Prologue

 

 

THE NIGHT had turned cold while they were in the Brig, one of Chicago’s oldest and most infamous leather establishments. A strong wind out of the north had blown away the cloud cover that allowed the city of Chicago to retain a little Indian summer heat this late October night. With the wind, the temperature had plunged nearly twenty degrees, from a relatively balmy sixty-two, down to the low forties. But the wind had also revealed a sprinkling of stars, visible even with the ambient light from downtown. And the moon had emerged, almost full, lending a silvery cast to North Clark Street.

Donald wrapped his arms around Mark as they headed south on Clark, toward the side street where they had left their car. Even with his chaps, biker jacket, and boots, Donald felt the chill bite into him, vicious. He couldn’t imagine how Mark was faring, wearing only a T-shirt and jeans. He’d get his boy into leather one of these days! It was just past three 3:00 a.m., and the far north side neighborhood called Andersonville, once the province of Swedes and working class folk, and now the home of yuppies and gays, was quiet. A lone taxi headed north up Clark, looking for fares. Someone even unsteadier on his feet came out of the adult bookstore ahead of them, blinking rapidly, and looking around, perhaps for more excitement than he had found in the bookstore. Donald thought that, once upon a time, he could have been the sad, singular man emerging from an adult bookstore while the rest of the world slept, but things had changed since he had met Mark six months ago.

“I feel almost—almost—like we’re the only two people on earth,” Donald said to Mark, drawing him in close for a sloppy, beery kiss. When he pulled his mouth away, he flashed the crooked grin he knew entranced his boyfriend and completed the thought with, “And that’s fine by me.”

Mark grinned back, then rubbed his upper arms. “It’s not fine by me. Not when it’s this frickin’ cold! Let’s get home!”

They wrapped their arms around each other to ward off the cold, much as they had done the night they met, back in March, in the same leather bar. And once again, they were just a bit boozy and flushed with need for each other. Tonight, the weather outside may have not been as frigidly cold as it had been last winter when they had first laid eyes upon one another, but the heat and electricity passing between them was still burning as brightly as that very first night.

Donald stopped again in the middle of the sidewalk, pulling Mark close and planting a kiss on his cheek. There was no one around, and in this neighborhood, such displays really were nothing to worry about, Donald thought. Hell, most anyone they encountered would either be sympathetic or jealous. He nipped at Mark’s earlobe and whispered, “I love you, you know that?” He paused to breathe in Mark’s scent and to nuzzle his nose in Mark’s blond curls.

And Mark stopped, right there in the middle of Clark Street, on an early Sunday morning, and placed his hands on Donald’s shoulders, so he would stop walking and so he could look right back into Mark’s penetrating stare. “And I love you, Donald.” He gave a small grin and looked down at the ground for just a second, almost as if he was embarrassed, and then said, “And I always will. This is a forever thing.”

Donald felt a rush of warmth go through him at the exact same moment a harsh wind, full of chill and with the smell of dark water, glided east from over Lake Michigan. He pulled Mark close and kissed him full on the mouth, his tongue lifting Mark’s and doing a little duel with it. Neither of them closed their eyes, preferring instead to stare into each other’s rapt gazes. Just as they were breaking apart, they stiffened as the roar of a souped-up engine shattered the still of the night. The backfire issuing forth from the car’s muffler made both men jump. They gave each other a quick glance, then laughed.

The car, an old maroon Duster that had been tricked out beyond good sense, taste, or fiscal responsibility, slowed across from the pair. Three shadowy figures moved inside. One of them rolled down a window, and a young male face, pale and marred by acne in the moon’s light, emerged making a kissing sound, exaggerated and prolonged. Donald heard the other guys in the car laughing. He stiffened and felt a trickle of sweat roll into the small of his back, in spite of the chill in the air.

Just as suddenly as they had arrived, they roared off, leaving them in a wake of sour-smelling exhaust. But they did not leave without casting a parting shot out the window. “Fucking faggots!”

Donald shook his head, glancing over at Mark, whose young face was creased with worry. “Don’t let shit like that get to you. They’re idiots. And chickenshits… it’s pretty easy to call names at people from a speeding car.”

The pair continued south. Up ahead, they needed to turn east to make their way to the little side street where they had parked Donald’s Prius. The street could usually be counted on for a spot, even on a busy Saturday night. Donald thought it was more the fact that the street was hard to get to than the fact that it ran along the northern border of St. Boniface Cemetery that made it such a good parking bet.

“I know. They’re just a bunch of assholes,” Mark said as they continued east. Donald could feel the defeat and fear in his voice. He hoped the hotrod homophobes hadn’t broken the spell of their night. Because Mark was much younger, he hadn’t been exposed to some of the same ridicule and taunting Donald had, growing up in the late sixties and seventies.

Donald bit his lower lip, suddenly feeling all the shame and embarrassment he had once associated with being gay rise up again. It never really disappears, does it? His face felt flushed, and a curious mixture of emotions warred within him. First, there was the shame, which he chastised himself for, but he still couldn’t stop the little inner voice that scolded him for the public displays of affection, even on an early Sunday morning and in a part of town that was very gay. Second, there was a more recent, more reasonable voice that was enraged and asked “How dare they?” This voice was ready to chase after the speeding car, shouting epithets right back at the cowards who hid behind the car’s macho posturing and tinted glass. And the final voice, the other half of the fight or flee duo, just wanted to grab Mark’s hand and run back to the car, jump inside, and make sure all the doors were locked before roaring off into the night themselves. Thank God they had a secure garage to park in at home.

“Yeah… assholes,” Donald whispered, then spoke up. “I need to be getting you home, young man. It’s way past your bedtime.” Donald quickened his pace so that Mark would match his step and tried not to let the name-calling weigh too heavily on the evening. He was pissed about how a mood could be so easily shattered, especially by some more-than-likely suburban rubes that were not entitled to it. Fuck them! He wished he could make the mood come back, but not now, not with the “fucking faggots” still ringing fresh in his ears.

Maybe when they got home, Donald could put things right. No maybe about it! He would light candles, open a bottle of wine, put on some trance music, and urge Mark over to the couch. He would undress him slowly, gliding his strong hands over every inch of Mark’s silky skin as he exposed it. He could already taste Mark’s lips and the clean heat of his mouth.

They were almost to their car when they both tensed, slowing as they heard the growling muffler of a car behind them. Donald closed his eyes, thinking, Oh God, please not again. Not them. They both stopped for just an instant. Donald didn’t have to look back to know who was in the loudly idling car behind them. His heart began to thud, and he resisted an impulse to simply grab Mark’s hand and run the three or four feet it would take them to get to the car. But such a sissy maneuver was probably just the kind of thing those assholes would take particular delight in seeing. And the hot pursuit of a couple of scared queers would be the perfect capper to a boring night.

Donald spoke quietly, out of the corner of his mouth. “Let’s just walk to the car. Don’t look back. Don’t even give them the satisfaction we’re aware of them. We both know who it is. But to look back will just open the door to more shit.”

Mark kept pace. “Right.” His voice was clipped, and Donald could pick up on the fear and tension in it.

Behind them, they heard the kissing sound again, over the beat of some heavy metal music, the bass throbbing hard enough to shake the car’s frame. “Hey, boys!” A falsetto voice, mocking, rang out through the autumn night. Donald wanted to freeze in his tracks and could tell Mark did too by the way he tensed. But Donald had enough presence of mind to keep moving forward slowly, cautiously, the way one would back away from a lion about to pounce. No sudden moves. No eye contact. Donald had to remind himself to breathe.

A wolf whistle cut through the night air. “Hey, if you guys are gonna suck some dick tonight, can we get in on the action?” The car’s passengers erupted with laughter.

Donald dug in his tight-fitting Levi’s for his keys. His hand was trembling. His stomach was churning. He wished they had left much earlier. He wished they had parked on busier, more brightly lit Clark Street. He wished they had taken a cab. He wished he had left his leather gear at home, just for tonight. He managed to grasp the keys just as they arrived at the car. Mark hurried around to the passenger side. When Donald met Mark’s gaze, he saw that the younger man’s eyes were bright with fear. He mouthed the word “Hurry” to Donald.

The sound of car doors slamming behind them made Donald’s hands shake so badly he dropped the keys into the gravel by the side of the road. “Fuck,” he whispered. They were off busy Clark now, and the side street was dark. Empty. He couldn’t see where the keys had fallen. He could see where they should logically be, but of course, that’s not where they were.

Mark said, in a tense voice, “Hurry up, Donald.”

Donald didn’t have to look behind him to know the car’s occupants were no longer in the Duster and were getting closer. Each slam of a car door caused his heart to beat a little faster, his breath to quicken. One of their voices sounded almost right behind him.

“So what do you say, guys, how about a little head?”

Snickers. High fives. Laughter all around.

Donald swallowed painfully, his throat dry. He tried feeling around in the cinders beside the road with the toe of his boot and came up empty. He did what he had to do, bent down to grope in the gravel for his keys.

“Nice,” one of the boys hissed behind him. “Hey, Justin, look at that. He’s getting ready for you.”

Donald straightened quickly, the keys in his hand now, hoping the two of them could get in the car before the guys drew any closer.

He had his finger on the remote button that would unlock the door to the Prius when he felt the blow to his lower back. He tried to suck in some breath, but it seemed there was no air. The pain, rushing up, white hot, from his kidneys was fierce, intense, and agonizing. He saw stars. There was no air. He dropped the keys again and groaned, slowly reaching back to rub at the spot where something hard had landed powerfully against the tender area of his back. Through pain-blurred eyes, he looked down and saw the keys lying on the gravel once more, glinting back at him mockingly in the moonlight. He didn’t know if he could reach down and get them, couldn’t imagine how the movement might ratchet the pain in his back up to unbearable levels. And then he groaned again, not because of his own pain, but because he saw one of the other guys, his face hidden by a shadow from the Chicago White Sox baseball cap he wore, grab hold of Mark from behind and pull him close to his chest. The guy whispered something in Mark’s ear and made that infernal kissing sound again. Only this time, no one was laughing. He lifted Mark, whose bright, terrified eyes seemed to reach out to Donald across the hood of the car, pulling him aloft for a second and away from the car. Another of his buddies, this one wearing a do-rag and a leather jacket that would have looked very much at home in the Brig, stepped up, pulled back his arm, and punched Mark savagely in the stomach. Mark let out a great whoosh of air and then a groan.

The guy in the Sox cap let him go to watch Mark stumble, clutching his stomach. Donald heard Mark whisper, with what was left of his breath, “Please… no.” Donald attempted again to reach for the keys, but the pain, searing, prevented him.

And then another of the trio stepped up behind Mark, and Donald saw the hard, blunt object that had just so painfully connected with his own kidneys, an aluminum baseball bat. This guy wore no cap and had the face of a boy: ruddy, matching the dark red hair that topped his head. He handed the bat to the guy in the leather jacket, smiling. The man in the leather jacket took the bat from him, gripping it firmly around the base. “Batter up!” the guy in the Sox cap called and then guffawed. The guy in leather’s face was a mask of grim determination as he raised the bat and prepared to bring it down, with great force, on top of Mark’s head.

Donald cried out, heedless of his pain. “No! Get away from him, you son of a bitch.” Blindly furious, Donald stumbled forward, around the back of the car, to try to do whatever he could to stop that bat from connecting with Mark’s skull. But as in nightmares, his movements were agonizingly slow, as if he were moving through something thick and viscous, even as the beating on the other side of the car seemed to speed up, as if in fast-forward motion.

Donald stood frozen near the back bumper, breathless and wheezing, as the bat came down and landed with a sickening thud on Mark’s head, sounding like a watermelon being squashed. Mark dropped to the ground, and Donald rushed to help him.

Like a pack of animals, they were on Donald, and it was only seconds before he too was on the ground, watching as booted and running-shoed feet kicked at him everywhere they could find that was soft: his stomach, his balls, his face.

He rolled into a little ball and had enough presence of mind to chastise himself for not being able to save Mark. He also thought, in that split-second moment, how quiet it all was. And how fast—how very fast—everything was moving….

He turned to look up. The guy with the leather jacket stood above him, swinging the bat, on his face an expression that was a curious mixture of glee and rage. He smiled, and Donald noticed details: the gap in his teeth, the stubble on his face, how his nose skewed to one side, as if it had been broken once. But the last thing—the most horrible thing—Donald remembered seeing was the bat whistling down through the air toward him. He rolled away, hearing someone whisper, “Get him. Get the cocksucker.” He reached out for Mark’s foot, which was only inches away.

And then everything went black.

 

 

One

 

 

JUSTIN WAS breathless, shaking, and it felt like the fries, Italian beef sandwich, and five beers he had consumed that night were about to make a hasty and searing exit from his gut at any moment. He and Ronny were covered in blood. The smell of it, its sharp metallic tang, was one of the things that made Justin fear losing the contents of his stomach. The other thing was the violence they had just perpetrated. How had some innocent name-calling morphed into something so brutal? He couldn’t allow himself to think about that now, couldn’t allow that hot touch to his memory. But somehow, he managed to hold the bile back, tasting its bitter acid in the back of his throat, because he knew Ronny would think he was a wimp. Just like he thought Luis was a wimp for running off into the night after they bashed those fags down in Andersonville. Justin simply thought Luis was smart, scared, and yes, sensible, to want to get away from him and Ronny and the bloody mess the three of them had just made less than an hour ago.

Justin wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold things together. He had started trembling after the attack and was still shaking. They had put a serious hurt on those guys, and he wasn’t sure how, or if, they were getting on. Earlier, in the car, he had begged Ronny to let him call 911 from his cell to report the attack so that someone might send an ambulance.

Ronny had sneered at him, a Marlboro clamped into the corner of his mouth as he steered with one hand. “What are you, fuckin’ nuts? They got GPS or some shit on those phones. They’ll find us, dickhead. Is that what you want?” Disgustedly, he dragged in on the cigarette, making its cherry glow in the dark interior, and angrily exhaled through his nose. “They’re a couple of fags, dude. They got what they deserved.”

Justin had just stared quietly out the window as they sailed up Lake Shore Drive, headed for Sheridan Road and the far north side neighborhood known as Rogers Park, where Ronny had his own little studio on Morse. Ronny must have been doing eighty or ninety, and Justin wondered just how smart that was. What if they got pulled over, covered in blood as they were? How would they explain that away?

But Justin knew better than to nag at Ronny about his speed. It wouldn’t be the first time his best friend gave him a backhand across the mouth. Justin simply slid down in his seat and kept his own counsel. Hopefully, there would be no cops out on Lake Shore or Sheridan tonight.

And now, here they were in Ronny’s tiny, filthy bathroom, crowded together, in nothing but boxers. They had thrown their bloody clothes into the tub and were scrubbing vigorously with soap and steaming water at their hands and faces to remove any trace of splatter. Ronny had already wiped down his leather jacket and was satisfied it was clean.

Ronny shut the water off and placed his hands on Justin’s shoulders, looking him over. “Sweet, man, clean as a baby.” He pulled him close and sniffed at his neck. “No smell, no tell.” He leaned back and grinned. “We’ll bag up the clothes and drop ’em in a dumpster.”

Justin continued to shiver, trying to tell himself it was from a chill and not from the fact he was still scared. “Uh, so you think we’ll be okay?”

“No witnesses, man. And those queers will keep their mouths shut if they know what’s good for them.”

“And Luis won’t say anything?” Luis was the friend they had hooked up with earlier in the night at the arcade on Belmont. He was half Mexican, half Irish, and up for anything.

“Nah. Unless he wants to implicate himself.”

Justin shivered.

“You cold, little bro?”

Justin nodded. Even though he and Ronny were in no way blood relatives, it always made him feel better somehow when Ronny referred to him in this manner.

“Let me get you some clothes. I got some sweats you can put on.”

Justin watched him rummaging around on the floor, through the piles of clothes scattered there, looking for something suitable. Ronny’s frame was lean and hard, the upper part of him covered in red, green, and black tattoos, a crazy mixture of Chinese letters, stars, dragons, and tribal symbols that all somehow seemed to work together. He was ten years older than sixteen-year-old Justin, and the fact that Ronny chose to hang around with him made him feel proud, like he was cool.

Except for tonight. They had never veered into territory this violent before. Sure, they had yelled at the fags on Halsted and Clark, even pitched a few beer cans their way, but that was the extent of it. And sure, their activities hadn’t always been strictly legal but had never gone much further than smoking a little weed and maybe lifting a lighter or two off the counter at 7-Eleven while the clerk’s back was turned, reaching for smokes. But they had never done anything like tonight. It still seemed like a dream.

Or a nightmare.

Ronny was coming toward him with a long-sleeved T-shirt and balled-up gray sweats under one arm.

“You think those guys are gonna be okay, don’t you?”

Ronny handed him the clothes, and Justin began pulling them on. Ronny lit another cigarette and blew the smoke toward the ceiling. “You worried about the sweethearts?”

“Well, maybe a little. Wouldn’t want them to be dead or nothin’ like that, you know?”

“They’re queers, man, remember? Those guys are like cockroaches. You can’t wipe ’em out. When I was a kid, my old man told me AIDS was gonna do that… just get rid of ’em all, but you see how they beat that.”

Justin wasn’t sure how that was logical, or even in the realm of sanity, but he kept his thoughts to himself.

Ronny grinned. “Still, we put a good hurt on both of them. They’re not gonna be doing much suckin’ or fuckin’ in the near future.” Ronny barked out a short laugh. “Or talkin’.” He shook his head. “But they’ll be okay. Don’t worry about it, little man.” He reached out and ruffled Justin’s reddish brown hair. “When are we gonna get this buzzed? Like mine?”

Justin’s stomach churned. “Dunno.”

“I am going to smoke a bowl and get some sleep, man. You in?”

Justin followed Ronny out of the bathroom and sat next to him on the stained sheets of his bed, sinking down into the mattress, watching as Ronny pulled a bag of bud from beneath his bed. He wished he could go home tonight, but his mother, Patty, had a date and had told him that she would appreciate “a little privacy” if Justin wouldn’t mind “having a sleepover” at one of his friends’.

Justin had had a lot of sleepovers during his short life.

And a lot of them lately had been with Ronny, which was cool, except the place was filthy, stank, and had cockroaches.

“Here you go,” Ronny croaked, breathless, and held out the metal one-hitter to him.

That was one good thing about Ronny and staying here: he always had good weed, and if you smoked enough of it, you forgot all about what a pigsty you were in.

Justin took the one-hitter, fired it up, and drew in deeply. Tonight there was a lot he wanted to forget.

 

 

EVEN WITH several hits clouding his brain, Justin found sleep elusive. He only felt groggy and sick, and the oblivion he sought stayed stubbornly just out of reach. He lay beside Ronny, who slept on his back, one arm flung over his forehead, snoring loudly. He wondered how the guy could have done what he just did and then go home and sleep, as if nothing had happened.

Images kept coming back to him. He would see the terrified look on the younger guy’s face, the pleading in his eyes just before Ronny brought down the bat on his head. Justin didn’t know if he could ever get that out of his mind, the sickening crunch of bone as the bat made impact. He saw the other guy, the older one, decked out in leather, stumbling behind his car to try to get to his friend. He was whimpering, and the terror stamped on his features was real. Luis was laughing, but Justin just couldn’t see the humor in what they were doing. It was sick. He just hoped the guys were able to crawl away, to get the help they would undoubtedly need.

So he lay there, restless, after spending hours of tossing, turning, and glancing at the little digital clock on Ronny’s nightstand, surprised to see that only minutes had passed since the last time he had looked. He just wanted to go home, if there was such a place. But he knew his mother, Patty, wouldn’t like it if he showed up too early, wouldn’t want there to be an uncomfortable meet and greet across their scarred breakfast table.

Now the light was peeking in from the spaces around the sheet Ronny had hung over his sole window. Justin looked again at the clock. It was going on seven. He turned on his side, drawing his knees up closer to his chest. The movement sent Ronny onto his side, and then he was lying up against Justin’s back. One sleepy arm fell across Justin’s chest, and he stiffened. He could feel Ronny’s dick, hard, against his ass. He must be having some dream! He wanted to slide from the bed but didn’t want to wake Ronny, didn’t want to face his queries about why he was getting up so early.

Ronny snuggled closer in his sleep, and his hand brushed across Justin’s stomach, then dropped farther south. He cupped Justin’s crotch and then let out a big snore.

Justin jumped from the bed. His heart was beating fast.

Ronny opened bleary and bloodshot eyes and looked up at him.

“What the fuck?” Justin asked.

“Huh?”

Justin gave out a little laugh, but there was no mirth in it. “You were grabbin’ my dick, man.”

Ronny rolled over on his back and groped on the bedside table for his smokes, lit one up, and blew the smoke toward the ceiling. “What the fuck are you talkin’ about, man?”

Justin began to feel sheepish. “In your sleep, uh, your hand grabbed at my dick.” Justin felt himself begin to tremble again, so he reached down and pulled on the sweats and T-shirt Ronny had given him the night before. He stared at his friend.

“So what? You think I’m going queer for you or somethin’?”

Justin shook his head. “Naw. It was just weird, is all.”

Ronny propped himself up on one elbow. “’Cause if you think I’m queer, I ask you to please think about last night, dude. That should give you all the evidence you need that I am straight as they come.” He took a drag and blew out the smoke angrily. “I was asleep, end of story.”

“Okay,” Justin whispered, as much to himself as to Ronny. “I’m gonna book. The coast is probably clear at my ma’s by now. I’ll get the clothes and throw ’em in a dumpster on my way home. I’ll make sure to throw them in one that’s nowhere near here.”

“You do that.” Ronny snuffed out his cigarette and rolled back over on his side. Justin waited until he was snoring again. It didn’t take long.

Justin moved toward the kitchenette and found a black plastic garbage bag under the sink, then went into the bathroom and lifted the jeans and T-shirts they had thrown into the bathtub the night before. He stuffed them into the bag, trying not to look at the garments as he did so. He snatched his South Park T-shirt from the porcelain and placed it atop the pile of balled-up clothes in the bag. As he did so, he caught sight of a little blob of pinkish matter on the leg of one of the jeans.

And finally, it happened. Everything came up, and he turned just in time to hurl into the toilet, his eyes watering as he heaved on and on, until there was nothing left inside.

Nothing but remorse.

He tied the bag and heard Ronny call out, “Lightweight!” He realized he probably just thought Justin was hungover. God, didn’t he understand what they had done?

He hurried toward the door.