The 'coming of age' story is an ever-popular genre, and if we're in the world of gay literature, what that usually translates to is a 'coming out' story. It's something that the overwhelming majority of us have had to do, and therefore the experiences ring true when we find them in literature. But there are those who argue that both gay rights and the gay experience has moved on, and that it's time we told different types of stories about gay characters. Some might even suggests that a coming out story is no longer interesting, or relevant, or even necessary.
What do you think? Do we still need 'coming out' stories? Comment here, or on our facebook page, or tweet us @lethepress and let us know.
It's nearly the weekend, so it's high time for a little fun, don't you think? Every Friday we're posting an excerpt from one of Lethe's erotica anthologies, and this week we're featuring our latest, Thunder of War, Lightning of Desire: Lesbian Historical Military Erotica from the multi-talented Sacchi Green.
Read an excerpt from the story 'Moment of Peace' by Jove Belle:
1945: WWII: South Pacific
Rose set the last of the dinner dishes in the industrial stainless steel sink as the opening strains of the show filtered through the canvas walls of the kitchen. The suds had long since given up and the water was tepid at best, and she wondered for the hundredth time why she thought joining the WACs was a good idea. She was doing the same exact thing she’d done all her life, cleaning up after messy men who never thought to say thank you. Only now, instead of her father and brothers, she did it for the hundreds of soldiers on an island she hadn’t known existed until she received her orders. So much for weapons maintenance, the job Uncle Sam promised her. Sure, she’d been shown where that job was done just before they told her there was no need and sent her to the kitchen.
“Oh, Rose, it’s starting. Hurry.” Alma was a petite woman, slight in stature, and easily overlooked. But her mind was sharp. Sharp enough to get her assigned to communications, but not sharp enough to keep from being reassigned to the kitchen along with Rose. Still, Rose admired the way she paid attention and caught details others missed. Like how they were constantly coming up short on forks. Alma was the one who discovered that a few of the soldiers were trading them with the locals for handmade trinkets to send home. Rose hadn’t even considered that. She was frustrated by the loss and annoyed that her ass kept getting chewed over it but never once did she think it was intentional. Who steals forks for God’s sake?
“We’re almost done.” Rose rinsed a plate and handed it to Alma. “Only a few more left.”
“I don’t want to miss anything important.” Alma’s dishtowel was more wet than dry at this point, and all she managed to do was push the moisture around on the plate without actually drying anything. Rose didn’t care. She’d signed up to serve her country during the war, but she hadn’t thought that would literally mean serve them breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“They’ll start with the news reels.” Rose finished the last plate and drained the water in the sink. She knew everything she needed to know. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States of America jumped into the Second World War, and Rose watched her brothers march away while their neighbors cheered. Two years later, after the speedy victory they’d been promised hadn’t happened, the army changed their opinion about women serving during wartime. Nobody cheered when she signed up, but she figured that was fine. She still wanted to do her part, and the victory garden behind her house wasn’t enough.
“Oh, I love the news.” Alma sighed in a way that shouldn’t have made Rose’s stomach tighten, but it did. She gazed at Alma, finally done with the work and able to enjoy the reason she’d volunteered to stay late and let the others go back to the barracks early. Alma’s eyes took on a faraway look as though she were remembering a more romantic place and time. That’s what Alma did. She romanticized everything, saw things with little hearts drawn around the outside edges. Still, no matter how many times she saw Alma with that dreamy little smile, Rose’s breath caught in her throat and she couldn’t stop the grin from climbing up her face.
“Here.” Rose reached for the last dish and the towel. Her fingers brushed against Alma’s and the charged thrill made her pause in motion. She stopped, hand on the plate, barely touching Alma, and completely unable to remember how to breathe. They stared at each other for several long moments and the dreamy look in Alma’s eyes was replaced by something darker, something needier. Instead of a tingle, this time Rose’s stomach clenched.
Alma broke contact first. “Yes…um…right.” She drew her hands away and held them behind her back. She looked anywhere but at Rose.
Rose finished with the plate, tossed the towel into the laundry bag, and picked up the stack of plates. It was just heavy enough to make her biceps flex and the small intake of breath told her that Alma noticed, too. Rose wore her uniform with the shirt sleeves rolled up. She’d started that as soon as she’d connected Alma’s soft sighs to the movement of her arms. Rose tightened her grip to accentuate her muscles, and lifted the plates onto the shelf. When she finished, she dusted her hands together, then turned to Alma. “All done. You ready to go?”
Alma sucked in her bottom lip and held it between her teeth for a moment. It was such a subconsciously sexy thing that Rose gripped the edge of the sink to hold herself in place. If Alma knew she was doing it, she’d stop out of embarrassment and Rose didn’t want that to happen. Their relationship was in a weird, strained place, stuck between friends and something more. They shared heated looks, and even a few kisses that could have been more, but Alma still went on dates with a skinny private who was so young he had acne and his face turned red when he tried to hold Alma’s hand. Rose hated him on principle alone.
Rose smiled, lopsided and cocky because Alma liked it when she smiled like that. Alma still hadn’t responded to Rose’s question; she simply stood there, biting her lip as her eyes grew darker and her face flushed with heat. Rose took a small step toward her, just enough to let Alma see her interest, but not enough to push. “You wanna go clean up first? Or is Phillip waiting for you?”
Alma shook her head, a confused almost smile on her lips. “No date tonight. I…”
A thrill bloomed inside her and Rose took another careful step forward. “You…what?”
Alma took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and looked Rose right in the eyes. “I want to spend the evening with you.” Her bluster faded a bit and she hastily added, “If that’s what you want, I mean.”
Rose nodded, and even though she could feel her head bobbling like a doll at a carnival, she couldn’t stop herself. “Yes, I definitely want.”
All Lethe Press books, including Thunder of War, Lightning of Desire, are available through the major online retailers and booksellers. You can also support the press and authors by buying directly from our website.
Every Thursday, Lethe takes a look through its vaults for its proudest releases. This week it's Minions of the Moon by Richard Bowes, a gay-classic-in-waiting described as "a terrific piece of storytelling" by Neil Gaiman and "powerful fiction" by Charles De Lint. Even better, Minions of the Moon is just $9 for the paperback all week at the Lethe website.
Read an excerpt from Minions of the Moon or listen to a preview of the audiobook:
My name is Kevin Grierson. If this were a twelve-step program for mortals haunted by doppelgängers, I would stand up now and say, “Hi. My name is Kevin. I’m fifty-four and I’ve been stalked by my own Shadow for as long as I can remember.” Then you’d say hello and we’d exchange stories.
In fact, I long ago learned to see my Shadow as the embodiment of my addiction, my will to self-destruction. The wise man who taught me to do that also showed me how to stay aware of the one he called my Silent Partner without dwelling on him.
After long mastery of that high-wire act, I grew confident, even, God help me, proud. Then the other night, I saw a kid get on a streetcar in Boston over forty years ago. The sight gave me pause, made me wonder if my time of grace was running out. And in that moment of uncertainty, I felt my Shadow close in.
I’d had a warning a week or two ago when Gina Raille, an old friend, said she had seen a guy around who looked like he might be my evil twin. But I had other things on my mind and things like this happened every once in a while. Not until last Saturday night and Sunday afternoon was I shown signs I could not ignore.
A toy merry-go-round on Ozzie Klackman’s work table was the first of those. Other business had brought me to his blowsy old apartment slightly above the riot that is Avenue A in August. Ceiling fans rotated. Decades worth of East Sixth Street curry hung in the air. Sirens wailed in the East Village. A boombox car bounced sound off the buildings. “LOCK UP THE FUCKING BANJA BOYS!” yelled a hoarse voice, a woman, or maybe a drag.
Ozzie, red faced and unshaven in paint-stained shorts and T-shirt, said, “You tell ’em, honey,” and drained a tumbler of fruit juice and vodka. Then he went back to demonstrating a Chatty Cathy. “I reworked it for this rich fetishist down in Pennsylvania.” Cathy still had her dippy smile. But now instead of inane talking-doll phrases, she uttered a string of obscenities in her dippy little voice. “It’s costing him plenty,” said Ozzie self-righteously, like overcharging the guy made him an agent of justice.
Every trade has its skullduggers, resurrectionists, procurers. Old toys is no exception. Ozzie Klackman is all those things and more. It’s why I had business with him.
Years of cruising and of buying antiques have taught me to nod, smile, and look with bland indifference at what interests me. The carousel was worn, wooden, American-made by my guess. The condition was better than I would have expected in a toy that old. The detail work too, with each horse a firebreathing stallion, and the decorative motif of smiling suns and frowning moons was suspiciously bright. Not one of Klackman’s master forgeries.
But it was its accuracy that made the hair on my neck stand up. To paint this, Klackman must have seen the real one as I had. He stopped talking. When I looked up, his small clever eyes were on me, measuring my reaction.
“You saw the original?” he asked. “I did. Years ago out in East Asshole, New Jersey. I was working for Augie Dolbier and he heard about this merry-go-round for sale. So he took me along and we barged right in. Real creepy scene. Like it was some kind of con game or rip-off. The carousel was the lure. The ones who had it weren’t interested in selling. Not to us. Recently I got reminded. I took this old beat-up toy and did it from memory.”
He waited like he expected me to ask questions. But I cultivate an attitude of professional disinterest and right then I was preoccupied with the present. “I’ve had a long day,” I told him and turned to go.
“Sorry I haven’t been to see George,” Ozzie said. My partner, George Halle, was at Cabrini Hospice in a terminal coma. I indicated the visit wasn’t necessary.
At the door, I handed him fifty dollars in tens and said, “Here’s your retainer. You’ll be at Masby’s Monday at eleven sharp, right? And you know what I want you to do?”
“Don’t worry, Kevin me lad,” he said in a Long John Silver voice. “Nighty night.”
Downstairs, yuppie couples scuttled home with Sunday papers and Kim’s videos. Over on Second Avenue, old guys with hats and cigars hung around newsstands eternally waiting for that final Brooklyn Dodgers score and a few hookers still operated in the shadow of the St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery baptistery.
But mainly it was kids. From New Jersey and the Bronx, by car and subway, they were outfitted like 1950s nerds, like cybersluts and MTV stars, in shorts and baseball caps, miniskirts and high heels, striped boxers and sneakers, souvenir T-shirts and envelope-shaped bell jeans, sporting crew cuts, beaded pigtails, wisps of Day-Glo green and blue hair that caught the streetlight like glaucoma auras.
I walked through them, middle age making me as invisible as a ghost at a tropical carnival. It amazed me that with everyone out of town for the weekend, the city could still be so crowded.
A bus rolled downtown. That summer they displayed Calvin Klein ads on their sides. Each was a row of photos of the same well-defined young man clad only in various undershorts. His expression varied from defiant, to dazed, to blank. It looked like the draft physical for the clone wars.
Actually getting force-stripped is disturbing, not sexy, a subspecies of rape, as I could testify. Fantasy, though, is something else. Klein’s genius is the exploitation of hustler poses, and August in New York gives everyone a horny itch. Normally I satisfied that itch through safe, clean call services.
Ozzie and his carousel had me thinking about the past when I stopped to pick up The Times. Just then, I noticed what looked like any club boy in his early twenties. His slightly glazed eyes met mine and held. The kid was for rent. Then his face lighted slightly. “Fred?” he asked. And I understood the kid had dealt with my Shadow.
Chilled but curious, I replied, “I have been. You and Fred are friends?” He indicated they were. I took the bait. Negotiations were fast. We were both pros. I said what I wanted and made an offer. He agreed and gave his name as Matt. I stuck with Fred, which had served my Shadow and me well enough in the past.
When we got to my place on Seventeenth Street, Stuyvesant Park across the way was still unlocked. Beneath the new moon, dogs and people moved under the lamp-lit trees, sat on benches waiting for love.
My building was quiet. Everyone else in the co-op is middle-aged too. My apartment is on the third floor and comfortable. On the living-room mantel I have assembled an antique toy zoo, animals behind bars, visitors pointing their articulated metal arms, an expensive whimsy. “The Heineken’s is cold.” I opened one for my guest and was not tempted. Once or twice in my past I have been touched by a grace so rare that it carries me through sordid passages and empty years.
I sat on the couch. Matt was cute in a dark buzz, shorts, and sneakers. I could remember when having to wear that particular outfit was a sentence to dorkhood. Of course, way back then we didn’t have the option of silver earrings and leg tattoos.
Matt swallowed some beer, stood in the center of my living room, and stripped when I asked him to. Ralph Lauren, Gap, Old Navy, Tommy Hilfiger—the layers fell away and revealed how skinny he was.
He glanced at my front windows and noticed they were uncurtained. He made an involuntary gesture as if he wanted to cover his crotch and eyes, then thought he shouldn’t. I felt a key turn in my heart even as I knew it was all part of the act.
Because of age and scars and a sense of aesthetics, I kept my shirt on. In the bedroom, the air conditioner played on our skin. I stroked his hair, which was as short and smooth as I imagine an otter’s to be. He smelled of smoke and booze, Obsession and sweat, the scent of nightlife. Wings were tattooed over his left nipple, a snake wound up his right calf.
Then we got down to business and for a time, with my cock being licked and tickled, my hand on another’s head, my mind sailed free with not a thought of who he was or who I was or what were the circumstances of this happening. It was like being a kid again.
To work completely, commodity sex should be emotionally self-contained and anonymous. Too much involvement makes that impossible. Matt had aroused my curiosity. And my empathy. Never underestimate a doppelgänger’s subtlety. This kid evoked my past.
When he got up and went in the bathroom, I looked through his clothes. Except for the sneakers, they had all been bought or boosted that day. Tomorrow if all went well for him, these clothes would be in the trash and he’d have a new outfit. He carried no wallet, seven dollars in change, a couple of pills I couldn’t identify, and slips of paper, most with names and numbers, one with just a Hell’s Kitchen address.
In a small shoulder bag he had underwear and socks, Vaseline, polyurethane and latex condoms, plastic gloves, dental and tongue dams, skin salve, and nonoxynol-9. My guess was that these were all his possessions.
When he was ready to leave, I gave him a card. The name and number of my shop were on the front and my name and home phone number were on the back. “Call me soon.” He nodded as I would once have done. “Since you used the name Fred, you must have met my imaginary friend,” I remarked.
He gave me a look that said my Shadow was at least as real as I was. Then the kid was gone. And since nothing of any consequence was on my answering machine, I lay down on the bed and started leafing through The Times.
The next thing I remember was a kid getting on a Boston streetcar. An ordinary enough child, blond and small, a very young twelve, he walked like he was wary of being hit. He sat at the back of the car and turned his face toward the window. Someone once said that when the Irish get hurt they stay hurt. He might have had in mind something like the way that kid moved and avoided eye contact.
The last streetcars in New York ran long before I arrived here. But deep in the night, I started awake. The Week in Review and Arts and Entertainment sections fell on the floor and it seemed as if I’d just heard a trolley bell clang at the end of my block.
This week we put our five questions to Ice On Fire author Dan Stone.
Ice On Fire is out now from Lethe Press. Check it out. (Plus, buy it in paperback today and you'll receive a copy of The Rest Of Our Lives at no extra cost.)
This month at Lethe sees the release of Ice On Fire by Dan Stone. The sequel to the Lambda Award Finalist The Rest Of Our Lives, Ice On Fire returns to the enchanting romance between Colm McKenna and Aidan Gallagher. You can buy the book here, and as a bonus this month, if you buy Ice On Fire in paperback now, you also receive The Rest Of Our Lives completely free.
Read an excerpt:
We both must have dozed off again. I opened my eyes to find the room still dark, and I felt the initial confusion of waking up in unfamiliar surroundings, unable at first to make out any of the shapes in the shadows. Aidan was unusually still beside me. I held my breath for a few seconds until I could hear his soft, reassuring inhale and exhale. We had burrowed back under the covers, and I felt the weight of the comforter on my legs and the warmth of his back even though we weren’t touching.
My eyes were still adjusting to the darkness when I saw a faint glow in the far corner of the room, near the large window overlooking Lakeshore Drive and the inland ocean that is Lake Michigan. I thought at first it must be the sunrise pushing through the heavy curtains, but as I blinked a few times and sat up slightly, I could tell that this glow—still just the faintest illumination—was not coming from outside. It was something in the corner of the room and it was moving. Approaching. Even more unsettling, I realized as it drew closer and the light shifted that something was in the room with us, and it was coming toward the bed.
I reached toward Aidan to wake him but stopped short of actually touching him. I started to speak but something gentle yet persuasive held me still. The figure was now at the side of the bed, and the dim light around it brightened enough for me to see a woman standing beside me, looking into my eyes.
The light radiated from her as well as surrounded her, soft but bright enough for me to see her fair complexion, the waves of dark red hair around her shoulders set on fire by the light, and her dark, shining eyes. Her presence was striking. Forceful but still, it was somehow familiar. She smiled slightly as she put a slim finger to her lips, urging me to remain silent.
I realized she was holding something in her arms. She stood motionless beside the bed for a few moments, smiling a familiar, enigmatic smile, the light making a fiery halo of her hair, her dark eyes mysterious with incredible warmth and power but, again, familiar.
She slowly leaned over me, again putting a finger to her lips, and I thought I saw her glance briefly at Aidan beside me. I started to sit up, but she shook her head as she gently placed the bundle in her arms in the space between Aidan and me on the bed. I couldn’t tell what it was, only that it was warm and wrapped in soft layers of cloth.
I looked up at her and she smiled and nodded. I felt again this distinct impression that I knew her. Suddenly soft currents of air rose in the room, warm and cool breezes that I immediately recognized as the gentler versions of the North and South winds that were Aidan’s and my companions and part of our magick. The breezes stirred and the halo of light around the woman’s face grew brighter until I could no longer clearly see her eyes or her features. I looked down at the soft bundle in the bed between my sleeping boyfriend and me, and an infant’s wide-open eyes stared up at me.
I jumped out of the dream and up in our bed with a gasp that should have awakened the notoriously light sleeper beside me. But Aidan’s eyes were closed, his lips in their usual slightly parted nighttime position. Whatever movement or sounds I’d made, my oblivious boyfriend was still sleeping. Like a baby.
All Lethe Press books, including Ice On Fire, are available through the major online retailers and booksellers. You can also support the press and authors by buying directly from our website.
Welcome to Lethe's weekly Giveaway Mondays.
Firstly, to celebrate the release of it's lesbian counterpart, Heiresses of Russ 2015, we've got three ebooks of Wilde Stories 2015 (edited by Steve Berman) to give away. Showcasing the best gay speculative fiction of the year, Wilde Stories 2015 features a host of wonderful writers, including Paul Tremblay, Chaz Brenchley, Sunny Moraine, Alex Jeffers, and more. See the full Table of Contents here. To win, just like our facebook page and share the competition image, or follow and RT us on twitter @lethepress.
Secondly, all week Richard Bowes' legendary novel Minions of the Moon is just $9 in paperback. Described by Neil Gaiman as "a terrific piece of storytelling,", it also includes the short story 'Grierson At The Pain Clinic', exclusive to this edition. Follow this link to buy on our website.
Every Sunday, Lethe brings you a list of books on a theme compiled from suggestions from its readers, its editors and its authors. This list is neither exhaustive, didactic or ordered, and while there are no doubt numerous books left off it, hopefully there are also a number of new books here for you to discover.
As this is our first of such lists, we'll start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, as a clever lady once said) with Gay Lit 101, or the essential books for any reader of gay literature.
The Dancer From The Dance, Andrew Holleran
Set in Pre-AIDs 1970s Fire Island, Holleran's novel pokes at the dark heart of the party, and has been described as 'the golden era of gay liberation's greatest chronicle.'
Orange Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson
If this line is thin on lesbian fiction, at least it includes the always-excellent Winterson. From the same era as A Boy's Own Story, Oranges' protagonist comes of age amidst a complex relationship with her mother, and her church.
Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin
On the surface simply a novel about a gay romance in Paris, Giovanni's Room maintains it's place in the pantheon of gay literature thanks to its subtle examination of gay identity in a hostile world.
Naked Lunch, William Borroughs
A well-earned place for 'queer and weird', Naked Lunch melds hard-boiled into the hinterlands of strangeness, with protagonists drifting in and our of heroin-laced visions.
From the Lethe vaults:
It would be inflated of us to suggest that any of Lethe's titles belong in the pantheon of essential gay lit, but if we could lay money...
Bitter Waters by Chaz Brenchley is an exemplary example of gay and fantastical fiction. No wonder it won a Lambda Literary Award (like many of the above books mentioned). Chaz Brenchley is a born storyteller and there is not a single tale in this collection that will not inspire the imagination of gay readers.
I Knew Him by Erastes - If Patricia Highsmith were still writing today and tackled a British Historical this novel would not be far off from what she would achieve. Rich with the flavor of the time and complicated by a Wildean sociopath who believes he does terrible deeds out of love, this novel will thrill and delight readers.
Hard by Wayne Hoffman offers an immersive read into the 1980s, a time when AIDS was at the height of its terror--"The Plague Years." Hoffman does not shy away from characters who seek pleasure during this time and also seek the truth and justice against the homophobia and self-interests that let the disease spread.
Promises, Promises by LJ Baker gives lesbian readers all the wit and wonders of a Terry Prachett tale with the romance between women that will leave them smiling and content. Few stories have as much heart as this humorous fantasy.
Shadow Man by Melissa Scott is not an easy book. If you loved LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness then you are ready to tackle this complex science fiction novel which features seven gender brought about by technology that makes space travel feasible. But few books ever dared so much to break down the illusion of binary gender. Another Lambda Literary Winner.
For many of us who read, or write, queer/gay literature, there was a formative experience in our youth (perhaps in our adolescence, though for some it is earlier, and for some it is later) when we encountered a book that represented us. For many us such representations will have been thin on the ground, and it is undoubtedly a common experience for many of us to have felt a thrill, and a deep connection, to such a book, and for it to hold an important place in our hearts.
What was the first of these books for you - or if not the first, then the most influential, the one that remains with you to this day? Comment here, or on our facebook page, or tweet us @lethepress and let us know.
It's nearly the weekend, so it's high time for a little fun, don't you think? Every Friday we're posting an excerpt from one of Lethe's erotica anthologies, and this week we're featuring our latest, Thunder of War, Lightning of Desire: Lesbian Historical Military Erotica from the multi-talented Sacchi Green.
Read an excerpt from the story 'Danger' by Sacchi Green herself:
She’d caught a hit above her left ear hard enough to split the skin and raise a still-swelling lump. “Did you pass out when you got hit?” I was cleaning the wound gently with a soaking wet dishtowel. I’d already had a look at her eyes and didn’t see any signs of concussion.
“Nope. Just got real mad. And maybe a tad destructive.” Her voice was getting steadier.
“You’re lucky to have such a thick skull.” I felt around through her hair for more damage.
“Lucky to find a cute nurse close at hand.” A cocky attitude isn’t easy to pull off with your head down and bloody water trickling over your neck and down your chin, but she managed. There was something about the tone of voice, and an old, raised scar across the nape of her neck that diverted the flow of reddened water… I knew with sudden certainty that “Haven’t we met somewhere?” wouldn’t have been just a hackneyed pick-up line, after all. That scar was just about a year and a half old, the result of a mortar attack that blasted her ambulance apart and killed an already-wounded soldier. Her collarbone had been broken, too, but she’d managed to get the other two guys out and away before flames hit the gas tank.
I let her sit up while I went to fix an ice pack. “What makes you think I’m a nurse?” Stupid question. So much for anonymity. Not that she’d be likely to give me away to the Army bureaucracy, but some fear even deeper made my gut tense, some danger I couldn’t even give a name.
“Well, you were one hell of a nurse in Long Binh, and I figure that’s something you never forget. Like riding a bike. Or a woman.” Her grin, now that I could see it, was cocky, too, but her eyes were grimly sober. She knew all about the things I couldn’t forget. She’d been there, too, right through the worst of it. Her hair had been much shorter, not quite as dark, and the only time I’d seen her up close was when I was stitching up that gash on the nape of her neck. I might not have recognized anything about her, even my own handiwork—but I did remember the cockiness under stress. And those hands.
“You were in ‘Nam, right? Ambulance driver?” I pressed the ice pack against her wound. “Hold that.” Her hand went up obediently.
“Jeep jockey, mostly, on loan to the nurse’s motor pool from the WAC base at Long Binh. When things got hot, every vehicle had to double as an ambulance.”
I drew a deep breath. “And nurses had to be doctors half the time.”
“Right.” She held out the hand that wasn’t holding the ice. “Thanks for the fine stitching job, Kim. I asked around about your name.”
“You’re more than welcome…Gale, isn’t it?” I shook her hand, then forced myself to let it go. “Once we get the swelling under control, I’ll put on a dressing, and you can hang out here tonight and get some rest.”
Whether she had a concussion or not—could be a mild Class A—she had to be badly shaken, her defenses down. Better stick to the nurse role. “How about a bite to eat?” I went to the cupboard and riffled through it. “Hungry?”
“Could work up an appetite.” Gale’s tone made me glance back over my shoulder. She was surveying my ass and back with open appreciation.
“Definitely a sign of recovery.” I put some chicken noodle soup on to heat. Not such weak defenses, after all, if her offensive game was anything to go by.
“A little something to keep your strength up,” I told her, once I’d set out soup and crackers for us both and sat down at the table to join her. Then, while she was still formulating a snappy comeback, I turned seriously apologetic. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you sooner. It was…hard, over there, keeping a balance between caring enough about patients and not caring too much. And afterward there was so much to block out…”
She started to shake her head, and winced. “No problem. I figure I got more mileage tonight out of being a stranger.” The grin she managed was strained. My various sensitized pulse points stirred hopefully at the reminder, but I swung back into nurse mode with an effort, gathering up disinfectant and scissors and bandages from the bathroom.
“Yeah, well…” I felt my face flush. “Back to business for now. This will sting a little. And I’m going to have to snip some hair around the wound site.”
“Hack it all off,” Gale said curtly. “If I hit the streets tomorrow looking anything like I did tonight, I’d be painting a bright red target on my ass. The cops are probably throwing darts at sketches of me right now”
I gave her a trim that, bandage aside, left her looking like the teen-aged love child of Katherine Hepburn and Marlon Brando. Elegant cheekbones, short, unruly hair, sultry eyes. “You clean up pretty well,” I told her. “The image of a target on your ass is pretty intriguing, though. You sure there isn’t one there already? Was all that…” I motioned toward the fringed jacket and the braided, dyed hair showing above the rim of the wicker wastebasket, “…some kind of disguise? You’re not just worried about the local cops, are you.”
An attempted shrug made her wince again. She yawned and rubbed her eyes, shock and exhaustion beginning to catch up to her, but she answered frankly. “I’m AWOL, and wanted by everybody from the MPs to the Oakland Police Department to the SDS. A little episode coming out of the Oakland Army Base just after I got stateside.”
I knew all too well the treatment a uniform could get you back in the land of your birth. Even nurses ran the risk of taunts and spitting when protesters got their mob mentality on. I might agree with some of what they were for, but their methods seemed like the mindless tantrums of over-privileged brats.
“That bad, huh?” I wished I hadn’t brought up the subject. She didn’t need any more stress tonight.
“It wasn’t what they yelled at me. I hadn’t slept for forty-eight hours, had waking nightmares, barely remembered my own name, and I still kept my shit together through all that. But there was this guy in a wheelchair, a Marine. When they threw things, he couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. I don’t even remember much after that, but I know I grabbed a Babykiller sign and started swinging it. Some people got hurt. I ran, and kept on running.”
Her head slumped. I caught it against my breast as my arms went around her. “Come on to bed now,” I said, my lips brushing her hair so lightly she couldn’t have felt them. So much for my longing for unscarred, unbroken women. What a delusion.
She managed to stand, moved across to the bedroom with my help, and even tried to pull me down beside her while I eased her clothes off. “Later,” I said, and turned out the lights. “Get some sleep now. Nurse’s orders.”
Every Thursday, Lethe takes a look through its vaults for its proudest releases. This week it's Before and Afterlives, the Shirley Jackson Award-winning collection from Christopher Barzak (the author of the novel One For Sorrow, adapted for film as Jamie Marks Is Dead - The Love We Share Without Knowing and Wonders of the Invisible World.) Even better, Before and Afterlives is just $5 for the paperback all week at the Lethe website.
Read an excerpt from the story 'The Boy Was Was Born Wrapped In Barbed Wire':
There was once a boy who was born wrapped in barbed wire. The defect was noticed immediately after his birth, when the doctor had to snip the boy’s umbilical cord with wire cutters. But elsewhere, too, the wire curled out of the boy’s flesh, circling his arms and legs, his tiny torso. They didn’t cause him pain, these metal spikes that grew out of the round hills of his body, although due to the dangerous nature of his birth, his mother had lost a great amount of blood during labor. After delivery, the nurse laid the boy in his mother’s arms, careful to show her the safe places to hold him. And before her last breath left her, she managed to tell her son these words: “Bumblebees fly anyway, my love.”
They followed him, those words, for the rest of his life, skimming the rim of his ear, buzzing loud as the bees farmed by his father the beekeeper. He did not remember his mother saying those words, but he often imagined the scene as his father described it. “Your mother loved you very much,” he told the boy, blinking, pursing his lips. The beekeeper wanted to pat his son’s head, but was unable to touch him just there—on his crown—where a cowlick of barbs jutted out of the boy’s brown curls.
The beekeeper and his son lived in a cabin in the middle of the woods. They only came out to go into town for supplies and groceries. The beekeeper took the boy with him whenever he trekked through the woods to his hives. He showed the boy how to collect honey, how to not disturb the bees, how to avoid an unnecessary stinging. Sometimes the beekeeper wore a baggy white suit with a helmet and visor, which the bees clung to, crawling over the surface of his body. The boy envied the bees that landscape. He imagined himself a bee in those moments. As a bee, his sting would never slip through his father’s suit to strike the soft flesh hidden beneath it. His barbs, though, would find their way through nearly any barrier.
One day the beekeeper gave the boy a small honeycomb and told him to eat it. The comb dripped a sticky gold, and the boy wrinkled his nose. “It looks like wax,” he told his father. But the beekeeper only said, “Eat,” so the boy did.
The honeycomb filled his mouth with a sweetness that tasted of sunlight on water. Never before had something so beautiful sat on the tip of his tongue. Swallowing, he closed his eyes and thought of his mother. The way she held him in her arms before dying, the way she spoke before going away forever. The memory of his mother tasted like honey too, and he asked the beekeeper, “What did she mean? Bumblebees fly anyway?”
“Bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly,” said the beekeeper, closing the lid on a hive. Honeybees crawled on the inside of the lid like a living carpet. “Their bodies are so large and their wings so small, they shouldn’t be able to lift themselves into the air, but somehow they do. They fly.”
When the boy turned five, the beekeeper sent him to school with the town’s other children. At first the boy was excited, standing on the shoulder of the highway where the trail that led back through the woods to the beekeeper’s cabin ended. But soon the bus came and, as he stepped inside, he realized none of the other kids had been born wrapped in barbed wire. They were regular flesh children with soft hair any adult could run their fingers through. They looked at him, eyes wide, and said nothing. No one offered him a seat, so the boy sat behind the bus driver.
They all knew of the barbed wire boy, of course, from tales that had circulated since the day of his birth. But only a few had actually seen him. The one story the children lived on was told by a girl who had seen him in the fruit section of the grocery store late one night, shopping with his father. He had reached for a bunch of grapes, she said, but the grapes got tangled in the wire around his hand. His father bent down to remove them, carefully pulling the vines away, but several grapes remained stuck on his barbs, their juice sliding down the metal. “The manager made them buy that bunch,” the girl said with an air of righteousness. After all, those grapes were ruined.
On his first day of class, no one talked to him except the teacher, Ms. Morrison, who told him where he could sit. She pointed to a desk in the back of the room, far away from the rows of desks that held the other children. When he looked up at her, she could already see the question forming on the cage of his face and said, “For their safety, dear. And for yours.”
Ms. Morrison taught the boy how to read, how to write, and how to add numbers. He already knew how to subtract. His father had taught him that. So he was ahead of the class, or behind them, depending on your view of subtraction.
This is how the barbed wire boy learned to subtract:
“How old am I?” he once asked the beekeeper.
“It’s been four years since your mother died,” the beekeeper replied.
“Four,” said the barbed wire boy. “How much is four, Father?”
“Four is one less than five,” said the beekeeper. “Three is one less than four. And two is what your mother and I once were together.”
It was only once Ms. Morrison took an apple and orange and put them together that the boy realized things could grow in number.
The barbed wire boy kept to himself, but his solitude was not of his own choosing. The town parents had warned their children. “You could get hurt playing with that boy,” they said. “You could get tangled up in his barbed wire and then what would you do?”
The barbed wire boy understood their reluctance to engage him, but it would be lying to say he did not long for a friend. For someone to at least confide in. Day after day he sat on the teeter-totter during recess, waiting for someone to climb onto the side opposite, someone whose weight would lift him high into the air.
All Lethe Press books, including Before and Afterlives, are available through the major online retailers and booksellers. You can also support the press and authors by buying directly from our website.
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