by Tohsei Suoh (土星 朱)
I spot the redheaded kid as I’m walking home from one of my later classes, and it’s that time of year where it’s four in the afternoon and the sun’s already squatting on the horizon like a fat, rotten tomato about to explode.
It’s around four-thirty now. Everything is dark already, and you can’t see for shit unless you’ve got really good night-vision or something; it all looks this smudged, indistinct not-color. I can see his hair, though. It’s brilliant and poppy-red, too bright to be natural, and I can’t keep myself from staring.
I don’t know how long I stand there watching him as he bobs around, gesturing, seeming to ask for–something–of the pedestrians all walking past. I just hover there like some dumbstruck idiot–silent, transfixed, the cold and the dark and the ten-page essay due tomorrow morning completely forgotten. It’s only when he turns around and notices me and shoots me this wide, innocent, hopeful grin that I realize he’s not wearing much, especially for the weather we’re having lately–a ratty tee-shirt, beaten-up jeans a size to big and probably older than he is. I can’t tell if he’s wearing shoes or not; his feet disappear under those floppy, ragged pant-legs.
“Hey, kid,” I say. “You cold?”
He continues to grin at me and takes my hand, giving no indication he understood. I realize suddenly that I should have expected him to be a foreigner–there’s something slightly exotic in the curve of his cheeks, the tilt of his eyes–never mind the bright red hair.
“Do you understand me?” I ask.
No response, or at least not a verbal one. He just grasps my hand in both of his and raises it close to his face, like he’s about to kiss my palm or something, and stares up at me, expectantly.
To my embarrassment, I blush.
“Look–I, um.” Swallow. Tell myself to breathe. “Uh. I’ll just–you’ll probably freeze to death out here–oh for –why am I even trying to explain? You probably don’t understand a word I’m saying, anyway.
“C’mon. I’ll get you something warmer to wear.”
It only occurs to me that there might be something less than right about the situation–someone who is, by all legal and societal standards, an adult, taking a kid of fifteen (fourteen? Sixteen?) into his house without parental consent–when we’ve already reached my apartment. However, as I peel off my jacket and make to turn on the heater–which really means wrestle with the dial and pray that something actually happens–the boy himself is already poking around, inspecting the random junk lying around with avid curiosity. The battered-up, black-and-white portable television; the shoe rack with one sad, lonely pair of summer shoes dangling from it; the bowl of stale popcorn upturned behind the couch; the mostly-empty tube of toothpaste that has somehow migrated halfway across my apartment and come to rest under the coffee table. He doesn’t seem particularly worried.
“Hey–” I pause, trying to decide how to address him, since “kid” seems a bit rude and condescending. After a moment, I give up, deciding to figure that out later. “Hey. Are you hungry?” I mime holding a bowl and spooning something in the general direction of my mouth.
The boy watches, wide-eyed, and then nods eagerly, a dazzling smile splashed across his face.
“Do you mind instant noodles?”
He stares at me, uncomprehending.
“Um… right. Instant noodles it is.”
We both eat dinner on the couch, as my desk-cum-dining table is already occupied by a jumble of papers, textbooks, and other class-related paraphernalia.
I’m surprised at how daintily the boy eats. Before now, I never would have believed it was possible to eat noodles with dignity, but the boy somehow manages to pull it off, even as he’s looking at me instead of his food the entire time we’re eating. Self-conscious, I eat a bit more slowly and civilly than I usually do; I have this absurd impression of being an awkward teen on his first date again. He finishes first, and continues to watch me as I polish off the last of the soggy mess at the bottom of the styrofoam cup.
I’m about to get up to throw away our trash when he places a hand on my opposite knee and leans over to lick the corner of my mouth.
I freeze, surprised. The boy seems to take my lack of protest for consent; he raises his other hand to my jaw and presses his lips against mine, his body moving closer to accommodate. His fingers slide down the line of my throat; his entire torso presses against me. I belatedly realize that he’s thrown one leg over my lap to straddle me awkwardly, and the hand that was on my knee before is now creeping up the inseam on the same leg.
I come to my senses–finally–when those slender fingers start tugging at my fly.
“S-stop!” I stutter, trying to crawl backwards up the sagging cushions of the couch. The boy leans backwards and blinks at me, a bemused expression on his face. “I–you don’t need to–ahgkh–!”
The couch, unused to such abuse, collapses onto its backrest, allowing my head to crack rather painfully against the thin, hard carpet.
“Ow. F–… ow,” I slur.
A pale face framed by a bright red cloud floats into my field of vision. The boy looks concerned. I groan.
Cool fingers brush lightly against my temples–my forehead–my cheeks–as though their owner has no idea how to figure out if I’m alright or not.
“I–I’m fine–you–” Inhale; push the air back out in a hiss. “Uh. It’s fine.” I slide back into a more upright position and try to put a bit more distance between the boy and myself.
He raises his hands, hesitantly, and brushes them against my cheeks. I catch his wrists.
“Um, look,” I begin. “I–you–um. You’re. You’re a… a rent boy, aren’t you?”
He bites his lower lip, and gives me an anxious, scared expression.
“No–I’m–I’m. I’m not mad at you–!” I smile nervously, hoping that it actually looks like a friendly expression rather than a painful grimace, to assure him he isn’t in trouble. “You–augh. How do I say this–”
I scoot back again to settle in a cross-legged position.
“Look–um. You don’t have to–to do… anything. Me. Whatever.” I try to get my thoughts into order, horrified that I’m being distracted, partly, by an erection. “You. Uh.”
I take another deep breath.
“Look–why don’t you–” I struggle to my feet and offer him a hand. “You can–you sleep in my bed,” I offer as he pulls himself up. “I have some… some stuff I have to do, I’ll just take the couch when… when I need to… to. Um. Sleep. Alright?”
He doesn’t seem to understand, but I steer him into my room and make sure he’s crawled into bed before I close the door behind him.
Seven hours and twelve-and-a-half-pages-worth of blathering later, I re-right the couch and collapse for the night.
I come half-awake after an unspecified amount of time. There’s a warm body pressed against mine. I roll unthinkingly onto my side to give the boy room and drift back to sleep.
The next morning, he is gone.
Two days pass before I see him again.
This time, I’m out for groceries (juice, cheese, carrot sticks, popcorn, instant noodles, lined paper, extra pencils). I don’t see or hear him coming; one moment I’m walking on my own, the next, he simply slips his hand into mine, and he’s walking along with me, pressing his forehead onto my arm.
“Hey,” I say, weakly, when the shock wears off. “Are you still cold?”
He blows a puff of warm air at my ear and settles his head against my shoulder, still holding onto my hand. I allow myself a mental shrug, and let him tag along with me to the small corner store where I buy my groceries. He continues to cling to my hand, drawing stares from the other shoppers and the girl with the nose ring working the cash register, but some impulse drives me to brashly ignore them–their assumptions–their disapproving, disgusted glares.
He’s still holding on when I start home. I let him carry the instant noodles and lined paper, which he swings back and forth as we walk. Eventually, we come to my door, and he still refuses to let go so I’m forced to set down my bags and unlock my door left-handedly.
We take dinner together (he finally gave back my hand when he saw how much trouble I was having making dinner one-handed), and he watches me as I eat, as I study, as I brush my teeth. I let him have the bed again, but, as before, he gets up in the middle of the night and curls up beside me on the couch.
By morning, he’s disappeared.
Over the next few days, he comes back again and again. Sometimes he stays the night; sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he clings to me as I walk, and sometimes he trails behind me, kicking at the snow with his collapsing boots and making clouds of mist with his warm breath. Sometimes he tries to kiss me, and I–to my shame and concern–become less resistant every time.
(Once, when he’s in one of his clingy moods, two of my classmates whose names I don’t know happen upon us.
(“New boyfriend?” one of them taunts, and catcalls. The other one laughs.
(I’m about to reply when the second one, who’s laughing so hard he almost looks like he’s retching, gets hit full and hard in the crotch with a well-packed snowball. The first gets hit in the face not half a breath later. The boy tugs at my hand, and we flee together to my apartment as my classmates sputter and curse and exclaim, their voices following us back for blocks and blocks.)
Each time we meet, he tries to get me to respond to his touches. Gradually, inevitably, I find myself succumbing to his advances.
The first time is when I find myself braced against the capping wall of a dead-end alley on either side of him. He’s standing with his back pressed against the cold cement and his head resting between my hands, all pale skin and flushed cheeks and bright hair. The heat of his body is distracting, almost distressing, palpable even through my jacket and the coat I’ve lent him.
Our breaths mingle, ponderously, clouds of white mist and stinging warmth.
His slender arms, incongruously strong, wrap around my neck and pull me close–closer, it feels, than I’ve ever been to anyone. My protests are stillborn, silenced by by his needy, insistent lips upon my own. His flushed face presses blindly towards me, lashes barely grazing my cheeks; his warm tongue pushes brazenly, greedily, into my mouth; his slender fingers dance and skid up and down my neck and throat and face, exciting my pulse into a rapid, syncopated fury. He tastes of something sweet and something bitter, and his skin smells of warmth, of the salt of sweat and the tang of soap, and of a sharp, faintly metallic scent I can’t quite place.
I realize distractedly that I’m making desperate, breathy half-noises in the back of my throat. My shoulders are relaxing of their own accord; my lips and tongue work urgently against his; my hands find their way into the gap between his waistband and his shirt, clutch at the soft, warm skin beneath the borrowed jacket. I press myself towards his heat, crushing him up against my hands and against the hardness of the wall, trying to merge our bodies together through the strangely rough fabric of our clothing.
The sudden, biting cold barely registers when he tugs at my waistband, exposing my thighs, my buttocks, my erection. It takes a heartbeat for him to shed his own raggedy jeans and to wrap his skinny legs fluidly about my hips, hitching himself upwards to press flush against me–
My thoughts scatter.
I gasp for breath.
My hands clutch at him, scrabbling down his back to lift him closer. The crevasse between his buttocks is already slick with something oily, and some part of me realizes that he must have prepared for this beforehand; the rest already knows I’m too far gone to care.
The first time is when I take him up against a wall in some anonymous back alley, his arms buried to the elbows up my winter layers, his soft, slender hands with their sharp little nails alien and intoxicating upon my body, alternately tracing delicate patterns and scratching deep furrows upon my skin. His touch is maddening and possessive as I push deep into him, drown myself in him, drunk upon his body, his warmth, his beautiful wholeness, tight and hot around me. I cry out–a soft, strangled sound, muffled against the base of his neck–as I come; his hands curl upon my shoulders, his body unfurling against mine, his knees digging into my sides, and he laughs, brightly and sharply, the first sound I’ve ever heard come from his throat.
That was the first time.
The next time he stays the night, I decide that it’s simpler just to take the bed with him.
Days later, I am wakened in the half-light of the false dawn by a pounding at my door.
I fumble with the locks and mechanisms of the door and squint into the darkness to find my redheaded boy staring up at me. He stands on my doorstep in his ratty tee-shirt and jeans, his head tilted to one side, his hands resting on his hips.
“It’s not even d-d-dawn yet,” I say through a yawn. “Did you need something?”
“Come with me,” he says, proffering a hand. I nod sleepily and allow him to lead me to–somewhere.
“You talk?” I murmur as I stumble along behind him. His pace is quickening into a half-run. My head feels muddled; I shake it to clear it of sleep.
“When I need to,” he replies, lightly. “This way.”
He tugs my hand and pulls me into an alley.
“Wher’we going?” I ask.
I continue to stagger blindly after him, through the whiteness of the snow, for what seems like an eternity. He occasionally pulls me right or left; I always stumble and take a few seconds to adjust to the new direction. After a while, we come to a building, and he leads me to the crumbling fire escape and upwards, until we finally reach the roof of the building.
He stops. I nearly trip over him.
“We’re here,” he announces to the world in general.
“Where’s here?” I ask. I look around. We’ve come quite a long way; I don’t recognize the style of the buildings in this part of town.
“It’s not important,” the boy says. “Here. Kneel.”
“What?” I’m still looking around. There’s an abandoned little greenhouse jutting out of the ceiling on the opposite corner; a few plants have climbed out into the open air through a pane that’s missing its glass.
“Kneel,” he commands again.
“Isn’t this a rather odd place to have sex?” I ask, obeying anyway. I shiver, realizing that I haven’t even dressed myself properly.
“It’s not for sex,” he says. He runs his hands, gently, across my cheeks; bends down so that we are face to face. “It’s much, much more important than that.”
“Oh?” I ask.
“Did you know,” he says, “that there was this festival they had…”
“A festival?” I murmur. His touch is soothing, as is his voice; I am lulled almost into a half-sleeping state. My eyes flutter closed.
“Yes. Hush. There was this festival, and they had it every year–sometimes for three days, or five, or sometimes for two whole weeks until the new year came, but it always started–always–on a particular day, two weeks before one year ends and the next begins.
“And every year, whenever this festival was taking place, they would invert the social structure, and the kings would be beggars, and the beggars would be kings–”
“But there would be too many kings,” I whisper.
“Hush,” he murmurs again. “And the beggars would be kings, and the slaves would be masters, and the masters would be slaves. It was to promote–oh, equality, I suppose. Unity. Something like that.
“And every year, they would have one beggar to be the king of all of them, and he would rule everything, have everything–anything he wanted–for the entire duration of the festival, be it three days, or five, or fourteen.”
He’s dropped one of his hands, but the other one lingers at my face–caressing–smooth, uncallused.
“And then, when the festival was over–”
A sharp pain at my throat.
I stare at the boy. My beautiful, redheaded boy. There’s a curved, bloody knife in his hand.
I find myself unable to cry out, in horror or in pain. A long way away, I hear his voice.
“–and his blood would ensure the success of the harvest… and the survival of the people… through the long, hard winter…
“… each year…”
Behind him, the sun is rising, brilliant and poppy-red.