by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
[AUTHOR’S WARNING: This story may be disturbing to… humans.]
You had to be so careful about blood these days.
Other things too, of course. Spit and spunk, mostly, and some people said not even spit, but he could never be sure whether to believe that. Spit could pass on a cold, spread the flu, that seemed good enough to him. It was foul stuff anyway, laden with disease. Mouths. The human mouth was even filthier than a dog’s, in terms of germs; he’d read that somewhere. So why not spit, while you were at it? Why take chances, when you were under siege?
Of course, not everyone saw it that way. He could look out his opens-just-a-crack-onto-a-brick-wall window and down onto a forgettable slice of back-alley Bowery any night he wanted, and see people taking all the chances they wanted to, or at least thought he could. Couples entwining in silhouette, out in the dark, in every direction he looked. Sometimes he watched for hours, peering under the crack, holding his breath against the filthy New York air. Sometimes the silhouettes turned out just to have been shadows after all.
But it didn’t matter, did it? He knew it was out there. The clubs and theaters and late-night park paths, Fire Island and Battery Park. Ghosts of the seventies, still haunting the streets, draped in flimsy condoms instead of Scooby Doo sheets but still around and walking. Men were still out there, swimming in all those fluids they all knew they had to be careful of: maybe taking pleasure from rioting in them all the same, breaking what they thought were taboos and he knew, he could always have told them, were like guard-rails on the highway, put there to save lives. Rolling around in disease and death. Disgusting. Stupid. Tiresome.
Some people would give anything just for somebody to love. Somebody to talk to. Some people had lines of six deadbolts on the apartment door between them and the world, snowdrifts of mail through the slot because they were afraid to pick up the advertising circulars and coupons and delivery menus, could only once a month bring themselves to put on rubber dishwashing gloves up to their elbows and root through for the bills and the catalogs and the monthly checks. Some people only heard other human voices very rarely through the walls, and sometimes panicked and had to close up in the bathroom and curl up into a knot in the spotless tub when that happened — especially when the voices were saying some peculiar things and they couldn’t be sure they were actually real — but still dreamed of just hearing someone say their name, with love on the tip of their tongue. Some people, if given the chance, would show a proper appreciation for what others treated like a toilet.
And after a while, a person started to ask himself… why not me?
He had a laundry service, which collected his wash every week and did an acceptable job, although they seemed impervious to his frequent critiques and suggestions and he was thinking of switching. Some of the downstairs neighbors had a teenaged daughter, who bought him groceries every two weeks for a twenty-dollar bill added to the envelope of cash, passed through the gap that was left with the chain on the door. He liked her, even so, as much as he liked anyone: she had clean hands and called him Mister, and always gave him back all of the change. The expense of all this was nothing to worry about, either; his disability insurance from the lab might not be much but the patent royalties still paid off handsomely. For everything he couldn’t ask the girl downstairs to get, there were catalogs, endless catalogs, which he went over at his desk in the afternoons, highlighting necessary items according to his color-coding system. Sometimes it took a long time to get through because he had to keep double-checking the order of his highlighters and adjusting to make sure they were lined up evenly on the desk, and that tended to end either in a loss of focus or a panic attack although really, the two more or less amounted to the same, didn’t they.
One of the items he ordered was a bulk supply of surgical masks, which he carefully sterilized. Another was latex gloves, with which he observed scrub procedure after putting them on (sometimes three or four times if the truth be told). After putting on each, and a hooded sweatshirt that covered his hair (hair was filthy and the air in New York was filthy and the combination of the two was more than bore thinking about), checking the light switches ten times and the way he’d tied his shoes three times and the burners in the kitchen eight times, and putting a small but heavy gardening hatchet in the back waistband of his pants because this city was dangerous as well as filthy, he could actually go out, if he absolutely, positively had to. It was a lot of work, to be sure, but sometimes you had to put in the work. Sometimes it was worth it, when you had a goal in mind.
There was a bar at the end of the block, with cigarette smoke pouring out of its front at all hours of the day, and thumping music that sometimes kept him awake at night even from this distance. He hated bars. Horrible places. People putting their mouths on things. Public bathrooms so awful they made his skin crawl just at the thought of them. So many bodies so close together. But then, that was the idea, wasn’t it?
Sometimes you just needed to be where people were. In spite of the risks.
He took a seat at the very far corner of the bar, as far from anybody else as he could manage. Ignored the sidelong looks at the mask and the gloves, although his hands began to tremble, minutely. Ordered a beer that would come in a bottle, with no glass, and then cleaned the body and neck of the bottle with a disinfectant wipe, all the same. He had endless boxes of disinfectant wipes at home, hundreds of them, towered in alien cities of stacks in his unused second bedroom. The bartender gave him an ugly look, a couple men stared, but he controlled his hands and the stares passed by, in time. There was always something else to stare at.
He’d gotten only halfway through the beer — it was slow going, having to lift the mask and rewipe the bottle every time he took a sip — before a pair of hands on the bar entered his field of vision, next to him. Long, slender hands, graceful and narrow-fingered; the skin a light brown that was darker in the creases of the knuckles. He watched them, fascinated, for a long moment before looking up. He often found parts of people, hands or eyes or legs or lips, easier to deal with than the wholes.
“Hi,” said the man attached to the hands, who turned out to be thin and not much older than college-aged, with spilling corkscrews of hair and a fuzz of goatee and dark, liquid eyes. Smiling, he was surprised to note; smiling at him, looking at him, which was even more of a surprise. It had been full years since that had last happened on one of these arduous, harrowing trips. “…I’d ask if I could buy you a drink, but it doesn’t look like you’re done with that one.”
He glanced down. Looked back up again, nonplussed, into the young man’s eyes. It took some effort to be able to, to peel his eyes away from those hands. They were beautiful; the most beautiful hands he thought he’d ever seen.
“I don’t drink very fast,” he said. His voice embarrassed him; it sounded rusty and dry, unused, even through the mask. It was unused. The last time he’d spoken to anyone had been… last Thursday? Maybe. The man with the hands only smiled more broadly, though: showing smooth, white teeth. He flinched, slightly. Mouths were laden with disease.
“Well, that’s good, right? That’s good for you.” He laughed a little, mostly to himself, self-consciously. His eyes crinkled when he laughed. He was very pretty. “Can I join you anyway?”
His hand so tight around the beer bottle he was lucky not to break it; lucky not to be left holding a foam-spilling pile of broken brown shards, slicing at his fingers and mixing blood with beer. Just luck; he wasn’t being careful, and you had to be so careful these days. You couldn’t trust anybody, or anything. You couldn’t get your hopes (or blood) up.
“All right,” he said.
His apartment was dark when he let the man with the hands in, which was good; he’d been so sure that he’d forgotten to turn off the lights after all, but he hadn’t, he hadn’t. The man with the hands smelled like coffee, spices, sex. The smell turned his stomach even while it excited him. His cock was hard and heavy in his jeans, his head feeling like smoke.
“I want to fuck you,” the man with the hands was saying, purring, in his ear, making him cringe, breath and spit and the slimy alien organs that were tongues, “wanna bend you over and stick it in that tight little ass — ” He fumbled the door shut, doing up all of the deadbolts that he could reach with the man’s hands on him, roaming him, like animals from the bottom of the ocean, beautiful and strange. He pictured the man’s cock: heavy, red, dripping, oozing. A gun loaded with fluids, a balloon filled up with blood and semen and a thousand other poison things he couldn’t even know. No one as pretty as this man could make a habit of going out and picking up strangers in bars and not be sick, not in this day and age, could not be a ticking time-bomb of disease. His breath came in puffs like the uphill heaving of a locomotive. His vision was beginning to pulse, black flowers in front of his eyes.
The hands, the beautiful hands, groping over the front of his jeans. Grabbing him, rubbing him, making him whimper like a rusty gate with his back pressed up against his door. They were standing in the drift of the mail; he hadn’t been able to bring himself to throw it away this week.
“Yeah, you’re ready,” the man breathed, making him swallow and try to turtle wincingly back into himself, away. A thick laugh, mostly breath. The man’s breath smelled: of alcohol and darker, worse things. “Weird little thing, I like it kinky too. You like rubber? I always liked rubber.”
“I — ” His voice sounded screamy, hysterical. He couldn’t imagine how the man couldn’t hear it: how he could keep laughing, keep just mauling his cock like he’d eventually pull it all the way off.
“Huh, this is kinda in the way though.” Laughing, laughing. Spit. Teeth. Spunk. Tongue. One of those hands those pretty naked hands reaching up toward his face toward the mask — “Don’t you wanna use your mouth, baby? Don’t you maybe wanna get down on your knees tonight?”
“Don’t — ” His voice was so thin, almost squealing. Head thrashing to the side. Nowhere to go — wood in the way. The hand was all he could seem to see, rising into his vision: his eyes fixed on it, phobically, an arachnophobe’s frozen stare at a fat lazy spider tap-tapping across a windowsill. A huge pretty pale-brown tarantula, coming close and closer to sink poison into his veins — “Don’t — ”
“It’s okay. It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.” The man’s voice was soft, crooning, grotesque. A parody of love, but just the same as all of them down underneath, the same as all the shadows out in the dark. “You’re so sweet, look at you, I wanna see your face. Just wanna look at your face — ”
“Don’t — ”
“It’s okay, I’m just gonna — ”
“Don’t don’t don’t I said don’t —” and his voice was driving up to a drilling scream, and his vision had gone almost entirely dark, and somehow he didn’t know how but the hatchet had come out of the back of his waistband and into his hands and he was swinging, screaming, striking upward, in a wild desperate terror-strengthed silver arc —
The hatchet was very sharp. Everything he owned was very well maintained for its intended purpose. It cut both the man’s reaching hands wide open at the wrist on the first stroke. Blood gouted: in fountaining arcs that were almost pretty. Almost as pretty as the hands. The man with the hands was screaming, and on the second stroke, flashing back down again the same second in the blind red buzz of his panic, the hatchet cut the rest of the way through the bones and severed both hands from their wrists. They fell from the ends of the man’s arms, and he was not the man with the hands anymore. Now he was the man without the hands, and they hit the floor with wet meaty plops, still pouring blood from their empty wrists, still twitching as though they still had a man.
And the man was shrieking, lunatic, staggering back and staring; his eyes were huge white circles, his mouth a red noisy hole. “My hands,” he was shrieking, “jesus christ, my hands, my fucking hands, you fucking, you, my hands, you, you,” and he was screaming too and he was covered in blood, filthy fucking blood, and the panic tightened and he raised the hatchet again, closing the distance the man without the hands had opened, bringing it up and bringing it down again and bringing out more blood, because sometimes the only way to fix something was to finish it.
And things had to be done right.
Later, it was quiet.
He sat in the middle of the floor, in the middle of his apartment’s narrow living room, trying to move. Trying to breathe. His throat kept working, but would only produce the kind of thin, plasticky whistle it made when you exhaled down the neck of a bottle. His eyes felt so huge in his head that they would fall out, tumble across the floor in prankish skips, but they seemed sightless. His hands and feet felt like plaster, his limbs stone.
He was on his knees in a lake of blood. Blood was everywhere. Blood was on him. Blood was on his face. Blood was on his clothes. Blood was on his hands and wrists. Blood was on his wristwatch. Blood was on his jeans. Blood was on the hatchet, which was still held loosely in his hand, limp at his side against the floor. Blood was on the hands, which now lay still and innocent in the lake next to him, one fallen to either side, grim red meat showing at their wrists with cores of shocking-white bone like cufflinks. Blood was on the handless corpse sprawling in front of him facedown with its unseeing eyes open into the lake, welling from the dozens of ragged lines the hatchet had opened through the man’s shirt and into his flesh. Blood was still running, in a thin desultory stream, out of the man’s scream-open mouth. Blood. Blood blood blood blood blood blood blood —
He slapped himself, suddenly and briskly and hard, across the face. He couldn’t do that right now. He needed to concentrate.
One thing at a time.
1. Get up.
2. Take off all of your clothes, stepping out of the blood as you do, so the last thing is your shoes and socks and you can step clear and not be in the blood. Most of the blood: off you. This is better. You are okay.
3. Still blood on your face. Go into the bathroom.
6. Wash your hands and face twenty-two times.
8. Rinse your mouth.
9. Brush your teeth.
10. Wash your face again.
12. Repeat 8-11, then 8-10 again.
13. Remember you got blood on your lips. Make yourself vomit.
14. Stop vomiting. You are out of vomit.
15. Shower for 1-2 hours. Sob uncontrollably. Scream. Bite your wrist to stop screaming. Keep biting your wrist for a while. Stop biting your wrist. Sob. Try to vomit, but fail. Rinse. Repeat.
16. Exit shower. Dry off.
17. Remove shower curtain from rail. Take shower curtain back out to living room, still naked, damp, and feeling like you can’t blink or stop baring your teeth. Stop to curl into a ball and lock your hands behind your neck and whistle screamy breaths through your teeth, several times. Eventually, control panic, get back up again.
18. Wrap corpse into shower curtain. Protected from corpse and blood by sheet of plastic. What if shower curtain has microscopic holes? Don’t think about that. Don’t think.
19. Put corpse in bathtub.
20-29. Clean up blood.
30. Go back into bathroom. Stare at corpse, pulling hair without realizing it. Possibly cry and/or scream without realizing it.
31. Remember that you have eighteen 2.5 liter bottles of concentrated sulfuric acid in your second bedroom.
That left the skeleton behind, of course, but he didn’t mind. He liked bones, actually. Bones were clean. He had to run the shower for a very long time, though.
He dragged the bones into the living room, then stared around. Everything felt dreamy now, disconnected. Floating. Finally he stuffed them into the hall closet, carefully, folding the unfinished arm bones one at a time back behind his winter coats. He realized the unintentional wit of this choice only halfway through, got the giggles and couldn’t get rid of them.
Putting on his rubber gloves and rebagging all of the trash and then rebagging all of that trash, until there was no evidence left. Putting on a coat over his rail-skinny nudity to go out and dump it all in the dumpster in the alleyway. Laughing to himself, the whole time, under his breath.
Once he got going, sometimes he couldn’t stop.
The only problem, finally, was that it seemed like a shame to waste the hands.
They were so pretty. So smooth and pleasant and friendly. Innocent of all their owner’s crimes and foulness. He kept them out of the bathtub, setting them carefully with gloved hands on a towel on the tank of the toilet instead. Came back and looked at them, when he was done with everything else, leaning drowsily on the bathroom sink and gnawing absently at his already chewed-open lip.
He didn’t want to use acid on them. Didn’t want to bury them in the dumpster in the back alley under his window, under bags of rotting reeking food and God knew what else. There were so few beautiful things in the world.
But he couldn’t just leave them, either: bloody, dead, diseased things that they were. It might not be their fault, but they couldn’t get away from it, either. He couldn’t just have them in his home, putrefying, becoming less beautiful and more terrifying with every passing day. He couldn’t stand decay, not even the thought of it. He didn’t even keep food long enough for it to go bad.
…On the other hand, though, he did have that huge freezer for his tissue samples, back in the third bedroom. And some formaldehyde in the side of the hall closet where he didn’t keep his coats. Not to mention some other things.
…And that was when he began to have the first seeds of the most wonderful idea.
No, some people just couldn’t find someone to love, he began to think, as he packed the hands away, as he also threw away the towel, as he washed his own hands six and then seven and then eight and then uncountable times, as he finally lay in bed drifting toward sleep well after sunrise. It wasn’t fair, but it was the truth of things: sometimes it just wasn’t in the cards. People were too ugly, deep down, too poisoned and poisonous. They couldn’t be counted on, couldn’t be trusted; couldn’t be expected to see through the weirdnesses and washings and masks up top, to the beauty underneath. Some people had enough handicaps just starting out, and would never get lucky enough to find the one person who could love them for who and what they were.
But if you couldn’t find something, that didn’t have to be the end of it, necessarily. Not if you had the right tools, and the right knowledge. And if you believed deeply enough, down in the core of your heart.
If you couldn’t find a person to love… well, you’d just have to make one.
“Mister, uh… are you okay?” the girl from downstairs said through the crack of the door, two days later, when he passed her the envelope and the grocery list. Through the gap he could see only a sliver of her dark face, a few cornrows of her hair, one round circle of white around a round circle of black that was her eye. “We thought we heard somebody screaming upstairs, the other night.”
The concern was a thin coat of paint on curiosity, the round eye peering as closely as it could. It made his palms sweat inside their gloves, and he had to remind himself, again and again, that curiosity only meant nothing was known. He forced a thin, pasted grin onto his lips, one that would show her just a crack of teeth through the door.
“Oh, I’m fine,” he said. His voice sounded better than it had a few days ago, he thought. It had gotten some exercise. “I was just. Watching. A movie. I must have turned up the volume too loud.” He stretched the grin harder; his hands were shaking now, behind the door. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you.”
“That’s okay. We were just worried.” Envelope in hand, she hovered a moment all the same, and smiled, tentatively. “I like horror movies too.”
He laughed. It sounded shrill. “Thank you,” he said, voice airy and thin, through lips split so wide it felt like his head would be carved in two. “Thank you.”
When she had gone, he fell back against the inside of the closed door, breathing in long screamy gulps, finally bending down between his knees like he had run a race. It took him long minutes to compose himself; and then he was peering at the crack of the window, squinting and craning out so that he could see the street, until he could see her walking away along it. Heading off to the store. Only then could he do what needed to be done to leave.
The blood, he’d already demonstrated, was the biggest problem. It had taken him a few hours’ brainstorming to come up with a viable solution, but now that he had, the raw materials would be easy enough to get. This city might be filthy and dangerous, but once his idea had started to come together, even that fact had seemed like something that could work to his advantage. It was amazing how much a little clarity of focus could lift the clouds and make everything look bright.
The shop was only three blocks away: a dingy, narrow little storefront packed with whips and handcuffs, hoods and ball-gags, clustered bottles of lubricant under the counter-glass like some prurient apothecary, massive dildos looming alarmingly out of unsanitary-looking shelves. While it wasn’t somewhere he’d ever have dreamed of going only a week ago, desperate times required desperate measures. He wore an extra layer of gloves just in case, and the pierced, undoubtedly disease-raddled clerk (who, although he took a long covert look, had no part that was remarkable or beautiful to him at all) didn’t even comment on them — just gave him one brief, knowing glance after his eyes had flicked downward. That was an unfortunate side effect of latex; in a place like this, sometimes people took one look at it and thought they understood something about you. But what was the point trying to explain — telling people like this that you weren’t like them?
“Oh yeah, we got some ones like that,” the clerk said anyway, after he explained what he wanted — watching the mask a little more curiously, while he was talking, but seeming in the end to know better than to ask. “Could even do some custom work, if you need some extra stuff or some fitting.” The clerk’s eyes raked down the front of his body, giving him an automatic, superstitious skin-crawling feeling. Too much like the way the man with the hands had looked at him. “Jeez, you’re pretty skinny too, huh? Girl, don’t you eat?”
He made himself smile; the clerk wouldn’t be able to see it, behind the mask, but would see the way it changed his face shape, the way it pulled at his eyes. He’d always hated that — the talking to and about each other like women, the what’s her problems and the Marys; he found it inappropriate and demeaning, both to them and to women — but he needed this too much to be rude. “Yes, I do,” he said, with a seriousness that somehow made the clerk smile. Sometimes he couldn’t bring himself to eat anything for days, actually, but he saw no reason to say that, either. “But that won’t be necessary.”
He was already no stranger, after all, to making alterations.
Apart from Hands, which had really been an accident, Torso was the hardest. It was the first time out with full intent; he hadn’t fully smoothed out all the rough patches yet, didn’t quite have his strategy concrete. He was edgy, all nerves, his adrenaline up. It was probably a wonder, he would realize later, that he hadn’t made a botch of it.
It took him more than a week to find someone, while the hands waited patiently in his freezer, the essence of an idea that became more urgent with every passing moment. More than a week of ghosting around the edges of seedy bars and salacious bookstores and purgatorial midnight movie theaters, watching the men who came and went and stood and sat inside. Cataloging their features, examining their attributes. Looking for someone with a part that stood out. He really wasn’t even sure where he was going from Hands: a face or head seemed like something much too tricky to take on so soon, and while feet had always been intriguing to him in a repulsive sort of way, getting hands and feet first seemed inexplicably ridiculous. In the end he had just decided to see what came to him, and worry about the rest later.
What came, finally, was a tattered black mesh shirt scooped low to display a set of gorgeous, sculpted collarbones, so lovely they seemed to belong on an ancient Greek statue more than on a fleshly, sickly human being; a set of trim but strong shoulders hugged by the mesh’s narrow cut, and alluring glimpses through its tiny punctures at a compactly muscular chest and abdomen. Slim and wiry arms, muscular but shapely, not bulky, the rips in the shirt showing flashes of creamy-smooth golden skin. And just above the waistband of the black jeans the shirt hung down over, tantalizing shadows of lines of muscle that led down into inner hips, and of a neat, perfect trail of dark hair.
All this belonged to a twenty-something man with dark almond-shaped eyes, truly ridiculous hair and eye makeup, and an alarming tuberculotic pallor, but none of that bothered him very much. It was cold cuts he was after now, not the whole hog; that thought made him smile, quickly, in spite of his suddenly hammering pulse.
It was amazing how much easier that made everything.
He took several deep, calming breaths, filtered safely through his mask, and then got up from the movie theater seat he’d been perching only on the gingerish end of, into the aisle. Crept up to the row where the man with the beautiful chest had sat down, and took another breath-gathering moment before sliding into it, bumping his way up the folded-up seats until he was close, closer, right beside. The man never even looked away from the blurry strangers faking moans and fumbling with organs on the screen, not as he slid into the neighboring seat, not as he sat and worked up his courage again, not as he at last reached over. Stiffened, though, slightly, when the black jeans’ zipper was undone and he felt the first touch of rubber. Not what he’d been expecting, probably.
They sat, both facing forward, watching the screen, as he stroked the man’s — the torso’s — cock; methodically, root to tip, attending to every detail. Some habits were never hard to fall back into. Every now and then he would risk glances, out of the corner of his eye, at those collarbones twitching as Torso swallowed, the lines of those finely-cut abdominal muscles shifting under the mesh shirt, and his hand would speed up slightly. But only sometimes. Mostly he just watched the pornography onscreen with absent, out-of-focus eyes, the lines and angles of intertwining bodies and plunging protrusions and puckering orifices all going soft and abstract until they could have been anything at all, could have been modern art or desert landscapes. The soundtrack was loud, drowning in their ears, covering over the sound of Torso’s breathing becoming ragged. They might as well have been miles apart, in separate countries. He sometimes wondered if it was possible, even while you were right next to someone else, to die of loneliness.
The feeling of come on the rubber glove was curious: a warmth that quickly became a coolness, slick but still at a distance. He twitched his fingers together and made a mental note to clean the glove with a disinfectant wipe, when he could without attracting Torso’s attention.
“Would you like to come back to my place?” he murmured near Torso’s ear, when Torso had caught his breath a bit and fastened himself back up. That seemed to take Torso by surprise; he glanced over, cutting his eyes to the side, and then they widened a little at the sight of the mask. But not in a bad way, he thought, necessarily. He hoped.
“If you’ve got a place to take people back to, what are you doing here?” Torso muttered back, half-grinning in a sharp, cynical way. The question startled him, left him without an answer for what must have been awkwardly long. Torso said nothing either, the whole time, just looking at the screen again. He found himself with his breath caught in his throat, his heart a murderous engine in his ears. His withdrawn hands flexing, curling, helplessly, inside their gloves.
Until finally, like a choir of angels overhead, Torso let out a sighing breath and said: “Eh, whatever. Sure.”
Torso seemed uncomfortable on the walk back, uncomfortable standing inside his apartment while he did up the locks again, although he was barely able to notice. He was too wound up inside his own private hell, of jangling nerves and trembling skin and blood that seemed to press his head out like a balloon. His pulse was up to a hummingbird speed, felt like it must be more one constant sound than a series of beats.
“Make yourself at home,” he said: aware that he sounded artificial, like he was speaking with a voice that was not his own. Torso didn’t really move, but that was fine. That was fine. Everything would be fine. “I just. Want to get changed.”
Torso’s eyes flickered over the mask, then over the gloves. He seemed to be on the verge of saying something, and then to let it go; even to relax, just slightly. “Cool,” he muttered, his hands in the pockets of his jeans. In the brighter light of the living room his chest was more beautiful than ever, his appearance of illness even stronger.
“I’ll be right back.”
He left. Down the short stub of the hallway, into shadow. Torso still standing behind him, waiting. He went into his bedroom, and shut the door.
Was in there for some fifteen minutes.
Opened the door. Came back out, slowly, into the hall.
He could see, dim and fuzzy, through the mesh over the slit in the hood, Torso turning. Torso looking. Torso’s eyes widening into a slow-growing uncomprehending stare, as Torso saw what there was to see: six feet and one inch of slightly shiny, black, seamed, heavy leather, covering every inch of him, from the thin fuzz of his hair to the bottoms of his feet; fitted carefully and zipped together so that there would be no gaps, no entryways where anything could seep through. The suit jangling heavily when he stepped into the hallway, every zipper in unison: giving him a sound like Jacob Marley’s ghost, clanking his chains. Creaking when he moved, a loud thick sound, powerful and ominous, over top of the heavy thuds of the attached boots. And his head, enclosed in its full hood: zippered up the back, stitched up the front, black mesh concealing the eyes and the mouth sealed up like a corpse’s in a body-bag.
And, of course, the bone-saw in one gloved hand, and the machete in the other.
“There,” he said, “I feel much more comfortable now,” and in spite of the way the hood distorted his voice and made it sound alien and heavy and hollow, in spite of the way Torso began to claw (too late, too late) at the deadbolts as those heavy boots thudded back up the hall toward him… it was the truth.
Later, after he had finished cleaning (it took nearly five hours, in total, and actually only a minimum of that was going back and doing things over again), after he had taken off the suit again and cleaned it as best he could, after he had sterilized everything as fully as possible, he sat at the work table in the third bedroom, next to the freezer, and sewed the hands onto the stumps of Torso’s wrists. He had destroyed Torso’s hands along with the rest of him; they had been bony, gangly, and unremarkable, and with bitten-down nails and odd, awkward knuckles. Very unpleasant.
But now he could line up the beautiful hands along those much more attractive wrists, and see the whole picture they would make. Now he could sew stumps to stumps, with heavy black autopsy thread, in small stitches so neat and so precise they looked like they had been made by machine. Wearing his reading glasses (it was fine work), Joy Division LPs playing on the old turntable in the far corner, humming along sometimes and then giggling nervously to himself. Why is it something so good / just can’t function no more…
This, he thought with a dim sense of revelation, was what he had been missing, all this time by himself. A hobby.
When he laid the finished product, with tender reverence, back into the freezer, he folded its arms gently over its chest: so its lovely new hands were displayed to best advantage. Everyone, regardless of how they were born or where they happened to sleep, liked to look their best.
Houston was crowded, thronging, in the early evening: he had to cringe against the walls of the buildings, slink to the very edges of the sidewalk, with his head thrust bullishly down and his arms tucked tight into his body, just to be able to walk along it. Which made it all the more stunning when a voice — a familiar voice — said suddenly out of the press of faceless bodies: “…Jeremy?”
He whipped around — stumbling back, nearly plunging backward off the curb and into traffic. The person who’d spoken to him reached out as though to catch him at first, reflexively… and then pulled his hand back, as though remembering himself. It took a moment, panting and wild-eyed, for his eyes to focus, and for him to recognize the speaker: who stood on the sidewalk at the edge of a small crowd at the street corner, with a tentative, frowning smile. For his memory to dig back and resolve this jarring apparition.
…It was Sol. Sol, who had been (maybe still was) a night nurse at Columbia-Presbyterian, whom he’d known back in his other life, back when he was still working in the research lab, back when the plague had been at its newest and most terrifying but before his fear had grown so large it had swallowed everything whole. Sol, who had been vibrant and funny and sweetly, endearingly flamboyant: the kind of gay with no protective coloration at all, who had been beat up and called queer and faggot his whole life by every asshole who happened to pass by but who had never grown bitter for it, had instead become consumed with such sympathy and love for everyone else who had ever suffered that it seemed to shine out of him, from every pore. Sol, who had joked with him when he’d come in to pick up tissue samples, teased him gently, made him smile and dodge his eyes away; Sol who he’d sometimes nurtured the deeply private, trembling suspicion might even have been flirting with him — although even back then, that had seemed like too much to hope for. Sol was almost painfully lovely: small and slender and willowy to outside appearances, much stronger than that underneath (one bad night he had seen Sol single-handedly pin down an unruly, bewildered patient with severe dementia to his bed, and then ask him to call security with a calm that was almost ethereal), with smooth cream-in-coffee brown skin, a cleanly-shaven head that displayed the delicate, perfect curve of his skull, and a strikingly beautiful face. Deep, liquidly dark eyes, a broad finely-made nose, high handsome cheekbones, full sensuous lips the somehow obscene peachish-pink of the inside of a conch shell. He had dreamed of Sol sometimes, back then and since, in lurid guilty fantasies alone in his bed, but never thought for an instant he would ever see him again.
And now that Sol stood miraculously in front of him, beaming uncertainly, in the middle of the flowing evening crowds of the Lower East Side, all that would come to his mind was the realization — in a fog of awful, blossoming horror — that Sol had the most beautiful head he had ever seen.
“It is you,” Sol said, and laughed a little, awkward and amazed. “I couldn’t believe it, but — I just recognized the way you walk. I — oh my gosh, wow. Imagine the odds, right?”
“Yeah,” he said. His voice sounded thin to him, as though it were adrift in space. “Hi.”
“Well — hi to you too! I really can’t believe it, it’s so good to see you — ” Sol made a kind of stuttering forward motion, then caught himself back again with a sheepish smile. “No, I… guess you don’t hug. Sorry.” He couldn’t even summon an answer to that; could only stare, awkwardly. Sweat pricking out on all his hidden skin. “…Do you live around here?”
“Not. Um. Not far. Yes.” He could barely move his tongue. “I was just… going out. Ah. …Do you?”
Sol looked puzzled, then surprised, and then laughed, shaking his head. “Nah, I’m still out in Brooklyn with my aunt. I just had the night off, so I came out to help do publicity.” Gesturing with a sheaf of papers in one hand; he could read only a few unevenly-printed words, ACTION and FIGHT and maybe WALL STREET. For the first time he noticed that Sol was dressed in a kind of uniform with the small group of people he had come out from the edge of: jeans and a black t-shirt hand-printed with words that struck him as both ominous and, in his own experience, oddly true. SILENCE = DEATH. “…It’s great to see you out and about, though. Really great.” It came out sounding more heartfelt than perhaps it warranted, and he risked a glance back at Sol’s face only to find a warm, sympathetic smile there. “How’ve you been doing, if you don’t mind my asking? Better?”
In his mind he saw himself screaming and slapping himself in a lake of blood in his living room. A torso with neatly folded arms and stitched-on hands in a freezer. He made himself smile, behind the mask. It was the way it changed your eyes. “Yes,” he said. “Much better. Thank you.”
“That’s wonderful. I’m really proud of you, I mean it. I know how hard that must be. …Well, I should, right?” Another self-conscious laugh. He thought of Sol, holding down the screaming, flailing patient, the string of drool depending from one corner of the old man’s mouth and the smell of shit in the air. His smile faltered slightly. “But I’m so happy for you. You’ve got to be — ”
“Sol, you coming?” one of the others in the group called, sounding slightly annoyed. Sol glanced over, and then aimed an apologetic smile back at him, one that nonetheless lit his whole beautiful face.
“I gotta go, I’m sorry. But… it was really great to see you, Jeremy. Really great.” He paused, seeming to consider… and then just blew a kiss, grinning, absurd at this distance of only about a foot. All the same, without really thinking, he lifted his hand and caught it with grave seriousness in the palm of one rubber glove. Sol laughed, a bright colorful ribbon in this grimy city night, and a giddy, foolish smile wanted to claim his own face under the mask. “Good night, handsome. Take care of yourself.”
“You too,” he said, softly; watching as Sol turned away, stopped aiming that smile at him, rejoined all those other ordinary men that Sol could touch and talk to and understand. “You too.”
And that was the first time, since the idea had really taken root in his mind, that he found himself hesitating. The first time he really considered that he could just… not, after all. It wasn’t too late, after all, was it? He hadn’t been caught, or even suspected, as far as he knew. He could still turn back. He could still change his mind. Just bathe the beautiful torso in his freezer in acid too, get rid of the skeletons, and be done with it. Call the hospital some night and ask for the the nurses’ station in intensive care, and at least hear what he couldn’t quite bring himself to touch.
…But after no more than a few nights of these troubled, tormenting thoughts, he was able to discard them. It was impossible. Sol, however beautiful, was even more than all the rest a creature of blood and spunk and spit, of contamination and disease and death: he might not be one of those disgusting wastrels, but he had allied himself with them and committed himself to fighting for them, to trying to save their discarded lives… and moreover, he tended to them and others almost as bad for a living, handling the sick and wiping up their fluids night after night after night. There was no way he could ever do anything more than admire Sol from a distance, hear his voice on a phone line. He would never be able to overcome his instincts, the throb of terror in his chest.
And more to the point — why would Sol ever want him to? Sol was lovely, lovable, loved. Sol had no need for someone like him: saw him only as something like one of those ailing bodies he tended to, someone drooling and shitting himself in a hospital bed. Could never really understand, or want to, how things looked to him.
No. Much better to let it go. Sol was unreachable: a glittering jewel that remained embedded in that other life, of a good education and a great cutting-edge job and brilliant ideas seeming to brim and spill out of his head, the life that it already felt like somebody else entirely had led. A dim and fading flicker of light, disappearing under a door he had already closed. His project was what was here and now, real and tangible, good and beautiful and pure. He couldn’t just throw it over, for some fantasy made of smoke and mirrors.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered to it, in the dark and quiet of his third bedroom: his body lowered awkwardly to the floor so he could climb halfway into the freezer, and press himself to its chest. Wrapping the gorgeous, perfect arms that he had so carefully preserved and disinfected, one by one, around him. “Don’t worry. I’d never leave you. I’d never forget about you. I’d never let you go.”
He knew only too well how much it hurt, to be forgotten.
To distract himself from all of that — and from the new and painful fantasies of Sol it had grown in the back of his mind like tumors — he threw himself twice as hard into his work. Going out almost every night, now, caring less for being seen. Looking more closely, and with a more detached, assessing eye. More confident. Braver.
Legs came next, by a happy accident. He was hugging the line of the buildings like always as he passed down the street, and through the grimy front window of a knock-off dress shop he saw a drag queen standing up on the raised platform of the window display, fingering the sequined green minidress the mannequin wore with an expression of frustrated longing. She was extremely tall — taller even than him — and wore a bad, teased blonde wig in spite of skin so black it was nearly blue in the fluorescent lights, had an unfortunate horsey face and awkwardly heavy-boned shoulders and arms in her tank top, but the legs her short skirt revealed were the miles-long, smooth, shapely, impeccable limbs of a god or goddess, rendering all else insignificant before disappearing into neon pink platform heels. Later, in the small curtained corner crowded with brooms that the shop had for a dressing room, her lipstick mashed into the crawling skin of his neck and smell of hairspray thick and poisonous in his nose, he let his gloved fingers drift up her perfect thigh under the skirt’s hem, and thought carefully about the ragged stumps at Torso’s hips in the freezer at home. About where would be the precise place to cut.
It turned out to be the waist: Torso’s ass had on further consideration been lackluster, and Legs’s by contrast was a delicacy, toned and firm and sweetly bubble-rounded. He wondered, sweating as he sawed off and then discarded the extra from Torso, sewing at his table under the high-powered work lamp, if wearing high heels was good for that. It seemed like it might work the muscles, after all. He’d never given it much thought before.
Legs’s cock, on the other hand, turned out to be very disappointing. So much for stereotypes, he thought; and lost nearly a half hour to giggling.
Feet, perversely, took him a long time not because of a lack of familiarity with the subject, but an excess. He’d always had a mild thing about shoes — at least back before feet themselves had begun to repulse him so badly that he could no longer enjoy them. It took him several frustrating instances of spotting a particularly gorgeous, glossy pair of wing tips or of tooled cowboy boots, getting them home, getting them off, and finding hideous horned and callused and yellowish things underneath to realize that he was being far too superficial about this. Beauty was, after all, far more than skin deep; as with so many things, it wasn’t what was on the surface, but what was inside that mattered.
Which, of course, presented him with a logistical problem. He had always been lucky enough before to find his components un- or lightly-dressed, before, but this wasn’t exactly a body part that commonly went unclothed in public. Particularly not in New York. What he needed was some way to encounter and evaluate full batches at once, without their deceptive protections. This one would be tricky: not something he could accomplish with haphazard crowd-watching, but which would require a system. Due consideration of exactly the right climate in which to make his choice.
Cliché though it might have been, in the end, he didn’t think the shower room at the YMCA had ever served anyone so well.
It was in one of the bookstores that he saw the next-to-last piece: standing in the section marked with a hand-lettered SPANKING sign, perusing a fat luridly-covered book and looking bored to the depths of his soul. The man was small, skinny, rat-faced, with sunglasses perched on the dark brown hair slicked back from his forehead and a skim of dark stubble over his chin and upper lip, wearing a black velour muscle shirt with a deep v-neck that showed off no muscles to speak of and a pair of loud, magenta, sprayed-on Lycra pants. And at the front of these — nearly down one leg of these — nestled prominently before the fork of the thighs, a jewel proudly worn and with good reason… the clearly outlined dozing shape, plain in every detail, of the most massive, exquisite, breathtaking cock he had ever seen.
Staring unabashedly over the shelves, slack-jawed, the thought occurred to him: for this one, he was going to have to lay down a tarp.
After that point, though, he seemed to stall. Maddening — when his creation was so near complete that he’d had to special-order parts and rig his own homebrewed refrigeration system, to keep from folding it up in undignified fashion to fit it in the freezer — but inescapable, as well. No matter how he tried, no matter how he looked, he just couldn’t seem to find a suitable specimen for the final part. He must have seen at least ten attractive faces per night, but never a perfect face — never the face. Nothing seemed sufficient; nothing seemed right. Every potential choice seemed oddly, irritatingly incorrect.
He wondered if perhaps it was the nature of the goal. Most parts of the body — although it was rare to find a truly beautiful one — were nonetheless fairly anonymous, relatively interchangeable. But a head: that was the seat of personality, of identity. Two chests might be more or less the same, for all practical purposes, but no two heads were, by any stretch. And while he could take his assortment and turn it into a growing whole person that was uniquely new, uniquely his, a head would crown that person with a selfhood that would be entirely beyond his control. To use a stranger’s face, however beautiful… one he had never seen, never known, associated with nothing… somehow it just sat wrong, couldn’t seem to be overcome.
Regardless of the reason, at any rate, it was more than an inconvenience: it was a hazard. Even with everything he had done to preserve his work, he became increasingly, anxiously aware over the passing weeks, that time was limited. Eventually, if he didn’t finish the project, he would lose it. The raw materials would begin to decline, then degrade. He would have to start over, maybe, beginning with the hands. If he even could, by then.
Excitement had already waned; gradually what came to replace it was first dismay, and then fear, and then finally despair. He found himself thinking again of maybe discarding the whole thing, before it was too late, maybe just pulling the plug and trying to forget it had ever happened. Found himself — telling himself it was only coincidence, only curiosity, only harmless experimentation — making his nighttime wanderings much further out than usual, all the way to where he could watch from a shadowed safe distance the comings and goings of nurses and doctors through a certain rear entrance of Columbia-Presbyterian. Catching occasional, wistful glances, every other week or so, of a certain beautiful laughing face, caught for a second between the glow of the lights from inside and the closing doors.
Which was how he saw it when, one night, Sol came out of the automatic doors and, smiling, over to a handsome young man in a leather jacket who’d been loitering by the steps, embracing him and pressing a fond, familiar kiss into his cheek.
Sol stopped mid-step, just outside the doors: looking around, frowning into the shadows just outside the range of the hospital’s glow. He stepped out of them, just enough to be seen, smiling. The way it changed your eyes. He hoped Sol couldn’t get too good a look at them, though: the bags and circles under them, the red veins lancing through would be telltale. Among other things.
Recognition changed Sol’s frown to a broad, brilliant smile — if still with a bit of a puzzled crease in the brow. “Jeremy! Oh my gosh, hi again! Fancy meeting you here!” Sol came down the short steps from the door, to where he stood, his hands in the pockets of his sweatshirt to conceal their gloves and their shaking. “What brings you to your old stomping grounds, handsome? You’re not stalking me now, are you?” Sol laughed. He laughed too: quickly, but quite naturally.
“No. No. Well. Maybe… a little.” He ducked down his head, a show of modest bashfulness. “I just, um. Kept thinking about seeing you again. It was nice.” Peeking up. Smiling. The smile was twisting at his face, shearing it, soon it would split it in half to a slice of raw red cross-sectional meat of the sort he knew only too well by now. “And I felt. Ah. Bad. That we were so close… and I didn’t invent you. Invite you I mean.” A small barking laugh. Fists so tight his rubber gloves creaked. “To my place. To talk. Sometime.”
Sol blinked… and then the frown eased out of his smile, as it softened. Warmed. “Oh, sweetie, you don’t have to worry about that. I know it’s tough for you, you didn’t hurt my feelings.”
“But I want to.” All in one blurt, almost too hard. Tighter fists, somehow. Tightest. “It was good to see you. I’d like to. Again.” Wondering if his smile looked as gruesome as it felt. “…As friends.”
Sol’s smile did more than warm this time: it blossomed, coming out like the sun from behind clouds. Beautiful eyes fixed, so gently, on his face. “I’d like that too,” he said. All kindness. All sweetness. Those lips, pressed into that stranger’s unknown, filthy cheek. Wrapped around his cock, maybe. Against his ass. All the spit and spunk and disease of the world, defililng it. That was what the world did, when you bothered going out into it. He saw that now: more than ever.
“Are you free now?” he said. Lips frozen with his teeth bared. “Or, ah… is that too soon?”
Sol beamed, turning to fall in step with him instead of face him, hoisting his bag on his shoulder. Small in his decidedly borrowed leather jacket. “Lucky you,” he said; “it turns out my dance card is clear.”
He spread his smile, the mask against his teeth.
“Lucky me,” he said.
The apartment was dark, and cold. He’d turned the thermostat down as far as he could stand; the better for preservation, my dear, and anyway he liked the cold. It felt clean. Sol rubbed his hands together as he was let in first, stepping into the front part of the living room.
“This is nice,” Sol said, although there was no more to see than the shapes of things in the light from the stairwell, around his body following Sol’s through the crack of the door. “…I mean, wow. Wish I’d been smart enough to go into research.” Laughing, even as the door shut, leaving them now in only the orange glow through the curtains from the street. At night, Manhattan was always orange. “How big is this place?”
“Big enough.” He took a step closer, hand creeping to the small of his own back — and then froze for a moment when Sol turned, facing him again, only a dim glint of eyes and teeth in the darkness. Not seeming to mind it, though. His voice warm and painful in this out-of-place place. Worlds had been brought together, that were never meant to be.
“Thank you so much for bringing me here.” That kindness again: heavy, smothering. “I… well, I’m not going to say I know how hard it is for you, but I think I have some idea. And it really means a lot to me. I just want you to know.” A pause, and then that bright laughter, blinding in the dark. “Especially tonight! My aunt’s out of town, it’s just me and the cat. It would’ve been a long lonely night if you hadn’t shown up, Prince Charming.”
The handle of the hatchet (circles, everything back to the beginning again) biting at his clamped fist. Breath loud in his ears. His face wet: eyes hot and hurting, tears in slow thin lines down each cheek, under the mask down to where he could taste their salt between his lips.
“What do you know,” he said, “about being lonely?”
Flashes. Fading in and out of darkness. Riding the crest of each pulse.
Screaming, a cacophony of it, the hatchet rising, falling. Screaming names, foul names, jealous names. When it was done, he’d regret that. No need for that: not fair. Not really even true. But no way to stop it right then.
Although he couldn’t remember if Sol had seemed hurt. Or if he’d even heard. When exactly Sol had stopped being able to hear anything: when his pretty mouth had been silenced, pretty eyes had been fixed, pretty face gone slack and less pretty. All the laughing sweet playfulness taken away, drained off to some other, unknown place.
His face wet, then wetter. Tears and blood.
It hit the floor when he finally set it free, with a hard, sickening thump. Even rolled, a little, as much as it could. Its uneven shape making it turn away on a slight arc: like a coin, that had been flipped and not caught, spinning away on its rim across the floor for a while before finally falling flat.
Crying. Laughing. Dragging himself half-upright, half on one hand and knees, down the length of the apartment, bumping along the length of the tilting, distorted hallway. Crawling on his knees up to the stool at the long table beside the freezer (and now also beside the larger refrigeration unit he had assembled), the last piece cradled in both his arms with the infinite holy tenderness of a Madonna with her child. Crying too hard to stand up straight. Kissing its forehead before reaching up to set it reverently on the table, before stumbling over blind to retrieve the chemicals he’d need to prepare it.
He hadn’t even bothered to clean up the blood. Left the body lying unfinished in the hall. It didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered now.
Sewing. Heavy needle dipping in, tugging slightly as it drew back out. Stopping, frequently, to wipe his eyes, clear them so he could see.
He remembered talking to it. To them. To his lover, his creation. Long, endless strings of gabble: crooning, screaming, pleading, apologizing. Stopping at least once to lay his head down and weep into its chest. He couldn’t remember any of exactly what he’d said.
Then, when that was done, the real work began.
He sat at the table, hours later (or was it days?), staring down at it. Finished. Exhausted.
It was perfect. Beautiful. Every part attached with careful attention to detail to every other. He had applied everything that he had calculated that he would need to, in all of these long feverish fantasizing nights along the way, him and endless notebooks and a furiously hammered calculator: chemicals and electricity, heat and stimulation, drugs and changes both large and subtle. He had done everything possible. Made it perfectly, given it everything he could.
But now it only lay, with I.V.s taped into both its lovely wrists and a ventilator over its (Sol’s) beautiful sensual mouth, and did not move. Did not wake. Did not: not even a twitch, or a breath beyond the respirator’s soft, shallow work.
Of course it didn’t. Of course it couldn’t. What had he been thinking? What had possessed him? It was no person; it was just a collection of meat, stitched together and then battered with abuses. It had been people, oh, certainly, whole and living and breathing and terrifying people with just one beautiful part to recommend them, but he had erased those people from existence and taken even that away from them. And from those with more, he had taken more: aunts and cats and unknown despised lovers, all the same, laid to waste. There had been people, out in the streets, here in these rooms, but even in the depths of his loneliness he had ended up unable to bear them, and broken everything he had reached to touch. He had sought company and ended up with a fragmented corpse. He had wanted love and ended up with meat.
Bloody, deadly, poisonous meat.
He could barely move; could barely even summon the strength to haul himself up from the stool, let alone to get out into the hallway and into the first bedroom, the actual bedroom. There was an old leather armchair pushed into the back corner of this room, almost buried behind boxes of supplies and equipment and jars marked with warning labels, and it was good enough. He crawled into it, curling up there sideways, his feet tucked into the seat with the rest of him and his cheek leaned against the leather back, and closed his eyes. The soft sound of the respirator in his ears. It wasn’t even worth unplugging it, or putting the damn thing back on ice again. Let it rot where it was, if it wanted to. It meant nothing anymore.
He fell asleep with his cheek sticking to the chair, his mouth hanging open, his hand curled loosely between his shoulder and knee. Into dim dreams where the sound of the respirator became breathing lungs, the hum of the heater finally kicking on in the walls a low, moaning voice, the soft thuds of other apartments’ closing doors out in the stairwell the sound of bare feet, falling heavy on a wooden floor.
The sense of light and shadow changing over him, the prick of a needle into his inner forearm, did register somewhere inside his dreaming mind. But did not quite wake him up.
Everything was sludge. Smeary, overbright, distant confusion. Sounds echoed tinnily, from what sounded like miles away; images ran together, blurred, made no sense. Sensation was dimmed, but still present — the more pleasant kinds even seeming to burst into exquisite, overpowering flower under his skin. Adrift in a sweet, peaceful sea.
He was touched. Caressed. Smooth, shapely, beautiful hands reaching into his swimming vision, never quite in focus but always familiar, always recognized. Smoothing over his hair, touching his lips and cheeks and neck, with endless tenderness. They were icily cold, perfectly clean. Comfortable. It was the first time he had been touched by another person without terror or panic, even with pleasure, in years. They reached behind his head, stretched out and eased away the mask, just as they had tried to do the first night he had ever seen them, that final breaking point. He didn’t move, didn’t resist. Couldn’t, but also didn’t want to: it was fine, everything was fine. They were good now, safe. He had fixed them, and now they would fix him.
They drifted down. Lifted the hem of his sweatshirt, stripped it off over his head, over his lax, unresisting arms. Peeled the gloves off from his hands on the way, which he met with the same blissful, far-off uncaring. Then they moved to the t-shirt underneath, the fly of his jeans. He was undressed, a piece at a time as he lolled inert in the chair, stripped to his skin with a swift, professional kindness. As though to be bathed and closed into a hospital gown, guided to a bed with instruments and high, protective sides where he would sleep, and wait to be made better.
Then there was cool, breathing weight over him, on him. Smooth nakedness of perfect beauty, interrupted here and there by heavy black plastic stitches. Mottled colors of skin, mismatched sizes of parts, and yet all still perfect together, a portrait of harmony in diversity. He could not quite see, but could only sense; his head was tilted back, his unfocused eyes fixed up toward the ceiling, and he couldn’t seem to remember how to lower it and look.
A perfect, beautiful, cold hand wrapped around the root of his cock. Stroked it, in a gentle, squeezing, lightly slickened grip, to the tip, and then returned and stroked again. Coaxing its dreamy half-alertness up toward fully hard.
He let his eyes close.
He drifted in and out of it: aware, as before, only of fragments. Glorious, obscene wonders swinging near enough to touch, to surge through him, to carry him away on their tide, and then away again into soft numb buzzing distance. Like being in a room lit by a lamp on a long chain, which someone had pushed hard to one side and set swinging in long circles. Light and shadow chasing each other’s tails.
The hands worked him: first one, then the other, then both at once. Squeezing and teasing at him, fingers slipping strokingly under his balls while the other gripped his shaft. Thumb rolling over the slit at the tip of his cock, spreading precome. Wearing it in a long, colorless streak down two graceful fingers. From time to time, the stitching at the wrists brushed against his lower belly or the inside of his hip, a startling interruption in the smoothness of skin. He didn’t mind.
Then later: at the other end of a patch of grey in his mind and vision. He didn’t know if he’d ever come or not, didn’t much care. Just floated. The hands were doing something else, prying between the breath-stealing legs that pushed up on their knees over him, on either side of him. Reaching behind, to the cleft of that smooth, voluptuous curve. Wet, slick sounds. Then stroking him again, coaxing him again. Whether he’d come or not, in spite of all this, he seemed to be having trouble staying hard. He wasn’t very bothered by that either, somehow.
And then amazing, squeezing, beautiful slickness lowered itself onto him: plunging him deep into the heart of all that gorgeous (if still only tepidly warm, even inside) flesh. Moved against him, with him, rocking into his hips, as he sprawled still and dumbstruck on the sweat-sticky leather. He was bathed in half-heard, muffled sounds, a curiously familiar voice distorted, coming to him as though down a very long hallway. He drifted, lost, buried, covered. Until finally he stumbled into an overheated, roaring-headed, almost nauseating orgasm, contracting and then exploding into eternal firework shimmers out into the darkness behind his eyes, and then greyed out again.
At some point: lying stretched out on the floor. One perfectly-molded, statue-smooth foot stood on the floor, next to his hip, just at his eye level as his head rolled on its side on the boards, staring half-blind out into space. The other, lifted on its twin’s careful balance, pressed its sole into his cock, rolling against it, kneading. Toes curled over his tip, then the whole thing pushed down, grinding gently into his balls and the base of his shaft. The stitches around the ankles looked very large and dark, in his vision, so directly on his line of sight. He looked at their darkness for too long, and finally fell into it.
Tumbled back into himself, at last, to the feeling of cool skin, spread over top of him again. A body like an arch stretched over his. Soft, somehow liquid breathing against his neck; sculpted, molded curves of the most beautiful chest he’d ever seen, pressed into his own skinny concave one. Through the skin, he could feel the rhythm of a hearbeat inside it: a sludgy, uneven beating that was somehow disturbed, and disturbing. As alien as the flutter of a jellyfish’s mantle, or the shuttle of too many legs when a centipede moved.
There were slick sounds again: an arm, moving between its body and his own. Heaviness to the breath. Slightly cool fingers prodding between the cheeks of his ass, against and then into him, almost clinical again. Almost, but not quite. He was slicked, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, his lips moving feebly as though even to shape words, although there seemed to be no thoughts in his mind to give voice to. And then there was more shifting, and then pressure against his ass. Slightly warmer. And bigger.
So much bigger.
He was transported, picked arching up off the floor by a hand at the small of his back, driven into. His eyes wide, mouth wide, soundless, barely breathing. Colors exploding. Light too much. Perfect pain, perfect pleasure; endless perfection, a connected ring of light that turned and turned but never stopped. Raw red furrowing and spreading and then there, his eyes going white, the world going grey and then blue and then infinite, no sense in his sensations and no up or down or direction, just this, just this. Impaled on beauty itself. Pierced by love.
It came in a spilling that in his bewilderment of glory and blindness and nothingness he couldn’t associate with fear or fluids or contamination or anything at all, anything but the unspeakable feeling of what was inside him, what was against him. All the more so because when it did, it clutched him up against its chest with a gasping cry he could more feel than hear; and pressed that lovely, pink, precious mouth directly against his own, in a soul-deep kiss.
He drifted away again in glory: run aground at the edge of a turbulent, beloved sea. And for a very long time, there was nothing.
“That was my cousin, you silly goose,” Sol’s voice said, from somewhere. Splitting through the white emptiness of everything, making a cramped echoing tunnel to his ears.
He opened his eyes. It was very difficult. They were gummed and blurry, baffled by light. None of the lines of anything seemed to fit correctly to anything else. He was dimly aware of a low, distant, itchy sort of pain in his arms and legs, like they’d gone to sleep at some point and were just finishing with the pins and needles of waking up again. It was strangely removed, though, blocked away from him by the syrupy thickness of his mind. Seeming to belong to someone else entirely: pain he was only being told about.
He was on his back on something cold, naked, its surface freezing his back, everything around him feeling cold. Near the floor, the ceiling far above his foggy eyes. White, plastic-looking walls loomed up on either side of him, hemming him in up to a foot or two above, which he didn’t immediately understand. Sol was sitting over him, smiling down at him, over one of the walls. Sol was also still naked: the stitched-together parts of his beautiful new body clearly visible from the chest up, a patchwork on display. He had one golden elbow leaned against the wall, his brown cheek leaned on its much paler hand. It was hard to focus on him, or on anything.
“He lives in Jersey,” Sol said, lazily raising his other hand to examine its fingers. A slow, flourishing gesture, swimming in his eyes. Sol’s voice still seemed too thick and distorted, to have an echo somehow. It was impossible to move. “He’s married, actually. She’s lovely, just an angel. He just came to pick up my aunt for her to come visit for the week, and to say hi to me.” Sol’s eyes flicked to him again, and then Sol smiled, wider than ever. “I’m flattered you were jealous. Really, that’s so sweet. You’ve always been so sweet. But you never had a thing to worry about.”
His smile was too broad. Giddily happy, and beautiful as always, but suddenly much too toothy. Peculiar somehow. He could barely see it anyway.
“It was always you I had a crush on, you know,” Sol said, after a moment’s pause. Watching the hand again, now as it reached into whatever had him trapped and traced its fingers in a slow, distantly tickling line up his belly and toward his chest. The sensation, for all its slushy distance, was nearly unbearable. “You were so cute and shy, when you’d come into the hospital. So sweet. The girls in my rotation used to tease me about it every time you came in, after you left. ‘Poor Sol, he’s got a thing for the weirdos.'” A tiny smile crossed his lips again, this one sad and fond. His fingers tiptoeing. “But I never thought you were weird, or creepy, or anything like that. You just seemed sad, to me. A little different. Too smart for your own good. And lonely.”
Sol leaned in, folding both arms on the white wall; leaning his cheek on them, eyes distant and melancholy. “I know what it’s like to be lonely, believe me. Even if you don’t think I do.” Sol’s gaze drifting away from him, to some undefined far-off point. “My parents threw me out of the house when I came out to them, when I was still in high school. Even my aunt just puts up with it; she still tries to make me go to church every Sunday and get told how I’m going to hell.” A small rueful smile, there and then gone. “I never had many real friends, who didn’t just want to sleep with me. And as for dating, these days, forget it. I work sixty hours a week, and any time I can still stand up after that, I spend either taking care of everyone I know who’s dying, or else trying to get the government to stop helping kill them.” Sol sighed, deeply, still looking away. “And then I feel guilty for being so sick of being tired and lonely, when there’s people who won’t wake up tomorrow for no crime worse than wanting somebody to love.”
There was a moment’s pause. And then Sol looked back at him, again, straightening back up; and, after a second or two more, broke into a large, brilliant, silly and utterly sweet smile. And as he looked at it, as his sodden, melting mind finally lurched its way to being able to consider both that and the howling emptiness of Sol’s eyes above it, he finally understood something, something that had been nagging at him but never quite realized: dying had driven Sol insane. Somewhere in the process, either of life leaving his body or his head leaving his neck, Sol’s mind had snapped; and his consciousness had returned to it profoundly wrong, profoundly broken. Did that always happen? Was that what happened when you died? He hadn’t planned or calculated for that; none of the medical literature had mentioned it. That really seemed like something people should be told about.
“But that’s why I’m so glad you did this,” Sol said, brightly, happily, lovingly. Reaching down and touching his cheek with one of those perfect hands. “That’s why I’m so glad you killed me, Jeremy. You fixed everything.” Laughing: loosing that brilliant ribbon of color into the strange shapes and shadows of this room. “Now I don’t have to do any of that. I can just stay right here, with you, now that I know you love me too. I can take care of you. Protect you. So you don’t have to be scared anymore.”
The pain in his arms and legs seemed to be intensifying: turning up to a buzzing, like endless biting insects. What was wrong with them? He couldn’t move his head, couldn’t look.
“You’ll be safe in there,” Sol said. His smile was filled with love, radiant with it. “You’ll be so safe. It’s just right for you; nothing that scares you can get you there. You can’t get sick. Can’t get dirty. Can’t do anything wrong, or not enough times. Can’t get touched when you don’t expect it. Can’t get germs on you; they can’t even live in there!” Another laugh, so beautiful. “I fixed it for you. You fixed it for me, so I fixed everything for you. You’re going to be okay now. I promise. I’ll shut you in, and then everything will be okay.”
He was in the freezer.
He understood it in a flash like a strike of lightning; the muddled soup of his body unable to react in any way but a widening of his eyes. Sol had put him inside the freezer, where he had kept his work for so long. That was the source of the high white walls, the smoothness, the terrible cold. But… he’d had to build the refrigeration unit because the freezer had been too small to hold Sol’s body all stretched out, when it had been nearly finished. It was big, but still too small. So how…
But then Sol leaned forward again; and with Sol’s head out of the way, he at last saw what was lined up, neatly, on top of the work table above them. What had been left behind. The pain was not pain, but phantom pain: the confused firings of a drugged, muddy brain, only dreaming that what was gone was still there. He would never have to put on latex gloves again.
Sol had made some alterations of his own.
“You can’t even touch anything now,” Sol soothed. “So you don’t have to worry about that. No more covering up your hands. No more washing them raw.” Caressing his hair, stroking his cheek, one last time before drawing the hand back. “And you’ll never be alone. I’ll be right out here, right with you. I’ll be protecting you. I’ll never let anything get in.”
His smile widening. Huge. Devouring his face.
“And I’ll never, ever let you out.”
Sol disappeared from the mouth of the freezer. And a moment later, the lid came in instead: appearing through its open hole, and then filling it. Looming, and closing in. Then thudding shut.
And then he realized that, in spite of the sedation, he could move at least a little; realized it only when his ears were deafened, by some enormous, shrill, incredible sound, reverberating off the closed darkness, and at last he recognized the sound as himself. His own voice. Screaming.
Screaming and screaming.