Chapter 1: Deus ex machina
1996. New York City.
His face is on the news again. Unsmiling, a little wild-eyed in the flashbulb burst. Awkward bowl cut, split lip. A red bar beneath his chin reads: "106 MINORS SEIZED FROM STATEN ISLAND RELIGIOUS COMPOUND...."
Credence is not technically a minor. Technically, according to the documents folded in a manila envelope on Tina's kitchen counter, he was supposed to have turned twenty-four in November. A minor technicality. The news channels and "Breaking!" articles have begun tacking on new adjectives to explain it. Bylines like "Adult child of Staten Island religious compound...." and "106 children deemed at risk, including several adults" nestle themselves into rows of text beneath the startled flashbulb snapshot of Credence on the field outside Main Chapel.
None of it makes any sense, but then, Tina says there are machines that can generate cash money from inside brick walls and there is the woman on the news who also claims she is marrying a ghost, so he supposes nothing makes sense anymore.
As he watches, the photo of Credence slides back into a little rectangle over the shoulder of an unsmiling blond woman. Though she often frightens him, Seraphina Picquery is the only newscaster Credence can watch without feeling his stomach clench in guilt. There is the fact, after all, that she covers her hair as women should. Her sleek black hair wrap is not the same as the plain cloth kerchiefs and bonnets worn by Ma and his sister Chastity and all of the others at home, but a hair covering is a hair covering, and in this world of "ATMs" and ghost intercourse, he'll take what he can get.
"Thank you, Percival," Seraphina says, and Credence shivers. Percival Graves, the other reason he watches WNET (and for which he will definitely be damned to the Eternal Fire) instead of FOX, or cartoons, or nothing, nods and frowns at something off-camera.
His thick eyebrows look like horsehair brushes on his face, Credence thinks. He rubs his palm prophylactically, staring into the screen.
"As of now, twelve adults have been arraigned on charges of child abuse, abduction, contributing to the delinquency of a minor...."
The photo of Credence is replaced by another. In front of Main Chapel, one arm around his sister Chastity's thin shoulder, the other around a smaller body with a blurred face, her hair tightly bound in a roughcloth Puritan cap, scrubbed skin and blue eyes shining as she smiles serenely into the camera. Credence, who has only just begun to accustom himself to a world without that face watching him from every corner of every room, turns off the TV with a click of the remote, the way Queenie showed him.
A sick little corner of his soul enjoys turning the lights off on Ma. He flicks the screen back on experimentally. Seraphina Picquery drops the name "Barebone" from her tongue like a bad taste. The blurred face in the photo, Credence knows, is his other sister, Modesty. Ma had kept the same photo in a simple wooden frame on the wall outside their shared bathroom, Chastity in her cloth cap like their mother's, her frantic believer's grin and flashbulb eyes, Modesty sulking beneath the arm that had just given her brother a red stripe across the palm of his hand for dropping the camera. He turns the TV off again. Good night, Ma. May the Lord keep you.
Down the hall, in the Goldsteins’ cramped kitchen, Queenie is humming along to something loud and clang-y on the radio that Credence could not have recognized if his life depended on it. He shuffles after the foreign sounds, cracking his neck, trailing his fingers absently along the uneven plaster walls.
"You're up late," she greets him without looking up from the mixing bowl in her hand. "You want a snack?"
Taking his noncommittal grunt for an answer, she rifles through the cabinets, lobs a diet bar at his head.
"Spidey senses," says Queenie brightly as he catches it. "You should play baseball or something. Get you out of the house, stop watching all that awful news."
"They're indicting my mother," he supplies quietly. A strip of plastic catches on the corner of the bar as he shrugs it from its wrapper. "Her and most of the rest of them."
"Aw, well, we knew they would, right? Tina's been running through all that stuff she had on them from before. Would you believe it - fired her for getting the story, and now they're offering her salaries and benefits and airtime for the hot take. Sit down, honey. You look pale. You want some cocoa?"
Whether or not he wants cocoa is probably irrelevant, Credence thinks. When Queenie offers, she wants to give. He nods, despite the dryness in his throat, and takes a tentative bite of the diet bar.
Everything is too sweet here.
Everything is covered in chocolate, doused in sugar, or frying fat, or butter. Piled onto plates too large to be sensible. Gluttonous. He wants to enjoy it, if only because everyone else seems to, and everyone else - Queenie, Tina, Queenie's boyfriend Jacob and Tina's odd friend Newt - have been kinder than Credence could have hoped anyone would be when he climbed into the back of the floodlit police van on the muddy field in front of Main Chapel on Christmas Eve.
He would have been satisfied with a cot in a shelter, a street corner and a cardboard box. He had been prepared to fall directly into dens of sin, as Ma had always warned and predicted, needles in his arms, sodomy in back alleys, civil war, venereal disease, mental breakdowns - the whole package. Life in Exile, Deluxe Edition.
He's probably been watching too many movies.
"Hey, sugar - ” Queenie is waving a cup in front of his nose, mouth scrunched into one of her big smiles. "I said, we're out of cocoa. You want some warm milk and honey, instead?"
He does not say that warm milk sounds disgusting, or that his stomach is already in knots from the dangerous combination of Percival Graves' thick eyebrows and soft frown and his mother's righteous grin packed onto the same twenty inch screen. Queenie offered, so he takes the cup from her in two hands and gives her his best approximation of a grateful smile.
"We gotta work on that one, honey," she says. "Make it reach your eyes. Anyway, you sure you're okay?"
A woman on the news is having sexual intercourse with ghosts and my mother might be going to federal prison, Credence thinks. There was a time, only weeks ago, when "okay" meant a full night's sleep on a full stomach and a quiet morning reading his favourite Psalms to Modesty while Ma ignored him. Even if it does taste like it came straight from the udders of a diabetic cow, warm milk and honey in the Goldsteins' kitchen is surely an improvement.
"I'm very, very well," he promises.
Queenie sighs but lets it drop as he raises the cup of milk to his lips.
"Your face looks better. You had a real shiner there for a while, but it's fading. I bet it'll be gone in another week, and no one'll know the difference."
"Mhm," Credence agrees.
They both know he has not looked at his cheek yet. Not since the back of the police van, the assault rifles in his face, the shot of him with his little kid's haircut plastered to his forehead, soaked and shivering in the December rain, clutching the Bible with the false back that held all of Ma's secret documents. Everything he'd tried and failed to get to Tina before.
The photo and the news headlines and the phone calls from excited journalists and the DA's office have given them no rest since. Still, Tina has her job back now, and Credence is free.
"Maybe we can go get some coffee tomorrow, me and you," Queenie tries. "We could visit Teenie at work. I think she'd like that."
Credence gets the feeling she's been sitting on this one all day, waiting for the right moment to spring it on him.
"Okay," he lies.
Sensing his reluctance, Queenie slides another energy bar across the counter and says gently, in the honey-bright way she has, "It's all up to you, Credence. I ain't gonna force you out the door before you're ready, but Teenie'd love to see you at work, and we can swing by Jacob's place after. It's real close."
"That sounds good."
"Great." She flashes him a smile like a sun flare, and Credence's heart sinks ever so slightly in his chest for the lie. About an inch. He closes his eyes, swallows, tugs it back into place. It's important that he leave the house. Everyone thinks so.
"I'm just tired," he lies again, dropping his hand from the counter, but Queenie is already bent back over the mixing bowl. With her back to him, she hums a sweet 'good night' and kicks the radio on.
His bed in the Goldstein's apartment is a fold-out sofa in the living room. Queenie had set it out for him already on the first night, fresh flannel sheets and a set of pyjamas with the price sticker peeled off the tag, apologetic and nervous despite Credence's many assurances that a sofa was more than fine. Worlds better than he had ever expected, a vast improvement on the bottom bunk in a room of forty that he had occupied in Community House on Staten Island, or the closet-sized room with the portable cot in the back of the little church in downtown Manhattan where Ma had had them doing weekend ministry for as long as he can remember.
Her eyes had widened in alarm, and then, before he could stop her, she had hugged him. A complete stranger, with uncovered hair. He's stopped making those kinds of assurances since.
He takes his pyjamas with him into the bathroom, blinking in the flood of yellow light. The bathroom mirror is an obvious inconvenience, irremovable. For the most part, he can avoid it by showering in the dark at night, when no one will walk by and flick on the switch.
Queenie wants to go out in the morning. To the newsroom. To the bakery. On public streets. In the newsroom, with Seraphina Picquery and Percival Graves. Unbidden, Graves' dark eyes and thick brows swim across the aerial fuzz of his mind, drawing blood to his thing.
He presses the heel of his palm into his crotch, steeling himself, and looks.
Ma has etched herself in a net of fine scars, silvery and purple threads, across Credence's cheek and jaw. He runs a finger over them the way he's seen Queenie poking her finger into a pot on the stove, gauging. Not so bad. They'll all fade eventually, itch in winter when the air is dry.
His fingers stop and pull away jerkily. The bruise across his cheek, the sole spectacular product of the two-by-four she had swung at him as he ran for the front door, is faded down to a sickly green stain the size of a fist, ringed like an iris in deeper purple. It could be worse. He's had worse. Tina and Queenie and Newt and Jacob saw it worse. The first pictures he had let Tina take in the summer, before she lost her job, when the idea of leaving New Salem had felt as distant and unlikely as a romance with Christ himself; those had been worse.
He wonders if Percival Graves has seen those pictures. Conditioned for panic, his body freezes, but Credence maintains his stance in front of the mirror. Did Tina show him, show the entire crew when she wanted to break her big story? His brain feels like it's been hurled through the bathroom window, down ten flights, a rush of wind over raw nerves, and it strikes Credence again, as it has so many times over the past two weeks, how quickly life is moving underfoot.
Rubbing the goose pimples from his arm, he peels himself from the mirror at last and climbs into the cold shower.
Sleep is blessedly dreamless. A coma. He almost rolls over into his pillow as sunlight breaks in slowly through the cracked living room blinds, groaning and lost in the orange glow behind his eyelids, the sweetness of his own breath on his tongue. Sunlight like soft whispers over the little hairs of his arms, prickling in his bruised cheek, sticky between his legs -
Credence sits up with a jolt. Blinking sleep from his eyes, he glances across the empty room. His heart feels throttled by its own frantic pounding as he bolts for the bathroom to lock the door.
He strips quickly and stuffs his underwear deep into the bathroom trashcan. Turns on the sink, mumbling, "Holy Lord, I've sinned times without number, and been guilty of pride and unbelief, of failure to find Your Mind in Your Word, of neglect to seek You in my daily life...."
His thing twitches feebly in his palm as he scrubs.
"...I thank You that many of my prayers have been refused. I have asked amiss and do not have, have prayed from lusts and been rejected. I have asked for Egypt and been given a wilderness...."
A knock on the door sends him careening into the shower.
"Credence?" Queenie's sweet voice on the other side is soft. "You okay, honey? You want some breakfast? I'm makin' pancakes."
"Okay!" he calls back, his voice strangled by the knot in his throat. His fingers scramble for the shower faucet.
Please go, Credence thinks.
"You want coffee?"
What is it with people knocking on doors, always lingering? Ma never knocked, never lingered. Ma would have rolled the stone out from in front of his tomb if she thought he'd been wicked even in death, demanding the belt off his dried corpse.
Sometimes, Credence isn't sure he really wants eternity.
"Okay, honey!" Queenie's voice fades; she must be walking back down the hall.
"I thank You for Your wisdom and Your love..." Credence jerks the faucet down, hardly believing his own boldness as the water runs hot, as his fingers close around the width of himself. "I - I -"
Whatever wickedness had driven him to this runs short of letting him pray as he sins. With his free arm swung over his face, eyes obscured behind the crook of his elbow, hand braced against the shower wall, he tugs at himself roughly. Just enough, just until his muscles begin to pinch all over, body convulsing. Once his heart is racing and it feels as though the pleasure might be too much, he knocks the faucet back to cold and stands still as the water courses over him in rivulets. He grits his teeth against the throbbing ache between his legs, the pressure built up like water in the hose in summer, when he would put his hand over the top, feel it surging against his torn skin before turning it on a shrieking Modesty.
Modesty. Chastity. Ma.
"I thank You for Your wisdom and your love - " Toweling off his red face, his eyes, his arms, " - for all the acts of discipline to which I am subject, for sometimes putting me into the furnace to refine my gold and remove my dross."
His voice picks up in speed as he dries his legs, avoiding the tender space between them.
"If You should give me choice to live in pleasure and keep my sins, or to have them burnt away with trial, give me sanctified affliction. Deliver me from every evil habit, every accretion of former sins, everything that dims the brightness of Your grace in me, everything that prevents me taking delight in You. Then I shall bless You, God of Jeshurun, for helping me to be upright."
Down the hall, from the depths of the kitchen, he hears Queenie singing along to the radio. Credence hangs his towel from the towel hook that Jacob had hammered into the wall for him alongside the rest of theirs. He slides his feet through the leg holes of his pyjama bottoms, snaps the waistband hard enough to draw a flinch from his coiled muscles.
An awful little voice in the back of his head thinks, upright indeed.
"And thank You," he says loudly. "Thank You, Lord. Amen."
If Queenie suspects anything about his uncharacteristic morning shower, she isn’t letting on. Her hand on Credence’s elbow, she walks him down the street like a mother with a small child, guides him over crosswalks and through crowds, pointing and naming all the things he’s never had words for. Scaffolding. Honda. Gallery. Papaya dog. Boombox. Soda. Nodding out.
“It’s what he’s doing over there on that stoop,” Queenie says, frowning. “It’s the drugs. Heroin. Heartbreaking, ain’t it? But you should know things. Tina worries about you going out on your own ‘cause you’re so - well - you’re a sweetheart, sweetheart.”
There is more to that hanging unsaid off the edge of her tongue. Rather than elaborate, she takes him, blushing and hunching into the collar of his new jacket, to buy coffee from a corner deli.
“Deli,” Credence repeats dutifully.
“Didn’t you have delis on Staten Island?”
“No,” says Credence, and she leaves it at that, coaxes him into giving her his arm, which he does only after he’s checked all sides of the street in trepidation. No one is there, of course. All of the chaperones in their beards and black suits are back on an island he’s never seen, in a jail called Riker’s, awaiting trial. Queenie holds him gingerly, as though she’s afraid it’ll hurt.
She’s special like that, Credence thinks. Some things she just seems to know without needing to be told.
“Well,” she says at length, “I’m gonna take you to the deli on our block this week. You oughta get used to Chelsea so we can go out-out. We gotta get you away from that TV set before your eyes go square.”
"At least no one would recognize me."
Because she laughs, he lets himself smile. It’s a tiny thing, but it makes Queenie’s eyes narrow from the force of her own grin, and her laughter carries them like a buoy up the stretch of ninth avenue between the Goldsteins’ apartment on twenty-fourth street and the WNET station in a place called Hell’s Kitchen, which Queenie assures him has nothing to with religion.
“It’s kinda far, so we should take the subway,” she admits in undertone, “but I wanna show you around a little, too. Don’t tell Teenie. She wanted me to waste money on a cab.”
The idea that anyone would like to waste their money on him is utterly foreign to Credence. Something about it endears them both to him more. Queenie and Tina, even Newt and Jacob. He wants to repay in kind, to be endearing and entertaining, but the skill of it feels miles beyond him.
Instead, he finds himself tucking his hand firmly through the loop of her arm, his lips parted in thought.
“I never really walked around like this,” he hears himself say. “Just - like this. In the street. For fun.”
“Oh, honey,” Queenie sighs. “Oh, kiddo.”
It takes them over an hour to reach the building where WNET is housed. Much of this is Queenie's doing. She insists they stop on nearly every corner so that she can teach him something - trash collector, street dancer, dealer, cop, ConEd. Her arm tightens around his, but Queenie only smiles, soft touches, and his heart steadies itself. She gets them hot dogs across from Penn Station, pointing: Madison Square Garden. Cigar. Hockey. Tourists.
When she buys him a knit hat off a street vendor, Credence bites back his protests. He lets her style it on his head, sweeping his hair back from his forehead, hiding the blunt cut he's had his entire life by Ma's loveless hand.
"You could be a model with that jaw," Queenie says, and Credence is surprised to find himself laughing along with her.
Only once does he flinch, when she reaches out unexpectedly to fix a flyaway hair, and for a moment he sees a two-by-four, a cup of hot coffee, a wall of black rifle barrels, and ducks, stumbles. All the air goes out of their little balloon then. Her arm loosens, letting him pull into himself. Their feet kick up puddles as they cross the final intersection.
Credence doesn't look at her or the way her mouth quirks on one side, the way her left hand still hangs back as though it's waiting for him to reclaim it.
"You know," she sighs, "Teenie always worried about you, Credence. Ever since the summer. She used to talk about wanting to rent a car and bust you out."
Embarrassed, he shoves his own hands into the pockets of his jacket and nods into his chest, shoulders around his ears. He wants to say, good. A word like a jutted chin, all childish bravado, the kind of attitude that would have had him bowing beneath his own belt in Ma's house. Until the end.
"I wouldn't want Tina to worry about me."
"Tough luck, Chuck," Queenie laughs again, but the sound rings tinny in his cold ears. She stops suddenly in front of the revolving door and bites down on the side of her bottom lip. "It's gonna be busy in there, honey, so I just wanna say that it's okay if you wanna hold my arm again, or my hand. I don't mind."
Credence imagines himself, all however many feet and twenty-four years of him, in his new puffy coat that Newt had called an anorak and Credence himself privately considers overkill, another of Queenie's new words. He sees the two of them walking into the building, his hand in Queenie's, trailing after her like an overgrown toddler while Percival Graves frowns at them from in front of the camera. The thought of it clenches his stomach.
"Well, try not to look so glum about it," Queenie jokes. It's too close to the truth and falls flat between them. She takes his hand again.
"Queenie,” Credence says earnestly, “I’m really sorry.”
A little squeeze.
“Really, there ain’t nothing for you to be sorry about, Credence. I was only kidding you, honey, I don’t mind. I know it’s all so new for you.”
“I don’t know - I don’t know how to do any of this,” he insists, and suddenly the words are on his tongue, urgent. The floodwater, fingers in the hose. “I don’t know how to talk to people like this. And your - you don’t cover your hair. You got me a jacket.... I can’t tell if everyone’s really happy to have to be - to be spending so much time on me, or if -”
“I ain’t gonna turn on you, okay?” There is a fierceness in Queenie’s face, a hardening of her pretty nose, around her eyes, that is almost alarming in its intensity. Like the TV clicking off from the remote, Credence ducks despite himself, pulls his shoulders in.
“We can take a second, Credence.” Sighing. All the hard edges shaved off her voice, Queenie squeezes his hand again in hers. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, honey. That wasn’t for you. I don’t know what I’m doing either, you know? But we all gotta look out for each other. Hey - Credence, it’s okay. Look, before you, it was just me and Tina and Jacob and sometimes Newt in the whole world. That was it. I told you, Teenie’s been real worried about you. We all have. You’re like a cousin or something now, you know - one of the family.”
“Fine,” says Credence quietly, staring into the sidewalk. Shallow breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. The way they’d shown him in the police van, with the paper bag, as he’d pried his frozen fingers from the cover of Ma’s book and begged them to take it.
“Wanna go home?”
Yes. All the time. Forever. He shakes his head.
“Wanna go see how they make the news?”
Credence nods, lip between his teeth, the slightest quirk of his mouth. Tentative. An offering.
“Well, I know how to make news.”
Queenie’s laugh, as they clack their way across the marble floors to the elevators, is like prayer, like relief.
Chapter 2: Holy
I really can’t even begin to express how thrilling and encouraging it was to receive so much positive feedback for the first chapter of this. I have three fics plotted out for this series and am so excited to share them with you. I hope you continue to enjoy them, and your comments and kudos seriously make my week.
This one is a little longer. I hope it’s not too much so soon!
If anyone is curious, the picture of Credence looks a lot like this gif from the first movie - This gif
“All I am saying, Percival,” says the blond man at the news desk, “is that the governor has made a big mistake in overriding the Constitutional rights of these people - their God-given rights, as they see them - in forcing the hand of law enforcement officials through an executive order. I find the entire thing frankly alarming, politically very alarming.”
“Don’t the ends justify the means?”
“If you look at it in terms of liberating some kids from a very subjective take on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parenting, absolutely. But, this is a lot bigger than the kids, isn’t it? This is for the greater good of the citizens of New York, protecting them from government overreach. We’ve seen.....”
“Credence, honey, did you hear me?”
The blond man, in his dark suit and green tie, has to lean to whisper something in aside that Credence doesn’t catch. Percival Graves shake his head as the camera pans over to Seraphina Picquery with another breaking story.
Blinking, Credence tears his eyes from the desk. Queenie’s hand presses gently around his, urging him past the news set behind its wall of clunky black cameras, rows of blinking screens, more computers than Credence has ever seen in his life, even at the public library where Newt took him early on to find books on cult defectors.
His face is splashed across several of them - the same wide-eyed picture they’re all using. His numb panic, like old dairy cows when they stop making milk, when they smell the oil off the rifle barrel. It’s unnerving to finally read the terror in his own eyes the way he’d felt it then in his chest. Boring, too. He wishes they’d find another picture, another story to care about.
“Teenie’s on break back here,” Queenie says over her shoulder. “You wanna come watch from the little screens? There’s doughnuts.”
The last thing he wants amidst all this chaos is more sugar, but Credence follows dutifully, wincing only a little as her squeeze presses his knuckles together. His head swims in the sea of noise.
Another monitor lights up - the same photo, the videos he’s watched as often as they air of Ma in her long grey dress. Ma Verity, Pa Make-Peace, a whole line of them, long dresses and bonnets and black trousers and suspenders with their hands pressed before them as in a prayer procession, only the glint of the camera flash and the police flashlights off the handcuffs making it feel unreal, like a dream.
The monitor cuts to something else before their cameras reach the end of the line, but Credence knows it shot-for-shot. At the end is Chastity, drooling through her tears, her face an ugly red, childish and soft and scared. They have the same crying face, the drool and crumpled chin. He had never realized it until he saw it on the evening news.
His free hand flies to his head for the knit hat, tugging it down further over his eyebrows as they bustle past an animated group of people wearing headsets, but no one looks up.
Somehow the news room feels bigger than the outside, busier. It’s electric with buzzing and flashing screens and ringing telephones, TV commercial jingles playing muffled through a little television set near the prop desk where Percival Graves and Seraphina Picquery are shaking hands with the man in the dark suit.
Queenie’s hand slips out of his as they push through a heavy door and stumble out into a bigger room than Credence had expected, its wood panelled walls lined with sofas and chairs. On one of these, glaring into a folded newspaper, powdered sugar across her chin, sits Tina.
“Hey, Teens,” says Queenie loudly when their presence goes unnoticed. “Look who I brought to see you!”
At the same time, the door behind them is slammed half off its hinges, and Credence jumps, knocking Tina into the sofa with her newspaper fanned between them, his hands thrown out in apology.
“I’m sorry, so sorry,” he stammers, scrambling back.
“Gee-dammit,” says Tina.
“Holy shit,” says Percival Graves from the other side of the door. “You didn’t tell me you had this kid coming in. Where the fuck did you find him?”
Before Tina can answer, he steps over the threshold, a long leg in black trousers, shiny shoes, crooked grin: “Hey, kid, you want to be on TV?”
Stomach twisting, Credence stares.
“Credence, honey, c’mere.” Her voice and eyes low, Queenie doesn’t hesitate as she usually does before wrapping an arm around his shoulder and guiding him to a sofa in the back. “Just sit here a second, okay?”
His view of Percival Graves is obstructed by Tina and the open box of doughnuts, but her shrill whispers are not difficult to make out in the stillness.
“You cannot, cannot tell anyone you’ve seen Credence here, Mr. Graves, please -”
“What?” He hears the rustle of Graves’ suit, sees a shirtsleeve and a flash of something silver. “Why the hell not? He’s the story of the year!”
“He’s a boy, Mr. Graves. He’s not supposed to be here -”
“The kid’s in his twenties, Goldstein. Hardly a boy.”
He shivers at those words, about him, in Percival Graves’ red mouth, Queenie’s arm tight around his shoulder. The door swings shut with a heavy clunk behind Graves as he steps into the room, and Credence can almost make out half of his face, a tuft of an eyebrow. His breath snags in his throat.
“He’s not here for interviews. He’s not doing interviews. Especially not today, after we gave that - that Neo-Nazi airtime -”
“Grindelwald’s not a Neo-Nazi. He’s a Republican and an asshole, but he’s not -”
“His name is Gellert Grindelwald.”
“So,” Graves shrugs and sidesteps her, turning towards Credence so that they can make eye contact. He winks. “He’s from Fargo, or something. They’re weird up there.”
As if on cue, the break room door swings open again.
“Sorry,” says the blond man from the news desk. He smiles around the room a bit like a cartoon crocodile, all wide mouth and white teeth. “Forgot my overcoat.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” cries Tina, and Credence feels his body tighten. Her anger is like a weight on his chest and shoulders, caving them inward, self-protective. He pulls himself away from Queenie, forcibly back to the police van, the paper bag, a steady in and out, backwards from one hundred, Psalm 37. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture....
“I’m sorry, Teenie.” Queenie’s voice, somewhere near his shoulder. The sound around him is blurring, far away. “We should go. I shoulda checked.”
“Hang on a minute!”
“Queenie -” That’s his own voice cutting itself loose from his lungs like a balloon from a string. The strangest feeling. “Queenie, I need -”
Before she can turn him toward her, uncoil his tight shoulders and make him look up, Credence feels his legs unfold themselves from under him. His chest heaves. It’s just fear, he thinks, but his lungs feel full of water. Impossible, he wants to argue. No one ever drowned on dry land. But, then, of course, what does he know?
An arm that might actually be his own arm, attached to his own body, shoves a path clear through the thicket of bodies. He feels the cold door handle beneath his fingers distantly, thinly, voices through string and tin cans.
“Credence!” Someone calls out as the door slams shut behind him.
(Modesty likes to play with rolls of socks like they’re tiny dolls. She makes them clothes and hair from old yarn. Credence never tells. When Ma finds them, he claims them for his own and takes the beating. She never thanks him, he never wants her to. He’s taken to searching them out, unknotting them, hiding them in his pockets.)
Hell’s Kitchen is cold and dirty and rain-soaked as he stumbles out into it through the revolving door. His shoes flood with puddle water. Too late, he yanks them out. Out, in, out. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him....
Wait for what? He wants to scream. He should hit something. He should definitely not. He could scream, if he really wanted to. Kick his shoes back through the puddles until his feet freeze. Go back inside and apologize to his friends, his guardians, his whatever they are. Will they finally hate him? Does it matter? His shoulders feel tight. His chest heaves, battling to contain the surge, water in the hose. His neck aches from the weight of his head hanging off it, and he wants to bury his own fists in his mouth and bite them until the blood runs down his arms in sheets.
The fury has been there for years, since he was small, an itch up his spine, a shattered glass, a crying fit. Skin tight over knucklebone, knuckles in teeth, teeth and bone and bruises, split skin. He wants to run headfirst back into the revolving door until it blinds him.
Behind him, the door swings open with a rush of exchanged air.
“Go away, Queenie,” he gasps. “Leave me alone.”
It’s not Queenie’s hand in the black overcoat sleeve that takes him bodily by the elbow, propelling them both down the street. Their footsteps clatter in echo off the brick walls on both sides; for a moment, Credence thinks about running.
“Come on, kid,” says Percival Graves, “let’s get you the hell out of here.”
Out of here, his brain mimics. His teeth chatter. Graves’ grip around his elbow is too tight to attempt escape. And where to? He knows nothing about Hell’s Kitchen, except that the name is clearly exaggerated; he has been worse places.
Graves marches him silently down one block and up another, fast enough that Credence has to jog to avoid tripping over his sodden feet. A rhythmic clack of shoes on pavement, his heart begins to calm from its flurry. The hand on his arm is not comfortable, but it reassures him anyway, pressing down through the padding of his jacket, making his muscles slack. He feels like a pot taken off the burner just as it had begun to boil.
He wonders if Queenie and Tina know that Graves has taken him. Ninth avenue, Queenie had walked them up. He could find that again if he had to. He could ask someone for directions.
They stop in front of a squat building with glass doors and windows that read “Diner” in white chalk paint.
“Here we go,” says Graves, nudges him in with a hand around the nape of his neck that sends shivers down the length of Credence’s spine. He feels his muscles relax around it, his body leaning into the touch despite himself, but Graves makes no acknowledgement, if he notices at all.
The hand stays as they are led by a woman in a blue dress, gentle pressure, to a table with a booth in the back corner. He lets himself be pushed down into the seat, blinking and cold again as Graves slides in across from him.
By now, Queenie and Tina must be furious with him, or very scared. If there is a difference between the two, Credence hasn’t been able to locate it.
His fury is dull pressure on the back of his throat, a wash of stomach acid, like he’s overeaten something big and fried in oil.
His legs fidget on the booth, fingers finding a hole to pick at, a frayed rim of upholstery and petrified foam.
“Mr. Graves...” He digs into it with the ragged edge of a fingernail and watches their reflections wobble in the polished surface of the tabletop.
“Queenie and Tina,” Credence mumbles, “the Goldsteins -”
“- are probably back at the station, worried sick about you,” says Graves lightly. He holds up a large, laminated pamphlet. “Order something for yourself. My treat. You look like you could stand to gain about thirty pounds.”
When people give, like Queenie and Tina, they want you to take. Credence has become a skilled taker in the past two weeks, hands outstretched from dawn to dusk.
“I don’t know about you,” Graves says, , “but I’m in the mood for coffee. Do you drink coffee, Credence?”
“Well, do you want to?”
His heart has finally started to thud again against the confines of his rib cage, buzzed out of its sudden numbness by the crooked grin twisting Graves’ mouth into a shape he wouldn’t have dared think up in the shower. A steady rhythm, not the frantic jumble of the panic attack.
He should go before Queenie and Tina decide he’s not worth all this trouble. Before Graves catches him staring the way he knows he must be staring, naked and hungry and dark with sin. Credence eyes the door over the edge of his pamphlet and frowns.
“Tell you what,” says Graves in the same slow, warm tone, like he’s speaking to a child. “I’ll order two coffees, and you can decide for yourself if you’ve been missing out all your life.”
If he runs now, he won’t make it very far.
Worse, he doesn’t want to.
“Mr. Graves,” he tries again, forcing calm into his voice to stop it shaking. “I think I’d really prefer to go back to the station. Please.”
It’s so suspiciously simple that Credence can only blink dumbly through his eyelashes as Graves reaches under the table for something in his overcoat pocket. When he resurfaces a moment later with a large, black object, Credence pushes himself back into the booth on instinct. Clunky metal. That sends his heart skidding, and then it makes sense. Or really, it makes no sense for Percival Graves to shoot him here, in a diner. But nothing makes sense anymore. He dives.
“Jesus Christ almighty.” A heavy clunk on the table over his head might be the gun, or Graves’ fist. “It’s a cellular phone, Credence. I’m making a call to the station to let Tina Goldstein know where she can come and pick you up. Sit up, will you? ”
The roughness in Graves’ voices needles at his bruised cheek. Credence unfolds himself slowly. Blinking at his wet shoes, their scuffed brown leather, the only survivors of his defection. His face burns as though Graves had slapped him.
If he’s honest with himself, he would have preferred it to this silliness. Of course it’s a telephone. Of course, Mr. Graves would only want to call Tina to come and collect him. His heart remains in his throat anyway, a bone-deep thudding that he can feel from his belly to his ears.
He opens his pamphlet with trembling hands, chewing the sides of his lip. Not looking at Mr. Graves.
“I’m going to step outside for a minute,” says Graves, “and call Goldstein for you before she has a heart attack. I’ll be right back. It’s rude to make phone calls in restaurants, even diners.”
Credence doesn’t watch him go. The familiar sting of tears in the corners of his eyes comes unbidden, unwanted. He rubs them violently, until his vision goes black in spots.
It had been so easy just watching on the news. Dealing with the manifestations of his attraction in secret, in the shower, on so many pairs of soiled grey underpants in the bottom of the bathroom trash that he’s down to the final pair.
It’s only the second week, Queenie keeps saying, at every shattered glass, every tremble of his hand, his quavering voice. It’ll take time. You can’t just walk away from all that and into the world and feel like a whole live person all at once, honey.
Not for the first time, he thinks of home, and the longing is like a fist around his throat.
(Cows do not have eternal souls. At the time he had almost been jealous. Lucky creatures. His aim was better than she expected for a first time, for him. A clean shot, an instant kill. She made the same comment. Softly, her hand on his arm, loosing the gun from his hands, which had stopped trembling as soon as he pulled the trigger. She seemed frightened, and he bowed his head and bit his lip against the deep throb in his collar bone and said nothing. He had only hoped not to cause it pain.)
Somewhere in the white noise of the rest of the diner, the door swings open again. He locates it with his eyes, follows the lines of Graves’ black overcoat, the way it clings to his body like they were made for one another, and there is anger and there is fear and there is something else there that he doesn’t want to touch.
“I’m sorry,” Graves mumbles, picking up his pamphlet. “I had no idea you were so - it’s not your fault, anyway. Of course you are. You grew up in that - place. I should have thought this through.”
That place. His fingers curl around the edge of the pamphlet.
When three breaths pass and Credence has not answered, Graves carries on.
“I just wanted to help. You looked like you were having a panic attack. Do you know what that is? Coffee and food help with those, and cold water. Maybe less so, the coffee, actually.” He shrugs. “You still want anything?”
Their hands are splayed within inches of one another’s on the table, separated only by a roll of silverware folded into a paper napkin. Grasping distance. Like a spasm, Credence’s brain jumps to the warmth of Ma’s fingers, holding his head still beneath the kitchen scissors.
He thinks rapidly of the hand on his neck, on his elbow, the stickyness of his own dreams, his thighs pressed together. His legs squirm miserably against the squeaky fake leather of the booth.
“Credence,” Graves says with such abruptness that he worries his face had betrayed him, “have you ever been to a diner or, well, any restaurant before?”
It’s such a staid act now, having to explain himself to everyone, again and again. No, he doesn’t go to restaurants. Not with Ma, not alone, not with Percival Graves, of all people.
An irrational anger fills the pit of Credence’s belly, heavy and unnatural, but he opens the doors to it, welcomes it in. Better than nothing. Better than his fear of sitting across from this man with only a table between them.
“If you’re hungry, I can order something for you,” Graves offers.
There is that jutted chin attitude again, the little curve to the tip of his tongue that wants to snap back against his front teeth, hard enough to crack them. Credence swallows, darts a quick glance up through his lashes again.
“I think I’d like a coffee, please, Mr. Graves,” he says stiffly, pulls his elbows in and his shoulders up, scanning the chaos of the pamphlet in front of him. “Maybe also just a - a B-L-T.”
“How would you like your coffee? With cream, cream and sugar, only sugar, or plain - black?” asks Graves, without missing a beat.
When Credence does not immediately answer, Graves only shrugs.
“I prefer mine black, but if you’ve never had it before, go for the cream and sugar.”
Another woman in a blue dress returns with a pad of paper to write down what they’d like, and Credence’s fingertip is back on the split upholstery, the jagged tear. He picks foam out in tiny balls, rolling it between his fingertips, watching Graves’ reflection yawn.
He had seen restaurants in Lower Manhattan where they did weekend ministry, but only the outsides of windows from behind a stack of pamphlets on the dangers of witchcraft, the Devil in American media, the importance of beating your children young and hard, to prevent shootings and rape and whatever else unbelievers got up to in the modern Sodom and Gomorrah they called a city. Going anywhere near any place of business was always out of the question. The most he could do was watch, a bent figure in their odd little group of volunteers. A flock of Holy soldiers. Separate, apart.
After, in the van home, Ma would play the old cassettes she’d made him when he was very small and still got sick on the long drive. He had loved the way her voice, always soft, would roll out the stories like marbles, each character clicking into the next, a steady stream of logic. A moral framework that made perfect sense. The hairs on his neck would rise in awe as they reached the point where Lot’s wife, despite divine warning, looks back on the ash and smoke of her home and turns into a pillar of salt.
He listens with the same rapt attention now as Graves explains the words for restaurants to him in undertone. Waitress, menu, place an order, bill or check, cash or card, leftovers, doggy bag. It’s like filling in the empty space of a drawing with colored wax. The world made flesh, no longer sanctified, but breathing.
When their food arrives in plastic baskets, Graves unrolls the set of silverware from the paper napkin and sets it back on the table between them.
“How did you meet Tina Goldstein?”
Caught with a french fry in hand and ketchup on his upper lip, Credence shrugs.
He takes a careful bite of his sandwich and swallows a wince as Graves surveys him over his plate. Soft eyes, like worn shoe leather.
“She lost her job for you.”
“I know,” mumbles Credence, embarrassed.
There is so much more to it than that.
He wants to explain everything. His body feels charged, loaded with a bizarre impulse to bare itself down to the last vein, the last nightmare, the last childish fear. Loaded like the shotgun that Ma had known he would never turn on her, the final test of his will, Tina gone, hope lost, the emptiness of animal eyes and the lingering doubts. How was he to know for sure who had a soul and who did not?
He wants to prove to Percival Graves that he has a soul. Something about the way Graves looks at him, the cocked eyebrow and little smirk, makes him feel not so very sure about it himself.
He opens his mouth, but the first words to fall out are the ones he hadn’t been thinking of at all:
“Mr. Graves, what’s a Neo-Nazi?”
Graves sinks back into the booth. Broad fingers around the ivory lip of the cup, smudging the stains there.
“A bad person, essentially. A very - do you know anything about history?”
“Since God made the green Earth,” Credence replies promptly.
“Cute. What about World War Two?”
“Okay,” says Graves. “Wow. Sorry - not you, kid. It’s just too big to explain right now. They’re not good people. They’re racists, antisemites. They want supremacy, and the original ones killed a lot of people during a big war about forty years ago.”
“Grindelwald - ”
“ - is a very specific kind of specific kind of Republican,” Graves finishes. “Which, if you ask some people, is almost as bad. They’re giving Clinton a hell of a time, and he’s practically one of them. It doesn’t matter right now, anyway. Goldstein was right. People like Gellert Grindelwald... you’re better off with the Goldsteins, Credence. Actually, you really lucked out with the Goldsteins, I’d say.”
Right. Tina and Queenie.
“They should be here soon,” Graves says, as though he can read Credence’s mind.
“Don’t thank me. I shouldn’t have dragged you off like that.”
“I don’t mind,” says Credence quickly. His eyes widen in surprise at his own boldness. He gestures the crumbs where his sandwich had been. “Now I know that I don’t really like bacon.”
A little laugh. The sound works like an exorcism on his tight chest, drawing water from his lungs, and he finds himself leaning into it.
They eat together in silence until Tina is there, and Credence’s food is packed into a bag, and he lets her pack him into a cab, watching through the blurry frame of the open cab door as Graves withdraws a white card from the breast pocket of his overcoat and makes Tina promise to call a number.
“Well, Credence.” His body does not pull away when Graves leans into the doorframe. Graves’ eyebrows knit together, he smiles softly. Credence stares and stares.
“Take care of yourself, kid,” says Graves.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Graves.”
Another laugh. He pats the doorframe as he backs away, and then Tina is next to him, and the drive home is slow and grey and almost like falling asleep.
A further two weeks pass for Credence in a haze of TV static and appointments. Doctors, psychologists, lawyers, police officers. His hand aches from all the times he’s written statements and given his signature. His tongue fumbles numbly over words that have become rote, always the same sentences, in the same order.
His name is Credence Barebone. He didn’t know he had a birthday until Christmas Eve, 1995. The name on his birth certificate is Credence Barebone, too, no prior name, if he ever had one. The birthday on his birth certificate is November 9th, 1971. He was adopted by Mary Lou Barebone in October, 1972, almost a year old, in New York City, according to the paperwork. He remembers nothing else, just a blur of life on Staten Island, cleaning, praying, studying, feeding the cow.
Did he plan on leaving for a long time?
Why did he do it?
Because no reason that he has the words for.
Because Tina had arrived, taking his pamphlets when no one else would, slipping him aspirins for the pain in his hands. Because he had never realized anyone could be so kind without expecting anything in return, and when she had asked, he had been happy to give. Because Modesty kept making sock dolls, and he could barely hold his pamphlets straight on the weekends. Because he had loved the milk cow. Because if he was going to Hell anyway, he thought he might as well get a taste of what was coming.
How did he know about the kidnapped kids and the false back in Ma’s Bible?
He didn’t. He guessed. He had been desperate. He had been angry. He wanted her to hurt. She had called him stupid, and he would prove that he wasn’t. She had said she wasn’t his Ma; he would prove that she was. He had hit back, for the first time in his life, and he was afraid, and he wanted absolution before he died.
Did he know the police were going to conduct a raid?
His throat is tight as he recalls the moments preceding it, Ma’s calm blue eyes, glossy with tears, the words that had stung so vulgarly from her Holy lips. Your mother was a wicked, crazy little whore.
“She was hitting me,” he says dully. Words repeated so many times, they lose their meaning. “She was hitting me with my belt. My sister, my little sister, was crying, because the socks were hers. She couldn’t stop herself, because she was older when she came, and she still remembers her first family. She couldn’t get used to the rules. I felt angry. I couldn’t breathe. The nurse at the hospital said it was a panic attack. Ma was always beating me. I took the belt from her, and I hit her with it, and she told me I was going to burn in Hell. I was afraid, so I ran away.”
He looks at his hands, his shoes, the myriad desks and patterned carpets.
“I locked myself in her office. I already knew she was hiding something, because Tina Goldstein said she might be, in the summer. I don’t know why I took the Bible. Modesty was crying outside the door. Ma had a key. She hit me with a piece of wood, so I tried to run outside. She threw hot coffee on me. I saw the lights outside the window. I didn’t know who it was. All of the officers had their guns out. They told me to put my hands up, so I did. They told me to lay down on the ground. I was laying down, and they bound my hands, and they took the Bible, and I got in the van.”
They all say, Thank you, Mr. Barebone. You have been so helpful. You have been so brave. The more we know, the stronger the case. You are an adult. You won’t have to go back.
One day, the psychiatrist breaks script and asks him if he ever thinks about hurting himself, or anyone else.
He writes short, wiry notes on a yellow pad and tells Tina to take Credence to the pharmacy to pick up his prescription.
One day, the lawyer breaks script and asks him if he’s ever heard the word ‘homosexual’.
“Of course,” says Credence, because he has. It’s in the Bible, sort of.
“I hate to have to ask you this so baldly, but are you a homosexual, Credence? Do you know what that means?”
His fingers curl into the palms of his hands.
“I have to ask you this, because I don’t want you to be blindsided when we get to court. Your mother and some of the elders have been accusing you of sleeping with men during your weekend ministry trips. They want to discredit you as a witness, but there’s nothing wrong or illegal or immoral about wanting to sleep with men, Credence, if you have ever had those feelings.”
That night, he vomits in the shower. He kneels, dry-eyed and dizzy on the wet tile until his knees go numb.
In the third week, Tina suggests they put his meetings on hold. She sits with him on the sofa while they watch old movies, ABC and NBC and CBS, cartoons.
He tries to call Modesty. Her case worker sounds tired and disinterested on the phone as she explains that Modesty is in school. Because of the case, they aren’t allowed contact.
He calls Chastity, and she tells him to go to Hell.
He does not try to call Ma.
At the end of the third week, Queenie shows him how to navigate his email inbox on the clunky computer in her bedroom.
“I’ll just give you some space, sweetie.”
He stares blankly into the screen as she slips out, the dial tone a long screech before the page unfurls itself. He scrolls the short list of messages from lawyers, the confirmation from Newt about tickets to the Bronx Zoo, the sickeningly kind words of a pastor from a “liberal” church that his therapist suggested he get into contact with. In the middle of all of this, in bold type, is an untitled message from firstname.lastname@example.org.
It takes him two days to work up the nerve to open it. The word homosexual is like a blow to his eardrums, coursing through the veins in his temples.
Graves’ message is short.
> Hello Credence,
I apologize for taking so long to write to you, but it wasn’t easy getting hold of your email address. Before I write anything else, I ask that you please keep the contents of this email and any further emails to yourself. Delete them, if possible, and do not mention them in person to me or to anyone else.
It’s no less strange than anything else. He nods and reads hungrily, his tongue poking through his cracked lips.
> I would like to see you again.
I would like to see you again.
I would like to see you again.
I would like to see you again.
I would like to see you again.
The feeling returns, his brain pitched out the window, down the elevator shaft, tied to the front of the subway, hurtling through time and space. He pecks each letter into the keyboard with all the delicate concentration and fervor that twenty years of Bible study have imprinted like a scar on the muscles of his hands.
> Hello Mr. Graves,
I would like to see you again too.
Chapter 3: In Bloom
Credence discovers MTV.
Warnings for a lot of internalized homophobia and self loathing in this chapter. And gallows humor! Credence has a sense of humor! Hurrah!
You guys have been sustaining me with the comments and kudos. Thank you ten million. This fic is super plotted out, so updates will be regular. If I’m going too fast, let me know!
Also, feel free to check out this playlist I made.
It will be updated in real-time with each new chapter to add in the songs Credence is vibing to. This chapter’s music provided by:
Nirvana - In Bloom
Oasis - Don’t Look Back In Anger
George Harrison - My Sweet Lord
Nirvana - Breed
Nirvana - Lithium
The Smashing Pumpkins - Jesus is the Sun
Thank you forever Convexity for all the feedback.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
This time it’s a magazine, folded in half and rolled into a tube between an empty egg carton and a damp pile of used coffee grinds.
Jacob brings them in on the sly, a circuit of articles in newspapers and magazines, folded over and hidden in the mail, or the groceries, or anywhere else he thinks it unlikely for Credence to look. He isn’t wrong. For most of the weeks he’s been here, Credence has not looked. Constant coverage and breaking updates on the TV news has been enough for him.
There is so much news, in fact, in the outside world, he sometimes thinks it would be easy to drown in it.
He wakes up early, when it’s less likely anyone will wander into the kitchen for a glass of water. Unlike home, only Jacob wakes up with the dawn, so that he can get a start on the bread for his bakery. Credence lies still beneath his blanket until the final deadbolt thunks back into the lock. A little jingle as Jacob’s key is withdrawn, his whistling retreats down the hall.
He knows, in the way he knows now that he will not be smote for sitting too close to Queenie and Tina at dinner, that this preparation isn’t really necessary. No one would deny him the right to read a news article if he asked to. No one would say no to his face. But, old habits. The more weeks pass, the more those habits, so deeply ingrained, feel like old friends. He slides out from under the blankets as quietly as his body will allow.
Deliberate movements, muscles coiled. If you could pick any superpower, Jacob liked to ask Queenie and Tina and Newt, anyone, what would it be? Invisibility, Credence thinks, though no one had asked him. Once, Ma caught him sneaking out to the bathroom after dark. For a week, he could not write so much as a letter of his name. He never drank to fill his hunger again, but if he could have lived for years without being seen....
The magazine is exactly as he had seen it last, a little wrinkled beneath wilted leaves of lettuce. He has to work to detach the pages from one another, brushing dried coffee grind from the pictures, wincing at each rustle. Fortunately for him, the page he wants is marked with a crease in the top corner. It snags open easily on the edge of his fingernail and reveals a photo of a smiling family on a bright lawn.
WHAT WAS LIFE REALLY LIKE IN THE NEW SALEM CULT?, in block letters beside the photo, the family with their two-story house and their floppy-eared brown dog.
Swallowing, he reads in whisper to himself, “Alison and her two children, Hunter and Jackson, moved to the New Salem compound with Alison’s ex-husband Ralph, a corporate lawyer, in 1979.”
A smiling Alison in tan lipstick stands against the counter in her new kitchen.
“Drawn to its idealistic simplicity,” he reads, “and the spiritual strength of its close-knit community, the Thomas family sold their Upper West Side brownstone, their car, and all of their possessions. For five years, the family lived in a nightmare world of forced subservience to cult leaders and severe corporal punishment of their children....”
He reads it twice, blankly. Blinks again at the photos of Alison, Hunter, Jackson, and their dog, Walcott. Their brick house in New Jersey. Their spotless white kitchen.
“One of Hunter’s earliest memories, age five, is of playing in the mud in the cult’s biodynamic garden.”
Next to the anecdote about Hunter and Jackson and other children being whipped across the hand with a belt for pretending that hose water was anything but hose water, is a small snapshot that stops him cold.
Hunter (far left) and Jackson (middle right), 6 and 8, 1980, in a garden on the New Salem compound on Staten Island. They left with their mother in 1984.
Child Hunter and Jackson are holding hands and looking at someone behind the camera, their faces split in identical grins, their bare feet planted into the garden mud like the roots of two squat bushes. Behind them, his sister Chastity bent double, raking the vegetable patch with her fingers, two thin pale braids obscuring her eyes, which even then had been pinched, unhappy.
Credence stands in the foreground, a smudge of black hair and an angular face knotted into a frown, bare feet and bruised legs, his hands in fists.
He runs the math through his head, once and then again, not trusting himself. Summer of 1980. Halfway between eight and nine? Had he really ever been so small?
His haircut was the same then, blunt across his forehead and over his ears. Twice a month with the kitchen scissors, Ma’s hand on his neck, his chin. He traces it with his finger lightly, afraid to follow the waterlogged dips and pits in the paper, as though it might dissolve back into pulp beneath his touch.
Pictures were something Ma reserved for special occasions. Ceremonies and milestones, not a category that play would ever have fallen into. If he ever played, properly, like the Thomas boys, he can’t remember it now, but he drinks the picture in anyway, committing it to memory, detail by detail.
He had been so small. Slight and sallow and sullen. A scrawny garden weed in a striped t-shirt, baleful eyes. Already at six, the younger Thomas brother was as tall as he was, sturdier in his limbs, sure in his smile. Only five years of New Salem. An entire lifetime outside. A beaming mother in soft lipstick, a big house, a dog.
Now it floods back - the two boys in matching short sets, the father with a mustache, Pa Make-Peace. Abstinence and Avarice, the brothers who liked to run across the field when it rained. Small hands around his, poking fingers in the hose, showing him how to make the arc of water into a blast, soaking Chastity and laughing behind their knuckles. They told him about superhero comics. He showed them how to bend a belt back and forth until the edges went soft, and when they were whipped, they had welts. He had compared their fading marks to the blood on his own hands in silence.
Bitterness climbs up the back of his throat like a bubble of dish soap. Sits on his tongue. Carefully, quietly, he slides the rolled magazine back into the gap between the egg carton, the lettuce and coffee grinds on the top, a crumpled napkin, and lets the lid swing shut.
Something shifts after the magazine article.
It’s not a big shift. Queenie still makes breakfast every morning, too sugary, too buttery, too much conversation. It’s daily. It’s rhythm. When Jacob goes to the bakery, he whistles, and when he comes home he whistles. He brings them pastries and day-old bread.
One day Newt introduces Credence to the National Geographic; he spends the afternoon tracing whale shapes into his knees over the cotton blanket. Sometimes Tina asks if he wants to go for walks, and they pick their way uptown and crosstown, always stopping for coffee, which he drinks now with milk but no sugar and Tina with nothing. He does not think of Percival Graves, or his emails, or the lack of response.
One day he walks in on Queenie whispering into the telephone in the kitchen, twisting the line around her finger.
“Oh, Credence, honey, you startled me!”
She hangs up after. He checks his email inbox while the line is free.
Then there are the harried conversations Tina and Newt have beyond the bathroom walls.
There is the time Jacob asks him to get off the computer so he can make a call, and then locks the door as the name Credence creeps out through the cracks like a startled mouse into the empty hallway.
Queenie takes him to the zoo, and they eat popcorn and smile at the monkeys until she says, with tears in her eyes, how glad she is that he found them.
Credence does not bother to correct her, to argue the finer details. Tina found him.
Without Tina, he would be a nothing. Or, without Tina, he would be home.
Vaguely, he wonders if he’s dying and no one quite knows how to tell him.
Over everything looms the impending trial, a crackling storm cloud. The lawyers want more statements. The police officers want dates. The psychiatrist wants him to take medication. He does not say, “So that you don’t kill yourself before the trial,” but Credence knows.
He stops watching the news when they bring in more ex cult members to discuss his mother’s crimes to an audience of millions. It feels wrong, and it feels like justice. It feels like fire raining down on the sinful because there had been a promise of no more floods.
One day Tina gives him a stack of books and tells him to look through.
One day Queenie gives him an old Walkman and a box of tapes and tells him to take what he likes.
If he is dying, at least the soundtrack has improved.
If he is dying, at least with words on his tongue.
When Graves finally writes, when the computer finally connects, when the page finally loads, he reads it once.
I apologize for the delay. Life has been busy. I’m sure you know the feeling well yourself.
I generally leave work around midnight these days. Maybe we’ll run in to each other?
It takes Credence six days to work up his nerve.
In the meantime, he listens to a lot of Nirvana on the Walkman that Queenie gave him. It’s Devil music, raw and rough and ugly and full of anger. He listens to In Bloom and rewinds and listens again, and it makes his head buzz and his heart tight. The panic grips him after, to think he might have lived a whole life and died without it.
When he tells this to Queenie in the kitchen over breakfast, in fewer words and without mentioning death, she says, “Gosh, honey, you shoulda broke out sooner. They was really big for a while, you know?”
Of course, Credence doesn’t know. But Queenie does.
Two full days he spends glued to the couch, the remote control on his knee, watching MTV.
“I knew you’d like it,” she beams.
To email@example.com, he types, smiling to himself:
> Hello Mr. Graves,
Thank you. I have actually been very busy yes. Have you ever listened to Nirvana or Joni Mitchell or the Raincoats? I had never heard music like this before to be honest. Or seen a CD. We mostly had vinyl records at home, but I was learning to splice and mix cassette tapes for weekend ministry sermons before I left. I am going to get a machine and try to make some mixtapes here.
On the night Credence finally decides to go through with it, time passes as on a spoonful of honey. He waits patiently through dinner, polishing off his carrots and salad until the plate is clear, feigning polite interest as Newt tells them about the baby penguins he’s nursing and Tina about her latest meeting with the Manhattan DA. The evening winds down in drips, seconds stretched, Jacob pouring wine, Queenie’s laugh, the scratchy ticking of the clock in the hall. Finally, Newt begs off for bed before an early morning, and Tina for the shower.
When Credence jumps up to gather the dishes, Queenie for once does not try to stop him.
“You’re too good to us, Credence,” she says brightly, as though she hasn’t been cooking his meals and buying him clothes for over a month now.
“I want to,” he insists, and it’s not a lie.
Credence likes doing dishes. It’s routine, and it’s rhythmic. Soothing, like prayer. Sponge, soak, scrub, rinse, dry. There’s nothing different about household chores no matter where you are. All the same process of removing dirt and grease, making new. Only now there is no Ma in her office listening for whispers or giggles or other deviant behavior to put a stop to. Just Jacob, whistling to himself as he dries a dish and lays it on the stack in the cabinet.
“Jacob,” Credence says slowly.
His heart still races, starting conversations without any hint of permission. When Jacob stops whistling, he almost apologizes on impulse, fingers pressing into the curved porcelain of a coffee mug. But Jacob only smiles and turns expectantly.
“Jacob,” he says again, like the word is a dog about to tug the leash from his hands and bolt, “I - there was a magazine article the other day - in the trash can. I’m sorry, I read it - ”
“What - out of the trash?”
His stomach a hard knot in the pit of his abdomen, Credence nods.
“Aw man, dude, you don’t have to do that,” says Jacob. “If you wanna read something, you can ask me anytime, I’ll pick it up for you.”
“There was a picture of me in the magazine,” Credence continues rapidly. His fingertips press white and flat against the side of the cup. “When I was - I was a little kid. And some other kids.”
Jacob nods, suddenly still. “Yeah, me and Queenie thought it looked like you.”
Neither of them moves for a moment. Embarrassment washes over Credence in hot waves, prickling at the skin of his newly healed cheek, his ears, his nose. The sink runs, a dull road of water through the faucet.
Ma believed in yearly baptisms, contract renewals with the Lord. Stand-ins for the circumcision she would probably have liked to have given him again and again if there had been enough flesh to feed her knife.
He sees her when he blinks, in the blurry angles of Jacob’s elbows and the dishcloth and the scratched linoleum. Ma with her hands in his hair, the dirty beach by the ferry, the moon in the clouds, the small crowd in long skirts, black trousers, bearded mouthless faces, the way the salt clung to his skin after like a birthing caul. She always held him down seconds longer than he could handle, the old-penny taste of terror on the back of his tongue as his jaw began to open of its own accord, lungs expanding, and she would yank him back to the surface, and his throat would burn for hours, long after he’d coughed out what he’d swallowed.
The hand on his arm is not Ma, but he pulls away from it anyway. His skin feels tight, taut and stretched over the sharp bones of his face.
“I’ll see if I can get another copy,” Jacob promises. His hand is still hanging in the air between them. Credence steps away from it.
“If you want the picture. Sorry we tossed it, Cre. I guess I just thought, well, you seemed like you needed some space. I know they’re not really giving it a rest yet while the case builds, and Tina mentioned - ”
He cuts off abruptly.
“Thank you,” Credence says, surprised by the sharp edge of his own tongue. He winces, but the warning stands. Jacob retreats.
“Look, if you ever need to talk, man. I mean - I know Tina has a little more experience in that area than I do firsthand, but I’m here, too. We all are.”
They finish the dishes in silence, Credence with the sponge and Jacob with the cloth. If he lies a little, feigning exhaustion, yawning and blinking sleepily to get them to pack off sooner, Credence thinks it’s probably a forgivable offence.
“G’night, dude,” says Jacob from the doorway, and Credence flashes him a rare tight smile, almost a grimace.
He slips out through the front door after Jacob and Queenie’s light has been out for twenty minutes. Pauses after each step, using every muscle to keep his body upright, poised to slip back into the neatly prepared blankets on the fold-out sofa at the slightest whisper. No one comes. They’re all asleep. Breathing through his nose, as though the sound of his mouth might give him away, Credence presses his thumb into the side of the main lock and closes the door carefully behind him.
Chelsea looks different at night, from inside the padded hood of his anorak. Black streets like long scars cross each other under a sickly yellow lamplight. Too many shadows. As if under hospital lamps, the Goldstein’s little building glows eery green, lilting and crumbling in places, its front steps collapsing into themselves like a row of broken teeth.
He takes the left down 24th, the way Tina often leads them, hunching into his jacket against the cold, jumping at each passing shadow. Skirting the scraggly grass of the park that Tina says to stay away from, the outstretched hand and hollow eyes of another body in lamplit pallor. A woman with a shopping cart full of old junk stops in his path to scream about sinning before the Lord. Those words land, almost turn him back. He almost falls to his knees, at her feet, conditioned to confess, to beg forgiveness. That old-penny taste, coppery, bloodguilt on his tongue. And then she waves him off, screaming hoarsely.
“Fuck you, you sick little fucking maggot cock, bleeding asshole fucking cunt!”
“I’m sorry!” he says, meaning it, and darts across the street, hands in his pockets, ducking under his hood.
The rest of the way is less eventful. It’s a long, cold walk to Hell’s Kitchen. Longer at night than it had been with Queenie or Tina, but each block east of the water and north of Chelsea breathes a little livelier. No one else calls out at him. The huddled, nodding out bodies of junkies thin down to lone stragglers on the occasional corner. He feels charged, renewed with purpose, matching his steps to the relentlessly pounding rhythm of In Bloom.
There is no one outside the WNET building, but the lights are on. Seated, with his knees pulled into his chest and his back to the wall, he’ll be able to see anyone leaving or coming. He checks the cheap sports watch his psychiatrist had given him to help organize the gaping emptiness of days and days with nothing to do, try measuring things in units of fifteen.
He can give it fifteen minutes. If Graves hasn’t come out by then, he’ll go back.
If Graves hasn’t come out by then, he’ll give up.
And then he thinks from nowhere, a mental flinch: you must not lie with a man as with a woman, for that is an abomination.
Hours kneeling in a back room on beds of rice, reading that phrase aloud, in the little church where they held weekend ministry. Always precluded by the creaking floorboards, the doors that squeaked deep in their joints like a pair of gossipy old women, Ma’s voice from the middle step, Credence, where have you been?
If he waited until the chaperones were busy corralling an impatient Modesty, he could slip down Pike Street or Henry. Once a week, Saturdays. The television set in a shop window, dancing men on the screen, newscasters and commercial actors - anything. Anyone.
I lost track of time telling someone about the Good Word. They were really interested.
The way that Jacob had looked at him in the kitchen after dinner.
Tina and Newt and whispered conversations behind closed doors.
Queenie with the tears in her eyes.
Are you a homosexual, Credence?
Jacob knows. He must know. Tina, who talks to the lawyers and who always seemed to have an extra insight more than he did into his own home, his own mother; she definitely knows.
Which means Newt knows. Queenie knows. And still, they share their home with him. Their bedsheets. Their knives and forks, cups and plates, things they put into their own mouths, touch with their own bodies. Does it say more about him or them? Maybe he’s not guilty yet, but only for lack of experience. He could be just as easily. The thought makes his stomach clench and unclench, a flexing fist.
At least with Ma, it had always been simple. This or that. Heaven or Hell. Sinner or Saved. Jesus or the Devil. If he bit his lip, he bled. If he chewed the nail on the side of his finger, she made him cut the others low, until they hurt. Actions had consequences. Being had consequences.
Everything since has felt like floating through space, which may or may not actually exist. According to Newt, it’s not so much a matter of faith as of scientific fact, but he isn’t entirely sure he wants to believe in any of it.
Any of it.
A blast of icy wind sweeps over him, knocking the hood from his forehead, and his entire body shivers, a violent contraction of muscle over bone. He rubs the dry skin of his wrist beneath his jacket sleeve absently as his teeth chatter. Kurt Cobain’s voice twists through the wires connecting the speakers of his headphones, strangled and hurt, a brittle anger Credence had never thought possible to duplicate beyond the layers of his own skin.
I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care I don’t mind I’m afraid I’m afraid I’m afraid.
He jabs his finger into the buttons along the side and the sound cuts.
Eight minutes, and Graves is not there.
At ten minutes, he starts the music again but winds forward, the tape whining, until a new song picks up.
Sunday morning is every day for all I care, and I’m not scared. Light my candles in a daze cause I found God, yeaah-yeahhhh.
Twelve minutes. Credence laughs. It’s hoarse, a bark, and it takes him a minute to realize that the sound is odd because of its unfamiliarity.
“Credence, is that you?”
Fifteen minutes on the dot. He jumps to his feet, pocketing the headphones with shaking hands.
Graves is wearing the same black overcoat as on the first day they met, an untied scarf draped impractically around his neck. No hat. Neat hair. His eyebrows draw together the way they do when he reports on robberies and carjackings and statistics about municipal homicides on the rise as he takes Credence in, the rumpled green anorak and inkblack hair growing out at last in uneven tufts.
“Come on.” He sighs. “I’ll buy you a coffee.”
This time, Graves seems careful not to touch him as they march against the frigid wind towards the squat diner with its chalk paint windows. He holds the door open at a respectable distance, gesturing a free table, lays his overcoat onto the booth before he sits, adjusts his trousers. Credence drops down across from him like an ear of corn in the husk of his jacket, shoulders high.
“What were you listening to?”
“Oh - ” His fingers fly to the Walkman clipped to his waistband, depositing it on the table between them like an explanation in itself. Music.
He says, “Um, Queenie gave me a whole box of old tapes from everyone, even people from work. It’s - I saw a music video of them on MTV. An old one. Queenie said they haven’t put out anything new in a few years, but they used to be big - ”
As he stammers his explanation, Graves cracks the Walkman open with his fingertip and raises an eyebrow.
“I must say, Credence, I hadn’t pegged you for a fan of grunge.”
A few weeks ago, those words would have brought a flush to Credence’s face, made him stutter apologetically about not understanding. Now he shrugs, hunching only a little, and scoops his prize up with his left hand, bracing himself against the edge of the booth with his right.
“I like it,” he says quietly, squeezing the seat. “I could never, at home - I didn’t know anyone made music like this.”
“It was a unique sound,” Graves agrees. “A little after my time.”
“It would be nice if they made a new album.”
Something in Graves’ face slides out of place, an eyebrow, the corner of his upper lip.
“Credence - ” he says, and Credence feels his stomach clench and unclench again, the pumping fist, as a waitress in a blue dress appears at the end of the table like an act of witchcraft, pad in hand.
“Two coffees,” says Graves smoothly, shaking out his menu. “Credence, would you like anything else?”
“No, thank you, Mr. Graves.”
“Please, call me Percy,” Graves says. His eyes never stray from the menu. “My other friends do.”
If the black and white tiles of the floor could split open and swallow him into the depths of the Earth, the pits of Hell itself, it would not be far enough. His face burning, Credence drops his gaze to the knees of his trousers. He traces the line of corduroy like a scar, like a long street up his thigh and bites his lip to suppress the grin tugging wildly at its corner.
“Entirely up to you,” continues Graves. “But, I would like to point out that it is midnight on a Friday, and about - oh, twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit, and you do not have the look of a boy who just hopped out of a warm cab.”
“To see me?”
Twelve cord lines in, Credence freezes. The word hitches in his throat, warning flashes like police flashlights, a wall of loaded guns. He expels a shaky breath, draws in another.
“Yes, Percy,” he says flatly. “To see you.”
What he is not expecting is for Graves to laugh, a low chuckle rolled from the back of his throat to fill the space between them.
“You are an utter treat,” says Graves, and suddenly they are making eye contact, Graves’ deep brown and laughing, Credence’s half-obscured by his lashes, black like the corduroy beneath the pad of his finger.
“I’m a homosexual,” he says. A brain tic. Verbal vomit. The muscles in his back arch, legs strung tight, ready to run, or to prostrate himself across the tile floor. This or that, survive or die. Absolution or self-immolation. Maybe the two are not exclusive.
Graves laughs again, but his eyes are soft and dark, drawn in under his thick eyebrows as he sets his menu on the edge of the table.
“So am I. Flattered as I am, though, if you were trying to proposition me, I have to very respectfully decline. I’m fourteen years your senior, and I think Tina Goldstein would murder me in my sleep, if she knew where I lived.”
Credence’s pulse jumps so quickly it feels like his head has been pitched forward into the table and yanked back by an invisible fist. Graves, the table, his corduroy trousers all float loosely in the slipstream of this violent motion. His hands go cold. Numb and detached from the rest of him. He shoves off against the edge of the booth, rising too quickly, the tops of his thighs colliding with the metal frame of the table edge.
“I have to go,” he says to the floor.
“Credence - ”
He half expects Graves to follow after him down the cramped aisle, through the glass door, to grab his elbow on the street corner and drag him back. Do what with him? Hit him? Kiss him?
The heavy footsteps echoing off the pavement are entirely his own, thick smacks, stone to worn rubber to flesh to bone. He runs until the balls of his feet feel bruised and then fractured, until his lungs are in shreds, throat burning against the raking cold. Every year a baptism. A covenant. Salt and water, scrub and make new. Drowned for an offering, to make a point.
By the time he hits 27th and 9th avenue, he is staggering. He drags himself the remainder of the way, westwards along two long avenue blocks and three shorter down. The woman with the shopping cart is gone. Sick little fucking maggot. Oh, but he is going to Hell. Alone. It might even be funny if he didn’t feel so miserable and bone-tired about it all.
He spits onto the stone steps before his body collapses, and the sobs wrack and make raw the thin meat in the spaces between his ribs.
A lightbulb flickers on in the vestibule above him. A door that croaks like the fat toads that used to gather in the grass around Community House after a hard rain. Shuffled steps.
“Is that you, Credence?”
Unlike Queenie and Jacob and even Tina, Newt keeps his distance.
“Credence, are you all right?” His voice is always soft, gentle, so used to coaxing frightened animals from their pens. “Can you come inside, please? Shall I come and get you? It’s freezing out there.”
More shuffled footsteps. The door snaps back into its frame, and Newt speaks softly, close enough that Credence can feel the warmth of his breath on the back of his neck. And then there are two slight hands around him, heaving him up, drawing him close. Without saying anything, Newt unlocks the door and guides their bodies, staggering, to the stairs. He lets Credence lean into him, his arms a firm restraint, as though he knows what Credence is thinking, has also seen the image of a scrawny body in a green jacket fluttering down the length of the staircase like a wisp of smoke.
“Here we are,” he says needlessly at the apartment door. It swings in at his touch, and Newt mutters something about getting Credence a set of keys, deposits him on the sofa bed, unties his shoes so that Credence can kick them off.
“If you want to talk about it,” Newt offers.
“No, thank you,” says Credence, wiping his mouth, his eyes. Newt only sighs and nods.
“I’m going to lock the door,” he says. “and go back to bed. Please knock if you need anything.”
Of course, Credence thinks, even if the room were on fire, he would only knock to give warning.
This he does not say. His body sinks limply into the flimsy fold-out mattress. In the hall, the clock ticks, and time seems to yawn, 2:10 to 2:12. 2:15. To be sure they’re still moving at all, he watches the seconds expand on his plastic wristwatch.
At three o’clock even, Credence turns on the TV, scrambling the volume to a low murmur. It’s less watching so much as letting the coloured lights and sounds reflect off of his face and eyes, but it keeps him awake without making his brain work.
He stares at three music videos in silence, still in his anorak and corduroy trousers. His eyes are beginning to glass over by the time a new program flashes across the screen, not music videos, but angled shots of an audience screaming as a woman’s voice promises cheerfully,
“One hundred love-starved people looking for romance right here on MTV...”
An ugly tattooed Cupid flaps across the screen, falling to rest above a block-text title.
“Singled Out,” Credence murmurs, sitting up. He rubs his thumb over the volume button absently as the camera bounces from the host to a crowd of eligible bachelors to the cheering audience and back. A young woman is paraded out in blindfold; Credence blinks, trying to imagine his mother seated at his side, watching this alongside him, but the images won’t connect.
“Katrina’s a twenty-two year old hairdresser who knows exactly what she wants in a man. She once walked into a telephone poll scoping out a date. Ouch!”
If he were on the show, the blindfold alone would have been enough. The screaming audience. How did anyone stand it? The humiliation?
“Credence is a twenty-four year old virgin who recently defected from his mother’s religious cult,” he mutters. Seized by a bizarre impulse, he sits forward, lays a hand across his eyes. “He’s never had a date, but he ran away from friendly coffee because he was scared. Ouch!”
On screen, the audience laughs.
As if by magic, his chest feels looser as soon as the show wraps up. The skin around his eyes is still dry and puffy and red, and his mouth feels tacky inside from lack of spit, but even the physical discomfort of being underslept and huddled on a lumpy mattress is almost like relief. He rolls over in the dark after the TV zaps off, hands clasped together, and mumbles a quick prayer before falling into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning, even Queenie has to go to work. Credence watches from her bedroom doorway as she tosses a handful of lipstick tubes into her purse.
“Be good, honey,” she pauses, taps his chin with her finger and a little wink. “If you need anything, just call. The numbers are on the fridge!”
He wanders the apartment in a t-shirt and underwear, cereal bowl in hand, reveling in the freedom and the privacy. An entire apartment to himself for an entire day. He had been stupid to be anxious.
Breakfast is chocolate cereal and Coca Cola, because Jacob said to help himself, and because he can. He still covers his mouth when he burps, still tenses and glances around, but the empty kitchen answers only in silence. He drops his bowl into the sink and washes it quickly, running his tongue over his front teeth. Everything tastes sweet and sticky. For once, he enjoys it.
With no one making phone calls, he can fire up the dial-up connection and play online Solitaire until his eyes bleed, if he wants to. He doesn’t, because online Solitaire turns out not to be much better than regular Solitaire, but he allows himself fifteen minutes in the paint program before the ridiculousness of his stick figure drawings drives him to the familiar shallow pool of his email inbox.
> Dear Mr. Graves, he writes. I mean, Dear Percy.
He holds down the backspace key until the message is deleted and sits back, flexing his hands, stretching the taut scars that ache less now with help of a cream which Newt swears he did not steal from the zoo.
> Dear Percy, he hunches back over the keyboard, types deliberately, biting his lip.
> I wanted to apologize for my actions last night. I should not have run away like that. I was scared because of what I told you. I have never said those words out loud before or even really thought them. I know that I will go to Hell for the way that I am and the things that I want
If he were on an episode of Singled Out, this would be the point where the audience would awww in exaggerated sympathy. The thought knocks a quirk into the corner of his mouth.
> I promised not to speak about our emails in person, and I will not. Please, if you can do the same for me, I do not think I am ready or maybe will never be ready to say these feelings out loud. Maybe this will not even be a surprise to you. My Ma was always suspicious about me. I think she always knew, since I was little. I think that everyone here knows, too. They have not said anything yet, but I am waiting for it. I have no choice anymore. Ma is going to tell the entire court about me. I wanted to tell you first is all, before you have to talk about it on the news.
For the rest of the day, Credence lies on the sofa draining soda after soda from an armful of cans, until his heart is fluttering erratically in his chest and his bladder feels ready to burst. MTV drags him through more Singled Out, 120, a show about a cab driver, more music videos than he can hope to remember, even with the names of all the best ones scratched into the back of a notebook in ballpoint pen.
He thinks, as he crushes cans for the recycling bag in the kitchen, that it was the best day of his life, or close to it.
But then by five, nothingness loses its appeal. The empty rooms sound like white noise, radio static. Credence decides to let himself pee and shower. He avoids himself in the foggy mirror, dresses in the last of his clean clothes, gathers the dirty laundry in the little bag that Tina gave him.
The apartment could use a tidying, so he wipes down the kitchen and bathroom, vacuums, folds in the sofa bed, dusts the TV and the little bookcase full of Queenie’s magazines until his hands itch. He must have fallen asleep soon after, slouched into the sofa cushions, because he wakes next with a hollow ache behind his eyes and a blanket tugged up to his chin. Shadowy figures pace in and out of sight behind the cracked door to Queenie and Jacob’s room, whispering.
“...Newt said, crying on the front step....”
“...only gonna get worse before the trial, they’ll tear him apart....”
“...should talk to him?”
“...no idea how much he knows about it, but....”
Him. They know and are talking about him.
Did he exit back out of his email inbox before he left the computer? Do they know now that it’s entirely real, that he has already sinned?
His mouth tingles dryly. He flexes the skin of his palms. As if controlled by an invisible remote, his body unfolds itself, leg-by-leg. He stands and folds the blanket mechanically, slides his feet into his shoes, clips the Walkman to the waistband of his trousers, shrugs into his anorak.
Outside is colder by evening than it had been the night before, and Credence shivers under the shell of his jacket as he takes the now-familiar left down 24th street. Behind the Goldsteins’ building, the sun hangs low over the water like a split yolk in a pan, bleeding orange into the pale winter sky. He huddles deeper into his hood.
The walk back to Hell’s Kitchen is longer and bruising on the soles of his feet. If not for the tall buildings caging his stretch of sidewalk, the wind would bring him to his knees. It cuts through the thick corduroy of his jeans, wraps itself around the joints of his legs and ankles until they refuse to bend, but his body feels outside the control of his brain, a marionette with cut strings. He pauses only long enough to switch tapes, his fingers stiff and burning. The new music hardly registers above the din of traffic.
By some miracle, Graves is standing outside the building as he shuffles across the street, a cigarette in hand, the blocky cellular phone pressed to his ear. He straightens when he sees Credence, dropping the phone into his pocket.
It’s like moving underwater. Arms, legs, hands all slowed, lungs compressed. He falls into Graves’ arms before he registers that they were outstretched, and then he is being held, and the hand on his neck is firm and unyielding, and it’s like resurfacing for air. Sanctified. Lungs stinging.
Graves is murmuring against his ear, a hand on his back, turning them, pulling them from the street into the warm lobby.
“Come inside, it’s so cold....”
Credence cries like a child. Deep, wrenching sobs that squeeze his ribs, his chest heaving. He balls his hands into fists and flattens them against Graves’ chest, pushes, twists his fingers in the thick fabric of his black overcoat, and Graves holds him steady, rubs his back, whispers gently, words that make no sense to his waterlogged brain.
“Before anyone sees you,” Graves says, tugging the hood over his forehead. “I’ll take you upstairs. Come here, there you go. Deep breaths.”
The elevator is a blur of green jacket hood and wood paneling. He leans into Graves’ arm around his back and the hand on his neck, lets the station pass in a series of absurd sensory input, like a scrambled TV channel, a mix of colour to the wrong forms, shadows shaped like cameras that make sounds like human beings. The breakroom is empty. His body slides loose-limbed onto the edge of a sofa, held up by its rigid back and the hand still wrapped firmly around the nape of his neck.
“We have to do something about this habit of yours,” says Graves. “That’s a long walk in weather like this, Credence. You don’t even have the right clothes on.”
His brain rattles to the sound of we, we, we, we.
“Didn’t Goldstein get you any winter boots?”
“It’s not her problem.”
His voice, when he can finally force the words from the underside of tongue, sounds watery and small. A little boy’s voice. A boy’s hands, picking the skin at his fingers, blotchy and red from the cold. Love-starved, bloodguilt. Words like great, grey whales in the National Geographic, charging at him through the screen, like in Free Willy, which he had cried over in the shower. Like the sounds beneath a full bath that he knows are really the immense echo of his own body moving through the water, his own heart pounding in the vein that runs up his neck, through his temple, along the jaw that Ma had cut with his belt when she missed in anger, a rare mistake. A loss of control.
“I don’t need winter boots,” he sniffs as Graves shakes his head.
“I only have about half an hour before I have to go on air, so I won’t argue this right now, but if you really are so determined to see me, you need cab money or decent cold-weather clothes, Credence.”
“You don’t wear a hat.”
In another life, he would never have dared snap back at anyone so petulantly. Ma would have raided the depths of Hell herself, torn him from the Devil’s arms if only to give him a final beating for such insolence. The idea of it is so absurd, it chokes a soft laugh from the back of his throat, and he sits up, rubbing the wetness from his eyes with cold fingers.
Credence is twenty-four years old and engaged to Satan. He’s looking for an older man to sin with - can we say adult-ery? Bueller? Bueller?
It’s as if the floodgates have been opened, all the words, all the jokes, all the snark and irreverence of everything he’s been watching and listening to for the past month and a half rushing across his brain, crashing against his skull. An entire childhood, lighthearted to the point of lightheadedness, the petulance and insolence of missed teenage years, all the times he could have talked back, slammed a door, kicked a can, made someone laugh. Graves is saying something, but he tunes out, glues his jaws together.
“Credence, are you listening to me? I am going to put you in a cab back to Goldstein’s. I’ll give you my number. Next time you feel an urge to hit the streets, call me so I can at least call you a cab, and we can grab coffee. In the daytime, preferably.”
“I want to see your house,” he says suddenly.
There is hesitation and something deeper, like fear, in the way that Graves pulls away to scan the room, his eyes flickering across Credence and the sofa and the door as though seeing them for the first time. Credence’s own muscles tense. All the boldness he had felt a moment before leaks out of him, leaving him cold and hunched on the sofa. He opens his mouth to apologize as Graves pulls a little card and a pen from his pocket.
“That has got to be the most direct pick-up line I’ve ever been hit with,” Graves laughs. His features smooth back, but the smile doesn’t quite meet his eyes. “And I live in an apartment, but fine. Go home and wash your face. I’m giving you my number, and you can call me on Tuesday for the address. Take a cab.”
He pressed the card, with a roll of money, into Credence’s hands, holding a finger up to his mouth to hush his protests.
“We will talk about all of this, Credence,” Graves promises as they step into the elevator, his fingers pinching the anorak hood to stop it falling. “But today I have to work, and you should go home and sleep.”
His hand doesn’t leave the back of Credence’s neck until the cab is at the curb, yellow door swung open, and Credence finds himself alone on a brown leather seat, stuttering Tina’s address to the driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. He plugs his headphones back into the Walkman and snaps them over his ears, eyes following the loose lines of city blocks beyond the window, women in furs and men in long overcoats like Graves’, people in jeans, winter boots, sneakers, more clothes than he had ever thought possible.
The music bleeding out through his tiny speakers is softer than Nirvana, melancholy, and as his brain catches on the opening lyrics, he looks to his knees to hide the grin threatening to steal the final tearstruck frown from his mouth.
Christ knows as Christ grows, Christ shows nothing but love...
yay for cheesy songfic endings. Credence deserves a minute of joy, okay?
Chapter 4: You’ve Got Mail
A brief interlude. Credence and firstname.lastname@example.org correspond.
This is a very short chapter. It just didn’t work at the top of the next chapter, so here are a small selection of their emails.
> Dear Credence,
You should never have to feel like you need to apologize for who you are or what you want. The woman you called your mother is the only one to blame for the pain she caused you, for hurting you, and the city should not have let you fall through the cracks in their system. There are supposed to be safeguards in place. Ask Tina Goldstein to tell you about ACS. There is nothing wrong with you.
I appreciate your being candid with me, and I can certainly keep it to myself, and to these emails, if that is what you want.
> Dear Percy,
Do you think that I’m a religious freak?
> Dear Credence,
No. I think you are a very special and strong young man.
You should watch less news. We are never as kind as we ought to be when there is a story to be sold. Try not to take any of it to heart.
> Dear Credence,
I apologise if I overwhelmed you. It has been several days - is everything all right? I was looking through some of the old notes Goldstein brought into the station in the summer and noticed you and she had met quite a lot! A pity I could not have known you then. I would not have been able to watch you go back to that place every week. You have an immense power in you, to have survived what you did and to remain as good as you are, and I do not even think you are aware of it.
> Dear Percy,
Tina was very good to me. I never met anyone so kind. In the summer she would bring me things in secret and helped me find a way to leave the chaperones. I had never done that before. I don’t know if I would have been able to leave at all without her. I can never really hope to repay her for what she did for me.
Thank you for your kind words.
> Dear Credence,
And yet a part of you would still like to go home to your mother. Forgive me if I am making assumptions. I just get the sense. It is a very understandable feeling, if so. No one could blame you.
I am so glad that you chose to have faith in Tina Goldstein instead. What you did was very brave, Credence, to take on an entire organized religion on your own, without any idea that you might have allies. And of course, if you had not done it, I would never have met you
Chapter 5: How?
You guys have given me life with your feedback. It means so incredibly much.
Credence makes reference to the Akedah (The Binding of Isaac), which is a short and very interesting Bible story I can highly recommend reading in full. It’ll stay relevant! He also references the story of Esau and Jacob.
Warning as always for some internalized homophobia and mentions of past child abuse.
Please note that a short chapter four of emails was also uploaded!
Songs for this chapter:
Tous les garçons et les filles - Françoise Hardy
Vogue - Madonna
Boys Don’t Cry - the Cure
How? - John Lennon
Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam - Nirvana
Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
Goin’ Home - Sara Carter, Maybelle Carter
And it came to pass that God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham.”
“Here I am,” Abraham responded.
God said, “Take, I beg of you, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and get yourself to the land of Moriah and offer him on one of the mountains.”
“Then Abraham and Isaac and the servants returned to Beer Sheva,” Credence finishes slowly, his finger trailing over the black print.
“That’s your favorite story?” Tina’s eyebrows knot together over the rim of her mug, but she smiles and nudges his abandoned breakfast plate across the table. “That’s a little heavy, Credence.”
“Very goth of you,” Jacob agrees from where he has been hunched over the stove with a whisk and a bowl of eggs and cream. “Got you listening to the Cure one time, and now it’s all child sacrifice and filial guilt.”
“Credence came to us a goth already,” Queenie winks. “He just didn’t know it.”
Flushing, Credence snaps the book shut, cover to cover. He traces the blocky, foreign letters of the title, the Torah, with the tip of his finger. If his shoulders still fold inward under their ribbing, it’s only half from worry. Old habits. Mostly his back just aches from holding it stiff and upright after twenty-four years of making himself as small as possible.
He grins to himself at Jacob’s whistling over the mixing bowl. Across the table, Queenie applies fresh pink lipstick in the mirrored flat edge of her knife, Tina filling in the crossword on her daily copy of the New York Times. Newt reads the comics.
“I dunno, kiddo,” says Jacob lightly. “I think you need new hobbies.”
Something about his disappearance to the WNET station and return in a cab paid for by Percival Graves has re-shifted them all, cracked the ice that had settled like a crust over every careful utterance and sideways glance. Whatever brittle trust they had in his ability to cope was broken and reformed; they are no longer gentle, but tender, familiar, teasing and laughing. It’s wonderful, this thawing, and as with any thawing, it’s like being burned alive.
“Speaking of hobbies,” says Newt, “I’ve got your tape deck in the bedroom, Credence. They’re switching to CDs at Central Park, so they don’t need it anymore.”
The recording and mixing set up in Ma’s office had been a relic compared to the machine Newt leads him to. . Scratched and half-broken, Ma’s machine had only let him record through a microphone, which meant hours at a time hunched over a transistor radio listening to the only two Christian stations she allowed, waiting for the songs he needed, fingers on the dials, or lifting the crackling, dust-pop sound off of Ma’s even older collection of vinyls. Too often, he would fall into bed late, heart sputtering like a lit candle between his ribs, with an aching back and neck, but it was the best ache Credence knew.
The tape deck Newt has not stolen from the Central Park Zoo looks hardly used, blocky and wood veneered. It must have cost a fortune once, for someone. He traces his finger over the sleek brand lettering, mouthing T-E-A-C.
“Will it be all right?” asks Newt from the doorway.
“Is it - I mean, can I use it? Anytime?” His voice, like a worn-in record, pops and cracks in his throat. Newt smiles.
“It’s yours, Credence. Would you like to keep it in the living room? I think we could make some space on the coffee table for you for now, until we can work out something more permanent.”
Tina helps them clear the table, her lips bent in a private smile.
“You’ll have to make us a good mix now,” she says. “Give us a little insight into the real Credence hiding in there.”
It’s meant to be light, but the gleam of her dark eyes clots in his chest. She knows, and she doesn’t care. They all know, and they’ve given him a sofa and more meals than he can count, and they’ve moved their own things from the coffee table to make a home for his things. They’ve given him things. Queenie gave him music. Newt stole him a tape deck.
His laughter is no longer the surprise it had been, but Tina hugs him anyway, tearfully and laughing too.
“You should get ready,” she says as she pulls away. “If you’re still going to see Mr. Graves today.”
All the anxiety of the early morning drops back into the pit of his stomach like the stacks of cinder blocks that had littered the unfinished shell of Second Chapel. He dresses himself like a child, hands forcing trousers over stubborn legs, rubbery skin that catches and clings to the fabric of his shirt, yanking a sweater over his head. His hair is hopeless, but Queenie catches the fringe of it on her fingers as she walks by, sweeps it one way and then the other.
“Now you look beautiful, honey.”
Mr. Graves - Percy - has pushed them into a new intimacy behind the screens of their respective email inboxes. A searing, frightening intimacy, at times, if only because Credence has wanted it so bone-crushingly much. No one has ever understood him so thoroughly. Better, even, than he understands himself. Better than he has ever had the words for. They’ve promised not to speak about it in person, but the knowledge is there regardless.
He runs through the contents of their most recent emails by memory in the cab uptown as new music pumps through the speakers of his headphones. Madonna, Queenie said, is completely necessary for your spiritual awakening.
Madonna is also more immediately sinful than anything he’s listened to thus far. Brash and confident and dirty and a woman at that. Not like Nirvana or Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell at least is reminiscent of the warbling Puritan folk hymns of his childhood. Modest. Chaste, even when the lyrics tease with subtle meaning that he is too shy to ask after.
Writing Percy is a lot like listening to those songs. Cryptic in a way that he gets the sense they might not be cryptic at all to anyone else, in any other context. Credence’s context is prayer and crucifixion and the rod unspared, pleas to be returned to a Heaven in the Lord’s fist. Gratitude for a love like a rap to the knuckles, sharp and bruising. Not the sweet grief of River, not the lulling type on the screen of Queenie’s computer.
The cab veers eastwards once they hit midtown. He nods his chin into his chest as the driver explains some incomprehensible rule of crosstown traffic patterns that apparently only applies to midtown at midday.
“Where you from?”
They hit a row of red lights near Central Park, start and stop.
His stomach churning, Credence shrugs into himself, a little jerk of the shoulder strung up beneath his ear.
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Me, I’m from Romania,” says the driver. “Petrifeld.”
“Oh,” says Credence. He counts six trees, a pair of lowslung stone walls, five women in fur coats outside the window. The word Petrifeld stretches itself across the flat of his tongue, tooth to tooth. “Where are we now?”
“Upper East Side. New York is a crazy place. You like it?”
“I don’t know.”
Five trees, twisted callow branches over stone walls. Romania sounds something like Armenia, which had been on the news for a war it was having, or had recently. He had changed the channel too quickly to remember, unsettled by the guns and uniforms.
“Where is Romania?” He clears his throat and his cheeks sting red. “Is it - in Europe?”
“Romania is in Hell,” says the driver. His black hair is pulled into a girlish ponytail at the back of his head. He rolls his window down and pats the outside of the car with his palm as they hit another light. “I’m living here since six years, and I’m never going back. You got family here?”
“Yes,” says Credence, and then, “No. Maybe. Do you?”
“I got my sister and her husband and kids. Can’t make it in New York without family.”
The cab turns right onto a leafy block of well-kept buildings. Their tidy front steps and vine-slung windows look like a foreign universe against the crumbling grey and red warehouses and neon signage of Chelsea.
“I hope you find somebody,” says the driver. “By the way, my name is Peter.”
“Credence,” says Credence. He ducks away, expecting a look, but Peter only turns and grins. When he speaks again, his entire mouth moves, pushing up the corners of his pale eyes.
“English is a weird fucking language, dude. But it’s a little similar to my language. Also, it’s ten dollars even.”
“Please,” Credence says. His fingers pinch the corner of the money neatly creased around Percy’s card. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how this works.”
“I saw you on TV,” says Peter. His mouth slackens as he unfolds the green-printed paper. “Credence. That’s how I was knowing your face, from that picture. You want to tip me? It’s normal here, but you don’t have to do it.”
Credence nods, his tongue pasted to the bottom of his mouth.
“Okay. I’m taking eleven. I’m giving you thirty-nine. From fifty.” He holds up a fistful of crumpled papers. Paper money.
“That’s some crazy shit. I’m sorry about that, but hey; my Opa was coming from the Russian camps after the war and he didn’t know shit. When I was first coming here, I didn’t know shit. You learn shit.”
“Thank you, Peter.”
He tries to smile as Peter transfers the fat ball of money into his fist, but the muscles are rebellious still, unused to being forced this way.
Percy appears as Peter and his cab are peeling around the next corner.
“Perfect timing,” he says. He swings a shopping bag from one arm over the opposite shoulder. “I was just getting ready for you.”
They stand in silence while Percy re-adjusts his bags for a second time. His overcoat is the same black wool, but now in the shifting light on this pristine stretch of sidewalk, Credence notices the delicate swirled buttons and grey stitching on the cuffs. Percy’s polished shoes look almost new, his green scarf the same hue as the pine needles still clinging to the odd tree in Central Park.
He must be wealthy, Credence realizes. It’s an odd thought. Wealth had never existed in New Salem. Incoming community members were forced to sign over their assets for the preservation of the Community. Ma had always seen to that, and later Chastity, who had access to the accounts and was even allowed to take trips to the bank by herself.
“Well, come on,” says Percy finally. He frowns a little and points to a glass door tucked primly between two small potted trees. Reading this as a cue, Credence scurries forward to hold it open, but Percy shakes his head and says loudly, “Hello, Thomas! How’s your daughter?”
A tall man in a black coat shrugs morosely as they walk through the open door.
“Driving me crazy, as usual, Mr. Graves. I sent your package up.”
“Thank you, Thomas.” Percy pauses, watching the door swing shut under Thomas’ white-gloved hand. “By the way, this is my friend, Credence Barebone. I’d like to add him to the list - ” His head swivels and he glances at Credence with wide eyes. “That is, if you think you’re likely to visit again, Credence.”
“Oh,” says Credence. He shoves his fists into the pocket of his coat and pulls them back out. Ma had never liked hands in pockets. Sloppy habits. He tucks them in again more deliberately, twisting his fingers around the nylon lining. “Yes, okay. If you’d like me to, Mr. - Percy.”
“Always up to you,” says Percy quickly.
Credence bites his lip as he follows both men to the elevator. The marbled lobby is fancier than anywhere he has ever seen, let alone been, as far back as he can remember. It easily tops the slick panelled WNET building and the DA’s office with its dark patterned carpets and scratchy chairs. Overwhelmingly nice. Overwhelmingly clean. He buries his chin in his chest and follows Percy into the carpeted elevator, his stomach coiled in dread, lips moving around the unspoken words of the first prayer that crawls out from the back of his throat. I am all poverty as well as guilt, having nothing of my own with which to repay You, but I bring Jesus to You in the arms of faith, pleading his righteousness to offset my iniquities....
They step out on the twelfth floor. Credence’s feet drag him limply across the pale blue carpet. He can feel the friction of it, plush and high, against the dirty rubber soles of his shoes. A floor had only ever been a floor at home. A shield between his body and the Earth, or a terrorizing game of avoiding loose boards, or a thing to wash when something was spilled across it. At home, they had no rugs. Ma abhorred them for their decadence, even in winter, and Queenie and Tina’s in the living room had belonged to their parents.
The spotless hallway carpet leads them to Percy’s door, which opens with a click at his touch. Credence follows slowly, his every muscle tense. After the masterpiece of the hallway, he expects something horrible and palatial, gilded furniture and bowls of ripe exotic fruit and priestly purple velvets. Whatever opulence rich people live in. He wouldn’t know, he realizes. His only frames for reference are television and the Bible.
“Feel free to take your shoes off,” says Percy over his shoulder.
He opens his eyes, startling at the realization that they had been closed, and glances around rapidly before falling back into the curve of his spine.
“It’s very nice,” he says earnestly, slack-jawed with relief. There is no marble, apart from the kitchen counters. Wood floors broken up by dark rugs creak underfoot as he shuffles past the open kitchen to stand nervously on the other side of the counter.
“Thanks. Would you like a cappuccino?”
“Thank you,” says Credence. He tries to arrange his mouth into something less frown-like, less likely to burst into an apology and ask what a cappuccino is or explain that he doesn’t drink alcohol, in case.
Credence is twenty four years old, his brain supplies. He hushes it, like turning off the Walkman, fingertips tapping the frantic rhythm of Scentless Apprentice into the counter. Do rich people listen to the same music as other people? Maybe Percy would agree with him about Madonna. But then his eye catches the record player set up on its own throne of a cabinet against the living room wall. It’s lit up like an idol in the afternoon light rendered gold by the gauzy curtain panels over high windows. A lonely false god surrounded worshipfully by records and CDs and tapes. Two speakers standing guard. A sleek receiver with a heavy dial. It’s like a Nativity scene. His lip stings sharply from between his jaws, impaled again no doubt on the sharp tooth behind his two front teeth. He releases it.
“You can take a look around, if you want,” says Percy, as though he knows what Credence is thinking. He gestures with a small white cup from behind a shiny silver machine that looks far too complicated to be a beverage maker. “Be my guest.”
Nothing feels natural about exploring anyone else’s home, so Credence sits on the least fancy chair instead. He folds his hands on his lap, his eyes on his knees. Coming here was an obvious mistake. In the background, he hears Percy whistle, the gurgle of boiling water, the sink faucet. His brain jumps back to the morning. Abraham and Isaac. Had the entire world then felt as alien to Isaac, he wonders, as it does to him now? Once he had been slated for death and rescued, once he had known that the entirety of his life’s value could be condensed into the body of a ram in a bush; had he felt unworthy then, living his days in debt, in the charity of an angel? Was his skin also tight over his skull, dirty, an animal’s pelt, when he sat down years later on his own chairs, in his own quiet home, with the wife and the one bookish younger son and the elder who loved him so simply?
“You look like you’re having heavy thoughts,” says Percy, startlingly close. Credence jumps.
“Biblical,” Credence replies, surprising himself. He blinks, but Percy is smiling, two white cups in hand, something foamy that smells almost like coffee. His mouth opens again. “I don’t drink alcohol.”
“Good. It’s too early in the day. This is espresso.”
“Strong coffee, essentially,” says Percy. He waits until Credence has taken his cup to sit down in the odd chair with the leather back. The overcoat is gone, replaced by a buttoned shirt and black trousers. A wristwatch glitters on Percy’s wrist as he drinks his espresso. Credence blinks at it, scanning over the buttons, the greying black hair, the foam smeared across Percy’s upper lip, as though painted there by someone’s thumb. He tears his eyes away.
“Sometimes,” he says softly, to his knees, “I feel like I’m in the Tower of Babel. Everything made sense, and it was too easy, and then - then God said fiat turbatio, and nothing makes sense anymore.”
“You speak Latin.” Percy raises an eyebrow.
His espresso is bitter - more bitter than the cheap coffees Tina buys on their walks. Credence winces as he takes a careful sip, his cup in front of his mouth so that he can lick the foam from his lips in privacy.
“Ma was going to send me to a seminary in Kentucky once. She changed her mind.”
And her ideals. And everything about their lives, as her interpretations of the Good Word grew more and more severe. His lips thin over the porcelain rim. A trickle of espresso, sharp and hot on the tip of his tongue, gives him an excuse not to elaborate.
“Tell me something you’d like to know,” says Percy. He sets his cup on the coffee table between them. “I’ll do my best to explain it to you, if I’m able.”
The answer comes more quickly than he had imagined.
If Percy is incredulous or thinks him stupid, he hides it well. His lips pull into a crooked smile, one side longer than the other. He excuses himself to the kitchen, where Credence hears him slamming drawers. When he returns a moment later with something clutched in his fist, it is not to the odd chair but to crouch at Credence’s side, his arm braced on the armrest. A feeling like a dollop of warm butter slides down his throat, into the tight fist of his stomach. Everything loosens and contracts again, muscles twitching.
“Okay,” says Percy. “Come down here with me a second.”
“You can just put your mug on the table.”
He sets it down quickly, careful not to spill, and slides to his knees to watch Percy’s hands, one in its gleaming wristwatch, lay out a line of green-printed paper money across the rug.
“You can lean in,” says Percy without looking up. “And look here. This is American money. I have some marks somewhere from Germany and British pounds I can show you later. Most countries have their own money, or currency. Europe is switching over to something else now, apparently, but that’ll take them a while. Anyway - this is a one dollar bill.”
His pointer finger rests on the centre of the bill, on the face of an old man with white curls.
“Do you know anything about American history?”
“The Mayflower,” says Credence promptly. “And Salem. And the Abominations, when the Anglicans and the Papists killed the Natives so they could steal their land, and slavery.”
“Well.” Percy swings back onto his heels to rub his eyes. “How about that. She taught you one thing.”
“We go to school until we turn fourteen.” His voice is sharper than he had intended, petulant, but Percy only smiles.
“I meant that differently, but I’m sorry. Here, do you know who’s on this one?”
He holds the one dollar bill under Credence’s nose, close enough that the patterns on the paper begin to swirl of their own accord as Credence’s eyes refocus to accommodate them.
“The first president of the United States, George Washington.”
“Yep, that’s him,” says Percy, taking it back. “The next one is a five dollar bill. There’s not a ton of logic to it as a system. Five, then ten, then twenty, then fifty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand, five thousand, a hundred thousand.”
Credence blinks. “Mr. Graves,” he says slowly, processing the crisp paper as Percy hands him another bill to hold. Something clicks into place seeing it all lined up in order, and his stomach clenches. “You gave me a fifty dollar bill the other day.”
“I did. I am a wealthy man, Credence, if that much wasn’t already obvious to you, and most of it was not earned by me. Maybe you can forgive me for sharing a little.” He points to the bills on the floor one by one before resting his hand on Credence’s own. “Abraham Lincoln. Alexander Hamilton. Andrew Jackson. Ulysses S. Grant. Benjamin Franklin. William McKinley. Grover Cleveland. I don’t own a five thousand or a hundred thousand dollar bill, but those would be James Madison and Woodrow Wilson. Do you know any of them?”
“Lincoln,” says Credence around the thickness of his tongue. The brief touch had sent a thrill down his spine, like a stream of hot water, before he retracted his hand.
“The rest of them aren’t that important. You can keep all the ones under five hundred, if you want, to practise with.”
His pulse jumps.
“Oh no, Mr. Graves - ”
“Percy, please. And you don’t have to,” Percy says. His hand flutters up to Credence’s elbow. Another quick, hesitant touch, like hot breath across the skin, and then gone. “But you’re welcome to it. It’s not charity, unless that would make you feel more comfortable. But speaking of, I’m afraid to say, I bought you some things.”
Some things, Credence wants to argue as he sits surveying the neat piles of clothing and shoes that Percy has laid onto the floor before them, are not five things. Or six things. Or ten expensive things. Nice things. New and with tags. He bites his tongue instead, his fingers hesitating over the collar of a woolen sweater, and it seems unfair that of all the things Percival Graves should know about him without asking, he knows about Credence’s clothes and Ma’s insistence on natural fibers.
“If you’re offended or you hate them,” says Percy quietly, “I can take them back. You don’t have to accept them, but obviously I hope you will.”
Rather than answer, Credence unfolds the sweater. It’s softer wool than he had ever known at home with Ma, almost creamy soft, lighter than cotton and a deep oaky red. He traces his fingers over the sleeve in glassy-eyed reverence. It was enough when Percy had written you are a very special young man in his own voice, signed by his name. If no one ever declared any love or loyalty for him again, he had been content with so much. Overmuch.
He looks up, feels his eyes in his face wide and unblinking and dry, and shakes his head.
“It’s a handsome colour for you,” Percy answers. He doesn’t smile, but his eyes are soft, half-pierced by a bar of light from the window. “You should try on the boots. I checked with Goldstein for your size, but she wasn’t even sure if you fit in the shoes you have now, so it’s anyone’s guess.”
His fingers hook around the handle of the final bag, dragging it across the carpet to rest at Credence’s knee. Credence’s hand flies from his side before he can wonder whether or not it’s a good idea to wrap his fingers around Percy’s fingers. They’re softer than his own, which have been scarred and calloused from years of punishment and shoveling cow dung. Every variation on an act of love that he’s ever known. They all feel like crude approximations now. Idol worship. Percy’s hand is warm and dry in his palm. A physical tether, body to body. The thought sends another thrill down his spine.
He squeezes, his eyes trained on the floor, willing his heart to stop throbbing and sending blood to other places.
Percy continues urgently, his voice a whisper just rising over the white noise, “Credence, I need you to know that you don’t owe me anything. I bought you winter things because it’s cold outside, and you should have them. You should already have had them. Do you understand what I mean?”
“Okay,” says Credence. His voice quivers with impatience. Whatever he should already have had matters less than what he wants, he wants to say. And all of the wanting is a shock. Like the cold water they had pushed through his veins in the hospital after the police station, saline flush. His arms tense with it, thighs squeezing over the mounting pressure in his groin. “Okay,” he breathes again.
Percy’s hand twitches in his.
“I’m going to spell everything out,” Percy warns. “I’ve never been with anyone who wasn’t already... established, in himself. This is completely uncharted territory for me, and it obviously is for you. If you want something, I need you to tell me, understand? I won’t do anything you don’t want.”
“I want to hold your hand,” says Credence rapidly. The words escape before he can clamp his mouth around them, suffocate them with his tongue. Refugee words. He thinks of Lot’s wife fleeing the fire and looking back, a pillar of salt, and he shakes his head to clear it, blinking. “On-on the sofa. Please, Percy.”
Percy stands first, his fingers tight around Credence’s knuckles, squeezing. He guides them to the sofa in silence, his other hand on the back of Credence’s neck, the same spot, and his thing is pulsing against the thick corduroy of his trousers.
“Percy,” he says.
“I - I’m sorry, I - ”
Then Percy is turning him bodily so they are eye-to-eye, scanning him up and down, and if there ever truly was a time when it would be convenient to dissolve into an actual pillar of salt, a puff of smoke, it would be now. But Percy only smiles gently.
“That’s very normal, Credence,” he says, “when you’re attracted to someone. Nothing to be worried about or ashamed of.”
I think you are a very special young man.
“Come here,” says Percy.
His hand drifts to Credence’s shoulder, soft pressure, guiding him down, and they are still eye-to-eye as Percy kneels at his knees. A crooked smile, one side higher than the other. One eye scrunched. He jumps when Percy’s hands settle around his calves, squeezing, and then Percy is sliding the old brown church shoes from his feet, and they are still eye-to-eye. His breaths come in shaky spurts.
“You should try these boots on,” says Percy. He cocks an eyebrow. “I put a lot of thought into these, listened to a lot of Kurt Cobain, asked a lot of young salesmen....”
“You - didn’t have to -”
He is going to Hell. He is going to Hell. He is going to straight to Hell, but the panic that should be there is not there. The sweat in his palms is from fisting them around the fabric of his trousers, pulling tight and taut, his thing stiff and heavy, and he has an alarming urge to move his groin, to touch himself, but the panic is not there. All for shoes. All over a pair of boots. He is going to Hell. He wants to go to Hell. And Percy - smirking as he rubs the pad of his thumb around the ball of Credence’s left foot, opening the box, biting the knot to unlace them - Percy is going with him. He opens his mouth, but there are no words, just a whine at the top of his throat.
“It is completely normal,” he says again. “Don’t be embarrassed. You’re sensitive. Let your body feel whatever it wants to feel, Credence. Is that good?”
He presses his thumb into the base of Credence’s foot, traces a wide arc around the ball of it, squeezing, rubbing the pressure out, and it almost hurts and it’s almost too much. Overmuch.
“No - yes.”
Credence is twenty-four -
“Percy,” he hears himself gasp. There is warmth spreading between his legs, and now the panic is there, but it’s beneath his skin, around his thing, behind it, inside him, and his legs are shaking from the pressure of it. He digs his hands into the sofa, blinking, wide-eyed. “Percy, I want to - please, I want to listen to Madonna.”
The hands around his feet still, squeeze, and then Percy laughs loudly. The sound breaks through the lazy honeyed afternoon light from the window. Credence’s panic recedes, but his thing is still hard and throbbing against the inside of his leg.
Two hands, warm, flat palms on his knees. Percy stands slowly, rolling his shoulders.
“I think I have a single somewhere,” he says as Credence collapses into the sofa cushions in relief. He shuffles away, an unfocused blur, a wash of dark trousers and shirt and skin and grey and black hair intercut by Credence’s lashes, vaguely human in shape and form. Credence flexes his hands, his itchy scars, wipes the sweat off his palm with the knee of his trousers.
“What’s a single?”
“A single song that an artist releases.” Percy’s voice is muffled. His body bent double over the music shrine, laying a record onto the turntable. He flicks a lever with his finger and the needle floats down into a groove, an amplified scratch and thump as Percy twists a dial on the receiver and the volume kicks up.
“Do you know Vogue?” he asks, and Credence shakes his head. The throbbing is still there, a touch away from panic, waiting for his blood to heat up again and course loose and thin like oil in a pan. “It was big a couple years ago, when I still went out.”
A woman’s voice blares through the speaker - strike a pose.
“Queenie Goldstein could probably show you how to do the dance,” Percy suggests. His body is closer again, a mass behind black lashes like prison bars between them, and Credence wants to reach out.
“You could teach me,” he says instead. His head feels scrambled. Fried egg, funky radio transmission. He wants to reach out. He wants to yank Percy by the arm onto the sofa, wants to crack his own skull open like the fragile shell of an egg and let his wants pour over them both, thick and sticky and sungold beneath the open windows, the street below, the entire world separated from their bodies by a thin film of glass.
“Another day, if you’d like.” The sofa dips low beside him, a flash of white; Percy hands him his abandoned coffee. “Biblical thoughts again?”
“No.” His smile feels like a secret tucked behind the rim of his cup. The pressure in his groin loosens, skin slackening, but there is still a dull throb in some deep vein between his two most private parts that coils the muscles in his belly and legs. Percy’s fingers trail over his knee, tap on the knuckle of his free hand. Credence shivers as he opens his palm to them. “I have - my hands - ”
“You have perfect hands,” says Percy. “Don’t apologise. I like holding your hand to Madonna, Credence. And I’d like to see you in some of those clothes, if you’re willing.”
I’d rather see you out of yours, laughs a filthy little voice in the back of his head.
“Yes, okay,” he says loudly.
Percy’s guest bedroom is the size of the Goldstein’s living room, with polished wooden furniture and a thick blue carpet that reminds Credence uncomfortably of the one in the hallway outside. He lets Percy push him into a bathroom off the narrow corridor with a stack of clothes and the shoebox.
“Light’s on the right.”
Credence changes in the dark. His fingers fumble over the buttons of his corduroy trousers, sliding them off his rubbery skin, over his damp underwear. He had barely looked at the shirt and sweater and trousers Percy picked out for him, but now that he can feel the rough, stiff ribbing of bluejean fabric around his ankles, his heart begins to race.
A pale apparition in the dark of the mirror, his body moves fluidly, leg through leg hole, head through collar. Ma would have him stripped and beaten out of his own skin if she could see, but his heart is not racing for her. She feels further from him than she ever has, detached like the greenish figure in the mirror, a foreign deity, but the Lord had said unto Abram, get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house. He sees himself at once as Eve, red lips, his chin dribbled with the still-sticky juice of an exotic fruit, his hands full, and Madonna is playing, muffled, from the living room. Maybe he could try Queenie’s lipstick. Maybe he should kill himself. Maybe he and Percy can kiss on the sofa one day, when he learns to dance, and maybe he will walk in front of the next yellow cab when he gets outside, the sin leaking from his head like an egg cracked in the basket.
Percy raises an eyebrow as he stumbles out, blinking, from the dark but takes Credence’s crumpled clothes without remark. He leads them to a mirror in the corner of the room, his hand on the small of Credence’s back and then his chin, tugging his face sideways so they are locked at eye level.
“So,” he says. “You met Thomas, my doorman. The building’s doorman.”
Credence nods. His chin bobs on the tip of Percy’s finger before it falls away.
“His daughter Carol was a big Nirvana fan, so I consulted her, as the only expert I could think of. Apparently grunge is going of style, but I managed to find a few things, and if you hate them, the tags are still on.”
“According to Carol, Kurt Cobain never wore boots, but he also didn’t live in New York City in the middle of winter, and I’d rather you not get frostbite, so the sneakers are out there in a bag for you, if you want them. I’ve been assured by several painfully young and trendy salespeople that Wolverine boots are either incredibly cool or incredibly out of mode, but they looked - well, practical.”
“I like practical things,” Credence says, and then, compelled to offer proof: “‘Do not let your adorning be external - the braiding of hair or the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear....”
“Point taken.” A little pinch on the nape of his neck, the now familiar jolt down his spine, into his hips; Percy turns him back towards the mirror and gestures. “Personally, I enjoy a little adornment and shiny things. Take a look.”
The young man in Percy’s guest room mirror looks nothing like the cow-eyed Credence Barebone on the news, with his blunt hair and ill-fitting dark clothes and the panic that had lived like a permanent tenant in the basement of his belly. His hair has grown since he last looked at himself, wisps of curls around his ears that he had never realized he had. He presses his fingers over them wonderingly, down the side of his jaw, the sparse hair there that Jacob had taught him to shave.
Something about the long-sleeved t-shirt, with its thin black and white stripes, feels achingly familiar. He rolls the fabric between his fingers, amazed by its softness, blinking. Small, bruised legs like a pair of knobbed sticks, toes in the mud, Abstinence and Avarice. He had last worn a t-shirt in the late 70s, maybe the early 80s, he realizes, before the chaos had hit, early 80s, second wave of Abomination, and Ma stopped talking about evangelical seminaries in Kentucky, or anywhere he could go to be around other boys without her watching.
“It looked like one I saw in a picture,” Percy explains, and Credence nods again. All the words he should be saying, his prayers of gratitude and penitence and thanks, clump in his throat. A tight ball he has to swallow to breathe around.
The bluejeans are looser than his corduroy trousers, lighter than he expected, a washed out blue not unlike the color of the rug. They hang a little loosely from the bones of his hips, still poking out nosily despite the abundance of food that Queenie and Jacob seem determined to force feed him at every given opportunity. He slides his fingers through the belt loops and freezes.
“You probably need a belt,” says Percy.
“No.” His shoulders tense and then drop. “I mean, I’m sorry -”
Percy’s hand is back on his neck, the gentle pressure, and his muscles fall limp.
“No need to apologize. I forgot you - I forgot that particular detail. About that place. That was my fault. You just need a good tailor, and they’ll fit you like a glove. The length is good. You look very handsome.”
He does look handsome. A little older. A little less like a frightened boy. The thought alone is enough to strike terror back into the very core of him, but Percy is pointing out the boots, with their classic shape and their waxed brown leather, their eighty year history, the leather soles that he should have a rubber half sole added to by a cobbler, so he doesn’t slip in the snow. His hand never leaves the nape of Credence’s neck as he walks them both back to the sofa, and he does it so deftly, Credence hardly realizes he is being handled until they are both seated, surrounded by shopping bags and discarded money bills, their half-empty cups of cold coffee on the table.
“Credence, do you want to go home?”
“We can watch a movie,” Percy suggests.
His brain feels disconnected, foggy and flooded by the busy tone on the phone, when someone else is using the Web, so he nods.
He barely registers the cabinet doors swinging open, the vacant space beside him where Percy had been, the large TV screen flickering on and the sigh of the VHS player as it accepts a tape from Percy’s hand. Percy returns in pieces - legs, hands, fingernails, shoes, parked under his nose, in the impossibly small space between his body on the sofa and the coffee table.
“Are you okay?”
His chest compresses. A low grunt. Percy sighs, but he lets it drop as the screen flickers. A montage of new movies, tape releases. They could be watching the trash being picked up in real time, for all Credence knows, but the sound is fuzzy, womb-like, and his body is not really his, so he can allow it to relax. He can let himself fall sideways, into Percy’s arm, let Percy slide his hand around Credence’s shoulders and squeeze a little, and it’s like the windows have been opened on his mind, airing out the smoke, clean air. When he wakes up, the room is dark and the credits are rolling. His body is bent sideways, shoved into the crook of Percy’s arm, Percy’s fingers tracing circles over his skin, his head on Percy’s chest. He stills, loathe to break the spell, but Percy’s body shifts out from under him, brown eyes flicking between his own, a small smile on the corner of his mouth.
“I should get you home,” he whispers. “I’ll call you a cab.”
Credence packs his new and old clothes into a shopping bag while Percy murmurs into the telephone on the wall in the kitchen. Sometime between his falling asleep and now, the apartment was tidied. The money Percy offered him is rolled into a neat tube, secured with a rubber band. He hesitates before closing his fist around it and shoving it into the pocket of his anorak.
“All right,” says Percy loudly from near the door. “I’ll walk you down and let the driver know where to go, and then - ”
The little smile expands from one corner of his mouth to the next.
“This was just about the strangest date I’ve ever had,” he says, “and I’d like to do it again sometime, if you would.”
The space between them closes as Percy leaves the door to hang on its hinges.
“Can I kiss you goodbye?”
Credence hesitates only a moment.
Chapter 6: Mama, You Been On My Mind
For near the entirety of a week, he walks in the slipstream of Percy's lips on his, Percy's hands around the back of his head, the nape of his neck. Credence knows enough, mostly from the television, to recognize their brief contact as having been chaste, but it sticks to him anyway. He walks on the balls of his feet, finds his lips curved over the rims of coffee cups, into the softness of his blankets. It would be impossible to throw away as many underwear as he has soiled in his sleep; he washes them by hand in the shower now, his heart pounding, shoves them wrung out and damp into the bottom of his laundry bag when no one is near.
Ma. Science. Lust. Lorazepam.
Warnings ahead for emotional pain/self loathing/internalized homophobia/child abuse mention.
This is not a very happy chapter, but I can promise that things will start to look up for Credence soon (Credence and Percy ;)), and that the story itself will ultimately have a happy ending!
Thank you all so much for your love and your excellent music recommendations (Apey1013 <3)! Your comments and analysis seriously give me new life. Feel free to connect with me on tumblr as well @punforrestfun. I'm always up to chat about Credence!
Note that I added a chapter to the fic. This one was supposed to be longer, but it just timed itself and felt right to cut off where I ended up leaving it. Next chapter should be up Monday with more Percy.
Credence's Mixtape ( spotify)
“Oh Father” - Madonna
“Mama You Been On My Mind” - Jeff Buckley
"Where Is My Mind" - Pixies
“Negative Creep” - Nirvana
“All Hail Me” - Veruca Salt
“Not the Doctor” - Alanis Morissette
For near the entirety of a week, he walks in the slipstream of Percy's lips on his, Percy's hands around the back of his head, the nape of his neck. Credence knows enough, mostly from the television, to recognize their brief contact as having been chaste, but it sticks to him anyway. He walks on the balls of his feet, finds his lips curved over the rims of coffee cups, into the softness of his blankets. It would be impossible to throw away as many underwear as he has soiled in his sleep; he washes them by hand in the shower now, his heart pounding, shoves them wrung out and damp into the bottom of his laundry bag when no one is near.
Six days of that. Cold showers and hot sleep. He eats cereal for breakfast and drinks the milk from the bowl and shivers at the memory of Percy’s hands on his neck, his legs, his hands. He takes in his new jeans. He writes,
> Dear Percy,
Thank you for the clothes. Newt got me a tape deck so I can make mixes. He said it was a belated birthday present. Is presents for birthdays a very common thing? I wasn’t sure if I should ask. Sometimes it feels like there is too much I don’t know.
He programs an alarm on his watch for the mornings and eats hot dogs walking Tina to work. He does his laundry. Percy responds,
The pleasure is mine. Presents for birthdays are a very common thing. You have no need to feel embarrassed. You were denied knowledge about the world and yourself that is and was your birthright, least of all the practise of birthday gift giving. When is your birthday, if I might ask?
He goes out, to walk Tina to work, or with Jacob to buy groceries, or with Queenie and Newt to the zoo, the Museum of Natural History.
“If you don’t feel comfortable, you can just let me know and we’ll go, honey,” Queenie promises at the ticket counter.
“Do please just let us know,” Newt insists.
The entire thing is uncomfortable, but Credence lets them lead him like a little boy by the sleeve of his sweater through the long queue and up and down the stairs. The museum is far vaster than anywhere else they’ve taken him, with the exception of the Central Park Zoo. The sheer amount of everything is dizzying, like walking to the edge of a roof only to realize for the first time how far away the ground below is. Queenie has a gift for lightening the pressure in his throat as they weave through the maze of exhibits and thickets of people and dark rooms that make his eyeballs throb. She holds him by the sleeve and the elbow and the curve of his hand, prods Newt along when he lingers and strays too close to the stuffed fish and trays of pinned butterflies.
“Many of these animals are going extinct now,” Newt remarks, but Credence has no time to ask what he means before they are whisked through a long corridor about the State of New York and another full of rocks and minerals.
“Look at this one,” Queenie says, stopping them in front of a model of an iceberg populated by a stuffed polar bear family in the Hall of Mammals. Her fingers trace over the embossed sign listing their scientific names.
They press their noses to the windows in front of stuffed bears and mountain goats, a tiger with lips pulled back in fury, a flock of birds, until a uniformed guard shoos them off for touching the glass.
“Ridiculous,” says Newt so often that Credence begins to recognize the way his tongue pushes his jaw open to work the word out.
“Newt Scamander, you're the worst museum guest I ever met!” Queenie chides as they are stopped again from admiring a small herd of springbok in the Hall of African Mammals.
Credence says, “Ridiculous.” His cheeks flush pink, warm, and even Newt laughs.
The tiger in the Hall of Asian Mammals is especially fascinating. Newt leads them back once and then again at Credence’s shy request. He wants to run his fingers over its muscles rippled beneath the folds of its striped fur, taut, as though it might spring back to life and launch itself into the glass box at the slightest notion. They form a loose arrow around its box, Credence in the centre, his eyes wide in awe, unblinking. Did it die painfully, he wonders. Animal fury, fighting back? Or was its snarl a later addition, some taxidermist’s sleight-of-hand, for dramatic effect?
He doesn’t explain to Queenie or Newt - the tiger’s lips, the way its muscles have been preserved mid-contraction, its glassy eyes and the photo they’re still airing of his own face on the evening news. Maybe Percy would understand, in another email, without having to form the words around the thickness of his own tongue. The thought of Percy brings his fingers to his lips, a fleeting smile. Then Queenie lays her hand on his arm, and he jumps, shoves his hands back into his pockets, heart pounding and ashamed.
“Amazing, right?” she says. Credence shakes his head. His chest contracts, releases the snagged breath.
“It’s like stepping into the Ark.”
“Yeah.” She squeezes his hand. Her lips pull back from her teeth in an odd grimace he doesn’t immediately recognize for a smile. “Only it always bummed me out that they ain’t all gonna up and walk out one day, you know?”
The crowds begin to thicken by midday, and even Newt is sagging beneath the shoulder pads of his coat. Their shoes squeak across the marble floors as they cross the concourse, Queenie’s hand limp on Credence’s wrist. He thinks longingly of the shady living room in Chelsea and the TV and new emails in his inbox from email@example.com.
“Just the Hall of the Age of Man now,” Newt promises. “This one is important. Do you know anything about evolution, Credence?”
It’s not a casual question, but the word is as unfamiliar as most of the animals they’ve seen. He shakes his head.
“No. Is it an animal thing?”
“An everything thing,” says Newt. He leads them with singular determination towards the final corridor as Credence shrugs behind him.
The Hall of the Age of Man is unlike any of the Mammal Halls, with their stuffed animal dioramas and painted backdrops. Cases of bone line the walls, smudged by the sticky fingers of bored children, their frantic mothers. Old men in older-looking suits shuffle from here to there, peering through their glasses into the display cases like swarms of wizened flies. Credence’s boots catch on the edge of the carpet. He stops, rubs his hand against the flat of his thigh, the thick cotton of his jeans.
“Come and have a look,” says Newt. “This is all about our history as a species, back hundreds of thousands of years.”
“That’s not possible,” Credence mumbles. He shuffles closer in inches, and the panic is sudden and rolling behind his ribs, rocking his heart.
And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be able to reach out his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever.”
He had been to school, his brain argues. Ten years. Seven to seventeen - longer than most in New Salem, because often the words would not stick. Often the wrong picture would attach itself to the wrong fact, and often his hands were too sore to grip his pencil and apply the pressure necessary to printing letters on a page. Even so, he was as learned as anyone. He could do his letters and his ciphers, tell a square from a rectangle from a hexagon, could point out the subject and object in a sentence, recite the dates of all the most important occurrences in world history, like the birth of Christ and the fall of the Romans and the Puritans landing on Plymouth Rock. Like the dawn of the world, Genesis, let there be light, no more than six thousand years prior. He says as much to Newt, who shakes his head but smiles limply.
“Here, have a look,” says Newt. “This is a homo neanderthalensis. A Neanderthal. See how the skeleton is a bit different from ours?”
Credence looks. It’s out of fairness to Newt, he thinks, who has been kind and deserves the benefit of a doubt. The panic stiffens in his gut, in the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck. When he glances across the Hall, he almost expects to see a bearded chaperone rounding the corner, but there is only a guard in a black suit, staring languidly into her wobbly reflection on the floor.
The homo neanderthalensis is shorter than Credence. Squat, with a thick square skull ridged by a heavy brow bone.
“They’re related to us,” Newt explains. His fingers dance over the edge of the vitrine, leaving prints that soften the glare of the overhead lights in the glass. “But they disappeared something like forty thousand years ago, right as our species, Homo sapiens, started to appear on the scene.”
Impossible, Credence thinks. His cheeks prickle, the tops of his ears.
“Wow - that’s something,” Queenie hums. “Wouldn’t you just love to get in a time machine and hop back and see what it all looked like?”
“No,” says Credence. His voice shocks the panic cold in his belly. It’s Ma’s voice, calm and round and certain, like a glass marble. Logical, one point into the next. He pulls the fists from his pockets and flattens them against his thighs. “I wouldn’t, because there wouldn’t be anything there when God hadn’t made it yet.”
"Yes," says Newt, deflating. He and Queenie exchange a glance that Credence pretends not to see. "Well. I mean - well, it's nearly lunchtime, anyway. Shall we head back home?"
The cab ride back is subdued. Queenie rides in the front so that he and Newt can take the windows. His headphones crackle as he plugs them into the Walkman, and the latest mix whirs to life. The city is rain-soaked again, crusted with soot-grey ice that slides under the leather soles of his new boots as he follows Queenie up the front steps to the building, past her nosy older neighbor who is always asking if he's a relative of any sort, into the living room to slide out of his anorak. The too-big cardigan sweater from Percy he leaves on, his fingers lost in its sleeves.
Queenie catches him in the hall, dark eyes. Her hand sticks in the space above his wrist, not quite touching.
"Credence, honey, would you mind chopping up some of that squash in the fridge for me?"
Her smile is as bright ever, eye to eye, and she squeezes his shoulder gently as he passes.
"Thanks, doll. Hey - " He turns, slides his headphones off. " - don't be so glum, honey. It don't really matter whether it was six thousand or a million years, you know? Either way, we’re here.”
It does matter, because Newt is probably right, and Ma is probably wrong, and he spent years believing her and Chastity and everyone when they called him stupid for staying on at school until he was seventeen only for Tina to tell him most people go to school even longer than that. And birthday gifts. And the taste of Percy’s kiss is beginning to sour on his upper lip.
“Thanks,” he says. “Thank you, Queenie. I’ll just go do the squash.”
He doesn’t do the squash. Not at first. His hands shake around the handle of the knife. He lets it drop with a dull clang back onto the plastic cutting board. He wants to write Percy, who will understand, who has all the words for these feelings that have been living like a mass in his chest, stealing air. And at the same time, he feels a burning urge to fire up the computer, load up the email inbox and delete all the most recent messages. Delete the entire inbox. All evidence. Is he dirty because they kissed, or was he already?
Percy doesn’t deserve his disgust, but it settles like oil in the pit of his stomach, slick and nauseating. He takes the knife in his hand again, left to right, right to left. Left was his first hand, but Ma had beat the Devil out of it. Left to right. He would prefer the left, but it’s always stiff, always itchy and sore. When the knife falls, he does not bend to pick it up.
If the world is over forty thousand years old, maybe Ma was the wrong one, and that would be worst of all.
For the first time in two months, he unfolds the papers out of the manila envelope on the kitchen counter.
One day the psychiatrist asks, “Do you do anything for yourself, Credence, to relieve stress?”
Modesty made sock dolls. At the time they seemed stupid and needlessly dangerous, some childish compulsion to play. He rubs the palm of his left hand. The skin stretches stiffly.
“I don’t know.”
A little note on a pad.
“Do you know how to tell if you’re stressed?”
Another note. A single word, chickenscratch scrawl.
“Stress usually has warning signals. Maybe you clench your fists, or you feel tight in your chest or your jaw. Your heart might pound. You might sweat, or you might feel hot or cold.”
“I guess,” he says. Stops. “Maybe my - my chest gets - like I can’t breathe. Like I'm a soda can that someone shook up, and it's trying to come out.”
“Okay, so you feel pressure in your chest,” says the psychiatrist. His glasses reflect the window light in dots and streaks. “I noticed you touch your hands a lot when we talk about things that are difficult for you -”
Dated October 1972, his amended birth certificate lists his name as Credence Barebone. Born in New York, November 9th, 1971. Mother, Mary Lou Barebone. No father.
In the first weeks with Tina and Queenie, when he had been bold enough to ask for more, the lawyer said:
“New York State is tough with the adoption stuff. We’ll have to get a court order to have the records unsealed.”
And then -
“We filed, Credence. I’m sorry. We tried, but there are apparently no records. If your birth was registered, it wasn't connected to the adoption. We're not even certain a legal adoption ever took place, which at this point is a crucial feature of the state’s case. We’ll need your testimony.”
The unravelling begins on Monday with a tube of lipstick forgotten on the bathroom counter by Queenie, in her haste to get out the door.
Really it begins with his hand around the plastic tube.
Really it begins with his mouth, in the mirror.
Maybe it began with his mother’s mouth. Crazy. Little.
His mother must have had full lips, for his to have formed. Full lips or whore lips? He smacks his. He plays Madonna on his Walkman. Oh Father. Like a Prayer.
Maybe she was pretty. Maybe she wore pink lipstick like this, smeared pigment, thin skin, two halves of a ripe plum. If Ma was ever pretty, she had done her best to mask it. But there were whole years of Credence’s life when he can remember her as the most beautiful, scrubbed and pure. Mary, mother of God. When he had lived for a half-smile or a hand on his elbow.
He imagines kissing Percy in pink lipstick, leaving marks.
Sometimes as a little boy he had imagined holding hands with only boys. She prayed it out of him. Did she? He still wakes up hot and sticky. Still wants.
He wants to kiss Percy through all the bruised lips he’s ever had, every split in his flesh. It’s too much. They’ve only just met. He wants to wash his mouth out with soap until the want is stripped dry. He wants Queenie to be his mother. He wants to wipe all traces of himself from the tip of her lipstick.
Sometimes as a little boy he would let his eyes slide back into his head and his body shake, rigid. Scream into the floorboards, through cracks. Into the earth. He believed that man came from ash and dirt and woman from loose bone. He was the claw. He scraped the floor to its marrow.
He hated the screaming and Ma hated the screaming, but she never beat him then.
Not for that.
Sometimes as a little boy he screamed so loud the cow screamed with him from the field. And all came running, as many hands as could hold him down, as many mouths, as many tongues. Ma was the best at speaking in tongues. Always calm. Salt pure. Go softly with the Lord, I am the Lord thy God.
He wants to go home so badly it scalds the skin off the backs of his hands, and then he notices the tap, and he turns the water off. And his lips are pink and clumsy and whore thick. He scrubs them hard. He prays to God. He begs God.
"Credence, is everything all right in there?"
The Walkman clicks. His lips are even brighter scrubbed than with lipstick.
Newt is always gentle. Slow.
His throat swells shut on the back of his tongue, fingers fumbling around the tube. Squeezing. Too tight. White knuckles. Skin smeared oily, pink.
"Credence, is everything all right?" Newt calls in again, his voiced strained. "Are you all right? Can you open the door for a moment?"
He drops the nub of it into the sink. Fingernail scratches through pink streaked on yellow porcelain. His hands are shaking. A word attempts escape. He smothers it.
"Credence, can you open the door for me?"
The knock sends him sprawling.
His fury was the gas main, limbs splayed, lung raw. Ate him alive. Spread out on the floor like an oil slick, soaked. All fumes.
Now it leaves him cold, outside himself. He hadn’t screamed at Ma that night, just hit her back. Once, hard. A red stripe across her palm, her arm.
Newt unlocks the door. A blur of arms in white shirtsleeves, calloused hands, freckled skin.
He’s on the third floor, off the ground. There is no earth left on all of Manhattan anyway. Just mute ash, dust, rocks, ribs. The bathroom is yellow and black porcelain. It moves in lines and shudders between the tiles in roaring echoes. He doesn’t know he’s gripping the water pipe until Newt pries away his hands.
“Credence, it’s all right. It’s all right, just let go of that, okay? That’s it. That’s hot. You don’t want to burn your hand. Can I see your hand, please?”
“Please,” he repeats. His chest caves in around the word, collapsing through the hollow.
“It’s all right,” Newt shushes. “It’s all right. It’s all right, Credence. I’m going to bring you over here to the sink, all right? Cold water for your hands. It’ll ease the burning. That’s it, that’s good. It’s all right.”
The feeling comes back as a trickle of cold water over the pads of his fingers, then the stinging, the throb in his lower back.
“Newt..." The word congeals into a whine.
“I’m going to take you into the living room,” says Newt. The water stops. His hands tingle as they are patted dry, and there is thick cold cream, and Newt’s arm around his shoulder is too much. “It’s all right, Credence. Come here with me. Is that all right? You’re having a panic attack, or something like it. Shall I make you something? Or would you rather I just sit with you?”
As he talks, Newt guides them stumblingly down the hall and to the sofa.
“I want to go home.”
“Okay, it’s all right. I know you do, Credence. I know you do.”
“I want to go home,” he says again. His voice, small and breathy, may as well have come out of the couch or the tape deck or the coffee table as from his heaving chest. “I just want to go back. I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I want to go back home, please. I want to go home.”
“I know. I know you do. It’s all right, I know. Can you just do me a favor, Credence? Can you do that - can you do something for me?”
His body curls into itself like fingers into a fist, knees to chest, quivering. Did he leave his Walkman in the bathroom? Everything feels disconnected. Competing signals. His thoughts want to race, but there aren’t enough of them, and he can’t follow.
“Just hang on for a moment here, Credence,” Newt is saying. Newt crouches over him, and he thinks, zoo animals. Dioramas in the museum. The tiger had been shot. Percy explained it to him by email. They shot the animals and stuffed them. Everything had cost a lot of money and had been done at a time when being a man with a lot of money had been permission enough.
Newt says, “I’m going to go back into the bathroom and get you some lorazepam. Do you know what that is?”
“It’s a relaxant. It’s just going to help you calm down, all right? Only if you want one, but I think it would help. And then we can talk, or you can rest. I can call ahead to Tina, if you need me to. It’s all right.”
When Newt returns with a glass of water and his fist clenched around a small, round white pill, it could be an hour or a minute later. Credence blinks, takes both dutifully, trusting.
"It's just lorazepam," says Newt. "It's a very small dose. They're prescribed to me. I sometimes have trouble falling asleep - " A phone rings somewhere in another room. "Just a moment, Credence."
The lorazepam wraps him in a fuzzy haze, warm and blurry like the air around a lit candle. His hands stop shaking, chest falling flat against his ribs as his heart slows. It’s not peace, but the blood has stopped surging through the veins around his temples by the time Newt returns with an extra blanket and a mug of tea. He holds his hand up when Credence tries to apologize. Everything is slowed, heavy and even less connected than it had felt in the midst of the panic attack. Even if his brain wanted to think anything more complex than the words for tea and thank you and television remote, he gets the feeling it would all be beyond him.
“It’s an odd feeling,” Newt agrees. “You might want to try and sleep.”
He can’t sleep either. Not to the lull of the TV or the clatter of rain on the windows. He drifts through an episode of Singled Out and then the news, the History Channel, PBS. At times, Newt is there, tidying away the mug of cold tea or asking how he feels, bringing his Walkman. The last song on side A of his new mixtape is slow and sad and apt - Mama You Been On My Mind, and that makes him laugh, loose and giggly like a tired little kid.
There had been a time, a little kid time, when he had believed he was being followed by an angel. (Stalker angel - he snorts.) Ma seemed to know his every thought, his every move. How else, if not from the mouth of some vindictive divine being? It had made so much sense, until he snapped one day, after a screaming fit, and Chastity in her anger admitted to following him around and making up stories.
Why would you do that to me?
Her eyes were marble-wide, glass-thick, red-rimmed and watery. She wrung her hands in an anxious form of prayer that he recognized. It made his stomach tight.
I don’t know, she said. I don’t know why I did it. Ma’s always angry with you anyway.
That was the crux of it, wasn’t it? No matter what he did, no matter how he thought or felt or schooled his face. He could have walked around her on the tips of his toes for the rest of his life, and she would still resent him the imprints in her dirt, still beat him for the single blade of flattened grass. She hadn’t wanted him, but she took him in when someone else wanted him less. She gave him a name when he had none. Her arms had never been mother’s arms, and she had never kissed his cheek or held him softly, and she had never seen any light in him but the cheap reflection of her own in his awestruck eyes, in his greed for her, for everything she would never give,
she was never home, but she was all he’d had.
He can feel the draw again, the glassy film of awe in his eyes, when he thinks of Percy. But now there is also the pull, the hook behind his bellybutton, the fluttering that becomes a throbbing that becomes hardness between his legs. He wants Percy to love him, to open the door and drag him into the world blinking in the light, to handle him roughly and take things so he never has to ask or want or lack.
Don’t be a creep, he thinks, and then he laughs again, and the sound wobbles.
Chapter 7: Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover
Thank you all so so so much for your continued feedback and support. You seriously keep me going, and I love sharing this story with you. Sorry for all the sads lol.
“No Diggity” - Blackstreet, Dr. Der, Queen PEN
“Know” - Nick Drake
“Damn I wish I was your lover” - Sophie B Hawkins
“Mr. Tambourine Man” - Joan Baez
Newt is at first reluctant but presses another lorazepam into Credence’s hands as he’s walking out the door on Wednesday morning.
“Only after the meeting, if you need it,” he says nervously, and Credence nods. He slips it into the zippered pocket of his anorak while Tina recites the subway line they’ll need to get to the Staten Island Ferry for the third time.
“It’s just cheaper,” she frets.
“I don’t mind.”
“No, I’m sorry, Credence. I know it’s all a lot. It’ll be a long ride, too, but it’s just -”
“- cheaper,” Credence finishes for her. They share a small smile, which seems to reassure Tina. He waits until she turns away to slide his hand into his pocket and toss the white pill into his mouth.
It hits him on the plastic subway bench, folded almost in half between Tina and a broad man in an even bulkier parka. For a moment, the graffiti swims and melts into the yellow streaks of light reflected off the metal walls. He moves with it, blinking, his heart already falling from its cavity in his chest. The metallic scrape of the subway car over the rails blurs out, womb-like, heartthrob. His mind shuffles lazily through memories of the last hour or so, Queenie explaining the world of teen magazines and celebrity crushes over breakfast, Newt explaining the art of asking a doctor for pharmaceuticals from behind a cupped hand. His body rocks along with the car. Everything is distant, tin can on a string, muffled voices. It occurs to him that subways are essentially tin cans on strings, and there is Percy's voice in his brain - essentially - and he hits rewind to get back to Radiohead, to Creep, because it's appropriate, and all of it is ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. Essentially very ridiculous.
"You look happy this morning," Tina remarks, as though it's the very last thing she had expected.
Pushing the headphones from his ears; he folds his hands in his lap. The space is too tight. His elbows are brushing with the man in the bulky parka, who shifts away, twisting his body somehow even further onto Credence's seat, against Credence's leg.
"Sorry," he mumbles to the nearest parka sleeve.
"There's nothing wrong with looking happy," says Tina.
The ride is shorter than Tina's hand-wringing had led him to believe. Maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. A cradle's rock from Chelsea to the lower shoreline. It feels like a lifetime anyway. Newt's Lorazepam stretches the minutes double under the pallid lamplight, folds them into themselves, limitless. He's never been so close to so many people at once. It should be more alarming. He should be more embarrassed about his hands, at least, and his still funny hair, and the fact that he breathes through his mouth, loudly, because the passageways of his nose have always been too narrow. He should probably care about the mouth breathing most, but the would-be surge of panic is cut off at its root. His brain feels like a soap bubble, wet and thick, fog over open water.
When they finally reach the station called South Ferry for their transfer, Tina has to hoist him from the bench by the sleeve of his anorak.
"You okay?" She gestures the stairs, a touch impatient as he runs his hand along the handrail. "Behind you - Credence - are you okay?"
He tongue manages to find his teeth in the nick of time, push off against them in a way that should make words.
"Yes," he says. The s drags like a snake tail, slithers over his lower lip on a little trail of spit. He takes the steps in clumsy doubles. Making up for lost time. Suddenly guilty.
"You look a little out of it." Tina takes his arm as they reach the top, tugs him over the final step before he can trip. Her short hair swings around her face in a brown curtain, concealing her pinched lips, her chin. "I'm sorry. We should have taken a car, but it's just such a long way - "
It's amazing how the guilt could find him so easily, in the midst of all this fog. Queenie had told him to keep the money that Percy had given him - a whopping hundred and eighty-six dollars - to do whatever he liked with it. He worries the lump of it through the zippered pocket of his anorak with numb fingers. His hands feel alarmingly far, as though they'd been separated on the train. If he foists his money on Tina, does it cancel out the lie with the pill?
The Manhattan they resurface into is the one Credence still knows best. Tina says they're in luck, the ferry is docking, and if we hurry - and his feet carry him after her, obedient as a trained dog, and the Lorazepam keeps his thoughts placid even as they veer back into panic's front yard, past the familiar fountain, the cold-stripped trees. It's different on foot than in the backs of cabs, where he had been able to close his eyes as they drove the old way back, stopping at the same lights, honking for the same lines of traffic that had put a glint in Ma's eye. There had been the time on this corner, stuck in gridlock, in the heat of summer with the windows cracked, maybe ten or eleven, when he had passed his belt with trembling fingers into the front seat and leaned forward, hand outstretched. When she missed, got his knee instead, his trousers took the brunt of the sting. It felt like a victory even as it prickled at his skin beneath in waves for minutes after.
"Do you need water?" Tina asks, gesturing a hot dog stand.
He shakes his head and shuffles over the street after her.
"It'll be okay."
"Yes," Credence agrees. His tongue sticks on the words. He should apologize to Tina, who looks suspicious about him and certainly already knows, but she has him by the sleeve again. Her lips are still pinched, thin. The tails of her coat whip around her knees as she walks them briskly to the ferry dock, and it strikes him that she’s not fashionable. Not like Queenie is fashionable.
Tina is practical, soft eyes men’s shirts and two hands that brought him bandages and aspirin in the summer. Her hair is never combed through. When she glances back at him, even on their coffee walks in the morning, to the WNET station, it’s always with the same spot of mustard on her upper lip and the narrow-eyed focus that he’s beginning to recognize for worry, anxiety, affection.
“Thank you,” he says. The sound rolls off his tongue like a wave. Sometimes talking is like choking up seawater. Searing, his throat full, too painful to be an immediate relief. Especially on lorazepam.
He trails his fingers over the railings as Tina finds them seats on a wooden bench. The boat rocks like the subway rocked, creaked, cradled. He presses his nose to a window and breaths a little cloud of steam onto the cold glass before sliding down the bench. There’s something odd about sailing over water he’s been in, had inside him. In his belly, in his lungs. Ma had intended to give him up to the Lord, but she married him to the earth instead, in all its rolling fury. If the boat capsized, it might swallow him up like a whale - Jonah, Free Willy.
To Tina he says: “I can’t swim.”
“Me either,” Tina confides. She smiles tightly, touches his sleeve. “But there’re vests under our seats. Don’t worry. I won’t let us drown.”
- - -
He should not be looking in this folder again. He shouldn’t even own it. It’s Porpentina Goldstein’s. It’s part of a state case. He’s peeking at evidence. Worse - he’s digging through the most intimate and painful details of someone’s life.
He almost talks himself out of it. His fingers hover over the dog-eared cardstock. Some of the things in this folder are intensely private, but he’s already seen them. There were never any secrets from the very beginning, not when it came to this. Not his fault.
Goldstein brought it all in in the summer, rubbed his nose in it, demanded help. He had put his own ass on the line for her, did what he could. And then he had only looked once after the diner, out of morbid curiosity, he told himself at the time. The kid had been so jumpy and offbeat. So bizarre. A miserable little alien. And then only once more after the second time at the diner, to understand better. Because Credence was vulnerable and had trusted him, of all people.
If he's honest with himself it was because Credence was attractive, too, in all his misery, in his shaking hands and the belt-less black cords he'd long grown out of. Not because of them. But despite everything, under the weird Vulcan haircut, the scars, the twitchy spiderleg movements and carpet-bombed eyes. Attractive. A little funny. A little soft, sweet, eager to please and be pleasing. A little dark, like he might grow up to be a murderer, or a Woody Allen fan. Wildly ignorant. Painfully naive. A little clever, in odd ways. Now in better clothes.
He tells himself this time has no necessity. He already knows. He's read, he's seen. He's held Credence's hand, felt the scars he saw in the pictures, watched him hesitate every time before speaking, fidgeting in his seat, darting glances from under his lashes. There is no necessity. There doesn't need to be. He wants to look anyway. He opens the folder.
Credence Barebone, Goldstein had written in her neat, boxy script. Age unknown. Unlikely to be a minor, still under the control of his mother. Siblings?? Chastity and M-something.
Modesty. A child.
Chastity - ??
Percy traces the jumble of her notes, from sparse musings on the Barebone family tree to the thick paragraph she had scrawled at the bottom of the page, her letters loosening and flattening themselves as though printed too quickly, urgently.
Physical abuse? - Credence has a funny way of holding those awful pamphlets. He wouldn’t show me. Waited, took a paper for myself. Palm shredded. No better words. Bought pain meds & bandaids. Will sneak somehow. Hurting himself? Someone else? All those kids look so scared
He stops reading.
There are pictures, as well. Kids with blurred out faces, long skirts, men in black suits, women in white caps. As out of place on the Lower East Side as in the financial district, like historical re-enactors, a freak show. He had known of them vaguely as the weirdos who plastered offensive posters outside his choice nightclubs in the 80s. Bottom-feeders, preying on weak peoples’ fears, lashing out at the sick, the already marginalized. Had Credence been one of them then? He runs the numbers. Credence is fourteen years younger, so in 1984 he was twelve, thirteen. One of the scared kids, probably. A bundle of stick limbs in black corduroy, ugly hair, raw skin, fingers stiff and rigid over a stack of paper, spewing hate. His stomach turns.
Credence was present in 1993, Goldstein writes, when mother and several adults in cult running a soup kitchen under pretense of aiding homeless/low income women/children. He returned to the church after pamphleting one eve to locked doors, lights off. Late, he slept in a pew until morning. Ashley Dobbing, 6, reported missing Xmas Eve that year by her mother, later arrested and charged w/ neglecting her other 8 kids. On Xmas Day 1993 - Modesty Barebone joined adoptive children of Mary Lou Barebone, aged 6. Credence claims clear memory, Modesty still talking about original family. Asked if I can do anything for her. He has it covered. Reported to police 6/17/95.
He reads quickly, flips past a sheet of photos of blond little Modesty Barebone in her pilgrim’s get-up and deep frown, potentially Ashley Dobbing, twice fucked over. That was the wild thing about this Barebone woman. The brazen thing, taking kids from junkies, off the street, from teenagers desperate not to have a baby before college. The ones nobody wanted, nobody would miss, from the parents nobody would listen to. And nobody did.
This weekend Credence could not slip away. Looked poorly.
If anyone had ever wanted Credence, they must have disappeared an age ago or changed their mind. They had left him to rot.
The idea of it strikes Percy at once as impossibly cold. Someone somewhere had held a baby without a name and put him down for the last time. How many people had looked in his face since, felt the terror rolling off him like a cloud of black smoke, and did nothing?
(Ca 1984. The weirdos outside his favorite night clubs, plastering their hate on the facades of alleys where he had smoked and kissed and touched and been touched and held and warm. Blocking the entrance to Pyramid on costume night. Marring street corners like a cluster of pimples on the dirty sidewalk, on a grey morning when he was still drunk and had the chemical sweetness of some powder smeared down the back of his throat, rough. Laughing with Leon, who died. Art and Pat and Carol screaming, laughing, throwing out fingers, all dead now, a decade later. Get fucked! Fuck you, bigots!)
He snaps the folder shut and shoves it across his desk, under another stack of folders. Sighs. Massages the tender space between his thumb and forefinger. It's too weird, having all of this background information on someone he likes, someone he wants to kiss and hold, someone he wanted - after their third meeting, no less - to buy a new wardrobe for. Altruism it had not been, not entirely. A better dressed Credence was a handsome Credence. Not that he really needed the help, with that face. But it was only too easy for Percy to dismiss his impulses for selfishness, for a play at dressing the boy up like a doll to his liking. Really, it hadn't been about that at all.
The desk chair creaks as he shoves off from his desk. He needs a shower and early dinner before heading into work. Schedule to go over. Grocery deliveries to call in.
On the turntable in the living room, his sole surviving Madonna single is still in its cardstock sleeve from the week prior, gathering dust. He shouldn't have thrown the others out. All of his music, his years of collecting. If he had known there would be a Credence, a young cult defector who would stumble into his life clinging to a Walkman like a placenta, he could have saved them in the back of some dark closet. He should introduce Credence to Blur. Has he ever heard rap? Hip hop? R&B? Jazz? It would be weird, after the clothes, for Percy to dump a crate of CDs on the kid, and a CD player, a turntable, a small truck of tapes, everything from Gregorian chanting to Bowie to Janet Jackson to Carol King to Dr. Dre. It would be so weird, and he definitely should not do it. He just feels guilty, because he's seen the pictures. It's just uncomfortable, because he knows what those scars looked like as open wounds.
That's just it. It's weird. It chafes. He knows Credence still calls the cult woman Ma, like a little Okie homesteader. Dustbowl boy. Dorothea Lange would have had a field day with him in a pair of overalls....
He groans and sweeps a scattering of half-opened letters into a stack on the counter. His apartment is out of order, sofa cushions mussed, dishwasher full of clean dishes he hasn't yet had the willpower to get up and put away. All things to do before work. Clean house, clean mind. His mother hadn't said that. One of the au pairs?
It chafes because he knows Credence had begged Tina Goldstein not to tell anyone or hurt his only approximation of a family even as he supplied her with enough gun powder and tinder to blow the whole thing open.
It was the Irish au pair. The one they'd had to fire for squeezing his arm. A ring of purple thumbprints just under his elbow. He wants to tell Credence that families are overrated. Mothers can love from a distance, by proxy, fathers through numbers, diminishing and swelling and falling again in the depths of bank accounts. Fathers can love through tax evasion. Got to pay your tuition somehow, Percy-love. When they die - lung cancer, heart failure, in hospitals, in the backseats of black cars - they're just bodies, just memories of bodies and words and eyes and hands and touch and often the lack thereof, and then you realize.
If Credence was just a body to him, Percy wouldn't have felt such joy as he'd watched those long, skinny fingers twist around the fabric of the t-shirt he'd chosen with such a ridiculous amount of care. Such an embarrassing amount of care for a person he’d only just met. The way his lips had curled into a smile, like a secret, at the corner of his mouth when he’d seen himself standing there in real clothes. Normal, almost. Percy groans again. Rubs his eyes. He needs a smoke, a shower. He needs to get a move on if he wants any chance of catching Seraphina for coffee and to come up with a bulletproof defence to get corporate off their backs, keep Grindelwald and the rest of the right-wing goons off air before the election.
(The Irish au pair had been the first one to take him to McDonalds, aged six. It had all been pâté and steak tartare up to then. He ate so many fries and Chicken McNuggets that his stomach had given in and hurled them back out across the floor of the cab on the way home, and the hand on his back had not been his mother’s, and it never was again. )
What a weird, fucked up thing to realize. He grabs his pack off the counter and heads for the ash tray in the living room.
What on earth had possessed him to give Credence all that money, anyway?
Ho, ho, ho, have you been a good little boy?
Is that what he wants? To be a sugar daddy to the twitchy Calvin Klein model cult kid? He rolls the filter of an unlit cigarette between his fingertips, considering. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Credence is obviously into it, pursuing it, even, and it’s not like he lacks the money or the patience. They could do dinner, movies, quiet dates at home. It would be company. It would be the ultimate revenge against the Barebone bitch and her army of bigots, long after all the yelling and middle fingers had proved ineffective. Leading the little black sheep from the fold, opening the doors for him to the wide world of morning sex, club parties, blowjobs in bathroom stalls, holding hands in public.
He feels a little guilty for laughing, and that snaps him out of it. Credence isn’t the butt of the joke. Credence is the butt of too many jokes lately, on every channel, every station, in magazine articles and newspaper editorials and water cooler conversation.
Apropos water cooler conversation - Seraphina will never let it go if he’s late. He drops the cigarette next to the matches and stands slowly, letting the tension eek out of his shoulders, his hips, his knees. Rolls his neck. When the corded phone on the kitchen wall begins to ring, he almost ignores it. It’s probably just a delivery, or some polling survey from the governor’s team again.
Hello, are you pleased with the Governor’s work in office so far? Would you vote for him in the next election?
Right now, Percy would vote for anyone who could keep Gellert Grindelwald’s slimy paws off his spotless set desk in the newsroom. He picks up a water bottle on his way to the phone, pauses to unscrew the cap.
A shaky breath rattles through the receiver, and his stomach drops.
“Credence, what’s wrong?”
“Can I -” Credence stutters, and Percy knows the rest before he can finish, before the swoosh of the door crackles through the line, “ - um, come - come upstairs? I, uh, I’m in your lobby -”
Fuck. Of course.
He cringes, but nods against the receiver. “Sure, Credence. Yeah, of course you can come upstairs. Do you know to get here?”
Credence laughs a breathless little laugh that squeezes his stomach, and he’s briefly tempted, as he hangs up the phone, to page Seraphina that he’ll be late, or isn’t coming. To call in to work. Cancel his job. He has enough money in the bank to live off well after he dies of old age. He wouldn’t even need to leave his house. His grocery store delivers.
The door swings open around hunched Credence ducking into the folds of his ugly green anorak like one of the twins from the Shining. His hair is all fly-aways, like he walked up the wrong side of a breeze, and Percy has to fight the urge to smooth it. A Dorothea Lange scowl, wild eyes as wide as fists, hollow cheeks. Credence belongs in black and white. Silent film horror. He wears darkness into the room like his own personal ecosphere. Even the air feels thicker.
Percy finds the edge of the counter with his free hand and holds it tightly. They will eventually have to discuss boundaries, not showing up without calling ahead, but later. Another day. Credence stops and hovers over the threshold. His cheeks are pink, and his eyes are red-ringed and swollen.
“I’m sorry.” His eyes search Percy’s widely, unfocused. His mouth twists. “I’m sorry to just come here like this.”
“It’s fine,” Percy hears himself reply. Winces internally. So much for boundaries. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
He wants to take Credence by the arm and yank him into the kitchen, guide him gently to the sofa, force his jaws open and make the words pour out that so obviously want to. It’s unnerving staring him down while Credence hunches mutely in the doorway with a muscle working in his broad jaw and his hands shaking in the sleeves of his anorak.
“Come inside,” Percy says. “Go sit down. I’ll get you some water and you can tell me about it while I get ready for work.”
To his surprise, Credence goes.
“I have work in about an hour,” Percy says. He opens another bottle of water, forcing himself into calm. “But you’re welcome to stay here while I’m gone, if you need some space for yourself.”
Credence sits slumped into the sofa like a dropped toy, his shoulders so low they almost look detached. His hair has grown into a little mop on his head, brushing his ears. He doesn’t look up as Percy slides the water bottle across the table, but his hands twitch at the click and hiss of the lighter.
“Okay with you if I smoke?”
He jerks his shoulders. Something about the motion is so childish and petulant it makes Percy want to laugh, and he thinks about the nights prior in the diner, Credence jutting his chin over the table, asserting himself in the only ways he seems to know how, with a mother like his. Mother, kidnapper? Jailer? He exhales smoke in a little cloud into the living room, away from Credence. His own mother had never been concerned about secondhand smoke, but it was the 60s. I smoked all nine months you were inside me, Percy-love, and you didn’t die then either, so give me a break. Percy can see the boy’s hands working, half-obscured by green anorak sleeves, fingers over palms, tracing the lines of old scars, and he swallows hard enough to make his throat spasm over another lungful of smoke.
“Whatever happened - ”
“They’re prosecuting my sister,” Credence says.
Percy blinks. His brain stumbles over the words, racing to process and file them away for relevance.
“The little one? I don’t even think she’s old enough - ”
Oh. Wrong file. He rubs ash off the tip of his cigarette into an empty coffee mug as Credence’s eyelashes flicker.
“She’s not little,” Credence continues. His voice is too soft for the harshness it wants to carry, breaks and cracks over each syllable. “She’s twenty-two, they said. I didn’t know. She helped Ma manage the bank accounts, because it was just - it was something useful. She had to be useful. It wasn’t really her fault about any of it, but they said she helped - I don’t understand.”
She had to be useful. He doesn’t bother asking what made Credence useful in that family dynamic, but it had also never occurred to Percy that any of the Barebone kids had been brought up with more of a connection to the outside world than Credence’s severely limited one. Some part of him had just assumed they were all raised in woeful ignorance, kept dumb and scared to stop them running away. The idea that Credence’s sister had done the cult’s accounts jars him. She must have had to leave the compound and visit banks for that, a luxury no one seemed ever to have afforded to Credence. He hadn’t know enough about money to recognize a fifty dollar bill or its worth without being taught. Itchy thoughts.
“I told them I won’t testify if they try to put her in jail.”
So, this is it. As if on cue, Credence’s eyes dart up at last, a rapid one-two across Percy’s face before diving back down to focus on the hands in his lap. All of his fidgeting, like his body can’t find a single comfortable position in space itself. In existence. Percy’s temples are beginning to ache just from watching him. His hands twitch in his own lap, want to take Credence by the shoulder and squeeze, pull him in. Squeeze harder. He grips his cigarette instead.
“How did that go?”
Credence laughs, and this time the sound is harsh even as it breaks over his bottom teeth.
“They can put me in jail, too,” he says in a voice like the jutted chin, like the shrug.
It’s not rebellion if you’ve already given up, Percy thinks. That feels unfair, with Credence’s dark eyes boring holes into the skin of his hands, folded over the new jeans Percy had bought him. He’s wearing his sneakers, despite the cold, and the sight of them jolts Percy’s headache into his eye sockets.
“Someone should,” he hears himself say. His voice is stiff, forced levity, forced calm. He wants to close the space between them. He flicks ash off the tip of his cigarette as Credence’s eyes startle up to meet his own. “If you’re going to keep walking around the city in this cold in the worst possible gear.”
It doesn’t surprise him when his smile is not returned.
“Percy - ” Credence says, breaks off. He flicks his tongue over his top lip and blinks. Before either of them can carry out the sentence to its completion, Credence is on his feet.
It takes Percy an entire second to realize Credence must have climbed over the coffee table, his hands two streaks blurred along the sides of Percy’s cheeks. And then Credence’s mouth is on his, teeth on cold teeth. His lips still frozen from the outside wind, dry. He presses them to Percy’s harder, bruising.
It’s as much a punishment as a kiss. Clumsy and wet and Credence’s mouth is all teeth, like an animal’s. Feral. Percy pushes past them with his tongue, heart pounding. His hands knot themselves into Credence newly-grown mop of hair, twisting, tugging a little as Credence chokes out a whimper that vibrates around the roof of his mouth, and he bites Credence’s lower lip gently. Rolls it between his own teeth. His breath hitches. Credence is climbing into his lap, needy, hands on his shoulders, face, hair, open mouth, taking Percy’s tongue between his lips, down his throat.
He tears away.
If he lets this go on, he will end up calling into work, and Seraphina will never forgive him. Credence groans, runs his tongue along Percy’s lower lip the way Percy had just done to his. That alone is enough to pool the heat in his dick. He pulls back again, and his fist closes around Credence’s chin, presses firmly into the grooves where his chin and jaw bones meet, enough to hold him in place as the rest of his body is squirming back towards Percy’s with a strength he hadn’t thought possible.
“Please, Percy -”
Call in, motherfucker. He’s such an idiot. Who gives a damn about Seraphina Picquery and the board anymore? Or about Gellert Grindelwald? He should call in. He should kiss Credence hot and spit-soaked and teary-eyed until they both disappear into the sofa cushions and roll out in the fantasy island on the other side where the loose change and odd dime bags had all been lost in their day.
“I have to go work,” he says instead, kicking himself. “As much as I’d love to sit here and kiss you all night long.”
He must be imagining the little shiver of the body against his body, the chin in his hand. He releases it, but Credence leans in closer, his breath pushing out in uneven spurts.
“I don’t want to go home,” he says frantically. “I’m sorry if that wasn’t good. I’ve never really done it before -”
Percy’s stomach clenches.
“It was perfect, Credence,” he says, forcing eye contact, “but if I’m late to work, I’m in for a reprimand from Seraphina Picquery.” His body untangles itself from Credence’s as he speaks. It’s such a delicate process, Credence’s chest fluttering beneath his hands, his mouth still working out voiceless pleas. Percy steels himself and looks away. He brushes the fingertips from his shoulder, the shaking chest from his chest, and Credence makes the same sound in the back of his throat, the little whimper that kicks his pulse into overdrive.
“I just need a shower,” he says, almost an apology. “But feel free to help yourself from the fridge.”
He leaves Credence in a ball on the sofa. Arms wrapped around knees, chin tucked into them, chest heaving. The guilt alone is almost enough to make him turn back, but work. Standing by Seraphina as she takes on corporate is too important to blow off for a makeout session, no matter how tempting it is. No matter how badly Credence seems to need him. He shakes his head, presses his thumbs into the delicate spot below his brows. Credence shouldn’t need him, anyway. They’ve only just met.
He’s still on the sofa as Percy returns, showered and with Colgate breath and in his work suit with the dark green tie.
“Credence,” Percy sighs. “I’m sorry about the timing of this, but it has nothing to do with you. I was already on my way to work, but like I said, you’re very welcome to stay. You know where the guest bedroom is, and there are toothbrushes in the bathroom cabinets. Take whatever you want from the fridge. You have my number. I should be back around midnight if you’re up and want to talk.”
Whatever Credence does after that, Percy tells himself it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter when he has to focus. Bigger fish, yaddayah. He drums his fingers along the car door in the cab on his way to coffee and wipes the image of Credence huddled on his sofa from the forefront of his brain.
Despite his cabdriver's singular insistence on treating every twenty-foot stretch of city block like a Grand Prix course, he's ten minutes late for Seraphina. She shows him her watch from the table in the back of the diner, her mouth a straight line to match her sculpted brows.
"We said five-thirty, Percival."
"We did," he sighs as she slides a mug of coffee across the formica table. "I've been -"
"- with that Salem boy," Seraphina finishes, a gleam of triumph in her dark eyes. She pats the corner of her mouth with a paper napkin. "Don't look at me like that. I saw him in the break room that time, and I know you took the Goldstein file back home with you last night. You're never late."
She raises a hand, gestures him up and down.
"Just kissing," he says, and frowns. One time he has his tongue down Credence's throat, and already he's twenty years old again, defending himself. "I mean, Christ, it wasn't on purpose. He keeps showing up. He's going through - a lot."
"Almost too much."
"He just got out of a cult, Percy." He can tell from the way she purses her lips around the rim of her cup that the topic is reaching its expiration date. "And you're still not over Iraq. Be careful, that's all I'm saying. Not just with him or just with you and your feelings, but your career, too."
The course of their conversation is shifted after that, as deftly as Seraphina transitions from breaking stories to introducing the meteorologist at six o'clock. She leaves little lip patterns in red around the rim of her cup, dabbing the corner of her mouth with the napkin. They discuss Grindelwald in undertone. Seraphina wants to play it safe, no outright stance on his politics, make the case that they simply have too many other things to report on.
"Won't work," Percy argues. He shakes his head, stirs his coffee. "We have to be clear about it. We're not giving airtime to any more of these goddamn fascists. Did you see his record from the state senate in the eighties?"
"Do you know how many times he voted against more funding? When that high school kid was dying and the schools weren't letting them in? You know what he wanted to do with public funding for programs for the kids being born with it? You know why he was so open in his support for abortion - "
" - which is complicated, and never a strictly bad thing, and I am on your side," says Seraphina with finality, laying her hand on the table between them. Her large eyes flicker across his face, soft. "I was there, too. You want to talk communities hit hard - hell. But we won't get our way if we storm into the board room waving our union demands, Percy. We're not irreplaceable."
She's right, like she always is, and he's ashamed, and he resents her for it.
"Get over it," she says, smirking.
"My treat - the coffee."
"Oh, shut up." She drops a twenty onto the table from expertly manicured fingers, traces a curl of platinum hair around her ear beneath the black hair wrap that had been such a battle when they first started. Seraphina is a professional, Percy remembers suddenly. If anyone knows how to fight corporate and not lose her cool, it's her. His energy has always been better spent standing behind her, backing her up, following her lead.
"Now ask me how I am," she dictates as she slips back into her coat. He holds open the door, his lips curling into a familiar easy grin, searching with his free hand for the pack of cigarettes half-crushed by the squeeze of his pocket seams. "You're not the only one sneaking around like a teenager these days, Percival Graves. Drop that twenty in my pocket."
He does so, laughing.
"He or she?"
"If we're talking close to work?" She glances over her shoulder before taking a cigarette from his pack. "He. He is paralegal at CBS. Just fun, for now."
"The Salem kid, too," he says quickly, not meaning it. They cut across the street on a red light, leaving trails of smoke in little wisps over the sidewalk and the crosswalk and the deep curb cuts that catch on Seraphina's heels. She shakes her head.
"If that's what you want to call fun...."
It's 12:15 on the dot when Percy creaks through the front door, kicking off his shoes. Credence is curled up on his side, an awkward lump in the Eames, still in his anorak and sneakers. One of the laces dangles loosely, just scraping the floor with a plastic tip. He watches it swing as Credence breathes slowly, deeply into his chest, his neck at an odd angle that can't be comfortable. Like the last time, his face is at peace without the weight of waking thoughts. His forehead and cheeks are impossibly smooth, lips curved in a shy smile. Shy even in sleep.
Just for fun. Percy rubs his eyes. Another jumble of words to add to the long list of thoughtlessly cruel things he regrets saying. Why had he said that? As if Seraphina believed him, or seriously judged, ever. He reaches out tentatively, hating himself for having to break Credence's fragile peace, and shakes one thin shoulder.
"Credence. Credence, wake up."
Black eyes, heavy-lidded and glazed, pupils blown in the half-light cast in by the street lamps through the open window.
"Mhm." He helps Credence sit up. Tries not to wince at the sharpness of his vertebrae through the thin cotton of the striped t-shirt as they slide into place along the ridge of his spine. "This can't be comfortable."
"Sh'not," Credence mumbles. He blinks slowly. ""M shorry - "
"Shh. Come on. I'll set you up in the guest room. We can talk tomorrow." His fingertips brush over the curve of a rib, a hip bone, as Credence straightens against him. Credence's every move is thick and poorly coordinated, and he thinks of Bambi and imagines Seraphina shaking her head. If that's what you want to call fun.... "It's fine."
They stagger into the guest room in half-time, Credence leaning heavily on Percy's shoulder, his arm around Credence's bony back. Something about his glassy eyes and bone-deep exhaustion feels off, wrong, and he wonders what else has been going on in Credence's life, if it's all the thing with the sister. The many breakdowns. Intense. Is it really too much, or was he just waiting for someone like this to stumble in and shake him from his inertia?
"Pershy...." Credence sighs. He rolls loose-limbed over the sheets as Percy peels them down around him, long legs still in his jeans, arms above his head, and the sight of it is definitely too much. All the caffeine with Seraphina, in the diner and the breakroom, rushes straight to his dick in a surge of hot blood. He hands the corner of the top sheet to Credence, tugs the knots from the sneakers, lets Credence struggle to kick them off. His temples ache.
Credence is already asleep, snoring softly in a twist of striped bedsheets and wool coverlet, as he turns off the light. The bathroom light is still on, the door to the medicine cabinet slightly ajar. Percy stares at it. His eyes scan the counter, the plastic toothbrush that had been torn from its packaging, clean and dry and laid neatly beside a tube of travel-sized toothpaste. He taps the edge of the cabinet door and lets it swing open, blinking as light from the overhead lamp glares off it in streaks. The aspirin is in its usual corner, lid screwed on tightly.
Next to it, tucked behind an ancient box of band-aids and a box of q-tips, three brown glass bottles with white lids. The same as he'd left them however long ago. He picks one up and reads the label - Klonopin. Weighs it in his hand. It feels the same, looks untouched. He's just being paranoid and weird, because he unnerved himself with Seraphina, and the entire situation is well beyond the parameters of normalcy. There are no guidelines for any of this, no helpful doctor's office pamphlets about how to have a functioning thing with a cult defector.
Anyway, Credence wouldn't know Klonopin if it knocked him over the head. Said he'd never had aspirin or any medicine before, but took it when I explained, Goldstein had written. He snaps the cabinet shut, swallowing his guilt, and turns off the light.
Chapter 8: Sunday Morning
Even his knocking is shy, like he knows he shouldn't be here.
Go away, Credence.
"I'll be right out. I'm sorry - just, give me a second."
The door catches on the edge of the carpet. He must have kicked it up as he stormed in.
"Is it okay if I come in?"
Warnings ahead for a million poor choices and pure, unadulterated self indulgence. I never promised this would be a totally healthy dynamic.
If you're sensitive to drug use, mentions of child abuse, etc skip this and check in next week for a summary.
As always, thank you to every single one of you who took the time to leave a comment or kudos. You make my day, without fail.
Playlist continues here:
This is a long one.
Milk It - Nirvana
Mr. Blue Sky - ELO
Sunday Morning - Velvet Underground
Jesus - Velvet Underground
Life on Mars? - David Bowie
Express Yourself - Charles Wright & The Watts
Heart of Glass - Blondie
Should I Stay Or Should I go - The Clash
Rocin' Robin - Michael Jackson
Come On Eileen - Dexys Midnight Runners
I Want To Break Free - Queen
99 Red Balloons - Nena
Just Can't Get Enough - Depeche Mode
Need You Tonight - INXS
I'm Gonna Be - The Proclaimers
Isis - Bob Dylan
Run Run Run - Velvet Underground
Gimme Danger - The Stooges
His dreams were weird. Queenie, naked and smiling, beckoning him into her bedroom. The dark bed, the striped sheets, the lipstick on the mirror. The hallway where Newt and Percy waited, ensconced in shadow. All sweat and dampness between his legs. Heart pounding wildly, like it might burst, until he’d finally woken up to sunlight, relief.
(It’s a beautiful word, ensconced. Tina’s books are full of words with such beauty and weight to them, they make him feel like the stupidest little speck of an animal. Words he could never speak out loud, wouldn’t even know how to, but ensconced reminds him of the buttery flakes of a good croissant, the kind Jacob brings home on weekends. Decadent.)
There are times he thinks of Jesus flipping the tables in the Temple in Jerusalem. His dream scared him. He woke in the night to find himself stiff and groaning against the striped sheets of Percy’s guest bed. Insatiable. Percy hadn’t wanted to kiss him anymore. He rolls onto his back, blinking.
Judging by the pale purple light cut in columns through the uncovered window, it’s still early in the morning, probably before seven. He stares at the vaulted ceiling, the dust specks floating like tiny stars where the sun touches them. Percy is probably still asleep, but he can’t risk the guest bathroom. He’ll have to wait and go home for a shower and to clean his underpants, explain to Tina somehow why he stayed the night in another man’s apartment.
He gives himself another count to sixty, staring at the peaks where the walls meet the roof high overhead, while his stomach unwinds itself from the tight ball of anxiety and nausea that he is beginning to recognise as a hallmark of waking up after taking anything that ends in -azepam.
Percy’s guest room is bigger than any bedroom Credence has ever seen. Most of the floor is taken up by boxes, a desk scattered with pens and markers, an old armchair and armoire, and the little bed in the corner that feels strikingly like his attic nook in the Manhattan branch of the New Salem Church. It’s cosy. His cot in the downtown church had never been cosy so much as stiff and traitorously loud. He presses his fingertips into the top of the mattress until they pinch, savouring the plush give, the softness of the sheets against his skin. In another lifetime, maybe, if such a thing existed, he could have spent every night of his life in a bed like this. In another lifetime, maybe he would have been more deserving. It sounds impossible.
Sighing, he rolls his body off the side of the mattress. Even the floorboards are warm, despite the chill outside. Simple decadence. Would the Lord who gave his people manna from Heaven and who appeared to Moses a wild bushfire in the desert really resent anyone for turning on their radiators in the dead of winter? Ma had always thought so. But then, she also thought the world was six thousand years old.
Maybe there can be both - the million year old planet Earth and the God who is all that was and is and will be. Maybe the dizzying vastness of time is only further proof. Maybe Percy was his burning bush, a disembodied voice in an email inbox. Maybe it’s Kurt Cobain on his Walkman. Go you forth, from your country, from your kindred, and from your father’s house, and I am my own parasite, I don’t need a host to live -
He cuts across the room, and his stomach swings in the opposite direction. He shakes his head experimentally. The world is steady, but his brain bobs like a duck on water. Everything feels slightly less than real. Like it would give beneath his touch if he were to reach out.
Once in the hallway, his feet pick up. He trails his fingertips over the walls. Doesn’t think about the oils, the hand on his wrist, aged six, scrubbing until his knuckles bled. Everything in him has always bled and bled and bled. Whatever those little white pills in Percy’s medicine cabinet had been, they had the effect of a coagulant. All the feeling clotted up in his chest, frozen in time. Just a heaviness. A quiet, dull mass he can bear. He flicks on the bathroom light.
His eyes are lined tired in pink and purple shadows and his lips have cracked drily down the middle. Percy had carried him to bed. He traces the crack with the pad of his finger, wincing. Percy came home and held him and helped him take off his jacket and shoes. The guest room and the New Salem Church in downtown Manhattan have the same peaked ceiling at different heights. He stole pills from a bottle in Percy’s medicine cabinet. Swallowed dry. Enjoyed himself. He traces the pad of his lip with a fingernail.
Going back to Tina now, looking like this, would be a mistake. She might think someone had hurt him, or she might know already that Newt had given him the extra lorazepam. It hadn’t saved him from his panic in the lawyer’s office. When they said Chastity’s name, when they discussed plea deals, sentencing, his heart had twisted into the ugly dark thing it became sometimes. The screaming thing. If you prosecute her, I won’t testify, and you’ll have to send me to prison, too, he said.
We can, Mr. Barebone. We would rather not, but you are not a child. We very much still could.
He strips his jeans and underwear, cupping the dampness of himself in one hand while the other fumbles for the faucet. If he’s quick, he can still make it out of here and walk around the city until it’s safer to go home. Once Tina leaves for work around eight thirty or so. He rinses his underwear thoroughly and wrings them out, hides them in the folds of his jeans, and loads his hands up with soap. Croaks out the first words of the routine prayer. Scrubs until he’s red and stinging.
“What the fuck - ”
Percy is there and gone so suddenly that Credence hardly has time to react. His eyes widen, but instead of springing back into the unfamiliar solidity of Percy’s bathtub, he tenses. Percy is all eyeball and tufted hair. Credence’s fingertips tighten around the soft raw flesh of his thing, and the door slams shut. His eyes itch. The water continues to run.
He rinses himself with shaking hands, fingers that won’t bend around the button and zipper of his fly as he yanks his jeans back on. Dread trickles down the back of his neck like cold water, prickles at the little hairs there. If Percy didn’t hate him last night, he will now. It doesn’t matter that Percy is a homosexual, too. Sodomy is one thing. Then at least both parties agreed to sink together into sin, but his brain brought Percy into this without so much as a nod of consent.
It’s never enough for him.
His fingers twist stiffly through the hand towel on the sink.
Not enough to have a home with a mother and sisters and be fed and clothed. He had wanted warmth, too, and love and touch. Not enough to stay with the Goldsteins, he had to have Percy. Not enough to leach off Percy’s generosity, new clothes; he had to steal and bring his filth with him. All the weight splinters in his chest. Music blares out from the living room, so loud it rattles the bathroom door. His hands shake so badly he can barely turn the handle.
Percy is chopping onions at the kitchen counter. He lays the knife on its side as Credence shuffles into the living room. Something about the cheerful beat of the music rings ominous, the knife on the counter, the way that Percy stops and stares.
“I’m sorry,” says Credence quickly. His shoulders draw in around his earlobes. “I’m sorry, it wasn’t what it looked like -”
The words fall down the back of his throat as Percy raises a hand, and he ducks away.
“It’s fine, Credence. I mean - hey. It’s fine. I should have knocked.”
He should be normal, but he feels the tightness in his back and his fists, and Percy is picking up the knife again. His eyes scan the room from wall to wall. The door is ahead to his right. Percy is closer. He’ll have to move slowly while they talk, to close the gap, give his body a fighting chance.
On the first step he hesitates.
He had thought Percy wanted to shoot him in the diner, too, hadn’t he? It was only a cellular telephone. But then, maybe that was just how it worked in the outside world. Uneven. Some things brought blows when others didn’t. No higher logic. It had been easier at home when he could expect a beating for just about anything. He never had to try and guess. Ma had been nothing if not consistent.
“Credence,” Percy sighs.
His eyes never leave the knife in Percy’s right hand, the tip of its blade sunk into the cutting board. The first song fades into something slower and dreamier and infinitely worse. Like walking through a strange dream, but prodding through is the insistent chafe of his jeans over rubbed-raw skin.
“You know you’re an adult, right? You’re the only one who gets to decide what to do with your own body. And you don’t have to hang back like that. I’m not going to - no one can touch you without your permission.”
The fury in Credence’s chest now is not the shapeless searing screaming thing, just a sudden heat fleeing into the tips of his ears, in his belly, between his legs.
“I want you to,” he says. Can eyes feel hot? His thing aches, over-tender and heavy. He twists his fingers into the pockets of his anorak and takes a step backwards, then another towards the front door. “I mean - I’m sorry. I mean -”
Percy's lips curve at the corners as he resumes chopping.
"Do you like omelettes?"
He should run. He should go home before he brings someone's hand down on him - Percy's, God's, his own.
"I don't know.”
The curve widens into a full grin. He follows the arc of the knife through the air as Percy waves it over the counter.
"C'mere. I could use some help prepping these, if you don't mind, and then we can find out if you do."
Credence has weird food habits. Little tics and quirks that Percy picks up on as they're sitting cross-legged on the Persian carpet in front of his TV. If there’s anything enjoyable about the experience of eating an omelette for the first time, he hides it well. Expressionless. He eats like a teenaged anorexic, long fingers twitching around the hilt of a knife. Slow and deliberate and somehow sneaky, even if the food is going into his mouth and not down the open end of a sleeve. He cuts his omelette into neat squares, exactly eighteen of them, before spearing one delicately on the prong of his fork. Eighteen chews, each square. Percy counts and tries not to stare. It doesn't matter anyway. Credence never looks up save to wipe his hands on a napkin at regular intervals. Pure compulsion. Military drill precision. It’s fascinating. It makes Percy want to reach out and shake him.
“You look unconvinced,” he says instead, pretending not to notice the clatter of the fork and knife against Credence’s plate as he drops them.
“Sorry - ”
“Don’t apologise,” says Percy quickly. “ I’m putting a moratorium on the word sorry. It’s just an omelette, Credence. I won’t be hurt if you hate it.”
Credence shifts, eyelashes fluttering, but he doesn't look up. He's barely looked up all morning apart from the wild terror in his eyes when he had first shuttled into the kitchen. That had been understandable. Anyone would be mortified to be caught going at themselves like he was, and Credence had grown up in that stunting place, probably had been beaten for it already, probably lived in fear of it -
He just got out of a cult, Percy -
He rubs his eyes a little viciously as Credence reaches for the knife again. Some demonic impulse seizes him, to blurt out as yet unspoken truths, all the harsh words he’s been biting back: I have no idea what my intentions are with you, but I don’t usually do serious things, and you don’t have to keep hiding your hands like I haven’t seen the photos up close and Kurt Cobain is dead, and he’s been dead, and there won’t be any more albums. Credence hesitates over the dropped silverware, one pale hand outstretched, purple scars across the knuckles. Switches hands and then switches again. Decision made, he goes back to his food. Fork, knife, chew. Down one column of egg squares.
"I like it," he says so softly, Percy is almost sure he hallucinated it.
"Oh. I'm glad."
"We used to get an egg on Sunday."
He mimes spooning egg from an egg cup in the air with his free hand, smiling to himself over the prongs of his fork. A little shy, a little pleased. Percy rubs his eyes again, frowning against the compulsion to lean over and take the curve of those pink lips between his own again. His brain sputters weakly with the effort, clearly in need of more coffee, or something stronger. Think of anything else, he warns himself. Give Credence a break, after this morning, after being abandoned in an unfamiliar apartment, after he'd sucked on Percy's tongue -
The cult on paper had sounded like a brutal combination of hippie commune and prison camp, a biodynamic garden next to the chapel where they sang and prayed beside the barracks where they housed their kidnapped kids below the classroom where Credence had reported being beaten with, among other things, a ruler, a small chalkboard, and his own belt. No space for the grainy, Grapes of Wrath image of him tapping a spoon against the fragile shell of an egg in its own cup, probably feeling like a little king. A luxury egg. Sunday special. Famine childhood.
"Do you want to hear a cool song?"
He's already on his feet as Credence sets down the knife and fork. He waves his hand.
"Keep eating. If you're done, though, you should lie on your back for this one."
It's no longer a surprise when Credence scrambles to obey. In a single motion, the silverware and plate are stacked and removed to the kitchen sink. Percy takes his time thumbing through the album covers on his music shelf while the sink runs. Instinct tells him not to interfere or insist on the dishwasher or to mention the weekly cleaning service he pays for every Monday. He hums, fingers skipping over the empty spaces where other albums should be, had been. The album he'd been looking for surfaces between a dog-eared sleeve of Leonard Cohen's greatest hits and the soundtrack to the Sound of Music just as Credence is returning from the kitchen sink.
"Where should I lie down?" He wipes his hands on the pockets of his jeans.
"Anywhere," says Percy. The image of Credence as a scrawny teenager hunched over an egg cup battles briefly for dominance with his own memories of being fifteen, splayed out across the blue carpet in the bedroom that is now his guest room, ashing cigarettes into the bottle of wine he'd stolen from his parents' liquor cabinet. That image wins. He holds his eyes on the vinyl in his hands, on the needle, lining it up to the groove of the song he wants.
"That is, if you want to at all. It's just the best way to listen to this song. Do you know any Bowie?"
"Then, you're in for a treat. And a shock."
They end up elbow-to-elbow on the rug, Credence's head framed by a bough of tufted wool olive leaves, Percy's hip brushing the leg of the coffee table. He swallows the urge to reach out and slide his hand under the sharp bones of Credence's cheek where they flatten the pile of the carpet into nothingness. Credence stares back with wide, black eyes, bottom lip wedged between his teeth. His heart lurches.
"Should I close my eyes?"
"However you want to hear it," Percy says. "It's your experience - "
Almost as soon as he gets the words out, Credence's hand is in his own, rough and warm, fingers pressing into the tender muscles around his thumb. He closes his eyes, rolling closer until Percy can feel hot gusts of breath across his mouth and cheeks.
"I want it like this," he whispers, and Percy wants to die a little. Just a little, un petit mort.
"This song is called Life on Mars?."
He watches Credence's lips crack open over his front teeth, catalogues the way their ridges turn translucent in the daylight, the sharp chip off the corner of the left one that makes him lick his lips, the point of the one behind it.
"Life on Mars," Credence repeats, and then he rolls closer still, stiff and drawn in on himself, but closer, eyebrows drawn together.
"Percy, do you believe that the world is really millions of years old?"
"Sure. I never questioned it, anyway. Why?"
"I guess, maybe, that I could be questioning it.”
His neck cranes so he can he watch the flutter of his breath across Credence’s lashes, the ripples of soft hair around the scar on his jaw, the way his eyes race beneath the thin purple skin of his lids.
“I don’t know where all the space is for God anymore,” Credence whispers. “In me or in anything."
"Do you have to have God in you?"
“I don’t know.”
Surprisingly, there is no urge to make a dirty joke or be dismissive, as he otherwise might have done. To Seraphina he would have said - can’t you just find some other young God to have inside you? It’s not that hard. Pyramid’s full of them. And Seraphina would laugh. The sound from Credence’s mouth is torn halfway between a whimper and a sob, his eyes still pressed shut, wrinkled around the corners. His hand shifts in Percy’s, almost like it wants to pull away but he thinks better of it. They squeeze at the same time against each other’s palms.
“Percy,” he says. Stops, licks his lips. “Do you believe in God?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. If you asked me five years ago, I’d have said no. But I can’t get rid of the concept completely, or I’d have no one to be angry with.”
Credence seems to process this, the furrow in his brow deepening.
“I’ve been writing with a pastor from - from a different kind of church,” he admits softly, like he’s pulling back the cover on some deep sin. He opens his eyes, blinking. “Emails. He’s - it’s a - they don’t believe it’s a sin to be -”
“- gay,” says Percy. “You can say gay. It’s not as clinical as homosexual, and it’s not usually a bad word.”
“Oh. I wondered what that word was. Kurt Cobain sings it in All Apologies.”
“I don’t know about that, but it’s better than homosexual. You’ll get your ass kicked if you walk around calling people homosexuals.”
“Don’t be. You can’t help what you don’t know.”
Their somber spell is broken as Life on Mars? shifts smoothly into the plucky upbeat melody of Kooks. He watches the lines smooth from Credence's brow as though wiped away. His fingers itch to trace over the skin where they had been, press them out permanently.
"Do you know how to dance?" he asks instead.
"A little. We dance for weddings at home. I mean, we did."
Express Yourself -
Credence dances like a Union Square Hare Krishna. The New Salem Wedding Dance. His father had a habit of commentating at dinner parties as an anthropologist in an alien world. Sometimes clever, sometimes vicious. This one, Percy-love, is called the Mating Ritual of Your Mother's Editor. Note the ruffled blazer, mark of a true bourgeois. This is how they attract the females, who wear skirt suits, usually. It had bothered Percy as a boy, once he'd stopped laughing in awe. And then he had been annoyed, and finally embarrassed. What was it about these awful little quirks of personality that people clung to as they got older, refused to outgrow?
Credence dances like a boy he met in a basement party in Brooklyn in '85. All leg and arm and no hip. Red lips and long fingers. A Soviet refugee, from Chernobyl. A year before the meltdown. A bullet dodged. An open wet mouth and yellow crystals in a vitamin capsule.
Credence dances like he hates dancing but wants to please. His awkward, twitchy limbs become awkward, twitchy lines. Percy tries to kiss him but misses, and they both laugh a little frantically, a little scared.
Just Can't Get Enough.
Credence bumps into him first, and then he bumps into Credence. Again and again.
Again and Again. He shoves the coffee table out of the way to clear space. The rug bunches underfoot. Credence bumps into him first. He bumps into Credence.
"Don't be sorry. We can dance closer, or we can leave space for Jesus. Up to you."
Need You Tonight.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go -
"I want to dance closer," Credence says.
"Then come here."
Heart of Glass.
I Want To Break Free. Come on Eileen.
"Let me show you," he says, unhooks the lip from between Credence's teeth with the tip of his finger.
"What is this music?"
"It was a one-hit wonder," Percy laughs. A thin arm in a striped t-shirt shifts beneath his hand. He grips it firmly, leans in close. "It's easy. Just bounce yourself, feel the beat. One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four - "
"Percy, I don't know how to count," Credence says. Wide-eyes. Pale face. Stricken. Almost convincing.
"Yeah, yeah. Funny guy."
"There's no space for Jesus here," Credence tries again. Red lips. Private smile.
"Good," says Percy. "I don't like to share."
It happens during the stupid The Proclaimers song, of all things.
500 Miles. That idiotic optimistic beat that sets his heart racing, and at first it feels warm, and his skin is flushed in ways it hasn't since he was fifteen and on his knees in the back of a dark movie theatre, first boyfriend -
He should have remembered this mix. The scratched tape with Seraphina's print across the label - dec 90. come home in 1 piece, perce u idiot.
Da da da (da da da)
Da da da dun diddle un diddle un uh da
Credence's palm in his is rough and scarred and was beaten to shit again and again and his heart jolts. Again and again. His heart thuds like the space beneath his rib cage is expanding, echoing; he hasn't had a panic attack in years, not for forever, not since he hid the Klonopin in the back of the bathroom cabinet.
Seraphina made this mix for him to listen to on the plane. He hadn't. He'd been drunk while it blared through the speakers of his headphones.
Art was in the hospital for the final time. He paged his goodbye. The flight was long, and he hadn't slept, and his mouth was dry, and he wanted to find out which room Peter Arnett was staying in, see if they could bump into each other, bum him a cigarette. Something. Some big in, real journalism. Make people listen. There's a real world out there, and it's really fucked up! Shells explode overhead, walls rattle. They were all swimming in media, drunk on it. Playing war games on Nintendo. Credence wouldn't know what a Nintendo was, or a Klonopin, or maybe even that they had gone to war in 1990. Did he know about that? Should he? His heart thuds in his chest.
"Stop - stop - stop -" He yanks his hands back. "Turn this fucking song off - turn this shit off - "
Credence obeys, because Credence obeys, and that's too much, too.
"I'm sorry," he barks. "I'll be right back."
The music doesn't go out entirely. He can hear the clatter of a fallen tape in the living room and Credence's sneakers squeaking against the floor as he scrambles to pick it up. The hiss of the speakers kicking back on. Willing his heart to climb back down his throat, Percy paces the bedroom, collapses onto the edge of his unmade bed.
How did he let it get this far, with this boy?
It's just for fun, for now, the Salem boy. He's never meant anything less. Has he? Three dates, if you can call them dates. Holding hands to Madonna, holding Credence while he cried, a single, frantic makeout. His pulse is so thick on the back of his tongue, he could choke on it.
Even his knocking is shy, like he knows he shouldn't be here.
Go away, Credence.
"I'll be right out. I'm sorry - just, give me a second."
The door catches on the edge of the carpet. He must have kicked it up as he stormed in.
"Is it okay if I come in?"
Without waiting, Credence shuffles over the threshold, his hands curled into fists in front of him, in offering, and Percy's stomach turns.
"I - I brought - "
You couldn't make scars like that, across a human palm, with a belt, unless you wanted to. He reaches out.
"Where did you find that?"
His voice is sharper than he intends.
Credence's hands shake under the little white pill sunk into the dip beneath his knuckles.
"In your bathroom," he says, quickly, half-begging, like he's being held by the ear. "In the bottle behind the mirror. I'm sorry. I thought - when I was having a panic attack, Newt gave me - it helped -"
You little thief. Little terror. Put that shit away.
Before he can respond, Credence has cut across the carpet, and his hands are at Percy's chest, his hips between Percy's knees, eyes wide and imploring. Pleading something he probably doesn't even have the words for, lips parted, chin jut out. He rolls the pill between two fingers and holds it up, and Percy's chest tightens. His mouth opens of its own accord.
"Do you want some too?"
If this is your idea of fun -
Credence hesitates. Narrow black eyes, left to right, up and down, searching, like he's expecting the maws of the bear trap to close around his ankle at any given moment, and then he nods, and Percy says:
"Bite it in half."
Credence obeys because Credence obeys. Two teeth - one chipped, one not. White powder flecks on his lower lip that drive Percy's head forward, his hands around the back of Credence's neck, pulling him close, tongue flicking out to lick along the line of it, over the dry crack in the middle. Credence pushes back, the jagged edge of his half, and he's swallowing, Credence's tongue in his throat, his heart on his tongue. His dick strains tightly against the weight of Credence's torso as he tugs him down, moaning softly, pleading Percy please, Percy please, Percy please.
"What do you want, baby?"
A little gasp, warm wet breath against the side of his mouth.
"I want - want - touch you - touch me - "
"Where do you want me to touch you?"
The body against his stills. Credence's heart pounds even harder than his own, jackhammer, jackrabbit, hard enough to rattle the walls of his chest. He tightens his grip, laces his fingers in a tuft of black hair.
"You have to tell me, if you want it. I can't do it if you won't say."
The shudder of breath against his neck is almost too much, almost drives him over the edge, his hands in Credence's hair. Tina Goldstein would murder him for this, if she knew. How much does Credence tell her, anyway? He tightens his fist again, tugging, feeling the hitch of Credence's chest against his chest.
"Anywhere," Credence groans. "Please, Percy - I don't know how to say it - "
"You want me to touch you here, on your head?"
Fist curled, uncurled. Credence jumps against him, breath catching.
His pupils are blown, pure black against the ghostly paleness of his skin, his sharp cheeks and jaw. His lips part, swollen and spit-slicked, around Percy's tongue, the point of his chipped tooth a pinprick bite into the flesh of Percy's lip. When he pulls back, to make Credence talk again, to give him words, the rest of Credence's body comes up over the edge of the mattress to press against his own, and Percy feels lightheaded with need. Too soon for anything to have kicked in, he thinks wildly. Credence stares at him in awe, a spectral Magdalene at the foot of the cross. He opens his mouth, falling, his lips wet around the curve of Percy's ear, says in a sudden pour of urgency:
"Please - I want you to sodomise me - "
"Fuck, Credence - " Caught midway between a laugh and a groan, he pulls his face away. "That's not the word you want."
"You don't," Percy insists. He has to wrench the words from his own tongue, his body pushing its counter-argument into the trembling body above it, and Credence's eyes screw shut, his breath slipping out in ragged moans.
"You don't want that yet, trust me. You want it when you're ready, and then - you don't want to be sodomised. It's not a punishment. You want to be fucked, maybe, made love to - "
There's nothing left but the friction of his thigh between Credence's legs. He works it back and forth, threads his fingers back through Credence's hair, firm and unyielding as Credence's chest quakes. Credence is a virgin, Percy realises. In every possible way. Having his first time here, in Percy's unmade bed, on Klonopin.
There is a flash of something like panic in his eyes before they roll back, and then Percy lets himself sit up, scrapes his teeth along the jittering pulse in Credence's neck, nudging his chin back.
"Percy - Percy, please - it's too much - I can't - "
"You can. Trust me. Just let it feel good."
Maybe it is too much, after the way he was going at himself this morning. For a moment, Percy hesitates. His leg freezes, but Credence has taken up the motion himself. He knows when Credence's body stops shuddering, falls limp at his side. Sighs.
"See," says Percy, kisses the sharp jaw, the long scar, the spasming arms and hands.
A tiny voice. A muffled vibration in the muscles of his chest. His heart begins to right itself as he wraps his arms around Credence's shoulders, fits their bodies together, twisted in the sheets.
"Don't be sorry."
"I didn't - I've never - "
"Had an orgasm before?"
The heart beneath his hand skips a beat.
"No," Credence whispers, like he's been slapped.
"Mhm." Kisses on his jaw, on the scar, chin, nose, lips. "Happy first time."
Chapter 9: Act of Contrition
Credence learns how to enjoy his body.
Okay, this is a VERY long one. 10k words. Warnings for angst, as always. Internalised homophobia. Etc etc.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to leave kudos or a comment for the last chapter. You guys sustain me! And you make me very happy.
The playlist for this one is separate and comprised mostly of Credence's favourite hymns. Hope you find them as heartbreaking as I do. Asterisked the ones that are really important/
*softly and tenderly - Daniel martin Moore
*It is well with my soul - Daniel Martin Moore
come thou fount of every blessing - sufjan stevens
amazing grace - sufjan stevems
all ye tenderhearted - Daniel martin Moore
*nothing but the blood - wilder adkins
'tis so sweet to trust in Jesus - page CXVI
what a friend we have in Jesus - the sing team
down in the river to pray - London community gospel choir
shall we gather at the river - Jim avett and family
*all the tired horses - bob Dylan
*act of contrition - madonna
*the song of songs - aryeh naftali
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Credence lies on the edge of Percy’s bed like a rag doll, like a limp thing. He let Percy roll him onto the sheets, damp and dripping from the shower, which had been hot enough almost to scald him. He lets him scold gently about body cream and dry skin and treating his softest parts with kindness. His cheeks flush; Percy had cried out in shock at first, under the cold water that to Credence is still a luxury, and he hasn’t stopped addressing it since.
It’s enough just to be able to shower at will, to have his pick of soaps and shampoos and conditioner, which Queenie insists on. Chastity had been forever concerned with the heating bill and the numbers for the water, the electricity. On the very rare occasions when she still got the belt - his belt - it had been for the bills and the ever-constrictive threshold of acceptable amounts due.
Only the Lord on High counts our worth in faith and good works, Ma said. Hold out your hands.
He had tried to explain this to Percy, in between stammered apologies, as the warm water coursed over his shoulders, decadent. Ensconced. Every tiny luxury feels like a tick against him in the great tally of his life’s worth, an entire life in numbers. Money, sin. How much hot water has he wasted? Did he really use electric light after nightfall because he wanted to read the end of a chapter of 1984?
That’s not even counting the radiators, the dishwater, the bandages Newt wrapped around the thumb he’d sliced with a kitchen knife, and the frequency with which he’s been allowed to wash his clothes. Decadence, degeneracy, hedonism, utter lack of self-control. If he closes his eyes tightly enough, he can see Ma at the foot of the bed. Her lips a firm line, eyes flashing.
Take your comfortable showers, Credence. Get used to the heat while you’re in this world. Hell alone will be hot enough for you.
“Do you believe in Hell?”
Percy pauses with one foot in the leg hole of his trousers.
“No,” he says, as though it’s really as simple as that.
“No. But more Heaven than Hell.”
He scrambles to sit up, wincing as the sheet rubs against the red tenderness between his legs. His dick, Percy had called it as he dabbed cream onto the chafed skin from a little tube. Dick or penis. A very sensitive organ. Normal, animal. Even the Neanderthals had them, though there was no indication of it on their cracked skeletons in the Museum of Natural History.
Stop torturing yours. You only get one. Let me show you how to make it feel good.
Tugging his trousers up over the waistband of his underpants, Percy shrugs. Doesn’t look over or see the red flush warming Credence’s face from chin to hairline.
“You’re not going to Hell, Credence,” he says as he takes both their towels from the pile on the floor back into the bathroom. “Don’t you think you’ve been put through enough?”
Sunlight cuts through the room in columns. Traffic rumbles through the open window. Percy had shown him the view of Central Park down the street, pointed out the direction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, promised to take him there if he felt up to it. It should be well past midnight, after everything they’ve done, but it’s only midday.
They’ve covered every act of darkness his brain could possibly have imagined - kissing and rubbing up against each other, showering in the flesh, next to each other, his naked chest against Percy’s naked chest, his hand in Percy’s hand, around Percy’s dick. It should be too much, but his body feels spent in a good way. Stretched out like taffy, long and limp and sweet.
“No more Biblical thoughts,” says Percy softly, sliding in next to him. The mattress dips beneath his hipbones to accommodate the shift in weight. His skin ripples as Percy slides the tip of a finger beneath the stretched elastic of his underpants, pulling it taut. Releasing.
“And no more of these depressing tighty-whities. I’m getting you new underwear. You’re not in Hell anymore.”
“If it does exist,” says Credence without thinking. “At least we can go together.”
His body tenses, but Percy snakes an arm around him, tugging him close.
“If it does exist - ” Percy agrees, “ - which it doesn’t - we won’t be going there for this. Isn’t yours some kind of God of love?”
“Sometimes punishment comes from love.”
“That’s not love, Credence. Punishment is just punishment.”
He wants to argue back. It feels wrong to leave those words solid and unchallenged in the air between them while Ma rots away in some cell, on a prison island awaiting trial. Credence himself is free to sin as he pleases. He stole pills and asked Percy to sodomise him. The world is millions of years old. They touched naked bodies in the shower, and Ma did all she did because she believed in it. He can’t change it. He wouldn’t even know how to want to.
“I’m sorry,” Percy says, and he sounds exhausted. “I’m not telling you that you’re wrong. I don’t want to do that.”
“I wasn’t going to leave.”
He doesn’t know why he says it. Tina hadn’t wanted to hear it in the lawyer’s office. She had told him not to say things like that, of course he didn’t, and Credence don’t make a martyr of yourself for this, dammit.
Percy stills around him, is very quiet.
“I didn’t want to leave,” he says. “She was my mother. She’s my mother. They said she’s not my real mother, but nobody knows where I came from. She’s the only one who ever cared about me, for all I know. Until I met Tina.”
“I don’t know her,” Percy says finally. His arms tighten around Credence’s chest and then pull away. “I just know what I’ve read about her. I won’t lie to you. I read the file Goldstein put together, and I saw the pictures.”
The arguments die on his lips.
In all his late-night fantasies about Percival Graves, the handsome but unattainable newscaster confined to a box in the Goldstein’s living room, this had been the one Credence had clung to hardest. Like a sickness. A cold excitement, a writhing in the pit of his gut, waking to sticky sheets and stiff panic. Saved. Absolved by a TV newscaster. Percy knowing. Percy’s seeing. Percy holding him. Percy saying something about how brave he’s been, and then he takes a straight razor to his neck and ends it, because there’s nothing he wants to live with less than this shame.
“It was before I knew you,” says Percy. “We were going to run the story. You called Tina about the little girl.”
“Ashley, Modesty, yeah. Did you - I mean - Credence, did you know for a long time? Before that?”
How wicked are you, Credence?
He shivers under the tips of Percy’s fingers as they trace circles up the length of his rib cage, his arms. Kurt sang that fish have no feelings. He would love to be a fish. Living an entire life not drowning under water, knowing your destiny was a net and a pot and a quick end and no eternity to dread. He would trade every human cell in his body for that kind of peace.
Ma has asked five times now for him to visit her in jail. Nothing a trout or a tuna would have to contend with. He can’t even say he’s refusing out of bravery or rebellion. It’s pure terror. For Ma, for jail. For looking her in the eyes again after she had tried to beat his blind with a plank of wood. Punishment is punishment. Love is love. Two and two is five, and Modesty’s real mother won’t speak to the news, but she let the lawyers know that Modesty - Ashley, not his real sister - still asks after him.
Is Credence going to jail for a long, long time?
No, Ashley, he’s just criminally dumb.
“I don’t know,” he says, and he shrugs like it means a lot less than it does. “I guess so. I guess it was weird to me because they usually came younger, and she kept telling me about her brothers and sisters.”
His tongue hardens against the roof of his mouth, bold.
“I didn’t care because she was nice to me.”
“We don’t have to talk about this.”
“I mean,” Percy says, squeezing his arm. “We can, and I’d like to hear about it if you want to talk about it, but we don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” says Credence with a conviction he doesn’t feel.
And then he says, “I only called Tina to tell her about Modesty, not for me. She kept making dolls out of my socks. At first I thought she was trying to get me in trouble, but she was just a little kid. We weren’t allowed to imagine things like that.”
“You took the fall for her,” Percy supplies.
Credence wracks his brain. This is not something he’s discussed with the lawyers, or that he told Tina. A spontaneous invention of Percy’s imagination. Fantasy Credence, who does the right thing because it’s right and not because he’s scared.
“Because you already got it worse than anyone, right?”
“I don’t like it when they talk about me on the news like that,” he snaps back. “They don’t know anything, those people. They didn’t live there forever. They left.”
“You’re right,” Percy says. He sounds exhausted again, scratchy and stretched thin. His fingers trail over the dip below Credence’s hipbone, drawing it closer in little jerks and twitches.
“No, you’re right, Credence. I’m sorry. I’m not your analyst. I’m just trying to understand you better. I don’t want to step on anything that hurts.”
“Everything hurts if you step on it."
Criminally dumb. He winces but allows Percy’s palm to squeeze around the tender skin of his hips and tug him back. Flesh on flesh, excepting his greying underpants. His last pair, already wet. There’s a promise in it, if he shuts up now. More sin. More touch. Percy's hands soft on his bare skin, kisses across the back of his neck, drawing out the tense heat from his shoulders, softening the muscles between his ribs until they collapse flat into the mattress. His breath catches.
Ma would break out of jail if she knew what he was up to. Beat him with his new sneaker, whatever she could get her hands on. Murder him and lay him out in the middle of traffic in Times Square, and he would have all the MTV to himself and neverending hot showers in Hell -
“What are you smiling about?” Percy’s fingers pad down the skin of his groin, and he jumps. Ruts back.
“My - mother - ”
“What about your - ”
The fingers pause, pressing, nail into skin, down to the base of his dick, and he feels lightheaded from the transfer of blood.
“Nevermind,” Percy laughs. His breath is hot and damp in the hollow of Credence’s ear. “I don’t want to talk about your mother while I show you - what I’m about to show you -”
What Percy shows him is filthy. Obscene.
His underwear around his ankles, and Percy pinching the skin of his thighs, rolling it in his palms. Everything soft, pliable. He wants to be good, which makes Percy groan when he says it, so he says it again. Muscles tight under the smooth skin of Percy’s hands, his kneading fingers. He wants Percy to take his entire body in hand and bend and shape and mold him into something entirely not himself. Break him apart, fill him up with every manner of sin and pitch his body off the side of a mountain, absolved.
He wants Percy to make love to him, so he says it (twice). Percy laughs.
“Slow down there, cowboy.”
They can do other things. Things he’s never dreamed of, not in the deepest, most depraved corners of his brain.
Percy’s mouth, hot and wet, around the base of his thing, his dick. All the muscles tight and then not. Bubbling pressure in his chest. Shook-up soda pop. Percy’s tongue swirling over the tip of him, and his hips buck, and he’s burning, and his chest loosens and tightens like a fist. He says:
“Please, please - I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry - ”
And Percy has to stop to make sure everything is all right, which means that he really will have to kill himself. Eventually. To cope with the shame of it.
“You can pray if you need to.”
“Please - stop talking.”
Laughing, Percy presses him into the mattress with two hands on his thighs, his hips. He throws himself against them, his body twitching as Percy’s tongue rides up the length of him. His tongue bleeds prayer. He bites his lips until the spit tastes like copper, and the feeling is too-sweet, overmuch, overflow.
He wants to cry and he wants to roll away. He wants his dick in Percy’s throat, moans against its spasms. He wants to be a good boy, a combination of words he hasn’t thought of in years, and that shocks him, like a douse of cold water to the face, a hand flat across his cheek, and all of the muscles below his belly are tight, straining, and Percy is swallowing him up. Every bit.
They lie on the bed after like two spent things, rag limbs, like the dying clocks in a painting Tina had shown him in a book on the coffee table.
“You’re not going to Hell,” Percy reminds him, lips curved wryly.
“Maybe,” Credence answers, because it’s the truth.
Any chance of further discussion is cut short by the persistent droop of his eyelids. He lets Percy’s hand dab him dry with his balled up underpants. Then Percy is yawning, the sun shifting through the window, cold light cut lengthwise by dark curtains. He falls asleep with a hymn on the back of his tongue and his cheek on Percy’s open palm.
Percy wakes him with buttered toast and orange juice and lips across his brows in the early evening.
"Careful with that," he says as Credence lifts a glass to his lips. "There's a little vodka in there."
"Vodka is alcohol," says Credence cautiously.
Ma had never, had hated it. What little he knew of her life before New Salem revolved largely around her feelings about the drink. Fractured images of a little girl on a dusty lawn and a mother with a weak tongue. Saved by faith, by her stepfather, whose collie dog had been called Credence. Love had a strong arm. Jesus came bearing the sword.
There would have to be the metaphorical Second Salem, the purging of all that was wrong and sinful like weeds from the American landscape so that it might bear fruit, but Temperance was real and solid and immediate. How many nightclubs and bars she had them stand in front of with their posters and leaflets, for as long as he can remember, always preaching the same, the need for Prohibition, the trappings of the Devil's thirst. His pointer finger trembles against the side of the glass. He holds it, cool and sweating, to his chin. Takes a sip.
"It's not a lot," Percy explains.
Its bitterness curls the back of his tongue into his throat, but he takes a second sip and then a third. Percy lays a hand on his.
"Better not all at once. Eat something."
So, they eat toast with butter and cracked pepper. They eat yellow cheese. Percy tells him in between bites about the books on the shelves lining his bedroom wall, the mother in publishing, the book agent father, the way they had avoided each other in double beds that he has long since replaced. There had been nannies, replacement mothers. He laughs when Credence tells him that he's sorry to hear it, that it sounds lonely.
"I have nothing to complain about," he says.
And Credence says, "I'm sorry. I don't think I like vodka."
They eat green grapes. Percy feeds them to him from the tips of his fingers, and he flicks his tongue experimentally around their skin, over the ridge of Percy's fingernail. It's filthy. It makes his heart race, so he does it again and again and again until the grapes are gone. Then it's tongue and lip, tongue on cold tooth, the tang of vodka and orange juice on Percy's breath. When he pulls away, Percy says,
"I have to get another shower and head into work soon, but you can stay as long as you like."
They live this ritual, unbroken, for three days.
There is no golden light from the winter sun through the dark curtains in Percy's room. Outside is cold and stark, leafless and grey. Inside, Percy cranks the radiators so they can luxuriate in t-shirts and underwear.
It takes some convincing for Credence to leave his jeans folded on a chair with the green anorak and his sweater, but he relents when Percy goes down onto his knees, kissing over all the soft tender parts of him that he had done his best to ignore or to punish before. Still, the panic is there that someone might see. See and do what - Percy wants to know, but he can't explain it. Their judgment would be enough. It's indecent, so Percy draws the curtains for him, until one morning.
They've been kissing all across the rumpled sheets of the bed, sweaty from sleeping too close. He lets himself be kissed from top to bottom, lets his tongue explore the salty skin between Percy's hips, lets Percy's fingers thread themselves through the short tufts of his hair and tug and hold him steady, guiding.
Percy tells him he doesn't have to swallow anything. He can go to the bathroom and spit it all out into the toilet or the sink or the kitchen trash. After, it’s worth the swallowing when Percy takes Credence's head between his hands and kisses him, flat and firm across his lips, licks the bitterness from them.
"You're so good, so good to me," he says, and Credence wants to sink into the soft space below his tongue and hide there forever, in the dark, with Percy's wet mouth echoing those words all over him until his bones shake.
He doesn't say these things out loud. Instead he asks, quietly, could they maybe kiss by the window, in the outside light? So, Percy takes him by the hand. Holds him there by the shoulders. Draws the curtains.
He says it's okay. There's nothing wrong with this. No one is looking. And even if they did - even if they did. There's nothing wrong with this, Credence. We aren't going to Hell. I don't even believe in Hell.
In the evenings, Percy dresses for work. Holds Credence by the chin to look at him, smiling, kissing, asks: stay the night? Always that. Credence says yes, yes, yes.
Alone, he thinks about the pills stashed in his jacket pocket, untouched. Takes them out and lines them up in his hand once the door has swung shut behind Percy's broad shoulders in his black overcoat. Counts them. It's been three days, and if he wanted to, he could take another to pass the time before Percy gets back from work, but he never does.
He draws and scribbles instead in a spiralbound notebook, like a schoolbook, that Percy had dug up from the depths of a drawer at his desk.
"I think Kurt Cobain kept a journal," he said.
If there was anything odd about that turn of phrase, Credence chalked it up to the going-to-work rush. He tilted his face up for a final kiss, right hand pausing mid-sentence, and shrugged when Percy asked what he was writing now.
"Just a song I used to like, at home."
While Percy is gone, he sits on the sofa in the dark and listens to his private mix, the one he hasn't labelled. Softly and Tenderly. It Is Well With My Soul. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. All Ye Tenderhearted. Amazing Grace. What A Friend We Have In Jesus. Shall We Gather At The River?
He falls asleep curled into the sofa, the tape hissing in his ear, the memory of Ma's hand over his at the piano bench, before she had whipped it numb and tingling and forever knotted it with scars. The old songs make it easy to forget the everything-else. He dreams softly and tenderly, Percy-love and kisses and open windows. Content in ways his body is still learning to contend with. Unwound. His tape will have long since clicked off by the time Percy wakes him again, mouthing around his ear, come on, Credence, come to bed.
Loverboy, Percy calls him once. He stumbles back to the warmth of the bedroom with a heavy hand slung across shoulders, blinking dumbly in the half-light. Loverboy. Shaking him awake for breakfast. Kissing him full on the mouth in front of the open window.
And then bunny, which makes him want to die of shame and embarrassment for enjoying it so much. Which makes him want to sink into the dip in the mattress beneath Percy’s arm until he dies, even when it gets heavy, even when he’s too hot. No one has ever called him anything but Credence, Mr. Barebone. Never anything so intimate, so implicative of warmth and affection. Good boy.
Time passes in touch and shared meals and words scratched into the pages of his new notebook. He teaches Percy the lyrics to In Bloom and Percy teaches him how to touch himself without hurting. When he panics, when the feeling is too intense, they lie down on the living room floor and listen to more Bowie instead. Percy says he just needs time to trust his body. He thinks privately that his body will need time to learn to trust him.
Tina is still upset about the incident with the lawyers, but she she calls to let him to know she isn’t angry with him. That she understands, even if it really was a dumb thing to do. That he does not want to go to jail, and she won’t let them send him there either way.
“If it comes down to it, I’ll go on the run with you,” Percy jokes. He runs his tongue over the chip in Credence’s front tooth when they kiss, squeezes, says softly: Anything for loverboy.
An entire week he floats in honeythick stasis, drifting from Percy's sofa to Percy's bed to the shower to the kitchen.
"You okay over there, honey?" Queenie sings into the phone. "You get kidnapped? Tell Mr. Graves we all miss our Credence."
"I'm sorry, Queenie. I didn't realize - "
"Oh, hon.” Her giggle crackles through the line. "I'm just kidding you. Have fun, okay? Be young. You deserve it."
Not once in all seven days does he leave the apartment. Not when Percy hands him a key and a roll of cash and suggests that he go down and buy himself a pastry from the French bakery down the block. Not when Percy gives him directions to the nearest branch of the public library, the shop where he can buy himself new underwear, the museum.
"You should go outside," Percy says. "Get some vitamin D."
When he jokes about locked doors, Credence has only to reference the cold night he'd spent at seventeen, hammering the doors to the little chapel downtown while Ma did her nightly filing and Chastity dried dishes inside. He doesn’t even have to shape it all in words, his pleas and promises, like the drowning man thrown overboard. On the street with his pissed-in sheets and blankets. Please Ma, please, please, I'll be a good boy, please - That much he keeps to himself.
"I'm sorry," Percy says anyway. "I didn't mean that. Fuck."
He stops making suggestions.
By the end of the second week, as Tina's calls have become daily and urgent and with the next DA meeting looming, Percy tosses his jeans and his anorak onto the sofa.
"Come on, loverboy," he says in answer to Credence's drawn eyebrows. "Get dressed. We're going to the movies."
It takes him half an hour and many sideways glances for Credence to realise that he is not in trouble. Percy is not angry with him. He hasn't overstayed his welcome, maybe. Maybe that's coming. His heart stalls anxiously as they walk down the broad stretch of Park Avenue. Everything after being inside is so much. So many people, old ladies and men. So well-dressed, even he can tell. So many cars at every corner, mammoth city buses. Percy holds out a hand to catch him at the final light, yanks him back by the hood of his anorak.
"You okay, bunny? Slow down. You almost got run over."
"Sorry - "
"Bottlerocket, The Crucible, or James and the Giant Peach," Percy cuts in, sliding his hand into Credence's so they can cross the street. "They're movies. Pick one."
His head is still swimming from bunny. From holding hands on a public street. Percy ushers them through the glass doors of a small theatre, tucks Credence's hand in the crook of his elbow so that he can pull out his wallet.
The Crucible by name alone sounds ominously too-close to his own life, but maybe that's why Percy suggested it. Is that what he's supposed to be doing now, to be normal? He bites his lip.
“Maybe something, uh, lighthearted,” Percy says, glancing at the movie posters on the wall.
“Yes. I mean, I think so. Do you want to see that?”
“I’ll see anything, Credence. The point of the exercise was really just to get us out of my living room.”
Percy sighs and slides a plastic card across the counter to the woman on the other side.
“Come on. Let’s get some popcorn before we find our seats.”
He uses the card again to buy them popcorn and sodas, and then his arm is around Credence’s shoulder, the popcorn tucked in Credence’s arm. The theatre is larger and darker than he had expected, but Percy keeps one hand on the small of his back until they find their seats. When they sit, he lifts the armrest so that the same hand can rest on Credence’s knee. He doesn’t laugh when the music kicks on and Credence jumps, just squeezes, eyes on the screen.
“If you don’t like it,” Percy whispers, “or it’s too much, we can go anytime.”
It’s not too much, once the movie starts in earnest.
Maybe for other people, Credence realises, his eyes swiveling around the dark theatre. Maybe people who grew up like Percy, with their two parents in their city apartments and normal school and the wider world at their fingertips and everything else. Maybe they wouldn’t understand, he thinks, the way he understands. Maybe they wouldn’t see Chastity’s face in all the frantic teenage girls, and he’s leaning forward in his seat, wide-eyed, entranced, and then Percy taps his knee. Once. Harder.
“Credence, let’s go see something else,” Percy says. He does not even bother to whisper.
They end up in the kid’s movie, James and the Giant Peach, Percy’s hand on his other knee, on the other side of him, lips in a firm line.
This movie, the lighthearted one, hits him like a two-by-four.
Sometimes at home, when he had been very small, almost too small to even remember, he had tried to hide himself in cupboards, under beds, in the bottom shelf of the linen cabinet. If he folded his limbs very carefully and crooked his neck so that his head fell low on his chest and closed his eyes and tried very hard not to breathe too much or too loudly from his open mouth, he could manage it for hours at a time. Alone in the dark, in the quiet, disappeared.
Often he would catch a snatch of Ma or Chastity on the hunt, the Credence where did you go’s and Mother is going to be angry if you’re hiding again and where has that boy gone off to.
If found too soon, he was sure a beating or an early bed without dinner. He tucked himself in tighter, pinched his lips shut, held his breath until the sheer dizzy desperation of his starved lungs drove him to gulping. The times he fell asleep, they never found him.
He would wake hungry and creep back out into the darkness, slip into bed. Then there was no breakfast either, but it was always worth the quiet and the hours spent alone, without anyone to watch him or report back to Ma. And it was worth the privacy, his brain stretching and shaking off the rust that had frozen it in place at some early stage of development, the blood rushing back to fill out a fantasy he would never have been allowed otherwise.
It always went something like: a large bird might swoop by the classroom window one day during ciphers, and he would jump out and fly off to the distant city, the only other place that really existed in his tiny world. He would disappear forever. He would live in the woods with a wolf family, and they might be stupid, as animals could be, and they might think he was one of their pups and lick him and teach him how to eat raw meat, and it might be worth it. If he could sleep in a pack. If he had so many other wolfpup friends. He could learn how to pick things up with his teeth. He could be a wild thing.
He doesn’t realise he’s crying until the first tears reach his chin. It’s stupid. Crying in a children’s movie. A movie about a flying peach, no less. Silliness. Talking spiders. It occurs to him that something is deeply wrong with his brain. Must be. One too many meals skipped. For a moment, his chest catches. He thinks he might laugh, and then James is being hunted by the rhino that killed his parents.
Somewhere on this earth, at a fixed point in time, two people had come together and created Credence Barebone. He knows enough about the process from Ma and her midwifery, from Queenie and Jacob and from Newt, who had tried to explain the concept of intercourse for pleasure with an anecdote about the dolphins he used to swim with off the coast of the Florida keys.
Someone had borne him. Someone’s body carried him for months, a wisp of a human curled up in her belly like the swollen flesh of a peach. His feet had pressed against its inner walls. He had spent nine months there, in that first home, in his mother, growing fingernails and eyelashes and the skin of his hands, his feet, his face, his back, his legs. A heart. Lungs. He had taken his first breaths in that water, first baptism. And then she left him.
He doesn’t catch the last five or so minutes of the movie. The tears had stopped of their own accord at some indistinct point in the blur that was James’s story. His stupid peach. His talking insects. The vaporous fucking rhino.
It isn’t grief that coils in the muscles of his arms like a spring. The pressure in his chest. He rubs his hands and trails after Percy down the street, in the late afternoon sun, and at each corner he unwinds his jaw a little, pushes his teeth from side to side, top across bottom.
“You’re quiet,” Percy says, as if he’s not always quiet.
Children shouldn’t even be seen. Twenty-three years in Purgatory. Suffering in advance of everything he’s doing now, has done. He grinds his teeth. When Percy reaches out, he rips his hand away.
Self-pity is an indulgence and a sin, Credence knows. Anger from self-pity is worse still. He drags his sneakers over the blue carpet as they cross the hall to Percy’s unlocked door. Everything is as they left it, the glasses by the sink, the spiral notebook on the coffee table. He lifts the cover so he can watch it fall back to hide the pages marred by his spindly, childish print. Self-pity is a green anorak. A line in a Nirvana song. Hey! Wait! I got a new complaint!
Somewhere in the blur of the kitchen, Percy is pouring glasses of wine.
“Credence?” he asks, and Credence shrugs.
Somewhere in the rest of the world is the woman who gave him his life. She couldn’t have loved him much better than Ma. She gave him to her, after all. Chose Ma, specifically. From millions of potential candidates. Specifically Ma. He wasn’t kidnapped like Modesty.
He and Chastity, they were dumped. He knows it. The rejects. Dumped on Ma, Auntie Spider. Her flyswatter hands, her snapped rubber voice. The fucking rhino. He wonders if Chastity has new friends like he does. Anyone could love her better than he does. She was never nice to him. He’s only trying to keep her out of jail.
Only half of his left hand is responsive to his fingernails when he pinches. The rest is dead. Radio static. Permanently cut off from the cable. He lets Percy pull his hands apart and press a wine glass between them.
“You look like you need to sit down,” says Percy. “Or hit something.”
Credence opens his mouth. Percy’s lips are a red twist below his nose, wine-stained. He wants to bite them. He wants Percy to bite him back, peel away the layers of his skin like paint over rotted drywall. Bite into him like an old apple. Claw out the mealy flesh. Chew him up. Spit him out.
The glass cracks before it shatters in the space between his fists.
“Or hit something,” Percy repeats.
He should be shaking and apologising, on his knees, cleaning up the shards with his bare hands to prove that he means it, but he doesn’t. Percy guides him to the sofa; he lets himself be pushed down into the cushions. He pinches the skin of his left hand, of his right hand. He bites his lip.
“I want to call my doctor.”
Somewhere in the distant blur of the kitchen, the trash can lid slams shut.
“Who’s your doctor?”
“Flamel. Nicolas Flamel. On Church Street. Downtown.”
Percy asks if he knows the number. No.
Maybe he’s listed. Give it a second. Sit tight, bunny.
Dr. Flamel is not listed, but his wife Perenelle is. Percy makes the calls while Credence sits on his hands until they tingle, bloodless.
(Ma, dropping his fingers onto the keys at the piano. She had a habit of brushing the hair from his forehead as he sang. His voice had still been young and sweet. He meant every word. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.)
“He’s out to dinner, but his wife is paging him,” Percy explains as he sits down. His voice is low. He hesitates before settling his hand on Credence’s knee.
“I don’t know what paging means.”
“I’ll show you later. When you feel better.”
The carpet won’t be stained, he notices. Just a little darker in one spot, because it’s still wet.
“I’m sorry I’m not normal,” he says.
Percy’s thumb is gentle over the ridge of his upper lip, his chin. He shakes his head.
“You don’t have to be normal, bunny. I like you the way you are. You’re just dealing with a lot.”
Credence is a twenty-four year old virgin who wants his mama. He’s dealing with a lot. He - hey, where did everyone go?
With the tip of his finger, Percy dislodges Credence’s lip from between his teeth. His smile is quarantined to the muscles around his mouth. Still soft.
“Credence - I’m serious. You do get that, don’t you? That you’ve - there’s nothing weird or unexpected about the way you feel and handle everything right now, because you’ve been through heavy - well, trauma. Like when soldiers come back from war. There’s a name for it. It’s a real thing. You’re the most normal version of yourself that you could possibly be. You know that, right?”
“Please shut up,” he says, and then his body wakes. He scrambles back.
“Okay,” Percy says. “I can’t believe you just told me to shut up. So much for bunny.”
None of the anger is there, of course. Percy laughs softly, and he keeps his distance, and his eyes are still gentle. It’s not enough, because he can’t understand. He never had a rhino, even if his parents didn’t love him as much as they could have. He throws away his leftovers and runs his radiator through the winter. He never turns off the bathroom light.
It was a waste to spend so many years on his hands. Ma should have whipped him across the head. Numbed his brain. Lobotomised him. He curls his fists into the bony underside of his legs. The pressure rises in his chest like hot sand.
“Percy,” Credence says. “I’m sorry.”
And then, feeling the eyes widening in his face:
“I want you to fuck me.”
Outside, he can hear the rumble of the city bus making its first stop after the park. Percy’s smile falls off its hinge and hangs crookedly from the corner of his bottom lip. Credence watches his tongue dart out to wet it. He digs his teeth into his own lip, avoiding eye contact, until Percy inches forward and then stops, knee to knee.
“Come here, bunny,” he says softly.
He shakes his head.
“I’m not saying no,” Percy begins on a new note, ignoring the petulance that keeps Credence frozen over his numb hands in the opposite corner.
“Just, not tonight, Credence. We both know that won’t take us anywhere that either one of us wants to be.”
Silence. Percy waits until the couch creaks.
“Would you come here for a second?”
“I think I just want to go to bed.”
Bed is worse, because Percy is still awake and cleaning up dishes in the kitchen, getting ready for work. His ridiculously oversized mattress stretches on infinitely into the blackness of the room. He rolls from one side to the next. The blanket is too much in the artificial warmth, and for the first time since Percy showed him how to twist the knob around to his liking, Credence resents the radiator. He resents the dark curtains, too, for not removing themselves from the path of the lamplight outside. He resents the sun for its drop down below the belly of the horizon, for letting itself be replaced so cheaply by the moon.
So, so, Percy will go to work and Credence will lie awake in bed. Alone. It’s all so stupid. So childish. If only Percy would just fuck him already, sodomise him, beat him senseless. Then, at least, he would know. Then he could look Ma in the eye. Give her what she wants. Go to jail. He could put an ad in the paper - Did you give a child to the New Salem Philanthropic Society circa 1972? Do you want him back? Call - xxx.
Ridiculousness, of course. He doesn’t even have his own phone number, just an email address he barely knows how to navigate.
It had all been so much easier at home. At least lonely was lonely. There would never have been any Percy slamming glasses on his kitchen counter to remind him that the rest of the bed is empty. He curls his fingers over the edge of the sheet, counting off in his head. Six pills in the anorak pocket. Out in the living room. Twenty-two in the bottle. Percy had never asked about them again after the first day. Tiny miracles. When the door closes and Percy has gone for the evening, he’ll take one from the pocket stash, just to be safe. And then he’ll go to bed and sleep dreamlessly, and in the morning he’ll feel sick and sore but empty. Reset. Phoenix slumber.
Percy must have put his shoes back on. Even on the carpet, his footfalls are heavy. Credence squeezes his eyes shut. Petulant. He holds his body stiff as the mattress dips and Percy’s hand snakes over his waist, tugging.
“I’m leaving soon,” says Percy quietly. “You still up, bunny? Do you need anything?”
He’s aware of the tears needling at the corner of his eyes but makes no move to brush them away. Nothing to draw Percy’s attention as he rolls onto his side.
Percy’s eyes are flat and black in the darkness, his mouth a shadow.
“I’m sorry about the movie. I should have looked it up before taking you in there.”
The words that come out are not the ones he intends. They force their way roughly out of his throat, scraping over his tongue and soft palate until his mouth aches.
“Why didn’t they want me?”
Percy hesitates for a long time, his hand on Credence’s hipbone, thumb pressing into the same spot.
“I don’t know, Credence. I don’t know that it’s always a matter of want.”
“They gave me to her.”
“Not to punish you,” Percy says. He digs his fingers a little deeper, tugging their bodies close.
“You can’t know that,” Credence argues. His voice cracks over the syllables. “They left me there. They didn’t want me. They didn’t even give me a birth certificate. They didn’t give me a name. She named me after the dog.”
“I didn’t know them. I can only guess, but I think you have to be in a very desperate position to give away a child. Not because they didn’t want you, specifically.”
“No one wants me, specifically.”
“Don’t be a brat,” Percy whispers. Pinches gently. “I want you. The Goldsteins want you, and all their weird little friends. And more importantly, I want you. Even when you break my good wine glasses with your Hulk grip - ”
“I don’t know what a Hulk grip is.”
He gets a kiss in answer. Slow and probing, Percy’s tongue over his front teeth, hand under his t-shirt.
“I’ll be back in a few hours,” he says. “Try and get some sleep.”
“I can’t sleep.”
His voice squeaks. Childish. Percy’s hand returns to the space above Credence’s hipbone, rubbing small circles.
“If you roll over, I can try and help with that before I have to go,” he whispers.
His hand rubs slow circles over the sheet as Credence turns, face in the pillow. He exhales deeply, and Percy’s hand creeps up the underside of his t-shirt, stops flat in the middle of his back.
His fingers knead the ragged edge of a scar.
“What are those church-y songs you’ve been listening to on your Walkman?” Percy asks quietly.
His hand moves in steady circles, each as big and as firm as the last over the skin of Credence’s back. He can feel his muscles smoothing out over the sheet, bones sinking around them as the tension ekes out of his body.
“Tell me the words to one?”
He would rather die.
His mouth opens obediently.
“When peace....” he hums. Yawns. Arches his back into the palm of Percy’s stilled hand to get it moving again. “When peace like a river... attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll.... Whatever my lot, thou hast... taught me to say... it is well, it is well with my soul - ”
The bed creaks. Percy’s lips leave a wet spot on the outside of his ear.
“That’s actually prettier than I thought it would be.”
“It’s my favourite hymn,” Credence admits. Cautious. For so long, he had only this. Even sharing feels like dislodging bricks from an already shaky foundation.
“I can see why.”
“I used to sing it when - if I was hiding. By myself.”
The circles continue in silence, Percy’s breath warm and damp on the back of his neck.
Everything in his life is a mess. Of that Credence is still aware. He’s threatened the Staten Island DA with defection, abandoned Modesty, betrayed Ma. He’s a raging homosexual. A queer. He doesn’t even have the sense or decency to feel ashamed of himself anymore, at least not to the point of removing himself from Percy’s thick mattress, or out from under the hand still rubbing soothing circles into his back. He’s brash enough to want to stay, bold enough to enjoy it. If he closes his eyes tightly, he can even make out individual words in the syrupy lullaby Percy is whispering into the space above his ear. Something about tired horses.
Sleep, when it finally takes him, is as gentle as all that, too.
The room is still dark when he feels hands on his legs and hips and his body is rolled to the other side of the empty bed.
“It’s all alright,” Percy says softly. “Go back to sleep. You had an accident. I’m just stripping the bed.”
Terror jolts through his chest like an alarm bell. A spark through both arms and his belly, launching him upright. An accident. A gentler way of putting it than any Credence knows. His heart begins to thud against the walls of his chest as he runs a finger over the waistband of his soaked underpants.
“Shh-shh, come here. Come and wash off.”
Percy’s hands have to guide him, rigid and shaking, into the pale light of the bathroom. I’msorryI’msorryI’msorry. His underpants are slid down the rubbery length of his legs; he jumps half out of his skin. I’msorryI’msorry.
“Step up,” says Percy.
He lifts his leg. He wants to vomit. The words tumble out in a frantic mess.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to - I didn’t - sorry, Percy, I’m sorry - ”
His body is wiped down with a wet cloth. Re-clothed in too-big boxer shorts with blue and red stripes on them. Percy takes him back to bed by the shoulder, lays him flat, kissing.
“Shh. It’s okay. It’s very late. Go back to sleep.”
They lie on the bare mattress with the too-hot blanket over them, connected at the hip.
Credence’s pulse races. Objectively, he knows he is safe. Most likely safe. But his body was conditioned in the crucible of Ma’s house. Cold water over his face, in his mouth, up his nose. Not the belt, but the shame of it. Washing his sheets by hand in the corner of the dining hall while the others had their breakfast. He was the only one still with a rubber sheet, well into his twenties.
Behind him, Percy lets out a breathy snore.
It’ll never be the same in the morning. Wetting the bed. An adult bed. Another man’s. It’s just like him not to even be able to sin properly. He had to ruin this, too. Ruin Percy, who is kind to him, good to him, gives him all the touch and warmth he’s ever wanted, apologises for things no one ever apologised for before -
“Credence?” Percy’s voice is raspy and clumsy with sleep. “Still up, loverboy? Go’sleep.”
Rolled onto his side, he can watch the rise and fall of Percy's shadow in the darkness. His hair plastered to his forehead. His parted lips. He kisses Percy carefully, cautiously. Takes his tongue into his own mouth when Percy offers it, eyes fluttering open. Two black spots against the sheet.
"This is not sleeping."
"Anything for loverboy," he quotes, blinking in disbelief at his own daring.
Percy rolls onto his back then, rubbing his eyes.
"I said that, right?"
His chuckle ripples through the dark like currents underwater. Credence can feel the growing stiffness between his legs, the blood coursing through his neck, his wrists. He slides his hand under Percy's shirt to rest in the softness of the hair across his chest, sidling closer.
"I'm not going to fuck you, bunny," says Percy quietly.
His breath catches.
"But, I can show you how to make love, since you already have me up."
They do it with the lamp on, because Percy says it’s important to see each other’s faces for a first time. He can tell from the sleep still rounding out the edges of Percy’s face that his own eyes must be swollen with it. Moon face. Percy says he looks beautiful, don’t argue, do you remember what I told you about using protection with people you don’t know?
“I’m not doing this with anyone else,” Credence promises, and Percy holds a finger to his lips.
“Not for now. These are things you need to know, Credence,” he says firmly. “For your safety. People have died. You have to take this seriously, or I’m not doing anything with you. I can promise you that.”
When he pulls back, the mattress pops up beneath Credence’s back, jostling him. Percy’s eyebrows knit together over his eyes, no longer soft but dark and full of reproach.
“Don’t be sorry,” Percy sighs. He takes Credence’s hand back in his and squeezes. “I’m not mad at you. This is just really important, bunny. This is life-or-death stuff. Nothing is more important than your own health and safety, okay? Not whatever you think I want or anyone else.”
“But - ” His voice snags on the argument, still so unused to taking risks, talking back, getting what he wants. “You showed me that paper that said you’re - that you don’t have anything.”
“I did. This is just general knowledge. For you, for your life.”
There is some larger, hidden meaning in this that feels far beyond Credence’s grasp. Some implication of deeper feeling. Bigger than sexual intercourse or affection. Concern for his safety, even when he’s away from Percy, even if he were to repeat the things they do with someone else. He doesn’t want to imagine doing anything like this with anyone else. It’s almost too much for his head already, when he lies in bed after Percy has gone to work and replays the lips across his hipbone, his mouth, hands in places where hands have no business to be.
“Now that we’ve cleared that up,” Percy laughs. “You still want this?”
He knows enough now, after two weeks, not to be hurt by these little checks for consent. Just to nod. Heart skittering in his chest.
(For this God gave them up to dishonourable passions. And the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.)
Percy kisses him first. Deep. His hands around the back of Credence’s neck. Fingernails in his skin and stinging. Holding him in place. Like a spooked horse. Like Credence’s mouth is his, belongs to him. He wants his mouth to belong to Percy. His entire body. Abraham and Isaac; walking himself to the alter, hands bound, Percy’s fingers tense on the back of his neck, pushing him to his knees.
He pushes himself closer - hips, hands, face. Parts his lips to Percy’s tongue, licks his teeth, his lips, drinks him, swallows spit. His and Percy’s mixed. Milk and honey. His body was always such a simple thing. Wind and unwind. Percy takes him by the bones of his hips and pushes him until his head brushes the headboard. He wishes it were rougher. He wants Percy’s fingers around his neck. Wants that handprint tattooed in blues and purples on the pale skin of his cheek.
“God, you’re so beautiful.”
He wants to argue, but his heart is in his throat.
At sixteen, he had been caught in bed with the Song of Songs. The Holy Pornography. Too afraid to touch his own stiffening dick beneath the sheet. He is risen! someone had called out, and there was laughter, and someone else had fetched a chaperone. The only time a Bible had ever been ripped from his hands.
Percy straddles him, pins his legs to the mattress. Fingers in his hair, on his jaw, tugging his face up and closer. He holds himself still for Percy’s tongue. Good boy. Loverboy. Blow on my garden, that its spice may flow out. There’s spit on his chin when they pull away. He folds himself over the flat of Percy’s lap, kissing and licking up his side, down to the crook of his hip, under the elastic band of his boxer shorts. And then Percy is pushing him back again, tearing the cap from a little bottle, and he’s straining to push his hips up into the u-shaped curve between Percy’s legs where they hold him fast.
“Always use lubrication so you don’t hurt yourself,” Percy says. Pulls Credence away by the chin. “You with me, loverboy?”
“Lubrication,” repeats Credence obediently.
He watches as Percy coats the palm of his hand with it, clear and thick and glistening in the yellow light from the bedside lamp. Then the weight is gone from his hips, his legs. Percy kisses him hard. His hand slides down the waistband of Credence’s borrowed underwear. He’ll never get used to the way wetness warms. The way the world flickers as his eyes roll back into their lids like two dough balls in a pot of oil. Everything hot and burning and bubbling.
“Breathe,” Percy says. “Deep breaths. You’re turning blue, bunny.”
“I’m - sorry - ”
With immense effort, he opens his mouth. Draws a breath, stitched in his chest, out again. Stinging.
“Talk to me.”
“Whatever you want. Keep you breathing.”
Keep breathing. Right.
“I was asleep, but my heart was awake. It is the voice of my beloved who knocks - ”
The hand around him resumes its pumping motion. He feels himself twitch in its grip, and it is, as always, too sinful, too shameful to watch. Voyeur to his own damnation.
Even with his eyelids squeezed together, his eyeballs roll back. His breath hitches.
“Poetry?” Percy asks.
“The Song - of Songs - from - the Bible.”
“‘Open to - me, my sister - my love - my - my dove, my undefiled; for - for - for my head - is filled with dew - and - oh, oh - my - my hair with the - the damp-ness - of the night - ‘“
Each spasm of his chest is met by Percy’s lips, until the entirety of it has been dotted with their kisses, the little flicks of his tongue, the scrape of his teeth. Everything below is heat, is burning. Obscene. Cup-full. He’s finished. Drawn like smoke from his own heaving flesh, eaten raw, the lean meat of him. And then it stops, and Percy is dragging the tip of his finger down from the base of Credence’s dick, over the tight skin below, pushing his legs up onto his chest.
“I have taken - off my robe,” he recites breathlessly.
A labour of love, or a longing for it. All the nights from sixteen onward, searing the words into the skin of his own eyelids by flashlight beneath the sheets.
“Indeed, must I put it on? I have washed - my feet. Indeed - must - must I soil them? My - beloved thrust his hand - in through the latch opening - ”
“That is utterly - filthy,” Percy hisses. His finger traces around the little coil of muscle. He pushes suddenly, without warning, and everything is slick and dripping. A single finger, up to the knuckle. His other hand resumes its work on Credence’s neglected hardness.
“My heart pounded for him - ah - ah - ”
He inhales sharply, tightens around the new sensation of being full, being filled up with Percy. Somehow he had expected less build-up, more pain. An immediate fullness, intrusion, violation. Not this sweet, slow play with the deepest parts of him. Fully exposed on his back, with Percy between his legs, Percy inside him.
"So tight, bunny. Relax - relax - "
His stomach spasms around it. His dick is leaking onto Percy's hand; he can feel it. He wants to open his eyes, so he shuts them tighter. Grits his teeth to stop from calling out. His hips rock against the pressure. He wants to open himself up to Percy. He wants to expel him and hold him forever inside, and then the one finger is two and the first is crooked against him, deep inside, and Percy’s thumb slides up over the ridge of his dick, over the top, and his body is out of its own control. His eyelids press together so tightly he sees white and yellow and red in spots and flashes.
“Tell me the rest of it,” Percy commands as soon as he’s fallen slack into the pillow.
His eyes are still shut. He decides he likes the anonymity of darkness. Limited only to feeling the knead of Percy’s knuckle into his thigh, the sticky sweetness of his own come on his belly. The room smells faintly of spit and sweat and something musty and thick and primal that reminds him of the dog he used to curl up with beneath one of the dining tables as a little boy.
“My heart pounded for him. I rose - up to open for my beloved. My hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the lock. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved left, and had gone away. My heart went out when he spoke. I looked for him, but I didn’t find him. I called him, but he didn’t answer. The watchmen who go around the city found me. They beat me. They bruised me. The keepers of the walls took my cloak away from me. I adjure you, daughters of Yerushalayim, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am faint with love.”
“That’s in the Bible?” Percy asks, long after the final verse fades from his throat.
He opens his eyes, eyelashes fluttering as his pupils adjust to the flood of light.
“Yes. The Song of Songs. From the Old Testament.”
“Wild. And you can remember all that at - four-fifteen in the morning.”
His chest twitches feebly in the attempt at supporting his neck and head so that he can look down through the heavy lids of his eyes to where Percy must be grinning. Lazily, no doubt, in the way that Credence is slowly beginning to memorise. The little smirk like an asterisk at the corner of Percy’s mouth, his thick eyebrows drawn together. Amused and puzzled. Like Credence is a book he’s just cracked open and decided to sit with for a while.
There’s a rustle and a shift in the mattress beneath him, then his belly is rubbed clean with the towel Percy had used to dry him earlier. His cheeks prickle half-heartedly at the memory, but the rest of him is cut off from the source of his shame by exhaustion and the still-fresh rush of pleasure. He kisses back against Percy’s lips, soft noises from the back of his throat. Loverboy, his brain echoes. Lover. Love love love love.
Something else itches in the far corner of his brain.
“Oh - ” He tries to sit; Percy catches him in the chest.
“I’m fine,” Percy says into the hollow of his cheek, the soft space behind his ear. “This one was for you.”
“But - ”
“All for you, bunny.”
The lamp clicks off. Percy sighs as he rolls them both onto their sides, his arms a solid boundary between Credence and the rest of the bed, the empty air, the dark.
Anything for loverboy.
Go to sleep, Credence.
The Song of Songs is really sexy and also beautiful. Def worth a read. I'm glad I don't believe in Hell because it was probably blasphemy to include it here? But then..... it's in the Bible. So.
Chapter 10: Carry That Weight
A lot happens.
Here we are guys, woah! The final chapter! So much thanks for your feedback (I will be responding to all of your lovely amazing comments that seriously have brightened my life!) and patience as I've struggled through this monstrosity of a chapter (nearly 14,000 words lol). Here it is!
Forewarnings for some really homophobic language in this chapter, towards the end. It's internalised homophobia, but it might still be jarring.
Also, this is where it gets dicey in the plot. The sequel is fully planned out and coming to an Ao3 near you on my regular weekly update schedule. It will be called Salem. If you want to continue onto the sequel, read the whole chapter! If you don't and would rather bookend this, only read to the end of Credence POV and call it a day. Everything after that is plot-heavy, a tiny bit of a cliffhanger (I did try to soften the blow), and continues in Salem.
As usual, thank you forever for your support.
The mixtape playlist for this chapter is
. I highly recommend listening while reading!
There will be a bonus chapter after this one with Credence journals. Stick around!
The bed hits the wall.
In the corner of the room, the radiator rocks and hisses. He had wanted the curtains open, but now, in the pallid light of early-morning and with the outside noises bleeding through the glass, he’s not so sure.
“Breathe,” Percy says.
Obediently, he takes his air in measured gulps.
His body is a thing.
Weighted down by a wool blanket, dripping heat. Clockwork robot, a pulse. Heart, lungs. Brains run on electricity. (Electrolytes taste like semen.)
He stings and he wants to push Percy out. Sex-love. This is not slow and small like fingers. This is breathing underwater. Everything heavy. He gets the feeling he could enjoy himself if his brain would reconnect with the rest of him, not cut loose like a balloon from the string.
Outside, the crosstown bus runs a morning round and the sun is beginning to stretch across a cloudless expanse of sky. It might be snowing. His body shivers. In anticipation? The bed hits the wall.
The last time it snowed at home, he spent the morning shovelling. It was before breakfast, and the world went loose around the edges after a while. His hands were red and stiff around his fork and glass at the table. He wanted to cry when Ma rested her hand on the back of his hot neck, pressed into the small bones where skull and spine connect. Somehow it meant more than anything she could have said.
Percy’s grip tightens around the bones of his hips.
He realises his eyes are open and closes them.
“Talk to me, bunny,” Percy says.
The bus rattles off. It did say snow on the weather forecast, he remembers suddenly.
And the bed hits the wall. And the bed hits the wall hard.
“Talk to me,” Percy mouths into the sweaty skin of back.
Credence doesn’t have to look to see his cock wilting beneath the sheet. Ruined for Percy. Too bad, so sad. He feels sorry in a detached way, a cold Eve, the sin still sticky around his mouth, across his chin. In the space between his legs. Percy on his tongue, bitter love. Bitter sex. Was that it? Being fucked? His cock twitches.
Cock is a new word. He likes the way it rolls across his tongue, tangy. Percy’s cock, Credence’s cock. Like two animals rolling around in the dirt. Percy’s bed, twisted sheets. He lets Percy roll him onto his back, pin his arms to his sides.
“Credence, if you don’t say anything, I’m going to start worrying.”
“Anything,” says Credence, stilling.
He half expects to be slapped. Maybe he wants it. The thought draws blood from his face, pools it between his legs.
“Ha. Ha. What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“Was it too soon? Did you change your mind?”
“No,” he says after some deliberation.
Go away Percy, he thinks.
Something is wrong with his body, with his brain. Why else would he do this, when the morning had been so perfect? Percy, the warm bed, the birdsong outside the window. The hand on his cock, the mouth, the tongue, his eyelashes fluttering against his cheek, covered in kisses. Drowning in honey. When he takes deeper breaths, his lungs sting.
“Credence,” says Percy, releasing him. “It’s okay if you’re having conflicted feelings about this, but I can’t help you if you won’t try to tell me what’s wrong.”
“I can’t talk about it.”
Percy catches his shoulder as he makes for the underside of the blanket. For a moment, his fingertips dig into the hollow space beneath Credence’s collar bone, and then they release. He tugs their bodies closer.
“Can I just hold you like this, then?”
Strangle me, Credence thinks.
He says, “Okay.”
It’s too hot with Percy’s arms around him and the blanket both. He forces his twitching muscles into compliance, makes them limp. His body is a thing. Pinioned to the mattress beneath Percy’s arm, sweat-damp and heaving. Brainwaves like TV antenna signals. Change channel, cut cord. If he wants to stop thinking about Ma, he has only to close his eyes, count to eighteen. If the bus rattles by on an even number, all will be well.
“Hey,” says Percy softly. His arms shift, tighten. “You’re shaking, loverboy. What’s up?”
“You just blanked on me while I was inside you, and now you’re trembling. If it’s something, you don’t have to tell me what it is, but you can’t say it’s nothing.”
“Okay,” he breathes in one-two-three-four, out five-six-seven-eight-nine and the bus screeches to a halt beside the stop placard on the street below. “It’s something.”
The muscles beneath Percy’s skin go hard around his own soft, skinny body. He is shaking, he realises, like Percy said he was. Like a scared rabbit. Bunny. He digs his pointy tooth into the flesh of his lower lip until it stings enough to match the sex sting, and that helps. Like his body is filling back out, blood in bone, in skin, in muscle.
“I don’t know how to say it,” he admits.
“Do you want to say it?”
Percy’s sigh is soft, ruffles his hair.
“Is it hurting you?”
Those words collected together into a single sentence, such a simple sentence, jolt him.
The doctor when he’d first been rescued, listening to his lungs and heart, glueing butterfly bandages over the split skin of his palms and cheek and jaw, pressing into his belly, had asked at the start of each new process - does that hurt? Is that okay? How does this feel for you? Now as then, he shakes his head. The words tie themselves into knots on his tongue.
“So, you should say it,” says Percy gently. “I can help you find words.”
“I don’t need words.”
“Look, bunny, I can’t promise I’ll understand. I probably won’t, but I can try to. I’d like to try to, for you.”
He twists a corner of the sheet between his fingers.
“I don’t regret it.”
“Do you think I’m perverted?”
It’s all he can do not to jump as Percy’s hand closes over his shoulder and shakes.
“Credence, would you roll over for a second?”
Pause. Deep breaths, bunny. His lung ache.
A longer pause. Cock is a weird word. Hard sounds. He runs it through his brain, swishes it over his tongue and under it. Harsh. All tongue clicks and roof of his mouth. Co-ck. Cock. Cock co-ck ck ck ck ck ck.
He doesn’t need to look to know that Percy is frowning, searching for the right words. They come on the tail of a little cough and with Percy’s hand on the square of his back.
“Listen, the only thing about you that’s perverted is that they made you think you are to begin with, okay?”
Ma would have had him on his knees long before this. It occurs to him that Percy has no natural authority over him, and the thought itches.
“You can’t know that,” he says stiffly. His voice sharpens, climbs petulantly up from the back of his throat. “You don’t know that. You don’t know anything, and you don’t know anything about me."
“So, explain yourself,” says Percy. Still calm. Infuriatingly calm.
Credence, where have you been?
His voice comes out a half-groan, high-pitched and childish and frustratingly shapeless. He closes his mouth.
Words he has. A Bible full of them. A lifetime of Ma’s exhortations to righteousness, etched all across his hands, front and back, his cheeks and shoulders and the thin curve of silvered skin across his ribs where she’d caught him in the shower after the Song of Songs incident. All the marks Percy has already seen, will never understand. Could never possibly understand.
His brain feels swollen in his skull. Stirred up, blurry. He has an overflow of words now and the sins to match. Cock and dick and thing and sex-love and abomination. Domination. Revelations. The Bible never calls it homosexuality because no one had invented that word yet, or spoke English. Fellatio, relationship, patience, penitence, penis, pissant, withstand, not-withstanding, withholding, what old thing - this old thing?
He wet the bed and Percy wiped him clean. Whither, wither, weather, whether, way there, say there (say there!), say loud, say - shout, doubt, clout, clot, clod, sod, Sodom. His brain hurts. Gomorrah.
Percy wraps a hand around his upper arm and holds and the pressure is good. Keep it there, he wants to say. Hold me there. Hold me all over my body. Sit on me. Hold me down. Smash me into the floor. Sodom again. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Sow - shall you - reap. Rape was not to be found in the dictionary. He asked Ma and she said, that’s not for little boys to know. But it’s in the Bible, Ma. And let it stay there, she said.
Let it stay there and stay there and stay there and stay there and stay there.
Sometimes he had imagined what it would be like to be taken against his will. Not to be the sinner. Sometimes he tried to broadcast the thought from his brain onto the street, into intersections, at passing strangers. Always men. Take me take me take me take me take me take me.
His jaw feels screwed on. He tries to roll out, then thinks the better of it and dives back into the hollow of Percy’s chest, his words a muffled whine through the blanket.
“I hate myself.”
“Okay,” says Percy quietly. “That’s a start.”
The feeling doesn’t flood back at once. Not like in books. No broken dams, just a stuttering trickle. A stupid mouth:
“I hate myself. I hate everything about me.”
A dumb tongue struggling to wrap itself around the fragments delivered piecemeal by his brain. Hesitant. At any moment, he thinks, comes the blow. And then, at any moment again, the bus.
Percy doesn’t hit. He knows that. It’s his own brain that can’t adjust to happiness. His own brain that separates itself from everything beautiful and good like oil in water.
He says, “I think - I think she was right, and I’m bad inside, because I want bad things - ”
“Credence, there’s nothing bad - ”
His voice picks up. Now the words are falling freely and viciously, clinking like marbles, one into the other. No logic. Bound by collision.
“It’s me. It’s me that’s bad. It’s not you. I only want dark things. I want you to hit me and - and spit on me and beat me up and I want you to make it ugly. I want it to be - ”
“Stop,” Percy says.
“I’m not stopping. I have to say this, because it’s eating me up inside. It’s chewing me up. I can’t lie about myself. I don’t want to lie to you -”
Why had he asked to do it with the curtains open? Who in their right mind had sex before an open window, before the entire world and all their disapproval and their hate? Before God? Heretic, abomination. What kind of masochist is he?
Even with Percy rubbing his back through the thin film of the sheet, murmuring assurances to his sanity, he feels his grip on the reality of the moment slipping through his fingers like a fistful of sand.
It never made sense. None of it. He feels one thing and everyone else sees it the other way, and then he sees their sense, and Percy tells him he’s wrong, and none of it makes sense except that he’s wrong. Always him.
There had been the first baptism at dawn, when he was sixteen and old enough to choose membership in the Church for himself. The spring ceremony on the cold beach, Ma’s fingernails on his scalp, through his newly-shorn hair.
(He jerks his head from Percy’s grip.)
The tide was in, and she told him to roll his trouser legs up even though the water would climb to his chest. It didn’t make sense, but she told him to be quiet. Do as you’re told, Credence. This is the way it’s always done, and he didn’t know how to swim, and she said, that doesn’t matter. It’s just a baptism. Don’t be stupid.
Maybe she had hoped he’d drown. She met his eyes before pushing down, and she smiled, and the water filled his nose.
It was the wrong thing to do. His mouth flooded then, too, and his throat, and his lungs, and what felt like his entire chest was full of it. Stinging and heavy. He pushed against Ma’s hand. She knotted her fingers in his hair and pushed back. She held him under until he was sure he would die there, until the world went brown at the edges, and his vision folded in on itself, and the shutters closed, and Ma’s hand twisted the lock. He was bigger than she was. It never occurred to him to use strength. He never even considered the fact that he might be stronger.
And then she pulled him out. The unseen force of her hand, godly. His scalp burning. Every breath hurt. His body shivered so violently he threw up in the water. She told him to sit on the beach if he was going to make such a scene about it, and everyone watched, and everyone stared, and no one said anything else.
“Credence, that’s torture. You wouldn’t even do that to your enemies in war. It’s torture, to do that to a child; anyone would have been petrified. Of course you would have thought you were dying.”
Percy’s voice is utterly devoid of pity, that soured sweet note that he’s grown to recognise in the voices of women on the TV news. There is nothing overly soft about his hug or the way he yanks their bodies back into place like pieces slotting into a poorly-cut puzzle. His fingers dig almost roughly over the skin of Credence’s jaw, the scar, the dry flesh of his lower lip. It’s warm. He wants those hands all over his face.
“You were just a child. You didn’t deserve any of that. You don’t deserve any of it.”
The baldness of Percy’s empathy shocks something out of him that he hadn’t realised he was holding on to. His fingers loosen around the wrinkled corner of sheet they’d been twisting into knots.
He tells everything. As close to everything as he’s ever put into words. The cow and the rifle and the way it slammed into his shoulder when he pressed the trigger. The aching for days after, his swollen eyes from crying in the bathroom and the way that Ma began to avoid him. Ma at the piano, Ma in the car, with the tapes, when she’d touch his hair or his arm or the back of his neck and smile.
He tells Percy about the sock dolls and Modesty and the night on his own on a church pew. Yes, he’d known. He’s dumb but he isn’t really stupid. And Percy says, you’re not dumb or stupid, bunny, you’re neither of those. It’s too much. He needs to whisper into a void of silence or not at all, or he has to scream it all out, because it’s too much, so Percy rubs his back. Kneads his shoulders. Brushes the stray hairs from his sweaty forehead and listens.
He tells it out of order. There was never any order to it. Reaching into memory is like shuffling a deck of cards and drawing out the first one. Here was losing a tooth at some indiscriminate point in time when he was about the size of the shaggy dog that belonged to Ma Vanity. Poking his tongue into the silky wound in his gum, wiping blood from his chin and hiding the tooth in a hole he clawed out of the hard winter dirt behind Main Chapel.
Here was rain on a car window, one drop falling into another, consumed, and the leather belt between his fingers as he threaded it back into the loops, knees stinging. Then, standing on a grey city block with a poster bearing words he couldn’t bring himself to say out loud, someone spitting. Chastity calling out about Hell, the shame that had knocked his legs out from under him as he made eye contact with a pair of young women holding hands who said, these are just kids out here doing your hate work, y’all are so fucking evil, these are little kids, bitch, they’re kids.
Wetting the bed at five and ten and fifteen and twenty-two. Chopping carrots for dinner, shaking hands rattling the knife. Sitting alone at school. Not even Chastity would sit with him. She said, you’re so stupid, Credence, and you always get in trouble. He tells Percy about the tattletale Angel, and why would you do that to me, and screaming into the floor, all the many times. The years when his life felt like one long, unbroken scream. When it was the only way to give sound or shape to his constant terror, his shame, the humiliation of being and knowing he was the most hated, useless, the one no one wanted, barely tolerated, even then. Even small. He still feels small and dirty.
“I prayed every night for it to go away,” he whispers.
He doesn’t cry. His eyes feel squeezed from the pressure of wanting to, but he won’t. His voice cracks.
He says, “I just thought if I prayed and prayed, He would take it from me, and I could be like everyone else. And I’d fall asleep, and I was so stupid - I really believed it. I was so stupid. Nothing ever changed. Nothing changes - ”
And Percy says, baby, come here -
And Percy says, shhhh, and, oh loverboy, oh bunny, oh Credence -
And Percy says, you’re here now, you’re here with me, you’re never going back.
They live in Percy’s bed for the better stretch of two days. He gets up only to use the bathroom and to brush his teeth, Percy to lay food out on a little tray that he sets on Credence’s lap three times a day, and they eat omelettes and fruit and every kind of takeout. It’s a quiet magic. He bites his lip through the urge to mentally retract the word magic, prays in whisper, words of gratitude. They lie for hours watching each other’s faces in the shifting light. Percy’s eyebrows, the stubbled hairs in his chin and cheek, the lines of his lips. There are parts of human faces, seen up close, that are not beautiful. Creases in skin, scars that pucker, hair on noses. Credence loves them all.
Love is the word, he realises, halfway through the second day. Not just sex-love, which he wants to try again, though Percy says they should wait a little on that, just do touching, just try kissing again. Learn each other. Do they love each other, or does only he love Percy? Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. He feels himself opening up inside the warmth of it, this womb-feeling, wrapped in Percy’s sheets and Percy’s arms and tracing the lines of Percy’s smile with the tip of his finger.
“You just looked really happy there for a second.”
The room is still. Only the light shifts. The shadows lengthen. He feels the weight of the blanket and the other-limbs on his chest, his cheek pressed into Percy’s palm, and arches his head back, seized by a sudden impulse to talk.
“I feel - I never felt this way before. I want to smile when I wake up.”
“I think that’s called peace, loverboy,” Percy laughs.
“Do you feel this way all the time?”
“No," says Percy slowly. "Rarely, actually, but I enjoy it when I do.”
There’s nothing for a moment but the roar of an airplane overhead as Percy studies him, traces the sharp angles of his hip bone under the waistband of his new underpants. His lower lip quirks.
“Come here, bunny.”
“Just here, so I can hold you a minute before we have to get up.”
“Why do we have to get up?”
It’s a dangerous and alien feeling, all this getting what he wants. Comfort. He could easily become slothful. Greedy or spoiled, like the cat that used to live off scraps behind the Dining Hall in New Salem, who only wanted to be fed from his fingers.
“You, Prince Layabout, have an audience with the DA’s office, remember? And Tina Goldstein bargained for your release as my hostage for a day, so she can interrogate you, probably. And because she’s worried - ”
King Credence, lounging on the feathery sheets of Percy’s bed like he was born into them, taking grapes onto his tongue from the hand of his favourite consort, living on takeaways and orange juice until his body withers and his mind decays. He draws his arms in again, curls his knees up until they brush Percy’s thighs, and Percy returns his sigh with a wet kiss on his cheek.
“Everyone’s worried about you, Credence,” Percy says. “You just got out of a cult, you’re in the news every day, and you have the Staten Island DA on your back now after the thing with your sister.”
“Speaking of -”
He leans in, but Percy frowns and pulls away with all the smooth practise of a TV newscaster. His lips brush over Credence’s eyebrow as he slides off the edge of the bed.
“You really committed to it? Goldstein doesn’t seem to think they were bluffing about pursuing an indictment. You might end up sitting with the defence in court.”
The closet doors creak in their joints as they fold into themselves to reveal the dark expanse of Percy’s closet. If he stares hard enough without blinking, they become two jaws, their sinewy mouths carved into the drywall, slatted wood teeth casting long welts across Percy’s bare chest and face. Credence rolls onto his back.
“Just checking,” says Percy quickly. “It’s not something to take lightly. Accessory to kidnapping would be jail time, Credence. I doubt they’d ever get far enough to convict you, but they can certainly make your life miserable - ”
“Well, that’s nothing new.”
He counts the shadows on the ceiling while Percy puts on trousers, undershirt, shirt, belt, sweater. Outside, the city is waking. In Chelsea, Jacob will have long departed for the greasy heat of the bakery ovens and the morning loaves, and Tina will be drinking her first of two cups of coffee, black. Somewhere Chastity has probably been awake for hours, hating him, or reading her Bible, or doing whatever it is that Chastity does in her spare time now without the bills or the bank balance to muddle through.
Ma is in jail. His brain shudders to a halt on those final syllables, like a train at the end station. Nowhere else to go. The image sticks. Ma is in jail, maybe in an orange jumpsuit, with her hair under a white cloth cap and her blue eyes glassy and tired and ash cold. Ma is in jail. The cow is dead. The compound is still open, he knows, inhabited sparsely by the loyal few and the biological children that have since been restored to them.
If he wanted to, he could hail a cab to Staten Island and walk back through the little gate wedged between Community House and the school, over the frozen grass and mud past Main Chapel, do the round to the garden and the animal pens and the barn and the cluster of houses where once had lived the shaggy dog and once Ma Vanity and once, when he and they were very small, the two brothers, Abstinence and Avarice. And just like that, he’s forgotten their outside names.
Let them be Abstinence and Avarice. Timmy and Johnny. They have a house and a mother and dog and a backyard and a whole life outside of New Salem that he never got to have. Why should they get better names? He, Credence, God of his own mind - no, that’s taking it too far. Blasphemous. Suffer the thought and damn him.
(Forgive me father, I know not what I do.)
He stretches his back across the mattress until his arms and legs dangle over the edge. Percy swoops low to kiss the curve of his navel as he passes into the bathroom to shave.
“Stop thinking so hard,” he says lightly. Pinches just hard enough to make Credence shiver.
“Leave me alone.”
“If you want me to.”
If you want me to.
If you want me to.
If you want me to.
If you want me to.
If you want me too.
The violent urges are still there. Percy says this is learning how to be gentle with himself, that it takes time, that his body needs to know what it feels like to be kissed and touched like a fragile thing before he’ll be able to tell what he really wants, and maybe then he’ll find he isn’t so hot on hurting himself after all. He catches Percy’s fingers on the retreat, lets his body drag off the edge of the mattress, laughing in a deep belly way that’s still new, still itches deep inside and makes him laugh harder. In ancient Israel, it was the goat and the cliff’s face and the hard fall and the certain death. His cheek burns against the pile of the carpet. He wants Percy to drag him into the bathroom, but he stops at the foot of the bed.
“Make yourself useful for once and put on a pot of coffee,” Percy says.
His eyes are bright, laughing. He kisses softly. His trouser leg rubs the naked skin of Credence’s thigh.
“I’ll get you a cab back to Goldstein’s, and then you’ll call me tomorrow if you really still want to come back.”
If you want me to.
“Coffee,” Percy repeats, pulling him up by the elbow, kissing his jaw. “We should be out the door in half an hour.”
They are out the door in twenty-six minutes exactly. Credence watches the seconds race across the screen of his plastic watch while Percy feeds directions to the driver, and then there is “surprisingly little traffic” and the drone of NPR on the radio that always reminds him of Tina and Newt. Tina, breakfast conversation, the quiet walks to work, two cups of coffee. Coffee cake has exactly the same soft palate click as cock, a blurry thought. Disorientating. The window fogs against his mouth but not his nose. He takes Percy’s hand in his lap and lets it knead his palm like tough dough.
“I’m afraid I have to just drop you off and head into a meeting,” Percy explains. His voice flows into the NPR voices and the low music that marks the shift from droning poetry to droning political talk.
“I don’t understand the thing with the governor,” says Credence. He peels his hand away to gesture the radio. “And that man Grindelwald, and Republicans. What’s it all have to do with Ma and New Salem?”
“In a nutshell? The governor sent state troopers into your mother’s compound to make arrests based on the allegations of kidnapping that had finally trickled up months after Goldstein reported it, and other than that it has nothing to do with you or New Salem and everything to do with politics. The governor is a Democrat, the president is a Democrat, and the Republicans are having a tough time with that.”
His brain chews this over as they drive past Central Park. Stretches the words like taffy, tearing all the bonds of logic and meaning until they fall apart, beads from a broken string. You, Ma, New Salem, Republican, Governor. President and politics and reporter. Everyone is having a tough time, he thinks. Nothing makes any sense anymore and hasn’t for days, except that he loves Percy, except “surprisingly little traffic”, and of course the trees are still callow in the park. It’s only mid-March. It’s still cold.
Seasons at home had always blended together as on a continuous wheel, a time-circle. Hours to days to weeks to months to quarters to years. If he peels them back, the bottom will drop out like the skin of an orange, and the memories will unfold. Spiral right down the core of him. Salad-days and fresh kale and dirt on carrots. Tomato-days, the precious few weeks of summer when there had been raspberries on the raspberry bushes and sometimes raspberries with cream on the dinner table. He and Chastity smiling at each other in Ma’s kitchen, faces dripping juice, tomatoes with salt, the way the skin cleaved around his front teeth and to the roof of his mouth like it had been waiting for them.
He’s just eaten breakfast and already hungry again, always greedy, but it’s not a food hunger. He wants to show Percy how to eat a tomato with only salt and a raspberry in homemade cream. Wipe out the old memories and overlay with the new. Treat homesickness with a dose of red wine and the Beatles on the stereo and the floorboards in Percy’s living room warm and smooth beneath his bare chest.
Percy squeezes his hand, leans in close as he jumps, hot breath on his ear: “Don’t worry, loverboy. I told you - worst comes to worse, we fly to Canada.”
“Hawaii,” says Credence. He thinks of the pictures in the magazine on Percy’s coffee table, sleepy green grass and fog and black rock, and he blushes against Percy’s lips on his cheek. “It looks warm. In the pictures.”
“Hawaii,” Percy agrees. “Wherever you want. Whatever you want.”
He tries to broadcast the thoughts from his head, tries to send them down the ropes of his veins as through a cable into Percy’s hands. Newt had explained electricity, brainwaves, the human body is water and energy. Divine spark. They hit traffic coming into Midtown, and Percy says, goddamn, we’ll be late, I have to call Seraphina. The phone call is hushed. They pull slowly through a yellow light and stop at the next red.
“I love you,” he says finally, quietly.
“What did you say?”
Their driver knows a better route closer to the West Side Highway, if that’s okay with you, and Percy says, that’s fine, that’s more than fine, he just has an appointment in Staten Island and we’re cutting it close. Mid-morning rush - yeah, it’s always a mess, I don’t know what I was thinking getting us out the door so late - cost you extra - yeah, yeah, yeah, of course, yeah. When he turns to Credence again, his eyebrows meet at an angle in the middle of his forehead.
“Did you say something about - ”
“I just,” mumbles Credence. He shouldn’t have said anything at all, in such a public place, with the driver and surrounded by windows. He presses his body into the leather seat, but Percy has his sweaty hand and grips it tightly.
“I love you too, Credence.”
“I love you too,” he repeats stupidly. Relief makes him lightheaded. “I meant - I mean it.”
Whatever impulse drives him to reach out and touch Percy’s smile is cut off by Percy’s fingers closing around his. He startles. Of course. The cab driver stares straight ahead through the windshield, but he’s right there. The whole world is outside the windows - Percy pulls him in, and he traces the bow of Credence’s lower lip with his tip of his own finger and laughs.
“Nothing to be worried about, loverboy.”
He kisses once, carefully, and then again, with Credence’s tongue inside his lip, on his tongue, on the back of his teeth. All traffic is good traffic, Credence thinks. He’d rather this ride never end, would rather never leave the dip in the seat at Percy’s side with Percy’s hand in his hair and his own half-numb hands on Percy’s cheeks. He thinks, I love you. Broadcasts it with his mouth and tongue and lips and fingers, and the car pulls trough a green light.
True to his word, Percy leaves him on the front step of Tina’s building with a final kiss to his forehead, his mouth, a tap on the chin.
“Go easy on those lawyers,” he laughs. “Call me tonight?”
They’re in the car on the way to Goldstein’s when Credence drops it on him, and his heart twitches in his chest, the smallest movement. A brief hesitation. Don’t say things like that, he wants to snap. Reach out and rip the words from those soft lips. Don’t be stupid, Credence. Don’t be soft. Don’t be so easy to hurt.
I love you too, Credence. I love you too.
It shouldn’t be true, but it is. As quickly as that. As easy as that.
It shouldn’t be him, but it is. It shouldn’t be them, but they are. And if he fucks it up? If he ruins this brittle, fucked up cult kid and sends him sprinting into oncoming traffic like a spooked carriage horse into fifth avenue at rush hour? What then? He calls Seraphina to get her opinion. She says, check your fax. It’s important. Call me back.
Call me back. It’s important. His pages to Goldstein go unheeded. Credence is meeting with the Staten Island DA, far away on that stupid island he’s never liked, has never particularly understood. Probably grandstanding to the lawyers again about his bitch of a sister. Probably martyring himself on a tacky polyester carpet, mea culpa, whipping himself raw for the sake of a young woman who has already thrown him under the bus, as if this now were not the ultimate proof.
Fifth avenue blurs by through the cracked taxi window, veiled in a thin curtain of smoke from the cigarette in his hand. He has to get back to Credence before someone else does, and they have to go into the station. They have to make sense of all this. He yanks a sheet at random from the folder in his hand and smooths it out across his knee -
>Do you think that I’m a religious freak?
Dated - backdated, he thinks - May 1995. An entire year prior, long before Credence ever had access to a computer, but it won’t matter.
>I wanted to apologize for my actions last night. I should not have run away like that. >I was scared because of what I told you. I have never said those words out loud >before or even really thought them. I know that I will go to Hell for the way that I am >and the things that I want
The worst is that it’s not fake. He doesn’t even need Credence’s confirmation to know that the words are his, the anxieties, the confessions. It’s been a month. Percy knows the way Credence talks, the things he avoids saying. He knows the way Credence strings together words like a little boy making a macaroni necklace.
The file on his lap is about thirty pages thick. It’s not much. Anyone else might have produced a novel’s worth of emails, but Credence’s messages are short, his vocabulary limited.
He rifles through them again, drawing a sheet at random. Something about music, about making his mixtapes, a little diatribe on evolution, or as close as Credence could come to such a thing - Newt says this is mostly settled science, but I am not so sure. It seems arrogant to me.
Credence naked and honest in ways he only ever is at three in the morning. Haltingly, facing the window and never making eye contact, chasing the moonlight on the pillow with his ghostly spider-leg fingers. Stupidly vulnerable. So trusting. Baring his heart for a stranger in an email inbox who calls himself PrcvlGraves@bellsouth.net. I love you, too, Credence. So easy to hurt.
He pulls out the showstopper, the final page, which Credence must have typed out in a hurry before his appointment in the afternoon. Running on fumes and new-love-high, probably smiling to himself a little crookedly, one sharp tooth overlapping one pink lip and eyes pinched into happy slits like a cartoon boy. Bunny.
> Dear Percy, he writes.
>I don’t have a lot of time to write this or really know how to put it into words. I’m sorry if this is too much and too soon. I think it might be, but I have to be honest with you. I want to be honest with you always, or for as long as you love me too.
I have been thinking a lot about what you said about love and punishment. How the one is not the other. I don’t know if I can agree with you yet. I don’t think I can explane myself. I have also been listening to a lot of Nirvana and the Raincoats and the Beatles, but no one seems to have exactly the words I need, that I can’t find, just a lot of sounds that I can hear in my head but cannot type into a computer keeboard. I think maybe the closest I could come would be to say if you took most of “You Know You’re Right” and the gitares in “Negative Creep” and some other songs. That could come close maybe to the way I have been feeling, but now there is also some of the Beatles, like “Here Comes the Sun” when its all soft light and sun gold in your bed in the morning and I wake up with your arm on me and “Real Love” when he (I think you said it was Paul) sings don’t need to be afraid/no need to be afraid because I am less and less afraid, and I come back to the Bible which was my first source of words and maybe the only reason I ever grew thoughts in my head:
1 Corinthians 13:4-13:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I have never known real love outside of myself until now, accept from the cow I told you about. I want to be loving to you more than just taking the love that you give me. I want to give you my whole self. Every good piece of me, if there are that many to give. (I apologise too for the poverty of my soul, but I think it is growing.) I keep thinking of Eve in the Garden of Eden and how there must not have been any love in her yet because what I feel now makes me want to do good for you and to you and on Earth. What I feel now is a garden and the quiet and the growing things after everything was loud and sharp and dead. I am trying to forgive myself like you said, but it is such a hard thing to do. Forgive me also please Percy if for the time being the most that I can do is accept forgiveness from you while I make it grow in me. You have shown me patience where before I knew only punishment and kindness where I knew shame. I have never slept so deeply or dreamed so sweetly as I have in your arms. I love you. I hope you will not be angry with me for writing all of this. But I mean it, so I have to.
Credence wrote this for him but not for him. For PrcvlGraves@Bellsouth.net. For a liar. In a video game reality, Percy could hit a button on a keyboard and launch a missile at this mystery target and be done with it. Blow the fucker to pieces.
He has to get to Credence before a copy makes its way to the DA, if it hasn’t already. He has to be the one to break it to him - no one else. Credence trusts him, trusted him. Maybe will still trust him.
It takes him an hour, which could be worse, all things considered. He gives the driver a fifty in advance, to leaden his pedal foot, and another fifteen to wait, and another twenty because it’s in the bundle of money attached to the ten from the fifteen, and whatever whatever whatever. The receptionist hesitates but buzzes him up when he says Credence’s name. His heart races so quickly in his chest he can barely feel it.
Credence is still in with Travers, the Staten Island DA, a humourless, thin man who looks like he walked out of the womb in his Brooks Brothers suit. A hardliner, Percy knows. They’ve had enough statements for small-fry stories from his office, Staten Island being the smouldering dumpster fire it so often is.
They both startle as he walks in. Percy scans the table quickly, making a mental inventory of Queenie Goldstein leaning across the table towards a woman in a green dress, the portly man in brown scribbling into a yellow pad, and Credence himself, hunched into his seat with his head bowed and his fingers twisted into the scarred palm of his left hand.
He doesn’t acknowledge Percy.
“So,” says Travers, his chair swivelling as he stands. “All true, then?”
“Maybe we should sit down,” says Queenie Goldstein.
“‘We’ don’t need to do anything. I’m only here for Credence. I have a cab waiting.”
He has to stop himself from yanking Credence out of his chair when he finally looks up. His eyes are red-ringed and sunken. He pulls his elbows in, his shoulders higher than Percy has seen them in weeks. The hard-backed chair they have him in is too small to provide any refuge. Credence has his body jammed into the corner of it anyway, as though it might take pity and swallow him. I used to hide in the closet sometimes before I got too big.
Percy thinks, get up, Credence. Get up. Not a little boy anymore. He could shake him, and he knows it’s just love - worry, concern - but there is a new violence to it. Alarming. I want you to beat me up, Percy, beat me up, spit on me, hit me.
“They won’t let me,” Credence says dully. “I can’t go. They’re sending me to jail.”
“There is no need for that.”
Credence flinches under his grip but allows himself to be tugged bodily to his feet. Now, the door. The waiting taxi. The station, or Canada. Hawaii. He could laugh at the absurdity of the situation if it wasn’t all so depressingly serious.
“I would be careful what you do now, Mr. Graves. Faking a case like this to get your boyfriend away from his family - ”
“Percy didn’t -”
“This is ridiculous,” says Percy loudly. He pushes Credence behind him as Travers steps closer, all the better to eat you with, my dear, etc etc etc. “I had nothing to do with those emails or whatever selection you’ve been sent of them, Mr. Travers. That’s not even my email address."
He feels the weight of another body shift against his back and realises too late - this is not the way Percy had intended for Credence to find out. Spat from Percy’s mouth, in a room full of people. No time for the delicate breaking of news, the lead in, the hugs and kisses and swinging of hands before the open window. The woman in the green dress is rising, Goldstein close behind her.
“If that is the case, it should not be difficult to prove.”
“It won’t be,” he says, reaching for Credence’s hand.
If they can get out and get to the station, it will all be fine. Everything. His brain splits into two people, two Percys. One drives, the other riding shotgun. Father Percy and his inner child. Is it the child who believes that their salvation will be found on a nineteen-inch television screen? Or is it the Father trying to comfort the child, who is scared and incapable of planning any direct action of his own? His inner little boy would rather cry and rage, throw a desk across the room. The Father says, now now. The Father will reason with Travers.
None of that is accurate, because Percy never had a Father, just a man who paid for the nannies and an expensive private education.
None of that is accurate, because Percy was never a child. Just a very small adult with a pre-existing set of complexes and a little briefcase in which he carted comic books to and from the Collegiate School.
It’s Queenie Goldstein who places herself between Credence and Travers. It occurs to Percy that he owes everything - his greatest joy and this fresh horror - to Tina Goldstein and her sister. It was Tina who trailed doggedly after the cult even when she’d been warned not to. She lost her job trying to get Credence and his little sister out. Without them, maybe Credence would be prisoner still behind its chainlink fence. The thought chafes. He knots his fingers into Credence’s.
“Why would I make a fake email address with my actual name? The person who did this to Credence obviously had about as much technological know-how as he does.”
“I agree with Mr. Graves,” says Goldstein. “And I’m sure it was his mother. She knows him best.”
“Mary Lou Barebone is in custody,” Travers says, his eyes flickering from Goldstein to the woman in the green dress to Credence, shaking at Percy’s side with something that is not entirely fear. “She has no access to a computer.”
“One of her followers maybe,” suggests the woman in the green dress. Her English is accented, not-quite-French, and he thinks, Canadian.
“It was a cult,” she says. “They had other members. If the police have some luck in tracing the emails, we could have more evidence to build around.”
Yes, Percy wants to say. Build up your evidence. Everything built up away from Credence is better, less pressure.
Travers and the woman in the green dress and the man with the pad fall into their own hushed planning. Credence’s chest heaves the way it had that night after the movies. When he had nearly scared Percy out of his skin breaking the glass and Percy had to wait until he fell asleep to pull the little pieces from his scratched hands, lest that set something else off. He tries to wrench his hand away, but Percy holds tighter. Just wait, he wants to say. Let us get home. After the station. Let me fix this.
A day ago they were both laid out on the bed in their own golden little universe, and everything was Credence in his arms, Credence’s eyes across the pillow in the dark, Credence’s hands on his skin, Credence watching him get dressed like there was nothing more interesting. What I feel now is a garden and the quiet and the growing things. Love had a funny way of stretching the days. If he didn’t know with absolute certainty that it had been only weeks, he could have sworn they had spent years cocooned away in his apartment.
“Just send me to jail,” Credence spits. He yanks out of Percy’s grip, his hands in fists. His voice is cold. “I don’t care. I don’t want to be free anymore. I don’t belong here, anyway.”
“Oh, honey,” says Queenie Goldstein.
Years. Weeks. What I feel now is a garden and the quiet and the growing things after everything was loud and sharp and dead.
What the fuck, Percy thinks. He spins on his heel, but Credence is waiting, shoulders around his ears. Higher than the night after the movie, higher than the diner. He stares at the carpet, but Percy knows the technique. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. His every movement is tracked, Percy knows. Every potential threat. He flexes his hand. Credence twitches. The smallest flinch. The heaving chest has stilled. Breathe, bunny. Keep breathing. Get it together. Breathe. We don’t have time.
“Credence,” he says, lacing his voice with all the calm he can muster. “You don’t have to go to jail. We can fix this. All you have to do is go on air and give an interview explaining that you were tricked and taken advantage of - "
“I don’t want to do that.”
“Don’t be stupid, bunny - ”
It’s the wrong word, and he knows it as soon as he says it. Too late. Credence stills. Blinks. His face is pale, almost blue, and Percy wants to shake him. Slap him. Yell - breathe.
Don’t be stupid.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean that - ”
“Yes, you did,” says Credence evenly.
His eyes lift from the carpet and fix themselves on Percy, only Percy. He juts his chin, that little boy bravado that Percy found so charming in the beginning.
“But, I don’t care. Call me stupid. I don’t care. Send me to jail. Let me know when you find out who left me with her. Otherwise leave me alone.”
“This is getting out of hand,” says Travers.
He sends Goldstein out with the woman in the green dress to make phone calls.
They exit like actresses off stage left. Do they take their work home with them like Percy has? He reaches again for Credence, who allows his body to be manipulated back across the carpet, a safe distance from Travers. A thin trickle of blood from his left nostril is beginning to pool in the bow of his upper lip.
“Credence,” says Percy.
Credence shakes his head. Licks his lip.
“Take him home,” says Travers to Percy. “Keep him quiet for now. I don’t want anything else in the news while we work this out.”
Keep him quiet, like Credence is a yappy puppy. A colicky baby. Vulnerable and dangerous, a nuisance. Percy holds out his arm, but Credence is catching blood in his cupped hand while the other presses into the vein below his upper lip.
“Come here, loverboy.” He fumbles for the handkerchief in his jacket pocket. “Let me help you with that.”
“I’m fine,” says Credence stiffly. “Take me home. Keep me quiet.”
By some miracle, the cab is still idling on the street where he’d left it. The door is still unlocked. The driver nods as he holds it open for Credence.
“Here,” says Percy again. He presses the handkerchief into Credence’s smeared hand. “It’s getting all over.”
They drive back to the ferry in silence. Credence mops at his nose until the bleeding stops. The driver curses about rush hour traffic and bigger tips. It is not lost on Percy that their last cab ride together had ended on a significantly different tone. I love you.
“Hey,” he says softly, laying a hand across Credence’s, rubbing at a streak of dried blood with the pad of his thumb. “I’m sorry. I know it’s all a lot right now. We just have to tackle this head on - ”
He glances up sharply, but Credence is staring at their entwined hands. Biting his stained lip. His voice loses its edge, quavers, suddenly small and scared and lost to the roar of a passing helicopter.
“Please, don’t touch me.”
Traffic moves at a crawl. He wants to press their bodies together on the split leather of the seat, but Credence is looking out the window again. His shoulders are tense, fingers digging into the flesh of his thigh.
A week ago he was sprawled across the bed in his underwear, smiling lazily as Percy forged a trail in kisses up the soft skin of his hip. Happy, scrawling lyrics to his favourite songs in a little notebook on the living room floor while Percy finished off a third coffee and a comedic bit he’d been meaning to send in to the New Yorker for the past year. A week ago, they held hands on the sofa while he played Credence the Beach Boys, and Credence had given him that wide-eyed look, like a baby cow, a little dazed. This is called Sloop John B, this is Good Vibrations.
Another line in the notebook. Later, when he was in the bathroom, Percy had peaked. He talked himself out of his guilt. He flipped to the last page, where Credence had written in his careful gradeschool print: I feel so broke up & I want to go home.
“It’s fine, Credence. Whatever you want. Whatever you need.”
“Whatever I need,” Credence echoes.
You don’t need to go back there, Percy wants to argue, but he knows it’s fruitless.
If there is one thing he can understand, it’s the ET impulse. Phone home. Hand outstretched like the Creation of Adam. Find touch. Good touch, bad touch. Incarcerate yourself where the guards know you. Write an email to your boyfriend who is not your boyfriend but a nameless face behind a screen who wants to hurt you. Watch a movie about a flying peach and cry about Mama never held you. There is no good or bad, only touch. Warmth. The same instinct stops Percy tossing all the books he never reads, even when he’d thrown out the majority of his music collection. Even when he sold off the sofa and the old dining table and the paintings his mother had meticulously collected and paid too much for.
The fucking books, they won’t let go. His parents’ work. All he has left of them, the last connection yellowing and turning brittle like a row of old teeth on a shelf. Never touched, never cracked open, never commanded - show me how their brains worked! You alone knew them! Show me what they thought! Did they feel? Did they love? Did they really make me? Did I make them up?
Of course Credence wants to go back. He doesn’t want him to want it.
The Father says, now now. Boys will be boys. According to Freud -
- and what is it exactly about boys and their mothers? He should stop the cab. They should be driving to the airport.
Credence wants to go back. In the police report, which Percy has read, they asked him why he’d run outside into the waiting arms of the state troopers if he hadn’t known they were coming, and Credence said, I don’t know, she was hitting me and she didn’t stop.
(The first few blocks back in Manhattan feel like relief. The driver swears. He tries to link hands again, but Credence is staring out the window and draws his hand into his lap.)
It was right there, in black and white, on the lip of his fax machine.
She was hitting me, and she didn’t stop. Dear Percy,
I love you.
I want you to hurt me.
Maybe everything has been fake. Credence, Percy. A prolonged bout of self-flagellation. Good touch, bad touch. He gave head in his hotel room in ’91 while Peter Arnett filmed bombings. Theseus Scamander, law student and war correspondent for the BBC. Uncircumcised. They ate pineapple and joked about the taste of semen. Five days. Then Theseus flew back to England. Only so many shots you can take from inside this hotel. Nothing here for us that they’ll put on air. You should go home, too.
They should be naked on the living room rug right now, in each other’s mouths, in each other’s arms. It should all be easy. Percy has been through enough that it should be easy. Credence has been through enough for a football team. Give the kid a break, he wants to say. Give yourself a break, Credence. In his mind, they split into six people. Father Percy riding shotgun. Young Credence driving without a license. Mama Credence holds them all hostage at gunpoint. Father Credence and Mother Percy are tied up in the trunk, screaming through their gags.
But of course, it’s inaccurate. Credence never had a mother, just a billy club with a heartbeat. Hit him until he thought he wanted it. This is love. This is punishment. Slap me, Percy. Spit on me. Strangle me, please.
Credence never had a childhood, just a waking nightmare. They make an awful pair. The juvenile political prisoner and the little man with the briefcase full of comics. Do you like Batman, Credence? Do you believe in Bad Men? If you could pick one superpower, would you pick invisibility? Please don’t ask me to strangle you, bunny. Not me. Not you.
He hears the first crack and a scream and thinks, oh good. An accident.
The second is louder. The driver says, hey what the fuck man?
Credence’s forehead is already red. His nose is bleeding. He reels his head back, and Percy watches in mute fascination as it smacks against the window. Leaves a little smear of grease on the glass.
Rapid-fire, bone on glass. Smack. Smack.
“Credence - ”
In a blink, his brain re-forms as a whole thing. He pries Credence’s hands from the door, wrapping his arms around Credence’s narrow, writhing body. They wrestle like that through a red light and past the blur of far-downtown. Credence’s fingernails rake his cheek and withdraw, stinging.
What the fuck, what the fuck, he thinks. His brain echoes with it. Credence screams. He thinks, what the fuck. Credence scratches like a cat, begging him to let go. What the fuck, what the fuck. Percy pins Credence’s arms down to his sides. The driver is yelling something about police and scratching the seat, and he says, what the fuck, what the fuck. And he tightens his grip on Credence’s wrists until he worries the skin will break.
“Come on, loverboy,” he says softly. “Come on, Credence, stop this.”
“Stop touching me!”
“Stop hurting yourself, and I’ll let you go, okay? Promise. But you have to stop this.”
In the front seat, the driver has fallen silent. Somehow it’s more ominous than his shouting and swearing. Credence rears back again for collision. He catches him with an arm looped around him from behind, the flat of his palm on Credence’s bruised forehead, and Credence screams like a wild thing. Raw.
“No, bunny, stop it - stop it, goddammit, Credence - ”
The fight goes out of Credence’s body in an instant. He falls limply into Percy’s lap. His back shakes. Young Credence with his foot on the pedal, Percy thinks.
The real Credence, the one that is one person containing three people, sobs openly.
He pulls the shaking body onto his lap. Rubs its back.
The Father says, now now. Shit happens. We can’t both cry.
His inner infant wants to heave and rage, but Credence’s chest is doing all the heaving now, Credence needs to rage, so Percy swallows the urge.
Not the time. Not the place.
“Shhh, bunny, it’s okay. It’s okay, Credence. We’ll figure it out. We’ll fix this.”
“You can’t fix it,” says Credence. His voice catches. “I’m so stupid, Percy. I’m sorry. I’m so stupid. I’m so sorry - ”
“Don’t apologise - ”
As soon as he relaxes his grip, Credence is gone. The door unlocked and thrust open, the fancy boots on the crosswalk. Swearing, Percy struggles across the seat. He empties his pockets, thrusts a roll of cash at the dumbfounded driver, doubles back to slam the door as the cab peels off. Glad to be rid of them. He spins on his heel at the light, swearing. Credence ducks down a side street like he’s been there before, and it strikes Percy that he probably has. Far downtown. The side street empties out into a smaller block, still cobbled, a forgotten little vestige of the old city.
Credence is there, wobbling on the cobblestones, his fists hung heavily at his sides.
His mother’s church is ramshackle against the polished glass towers on either side of it.
Two storeys of skeleton frame and corroded sheet metal cladding. It hunches and lists in places.
Its doors have been splattered in red paint, like a gaping mouth between two empty eyes.
A Hoover shack with a peak and a little bell in the tower.
The windows have been boarded over and the boards spray-painted black.
Credence is rattling the padlock on the door.
“Fuck,” he says.
The word doesn’t match his soft voice. It sounds fake. A child’s first attempts at swearing.
He presses his fingernails into one of the boards on the right window, then the left. Glances up and down the street. Percy follows his gaze past a woman pushing a carriage and a retreating back in a black suit. Credence has his hand down the gap between board and wall inside the window, slams his head into it.
“Credence - ”
The board gives way with a little clatter of fallen nails, and then Credence is climbing up the side of the building, through the gap. The only thing left to do is follow, which requires punching the remaining board from the wall.
It’s a miracle no one has stopped them, that the street has emptied. The floor is littered with broken boards and glass and flakes of plaster that crunch under the leather soles of Percy’s work shoes as he slides through the window frame.
Something clatters through the wall. His eyes swivel across the room. In the corner a table, a bench, a printer still plugged in. Papers have been scattered over every surface, several pews upturned.
The New Salem flag is torn but still hanging above a raised dais that must have served as a pulpit. Credence had explained its meaning to him once, when it came up on the news. A broken rod consumed by flame, Hell devouring itself. Revelations - his mother’s favourite book in the Bible, after Leviticus. He had read those as well from the old Bible on the bottom of the bookshelf, flipping to the pages he needed by memory, while Percy massaged lotion into the stiff skin of his hands.
Credence must have stumbled through the doorway behind the pulpit dais. Another clatter and a muffled retching confirm the theory, and Percy clears the aisle in seconds. He finds Credence on his knees beside a narrow bed. His nose is still bleeding. His forehead is deep red, almost purple already, and swollen.
Percy can see blood on his knuckles when he wipes the spit and sick from his chin.
“Leave me alone.”
He tries to stumble to his feet but lands against the wall instead.
“I wanna be - by myself.”
“Not a good idea, bunny. I think you gave yourself a concussion.”
“Leave me alone,” says Credence again. His body seems to struggle to align itself in a standing position, vertebrae sliding into place one-by-one. “I don’t want you. I don’t wanna be like you. I’m not - a pervert. Not a - faggot.”
What the fuck, Percy thinks.
Credence at the wheel with the resin-cast eyes. Bowling him over and throwing the car into reverse to finish the job.
It would sting more if they weren’t standing in this graveyard of a building, choking on its dust. If Credence weren’t struggling to stay upright, a bead of spit glittering on his chin in the broken light. Hit his head on the window, on a wooden board. You idiot, Percy wants to say, but the words are too harsh to match the feeling. Your poor brain, you poor thing. He steps closer and holds his hands out as Credence flinches.
“I’m not a faggot.”
“I’m going to take you out of here, okay? I think you need a hospital, Credence.”
The floorboards creaking underfoot do him no favours, but Credence is too dazed to move quickly. His eyeballs swim in their sockets like buoys as he tries to focus.
“I’m not a faggot,” he repeats. “I’m not.”
“No,” says Percy with measured calm. “You are not. And neither am I, and neither is anyone. But you hit your head pretty hard there, and I’m worried about your brain right now. Can I touch you? Can you take my hand?”
“No, I can’t.”
“Credence, I’m going to take your hand.”
Anger flashes over Credence’s face like a spasm. Hits him in the eyes, narrow and then wide and then narrow and swollen and black. Glassy. His lips twist crookedly and fall slack.
“Just pray for me,” he spits.
“Later, if you want. In the emergency room.”
His chest heaves against Percy’s chest, rustling beneath the slick green nylon of his jacket. He lets his forehead fall against Percy’s, so that the blood blurs with lip and tooth and tongue, and from so close, Percy can see the water along his lash line, the twitchy muscle in his eyelid as he blinks.
It’s too much, Percy realises. Leaving a cult, losing his mother, losing his sister. Percy and love and sex. Now this, his trust betrayed and the proof of it leaked to the press. Too much for anyone, not just Credence, but especially Credence, who has always been alone in everything. The solo member of his own sad little baseball team, the losing side in every game.
Credence’s lashes blur into a shadow as they shift. He blinks again and again, trying to focus, no doubt. His head must be pounding. His chest heaves, but he lets Percy take his hand.
“Just let me get you looked at, loverboy. Then we’ll go home, and we can figure all this out tomorrow or another day. I promise. I have my lawyer on it already.”
“No hospital,” he whispers.
“You need a hospital, Credence. You can barely stand up straight.”
“No hospital. Please.”
He should know better. It’s a split-second decision. The kind made in battle and regretted when the ground churns and the grenade flashes and a comrade is sent home as a stained dog tag and a memory in a little box.
“Okay,” Percy says.
They should be in a hospital waiting room, getting a brain scan, but he’s lifting Credence back through the broken window instead, dangling him over the pavement, hissing encouragement. There you go, loverboy, that’s right, that’s all right, don’t fall, don’t throw up, you’re okay, you’re okay. They’re on the corner, hailing a cab. Shuffling across the marble lobby while he shakes his head at the doorman who is not his favourite doorman and thus not entitled to an explanation. He kicks his front door open, kicks an empty box out of the way, kicks up the corner of the carpet as they stumble into the bedroom, and Credence falls onto the bed like a dead thing.
“Hurts,” he says, while Percy wraps a plastic bag of ice into a kitchen towel and presses it to his forehead.
“I know, bunny.”
“I’m sorry I hit my head.”
He wraps the ice in place with an old compression bandage. Pins the edges, says maybe too roughly, “Just don’t die and make me regret listening to you.”
The kind of phrase dropped casually before the disease that kills a beloved childhood friend. Oops! Psych! Got you, bro. Didn’t mean that. I love you, too.
Or, alternative scenario: Mother is in the hospital, but she says on the phone that it was just a fall, and work is so busy busy busy - ostensibly with a story that won’t complete itself for going on two months. Really, snorting a line of fine powder off the back of a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love with the boyfriend of two weeks, who departs soon after under the guise of buying cigarettes and never returns. Classic. Got you, bro! I love you, too. Etc etc etc. The kind of regret that clings like smoke from the cigarette smoked in the waiting room on the way to claim Mother’s body from the hospital morgue. Creeped out by the way her eyes sit in her face like two marbles. Resin-cast.
Just don’t die and make me regret anything. Stop asking me to hurt you and let you hurt yourself. Grow the fuck up, bunny.
He covers Credence with a blanket up to his chin. Bends to kiss his forehead but stops short, adjusts the ice.
“Don’t fall asleep,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”
The night could go differently after that. When Credence begins to cry about the dull throb in his skull, he brings two Tylenol because aspirin is a blood-thinner. The kind of wisdom gleaned from hanging around hospitals with thinning friends hooked up to machines. Which painkillers serve which purpose, how to roll a bag of IV fluids on a trolly to the bathroom so that the tubes don’t catch, how to fluff a pillow. He kisses Credence on both cheeks as he fluffs the pillow and wipes his nose and drips water onto his tongue from a plastic cup.
“I’m sorry,” Credence says each time.
“Don’t fall asleep,” Percy reminds him, and he dutifully does not. What a strange, alarming talent for obedience. It would worry him if he wasn’t already so worried about the state of Credence’s brain.
Seraphina swears into the phone. He makes his calls in the kitchen, where Credence can’t hear them, masked further by the clink of dishes in the dishwasher.
“Why aren’t you in a hospital, Percy?”
“He didn’t want to go.”
“He just - didn’t want to go, I don’t know. I didn’t feel like arguing.”
“You don’t argue, Percy. You just take him to the goddamn hospital and make sure he didn’t cause permanent damage.”
“He didn’t,” he says, frowning against the lip of the landline. A bowl chips when he drops it into the top rack. “You don’t think he did, do you?”
“Let me just use my medical degree and - ”
The chipped piece is under the bottom rack, caught in the mechanical-looking thingy on the floor of machine. He abandons it for dead.
“You’re probably right, okay? I have to go.”
Tina Goldstein is little better when he calls her, and there is the added disadvantage of his guilt when he asks her not to come over.
“Don’t let him fall asleep,” she warns. Her voice crackles over the line, which is a good excuse to hang up.
“I think he has that covered,” Percy assures her as his finger digs into the button.
For the first time in years, he wishes he could call his mother and get her opinion. What did you do when I split my head open trying to climb up the rolling ladder in the kitchen? Why did we have a library ladder in our kitchen, anyway? Why did you leave a three year old unattended near a rolling library ladder in a tile kitchen?
The kitchen has been remodelled. Open plan now. No evidence left. No mother for advice, no surviving witnesses. Jeeves, the insipid little internet butler, is of little use to him, either. If he were wiser and less selfish, he would bite the bullet and call them a cab to Sinai, but Credence’s trust has been broken enough for one day. If it gets any worse, he thinks. Could it get much worse?
Credence is awake (of course) and staring at the ceiling when he shuffles back into the bedroom.
Later, Percy will identify this moment as a final chance, a border crossed in the night, too fast to take his foot off the pedal.
“Hey,” he says softly as he fills the dip in the mattress beside Credence’s body with his own.
“Hi,” Credence says, and then, “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t. We’ll talk about it tomorrow, when you feel better.”
The mattress creaks under Credence’s weight. He kisses clumsily, like the first time. Teeth and coppery tongue. Blood and split flesh. Percy lets him. Take what you want, he wants to say. Just keep it soft. Want it gentle. He closes his eyes to the breath rattling against him, the shaking hands. They kiss until Credence is whimpering again, and then Percy holds him, and Credence says something that might be, I’m sorry I called you a faggot, or might be, my head hurts, Percy, or maybe, I changed my mind and I want to go to the hospital.
He hopes it was the latter, because when he wakes up in the morning to sunlight splashed across the pillow and floorboards like blood in a cosmic crime scene, Credence is gone.
When he wakes up, Credence is gone.
He looks in the bathroom and the kitchen, Credence is gone.
He makes coffee, checks the hallway, asks the lesser-liked doorman, who sniffs that Credence is gone.
“Called him a cab this morning.”
“Didn’t say, Mr. Graves.”
He wants to yell, this is why I like you less! This is why you make two hundred at Christmas while the other guy makes three!
“Thank you,” he bites back.
Queenie Goldstein sounds oddly teary and sleep-deprived on the phone as she tells him Credence hasn’t come home yet, because Credence is gone.
He calls the emergency room at Sinai, Weill Cornell, Columbia. No one by the name of Credence Barebone. No one matching that description. No, we cannot call you if we think he’s come in. Credence is gone.
The parks department are no help. The credit cards are still in his wallet, but the backpack containing Credence’s spare clothes and his notebook and tapes is not by the door where they’d left it. His sneakers and boots have both disappeared from the hall. He’s taken the cereal box from the top of the fridge.
“What do you mean gone?” Tina Goldstein yells into the phone. “Goddammit, Mr. Graves - what do you mean gone?”
He regrets leaving the door unlocked and the shoes by the door and snapping at Goldstein, before he hangs up:
“I don’t know, Goldstein - why don’t I get him in on this call and ask him how he wants to define it?”
He regrets telling his lawyer to get fucked when his lawyer says that the emails are going to be difficult to block. Their best course of action is blah blah blah. He regrets hanging up. Seraphina says, don’t you dare hang up on me. He regrets listening to her, especially when she says, don’t go anywhere, Perce, I’m coming over.
And like an idiot, he cries into her shoulder. Re-enacts the way Credence had slammed his forehead into the car window, hard enough that Seraphina has to pull him back.
“We’ll go down to that church, if you want,” she agrees. “But you have to calm down first. Stop drinking coffee. Let me get my coat.”
The locksmith that meets them is dubious as to their ownership until Percy slides him a fistful of bills. It doesn’t matter. He knows before they get inside that the church is empty. They search every room, just in case. The downstairs bedroom and the upstairs bedrooms with the creepy alphabet of sin on the wall. He wonders which had been Credence’s, and then it’s obvious when they open the door on the last room and the door only opens halfway before hitting the bed. The smallest bedroom, barely a closet. A rickety cot and a sleeping bag. Two shirts folded and stacked on a card table chair. An ancient-looking schoolbook, a “literary reader for Grade 8” labelled in the neat print that makes his stomach turn, Credence Barebone.
“This place is nuts,” Seraphina says. “Come on, Percy. Maybe he’ll come back later.”
He wants to believe her through lunch, and the meeting with his lawyer, and the meeting with the board, who assure him that his newly-enforced paid leave will end as soon as they’re certain he wasn’t really the author of those emails. Fine. Whatever. He was in for vacation anyway. Seraphina won’t meet his eye on the way out. He promises to call.
His other less-favourite doorman is on duty when he gets back. Where is the good one? he wants to ask. The mediocre one waves him in from the desk. He doesn’t.
Maybe Credence will be on the sofa. He allows himself the indulgence of this fantasy as the elevator drags itself to the twelfth floor. Because he doesn’t want it to end, he does the trip twice. Twenty-four floors. Forty-eight, if he doubles the count for the trips back down. If the front door never opens, there is a fifty-percent chance that Credence will be on the sofa. Schrödinger’s Credence. His brain is laughing because it needs to. Humour is how human beings cope with trauma. One of the ways. He should introduce Credence to Frankl and Man’s Search For Meaning. Infinitely more useful than What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, except for the purpose of snorting cocaine. Then the latter is better, without the dust jacket. He should introduce Credence to logotherapy, help him find meaning in his new life, help him find peace in God. He finds the note folded in half on top of the record player.
Dear Percy, Credence had written. One of the letters is backwards. That’s a concussion for you, his brain supplies. Ha ha ha. Mis-placed humour in situations where it isn’t warranted is probably also an issue, but wasn’t it Lessing who argued that - well, whatever Lessing argued. Something about responding to craziness with crazy.
Dear Percy, Credence wrote. I’m sorry.
Whoever is pounding on her door at this time should be shoved into traffic. Body and soul. The frantic thuds continue, even through her pillow and a blanket and two hands cupped over her ears. Groaning, Nagini checks the plastic clock on the crate next to her mattress. Nine in the morning. Her neighbours would never bother her after a night shift, or ever really, at all. For a moment, her heart races. It could be the police. They never asked for her social at this new club. Maybe she’s on a list.
She rolls out from under the blanket, pausing only to scrub her eyes. The pounding continues unabated at the door, and now a voice is pleading through the crack for her to open up, please.
“I don’t know you!” she calls back.
The voice breathes raggedly. The knocking tapers off. She approaches on tip-toe.
“Tina, please, it’s me. It’s Credence."
“I’m not Tina!”
If it’s a robber, it’s a stupid one. She peaks through the little glass peep hole.
“Please,” says the boy on the other side.
His black hair is tousled and spills over a bruised forehead. His eyes are ringed in bruises, too. She can see the fresh purple of them even through the peep hole and thinks, drunk.
“You should go. You have the wrong place.”
“Please,” he says again. He shifts unsteadily from one foot to the other, lays his forehead against the door, and she jumps back.
“Stand away from the door,” she says.
There’s a shuffling sound and a muffled thud. It’s probably a terrible idea. It goes against everything she’s ever been taught about strangers in the city, but she slides the chain from the chain lock and twists the deadbolt. Then the next one. All three of them. The boy in her hall is tall and thin but stooped into the collar of his green jacket, even though the hallway is warm. He wipes his eyes.
“I’m not Tina,” she says again, and then, “Who are you?”
Even before he answers, she knows. Beneath the bruises, the sharp cheekbones and the wide jaw, the narrow black eyes she’s seen widened in shock on the screen of the little portable TV in the corner opposite her bed.
“Credence,” says the cult boy. He blinks at her, a little glassy-eyed, and the rest of her brain clicks into action.
“Come inside,” says Nagini. “You’re hurt. What happened to you?”
Chapter 11: Journals
As promised, Credence's journals.