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It’s like I’m pushed from behind, pulled down the slope of Natoma Street like it’s a ramp down into another world. All the buildings are low and tight, huddled around me. Heavy-gated sweatshops, sunken-down tenements, windows filled with dusty laughing Santas and graying fake snow, ancient slaughterhouses with rusted metal beams jutting suddenly out above me. I watch my shadow slip underneath them, sharpen under the piss-colored street lamp and slide unsliced over the green and white pebbles of smashed glass almost worn smooth from streams of urine. And behind me somewhere is the rain like sound of a car window being smashed, and in front of me the crunch-crunch under my boots, pulling me forward. I tilt my head to listen to the blood in my own ear and all I hear, and all I feel, is a cold ache. The sheet metal door glistens in front of me like an axe blade, and the sound of my pounding fist on the door echoes through me and down Natoma Street. Each split second of contact with the frozen metal is like a jolt trying to wake or stop me, but all that’s racing in my blood is too old and too known and too mechanical to be turned back. I stand and wait and watch delicate white puffs of air float out from me. And it’s amazing anything can come out of me. Soon nothing will. I bang on the door as hard as I can, bruising my knuckles, and wait a few seconds.

 

“C’mon.”

 

My teeth are clamped. I kick the door with my boot. They’re gonna find me collapsed here, as drained and empty as if a vampire had fed on me. I kick the door again and again, and it shudders. I feel the panic and desperation in my stomach spread as my blood roars away, feeding on itself.

 

 “You’re supposed to . . . ” I kick and hit the metal door. “Fuckin’ be here!”

 

From behind me a window slams open.

  

“People sleeping, people sleeping!”

 

I turn and look up to see a bald Chinese guy, his face so chubby and squished he looks like a smiling Buddha. Christmas lights flash like a strobe around him.

  

“You go way, go way!”

 

I stare as he points the way out with a stubby thick finger. From behind me, I hear heavy latches and bolts moving. I twist in the direction the finger points, and it’s like an opening in the world, with cars, lights and people passing the mouth of Natoma, and they have no idea I’m here.

 

“God damn, you’re eager.” The door pulls open like a bank vault and blue light reflects onto the sidewalk. “It’s just 11:30 now; I don’t start early,” he says in a deep radio-announcer tone.

  

My ears pound, and I look back up to the Buddha man, but he’s gone, just the empty flashing space of his gaping window.

 

“Lets go,” he orders, and I turn to face him, but he’s gone too. I step into the door that’s framed in steel, and it slams behind me. “Bolt it,” I hear from ahead of me. I stare at a puzzle of red and black painted locks and bolts. “The bottom,” he says. It’s a padlock that will need a key to unlock. I feel a clink in my stomach as I watch my hand seal me in.

 

   

I walk down an unpainted narrow Sheetrock hall with bare blue bulbs poking out like lights in an arcade. The ground is concrete and cracked.

 

“C’mon!” he says impatiently. “Off to the right.”

   

The hall opens to a huge warehouse with two giant Harleys parked in the middle and a maze of other halls, lofts, ladders and doors surrounding it. I follow the blue lights into a smaller room that smells of rubbing alcohol and something else I recognize but can’t recall.

   

“Over here.”

   

He’s sitting in a director’s chair in the middle of the room, holding two Fosters. He holds an open one out to me. I watch my shadow like a black fog moving toward him. My shadow head hits his feet, black in engineer boots, and I trace up faded Levi’s to a leather vest half revealing shining silver hoops through his nipples. His arms are like air-drawn traces of a woman’s figure stretched long. I avoid his face. I reach out for the beer.

 

“Uh, thanks.” I stand a few feet in front of him.

   

“How old are you?” He crosses his legs.

   

“Eighteen,” I say automatically, and sip some foam. He laughs.

   

“Try again.” His boot wags.

   

“Fifteen,” I mumble.

  

“Fifteen?” he repeats.

  

I follow the floor to a brick wall to my right. There are things hanging, attached, from the wall. A warm wave rushes over me, I swallow loudly.

  

“Fifteen, I like that.”

   

I nod my head. “But I have ID in case.”

 

“In case of what?”

  

I look up at him. His cheekbones are cut too sharply, like eroded ridges pushing out. His lips are small, tight and curled up like old newspaper. His hair is black and slicked straight back. His eyes are reddish-brown like dried blood.

   

“This is between you and me, got it?”

   

“Mmm.” I feel awkward and stupid. “I got your money!” I say too loudly, and start to reach back to my pocket with my beer hand but spill some. He laughs, shakes his head. “Sorry . . . shit!” It takes me a few seconds too long to figure out how to maneuver my money out with only one free hand.

   

“Blondes,” he sneers. “Fuckin’ geniuses!” He takes a big gulp of beer. I hand him 100 dollars. “So, how’s it feel being on the other side?” He smiles, crooked little teeth.

   

“Huh?” My throat clicks, he holds the money up and shakes it, eyebrows raised. “I had to borrow it.” I look away.

 

“Stop rocking.”    

I didn’t know I was. I feel like my eyes are telescopes I’m peering through, somewhere far away. “Uh, sorry.”

   

“You will be.” He smiles sarcastically.

   

“Huh? Oh.” I nod. “Yeah.” I feel my face getting hotter and hotter.

   

He nods, grins and says, as if I don’t speak English, “You are paying me, how does that make you feel?” He starts fanning the money.

   

“I dunno.” I sigh. His foot taps. “Umm . . . weird.”

   

“How?” He leans in.

   

“Uh . . . ” I rub my face, it feels red. “Embarrassed, I guess.” I can’t explain it, paying for it does humiliate me and I want that, I need that part, it calms me in some way. You can’t trust people you don’t pay.

   

“Hey, hey!!” He snaps his fingers. I look up. “Stop rocking!” He puts his arm out and waves his hand like he’s trying to move something aside to see me.

   

He sighs loudly. “Just, just sit down.” He leans back. I look around me. “Right there.”

   

“Yeah . . . sorry.” My left eyelid starts twitching. I sit on the cold concrete, and

chew on the inside of my cheek.

 

   

“I’ve heard about you,” he says with a little laugh, and stuffs the money away.

 

   

“Uh huh.” I nod. My blood swirls around faster and faster.

 

“No limits for you, right?” His beer clanks on the wooden chair arm. My eyes shift from side to side. “No safe word, right?”

   

“Mmm.”

   

“You can take it all, huh?” My head twitches in a nod. “Coz you,” he points at me and laughs, “don’t give a fucking shit, right?”

   

“Well . . . ” My voice sounds too high. “I’d like, umm, I’d like it if, uh . . . I’d like . . . “

   

“Sssay it . . . ” he says, sing-song.

   

“Ummm . . . I’d like it if you would . . . ” My head jerks.

   

“Would what?” He leans forward again.

   

“Um . . . give a shit, I mean, ya know . . . ” I swallow hard. “Sorta like, um, care.” My bottom lip starts to quiver.

 

“Yeah.” He sighs. “You know I care. Shall we get going?” He gets up. “I don’t got all night.”

   

I take a few huge gulps of the beer, and push up, like I’m pulling myself out of a pool, and follow him to the exposed brick wall.

 

“Take your clothes off. You can put ’em on that chair.”

   

A chill jerks my head, and I close my eyes. “Yes sir,” I whisper, and start to undress quickly.

   

“That’s right, you call me sir,” he responds. I hear him moving things, setting things up. “Any other special words?”

   

“I dunno.” I lean down to unlace my boots. He comes over to me and I feel his hands sliding along my naked back, down my open jeans and underwear.

   

“You do take a lot, huh?” he says. “Dad? Stepfather, right?” He’s running his hands across the little gullies and streams lining my back and ass.

   

“Can’t get this fuckin’ knot!” I yell, and punch my boot top.

   

“Hey!” He grabs my face between his hands and leans over me from behind. I keep punching. “Hey, hey, hey, not yet, stay calm. It’s okay.” His voice is soothing. I hear a moan escape me.

   

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Like a lullaby.

   

“Please,” I half whisper, and reach one of my hands up to his hand holding on to my face.

 

“Tell me,” he says into my ear. His breath smells like warm beer and saliva.

   

I bring my other hand up around his other hand, cupping my face. I feel his hard cock leaning into me from behind, and I release into containment. “Tell me,” he whispers. We breathe together, him leaning over me, in-out, in-out.

 

   

“Fix me,” I murmur. “Fix me.”

  

“What’s it say?” He points to the words cut on my stomach, ass, thighs.

   

“Bad boy.” I pant. “Evil.” I spit. “Fix me, you have to!” I feel like I’ve been hooked to a train that’s speeding away from me.

“You are a bad boy, aren’t you,” he says above me, squeezing my head like a zit. I feel it loosening. “Sinner, aren’t you.” I close my eyes, and my stomach cramps, and a chill runs through me. He wraps his arms, crisscrossed, around me. I moan. “Tell me, now,” he says quietly.

   

“Punish me.” I pant.

   

“How hard?” His chin digs into my shoulder.

   

“Till I learn . . . please? I need you to. Please?” My body is shaking.

 

“Safe word?” he whispers.

   

“No, no, not till you’re done, okay?” I pant. “Just not my face, okay?”

   

“It’s a very pretty face.” He pats my cheek, and I try to lean my head into his touch.

   

“Yeah, yeah, tell me that,” I gasp, and his cock rubs into my ass through his jeans. “Tell me I’m beautiful. Please.” I can’t stop.

   

“You are, and that’s why I need to help you,” he whispers, like a kiss.

  

“Save me,” I groan, and he squeezes his arms tightly around me, and I hope he’ll never let go.

  

“I will, you beautiful, conceited, bad, evil bitch.”

 

“Sir,” I whisper, and I feel the tears swelling in my gut. “Sir, hold me after. Please, I’ll pay extra, please, after hold me.”

   

He says nothing.

   

“I’ll pay extra.” I sound pathetic but I can’t shut up. “Please.”

 

“Oh, he’ll cry!” My mother squeezes and twists my wrist.

   

“Never done seen a thief, young or old, so bold-face remorseless,” the white-haired security guard says, wagging his finger at me. The steak and six-pack of beer from my knapsack sit on the table in front of me. “See all the trouble you put your poor mother to?!”

 

The young, frizzy-blond checker that busted me shakes her head at me. “Steals it for his no-good gang friends.”

   

“Oh, we don’t let gang members in this store, ma’am.” The manager quickly shines his shoes on the back of his pants legs.

 

I feel my mom smiling at him. She fans herself with her hand. “Well, that’s a good thing, sir.” Crosses her legs. “We have special services for them at our church, the Virgin of Perpetual Love and Mercy, but all in vain I reckon.” She sniffles, and I can’t help but laugh. Her hand reaches out fast and slaps my cheek. I keep my grin despite myself; I know I’ll pay later.

 

“Yes ma’am, the police won’t do a thing to help you, ’cause of his age. He is amazin’.” The manager leans down over my face. He smells of tuna and pickles. “Have you no shame, boy?”

 

My mother clears her throat. “He’s been a bad boy since his father passed, few years back. Remember that big blaze? Was a firefighter, over Tallahassee.” Murmurs of sympathy. “Thank you, lord rest his soul. Boy hasn’t had the father he badly needs to give guidance and discipline.”

 

I spurt out a laugh at the thought of her being married to a firefighter. Her hand smashes across my face again.

   

The manager clears his throat. “Well, I think this is the best way to handle this, ma’am.”

   

“Mary.” My mother nods.

   

“Mary, Howard.” He reaches out, and shakes my mother’s hand a little too long.

   

“Howard, sorry we’re meeting in such a way, but I’m sure it will help save my boy more than police or I can.” I roll my eyes and groan. My mother’s nails dig into my wrist.

 

“You’re an evil boy. You thank Mr. Marsh.”

   

“Thanks,” I say flatly, and grind my teeth.

   

The checker girl flashes her braces and flips her hair. “We should whoop all the shoplifters like him.”

  

“Way it used to be, and hardly anybody thieved,” the guard grumbles. I look up and see two bag boys, a little older then me, peering in wide-eyed through a broken, small window. “Well, no time like the present.”

  

My mom stands, and pulls me over to the table. My heart pounds louder. “Please,” I whisper.

   

“Oh, now we see the remorse,” Howard gloats. He opens his belt. “Soon you’ll see the tears.”

   

My mother jerks me forward. “Take down your pants.” I look up at her, and her eyes flash a private message of rage. She didn’t tell me to get caught.

   

“Excuse me,” Howard says to my mother as he pulls the belt from the loops.

  

I stare at the checkout girl biting her lip. “Oh, I’ll leave.” She starts to get up.

   

“Oh no, darling!” My mother waves her back. “He stole in front of you, so he’ll pay in front of you.”

 

I look over to the boys in the window and point. My mother shakes her head and smiles slightly at me. I feel everyone’s stares, and it’s like a heat and ice spasm racing through me. My body shivers, and, like Batman sliding down his tunnel, I am suddenly prepared to endure the impossible. I am suddenly able to lean over the table and pull my pants below my underwear. But I pull as much as possible of my jeans in front of me, and I pray and pray. At some point I feel Howard’s belt beating me, as he will almost every other day as my new loving father till we move out of his trailer three-and-a-half months later, stealing all his cash, his gold cuff links and his school ring.

 

I pray during my punishment. I pray so hard I drown out the horrible whipping sound. I pray that God or Satan or whoever won’t let them see how sinful and repulsive and bad I truly am. I pray something won’t let them see what my mother knows and has tried to punish me for, but which only worsens. And the tears that eventually come burn through me and only heighten it all. For hidden in my bunched-up jeans is my erection, like a gleaming badge of guilt, waiting to be discovered and ripped from me.

 

The belt is slamming into me all over, my back, ass and thighs. The tears are streaming, and confessions of every sin and every evil thought or action I ever did or almost did pour out from my mouth. I cry harder and harder as the truth washes over me. Even as he takes the belt to between my legs and the pain is unbearable, I am still excited. Excited as hell, though my thing has long been cured of its ability to have erections. I beg for it, harder and harder, so perhaps I can outrun it, but, like my shadow, it is next to me. It follows me. It is permanently attached. As I hang from the gray bars, swaying, wet and throbbing, I recognize the scent from earlier as blood. His switchblade at my crotch slices like I begged him, to try and help save me. One hand caressing, one hand cutting.

   

I remember when I saw Peter Pan when I was little. Afterward, the other kids wanted to reenact the battles of the Lost Boys, pirates and Indians. All I could think about was the part where Peter Pan sits still while Wendy takes a sharp needle, and with concern and maybe love, sews his shadow onto his feet. And I wonder if his pain excited him as much as it excited me.

 

I hang here, all the old voices still bleeding in my ears. I watch my shadow, solid like a police outline of a dead body, and I pray. Maybe one more slice, just one more, will sever it forever.