Four months, no shame in that. Barton hadn’t intended to fall once more into its vicious and familiar embrace. When he clutched the tiny bag, however, no sacrifice seemed too great and no punishment too severe. He was on the tricky side of forty, his liver near collapse, his mother and teenage son distant as a star. Every line of crushed crystals barreling through the clipped straw brought him closer to the life otherwise only possible after death. Four months—no shame, no shame at all. Goof and Sister Pussy, eyes sparkling like coins at the bottom of a well, sat across the coffee table from Barton. Goof’s fingers massaged the shaved wonder between her thighs.
“Vince told me what people were saying,” Goof said. “About you and me. Little faggot flashbacks, huh?”
Barton laughed so forcefully the dope fled his nose in a gooey mass.
“Don’t waste the shit,” Goof said.
“You know not to mention that name,” Barton replied.
“My brother is a bit of a Dope Nazi,” Sister Pussy said, affecting the faux Southern twang of doomed Tennessee Williams heroines. She held Barton’s gaze, smiling like she knew secrets she planned to tell. The girl had been a surprise. Earlier that evening, Goof threw open the door and bounded into the motel room, wrapped Barton in his bony arms. It wasn’t until Barton freed himself from Goof that he noticed the unannounced guest. He recognized her from a photo glimpsed on Goof’s bedside during their stint at rehab. Plain, pudgy, eager, a tongue both skilled and lacking in prudence. Moments before, as she sucked his cock while Goof watched naked from the bed, Barton realized he had no qualms throwing down with siblings. They belong in a sideshow, Vince might say. Sister Pussy and Goof—a girl and a boy. No, a girl and a man. Vince was nowhere near the obscure motel between Dallas and Fort Worth. If he were, Barton had no doubt he would wink and chuckle, finally vindicated.
Barton felt his groin stir despite ejaculating in Sister Pussy’s mouth moments ago. Whether his desire had surfaced for her or Goof remained a question too forbidding for Barton to articulate.
“Who the fuck is Vince?” she asked.
Goof groaned, took the short straw from Barton. “Should you or should I?” he asked.
Barton grimaced, his head sinking. “That freak’s taken up enough airtime.” Despite the sneer in his tone, he smiled and shook his head like a father teaching an infant to speak. During rehab, Vince liked to call Barton his big brother; now Vince didn’t call him at all.
“Barton, oh Barton,” Goof declared as if Barton gazed down from a tower. “Make me feel like a real man.”
“That was some funny shit.”
“Maybe for you.”
Goof snorted a line. His teeth were beige, crumbling like a sand castle at high tide. Barton paused in amazement; he’d let Goof kiss him more than once, more than twice.
“That skinny bastard was so fucking smitten,” Goof said.
Sister Pussy gasped, clapped her hands over her mouth. “No fucking way!”
“He thought I was a fag like him,” Barton said, drumming his fingernails upon the table, eyeing Goof’s last line, not caring if Goof noticed, knowing Goof wouldn’t care.
“They oughta put all those cocksuckers in a cage and toss the key,” she said.
Barton managed a half-smile, glanced away from his guests. He wasn’t sure which one to approach next. The dope had sparked his desire, as it always did. The decision between Goof and Sister Pussy might reveal something to them; it might reveal something to him.
Sister Pussy started her share, snorts echoing down her throat as if she were slurping soup. Barton’s gaze drifted toward Goof only to spy his charged look, the corners of his mouth creeping upward. At rehab, Barton often teased Goof about letting him fuck Barton up the ass. Of course, it was all in jest. They weren’t like Vince, a train wreck of bent wrists and wet consonant sounds. It was all in jest until Goof arrived. It was all in jest until Goof suggested they tweak, knowing just a couple of lines compelled Barton to squat down on any erection.
Four months—no shame in that.
Barton lied to the men—the women, too—about what kept him bent over strange tables in strange rooms, straw or dollar bill jammed up his nostril. It wasn’t the sex, the absurd duration or indescribable euphoria before climax. What lured Barton into the synthetic degradation was how it allowed him to revisit without pain the moments in his past that haunted and shamed him. It was the comfort a mother offers after a father’s beating, but it was the only comfort he knew.
If Goof or Sister Pussy heard the knock outside, they gave no sign. Barton wanted to whisper a warning, but he saw the siblings grinning like two vultures deciding to share a corpse. Another knock. Sister Pussy drew Goof into a kiss, the two consuming one another, snatches of teeth and tongue flitting into view. Barton’s head fell back, his eyes closed, his body following. The knocks grew louder, closer together. So much was possible…
“Hey, big brother, you about to crash?”
Barton came to, sitting in front of the apartment he shared with Goof at Serenity Hills, the rehab that promised salvation but often produced stale resentment. It was another roiling summer in Houston, the air fetid and moist like horse feces. The courtyard teemed with patients too anxious to stay indoors, too exhausted to move once outside. Barton had killed many hours on his bench, smoking, bullshitting, imagining the crystal meth awaiting him, hating those fantasies and himself for having them.
“Did I come at a bad time?”
Christ, it was that night. The last days of July, a week before Vince’s birthday. He’d coyly hinted to Barton, never within earshot of anyone, that he’d ask for his birthday present when Barton least expected it. Barton blamed himself for the awkward familiarity Vince expected each conversation. He couldn’t be cruel, not to an enemy’s face. He slapped the raised hand, roared at the terrible joke, smirked and nodded when an absent friend was ridiculed—Barton was a politician without a platform.
Barton smiled and slid across the bench. The slats dug into his thighs. Vince ignored the plentiful room Barton had allowed him, sat close enough to graze Barton’s thigh. The crickets serenaded them, two men with more in common than one dared hope and the other dared admit.
“Five more days,” Vince said.
Vince slapped Barton’s shoulder. “My birthday, you monumental shit.”
Not wanting to, Barton rubbed the spot Vince had pegged. “I told you to remind me.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“When you gonna tell me what the fuck you want?”
“Don’t worry,” Vince said. “It won’t cost you any food stamps.”
“I’ve already bought you a case of Hamburger Helper.”
Vince cackled, head snapped back and jaw dropped wide like the villainess from a Disney feature. Barton observed him, curious how such disparate elements coexisted: the lanky, compact frame; the thick dark hair spiked atop his head, giving him the appearance of deranged shrubbery; the jeans hacked at the shin, a bizarre riff on Capri pants. Vince’s blatantly feminine gestures and affectations, however, silenced whatever desire Barton might have felt for him, how these traits comprised an exotic sort of allure. The animation drained from Vince’s face. “I’ve grown weary of Hamburger Helper.”
Barton’s breath escalated. “So what do you want?”
“There’s something I should tell you.”
His throat went dry. “What?”
“I’m such a fucking fool.” Vince pitched forward, as if to vomit.
“Dude, you’re not—what is it?”
“I’m surprised you haven’t guessed.”
“Sit the fuck up. I can’t understand you.”
He rose to face Barton, eyes bright with mania. “I’m falling for you, Barton.”
No, no, no. Anything but this.
Barton was popular among the addicts, the nutjobs, the incompetent therapists. With a laugh and a handshake, he’d disarmed the whole roster of patients and staff. Alas, his admirers believed him largely heterosexual, if not exclusively so. Only Vince knew to what extent Barton deviated from traditional carnal behavior. Deviant—surely Vince knew the word. Barton felt drained of power, anticipating Vince’s words of devotion. He looked away, spied a large cockroach scuttling toward the ledge. He cringed, heart fluttering. Too bad Goof wasn’t nearby with a flat-soled slipper or rolled newspaper.
“Vince, I’m not sure what to say.”
“I’m just grateful you’re not laughing.”
“You must think I’m an asshole.”
“I think you have secrets.” Lips parted and breath shallow, Vince gazed at him.
Barton recalled a random moment from his last visit to the Dallas bathhouse. Not the one with shaven, muscled Caucasians drifting through dim hallways, grimly appraising one another, but the one two blocks south where gay men of color congregated—and cornered any white boy who dared enter. In a room tucked at the far end of a hall, the Latino moaning after his orgasm ordered Barton to lick his semen from the concrete floor. He did as instructed. He was grateful, a beaten dog whose master disappears indoors. Not even his primary therapist at Serenity Hills knew about that night, only a smattering of would-be tricks in cyberspace, their names and faces unmissed as the semen sliding down Barton’s throat.
“We all have secrets,” Barton said.
“You told me a few”
“And no one else knows?’
Vince shook his head, flashed the three-finger Boy Scout pledge of integrity.
“I trust you, kid.” Barton wrinkled his nose, a telltale sign he was lying. He discovered, however, the words felt true once spoken. “I want you to trust me now,” he said.
Vince nodded. The cockroach Barton last glimpsed at the ledge zipped to the window sill. Barton wished to return indoors before more pests arrived.
“You know I’m sick, Vince. We all are.”
“I know that.”
“But do you understand what it means?”
“We both like to tweak. We’ve talked about it when you first—”
“Buddy, I haven’t fucked anyone sober since 1990. I wasn’t old enough to buy cigarettes. You don’t want me sleeping next to you when morning comes. Believe me.’
Vince grabbed Barton’s shoulders. “We can help each other.” Soon after meeting him, Barton realized Vince’s “playful” combat masked an urge for actual violence. Vince’s eyes shone with fervor.
“Maybe a year or so from now…” Barton didn’t know where to look.
“Hopefully, we’ll be different people. Maybe then…”
“You want me to forget you.” Vince brought his hands to his lap, legs crossed at the ankle. Like a girl, Barton thought. Like a goddamn girl.
“I’d never forget you, kid.”
Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. His two collections are “Pretend I’m Not Here” (Musa Publishing) and “Promiscuous” (JMS Publishing). His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Adroit Journal, The Ampersand Review, PANK, Word Riot, Eclectica, SmokeLong Quarterly, Johnny America, Five Quarterly, wigleaf, Storyglossia, Sundog Lit, A cappella Zoo, Spork, The Pedestal, Digital Americana Magazine and elsewhere. His work has also appeared in several LGBT venues. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives near Houston.