With it being so hot everywhere else in the office that day, it was a refreshing change to sit down in my boss' office instead. It seemed to be blessed with an air conditioner that could instantly reach 'arctic' temperatures with just the flick of a switch. That mixed with the slight perspiration on the surface of my skin made for a very relaxing sensation. My boss, Mr. Renfield, was looking over some of the book selections I chose for possible publication, and he had just called me into his office for a 'talk'. I sat there, watching him talk on the phone while expecting me to wait patiently for his undivided attention. Once he was done, he sat behind his desk, and let out one of those 'sighs' before speaking. This wasn't a good sign.
"So I looked at your book selection last night...and there are some...definite 'problems' here." I hated it when he started out with the 'problems' bit. It basically was his professional way of saying, "I hated it! Why are you such an idiot?"
"Sir...I reviewed every single one of these books from cover to cover, and if you'll just take a chance on them, I just KNOW that they'll do really well on the open market."
"JT...I know that you consider yourself an advocate for fresh ideas, and that fine. But the 'open market' is not a place to gamble on this kind of thing."
Don't let him shrink you down, JT. Stand up for the stories. These authors are depending on you. "Mr. Renfield...I know that some of the material is a little outside of the box, but I believe in these authors to deliver amazing results. The content alone is enough to gather a loyal following and turn a huge profit. Each successful book will bring in an even bigger audience and before you know it..."
"Each SUCCESSFUL book, JT. Successful being the key word here. And I don't see this in any of the selections you presented to me." Come on...why won't he listen to me. "What happened to that other book I told you to review. The one about the guy who sold his family's stuff to buy drugs? Where's that book?"
I fidgeted in my seat a little. "It really wasn't all that...good. To be honest, there was nothing all that 'special' about it at all."
"What about the one with the college boy cheating on his girlfriend with the hot chick that moves next door. I thought that one had a real shot at doing numbers. Did you read through that one?"
Arrrgh! "Yes, I read that one too. Sir...all of those books are the same old ideas rehashed for the billionth time. They're boring. These 6 books are...they're NEW! They're DIFFERENT! They're a completely original take on their content..."
"This is not about 'new' and 'different', JT, you know that?" Mr. Renfield said, another sigh escaping his lips as he stood up. "Look...people...they don't WANT anything new. They don't care about new stories, new characters, new concepts. They want what they know and love already. They want familiarity. Nobody is going to take a chance on these new stories from authors that nobody's ever heard of. They just want more of the same stuff we fed them last time, but better. And that's what I intend to give them."
I looked off to the side, hoping to hide some of my frustration. Biting my tongue to keep from raising my voice. "So does that mean, you're rejecting my selections?"
"Every last one of them, yes." He told me. He picked up the books, one by one, tossing them back on to the desk in front of me. "This story here? Too supernatural. Too much philosophy and weirdness...stay away from this new age crap." He picked up the second one, "This one, it's too unpredictable. I don't know what's going on here." Who ever heard of a book being 'too' unpredictable? "This one...too sad. People want to feel 'good' when they read a story This book is way too depressing, nobody's going to buy that." Oh gee, I see...I should just go tell the author to go back and make a HAPPY book about years of horrifying child abuse! THAT'LL go over well. "And THIS book...this book has a GAY main character in it, and he's sixteen for Christ sake." How can he just blurt that out in front of me, KNOWING that I'm gay? Sensitivity training is definitely needed here. "What were you thinking?"
"It's a gay story, sir. The main character..."
"The main character is a MINOR. That does NOT look good on this company's record. That kind of press, we DON'T need."
"There's no sex in the book."
"There are sexual themes in the book."
"He's sixteen, Mr. Renfield. Sixteen year olds DO think about sex, you know? OFTEN!"
"Not with MY signature behind it, they don't." He told me, and I guess that was his final word on it all. "JT, you're a good employee, and you have good judgment. I know you do. You just have to settle in a little bit and fix your mind to recognize stuff that actually 'sells'. Find a reliable formula and market it to the masses. We can do the same thing over and over again until the sun burns out, just so long as it SELLS. And sells a LOT. Alright?"
What was I gonna do? It's not like he was going to change his mind. "Sorry. Just thought you'd want to see something a little different from the same old stuff you've seen before." I said quietly, and stood up to take the books off of his desk.
"You want me to see something different? Show me a higher profit margin than the one we made last quarter. These damn online stories are killing the market. They're giving the shit away for FREE Can you believe that? It's like cheating." He said, sitting back down behind his desk, and silently dismissing me to go back out into the 'less than fabulous' air conditioning that the rest of the office has to deal with.
Once again...every new idea I had got shot down without so much as a chance. It's not like he read all six books last night. He probably just skimmed a little bit and figured it was too 'new' for anybody to like them. Well *I* liked them. There's gotta be a market for these stories. They might not be the big corporate target audience that the big wigs are looking for...but I'm sure they're sick and tired of being overlooked and pushed aside. Who writs for THEM, you know?
I sulked my way back to my desk, where my friend and co-worker, Sammy was waiting to see how things went. I think the look on my face said it all. "So I take it there's no 'celebration' going on after work tonight?" He said.
"Not unless you want to celebrate a record number of complete and total failures." I told him.
"Geez, he didn't accept a single ONE of them?"
"Well, what did he say?"
I sat the books on the desk and put my hand on my forehead. "You know, the same old thing. He wants something more...dull, more boring, more repetitive, more predictable. Give the people what they want, and hide the alternatives."
"Hehehe, such is the way of big business. I don't know why it even bothers you any more." Sammy said. "Just find a popular book, and tell the author to make another sequel. Sequels sell, Renfield will love it."
"Whatever. Maybe I'll just give up on the new ideas for a while."
"There ya go! Broken spirits and hopeless dreams...now you're getting." He said with a grin. "Now quit being a sourpuss and entertain me while I dodge work for the last half hour of the day."
"As much as I would like to assist you in evading anything that would actually cause you to EARN your paycheck for a change...I've got stuff to do before I leave." I said, looking at the stack of books on my desk. "Sighhh...I've gotta call these authors back and say, 'thanks, but no thanks'. Sucks though. I think they really could have done some good out there."
Sammy watched me sulk for a few moments, before raising up his hand with a cheesy grin to show me the 'C' symbol he drew on the back of it with a few different colored markers. He had a smile that was simply contagious, and I couldn't help but grin back at him as I raised my own 'C' mark to touch hands with him. It just so happens that Sammy and I were both reading one of those 'online story sites' that were supposedly killing the market. And we enjoyed it on a weekly basis. So when the anniversary came up, and the word went out that we should wear our 'C' symbols as a means of support, Sammy and I were first in line to do so. Showing me that symbol was his answer for everything that aggravated me. Hehehe, I honestly don't understand why it keeps working.
The last half hour of work, thankfully, went by pretty fast. With Renfield checking out 15 minutes early as usual. Sammy instantly leaned back in his chair, and spun around, signaling that he was officially done working for the rest of the day, now that the big boss was gone. I called the authors back, one at a time, and broke the bad news to them. But did what I could to encourage them to keep doing EXACTLY what they were doing. And...yeah...they kinda gave me these half hearted promises that they would, but I already knew that they were probably just a few rejections away from throwing in the towel. I know how the 'game' goes. And by this time next year, the ones who didn't sell out to make the same formulaic garbage as everybody else, will have lost their spirit and given it up for some mindless 9 to 5 job that's not nearly as satisfying.
Sighhh...true art is dying. And commerce is the bloodsucking monster that's killing it.
"Hey, you wanna go out for a few beers or something?" Sammy asked me as he gathered his stuff to leave for the day.
The idea of it was appealing, but my current mood wouldn't allow me to follow. "Nah, not tonight. I just wanna go home and flatline in front of the TV for a while." I told him.
"Suit yourself. It's not like I don't have margarita mix at home." He grinned. "See ya tomorrow?"
"I suppose. It's not like I have a choice."
"Hey now, there's no way I'm gonna let you be sad on a Friday. So you come in tomorrow with a smile, or I'm gonna chisel one into your face myself. Got it?"
"Hehehe, smile. All shits and giggles, I promise."
"That's more like it. Get home safe, alright?" Sammy said, and got up to punch out. Then he looked at my desk, and then at his, and said, "Do you think it's intentional that they put the two gay guys' desks together in the same corner?"
"Hehehe...go HOME already!"
"I'm gonna look into this. Watch. If we can get a lawsuit working, I'm booking us a hotel in Vegas!" He tried his best to keep me grinning at all times, and that's the kind of friend that I needed at that particular moment. If nothing else, it helps take the edge off of my day.
I stayed about five to ten minutes later than normal, and then grabbed my stuff to punch out for the day and go downstairs. I got off of the elevator and said goodnight to security as I walked out of the building and headed towards the subway. I had a car, sure...but with the price of gas reaching almost five dollars a gallon in Chicago, I'd probably do better 'catapulting' myself to work from the rooftop. The streets were already pretty dark, and the nightlife had begun to kick into gear. I looked at all of the college kids laughing and playing in the subway, getting ready to go out and party. Get drunk, get high, get laid. Hehehe, and to think, that was me two years ago. I was barely 25, and yet felt like that was a lifetime ago. Funny thing...I could really go for a party like that these days. I really do miss 'the life' sometimes.
As I waited for the next train, I felt my head spinning a little bit. I wondered if maybe I stayed up too late reading and re-reading certain part of those last few books I was reviewing. I don't get enough sleep these days, that's what it is. I had a random thought of my very first boyfriend. I was fifteen years old, and I met him at summer camp. I remembered being in a tent with him...kissing, and holding each other, and rolling back and forth with those first few experimental touches. That innocent sexual experience that is the bridge between shivering with fear and trembling with excitement. I remember us whispering to each other, trying to stay sooo quiet. I remember his breathing, and the feel of his naked skin as it slid against my own. And his kiss....his kiss made me feel so special. It's funny how a random memory from your past can just completely blindside you out of nowhere at all. I don't even know why I would be thinking about it right now...but it felt good. Somewhere, in the depths of my most vivid memories, that particular night was waiting to present itself to me again, as if for the first time. And it felt really good.
I heard the train coming, and looked down the long dark tunnel to see the lights of it heading my way. The wind brushed across my face, and I stood back to wait for my ride. It was then that I caught sight of someone a bit further down the train platform. I probably wouldn't have noticed him standing there in the crowd of other people around us...but he seemed to be...'staring' at me.
He looked to be about 17 years old, give or take. With brown eyes and light blond hair that sort of flopped over his right eye. He was rail thin, wearing an old throwback 'School House Rock' T-shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans. Very cute, if I do say so myself. Very...'unique'. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something about him was so...original. Heh, weird.
His eyes stayed connected to mine, and I sort of expected him to stop staring once I noticed him. But he didn't. In fact, his stare seemed to get even more intense. That's when the train fully pulled into the station.
I stepped on with a bunch of other people, and muscled my way over to get a seat in the center of the car. The boy must have gotten on the train too, but he was a couple of cars down at least. It was an odd moment, but exhilarating just the same. It would be one of those chance encounters that I would love to read about...if ol' Renfield ever bothered to take a chance on anything different.
I rode the train for a stop or two, feeling the drowsiness smothering me as the motion of the train basically tried to lull me to sleep. And that's when I heard the door to the car I was sitting on open up behind me. A brief burst of noise and a blast of air from the train swiftly crawling through the tunnel. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw the young boy standing there, looking for me. Our eyes connected briefly, and that's when he moved forward to sit in the seat across from me.
It was a 'bold' move on his part to be so obvious about watching me. I didn't know whether or not I give him some kind of response, or let him approach me. I usually prided myself on not appearing 'gay from a distance', but this boy had evidently figured me out pretty easily. I glanced over at him, his doe brown eyes sparkling back at me as a tiny smirk appeared on his lips. He was extremely cute. A little young for my tastes, but definitely the kind of boy I'd make an exception for if he offered.
I gave him a polite nod, and he nodded back at me, his smile widening a bit. I should really get home and try to find some other stories to give to Renfield tomorrow. He's gonna want something quick and easy to appease the publishing gods on Monday, and I don't really want to waste my weekend. Ugh...WHY am I thinking of work right now? I've got a cute boy sitting across from me, smiling and nodding...and I'm thinking about Mr. Renfield. Great. My mind is SO off tonight.
"Do I know you?" I asked, wondering if maybe it was just somebody that I didn't recognize. Maybe the younger sibling of somebody I went to high school with or something. But he silently shook his head. "Oh...I thought...maybe you knew me from somewhere."
He smiled and shook his head again. I was beginning to wonder if he could even speak, when he asked me, "You wanna go to a party tonight?"
It was random and it was weird, and considering I didn't know this kid from Charlie Manson...it was kind of creepy. "A party? What do you mean?"
"A bunch of us are throwing a party tonight. It's gonna be killer. You should come." He smiled wickedly.
I didn't want to come off as insulting, but I had to ask him, "Are you SURE that you don't know me from somewhere? Because that's a pretty sweet offer to make to a complete 'stranger'."
He giggled sensually, his eyes staring deeply into mine. "You're not as much of a stranger as you may think." He looked down at my hand, and chanted softly, "See, I may...see, I might...I see I see a 'C' tonight."
Ohhh, the....the 'C' symbol. Shit, I completely forgot that I was even wearing it on the back of my hand. "Hehehe, I'm sorry. I wasn't even aware that...ugh, my brain is mush tonight."
"It's ok. It happens to the best of us." He grinned.
"You know, I was happy to wear it, but I didn't really expect anybody to notice it." I said.
"Yeah, it can be a lonely feeling at first. But it passes after a while. Especially once you start spotting them in the streets. That's when you realize that you're not really alone at all. Just pretending." The boy then lifted up the right side of his blond hair, to show a dark red 'C' painted on his cheek, decorated with a small spattering of sparkling glitter. "We've been scouting the major cities, getting as many readers together as we can, especially this time of year. The anniversary always falls right at the early stages of Summer, when it's hot outside, and people are remembering what it's like to live again, you know?" He said, letting his blond locks fall gracefully back into place. "The party gets bigger every year. We're always finding more marks when we go out. We just wanted to get together and have some fun as a united group, that's all."
"Really?" I asked. "How many did you find in the Chicago area so far?"
"A little over 500, give or take." He grinned.
"JESUS! Hahaha! I was expecting, like...TWO! And that's including my best friend Sammy."
"He reads the site?" He asked, looking even more interested.
"Cool Why don't you bring him with?"
"To this 'party' of yours?" I grinned.
"It's just as much your party as anybody else's. We are a family of sorts, after all." He saw me smile a little bit, a slight blush in my cheeks. "C'mon...what have you got to lose?"
I thought about it. If they wanted to get a bunch of readers together for a party, they certainly sent out the right attraction to get it done. To say that he was seductively built would be an understatement. To say that he was beautiful...would almost be an insult. Still, this was a bit too sudden for my mind to really process. Plus my train stop was rapidly approaching. "You know what...not tonight. I doubt I'd be much fun, as tired as I am right now." I told him. "It sounds like a GREAT idea though. It's amazing that you guys organized something like that."
"Hmmm..too bad. I think you'd have a lot of fun."
"I'm sure you and your high school buddies will have plenty of fun without me."
"It's not just high school. The crowd is as diverse and original as the one online. And a LOT of them are very, VERY cute." He said with a grin, then he reached into his pocket to pull out a wrinkled up receipt. He scribbled something out on it and handed it to me. "I'll tell you what...here's the address. We'll be partying every single night for the rest of the anniversary week. If you change your mind, stop by. And bring your friend. We'd love to meet him. K?" He said, and gave me such a flirtatious look that I just had to grin to myself and nod my head. Then he looked back out the train window behind him. "I believe this is your stop."
"Shit. Right. Um...ok. If I...change my mind, I'll come by."
"Party always starts at 9 PM sharp. Make sure to wear your mark, they won't let you in without it. And put it on an hour ahead of time. If you try to get in with fresh ink on your hand, they'll figure you for a phony. Got it?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure." I said, and stepped off the train. "Will you be there?"
"Most definitely." He said with a slight blush.
"Cool. Well...maybe I'll see you there then." The doors were beginning to shut, and I rushed to ask him, "Wait! I don't know your name!"
As the doors closed, he smiled at me and said, "It's Gabriel. See you at the party."
The train took off before I had a chance to say anything else, and I found myself wishing that I had talked to him for a little bit longer. He was probably one of the most intriguing people I've met in a long time. And I don't know a damn thing about him except that he reads the same website. Wild.
That night, as I peeled myself out of my work clothes and jumped into a relaxing shower...I thought back to the cutie on the train. I thought about his charming smile, and his almost frail body frame. His baby brown eyes, and sweet full lips, still bearing the cushion of youth in their blushed presentation. His skin, and his locks of golden hair. It was enough to excite me, and guilty pleasured thoughts of caressing him entered my mind. Hehehe, just my luck, he's probably a cop, waiting to see if I'll try to coerce a minor into having sex. Yeah, that's probably what this is all about. What else could it be? I'm sure there are watchdogs keeping an eye on the place for content, right? They can't find Bin Laden..but they'll certainly come and find me if I cross the line. Ahhh, silly me. Gotta start THINKING, JT! It's not every day that a cute 17 year old heart throb approaches you in a dirty subway and asks you out to a party.
I got out of the shower and dried myself off, grabbing a hot cup of tea to soothe my nerves before going to bed. I got online to check the site to see if any 'C's had been reported. I mean, Gabriel said there were over 500 in Chicago alone. I find that hard to believe. I checked everywhere on the site, and found nothing. Not a word, not a trace. Nowhere on the entire planet. Maybe this thing isn't as big as I thought it was. Ah well, if I'm the only one who's seen another mark, so be it. I typed out a short post about meeting Gabriel on the train tonight, and the possibility of there being many more of us around here. I ended the post, simply saying, "We are many!" And added the appropriate smiley face, after it. That should do it. I shut my laptop off for the night and went into my room to get some sleep.
I have to admit...something about Gabriel had a profound effect on me. I couldn't seem to get him out of my head. The moonlight was coming in through the window, and I was tossing and turning, trying to quiet my mind long enough to get bored and pass out. It didn't work too well though.
His teen voice rang delicately in my ears. "C'mon...what have you got to lose?", he said. "It's just as much your party as anybody else's." It made me wonder...what if this was legit? What if he really meant it, and a bunch of people just like me were all going to get together for something really cool this week?
I tossed and turned some more, still thinking about the gentle beauty of him lifting up the right side of that soft blond mop to show me his mark. He definitely took some time on it. Effort. One thing about 'watchdogs'...they lack creativity. Maybe this kid was for real. Besides, he said people of all ages would be there. It's not like I bribed a ten year old into the back of a truck with a bag of lollipops. What if I go? What if I just...go, hang out to see what it's like, and then go. If nothing else, I'll get to see Gabriel again, and satisfy this nagging curiosity about him.
Yeah...why not? I'll go. I'll take Sammy with me, we'll be safe. And if anything seems weird, we can always say that we came together..as, like, a couple. Fuck it. You only live once, right? I'll do it! Right after work, I'll come home, and I'll change clothes, put my mark on and check in. JUST to see what it's all about. I think it was that final thought that put my inner conflicts to rest and finally allowed me to sleep that night. Te last thing I remember before drifting off, were the echoes of Gabriel's playful little chant, spoken softly on the train...
"See, I may...see, I might...I see I see a 'C' tonight...."
When I woke up the next morning, I actually felt a little bit anxious about going out tonight. I've been so involved with work the last few months that the very concept of 'partying' with my friends have been reduced to occasional get togethers at one person's house to watch a TV show that I could have easily watched at home. Except we get to talk through the commercials, that's the only difference. Going to this little shindig was almost like a field trip away from my current state of mind, and I welcomed it with open arms.
I sat down to my laptop to check my morning emails, a few of the top news articles for the day, and then went by the site to see if I had gotten any replies to my post. I wondered if any other marks had been spotted. Anywhere. But...funny thing...when I went to the site's forum, my post hadn't been approved. It was nowhere to be seen. I thought that was strange, as I didn't say anything offensive or insulting in it, I was sure of that. And there were posts that, by the time signature had been posted after mine...that had already been approved. It was odd. But I didn't really think much about it. I suppose I'll find out what I did later. Right now, I just wanted to get to work, avoid staying late, and start my weekend off right. Who knows? Maybe, if I like this thing, I'll come by and party for all the other nights of the week too. Even better, maybe I'll find myself a nice hot body to curl up next to this weekend. Only fate knows for sure.
"Dude...what are you talking about?" Were the first words out of Sammy's mouth when I told him about the plan. "Some random kid offers some invite to a party without even asking your name, and you're actually gonna go?"
"Not ALONE." I told him.
"well, who are you planning to take with you?" I gave him a look, and he protested instantly. "Oh HELL no! Are you crazy?"
"Sammy...come on! He was wearing a 'C' on his cheek. He knows the site. He said there will be plenty of people just like us there. Just to have some fun tonight."
"JT...you don't know WHAT kinda freaky cultish thing they've got going on there."
"It's NOT 'cultish'! Geez, the kids not even out of high school yet. When have you ever heard of somebody that young being a mass murderer?" I asked.
"Gee, I don't know...The West Memphis Three? Columbine High School? CHILDREN OF THE CORN???"
"Children of the Corn is a movie, doofus. And shut up! It's not anything like that!" I said, hoping that he'd change his mind. "Sammy...dude, seriously. It's JUST a party. We can go together, we can watch each other's backs, if it's lame or weird...we can leave. No worries." He sighed to himself about it, but I kept urging him along. "Sammy...I'd feel a LOT better about going if you were with me. Ok?"
"You're killing me here, JT" He moaned, but appeared to be caving in.
"There's going to be a LOT of cute guys there. I'm sure of it. And you are WAY overdue for a random hook up, aren't you?"
Sammy gave me a sideways look. "YOU'RE one to talk, 'Mr. No Date'! You're practically a virgin all over again."
"Which is EXACTLY why we both need this party." I told him. "Please? It won't cost you anything at all." He still didn't budge. So I made a big mistake, and told him, "Sighhh...alright.If you come with me tonight, I'll buy drinks at Roscoe's until you get tipsy."
"Drunk." He said.
"Aw, come on! You have the alcohol tolerance of a fucking viking, Sammy!"
"It's DRUNK...or I don't go. And you get to go visit your little killer cult of pretty teen sadists all by yourself." He put his foot down, and I rolled my eyes...nodding in agreement. It brought a big smile to Sammy's face. "What time should I meet ya?"
We got through the rest of our day, and I made sure to tell him to put his 'C' mark on an hour early so they wouldn't think he was just some poser trying to get in by drawing one on his hand around the corner from the party. And soon I was at home, getting dressed for my good time. Something just told me that tonight was going to be awesome. It was different from the day to day grind, and I welcomed that with open arms. I checked the website one more time. No post was made. Mine still wasn't accepted. I didn't even get an email as to why it was left off. Hell, just my luck, I posted it wrong and hit the stupid clear button. I'll do it again later, for sure. Besides, I'll have much more to report if this party is anything like I'm expecting it to be.
I fixed myself up, drew on my symbol, and got ready to go. I picked Sammy up at his apartment, and we drove out west from the city. I followed the directions that Gabriel had written out for me to a tee, but was amazed at how quickly the sparkling city skyline left us once we started traveling away from downtown Chicago. It was almost as if the city itself had forsaken us, offering us no further protection once we were out of its boundaries. The buildings got further and further apart, and once we passed the 'Harpo Studios' building...things began to get darker and darker, guiding us underneath elevated train tracks, designed to drop passengers off in small, dimly lit, neighborhoods that looked almost abandoned as we rolled past them. Sammy was especially quiet, looking at the landscape around us, and was visibly shaken. Still...we both went forward.
When I finally started seeing streets that were mentioned on Gabriel's note, I found myself a bit more at ease. And the directions led us to what looked like an old warehouse. I parked the car on the street, and Sammy and I assured ourselves that we would both check out the second we felt anything going 'weird' in this place if one of us didn't like the vibe of it. Then we got out, and walked towards the old building. There was definitely music coming from inside, and Sammy and I walked to an alley entrance, where a few other people were outside, either waiting to get in, or just milling around, getting some air. There was a large ice bucket full of bottled water by the door, and a clear plastic box for 'donations', but none were necessary. I dropped a five dollar bill in regardless. Might as well be a good guest, you know?
There was a big guy at the door with a flashlight, and Sammy and I both showed him our hands. He smiled a us, and said, "Welcome to the party. They've been expecting you." He let us in, and as soon as we walked in...we were amazed with what we saw.
The warehouse was decorated with glow in the dark graffiti, glow sticks and ropes, and there was a giant platform in the middle of it that had steps on either side, leading up to a rather 'overstocked' bar. There were speakers in every corner of the room, blasting music from every direction, and the place was full of what looked like almost 200 people. It was exactly as Gabriel had said it would be. There were people there from ages 13 to 30, from 30 to 50, from 50 to 80. Every shape, size, height, color, and culture. Some were dancing, some laughing, others quietly talking in small dark corners of the room, and others still...doing everything short of having a public orgy right there in front of everyone watching. I could see a variety of different 'C' symbols all around me, on every person in the room. Some on the back of their hands, some on their middle fingernail, some on the knuckle, or inside of the wrist, some discretely hidden behind the right or left ear, and others on the side of the neck. One boy even had contact with the letter 'C' made into a glow in the dark green pupil, so it could be seen as long as his eyes were open. There were lasers shooting back and forth across the ceiling, a few strobe lights, some flashy designs...it was a party that literally had something for everybody. And once Sammy saw that it wasn't some creepy coven of site fanatics, he calmed down a lot and offered to get me something from the bar.
Looking around the room, I realized that Gabriel had told me another truth about this place. There WERE a lot of cute guys there! I mean...HOT! And they had no trouble looking you in the eye if you spotted them from a distance. I don't think I ever got more smiles and nods in a club before than I did when I walked through that front door. Naturally, there were the usual party 'cliques' that could be easily spotted in certain places around the room. Like little hipster elitists, standing in tiny circles of five or six people, off to themselves, and not allowing anybody to penetrate their tight little community. But whatever. It's to be expected in any party atmosphere.
And speaking of penetrating something tight..."JT! You came!" I saw Gabriel walking up from the corner of the room, and he gave me a big hug around the neck. I didn't expect such a warm greeting from him but wow...his body felt so warm to me. So slim and sweet. Wrapping my arms around him made me feel tingly all over.
"Well, I figured...what else have I got to do, right?" I told him.
"Radical, man! Well, what do you think?"
"This is...this is amazing! Honestly, I didn't know what to expect."
"Probably some killer cult thing, huh?" He grinned, throwing an arm over my shoulder. "Don't sweat it, man. We get that a lot. Come on, I'll get you in good with everybody." And that's exactly what he did. He took me from person to person, group to group, and showed me off like a prize winning pig at the fair. "Hey JT, this is Sonia, and that's Serena. Over there you've got Paulo, and that's Marcus, and this is Stiles..." I was dizzy from being dragged through so many names at once. Not to mention that another day at work seemed to be catching up to me all over again, because my head was spinning even faster than ever. I REALLY need more sleep. This dizziness is getting worse by the day.
Sammy finally found me, and handed me a drink. "Where have YOU been? I was looking all over for you." He asked me, and I tapped Gabriel on the shoulder to introduce him.
The moment Gabriel turned around, he grinned and said, "You must be Sammy! Dude, so happy to have you with us tonight!" And he gave him a big hug around the neck like he did to me when I first walked in. Sammy tightened up a bit from the strangely warm greeting, but enjoyed the idea of it being from such a young cutie, and melted into the embrace rather quickly. "He's a cute one, JT. I'm sure some of our guests have their eye on him already." Gabriel said.
We all shared a chuckle together, but something was bugging me. "Hey...uh...how did you know his name?"
"What?" Gabriel asked with a smile.
"Sammy. How did you know his name? I don't remember telling you."
He gave me a strange look. "Yes you did. On the train, remember? You said you only expected to see 'two' symbols tops. And that included your friend, Sammy." He told me. "I just figured that had to be him. That IS Sammy, right?"
"Ohhh...yeah. You're absolutely right. I did say that, didn't I?" I told him.
"Hehehe, yes, you did. Or maybe...I'm just reading your thoughts. Oooooh!" He giggled, and made a big mystical deal out of whistling a spooky little tune in front of me. "Come on, chill out. Drink. Dance. Smoke. Whatever. There are a lot of good people here. Have fun, k? That's the only rule tonight. Everybody's family, so don't be afraid to mingle a bit." He told me, and then kissed Sammy on the cheek. "Good to meet you, Sammy." And he skipped off to become one with the party again.
"Mmm! Good to meet YOU, hot stuff!" Sammy smiled. "Is THAT the boy from the train you told me about?"
"Yep!" I happily confessed.
"No WONDER you wanted to come tonight! I would have followed that boy into shark infested waters wearing a freakin' pork chop around my neck if he promised me another one of those hugs."
"SEE? And you were worried!" I said, causing Sammy to give me a shove.
"Dude, there is a virtual ARMY of 'boy model' guys here tonight! And I'm not leaving until I get at least FIVE phone numbers!" He said.
"Have at it, man. I think...I think I might actually try talking to Gabriel a bit more." He grinned at me. "WHAT???"
"Nothing. Nothing at all. You go chase your little blond chicken. I'm looking for someone a little more age appropriate, if you don't mind."
"Psh! Please! Aren't YOU the one who seduced a 25 year old man when you were 16?"
"That guy was weak in spirit and I was merely a willing participant in his molestation of me." He snickered. "Besides, that was different. He was a priest. He was way too hot to be a priest."
"Oh my god...ok...dude, get away from me before you give me nightmares." I said, and he giggled happily as he practically 'dove' into that crowd of cute guys, just waiting to be chatted up. I have to admit, there was an awful lot of 'playground' here for the two of us to tackle.
But Gabriel seemed to snatch my attention away from all others. And as I walked around the room with my drink, he was the one I kept an eye out for.
I felt a bit of wetness splash up on my arm as I accidentally bumped into someone beside me. It was an extremely gorgeous guy, about the same age as Gabriel, but with long, shoulder length, dark hair that he tied up in a pony tail behind him. And eyes that were almost light blue. "Aww, man, I'm sorry." I said, hoping that I didn't waste too much of his drink.
"Oh don't worry about it. There's more where that came from." He said, and extended his hand. "The name's Lucas. And yours?"
"It's uh...it's JT." I said, and returned his greeting. At that moment, I heard some noise behind me, and I saw two guys from the party kinda thrashing about in one of the other corners of the room There were people surrounding them, and seemed to be pushing them, quite helplessly, into one of the rooms in the back. It looked a little too 'rough' to be playful, but Lucas grabbed my attention again.
"Alcohol does strange things to some people." He said.
"Are they gonna be alright?"
"Of course they are. There aren't any incidents that we can't handle here. We're...'family'." He grinned.
"Yeah. Right." I smiled, keeping an eye on the two of them until they were out of sight.
"JT...you seem a bit tense. Coming straight from work, I assume?"
"Yeah, I am. Geez, is it that obvious?"
Lucas smiled at me. "It's not that hard to see the signs of someone who doesn't enjoy their job...or their life...as much as they should. It creates a chemical build up of emotional byproducts. It practically 'glows' on the surface of the skin...begging for release."
I gave him a raised eyebrow, and smiled. "That sounds pretty deep. Hehehe!"
"Indeed it does" He reached in his pocket, and pulled out a business card. It was just his name and what looked like a public pay phone number. "If you're ever looking to get away from the hustle and attack something more satisfying..give me a call. I might just have an offer that's more to your liking." He said, and then I saw him walk back into the crowd, several boys and girls turning to follow him back to their private little corner on another side of the room. Wow..so I've got business proposals now? All from meeting other people from the site? Hehehe, sweet! This is better than a fraternity!
After walking around and absorbing all that was going on, I kinda lost track of time. It's hard to say how long Sammy and I had been apart. An hour? Maybe two. It's hard to say But a third of the people there were really friendly to us, smiling and making introductions and just welcoming us to the party. Another third..they seemed to be watching us closely from the sidelines, and seemed to be so different from everyone else in the room once you noticed them. But give them a nod, and they were quick to approach you with great interest In fact, the youngest boys in the room seemed to be some of the most fascinating and intelligent in the crowd. It was astounding. It was literally like being inside an exact replica of the site itself. With laughter and wild antics, wacky comments and thoughtful discussions. I loved it. And then...there was another third of guests at the party, who appeared more standoffish. More isolated. Those same folks that remained in their little groups, giving an intimidating look to anyone who would dare to walk past them with an intent to engage in even the most harmless of conversations. And yet, this group seemed to be highly sexual, once they chose a random person to 'entertain' them. It was such a strange opposition to the vibe they put out there previous to accepting you into their circle. Very weird bunch, those kids in groups
I walked around some more, the music pumping louder and louder by the minute. I guess when you're out in the middle of nowhere, you don't really have any neighbors to complain. So there couldn't be that many problems. However...I did see more people being hauled off to that back room, and was curious about what was going on back there. My guess would be some kind of drug use, as is the norm for parties this big. Most of the time I didn't notice the struggle until I heard a glass break, or a shout or grunt that seemed to rise above the music around me. But everyone kept smiling, kept drinking, and kept dancing. So if they didn't mind, I didn't mind either.
"JT...you having fun, or what?" I heard Gabriel's voice, and turned to see him behind me, bringing me another drink.
"Dude, thank you SOOOO much for inviting me here! This place is spectacular!"
"I'm glad you like it." He said, and then moved closer. "You know...the folks throwing this little festivity have got their eye on you. I think you might just be their favorite new guest this year."
"Hehehe, well, thank you to our gracious host, then. Did they mention why?" I asked.
With that, Gabriel smiled, and said..."All in due time. For now, why don't you take this drink and make sure that you don't stop until you're blitzed out of your mind."
"Hahaha, no. I can't. Really. I've gotta drive home tonight..."
"No you don't. We've got plenty of room for you to crash in the apartment next door. It used to be a motel, but now it's all ours. And if push comes to shove, we've got an entire taxi company dedicated to making sure that everyone gets home safe. We take care of our own. So have a blast, k?"
"you guys really have thought of everything, haven't you?" I asked him.
"This little operation of ours wouldn't work if we didn't." He lifted the dink to my lips, and then gave me a kiss on the cheek before walking away to rejoin the party. What else could I do? I kept drinking, kept talking to random people, kept having fun. They all knew the website backwards and forwards. We even had little games of trivia going, and I was loving every minute of it. I only wished I could have Sammy by side for it, as he knew the stories even better than I did.
Where was Sammy, anyway?
I think I was entering my third hour without so much as catching sight of Sammy at the bar. In fact, any time we ever went to a club together, and we got separated, I always knew that all I had to do was go to the bar and wait about fifteen minutes. He'd show up eventually. But not this time.
It got to the point where I got a little bit worried about him. I mean, a little bit of liquor and a bunch of horny strangers don't always make for the best mix. Not that I didn't trust him to make good judgments when he was out...but...we were kind of in a strange place where we didn't know anybody all that well. So when he didn't show up at the bar, I stood up, and started looking around in different parts of the warehouse for him. The crowd seemed to be thinning out, little by little, two or three people at a time. And I didn't want to be caught without my main protection in this place.
I walked around, nodding and smiling at the remaining party people around me. They seemed enchanted by my very presence, and I could see heads turn as I walked past them. Many of them cute, many of them seemingly 'available'...but my only concern for the moment was finding my friend. Luckily, that's when I ran into Gabriel again. "Gabriel! Thank God I found you!" I said.
"Heyyyy...what's poppin', my friend?" He said, and gave me another hug. "I hope you're still enjoying yourself."
"Yeah...I am. But...have you seen Sammy?"
"Sammy?" He asked.
"Yeah. My friend, Sammy? It's been a while since I've heard from him, and his cell phone is turned off. He seems to have vanished."
"Ohhhh, right. The guy you came in with. Yeah, you know what? I think he went off to have a little 'ring-a-ding' with a cutie he met at the bar." Gabriel told me.
"Really? So he just...whisked himself away to some corner to get some nookie?" That little bastard!
"Seems like it. Hey, you want some more drink? I can get it for you. Everything is free."
"No....no thanks." I said. "I just wanna find Sammy. He's been gone for a while."
Gabriel stopped me as I started to walk away. "It hasn't really been all that long, has it? Relax. Enjoy the music. Why don't you go over to the candy table, get yourself some Jolly Ranchers, and find yourself a nice little corner to chill out in? It'll do you some good."
"I don't...want to chill out. I want to find.." But before I could finish, a loud voice came on over the speakers, and I looked up to see an older man on the microphone, standing up on a small stage in front of a blank screen where everyone in the room could see him.
"Attention! Attention! I have word for all of us!" The people in the room all turned their eyes to him. "I wanted to let you all know...that because our urban scouts have gathered such a great number of candidates here this evening, we have been granted a special 'bonus' by the One!" He said, and the crowd began to cheer in unison. "I hold here...in my hands, two new printed scriptures from 'he' who supports our cause! He has granted us with a new chapter, and promises to have them in circulation by the end of the Summer!" Another cheer erupts from the crowd, and Gabriel seems overjoyed at the news. "Soon....our time will come! The great change has already begun...and our freedom is guaranteed! 'He' has kept his word...and soon...we shall live in darkness no longer!" People applauded and roared with triumph throughout the crowd, and I wanted to get into the festivities, but didn't really understand what was going on
It was then, that I saw the boy I bumped into earlier, Lucas, approach from the side, and he gave Gabriel a tight hug as they celebrated this....'announcement' of theirs. I had to ask, "So....what was all that about?"
They both looked at me with a grin, and Gabriel said, "We now have two new texts ready for circulation. New stories. A whole new audience to reach. As the scriptures come to a close, we anticipate a great shift in the public's opinion. They're almost finished now...we are anxious to see what happens when the appropriate circles are complete."
"Oh, you mean on the website? Awesome! What, is he giving out sneak previews tonight?" I asked.
"Yes. Indeed he is." Lucas told me. "This is a very exciting time. For all of us."
"What do you mean?"
They both looked at one another, and Gabriel was the first to speak. "The 'change', JT. The 'change' is almost ready to begin."
I was confused. "The....the change? What change?" Again, they looked at one another, and this time, they pulled me to the side with a smile. "I don't get it. What's going on?"
"You...didn't just think they were stories, did you?" Gabriel asked me, his smirk suddenly taking a wicked turn in the corners of his lips.
"What...like the high school stuff?"
"Hehehe, not quite." Lucas added.
Gabriel said, "You must understand, I couldn't tell you ahead of time. I needed you to come here tonight. I needed you to follow" I don't know what it was, but the tension between us began to thicken in the air around us. And I tried to make sense out of all of this. "You've been 'chosen', JT. Do you understand what I am telling you? We need your help. Your connections. Once the manuscript is completed, we will need it to be presented to the rest of the world. You work for a publishing company, correct?"
I took a step back from them, and wrinkled my forehead. "How is it that you know what I do for a living?" I asked. "As a matter of fact...I don't even remember telling you my name."
"I already 'told' you how I know." Gabriel grinned, pointing a finger to his temple. "You think it...I read it. It's just that simple."
I thought back to the night in the subway. The dizziness I felt, the random surfacing of thoughts for no reason at all, the sudden fatigue. I thought about his approach as he followed me to the train car I was on. And when I was talking to him...
"I believe this is your stop."
How did HE know where I was getting off? What's happening here?
"Listen, this has all been fun and all..." I said, taking another step back. "...But I've gotta find Sammy. I think we're gonna call it a night."
Lucas giggled to himself. "Your friend, Sammy, called it a night hours ago."
"What? What are you saying?"
Gabriel flashed me a sinister grin. "You won't find your friend, JT. Not 'much' of him anyway." WHAT THE HELL WAS HE SAYING??? I frantically looked around the room, whose population had thinned out considerably. On the right side of the room, beautiful young boys and a few elder gentlemen, all either drinking from black chalices, or sucking on the Jolly Rancher candies they found in the various bowls around the room. And on the left side of the room, all small groupings of boys and girls of different ages, hungrily gnawing on the tattered bones of a late night snack, each cluster centered around one main person who seemed to be the focus of their social orbit. I shivered as Gabriel's hands reached out to gently crawl over my shoulder. "We needed to find a community of people who knew our stories, and could help our collective species rise out of the fairy tales and folklore...and return to the world again. Many of the humans here tonight were selected for their possibilities, but...well...as you can see...all of them didn't make the cut."
I could hardly breathe, and froze up as I tried to speak. "Whatever kind of...'game' you guys are playing..it's NOT funny. Ok? So...just tell me where my friend is...and we'll go."
"Shhhhh.." Gabriel whispered softly as he walked behind me. He moved his lips close to my ear, his hands on both of my shoulders. "...He's 'gone', JT. Let it go." I felt my bottom lips quivering as my horrified mind tried to accept the idea. "My kind gets the blood. That delicious liquid essence of life is ours for the taking." Then he added. "We leave the meat...for the 'wolves'."
Lucas smiled at me, and his eyes began to glow with an ethereal light that shook me to my very core.
"This isn't happening. This isn't happening. This..." I chanted, but Gabriel walked back out in front of me to stand next to Lucas.
"The time for change is upon us, JT. More and more readers are signing on every day. And as the public becomes more infatuated with our stories, our numbers will grow." Gabriel told me.
Lucas spoke. "Your religious right suppresses your natural desires, your government suppresses your freedoms, your corporations hungrily rob you of choice. Gas prices are rising, cost of living is getting too hard to manage, resources are becoming scarce...the rich get richer, the poor are left to die off like roaches in an empty household. And while the very stench of it chokes you all into a growing level of frustration...we offer the alternative. As your kind tires of the struggles of life...they eventually come to 'us'."
"Or US." Gabriel continued. "The human race is circling the drain, and they don't even know it yet. The passion and beauty of life everlasting lies in the gifts we provide them. And it is time that our message is heard."
I felt my stomach turn upside down and felt as though I was going to be sick. I looked over to one side of the room, as a young woman my age was gently 'dragged' into one of the back rooms. Tears on her face, running black streaks of make-up down both of her cheeks. But over the music...I couldn't really hear her scream. This whole night..I doubt that I was even paying attention to what was really happening around me.
"You smell pretty scared there, cutie pie." Lucas grinned, taking a whiff of the air.
Gabriel guided me to sit on a nearby window sill while the enormous weight of the situation began to crush me under its power. "Breathe, JT. You'll be ok. I promise. We are going to take care of you You're one of the chosen. You are needed, we're not going to hurt you."
"The site...the site is..."
"The website is what it is. The One...'he' who writes the scriptures...he has been in league with us from day one."
"They were just supposed to be stories." I said, feeling a few tips drip from my eyes as I thought about poor Sammy, calling out to me while I merged myself with the 'party' crowd.
"We needed him as well. We tell him about our cultures, our societies, our beliefs...and he writes them down. He is spreading our message. He is preparing the world for our triumphant return to the rest of society. Just as it was centuries ago...when people still believed in the mysteries held behind the dark corners of their world." Gabriel said, still trying to comfort me with a friendly smile. "It's a GOOD thing, JT. Mankind is almost ready for our second coming. The website was instrumental in the first stage of that process. Now you and your publishing firm can be the second. You can take us to the next level."
"How....?" I asked meekly. "How can you exist...?"
Lucas said, "the humans don't believe what they don't see. What they can't touch. It's a threat to them to believe in us. It makes our existence SO much easier. No more angry mobs. No more torches and pitchforks. Just unsuspecting victims, and sustenance they provide us. Easy as slaughtering the gullible cattle on the farm."
"Lucas..." Gabriel said, wiping away some of my tears. "...you'll frighten him." Gabriel knelt down in front of me, and looked me in the eyes. "All we need, is for you to get these new texts, and all the ones before it...into the hands of your...Mr. Renfield. Once the stories are on the open market, the message will spread, and our stories will be heard. After that...the transformation will be easy. And once we outnumber those who are against us, it will no longer matter."
The thought crossed my mind that I could run. I could head for the door My mind tried to deny it all. These people are sick in the head! Vampires? Werewolves? How 'stupid' do they think I am? I tried to struggle with it all, but I heard both Lucas and Gabriel sigh as my thoughts and intentions were revealed to them.
Lucas squinted his eyes slightly, and told me, flat out..."You know what happens...if you try to run on us. Don't you, JT? There won't be any second chances given."
Gabriel looked almost disappointed. "You don't wanna do that. Do you, JT? I mean, things can be better for you. Make the right choice. Don't be stupid." He said. "You won't be able to run. And even if you could, you wouldn't be able to hide. Both of our kinds are already positioned in every major city in the world. The revolution is coming...SOON...and there's nothing you can do to stop it. So just...be smart, JT. Join us...while we're still playing 'nice'." Gabriel then had the audacity to smile warmly at me, tenderly rubbing the back of my neck.
I looked back up at Lucas, who was eagerly awaiting my reply. "And if I don't help you?"
"Heh...then, my friend, you join a very long list of people who made the same decision." He leaned a bit closer, "And were never heard from again." He stepped aside, and waved his hand out to draw my attention to a giant computer screen that was being flashed on the wall behind the stage. On it...were names. Hundreds of names. All posts on the website forum, but none of them were ever accepted by the site moderators. Sightings of 'C' symbols all over the city, the state, the country, the WORLD! Excited posts from kids, from adults, from college campuses and workplaces, from gay clubs, high schools, texted in over cell phones...they were literally coming from everywhere. But without being posted...it was like they never existed. None of us had proof. None of us could be accounted for. And every 'candidate' on that list had all been found, targeted, and invited to parties just like this one all over the globe. And, as my heart began to beat extra hard from the fear coursing through my veins, the realization that I was totally alone here without any possibility of being 'saved'...I noticed a familiar subject title among the posts. I saw my name attached to it, now highlighted in red ink while many others were crossed out. Rejected, and made to become food for the 'gods'. And with my unseen phantom post..I saw my own words, along with the now sinister looking quote attached..
"We are many."