Five years ago
AARON was waiting in a hallway outside an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He had no idea how he’d gotten there, but there he was. He was waiting to be ushered inside with a string of other guys to see who would be chosen to be some photographer’s next model for his new series. Aaron had no idea who the guy was—some weird last name—but that didn’t stop him from waiting in line. He needed to eat just as much as the next guy.
Since moving from London to New York three months ago, he had basically taken any job he could find that would supplement his income and allow him some time to go on auditions and to sculpt or to throw an occasional pot on the wheel at the community school near his dreary flat. Apartment. Whatever.
This gig should be easy. In the door to stand around in odd poses and then out again. Two hundred dollars was two hundred dollars. He imagined he’d have to put up with a temperamental arsehole photographer, some diva who was probably extremely famous, judging from the swank hallway he was standing in at the moment. Fuck, he’d rather live in this hallway than in his own apartment. There was lovely soft carpet on the floor, and it was blessedly cool, a far cry from his sixth-floor walk-up with nothing but a rotating fan to move the putrid, humid air from his solitary window through his solitary room.
This place was fucking posh; if the hallways were this nice, he could only imagine what the inside of the bloody apartment looked like.
“You can come in now,” a soft voice came from the now open door.
As Aaron followed the line of guys ahead of him and walked through the doorway, he looked at the person belonging to the soft voice. She was nearly as tall as him with dark hair and pale skin. She was quite lovely, and he noticed several of the others taking a quick peek as they walked by her.
“Thanks for coming. My name is Alyson, and if I can get you anything to drink or eat while you wait, just give me a holler. Jake should be ready to see you soon.”
Aaron looked around and noticed no one was taking her up on her offer. Fuck, he hadn’t eaten all morning. He’d have loved to have a go at whatever food the bird was offering, but since no one moved, he didn’t want to act a ponce and be the only one asking for something. He frowned as he looked around some more, willing anyone to speak up and ask for something. Shit, they’d probably get champagne and caviar, or some smelly-arse cheese at least, by the looks of this place. Though food was fucking food, now wasn’t it?
Aaron was shifting from foot to foot as he crossed his arms and began to put a pout on when the other door leading into the room opened and some kid walked through the door. Must be the diva’s son, from the looks of him, Aaron thought, couldn’t be much more than twenty-one, twenty-two.
“Jake, these are—”Alyson began before she was abruptly cut off by the kid’s, “Yeah, okay.”
He started walking quickly past the row of guys just standing there with their thumbs up their bums until he came to Aaron.
“That one. I want that one,” he said abruptly before turning and walking quickly back through the door from which he had just entered.
“Well,” Alyson said as she cleared her throat, “I guess that takes care of that. Thank you for coming, gentlemen.”
Aaron watched as she efficiently herded the lot of them to the door while deftly ignoring their complaints and protests of time wasted, and, from those to the right of Aaron, of not even being looked at.
Once they were all gone and only Aaron was left, she turned back to him and said, “If you’ll follow me, please?”
“Hold on a tic. What’s up with all this? I mean, some kid wanders in and points at me in like ten seconds, and I’m supposed to go into the lair blindly? Jesus, you two could be fucking serial killers for all I know.”
Alyson laughed. “I’m so sorry. I’m just used to him; I guess his abruptness doesn’t even faze me anymore. You’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t think I’ll be staying around long enough to get used to anything, much less some weirdo.”
Alyson just smiled. “We’ll see.”
“No, I don’t think we will,” Aaron said, turning to leave. “Thanks for the… well, whatever the fuck this was. It’s been… unusual.”
“Wait,” she said as she reached out to grab Aaron’s wrist. “He really does just want to take your picture. Nothing odd, unless you consider his style odd… which it isn’t,” she hastened to inform him. “He just knows what he wants. He doesn’t waste time. Give it a chance. Where else are you going to get a couple hundred dollars on such short notice?”
“Without dropping my trousers?” Aaron asked with a raised eyebrow. “Nowhere.”
Alyson laughed again and gave his wrist a gentle tug. “Come on, if nothing else you can brag to all your friends in a few months that you’re part of Jake’s newest exhibition. You’ll be the talk of Manhattan.”
“Yeah,” Aaron began with a scowl, “what parts of me will he be exhibiting? Because I like all of my parts, you know. I wouldn’t want to be parted with any of my parts. Truly.”
“He’s not a serial killer,” Alyson insisted with a grin.
“All serial killers say they’re not serial killers. Do you think he’s going to wear a badge that says Hello, My Name is Psychotic Serial Killer of Young and Very Poor Men? That’s bad serial killer form, you know.”
“Okay, fine,” Alyson sighed. “Let’s put it this way—if you don’t get your cute little ass in there in about another thirty seconds, he’s going to chew my equally cute little ass out for not bringing you in to him. How’s that?”
“What the fuck? Does he think he’s the sultan or whatnot? Like I’m to be brought forth? Tell him to piss off.”
“Come on,” Alyson pleaded, “think of my cute little ass. Take one for the ass.”
“Now if you said, ‘take one up the ass’, I’d be a bit more willing.”
Alyson threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, he’s going to love you.”
“Yeah, love to kill me,” Aaron muttered, following her to the door Jake had disappeared through.
Aaron’s mouth dropped open when he entered the “room”; it was more like a huge open loft. No walls, huge floor-to-ceiling windows, shiny hardwood floors, perfect for a studio. He had no idea how Jake had acquired such a huge space in Manhattan.
As if reading his mind, Alyson leaned over and whispered, “He bought the place next door and tore down the walls.”
“Perfect,” Aaron replied, “and did he happen to find a treasure chest hidden in one of the walls as well?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how the holy hell does he afford this place? He looks like he’s twelve.”
“He’s twenty-two, and he happens to be quite successful.”
“He was born with talent?” Alyson said questioningly.
“He’s a lucky wanker who blew the right people?” Aaron suggested.
Alyson tried to scowl but grinned instead. “A child prodigy?”
“A deal with the devil?”
“An indulgent sugar daddy?”
“How about ‘c) all of the above’?” a third voice asked from behind the partition at the far corner of the studio.
“Does your sugar daddy mind when you interrupt conversations like that?” Aaron asked.
“Does yours like it when you talk shit about people in their own home?” Jake asked as he came out from behind the partition.
“Kind of, yeah, he likes my filthy dirty mouth.”
“Oh, so he’s one of those?” Jake asked, raising an eyebrow.
“One of who?”
“One of the kinky old bastards that ask you to talk dirty to them, call them ‘Daddy’, give you spankings….”
“Nothing wrong with the occasional spanking… or daddy issues.”
“I doubt your friendly neighborhood psychiatrist would agree with you.”
“My friendly neighborhood psychiatrist was my friendly neighborhood spanking daddy-issues sugar daddy.”
Alyson was staring at them as they went back and forth like a tennis match.
“Yep, it does,” Aaron said happily as he began to wander around the room touching and picking things up.
“Don’t touch my stuff.”
“Sharing issues?” Aaron asked absently, picking up yet another thing.
“No, breaking issues.”
“So you better make sure not to drop anything then.”
Jake frowned. Alyson grinned.
“Where do you want me, Ansel? Naked? On all fours? Ready to get spanked?”
“Do you ever stop being annoying and irritating?” Jake asked. “You’re like a herpes outbreak.”
“Know a lot about that, do you?” Aaron asked, pushing buttons on the camera he was holding.
“Would you stop?” Jake practically yelled as he charged over to Aaron and grabbed the camera from his hands.
“Sharing issues,” Aaron mouthed in Alyson’s direction, who put her hand up to her mouth to hide her smile when Jake turned an angry face on her.
“You know, you can stop laughing at him any time, Aly.”
“What?” Alyson asked as she shrugged. “You picked him.”
“In an obvious fit of insanity.”
“Obviously,” she agreed with a knowing look.
Jake pulled a face at her.
“Come on, Mozart, what do you want me to do?”
“Mozart?” Jake and Alyson asked at the same time.
“Child prodigy…?” Aaron supplied helpfully.
“Your brain works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it?” Jake commented.
“You’ll never be able to fathom the deep recesses of my mind.”
“Do I really want to? I have a feeling the fathoms of your recesses would make me cry.”
“My recesses have been known to make grown men cry,” Aaron said agreeably, picking up a different camera.
“God, you really are annoying.”
“Yeah, lucky for you, huh?”
“Are you high? Because if you’re high, I don’t want any part of you.”
“See!” Aaron hollered at Alyson, who jumped at the sudden outburst, “He does want my parts! What did I tell you? Serial killer!”
“Look at his pupils,” Jake directed at Alyson, “and tell me if they’re dilated or not.”
“You two are idiots,” Alyson said as she started to walk away.
“You’re leaving me alone with him!” Aaron and Jake demanded at the same time.
“You picked him,” she directed at Jake. “And you followed me in here,” she said to Aaron. “Enjoy each other.”
“Dammit, Alyson,” Jake shouted, “I told you that you could quit, but he hasn’t even agreed yet, so don’t you dare walk out of here already.”
“What is she quitting, and what am I agreeing to?” Aaron asked.
“Alyson wants to quit being my assistant to get married and have babies or some shit like that. Honestly, marriage.” Jake all but shuddered. “And you’re going to agree to take her place so she can go breed.”
“Gee, thanks, Jacob, I love it when you compare me to a dog.”
“Well, if I’m comparing you to a dog, and you’re breeding, then obviously you’re a pedigree, right? A perfectly perfect specimen.”
“Yes, a perfectly perfect specimen. Of. A. Dog.”
“Don’t go all girly on me now, Aly.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, you asshole.”
“There’s my girl back.”
“You’re making a real solid case on your behalf, acting like your lovely and charming self in front of the newbie. He already thinks you’re a serial killer.”
“Yes, well, I’ve found people can put up with a lot of shit, including serial killer behavior, if they’re paid enough.”
“Um, excuse me,” Aaron interrupted. “I’m not fucking working for you, so I think this little conversation is over. Thanks for the brief moment of mildly disturbing entertainment, but I’m out of here.”
“Wait,” Jake said as he stood between Aaron and the door. “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t short on cash. Desperate, maybe?”
“I happen to like posing for pictures in the homes of strange men. This is a typical Tuesday for me, I’ll have you know.”
“Whatever. I’m sure I can pay you a hell of a lot more than whatever it is you’re making now doing whatever the hell it is you’re doing, which with all the talk of sugar daddies and spankings is probably prostitution or S&M work.”
“So,” Aaron said, “I’m to believe you want a person who you think is a master of pain, or Julia Roberts, to be your assistant after looking at him for about a half second in a line of wanks in your living room?”
Aaron shrugged. “Okay, then. I’m in.”
Alyson mimicked a blessing as she moved her hand in the shape of a cross in front of Aaron and said, “God be with you, my son.”
“I’m not that bad,” Jake said, pushing Alyson’s hand out of Aaron’s face.
“He really is,” Alyson said as she walked over to a desk and pulled open the top right drawer. “I’ll give you my holy water. Just splash some on him and chant, ‘The power of Christ compels you’, and he should either stop or start smoking—either way, he stops.”
“Does he spit pea soup too?” Aaron asked eagerly, “Because that would be fucking awesome. And gross. But more awesome.”
Alyson rolled her eyes. “You two are perfect for each other. He’s an emotionally retarded asshole,” she said, tipping her head toward Jake, “and you’re clearly insane and find emotionally retarded assholes amusing. This should work out smashingly.”
“I thought he was the devil,” Aaron said, scrunching up his face in confusion. “Emotionally retarded assholes generally don’t start smoking after being doused with holy water. They usually start smoking after fucking some random guy, then kicking him out of bed before the condom comes off.”
“He has a point,” Jake said as he gestured in Aaron’s general direction.
“Yeah, I’m leaving now,” Alyson said. “I’ll be back to show Aaron the ropes. Or not. Maybe I’ll just run far, far away.”
“You couldn’t leave me if you tried, Aly,” Jake said confidently.
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. I’m madly in love with you. Leaving you and your three a.m. phone calls and demands for Ho-Hos only from the market on the corner of 78th is a pain I’m not sure I can bear.”
“He only likes Ho-Hos from a particular market?” Aaron asked.
“Yes, along with a weird obsession with having me wait at the fucking crack of dawn every first Thursday of the month to get him that month’s issue of Field and Stream—even though I suspect he’s never been out of Manhattan, much less near a field or a stream.”
“Yes, well, when our plane crashes in the woods and I save your ass from a bear and catch trout for you to eat instead of the dead pilot, you’ll be appreciative of my Field and Stream obsession.”
“Whatever, Jacob,” Alyson said before turning to Aaron. “I’m running out for lunch; you want something?”
“Some trout sounds really good.”
“What did I say? Crazy!” Alyson exclaimed as she walked out the door.
“She’ll be back,” Jake said, wandering over to his cameras.
“I should hope so,” Aaron replied. “I want my fish.”
“She’s not going to get you fish, you know. She’ll more than likely get you the chicken salad sandwich I always get on Tuesdays from the deli down on the corner.”
“You eat the same thing every Tuesday?”
“And Wednesday and Thursday and Friday… do you see a pattern?”
“I think you and your Ho-Hos need to branch out more.”
“And eat trout?”
“Maybe even bear.”
“Yeah, uh-uh, I’m thinking ‘no’ on the bear.”
“You gotta live dangerously, Mozart; there are only so few days each year bear is in season, you know.”
“When exactly is bear season?”
“How the hell should I know? You’re the one who reads Field and Stream, for chrissake.”
“This conversation is going nowhere fast.”
“It’s not my fault you’re a conversation killer.”
“Is that in any way, shape, or form like a serial killer?”
Aaron grinned. “A little, only with slightly less body parts in your freezer.”
“That’s good, because then there would be no room for the bear.”
“I’m out of film.”
“Sucks to be you.”
“Get me some more!”
“Hold on, I’m busy.”
“Flip, I didn’t get you that potter’s wheel so you could fuck around on it when I need you,” Jake whined.
“Flip? I thought his name was Aaron,” said the guy waiting very patiently for Aaron to get up from his wheel and bring Jake more film.
“It is Aaron; I just call him Flip,” Jake answered.
“Because he always flips me off when he should be kneeling before me waiting to do my bidding,” Jake replied at the same time Aaron answered, “Because I flip his pompous ass off when he’s being obnoxious and whiny.”
“Oh, okay then….” The guy trailed off in confusion.
“Aaron, come on,” Jake said, “could you at least pretend that you work for me and that I have actual control over your actions in said work environment?”
“I could do that, but it would throw our whole relationship off balance: you giving orders, me actually listening? Just doesn’t work, Jacob.”
“One day you’ll actually want to humor me.”
“I’ll be looking forward to it, babe.”
Jake scowled as he walked over to a nearby table to change out the film in his camera. “I’m going to take your wheel away from you one day, young man.”
“No, you won’t,” came Alyson’s voice from the open door. “That wheel’s here to stay, along with the dink attached to it.”
“Love you, too, Alyson,” Aaron sang out. Then, “Milo! My man! Come on over here and get dirty with Uncle Flip.”
Alyson’s son, Milo, raced by her legs yelling, “Unc Fip! I wan sum mud!”
“Aaron, don’t you dare get him dirty. That’s the first time he’s worn that outfit,” Alyson hollered as she walked in the room.
“He’s a little boy. He’s supposed to get dirty.”
“Yes, well, not when he’s on the way to meet Grandma, who’s the person who got him the outfit.”
“Aw, Grammy Schmammy. We’re men, and we do manly things and get full of manly dirt, don’t we, Milo?” Aaron asked, wiping off his hands and grabbing Milo up to set him on his lap.
“Yes, you’re very manly,” Jake said, “what with all the pretty pots you’re making over there. You’re the manliest of the manly.”
Aaron whispered something in Milo’s ear who then yelled, “Unc Dake, you stink like farts!” before bursting into laughter.
Alyson tried not to laugh as she admonished, “Milo! That’s not nice. You shouldn’t tell people they stink, and you should never listen to what your Uncle Flip tells you.”
“Always say no to Uncle Flip.” Jake grinned.
“Just like you do, huh?” Alyson muttered under her breath.
“I say no to him,” Jake answered back in a whisper.
“So that’s why you’re over here putting film in your camera and he’s over there getting my son into trouble at his very expensive potter’s wheel, then?”
Jake tried to scowl at Alyson, but his cheeks burst into flame, completely ruining the effect. Alyson just smiled and leaned over to kiss him on the temple. “You two will be so cute when you finally figure it out.”
“Figure what out?” Jake asked in a huff.
“I have no idea!” Alyson said happily.