When honey bees go shopping
it's something to be seen.
They swarm to wild flowers
and get nectar for the queen.
And everything you bring me
got me dripping like a honeycomb
and if you've got some sugar for me,
Sugar Daddy, bring it home.
—"Sugar Daddy" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch
“This is insane,” Ben said. “I’m not fucking paying this.”
“I understand, sir,” said the nice woman with a thick accent over the phone. “However I’m going to have to ask you to refrain from using profanities--”
“I’ll use whatever fucking profanities I fucking want to, okay? You’re charging me three hundred dollars in overdraft fees.” His hands shook, so he gripped his desk until his knuckles turned white. “You get that this is extortion, right? You understand why this country is falling apart. We need strict federal regulation--”
“Federal regulation regarding this issue has already been put in place, sir. Regulation E states clients can opt out of overdraft via POS purchases--”
“Why didn’t you tell me that two weeks ago?!” Ben shouted. He bit his tongue and took a calming breath to keep from flying off the handle.
“All clients were informed of the change in early 2012, sir. You should have received notification in the mail, however to initiate the automatic decline option, you had to have come into a branch and set up the change.”
2012. His bank account was still his mother’s responsibility back then. Ben didn’t know shit about money when he was a teenager. He still didn’t know shit about money, and he certainly didn’t have any of it in order to learn. Not anymore, anyway.
He sighed. “Just…” He clenched his jaw so tight his teeth hurt. “Opt out. And will you please …” His voice wavered with rage. This would normally be the time when his mother would chastise him into putting a lid on his temper. “...consider a partial refund.” Partial refund was a phrase he’d googled before he bothered calling the customer service line. The words tasted bitter on his tongue. “This is my first... offense , and I would like you to take that into consideration.”
“All right, sir,” said the service lady, “I am able to refund fifty percent of your fees, and I have set your account to opt out of overdraft.”
“Thank you,” Ben said, only mildly calmed.
“Please be advised that you can still overdraw your account via ATM and check purchases.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Have a good evening, sir.”
He hung up without another word, slammed his phone on the table so hard the damn thing would have broken were it not for the expensive rage-proof case his mother insisted he keep for such occasions as this. His chest felt tight. He didn’t have a hundred and fifty dollars to pay in fees. He didn’t even have that much for next month’s rent. At this rate, he was going to be out on the street. Or worse, on Poe Dameron’s goddamn couch. Again.
Rey entered their tiny living room and leaned against a wall, her tongue delicately trailing the edge of a roll paper. As she twisted the joint, she said, “You won’t end up on the street.”
She was always fucking reading his mind. It was so annoying. “What else am I going to do? The market won’t give me more hours, I barely sleep as it is, and I’m balls-deep in homework.”
She shrugged. “You could always ask for help from dearest Auntie Leia.”
Ben laughed, loud and mirthless. “Mom would kill me for this. She’d give me the money and lord it over my head for all eternity, then pay my tuition and make me change majors.”
“To her credit, a history degree is quite useless.”
“History is not useless . Business is useless.”
Rey lit her joint with a beat-up Zippo and took a hit. “Finn’s coming over later.” Breath still held in, she handed it to Ben and added, “Mario Kart?”
Ben’s eyes fell shut. He opened them again as he tried vainly to concentrate on chapter sixteen of a history textbook that he would have rather purchased by severing a limb. Loud crashing and excited shouting emanated from the living room, where Finn, Rey, and Poe enthusiastically attempted to destroy each other’s little cartoon cars. The whole apartment reeked of weed and pizza grease.
Ben should have never gone to college.
A knock on his door woke him from his doze, and he sat up from where he was propped against a wall. “Come in.”
Poe entered, wearing a neon pink tank top and board shorts like some surfer bro reject from a 1987 Sears catalog.
“Hey, buddy!” he said, helping himself to Ben’s desk chair. “Heard you’re having a rough time,” he added, picking up a stress ball and tossing it into the air.
“Rey needs to mind her own business.”
“Nah, it wasn’t her. Heard you all the way downstairs.” He propped his feet on Ben’s bed and kept his eye on the ball. “You know I can help you out.”
“I’m not selling drugs, Poe.”
“No, man, I know. You’re way too...” He caught the ball and made a wavy hand gesture. “High strung.”
“Then how can you help?”
“I know a guy.” Poe always knew a guy. He knew a lot of guys. He had a guy for everything.
“A guy,” Ben replied.
“Who can do what?”
“Oh, you know, this and that. Got a lot of money, a little time. You know how it goes.”
Ben was beginning to feel like maybe he was the stoned one. “I really don’t.”
Poe leaned forward on his elbows, charming crooked grin lighting up his handsome features, the kind of smile that won over everybody who crossed his path. “You give him a little time, he’ll give you a little money.”
“You’re not suggesting…”
“The future is now, bro. Relationships are tough. Dude’s a busy man looking for a one-stop shop, that’s all.”
“How,” Ben said, a statement of disbelief more than an actual question. “How do you happen to know ‘a guy’ who wants to pay someone like me for...” He couldn’t even finish the sentence.
Poe bit his bottom lip, a horrible seductive habit on his part that got him into too much trouble, which he then dragged everyone else into. “You’re young. You’re hot. You’re smart. You got your shit together. You’re right up this guy’s alley.” He stood and took out his wallet, then handed Ben a business card. “He doesn’t like phone calls. Text him.”
Ben looked at the card. Brendol Hux II in a plain serif font followed by a phone number. He turned it around. Blank.
Despite the disdain and desperation roiling in his gut, Ben's curiosity got the better of him.
Two-oh-five p.m., in Ben’s educated opinion, was the best time for business communication. After lunch but prior to the end of the workday. Past the hour so as to not look too intentionally scheduled.
Ben sat on a bench outside the market on his break, staring down at his phone and the text message he’d spent all day crafting.
Mr. Hux, it read , Your number was given to me by a mutual acquaintance who informed me you are currently looking to hire. I am interested in the details of this position, and I look forward to hearing from you. --Ben Solo
As the clock ticked to the fifth minute, Ben hit Send.
The phone number shifted from green to blue. Ben watched the bar as it made its way across the screen and the word delivered appeared below the message. He read it a dozen more times until the words bled of all meaning.
By the time his break ended, his battery was worn down by ten percent. He silenced his phone and shoved it in his pocket, refusing to feel disappointed.
Ben’s phone vibrated three hours later while he was on his knees stocking soup cans. He glanced up and down the aisle, bereft of patrons, and pulled out his phone. Hux’s number appeared--Ben still hadn’t entered him as a contact, thinking it would jinx the situation--and he slid open the text message.
Thank you for your interest, Mr. Solo. So neither of us waste our time, I would like to first request your picture.
Short. To the point. Ben could respect that. And if this Hux person was really seeking what Poe implied, a picture made sense, though without specifications, Ben was slightly at a loss. He scrolled through his photos--all the broken stuff in Rey’s and his apartment from when they moved in that the landlord would probably try to charge them for later, a dozen or so from when Rey stole his phone and took overly artful pictures of furniture corners and spans of ugly carpeting, a few of her smiling (“To cheer you up when you’re sad,” she said, and god, he hated her nearly as much as he loved her).
The picture he chose was dated by a year or so, when his hair had finally grown out to the length he’d always wanted it but that his mother had never allowed. He wasn’t smiling and the lighting was sub-par, but it got the idea across.
He sent it to Mr. Hux without a caption.
Thank you for your expedience, Hux replied moments later. Are you at a place where you might answer some questions for me?
Shit. No, Ben wasn’t. But he was due for another break, so he rushed to the front and clocked out. On the way to his bench, he replied, Yes.
Excellent , Hux said. Age? Occupation? Sexual orientation?
21. Student. He hesitated at the next question. He’d never told anyone before, maybe because no one ever asked, or maybe everyone just knew. He supposed it wasn’t relevant anyway, given that he’d never dated anyone. Or kissed anyone. Or done really anything at all. Not that he hadn’t had the opportunity, he always told himself; it was that he lacked interest.
He finally typed Bisexual and hit Send.
A student of what?
Hux had neither commented on his picture nor his orientation, and Ben could feel a small nagging of irritation creeping at the back of his mind. Though he had nothing to base it on, he expected this transaction to be slightly more...lascivious.
Quite a broad topic. What parts of history?
The Roman Empire. Namely the Constantinian dynasty.
Ben’s fingers itched to go into further detail, but he restrained himself and waited for the next question.
What is your schedule like?
The nagging of irritation swelled at the lack of response in regard to his studies. He thought Hux might be impressed or inquire further, personalize the exchange in some way. Ben navigated through his understanding of society by using strict behavioral schemas. This was neither an interview nor a friendly conversation, which left it in the vast tundra of uncertainty that historically sent Ben into fits of rage.
He managed to restrain himself and replied, I work part-time during the day MWF. Classes TTh. Weekends and evenings off.
I see. Here is my proposal:
Ben leaned forward on the bench. His hands trembled as he watched the ellipses fade across their little bubble.
We may begin a short probationary period wherein I will send you packages as I see fit. Upon arrival of those packages, I will ask mostly benign requests of you. Regardless of the result of the probationary period, you may keep the gifts. If you perform my requests well, you will be tipped for your service. I will only reach you during working hours that you may set based on your schedule and that you may change as needed. Are you amenable?
Ben read the text over and over again. Something wasn’t clicking for him.
May I ask a question?
You may, and thank you for seeking permission first.
What do you get out of this?
A reasonable inquiry, though one that I would like to remain personal at this time. If not understanding my perspective bothers you, perhaps we should not move forward.
Ben’s heart leapt into his throat. No, I was just curious. It’s fine.
In that case, if I may have your email address, I will send you a short form to look over and a small signing bonus.
May I ask another question?
What should I call you?
“Sir.” For now.
This was the most confusing conversation Ben had ever had, over text or otherwise, but his whole body felt flush with the sexual undertones teeming beneath the surface, if Poe’s implications led Ben to the correct conclusion anyway. It was...dirty. Wrong. Thrilling.
Thank you, sir, Ben replied, followed by his email address.
When Ben got home from work, he had an email waiting for him from Mr. Hux with several attachments, one of which was a disclosure agreement. There was a form asking for his working hours, his address, his preferences for food and the like, and his measurements. He was also invited to make an Amazon wishlist-- for incentive compensation , Hux explained.
As soon as Ben filled everything out and sent it back, within minutes he had an email notifying him of fifty dollars sent to his PayPal account with a message that read, simply, Thank you for your time today. I look forward to learning more about you.
Ben’s stomach flipped a little. That single sentence was like dunking his hand in lukewarm water after walking a mile in a blizzard. No one had ever expressed interest in him before, let alone enough to pay him just for being himself. The small voice in the back of his mind that sounded strangely like his mother warned him to be wary of this arrangement, but the other voice, the one that sounded like his father, said something like, “Give it a shot. What’ve you got to lose?”
Not much, Ben considered. A cousin-slash-best-friend, otherwise known as the only person alive who could tolerate him for long periods of time (and whom he could tolerate in turn). A mattress. Some second-hand furniture.
In the grand scheme of things that could go horribly wrong, Mr. Hux seemed like a safe enough bet.
“Did you do it?” Rey asked the next morning, mouth full, a textbook open beside her bowl of Lucky Charms.
Ben padded into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Do what?”
“Contact the guy.”
“Don’t play coy with me, Benjamin. Poe’s guy.”
“Poe’s got a lot of guys.”
“The guy who wants to give you money.” When Ben didn’t reply, Rey added, “In exchange for--”
“All right, we don’t know that yet, okay?”
“So you did contact him.”
“I might’ve.” Ben sat down across from her and took a gulp.
“I always knew you’d make a great sugar baby one day.”
He nearly spit. After a hard swallow that scalded his throat, he asked, “Why would you have ever thought that?”
She shrugged and took another bite of cereal. “You’re always seeking other people’s approval to validate your self-worth. You’ve got phenomenal DSL. You’re masculine, but not in a particularly threatening way unless you’re angry. And you have this...aura about you.”
“What kind of aura?”
Rey thought on it. “Like you’ve got too much soul inside your body, and any minute the careful balance of you might come crashing down. And who knows what that would look like. It’s quite intoxicating.” She pointed her spoon at him. “Adventuresome people appreciate that about you.”
Ben stared at her, stunned. “Do you do this to other people?”
“Analyze them until their entire reality is shattered and they no longer know up from down.”
Rey lifted her bowl and slurped down the remaining milk, then she wiped her chin with the back of her hand. “No. Most people know themselves well enough that my analysis has no bearing on their self-perspective, therefore I don’t feel the need to share it.”
Before Ben could reply, Rey stood from the table and grabbed her messenger bag from the floor. She stopped and kissed his forehead on her way out. “I love you. Have a good day. Send Mr. Sugar my regards.”
Another full day passed without any word from Hux. Periodically Ben looked at the fifty dollars in his PayPal account to make sure it hadn’t been taken away somehow, even though he hadn’t touched it. As soon as he moved it into his bank account, he was sure it would send him into a spiral of questioning his integrity.
The following day, Ben signed for a large box. Thankfully Rey wasn’t home, so he had some privacy to open it. He’d been torturing himself over what “gifts” Hux would send him, and even went so far as to think about the kinds of things--of a sexual nature, namely--he’d enjoy or decline. He was surprised to find that very little bothered him, though now that a box full of mystery contents lay on his bed, he wasn’t nearly as confident.
He opened the box. On top of packaging material rested a blank envelope, which he picked up and opened. Inside was a short, typed letter that read:
Enclosed you will find a camera, a tripod, and a suit. Please wear the suit and take several photographs of yourself, then email them to me by midnight this evening.
Ben pulled out the packaging material to find a professional grade tripod and DSLR camera with a lens kit. Below it was a larger white box, which Ben took out carefully and opened.
The suit inside was black with a white undershirt and a black tie. He hadn’t worn a suit since his grandpa’s funeral when he was thirteen. As he thumbed over the fabric, he contemplated sending Hux a thank you text message, but since the letter didn’t indicate he needed to, he didn’t. For once, he felt his compulsions toward taking things too literally would be a benefit to him.
It took hours to figure out how to use the camera, which he refused to take out of the box until he’d read the manual in full. He set up the tripod and took a few test shots, downloaded them to his computer, and inspected the image quality.
He wondered if the ingenuity of the photograph had any bearing on the amount of his “tip,” and he wished he’d been given more detailed instruction. He wasn’t an artist. He had no eye for aesthetics. And as far as he was concerned, he was one of the least attractive people he or anyone else had ever known.
He stared at the contents of the box strewn over his bed, utterly overwhelmed, and for a moment considered texting Hux that the deal was off, he couldn’t do this, he’d return the fifty dollars and the gifts and apologize for wasting everyone’s time. These kinds of relationships--Rey’s voice echoing the term “sugar baby” rattling in his head--were for Pinterest girls with long legs and flirty smiles, or twink boys who did amateur webcam porn on the side, not gangly pseudo-historians with a bad temper and worse social anxiety.
He spotted the overdraft notification lying at the corner of his desk, a singular plain and unassuming piece of paper informing him that he wouldn’t be able to afford food this month unless he either sunk low enough to ask his mother for help, or…
Take a stupid picture of himself.
He took a deep breath. He could do this.
The suit fit perfectly, and he looked at himself in Rey’s full-length mirror (careful not to step on the clothes and other pieces of who-knew-what strewn about her floor). With his hair slightly styled and his posture straight, he looked...good. Handsome, even. Respectable. Someone Brendol Hux II would be proud to hire for more consistent work.
After the first round of pictures, he got into the swing of things. The lighting was all wrong for the first few test shots, so he took every lamp from the living room and placed them strategically in his bedroom with the shades tilted. He lifted his mattress against the wall and draped a sheet over it to use as a backdrop, then retrieved one of the stools from the kitchen to sit on, figuring it might make the shot more dynamic than if he were just standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.
The second round was surprisingly fun, seeing his product improve with every shot, experimenting with focus and shutter speed and ISO. He’d never made anything beautiful before, especially nothing where the object of the beauty was supposed to be himself. He’d always taken a different kind of approach to life--observe what exists, but never touch it. Making beautiful things upset the careful balance of the world. It changed history, little by little, one snap of the shutter at a time, a flick of a paintbrush, a stroke of a typewriter. It was Ben’s job to observe history, not make it.
Before he knew it, his warning alarm went off to let him know it was eleven and that he needed to evaluate his pictures. It didn’t take him as long as he expected; the best ones were obvious and the rest he deleted. He ended up with half a dozen, two of which he used the photo software that came with the camera to turn black and white.
What took even longer was staring at the blinking cursor trying to figure out what to say. The pictures were attached, the email addressed. The subject line read, Photographs .
At a quarter till, he settled on, Thank you for the gifts, sir. I hope the photographs are to your liking. Please let me know how I may be of additional service. Sincerely, Ben
He read the email over a few times, deleted the sir but then added it back again. He glanced at the clock at five till, took a breath, and hit Send.