When You Struggle(Nyeogmi; 8336 words)
As he finished the end of his ice cream cone, Sidney came to a familiar intersection and decided to turn left, towards Nyeogmi’s apartment. It was going to be warm there and if it rained, he would be inside before his neat, thick fur got damp.
There were no clouds.
Most otters liked to get wet, and Sidney wasn’t any exception, but there was something about it that he didn’t like, and that was dripping. When he walked across a wood floor or a carpet and left little pools of water where he passed, he felt regret and a sense that he should sop it up.
He might even shower when he got there. Last time Nyeogmi had given him a hairdryer to blast himself dry with and then finished him with an actual iron.
He arrived without ringing the bell. The sun outside was almost down and that made it likely that his friend the bat was still at rest, upstairs. “It’s not sleep,” Nyeogmi had told him, “even though to you it might seem that way.”
Sidney had seen him dangling from the rod in the closet and he had also seen him lying down, back against the wall, chin rested on his collarbone, wing on his stomach.
That night it was dark upstairs, something that didn’t matter to a bat, and that was all he could tell.
On the living room sofa was another bat who looked almost identical to Nyeogmi except for one difference: the color of his eyes. They were red-violet and dark like jam and no light, he thought, seemed to be shining from them.
When he looked for longer, he thought this bat might be slightly smaller and he also thought this bat looked shy.
“I know Nyeogmi,” he said. He sounded as if he felt like he wasn’t supposed to be here, even though he looked like he knew that he was. The upper part of his body was forwards-tilting as if he’d just looked up from reading a book and it were resting in his lap.
Sidney stayed in the hall. “Has he told me about you?”
“By name?” the bat said. “Unlikely. We met online, but we kinda got lunch the other day…”
It was a familiar combination. There was a sense of formality and also an exaggerated, displaced attempt to sound casual. Maybe in bat society this was polite.
“I don’t think he’s scary at all,” the bat said. “Do you?”
“When he wants to be.”
There was a longing, yearning look from the bat. “He didn’t try to scare me…” As he trailed off, he took a long look at Sidney’s left eye, then his right one, each individually.
Sidney froze up for a moment in mild concern, but approached, if only to help the creature see him better. If the bat were trying to hypnotize him, he thought, then that already would have worked.
When the creature didn’t say anything, he asked a question. “Is there something wrong?”
Sidney sat beside the bat. Sidney wasn’t large by otter standards, but he was still larger than him by far. Against Nyeogmi he had maybe six inches, so this bat was tiny.
The bat looked a little distant. “Do you hypnotize?”
“Not with my eyes,” Sidney said. “I don’t know any other ways either.”
“And I’m right that ‘hypnotize’ is the word your species uses for it?” A curiously scientific way of putting it. That and the way it sounded sort of like a retreat of reminded him of Nyeogmi.
“I guess.” The answer was yes, simple enough. “What word does your kind use?”
“The phrase ‘using speech’ generalizes the verbs ‘talk,’ and ‘shout,’” it said. “We have many words, but much like an otter might say ‘using speech,’ a bat would refer to hypnosis by saying ‘using one’s signal.’ Only my signal isn’t lit.”
That was true. His eyes weren’t glowing.
Sidney didn’t answer him too quickly.
“I’m Gyubok, by the way,” the bat said.
And with the sense of urgency that came from responding too slowly and needing something at all to say, Sidney rushed in to answer. “That’s a beautiful name!”
The bat blushed as he looked away. “It’s a typical name.” His cheeks still looked pale. “So I know Nyeogmi.”
“You told me.”
“He offered to show me his signal, but I told him I didn’t want to do it in public. He’s really sweet. We customarily don’t ask permission for that kind of thing.”
“That sounds —“
“It’s worse than you’re imagining.”
“I’ve been signaled before.”
“Right.” The bat was looking a little lost in his own story, but after taking a while to think it seemed to be coming back to him. “I kind of grew up surrounded by adults and well, just for customary reasons, nobody has ever signaled me. Hypnotized me. For vampire bats this is unusual.”
The bat looked at Sidney as if trying to see if he was satisfied with the explanation, but Sidney thought he might have been double-checking to see if his otter eyes would come alight.
Sidney spoke. “I think I understand.” He knew the technical details of being signaled, but he wasn’t feeling confident about the sociology. “Sounds a bit like kissing, if you ask me.”
“Right.” The bat didn’t look too pleased or too upset.
Sidney felt like he had said something rude. He wouldn’t be able to place what, but that feeling was in the air. “I know it’s a completely different thing. Sorry!”
“It’s similar enough. Go on.” Were all bats so prone to issuing orders?
“No, that was really it,” Sidney said. “You can continue.”
Gyubok nodded sharply. That was a cute little mannerism that made him feel very acknowledged.
The question Gyubok asked him was something unexpected. “What was your first kiss like?”
An easy question all the same, though. “Never kissed anyone.”
“Then you wouldn’t know how to do it,” Gyubok said. “You don’t know how to kiss for real until you’ve been kissed.” He chuckled for nobody. “Not that our kind kisses.”
“I bet it would be difficult with those fangs.”
Gyubok didn’t turn his head, or do anything much at all to acknowledge his response.
Sidney felt impatient. “Yes?”
“I’ve never signaled anyone either.”
“I mean, I know how to,” the bat said. “You can just read articles on that. It doesn’t work for me, though.”
Sidney was feeling levelheaded. If there had been a little space alien in that chair instead of a bat, he probably would have questioned it the same way. He didn’t feel like the conversation was going anywhere, but his curiosity meant he didn’t want to desert it or turn it to some other purpose.
The bat sucked in his chest and produced a display with his eyes that momentarily entertained him. He’d seen similar displays in Nyeogmi’s face.
If it had been the same kind of thing, he would have already been hypnotized, but all he felt was the ghost of the sensation he remembered from before. The other bat had really been able to command his attention and make him succumb in an instant.
He would probably keep staring, but his will would remain his own.
The bat’s eyes started to look tired. His big, heavy-looking eyelids flapped closed and Sidney recognized the rest of the bat’s face for the first time since he had started. His cheeks had become a little red.
As he contemplated that, Gyubok’s stare became dark again. He had a look of suppressed feeling.
“You have very beautiful eyes.” Sidney said.
“You don’t exactly look bowled-over by them.” That sounded like the voice of someone who wanted power but would be satisfied with admiration. “There’s a less conscious way you’re meant to appreciate them in, I’m told?”
“It’s hard to describe.”
“He’s done it a few times, right?”
Sidney was tempted to understate it and go with “a few,” but he felt like dishonesty would make him uncomfortable if he continued it in the long run. “He’s done it… quite a lot, actually. Do you think he can help you?”
“Well, maybe he can light my torch.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Supposing yours was lit.” His eyes were dark. “How would you light it?”
“Touch them together.”
“I’m here to be signaled.”
Sidney thought. They were both interested in the same thing. The extent of his relationship with Nyeogmi was a little bit broader than that, but being signaled had been his initial draw.
He thought it was interesting. He had quickly switched to using the bats’ own word for this phenomenon. It made him feel like this was a privileged world that he now, finally, had become a part of.
But really, if he’d been under many times and this bat hadn’t been under once, then he’d been a part of this world for a lot longer.
Gyubok had questions.
“What does that feel like, anyway?” he asked. “I know some of you people chase this kind of thing, but it isn’t very clear what you’re after.”
His eyes had started flickering. Since they had come lit, it seemed like keeping them dark took effort.
Sidney had an answer. He thought he could talk about how peaceful it was, or how it was a little bit romantic, being swept away, but this bat didn’t seem romantic or peaceful. “Hmmm, well. I suppose I could tell you. But you’re about to find out yourself. Don’t you prefer that?”
“When he gets back, he’s going to offer again. I haven’t decided if I’m going to say yes.”
When he encountered someone who seemed rude or frustrated, Sidney usually tried to come up with a pretext to leave. This bat was a little bit short of rude, just blunt and unaffected, and maybe on a bad day Sidney would have already been looking for an excuse like that.
This day he felt like doing what was expected, without much thought, but he wasn’t completely happy about it.
What if Nyeogmi had also been this blunt and, behind the charm and the hypnosis, Sidney hadn’t recognized it? Would knowing that now mean that everything before hadn’t been real?
Or, Sidney thought, maybe he was too sensitive to little niceties of language. Ones that not everyone had patience for.
“Yes,” said Gyubok, not responding to anything. “It’s usually a bit of a traumatic experience, you know. Something siblings do to each other. The oldest one does it the best, usually, and the little ones have to suffer a bit. For a long time, you know, I thought ‘great, I don’t have any brothers and sisters.’“
“Right.” Sidney took that in.
“Your parents never signal you. Like, that’s almost illegal. So, your first experience is meant to be an accident, you know. But not a happy accident. And yet the trauma is incidental. And the experience itself, minus the trauma, I’m told, is really, really good.”
Despite the coarse language, once he got started, Gyubok probably would have been good to listen to on any subject. The rise and fall in his voice were melodic. Apparently, all vampire bats sounded like hypnotists.
“You’ve probably never seen a vampire bat kid running around,” Gyubok said. “They don’t do good stuff to… anyone with blood. But the signaling itself is good.” It wasn’t intoned like a question but it still sounded like one.
“Well, it feels good.”
“Nobody says it feels bad.”
Sidney felt as if he had just been ridiculed. He thought that maybe answering the original statement too directly would still, somehow, manage to offend Gyubok. He even worried that he might have already offended Gyubok even though all he had done, for the most part, was answer direct questions, and he felt like he was being led. “I’m not a vampire bat, so I can’t tell for sure. But I’m pretty sure that part of the trauma comes from having it done against your will. And I have to imagine that as long as you do it with someone you trust, that wouldn’t happen. So, if you’re here and you’re considering the options and thinking about it and maybe actually want to do it…”
“Well, ‘against your will’ is an interesting phrase in our culture.” Gyubok shrugged, but it didn’t look as easy or relaxed as a shrug is supposed to. “Being signaled is normal for us, or at least normalized.”
“Yes,” Gyubok said.
After a long period of not-understanding, Sidney felt understood.
Right about then, the doorbell rang.
“You’re comfortable being alone with him, so either he’s not that bad or you’re hypnotized,” Gyubok said. “Can you go get that?”
Feeling sort of disembodied, Sidney rose to open it. And at the end of the hall, he stopped and looked at the door without turning the handle.
“You don’t have anything to be afraid of,” said a familiar voice, as close as if there was nothing in the way. It seemed like Nyeogmi could hear that he was on the other side. “You’re going to let me in, right?”
He answered yes by twisting the handle.
This was the right bat. He’d almost mistaken Gyubok for him, just for a split second, on coming in, but once he had an example of the real Nyeogmi, identifiably colored and identifiably proportioned, there was no mistaking anyone else for him. He had, on either wing, a hefty bag of groceries.
“Until I heard your footfalls, I was expecting the little one.” Nyeogmi curtsied, wings remaining drawn.
“Who are those even for?”
“I eat, on occasion.” Nyeogmi looked over Sidney’s shoulder, back on the couch. “There’s a bat in there who I really like, but this is actually, I think, for a guest who didn’t know that he was invited.”
Sidney turned. Gyubok was looking back at Nyeogmi but he was avoiding the face.
“In a while I’m going to make rice pudding for the one whose shoulder I’m about to lay my thumb upon.”
The gesture wasn’t necessary. Sidney felt like he already knew that it was him, but on the other hand, a soft wing was now resting against his back and that by itself brought a subdued and particularly gentle happiness.
That’s better, Sidney thought. “I’m going to forgive you for tricking me if there’s good rice pudding. As picky as I tend to be.”
Gyubok didn’t look excited to wait. He looked a little put-out, in fact. “I can probably wait for him to finish cooking.”
For the first time, Nyeogmi looked right at Gyubok, with eye contact. “I’m making it with his help.”
The little bat on the couch closed his eyes, in a precautionary way. “Did he agree to that?” His face looked like it was asleep, and his voice was quiet with a sense of injury.
Too nonchalant for the circumstances, Nyeogmi replied. “We’ve had an agreement for some time, and I’m very gentle with him, so he’ll be fine.”
Sidney already sort of knew what he was going to be made to do. It seemed like Gyubok did too, but it didn’t seem like Gyubok knew that he knew, and maybe for that reason he thought it would be better to ask.
Nyeogmi read him and answered before he asked. “It isn’t the first time I’ve made you cook, otter.”
“You’re aware you don’t need to signal me for that, right?”
“Signal? A funny word.” Nyeogmi sounded chipper. Gentle, but not in a way that implied he knew Gyubok was frightened. Maybe he couldn’t tell. Maybe otters were easier to read than bats. It’s also possible he didn’t care all that much. “Yes, but I suppose you’d like it.”
Yes he did. “Hmm. But I think Gyubok would feel calmer if I remained conscious.”
Nyeogmi licked his lips. “I assume that my new friend — who I’m also going to be very gentle with — explained that this is normal for us.”
“That might be! But I can stay awake if you let me.” Sidney actually had very little power when he put it to himself that way. “Would you like that, Gyubok?”
Gyubok seemed a little surprised to be asked anything so directly. Although a moment ago Nyeogmi seemed casually indifferent to his opinion, not having to talk must have felt a bit easier and safer still than being directly challenged to form a preference. “Whatever you want to do, really, I think, but uh…”
It didn’t feel like enough of a real answer for Sidney to look away.
So Gyubok kept looking without speaking, eyes-closed, until finally he had to. The circumstances didn’t seem like they’d allow anything else.
He didn’t look like a happy bat when he finally broke.
His eyes popped open. “How can you say yes to something like that?”
He exhaled. His face looked a little red again.
Sidney thought about replying. Nyeogmi putting a wing on his back had done a lot to soothe him, but he didn’t imagine that there was anything he could do to soothe Gyubok. Maybe the little bat didn’t want to be soothed.
It seemed most likely he’d go away at this point, too frightened by the little things he’d witnessed to dare attempt anything larger.
His torch would go away unlit, but that didn’t seem like Sidney’s problem. For some reason, as Nyeogmi scratched his shoulder, his thoughts turned inwards. He felt like he cared a lot less.
“It’s not the first time he’s done this, anyway,” he said. “Besides, I trust him. I was nervous the first time and now I’m not. It’s normal.”
Normal for vampire bats and normal for otters who had experienced it an abnormal number of times.
With his eyelids tightly shut again and a recitative, blunted voice — the polite and emotionally drained version of his interrogative voice from earlier — Gyubok began to speak.
“I’m pretty surprised,” he said. “It didn’t seem like anyone in this place was nervous before. Like, everyone inside and apparently everyone outside was telling me ‘this is normal’ and ‘it’s normal if it happens to you.’ So, it didn’t seem like anyone would ever say the opposite, and maybe now that someone has, I’m grasping at straws. It probably does sound like I’m frightened and all because like, I mean, I am. It’s hard to trust someone with this kind of thing? It’s hard for me, at least.”
Hearing Gyubok speak about anything at length was pleasant, and Sidney was starting to feel lulled. It all seemed insincere, but it was a comfortable thing to believe. It was practically the same as what Sidney was expecting, anyway.
“I’m not really used to feeling nice,” Gyubok continued. It sounded like a lie. “That’s a bit of a direct way of putting it, but I’m not. Really, I’m not! I expect bad things to happen to me. Really often, in fact! Practically every day. And it’s worse when I feel like I’m alone. So, when I’m with two people who do this all the time, I don’t always feel like I’m understood.”
Sidney hadn’t realized that he was slowly, easily nodding, but now he noticed it.
“You’re like me plus a year or something, right? Because you grew all the way up and nobody ever signaled you. Uh, I don’t wanna be presumptuous —“
Nyeogmi cut in. “I’ve been more presumptuous than you have, probably. It’s normal for me too, but like — it is weird if you think about it, right?”
And Nyeogmi looked a little insincere too, but it was the kind of insincerity you wouldn’t pick up on if you were trying to be insincere also. Sidney kind of felt like he was right between two liars and yet they’d been more effective at reassuring each other than he imagined he could have been by telling the truth.
He really liked the feeling he got when Nyeogmi touched his back.
“It is weird!” Nyeogmi repeated. “It’s weird like money is weird when you think about it. I do this a lot, but since it’s your first time, I mean…”
Gyubok cut back in. “Can you do him first?”
They were both looking right at Sidney.
Sidney felt small. “… oh.”
Well, he thought — if it would reassure the little bat, he might. And it was no different from anything he’d ever been made to do before.
He gained his composure. “Okay. I gotta admit I wasn’t expecting that. But if it makes you feel better, sure.”
Gyubok agreed. “And if I see it and I don’t like it, I’ll say no…”
Which was fine for Sidney. “I was going to offer to hold your hand during the process, before. This looks like a more active kind of support. Heh.”
“Then you’ll look at me.” Nyeogmi already seemed to be in negotiation mode and even though the point of negotiating was probably to make Sidney feel safe, Sidney felt like he’d stepped into something he couldn’t get out of. “You’ll tell me if at any point you want me to stop, right?”
It kind of felt like it was meant for Sidney, enough that he thought he should respond, but Gyubok replied. “Yeah. I mean, obviously.”
Somehow, he was on the couch now. He’d been up by the door before. And they were both looking at him. He felt like he was on a stage or something. If nothing else, he was now the most interesting object in the room.
So, he tried to reply in an interesting way. “You know, I always tell you when you go too far… although you’ve never actually given me any reason to do that.”
He wasn’t quite sure that the bats understood that he was saying yes until he noticed that one was looking at him much more intently than the other. Nyeogmi.
There. A difference.
His signal was on.
“I guess… that’s it,” he muttered.
“Go to sleep.”
There was a strong feeling that everything was fine. He could make it stronger by staring longer.
Then his course of action really was decided. How fortunate.
Vampires were good creatures. If he watched, he thought, the bat would smile at him, and then he would feel safe, obedient, and warm. Better than a warm bath.
Now that the bat had caused him to sleep, the bat could invite him to dream. He could look into the fanged mouth and find happiness as the bat made him imagine creeping pleasurable feelings moving inside his body.
“Tell Gyubok how that feels,” Nyeogmi said.
He wasn’t feeling anything right then, though. It felt like he was being kept above-surface.
Nyeogmi had already turned to Gyubok. “He’s still cognizant.” No eyes to watch, so the feelings, for Sidney, continued as they were. “This is generally what we do with each other when we’re making acquaintance.”
Should he speak? Nyeogmi had requested it, without compelling an answer. If it would be helpful, he thought, he might as well do it, but he would have liked to be compelled. “A bit difficult to think, but not too much. Like you’re letting me breathe.”
Gyubok put his nose against Sidney’s cheek. Normally he wouldn’t be aware of things like that, but he could see it and couldn’t feel it and that struck him as weird.
This is something else that for bats was probably typical.
As his chest receded after a breath, the bat put his nose down there too and kept a consistent distance of about an inch. Enough that he didn’t feel it there, either.
His fur was odorless as far as he knew. The bat seemed more intoxicated by his presence.
Gyubok broke the silence. “Is it normal for this to make me hungry?”
Nyeogmi seemed focused on keeping Sidney from falling asleep, which was something that seemed like it took concentration. His response was hesitating. “This is sort of what food looks like for us. He hasn’t given you permission to bite him, though.”
The other bat sniffed his chest again. “It’s a weird feeling.”
“I don’t think he’s invited you to do that, either.”
But it was getting harder to hear Nyeogmi. Gyubok’s torch, the otter thought, appeared to be lit. And in addition to signaling him, the bat was touching his cheek.
Touching it softly, ambiguously. And he was soft too.
He was getting a feeling Nyeogmi hadn’t given him. The familiar sense of being charmed and overwhelmed. This bat could give him much more of what he had been looking for if he only looked back and waited, and looking back seemed so easy.
It would be pleasant to remain here for a time, however long this experience needed. There was meat on the bone here and he wanted every particle.
Meat. Blood? He could give it blood, if it wanted that. Nyeogmi hadn’t tried to take any. This bat looked hungrier. It had found his smell so appealing before. If he laid there, like a corpse, he’d be more like food. That thought he liked.
And then Nyeogmi put a hand on Gyubok’s shoulder. “There’s blood in my freezer, you know.”
It yanked his new friend away.
With no bat to be hypnotized by, he felt himself returning to normal.
The first stage of normal was a haze and a sense that the world had been recast in unfamiliar colors.
Gyubok was in the middle of a coughing fit. Each time he shook, his eyes flashed, bright and jagged like the crystals on the inside of a geode. His whole head shuddered once, with no sound, and then his lips puckered up.
He probably felt about as disoriented as Sidney, Sidney thought.
A faint moan. “Uh… otter?”
Sidney felt he should offer this bat retroactive permission or else condemn him. He wouldn’t know which until they spoke. “I could hear you talking about biting someone, sneaky bats.”
Gyubok appeared to realize he’d done something unusual. He smiled, then looked guilty, then very serious. “Yeah… uh, I don’t know… Seeing you like that kind of affected me. I kinda wanna know what that feels like, but also…”
Nyeogmi interrupted, but Sidney couldn’t hear it. He really, really wanted to know how that sentence had been about to continue, and now he couldn’t, and he felt like a toy had just been pulled from his hands. His mood was playful and then on the other hand it was deeply affectionate and —
“Hey, don’t charm him.”
He didn’t hear it or see it, but he knew that that was said. Nyeogmi’s actual words had come late. Much later than their sound.
Gyubok looked confused. “I don’t know how to signal people.”
But Sidney was feeling signaled. It didn’t need much consideration. For everyone else’s sake, he thought he just should say it. “I think you’ve just learned.”
“Lucky bat,” Nyeogmi said.
Even though Sidney thought it should have been revelatory, Gyubok’s mood was unchanged by that information. “I do really want to bite him…”
Holding Gyubok’s shoulder conspiratorially, Nyeogmi crouched forward, to get down to eye level. “Well, ask him that.”
And Gyubok looked back, away from his mentor. “Otter…?”
Feeling like he had been called out of a dream, he said yes.
The little bat’s brow hardened. It wasn’t doing anything to keep him in that state, but he stayed down. “How does he usually ask you for this?”
It didn’t feel good to talk and he had no answer. Eventually, Nyeogmi spoke. “I rarely ask. Not with him.”
Sidney thought he might actually recover if he said too much. Better not to. He laughed dryly — it sounded like a pant.
“I’m not a role model,” Nyeogmi said, “but you seemed concerned, at least at first, with doing things properly.”
“Sounds more like you’re protecting your food source.”
Ha ha, Sidney thought. Being quarreled over was gratifying, but it made him wonder. Was that all they saw him as when he was hypnotized?
Maybe it was all they saw him as when he was conscious.
“I’m not a food source,” he groaned.
Nyeogmi didn’t bother covering up his apparent hypocrisy, though. “If you really do wanna ask him, ask directly.” The rule seemed pragmatic.
That all considered, there were things he would have done if he really was more than food. He didn’t feel himself lifting out of his seat, standing, exiting the room, or even reaching for his phone to call the police.
Food as Sidney knew it was something that lay there, inert, on the table. The only difference between that and Sidney now seemed to be that he was on the couch.
That line of thought made him a bit uncomfortable.
He made the thought go but he felt like it would come back again, as it kept seeming to do. His self-attitude had bobbed around like a bubble in one of those rulers they used to check if a surface was level. That didn’t surprise him, because someone else from the outside had been tampering with him, making him feel things he wasn’t supposed to.
On the other hand, Gyubok’s appetite seemed like the fluid in a thermometer. It seemed to have risen steadily over the evening the hotter things got.
And Gyubok looked at him like he really was a food source. “Let me bite you.” It intruded on his thoughts.
Eyes. Too charming. He felt a little overwhelmed.
A normal look. “I mean, if you’d like that.”
Better. Sidney felt good. “Okay. Let’s see.”
The little one turned back to Nyeogmi. “He said yes, right?”
“He said ‘okay, let’s see.’“
That acknowledgment from Nyeogmi made him feel like he was in charge, at least until someone took that away from him. Again, he felt the impetus to be interesting, as if his honest, simple feelings wouldn’t suffice.
“First of all,” he began. His eyes wouldn’t quite focus ahead without something bright to draw them. “There’s a reason why I stick with Nyeogmi even though he rarely asks permission to bite. You know why?”
For some reason he almost felt as if he needed to be informed on the topic of what the bats should be allowed to do with him. Bare intuitions wouldn’t work.
“I — no. Why?”
Gyubok seemed like he’d barely been paying attention until it had started to sound like Sidney was asking a question.
“He makes it feel nice.”
Not a good reason. He felt like to get a good reason he would have to dive deep into a place he couldn’t access. He didn’t like that reason.
Once he said that, it felt like a soft, heavy blanket had covered up all the other thoughts.
“But it’s not really as simple as that, right?” Gyubok said. “Because I think I could very easily make you like it, and do whatever I wanted, if that was all it took.”
“I also tend to think he wouldn’t do it if I were terrified or really against the idea of doing it.” That train of thought dragged out an opposing thought that he wasn’t sure he had been able to see when it started. “I’m not so sure about that, though.”
“I’m not scary either,” the little bat insisted.
Continuing as if uninterrupted: “And as I think he said before, he’s not the greatest role model.” He really wasn’t, the otter thought, and if he hadn’t been in such a haze so many times in the past, he might have been able to come to awareness of that.
But he didn’t even have awareness of that now. It was more that he had the awareness of an awareness he should have had. It was like he’d taken a sailing ship to the charted position of a new continent and saw empty waters instead.
“He hasn’t done any harm,” Sidney said. “And he makes me enjoy it. And why do you do that anyway, Nyeogmi?”
Nyeogmi replied. “Because you’re cute, otter! And I want you to be happy.” There was an intentionally creaky character in his voice that made it sound playful but seemed to mask indecision. “Like, if I didn’t care about you, I probably wouldn’t bother…”
He cleared his throat as if to say “yes, here’s the real thing.” So here it was. “I don’t like it when you struggle, either.”
Those seemed a little contradictory. There was some consistency there, but not on the important parts.
“Okay,” said Sidney, trying to direct his focus rather than letting it land on what, intuitively, seemed most relevant. “Let’s forget the last bit and focus on the big picture. Gyubok: if you make others like it, you’ll probably like it more, too. So, it’s a situation where you both win, right?”
A glazed look on Gyubok’s face.
“By that I mean: if you’re going to bite me, you need to make me enjoy it.” Better to be funny. “Otherwise, you’ll get no rice pudding.”
“I’m happy to.” The combination of a savage smile and glazed eyes made a hungry look. Then without the shape of anything changing, only the appearance of the eyes, the look became sweet. It felt good. “May I charm you?”
It took a while to parse what that look was doing to him. Enough time passed that his parse didn’t matter, but the process inside his mind finished itself on its own.
“Aren’t you doing it already?”
“You don’t realize that.” Gyubok, lizard-like.
He was amused, seduced, and a little defeated, so he took those feelings and shoved them down inside. He could be happy.
Now it had become hard for Sidney to tell that he was being charmed. He felt natural. When everything that made it feel less natural was so hard to unearth, with no grips, handles, or connections to other things to allow him to reach it by, then it was totally automatic to comply and stare back at the face of his predator, grinning. For now he could be prey.
He mumbled the name of his friend, Nyeogmi. To that he added a direct question, even though the words were something he could barely pronounce. “Did you bring many groceries?”
“I brought many,” said his friend.
“Like… sugar and stuff?” He felt like he was supposed to be getting rescued. He didn’t know what he was being rescued from. He was fine and everything was safe.
“Lots of sugar.”
Something about rice. If he kept talking, the bat wouldn’t bite him. He couldn’t bite an otter who was talking. And maybe he’d feel better with something sweet.
“There’s rice too.”
There might have been other ingredients to ask about, but they weren’t in his head anymore. He was flailing without the physical or psychological tools to flail, which meant he froze and stayed there.
There was more that Nyeogmi said, but it was hard to think about anything other than Gyubok.
There. The more important bat was speaking. He could watch. From a distance, also up close.
“What would you like?”
He liked Gyubok a lot. “You’re really beautiful…” But when he said that, he meant the parts he could see. The face, mostly. Maybe only the color in the face. “You’re…”
Something else, something new. He felt so affectionate and so charmed. He would always obey him. He wanted to praise him. You’re so powerful.
It didn’t feel like he meant it. He meant it somewhere internally but something on the outside didn’t mean it. He could praise him better. He had to capture his real feelings, which meant he had to say it again.
Maybe he was hollow like a nut. Every part agreed except the very outside and the very inside. If that were true, he could ignore the rest.
“I don’t think I can resist you…”
Gyubok looked satisfied with himself. “Sleepy otter.”
That rice pudding talk must have made Sidney hungry because he was insatiable. His thoughts, to the extent that they remained on one topic, were about how good it would be to be completely full, how necessary that was, what a tragedy it would be if anyone were to go unfed.
And there was too much blood in his body. Far too much. If he let some of it out, he’d feel limber, relaxed, and slim. He’d be able to rest exactly as he wanted to for as long as he liked. It would be so relaxing.
He imagined his lips closing around a straw, filling himself with something sweet. And he thought about hummingbirds, and honeybees, and aardvarks, and every other creature that sipped. He thought about how it was good to consume and also, sometimes, to be consumed. He felt like he was closed and should be open. He felt like he should say something. He felt like anything he said would be the right thing.
He moaned pathetically and slurred his speech. “Bite me.”
Then a buzzing feeling filled his head and he became paralyzed.
Gyubok smiled. He turned to a bat Sidney couldn’t see. “Cute, isn’t he?”
The other bat offered agreement, but Sidney couldn’t see him or hear it or think about that. He had to keep begging and watching Gyubok’s eyes or else maybe there would be no bite. The buzz in his head was deafening.
“Please,” he said. He felt legalistic. Had to be interesting, even in being dry. Intuitions were too weak, too unconvincing, so he needed to repeat whatever had been put inside of him, the most convincing thing at all. Only the bat knew what was supposed to be done with him and now that was coming to surface. With a little more time, he’d see — “… bite me already. I’ve waited for so long… please… bite me.”
All of this seemed new to Gyubok. The bat sniffed his body up and down, with special sensitivity to the wrists, inner thighs, and ankles. Once the bat reached his throat, he knew that that was the place the bat had always intended to breach. It was no different from examining a chocolate rabbit while intending to bite off the head.
“What’s your name?” the bat asked. “I know you’ve got one.”
“Sidney.” It nibbled its lip. “Do you like having a master?”
Master? He didn’t remember that. Master didn’t seem like something he would have. Someone should have asked him, must have asked him at some point. He should have been thinking about it, but he was thinking about something else. That must have been the thought. That was it. Yes. That was it.
Out loud, he heard himself speaking. He heard himself saying it was good to have one. It was easier not to be afraid when he let Gyubok do whatever it wanted with him.
Couldn’t remember. He’d never have a master. If he wanted one, someone should have asked him, but now he had one and that was plain and the part of him that objected could be hidden, so he couldn’t see it, and he wouldn’t need to see it, and he wouldn’t need to think about it, either, and he could go back and stare, stare, for a long time, fixated, exactly as he would have liked to be, transfixed, and that would be better, he thought. A challenge to the notion of not having a master.
He didn’t want a master.
“Is the name of your master Gyubok?”
“My master is Gyubok.”
The parts that he could see were good. He didn’t care about the parts that he couldn’t see or the things that he couldn’t think about.
The bat buried his head in Sidney’s neck and took a deep whiff. No ceremony. An immediate bite. It hurt at first but then it became pleasurable.
After barely a few sips, the bat adjusted its grip, then started again. More pain, then another quick, joyful moment.
A third time, and a fourth time.
It was never so good as to be overwhelming and never so bad as to bring him to consciousness, and after a few more attempts, it was over.
Now he was on his back. On the floor, a tiny bat towering above him. Not his master anymore.
Gyubok smiled at him. Despite the degrading pose, the little bat was looking at him like an equal.
“Drinking out of a vein is totally different. I’m not used to it!”
He was back to being cute and mostly innocuous.
Some of the things Sidney had suppressed were coming back. He felt a little bit more like himself and a little bit more resistant to being treated the same way, but just looking at such a cute bat was potent against his resistances.
“Huh. Still a bit hazy.”
The bat hopped once. “I’m good at that!” He saw Gyubok’s head move and not his feet. He had to crane his head forward to see the bat at all from this splayed-out position on the floor. “I’m really good at that! You liked that!”
“You are!” he admitted. Outwardly cheery. Inwardly he had some doubts. “Congratulations. Did you like knowing that I liked it?”
He hadn’t liked it. Mostly he had liked it. Gyubok probably couldn’t tell.
“I did,” said the bat. “But Nyeogmi was right about something.”
And then Gyubok cast him an evil look that he was powerless not to find adorable. And some of those things the bat had hidden before were staying hidden again. He couldn’t see them because they were already gone.
Gyubok licked his lips. “It’s very satisfying when you don’t struggle. I underestimated how much my instincts would respond to that.”
“I see.” Blank.
“Without guidance, I might have enthralled you…”
“Maybe you could.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
He felt like he was in icy waters again. Swimming, this time. There was supposed to be land, and a while ago, land might even have been here, but not now.
He could be legalistic again. He could say something interesting, pose a principled objection.
“I don’t think there’s enough blood in my body for two bats,” he said. “Not frequently, at least.”
That left him in a state of exhaustion. His head fell to the floor again and his eyes came closed so tight that he couldn’t make the muscles work.
From the blackness, Sidney heard the bat still talking. The bat was on his torso, up beside his head, speaking at a conversational volume, and although it seemed very intimate for Sidney, it seemed very casual for Gyubok.
“Very satisfying when you don’t struggle,” it repeated. “And you’re absolutely right. You’re not enough for two of us.”
“Yes, I’m right…”
“I’m going to drain my roommate instead.”
The blackness was silent for a moment. His brain just wouldn’t process. Right now, it seemed like there were two people in the world and one of them was supposed to be preying on the other one.
But he wasn’t gone, just distant.
Returning from the distance, he muttered something. “… wait.”
So, they waited. As long as he liked, they could wait.
Gyubok hadn’t spoken yet.
Sidney could say more. “… does he know?”
His eyes came open again and he saw, looking into his soul, the most casual, thirsty-looking entity.
“He seems weak-minded,” Gyubok answered.
Nothing came after the but.
“You said it yourself,” Gyubok pointed out. “If it feels good… and given to understand that I’m a very thirsty bat, I’m going to need a lot of practice if I’m going to drink from the vein on a regular basis.
“Okay. Just… just…”
Okay. It was okay.
“I might even have to drink from you again,” Gyubok said. He was spinning. This was fun. Yes. He had a master again, now.
So excited to announce his plan, now, it seemed like Gyubok could barely contain himself, frothing at the mouth, beginning to resume his speech. “I’m going to hold you to the ground. I’m going to tip your head back and when you’re all asleep, yes, I’m going to bite. I’m going to open your neck again and this time I won’t release you. I’m so thirsty I won’t be able to release you and that means I can drink as much as I want. I’m —”
Hesitation. Sidney braced himself for the pain. It didn’t come. A longer and a longer instant passed and still no pain, no nibble. Not even the sense that seconds were passing.
Now he spoke.
Gyubok yawned. He looked sedate. He collapsed forward and, at once, went from light as a feather to too heavy to bear.
Sidney rolled onto his side and the bat, now asleep, collapsed onto the ground.
He wasn’t going to be bitten again quite yet.
There was Nyeogmi. He shrugged. “I didn’t expect him to need to be supervised.”
Now he really was himself. Not half himself or three quarters. He was just Sidney, wide awake.
So, he knew that he meant it when he said: “Thank you, Nyeogmi.”
The bat offered him the end of its wing. He took it and it pulled him upright.
There wasn’t enough blood inside of him to stand, so instead he tumbled down onto the couch, which at this point seemed more inviting than his bed had ever seemed to him. He didn’t want to sleep, but he wouldn’t mind being comforted if he could be comforted with words, true ones, and not with lies or mind control.
Nyeogmi reclined beside him and put his wing under his chin. “They usually go through this when they’re fourteen.”
“What a terrible puberty you must have.” It felt funny and not scary to mention the obvious, now that he’d seen the worst of what he could have imagined.
“I, for one, gained a lot of weight.”
Being scratched under the chin made a lot of things better, but it couldn’t do anything for unanswered questions. Sidney could get better at rejecting “good feelings” as a solution for that kind of thing.
He still had a few. “Is he going to stay here, or what?”
“I think I’m going to have to renegotiate after he’s had a nap.” Nyeogmi sounded businesslike. Nobody in this house acted like a parent, he thought. They were all doing the best they could as peers. Sometimes that meant being a little stern. “While there’s no food in the house.”
“Hmph. Will you stop calling me that?”
“You don’t like it when I call you food, do you?”
Was it really that uncommon to object? Nyeogmi was looking at him very strangely now.
“I mean,” Sidney said, “I guess it’s only natural that you guys see me like that. But understand that when I’m aware, it can be a bit terrifying.”
“Do you want to make rice pudding?” Nyeogmi asked.
“Not this second.”
Nyeogmi made a face like he was chewing bubble gum. “You’re a very generous otter.” To the extent that being generous was his choice, he thought. “Most of us are a little morally simple. Not all of us learn at all. I did, though, and he’s going to have to.”
He could almost relate. “I guess something similar happens in everyone’s puberty. The rest of us aren’t so powerful, fortunately.”
“Did you start hypnotizing people?”
“No, but you know what I mean,” he said. “You start feeling weird impulses and suddenly there’s a lot of new stuff you need to figure out.”
“But there’s a difference in danger level.”
Nyeogmi swallowed his imaginary gum and grinned soapily. It didn’t seem like anything specific had been hard to parse, but maybe, Sidney thought, there was something Nyeogmi had hidden away too. There were faces people made when caught in a lie and, at least to Sidney, it seemed almost as if he’d caught himself.
The bat came into his next phrase as if resuming a second conversation that had been happening somewhere else, outside Sidney’s notice, and yet it felt like the second person in that conversation had been Sidney all along. “I think you like knowing that creatures like us exist, though. And I think you enjoy our being present.”
“I do. I like it a lot.” He could find the lie and trap himself. “And at the same time, I’m scared.”
“Would you like me to put that feeling to sleep?”
“You know I wouldn’t,” he said, knowing it wasn’t true. How many times had he said yes to that without thinking about it? Had he been wrong about what he wanted, or had he wanted the wrong thing? “It keeps me cautious.”
“You’ve never struck me as cautious in the past,” Nyeogmi admitted.
And then there would be the counteroffer. The feel that something was about to be sold, not just to Sidney, but to them both. Like Nyeogmi believed that he could buy this problem away for his own sake.
He braced for impact.
Nyeogmi came into it casually. “Would you like, at least, to take a rest?” And then the lie that only Nyeogmi could believe. “Today I won’t ask you to do anything you don’t want to.”
Maybe the two bats were very similar. Maybe they were almost the same, even.
Maybe they were about as different as a twelve-year-old and a fourteen-year-old.
He continued, with guile. “It’s not likely that I could say anything that would fix it, but, if those feelings were a bit more distant, it’s possible you could process them impartially.”
And then Nyeogmi said something that sounded like it came from Sidney’s own thoughts.
“If I showed you something beautiful, you could dream…”
It was hard not to buy. Anything Sidney replied with could be a way of buying and he didn’t know what was being sold. He didn’t know what would show up on his doorstep or in his home or in his neck.
He could have faith, but this wasn’t faith. This was the gallowsy feeling of insecurity that substituted for faith. Like when your parents pinched your cheeks to keep you smiling.
He could have faith, but he could never be invited to, and he could never invite it into his home.
“I don’t keep that fear too close,” he said. “Thanks to you, mostly.”
There was a trap that he couldn’t see.
“I suppose that if there was something to be done with you, I could now offer it,” Nyeogmi said. “But maybe there’s nothing you’d like to be done with you now.”
“I was going to offer you something,” Sidney replied. “I’m going to sleep now. You don’t have to help me. It doesn’t matter to me what happens to me while I’m there.”
“I’m not that hungry.”
“I’m saying that if something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t care.”
Sidney continued. “You can move me wherever you like. You can lay on top of me if you want. I won’t care. I don’t need to know anything. I don’t have any thoughts.”
“I don’t think I’m going to bite you.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything that can be communicated in words. Don’t look in my eyes this time, though. I promise you, I’ll understand it better without an explanation.”
The tension in Nyeogmi’s face told Sidney that he had been holding out against something for a while. Something inside had been broken through, and it could have been broken through in a positive way or it could have been broken through in a way that made it irreparable, and there wasn’t a way of knowing. There wasn’t any sedateness, just recognition of a type that everyone periodically hungered for.
“If I bite you, I’ll do it quickly. I won’t let you say anything before I do so.”
“I don’t want to speak.”
“It’s that feeling of seeing something you recognize and not wanting to do anything about it.”
“I’m starved,” Sidney said.
He wasn’t even hypnotized. He laid there for a while, and sometimes there was pain. Other times there was no pain, and other times he really did sleep.
The bat on the floor was a problem for later.