• Chapter 1

    "It's not the best."
    "It's not my worst."
    "It's s**t."
    "Yeah, well it sells," I said. Sure it sold. Everything did. Still, the degree of unjustified arrogance was clear in my tone and a dry swallow followed like the dragging of a guilty child's feet across the carpet. It wasn't my best piece-- something I had rushed into completion due to time-line restraints, and I wasn't horribly proud of it. I wasn't feeling anything at all for it, in fact. Just a painting, a crowd pleasure made of diluted shades of blue and violet because blue and violet were calm colors that people liked. Art school 101, this plus that equals everybody applaud. I'd been out of school two years now, and in that time I'd managed my way in to a small, up-scale gallery in the heart of town. most of my clients were tourists. Pockets of cash waiting to be spent on trinkets and memorabilia. and why not a lovely painting from a local artist? A month from now this particular piece would be hanging forgotten in a long hall in some fancy house I'd never see.

    The man who'd just casually insulted my art now crossed his arms over a broad chest, head cocked slightly as he scrutinized me. Sharp, intelligent amber eyes seemed to study every angle of my face. It was brief, and yet the intensity of such a look brought a rise to my pulse. He was so strange. Pale blond hair, strong jaw and high cheekbones. Tall, lean, well dressed. He might have been German blooded.

    I was staring and he was staring back and it seemed the room had gone empty and silent, until an arm draped around my shoulders. Startled back to the here and now, I rose a brow at Jenna, the young woman who ran the gallery. Her smile was tight lipped and commercial.
    "Lovely piece, isn't it? Don't you just adore the shades, so subtle and relaxing." She was speaking to him, but looking at me with the kind of gaze a mother held for a child who was showing off a kindergarten finger-painting.
    "I'm sure that's the point of it," said the blond man. He reflected her plastic smile. My stomach turned a little.
    "Ace is good at that," she replied.
    Was I the only one suspecting this mystery man was further insulting my art? Not that he was wrong, but to do so in such a setting--
    "Mmm, I'm sure he's very good at giving the public what they want." The blond grinned. Dimples flashed and I was offended by how attractive I found it to be.

    The two chattered pointless at one another and it gave me a moment to step back and to the side. I wasn't fond of being on the spotlight. That's what the art was for. Even so, something of this man was unnerving. I found myself staring and trying not to stare all at once, brain ticking and rotating like rustic gears. Like something was awakening, a recognition I couldn't place my finger on. The sense of curious familiarity was maddening.

    But before I could decide where I had seen him or met him before (surely there had to be a time, he was just too damn familiar to me) he had begged pardon and with ridiculous manner and grace, stepped away from Jenna and out of the room. I watched him through the wide glass windows as he moved down the sidewalk and crossed the street. His hair shone like spun gold in the noon sun. For a moment, I could have sworn I should hate him.


    Generally, I spent most of my time between the gallery and the studio, immersed in various aspects of the world of art. It was where I lived and where I preferred to be, pulled from the currents of man-made boredom on loop. Call it a habit of me to evade the norm. Today was no different in that sense, but rather than returning to the small and horribly paint stained studio, I set my course elsewhere. Seaside wind poured through open windows and my hair was made into a many-ended whip that stung my cheeks and threatened my eyes. Sky melded to treeline, treeline melded asphalt, and another momentary eclipse of reality was set. Gears grinded and the engine hummed. I needed a faster car.

    Twenty minutes in to road sailing, I was pulling into the parking lot of a shoddy apartment complex. With the turn of a key the engine died and I sat there staring at the steering column. So it was this, again. Eyes flickered to the window with the green curtains. There was nobody to stare back at me this time. No horrible but gorgeous blond man with a snappy tongue. ******** if he wasn't the reason I'd come here, though. Guilty fetish not quite allowed to be considered until I was inside, and even then it would be my secret. Only mine, all mine, shamefully delicious. Dirty secret. I tore myself from the vehicle and went upstairs.

    He'd answered the door just before I'd knocked. Maybe he'd seen me through that ugly green curtain after all. He wasn't blond and he wasn't a mystery-- quite the opposite, really. Shaggy brown hair, tan skin, handsome face. Well built. He was wearing nothing but for a pair of incriminatory tight jeans, complimented with holes in the knees. A toothy grin was offered to me as I stepped in.

    "Hard day?" he said, closing the door behind me and snapping the bolt lock.
    "Is that the only reason I see you?" I took my shoes off and sank onto the sofa. It smelled of musk and sex and cigarettes.
    "You see me because I'm better than you can imagine and you can't get enough of me." He stood in front of me, hands on hips. He was grinning. I hated it. Wanted to tear his lips from his boyish face. Instead, I leaned forward and hooked a finger into one of his belt loops. Words were so pointless between us. Little more than half-assed play, more for him than for me because I can't be ******** to feel much interest in dirty talk. But if I wanted the release I needed (guilty, dirty little secrets) I'd have to play his game.

    The rope burns on my wrists were still healing from last time I'd come to him like an abused dog with tail between legs, asking and begging and unable to voice it until he forced it from me. The thrill of humiliation was potentially my greatest defeat. I didn't want to be his. I just wanted to be had. But he'd never know of the pretty blond I imagined that late afternoon, the blond who's face I replaced his with. Hovering over, accusing me with those silent amber eyes.


    After satiating my lust, I laid strung across the barren mattress, sheets tossed carelessly upon the floor. My hair was matted and the need for a shower buzzing complaints through my skull. Eyes stared haplessly at the green curtained window. The silhouette of a cityscape remained solemn. I felt empty-- worn and relented in every aspect. Minutes drew into hours and he went out, leaving me there in the silence. I couldn't be bothered to move for a while, and so I smoked cigarette after cigarette and, when the ashtray was overflowed, finally drew the ambition to go home. Time was measured in the flow of careless motion. I drove, stopping to get more smokes and refill the gas tank, all the while automatronic in every act. My mind was elsewhere-- nowhere. Once at my apartment, I'd showered and gone to bed, the blue-gray glow of muted infomercials on the television lulling me to sleep.

    Days passed, and then weeks, and only once did I think of the blond man again. A dream that was so vivid I awoke suddenly, sweating, feverish and somehow giddy. I had stayed up the remainder of the night, wondering over this strange individual and why, oh why, I had him in my mind. Only once had we met-- maybe. There was still that uncanny sense of familiarity, but perhaps that was only the unexplainable allurement getting the best of me. There was no reason, no evidence to suggest why I should be feeling this way. Life went on in gray-scale.

    Until I saw him again.

    "How's this?" I asked, standing precariously on the second to top step of the ladder with a string of party lights over the wide open doors of the gallery. Jenna inspected from the sidewalk. After a moment she had nodded in approval and I stapled the string in place, then stepped down and joined her. The lights were already plugged in, and they framed the entrance in a vibrant multi-colored glow. The galleries and cafes along the strip were festively lit and decorated as well, all prepared for the block party this evening. Street artists and performers were already gathering, setting up tables and displays along the road, which would remain blocked off from vehicle traffic until morning.

    Jenna had dressed up a bit more than usual, and I was wearing a casual but decorative purple suit. It seemed just eccentric enough to befit an artist. That and, purple was my favorite color. Any excuse to wear the suit was a good one. I ran a hand through my hair, disheveling black locks before attempting to rearrange them perfectly for the third time in the last hour. Jenna caught me and grinned. "Nervous?"
    I shrugged and cast my attention to the street.
    "You could make a lot of money tonight," she said, following my gaze. "You might even run out of pieces. Have you got any more at the studio to restock with?"
    "I've got some, yeah." I paused, well aware that wasn't quite the answer she was looking for. "And some big ones I'm working on that should be done soon."
    Her thin brows lifted. "Oh?"
    "Yeah. You'll see. Probably by next week."
    Seemingly satisfied, she gave yet another nod, then rose her chin. "Let's get the displays up, then. Come help me."
    "I'm an artist, not work for hire, you know."
    "You're a man," she smirked, "You're genetically required."
    I kind of wanted to choke her-- Right after the sex change so that I wouldn't be declared abusive for the fact.

    It wasn't long until the streets had become thicker and thicker with passers by, and soon enough there was music streaming from shops and performers, and children having their faces painted. A mime wandered about on stilts and people clapped in approval. I lingered at the door to the gallery, enjoying the cool breeze that the evening hours brought. Within the first two hours I'd sold an original painting and two prints. It was enough money to pay the bills for two months.

    I was musing over the simplicity of my being able to paint something in a few days and have it cover so much rent upon sales, smoking a cigarette beside a tree not far from the gallery when I spotted it. A flash of blond in the crowd, so pale it might have been bleached. I nearly swallowed my cigarette. Could it be? Was I so delusional to imagine him outside dreams? It was perturbing, to say the least, but I had to know. Sneaking down the sidewalk and through carousing clusters of people, I followed the direction the blond flicker had been heading. There it was again. Perhaps twenty feet in front of me. Chasing after in my greatest attempt of stealth, I felt something like a stalker. Neon golden lights washed over the crowd he had merged to, strands overlapping above the doors of a cafe. Blond went in, and I lingered at the door. The blond-- a woman with obviously bleached hair and uncomplimentary, thick black brows, was standing in line at the register.

    A wash of disgust towards myself made my stomach do loops. I held back the need to grimace and flee, and instead turned on heel and, with an attempt of calm, headed back to my post at the gallery. Blonds were not uncommon. Bleach was just as in now as it was in the fifties. I knew this. Arms drew around my body thoughtlessly, goosebumps rising. I slumped against the unforgiving coldness of brick wall, spine curved like soft rubber. The wind was tousling my hair and I pushed it back from my eyes. Another cigarette accompanied me in self reflection and confusion, until Jenna popped around the corner of the entrance and gestured at me to come in.
    I stamped out the smoke and abided.