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Credence learned how to stop crying a long time ago. How not to react to pain. The only noises: belt cracking against skin, Mama’s heaving exertion. He spoke Bible verses in his head out of habit and then forced himself to stop, to blank-mind cherish his repentance in full. Sometimes it was his own belt, and he thought about how this thing, this simple leather thing he wore day to day, knew him more intimately than anyone else. Sometimes it was a ruler, a wooden spoon, the remote control. Anything hard on hand that could be swung, anything other than a hand or a fist, because that was where the line was drawn.

His duties in life were simple: feed his sisters and Mama every day, morning and night; keep clean their meager dwellings; go out in service between breakfast and dinner. He served a different neighborhood each day, sometimes walking up to ten miles, across bridges and highways, through wooded areas and playgrounds, down shopping malls and restaurants he had never been to. It was the only thing he looked forward to, the walking. His mind went to a quiet place where he could ignore the aches in his legs and the blisters rubbing against his cheap, poorly fitted shoes. Bag of gospel a welcome burden on his shoulders, the truth of Jehovah, bringing love to light houses steeped in darkness. They were supposed to go in pairs, but Mama worked and his sisters went to school. He did not feel the lack of a partner to be an adequate excuse to skimp on his servicing.

A sunny Thursday afternoon in October. He’d hiked to get here, through woods where leaves crunched underfoot and he could look up to marvel at the sun through the treetops and smell the earthy acrid decay of foliage. He prayed throughout his walk and thanked Jehovah for the blessing of this beautiful day. This neighborhood was one he hadn’t yet been to, about five miles from home by his guess. The houses were large and identical, dropped in a man made clearing like a trainset town. Carved pumpkins sat on porches, false cobwebs hanging in corners, styrofoam tombstones sprouting from garden beds.

It was early still, only three in the afternoon. Credence tried to do his service shortly after five, which allowed day workers the time to get home and prepare dinner, night workers to get ready for their shift. Sometimes a house would invite him in for supper, and he’d get to speak the truth over broken bread. His secret indulgence, however, was listening. If he could tell a family was being made uncomfortable by him after they had let him into his home, he promised himself that pushing would only lead to hostility, and if he wanted to truly spread the word, he had to be patient. So he listened to their daily banter, their laughter; meals so full they emptied scraps into the trash can or gave them to the dog. He could pretend for an hour or two that he was part of this family, that he was loved. And he would leave full and happy, with a book left by their door for their consideration and the knowledge he had done good work.

Today was not so blessed—slammed doors, pinched angry faces, looks of unbridled disgust. One woman took The Watchtower only to throw it back at him. The corner of it hit his temple and made the world warp for a moment. She shoved her door shut and he picked up the book to carry to the next house. When Mama had taken him around in service as a child, he used to believe particularly cruel people were actually demons inhabiting human bodies. Now he knew the truth: this was the face of humanity itself, and it needed saving.

The next house looked exactly the same as the ones before it, except there were no decorations. No landscaping. No porch ornaments of any kind. Were it not for the nice looking black car parked in the driveway, he’d think nobody lived here. He raised his hand to ring the doorbell, but hesitated when he heard shouting inside. The words were muffled, but it sounded like two men. Then the shattering of something. Silence. Talking.

Credence rang the doorbell.

Heavy footsteps approaching the door, and a man’s voice, clearer, “Just—for godsakes, just hang on, okay?”

The door opened in a rush. A man stood on the other side of it in a too-tight t-shirt and jeans, socked feet. His hair was long on top and shaved at the sides like Credence had seen men wear more frequently, though he himself had gotten the same bowl haircut since he was young. The man was in his late thirties maybe. Inside, the house was clean, with furniture that looked like it had been picked out from a catalogue. No dogs barking or rushing to the door, no cat at his feet.

When Credence met the man’s eyes, he felt a strong jolt in his gut, a profound instinct of sameness about him, in some way he couldn’t fully conceive. The dark thing residing inside Credence was maybe the dark thing in this man, too.

His hands began to tremble as they did when he was scared, but this didn’t feel like fear so much as a heady thrill he didn’t understand. “Hello, my name is Credence. I am calling on you and your neighbors with an interesting article.” He handed over a copy of The Watchtower. “I am wondering if you would be interested in reading this.”

The man looked from Credence’s face, trained into benign blankness, to his outstretched arm. He opened his mouth to reply, but a voice from inside said, “Percy! Shut the damn door and get back here!”

“I’m sorry,” the man, Percy, said to Credence. Most people apologized in an empty way, but Credence believed this Percy, believed he wanted to hear the whole spiel, maybe invite him inside. He believed in this man’s kindness. “This is really a bad time.”

Before Percy could shut the door, Credence asked, “Is there a better time I could come back?”

“Percy!” the man’s voice shouted again.

“Yeah, sure, tomorrow I guess.” Then he shut the door.

***

Credence got lost on his way home. The night had started settling in earlier, and lacking a watch, he lost track of time. The woods wound differently than they had on his way to the trainset town. He found himself stumbling as the sun set, looking to his feet to guide him over fallen branches, not noticing when he started veering too far east or west. He made it home well past nightfall, stopping prior to the wood’s edge to take six Watchtowers out of his bag and hide them in a hollow trunk so Mama would think he had distributed more of them than he really had.

When he entered, the house smelled like burnt canned soup and his sisters had already gone to bed. Mama was waiting for him at the kitchen table still in her work clothes, a blue jumpsuit with her name embroidered on a white patch below the factory’s logo. She looked tired, harrowed like she always did at the end of a ten hour shift.

“Where were you?” she asked, staring at a point straight ahead instead of at him, instead of acknowledging the scratches and sweat, the half-empty bag in his hands.

“Out servicing,” he said, uselessly. He’d be punished anyway. “I went to a new place. Got lost on my way back.”

“You weren’t listening to Him. You have to let Him guide you.” She shook her head slowly as she said this, and it hurt worse than the beating he would soon receive, to know he had not only disappointed her but Jehovah too, that he relied too heavily on his own sense of direction than that of a power higher than him.

“I know, Mama. I’m sorry.” He put his bag down gently by the door and reached for his belt.

***

They lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the bad part of town, halfway between the Kingdom Hall and factory. Credence shared a bedroom with his two little sisters. The two of them slept on a full-size bed and he had a small futon cushion in the corner, for which he was grateful. Frequent night emissions meant he had to scrub his sheets clean multiple times a week while his sisters were at school. He prayed as he did it, pled for the darkness in him to be taken away, gutted out so he could be clean and good and worthy like his elders at the Kingdom Hall.

Mama had done him a favor and only beat his back this time, which meant he could lie on his side without pain. Though the throbbing thrummed around him like electricity, he found it soothing, the steady beat of his pulse through the welts in his body. It felt almost as if he were being held by someone whose touch was agony. He thought about Percy, the man who had welcomed him to return tomorrow, the strange sense of darkness in him. He carefully crafted the image in his head—broad shoulders, tan skin, two day stubble peppered across his jaw, deep set eyes. Credence poured over the short memory, deconstructing and rebuilding it. In the quiet of his mind, the piece of himself he kept away from Jehovah, he let his thoughts shamefully spiral out and engulf him. The distraction helped ease the pain; he found himself excited for the day to come, to return to the man’s home and leave a book for him, maybe talk to him a while. Maybe he could even convert Percy and invite him to the Kingdom Hall to help banish his darkness. The thought coupled with the pain of his welts made it difficult to settle, but the exhaustion of his day’s walk crept over him, and he fell asleep.

***

The next morning he was awakened by his alarm before the sun could rise, four thirty. He dressed, muscles aching from yesterday and body sore from the beating, but his spirit felt light. No emissions to worry about, and Mama was always in a good mood after a particularly stern beating. He had faith that he’d get to see Percy again.

First he made lunches for all three of them, paper bags lined in a row filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chopped carrots that he’d harvested from the garden out back. He even drew a secret smiley face on Modesty’s napkin. He hoped she would know what it meant, because he didn’t know how to write the words, I hope you have a good day. He put three copies of Awake! in each bag for them to distribute to their peers.

Next came breakfast, ten minutes before Mama’s waking time. He was setting her plate of eggs and toast on the table with her coffee as she trudged into the kitchen. She didn’t look at him or speak to him as she silently prayed and then ate, acting as always as if her food had divinely manifested. Shortly after she left for work, taking her lunch sack and not saying goodbye, his sisters came down to eat their breakfasts too, and the three of them walked together to the bus stop down the road. The sun was rising now, a timid blue contrasting against the orange leaves. He waved them off and waited until the bus had turned down the next street before bolting back home.

He did his chores as fast as he could—scrubbing dishes, folding the laundry drying across the shower curtain which he had washed in the bathtub to save money at the laundromat, preparing dinner so this time if he was late Mama could just pop it in the oven instead of attempting to cook. It might make his beating less severe, maybe mitigate it entirely if she enjoyed the meal well enough.

He left the house at noon and sped through the journey, undeterred by the rough terrain or the chill wind that came from dark clouds overhead. He could smell rain in the air but had forgotten an umbrella. Soon he lost feeling at the tip of his nose and his thin jacket did little to keep out the cold. His hands could stay warm in his pockets, but he frequently needed them for balance, to brace himself as he climbed over logs and crossed babbling streams.

Finally he made it to the trainset town. The rain had begun to fall in heavy sheets, and Credence had to tuck his bag of books under his jacket to keep them from getting wet. He normally told time by the position of the sun, but it was still hidden behind clouds. He guessed a couple hours had passed, and he realized in his rush to leave he’d forgotten to eat or bring water. Dehydration and hunger coupled with the rough fabric of his shirt scratching painfully against his new welts distracted him but did not deter him. When he got to Percy’s house, the nice car was no longer there, and his heart sunk. Perhaps he’d come too early or too late, perhaps Percy had lied to him about returning. Perhaps Credence had gotten it all wrong.

He rang the doorbell, a nervous jitter in his belly. No shouting today. Complete silence. Credence waited, and waited a bit longer, and rang the bell again. He felt a lump rise in his throat that he swallowed down—he didn’t cry anymore. Mama had beaten all the tears out of him years ago. He clenched his jaw and rang the doorbell again.

He continued waiting what felt like years, and eventually turned away to go back home. Just as he reached the steps, he heard the lock turn and the door open.

He turned around to see Percy, soaking wet, naked but for a towel wrapped around his hips. A disdainful expression too, but Credence couldn’t keep his eyes off the rivulets of water cascading down Percy’s chest, which was peppered in dark hair that narrowed into a thin trail down his flat stomach. He looked like someone who might be on one of the magazines Credence tended to stare at too long while in line at the grocery.

Credence swallowed thickly. A damp Watchtower was clutched in his fist. He was shivering and starving and thirsty, but he managed, “Hello—I—my name is—”

“Credence,” Percy said. “Yeah, you came by yesterday.”

“Is now also a bad time?”

“No, jesus, it’s freezing out there, come on in.” He moved aside to let Credence enter. “Have a seat, let me get dressed and I’ll get you something to drink, alright?”

He had a slight accent Credence couldn’t place, New York maybe, from what little television he watched. Percy ran up the stairs, but Credence didn’t take a seat because he didn’t want to get the couch wet. He looked around while he waited, whole body shaking with dissipating cold and increasing anxiety. The place was large and spacious and clean. He bet the fridge was full of food, and nice plates and silverware were tucked away in cabinets and drawers. Maybe he even had a washer and dryer.

A few minutes later, Percy returned, hair still wet but wearing a white t-shirt and soft gray pants. He had a folded towel in his hands and he gave it over to Credence as he gestured to the couch. “Come on, really, have a seat. I don’t mind.”

Credence dropped his bag by the door and took off his jacket to hang on a peg. His shirt and pants weren’t too soaked, but he unfolded the towel and draped it around his shoulders anyway for warmth, then took a seat on the overstuffed couch that felt like it was eating him.

“What’s your poison?” Percy called as he walked toward the kitchen. “Beer? Wine? Scotch?”

“Um, I don’t. I don’t drink.”

“How about some hot cocoa then?”

Credence couldn’t see him but his deep voice echoed through the house easily. “That’d be nice, thank you.”

There was a small fire burning in the fireplace, and above the mantel were framed pictures. The largest in the center, housed in a silver frame, included two men in tuxedos kissing each other, one of whom looked like a younger Percy. The other man was a dapper looking blonde. In another photo, the blonde was laughing; he had the kind of smile that belonged on billboards or Wall Street.

The image startled Credence. He’d never seen two men kissing before, let alone so outwardly as to have their picture purposefully taken doing it. All he knew of homosexuality was that it was a sin, and often Mama would refer to homosexuals she saw on TV as cruel words he didn’t know the exact meaning of but which hurt him viscerally, worse than the physical beatings. She talked at the television, but with the same level of resentful vitriol as she used toward him.

Percy returned with a steaming cup of cocoa and set it on a coaster on the coffee table, then took a seat beside Credence. “Alright, let’s hear what you’ve got.”

No one had ever welcomed him so openly. He wondered if it was a prank of some kind, if the yelling man would come out and assault him. But Percy’s face was too welcome, too kind.

So he began again, “Hello, my name is Credence. I am calling on you and your neighbors with an interesting article.” He handed over the wet book still clutched in his hand. “I am wondering if you would be interested in reading this.”

Percy smiled in a way that made Credence feel something strange in his stomach. “Why don’t you give me the Cliffnotes version.”

“I—” Credence had never gotten to this point in the script. His job was to disburse the truth, not speak it. That was the job of the elders. He looked at the book, the familiar illustration of sunlight through parted clouds. “We believe—the Kingdom Hall is—Jehovah wants us to—”

“Why don’t you just read it to me?” Percy offered.

With shaking hands, Credence opened the book, praying for a miracle that the strange shapes etched inside would somehow become coherent to him, that he would be able to recognize more than the words Bible , Jehovah, and Satan.

“I don’t.” He took a breath and tried again.“I can’t read.”

“Oh,” Percy said softly, not unkindly, not with judgment or ridicule.

“I didn’t—I never learned.”

Credence couldn’t look at Percy, could only imagine the pitying look on his face. He’d never told anyone before, never admitted it aloud. Sometimes he thought Mama even forgot from time to time, when she’d ask him to retrieve something he didn’t recognize by shape and color alone but was labeled somehow, and he’d hopelessly tell her he couldn’t.

Percy reached out and put a hand on Credence’s arm, which had slipped out from the protection of the towel. A pattern of whitened scars ran down the length of it from the ghosts of thin switches that used to be Mama’s implement of choice. His hand felt big and warm and unfamiliar—Credence could not remember the last time anyone had touched him. Brushes of hands between cashiers. A nudge of a knee on the bus. Brief warmth of Modesty’s neck as he’d fix a twisted collar.

Percy’s thumb ran over one of the scars. “How old are you, Credence?”

“Twenty-one.”

“And you still live with your mother?”

He nodded.

“May I ask why you don’t leave?”

The idea had occurred to him, one of his hidden thoughts that he allowed himself in the middle of the night or as he completed his mindless chores: running away, living on his own, having a job. “I...never went to school. My mother—she let my sisters go because she believes Jehovah protects them, but said she wanted to keep me close. That I had Satan in me, and education would only empower him to escape. I don’t have anywhere to go.”

“And she hurts you,” Percy added. His voice was low again, soft like it had been before. He shifted closer, reached up and swiped some hair from Credence’s brow. Credence thought he might burn out of his skin, two intimate touches in a single day. Warm kindness and cocoa. He had never known such generosity.

He nodded, though he was ashamed to admit it, as if divulging a secret.

“Show me,” Percy said.

Credence shifted on the sofa and lifted his shirt up to expose the welts across his back.

“Oh my god—is this...a belt?”

“Yes,” Credence said. His voice sounded broken. Tears welled in his eyes; he was just as ashamed of them as he was the wounds over his body, evidence of Satan’s attempted escape, evidence of Credence’s weakness to keep the darkness at bay. “But it’s my fault.”

“There is nothing you could have done to earn such scorn, Credence. This is the shape of merciless cruelty.”

That couldn’t be true. The pain had always been for his own good.

“Would you let me—could I treat these for you?” Percy asked. “I have a first aid kit upstairs.”

He didn’t want the wounds to heal. He wanted to bear them forever as a sign of his continual repentance. But he also didn't want to leave. “Okay."

***

Credence sat on the closed toilet lid. The bathroom was bigger than his living room at home. The shower had two heads for some reason, one on each side, and Credence couldn’t fathom why that might be useful. Percy returned with a first aid kit in hand and sat on the ledge of the tub. Credence twisted to the side and lifted up his shirt again.

“No bandages please,” he said. “My mother might see them and ask where I got them.”

“Couldn’t you tell her the truth?”

“She’d just say I was seeking sympathy from my demonkind.”

“Christ,” Percy muttered, and then, “shit, sorry. Don’t mean to use the Lord’s name in vain like that.”

“It’s alright,” Credence replied. He hissed inward through his teeth as the alcohol-saturated cotton ball blotted the dried blood on his back.

“You’re okay, you’re okay,” Percy said soothingly. “Won’t take long.”

Credence gritted his teeth through the sharp burning sensation. He prided himself on his ability to manage pain, but this was a brand new feeling, a cleansing feeling. Periodically, Percy would stroke him over a patch of skin that wasn’t wounded, his side, his arm. The touch tickled and warmed him, made him crave the dark desires even more, the spiral thoughts that involved lips and teeth and tongues, the heated arousal Credence could remember from some of his dreams.

“There, all done,” Percy said. He threw the last cotton ball into the trash can. Credence marked how bloody the small pile of them had become and lowered his shirt back down, twisted right again on the toilet seat.

Percy reached up and touched his cheek, a soft caress that made Credence close his eyes and lean into it. “You’re a good boy, you know that? A good, strong boy.”

A strange thing to say, Credence thought, but it felt right in the hazy cloud he was floating in.

Percy carded his fingers through Credence’s hair. “You look like you haven’t eaten in weeks. How about I fix us something? You like cheeseburgers?”

“I’ve never had one,” Credence admitted. His voice sounded like it came from miles away.

“Never had a cheeseburger? Alright, I’ll cook you up the best burger you’ll ever eat to make up for all the ones you haven’t.”

Credence didn’t want this to end, didn’t want Percy to stop touching him. The porcelain fragility of the moment shattering for the sake of something so petty as food. Credence wondered if Percy might kiss him the way he kissed the man in the photograph. He wondered if he would let him, if that was how Satan would finally escape. He wondered if that would be such a bad thing after all.

***

Credence eyed Percy carefully from a stool in the kitchen. He had finally dried, and he felt warm, and he drank two whole cups of cocoa and three glasses of ice water. Percy offered him snacks in the form of a cookie jar that looked like a honeypot. The cookies were soft and sweet and full of chocolate chunks. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d tasted such sweetness. He mostly ate canned or frozen food, vegetables and fruits he’d managed to jar and pickle from the prior harvest. Bread that he’d made from flour, water, salt, and yeast that he would use to sop up all the leftover juices from whatever meal he’d prepared.

A silver ring on Percy’s left ring finger caught his attention. He coupled it with the picture, and remembered hearing from a news station his mother had abruptly turned off that men could marry each other now.

“The man shouting yesterday,” he began, navigating the situation with tact he’d never properly learned. “Is that your husband?”

“He is,” Percy replied. He flipped the sizzling pink rounds of beef to the other side. “For now. We’re separated.”

Credence didn’t know what to say in these situations. The outright homosexuality should have made him more uncomfortable than it did, and it scared him, his lack of compulsion to warn Percy of sin. It started shaping the darkness into something real, something that needed to be faced instead of pushed out of sight.

They sat at a small round table that had red-checkered placemats and fabric napkins. Percy had given him a cup of milk that was so cold it condensated the glass. The burger was bigger than Credence’s mouth could cover, and the rest of the plate was full of golden french fries shaped like wedges.

“Would you like to say grace or should I?” Credence asked.

“Oh,” Percy said, setting down the fry in his hand. “You go ahead.”

Credence reached across the table and held his hands out. His family didn’t hold hands during grace, but he thought he might be able to get away with this small trespass under the guise of believing physical touch might persuade Percy closer to the light.

Once Percy grasped his hands, another jolt of searing electricity ran up Credence’s spine in delight. He closed his eyes and said, “Our Father Jehovah in heaven, I come before you in Jesus Christ’s name. We thank you Father for sending Jesus to give us the undiluted bread from heaven as you feed us from your word. Amen.”

“Amen,” Percy replied, and let go of Credence’s hands.

Credence lifted the hefty burger and bit into it. It was more flavorful than anything he’d ever tasted before—juicy and warm, a mix of bold tastes that were so divinely pleasurable he thought surely cheeseburgers must too be a sin.

“So do you enjoy that—saying grace?” Percy asked as he ate a fry.

The question confused him. “What does enjoyment matter? It’s required.”

“But I mean, if it weren’t required, would you still do it?”

“If something isn’t required, it’s most likely a sin. I try to only do things that are asked of me.”

“So you don’t have hobbies or interests or anything?”

“Jehovah is my interest.”

“Aside from that. Do you play any sports or watch movies? Do you have friends?”

“No,” Credence admitted. “I take care of my family, the way Jehovah wills it.”

“Does that ever get...dull? Frustrating? Always doing what you’re told?”

“I…” Credence began. He ate a fry as he thought. He was already full but the food tasted so good he wanted to keep eating, in case he’d never get another meal like this again. “I’d never considered it that way. I’m guided by my sense of duty and purpose.”

“I guess my question is—if Jehovah granted you a day off, a day where you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?”

“I’d come here again,” Credence said without thinking. He immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry, I—”

Percy laughed. “That’s a pretty high compliment. You’re saying you’d want to come back?”

“Yes, I would. I’d love to read The Watchtower to you, if you’d—if you’d teach me.” He lowered his gaze in shame. Asking a stranger for such a favor was absurd and rude. If Mama were here she would surely drag him away and whip him for being so crass.

“I’d like that.”

Credence jerked his head up. “You would?”

“Yeah, I would. I’m on, well, to be blunt, I’m on suspension from work so I’ve got a bit of time on my hands. Why not?”

Tears again. Credence bit them back, swallowed the bite he’d been chewing and set his burger back down.

“Hey, hey.” Percy reached across the table to grasp his hand again. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve just.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve never had someone be so kind to me.”

Percy squeezed his hand and offered a warm smile. It created little crinkles at the sides of his eyes. Credence wanted to fall into that smile, let it capture him and take him away from all the suffering of fighting the darkness every day. He made Credence believe that maybe the darkness wasn’t dark at all, maybe it was something that could be accepted, that he could turn into lightness with enough discipline and practice, the way he learned how to knead dough and tend the garden and scrub the dirt from clothes. Maybe the darkness wasn’t something that needed hidden at all.

“You’re a good boy,” Percy said again. The words made it feel like Credence could finally breathe after a lifetime of suffocation. “You deserve a good friend.”

***

Mama was still in a good mood when he got home. He didn’t get lost this time, but he had to put eight books in the hollow log. She kept count of the ones teetering in stacks on the bookshelves in the living room, made Credence and his sisters list out how many they gave away before they went to the Kingdom Hall each week. When he entered, she was watching television in her favorite chair. He tried to slip past her notice, but she said, “Out servicing again?” He could tell by her voice she was mostly cheerful and preoccupied—she must have enjoyed dinner, and was still riding the righteous high of last night’s whipping.

He froze. “Yes, Mama.” Then he ventured to add some of reality to make tomorrow go easier: “I spent most of the day talking to a man who seemed interested in learning more about the truth. He wants me to come back tomorrow.”

She nodded as she made sucking noise on a piece of hard candy. “Alright. Just be sure to have dinner ready for us in the evening. Remember, you’re not to preach, just give him enough to lead him toward his own salvation.”

“Yes, Mama. I understand.”

“Good. Now get to bed. No dinner.”

“Yes, Mama,” he said again, and went to bed.

***

The spiral thoughts overtook him faster than normal—the ghosts of Percy’s touch on his body, the grasp of their hands, the dark looks that Credence surely didn’t just imagine. Being told he was a good boy, that he deserved kindness and generosity. He couldn’t take himself in hand, that was a sin for which he could never atone, but he could lie on his belly, sheets clenched into fists under his pillow, and rock his hips against the cushion. Slow, so as to not make any noise that might wake his sisters. Trapped between his stomach and the warm sheets, growing slicker by the moment. He imagined Percy’s touch trailing lower, dipping into his pants and stroking him with gentle fingers, lips pressed against his neck as he told Credence how good he was, what a special boy.

He bit his tongue to keep from panting as he ground against the mattress, movements shuddering, sinful pleasure shooting through him, images moving faster, one after the next—Percy naked and wet like Credence had seen earlier, Percy stroking his own himself while thinking of Credence, Percy letting Credence put his mouth on him. His body stilled and tensed, jaw falling open and eyes squeezed shut, balanced on the brink—

No. He couldn’t, he couldn’t—he forced himself to stop. To turn on his back and revel in the agony of his lashes to abate the pleasure roiling in him. He knew he’d wake up to messy sheets tomorrow with no memory of having soiled them, but it would be worth it to know he’d staved off a climax for the sake of his lifelong promise to Jehovah. That he’d denied the darkness one more day.

***

Saturday, another morning of fixing breakfasts, Mama off to work overtime, walking his sisters to Bible study, rushing even faster through his chores. He nearly ran to Percy’s house, tripped on branches, completely forgot his bag. He made it in what he perceived to be record time based on the position of the sun, which indicated it was only a little after noon. He rang the doorbell twice in his eagerness and bounced on the balls of his feet as he waited.

It didn’t take as long today for Percy to open the door. When he saw Credence he smiled widely and said, “I was wondering when you’d show up. Come on in, I’m just making lunch.”

He fixed turkey sandwiches piled high with fresh vegetables and condiments, potato chips and something called dill dip. He offered Credence Coca-Cola in a real glass bottle and they talked about simple things, what Credence’s daily life was like, that Percy was trying to retain some semblance of a routine outside of the constraints of his job.

“What do—did you do?” Credence asked.

“I’m a cop.”

Credence opened his mouth to ask another question, but Percy cut him off: “Can you pass me that bag of chips over there?”

After lunch, they washed the dishes together in amiable silence, elbows brushing periodically, Credence’s gaze on Percy’s muscular arms, the way his biceps strained against his shirt. Credence was so used to the slightness of femininity, and here was the personification of the opposite yet no less graceful for it. When Percy reached up to put a dried plate away, his shirt exposed sharp hip bones, more of the enticing thatch of dark hair above the waistline of his jeans, and suddenly Credence felt the burning inside him again, the overwhelming force that nearly overtook him last night. He could feel his face begin to flush, and he had to look away.

Percy made them two cups of cocoa and they retired to the living room. Credence fell into the same sleepy haze as yesterday, happy to do what he was told. They took a seat on the couch, where Percy had gotten out a pad of paper and a pen. He sat so close that the sides of their bodies lined up, his presence warm and solid, a gravitational pull of which Credence didn’t want to fight.

“Do you know the alphabet?” he asked.

“No,” Credence admitted, still feeling a little ashamed, as if knowing the alphabet was a skill most people were born with.

“Okay, we’ll start with that.” He clicked the top of the pen and drew two lines converging into an apex with a line crossing them in the middle. “This is an A. It makes the ahh sound, like apple, or the ay sound, like gate.”

Credence nodded. Percy drew the next letter, a vertical stick with two half-circles lined up on the side. “This is a B. It makes the buh sound, like in boy.”

“Like me.”

“Like you. A good boy.”

They continued through all the letters and then Credence practiced going back through them one at a time, sounding them out. He got them all right on the second try.

“Wow, look at that,” Percy said. He reached up and cupped Credence’s face in his hand, thumbed over his cheekbone. “You’re smart as a whip.”

“You—really?”

“Definitely. You’ll be reading Faulkner by next week.”

Credence didn’t know who that was, but he liked the feeling of Percy’s hand on him, the way he looked at him, fondly and with a kind of adoration no one had ever directed toward him. “No one’s ever called me smart before.”

Percy’s hand moved to Credence’s hair, combing through it, methodical movement over his scalp that was as mesmerizing as it was soothing. “Hey, we should celebrate. How about some champagne?”

“I—I don’t know,” Credence said. He could already feel his willpower crumbling, the darkness taking over. He’d been able to keep it at bay the night before, but it became increasingly difficult the longer he spent with Percy, inside Percy’s own special kind of light that was so different than that of the Kingdom Hall.

“It might be nice. A reward. How about this,” Percy said, voice still low, sweet as honey and just as golden, “we’ll go through the alphabet again, and for every letter you get correct, you can take a small sip.”

Credence had taken sips of alcohol before; having been baptised as a Jehovah’s Witness, he was allowed Eucharist at the Kingdom Hall. In that context, a sip was a symbol of consuming something greater, the blood of Christ. Though champagne was not the blood of Christ, it was still a means of absolution from the blindness of illiteracy.

He nodded. Percy touched their foreheads together and said, “That’s my good boy. Trying new things.”

And then he was gone, disappearing into the kitchen. Credence let out a long breath, limbs weak from the fog of Percy’s presence, body fired with an all-over flush. He couldn’t believe this was happening. He could feel the darkness seeping out of his pores.

Percy returned a moment later with two glasses of fizzing liquid. He handed one to Credence and said, “Just one glass for now, alright? We’ll see where that gets us.”

He put the alphabet pad on his lap and pointed to the letter A.

“A,” Credence said. “Apple.”

“Good. You want a sip?”

He did. It tasted like a strange version of the Coca-Cola he’d drank earlier, but he liked it, liked the warmth that spread up into him from his belly with every letter he got right, every sip he took, all the way to his fingers and toes.

When he’d successfully completed the alphabet they put the glasses back on the table. “Now how do you feel?”

“Good,” Credence said, even though it sounded stupid. It was true.

Percy was sitting so close to him, his arm around the back of the couch, other hand on his knee, all attention on Credence. The touching, the affection—it felt like drinking a glass of water after a long day of gardening in the middle of summer, except he didn’t think this kind of thirst could ever be satiated.

“Have you ever been touched, Credence?” As he said this, he trailed his hand a little higher, to mid-thigh. Credence could feel his pants get tighter, and he clasped his hands over his growing erection to maintain some sense of propriety.

“No—not like I think you mean it.” A wave of heat ran over his body just by alluding to it.

Percy inched closer, breath at the side of Credence’s necks, lips so close to touching skin. “You know how I mean it. Would you like me to touch you?”

He didn’t know what to say. Everything he’d ever been taught was telling him to say no, run away, go home and kneel by Mama while she read Foundations to him. The life he’d always known. The life he’d go back to after this. The other half of him, the shadow of Satan always following him, urging him to sin, wanted more. Wanted to feel Percy’s hands and mouth, touch his private places, help bring him to release. Explore the new kind of light he’d learned at the hands of Percy’s kindness, a new savior found in the gentle touch of a gracious man.

“You can say no, baby,” Percy said. The new name felt like a bolt of ice over his skin, a pleasant chill that became immediately addictive. He wanted to hear it again. “I don’t mind. Take your time.”

He’d already sinned so much just by being here—he hadn’t once brought up the waterlogged copy of The Watchtower staring at them from the coffee table, hadn’t invited Percy to the Kingdom Hall, hadn’t felt anything resembling condemnation toward Percy’s homosexual lifestyle. In fact he’d bought into it, began identifying with it, the darkness, as if it were part of him and not a tumor that needed removed. He had failed Jehovah today.

The champagne had made it harder to say no to Satan’s wishes, so he found himself saying, almost begging, “Yes, please.”

Percy tilted Credence’s chin toward him and pressed their lips together. Soft, gentle, nearly chaste were it not two men doing it. Credence was so surprised he couldn’t react at all but to stop breathing, heart thudding rapidly against his chest. Percy pulled away and said, “Just relax, okay? I’m going to take care of you.”

Then he kissed Credence again, longer this time, deeper. Credence did as he was told and relaxed into it, parted his lips and allowed Percy’s tongue to touch his own. Against his own volition or conscious consideration, he began kissing back, mimetic movements, hand reaching up to desperately clutch Percy’s shirt and drag him closer. The kiss tasted like champagne and salvation; Credence thought this was what he should have been feeling in the Kingdom Hall this whole time. This feeling was what it meant to truly know Jehovah. To be accepted into the heart of Christ. This had to be the truth, and everything else was a lie.

Percy’s hand trailed up the length of Credence’s thigh until his palm cupped his erection and ground down. Credence broke the kiss to gasp, and Percy took the opportunity to trail kisses down his throat, murmuring, “Such a quick learner.”

He unbuckled Credence’s belt, a sound he had previously associated with pain but now perhaps pleasure, unbuttoned his pants and dipped his hand inside. Flesh on flesh, stroking his hardness with teasing touches that made Credence want to scream for more, or maybe less, or maybe just moan brokenly until the darkness finally ruined him.

“I’ve never—” Credence began.

Percy shushed him. “It’s okay, baby. Just relax. Let me take care of you.”

Credence let the pleasure wash over him, head thrown back on the couch, unaware of the gasping panted noises he made. He clutched Percy’s arm with one hand and gripped the couch cushion with the other. His mind went completely blank as he indulged in all the things he’d spent his whole life rallying against, the part of himself he’d squashed into the furthest inch of him, blossoming into something else entirely, something beautiful and pleasurable, something worth seeing. Something worth being.

He felt the build-up again, the tightness coiling inside him. The feeling he always brought to the peak and then tapered back. The explosions of his dreams, the shameful sticky sheets. “I’m—” he began. He lacked the words to say what he needed to say, to beg for Percy to continue, faster. He ventured a look downward to see his own cock, near purple and leaking a steady stream into Percy’s palm. His hand looked enormous by comparison.

“That’s right, sweetheart, go ahead. Whenever you want.” Percy laid encouraging kisses on Credence’s cheek and chin, down his neck, nipping lightly at the sensitive flesh of his throat. Credence could feel his stubble running against him, a stinging rasp that set him alight.

A sharp inhale, and then he reached the point of no return, no turning onto his back and letting the shame take over, a leap into the unknown: one more stroke and he came, shouting God’s name in the worst kind of vanity for the sake of the most sinful of deeds. He could feel his cock pulsing against Percy’s strong fist, filling it, listening to the nonsensical praises whispered in his ear, what a good boy, my good boy, beautiful boy. He wasn’t any of those things but he wanted to be; he wanted to be good for Percy in a way he could never be for Jehovah.

His body melted into the couch. Percy kissed him again, lazy this time. Credence felt so obliterated it felt normal, to be kissed and adored, to feel satisfaction over shame, pleasure over pain.

“Why don’t we go upstairs,” Percy murmured.

“Okay,” Credence said.

***

Upstairs, Percy kissed him again, hands on either side of Credence’s face. Now that their bodies were lined up toe to chest, Credence could feel every blessed hard bit of him, the breadth of his strength. He made quick work of taking off Credence’s clothes, running his hands all over his battered body. He made soft clucking noises for every scar and wound he came across, the stripes of Credence’s lament.

He laid Credence down on his stomach across the neatly made bed, lights dim. The sheets felt cool underneath him, the mattress soft. He didn’t know such comfort was possible.

“If I do anything you don’t like, I want you to tell me, okay?” Percy asked.

“Okay,” Credence said, muffled in against the bed.

A finger trailing down the marks on his back. “These are healing well already.” Then a dip in the mattress, Percy’s thighs straddling his, clothed, the rough denim of his jeans scratching his sensitive skin. A departure of touch and then the feeling of a liquid cooling sensation on his back, the smell of lavender. Percy’s strong hands kneading carefully over the healed scars and avoiding the new ones. It was the best feeling Credence had ever encountered.

Percy’s hands trailed lower, to the base of his spine and then his buttocks, massaging the lotion into his skin. Credence’s pulse picked up and he tensed a little as Percy’s thumbs delved closer to his anus with each circle of movement. He found himself moaning, getting aroused again, feeling Satan guiding him into the desire for sodomy, an act he’d only encountered in elicit illustrations that he later fantasized about from the mild privacy of his futon mattress.

His thighs and ass felt slick, bereft of all the tension he didn’t realize had built in them. He felt lost in the emptiness of his thoughts again, idly shifting his renewed erection against the bedspread. Percy’s thumbs occasionally swiped over his asshole which made him gasp and writhe even more. The lotion that had seeped into his welts stung a little, but that heightened the sensation of pleasure somehow, like salt could sometimes make fruit sweeter.

He heard the drop of a zipper and his breath stilled in anticipation.

“I’m not going to hurt you, okay?” Percy said.

Credence nodded, then felt the hard length of Percy’s cock sliding between his asscheeks. He could feel his hips thrusting against his ass, hands on either side of Credence’s hips pressing him together. “Just like that, baby,” Percy said. “So good for me.”

The head of his cock brushed against Credence’s rim and gave him a shock of pleasure. He cried out with the overwhelming need to be filled, to have Percy inside of him.

“Again,” he begged. “Please.”

Percy pressed against him again, this time with more intent, not hard enough to breach him but poised to do so. Credence welcomed the sense of intrusion, felt himself grow fully hard again, and reached underneath him to grab his own cock and stroke in time with Percy’s thrusts. He’d never touched himself intimately before, only clinically, out of necessity. He found his own hand soft and small in comparison to Percy’s.

“Here,” Percy said, “on your back.” He rolled Credence over. “I want to look at you.”

Credence went willingly, though this position made him aware of how much he had leaked a filthy stream onto his own belly, how dressed Percy still was, how much shame he should be feeling for doing this; the real shame was that he didn’t feel anything but blind, all-consuming desire. He could see Percy’s cock now, thicker and longer than his own, sticking out of the open fly of his jeans which had sunk down below his hip bones. The visual validation that he was so hard because of his attraction to Credence gave him more satisfaction than kneeling in repentance at the Kingdom Hall.

Percy slipped the belt from the loops of Credence’s discarded pants. He must have seen the concern in his eyes, because he said, “Trust me.”

He lifted Credence’s legs and pushed them together, then placed his calves over his shoulder and wrapped the belt around his thighs. He pulled it tight and clasped the buckle at the smallest hole. Then he slid his dick between Credence’s slicked legs, a couple inches above his balls, holding his legs and thrusting into them.

“Oh,” Credence said. “Oh god.” Blasphemy as a benediction. It felt good to be of use like this, to be used like this. He grasped his own cock again and tugged at it, always so close to the edge but not ready to go over it. His toes started tingling numb; he could feel the sweaty skin of Percy’s hips slamming into the backs of his thighs. Credence’s whole body flushed over, high keening noises escaping his throat.

Percy’s movements grew erratic, gasped grunts as he ebbed closer. His meticulously slicked back hair fell around his face, cheeks tipped red from exertion, mouth open, eyes squeezed shut. The sight alone pushed Credence over the edge, and he cried out, back arching, come shooting onto his stomach and chest and neck.

“Jesus,” Percy moaned, then stilled, breath stopped, and Credence felt his cock throbbing against his inner thighs, hot wetness spilling out onto his legs. His movements stilled and the come trailed down onto Credence’s cock which he was still stroking.  

Percy unbuckled the belt around Credence’s thighs and blood rushed back into his feet. He lowered his legs and climbed up to kiss him, roughly and with a sense of possessiveness, hand clamped around his chin. “So beautiful,” he murmured between kisses. “Such a good boy. You did so well.”

Credence let himself be kissed and doted on, wiped clean and kissed some more.

“What can I get for you?” Percy asked. “What do you need?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never felt this good before,” Credence replied. “It feels greedy to ask for anything more.”

“How about another cup of cocoa?” Percy moved to leave but Credence grasped his arm.

“I don’t want you to leave.”

Percy kissed him, a quick peck on the lips. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

Credence let go and said, “Okay.”

Percy got out of bed and pulled up his pants as he left the room. Credence stared at the doorway waiting to return, but his eyelids began to feel heavy, so he closed them. Before Percy could come back, the pull of sleep had dragged him under.

***

Credence awoke hours later to a the strange sound of light snoring in his ear. He tried to shift but a heavy arm had him pinned; it took him several seconds to come to full wakefulness and realize he was being held. It felt so good he didn’t want to leave, but the clock by the bed read two in the morning. Mama had taught him his numbers, counting, addition and subtraction, and telling time so he could do his chores more efficiently.

He began to panic—it was possible Mama went to bed already and wouldn’t notice he didn’t come home, but she might have also waited up for him, and he couldn’t think of a lie good enough to avoid the inevitable interrogation of his whereabouts.

He slid out from under Percy’s arm and dressed hurriedly without waking him. He wished he could leave a detailed note, but instead settled on flipping the page of the alphabet pad and drawing a steeple on it. Underneath it he drew seven boxes in a row, the first of which had an X on it and the second a checkmark. It meant, I have worship tomorrow, but I’ll be back on Monday. Then he left the house and shut the door quietly behind him.

It had been good weather on his walk to the trainset town but now he could see his own breath and his flimsy jacket wasn’t enough to keep him warm. The moon wasn’t out tonight either, so the woods were nearly pitch black and he had to navigate by feel. Every time he reached a clearing, he looked at the stars to guide him in the right direction.

He eventually made it home just as the sun was rising, hours after he’d have to wake up if it were a weekday. His mother was already in bed. He trudged quietly into the bedroom and collapsed onto his futon mattress.

“Psst,” came a voice from the other bed. Then a whisper: “Where were you?” Modesty. Chastity was a heavy sleeper.

“Out servicing,” he muttered. He hated lying, especially to Modesty, but the less she knew about this situation, the less she could be incriminated for protecting him.

“In the middle of the night?”

“At least people are home.”

She didn’t reply, but the tense silence in the air said she didn’t believe him. She wouldn’t tell Mama about his late arrival, though he got the impression her stern judgment was a way of saying, Don’t let it happen again.

His alarm went off at seven. He went about his morning chores, making sure everyone’s Sunday best was clean and read for worship later. He prepared a big breakfast with eggs and bacon and potatoes, the expensive food they only allowed themselves on their days of worship. He made his own plate, and sat down to listen to Mama say grace, a much longer version than his own, in which she mentioned by name all the brothers and sisters who were doing more poorly than them, and praying that her selfish children would soon learn to be thankful for what they had.

She seemed overly cheerful despite there being no beatings in a few days, which made Credence suspicious that she knew he’d stayed out too late and a whipping was waiting for him after worship.

They all walked together to the Kingdom Hall, another nice day though cloudy and slightly chilly. As always, Credence walked a few paces behind, training to cast his gaze downward toward his feet for the next several hours. When they arrived at the Kingdom Hall, he listened to Mama flirt with a strange brother who must have been new, Chastity gossip with other girls her age, Modesty group up with the youngest of the parish. Credence was, as usual, left alone and ignored; the kindest of the community considered him mentally handicapped, the cruelest threw around words they thought he couldn’t hear and which he pretended not to let hurt him.

He stood with a hymnal in hand and pretended to read the words on it, even though he had to learn all the lyrics by ear. After the morning prayer was the sermon, which was about lies—the sin of the malicious lie, the forgiveness of a misguided lie, the lies we tell others to avoid hurting them, the lies we tell ourselves to avoid the truth. The lies of the unanointed to themselves as they denied Jehovah God entrance into their hearts, how they would never be granted immortality because of their lies. Lies, lies, lies.

Everything about Credence was a lie; he imagined the stack of books in the hollowed log, the glass of champagne, his real whereabouts the past few days, the part of himself he hid for fear of judgment and persecution and which he could hardly admit but in the company of Percy—he could see it now, his desire to touch men, seeking a man’s affection. The sermon felt directed toward him specifically, a warning that in order to receive the love of Christ, he needed to kill the permanent lie within himself and accept the truth.

He gripped his knees, dug into them with his nails until his knuckles turned white. He could feel his heart pounding, sweat pooling under his collar and at the small of his back. Breathing grew difficult; he could feel the blood from his face draining. He glanced around to see people looking away from him as if they hadn’t been staring. They knew, they all knew—

“Are you okay?” Modesty whispered.

He swallowed, ignoring her, and looked to Mama on the other side of him. “Mama, please, I’m not feeling well. I need to—”

“Shush,” Mama said. She nodded to the elder. “Pay attention, it’s almost over.”

“Please,” he begged again.

She reached down and grabbed a chunk of flesh from his thigh, pinched hard and twisted it in her fingers. “I said shut up and pay attention.”

He gritted his teeth through the rest of the sermon, guilt lumping in his throat, flashes of yesterday’s memories floating to his mind’s eye. It didn’t feel like such a sin at the time, but now, here, being looked upon by the faces of his brothers and sisters with such condemnation, he saw the grim reality of his trespasses. His eyes began to water again, against his own volition. He wiped them with the flat of his hand as they continued to build so Mama wouldn’t see them fall.

The elder offered the Eucharist and Credence went gladly. He knelt by the platform, head bowed as he waited. The tears bubbled up until they came out as sobs. He could feel all eyes on him as he wept, and when the elder came by him, Credence clutched at his pant legs and said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t want to be like this anymore. Please, please take the darkness out of me. I don’t want to live like this. Please.”

Everyone went quiet, the only noise his wracked cries of guilt, until a firm grip on his upper arm pulled him up. “What are you doing?” Mama hissed. “You are embarrassing us.”

“I’m sorry. I’m—” He couldn’t see. He couldn’t breathe.

“Get ahold of yourself,” she said while dragging him out the side exit. “You should be ashamed of yourself, behaving that way around people who care about you. You’re making them uncomfortable.”

Despite her stern words, she led them out of the Kingdom Hall and toward home. Credence managed to catch his breath and stop crying halfway there, and then he felt blank inside, like he wasn’t in his own body anymore but floating somewhere outside of it, watching himself walk down cracked sidewalks, across train tracks, his sisters skipping and Mama fuming.

When they made it home, he immediately reached for his belt, but Mama said, “Just go to bed. I don’t want to look at you anymore.”

***

Credence fell asleep easily even though he almost never took naps, not having time for them among all his daily chores. He awoke past nightfall to the smell of food being cooked in the kitchen—good food, real food. Onions and garlic and herbs they could never afford. He went downstairs to see the new brother from worship in his kitchen, tall, broad-shoulders white hair and skin like an albino. He wore a rumpled pin-striped shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbow, with black suspenders and khaki pants that nearly matched his skin.

“Who are you?” Credence asked, hackles raised.

The man turned around. He had a mustache twirled at the ends like a cartoon villain and his eyes were two different colors. He looked at Credence like he was something rotten stuck to the sole of his over-polished shoe. “Gellert Grindelwald. You must be Credence.” He said the last word with a sneer.

Credence opened his mouth to reply, but Mama entered the room with a smile plastered to her face and said, “Credence, honey, this is Mr. Grindelwald. He’ll be joining us for dinner this evening. Be a good boy and set the table, won’t you?”

Mama only called him honey in front of men she was trying to seduce. He looked into the living room, where Modesty and Chastity were watching television, ignoring the strange man in the kitchen.

“Okay,” he said.

***

He told himself the next morning he wouldn’t go over to Percy’s house, that he was going to kill the demon in him for good by starving it. He lasted until about noon, when he ran out of things to do because he found he had done them all too quickly, and the house still smelled like Mr. Grindelwald’s disgusting cologne which gave him a headache.

Dinner last night hadn’t been the worst meal they’d eaten with a strange man posing as a love interest to his mother. Mr. Grindelwald had recently moved here from the east coast to manage a new chain of franchise restaurants that had been successful in other states. He said a short, concise grace and made polite conversation, though Mama laughed too hard at his sad attempt at humor, and everyone did their best to ignore that Credence was at the table at all. It went so well that Credence wondered if Mama would invite him back, as she did sometimes with men she liked well enough, though in his memory she had never made it past the third date. Sometimes she went out with them and would come home late with her makeup smudged and smelling like alcohol.

Credence tried to occupy himself by writing out the alphabet. He got as far as C before he forgot which direction D went and what sound it made, and then he forgot the rest. His mind wandered to Percy, the taste of his lips, the feel of his hands, the joyous warmth that radiated from him. It picked at him like an itch on the inside that he could never scratch, the thing trying to claw its way to the surface.

He grabbed the remote and turned on the television. It was on the weather channel, which had no voices, only words across the screen. He made a frustrated noise and turned it off again, combed his hands through his hair and tried to breathe.

It took another five minutes for his willpower to break. He put on his shoes and stuffed his bag full of books before leaving.

***

He stood on Percy’s porch staring at his door for what felt like hours but was probably only a handful of minutes. Then he rang the doorbell.

Percy opened the door smiling, then his smile fell when he saw Credence’s expression. “What’s wrong?”

Credence immediately fell into tears again.

“Oh, baby, come here, come inside.”

Percy ushered him in and closed the door, pulled Credence into his embrace and held him, kissed his temple, rubbed his back. “What happened?”

“I don’t want to be like this anymore,” Credence said into the crook of Percy’s neck.

“Like what?”

“Wrong. Bad. A lie. I want it to go away. I want to be good.”

“You are good. Who said you weren’t good?”

“Jehovah.”

“Oh.” He pulled Credence away from him and held him at arm’s length. “You know I respect your religion, but faith shouldn’t hurt this much.”

“But purity always hurts. It’s pain that cleanses us of our sins. We’re flawed creatures and we have to follow Christ to find absolution.”

“What does absolution mean to you?”

He’d never put words to it before. It had just been something he’d always known. “Forgiveness. Peace. Love.”

“Why can’t you give yourself all of those things?”

“Because I—” He had no wise answer for this, only the truth that fell out of him: “I’m not good enough.”

Percy pulled him in again, and Credence went willingly, let himself be held and kissed, treated with unwarranted reverence. “Let’s go make some food, and we’ll take a crack at the alphabet again, alright?”

***

Credence let himself fall into the peaceful haze again. He practiced saying the alphabet start to finish, then he practiced drawing them on his own. The roaring fireplace kept them warm, but Credence still sat cuddled into Percy’s embrace anyway. Percy baked an apple pie and the whole house smelled like cinnamon, and they ate it later with vanilla ice cream melting over top of it. It was the most delicious thing Credence had ever eaten.

Percy kissed him afterward, a possessive hand on the back of his neck. He tasted like sugar and warmth, and Credence forgot all about saying no to Satan today. It was almost like Satan couldn’t exist in a place that housed this much peace.

They went upstairs and Percy kissed him some more, took off his clothes slowly and asked him what he wanted to do.

“I don’t know what all there is,” Credence admitted. “I want to do all of it.”

“Are you sure? We can go slow.”

“I don’t want to go slow.”

Percy smiled and kissed him again, reached between Credence’s legs with slicked fingers and slid them inside.

***

Weeks passed. Credence went to Percy’s house every day except for Tuesdays and Sundays when he had worship. He started having to come home earlier so Mama wouldn’t get suspicious, but things seemed to be going well with Mr. Grindelwald so her mind was always elsewhere and she was too preoccupied to beat him. He stuffed all his copies of The Watchtower in the hollowed out log until it was nearly overflowing, and told Mama every day how successful he had been in servicing. She didn’t seem to notice or care that no new faces showed up at the Kingdom Hall.

Mr. Grindelwald came over more frequently. He said he liked to cook and enjoyed their company. Mama looked at him like he hung the moon. He engaged Chastity in lively discussion about her peers, all of whom she looked down on for their lack of moral righteousness. She complained about their disregard for faith and said she felt sorry for them. Credence didn’t like the way Mr. Grindelwald looked at either Chastity or Modesty, and mostly ignored Mama except when she took him to her bed at night.

Credence learned how to tune out sermons so he wouldn’t let the words into his protected otherness, the piece of himself that came alive in the company of Percy. He started seeing it less as darkness because it was the thing Percy seemed to appreciate most in him, and anything that could make someone like him so happy couldn’t be dark at all.

One day Credence rang Percy’s doorbell and held out a copy of Awake! “Hello my name is Credence. I am calling on you and your neighbors with an interesting article. I am wondering if you would be interested in reading this.”

Percy looked quizzically from his face, down to the book, back to his face. Then he smiled again. “Was that a joke?”

Credence grinned and Percy led him inside.

He could read a few words now. He’d sit on the counter as Percy cooked and sound out the ingredients on the back of food, the nutrition labels, magazines and catalogues Percy had lying around. They read books together, easy ones at first and then up to chapter books, never touching the The Watchtower still on the table.

He could write a few words too, his name, first and last. The names of his sisters. Percy’s name, which was actually Percival Graves. He couldn’t write much else yet, but he picked up more every day.

Percy had files lying around sometimes, thick manilla folders stuffed with papers. Sometimes Credence would open them to read the pages inside while Percy was upstairs on the phone. They looked like reports of some kind, with a logo at the top that might have been a police badge. He guessed the information in the reports had to do with his suspension, which he was afraid to ask about. Every time Percy went to talk on the phone, his voice would slowly grow louder until he started shouting at whoever was on the other side, his husband, Credence thought. He tried to tune it out, but he caught snippets of accusations, waves of temper, followed by silence. Percy would return to the living room with red-rimmed eyes and Credence wouldn’t say anything about it.

They never engaged in sodomy, because Percy said Credence wasn’t ready for that yet, and also to quit calling it sodomy. He called it anal sex, and they talked about it sometimes after Credence had a bottle of hard cider, which he greatly enjoyed, and could have these conversations without blushing out of his skin. They never did anything Credence didn’t want to do, which wasn’t a problem because he wanted to do everything.

Credence’s favorite thing was the feel of Percy’s cock in his mouth, the wave of power he felt whenever he could make Percy climax with only his mouth and hand. He loved swallowing his come because it felt like taking a piece of him, consuming him in the way he took the Eucharist. He no longer woke up to soiled sheets, and he found himself looking ahead as he walked, meeting the eyes of other people, smiling and laughing on occasion.

The spiral thoughts began to change. They turned into questions about faith and love, what it meant to be human, the purpose of suffering. He questioned everything he’d grown up believing and slowly learned to accept the innate fear of doubt. Doubt, he figured out, was a door that could lead him to a broader understanding of the world. Certainty was the ruin of man.

***

A near blizzard in mid-December. Credence walked through the woods with fat flakes of snow clumped in his eyelashes, unable to feel his nose or cheeks. Mr. Grindelwald had bought him a coat, hat, and gloves when he noticed Credence had only a light jacket that was too small for him anyway. It served to further entrance Mama into loving him. Credence had bought some reflective tape from the grocery store and marked the trees to make his walk easier. He could follow them in dark or light to find his way to Percy’s house.

Percy had offered to start driving him back and forth, but Credence didn’t want him seeing where he lived, didn’t want the convergence of his two lives that close together. When he arrived, Percy had more hot chocolate waiting for him, lunch too. After was when Percy usually asked, “What would you like to read?” but today, he sidled up behind Credence as he did the dishes, ran his hands underneath his shirt, over his hips, kissed his neck. Credence could feel his hardness pressed against his backside, grinding against it slightly. He’d never wanted anything as much as he wanted Percy. He turned in his grip and kissed him properly, allowed himself to be pressed against the sink and ravaged in the light of day. There was something desperate about the kiss—Credence always got the impression Percy reserved part of himself for some reason, but not here. He finally felt like he had the whole of him.  

Credence forced himself to pull away. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Percy said. “Let’s go upstairs.”

He guided Credence by the hand, undressed him slowly. Kissed him all over and laid him on the bed. “Just relax,” he said, muffled against Credence’s collarbone, “let me make you feel good.” He always said this, in the way Credence would often say prayers in church, scriptures from memory, the same words over and over.

Credence let himself sink into the bed, lie in a cloud of relaxation. Percy settled between his legs and took him in his mouth, something he didn’t often do and which pushed Credence too close to the edge too quickly. Now though, he licked slowly from bottom to top, lazily jerked him in his hand as he trailed his mouth further downward. He spread Credence’s legs wider and he could feel his tongue press at his entrance.

“What are you—” Credence said. This felt too sensitive, the wet warmth prodding at him. Almost too much.

“Shh,” Percy replied. “Enjoy it.” He began lapping at him again, Credence’s knees clasped in his hands pulling upward.

Credence let out a series of high cracking moans, gripped the sheets in his hands and began shifting his hips to get more of Percy’s tongue inside of him. It was the best thing he’d ever felt; worshipping God had nothing on the feeling of being worshipped by man.

Percy replaced his tongue with a finger, pressed upward and gently touched the spot inside of him that felt like an explosion. “Please,” he found himself saying, “please, can we—”

“Yeah, baby,” Percy replied. “I think you’re ready now.”

Percy slicked up his fingers and stretched him open wider. The burn of it was sweet and familiar, a reminder of all the days they’d spent together and all the days to come. When Percy slid out of him, he repositioned himself between Credence’s legs, cock in hand rubbing at his hole and gently pressing in, not enough to stretch or satisfy.

“Please,” Credence begged.

Percy rubbed his thigh in soothing strokes. “Need you to relax, baby. Don’t want to hurt you.”

He did the best he could, forced his muscles to unclench. Percy pushed into him slightly—the pain was almost unbearable, but underneath it was something pleasurable, a promise of reward, like Jehovah’s promise to His disciples for eternal heaven on earth. Credence would happily give up that promise for more of this feeling, the stretching—another push—the feeling of fullness.

“Good?” Percy asked.

Credence nodded. Percy pulled out and pushed in again, and there it was: the promise fulfilled. Hell on earth crowded in this small intimate moment between two people, locked in perpetual, beautiful sin.

Percy thrust inside him at a steady pace, leaned over and kissed his shoulder, his neck, his cheek. Credence could hear him panting in his ear, light moans and gasps that were silent in comparison to his own; cock trapped between their bodies, slick and oversensitive.

The explosiveness of the spot inside of him set off continually, sparks behind his eyes that obliterated all else. He could feel his body grow hot and tense, feel himself clenching around Percy’s cock, needing more inside of him. The pressure built in his belly and spread outward, to his arms and legs, fingers and toes. He lost control.

He could feel himself crying out as he came, as his own come spilled between their stomachs. Percy pounded into him, moans turned to grunts. Credence could feel his body tensing too, nonsensical somethings whispered in his ear—good boy, so beautiful—and then he stilled, cock pulsing, a warmth spreading inside of Credence unlike anything he’d felt before. Completeness.

The love of a power greater than Jehovah.

***

Later, they were back in the kitchen, a holiday catalogue between them that Credence was trying to read. Something felt off between them, like it had earlier, exaggerated by Percy’s impatience. He was only letting Credence try to sound out a word once before correcting him.

“Wuh, ree-ahh, th,” he tried. “Wrath? Like the sin?”

“Wreath. Like a Christmas wreath. Like the picture right above it.” He pointed to a green circle covered in leaves and ribbons. It was on a front door, which Credence had seen sometimes when he serviced in December, but he never knew what it was called.

“I don’t celebrate Christmas,” Credence said defensively.

Percy paused, deflating slightly. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Keep going.”

“Is something wrong?” he asked again.

“No.”

Credence insisted. “I can tell. Something’s wrong.”

Percy sighed and buried his face in his hands.

“Whatever it is, it’s fine,” Credence assured him. He laid a soothing hand on his back, mimicking the consoling gestures Percy had taught him.

Percy lifted his head and said, “My suspension is up. I go back to work tomorrow.”

“Oh.” Credence kept rubbing soothing circles, but his heart had picked up and his mind began to race. He wouldn’t be able to come over anymore. They would never have time to see each other. Credence didn’t have a phone and couldn’t write letters yet and—

Percy looked over at him. “No, baby, nothing’s going to change. We’re going to be okay.”

“How can you be so sure?” Credence had begun shaking again, like he had been the day they met. Then, the trembling had been a sign of promise, and now it was happening in the face of destruction.

“Because.” He inched closer, wrapping an arm around Credence’s waist, and kissed his temple. “I want you to move in with me.”

“I can’t,” Credence replied. His two halves had stayed so nicely separated for so long, the demon in him had grown the size of the angel and morphed—he no longer knew which half belonged to which life. If they faced each other, the careful balanced would crumble. This was asking too much of him. “You still have pictures of your husband on your mantel.” Credence noticed Percy had stopped wearing his wedding ring—the process of separation seemed to be a long one. Every once in a while he would come over and find certain things missing that had been there the day prior, presumably given to Percy’s husband, though Credence hadn’t seen or heard him since that first day. He wondered if Percy felt the same double-life mirage that he did, that this space they’d created was the only safe one that existed in either of their lives.

“I’ll take them down. The divorce will be finalized any day now. He’s not coming back, I promise.”

“I need to take care of my family. It’s Jehovah’s purpose for me.”

“You still believe your purpose is to do something that makes you miserable? When do you get to have your own life?”

“There’s no such thing as an individual life. Only the family life, and this is the family I’ve been given.”

“I’ve been given to you too,” Percy said. “How does that fit in?”

Credence didn’t know. He never thought further ahead than the following day. Now that he could see the big picture, he wanted to hide. There was no way this could have ever worked out—he didn’t even understand what it meant for something to work out. This was exactly what the elders warned him against, the human instinct of short-sightedness, the disregard for imminent mortality in the face of sin.

“Why did you get suspended, Percy?” Credence asked.

Percy clenched his jaw and averted his gaze.

“Tell me.”

He took a breath and paused. His eyes glistened like he was fighting back tears, and Credence watched as he swallowed heavily. “I beat a man to death.”

Credence slid out of Percy’s grasp and stood up. It made sense now—why someone like Percy could love a boy like Credence. He knew the signs; he’d lived them his whole life. “You’re repenting. That’s why you’re so good to me.” Then: the shattering plate on the first day, the raised voices. The intimidating files of police paperwork. The shouting matches over the phone. “Did you abuse your husband too? Is that why he left you?”

“It was a long time ago, when David and I were first married. I had anger problems. I got help. I stopped. We were happy for years, and then—this guy, he came at me. And I defended myself. He was down, but I kept going. I couldn't stop. A decade of anger management washed down the drain. David thought I was going to relapse. But I’m not like that anymore, I swear. I’m good now. Like you.”

“I need to go,” Credence said.

“Credence, wait. I would never hurt you.”

Credence shook his head as he ran to the front door and got his coat. “You’re just like them.”

“I’m not,” Percy called after him. “Please believe me.”

But Credence was already out the door and slamming it behind him.

***

Mr. Grindelwald ate dinner with them that night. He was talking up a storm, making Mama and Chastity and Modesty laugh. Credence’s mind was elsewhere, the feeling he got sometimes like he was floating out of his own body.

“What’s the matter, boy?” Mr. Grindelwald asked. He waved his hand in front of Credence’s face. Credence didn’t respond, barely noticed the gesture, so Mr. Grindelwald reeled his arm back and brought it across his face. The slap echoed in the kitchen; Modesty gasped.

Credence’s head jerked to the side. His cheek burned. He’d never been hit with a hand before—always third-party implements. He looked in surprise at Mr. Grindelwald, who only said, “You sit at this table, you stay present here. You understand me?”

Credence looked to Mama, who stared shamefully down at her food and offered no help.

“Yes, sir,” Credence said. His ear rang.

“That’s better,” Mr. Grindelwald replied.

***

The hitting got worse over time. A slap across the face or upside the head turned into having objects thrown at him, his ears boxed, and one time pushed down the stairs. Mama started getting some of it too. Credence would notice the fine line of broken blood vessels in the shape of fingerprints around her neck, eyes constantly red-rimmed and cast downward. She stopped whipping him at the expense of ignoring he existed.

Mr. Grindelwald never touched Modesty or Chastity, though the threat was there. Credence was grateful for once that he slept in the same room as them. He never got a good night’s sleep anymore, always half-awake to stay vigilant out of fear of Mr. Grindelwald sneaking into their bed and having his way with them. The thought made him sick, and he lived every day in a stupor of constant physical pain and exhaustion.

Months passed. Mr. Grindelwald moved in. He gave Mama a ring and set the wedding date for May. The ground froze over and melted again. Credence never heard from Percy, not that he had any means of contacting him. He started to forget all the words he had learned to read, though he still sometimes sang the alphabet to himself under his breath as he did his chores. Every time he stared at something with words on it for long enough, Mr. Grindelwald would slap him too hard on the back and say, “Look at you, pretending you’re not dumb as a brick.”

Credence started paying attention in worship again. It seemed so strange, that he ever believed the darkness was anything other than the evil forever coiled inside of him, part of him, always wanting to escape and lead him down the path of sin. He atoned for his trespasses by returning to celibacy, praying for forgiveness that he knew he would never deserve or receive, doubling his service time, never speaking out against Mama or Mr. Grindelwald or any of the other elders.

He had veered onto the path of darkness for a time and was working hard to right himself.

***

A random day in April, not a day of worship—Credence stopped keeping track. He returned home from the grocery to find Mama and Mr. Grindelwald at the kitchen table waiting for him. They allowed him a moment to set the groceries down and take off his jacket. A pile of books in varying states of disintegration were scattered over the table, dozens of them. Waterlogged, pages curled and faded and tattered. Covers ripped and bent. Hundreds of dollars worth of damaged books. They looked as if they’d been left outside for—

The hollowed log.

“Gellert went outside to start tending the garden for the year,” Mama said. “He found these in a log by the edge of the woods. Can you explain them?”

Mr. Grindelwald’s silence was more intimidating than Mama’s falsely calm demeanor.

“I don’t know how they got there.” Another lie. His entire being was one big lie.

“Don’t lie to us, boy. You mean to tell me Modesty or Chastity did this?”

It was a trap—he knew Credence wouldn’t put the blame on his sisters. “No.”

“Well I didn’t do it, your mother didn’t do it. There are no other brothers or sisters in this building. If the girls didn’t do it, that only leaves you.” He stood up from the table slowly, his large menacing figure casting a shadow over Credence.

“Give me your belt, son,” Mr. Grindelwald said.

Without thought, Credence unbuckled it, slid it from its loops, and handed it to him. Mr. Grindelwald folded it in half and hit it against the counter, a harsh crack that made Credence flinch.

He raised the belt above his head. “Your mama works hard to support you and your sisters.” It came down between his neck and shoulder, a shooting pain that choked him and prevented a cry to escape his lips. “She works hard to put money into the Kingdom Hall, into the plight of our elders so we can spread the word of Jehovah.” Another, this time Credence tried to protect himself by shielding his face with his arm. The belt came down hard across his forearm—he could feel this skin split, blood rising to the surface of flesh. He gasped in pain. “And you do her this disrespect to ruin the good word?” Again, this time hard enough to knock him to the floor. His head bounced against the tile and disoriented him. “To hide it.” Across his stomach, breath heaving. “To lie about work you didn’t really do.” His hip, forcing him to curl into a ball for protection. “To betray your own blood.”

The words faded after that. Credence could only hear the dull thud of the belt against his flesh, the screaming cries rising from his throat, Mama’s chair screeching across the floor. “Gellert! Stop it! You’re killing him!”

The first time she’d ever defended him, he realized in a haze of pain. All he could do was cover his head and cry. Mr. Grindelwald’s voice grew louder, and the whipping stopped for a moment while he stepped away. Credence heard the slap of the belt elsewhere, heard Mama cry out and fall against something. Credence’s mind spiraled out, fell to Percy’s house, his embrace, the feel of his lips. A ghost of his voice told Credence what a good boy he was, that there was nothing wrong with him. He was good. He was good. He was good. The darkness in him wasn’t dark at all. It was the truest light, the only thing he loved about himself, he understood now, the way in which he had loved Percy. He could feel it start to spread inside of him, the light overcoming all else. He lost control of himself.

Sirens began to wail in the distance.

Then Mr. Grindelwald was back, belt raised, but his departure had given Credence enough time to look up. “You dare look me in the eye, boy? You haven’t learned a damn—” On the downswing, Credence caught the belt. He yanked it out of Mr. Grindelwald’s grasp and stood. Through the living room window, he could see red and blue flashing lights speeding toward them, sirens growing louder. Mr. Grindelwald took a step back and said, “Son, don’t think this will end well for you.”

Credence’s whole body throbbed. He could feel the lacerations across his face, his neck, a couple broken ribs. Blood had blinded one of his eyes and the other had begun to swell, but none of it deterred him.

He raised the belt and brought it down across Mr. Grindelwald’s face. Raised it again and brought it back down the other way. Mr. Grindelwald tried to grapple it away from him. The scuffle made its way to the living room where Modesty and Chastity were watching from the safety of the hallway. Credence backed him into a corner and pounded the belt against him, any soft spot that opened itself to agony. Mr. Grindelwald screamed, begged him to stop. He wouldn’t. He was finally free. He laughed as he did it—this was joy, he thought. This was the real truth. This was absolution.

The front door flew open and two men with guns drawn entered. Credence looked toward them, belt raised, but had trouble seeing through the throbbing red at the sides of his vision.

“Credence?” one of the cops said.

He recognized the voice. Percy. He opened his mouth to say something, but Mr. Grindelwald shoved him into the bookshelf, which toppled onto him and trapped him underneath. A Bible hit side of his head, and the world fell away from him.

***

He awoke to the sound of high-pitched beeping, eyes blinking open to sterile fluorescent lighting and a muted television bolted to the corner of a room. A blue curtain was pulled around him, a cup of ice water on a table by his bed. He reached out to pick it up, but his arm stopped short—his wrist was tethered with a cushioned cuff to the bed frame.

“Just a precaution,” said a voice on the other side of him.

He looked over to see Percy in his police uniform. It made him look older. There were dark circles under his eyes and he looked like he hadn’t shaved in a few days. Credence never noticed before how much pepper he had at the sides of his temples and in streaks of his facial hair. For a moment Credence wondered if he was actually a stranger, if in his blackout he had imagined their entire relationship.

“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Percy said.

“Am I going to jail?” Credence asked. His voice sounded like the scrape of sandpaper. His throat hurt—he could feel a bandage covering the largest welt on his neck. The adhesive stretched and stung parts of his skin.

“No, your mother told us what happened. Mr. Grindelwald might be facing some time though.”

“I’m sorry,” Credence said, because he was, and he didn’t know who else to tell. He’d pray to Jehovah, but he didn’t want His forgiveness.

Percy reached through the bars of the bed and held his hand. The high-pitched beeping got a little faster. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“I should have come back. I was afraid.”

“You had every reason to be.”

“Are you still repenting?”

“I don’t know,” Percy said, squeezing his hand. “I’m seeing a therapist if that’s what you mean. Taking medication. I want to be good for you. I don’t want to be like them.”

“I don’t want to be like them either.”

“Maybe we don’t have to be.”

Silence fell between them but for the now-rapid beeping.

“The offer is still open,” Percy said. “To move in.”

Credence shook his head. “I can’t leave my family.”

Percy reached out and cupped the uninjured side of his face in his palm. “You can. They’ve convinced you they need you, that you need them, but you don’t. You deserve to be happy, Credence.”

Credence’s eyes filled with tears. He shook his head again. “But then…”

“But then what?”

“Satan will have won. I’d be living in sin. There’s something wrong with me. There’s something wrong in me.”

“There’s nothing wrong in you. They made you believe that about yourself, but they’re the ones who are wrong. You’re a good boy and you deserve a second chance at having a good life. I want to help you, and I’m asking you to give me a second chance too.”

The worst part was that Credence believed him, somewhere deep, beneath the mirage of darkness. The freedom he felt confirmed it, that this was the righteous path. The path that held love and comfort, that lifted him from the suffocating grasp of perdition. They were equal in the only way that mattered: their shared demons, their daily battles. It would be nice to no longer face the darkness alone.

The tears crested over and fell down his face. Percy stood to lean over the bed and kiss his temple.

“Okay,” Credence said, “I’ll go with you.”

 

Epilogue

 

Dear Modesty & Chastity,

Thank you for your last letter. Percy helped me read it. He is helping me write this too. I am glad mama will not be getting married & mister G is in jail. Do you think she will break up with him when he gets out? Has she broke up with him already?

Is school out? How are your grades?

Percy helped me start at a special school. At the end I will get my G E D. It is like a degree for people who did not do high school. Maybe get a real job after.

I am happy & safe. I hope you are too.

Tell mama hi for me.

Credence