Size / / /

A tattered boy named Antony sat on the unmade dorm room bed rolling a cigarette. His nicotine-stained fingertips maneuvered loose tobacco through the channel made by the curling paper thin as onionskin. The effort left him squinting behind round wire-framed glasses.

The room reeked of tobacco smoke. The ceiling might once have been white, but it and the upper reaches of every wall were tinted a bluish gray. The naked lamp bulbs accentuated the evidence that a thousand thousand cigarettes had been smoked there.

A wise boy named Ewan leaned against the far wall, close to the door, and watched. His narrow arms were folded, with hands tucked into the warm pockets of his pale blue hoodie. "Anything in that?"

Antony's tongue darted fast to lick the exposed edge of the paper. "Are you worried?"

"I just don't want to be smoking embalming fluid."

"They do that?" Antony finished and then leaned on one elbow while he made the crafted cigarette dance along the tarsals of his hand, like a magician's coin.

"Call 'em 'wets.' Really moronic . . . and it's all because some idiot confused a nickname for PCP with actual embalming fluid—"

"Where does a guy get his hands on that shit?"

Ewan shrugged. "Formaldehyde's easy to find. Every high school bio lab has jars of the stuff."

"You're really smart, aren't you?" The cigarette stopped moving, pinched tight between Antony's thumb and forefinger.

"Are you flirting?"

"Are you here to get laid?"

"Yes."

Antony's laugh was brief. "Well, that wasn't really flirting. Maybe you're not so smart after all." He reached for the worn leather jacket he had flung on to the bed once they arrived in the bedroom and he retrieved from one pocket a Zippo, its metal skin scratched from many accidents, many falls.

With a practiced ease, Antony flicked the lighter open and thumbed the black wheel. A steady flame grew. "Don't worry. No embalming fluid. No marijuana. Just tobacco supposedly from Turkey, but I suspect really Iowa."

"Didn't think that was a cash crop there." Ewan began to wander the fringes of the dorm room. On top of the dresser he saw ashtrays brimming with the powdered remains. On top of the desk, amid the papers and closed textbooks. Ashes and butts obscured much of Western Civilization.

"Well, that's where the website I bought this stuff is."

"A website isn't anywhere." He lifted one butt, pinched at the end. Let it drop back into the old coffee mug, its home.

"Sure it is."

"No, it doesn't take up physical space. It's in the . . ." Ewan gestured. His fingernails were scored, bitten down to the quick, stained brown from dried blood, not yellow like the other boy's.

"Æther?"

"Yeah, guess you could call it that. What you mean is the company is based in Iowa. Or maybe the servers."

Antony lit one end of the cigarette, and then motioned with that hand. "Come here."

"My breath probably smells like beer." Ewan covered his mouth with his fingertips a moment. Ran his tongue along his front teeth.

"This will cure that."

Ewan walked across the room, avoiding the piles of discarded clothes and crumb-covered plates. He sat down at the foot of the bed. He curled an arm around the nearest of the wooden knobs of the footboard.

Antony put the cigarette to his mouth and inhaled. The lit end blossomed in oranges dying to black and gray that fell like snow onto his worn Red Caps concert T-shirt. The ash drifted across the faded lettering.

"I know a trick," Antony whispered.

Ewan leaned in closer. "A magic trick?"

"There's no other worth knowing." He handed the cigarette over. "Do you want to see it?"

"I thought we were going to . . ."

"Fuck?"

Ewan winced at the word but nodded. He inhaled deeply the smoke a moment, then let it stream through his nostrils as if he were an irate cartoon bull. Or some ancient idol found in a fiery cave.

"If that word scares you . . . this trick would make you lose your shit. Maybe you should run back to high school."

Ewan dropped his cigarette. Both boys scrambled through the loose and dirty sheets to retrieve it before scorching the bedding. Their hands mingled and slapped and stroked one another in the process.

Antony recovered the cigarette and handed it back. "Newb."

He started rolling another cigarette. "The more smoke, the better my trick. Sometimes I just buy packs 'cause it's easier, faster. Has to be Lucky Strikes though. No other brand works. But I can leave them burning in an ashtray and . . . well, you'll see."

Ewan adjusted the front of his jeans as he watched the other boy.

Once their mouths were occupied by purported Turkish tobacco and releasing streams of blue-gray vapor, Antony began rubbing Ewan's knee through the faded denim.

"I'm addicted."

"To these?"

Antony shook his head. "No, to a ghost. Or maybe he's made of æther. You'll see." He let his hands roam higher until they slid across the soft material of the hoodie, and then he began pushing against the other boy's chest. Gently to start, then more firmly.

Ewan slid back but Antony kept forcing him further until he had met the edge of the bed.

"The floor?"

"Trust me." Antony smirked. "Isn't it so late that you're too tired to do anything else but trust me?"

Arms lifted like ballet dancers to keep their smokes safe, they tumbled to the cheap, industrial carpet. A glimpse under the bed revealed even more full ashtrays, the discarded cellophane from countless Lucky Strikes packs. Dead matches, resembling the burnt limbs of spiders.

"Ever been in love?" Antony asked.

"Once. Or I thought I was."

Antony blew a series of smoke rings that mimicked his rounded lips. But the rings soon bloated and warped as if under a breeze that stole its way into the college dorm room, stole its way without ever being felt. They drifted one after another to the air above the bed. Ewan moved, leaning up on his elbows, to watch his own tobacco breath stream after the misshapen rings, even when he tried to blow smoke off to his left, to his right, down into his palm.

"Me too." Antony frowned. "Even if I'm with other boys, I need him to be there. I don't hook up unless I bring them back here." He gestured at the cloud of smoke somewhat visible from where both boys lay. Floating inches above the mattress an unfashioned figure was being born.

"I've wondered if maybe he's a boy that once went to school here. Not like I'm a detective, not like there's anyone to ask. And I'm not even sure I really want to know who he was. That would destroy the mystery. You need mystery to make a magic trick work."

Ewan almost stumbled as he stood. "Have you named him?" Another deep inhalation, release, and he watched as the smoke drifted down, layering onto the floating mass. Features developed but the whole remained a crude sculpture of redolent fumes with a suggestion of youth despite the square jaw. No fingers, no lines of clothing, no shoes or toes.

Antony stood beside Ewan. Rubbed his back, let his hand slide down and grabbed hold of his ass. "I call him Beauty." His voice sounded raspy, as if those thousand thousand cigarettes had, at last, eaten away the soft, warm lining of the boy's throat. "I never want to leave him."

"Has he ever spoken?"

"No."

"Woken?"

Antony sighed. "Maybe he isn't sleeping."

Ewan walked to and fro beside the bed. Like a skeptical member of a magician's audience he passed first a hand and then a pillow between the sleeping beauty and the mattress.

"We should smoke more. I want to see him whole," he said.

Antony went for the Lucky Strikes, though their odor was comparable to coffee left on the burner rather than the scent conjured by the loose tobacco.

"When you bring back boys, do you make them kiss him too?"

Antony hesitated as he lit the first three cigarettes on the same flame. "Bad luck three on a match I heard, but don't know why. But yeah . . ."

"Why? And how many are cool with that?"

"I thought maybe he'd wake up. I've given up my lungs to make him appear. What more can I do? Maybe I'm not a Prince, not Charming enough. Or whatever works with magic these days. Probably needs someone pure or sweet."

"And I seem like either?" Ewan offered a slight smile but stepped close to accept a Lucky Strike.

"Most guys balk at even the talk of magic tricks. They think it's slang for meth bumps up the ass or something."

Ewan looked back at floating Beauty. Wavy locks of hair had developed. A slender nose. Closed eyelids. Ewan leaned in close and exhaled over where the mouth should be and waited as thin lips, parted ever so slightly, coalesced.

"Any guy stay?"

"Once. I think he was on E. His teeth chattered as we messed around and I found him in the morning down the hall in the bathroom drinking out of the sink like a weird pet."

"So not the sort of ménage à trois you wanted."

"No. Beauty didn't stir." Antony stepped behind Ewan, their torsos touching, older boy's chin resting on the younger's shoulder. He slid a hand down the front of Ewan's jeans, between denim and cotton underwear. Fingers curled.

A hitch in Ewan's breathing. "There's another boy at school that everyone knows is gay. My dad's a teacher, so they leave me alone, but this boy . . . they pounce on his every move. He can't go anywhere without hearing the word 'faggot.' If he fights back, he earns a black eye. Or a suspension.

"One day he texts me—took me a while to figure out it was him, as I didn't have his number on my phone, that shows you how close we were—and tells me he's going to kill himself."

Antony's hand stopped moving. He whispered in Ewan's ear, "Damn."

"Yeah. I didn't know what to do. Do I call nine-one-one? I didn't even know where he lived. I try to talk him out of it, then go through the loops—friends of friends of friends, which takes forever, to find his address. The way only seventeen minutes can feel like forever.

"I drive there. The house is dark. No car in the driveway, but I can hear the engine's heartbeat behind the garage door. He left the front door open. He wanted to be found."

"What did you do?"

"I went inside. Found the door to the garage. I know you can't smell carbon monoxide. Can't see it, yet I was disappointed as I opened that door. I expected to see . . ." Ewan gestured around himself with his hands, one trailing a stream of smoke from cigarette to Beauty, like an umbilical cord.

"And?" Antony squeezed the hardness beneath his hand. Ewan gasped.

"And the boy who planned to die is lying on the hood of his beat-up car. As if he were out in the woods and stargazing. He turned to me and nodded as if I weren't interrupting anything special.

"Which is why . . . which is why I didn't even cough—there was as much carbon monoxide in the garage as there is here, from our cigs—and I scooched over onto the hood beside him.

"When I turn to talk to him, he brings a hand over my mouth—"

"Like this?" Antony brought up his other hand, the one with a lit cigarette, and held it close to Ewan's lips. As Ewan inhaled from the older boy's cigarette, he thrust an eager crotch against a wanting hand.

"And . . . and . . . then he leans over and kisses me. First time I ever kissed a boy."

"And neither of you died?" asked Antony, who continued stroking.

"No, my kiss was magic . . . the magic trick. We both lived. Lived to see the paramedics arrive."

Warmth spilled over Antony's fingers and soaked the cotton. Ewan stumbled forward.

Antony maintained his hold for a bit longer, then slid his hand from the younger boy's pants. He dropped his lit cigarette into the nearest ashtray and wiped his hand dry on his shirt.

"Will you kiss him? Kiss Beauty? Maybe you can bring him back—"

Ewan curled his lips. "You haven't even kissed me yet."

"Not yet." Antony took the inches of cigarette from him and pressed chapped lips against chapped lips. Teeth tapped and sour tongues explored.

Arms lifted, hands tugged at clothes. Shirts lifted, layers peeled away, denim dragged down and off stick legs.

The carpet chafed exposed skin.

Antony cried out, "Please."

Ewan did not release his hold until the other boy pleaded, ordered, begged. Stroking became fumbling as they stripped each other bare of the many layers of clothing. Faces roamed over bodies. Saliva and sweat mixed and the taste in both their mouths was flavored by old spilled ashes.

When naked Antony rolled off bared Ewan, the latter said, "He's gone," and pointed one scrawny arm towards the mattress. With its mess of stained sheets, it looked like so many other boys' beds.

"He was never here. Remember? A trick. To get laid. Smoke and mirrors."

"I think you're lying."

Antony shrugged.

"No Beauty?"

Antony stared at Ewan. "Maybe some." He stroked a cheek, ran his fingers down the curve of neck.

Ewan closed his eyes. "My trick's no better than yours. Actually mine is far, far worse."

Antony pressed a thumb against the corner of Ewan's mouth and made the lips pout.

"When I opened the door to the garage, I choked on the fumes. Had to turn my head. I was only smart enough to flick every switch, so the garage door went up but the lights came on and I saw him there, saw him lying on the roof of his car but his eyes stared up at nothing.

"I tried to wake him. Slapped his face. Even kissed him like they do in movies and television, but nothing happened. He didn't wake."

Antony edged closer so there was no distance between their limbs, their feverish skin. "So we're both liars."

"Smoke and mirrors." Ewan ran a hand through Antony's hair.  "At least tell me your name."


 

For Alex




Steve Berman has been a finalist for the Andre Norton Award (Vintage: A Ghost Story), as well as numerous times for the Golden Crown Literary Awards and Lambda Literary Awards. He has a new collection of queer and fantastical YA stories releasing in February, Red Caps. He resides in southern New Jersey.
%d bloggers like this: