It was the taste of asphalt that made him remember those days as his face slammed into the ground again. Blood spewed from his mouth and a tooth rolled away across the pavement. He closed his eyes desperately, but that wasnt enough to keep reality out. Each mans shoe managed to land a kick in Micahs gut, increasing the bruises and the bleeding. It felt like an eternity since the first hit had laid him flat, but the gang wasnt done yet. They werent going to be done until Zeke said the word.
They all spat out insults and jeers, watching Micah retch and gag as he curled into a ball. Vomit threatened to rise, but he suppressed it with a swallow, tasting blood, asphalt, and sickness slide down his throat.
That revolting combination of sensations was what reminded him of the first time he had met Zeke. It had been six years, but he still remembered seeing that fist flying at his face, feeling it connect, hearing that crunch as his nose cracked. Hed fallen face-flat on the ground, sure hed fucked up.
There was nothing for him in this city back then. He had had no job, hed run away from home, and all hed wanted to do was join a gang. This operation wasnt one, really. It was just a little group of guys like Micah who needed somewhere to go, someone to follow, and he had hoped he could become one of them. According to one of the older guys, the only initiation ritual was to beat this scrawny albino man in a fight, but somehow hed messed that up. The albino had sent him down with one punch, and hed ended up lying on the street.
Then a bleach-white hand gripped his shoulder, turning Micah onto his back. The man knelt as he watched Micahs nose streaming blood down his face, watched him choke and gag on it. You got anywhere to go? he had asked calmly after a few moments, and Micah had looked into Zekes eyes for the first time. They were pale as if they were blind, but he was sure they saw him. There was an intensity there that he had never seen before, and it drew him in.
No, he choked out, sputtering as the fluid flooding into his throat threatened to suffocate him. He sat up, a head rush, blood dampening his shirt. Nowhere to go.
Then the man had stood, holding out a hand and pulling Micah to his unsteady feet. You do now. The names Zeke, and youre gonna be doing what I say from now on.
Hed never realized that this practically emaciated young albino was the leader of that little gang. Micah couldnt deny, though, that Zeke was worth fearing and respecting, if for no other reason than the intensity in his eyes and the force of his hit.
Theyd all been boys back then. Even Zeke, twenty at the time, had no idea what a real gang was supposed to do. Hed come up with all these rules as the months went by and new members joined. Hed played it all by ear, and until tonight, Micah had helped him.
Reality came flooding back with a hard kick to the head, jerking him out of his mental isolation and sending his thoughts spinning. His ears were suddenly open again to the shouts and hisses.
Second -in-command, sidekick, right-hand-man
Micah had been called a lot of things since Zeke had taken him in, but now, as he suffered the pain and the punches from his once-trusted friends, he was being addressed as something new.
What, too scared to take it, fag?
I thought we didnt let your kind in the gang!
Curling his limbs tighter, he tucked his head into his arms, feeling hot blood where the kick had landed. He knew this was wrong, and he couldnt believe that hed supported the practice all this time.
When Zeke had come up with this ritual beating, this feeding frenzy of feet and fists, Micah had gone along with it. It was a perfect way to send someone off, to banish him from the gang. Micah had seen scores of boys over the years who just couldnt take the life anymore, who wanted out, or werent up to par. Zeke, being such a nice guy, would give them freedom after a little trial. This punching-bag beating wasnt customary in every case. No, sometimes theyd start off with the cutting. Tonight though, the men were glad to pound him into the pavement before the real ritual began.
Okay, guys. I think hes got the message. The voice was calm and quiet, barely audible over the cacophony resounding between the tall brick buildings on either side. They all heard him, though. Their ears had been trained over the years to pick up on every order, every desire.
The press of bodies around Micah eased slightly, and he heard the alleyway go silent. Still, he stayed curled like a dead spider as though that would protect him from the pain that came with the sound of Zekes voice. That voice used to converse with Micah beside trashcan fires in the old parking garage the gang called home. It used to laugh, quietly as though it didnt quite remember how and was afraid to get it wrong. That voice, reaching Micahs ears again, made him realize that he was the only one who had ever seen that side of their leader, the only one who could entice a smile from those thin, white lips.
And now hed thrown it all away.
Well, Micah? Are you gonna get up? There was no hint of laugher or camaraderie in that voice now. It remained cold and deep as an ocean, drowning Micah before he had a chance to catch a breath. Youre not making yourself look too good here.
Micah wished he could allow himself a whimper, a cry, a vocalization of all the terrible emotions running through his mind, but anything at this point would just make the matter worse. He didnt want Zeke to know how weak he was, though his continued silence and stillness wasnt helping. He knew his leader would soon grow tired of waiting. Sure enough, the order came next.
For Gods sake, get up. Zekes words were a flash, painful as any punch, and full of a sort of disgust that Micah had never heard there before. He had been taking orders from this man for six years, though, and he couldnt disobey now. Unwinding his stiff limbs like a broken wind-up doll, Micah shakily got to his feet. He saw darkness swimming at the corners of his vision, and he swayed at a dangerous angle, looking down to get his bearings. Blood began to drip from the tips of his dirty blonde hair, falling to his shoulders and seeping into his shirt. He felt cold and exposed, and the very idea of meeting Zekes eyes was unbearable. Micah kept his stare glued to the ground in front of his feet, reaching up unsteadily to wipe the blood from the side of his mouth.
Okay, Zeke spoke again. So youre gonna be a coward about this, arent you? You remember those other guys we kicked out? At least they had enough balls to look me in the eye.
The gang murmured, and Micah closed his fists, unwilling to give into the taunt. Micah couldnt look at Zeke now. Seeing the disappointment and disgust in the mans expression would break something inside of him. He knew it.
There was silence again, and Zeke sighed, shifting his feet on the blood-crusted asphalt in front of his subordinate. When next he spoke, the tone was empty. Micah, just look at me.
This was phrased like an order, like every order hed carried out for this man, but it didnt sound like one. This was a request, and Micah felt his heart pulse violently at the sound.
There were a few moments of intense silence, where even the other members of the gang failed to whisper, to move, and in those moments Micah finally managed to raise his head, to look into the eyes that had trapped him all those years ago. The instant he saw Zekes face he became certain that this night would be the last time he ever saw the man. Knowing this, he allowed himself this last chance to commit every feature to memory. That paper-pale skin stretched thin across Zekes bones, blending into his faintly yellow hair, nearly indistinguishable in color in the darkness that permeated the alley. Zeke had barely changed in all those years. His muscles had become more defined, and there were new wrinkles forming on his forehead and at the corners of each eye, but he was the same Zeke. If nothing else, his eyes proved that. They were the only part of him that Micah could see clearly, as they captured the light from the distant streetlamp. Micah felt his throat clench closed as he stared into those eyes, cold and stoic as ever.
He still couldnt believe Zeke was doing this to him.
The rules were clear. Micah knew this when he joined, when Zeke had started rattling off the list of guidelines. He knew hed have to obey every stipulation, but he never imagined it would be so hard. Most of the rules, the first ones Zeke had told him, were simple. Every member had to carry a knife, no contact with family was tolerated, women were not allowed, using last names was forbidden, and so on. Micah had found himself nodding, ticking off a mental checklist of the things hed have to work on, but there wasnt much there. The only one that caused him pause was one of the last rules he had heard. It was practically a footnote.
He remembered how cold sweat had beaded around his hairline, how hed swallowed a painful lump in his throat when he heard those words leave Zekes lips. Micah had been kicked out of his fathers house because his family had the same rule, and now he was faced with it again. He thought for sure no one would care in the backstreets of such a big city, but these men and boys were macho and intolerant, and they believed people like Micah threatened their masculinity. Still, he couldnt leave now. Hed heard the absolute authority in Zekes voice, and hed seen a quality in the man that he couldnt forget. There was something strong and commanding about Zeke, something underneath his frail appearance. Maybe it was the way he walked, shoulders high, looking down his sharp nose at every man who came into his path. It might have been the way he spoke, with a stern and fierce air that left no room for question. Whatever it was, Micah found himself drawn to this man and to this gang. He couldnt leave now. Even knowing the rule that would force him to deny himself again, he had smiled at Zeke, at his new leader, and said, No problem there.
Thats more like it, Zeke said when Micah finally raised his eyes. You dont want to look bad in front of your friends, do you?
Micahs gaze flickered for a moment, glancing quickly at the men surrounding him. Friends was not the word he would use to describe these familiar faces. The majority of them had cruel grins on their faces, self-satisfied. These people were responsible for the bruises outlining his dark eyes, for the red, blue, and purple tint to every inch of his skin. These were not friends, but Zeke
Zeke was something else all together.
Micah decided not to respond. Anything he said now would just incriminate him further. The men all knew what he was now that Zeke had betrayed his secret, but none of them knew the rest of the story, the rest of the reason Zeke was being so harsh. Zeke had kept that part of Micahs confession secret, at least, and Micah knew that if he spoke now, anything he said would be telling enough.
Micah really thought he could hide it forever, not just his sexuality, but the adoration as well. After a few years, though, he discovered that feelings as strong as love are impossible to keep secret. Maybe love wasnt the right word for it, but every expression with which he attempted to replace it just sounded out of place. It wasnt just devotion. No, every member of the gang was devoted to Zeke, but Micahs dedication was unhealthy, obsessive. Maybe it wasnt love, but it was close as Micah had ever come to it, and now everyone knew. Every member of the gang had heard Zeke shout, had heard Micah beg. Please dont tell anyone. Please dont
Of course Zeke had told them. He had to. He couldnt let his followers think that he was one of those guys, and that meant he had to enforce the rules with a vengeance.
Even now, Micah couldnt say why he finally told him. It was always the plan to keep it in no matter how much it hurt, but there was something about the way Zeke had looked at him that night that made him believe it would all be okay.
Micah had said I can tell you anything, right? and Zeke had looked over at him, stern face revealing nothing.
Sure you can. Doesnt mean Ill listen.
Micah let out a nervous laugh, staring at his hands, though he could barely see them in the dim light of the dying fire. He knew Zeke was just putting on a front. Thats what he always seemed to do when the conversation became too personal. It was as though he would forget that he had already let down his walls, so he would erect them again, though Micah saw through it every time.
This is really important, though. I mean, it might be
Micah couldnt help trailing off. He didnt know what it might be. Unexpected? Cataclysmic? Zeke turned his head to look at Micah, sitting beside him, cross-legged and fidgeting.
Micah, Im your leader, remember? You can tell me whatever you need to.
It was then that Micah met his gaze, feeling a small smile tug at the corners of his mouth reluctantly. Zekes brows were smoothed out in an almost entreating expression, his mouth quirked at one side in a crooked smile. He didnt look so frightening anymore, not like he did during the day when the other men were around. Even his sharp features, the protruding cheek bones and acute nose, seemed to soften.
With that expression on his beautiful, ghostly face, Micah probably would have told Zeke anything.
Nothing had turned out the way he had hoped it would, but he couldnt say he was surprised. It didnt even matter how much history they had together, how many years Micah had proven himself. He had stolen things, vandalized property, and, God, even murdered people because Zeke asked it of him, and now Zeke couldnt do the one thing that Micah requested.
Please dont tell anyone.
He was here now, in this circle of hatred and burning eyes, because Zeke cared more about his goddamn rules than a man who was willing to devote his entire being to him. It was too much to hope that Micah would be the exception. Every time a pair of guys got caught getting too close, they were out. They had to bear the beatings and the cuts, and most of them died before the blood dried on the asphalt. There was no exception, and it was only now, staring into Zekes icy eyes, that he realized it.
Zeke spoke then as though the others werent even there, as though there were no spectators to this private exchange.You know why were doing this, he said, and Micah searched his face for any trace of emotion. He should have known he wouldnt find any. You understood the rules better than anyone, Micah.
Wishing he could look down, look away, tear himself from Zekes intense glare, Micah managed a small nod. I know, he said, voice frighteningly coarse and frail. It was the first time hed spoken since the beating had begun, and he clenched his jaw closed at the unexpected sound.
So, Zeke said crossing his arms over his chest, is there anything you want to say before we start? Its your last chance. Apologies? Scores to settle? Cmon, Micah, I know you. Youre not going to go out without a last word.
He was right. Of course he was right. Zeke knew Micah better than anyone. Theyd spent years staying up late together while the other men retreated to their separate cots to sleep. Theyd spoken of their families, the lives they left behind. Micah had been sworn to secrecy more times than he could count after listening to Zeke tell him why he wanted so badly to control people, and hed sworn Zeke to secrecy when hed confessed why he wanted so badly to be controlled. Years of this tentative bonding were now on the line. There was so much he wanted to say to the man, so much he wanted to put out in the open that he hadnt been able to explain before. Now, though, everyone else was an audience to his humiliation, and he couldnt find the words.
Micah felt blood dripping from his hair, from his mouth, from scrapes on his cheek where pieces of street were lodged into wounds. He felt bruises rising on his ribs, felt his knuckles crack when he unclenched his fists. Every part of his body ached and throbbed like one huge open sore, but all that paled in comparison to how much it hurt to say what left his lips then, though hed been dying to say it all night.
You always told us, he began, voice so low and hoarse that only a few of the surrounding men could hear him, that we had to give our lives to the gang. We had to give our lives to you in order to be a part of it. I just dont know why Im being punished for giving my life to you. I was your best man, Zeke, and you fucking know it.
He held the mans eyes, determined. He was right this time. He knew he was right. Zekes expression refused to change, but Micah entertained the notion that he had gotten through, if only for the subtle shift of eyes that followed, as though Zeke were about to look away.
You went too far, Micah, he said, and the others around them nodded in unanimous agreement. This isnt a matter of loyalty.
Then what the hell is it! He didnt think his battered voice was strong enough to shout, but the sound carried through the alleyway, echoing in the silence that followed.
Zeke looked Micah up and down, surveying his wounds and his fists and his firm glare. One corner of his mouth drew back and Micah couldnt tell if it was a smile or a grimace. Okay, boys, he addressed the entire alleyway, causing the thirty-or-so men gathered to pull knives from their pockets. Its time we shut him up.
This was it. This was the part of the ritual Micah had been dreading. The beating had been terrible, but he knew what was coming next. He had participated in this practice for six years, and hed seen what it did to people, what it would do to him. It was pure genius, really, what Zeke had come up with.
As a last goodbye to every man they kicked out, each member of the gang would take out his knife and slash a signature on the kids arms. For the rest of his life, if he managed to live, that boy would have a scar for every man he betrayed by leaving the gang behind. He wouldnt be able to look in a mirror without seeing the marks they left on his skin, so he would remember it forever. This was Zekes tried and true custom, and until this day, Micah had thought it was a good idea. Now, he was dreading the moment the first knife would touch his flesh. He never thought it would be so frightening.
He never thought hed be on the receiving end.
He stared at Zeke desperately, fear flitting across his face as his eyes widened and watered. Please, Zeke, he begged, and the crueler men around him laughed. This doesnt have to happen!
But it did. They all realized this, and most of them were glad of it. Even the ones who had once admired Micah now saw the opportunity that his eradication presented. Zekes right-hand-man was about to be tossed out, and each one of those men with his knife drawn and his eyes wide was just waiting for the chance to replace him.
Micah searched Zekes expression for any sign that his plea had made an impact. There was nothing at first, just the crossed arms and the steady stance, just the close-knit brows and narrowed eyes, but as Micah watched, Zekes lips pressed tightly together, thin pink lines becoming thinner. It was almost unnoticeable, but Micah had learned every subtle shift in Zekes expression, and he knew the man had felt something, if only pity, for Micah then.
Zeke would never show this to the other men, though. Pity was a sign of weakness, and the Zeke that ran this reckless little gang had no weaknesses in the eyes of his men.
Zeke nodded to a man at Micahs right. Senior members first, he said. You know the drill. Newbies, you after them. I go last.
This was the way it always went. The older members would take slow, deliberate turns until the newbies started up, all of them too excited to wait. Then they would attack at random, decorating his skin with their own little marks. When it was over, though, Zeke would step forward, make his usual incision just above the right-hand wrist, and the group would leave, abandoning him in the alleyway.
Micah knew how it was going to happen, so he closed his eyes, steeling himself for the beginning of the end.
The man assigned to go first strode forward, and in a series of motions almost too quick to feel, grabbed Micahs arm and sliced hard, right across the shoulder, slitting his sleeve.
Micah winced, clenching his teeth, though his jaw throbbed in pain as well. He refused to let himself cry out. There was going to be no mercy tonight, and soon that first cut would feel like nothing. He had to prepare for the rest.
He winced as another hand dug painfully into his arm, five punctures of fingernails and another slash. He kept his vision shut, trying to retreat into his mind, but the thoughts in there were worse than the reality outside and he didnt know which hell to choose.
Soon, Micah couldnt tell how many were touching blades to his skin. He felt blood cooling as it rolled languidly down his arms, dripping from his fingertips onto the street where so much of it already lay splattered.
There was no shouting now, not after the cutting began. This was a silent procedure, an almost sacred ritual. Even Zeke had stopped speaking. The men knew their order by now. Theyd done this many times to many young men, and Micah was no different.
No matter how much he longed to be.
The next hand that steadied his arm for a slash was shaking, and Micah cracked open his eyes enough to see one of the newer members, a kid no older than seventeen, staring at him with open sympathy. Soon, Micah thought, that sympathy would be torn out of him. These men were stone. They were ice. Zekes men had no sympathy, no heart.
In Bible school theyd taught Micah that God created man in His image. Zeke had done the same.
The boy tentatively pulled the blade across Micahs skin and stepped back into the crowd.
Others took his place, and Micah felt their cuts with every nerve.
His vision became hazy as his warmth bled out his veins and into the cool air of the night. He wondered if this was how it felt when the soul left the body, a slow flowing into nothing. By the end of the night, he would be a dry husk of human left on the street.
No blood, no soul. Empty as Zekes eyes.
He tried to distance himself from the world now, retreating into a memory that hed kept close on those cold nights, when he thought he might die of loneliness. It seemed fitting to turn to this memory once again. It would probably be his only source of comfort now.
He remembered being splattered with another mans blood, a switchblade trembling in his hands. He remembered Zekes fingers gripping his shoulder tightly, reassuring. Micah had never killed anyone before, and nausea had risen slowly in the pit of his stomach as he stared at the corpse, blood seeping from the wounds Micah had inflicted. He turned to Zeke then, eyes begging for reassurance, for something, and hed seen the first real emotion on Zekes face since hed joined the gang a few months before.
It was a look of pity, or maybe sympathy that met Micahs gaze then. Zekes glare had disappeared and been replaced with a tight-lipped, sad-eyed grimace. Hey, Micah, Hed said, hand tightening comfortingly on Micahs shoulder. You did good. Dont think too hard about it, you know? You did exactly what I asked.
Micah had felt his heart leap at the praise, felt his shoulder burn where those long, strong fingers still lingered. Hed swallowed audibly and nodded, stiff-necked.
Zeke had just patted his shoulder softly and walked off, gesturing to Micah to follow. Hed felt the first breath of love burn his heart, sudden as a spark of flame, and hed followed Zeke without question every day since then.
Micah pried his eyes open when he felt the last hands leave him, his minds haze clouding the pain. Everything was numb and cold, and he wavered on his feet, supported only by the force of will that seemed to be draining as quickly as his blood.
The cuts led along his arms like the rungs of a ladder, down, down, down to his wrists, though they stopped just before the major veins. There were no quick deaths in this ritual. If a man were to die, it would be the slow way, bleeding from thirty open gashes.
He knew that was going to be his end as well.
Micah lifted his heavy-lidded eyes to his leader, watching the blank, white screen of his face portray no emotion, no sympathy, no regret. He wondered how he could have fallen in love with a man incapable of anything other than stoic indifference, but that thought wasnt fair. He had to remind himself through his slowly blackening thoughts that this wasnt Zeke. This was just one of his masks. Zeke, the real Zeke, was better than this.
Now, Zekes image began to blur and Micah felt tears sliding down his cheeks, silently and slowly as the blood that poured down his arms. Life was abandoning him in a steady stream.
The sound of blood drops crashing on the pavement into their little crimson puddles was the only noise he could hear. Every man was silent, eyes turned to his leader, waiting for Zeke to make the final move, the final cut.
But Zeke remained motionless, staring as Micah swayed on his feet. So much blood had left Micahs body that it caused a tingling sensation to spread through his limbs. His mind was being eclipsed by soft nothingness, and rational thought became almost impossible. He couldnt concentrate, could barely see, but he focused the last of his energy on Zeke, meeting the mans eyes with his own, still watering from pain and misery.
Get back to the garage, Zeke said, voice raised to reach every mans ears. All of you.
They stared, blinked, wondered.
Micahs head spun in confusion. It was strange for their leader to break out of the established ritual. Zeke had never done so before. They were supposed to watch the last cut. Thats how it always worked.
When no one moved, Zeke spoke again. I said go home. Im gonna finish this myself. Got me?
The clear frustration in his voice was not to be disobeyed. They dispersed among fervent muttering and confused backward glances, trickling out the narrow alleyway in the direction of their garage.
Micah didnt watch them go. He didnt have the energy to turn his head. All he could do was blink, and when he finally managed to pull open his eyelids he was alone in the alleyway with the man who had consumed his life for so long.
Any power Micah had left and any force of will that kept him standing through the cutting had completely disappeared. He felt his knees weakening, buckling.
Zeke took a few steps forward, strong, thin hands taking hold of Micah under his arms and hefting his dead weight over to the nearest wall. Micah felt those hands push him gently against it and support his body as he slid down the brick. He felt the rough texture scrape against his wounds through the thin fabric of his shirt.
His vision became blurry, and he began to wonder if he was dreaming when he saw Zeke kneel in front of him. Micahs blood had smeared onto Zekes white arms and across his clothes. He was red with it, and Micah tore his gaze away from the gore. He looked to Zekes face instead.
The mans eyes had melted almost imperceptibly from ice to water. His cold, untouchable exterior, the façade of the stoic leader, was replaced at once by something that reminded Micah just why hed fallen for the man in the first place. His affection for him overflowed once again and spilled out his eyes. These new tears were of mingled joy and despair. The Zeke he loved was with him again, but Micah knew it would be the last time he saw him.
This was the man he had come to know by those fires every night. This was the man who had helped him to his feet after knocking him to the ground. This was the man he respected and worshiped, not the emotionless leader that the others followed so blindly. In that moment, he remembered all of the reasons he had stayed with the gang so long, tried so hard to hide his sexuality to prevent this end. He stayed for this side of Zeke that only he had ever known. He stayed because he couldnt bear to lose this feeling.
Im sorry, Micah. Zeke said with a mixed emotion to his voice that was, all at once, new and familiar. There was something like sadness in the way he said sorry, but underneath was an almost bitter resentment. Though Zeke was finally displaying the emotions he had hidden all night, Micah realized that he would never know exactly what the man felt. He spoke again, and Micah clung to every word like a lifeboat. Youre going to remember this forever, he said. This scar, this second, and those years you spent convincing me you were someone else. Youre going to fucking remember this.
Micah tried to move his arm, tried to reach out, to touch Zeke somehow, but his limbs were heavy and he couldnt lift a finger. He forced his weak jaw to move. Im so sorry, he whispered, unable to say much more through the tears and the pain. I just wanted to
Hey, shut up. I know, Micah. I know. Just sit back, okay?
Micah obeyed that final order, leaning his head against the brick and closing his eyes against a wave of oblivion. He couldnt fade out yet. Not yet.
He felt a hand on the side of his neck, holding him in place as the tip of a blade dug into the flesh above his collar bone, dragging through the skin. He tightened his eyes, curling his numb fingers into almost-fists. Without realizing it, he held his breath until Zeke pulled the blade and his hand away, relinquishing all contact. Micah opened his eyes again, tilting his head forward just enough to feel the gash on his neck sting. Zeke had never cut a man on the neck, never in such a prominent spot. He always slashed just above the right wrist, just above the veins, but hed altered the ritual twice now for Micah, and Micah couldnt help feeling a sense of importance, a sense of worth.
Zeke, he said quietly, seeing double images of the man and trying to focus through the haze. But Zeke stood, wiping the bloodied knife on his jeans.
If you live, make sure you never show your face around here again. As far as Im concerned, this is goodbye.
Micah rolled his head back against the brick again, exhaustion overtaking him as he forced a few last words from his lips. You didnt say goodbye to the other guys.
The other guys werent my friends, Micah. Now go to sleep. Maybe youll wake up somewhere better.
Maybe I wont wake up.
He wasnt sure if he said the words aloud or if they played through his mind, and he wasnt sure if he heard Zekes footsteps on the pavement, or if he just assumed the man had left, but he knew he was alone now, with the sound of distant sirens and the bleak stench of city air. The world hed been a part of for all those years faded and melted around him as blood streamed from his wounds and created dead, red oceans in the cracks of the street. In all honesty, he hoped he wouldnt wake up. He wanted to die with the feeling of Zekes cut burning into his throat, a reminder stronger than the taste of asphalt.