"It is myself I have never met whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind."
I remember the years of unthinking. Elliot slows down—on purpose—to get my hopes up. He's five years older than I am. I charge for Elliot until my knobby rhino knees kiss dirt, while his legs carry him farther in outstretched strides. I remember my hand ever reaching, just about to touch the back of his shirt. Even here, I chase him.
Elliot yells over at me, but I pay him no attention. A plane cuts through a cloudless sky. The wind blows across the yard. Elliot's footsteps silenced. Now, he leans over me. His blonde coconut of a head blocks out the sun. Circular glasses frame the upper portion of his face, magnifying his blue eyes four-times their own size, unstable on his beaky nose, which leans to the left. Elliot lips lie over crooked teeth, puzzle-piecing together. Elliot stares down at me, smacks his mouth, and bends down to plant a kiss on me. I flinch and barrel roll as Elliot hacks up a string of spit, swallows, and says, How about this.
I don't want to play anymore—
I'll give you a head start if we play one more round, Elliot says, I'm it.
My fat legs carry me as fast as they can. Elliot counts, One Mississippi. I sprint out of fear, afraid of the consequences, of what Elliot will do to me if I don't run around the house. Elliot could tell Nana and Grandpa Will and Mom that it was my idea—or worse—that I'm lying; if I don't, once again, play the prey for Elliot to hunt.
I squat by the gutter on the north side of the house, the side with no neighbors. The in-and-out of my stomach forces my lungs full of August air.
Elliot counts, Three-four-five Mississippi. Louder and louder as if to warn me, signaling to the adults: "The kids are just playing another game outside." I know I should be on the other side of the house, in a whole other neighborhood by now, not just around the corner. Eight—nine Mississippi.
A part of me wants to get caught, to deny Elliot the thrill of the search-and-destroy, but the same part of me wants there to be no winner or loser, wants Elliot not to win, and for myself not to lose, wants time to simply stop, rewind to last night, so I can let the scream out.
Ten, Elliot roars, Ready or not, here I come.
I pop out from the side of the house. Walking toward me, Elliot's face is lax, blank, apathetic. He walks toward me, raises his right hand, extends his pointer finger, and forces it into my mouth. It runs along the bumps of my gums as if he is cleaning them with his DNA. His fingernail clicks along my teeth. Somewhere, a kid runs a stick along a fence.
Hey, what are you doing tonight? cropped up on my phone.
I shot back, At dinner with the fam. IDK if I can meet up.
Who is that? Mom asked.
Just telling Beth I'm back in town, I said.
You know how much I love Beth, Mom said. You two should get together already.
Here, I'm twenty-one. I went home for spring break because I didn't want one of those frenzied trips down in Mexico, surrounded by bros stuffing sharks with beer cans. I went back home so I could relax and read and finish the landslide of homework assigned by my professors. Here, I knew that Elliot hadn't always lived with my biological Grandma and his biological Grandpa, but in my memory, he always had. Here, I knew why Becky took ownership of her five other kids from four different men but not of Elliot. Here, I knew that Elliot lapped up his first smack of heroin in utero, because Becky couldn't help herself. Here, I hadn't thought about Elliot in at least ten years.
Nana got a call from a private investigator, Mom said. Elliot's been missing for six months now.
Mom, Little Sis, and I sat down at a table, which was still wet with cleaner. Our plastic trays clicked, and our forks pierced steaming, grocery-store-orange chicken. When the meat was midway to our mouths, as it barely touched our lips, Mom said, Oh I forgot to tell you.
Tell me what?
Nana got a call from a private investigator, Mom said. Elliot's been missing for six months now.
Even though my body was present at the table, my mind went outside of myself. The memory combusted inside my skull, splattered on the inside of my brain, dripped down the hole at the base of the skull, years-worth of memories pouring down my spine like long fingers of wet rain.
Water pours out of the faucet and into the pitcher with a great gulp. The sea of tentacles reaching—ever reaching as Nana dumps the pitcher over my head. I'm Five. Elliot's Nine. Nana bathes us in the same tub. Grandpa Will yells something. I remember Nana's hand leaving the tub, and for a brief moment, her fingers shine in the way that I imagine prayers travel, in loops of bent light.
The moment Nana leaves, Elliot's hand disappears beneath the fallen clouds of soap, runs his hand up my knee, and doesn't stop there. The memory skips—again and again. Elliot won't stop. Fast forward to Elliot's hand retreating right as Nana passes through the bathroom door. Nana pats me off with a cream towel big enough for a heavyweight champion. She helps me into my PJs and tucks me in goodnight.
You start it, Nana, I say. My hands a trembling tent.
Now I lay me down to sleep, she starts. Grandpa Will yells something from their bedroom. Nana yells something back. I'll be back to finish it, honey, Nana says.
She doesn't come back—later in the night, I hear the door reopen, Elliot slinks in, untucks me from the guest bed, and slips his hand underneath the elastic band of my PJ bottoms.
I remember I finish the rest of the prayer—And if I die before I wake—before he flips me over.
Half a year? Little Sis asked. I looked down at my plate. The cold chicken stared back at me. Mom started to tell a story I'd never heard before, which I imagined taking place behind a waffle house.
So, Elliot is wanted, right? Mom started—
I don't know, Mom, this is the first time I'm hearing this.
He's wanted, Mom said, in three different states. For a hit-and-run and two OWIs. During the same time, Elliot "conveniently" visited an ex-boyfriend down in Texas right before his twenty-seventh birthday.
That's when this Sara comes in, right? Little Sis asked.
Wait, you knew before I did?
You're a college boy now, Little Sis said.
When he turns twenty-seven, Mom said, Elliot will receive an inheritance of $150,000, set aside from Grandpa Will's estate.
That's a lot of money for a drug addict.
That's what I said, Mom said.
Who is this Sara? I asked.
So, Mom said, Mom gets this call from Sara saying that she hired a private investigator to find him.
Because she was the last person to talk to Elliot, Little Sis said.
Then, Mom said, this is where things get weird. Sara asked about Elliot's $150,000.
How would she know about it—unless he told her?
And dental records and Elliot's birth certificate, Mom said. Sara wanted any documents, really, and you can only imagine how this sucked your Grandma right up.
I asked, What's the deal with the ex-boyfriend though?
The PI, Mom said, found that this D.J. had been charged with human trafficking in the past, and that he apparently specialized in trafficking young men.
I took out my phone and Googled Elliot's full name. The Where's Elliot Facebook page popped up, along with the Reddit feed, and the missing-person podcast. In his wanted poster, on the podcast's website, Elliot wore all black: a black shirt, black jeans, and had black greasy hair pulled into a bun. I recognized his acne-scarred face from when he was a teen, the same collage of teeth, and the same silver eyes. I stared long enough at my screen for my vision to diffuse, blur, and readjust, shifting my focus to my own reflection. My eyes were transposed over Elliot's face.
Here's the thing, Mom said. How is my mom supposed to get the $150,000 to Elliot when he's a missing person?
Or, I said, to someone who doesn't want to be found?
Now, I can see one of two scenarios, Mom said. I can see Elliot sitting poolside in a tight little thong, sipping some girly little drink, while a gaggle of homosexuals, high off their asses, run around him. Or, she paused here, and when she completed this sentence, my heart dropped into my asshole. Or, I can see him zip-tied down in a basement somewhere.
Now, Elliot says, Suck my finger or play tag.
We're by the gutter on the side of the house that faces no neighbors. I wish for the zoom of a golf cart. I beg for another kid from the neighborhood to run by. I pray someone, anyone, will see what Elliot is doing, because I speak, if my jaws unclench, his finger will dive for the back of my throat, and I won't bite it off. So, I just stand there, complacent with Elliot's finger in my mouth, my jaws fortified—until Nana calls us in for supper. Elliot rips out his finger, shoves me down, and grates my face into the lawn, inches away from dog shit, yelling, Me first.
When we got home from supper, I ran into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I remembered how, that day, I ran upstairs to the guest bathroom to wipe the smear of green from my face. No cuts, no bruises, no questions.
I brush my teeth as if to brush away my teeth, brush away the taste of kid's finger, the wrong taste of rock. I brush my teeth bloody before joining the family downstairs.
After the mechanical whirr jackhammered my gums, I asked Mom if I could borrow the car.
Where are you going? Mom asked. We just got home.
I'm going to see Beth. She handed me the fob.
I texted, Coming.
Oh you will be, popped up with a pinned address.
When I got into Mom's car. I remembered a night when Elliot sat across from me at the dinner table, between the moat of peppered gravy and whipped potatoes. Between Mom and Grandpa Will, who were arguing how she thinks his bail bond business is unlawful. Between Nana ignoring the pissing match and feeding Little Sis a spoonful of peas.
Elliot asks, Thigh or leg? I don't answer him.
Mom asks, What do you want?
Pass the chicken mouths please.
Becky breaks down the door, high off her ass, and demands Christmas presents for her five kids, who are out in the car, five months early. She walks past Elliot and goes straight for her father. Nan calls the cops. Mom, carrying Little Sis, stands by her mother. Elliot peels off my clothes one glare at a time. Our eyes follow the cord of our unspoken secret, the one connecting me to him.
And when I closed my eyes, while the garage door opened, the cord of our secret redrew itself, pulled itself taught over states and roads and lakes, the pulsing compass of a tether reconnecting Elliot to me.
I remembered the moment after the bath and before the game of tag, when I laid down on the lawn, how Elliot leaned over me and saw my face upside down. Now, I wondered—backing the car into the street—what I looked like in his eyes. My fat cheeks were red from the running, without a doubt, blending into the milk white of my skin. My ears poked out from underneath the hat I wore. My ear lobes were large and matched my cheeks. And then there were my eyes, kiwi green, staring back him. Or would Elliot describe me in other ways? Something more consumable? Would Elliot describe me in ways children should never be described?
Beth and I went out for breakfast. She was hellbent on telling me about a study one of her friends brought to her attention, which equates sexual abuse as the inciting incident for people's queerness.
It's frustrating, Beth said, because I know queerness is inherent. It's there when you are born.
I know, I said. It's the myth even people within the community trick themselves into thinking or so I've heard.
I know so many people who are gay, lesbian, bi, trans, or queer, and so many of them were sexually abused when they were young, Beth said.
It's false correlation—
But you know people outside of the community will latch onto that shit, Beth said. She sliced into a pancake with perfect posture. Her don't elbows touch the table.
Yeah, I know, I said. I have something to tell you.
I'm past the pond, past the park, past another street, running one stop light, careening down the stretch of road through the industrial part of town, past miles and miles of gas stations, past rows of decomposing houses, finally making a left onto the interstate. There are street lights, but I don't remember them. I don't remember stopping. I remember the road as empty, devoid of cars, devoid of people. My mind caught on the loop of did it happen? or did it not happen? or the third possibility: did I make it up? A fourth: did I ask for it? Fifth: we were just kids. I remember the years of unthinking: this is—was—normal. Elliot's reassurance. Resisting the memories even before my adopted cousin disappeared out of nowhere like a corpse freed from its cinderblock, floating down a river. I remember that image from episodes of True Crime I watched with Grandpa Will instead of Saturday morning cartoons, while my cousin watches his two favorite porn stars fuck like dogs downstairs—one named Leo, the other named Stanley. But while driving, I'm bigger than my body, and there is no one who can put me in check, not even my adopted, missing cousin, the child molester.
When I got to the house, the door was unlocked. I stood in the doorframe. He'd been waiting longer than I told him. He laid in his bed, touching himself through his white jock strap.
You're late, he said. I couldn't keep my ass in the air that long.
I told you I had dinner.
I climbed into the bed as he leaned in for a kiss. I pulled back, reached for his arms, crisscrossed his left and right forearms above his head, and pushed them down into the pillow, pinning him by his own wrists. He shuttered, and I saw each one of his hairs erect in goosebumps that made his white skin look like a rotisserie chicken's. Only then did I match the kiss. He started to moan with my tongue in his mouth.
I pulled my head back and asked, Who said you could speak?
If a teacher finds a kid kissing another kid, the teacher is a trained to know that the kid in question is mirroring behavior they've learned. Children under the age of ten displaying or preforming sexual behaviors is a red flag to teachers that the child has been sexually abused. I don't remember what age I was when I started kissing all of the kids in my neighborhood. I'm not sure if it was before the bath or after the bath.
Once, Mom caught me kissing one of the neighbor boys. She ripped off the blanket over us, marched us down the stairs, forced us to put our shoes on, and took us to the neighbor boy's house to talk about it with his parents. I remember my mom's interrogation. The lines on her forehead disappeared because of her raised eyebrows, making her sea glass eyes look larger. I fixated on her mouth, which was repeating, Whose idea was it?
I lied and say it was the neighbor boy's.
My mom was a teacher.
When I began the drive home, past the spinning streets, I itched a spot on my face near my nose, and picked up the plastic smell of lubricant, fuming from my fingers.
Great. I'll get home smelling like a sex doll, I thought.
I noted that along with taking Mom's car through the carwash, wiping down the seats, and vacuuming the floors, I'd have to wash my hands. Granted, a part of me knew that borrowing Mom's car for a hookup didn't require a full deep clean, but it helped me sanitize my secret. By cleaning Mom's car and seeing Beth, I thought, I'd still be the good son. But this reduced my friendship with Beth to a prop to play straight with my family, which couldn't have been further from the truth. We'd been friends since high school, and when I was back in town, I always went out of my way to see her.
The expected response to a missing person is sadness or grief, but that's assuming they're a good person. My cousin was not.
But Elliot's disappearance, the reality of it, the thought of Goddamn, it's true, was something I debated bringing up to her. I tried to escape this decision with a hookup, but driving back, it was the only thing I could think of. Why bring Elliot's disappearance up with Beth when I don't even know how to feel about it? What am I allowed to feel? The expected response to a missing person is sadness or grief, but that's assuming they're a good person. My cousin was not. The years of unthinking weigh the scale in that favor. But to everyone else, in and outside of our family, he was. I didn't feel anything about his disappearance. The thought spirals started here.
I'd read the grizzly works of Sarah Kane. In one play, she cuts off a character's arms and legs, and then in a later scene, cuts out the same character's eyeballs and tongue, which are carried off stage by a pile of rats. Here, the violence is fictional and somewhat seductive. When I read the script, I imagined how a production crew would pull off these seemingly impossible stage directions for a live audience. But there was something totally different when I imagined Elliot's situation, paired with Mom's speculation: zip-tied down in a basement somewhere. The thoughts made my penis invert.
A single long car honk shook me out of my spiral. My car had swerved into the left lane, into incoming traffic. With one sharp turn, I pulled the car back into my lane. The other driver flipped me the bird, and I yelled, Yeah, fuck you too, buddy! I pulled off onto the exit and sat at the red light.
God, I thought, Mom would have killed me if I died in a car crash.
I got home around two in the morning. Everything at this hour is exaggerated. The door whined open, the floorboards creaked with every one of my steps, the dog grunted and wagged its tail. I walked downstairs into my old bedroom in the basement and brushed my teeth for the fifth time that day, scrubbing off the cum. Mom came downstairs and joined me in the bathroom, standing in the doorway. She looked at my reflection in the mirror. Mom saw the alchemy of bruising on my neck. She asked me why I was home so late, and I told her I cleaned the car. What a good son she said.
She's well, I said.
My grandparents make a living by getting criminals out of jail. Wait. Let me rephrase that. Grandpa Will brings home the animal-shaped Swarovski crystals, and Nana lives at Will's beck and call, cleaning the house one wing at a time, cooking dinner—even while recovering from invasive spinal surgery—because Will said, Chicken sounds good. Nana runs her every purchase by Will, awaiting his pending approval. Grandpa Will owns a bail bond business, a cash bond business, and a casino down in Costa Rica, purchased from funds from his former life as a pit boss down in Las Vegas. He visits the casino he owns twice a year. I remember Grandpa Will said all too often, his feet kick back one of the two gun-metal-colored La-Z-Boys in his TV room, One day, I'll take you down there, Harry.
On weekends, Mom has her master's program. Little Sis and I stay at Nana's and Grandpa Will's for the weekend. Besides the mixture of cigarette smoke and cinnamon potpourri, their house is museum-clean. I spend most of my time with Grandpa Will, while Little Sis plays with dolls and colors on paper lying on her belly down on the carpet. Her supplies splayed on the floor of Grandpa Will's TV room.
Little Sis is six, I'm twelve, and Elliot is old enough to move to the bedroom down in the basement.
He's sixteen and needs his privacy, Nana says, smoking in the kitchen.
One time, while Little Sis naps in one of the recliners, I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth. When I come back to the empty chair, I hear giggles roaring from the upstairs guestroom. Sprinting up the staircase, I find them on the top steps, Elliot maneuvering Ken to open the door of the cherry-colored Jitney, playing with Little Sis, making Barbie take driver side. The Ken doll and the toy convertible belong to Elliot. Ken wears a leather suit, hand-stitched by Elliot from scraps of cloth he found in Nana's sewing room trashcan. Barbie wears a matching dress. Little Sis swings Barbie's head toward Ken, makes Barbie say, Ken I need a cruise. Let's drive to the dock. Elliot turns Ken's head, makes Ken say, How about a little sugar first?
I think Nana needs you, Sis, I remember.
I didn't hear anything, Little Sis says.
Neither did I, Harry, Elliot says.
Grandpa Will's the only person I would allow to call me by my nickname, Harry. As a toddler, still learning the mouth feel of my own name, I'd protest to anything that was not capital H-A-double R- I-S-O-N, I remember.
Nana sent me to come get you, I tell Little Sis.
Little Sis' fist curls around the Barbie as she begins the decent down the stairs.
Leave her here, Elliot said. Little Sis leaves the Barbie on the top step, pelvis down. I remember the squishes of feet on carpet, the plunk of feet on hard wood, and the pat of kitchen titles. She slides open the glass door and continues outside to Nana in the garden.
His eyes have a hormone hunger. I know what he's thinking. I know if I don't get Little Sis out of there, he'd touch her. And if that happens, I'd fucking kill him, kill him dead, like the grizzliest of True Crime episodes—I'd kill him in a way that makes Elliot unrecognizable.
I'll be watching porn later if—
No, I say.
Maybe I'll have to tell your Nana—
My hand cracks across Elliot's cheek. Elliot looks at me. I look at Elliot. Elliot drives the Jitney into the drywall with both hands, hunks of paint and plaster sprinkling down on the carpet as I walk down the stairs. Grandpa Will comes around the corner, sees Elliot and the hole in the wall, and spanks him.
I go get Nana from the garden. She opens the door and hears Elliot's screams echoing throughout the house. She runs upstairs, yelling, What the hell?
Look what he did, Lenore! Grandpa Will says in a higher tone.
It sounds like you're beating him to death, Nana says.
Call the doctor, Grandpa Will says. The medication is obviously not working.
Through the French glass door, I see Little Sis playing with the three Bichons in the grass, unbothered by the continued screams coming from inside the house.
When there isn't a quality noir on TV, Grandpa Will and I watch The Jerry Springer Show, Cops, Cops Las Vegas, True Crime, reruns of The Crocodile Hunter, and hockey and Poker tournaments. But our favorite show is called Cheaters. Suspecting partners pay the television crew along with a private investigator to spy on their "cheating" partner. There is the build of the two "cheaters" on a date, in the back of the partner's car, in the partner's bed, and then suddenly, the TV crew crawls out of the woodwork, punctuated by camera flashes. Partner confronts partner, partner confronts cheater, and the show ends with the throwing of fists and pulling of fake hair.
Look at the tits on her Harry, Grandpa Will says.
Big old baloogas, I remember.
One of these days, Grandpa Will says, I'll get one of those screens that unfilters the pictures, and we'll be able to see everything. Isn't that right, Lenny?
Nana sits in the dining room, watching the news, sucking down cigarettes, before yelling back, Over your dead ass!
We all laugh. Another, "You Bitch," booms from our TV.
I laugh when I see my first set of tits, nude, pixels, stripped of everything I would later learn makes a 'tit.' I laugh at the sexless bodies. I laugh while Elliot blows loads downstairs.
At Grandpa Will's funeral, Nana asks the grandkids to write him a letter. Between Little Sis and myself, we write twelve pages with crayoned illustrations. I remember writing, You are too stubborn to die this soon. Between Elliot and Becky's five other kids, Will's real biological grandkids—who steal and drink and sell drugs and set apartments on fire—only manage one page.
When we walked in to see Grandpa Will at his office, he was always feeding hundred-dollar-bills through a bill counter, their letter said. Sometimes, Grandpa Will would sometimes let us them touch a stack.
The years, my unthinking, Elliot's disappearance. There are the thoughts I spiral through, which making my head feel like a watermelon before the last rubber band is added, the one that makes it explode.
One night, I hear a sharp ringing, keeping me up well past 5 a.m. I Google Elliot's full name and find the missing persons podcast. I push play and listen up to the point when Sara calls Nana for documentation. It's rewritten so Sara reaches out to one of Elliot's relatives, because Becky didn't tell the producers of the podcast that Elliot was raised by Grandpa Will and Nana.
In 2016, a month or so after Elliot disappeared, a gas station explosion killed five people in Austin, Texas. The fire from the explosion burned somewhere between 1,000- and 1,600-degrees Fahrenheit, which made flesh, blood, and muscle to boil and fall off the bone without completely destroying the skeleton. Sara calls Nana asking for any documents Nana might have that could help the police identify five skeletons charred into their dying poses. Nana checks her records, goes to Elliot's childhood dentist and doctor, and finds nothing. If a patient is not seen for more than seven years, office protocol is to dispose of that patient's record. Becky somehow found Elliot's birth certificate, which violates HIPPA regulations.
Nana tells me, I raised Elliot. Becky had no part except putting a bag over her face, so she could get fucked by some stranger.
All of the class' concepts are anchored around Game Theory, where conflict and cooperation are measurable. Here, pain and pleasure are a plus or minus, but outside of the simple representation, the bullshit assignment feels like algebra, but only with letters, and on crack.
I remember on the first day, our instructor bursts into class, screaming, without context, Any real-world situation can be played out or analyzed in these series of infinite games. We look at him as if our eyes are on the sides of our heads. He pretends to hangs himself by his tie, pauses, and then scribbles on the blackboard in blood-red chalk, capturing his exquisite phrasing. When he's done with his scribbling fit, two words sear into my brain, my body, and I feel something encapsulated within myself finally receiving a name. Grim. Trigger.
In Game Theory, a Grim Trigger is when both players benefit from jointly cooperating in silence, but due to past events, past series of games, or past rounds, one player defects upon the other forever. Our professor notates in quivering, looping, letters, eclipsing Grim Trigger on the chalk board: "DON'T FUCK WITH INFINITY."
I raised my hand and spoke. How do you get out of a Grim Trigger?
The only way to kill a Grim Trigger between two players, he says, is with an outside force greater than the cooperation between the infinitely spatting players, like the movies, where the sheriff rides in when shit gets real and then rides off into the sunset. The name of this phenomenon is called Deus Ex Machina, which translates from Greek to "Machine of the Gods."
I told Little Sis this an hour later as I adjusted the collar of my charcoal shawl, covering the bite mark, the hook up gave me. Whatta fucker. I've given and received my fair share of hickies, usually along my collar bone or at the crook of my neck, low enough to keep hidden, low enough to not spark questions from my family. But with that throbbing Rorschach an inch or two below my ear, I was hyperaware of the fact that I'd readjusted the stiff fabric of my collar at least five times in thirty seconds.
So, that sounds complicated, Little Sis said in relation to my homework.
Complicated and stupid.
We both forced a laugh. A pause grew. Something was off. For a moment I thought Little Sis' saw my hickey, but her face flexed into the holy-shit-face from yesterday. Little Sis has always been the type of girl who orders an Italian sandwich at a barbeque joint, sings in the shower using a loofah for her microphone while peeing upright, and asks Mom, while waiting in a packed dermatologist's office, if women should have nipple hair. I expect Little Sis to be upfront, abrasive, but by the dark circles underneath her eyes, I knew she'd lost sleep thinking about Elliot, too.
They'll find him, right? Little Sis asked.
I hope so, I said. Do you remember playing Barbie and Ken with Elliot?
Yes, Little Sis said.
What do you remember?
Playing Barbie and Ken with Elliot, Little Sis said.
Why are you wearing that sweater? Little Sis asked.
Because it's fifty below in the basement, I said, pulling up the collar on my neck.
Makes sense, Little Sis said.
I think Mom's calling you from the land of the living, I said, gesturing upstairs.
Right as Little Sis passed through the doorframe, a tear hit my homework, the sound of paper sucking up water, dripped down bone deep.
How long will this hickey last? I thought. How do I keep it from my family? How do I begin to tell my family? How do I begin to tell my family about liking men without being compared to Elliot? What is the right combination of words to tell my family without them jumping to the conclusion that I'm attracted to men only because I was molested? In my silence, am I cooperating with Elliot? Who may or may not be currently pimped out or human trafficked? Is that a Grim Trigger? Because this assignment is bullshit and it doesn't even make sense? Is Elliot just evading arrest? Am I allowed to empathize with Elliot? And Elliot? Where are you?
What is the right combination of words to tell my family without them jumping to the conclusion that I'm attracted to men only because I was molested? In my silence, am I cooperating with Elliot?
The night I lied to borrow Mom's car for the hookup, I faked finishing because my cock went limp when he screamed, Yes, Daddy, cum on my back.
When I woke up the next morning and went to my go-to porn site, there was a twink running a train in his house. The twink's scream echoed the screams from my hookup the night before. I pulled out, pulled the condom off, waded up the latex in my hand, and fake grunted, Oh fuck, Oh fuck.
The twink screamed in between each grunt, pound, and whatever you call the sound of someone else's testicles smacking the inside of his legs. I'll be with you in a minute, Daddy. I'm here to serve you, Daddy. Fill me up, Daddy.
With my other hand, and I wiped the imaginary load off his back. I went to the bathroom to dispose of the evidence.
I stopped the video when I remembered the possibility of Elliot being trafficked. I stopped the video when I thought I saw Elliot's face on the slut getting plowed. I thought how molestation is fetishized within the community. Boys eighteen or older hunting for their daddies.
I deleted my search history, thinking, It wasn't him, It wasn't Elliot.
And I went to Nana's soon after, as an escape, as my Deus Ex Machina.
Nana sported the same mocha beehive since JFK's assassination and kept a pink gun in her leather fanny pack, right next to her box of Marlboro Ultra Lights. In 2014, she moved across the street to a new house because she needed a "change of scenery." She saw her old house from the viewpoint of her new front window.
I've always been close to Nana. Back in Iowa City, I integrated calls to Nana in my walks to class, and when I'm back in town, I always stop by. But going to see Nana was more of a mission, because she was just as tangled in Elliot's disappearance as I was.
At sunset, we sat in front of that window, facing the backyard of her old house, the one Nana poured years into. She lifted a cigarette to her lips, her thumb flicked down the light, flame, then smoke. I could see the spot from there.
Could the neighbors who lived there when Nana and Grandpa Will lived there see Elliot fingering my mouth from their front window? I wondered.
After taking a drag, Nana said, Those people don't know the first thing about those hostas. So, where should I start?
From the beginning, I said.
Well, Nana said, Will was an awful man, but he sure loved you kids.
Grandpa Will knew his three kids and their kids stole from him and did nothing about it. With every one of Becky's unplanned pregnancies, with every new kid she spat out into the world and couldn't provide for, Will picked up the tab, gave them whatever they wanted. When Grandpa Will found out the money he gave them was used for drugs, it broke his heart.
Will's own kids killed him, Nana tells me, and look where it got Elliot.
Nana saw Elliot for the last time two years after Grandpa Will's funeral in 2011. When Elliot turned eighteen and graduated high school, Grandpa Will found him a condo, because that way, he was out of the house. Grandpa Will left the cash bonds business to Nana. Will's kids got the bail bonds business and ran it into the ground. The last time Nana saw Elliot, he was standing in the doorway of the house he used to live in. It was 2010, and Nana opened the door, cigarette between her second and middle finger, and told Elliot, No more. I'm done, and I mean it.
Elliot nodded, barely able to talk or swallow from a bout of tonsillitis. Elliot stayed with Nana for three days in the house he grew up in. Elliot didn't know that Nana would be moving soon.
I imagined Elliot looking up the stairs where Nana thought Will was beating him to death those years ago.
The next day, Nana took Elliot to the doctor. The abscesses in the back of Elliot's throat were quarter-size. The doctor asked him if he'd had oral sex with a man recently. Nana sat in the corner of the room. Elliot barely managed a Yes.
The doctor ordered a full blood test and found that is wasn't an STI. The doctor gave him antibiotics and hydrocodone for the pain. When they got home, Elliot swallowed the antibiotics but couldn't swallow the larger, pea-sized pain killers. Nana cooked chicken broth on the stove, smoking, when Becky called Elliot. Nana heard everything but pretended she didn't. On the phone, Elliot managed a Yes and No.
Now Elliot, Becky cood, I want you to remember your mother if you have any hydro left.
After Elliot hung up, Nana asked, How long has it been since Becky called you?
Years, Elliot said.
The next day, they went back to the doctor because Elliot couldn't breathe, and his tonsils had grown to the size of fifty-cent pieces. The new doctor lanced his tonsils, drained puss from the back of his throat, and prescribed Elliot a liquid form of hydrocodone along with an antibiotic booster. The next day, Elliot left town with a quart of broth and the drugs.
A year later, Elliot showed up. I threw out my back at work today, Elliot said. Do you still have the hydrocodone pills?
Nana walked to the kitchen cabinet while Elliot stood at the door. She poured three pills out into her hand, placed them into a Ziploc, and gave it to Elliot.
That's all that's left? Elliot asked.
Yes, Nana said.
Nana had seen Elliot crop up more and more on Becky's Facebook. When Elliot was a kid, he hated his mother, but as an adult, they were chummy. Nana knew the bottle would go to Becky if she gave it to him. The last time Nana saw Elliot, he was faking pain. Later that night, Nana dumped then flushed the rest of the bottle.
In the lifetime between 2011 and 2015, Elliot worked as a hair stylist at a beauty salon. He grew his clientele, gave the best damn haircuts around, and was arrested too often for his his manager's taste. In 2014, Elliot was convicted for his first OWI in Iowa, putting him on probation. His second OWI was six months later when he wrapped his car around a tree, which triggered a probation violation. He skipped his court dates, according to the online records.
Elliot goes down to a gay bar, trashed, and is arrested, Nana says, The bar was called the Blazing Saddles or some other gay name.
Nana tells her employees at the cash bond business not to bail him out because he's a risk. He'll run. The manager forgot to tell the night shift, so the sloppy night shift guy bails him out. Elliot runs. Nana rips the manager's ass. He says he's sorry—
Sorry, Nana says, doesn't get my $2,000 back.
After I paid Nana a visit, I drove home and tried to place the last time I saw Elliot. He was at Grandpa Will's funeral along with Becky and her kids and everyone else. I think.
When I get home, I went downstairs to the guest bedroom. I flipped up my laptop, googled Elliot's full name, found the podcast, and listened to the whole thing. In some sense, someone had already beaten me to the punch in obsessively researching the circumstances of Elliot's disappearance, but they had left out many details. The podcast only covers the event prior to him going missing and the punky "trials and tribulations" of Sara and Becky. When I pushed play, I remembered Nana telling me, I can't wait to read this.
It's a lot, I say.
Honey, Nana says, until I met Will, I didn't know there were people out there like this. It's a shame you can't talk to Elliot to get his side of the story.
That was a moment I could've told Nana.
Before Sara called Nana asking for any documents she might have had to help the authorities identify the five burnt-up bodies from the gas station explosion, before Elliot disappeared, before Elliot took D.J. to meet Becky, before the three OWIs, way before the game of tag or the bath, Grandpa Will confronted Nana about adopting Elliot. Grandpa Will told Nana, She's not gunna to ruin this one.
I didn't learn this by giving the podcast a listen. Nana told me this when I called her when I walked to class.
The podcast started, Was Elliot the victim of an abusive ex-boyfriend or an online hookup gone array?
Growing up I knew he was a homosexual, and when he came out, we loved him just the same, Becky started.
I knew ever since he put on a dress as a toddler that Elliot was queer, Nana said.
The podcast emphasizes that Elliot wore a dress and that he came from an abusive household, as if pin-pointing this as the inciting event for Elliot's disappearance.
As a toddler I wear a dress once. Elliot convinced me.
In the spring of 2014, Elliot received his first OWI, but the podcast narrator fails to mention the second and third—or the parole violation or the multiple warrants out for his arrest. But Elliot bringing D.J. to meet Becky and them going out to gamble at the casino gets a whole minute.
I remember, Mom told me, Becky and her kids were there when Will passed away, and I couldn't tell if she was crying because she lost her father or because she lost her money train.
Elliot moved down to Texas to live with D.J. It's then that Sara gets calls from Elliot telling her how controlling D.J. was, how many times he beat him. Soon, Elliot realized that "D.J." wasn't even his real name, prompting Sara to go down to the deli where Elliot worked, waiting for three days before she finally saw him. After the third night, Sara asked a staff member if they knew where Elliot was. The staff member said there wasn't an "Elliot" who worked there. Sara showed him a picture of Elliot.
Oh, that's Leo, he said, Leo Stanley.
Elliot called Sara again, and Sara traced the number back to a hotel.
D.J. beat Elliot up again before he went to work Sara says. Elliot has always been thin, but he was notably thinner, most of his skin was yellow and black, his gums are purple and bleeding. Elliot wanted to go to McDonald's because D.J. brought back food to the room and ate it in front of Elliot. If you're starving and smelling McDonald's fries, that sucks, Sara says.
Elliot lies to Sara, telling her that D.J. pimped him out a dozen times. It was actually closer to thirty. They formed a plan; Elliot would collect his last paycheck and buy a bus ticket back to Iowa, back to Becky. In the meantime, he'll live with Sara. With his last paycheck, Elliot bought a new phone, new jeans, a new shirt, and flipflops. When Sara got home from work a week later, all of Elliot's stuff was gone. Sara remembered Elliot telling her how D.J. broke his fingers.
I remember how, as a toddler, Elliot's finger fished around my gums. I thought how easy it would be to bite his fingers off at the joint. Now, I thought, Maybe Elliot is getting what he deserves. But that thought was swallowed by guilt.
I remember how, as a toddler, Elliot's finger fished around my gums. I thought how easy it would be to bite his fingers off at the joint. Now, I thought, Maybe Elliot is getting what he deserves.
Elliot called Sara again and told her that D.J. was talking about killing him, but that he was back in Iowa with Becky, celebrating Christmas, far away from D.J. and Sara in Texas. Before Grandpa Will connected with Little Sis and me, we had separate Christmases—one for Will's family and one for Nana's. After Will's Christmas, Grandpa Will goes sat in the TV room during Nana's Christmas. I got an electric keyboard and Elliot couldn't stop plunking the annoying laser beam sound affect. Mom asked Elliot to stop. Mom's brother slept in the recliner. Nana took the keyboard away, and Elliot punched Nana in her thigh.
Mom yelled, Don't touch our mother! My uncle exploded out of the chair, chasing after Elliot, who ran into the dining room, screaming.
My uncles yelled, Don't touch my mother!
Grandpa Will came screaming around the corner. Don't you fucking put your hands on my grandson!
As a preteen, I got Nana to make Grandpa Will stop beating Elliot.
Elliot and Becky got into an argument. Elliot stormed out of her house wearing flipflops despite the snow. Elliot bought a Greyhound ticket down to Texas and saw D.J. again. Elliot called Sara asking if she wanted to hang out with him and D.J. Sara said she didn't want to be around someone who starves and beats Elliot.
This was the last time Sara talks to Elliot. Becky filed a missing-person's report in Iowa, and Sara filed one in Texas. A detective from either Iowa or Texas—the podcast didn't specify— says that there were no signs of foul play, despite D.J. breaking Elliot's fingers and starving him, or the fact that Elliot hadn't seen the messages Becky sent via Facebook.
Becky tells the narrator of the podcast the she tried to get dental records, but due to HIPPA laws, the dentist needed a release-of-information form, and the Iowa police department refused to give it to Becky because of her record.
A gas station in Texas exploded, killing five people, charring their bodies unrecognizable. Sara called Nana asking if she had any of Elliot's paperwork. Nana reached out to Elliot's last doctor and dentist and found that if a patient goes seven years without a check-up, their records are destroyed. Becky called Sara, saying she found a document listing Elliot's blood type, which makes Sara think that Nana lied about looking for Elliot's documents.
Nana told me, Legally, Becky is not Elliot's mother. I don't know how she got those forms.
Sara told Nana that Elliot went around telling people that he'd receive $150,000 when he turned 27. Nana didn't know what Sara was talking about and talked to her lawyer.
Let me know if there is anything I can do, Nana told Sara. Sara hung up without a word.
The Des Moines police department said they can't investigate Elliot's case because he was filed missing in Texas. The Austin police department said they can't investigate Elliot's case because he was filed missing in Iowa.
The narrator of the podcasts said, This is a common response from the police department in rural areas, when those who go missing are openly gay.
Sara hired a private investigator, who found that D.J. transferred from the Austin, Texas Cheddars to the Cheddars in New Mexico, prompting Sara to call the Albuquerque police department to see if they could question D.J. They said no. Becky told Sara that D.J. knows her voice because they had met before. Sara decided she would be the one to call D.J. at work.
D.J. said, I haven't talked to Elliot since he moved back to Iowa [November 2015].
Sara and Becky thought Elliot went back to Austin on the Greyhound to see D.J. Sara knew D.J. was lying. So, she told D.J., I love Elliot and just want to know he's okay and safe.
D.J. said, I knew that crazy shit would catch up to him.
After Sara and Becky spoke to D.J., the P.I. found that he didn't show up to work the next day. That D.J. had been charged with human trafficking charges in the past but had never been convicted.
The missing person's podcast ends with Becky asking, Maybe Elliot OD'd on coke, and D.J. chopped up the body and buried him in the desert.
There's a history of Elliot pimping himself out for D.J., Sara said. What if a person off Grindr or Craigslist got him?
There are a lot of sickos out there, Becky said.
The missing person's podcast ends with a physical description of Elliot when he was last seen. Six-feet-tall, around 130 pounds, a twink build, blue eyes, extremely friendly. The missing person's podcast ends with a minute of phantom strums suggesting Elliot perfected how to thoroughly disappear completely. I closed my laptop.
The next morning, I spiraled through everything the podcast got wrong. The walls of the guest bedroom fish-bowled around me. My bed ever elongated in the wall.
They make themselves sound like heroes, think their shit smells like roses, Nana said after listing to the podcast. Didn't the host of the podcast think it was strange when Becky said, 'Elliot lived with her father' but still claimed to raise Elliot?
I texted Beth, Breakfast?
I brushed my teeth. Went on Tinder and saw the messages from the hookup:
Are you okay?
Did I do something wrong?
You're not like this, you don't ghost.
I thought, I just want to be alone. I unmatch him.
I went on the rippling Tinder page, swiped through new profiles, left, left, right. I paused, and I swore I saw a profile named Leo Stanley. It's spring break 2016, when I reminded myself, Elliot is still missing. Yet, the Leo Stanley profile said he was 20 miles away. Mom came downstairs. I deleted Tinder. When she popped in the doorway, I got out of bed, went to the desk with my laptop, and began the missing person's podcast.
You look like shit, Mom said.
Doesn't matter, I said. Listen to this.
We listened to all forty minutes. I watched Mom's face tense. Her jaws clenched, lines formed and disappeared on her forehead. While I watched her reactions to the podcast, I remembered the car ride home the day after Elliot raped me, after the bath, before the game of tag.
Mom keeps glancing in the rearview mirror asking me, What's wrong? What's wrong? The nerves in my legs burn like hotwires, snaking their way to my burning asshole. I stare through the windshield.
Mom asks, Did you kiss another boy?
No, I say.
It was before the bath.
Where'd they get the money to do this? Mom asked.
What are you talking about?
They hired someone to fake the podcast, Mom said.
They didn't hire anyone. It's a podcast to help find missing people.
You know the expression, 'rode hard and put away wet?' Mom asked.
That's what I thought the first time I met Becky, Mom said. She looked like she was rode hard an put away yet.
Awh, I said, Grrrross.
I remember when Mom first told me about Elliot's disappearance, Mom said. I knew from the start that Mom was sucked it. She'd call me after every time Elliot did something wrong. After Christmas that one year, she called me, beating herself up for it, but I told her, I said, 'Mom don't blame yourself, Elliot was molested as a kid, that's why he's so fucked up—'
That's why Elliot lived with Mom and Will, because one of Becky's boyfriends molested him, Mom Said.
That's why Elliot lived with Mom and Will, because one of Becky's boyfriends molested him, Mom said. Otherwise child services would've taken him.
Elliot being sexually abused isn't why he's missing today, I said. And I don't think Grandpa Will would've thought—
I wouldn't put too much stock into that one, either, Mom said.
And why is that?
I don't trust cheaters, Mom said.
That was a moment I could've told Mom.
There's a picture of Little Sis, Grandpa Will, and the three dogs cramped into one of the recliners in the TV room. I remember Grandpa Will saying, Harry look at this, pointing to Little Sis knocked out. There's a dog between Grandpa Will's legs, a dog between Grandpa Will's arm and the armrest of the chair, and a dog nested between Little Sis' legs and the other armrest.
Got get Grandma to take a picture, Grandpa Will said. When Nana came back with the camera, Grandpa Will faked falling asleep, morphing his lips into a snoring "O," while his head leaned back to meet the headrest. In the photograph, hanging in Little Sis' room, his plain t-shirt hid his colostomy bag, his pain medications sitting on the side table are conveniently cropped, and we can't see the cancer that would take him hostage five years later.
I thought of Grandpa Will's face going from wide awake to fake asleep, his dark eyes closed, his mouth and neck wrinkles relaxing into a double chin, ashy black hair in a ball cap. The innocence of the moment juxtaposed with the Grandpa Will from Mom.
Mom told me Nana was helping Grandpa Will pack for his last trip to Costa Rica, where he'd sell the casino he never took me to. He'd sell the casino, tricking his junkie kids into thinking he made billions off the deal. Even though by then, his will said, word for word, To my children, you will inherit nothing. You got yours when I was still alive.
Nana helped Grandpa Will pack, took out all of his clothes and formed them into rolls, which she stacked inside his suitcase. She found a bump on the inside of the suitcase, undid the seemingly invisible zipper, and opened a secret compartment. She held the bottle of pills as Will walked in.
What are these? Nana asked.
Down there, I don't have to pay for sex, Lenny, Grandpa Will said.
Beth texted, Perkins in 10.
I don't know if this song was out when I drove to have breakfast with Beth. If it was, then it's the song I played. It's too perfect not to; the opening line of Frank Ocean's Channel boomed throughout the car. Ocean sings, "My guy pretty like a girl, And he got fight stories to tell.
At breakfast, Beth said, I gotta tell you about this study a friend showed me. Beth showed me the study that suggests sexual abuse is the cause of queerness. I said something I don't remember. Beth said something I don't remember.
Then I said, I have something to tell you.
What's wrong? Beth asked. I gulp a glass of water. I notice how Beth never put her elbows on the table, how she held herself upright.
I began the only way I know, My adopted cousin has been missing for six months, and my family just found out about it.
Beth started, I'm so sorry—
Just please listen. And then I told her. I told her everything. I told her everything to the point of purging. Beth didn't break eye contact, even though I broke it with her in the way social scientists says indicates a person is either lying or thinking and at this point, I couldn't tell the difference. I told her about Elliot, about D.J., about Sara and Becky. I told her about the hookup, how I just wanted to get out of my body, and then how I just wanted to be alone. About Nana and Mom equating his disappearance to Elliot's sexual abuse, to Grandpa Will's failed attempt at raising a child that Becky wouldn't fuck up, to Elliot being gay. I told Beth about Little Sis asking if Elliot would be found. I told Beth everything like I cut my head right off and throw it into the air, splattering Perkins with memories, thick as blood as thick as semen.
Sounds like a movie, Beth said.
Well, if it becomes a movie, I said, I want Chris Pratt to play the neurotic writer, at least that way, we'll get to see his ass in the consensual sex scenes. We laugh with our bellies at breakfast.
You're a good person, Beth said, Don't forget that. She laid her arm across the table, motioned with her fingers for mine to lay on top of hers.
I'm back at college when Nana gives me a call. They found him, Nana says.
Yes, Nana says.
Nana tells me how the calls from Becky and Sara amplified to three, four, five times a day. They asked Nana if she had any more documents and questioned her if she doesn't. At that point, they thought that Elliot was being held for ransom, that Elliot was taken by someone who knew of the $150,000 he'd get when he turned 27 in August.
Nana checked with her lawyer and found that Grandpa Will died before he set up Elliot's trust. There wasn't any money for Elliot. Sara calls Nana and then Becky. Nana tells them. Sara and Becky stop calling.
Nana got another call. She thought it was Becky or Sara, so she let it go to voicemail. It was the pharmacy up the road, telling nana that Elliot's prescription is ready for pick-up. Nana goes to the pharmacy, and by the time she gets there, the prescription is gone.
And why would the pharmacy fill an order for someone who is supposed to be missing? Nana asks.
But they found him?
He came up the next week, Nana says.
After you told Sara and Becky there isn't any money?
It's too perfect, Nana says, isn't it?
Elliot was found between December 2017 and January 2018. Sara posts on The Where's Elliot Facebook page that Elliot is staying with her down in Texas, safely outside the jurisdiction of his three Iowa warrants. The last post on the Where's Elliot Facebook page, says Please respect our privacy.
Nana sees this and sends Becky a text, Thank God!!!
Becky texts, IKR.
Nana tried calling Becky and found that Becky blocked Nana's phone number.
Nana tried calling Sara and found that Sara blocked Nana's phone number.
Nana went on Facebook, searching for Becky and Sara, and couldn't find them.
Nana went to the Where's Elliot Facebook page, and it said it doesn't exist.
Nana googled the Where's Elliot Facebook page incognito, and it was there.
Does Little Sis know? I ask.
She'll find out, Nana says.
I text Little Sis, They found Elliot.
That was moment I could've told Little Sis.
Every time I stand in front of Nana's new window, I replay the game of tag. There's me. There's Elliot. Yet I know they aren't there.
I see myself getting close to Elliot, a kid's hand ever reaching for the back of a shirt he will never touch. Then Elliot resets the game of tag. The kid runs around the corner. Elliot climbs higher to Ten Mississippi and despite his fear, the kid pops out from the side of the house. The kid becomes not it.
I wish I could pass through the window, cross the street, walk in the grass, right up to Elliot, in that moment of time, and stop him. I wish I could reach out to my queer body as the son, the grandson, and the brother, comfort the same body in the bathtub, on the lawn, in the hammock, downstairs, and in the guest bedroom, console with the body at the ages of four, five, six, nine, twelve, and fourteen, a body cooperating with the same body, knowing I've already said everything I need to say to myself.
I wish Elliot would do the same, go back in time and present himself to all the versions of his past self, and then maybe Elliot as a child would stop the abuse here. Myself in my present body would look at Elliot in his present body and feel the release of a cord being cut, then I realize, if my queer body went missing, the police would come looking for it. Unlike Elliot, they'd find me.
Notes on Sources:
The epigraph was taken from 4.48 Psychosis written by Sarah Kane.
The play that is mention in the essay where a character is carried offstage by rats is Cleansed also written by Sarah Kane.
For the concept of the Grim Trigger I referenced my college notes. I'm a nerd and still had that spiral of the time of writing this essay.
The reconstruction elements consisted of 10 hours of personal interviews, court documents, and the missing person's podcast I stumbled upon. Names, locations, and dates have purposefully been abstracted for the protection and privacy of my family, who I love very much.
Harrison Cook's writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Atlas Obscura, Slate, Little Village, and onstage. His chapbook Warby was selected as a winner of the Iowa Chapbook Prize. He is the Deputy Managing Editor at Guesthouse.