Projection by Magda Sullivan

When they got back to the hotel and the drugs were safely packed away in the bottom of Susan’s suitcase, they screwed so hard he came close to blacking out. His dreams were laced with her, and when he came to he was still in her arms, her crooning voice soft in his ear while she sang him awake. They showered together, dressed, and she took him to dinner in a family restaurant in the Italian section of town, an area still decent despite the rest of the city. The entire time, that coquettish smile was on her ruby lips, and her lidded gaze only strayed from him when the waiter made his rare appearance. On the way out, he slipped his arm tight around her waist.

“What are you smiling about?”

“Can’t a girl be in a good mood?”

“Girls can. But you…anybody with half a brain in his head is worried when you’re in one.”

She chuckled as they dodged people taking advantage of the break in the winter onslaught to stock up on liquor for the night’s festivities. “I’m just pleased. It’s wonderful to be proven right about someone—you impressed me, you know.”

As he brushed his nose over the auburn mane so near he couldn’t resist, she turned off the car alarm. “I should have had you put together a portfolio of your work. Next time we’re in town, maybe.”

“Why is that?”

“Because our host tonight is a proprietor. She has a fair sense of art, and I’d like her to have you in mind so that when you’re ready to have your pieces in a show, she’ll know your name.”

Richard blinked, grinning against the cold. “You don’t say?”

“Not all my friends are involved in drugs.” She smirked as she shut the driver’s side door behind her. “Just some of them. The rest are more…cultured.”

Heart thrumming in his throat at Susan’s genuine interest in his creative future, Richard flipped down the sun visor to examine his reflection. Almost the entire way to the gallery he straightened the collar of his shirt and smoothed back his hair; at least, until Susan slapped his hand.

“You look fine. If you, didn’t I’d tell you. Keep staring in that mirror and you’ll see the devil.”

He chuckled, caught, and pushed the visor back up. “He’s damn handsome, I have to say.”

Susan squeezed the assaulted fingertips at a stoplight, then leaned to kiss the corner of his mouth. He caught her full on the lips and drew a low sigh from her, one of those husky ones that slid up through the hollow of her elegant throat and leaked against his tongue. Before he could escalate the kiss, she leaned away.

“Don’t get me excited, Richard, I want to enjoy the party for at least a little while.”

With a distraught sigh of the purest melodrama, he leaned his forehead against the icy window. “That’s not fair.”

“Oh?”

“I’m always excited when I’m around you. It’s only fair that you should have to suffer the same.”

Another low chuckle peeled from her lips She patted his thigh before she busied herself with the process of parking the car in Cleveland’s slimy snow. “That just means that I’m doing all the right things.” With a glance into her rear-view mirror and a few fingertips swept across her forehead to tuck back a stray hair, she climbed out. “Just be a good boy, and maybe we’ll see about leaving a bit early so it can be just you and I at midnight.”

That was enough to get him springing from the car, and his enthusiasm stirred a bit of fond laughter from her that brought only the purest satisfaction. It wasn’t hard to make her laugh, but it was challenging to get her to mean it—and she often meant it with him.

Her arm wove through his and she lead the way back down the street, watching the windows of tiny boutiques left dark for the holiday until they came to one glowing with activity, the light along with the people spilling out upon the street like vomit from the mouth of a drunk. Richard glanced up to the sign upon the awning and looked in through the glass; it was a small gallery, one that seemed more like it belonged in Columbus than some dying place like this, the floors dark wood and walls pure white, full of canvases framed and bare. People packed into it like cigarettes bursting from their box, but she steered him through without pause, using him as a shield to clear space in the bustle.

“I see Marie has finally learned how to throw a party.” Susan glanced past Richard’s shoulder to the table against the far wall, its surface lined with plastic cups full of wine and platters of already picked-over hors d’oeuvres

Once Richard helped her from her jacket, all the while leering down at the meager swell of breasts hidden by the neckline of her black dress, she headed straight for the wine. The only reason he could tear his gaze from that svelte figure was to glance over the pieces adorning the walls. Lowbrow work, and abstract; good, not great, but it was still a pleasure to be in a house of art.

Someday, he would be in a place like this. He was already better than a couple of the featured artists who did nothing more than mimic Pollock or produce crude, illustrative political pieces. Maybe it wouldn’t be much longer than a few years before he could offer notable competition. A few years, and people would buy his prints; know his name. They’d fawn over his work, take pieces home with them, and he’d work on commissions, churning out new paintings every week, each piece better than the last. In ten years he’d have a studio someplace like New York, or Boston, or Chicago. Twenty, and he’d be a household name in the world of upcoming artists. He’d have solo shows that attracted more people in one day than would ever see the artwork circulating through this place, popular though it may have been.

It was a future he’d never conceptualized in a complete way before—though, he’d never conceptualized any future before. There was always just the vague assumption that everyone was right: that, yes, someday he’d be in jail for something stupid. There was always the feeling in the back of his mind which he regarded as nothing more than a reasonable projection of the future, based on what he knew of himself and human psychology at large; the knowledge that crept over him when he was drunk, or furious, or bored. Especially when he was bored, rotting from the inside out, because the only real cures for that were the things that put cleverer men in prison cells.

But that was before. Now, he had her, and he watched nurse the wine in such a way that she managed to make the tiny plastic cup seem distinguished as her pale hand. She didn’t treat him like a lost cause whose only hope was damage control, the way Linus did even when he was at his kindest. She didn’t worry about him, didn’t tiptoe around him or look at him with the dumb fear and shame of an abused dog, the way his mother did.

No. Susan treated him the way nobody had since before he could remember. Not a problem to be solved, but a blade to be honed. When he looked at her, his heart swelled with respect; and, more than that, the desire to prove himself worthy of her attentions. It seemed natural now, that craving, not embarrassing or insulting the way it had before.

It was so strange, what she’d done to him.

Their eyes met and Richard glanced away. A grin curved her lips past her teeth, the lines around her eyes deepening like ornaments. “Now who’s smiling about something?”

Face warm to have been caught in the act of admiring her more than he could the pieces around them, he opened his mouth to grope for some excuse; before he could come up with something, a bright gasp cut through the murmur of the crowd around them.

“Susie!”

That exquisite head turned upon a throat made to tempt, her gaze piercing into their surroundings. “Marie! Oh, how are you, don’t you look wonderful.” Susan’s grin changed to a parody of itself, broad and warm: the leading lady’s opening monologue beam.

“I could say the very same.” A woman with olive skin and a distinguished Arabian nose leaned up to wrap her arms around Susan’s neck. She was pretty enough, he supposed, although she hadn’t made it to her forties with the same grace Susan had. “How long has it been?”

“Oh, goodness, ten years, maybe? I just moved back here a few months ago. It’s so good to see you, it sounds like you’ve been doing so well.” Susan pressed a kiss to the smaller woman’s cheek and leaned away. “This space is just marvelous, Marie. We haven’t gotten a chance to look around properly yet, but from what I’ve seen you’ve managed to find some impressive contributors.”

“Thank you, yes, they’re all wonderful artists. You’re going to make me feel bad about myself, you haven’t aged a day. And who’s this?” Marie leaned around her shoulder to look at him, her obsidian eyes bright with nymphish curiosity.

Susan glanced back, waving a hand in his direction. “This is my boy, Richard. He’s an artist, I thought he should get a chance to meet you so I brought him along, I hope you don’t mind.”

“Oh my goodness, of course I don’t mind. I had no idea you had a son, it’s so nice to meet you!”

Richard’s mouth opened to correct her, but before he could find the words he met with the acidic eyes that watched the two like those of a snake observing a pair of mice. For some reason, he didn’t feel the need to clarify the situation anymore—or he lost the ability to. Instead, he smiled back to Marie. “It’s so good to meet you.”

“You have her cheekbones, hopefully you’ll age the way she has, too.” The tiny woman laughed as she stepped away. “Are you a painter, then?”

It was difficult to talk with Susan just out of his focus, that vulpine smile curving her eyes even as she turned to take a pull from her wine. His ears sang with white noise. Why didn’t he correct her? He should have said something instead of just letting it go—but something about it made his heart slam so hard he couldn’t focus on the conversation and his mouth ran on autopilot. “Ah, I am, yes. Mostly acrylic, or watercolor, but I do a little with oil when I’m feeling industrious.”

“Oh, it takes so much patience, I know. Well come on in, enjoy the show, I have to go catch some people who just came in, but I’ll be back to talk to you later, Susan.” She turned to smile up at the figure of divinity who favored her with a nod. Richard didn’t catch any of what might have been said between them, too consumed in the sensation of his face and throat growing red as his shirt.

Once the petite proprietor strode past Richard and vanished into the crowd of people smothering the building, he took to avoiding eye contact with Susan with studious determination. It didn’t help him, though; she pressed to his arm to whisper in his ear, his lungs filling with lily, femininity: her.

“Why didn’t you correct her?”

A shiver tore down his spine. “Why didn’t you?”

She stepped back, her gaze flickering over every inch of him in an instant. His heart flew for that smile on her lips—he wanted to bend to kiss it from her, and almost did, until he realized such a thing wouldn’t do in light of the circumstances. Instead he diverted to kiss her cheek, and she tilted her head toward him with calculated disinterest before turning away to absorb herself in the art.

Every inch of his flesh snarled for her—just a hand in the small of her back, upon her shoulder, wrist, anything, and it settled upon her neck for an instant before she slipped aside to smile. “Now, Richard, is that any way to touch your mother?” She pointed without looking. “Look at this piece over here, isn’t that lovely.”

He did: and it was, he supposed, though he didn’t see it no matter how hard he looked. All there was to see was her, and it made him sick as it did excited, his stomach twisting up against his throbbing heart that pounded irresistible, painful adrenaline into every limb, desire traveling with it. Every hint of her classical profile in his periphery lit his nerves on fire, his body crippled by the majesty of her, of them, of the simple lie that seemed so natural it hardly qualified as a lie at all.

Now and then she would brush against him, touch his face, his hand; each time, his id roared like an animal rattling the bars of a rotting cage, now, now, now, drag her out, fuck her senseless in the alley around the corner, do it, fuck her, make her scream, sink your hands into her, bruise and bite and scratch, and it was so overwhelming that he trembled every step they took, every inhalation he had of the scent that marked her glorious presence.

There was something so different now, all because of one incorrect assumption, but it was funny because it didn’t change anything save for his libido. The charade shook him; it fit too well. Once or twice she stopped to talk to other acquaintances, introducing him as her son, the words coming with such each it was honoring as it was aggravating. To have her so close, but be forced to dance around for the sake of pretend propriety while she ground salt in the wound with little more than a word—it was agony.

After pausing by every piece before finally making it to the other side of the gallery, he felt as though he’d made it across a desert. Susan sniffed over her drink. “Modern art just gets worse and worse every year. Sure there’s a couple of pieces, but so many new artists are so— not themselves, don’t you think?”

Richard batted his eyes, struggling out of his stupor, out of impulses that were eating everything inside him and leaving nothing behind but a great chasm that craved only her. “Yeah, I…yeah.”

She laughed and patted his shoulder, her hand staying there long after it had really gone. “Eloquent tonight, aren’t we.”

“I’m— I—” His teeth clenched. He bent his head near hers, so near that neck, almost close enough to snap off that ear with his teeth. “I think we need to leave.”

“Oh, but Richard, we haven’t even—”

“Mother.” He leaned back, his hand finding her wrist, and when she met the intensity of his gaze and recognized all the things he was doing to her behind it, her eyes flickered around the room.

“Perhaps you’re right.” One slender hand slipped into his elbow; as he whisked her out, she paused only to wave to Marie and wiggle her fingers by her ear in the international sign for ‘call me’, and every part of him howled all the way to the parking lot, the beat of his pulse creeping up in his ears. The whole time Susan kept up with him in silence, her eyes glued to his face until the got to her car tucked away in the back of the parking lot, but before she could slide her key into the lock he pressed himself to her.

“Not in the front. In the back.”

Richard buried his mouth in her neck, hands finding her hips. She moaned, glancing over her shoulder. “Aren’t you a dirty little mommy’s boy.”

The beast inside him snarled and he found himself echoing it, sinking his teeth into her tender flesh: her cry brought him a shock of rapture all its own. Soon—not soon enough, God, never soon enough—the door was open and he shoved her in, his hands everywhere as he climbed in after her and pushed his mouth wherever he could get it. Her lips, her jaw, her neck, her breast, he’d even settle for her clothes as long as it was attached to her, part of her, Susan, sweet and vile Susan for whom he roared and who he adored in ways and intensities and reasons for which he’d never felt for Elaine, Elaine who was the mother in his veins but didn’t deserve to be, Elaine who was a pathetic old woman wrapped up in her depression, always trying to play a guilt that wasn’t there because it was the only weapon in her sad little arsenal. Not like Susan who taught him things he could use and saw that he was cared for and bought him whatever he liked and treated him just the way any mother should without even being one, and while she screamed in the back of the car and writhed beneath him in the periphery of his ecstasy, he realized to his horror that he adored her more than he could have if she was his own flesh, worshiped her so much it disgusted him—but this wasn’t the kind of weak adoration of a boy with a crush that lead to things like holding hands or picnics in the park or families and houses with white-picket fences.

No: this was far more. This was hypnotism, poison, enchantment mistaken for affection.

After, the two of them lie gasping in the back of the sealed car that re-circulated heat like an oven until Susan groped above her head to crack open the door. Frigid air swallowed the car’s interior and they both sighed. Richard turned his face toward it, still blind from the symphony of stars that had burst inside his skull. As her panting stilled, she laughed, her fingers smoothing back the hair plastered by sweat to his forehead.

“I thought for a moment that you were going to murder me.”

Richard chuckled without looking up. “So did I.”

Her tongue clicked, her voice lowered to that teasing coo that wrapped him up like a python. “Now, sweetheart, matricide is a terrible crime.” While he shivered, she chuckled and drew his face toward hers. Her expression stilled to one of odd tenderness, the waters of a lake finding peace after the tossing of a stone. She examined him, her lips parted, then lowered his forehead to her mouth to grace it with a gentle kiss.

“I’m so glad to know we’re on the same page, my wicked little boy.”

____________________

This is an extract from a forthcoming novel…

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