Todd had only been planning to kill some time between meetings. He dropped his laptop bag next to the armchair at the back of the Starbucks, bent to retrieve his copy of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, and only then noticed the girl curled up on the couch across from him. A swan-necked blonde with glasses and a Slavic pout, she was reading the same book, but in Spanish. In her pea coat, black tights and furry boots, she couldn't have been more than twenty-five.
He said, “I've heard Uncle Gabby prefers his novels in English.”
When she didn’t answer he wondered if she was ignoring him or just hadn't heard. He was about to give up when her eyes cut to him. “Excuse me?”
He cleared his throat. “Garcia Marquez. He’d rather read Gregory Rabassa’s translations.”
She turned back to her page. Then looked up again, her brows knit. “Do I know you?”
“I don't think so.” Almost twenty years before, Todd had been cast on one of the first MTV reality shows. That had turned into a starring role on a very brief-lived series on FOX. “I used to act a little bit.”
“Oh my God. You're Todd Nies!”
“Yeah.” He grinned, suddenly remembering what being Todd Nies used to feel like. When all he had to do was smile to watch the object of his attention try to remember what underwear she had on, a new thong from Victoria's Secret or the granny panties she saved for laundry day. “Used to be, anyway.”
Her name was Noe. “Route 666 was my favorite show when I was a kid. I had such a crush on you! Are you still acting?”
He admitted he wasn’t, but didn’t think she’d want to talk to an investment analyst, so he steered the conversation back to books. One cup of coffee turned to two, and the second was finished as they strolled up Nob Hill and down into the bistros and strip clubs of North Beach. He got on his Blackberry and canceled his afternoon meeting.
“Hungry?” he said.
Just dinner with a new friend. Nothing wrong with that. They ate at Francino’s. He ordered a Pinot from the Willamette Valley. Grateful for the wine tasting classes his wife made him attend. Noe thought it was delicious and he told her, “Well, it’s fruit forward, nice finish, but definitely not as complex as some of the California cabernets.”
She said, “You know a lot about wine?”
“It’s a hobby,” he said, and started telling her about the wine cellar in the Sausalito house. The house belonged to his brother Ronald, who was spending the winter in Park City. Todd stayed there when business brought him to the Bay Area. He talked and talked, hardly aware of what he was saying. It was the way Noe was looking at him. When he was young he’d never imagined there’d come a time when women would stop giving him that look.
Out on the sidewalk, the sky overhead purple rolling into gold toward the western horizon, they stood in silence. Then he said, “What’s the rest of your night looking like?”
“I have to meet a friend.”
His stomach dropped.
“A girlfriend.” She raised a hand. A cab pulled up next to her. “You want to come with?”
They ended up south of Market Street, a small nightclub filled with shirtless, muscular gay men grinding to Lady Gaga. It stank of sweat and amyl nitrate. Noe’s friend Agave was a tough Latina in motorcycle boots and an antique Joan Jett T-shirt, sleeves cut to reveal a battle-axe tattoo. She was lovely, but the signs spelled dyke, which meant that Noe was probably…oh well. Noe disappeared for a bit, leaving them to make small talk, only to return with three tablets of MDMA. Todd washed his down with beer, just going with it.
After a couple hours of dancing he found himself slumped at the bar. Agave put her lips to his ear and shouted, “Noe says you’ve got a nice wine cellar. Where is it?”
“My house.” An easy lie. “In Sausalito.”
Agave pressed her leg between his thighs. “Is it big?” A little smile. “Your house, I mean?”
Todd swigged from his bottle to cover his surprise. Maybe not as dykey as he thought. “It’s a renovated church. The foyer used to be the choir loft. The living room down below, where the pews were, is almost two thousand square feet. And the rear wall is floor-to-ceiling windows. Looks out over the Bay.” The waves of Ecstasy were rolling in like a slow tide. For the first time in he didn’t know how long, he felt like himself. His real self, the one he’d seemingly forgotten. He let slide his old, underwear-dampening grin. “Want to see it?”
“Yeah.” Agave drained her glass and let it drop to the floor. “Let’s go drink some wine.”
At Ronald’s place he swept the front door open with an appropriate flourish, modestly accepting their ooh’s and ahh’s as they headed down the spiral staircase to the living room. Through the glass wall at the back of the house, San Francisco sparkled, an earthbound firmament. Todd leaned on the loft’s rail to direct them to the wine cellar. “Grab anything you want,” he told them, and hoped to God Ronald didn’t stock anything that would cost more than a few hundred dollars to replace.
His phone dinged. A text message from Tricia: Please call ASAP. His stomach lurched and Todd stepped back outside, closing the doors behind him. The January mist was thickening into rain. He spoke his wife’s name and his phone dialed.
“Tricia?” he said when she answered. “What’s up, babe? Everything okay?”
“Cassidy had that dream again. I’m worried, Todd, six year-olds shouldn’t have recurring nightmares, they should be—”
“Is she awake?” Trying very hard to sound sober. “Let me talk to her.”
As he waited his gaze strayed down the hill. Figures under umbrellas were approaching, stiletto-heeled, every step a delicate report. Now two more young women stood looking him up and down with kohl-darkened eyes. One had a swimmer’s set to her bare shoulders, the other a shaved blue bob that matched her Prada heels and handbag. They were so perfect in feature and proportion that Todd almost quailed, as if confronted by monsters.
“Are you Todd?” the swimmer asked. “We’re friends of Noe’s. She said you’re having a party?”
“Daddy!” Cassidy on the phone now. “The trolls were under my bed again!”
“Just a second, honey,” he said, and hit the phone’s mute button. To the young women he said, “It’s certainly starting to look that way.” He ushered them inside and though he’d meant to soothe his daughter, he put his phone in his pocket and followed.
After that it was a swirl. Every few minutes more guests arrived. All young women, and if they weren’t models, certainly they could’ve walked into any agency on Maiden Lane and been signed on the spot. In the basement Noe and Agave had found cases of votive candles, and a hundred flickering lights were the backdrop for a dance party of thirty or more young women in various states of undress. Todd walked among his guests, marveling at how these gorgeous creatures all knew his name, stroked his arm as they answered his polite questions, exploded with laughter at his jokes.
“Todd!” Noe was suddenly beside him, naked but for her glasses. “Todd, we’re hungry and you’ve got nothing to eat!”
They wanted pizza. A dozen large plain. Thirty minutes or less, the guy on the phone promised, and Todd forgot all about it as Noe and Agave dragged him among the dancing bodies.
They relieved him of his Oxford shirt, his strap-shouldered undershirt, his pants. It had been his abs as much as his cheekbones that had gotten him cast on The Real World, all those years ago, and he liked to think he maintained them, despite a weakness for Thai food and Mexican beer. Certainly the appreciative glances being thrown his way testified to that.
His brain, throbbing with the Ecstasy he’d taken, was an antenna broadcasting joy at every wavelength. Apparently he was about to participate in a full-blown orgy. The kind of adventure that might’ve—that had—happened to him in the glory of youth, but seemed forever lost. These girls wanted him. Hands found him, gave a brisk, playful shake, or a slow, promising series of strokes, only to release and slap him on the ass to send him on his way. Every woman had a bottle in her hand, and dark wine was sloshing everywhere, over their breasts, into his mouth, puddling on the floor. He wondered, in an abstracted, hallucinogenic way, at what was happening. This night was a gift from God. A gift from God! God was in the groping hands and willing mouths and open haunches.
That was all he knew until the music stopped and the lights went on. Todd’s first thought was, Oh shit, the cops, but it wasn’t the cops. Agave and Noe stood with the pizza delivery guy at the choir loft railing. He seemed very young, balancing his stack of a dozen white boxes in one hand, and quite agog at the writhing fleshpot below.
Silence. Every woman in the room was staring up at the boy.
“This is Luke,” Noe called. “Ladies? A dark horse candidate?”
Smiles spread across lovely faces. Todd grimaced. This was his party, wasn’t it?
“I like this one better!” someone called.
“He’s so pretty!”
“Take your shirt off!” another woman shouted. Without hesitation, Noe and Agave grabbed the boy’s uniform polo and pulled it off over his head. He didn’t protest, but merely stood blinking, stunned by the turn of events. He was slim but very broad through the shoulders, the veins snaking along his biceps so pronounced they cast shadow on his skin. Noe and Agave led the boy down the spiral staircase, to a chorus of cat-calls and wolf-whistles. They passed Todd without a glance. The crowd parted, then closed around them. Todd found himself standing alone.
Luke squinted as if to see into the room’s dark corners. “Uh,” he ventured at last.
“Is there a Todd here?”
Noe took his face in her hands and kissed him. Agave pushed her aside, pulled off his cap to reveal a cherub’s curly golden locks, and licked at his ear. Soon she was joined by several other women entwining their limbs with his, while the rest knelt and looked on.
Exiled from Paradise. That’s how it felt. Seething, erection wilting, Todd watched the girls he’d planned on ravishing pleasure themselves with the boy. His first impulse was to simply leave; it was humiliating, being replaced so easily. But dammit, it was his house. Or his brother’s—close enough. Should he throw them all out? But what if there was a chance Luke was just the appetizer, and Todd still the main course? Though at this point that didn’t seem likely, it would be stupid to lose his temper and blow that chance, wouldn’t it? Maybe he should just slide back into the crowd...
Something held him back, and it was a few more excruciating minutes before he knew what it was. At first the women had moved in silence; Todd heard only the smacking of lips and the soft rustle of skin on skin. Now there was something almost inaudible, but enough to make his arms prickle: growling.
Nothing playful about it, nothing even human. The growl was picked up by the other women. Soon the air vibrated with it.
Luke struggled his head free. Pale and frightened, the boy cast about until he locked eyes with Todd.
“Hey,” he called, “are you—?” and then they charged him, howling.
The music went on again at jet engine volume, Keith Richard’s guitar crashing like windows shed by skyscrapers. The first wave of women swarmed the boy, climbing over each other until he was lost below flailing limbs and whipping hair. Another half dozen girls piled on before he collapsed.
Unable to look away, Todd took a step back. And another. When his ankle hit iron he collapsed on the bottom step of the spiral staircase. He pulled his knees up to his chest, covered his head with his hands, and watched through splayed fingers.
When Todd saw the boy again they had heaved him above their heads. Most of his clothing was gone, and part of his scalp was hanging in a flap, and he was bleeding everywhere from scratches and bites. The perimeter of the group began to rotate, the women dancing in a sort of twirling stagger, and at the center of the storm, Luke was spinning as well, frantically seeking out Todd as he came around, his screaming mouth empty—had someone bitten out his tongue? Faster and faster they turned, eyes bulging, their grins ecstatic, until the boy abruptly plunged from view. Over the music he could hear the boy’s screams for help and the girls’ shrieks of laughter. As blood began to fountain joyful faces turned up to receive the drops like a baptism.
One by one, women slathered in blood peeled off from the pile of bodies, pieces of the boy gathered in their arms. They went to the pizza boxes neatly lined up along the wall to add the rarest of toppings to the plain cheese pies. Slices were passed hand to hand, each taking a small bite, and they ate until it was all gone. Then they drowsed in each other’s arms. Todd cradled himself on the stairs, rocking back and forth, unable to think, unable to move.
Some time later, Noe roused them. “Ladies,” she called softly. “It’s time to go. Your rides are waiting outside.”
Yawns. Naked backs flexing and extending, stretching like cats. Shy smiles on their faces as they first noticed each other, then themselves. They gathered their clothes into piles and began picking their way through the wreckage toward the spiral staircase. Soon the room was empty, except for the remains of the boy strewn across the floor.
Todd quailed as Noe and Agave sat down beside him.
“You weren’t kidding about the wine cellar,” Noe said, patting his knee. “That was some fine grape. Best we’ve had in ages.”
“What have you done?” Todd asked. The drug seemed to have worn off, though the wine still thickened his tongue.
“We saw God,” Agave said dreamily. “We ate him. Now he’s in us.”
“It was supposed to be you,” Noe told him. She stood to glance through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Far below, flashing red and blue lights were threading their way up the hill. “The biggest crush ever, I swear.” She kissed him chastely on the lips, ruffled his hair, began climbing the spiral stairs. “Too bad you got old.”
“Too bad,” Todd repeated to no one.