Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Golden Hair, Red Lips

Golden Hair, RedLips - illustration by KG Schmidt

I’m not in the photograph. I was off to the side, picture of disinterest, smoking a cigarette, watching passers-by. That was how I passed my days in that part of the century, hovering on the street corner in sight of all those colours. I remember the photographer—button-down shirt, round glasses, mussed hair, the look of someone born away from this city. He was beautiful.

The men were clenched around the window, where the sign had been taped. The photographer’s camera clicked, and there they were, stock still in black and white forever. You might have seen the photograph. There’s a good chance, now that we good men of the Castro are the immortalised nameless. Books, documentaries—hell, postcards, probably. This photograph was the vanguard, you see. The seraph’s trumpet. Bad times, they were a-coming.

The photographer lowered his camera to roll on the film, and I drew close, unobserved. My eye was on one of the men of the gathering, a hand on his waist as I read, but when I stepped into their circle that feeling—that incessant dressing down, dressing up, undressing behind the eyes—drained away.

There were three photographs, close-ups of body parts, inflicted with vicious looking welts, dark and sick. I’d never seen anything like them before, and I’d lived through them all. TB, scarlet fever, influenza—all the greats. Lesions, they’re called. Sarcoma. We didn’t know that at the time.

Instead, the poster was labelled, in neat felt-tip capitals, “GAY CANCER.” The photographs were of the man who had made the poster, whoever he was. These were the symptoms inflicted on him, all over his narrow body. The poster was a warning.

The camera whirred again, and I turned to face the photographer. He snapped another.

I’ve seen that photograph, although you won’t have. I’ve tossed back my long hair, and I’m looking straight into the camera. My eyes are quietly confident in the shadows of the sockets. I look fabulous. The other men are still behind me, reading the poster. Concern and fear is in their frame, their worried looks at each other. They’re all dead now.

“Good morning,” I said to the photographer. “If it’s not too bold, sir, I’d like to tell you that you are an uncommonly beautiful specimen of manhood.”

“I know,” he said, and matched my smile. “But I appreciate hearing it in such an English way.” He raised the camera, but I put a hand up to block it, lifting it out of his hands. “You’re a long way from home, Lord Fauntleroy.”

“I always am,” I said, “though that’s not my name.” I circled him, and lifted the camera up to my eye, pressing the button and capturing him in the frame.

In that one, you can see what’s not quite clear in that first—more famous—photograph. The words at the bottom of the page. “Be warned,” the felt tip letters read. “There’s something out there.”

• • • •

Thomas moves his head infinitesimally to rest against my cheek. His skin is cool and clammy, and his face is drawn as if the skin has been pulled inch by inch into every crevice of his skull, the muscle melted away. Every movement feels brittle, as if something will break any second. He looks like a skeleton. He’s not the only one in the Castro.

I touch my lips briefly to his forehead. “If it’s not too bold, sir,” I say, throat tight, “I’d like to tell you that you are an uncommonly beautiful specimen of manhood.”

The lesions are all over his face, crawling steadily closer to his eyes and nose, as if he’s drowning slowly in his own rebellious skin.

“I know,” he says, a papery whisper on his shrunken tongue. “But it’s nice to hear it in—” He chokes, and there is blood on the pillow. “You’re a long way from home, Dorian Gray.”

“I always am,” I say.

• • • •

His blood was in my mouth when I stalked the Castro later that night. I had kissed him on the lips until he was gone. He sputtered out, and the beep of the machine solidified. The nurse appeared. She was horrified when she saw the blood on my lips—she pushed my head into the sink, and shrieked words at me that I didn’t listen to. They were unnecessary for me, but the poor woman couldn’t have guessed.

I wasn’t the only one lurking in the corridor outside the ward. Others had been marooned there, dead-eyed and confused. I could hear the electronic fanfare of more lives ending, up and down the ward.

It was no different in the Castro—flatlines everywhere, dressed in their tight shirts and jeans, handkerchiefs in their pockets, sunglasses covering their already dead eyes. I moved between them, brushing against their cadaverous skins, imagining the lesions crawling on their bodies, squirming to escape, to crawl into the pigmentation of my own supple skin.

I found tequila in Twin Peaks, and I found Lewis in the Rooftop Lounge. I was mostly past words by then, but so was he. I kissed him against the bar, and he led me by the hand down the back-stairs, along the alley. In the doorway of Sankeys he slipped his hand down the front of my trousers and gripped me tight, jerking me hard. I breathed hard against his neck.

“Who’s he?” Lewis asked.

“Who?”

He bit my neck and jerked a head across the street.

A man was watching us. Golden-blond hair, red lips, flawless skin, half-lost in the shadow.

“Ex-boyfriend?”

“No,” I said. I had never seen him before, and yet he seemed curiously familiar.

The blond man moved toward us. “Aren’t you afraid?” he asked us.

Lewis laughed, and pulled me deeper into the doorway of Sankeys. “Dizzy queen,” he said. “Leave her be.” I let him pull me into Sankeys. The gap in the door, at the whim of a slow-close mechanism, narrowed around the blond man, shrinking him from elegant broad shoulders to a glimpse of a piercing face as he followed us.

Sankeys kept up its pretence, mostly; thus, the naked bodies rutting in the damp were lost amongst jets of steam. Lewis pulled me to a corner, pushed me down between his ebony thighs.

“Aren’t you afraid?” The blond man had followed us in, taken a place next to Lewis, who hadn’t noticed, his eyes closed in ecstasy.

I was. Afraid. Illogically, irrationally. Afraid.

Perhaps the sickness would crawl down my throat, rot my stomach, split my veins into a thousand slender hairs, let me paint the disease in savage brush-strokes over the body of my painting. In my attic by the park, the painting would crawl with lesions like fat, hungry slugs, until there was nothing but the white of my eyes left staring out into the shrouded dark of the sheet that hides it from view.

Whilst I fucked my way from sauna to sauna, my painting would wither and die night after night. And it wouldn’t be alone; around it, strung from wall to wall, were hundreds of Thomas’ photographs, the ageless black and white faces silently thronged around the decrepitude of my own painted visage—the invert of my own sojourn here on the streets of the Castro.

The blond man watched me defiantly sink to my task, smiled faintly as Lewis filled my mouth. The taste was still slick in my throat when I stumbled home, dragging my aching body up the stairs. I looked in every direction but my covered portrait as I methodically pulled down each of Thomas’s photographs, stacked them in a developing tray, and lit the corner with a snick of my lighter.

I left only one untouched—the very first one. The one you’ve seen, the one that’s gone down in history. The men gathered around that sign, back before the real cannibal horror of it all had gripped the street, the words at the bottom of the sheet illegible but stuck fast in my mind.

Especially as, glancing out the window for a moment, I was sure I could see the blond man watching from a doorway.

Be warned. There’s something out there.

• • • •

“I don’t know how you do it, honey,” Lewis said, touching the end of his cigarette to mine. I breathed in deeply to ignite, and I could smell the stale undertone to his aftershave. I wasn’t certain, but I could guess. He was perhaps—what?—a few pounds lighter than when I saw him last week. Nothing too noticeable right then. But it wouldn’t take long. Six months, and he wouldn’t be here either.

“Do what, good sir?” I asked him. They loved the upperclass British schtick here, and it was nice to relax into old patterns of speech. Henry would have been proud. They thought my name was just a part of the act.

“So handsome. All the time. Lordy, honey, I wish I knew your secret.”

“A deal with the devil,” I told him.

Lewis struck a pose, pouting. “‘Faustian Pact—for men!’” he quoted. “‘Because youth doesn’t come cheap.’”

The flower-seller swept up to our table. Lewis scrabbled for a dollar and purchased a rose.

“For the new paramour?” I asked.

“You know it, darling. He’s totally worth it. I think he might be—” self-consciously dramatic, “—the one.

I pointed at the door. “Is that him?”

It would have been easy to mistake the man who had entered for another Castro clone, but on him the flannel shirt and sandboots had a ring of authenticity, as if he had just stepped right off the farm. Ruddy faced, running a little to fat in a homefed sort of way, blinking in disorientation in the gaudy lights of the bar as I could imagine him blinking as he stepped off the train into the circus of San Francisco. Just my type.

“That’s him,” said Lewis, and bustled to sweep him into our orbit. “Honey, let me introduce my—” with a schoolgirl giggle “—boyfriend, Luke.”

I extended a hand. “A pleasure,” I said. “And if it’s not too bold . . .”

• • • •

“. . . sir, I’d like to tell you that you are an uncommonly beautiful specimen of manhood.”

Luke moves his head infinitesimally to rest against my cheek. His skin is cool and clammy, and his face is drawn as if the skin has been pulled inch by inch into every crevice of his skull, the muscle melted away. Every movement feels brittle, as if something will break any second. He looks like a skeleton. He’s not the only one in the Castro. He’s not the only one in San Francisco.

The lesions are all over his face, crawling steadily closer to his eyes and nose, as if he’s drowning slowly in his own rebellious skin.

“Tell Lewis,” he says, a papery whisper on his shrunken tongue. “Tell him I’m sorry for what we—” He chokes, and there is blood on the pillow.

“I love you,” I tell him. I don’t know if I’m lying.

“I’m sure you do, Dorian,” he says.

I kiss him, long and hard, and he doesn’t fight back.

• • • •

I caught sight of Lewis in the hospital waiting room as I passed through. He locked his eyes with me fiercely; his anger was livid and bright, powering the husk of his body. I felt like storming over to him, shaking his bony shoulders, telling him that these days, we should be used to losing things. You can’t get too attached to your toys.

He looked rough—bagged eyes, concave chest. Not a sign of the godlike figure between whose legs I had worshipped months ago in Sankeys. But credit to him: he’d lasted more than the six month prognosis I gave him.

Outside, I paused to light a cigarette, and blessed the brush-and-oil lungs of my distant counterpart as I inhaled deeply.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

The blond man stepped up to me, though I had counted myself alone on the steps of the hospital.

I exhaled. “Of what?”

He indicated the cigarette. “Dying.”

I laughed. “Not really.”

The blond man smiled. “That’s good,” he said.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re possessing of a pretty poor sense of timing.”

“Oh, my apologies,” he said, looking up at the hospital doors. “Another one dead, is it?”

I was too exhausted for anger. “Something like that,” I said.

“You’d think you’d be used to it by now, wouldn’t you?” the blond man said. He stepped closer, produced his own cigarette from his pocket, motioned to me to light it for him. I extended my lighter. “All those people dying around you. Old hat. The corpses piling up around your beautiful face.”

He leaned in closer to me, shielding the nascent cherry of the cigarette against the wind. His hand touched mine for a second.

It was as if I had been licked by the slimy, bristly tongue of some foul, preternatural creature; every inch of my skin felt as if it had been turned inside out to puke its stinking contents in the gutter. For a moment his face, leant close to mine, was no longer beautiful; his pale white skin was the hue of maggots in a soldier’s wound, his lips the sheets between a miscarried mother’s legs.

“Oh, Dorian!” he shouted after me, as I beat a hasty retreat. “Surely you don’t believe there’s anywhere far enough to run away from all this?”

• • • •

I meet Freddie in the Rooftop Lounge, and fuck him in Sankeys. Five months later, he moves his head infinitesimally to rest against my cheek. His skin is cool and clammy, and his face is drawn as if the skin has been pulled inch by inch into every crevice of his skull, the muscle melted away. When it’s all over, I stalk morosely away from the hospital, and don’t dare look to see if the blond man is on the steps.

Leon I meet in the Castro Theatre, his cock in his hand to a grainy video of two bears fucking in a workshop, furtive with the thrill of it. He takes me home to his house on the other side of the city, a respectable, shady tree-lined street, and we pull each other’s clothes off as soon as we’re in the safety of the cool hallway. We’re together for seven months, until his movements become brittle, as if something will break any second. He looks like a skeleton. He’s not the only one in the Castro. He’s not the only one in San Francisco. He’s not the only one in America.

I wonder what my portrait looks like now.

Aimlessly walking the blank corridors of the hospital, I run into Lewis. We hug, anger forgotten, and he introduces me to his new boyfriend, a boisterous drag queen by the name of Tallulah Travesty. I summon the spark of humour to plaster on a charming smile, take her hand, and say, “Why, madam, if I might be so bold as to say . . .” but then Lewis elbows me in the ribs and I laugh it off. She’s not my type anyway.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?” the blond man asks me, when I pass him on the steps, but I ignore him, and sweep Lewis and Tallulah past him, before he can lay a pestilent finger on either one of them.

I meet Nelson in the dark-room of The View, and the low light hides things for a while. He’s fresh in the city and I’m the older man—oh, if he only knew. But when he moves into the light, I can see his naked body is already pricked with black patches. As I take him, he reaches behind to hold me, as if marvelling that anyone is touching him. When we’re done, I pull my clothes on, kiss him on the forehead, and escape onto the street. I can already see the shape of the hospital bed forming around him.

I search out Lewis and Tallulah in Las Playas, and we go dancing.

The music in the club was hardly what my erstwhile Lord Wooton would have envisioned at even the most debauched of his parties. As we danced in the strobe lights, three drunken men at the centre of a visibly emptying dancefloor, I closed my eyes, and pictured myself eighteen again, clean-cut and freshly enamoured with the indulgences of life. There was Henry, in leather chaps dancing in the corner. Basil, dizzy on poppers, grinding with the leather queens. Sybil a towering drag queen with candy-cane hair piled high. We’d really outdone ourselves, hadn’t we?

I could feel the eyes of men on men, but tonight I shrugged it off. I am, and always have been, desirable. I’d already had my fill tonight, and I could still feel the shudder of it, lubricated by fingers and tongues, creasing the lines of my portrait. I’d rather not lay more burden upon it tonight; in fact, it quite appealed, to be dancing there in the centre of the dance floor, an incandescent beauty for all the good men of the Castro to lust after, fruitlessly.

Come on gentlemen, I thought. Dance to keep the wolf at the door.

In the gap between lights, I was sure, for a moment, I saw the blond man smiling to himself, waiting for my gaze to alight upon him.

• • • •

The lesions are all over his face, crawling steadily closer to his eyes and nose, as if he’s drowning slowly in his own rebellious skin.

“I love you, Lewis,” he says, a papery whisper on his shrunken tongue. “I love you—” He chokes, and there is blood on the pillow.

“I love you,” Lewis tells him.

“Me too, Tallulah,” I say.

Lewis kisses him, long and hard. Neither of them have any fight left in them.

When the nurse draws a sheet over Tallulah’s face and ushers us from the room, I escort him to a forgotten corner of the hospital, and let him slump into a heap. We’re both getting used to this routine, but I’m still the more experienced.

“It’s not fair,” he says.

“I know,” I said. “He was too young.”

“Not that,” he said. “You. Untouched. God, you’re still so beautiful. How have you escaped this . . . this . . . this fucking thing?”

I put an arm around his shoulder. It’s angular and weak. I wonder how he’s still here. He wonders the same thing about me.

“Do you want me to die?” I ask.

“No,” he says, and leans into my chest to get the afternoon’s sobbing out of the way before we go dancing.

• • • •

In my attic, I stood in front of the covered portrait. My finger twitched at the corner, ready to fling it away, unveil my face.

I could picture it clearly.

My skin would be cool and clammy, and my face drawn as if the skin had been pulled inch by inch into every crevice of my skull, the muscle melted away. Brittle, as if something would break any second. I would look like a skeleton.

The lesions would be all over my face, crawling closer to my eyes and nose, nothing but the whites of my eyes left. As if I was drowning slowly in my own rebellious skin. But then, I’d felt that way for years.

One thought kept me from pulling it away, showing me to myself.

What if it wasn’t? What if my face was exactly as it had been the last I saw it? Aged, yes, sick, yes, but not laid low by the plague that had, one by one, snuffed out the lives of all my lovers. What if the portrait had nothing to do with it? What if I had just survived?

• • • •

“Here he is!” Lewis announced giddily. He was practically skipping along the street. It would have been hard to credit that it was only three months since Tallulah’s death, but this was a sight common in the Castro these days—nothing lasted long, so you grabbed hold quickly.

“Him?” I asked, and tightened my grip on Lewis’ skinny wrist.

“That’s the one,” Lewis said.

The blond man extended a hand to shake mine.

“I’d rather not,” I said.

“Dorian!” Lewis was shocked—properly shocked, not his usual pantomime version. He looked at me pleadingly, shaking himself loose of my hold and wrapping himself around the blond man’s arm. I was momentarily torn, but the hurt in Lewis’ eyes swayed me. I extended a hand and shook, feeling my skin crawl.

“A pleasure to meet you, Dorian,” the blond man said.

“It always is,” I said.

“Right, ladies,” Lewis said, stringing an arm around each of our shoulders, “it’s time to party!”

He led us, awkward but compliant, from the street up the spiral steps to the Rooftop Lounge. It was busy that night. In fact, I can tell you exactly how many people were there. Sixty-six. Sixty-seven including me. That’s what the newspapers said.

The music was pounding, the drink flowing, but as many shots as Lewis thrust into my hand, nothing could coax me into the party mood. I prowled the floor, placing myself as far away from the blond man as I could at any cost, watching the evening ramp up.

Be warned. There’s something out there.

Lewis and the blond man were dancing, increasingly lairy as the night wore on. His fingertips on my friend’s bare chest made me shudder, slithering across the corrugated ripple of his ribcage, the crater of his belly. I couldn’t begrudge Lewis his happiness, but I didn’t have to participate. At eleven, I slipped down the stairs to the bohemian hubbub of the street, seeking solitude amongst the crowds, and lit a cigarette. It was more than the usual partying tonight—the seeds of a protest parade were gathering, marching with placards. Save our lives! Save our lives!

I vowed that when I got home, I would uncover my portrait, look and see what damage should have been done to my body.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

I didn’t turn.

“I said, aren’t you afraid?”

I sighed, and sucked on the cigarette. “Of what?”

“That it’s your fault they keep dying?”

“That’s not me,” I said. “It might be you, though.”

“That it might,” the blond man said. “But even you couldn’t possibly take the blame for all of those bodies in the morgues. But some of them? Maybe.” He lit his own cigarette. “Thomas. Luke. Freddie. Leon. Nelson. Tallulah. Lewis—soon.”

“It wasn’t me,” I said. “I’m not sick.”

“No,” he said. “You certainly don’t look as if you are.”

We were both quiet for a moment, watching the world go by. A moustached man in tight leather shorts and denim shirt ran his eyes appreciatively up and down the length of me. I returned the gaze, and then his eyes flicked to the blond man; he practically licked his lips with lascivious delight. I sneered inwardly, and mentally rejected him, added him to the stockpile of Men I Would Not Deign To Fuck. He marched on down the road, the placard wavering. Save our lives! Save our lives!

“I wonder who could take the blame?” the blond man said. “The first rotten seed. Who could possibly be responsible for all of this.” The last three words fell from his lips lightly, like a schoolboy proud of his science fair project, beckoning eagerly to his parents to come see.

I didn’t answer.

“The devil perhaps?” The blond man smiled. “I don’t know, Dorian. You’re on better terms with him than I.”

I grated the last of my cigarette into the ground.

“If the preachers in the city squares are anything to go by,” the blond man said, “then it’s God. But I don’t really believe in him. I don’t think there’s anything out there.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t form a full sentence. Instead, only one word rattled out of my throat, amidst phlegm and spittle. “Monster.”

“Probably,” he said. “You’d be the one to know.” He stepped close to me, and rested a hand against my cheek. Beneath his skin, the maggots squirmed. “It’s really not fair, is it?” he said. “Your face. So pretty, whilst everyone else’s wastes away.”

He kissed me firmly on the lips, and I vomited sourly in the back of my throat.

• • • •

I stood in front of my painting, with the lighter burning in my hand. It was not the first time in my century of living I had considered sending my frame up in flames, but I had never been so tempted. You can clean a wound by burning away the dead skin and cauterizing the hole. You can stop an infection spreading.

At the foot of the Rooftop Lounge, I’d laid a thin line of fluid across the doorstep and stepped back. Behind me, people marched, frothing with oblivious indignation.

Lewis nearly made it out alive. He’d squeezed through a window—many of them did. Thirty-two of them, if we’re talking numbers. But Lewis went back in, to save his lover, the blond man. His blackened body was found, arms wrapped tight around the blond man to protect him from the engulfing flames.

He wasn’t the only one to die. Two brothers, and their mother. A reverend. The man who, trying desperately to squeeze between the bars of the upstairs windows, died screaming, fused to the searing metal.

The cremated bodies of Lewis and the blond man were photographed. You can hang them in a museum with Thomas’ last remaining photo.

And here I was, in my attic, squaring up against my painting.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the death of the blond man changed nothing. History isn’t on my side. You know as well as I that the sickness carried right on spreading. I didn’t save anyone. I never do.

I’d branded him a monster, but his skin had crisped and turned to charcoal like any man’s would. Except mine. On the streets of the Castro—and the streets of hundreds, thousands of cities across the world—men (and women, and children) were still dying. Their skin would be cool and clammy, and their faces drawn as if the skin had been pulled inch by inch into every crevice of their skulls, the muscle melted away. Their movements would be brittle, as if something would break any second. They would look like skeletons, all the skeletons of the world gathered in adoration around the beautiful monster, Dorian Gray.

Be warned, I thought, as I pulled away the sheet. There’s something out there.

Matthew Bright

Matthew BrightMatthew Bright is a writer, editor and designer. His short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Cairo by Gaslight, The Biggest Lover, and Glitterwolf: Halloween. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthologies Threesome (Lethe Press) and The Myriad Carnival, and alongside the poet Christopher Black, he is the co-author of the experimental novella Between the Lines. Whilst paying the bills as a book cover designer, he edges slowly closer to completing his first novel. He lives in Manchester, England with his partner John, and a dog with a taste for eating valuable hardback books. Find him on twitter @mbrightwriter or online at www.matthew-bright.com.