Kel loves Toni obsessively and—though he supports both of them on the money he gleans from tricks and less-than-salubrious clients—he struggles with the reality of Toni’s burgeoning transition, and her motives for doing it.
While Kel grapples with his worries, and the attentions of regular client Michael, otherwise known as The Sherbet Pervert, Toni has different problems to face. Is there really a correct way to read women’s magazines? What about the manifold uses of maxi pads? And just what is this gender thing, anyway?
For all their attempts to build a life together, both Kel and Toni know their survival is precarious. What neither of them realize is just how easily their harsh, isolated little world can be turned upside down and, when chance events push them into unknown territory, both must confront some difficult truths.
Filth was reviewed by Val Kovalin for Obsidian Bookshelf, and also selected by Ms. Kovalin to feature as her Top Pick in AllRomanceEbooks.com’s Wildfire newsletter, Vol. 4, Issue 156. Full review archived here.
“This novel is unforgettable for its glimpse of lives lived on the edge of death, boundless love, and immense inner strength.” ~ Val Kovalin, Obsidian Bookshelf
“M. King writes eloquently about the feelings of despair and loneliness a person feels when they are born in the wrong body.” ~ The Novel Approach
“The three of us read Filth 9 months ago and we couldn’t let the revised version be released without buddy reading it and gushing about it again!
It’s 5 stars all over again, which doesn’t mean that it is perfect (what is?). It means that we love it so much that we don’t care, that we love every single word of it, that we were given characters who will stay with us for a long time, and so so much emotion!” ~ Boys in Our Books
“Filth is a novel of stunning emotional power … Its straightforward, understated tone saves it from melodrama or self-pity, and gives it a gritty, yet restrained, authenticity.” ~ Val Kovalin, Wildfire, Vol. 4, Issue 156
Chapter One of FILTH
Copyright © M. KING, 2013
All Rights Reserved, Dreamspinner Press
The woman’s voice is clear and calm, but Kel still winces, because nobody ever uses his full name. He packed it away a long time ago, along with the rest of the crap from his aunt and uncle’s house. The smell of mildew in the bedroom he had there, the way the rain dried like salt-track tears on the grimy window, the sound of Aunt Gina hollering up the stairs for him to come down right goddamn now….
Kel shakes his head, shakes it all away, and goes up to the desk where the receptionist with the nice voice points him to treatment room three, and he walks along there, rubbing his sweaty palms against his jeans.
He hates needles so bad. Really, really bad.
The doctor’s brusque and busy and snaps the band on his arm while she’s running through her checklist of questions. Kel can’t blame her—the waiting room’s full, and there are people backed up in the hallways, but then this is a free clinic, so what do they expect? The late afternoon is always busy, anyway. Full of anonymous after-work drop-ins, easy to spot by their nervous, tight-lipped faces and white knuckles.
He keeps his answers concise. No, he hasn’t had any problems, any symptoms of anything nasty. No colds, no flu. No nothing. The needle bites—sharp scratch and it’s sliding into his arm, cold and hungry, and Kel glances over to see the blood coming out. He taps his heel lightly against the linoleum floor, clears his throat. Hates the smell of disinfectant in here. Way the doctor’s looking at him, Kel figures she’s noticed he’s not nervous about the test, just the needle. She slips it out, he winces again and, where she directs, he clamps the cotton swab to his arm. She looks archly at him as she gives him the spiel about how long the results might take, potential window periods and so forth. He just nods. He knows; he doesn’t really care what she thinks. The whole thing takes maybe twenty minutes and after that, he’s done, and he wants to go home.
He has to pick up some other results before he can leave, but they’re okay. Kel skim-reads the paperwork and smiles tightly to himself. It’s a relief, but an expected one. There’s a guy in the hallway when Kel walks back out to the front, and he’s lighting a cigarette. One of the nurses comes running, clucking at him that he can’t smoke here and, with bad grace, the guy puts it out. There’s a biohazard tattoo at the top of his right arm.
Kel averts his gaze, and he can’t get out of there fast enough.
The light hits him, bright and rich outside, sending blotchy streaks of blue to mottle his vision. Smells of Korean food from someone’s open window, burned sunshine on tarmac, and the dirty, gritty breeze all swirl around him, and Kel takes a deep breath. He could walk home blindfolded from here, and he sets off, feeling a little better than he did in the clinic. It’s not a good neighborhood, but there are worse. Its most distinguishing feature—aside from the close-pressed rows of dark brick buildings with ironwork veins running across their roofs and walls—is its facelessness. Almost anything can happen here without a single thing being heard or seen. It’s a particular kind of dislocation, born of a large number of people all concentrating on not noticing anyone else, being deliberately and decisively blind to everything beyond their own walls. The Projects aren’t like this, nor is the heart of town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and has an opinion on it. That’s not to say, of course, that the grapevine doesn’t run this side of the bus station, but its roots are shallower. This whole part of the city feels less rooted, really. Like a forgotten name, a book pushed to the back of a shelf. Still there, but undusted, unread. Kel’s glad they don’t live right in the middle of all that shit, though. He doubts Toni could take that kind of hothouse pressure.
Kel worries about that and, just like normal, whenever he worries about anything, Toni is right at the forefront of it. He worries about Toni a lot. More than ever, recently.
Toni is…. Damn. Kel turns the corner, idling by the afternoon traffic that clogs the streets, the smell of exhaust layered in fat and greasy slices on the sidewalk. He crosses the road, heading toward the convenience store above which they rent a two-room apartment that, no matter how many windows they open, always stinks of microwave burritos and damp.
What is Toni?
He slips by the dumpster at the back of the store and across to the brick-lined stairs that lead up to the apartment. He hops up the steps two at a time, already pulling the key from his pocket.
Toni is everything. Toni is… infuriating and impossible, and totally full of crap, but he’s also sweet and funny and he gets under your skin in a thousand of the worst, crazy, stupid ways.
Kel reaches the apartment door. The paint is tagged and peeling. There’s an old Madonna album playing inside. It’s not that loud, but he can hear it because the door doesn’t fit properly. Neither do the window frames, but there isn’t much point in complaining.
About six months ago, they had the biggest fight, him and Toni. At the time, Kel thought it would end everything—and sometimes he thinks maybe it should have, because he often secretly thinks things like that, only to feel guilty for it later—but it didn’t. It made them stronger, in a way. This thing that Toni’s gotten himself into, all these changes… Kel supposes he should have seen it coming. Frankly, he can’t believe he didn’t see it, but Toni’s been fucked up in one way or another ever since Kel met him, so maybe he shouldn’t blame himself for not picking one particular fuckup out of a pile of fuckups. Not that it’s exactly a fuckup, this thing of Toni’s. Not exactly, because maybe it is a part of him, or some expression of something he’s trying to choke out of himself… but Kel doesn’t understand it. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t get it to sit right next to the person he knows his honey is. But that doesn’t make him the bad guy, does it?
It shouldn’t. He doesn’t want it to.
The day they met was summer grit and warm, stale air, just like this. The year has gone by really fast, though some days it feels as if it’s been a lifetime.
The outreach center closed a few months back. The economy’s not great for charity at the moment. It stood a block or so from where the free clinic is now, just one of the squat, ugly buildings on the way to the bus station. There used to be a needle exchange on the ground floor, and upstairs a meeting room with bright-painted walls and hard plastic chairs. The first time Kel went, he thought it was going to be stupid—one of those pointless things you do simply to shut people the fuck up—and he didn’t think he’d stick with it, but the guys who ran it turned out to be nice. They weren’t preachy, they handed out free coffee and sometimes sandwiches along with the condoms, and he made a couple of friends there. You’d sit around, drink the coffee, swap the license plate numbers of johns who ought to be avoided, find people to watch your back when you were working, and that was useful. No smoking in the building, though, and that was how he met Toni.
This one time, Kel slipped out onto the fire escape—old wrought iron scaled with rust and overlooking acres of brown brick and concrete—and he almost trod on this guy, sitting folded in on himself and looking down at the street below. When Kel apologized, the guy glanced up, and Kel just saw this perfect crocus of a human being. Slim, with a face that belonged in an art museum, all soft shadows and cheekbones, nose like a marble statue’s and a mouth made for… well, the kind of mouth a man could go blind just thinking about. He had the most beautiful brown eyes, deep-set and shaded with apprehension. Tight-furled, like a flower in bud. His clothes hung off him, baggy and faded, almost as if they belonged to someone else—maybe they did—and his wavy, black hair could have done with a wash.
If Kel believed in love at first sight, he would have called it that. Instead, he only remembers this weird feeling that pummeled his guts, nearly knocked his legs out from under him, and made him shoot out a hand to the rail for support, scratching his palm on the sharp slivers of rust and peeling paint.
Fuck! He swore at the stab of pain and scowled at the railing like it was to blame.
Toni just smiled. They ended up sitting there, sharing two smokes and a bag of Doritos, and he picked the splintered pieces of rust out of Kel’s hand with graceful, slim fingers. He wore dark-blue polish to hide how yellow his nails were back then.
So, what you doin’ out here anyway?
He’d shaken his head at Kel’s question, blown smoke at the wind, and said he didn’t like the politics. Even now, Kel thinks this was a lie. Toni was probably just chickenshit. Ever since they’ve known each other, he’s always been running away from something.
Now, Kel opens the door to their apartment and lets himself in.
He’s home. He slides the chain on the door and tosses his keys on the table. You don’t run away from home, once you find it. Madonna’s bitching on about something in the background, and he rubs absently at the sore patch on the inside of his elbow where the doctor took blood.
“Baby! You okay? I missed you!”
There’s a brief blur of movement in the kitchen doorway, but then Kel’s arms are full of Toni, wearing nothing but a bathrobe and a smile. He kisses Kel and doesn’t seem to want to let him go. Kel’s not too bothered about that, because he never quite realizes how much he’s missed Toni until he’s holding him, and even then it doesn’t seem entirely real. He starts to tell Toni about the clinic and how he’s got one set of tests back all clear, and it’ll be about a week or so to wait for the others, but he’s sure everything’s fine anyway, and Toni cuts him off.
“I just ran a bath. Wanna share? C’mon.”
He’s tugging on Kel’s arm and pulling the puppy-dog face he does so well, so it’s a foregone conclusion even before Kel glances at the clock.
“Yeah, but I have to—”
“You’ve got hours. Come on. Don’t you want to?”
Kel sighs. There aren’t that many hours, but there’s no point arguing. The song on the stereo changes. “Bad Girl” starts playing, Toni’s arms slip around his neck, and there’s close, swaying dancing and lip-synching. Toni’s warm, peppermint-scented breath is tempting, so Kel figures what the hell. He grabs the back of Toni’s neck, soft and vulnerable where the black curls—so much longer now than that first day—have been gathered and pinned up, leaving his nape bare, pulls him close and gives him a rough, deep kiss.
“Show you what bad girls get,” he mutters into Toni’s mouth, and there’s delighted laughter and the promise of a whole lot more to come.
The bathroom is tiny—the kind of tiny where you have to sit on an angle to take a shit and the door won’t open all the way—but they have candles, and Toni’s poured some kind of sweet, flowery oil into the water. He gets in first, and Kel can’t help but watch. He’s already starting to change, even if it’s just the way he holds himself, the way he thinks about his body. Hell, that started when he began growing out his hair, talking about facial electrolysis, and looking up all this crap online. Kel didn’t think he’d do it, didn’t think for a minute it would come to anything, but he was wrong.
It hasn’t been long so far, with the pills. A little over six weeks, maybe. Kel supposes he should be keeping count, but he hasn’t. Not properly, anyway. They’re the horse piss kind—no prescriptions, and the labels are often in Spanish—and they scare him to death because Toni bought them from some shitty website, sitting there in this cyber café drinking a cinnamon latte and pretending it was just normal shopping. It wasn’t. It was a terrible idea. He’s self-administering, talking about complicated dosages of estrogen, anti-androgens, and progesterone like he knows what he’s doing, but he doesn’t. They make him moody as hell—worse even than before he started—and who knows what he’s doing to himself in the long term?
Kel figures maybe he’ll stop. Maybe Toni will see it’s not right for him—because Kel believes so desperately that it isn’t—or at least he’ll realize, if he is going to do it, that he needs to wait and get proper help, and he’ll just… stop. Maybe. It’s not probable, of course, because this is Toni, and he’s a self-absorbed, stubborn little shit who only has room in his head for one idea at a time, on account of the way he believes things with such blazing, incredible intensity, but Kel needs to think it could happen.
Because, looking at that body stepping into the water—all long legs and narrow hips, lithe and slim, ripples of muscles and smooth flesh—he doesn’t know how much change he can bear.
A perfect crocus, flattened and torn.
Kel can’t even begin to imagine that, and he gets dizzy trying. He hates himself for it, obviously, because this is Toni… and whatever else he is, Toni is his stubborn little shit. Kel knows he ought to be there for whatever his honey needs, but there are some things he’s never even thought about being prepared for, or pictured for a second happening to him, or to them.
He climbs in behind Toni, and there’s the splashing and wriggling of legs and bodies accustoming themselves to each other, and Toni laughs when Kel tickles him. The water’s deliciously warm, lapping up around and between them, and Kel slides his arms around his honey’s slender body, wishing he didn’t have to go anywhere ever again.
“What’d you do today?” he asks and kisses Toni’s nape.
“Not much. Read. Watched some TV. Slept in.”
“Hm.” Kel pops his lips against the bony curve behind Toni’s ear. “You were sleeping when I left. Did you get my note?”
“Uh-huh.” Toni leans back into him a little. “You’re sweet.”
Kel moves away and reaches for the soap so he can wash Toni’s back. Toni arches it like a cat and makes a small, soft, happy noise, so Kel takes his time, tracing the hard muscles, the tension, the fleur-de-lis tattoo on the back of Toni’s left shoulder… and he tries not to let it matter. Toni is still the same person. His back, so far, remains a man’s back, and it’s a nice one. Kel kisses it, warm water and warm skin, and he really would much rather stay here than go out, but he has to.
As if Toni’s reading his mind—which happens a lot, and Kel thinks proves that, even with all the crap he has to take, Toni is so fucking special—he says:
“So, where are you going?”
“Hmm.” Kel cloaks his reluctance with a grin. He knows Toni can’t see it, but maybe it’ll reflect in his voice. “I shouldn’t even be taking a bath.”
“Oh, hell, no….”
“The Sherbet Pervert?”
Kel presses another kiss to that smooth back and wonders idly how long it will take before the hinky Mexican pills start changing the way Toni’s body feels against his mouth. “Mm-hm.”
“Eeww!” Toni squeals, kicking and splashing in the water. “Oh, yuck! Is that why you took those disgusting socks back out of the hamper this morning?”
“Mm-hm,” Kel says again, rubbing his hands over Toni’s shoulders, still entranced by the landscape of his body and the wet, silky sheen that the imperfectly rinsed soap leaves against his pale-olive skin. “I can’t believe you were gonna wash ’em. I spent all week dirtying those puppies up.”
“I hate it,” Toni declares, and Kel knows there’s a pouty face being pulled, though he can’t see it. “It’s stinky and gross and disgusting. Does he make you call him Daddy?”
“Nn-nn.” Kel writes three small, secret words across Toni’s shoulders with a soapy finger, then quickly washes them away. “Mr. Petersen. I think that was his eighth grade Phys Ed teacher or something. Whack, no?”
“Ick,” Toni agrees, melting back against him.
Kel holds him, tickles his ribs. Toni still feels a little thin, he thinks, but he knows it isn’t worth saying anything. They’ll only fight about it. Toni’s scared of the pills making him fat, so he’s not eating like he should, and he won’t listen to anything anybody says, because he never does. Kel palms his way over his lover’s chest, and he doesn’t know if the swellings of incipient breasts just starting to bud behind Toni’s nipples are in his imagination or not. Not being able to see, like this, it makes Toni’s body a shadowed, secret world that he has to learn by touch, memories his only map. Like he needs a map. Kel reaches down, strokes the corded flesh of belly and abs, and Toni makes a small back-of-the-throat purr. He pushes Kel’s hand away before it reaches his cock, though, twisting fishlike in the water that smells of cheap, synthetic fragrance. Jasmine, Kel thinks.
“Stop it,” Toni murmurs, and he does. He’ll always do anything Toni asks.
Kel brings his hand out of the water, his skin dripping with the sticky, cloying, fake-flower smell, and puts it to Toni’s jaw instead, tilting his face around for a kiss. He feels stubble and remembers Toni’s got an electrolysis appointment next week, so he ought to enjoy it while it’s there. Kel rubs his chin against Toni’s cheek, then comes back to that full, hot mouth and hopes that, whatever happens, Toni will always kiss like a man.
“I love you,” he murmurs when they finally part.
A low sigh leaves Toni’s throat. “I love you too, baby. Be back later?”
“Yeah, sure. Prolly late. I won’t wake you.”
Toni leans forward, takes up a washcloth and sets to sluicing the perfumed water over his arms. Kel kind of feels he’s been dismissed, so he gets out of the tub and leaves Toni sitting there, squeezing out the cloth with a small frown on his face, looking like he’s grappling with some intense problem of world macroeconomics.
Kel towels off—rubs away as much of the jasmine smell as he can—wandering into their bedroom as he does it, because he hates it when Toni gets moody. He glances at the clock by Toni’s side of the bed, making a mental adjustment for the fact it’s always running fast. He isn’t sure whether he has enough time to waste, though he really would like to spend a little while with his honey.
Toni doesn’t come in, though, so Kel figures he ought to get going.
He dresses slowly, making sure he’s remembered everything: dirty briefs, slightly crusty, which he wore four days straight last week, much to Toni’s disgust; the aforementioned icky socks; and, finally, athletic shorts a size too small, which go on under his jeans. They ride up on his ass, and he hates it, because it’s uncomfortable and they pinch horribly, but he can’t mess with it, especially once he has his pants on. A plain white tee with barbecue sauce and sweat stains can be hidden easily enough under his jacket, but Kel still wrinkles his nose at the smell.
Toni’s still in the tub. Kel doesn’t disturb him with a goodbye. He leaves their apartment, taking the stairs that lead down to the parking lot and the convenience store two at a time, his key and enough change for the bus jangling in his pocket. The light is dying, and a greasy, stale breeze snakes through this little tarmac-and-neon world. Somewhere, a man is shouting and a pounding bass beat plays. The two things may or may not be connected but, either way, Kel doesn’t give them much thought. Dogs bark, traffic moves, and a woman is yelling at somebody, just on the edge of hearing. He catches the bus, sits curled in on himself and stares at, rather than through, the grubby window. Kel gets off two stops early, jogging those last few blocks to help work up a sweat, before easing to his customary casual, sloping walk just as he gets near to the house. He knows where it is; he’s been here plenty of times before.
Michael is smiling when he opens the door. He’s stocky, paunchy, more than a little gray… everything you’d expected from a middle-aged guy in a polo shirt and a semi-suburban home. The place is nice: one of those townhouses with the curlicues over the porch. Not big, kind of narrow, but nice. Kel nods, hands in his pockets, weight sliding onto his back foot.
“You’d better come in,” Michael says, and he does. It’s clean and bright in here, and smells of furniture polish. “How are you keeping?”
“A’ight,” Kel says and shakes his head when Michael asks him if he’d like a drink. “No. Thanks.”
Kel wants to ask if they can make this quick, but he knows that might piss Michael off, so he doesn’t. Instead, he follows him through to the living room, which has a lot of pictures of Michael on his yacht—he used to sail a lot, apparently, and he won some kind of competition once—and some watercolors that his wife painted. She’s on a business trip to Denver. Kel sits on the couch, which is upholstered in off-white leather, and the color reminds him a little bit of the socks he’s wearing. He wonders if that’s anything to do with why it was chosen, and has a passing but very funny vision of Michael in the furniture store with his wife, hand in his pocket and fumbling with himself as he thinks about boys in dirty gym socks.
Michael gets himself a glass of bourbon, offers Kel one again, and Kel has to choke down a laugh before he repeats his “no, thank you.” At least it’s not like the first few times he came here. Michael made him sit in the kitchen and eat a bowl of raspberry sherbet while they talked about baseball. Yes, Mr. Petersen. No, Mr. Petersen. Kel’s never been fond of raspberry-flavored things. He grew even less fond after Michael made him rub the sherbet all over his dick and suck it off. He still likes to do that sometimes, and Kel can’t even look at raspberry flavored Jell-O seriously anymore.
So, all in all, he’s pretty glad it’s just a little bourbon being offered today.
Michael sits beside him to have his drink, and Kel can smell the liquor both on him and in the glass. He listens to Michael talk crap about his work and what a week it’s been. Did he see that thing on the news about an attempted bombing somewhere? World’s going to hell in a handcart, right? Terrible.
Kel nods. It is.
After a while, Michael finishes his bourbon, and he leans over Kel to put the glass on the end table. His hand is on Kel’s thigh, his face pressed up against his neck. Kel thinks he’ll complain about the lingering traces of jasmine oil from the bath, but it seems he worked up enough of a sweat running from the bus stop to cover that. Michael licks the side of his neck.
“God, you smell… uh! Are you sweaty?”
“Come upstairs and show me.”
Kel gets off the couch and follows him. They start, as they always do, with him stripping down to the athletic shorts, socks, and T-shirt. Michael tells him he’s a dirty boy, panting as he gets naked and climbs on the bed. He lies on his back, stroking his stubby, thick little dick—so hard and red the tip looks like an angry boil—while Kel kneels over him, crawls all over him and rubs his feet, still encased in those filthy socks, against his face. Michael opens his mouth, sucks on the dirt-grayed fabric, grunts out only partly comprehensible words, and begs him to take off the shirt and shorts. Kel refuses, plays shy, and Michael tells him to fucking do it. He does.
“Yes, Mr. Petersen.”
There’s a lot of talk about how disgusting he is, how sweaty, how dirty.
He’s filth, Michael says. Filthy and revolting.
The T-shirt and the shorts are dropped to the bed, and Kel crawls over him, grinding against him. Michael’s hands are on his thighs, his chest, his ass… always moving, always grabbing. He likes to watch the up-and-down of Kel’s package in the stained underwear, rubbing all over his body. He tells Kel to say that he loves it, and Kel does. He’s not sure how convincing he sounds, but Michael doesn’t seem to mind. The briefs are in an even worse state now than when he started; he thinks maybe he’ll burn them when he gets home. He hopes he can take them off soon, anyway. They itch like crazy.
Kel gets lucky. Michael’s begging for them, so he peels the underpants off real slow, kneeling up to do it. He extricates one leg, then the other, and drops the dirty cotton over Michael’s face. He doesn’t look while Michael does whatever it is he does to them… sniffing, sucking, chewing, or who knows what. Kel doesn’t really want to think about it. In any case, this is the point at which he has to start concentrating. He kneels over Michael’s head and jerks off, thinking hard about something—anything—that will fill up this room and blot out the red, puffy face of this sweaty guy with dirty briefs dangling over his chin.
It ends up mostly being a hot scene from this Mexican movie Kel saw a month or so ago, where these two guys fucked in a swimming pool, colored over a little bit with Toni and the tub in their apartment. Either way, eventually Kel gets there, and he’s almost able to block out the sound of Michael yelling:
“Holy shit, yeah! Piss on me, dirty boy! Piss your come!”
It’s not a bad gig. Not really.
When Kel gets home, it’s heading on toward midnight. He had to eat the sherbet after all, but they sat at the kitchen table for it, and Michael cried while he talked about his wife. He pays well, but the guy is seriously fucked up, and Kel doesn’t know where to look half the time.
He lets himself into the apartment, and the first place he goes is the bedroom, just to see that Toni’s there. He is, and he’s sleeping. He looks so peaceful, head resting on one crooked arm. The other arm, tribal band tattoo encircling its curved bicep, is over the covers. His face, relaxed and free, is almost like it used to be. A smile hides at the corner of his full lips, and Kel wonders what’s going on in those dreams.
He can’t sleep here, next to that.
He took a shower at Michael’s place—God knows he needed it—but Kel still feels crusty and grimy and, yes, dirty. He had to put the T-shirt back on, because he didn’t take a change of clothes with him, but Michael gave him a plastic bag to bring the balled-up shorts and gross socks home in, and Kel left that by the front door. The Pervert kept the undies this time.
The last time, he said. But he always says that.
Kel creeps back into the other room and, shucking off his jeans and the crusty tee, he takes a green wool blanket that usually lives on the back of the couch—and which Toni often snuggles into when they’re watching TV—wraps it around himself, and beds down on the saggy upholstery.
He doesn’t sleep well. Not until the sky’s nearly getting light. Mainly he just lies there and thinks of nothing, letting his mind wander around the empty places inside of himself, and replaying snatches of memories and regrets like old songs. Finally, the pools of quiet between thoughts get longer and, at last, Kel does get some rest. If he dreams, he doesn’t remember anything about it.
When he wakes up, the first thing he sees through bleary morning eyes are two black gym bags, packed and standing by the door. He groans.
Toni is in the bathroom. He can hear water running, and see steam curling from under the door. Kel sighs, rolls off the couch, and doesn’t bother to pull his jeans on before he heads for the coffee.
“So what the hell is that?” he calls when he finally hears the bathroom door open.
He jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the bags and makes like he really doesn’t know. It’s the only way he can think of to tell Toni he’s being an idiot.
“If you don’t wanna be here, you can damn well go!” Toni snarls, towel clutched around that soon-to-be changeling body, dripping in the bathroom doorway, wet hair plastered to his neck. “That’s what that is. I packed your things for you, you lazy shit. If you don’t want to be with me—”
Kel sighs. “Sometimes you’re crazy, you know that?”
“I know you wouldn’t even share my fucking bed last night!”
Kel is aware that technically it’s their bed, since they bought it with pooled money, but he isn’t going to argue. Toni gets moods that are wild and uncontrollable—he always has, even before he started pushing horse piss down his throat—and trying to fight that is like trying to argue with torrential rain. It’s possible, but futile, and you run the risk of being struck by lightning.
“I told you I wouldn’t wake you. It was late. You were sleeping.”
“Liar!” Toni snaps, and Kel really doesn’t know how to counter that, so he just shakes his head and says nothing.
Some days, this is the safest retreat. Today, it seems to enrage Toni even more. The towel is flung to the floor with a shriek, and after a moment, the bedroom door slams. Kel takes a deep breath, rubs his hand over his mouth and bites back on all the shouting and swearing he wants to do. It would be so tempting to kick in the damn door, grab Toni and just shake him, slap the stupid whimpering, whining sneer off his face and make him see…. And what does that make Kel?
He lets the spoon in his hand clatter to the counter, half-dropped and half-thrown, his fingers still curled on the impulse to hit something. He knows what it makes him, what he could do. It’s not something he wants to think about. Anyway, they’ve had enough fights like that, and Kel doesn’t ever want to put bruises on his honey again.
So, he backs off, he leaves Toni to his mood, and he doesn’t stop to dwell on things.
Kel abandons the unmade coffee and pads to the bathroom for another shower and a shave. He’s put the money Michael gave him last night into the cookie jar on the top of the refrigerator, where they keep all of their cash. He’s a little uneasy with that arrangement, but he doesn’t want to say so to Toni, because that didn’t work out well last time. Toni took it like Kel thought he was going to snatch the whole jar and run off, and there was a lot of yelling about him being called a fucking thief, and Kel didn’t mean it that way at all, but Toni still got incredibly pissed. It wasn’t even about the money, probably. Kel doesn’t think so. He thinks it was about the fact that it’s him who earns most of it, and how much Toni hates that, but he isn’t sure.
To tell the truth, sometimes Kel thinks it would be better if he was the one who stole the cookie jar and ran away. At times like these—when Toni’s mad, and he’s packed Kel’s bags for him already, and there isn’t much that’s going to calm him down—Kel thinks maybe he’d be better off out of it all. He thinks about taking the money and going away. He’s not sure where. There are buses that go from the local bus station. Ones that go all over the place, not just the immediate services Kel uses for getting to places like Michael’s house. He’s never looked into it, but it would work, wouldn’t it?
Just going down there with cash in hand, buying a ticket, and just fucking going.
Where probably wouldn’t even matter.
The bedroom door is still shut when Kel comes out of the bathroom and, just for a moment, he catches himself wondering how many aspirin they have in the apartment, but then he hears Toni crying. Kel knocks softly on the door, because his heart is ripping itself to pieces and, of all things, he can’t bear Toni’s tears. He never could.
“C’mon. Lemme in.”
He also needs clean clothes, and the warmth of the shower is rapidly dissipating from his bare skin. He shivers, and tries the door; it isn’t locked.
Toni sits naked on the edge of the bed, bowed over and shaking, practically convulsing with all the crap he carries around inside him. Kel can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to live inside that shattered, coruscating mind. He thinks Toni’s a lot like broken glass, or maybe a crystal vase just at the point of breaking, right before it loses its form and the echoed shape of itself.
He goes to the bed, sits down by Toni and pulls him, snot-smeared and red-faced, into his arms. He resists at first, angry and abusive, turning his head away and slapping at Kel with those long, slim hands that end in a set of short, white-tipped gel nails. Those damn things can leave scratches that really sting, so Kel tries to keep his face and neck away from them, but a few scratches don’t matter next to holding Toni against him, and that’s all he wants to do.
Kel gets his arms around him and, just as Toni’s opening up a little red cat-scratch on his chest, that moment of safety and connection breaks through the angry bitterness, and he stops swearing and fighting. The vase falls apart, little shards exploding into dust, and Toni grips on hard to the arm that is around his chest, his face red and screwed up as he blubbers, apologizes, runs himself down again and again until Kel tells him to stop. He’s beautiful, Kel loves him, it doesn’t matter… he’s sorry.
Eventually, Toni calms a little and lets Kel tell him it’s all right without arguing back. He sniffs. Clumsily, he reaches for Kel, turning like a child in his arms and pulling him close, as if he thinks he can blot everything out with his mouth. Toni kisses him, and Kel tastes salt and strawberry lip balm. Toni’s cheek is sticky, breath clogged with tears still, and Kel is aware that his lover doesn’t really want him, just the validation he can give. Toni’s already got one hand on Kel’s chest, just below where he scratched him, and the heel of his palm grinds on Kel’s nipple as his touch alternates between coercion and demand. The other hand is already delving between Kel’s thighs, and he knows that if he says no, Toni’s likely to throw another fit, so he has to be careful how he plays this.
“Babe….” Kel gathers up those roving hands and peels them off his flesh, holding them tight. “You have to go to work.”
“I don’t care! I won’t go. I’ll be late.”
Toni leans in again, still trying. Another wet, snot-streaked kiss smears Kel’s cheek. Even in the state Toni’s in, Kel does kind of want it too; the hot shadow that blocks out the things that scare him. And he did miss having someone sleeping beside him last night. All the same, he squeezes those talented hands and looks apologetically into his honey’s red-rimmed, puffy brown eyes. The first thing Kel noticed about Toni, that day at the outreach center—aside from the fact he was blocking the fire escape—was his eyes. It’s like they lead into a strange world where Kel’s never sure he can follow, but he keeps trying and trying, because they promise so very much.
“Go on. You have to go to work. Go wash your face. Get dressed. Hm?”
Toni pouts, but gets up wordlessly and stalks to the bathroom. He sniffs as he gets through the door, and Kel knows he’s not done crying.
He hears it break out as Toni disappears from view—these convulsive bursts of tears that sound like someone snapping into pieces—and Kel thinks perhaps he ought to go in there, but what can he really do?
He stifles a sigh, lets the air run cold between his teeth, and hangs his head. He’s really not sure how much more of this shit he can take.
Filth by M. King
Cover art: Anna Reith | Length: ~75,000 words / 210 pages
Published by: Dreamspinner Press