by

Robert Stahl

When Devon graduates high school, his momma sighs and cuts him some slack. She thinks it couldn’t have been easy—what with her only son liking other boys—all those years of taunts, the endless bullying. Mostly, she blames herself for raising him without a father. By the end of summer, it’s obvious he’s suffering from a lack of ambition; he’ll barely even help around the house. When she threatens to throw him out, he reluctantly gets a job at the pizza shop, and that’s where he meets Billy Quinton.

Yes, that Billy Quinton. Former action star. Notorious heartbreaker. Hollywood bad boy. He’s in Idaho (of all places) working on an indie thriller when he staggers in five minutes before closing, waving a $100 bill and stinking of vodka. “I’m famished,” he tells Devon, with a wink that says he means it in more ways than one.

Devon’s charmed by the actor’s gruff voice and cocky attitude, and they talk until the shop closes. Then continue to the parking lot. And from there, into the back of Billy’s shiny black Charger. The actor knows what to say to get young Devon out of his pants. On the warm leather seats, with moonlight sparkling off a chrome skull pendant hanging from the rear-view mirror, Devon gives himself over to the man who once rappelled down the Chrysler Building in his favorite movie, Skyscraper Rescue.

In the morning, Devon’s momma cries when the actor does donuts in his car in front of her house. But by then her son has already fallen for him. What can she do? Billy smells like cigarettes and he’s got a big dick and talks about lunches with Kiefer Sutherland. So, off Devon goes, dragging along his ratty suitcase with the busted wheel, while his momma wrings her hands on the porch.

And at first, it’s wonderful. The parties attended. The cities visited. The pure intoxication of being loved. For young Devon, it’s as if he’s tamed some kind of wild beast. This eccentric personality with his distinct peculiarities, like the pentagram tattoo on his back, his books on black magic, and the nightly rituals with scented oils and burning candles.

It’s not long before Devon sees a different side of Billy. Those bedroom whispers, once so soft and soothing, warp into throaty grunts and urgent demands. Caresses, once so delicate and nurturing, mutate into sadistic slaps and aggressive acts of dominance.

Devon notices other problems, too. Like Billy arguing on the phone with his manager about money problems. One night at Chéz Marie, Billy curses out a waiter when his credit card is flatly declined. And then there’s the drinking problem. It’s constant. Long nips straight from the bottle. In the daytime, it’s gin. Whiskey in the evenings. And when he drinks, Billy makes cruel jabs about Devon’s girly hips, his small-town accent, and his crooked, crooked teeth. Devon laughs it off at first. What can he do? Then he doesn’t say anything. Until one day, in a less-than-stylish motel room outside of Los Angeles, he does. For that, he gets punched in the face.

Billy screeches off in his car, leaving Devon behind to blink at the carpet. Devon can imagine Billy out there, walking the promenade, his silver Rolex glinting in the moonlight, those hungry boys eyeing the bulge in his jeans. And though this relationship has brought Devon pain, the thought of someone else having Billy is worse, so he picks up the phone to call him, to say he’s sorry, or whatever. He leaves a voicemail. Then another. And another. He’s still dialing at midnight when he hears a sound outside.

It’s a tinkling sound at first, almost magical. Until he realizes it’s glass breaking. Devon pulls back the blinds, and heat slams him in the face. Across the courtyard, the other side of the hotel is ablaze. Tongues of flame lick at the walls, warping the windows, causing the glass to buckle, to splinter. He retreats into the hallway, where everyone’s panicking and running, saying to get out, get out now. And he starts to. But then he doesn’t. He goes back to his room, sits on the bed. It would be a simple thing to just let the fire take him, and for a moment, he considers it. Until a wall of heat comes charging down the hallway, and his mouth fills with smoke. Then he shoves what he can into his suitcase and escapes by breaking a window.

On the front lawn, he joins the other dazed travelers in their crumpled suits and pajamas and flip flops. Together, they watch the hotel burn. And it isn’t until a fire truck is screaming its way toward them that he notices something’s moving in the fire. He moves in closer to get a better look while shouting back to the other guests. They look at him like he’s crazy. Why won’t they listen?

It’s a man.

Not just any man. It’s Billy Quinton.

Well, it is, and it isn’t. It looks like him, but it’s some kind of demon. It’s got claws instead of fingers and its skin is made of flames, and it’s laughing. By then, the firemen are there, and they’re pushing back the crowd and spraying at the inferno. But what can they do? The demon is unfazed by the water and he’s punching and hitting the walls of the hotel and everything he touches burns brighter.

And is it Devon’s imagination, or does he see other figures in the fire? The spirits of other young men, just like him. The demon is kicking and screaming at them, telling them they’re pieces of shit, that they’re worthless. And they’re all lying there, taking it. Every last one of them. Devon crumples to the ground and watches them for hours in the chill of the night with his knees pulled tight against his chest.

By daylight, the air still reeks of smoke but the last of the glowing embers are sputtering. The demon and the other figure are gone. The other guests have left, too, gone one by one, either picked up by taxis, or friends, or having wandered off to other nearby hotels. Devon sits alone on the dewy lawn. He wonders about his life, about how he got here, about where he’s headed, about why he’s become so used to the feelings of loneliness, of sadness. He’s so deep in his thoughts, he’s surprised when he feels a hand on his shoulder.

It’s Billy Quinton, you bet.

“You look like hell,” the actor says, with a squeeze. It’s the gentlest of gestures, and somehow it strikes up a deep longing inside Devon’s heart again.

Except that hand. It’s way too warm. Almost hot.

When Devon looks up into those handsome eyes, he stares for what feels like forever.

Then he gets up and walks away, leaves Billy standing there listening to the sound of the busted wheel as it drags along on the sidewalk.

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