Singer slid a resume across the table and tapped it three times. "You gotta see this guy."
Jensen slumped in his chair. He'd sat through twenty auditions so far and eyed the wall clock in desperation. "I need to be back at the office."
"Spare me a few minutes."
"Sorry, I'm just tired."
Singer sipped his coffee. "I wish I'd been in town for the funeral."
Jensen waved it off, but not to discourage him. Most of his friends had been through his brother, and none of them were returning his calls.
"Look at the bright side. After my brother died, I used to go the market every morning, sit on the floor of my apartment, and eat twelve donuts for breakfast. Big slimy things like insects. I put on forty pounds that summer. But you, you look fantastic."
Jensen looked down and smiled, which is what Singer wanted. "Thanks."
An assistant stood by the door with a clipboard, and invited a young man to take the chair opposite Singer and Jensen. Singer studied him through his lorgnette. He was an buttoned-down old fag who purchased his socks out the back of a truck, but he granted himself this one nod to bourgeois fashion. "Have you ever worked in a horror film?"
"How do you feel about sex scenes?"
There were no sex scenes, Singer just wanted a reaction. The young man's eyes swung over to Jensen, then looked two inches over his head as though he were furniture blocking his line of sight. "It doesn't bother me."
"Are you in a union?"
"Who represents you?"
"Jeremy Carver over at Wayward Entertainment."
Singer scribbled that down. "Are you willing to work days and nights for filming?"
"It's not a problem."
Jensen leaned in. "Can I ask you something?"
Jared looked at him without turning his head, his eyes as serene and gray as dirty ice, and Jensen sat there with his mouth open for a second until he realized it was his turn to speak. "What made you want to audition for the little brother role?"
"Did you read my resume?"
Jensen glanced down and caught the single word 'orphan'. "Must have been lonely growing up."
"The boys' home was good for me. Things tend to lose their shape in places like this."
"You don't like New York?"
"I see a lot of people without purpose. Life without purpose eventually reverts to the mean."
Jensen flushed. Four hours of interviewing spray-tanned beef had left him utterly unprepared for real conversation, but Singer took pity and set his mug down with a practiced thump.
"Okay then, let's try a line reading."
Jared had prepared three scenes: a phone call, some expository dialogue in a library, and a demonic possession. The first two were fairly simple as he would be seated and had no props to fuss over, while the third required him to switch character every ten seconds, and made doubly hard since it was the opening scene and would establish the tone of the film.
Singer held up his hands to frame the two actors. "So Jared will be on the floor, while Jensen attempts to strap him to a hospital gurney. Jen, climb on top and face the window."
Jensen bracketed his hips and gently wrapped his hands around Jared's upper arms, but if Jared was made uncomfortable he didn't show it. Singer's phone buzzed and he frowned at the number before turning around and taking the call. Jared relaxed, hair fanned across the floor, and when he caught Jensen staring he flashed a smile as if his first line was "Drink Pepsi!"
Jensen smiled back, then noticed a row of tiny round burns on Jared's arm. "How'd you get that?"
"Back in the boys' home."
"Playing with a BB gun?"
"My supervisor was a smoker."
Jensen paled, then changed the subject. "You know we were just messing with you about the sex scenes."
"You have to do them a lot?"
"Only once, and it was totally gross. They mixed glycerin into our make-up to make us look sweaty and it got on everything. And then we got to the end and the girl did this thing with her leg..."
Jensen bit his lip. "I came in my jeans."
"I should have tried for that job instead."
"I've never been able to have an orgasm with another person in the room."
Singer snapped his phone shut and sat on the corner of the table. "Aaaand go."
Jensen could cry if he wanted too, but he had to be alone and listen to sad music on his walkman and maybe stick his hand in a bag of ice until he'd built up enough despair to fake it on camera. Jared's smile faded and the next second there were two tears floating in his eyes.
Jensen pulled forward six inches, his boots scoring the floor with thick black hatchmarks as Jared arched beneath him, mouth twisted, holding his breath as he broke free and snaked a hand to the back of Jensen's head until their foreheads knocked together. He breathed hot on Jensen's lips and his next words came in a high whistling hiss.
Jensen's line dried up in his mouth. He improvised as best he could as Jared slammed back to the floor, hair covering most of his face, chest caving in and out. The entire scene continued as such, where Jared's character would deliver a line as the victim and then mimic himself in the demon voice while Jensen, rather convincingly in this case, sputtered about helplessly.
Near the very end Jared turned his head, his expression flat. "Mister Singer, I have a question about my last line."
"Am I the boy or am I the demon?"
Singer ran his tongue along his bottom teeth. "Try the demon."
Jared turned back, and his mouth stretched in a plastic grin, one eye glittering through his bangs with unholy glee.
"We're gonna be beeeeeeeest frieeeeeeends."
Once Jared had left the building, Singer sniffed at his headshot, but without any great interest this time. "Lotta good stuff here. Plays tennis, speaks French, he's got great hair."
Jensen read between his words. "So why don't you hire him?"
Singer sipped his coffee. "He doesn't look American."
"Exactly, the wetbacks of Long Island."
"You should have heard him talk when you were on the phone. He's really been through a lot."
"Yeah yeah I heard it, don't get romantic," he said, gazing at Jensen through his lorgnette, "Cinderella doesn't exist. Neither does her wicked stepmother."
Jen looked back at two miniature reflections of himself. "Come on, they're not gonna greenlight funding for another month."
Singer breathed out through his nose. "Fine, you can tell him he's first pick, for now. But Jen?"
"Don't call him for a couple of days. It makes you look desperate."
Jensen put in his eight hours at the marketing firm and went straight to bed without eating. He sat against the pillow staring at his phone, Jared's resume still tucked away in his bag, then set the phone down and switched off the side lamp.
He dreamed he was back in the hospital. After the doctors declared his brother's time of death, he walked down to the courtyard for some air and came across a little boy staring at the sky. The boy turned and it was Jared, or some younger version of him.
Jared pointed upward, and Jensen saw a white balloon floating away. "Can you get it back for me?"
"Sorry I can't."
"Where's it going?"
A tear rolled down's Jared's cheek. "Forever?"
The boy pushed his face into Jensen's belly, and they stood together in their mutual grief until the dream blued around the edges and Jensen woke up in his apartment alone.
Jensen stared at Jared's number on his phone screen and cleared it a dozen times that day. His co-workers invited him to dinner, where he picked at his pad thai and only to wait five minutes until the conversation devolved into discussing their favorite TV shows.
He had a new dream that night. He walked to a cottage in the woods (Jensen couldn't see any trees, but he knew they were there). A branch had fallen through the roof some time ago, and new saplings had taken root between the floorboards with flowers vining through the window panes and over a wood stove. Jared sat cross-legged on the floor, counting his breaths, with a candle in the center of the room. Once he got to a thousand, the flame would go out.
Then a bloody hand emerged from inside the stove door, and Jensen woke up.
The elevator dinged on the mezzanine, the old-fashioned kind with brass doors, and Jensen watched his reflection part down the center and slide away. A young black man was unscrewing the light fixture, and smiled over his shoulder.
"Morning Jen. Hand me that screwdriver, I gotta get this lightbulb."
Sterling did maintenance on the apartment complex in exchange for a one-room efficiency with a sheet strung across the center when his girlfriend wanted privacy. Dark and lined with muscle from his longshoreman days, he now played basketball with his local union chapter to stay in shape, and Jensen watched his shirt ride up as Sterling pressed a hand to the ceiling with both heels flat on the carpet.
"How's your girlfriend?"
"Whatever, they feed you in there."
"You gonna post bail?"
"Yeah, I already did, she's still in line at Evidence so she can get her keys."
"You gonna break up?"
Sterling snorted, and handed him the dead bulb for a new one. "Dude, she takes care of half the bills, I ain't mad at her. Besides, I paid the bondsman cash, so I'll get it all back once she sees a judge."
"I don't see how you put up with it."
"It was gonna happen. We'd been stuck in bed together with pneumonia for two weeks, no TV, no internet, could barely get up for a glass of tap water. Then she walks downstairs for cigarettes after two weeks of being bored and hungry, and the mailman jokes about hitting his wife," he said, turning the bulb with his fingertips until it came to life, "I'd have broken his nose too."
Unable to go back to sleep, Jensen dressed and walked a longer route to work, hoping to shake the dream out. Apartments receded into store fronts, the block ending with an old hotel whose ground floor has been converted into fast food stalls, and he zig-zagged past dumpsters to a kitchen door with an intercom and thumbed the button. "Misha?"
The security camera winked and the door opened. Steam poured from the copper pot behind Misha and even with the sleeves rolled up his shirt clung to him in places. He was dark and lean and had the sharp cheekbones of a first-generation immigrant who fed everyone third portions while forgetting to eat. He wiped his hands on his apron. "Hey man, I'm getting the ovens going, you want some coffee?"
"That'd be awesome."
Jensen followed him in, where a girl sat perched on a step-ladder with a plate of noodles. She waved with a fork, and Misha put his hand on Jensen's shoulder. "Have you met my girlfriend?"
"No, you work here now?"
She held up a finger until she'd finished chewing. "I'm bartender with the discotheque across the street, I clocked out an hour ago and was absolutely starving."
"You don't look old enough to be serving drinks."
"I'm doing part-time at NYU, I figure I can do my core classes now and live with Misha when I start my nursing classes."
Misha looked back and forth between the two of them, his hand still warm on Jensen's shoulder. Jensen spoke first. "Wow, a nurse, that's gonna pay well."
She smiled, and finishing her food she scraped the cheese off her fork with a paper towel. Misha moved to grab her plate, but she walked it to the sink. "I'll do it," she said, "Cheese is such a pain the ass to clean."
Misha shot Jensen a smile, then wrapped his arms around her tiny waist and lifted her off the floor in a bear hug. Jensen was about to ask about his coffee, but he made some noises about catching his ride and made his way out. The bus was half-empty that early in the morning, and he leaned his head against the window watching college girls go by in their bright winter coats.
Charles was the cafe-au-lait beat cop in an all-white office, well-built and often found in the lobby improvising on a piano that no one ever played save for Christmas parties. He sat there now, mousing around with a tango. "Hey J," he said, without looking up, "You're up early."
Jensen's eyes flicked to the policeman's hands, dark against the ivory keys. "I'd say the same thing."
"The wife's gone all this week to Fort Lee for a bridal shower. Class money, they gonna have sushi and these two Brazilian contortionists."
"I'd freak out if my wife went away that long."
"Eh, she's gotta be whoever she is when I'm not around. Besides, I know one of the contortionists, his wife just had twins last week so no way he's gonna be hookin' on the side."
"You keeping busy while she's gone?"
Charles turned around on the piano bench and closed the lid and pulled a flyer from his jacket in one smooth motion. "I'm playing at the Bird's Nest with two other guys on Wednesday. You should come."
"You're always working. Come on, I'll get you past the door."
Jensen bit his lip, then took the flyer and flicked his fingers at it. "Is it okay if I bring somebody?"
Jensen stood in Times Square at 4:55 in the afternoon and dialed Jared's phone number. He had asked a street vendor for an old box, and written his lines on a torn piece of cardboard. The call went straight to voicemail.
"Hey Jared. Look I know you're probably slammed, but I ran into Singer just now and he says you're in. And my buddy's playing a gig at 54th and Lexington and I didn't know if you wanted to grab coffee and check calendars for rehearsal dates. Gimme a call."
He pressed END and waited a second. Ten seconds. Thirty seconds. The clock struck five o'clock and every office building emptied around him, ten thousand cigarettes firing up in unison.
The screen lit and he had to restrain himself to let it ring at least two times before answering. You could have seen his smile from space. By the time he finished, he had both fists raised in the air still holding the cardboard sign, and no fewer than four people asked him what he was protesting.
"Hey J, where's your date?"
Jensen leaned on the bar with the heel of his hand. "It's not a date."
"Really, cuz you don't act this weird on non-dates."
Charles sipped from his water bottle and screwed the cap back on and wiped his hands on his slacks. New audiences always made him nervous. "Is he an asshole?"
"Not that I can tell."
"All men are assholes."
"He seems okay."
Charles ghosted a few chord progressions without actually depressing the keys. "Is he married?"
"Just asking. You have a type."
Jensen let that one pass. "I'd like to get married."
"No really, I don't want to screw this up. This could be it."
"Come on man, with your schedule? What are you gonna do when you get home on the weekend? You make dinner together, you bitch about work, he nods, later at night you rub up against each other... there's a hundred guys for that."
"I don't want a hundred guys, I want this one."
Jared didn't call a second time. Jensen sat through the first set, then the second, nursing his gin and tonic to keep interested. Charles saw the empty chair beside him and held up his hands in apology. Once the musicians had packed up, the waiter put on some terrible synth music synced to a disco ball on top of the bar, and tea candles burned on each table while the TV in the corner played a video of ocean waves. It was one hostess short of a massage parlour.
Jensen was about to follow Charles out when he turned in his chair and all the air went out of the room. Even the lights seemed to slow as if stopping to listen.
Jared blended easily against the white leather booth in a linen shirt, poised with hands folded on the tablecloth. The disco lights swam across his face like little red fish. A waiter offered him the wine selection, and they shared a quick conversation in French that ended with the waiter laughing and snapping out the napkin on Jared's lap in a way no one would ever do for Jensen.
Jensen slid in beside him. "Thanks for coming."
"Was that your friend at the piano?"
"Yeah, Charles, he's a talented guy."
Jared smiled and pointed at a good champagne on the menu. "I ordered for us."
"Thanks for coming."
"You said that already."
Jensen smiled and looked away, but Jared was not bothered. "I'm glad you called. I've been waiting to hear from you."
Jensen looked up, his eyes bright. "Really?"
"Really. We didn't really get a chance to talk at the audition."
"About that..." Jensen said, hesitating, "So when I talked to Singer today, he said...he said funding's gonna take a while, so we won't actually start filming for a while."
Something flashed briefly in Jared's eyes, but his smile remained. "I understand."
"You'll still do it, right?"
Jared took his hand, and electricity thrilled up Jensen's spine. "Of course."
"So, um, you stay in this part of town?"
"No, it's pretty far out. What about you?"
"I inherited my brother's place."
Jared paused. "Recently?"
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Do you have a picture?"
Jensen pulled a school photo from his wallet.
"You should get a bigger copy and frame it."
"I don't like having stuff like this on display."
"Why not, it's a good picture."
Dean breathed in slowly, then smiled in embarrassment. "When I was a kid, I had a classmate who was the youngest girl of seven girls. You walk through their house and there's six photos of the older sisters in the same wedding dress, bam bam bam, all in a row going up the stairs. Cuz they didn't have the money to buy everyone a dress, you just had to take the old one out or in and hope it looked alright. At one time I liked the idea that maybe my brother had a double somewhere in the world, but now..."
"I wish I'd had a brother like that."
"No you don't."
"Cuz you don't miss what you never had."
The restaurant had emptied out by now, and they sat alone in a horseshoe booth meant for twelve. Jared moved closer and pulled Jensen's coat open.
The waiter appeared with two drinks on a tray, and Jensen watched champagne bubbles climb up the side of his glass as Jared nestled inside his coat and closed his eyes and shivered like a sleeping bird.
The following week, Jensen was checking his neck for shaving foam when Singer called and said he couldn't hire Jared. "None of the references on his resume check out."
Jensen tapped his razor on the edge of the sink. "People lie on their resumes all the time."
"People leave a paper trail. I spoke to Wayward Entertainment, they said Jeremy Carver hasn't worked there in over a year. Do you even know where Jared lives?"
"I'm seeing him later today, I'll ask what's up."
"Well get me something, I can't hire a man on spun sugar. Oh, and Liz is throwing a dinner tonight, be a dear and bring some crudités?"
Jensen used to walk to school by means of an old basketball court facing the river. The fence sloped where tree roots had lifted the pavement, and if he arrived before eight he could duck into the building's shadow and climb over without the neighbors seeing him. It was the one sunny spot in a wall of tenement apartments, with granite benches and not too much trash. But he loved it best in winter, when the ground was white as a wedding cake and he could press his boot into the newly fallen snow before anyone else arrived.
Jared was already waiting for him on a bench. After drinks at the jazz club, Jensen had stuffed Jared in a cab and been too much of a coward to ask when they would next meet. They would be filming next month, and Jensen couldn't afford for his loneliness to sour the project.
He passed Jared a paper coffee cup. "Drink up, it's freezing out here."
"I'm not cold."
"Didn't your mother tell you not to sit on stone in the months ending with 'ber'?"
Jared took the cup and then Jensen mentally kicked himself. "So, um, I heard you speaking French, where'd you learn it?"
"I spent four years working in an abbey for Quebecois monks. I'm surprised the waiter didn't laugh at me the other night, my accent is terrible."
"That must have been boring."
"Everyone at the boy's home had to pick a trade. I didn't see myself in a poultry plant or soldering engines."
"So what, you were the Chief Cheese Inspector?"
Jared smiled, head tilting back on gentle laughter. He held up the cup and let Jensen take a sip without it leaving Jared's hands, and Jensen relaxed after so many nights worrying that the easy intimacy they'd shared in the club might have been a fluke. Jensen gestured around him. "Do you wanna make a snow man?"
They made a base and scooped snow off the tops of cars to avoid bending over as much as possible. By the time they were done it barely cleared Jensen's chin, but a few minutes foraging in the trash produced a shirt and an old baseball cap, and he carefully pulled it over the head before sticking two branches in the sides for arms. Singer's question nagged at him, and he rested his hands on the snowman in contemplation.
"So what did you do at the abbey?"
"They were remodeling the chapel, and I knew enough about plaster and laying tile to be useful. Then I got there and what they really needed was a kitchen boy to chop wood at five in the morning."
"You can't chop wood."
Jensen opened Jared's jacket to feel his bicep. Underneath he wore a sweater that had been fashionable five years ago, the collar stained and held together with a safety pin. "When was the last time you went shopping?"
Jared pulled away, but Jensen stayed close. "It's nothing it's just...I need to get a suit for this stupid TV producer's party and..."
"Okay." said Jared, straightening his clothes.
They took the bus to a second-hand men's store in the Garment District, the kind of place that tried to cover all its bases and stock jerseys next to the wingtip Oxfords, but Jensen found a gray jacket with a barely perceivable check on sale, and completed it with a white pocket square and maroon tie. Once he was done, he pulled a jacket the wall and held it against Jared. "Charcoal's a good color on you."
"I don't need a suit."
"Come on, try it on."
Jared let himself be dressed, watching Jensen's expression as he buttoned him in and plucked nonexistent fluff from his shoulder. Jensen ran his fingers down the collar and smiled with approval. "This'll look great at the party. I'm getting it."
"It's too expensive."
"I'm still getting it."
"For me or for you?"
Jensen's smile faltered, and then he saw his hands resting on Jared's shoulders just as he had earlier while playing dress-up with the snowman. Jensen cleared his throat, but Jared saved him the embarrassment. "You don't have to get me anything."
"Yes I do. It's gonna be a good be a crazy party tonight, wine and dancing and sandwiches by the pool, and I'm gonna hate every minute of it if I go alone."
Jared looked at his suit in a mirror and then smiled in spite of himself. "I don't do a lot of crowds."
"We'll just make an appearance. I'll pack a plastic-lined purse and we can steal the food."
"I can't remember anyone going to this much trouble."
Jensen gathered both his hands in his and held them to his chest. "Everyone should have some good memories."
The party was in full swing when they arrived. Liz and an almost identical blonde producer in frame glasses were trying to sell each other on almost identical reality show proposals, stopping just long enough to puff cigarette smoke on the terrace. Antique tables groaned under box wine. Actresses stretched out on Italian silk sofas in their Victoria's Secret sweatsuits like pink flamingos in the royal garden. All of the money and none of the taste to show for it.
They drank too fast and Singer was running late. Jared picked at the sushi, twisting it between his fingers before dropping it on his plate. Jensen leaned over to shout.
"This music sucks."
Jensen tried again with no luck, and Jared made motions to move elsewhere. He snatched a bottle of vodka and a stemless glass, leading Jensen up the spiral staircase to a spare room. Jensen's fingers drifted across the exposed brickwork, looking down at the crowd and not recognizing a single face.
Jensen looked both ways down the hall. "Are we allowed up here?"
Jared leaned against the door with his hands crossed behind his back, the light casting his face into shadow. His shirt had come unbuttoned at some point, and the hard line of a collarbone peaked out. "Do you want to go back downstairs?"
Jensen stared at him for a few seconds and then shook his head weakly. Jared turned the knob with a soft click and walked backwards into the gloom.
An ultra-violet bulb lit the fish tank that took up one wall. The other wall was lined with crates of books and covered with a sheet with a guest bed into the remaining space. Jared sat on the edge of the bed with the alcohol, blue tendrils sliding across his face as though he were veined with moonlight.
"I found the room while you were talking to Liz."
Jensen looked around. "It's...nice."
"Are you hungry?"
"Did you bring something?"
Jared smiled and poured vodka into the cup, the wide kind that felt more like a pan lid than a wineglass. "Hold onto this."
He took off his shoes and stood on the bed until he was right up against the tank. A skinny green net hung on a hook, but he ignored it and pushed his jacket sleeve past the elbow. A striped red something had glued itself to the glass, and with more speed than Jensen would have credited him, Jared swooped down and caught the shrimp before the other fish had time to react.
Jensen stood frozen, watching Jared's arm emerge dripping with the creature wriggling in his grasp, and almost didn't hear him when Jared lay down on the bed and beckoned him closer.
"Put it in the alcohol."
Jensen still had his feet on the floor. He stood between Jared's parted knees as Jared pulled up his own shirt, belly lined with muscle, a pale shadow of sunburn around the waistband, and cupped his hand under Jensen's with the glass on top. Vodka spilled between their fingers and slopped on the sheets.
"Don't let go."
And popping the live shrimp into the alcohol, Jared slapped the glass over his belly, and held Jensen's hand down with it until his nails marked the skin.
"Holy shit." Jensen whispered, mouth falling open a few inches as Jared raised his arms over his head and stretched across the sheets, half giggling, half gasping for breath as the creature flopped against the glass in slow, writhing agony. Cold vodka slipped out the edges and glistened across Jared's body, bringing more laughter, and a wicked glitter shone in his eyes as the creature tickled him. Jensen reached down to sweep it off his skin, and Jared lay there and let him.
Later they would spike it on a bamboo shoot and cook it in Liz's kitchen with some garlic and olive oil, and Jensen would think to himself that nothing tasted so good as when it died and died hard on top of Jared.
The cab ride was quiet, Jensen sitting far away from Jared and staring at a popsicle wrapper on the floor, his brain trying not to turn it into a condom.
"I had a nice time tonight."
Jensen smiled. "Me too. Sorry about Singer, he gets a little..." He made a hand gesture and looked down, as if closing the door on someone passed out in the bath. "Liz said he can stay the night."
"I thought you were driving him home."
Jensen fingered the keys in his jacket. "Nah, he just needs someone to feed his dog."
Jared nodded and looked out the window. A man stood in a phone booth, dirty, his face like a deflated balloon. He nodded once and then hung up the receiver.
Jensen pointed. "What do you think he's so worried about?"
Jared turned to him. "I don't think anything."
"As come on, you don't play that game where you guess where people came from?"
Jared said nothing, so Jensen continued. "He's wanted by the police. Pays for everything with cash, never gives the same name twice, faked a drug overdose in Cuernavaca to buy some time. All his friends are dead. But once a week, he goes to that phone booth," he said, pointing, "And he gets a call."
"More importantly, what does that person have to say?"
Their hands sat next to each other, Jensen's slowly closing the gap. Jared let it. "You think he's in trouble?"
"I think he's broken-hearted."
A black Hummer rolled up beside the curb, a hand with red nails and a six-pound watch lolling out the driver-side window. It must have cost the woman a hundred dollars just to polish the tires. The phone man slid his palm across hers, and when she pulled away he hunched inside of his coat and disappeared behind a steaming street vent.
The light turned green, and Jensen's hand now rested on Jared's knee. "You're not very good at your own game."
Jensen leaned in, his voice gentle. "Everybody has a story."
Snow began to fall outside. Jared pressed his lips together, cock hard and thighs pressed together around Jensen's hand. "This is my stop."
Traffic was twice as loud with the car door open, and Jensen hardly had time to say goodbye before Jared shut it and sped away into the crowd. The cabbie glanced at him in the rearview mirror, but Jensen shook his head and touched the spot where Jared had been, soft and dark and growing cold.
That night he dreamed he was still in the cab, but when he lept up to chase Jared the city did everything to block his way. Ice blinded him, stone vines unhitched themselves from churchyards to wrap around his ankle, and when he ran into some women their arms extended into branches and the forest stretched to either direction and he could not pass. He could see Jared's white shirt in the distance, like the white balloon at the hospital, but even that faded. There was a house in that forest. He took another step, and his foot sank through the snow bank into the carcass of a dead animal.
He did not remember this last part. Jensen awakened with a sylvan image of Jared, wondering through rosy mist in maiden meditation, face dappled with light, and this kept him smiling through his shower, coffee, and all the way to the elevator where he greeted Sterling.
"You're in a good mood."
"I am. How's your girlfriend."
"Oh not bad, not bad. Jury trial's backed up for sixteen months, so there's not much she can do 'til then."
Jensen clapped him on the shoulder. "I hope everything works out for you."
The elevator doors sprang open, and Sterling pointed down. "Hey man, wipe your shoes, the Super'll eat my ass if that doesn't wash out."
Jensen blinked, and saw that he'd left a trail from his apartment. The elevator hummed upward, and he sat on a bench and inspected his right shoe in the weak hallway light. It was black with old blood.
Singer spent the next three days on a drip at St. Vincent's, his liver a pink Brillo pad, and could Jensen sleep at his apartment in case any neighbors decided to count the spoons? Jensen packed an overnight bag, half-consciously swiping a second toothbrush from his drawer. He was bent over Singer's kitchen sink when he left Jared a message.
"Hey man, I'm watching Singer's place tonight, I got some movies and mixers if you're not doing anything, gimme a call."
Jared rang the buzzer while Jensen was frantically scrubbing the sole of his shoe with baking soda, startling him. Pink water splashed on the floor. Jensen hadn't expected him for hours.
Jared dropped his coat on the sofa. "I asked your elevator man where you were, he said you preferred vanilla," he said, producing a pint of ice cream from behind his back, "Whatever that means."
Jensen turned off the faucet with his elbow and searched for the towel with dripping, bloody hands when Jared tossed him the pint jar and a gob of melted ice cream landed on his cheek.
"Do you think the neighbors have ever been in here?" asks Jared, walking into the bathroom to appreciate the sunken tub, "Wow, Singer must be eighty years old to afford a place like this."
Jared started running the bath tap, kicking at the bloody puddle on his way back to Jensen, and propped his elbows on the kitchen counter. Jensen hugged the ice cream and stared at him, then at the bloody shoe in the sink, then back at Jared.
"You kill somebody?"
Jensen swallowed. "Um, no, this is...research. For the movie."
"Uh-huh. Well you're pretty methodical, for someone who's letting their ice cream melt."
The wet cardboard flexed in Jensen's grip, sending more ice cream over his hand. "How did you get here so fast? I thought you lived in the burbs."
"Yeah, you were right, there's nothing out there but dead malls and alcoholism. Would you leave the big city to be with me? Buy a house and diet and decorate and clutch your wallet every time someone with dreads walks by?"
Jensen was now slippery with ice cream, no doubt fished out of a dumpster long ago, and briefly played with the idea that Jared would agree to live with him. Jared might be crazy, on that upswing that made every bipolar person unrecognizable for a few days, but Jensen placed the jar over his erection and said, "Maybe you should move in with me. I really like you, I think it could work out."
Jared leaned in, his eyes glittering. "What do you mean?"
"I mean...I really like you..."
"You've told me that. Me and only me?"
Jensen flushed, not sure if Jared were referring to a third roommate or their relationship. The ice cream allowed some distance between them, and Jensen said nothing for fear of provoking Jared further.
"Bath's done." said Jared, and unglued himself from the counter. Steam coiled from the open door, and walking with his back to Jensen he peeled off his t-shirt one-handed and dropped it on the floor. Jensen had pictured himself pulling the exact same move, and shivered.
Jared kicked off his shoes and stepped out of his jeans, tossing them across the room with his foot. He looked over his shoulder, the face of an angel and the body of a Greek statue. "I have something to tell you. Are you coming?"
Jensen dropped the ice cream in the trash. "Why can't you tell me out here?"
Jared walked inside, reflected darkly in the mirror as he sank below a layer of soap bubbles. Jensen sat on the edge of the tub.
"Give me your hand."
Jared held Jensen's wrist and forced it into the scalding water, searching for a burn scar on his thigh that Jensen had not been privileged to see on their first day together.
"I loved Mister Morgan," said Jared, "I thought you could only love someone that much when you're very young. He was trying to make me strong, but looking back..."
Jared crushed Jensen's hand, but not to move it elsewhere. "I know you're alone, Jensen. So am I. I can teach you a lot about what makes me happy."
Steam brought blushes to Jensen's cheeks as Jared reached for his other hand and pulled him fully dressed into the bath, water gushing onto the tiles.
"Do you love me?"
Jensen stammered, Jared's pink, wet mouth brushing against his. "Yes."
"Me and only me?"
"Yes. I haven't been able to think of anything else."
Jared studied him, eyes as bright as Hell seen through bad glass. "Then take me to the bed."
Jensen smacked the alarm clock, the bedroom stinking of dog and Astroglide, and stumbled through discarded clothes to find his phone. Jared must have cleared out hours ago. "Room 104 please?"
The nurse's assistant put his call through, and there was shuffling on the other end as Singer situated all the plastic tubing coming out of his arms. A Mexican telenovela blared in the background.
"Ola." said Singer, his voice flat, which meant he was still watching his show and would hang up if Jensen didn't hook him in the first ten seconds.
"I need Jared's address."
"Why would I give that to you?"
"Because, um, last night he came by and..."
"Holy crap, forget I asked. Look nothing on his resume was legit."
"I need to talk to him. It's important..."
He described Jared's erratic behavior. Singer took his cue from the sassy aunt on the television, and Jensen could practically hear the lorgnette through the phone. "Stay away from him, Jensen."
"But he could be sick."
"He is. I've been in theater long enough to smell a sociopath a mile away, and you're not in a position to handle him."
"What about Jeremy Carver, his last manager? Maybe he knows where Jared lives."
"I'm not gonna help you with this. You're a good-looking young man, find someone else."
The dog pushed open the bedroom door and stuck a wet nose in Jensen's hand. It was happy to see him, gamboling away to snatch a condom off the bed and toss it over its' head like a chewtoy. Jensen wished he could throttle Singer through the phone.
"So you're just gonna leave me hanging?" said Jensen, his chest constricting.
"Look at him, on paper. Nothing. I betcha even the cops don't have him on file. It's creepy. You have fifty years ahead of you, to fuck up or settle down or find your Inner Sherpa, and none of it is worth risking over a one-night-stand," he said, suddenly sounding very old, "Don't throw yourself in front of this train."
They said goodbye. Jensen thumbed the phonebook for Wayward Entertainment, wrote down the address, and leashed the dog for the two-mile walk. Carver had shared office space with a fashion magazine Jensen once modeled for in the past, and he was buzzed through with no problem.
"Think anyone's home, poochie?"
The dog sniffed at Carver's door, the window covered with newspaper from the inside and the slot jammed with mail. A girl in a boho dress and hair cut like an acorn cap passed Jensen going up the stairs. "Excuse me miss, do you know if the folks here left a forwarding address?"
She ran green fingernails through her hair, trying to decide whether she should answer the question. "They're dead."
The dog jumped up to lick her, but Jensen pulled it back. "Jeremy Carver is dead?"
"Oh they never found him, it was one of the actors who got killed. I think Carver was cheating on his boyfriend and the next day somebody broke into the office and went nuts. Chopped him into little pieces." She produced half a banana from her oversized purse and proceeded to eat it. "Just awful."
Jensen now had his arms around the dog to keep it restrained, his mouth stretched in a tight grin. "How do you know how he died?"
"We have a tabby in this building, he won't go outside to hunt. One day he showed up with a nose, and then an ear, and then we opened his cat carrier and found bones everywhere like he'd been eating for weeks and saved us the rubbery bits." Her cheeks puffed out around the banana. "What's really weird is that, when the cops did an analysis of all the body parts, not all of them matched the dead guy."
Jensen edged away from the door, almost hoping she would yell 'Sike!' and laugh at him for being such an easy mark. "There's another guy I'm looking for, he worked for a boy's home run by Quebecois monks?"
She folded her banana peel inside a plastic bag, "I only know one French-sounding abbey that takes kids, it's not in a very nice neighborhood. You have to take the 81 bus..."
Jensen memorized her directions and ran up the stairs two at a time with Singer's dog panting loudly like they were partners in a sled race. The bus dropped them at a dingy but thriving marketplace, check-cashers and barbers and all the other businesses where lots of young men can stand around in clumps without making the cops nervous. Two blocks down and they were in a shaded residential zone, the largest house boarded up with NO TRESPASSING posted on the fence.
Jensen went around the back and pressed his ear to the cellar door. Someone was singing.
"Is anybody home?"
A single window shone at the top, half-buried with topsoil. The walls had been sprayed with that fake acoustic seal to make it sound bigger than it was, and the singing ran around and around the room as if pouring down a drain. A figure in a bathrobe moved.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan stopped singing. He was a barrel of a man seated in a concave crater where the pipe organ had been torn out. Jensen didn't know a lot of singers, ironically. Morgan's voice projected across the room with very little effort, using the crater as a microphone.
"Who. Are. You?"
"I'm...you don't know me, but I'm a friend of Jared Padalecki's."
"Jared?" he asked, as if it were a new word.
"Who used to live here?"
A pack of cigarettes lay beside Morgan's knee, and he pulled one out and stuck it in his mouth. "I thought it'd be years before I saw you again." He crossed the room in three steps, his salt and pepper hair scraping the ceiling. "I thought I'd be too old."
His hand shot out and took Jensen's wrist, his grip unnaturally strong. Jensen smiled tightly. Any display of fear would just be more blood in the water.
Morgan raised his left hand and clicked an imaginary lighter, making a 'chuh' sound around the cigarette between his lips. He inhaled slowly, intimately, then took the cigarette between two fingers to expel a stream of air.
"I always knew you'd come back to me."
"Mister Morgan, please..."
"Mister Morgan, please," he mimicked in a whiny voice that sounded horribly like Jensen's, "You sound like a bitch. Is that what you are now, a bitch? Suck a lot of cock out there? Are they bigger than mine?"
Jensen tried to pull away, but Morgan dug in his nails and a traitor tear rolled down Jensen's cheek. Morgan smiled and jammed the end of his cigarette into Jensen's wrist.
"That's right," he growled, twisting it back and forth in dry half-circles, "Lemme see those bitch tears."
Jensen walked back to his apartment. He hung up his coat and put down a bowl of water and opened his mail and did all these things with great attention to detail. The city outside was a Christmas post card, snow blanketing everything, the beautiful and the ugly. He almost felt like he could go on with his life.
Then Jared walked out of a shadow and struck him behind the ear, and the light went out of Jensen's eyes.
The dream house looked the same as last time, only now Jared was in his arms and trying to unzip his fly. "I can make it good."
He dropped to his knees, but Jensen grabbed his shoulders and pushed him away. "No, stop, you don't have to do this."
Jared looked up...and was Misha. "I waited for you all night," he said, face sweaty from the hot kitchen, "I thought you'd be coming back. And then you kept showing up for dinner and I thought...I guess I expected too much."
Jensen stepped backwards and fell down, and when he turned around Misha had transformed into Charles, swinging a pair of handcuffs around one brown finger. "I never had a white boy before."
He slung a cuff over Jensen's bare ankle and pulled him closer. "The wife would've been cool, if you'd asked. She likes to watch."
"No, it wasn't like that."
The cuff popped off and Jensen scrambled into another room and shut the door and leaned on it, chest heaving. Charles was still talking on the other side, but he seemed both very close and far away now. Jensen stepped away and tripped right over the handle of a wood stove.
He heard Carver before he saw him. A greasy, gristly popping noise like a fat man chewing ice with his mouth open. Jensen opened the stove door, stood back, and waited. Carver was curled up inside, like a magician's assistant. Naked, filthy, bones broken, most of his skin burned and scarred and then burned again until he resembled melted wax. His eyes were wide open and fixed on Jensen.
Jared walked in behind him, carrying a match box. "Are you hungry?"
Carver made a noise in the assent, and the matchbox opened to reveal a man's finger. Jared fed it into Carver's toothless mouth and let him gum it, pink slobber running from the corners of his mouth. Jared patted his head, and Jensen staggered backwards, feeling like he would be sick.
Morgan knelt in the abbey cellar, looking around himself in a daze while Jared crept up from behind with a gun in both hands. The old man was all out of cigarettes. "Jared?"
Tears welled in Morgan's eyes. "I missed you."
Jared raised the gun. "I missed you too."
The bullet took out the front plate of Morgan's skull, blood fanning across the wall. He fell forward, and Jared raised the gun and blew a penstroke of smoke from the barrel.
The floor curved into a set of bloody stairs where Sterling sat with Carver undulating in his arms, sweaty, animal, the light behind them almost too bright to bear. Sterling turned to Jensen. "Did you think you could get away so easily?"
Jensen opened his eyes, and he was back in the bathtub with Jared. He must have dozed off. Jared drew little wet circles on his belly and smiled faintly. "Thank you for last night."
Jensen touched Jared's cheek. Their clothes were scattered on the floor and he could smell the soap bubbles. "I love you."
Jared eyes met his, and then he lay his head on Jensen's chest and sank into him. "I'm so happy we met."
Jensen opened his eyes. Jared was staring at him, but at a ninety degree angle. Jensen was balled up inside his apartment oven, arms crossed. wrists tied to his ankles. He expected the dog to bark, but it sat in the vestibule, tail wagging expectantly. Jared uncorked a can of lighter fluid and waved it lazily over Jensen's back.
"You lied to me. You said you would love only me."
Jensen strained against the ropes, and realized he hadn't brought anyone else in his apartment in months. He'd cut himself off from his friends, even Singer would stay mad after their last conversation. It would be a long time before anyone came to look for him.
"And then I met the other men in your life. The cook. The cop. The machinist. They're next."
"It wasn't...like that."
"You would be the architect of my happiness." His smile was sweet. He would cherish Jensen every night for the rest of his short, agonizing life. "You don't know what makes me happy," he said, striking a match that flared and cast his face into half-shadow, "But you will."