IT STARTED in the shower. Well, okay, my story didn’t actually start in the shower, but the part where I fell for Theo did. I look back now and realize how very naïve I was, but it doesn’t matter. I would have fallen for him anyway.
I’ll get to the shower in a minute…. Maybe it’s important to explain how I got to the shower. It’s still something that’s hard for me to believe….
BREATHE. JUST breathe. Well past midnight, I sat on the edge of my bed—fully dressed. If I do this and they catch me they might kill me. But… how can I not? I can’t stay. I can’t do what they want…. Every time I thought about it, my stomach began to churn, and I felt light-headed. What other options were there?
“Come on,” I whispered, then laughed. Talking to myself? That’s what this had come to?
I stood on wobbly knees and opened my large walk-in closet. Over the last month I had been stowing things I would need in a backpack I hadn’t used since I was thirteen. An extra pair of pants, four shirts, seven pairs of underwear, seven pairs of socks, three half-full deodorants (having convinced Mrs. Matlock, our housekeeper, that I just go through them quickly), and two half-tubes of toothpaste earned with the same deception that caused spikes of guilt when I thought about it. No one had noticed these things slowly going missing, or if they had they didn’t say anything.
I stared at the backpack for a ridiculous amount of time. This is a bad idea. They’re going to kill me….
I snatched the backpack before I could think about anything else, rushed to the bathroom where I grabbed my electric razor and toothbrush and shoved them in. I slipped my e-reader from the bedside table into the front of my pack and surveyed the room. My room since I was born. My prison….
Of what few things were there, I could see no reason to take anything else. Opening the door slowly, I peeked out into the darkened hall. Shifting my eyes to my serpent’s, I double-checked the hall and sighed with relief that there were no heat signatures that would suggest anyone lurking. Except me. I was the only one who stayed in my wing unless there were guests, so the bath and two other bedrooms in the wing were usually empty.
What was I going to say if they found me? I rolled my eyes at myself. What could I say? “Yes, Mother, just out for an evening run. Oh, the backpack? Well, you know how smelly I can get, just thought I’d bring a change of clothes, or seven.” I snorted at the absurdity of the situation, and then at the fact that I had been hovering in my doorway for over a minute. A little voice in my head started the mantra, “Just go, go, go.”
I nodded and hurried out the door, down the hall, down the stairs, and paused.
The house was silent. Of course it was; no one was awake at this hour.
Food. What was I going to do for food? Good thinking…. I tiptoed around the corner and through the formal dining room, which led into the kitchen. Ms. Matlock retired to her cottage at 9:00 p.m. sharp every night. She did not return to the main house until 6:00 a.m. every morning, and Mother and Aunt Edna never came into the kitchen. Except for after midnight when there’s someone rummaging around in there, I chastised myself and worked harder to be quiet.
I held my breath and listened again.
I grabbed three pieces of fruit from the large bowl at the end of the counter. If I take more, they’ll notice. Heck, they’ll notice I’m gone at 7:00 a.m. when I’m not down here for breakfast, so what will it matter if they notice more fruit is gone? I groaned and stuffed four more apples into my bag. The rest of the food in the house wasn’t prepared into meals, and I didn’t know how to cook. The thought came to mind of trying to teach myself how to cook one of Mrs. Matlock’s meat loaves so I could take it with me. But the smell would probably carry, and how long did it take to cook a meat loaf? What about salad? I could probably put together a salad… but how would I carry it?
I was stalling. This was stalling. I shook my head and hurried back through the dining room toward the front door and stopped. Mother’s purse. She stored it in the entryway cupboard, but today it was sitting on the counter. I stopped breathing. Taking small gasps of air, I stood still.
She was behind me. I could feel her. Her eyes boring into the back of my skull. Her breath tickling my ear.
I whipped around to find the hall empty and shuddered with relief. A visceral thing.
Gasping for breath, I bent over and rested my hands on my knees. I’m going to vomit. Deep breath. In through the nose.
When I could focus and my stomach had stopped churning, I looked at the purse again. Why was her purse out? Did she often leave it out? I didn’t know. I glanced inside. What was I doing? I had already stolen food from the house. Was I really thinking about doing this? This was wrong… but then, leaving was wrong.
With trembling fingers I separated the leather. Her wallet sat right on top. I can’t…. The magnetic clasp easily parted, and inside I found several bills. I’d need money.
Not giving myself any more time to think, I grabbed all the bills and stuffed them in my pocket before shoving the wallet back into the purse and stepping away.
I felt dirty.
Don’t think. Go. Go, go, go! I passed by the coat closet and paused. It was autumn…. I pulled out a coat that Mrs. Matlock had purchased for me. Something I’d never worn because I didn’t go out, but that she had made sure was available and in my size if I ever needed it. I pushed it into the pack and secured the zipper before hoisting it over both shoulders.
Go! I shook my head. It was now or never. Either go, or….
I opened the front door and surveyed the dark, quiet estate. Then just started running. There were no trees or shrubs or anything to hide my flight between the house and the gate, and I was certain that lights would suddenly come on as I tore down the long drive. But nothing happened. All was still dark when I arrived at the tall iron gate that was way too high for me to climb. Even though I had never opened the gate on my own, I remembered the code from five years earlier when my aunt had escorted us to the park. The last time I had set foot outside the estate.
Cringing, I expected a loud creaking, but was pleasantly surprised when the gate swung inward, blessedly silent. It didn’t keep me from checking over my shoulder a dozen times, convinced someone would be standing in the shadows, watching.
When no one stopped me, I began to run… and run. I had no idea where I was going, and the sleeping streets of the neighborhood on the edge of Sacramento remained passive, making me feel somnambulant. The whole escape was like something out of a nightmare, and if my heart hadn’t been thundering in my ears I might have been convinced that I was actually going to wake up at any minute.
But after a few hours, I found myself on a highway. I figured they would not find out I was missing until the morning, so the farther I could get that night, the better. I thought about taking on my snake form, for certainly I could travel faster that way. But then I’d be naked somewhere without my backpack. So I settled for walking… for miles.
I don’t know how long I journeyed in the darkness, passed by several vehicles that swept by me at alarming speeds, but I was grateful for the reprieve at what turned out to be a rest stop. It was a beacon on the highway and was abandoned except for a single huge hauling truck in the parking lot. I found toilets and sinks where I was able to get a drink of water. I had never used a public restroom. The wall was lined with strange-looking porcelain buckets with drains in them, but at least there were actual toilets too.
Mother had “homeschooled” me, a thing that I only learned later was unique; most other children went to an actual school with each other. When I asked Mother, she explained it was because of who I was. I had to be protected. It was much, much later that I learned why.
When I exited, there was an older woman with silver-white hair wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt. I wasn’t sure how to react. She was the first person outside of my family I had ever encountered, and it was obvious she was coming to talk to me. My heart rate spiked, and if I had recently eaten I was sure I would have been sick, as my stomach knotted.
“Hey, did I pass you on the highway a few miles back?” She sounded friendly, but why was she talking to me? Did she know Mother? Had they already realized I was gone?
Appropriately keeping my eyes averted when speaking with a woman, I responded, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Ma’am?” The lady laughed. “I’m Sheryl. Where are you headed?”
Where was I headed? If she was sent by Mother, wouldn’t she have just told me to come with her? “I’m not sure, ma’am.”
The woman gave a warm laugh. “Well, I’ve got a load going to Frisco if you want to tag along. Could use the company.”
Did she mean San Francisco? I had read all about the city in my books. I knew it was close to Sacramento, and I had only been traveling a few hours on foot. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you. I would very much appreciate that.”
“Okay, well, I’m going to use the restroom and then we can take off. Sound good?” she asked in a tone that I hadn’t heard before: kind.
“Yes, ma’am.” Women are my superiors, and it is imperative to always be respectful. But I didn’t know this woman.
I waited until I was sure she wasn’t going to turn around and shifted my tongue and Jacobson’s organ—really my whole vomeronasal system. My forked tongue shot from my human lips to taste the air. To sense her. Human…. Definitely not sent by Mother. Calm. Unthreatening. Healthy. The relief that flooded me made me realize I had been trembling. It was my first time meeting a human woman.
I stayed rooted to the spot, lost in my own thoughts, and jumped when she returned and said, “Okay, we’re off!”
Sheryl handed a bottle of water to me. It took me a moment to realize she had given it to me to drink and not to carry for her. Before I could properly thank her, we were walking back toward her truck and she was talking about “late night hauls,” and how she used to ride with her husband, trading shifts, but he had died a few years prior. Sheryl turned out to be jovial and happy. Despite being alone on the road, she admitted to picking up a lot of hitchhikers to keep her company. She was unlike Mother or any of my aunts, who were always so stoic. Were all human women like this? Sheryl spent the next couple of hours regaling me with stories of trips she had taken and various parts of the world. I listened politely, partially happy for the distraction from my own thoughts and partially watching the road.
“Quiet one, aren’t ya?” she observed.
I thought about the question. Boys are to be seen and not heard. But… I hadn’t always been quiet. I recalled being much more talkative as a child when I was with my cousins. It was my first conversation with anyone for almost five years. “I’m sorry,” I quickly responded, not knowing how to tell her anything.
“It’s okay. We all have our stories. Nothing wrong with being the strong, silent, sexy type.” She laughed and began telling me about her third husband.
I admit it was rude, but I only half listened to her, struck by her calling me strong and sexy. I wasn’t strong at all. Men are weak. I had been told that my whole life. And sexy?
After a while I could see the lights of San Francisco, and Sheryl pointed out all the small cities we were passing through that seemed piled atop one another. I could not figure out anything to distinguish one city from the next except the road signs. After we crossed over another large bridge and went through Treasure Island, Sheryl explained that we were in “the city.” I thanked her when she stopped to let me off and returned her well-wishes.
It was still dark, and the unexpected bite of the bay breeze chilled me, so I was glad I brought my coat. I pulled it around myself and looked out at the darkened, choppy water that smelled slightly fishy, not altogether unpleasant. The welcoming sounds of the waves lulled me. Though there were a few cars going by on the streets, it was still as if I had the city all to myself, which resulted in an interesting feeling of safety. Even though I hadn’t been running for the last couple of hours, as I had expected, I had been tense for the entire ride with Sheryl. Now that I was alone, exhaustion threatened to overwhelm. A park on the edge of the water beckoned, and I settled onto a bench, intent on reading one of the school books that Mother had allowed on my electronic reader until the sun came up. I didn’t want to go to sleep, but when I dropped the reader for the third time, I stashed it in my bag, curled up on the cold bench, and used my backpack as a pillow.
I woke up with a start, the warmth of the sun’s rays a welcome pressure on my cheek. Vacillating between the tingling elation of freedom and the paralyzing confusion that chased away any real ability to plan or focus, I swung my legs over and took in my surroundings. Many more cars on the streets, but the small park itself was abandoned except for me. For as long as I can remember, I have always woken up at 5:00 a.m. regardless. It was disorienting much later. The last I had looked at the time on my reader, it was almost 3:00 a.m. and the rumbling in my stomach was a surprise. At this time in the morning, I would be heading downstairs to have oatmeal that Ms. Matlock had prepared. Usually I was alone for breakfast, but once in a while Mother would join me. I wondered briefly what I would do for food in the long run and decided to ration the fruit I had stolen. With shame heating the back of my neck, I dug out the money I had taken from Mother’s wallet. It had been on impulse, but at the time I had reasoned I would likely need money. Eighty-seven dollars. I counted it again to be sure.
“Hey, spare some change?” A gravelly voice came out of seemingly nowhere.
My head whipped up to see an old dark-skinned man with a wide rotten-toothed grin. His ivory hair stuck out in what would have been a comical way if the smell he emitted didn’t betray that he hadn’t bathed in a long time. He was hidden under a huge stained comforter that dragged behind him like an oversized cape.
“I….” I looked down at what I had just counted and peeled off the two one-dollar bills and handed them to him.
“Thank you.” The man bustled forward and snatched the money before hobbling off with an obvious limp. I wondered for a moment why he wasn’t wearing shoes and then remembered that I still had money in my hand and carefully folded it and put it back in my pocket.
Glancing around, I noticed the streets had gotten busier, with people dressed for business, joggers, and others walking briskly with their dogs. Their movement faded to the background as I came back to the reality of my situation.
Hungry. Tired. Alone.
But I had been alone for most of my life. I could find food and had some money to do so. Tired? Well, I’d have to figure that one out later. I considered continuing to head south. I spoke Spanish fairly well, or at least I thought I did. Mexico was to the south. Perhaps I could get a job down there? Either way, it would be warmer. But what to do about my family? Would they be able to track me that far? Could they find me here?
Interrupting my inner turmoil, a group of people in brightly colored clothes, many of whom carried flags with rainbows on them, ambled my way. They were talking excitedly about a parade, something I had only ever read about in books. I knew that parades are held by cities to celebrate many things and found it amusingly ironic that a party celebrated by a city would be held on my birthday. Deciding to see this parade, I followed the group and noticed more and more people heading in the same direction. The brilliant rainbows that seemed to be everywhere worked wonders to lift me out of my personal concerns. I found it easy to let myself be carried along by the crowd to what was apparently the parade route. It was blocked off with barricades in a lot of areas, but the group I had been following ended up at an intersection that opened to a large street that held various tents, booths, and trucks with side windows that appeared to be selling food. The members of the group were talking about staying on that corner, as it was the “best” place for viewing the parade and also getting food and drink.
When the aromas filtered over, my stomach rumbled loudly, and I was happy when two members of the group decided to wander over to the row of trucks. I didn’t mean to be a silent tagalong, but they seemed so happy that I could pretend I belonged with them and their festivities. They began weighing the merits of each of the trucks, and inwardly I chuckled at their banter over “hotlinks” versus something called “fusion food,” none of which I had ever heard about. Ultimately, they split up and I found myself standing alone in front of a truck that sold clam chowder in bowls made out of bread. As no one else was in line, I stepped up to the window.
The lanky man with patchy facial hair inside the truck didn’t look much older than me, and I wondered how he got the job but was far too shy to inquire. He asked in a raspy voice that cracked, “Eight dollars, please.”
It was the first time I purchased anything in my life, and in the back of my mind I memorialized the moment as I handed a ten-dollar bill to the man and accepted the change and food. The soup was thick, hearty, creamy, and deliciously melted on my tongue. It was unlike anything I had ever tasted before. Growing up, I had eaten soup, but nothing like this. I had also never been allowed bread, pasta, or grains of any kind, though I had tasted bread once when a cousin slipped me some of her sandwich that she had snuck over to my house. But that sourdough bread from the bread bowl was nothing like the bread Abi had given me, and I lost myself, savoring every tangy bite to the point of not even realizing that the crowds around me had thickened and I lost sight of the people I had followed to the area.
Sated, I wrapped up some of the leftovers from the “bowl” and stowed it in my bag while I did some quick math. If each meal cost eight dollars, then I really only had enough left for ten or eleven more. That meant ten or eleven days if I kept myself to one meal a day. Twice as long if I could get food that I could save part of for the next day.
I made my way through the crowd back to the main road, and the mild tension in my shoulders faded when I found a few members of the original group and sidled up to them again. It made no sense for me to have bonded with people who I hadn’t even spoken to, but somehow staying near the group for so long made me feel safe. Even though I wasn’t really part of their group, I experienced a sense of familiarity and inclusion because I had followed them. Over the next few hours, the streets flooded with men, women, and children of all ages. But the most astounding thing was all the people who walked hand in hand, who were kissing and holding each other. I had never seen people be affectionate with one another, and it brought me back to the last time anyone had touched me. I was twelve, and it had been the last time my cousin and I visited. We often wrestled, and being female and stronger, she always won. We had wrestled when Mother wasn’t around, and I had a pang of nostalgia for that simpler time. I wondered where Abi was, but quickly dismissed trying to find her. She’d have to turn me in.
A cheer from the people around me brought me back to reality, and I glanced over to see that they were clapping at two men who carried a sign announcing their engagement. I tried not to stare but found I was unable to stop. Everyone was so happy, and the merriment was palpable.
Soon a cheer swept through the crowd, taking my breath with it as the parade started with groups carrying signs that expounded the virtues of love, freedom, inclusion, and resistance against hate. To find myself in San Francisco, among thousands (probably more) of people who were there to celebrate love, left me grinning. As alone as I felt for the last five years, that day it was as though I was part of something so much bigger.
A group of men with huge butterfly wings, carrying wands and wearing what I believe were ballerina skirts, flitted around and cast streams of glitter across the crowd. My attention was on the rain of sparkles overhead when I caught a blur out of the corner of my eye. I looked up to see a large float covered in white rosettes and blue sparkly letters that said Grizzly’s on the side. On the float and along the sides were very large men in shorts who looked like they may have been painted on, gyrating happily and wiggling their bottoms toward the crowd. But the blur was actually one of them… rushing toward me. My breath was knocked out of me as I found myself suddenly hoisted up over the man’s shoulder, and then he was running back to the float, where I was deposited, sitting on the side. The man placed my backpack next to me and shouted something that I didn’t catch, pointing at another man whose long, bushy, curly hair was an unnatural shade of electric blue and was held down by a huge pair of headphones. He stood on a small raised part in the center. Though I couldn’t be certain, he reminded me of pictures of people who lived in Polynesia, with his bronze skin, a wider nose, and warm, welcoming dark almond eyes. He beckoned me up. I climbed to where the man was standing in front of a large board with knobs, lights, and sliders, and he handed me a champagne flute before he turned back to his duties attending to the board. I quickly realized he was the one in charge of the music and stood back, watching as he made music in the most unique way I had ever seen. And just like that, I was part of the parade and not on the outside watching.
Mother had never allowed me any alcohol at all, but she and her guests occasionally drank champagne. At first I considered refusing. Men aren’t allowed alcohol. But then perhaps the rule didn’t apply to all men, and since no one was there to stop it, I figured might as well try. The mix of sweet that exploded on my tongue took me by surprise, and I loved it immediately. I alternated between watching the musician, accepting more champagne from the dancers on the float, and enjoying the crowd. From this vantage, my initial calculation of mere thousands was obviously off a few decimals. It was exhilarating, perhaps because I accepted that I was breaking rules. Or maybe because I was soon a little dizzy and found everything entirely too funny for no reason at all.
It seemed like we reached the end way too soon. Everyone was climbing down from the float, and I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen next.
“Hey, sugar, my hotel is a few blocks away. You ready for a shower?” the man with blue hair asked, winking and turning away from me before I could answer.
I had never spoken to a man before. Of course, there was an occasional repairman in the house, but I was always up in my room during those times. When the handsome man offered me a shower, I eagerly nodded. Having been so used to making sure that I wasn’t offensive to Mother and my aunt, and having not properly bathed that morning, I felt rather out of sorts. The idea of having a chance to actually shower was a very appreciated one. Plus, I was really curious about the handsome man. Who was he? I assumed he was the one who requested his friend bring me to the float. I also admit that between the alcohol and the sights of all those men around me, I was a soaring on a strange cloud of happiness.
REALITY STARTED to sink back in, and I was standing under the water, trying desperately to have the boiling spray chase away my ruminations from the previous night on the run. I don’t know how long I had been in there when a stir of air tickled across my back, alerting me that I wasn’t alone. I spun around to see him standing there. Naked! He was incredibly tall (which is saying something considering I’m six foot two and felt dwarfed), with his broad shoulders and a thick furry chest, bristly goatee, and the bright curly electric-blue hair that somehow shone in the fluorescents of the bathroom in a way that it hadn’t under the sun. His dark skin tone also shone differently with the indoor lighting, which seemed to illuminate the differences between us with my much paler skin. My eyes drifted down over his soft chubby belly to his manhood, which was sticking straight out at me! The burn of shame flowed over my entire head and shoulders as I almost lost my balance turning my immediate arousal away from him.
“Man, I hope you’re a bottom.” He exhaled as his huge arms encircled me. “I’ve never been wrong before.” His breath, warm against my ear, sent a cascade of goose bumps down my side.
My brain practically short-circuited. I was no longer thinking about Mother and my aunt chasing me. I was no longer worrying about where I was going to go or what I was going to do. The only thing I could focus on was the soft, comforting pillow of his belly against my back coupled with the enticing hard pressure that slid against my rear and made my breath catch for reasons I couldn’t begin to process. I had never experienced anything like it in my life and was suddenly bombarded by too many emotions I couldn’t identify, had never experienced. Above all of them was exhilaration as every nerve felt electrified, alive. And then his hands were everywhere. He was holding… soap? The small knobbed bar of hotel soap slid across my chest and flat belly… lower, encircling me with a few gentle strokes that sparked sensations throughout my entire body, then back up over my shoulders, kneading gently but firmly.
When he invited me up to his room, I hadn’t known what to think or expect, but I knew I didn’t want to leave, so it hadn’t been a difficult decision at all when he suggested a shower.
“Are you always so tense?” He chuckled, and his enormous hands glided down my back, massaging lower and lower.
I shuddered in response.
“This okay?” he whispered, his breath warm against my ear.
I made some sound, a whimper. Everything he was doing was more than okay, but I had no words to express that.
When he stepped away, I immediately missed the warm comfort of his torso against me and coughed out a new sound I had never heard from myself as his hands cupped me. I chanced a glance back. He was kneeling behind me, the kneading of his strong hands moving inward until the soap was there. My thoughts were jumbled: I should stop him. But no part of me wanted him to stop. I should at least tell him I’m a virgin. But the only sound I could make was a strangled gurgle of an encouraging moan when the sensation of soap and water was replaced by his tongue. He was… kissing my….
I fell forward, holding on to the wall when his hands surrounded my hips, pulling me back so I was arching into him. The suction of his lips was maddeningly ticklish and arousing at the same time, causing my hardness to swell to an almost painful degree. Too soon it was over as he pulled me back around so that my arousal was presented for him. My cheeks heated up, though he smiled up at me with a twinkle of cocky confidence when he smirked and said, “The sounds you make….” before swallowing my length.
I couldn’t look away and just stared with what had to be a dumbfounded expression as his head bobbed slowly, his tongue probing the soft underside of my shaft. Then an explosion rocketed through me as my fluids flowed out of me and my legs weakened when I was caught in a wave of ecstasy. He swallowed and swallowed and swallowed with the first look of surprise I had seen on his face. I shuddered as he let my spent member slip out of his lips, and he stood to his full height and looked down into my eyes with a curious expression.
I was about to ask for forgiveness when he cupped my face. “What’s your name, sugar?”
“Rob… Robbie,” I managed with a voice I did not recognize as my own, thick with lust.
He tilted his head to the side, his eyes narrowing. I couldn’t help but look away from his very intense gaze. Part of me still wanted to apologize for what I had just done… in his mouth. Though he didn’t seem to care. Indeed, he had seemed to enjoy it.
“Robbie, tell me I didn’t just commit statutory rape.”
I started at the question. “What?”
He groaned. “How old are you?”
“Oh. Today’s my eighteenth birthday,” I whispered.
His head fell back, and he let out a low, rumbling, relieved laugh. “Well, happy birthday.”