When All the World Sleeps
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Daniel Whitlock is terrified of going to sleep. And rightly so: he sleepwalks, with no awareness or memory of his actions. Including burning down Kenny Cooper’s house—with Kenny inside it—after Kenny brutally beat him for being gay. Back in the tiny town of Logan after serving his prison sentence, Daniel isolates himself in a cabin in the woods and chains himself to his bed at night.
Like the rest of Logan, local cop Joe Belman doesn’t believe Daniel’s absurd defense. But when Bel saves Daniel from a retaliatory fire, he discovers that Daniel might not be what everyone thinks: killer, liar, tweaker, freak. Bel agrees to control Daniel at night—for the sake of the other townsfolk. Daniel’s fascinating, but Bel’s not going there.
Yet as he’s drawn further into Daniel’s dark world, Bel finds that he likes being in charge. And submitting to Bel gives Daniel the only peace he’s ever known. But Daniel’s demons won’t leave him alone, and he’ll need Bel’s help to slay them once and for all—assuming Bel is willing to risk everything to stand by him.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“Hey, Harnee’s kid,” Daniel Whitlock said, and the smile lit up his whole face.
Bel resisted the urge to plant his fist in it. “Officer Belman to you, Whitlock.” He took his flashlight from his belt and shone the beam in Whitlock’s eyes. The guy’s pupils had almost swallowed his hazel irises entirely. “What’d you take?”
Whitlock turned from Bel and shoved his hands in his pockets, pulling his jeans tight across his ass. “I’m going home. You coming with me?”
They were in the parking lot of Greenducks, a rundown bar wedged between a former beauty salon and a mortgage firm. You had to go down a flight of half-rotted wooden stairs, and then you were in a basement full of cocksuckers. And not the kind you saw in gay bars in movies. No tanned and toned bodies, no goddamn angel wings or leather shorts. These guys stank, and they smoked, and they’d do anything for drugs. Bel only went into Greenducks when he was desperate enough to pretend not to notice the exchanges that went on.
“I ain’t going nowhere with you,” Bel told Whitlock.
Fucker. Goddamn filthy tweaker head case.
Everyone in Logan, South Carolina, knew who Daniel Whitlock was—what he was. But what made Bel doubly uncomfortable right now was that unlike most everyone in Logan, Bel had noticed Daniel Whitlock long before he’d been in the papers.
Before he got his badge, Bel had worked a night shift twice a week at Harnee’s Convenience Store, and Whitlock used to come in Thursdays around 1 or 2 a.m. to buy a Twix and a bottle of Mountain Dew. Always went through Bel’s line.
“That stuff’ll keep you up all night,” Bel had said once, nodding at the Mountain Dew. Whitlock hadn’t answered, and that was the first and last time Bel said anything to him beyond “Have a good night.” But he’d noted the strong, easy slope of Whitlock’s chest under his T-shirts. When it got colder, Whitlock had worn plaid flannel like all the other guys in Logan. But in the summer his T-shirts had been just a little too tight. Close-cropped hair the same linty brown as his faded sneakers. Beautifully defined features, almost too sharp.
“He don’t want to join us, Danny,” a voice said.
Bel hadn’t noticed Jake Kebbler standing behind Daniel in the shadow of the bar. If Bel’d had to pick any of the Greenducks crowd for looks alone—besides Whitlock—he’d have picked Jake. Unfortunately, every queer in Logan had already picked Jake, over and over again. “Looks like a gnat-bit curl of pork rind,” Matt Lister had said once about Jake’s dick.
Whitlock grinned. He pushed Jake against the side of the building. Kissed him. Risky—Greenducks gave queers a place to meet, but it sure as fuck didn’t fly the rainbow flag. You came to Greenducks because it was the closest to safe you were gonna get if you liked restroom blowjobs—not because you were welcome there. And once you were outside, well, you were in hetero territory.
Jake tipped his head back then slowly collapsed. It was oddly graceful, like a dancer’s swoon. Whitlock tried to catch him, failed, and lowered himself on top of Jake. Kissed him again, or maybe whispered something—Bel couldn’t tell. Then he got up and walked over to his car, leaving Jake on the ground.
Nice, Bel thought. Your date passes out, so you’re just gonna call it a night? Not that Jake seemed to care. Hell, he probably wouldn’t even remember what had happened when the sun woke him in the morning with a face full of asphalt. Jake didn’t have a brain cell left he wasn’t bent on destroying with meth. And was that . . . yeah, Bel could just about make out the glow of a burning cigarette in Jake’s hand. Stupid asshole.
Bel walked over to Jake. Wasn’t like he could leave a man to burn to death. Which made him the only one. Whitlock was still standing by his sedan, staring at nothing.
“You stay right there,” Bel called as he bent to check on Jake. Still breathing. Bel plucked the cigarette out from between Jake’s skinny fingers and crushed it under his boot. When he turned around, Whitlock had taken a step closer. “I told you to stay there.”
“Need something so bad.” Whitlock sighed. He slid his fingers into the waistband of his jeans, like he was going to tug them down right there in the parking lot. “You wanna fuck me, Harnee’s kid? Can use my car.”
Bel had been a cop for three years now, and he’d been propositioned more times than he could remember. It was never like those letters in skin mags though. Usually it was some toothless skank old enough to be his grandma, giggling drunken high school girls, or narrow-eyed truckers who would nod to the side of the road in silent invitation like Bel was dumb enough or desperate enough for that. Might as well just roll around in the filthy bathrooms at the truck stop on US 601, pick up his diseases that way and take out the middleman.
And now, Daniel Whitlock. Who might have been Dear readers, I never thought it would happen to me material back when he was in high school—Bel, still in middle school, had noticed him right about the same time as he’d noticed those weird tingly feelings that made his dick hard—but doing it with a fucking murderer was never going to happen. And Bel was pretty damn insulted that Whitlock even thought he had a chance.
“Get your ass home,” he said, curling his lip.
Whitlock reached for his car door.
“You ain’t driving tonight,” Bel told him. “Ain’t you killed enough folk in this town?”
It didn’t even register with Whitlock.
“You walk,” Bel said. “You give me your keys, and you walk.”
No argument. Whitlock dug around in the pocket of his jeans and held his keys out. “I’m going home now?”
“Yeah.” Bel took the keys and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’d better start walking.”
Bel shook his head. Goddamn drug-fucked nutjob.
He watched as Whitlock turned and squinted down the street, wobbling like a compass needle before it fixed its position. Then, his hands still in his pockets, Whitlock started to walk. Bel leaned against his cruiser and looked down at Whitlock’s keys, thumbed through them and found a tarnished Saint Christopher medallion. Not so different from the one Bel’s mama had given him when he’d become a deputy.
Bel sighed. Figured he couldn’t let the guy get squashed like a possum on the side of the road. He didn’t get to pick and choose who he looked out for.
He got in his cruiser, turned the engine over, and flicked the headlights on. Set off down the street at a crawl, keeping well behind Whitlock as he stumbled toward home. Bel wondered what it would be like living out there in the woods. Cold as hell in winter, probably, and mosquitoes as big as chicken hawks in the summer. Perfect for freaks like Whitlock and the Unabomber.
The twenty-four hour diner on Main was empty; Bel glanced in as he drove past at a snail’s pace. Sue-Ellen was working, or at least she was leaning on the counter staring at the small TV beside the register. Across the street, Harnee’s was open too, the H flashing intermittently again, so half the time it just read arnee’s. Bel figured he’d stop in on the way back, just to show the flag. On weekends, the high school kids hung around in the parking lot, trying to get someone to buy beer for them. But tonight the lot was empty.
Bel remembered a long stretch five years ago where Whitlock hadn’t come to Harnee’s on Thursday nights. Recovering from what Kenny and his friends had done to him, Bel had figured, though he’d refused to join in his coworkers’ gossip sessions about it. Long after Daniel must’ve healed up, he’d still been absent. People’d said his mama bought his groceries. Bel had almost missed him. The guy hadn’t been friendly, but he’d been easy enough to look at. Then Whitlock had showed up the night of October sixteenth and had bought a lighter along with his candy and soda.
The next morning, the story had been everywhere.
Kenny Cooper’s house had burned to the ground. Kenny inside.
Bel had followed Whitlock’s trial with interest. Had even been called to give testimony about the lighter. And he’d been as pissed as anyone when the prosecution had opted to seek a conviction for manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. Wasn’t like Bel gave two shits about losing Kenny Cooper—that asshole had been a waste of air. It was Whitlock’s bullshit defense that had made Bel half-crazy.
Sleepwalking. Seriously. Like Whitlock was some kind of zombie lurching around eating people’s brains, then waking up the next day not remembering any of it? Yeah, that was the shit you saw in movies. How about Whitlock was a crazy meth head who’d say anything to save his hide? The more Bel’d thought about it, the angrier he’d got, and the more convinced he’d become he’d seen signs Whitlock was off whenever he’d come into Harnee’s. Something not right in his eyes. The way his body twitched while he was waiting for his total, like he was receiving small shocks.
And Bel wasn’t the only one who, after the murder, suddenly remembered things they’d noticed about Whitlock. Sunday school teachers and guys he’d run track with and even the girl he’d gotten to second base with on prom night, all eager to chime in.
“Always knew there was something wrong with him.”
“He had that look, you know?”
“I smacked him as soon as he put his hands on me. Knew he was no good.”
And Bel had raged with the rest of the town when Whitlock had been released after eight months in jail. This wasn’t about Kenny Cooper—it was about justice. You didn’t burn someone alive and then walk free, no matter what some quack said on the stand about your sleep disorder. It was impossible to drive five miles in your sleep, shake kerosene around the base of a house like you were watering the goddamn plants, flip your lighter on, then go home and climb into bed.
Bel looked up the street again. Whitlock was still heading in the right direction. He was passing in front of the Shack now, where Bel drank most times. All the cops drank at the Shack. Hell, all the town did. It was closed at this hour, a few trucks parked out front still. Owners must have walked.
A battered red pickup swerved onto Main Street, going too fast. It overcorrected, swinging wildly toward the center line before it recovered. Bel recognized it: Clayton McAllister’s truck, so it was probably Clayton at the wheel with a few of his buddies packed into the cab.
The truck headed toward him, slowing as it passed Whitlock, then braking and backing up. Too far away to hear what they yelled at Whitlock, apart from faggot. A beer can flew from the window and bounced on the road. The horn blared.
Whitlock stopped. He lifted his head to look at the truck.
Last thing Bel needed was Clayton and his drunk buddies figuring it was time for another gay bashing. Bel hit the lights, the red-and-blue strobes flashing. Just to let Clayton know he was there.
The truck didn’t move, so Bel rolled his window down. Just in time to hear Whitlock yell, “Wanna suck my dick, cunt?”
The truck’s door flew open, and Clayton jumped out. Bel was out of his cruiser in a second, moving automatically to stand between Clayton and Whitlock. “Fellas,” he said, because Brock Tilmouth was getting out of the truck too. “I don’t need any trouble here. Go on home.”
“You hear what he said?” Clayton was a scrawny guy. Thin and rat faced. Had a few gingery hairs on his upper lip that were trying real hard to be a mustache. Pale blue eyes.
Bel glanced at Whitlock, who was standing slack-jawed, completely spaced out. “I heard, and you’ll live. Get on home, Clayton.”
“Wanna . . .” Whitlock slurred. “Hey, faggot.”
Clayton shouted around Bel at Whitlock. “You’re the faggot, freak! Didn’t learn your lesson the first time?”
Bel’s jaw tightened.
Hell, he thought as much as anyone that Whitlock deserved a beating. Not because he was gay, but because he’d gotten away with murder. Kenny Cooper had been Clayton’s best friend. They’d bashed Whitlock first, which was what’d made him go all fire starter on Kenny, but everyone knew Whitlock had started it by offering to suck Kenny’s dick.
And here Whitlock was making the same offer to Clayton. Goading him.
Bel could remind Clayton not to take the law into his own hands, but Whitlock had done just that—and gotten off almost scot-free. Less than eight months in prison, and what was it? Three years parole? That was a kick in the teeth to Kenny Cooper’s family, his friends, and pretty much the whole town.
No justice in that.
What was it his gram used to say? Take an eye for an eye, and soon the whole world would be blind. You weren’t supposed to go out and get your own revenge when you’d been wronged. You were supposed to trust the law to deal with it. But nobody said what to do if the law failed you.
Hurl beer cans and abuse, maybe. Couldn’t blame Clayton for being angry.
But then, where was the justice in the law’s reaction to Cooper bashing Whitlock? No arrests made, because Whitlock had sworn he hadn’t seen the guys who’d done it. And yet everyone knew it’d been Kenny Cooper and his buddies. Just no one’d lifted a finger to look into the matter or prosecute Cooper.
So couldn’t blame Whitlock for being angry either.
It scared Bel to catch himself thinking that way. He didn’t blame Whitlock for his anger, but he sure as hell blamed him for killing Cooper.
“Enough, Clayton,” Bel said, his voice hard. “You keep moving. I’m gonna get Whitlock home.”
For a second, Bel thought Clayton was gonna fight. Was gonna lunge at Whitlock even though Bel was right there. At the very least, Bel expected Clayton to say something. But with a last glare at Whitlock, Clayton climbed back in the truck, put it in drive, and crept past Bel’s cruiser.
When the truck was out of sight, Bel turned to Whitlock.
“Get in the car.”
Whitlock didn’t move. He gazed at the spot where Clayton had been and drew in a shuddering breath.
“Whitlock. I said get in the car.” Bel stepped toward him, and Whitlock cringed back. Stared at Bel with eyes Bel remembered from nights at Harnee’s—unfocused, bloodshot, the sockets bruised looking. He blinked in the glare from the headlights.
“You wanna walk all night, or you wanna ride home?”
Whitlock took a couple of steps toward the cruiser. Nodded at the back door. “In there?”
“Yeah. In the back, Whitlock.” Bel climbed in behind the wheel. Whitlock hesitated.
“Get in the goddamn car. You’re lucky I don’t arrest you. What’re you on, huh? If I searched you, what would I find?”
“You can search me,” Whitlock said softly. He walked closer to Bel, who tried not to look at the front of his jeans. Whitlock leaned against the cruiser, one arm on the roof, his hip cocked, drawing the fabric of his T-shirt tight. “Want to?”
“Back of the car,” Bel repeated. “You get in now, it’s a ride home. You don’t, it’s cuffs and the station.”
Whitlock gave a sharp inhale that made Bel’s dick stir. Then he grinned, said, “Yes, sir,” and stepped away from the window.
Bel couldn’t see Whitlock’s face as he slid into the backseat of the cruiser. Whitlock pulled the door shut and then sat staring straight ahead through the partition.
“Tell me how to get to your place,” Bel said.
Whitlock didn’t answer.
“You can do that much, can’t you? Not so trashed you can’t tell me where you live?”
“I can get out to Kamchee, but you gotta tell me where your cabin is.”
Whitlock glanced out the window.
Bel turned and slapped the partition. “Damn it, Whitlock!”
Whitlock jerked in the seat. He struck the partition right back, then fumbled for the door handle, but he was locked in. He planted his hands in a wide stance on either side of him, drew his legs up onto the seat, and stared down into the seat well as though it was full of alligators or something, shaking.
“Nutcase,” Bel muttered, stepping on the gas. They headed toward Kamchee. Bel kept sneaking glances at his passenger. Whitlock’s breathing gradually slowed, and Bel saw him looking around, confused but obviously trying to orient himself. He looked up finally and met Bel’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“I’m under arrest?” His voice sounded different—harder. Wary.
Bel shook his head. “I don’t have time to screw around with that. Tell me how to get to your place.”
Bel held his tongue. The guy was slower than a frozen creek, and Bel hated how much he liked looking at him. Only thing more fucked up than being a murderer was having a hard-on for one. “You can get it tomorrow.”
Whitlock closed his eyes briefly and nodded. Told Bel how to get to his cabin.
“Not real smart, was it?” Bel asked. “Goading Clayton like that?”
“I don’t know.” The words were almost inaudible.
They drove in silence a while longer, until Whitlock pointed out the turn to his cabin.
When he let Whitlock out, Bel suggested, “Sober up.”
But Whitlock seemed plenty sober now. Didn’t sway or grin. His expression was focused, almost angry. “Thank you for the ride,” he said stiffly.
He walked up the gravel drive and let himself into the cabin. A light went on. Bel got back into the cruiser and let out a sigh. He didn’t want to think about the shit Dav had told him. She claimed there really were people who did things in their sleep and had no recollection later, and that Daniel Whitlock had been a model of good behavior since his release. Of course he had been—he didn’t want to go back to fucking jail. Dav ought to know Whitlock was no saint.
Bel recalled Whitlock’s reaction when he’d slapped the partition. The lashing out, the confusion, the fear. The change in Whitlock’s voice, in his body. Was it possible . . .?
No. You had to be awake to drive yourself into town. To get down those stairs at Greenducks. To kiss Jake Kebbler out back by the dumpster.
You had to be awake.
The can was on the floor, on its side, tangled in the little string Daniel had set up so carefully on its pulley system before going to bed. Must have knocked it down there after getting the key. The straw was on his pillow. And strewn over his mattress were the open cuffs, wrist and ankle, and a tangle of chains.
He’d fucking drunk it.
He’d known as soon as he came to in the back of the cop’s cruiser that drinking from the can had been the only way out, the only way to get the backup key to lower within reach. He should have known better than to set up the backup system in the first place, but in the last few days, he’d worried more than usual—what if something happened and he needed to get free? What if he couldn’t wait until morning when enough light had crept around the blackout curtains to see the combination to the lock that he’d taped on the wall the night before, his eyes squeezed shut?
He’d thought the system would be complicated enough, gross enough, that his sleeping brain wouldn’t be able to get around it. Drink the liquid to get the key for the left wrist cuff. Find the key for the right wrist cuff taped to the wall at the furthest extent of his reach. He’d practiced when he was awake, and he needed to be a fucking contortionist to do it. The effort to free himself had left him panting, exhausted. And that was before he’d filled the can with the most disgusting fluid he could think of.
Which meant he’d drunk his own piss to get to the first key.
The thought sent Daniel straight to the bathroom, where he went down on his knees in front of the toilet and vomited. Mostly beer. So great, drinking beer as well.
And fuck, he was tired. Whatever he’d been doing, he was tired.
He was always tired.
It was back to the ice locks, then. They only bought him a couple of hours of sleep, but at least he couldn’t get out of them. No more emergency backups. Better to risk his own life than risk hurting someone else. Or worse.
He rubbed his face. God, he needed to sleep. But more than that, he needed to be able to trust that he’d stay put while he slept. He wished he knew why he was so hell-bent on getting free lately. Two nights ago, enough moonlight had apparently crept between the curtains to allow him to read the combination on the wall and make an escape. Tonight he’d drunk piss. And God knew what all he’d done once he was out.
When it first started happening, Daniel had thought his parents were playing some sort of elaborate joke on him.
“Daniel! What happened here?”
The living room wall had gone from beige to neon green overnight. The same neon green his sister Casey had bought to paint some banners for school.
He’d looked, astonished. “It’s green!”
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t . . .” But there was green paint all over his hands, his pajamas.
“Don’t lie to me, Daniel!”
He’d stood there for a very long time in his paint-splattered pajamas, waiting for his mom’s face to break into a smile. Waiting for the punch line that never came. Until, very gradually, it dawned on him that it wasn’t a joke. That he’d done this thing. That saying over and over that he didn’t remember sounded like the most pitiful lie in the world.
There were other incidents too; some small and some not so small. His parents had started locking his bedroom door at night. Daniel had gone out the window. Climbed onto the roof and down the gutter pipe, they figured. They’d started talking about mental illness then. No doctors, though. Couldn’t afford it, and more importantly, they didn’t want word getting out that their son wasn’t right.
In college, it got worse for a while, until Daniel found Marcus, and Marcus beat him so hard that his body was too exhausted to move. All the other trappings of that—the bowing and scraping, the leather gear, the getting fucked—were inconsequential as long as Marcus beat him. Or he’d wanted them to be inconsequential, until he’d gotten used to sleeping beside someone. Started to think Marcus was more than a means of keeping himself under control. Shit, he’d liked the guy. But in the end, Marcus couldn’t deal with a partner who didn’t get off from the pain but needed it in a whole different way. Nothing sexual about Daniel’s masochism.
After Marcus, Daniel hadn’t gone looking for a relationship like that again—or any kind of relationship. Too much work, trying to explain what he needed and why. Too hard to think about someone else walking out on him when he couldn’t be what they wanted. But recently, he’d been drawn once more to the idea of what his and Marcus’s arrangement was supposed to have been. He wanted someone who could keep him contained, keep his body exhausted—nothing more.
He looked at the marks on his wrists. Finding someone to control him would mean no more piss-can pulley systems. No more great escapes. No more late-night trips to Greenducks and waking in the morning with an ache in his ass and no memory of what had happened. He pushed his arms together to make the bruises match.
Gonna have to get tested again. Though maybe I didn’t get up to any of that. He shifted experimentally. Nothing hurt. He could usually tell when he’d been fucked. No one in the Greenducks crowd went easy on him.
So what did I do?
Clayton McAllister. Officer Belman said he’d goaded him. Where the hell had he found Clayton?
Had he been looking for him?
“Dumbass,” he whispered.
He rose from the bathroom floor and walked back into the main room. Ignored the bed and sat down at his desk instead. He turned the computer on and blinked in the glare from the screen.
In prison, they’d given him drugs to make him sleep. Dumb, because sleeping wasn’t the problem. And the drugs only made it harder to wake up. Left him feeling sluggish and spaced out for days afterward. What he needed was something like he’d had with Marcus—but with someone who didn’t mind beating him, even if he didn’t get off. Someone who would keep him contained. There was a guy online he’d messaged yesterday who lived about thirty miles from Logan. Claimed to be a dom looking for a 24/7 slave. Promised he didn’t care if Daniel never came. Said he preferred it that way.
Master Beau. His profile picture was a pair of high-shine leather boots. He’d said he wanted Daniel naked, on his knees with his arms bound behind his back, to lick those boots.
Need you to chain me up, Daniel had responded. Keep me under lock and key.
24/7, Master Beau had promised.
I got a job.
Don’t need a job. Ur master will take care of u.
I got parole. Can’t miss appointments.
Master Beau hadn’t even asked what the parole was for, which sent up a red flag. But Daniel was hardly the only one taking a risk here. Might have been stupid, agreeing to submit to the guy without having laid eyes on him. But no way in hell did Master Beau know what kind of crazy he was courting.
Daniel felt a little guilty for that, but it would be okay. As long as Master Beau locked him up, it would be okay. He couldn’t hurt anyone.
Clayton. Might fucking hurt Clayton.
I want to hurt Clayton.
He clenched his fists. The strength of the desire was frightening, but it vanished quickly, leaving him gasping, choking.
He wasn’t going to hurt anyone else.
Didn’t want to.
But he needed someone to make sure he didn’t. Couldn’t.
He typed out a message: When can we meet?
Looked at it for a while, and then looked at the open cuffs on his mattress and the empty can of piss on the floor. His stomach churned.
He hit Send.
The floor polisher droned as Daniel ran it across the lobby of the Logan library. Vibrations ran up his arms and across his shoulders, where the muscles were pulled tight from the few hours’ sleep he’d finally gotten. He’d woken with the sheets tangled around his throat from his efforts to get free again. The ice locks worked up to three hours, as long as he kept the cabin cold. But Daniel always took some time to fall asleep, afraid someone would walk in and find him chained to his bed. Which was dumb, because it wasn’t like he got visitors.
His parents never stopped by, and Casey was away at college now. Daniel liked to think that was the reason she didn’t contact him—too busy making friends and having fun—but he knew it wasn’t. They had never been that close, not once she was old enough to realize what a freak he was. Must have felt like growing up in a lunatic asylum for her, the whole family acting as Daniel’s unwilling wardens. Covering up his craziness until it all went to hell that night and there was no way anyone could hide it anymore. When the police came knocking and found him in his bed stinking of gasoline, his hands blistered. The look on Casey’s face as she’d peered around her bedroom door: caught between horror and terror. Afraid of her own big brother.
After prison, he’d moved out to the cabin in Kamchee, where his family didn’t have to look at him every day.
They were better off forgetting him.
Earlier in the afternoon he’d walked the five miles into town, because he didn’t know where his car was. Didn’t take long to find—the lot beside Greenducks. No sign of his keys though. Daniel had been checking the ground, hoping every glint of light would resolve itself into keys but finding only broken glass, when Mike had appeared from the bar.
“You have fun last night, Danny Boy?”
He hated being called that. He’d just shrugged and kept looking.
“Oh, man, you and Jake was tangled up like a pair of panty hose!” Mike had laughed, showing broken teeth. “Looked like you was gonna fuck right there in the bathroom before you took it outside.”
Daniel hadn’t said anything. Turned his burning face toward the ground and headed for work.
Now, with the doors of the library locked behind him and the polisher droning across the floor, Daniel let his eyes drift close.
He could write a fucking paper on sleep deprivation.
The way it slowed everything down, like he was swimming through molasses. The way he started to talk to himself, like a dumb, drunk kid with a hundred things to say. The way it made him dizzy. Drained every ounce of strength from his body and left him a shambling mess.
He blinked—saw fire, dripping like water down the walls. Jolted as the adrenaline rushed through him, and blinked again to clear his vision.
He stepped away from the polisher and leaned against the wall. Placed his palms flat against it, sucked in a breath, and held it until his lungs burned. Until he found his balance again.
He liked working in the library when it was closed. Liked the silence and the smell of the place: books, floor wax, and the slightly stale scent once the air-conditioning was turned off. Mostly he liked that he didn’t have to talk to people. He saw the way they looked at him, knew what they thought. There’s the freak. Wonder if he’s gonna snap.
People hated him. They were afraid of him. He was afraid of himself.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked his messages. Opened a new one from Master Beau: Meet me at my place tonight. Gonna ride u so hard.
So much for introductions, but Master Beau was desperate for a slave to ride hard, and Daniel was desperate for a lock he could trust. Beggars weren’t choosers.
He sent back: Got no car.
Excruciating minutes passed until he got his reply: I’ll pick u up slave.
Daniel stared at the message for a while, thinking of every single reason why this was the dumbest idea he’d ever had in his life, and then thinking of the look on Casey’s face the morning after he’d burned Kenny’s house down with Kenny inside.
He sent Master Beau the directions.
Bel was still thinking about Daniel Whitlock when he arrived at Dav and Jim’s the next evening for the barbecue. Whitlock’s cabin—too small for a guy to live in. Didn’t he feel cramped, claustrophobic? And what business was it of Bel’s?
He’d brought a package of ribs, but Dav and Jim already had plenty of meat, so he stuck the ribs in the freezer and nearly tripped on Stump as he stepped back. Dav whacked a bag of frozen hamburger buns against the counter to separate them and Stump skittered from the room.
“Dog’s dumb as balls.” Dav stuck the buns in the microwave.
“Jim having any luck training him?”
Dav shook her head. “Gun-shy. And we paid fifteen hundred for him.”
“Well, maybe it was the name you stuck him with. He thinks you ain’t got any confidence in him.”
Stump’s full name was Dummer’nastump. He was purebred lab, and Jim had bought him to duck hunt with, but so far the pup was a disappointment. For hunting, anyway. When it came to sitting on the couch staring adoringly at a guy, nobody could do better.
“Jim need a hand with the barbecue?” Bel asked, peering out into the backyard where his brother was firing the thing up.
“You know better than to ask that,” Dav reminded him. “Grab yourself a beer and help me with the salads instead.”
“Working tonight.” Bel got a soda out of the fridge and leaned on the counter. “Hey, I saw Daniel Whitlock last night.”
“Oh yeah?” Dav tore into a head of lettuce. “How’s he doing?” Dav was Whitlock’s parole officer. Only one in the town who believed Whitlock’s bullshit story. Made Bel feel awkward, bad-mouthing Whitlock in front of her, but it gave him some small satisfaction to be able to deliver evidence that Whitlock wasn’t the upstanding parolee she thought he was.
“He came staggering out of Greenducks, high as a kite.”
Dav put the lettuce down and wiped her hands on her shirt. “Daniel’s never failed a drug test yet. He doesn’t even drink beer.”
“That’s bullshit. Could smell it all over his breath last night.”
“I know what you think,” Dav said, fixing him with the same steely gaze that had hurried Jim to the altar—a man didn’t say nothing except yes, ma’am when Dav got that look, for fear of losing his balls. “I know what this whole damn town thinks, and maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up here, but I don’t buy the tweaker stuff. He’s not using, and he’s not crazy. Out of every offender who’s walked into my office, Daniel is the only one who doesn’t lie to me.”
Bel shook his head, disappointed in Dav’s reaction. “You believe him when he says he’s gonna be a good law-abiding citizen from now on? Never gonna kill someone again?”
“He’s trying, Bel. He deserves as much chance as the next man.” Dav picked up a knife and began to slice the tomatoes.
If Dav were a bleeding heart, Bel would have dismissed her. But she wasn’t. Couldn’t afford to be, in her job. He thought again to that moment last night when he’d banged the partition and Whitlock had . . . had what? Jolted awake? Something had happened, but Bel wasn’t sure what.
“Joe and Marcy are coming tonight, your parents too.” Dav dumped the tomatoes on top of the lettuce in the bowl. “Maybe you should ask Joe what he’s thinking, making you work when there’s a game on.”
“Uncle Joe doesn’t play favorites,” Bel said. “Anyway, I work a few game nights and miss a few barbecues and maybe I’ll get Thanksgiving off. Billy coming?”
“He’s gone hunting, Jim said.” Dav frowned at the paltry mix of greens and tomatoes. “I hope your mama brings her potato salad.”
Stump slunk back into the kitchen, peering hopefully at Bel.
“She always does,” Bel said.
Dav had slotted right into the family. She’d been Bel’s friend before she’d been Jim’s girlfriend, now wife. She called him Bel, which was his nickname on the force. To the rest of the family he would always be Little Joe, all six foot two of him, to distinguish him from his Uncle Joe. Billy had been named after their dad, Jim after their grandpa, and Bel after their uncle. The Belmans had been recycling long before it was the done thing.
Plain unimaginative, in Bel’s opinion.
“You started thinking up any names?”
Dav’s hand went unconsciously to her abdomen, even though she wasn’t showing yet. “No. And keep that to yourself. You’re the only one who knows apart from us. We’re not telling people until after the first three months.”
“My lips are sealed.”
“They’d better be,” Dav said. “Instead of standing there like a lump, pass me my drink, would you? Top shelf.”
Bel opened the fridge and frowned at the beer bottle. “Dav?”
“It’s cola. But I’ve got to throw your mom off the scent somehow. She’s fixing on me like a bird dog.”
“Yeah, Mama could teach Stump a thing or two.” Bel bent down to scratch the pup’s ears.
Dav rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty sure that animal’s beyond teaching.”
Stump gazed at them lovingly.
Master Beau was everything Daniel had expected, but it didn’t matter. He’d said on his profile that he was in his forties, but he looked older thanks to his sun-damaged skin. He was big, his belly coming down past his belt, bearded, and he wore a trucker’s cap low over his eyes. When he pulled up outside the library in his piece-of-shit truck, he looked Daniel over and said, “Your name Daniel?”
Like there was anyone else waiting on the sidewalk.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Daniel replied, wiping his sweaty palms on the back of his jeans.
“You ain’t got a name now except Boy,” Master Beau said. “Get in.”
Daniel climbed into the truck, his heart racing.
The cab stank of cigarettes. Master Beau’s fingers, tapping on the steering wheel, were stained brown and yellow. Daniel told himself it didn’t matter, not if the man could give him what he needed.
“You gonna sit all the way over there?” Master Beau growled at him.
Daniel shifted closer, feeling the heat from Master Beau’s body seep into him where their thighs touched. Swallowed down his revulsion.
Master Beau ground through the gears, turning onto Main. A police cruiser passed, and Daniel wondered if it was Officer Belman. He remembered when Belman used to work at Harnee’s. And before that, when he was a skinny kid running around town. Never took too much notice of him though. Belman must have been four years younger, which was a lifetime when you were kids. The summer before Daniel graduated high school, the kid had hung around with Casey a bit. Had a brother her age and tagged along. Daniel couldn’t remember if he’d ever spoken two words to him. Most of Casey’s friends steered clear of her weird big brother.
A silver sedan followed the police cruiser, and Daniel looked the other way. His mom’s car. What was she doing out at this hour? Heading home from her book club at Cherry Hanson’s place, maybe, if they still had that on Wednesday nights. Which meant his dad would be at home, blustering and swearing as he tried to cook mac and cheese in the microwave.
“Don’t lie to me, Daniel!”
God, he just wanted it to stop.
Master Beau reached down and fiddled with the radio. Found some shit song where a woman wailed about her cowboy leaving her.
“Yeah,” Master Beau drawled, “this is a good one. Put your hand on my dick, Boy. Want to be nice and hard for when I get you home.”
Daniel forced down the sudden spike of panic. He put his hand on the man’s thigh, slid it up toward his groin. Long as Master Beau didn’t ask Daniel to suck him, they’d be good.
What had Daniel been thinking? Master Beau was sure to want head at some point, and Daniel couldn’t . . .
“That’s it, Boy,” Master Beau said, widening his legs. “Get on up in there.”
Daniel rubbed his hand over the bulge in Master Beau’s jeans. “I want to talk about our limits.”
Master Beau looked sideways at him. “You got any, Boy?”
“I need to be locked up,” Daniel said. Didn’t mention he couldn’t give head, in case it was a deal breaker. “Not—not always in bondage, but I need to be chained when I sleep.”
Master Beau dropped his right hand from the wheel, and ground Daniel’s hand harder against his crotch. “You and me are gonna get along just fine. I got a collar at home that will look real nice on you. You want me to chain you to the radiator and fuck you on the floor?”
“Yes,” Daniel said dully.
“Yes, Master Beau.”
Daniel kept stroking Master Beau’s dick the entire way to his place. Absently, trying to shut out Master Beau’s groans. Wouldn’t have thought the man could hold off coming for so long, but Master Beau did. Muttered at Daniel to ease off a few times, and grunted like a pig rooting around when he started again. Daniel had liked hearing Marcus make noises. It hadn’t been any timeless romance he and Marcus had shared, but it had been a cut above this. Daniel had told himself he only needed Marcus for the pain, and yet he’d been secretly pleased when Marcus had refused to give him only that. Marcus had wanted to hurt Daniel, and Daniel had needed to be hurt. But Marcus hadn’t liked that Daniel didn’t like it. So he’d walked away rather than answer Daniel’s demands for more.
Something kind of sweet about that.
“You like getting your ass beat?” Master Beau asked.
Do you want me to like it?
“No, sir. But it ain’t a limit.”
Master Beau grinned. “I like you.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I’m gonna like you even better when you got my cock in your mouth. Gonna choke you till you puke, Boy. And you’re gonna have to swallow it back down, ’cause I just got the carpets redone.” He laughed, and Daniel couldn’t tell if it was because he was joking or because he just liked the image. He sat rigid with panic as they pulled onto the interstate.
The one fucking thing I can’t do.
If I don’t have a choice, though . . .
Daniel lifted his hand from the cracked leather seat. Saw the patch of sweat he’d left.
Stupid piece of shit. Anything he does to you’s gonna be just what you’ve earned.
Master Beau lived about thirty miles from Logan, at Watson’s Landing. Wasn’t much to the place except a bar, a junkyard, and a couple of houses. They turned onto a narrow street with ragged pavement, and into the driveway of the second house on the left. A light was on inside.
The house wasn’t as shabby as Daniel would have imagined. The outside looked like it had been renovated recently. And it was . . . quainter, too. Like a country cottage. Daniel would have laughed if he hadn’t been so worn out and so scared. He hated the exhaustion that came from sleep deprivation. He couldn’t sink into it, could only let it jab him over and over. A repeated reminder—Hey, you’re tired. Hey, you can’t do anything about it. His eyes felt bald and blistered, his mouth dry.
He followed Master Beau up to the front porch. The big man fumbled with the keys, then opened the door and slapped Daniel’s ass to move him inside.
A cloud of cigarette smoke hit Daniel as he stepped across the threshold. They weren’t alone. There were two—no, three other guys in the dim room. They all stared at Daniel. Their faces were gray. Their hair was gray. Their smoke was gray. Actually, one of the guys had dark hair. His eyes were small and glinted, and he stood with his hand in his pocket. The other two were sitting. Daniel stared at them, half-hoping he was hallucinating.
Master Beau set a hand on the back of Daniel’s neck. “Boys. Meet Boy.” He shoved and Daniel staggered a few steps, caught himself, and tried to back up. He hadn’t expected anyone else. He’d agreed to do the slave thing for Master Beau, but he wasn’t gonna get gangbanged.
You wanna be locked up or not?
Not this much.
But he was thirty miles from Logan, and he had no way back except Master Beau. He’d have to wait this one out, see what happened. He nodded at the group. “Hello, sirs.”
Master Beau cuffed him between the shoulder blades. “Don’t speak unless I ask you a question. Shoes off. Get on your knees.”
Daniel slipped his sneakers off and knelt, keeping his head bowed. The dark-haired guy kept shifting, and Daniel raised his head to watch him. He felt sluggish, like his heart was the only part of him that could move at a decent pace. Master Beau bummed a cigarette, muttered, “Be right back,” and headed toward the back of the house. Daniel tried to breathe through the haze. Concentrated on the floor. The carpet did look new.
“You suck cock pretty good, Boy?” one of the older guys asked.
Daniel wasn’t sure whether to answer or not. Master Beau had said “unless I ask you a question.” But maybe that applied to all of them.
“I’m all right,” Daniel said, his throat dry. He had been, once.
The group laughed.
“You’re a lot prettier than anyone else Beau’s brought around.” The dark-haired guy.
Daniel glanced up and saw an outline in the pocket of the guy’s stained khakis. A gun. The guy had a gun.
Daniel had to force himself not to rise and bolt.
No. Fuck no.
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and when he looked up again, he couldn’t see anything in the guy’s pocket.
Not real, you asshole. You’re making things up.
But as he stared, he thought he could see the outline again. The guy had turned, and it was hard to tell . . .
Not a gun. Please not a gun. Please.
He was startled by a clanking behind him. A second later, a hand struck the back of his head. “Head down,” Master Beau said.
Daniel swayed. Bowed his head, trying to forget the gun.
Master Beau sat in an armchair across the room. He held up two thick chains. Fear merged with a strange thrill—for a second, Daniel remembered Marcus. Remembered what it was like to fear what Marcus was going to do without fearing Marcus himself. Daniel hadn’t liked the beatings, hadn’t cared about the gear. But he’d liked what came after—drifting, too tired to move. Marcus’s hand moving in slow circles on his back, skirting welts.
The thrill quickly turned to a queasy bitterness. Wasn’t going to be any drifting with Master Beau.
You’re gonna get just what you’ve earned.
Master Beau jingled the chains. “Crawl to me, Boy.”
The chains scared him, but he needed them. Deserved them. He’d fucking killed someone. He was a murderer.
He hated himself for the times he forgot. The minutes or sometimes hours he went without reminding himself he was a murderer. It felt like the kind of thing you ought to keep close to you, ought to remember all the time, like being in love, or being the president, or having lost a child. It wasn’t the sort of thing you forgot, and yet sometimes Daniel did, had to—just for a little while. But the few minutes of peace were seldom worth the guilt he felt afterward. For forgetting.
Almost as bad were the times he convinced himself Kenny Cooper had deserved it. When rage flared up in him big enough to make all the other angers Daniel had ever felt look like parodies. He’d never been as scared as he had been when Kenny had attacked him. Not even when he was younger and woke to accusations he didn’t understand. What have you done? and Of course you remember; don’t give me that. And Daniel, what possessed you? The fear of what he was doing in his sleep, that was psychological. His fear of Kenny had been visceral, no thought behind it, no slow build. Just a sudden, all-consuming terror. He’d been electric with adrenaline, spurred by an animal need to escape.
He could recall a few lucid thoughts, there and gone faster than puffs of breath on a cold night. When Kenny raised the butt of the revolver for the first time: God, it’s gonna hurt, it’s gonna hurt, it’s gonna hurt, might kill me, but maybe he’ll miss, maybe I can make him miss. Please, God, please.
Even amid the flood of fear, there’d been foolish hope—maybe I can make him miss. After the shock of the first blow, which had pushed Daniel under, created a pain so deep and full that Daniel’s body processed it as cold first—just cold—even after that, the Please God remained. A second blow, quicker than the first, less buildup. The crack of his collarbone sounded like the crack of a belt against bare flesh. On the third blow, his mind finally went quiet. His body still struggled, jerking and flailing in grass wet with blood.
He wanted to hate Kenny, who’d left him with this fear that had lingered and transformed into something else—a fury Daniel wasn’t sure he was entitled to.
You were allowed to hate him. Would’ve been all right even if you’d beat the shit out of him as payback. But you weren’t allowed to kill him. What right you got to be mad now, when he’s the one who’s dead?
Daniel was breathing hard, looking at Master Beau’s boots across the room, the mud on the cuffs of his jeans that darkened as Daniel stared, became bloodstains. Someone nudged him with their toe. “He said crawl, bitch.”
A laugh. “Panting like a dog, ain’t he?”
Master Beau held the chains and whistled.
“I’ll help him.” Someone moved. The man with the gun. He grabbed Daniel by the hair and shoved him onto his stomach, then started pulling him toward Master Beau. Daniel couldn’t see the man anymore, couldn’t see if he had the gun out or not, and pain tore through his scalp. He thrashed and kicked, and the man let go of him. Daniel was on his feet and running for the front door. Now the man would be angry. If he had a gun, he’d shoot.
Ignoring Master Beau’s protest, Daniel threw open the door and ran out into the yard, barefoot. He’d have a better chance of staying out of sight if he cut through backyards, but he wanted to be able to get to town. So he followed the road. No headlights appeared behind him. He ran until he couldn’t anymore, until he became aware of how torn up his feet were, and then he walked, his hands jammed into his pockets. The gravel on the shoulder hurt so much he had to walk in the street.
No cop to give you a lift this time.
He thought again about waking up in Belman’s car. How freaked out he’d been. How Belman’s sober up had been the nicest thing anyone had said to him in a while.
His breathing slowed eventually, and he started to berate himself. The guy probably hadn’t had a gun at all. It had been Daniel’s imagination.
Could’ve had one, though. Could’ve killed you. All of ’em, crazy fuckers. Animals.
Could’ve killed you.
Now that would really be getting just what you earned.
Daniel had believed in Hell when he was younger but had outgrown it in his late teens. In college there’d been plenty of atheists with whom Daniel had gladly allied himself. Religion was bullshit, they’d said. Fairy tales. Big Brother BS. But once he’d come back to Logan, Daniel had lost that certainty—the sureness that he was his own person, capable of doing the right thing without the fear of punishment or the promise of reward. When Kenny had broken his bones, he’d known there was a God, and that He hated Daniel. And when he’d murdered Kenny a year later, he’d known there was a Hell, and that he’d end up there.
Daniel, what possessed you?
When they asked him, Daniel wondered if they meant it. His dad would stare at him the morning after some minor crime Daniel had committed in his sleep, like he didn’t recognize his son—or didn’t want to. “Come with me,” he’d say, and lead Daniel to the next room, where he’d take off his belt. He wouldn’t hit Daniel, just snap the belt a few times to satisfy Daniel’s mother, and then he’d make Daniel do chores until he was exhausted. Those were actually the days Daniel slept best—right after a sleepwalking episode, when his punishment wore him out enough that he could sleep soundly.
What possessed him?
When he was a kid, he figured it was the devil. Easier to blame some outside force determined to rip their family apart than accept the alternative: it was his fault. Every crazy thing he did came from a subconscious that wanted to paint the living room neon green, or dig holes in the garden, or smash the china that had belonged to his mom’s grandmother. Some part of him craved the destruction.
One Sunday when Daniel was twelve, Daniel’s parents had him meet with Reverend Park after church. Reverend Park told Daniel about spiritual demerits. Daniel’s behavior had earned him a great burden of demerits, and this made Daniel vulnerable to spiritual subsumption when he slept. Daniel had never figured out exactly what he was supposed to do about that. Didn’t know how to unburden himself, or strengthen his vulnerable spirit.
“What’d you and Reverend Park talk about?” Daniel’s father had asked as they drove home.
Daniel told him, stammering, and his father hadn’t asked him to talk privately to Reverend Park again. They still made him go to church, and Daniel had prayed real hard to try to negate his spiritual demerits, but it didn’t help. His parents mostly stopped yelling at Daniel for things he did in his sleep, but sometimes his mother cried, which was worse than yelling.
Casey was no help. She’d do things—one time she cut a lock of her own hair and told their parents Daniel had done it. She later admitted to Daniel she’d done it herself, then denied it when he tried to tell their parents. After a while, Daniel didn’t know what was true—couldn’t tell when people were just fucking with him. His college roommate had thought it was hilarious that Daniel sometimes got up in the night and wrote papers and had no recollection of it the next day. Jeff had once logged on to Daniel’s computer while Daniel slept and deleted what Daniel had written of his lit paper, replacing the text with I LOVE HAIRY BALLS over and over again. Then he swore Daniel had done it while sleepwalking.
Then there were the drawings.
Those frightened him as well. Another unknowable power inside him. He couldn’t reckon where that talent came from. Same place as the rest of the craziness, he supposed. He only knew that he couldn’t draw when he was awake, but when he was asleep, he somehow could. Scared him as much as killing a man had, in some ways.
Jeff had taken to leaving charcoal and paper around their room in college, until Daniel had begged him not to.
“Dude, are you serious? Look at these!”
But Daniel didn’t want to encourage it. Didn’t want to let it out. Didn’t want to see the evidence when he woke up in the morning. He’d caught his parents poring over one of his drawings when he was fourteen: a sketch of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Must have seen it on the TV or something. They didn’t tape his drawings to the wall like Jeff did later. Daniel didn’t know what they did with them.
He should never have come back to Logan after college. But it was over with Marcus, he couldn’t hold down a job because he was always so exhausted, and he’d thought he would be more settled on familiar ground. So much for that.
He picked his way through the remains of a glass bottle on the road, mindful of his bare feet. Fuck. A faggot walking down the back roads in the middle of the night. Daniel was pretty sure he’d seen this horror movie. Might have been better off staying and getting gangbanged by Master Beau and his buddies.
Probably hadn’t been a gun anyway.
Daniel shivered at the memory, real or not, and kept on toward Logan.
Took an hour before the first truck rumbled past, and Daniel flagged it down. Guy looked to be a stranger, thank God.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“Logan,” Daniel said, climbing into the cab.
He rode with the guy all the way back to Logan, counting down the miles on the odometer while the guy puzzled over things in his head. Because everybody knew someone who knew someone, and the guy had a cousin in Logan.
“Whitlock,” he said when Daniel told him. “Used to know a fella of that name who ran the sawmill. Had some trouble, I heard, with one of his kids.” He peered at Daniel curiously.
“Yeah.” They were passing the turnoff to Daniel’s cabin, just outside of town. “Here is fine, thanks.”
“Killed a man,” the guy said, looking narrowly at him as he pulled over. “The son was a fag and killed a man.”
Daniel climbed down. “Thanks for the lift.”
He was half-afraid the guy would come after him, run him down. The truck idled at the side of the road for a while, then roared off into town.
The dirt road was hell on his feet. He was limping by the time he reached his cabin. The mailbox had been knocked off its post again, a thick rope noose hanging in its place. Daniel was too tired to move it. Just limped past and pushed open the door of the cabin.
He stripped down to his underwear, washed his bleeding feet in the shower. He opened the freezer and checked the ice locks. They were ready. But the longer Daniel stared at them, the cloud of cold hitting him in the face, the less he wanted to take them out.
It was nearly 2 a.m. If he waited another hour, went to bed at three, he could set the alarm and get up at six just as the ice finished melting. Perfect time for a jog. He didn’t work tomorrow, and that thought filled him with dread. Days when he had to figure out what to do with himself were the worst.
He could go to his parents’, but visits there were always awkward. His father hardly spoke to him, and he could never tell if his mother wanted to see him or not. She said she did. Said he was still her son. But he saw the way she looked at him. Not afraid or angry or loathing like everyone else in Logan, but just . . . tired. Tired of looking at him and remembering the things people said about him, about her, about the whole family. Remembering what it had been like to have to show her face in town while Daniel was in prison.
And yet part of him didn’t care. He’d been the one in jail.
Whatever whispers and stares and hostility she’d faced had nothing on what Daniel’d gotten when he was released. What he still got.
Why shouldn’t they stare? Why shouldn’t they spit?
He could’ve done with some artificial sympathy.
Why shouldn’t they despise you?
Because I’m doing the best I fucking can.
A familiar feeling rose in him. A perverse pride, a satisfaction in being a freak, an outcast, in being a nightmare after having so many of his own.
Yeah, I’m dangerous, and yeah, I’m a faggot; I burned a guy; lock up your kids, you fuckers, you hypocrites, you animals. You got any idea what it’s like to feel your own brain slamming around in your head, to know the next minute might be the minute he breaks your skull, that your brain comes out?
He clenched his fists. Heard the echo of his heart deep in his unbroken skull.
They got no idea. Clayton stood there and watched, and he laughed, and nobody’s got a mind to lock him up, spit on him. I’m the one they think they need to be scared of, and they’re right. Let them think that. Let them fucking think that! The thought became repetition—the ferocious lashing out of a wounded animal backed against a boulder, bleeding into the dust.
Clayton had made a noise, too—a whoop, like the kind guys gave when their football team scored a touchdown. An encouragement, a celebration, a dare for Kenny to go further. That was after Kenny’d hit Daniel the first time, when Daniel was still aware enough to be afraid. When his senses were heightened by adrenaline, and he felt every shift in his body, every molecule of cold in the air. That whoop stayed with him. A victory. Score.
Now he started to shake. Deep breath. He left the locks in the freezer and did a few dishes. Left the pan on the stove so he could boil water again tomorrow night. Boiling water took the gasses out, made the molecules freeze tighter. Made the ice in the locks melt slower. Remembered that from school.
One hour to kill before he’d lock himself up. Just one hour.
He went ahead and turned down the temperature on the wall unit. He did that to keep the ice from melting too fast, and because right now the cold might help keep him awake. He tried to read, but that wasn’t going to happen. So he sat in his ragged armchair and dug his fingernails into his forearms, watching the goose bumps rise on his skin as the room got colder. He forced his nails in as hard as he could, reminding himself of the pain he could have had with Master Beau. The pain that would have left him drained of any fight. He could have slept chained in Master Beau’s house, knowing he was safe—at least from himself.
Strange how pain could work both ways—to keep him awake, and to make him sleep.
He must have nodded off, because he jerked his head up suddenly.
Fuck. He was gonna fall asleep before it was time. He tried to rise but couldn’t. Closed his eyes again.
“It’s all right to be afraid.” His mother’s voice, but he wasn’t sure what she’d said it about. Daniel had been young.
“It’s all right to be afraid.”
His eyes flashed open. The AC unit read fifty-three degrees.
Not like this, Mom. It ain’t all right to be afraid like this.
He closed his eyes. Almost laughed, because he’d tried to stop saying “ain’t” in college, but it was a hard habit to break.
He was caught in that in-between state, not quite asleep but not awake. And he heard people talking, a murmur of voices like he was at a party. Someone laughed.
Casey. It was Casey’s laugh, and for a second he swelled with happiness, because maybe she had come to see him, and maybe he could finally explain. Anything seemed possible in this in-between space. He might find Casey and tell her he hadn’t meant to hurt anyone, and she’d understand. Even if she didn’t, it was enough that she was here.
He jerked awake again. He was freezing, his nipples hard, the hair on his arms arching in an effort to keep him warm. This wasn’t going to work. He got up and went to the tiny bathroom stall, opening the cabinet under the sink. He took out the black bag and unzipped it. It was full of things that had meant something back when he was with Marcus. That had meant safety, trust. Fear, yes, sometimes. But closeness too.
He took out a slim black plug. Unzipped a front compartment of the bag and got out the small bottle of cinnamon oil. He slicked the plug with it, took his underwear down, and pushed the plug up his ass until he felt it lodge. The initial wave of heat made him grit his teeth, made bile rise in his throat. Then the pain became manageable. He walked back out to the main room and sat in the chair. Couldn’t sleep, not with his ass clenching and burning. Fuck, it itched even more than it burned. He shifted, glad for the discomfort.
“But you like it, right?” Marcus had asked him. “What we do?”
Shouldn’t have told the truth, but Marcus had already guessed it. Puzzled around for about a month, his touch growing more cautious, more uncertain, until he came out and asked straight.
Maybe tomorrow Daniel wouldn’t visit his mother. Maybe he’d go help Mr. Roan with the garden. Mr. Roan was his neighbor half a mile up the road. Eighty-two and too batshit to care who Daniel was. Mr. Roan loved to be outside, but was too far gone to do his chores efficiently. So Daniel walked over sometimes and raked or mowed or weeded. Next summer, Mr. Roan was going to have a vegetable garden, which Daniel had helped him fence and till. Now would be a good time to plant.
He let his mind go blank—sleeping while awake, nothing but the occasional spasm in his ass to remind him he was alive. How long had it been since he’d been fucked while he was awake? Best not to go there. Didn’t want to be fucked. Hadn’t wanted it—really wanted it—in years.
He checked his phone. It was time. He took the locks out of the freezer and put cozies on each one to insulate them. Set them down while he went to the bathroom and removed the plug. Rinsed it in the sink and set it on the counter. Tomorrow he’d give it a proper cleaning. He wiped himself off and returned to the main room, where he crawled into bed. Found a position that was more or less comfortable. So fucking cold. Set his alarm for six. Looped the cuffs through the iron rails on the bed and locked them closed around his wrists.
Told himself he couldn’t move for three hours, so there was no point struggling even in his sleep.
Hoped his subconscious was listening.
When he’d first gotten these locks, it had been even harder to fall asleep, knowing the ice was already starting to melt, that he had to take advantage of what little time he had. Now he didn’t feel the pressure so much. He closed his eyes and immediately began to drift despite the shivers that racked his body. He had a nice memory of Marcus kissing his shoulder, just above a welt from the flogger. Marcus’s body warm against his. “Good job,” Marcus had whispered. You didn’t get many people who were proud of you for lying there and taking it.
Same way you lay there and took it when Kenny beat you?
Tried to get loose, but he hit too hard.
What’re you remembering that for anyway? Got nothing to do with Marcus. Remember Marcus.
But when he tried to remember Marcus, he remembered Joe Belman. The Harnee’s kid. Remembered Belman’s eyes in the rearview mirror. Belman driving him all the way home.
He finally slept.
The message that we have to accept our loved ones despite their faults resonates in this story.
[D]aniel and Bel are such fabulous characters . . . [W]ho just stole my heart.
The subject matter is unique, the storyline heartbreaking. The authors reel you in and never let you go.
[H]aunting and riveting.