Rubicon sits on the plastic stool, shower blasting his scarred back. Water spills through the holes of his face, turning him into a fountain in the dark granite cubicle.
He feels so drained after every encounter. Just a doll. But not one anyone wants to play with. He always burns so hot. Just ash now, washing down the drain. The stimulants wear off and the mania explodes and he feels the terrifying weakness of being half alive, forever. Every breath halved. Every pulse diced. Every thought split.
This is the first shower he’s been able to have since the VR meltdown. The heat exhaustion made his vitals dip critically low, he was itching in bed for days hooked up to his IV. He always chased the heat until the last second.
“If you get heat stroke, it could damage your brain. What else do you have?”
The shower spatters loudly on the I Spy book in his lap. This was his childhood book but water damage has corroded the once familiar scenes. He never thinks things through.
The page rasps as he turns it. A populace of candy and toys and animals drowning in a warped maelstrom. His mouth opens in a silent giggle because it hurts to laugh. He only laughs effortlessly around the technician because it’s always worth it.
He loves these exploded landscapes, all the random objects suspended in a white void. It makes him think of another book, maybe it burnt in the blast, forgotten in one of those careless random heaps in which so many things silently explode, the soft rubble of living, leaving only its mnemonic debris:
I was hoping that God would fashion a childlike world especially for the rest of us out of the leftovers of the universe, a varnished toy, shining, in colours without danger, image expurgated from life to be used by weaklings, innocents, soldiers discharged for spiritual deficiency, a world where the forces of nature and basic instincts, pain and rotten pleasure and all feelings would be simple pretexts, decorative designs imitating earth and water, fire and air, flesh and blood; where longitudes and latitudes would no longer atrociously bruise the globe…where the untrussed chicken, the criminal’s wrist, the dog’s neck will no longer bear blue-edged, reddened, hairless gashes…
Was it Aveux non Avenus? The Claude Calhoun book belonged to his mother, one of the few books she had that was translated into English. He only had her antique scraps to scavenge through in that vast mansion, her old and foreign presence, doubly foreign through the lens of childhood, the cursed feeling of this is not for me and it has been assembled from things which are now dead.
Now he can’t concentrate on anything longer than a picture book. Lots of text makes his head hurt. And today even these simple colorful shapes ache like Lego crushed into his frontal lobe. His head dips as he tries to stay awake. The book slips through his phantom fingers, revealing the waste between his legs. He squeezes his thighs together to avoid the sight. But he’s too skinny to hide the scars sealing his crotch in a sterile slit, concrete cunt.
A smell of citrus wafts on the steam. It makes him think of those old dad smelling body washes. Sitting on the floor while his dad was in the bath and rubbing something between his hands, that Old Spice smell but fancier, probably compounded in the village by artisanal means.
This was one of the only times he saw his dad relax, in that big marble bath with jets and gushing water like a hot tub. His voice was softer. He’d talk about the old days or ask how school went. Those were some of the best memories. His dad’s hand hanging out of the bath, so much bigger and knotted than his, dangling a cigarette, smoke mixing with the steam. He’d watch that cigarette burn down, knowing his dad had a countdown. Eventually he’d explode. Rubicon had tried to stop it so many ways, doing something a little differently every day. But he’d learned you can never stop an explosion. Like a curse, it finds a way through the smallest loophole. So why bother? All you can do is go along for the ride and smile like crazy while you still can, because nothing matters.
Reset the memory. Back to the nice part. His dad would cross the palatial bathroom which seemed even bigger at that age and he would unstrap his watch and place it on the counter with a—
A heavy steel watch lays on the rim of the bath, ticking through the white noise. Calendula sits next to it in the white dress shirt he wore to the charity gala last night. His golden orange hair is unusually messy from bedhead, but his eyes are cool and placid as ever.
“You yelled at the aide. Told her you didn’t need help.”
“Of course.” Cal is silent for some time. Rubicon stares at the dark granite of the wall, upper teeth jutting out, not sure what to do.
Cal’s voice again. “It’s just that. We’re colleagues. Working partners, wouldn’t you agree?”
“So when we meet with my friends. Our allies. It’s already sensitive due to your appearance. So it is imperative you put your best foot forward.”
Rubicon slides his feet out, one fused like a flipper, the other missing the big toe. Water races along the slender branches of his bony legs, tracing the indents of his knees, dripping from his wasted calves. “Which one’s that?”
Cal not-smiles at him for a few moments, then says, “I can helpfully summarize. The first issue is dressing appropriately.”
“What’s wrong with—” Rubicon stops. It’s obvious what’s wrong with how he dresses.
“I had a suit tailored for you. It’s in your room.”
“The other issue is grooming.”
“Personal grooming. Hygiene.”
“I, I don’t understand—”
Cal tests the water with his finger. “Were you aware you have a strong smell? “
Rubicon stutters, hiding under the blond slick of his hair, one eye looking out hazily. “I’m in the s-shower—”
“If I had to guess, you sit here and let the water trickle down. But you avoid the bulk of the spray because it triggers an uncomfortable sensation of some kind.”
“It’s not your fault. Certain areas are difficult to reach.”
Sweat stings Rubicon, highlighting the offending regions. He sits there mortified, seat hard against his skinny ass, water flowing through the crease and splatting over the edge of the plastic stool.
“But I do need you smelling appropriately when we travel together. We are operating at a very high level.”
“I know. You’re right.”
“Perhaps a different position.”
Cal’s voice is helpful, the bedside manner of a doctor. “You could try getting on your knees.”
“It’s the most efficient way.”
Rubicon slips off the stool and his patella bones hit the hard granite, then his frail limbs skid and he falls on his stomach. The shower rains on his back, only felt by pressure, scars numb, but the water finds a way to his most sensitive places, licking apathetically. He expects his genitals to drag on the floor, he adjusts for them automatically, but there’s nothing there, just the brush of scarred pubic mound on tile.
blue-edged, reddened, hairless gashes
He hears the squeak of a handle. The high-pressure jets of the state-of-the-art luxury quad shower head pulse rhythmically, then the stream intensifies. He tries to say something and water comes out, eyes blinded by the drops exploding around him, water stretched over his face like plastic wrap.
His skin is stuck to the floor by suction. It’s hard to think in this position, blood pressure dropping, his already weak limbs made sluggish.
“Doing alright?” Cal’s voice is warm and calm. It makes him feel silly for reacting like that. It’s just a shower. He stretches his hand into a shaky thumbs up, the damaged tendons of his fingers trembling.
“Do you remember when I would visit your father?”
“He was a valued peer. It wouldn’t be appropriate to leave his son alone in the world.”
Rubicon swallows, shower water going down his throat. “Thank you.” He feels so small on the floor.
Cal picks up a sponge and it grows heavy in his hand. “You can’t reach behind yourself, can you?”
The sponge dabs between his shoulder blades, a porous corpse against his pocked skin. The scar-muffled touch forces Rubicon deeper into his head, the awareness of being touched stronger than the reality. He can’t get lost in the sensation. This body will always remind him of being broken.
The sponge scrapes away the crust of salty sweat under his armpit, flakes of dead skin scrubbed from between planes of really dead skin. He must stink even worse after frying in that haptic suit, stink so bad he can’t even tell anymore. How long has he been an embarrassment? Not just a disgusting appearance and slobbering mouth, but he smells bad too.
The sponge traces the broken line of his spine down to his tailbone and his hole clenches, dragging scars into it. An intense heat starts to lick his innards, sparking through his shattered nervous system like electrical wiring in an abandoned building.
Haven’t been touched for so long.
Lazur’s virtual hand on his wrist, bending it back, forcing him to fall into his own body like a burning angel. That was the second time the technician touched him, always at the wrist like a misbehaving child. His sensitive inner wrist is cuffed by a laceration which tingled as the technician’s fingers brushed it. His body is always in bondage, this shibari of scars.
His wrist still glows with phantom blue, as if Lazur’s hand were a part of him that had been amputated. Those healthy nerves and tendons completed his anatomy, added functionality. He imagines the technician cracking open a soft drink for him, the release of carbonation, froth spilling over.
The memory of Lazur’s touch is driven by the sponge on his skin. When his lids hang heavy like that, his ruptured irises become even more illegible, black clots of ocular noise.
He can’t stand the thought that he was foolishly overreacting to what was merely the technician’s obsession with preserving life. As meaningless as the aide trying to bathe his body.
So what does the present touch mean? This sponge wiping down the side of his hip, even a gentle touch enough to sway his pelvis. With his legs spread, his bony cheeks are too emaciated to shield his anus from the warm water dribbling from the sponge, the squirt of suds whenever Cal’s knuckles tighten. He gets a queasy feeling in his guts. The flushed half of his face is pushed into the floor, only his scars visible. His broken lips stick to the tile like a mollusk, wet pink center twitching. There is no physical organ to limit his arousal, swelling until he sees pure white, his lips casting upward into a vertical panel of paradise, soft scraps of flesh in a white hot aquarium. Please, he begs the steaming air, but no one can hear him, words lost in the natural wheeze of his body, even wetter and noisier in this humid chamber, a macerated pig.
He tries to clasp his hands but one folds over the other, falling through the stumps. They made him pray at school. When was his last sincere prayer? Probably before his memories were really solidifying. Please protect me and daddy. Please make the good thing happen and no bad things.
A prayer of phantom fingers. Pink translucency, a memory, frozen at an earlier stage of his body. So the fingers are small. The technician was the same way, shrinking when he crossed himself. We lost our gods. But I’ll show you a new one. Even if I have to rip it out of you.
The sponge glides along his ribs, but he can barely feel it. Lost in the sensory deprivation chamber of the shower, of his body, vapor and liquid swirling without definition, a swamp of thoughts messy as his scars.
Rubi ducky, you’re so fine…
And I’m lucky that you’re mine.
An old song because oh yeah there was a vintage portable TV on the edge of the marble bath, that ubiquitous 70s orange, chunky glass CRT curved and curved again by how small he was, bathroom towering around him little and wet with his toes out and shapes ran through the TV and said things to him all the colorful creatures degrading into static and he’d adjust the antennae superstitiously and get water on the plastic dripping down over the screen even blurrier and he was learning how to be clean—
Hey, you want me to scrub behind your ears?
Oh, I see. You don’t have any ears, do you?
The sponge strokes his sunken waist, making his tummy tense. “Are you enjoying your time at Zadracarta?”
“Very much, thank you.”
For a second I’m polite, automatic, like things are the way they used to be, before heat, pain, burning, ripped apart, bones breaking against other bones, bad burn break crush kill—
I was in control I had a shape I had dignity and charm and I glowed, radiofuckingactive, how kind of you to invite me to your summer house, your château, your palace. Then I lost my face.
I want to see my friends again. Then I touch my lips and feel teeth instead. A worm, pathetic, disgusting, they wouldn’t even recognize me. That’s what makes me sick, having to explain, it’s me, your hot blond dream, hahaha I’m going insane just thinking about it, pushing my face into the floor trying to disappear.
Tired out. Ran a mile without moving. The lulling spray of the shower. A piece of meat being cleaned in a factory. The sponge is starting to hurt. How long has it been rubbing the same place, the back of his thigh starting to chafe—
Calendula’s lips hover just outside Rubicon’s ear. The boy’s pupils stretch to the side, his spine too stiff to turn easily, mouth open, breathing hard from the steam in the air.
“You didn’t help the technician out, did you?”
“Why would I ever do something like that?”
The sponge grinds in a circle, the unscarred patch of thigh flesh growing red and abraded. “That little imp of the perverse. It resides in everyone. But you embody it.”
A burning spreads from the sponge to the adjacent meat, tingling in the crease between ass and leg. Rubicon says, “I didn’t help him. I was working on our project.”
He considers telling Cal to leave, to stop soiling his refuge, his wet hiding place. But his usual indignation is bruised, chastened. What else does his body deserve? So clearly deficient, so far in every way from his former frame. Caught in a net of contracture scars, bowed and bobbleheaded, his shock of blond hair like a trophy, scalped, a reminder of what he was. Why should he expect to be taken seriously? He has been reduced to a child who cannot grow. He would laugh, if all the muscles of laughter didn’t seize his body like a harness, crushing his throat, tightening his chest, stretching skin on his face that he doesn’t have.
He doesn’t deserve sanctuary. There’s nothing to protect.
Cal squeezes dirty cripple water from the sponge. As he holds it under the shower spray, Rubicon can feel the outline of the man’s arm, a liquid shadow guttering across his ass.
He breathes faster, water spurting from the side of his mouth, building up in reservoirs then bursting, the sound lost in the shower storm. Suddenly he doesn’t want to be alone. He fights to keep his back from arching, or in his case, spiraling. Maybe he should let it. In the drunken universe of the shower, with his eyes shut, warm water flowing and smoothing and extending the shape of his body, maybe the damage isn’t that bad, maybe something could happen maybe he could be something—
“I admire your streamlined shape. You have an angelic quality. In form at least.” Cal’s voice blends with the hot air, periods microscopic. “It can be so tiring. The constant demands of the body.”
Rubicon sighs into the floor. “Yeah.”
“Especially for you.”
He tries to hold back the ache in his abdomen, the ache in his skull. “Yes.”
“You’re lucky to be free from certain distractions.”
The sponge dips into his ass and he buries his gasp in the floor, water seething through the exposed teeth on the side of his face. He waits for the pulse of sensation to sharpen like it used to, an arrow pointing toward some kind of release, but it stays stuck in his hips, in his abdominal crease, in his natal cleft, his pelvis embedded with erogenous shrapnel.
“One less thing to complicate our relationship.”
The sponge wipes up and down, sweeping the rain of the shower with it, touch without bones, wetness without life. The worst is when it digs in, rough medical scrubbing deep in there.
I’m so fucking dirty and disgusting. For the rest of my life I’ll need special clunky tools bolted into my male living space marking my shower and bed and toilet, and I’ll need other people to clean me because I’m incapable of doing it myself. And if I rebel, I smell. I fight and fight and I’m dragged back to this body—
The rough texture of the sponge grazes his catheter hole, brushing the tip of the irritated canal. Then it lifts and squeezes out, dirty water spattering between Rubicon’s thighs.
“There. Much better.” The sound of a steel watch strapping onto a man’s wrist with a click. “Enjoy your shower.”
Footsteps cross the room, this big rocky space that would take him forever to crawl across. He feels buried inside a thundering mountain. The door opens in a draft of cool air, then shuts. The steam builds up again, thickening white around his aching carcass. He’s so dehydrated he laps water off the floor, tasting the fungal yeasty bacterial hell of his own feet, sloughed white gunk of sweaty vegetable cheese, acids isovaleric and propionic, the taste of his neglect.
His ass glows from the scrubbing, a flushed red furrow irritated by the hot water bubbling through. It itches but it burns sweetly deeper inside him, an agonizingly borderline sensation.
Can I replace you with him?
The CEO is about the right shape. Maybe the best one. Rich and powerful. Hyper-intelligent. Respected. The life I was supposed to have.
And I’m going to disappoint you real soon. Show you my true colors. Red, red, red. But as much as I should behave myself, I’ll be irresponsible with you until the last possible second. Like I always am.
Still. The last possible second is almost here. I have to wrap this up one way or another. And I know just what you need. I’m sending it to your apartment. I hope you like my bomb.