Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Angel, Monster, Man

1. Angel
Jakob

Tom wasn’t fiction. He was not a lie. He was a higher truth, something we invented to encapsulate a reality too horrific to communicate to anyone outside our plague-devastated circle. Maybe myth, but definitely not fiction. Myth helps us make sense of facts too messy to comprehend, and that’s what Tom Minniq was supposed to be. A fable to ponder, and then forget.

We birthed Tom at one of Derrick’s Sunday coffee kvetches, salons of bitchery and wit that had once seen dozens of men gather every week, punctual like they never were for the club or the party or dinner before the opera; photographers handsome as the models, models as wise and cruel as the writers, writers as numerous and delicious as the omelets churned out in unflinching succession by the small army of fey fledgling chefs in Derrick’s kitchen. Fourteen-year-old runaways and sixty-something Times critics, homeless dancers and trust fund filmmakers fresh-returned from failing to win the Academy Award for Documentary, but really it was an honor just to be nominated, and next year, certainly, next year.

But this was 1987. None of us could count on next year. Most of us no longer belonged to this one. Wind tugged at our bare forearms. Early yellow leaves lapped like waves at our feet. Hate made it hard to breathe, filling the air like the stink of burning plastic. Adulterous toad-priests and clean-cut closet-case politicians croaked endless joy at God’s vengeance upon the sodomites, and cawed opposition to any effort to fund care or find a cure. Since New Year’s, the population of Derrick’s patio had plummeted with every successive week.

This week, there were only three of us: Derrick himself, the forty-something literary agent who had seemed old before the plague and now seemed ancient; Pablo, the photographer whose art had been eclipsed by rage, who now turned all his creative energy into direct actions and angry letters and random fights picked with assholes overheard on street corners; and me, Jakob, a minimally-published writer of only modest talent and looks, already leaving behind the age bracket where youth earned you credit in both categories.

An empty chair, left askew, brought a tidal rush of water to my eyes. Donuts had replaced the omelets. Only the coffee was the same, strong and hot and bitter. We swallowed it greedily, desperately. Blood for vampires.

We were friends, we three. In a way it felt like cruel, just fate—that all the bright inessential boys had been burned away, leaving only us, who loved each other with the fierce hate-tinged love of brothers.

Pablo was telling us about the third memorial service he’d attended that week, for a photographer friend. “Afterwards, his brother just handed me his entire photo archive. I told him Joe was just beginning to make a name for himself, and he should shop them around to dealers, find an agent for them, carry on Joe’s artistic legacy. Man looked at me like I was crazy. Said he looked at a couple pictures and that was enough for him. I think he saw one fisting shot and was finished. And now I’ve got all this incredible art, languishing in a drawer. I can’t even make a name for myself as a photographer, so how am I supposed to do it for someone else?”

Derrick sighed, his face pained at the unfairness of it all. “At least his brother had the decency to recognize his limitations, hand the art over to someone who might know what to do with it. You’d be amazed how many writers die without a will, and their families snatch up things or throw them away or worse. I’ve spoken to lovers who had to smuggle manuscripts out in shoeboxes, or who watched fathers set drawers full of documents on fire.”

“Me, too,” I said. “When Whit died last February, his mother gave me a laundry bag full of his writing to ‘see what I could do with it.’ I said yes, because what else can you say to a grieving mother? When I got it home, I found the work of two other writers in that sack along with his own—guys who had died, and who had left their work to him to ‘see what he could do with it.’”

Again the waters rose, with the thought: and me? When I die, in six months or one, or ten years if the gods are good, will someone end up with a laundry sack containing my work—and Whit’s—and the two who died before him?

“Fuck Hemingway,” Pablo said sourly. “We’re the real lost generation.”

“Except we don’t have a Hemingway,” I said.

“Who the hell wants a Hemingway?”

“A Hemingway has its advantages,” I said. “As is evidenced by the fact that we know his name twenty years after he died, and all our friends are forgotten as soon as they hit the earth.”

Pablo hadn’t heard, wasn’t listening. His mind was on our enemies, as it so often was. “Did you guys hear that the federal government sent inspectors to New York, and they expressed concern over the high number of homeless people with AIDS, and the city said not to worry, they were dying so fast there would be no visible increase, certainly nothing to impact tourism?”

“Yeah,” I said. We had all heard it—a rumor, possibly hopefully a fiction, but all the worse for that, for the effortless way it encapsulated our world.

“I’m against the death penalty,” Pablo said. “But those motherfuckers should be shot.”

We sipped coffee, said nothing, our eyes following a swirl of dead leaves and dark thoughts.

I firmly believe the idea entered all three of our brains at the same exact time, like Tom Minniq wasn’t so much a figment of our imagination as a wandering soul who got lost on the way to reincarnation and instead of entering a woman’s womb ended up in the brains of three grief-broken gay boys.

“No one cares about a pile of dead gay artists,” Pablo said, and something in his tone made us all three scooch our chairs closer to the table—something hopeful and inspired, something dangerous and secret. “People can’t identify with statistics.”

“They need one face,” Derrick whispered, the fraught tone leaping from Pablo to him like the wind passing a shudder from one tree to the next.

“One name,” I said.

“A composite,” Derrick said. “A synthesis of every brilliant artist who died before they could make their mark.”

“A collective pseudonym,” I said. “For every writer in our lost generation. If we don’t have a Hemingway, we’ll invent one.”

“Tom,” Derrick said. “A good, simple, macho name.”

“Tom Minniq,” Pablo said, and spelled it for us. “Minniq was an Eskimo boy who the Natural History Museum brought to New York City along with his father and ten kinsmen, all of whom but Minniq died from pneumonia almost immediately. Separated from his tribe. Stranded among savages who thought he was the subhuman one. I read, you two.”

Derrick inclined his head.

“Also, he needs to be a little ethnic,” Pablo said. “Minniq sounds . . . other. People who aren’t white die too, you know.”

They came easy: the mechanics of fraud, the logistics of forgery. We spent all day on the patio bouncing ideas around, and went inside when it got dark to fill up pieces of paper. Identifying all the problems likely to pop up. Finding ways around them.

Being a criminal is not so different from being an artist. Both depend on the same degree of audacity. Derrick would handle the business end: submissions and edits, pitches and contracts. I would handle the work itself, the unread stories and unfinished novels gleaned or inherited or rescued or stolen.

Finding a face and body for our Frankenstein proved more difficult. Fifty years earlier, we could have gotten away with a single blurry picture, or said he was a recluse who feared photographs would steal his soul. Our Tom had to be one of us: an urban butterfly, a creature of Saturday night dancing and Fire Island beach parties, and photo-shyness was incompatible with our pride and vanity.

Pablo had the solution. From his bag, he pulled a thick folder of the late Joe Beem’s photos and spread them on Derrick’s coffee table, sweeping aside the Chinese take-out containers that had blossomed like mushrooms at some point in the preceding hours.

“There,” he said, pointing to a black-haired dancing boy with his back to the camera, “and there,” another boy, shirtless on the beach, black hair cut the same way, “and this one,” and if you looked at them right you could see it, the rough outline of the same man in dozens of different ones. “We find photographs of men who meet this general type—average height, black hair, muscular build, stubble—and that’s him. I can work them in the darkroom to blur out the parts that don’t fit, or add distinguishing marks. Jug-handle ears, maybe, or a birthmark over his jugular.”

“It’s perfect,” Derrick said. “No author photos, no glossy head shots. Candids, glimpses. A life lived out of the public eye.”

Because to succeed as myth, Tom had to be dead. Otherwise the charade became too complicated to maintain. And who would know, in this city where the dying stacked up faster than firewood, that this one particular name in the long litany had never been an actual person? Who could prove that Tom Minniq was any more fictional than the rest of the gay men and women who fled horrific far-off small-town lives and reinvented themselves upon arrival in our city, sometimes changing their names and cutting all family ties and spinning the most ridiculous lies to cover them?

We laughed about it, on our way out. Giggled like schoolboys plotting a prank. The streets of my city felt alive and inviting in a way they hadn’t for months.

I was waiting at West Fourth for the train to Hell’s Kitchen, strolling the platform with the never-resting eyes of the gay man on the lookout for something fetching. I found nothing—no handsome busker or breakdance boy, no aging sanitation worker with a pleasant smile and an ample bulge—and this popped my good mood like a bubble, made me think all the beautiful boys and men are dead.

An express train pulled into the station as I stepped onto my local one. I watched its doors open. My train’s doors slid shut. A boy stepped off the express, so gorgeous I pressed my hand to the door in helpless Pavlovian need. Clothes and hair soaking wet. How funny, I thought, No one else is wet. Now I’m eerily certain he was fresh-birthed from the womb of the earth or had hacked his way out of Cronos’ stomach, or whatever creation myth we had tapped into when we called Tom Minniq into being. Because this man looked right at me, all black hair and jug-handle ears and sturdy build, and smiled as my train carried me away.

We had agreed to give each other complete autonomy in our own areas. We could consult over the telephone, or in person, but never put anything into writing; no matter how clever or cryptic we thought we were being.

We planted Tom like a rumor, dropped him into everyday conversation alongside names of notorious friends—the party? Oh it was grand, especially the part where the Governor’s wife caught Tom Minniq getting a blowjob from Edward Albee in the bathroom, and in her shock and embarrassment said “I’m sorry, dear,” and shut the door to let them finish. Derrick used his connected exes to plant Pablo-concocted photographs in the society pages, where our Tom smiled at an opera premiere or museum gala, third from the right, his name in print and therefore incontrovertible. I sent orphaned short pieces to scrappy fledgling literary journals. Piece by piece, we stitched Tom Minniq together.

Tom made me a better person from the day he was born. I went to parties; I went to readings. I had been in hiding, mourning endlessly and aimlessly, focused more on men that had died than ones who still lived. Planting Tom-seeds sent me out into the world, brought me back to a generation I thought I had lost, when in fact I had turned away from it in grief. I think I intuited almost immediately what Tom really was.

For months, maybe years by then, my mantra had been We could have changed the world. Queer lit had blossomed like a glorious cancer, poised to kill off all that was patriarchal and oppressive about English-language literature, the transformative force that James Baldwin and Walt Whitman dreamed of. And then came AIDS, like the English language’s revenge, a toxic bastard child of imperialism and every other exploitative impulse that let English grow to global lingua franca status. I gave up hope. But once Tom touched down among us, a Biblical messenger bearing scarcely-credible word of the new world about to be birthed, my mantra became We will change the world.

Derrick sold a story of Tom’s to the Paris Review. On the strength of that, he got Tom a book deal. Oprah did a special, “Voices from the Whirlwind,” about writers lost to AIDS, with Tom the centerpiece. Pablo and I thought this was a bad idea, knew her producers would do research, which they did—which, to our great shock and mild concern, actually led somewhere: an Oklahoma foster home, where nuns told vague stories and pointed to where TOM MINNIQ was graffiti’d onto a wall.

My job was easy. So many boxes and folders and notebooks of beautiful work had been abandoned upon their author’s exit. My rules were few, and simple. Only truly orphaned work could become Tom’s—with all the attention he was getting, we couldn’t take the chance of someone stumbling upon a story attributed to Tom and remembering it as something a dead lover once read to him in bed. Only work that had no earthly champion, no competent executor or agent or chutzpah-wielding mother to fight for it. And I would never change a word or comma of it.

The most marvelous thing of all? When Tom came in, the tide of despair went out. Now I only imagined strolling out to the center of the George Washington Bridge and leaping off once a week or so, instead of dozens of times a day.

Tom was a polyglot, gleeful master of memoir and essay, poem and fable and smut and polemic. Tom had as many prose styles as the river had fish. Derrick and I stitched together his book, My Shattered Darlings: An AIDS Memoir, from dozens of disjointed and distinctive voices, the pieces so incongruous and alien to each other that it somehow came together into a harmonic whole. It opened on a brief glimpse of five men fucking in the Rambles of Central Park, the prose vulgar and plebian, then segued immediately into an E.M.-Forster-worthy memorial service that few could read without weeping. Space opera set on a rocket ship where Earth’s last survivor mourns his dead; 50s noir where a private detective helps a concentration camp survivor stalk Nazi killers through New York City sewers. A narrative even emerged, from this chaotic choir: a coherent narrator who was the sum total of all these dying writers, making his way through a devastated world, trying and failing and trying again to find a reason to keep going. A critic, one of our own, wrote in the Atlantic that it was “a museum of a holocaust, somehow capturing the swirl of voices—some angry, some elegant, all beautiful—that are being silenced one by one while the men with the power to do something about it do nothing.” Speaking in so many voices, it could speak to almost everyone.

It sold insanely well.

“Of course he isn’t dead,” I heard someone say, two tables over at the Chelsea Diner one Sunday brunch. “I talked to him the week before he did it. He said this country made him so sick, he was seriously contemplating faking his own death and fleeing to Canada or something.”

“Or staying right here in New York City and living like a ghost.”

I did not know these men. I had never seen them before. I smiled, watching the creamer cloud my coffee, thinking of Tom spreading through men’s minds.

Like a virus, I thought, and frowned.

Late that night, my phone rang. “Hello?” I said, quietly, for I had been lying awake, and when the phone rang I knew it was what I had been waiting for. No one said a word. In the background, I heard what might been wind, running water. I hung up the phone, and lay back into an immediate, blissful, healing sleep.

I sent Derrick stories and poems and songs and rants, and he found a home for all of it. Everyone wanted a piece of Tom. Derrick used some kind of business magic to make the messy problem of money go away, squirreling it through a maze of foundations and other IRS-befuddling tools his expensive accountants advised. As much as possible, we donated it anonymously to the loved ones left behind by the writers whose words became Tom’s. Pablo set up a photo exhibit at one of New York’s largest galleries, which for years had turned up its nose at requests for benefit shows and retrospectives of lost artists.

The show broke records. Crowds of the left-behind came. Tom smiled and leered and glowered and flirted and cruised from dozens of images, blown up to be bigger than any of these men had been in life. Our boys, our men, our dead lived once more. They looked down on us with pity, and with love.

I watched the faces in the crowd. I wondered how often it happened that someone suspected, or intuited, on a subliminal level, that in gazing up at a photo they believed depicted a stranger they were actually looking into the eyes of someone they had loved and lost.

Outside, a young man wept. I sat down beside him and offered a handkerchief, which he did not want, and a cigarette, which he did.

“Everything okay?” I asked. A Harlem kid, straight and sporty.

“It is,” he said. “It actually is. My brother—my older brother? He died. And it’s been bad. Like, worse than when my dad kicked him out. And for some reason, tonight, I felt like he didn’t die for nothing. I don’t know why. It’s just how I felt.”

“I’ve felt that too, lately,” I said, and he looked at my eyes, and saw no mockery, and nodded.

That’s what Tom Minniq is. An angel. I whispered this last word out loud, allowing myself to use it for the first time.

Two weeks later, my doorbell rang.

“Jakob, sweetie, hi,” Derrick said when I opened, ushering himself in. “I’m sorry to drop in on you unannounced—” and with an artful hand wave he implied without giving you a chance to clean up the place “—but I’m just a little, well, annoyed with you and I had to come right over.”

I turned down the television. On the news someone kept using the phrase “gay terrorists.”

“We all agreed how this was going to work, Jakob. We all have our part to play. If you’re going to cut me out and start sending stuff directly to producers, you’ll make it a lot more difficult for this elaborate fiction to be maintained.”

He followed me into the kitchen, and I put on a pot of water.

“Derrick, I’m sorry, but I didn’t do any such thing.”

“If you wanted to get a screenplay produced in Tom’s name, you should have called me. Granted, it’s not my area of primary expertise, but I know people who—”

“Derrick! I’ve never sent anything to anyone but you. Ever.”

“Really, Jakob?” He handed me a copy of Variety, pointing to a page in the middle.

“I can’t read this gibberish,” I said, after trying several times and finding the movie-speak as comprehensible as a cross between shorthand and Swahili.

“Orion Pictures announced they’ve bought a screenplay, by Tom Minniq, for seven figures.”

“Oh, come on,” I said. “You know I don’t have the connections or skill to negotiate that kind of sale.”

“If not you, then who?”

Tom did it, was what I wanted to say. What I said instead was “Pablo?”

Derrick shook his head. “Pablo’s falling apart. He called me the other night, sobbing, saying he was scared. When I asked him why, he practically had a nervous breakdown trying to explain it. I can’t see him doing something like this.”

The tea kettle whistled. I let it. “Have you . . . noticed things, Derrick?”

“Things?”

“Weird stories. Rumors. People saying they saw him. Saying they spoke with him.”

“Of course,” he said. “I think that’s part of the point, isn’t it? He’s real to us. That’s what we wanted. Someone who would take on a life of his own.”

“But what if . . .” And I simply couldn’t say it. What if he really does have a life of his own? What if we made him real?

“Someone’s taking it too far, now,” he said, evidently accepting now that I had nothing to do with it. “That’s all. We’ll get to the bottom of it.”

A car waited outside, shining expensively. “That yours?”

“Yes, yes,” he said, smiling, his marvelous brain having moved on to other, happier things. His wealth, perhaps. Not that I begrudged him it. He’d taken less than the standard agent’s 10% on all Tom’s profits; ensured the rest went to Tom’s families. But still—8% of tens of millions was not chump change. I thought about asking him for some. He’d have said yes, of course. I needed it. But something inside me panicked, at the thought of taking money from Tom.

I learned why, not long after. Midnight; leaving the club; moving through a Chelsea drizzle, my head and thighs still throbbing from the music and the men and the way I moved with them. I had work in the morning, and I hadn’t written anything in weeks, and the world was still a vile cesspool of hate and suffering, but the music had been good and my body fairly hummed with happiness. A payphone rang from down the block, getting louder as I got closer, stopping as soon as I took one step past it. I chuckled at the weirdness of the timing, but kept walking, weaving through a clot of boys coming up the stairs from the C train, charmingly rambunctious things whose nights were just beginning while mine was winding down, and the weight of that realization slowed my step, so that when I passed another ringing payphone I stuck out my arm and answered it purely for the sake of getting my mind off my own mortality.

“Hi, Jakob?” A man’s voice, bright and healthy.

“Yes . . .”

“It’s Tom,” the man said.

“Tom.” I said, and knew this was no joke. “Tom Minniq?”

“That’s me.”

I looked across the street to where one boy groped another up against a wall. Water dripped in the background of wherever Tom was. “What can I do for you, Tom?”

“What you’ve been doing. Help spread the word. The gospel according to Tom Minniq. I’m just getting started, and I’d hate to have to stop because someone decided to spill the beans.”

“Hadn’t dreamed of it,” I said.

“No, of course not. You haven’t. But Pablo has. Pablo’s not well, Jakob. You need to do something about that.”

“Do . . . something?”

“Go see him. Talk to him. Cheer him up. I don’t know—you’re a smart boy. Figure something out. Because if you don’t, I will.”

“Tom, wait. I need to ask you—”

A click, then the dial tone. Mocking poor helpless mortal me with its all-knowing, ever-listening song.

Tom’s last sentence had chilled me, but it only proved my theory. Tom was an angel. But no winged pale thing in white playing a harp on a cloud: Tom was an Old Testament angel, willing to slay an Assyrian army or rain hellfire and brimstone down on your city if you didn’t do what was asked of you.

The next morning, I called Pablo. No answer. Later, I’d hear he had been in Central Booking with thirty of his closest angriest friends, locked up for some stunt protest in Grand Central. But there and then, listening to the phone ring, imagining him dead in a bathtub or walking out towards the middle of the George Washington Bridge, murdered by Tom Minniq or choosing his own severance package, I felt the tide come back in. That same surging wash of loneliness, of life’s utter meaninglessness and the universe’s profound indifference to our hurt.

I stared at the story in my hands. “Sam,” it was called, by a boy named Leo who I remember arriving in our scene. How marvelous it had been, hearing him read to us, those enigmatic little scraps. When he got sick, he kept it secret; before dying, he demanded there be no memorial.

I stared at the phone, trying to pretend I hadn’t already made my decision.

“Sam” was about a street hook-up, the details so spare and matter-of-fact that I could feel the fear and excitement of it, the man who brought him home to a strange apartment, who stripped down to reveal tattoos and endowment of astonishing scope. Watching him shave after. AIDS was nowhere; AIDS was everywhere. Bits of Leo had found their way into My Shattered Darlings, but reading him now, I felt like these rich enigmatic fragments deserved their own chapbook. They all deserved their own books.

I told myself I’d make it my business to track Pablo down and deliver Tom’s warning. I swore I’d keep calling. Maybe visit his house. But every time I reached for the phone, I’d feel that same lunar tug of misery, and pull my hand back, and soon I stopped trying, and then it was too late.

God, it all felt so easy on the page. Sex, life, fearlessness. AIDS and death and aging and my own receding hairline vanished. Is it any wonder I didn’t want to stop reading? Leo was alive as long as I read. I could hear his thoughts. I could cling a little longer to the lie that love and literature would let us live forever.

2. Monster
Pablo

My throat hurt from screaming. Fifty of us packed the lobby of the governor’s New York City office. He’d blocked a bill that would help house the HIV-positive homeless. Occupying his lobby had been one of the tamer options—myself, I’d wanted to burn his fucking house down—but it didn’t feel tame now. It felt marvelous.

But still: I was terrified. Two things terrified me. Two men. The first was watching me from across the crowded lobby. Shaggy red hair licked like flames at the air around him. Eyes, somehow brown and blue at once and aimed at me, stirred terrifying wants. I looked at him and my finger tapped at an absent camera shutter, aching to snap his picture. But that was as impossible as sex. I had forbidden myself to ever take another photograph.

Andy did portraits, homeless people dying, faces expressionless over hunger-jutting cheekbones and under grime and KS splotches. “Why expressionless?” I asked, at the gallery, free cheap wine and outrage thickening my pulse, “why not furious at what hate did to them?” Andy couldn’t answer me. Andy was already dead.

Redhead chanted with the rest of the crowd, still watching me. “Hey, Mario/ What do you say?/ How many kids did you kill today?” Slowly, smiling, the first man I was frightened of made his way towards me.

The second man who frightened me was me.

Minh did empty spaces, vacated hospital rooms and clothes bagged for the Salvation Army; late morning beds abandoned by their occupants and unmade, sex stains still visible, sending shivers of loss and absence sharp as paper cuts across the viewer’s heart. His own absence was the white border around every shot; the final heartbreaking detail in every composition.

“Hey,” Redhead said, arriving at my side. “You chant loud.” His smile was somewhere between admiration and desire.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I’m Tripp.”

“Pablo,” I mumbled.

The frenzy was on me. Anger stoked my lust, which fed my anger. I wanted to fuck this man. And I wanted to fucking kill someone. And both wants were so strong and scary that as soon as it was tactful, I abandoned the protest and fled southwest.

Everything was tainted, toxic. Even eye contact felt potentially fatal. Walking home, into twilight, I heard him. Somewhere behind me; walking with stomping confidence that mocked my own fearful hurry. Not the redhead, I knew, without turning around.

That first day, leaving the coffee kvetch, I felt something. A glimmer of terror that started in my groin. It passed quick, but later, walking home from Derrick’s, I felt something else. A presence, and an unfriendly one. Something following me. Something that wanted to break me open and spread my guts in the sun. Different, somehow, from the everyday hate in the air. Mere hate strengthened me, fed the righteous rage to fight back. This hate sapped me. Made me smaller. I wouldn’t let myself look back. I forgot about it until I felt the same feeling two weeks later, fleeing the redhead and the protest.

I found out that night who—what—was following me. I couldn’t sleep, my mind scrambling monkeylike from grief to rage to fear and back. I went to my window, like I often did, to look out at the city, and not smoke cigarettes, anymore. Except this time, when I went to my window, someone was there. Crouched on the fire escape of the building behind, staring across the courtyard at me. Just a dark shape, but I could tell he was staring at me. I could feel it. I don’t know how. The same way I knew enough to feel physically afraid of him, even though our buildings were so far apart he could never have reached me. A burning red ember kindled as the shape sucked on a cigarette.

That’s Tom, I whispered, sweat freezing into frost along my shoulders. That’s Tom Minniq.

In the morning, there was a cigarette butt squashed into the marble ledge below my window.

Maurice did a series called After/Before, deathbed photos of skeleton boys and girls on the left and on the right a picture of that person in their prime, radiantly healthy on a long-ago beach or rooftop. When he couldn’t find a gallery home for it, he printed them up as posters and went out at night to wheat-paste them onto subway doors and store windows, windshields and sidewalks, every morning a fresh harvest of dead men and women smiling tolerantly at their own death-masks and the walking corpses who shuddered as they walked by. Maurice talked about self-immolating in Times Square, but by then he was too weak to strike a match.

In the afternoon, an explosion shook midtown. Tiny ripples shirred the surface of my coffee, at the cubicle where I did data entry for Kaiser Permanente and plotted violent revenges I lacked the courage to carry out.

Word spread fast. The governor’s office: vaporized. Two floors of a fifty-story skyscraper gutted. No one killed; a call came in with ample time to evacuate. In the morning the New York Post wondered QUEER COINCIDENCE? above a photo of the protest, me in focus and screaming and my redhead friend looking lustily at my back, and then, under us: Governor’s office bombed hours after AIDS protest. “The radical homosexual agenda has finally revealed its true face,” crowed a Methodist minister in the article, “unleashing violence on anyone who dares to stand up to them.”

Tom, I thought, and shivered, finally seeing the magnitude of my mistake. All the anger I carried inside of me: I had given it flesh.

Cops questioned us. Tails were assigned. But I couldn’t stop. I chained myself across Fifth Avenue, blocking traffic in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral when Cardinal O’Connor came for eucharisting. Snuck into the offices of a recalcitrant pharmaceutical company at night to splatter fake blood. In the morning, when the news told of catastrophic fires set simultaneously at offices of that same corporation in seven different cities, I was disturbed without being surprised.

This is out of hand, I thought. There must be limits, even to rage.

But Tom is a machine. Something we switched on, somehow. And I can pull the plug.

I called a New York Times reporter, a queer dilettante hovering on the fringes of the movement, who we tolerated because we needed coverage, although, generally, his coverage was weak at best. We even protested his apartment one time, part of a “Walk of Shame” tour of the homes of reporters whose coverage of the crisis lacked luster. Still, he came to meetings, hailed us by name when he saw us at our events, clung to us like the lonely kid on the playground who puts up with abusive friends because it’s better than none.

“What do you know about Tom Minniq?” I asked him. The clatter of the newsroom was almost comical behind him: another world, one I had glimpsed in movies but never imagined might be real.

“Haven’t read him. Supposedly a big deal. My mom bought his book, can you believe that?” He typed speedily, merrily, as he talked.

“I believe anything,” I said, and caught sight of myself in the mirror. Was I losing weight? Was it fear? Was it something worse? “But you know how shrouded in mystery his whole life is?”

“Of course. Word is, 60 Minutes is doing a thing, interviewing his former—”

60 Minutes doesn’t have what I’m offering you,” I said.

His typing stopped. “What are you offering me?”

“Meet me in the plaza outside the Times Tower in an hour.” I turned my head away from my reflection. Whatever was making me lose weight wasn’t worse than fear. Nothing was worse than fear.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m under deadline on another story. Give me a tease. So I know you’re not bullshitting me.”

“I can put you in touch with his parents.”

“See you in an hour.”

I sprinted north. I had to move fast. I’d back out if I stopped to think about it. If I stopped, I’d worry about the scandal my revelation would cause, how the true story of Tom’s origin would hurt Derrick, how it would pop the giant bubble of goodwill that Tom’s work had built for our movement. I was close enough to the plaza to hear the plummeting shriek when it happened.

I heard the yelling, the cries for help, the wails of terror. I knew, as I joined the crowd knotting up into a tight circle, what I would find. My reporter, split wide open from the force of impact against the plaza stone.

“Someone’s up there!” a woman screamed, pointing to the fifteenth-floor terrace. A man stood (grinning?) and then was gone. I looked down and saw blood fringing the hem of her pants.

At home, from fear, I wept beneath blankets on the floor of my closet.

SCRIBE DIVE! – TARGETED REPORTER POSSIBLE SUICIDE, said the Post, and ran a picture from our protest outside his apartment building. How had they gotten it? I didn’t even remember any cameras that day.

“Gay terrorists” became a buzzword. Politicians who had previously called for the concentration-camping of everyone with AIDS now felt emboldened to demand the internment of gays in general. And while some of the bigger gay groups claimed our escalating bolshevism would alienate straights we needed on our side, our own numbers swelled fast enough to drown out those more decorous voices.

Tom was in our blood. While Tom might have kicked off the “terrorism,” plenty of others took part. Senators were kidnapped, ministers murdered. The hot new thing among the dying was to demand cremation, and ask that the ashes be inserted into heavy porcelain balls, and after the memorial the mourners would march to a target of the dead man’s choosing—the Mayor’s mansion, the summer home of the head of the New York Stock Exchange—and shatter every window with them.

Gay men self-immolated at opening night at the Met, and at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting. The blaze claimed the entire tree.

Subway conversation suddenly became a lot more exciting. Impassioned debate became de rigeur. Buskers and bankers alike boasted incredibly articulate analyses, but also swallowed conspiracy theories like vitamins.

The CIA made the virus to exterminate blacks and gays.

The KGB made the virus as a Cold War weapon to cripple our economy.

Every time I hear Jesse Helms’ voice I fantasize about slinging a balloon full of AIDS blood right in his face.

I never stopped wanting to take pictures, or have sex. It wasn’t just beautiful men that triggered me. A packed protest; a good brunch . . . every day, a dozen sights made my heart fill up with longing, with love for this fallen, foul world. And those moments made Tom angry. When Tom got angry, buildings burned, civil servants died, graffiti ripened on dozens of the doors of our enemies’ homes, Tom’s words in reds and blacks:

The heat of us

Will burn you down

At coffee kvetches, Jakob had been forever saying We could have changed the world. I’d roll my eyes each time, but the sentiment stuck with me. Following hot on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Front, Stonewall and the Black Panthers, a disease that hit queers and African-Americans the hardest felt too . . . precise. Too perfectly calibrated. AIDS was a tactical nuke aimed right at the revolutionary heart of America’s oppressed, and nukes don’t just happen. I didn’t believe the FBI or Glaxo Wellcome cooked it up in a lab, but I did think that the evil at work in the status quo was rooted in something deeper, primal, chthonic, something that worked through people when it could—the Inquisition, slavery—and erupted into raw virulent horror when it had to (the Black Death, the Great Northern Famine of the Qing Dynasty).

And if that was true, maybe there was an opposing force. Not purely good or benevolent, necessarily, just like the demonic power I imagined gave birth to AIDS was not purely evil. They were simply two different forces, two kinds of energy eternally interlocked. And maybe that second power had tapped into us, somehow, Jakob and Derrick and I, and fed on our emotions, used us to access the raw-grief tidal wave that AIDS had unleashed, and fashioned it into Tom. And that made me more scared, not less. A power that big didn’t care who got hurt while it tried to get its way. Just ask Joan of Arc. Or Jesus.

At night, we broke into boarded-up buildings. We popped locks and moved people in, leveraged rogue employees of the power company and the waterworks to bring the building back to life. Through it all I could feel Tom’s eyes on me, hear his footsteps half a block back. I would have to move fast, to keep him from catching up. I would have to work harder.

We started out housing homeless people with AIDS, but soon that came to seem grossly unjust. Homeless people without AIDS were victims of our vicious system too. The same hate that let people bleed to death blocks from a hospital because they were gay let other people freeze to death on subway grates for being poor. After a while, abandoned buildings proved inadequate, the housing stock damaged and deteriorated. We moved a single mom with four kids out of the shelter and into a midtown suite that belonged to Queen Elizabeth II, which the monarch had occupied for precisely nine days in the past forty years. Queer concierges booked hoboes into hotel rooms for free, charging their room service meals to corporate accounts that they knew went unexamined. Real estate agent comrades helped us find empty apartments in otherwise occupied buildings, many of them second or third homes for corporate CEOs and faraway celebrities. When we put out the call for round-the-clock eviction defense, we were shocked by the size of the response. Tens of thousands of the straights we were supposedly alienating came to surround the buildings and stop any cops or landlords from stepping foot inside.

Tom was the spark, but we were the fire. And we were burning out of control. And I was terrified. Every protest put me in a place where it would be so easy to slip. To do something fatal. To bash a cop’s head in, or find some beautiful boy to fuck up against a wall.

Pablo was a fashion photographer. He shot everyone. Every magazine; every cover. His style was edgy, editorial, high-contrast and grainy, urban, often black and white, think Weegee-meets-Avedon. He was also a bit of a dog. He loved his man but some force of willful evil or childish selfishness would not let him resist the smiles and winks of boys on subway platforms and photo shoots. He refused to get tested, even when Allen withered before his eyes. Only afterwards, at the graveside, did he vow to change his ways. By then, it was more about self-punishment than self-improvement.

Pablo was a monster. That’s why he would die, and why he would die alone.

Reagan canceled a trip to New York City, citing security concerns. Sources said he didn’t fancy getting splattered with fake—or real—blood. Embarrassed, the city started cracking down on activism even harder. People in poor neighborhoods were targeted for random stops and searches, Gestapo-style. At night I dreamed of blood and sperm, sex and murder, the monsters coming for me from the Outer Dark.

The Piers. Sick malnourished arms reaching out over the Hudson; vestigial organs of the City’s vanished industrial glory. Once the pride of shipping magnates, long since abandoned to the homeless and the homosexuals. I entered an old warehouse with every window broken. Wind whistled erotically through high, bare eaves. I told myself I was there to hand out flyers. I knew I was lying.

Darkness. A smell of urine so old, it had ceased to be unpleasant. There was something almost sacred in the smell, pure as linen vestments. Incense in the church of desperation. Someone grunted with the accelerated rhythm of approaching orgasm. I looked back once, to the skyline’s haughty crown of lights, and then strolled deeper into the gloom. Past pairings and groupings, and lone watchers with eyes even hungrier than mine.

“Hello, Pablo,” said a sex-nightmare voice, as I arrived at the back of the warehouse. I heard the slop and slosh of the Hudson River underneath me.

“Hi, Tom,” I said. I had known this conversation would come, but conversation was the wrong word. Sentence. My sentence was being carried out.

“You made me,” he said, and his voice was so manly and mellow that goosebumps of desire emblazoned my forearms, even as I looked about on the floor for a potential weapon. “Why would you try to unmake me?”

“Because you’re out of control. Because you’re hurting people.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted? Isn’t that what you were thinking, when you summoned me? I heard what was in your heart. Someone to do what the rest of us are too scared to do. No man can do it. We need a monster.” Here, speaking my thoughts, his voice was mine.

“But you’ve gone too far,” I said.

“Have I? I don’t think I’ve gone far enough. I don’t think you’ve gone far enough.”

“I left paperwork,” I stammer-said. “I wrote it all down—the truth about who you are. I left it with someone. If—”

Tom laughed. Laughing, his voice was not sexy. It was the sound a jackal might make, in the night. “That’s a lie. I told you—I can hear what’s in your heart, Pablo. It’s where I came from.”

He came closer. I could see the outlines of him now, in the gloom, broad shoulders and bushy eyebrows, his tight jeans and the way he filled them out. The composite features of hundreds of men. And in a shaft of rogue amber light from an arc-sodium light miraculously left unbroken at the edge of the pier, I saw the singular curve of his lips. No generic substitutions there: in every Tom-photo I conjured up through darkroom necromancy, I always used the same pair of lips. Allen’s lips.

“It’s not me you fear,” Tom said, those lips inches from my ear. “It’s yourself. You fear your emotions will lead you into a terrible mistake.”

“Yes.” A whisper; a squeak.

“You crave violence and destruction, yet you fear those things.”

“Yes.”

“Why?” He stood behind me, put his hands on my hips. I could feel his heat. It surprised me.

“I don’t know.”

“I do.”

Tom scooped one arm around my belly, wrapped the other around my neck. My eyes shut in irresistible ecstasy. His hips ground against me. I could feel him then, the whole of him, the thing behind or inside of Tom. We had not created this creature over brunch. He was something so much bigger, older, more malevolent. We merely gave him a name, and a body.

“Come with me,” he said. “I’ll give you what you want. What you fear.”

“Yes,” I said, looking out through a ceiling hole at the purple night sky.

“It will hurt,” Tom whispered, turning me around, aiming me at the city, where some unthinkable task waited for me.

“I know,” I said, and I did, because for a split second I was sixteen again, when men were marvelous creatures and not monsters, panting in a hayloft as one of my father’s farmhands spun me around and tugged my trousers down, whispering It will hurt, and I nodded my head in an ecstasy of need, because of course it will hurt, because the things we need most always do.

3. Man
Derrick

Drinks were drunk. Jokes were told. The meeting stretched for hours, more a cordial business luncheon than a contract signing, although there was that, too. By the time I staggered out, four scotches added a slight wobble to my walk.

They weren’t the Big Pharma villains I had been hoping for. Several of them were gay, and I smiled to see that our erstwhile enemies had recognized the importance of making nice with the faggots, and hired fit young lawyers for that purpose. Potted palm trees dotted the fifty-seventh floor, below a soaring gorgeous glass ceiling built out of our blood.

Two million dollars, for the use of Tom Minniq’s most iconic poem in a massive ad campaign. Subway posters and slick primetime commercials and everything in between. Pablo would murder me for this, I thought, as the elevator descended. But Pablo was long dead; anyway it wasn’t Pablo I was trying to provoke.

And wasn’t this a moment worth celebrating? Wasn’t this the dawn of a new age, the one Pablo and Jakob and I had in mind when we dreamed Tom Minniq up? The cocktail. Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy. HAART. A blend of entry inhibitors, nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, and a plethora of other inhibitors. The thing that would turn AIDS into a long-term, manageable, symptomless disease. The thing that would save all the men and women doomed by love to die.

My head cleared slightly, stepping out into the street. October cold whisked the warmth and ego-stoking away. I had lingered too long. I would never make it to Carnegie Hall in time for the start. Cab or subway? I stood there in a panic of indecision. Graffiti on a nearby door caught my eye, made my mind up, bright scarlet against rusted grey: BURN IT DOWN.

DOWN. The subway, it seemed to say, somehow, because I had gotten good at reading street art subtext. We all had, we survivors, we with the dubious distinction of passing untouched through a plague.

Pablo. The thought of his death sent an almost-erotic thrill through me, the horror and absurdity of it. Irresistible agony, wondering just what the hell had happened. Found drained of blood in the lobby of the very same pharma-corp building where I’d just signed away Tom Minniq’s soul. How I found, on my door, that morning, a scrawl in blood: an iron, complete with electrical cord.

Oh Pablo, I thought, even before his body was found—for only someone who knew me very, very well would know to draw the symbol of my greatest hurt. Of course I didn’t remember telling him about it, but we did spend a lot of time together, much of it in the company of alcohol. Maybe, drunk, I had the courage to face the story I most feared and most needed to tell.

Rich Putnam, junior year of high school, softball star and the love of my life for six exquisite secret weeks. The decades-gone stink of him, in the bed of his bedraggled pick-up. His exultant vigor and utter fearlessness when it came to sex; his rage and cowardice in every other moment. Culminating in the incident with the iron, the day I told him I loved him, when his anger over what he felt for me exploded, leaving the iron-shaped scar my left thigh still carries.

But in the weeks that followed Pablo’s death, what started out as isolated stories—the strangest thing happened; someone scribbled on my door in blood—began to coalesce into a terrifying pattern. The door of every gay man in New York City, it seemed, had been marked. Never mind that there’s not enough blood in ten Pablos to do that, or time in ten weeks; never mind that not even the FBI has a master list of the address of every homo, and many of the marked weren’t even out. Months had passed by the time we realized what had happened. Doors were washed clean, no way to know the truth. Many of us suspected others were lying, jumping on a bizarre bandwagon by claiming a blood-smear they had not earned, and others were definitely lying when they claimed not to have found anything.

I walked faster, heading for the subway platform.

“Eerily Biblical,” Jakob had said, at the funeral, “The blood on the door? Wouldn’t have pegged Pablo for a religious man.” But Jakob, god bless his Judaism, could not have comprehended what religion was for Pablo. Even my own Episcopalianism was a pale shadow of Pablo’s terrifying Catholicism, the Bible a big book of blood and monsters and sins not even sacrifice could cleanse. And I suspected Pablo’s last act of activism was not meant to terrorize the guilty but to unify the oppressed, to prod us into an uprising against the Angel of Death.

That was when I began to wonder. What if they were right, Jakob and Pablo—what if Tom Minniq was real, a beast burped out of hell or the collective unconscious by our actions? Because whenever you talked to someone whose door had been blood-smeared, and asked what sign or symbol or word had been left for them, there was always a pause—a shifting, inside; a figuring out what to say instead—and then an answer that never felt completely honest. Not that I was honest myself. I never told anyone about the iron. Tom knew what was in our hearts, knew who was gay and who was not, and knew the symbol of our greatest shame. And used it, to kindle our anger into flames.

But why had he visited Jakob and Pablo, but never me?

So: I resolved to confront this monster, this angel. So far, he had refused to reveal himself to me; I would provoke him into it. I would sell him off.

The subway took a long time coming. I was furious with myself, for letting the hour get away from me. This was our night. It was my night.

Because who could have imagined another year, let alone ten? Not me, certainly, when I watched my friends walk off stage one by one and waited to be summoned into the darkness myself. Even as I wrapped my loneliness around me like a security blanket, eschewed sex and love like it could keep me alive, I still felt certain my time would come—the hate-plague in the air would claim me eventually. And yet here we were, here I was, ten years from the day My Shattered Darlings was published, heading for Carnegie Hall, of all places, for an anniversary commemoration. Tom at Ten. Imagine.

Across the platform was a poster, where two beautiful business-suited men held hands and smoldered at the camera. LOVE & RAGE, it said, and then: Tom at Ten. These ads were everywhere, the same two men smoldering in Speedos or Louis XIV frill.

We do not die, someone had etched into the glass window of the subway when it arrived. The first line of the very poem I’d just licensed away. Tom’s manifesto; the source of a thousand tags and protest chants. The thing that assassinated fundamentalist politicians, kidnapped moderate liberals, burst into violence in the streets so often that dungeons shook, chains fell off. My head spun. True: it was a day for memory, but this was too much. Maybe it was the scotch and maybe it was the event I was heading for, but when I stepped off the train at 57th Street, muttering the poem under my breath—

We do not die

We don’t go cold

We swell with rage/ with each fresh hurt

Each new death

Swells the flame

The heat of us/ will burn them down.

—sprinting through the eerily-empty rush-hour station, realizing I left my written remarks at my office, and that I’d arrive too late to deliver them anyway, I felt for the first time since adolescence like I was really truly losing control.

Which is when a deep voice said—

“Derrick . . .”

—a nightmare voice, drawing out the first syllable like a taunt, echoing down the station, and I stopped and turned, to where what I had assumed was a homeless man when I rushed past stood, and stepped forward, all black hair and jug-handle ears, and I knew that now, at the worst possible moment, what I had waited ten years for had happened.

“Derrick . . .”

What came towards me was no towering monster, no gilded angel. No impossible synthesis of dead beauties. Only a man, small and haggard, face deeply lined, stinking of cigarettes and wet ash.

“Tom?” I whispered. He stepped closer.

“Derrick.”

I had so many questions, but I made myself wait. I wanted him to speak. My heart was a panicked bird inside me, remembering Pablo, wondering if time had stopped outside the station, if any cops or commuters could come through and save me from whatever horrible death Tom had slated for me. His eyes were jagged brown flecked with fire.

“It’s silly to be mad at me,” I said, finally, unable to stand the silence of his stare. “Everything I’ve done, I did to spread your words.”

“What would I be mad at you for, Derrick?”

Profiting off your work. Not believing in you. Surviving. “The poem. Licensing it to the pharmaceutical corporation.”

Tom shrugged. “There’s so much to be outraged about. That seems like a pretty mild sin in the grander scheme of things.”

“Then why . . . why haven’t you ever come to me before? All these years . . .”

Tom raised one hand, thumb-and-finger cocked pistol-style, and reached out to touch them to my chest.

So he is going to kill me. So this is where I die. Survive a holocaust only to die in a grotty subway station.

Startling, how unconcerned I was. How little I cared. Some part of my mind scrambled backwards, though physically I stood my ground even as I felt the cold of his fingers through my thin sweater. I clutched for things to hold me to the earth. Songs, food. People. The peculiar slant of October light, at twilight, in Manhattan. But I found nothing to grab on to.

“Tell me the name of one person in the last twenty years who you truly loved.”

I opened my mouth, ready with the long list of friends and colleagues who filled my Rolodex, ready to tell Tom how much they meant to me, how I loved them, but it wasn’t true, and there was no sense lying to a ghost. He clearly knew it already.

I shook my head.

“You survived by emptying out your heart,” Tom said. His voice had an undercurrent, like wind echoing through pipes. “By caring about nothing, not even your own desires. You were a monk long before AIDS—sex might make you come to care for someone, and you couldn’t take that risk.”

Love is the disease. The motto of my youth, after Rich Putnam burned it out of me with a hot iron. AIDS, when it came along, years later, only proved my point, that love and sex offered far more pain than pleasure.

“You asked why I’ve never come to you. That’s why. Jakob had hope, and Pablo had rage. They needed me. They fed me.” Harsh, raw pauses grew between his words. “You. Had. Nothing.”

“Then . . . why now?”

“So you can see. What you’ve become.”

He took his fingers away. I had questions, but I didn’t want to hear him speak. I didn’t want to learn anything else about myself. So I turned and left, half-expecting him to sink an axe into my neck, but he let me leave.

“Derrick!” someone called, as I entered the lobby of Carnegie Hall, and there were hand-shakings and back-claps, and I turned around in slow dazed sort of awe, to see so many of us, all the aging editors and authors who survived the plague, all gussied up in the expensive suits that were consolation for being so old. And perhaps even more marvelous were the new ones, the young pups and bear cubs and ragged blond twinks with full heads of hair and careless charming stubble and cheeks and hands worth dying for. Squint your eyes and look at us sideways and we could have been a coffee kvetch, one last massive hurrah on my back patio, age and class and race barriers melting away in the heat of our magnificent gayness. Gender barriers preserved, but where was the harm in that?

They respected me. They fawned on me, many of them, kingmaker that I was. But I didn’t care about any of them. And I had spent so long trying my damnedest not to be moved by beauty that I could no longer see it, no longer take joy in the smile or ass or mind of a gorgeous man.

Intermission. I was too late for my speech, and glad of it. I took my seat and spread my coat across the two beside me, ridiculously and sentimentally clearing a space for Pablo and Jakob, but soon a dowager socialite and her sodden daughter came to claim those spots.

An Oscar-winning actress read a Tom Minniq poem. I didn’t remember this one; more brash and spoken-word than most of the poems we published. From the very start, Jakob had claimed these Ghost Tom pieces as proof that divine intervention was at play, but for far too long I had dismissed them as mere bandwagonism, someone else trying to secure publication for their work or the work of their lover—or son—or brother—or father—or sister—or mother—under a famous name. Now, of course, I could see that Jakob was correct. The poem was exquisite, but I could only analyze it with a cold officious eye.

Two men mounted the stage. One old, one young. Movie stars; out; emblems of the new Hollywood openness. They read a dialogue, a pivotal scene from a play. I knew it was genius, could marvel at it intellectually but not apprehend it emotionally. Eyes moistened all around me. Mine stayed dry.

Tom is dying, I thought, remembering his twitchy hands and the rough lines of his face. Whatever he is, his time is past. Whatever monster or angel he was, he’s a man now.

We don’t need him anymore.

We had won. Hadn’t we? The fire of our rage had burned down so much hate. Sometimes literally; Jesse Helms kidnapped and tied down and doused in gasoline and set on fire; Falwell acid-disfigured. Drug cocktails. Gay governors and Supreme Court Justices; Harvey Milk’s birthday a national holiday; commitment from Congress to provide free AIDS medications to all.

The dialogue ended. The actors cleared the stage.

We had won. But I didn’t feel any safer, or happier. Or less alone.

The mayor had meant to come, but been delayed by budget drama. In his stead, he sent his Deputy Mayor for LGBT Relations, a dreamy slim-waisted salt-and-pepper-haired creature who almost every gay man in the city was in love with, who mounted the stage with the effortless majesty of a symphony conductor and proceeded to play us like an orchestra.

“Twenty years ago, New York City was dying. We were in the grip of a plague, and no one cared. We were ruled by fear. New Yorkers were content to walk past homeless men and women every single day, like it was something natural, something other than an unspeakable injustice. We were ruled by hate—not love.”

Jakob had emailed me that morning, still living it up on whatever godforsaken Maine island he and his man have built a house on. Jakob, dying, but happy, he and his man, both of them refusing the brand new miracle drug cocktails after years of watching friends suffer more from the medication than the disease.

“It’s impossible to imagine the Housing Rights Act passing in a New York City without Tom Minniq. No other American city, through legislative or executive action, has ever made the same commitment we have, to provide housing to every single person in need of a home, regardless of their circumstances. To Tom Minniq we owe not only the lives of the men and women who are currently housed—and not only the pleasure that his prose and poetry have brought to so many of our lives—but the very soul of this city.

“Now, Tom Minniq wasn’t responsible for all of that. You were. We were. His voice merely galvanized us, gave us love and beauty that served as nourishment for the fight. We’re not here to celebrate him. We’re here to celebrate us. Our strength, our survival.”

Sudden shouts from the highest gallery. The flutter and snap of a canvas unfurled; I turned around too slowly to read its full message—the two men from the Tom at Ten subway ads, their faces X’d out in charcoal, a slogan that read in part WOMEN DIE TOO and DEATH TO GAY MISOGYNY—before security yanked it back up and escorted ten black-garbed women protesters out.

The mayor’s man frowned, nodded. “It’s true that our community, our city, our country, all have a long way to go. But your job is to hold us accountable, and I hope you won’t stop.”

The audience roiled and murmured. Many, men and women, echoed the banner’s sentiments.

“Please,” he said. “We’re family, and sometimes we hate our family. But we’re here to celebrate one of our own. And to celebrate ourselves. What we’ve achieved together.”

The murmurs died down.

“I want us to give ourselves a round of applause. For having the bravery to be who we are, for living lives worthy of living. For being a family.”

Scattered applause, building. I clapped, but I wasn’t part of this family. I loved no one, and no one loved me.

Give me your hands if we be friends,” the Deputy Mayor said, Puck’s closing plea for applause in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we rose, some of us with the swift verve of youth and some of us moving slow, painstaking inch by inch at the behest of failing bodies, into the ocean of applause, our hands pressing together and then separating like a repeatedly-postponed prayer, an ancient ritual, practically pagan, a spell that bound us all together in that moment and then bound that moment to all the ones that came before, stretching back to Shakespeare and far beyond, but far forward too, into unthinkable futures, rocket ships and machine mind melds, this instant, this act eternal and unchanging, a flimsy and all-too-brief immortality but one that was ours whenever we needed it. The sound of us. A shallow, mocking, momentary kind of unity. The noise we made reminded us we had each other, and so we needed neither angels nor monsters.

Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller is a writer and community organizer. His fiction is in Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and The Minnesota Review, among others. He is a nominee for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. His debut novel The Art of Starving is forthcoming from HarperCollins. He lives in New York City, and at www.samjmiller.com and on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.