They lied to me, said Lenny, though since it was a dream he didn’t use words to do it. I knew they were lying but I didn’t know how much.
Mack wanted to rub his eyes, or lift a hand, or at least somehow react to seeing Lenny again, but he couldn’t do anything but stand with his arms pinned to his sides like weights. He was close enough to see the fine scar on Lenny’s cheek but still helplessly far away. The dream knew he was out of practice and kept him where it wanted him, or that’s what it felt like.
They both hung in midair over an endless plane of red fluid dotted with crepe paper islands. Maybe the red stuff was blood, maybe it wasn’t, maybe it was runoff from some vast slaughterhouse, maybe it was just the idea of being the insides of an unfathomable amount of people or animals or something not quite either. The sky was a colorless backdrop that was as brightly lit as a midday in winter and churned like milk poured into water that never bothered to fully settle. The cold air smelled like copper and medicine; sometimes the sky would thrum and briefly display patterns of glowing orange shapes, and he’d catch a whiff of burning hair that pulsed in time with the pattern. It was not a place Mack remembered seeing before. Was this one of Lenny’s, too?
Lenny reached for him with the hungry desperation of a siren. You’re the only one who can help, he said. The idea echoed in the churning gray nothingness surrounding them. One of the masses of wet, rot-speckled crepe submerged, then another. The landscape was bound to completely unravel soon.
“What am I even supposed to do, Len?” Mack’s voice sounded wrong. It was louder than Lenny’s, but didn’t seem to carry at all, the words coming out flat and dead. He frowned; it didn’t used to be this way. How long had it been since anything to do with this sort of thing, much less since seeing Lenny? Fifty wasn’t that old. He felt like a retired athlete dreaming about the halcyon days of his career. Lenny, of course, hadn’t aged a single day. Mack suspected he didn’t want to know how.
Find me, said Lenny. You know how to do it. You know I can’t tell you more unless you do.
The flat sheet of red beneath them suddenly flipped ninety degrees until it was pressing against Lenny’s back, leaving Mack floating, still motionless, over a void the same color as the sky. More chunks of sodden paper fell moistly out of existence. The blood bent and strained against Lenny like gelatin, or the skin on an old, cheap bowl of pudding; it still ruffled like water even as the mass of his body distorted it. Mack could feel the heat of the sky-patterns as they throbbed behind him and knew they would burn him to ashes if he so much as brushed one.
If you don’t find me it’s all going to get worse, said Lenny, his wordless words now pleading. The charnel sea started to envelop him.
Do it! Lenny wailed, and then he disappeared into a wall of color that filled the entire universe, and then Mack’s ears started ringing, and then he woke up.
It had all started when Mack picked up a book on lucid dreaming from somebody’s yard sale. It had looked like hippie shit—and it very much was—but Mack kind of liked hippie shit, and with the non-essential power supply acting squirrely as of late he needed something to do with himself on nights when he couldn’t watch TV. Even if it never went anywhere he’d keep from being quite so bored for a little while. On his way back he picked up some fresh flashlight batteries at the store just in case.
He didn’t make much progress the first few times he tried, though that might have been because he was too busy with work to pay much attention to a piece of analog media. He nearly gave up on the whole thing until the night they had to pull down the entire rec grid for his block; it was all for some reason he was too irritated to bother looking up, and everyone knew what happened if you tried to divert your critical power to a boom box or something, so off went the headset and out came the flashlight. At least living alone made for a quiet night.
It was a pretty quick read, especially since it wasn’t using borrowed terminology to urge him to focus his chakras or chuck his focusers or whatever, and by the time he was finished he did actually feel a little tired, so it seemed like a good enough time to try and give the book’s advice another shot. He made sure not to put too much pressure on his implants as he got himself into one of the sleeping positions the author had said worked best for this sort of thing (being hippie shit and probably from the early ’80s, of course it hadn’t anticipated implants) and did his best to let the magic happen.
While it was probably more his subconscious at work than magic, he eventually found himself somewhere interesting.
First there were smears of greasy color, then those colors became shapes. He felt a little tug in one direction, the urging of a magnet calling for a nail, and let it pull him forward into the jagged mosaic suspended around him. There was a feeling like tearing through cheap fabric before he stumbled out into a landscape on the opposite side. He felt like he was trailing long, cobwebby strands of something that was trying to pull him back into the colorful place, and while he couldn’t see anything clinging to him he still brushed at his arms and chest before surveying his new surroundings.
It was a little sylvan clearing, complete with trees and rocks and grass that wasn’t all cut to be the same length. Birds twittered as insects droned and a stream babbled somewhere behind the treeline. He didn’t see any cables across the ground, nor were there any towers or iron walkers on the horizon. The sky was dim with mottled gray clouds. It looked like something off an old-timey postcard, likely the sort of thing the book’s author had once tacked up all over their crystal healing tree fort or wherever it was they lived. Mack smiled to himself. Maybe there was something to this lucid dreaming stuff if it meant he could wander around in little snowglobe environments every night.
Mack sat in the grass and scrunched his bare toes into the dirt as he performed a brief self-inventory. All his implants felt like they were where they should be. He was still wearing the pajama pants and plain white undershirt he’d gone to bed in, too, which seemed right: he hadn’t tried making them into anything else, and besides, they were comfortable. He’d worry about trying to transform his dreamscape once he got the hang of the process in general.
A spray of wildflowers caught his eye as they waved in the breeze. Hadn’t the book said something about trying to bring parts of a dreamscape with you as a way to exert control over the unconscious mind? Mack rolled over until he was sitting up on his knees and picked a few. They were red, smelled like a repair shop, and oozed a pearlescent golden sap at the stems. He considered making a little flower crown out of them like his friends in first grade used to do whenever they got into a patch of wild crocus, but that sounded like it would get very complicated very quickly. One behind the ear was probably enough. Not having the luxury of constantly looking at it would make for good exercise.
Part ways into Mack congratulating himself on a job well dreamed, a figure emerged from the trees with all the gravitas of a ship’s bow parting the mist. It looked like a kid in his twenties, which at the time could’ve described Mack, too, but he had a feral cast to his features; something about the way he held himself made him look far more dangerous than if he’d simply had a knife in his hand. His clothes were red and strange (and it wasn’t until later that Mack would find he couldn’t say why they were strange) and his hair was long and dark with a slight curl to it, impeccably clean and brushed despite having literally stepped out from a forest. Mack couldn’t place his ethnicity, which was pretty common these days, but he didn’t see any mods on the stranger, which was not. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d dreamed about somebody who didn’t have so much as a little bit of scarring from one of the usual procedures.
“Hey,” said the stranger. He pointed at the flower behind Mack’s ear. “That’s mine.” He grinned like an animal, all teeth and no joy. “I don’t like thieves in my grove.”
Mack pulled the flower free and put it back with the others. Maybe it would seal up against the stem again if he touched the broken, sap-oozing ends together, he figured. “Sorry, friend, didn’t know this place belonged to somebody. You can have it back.”
The stranger drew closer. He held Mack’s gaze with his own as he said, “Too late. You already took it.”
There was a scent to the mystery man that Mack couldn’t place, like some kind of sweet or perfume, and while he’d never smelled one himself it made Mack think of pitcher plants. He was transfixed. There was no doubt in his mind that he wasn’t going to be leaving the grove in one piece. If you died in a nightmare you just woke up feeling awful, but what happened if you were trying to take control of things? Would that cause the brain to just…break?
“I can be on my way, you can have your place back for yourself, it’s fine—”
“You don’t get to leave,” said the stranger. Mack closed his eyes and tried to relax himself. The sooner it happened the better. He was expecting something violent, but the sound of the stranger’s voice in his ear (“Not until I let you.”) was so gentle it made him jump like he’d been burned.
Mack swallowed in a vain attempt to do something about his dried-out mouth. “What?”
“You took something from me. Now I get to take something from you. That’s the rule, here. You don’t want to break the rules.” The heat from the stranger’s body was right in front of him. Mack kept his eyes closed; he was certain that whatever there was to see would be something he wouldn’t like. “I could take one of your fingers,” offered the stranger. “You have ten of them. You won’t miss having one less, especially if I leave both your thumbs. That’s a good deal, isn’t it?”
This was how fairy tales went all the time, but Mack had given up on reading those back in middle school. Maybe this was all just an elaborate metaphor cooked up by his subconscious. Maybe it wasn’t, and he’d managed to dream up a real life fairy, and he was about to get put in a pie and served to a bunch of talking frogs in short pants. Maybe him feeling hot before bed hadn’t been because the power to his desk fan had been cut but because he was coming down with a fever. Maybe he should just keep quiet.
“No? I could take a toe, then. You could get a false one and nobody would know the difference the next time you went out dancing. Nobody except for us.”
That was two offers. If he was stuck in a folktale it presumably worked by folktale logic, so Mack felt safe waiting for option number three.
The stranger’s voice was in his other ear now: “How about a lock of your hair?” Mack shivered involuntarily. “It won’t grow back, but you have a full head of it. You could just brush it over on one side. Our little secret.” There were many people in the world that could wear an undercut well, but Mack was not one of them; he remained silent.
Three turned out to not be as magic a number as Mack had hoped, because the nameless young man kept making suggestions with increasingly upsetting consequences. He circled Mack constantly, sometimes intimately close and sometimes so far away that the insect buzz threatened to drown him out at times. The worst part was how pleasant he sounded about the whole deal: his voice still had that predatory edge to it, but his words were calm and patient, his patter that of a modern gadget salesman willing to show a customer everything in the store if it meant sealing a deal. Mack suspected the stranger was enjoying himself.
“You can’t wait me out, you know,” said the stranger as Mack silently rejected yet another offer. He sounded amused. “You’re trapped here until the day is done. I can make that last as long as I want it to. It’s my grove.” Another breath tickled Mack’s ear and made him shudder again. “Is that what you want? To stay here forever with your eyes closed? Go ahead, make me an offer. Tell me what you’d give me to get to go home. I’ll listen. I’m a reasonable man.”
Mack’s nerves had frayed like cheap twine with every passing suggestion—the bargain involving his tongue had bothered him quite a lot—and so he found himself already through his sentence before he realized what a bad choice of words he’d made: “Are you going to kill me or fuck me or what? Whatever it is just get it over with.”
It could have gone so badly. Instead, he felt a hand with too-smooth fingertips brush his cheek. “That first one is so boring. The second one, though….” That same hand stroked the underside of his chin. “Is that our deal, then?” asked the stranger. “Look me in the eye and say what you’ll give me. I’ll know if you’re lying.” Mack, now out of options, did so.
That the stranger’s eyes were wrong was something Mack had expected, but what he didn’t anticipate was how they were wrong. They were large and lined with fine feathers in place of lashes, the irises wide and golden with a huge round pupil floating in each of them: a falcon’s eyes, or maybe an eagle’s, as Mack had never been good with birds. Had they always looked like that? He could see his own reflection in them almost as clearly as a mirror. It would be weird, but weird was better than dead.
“I’ll have sex with you if it means I can go home,” he said. “No weird shit. I don’t know you.”
“I accept your offer!” said the stranger before Mack could think too much about what a bird-eyed dream denizen would and would not consider to be “weird shit.”
The stranger pushed him down until Mack was flat on his back in some sort of moss patch, and it felt true to dreams he’d had in the past that he’d gone from terrified to horny in the space of five seconds. The front of his pajama pants were now tented upwards so insistently that he was amazed his dick hadn’t somehow ripped the flannel. Said pants were down around his knees in a flash. Part of his semi-host’s confusing clothing folded to the side to reveal a forgettable torso adorned with a pretty nice-looking cock, which said host was already stroking a bit as he positioned himself between Mack’s knees. Mack weighed his options. He wasn’t a fan of other guys being in his ass, and even a finger or two was the kind of thing he had to psych himself up for, but if he could just focus on—
He didn’t have to focus on anything, it turned out; instead of pushing inside of him the stranger lifted his hips and came down, hard, on top of and around Mack. His too-smooth hands pressed into Mack’s midsection as the stranger fucked himself aggressively, leaving Mack to lie on his back and passively reflect on the situation. It wasn’t like the raw, nasty things you got when you were too clueless to know what you were doing: the stranger definitely had a plan. He felt amazing. He felt good in a way he shouldn’t have without a decent amount of lube and prep work. There were many things Mack could accept in his life, but for some reason inaccurate dream sex was not one of them.
“This doesn’t work this way!”
“I don’t care,” said the stranger without missing a motion. The little downy feathers around his eyes fluffed out when he closed them. “My grove, my rules.”
All Mack could manage was a sulky, “Still doesn’t work this way,” before he shut up and let it happen. The version of him that got top marks in health class was disappointed. The version of him getting his dick ridden was willing to let thing slide just this once. It was, after all, a far better solution than any of the nasty ideas that involved him going home with fewer parts than he’d come in with. He’d have to consult the book to see if it said anything about rogering fear-figments as a metaphor for catharsis.
Save for quiet exertion noises they didn’t say much to each other, and save for the novelty of the setting and the people involved it was fairly straightforward sex. Mack didn’t contribute much beyond lifting his hips occasionally, but the stranger didn’t ask for anything else and he didn’t feel inclined to make suggestions.
The stranger’s clothes brushed against Mack’s bare skin in time with his movements, their texture something like velvet but something completely different. It was like the time an old theater-major boyfriend of his had come home after a wrap party still in full costume. They were just going to throw it away, the ex had said, so he wanted to have some fun now that everything was over, and in the end they kept finding sequins for weeks after. Mack hadn’t thought of that particular ex in years. It was funny how dreams worked.
He felt himself getting close and moved to pull out, but the stranger put his hands over Mack’s and dug in, just slightly, with his nails. “You’d better come inside me or you’ll break your end of the deal,” he said. “You don’t get to leave without giving me something.” He showed his teeth again. It sounded pleasant enough on the surface, but there was an air of menace there. Menace was doing just fine for Mack’s hard-on that day.
Mack groaned as he came, because what was even the point of having sex in the middle of nowhere if you couldn’t be loud, and the stranger clenched around him until he had nothing left. That the stranger was completely, unnaturally clean when he slid off of Mack was somehow unsurprising; of course he was, if this was a dream that liked skipping necessary steps then of course it’d skip that part, too. Mack had yet to determine if this was more convenient or disappointing.
Also evident was how his mysterious partner hadn’t come yet. This presented a dilemma. Had Mack the sense God gave a head of cabbage he would’ve asked if he could go before bolting for the safety of the waking world, where he would then fling the damn book into an incinerator and lay off visiting the local bathhouses for a while, just in case. It would have saved him a lot of trouble in the end. Unfortunately for Mack, the refractory period was when he was prone to making his worst, most emotional decisions. Leaving another man hard and in need was the sort of thing that assholes did. Mack was not a perfect man, but he was not an asshole.
“Hey. I can help with that.”
The stranger paused midway through wrapping his clothes back around himself. “It isn’t part of the deal. You’ve done your part.”
Mack glanced up at the sky, which was still bright and cloudy. “You said I don’t get to leave until the end of the day. But it’s your grove, right? You’re the one who gets to decide how long a day is.” He rose up until he was balanced on his knees. The moss was still soft and springy beneath him where it should have been crushed into green slime a good while back. “I figured, well, I don’t have anywhere to be. Maybe I could keep you company a while.”
The stranger flicked a set of inner lids across his eyes and smiled.
It had been far too long since Mack’d bothered with any of this. He didn’t have the book anymore, having since pulled out its pages to practice paper folding a few years back, but he didn’t need it, either; the way of doing it was burned into him the same way he’d never entirely forgotten how to ride a bike. The problem was finding the time and the space. He’d moved to a better part of the city since he’d last done any guided dreaming, but that meant he hadn’t taken the time to prepare all the cables or figure out how he was going to deal with his newer hardware. How was he supposed to do what he needed to if he was plugged into a headset that required him to hold his head just so all night?
More pressing was the issue with the power. He had a very nice setup that helped pay for all the little things his general income couldn’t quite reach, but that setup had expectations of him. Expectations that people in the power company checked up on regularly. Could he even relax the way he needed to in the new bed he’d gotten as part of his deal with them? Implants like his were delicate things and he didn’t know if he could dream properly with them pressing into his body if he rolled over wrong. The power company had been very helpful when he first reported trouble sleeping all those years ago, far more helpful than they needed to be. Come to think of it, he hadn’t dreamed much at all since they switched him to the new grid, the one that didn’t have the old limits that the multi-grid system he’d grow up with did. He didn’t like the idea of giving them an excuse to cut him off.
He pressed his forehead against one of his windows and stared without focus into the world outside. The city glowed and twinkled there (he was fine living in a smaller satellite town, those days, since it was as convenient as a proper suburb without dealing with commute traffic every workday), the denim-colored sky changing tone in patches where the clouds caught the light pollution or parted to show a hint of distant night. Cables slithered across the poles and gutters made for them; he couldn’t see the ones underground, but anyone who’d had work done could feel them when walking around out there, a great electric heartbeat that thrummed up through the feet and reminded you of all the opportunities you had. The recent rain made everything slick and dark. There was just enough light to make out the shape of a giant metal figure slumped in a far-off field. Some of the cables fed into it.
Mack fogged the window with his breath and watched it slowly fade until the glass was clear again. This was his life now, a good life. This was a life for people who understood how to take advantage of programs made available to them. It was all about compromise and looking at the long game. If he brought Lenny here, which was presumably the goal of his little rescue mission, would they even know what to do with him?
That was assuming Lenny wanted to leave. He might still be happy in there, and just needed help with a little case of breach of contract. Mack could work with contracts.
No sense in trying to delay the inevitable. Mack quickly accessed the power company’s local site and typed in a report of a potential future anomaly; they had a dropdown for that, plus another one for reporting past anomalies, because they really did understand people and tried to make things work. Sometimes you were too sick to help with generator maintenance, sometimes life happened in annoying ways. He’d heard that some people went camping for whole weeks at a time and had no trouble with grid hookup. The service was invisible and reasonable. Mack liked both those things, and how they made him want to play fair even as he planned something he was sure would get a notice placed on his personal record. As soon as he heard the little confirmation chime and the indicator on the room’s meter came on he knew it was time.
He couldn’t use the bed. There were just too many weird little parts that expected him to rest in a very specific way so they could plug him into a collector circuit, which was more comfortable than it sounded but utterly useless for his purposes. He paced through his house in search of the best place to be: the office didn’t have enough room, the kitchen would keep him awake with ice machine growls and food smells, someone might get the wrong idea if he was found facedown in the hall, and the bathroom was entirely out of the question. The couch in the living room proved to be his savior, as it was just big enough for him to lie down on with only a little bit of folding up. He still had blankets in the closet and some pillows he could use to cushion his more delicate parts. It wasn’t as good as it could’ve been but it would have to do.
Mack cocooned himself on the couch and struggled to drift away.
The second time Mack tried the lucid dreaming thing he didn’t return to the same grove as before: this time when he heeded that magnetic pull he ended up on the side of a highway, the asphalt mostly not wrecked and the paint mostly there. There were trees on one side of the road and long, waving grass on the other. He didn’t see any cars. There weren’t any lights in the sky or the rising skylines of distant cities, no broken-down cars or bits of litter or ruined rubber shreds of tire alligators. There wasn’t anything. He picked a direction and started walking.
After a while he felt like he shouldn’t be walking on raw asphalt while barefoot. A little bit of focus gave him socks, then some broken-in running shoes. He left his sleeping clothes alone, and while part of him was concerned with how he shouldn’t tax his abilities so soon, another part wanted to be sure the stranger could recognize him from a distance.
He walked for what might have been hours. The weather was nice and he liked the scenery, so it didn’t matter. It wasn’t until he saw an RV parked on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road that he drew a bead on that feeling of menace from before. Mack squinted, and sure enough he could make out where a dark-haired figure in strange red clothes was squatting on its roof like a frog, watching him. He waved and the figure waved back. This time he was being invited in, Mack figured, so they wouldn’t have to bargain like before. Maybe this time the dream was shaped differently. He couldn’t guarantee he’d be getting his dick wet again, but the only likely way that was going to happen was if he took a chance on things, and it wasn’t like he had other plans when presented with a thousand miles of highway to nowhere. Mack vaulted over the Jersey barrier and made his way to the RV.
The stranger had scurried down the side of the vehicle with the swiftness of a lizard and waited for him in one of the porch chair set up by the door. He looked much the same as the last time, save that the feathers around his eyes were different colors now, like a masquerade mask, and a pair of six-pointed antlers sprouted from his wavy hair. Instead of a falcon’s stare he now simply had little black pinprick pupils floating in a sea of white. Bits of glitter clung to the hems of his clothes.
Mack took a seat in the empty chair. “Those are new,” he said, pointing to the antlers.
The stranger tossed his head. “I needed to look nice for a party.” That explained the glitter, and why his feathers were different.
“You the kind of guy who wears a costume till it wears out?”
A shrug. “I thought it’d be fun to show them off, if you came back,” said the stranger. “I got the feeling that you’d come turning over rocks again.” A grin spread across his face. Unlike the last time, it wasn’t the kind an animal made before it lunged. “Also, you know.” He tapped his fingers against the lowest fork on each antler. “Handlebars.”
It took Mack a second before he got it. “Oh. I guess that answers the question of if you feel like fucking later.”
“Yeah. Is that a problem?”
“Not really.” He wasn’t in the mood just yet, but that could change. It was a nice goal for the future. Mack propped his feet up on a cooler directly in front of his chair. “Do I have to answer a riddle first or something?”
The stranger looked thoughtful. “I’ve got one,” he said, though he didn’t seem quite so confident as before. “What do you think my name is?”
That was a good one. The way their last encounter had gone he’d expect the stranger to go by something a fantasy novel had sicked up on the carpet, but he also looked like the kind of guy who would go by Jack or Johnny or one of those other plain names that people forgot folk heroes used to wear. Maybe he’d been in the company of some knight of the land of Nod all this time and he should’ve been thinking of the mystery man as Sir Thirsty Stranger.
Mack studied the stranger’s face and the way the feathers looked like they belonged there even as they were totally alien to the rest of him. He found an answer in his gut. It wasn’t the kind of thing he’d come up with on his own, but why doubt intuition when running around a dream world?
“You look like a Len to me. Like, a Lenny. Maybe it’s a nickname.”
The stranger laughed. “Really? You see a man dressed all in crimson with his breath full of night terrors and that’s what you’re going with?”
“Just feels right,” said Mack. He swung his heels to the side and peeked in the cooler. There were bottles there among the ice, though the labels were all in gibberish. He pulled out a pair, one for him and one for the stranger—Lenny, maybe—and wasn’t surprised when maybe-Lenny took both bottles, pried off the caps with his too-sharp teeth, and passed one back to Mack. They drank a bit (it tasted like beer with some kind of weird flavoring, something sweet and perfumey, a lot like how possibly-Lenny smelled) before Mack said anything else. “Is that the wrong answer?”
Could-be-Lenny half-shrugged and said, “I can work with being a Lenny.”
“Good to have a name for you, Len,” said Mack. “I’m a Mack. I’m not telling you what it’s short for. In exchange I’m not going to ask if you go by something else. Deal?”
They clinked bottles. Mack didn’t have any problem sleeping with someone whose name he never got around to asking (he in fact did so regularly), but when he’d woken up after that first visit to the grove and found hickeys he knew hadn’t been there before, it felt like a little more personal information was necessary. It’d give him something to yell if he felt like that, too, since once he and Lenny had really started going at each other it had been a lot of fun getting loud. Speaking of really going at each other, there was a pressing need against his pajama fabric again. His mood had caught up with the rest of him.
“Might be nice to talk a little,” he said as he drained the last of his bottle, “but I think I really want to fuck first. You game?”
“Sure,” said Lenny. “You can do me up against the side of this van if you want.”
It wasn’t a van, but that wasn’t the issue: Mack had expected they’d be going inside, or maybe into the trees, if they wanted to have any amount of sex, but outside was very open with a very large amount of highway running past. It was abandoned in terms of population but not in terms of maintenance. Was there a rush hour in dreamland?
Mack frowned. “What if other people using this road see us? I don’t do the exhibitionist thing.”
“Won’t be a problem. It’s my road.”
“You said that about the grove, too.”
“I own a lot of stuff,” said Lenny, dismissively. Mack couldn’t argue with that.
Lenny pressed his chest against the RV’s metal siding and spread his legs. His weird clothing brushed to the side as he did so to reveal the same perky ass Mack had gotten to know during his first trip beyond the veil. Apparently that had looked good enough for that party already. “Come on,” said Lenny with a wiggle of his hips, “I’m already prepared.”
The temptation to grumble about how magically skipping steps was strong, but Mack’s need to put himself snug and already slick was stronger. He tried to tease by rubbing against the crack of Lenny’s ass or by nudging his glans between Lenny’s cheeks just enough to make things interesting, but all it took was a slight loss of balance and Mack was inside before he could correct himself. Once there he couldn’t find any reason to keep up the facade. There were weird dot-eyed deer-bird-men who needed fucking.
What hadn’t been apparent from earlier was how Lenny was taller than Mack, even without the antlers. His legs looked the right length for his body but Mack didn’t have any trouble finding a good angle. That was how dreams worked, though: in the heat of the moment nobody worried about whether or not their body was meant to fit together with that one movie star’s, so why would it be an issue here? Mack had always had a thing for taller guys. He placed his hands on Lenny’s shoulders and did his best to grind the paint off the side of the RV using Lenny as a medium. He was going to have glitter on his pajamas for days.
They made it inside eventually after Mack declared a need for a shower, for which he had company, and the two of them stretched out on a fold-out bed to drip dry while watching whatever it was the RV’s glitchy television screen was trying to show them. Mack sipped on another of the beer-like bottles. There were a seemingly infinite number in the cooler and more in the RV’s mini-fridge, but he still felt the need to pace himself. It didn’t seem like a good idea to get drunk on them.
“So where’s the road go?” he asked after yet another commercial stuttered its way into static.
Lenny shrugged. “Places,” he said. He stole a sip from Mack’s bottle; he hadn’t been drinking as much, claiming he was still a little full from the party. “It’s the idea of a road. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, really, you just have to accept that it could.”
“And right now it’s connecting some of your trees to a field the size of Texas?”
“Not a field. My field,” corrected Lenny.
Mack’s brows knitted reflexively. The idea of Lenny as some kind of landed lord sounded less silly every time this sort of thing came up. “Is there anywhere you don’t own out here?”
“Yeah.” Lenny was quiet for a few beats before adding, “It’s not safe there, though. You probably shouldn’t go.” He said it very matter-of-factly, the same way a weatherman would advise people to avoid the beach during a hurricane: an implied confidence that the situation was so obvious that a listener wouldn’t need more details than the broadest warning.
That same situation left a sticking point in Mack’s craw. “You were the one who was asking permission to cut out my tongue the first time we met.”
One of Lenny’s awful pinprick pupils slid over to look Mack right in the eye. “I know. Think about that for a little.”
Mack did. He decided it was a good time to stop asking questions.
The pixel soup they were watching coalesced into a woman singing, then after what must have been a commercial became a nature program following a pack of white dogs with red ears as they chased down a cottony humanoid shape. One of them bayed and Lenny twitched. Mack changed the channel back to abstract distortions. So there were worse things out there than Lenny? That gave them all the more reason to stay inside. He brushed away a hank of dark hair to nuzzle at Lenny’s neck, breathed in the unnatural sweetness that clung to Lenny’s skin, and did his best to distract himself from everything he should have been doing instead of trying to get laid again.
The day once again lasted as long as it needed to. They managed to go the entire time without bringing up whether worse things than Lenny happened to throw parties.
Mack woke up with a snort. He was still rolled up in a warren of blankets on the couch and his secondary input port ached; the damn thing always acted up whenever he didn’t meticulously apply the salve his doctor prescribed him. It helped a lot with his deal with the power company but it felt like it had never set properly after the operation. The rain he could hear rattling against the roof was surely only making it worse. He stared at the ceiling in disappointment; all that effort for a nap? This was going to ruin his schedule for days.
Something rustled elsewhere in the house and startled him. He sat up and glanced around the darkened living room. Everything looked normal: the lights on the wall meter glowed in the darkness, the streetlamps outside made his curtains glow from behind, and the walls themselves were sheathed in their usual layer of cabling that snaked around picture frames and side tables. There were no messages on his phone nor urgent notifications in his inbox. The streets outside were quiet. He wasn’t the kind of guy to get up in the middle of the night, so what had woken him up?
Tulip, his cat, leapt up on the arm of the couch and cried for attention. He scratched behind her ears. Her fur was soft, her body warm where she flopped in his lap. She must have been prowling the house and brushed some cords the wrong way, and with him not in a proper bed of course he heard it. Mack stroked her back, listening to her purr. The world had changed a lot over the years, but animals didn’t. He always had been a bit of a critter lover. Some time with his pet in a quiet room would do wonders for his nerves.
It was a pleasant interlude until he remembered how Tulip had passed in her sleep nearly a decade and a half ago.
He gently pulled his hand from Tulip’s side. She glared up at him with her sweet little face and opened her mouth to yowl, but only dust came out. Her fur and skin peeled away in dead-leaf patches, revealing a cat-shaped mass of crepe paper and meat with a band of tattooed leather wrapped around its belly. Dust continued leaking from its orifices as it thrashed. Mack stood up so quickly he sent Tulip flying, and when she struck the ground she shattered, then melted away like ice. He thought he heard a final, plaintive meow before the thing that wasn’t Tulip disappeared entirely.
Mack waded through the mess clogging his living room until he was next to the wall. He pulled aside some cables and found a ribbed, meaty panel there, its skin twitching and covered with blooms of water-damaged paper. A seam opened in it and an eye like a raw egg slithered into view. Mack and the eye regarded each other quietly. He knew—knew—that there would be more eyes outside, so he didn’t look. Instead he hooked his thumbs into the pupil and pulled. There was a sound like ripping fabric, some trembling from the eye itself, and then he had stretched it open far enough for him to step through.
Things were bad, worst they’d been in years, but just as he remembered how to lucid-dream himself into this mess he remembered how to slog his way through it. Sometimes he’d feel a hint of a pull from one direction or another, but it felt wrong: too strong, too weak, too coy, too brash. There were a lot of fisherman out that night. He strained not to trip any of their lines.
He was in a long hallway that never ended, the house rotting around him and pictures turning to streaks of rust and wax and paint that drooled from their frames.
He was in a room with a floor made of empty tin cans that tried to mash him against the walls and ceiling. Someone was singing in the distance.
He was walking on a narrow platform that looked down over a pit filled with static that sometimes showed brief flashes of how he’d failed people, or could have failed people.
He was slinking through a parking garage where oil dripped up the walls, letters forming in the trails they left behind.
He was in a hall of mirrors and that was not his reflection.
He was in a tiny closet and something terrible was outside, and if he could just get outside he would be safe, but if he opened the door it would kill him.
He was on a construction site where giant jellyfish with toothy human grins drifted towards him, their bells glowing a brilliant purple.
He was running from the man with too much face and also not enough.
He was walking up a stairway on fire. Hands pushed from within the walls as though they were made of flexible intestine, grabbing for him desperately.
He was surrounded by children’s drawings depicting things that children’s drawings shouldn’t, the colors blazing in the dark, daring him to ask who had drawn them and why.
He was in a forest glen.
Mack wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirt and let the cool night air carry away some of what he’d seen during his travels. This was a place he knew: there was the moss, there was the grass, there were the wildflowers that had started it all. He felt for Lenny’s call but got nothing. How far beyond the clearing Lenny’s influence reached was something he’d never thought to ask. Was he somewhere out in the trees?
A huge fruit, shaped like something halfway a strawberry and halfway a human heart and partially wrapped with sheets of rotting paper, squatted beneath a tree just outside the clearing. It was the size of a cow lying on its stomach. That smell he’d nearly forgotten (sweet, strangely sweet, the one that made him think of flies drowning in digestive acids) hung heavy in the air. Here, at least, there was no confusion. He flipped out a utility knife—where it came from didn’t matter, clearly he would not have come into such a dangerous place without at least a utility knife—and cut into the terrible fruit’s flesh.
With a sound like a man’s hand degloving, Lenny slid out and onto the grass. He still hadn’t aged a day.
Mack kept dreaming and Lenny kept meeting him, and while it wasn’t every night (once or twice a week at most, since Mack had his obligations) they soon saw each other enough that Mack considered them to be regular fuckbuddies at the very least. He didn’t ask if Lenny tomcatted around on his own time because he honestly didn’t care; he kept up with his doctor’s checkups and always wrapped up when going out behind a bar with a limited-time friend, and if Lenny was at risk of giving him oneiric herpes Mack hadn’t noticed, so it worked out. Usually they fucked, sometimes they didn’t, and he always woke up from their shared dreamscapes feeling amazing.
Sometimes they’d talk. It didn’t tend to be personal, since Mack got the feeling he’d be better off not knowing a lot about Lenny, but every so often he let his curiosity get the better of him and would ask about the parties Lenny went to, or places he’d seen, or whether the time Lenny showed up with some extra eyes made it hard to walk in a straight line.
That was the thing with Lenny: he’d always have that same medium brown skin and that same wavy hair and those same too-smooth hands (they didn’t have fingerprints, Mack had since learned, which was why they felt porcelain-slick to the touch), and his face tended to be more or less arranged the same way every time, but just about anything else was fair game. He never changed while Mack was looking. He never flat-out said whether he knew how to control how he looked at all, for that matter. One day when Mack had tired of getting his dick sucked he decided to bring it up.
“Every time I see you you’re a little bit different,” he said. Lenny hummed an affirmative as he wiped his mouth on his wrist, as he’d grudgingly started cleaning up by hand instead of via starbeam wishes or whatever it was he usually did. Mack figured this was good enough permission to continue. “I always wondered why you never bothered showing up with, I don’t know, snakes for hair instead. Or a shell like a bug. All over, not just little patches, I mean.”
Lenny gave Mack a look. His eyes were reasonably normal, for a change, though one was turquoise and the other a magenta-tinged purple. “Because it’s my stuff,” he said. His tone of voice implied he thought Mack should’ve known that already.
“What do you mean, ‘your stuff’? Do you keep a person suit on a coat hanger when I’m not around or something?”
“I mean it’s me. Part of me. Same as how this” —and here he tapped on one of Mack’s implants— “is your stuff.”
Mack twitched reflectively. Even in a dream-body those damn things were sensitive. “Do you even know what these are?”
Lenny rolled his eyes. “Sure I do. That’s the slot where the tab fits in, the bit where they connect you.” He turned over onto his stomach and pointed out Mack’s more obvious procedures as he continued. “You’ve got them here, here, and here, too. I remember when people started getting these, you know. I remember who sponsored everything. They’re why I live here instead of out there.”
It was hard thinking of Lenny as having ever lived outside an ever-increasing series of places he said he owned. Mack felt the need to be defensive. “It’s not so bad, you know. There’s a system for everything. People have food and jobs and good schools now, even the shitty nowhere towns. You sometimes hear about some legacy pushback but it never amounts to anything.” He knew a lot about legacy pushback: Mack’s mother had done her share of rallies in her younger years, but these days she and his father had a good place with clean water, and she’d confided in him that she would’ve changed her tune in an instant if she’d have known how it really was. It was a new era of history, nobody denied that, but it was one built on community and self-improvement rather than acquisition, a hopeful new battery society. Mack suspected Lenny was not interested in hearing his argument one way or the other.
“Someone’s always got their finger on the trigger,” said Lenny. He waved his hand at the zebra-striped landscape. “They do that here, too, but at least they don’t bother pretending to be your friend while they do it.”
“It’s just bioelectricity and a little orgone. It’s not like they suck out your blood,” said Mack. He chose not to mention his regular blood draws, which didn’t count, anyway.
“Maybe you don’t remember, but I do.” Lenny looked pensive. He rubbed the edge of his socket beneath his left eye, the purple one. “I remember what it was like out there before I crossed over. I was given a better deal and I took it, and they let me keep some of my things. I’ve been working hard making sure they don’t find a reason to send me back. That’s the goal I’ve been focusing on since I came here.”
“How long ago was that, anyway?”
Lenny groaned. “I’m done talking about this. Let’s change the subject.”
Change the subject they did. Mack never got around to asking what it was Lenny did for the people who wanted him dressed up for parties and working hard for them, forever.
Lenny shivered pathetically. His body was slick with fruit flesh and pus, the same nastiness clumping his hair. The scar on his cheek was pale against his gooey skin. When he had recovered enough to open his eyes again they looked like a person’s: no strange shapes or colors at all. He didn’t appear to have any other form-warping decorations, either. He was also completely naked. Mack suspected this was the first time he’d ever seen the closest thing to the original Lenny that was left.
He took off his shirt and helped Lenny wipe away the worst of the fruit. “That you, Len?” he asked. “You said you needed to talk. Getting here was really shitty, you know.”
“They lied to me,” said Lenny with a stammer. He took some deep breaths, which seemed to help a little. “Mack, they lied to me, you’ve got to help.”
“Who lied to you?” said Mack, though he suspected he knew. “About what?”
Lenny buried his face in his hands. “They are! The Gentry! The people who run this place! They told me my time is up and I’m going to be used to pay off some of their old debts.” He wheezed and spat up a blob of fruity mucus. “I’ve been harvesting for them for God knows how long, but they say I’m no good anymore. Now I’m just a bargaining chip. If I try and run they’ll set the hounds on me. I’m fucked, Mack, I’m so fucked.”
Mack waited for Lenny to finish his next set of coughing sobs before saying anything. “You were talking like you wanted my help before,” he said. “It’s been…shit, I don’t really know how long it’s been for you, but for me it’s been years. I don’t know how much I can do. I’ll help you, though. Or try to.”
The bark of laughter that came out of Lenny was sudden enough to make Mack flinch backwards. “I didn’t think you’d actually say yes,” he said as he wrung juice from his hair. “Not after what happened last time. It was bad.”
“It was pretty bad, yeah,” said Mack. This was not the time to bring up an old argument.
“So, you know those parties I was always getting fucked up for?” Mack nodded. “There’s going to be another one. They’ll have guests. There’s going to be this little parade, you know, showing off and all, and I’m going to be part of it.” Lenny flipped his hair over his shoulder and continued. “They told me that even though I’m useless, if I can get someone to help me leave during the parade, I’ll get amnesty. No more tithing away. I won’t even have to harvest anymore. But you have to help me.”
“You still haven’t told me what you need me to do, Len.”
Lenny took a deep breath. “You have to recognize me, and you have to hold me fast, and you have to do all of that throughout whatever trials they devise.”
“What kind of trials are we talking about, here?”
“They’ll lie to you.”
Mack scowled. “You’re not telling me everything, are you.”
“I can’t, Mack,” said Lenny, and now he just sounded like a kicked dog instead of the proud, mad animal he used to be. “Anything I tell you, they can get at it and twist it up and fuck this up for both of us. If you don’t do it right, they’ll get you, too. They might not stop at using you to pay a tithe if you piss them off bad enough. That’s just how the Gentry are.” He paused. “If you want to back out, after what I just told you, I…I won’t blame you. Not after last time.”
The silence stretched between them. Mack hated everything about the situation: he hated this place, he hated the people Lenny worked for, he hated Lenny, he even hated himself a little bit. He was not a perfect man, but he hadn’t been raised to be the kind of coward who’d abandon a dying man.
“I’ll be there.”
It was going to be terrible.
They’d had a comfortable arrangement between themselves for several years before everything went sour at once.
Mack had been getting better at the dreaming thing—which by then he suspected was much more than your garden-variety guided subconscious adventure—and sometimes wandered into safer places on his own if he thought Lenny would be busy. Sometimes he even met others, though he was careful: a scholar with dragon horns sucked him off behind a ferry that traveled across a void filled with lights and stars, while a sweet-faced queen on the opposite shore agreed to a handjob when Mack refused to fuck him without a rubber. A man had to have standards when it came to total strangers.
On one such occasion he found a place that served the best street food he’d ever eaten, and was so taken with it that he knew he had to get Lenny to the stall somehow. Mack focused on that little pull he associated with Lenny’s territory and followed it cautiously; after many twists and turns, this led him back to the grove he had begun thinking of as Lenny’s preferred stomping grounds. He paused, takeout in hand, when he heard voices through the trees. Hiding seemed like a very good idea all of a sudden.
Four figures stood in the clearing. One was Lenny, made up with rabbit ears, curling horns, and a long lion’s tail but otherwise no different from usual, but Mack didn’t know the other three. One held a second up under their arms; the third was very, very tall, taller even than the tips of Lenny’s current ears, and spoke in a language Mack had never heard before. Mack leaned in closer. The figure being held up by the arms was just a normal guy with normal implant work and the least interesting polo and khakis combination Mack had ever seen, but whoever was holding him had seen better days.
When he was a little boy Mack had once seen a movie about a man made up of dozens of parts all sewn together. It wasn’t Frankenstein, because the monster in Frankenstein just looked like a man with a flat head and things on his neck; some makeup artist had gone to town giving that character different fingers, different skin tones, different everything. He’d been frightened and had demanded his parents help him check his room for “sewn-up men” for weeks after seeing it. The figure holding the man in the polo was as though someone had taken that stitched-up actor, made a copy out of wax, then melted and smoothed all the different parts together. You could tell they weren’t all from the same source, but there weren’t any obvious seams, much less something as crude as stitches. It had a length of the same red fabric Lenny wore wrapped around its waist as a loincloth.
As for the tall figure…it was hard to say. Mack found he could scarcely look at it for long without feeling like he was going to have something erupt from the center of his forehead, but what he could make out was a vaguely human-shaped person wreathed in gold and silver light, its eyes sloe-black and their features something he intuitively knew would be far too beautiful to stand. It wore furs over a robe woven from stardust and spangled with mouths that whispered and snapped on their own. Mack had the sinking suspicion that the figure knew he was present, and that it didn’t care what he did or didn’t see of their dealings in the grove.
“…almost done, as you can see,” said Lenny to the lambent figure. “If you’d like to watch me finish, you’re welcome to, my liege.”
The tall one nodded once. Lenny pulled something bright and sharp from the depths of his robes and with unpleasantly practiced skill scooped out the eye of the guy in the polo shirt. The man didn’t make a sound. Mack kept his jaw clenched so hard it started giving him a headache as Lenny fussed with the patchwork figure’s face and tucked the eye neatly into its empty socket. The tall figure said something else, prompting Lenny to bow deeply.
“You honor me, my liege. I’m happy to serve. Will this be our usual agreement or do you have another task for me?”
The tall figure shook out its silken hair. Lenny stayed in his bow until it brushed his head with an opalescent hand; when he rose, his long ears were gone and his cheeks were instead studded with gems. Without another word, the tall figure beckoned to the patchwork man, and the two of them and the man in the polo shirt vanished into the woods.
Mack waited until Lenny’s posture relaxed fully before bursting from the trees. “What in the fuck, Lenny?”
Lenny didn’t have the decency to look ashamed. He finger-combed his hair around his horns with the kind of casual disinterest one would expect from a man who hadn’t just cut someone’s eye out. “Oh, hi, Mack. Good thing you waited until now to show up; you just missed me talking to my boss. That could’ve gone badly.”
How dare he. How fucking dare he. Mack felt so angry he thought he was going to spit lightning. He knew Lenny had talked about contracts, and obligations, and not being the worst thing walking the dreaming world, but he’d always assumed Lenny was halfway reluctant when it came to whatever it was his current trade was. Which was apparently…this. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“How many others have you been cutting up when I’m not around, Len?”
“Mack, it’s my job.”
Something about Lenny’s tone of voice just made Mack angrier. “You’re running around in the trees dissecting people in front of some Elric-looking motherfucker,” he said, his own voice loud and harsh. “That doesn’t make you a guy with a quirky day job, that makes you a monster!”
“No shit! I told you what I was!” said Lenny. He gestured to his more fanciful anatomy. “I’ve never hid it! Why the fuck are you mad about this?”
Finding the right words was getting harder and harder for Mack. Not stammering or screaming in incoherent fury was harder still. “Maybe it’s because I just found out the guy I’ve been seeing has been mutilating people when I wasn’t fucking him?”
“You know this whole place is stupidly dangerous, so anyone who lives here has to be stupidly dangerous, too. How does this make me the bad guy?” Lenny pressed his featureless fingers against his chest when he said “me.” The impact made his robes ripple. “You were the one who asked to stay longer the first time you came here. You were the one who kept coming back! And here you are, being the one who’s acting really shitty despite all the trouble I went to keeping you off limits.” He sighed in frustration. “Do you have any idea how many times I had to intercept someone who had their eye on you? I had to bargain with everything you gave me just to keep you safe!”
That last statement gave him pause. Mack had never been a chocolates-and-flowers man, as he tended to neither expect presents from anyone nor feel obligated to reciprocate, and given how he’d only seen Lenny in his dreams he’d never had the chance to swap so much as a breath mint, anyway. He had never given Lenny anything…except if that word was stretched from verb into euphemism, he’d given Lenny a whole lot, hadn’t he?
“You harvested me?”
When Lenny shrugged it made the gems on his face twinkle. “It works better if the donor’s willing. You offered. You had a good time. You kept coming back for a good time, and you seemed to keep having said good time until five minutes ago when you walked in on a business transaction you really didn’t need to see. Anyway, I don’t see how it’s any different from plugging yourself into a battery to feed some weird machine-god in exchange for not getting ground up into fertilizer, and you’re already an expert at that, right?”
The parts implanted in Mack’s body felt heavier than he could ever remember it being. He’d only been a kid when the metal giants last walked across the land (shitting cables and breathing sky, his mother’s old journal had read), so he didn’t truly have a frame of reference for it, but the agreements were all reasonable, and with everyone cooperating it made the world a better place. You never had to worry about food. You never had to worry about getting sick. You could learn a trade and raise your kids and be up all night making art if you wanted to, and if reality got too real you could always have it replaced. All you had to do was help out. There’d been rough spots before everyone knew the rules, back when the power company wasn’t as together as it needed to be, but that was normal for anything this big and different, and nobody worried about overpopulation anymore. It was a joint effort between humanity and the visitors to give everyone a better life.
And this little shitstain was talking like there was something wrong with that.
“Fuck you, you selfish coward!” he said, voice raspy as a crow’s. Then he took a swing at Lenny.
Mack had no idea how to fight. At the very most he sometimes play-wrestled a bit if he was with a guy who liked that sort of thing, but he was still an average-shaped guy weighted down by a lot of extra polymers. Lenny, on the other hand, was some kind of professional boogeyman, and even with pure anger fueling Mack’s strikes Lenny had no trouble evading them. He may as well have been a little boy throwing a tantrum for as much good as it did.
The land itself worked against him, too: the ground would shift to toss him off-balance as the branches of the surrounding trees pushed him away. Maybe Lenny was doing it and maybe it was just reacting to its master coming under attack, but Mack could do nothing but blame everyone for everything. He blamed the too-tall figure for making Lenny do things. He blamed Lenny for going along with it. He blamed the patchwork man for needing to exist. He blamed the man in the polo shirt for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and making Mack see things he didn’t need to. He blamed the grove for being where he’d first gotten into this mess. He blamed himself for ever picking up that fucking book.
He felt himself burning out. He wondered what would happen if he did. Was the glowing figure still watching, waiting for him to pass out? Would Lenny finally scoop out his organs and be done with him? Even if everything was fine, would he be able to live with himself? A final lucky swing caught a gem on Lenny’s cheek with a bit of metal on one of his knuckles—just a leftover diagnostics tab, so hardly sharp, it should’ve been safe, it shouldn’t have been a big deal—and pulled it free with a horrible sound that left a thin gash leading up to a rip in Lenny’s skin. The blood that beaded up sparkled like the gems around it.
Parts of the grove crackled, some of the trees glitching and smearing like digital footage gone bad. Circles of static pulsed out from beneath Lenny’s feet. He held his bleeding face and stared at Mack, both surprised and disgusted. “Get out.”
A pattern of white lines tessellated through the air, their crawling shapes erasing the grove and Lenny with it. Mack woke up then, the tab on his hand horribly out of alignment but no sign of blood or gems or so much as a leaf in his hair. He had a new implant put in the next day, one that would keep him from lucidly dreaming for days as he came down off the anesthetics, and by the time he had recovered enough to try again he found a little hole in his memory where the directions to the grove used to be. There was no reason to wander off into his subconscious because there was nothing for him there. What there was was the real world, with new people to meet and new headsets to try out if he wanted to explore somewhere unreal for a while. He didn’t forget Lenny, but he tried not to think about him: any attempt at reminiscing would always be interrupted by the sight of Lenny’s face and how maybe as he looked so shocked he’d looked a little betrayed, too.
Mack decided he didn’t need to try lucid dreaming again.
Getting to the party wasn’t the hard part, as the people throwing it—the Gentry, that was what Lenny called them—were gluttons for attention. It seemed like every road led there. Mack didn’t bother with a disguise: they would know him on sight, their kind having long since caught his scent, so instead he opted to show up in his sleeping clothes and the good sneakers he’d first put together on Lenny’s highway. He wondered if he’d be the only aging guy in pajama pants in attendance. He hoped he could get by on sheer audacity up until he found Lenny and got him out of there. He didn’t know where Lenny was going to be, either, save as part of the parade the hosts would put on to entertain…whoever it was they owed a tithe to. Mack didn’t like the thought of things worse than Lenny’s boss.
The party itself was held on a sprawling garden estate with a heavy red crepe paper motif among the decorations. Being outdoors it didn’t quite have rooms, though there were clear boundaries between each general area and they were all connected by a network of little paths. No two cordoned spaces were quite the same: some were like oversized paths which wound between walls of fat black trees with lanterns hung in their branches, others circled musicians’ stages or creaking tables of food. It was clean and bright beneath a perfect moonlit sky. Under any other circumstances he would have felt underdressed. Here, though, he was just another face in a sea of people.
The people at the party were not technically people at times. An enormous serpent with televisions for eyes spoke to a walking skeleton whose bones were inlaid with gold and ebony. A man in a fine dress coat swished by, each step leaving a footprint that shimmered with rainbows of color before it faded. A marble centaur with a halo of floating eyes around its head served people drinks from the wet bar harnessed to its back. Some of the attendees were more of those too-tall golden figures with faces too beautiful to look at for long, white-furred dogs with bright red ears heeling at their sides. Little twisted figures with faces like root vegetables capered underfoot in great swarms. Mack thought he saw another normal person when he passed a woman in an open-mouthed wolf costume, but when both pairs of eyes followed him and he caught sight of the fine, gill-like tissues on the underside of what he’d taken for fake fur he amended his opinion.
Nobody looked familiar until he saw Lenny eating hors d’oeuvres in one of the quieter not-quite-rooms. He’d cleaned up well: looking at him you’d never know he’d been stuck inside a giant nightmare fruit for a while. Someone had given him a dainty unicorn’s horn that was a bright ivory against his skin and hair. His eyes were ruby red for the occasion. He nodded warily to Mack.
“I see you made it,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Mack. He considered helping himself to some of the food, but the round tomato-looking thing that grimaced in the middle of the closest platter chattered its teeth at him when he reached for something. Snacks could wait. “So when is the parade, Len?”
Lenny nipped a cheese cube from a toothpick. “Very soon,” he said. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Are you going to be able to recognize me?”
A little pixie flitted by and handed Mack a champagne flute. Its contents were the same color as the pixie’s wings, which he had to admit was a pretty good trick. The flavor was indescribably pleasant. “I’ll figure something out. I made it this far, right?”
“I’m counting on you, Telemachus.”
Mack paused mid-sip. He looked Lenny dead in the eye and said, “I never did tell you what my name was short for, Len.”
Lenny looked back, then hundreds of little seams traced the outline of a jigsaw puzzle across his skin. He fell apart. The little pile of pieces themselves crumbled into ash, upon which a horrible little creature in a butler’s uniform cleaned it up with a broom. They’ll lie to you, the real Lenny had said. So this was how it was going to be, was it? At least now he finally had a reason to thank his parents for saddling him with such a ridiculous fucking name. If this made Lenny into Odysseus then that added some fairly gross context to their relationship, but at least it was true to the whole troublingly horny Grecian ourve.
Something shaped like a cadaver with a flat stone tablet for a head and long, gray limbs beckoned him to one of the many dance floors. This one was obviously not Lenny, so Mack followed, and the Rosetta Stone revenant was a surprisingly good dance partner; he stayed until he spotted another flash of red fabric and dark hair that lured him off to the side.
“Shit, they’ve already started on you, huh?” asked Lenny as soon as Mack had bid his single-serving companion farewell.
Mack shrugged. “I didn’t make it any secret when I came here. At least I get to enjoy the party this way.” He sized Lenny up and added, “Also I know you’re another falsie. I don’t think I’ll tell you why.”
The fake Lenny looked pissed before he, too, fell apart.
Things went this way for a while. Mack might have been there for a matter of hours or for the span of several years, as it was hard to tell time even in the friendliest of dreams and this one was a veritable shark tank, and he lost count of how many Lennies fractured and broke when he rebuked them. The music was good and the food was better, though, so he focused less on the way the passage of time had become optional and more on getting to know whatever it was that chatted him up while he sampled some punch.
Just as he’d risked losing interest in destroying phantasms and chatting about literature with angelic figures made from melting flesh-wax, a thrumming voice like a bass-heavy microphone announced that the Procession would be starting on the main green in ten minutes. Mack excused himself as politely as he could and hurried to the green. He wasn’t quite sure where the Procession would pass since the green was packed, but if he had to knee a few satyrs in the balls to get to Lenny (or the next Lenny, anyway; who knew how many falsies were loaded into the parade) he was mentally prepared for it.
He squinted across the green at the partygoers elsewhere on the green and was briefly glad he hadn’t wandered to that part of the estate earlier. Some of them looked like extremely well-dressed humans of staggering beauty, though Mack could practically smell the corpses on their breath, while some of the others…some of the others Mack didn’t care to look at long. He now had a better understanding of just what Lenny’s boss had threatened to do. A flicker of anger came back—nothing as intense as the time he and Lenny had fought, and if he’d bothered letting his mind return to that day he might have wondered where all that rage came from and why it was so fierce, the same way he might have wondered why that grotesquely beautiful thing didn’t seem to care he saw their little business deal—but Mack balled his fists and kept them in his pajama pockets. He had to get Lenny out of here.
A trumpet sounded and the Procession began, all lights and horses. People twirled pennants. Mack had to fight against being enthralled by the spectacle as he scanned the people in the parade for one or more instances of Lenny, and every time the colors dazzled him or he lost sight of the people there he feared he’d fucked up terminally.
The first Lenny who rode past looked exactly like the others, and when Mack whispered a “no” under his breath the Lenny fell apart like the others, too. Nobody seemed to mind someone being unmade in the middle of a display. A second Lenny fluttered a feather fan at one of the unspeakable things watching from the green, and it, too, failed Mack’s test, crumbling away mid-flirt. It was starting to get exhausting watching the closest thing he’d had to a serious boyfriend symbolically die dozens of times over.
Maybe this was how they were going to lie to him. For all he knew Lenny could have already passed by, maybe with a bag over his head or transformed into a giant snail. There was the very real chance that this was somehow Lenny’s great last hurrah, some kind of over-elaborate honeypot to finally capture that pesky dreamer who’d slipped through his fingers all those years ago. Lenny never lied to Mack, but he definitely didn’t share the entire truth, and even as he scanned the Procession Mack felt his will slowly draining away.
He’d nearly lost hope when another Lenny rode by on a float, this one throwing prizes to the crowd from a basket nestled against his hip. Mack squinted, but just as he was about to banish this one he spied what he was looking for: a little scar on the Lenny’s cheek, slightly concealed by makeup but still clear as day if you knew where to check. None of the others had had that. This wasn’t a Lenny at all.
Mack charged forward and pulled Lenny from the beribboned wagon. He’d hoped he had enough momentum to disappear into the crowd, but what had originally been an assortment of little masked goblins begging for thrown candy was now a wall of the too-beautiful things Lenny worked for and their slavering red-eared hounds. The Gentry were even worse in numbers, pretty like the twinkle of missiles in night vision footage. Mack tried shoving past them anyway. When they refused to move, he glared one of them in its lovely face and pulled Lenny close.
“Out of the way, fucker. I’m taking this one with me.”
Yes? You are taking him like that? it said in that same without-words way Lenny had used to beg Mack for help.
He didn’t want to look, but he had to. He still had his arm tight around Lenny’s side and Lenny’s weird clothes still brushed against his cheap undershirt, but this Lenny was changing. His little unicorn horn split like a blooming flower and curled back against his face while his flesh boiled. Lenny’s delicate doll-hands twisted into masses of sharpened chitin. Mack and Lenny made eye contact shortly before there was a ripping sound and a gash tore its way from the outside corner of Lenny’s eyes down the sides of his face and neck; inside were more scared ruby eyes that wibbled like gelatin as they rolled wildly. There soon was barely anything left that looked like he used to at all. Nothing save for a little scar floating in the ruined expanse of Lenny’s face.
Mack took Lenny’s face in both hands and kissed what looked most like a mouth. Once he broke their kiss (which had been sweeter than he’d expected, even with all the teeth in the wrong places) he stared down the beautiful things. “Yeah, I will,” he said.
Something laughed like a leaden bell. Even now? said the being in its un-voice.
He could feel Lenny churning in his arms. An errant bone spur tore Mack’s shirt even as part of the insect shell clinging to Lenny’s body gave way to feathers that shed a powder that burned at whatever exposed skin it touched. His legs and feet fused together into a single loop of muscle that caused him to collapse against Mack, spreading his acidic pollen further. Lenny barely had a face anymore: in its place was a gaping, drooling maw studded with teeth that resembled calcium flowers. What he did have was a little scar, and so Mack improvised another kiss. This was his friend. These were those “trials” Lenny had mentioned. He couldn’t give up now.
“I already told you, I’m taking him with me. You can’t do anything that’s going to change my mind.”
The Gentry looked amused, or at least as amused as he could gather from their otherworldly faces. He hated them so much. One of them, maybe their leader or maybe Lenny’s boss or maybe both at once, gestured to him with a white and featureless hand, the way Lenny’s had looked when he wasn’t busy being an abomination. Shall you prove it to us?
Mack clung to Lenny’s ruined body with his left hand and flipped the figure off with his right. “Fucking watch me, asshole.”
Public sex was not exactly Mack’s cup of tea. He was fine with getting up to something when half-hidden in a bathhouse’s steam, and if there were other guys using the same alley he was visiting with a friend that wasn’t a problem: it was the idea of people being there, watching, without having sex of their own they could focus on having, that didn’t sit with him. Strictly speaking the thought of defiantly fucking Lenny in front of a party attended by quite possibly the worst things ever should have been the sort of thing that would destroy his erection and maybe cause him to try and hide under a table somewhere. Paired with this was how Lenny did not look, strictly speaking, fuckable. Was there even an appropriate orifice anymore? But Mack was angry, and Mack had promised to help, and Mack had not gotten laid in a while, and Mack just maybe missed how good it had felt when he was balls-deep in his usually-not-this-polymorphic friend, and all of these combined meant that when he fumbled with the hem of his pants there was something worth seeing underneath them.
He stepped into the skin loop Lenny’s legs had become, flipped back part of Lenny’s partially shredded clothes, and aligned himself with what looked like the most eagerly-offered place for his cock. “I’m getting you out of here. I won’t let go,” he said in what he hoped was Lenny’s ear.
“Hurry,” gurgled Lenny, “please….” Mack needed no further encouragement.
There were a few blissful seconds of slipping inside a body that still knew how to fit him (and wasn’t it convenient, really, that Lenny never needed prep time if he didn’t feel like it?) before Mack felt his own body changing, too. He’d watched werewolf movies as a kid but most of them never thought to mention the straining burn of muscle being pulled into a new shape, nor the way his skin pulled taut and always felt just shy of ripping like the foul, rotten paper that seemed to be everywhere in the dream world. A dozen points of his body seared with white-hot pain and Mack realized, with no small horror, that his implants were worming their way out of him. Curls of metal spooled out of his body with agonizing slowness. He jerked his hips but kept inside Lenny as best he could out of desperate need. He couldn’t fail both of them, not here and not now.
Mack felt like he shouldn’t have been surprised when he felt the claws at the ends of his fingers, nor how he was so much taller than he was supposed to be, but unlike Lenny he was new to the forcible shapeshifting thing. He didn’t allow himself the luxury of worrying if being bigger meant he’d be hurting Lenny: the Gentry would probably make butterfly kisses hurt if they thought it would serve their horrible interests. Lenny, now a sleek plastic mannequin with black and neon skin and a bundle of branching coral for a head, held on tight, so whatever the situation was on his end he seemed determined to ride it out. Mack nosed at Lenny’s scar with his new muzzle in a misplaced attempt to comfort him. They were going to get out of this alive. They had to.
He was close, which felt important, but then the bottom fell out of everything and it felt like everything, everything was impermanent.
They were wild beasts with wild hearts, and though Mack still had his wits about him he had to struggle against the urge to rip out Lenny’s exposed throat even as Lenny snapped, snaggle-toothed, for his own.
He was a slug-human chimera embracing a Lenny carved from salt, his skin burning from the slightest touch, but he would not let Lenny go even as he felt himself melt.
He was a thunderbolt and Lenny was some manner of mermaid, slowly cooking even as he clung to Mack in desperation, and it was a crime that he smelled so appetizing.
They were man-headed serpents twining around each other, bodies riddled with craters and spiraling scar tissue, and though the spikes that jutted from their ribs cut each other deeply they refused to relax their embrace.
He was some kind of saw-mouthed insect and Lenny was a thing with fingers in place of teeth, and he rasped lustily and desperately at some of those fingers as they hooked into his mouth.
He was an ice-rimed dragon with steel scales while Lenny was a dolly made from guncotton wrapped around hunks of flint, and even as he thrusted away he felt something no doubt upsetting going on where Lenny’s cock pressed against his stomach, something involving sparks.
When Lenny burst into flames it was at the exact moment that Mack came, and it seemed like the whole world was burning.
It was as much of a surprise to Mack as to anyone else that he was unharmed when he came to, to say nothing that he came to again at all. The Procession was gone and so was the party. They lay together in a darkened meadow surrounded by trees, the cool air thick with the klaxon of insects and the distant calls of frogs, and the fingernail of a moon that hung in the sky was just enough to give mass to the velvety darkness. Mack didn’t want to look at himself, but he couldn’t feel his implants and instinctively knew they were gone forever. He was useless for donating electricity or orgone or anything else now. The power company was absolutely going to have his ass.
He flopped on his back and did what he could to not think about how it didn’t feel like his back. “So did we do it?”
“Yeah,” said Lenny’s voice from somewhere to the left of him. “They’re furious, but you did everything you were supposed to. Real dramatic, too. I’m sure they’ll be gossiping about us for ages.” He laughed. “The traditional way is just holding the rescued individual in your arms, not pulling them on your dick, you know.”
Mack groaned and nudged Lenny with what he hoped was an elbow. “Fuck you, it worked.” It really had, too: save for his missing implants and whatever they’d done to his body, he was in perfect health, far better than an average dude entering his fifties should’ve been. He watched the sky for a while. The stars drifted like firefly tails. “So…no more harvesting?”
“No more harvest, no more tithe. Just me.”
What that “me” was could be important, so Mack turned his head at just the right angle to look at Lenny without having to see himself at the same time. Lenny’s old shape was gone. He now resembled a sphinx of sorts: he had his own hair and face back, and a stripe of light brown skin traced his neck and along his belly, but the rest of him was some kind of shaggy-furred, four-legged animal. His horns had returned. He rose to all fours and shook himself, revealing a brief line of eyes tracing from the corners of his sockets to his haunches before they winked back out of sight, and as he practiced padding around on his new feet he left a trail of misty afterimages behind him. Mack was not sure what to make of how even after everything that had gone on that night he wanted to fuck Lenny’s monstrous new self.
“You’re not worried about being stuck this way?”
“It’ll be fine,” said Lenny. He yawned with a mouth that opened wider than it should have. “How about you?”
“What do you mean, how about me?”
“I mean, you know you can’t go back now. You can’t wake up because there’s nothing to go back to. Whatever you left in the waking world is gone, snatched up by some collector. They’re so lazy about it they don’t even bother leaving fetches these days.”
Mack hadn’t wholly admitted to himself that he was being naïve when he told himself he’d be returning from the Gentry’s party with their unnamed benefactors. He’d also kept from looking at what they’d done to him, some tiny shard of hope in his leathery heart holding out that if he just didn’t see what had happened it couldn’t be real. He kept his eyes fixed on the sky.
“I have some family back there. My parents are getting really old, Len. I don’t want them to worry.” Who was he bargaining with? Was he trying to convince himself of something? Mack wasn’t sure.
“You think I didn’t have anyone back when I stepped through?” asked Lenny. “People don’t miss you the way you’d think, you know. You just fade out after awhile. The gaps all fill themselves in. This place might not be your home, but it’s where you live now, so you might as well skip the moping and try and make the most of it.”
He didn’t want to mope, that was the thing. Mack felt properly put-together in a way that was so perfect he still doubted it could last. He still wouldn’t look at what he was, at least not yet, but he could imagine living this way. He had new, interesting urges he’d have to learn how to navigate. There was a lot you could do in a dream. There was probably even more when you were whatever this was.
He looked up at the moon, then back at the field where the party had been, then finally down at himself. It wasn’t what he’d expected. He looked wrong but felt right. He could see himself swimming with whatever this thing was that his body had become, and striding through the wilderness, and maybe pinning Lenny down and fucking him because it had been a long while since they’d properly been together, hadn’t it? Assuming Lenny would let him after everything had had happened. Rescuing a man from being shipped off to wherever would only make things even between them at the most. He had to accept that maybe this was the last time they’d talk.
True as it was, Mack didn’t want to think about that right now. “What do I do with these?” he asked instead, gesturing to some of the newer parts of his anatomy. Lenny peered at them and nudged one with his nose.
“No idea. I guess we can figure it out as we go. Which should be soon, this place isn’t safe for us.”
Lenny rolled his eyes, which was quite the sight since he opened his extra sets for emphasis. “You’d last five minutes out here alone. I’m still pissed at you and I bet you’ve got some pretty strong words for me yourself, but maybe we can talk things out while learning how to breathe fire or whatever it is these wacky new bodies do.” He pranced from foot to foot. “It’ll probably be easier learning how to be a nightmare with somebody watching my back in no-man’s-land is what I’m saying.”
With a bit of unsteadiness from his moved center of gravity, Mack rose to his feet. He’d have to figure out if he was meant to be bipedal or not. “The way you’re talking, I take it they took all those places that used to be yours.”
“Every last blade of grass and crumb of concrete,” said Lenny, his voice slightly wistful. “Good memories there. I’ll have to try and make more in the years to come. Maybe I can figure out how to make myself a lair.”
They started walking in no particular direction. The longer they did the more Mack was able to figure out what limbs went where and when, and while he had yet to match the gazelle’s grace that Lenny already displayed he didn’t have to worry about tripping over his own feet. It would be the most embarrassing fate imaginable if he ended up getting murdered by a ghost fox or something solely because he didn’t know where to put his huge damn self.
“So what do you do with a lair?” asked Mack as they neared the treeline.
“Oh, you know. Lurking. Resting. Storing stuff.”
“Planning riddles, you’ve got to have riddles.”
“How about getting fucked raw by that guy who saved your ass from eternal torment?”
Lenny barked a laugh. “Maybe. Could be I find a lair with enough space for a roommate. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, you know?” He chucked Mack in the side with his shoulder. “And you’re still an asshole for punching me.” He grinned that vicious animal grin of his, though with his eyes smiling the way they were it seemed warmer, more inviting than before. Maybe it had always looked that way and Mack had just needed a change of perspective. “C’mon. Let’s go be scary monsters.”
Mack didn’t have to be told twice. He roared a challenge at the frogs, his voice soon joined by Lenny’s, and then they slipped through the trunks, blending into the darkness until they were nothing more than two (and sometimes more than two) pairs of eyes in the trees.
Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.