Tobie woke up to a jangling rattle in his brain. His Mikey Vole alarm clock, a thrifty China Town purchase, read about 3:20, but Mikey’s little fat-fingered hands were always a bit off.
It was still dark. That meant it was 3:20 in the morning, and he didn’t need to be up for another two and a half hours.
The phone rang, and he realized that jangling rattle hadn’t been in his head. He tumbled off the bloodstained green corduroy couch where he’d fallen asleep, and reached for the phone on the coffee table.
“Tobie?!” It was Robin, managing to scream and whisper at the same time.
“Bur-bleh?” he said. Not English, or any other language he knew of; he wasn’t sure what he’d meant to say.
“Yeah…. What’s wrong?” he asked, because even if they were friends, and talked on the phone more often than most, a call at three in the morning better have meant there was something wrong.
“…I just slept with a boy.”
“A little boy?-”
“No,” she said. “I meant a guy-”
“So… maybe you should’ve slept a little longer- I mean, you wanted to, right?”
“…What? I wasn’t raped, asshole!”
He’d thought it was the kind of concerned question required of him, and even if he could have been a little more politic, her venom didn’t seem justified.
“…Are you still there?” she asked. Her tone was slightly apologetic, and that was all he was going to get.
“I went out drinking last night-”
“Yeah?” she asked.
“With some guys from work, and, I wouldn’t usually, but there were these pills-”
“So, you’re high?”
“…Probably not anymore, but my liver’s aching and my mouth tastes like carpet…. You slept with a guy who isn’t a little boy?”
“…When did you start going out.”
“Tonight, I mean, last night-”
“Is that like a one-night-stand?” Tobie asked. He had a hard time imagining Robin going to a bar. Leaving her house wasn’t something she took lightly, so going to a club was out of the question. He was, despite the taste of carpet in his mouth, curious where she’d found him.
“…He says he wants to be my boyfriend,” Robin said. “He’s asleep downstairs- What do I do now?”
“You should probably go to sleep-”
“No, I mean, in the morning. What do you do after you sleep with a guy?”
“I haven’t slept with any guys….” There was just one guy in particular that he liked, and they hadn’t slept together.
“With girls then?” Robin asked, sounding progressively desperate. “Should I throw him out?”
“…Do you like him at all?”
“A little bit… probably. Yeah.”
“Then you shouldn’t do that.”
“But what do I-”
“Just go to sleep,” he said, and hung up.
He thought about going back to sleep himself, but the twenty feet over to his bed felt like too much effort, and now he seemed to be wide awake.
His apartment was dark, but mostly empty, so he hadn’t been thinking about stubbing his toe until he did, on the base of a standing lamp. He flipped on the light and continued into the kitchen.
He’d only touched a carton of OJ to his lips when there was a knock at the door and he dropped the carton. He promised himself he would clean up the puddle later.
It only occurred to him as he was opening the door, he didn’t usually have guests at three in the morning.
Jo stood in the hall, his hands crossed behind his back as he bit his lip, looking up at Tobie with his golden eyes. His hair was more strange-orange than red, but from Tobie’s attentive observation it didn’t seem to be dyed.
Tobie found himself at a loss for words. It wasn’t just the surprise visit from the one particular guy he found himself attracted to, but also Jo’s outfit he found surprising.
Tobie had never been exactly certain Jo was male. He was more cute than handsome, and inconvenient pronouns seemed to hang around him like a cloud. He usually wore gender-neutral outfits, but that morning, as Tobie’s eyes tracked down along Jo’s sleek lack of curves, he was sure Jo was wearing a white summer dress, until his eyes reached the bottom, and what might have been a dress with a short skirt, could just as easily have been a long shirt over the pair of short-shorts he wore.
“Hi,” Tobie said, when Jo threw himself forward, hugging him. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Jo said, slipping past him and into the apartment.
Tobie closed the door, unsure if he was happy at Jo’s surprise appearance. He’d fallen asleep wearing the same undershirt he’d worn to work the previous day, and the same slacks, but they’d been stained somehow over the previous night’s revelries. It looked like vomit. He didn’t remember vomiting, so it was probably somebody else’s.
“There’s orange juice on the floor,” Jo called to him from the kitchen and then peeked out from the doorway. “Or, maybe, you didn’t make it to the bathroom- There’s vomit on your pants.”
“I feel like I missed a party,” Jo said, bouncing over to him as Tobie collapsed back on the couch.
“We just went to a bar after work-”
“We?” Jo asked, plopping down next to him.
“Guys from work-”
“From The People’s Voice?” Jo asked. “You should take me along next time.”
“…I’d lose my exclusive,” Tobie said. Their relationship was, ostensibly, Tobie, journalist, and Jo, source. Tobie wasn’t really worried, because Jo was difficult, too much for anyone but a masochist to manage, but he still wanted to keep Jo for himself. “We went to a few places after…. I only got to sleep an hour ago-”
“Did I wake you up, then?” Jo asked. Tobie couldn’t tell if the concern on his face was meant as a joke.
“No. I got a call-”
“…Why’d you come by?” Tobie asked. It came out sounding like he wanted him to leave, which, he realized, he didn’t, but if he started talking about Robin he was sure Jo would wheedle out embarrassing details he wanted to stay in the past.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” Jo said, standing up from the couch.
“I said you didn’t wake me,” Tobie said, grabbing his hand.
Jo’s face was turned away from him as his shoulders quaked. Tobie was hunting for the right words when Jo’s face turned slowly revealing a grin.
“I’ve got a story for you,” Jo said, sitting down again, but this time on Tobie’s lap with his arm lying over his shoulders. “But it’s pretty complicated.”
“Is it about your dad?” Tobie asked. He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel about Jo sitting on his lap, but he wanted to pull him closer.
“Nah. Pop doesn’t want me talking about him- I could find you a new couch,” Jo said, eying the blood stains his dad had left during their previous visit.
“It’s fine. What’s the story?”
“You heard of Richard Michaelson?”
“No,” Tobie said, but he had the feeling he should have.
“He’s this priest who kills people,” Jo said, as if that was an an average occupation.
Tobie had heard the name. Michaelson was an oddly-judgmental serial killer, still on the loose. Another reporter at The People’s Voice was supposed to be on the story, but they hadn’t published yet.
“I heard about him- Really,” Tobie said to Jo’s incredulous stare. “The guy who slipped his police detail at the hospital- Didn’t your dad bust him out?”
“No,” Jo said, angry. It was the first time Tobie had pissed him off.
“Daddy was there to kill him…. Anyway, so, Michaelson’s been squatting at the docks, and I dumped him in the river,” Jo said, smiling like he wanted congratulations.
“Do you… wanna start from the beginning?”
“The beginning…” Jo said, his face darkening. “Jane and the Masked Killer were there to kill him-”
“They were there to kill Michaelson?” Tobie asked.
“Yeah, and the Glass Virgin too- but she just wanted to cripple him, anyway- Have you heard about the fire at the docks?”
“No,” Tobie said, feeling the warmth from Jo’s bare thighs on his lap, and realizing he was sitting on the vomit stain.
“It’s allover the radio,” Jo said. “So… Jane started the fire- I mean, she didn’t mean to probably, but she fired a rocket-”
“I guess it was a grenade, but from a grenade launcher- But she missed ’cause the Virgin hit Michaelson with her own grenade. They were arguing, and I dropped Michaelson in the river,” Jo said, smiling again.
Tobie was confused, mostly because he was still waiting for a punch line. “…Why?”
“It was supposed to be funny,” Jo said, his lip starting to quiver. “But nobody laughed….”
Tobie was intent on not being taken in a second time that morning, but then tears started to well in Jo’s eyes.
“I’m sure he’ll be okay….”
“What?” Jo asked, wiping at his eyes with the back of his wrist.
“Michaelson. I mean, most people can swim-”
“…I don’t care about Michaelson.”
“Then what’s wrong?” Tobie asked. He tried to convince himself he was acting purely out of concern as he reached his arm around Jo’s back.
Jo started to hiccup, tears streaming down his cheeks that felt warm on Tobie’s neck as Jo snuggled against him.
“M-My pop kicked me out,” Jo said, shivering with every syllable.
“…Of your house?”
“Yeah- He married this whore- I mean she’s an actual whore….”
“Declan got married, and kicked you out of the house?”
“Yeah- I only lit her hair on fire once- and I was twelve.”
That sounded like enough, but Tobie wanted to be consoling. “…I’m sure you can work things out.”
“Daddy said, it’s time for me to… grow up.”
“Do you have a place to stay?”
“That’s really low, Tobie,” Jo said, still nuzzling against his neck.
“Sorry,” Tobie said but then realized he’d just offered him a place to stay, if indirectly, and couldn’t understand what he’d done that was low. “…What?”
“Trying to take advantage of a poor lost orphan.”
Tobie looked down and saw the sneer on Jo’s lips. “I’ll take the couch-”
“I’m kinda tired,” Jo said, “but I can do something, if it’ll help you get to sleep.”
“I said I’d take the couch-”
“I meant I could use my hand,” Jo said, and kissed him, soft lips and a pink tongue that tasted like grape soda. “I won’t go too far on a first date.”
Tobie wasn’t sure when their date had started.