FICTION: The Gay Plague

Short Story – 6000 words (20 min read time).  By Kaelan Strouse.

 

Fucking faggot.”

I mutter it quiet like, under my breath.

I walk past the fool making a spectacle of himself in the town square.  Carrying on like that; drawing attention to himself, as if we had nothin’ better to watch than his antics.

I’ve never liked them.  Not before.  Not now.

You see, I came from a place that said men are men and women are women.  And nary the two shall meet.

And these… these perverts.  Well, they creep under my skin, if you know what I mean.

And that’s even before the disease took hold.

I remember Mr. Bryant at school.  We always suspected him.  Me and the other boys on the softball team.

Nothin’ that he ever did was too overt.  It was just this, this feelin’ we got.  The way he looked at us when he thought no one was watchin’.

And then, of course, when the disease started to take hold of him, our suspicions were confirmed.  And we didn’t let him hang around to infect anyone else.

No, we did what any true ‘merican should do: run them out of town with guns and pitchforks and torches.  Okay, some of ‘em were tiki torches; but they were torches none-the-less.

At least, that’s what we did in the beginin’.  Too many of ’em, now.  Can’ get rid of ‘em all.

You see, we didn’t want any of that perversion spreading to anyone else.  I know they say it’s not “communicable” to us normals.  But like I said: we aren’t taking any chances.  And we don’t want them intuitin’ our business anyhow.

I remember the day we first saw the disease appear in our town.  We heard about it, ‘course.  We all had.  It had been all over the news, all over Twitter.  But we hadn’t seen it for ourselves.

It was Billy.  Tina’s queer son from the end of the block. Twenty-somthin’.

We all figured ‘bout him.  He went off to a big city for school (we hear they’re more accepting of these twisted weirdos in places like that… cities.  Even now.  Still accept ‘em, or some shit like that).  Anyways, when he came back… he was all… swishy, if you know what I mean.  Dressed differently.  Talked differently, too.  Had a way about him that you could just tell… he wasn’ like the res’ of us.

He was the firs’ to get it.  Started wandering up and down the streets.  Screamin’ at the top of his lungs.  Sayin’ things… things he nor any red-blooded, decent ‘merican should know.  We did with him like we would later do with Mr. Bryant… ran that fucker into the woods and told him never to come back.

But then there were too many.  Men and woman we’d never suspected.  They started poppin’ out.  Faces all strained.  Confrontin’ law-abiding citizens as they made their way about their business.  Harassin’ them.  Telling them their own dirtiest secrets right to their face.

Not that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with the gays.  I mean, I was as marginally accepting as the next guy… but once this sickness took over… and they could hear our thoughts… and felt compelled to shout our private, secret musings and thoughts from the rooftops… telling everyone in listening range everything we ever feared, or dreamt, or hoped for… I mean…

I just can’t fucking stand ‘em!

Telepathy, they call it.  I call it being a fucking nuisance.  I mean, what right have they to know my private matters?  My thoughts are mine and mine alone… at least that’s the way it should be… the way it always has been.

They still have no answers for us.  Why it’s happening.  Or how.  Or why it’s only the fags that are affected.   Or how it’s transmitted.

Is it a foreign government using chemical warfare on our civilians? Is it a trick of evolution?  Have the magnetic fields around the Earth shifted?

I’ve even heard some folks hail these weirdos as saints.  Saints my ass!

Anyways, no one knows… all we do know are the signs.

First, they get really sick.  Like a really bad flu.  For days.

Then… then they start hearin’ voices.  Only the voices aren’t ‘maginary.  No… they start hearin’ the thoughts of anybody around them.

Then, every so often… it’s like a volcano… they start shakin’, turn all pale, like.  And suddenly they get all rigid and start screamin’ the thoughts of whoever they heard lately.  Say they can’t control it.   It just happens to ‘em…  don’t know if I believe that.

You can control it.  You can control anythin’ if you just try hard enough!

They go on shoutin’.  Whether it’s bank codes.  Or how a guy fucked his wife’s sister.  Or other deep secrets that no one likes bein’ told.

I ain’t want no one sharin’ my secrets.

So we were runnin’ em out for their own good.  Keep the public safe.  What happens to them, then?  Not our business.  I hear they got a little, leper-like colony goin’ now.  Sharin’ all their private business to one another.  Probably fuckin’ each other’s brains out too, those heathens.

And that’s the thing that irks me most: sin.  If they weren’t so sinful creatures to begin with, this probably never been happenin’ to them.  See, that the reason firs’ they got the AIDS.  Now this.

This sickness.  This perversion.

I walk through town.  Thinkin’ who’s next?

I look at my friend from childhood, Billy, as he passes me by on the street.  Could it be him?  He always liked dancin’ and singin’.  It could be him.

How do we keep each other safe?  How do we protect ourselves when our most beloved memories and thoughts could be ripped from us any second?

I’ve been worryin’ myself about it too much.  Makin’ myself sick.  Have to take care of ‘ma and the younger ones.  She’s still been sick, and they all be look up to me.  Been feelin’ not myself these las’ few days.  Didn’t even feel up to goin’ out and bailin’ hay like I do every mornin’.  But chore’s still gotta be done.  Life goes on, even with this strange turn of events.

God, how I just wanna get back to normal.

Pass by Gerry.  As he walks by, he says somethin’ to me.  I almos’ don’t quite hear it.

I call after him:  “What you say, Gerry?!”

He turns.  Looks at me up an down.  Looks at me like I be crazy.  Then he says it:

“I didn’ say nothin.”

Our eyes meet.  What the fuck?!

He walks away.

Another fella passes.  I don’ know him. I hear him say somthin’ too…. but his lips ain’ movin’…

What the fuck?!  His mouth…

And that’s when I feel it.

A rumblin’.  Starting at the base of my spine.  I start a quivering and shakin’.

It’s like there’s a monster inside of me, clawin’ its way up my back, trying to escape.

I feel full of fire and air.  The world starts spinin’.  I feel like I might throw up or fall over, but I can’t move.  Stuck still as a gravestone.

The creature inside me works its way up to my neck and I feel like a column of spinning flames all the way down through my rear.  My head drops back.  My eyes roll up into their sockets…

And I start screamin’.  Screamin’ from the bottom of my lungs for all the world to hear.

I can’t see.  I can barely hear the words emanatin’ out of me.

I’m sayin’ things.  Things I’ve never thought nor heard before.  Secret things…

And that’s when I realize.  That wasn’t just no cold I had last week.

How the fuck did this happen to me?!

I can’ be… I ain’t no… I’ve never been.

They say only queers get it, but I ain’ no queer!  There’s some sort of mistake!  Normals can get it too!

Or… am I lyin’ to myself?!

The words keep spouting out of me like some sort of toxic fountain.  I am out of control.  There’s absolutely nothin’ I can do to stop it.

In a moment… In one fucking moment… my entire world comes crashing down.

How can I ever go home?



 

Where’s Paul?

I almos’ wonder it aloud, under my breath.

He should have been home by now; sun’s nearly down.

It’ll be dark soon; and the chil’ens need feedin’; and the chickens need takin’ in.

I’d do it m’self, but I be havin’ another one of my spells.

The Chinese lady came by again today.  Stuck her needles in me.  Gave me some sor’ of tonic to drink again.  It helps… but only a little.

Grateful that anythin’ be helpin’ at all.  Western medicine failed me.  Can’t tell me what’s wrong.  Why I can’ get out of bed mos’ days.  Why I’m always so tired.  So unable to do the things I oughta.  The things I’ve always been gone and done.

The needles make me a little less tired.  I can do a bit after that Cho lady comes. But not enough, anyways.  I hear the liddle ones callin’ down the hall.  They’re home from school.

I call out to Steven to help them, since Paul’s not back yet.

He was gone ages ago… I don’ know what that boy’s got up to now.  He’s usually so reliable.

Had to get me a type of mushroom from the store.  Had to order it special for me; needed a prescription and everythin’.  Needin’ so much lately jus’ to make me alrigh’.

Don’t know why I need it.  My ‘Ma and ‘Paw worked sun up through sun down every single day of their lives and never once took a break.  Died workin’, they did.

And here’s me.  Spending nearly five years restin’.  Takin’ naps.  Lyin’ around while others take care of me.

It isn’ right, I tell ya!  If a person can’ contribute, they’d best be gone and takin’ themselves off to the house of the old or takin’ their own lives, if you know me.

Those who can’ contribute have no place in this world – that’s what I’ve always said.

Makes me so ashamed.  So damned ashamed to be where I am!

Where is Paul?  This really isn’t like him.  Has me all worried something proper, now.

I call out to Steven.  He hollers back.  Sounds like he got the liddle ones all situated.

If their father were back, nothin’ would be like this.  I’d be well – up and about.  He’d be raisin’ the family.  It wouldn’t fall on poor Paul; world on his shoulders, that one.  Takes everythin’ so seriously.

No, if John hadn’ run off and left us to fend for ourselves, nothin’ would be like this.  We’d be a proper family.  I’d never have come down sick. It’s all his fault.  Damn man.

Clutching my cane for support, I make my way over to the window.  A forty-seven year old woman, and I need a cane.  My, how God has cursed me.  Don’ know what I did wrong to deserve this.

I make my way over to the ledge and grasp it hard.  I make it over just in time to see the sun fully set behind the tree line.  The sky is as azure blue as the first day of spring, with lines of fuchsia startin’ to trace its way across the clouds.  I cherish these vibrant sunsets like the last little bit of water before it passes through a sieve.  I know they are so temporary.  Like this life.  Somethin’ so short and brief – and must be heartily cherished.

I don’t know how much longer I’ve got on this world.  Maybe I’ll make a full recovery and live another fifty years.  Or perhaps I’ll kick over the bucket tomorrow.  Sometimes… sometimes I feel so damn tired that I could just die tomorrow.  Go to sleep and never awake.

How bliss’ul that’d be, to sleep.  To sleep… and p’chance, to dream?  For an eternity?

I hear some noise from outside.  Hollerin’.  Seems like some things almost at fisticuffs.

The trees yonder have cast long shadows across my front yard for the last hour, so it’s nearly too dark to see who or what is causin’ the commotion.

It looks like two young men.  Hollerin’ and shovin’ each other somethin’ awful. I can tell by the way one of them moves that it’s my Paul.  …my Paul?

I holler at ‘em, through the screen: “You two stop that ruckus RIGHT NAW!  PAUL, you get your ASS inside double quick now, y’hear?!”

One shoves the other one time more and spits at his feet.  The one shoved tumbles over, and the man doin’ the shovin’ runs off into the blackness.

He, I’m ‘ssumin’ it’s Paul at this point, picks himself up; brushes off his knees; and picks up some items littered around the yard from the kerfuffle.   He jogs his way into the house.

I hear the door swing open and shut.  I start to pour my weight into my cane and turn my way ‘round to head to the door.  Why would Paul be gettin’ into a fight with someone?  Let alone, why they be spittin’ at him?  That’s not like Paul… he’s such a good boy.  So patient and gentle.

The voices in the hallway sound frantic.  Heated, even.  I cross the rag rug my gran’ made for us when she was a girl.  Stich’d it herself.  It’s been worn down considerably over these last eighty or so years… but it still brings me joy to see it.  It was my ‘Ma’s and now it’s mine.

The wood of the old farmhouse creeks under my feet.  Even wearin’ my pink, terrycloth slippers, I still make the floors squeak.  My feet are so cold…and feel so heavy.  I’ve lost all my muscle, but I swear my limbs feel ten times heavier than they used’ta.

As I reach the door, I can hear the voices clearly now.  I’m sure it’s my oldes’, Paul, doin’ the speakin’:

I can’ help it!  I don’ know what to do!  You know me, Steven!  You know this ain’ me!  Yah gotta help me!”

“Like Hell I do, Paul.  You know what we do to people like them!  You get gone now! I’m sick at the sight of ya!”

“I tell ya, Steven!  It ain’ me!  I ain’ never done nothin’ like them… them… weirdos!  You know me!  I’ve been..”

“Talk to ‘Ma.  She’ll tell you what’s what!”

I hear their footsteps racin’ towards my bedroom.  Up the stairs.  Double pairs of heavy, worn work-boots clumping their way up teh me.

I stand there in the doorway.  My floral nightgown fluttering around me from the breeze of the open window.

What in tarnation is happenin’, I wonder?

I see the peeks of their heads emerge over the bend in the stairwell.

Paul, my oldest.  So handsome.  Looks just like his ‘Paw.  Jet black hair and a five o’clock shadow that starts at nine o’clock in the mornin’.  His slightly younger brother, Steven, who always took after my side more.  Looks like my brother, Ben.  They both look angered somethin’ awful!

I see fear in both their eyes.  Fear ain’ an emotion I feel accustomed to seein’ in either my young men.  The liddle ones?  Sure; I see fear in ’em all the time.  But not these men.

They stop in fron’ of me.  Both of them quiverin’.

Tears start wellin’ up in Paul’s eyes.  Lord, I haven’ seen that boy cry since he was seven years old.  Doesn’ suit him.  I nearly wonder aloud what on Earth could have happen’ to him in the village today to merit such behavior.

He looks at me.  Then looks at the floor.

Steven ain’ looking at me neither.  Under his breath, he mutters:

“Tell her, Paulie.  She’s gotta right to know, ya know?  To hear it from you.”

Paul quivers.  A single tear is runnin’ down his check into his manly stubble.  I always loved that part ‘bout him.  Reminds me keenly of his daddy.

Wha’sit, Paul?  Whas the matter whit’cha?

And then, I don’ believe it… Paul falls onto his knees.  Starts rockin’ and shakin’.  Heavin’ up a bellow of sobs like the worl’ be endin’…

Oh Ma! Ma!” He cries over and over.   Repeatin’ those words like he would wrangle with his blanket when he was a babe: wrappin’ it round himself again and again for comfort.

Wha’ is it, child?”

“Oh, Ma! …I gots it… I gots the sickness…”

He looks up at me.  Eyes huge as teacups.  Looks at me, expectant like.

The sickness?  What he mean, “the sickness?”

I don’ know what he mean.  He catch ill?  He got the mumps again?  The shingles?

I motion for him to rise up.  He staggers slowly to his feet.

Nah tell me clearly, Paul, what’s ailin’ yeh?”

I pray that he ain’ like me.  That he take aftah his daddy.  That he be strong and vibrant, like his daddy was.  Not be like his rottin’, ol’ motha’.

He speaks again… then stops.  Afraid, almos’ to say what is next…

Silence.

I smile at him, reassurin’ like.  Go on, I try to say wit’ my eyes.

He tries…

“Ma… I don’ know how I gone done catch it… y’alls know what I’m like… who I be…  ‘Cause I never!  I promise I never with… but I done… I done caught the plague…  The… oh, you know which one I’m talkin’ ‘bout…”

I look at him closely.  It can’t be true.  Not my Paul.  Steadfast, and pure.  Always doin’ the righ’ thing…

I look at Steven… he’s noddin’ his head.  He says he overheard the fight outside.  That was Mary Sue’s son, Bishop, wrestlin’ with Paul.  That boy heard him a shoutin’ and a stammerin’ in the market place.  Tellin’ everyone their secret business.  Told Paul he should get outta town, if he knows what’s good for ‘em.

Silence again… both, in my mind and in the room.

I know not what to say or think.  This can’ be true.  Not my Paul!

And then words… words I would never have known were mine were comin’ outta my mouth:

Well, that be true, you’d be hightail it outta here now, Paulie!  Can’ have you ‘round ‘fectin’ any of the other chillins’.  You betta shoo quick-like, les’ I have Steven chase you off with Dad’s ol’ revolver!”

That can’ be me!  I can’ be sayin’ these words to my own son!  My own, beloved Paul!

But sure ‘nough, I said ‘em.  Paul’s eyes go even wider, if ya can believe it.  Stares at me like he don’ know me.  Like I ain’ his kin…

Ma… Ma… you can’… you can’ mean you would…”

“I mean what I done gone say!  You get your ass outta my house this moment, or Steven will shoot your butt-cheek off!”

He stammers.  He cries again.  He grabs for my nightdress and tries to pull me into a hug. I pull away.  I don’ wan’ his poisoned hands touchin’ me or my things.

Is this really my oldes’ son that I’m currently pullin’ away from?  I should be kissin’ him!  Coddilin’ him… Tellin’ him everythin’s gonna be alrigh’.  There’s a mistake!  Or, if there isn’ …we’ll find some way to fix him… somehow or some way…

But I ain’t.  I’m pullin’ my skirt free of his grasp, roundin’ round the door, back into my bed chambers.  And shuttin’ the door on his face.

He’s on his knees, pullin’ on his hair.  Screamin’ and a cryin’, carrying on…

With the door bolted shut, I lean my back to it; collapse onto it.  Tears are streamin’ down my face now, too.  How could I do it?  How could I shut the door on my oldes’, my precious son?

I don’ rightly know.

I hear Steven and Paul shoutin’ on the other side of the oak.  Steven is tryin’ to get Paul onto his feet.  Threatin’ him.  Pullin’ on him.

Paul is refusin’ to budge.  He’s bangin’ on the door… hollerin’ to me.  Callin’ to me to let him in!  That there’s a mistake!  To please answer his pleas.

But I don’t.  I remain stock still.  Silent.

I don’t budge a muscle or make a noise.

I hear Steven pull him down the stairs.  It sounds like Paul refused to walk and maybe had to be pushed down a few.  I hear a hard knocking sound as part of his body gets dragged down the steps.

Still, I don’ move.  I don’ respond.  Why don’ I?

I’m sure the little one’s have gathered below to watch the scene, by now.  Little Jimmy and Phil and Martia.

I hear more fightin’, more screamin’ at the front door.  Steven is the loudest.  Paul is still wailin’.

And then…

Silence.

Again, silence.

I’m wonderin’, waitin’ to find out what’s happen’.  Did Paul quietly go?  I didn’ hear the door slam close…

And then I hear it…

BANG!

Daddy’s revolver.  I hear a scream:

Paul’s.

More sobbin’.  The front door opens and shuts quickly.  I hear a man outside sufferin’.  Rushin’ and stumbin’ and screamin’ his way to the fron’ gate.

I hear more shoutin’ downstairs.  Steven shoutin’ after him.  I can’ quite hear what exactly he’s sayin’.  Probably somethin’ along the lines of, “Never come back or we’ll kill ya proper.”

It’s nearly dark outside now.  The sky has gone to mauve and eggplant and deep blue.

Little traces of gold can still be seen vibrantly glowin’ on the edges of the lowest clouds.

It’s past sunset, truly now.

I stand there, back still to the door…

And I wonder, nearly aloud:

What the hell did I just do?

I don’ move for nearly five minutes… until Steven comes and knocks on my door.




 

What’s that?!

I almost speak it aloud, as startled as I am.

I sit up in my tent.  The plasticky fibers of the sleeping bag brush against my naked skin.

Somethin’ is out there wanderin’, and it’s hurt bad.  I can feel it.

It’s one of the many surprises that have come with this new disease.  The ability to sense another living being’s pain.  Animal, plant, or human: doesn’t matter.

It’s part of the reason that I’ve liked livin’ out here in this makeshift community of outcasts.  There’s less sufferin’ goin’ on out here for us to have to feel.  Less hatred and meanness.  In the towns there’s so much of those feelin’s, both for one’s own self as well as one’s neighbor.

Not that the animals don’t feel them: pain, hunger, frustration.  But their feelin’s are more muted, like.  More distant.  A little less complex.

And, generally, they’re happier than their human counterparts.

But this ain’t no animal.  Nope – I can sense it clearer now.  There’s someone – a human – in tremendous physical and emotional pain not too many leagues away.  He’s been injured somethin’ powerful in his body.  But that pain in no way comes close to the ‘mount of sufferin’ in his mind.

I glance at my ol’ Nixon watch.  Nearly midnight.   This poor things’ probably been tramplin’  through the woods for sometime, I reckon.

We all go to bed pretty early here.  I wonder how many of the others have woken up ‘cause of this?  It might just be me.  I’m a light sleeper anyways.

I reach over the edge of my cot and grab my polka-dotted boxer shorts.  I unzip the side of my bag, quiet like, so I don’t wake my tentmate.  His name is Fred, and he’s been here two weeks.  I’ve been here for much longer; I’ve no wish to go back now.  Fred still hopes he can one day return to his family and loved ones in a village two leagues over.

… We’ll see.

He’s sleepin’ like a little kitten.  Crouchin’, I slide my undies up over my thighs; wrangle a pair of muddy jeans from a heap nearby; and throw on my boots without botherin’ with socks.  I have my puffy, brown jacket in the corner.  I don’t bother with a shirt, the jacket’ll do jus’ fine.

It’s a surprisingly chilly October night.  Normally, it wouldn’t get into the forties for another couple of weeks.  Guess winter’s comin’ on early this year.  Or jus’ a freak drop in the temperature.

I’ve got an old kerosene lamp by the foot of my tent.  I wrestle out some of them waterproof matches from my pocket and strike one alight.  I keep the lamplight low so as not to awaken any of the others who aren’t already aroused.

Awe, that poor fella, whoever he be, is wanderin’.  No idea where he’s goin’, I can tell.  From what I reckon, where I sense all those feelin’s are comin’ from, he’ll shortly be in danger of fallin’ into the creek.

And in this cold weather, a quick drop into those icy waters might be lethal.  And he won’t know he’s upon it until he’s fallin’ right smart into it.

I best be hurryin’.

I try to scurry between the trees as quickly as I’m able, makin’ my way towards the poor fella out there all alone.  I don’ hear nothin’ yet.  But I know he can’t be too far away.

A full moon peeks it’s glossy head through the tree tips.  The air is so cool and crisp.  I can see my breath a l’il.

I’ve always loved the autumn nights since I was a young boy.  I used to imagine witches and warlocks wanderin’ about on nights like this.  Under the harvest moon – like tonight.

Never thought back then that I’d be livin’ in my own version of one of them fantasy stories.

My brother caught the illness first.  He’s gay too.  Came out before I did, even though he’s the younger one.  Gave me the strength and the guts to admit proudly who I am too.

He’s livin’ in the camp as well.  Got himself a boyfriend, now.  They share a tent together.

Me, I ain’t got nobody.  My tentmate was put there with me by the fine individuals who keep this little rustic, tent dwellin’ community in order.  We’ve got our own mayor now and everythin’!  Assign chores, do what’s necessary to keep everyone happy and healthy, do our part.  It’s our own little haven, out here on our own.  Never expected when they be runnin’ us out of our houses that they’d actually be doin’ us a favor.  But, it’s better out here.  Really.

I can hear the guy now.  Moanin’.  Bumpin’ into things.  He don’t sound well, even from this far away.

Quiet and gentle like, I whisper out to him:

Don’t be ‘fraid.  I know you’re there and you’re injured.  I’m here to help yah… if yah wan’ it.”

He pauses.  Doesn’t move a muscle.  I can tell he’s scared of me.

I speak again:  “Whatever’s goin’ on for you… you’re welcome here.  We hold no grudges ‘gainst you for what you might’ve done or who you be.”

I pause.  I don’t move; still as the grave.  The lamplight extends out about twelve paces yonder.  He’s just beyond the edge of my ring of light.

I hear him move a bit.  Shufflin’.

I suspect he’s makin’ up his mind.  This is not an easy decision for him to make. Does he walk towards me, accept my help, or does he run away?

It’s not easy for townsfolk to join us, sometimes.  ‘Specially if they were one of the ones to hate us most.  Some of the biggest haters ended up joinin’ our community.  Seems like those most vocal in their hatred and disgust had the most to hide themselves.

Hard to admit their hypocrisy when the time comes that they can’t hide it no longer.  Takes serious guts to admit when you’re wrong.  Some of ‘em just ain’t strong enough for it.  Prefer to go it on their own, rather than apologize for their mistakes.

This guy’s havin’ a hell of a time reckonin’, I sense.  If he weren’ so injured, I ‘spect he probably wouldn’t be seekin’ our aid.  Probably try to go it on his own.  …but if he were to try that now… I reckon he’d be dead by sunrise, the condition he’s in.

I don’t think he really wants to be here, lookin’ for us… but he knows he gotta.  He gotta accept our help, square with his own true feelin’s.

I wait, patiently.  I want to let him decide…   Will he or won’t he?

Shortly, I see a tall figure start to make his way into the lamp ligh’.  Broad shoulders, brown work boots.  He’s all hunched over; and I see that his left shoulder is all crimson, slick with blood.  It’s dripping down his arm and past his waist.  He’s lost a lot of it, I clearly see.  He’s going to need a medic quick, if he does decide to come with me back to camp.

As he gets closer, he begins to lift his head and try to discern my face past the lampligh’.

As the golden hues of the flame illuminate the ridges of his face, I almost falter: I almos’ take a step back away from him.

It’s Mabel’s son:

Paul.

Paul had been one of m’best friends when I was a kid.  Right through till we became teenagers.  But then, round fourteen or so, he began to change.  Was mean.  Never knew him to have a mean bone in his body till that point.

Started pokin’ at me, jeerin’ me.  Makin’ fun of the way I moved and talked.  Wanted nothin’ to do with me.

When I was one of the first ten or so to catch it in town (after my kid brother, Billy), he was one of the most vicious rioters chasin’ me out with torch and pitchfork…

He’s one of the las’ people I suspected would end up here.  And he’s also probably one of the least welcomed.  He hurt a lot of people, Paul did.

I’ve got some really strong feelin’s myself about him.  Don’ know if I really want to be offerin’ my help at all now, actually.  Feelin’ the hurt of a lot of old stings and bruises.

Don’ know why I didn’ suspect all that macho bravado was jus’ an act.  Compensatin’ for whatever insecurities he felt inside.  Tryin’ to act all manly, with his daddy all gone and all.  Tryin’ to act super macho to impress his little friends and kid siblin’s.

Compensatin’ for the fact that he was just a little, lost queer kid at heart.

Can’ tell you how some of the roughest, biggest, most macho-posin’ men have ended up here.  All of ‘em fakers.  Pretendin’ to be somethin’ they ain’t.  Tryin’ hard to pass off bein’ straight when that weren’t their birthright.

Our eyes connect.I’m so surprised to feel this flood of my own feelin’s in the forefront of my mind.  Hate. Betrayal.  Anger.  Righteous vengeance.

All the resentment I’ve held for this man over the past many years.  How he hurt me.  Hurt me true and deep.

But then, below that, almost like a balloon rising out of a patch of fog… I start to feel… love, forgiveness, acceptance.

It’s hard, these powers of telepathy.  Knowin’ what another fella is thinkin’, and more-so, what they’re feelin’.  But, I swear, it’s even harder bein’ so much more aware of your own self.  Gotta see everythin’ you’re really goin’ though.  Can’t hide from it or mask it.  Can’t drink it away.

And in him, I start to sense all the years of struggle and frustration.  All the lies he had to tell to himself and everyone around him just to be able to go on with his life.  How much hatred he had (and still has) for himself and those like him.

And how much fear.

It’s hard to hate someone truly, once you know all the crimes they’ve forced upon themselves.  All the suffrin’ they be made themselves go through.

What he did to me, the pain he caused me, is nothin’ in comparison to the damage he’s done gone did himself.

And in all but a matter of seconds, I’ve fluttered through this cyclone of complex emotions and landed on just one:

Forgiveness.

I forgive him entirely.  I pity his curren’ state, and I wan’ nothin’ more than to ease his burden.

I hear there be some that think of us as bein’ saintly.  I don’ think that’s right.  We just be one thing, and one thing only: Human.

This disease has made us more human, not less.  It’s let us empathize with our fellow men in a way we never could have before.

And I love this man, I realize.  Like I love myself.

In his eyes, I see all the happy memories we shared as boys.  Our many adventures together.  The mischief we got up to.  Like smashin’ the windows in Mrs. O’Keenen’s barn.   And tumblin’ in the grass together, laughin’ our heads off as we rolled down the hill behind the schoolhouse.

I love this man.  There’s no other word for it. I do.

I open my arms wide to him.  A gesture of welcomin’.

“I’d like to help ya, Paul… if you’d let me.”

He looks at me.  He doesn’t know what to do.

Does he give up his mountain of sufferin’?  Does he join us?  Does he give up every illusion he’s ever believed about himself?  Or does he carryon on his own and probably die before mornin’?  It sounds like an easy choice to make… but it’s not easy for him.

He’s going to have to walk the rest of the way to me.

Tears are wellin’ up in his eyes.  I know there’s a lot he want’s to say, I can feel an avalanche of feelin’s rushin’ through him.  It’ll take him many days to process what’s happened tonight.  I’m assumin’ this was the firs’ nigh’ of his awakenin’.  When he discovered his gifts.  For that’s what I see all this as: not some sort of disease or sickness.  But a blessin’.

He takes another step forwards.  And pauses. Tears are streamin’ down his face proper, now.

He’s holdin’ out.  Parts within him are warrin’, I can feel it.

Which way does he choose?

One step.  Then another.  Then a pause.  Almost turning back.

Finally…

He does it: he’s standin’ next to me fully.  He stumbles and practically falls into my arms.

I wrap my arms around him as gently as I dare, with his gapin’ bullet wound and all.  I wonder how he got it.  I could probably pry, reach out with my mind to see his memories of tonight, but I don’ want to.  That’s private, and he can tell me his story when he’s good and ready.  We are not nosey as the townsfolk make us out to be.

Gently as we’re able, I start to walk him back to camp.  I’ll alert Mr. Stevens, the best doctor in the community; see what he can do to set him a’right.

We haven’ lost anyone yet who’s found their way to us.  No matter how badly off they come to us, we somehow heal them, bring them back.

It’s like we got magic about us, or somethin’.

Paul tries to use his voice: “Bryan… I’ve, uh… I’m…”

I can figure what he’s tryin’ to say.  Again, I don’t want to pry… but I can imagine what a fella in his state would be wantin’ to make amends over.

“I know, Paul…  you don’t need to say no more…  save your strength, ol’ buddy…”

He tries to stagger to his feet, free of my support.  I pull him back into my grasp once more… And then…

Then… he leans forward and puts his face close to mine.

I’m surprised.  Is he gonna spit at me? Or want to apologize for what he’s done?  Or does he say ‘get out of here and leave me be, you fucking queer?’

He leans closer… his eyelashes are nearly brushin’ mine…

And he… he…

My mind goes blank.  I’m entirely surprised.

Guess I don’t know everythin’.

BLESSINGS for Everyone!

I recently had a conversation with a friend.  She – unlike my parents who have said something like this to me for years – was finally able to get through to me an idea that I have never before been able to truly take in.

It’s about comparison.

She pointed out to me how much of my life I spend evaluating others – and by extension, myself.  This person is highly attractive – this person not so much.  This person is successful – this person is less than.  This person is talented – this person is a want-to-be.

And, more or less the same, to me too.

I’m attractive – or not.  I’m successful – or not.  I’m talented – or not.

And over the years, throughout my spiritual quest, I have managed to consciously manipulate this pattern so I believe: “Well, that person may be rich, but that doesn’t give them happiness.  That person may be homeless – but they could still be able to find contentment.  That person may have killer abs, but does that really make him sleep better at night in the arms of a person who loves him unendingly?”

I would and do remind myself that nothing in this world guarantees joy – and in the end, we will loose everything physical and tangible to age, decay, and time.

So I’d say: “Yeah – they’re hot… but so what?!”

But what my friend pointed so eloquently out to me is this:

I’m living in a contestant state of “better than.”  Even if I’m reminding myself that their gifts may be temporary and lacking deep satisfaction, I’m still evaluating.

This mindset is one of lack.  One of insufficiency.

There’s only so much beauty – and it’s a competition.  There’s only so much success – and it’s a competition. Or, even, there’s only so much enlightenment – and it’s also a competition.

Instead of just blessing them and feeling grateful for them, and myself, wherever they/we are.

When I see someone with many riches: I bless them.  When I see someone lacking: I bless them.

I bless everyone.  And love them.  And thank the heavens for their gifts.  Love them for what they have.

And let go of the last shards of envy I still carry with me.

It’s so easy to build up a self-perception by one’s many attributes.  To define one’s self by one’s successes and failures.  Best features and ugly distractors.

Instead of just being thankful.  Instead of just being grateful.  FOR EVERYTHING.

So this is my new goal:  Just be deeply grateful.

Celebrate others’ gifts because they’re worth celebrating.  Instead of measuring myself up to them, just say: Bless them.

Love them.

Send them light and happiness and joy from the heart of the universe.

I’m not sure this’ll be easy – but I think it’ll be heartily worthwhile.

I want to find this non-dualistic, this non-better-than outlook.

I want to embrace the beauty of all.  The grace of all.  The light in all.

It’s going to be a monumental mind-shift.  And I invite you to join me on this journey.  See if we can both reprogram our minds to just see what light there is in others.  And not decipher who burns the brighter.

To just let life be as it is – and give thanks.

This is my opportunity to grow.

Care to join?

Letting Go of Needing to Be Extraordinary

I remember in high school being quite taken with the not-quite-so-authentic-or-inspired lyrics of Avril Lavigne:

“I want to know that I

Have been to the extreme

So knock me off my feet

Come on now give it to me

Anything to make me feel alive

Is it enough to love?

Is it enough to breath?

Somebody rip my heart out

And leave me here to bleed

Is it enough to die?

Somebody save my life

I’d rather be anything but ordinary please”

Like I said, not entirely the most inspired bit of song writing ever penned to paper… but it encapsulated a desire that was beginning to pressurize in my chest; a desire to do great and extraordinary things in my life.

An excerpt taken from my daily journal around this same teenage-time reveals my own, modest ambitions towards achieving greatness:

Sept 16, 2002

Life Goals:

  • President of the United States
  • Prime Minister of Britain
  • Be knighted
  • Win at least two Academy Awards for Best Director an Actor
  • Win a Tony Award for Best Actor
  • Win a Nobel Peace Prize

…the list went on from there with at least fifteen more items of a similar nature.  Although I am relatively confident that my fourteen-year-old self was cognizant enough to realize that  A) Several of the items in that list would be tactically impossible due to different laws and regulations, such as nationality; B) Would take multiple life times to fulfill, if at all; and C) Would require substantially different skill-sets and life orientations – and yet, I am not so certain I was fully aware of the unfeasibility of such.

The craving within me to achieve something “Great” was profound beyond measure.  I recollect lying on a heap of crumpled comforter, on the floor of my parent’s master bedroom at sixteen, having my first-ever legitimate panic attack due to the fact that should have already attained something publicly noteworthy and profound in my already advancing years of age.

Long story short: I was a nut-job, hellbent for glory, and totally disconnected with any deep sense of self-worth.

I wanted the profoundly extra-ordinary to manifest in my life and convince me that I was merely good enough.

Sound like a current President we all have the misfortune to be currently acquainted with?

At that time in my life, I really did not have a lot going on to teach me my inherent worth.  I had few (if any) real friendships, I was scared of most everyone I encountered, I was bullied horrendously, I was totally disconnected from my sexuality, and so repressed that I considered myself “broken” because I could not feel what other normal teenagers felt.  I felt really worthless.

And I wanted something glorious beyond measure to tell me I had worth – because I could not find it in myself.

And so, going to college shortly thereafter, I decided to become a professional actor – because assuredly Hollywood and the thundering applause of a raucous crowed would give me that fulfillment.  And, if it wouldn’t be tangibly possible to attain all of those checkpoints on my high school to-do list, at least onscreen I could play a President, King, Physicist and Astronaut and achieve some feeling of that attainment.

Well, life, as she has a way of doing, has kicked me in the gut and pulled the rug out from underneath me, knocking me down, enough times since that point that I began to question that longing.  Why did I want to be a movie star?  What was I afraid of in starting to date other people (something I did not attempt until I was twenty-five years of age)?

Long story cut very short: I eventually started to develop sincere self worth.  I started to learn my “size.”  Learn to know what I had to genuinely offer and what was mere aggrandizement.  I started to genuinely connect to who I truly was, what I wanted, and what I had to give.

A large step in that process for me was discovering meditation.  I truly credit it for giving me my life back.  It taught me to start removing the layers of facade I had unintentionally fabricated, to uncover my truest self beneath.

And – it simultaneously connected me with the mystical – the ethereal – and the divine.

I moved into a meditation ashram right after college – where I learned that I was “special.”   I had unique karma to encounter this practice.  I was blessed.  And that I had a chance to go beyond what normal humans experienced – and live a life that was truly “extraordinary.”

Wait… Sound familiar?  … somehow I traded one dream of self-aggrandizement for another.

In hind sight, I do see there was a dangerous mentality to the tradition I entered.  A promise of specialness. A guarantee of life being more than normal humans (outside the practice) could understand.  And that gave me purpose and a feeling of divine grace.

And then, as all false-idols must, my sacred imaginings shattered to the ground.  The leaders that promised this mystical and otherworldly ideal were revealed to be more human than they presented themselves to be.

And I ended up parting ways from that tradition – heartbroken and distraught.  But still much more alive and authentically myself than I encountered it, thanks to the still-excellent teachings I received.

But in wake of that leaving, I once again have found that craving inside me to be “extraordinary” resurfacing.

Now, I no longer want to be a movie star, or famous, or a figure of social importance.  I actually now desire the simple things: a loving home, a gracious partner, good food, sturdy friendships.

IMG_0478

But there’s part of me that wants something so much more – something that I am now beginning to call a connection to the divine.  My experiences in the ashram started to illuminate some glimpses of that for me.

And if I am totally honest with myself – that longing for something more than what we associate “normal” to be – is indeed a spiritual longing.

A desire to return to a state of pure-bliss, pure-awareness, pure-truth that the ancient rishis and “seers” have articulated existing within each and every one of us.

That the longing for the “Extraordinary” is nothing more than a longing to return home – to my Soul.

Spiritual traditions across the globe have articulated that the Earth is just one place conscious beings reside – and that there are other places that we might be more akin to.  That we are “spirits having a physical experience.”

My question is now for myself: how can I truly appreciate and relish the ordinary – while striving for the extraordinary within me – and not through outer glorification?

How can I cultivate the magic, love, light, and prosperity I feel in glimpses in my meditation in the rest of my waking life?

How can I live a life fully empowered, aware, enheartened, and steadfast?

How can I live in truth?

These are my current questions.  Questions to which I am unsure there are solid answers.

What do you think?  Please share your insights and inspirations below!

Namaste,  Kaelan 🙂

What We Can Do In These Troubled Times

We are currently in a very troubled time in society.  Rage, anger, hatred, and fear are often at the forefront of our media.  Terror and hate crimes seem to run rampant.  Fears of others due to their race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or social background are incredibly blatant.  As I write this article, the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida has just recently occurred.  Over one hundred individuals were physically injured or killed – and untold others have been emotionally scarred by this senseless violence.

Being born in America in the late twentieth century, I have been fortunate to be raised in a culture of relative peace.  But over the last decade, and particularly through the rise of social media and online news reporting, violence has been sensationalized and made more immediately pressing.  We have become inundated with scenes of horror.  And at the same time, we have increasingly become desensitized to it.  Our “entertainment” has become increasingly brutal, almost to the point of gladiatorial events.  Video games and mainstream films are dominated by graphic violence.  These systems almost purport the idea that an acceptable way to deal with anger and frustration is to go hurt another individual.  That taking a life costs very little and is not terribly damning, according to America’s entertainment.

Moreover, our desensitization extends even more heavily to groups that do not directly include us.  “What does it matter if tens of thousands of people are slaughtered in Syria; we don’t know them, they’re a different culture, and that’s just part of what ‘those people’ do.  Who cares if sixty-four citizens of Chicago were shot over Memorial Day weekend, as they are predominantly poor, black men; and that doesn’t really include me.  So what if a room full of LGBTQ-identified people are lit up by a radicalized homophobe with a semi-automatic rifle? I’m not gay; it’s not my problem.”  It seems that feeling separateness and apathy has become the dominant perspective of Americans and the West in general.

And here’s the problem: if we just identify with the small group with which we surround ourselves, then – you’re right – it doesn’t matter.  If we just identify with being white: it’s a black people problem.  If we’re Christian: it’s an Islamic problem.  If we’re straight: it’s a gay problem.  If we live in a first world country: it’s a third world problem.  Whatever your vantage may be, it’s easy to isolate oneself and decide it really doesn’t matter because it does not immediately affect you.  With the rise of social media, online messaging, and increasing globalization, the goal we must all strive to reach is the understanding of this: all of these struggles are HUMAN problems.

It does not matter your race or ethnographic heritage, it does not matter your religious ideology or spiritual tradition, it does not matter your country of residence or gender identity: the welfare of all human beings is of concern for each of us.  Violence against another living creature – human or animal – is NEVER an appropriate act.  Intentionally causing pain to another being is ALWAYS wrong and unjustified.  I comprehend that we all have hurts, fears, prejudices, misunderstandings, and more; but it is our work as human beings to resolve those conflicts WITHIN OURSELVES.  It is our task to become free, loving, accepting, and tolerant inside.  It’s too lofty of a goal to say we must love and embrace one another as brothers and sisters, but we can surely achieve tolerance and compassion for our fellow humans.  These are some of the simplest skills we teach small children in preschool; surely adults can conquer such.

This is a goal every citizen of Earth can attain within his or her lifetime: cultivating empathy for the whole human race.  Teach your children to respect and listen to their classmates.  Console a neighbor in his time of suffering.  Forgive the woman who wronged you in the past.  Speak love.  Teach kindness.  Practice forgiveness.  And remember two of the “golden rules” I heard frequently while growing up: “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you” and “If you haven’t anything nice to say, then don’t say it at all.”  Those simple childhood guidelines could have worked wonders had the attackers in any of the recent shootings taken them to heart.

We can choose to focus on the discord, the pain, the suffering – or we can choose to focus on the good.  Pay attention to the people in your community helping one another.  Thank the stranger who went out of her way to pay you a small courtesy.  Bake some cookies for a friend just to let them know that you love them and wish them a nice day.  Find ways to cultivate kindness, generosity, heartfelt gratitude, and love.  We can only change the world by changing ourselves.  So let’s start with that.  Begin espousing the behaviors and views that you want the media and the world around you to exhibit.  Recognize your place as a global citizen.  We’ve got a long way yet to go towards unity; but we can make it there, step by step and inch by inch, if we just put in a little work ourselves every day.

Namaste (the peace within me bows to the peace within you, inside we are all one).

Art and words by: Kaelan Strouse

Learning to Love One’s Self

As humans, we are a mass of contradictions.  “I am a good person” can often be paired with “I am selfish.”  When getting dressed for the evening, “I look great” can live alongside “I look like crap.”  So often throughout the day our minds can fluctuate between “I am a star” to “I am nobody,” or “I am amazing” to “I am less than shit,” or “I am so lovable” to “I am unworthy of love.”  This is the human condition: to continually fluctuate in our perception and understanding of who and what we are.

From the Western perspective, we are supposed to solidify our identity and construct a strong persona.  “I am Kaelan.  I am six feet, one inch tall.  I am relatively handsome.  I am smart, kind, and trustworthy.  I am a loyal partner.  I have a clever wit and am generally well liked by individuals.” And according to this view, the more we reinforce those ideas, the more secure and happy we will live.  But what happens when those opposing thoughts creep in, as they will do?  What then?  Do we let the whole foundation of our self-understanding and self-confidence dissolve?  If we cannot quantify and label ourselves, then who are we?

In Eastern philosophy, there is the idea of “samskara.”  This word roughly translates to mean “impression.”   Every experience we have in our life leaves an impression on our subtle body.  Imagine, if you will, a man made out of tin.  With every experience he undergoes, another little dent is made on his metal exterior, pushing it inwards.  Over time, those dents and divots will accumulate, pushing his surface further and further towards his hollow core, until he eventually turns into a ball of metal.  He went from an open and expansive being to a contracted, solid mass.  This metaphor illustrates the exact same process that happens to us internally as we live our lives.  As little children, we start out open and free; but as life experiences accumulate, we continuously contract until we become dense, heavy, and constricted.

Not only do we have to contend with the myriad experiences we’ve undergone in this life, but (if we are still following Eastern logic) also from every previous life we’ve ever lived, which can be many.  This means that we have centuries of impressions pressing on us, pressuring us to contract, that we must overcome.  Now, going back to my original point about the difficulty in attempting to succinctly label our identities, it furthermore means that old impressions can surface and contradict longstanding opinions we have about ourselves.  Have you ever had a strange thought come into your awareness seemingly unassociated with your usual train of logic?  Yet it seems unusually potent?  This could be an old samskara surfacing.

We are assembled by layer after layer of impressions, each vying for our focus and our willingness to include it in our definition of “this is who I am.”  We are filled with so many contradicting identities and desires that it becomes impossible to pin any one down as “this is me.”   Yogic philosophy says that in our previous lives we have been every different gender, race, sexual orientation, belief system, religion, etc.  Because of these opposing and overlapping experiences, the more we try to limit ourselves to any box, the more we realize that we don’t really fit.

“As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings.”

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of self-help books.  One of the common themes of this genre is the importance of positive thinking and trying to identify with only the more happy thoughts that bubble forth.  It encourages creating affirmations to affix your amazingness in your psyche.  And book after book, I found myself failing at this.  I felt like I was attempting it well, but my results were lackluster.  I felt frustrated with myself for not being better at this.

Then, when I was twenty, I discovered meditation.  Specifically, a meditation practice rooted in Kashmir Shaivism, Vedanta, and Vajrayana Buddhist practices.  What all those foreign words mean is that it was no longer was about identifying with my positive thoughts.  I discovered that ALL thoughts – the good and the bad, happy and the sad – all sprung from my samskaras.  And that I was actually none of them.  Going back to the image of the tin man, I was the empty space between the sheets of tin.  I was pure awareness.  The thoughts floating into my mind were merely distractions from the pure bliss, truth, and light that occupied the space within me.

Moreover, this emptiness inside was actually none other than the pure awareness of God.  I am God, God is me.  In this lineage/tradition of meditation, I discovered an understanding of non-dualism.  This means that there is no separation between myself and the divine, or the divine and, say, a tree.  Every physical item on Earth (and indeed the whole cosmos) is nothing but pure divine awareness manifested in physical form.  Just as light can express itself as both a particle or a wave – so too, divine awareness can express itself through energy or physical matter.  This is the very substance of current quantum research: everything can be in both the physical and non-substantial form simultaneously.

As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings.  Life began to feel like a sea of interconnected awareness, rather than my previous vantage as being an isolated being alone in the world.  I began to identify less with “I am so-and-so and I do this and I won that,” but “I am pure, I am love, I am bliss, I am everything, I am nothing.”   In India there is a very famous mantra: “Om Namah Shivaya.”   It roughly translates to mean: “I bow down to my Inner Self, the Self of all.”  The same radiant light within me is the same light within each of us.  It is merely the layer after layer of samskara that prevents us from seeing it.

To illustrate this point: imagine a big bowl of cookie dough.  This represents pure cosmic awareness; the dough is God.  Well, a chef comes along and breaks up the dough into little balls.  And the balls start to forget that they are actually all the same dough; they identify as being differentiated.  And the chef then dips some in chocolate chips, totally covering their surfaces and hiding the dough beneath.  He dips others in sprinkles.  Maybe a few fall in the trash and get covered in garbage.  Now, the balls think “I am chocolate” or “I am rainbows” or “I am rubbish.”  But, really, they are ALL still cookie dough; they’ve just forgotten their true selves.

It’s common adage to hear spiritual masters say: “You don’t need to become enlightened, you already are.  You just need to remember.”  In order to do so, we must meditate.  Through the process of sitting in meditation every single day, we actually buff out those samskaras, those dents.  We expand outwards, recreating that inner openness that has been constricted by time and experiences.  By cultivating a daily practice, we become more free, happy, and alive.  While my earlier attempts to become happy and confident through positive thinking failed, I soon began to find the happiness and joy I sought by letting go of identifying my thoughts as being “me.”  I continue to learn that I am so much more.  I am God.  I am Consciousness.  I am Bliss.

This is why my home is filled with artwork and photos of enlightened yogis, gurus, great saints, and Tibetan and Indian deities.  Each depiction is a connection to a being who has realized total and complete identification of their cosmic selves.  And when we gaze lovingly at them, they can inspire that same state within us.   It’s why it’s so important to seek out these beings and have them in our lives.  The space within us resonates with the vaster space inside of them and begins to grow.  We begin to feel the same expansiveness that they have attained.  And soon it’s no longer “Kaelan from Chicago,” but “I am light.  I am joy.  I am truth.”  I am bliss. And so are you.

Namaste (the divine in me bows to the divine in you.  Inside we are all one).

Art and Words by: Kaelan Strouse

Buddha photo by: Michael Fawcett