back! If you’re hungry, I’ve got takeout. Wanna have some?”
“Sounds great.” Sure enough, on the kitchen counter are two styrofoam boxes: one filled with neatly sliced sashimi and one with a selection of nigiri. He brings them to the kitchen table and takes a seat. “Which one is for me?”
Altair jogs to the bedroom to put Wadi away, and joins him a moment later. “The nigiri,” he says, breaking open his chopsticks. “I can’t eat rice.”
“But fish is cool?”
He picks up a slice of tuna and pops it in his mouth. “Yeah. I can eat any meat, if it’s raw. That’s pretty much it, though, except for fungus and some kinds of plant matter.” He winces as if at a painful memory. “Any wheat or dairy, or even like a rare steak, and my digestive system is messed up for days.”
Tam winces too. “That sucks.” Not that human food is necessary for him to eat, but he enjoys it, and the thought of Altair being unable to enjoy french fries or chocolate is a slightly depressing one.
Altair smiles sheepishly and takes another piece of fish. “Yeah, I’m no fun at restaurants, I’ll tell you that much. I can’t drink alcohol, either – at least I don’t think so, I’ve never actually tried. That one’s more of a cultural thing.”
“Right, aren’t you guys Muslim?”
“Some of us,” replies Altair. “Our original home in the spirit world lined up with the Middle East, so ghoul society was kind of influenced by Islam on and off through the centuries. I believe in God and that Muhammad was his prophet, but I don’t really follow the Five Pillars, so…” He shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know what you’d call me, at this point.”
For a while they sit in silence, eating.
“You know,” stats Altair, a little hesitantly, “you keep asking me all these personal questions, and I don’t know that much about your life at all.”
“Well, what do you want to know?”
Altair shrugs. “I don’t know. What were you doing before you lived in Toronto?”
“Nothing exciting.” He thinks back. “I was in, uh, Dublin, I think. But living pretty much the same way. Basically I’ve spent my adult life travelling around the world working entry-level jobs and having promiscuous sex.” Altair rolls his eyes, and he laughs, more at himself than at the response. “Okay, I know that sounds like it would be exciting, but you’re going to have to trust me when I say it gets monotonous.”
Altair still looks a little sceptical, and Tam can’t blame him. It was a thoughtless thing to say, and he’s about to apologize when Altair starts speaking again. “Well, if your life is so boring, can I ask a question about sex demons in general?”
“Maybe this is stupid, but where do incubi come from?” He gazes down at his takeout box, the beginnings of a blush on his face. “I know you said you don’t have families. I asked Jade once, but she just said she’d rather not talk about it.”
Tam grimaces. “We hatch from eggs.”
“If you can’t tell me, then don’t,” says Altair, with a hurt expression, “but you don’t have to be sarcastic.”
“No, I’m not. That wasn’t sarcasm.” Tam can’t help sighing. He hates having this conversation. “See, this is why we don’t tell people, because it sounds so ridiculous. But I’m serious – we literally hatch from eggs. Sometimes, in places where the human world and the spirit world blur together, birds lay eggs that contain succubi or incubi.”
“Seriously?” asks Altair. If he had eyebrows, they would be raised right now. “I mean… how does that work? Do you look like birds when you hatch?”
“Kind of.” Tam’s not actually sure – he doesn’t remember hatching, and nobody’s seen an infant incubus or succubus in the wild. “We’re small enough that the birds mistake us for their chicks, anyway. For the first couple weeks of our lives, they bring us food, but soon we get too big for the nest. After that we have to fend for ourselves in the spirit world until we’re fully grown.”
“That sounds rough.” There’s sympathy in Altair’s voice. “I mean, it’s not necessarily easy growing up a ghoul, but I had my community. You were all by yourself the whole time?”
Tam shakes his head. “It’s really not as bad as it sounds. Our childhoods are short. I hit puberty like a month after I hatched, I don’t even really remember it.” This is a lie – he has some vague memories of hunger and intense loneliness – but he doesn’t want Altair to feel bad about it. Between the two of them, Tam’s had a far easier life over all.
“Still, it sounds rough.” But Altair seems to get that he doesn’t want to make a big deal of it. “So, um, what kind of bird hatched you?”
Tam sighs again. Every time he’s explained this to anyone, they were picturing something like a phoenix, or an eagle – a magical or at least noble animal. The truth is absurd in comparison. “Um, a pigeon in Mexico City.” He gestures to himself, eager to gloss over it. “If I look kind of Latino to you, that’s why.”
“You look like the people do wherever you hatch?”
“Wherever we enter the human world for the first time,” replies Tam, “but that’s usually about the same thing. And it’s not really that straightforward. I mean, our appearance develops based on the first people we see, so most of us are a blend of different human phenotypes–”
“What people look like. Like, depending on how racially diverse a particular place is–” Tam stops, regarding Altair’s face carefully. He looks like he’s trying not to laugh. “Yeah. Okay, fine. I told you it was ridiculous.”
“Not really.” Altair does let out a little laugh, but it’s not mean-spirited. “Okay, the pigeon thing is pretty funny, but… honestly, I think it’s cool!”
“Well, It makes incubi seem a little less intimidating, that’s for sure…” Altair stops. “I mean, not that I find you intimidating! I mean, not now, anyway. Just that… well.” He looks down at his lap, face flushed. “It’s hard when I’m sort of, you know, and you’re…”
“A slut?” suggests Tam, jokingly.
“No, that’s not what I meant!” Altair’s blush intensifies, until his face is an almost worrying shade of purple.
“It’s okay, I was kidding.” He’s found that it’s fun to tease Altair, but he can’t keep it going for long. “Speaking of being a slut, though…”
Altair looks to the clock. “You have to head out?”
“…Yeah. Thanks for the sushi, it was awesome. Sorry I have to go.”
Altair shakes his head. “No worries,” he says, clearing the table. “I’m gonna finish my Romero marathon before bed. Zombie movies remind me of home.” He points at the figure on the TV screen. “See? It’s me!”
Tam gives him a somewhat reproachful look. “Hey, you’re not allowed to put yourself down, remember?”
“I’m just kidding.” Altair makes what would be a pout, if he had lips. “You’re allowed to make jokes at my expense. Why can’t I?”
“Because I worry that you mean it,” says Tam, grabbing his jacket from where he dropped it next to the door. “Okay, I’m off.”
Altair waves. “Have fun!”
Tonight he’s trying something different. Jade’s been suggesting more and more persistently that he let her hook him up with someone, and he’s so tired of picking up guys at clubs that he’s accepted her offer of a blind date with a friend of her girlfriend’s.
They meet for dinner at a nice restaurant in a hotel by the water. Nick is a soft-spoken Tae Kwon Do instructor, taller than Tam and heavily muscled. Jade didn’t say, but it’s fairly obvious that he’s a minotaur. Even in glamour he has the heavy-lashed brown eyes of an ox.
“Yeah,” he says with a laugh, when Tam tells him about Jade’s quest to set him up, “she can be a busybody, but I think she just wants to see people happy. She tried to set me up with Altair, once.”
Tam tenses up. “How did it go?” he asks, trying to sound casual, like the answer isn’t that important.
“Well,” says Nick thoughtfully, “platonically, we hit it off. He’s a really sweet guy. I mean, I’m sure you know that. Just not my type, I guess.”
It’s obvious that he’s giving his honest opinion, and Tam relaxes. “So what is your type?”
Nick grins. “I prefer to bottom,” he says, and Tam could swear that he sees his nostrils flare.
After dinner, they go upstairs and fuck in a hotel room. Sex with Nick is comfortable: he knows how to ask for what he wants, and expects the same from Tam. It’s refreshing. For the first time in a long while, he feels genuine satisfaction when he comes, and not just relief.
The evening is successful. He only wishes that made him feel better. Instead, it deepens his sinking suspicion that there’s something wrong with him. He can’t shake the feeling that even though he doesn’t like zombie movies, he would have been much happier back at the apartment with Altair, watching Dawn of the Dead and eating takeout.
“We should do this again sometime,” says Nick as they get dressed again afterwards.
Tam nods, but he can’t even bring himself to say yes.
When he comes in around midnight, Altair is lying on the couch, wrapped in his blanket and sound asleep. He is snoring a little, but through his slitted nostrils the sound is strange; a high-pitched whistle.
He’s suggested repeatedly that they switch places, that he would rather sleep on the couch anyway, but every time Altair has brushed him off. It makes him a little upset to think that after all the time they’ve lived together he still thinks of Tam like a guest who has to be taken care of.
Maybe it’s because he had a few drinks at the restaurant, but it doesn’t take long for him to decide that Altair is going to sleep in his own bed tonight.
Carefully, he lifts him up into his arms. It’s shocking how light he is: like a child or an old man. Somehow it makes Tam feel like crying. When he lays him on the bed, he’s struck by a sudden, irrational fear that something is wrong. Altair is lying completely still, and he seems so fragile in his sleep. It’s easy to imagine that he could be sick or even dying.
Slowly and carefully, he moves his hand to Altair’s chest, feeling for his heartbeat. It’s just different enough from a human’s to be unfamiliar: a little bit slower and lighter. The feel of it calms him down.
Altair’s eyes flutter open. “Tam…?” he asks blearily. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” he replies, in a half-whisper. “It’s cool. Go back to sleep.”
“But you….” He shifts slightly, as if to get up. “The bed….”
Tam shakes his head. “I said, go back to sleep. There’s plenty of room for the two of us.”
“Oh.” Altair sounds confused, but he lies back down. “If that’s… okay, then….” He trails off as his eyes shut.
Even after his high-pitched whistling breaths begin again, Tam sits on the bed in silence, watching the shallow rise and fall of his chest under his t-shirt. He knows that there was a time when he found Altair’s appearance frightening, but when he tries to remember it, he finds that it’s just not there anymore. Like his near brush with death, it feels like it happened to another person.
There’s an unfamiliar sensation pooling in the pit of his stomach. Only later does he realize what it is, and where he’s felt it before.
He falls asleep next to Altair and they spend the night that way. Neither of them say anything about it in the morning, but the matter is settled. From then on, they both sleep in the bed: sometimes alone, sometimes together.
The next time Jade comes over, she’s holding a package wrapped in butcher’s paper. “Hey, Tam,” she says, when he answers the door. “Alt home?”
“Sorry, no. He left like half an hour ago.”
“That’s okay. I’m just dropping this off for him.” She tosses the package back and forth between her hands. “So how did things go with Nick?”
“Good,” says Tam, hoping Jade doesn’t notice that he’s hiding something. “We had a good time.”
“Are you going to see him again?”
“I don’t know.” He sighs. “I just… I don’t know. Honestly, I’m in kind of a weird place right now.”
For a few seconds, Jade doesn’t say anything. “Have you–” she starts, then tries again. “Alt–” But she stops there, too, and shakes her head. “No, you know what, it’s not really my place to ask.”
“We’re getting along really well,” he offers.
“Yeah, I know,” Jade answers, distractedly. “He said as much.” Looking down, she seems to remember the package in her hands, and offers it to him. “Oh, so like I said, this is for him. Make sure you put it in the fridge. And tell him it’s from Dmitri. He’ll understand.”
Tam takes the package. He wants to ask what it is, but somehow gets the impression she’s not going to tell him even if he does. “Sure thing.”
“Awesome. I’m off to work, then.”
“Yeah, where do you work, anyway?” Somehow, in all this time, he’s never thought to ask.
“I’m a cook at a restaurant on Commercial Drive.” She grins, naming a place even Tam has heard of. “The manager doesn’t know about us, but the nice thing about kitchen work is that even the humans are pretty fucking shady. Take care, Tam.” The grin fades slightly. “And… just, be careful.”
He wants to ask what she means, but she’s off down the stairs before he can.
When Altair comes home from work that night, Tam lets him know about the delivery. Instantly his expression becomes guarded.
“Did you unwrap it?”
“Of course not.” When he realizes he’s not going to get a response to that, he keeps going. “Although I have to admit that I’m curious.”
Altair turns away from him to look in the refrigerator. “It’s food.”
“I figured.” He wouldn’t usually enquire further, but something about the expression on Altair’s face – a kind of hungry anguish – makes him decide to press it. “What kind of food?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Tam sighs. “Okay. If you really don’t want to tell me, then don’t.” He can’t help trying once more. “Just… remember back when you didn’t want me to see you? That turned out okay, right? I can’t imagine this being any different. I’m not going to freak out.”
“I think you might.”
Altair’s mouth is a thin line of pain. “It’s human meat, okay?” he says, quietly, almost blurting out the words. “I need it to survive.”
For a second Tam is stunned. He knew even before he met Altair that ghouls lived in cemeteries, and he did always have a vague idea that they ate the corpses buried there. But since meeting Altair, his knowledge of ghouls has been completely reshaped. It never occurred to him that not all of the unpleasant rumours about their lives were false.
He wills his expression into a neutral one, hoping Altair didn’t take offence at his surprise. “Where is it from? I mean, I know it’s not… I know it was a natural death, or… I mean, I know it has nothing to do with you.” He tries again. “But I mean, who finds it?”
“There’s an ogre in town who has some contacts in the RCMP.” Altair won’t meet his eyes. “When bodies go unclaimed at the morgue for a certain amount of time, they go to him, and he… butchers the meat. There are a few of us in town who need it, so once he’s had his fill, he gives the rest to us.”
“So you don’t know who–” He stops short. “I shouldn’t ask that. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. I don’t know who this is from. But some humans who know about us do choose to, um, donate their bodies.” He swallows nervously. “Like, um, actually, Mr. Lee has already told me that he wants me to… to eat him when he dies.”
Tam has to force himself not to shudder at the image this creates in his mind. “That’s kind of… scary. I mean, it’s nice, but still scary.”
“Yeah.” Altair closes his eyes for a second. He looks about as freaked out as Tam feels, if not more. “Yeah, it is.”
It takes Tam a second to make up his mind, but once he does, he knows it’s the right thing.
“Mind if I sit with you?”
Altair’s eyes pop open again, wide with dismay. “No! I mean, yes, I do mind… I mean, you don’t want to do that.”
“Why not? It’s your dinner, right?” Tam tries to think of an appropriate comparison. “You sit with me when I eat grilled cheese sandwiches, and I know you can’t eat wheat or dairy.”
Altair shakes his head. “That’s not an accurate comparison. This isn’t…” He takes a deep and somewhat shaky breath before continuing. “This isn’t fresh, Tam. When I unwrap it, it might smell. You don’t want to be here for that.”
“Not exactly,” admits Tam. “But I want to be here with you.” Taking Altair by the hand, he tries to put in his expression what he’s embarrassed to say out loud: that they don’t have to hide from each other. He wants to make sure Altair knows he’s not disgusted by him or scared of what he has to eat to nourish his body.
Altair unwraps the meat and slices it in half. One part goes into a plastic bag in the freezer, the other onto a dinner plate. It looks like raw veal. Tam can’t smell anything when he brings it to the table, which is honestly an incredible relief – he doesn’t know if he could control his reaction to rotting human flesh.
Watching Altair eat is disturbing and more than a little bit painful. He cuts all the meat off the bone first, scraping it clean. His face is grim as he chews and swallows each piece in turn. He looks like he’s trying not to cry.
“So how was work today?” asks Tam, determined to make this situation even a little more normal.
Altair laughs nervously. “It was fine. We were showing some film festival stuff, it was all pretty mediocre. A couple of good documentaries.”
“I know you aren’t really into movies, but there was an interesting one about the golden frogs that disappeared in Costa Rica.”
Tam nods. “Yeah, that sounds cool. Maybe we should watch it when it comes out on DVD.” As he watches Altair struggling to eat, he worries that he’s made a mistake. “Hey, is this okay? Am I making this too difficult?”
“No, it’s not that,” says Altair with an awkward half-smile. “I always get this way. It’s pretty pathetic, I know.” Slowly, he spears the last piece of meat and swallows it without even chewing. “I’m sorry, I just need a second…” And getting up from his chair, he half-runs to the bathroom.
Tam hears the sink running, and the sound of coughing. It’s hard to wait at the table, but he doesn’t want to embarrass Altair by coming over to see him.
When Altair comes back, he’s shaking a bit, and his eyes are wet with a kind of milky-looking fluid. “Sorry about that.”
“You didn’t throw up, did you?”
“No, it’s not that,” he says, shaking his head. “I keep it down no problem. I mean, it’s like steak to me, right? Or, um, to my body, I guess. Before I left home, it was just like eating steak. I never thought about the people who…” He trails off, looking melancholy.
“But they’re already dead,” says Tam, trying to reassure him. “I mean, if someone doesn’t eat it, it just rots, or gets burnt up, or…” He tries to think of what happens to human corpses, but realizes that this trail of thought isn’t very comforting. “You know. Anyway, it’s like recycling.”
“Yeah, I know.” From the expression on Altair’s face, Tam gets the impression that this is something he’s told himself many times. He tries to laugh. “It’s funny. I never get this way when I eat other kinds of meat. I eat toad sometimes and that doesn’t bug me at all. I mean, a life is a life, right?”
“Personally, I don’t think a cow life and a human life are really the same,” says Tam. “Although I guess some people feel differently.”
“It’s not that I’m worried about the difference,” says Altair, thoughtfully. “It’s more that… I enjoy beef, but human is the only meat that feels, um, satisfying to me. When I eat it, I always remember… like, that I really need to do this to live.” He closes his eyes. “I don’t have any say in it.”
Without thinking, Tam grabs Altair in a tight hug. “Hey,” he says, trying to sound gentle, “it’s okay. There is nothing wrong with doing what you have to to survive.”
Altair freezes for a moment. Then he relaxes, and slowly, his arms go around Tam, and his head falls onto his chest. They stay like that for a while. Tam thinks he should probably have pulled away by now, but the longer he holds Altair in his arms, the less he wants to do it. He feels like as long as he holds Altair like this, he’s protecting him somehow.
“Thank you,” Altair says, eventually, pulling away. “For sitting with me. I… nobody’s ever done that for me before, and I really… it helped, I think.”
“You’re welcome,” he replies, gently. “Anytime, okay?”
That night while Altair is sleeping, Tam takes out his phone and dials a number he has still not forgotten.
“You’ve reached Alex Nielsen,” says the recording on the answering machine. It’s new. Then again, it’s been a long time. “I’ll be home on the 20th. Leave a message at the beep and I’ll get back to you then.”
“Alex?” he starts, hesitantly. He’s not sure if this is the kind of message he should be leaving on an answering machine. But he feels like if he doesn’t do this now, he might never have the strength of will to do it at all. “It’s Tam. I know it’s been a while, I just… Look, I’m sorry for everything. You were right. I was just too stupid to realize I was hurting you as much as I was hurting myself. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I get it now. I’m sorry.”
“Are you free Saturday night?” asks Altair a few days before the end of August.
“Yeah,” answers Tam, without thinking much about it. “Why?”
“It’s my birthday,” says Altair, and Tam can hear a hint of embarrassment in his voice. “We’re going to a bar to celebrate.”
“Really?” asks Tam, surprised. “You want to go to a bar?”
“Why not? I mean, I don’t mind other people drinking. I want everybody to have fun.” He smiles. “Besides, it’s a karaoke bar, and I love karaoke.”
That Saturday, when Altair gets home from work, he nonchalantly pulls out the gift bag he picked up the day he learned about the party.
“Oh, uh, before we go out, I should give you your birthday present.” He hands the bag to him. “Here.”
A smile lights up Altair’s face. “You bought me a birthday present? Really?”
“Yeah.” Even though he knows Altair will like it, he can’t help feeling a bit nervous. “Open it?”
“Sure,” says Altair, and carefully pulls the tissue-wrapped package out of the bag. As soon as he unwraps a layer, his eyes go wide. “Oh my gosh.”
“Uh, I got it from that store on Robson you like.” It blew his bank account completely, but when the idea came to him, he didn’t even think twice. “I just thought it would be good for winter. But if it doesn’t fit, or if you don’t like the style…”
“No, it’s incredible.” It’s a dark grey cashmere pea coat with big front pockets and black buttons. Altair unbuttons them slowly, like he can’t quite believe in it. As he slides his arms into the sleeves, a smile of sheer delight begins to form on his face. “It’s perfect.”
Tam can’t help grinning. “It looks good on you.” He’s not just saying that – the style makes his frame look less emaciated, like he thought it would.
“Thanks, Tam.” Altair looks like he’s at a loss for words. “I can’t believe you…”
“It’s really not that big a deal,” says Tam. Altair’s gratitude has made him feel happy but a little flustered. “Well, I mean, I just, uh, I’m glad you like it.”
Altair nods. “I love it,” he declares. “I’m going to wear it out tonight.”
“Really? Won’t you be too warm?”
“No way.” His smile, wide as it is, is beautiful. “Like I said, it’s perfect.”
They leave the apartment and walk up towards Davies Street. “This is one of the only places in the spirit world here where everybody’s invited to come,” says Altair. “I really should have brought you here before, but I wasn’t sure you would like it. It’s not really like a bar, it’s mainly for karaoke, but it’s really fun, and Kal is really cool, she has some amazing stories to tell….”
“Alt?” says Tam gently. “It’s okay.”
Altair blushes. “I’m sorry for babbling,” he says, “I guess I just really hope you have a good time….”
“I will. Don’t worry.”
They turn right onto Davies. “This is it,” says Altair.
It’s a 7-11 in the human world, but through the hazy gateway, he can see what looks like a cedar plank house with a brightly-painted sign that says ‘Kal’s Karaoke.’
“This is it,” says Altair, sounding almost proud. “Come on.”
The inside of the cabin is more spacious than the outside, which is true of many buildings in the spirit world. The tables and chairs are all mismatched and the walls are covered with a mix of First Nations art and what he can only describe as kitsch – little porcelain figures and needlepoints. There’s a dusty disco ball hanging from the ceiling and a raised platform at the back which serves as a stage.
Onstage, an androgynous banshee is belting out what sounds to Tam like a Janet Jackson song. “That’s Robin,” says Altair, “I don’t think you’ve met yet, but they’re really cool!” He proceeds to walk through the room, naming people as he walks past them. Tam knows he won’t remember most of their names, even when he knows he’s seen them somewhere before, so after the first two or three he doesn’t even try.
Behind the bar is a giant woman with long black hair and claw-like fingernails. On her back, Tam can see what looks like a woven basket. When her gaze falls on Altair, she beckons them over. “Alt! Good to see you.” With a toothy grin, she holds out her muscular arms to him.
“Hey, Kal.” Altair returns the hug, awkwardly. “How’s it going?”
“Just trying to stay out of trouble, I guess.” Her gaze falls on Tam. “So is this the roommate?”
“I’m Tam,” he replies, awkwardly offering her his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Kal shakes it. Her grip is almost painfully strong. “Same here. Some people call me Kal’kalilh, but these days I go by Kal, mostly. Welcome to my place.”
“Tam!” calls Jade. She’s sitting at the head of a chain of tables pushed together in the middle of the room. “Hey, get over here! Someone I need you to meet!”
“Go on,” says Kal when he looks to her for confirmation. “There’s a few things I need to talk over with Alt.”
Excusing himself, he goes over to meet Jade. She has her arm around a tall, wide-hipped woman with curly red hair and navy blue skin. When he glances down, he notices that her feet point out backwards from her ankles. “This is Yadira, my partner. Yadira, this is Altair’s roommate Tam.”
“I’m surprised we haven’t met before this,” says Yadira. “Jade talks about you all the time.”
Tam smiles. “Good things, I hope.”
“Middling.” He can’t tell if she’s kidding or not. “In any case, I’m glad you and Altair are doing so well together.”
He’s about to ask what she means by that, but Altair comes over to sit beside him. “I talked to Kal,” he says, awkwardly, “and it turns out we have to sing before we’re allowed to eat.”
“Damn right!” shouts Kal from the bar.
Altair flushes purple, but the whole group starts into “Happy Birthday.” Even Tam joins in. When they reach his name nobody knows how to sing it: some people stretch out the first syllable, some the last. The whole song breaks down into awkward laughter.
As they clap, Kal puts a plate down in front of Altair. It’s a whole raw salmon fillet, with four candles pushed into the meat. “Caught it today. It’s your fortieth, right?”
“Hey,” someone shouts from the other end of the tables, “when are ghouls legal?”
“Coming of age takes place at thirty-three,” replies Altair, half-shouting back, “but you’re not really considered an adult until forty-five. So feel free to keep treating me like your kid brother, Marti!”
Tam smiles – he turns forty in November. He knows that ghouls have a longer lifespan than incubi, so technically Altair is a little younger than he is, but the thought that they’ve lived the same number of years makes him happy somehow.
Kal serves everyone else at the table plates of smoked salmon and fruit salad. By the time Tam gets his food, Altair is already finished.
“That was delicious,” he says, handing her his empty plate. “Thank you so much.” He stands up. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to do some singing of my own.”
Tam looks around the table as Altair leaves. “I couldn’t help but notice,” he whispers to Jade, “that almost everyone here is a lesbian.”
“Oh yeah,” she says with a chuckle, “that’s my fault. When we first met I introduced him to all my friends, and obviously most of my friends are queer, so… he became a lesbeau, I guess.”
“We’ve adopted him,” adds Yadira dryly. “Initiated him into our secrets.”
The drunk-looking human woman next to her bangs her spoon on the table. “Gooble gobble, one of us,” she says in a creepy voice, and all three of them break down in laughter.
Tam is fairly sure this is some inside joke, but before he can ask, the intro to the song begins. The whole room falls silent when Altair starts to sing. Tam doesn’t know the song, but Altair has a beautiful voice – a rich, warm tenor- and he clearly likes to sing. His eyes scan the audience and settle on Tam, who responds with a smile of encouragement.
Altair smiles in return. As he finishes singing, the crowd erupts in enthusiastic applause.
“That was amazing,” says Tam, as he comes down off the stage. “Seriously, Alt, you’re really good.”
Altair flashes him a quick, embarrassed smile. “Thanks.”
The night continues in pretty much the same way. People chat, drink, and sing – sometimes all three at once, like when Jade goes up on stage with a tumbler of whiskey and turns “Werewolves of London” into a conversation with her girlfriend. After she buys him a couple of shots too, even Tam gets up and tries to sing a Gloria Estefan song. He stumbles through the verses and does only slightly better on the chorus, but when he sees the expression of happiness on Altair’s face as he watches, he couldn’t care less.
After a couple hours, people start to leave. A woman who he thinks might be a water horse taps him on the shoulder. She’s at the head of a small group.
“We’re going dancing,” she says. “Wanna come?”
Tam turns to Altair. “You’re going dancing?”
Altair shakes his head. “No, I’m not.”
“It’s sort of a tradition,” adds the water horse. “After the karaoke’s over, a bunch of us go out and and keep the party going for a while.”
“And you’re okay with that?” he asks Altair.
“Yeah, it’s not a problem!” Altair seems to be in earnest. “I mean, it’s not my scene, but I know other people like stuff like that, and I want everyone to have fun. I’m done for tonight, so I’m just gonna head home.”
“Oh, no, Jade and Yadira are coming with me. But we’re just gonna watch some movies and stuff.” He shrugs, as if to suggest that naturally Tam wouldn’t be interested. “And besides, you… need to, um, refuel tonight, right?”
Tam starts to say no, he can wait until tomorrow night. He wants to tell Altair that he doesn’t want to go out if it means leaving him behind. They can all go back to the apartment and watch movies together. But as he starts to say it, Altair turns and walks away, pulling on his new coat.
“Come on,” says a girl in the group, “let’s go.”
And even though he regrets it, he does.
Tam wakes up the next day with a splitting headache and no one but himself to blame for it. He drank much more than he should have last night. He can’t even really remember leaving the club, let alone coming home, although he finds himself in bed in the apartment nonetheless.
The main room of the apartment is empty. Altair is sitting on the fire escape off the kitchenette window, his skinny legs dangling through the metal bars. He’s not wearing his glamour.
“Hey,” says Tam, coming over to stand beside the window. The fire escape is high enough that they’re at eye level. “How’s it going?”
Altair smiles, but it seems forced. “Not too bad.” Wadi is on his lap, and as Altair talks, he strokes the toad’s head. “How was your night?”
“It kind of sucked.” Technically speaking, of course, there was nothing wrong with it, but for the whole night he found himself looking at the door, wanting nothing more than to go home. He was so out of it, the first guy he propositioned actually turned him down. “What about yours?”
“It was good. We watched Nosferatu. It’s a silent film, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it – it was based on Dracula.”
“I’m not sure. Maybe?”
All of a sudden Altair pulls his legs up and swings himself back into the apartment. “You know what I like about old movies?” he says, then kind of laughs to himself. “Um, obviously, a lot of things. But one of the best things about them is that everything has to be big. You know?”
“Yeah,” responds Tam, although he’s not sure where this is going.
“If something good happens, there’s nothing complicated about it – it’s just good. Bad things are the same way. And everything is obvious. People make these faces like-” He contorts his face as dramatically as he can. “Real life isn’t like that. It’s just a collection of little things that happen. And it wears you down, over time.”
He heads into the bedroom and towards the terrarium, bringing Wadi with him. Tam’s not sure if he should follow. Before he can, though, Altair comes back empty-handed, his expression deadly serious.
“I was wondering,” he says, slowly, “if you’d like me to transfer the lease to you.”
Confused, Tam just stares at him. “Why would you do that?”
Altair shrugs. “Well, the rent is relatively low and it’s two blocks away from Lee’s. I know it’s small, but we’ve been doing fine with the two of us living here, and I don’t think you’re going to find a better deal downtown.”
“No, I mean why–” But before he can finish that sentence, he knows exactly why. “Wait. Are you… leaving?”
“Um, yeah.” Altair says nothing for a second, then sighs, sort of wistfully. “I need to go home, I think.”
“To the cemetery?”
“Those corpses won’t eat themselves.” Altair smiles for a moment, but abruptly the smile is gone again. “No, sorry, that’s not funny. But this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.”
“Is… is something wrong?”
“It’s, um, not good for my self-esteem. I was doing okay…” He hesitates, briefly, before continuing in a rush. “…Before you came. But it’s just not working anymore.”
Tam is struck by a sudden, horrible idea. “Is it my fault? Because I’m always…?”
“No,” says Altair, before he can finish, “no, it’s not that. Not exactly. It’s… um, complicated.”
“Well, can I come with you?”
He blurts it out without really thinking. As he finishes saying it, though, he realizes that he really means it – that he is willing to leave the human world and live in the darkness underneath a cemetery if the alternative is leaving Altair.
Altair looks at him for a long time, as if trying to judge from his face whether the question is meant seriously. Finally he seems to understand, but he shakes his head. “I don’t think you could live like we do,” he says, slowly, “and I don’t want you to kill yourself trying. Besides…”
“What? Besides what?”
“It’s, um, you don’t… we, um…” Frustrated, he looks down at his shoes. “What I mean is, it’s been so long since I felt like anyone could… love me back.”
“Altair, I love you.”
His smile is sad and knowing. “I’m sure you do. But I’m talking about, um, physically. I mean, really,” and he spreads his arms, as if to encompass all of himself, “would you go home with this?”
Tam hates the way it’s meant to be a rhetorical question. He hates the way it turns out that the understanding he thought was building between them, slowly but surely, never made its way from his heart to Altair’s.
“Yeah,” he says, “Absolutely.”
For a second, it’s as though Altair doesn’t understand the words. “No,” he starts, “I mean… I just… really? You’re serious?” He looks so vulnerable, as if any second now he’s going to find out this is a joke, or a dream. “Me…?”
Tam nods. He crosses the space between them to cup Altair’s white, bony face in his hand. “I love you and I love your body. I love the way you look. If you’re ugly, then I love your ugliness.”
Altair seems like he still can’t believe it, so Tam leans down and does something he must have done a million times before today.
This is different. Kissing Altair isn’t like kissing a human, or anyone else he’s kissed before. His mouth is too wide, his teeth a little sharper. He tastes like nighttime and iron. Tam deepens the kiss and is rewarded when Altair starts to kiss back, his tongue probing tentatively against Tam’s.
When he pulls away, Altair looks stunned. He puts his hand to his mouth and breaks into a dazed smile. “Wow,” he says, slowly. “I… you… oh.”
“So what do you think?” asks Tam. “Am I serious?”
Altair flushes. “Um, yeah,” he says, gradually lifting his eyes to meet Tam’s. “Sorry. For not believing you the first time.”
“That’s okay. …Do you want to keep going?”
“Yes, please.” It comes out in a squeak.
“Cool.” Tam reaches into the pocket of last night’s jeans to make sure he has a condom, but when he pulls it out, Altair looks confused.
“I… thought incubi didn’t, um, carry STIs.”
“Oh.” He shakes his head. “No, we don’t. I just thought… I mean, would you be more comfortable if we used protection? Just because I’ve…”
“No,” says Altair quietly. “It’s okay. I trust you, Tam.”
“All right, then,” he says, and puts the condom away again. There’s a lump in his throat, and his voice sounds hoarse. He wills himself to calm down. “Um, is there anything about ghoul sexuality I should know?”
“You do know that we come acid, right?”
Tam freezes. “Really?”
“No!” Altair’s expression turns horrified. “That was a joke. Because I’m nervous. But I want to do, um, stuff, I’m just… I’m really nervous, okay?”
“It’s okay. I’m actually feeling kind of nervous too.” It’s been a long time since he’s had sex with anyone he’s loved. He’s happy, but it’s a tense, fragile happiness, like something could go wrong at any moment. “We’ll just take it one step at a time, okay? Do you want to go to the bedroom?”
Altair takes a deep, shaky breath. Then he nods. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
Tam takes him by the hand and they go into the bedroom together. There’s a bottle of hand lotion in the drawer of the bedside table, which he takes out for later use. For a second he wonders if they should move the terrarium out of the bedroom, but the next second he realizes he’s overthinking things.
“So,” he says, feeling like he should probably take charge for now, “I’d really love to see you naked. Are you cool with that?”
Laughing nervously, Altair nods. “I… yeah, I can do that,” he says, and pulls his t-shirt over his head.
His body is white, with a flush of lavender along his sternum. Unlike the area that is usually exposed during the day, the skin here is mostly clear of cracks and sores. Tam can see his whole ribcage just underneath it. Pulling them both down to sit the bed, he runs his hands down the length of Altair’s chest, then up to his nipples. When he brings his head forward and takes one gently in his mouth, Altair shivers and laughs again.
“I-if you do that, I can’t take my clothes off…”
Somewhat reluctantly, Tam backs away. “Fair enough,” he says. “Take off your pants and lie down.” He means it as a suggestion, but it comes out more as a command.
Altair doesn’t seem to mind. “Okay,” he answers, in a small, breathy voice, and slips his jeans and briefs off his skinny hips to lie in a heap on the bedroom floor. His dick is short and thick, almost plump, a sharp contrast to the rest of his body. It’s already hard and leaking clear fluid at the tip. He lays back with his head on the pillow. “…Like this?”
“Yeah, I do,” says Tam, purposely misinterpreting his words. He smiles when his response makes Altair’s whole body twitch. “You’re amazing, Alt. Seriously, I love you.”
Altair smiles. “I… I love you too.” His face is bright purple, but he looks straight into Tam’s eyes when he says it. “I don’t remember if I told you already. But I do.”
Tam grabs the hand lotion from the table and squeezes some into his palm. Then, kissing Altair again, he moves his hand down to cup his erection. When he begins to stroke, Altair makes a little choked noise in the back of his throat. His hands fly up to cover his mouth.
“It’s okay,” says Tam, and keeps going, moving his fist as gently and slowly as he can. “Just relax and enjoy it.”
Watching Altair as he jerks him off is amazing. Tam can hardly believe the way he responds: how his breath comes in little ragged hisses, how he can’t keep himself from shivering and bucking his hips up into Tam’s touch. Tam feels like he can almost see his heart pounding inside his ribcage.
His own cock is so hard it’s almost uncomfortable, but right now he doesn’t even care. He’s so happy to be here, now, touching someone for no reason but love and desire. He wants to make the most of it – to make Altair understand how he feels for him.
Of course, he also wants to give him the best orgasm of his life. He stops stroking for a moment to rub his thumb lazily around the head of Altair’s cock. “Is that good?”
When Tam’s thumb brushes his slit, Altair’s whole body jerks as if he’s been shocked, and he sits up in the bed.
“Tam,” he whispers, hoarsely, his eyes wild, “I can’t, I…”
Tam stops immediately, terrified that there is something different about ghoul sexuality after all, that he’s made some kind of mistake. “Alt, are you okay? Did I hurt you?”
“Y-yeah.” Altair looks utterly humiliated. “I mean no, you didn’t hurt me! It’s just…” He gestures vaguely to his cock, now only half-hard. “Um, it’s… kind of… too good, that’s all. It’s, um, it’s embarrassing…”
“No, it’s not,” replies Tam, in what he hopes is a soothing voice. “You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. I mean, you’re enjoying it, right? That’s awesome. I want to make you feel good, and when you react like that, I know I’m doing the right thing.” He can’t help but grin. “Besides, it’s really sexy.”
Altair’s hands fly up to cover his face. “Don’t say that,” he squeaks, falling back onto the bed with a soft thump.
“I mean it.” Taking Altair in his hand again, Tam continues where he left off, and almost immediately his cock back to full hardness. “It’s so sexy I can hardly stand it. You’re really sexy, Alt. You have no idea how hot you look right now, how much I want you….” As he speaks, he starts to stroke faster, and Altair responds with a half-whimper. “Do you want to come now?”
The question itself is what does it. Altair cries out helplessly, his body spasming as come splashes onto his stomach and all over Tam’s hand. His own dick throbs at the sight. He licks Altair’s semen off his hand: it tastes a little sour, but not really unpleasant.
He waits a second before saying anything. “…So, how was that?”
“I… oh.” As he comes back to himself, Altair sits up and turns to look at Tam. “Oh my gosh. That was… I mean… Can I, um, do you now?” When Tam raises an eyebrow, he makes a face. “…You know what I mean.”
“I don’t know,” says Tam, pretending to think about it. “That was pretty amazing. I kind of just want to keep making you come.”
Altair laughs, weakly. “I, I don’t think I could handle that….”
“I’m kidding.” But only partly. He does feel like he could spend hours just like this, exploring Altair’s body, discovering what makes him scream. Of course, there’ll be plenty of time for that later. He pulls his pants off and rolls over, so that he’s lying on his back, exposed. “Go for it.”
As Altair reaches for the bottle of hand lotion, his eyes scan Tam’s body. “Oh,” he says, kind of dazedly.
“No!” His face flushes. “I’m just… I’ve never…” Altair’s hands ghost the length of his body, lingering on his nipples and the muscles of his abdomen. His hands are warmer than Tam thought they might be. Hesitantly he makes a fist around Tam’s shaft, like he might be asked to stop at any moment. “Is this okay?”
“Yeah, it’s great,” says Tam reassuringly. At least he hopes it’s reassuring – just being touched by Altair has reminded him how badly he needs to come. “I think you’re worrying too much about this. Just do what feels good for you.”
“Sorry.” Altair’s fist grips him just a fraction tighter. “I mean… I just, I’m not sure… like this?”
Tam moans to show his appreciation. “Mm, yeah, that’s perfect.”
Gaining confidence, Altair starts jerking him off with firm, even strokes. Tam is overwhelmed by how good it feels. Sex hasn’t felt like this in a long time, and now it’s almost too much. He doesn’t even know where to look: at Altair’s thin, pale hand fisting his cock, or at his face, flushed and awestruck like he can’t really believe this is happening.
“Like this?” Altair asks again.
This time, he can barely answer. “Yeah,” he groans, pumping into Altair’s fist, “Yeah, I do… feels amazing…”
“I’m so glad,” replies Altair quietly, almost hesitantly. “I… I’m really… I love you, Tam.”
“I love you too…”
Way too soon, he feels his body tensing and knows he’s going to come. He tries to hold it off for a while longer, but finds that he can’t do it. Altair’s hand on his cock is the only thing he can think about. He feels vulnerable, and awkward, and incredibly, unbelievably happy.
“I’m… um…” he manages, before he groans and spills into Altair’s hand.
Altair watches him come with a kind of delighted pride. “Wow,” he says, yet again.
“Yeah,” replies Tam, catching his breath and sitting up to wrap his arms around him. “Wow.”
Afterwards, they lie in bed curled up around each other like they’re the only two people in the world. Tam feels totally at peace. He’s found what was missing.
It doesn’t take long, though, for a hint of doubt to creep into his satisfied mind. If there comes a time when he needs energy and Altair isn’t there, he’s not sure what he’ll do. Just the idea of sex with someone else sets him on edge, but he can’t make Altair watch him starve himself. It’s depressing to realize he’s probably going to spend his whole life like this, caught between what he wants and what he has to do to survive.
“Are you okay?” He opens his eyes and realizes that Altair is watching him, uneasily. “Is…”
Tam nods. “I’m great,” he replies, leaning over to kiss the corner of Altair’s mouth. “I’m just… thinking about stuff, that’s all.” He sighs. “This isn’t going to be easy.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Do you still want to…?”
Altair’s smile is blissful.