BACHELORS March 2021 Issue

Welcome to the inaugural issue of Bachelors, an occasional and free digital magazine for gay fiction in all its myriad styles.

I've always adored short stories. Spare time is an elusive thing, and I much rather enjoy a smattering of words than can be read in stolen minutes rather than hope to finish a novel after so many days. I must confess, my tastes are very much on display here, with the stories ranging from historical fiction (featuring a pair of famous American literary figures) to something strange about an old bathhouse, to something very strange about man's best friend. And let's not forget the olden days of high school.

It is my hope that you, kind reader, will find this issue of Bachelors to your liking.

Steve Berman, Editor


Ryan Vance

I let my boyfriend transform my flat from pigsty to terrarium and he filled it with ferns, succulents, trellises of ivy. So when he told me he’d adopted a new family member I assumed he meant a house plant. Instead, after a long day at work, I found something animal lolling in the hallway. Hairless cushions of skin settled around its neck and stomach. It whined with a juvenile mouth, and its eyes wobbled like poorly-fried eggs. I left the front door open in the hope it might escape, but it dragged its chubby bum across the hardwood floorboards into the kitchen, wanting fed.

—What the hell is this? I asked, on my boyfriend’s return.

He’d prepared a speech.

—Pets and queers have a special relationship. They’re better than children. You don’t have to explain yourself to them. Nobody comes out to their cat, or cockatoo. Their love is unconditional. It’ll be good for us. Instructive.

I pressed for an explanation of what type of pet it might be.

—He is called Alfred. They’re a dog. Obviously.

There was nothing obvious about it. With no tail to hide between its stubby legs the beast looked like a grub. Its bark sounded like small children at play. Before going outside my boyfriend would press sunblock into its many lumps, as if taking a baby to the beach. I couldn’t bear to watch it eat, down on all fours, pale moon-face pressed deep into the bowl, issuing contented grunting noises that were almost human. My boyfriend doted. He spoke to it with a made-up language and, fluent in gibberish, it responded in kind. He carried it down stairs as if worried it might tumble and upon impact with the final step explode like a bleached watermelon. At night it cried so loud he let it sleep in our bed and once, while we were fucking, it panted by my ear until my boyfriend came. On the occasions when it would eat its own shit, my boyfriend would chortle and call it a silly billy mucky puppy while it smeared white turds around its pink lips.

Four months in, I snapped. Over breakfast I made clear there was no room in my life for something so disgusting and dependent. That evening I found the flat empty, but for Alfred sitting in a puddle. A note had been Sellotaped to the gormless thing’s bald head.

You need him, the note read, more than I need you.

A change of scene: a clinical boardroom in a Tokyo skyscraper, a dozen people in attendance. Almost all are very clever, but only one is very rich, and very unwell. They discuss the company’s latest line of transgenic companions, some of which have demonstrated very uncharacteristic expressions. One very clever person suggests the manufacture of these animals was a misstep, albeit profitable, in their search for a cure to the rich person’s unwellness. The clever person restates their objections to using dogs as their host organism, and suggests revisiting captivity-bred pygmy elephants; despite heightened rates of rickets, they show greater resistance to the disease, synthesise more antigen, and are less likely to sell on the dark web. The clever person then provides irrefutable proof of what everyone already knows: the very rich person secretly seeded up to eighty percent of the company’s fertilized oocytes with strands of his very own DNA, contaminating the new breeds, riddling them with more health concerns than the finest pedigree. Some no longer fit into the milking pods, while others scream in their kennels with half-formed words of loneliness. Worst of all, some specimens were intelligent enough to escape, and have found their way into the public sphere as designer pets. Given how unwell the very rich person is, and how childless, this act of egoism is somewhat understandable, but it risks sinking the entire research project, and so is unforgivable. This very clever person is shown the door and asked to clear their desk by noon. The very rich person thinks in silence for some time, then says:

—Issue a recall. The strays must be destroyed.

~ ~ ~

My jungle house wilted. It took a special kind of care to keep the garden green, an intuition I’d never mastered. I sent my boyfriend a photo of every fern that flopped, every faded ivy, hoping he might provide insights into their taxonomy, and offer resuscitation suggestions. No response.

As for Alfred, I could’ve tied him to a lamppost on any busy street and walked away, or placed an advert online: for sale, babydog, never loved. But I became desensitised to his gulping howls, his sour milky aroma. On weekends and evenings I tried to teach him tricks. I sent my boyfriend videos of our progress. I wanted him to sit up and beg.

On the rare occasion I could be bothered to take Alfred for walks, complete strangers would stop me in the street and inform me he was not natural. I came to see they’d rather missed the point. Alfred filled a need for which mother nature did not suffice. Just in case the poor thing understood what he heard, in a sing-song voice I told him natural selection was nothing to aspire to.

Truth be told, it was a comfort having something living, living with me. But without another human to impress, our standards slipped. The two of us existed, listless, as little more than animals. Alfred would crawl between dirty dishes stacked on the floor next to the sofa, squeeze leftovers between his chubby fingers, and I’d smile at the mess he made, knowing I wasn’t likely to clean up after him any time soon. The flat stank of old soil and rot. From home, to habitat.

So Alfred was a comfort, until he wasn’t, and one night when even his hapless animal devotion was not enough, I sent a message to my boyfriend: I need you.

The next day, my doorbell rang. Was it that easy? Could I bark commands, and be obeyed? Heel, sit, stay? Sta-a-ay. Stay. Good boy. Lie down.

But Alfred sat back on his hind legs. He cocked his wrinkled head towards the doorbell’s chime. He sniffed the air, and said his first word, deep and clear and fearful:


One Man's Trash

The collection contains the prime picks of ten years of writing weird queer short fiction: seven unpublished stories, and eight previously published, most of which are now tricky to find, due to being included in various extremely short-run zines, out-of-print anthologies and error-404’d websites.

"Vance’s fantasy elements are all the more enchanting for being so close to reality. The mix of magic and the everyday will linger with readers long after the book is shut." - Publishers Weekly
“These stories are unsettling in the best way: they get under your skin and take root.” -Rachel Plummer, author of Wain.
“A freakish, festering, and occasionally beautiful collection of stories.” -Laura Waddell, author of Exit

Forever is Composed of Nows

Will Ludwigsen

Carlos was more a writer than a scientist throughout high school and college, but one of the ideas of physics always struck him as deeply and intuitively true: time is nothing more than the movement of the universe, and every moment of your life, good and bad, is really just a moment in space, some tiny spot in an orbit that’s six hundred million miles long.

He always liked to imagine that you could go to the exact same places but at different times, reach out with all your heart and feeling, and share something with your ghost. That’s why Carlos sometimes visited the house where he grew up, now abandoned, to tell himself that his father wouldn’t live forever. That’s why he sometimes stood on the Bluffs where the first boy he ever liked shoved him from his bike, to tell himself that he would be loved. And that’s why, twenty years after graduating from Lincoln Bluffs High School, he arranged to speak to an English class there about his newest book, sneaking away afterward to the boys’ bathroom where he’d lost four teeth.

Two decades hadn’t improved it at all. It was filthy and horrifying even when he was a kid, filled then and now with the reek of cigarettes and lunch farts. Every pale green tiled surface seemed smeared with a moldy film. The heavy black seats had been slammed down by a thousand other teenagers. The industrial steel mirrors had seen another generation’s bleeding acne and fuzzy moustaches. The fluorescent tubes still flickered and hummed.

The overflow drain in the center of the floor, too, remained -- the one into which his teeth had fallen. He’d heard them more than saw them on the day he lost them, his eyes clotted with blood, and they’d rattled somewhere deep inside the school like pebbles in a rain stick. Carlos, twenty years older now and rich, still glanced over his shoulder before stooping beside that drain. He squinted with one eye, but of course the teeth were long gone.

He had new ones now, made from materials no one had ever heard of in 1990, and no one but him could tell the difference.

Carlos stood and pushed open the door of the stall farthest to the right, the one with the wide door for a wheelchair. That’s where he’d taken Eric that afternoon, squeezing inside with their coats and book bags before bolting the latch. That’s where he’d come out to his best friend.

“What’s up, man?” Eric had asked. He’d had thick, wavy blond hair that Carlos loved and slightly envied, plus a slender neck that had a way of tilting Eric’s head with an expression of total attention, total interest. Together, they’d talked about everything, except the obvious.

Carlos had practiced it, he had, but he couldn’t remember the script. That was probably just as well because it had never sounded quite right even in the privacy of his own bedroom mirror. It wasn’t something to be practiced, anyway, but something to be blurted.

So he did.

“Eric, you need to know that I love you,” he’d said. Ugh. That’s not what he wanted to say at all, so formal and prissy. His heart had almost leapt out with the words, perhaps to take them back and try again. It almost did again now that he remembered them.

This was the point in the script where Eric was supposed to open his eyes wide, tear up, and confess what he felt, too. But he didn’t. He only looked thoughtful, as he often did, perhaps considering it all as some kind of puzzle to be worked.

They’d stood there in silence, jammed into the stall, looking from each other’s eyes to each other’s lips. Eric opened his mouth to say something but closed it again, and instead he put his hands on Carlos’s shoulders.

“Carlos, you need to know that—”

A fist thundered against the door, followed by four others. On the other side came the cackling laughter of Marcus Zenner and his idiot buddies. How they’d gotten into the bathroom so quietly, he couldn’t figure; it wasn’t like them, all punching and belching their way through school. But they’d overheard. God, they’d overheard. And now, Eric and Carlos were trapped.

“You gonna kiss?” purred Marcus, squinting through the gap between the door and the hinges. “You gonna go down?”

Before they could answer or deny, the boys buffeted the walls of the stall like animals flushing out prey. Eric and Carlos pressed closer and closer from the edges. Carlos kept watching Eric for any sign that he was still on his side, that he was still his friend even if everything else had gone wrong. Even if he didn’t love Carlos back.

Now, two decades later, Carlos put his hand to the door of that stall. He closed his eyes, held his breath, and shared himself with the past. Shared his strength. His hope.

Eric had reached for the bolt and Carlos’s breath caught. The latch snapped loudly home.

“You know I love you, too,” said Eric. Then he kicked the door open.

It swung fast and true, right into Marcus Zenner’s forehead. He sprawled backwards over the sinks, blood already streaking down his face. It was the best first shot Carlos had ever seen, and he enjoyed it even when the others circled in, their fists coming again and again like pistons. He enjoyed it even when they’d kicked his legs out from under him, when someone planted a class ring into his jaw, when—yes—his teeth tumbled down the pipes.

He and Eric gave what they could in return. It wasn’t an epic battle but one scrappy and dirty with kicks and scratches. They hadn’t won, quite, but they hadn’t lost either. It took Dean Kleiner, Vice Principal Moulton, and half the baseball team to pull them all apart, and they’d gotten a month of detention for it. Funny how Marcus Zenner and his cronies didn’t say much to them ever again, though God knew a hundred others would take their place over the years.

Carlos leaned into the stall door. His younger self and his older one passed each other through. From himself, he took strength. To himself, he gave hope.

“We win,” he whispered. “Eventually.”

Somewhere, someplace, he answered, “I know.”

Carlos pulled his hand back. He looked around the bathroom one last time, took in one last breath of the awful scent of urinal pucks and antibacterial soap, and nodded. He had a speech to give, students to encourage, and then a flight back home to Eric.

Whatever a Body Is Not Obliged to Do

L.A. Fields

It happened when the circus came to St. Petersberg, a night when Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, though nearly eighteen, were very much children again. Tom was alive with energy, anxious to pester the clowns and ride the elephant, while Huck found his joy eating pies and peppermints until he needed to take a walk and see the sights, just to digest his food. Huck skipped the games the other boys competed in, instead preferring the entertainment of a puppet show and a gentle ride on a horse, which is where Tom found him again towards the end of the day, and saw something that eclipsed many of the other wonders of the circus.

Once the merrymakers dismounted the horses and the animals were left to themselves, one of the stallions in turn mounted a mare, and there was bedlam among the onlookers. So many of the ladies were horrified and ashamed to see it, while the boys hooted before being scolded by any nearby mother. Some were confused that the horses were fighting and needed to be separated, which is when Tom was happy to stand up high, to declaim and educate.

“Ain’t you ever seen a farm animal bigger than a chicken? This is natural, it’s how horses make ponies, it’s how they become mother-horse and father-horse, that’s how all mothers and fathers make babies.”

“It is not!” exclaimed one of the younger children.

“You shut your mouth right this moment Tom Sawyer, or so help me your Aunt Polly will hear about this and she’ll sew it shut! Shame on you.”

“Shame on me? Shame on the horses, they’re the ones who can’t wait until they shut the barn door! They must be in love.”

The horse’s keepers shooed people away grumbling about “should only bring geldings to these goddamn things.” They started throwing buckets of water on the horses to separate them, but already Tom had seen all he needed to get an idea percolating in his head, Huck could tell by the shrewd set of his eyebrows all the way home with his cousin Sid. To Huck it always looked like a person doing a math problem, but that was how Tom’s mind worked; Tom Sawyer had the best head Huck ever knew on either side of the Mississippi.

Sid was fixed to stay the night at a friend’s house. Once Tom and Huck had installed him safely there, and took themselves home, Tom was just about ready to lay his thoughts out before bed.

There were three beds in the boys’ room ever since Huck moved to Aunt Polly’s, and they never did grow tired of whispering at night of schemes and recollections, as she swore they would eventually. The place felt so like home to him now that Huck, like Tom, could find his way to undress in the nearly perfect dark, without a single misstep.

Huck spoke to Tom as they readied for bed, reminisced about all the lovely food he had, “nothing but pie for dinner,” while Tom was unusually silent until he had his next idea fully grown.

“You know I was right about those horses, and about mothers and fathers?”

“Ah course I know that, any fool should if he’s been alive more than a few minutes, if he’s paying attention.”

“Right. Well now, the horses, they know it by instinct, but we don’t. Do you?”

“I presume I know enough from what I heard Pap storming on about the subject of relations with women.”

“You heard, you don’t know though, like the horse did. He knew where to go and when and how, and the mare as well, she knew.”

“Maybe they had more practice,” Huck said. That is when Tom moved to sit on Huck’s bed, so he could whisper his big idea. Huck felt him move to the bed more than he saw it, although his eyes were nearly adjusted to the summer moonlight coming through the window. He could see nearly everything as shadow upon shadows.

“Now that’s my thinking too Huck, I’m glad you’re on the same page with me. Don’t you think we ought to practice before we have wives, so we don’t hurt them?”

“You can’t practice that, Tom, that’s a sin.”

“Yes, with a girl, when you aren’t married already, of course it is, but wouldn’t it be kind to our wives if we should think about it before then?”

“Well,” said Huck, “but what about the horse, Tom? Won’t it mind your practice?”

Tom’s shook his head in an oft-used movement, one of overwhelming disbelief in the foolishness of others.

“Huck, we wouldn’t bother the horses, that’s too disgusting! And besides that, it wouldn’t tell us anything about human women anyway.”

“Right,” said Huck beginning to follow Tom’s thoughts. “That’s right, and horses can kick pretty hard if they don’t want you behind them, cave your head right in.”

“That they will, Huck, that’s sound reasoning there. You won’t mind as much as a horse would, will you?”

“Mind what?”

“What do you think, what? Why, what we’re talking about, about trying some practice.” Tom moved around to behind Huck now, and urged him down towards the bed until he was on all fours—hands and knees—like a horse.

“Not now, you don’t mean?” Huck said. “With your Aunt Polly asleep in this very house?”

“With Sid gone it’s a better time than usual to have some privacy. And Aunt Polly’s had just as exciting a day as we’ve had, she’ll be dead asleep. How much noise do you think you’ll make? We might should start out with a gag, like kidnappers use for their quarries.”

It was then, on his way to find a useful gag, that Tom’s hand grazed down the cleft of where God split a body’s legs apart, and Huck realized where this was all headed. How strange to think of something so hidden being plumbed...Huck blushed to conceive of it, but did not move from where Tom left him.

Tom returned with the handle end of a paintbrush past its use, the brush of it long gone, and the handle kept for a future fire come winter. Tom blew the dust off it, wiped it on his pants as if to clean it, the tossed it on the bed before Huck, before removing his pants, and everything else. Huck still did not move.

“You can put the handle in your mouth, something to bite down on just like when they’ve got to set you a broken bone. It can’t hurt more than that, I hear nothing does short of having babies and getting gut-shot.”

Huck was picturing both of those scenarios as he put the brush-handle between his teeth, and Tom, now in his altogether, pushed away the remaining clothes from Huck’s backside, and put his hand between Huck.

The fiddling around at first felt quite good, like a tickle that doesn’t make a body laugh. Tom found the entrance he was looking for, and as he did when he found anything where he thought it ought to be, he approved.

“That’s it there, and I’ll have to”—Tom hacked and spat—“to start. This is going to be like sheering an ear of corn through a knothole in a fence post. You ever do it like that?”

“Huh uh,” Huck responded through his makeshift bridle, and uninterested in talking anyhow as Tom pierced his way through him, and then grabbed him by the hips.

Huck found he was able to stay quiet, for the air rushed out of his lungs and he couldn’t make a sound if he wanted to. And yet, the handle in his mouth did good to help him grit through the pain of it, for that was otherwise hard to ignore. And yet once Tom moved past the edges, and could be felt on Huck’s insides, that motion was quite distracting. It was both familiar and strange at the same time thing, like no other movement Huck had ever felt. His insides all seemed to shift jointly, the way a group of fish will swim together, and then Tom’s body came down on Huck’s back like a heavy blanket.

Huck slumped under Tom’s weight, and slid until he lay flat on his bed. Tom came with him, insistent in his task and undisturbed by Huck’s shift. His forehead, damp with sweat, came to rest against the back of Huck’s neck, and Huck reached behind him, and clutched at Tom’s hair in time with each stabbing thrust.

And then a sound from Tom: a weak, sweet sound, like women make when they are about to cry at the sight of something beautiful, a baby or a wedding or a meaninful gift. Tom bit Huck then, on the meat of his shoulder. Not too hard, or so Huck felt in the moment, though later it would ache like a bruise. And then Tom shuddered, and the thrusting wound down and slipped away.

Tom panted atop of Huck, and for once in his life seemed to have nothing to say. Huck waited as long as he could, but he wanted to move about again, and there was still wood in his mouth. He dropped the brush handle to the floor, and its clatter was loud enough to startle Tom into action.

“We’ll have to lose that, it’ll have bite marks on it now, might seem suspicious.”

Tom got up, collected his makeshift gag, and went to his own bed. Huck brought his clothes back into place, and rolled over.

“Wasn’t that interesting, Huck? You’re quiet as the grave over there, what did you think? I swear I’ll sleep like the dead tonight myself, won’t you?”

Huck pondered, knew he would sleep fitfully if at all, but said, “I’m certainly tired enough.”

“Right, me too, quite a day for exertions.” And with that Tom rolled over, and his breathing soon fell into the rhythm of slumber.

~ ~ ~

In better truth, Huck was disturbed, both mentally and in his body, and though he did fall asleep eventually that night, he woke up unsure of how to be in the daylight. Tom was unchanged, and when Sid returned home to bang around and wake them both, Tom was happy to spring out of bed and make him sorry for it, the same as any other morning. Huck lingered so long looking clammy that Aunt Polly worried he was sick.

“Too much excitement,” she deemed his condition, but Huck tried to veer her away from what sounded too much like the truth, and said, “More like too much rich food. May I lie abed today?” His request was granted. Tom was tasked with bringing Huck’s supper to him, and Tom knew the true diagnosis.

“Here is your food, you feel up to eating?” He set Huck’s plate on the bedside table, and then sat beside Huck to whisper. “You ain’t been rearranged inside, have you? If you need a doctor it might be hard to explain.”

“I don’t need a doctor,” Huck assured him. He learned enough taking whoopings from his Pap growing up what dangerous pain was from discomfort, and what injury was from hurt feelings.

“Well, what’s wrong with you then?”

Huck shrugged one shoulder, and caught a whiff of his food, and found himself naturally hungry. He reached for his fork and sat up. He asked Tom to tell him a story.

“A happy story or a scary story?”

“An exciting story.”

Tom thought, looking up at the ceiling to sort through his mind. His sun-touched hair fell into his eyes, the same hair that brushed against the back of Huck’s neck the night before. Huck imagined him flipping through the many tales he knew, as Judge Thatcher will whip through pages in his law books, looking for the one right answer he remembered seeing somewhere before. Tom could do that with his own unseen thoughts, which to Huck was always a wonder.

Tom told him a story of pirates, and kings, and treasure snatched between one and the other, and a whale they had to join forces against—it had betrayal, and sword fights, and a great storm. Tom talked so well and so beautifully that Huck decided then he would let Tom make a wife of him once more, if ever he asked. And he asked quite soon, in fact the very next day when Huck was more like himself again.

“Say, how many secret places do we know, Hucky, where a body can be alone and private?”

They knew many lonely places like that, places they could go together, in daylight, where they could take slower care of one another, and practice whatever they wanted to do, as much as they pleased. They went first to a ha’nted house or two, and then to the caves which they found preferable, because they were mostly sealed up tight for safety, and folks remembered how Injun Joe died in there, entombed alive and trying to dig his way out with a knife. Ha’nted caverns is what they were, and since Tom knew his own private entrance due to being lost in there once before, that was the place he settled on for this new exploration.

It was two weeks after they’d had their first practice when Huck suggested there was more to learn. He put the idea to Tom as they regained their bearings one afternoon. They were sitting in the cavern following a particularly vigorous practice, one that had left Huck’s knees feeling tenderized from kneeling on the stone, though he did not complain.

Instead, Huck asked, “Tom, who have you kissed?”

“Why, loads of girls, Huck. Amy Lawrence and Becky Thatcher and Sarah Adams over at Aunt Sally’s place. You know I’ve been engaged more than once, and it’s the kiss that seals an engagement, makes it official.”

“Shouldn’t we practice kissing then, if it’s so important to engagements? And marriages too of course.”

Tom sat back in the dim glow of the cave and pushed his hair from his face, where the sweat kept it sculpted back in a wave.

“There’s a thought, Huck, it is hard to get practice with kissing, what with engagements mattering so much more now that we’re older. How much have you kissed?”

Huck had kissed no one at all, but he did not want to say so. He had been kissed by women, not girls but grown women, on the mouth and all, but still as they might kiss their own sons, which was not the same.

“I might could do with some practice myself, Tom.”

And so practice they did, right there in the cave, where the stones were far cooler than the air outside, and where the hardness of the rock against Huck’s back made Tom’s lips feel all the softer.

And practice they did sometimes throughout the days to come, if there was a moment when they were assuredly alone upstairs, and knew they would hear the creaking approach of anyone else.

And Tom soon found more than kissing to do in these moments, with his tongue and his hands, the likes of which you could never do to a girl without her father being justified to lash you to bloody ribbons. This was what Huck liked best, the caressing and dandling of one another, and the half-smirk Tom would have when it was time to part, as if they at long last had the greatest secret of their lifetime of scheming together, as if they were the greatest friends and not even wives would ever know more than the other. It was the secret that meant the world to Huck.

It was the discovery of the secret that brought Huck’s world tumbling down. Not that Huck was unfamiliar with having a new life altogether every few years or so, but people always swore to him he was done drifting: the Widow Douglas swore it once, as did Judge Thatcher, and Aunt Polly, and boy were they always wrong. First his Pap would come for him, but then Pap died. And then Jim needed him for an escape that turned out to be no escape at all, but that had ended too. Huck had found places along the way with Jim where he might have made a new home, but it never stuck—one family would be annihilated by their own feud with their neighbors, another would be getting swindled so badly that Huck could not stay without coming under suspicion or harm. At last, living with Tom Sawyer, Huck thought he was done. Because nothing could move Tom Sawyer but Tom Sawyer, and if Tom wanted Huck around, he would find a way. Huck believed that.

Until the day came when Sid saw what he should not have seen, because Tom and Huck had been doing some kissing where they ought not to have done it, in a daytime room without a thought to who else was about, assuming that they’d have time to hear a body’s approach, long enough to send their own bodies in different directions. They were wrong.

Tom had playfully shouldered Huck into a corner, a shadowy place just behind a window where light poured in so bright it looked thick, as if it were an invisible barrier behind which they could be free with one another. Tom’s lips were on Huck’s neck, his knee wedged up between Huck’s legs, and Huck had his hands in Tom’s curly hair, curls Tom hated for he found them too effeminate, though Huck could see beauty without any deeper meaning, and preferred to be that way. Tom’s mind, for as frighteningly grand a machine it could be, seemed to plague him with unnecessary thoughts when it was not otherwise put to use with schemes and mysteries. Huck caressed Tom’s head as if he could soothe it that way, and it was in this position that he noticed a face inching ever so gradually around the open doorway. They had not heard feet approaching, but then Sid was always a bit of a spy against Tom, and well-practiced at it. By the time Huck realized they were being spotted, it was too late, and they were seen.

Huck yanked on Tom’s sweet hair to make him stop and notice, and when he looked into Huck’s eyes and saw where they were fixed, he too turned to find Sid maliciously satisfied, but not with the same glee he usually felt when he had the means to prove Tom had stolen or lied. Sid himself was not above stealing or lying, he just wasn’t as skilled at it as his cousin, none of the boys of St. Petersberg were. This new knowledge, however, turned out to be something that Sid would not do, that many fine people would not do, and not even Tom Sawyer could convince them otherwise. When Sid told this secret to Aunt Polly, she went to Church before she went to tell the boys what would happen next.

Aunt Polly decided all would be moved. Cousin Mary officially to her fiancé’s house: the marriage could wait no longer and must be done so she could be shifted. Next Sid would be moved into Mary’s old room. By rights it should have gone to Tom, who was older, but then the circumstances put him in very ill favor, and he was not Aunt Polly’s son, was he? He was her sister’s son, and she’d done the best she could by him, but her best had not been enough, and was now reserved for protecting Sid. That left Huck, of course, who was nobody’s son. Huck was suddenly deemed old enough to leave.

“I’d say you’ve had about as much school as you can stand, and you’re not destitute any more than Tom. With all the good luck you boys have found over the years, digging up treasures left and right, with what seemed like such good fortune. And yet maybe the money was all a temptation from the Devil, who finally found a way in by another entrance. You’ll go Huck, and you’ll speak well of us, won’t you? The families in the town of St. Petersberg that treated you so well with Christian charity.”

“I’m leaving St. Petersberg?” Huck asked.

For he had to know: must he leave not just the house, but the town as well? Should he leave Missouri while he’s at it, go float down the river until he’s abroad again? Should he aim to land on some tropical island out in the ocean, where he might never be heard from again?

“You are to leave St. Petersberg. You’ve always been one to roam far and wide, Huckleberry Finn: do it again, and don’t come back this time, if you know what’s good for you.”

Tom did not do much to say goodbye, as he was in trouble too, only coming to the window of his lonely room to ‘maow’ like a cat, a noise Huck used to make to lure him outside for their adventures. Huck maowed back, but sounded like a sickly cat, the kind you might stick in a sack and drown out of mercy. He took off walking again, and found that his body remembered this life all too well, this lonesome life.

~ ~ ~

Huck took to the river again, in a stolen raft and with stolen provisions. They would be borrowed if he could ever come back, but as Aunt Polly forbade it, and Huck believed he would be gone for good this time, he stole out of habit. Huck would write to the Judge to forward his allowance only if he really and truly needed the funds, for life or death, but he couldn’t bring himself to answer any questions as to where he was going and why at the moment of his departure. It felt too shameful.

For days he lived more like an animal than a man, only moving when he had to, eating when he had to, and sleeping when he had to before moving on again. He decided he would stop by to see the Wilks family again, and Mary Jane who once held Huck in very high esteem. He didn’t like the way Tom’s Aunt Polly had looked at him when he left, worse than he had ever been looked at before, even at times when he was a thief and a liar and a disappointment. Huck wanted to see if Mary Jane could still see him better.

Indeed she did, for Mary Jane Wilks and her two sisters, Susan and Joanna, the harelip, owed their whole lives’ fortunes to Huck for saving them from swindlers he’d accidentally accompanied to their door in the first place. Mary Jane promised to remember him forever, and to pray for him, and when she realized who it was she was speaking to when he arrived at her door, she pulled him into a strong embrace, warm and damp in the summer heat, supple and alive. Huck was sure his own mother had never held him so fervently, nor the Widow Douglas nor Aunt Polly neither, for he had always been a duty to them, in their boney old widowing ways, whereas Mary Jane assured Huck that he was her own angel, and a boy with a pure heart.

Mary Jane Wilks had become Mary Pritchard, married to a Nathaniel Pritchard, who promptly shook Huck’s hand when they were introduced, despite Huck’s sun-burnt and unwashed state. Sister Susan too had married out of the house, and Joanna lived now in town, teaching lessons to school children. There was room enough for Huck to stay, because Mary and Nate, as he insisted to be called, had not yet been blessed with children. Huck wasn’t there two days before Mary told him he was the kind of child she’d like to raise, and asked Huck about his own upbringing, as if it might hold some wisdom for her, an orphan herself by then. Huck had been an orphan a lot longer and more thoroughly than her, however, and he told her so. Huck had no wisdom, no inheritance, only a few scars and the occasional bad dream.

Mary took to kissing him after that, only goodnight, but always on the lips. Huck knew she meant nothing by it, for she was a good married woman now, and still considered him a child because that was how she knew him first, but it still raised desires in him. Not lustful desires, not exactly; it made him miss what he’d had with Tom, made him pine. There was something so unfair in not realizing a thing is temporary until it’s proved itself so by ending. Maybe Huck should have known that all along, for life is temporary, and as life is everything, then doesn’t that stand to reason that everything is temporary? Tom would know the answer, but he was not near enough to ask.

Huck made his peace with that, and set himself to being useful for Mary and her husband. After so long of being minded by women, it was nice to live in Mr. Pritchard’s household, for Nate agreed that Huck had been schooled enough by now to know if he took to it or not, and since he did not, mightn’t Huck prefer to learn a trade? Nate was a printer, and not just printing went into that, but papermaking and bookbinding, and those were things Huck could learn even if he couldn’t spell well enough forwards to set type backwards. He could operate a press, and so was taught to do that, and made into an assistant printer. He earned money and did as he was told, and waited for it to end, as he knew it would.

~ ~ ~

It was hardly six months of this new life, with snow not yet on the ground that winter, when Huck heard unexpected news of Tom Sawyer: Tom had begun studying law, with aims to become a lawyer and eventually a judge or better, and he had taken on such an occupation because he was engaged to be married, for real this time.

It was a new day when one of Tom Sawyer’s engagements were announced by both families, and it was to Becky Thatcher he would be wed, so of course Judge Thatcher must have approved very much of Tom’s chosen career path. Huck approved too, for no one thought faster or talked better than Tom Sawyer, and being a lawyer would suit him so well. Huck had seen him in a courtroom more than once, as witness and as a detective, and Tom was nuts for being the center of attention like that, and for being a hero for justice as well. When Tom felt righteous, and when his mind had something to chew on, you could tell his happiness just by looking at him, and see him feeling like a rainbow.

Tom would be married in the spring, and Huck knew he would feel its approach until he heard it was final. He wasn’t planning to attend, being so plainly uninvited from the whole town by Aunt Polly, but the next news that came downriver from St. Petersberg was that Aunt Polly had died, of old age in combination with pneumonia. With her passed on, Huck sat down to have a think just after the new year and wondered: would Tom not need their practice now more than ever? It was only Aunt Polly that stopped them doing it, her and Sid, who could be much more easily avoided. Huck decided to chance it.

He told the Pritchards that he had a wedding to attend, and so in March they packed him off with a proper outfit and advice on etiquette. Huck couldn’t tell them he would be avoiding the ceremony itself like it was a gathering of lepers, for they wouldn’t understand. He let them believe what they wanted to believe, and kept his precious secret to himself.

Huck paid an honest fare on a steamboat to return to St. Petersberg. He was able to discern from afar that Tom and Sid still lived in Aunt Polly’s house; it would only pass fully to Sid when Sid married, though as with snatching pies from window sills, Tom had once again beat him to it. Huck came only after dark, knowing that if he maowed particularly enough, Tom would understand, and come to him.

Indeed Tom did respond to Huck’s call, and came out not through his window as they used to do when they were truly children, but through the front door as confident as if he owned the place. He let off their old whistle, and started walking away from the house, leading Huck into the woods.

Huck followed, and once inside the safety and hush of the trees, Tom embraced him from behind, kissed his cheek, and whispered, “I knew you would come back as soon as you could, you’re the best friend I ever had.”

“You’re mine too, Tom,” Huck whispered, turning around so they could shake hands, like men. “I thought of you about two times a day, at least, all this time. Did you ever think of me?”

“Why of course,” Tom said, though he didn’t specify with what frequency. He came to Huck to kiss his mouth now, but Huck wanted to speak through it first.

“You’re getting married, Tom Sawyer?”

“I am, isn’t that wild? Tom Sawyer, Husband, and soon enough it’ll be Tom Sawyer, Father.”

“Tom Sawyer, Esquire too, is that so?”

“That’s so too. My, Huck, you sure have kept up, haven’t you?” He came in for a kiss again, but Huck moved aside, denying it.

“Say Tom, if I am your best friend, who is going to stand as your best man at the wedding?”

“Why Joe Harper, for he’s my other best friend. Sid has to be there too, for p’prietary sake, but Huck even if you had been here this whole time, I’d have never bothered asking you to take on the job. These things are stuffier than three Sundays in church combined, I’d have never burdened you so.”

“I suppose that’s nice of you, Tom.”

“Oh Huck, where have you been, have you had many adventures? It wasn’t right for Sid to have snitched on us like that, I’ll never forget it or forgive it. He was always bad for loyalty, not like you.”

“Right. I don’t suppose I should make myself known around here even with Aunt Polly gone, because still there’s Sid.”

“Who would believe Sid over me? I’d make him sorry for it if he ever said a word now. You do as you please, Huck Finn.”

Huck nodded. He was pleased to kiss Tom Sawyer then, and so he did. They got so distracted with each other in the dark that they didn’t think to move to a more private spot until a rustle startled them, made them nervous about animals or worse, the possibility that cousin Sid still found Tom’s business more interesting to mind than his own. Tom took Huck’s hand and started to lead him away.

~ ~ ~

It was still too cold at night to go to their old secret places, the caverns or even a mausoleum out in the cemetery. That was no place to be at night anyway unless a body had business with the dead, so instead Tom led him to a rooming house that was an undercover speakeasy last Huck knew of it. Once Tom got them a room, he informed Huck that it was still so, opening a secret compartment in the bedside drawer that held a fifth of whiskey. Huck didn’t have any use for whiskey, not after watching what it did to his Pap, but Tom poured himself a small drink of it.

“You’ve been here before, Tom.”

“I have, I’ve found that this is a truth serum. If you meet a man when he’s drunk, you’ve met his true self.”

“That’s an ugly thing to know,” Huck said, for it meant his Pap was an ugly thing to know, though that was no real surprise.

Tom shrugged. His hair was rather more coiffed now that Huck could see him in the lamplight; he must have smartened up in preparation for his coming nuptials. Huck wondered if Tom was about to get everything he said he wanted years ago, when they sat down in some shade on a sunny day and just enjoyed each other’s company. Tom had said then that he wanted nothing more than a drum, a sword, a red neck-tie, a bull pup, and a wife, and when Huck told Tom, ‘If you get married I’ll be more lonesomer than ever,’ Tom reassured him, ‘No, you won’t. You’ll come and live with me.’

“You’re remembering something, I can tell by your face,” Tom said. He set down his drink, then came across the bed on his knees until he was close enough to kiss Huck, though he stopped just before. Huck could smell the drink on him, and didn’t like that, but didn’t care enough about it to stop him from kissing those lips. Tom smiled against Huck’s kiss.

“I sure missed you, Tom,” Huck said as Tom giggled.

“I missed you too, and I can prove it. Turn over, would you, Huck? I’m just about dying for it.”

Huck did, rolled over and started to let down his pants so Tom could pull them the rest of the way off. He closed his eyes, and felt Tom part his globes and examine his opening, test its depths with his finger.

Tom spat, and it landed right on the bull’s eye. Next came his lance, hotter than the rest of him, hotter even than the hands that grasped at Huck's buttocks and pressed them together over himself as he rubbed against the crevice of Huck, anticipating.

“Do it, Tom,” Huck whispered. “I want it too, I want you to do it.”

What took so much adjusting to the first time, Huck had grown to like. He wouldn’t tell Tom, nor anyone else in this life or the next, but he’d put the handle of a broom up there a few times, after covering it in candle wax to avoid splinters, just to remember the feel of Tom inside of him, and to pull off his pleasure with his own hand. That practice helped him to be rid of his desires, for a while, until they stoked back up again.

When Tom pushed inside of him, Huck moaned.

“Shhh,” came Tom’s whisper against his ear. “These walls are thin, Hucky.”

Tom wedged his way as deep as he could go, and once comfortable, put his hand over Huck’s mouth and started thrusting. Huck put a hand over Tom’s to clap his touch there, and keep it. With his other hand he braced himself against the wall.

Huck found himself liking this more than he ever remembered, even the pain was good, because pain was always a part of love. Even as children, how jealously Huck wanted Tom’s attention when he knew that Tom did not care to have Huck’s company in public places. When they were parted this past year, how sincerely Huck felt that separation, like having a body’s limbs pulled out of joint, like being stretched on a torture rack. This pain now, the friction and rearrangement of his insides, this was nothing to Huck, because it was everything. His own spear was leaking into the bedsheets, weeping with joy.

It wasn’t long before Tom found his release, and Huck felt it pump into him, as thick and steady as a heartbeat. Huck held still until Tom could regain composer, except for the hand that was still cupped over his mouth, that Huck began to kiss until Tom’s fingers started to prod into his mouth.

The fingers came in as Tom’s other appendage slid out, and he lifted up enough to grab Huck by the shoulder, and encourage him to turn over. Huck did so, and welcomed Tom atop of him with both his arms and legs.

“Oh,” Tom said, when he realized Huck was swollen with his own desire. He put his spent member beside it on Huck’s belly, and considered it while he continued to slip his fingers in and out of Huck’s mouth.

Huck licked and sucked at Tom’s fingers, his body throbbing gently all over, and watched Tom’s thinking. He had a face like a clock: one could always see when the cogs were turning. At last Tom had an idea which pleased him, and by the glint in his eye, he thought it would please Huck too.

Tom took his now spit-coated hand from Huck’s mouth, and relocated it to his cock. Huck whimpered on the moment of contact, but then pressed his lips between his teeth while Tom touched him.

“Let it out, Huck,” Tom whispered to him, watching Huck squirm beneath his attention. “Spill it out.”

Huck hardly needed to be told twice, for his release came in such hard waves it was like the kick of a mule, and as his body shook it out, Huck reached for Tom’s face, wanting a kiss. He got it, and the taste of drink was hardly noticeable now under some more elemental taste, like the air before it rains.

When it was done, Tom broke from their kiss, smirking again.

“I love you, Tom Sawyer,” Huck told him then, and Tom rested his head on Huck’s chest, settling down.

“I love you too, Huck, you’re my best friend.”

That Huck did enjoying hearing twice. Huck held and cradled Tom as he fell asleep in his arms, feeling more at home than he had ever felt in his entire life.

~ ~ ~

Tom’s new home, once he and Becky Thatcher were married, would be near Judge Thatcher’s house, as close as he and Mrs. Thatcher felt their daughter should be, since they were the ones who bought the house as a wedding gift. Tom took Huck on a walk just before dawn, to show off how far he was about to come up in the world.

“Becky will be close to her family, which is good for when the children come, for I’ll have to be away sometimes, advancing my career, the Judge assures me. You’ll have to come visit whenever you come through town Huck, just maow outside my window and I’ll come running every time. I might could even visit you when I’m away from home, should you ever come to settle anywhere.”

They stood still and admired. It was a nice little house, with new paint and many windows, and as Tom said, big enough not just for two people, but for children as well. Was there room enough for anyone else, perhaps a friend?

“I’m nearly settled now, Tom. I have a trade, people looking after me. I bind books.”

“You bind ’em when you can hardly stand to read ’em? That sure is funny, Huck.”

Huck didn’t think it was so funny; he would have been able to read better if he’d been born Sawyer and not Finn, which was hardly a joke.

“You once said, Tom, that I could come live with you when you got married. Did you mean that?”

“I surely did at the time, Huck, but now I’d have to ask my wife and her father, since it’s his house for the moment, and I bet you wouldn’t want to live around all that, would you? Asking for permission all the time.”

“I suppose I wouldn’t,” Huck said, disappointed but unsurprised. Tom liked to be his friend, but he never liked to be seen doing so. With all that had changed since they were children, that still had not.

Tom and Huck moved on from the future Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer’s house, and arrived back at Sid and Aunt Polly’s house just before sun-up. Tom put out a hand to shake there, and Huck took it.

“You want to come see me again tomorrow night, Huck?”

He did, very badly he did, but Huck had a question to ask, even as he nodded.

“Say Tom, if I come to see you at night after you’re married, would you not have to ask your wife about that too? What about her father?”

Tom grinned. “Oh, don’t be so silly, what concern is it of theirs?”

“You’ll take vows when you get married, you’ll make a promise and you never break a promise, isn’t that so?”

Tom crossed his heart, and swore freely right there, saying, “Of course I never break a promise, but should you find yourself outside the church window on that day, you’ll hear me promise myself to one woman, and I’ll mean that until death shall we part. The preacher won’t ask me nothing about Huck Finn though, I’ll bet you that.”

Huck nodded again, for that sounded true enough, and with a nod and a salute, they parted: Tom to one of his many houses, and one of his many warm beds, and Huck to find his own place in the world, yet again.

~ ~ ~

Tom and Huck met every night in the week leading up to Tom’s wedding, which did happen, though Huck held out hope that somehow it would not, that it would be one more of Tom Sawyer’s tricks in a career of many. Tom wanted Huck to stick around a few more days, so Tom could tell him how it was with a woman, whether or not all their practicing paid off, but Huck did not want to know. He left town, assuming he was being kind to both of them by removing himself from the equation. What they had could only grow to wither now; better to nip it in the bud.

On his way out of town, Huck reviewed his logic: he remembered something Tom pointed out to him years ago, that to promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing. Just as work consisted of whatever a body was obliged to do, and play consisted of whatever a body was not obliged to do, the simple fact that Tom could continue to see Huck, by his logic, even after his nuptials, would eventually take the desire away, and the charm of it. Huck did not want to lose any of that, so he took it with him early Sunday morning, his forbidden secret. Tom was moving on to a new part of his life, and Huck figured he ought to do the same, enjoying the comforting thought that they were together in that: as two railroad tracks are together, even though they never touch.

Huck returned to the Pritchards, but found himself so changed that it no longer felt right either. Mary was still something to him, and her husband as well for having the patience to teach him a useful skill, but Huck didn’t like that they’d known him before, and thus now knew him to be changed. Huck thought he had kept his face and his feelings inscrutable, but Mary could read his face just as plainly as Huck could read hers. When early that summer they found themselves alone for a moment, Mary knitting something, and Huck standing waiting for Nathanial to return, Mary paused in her work and looked up at Huck. He knew she knew something about him that Huck hadn’t meant to tell anyone. He knew that whenever she was done saying her piece about it, Huck would need to leave this place again as well.

“The wedding you attended, it touched you,” she said, her eyes and tone so motherly it was a shame she had yet to birth a child herself.

“It did,” Huck admitted.

“Was it the marriage of your sweetheart to someone else?”

There she had hit the nail home with a single hammer blow, though of course she would be assuming it was the bride who was Huck’s sweetheart, and not the groom.

“That’s about it,” Huck told her. Mary then set aside her knitting and stood, holding out her arms for Huck. He went to her to be petted and hugged, for to him it was a hug goodbye, and he wouldn’t pass it up.

“That explains why such a happy occasion made you return so sad.” She rubbed his back as she held him, as if he might be cold in such sweltering summer heat. Then she straightened him up in front of her, correcting the posture of Huck’s shoulders with her hands, and holding her own chin up proudly so that Huck would do the same to match. “You may not want to hear it today, my young friend, but God has a way of putting things right. Though she’s married to someone else now, if you’re meant to be, perhaps her husband will come to some unlikely accident, leaving her in need of you. That is not to wish harm on him, to be sure, but that is how life often works, putting silver linings around even the darkest of clouds. If it is meant to be, it will be, and if you are meant for someone even more wonderful, then that will come to pass instead. You’ll see that the pain of today was felt only to teach you how to treasure your wife when you find her.”

Mary smiled at him, so happy in her own marriage that she was confident each and every person could find the same, if only they were patient enough to wait for it. Huck had seen his parents’ marriage, and all they did was fight all the time, and even Mary, though she was kind enough to Huck, thought as many women did that it was her job to fix men. A man was to be scolded and reshaped, to be rewarded with affection if he had done right, but to be withheld of it if he had not. Huck had never wanted a wife even once in his life, and thought everyone including Tom Sawyer was crazy for wanting otherwise. Though now he knew better than he used to why he himself might have no desire for a wife, he couldn’t speak that reason to Mary, or to any woman, or to any other body on the earth.

Huck left again, ready to accept himself for the way he was, and stop expecting to be someone new one day. Perhaps he would never be comfortable putting down roots in a place, and that was fine; Huck had grown to prefer freedom anyway. Perhaps he would never be a part of any one town, but a citizen of the road, and that was alright too. In fact in his wanderings to find work as a printing press operator, he came across a book that ever so slowly convinced him he was a freer American than all the rest because he could not settle down. It also convinced him that being inclined towards men more than women was not so unnatural either, only rarer, and purer, for it was love left uncomplicated by marriage, church, and children.

Leaves of Grass it was called, and for its sake Huck improved his reading, and in so doing improved his value as a printer. Once he could read the words forwards as well as arrange them backwards, he made fewer mistakes with each passing job, each passing month, and each passing year.

It was three years before Huck laid eyes on Tom again, or rather before Tom found him. Huck was living outside of Memphis, traveling to the city to take and deliver orders, and apparently Tom’s book-learning had brought him into one of those shops, where he heard Huck Finn’s name.

“I knew there could be no other,” Tom said, when Huck opened the door to his room in a boarding house, and felt as if he’d been pitched through time to the long-distant past. “Huck Finn, where have you been?”

“Right here,” Huck said, gesturing into his small room, which Tom took as an invitation and stepped right through. “Right here, among other places. I move whenever I’m restless.”

“That sounds like the life of a man,” Tom said. “Me, I can’t move around much, with a wife and a baby.”

“Tom Sawyer, Father?” Huck asked as he closed his door, wondering if this visit wouldn’t change how he felt in this place.

Huck hadn’t ever had a visitor here before, so how would it look for a man to suddenly waltz in and spend some time in a room hardly big enough for the bed it contained? The bed was where Tom tossed himself to talk a spell. Were this visit to cause any questions, even one, Huck would move to a new city. He’d done it before, five times already. He didn’t like people being too curious about who Huck Finn liked to know.

“That’s right, I have a son,” Tom said, grinning and proud, as anyone might be to know his heir was secure.

“That’s wonderful, Tom. As you can see from my rooms, I have no wife.”

“That’s smart, no rush to get married when you’ll just have to be so the rest of your life.”

“But you don’t mind it for yourself?”

“I don’t,” Tom said, “I find that often I can talk myself into having things both ways. In St. Petersberg I have my wife and boy, but then when I’m in Memphis to come observe some court proceedings, and pick up some books for Judge Thatcher back home, I have Huck Finn again.” A silence lapsed as Tom’s eyes roved over Huck. Then he asked, “Do I have Huck Finn again?”

Huck wanted to say ‘no,’ for there was a reason that he stayed away from St. Petersberg all these years, to say no by virtue of his absence. He knew it would be harder to say it in person, so hard in fact that Huck found it impossible.

Instead of saying a word, Huck lowered the flame of his lamp, and moved to join Tom on his bed. Tom did not budge over, and so Huck laid his body on top of Tom’s, trying to match him knee-for-knee, hip-for-hip, though Huck was still taller than Tom, and they didn’t quite fit. Tom reached to thumb Huck’s bottom lip, to separate it from the top one, to open his mouth ever so slightly. It was just open enough for Tom’s tongue to slide in during his kiss.

As they undressed, Huck knew he would not stay in this boarding house even one more day longer than he was already paid up, he wouldn’t chance it. He had known a couple of men in the intervening time since he and Tom last met: one a sailor Huck had met scrounging around New Orleans, who seemed to know Huck’s look like he’d felt it on him before; another a fellow who’d come to his printing operation in Vicksburg, Mississippi, asking after copies of Walt Whitman’s work, which Huck had in his private collection, and which he gave the man access to, among other things.

Huck would say none of that to Tom, even if Tom had asked, for he feared being judged for it. Tom did not ask about their time apart even though he must have guessed parts of it, for Huck had learned what pleasure could be given by mouth, a pleasure far deeper than kissing, and did so for Tom only to be too soon stopped.

“Not like that,” Tom told him, “it ain’t equal, you on your knees like that, beneath me.” That was just like Tom, what made him better than so many others, that he would not take what he wouldn’t share back. Huck tried to explain that they could it to each other at the same time, like the numbers 6 and 9 close together, but he wouldn’t do it and so wouldn’t let it be done to him neither. Another good thing Huck could always say about Tom: he would share whatever he had and bring friends along, whereas other boys, and the men they ultimately grew to be, only ever wanted to share what was yours.

In fact, Tom was feeling so generous once they were spent, he invited Huck to come back to St. Petersberg, to come meet his family. As Huck knew he could not stay where he was then, worried as he was over how thin the walls could be in the boarding house, Huck decided he would accept the invitation. Why not? What he thought he was resisting had already been had, and so what harm in there was going back to St. Petersberg now?

~ ~ ~

It was agreed in Memphis that Huck would arrive one month hence—that would give Huck time to pack up and skedaddle from yet another city, maybe forever, and enough time for Tom to inform his wife that they would have an official guest. Huck arrived with books as gifts, a book of American fairy tales for mother and child, and a secret one for Tom, which he withheld until after dinner.

The dinner, while delicious, did not settle well within Huck, for the entire time he sat at the table, complimenting the home and the food and the qualities of his hosts, he could not stop knowing that there sat Mrs. Sawyer, and the proof of her union with Tom, a loud child. Though the little fellow was hardly speaking any words at all, in between them he cooed and yipped and squealed, and Tom was mighty proud of it.

“You hear that, Huck? I think he gets that from his father, you know I’m quite a one for talking. He just can’t wait to get started talking up a storm.”

“Indeed,” agreed Becky Sawyer. “If it weren’t for Tom’s travels I’d never get any peace in this house, not even when little Davie is down for his nap.”

The son was named David Alexander, after two kings. Tom told Huck that and more when dinner was complete, and they were alone in his study to smoke pipes and, for Tom, to drink brandy. Tom offered Huck some, but Huck refused, as he had always refused.

“I don’t know about that, Huck. Of course it’s right not to drink like your old Pap, but I find it hard to trust a stranger who doesn’t drink. If he can’t handle a drink or two, perhaps he can’t trust himself.”

“Well I’m no stranger to you, Tom.”

“That’s so,” Tom agreed, restoring his brandy decanter to its place.

Tom’s study was unlike the boy Huck used to know, it was too proper, too professional, but that was Tom’s life now, and possibly his only remaining rebellion was his continued knowledge of Huck Finn. Tom used to talk such grand plans of lawlessness and freedom, but when it came down to it, that sort of life was not so easy to choose. Huck wouldn’t know maybe, as he never had a choice in that matter. Huck chose not to know drunkenness however, because it was a false sense of freedom, and too destructive for Huck to touch.

Tom sat in a stiff, stuffed chair near a window obscured by a heavy curtain. In front of him was a table, with a chess game half-played on a board atop it. Tom gestured that Huck should take the other chair.

“The Judge and I have an ongoing game,” Tom said with a nod towards the chess board. “We each make one move every Sunday, and he has a board just like it in his home, for strategizing over during the week.” Tom smirked. “I think he likes to be so slow about it because he thinks he can die before I beat him.”

“You like Judge Thatcher,” Huck said, wondering if the Judge was as much the reason Tom married Becky as she was herself.

“He teaches me quite a bit,” Tom said, leaning back in his chair, and slumping comfortably. The alcohol was taking effect on him. Tom’s eyes roved over Huck, and reminded Huck of what he still had concealed on his person, in the pocket of his vest, his secret gift. “I mean, the Judge teaches me nothing I couldn’t learn on my own of course, but why work hard instead of smart, if you have the choice?” Tom asked.

“An easy decision,” Huck said, before he brought out the book he wanted Tom to have, and slid it across the table. “I thought you might find this interesting, Tom.”

It was a copy of Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend, a story about a man who marries unwisely, even after he’s met his better friend, a man he loves, who tries to caution him about the marital union before it even takes place. Later, that friend must save Joseph from being convicted of his wife’s accidental death, for she left it looking like a murder. There is a moment where, in anguish about the decision to marry once it cannot be undone, Joseph contemplates suicide and is stopped by his friend, and kissed by his friend, and soothed about an idea that they might both run away together to some green valley where womanly concerns would not follow them. Huck wanted Tom to read it, and to agree with it. Huck knew how to run away after all, wouldn’t Tom like to come with him? He always used to say he would.

Tom took the book, squinted at it, and tapped on the cover as if he’d heard of it before and couldn’t quite place where. He opened it and started to glance through it, for Huck had already pre-cut the pages. Leaf by leaf, Tom flipped to the end, pausing in a few spots to truly read the words before continuing on, his eyes darting around as fast as a bird pecking the ground for seeds. Could he read so fast? Could he see so clearly? Huck, had he been a betting man, would have wagered of course.

When Tom closed the back cover, he looked up at Huck, his smile now changed.

“This means what, Huck?”

Huck shrugged. “You’ve had more book-learning than me, what do you think it means?”

“I think it means you don’t like my family,” Tom said. “Here I invited you so you could meet them, and you don’t want anything to do with them.”

This was not the message Huck intended, but it did remind him why he’d meant to stay away from St. Petersberg: he hadn’t wanted to know just how out-of-place he truly was here.

“More like they wouldn’t want me to have anything to do with you, Tom, if they ever knew what we were to each other.”

“And what are we?” Tom asked, sitting up ramrod straight, relaxed no more.

“Why, we’re friends, Tom,” Huck said, shifting his eyes to the book still in Tom’s hands, which then was tossed back across the table into Huck’s lap, scattering the chess pieces to the floor.

“Oh, hell,” Tom said, getting up for another drink, this time a whiskey. “I’ll thank you not to come moralizing in my own house, Huck. If I didn’t know you better, I’d wonder if you hadn’t found religion or something.”

“Not religion,” Huck said, standing up and leaving the book in his seat; he did not intend to take it back with him when he left, which might well be that very night, that very hour. “I don’t have religion but I do have a problem being here like this, and you should too I think. Does it not feel dishonest?”

Tom glared at Huck now, his voice a whisper like a snake’s hiss. “Oh, shucks what you think, Huck Finn. If I was as ignorant as you, I’d keep still.”

“You’ve said about the same to me before Tom, but the truth is, I can’t stand this sort of deception and you can, isn’t that so?”

“You’re calling me a liar, Huck?”

“Not a liar. You was always just this strict and delicate, Tom. You’d never tell a lie yourself, but you’d volunteer someone else to do it for you, just as easy as pie. You wouldn’t steal, but you wouldn’t mind sharing in what other's stole. You barely keep your vows, but you’d be awfully offended if Becky did the same as you, isn’t that…?”

Huck had been so busy rambling that he hadn’t noticed Tom winding up to hit him. Huck caught the punch with his left cheek, hadn’t even moved to block it, but it wasn’t the pain of the fist that hurt him so much as the knowledge of the owner who threw it. Huck had taken harder hits from drunker men in his life, but he hadn’t expect this, and didn’t want it to feel so familiar.

“Maybe you should leave, Huck, unless you wanna fight.”

“I’ll go,” Huck said, “but you just make sure you never come find me again.” He turned to leave, but Tom put his hand on Huck again, this time a gentle palm on Huck’s shoulder.

“Hold on, don’t be too sore about it. You gotta know it’s only fair for me to defend my wife’s honor.”

Huck stayed with his back to Tom, and shook his head. He felt dizzy, maybe from the smack to his head, maybe from the damn emotions of it all.

“You would put it like that, Tom. I swear, if I had such a head as you, I wouldn’t trade it for nothing. I always knew you’d make quite a name for yourself, equal to Captain Kidd or George Washington, and you’re well on your way, I can see that. Being Tom Sawyer must be so easy and comfortable. Why, I got eyes that can see things too, but they never mean nothing to me. Like the way you understood that whole book in about a minute, Tom, you’re different—when you see a thing it gets right up on its hind legs and talks to you, tells you everything it knows. I ain’t fitten to black your boots, I know that, but when I don’t feel right with something I can’t abide it. I’ve always been that way, Tom.”

Tom’s hand squeezed his shoulder then, as Huck had run down like a winded-up toy. Tom came around to look Huck in his eye, angry no more, but looking pitying enough to make a body cry. Huck started crying, getting so damp about it that surely Tom had never seen anything so disgusting, but he didn’t say so. Instead he was kind.

“I can’t even count how many times, in desperation, I flew to the bosom of Huckleberry Finn for refuge growing up. There was nothing more special in the world to me than taking you to a lonely place to have a talk with you. That’s the way I’ve always been, and you know that too, don’t you?”

Huck nodded, and stopped up his leaks and pushed back his hair and stood up straight. This was still a goodbye, but it was becoming a better one.

There were things Tom did when they were kids for the sake of style that felt wrong then and still feel wrong now, like performing an escape with Jim when Tom already knew he was free, or putting a man through a murder trial just so he could show off his detective skills in front of a crowded courtroom, an audience. Perhaps that impulse would someday make him a grand lawyer, and Huck hoped it would be so, but in all the years they’d spent apart and growing up, Huck knew better than to try resist the pull of what felt right to him. Every resistance of his conscience had led him wrong, and every acceptance of its advice had left him right, and that’s evidence simple enough for even Huck to make a verdict on.

There wasn’t much else to say. They hugged, but Huck knew he had not changed Tom’s mind about anything, for that was Tom’s way when he’d got his plans set: Tom Sawyer moved for no one. What Huck had done was firm up his own mind, that he would never return to St. Petersberg again, not even for Tom’s funeral, be it true or false. He also secured a promise from Tom that he would not seek Huck again, and Tom never broke his word.

Huck had once asked Miss Watson, the sister of the Widow Douglas, if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go to heaven, and she said, ‘Not by a considerable sight.’ Huck had been glad about that, because he wanted him and Tom to be together, and Huck had no interest in heaven.

Huck said as much to Tom as he left, told him just because they promised to never meet on this earth again didn’t mean they would not meet somewhere else, not specifying Above or Below. Tom agreed to that, and shook Huck’s hand over it, which didn't surprise Huck, because he had known Tom Sawyer so well, and that was just his way.

Walking from St. Petersberg for the last time, Huck remembered a speculation he’d had a long time ago about Tom, and it made him smile to remember it: that Tom Sawyer was always nuts for a mystery, so much so that if someone laid out a mystery and a pie before him and Huck, they wouldn’t have to say ‘take your choice,’ because it was a thing that would regulate itself. In Huck’s nature, he would always run to pie, whilst in Tom’s nature he would always run to mystery. People are mad different, and it is the best way.

Last Night at Manscape

Nick Mamatas

The cops in the 1950s could do nothing about it, thanks to a few well-positioned lieutenants who were regulars. The hippies in the 1960s were way too straight for the scene, but they had their own things going on. The NIMBYs of the 1970s, the Yuppies of the 1980s, the recession of the 1990s and the boom and dot.com bust of the 2000s just made the Manscape sleazier and then much cleaner by turns.

2010s though. The techbros, overgrown babies looking to get married, they ruined everything. The Manscape was half a square block of adjoining basements under factory buildings. The sliding doors and dogleg corners hadn’t been built by queers—maybe it had been the Syndicate, or had to do with water tables and tiny fault lines under the city. But the labyrinth of corners and alcoves and a few long halls, all exposed brick, made from an amazing club for men. Now women were coming, and track lighting, and LED monitors on the walls, and bathrooms made of materials determined to stay white and unscratched, and a goddamn underground oyster bar, and elevators to the street.

Theo wasn’t a techie, he was just a tech, a guy who worked with his hands to lay cable. At the hiring hall, the Manscape gig went unstaffed for three weeks. Even in San Francisco, a lot of guys don’t want to be associated with faggots, especially not the kind into anonymous sex deep underground. When Adrienne, the office manager, called Theo in and told him of the third-shift job, she did so without a smile.

“This is the job for you,” she said plainly. “You’re the right man for the job.” Adrienne was a heavy, older woman, all flannel and baseball caps, but she wore blue eyeshadow and hipster glasses too.

“How did you know?” Theo asked.

“You’re just like your father,” she said.

Theo thought about that as he descended the shaft, huge coils of cable hanging from his shoulders, several of the same waiting for him at bottom. Theo’s father had laid copper wire for the phone company for years. He was the best. And when he left Theo’s mother, it was for another man.

Theo was just like his father. He knew the Manscape like the back of his hand. The regulars liked the calluses on his palms; they could tell it was him in the Dark JO Room. “A little harder, Theo,” one older man always prodded him. Theo never even saw his face, but he could smell him, could feel a bushy mustache when they kissed in the dark. Another man, a twink who hung around the urinals, liked having his balls squeezed, and liked complaining about the firm proletarian grip of Theo’s hands. The first time it happened, Theo apologized and tried to withdraw, but two reedy hands clamped around his forearm. “No, no,” keep going the guy whispered. He must have weighed a hundred pounds, but he had strong fingers like tree roots. “I just like to whine a bit. Please don’t leave me.”

Now the Manscape was like any other set of basements, any other mile of hallway wrapping and coiling in on itself. There were going to be drop ceilings, and Theo’s job was to run cables for the servers, the LED screens. It wasn’t a one-person job, but there was only one person available to do it, and Theo had all night.

It was hard work, and required constantly moving back to the starting point of some splice or connection to recheck, untangle, or push a cable through a hole. He had to move the stepladder with him, or kick it down the hallways for the company of noise and clatter.

Soon enough, despite the map in his smartphone, and despite his own experience prowling the halls of Manscape for warm mouths and tight asshole and smooth hands, Theo found himself lost. Lost enough, anyway, in alcoves unfamiliar and halls that seemed to lead the wrong way, though of course every hallway in the world is necessarily a two-way route.

And then there was the smell. Manscape had been limned with plenty of smells; the umami cleanliness of spilled semen, the musk of sweat, wisps of commercial deodorant and cologne, occasional darker odors…but this was different. It smelled hot, and animalistic, and ancient. Theo wasn’t paid enough to follow his nose to whatever soil stack had burst, even if the smell was strangely mixed with bubblegum scent, so he gave it a wide berth.

Then he saw a man. A young fellow, in white sleeveless t-shirt and khakis. With greased hair and the tanned arms of someone who works outside. Something about him didn’t look quite right; he carried himself with a posture, a swagger, Theo only knew from old movies.

“Hey!” Theo called out. “What are you doing here? This place is off-limits.” The greaser turned the corner and his footfalls stopped. Theo trotted after him and found an empty alcove. No way out. And a miasma of that odor again.

Theo tried to make a call, but he had no service. He was there to make sure that the future establishment would at least have WiFi, after all. And he was in no mood to confront some homeless guy, or anyone confused enough to think the Manscape was still open for business, though a brief fantasy of an uncut cock dangling from those khakis kept Theo from being too frightened.

Footsteps sounded just occasionally enough that it couldn’t be a coincidence. Theo wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t just the greaser wandering the area either. There were too many—just a handful, but more than one set. And low voices too, some cooing and others sharp.

The boots were loud. Theo spun and saw the Top striding toward him, his sub at his heel. Old Guard leather guys with mustaches people didn’t even wear for comical effect in movies anymore. The Top glared at Theo; the sub kept his gaze on his master’s boots.

“Get down off that ladder, son,” the Top barked at Theo. “I ain’t seen you around before, and there’s no way you’re ready for breathplay.” He squinted as he approached. “Is that…plastic rope?” The sub glanced up, but Top sensed it, and shot him a look.

“You guys don’t belong here anymore,” Theo said. He almost added You might get hurt but who knew how they’d take it—as a threat or a promise? “Manscape is closed. It’s going to be…” what did it say on the stupid prospectus “iMind. A physical exploration of the Freudian structures of the human mind. With Wifi and touchscreens and oxygen bars and a library and a petting zoo.”

Top turned to the sub. “This one is all hopped up on something. Let’s go.” They walked past Theo, their bodies warm, their smells human and alive. He wanted to touch them, not to see if they were real, but because he knew they were.

There was no reason not to finish the work. And Theo was sure he’d see someone else if he kept moving. And he did. An elder with an overcoat and dress shoes and wrinkled albino prunes for balls. Two young guys, corn-fed wrestlers or rugby players who seemed to have come directly from the Greyhound bus terminal, who stopped to ask Theo what that smell was. A short queen, skin tawny, who waved jauntily and said “You be safe up there with all them important things, hoo-kay?”

It was nearly dawn, Theo guessed, though there was no way for even a single of photon of sunlight to enter the Manscape, and he was nearly done. Maybe it was the tiredness, or the stench, but he was sure the man to walk by him, brush past his shoulder, was his father. His father, ten years dead, but the shoulder and shirtsleeve felt real. Theo followed, not the man, who of course had turned another corner and vanished, but the smell.

Manscape was no less confusing for it being gutted, but the smell was easy to follow. Like an armpit. And noise too, getting louder. Slapping, groaning, giggles, the occasional yawp and shout. And then he entered a space he’d never seen before, one that he was sure wasn’t on a map, wasn’t even possible.

The bull, and that was a good name for him, was huge. Not huge like a bodybuilder, though there was plenty of muscle. Just like an animal, with huge limbs and a torso the size of a twin bed’s mattress. His cock was just as huge as it should be, but the ballsac was nearly comically outsized. The bull had propped up a few play mats into an ersatz lounge chair and sat, distinterestedly stroking himself.

Everyone else was gone, though Theo could still hear their activities reverberating throughout the chamber, thanks to the trio of other entrances.

“Who the hell are you?” Theo said as he opened his mouth, immediately regretting it. The bull’s biceps were the size of Theo’s head.

“I’m the host,” the bull said. “You’re my guest.” His voice was casual, much smaller than his frame suggested.

“I’m not staying. You can’t either. The new owners have plans for this place.”

The bull scratched his balls. It was like watching someone manipulate a pair of honeydews in a laundry sack. “They didn’t run their plans by me.”

“It’s going to be called iMind,” Theo started. “A Freudian experience…” The bull’s glare killed the words in Theo’s throat.

“Get over here and worship me a while, kid,” the bull said, gesturing toward his cock. “That’s why they sent you.”

Theo…well, maybe under other circumstances. Why not? he thought. It would be something he could tell his grandchildren about in the unbelievable future age when all social barriers to sexual conversations had collapsed. The future, it was going to be something. It already wiped out Manscape, the fucking future.

“Uh…how long is a while?”

The bull shrugged expansively. “You know. Forever.”

“They didn't run their plans by me,” Theo said, sounding braver than he wanted to.

The bull snorted and reached behind his pile of mats for an enormous club. It was a huge carved cock, one that fit with the bull’s balls. “Have it your way.” He was up and halfway across the chamber. The sickening smell of the bull’s snort pushed the clean air from Theo’s lungs, but he held down a wretch and turned and ran.

“Fine!” cried the bull. “Tire yourself out!” Theo flew from hall to hall, doubling back, shifting from left foot to right at forks before blindly tumbling one way or another. The bull, that smell, was right behind him somehow, though the giant footsteps echoed off the walls at a leisurely pace.

Theo hit one dead end, then turned back and hit another. From the corner of his eye he caught a glint of something and squeezed his eyes shut, ready for a killing blow. When none landed, he laughed aloud and threw open his eyes. The bull sounded in the distance. Theo cringed at that, but knew he had a chance. The stepladder was just a few feet away. And where the ladder was, the cable ended.

“I heard that giggle, friend!” shouted the bull. He was close. Theo ran, keeping an eye on the ceilings where he had run cable all night long. Left, right, long, then short, and he was at the shaft. The bull was ten yards behind him. Theo climbed the ladder, and didn’t look back over his shoulder, didn’t want to feel a hand clasping around his ankle, or the thud of the club hitting his spine.

“Hey!” the bull shouted from the bottom of the elevator shaft when Theo was halfway up. “You think I ain’t gonna follow you up there?” He dropped the cock-club and took to the ladder, clearing four rungs at a time.

Theo had his key out, inserted it, turned it. “C’mon! Follow me! I want you to!” Theo spilled out into the damp and hazy dawn, the monster right behind him, nudging him to the ground.

“This is what you want,” Theo said, craning his neck to look up at the bull. “Here’s the fucking city. Take it. Fucking take it back.” The bull peered up at the high-rises, half-built, and then down the long expanse of Market Street.

“Don’t mind if I do,” the bull said, and walked into the fog.

L.A. Fields is the author of two Lambda Literary Award finalists, five YA books, one short story collection, and two works of scholarship. She has an MFA and a calico cat.

"Whatever a Body Is Not Obliged to Do" is © 2021 by L.A. Fields and original to this issue.

Will Ludwigsen specializes in eerie and strange fiction. His work has appeared in a number of magazines including Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Cemetery Dance, Weird Tales, and Strange Horizons. He has published three collections, including the highly praised In Search Of and Others.

"Forever is Composed of Nows" is © 2011 by Will Ludwigsen and first appeared in the pages of Speaking Out (Bold Strokes Books).

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and The Second Shooter. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and many other venues. His latest collections include The People's Republic of Everything and The Planetbreaker's Son. Nick also recently released the anthology Wonder and Glory Forever. His fiction and editorial work have variously been nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson, and Bram Stoker awards.

"Last Night at Manscape" © 2021 by Nick Mamatas and original to this issue.

Ryan Vance is a writer, editor, designer and general literary busybody, with a penchant for speculative fiction and queer representation, based in Glasgow, Scotland. I'm available for freelance editing and project work, occasionally dabble with photography and gaming, and continually pine for the perfect dancefloor. His debut collection, One Man's Trash, released from Lethe Press earlier this year.

"Babydog" is © 2018 by Ryan Vance and first appeared in the pages of Mycelia #1.

Bachelors Magazine is published by Lethe Press, a purveyor of fine queer and weird books since 2001.

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