At dusk, Benji watched the other boys make a game out of turning on every light in every room they could find, until all of Palazzo di Bacco glittered on its bluff high above the Pacific like a neoclassical temple of marble and light illuminated from within. Their pretentious host—who names his own house “Palazzo di Bacco” anyway?—flicked on strings of delicate paper lanterns suspended on poles around the perimeter of the patio. They now glow like spirit balls reflected back in the softly polished terrazzo tiles and azure surface of the pool, which itself radiates a liquid incandescence from its underwater lights. Their host also lit an entire box of scented candles and scattered them across the patio, where their sinuous flames perfume the already sweet ocean air with the earthy aromas of sandalwood and pine.
The night is awash in light.
An ocean breeze wafts buttery and warm against Benji’s bare chest. The radio plays softly in the background. Earlier, while the men we’re arguing over who would win the upcoming election—President Carter or the Gipper himself—one of the boys tuned to a disco station so that he and the others could dance. Benji watched their cocaine-fueled gyrations with disinterest, while simultaneously eavesdropping on the men laughing nervously at the absurdity of a B-movie actor ascending to the White House. Yet now, they’ve all settled together in the hot tub, politics and dancing forgotten, leaving him to hum alone to “Cherchez la Femme” while he sips his rum and coke in a gossamer bubble of solitude.
He sits on the edge of the pool in a shadowy corner of the patio far from the rest of the party, wiggling his toes below the waterline as he peers at the mosaic on the bottom. It features a depiction out of Greek mythology of a laughing Dionysus standing in a shimmering golden chariot drawn by leopards that prance across a celestial background of stars and swirling planets. Surrounding this chariot is a retinue of drunken Satyrs, Centaurs, and Cherubs, all nude, dancing while sloshing fat jugs of wine. Several of the more menacing-looking Satyrs brandish erections as fearsome as pikes, which they thrust before them like weapons or use to sodomize a group of human worshippers who have fallen to their knees in ecstatic veneration of the passing god.
Though this strikes Benji as an odd choice for pool decor, it certainly sets the mood for this party: After dinner, their host handed out little gray quaaludes to Benji and the other boys, and cheerily announced that they were, “To loosen us all up and make everyone feel groovy.”
Benji managed to spit his into the pool without anyone noticing. He was already lit enough from the Valium he swallowed earlier, followed by several shots of spiced rum from their host’s liquor cabinet. As he gazes up at the stars erupting from the twilit sky in droplets of sizzling white lava, he relishes the luxury of being of left alone for once. Unlike at most of the recent parties he’s attended, so far this evening he’s even managed to keep his swim trunks on.
Too bad he’s the only one.
Peals of laughter emanate from the hot tub several yards behind him where the others have congregated. He keeps his back turned to them. In the many years of unemployment since the network cancelled Sandcastles, he’s learned not to watch the goings-on in the hot tubs at these sorts of parties, although it often proves difficult to avert his eyes from the spectacle of a sagging, hairy-backed film producer or studio executive getting an underwater hand-job from a fresh-faced wannabe young enough to be his grandson. It’s only human nature to rubberneck at the sight of something that grotesque, and yet he knows if he were to watch, he would need to keep a straight face, avoid betraying even a glimmer of the revulsion he feels. He’d have to maintain the illusion that this was a normal occurrence, perfectly natural, nothing to see here folks. After all, it’s never a wise move to appear uptight or judgmental, especially around powerful men who can handsomely reward you for being their good time.
Who can make you a star—or return you to being one.
Besides, it’s not as if Benji wants to look. He doesn’t need to see himself reflected back in the hopeful, determined expression on some grasping young wannabe’s face. Been there, done that, too many times to count. He knows only too well that those few precious moments in control are the most powerful you’ll ever feel in this business, or at least until it’s over, and the big shot has shot and already forgotten your name.
Still, though he’s managed so far not to watch, it’s proven much harder not to listen.
“Oh, that’s so dirty . . . ”
“I swear, he had no gag reflex at all . . . ”
“Have another drink and you won’t even feel it . . . ”
“I bet he taught you how to do that thing with your tongue . . . ”
“Benji . . . ? Where’s Benji?”
This is from that paunchy horror novelist who’s been pawing at him all evening. The one their host brought in to help punch up the script for his new project. Although Benji supposes the man could be a useful ally to have, he sounds woozy and vaguely distraught at Benji’s absence, which is reason enough to avoid turning around to acknowledge him.
Not that Benji will be missed for long.
“Screw him!” one of the other boys cackles, overzealous in his inebriation. Although Benji still likes to imagine himself and the other actors here as “boys,” they’re all technically men now. In this business eighteen is the new forty, and at twenty-one he feels unaccountably ancient. “I wanna sit in your lap, Daddy,” this one coos shamelessly, and with a splash and giggle, the burble of conversation soon gives way to squelches and groans.
Benji stares into the silken darkness above the Pacific, trying hard to shut out all the unpleasant images swirling in his brain. He sips his drink, kicks at the water. He’s grateful for this time alone. He’s been off his game since he arrived here for the weekend. The vibe just doesn’t feel right at this place. Something about Palazzo di Bacco sharpens the ugly edges of things that normally blur in L.A.’s permissive haze. He knows he should be in the hot tub with the others, making the most of this chance to ingratiate himself with that French financier who has connections across the industry. But the thought of doing so makes his skin crawl. Not that he is above such friendly persuasions. He’s been hustling for work his entire adult career. Nothing he will do this weekend will be any different from the kinds of things he’s done at a dozen other parties just like this one. He’s mostly gotten used to it by now, used to the unsavory ways it makes him feel, used to not caring. But here, tonight, it gnaws at him. Everything about this evening gnaws at him, though he isn’t sure why.
Maybe it’s Asa Barnstable.
This thought arrives from his subconscious with the urgency of a telegram. He takes another sip of his drink and tries to figure out what it’s supposed to mean. The role he has his eyes on in their host’s new picture is a modest but important one: Asa Barnstable is the naive American seminarian who gives up everything, including his life, to battle an ancient evil threatening to overrun the people of a small Greek island. Benji has never wanted another role as badly as he wants this one. It isn’t just that securing a part in a major studio film would resurrect his moribund career, even if it is just a cheesy ripoff of The Exorcist. No, Asa is special. From the first pages of the script, the character resonated with some unspoken longing inside of Benji, a bass note struck on the tuning fork of his psyche. Although there are many qualities about Asa that Benji admires and wishes he could emulate in his own life, above all it’s the selfless purity of Asa’s faith that moved Benji most deeply. Asa meets his death peacefully, even joyfully, content in the knowledge that he is the chosen vessel of the Lord’s grace. Such a sacrifice seems incomprehensible to Benji, even sacred. In his whole life he has never loved or believed in anything strongly enough to surrender so completely to it. He doubts he ever could, although he wishes to experience what that feels like all the same, to borrow just a glimmer of Asa’s brilliant inner light.
It might be the closest he ever gets to shining a light of his own.
This is the true gift of acting, or at least Benji hopes so. He wants to believe that inhabiting a character nobler than himself can unlock little stores of his own humanity otherwise unavailable to him, little discoveries of qualities within himself that he might never reach in another way. When he thinks about it like that, acting becomes an almost spiritual endeavor, as close as he will ever get to touching the face of God, submitting to something bigger than himself, something that, even in its own humble way, can still be profoundly meaningful. When he thinks about it like that, he supposes he just wants to be worthy of Asa Barnstable, worthy of playing this righteous young man who gives up his own life in sacrifice to the divine.
And yet, the irony of this entire weekend is that Benji knows nothing he will do at Palazzo di Bacco to “audition” for the role will make him remotely worthy of Asa.
Not one fucking thing.
He drains what remains of his drink and debates whether to grab another. More rum might help to blur the edges a little bit faster. At these sorts of parties there’s usually a tipping point early in the evening, a moment when the booze and drugs flip a kind of switch in his brain, either in the pool or hot tub or laid out across the cool sheets of somebody’s waterbed. It’s almost like Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: He feels that same mechanical click inside himself, and then his body gives way to it, ebbing into the pleasure of the moment as liquid and freeing as pissing underwater. That’s when the lights go out inside of him and something darker and hungrier emerges to feed, some creature like a vampire at twilight, or a werewolf at the rising of the full moon. Maybe he needs that creature now. Maybe it will keep him safe tonight. Maybe it will hold Palazzo di Bacco at bay.
Or maybe it will just eat him alive.
A shiver runs down Benji’s spine as a shadow falls upon him from behind. He glances over his shoulder to find a stranger looming above him, blocking his view of the hot tub and the other members of the party. Benji tries to scramble to his feet, but the whole world heaves onto its side and he nearly topples headlong into the pool.
The young man grabs him by the forearm and eases him gently to his knees.
“Please relax,” the stranger says in a calm, soothing voice. “There is no need to get up.”
“Who . . . Who are you?”
“I tend to the pool.”
The stranger holds out a hand for Benji to shake, but Benji’s too dizzy to take it. Instead, he bends forward on hands and knees to inhale several deep breaths to clear his head. At least the patio stops spinning, although the moans emanating from the hot tub have become so vehement they sound more like cries of agony than ecstasy.
“I’m, uh, sorry about them,” he stammers, his face flushing hotly as he sits back on his knees. The others obviously haven’t noticed they have company.
“They merely enjoy themselves,” the pool boy says dismissively, flashing a brief smile in the direction of the hot tub. Benji supposes if he “works” for their host, he’s witnessed this sort of thing before, probably even joined in a few times.
The pool boy leans over to shift Benji’s empty highball glass aside and then squats beside him at the water’s edge. “You, on the other hand, do not seem to be enjoying yourself at all,” he says, grinning wolfishly, his teeth glinting white then blue-gray in the refracted light of the rippling water. His thick, dark brows arch in curiosity above fathomless black eyes that search Benji’s for something he seems to expect to find there.
Although his intensity is unsettling, Benji is too drunk to be intimidated by it, and so he holds the pool boy’s gaze long enough to take stock of him: Dressed all in black, the young man can’t be more than twenty-five. He has an East Coast look about him, vaguely ethnic, perhaps Italian or Greek, with ghostly pale skin and long, black hair pulled into a tight ponytail.
Jim Morrison meets Pacino.
Still, while he’s certainly not unattractive—indeed, his looks are downright arresting—Benji detects an off-kilter aspect to his features, something vaguely unbalanced, asymmetrical: eyes inched too far apart, a mouth a fraction too wide, a longish chin too narrow and sharp. In fact, with his dark attire and piercing gaze, he reminds Benji more of a predator who’s skulked into their midst than the kind of sun-kissed Malibu rent boy he’d expect their host to keep around. He flashes on what happened to Sharon Tate after the Manson Family paid her a surprise nocturnal visit, and tries to shake off the images that follow by drawing this pool boy out.
“So, what’s your name anyway?” he asks.
“You may call me El,” the pool boy says coolly.
“El? That’s an odd name. What’s it short for?”
“Why must it be short for anything?”
Since Benji has no answer for this he shrugs, although not before noticing that there’s something odd about this El’s voice. It has a satiny resonance to it that reminds him of a violin playing a low, sustained note. El’s speech patterns are peculiar, too, stilted and formal, like he learned to speak English reading textbooks or Victorian novels. While it’s a little bit sexy, it also adds to the air of unease about him. Worse, El’s rapacious grin has not wavered. His eyes remain fixed on Benji, devouring him, so much so the pool boy doesn’t seem to blink or even breathe. Benji feels overwhelmed by this attention, yet it’s also undeniably exciting, even arousing, and as he finds himself longing to succumb to the allure of El’s seductive composure, he realizes that he’s already leaning in, breathing slower, heavier.
“Where have you been hiding all evening?” he asks, swallowing the tremor in his own voice.
“I would not call it hiding.”
“What would you call it then?”
“Why not join in instead of just observe?” Benji jerks his head at the hot tub. “Maybe you’ll get discovered, become a star.”
El chuckles lightly at this, as if amused by a child’s innocent question. “Though I do perform from time to time, I do not consider myself an actor.”
“What do you consider yourself then?”
“A student of human behavior, perhaps. Or, more accurately, of human desire.”
“You mean like sex?”
Although El hesitates long enough to arch a prudish eyebrow, Benji suspects the question has secretly delighted him. “While I do not relegate my interests to that area of human experience alone, sexuality is certainly a fascinating aspect of desire, would you not agree?”
“I would.” Benji smirks, half to himself, certain now that El is coming on to him. He must have spotted Benji from inside the house and pegged him for an easy mark. Perhaps he wants to fuck a former child star. He wouldn’t be the first. Perhaps Benji will even let him. “Tell me more,” Benji say, and drags his fingertips across the taut skin of his chest.
“Imagine what an observer would make of this evening,” El replies, his tone suddenly expansive, academic. “Such a rich tableau of human desire on display, no?” He gestures grandly at the hot tub, where the sounds of the orgy have receded to a background drone. “Your colleagues over there seek fulfillment of their baser hungers for physical pleasure and sexual gratification. But there are other, subtler desires at play, too. Desires for money, success, fame. The hunger for affirmation and the approval of authority. The need to feel powerful and strong, or perhaps to surrender, to be meek, compliant. A longing for beauty and the elusive blush of youth, or simply the desire to feel desired. To be seen and chosen. To be consumed.” He pauses meaningfully before adding, “Perhaps there is even a desire for love.”
Benji can’t help but laugh at this. “Trust me, nobody here is looking for love.”
“That may be,” El agrees, his lips briefly curling in a cryptic smile. “But while all of these desires are readily identifiable among your busy friends over there, what remains enigmatic to me are the desires of the lonely figure sulking by the pool.”
“I wasn’t sulking,” Benji replies sulkily. “And they aren’t my friends.”
“Of course,” El says and tongues the corner of his mouth. “But you still have not answered my question.”
Benji hesitates, uncertain where this is going. “I thought what I desired was obvious: a part in your boss’s new picture.”
“Ah, I see. You wish to become a star like the others. Famous. Adored.”
At this Benji mouth pulls into an involuntary frown. His legs have gone numb from kneeling too long, and so he takes his time shifting position, mulling over his response while he swings his feet around and dips them back into the languid pool. To be honest, he’s surprised by how stung he feels that El apparently hasn’t recognized him at all.
So much for wanting to fuck a former child star.
“Maybe you didn’t know this about me,” Benji mutters bitterly, “But I am a star.” He leans back on his hands and gazes up into the burning night. “Or at least I was. For three whole seasons I played the irascible kid brother, Tony Pavone, on Sandcastles. Maybe you’ve heard of it?” He pauses, hoping for a reaction that doesn’t come. “I made the cover of TV Guide once . . . No?” He sighs. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Former child stars are a dime a dozen in this town. Since we got cancelled, I haven’t had so much as a call-back for a soap commercial. Casting directors either can’t see me as anyone other than the mouthy brat I played on that show, or they assume I won’t accept scale anymore. Not that I was ever a big enough star to warrant paying more. We didn’t even film enough episodes for syndication, so there’s no residuals to speak of, no money coming in. So, not only am I an unemployed star, I’m also a broke one. A star so hard up for work I’ve been reduced to hustling for jobs at hot tub parties.” He laughs at the ridiculousness of his plight before turning to meet El’s appraising gaze. “So no, being a star doesn’t mean a fucking thing to me. In fact, it’s meant worse than nothing, because it’s kept me from doing the only thing I want to do, which is act.”
Benji feels his face flush, shocked by how much he’s revealed to this pool boy. It must be the rum and Valium talking, or maybe the way the hard edges of things keep showing themselves so clearly tonight. He longs for his comforting blurs and clicks to return, although he has to admit it feels liberating to have gotten all this off his chest for once.
Not that El appears the least bit phased by his candor. If anything, it seems as if he knew just exactly what Benji were going to say all along. “Do you suppose you will win the role you so desire here this weekend?” he asks, meaningfully. “That coveted opportunity to act again?”
The question feels like a sharp kick in the gut, or maybe just a bucket of cold water thrown in Benji’s face. He remembers what his agent warned him right before she dropped him:
They never cast the whores, Benji.
“No,” he answers truthfully, as the dream of playing Asa Barnstable dissolves into the mist above the Pacific. “No, I don’t suppose I will.” There won’t be any big break this weekend. No comeback. No coveted film career. As with all the other parties like this he’s attended, he’ll be lucky to leave Palazzo di Bacco with “gas money” in his pocket and without another nasty case of the clap.
“Then why come here?” El asks, with what sounds like genuine curiosity. “Why do this?”
Benji shrugs and kicks at the water. “There’s nothing else. I’ve got nothing else.” He flashes El a bitter smile, but doesn’t add what he’s really thinking:
I’m here to feel wanted.
“Desire can be a thing with chains,” El says knowingly. He looks Benji dead in the eyes as if finally discovering that thing about him he’s been searching for all this time. “Perhaps yours has dragged you under.”
“Sure . . . Why not.”
Benji turns to peer into the pool, too ashamed to hold El’s gaze any longer. He wonders how what he’d imagined was a harmless flirtation could have led so swiftly to the edge of this cold and hopeless abyss. Maybe if he weren’t still so drunk he could muster the dignity to climb into his car and leave this place before he humiliates himself any further.
But who is he kidding? He doesn’t have that kind of self-respect left.
“Fuck it,” he says and slides his swim trunks off his hips, launching them with a sharp kick into the far end of the pool where they float like debris from a shipwreck. “Let’s skinny dip.”
He stumbles to his feet, finally naked, and leaps into the water.
Despite the lateness of the hour, the pool is warm, even hot. The water feels strange upon his skin, silky and viscous, like taking a bath in amniotic fluid. He lets himself sink to the bottom and then kicks off, breaching the surface with a loud gasp, before inhaling a lungful of sandalwood and pine from the candles still ablaze all around him.
El has climbed to his feet and stands at the edge of the pool watching over Benji with that same wolfish grin as before. Benji winks at him teasingly and then arcs his spine, floating onto his back with his arms and legs splayed wide in an invitation. As his head lolls back in the surging water, he stares up into the night sky, thick and coursing with blackness.
The stars have all gone out.
El is speaking now, though his words are muffled by the water sloshing around Benji’s ears. Benji thinks he hears him say something about “sacrifice” and “failure.” Something about “purpose” and “veneration” and “the gift of being chosen.” Something about “chains” and “liberation” and “the blessing of surrendering to the desires of God.” It suddenly occurs to him that maybe El belongs to some sort of cult, like the Moonies, or one of those dirty communes up in Humboldt County were the Summer of Love curdled into a cesspool of drugs, false prophets, and ritual child abuse. Maybe he’s a wannabe Jim Jones here to lure Benji to some far-off jungle compound to demand he perform deranged acts of devotion.
Not that it matters. Not that he cares.
He’ll still fuck him tonight.
Yet, as the moments tick by, Benji realizes El has stopped talking. He lifts his head from the water to find that his companion has wandered off beyond the lights of the patio. Instead, he notices there’s an odd new song playing on the radio. Unlike the thumping disco anthems he’s been listening to all evening, this music has a meandering cadence, like the accompaniment to a procession, with lilting flutes and bells, and indistinct voices floating above the steady thunk of what could be a tribal drum or perhaps the pulse of his own heart throbbing in his ears. It’s like no pop song he’s ever heard before, and as he lays his head back in the water to wait for El’s return, he closes his eyes and lets himself drift on this music’s primal, hypnotic strains . . .
“Come, drink this.”
Benji blinks, startled by the sharpness of El’s command and aware that he must have briefly dozed off. His eyelids feel heavier now, his limbs sluggish as he paddles back to the edge of the pool, where El squats, holding out a shallow ceramic bowl with handles on each side. It takes Benji a moment to recognize the object. During the requisite tour of the house when he first arrived, their host spent several minutes bragging about this particular treasure, which he described as “the pride of my antiquities collection.” He referred to it as a “kylix,” and explained that it was an ancient kind of chalice, used by the Greeks for serving wine during “their deviant rites and ceremonies.” Glazed in glossy black, the outer surface of the bowl is adorned with red-figured depictions of various Satyrs and men engaged in acts of debauchery reminiscent of the scene at the bottom of the pool.
Benji laughs, mumbling something to El about their host murdering them both if he were to catch them using his priceless antiquity as a Solo cup. But that doesn’t stop him from grabbing the bowl from El’s outstretched hands. He lifts it eagerly to his lips, his body aching with an unquenched desire for blurs and clicks, so much so, he doesn’t even bother to ask what’s in the bowl or why El’s serving it to him this way.
If the sexy pool boy wants to be the next Jim Jones, let him.
Instead of poisoned Kool-Aid, however, the kylix contains a kind of sickly-sweet wine, viscid and cloying and smelling vaguely of honey. Some part of Benji’s brain suggests it’s probably mead, although he’s too busy guzzling every drop to give it much thought. When he finally swallows the last of it, he notices that painted at the bottom of the bowl is the figure of a single, penetrating eyeball staring him in the face.
He hands the precious artifact back to El, wipes the stickiness from his mouth, and exclaims in his most seductive voice, “Now, get out of those clothes and come join me.”
But El merely shakes his head as he rises to his feet, backing slowly away from the pool. “I will see you on the other side,” he says, matter-of-factly, before he turns and strides across the patio cradling the bowl reverentially between both hands.
Benji watches him disappear into the house, feeling lightheaded and vaguely dismissed, although he assumes El’s just gone to replace the bowl on its glass-encased pedestal in the living room. That’s wise. God forbid they should get caught with it out here. Benji doesn’t want any trouble this weekend. He certainly doesn’t need to make enemies of powerful men like their host, although he doubts the famous director would even remember his name if he were to slip away from Palazzo di Bacco before morning. The boys here are all so interchangeable: Kenny and Mikey and Jamey and Davey. Warm, nubile bodies good for a night’s pleasure, a weekend’s play. A currency of skin and sex. Cogs in a flesh machine older than Hollywood itself.
Still, it’s better than the alternative. Benji would rather be here than home alone. He’d rather feel desired than nothing to no one, a forgotten credit on a cancelled TV show.
And so he floats onto his back to await El’s return.
He hopes El will take him right here where the others can watch. He’s never actually done it in the pool before. Foreplay yes, but for the main event he’s always been led to a bed, a sofa, a countertop. He finally feels that soft mechanical click as his body eases into the liquid pleasure of his drunkenness. The strange music seems to grow louder on the radio, and he closes his eyes and floats, wondering what exactly El gave him to drink. Was it really mead, or perhaps some kind of exotic liqueur or imported sherry? He’ll have to ask, although whatever it was, he can still taste its warmth on his lips as its blurring potency seeps through his limbs, giving him an urgent, throbbing erection.
When will El get back? he wonders, while in the distance, the roar of what sounds like a mountain lion echoes across the hillside.
The music stops.
Benji jerks open his eyes at the sudden silence, but instead of the placid Malibu sky, he peers stunned into an impossible celestial tableau wheeling above him.
Palazzo di Bacco is gone, along with the patio, the hot tub, the others.
In their place, an inky expanse of firmament arches high overhead, bursting with a million silver-bladed stars. Sulfurous clouds veil a Moon as pink and fat as a boar fed for slaughter. A livid Mars hangs so low to the earth he thinks he could reach up and pluck it from the heavens. Venus hovers beside it, shrouded in golden mists, while slender rings encircle Saturn’s delicate saffron orb, and Jovian satellites speed in obedient orbits around the many-banded king of worlds. Surrounding these planets are galaxies and nebulae too numerous to count, swimming and swirling like stellar amoebae in an iridescent sea of sky. And yet daylight also shines here, banishing the night around him in the brightness of a solstice noontime.
The Sun itself is a whirling disk of white.
Under its hard, prismatic glare Benji sees that he now treads water at the center of a perfectly round and viridescent pool. This pool is surrounded by a ring of ruined columns strangled in heaving vines of ivy and fruiting grape. The columns are ancient, their pediments pitted and crusted with lichen, their crumbling scrolls draped with fronds of swaying moss. Beyond them stretches a flourishing garden that perfumes the sultry breeze with rosemary and honeysuckle, lavender and oleander. Spiky succulents intermingle with jeweled blossoms of scarlet poppy, indigo anemone, buttery nasturtium. In the distance, limpid pools of vibrant turquoise ripple tremulously beneath swaying boughs of fig and olive, while further beyond a colony of towering cypresses clings to a gently sloping hillside that meanders down to a ribbon of quartz sand and the shimmering expanse of a cerulean sea that is decidedly not the Pacific.
The heightened color and light in this place hurt Benji’s eyes. Dazed and uncertain, it takes him several moments to realize he seems to cast no shadows here. This pool itself feels only half-real to him. A dreamscape. A shaman’s vision. A hallucination of tainted mead.
Or perhaps he is the hallucination, insubstantial, a projection across time and space.
But before he can ponder the meaning of any of this, a low moan behind him suddenly calls his attention. He splashes around to find that behind him the ring of columns opens onto a rise of steps that lead to a sloped marble altar overlooking the pool. Splayed face down upon this altar is a nude figure, his arms and ankles lashed by leather straps to massive bronze chains anchored to the stone. His skin is golden, his buttocks clenched as he writhes against his bonds. The ropey muscles of his arms and legs flex in weary desperation. Yet these efforts prove futile—the straps are drawn too tight—and soon he gives up, collapsing against the hard surface and falling still.
Although the young man’s long hair spills over his face in curls of corn-spun silk, Benji recognizes himself immediately, like watching his own performance on-screen.
But, no—this figure is Benji.
Once more, Benji tries to pull against the straps binding him to this icy slab. It’s no use, of course: the leather is too supple, too strong, although the heavy chains of bronze creak and rattle like the bars of a dungeon cell. He is drenched from head to toe in sweat—or is that pool water?—his body spent, exhausted. He lays his forehead against the marble to rest, but above the lingering scents of chlorine, sandalwood, and pine he detects a faint coppery tang.
It smells like . . . It smells like . . .
He jerks his head back, strains and wriggles against his bonds until he sees that below him, in the very shadow his chest and arms now cast, the altar is stained the deep russet of dried blood.
The music resumes with a swell.
Benji hears the approach of footsteps behind him, a procession, bells and cymbals and many voices singing in a language not his own, though one he somehow understands.
“Hail, Eleutherios, glorious liberator!” they sing. “Lord of the lustful. Patron of the wanton. Seeker of the flesh.”
Benji cranes his neck and can just make out a line of nude figures dancing and singing. Some are playing instruments, while others carry fat jugs of sloshing wine as they proceed in single file around the edge of the pool and gather along either side of the steps at the base of the altar. Although these figures are all clearly male, none are human, sporting tails and antlers, wings and horns and even hooves.
When the last member of this motley procession has reached his place beside the altar steps, the music dies. An ecstatic hush falls over the crowd until another roar pierces the silence.
And that’s when Benji sees it, rising like the Kraken from the center of the pool: What he knew as El at Palazzo di Bacco is now its true, terrible self.
“Behold, Eleutherios!” a chorus of joyful voices sing. “Deliverer of desire!”
The beast towers more than fifteen feet tall. Although its features vaguely resemble El’s, they are courser, fearsome, leonine. Its lustrous black hair is wild and unkempt beneath a fat crown of vines adorned with flowers and golden thorns. Its fathomless black eyes are no longer eyes at all, but gaping voids filled with galaxies of rushing stars. Its horns are made of gleaming gold, as is its angrily swollen member, which thrusts upward the length of Benji’s leg and the girth of his thigh, tapering to an eviscerating point as sharp as a pike.
Green water sluices from the beast’s massive body as it lumbers from the pool toward the altar. Benji squeezes his eyes shut tight, too frightened to look upon such staggering glory any longer, although he can still smell the fetor of the beast’s breath, its arousal, its vileness. He hears the crowd gasp, followed by the clack of mighty hooves upon the marble steps behind him.
But before it is there, before it can claim him, a brilliant light shines within him, revealing to him why he was chosen for this sacrifice, this veneration. A gift of selfless devotion, of love, his whole body and soul subsumed in the role of his lifetime. All he ever wanted and all he ever was, surrendered for all eternity in this holy, holy place.
His chains are broken. He will touch the face of a god.
“Please, Eleutherios,” Benji cries. “Please!”
And then the beast is upon him.