With it being so hot everywhere else in the office that day, it was a refreshing change to sit down in my boss’ office instead. It seemed to be blessed with an air conditioner that could instantly reach arctic temperatures with just the flick of a switch. That mixed with the slight perspiration on the surface of my skin made for a very relaxing sensation. My boss, Mr. Renfield, was looking over some of the book selections I chose for possible publication with our company, and he had just called me into his office for a 'talk'. I sat there, watching him chat away on the phone while expecting me to wait patiently to earn his undivided attention. Once he was done, he sat behind his desk, and let out one of those long sighs before speaking his mind. This wasn't a good sign.
"So...I looked at your book selection last night...and there are some definite 'problems' here." I hated it when he started out with the 'problems' bit. It basically was his professional way of saying, "I hated it! Why are you such an idiot?"
"Sir...I reviewed every single one of these books from cover to cover, and if you'll just take a chance on some of these ideas, I just KNOW that they'll do really well on the open market."
"JT...I know that you consider yourself an advocate for fresh ideas, and that fine. I an appreciate that. But the 'open market' is not the place to gamble on this kind of thing."
Don't let him shrink you down, JT. Stand up for the stories. These authors are depending on you. "Mr. Renfield...I know that some of the material is a little outside of the box, but I believe in these authors to deliver amazing results. The content alone is enough to gather a loyal following and turn a huge profit. Each successful book will bring in an even bigger audience and before you know it..."
"Each SUCCESSFUL book, JT. Successful, being the key word here. And I don't see this in any of the selections you’ve presented to me." Come on! Why won't he listen to me? "What happened to that other book I told you to review. The one about the guy who sold his family's stuff to buy drugs? Drugs stories are hip right now. Where's that book?"
I fidgeted in my seat a little. "It really wasn't all thatgood. To be honest, there was nothing special about it at all. It’s a story that we’ve heard countless times before. And done better, in my opinion."
"What about the one with the college boy cheating on his girlfriend with the super hot chick that moves in next door. I thought that one had a real shot at doing big numbers. Did you read through that one?"
Arrrgh! "Yes, I read that one too. Sir...all of those books are the same old ideas, rehashed for the billionth time for a predictably brain-dead readership. They'reboring. These six books that I’m bringing to you...they're NEW! They're DIFFERENT! They're a completely original take on their content..."
"This is not about 'new' and 'different', JT, you know that?" Mr. Renfield said, another sigh escaping his lips as he stood up. "Look...a majority of people...they don't WANT anything new. They don't careabout new stories, new characters, new concepts. They’re not looking to expand their horizons by tackling a genre that they’re not used to. They want what they know and love already. They want familiarity. That’s it. Nobody is going to take a chance on these new ideas from authors that nobody's ever heard of. They just want more of the same old shit that we spoonfed them last time, but better. And that's what I intend to give them. That’s what makes money. That’s what keeps us in business."
I looked off to the side, hoping to hide some of my frustration. Biting my tongue to keep from raising my voice. "So, does that mean, you're rejecting my selections? Without even giving them a chance?"
"Every last one of them, yes." He told me. He picked up the manuscripts, one by one, tossing them back on to the desk in front of me. "This story here? Too supernatural. Too much philosophy and weirdness...stay away from this new age crap." He picked up the second one, "This one, it's too unpredictable. I don't know what's going on here." Who ever heard of a book being too unpredictable? "This one...too sad. Parental abuse? Emotional trauma? Severe heartbreak? Nobody is going to spend money to read this shit. People want to feel 'good' when they read a story. This book is way too depressing for any of this to be profitable." Oh gee, I see...I should just go tell the author to go back and make a HAPPY book about years of horrifying child abuse! That’ll go over well, I’m sure. "And THIS book??? This book has a GAY main character in it! And he's only sixteen, for Christ sake." How can he just blurt that out in front of me, KNOWING that I'm gay? Sensitivity training is definitely needed in this place. "What were you thinking, JT?"
"It's a gay story, sir. The main character is supposed to be gay."
"The main character is a MINOR. That does NOT look good on this company's record. That kind of press, we DON'T need."
"There's no sex in the book..."
"There are sexual themes in the book."
"He's sixteen, Mr. Renfield. Sixteen year olds DO think about sex, you know? OFTEN!"
"Not with MY signature behind it, they don't." He told me, and I guess that was his final word on it all. "JT, you're a good employee, and you have good judgment. Iknow you do. You just have to settle in a little bit and fix your mind to recognize stuff that actually 'sells'. Lose this wannabe progressive mindset and get with the established program already. Find a reliable formula and market it to the masses. We can do the same thing over and over again until the sun burns out, just so long as it SELLS. And sells a LOT. Appeal to the status quo and feed on the emotions that they’re used to feeling. Alright? We’re not trying to change the world here. We stay in our lane and we keep the readers happy. That’s our job."
What was I gonna do? It's not like he was going to suddenly change his mind. "Sorry. Just thought you'd want to see something a little different from the same old stuff you've seen before." I said quietly, and stood up to take the rejected manuscripts off of his desk.
"You want me to see something different, JT? Show me a higher profit margin than the one we made last quarter. These damn online stories are killing us in the marketplace. They're giving the shit away for FREE! Can you believe that? It's like...cheating." He said, sitting back down behind his desk, and silently dismissing me to go back out into the 'less than fabulous' air conditioning that the rest of the office had to deal with.
Once again...every new idea I had got shot down without so much as a chance to be explored for what it was. It's not like he read all six books last night. He probably just skimmed a little bit and figured the concepts were too 'new' for anybody to like them. Well *I* liked them. There's got to be a market for these heartfelt stories. They might not be the big corporate target audience that the big wigs are looking for...but I'm sure the audiences that they were meant for were sick and tired of being overlooked and pushed aside. Why can’t they find a tale that they can relate to on a personal level? Who writes for THEM, you know?
I sulked my way back to my desk, where my friend and co-worker, Sammy, was waiting to see how things went. I think the look on my face said it all. "So, I take it there's no celebration going on after work tonight?" He said.
"Not unless you want to celebrate a record number of complete and total failures." I told him.
"Geez, he didn't accept a single ONE of them?"
"Well, what did he say?"
I sat the books on the desk and put my hand on my forehead "You know, the same old thing. He wants something more...dull, more boring, more repetitive, more predictable. Give the people what they want, and hide all the alternatives because they’re supposedly too stupid to open their minds to anything else."
"Hehehe, such is the way of big business. I don't know why it even bothers you any more." Sammy said. "Just find a popular book, and tell the author to make another sequel. Sequels sell. Renfield will love it."
"Whatever. Maybe I'll just give up on the new ideas for a while."
"There ya go! Broken spirits and forgotten dreams...now you're getting into the winning business model!" He said with a grin. "Now quit being a sourpuss and entertain me while I dodge work for the last half hour of the day."
"As much as I would like to assist you in evading anything that would actually cause you to EARN your paycheck for a change...I've got stuff to do before I leave." I said, looking at the stack of books on my desk. "Sighhh...I've gotta call these authors back and say, 'thanks, but no thanks'. Sucks though. I think these stories really could have done some good out there."
Sammy watched me sulk for a few moments before raising up his hand with a cheesy grin to show me the 'C' symbol he had drawn on the back of it with a few different colored markers. He had a smile that was simply contagious, and I couldn't help but grin back at him as I raised my own 'C' mark to touch hands with him. It just so happens that Sammy and I were both reading one of those 'online story sites' that were supposedly killing the market. And we enjoyed it on a weekly basis. So when the anniversary came up, and the word went out that we should wear our 'C' symbols as a means of support, Sammy and I were first in line to do so. Showing me that symbol was his answer for everything that aggravated me. Hehehe, I honestly don't understand why it keeps working.
The last half hour of work, thankfully, went by pretty fast that day. With Renfield checking out 15 minutes early as usual. Sammy instantly leaned back in his chair and spun around, signaling that he was officially done working for the rest of the day, now that the big boss was gone. I called the authors back, one at a time, and broke the bad news to them. But did what I could to encourage them to keep doing EXACTLY what they were doing. And...yeah...they kind of gave me these halfhearted promises that they would, but I already knew that they were probably just a few rejections away from throwing in the towel. I know how the 'game' goes. By this time next year, the ones who didn't sell out to make the same formulaic garbage as everybody else, will have lost their spirit and given it up for some mindless 9 to 5 job that's nowhere nearly as satisfying as following their passion...even with no visible reward.
Sighhh...true art is dying. And commerce is the bloodsucking monster that's murdering it.
"Hey, you wanna go out for a few beers or something?" Sammy asked me as he gathered his stuff to leave for the day.
The idea of it was appealing, but my current mood wouldn't allow me to follow. "Nah, not tonight. I just wanna go home and flatline in front of the TV for a while." I told him.
"Suit yourself. It's not like I don't have margarita mix at home." He grinned. "See ya tomorrow?"
"I suppose. It's not like I have a choice."
"Hey now, there's no way I'm gonna let you be sad on a Friday. So you come in tomorrow with a smile, or I'm gonna chisel one into your face myself. Got it?"
"Hehehe, I’ll smile. All shits and giggles, I promise."
"That's more like it. Get home safe, alright?" Sammy said, and got up to punch out. Then he looked at my desk, and then at his, and said, "Do you think it's intentional that they put the two gay guys' desks together in the same corner?"
"Hehehe...go HOME already!"
"I'm gonna look into this. Watch. If we can get a lawsuit working, I'm booking us a hotel in Vegas!" He tried his best to keep me grinning at all times, and that's the kind of friend that I needed at that particular moment. If nothing else, it helps take the edge off of my day.
I stayed about five to ten minutes later than normal, and then grabbed my stuff to punch out and go downstairs. I got off of the elevator and said goodnight to security as I walked out of the building and headed towards the subway. I had a car, sure...but with the price of gas reaching almost four dollars a gallon in Chicago, I'd probably do better 'catapulting' myself to work from the rooftop. The streets were already pretty dark, and the nightlife had begun to kick into gear. I looked at all of the college kids laughing and playing in the subway, getting ready to go out and party. Get drunk, get high, get laid. Hehehe, and to think, that was me two years ago. I was barely 25, and yet felt like that was a lifetime ago. Funny thing...I could really go for a party like that these days. I really do miss the life, sometimes.
As I waited for the next train, I felt my head spinning a little bit. I wondered if maybe I stayed up too late reading and re-reading certain parts of those last few books I was reviewing last night. I don't get nearly enough sleep these days, that's what it is. I had a random thought of my very first boyfriend. I was fifteen years old, and I met him up at summer camp. I remembered being in a tent with him...kissing, and holding each other, and rolling back and forth with those first few experimental touches. That innocent sexual experience that is the bridge between shivering with fear and trembling with excitement. I remember us whispering to each other, trying to stay soooo quiet. I remember his heavy breathing, and the feel of his naked skin as it slid against my own. And his kiss....his kiss made me feel so special. It's funny how a random memory from your past can just completely blindside you out of nowhere at all. I don't even know why I would be thinking about it right now...but it felt good. Somewhere, in the depths of my most vivid memories, that particular night was waiting to present itself to me again, as if for the first time. And it felt really good.
I heard the train coming, and looked down the long dark tunnel to see the lights heading my way. The wind brushed across my face, and I stood back to wait for my ride. It was then that I caught sight of someone a bit further down the train platform. I probably wouldn't have noticed him standing there in the crowd of other people around us...but he seemed to be...'staring' at me.
He looked to be about 17 years old, give or take a year. With brown eyes and light blond hair that sort of flopped over his right eye. He was rail thin, wearing an old throwback 'School House Rock' T-shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans. Very cute, if I do say so myself. Very...'unique' in his look. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something about him was just so original. Heh, weird.
His eyes stayed connected to mine, and I sort of expected him to stop staring once I noticed him. But he didn't flinch. In fact, his stare seemed to get even more intense. That's when the train fully pulled into the station.
I stepped on with a bunch of other people, and muscled my way over to get a seat in the center of the car. I assumed the boy must have gotten on the train too, but he was a couple of cars down at least. It was an odd moment, but exhilarating just the same. It would be one of those chance encounters that I would love to read about...if ol' Renfield ever bothered to take a chance on publishing anything outside of the norm.
I rode the train for a stop or two, feeling the drowsiness smothering me as the motion of the train basically tried to lull me to sleep. And that's when I heard the door to the car I was sitting on open up behind me. A brief burst of noise and a blast of air from the train swiftly crawling through the tunnel. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw the young boy standing there, looking for me. Our eyes connected briefly, and that's when he moved forward to sit in the seat across from me.
It was a bold move on his part to be so obvious about watching me. I didn't know whether or not I should give him some kind of response, or simply let him approach me. I usually prided myself on not appearing 'gay from a distance', but this boy had evidently figured me out pretty easily. I glanced over at him, his doe brown eyes sparkling back at me as a tiny smirk appeared on his lips. He was extremely cute. A little young for my tastes, but definitely the kind of boy I'd make an exception for if he offered.
I gave him a polite nod, and he nodded back at me, his smile widening a bit. I should really get home and try to find some other stories to give to Renfield tomorrow. He's going to want something quick and easy to appease the publishing gods on Monday, and I don't really want to waste my weekend. Ugh...WHY am I thinking of work right now? I've got a cute boy sitting across from me, smiling and nodding...and I'm thinking about Mr. Renfield. Great. My mind is SO off tonight.
"Do I know you?" I asked, wondering if maybe it was just somebody that I didn't recognize. Maybe the younger sibling of somebody I went to high school with or something. But he silently shook his head. "Oh...I thought...maybe you knew me from somewhere."
He smiled and shook his head again. I was almost beginning to wonder if he could even speak, when he asked me, "You wanna go to a party tonight?"
It was random and it was weird, and considering I didn't know this kid from Charlie Manson...it was kind of creepy. "A party? What do you mean?"
"A bunch of us are throwing a party tonight. My friends and I. It's gonna be killer. You should come." He smiled wickedly.
I didn't want to come off as insulting, but I had to ask him, "Are you SURE that you don't know me from somewhere? Because that's a pretty sweet offer to make to a complete stranger."
He giggled sensually, his eyes staring deeply into mine. "You're not as much of a stranger as you may think. Not to me, at least." He looked down at my hand, and chanted softly, "See I may...see I might...I think I see a 'C' tonight."
Ohhh, the...the 'C' symbol. Shit, I completely forgot that I was even wearing it on the back of my hand. "Hehehe, I'm sorry. I wasn't even aware that...ugh, my brain is mush tonight."
"It's ok. It happens to the best of us." He grinned.
"You know, I was happy to wear it, but I didn't really expect anybody to notice it." I said. “It seemed pretty pointless, if I had to be honest. But...roll of the dice, you know?”
"Yeah, it can be a lonely feeling at first. But it passes after a while. Especially once you start spotting them in the streets. That's when you realize that you're not really alone at all. Just pretending." The boy then lifted up the right side of his blond hair, to show a dark red 'C' painted on his cheek, decorated with a small spattering of sparkling glitter. "We've been scouting the major cities, getting as many readers together as we can, especially this time of year. The anniversary always falls right at the early stages of Summer when it's hot outside, and people are remembering what it's like to live again, you know?" He said, letting his blond locks fall gracefully back into place. "The party gets bigger every year. We're always finding more ‘C’ marks when we go out. We just wanted to get together and have some fun as a united group, that's all."
"Really?" I asked. "How many did you find in the Chicago area so far?"
"My friends and I? A little over 500, give or take." He grinned.
"JESUS! Hahaha! I was expecting, like...TWO! And that's including my best friend Sammy."
"He reads the site too?" He asked, looking even more interested.
"Cool. Why don't you bring him with you?"
"To this 'party' of yours?" I grinned.
"It's just as much your party as anybody else's. We are a ‘family’ of sorts, after all." He saw me smile a little bit, a slight blush in my cheeks. "C'mon...what have you got to lose?"
I thought about it. If they wanted to get a bunch of readers together for a party, they certainly sent out the right attraction to get it done. To say that he was seductively built would be an understatement. To say that he was beautiful...would almost be an insult. Still, this was a bit too sudden for my mind to really process. Plus my train stop was rapidly approaching. "You know what? Not tonight. I doubt I'd be much fun, as tired as I am right now." I told him. "It sounds like a GREAT idea though. It's amazing that you guys organized something like that."
"Hmmm...too bad. I think you'd have a lot of fun."
"I'm sure you and your high school buddies will have plenty of fun without me."
"It's not just high school. The crowd is as diverse and original as the one online. And a LOT of them are very, VERY cute. Just in case you were wondering." He said with a grin, then he reached into his pocket to pull out a wrinkled up receipt. He scribbled something out on it and handed it to me. "I'll tell you what...here's the address. We'll be partying every single night for the rest of the June anniversary week. If you change your mind,feel free to stop by. And bring your friend. We'd love to meet him. K?" He said, and gave me such a flirtatious look that I just had to grin to myself and nod my head, all while hiding a sudden blush. Then he looked back out the train window behind me. "I believe this is your stop."
"Shit. Right. Um...ok. If I...change my mind, I'll come by."
"Party always starts at 9 PM sharp. Make sure to wear your mark, they won't let you in without it. And put it on an hour ahead of time. If you try to get in with fresh ink on your hand, they'll figure you for a phony. Got it?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure." I said, and stepped off the train. "Will you be there?"
"Most definitely." He said with a boyish smile, pulling his hood back up over his head.
"Cool. Well...maybe I'll see you there then." The doors were beginning to shut, and I rushed to ask him, "Wait! I don't know your name!"
As the doors closed, he grinned at me and said, "It's Gabriel. See you at the party, JT."
The train took off before I had a chance to say anything else, and I found myself wishing that I had talked to him for a little bit longer. He was probably one of the most intriguing people I've met in a long time. And I don't know a damn thing about him except that he reads the same erotic gay website that I do. Wild.
That night, as I peeled myself out of my work clothes and jumped into a relaxing shower...I thought back to the cutie on the train. I thought about his charming smile, and his almost frail body frame. His baby brown eyes, and sweet full lips, still bearing the cushion of youth in their blushed presentation. His skin, and his locks of golden hair. It was enough to excite me, and guilty pleasure thoughts of caressing him entered my mind. Hehehe, just my luck, he's probably a cop, waiting to see if I'll try to coerce a minor into having sex. Yeah, that's probably what this is all about. What else could it be? I'm sure there are watchdogs keeping an eye on the place for content, right? They can't find known terrorists with their pictures up at the post office...but they'll certainly come and find me in a day if I ever crossed the line. Ahhh, silly me. Gotta start THINKING, JT! It's not every day that a cute, 17 year old, heart throb approaches you in a dirty subway and asks you out to a party just because he sees a mark on your hand.
I got out of the shower and dried myself off, grabbing a hot cup of tea to soothe my nerves before going to bed. I got online to check the site to see if any other 'C's had been reported. I mean, Gabriel said there were over 500 in Chicago alone. I find that hard to believe. I checked everywhere on the site, and found nothing. Not a word, not a trace. Nowhere on the entire planet. Maybe this thing isn't as big as I thought it was. Ah well, if I'm the only one who's seen another mark, so be it. I typed out a short post about meeting Gabriel on the train tonight, and the possibility of there being many more of us around here. I ended the post, simply saying, "We are many!" And added the appropriate smiley face, after it. That should do it. I shut my laptop off for the night and went into my room to get some sleep.
I have to admit...something about Gabriel had a profound effect on me. I couldn't seem to get him out of my head. The moonlight was coming in through the window, and I was tossing and turning, trying to quiet my mind long enough to get bored and pass out. It didn't work too well though.
His teen voice rang delicately in my ears. "C'mon...what have you got to lose?", he said. "It's just as much your party as anybody else's." It made me wonder...what if this was legit? What if he really meant it, and a bunch of people just like me were all going to get together for something really cool this week?
I tossed and turned some more, still thinking about the gentle beauty of him lifting up the right side of that soft blond mop to show me his mark. He definitely took some time on it. Effort. One thing about 'watchdogs'...they lack creativity. Maybe this kid was for real. Besides, he said people of all ages would be there. It's not like I bribed a ten year old into the back of a truck with a bag of lollipops. What if I go? What if I just...go, hang out to see what it's like, and then come back home? If nothing else, I'll get to see Gabriel again, and satisfy this nagging curiosity about his sincerity.
Yeah...why not? I'll go. I'll take Sammy with me, we'll be safe. And if anything seems weird, we can always say that we came together...as, like, a couple. Fuck it. You only live once, right? I'll do it! Right after work, I'll come home, and I'll change clothes, put my mark on and check in. JUST to see what it's all about. I think it was that final thought that put my inner conflicts to rest and finally allowed me to sleep that night. The last thing I remember before drifting off, were the echoes of Gabriel's playful little chant, spoken softly on the train...
"See I may...see I might...I think I see a 'C' tonight...."
When I woke up the next morning, I actually felt a little bit anxious about going out that night. I've been so involved with work over the last few months that the very concept of partying with friends had been reduced to occasional get togethers at one person's house to watch a TV show that I could have easily watched at home. Except, we get to talk through the commercial breaks. That's the only real difference. Going to this little shindig was almost like a field trip away from my current state of mind, and I welcomed it with open arms.
I sat down to my laptop to check my morning emails, a few of the top news articles for the day, and then went by the website to see if I had gotten any replies to my latest post. I wondered if any other marks had really been spotted. Anywhere. But...funny thing...when I went to the site's forum, my post hadn't been approved yet. It was nowhere to be seen. I thought that was strange, as I didn't say anything offensive or insulting in it. I was sure of that. And there were posts that, looking at the time signature, had been posted after mine...and had already been approved. It was odd. But I didn't really think much about it. I suppose I'll find out what I did wrong later. It might just be a mistake. Right now, I just wanted to get to work, avoid staying late, and start my weekend off right. Who knows? Maybe, if I like this thing, I'll go back and party for all the other nights of the week too. Even better, maybe I'll find myself a nice, hot, body to curl up next to this weekend. Gabriel certainly seemed interested. I guess only fate knows for sure.
"Dude...what are you talking about?" Were the first words out of Sammy's mouth when I told him about the game plan. "Some random kid offers some mysterious invite to a party without even asking your name, and you're actually gonna go?"
"Not ALONE." I told him.
"Well, what brave idiot are you planning to take with you?" I gave him a look, and he protested instantly. "Oh HELL no! Are you crazy?"
"Sammy...come on! He was wearing a 'C' on his cheek. He knows the site. He said there will be plenty of people just like us there. CUTE BOYS!!! All there, just to have some fun! Where is the downside in this?"
"JT...you don't know WHAT kinda freaky cultish thing they've got going on over there."
"It's NOT 'cultish'! Geez, the kids not even out of high school yet. When have you ever heard of somebody that young being a mass murderer?" I asked.
"Gee, I don't know...The West Memphis Three? Columbine High School? CHILDREN OF THE CORN???"
"Children of the Corn is a movie, doofus. And shut up! It's not anything like that!" I said, hoping that he'd change his mind. "Sammy...dude, seriously. It's JUST a party. We can go together, we can watch each other's backs, and if it's lame or weird...we can leave. No worries." He sighed to himself about it, but I kept urging him along. "Sammy...I'd feel a LOT better about going if you were with me. Ok?"
"You're killing me here, JT." He moaned, but appeared to be caving in.
"There's going to be a LOT of cute guys there. I'm sure of it. And you are WAY overdue for a random hook up, aren't you? Maybe it’s time you let somebody else slap that banana for you."
Sammy gave me a sideways look. "YOU'RE one to talk, 'Mr. No Date'! You're practically a virgin all over again, it’s been so long."
"Which is EXACTLY why we both need this party tonight." I told him. "Please? It won't cost you anything at all." He still didn't budge. So I made a big mistake, and told him, "Sighhh...alright. If you come with me tonight, I'll buy you drinks at Roscoe's until you get tipsy next weekend."
"Drunk." He said.
"Aw, come on! You have the alcohol tolerance of a fucking viking, Sammy!"
"It's DRUNK, all night long, top shelf shit...or I don't go. And you get to visit your little killer cult of pretty teen sadists all by yourself." He put his foot down, and I rolled my eyes...slowly nodding in agreement. It brought a big smile to Sammy's face. "What time should I meet ya?"
We got through the rest of our day, and I made sure to tell him to put his 'C' mark on an hour early so they wouldn't think he was just some poser trying to get in by drawing one on his hand around the corner from the party. And soon I was at home, getting dressed for my good time. Something just told me that tonight was going to be awesome. It was different from the day to day grind, and I welcomed that with open arms. I checked the website one more time. No other posts had been made. Mine still wasn't accepted. I didn't even get an email as to why it was left off. Hell, just my luck, I posted it wrong and hit the stupid clear button. I'll do it again later, for sure. Besides, I'll have much more to report if this party is anything like I'm expecting it to be.