Ciggy had paid to spend the night with me, so that’s what he did. At first, I didn’t take his no-sex approach too seriously. That was my way. I met all sorts of strange characters in this line of work. All he wanted to do was talk and so I obliged and played along. It was very unorthodox, and certainly not what I was used to, but that is not to say that I didn’t enjoy being with Ciggy. I did. He was very pleasant. What I liked about Ciggy in particular was that he seemed to value companionship above mere intimacy, and he was very good at being affectionate without it ever turning into anything sexual. Indeed, that was what made him so special.
We laid in bed just yammering, talking about all sorts of incongruous and irrelevant topics. It was very relaxed and easygoing. Ciggy was funny and interesting, and I was of course fascinated by his Americanness. He chewed another couple of sticks of gum, then eventually fell asleep. I glanced up and noticed that he was very still and his eyes had gently closed. He had dozed off with one arm at his side, and the other around my shoulders. I was lying next to him with my head nestled in his elbow. I quite enjoyed resting my head on his strong shoulder, and watched his chest gently rising and falling with his breathing. I could just make out the reticulated pattern of his ribs beneath his flawless tanned skin. The syncopated rhythm of his breathing induced a strange kind of peaceful lull that almost rocked me to sleep. And that was how I slept with him, in the protective embrace of this handsome, softly spoken young American.
In the morning, when the early light of dawn was just starting to penetrate the dusty sackcloth over the window that passed as a makeshift blind, I decided to get up. Quietly, I sat up and loosened Ciggy’s arm from around my shoulder, and gently placed it back down on the bed by his side. He stirred a little but didn’t wake up. I felt like pottering about for a bit, so I decided to go into the sitting room so I wouldn’t wake him up. I went over to the writing desk and spotted Ciggy’s rucksack which was on the chair where he had left it last night, next to the chessboard. I went to lift it off and realized it was quite heavy. There was something quite solid and cumbersome in there. So I looked inside. The rucksack was stuffed full of photographic equipment, all strapped down with Velcro. There was a rather nifty digital SLR camera, which was quite weighty, and looked very sophisticated. There were so many buttons and switches it looked more like a computer with a lens. There was a second, smaller camera, and spare lenses too, including a long telephoto lens, as well as various other attachments and accessories. In the flap of the rucksack there was a separate compartment with an ultra-light ultra-thin laptop zipped up inside. I wondered what he did with all this stuff. This impressive collection of equipment aroused my curiosity. I had naturally assumed he was just another mercenary, a soldier of fortune, but in fact he was a photographer, a photojournalist no less, which was a far less insidious occupation than I had feared. My estimation of him instantly rose by several hundred points. Although, I still couldn’t help wondering why the police had been chasing him last night.
As the sun rose and morning arrived properly, I went and fetched us both some breakfast from the kitchen. I nipped down the passageway and grabbed some fresh croissants and a little pot of coffee and brought them into my room for us to share. I spread everything out on the bed and when Ciggy woke up he had a nice surprise. He rose up, still sleepy, and smiled graciously at my thoughtfulness. We both had a shower, still yammering away as we went about our business, and then sat there across from each other, cross-legged on the bed, with our hair still wet, and shared the spoils. He simply smiled and poured the coffee into two tin mugs. So, we ate, munching on the still warm croissants, talking about everything and nothing. That was what I liked about Ciggy – he was easy to be with. It required no effort to be in his presence. He was just a very nice guy.
When it came time for Ciggy to leave, he dressed slowly and forlornly. I watched him as he pulled on his camouflage tunic, did up his belt with the holstered pistol, and hoisted his heavy rucksack over one shoulder. I could hear the camera and lenses inside clipping against each other as he did so. That saddened me a little. Tell the truth, I was kinda sorry to see him go.
As he turned towards the door, he suddenly stopped, as though he’d forgotten something.
“Are you doing anything today?” he asked.
I hesitated, caught a little off guard.
“I have nothing planned,” I said, “Why?”
“Let me take you out,” he suddenly enthused.
I flashed him an uncertain grin, not at all sure what he meant.
“Spend the day with me,” he added.
I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t very good at spontaneity, especially when it involved venturing outside the compound.
“C’ mon, let me take you out for the day. My treat.”
“Gee, I dunno,” I said, more than a little apprehensive.
“C’ mon,” he said again, “We could have a real good time.”
“I don’t go out much these days,” I said, which was perhaps not surprising – a disincentive that was only reinforced by my experience of being kidnapped all that time ago, when the KAPO militiamen had detained me and beat me and did all manner of horrific things to me. They were maniacs, I swear, every one of them.
“I’ll look after you,” he said, with a knowing smile, “You’ll be safe with me.”
He meant it too. He seemed so confident and I already felt safe with him. I had to admit his proposal had an air of excitement to it. So it wasn’t a hard decision really. To save me from the unwelcome task of having to see him go, I agreed. I agreed because I wanted to spend more time with him, and I wasn’t ready to let him go just yet.
Ciggy stood and watched as I got dressed. I pulled out some clean clothes and he seemed to enjoy watching me put them on. I slipped into clean boxer briefs and then pulled on my knee length cargo shorts and a fresh polo shirt. I quickly ran my fingers through my shaggy hair to smooth it down, as though that was all the grooming I needed, and presented myself to him. He smiled admiringly.
We walked out together. What I liked was that he put an affectionate arm around my shoulders as he led me downstairs and outside into the parking lot. Sitting there, in the dusty courtyard outside that passed as the club’s parking lot was a black Jeep Wrangler. It was the only car in the lot. I did wonder where the car had appeared from, since I assumed that when he had sought sanctuary inside the club last night that he had been on foot. But I understood immediately why he had brought his rucksack inside with him – the soft top was removed so the vehicle was totally open to the elements and there was no trunk.
Ciggy watched my reaction.
“You like it?” he asked.
“Yeh, it’s great,” I said, beaming.
“Jump in,” said Ciggy, pulling the passenger door open.
So, I climbed in, negotiating the high step up into the vehicle. Ciggy slung the rucksack into the narrow space behind the passenger seat and then he climbed in next to me. He reached over and opened the glove box and took out a little pack of gum. He withdrew two sticks of gum and put one between my lips. I accepted it with a smile. Then he stuck the other in his mouth. There was a pair of sunglasses in the glove box which he also took and, using both hands, he carefully put them on me. He looked over at me wearing his sunglasses and he seemed to be admiring me. I liked wearing his sunglasses, and I was flattered that he wanted me to wear them. It was such an affectionate gesture and I liked the way Ciggy did things for me.
Turning to the controls, Ciggy fired up the engine, and he gunned it a couple of times. It growled under the hood of the tiny car, and he seemed to get real pleasure from the sound it made.
“Now hold on tight,” he said, with a grin, “you’re gonna get a real roller-coaster ride.”
He wasn’t kidding. The little car moved off with a jolt, and he swerved it tightly through the gate of the parking lot, weaving between the narrow metal posts with only inches to spare. Once into the road, Ciggy put his foot down and we left the hotel compound behind at great speed. There was virtually no other traffic on the roads. There were very few civilian cars, mainly because the supply of gasoline was so restricted. So, the only vehicles we passed were the distinctive white vehicles of UNVERO, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Verolino. Sometimes we saw Humvees, sometimes open trucks, the odd APC. Everywhere was the feeling of confrontation and war. The UN was supposed to be keeping the peace and monitoring the truce in Verolino. Supposedly it was protected against invasion by the UN mandate. But the fact that the UN were a prime target for the rebel militias, who didn’t recognize the mandate in any case, also made the UN presence something of a liability.
Leaving the compound of the hotel for the first time in many weeks, I’d almost forgotten what the outside world looked like. Not that it was very inspiring of course. There was still a lot of shell damaged and partially demolished buildings. Soon we were traveling at high speed over open roads, where the odd house-front or porch flashed by. I sat there in the open car, which was quite high off the ground, giving me a feeling of detachment. With Ciggy's confident hands at the wheel, I felt quite invulnerable. Every now and then we would pass a house that had been burned out and had been left as an empty shell. Even those that were still intact had the tell-tale signs of heavy shelling, that had gouged pockmarks into the brickwork. That was the problem with Verolino. The signs of war were never far away. Everywhere you went there were reminders of the conflict and death and destruction that had raged before the UN moved in.
Presently, we entered a village that seemed almost deserted. The irregular and random little villas that lined both sides of the bare highway were quite spaced out from each other and set well back from the road. This village itself seemed to have been largely spared the ravages of war and actually looked quite intact. There were ribbons of smoke rising from the odd chimney, and even washing hanging on the clothes lines, as though life was carrying on very much the same as before.
Ciggy slowed the car down as we entered the village, negotiating a few narrow, twisting lanes, heading straight for what seemed like the center of the village. The road eventually led out into a flat, open area, like a little piazza. There were a lot of people around. The piazza was surrounded by tall, imposing buildings that looked very old. At the far end was a church which looked to be the tallest building for miles around. Along one side of the piazza there were a few market stalls with awnings thrown loosely over them to provide some shade, and some dejected market traders were selling some sorry looking fruits and vegetables. A lot of would-be purchasers were ambling about, gingerly fingering the produce. Ciggy slowed right down and maneuvered the open car through the center of the little marketplace, negotiating the crowds of oblivious pedestrians. I felt very privileged sitting there gliding through this little sea of people that was milling around us.
“We’re here,” Ciggy announced, impatiently sounding the horn a few times.
“Where are we?” I asked, looking around a little disorientated.
Ciggy didn’t bother answering me. We scythed through the crowd and he stopped the Jeep at the end of the marketplace, just by the broad, flat steps of the church and jumped out. I was more than a little ruffled by Ciggy’s erratic driving style, so somewhat relieved to get out and step back onto terra firma. Because the car was so high off the ground, I realized that you tended to feel the twists and turns a lot more and got thrown around a lot. Something to do with the vehicle’s center of gravity, I figured. Ciggy instinctively put an arm around my shoulder and pulled me close to him, so that I was brushing right up against his side, I guess so that he wouldn’t lose sight of me, and he steered me forward as we meandered through the throng.
Next to the church was a little parade of shops. One was a café which had an open forecourt. There were a few round tables with brightly colored parasols. Ciggy pulled up one of the metal chairs for me, and he left me sitting at one of the tables while he went straight inside. I could see him chatting animatedly with the proprietor. They shook hands and greeted each other loudly and enthusiastically. It seemed they knew each other. I could see the proprietor through the window, an older man with wiry grey hair and a long apron, glance over towards me approvingly.
Ciggy came and sat down and handed me a laminated menu.
“Here,” he said, “what will you have to drink?”
“You mean I can order anything I like?” I asked.
“Yup,” Ciggy nodded, “Or let me order something for you.”
I noticed that, instead of sitting down opposite me, on the other side of the table, Ciggy pulled up a chair right next to me, so that we were both on one side of the table looking out into the piazza. I quite liked the way he stayed so close to me. He seemed very protective of me, and I felt very safe and reassured by that.
Looking over the menu, there was some fascinating and delicious sounding stuff on it. It was inconceivable to me that even in this state of siege, when so many basic things were in short supply, there was still some semblance of normality in Verolino.
I didn’t know what to order, so Ciggy ordered me a big milky drink. It was cool and sweet and frothy and came in a tall flared glass with a long bendy straw.
“What is it?” I asked, as it was placed before me, amazed at how big it was.
“It’s a milkshake,” said Ciggy.
“Oh,” I said, impressed, “I’ve read about these.”
“You’ve read about them?” he exclaimed, “But you’ve never had one?”
I shook my head, almost embarrassed by my own ignorance. I took a long draw of the drink through the straw. It was very sweet and delicious. Ciggy seemed to enjoy watching me drink it. Every now and then Ciggy would take a sip of his coffee from a big round cup, which looked almost as big as a soup bowl, and he would glance over at me and just smile affectionately.
When I had polished off most of the milkshake, I found I could get no more through the straw. Frustratingly, it wasn’t long enough to reach the very bottom of the tall glass, so I discarded the straw and tipped the glass to my lips and drank what was left. That left me with a little white mustache on my top lip. I could see my reflection in the polished steel of the table top. Ciggy thought that was funny, and he lovingly leaned over and wiped my lips with his fingers. That seemed like such a caring and affectionate gesture. No one had ever touched me like that, and the intimacy of it caused me to stop and look at him in a way I had never looked at an older man before.
As I sat there with Ciggy, just hanging out, both of us biding our time and for once not under any obligation, I wondered if this is what normal 12-year-old boys did. I wondered if this is what it felt like to be taken out by a father or an older brother and whether this is how my life should have been. I wondered if 12-year-old boys really were meant to go with older men, instead of just being looked after by them, and whether they were meant to swallow prellies as though they were candy, or drink Black Deaths instead of milkshakes. I liked sitting there with Ciggy, shaded by the big parasol, watching the passers-by, still wearing his sunglasses. I don’t know why, but in Ciggy’s presence I didn’t feel so grown up anymore. I didn’t feel like the sassy, precocious shota boy that my reputation alleged. I just felt like a little kid.
As we sat there, I could see Ciggy casting a wary and watchful eye on the Jeep, which was only a short distance away from where we sat, probably because his rucksack was still in there, with his cameras and laptop. It wasn’t until then that I was curious enough to probe Ciggy about what he did with all that equipment.
“What do you do with all that stuff?” I asked.
He watched me for a moment before answering, carefully contemplating his response.
“I’m creating a photographic history of this war,” he said, fixing me with an intense stare.
“So why were the police chasing you last night?” I ventured.
“Let’s just say there are some things they don’t want to be photographed,” he replied, cryptically.
I didn’t probe any further. I figured I’d pried too much already, and he was clearly guarded about his motives.
“Is it dangerous?” I asked, concerned.
Again, he laughed.
“Of course,” he said, somewhat amused, “war is supposed to be.”
I paused and regarded him with a slight air of suspicion, disarmed by his apparent indifference to the danger he was in, almost as though he relished it. Evidently, he noted my change of expression.
“Don’t look so horrified,” he said, “I’m very careful.”
I stared at him for a good few seconds, trying to reconcile the realization of how this handsome, pleasant, baby-faced young man had more or less admitted to getting willingly stuck into the fighting, and imagined him somewhere on the front line implacably, and possibly dispassionately, taking pictures while those around him maimed and slaughtered each other. But I decided not to judge him. We all did things that were anathema to others. I didn’t like it when people judged me, so I resolved not to do it to him. These were troubled times and I knew we all just had to do what we needed to do to survive.
“Why are you doing it?” was all I could think to ask.
“For posterity,” he said, with a grave expression, and it was one of the very few times I ever saw him look so solemn, “I’m gonna make sure the world knows what’s really going on in Verolino.”
“What about when the war is over?” I asked.
“I’ve got it all worked out,” he enthused, leaning towards me, “I’m gonna get on that transporter to the Incirlik airbase in Turkey, then I’ll buy myself a seat on a regular scheduled flight back to the good ol’ US of A.”
As his enthusiasm trailed off, there was silence. I think the thing I had trouble with was the mention of him just boarding a plane home, and I tried to imagine, having got to know him, coming to terms with perhaps never seeing him again. For some reason that saddened me. He noted my expression, and watched me for a few seconds, cocking his head admiringly as we both assimilated what he had just said.
“Does that scare you lil man, saying goodbye?”
I nodded, admitting to him maybe for the first time that there was some connection between us, a connection that I now didn’t want to sever.
“Me too,” he said, and he stroked my head in a very affectionate and sympathetic way.
I noticed how he rested his arm along the back of my chair, almost as though he was placing it protectively around me, and as he sat next to me he stared at me quite intensely, with a look of benevolence and genuine kindness. It was exactly the same look he had given me last night.
“What?” I said, a little unnerved by his staring.
“I dunno Cloud,” he said, “Spending time with you like this, it just makes me wanna…”
“…look after you,” he said, completing the sentence.
We both burst out laughing, allowing ourselves a gentle, rolling laughter that went on for a good few minutes. For the umpteenth time we again found ourselves laughing together, just like we did last night, and when it was over, he turned to me again and put a hand under my chin, turning my face towards him.
“Y’ know Cloud, I’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve made me laugh.”
I stared up at him, genuinely touched, and there was a moment of seriousness where our eyes met and I saw, just for a split second, right into this young man’s soul. I saw him for what he really was – a wonderful human being – and I remember thinking that it was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me.
There were lots of lovely moments like that on the day I spent with Ciggy. The best thing of all was when he took me out into the surrounding countryside and brought a picnic along. Before we left the café, Ciggy had the proprietor prepare a little package of goodies for our lunch, and he carefully placed the wrapped bundle into the back of the Jeep. Then we drove for ages, through narrow winding rural roads where we hardly encountered another vehicle. We were so far out into the countryside there was nothing but endless fields, trees and hedgerows. Our journey down these deserted little roads was punctuated only by the odd hare darting across the road.
Ciggy eventually pulled the Jeep off the road and into a meadow, and we were both jiggled about in our seats as the car negotiated the bumps in the terrain. He halted the car under the shade of a copse that was well away from the road. Here, he decided we would stop for lunch. Totally in his care, I watched him as he unloaded everything from the car. He spread out a little tarpaulin on the ground and set about placing the food at the center. He had even thought to bring plates and cutlery, which he had borrowed from the café. There was plenty of food and even a bottle of red wine. The café proprietor had thoughtfully uncorked it and stuck the cork back into the bottle for him.
When everything was laid out temptingly on the tarpaulin, Ciggy looked at me expectantly.
“It’s ready,” he announced.
I looked at him, not sure what to do.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a picnic,” he replied.
“Oh,” I said.
“Don’t tell me, you’ve read about them?” he laughed, alluding to my relative unworldliness in such matters.
I smiled sheepishly. He wasn’t far from the truth. I had never had a picnic.
So, we both sat cross-legged on the tarpaulin and he served me with a piece of chicken breast that looked like it had been flavored with something that made it look reddish-brown. There was also a potato salad with a mayonnaise dressing. He had even poured me a little red wine into a small tumbler.
The chicken tasted good.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Paprika chicken and Russian salad,” he said, “You like it?”
I nodded affirmatively and smiled as I chewed away with relish.
I ate a lot that afternoon. The food was delicious. And I’m pretty sure I had more than one tumbler of wine. It was difficult to tell because Ciggy kept topping it up. Later, when I was sated and happy, and slightly tipsy from the wine, I stretched out on the grass enjoying the sunshine, appreciating the silence and the solitude. Here we were in the middle of nowhere, the noise and smoke and oppressively hot atmosphere of the club behind us, nothing but birdsong to break the silence. There were no reminders of the war. It all seemed so far away it could almost have been a different country.
When Ciggy had finished clearing away the remnants of our picnic, he came to lie down with me on the cool grass. He had taken his shirt off, so that he was sitting there in just his tight black pants, no doubt eager to soak up some sunshine. Because of that, to lend some solidarity to his gesture, I decided to take my shirt off too. It was such a warm, sunny day, I wanted to get the full effect. I was so used to being inside, it would be good to feel the sun on my skin. This was the first time in ages that I had ventured beyond the walls of the hotel compound, and I was determined to exploit my good fortune.
Ciggy affectionately scooted closer to me, seeing I was now shirtless, and he smiled. I found that extremely pleasing. With Ciggy close to me, my appetite for the moment sated, I felt safe and happy. The afternoon heat and the wine made me very drowsy. I was so at peace, I felt like going to sleep. I closed my eyes and I think I fell into a really deep sleep, the kind of sleep that was restful and carefree, unfettered by the usual rigors and obligations of my life, and was characterized instead by a feeling of being totally trouble free. With Ciggy right there next to me, I think I slept more peacefully that afternoon than I had done in years.
When I woke up again, we were both still lying in the grass, Ciggy next to me, staring up at the blue sky. We were enjoying an idyllic moment, when a sudden movement in the distance caught my eye. It was the dark silhouette of a lone aircraft flying very low and very fast just above the horizon.
“Tankbuster!” I announced loudly, quickly sitting up.
Ciggy had been lying face down on the grass, with his face tucked into his elbow, and he looked up, flashing me a somewhat bemused expression.
“Tankbuster,” I said again, pointing towards the horizon.
Ciggy sat up, and he just caught sight of the jet as it came closer.
“A10 Thunderbolt,” I proclaimed, identifying it immediately.
Ciggy turned back to me, with a hand shielding his eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied, “I see them all the time.”
I did too. I could recognize all the coalition aircraft, and the nationalist ones as well. The A10 was unique and unmistakable, with its squared wingtips, double tailfins and those particularly distinctive rear-mounted engines.
“Then it’s one of ours,” he said, immediately identifying it as American, “Probably enforcing the no-fly zone.”
He was right. It had US Air Force markings. We both watched it for a few moments, both of us tracking it in unison as it zipped across our horizon at great speed and disappeared into the distance. Then when it was gone, Ciggy looked back at me.
“Y’ know, you’re quite a clever kid,” he said.
Ordinarily, I didn’t like being called a kid. Usually it was a word people used to belittle me, to emphasize my unworldliness and make me feel small. But it was different when Ciggy said it. When Ciggy said it, it was a compliment and a term of affection.
“You remind me so much of Allie.”
Ciggy looked at me, but made no attempt to reply, almost as though he hadn’t anticipated that I would ask him that.
“Allie was my lil brother,” he said, and he turned away, looking down, as though it touched off some painful recollection.
He sighed gently, staring down at the grass for a bit, and then looked back up at me.
“Allie is no longer with us,” he said, sadly.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He drowned,” said Ciggy, plainly.
I thought he was going to leave it there and say no more. But he didn’t. He continued.
“It was nearly two years ago now. Just before the war kicked off. I took him to the lake one day. We did that a lot. Camping out under the stars, just Allie and me. We were very close. We had a great day shooting and fishing, like we always did. I was cooking over the campfire, and Allie decided he wanted to go swimming. He loved diving down under the surface, fishing for stones. He was a really good diver too. He was always showing off for me. I could watch Allie for hours. So he was diving down among the rocks and when he didn’t come back up, I dived in after him. He got his foot caught in the rocks. I couldn’t save him. I tried and tried, but his foot was stuck and by the time I managed to pull him free he was gone. I pulled him out and laid him down on the edge of the lake, but he was lifeless. I can still remember him lying there looking so peaceful, just like he was asleep. I couldn’t revive him. Such a shame. He was a beautiful kid too. Just lying there, looking like he was gonna wake up any minute. But he never did.”
Ciggy’s words trailed off and he looked at me. I wondered how much this young man must have trusted me to share something so personal with me. His story touched something deep inside me, the way he said it, the way he talked so wistfully of this little boy who was his brother. I looked at him and I actually didn’t mind letting him see the tears in my eyes. He smiled sympathetically.
“Don’t cry lil man,” he said softly.
And with that he leaned over and hugged me. He sniffed too, and I could detect that even he was having trouble holding back the tears. In that moment, as he held me in his embrace, comforting me, it struck me that I had never been held like that by a guy before – being hugged with real affection and in a non-sexual way. It was odd. Odd, but nice.
“Funny,” he said, as he held me tightly against him, his chin on my shoulder, “That’s what I used to call Allie. Lil man.”
Then he broke his embrace and leaned back, still holding onto me, but looking earnestly into my eyes.
“I hope you don’t mind me callin’ you that,” he said, with a smile.
I thought that was nice – not that he was thinking of me as a replacement for his dead little brother – but that he should think me worthy of that very same term of endearment.
“He would have been your age now if he was still alive. Heh, I think you’d have liked him. You and Allie would have been great friends.”
The way he talked about Allie, made him seem so real, it was almost as though I knew him. I pondered for a few moments about this little brother of his and felt the need to say something positive and encouraging.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said, aware that I was maybe stating the obvious, “You didn’t know that was gonna happen.”
“I know,” he conceded, “But I was responsible. I took Allie to the lake, and I wasn’t able to save him. Pity. He was the best thing in my life. Maybe the only good thing in my life. I damn near went off the rails after Allie died. I just couldn’t take it. That was why I left. They must have hated me.”
“My folks,” he said, “Haven’t spoken to them in two years. Maybe if I go back with something to show for it, they’ll take me back. The prodigal son returns. ‘Cept I doubt they’ll kill the fattened calf for me.”
“Trying to buy their forgiveness?” I remarked.
He stared at me a little taken aback. It was a quote I read somewhere.
“If you wanna call it that,” he acceded, “But I’ll make them proud yet, you’ll see. I’ve got some powerful stuff. Should be worth something to the press agencies.”
I didn’t say anything. I was still a little ambivalent about his revelations.
“I just can’t wait to be on that transporter,” he said, alluding back to the plans he had espoused earlier.
Then he paused and thought for a moment, taking on a more hopeful expression.
“Come with me Cloud,” he said suddenly.
It was quite unexpected.
“Come with me,” he said again.
I was completely unprepared for that.
“C’ mon Cloud, what are you doing here? Let me take you away from all this.”
“All what? A place where I’m looked after, have enough to eat and a roof over my head?”
“But why settle for the bare minimum? There’s more to life than this,” and as he said it, he held his arms out and made a sweeping gesture, encompassing the imagined devastation around us.
I had to admit, it didn’t seem like much when he put it in those terms.
He tried appealing to me.
“C’ mon Cloud, I can arrange everything for you. You could have a good life with me.”
It was clear from his expression that he was serious too. I looked into his warm brown eyes and I could see, in that one instance, despite the complications inherent in this young man, that he was in fact offering me a lifeline. More than that, he was extending a hand of friendship. But my natural cynicism prevented me from taking his offer at face value. This wasn’t the first time one of my tricks had offered to ‘rescue’ me; who offered to take me away from all this; who tempted me with untold delights and the possibility to live the life of Riley with them; to put me up in some millionaire mansion where servants would pander to my every whim and where I would be well fed and well looked after. What? And be indentured for the rest of my life? To have no means of self-determination? A lot of them thought they could just own me. It was nothing new. One quick fuck and they automatically wanted to possess me. They rented my ass for an hour or two and they thought they could buy me outright. But that would be more like enslavement for me, for undoubtedly what they expected in return was boy ass on tap, to have a willing and ready shota boy to pleasure them whenever it took their fancy. Gimme a break. I know I was a fuckboy, and I didn’t have many choices, but I valued my independence far too much.
On the other hand, Ciggy had so far demanded nothing from me. That in itself told me that his aim was true. He was honest and I trusted him. Tell the truth, as we sat there in that meadow, with the remnants of our delightful picnic on the grass, I saw a spark of possibility in his proposal. In that brief instance, I had no doubt that he could be a worthy benefactor, and one that I could definitely see myself trusting in quite an unequivocal way.
“But this is where my friends are. Everyone that loves me is here,” I said.
“They don’t love you!” he scoffed, “The only thing they love is that god-given ass of yours.”
“So?” I remarked, dismissively, “It works for me.”
“But for how long? You know that the UN is gonna pull outta here any day now. When the UN boys go, Verolino is gonna become a hellhole like the rest of Europe. You’ll be fair game for everybody then. They’ll shoot you dead soon as look at you.”
“What about the ceasefire?” I asked him, clinging to a ray of hope.
“Ceasefire!” he sneered, “What ceasefire? It never lasts. It’s been broken so many times it’s a running joke.”
It was a compelling argument. We all knew Verolino was doomed. We were all on borrowed time.
“But it’s gotta get better some time,” I pleaded, trying to inject a note of optimism.
“Why?” he demanded, “Why has it gotta get better? Don’t you see what’s going on around you? They don’t want peace. They just wanna destroy each other. They wanna wipe each other out and they don’t care if the rest of the world burns down while they do it.”
“Yeah, but what would they want with me?”
He regarded me with a scowl.
“You really want me to answer that?” he said.
He took a deep breath.
“This is no way to survive,” he went on, “You’re still young Cloud. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
Sitting there in that meadow, not at all sure where we were, totally in Ciggy’s hands, I looked around, and wondered just how much longer all this was going to be here. Was it really possible that the UN were going to pull out and leave us all to the mercy of KAPO and the other rebel militias? What would become of us all if they did?
Needless to say, I left Ciggy’s invitation hanging in the air. He didn’t press me. He put it out there and left it, and neither of us said any more about it. We just enjoyed what was left of our time together and we chatted amiably for the rest of the afternoon. Then Ciggy said we had to leave before it got dark. There was a curfew at nightfall and it wouldn’t do for us to be stopped by UNVERO.
Later, Ciggy dropped me off outside the club. With the Jeep stopped in the parking lot, the engine still running, Ciggy got out and gave me a meaningful squeeze by way of farewell. I was starting to get used to his gestures of affection. When he let me go, he stepped back and stood in the dim light of the parking lot and giggled, vaguely amused by some thought that had just come into his head.
“What?” I asked, curious.
“Cloud Nine,” he laughed, remembering my joke of last night.
I smiled sheepishly. Last night seemed such a long time ago now.
“Did you enjoy yourself today Cloud Nine?”
I nodded, closing my eyes contentedly.
“Good,” he said, “So did I. Thank you for spending the day with me.”
Ciggy hesitated before turning to go, and I could see that he was finding this difficult. Before leaving me, he stepped forward again and gave me a quick, fatherly little kiss on the forehead, and turned to jump back into the Jeep. He left me standing by the side door of the club, the music already thudding away inside. He spun the wheels as he drove off, sending a little cloud of dust up into the air, and then just as the Jeep exited the gate he called out to me, without looking back.
“I love you Cloud Nine!”
His words echoed out into the night, over the roar of the Jeep, and he was gone.
Elated, but already missing him, I went back into the club. But I wasn’t going to work this evening. I didn’t want to spoil the memory of this perfect day. I wanted to preserve it intact. So I went upstairs to my room, hoping to get an early night. After my wonderfully exhausting day with Ciggy, I realized there was still so much more for me to do in my life – so much more of the world to see and experience. Maybe Ciggy could take me away from all this. Maybe I should grasp his offer and get on that transporter with him.
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