It’s a normal night, but the boy can feel the world ending. Outside, orange rays from streetlights hang limply against darkness; cars pass beneath his window at random, each crawling by as if in procession. All seems still; only the boy can recognize the destruction that will soon be wrought.
Death does not frighten the boy, but it was not always so. Contemplating Christ’s body hanging from the cross, still full of its own boyish vitality, he wondered how He could have so eagerly elected to die. Back then, the boy closed his eyes and tried to imagine what it would feel like, to be nothing. The feeling of dread these thoughts of death evoked in him kept him from sleep; he was frail, weak, lacking in any quality other than narcissism, in which he cloaked himself to avoid contending with his evil nature.
But on this night, fantasias of death fill the boy’s mind, each of their notes imbued with a profound resonance that makes him tremble. He crushes the menthol ball in the butt of his cigarette and takes a long drag. He smokes it in three or four pulls, then drops it into a red plastic cup on the dresser beside him. A car turns onto the street. As it approaches his dorm, it looks like it’s hardly moving. Somehow, the boy knows it’s the man.
The ringtone, specific to the app the boy met him on, pierces the still air of his dorm room and confirms the man’s arrival. The boy reads the message and, unsurprised by its content, tosses the phone to the side. The man can wait. They always do, the men he uses to feel closer to that which he will never be.
The boy moves across the room and brings fire to glass, glass to mouth. Opaque water gurgles to life inside the bong. It sounds just like a witch’s cauldron. The boy exhales. As he looks at the mirror hung on the wall, the smoke creates a misshapen halo around his head. In his eyes, blood vessels slither out from his brown irises. He’s almost ready.
He buttons the top button of his white polo shirt, which he found in his closet the day he left home. On its sleeve is a silhouette of the Virgin Mary, three children kneeling at her feet, “Our Lady of Fatima” embroidered in script above her head. When his classmates had noticed it prior, they thought it was a joke, their brains conditioned to view all but the most obviously sincere gestures through the lens of nihilism.
The boy feels relief at never having to see them again as he rifles through the top drawer of his dresser, searching for the eyedrops. He finds them and places three drops in each eye as the app rings once more. Not wanting to test the strength of the man’s desire, not wanting to be left with no one to squeeze his flesh while telling him he’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, the boy quickens his pace.
He can already feel the drops and the smoke skewing reality, making him see things he knows he shouldn’t see. But the substances’ power to dull the pain of his consciousness is stronger than any guilt. He slips into his puffer jacket and winter boots, finds his bag hidden under his bed. It’s a child’s backpack, shaped like a goat, with buttons for eyes and a pouch in its stomach. He unzips it and puts the eyedrops inside.
When the boy emerges from the dorm’s belly, the winter air feels like a viper’s strike against his face. Through misty eyes, he sees the same black sedan twice flash its lights. It’s code for, “I am the man you’ve been waiting for,” the boy knows.
“Hey, what’s up?” the boys asks as he slides into the passenger seat.
“Nothing much. Chillin’.”
The boy looks at the man just long enough to notice his tan skin, the same shade as his older brother’s, his number-two fade, full lips. He reminds the boy of the men he would watch play basketball at the rec center, captivated by the preciousness of the sweat on their arms, the profundity of the bulges in their shorts. To the boy, the men appeared to shape reality to their liking, to command, control, produce, all the while braced by the invisible scaffolding of convention and rightness. Meanwhile, the boy could only watch them from a distance, wanting them, wanting to be them.
“How are you?” the boy asks the man.
“Not bad,” the man says. “Took you awhile. I was about to leave.”
The car smells like peppermint and musk. It’s a familiar scent, coming from the air freshener hung from the rearview mirror. The boy’s brother used the same one to cover the scent of the Swishers he would smoke. Their vanilla-laced smoke filled his car like incense as Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony played on the stereo, eulogizing their boys, the ones who went too soon. To the boy, that smell epitomized a masculinity that he would never attain, a life he could never have. No matter how much he resisted his desires to consume, to be consumed, the boy would never be like his brother, who despite his lack of remarkability, was infinitely more of a man than the boy would ever be. It did not matter that the boy could think pretty thoughts and turn them into elegant prose that earned him pats on the head from possessed people who tried their best to convince him his vices were virtues. From the start, he was doomed to a short and meaningless life. And his day of reckoning had at last arrived.
“I hope I was worth the wait,” the boy says.
“Fuck yeah,” the man says, eyeing the boy up and down.
The man’s crude words provide a thin layer of salve to boy’s open wounds.
“What do you have in that bag?” the man asks.
“Keys, wallet,” the boy says, neglecting to mention the eyedrops, the small ball of white powder, compacted within plastic wrap so it looks like a glass marble, the liter of cheap vodka that tastes like watermelon hard candy soaked in rubbing alcohol.
“Why’s it shaped like a goat?” the man asks.
“Why not?” the boy says.
The man fusses with the heat, even though the temperature is fine.
“I don’t know. Just never seen somebody your age carrying a bag like that. You must be one of those artsy kids I see around here. What do you study in school?”
“Can we put on the radio?”
“Sure. What do you want?”
“Do you mind?” the boy asks, gesturing towards the cord plugged into the stereo.
The boy plugs in his phone and pulls up the playlist he made just for tonight. Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony play through the car’s speakers and eulogize their boys, the ones who went to soon.
“This brings me back, man. How old are you?” the man asks.
“Cool. I have a daughter who’s that age. She lives with her mom.”
The man seems to regret the statement and pivots.
“Where did you get the name Tetsuo, anyways?” he asks, in reference to the boy’s username on the app.
“From a movie,” the boy says. He had always been captivated by the film, in which a boy named Tetsuo develops powers that threaten to destroy the world, but in the end, only destroys himself.
“It’s not your real name then?”
They leave it at that, driving in silence until hitting a red light. On their right is a church. The boy’s been there before, one Sunday last fall. That day was the first he felt the ground tremble beneath his feet, the first time he saw the sky waver in its commitment to holding up the heavens. While walking there, the boy passed by kids his age lying on grass, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, reading theory they pretended to understand. Laughing in that arrogant way only college students laugh. The boy could only watch from a distance and wonder how they could be so unaware that their bodies would soon be crushed by the rubble of all that once was, all that will ever be.
“What are you doing by yourself on Christmas Eve?” the man asks.
“I don’t have anybody to be with.”
“Well, you got me, at least.”
The man smiles without showing his teeth. The boy senses something genuine about the man, something unbroken, which makes him recoil. He looks away, faces out the window. They’re on the highway now. Billboards for psychics paid by the minute and DWI lawyers fly by, signs-of-the-times. Where exactly are they heading? the boy thinks. Not that he’s particular about the destination, so long as it’s far away from where he started.
Gripping the wheel with one hand, the man takes the boy’s hand in the other. The man guides it to his thigh, covered in the glossy fabric of basketball shorts. The boy slips his hand under them and inches it upward, the way he knows men like. By the time he gets to what lies in wait, it’s already prepared for what is to come. The boy grips it tightly the rest of the drive, afraid to let go.
They arrive at the man’s place, somewhere just beyond the boy’s previous world. The man kills the lights, then brings the boy’s mouth to his. At once, the boy becomes the center of the man’s universe, becomes the sun. For a moment, he’ll blaze brilliantly; then, he’ll implode.
But for now, the boy is powerful, even as the man throws him onto a bed and rips him open. Since he cannot be a man, the boy controls one. Since he cannot be a man, the boy manipulates his hips in such a way that the man under him is forced to spill the very essence of his manhood inside him. In the darkness of the man’s room, the boy cannot see himself. In the darkness of the man’s room, he feels whole.
But the feeling fades as soon as the lights come on. The man tries to get him to stay in bed with him, but as soon as they’re done, the boy heads to the bathroom, stopping to pick up his backpack on the way. Once inside, he extracts his twisted Eucharist from the belly of the goat. The vodka tastes venomous on his tongue, the powder like poison in his nose. Just a few more drops in his eyes, and the world will start to calm, the boy is convinced. But as soon as he’s out of the bathroom, the invisible strings holding the universe together begin to snap, crisscross, tangle themselves so much that they become useless. Meanwhile, the man looks blankly ahead, oblivious to the impending carnage.
The boy knows he could get the man to hold him, to provide some temporary comfort while he stares down the apocalypse. With his shirt off, the man’s arms look strong enough to hold everything together, if only for a few minutes. But the boy knows that wouldn’t be right. Tonight’s sequence of events was set into motion long before, by something much greater than either of them. He tells the man he wants to leave, and it doesn’t take long for the man to agree to take him where he needs to go.
Within the hour, the boy is sitting in the pew closest to the church’s exit. Next to him, an elderly couple sits, holding hands as the priest shepherds them through the midnight service; they look like two halves coming together to form a single whole.
Could the boy have found somebody to complete him in the same way, if only he had tried a little harder?
He knows it’s a pointless question to ponder, knows that it’s far too late for him. Instead, the boy closes his eyes and imagines what it will feel like, to be nothing. No feelings of dread surface at the thought of his death. For once, he feels brave; for once, he feels unashamed. By eagerly accepting death, he will be released from the prison of his soiled flesh and wretched insides. For the first time in his life, the boy feels like a man.
The boy prays for so long his knees ache and his back begins to bend under the weight of his fate, and then he prays more.
Once outside, he looks towards the heavens. Everything is in its proper place.
Back in his room, he reaches into his bag for the last time. Pushing all else aside, his fingers brush up against something cool and hard. He takes it out and slides its metal shell into his mouth. Despite it all, he prays that God will tell him he’s the most beautiful thing He’s ever seen.
— Thomas is an author living and writing in the tri-state area of the United States.