6.04 / April 2011

The Breathing Dead

Richard stands outside the room with his eyes closed and his head bowed and thinks around the edges of the boy, the back of his neck and his bottom lip and the graceful architecture of his collarbone.  The paint-spotted glass knob is exactly zipper level and he presses against it.  There is no sound from inside the room.

After a few moments he straightens and runs a hand around his waist to ensure his shirt is tucked in properly.  He adjusts his glasses and opens the door.

The boy squints in the band of light that falls across him but does not raise a hand to shield his eyes.  Richard pulls the chain of the floor lamp next to the bed, casting an unhealthy yellow glow against the shadows of the cluttered room, and closes the door behind him.  The boy is slumped like a ragdoll in a straight-backed dining room chair, his big eyes following Richard as he positions another chair three feet away and sits.  Behind them the pull chain ticks against the slender gold spine of the lamp in a gentle receding cadence, like a winding-down heart.

“Hello,” Richard says.

The boy is silent.

“You’re being very good,” Richard tells him softly.  He knows children respond to quiet voices and even tones. He places his feet precisely apart in the stiff black shoes, his best shoes, and folds his hands between his knees.  He stares down the boy’s little body, the worn runnels of corduroy and fraying sweater cuffs and white socks still bright on his ankles, devoid of playground dust.  Richard knows from weeks of watching that the boy is not athletic.  He is alone more than a normal six year old; he stands with his hands in his pockets, his back against the rough brick of the gym, and traces the empty hopscotch grids with worried eyes.  This same expression of inborn apprehension is evident now in the boy’s downy eyebrows, drawn slightly together.  He looks very much alone.

But he is no longer alone, Richard thinks with a pulse of pure joy.  The boy does not know this yet, but he will never again suffer from the loneliness that fills the wretched small house where he lives with his slattern mother and her parade of men.  Richard intends to make sure that the boy understand how special he is, and how loved.

“You’re being very good,” he repeats.  “Are you going to keep being good,” he asks, “or do I have to tie you to the chair?”

The boy’s head rolls all the way to the left, a slow, somehow hungry movement, and he presses his cheekbone against the peak of his shoulder.  His mouth opens.  The pink flesh and wet dark inside cause Richard’s heart to spasm.

“I’ll be good,” the boy says to the far wall.  His voice is high and light, softer than anything, and the breath that escapes afterwards is audible.

“I know you will,” Richard says.  “You’re a very good boy.”  He watches the boy’s foot twitch anxiously, swinging his untied shoelace.  His hands separate with a soundless kiss of sweat and he leans towards the boy, his head swimming; the boy’s gaze is craned far away and he gets close enough to feel the clean heat of skin even through corduroy, and then his thick fingertips are on the plastic ends of the laces.  An involuntary longing escapes his throat and the boy jerks sharply back to attention.  Richard forces himself to retreat.  The small foot is stiff and motionless, pointed down.

Richard clasps his hands again with forced calm.

“Why don’t you tie that?” he says.  “Kyle.”

The boy brings his heel to the edge of the chair.  He ties the lace, deftly, without ever moving his eyes from Richard.

“You have a beautiful name,” he says.  “I like saying it.  Kyle.”

Something about his name in the man’s mouth makes Kyle feel sick with worry.  He says nothing.

“Don’t you know what to say when you are complimented?” Richard asks, and watches a moment of deliberation deepen the furrow between the boy’s brows.  His leg moves carefully down to its previous position.

“Thank you,” he says.

“You’re welcome, Kyle.  My name is Richard.”  There is another pause.  The boy’s eyelashes flutter against the tender bluish skin under his eyes.  Richard imagines the near invisible lacework of veins there, beating softly with threads of blood.  His entire body is so miraculous, and so impossibly delicate, Richard reminds himself that when it is time for the honeymoon, he must be very gentle.

“Hello,” the boy whispers finally.

Richard smiles.  “Are you hungry?” he asks.  “I have food for you.  Not like grown-up food,” he says, and laughs in a quick bracing cut that makes the boy jump.  Richard clears his throat.  “Are you hungry?” he asks again, softly.

The boy shakes his head and then murmurs, “No, thank you.”

“You have to eat.”

There is a moment of silence as they look at each other and Richard is thinking about the color of the boy’s hair, the brown of it like gingerbread, and he wonders if it smells like cinnamon; he wonders about the fragrance of it after days of not washing and after endless hours of soaking body heat collected under the sheet and blanket on the bed in the bedroom down the hall.  He wonders what love does to the smell of the boy’s hair.

“Okay,” the boy says.  “Thank you.”

“Okay.”  Richard is eager.  “Spaghetti-Os,” he says.  “Do you like those?”

“Yes,” the boy says.  “Thank you.”

“Good.  Good.  I’ll go make them.  Will you stay here?” Richard asks.  “Or do I have to tie you to the chair?”

“I’ll stay here,” the boy says.

“I know you will,” Richard says, and he smiles.  Kyle can hear saliva clotting in the back of it.  “You’re such a good boy.”

“Thank you.”  Kyle stays perfectly still under the force of his eyes.  The door is pulled flush with the frame but not closed and he can hear the man handling pots and dishes and over everything his voice, sometimes like singing, sometimes like talking, threaded seamlessly without pause for breath or logic.

Kyle twists around and looks at the wall behind him.  Near the ceiling there is a small square window, almost black with grime, which looks as though it opens with a crank.  The room is thick with junkboxes everywhere, a birdcage in one corner, plastic-wrapped mattresses stacked to the left, and a headless dressmaker’s dummy at the end of them.  Kyle turns forward again and closes his eyes.  His hands rove the soft wood of the chair and he finds a set of distinct fingerprint grooves on each side.  He fits his fingers into them and thinks about the patterns of sunlight and shade in the schoolyard.  He thinks about his teacher’s blue dress and about the bigger boy who pushed him in the bathroom that morning and already these things seem somehow less real than the man’s house.  He thinks about the headless dummyhis grandmother had one in her attic, at the far end by the round window that let in more light than any of the windows downstairs.  The dummy wore a wedding gown, her cardboard-brown shoulders bare.  At Thanksgiving his older cousin called this sexy.  Kyle clamps his mind like teeth on the solidity of this memory.

Richard hurries back into the room with a bowl in each hand.  He watches the boy’s eyes fly open as he enters and his posture straighten and feels proud of his good manners.  He sets the bowls on the plastic-wrapped mattress and crosses the room to retrieve a card table from its place against the wall.

“These tables were my mother’s,” he tells the boy. “Most of this stuff was my mother’s, and the house, of course.”  The boy stares at him blankly.  “What am I saying,” Richard says, shaking his head, chastising himself.  “You don’t care about any of that,” and he laughs and blushes.  At first he is embarrassed to be blushing but then he remembers that the room is dim and the boy probably can’t see his face very clearly.  He snaps the table legs into position and settles it between them.  Over his glasses he steals a glance at the boy, who is watching him intently, and he thinks maybe it isn’t so bad that he’s blushing.  Maybe the boy likes that.

Richard sets the bowls on the table and then two spoons, drawing them from his shirt pocket with a flourish.

“I hoped you would like this,” he says as the boy dips his spoon into the bowl.  “I wanted to get something you enjoyed since I knew you were coming.  I bought out the whole store, I think, stocking up, so we’re taken care of for a while.”

When he says this, Kyle looks up at him with only his eyes, his head still lowered into the steam from the bowl, breathing in the wet tomato heat.  He tries not to think about what taken care of for a while means.

“You should eat,” Richard says.  “You said you liked it.  Don’t you like it?”

“Yes,” Kyle says.  “I’m not hungry.”  The steam tears his eyes and he tells himself that he is not crying, that the steam is doing that, and he takes small comfort in the heat of it.

“Eat,” the man says with dead quiet in his voice.

Kyle draws his head back, slowly, and finds the spoon on the table without looking.  His flushed face smarts with an immediate chill once removed from the steam and in him there is the bottomless feeling that everything is ultimately disappointing, everything is hopeless.  His face is damp and beaded with steam or with tears and the high-up window behind him opens with a rusted crank as thick as his arm and everything is hopeless.

Richard picks up his own spoon and stirs the Spaghetti-Os, then abandons them.  He watches the boy take a meatball into his mouth.

“Is it too hot?” he asks.  The boy shakes his head.  “I tried to make it just right.  I wanted you to like it.  You should eat to keep up your strength.”

Kyle nods and forces himself to swallow.  He will eat it the way he eats vegetables, mechanically, without pausing for taste.

“Good,” Richard says as the boy takes another bite.  “Did you like my car?” he asks then.  “I had it cleaned really well for you yesterday, since I knew you were coming.”

Kyle doesn’t know what to say.  He forces another spoonful into his mouth and concentrates on not vomiting.  He thinks about the car door swinging open and the man’s round stomach and his smile and his glasses flashing white with sunlight.  He said that Kyle’s mother had picked up an extra shift at the restaurant; he knew the restaurant’s name and his mother’s name and Kyle’s address.  Kyle hesitated.  Once before, his mother had sent her boyfriend to pick him up from school and Kyle hadn’t known him very well, and had been scared of the broken veins in his nose and the calloused red skin on his knuckles, but nothing bad had happened.  When he got home his mother was sitting at the kitchen table in her bathrobe with a cigarette and a headache.  So Kyle climbed inside.  He could see the top of the school through the window and its smooth retreat as the car pulled away from the curb.

But they didn’t go to Kyle’s house.  The man drove in the other direction and then onto the highway.  Kyle sat craned forward, motionless, clutching the edge of his seat with both hands, and thought about the girl in his school who had died last year because she fell out of a driving car.  There were words inside him but the fear was stronger and he held his mouth closed around the fear like a stone.

“Are you going to be good,” the man had asked him, without looking away from the road, “or do I have to hit you?”

“Yes,” he says in the room, into the bowl.

“The seat was comfortable for you?”

“Yes,” Kyle whispers.

“Oh I’m so glad,” the man says, and sits back, and his chair strains.  “I can’t eat, I’m so excited,” he says.  “I’m just watching you.”

Kyle looks down into his bowl and is relieved to find that he is more than halfway through.  He draws a steadying breath and continues to eat.

“It’s been a long day for you,” the man says presently.  “I know school is really hard now.  Not like when I was a kid, way back in the dark ages,” and he laughs again, that quick startling bray.  “But we won’t talk about age differences.  No one old in this room,” he says.  “I’m young at heart,” and his lips lift in a smile and Kyle’s throat closes at the sight of his long teeth.  One tooth is grey and looks spongy like a mushroom.  Kyle drops his spoon and breathes raggedly, trying to keep the food down.

“I can’t eat anymore,” he says.

The man frowns for a moment but nods.

“Delicate stomach like a bird,” he says, gravely.  “That’s a sign of royalty.”  And he watches Kyle, and Kyle is not sure what is expected of him, so he nods back.  “Is it because you’re tired?”

Kyle considers this and the idea comes to him that maybe the man will leave if he says he is tired. And then Kyle can climb like a monkey onto the waist of the headless dummy and curl his hand around the crank of the window.

“Yes, I’m tired,” he says.

“Boys need sleep,” the man says.  “Such a long day waiting for us tomorrow.  We should both get some sleeptwo sillies like us, we need sleep.”  He laughs and the laugh dissolves into a cough and Kyle is rigid, waiting for it to end.  “You can stay in here, for tonight,” he says then, and again Kyle feels a rolling unease at his words without completely understanding why.  “Here.”  The man stands suddenly and knocks the table with his leg and Kyle swallows and swallows against the startle of his heart.  He watches the man hunch over a box in the corner and then turn holding a length of cloth.  “You can cover yourself with this,” he says, and Kyle sees small red flowers printed on the white fabric and lace at the top and he realizes it is a lady’s nightgown.  “It was my mother’s,” he says.  “I don’t think she would mind.”

“Okay,” Kyle says faintly.  His gaze fixates on the Spaghetti-Os watching him like empty fish eyes.  He understands, undeniably now, that he is staying here and that whatever is happening is very bad, and a horrible sick longing for his mother sweeps from the core of his spine to the tips of his fingers.

“Aren’t you going to get on the bed?” the man asks, standing with the nightgown draped over his arms like a body, and Kyle gets up and climbs onto the mattresses, the rubber soles of his shoes catching against the plastic.  He lies flat on his back and the man leans close and Kyle forces himself to stay still as the nightgown comes slowly, lightly down on top of him.  “I’ll leave the food in here in case you get hungry,” he says.

“Okay,” Kyle whispers.

“Goodnight,” the man says softly.

“Goodnight,” Kyle says, forcing the word from his strangled throat.

The man turns off the lamp and pulls the door almost closed and then there is a hesitation.  Kyle stops breathing.

“In case you get scared,” he says then, from the other side of the door, “I wanted you to know the window won’t open, it has been sealed for years.  You don’t have to worry about anyone coming in to take you away during the night.”

The door closes and Kyle tastes the body smell inside the nightgown and the meaning of the man’s words at the same time and he gags wetly, crying at last, in the smothering dark.

Outside the room Richard stands motionless, throbbing from even this limited contact with the boy.  Feverishly he counts the hours until morning, when he can wake the boy and begin their first day together.

He crosses the shadowed house and enters the brightly lit master bedroom at the end of the hall.  He pauses for a moment and feels with his body for the boy’s pulse vibrating the air around him like a tuning fork, the new heart pumping blood and meaning into his life.  His eyes close with the intensity of his affection and he extends one hand to the wall of the bedroom for support.

On the far side, by the windows, there is a vanity table with an oval mirror attached.  Richard goes to it with the deliberate, protracted steps of a bride on her ceremonial walk towards bliss and sits on the low stool, knees together, legs to the side. He is looking not at himself, but at the room behind him.  Every trace of dust has been meticulously removed, every surface polished to a gleam.  The bed is flawlessly made; there is a new red blanket and sheets with a pattern of red leaves on them.

Watching the bed, Richard remembers an article from one of his mother’s lady magazines.  The author said that in the tender beginning of a marriage it was important for the wife to provide a welcoming environment; the room should be spotless and the bed perfect, with clean sheets and comfortable, attractive bedding.  A good environment, she said, was key for lasting intimacy.

But the boy could not be expected to achieve this alone.  Sometimes, Richard believed, the man of the household should take responsibility for fostering intimacy.  Sometimes the weaker of the union should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of the stronger.  He had spent all day yesterday down on his knees in the shag carpet scrubbing the baseboards and the walls, and finally snapping the red blanket out fresh from its plastic package.  As it floated down and settled in hills and valleys on the mattress Richard pictured them there together and silently thanked the writer of that long-ago article.

For some time he watches the room behind him and thinks of the boy under his mother’s nightgown.  He remembers the first time he saw the boy, weeks ago, from his car in the parking lot of a public pool.  The boy had been standing on the end of the diving board, his arms clasped around himself as though warding off a chill, watching his mother.  She was stretched full-length in a beach chair, on her side; the ripe curve of her hip tapering down to waist closed Richard’s throat with disgust.  Next to her was a middle-aged man with a growth of hair down his red back like the coating on a sick tongue, talking to her, and she was swallowing his words as fast as they came, her face split open in a starving smile.

Richard watched the boy watch his mother, small and alone on the end of the board, his toes curled pale and perfect as seashells, an expression of keen longing on his face.  At last he decided to jump without her attention or approval, a hesitant, joyless leap, and Richard’s breath caught at the sight of the little body disappearing below the surface.

By the time he emerged, his hair sleek and dark, his blue swim trunks sagging, droplets running like fingertips down the divots of spine, Richard was lovesick.  The boy took a towel from the bag next to his mother and folded it around himself.  He settled a distance away with his legs crossed under him and drew pictures on the cement using his finger, rewetting it again and again in the dripping tousle of his hair.  Finally the mother stood and put her arm through the man’s arm.  The boy trailed them, head-ducked, and slipped into the backseat of his mother’s car silently as a stow-away.  Richard followed them home with love and anger scorching his throat like bile.

That night he paced and ranted and cried.  Among the throng of a thousand remembered playground children darting elusive and maddening as minnows, was the boy, fragile, perfect, and neglected.  Already he could feel his impending presence in the house, gathering strength.  He could see from the mother’s preoccupation that the boy would be easy to take. He could see that the boy was not loved and worshipped as he should be.  He knew he could fix that.

And underpinning all of this, always, was the cold current of his mother’s voice from the doorway of his darkened high school bedroom.

I know it did not happen like that child claimed, she said.  He was hunched in his desk chair, smarting with guilt and fear and bitterly potent arousal.  I know you would not do that.  I know you are normal, she said.  I know you are a handsome, smart young man who has everything waiting for him.  Girls, college, a career, marriage, and children.

At that word, children, Richard’s hands twitched and he felt with aching clarity what she wanted for him, and, in a place still too deep to be reached with coherent thought, what he wanted for himself.

Hours pass; Richard is motionless.  Finally he opens the drawer to his right and extracts a pen and a stack of stationary embossed with his mother’s initials.  He settles it sideways on the top of the vanity, careful not to disturb any of her dry, cracking make-up, and begins writing.

Dear Mother,

You’re dead and I still talk to you.  Your toothbrush has dust in its bristles and I still talk to you.  I tried to be the way you wanted me to be.  I tried to do what you wanted me to do.  A lady at my job fixed me up on a blind date with someone from her aerobics class and I went, with you in my mind, and I smiled and said her name and asked her questions.  I listened to what she wanted to tell me.  I fooled her.  Then at the end she took off her shoe and put her foot in my chair, in my crotch, and all I could think about was brown pantyhose and odor eaters and I walked out.

I’m sorry.  I tried.  I have the boy now and I can’t stop myself anymore.

Love always,


Richard looks at his reflection.  Then he sweeps the stationary into a stack, clips the pen to the top, and replaces it in the drawer.  The stool creaks as he rises.  The mirror watches him leave.

Outside the boy’s room he stands with his mouth open against the door and his fist around the paint-spotted glass knob.  The silence of the house is limitless.  Sweat stings under his arms like insect venom.  He thinks of the neat line of vertebrae gracing the boy’s back, and the tender part of his stomach below his navel, and his blood sings giddy with anticipation.  He sucks his tongue away from the roof of his mouth and gathers moisture from his lips.  There are fissures of unrest spidering out inside him, tectonic agitation uprooting the carefully constructed calm he has tried so desperately to maintain for more years than he can remember.  But now his mother is dead and there is dust in her toothbrush.  Now his boy is here, behind a negligible thickness of wood.

Want is Chinese water torture.  At some point the slow power of it becomes breaking.  Richard turns the knob.

Inside the boy is cadaver-still beneath the nightgown.  His tennis shoes point up like surprise.  Richard lowers his weight onto the edge of the mattress.

Kyle’s mind is whipping fast, hummingbird-panicky.  He cranes his face towards the wall; he thinks frantically that if he cannot see the man then maybe the man is not there.

Richard’s mouth opens.  His throat is tight and full, his tongue tastes fadingly of tears.

“I love you,” he says thickly, and the boy’s eyes squeeze shut.

Richard lifts the nightgown with his index finger and pools it on the other side of the boy.  Then his finger hovers, shaking, over the boy’s slender ankle, his too-white sock, the neat canvas lip of his tennis shoe.  It meets with the sock and the solid reality of his foot and Kyle holds still as he ever has in his short life.  His face is collapsed, shattered and tightly closed, aching with the tension of fear and silence.

Richard’s finger eases into the sanctuary of his boy’s shoe, slowly like love, down along the perfect rigid arch of his foot.  He breathes with rising inconsistency through his mouth.

“Why don’t we take these off now?” he says softly.

The boy says nothing and Richard thinks of the lady’s magazine article, the words describing what a virginal bride should be likeshy, coquettish, deferential.  Submissive.  His heart swells with tenderness.

“I’ll untie for you,” he says, and his voice is barely above a whisper.  The room seems holy, shadows breathing against the walls reverent as saints, the headless dummy stiff-silent as the plaster Mary from his childhood church.  “You’re very good at tying your shoes,” he tells the boy, and the boy’s body quakes with a hard hiccupy sob.  First the right slips off, then the left.  “Your socks are folded so neatly,” he says, rolling each one down and off the boy’s foot.  He speaks to keep his mind grounded, to anchor himself against this, the most important moment of his life.

Kyle feels air against the skin of his feet and starts to shake.  His body is hot with alarm, pushing out prickling sweat, and his head stays turned to the wall, away from the man.  He knows that he should do something, he should move or kick or scream as the man unbuttons his pants, but he is paralyzed.  His body is limp and heavy as the man pulls his pants off, then his sweater, then his shirt, just like when he fakes sleep so that his mother will stay in his room long enough to change him into pajamas.  Except his eyes are open and everything, everything is wrong.

When he is wearing just his underwear the man stops for a moment.  Kyle waits, bursting inside, his eyes darting blind over the blank wall.  The darkness crowds around them, tangible and sentient, like invisible faces pressing in.  Kyle breathes unevenly, biting down on his tongue, trying to keep his body as still and flat as a paper doll.  Then the man’s thumbs hook slowly into the waistband of his underwear and they are sliding down his legs and over his ankles and off.

Kyle is cold, but it is a cold that starts inside him and pushes out to every boundary of his body.  He can feel the man looking at him and he knows that no one is supposed to see the part of him that he is seeing.  His muscles wake up all at once, convulsively, and he buckles on the plastic mattress to conceal the middle of himself.

“No, no,” the man says softly, and he puts his hands on Kyle’s knees and his collarbone and uncurls him, and Kyle lets it happen.  He lies shivering, his arms stiff at his sides, and thinks he might vomit, and he must not do this because even at this killing moment it would be a shameful thing.  “No, don’t be shy,” the man says.  “Don’t be shy with me.  Not with me,” he says, and he brushes his hand over Kyle’s hair, gently.  “Come on,” he says, and pulls Kyle up by the shoulders.  “Our room is ready.”

Kyle stands, his back hunched, and the man takes his hand.  He leads Kyle out of the room into the darkened house, towards a doorway swimming with light.

Kyle’s heart beats hysterically, he can feel it in the surface of his skin.  The nakedness of his body in this unfamiliar place is so excruciating, so wrong, he can hardly walk.  He tries to move forward but, again and again, he stops and his back curves and his free arm curls in front of him.  Repeatedly the man tugs his arm upwards, straightening him, murmuring words that slip past Kyle.  Their progress is halting and to Kyle it feels as though hours pass this way.

Finally they reach the doorway.  The light of this room is relentless stark white like a doctor’s office, pouring into every crevice, so that there is nowhere to hide.  Kyle’s squinting eyes fix on the bed.

“I picked the blanket specially for you,” the man says.  “I thought you would like red because sometimes you wear red sweaters.  Do you like red?”

Kyle cannot answer.  He is upright, tethered by the man’s hand, but then once again the feeling of his nakedness passes through him like a cramp.  He draws up one leg, his knee almost against his chest, his body bent, and stands that way, like a bird he saw once at the zoo.

The man lets go.  Before Kyle has a chance to move, the man leans over and works his hands awkwardly under his arms, his palms sticking against cringing ribs, and lifts him.  Kyle stays curled and tucks his chin against his chest, still thinking of the bird behind zoo bars.  He feels the man carrying him somewhere but doesn’t look.  He hears a puppy sound, a rhythm of small upturned whimpers, and he thinks of the puppy he had for three days.  It slept in his bed and he loved it every minute, until his mother’s boyfriend tripped over it and then kicked it out the front door.  After that Kyle made himself forget the puppy.  But now he hears it again and does not realize that the sounds are coming from him, and a smile starts somewhere in the deepest part of him.

Against Kyle’s forehead and knees there is the slow impact of something soft and his eyes fly open and flood with red.  His fingers dig into the fuzz of the new blanket, his body curling tighter, and he blinks.  The puppy is quiet.

There is pressure on either side of Kyle and the man’s body heat swims around him like water.  He is a red blanket fish, he is a zoo bird, he is a kicked-out puppy.  The man’s body over him is a cage, surrounding but not touching.

“You’ve been very good so far,” the man says.  “Are you going to keep being good,” he asks, “or do I have to hit you?  I don’t want to hit you; please be good.  Please be my good boy so I don’t have to hit you.  Are you my good boy?”

Kyle’s eyes are open and he can feel the dry tickly down of the blanket against his eyeball, and it hurts and itches but he doesn’t blink.

“Are you my good boy?” he asks, and Kyle can smell the words and taste them.  And he nods.

“Good, good, good,” the man breathes and breathes, until the sound loses meaning.  Kyle feels hands on his body.  The man turns him onto his back and then drags him upright, stands him unsteadily on the mattress and holds his arms straight out from his body.  He stares at Kyle, up and down.

Kyle feels excruciatingly exposed, he feels inside-out, he feels that he will die any second.  It is every bad thing that has ever happened to him all at once in a shaking and horrible blur.  It is his mother’s boyfriend hitting her face so hard that her eyes go white and she slides down the wall.  It is his uncle catching him as he runs naked from the bathroom to the bedroom, because there is no towel, and asking his mother, what the fuck is wrong with your kid? It is her answering laugh.  It is urinating in his pants in front of his kindergarten class because he is scared to speak and then crying when they laughed.  It is every endless night when the closet light is off and his mother is too busy to come and he is too scared to get up.  It is the sound of the puppy’s body against the boyfriend’s boot and then the yelping on the front porch all night long. It is all of these things at once, the worst things he knows, standing there on the bed with the red blanket, and in the oval mirror he sees a wide stripe of sweat down the man’s back and he sees the white thumbprint of his own face and he does not recognize that boy.

Inside Richard is reeling at the flawlessness of the boy’s body.  He swallows against rising tears.  He has never seen anything so unbearably perfect.

Gently, he releases the boy’s wrists and guides him down to the mattress.  The boy is looking somewhere past him, fixedly, and for a long moment Richard absorbs the color of his eyes.  Then, slowly, he turns the boy over onto his stomach.  The boy is still.  Coquettish.  Submissive.  Richard stands and removes all of his own clothing, hurriedly.  Then he crouches and crawls onto the bed.

His two hands side by side span the width of the boy’s narrow body; he runs his fingertips lightly down the length of him from neck to ankles.  The boy’s face is straight down against the pillow and his arms are rigid by his sides, hands flexed out flat, fingers together as if glued that way.  Richard tries to massage the tension from them.

“You’re so beautiful,” he whispers, choked.  “Don’t be nervous.  You’re so beautiful from every angle.”  His heart is skipping beats, his stomach flipping.  He leans to the left and retrieves something from the bedside table.  “This smells like berries,” he says, snapping up the lid of the bottle and turning it over one palm.  “It was my mother’s moisturizer, so of course it’s old, but I think it’s still moist,” he says, and laughs his short bracing laugh, and below him the boy’s body jerks as if struck.  “I’m so sorry,” Richard says softly, “I’m so sorry, did I scare you?  It’s okay, I’m nervous too.  Can you smell the berries?”  He clicks the cap shut, carefully, and slides the bottle under one of the pillows where it can be easily reached; he knows they will need more later.  “Do you like fruit?  I don’t know what kind it is. Im warming it for you.”  He cups one hand over the puddle of lotion.  “Strawberries, maybe,” he says, “or raspberries. Those are both red like the blanket, aren’t they?  Please don’t be nervous, please.  Okay?”

The boy does not react.

“Okay,” Richard breathes, and he places one knee between the boy’s ankles and slides it slowly up.  Then the other knee.  He spreads the boy’s legs this way, gradually, until both of his knees are against the insides of the boy’s thighs and he is so dizzy that he has to breathe through his mouth.  He looks down at the boy and thinks of snow angels, of little bodies prone in the cold pushing ice and powder into Christmas sharpness with limbs flushed hot under layers of winter padding.  He thinks of peeling back that padding to the pink flesh and, with the lotion still cradled in his palm, he draws his finger down the ruler-straight middle of the boy’s back, down, down, until he is far enough and he lets the lotion go, lets it spread across the flawless white skin.  He sees how hard the boy is shaking.

“I love you,” he says, “don’t be scared.”

He starts touching the boy in the place he thinks about so much, the sweetest small place on his small sweet body.

“Love is scary,” he says, tremulous.  “I understand.”

He lowers himself, flattens himself, his knees lifting and moving to either side of the boy; he splays one hand across the boy’s shoulder blades, bracing them both.

“I don’t have a very…”  Richard hesitates.  “I mean I’m not, I’m not exactly…” and he laughs.  The boy does not react. “We’ll fit each other,” he says finally.  “We’ll fit each other like we should, like two people should on their honeymoon.”

And Kyle feels something hot, and a hard persistence, and the man’s breath blowing cold where the lotion is.  And then a pushing, a pressure, a tearing pain, a deep strong tearing pain, and the man’s voice like someone is hurting him, and Kyle bucks and claws the blanket with both hands and his mouth opens wide like an apple-bite so the pillow comes inside.  And he feels his body splitting and ripping slowly and evenly like paper, and a horrible tightness, and the man’s stomach nudging soft and fat, and his face burning against the pillow with every bad thing all over again, every hurt he has ever felt all collected in one shameful place and he smells the red fruit and he smells something else, something sour and upsetting as his body tears further open, and there is the terrible embarrassing feeling that he has to go to the bathroom right now and he doesn’t know if he will be able to stop it with the man inside.  Kyle doesn’t understand exactly what is happening to him but he knows the feeling of inside – a cotton swab, a thermometer, a tongue depressor.  Inside.

Richard is praying.

“Kyle, Kyle, Kyle,” he chants, this syllable that is the litany for which his restless heart has been searching all its life.  “You were made for me, Kyle, you were born for me, Kyle, you were made for me.  Do you feel it?  Do you feel it?”

And at the edge of Richard’s consciousness there is a sound, a rhythmic shrillness.  It could be the telephone or the screen door hinge beaten by a rising storm wind or the boy screaming into the pillow.  One sound with every thrust, and Richard keeps time this way, not certain whether he is following the sound or the sound is following him.  He looks down at his hands spread over the boy’s back, a starfish on the smooth skin of a merboy; he thinks of the little body in the silver water that first day, his merboy, and the merboy has been released, he has been cut up the middle and pulled apart and completed and released, by love.

“Kyle,” he says, “Kyle,” he says, “oh Kyle, my Kyle, your body is my church,” he says, and underneath him the sound unravels and ravels, unravels and ravels, ceaseless, a circle.

* * *

Between the mattresses Kyle is safe.  This is where he wedges himself when the man is not loving him on the red blanket.  He lies flattened with his head turned to the side and breathes against the plastic.  He remembers what his older cousin told him, about the bags they put dead bodies in, and how sometimes the dead still breathe, in and out, very slowly.  The plastic moves but it doesn’t fog because the dead’s breath is cold.  The boy watches with his eyelashes lowered and sees that he does not fog the plastic.  He knows that he is one of the breathing dead, there in his mattress coffin, and he is not scared.

One night after an uncountable number of nights, Kyle slides out and stands in the middle of the dark room.  His arms are extended stiffly, his hands curled around the air.  He is holding a hula hoop.  At the beginning of the school year, in a time that seems so distant Kyle can no longer convince himself that it was real, the counselor talked to his class about personal space.  There is a hula hoop around you, she said, and all the space inside the hula hoop belongs to you.  No one is allowed to go into the hula hoop space unless you give them permission.

So Kyle holds the hula hoop around his body.  It is orange with white and there is sand inside to make the rattle sound.  The hula hoop is real.  The space inside is his own and no one can come in unless he gives permission and that is how Kyle knows that what the man does is not real.  What the man does when he loves Kyle is a bad dream dreamed by the breathing dead.  It is a very vivid bad dream, so vivid that places on Kyle’s body hurt and bleed slowly into his clothes, but it is just a bad dream.

The places that hurt on Kyle’s body are the places his mother makes him wash on his own in the bathtub.  She hands him the yellow rag that molds over the faucet between baths and turns her back to check her mascara in the mirror, pulling her mouth down into a taut circle so the skin under her eyes flattens.  And he washes, watching her, and in the room he thinks about this, her back and the curls in her hair and the water gradually cooling around him.  The bad dream has hurt these places with its bruising reality so he stands tenderly, his arms flexed stiff and strong and protective.  He breathes cold breath, this boy who is one of the breathing dead, and feels the death-stillness of his heart like a heavy loosened fist inside his chest.

Kyle believes the man is asleep.  He does not know this for certain, but because of the absence of the man’s constant muttered and shouted and sobbed tirades and the total darkness outside the hopeless window, he believes that the man is asleep.  He stands still in the peace of this silence, holding the hula hoop, and remembers what the man told him earlier.

They fired me, he told Kyle from behind, laughing, his breathing labored.  They said they were tired of hearing excuses, they didn’t believe me, so they fired me, and the joke’s on them because I was going to quit.  I don’t need them.  I have money.  And now I never have to leave you.  I never have to leave you, these words hitting Kyle like the saliva that came out with them, and Kyle knew.  He knew it was time for him to try.

So he stands with his face tilted up and he thinks.  He knows that he will have to let go of the orange with white hula hoop in order to do what needs to be done.  Through the pain and deadness of his body, he will climb like a monkey onto the waist of the headless dummy and curl his hand around the crank of the hopeless window.  The window may not open, like the man told him, but sometimes, Kyle has noticed, the man says things that don’t make sense.  And there is no other way out.  The door screams on its hinges into a house where, even sleeping, the man’s ears are everywhere, thirsty for sounds.  Kyle knows this because the night after the first time he could not stop crying, and at the sound of his voice the man came stumbling into the room, frantic, and wrapped his hands around Kyle’s ribs and lifted him, saying shhh, saying don’t feel lonely, don’t ever feel lonely, and took him away to the red blanket.  This is how Kyle learned to be silent.

Kyle knows that letting go of the hula hoop will mean allowing the dummy into his personal space.  He reassures himself with the thought that she has no head and no arms or hands so she will not be able to hold him still or hurt him.  He looks at her sexy brown shoulders and thinks of his grandmother’s dummy in the white dress under a flood of attic light and he decides to trust her.  He straightens his fingers and the orange with white hula hoop drops to the floor with a hollow plastic ring and a rattle of sand.  He walks forward.

There is a box near the amputated body of the dummy.  He climbs onto it, carefully, and reaches up to hook his hands around her shoulders, pulling the way he used to when he wanted his mother to pick him up.  Pick me up, pick me up, he would beg, and she would swing him to her hip and he would hide his face in the curve of her neck to avoid the cigarette smoke.  The dummy has no head to smoke, no arms to swing.  He pushes the toe of his tennis shoe against her smooth hip and the rubber catches and he drags himself up.

His legs monkey around her waist and his vision goes red as the wounds deep inside him peel open like mouths.  He buries his face in the curve of her hard, headless neck to escape it.  When he can move again, he pushes himself up further, and further, until his trembling hand has vised around the crank.

Kyle closes his eyes and thinks about the shampoo and nicotine smell of his mother’s hair, and the warmth there, the faint make-up scent coming from her throat, the hot flutter of her pulse.  He tries not to think about whether the crank will move, he tries not to think about the ache splitting through his body.  He clings to the dummy and imagines his mother’s pulse tapping his face like a finger.  He does not cry because he is the breathing dead and the breathing dead do not hurt and because only babies cry about bad dreams.

And then there is slow reluctant motion, and Kyle’s legs clutch at the waist of the dummy, and the crank turns all at once to the left and a flush of fresh air hits the top of his head like breaking water as the window falls open.  Kyle sucks in a breath like cartoon shock and becomes frantic, struggling like a fish, hooking his hands over the cutting metal sill.  He heaves himself up towards the dark square of sky and black tree branches and then his body is dangling on the sill.  The edge of the sill scrapes over a place on his stomach that is raw from the man’s beard stubble; the man rubs his chin there, under his bellybutton, his face in the hollow of Kyle’s ribcage, and says I’m sorry forgive me I’m so sorry forgive me I’m so sorry forgive me and a lot of other racing words in a high voice that Kyle can’t understand and the man’s tears sting where his stubble grates the skin.

That place and the private places are singing with pain and Kyle feels something tearing inside him and then the hot seep of blood welling but he keeps struggling, and then he spills over and pitches forward onto damp lawn face first, his mouth open in a soundless scream.  There is a moment of shock and then Kyle sinks his teeth into the wet black dirt, the bitter grass, and gulps it down his throat stripped from suppressed sobbing.  It has been two days since the man remembered to feed him.  We’ll live on love, the man said once, from behind, Kyle’s bare arms stretched above his head and held there by the man’s hot fist.  The man’s mouth leaked these words into the groove at the back of Kyle’s neck, so they ran down his spine.  We’ll live on love.

But that is the hula hoop-violating bad dream, the lie, the not-real, and fueled by the bursting momentum of hope Kyle drags his wrecked and starving body away from that and then ahead on the street is the slow tide of headlights approaching and if he fights he might be able to stand and run towards it, because the breathing dead feel no pain, and only babies cry about bad dreams, and he is half-upright, almost upright, and the street is there, close, close, and behind him the front door of the house flies open and a howl of anguish and loss rings high into the dark, but the man is too late, Kyle is reaching, Kyle is shouting, Kyle is falling open-armed and rabbit-hearted towards the swelling light.

Chelsea Laine Wells is a short story writer who is working on her first novel, entitled The House of Little Moons. Her work has appeared in Evergreen Review, PANK Magazine, and Columbia College's Hair Trigger, and will appear in an upcoming issue of Hypertext Magazine. A limited edition illustrated book of her work and another author's is currently being produced by Larksparrow Press. She was awarded first place in the 2005 Guild Complex Nonfiction Awarrds and first place in the 2009 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Awards. She is a native Texan and lives in Dallas with her fiance and their cats.